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"THIS be a funny idea, Mr. Alec, as I bin readin' about in the paper—gettin' gold from sea-water. It 'minds me of a queer thing as happened t' me once in the Southern Seas, when I rescued a pore mad chap from a lonely island."
"Does it, Ben? I must hear that yarn. Fill up your pipe and start straightaway. I've got an hour to spare this morning."
Ben Grove, retired mariner, ex-bo'sun, shook his head deprecatingly; while his companion, Alec Mackay, a bright, good-looking young fellow of eighteen or nineteen, waited patiently for what was to come.
"No, sir; theer bain't no yarn, exactly. The pore chap thought he'd found a reg'lar folderado—"
"Eh?" queried Alec, looking puzzled. "Oh, ah! H'm! Eldorado, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir; that's it. Means a land of gold, don't it?"
"Yes, yes! Something of the sort. That's near enough, anyway! Steam ahead, Ben!"
"Well, this pore chap thought he'd found a reg'lar land of gold. It came about in this way. I wur actin' mate at the time on a small schooner as had been doin' some tradin' among the South Seas Islands, an' we passed an island as nobody seemed t' know much about 'cept that it wur believed t' be uninhabited, an' theer wur a volcani in the middle of it. The volcani wur there, anyhow, 'cos we could see the smoke. But when we seed a man on the shore, we was puzzled, 'cos we didn't expect t' see anybody, an' when we seed him makin' frantic signs to us, we wondered what was up.
"'Better go ashore to him an' see what he wants,' our skipper said. 'He may 'a' bin shipwrecked, an' be theer alone; an', if so, we can't go away an' leave him to his fate.'
"'Ay, ay, sir,' I says; an' they got out a boat, an' off I goes ashore to the chap.
"Soon as I landed, he takes me aside an' asks me if I'd like t' be a millinairy, an' have a kerridge an' pair, with servants in livery, an' all that silly nonsense. 'Cos, he said, if I would, all I had t' do would be to go to a place on the island he had found out, wheer theer was lots o' gold t' be had fur the pickin' of it up.
"He said he'd been shipwrecked, as the cap'n had thought, an' he'd bin theer all by hisself, a-livin' on shellfish an' fruits, an' sich-like; an' I thought as his troubles had turned his brain an' made him fancy things. He looked so wild an' talked so excited that I told him, at last, I'd have to go aboard an' tell the skipper about it. And if the skipper believed it all, p'r'aps he'd come back later on.
"Then the strange johnny grew frightened o' bein' left on the island alone agen, so he said he'd come along, an' I took him back t' the schooner. But the cap'n, he said he'd got no time t' go foolin' around treasure-huntin'. So we sailed away, taking the stranger with us.
"At first he wur very upset at havin' to go away an' leave his treasure island, but after a while he settled down a bit, an' he seemed t' take a great fancy t' me. He wanted me t' join him, to promise to go back with him to the island later on. He even give me a paper with a sort o' map on it, showin' wheer the gold was t' be found, an' offered me half shares if I'd go an' help him bring the gold away. An', to prove his story, he showed me a bag with a lot o' what looked like lumps o' gold in it."
At this point, Alec suddenly became intensely interested. At first he had listened without much concern, thinking, perhaps, that this was only one more yarn of the kind of which most sailor-men are generally supposed to have a practically inexhaustible stock. But the mention of a bagful of lumps of gold was a different matter. It began to look like business!
"Lumps of gold!" he exclaimed. "Are you serious, Ben? How is it I've never heard this tale before?"
"Ye'll hear d'reckly, Mr. Alec. I looks at the lumps, an' an idea comes into me head. I takes a hammer an' bangs one, an' it flew t' pieces! Twarn't no lump o' gold at all! Twor only a pebble caked over wi' some bright-lookin' stuff. We tried other lumps, but they was all the same.
"Then the pore chap went clean off his nut wi' the dis'pintment. He chucked his lumps o' gold overboard—all but a few which I kep' fur cur'osity's sake—an' he took to his bunk an' died, two days after, ravin' mad. An' that's all, sir. Ye see, 'tain't much of a yarn, after all."
"Poor chap! One can sympathize, in a sense, with his disappointment," commented Alec thoughtfully. "It's a curious story, so far as it goes. But what has it to do with the extraction of gold from sea-water?"
"Not much, I s'pose," Ben admitted, "'cept as I reckoned them pebbles were coated over that way by water running over 'em. The chap as found 'em said something of the sort, too."
"H'm! I see what you mean, Ben. And perhaps you're not far out. I know there are what they call petrifying wells in some places. In Derbyshire they make show places of them. There you can see all kinds of articles of various materials which have become covered with a coating of lime through the water of the petrifying well being allowed to drip upon them. You may even see birds' nests so treated.
"But what you speak of is stranger still. It reminds me of a fairy-tale my nurse used to tell me when I was a child about a 'gold-water' which turned everything it touched to gold. In the end, the lucky—or unlucky—finder of the wonderful water splashed it on his fingers, and turned them into gold!
"But you said that you kept some of those curious pebbles. What became of them? I suppose you have not got them now, by any chance?"
"Why, yes, sir. I have got 'em right enough! They be locked away in a old sea-chest o' mine. You bide here a bit. I dessay I can hunt 'em out."
Ben went off, and presently returned, bringing with him three or four pebbles and some small shells and other articles of different shapes. They were all covered with a metallic coating which, though somewhat dulled by time, still looked curiously like gold.
Alec examined them with great attention, and finally asked permission to take them to show to his guardian, Dr. Campbell.
Ben raised no objection, and Alec started at once for the doctor's house, which was not a great distance from the old sailor's cottage.
During his absence, Ben puffed away at his pipe and, as he gazed dreamily out over the sea, his thoughts went back to the unhappy madman whom he had taken off the deserted island and his final, miserable fate.
"Shows what comes o' bein' greedy, an' bein' smitten wi' the gold-huntin' fever!" he soliloquized, wagging his head with an air of supreme wisdom. "Ben, me boy, ye should thank yer stars as ye wur never smitten wi' the thirst fur gold, an' never went a-huntin' fur treasure!"
These and other philosophic reflections upon the foolishness of desiring to be rich occupied his mind all the time till Alec reappeared, and afforded him, apparently, much mental satisfaction.
He was surprised when Alec came bursting in on his cogitations, with sparkling eyes and face all aglow.
"Ben!" cried the young fellow. "Ben, what do you think? The doctor has tested those things, and he declares that they are coated with gold—real gold! Even for the gold on them, he says, they are worth several pounds, while, as scientific curiosities, he says, any museum would give you a good price for them!
"But that's nothing to what we have been talking of. The doctor was wondering only this morning where he could go to for his next exploring expedition. Now he's got an idea—a grand idea! Why not go in search of this island you were yarning to me of, and see if we can find the treasure that poor fellow told you about?
"Could you take us to the island, do you think? Have you got the latitude and longitude? Would you come with us as guide if the doctor paid you well, and gave you a liberal share of whatever gold we might find?"
Up sprang Ben.
"Just wouldn't I!" he exclaimed, waving his cap in the air, and suddenly oblivious of all his sage reflections of a few minutes previously.
"Hoorooh! I'll be a millinairy yet afore I dies, as that pore chap said I could be, an' ride in me own kerridge-an'-pair. I'll 'ave a coachman an' footman, too, in leveries! D'ye think, sir, as I could have silver-an'-blue leveries, like the grand people up at the Hall have?"
Alec laughed good-humouredly.
"Can't say as to that, Ben," he said, "but we can postpone a decision on the point till we get back. And now I'm off to find my chum, Clive Lowther—for, of course, he'll have to come, too."
THUS it came about that, a month or so later, Dr. Campbell's new yacht, the Valda set out from England in search of the supposed South Seas treasure island.
She was a large, well-found steam vessel, with a picked crew, and fitted with almost every improvement known to modern science. She was well armed, too, and had even, packed away in her hold, two aeroplanes of a new type specially designed by the doctor himself.
Alec Mackay, to his great delight, had his chum, Clive Lowther, as fellow-traveller, and with them went, of course, the indispensable Ben Grove.
The ostensible aim of the expedition was the study of the natural history of certain islands in the vicinity of the mysterious Easter Island, of which curious accounts have been given by the two or three travellers who have visited it. And as Dr. Campbell was known as a zealous and experienced scientist and explorer, the statement created neither surprise nor particular curiosity.
"So that is the island at last! The place we've been thinking of, talking of, dreaming of for so long! It seems hardly possible to realise that we are at last actually in sight of it, and that all our expectations will soon now be put to the test! How do you like the look of it, Clive?"
"Not much, Alec, if I must confess what is in my mind. Compared with some of the beautiful islands we have passed, it seems to be a contrast indeed—if what we can see of it is a fair sample!"
This talk took place on the deck of the large steam yacht Valda, as that vessel, after two or three minor adventures, approached a huge, dark-looking and forbidding mass rising out of the depths of the ocean, and towering high up towards the heavens.
"This, according to the data furnished by Ben Grove, was the island upon which the explorers were to search for the wonderful gold cave."
Clive Lowther lowered his telescope with a disappointed look; and his face, usually good tempered in expression, was clouded with dissatisfaction.
"It gives me the shivers to look at it," he went on. "You speak of dreaming about it, Alec. If it turns out as disappointing in other ways as it is in appearance, then all our hopes have been dreams indeed!"
Just then Dr. Campbell came up beside the two, and gazed attentively at the uninviting-looking place they were approaching.
Seen now, in his white dress and sun-helmet, he seemed a different man from the man people at home knew as the absorbed, studious-minded scientist, giving to poring over abstruse experiments in the laboratory.
He was tall and robust, with an upright, alert figure, which denoted masculine activity, and a face expressive of a somewhat stern, determined character. But with it all, there was a breezy manner, and a light in the eyes which hinted at the kindly nature which lay beneath.
Alec Mackay was his ward. Alec's father, the captain of a Scottish merchant ship, had disappeared many years before while on a trading expedition in those very latitudes they were then visiting, and had never been heard of since.
By a will made by Captain Mackay before he had last left England, the doctor had been appointed Alec's guardian in case anything happened to his father, and as the lad had no mother, the worthy doctor had taken him to live with him, and, in due time, had made him one of his own assistants.
Dr. Campbell now took the telescope from Clive, and looked long and searchingly at the land they had come to visit, and he, too, was impressed by its gloomy appearance. This was made the more noticeable by a column of black smoke which rose from a high peak, and, speaking broadly, cast deep shadows over the rocks and valleys below.
The doctor called Ben Grove to him. The latter had been standing forward staring at the island, with a face in which there was even more disappointment than in Clive's.
Ben came aft to the doctor with a look in which surprise and perplexity struggled with dismay.
"What's the matter, Ben?" Dr Campbell asked.
"Strike my flag, sir, but this doesn't look like the place at all," the old sailor declared.
"Why, Ben, what's wrong with it?"
"It be darker; no green grass an' trees, as I can see—an'—why, it be higher—ever so much higher!"
"Ha," muttered the doctor. "That may quite possibly be, and yet it may be the same place. These volcanic islands rise from the depths of the ocean with startling suddenness at times. And," he added grimly, "they sometimes disappear just as suddenly. It is possible enough that this one may have risen higher out of the sea since you saw it last."
"I can't think it be the same place, sir," Ben persisted, doggedly. "Beg pardon, sir, fur sayin' it, but doan't ye think as the cap'n may 'a made a mistake?"
Dr. Campbell smiled.
"We'll question him," he said. "Go and ask him to come here."
A minute or two later Captain Barron, the doctor's navigating officer, appeared, a smile on his face, and lurking laughter in his eyes.
He was known in marine circles as "the Jolly Baron," so seldom was it that he was seen without a smile. He was short, dapper, and smart; a splendid seaman, yet one who seldom bullied his men. It was said, indeed, that he could get more work out of a crew by cutting jokes with them than other skippers could by any amount of cursing and swearing.
DR. CAMPBELL told Captain Barron of Ben's doubts, and asked him if he were sure he had come to the right island.
"As sure as I am that Ben keeps his store of loose gold there," returned the captain, slyly; for he had been confidentially told their object in wishing to visit that particular place.
Ben sniffed indignantly.
"I tell ye, sir," he cried, "as this be double the size, and double as high as the island I landed on."
The skipper shook his head reprovingly. "Sees everything double—so early in the morning, too," he murmured. "Ben, my friend, I must reduce your grog allowance."
"And theer be too much smoke," Ben added, ignoring the insinuation.
"There'll he more still by and by, you'll see," returned Barron, with a wink. "I've a pretty shrewd idea that this business will end in smoke. You wait and see if I'm not right."
However, the doctor begged the skipper to go down into the cabin with him to consult the charts, and the smiling officer invited Alec and Clive to join them.
"It will give you a little insight into the mysteries of navigation, my lads," he said.
It did. He showed the three a selected collection of maps and charts, and, with compasses, he set off various distances, which he resolved into figures, and these he worked out in algebra and logarithms, with some excursions into trigonometry and conic sections thrown in.
At the end of less than ten minutes their eyes ached and their heads reeled with pouring over the dizzy array of figures, and they were reduced to a state of mind in which they would have believed the skipper's assurances if he had declared they had arrived at the moon itself.
The two chums escaped from the cabin gasping. They found Ben waiting for their report.
"It's all right, Ben," said Alec. "The captain's proved it to us with figures."
"What figures?" demanded the sceptical sailor.
"Oh, every pretty figure you can think of—triangles, cosines, tangents, and—and—heaps more. No end of 'em—on sixteen slates."
Ben was evidently impressed, but not convinced. He shook his head gloomily, and went for'ard amongst his friends of the fo'castle.
Meantime, the Valda had approached close enough to the strange island to afford a better view of its shores. The wind carried the smoke away above, too, so that it could now be seen that the upper portion was green and bright, while the lower part was sombre and bare-looking.
Suddenly Ben Grove came rushing aft to the two chums. His eyes were distended with astonishment, and his whole manner betrayed the utmost amazement.
"Mr. Alec! Mr. Clive!" he gasped. "Look yonder. Theer be my island, up top! I couldn't see it afore! Blame me, if it ain't shifted its anchorage an' got shoved right on top of another one!"
As Dr. Campbell had suggested, the island must have risen much higher out of the sea since Ben had last seen it.
Unlike so many of the islands of the Pacific, there was no outer coral reef with the usual snug lagoon within. This, of itself, the doctor pointed out, was a further proof of its volcanic origin. There was, moreover, no anchorage to be found outside, consequently there was nothing to be done but—the weather being fine—to bring up in one of the numerous inlets.
Within a few hours tents and stores sufficient for a temporary sojourn had been landed, and the doctor and his two young companions, with Ben Grove and a couple of sailors, went ashore.
It was getting rather late in the afternoon when, their preparations for the night having been completed, Alec and Clive loaded their rifles, and set off for a ramble. They met with little, however, to encourage their exploring ardour.
From some foothills they ascended they obtained views of the inhospitable shore and parts of the country inland, and the more they saw of it the less they liked it.
The fertile, wooded uplands and grassy slopes they had seen from the sea were completely hidden from them by gloomy, overhanging precipices. All they could see was a wilderness of rocks strewn about in endless confusion, with, here and there, dark gullies and caverns, and lakes and pools of stagnant water. These reminded them of something Ben Grove said the madmen had told him about the island being the haunt of strange monsters, and indeed, the whole region seemed well-fitted for the dwelling place of uncanny creatures.
"Let's go back to the camp, Clive," said Alec, with a shiver. "I don't like the look of this place. It gives me a dismal, creeping, eerie sort of feeling. I hope, to-morrow, we shall be able to get to the upper regions. A night or two down will be enough to give a fellow the horrors! Great Scott, what's that?"
A shriek suddenly rang out on the heavy air. It echoed from rock to rock, and was multiplied a hundred times ere it finally died away in muttering moans.
The two started, and loosened their rifles, which, in the belief that the place was uninhabited, and that there was nothing to shoot at, they had slung at their backs.
"Heavens! What could that have been?" Alec cried out again, in dismay. "Was it human? Yet—how could it be?"
They stared and peered about on all sides, but could see nothing to account for what they had heard.
"Let's go back," muttered Clive. "I don't like this!"
"But it must have been someone in distress—" Alec began, then broke off as the sound suddenly rose again.
This time it was unmistakably the long, despairing cry of someone in mortal dread, in awful, deadly danger.
Clive pointed to the edge of a hollow fifty or sixty yards from where they were standing.
"Seemed to me it came from below the brink there," he said. And with one accord they ran towards it and looked over.
A strange and terrible sight met their gaze.
Immediately below them they saw the dark waters of a large pool, with steep, rocky sides, upon which, here and there, were a few small, stunted trees and low bushes.
Clinging desperately to one of these bushes, was a man—a stranger, who held on with one hand, whilst he held off, as best he could with the other, the head of a large serpent, which had already one coil round its victim's body.
So startled was Alec by the sight that he slipped upon the treacherous edge of the pool, and rolled down its rocky side.
He thus came plump upon the two—the man and the reptile, and the force of the impact caused the man to let go his hold on the bush. The next moment there was a great splash, and all three were thrown, fighting and struggling wildly together, into the murky water of the pool.
Fortunately for all concerned, Clive retained his presence of mind in the sudden emergency in which he was placed.
Before coming ashore he had, while gathering together his arms, cartridge-belt, and so on, taken up a lariat and, half laughingly, wound it round his waist, remarking that one never knew what might not come in handy in a strange land. And it certainly came in handy now.
Even as he scrambled down, rifle in hand, to the water's edge, he began to loosen and unwind it. In a trice he had it free; then, quickly coiling it he flung the coil deftly in the direction in which his chum had disappeared.
Thus it came about that when Alec rose to the surface the line came whizzing over his head, and fell so near that he was able to grasp it.
And well it was that he got a good hold upon it, for a moment or so later, to Clive's dismay, he again sank from sight. And it was evident, from the manner of his disappearance, that he had been dragged under—probably either by the strange man or by the serpent.
Hoping it might be the former rather than the latter, Clive pulled frantically at the lariat, and, to make sure that he should not be dragged in himself, he passed the end round the bush the man had been clinging to.
Just as he had done this he saw the snake crawling ashore some distance to his right. Startled no doubt by the unexpected immersion, it had let go its hold and made for the shore.
Clive, his anxiety somewhat relieved as he saw the reptile creep away amongst the bushes and loose rocks, applied all his strength to pulling at the line. And now he had the satisfaction of seeing his chum's face appear once more above the surface.
But he was evidently in difficulties, and the reason revealed itself a few seconds later. He was struggling to save the stranger, who was making the task harder by clinging to him with the desperation of a drowning man.
Where the two were the water was deep, for the bottom sloped steeply, and it seemed an age ere Clive could drag them near enough for his chum to touch the bottom with his feet. Then he still had all his work cut out, even with Clive's assistance, to haul his burden ashore.
This done, he sank down exhausted, and, for a space, seemed almost as inanimate as the man he had rescued, who was quite unconscious.
Just then Clive heard voices. Someone from the yacht was evidently coming that way, though from where he was he could not see who it was.
He called out, and a cheery hail came in answer. Then three men appeared on the top of the slope. They were Ben Grove and two other sailors, and they came hurrying down to Clive's assistance.
"Why, what be the matter?" cried Ben, looking in surprise, first at Alec and then at the stranger lying beside him. "Be Mr. Alec hurt? Who's this galoot? A dago, b' the look on him. Has he done anything t' Mr. Alec?"
Clive answered as briefly as he could, the while that they tended the two. Alec very soon revived, sat up, and then got to his feet. But the stranger remained unconscious for some little time.
When finally he had recovered sufficiently to talk it turned out that Grove's blunt reference to him as a "dago" had been a pretty shrewd guess, for he said he was a Portuguese. Then he gave the following account of himself, and of the reason of his being there alone:
His name, he said, was Miguel. He had been engaged, at Valparaiso, as a member of the crew of a vessel supposed to be employed in ordinary trading business among the Pacific Islands. But he had not been long on board before he had found out that this was not the case. The crew were "blackbirders"—in other words, slave traders. Their leader was a man notorious in those latitudes for the merciless manner in which he carried out his vile pursuits and the outrages he had committed.
Miguel, finding himself in such company, could not, he said, conceal his disgust and dislike. This led to a quarrel with the rascally leader, who, after trying first persuasion and then threats, had finally put him ashore on this inhospitable, uninhabited island, and left him there to his fate.
And there, according to Miguel's statement, he had remained for over a month, helpless, hopeless, and half starved. His one occupation, apart from hunting about for food, had been keeping a look-out for a passing ship. But the island lay out of the usual track of vessels, and he had seen no sign of one till that morning, when, to his great joy, he had descried the yacht evidently approaching the place. Thereupon he had hastened down to the shore. But in his hurry he had passed too near to the crater-like edge of one of the large pools, had slipped, rolled down the slope, but brought up against a bush, only to be seized upon by a big serpent, as the two chums had seen.
"There are lots of serpents here," he remarked. "And some are very large—much larger than the one that got hold of me. That fact has made my stay here very hard to bear. I had no firearms, and I never felt safe from them day or night—especially at night."
The man seemed to be very grateful for his timely rescue, as well as overjoyed at the chance of getting away from the island.
The two chums felt sorry for him, and received his fervent protestations of gratitude with their usual good-natured feeling toward anybody in distress. Ben Grove alone seemed a bit cool in his attitude towards the stranger, a circumstance which Clive noticed and which caused him surprise.
He mentioned it to Alec, as the two hurried on ahead of the others, anxious to get back to the camping-place, for Alec wanted a change of clothes.
"Did you notice how standoffish Ben is with that poor castaway?" he said. "He seems quite sour over it. One would almost think he is sorry we saved the poor beggar. It isn't like Ben, you know. He always seems so good-hearted, so ready to help anyone in trouble, no matter whom. I wonder what makes him so crusty?"
"No idea—unless it is that the man is what [the] sailors call a dago," Alec answered. "Many very worthy English sailors are like that. Sailors have their likes and dislikes, and amongst some there is a strong prejudice, I believe, very often, against Portuguese in particular."
The fact was that shrewd old Ben Groves, like the Scotsman, "had his doots"; though, if he had been pressed for reasons, he might have found some difficulty in giving tangible grounds for them.
Ben was an old stager, experienced in the ways of sailors, and somehow this man, judged by his standard, did not "ring true." It was not altogether that he was a dago—though, as Alec had surmised, that had a good deal to do with it—but Ben doubted the truth of the man's story.
Later on, when he was alone with the two young fellows in their tent, and they questioned him about it, he blurted this out:
"Ye heered him say he'd bin heer a month," he reminded them, "an' durin' that time, he says, he's 'ad precious little t' eat—bin half starved accordin' t' his account. Now, do he look half starved?"
"Oh, well, that may be a little bit of exaggeration just to excite our sympathy," he suggested. "The poor chap wants to get away. He wants us to take him with us when we leave the island, and to feed him meanwhile and treat him well. We're more likely to do that, I suppose he thinks, if we feel sorry for him."
But this did not remove Ben's doubts. He did not argue the matter further, but contented himself with shaking his head.
As to the doctor, he did not trouble himself with these doubts; or, if he did, he said nothing about them. He was evidently glad to meet with someone who knew something about the island, and he took the man in hand and began questioning him with a view to getting as much information from him as possible.
Afterwards, when he had finished with him and all arrangements had been made for the night, he called the two chums into his tent for a conference. He told them all the man had said, and spent some time comparing his statements with Ben's recollections of the place, trying thus to settle upon some plan to guide their future proceedings.
The rough map which the madman whom Ben had taken off the island had made was brought out and carefully inspected. On it was marked the spot where the "gold pebbles" had been found.
"But where is that place now?" Dr. Campbell asked. "That is what's going to bother us. Everything is altered. The whole configuration of the island is different. The place we want seems to have been lifted up, as it were. It is no longer down near the shore. That seems to be pretty certain. We shall have to look for it on the upper part.
"For all we know it may have been covered up in some way, and may want a lot of finding. There's our difficulty. And we can't even begin our search of the high ground until we have made ourselves acquainted with the lower part. There is the safety of the yacht to be considered. We must find out the best and safest place for her to be in while we are away elsewhere on our search."
And then, it being by that time late at night, the conference broke up, and Alec and Clive went off to their tent.
Though they both "turned in" dead tired, one of the two—Alec— found it very difficult to get any rest.
The occurrences of the day—their actual arrival at the long-talked-of island, the adventure with the stranger, and sundry other smaller matters—seemed all to be passing and repassing in a jumble through his mind at once in a series of confused dreams.
From these he woke up so many times that, at last, he gave up the attempt to get any sleep, and, rising quietly, he put on his clothes and boots. Then, after a glance at Clive, who was slumbering soundly, he stepped softly to the entrance.
He found that it was light enough to see fairly well. Indeed, there was a moon somewhere behind the clouds which, he judged, would shortly appear in the clear space he could see down towards the horizon. Then it would shine across the sea and shore, and Alec took a fancy to a stroll along the strand to see what the place looked like by moonlight.
Apart from this, it would not be very long before the dawn. So of what use was it to think of lying down again?
Thinking thus, the young fellow stood awhile at the door of the tent looking out, at one time over the sea or the shore, then at the silent, ghostly forms of the other tents. Everyone but himself seemed to be asleep; indeed, from somewhere near at hand he could hear some very unmistakable snores.
He was about to step out from the shadow of the tent where he had been standing, when his attention was drawn to the further end of the encampment. There he distinctly saw a figure rise up, as though from the ground, and creep away, in stealthy, furtive fashion, in an inland direction.
Alec could not see who it was. He could not form any idea. The clouds over the moon had become temporarily darker, and the figure seemed but a shadow itself, as it moved noiselessly over the stony ground.
Who could this be who was thus leaving the camp in the darkness? What legitimate object could anyone have in view, taking all the circumstances into account?
Alec asked himself these and other questions, and failed to find a satisfactory answer to them. The only persons who might be supposed to be at liberty to act in this way were the doctor, Clive, Grove, and himself. Clive was asleep in the tent behind him, the doctor's tent was at the other end of the camping-ground from that where the mysterious form had appeared. Besides, though Alec had not been able to see the figure clearly enough to recognize it or give a guess as to whom it could be, he felt pretty certain it had not been either the doctor or Ben Grove.
At once Alec made up his mind to follow this mysterious individual and find out what his object was. If it turned out to be innocent, so much the better, and no harm would be done. While, if there were anything sinister afoot, he would do his best to find it out and frustrate it. Having thus decided, he crept out of the camp in the wake of the one he had seen, taking every precaution to avoid being seen or heard himself.
The task proved longer and more difficult than he expected. The route lay through a rocky ravine covered with boulders, and full of pools and hollows. Cliffs, rising precipitously on each side, made the track so obscure that it was very trying work to pick one's way. While the man he was following seemed to have no trouble, for he went ahead with confidence.
This fact alone was suspicious. If the man knew his way so well, he could hardly be one of the doctor's party. Who, then, could he be save the stranger whom he, Alec, had rescued?
Alec recalled Ben Grove's confessed distrust of the man, and was fain to admit that he had probably been more correct in his judgment than he himself had been.
On either side was a grim, shadowy tract of unknown extent, of which all he knew was that it must be very swampy.
As he went along, uncanny sounds came now and then to his ears. Strange noises, as of the slow movements of some heavy, bulky creature; loud snorts and stertorous breathing broke the brooding silence.
Then he would be startled by a sudden hissing [sound] close at hand, or a muffled splash, as of some monstrous form plunging into unknown depths.
Then all at once, as it were, it came home to him that he had lost his man.
He listened and listened, and waited patiently, straining his ears, intent upon picking up some sound which would guide him as to the fellow's present whereabouts.
SO far as tracking the night prowler was concerned, he had to confess he was utterly at fault.
Greatly vexed with himself for his failure, he decided that he would go back to the camp and wait and watch there, and so intercept the man on his return, and question him as to the cause of his absence.
But quickly he knew he could not do even that. When he tried to retrace his steps, he found that he was hopelessly at sea.
He had not the slightest idea which way he had come, or which direction to take to get back. The route had twisted and turned about, and when he tried to guide himself by the tops of the rocks, which he could dimly discern against the skyline, he found that they twisted about.
"It isn't one ravine here," he muttered to himself, "but several evidently, and they run into one another. I shall never find my way in the dark, and I shall only tumble into some horrible pool, and perhaps into the jaws of some lurking creature."
He could not repress a slight shudder at the thought, and he decided that it would be best to wait where he was till the dawn came.
Now, just as he had philosophically resigned himself to this, his wandering glance became attracted towards a distant spot, where he fancied he could see the suggestion of a light.
"Certainly," he thought to himself, "it seems as if there is a light of some sort over yonder! I'll make my way towards it, and find out whether it is fancy or—"
At that point, the thought came that it was probably only some phosphorescence from one or other of the swampy pools—some ignis fatuus which might lead him into fresh difficulties, and perhaps dangers.
Rather gingerly, therefore, he moved onwards in the direction of the supposed light, and was rather reassured as he found that it grew less faint as he advanced.
Not only less faint, but less pale and ghostly. Slowly, as he advanced, it took on a warmer tint until, after a while, it assumed a decidedly ruddy glow.
"Why, it's a fire—or the reflection of one—after all!" he said inwardly, with a slight laugh of satisfaction. "Nothing more weird or ghostly than an ordinary camp-fire, I fancy; and, if so, then I'm beginning to think I may be able to track Mr. Dago to his hiding-place after all."
Cautiously, carefully, he approached the place where the light— or, rather, the glow—came from. The light itself he could not see; but the nearer he drew to it, the more plainly he could see that that glow came from a fire hidden away in some hollow, with trees and rocks around it. Upon these the gleams of firelight fell fitfully, now lighting them up almost clearly, now dying down nearly into darkness.
Alec set himself to work to get up to one side of the hollow amongst the trees and bushes in such a way as to be able to peep down at the fire without being seen or heard himself by those who might be near it.
To do this he had to climb up a rocky bank and worm his way through loose boulders and bushes. Rather an awkward business to manage in complete silence. And there was the risk of coming across snakes besides. But he did not hesitate, and a few minutes later he had gained the top of the bank, which he found to be fairly flat, grass-covered, and wider than he had expected.
From it sprang numerous trees, and their trunks, and the deep shadows they threw, afforded useful cover for concealment.
At first he could see little; he could only hear voices. But, after wriggling about with great care and patience lest he should betray his presence by the snapping of some twig or the displacement of a loose stone, he managed to get into a better position.
And here a surprise awaited him. He found himself looking down into a crater-like hollow, with the pool, which seemed usual in this part of the island—only here the pool was small, and the rest of the bottom of the enclosure was rocky and dry.
It made, therefore, a very suitable place for a bivouac, being sheltered by the high sides and trees from both wind and sun, with a supply of water alongside. Here, at last, was the fire whose glare he had seen, and there were signs and smells indicating that cooking was, or had been, in progress.
And there sat the dago who called himself Miguel, and there, sitting round the fire, were half a dozen black men.
With these he was evidently on friendly, and even familiar terms, for he seemed to be conversing with them in their own language.
This latter fact was a great disappointment to the listener, who had taken so much trouble and expended so much patience in tracking him to the place. It was also rather surprising. There was very little doubt about it, however, for, though Alec was not near enough to hear all that was said, words came to his ears at times, not one of which could he understand.
Lying about were firearms, cutlasses, a spear or two, and even some bows and arrows. The first-named did not, however, appear to be very formidable weapons—just old-fashioned muskets or shot-guns, such as native hunters usually managed to get hold of.
Just then there came the sound of a low whistle, uttered in a peculiar manner and evidently as a signal. Immediately there was a stir among the party below. Some—the dago amongst them—rose and went off—Alec could not see where to—and were absent for two or three minutes.
When they returned, they had with them another man, and Alec gasped with astonishment as he saw that this man was one of the sailors from the yacht.
He was known on board as Rupe Slaney, supposed to be English, and he was one of several Captain Barron had taken on board at Valparaiso in place of some men who had deserted when the yacht had touched there on her way out.
To Alec it began to look as though their stay on the island was not going to turn out the quiet visit of exploration they had anticipated. To begin with, the island was evidently not uninhabited. There were some natives, perhaps from some other islands, already there, if nothing more. Next, this dago, whom he and his friends had rescued, whom the doctor had treated with such kindness, had told them a pack of lies. He was ungrateful— that much was certain—and was most likely a traitor, plotting some mischief against the people who had saved his life.
Finally, there was this man Slaney, on intimate terms with the rascally dago and his native friends. So Slaney, then, must be a traitorous rascal, too! And some of the other new men whom the captain had taken on at Valparaiso might be in league with him!
This was a pretty bad outlook, and might mean serious danger to the exploring party if not dealt with at once. But, Alec felt, to enable the doctor and his chief officer to take it properly in hand, it was necessary to learn a little more.
So ran Alec's thoughts, and he at once determined to get near enough to hear more plainly what was said, since it was likely enough that most of the talk would now be in English.
If he could overhear the plans of these plotters, it might be of the greatest value.
Cautiously, therefore, he began to crawl and wriggle amongst the bushes and tree-trunks with the object of getting round to a ledge of rock he had noticed which was just above the place where the two white men were now sitting.
They had, in fact, seated themselves apart from the blacks, evidently so as to talk together, and were now on the farther side of them, so that Alec saw he would have even less chance of hearing than he had before unless he moved.
Little by little he crept forward, stopping every other moment or so to listen and make sure that none of the party had heard his movements. Naturally he feared most the quick ears of the natives, and their presence made him doubly careful.
Suddenly, as he was crawling along a strip of ground which sloped rather steeply, a piece of rock he put his hand on gave way and began to slide down the slope, starting others, with a loud clatter.
At once there was heard a hoarse challenge, followed by cries of rage from the men below. Then there was the sound of a shot, and a bullet came whizzing over Alec's head, missing him by no more than a few inches.
A Timely Rescue.
ALEC lost no time getting out of the line of fire. He crawled behind the shelter of some fallen tree-trunks which lay near, and thence farther down below the ridge he had been lying on.
He did not shoot back because he had no particular wish to rouse the further hostility of these people; but he drew his revolver out of his belt, and kept it ready in case he should be compelled to make use of it.
The best thing he could now do, he quickly decided, would be to make for the camp. The dawn had now come, and it was light enough to enable him to find his way to the camp. Whether he would be able to get there without being molested was a question that could only be decided by the result.
One thing was certain—the more quickly he could get away the less chance there would be of their being able to intercept him.
These thoughts flashed through his mind even before he had reached the fallen logs. He did not stay there, therefore; but, getting on his feet, he commenced to retrace his steps as fast as the nature of the ground would allow.
He had got as far as the place where he had first lost sight of the dago, and began to think he would be able to make good his retreat without further trouble, when there was another shot, and again a bullet whistled close over his head.
Promptly he dodged behind a low tree, and this time he determined to shoot back. It would inform his pursuers that he was armed, and was not inclined to let them have it all their own way. It would make them more cautious, too, and so check the pursuit.
Accordingly he fired, without taking any particular aim, towards the place the bullet had come from.
Just as he pulled the trigger, he saw two figures come out of a small thicket in the direction he had pointed the pistol. A moment after, they darted back again, evidently thinking it unwise to expose themselves in the open.
"So far so good!" muttered Alec, as he stood watching for what was to happen next. "That precious pair—Miguel, as he calls himself, and Slaney—must guess that I followed them, and know of their secret meeting, and I reckon they're pretty mad at being found out. They must be, or they would not be such fools as to fire at me in this way. They must know that the noise of the shots may be heard at the camp, and may bring our people out to see what it's about."
No doubt that would be the case before long, but meantime Alec realised that his position was critical, for these men evidently knew their way about there better than he did. And there was the danger that they might get round between him and the camp without his being aware of it. Then they might either attack him in the rear or wait in ambush, and fall upon him unawares.
Neither alternative was a pleasant one to contemplate, and he was reflecting that the longer he remained where he was the more time he was giving them to intercept him, when the noise of some loose stones slipping down a rock caused him to look sharply to his left.
He was just in time to see, on the other side of the ravine, two dim shapes dart across an open space between some clumps of bushes.
They were doing what he had feared, then, and he promptly decided to make a run for the camp, and chance getting there before his foes could intercept him.
"I'd best fire a shot or two as a warning to 'em first," he thought. "If it's heard in the camp it may help, too, to hurry up our chaps."
He fired two shots in the direction he had seen the dark figures—or, rather, towards where he calculated they would then have got to.
To his surprise, they were answered at once by two or three shots much further round, as though the men had already reached his line of retreat.
For a moment his heart fell, and then he was startled by an outburst of shouts and cries. He heard his own name called, and then he knew that Clive and Grove had come out to look for him.
Alec shouted back, and a moment or two later had the satisfaction of seeing a group of his friends emerge into an open space only a few hundred yards away.
He ran forward to meet them, and Clive and Grove, on their side, no sooner saw him than they sent up a shout of gladness, and began to run, too. Behind them were three or four sailors.
"Why, what on earth's up?" cried Clive, as he came near. "We've been frightened out of our lives about you! The doctor's in a fine state of mind—all the worse because he couldn't come with us to look for you. He slipped on a rock, and he's hurt his ankle. You seem to be firing off some powder! What's it all about?"
"The firing has not been all on my side," Alec answered. "I've had some bullets whistling about my ears. I'm jolly glad to see you! I can tell you that! I was beginning to think I was in a tight place."
"Who be the villains, sir? Wheer be they?" cried Ben Grove, looking first this way and then that. "Point out wheer we can find the galoots, an' we'll soon give 'em something to remember ye by."
"It's no use looking for them now, Ben," Alec returned. "Now you've come, they're sure to have made off, and, I expect, are far away by this time. We'd better get back to the doctor now. He'll be worrying more if we don't."
"But who were they?" asked Clive, looking very bewildered.
"I'll tell you that, old chap, as we go along. It's a little story that will surprise you."
As Alec expected, his pursuers had already made good their retreat. At any rate, nothing more was seen or heard of them, and he was able to give his account of what had happened without interruption.
By the time they gained the camp, he had told the whole story, and had answered to the best of his ability the questions and comments it called up.
Then, at the camp, he had to go over it all again for the information of the doctor.
"Oh-ho!" said the scientist at the finish. "So that's how the land lies, is it? Humph! I can't say I am so very much surprised—that is, as regards the dago. He looked to me too fat and well-fed for a man who had been living on a diet of berries and shell-fish. Very likely he is in league with some natives from other islands, and came over with a party. He's evidently an ungrateful, traitorous dog! We're well rid of the rascal!"
"But what about Slaney, sir?" Alec asked. "These two seem to be friends."
"Ah, that's a more serious business, I'm afraid!" said the doctor thoughtfully. "I shall have to discuss that part with Captain Barron."
"But I don't see why they should have fired at Alec, and followed him up in that murderous way," Clive put in. "It looks as though they have something very bad to conceal—as though they thought Alec had overheard them talking, and they were ready to kill him rather than he should get back and tell us."
"As to that," said the doctor slowly, "something depends upon whether they knew who it was they were shooting at. D'you think that this Miguel and Slaney knew they were firing at you?" he asked Alec.
"Well, sir, as to that, I really can't say with any certainty. At first they very likely did not know; but afterwards, when they could see the one they were pursuing was making for the camp, they must have guessed that it was someone belonging to our party, even if they did not know exactly who it was."
"Yes, it has a rather bad look, regard it which way you will," Dr. Campbell agreed. "I shall certainly see Barron about it and warn him."
"There's another thing, doctor," Clive observed. "As we were on our way to look for Alec, Grove told me about something that occurred here before we turned in. It was while Alec and I were with you after our supper. You remember we were talking about our chances of discovering the gold we came out to look for, and all that. Well, about that time, as you may recollect, Ben looked in to ask you something. He says that he believes he saw someone creeping off from outside the tent, as if he had been listening, and says he is nearly sure it was this Miguel. If it was, and he heard what we said, then it has told him what we are here for. And I shouldn't be surprised if it set him and his precious native friends—and Slaney—all treasure-hunting, too."
"Ah! Now, that's a much more serious matter! That's a thing that might give us a good deal of trouble," the doctor declared gravely. "I'm sorry to hear that. I suppose there's no doubt about it?"
"Not if Ben is right in his belief."
"H'm! That's bad! They might—But there! It's no good meeting trouble half-way. Being forewarned, we must take our precautions accordingly."
THE injury to Dr. Campbell's ankle proved more serious than he expected. The next day passed, and several more; and still he was unable to get about, greatly to his chagrin. The ankle swelled up badly, and he was compelled to give it absolute rest.
Captain Barron came ashore two or three times and held conferences with his leader. The doctor told him about Slaney, and they discussed the question of the trustworthiness of the other fresh men they had taken on at Valparaiso. It so happened that Slaney had been the only one who had so far been sent ashore. The rest were still on board, and the captain decided that it would be best that they should stay there, where he could keep an eye on them himself.
Another matter which they discussed related to the safety of the yacht itself. There was no anchorage to be obtained where she was lying, but the mate and a party of men sent out to explore along the shore had found an inlet—a sort of deep bay or creek which ran inland for an unknown distance. The bottom of this was sandy, and offered a fairly good anchorage, with protection from winds from the west and north-west.
The captain's objection to it lay in the fact that there was not much room for turning or manoeuvring his vessel. There was also the further objection that it would render a removal of the camp advisable to the shore of the creek so as to be near the ship.
As regards the first, there seemed to be no other haven available anywhere near that part of the island, so there was nothing to be done but make the best of it. And as to shifting their quarters, the doctor decided that, as he would be unable to begin his exploring work till his ankle was well, the camp might as well be moved at once. It would give the men something to occupy them while he was laid up.
So the removal was effected, and it was soon found that the new site was more convenient in many ways than the first one. There was a stream of beautifully fresh, clear water for one thing, which fell from the rocks a little distance from the shore, and then ran through two or three sandy pools into the waters of the creek. This not only gave them a good supply of fresh water close at hand, but the pools made very welcome bathing-places. Finally, the site was more sheltered and less gloomy, for there was plenty of greenery round about the waterfall and the stream, above and below.
Also, the waters of the creek made a good fishing ground, and this supplied the party with a welcome change from fare they had been restricted to on board ship.
After the camp had been moved, Alec and Clive often spent a few hours in a boat in this new fishing ground. They had not, indeed, much else to do, for the doctor forbade their attempting any exploration while he was unable to accompany them. He had in mind what had already occurred, and did not wish his young charges to become involved in any more encounters with Miguel and Slaney and their native friends until, at any rate, he himself could be present.
So the young fellows found time hanging somewhat heavily on their hands. They searched for and brought in a few turtles, oysters, and so on, but passed most of their leisure in one of the yacht's boats, sailing or fishing, sometimes in the company of Ben Grove, and sometimes alone.
It was when they were thus out together that one day a strange and startling adventure befell them.
The deep bay in which the yacht was now moored became farther on, as has been noted, a creek, running some distance inland. At first it was very broad, but it gradually narrowed until it became a gloomy gorge amongst high and almost perpendicular rocks.
How far it really extended was unknown for the reason mentioned above, that the doctor had prohibited any exploring trips while he was laid up.
That it contained many species of fish good for eating was evident from the catches made daily. But the young fellows had also met with indications that there were some very big fish of some kind or other—monsters which did not sport themselves near enough to the surface to be seen.
This was proved by the fact that the fishers' bait had been carried off again and again by some creature or creatures which had not only swallowed it whole, but had possessed teeth and jaws strong enough to bite through their strongest lines, and so get clear away.
To capture one of these specimens became now the prevailing wish of the two, and many were the devices they resorted to and the stratagems they employed. They consulted Ben Grove and Tom Read, Captain Barron's genial mate, who had spent some years of his life in whale-fishing, and was an expert in the use of the harpoon-gun.
But even those veterans, experienced though they were, and wily and cunning as regards the capture of swimming creatures in general, were unable to contribute any really helpful suggestions. Their advice, and all the various hints which they offered in plenty, were tried in vain, and the eventual results were always the same—the intended victims walked or swam off with the bait with the same old audacity.
This humiliating failure put them all upon their mettle. The doctor himself was consulted, and became interested. If the elusive monster was some creature as yet unknown to science, he naturally would like to get a specimen; and he, too, therefore exercised his ingenuity in trying to invent some effective plan for its capture.
"If 'twas ounly a 'spouter,' now," said worthy Tom Read, "annything as 'd come t' the top, so's a body 'c'd seen, I'd know what t' do. We've got a harpoon-gun board, an' I'll lay he'd not get away once I got a fair shot at 'n!"
"Ah, yes, Tom, I'm sure we'd be all right then!" Alec agreed, with something like a sigh. "But it's not that sort of creature, you see. It's some deep-water beggar which seems never to come anywhere near the surface. It's only our very longest lines— those that we send down deepest—that the beast goes for."
"I tell ye what, now, Mr. Alec. I've got some extra strong line— wire-woven it be called—as is strong enough a'most t' hold a ship, though it be small enough t' use in yer fishin'. Let me get ye some, and fix up the bait on the hook in me own way, like we do fur sharks. We arranges the line in strands like, so as it gets between the critter's teeth, an' then it can't bite it through, though this line be such tough stuff that I doubt if it could snap it off even if it got a fair bite at it."
"Good for you, Tom!" cried both Alec and Clive, in chorus. "Set to work and do your best, and have it ready for us to start with to-morrow morning."
Thus it came about that, shortly after dawn the next day, the two friends were seated in their boat in their usual fishing ground, with Tom Read's new line and bait hanging over the side, the spare line being coiled round a small windlass fixed in the bow.
So determined were they to give the new gear a full and fair trial that they had brought a supply of food. They were prepared to pass the whole day there if necessary. They had also brought their firearms.
"If it should be really some deep-sea monster such as we have in our minds, and we drag it up to the surface, it may show fight," Alec had remarked. "So it may be as well to be prepared. We may find it necessary to put a bullet into it."
They had attached extra heavy leads in order to sink the bait as deep as possible, and, having thrown it overboard and completed all minor arrangements, they lighted their pipes and settled down patiently to await developments.
Those came even sooner than they had expected or hoped for, and took a form they had not bargained for.
There was a sudden jerk, of such a nature as almost to pull the bow of the boat under water. The line ran out at terrific speed, the little windlass whirring round and round at such a rate that it became indistinct to the eye and looked a mere revolving jumble.
THEN there was a pause, and the line ran loose and got coiled and tangled about the drum and its frame.
Alec stepped forward to try to free it. Before he could do anything there came another pull which tightened up the tangle into a dense mass.
"The—the line's jammed!" breathed Alec, in worried tones. "What's to be done now?"
Tom Read had given them much excellent advice and various warnings, but he had not provided for this. Alec looked vainly at his chum for an idea.
Clive had none to offer, and, in fact, matters were quickly settled for them without their aid.
Something had to go—to give, as it were. And in this case it was the boat which gave. That is to say, it yielded to the strain, and began to move through the water.
First it went with a series of jerks, which threw the young fellows—they had both risen up, intending to get into the bow— off their feet, sending them sprawling on the flooring boards.
Then, as the boat began to move faster, the jerks became gradually less and less, till presently the craft was steady enough for them to get up.
The boat was rushing through the water at a tremendous rate, throwing the spray from her bluff bows in fine fashion. Ahead, there was a great swirl in the water and innumerable eddies. These marked, of course, the track of the creature which had seized their bait, and, being unable to get free from it, was now racing through the water somewhere underneath the surface and dragging the boat behind it.
But what the creature was they had no more idea than before, for nothing of it could be seen.
Away they travelled along the winding creek, which ran inland an unknown distance. All that was certain was that it was gradually narrowing, but at the same time the rocky banks became higher.
At every turn of this waterway the cliffs rose on each side, shutting them in, as it were, more and more, until they lost all sight of the open water behind them, and seemed to be surrounded by high precipices.
It was now they realised that this inlet was, as has been mentioned, a sort of gorge, which evidently wound its way towards the very heart of the mountain. It showed no sign of ending, as the two wondering explorers had been hoping, in a cul-de-sac, where their formidable "steed," which was towing them along, might, by good luck, run itself aground in some sandy or muddy strand.
For still, the farther they went, the higher and more precipitous became the cliffs on either side which shut them in, the smaller the view of the sky overhead, and the darker and more gloomy the outlook below.
Moreover, the incoming tide was with them, and was running up the gorge at a great rate, which, of itself, made it pretty obvious that they could not be coming near the end of it at present.
This view of their position forced itself into their minds after a while and awoke them to the necessity for action.
So far they had done nothing, attempted nothing. They had been almost afraid to move. The boat swayed and swung about so, it seemed as though a very little weight thrown on one side might cause her to capsize. And the hissing of the spray and the queer echoes that came back to them on all sides from the rocks rendered conversation difficult.
And still, though they watched the swirl ahead with a sort of spellbound fascination, there was no sign of their grim "steed"— nothing that they could fire at with any hope of hitting the thing.
Alec was the first to wake up from the deadly stupor which seemed to have seized upon them.
"Can't we—er—cut the wire, or something?" he said—or, rather, called out. "We've got an axe, you know. Don't you think that's the best thing to do?"
Clive decidedly agreed that it would be the best thing to do. But could they do it?
It meant, of course, letting their "grand capture" go, after all the trouble they had taken about it. The doctor would doubtless be disappointed, and perhaps might blame them or laugh at them. But what could they do? As matters were, they were in very evident danger of their lives. At any moment the creature might turn, or swerve, or double in such a way as to upset the boat or swing it against the rocks at the sides.
Then their doom would be sealed, for they would have no chance even to swim ashore.
But ere they could take any definite action matters were settled for them for the time being, and that in a most startling and alarming manner.
The boat swung round a sharper bend than any they had yet passed, and there they saw, looming up in front of them, what looked like an impassable barrier of sheer rock. But a second glance showed them the wide, yawning, black mouth of an underground river.
And before almost they realised it, they had plunged into the inky darkness of this tunnel, and were being carried still onwards upon its gurgling waters.
It was a terrible time which followed, in the awful depths of that black river rushing along through its rocky tunnel.
Never in their whole lives, as they afterwards agreed, had they undergone a more terrifying experience. For long after, even amongst their numerous subsequent adventures, it stood out as one that had tried their nerve and courage more than any other.
To realise it properly, one has to remember the helplessness of their position. They could see absolutely nothing, and, therefore, dared not move. They could only hold on and wait for— they knew not what.
All the time there were jars and jerks and swerves on the part of the boat, which rendered it necessary to hold on tightly for dear life. They could not tell but what at any moment one of these jars might mean the crashing and smashing of the craft upon some rock in the midst of the stream or against the wall or rock on either side.
The gurgling and sucking sounds made by the wavelets against these sides, odd, unaccountable noises which seemed to come from somewhere ahead; strange phosphorescent lights which suddenly appeared and disappeared here and there, some rising up out of the water alongside as if about to attack them. These were some of the happenings which kept them all the time straining both ears and eyes.
And two or three times occurred even more alarming happenings. The boat ran against, or on to, something a little below the surface, over which it had to scrape its way, so to speak, as best it could.
Here the boat was lifted bodily partly out of the water, as the bow first rose and then dipped again with a plunge, so that it seemed a miracle that it was not capsized.
And what was worst of all was that they could feel that what they were passing over was not a hard substance, such as rock or a sandy shallow, but something soft and slimy. It was, in fact, as Alec afterwards described it, as if they had passed over some great creature with a slimy, rather soft, scaly back, lying a little below the surface—a creature which, had it not been asleep or too sluggish to move quickly enough, could easily, by a slight twist of its body, have heaved the boat into the air and overturned it.
However, wonderful as it seemed to the two, looking back afterwards, they escaped all these and other perils, and presently hope began to stir once more in their breasts, for they actually saw a glimmer of light ahead of them.
At first they were afraid that this might prove to be only some fresh phosphorescent phenomenon, but gradually, as they continued their wild career, they could see that they were nearing the end of the fearsome tunnel.
IT was not, however, a very bright light that they could see. It was not the fresh, clear light of an open space beneath the sky, but a subdued, rather dull light such as one is accustomed to in a church. And this was accounted for when, a few minutes later, they came out upon the still, spreading waters of a broad lake, lying under a vast dome of rock and illuminated only by some indirect light which entered through crevices high up in the roof.
Now, no sooner had they swung out on to this sheet of water than the pull upon the boat ceased. She slowed down and the line became loose.
In an instant Alec sprang forward, caught up an axe which was slung under a thwart, and, exerting all his strength, rained mighty blows upon the line where it went over the gunwale.
After a short, stubborn resistance, it parted. One end disappeared with a sulky "plop!" into the water, while the other sprang up and seemed to try to hit the striker in revenge for being cut through.
Alec threw a badly-notched axe on the bottom of the boat, sat down on a thwart, pulled out a handkerchief, and mopped his face.
"Heaven be thanked for that!" he breathed fervently. "We've had a pretty experience. I never expected to come out alive!"
"You're right, old chap!" Clive agreed. "It was an awful voyage, wasn't it? And now to think that after going through so much for the sake of that brute of a big fish, or whatever it was, we have lost it, after all!"
"Lost it!" Alec repeated, with an ironical laugh. "I was never so glad to get rid of a 'catch'—if you can call it so. The question is, who was it that was caught—we, or that brute?"
"H'm! Well, if you put it that way. I suppose it was our noble selves who were in the position of captives. However, we've got free; and now the next question is, where the dickens have we come to? What sort of a place is this? What's it called in the local guide-books, I wonder? And which is the nearest way out? I think they should put up signposts in a place like this, so that peaceful tourists might be able to find their way about, don't you?"
Alec grunted. He did not feel just then in the humour for banter.
"The question of how to get out is too serious to joke shout," he grumbled. "We can't go back through that awful tunnel—it gives me the horrors to think of it! We'd better set to and look about for some other way out while what passes for daylight in this rum place lasts. We don't want to stay here all night, you know."
"You're right there," Clive agreed, with a shiver. "Well, how are we to set to work? Shall we pull the boat on to the sand over yonder, get out, and then climb up the sides and see if we can find an outlet somewhere above where the light filters through?"
"Y-yes; that might he as good a plan as any," returned Alec, rather doubtfully however. "We'll get out of the boat and look about, anyway."
They followed out this programme as well as they could. All round the margin of the lake—which was, roughly speaking, circular in shape—there was a wide margin of clean, dry sand. Then there were rocky ledges and terraces, rising one behind the other, almost like rows of benches and seats in an stupendous amphitheatre, but, of course, more varied in their arrangement.
The two chums, leaving their boat pulled well up on the shore in case the water should rise, strolled round the place looking curiously about them and chatting again over their lost "catch."
It was rather disappointing, as Clive had said, that they should have had to make up their mind to lose it, should have "booked it" after they had "hooked it" so securely. And they discussed with interest the question of its identity, in the end inclining to the idea that it must have been a particularly big specimen of the conger eel.
"Perhaps it lives here," Clive suggested. "This is its den, and it comes to our fishing-ground to feed. That might account for its stopping and sulking when it had got back home. What a strange place to make its home in!"
"I say, the doctor would like to come here. I guess." said Alec, suddenly showing more interest in their surroundings. "I think he would find some of these plants worth studying. You see, they are growing under queer conditions of light and so on. Hallo! What's that?"
Something had risen suddenly in the middle of the lake and disappeared again with a great swirl before they had had time to see exactly what it was. But while they were looking at the disturbed water, and the wavelets which were driving on to the sandy margin, the cause of the flurry rose again, and this time they caught a fairly good view of it.
"A conger eel! A monster conger!" exclaimed Alec. "Then we were right in our guess!"
"Two of 'em!" cried Clive, "And they're fighting like Kilkenny cats. Jupiter, what a scrimmage! Don't they throw the water about? And great Scott, what a din!"
It was even as Clive had said. There were two gigantic congers now in the water fighting together, biting, splashing, and barking! Yes, barking—for congers can bark in a very realistic manner.
But here it was like the barking of a whole troop of dogs of the most frenzied, ferocious description. For, as it turned out, the roof and sides of this place sent back every sound multiplied a dozen or a hundred times. Hence the sounds of the combat, the splashes and swirls, the breaking of the waves thrown up on the shore, the hissing, snorting, and barking of the antagonists were all echoed back from side to side, from floor to roof, and from roof back to the floor.
The result was an indescribable din such as can only be imagined.
The titanic struggle continued for some time, sometimes on the surface, sometimes altogether beneath it, and the water around became tinged with blood. But it ended at last seemingly in one of the two turning tail and "bolting," pursued by the other, for they both disappeared, leaving only a blood-red track and the dancing wavelets to show where they had been.
"I say," Alec exclaimed, when the place was quiet again, "what a fight! How interested the doctor would have been to see it. He'll be jolly sorry he missed it!"
"Yes, but it's a good thing it didn't happen while we were in the boat. Where should we have been? What awful teeth the beggars have got! They wouldn't have thought much of snapping us up if we had been overturned near them."
"It strikes me that, after all, our eel doesn't live here," Alec went on reflectively. "I think it is the other one which lives here. Ours was a trespasser. It rushed in here recklessly under the stress of finding itself hooked and being unable to get free. The one that lives here found out its presence and set about it, and I believe in the end it chased away the intruder."
"Very likely," he agreed. "But now about finding a way out. We'd better climb up the side, perhaps, and see what there is up above. Maybe there are some fissures or holes we could creep through."
Now, as they mounted from ledge to ledge, they were puzzled more than once by stones which came tumbling down from above them.
Once Clive, who was below, thought Alec, above, had purposely thrown a pebble at him. But when accused of it, Alec laughed at the idea, and at once bursts of mocking laughter seemed to come from all sides.
This occurred again and again. They laughed aloud to try it, and their voices were flung back in a chorus of "Ho, ho, ho's," mocking or jovial according to their own tones.
"It's only the echoes," Clive said at last; "and yet I could almost have sworn that I heard other voices joining in."
"Why, that's funny, but I fancied so, too," returned Alec, looking very puzzled. "Still, of course, it couldn't be anything else."
As the two went further round, they came upon numerous caves, some of large size; but most of them either terminated abruptly within a short distance or else narrowed down to so small a passage that there was no room even to crawl.
SOME of the caves they noticed were choked up as though by falls of rock from the roof, and Clive declared that these had to him the appearance of artificial galleries rather than natural caves. And of these again they came upon one or two which were comparatively free, and which seemed as though they might extend for any distance. But on account of the darkness they were unable to explore them, even if there had been time.
Descending once more to their boat, they rowed across to another part—the opposite side to that they had come in by—and there found, to their surprise, that the tunnel was continued on that side.
Where it might go on to was a matter for curious speculation; but they did not care to attempt to find out by actual experiment. It would be simpler and better, as Clive remarked, to return by the other tunnel. They did, at least, know where that went to, and that there was an outlet the other end into the open.
Indeed, it began to look as if this was what they must do, after all. They could not stay in that gruesome place and starve. There seemed no other possible way of escape save returning by the way they had came, taking their chance of being able to run the gauntlet of whatever danger might be lurking there in the darkness.
So occupied had they been with the question of how they were to escape from the place that they had thus far forgotten to feel hungry; but now Alec suddenly remembered that, expecting to be out the greater part of the day, they had brought with them both food and drink.
"I'm getting peckish," he said. "I vote we have something to eat. If we are compelled, after all, to try to negotiate that beastly tunnel, we may as well have a meal before we start."
To this there could be no sort of objection, and accordingly they unpacked the refreshments they had brought and, sitting down on the sand near the boat, set to work upon them.
For a while neither spoke. Each was busy disposing of the provender they had brought, and dead silence prevailed.
Suddenly it was broken by an uncanny, cackling laugh, which appeared to come from somewhere above their heads.
They started, and stared about, both aloft and below, but could see nothing to explain the puzzle.
After a pause and the interchange of some remarks they started eating again, when there came a rushing, scraping noise somewhere amongst the rocks above. Ere they could turn to look in the direction of the strange sounds something fell on the sand near their feet.
"There, another stone!" cried Clive, in low tones. "Confound it! What does it mean? Can there be someone here watching us and playing tricks?"
"I'm afraid not," Alec returned despondently. "To suppose that is to suppose there must be an easy way in and out, and I'm afraid there's no such luck about."
Clive went and picked up what had fallen. It was a round pebble, and after a glance at it he dropped it on the ground.
"I suppose you're right," he said. "I guess the water trickling down must loosen a pebble or two here and there, and then they drop down. All the same, though," he added musingly, "it's a bit curious that stones should fall near us like this though we're now in a different part of the place. The same thing happened over yonder, you know."
"Alec regarded the fallen pebble idly as it lay on the sand. Then he bent forward to look at it more carefully. First he picked it up and turned it over and over in his hand.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "If this isn't funny!"
"Why, I declare this pebble reminds me of those Ben Grove showed us, only there isn't much gilding on it. It seems to me there is still some, and it looks as if the rest might have been rubbed off."
At that moment there was again scraping and scuffling sounds somewhere above; then suddenly quite a shower of pebbles came about their ears. Two of them actually struck them, but the fact was almost unnoticed in the excitement of a more startling discovery.
The pebbles were shining with a metallic lustre—that is to say, some of them were. But of a dozen that had fallen, three or four were quite bright, while several of the others, like the first one, showed traces of metallic coating here and there.
The two young explorers looked at each other for quite a long space without speaking. Such a crowd of thoughts rushed tumultuously through their minds that they could at first find no words to voice them.
They could scarcely credit their own senses; they could not realise this sudden good fortune that chance had thrown their way, or grasp its full meaning.
Though they had both believed thoroughly in Ben Grove's story, though they had looked forward with confidence—or thought they had—to finding the wonderful water of gold which, in the course of time, covered everything that came in contact with it with a coating of pure gold, yet they now knew that they had had, at the back of their minds, as it were, certain doubts such as would naturally be felt by most level-headed, sensible people.
Those doubts had in no wise troubled them, however. They had been well content to join in the expedition from a sheer love of adventure—even as the doctor had done so from a scientist's usual readiness to explore unknown ground.
It would not have greatly troubled them if they had failed to find any gold. They would have felt themselves sufficiently rewarded, like the doctor, by the pleasures of a trip to an unexplored island and the satisfaction of having done something very few other young fellows of their age could boast of.
Therefore it was that this wonderful proof which they held then in their hands that Ben's story of untold treasure actually had a solid foundation came upon them with a sort of shock.
They both felt the same way, and each one knew what the other was thinking in those first few moments of agreeable surprise.
Then their delight found expression in the way most usual with young fellows full of good spirit and overflowing with energy— they began to dance and shout.
"Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!" cried Clive, and commenced jumping about as though he had suddenly found himself standing with bare feet on an uncomfortably hot plate.
Alec was not more than a second or two behind him in his hurrahs, and he quickly showed he was not going to be outdone in cutting capers. No Highland fling ever danced by the most frenzied Scottish piper could have outdone this performance on the margin of that dismal underground lake.
Had the sober-minded doctor happened along just then he would probably have thought either that they had both gone stark, staring mad, or that they were practising a new and most extravagant kind of cake dance with which to surprise him perhaps on his next birthday.
The echoes took up the chorus, as it were, and certainly did their share. They were not so noisy here as they had shown themselves at the other place, where they had so astonished the laughers, but they did their best to show that they were still there and wanted to make a sort of general rejoicing of it.
"Eureka! We've found what we came for! We're on the track of the gold!" cried Clive, and the echoes took up the word and cried it from a dozen different directions. "Gold, gold, gold!" was shouted at them from the roof, flung back at them from the opposite rocks, and muttered in dark corners.
Clive laughed, and shouted more than ever as he listened.
"Yes, gold!" he cried again. "Gold, gold, gold!" And "gold, gold, gold!" was heard here, there, everywhere. The words seemed to start from a dozen points at once, and to meet with a clash in the centre. They rose and fell now loud and harsh now deep and sonorous, anon becoming soft and subdued, finally floating in gentle whispers across the water.
By degrees the demonstrations quieted down a little, and then they were brought to an abrupt conclusion by the discovery that others besides the echoes seemed to be joining in.
"Jupiter! What's that?" exclaimed Clive, becoming suddenly grave and on the alert. His manner altered so quickly and decidedly that Alec became silent, too, and gazed round.
Scarcely had the last soft whispers of "gold" died away than there came again the mocking, cackling laugh they had heard before, and the echoes took up this, too, though not with the same whole-hearted vigour.
The strange, eerie laughter was so unmistakable this time, and lasted so much longer, that the two young fellows seized their rifles and began to gaze about on every side trying to locate the point it had started from.
The echoes died away, and silence followed, and then, was heard once more the scratching and scuffling sounds. Clive glanced up at some caves high up in the rocks behind them, and was in time to catch sight of some dark forms just before they vanished back into the shadows.
Alec had seen them, too, and had already raised his rifle, and was taking aim, when Clive caught hold of his arm.
"Don't shoot, man!" he breathed in a loud whisper. "For goodness' sake, don't shoot!"
Alec lowered his rifle in surprise and with evident reluctance.
"Why not?" he asked. "I saw what they were. They're some wretched monkeys, the impudent beggars!"
"Monkeys? H'm! No; apes!"
"Well, apes, then. What's the difference? And why shouldn't I shoot one of the beggars?"
"I'll tell you why, old chap." Clive answered, and now he was looking very serious and thoughtful. "In the first place, it would be ungrateful. They threw those pebbles down at us which meant such good news to us. In the second place, you will probably frighten them away."
"That's just what I wanted to do," he declared. "Why not?"
"They may be jolly useful to us, my friend—that's why not. Can't you guess how?"
"I'm blessed if I can! What have you got in your mind?"
"Well," said Clive slowly, "they don't live here, do they? They can't! There's nothing for them to eat—nothing that monkeys care for. They come in here, I suppose, as a sort of snug sleeping-place or something of that sort. But they must get their food—"
"By jingo, you're right, Clive!" Alec exclaimed suddenly, brightening up. "I see your drift! They must go out to feed, and where they can get out we may be able to!"
"Exactly!" said Clive. "I want them to show us the way. If you had fired and frightened 'em they'd have scampered off, and our chance gone. The way lies through one of those dark caverns or galleries such as we have seen, and we should never find our way in the darkness unless we can so manage as to get them to put us on the right track. There's another point—you called them monkeys, but they're really apes, and that again makes the thing more hopeful for us. Monkeys might come in through some small passage we couldn't even crawl through, whereas these apes must require a passageway rather more roomy—eh?"
"Your logic is as convincing as it is timely, oh, wise one," Alec rejoined. "It seems to me, Clive, that you've missed your vocation. You should have been a senior wrangler or something of that kind."
"I suppose," he went on, "the idea is to climb the rocks, drive the apes away, and, as they are pretty sure to make for the exit they know of, follow them. Is that the plan?"
"That's the ticket!" Clive confirmed. "We will take these pebbles with us to show the doctor—and won't he be jolly pleased to see 'em? We ought to find some more up there where those johnnies are; they threw them down from there, you know," said Clive thoughtfully. "As to the boat, we'll have to abandon it for the present."
"Yes; we shall have to come again with a party in the motor-boat, with searchlights and all that, through the tunnel, and then tow it back. I don't see what else is to be done."
They looked inside the boat for one or two things they wished to take with them, threw all the fish they had caught into the lake, pulled the boat further up on the shore, and started to climb the rocks.
They had slung their rifles at their backs, as they could not well carry them and climb too, but kept their revolvers handy. "Apes are ugly-tempered beasts sometimes," Clive reminded his chum, "and they might show fight."
And that is just what these did—unfortunately for the adventurers' prospects of finding a way out by their aid. No sooner did the creatures realise that these strangers intended to invade their ground, than they made a vicious rush to prevent them. Headed by an old grey-headed ape with long tusks and savage-looking red eyes, they came clambering down with a deafening chorus of howls and screams of rage to meet and eject the intruders.
The leader came leaping down, caught hold of Alec, and the two rolled together on to the sand below.
Fortunately, the fierce beast lost its hold in the fall, and the two were separated. Alec rolled over on the sand too dazed and bruised to get up at once, and the ape was making a rush at him again, when Clive fired and knocked it over.
Then darting forward, revolver in hand, he stood over his prostrate friend, facing the threatening crowd of jabbering brutes and keeping them at bay.
The position of the two young adventurers seemed to be a desperate one. Alec was lying on the sand hors de combat; what amount of injury he had received in his fall down the rocks or from his savage assailant Clive did not know and dared not try to ascertain just then.
All that was certain was that Alec could do nothing to defend himself against the crowd of fierce malignant foes who were threatening the pair, and Clive was left alone to face them and do what he could to save his own life and that of his friend.
Had Alec only been unhurt they might have been able to make a rush to the boat and get her afloat. And once afloat they could have laughed at this horde of jabbering enemies; but as things were that was out of the question.
Dr. Campbell had related to them how he and his party had once been in what must have been a similar position to this, out in South America, and how that they had barely escaped with their lives from a swarm of ferocious apes, though his party had numbered half a dozen, all well armed. What then could one, standing alone, hope to do, especially as he could not even turn and run; for that would be to abandon his friend to the blind rage of these brutes—it would mean leaving him to be torn to pieces.
For a few moments there was a pause. The report of the pistol had called forth such a thunderous din in the shape of echoes that the creatures were astonished into temporary inactivity—as well they might be. The sound had reverberated in the great dome overhead, and had been magnified and multiplied till it had resembled the discharge of artillery. It had been flung back from rock to rock, with a roar like thunder, and this had kept the attention of the apes engaged, as their blinking red eyes had, as it were, tried to follow the sound, now in one direction, then in another.
But now that the racket was dying down into low mutterings, they were beginning to recover from their momentary scare and to fix their gaze upon Clive.
And what was he to do? He knew he had but a few seconds' grace in which to make up his mind. He could fire another shot and take off their attention again and yet again, perhaps; but each time, as they found they were not hurt, the scare would be less.
And the doctor had told how that when he and his companions had fired at the apes and had wounded some, their cries of pain had only exasperated their fellows and made matters worse. Remembering that now, Clive wisely decided not to shoot any more of them until at least he was compelled to. The one he had shot at had been knocked outright; and that no doubt in the circumstances was fortunate, for if he had been merely wounded, there was little doubt his groan would have infuriated the rest.
And now came a strange and unexpected development. As the last mutterings of the echoes died away, and while Clive, watching his foes, was making up his mind that there was nothing for it but to sell his life as dearly as possible, there came a strange loud hissing sound.
The apes, with their quick hearing, had evidently heard it before he had, for they were now all gazing in one direction with unmistakable signs of alarm.
Gradually their looks of diabolical fiendish rage turned to fright. Then as the hissing became more audible they suddenly turned, and with one accord rushed back up the rocks, screaming and shrieking in ungovernable fear.
In another moment Guy found himself standing alone so far as they were concerned; and now that he was relieved of his anxiety on their account, he looked quietly and cautiously round in search of the cause of their sudden panic.
It did not take him long to discover it, for there, some forty yards away, he saw protruding from a cavity in the rock, a head and fore part of an enormous serpent.
It was swaying its head to and fro hissing venomously, its bright cruel greenish eyes fixed on Clive who, as soon as he had detected it, stood and stared back as though fascinated.
Slowly, very slowly and deliberately, as though in no hurry, being quite sure of its prey, it crawled nearer and nearer; its huge folds coming gradually into view as they emerged from the cavity.
The reptile ceased its hissing and laid its head flat on the sand for a space, but watching its intended victim with unwinking vigilance, and Clive went cold all over as the thought came to him that it was preparing for a spring.
Knowing with what lightening quickness these seemingly sluggish creatures dart upon their prey when once they make their spring, he again gave himself up for lost. For though he held his revolver in his hand, he knew that it was a thousand to one against his being able to stop the monster in its attack. And here again he was in the position that he could not turn and flee without sealing the doom of his chum.
Alec all this time had been lying like one dead or stunned—Clive could not tell which, but he guessed and hoped that he was only unconscious. And now the great snake advanced and then halted, laid its head on the sands, and glared at him with those horrible eyes.
Clive felt for a minute as though his senses were reeling. He grew dizzy, the whole place seemed to be spinning round, the very ground he was standing on appeared to be going up and down.
With a great effort he recovered himself. Was this a case of fascination, he wondered? It certainly was not fear—for, strange to say, at that time he felt no fear at all, only the queer sense of giddiness.
But it was borne in on him that to give way meant death—an awful, horrible death both for himself and for his friend lying helpless at his feet, and he called up all his resources to his aid, and fixing his gaze he watched the reptile steadfastly, the while he quickly but silently unslung his rifle.
He would [not] trust to his revolver here. The rifle carried a soft nosed bullet which, if he could but hit the creature's head with it, would have far more effect than a pistol bullet.
Never shifting his glance, but returning the grisly reptile's fixed gaze in its own fashion, he got the rifle in his hands, and kneeling down, took careful aim at its head, which just then was lying motionless on the sand.
There was a flash and a report, and once more the air was filled with sounds as though a thunderstorm had broken loose just overhead.
That he had hit his mark Clive knew at once by the serpent's sudden contortions. He did not, however, trust to a single shot, but continued to pour in bullet after bullet. He knew that it was necessary in the case of a reptile of the size he guessed this must be. For he had not seen even yet its full length. He had not, indeed, seen the half of it, because only a portion had crawled out of its den.
And he now realised that this was a very important point. Indeed, he guessed that very likely it was the means of saving his own and his friend's life.
For the snake was so large that, writhing and struggling as it was from the pain of its wounds, it could not get its full length into the open. The great coils that were rolling and twisting about inside the cave jammed themselves as it were and so held the monster back. But for this Clive felt certain the beast would have darted at him.
Realising this in a flash, Clive saw the instant necessity of getting away before his enemy could free itself. Without a second's delay, therefore, he picked Alec up in his arms and carried him as well as he could to the boat and laid him in it.
Throwing all his strength into the effort, he pushed the craft down into the water, jumped in, and pushing off, seized the sculls and rowed as hard as he could.
Then, panting and nearly exhausted with these exertions, he paused and looked at the snake.
Then he saw how well advised he had been in acting as he had. The serpent had wriggled itself out into the open and had struggled forward to the very place where Alec had been lying.
He could now see its real proportions, and the sight made him more thankful than ever that the idea of getting away had come to him in time. For though he felt sure he had hit the reptile in the head and very likely blinded it and it was probable the wound would prove mortal, yet the creature was evidently not going to die just yet. And one blow from that ponderous lashing tail would have meant death even apart altogether from the danger of being crushed in its awful coils.
Feeling now that they were fairly safe from this frightful enemy, Clive devoted himself to Alec. Pulling a flask from his pocket he poured some of the cordial it contained down his throat, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing him revive.
Presently Alec sat up, and then Clive anxiously examined him to see what his injuries might be; and very thankful he was when he found that in spite of all he was only bruised and scratched.
Wetting his handkerchief he washed and bathed the injured places, and had the satisfaction of seeing the young fellow gradually return to something like his ordinary self.
ALEC stared about still in rather a dazed way at first, and did not seem surprised to find himself in the boat.
"Why—I—thought—" he began; and then he caught sight of the serpent still lashing about on the strand. The sound of its struggling and of the blows and thuds of its powerful tail as it pounded on the sand one moment and dashed against the rocks the next, had attracted his gaze to it.
He stared at it in bewilderment, fascinated by the extraordinary spectacle it presented. Then, turning his glance upon his friend, wanted to know what in the world it all meant.
"What is that great snake doing there—and how did I get here? And where are all those horrible apes?"
Question followed question in quick succession faster than Clive could reply to them.
However, he got a chance at last, and then explained briefly all that had taken place, and Alec began to understand.
"And so," he said slowly at last, "you first fought the apes and then that awful monster of a serpent, and finally carried me away and brought me into safety—all alone and unaided while I lay helpless. Instead of running off and saving yourself—as many would have done—you stayed and stuck to me and fought on till you got the chance to carry me out of it!"
"Why, as to that," said Clive with a laugh, "it was the snake's hissing that frightened me away—so I had no hand in that. And as to the snake itself—well, of course, I did my best to kill it— and I certainly was not going to leave you there for him to eat."
Alec seized his friend's hand. "Heaven bless you, Clive!" he exclaimed, and tears were in his eyes. "You must be as brave as a lion. Braver than I should have been, I'm afraid," he added rather dolefully. "I'm sure I shouldn't have done as you did. I couldn't. I should have bolted from sheer fright."
"Not you, Alec," Clive declared cheerily. "I'm sure you wouldn't. If that's what you really believe then I know you better than you know yourself. I'm quite sure you would have done the same had the positions been reversed—so let us say no more about it."
Alec shook his head but said no more on the subject just then. They were indeed both interested in watching the big serpent, which was evidently now in its death throes.
"Shall we send another bullet or two into it?" said Alec. "Just to end its struggles?"
"No need to," Clive advised. "Besides, it would help to spoil the skin. The doctor will like to have the skin, you know, for a trophy."
"H'm! Yes; if we come back to receive it," Alec remarked rather gloomily. "But we've yet to find a way of getting out of that rotten hole."
"I hope we shall be able to manage it," Clive rejoined more cheerfully. He saw that Alec had not yet quite recovered from the effects of their recent adventure and was a bit low spirited, so he adopted a more confident tone than he really felt himself in order to cheer him up a little.
Just then something came with a crash against the bottom of the boat, or rather under the side of it, pushing it over so much as almost to upset it.
"Hallo!" Alec cried, as she righted again. "What on earth was that?"
A large mass like a huge creature with a dark shiny skin showed just above the surface close at hand for a moment and then disappeared again before they had time to make out what it was.
"Another big creature of some sort—but I'm sugared if I could see what kind!" muttered Clive.
"Well, it very nearly upset us," Alec declared with a shiver. "I'm getting fed up with this sort of thing. Shall we ever get out of the place alive? That's another reminder that it isn't safe to attempt to return through the tunnel. What the dickens are we to do?"
"Get out the way we started to find before—up those rocks," said Clive, nodding his head in the direction of the big snake. "I think that beast is about done for and can't harm us now. And the sooner we start the better. Let's see how many matches we can stump up between us. And we shall want some tarred rope—there's plenty in the boat—but we must pick out the driest—something that will burn."
"What! You're going to risk another fight with those horrible apes?" cried Alec aghast.
"There won't be any fighting," Clive answered quickly. "It will be all right this time, you'll see. Let's row to the shore and make a start."
Alec was evidently unconvinced and was almost inclined to protest against the plan. But it was a choice of evils, and as he could not make up his mind to face the tunnel, there seemed nothing else to be done. And as the snake was now lying quite motionless on the shore, there was nothing more to wait for.
The boat was accordingly rowed to the shore and pulled up once more on the strand. Then, having taken out what they thought necessary, including the tarred rope, the two sidled warily past the body of the reptile and gained the rocks.
"Look!" exclaimed Alec, drawing back. "I can see two or three of the brutes peeping over the top. They have seen us and are watching us."
"Hush! I can see 'em," returned Clive in a whisper. "Don't talk— don't say anything above a whisper if you can help it. And don't shoot unless it becomes absolutely necessary. And if we have to do so shoot only so as to frighten them at first—not to kill or wound 'em. See, let me go first and you follow. Imitate my movements as much as you can. Crawl along like you'll see me do, as if—well as if—we were a couple of snakes. See?"
Alec didn't see—at any rate he did not understand what his chum's idea could be. He followed his directions, however, as well as he could, though not without some misgivings.
Slowly, almost, noiselessly, the two began climbing, Clive going first and Alec following, revolver in hand, and fully expecting another ugly rush on the part of the savage brutes.
He could still see the hideous faces and cunning red eyes of two or three of them peering over the ledge above, but so far they had made no move. Then he paused in alarm as he saw two or three more added to those already there. But remembering Clive's advice he refrained from saying anything. The further they proceeded, however, the less he liked the look of things, and he was wondering at his chum's cool confidence, when he was suddenly startled by hearing a loud hissing sound.
He stared about on all sides but could see nothing to account for it. Glancing upwards again he saw that the apes, who were watching them, had also heard the sound, as it had evidently perturbed them.
Again the hissing was heard, and this time it had such a fierce venomous sort of expression that Alec stopped climbing, thinking there must he a serpent somewhere just above.
Then from the ledge above came the sound of excited jabbering, followed by the scuffling and pattering of many soft feet; and mingled with this there were smothered screams of rage and fear. But instead of growing louder they gradually died away in the distance, and Alec watching the ledge saw that every villainous face had disappeared from the top.
Here was an unexpected mystery; instead of rushing to attack them again as Alec had feared they would, it seemed pretty certain that the brutes had fled in fear.
Just then some half smothered sounds of a different character caught his ears and puzzled him not a little, till he happened to catch Clive's eyes looking back at him with a twinkle in them. He was laughing heartily—so heartily in fact, that he seemed in some danger of letting go his hold and slipping down.
"What scared them?" Alec queried.
"Why, my imitation of a snake. Didn't you hear me hissing?"
"I certainly heard the hissing. It was you then all the time. I really thought it was some actual crawling beast among these rocks."
"That's me—I'm the crawling beast," laughed Clive. "I felt pretty certain that would do the trick—and scare those brutes."
"Why, yes; it seems to have done that!" Alec returned in surprise. "How in the world did you come to think of it?"
Clive pointed to the dead snake below them; and now that the apes had disappeared he no longer troubled to speak in whispers. "It was our late lamented friend there who taught me the trick," he declared with another hearty laugh. "You were not able to see what went on, you know, you were unconscious; but it was astonishing to see how scared the fiercest of 'em became directly they heard that beast's first hiss as it came crawling out of its den. They scampered off like a lot of frightened rabbits, and you should have seen the expression on some of their phizogs. I could have roared with laughter if only the snake had not been there glaring at me. Afterwards, when it all came back to me, I determined to try 'em with my own particular imitation of the real thing."
"It seems to have answered splendidly," Alec commented admiringly. "It was a grand idea! Do you think we can trust to its serving us as well again if we should have more trouble with them?"
"I don't see why it shouldn't. But, of course, we must be wary. And if the need arises again, remember that the thing is not to talk or let them hear our voices, but to lie down and, crawl towards them hissing all the time like the very deuce. You can join in next time, you know."
Greatly relieved by the flight of their dangerous foes, the two climbed on in better spirits, and quickly reached the ledge whence the creatures had peered down at them.
It was a broad level terrace of rock with three caverns beyond, which looked as though they might be the entrances to passages.
Looking round they found to their great satisfaction that there was not an ape in sight. But there was nothing apparently to show by which of these caverns they had made their escape.
"H'm! Strikes me we're done now!" muttered Alec irritably. "I don't see any sign as to which way the beasts went."
"We'll pick up their tracks somehow," Clive declared; and he struck a match and set light to one of the pieces of tarred rope they had brought.
"Oh! A torch!" cried Alec. "That's a good idea."
"Why, of course. What else do you suppose I wanted this rope for—to tie up the apes with as we caught 'em? Something like putting salt on bird's tails, that."
"Why no—not quite that," Alec returned laughingly. "But I—well, I thought perhaps you might have had some profound scheme in your mind for smoking 'em out."
"Jupiter! That sounds as hopeful as the salt business. However, here we are; this will give us a good enough light for a while, and then we've got the other pieces to follow."
They entered first one cavern and then the next to it and looked about, but could see nothing to indicate that the apes had made use of either of them as a passage way. And after examining the floor carefully in each cave, Clive shook his head and they left the two and turned into the other.
"THIS is our last chance," Clive muttered, as they entered the third opening; but he had hardly said the words when he stooped and picked something up. Then, moving onwards, they came to the beginning of a passage with a rough floor of sand and loose stones.
Here Clive flashed his light about and uttered an exclamation of satisfaction. Stooping again, he picked up some pebbles and held them out to Alec.
"Do you see?" he cried. "This is where they got the pebbles from that they threw down at us. There seem to be plenty more here, and though the gold appears to have got knocked off a good many of 'em, there's enough left to prove that they are similar to those Ben Grove showed us. Now, what do you make of this?"
"Don't know. Give it up," said Alec. "What do you make of it, O Wise One?"
"Well," returned Clive thoughtfully, "I read it this way. This is the bed of an underground stream at present dried up. At times— perhaps only when there is a storm or very heavy rainfall—the water rushes down from somewhere above and brings these pebbles with it. It must sweep down pretty violently, you see, and rub them together a lot to scrape the gold off as we see here. The water is bound to find an outlet somewhere, so I guess if we follow this passage we shall find our way out."
"Hurrah!" cried Jack. "You talk like a book. O most learned pundit. (That's a good word, isn't it?) Let us then hasten along this water way, as you call it, and put your theory to the test as quickly as we can."
They started off along the passage, which was a kind of tunnel washed out by the water in the course of years through the solid rock, and as they proceeded they soon came upon many traces of the apes. Remains of coconut's and various fruits, twigs, and small branches of fruit-bearing trees showed the way and told them that they were on the right track.
Presently they came to a place where there was another passage which opened at right angles into the one they were in. There they paused in doubt. Clive, however, soon settled the point to his own satisfaction.
"You can see," he reasoned, "that that pass goes up farther into the mountain, whilst the one we are in goes continually on the downward course. When there is water here it rushes down from that pass into this one and divides, part going towards the place we have left, and part to some outlet farther on. So we must follow this one."
Alec had no fault to find with this line of argument, and they went steadily on their way, and presently had the satisfaction of seeing the glimmer of daylight in the distance.
"Hurrah!" Alec began; but Clive stopped him.
"Hush!" he cautioned. "We may find some of the apes hanging about the entrance; we'd better go quietly."
Alec had no wish to precipitate another encounter with the fierce animals, so he promptly desisted from further expressions of delight, and they trudged onwards and were soon able to dispense with their rough torches.
Then they came to an opening, and very delightful did it seem to be in the fresh free air and the clear daylight.
They found that they were high up on the side of the mountain looking over the low lying interior of the island. It was evidently getting near sunset; but it was still quite light, and the air was so clear you could see for a great distance.
They had a view out over the wilderness of rocks and low rocky hills with extensive low lying marsh ground between.
They could even see the sea in the far distance. Then something caught Alec's eyes—something which made him hastily pull out his field glass from its case. Clive did the same—for they always carried glasses with them—and they both stared for awhile in silent surprise.
"By jove!" cried Alec in excited tones. "Just look at that! Some people running—I can see 'em. White men I should say running after—yes, running after some blacks. Oh! Did you see that?"
Yes; Clive had seen too. They had both witnessed a shameful and cowardly thing. As Alec had said, some white men were pursuing some blacks, had fired at them, and brought two down. And when the cowardly pursuers had reached the fallen men, they had clubbed them cruelly, brutally, unmercifully.
"I see what it is!" exclaimed Clive. "These are some of the black-birding rascals—slave hunters—we have heard about. Some of their wretched captives have tried to escape and they are hunting them and shooting them down, and not content with that, are beating them to death. What wretches they must be!"
The two chums looked at each other. "We must take a hand in this." said Alec slowly. "I can't stand by and see the poor beggars clubbed to death in that horrible fashion!"
"Nor can I!" cried Clive. "Let's hurry and get down there. We may yet be in time to save some of their miserable victims!"
Alec, who had been looking very carefully through his field-glasses in another direction, uttered an exclamation.
"Ah!" he said, drawing a deep breath. "Yes; I thought I caught sight of something over yonder. There are some more natives further away to the left—running away like mad. I can make out three. Can you see them?"
Clive gazed steadily through his own glasses, but made no reply for a few seconds. Then he spoke.
"Yes, yes; you're right! They are just disappearing round some rocks?"
"That's right. Well, now look at that low hill with a lot of trees on the top of it, nearer this way—to the right of the men we first saw. There is a thin spiral of blue smoke rising from the midst of the trees. See it?"
"Yes; I can see that, too. I see the smoke."
"Well, we'd better wait a bit and watch what the beggars are up to. I think you will find they will take those two poor blacks they knocked over to that hill where the smoke is. If they do, we'd better stop here and watch 'em further."
"Why? What's your idea?"
"It's an idea that has just come into my mind. That smoke, of course, means a fire for cooking, which suggests that they've got a bivouac there and mean to spend the night there. But before that they will go out again after the three we saw running away. If they do they must leave the camp pretty much to itself. See?"
"I think I do. You mean that if we see them start out after the others we can slip down and get a peep at their camp and see what they've left there."
"Exactly. There may be some more of their victims there, and we could set 'em free. That would be doing some good, at any rate. They may leave someone in charge of their camp or they may not, but I don't suppose they would leave more than one or two, and we could manage them.
"It's a jolly good idea, Alec," Clive declared approvingly. "We'll try it on, anyway. Look! You were right. They are taking those two poor wretches towards the hill where the smoke is, as you said they would."
The two slavers—to call them by the name that they undoubtedly deserved—had made their two wounded prisoners get on their feet, and were now half leading, half dragging them along with them.
A moment or two later they were hidden amongst the trees and rocks, and the two chums, seeing nothing to do for a while but stay where they were and await developments, began looking more carefully at their immediate surroundings.
The subterranean water-course, whose dry bed they had been traversing, had its outlet high on the side of a precipitous hill or mountain well covered with foliage which afforded them a good screen from where to watch what went on below. The trees also effectually hid the opening from the view of anyone below, and it was further so concealed by thick bushes that those who did not know of its existence might have passed and repassed within a few yards of it without discovering it.
The two young fellows had taken up a station on a small terrace of rock to the right of it, where they could see not only over the bushes, but over the tops of the trees in front of them—for the ground sloped suddenly just below the terrace.
"I wonder," said Alec, peering about among the tree-tops around, "what has become of the apes? I can't see any sign of the brutes. Not that I want to," he added very decidedly.
"You can't forget 'em, I see," he remarked.
"No, nor would you if you had been through my experience," he said seriously. "You were not so close to them as I was to that horrible old brute. You didn't feel the clutch of his great hairy paws on you, or have his hideous, grisly face thrust close to yours and see his mouth, with its frightful fangs gnashing and working and trying to get at you to tear your flesh from your bones, or gaze at close quarters into those frightful, red, rolling eyes. I know you must have had a bad time afterwards, when you were facing that great serpent; but I tell you I felt as if I were in the clutches of a veritable demon! Only the accident of our both slipping and then rolling down, and so getting separated, saved me from something dreadful, I know. What horribly powerful creatures they are! Why I felt quite helpless in the grasp of that brute. He shook me as if I had been a child!"
"Poor old chap!" said Clive sympathisingly. "Yes, I can understand. I am jolly glad I managed to shoot the beast. And I hope we sha'n't encounter them again; though, if we do, I quite believe my little dodge will scare 'em away more quickly and surely than all your firearms. I ought to have thought of it before, for we all know well enough how monkeys hate and fear snakes, and how they always bolt at the first signs of one being about. Well, now to see what these chaps below are doing."
They peered carefully through their glasses, and presently again saw the men they were watching.
They were now making their way through some swampy ground, and finally they arrived at the foot of the low hill from which the smoke was ascending.
Then they once more vanished from sight.
"BY the way, we ought to take our bearings as well as we can," Alec observed. "How are we going to get back to our camp at night?"
"It must be round on the other side of this mountain," said Clive. "I suppose that really we ought to be making our way there now as fast as we can go. The doctor will be getting anxious. Perhaps he'll say we ought to have gone straight back and not waited to try to do anything here. But well, I don't like the idea of letting those wretches down there work their vile will on those poor darkies."
"Nor do I," Alec agreed. "As to finding our way through, I believe I can see, over to the left, the very place where I had my little adventure the first night we arrived. I found my way back then all right, you remember, so I dare say we can manage to do so again. It will be lighter, too, to-night, for the moon is older. Ah! See that? I was right. Those beauties are starting off again. They're going on a fresh hunt, and it will take them much farther afield. So now's our time. We'll just watch them well away from the place and then start—eh?"
"Right you are! There they go, the wretches! And by the way they're swinging along I fancy they know they've got a long jaunt before them and won't be back just yet. So now, as you say, will be our time."
They watched a little longer to make quite sure, and saw the two men marching along at a good pace in a straight line—or as near straight as the nature of the ground would allow. In and out among the rocks they went, now hidden by trees, bushes, or clumps of tall reeds, then emerging again on to open ground. Finally they disappeared round a rocky hill in the direction the four natives had taken.
Then the two chums started downwards in the direction of the strangers' camp. At first the descent was very steep, pretty dangerous, in fact, in places, and even when they finally reached the lower ground they still found the travelling anything but easy on account of the rocks and pools that lay in their way.
Thus it took them longer than they had expected to reach the low hill for which they were bound. By the time they approached it the sun had set and—as is the case in the tropics—night seemed to have fallen quite suddenly.
The moon was rising, but it had not yet risen high enough to give much light, and for a little while the two found themselves at fault.
Then Alec suddenly caught the gleam of a light between the trees on rising ground almost close at hand.
"We've come right, after all," he whispered to Clive. "Yonder's their camp-fire."
Proceeding now with increasing caution, they soon reached the foot of the hill, and then began the tedious process of wriggling in and out between the trees and bushes which clothed its sides.
With infinite patience and no small amount of skill the two managed to manoeuvre without making the slightest sound which might give the alarm or raise the suspicions of whoever had been left in charge.
At last they found themselves looking into a clearing where a fire was burning, with a man beside it smoking a pipe. He was a beetle-browed, villainous-looking fellow, probably a sailor to judge by his dress and general appearance, and evidently a foreigner of some kind. Beside him lay a rifle, while scattered about on the ground were various articles which suggested that the two whom the watchers had seen leave the camp were not the only absent members of the party.
If so, some of the others might return at any moment, and it would evidently be wise, therefore, to act with promptitude.
As to the task which lay before them, that was now clear enough. On one side, in the shadows, at some little distance from the fire, there was a dark, huddled mass which the young fellows could see consisted of natives lying about in different attitudes. They were, in fact, tied together in pairs, and so tightly and brutally that they were perforce compelled to lie just and where they had been thrown down.
Just then the man got up and went across to a store of cut wood which had been placed in a pile ready for use when required. He left his rifle where it was lying, and, stooping down, filled his arms with the fuel.
Clive and Alec glanced at each other.
"Now is the time."
The man had let his load of wood fall, and had been on the point of making a dash for his rifle, when Clive's stern "Hands up!" had arrested his movements.
He stood for a moment or two irresolute. But the two rifles pointed straight at him, with the firelight gleaming on their polished barrels, made him finally decide that discretion was his best course.
"Who are you, and what d'yer want?" he growled sullenly, after first relieving his feelings by a frightful oath. "What er ye goin' t' do to me?"
"Who we are doesn't matter," Clive replied, quietly but firmly. "As to what we do to you, that depends on how you behave. If you take the matter quietly, we shall not harm you; but if you make any attempt at resistance I shall shoot you without further warning. Get some rope and bind him," he added to Alec. "But first put his rifle further away—well out of his reach."
"Take care!" he warned the man again, as he saw his eyes following Alec's movements. "My finger is on the trigger, and if you do anything to startle me, the gun might go off even before I intended it to."
The fellow frowned, and his dark, scowling eyes turned from Alec back to Clive. Then he stood with his hands up, indeed, but with the look of a cat watching a mouse.
Alec meanwhile had placed both his own rifle and that of the man on the ground behind Clive, and taking up a piece of rope—there was plenty lying about—he advanced towards the fellow to bind him, making a slip-noose as he went.
"Turn round," he said coolly. "I prefer to have your back to look at, since we must come to close quarters."
For an instant the man seemed as if he meant to risk a rush. He clenched his hands, his eyes seemed as if they would start from his head, and an ugly contortion passed over his face.
Seeing this, Alec stopped and eyed him warily, while Clive advanced a step, holding the rifle steadily in a line with his head.
"Quick!" he cried sharply; "Turn round, or I fire!"
And the man, smothering down an oath, slowly and sulkily obeyed.
"Now drop your arms," said Alec, and as they dropped, he threw the loop over his head and drew it tight.
A minute or two later the fellow was bound, hand and foot, and was lying on the ground like one of his own luckless captives.
"That's done!" murmured Alec, as he went and picked up his rifle. "And now to look at those poor beggars over yonder."
The two stepped across to where the blacks were lying, and they were filled with anger and indignation at what they saw. Eight natives were lying bound in couples in such a manner that they looked more like tied-up lay figures than living human beings. Only the sighs and low moans which broke forth ever now and then told that they were really alive. And even these the poor creatures suppressed as much as possible, knowing only too well that groans and cries of pain were likely to bring them blows from the man in charge of them.
CLIVE and Alec returned to work to cut them free, and this took some time, since they had to handle the poor creatures gently and tenderly.
One by one—or, rather, two by two—they removed their bonds, stopping now and again in their work of mercy to make sure that the man they had tied up was still secure and unable to play them some unexpected trick. When they thus glanced at him they found him regarding them with an expression which would have been diverting had not the state of the rescued captives been so pitiful.
He was eyeing their proceedings with looks of mingled anger and scorn. Evidently he had nothing but contempt for people who showed any feeling of kindness or compassion for black men.
As the prisoners were set free they were, as far as was possible, helped to their feet. But of the eight there, only four were unhurt; the others were all injured in some way or other, and all were stiff and sore from the callous manner in which they had been tied up.
Now, however, that the rescuers had attained their end, and the captives were free, some unforeseen difficulties presented themselves. In the first place, what were the two going to do with the poor creatures, and how were they going to make them understand what had happened, and what their rescuers wanted them to do? For, alas! it was now found that these natives did not speak English, and most certainly neither Clive nor Alec understood their language.
This, as Alec remarked, "looked like a teazer!" He stood and stared at them in some dismay, rubbing his hair perplexedly.
"What on earth are we going to do with them?" he asked of Clive helplessly.
"Why, take them with us—if we can," was the answer. "I feel sure the doctor will approve. He'll find something for them to do temporarily, and I daresay later on he'll find some way of sending them back to their homes."
"Yes—if we can! That's where the trouble comes in. How are we going to make 'em understand that we shall treat 'em kindly, and so on, and that they are to come with us and not to be afraid?"
"Oh," Clive returned light, "by signs!"
"Signs, eh? Well, What's the sign for 'Do you feel well enough to take a moonlight walk for a few miles with us to-night to our camp, where you will be kindly treated'?"
"I can't say. You're talking nonsense now, you know. You can't expect to be able to carry on a conversation of that sort in sign language; but it ought to be possible to manage enough for what we want. At least, in all the story-books I've ever read, the travellers never had any difficulty in making natives understand them by signs."
"In books!" Alec repeated testily. "They put any sort of tomfool nonsense in books. If you think you can manage it, you'd better set to work, and be quick about it, for I'm sugared if I know how to do it."
Clive laughed, and singling the one he thought was the most intelligent and likely-looking native of the bunch, he commenced his first lesson in the language of signs.
Unfortunately, his efforts did not turn out very successfully, and his attempts became so tedious that Alec lost interest in the proceedings, and turned his attention to looking round the camp.
The first thing he noticed was that the man he had tied up, and who was lying on the ground with his face that way, was palpably grinning with grim amusement at their difficulty, and the means Clive was adopting to get over it.
Alec promptly turned him over, so that he could not see what was going on, and then continued his round of inspection. The only thing he found that interested him was a case of spare ammunition. He made a mental note of this, and the fact suggested something else. He went back to the bound man and took all the cartridges out of his bandolier, searched his pockets, and took from one a revolver, which he unloaded. Then he went to the man's rifle, which was still lying on the ground, and unloaded it, putting away what he had found in his own pockets.
"There, my friend," he said to himself, mentally addressing the fellow on the ground. "I think I have drawn your teeth, and if you should get yourself free sooner than we desire, you won't be so ready to follow us, and try to shoot us in the back."
Then he went back to where Clive was trying to come to an understanding with the natives, and Alec saw by his gestures that he was getting pretty excited over it.
"Well, what do they say?" Alec inquired cheerfully. "Have they told you their names, and where they live, and the number of the street, and what they would like for breakfast to-morrow morning at our camp?—if we can reach it. It seems to me, we're running a pretty serious risk of getting captured ourselves, and taking their places here—or, at least, of having to fight for our lives. Some of this man's pals may return at any moment—they may creep up, unsuspected by us, and—well, you know what would happen. Has the sign business failed?"
"Yes," Clive admitted desperately. "I can't get 'em to understand a single thing. I can't even understand whether they understand. So what were going to do I really don't know."
"Well, I can tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to make for the camp, and they can come with us or go elsewhere, or stay on here—whichever they jolly well please," was Alec's practical solution of the problem. "We've set 'em free and give 'em their chance, so I think we have done all that can be expected of us in the circumstances. If they've got any common sense, and they think they like our company, they'll follow us of their own accord. And if they don't, they can go their own road, so far as I am concerned. There's only one thing before we start—there's that case of ammunition you see there. I don't see why we should leave that to help these scoundrels to try to murder us—as they're sure to do if they can. We've got quite enough to do to carry our rifles and other things. I think if these Johnnies are coming with us they ought to carry that lot somehow between 'em."
"I must say I agree with you, old chap," Clive returned heartily. "Your advice is certainly practical. We'll act upon it, and start at once. The moon's higher now, and we ought to be able to see our way fairly well. As you say, it won't do to leave that case of cartridges behind. So we must carry it between us at first. Then, as you suggest, if they follow us, we can shove it on to them, and if they don't—"
"We'll chuck it into the first deep pool we come to, and get rid of it," said Alec; and that settled the matter.
"Right you are, old chap," Clive returned, and then the two prepared for a start.
A last look at the bound man, to make sure he was still quite secure, and would have to lie where he was till his friends returned to the camp and release him; a few words of advice and warning to him concerning his future behaviour, which he did not in the least take to heart, only replying with swearing and cursing; and then, taking up the case of ammunition between them, they set out on their way back to their own camp.
At once, without any invitation by either word, look, or sign, the blacks followed them, much as faithful dogs might have done.
They did more, indeed, for of their own initiative they took possession of the ammunition and carried it themselves.
Also the unwounded ones assisted their injured fellows between them and managed to keep them going. Thus the difficulties of the two rescuers solved themselves as it were, and marching along, slowly but steadily, the whole party set out for the doctor's camp.
"HALLO! Another halt! This is getting serious. I'm beginning to feel precious anxious!"
It was Clive who spoke. The party had managed with some difficulty to get, as nearly as the young leaders could guess, about half-way on their journey. There had been much trouble with the two wounded blacks; again and again the poor fellows had broken down completely. Then their friends had bravely carried them on again for a while, swung to a pole after a fashion of their own.
But, there were only four really sound men among the natives, and they were so weak from want of food or other causes that it was more than they could manage—willing enough though they indeed were—to carry the two between them for any great distance at a time.
Indeed, the ground was so rough, there were so many difficulties in the way—so many obstacles to be surmounted—that it was a wonder they had managed to get as far as they had.
There were big boulders, pools, and fallen trees, which it was necessary to go round; there were rocky hillocks and low hills, too big to go round, which they had to climb over; and there were swampy places to be crossed, where they sank up to their knees in water or compounds of water and mud.
To make matters worse, Alec was by no means sure of the way. Looking down from a height just before sunset, he had felt confident that he recognised the place to which he had followed the Dago that night. But now, in the dim moonlight, what with dark shadows here, and light mists there, he felt uncertain and bewildered.
And now they were brought to a halt altogether on account of the difficulty of travelling with the wounded natives.
"I suppose," muttered Alec, "some people in our position would say it was their duty to leave the wounded men behind and trust to coming back for them by daylight. But I couldn't leave these poor beggars here to take their chance in the dark."
"Nor could I, Alec," Clive replied despondently. "That's where the difficulty comes in. If we were as stony-hearted as the filibusters who captured them and brought 'em here, we should simply leave 'em behind and go our way. But neither I nor you could do such a thing."
"And yet what are we to do?" Alec queried gloomily. "It seems useless to try to struggle on—apart from the fact that I feel it is cruelty to these injured fellows. They must be suffering terribly while they're being swung about and jolted by bearers who are really too weak themselves to carry them properly. But if we can't proceed, that is as much as to say we must stay where we are till daylight."
"And that, in turn, means being followed and attacked by the man we left behind and his pals, as soon as they return and discover what's happened. And it means a fight between we two and certainly three—most likely half a dozen or more—of these desperadoes."
"Nevertheless, we'll have to risk it," Alec declared with conviction. "That first night, you know, when I was in trouble out here alone, you came out from the camp to look for me. But there's no chance of that happening to-night, because they have no idea we are out in this direction. Very likely they're out now hunting for us in a different direction altogether."
"Well," said Clive with decision, "if we've got to halt here for the night, we may as well choose the best place we can find handy, with a view to defending ourselves if attacked. Perhaps, as you say our people are out looking for us, and if we were to fire off our rifles, they might hear, and it might bring them to our aid."
"It might, of course; but, on the other hand," Alec pointed out, "it would certainly guide our enemies to us, if they're looking for us—so I'm afraid it would do more harm than good."
After a little more discussion, they decided to halt for the night on the top of a small rocky hillock, which seemed the best spot at hand on which to defend themselves if attacked.
Aided by some of the blacks, they pulled some fallen logs round in such a way as to form fairly good cover, and, having made the wounded men as comfortable as they could on beds of cut grass, they sat down, tired and dispirited, to await developments.
They had just arranged that one should try to get a short sleep while the other watched, when the signs of suppressed excitement among the natives put them on the qui vive.
One now came forward, and, pointing back the way they had come, began making excited signs and gestures, which this time, at any rate, the chums were able to understand.
"It means," said Alec, "that they've heard something we haven't, and they know that their enemies have tracked us down."
And, as though to confirm his words, there came to their ears the sound of a rifle shot, followed almost immediately by another.
Clive noticed that the shots sounded some distance away, which surprised him not a little. It seemed strange that the enemy should thus give them timely notice of their approach.
For a moment or two the idea came to him that the shots might have been fired by their own friends, come out to look for them; but he discarded this thought at once as untenable. The sounds had come from the wrong direction; it would mean that the two parties had passed each other without knowing it, which was scarcely possible.
Following upon the sound of shots there had been heard a peculiar cry like the call of some night-bird. Clive had heard it once or twice before the shots, though then it had sounded much farther away. Thinking it was only some creature of the night, he had taken no notice of it.
Now, however, he saw that it produced a very obvious effect upon the blacks. They became more alert; even the wounded men roused up and spoke to their companions.
Again the cry wailed out, this time evidently close at hand—so close that Clive started and looked keenly about him. It seemed as though the creature which uttered it was now actually almost beside him.
"What's that?" Alec exclaimed, in low tones. He, too, was peering about on every side. "I heard it two or three times before."
"Hanged if I know," muttered Clive. "It seemed to me—"
"Why, it's that johnny there!" cried Alec, pointing to the black who had warned them. "He's making the row himself, and—Why, what the dickens are they up to now?"
To the surprise of the two chums the natives had suddenly run off—all, that is, who were able to run. They had darted over the logs which helped to defend their temporary camp, and were rushing down the slope of the hill as hard as they could run.
"Jiminy! They've deserted us—gone off and left us to fight our battle alone!" Alec exclaimed wrathfully. "The cowardly, ungrateful beggars!"
"But," Clive pointed out, in perplexed tones, "they've gone the wrong way if they wanted to bolt. They've gone to meet our enemies, not to avoid 'em!"
"What does it mean?" Alec asked, bewildered. "They've surely not gone to try to carry favour with their former masters by offering to betray us?"
"Can't believe it possible," said Clive. He was staring after the blacks just as they vanished into a thicket. "They've left their wounded fellows—"
"Yes, for us to look after." Alec grumbled. "As if we haven't enough to do to defend—Hallo! What's all this mean?"
The blacks had reappeared from the thicket as suddenly as they had vanished into it. But now they were not alone. They had several companions with them, all as dark as themselves save one, who looked an extraordinary individual.
HE seemed to be a white man, and in figure was tall and powerfully-built. He walked with a swaggering gait which suggested, as Alec put it, that he "thought a good deal of himself." Beside him was a fine-looking, muscular black who carried himself also with something of a swagger, though it was softened in his case by a natural native grace, and even dignity, which the white man could not boast.
These two carried rifles in their hands, and were followed by two more similarly armed. Finally, there was quite a little crowd of natives, some of them carrying bows and arrows—a dozen, probably, in all, besides those who had gone down the hill to meet the new-comers.
For that was the explanation of the seeming defect of the natives whom the two young explorers had rescued from the filibusters with so much subsequent trouble to themselves.
"I think I begin to understand," said Alec. "Our blacks have met here with a party of their own people come to look for them, I suppose. That tall black looks as if he might he a chief; but as to that other big chap, I can't think who or what he can be. If we'd come across him at home, in England, I should say he'd escaped from some lunatic asylum, or perhaps a travelling circus. Did you ever see such a get-up?"
It was not surprising that—Alec should speak thus; the appearance of this stranger was sufficiently bizarre to astonish anybody. His attire was a comical mixture of the usual native dress, beaded and curiously ornamented with some pieces of ancient armour, seemingly of brass. On his head was a brass helmet, much battered, but shiny withal, and surmounted by an imposing plume of feathers. In addition, he wore a breastplate, also of brass and also much battered, and shoulder-pieces of the same metal, with a tunic and long cloak of native beadwork. Attached to his belt was a heavy sword without a scabbard. Finally, round his neck was a necklace of bones, which rattled as he moved.
The new-comers had left the thicket and begun to ascend the slope of the hill before the two defenders had thought of challenging them, so surprised had they felt at their appearance.
Now Clive sprang up, and, holding his rifle at the ready, called out to them.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" he cried.
A sonorous, somewhat hoarse, but not unpleasant voice replied, with an unmistakable Irish brogue:
"We're frinds come t' help yez."
This was so unexpected that Clive almost dropped his rifle in his astonishment. However, he recovered himself and called out again:
"But we don't know you. We can't let you come into our camp till we are certain we can trust you."
"Arrah, ye can be aisy now," was the answer. "And ye must be quick; there's no toime to lose. Sure, we know ye've trated our black frinds here loike the gintlemen ye are, an' me masther wants t' thank ye. An' he'll help ye aginst the spalpeens as is comin' along. But ye must be quick; ye've no toime t' lose. It's not far away the pirates are at this moment."
Clive glanced at Alec.
"Shall we trust him, and let them come up, do you think?" he said.
Alec, in spite of the seriousness of their position, was nearly bursting with laughter. The strange Irishman carried himself with such a swagger, and talked in such inflated tones, that to Alec the effect was irresistibly comical.
"Oh, yes; I suppose we'd better let 'em come up," he replied to Clive's question. "I'm dying to hear who this chap really is masquerading in that brasswork and sporting those great feathers in his headpiece. Is he a survival—a ghost—of some knight of old, or is he a 'super' from some local native theatre?"
"You must be serious and receive him properly, Alec," said Clive, who had much ado to keep from laughing himself. "We're in an awkward position, remember, and we shall want all the help we can get. If these people are to be trusted, and will really help us, it will be a very good thing for us."
He signed to the helmeted gentleman that he and his friends were free to come in, and they marched up the slope, leapt lightly over the logs, and then stood looking at the two young fellows, who regarded them in turn with becoming gravity.
"It's not a bad notion ye have av arrangin' for ye defince." said the Irishman, looking round with a critical eye. "But there's wan thing ye've forgotten. Ye planted no scouts t' give ye notice whin the spalpeens be comin' near. They could creep up under cover an' shoot ye down afore ye had any idea the divils was near."
"That is true," said Clive. "But, you see, we don't know the language of these blacks, and can't tell them what we want them to do, or else—"
"Ay, ay; I understand. But we must see t' that first. Arrah, now, Oi'll arrange it for yez."
He turned and addressed a few words in an unknown tongue to some of the blacks. Half a dozen responded at once, and after a few more words, evidently orders, sharply spoken, presently leaped over the logs and down the hill, spreading out as they went in different directions.
"There, that's all roight," said the Irishman. "Now ye can talk at yer aise. Divil a wan av the galoots can get near us now wi'out our being warned."
"Well, now, gintlemen," went on this strange individual, "ye'll be afther wantin' t' know who we are an' whoy I be here. This is me masther. Oltra is his name, an' it's King av Kamak he is— which is an oiland not very fur away."
As he said this the speaker indicated the tall, muscular native whom the two friends had already singled out as probably a chief. They bowed. The Irishman turned to his "masther" and said something which might have been "Bow, ye beggar!"—Alec afterwards declared it sounded like it—but was probably something more polite, spoken in the native language.
"Yes, gintlemen, this is King Oltra, an' Oi'm his Prime Minister an' the gineral av his ar-rmy—phwat he's got av thim—an' his private adviser gin'r'ally. An' me name, gintlemen, is Storbin— Pete Storbin."
"Pete Storbin." Clive repeated gravely. "Mine is Clive Lowther, and my chum here is Alec Mackay. We're here with a scientific expedition brought out by Dr. Campbell."
"A scientific expedition," the Irishman repeated, looking shrewdly at Clive. "That's phwat ye call it? Now, Oi heard as it's a treasure-hunt ye've come upon, an' Oi was goin' t' warn ye—"
"Eh? Treasure-hunt?" exclaimed Clive. "You have heard? How could you hear anything about us in a place like this?"
"Oi'll tell ye that by-an'-by, when we've toime. Oi'll tell ye first how it is we be here. D'ye know Pedro Diego?"
"Pedro Diego! Is that the name of a man?"
"It is the name av a fiend, sorr! Ye can't call him a man! He's phwat we calls in these parts a blackbirder, slave-hunter, filibuster—phwat ye plaze. He's an I.D.D. (illicit diamond dealer); a pearl thief, a spalpeen wi'out a character an' wi'hout a soul; a demon in human form. That's Pedro Diego. An' he's got his eye on you."
"On me!" exclaimed Clive, a little startled. "Oh, you mean on our expedition?"
"That's roight. I suppose, thin, ye don't know as he's got a place on the other side of the island?"
"Got a place—the other side? What place?" Clive queried, rather puzzled.
"A DEPOT, where he keeps his stores. There's a few huts, an' so on, an' some av his gang's always at home there whin he's away on his buccaneering business. He's not wan to allow anyone t' threspass on what he calls his ground, an' he'll be afther havin' a bone t' pick wi' yez. So keep a sharp look-out! An'," Storbin added confidentially, "if ye're not prepared fur foightin' ye'd best clear out afore he comes home. He's away now, but I guess it won't be long afore he's back. Then ye'll hear from him if so be ye're still here."
"I'll give Dr. Campbell your warning," said Clive. "I don't think it will frighten him so much as to drive him away. But thank you for telling us. It will prevent our being taken by surprise, as we might have been, anyway."
"Yes. Well, as t' the rest, ye know yer own business best. But if ye do foight him, I hope ye'll get the best av it, an' kill the villain. That's phwat I hope.
"Well, now thin, ye must know as this scoundrel came wan noight t' our oiland an' carried off some av our people. They're the wans ye've been good to, an' me an' me masther won't be afther forgettin' it. We came over t' thry t' rescue thim, but his den is too strong fur us to attack. But these fellows knew we should be here on the look-out for thim, an' while Diego was away they broke out an' run for it. Some got clear away an' joined us, but some got caught agin. Now, thim ye've got free agin, an' our work's done whin we get back to our canoes, thanks be to you. And may the saints presarve ye and reward ye fur phwat ye've done!"
"Oh, that's all right," said Clive. "We're jolly glad to know what you've told us. And now that we can leave the poor fellows in your care, we'd like to be getting back to our camp. We've been away since the early morning, and our boss doesn't know a bit where we are, and there's no doubt he's alarmed and worried about us. So, if you think you can manage without our help, we'd like to be off."
"Sure, an' it's free ye are t' go, an' Heaven's blessin' go wid ye! Can we help yez at all at all? Ye've got a box yonder, I see. Shall we carry it for yez?"
"Why, as to that," said Clive, a little embarrassed, "I hardly know—"
And then he stopped—or, rather, Storbin stopped him by putting a hand on his arm with a low-breathed "Hist!"
A sudden silence fell upon them all. The blacks had been talking together in low tones, but they had ceased and all were listening.
The strange, wailing cry had been heard again, and now it was repeated. It came floating through the night like the cry of some bird sailing along overhead.
"The divils is comin'," said Storbin. "Whist, now! Take yer places, an' kape yer heads out av soight!"
Just as he spoke there was the sound of a shot, then another, and yet another.
Clive and Alec lay down at full length, resting their rifles on the top of a log.
Storbin was busy giving orders in the language his black allies understood, and placing them here and there with remarkable decision and shrewdness.
Then there came more shots, a rush of feet, and the six scouts appeared within a few seconds of one another, leaping over the logs like flying deer.
Storbin spoke a few words sharply in their language; he was asking if any of them were hurt, and was told that one had been hit in the shoulder. He was given in charge of some of the others.
The fighting men of the party—those who were armed with rifles or bows and arrows—were placed at intervals round the top of the hill, and then Storbin came and placed himself alongside Clive.
He stalked across and placed himself with such deliberation that he made a good target for the enemy, and some bullets whistled around him, but none touched him.
He sank down with a short, contemptuous laugh.
"It's bad murksmin the murtherin' sons o' mischief be," he remarked coolly to Clive. "It's ashamed Oi'd be t' miss a man loike that!"
Now bullets began to come pretty frequently, some striking with a vicious thud against a log, others whistling harmlessly overhead.
"Blaze away, ye blighters!" muttered Storbin. "The more ye shoot, the sooner ye'll empty yer bandoliers."
"How many are there? Do you know?" Clive asked.
"A dozen or two, Oi should say, more or less," was the answer.
"A dozen or two!" exclaimed Clive. "My stars!" He turned to Alec, on the other side of him. "Where should we have been if they'd followed us up and attacked us—with only our two rifles to stop 'em?"
"Ye'd have bin dead men, or roped an' tied up like trussed chickens, afore now," said Storbin, who overheard the words. "But they worn't afther you. It wor us they wor afther. They bin a-huntin' fur us in parties all day. Then to-night we picked up three av our frinds, an' they tould us the rest av our frinds was at the villains' camp an' nobody much theer. So we doubled back theer, an' whin we got theer, divil a wan was there! We was moighty surprised."
"No one?" said Clive. "We left a man tied up there."
"Well, thin, he'd got free an' made off t' foind his pals. Thin we found your thracks an' followed yez, an', of coorse, they picked up our thracks an' followed us. An' now the Lord Harry only knows how it will end!"
"But what did you mean by saying you had heard we were here on a treasure-hunt?"
"We heard it from one av our men as made his escape before, two or three days ago. One av our canoes passin' near saw him an' took him off. He tould us as he heard the villains talkin' about some news two men had brought in about some people as had come to the oiland huntin' for treasure. An', thinks Oi, if we comes across any av that party Oi'll warn thim, whoiver they may be, if it's only t' do that divil Diego a bad turn an' kape these sthrangers out av his clutches."
It must not be supposed that this talk took place exactly as here related. The above is a statement of the most important points put into a few sentences for the sake of clearness. As a matter of actual fact, there were many interruptions, for firing was going on on both sides all the time, and the speakers had to keep their eye on the alert to catch a sight of their foes all the time, and talk at intervals as best they could.
The hill the young explorers had chosen happened to be an extremely good one for the purpose, and Storbin remarked upon the fact approvingly. Clive frankly told him that they had not had much choice.
"We had to take almost the first place that was at hand. We had no chance to go searching about, so it is providential that the one we pitched upon is so suitable," he said.
Just then there came a sharp cry from their right, and Clive turned to look anxiously at Alec. The cry had come, however, he found, from one of the blacks farther along. It reminded him of the dangerous business in which they were engaged.
He began to feel a sense of responsibility, and a wish that the affair could be brought to an end in some way, so that he and his friend could get back to their camp.
"If the doctor were only here it would be another matter," he explained to Storbin. "Then I shouldn't mind; the harder the fighting the better I should like it. But I don't like this sort of thing, just on our own, as it were. If anything bad happens, goodness only knows what the doctor will say or think."
Both he and Alec had fired a good many shots, and they had reason to believe they had done some execution, for their foes had begun now to keep more carefully to cover.
Storbin had fired only once; but Clive had seen the man he had aimed at, and had seen that he had fallen and had been dragged into the bushes by his friends. And the young fellow began to feel a certain amount of liking and respect for this strange character who, with all his eccentricity of dress and manner, was, at all events, evidently brave and a good fighter.
And now their adversaries began to try other tactics. They were evidently tired of firing away their ammunition with no apparent result, and they began to circle round the foot of the hill, as though looking for a weak point in the defences where they could try a rush.
As a result the defenders were compelled to shift their places, working round as the besiegers altered their ground, and there were more casualties. Two or three of their native allies were hit, one being badly wounded. And again Clive began to wish the business could be ended. He was not anxious for himself, however, be it here said, but for his friend.
And now came a fresh movement on the part of the besiegers. The wind, which had been very light, began to increase, and, noting this, the slavers commenced cutting wood and piling it in a great heap on the windward side of the hill.
"What are they up to now?" Clive asked of Storbin, who, after a brief absence, was again beside him.
"Oi can soon tell ye that," he answered promptly. "The oidea is t' make a great smoke, an' rush us in the middle av it."
"Then that will mean a hand-to-hand fight." said Clive gravely.
"Yes, sorr," Storbin said, in a low tone: "an' it's myself as must own Oi don't loike the chance av it. These black chaps are all right at foightin' as long as it manes pottin' at a distance, but whin it comes t' close foightin' they filibusters is such perfect demons that my men be afraid av 'em, an' ye can't say but what they may turn an' run loike a lot av rabbits."
"Can't we make any counter move?" Clive queried. "Surely we ought to be able to prevent them from making a stack big enough to be of any real use? I notice," he went on, "that your people are getting rather slack in their firing—"
"It's because we're runnin' short av cartridges," said Storbin, in a worried tone. "Oi've had to go round an' warn 'em—"
"Cartridges? Short of em, did you say?" exclaimed Clive. "Why, we've got plenty—that is, if they will fit your rifles. Why didn't you say so before? That case over there is full of 'em. Go and see if they're what you want."
WITH a muffled ejaculation the Irishman did as suggested, and returned a minute or two later, evidently jubilant.
"Oi wish ye'd tould me afore," he said. "They're just roight! Oi've given a lot out, an' now we're goin' t' blaze away in earnest. But who wad av thought ye'd 'a' had that stock wi ye? Did ye come out for a week's huntin'?"
"No," said Clive, laughing; and he explained how the cartridges came to be there.
Storbin struck a fist on the log before him, and accompanied the action with an expletive.
"Ye're pretty sharp lads, ye two," he declared admiringly. "Ye dished the lubbers grand! How Oi wish Oi'd known it sooner. We'd 'a' finished matthers off afore this."
"How so?" Clive asked.
"Whoy, ye unnersthans, doan't ye, as they must be runnin' short theirselves? Oi knew now as they can't have no more'n they took out wi' 'em in the mornin', an' they've bin blazin' at us, more or less, all day, besides to-night. An' they had none at their camp to fill up with. Have ye noticed they're not firin' much lately?"
"Yes; I thought that's because they're busy cutting wood."
"Yes, an' they're cuttin' wood because it's their last chance. They've no cartridges left, an' they're goin' t' try a rush as a last chance, because they know my blacks is afraid av them thin. Now we'll sapprise 'em. Ye'll see phwat Oi've arranged—an' wid their own powder an' shot, too!" he added, with a chuckle.
He called out some order in loud, quick tones, and was answered by a chorus of sonorous voices.
And then every man with a gun began firing as hard as he could, aiming for the place where the wood-cutters were building their big bonfire.
Storbin himself kept loading and firing as fast as possible, and Clive and Alec, catching the idea, did the same. Blacks came round, crawling along on all fours, bringing fresh cartridges "to keep the ball rolling," as the Irishman expressed it.
But to their surprise their foes kept on steadily building up their stack, using it, meanwhile, as a protection from the flying bullets. It had indeed now reached such dimensions that the men were able to work behind it almost in safety, scarcely a bullet making its way through.
"This is no good," muttered Storbin.
"No; we shall use up even all that case of cartridges at this rate, and uselessly," Clive agreed. "There's one hopeful point; you see they're hardly replying at all to our fire, which confirms your idea that they've run short of ammunition."
"Yes; but still Oi doan't loike the look av it," said Storbin, shaking his head. "It do look t' me as if Diego hisself—the murtherin' hound—be amongst 'em urgin' 'em on. Oi don't belave they'd stick to it loike this if his men was left to thimselves."
Nor did either Clive or Alec like the look of it any more than the Irishman did.
This was their first experience, it must be remembered, of actual fighting, and at first all had seemed to go well and to promise them a successful outcome if they only persevered. Storbin's reckless, devil-may-care courage, and the light manner in which he had treated the whole business, had impressed them with the idea that they were bound to beat off their assailants in the long run.
But now this persistence on the part of their enemies, exhibited in face of the obvious fact that they had run short of ammunition, sent a cold thrill through the two young fellows. There was in it a suggestion of such deadly determination, such stony, cold-blooded savagery as to be scarcely credible to the ordinary mind. The two realised then, for the first time, what the real character of these men must be, and their sullen, dogged ferocity in fighting was a measure of the cruelty and inhumanity such people would be certain to deal out to the unhappy prisoners who fell into their hands.
Neither Clive nor Alec was wanting in pluck or daring; but it is no discredit to them to say that these thoughts made them feel more fully than they had yet done the nature of the struggle to which they were committed, not only then, but subsequently, if they escaped from their present critical predicament.
However, there was no time for much thought, The firing had died down. Their native allies had ceased to blaze away their new stock of cartridges, and were reserving their fire for what their instinct told them was to be a final, deadly struggle for life or death.
The big bonfire had been lighted, and masses of whirling smoke were already pouring forth from it and drifting with the wind up the slope of the hill.
And through this smoke the defenders could catch sight of the dim figures of their foes, like vague shadows, crouching in readiness for a final, furious rush.
The clouds of smoke grew in volume and in density, and now the defenders became aware that the besiegers must have gathered something more than mere wood and reeds for their fire.
The smoke was not merely unpleasant, it was acrid, choking, blinding. And as it came rolling up the slope it set even the blacks coughing. It got into the eyes and made them sore; it seemed to scrape the skin of the nostrils and throat like sandpaper.
It became quickly obvious to Clive that shooting would be of very little use in the midst of such an atmosphere—at least, so far as rifles were concerned. But they had their revolvers, and these, being more handy, might still be of use.
Clive pointed this out to Alec, who nodded his head in approval. Then the two silently shook hands, and a moment or two later they seemed to be suddenly in the throes of some direful, diabolical nightmare.
From out the thick smoke figures with the rage-distorted faces of fiends rushed at them and grappled with whoever they met in a wrestle for life or death.
Storbin singled out no particular adversary, but watched his followers, and rushed in at once to the help of any who were being obviously hard pressed. And in this way, there is no doubt, they did much to prevent a panic breaking out amongst their men.
As to Clive and Alec, as often happens in a fiercely-contested battle, they could never afterwards remember with certainty or clearness what exactly happened. It all passed like a wild, whirling, hysterical dream. They fought, they received hard knocks, they fired their revolvers, they tried their best to back up Storbin and Oltra. When these two, darting in to the aid of someone fighting against odds, were themselves followed up by foes, then the chums chipped in against those who were pressing them, and so freed them again.
At least, that is what they tried to do, and what they knew they carried out in some unreal, fantastic fashion; but whom they fought with, or what exactly happened, they never could clearly recall—except, that is, one thing.
Clive, standing for a moment beside his chum, both panting with their exertions, each with wounds to show, though not, fortunately, serious ones, saw a shadow in the smoke suddenly rush forward and take form, as it were. From a blurred shape only it became a man with the face of a devil, a face grinning with hatred and the expectation of revenge. This man rushed with crazy fury at Alec, and, seizing him with a maniac's strength, bore him away, despite his violent struggles.
CLIVE, in the brief moment when he had caught sight of the fellow's face, had recognised him for the man Alec had tied up beside the fire in the filibuster's camp. This man must have sighted Alec, and resolved to be revenged for the indignity then thrust upon him.
Another of his pals came to aid him, and between the two they were dragging Alec down the hill when Clive rushed at them like a wild cat.
Without firing a shot, and using the butt-end of his revolver only, he sprang first at one man and then at the other, and, in his passion, dealt such vigorous blows that both Alec's assailants went down one after the other like logs.
They must, however, have struck Alec before that, for he, too, lay like a log, and, catching him up with one arm, Clive began to carry him back up the hill.
Two or three figures closed round him. He could not see who or what they were, but, though vaguely aware that he was outmatched, he fought on with a blind despair, dealing blows to right and to left with one hand, whilst he continued to support his chum with the other.
Things became more and more confused, till it all ended in nothingness, and he seemed to sink down into forgetfulness as does a tired-out sleeper.
When he again came to his senses he was lying on the ground, his head and shoulders supported by Alec, while Storbin was bathing his forehead with a wet cloth.
"The saints be praised! The bhoy is comin' to!" exclaimed Storbin. "Faith, but it's a near squake he's had. I belave as he must have noine loives, fur he's lost two or three ave thim this day, an', be the powers, he's aloive still!"
Clive heard the words, and spite of the fact that his head ached horribly, laughed at the Irishman's quaint way of expressing himself.
"What about yourself, my friend?" he asked, in a weak voice. "I fancy you must have had more than one narrow squeak! It's a marvel to me to see you alive. But how is the fight going?"
"The foight, sorr, is over an' done with. The inemy is in floight. We've got some pris'ners, an' pretty soights they be; somebody's knocked 'em about, Oi can tell ye! The rest av the spalpeens is dead or runnin' fur their lives as hard as their fate can take thim, the cursed sons av perdition! Ay, even Pedro Diego himself is racin' away wi' some av our bhoys behind him, loike a hare wi' the hounds afther him! So it's victory we've won, sorr—a grand, glorious victory! If we haven't killed Diego, we've clipped his claws fur him an' taught him a lesson t' kape shy av Irishmen an' Kanakas in future—ay, an' av treasure-hunters," he added slyly.
The irrepressible Irishman's high spirits and good humour were infectious, and, spite of his aching head, Clive roused up and insisted on knowing what had happened to everybody, beginning with his chum.
Alec, like Clive himself, had several injuries to show; but though they would have thought a good deal of them at ordinary times, they seemed to be of small account beside what had happened to others. Two of the blacks who had fought so gallantly were dead, several others had serious wounds, and not one had escaped scot-free.
Oltra and Storbin had each more than one wound, but they made light of them. As to Clive and Alec, their chief concern now was for those who were the most badly hurt.
"What are you going to do?" he asked Storbin. "You can't drag these poor fellows over the country to your canoes. You'd best bring them to our camp, and send one or two of your chaps with a message to the canoes to come round the coast and meet you at the camp. There we've got plenty of proper appliances—bandages, and all that, and the doctor is there, you know, too."
"Huh! These chaps doan't want much doctherin'. They know how to docther thimselves betther than anybody else can. An' it's wonderful, it is, how soon the gossoons recover from very bad wounds. So doan't ye throuble about thim; but, all the same, we'll do as ye say, and come to yez camp fur some food, if ye'll give us some. An' Oi'll sind a bhoy afther the canoes. The saints be praised! The counthry is safe for him to travel in it just now. The divils have had their lesson, an' they won't be ready for more foightin' jist yet."
And thus it came about that in the early morning, just as dawn was breaking, one of the doctor's scouts outside the camp descried a considerable party, seemingly all natives, or nearly so, approaching from the interior. He sent word to the doctor, who despatched Ben Grove and three or four other men to see who the people were.
And then, to Ben's joy, he found that the supposed strangers were their young leaders, in company with what proved to be to a large extent a crowd of the halt, maimed, and crippled.
Honest Ben had been up all night in his anxiety. Scouting parties had been out searching in all directions—all directions, that is, but the right one, for, as Alec had foreseen, knowing the way they had started in the boat, no one at the camp had guessed they would be likely to return by a route so exactly opposite, as it seemed, to the direction in which they had set out.
"The doctor'll be main glad t' see ye returned safe," Ben declared heartily, as he relieved the two young leaders of their rifles and other small articles they were carrying. "But—whales and little fishes!—who be all this lot ye've brought with ye?"
"They're some poor natives we've rescued from some 'blackbirders,' Ben," Alec exclaimed. "And," he added, with a laugh, "a lot more who rescued us. By the way, tell one of your chaps to take possession of that case you see over there, and tell 'em to handle it carefully. It's a case of ammunition, cartridges—the residue of a capture we made."
"Oho!" he cried, in admiring tones. "So ye've bin spoilin' the enemy? For I guess this must be somethin' in the shape o' spoils?"
"It is, Ben; you're quite right," said. Alec. "You see, we've not come back with empty hands."
"No; but by the look of ye I fancy ye've brought back empty stomachs, sir. Well I've thought of that, an' ye'll find somethin' waitin' for ye in the canteen tent."
"Ben, you deserve a medal for that! You're a treasure!" exclaimed Clive. "I'm as hungry as a hunter can well be—in fact, as several hunters, and a half-starved lion or two thrown in. We'll be jolly glad to pitch into some victuals after speaking to the doctor; we must see him first to assure him we're all right. But you must find some food for all these chaps we have brought with us, too. They're worse off than we are, I fear, so don't keep them waitin' and don't stint them."
"Right you are, sir. I'll see to 'em," Ben declared cheerily. "You go to the doctor, an' leave them t' me!"
A few minutes later Alec and Clive were in the doctor's tent, giving him a brief account of their adventures.
He looked grave when he heard about the filibusters and the fighters.
"This is a bad business," he said. "I don't mean that I blame you in any way. I do not see that you could well have acted otherwise than you have. But it is bad that circumstances should have conspired, as it were, to bring us in collision in this way with such men as these slave-hunters evidently are."
"According to what this eccentric Irishman says—who is a great man in his—Oltra's—country, it seems—head scrag and bottle-washer—it may be rather a good thing," Alec pointed out. "He declares he knows that they had intended to attack us, and would probably have done so suddenly and treacherously. Their cupidity has evidently been roused by statements made by that rascal Miguel about what he overheard here that first night. And they've made up their minds, I suspect, to oust us and take up the treasure-hunt themselves."
"Well," the doctor returned calmly, "they'll find I am prepared if they attack us here. It is not my first voyage in this part of the world, you know. I have had former experience of gentlemen of their kidney, and it's taught me the wisdom of being well armed. If they think that the yacht and we ourselves will fall an easy prey, they'll find they reckoned without their host," he finished grimly.
"But now, about these people you have made friends with—the chief you call Oltra and his odd factotum, the Irishman. They seem to be decent sort of fellows. They appear to have behaved very well."
"Well? Splendid!" Clive declared.
"Nobody could have shown themselves more reliable and more loyal," Alec agreed.
"I must see them, and thank them for what they have done. I shall be glad of the opportunity of making friends with such people. And their men all seem trustworthy, too, eh?"
"Oh, dear, yes. And they are so grateful, poor fellows."
"Perhaps, now they're here, they might like to take service with me for a time—some of them. I can see we shall want more men—we have not enough, as things are shaping—and we shall have to weed out some of those we've got."
The doctor examined the young fellows' hurts, and finding that they were doing well, sent them off to get some food, a bath, and a change of clothes and other little luxuries.
A couple of hours later they were back in his tent, this time with the native chief and his henchman.
THE doctor greeted them both cordially, and thanked them warmly for what they had done for his young friends.
"Be the powers!" cried Storbin, "they did as much for us as iver we did fur thim—ay, an' more. Didn't they relase the prisoners and take 'em away wid 'em, an' carry off their store av cartridges? It wor a foine stroke that!" he added admiringly. "An' it mint a lot to us aftherwards.
"An' thin," he went on, warming up in his enthusiasm, "didn't they help us whin it came t' the foightin'! It's nate, pretty foighters they are, sorr—as pretty as iver I see—an' that's sayin' a lot!"
"I daresay it is," said the doctor, smiling at the speaker's way of expressing his views. "Well, you seem to have got on very well together—to have helped each other, with good feeling on both sides. And, that being so," he continued reflectively, "I have been thinking whether you—or some of you—might care to take service with me for a while. I want further help, and am willing to pay liberally for reliable men."
"As t' that, sorr," Storbin answered, "I daresay some av the bhoys moight loike to; an', I tell ye, ye can thrust thim wid yer loives. But me masther an' meself—av coorse we can't be away from our oiland fur long at a toime. There are affairs av state t' be looked afther, ye unnersthan'? Howsomever, I loikes yer company, an' I shall come over t' see how ye're gettin' on, and I wishes yez success."
The doctor could not repress a smile at the mention of the "affairs of state," but he could find no fault with the Irishman's decision. It was only what he had foreseen.
"Good!" he said. "Come and see us, by all means, as often as you like while we remain here."
Storbin interpreted all this to his royal master, who listened attentively and approvingly. For the matter of that, it seemed that this gentleman could chatter a little English, and he seemed a little hurt at not having been allowed an opportunity of showing off this accomplishment. So he made one for himself.
"Yes," he said, "we come see you. An' you come see us—at home."
"Come and see you—at your home," said the doctor graciously. "Why, that's very good of you. At present I don't know exactly where your home is, or how far away, but I should like to come very much when our work here is over, if we can manage it."
"You'd better, perhaps, say that over again to your master in order to make it clear," he observed in an aside to Storbin.
But Oltra quickly showed that he understood.
"Yes, yes," he said, nodding his head vigorously. "You come to my home. Come to tea. Come to tea. Bring—bring—" He hesitated and looked round. Then, in a burst of royal generosity, he added: "Bring 'em all."
"What, all my people? Bring them all to tea?" the doctor returned, much amused. "I'm afraid you'd want a pretty big teapot."
"Got, big pot," the dusky chief promptly replied. "Got pot big as that!" And he held his hands as far apart as he could get them, to indicate the size of the pot.
"Sure, an' it's true," Storbin put in. "It's a moight foine pot me masther's got. It's a heirloom. It's been handed down from his anthestors," he explained, "though," he went on reminiscently, "I doubt if it's always bin used for tay. I have heered as—but theer! P'raps ye can guess as well as I can tell ye." And he looked rather slyly at the doctor, and from him to Clive and Alec, who were with difficulty keeping from laughing.
"Yes, yes," the king confessed, nodding his head again. "Yes, yes; you come—try big pot?"
"All right, I'll come—if I can—and try the big pot," said the doctor graciously.
"I suppose it'll be all right—we are to try the pot—he's not to try the pot on us—to see how we fit it!" Alec whispered to Clive.
Storbin overheard, and, turning, favoured Alec with a very significant wink.
"Bring all the people you have with you round here presently," said Dr. Campbell. "I should very much like to see them. I can't walk far at present, but I can manage to hobble as far as just outside my tent."
Oltra promised with evident pleasure that the doctor's words should be obeyed, and then he went out, escorted by his major demo.
"They're a curious couple," remarked Dr. Campbell, after they had gone. "I wonder how many years they have lived and cottoned together like this? And I wonder how the black chief first came to take him up as his confidential adviser and—"
"YES, I'm sorry you had to abandon the boat," the doctor observed. "Captain Barron won't like it; he complains that we're already short of boats."
"Oh, but we can get it back, sir," Clive declared.
"Well, well—let us hope so. We will make the attempt, at any rate—as soon as I am well enough to go too. I shall want to see that curious underground lake, and the place where you got those pebbles. Of course, to see them is very gratifying to me, It is certainly an encouragement to prosecute our search."
"It's a proof that the cave of gold exists, and that we shall all make our fortunes," cried Alec enthusiastically.
"Well, no, my young friend, it does not say all that," said the doctor mildly, "it is merely a proof that, at some period, something existed hereabouts—a stream of water most probably— which had the power of coating pebbles and other objects with gold.
"But that, my friends, does not prove that the said something— spring of water or whatever it may be—is still in existence here to-day. It is easy to see that the coating of these pebbles took place a long time ago. They have certainly been knocking about in the bed of that underground stream for a great many years, as shown by their present state. Therefore, as I say, they are no proof that the wonderful spring still exists. Indeed, to my mind—I say it with much regret—it rather suggests that it has ceased its operations for a long period of time. Else, if it is still in existence to-day, still at work covering pebbles with golden coatings, how is it that you did not come across some fresher specimens? No, my friends—I can read your disappointment in your faces, and I feel very sorry to have to say this—but I am bound to tell you honestly what I think. I repeat the question, because it governs all the rest. If the spring is still in existence, how is it you did not come upon some more recent examples of its handiwork alongside these ancient survivals?"
"Does that mean that you think it useless to prosecute the search further, doctor?" Alec asked despondently.
"Oh, dear, no! Certainly not!" Dr. Campbell replied, with decision. "In volcanic formations like this island, all sorts of changes may take place at times, and there is no saying what may or may not have happened. Here we have a proof that something of the kind once existed. Also, that it existed somewhere where it came in contact with these pebbles—wherever they were at that time. Then changes may have taken place which diverted the strange spring into another channel altogether, one which is at present hidden away from our sight, but which it may be possible for us to find."
"I will even go so far as to say I think it extremely likely—in view of the proof we have here that it exists, or did exist—that we shall discover it if we are only able to search long enough. And, as far as my personal wishes and intentions are concerned, I shall most certainly carry on the search as thoroughly and for as long a time as may be necessary—unless, of course, anything unforeseen intervenes to prevent it."
The doctor then went on to comment further upon the other strange and exciting experiences they had passed through, and to express his deep thankfulness that they had escaped practically unhurt from so many dangers.
"Well, lads," he said heartily at last, "you have had your first experience of hard fighting, and have evidently acquitted yourselves well. I am sorry the necessity arose, but I am glad that it was in a good cause, and—take it altogether—I'm bound to say I'm proud of you, lads, I am proud of you."
Later in the day Oltra's canoes arrived, and with them came— rather to the surprise of the doctor and his friends—quite a number more natives.
"Hullo, hullo!" said Dr. Campbell good-humouredly. "How are we going to feed so many mouths?"
"I mentioned that to Storbin," Clive remarked. "But he says there will be no difference. They will feed themselves—by fishing. He declared they are the cleverest fishers he ever came across—and the best swimmers and divers."
"I can well believe that," observed the doctor. "All the islanders of the South Seas are wonderful swimmers."
"Well," said Alec, "it's a good thing to know they can fish for themselves. I shouldn't care for the task of supplying them with fish. In fact," he added, with a glance at Clive, "I think I've had my fill of fish for the present."
"Same here," he confessed. "The fishing we had yesterday morning will last me for some time."
"Yes, man!" Alec replied. "Goodness—yes! It was only yesterday morning. Why—so many things have happened—it seems already quite a week or more ago."
"I wish a week had passed," the doctor put in. And as the two young fellows looked at him in some surprise, he explained. "I say that because I should be a week farther on the road to recovery. I am getting tired of inactivity. I want to be up and doing. I want to see this underground watercourse, with its golden pebbles, and," he declared finally, with what was for him a very fierce look. "I want to have my revenge on the creature that was the cause of it all—I want to go and catch that big iguana with the long tongue!"
They were a merry party in the camp that night. As is usually the case after a fight, the natives made up songs about what had happened, and Clive and Alec's names figured alongside those of Oltra and Storbin in their praise of the heroes of the day.
Then there were dances, and after that, as it happened to be a brilliantly moonlight night, the natives must needs finish up with a sort of water frolic.
They entered into this with such gusto, and they were all enjoying it so thoroughly, that Clive and Alec, after watching for some time with interest, became possessed with a desire to take part in it.
Storbin, who was already enjoying himself immensely, welcomed this proof of interest in their sport, and told off a couple of his men to assist and instruct them where necessary.
In ordinary swimming they needed no coaching, being already well experienced in that way so far, that is, as regards our English form of the sport. But they quickly found that the swimming feats of these Kanakas surpassed anything they had ever dreamed of.
So they willingly put themselves under the tuition of the two Storbin had selected for the purpose. They were, in fact, reckoned the most expert performers of any there, and their new pupils were astonished at some of the feats they performed by way of introduction to their lessons.
The pupils were apt, and quickly grasped some of the most important points, and all was going well, when a great shouting arose, and cries were heard which, this time, were not cries of merriment or enjoyment.
Alec was the farthest out just then of all in the water. He had swam out to a small rock which rose above the surface, forming a small island, and, after a short rest there, was on his way back to his friends, when the noise of the shouting came to his ears.
Though he did not exactly know the meaning of the sudden excitement, he instinctively looked back over his shoulder to see if there was anything behind him to account for it.
He saw a curious, dark, flat, upright object just above the surface, cutting through the water, and evidently following him. And then, with a shock of horror, he understood. This was the dorsal fin of a great shark, and the dread creature was pursuing him!
Alec gave himself up for lost. It seemed impossible that anything could intervene to save him. He saw, it is true, a canoe approaching; there were two, in fact, one just behind the other, manned by natives, and they were being driven furiously in his direction.
BUT what could the occupants do, even if they reached him first? Directly they tried to pull him on board, the horrible monster would see that it was about to lose its prey, and would dash forward and seize him.
These thoughts passed through Alec's mind in a flash, and they held out no hope to him. But he did not, therefore, give in. He continued swimming doggedly and strongly, and the great shark came on behind, in no particular hurry, as it seemed, yet drawing up surely at every yard.
The canoes were drawing up, too. As they came on, Alec saw that, in the bow of the first one, two natives were standing up. The moonlight gleamed on something in their hands, and they signed to him to turn to one side.
It seemed to him a useless thing to do, but he obeyed. He turned off in the direction that they had indicated. This took him out of the direct line to the leading craft, and more in the way of the one which was a little behind.
Suddenly the two standing up in the first canoe threw themselves into the water. With a great spurt they flashed past him, and though he could not see, he knew that they had interposed themselves between him and his dread enemy.
The leading canoe followed, and shot past him, too, then a moment or two later the other one was beside him. Friendly arms, dark of skin but strong of muscle, gripped him, and lifted him bodily out of the water, and laid him at the bottom of the canoe.
There he lay for a few seconds, panting and exhausted, but safe and thankful. Then the thought of the two who had thrown themselves between him and the monster of the seas made him try to get up in order to do what he could to assist them—if, indeed, such a thing were possible.
To his intense surprise, he found that the people in the two canoes were shouting and actually laughing, as though, in place of a tragedy, there was nothing more going on than a swimming exhibition by the natives who had jumped overboard.
The two first to leap overboard had been joined by several more, and the canoes, instead of going on to aid them, were backing, just as if their only idea was to leave plenty of room for the performance.
And that, in fact, was what was happening. The natives who were now in the water were armed with long knives, and with them they were boldly attacking the great fish.
It is, of course, pretty generally known that the shark, owing to the peculiar position of its terrible mouth, cannot seize its prey without first turning on its back. This fact is taken advantage of by the natives in these seas to enable them to boldly fight it in its own element.
So agile are they in the water, so rapid their movements, so lightning-like their twists and turns and dives, that the big fish is slow and unwieldy by comparison. They rush at it or dive under it, stab it with their long knives, and dart away again to a safe distance ere it can turn over to seize them.
Thus they worry and exhaust the great fish, and wear it down, much as a pack of wolves will wear down such fierce, powerful beasts as buffaloes and other large animals. The chief danger to them lies in a chance blow from the creature's furious, lashing tail. But so expert do they become in this form of sport—so they regard it—that it is not often an accident happens.
By this time several other canoes had come up, and the occupants ranged themselves round in a semi-circle, that they might all have a view of the fight.
One of these canoes brought Clive and Storbin. Alec changed into it, and the two chums watched the proceedings with fascinated interest and amazement.
For a while, indeed, there was little to be made out beyond the commotion in the water caused by the fierce rushes and struggles of the shark.
Columns of water and spray were sent flying into the air, with sounds like the beating of waves upon the shore, varied with a resounding crash as the mighty tail flashed above the surface and struck the water on its return.
It was an exciting scene, rendered weird and fantastic by the moonbeams. These, glancing upon the seething turmoil of water around the big fish, turned it to masses of glittering silver, from which showers of sparkling diamonds kept shooting upwards in all directions.
Gradually the struggles of the monster grew feebler. The water took on a darker and darker hue, till it turned to a lurid red, and the glistening diamonds of spray changed to rubies.
Soon it could be seen that the shark was conquered, and it was not long before it floated motionless on the surface.
Then ropes were brought, and the carcass was towed to the shore, and hauled up on the beach, amid the excited rejoicings of the victors.
Clive and Alec gazed in silent awe at its huge proportions, while the natives made their preparations for cutting it up and feasting on the flesh.
"Where are the two brave fellows who came to my aid and so bravely threw themselves into the water between me and that awful brute?" Alec asked, suddenly rousing up.
"I have asked Storbin about them," Clive answered, "and he told me who they were."
"We must go with him and find them. I want to thank them and make them some recompense, though whatever I can offer seems poor enough in comparison with what they have done for me. But for their noble, unselfish intervention," he added with a shudder, "I should now be inside the maw of this grisly brute."
"Sure," said Storbin, "it's plazed they'll be t' see ye, and t' hear a koind wurd from ye; but if ye'll tak' me advoice, ye won't offer thim anythin' in the way of a prisint."
"Eh? Why not?" Alec asked in surprise.
"Becaze," returned Storbin slowly, "it's sore hurt an' offended they'd be. They're quite contint at having done ye a good turn in return for phwut ye did for thim."
"How do you mean? I don't understand. Who are they, then?" Alec queried, perplexed.
"Their names be Menga and Kalma, an' they're two av the poor bhoys ye helped t' get out av the clutches av Diego—the pirate's gang!"
Oltra and his people stayed on for several days. The natives made friends with the doctor's party, and initiated many of them besides Clive and Alec into the mysteries of their methods of fishing, as well as swimming and other accomplishments.
With their king himself, and his henchman, Storbin, Dr. Campbell had daily talks. The latter was glad of the information they were able to impart, and anxious to gain from them as much as possible. He had also another important object in view.
The revelation of the existence on the other side of the island of a depot or settlement, and of men of the character of Pedro Diego, and his gang of desperadoes and cut-throats, had filled the doctor with serious uneasiness. And this was increased by the further details and particulars Storbin was able to give him of their capacity for mischief.
So far as the yacht was concerned, the doctor had come provided with all reasonable means of defence. She was, indeed, Storbin learned, better fitted in this respect and better armed than he had thought likely. But there were not enough fighting-men to enable the leader to contemplate without anxiety the prospect of serious hostilities with Diego and his band of desperadoes.
As to Diego's vessel, the Hawk, Storbin thought she might be nominally much the same kind of ship as the doctor's yacht, that is to say, a steam schooner; nor was there, perhaps, much difference in actual tonnage; but the Hawk was better fitted for fighting and rough work generally. And the men with whom she was manned were, of course, not only more numerous, but more accustomed to fighting than the crew of the Yalda.
THESE were awkward and disagreeable items of information, which gave the worthy doctor a good deal of anxious thought.
It was clear that he would have to provide against an attack sooner or later—and it might be sooner—by a gang of utterly unscrupulous ruffians, who would think no more of appropriating the yacht and all his property than they did of robbing the wretched natives among the islands they visited. And if they succeeded in this, what would be the fate of the explorers themselves? The doctor could guess only too well what it would be, and he shuddered as he thought of it.
Apart from himself, he had to think of those who had entrusted themselves to his guidance—of his two young assistants, and the members of his crew. He felt he could never forgive himself if his leadership should land them in such calamity.
Evidently, therefore, as a prudent man, there were but two things to be done—either he must abandon his enterprise, so far as the search for gold was concerned, and move on to other lands, or he must adopt such measures as to render his party fairly safe from attack.
And here the chance which had led to the meeting with Oltra seemed likely to turn out an event of more than passing interest. If the doctor could gain the native chief as an ally, he might be able to so arrange matters as to be able to proceed with his research in comparative safety.
Oltra, on his side, had a long score to pay off against the filibusters. For years Diego had been a terror to many of the islands in those seas. He had stolen right and left; he had captured men, women, and children, and carried them off, and sold them under the pretended name of "imported labourers," but in reality as virtual slaves, to the planters and ranchers living on other islands or on the mainland.
And wherever he and his gang had met with resistance to their lawless acts, they had murdered right and left, shooting down ruthlessly the unhappy natives who dared to oppose them, and burning their dwellings.
Then, before the people thus treated could collect a sufficient number of their countrymen to retaliate, the freebooters sailed away to some place where there was a ready sale for their miserable prisoners. After every such haul they would visit some large coast town where others of like character were known to congregate. There Diego and his men spent their gains in gambling and riotous living, returning after a while to their—otherwise— uninhabited island to plan and carry out further raids.
Oltra, as stated, was one of those native chiefs who had a score to pay off. Therefore, he was not unwilling to assist in anything likely to lead to the discomfiture of this murderous gang. But the dusky potentate was somewhat avaricious, and a bit cunning withal. He had heard of the report that the doctor was engaged in a treasure-hunt, and had probably formed exaggerated notions of the affair.
He considered that if he helped the white chief to gain the treasure he was seeking, he ought to have a share in the results. And as the doctor on his side could not say that such a condition was not fair, the only trouble seemed to be to arrange terms. And here was where the difficulty came in, for Oltra had at first such inflated ideas that his conditions were out of the question.
By degrees, however, they abated under the cold logic of actual fact which the doctor brought to bear on the subject, and managed, after much patient "parleyvooing"—as Storbin called it—to hammer (sense) into the dusky king's rather foggy understanding.
Thus the natives stayed on from day to day, fraternising with the white men, whilst the leaders of both parties met and discussed and haggled over the terms of co-operation.
By the time these were settled the doctor had quite recovered from his accident, and was ready and impatient to carry out the quest which had brought him to the place.
Clive and Alec would have found this interval a rather dull time if it had not been for the continued presence of the natives. The doctor forbade them even more strictly than before to engage in anything in the nature of an excursion inland or among the rocky heights leading to the upper part of the island. He suspected that the freebooters, whose revengeful feelings were now certainly aroused, would be on the look-out for opportunities of reprisals, and he knew how easy it would be to them amid such natural facilities for concealment to arrange an ambush.
So the two chums were enjoined to confine themselves to the shore line, either on land or in boats and canoes.
Amongst the various natives with whom they thus went out there were two who were their constant companions and attendants. They were Menga and Kalma, the two who had thrown themselves between Alec and the shark, and so undoubtedly saved him from a dreadful death.
Following Storbin's hint, Alec had refrained from offering the brave fellows any recompense at the time. He had only shaken hands with them, and addressed a few words of heartfelt thanks, which were duly interpreted by Storbin. But a day or two after the two were formally enrolled as members for the time being of the doctor's company. Thereupon Alec presented them with a rifle each as part of their equipment, impressing upon them the fact that they were to regard the weapons as their very own, which they would be free to take with them when they finally returned to their homes. And it is needless to say that no surer way of pleasing them and gladdening their hearts could have been found.
Proud warriors, indeed, were they now, and envied of their fellows as they strutted about, carrying their rifles. Thanks to Alec's further liberality, they were provided with plenty of ammunition, with which they could practise and so make themselves good shots.
In return they instructed the two young fellows in many barbaric but warlike sports; and, lastly, they worked very hard to pick up English, that they might be able to understand what their white friends said to them.
As Alec and Clive were at this time both doing their best to learn something of their language, in order to be able to converse with the natives generally, the four were soon able to understand one another fairly well.
Clive and Alec were returning one afternoon from a little excursion in a canoe with their two faithful natives, and they were all busy landing some fish they had caught, and getting their tackle and arms ashore, when the two blacks suddenly left what they were engaged on to take up their rifles and stand at "Attention."
"Hullo!" said Clive, without looking round. "I guess I know what that means. The Irishman walks this way."
"Yes; here he comes," Alec confirmed, laughing. "Here cometh the generalissimo, and of course they must leave whatever they are doing to pay him honour. I do believe he seems to have more swagger this afternoon than ever—if such a thing be possible! Something's up, I fancy! I wonder what it is? Can his royal master have managed to find some fresh post to confer upon him?"
Storbin made it an inflexible rule that all those natives who bore firearms must salute him.
"Sure an' it's only roight, an' it's all for the good av me masther's arr-my," he was wont to say. "It's discipline is sahlutin'. The riflemen are the flower av our arr-my, an' if the gineral can't maintain discipline amongst thim, phwat good is he?" Which proposition both Clive and Alec, when it was propounded to them, had found so unanswerable, that they both gave it up on the spot.
As to the worthy Irishman's extra swagger this afternoon, it had been no fancy on Alec's part. It was a fact, and the two soon learnt the reason of it. He and his royal "masther" had just concluded their little deal with the doctor, and Storbin, as one of the High Contracting Parties, naturally laboured under a sense of added importance.
"Surely," remarked Clive, "he has added to his stature as well. What's he been up to?"
As to this, it was only that the "gineral" had changed the plumes he had been wearing on the top of his helmet for another and larger bunch, which had the effect of making him look somewhat taller, if not, as he himself no doubt imagined, more imposing.
"The crame of the afthernoon to ye, gintlemen." he said affably, after returning the salute of the two blacks, and signing to them to resume their occupation. "It's good news Oi'm bringing ye this day. Oi'm going away to-morrow."
"So!" returned Clive, trying to look properly impressed by the overpowering importance of the announcement. "But why should that he good news, friend Storbin? For my part, I call it bad news. I—both of us—will be sorry to lose you."
"Thrue for you, me bhoys, an' Oi'm sorry to go. The good news is that Oi'm comin' back."
"Oh!" Alec put in. "That's the good part of the news, is it? Well, it sounds better than the other, so why not have put it first?"
"How could I, sorr? Sure, Oi'll have t' go away first afore Oi can come back, won't Oi?"
"That's true enough," laughed Alec. "Well, when do you expect to be back?"
"That Oi can't say. Ye see, we'll have a lot t' do. We're goin' t' bring our war canoes with us."
"The deuce you are! What's up, then? Has some other native king declared war on you?"
"No, it's not that," Storbin returned, with a somewhat pompous air. "It's yerselves as we'll be looking afther."
"It's we you're going to look after?" Clive repeated, affecting to be greatly a ton shed. "You're going to bring your war canoes and all your warlike hordes, I suppose, over here, against us? Good news! What have we done?"
"It's t' protect ye, me friends," Storbin explained. "It's t' take yer part we're goin' to aginst yer inemies—Diego an' his pirates."
"Oh. I see. You're going to help us against them. So the doctor has arranged that, has he? Now that's good news. We knew, of course, that something of the kind was in the wind; but I did not know it had been settled."
"Only settled this morning," Storbin answered. "An' now we're goin' back t' get our men. An' thin, I think," he added reflectively, "between us we ought t' be able t' wipe out that nest o' vipers!"
OLTRA and Storbin, with some of their men, started off the next day on the return to their own island. They left most of their followers and a number of their canoes, however, behind them, and these were temporarily enrolled among the doctor's party as general helpers.
Now that he had settled matters with the Kanaka king, and recovered the full use of his injured foot, Dr. Campbell addressed himself energetically to the prosecution of his search for the mysterious "gold water."
"Bless me!" he exclaimed to his two assistants, as they walked back to camp after waving adieu to the departing canoes. "It's time we began to do something. What with my being laid up, and the discussions with those two gentlemen, which threatened to drag on for ever, we've wasted a lot of time. And now we must make up for it.
"We must make a start this morning by going through that tunnel of yours and recovering the boat. I've advised Captain Barron. He promised to have the motor-boat ready, fitted up with a searchlight, so that we shall be able to see our way. He's going to bring it ashore himself." he said.
"Is he coming with us?" Alec asked.
The doctor shook his head.
"No. As you know, he does not like leaving his ship."
They had not seen much of the worthy captain during the intervening days. He had passed most of his time on hoard, only coming ashore for an hour or two for a change occasionally.
He was one of those who believed that a captain's place should be on his ship, especially when she was on active service—i.e., not at anchor in a safe haven, or moored snugly against a quay in a dock. Moreover, he had heard about Pedro Diego and his ship, the Hawk, and Captain Barron, without talking of it, had been taking his own measures, so as to be in readiness against possible trouble from that quarter.
The doctor had come provided with a couple of small cannons, beside some maxims, and the skipper had been busy overhauling them, and seeing that they were ready for instant use.
This morning, a little later, he came ashore in the motor-boat with his mate Tom Read, who was to take charge of her.
"So you're going to venture into the underground regions again," he remarked jovially to the two young fellows. "Well, it's time you brought me my boat back. I only hope you'll find her. It is to be hoped that some uncanny monster of the underworld hasn't made off with it."
"No fear of that, captain," Alec replied.
"Oh, I don't know. I don't feel at all sure about it," the skipper declared, shaking his head. "I'll be deuced glad to set eyes on her again. I sha'n't feel any confidence that she's coming back till I see her."
After a little more friendly banter from the good-tempered skipper, the doctor and his party started.
The motor-boat was, in fact, a fair-sized launch, with a covered-in bow, and room on board for a good number. The mate had with him two sailors from the yacht, and Ben Grove was there as one of the doctor's assistants.
The run up the creek was soon made, and then, as the channel narrowed and the hovering, precipitous rocks began to close in upon them from either side, the speed was reduced. And it was reduced still further as they approached the entrance to the tunnel.
"We didn't crawl along at this cautious pace when we came this way before, did we, Clive?" laughed Alec. "We went in style, I can tell you—at express speed!"
"It's a wonder your boat was not smashed to pieces against these rocks," said the doctor, looking about with anything but pleasure at their grim surroundings. "You were a pair of mad rascals to get into such a tight place. Surely you could have cut the line and got free?"
"Just what we couldn't do, sir!" Clive returned. "You remember, we hadn't got the axe handy enough."
"Which reminds me," observed Alec. "Have we an axe here handy, if it should be wanted. We needn't be in the same predicament again—unable to get at it at the critical moment.
"There be two here, sir," said Ben Grove. "The doctor told me t' be sure t' see about it."
"So you brought two! Well, that's being on the safe side anyway. H'm! Here we are at the entrance to the tunnel. What a strange place it looks, with the searchlight playing on it! It seems more weird and eerie than it did when we came through it in the dark!"
It was certainly a curious scene, or, rather, series of scenes, that was revealed as they travelled along the strange waterway. The beams of the searchlight fell upon the rocky roof and sides, and were reflected again from the moisture which dripped over them.
SUDDENLY there came a bump, which reminded the two young fellows of what had occurred before—when they had seemed to glide over the body of some creature just beneath the surface.
Alec was looking over the sides, intent on trying to make out the nature of the obstruction, when there was a heavy swirl in the water, and a great head reared itself above the surface with open jaws, in which rows of sharp teeth were plainly visible.
For a moment it looked as though it were about to dart at the boat and seize one of the occupants, but instead it drew back into the water, leaving a broad eddy to show where it had been.
Nothing more occurred of note in the tunnel. In due time they saw the end of it in the distance, and came out upon the broad, placid waters of the lake.
There the motor was stopped, and the launch rested quietly on the greenish-hued surface, whilst the doctor and all those who were visiting the place for the first time looked round with great interest and curiosity.
"Hullo!" cried Alec, staring about in search of the craft they had come to rescue, "where's the boat? We left her lying on the strand yonder; but I don't see anything of her now."
"Nor I," muttered Clive. "What the dickens can have become of her?"
The boat had certainly disappeared. She was neither on the shore nor floating on the water of the lake.
"By Jove! The captain won't like this," said Alec. "He said he doubted if we should find her, and he would only believe in it when he—Eh, what's the matter?"
Clive had gripped him by the shoulder, and was pointing towards the rocks, where their encounter with the apes had taken place.
Alec looked, but at first could make out nothing clearly.
Then he saw what looked like a large serpent in slow motion.
"Another big snake, eh?" he murmured in surprise.
At that moment a terrifying scream rang out from the direction of the rocks and was taken up by the thousand echoes. Slowly there came into view not merely one serpent, but several, as it seemed. And one of them, swinging down in the air, was holding a living form that wriggled and writhed and screamed again and again in notes of agony and terror.
"What is it? What on earth's going on over there?" Alec asked of his chum in awed tones.
Everyone in the launch was probably just then asking the same question. The searchlight, which had guided them through the tunnel, had been turned off when they had emerged from it on to the lake.
But the dim twilight which illuminated the water and the strand around it became more feeble as it spread beyond these limits, and left much of the sides and roof in sombre shadow.
It was this shadow which the eyes of the explorers were now straining to pierce.
Among the rocks which Clive and Alec had climbed, at some height above the strand, yet below the point where the dome of the roof began, some thing or things could be seen in motion, giving the idea, as already stated, of several serpents. Long, snake-like forms could be vaguely made out in the shadow, writhing and curling, reaching out and retiring, twisting and turning, and one of these had shown for a moment or two swinging in mid-air and grasping a living, struggling, screaming form.
But now that form had gone out of sight; it had been drawn up again into the shadow, and its blood-curdling cries were hushed.
The flood of echoes died down, and silence ensued—a strange, brooding silence, which seemed to have in it something sinister and threatening.
Clive and Alec looked about again in search of the boat, but with the same result—nothing could be seen of it. Then it suddenly occurred to them that the body of the big serpent they had killed had also disappeared. And up amongst the rocks in the caves and shadows where the apes had lurked their places seemed to have been taken by something else, which could not be seen plainly enough for its real character to be divined.
Neither Clive nor Alec could make out any definite form. There was a great blur of shadow deeper than the rest, and this, too, seemed to be in some kind of motion, yet here, again, it was difficult to say what kind of motion it was. There was, in fact, a double kind of motion. There was the twisting and writhing, snake-like movement, and there was also a billowy or wavy action, with a trembling, uncertain, throbbing effect, very difficult to define. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the shadows were two patches of half-lights like luminous discs, just barely visible, which looked not unlike two monstrous eyes; but they were so dim and vague that this idea might have been merely a weird fancy.
And now, in the stillness certain sounds became audible which had not previously been noticed. They were like the scraping of some rough, leathery substance over the surf of the rock; they were a curious combination of sounds—harsh, heavy, rasping, yet low and stealthy, and mingled at times with a subdued crunching noise.
The doctor's voice was heard at this juncture for the first time. Like the rest, he had been gazing with great curiosity and intentness at the restless, formless shadow; but if he had drawn any inference from his scrutiny he did not say what it was.
It should be explained that the motor-launch had been fitted with movable steel side shutters, or shields, which could be quickly raised above the gunwale when required. They were very strong, and had been provided specially as a shield against the bullets or arrows of hostile natives. They were provided with slits and small orifices, which could be used either for observation holes or for firing through.
These the doctor now ordered to be raised into position. And it was noticeable that while he gave his orders in a voice which, while quite free from haste or excitement, there was that in its low tones—apart from the unexpected nature of the orders themselves—which indicated that in his opinion they were threatened by some great danger, and that there was no time to be lost in preparing to meet it.
The next order was scarcely less surprising. Ever since the fight with the filibusters, Captain Barron had armed the trusted men of his crew not only with rifles, but with cutlasses. And it was these that the doctor now called for, telling the men to draw them and keep the naked blades beside them ready for use, with a supply of spare cartridges for their rifles.
Finally the doctor turned to Ben Grove.
"Hand those axes you spoke of a little while ago to Mr. Clive and Mr. Alec," he said. "Both Read and myself will be too busy looking after the boat to be able to make use of them, and, I am sure," he added, looking at the young fellows' athletic figures with approval, "you two will handle them to as much advantage as anyone else could."
Clive and Alec obediently put aside their rifles, and took possession of the axes, their minds in a state of wondering perplexity as to the meaning of all these strange, ominous preparations.
"Now, Read, are you ready? Are your men's weapons ready, their rifles loaded, and with plenty of extra cartridges handy?"
"Ay, ay, sir!" the mate and his men replied together in a deep chorus, wondering more than ever what the threatened danger could he.
"Then listen to me—all of you," said the doctor, still in subdued, but rapid tones. "I don't want you to fire—whatever you may see—till I give the word. But if I do give the word, then fire not only once, but again and again, as fast as you can. Pump in as many bullets as possible, and be ready to put down your rifles and snatch up your cutlasses at a moment's notice. Do you hear me?"
"Ay, ay, sir!" came again in a low chorus. And the doctor's voice followed it at once.
"Read, stand by! Astern easy!"
"Ay, ay, sir! Astern it is."
"Steer astern for the tunnel."
"Ay, ay, sir."
The engine commenced to whirr, and the launch, which by that time had drifted to within a score of yards of the strand, backed slowly away from it.
Almost immediately there was a change in the vague movements going on in the shadows above.
The wondering observers, peering through the slits in the metal shields, could see that, whereas those movements had been so slow and heavy as to be at times only just perceptible, they now grew quicker. It was much as if some creature or creatures lying half asleep were waking into more active life. And the gazers became suddenly aware that the two round, luminous discs had become much plainer to view. They certainly now looked like two great eyes staring at the launch with a queer, unwinking intentness which was anything but pleasant to look upon.
"Stand by to turn the searchlight on," said the doctor, in the same low tones.
"Ay, ay, sir!" came the ready answer.
What was going to happen? None of them—save, it might be, the doctor knew what kind of enemy they had to fear. And as to the latter, he was asking himself the question—would they be allowed to make good their retreat without a fight, or would the enemy follow and attack them?
It began to look as though they were to be allowed to withdraw without being molested. The motor throbbed quickly, the launch moved further back from the strand, and—
Suddenly there was a change. Some great mass had become detached from the rocks above, and thrown itself with a tremendous spring on to the shore.
There it halted now, a horrible, hideous, piled-up mass, a grisly, loathsome-looking monster, with an immense leather sack, as it seemed, for a body, and a number of wriggling, writhing "arms" twisting and contorting like a nest of great, thick-set serpents.
In short, all now could plainly see their enemy, and all knew it for what it was—a giant octopus or squid.
It looked like the creation of some dreadful nightmare. There was something indescribably gruesome and terrifying in its appearance. The restless, twisting arms, studded with great hooks, the continuous shivering, throbbing movement of the skin of the body, with its changing of shades of colour, and, finally, the immense, saucer-like eyes. These were now fixed with a frightful, unwinking stare upon the launch, glaring at it with an expression of concentrated hate, rage, and ferocity that was simply blood-curdling to look upon.
How long it remained thus no one on board could afterwards say. It seemed a long time, though it was probably not more than a few seconds.
The doctor watched it with a keen, alert, anxious eye. If the creature was really going to attack them, he wanted to get farther away from the shore first, so that it should not be able to obtain the leverage and extra power which it would gain by holding on to something solid with one or two of its arms while grasping at the boat with the others.
The question which acutely interested him just then was—how deep was the water of the lake, and what was the character of the bottom. If it were shallow, and the bottom was rocky, then the prospect before them was serious indeed. For this creature was so large and evidently so powerful that if it should get a purchase on a rocky bottom in comparatively shallow water, he knew it would be able to turn the launch clean over almost with ease.
He had realised all this from the first moment he had recognised the creature for what it was, clinging to the rocks within the shadows. Owing to its peculiar chameleon-like power of altering its skin-tints to harmonise with its surroundings, it had been almost invisible to most of those in the boat. But the doctor had perceived the true state of the case. He had seen the creature stealthily seize an ape, and from that moment had devoted his thoughts and energies to trying to get away in the "breathing time" afforded them while the monster was devouring the victim.
Afraid to back away suddenly and quickly, or to turn the searchlight on to it, lest doing so might precipitate what he was so anxious to avoid, he had determined to move backwards slowly and cautiously, at the same time taking such measures as he deemed necessary to guard against any sudden rush on the part of their terrible enemy.
Dr. Campbell had never seen such a huge specimen as this, which was now watching their every movement; but he had studied the habits and ways of smaller species, and knew how they could leap, and the power and ferocity with which they would deliver their attack. One had, for instance—as he afterwards told his young assistants—once sprung up at him from off the ground and fixed itself on his arm.
If a small octopus could leap like that, what might not such a creature as this be able to do?
Well, they had seen it leap down from the rocks above right on to the shore. Another leap like that would bring it close to the boat, and if the water were not very deep—!
There the scientist's speculations ended. His queries and theories were about to be put to the test of practical, horrifying experience, for just then the great octopus gathered itself up for its spring, and launched its great mass through the air towards the boat.
The doctor had seen it preparing for the leap, and called out "Full speed astern!" and immediately on top of it, "Fire!"
As a consequence, half a dozen rifles rang out together, and the bullets met the monster in mid-air—and a second lot, too—ere it came down on to the surface of the lake with a crash that sent a great wave of water leaping up over the gunwale and tossing the boat itself in the air.
Fortunate was it for all there that their watchful leader had taken advantage of that "breathing time" to back quietly away. For if the great squid had attacked in this way when they had been close to the shore it would have either fallen right on top of the craft or at least so near to it as to have been able at once to take it bodily into its deadly embrace.
As it was, however, it fell short; and it seemed for a moment or two as though the launch—having now gathered speed—would be out of reach in time.
But that was unhappily not the case. Ere the occupants had settled themselves after the great wave that had washed on board and tossed their boat about like a cork, something came shooting across the boat, falling with a flop—not, fortunately, on the bulwarks—but on the metal shields which had been raised above them.
Another followed with lightning-like quickness. It was as though two heavy hawsers of great thickness and weight had been thrown across the launch and were dragging at her with terrific force.
She rocked and swayed dangerously from side to side, and it was clear there was no time to be lost. If she were not freed she must go over.
Clive and Alec, however, were fully alive to the danger. They had been watching through the orifices in the shields, had seen the great "arms" reaching out towards them, and were already on their feet when their weight fell across the boat.
The two young fellows knew what the doctor expected of them, and were not going to disappoint him. With great swings of their muscular arms the axes whistled through the air, and cut with a sickening thud deep into the living cables. In an instant they were raised again, and came whistling down again—and lo! the horrible things parted, and, falling, one piece on either side slipped back into the water.
But another one had now fallen across the boat forward where Read was. And it seemed to have got a good hold. It was pulling and tugging, and the boat was slowly heeling over.
The propeller, which should, one would have thought, been able to pull the boat astern, was racing uselessly in the water, powerless to move the craft against the force with which it was being dragged back.
Two or three sailors were hacking at the "arm," which was lying across the boat above their heads, but with little real effect. The thick, leathery skin was too tough for the cutlasses to cut into to any depth.
At that moment there rose a shriek, and then another—for a second "arm" had appeared. It was not taut across as the other was, but had come wriggling in, searching about for a victim to lay hold of, and had curled itself round one of the sailors, and was actually lifting him up when Clive and Alec reached his side.
Whirling their axes like men possessed, they delivered lightning blows at the serpentine foe, and had the satisfaction of seeing it uncoil and retreat, crippled and useless—all but, in fact, cut in two.
But meantime there was the other arm stretched over the shields, pulling the boat slowly over.
This the sturdy young axe-men now vigorously attacked in its turn, and a second or two later the tension was relieved. The horrible creature disappeared, and the boat righted and began sensibly to move through the water astern.
But it only went slowly. Evidently the monster, maimed and injured though it was, was still far from being conquered. It was, in fact, still holding on to the boat, and preparing for fresh attempts to get at the occupants.
Four of its "arms" had been rendered practically useless; but it still had four more, and it was impossible to say what use the brute might yet put them to.
Clive and Alec, taking a moment's rest, peeped through the screens to see what was going on, and the sight that met their gaze was one that, if they had not been blessed with strong nerves, might well have unmanned them.
THE terrible creature was quite close to the boat, and was partly above the surface of the water. Two of its uninjured arms were out of sight. As a matter of fact, they were—as the doctor afterwards discovered—striving to obtain a hold on the bottom of the lake; but providentially, although the bottom was rocky, there was so much sand and mud lying on it as to prevent the suckers from getting a good grip. Hence they kept slipping, and as they slipped the boat pulled the squid out into deeper water.
But as the doctor realised this he also saw that there was a new danger threatening them. The depth of water increasing so gradually gave the squid more chance of getting a good hold somewhere as it moved along, and if this should happen before the depth was too great for its reach, then it was quite possible it might be able to drag her clean under water by a direct vertical pull.
Therefore it was important that they should do all they could to disable their enemy further before that chance came. It would not do to sit still and rest from their exertions and trust to their foe becoming exhausted or tired of the struggle. And if this meant running some risk by exposing themselves, it must be faced in order to avert a worse disaster.
Meantime, Alec and Clive had been peering at the monster through the observation slits, and the result had been almost to unnerve them. The great mass looked so horrible, so repulsive, its great saucer-like eyes were fixed on the boat—seemed to them to be fixed on them in particular, in fact—with that dreadful, unwinking stare, so fiendish and devilish in its deadly, venomous hatred and rage—that they felt—as though some mesmeric influence were numbing their senses.
And now, added to all the rest, they became aware of a sickly smell, a horrible effluvium, so nauseating, so disgusting, that they recoiled in dismay.
The doctor's voice fell upon their ears again, and its sharp, staccato tones awoke them to a sense of the necessity for a great effort to throw off these feelings.
"Come, come, lads," cried the leader—and now his tones were no longer low and subdued, but loud and ringing and rousing. "Stir yourselves, if you don't want to make a meal for yonder beauty. Read, wake your men up! I want them to empty more cartridges into the thing before it has time to recover itself."
"Ay, ay, sir!" Read sang out, and he followed up the words by some expletives addressed to his companions in a lower tone. For his men, like Clive and Alec, had been under the spell cast by the almost supernatural hideousness of their frightful enemy, and by the effects of the loathsome odour it emitted.
The doctor set them all an example by boldly jumping on to a thwart and leaning over, firing at what he thought the most vulnerable points—places he had been unable to aim at through the orifices.
But he very nearly paid for his pluck and temerity with his life. Like a flash a long, whip-like tentacle swept up, and, twisting round his body, bound his arms, rifle and all, to it, rendering him helpless even to hold on.
Another moment and he would have been dragged overboard, but Grove below gripped him round the legs, while Clive and Alec, leaping on the thwarts on either side of him, slashed away with their axes to such good purpose that he was freed, and sank back into Ben's arms for the moment almost unconscious.
But Clive and Alec were not to be allowed to brave the creature's wrath without reprisal. Another arm swept up, and though they dodged back in time to escape its first dart, it followed them down into the boat, twisting and turning this way and that, seeking and searching for them, first in one direction, then in another. Not only that, but another arm followed, and the second one laid hold of Grove.
Brave, full of fight though the man was, a veteran in experience of the sea and its inhabitants, he could not repress a cry of horror as the awful slimy, shining thing closed round him. The suckers took hold on him, the hooks pierced in places even through his clothes.
A desperate fight followed. The other sailors rushed to aid with their cutlasses, and slashed and hacked their utmost. Clive and Alec swung their axes aloft, and brought them down again and again. Ben Grove was freed, and one of the two tentacles had been cut fairly in two, when the remaining one caught Clive and began to haul him up out of the boat.
Then the struggle began afresh. Headed by Alec with his axe, the sailors attacked the thick, tough, strong arm with the fierceness of wild despair, for it was pulling the boat over as well as dragging its prey out of it.
SUDDENLY the axe swung down with tremendous force, driving exactly into a deep cut which a cutlass had inflicted a moment or so before. The axe bit clean through, and the severed portion fell to the bottom of the boat with Clive, round whom it was still clinging.
The boat righted with a sudden swing, and there was heard the sound of a great plunge as the great squid loosed its hold on the craft and disappeared beneath the water.
It was a welcome change indeed from the fierce fighting of the last few minutes when the launch ran free once more. Those in her felt themselves able to move about again without having the fear of another sudden visit from a writhing, slimy, snake-like enemy before their eyes.
"What an awful monster!" gasped Alec, as, panting from his efforts, he sank upon a seat. "Clive, old chap, did the thing hurt you?"
"I'm a bit scratched, and there are two or three ugly blisters where the horrible suckers touched me," Clive answered. "But I'm afraid there are others hurt more than I am. The doctor—"
"No, I'm all right," Dr. Campbell declared. "I feel the effects of the squeeze it gave me round the chest more than anything else. What about you, Grove?"
"It's the same wi' me, sir," Ben responded. "It seemed t' squeeze the breath out o' me body, I was as helpless as a child."
"Do you think the brute will come back, sir?" Alec asked the doctor, who was now examining the injuries each one had received.
The doctor shook his head.
"No, I do not think it is likely to," he declared. "It has been pretty badly cut about, to say nothing of the bullets fired into it—which are bound to take effect, sooner or later. My impression is that it knows it's beaten, and it has crept off to its den, where it will probably die."
"Let's hope it will," Alec muttered with much feeling. "But—" A thought struck him. "It might have a mate! Suppose it has, and the one we've knocked out goes home and sends her along, to avenge its wounded honour! Jupiter! I don't feel like wanting to fight another of 'em—just yet, at all events."
Dr. Campbell smiled.
"There is the possibility of that happening, of course," he said. "But I think the chance is rather remote. And now to attend to what brought us here."
"Well, sir, the boat was the chief thing, of course," said Clive; "but it seems to have vanished into empty air. It's a puzzle what has become of it."
"Let us go and see if we can find any trace of it in the sand," the scientist suggested.
"And there's the big serpent," Alec reminded him. "We thought you would be so pleased to have the skin as a trophy—and now that's vanished too!"
Read had slowed down the speed of the launch as soon as the fight had been finished, and then, at a sign from his leader, stopped the engine altogether.
Now the doctor bade him make for some place on the further side, where they could easily land; and a little later the launch ran alongside a shelf of rock jutting out into the water, which made a sort of natural quay.
"'Ere's a capital landin'-place ready made for us, sir," Read pointed out, with a touch of pride at having discovered it. "Ye'll find it easy t' get ashore 'ere."
"So it is, Read, so it is," the doctor agreed. "It's just what we wanted. We're going ashore for a little while—keep a sharp look-out while we're away. There may be other bogeys about, you know, in a place like this. Don't let one catch you napping," he advised with a laugh.
"No fear, sir," Read declared very emphatically. "Not after what's 'appened a'ready."
Dr. Campbell went ashore, taking his two young friends and Ben Grove, who, as an interested party, was very anxious to see with his own eyes the place where the apes had thrown gold-covered pebbles at the travellers.
They went first to the place where the boat had been left, and searched about for traces. As a matter of fact, the marks did not want much looking for; the searchers came upon them at once. There, easily to be seen in the sand, were the marks of where the craft had rested, and also—where she had been launched by being pushed into the water!
Alec and Clive stared at one another, and then looked at the other two. But no one could suggest a solution of the puzzle—or at least no one offered one.
"Well, that beats me!" Alec muttered. "Now let's see what has become of the snake."
"Ah, that's an easier matter," said Dr. Campbell, when they had led him to the place where they had left it. "You can see for yourselves who the robber has been here. It is the octopus. It found the dead body of your snake, and ate it up, neck and crop— skin, bones and all, or very nearly. You can see a few bones lying about. Then, finding the place was visited by apes, it took up its abode here for a while, and lay in wait for them."
While talking they had walked on towards the foot of the rocks, where the creature had been clinging when they had first seen it.
"See," the doctor went on, "here are more traces of its presence in the sand, and more bones—bones of apes there."
"Yes," Alec put in, holding his nose, "and more traces still in the shape of stinks and smells! Pheugh! What an awful stench! I can't stand this—I'm off! Go on if you like, you others, and find more traces still. I'll wait for you in the launch."
But the others did not go further. They, too, had had enough of the awful, nauseating odour which still hung round the place, and which became worse as they proceeded.
So they returned to the launch, and set off to explore the other side.
It was then that, as they were going through the water at a slow speed, there came a sudden shock. Something had struck against the boat.
Everyone started in a way which showed that their nerves had got, as Alec afterwards expressed it, into "rather a jumpy condition."
The mate looked over the side—rather cautiously at first, then curiously, and finally boldly.
"Why, sir," he exclaimed, turning to the doctor, "if it ain't our boat a-floatin' about upside down!"
They all looked at the boat in surprise and interest. The doctor in particular regarded it with close scrutiny. He fancied even from where he stood he could see some marks upon the upturned keel which suggested a theory to his mind.
"I wonder how it came here?" Alec exclaimed. "It must have met with some sort of an adventure. What a pity it can't tell us its story."
"We must see if we can't make it tell it to us," remarked the doctor. "Read, go back to where we landed—that will be a good place for our purpose—and bring the boat with us. Then we'll get her ashore and see what we can make of it."
The craft was floating, as Read had said, upside down, and so low in the water that the keel was scarcely visible above the surface. Yet it had not sunk; it had, as Grove remarked, managed to keep near the top somehow.
The launch was turned round, and run alongside it the other way; then a rope was passed round it, and with the aid of this and the boat-hook the derelict was towed to the shore.
There it was pulled high up on to the strand, and after the doctor had examined the keel and sides it was turned over.
Then there came a surprise. They found a mast and sail intact, with a lot of cordage and other items, and entangled amid all there was the dead body of an ape.
"Ah," cried the doctor, "I'm not surprised! I already suspected it after seeing the marks left in the sand. They seemed to me to show that the boat was launched by the apes."
"Great Scott!" cried Clive. "I never thought of that!"
"I remember your telling me," their leader went on, "that you landed and pulled the boat up more than once."
"Yes, doctor, we did."
"Just so. And the apes were watching you all the time."
"Must have been, because they threw the pebbles at us."
"Quite so. Now this is how I read it. After you had gone they came back, and, seeing the boat there by itself, and remembering how you had pushed it off and got into it, they, without, of course, having any idea of what they were doing, imitated you and did the same."
"You mean they went for a sail!" exclaimed Alec. "Jupiter! How I wish I'd been here to see 'em. What a lark it must have been! And then, I suppose, not knowing how to manage the boat—being merely clumsy landlubbers instead of accomplished sailors—they went and upset her, and got drowned."
"No," said the scientist gravely, "they did not upset her. Though how they would have got ashore again except by drifting there accidentally or by swimming I'm sure I don't know. I don't suppose they had watched you so closely as to have been able to row or paddle her."
The doctor said this half humorously; but he was looking at the boat—which he had now turned bottom upwards again—very closely.
He bent down, and taking hold of something that was sticking in the wood, pulled it with a wrench.
"No," he said again slowly, "they did not upset the boat. They are not to be blamed for that. Something else upset it for them. Something—"
"I know!" cried Clive, drawing a deep breath. "It was the octopus!"
"Ha! You've guessed it now," said the doctor, glancing at him.
"The octopus?" Alec repeated, not less moved than his chum had showed himself.
"Yes, there is no doubt about it." the doctor declared, with the same grave air. "See!" he opened his hand, and showed them what he had wrenched out of the wood. "Here is one of the hooks; it was forced so deep into the wood it was torn off from what is usually called the creature's arm. Further, if you notice, you can see the marks of the arm right round the boat, especially on the keel and on each gunwale. You can actually see marks where it has dented the boat by the strength with which it seized it."
At a sign from the scientist the sailors looked at the boat over again, and there, sure enough, were impressions or dents on the gunwale on each side.
"Yes, you can see that plain enough, sir!" Alec assented in a low tone.
"I noticed the dent in the keel," continued the doctor, "directly I saw it in the water over yonder. And I had previously seen the marks of the apes' feet in the sands where the boat had been launched. I guessed then that they must have pushed it into the water, but I could not think what had become of it. When I saw the dents, however, on the upturned keel they told me the whole story. It did not need the dead body of the ape which we afterwards found to make me understand what had happened."
"I expect there were several apes on board," continued Dr. Campbell. "The octopus came along, attacked the boat and overturned it, flinging them into the water, where it seized them one by one. But one had got entangled under the boat, and was hidden away so that it failed to get hold of it. That's how I read it!"
"Jupiter! Yes, sir! There's no doubt you're right," said Alec. "But when, I wonder, did it happen?"
"It must have happened," Doctor Campbell replied thoughtfully, "not so very long after you were here. The apes would have put the boat off as soon as they returned, and whilst the remembrance of what they had seen you do was fresh in their minds, that is pretty certain. A day or two later they would have forgotten about it. Also the time that dead ape must have been in the water points to the same conclusion."
"Which means," muttered Alec slowly, "that if we had tried to make our way back through the tunnel instead of the way we did, we might quite likely have encountered the octopus and met the fate which befell those wretched apes!"
He stared at Clive, horror in his eyes.
"What a ghastly idea! What an escape!" he murmured.
"Yes, that is the way it struck me," the doctor commented feelingly. "However, my lads, let us be thankful that you did escape such a terrible death. I shall keep this hook as a memento of our adventure. It's all that is left to us."
"Why, so it is!" Clive returned. "We ought to have kept those pieces we lopped off which fell in the boat. But they stank so and were so repulsive that we threw 'em overboard."
"You couldn't do anything else," the doctor declared. "They would not keep, you know, and as these creatures have no skeleton, there are no bones to gather up as relics. The only way to preserve such specimens is to plunge them into a big bottle or jar filled with spirits, and we have nothing of that kind large enough on board the yacht."
"No, of course not," Clive agreed. "So there is an end of any idea of keeping a trophy in commemoration of our adventure and of our narrow escape."
After some further talk and another and yet more careful examination of all that had been recovered from the water, they cleaned out the boat as well as they could, and tried their best to put it in order, as it were, and when the launch started it was taken in tow. But no one got into it, nor was it suggested that anyone should do so. As Alec remarked, it did not look particularly wholesome—much less inviting.
The doctor made a round of the lake, and made many notes in his note-book. He also rooted up a few plants which were shown to him, and took them away for specimens. But he did not find very much to interest him in the place, and did not prolong his visit beyond another hour or so. Then they started back for the camp.
"Of course," he observed, "if there were no other way of getting into that underground waterway where the gold-coated pebbles are, we should be compelled to come to it by this route. But I think the other way—the way you came out from it—will suit us just as well. So I shall make preparations to pay it a visit that way as soon as we can arrange it."
"Yes, I think that's the best plan," said Clive. "It's true we've got enemies on that side—Diego and his crowd—to beware of, but I really think I'd rather risk facing them than come into this horrible uncanny hole again. Besides, there's nothing more to attract us here. We've found out all that is worth knowing."
"I'm not so sure as to that. The tunnel is continued on the other side of the lake, you know," the doctor reminded him. "I should have liked to explore that, and see where it goes to. However, I think the other is probably more in our line. I agree with you that there is the risk of meeting Diego's people on that side; but I'm going to take some precautions, which I hope will prevent our being surprised or molested by them."
The journey back through the tunnel was made without any incident of note, and very glad most of the party were, no doubt, to find themselves once more on the other side of it.
Clive and Alec certainly were.
"Ah, this is better! I begin to feel I can breathe better!" exclaimed Alec, drawing a long breath. "That place gave me the horrors! Upon my word, I began to feel as though I couldn't breathe properly in there!"
Clive laughed, but there was not much cheeriness in his laugh.
"Well, there's one consolation," he remarked. "We haven't had our trip and our little adventure altogether in vain. There's the boat. We've got that to show for our trouble. We shall have the laugh of the captain there."
"I'm not so sure that we shall," Alec replied doubtfully. "He'll see the state it's in, and he'll want to know what the dickens has happened to it. And if we tell him he'll say, 'There! I told you I expected you would lose my boat, and it's only by a fluke that you didn't.'"
Clive laughed again.
"He can say what he likes, but, considering everything, I think we ought to be jolly thankful to get her back at all. Hullo! here he is—coming to look for us. I expect that means that he's got some news."
Sure enough a boat just then hove in sight, with the worthy captain on board, and a few minutes later the two parties met.
"Ha, ha! Here you are!" he roared out, as soon as he could make his voice heard. "The hobgoblins of the lower regions haven't eaten you up, then! I'm glad to see you back all safe. But what about my boat? Hullo! What do you call that thing?"
He had only just caught sight of the poor derelict, which, as though ashamed to meet its master in its present shabby, sodden condition, had seemed to be hiding itself as long as possible behind the launch.
"Great snakes!" cried its master, eyeing it with strong disfavour. "Where did you get that rotten old tub? And where's my boat?"
He addressed himself direct to Clive and Alec, whom he evidently regarded as responsible, they being the two who had taken it away and left it behind.
"This is your boat, captain," said Alec meekly. "It's a bit dusty, perhaps. We've had no time to brush it up yet, although it's had a good wash out—and—"
"That scurvy old crock my boat!" the skipper broke in. "Why, mine was brand new—not merely new paint, but a new boat. While this— Why, I should think you'd recovered it from an ancient wreck. It looks as if it's been lying under water from the time of the Spanish Armada!"
"It—er—has been lying in rather a damp place, I fear, captain," said Clive apologetically. "But you put it in the sun to dry—"
"Damp place? That be hanged for a tale!" cried the captain. "I tell you, it's been lying under water for perhaps—"
"Well, yes—er—perhaps you're right to some extent, captain," Clive admitted. "Yes, it has—er—been lying under water; but not for so long as you thought about. Of course it couldn't have been, you know, because it's only a week or so ago we lost it."
"A week or so ago! It looks as if it might have been a century or so ago," snorted the skipper. "As to drying it in the sun, you don't know what you're talking about! All the seams would open—"
"Why, aren't they nailed?" Clive queried, with an innocent look. He turned to Alec, and said with affected concern, "Fancy! She was only glued together, and we trusted our precious lives to a thing like that!"
"I'll glue your two precious heads together!" cried the captain laughing, "if you insult my boat any further. And you're making me forget my news. Two more canoes full of the black beggars have arrived from Kanaka, doctor. They have brought a letter, which I expect is from the high and mighty king thereof and his swaggering head butler. I guess it begins with Greeting in very big letters."
The doctor smiled good-humouredly, and took the letter.
"It only says," he remarked, after reading it, "that they are delayed a little, and won't be able to come to us as soon as they had hoped. So Storbin has sent these men on first, thinking they may be of use to me. He says they are their best scouting men. He's right; that's just what I do want."
"H'm! That's all O.K. then," returned the captain. "And now I'm ready to hear all about the adventures and the scrimmages ye've been in. For," the shrewd seaman added, looking keenly at the torn clothes of some of the party, "I see ye've had a dust-up of some sort with somebody. Is it Diego's people again?"
"Come on board, captain," said the doctor. "Then we can tell you all about it on our way."
"A good idea," returned Barron. "And that will give me a chance to keep an eye on that poor thing ye call my boat. It may save ye from losing what's left of her again anyway."
He listened with attention to the accounts the doctor gave him of their experiences, and shook his head gravely at the end.
"Well, you've had a pretty warm time of it," he commented. "And I don't wonder! I'm a seaman, and I'm not very particular where I go; but I must say I prefer the open air. I don't care to venture into these underground territories. I wouldn't go back there again if I were you, doctor. I wouldn't go—no, not for tons of gold."
"There's no need to. We're going to try the other place." Dr. Campbell explained. "The only thing is, we must take precautions, and see that the way is open. And these native scouts Storbin has sent are just the very chaps to do that, for he declares they have been over here many times, and know the island fairly well. He says, too, that their leaders can speak a little English."
Acting upon the plan thus indicated, the doctor sent out his new scouts in company with some of his own people, and in the course of a day or two they returned with the news that Pedro Diego appeared to have gone away. At any rate, his vessel and nearly all his people were away, and there were only a few left now at his depot on the other side of the island.
"H'm," commented the captain, when he heard this. "A good time to attack his den and clear him out for good. That's what I should do if it were me."
But the doctor would not listen to any such idea. He was well satisfied to know that the man and most of his gang were out of his way, and that he need not fear another attack from them. And he could so place his scouts as to receive timely notice if they returned.
Then one morning he set out with Clive and Alec, Grove, and a small party, well equipped with lanterns and other necessaries; and paid a visit to the place where the two had emerged from the underground waterway on to the side of the mountain.
It was quite free—for the time, at any rate—from the troublesome apes, and, leaving a guard outside, the party entered the passage, and followed its course with the aid of their lanterns.
They soon came to the place where it forked—one branch going on to the underground lake, the other seeming to lead up into the mountain.
Following the latter, they ascended rather steeply for some distance, when they came on to level ground, and found themselves in what was either an immense natural grotto or a vast hall or chamber cut out of the rock.
AMONGST the loose rubbish which blocked one of the many streams in the caverns, they discovered many more pebbles showing traces of gold-coating. And on some of these the coating was of such a character as to lead the doctor to decide to make an effort to clear the way and follow it up to its source.
Picks and shovels, drills and wheelbarrows, gunpowder, and even dynamite were carried round, and regular, organised parties of natives were set to work every day, returning to the camp at night to sleep.
This went on without a hitch for a week. Good progress was made, and as nothing was heard or seen of the filibusters the doctor began to hope they had decided to go away for a while and leave him to carry on his quest in peace.
This idea probably spread imperceptibly from the leader to his followers, and may have led to over-confidence or to carelessness in the work of scouting.
Be that as it may, at the time when all seemed to be going merrily as a marriage bell, trouble descended suddenly upon the treasure-seekers, and in a sinister form.
It so happened that Alec was just then staying in camp for a day or two. The doctor had got behind in the work of preserving his specimens, which were suffering in consequence, and Alec had volunteered to take it in hand for him.
He accordingly remained behind, and the two blacks, Menga and Kalma, who were his constant attendants, remained with him.
The doctor and Clive, with Ben Grove and a number of natives, all well armed as usual, left the camp, and made their way to what they now all called the "mine"—they had not got so far yet as to put "gold" before it.
As usual, they left a guard of two or three natives at the entrance, and then entered the underground passage, and made their way through it to the place where they had left off work the previous afternoon.
They had scarcely started operations, when there came along the passage they had come through the sound of rifle-shots far away. As had been prearranged in case anything of the kind happened, each worker threw down his tools, snatched up his rifle, and hurried back along the passage towards the entrance.
But they were too late. Ere they had traversed half the distance there was heard a deafening, earth-shaking roar, and they were met by a terrific blast of fire, hot air, dust, and suffocating smoke.
Then followed a series of resounding crashes, the thunder of falling rocks and boulders tumbling about on the mountain side.
Dr. Campbell, like many of his companions, was knocked over by the terrible blast, and as he lay on the rocky floor he realised that this must be the work of Diego and his gang. They had played a deadly trick upon the explorers. They must have surprised and overcome the natives left on guard, and then blown in the entrance to the passage.
Thus the doctor and his party were not only prisoners; they were effectually sealed up in those underground passages, with only such food and other necessaries as they had with them.
"Doctor, be you theer?"
Doctor Campbell, lying in a state of semi-consciousness, recognised as in a dream the voice of Ben Grove.
All was darkness around. The rush of air had extinguished all their lanterns at the same time that it had knocked most of them over.
The veteran mariner, Grove, had by good luck been round a corner when the blast had come, and so had escaped its full force. He was now stumbling about in the darkness, trying to find, with the aid of a few matches, first a lantern which he could light, and then his less fortunate companions.
Just then someone rose from the rocky floor, and, staggering blindly along, nearly tumbled over him.
"Steady on, steady!" the sailor called out. "Who be you a-ramblin' about in the dark?"
It was Clive. He was half dazed, but he knew the voice.
"It's me, Clive, Ben!" he said feebly. "Thank Heaven, you're here! Is the doctor all right? Do you know where he is?"
"I just called out, thinkin' he might 'ear me, but—"
"I'm here, my friend," now came from somewhere not far away, "Are you hurt—either of you?"
"Well," said Ben, "so far as I knows I be all right. I ain't bin able t' see nuffen o' meself yet, but I think I'm all 'ere. How do you feel yerself, sir? An' you, Mr. Clive?"
Just then Ben succeeded in his efforts to get a lantern to light, and he flashed it about him, first on Clive, and then, following the direction of the voice he had heard, on the doctor.
"Well, I be main glad t' see as ye be both alive," said the old sailor thankfully. "And now t' get another light, and then we shall see better what's wrong with ye."
"I'm all right, I think," Clive said; "but it's suffocating here. That's right, Ben. Better light two or three lanterns, then we can see our way. The first thing is to get out of this into a better atmosphere—and we must take the other poor chaps with us. It's enough to kill anyone here!"
"That's right," said the doctor, who had now risen to his feet. "I will help you; I feel better now. We must get everyone here back to the large hall. We shall find the air better there."
Aided by the lanterns Ben had now found and lighted, the three white men set to work to aid their black followers. Some were found all right, only a little stupefied, and these helped to carry their less fortunate fellows, some of whom had been struck by flying or falling pieces of rock, and were not only unconscious, but badly cut and bruised as well.
After a time the whole party were assembled in the large grotto, or "hall," as they called it. And then the doctor went round among them all to tend to their injuries and see how many were badly hurt.
Fortunately he had taken the precaution to accumulate some stores in the place, amongst them such things as lint and bandages, and these he now made use of.
When all was finished that could be done in this way, the three white men sat down apart to discuss the situation.
The doctor was profoundly dissatisfied with himself and was full of self-reproach.
"My friends, this is my fault." he declared. "I ought to have foreseen it, and taken better precautions against it."
"No reason to blame yourself, sir," Clive hastened to answer. "It's those treacherous scoundrels—Diego and company."
"Ay, ay, sir," Ben agreed. "It be them as 'as done it—the murdering villains. They've set on our chaps suddint like, an' murdered the poor fellows."
"But I ought to have provided against such a chance. I might have guessed they would play some such trick upon us. And yet one would not think the natives would allow themselves to be caught unawares."
"Of course not, sir," Clive commented. "They have allowed themselves to be surprised, that's plain. It's no use blaming them, however, poor fellows. They have paid a heavy penalty for their carelessness, I'm afraid."
"I thought for certain that at the worst." the doctor murmured, "they could have held their own till we had come to their help. Then we ought to have been able to beat off any attack with a position that was easy to defend. But there! The mischief is done, and the question is, what are we to do? We are boxed up here like rats in a hole. I am afraid there is not much doubt about that. It is, however, our duty as practical men to make sure of it. That means going back to the entrance to ascertain exactly the state of the case there. But we had better leave that awhile for the foul air to disperse, and meantime we can occupy ourselves usefully here in taking stock of our stores. It's a good thing we did not neglect to look ahead a little."
"A good thing, indeed, sir," Clive agreed. "We can live here for a while, at any rate. Surely we ought to be able to hold out till help comes from the camp. They will not leave us here to be starved to death!"
To this the doctor made no direct reply. He was very grave and thoughtful. When he spoke he said only:
"Well, as prudent men we shall have to make what we have here last as long as possible. So we had better look round and take stock, as it were. Then we must allowance ourselves. We have a good many mouths to feed, remember."
They had a large quantity of tinned food and biscuits, which had been stored rather to provide food for the workers during the day than with any thought of standing a siege. They had also a good stock of oil for their lanterns, of ammunition, and of blasting powder and dynamite, which last two, however, were not likely to be of much use to them, so far as could be seen.
Presently, when the doctor thought the state of the air in the passage would permit it, they made their way to the entrance—or, rather, as near to it as they could get. The result was depressing; it effectually damped any hopes they might have been secretly nursing as to making an opening for themselves in that direction.
"They've, done their devil's work only too well," growled the doctor, shaking his head. "Escape in this direction is practically impossible. It would take us months to make a way out here—if, indeed, it could be done at all from inside, which I very much doubt."
They returned once more by the way they had come, and as they passed the point where the passage forked Clive paused, and nodded his head in the direction of the branch passage which led down to the lake.
"That is our one way of escape, then, after all," he said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I was in hopes we had done with that horrid place. But I suppose we shall have to trust ourselves to it once more. Alec and Tom Read will come to look for us that way in the motor-launch when they know what has happened, and find they can't get to us the other way."
The doctor remained silent. He dared not speak out what was in his mind; he could not say the words which must crush practically all hope out of his young follower's heart, and fill it with a stony despair. He at least was under no delusion as regarded the hopelessness of their position.
Ben Grove, however, was busy just then with the same thoughts as the doctor, and all unthinkingly he uttered them aloud.
"Mr. Alec, Tom Read, ay, an' Captain Barron," he said slowly, "be all a-fightin' fur their own lives by this time, an' if they a-bin took by surprise like we was it's little chance they'll ever have of comin' t' look fur us!"
"I wonder where my two darkies have got to this morning?" mused Alec, as he stood in the doctor's tent looking over some specimens which he was going to take in hand that morning.
Neither of his two natives, Menga and Kalma, was to be seen. As a rule, their devotion to Alec was so marked as to be at times even a little embarrassing. The way they watched him about, ready to run hither or rush thither for him at his slightest sign was like nothing so much as the behaviour of two clever sheepdogs with their shepherd. Though neither he nor they had made any very great progress in learning one another's spoken language, they had between them brought the sign language to something very near perfection. Alec no longer found himself in any difficulty on that score. He could make them understand almost whatever he wished, indeed, very often they seemed, in some strange way, to divine his thoughts before he got so far as to make any signs.
As stated, their devotion was such as to be rather a trouble. They seemed to arrange between them that they should never both leave him at the same time. One or the other was always close at hand, patiently waiting in readiness for a call or a sign, so that Alec sometimes felt as though he were living under a sort of inspection, and he rather wished that they would occasionally, as he expressed it, sometimes "run off and play for an hour or two."
Well, this morning it seemed as though that was just what they had done—gone off for a while to amuse themselves in their own way.
"They might have let me know they were going, though," Alec thought. "I could have arranged to get someone else for a while."
As he could not get on without someone to assist him, he strolled outside, and looked up and down to see if anyone was about, black man or white, whom he could call upon to come and give him a hand.
As he thus stood, pipe in mouth, gazing around, he saw a boat approaching the shore, with Captain Barron in it. The skipper made a sign that he wished to see him, and Alec sauntered down the beach to meet him.
Directly the boat's bow touched on the strand the skipper was on his feet. The next moment he had sprung lightly ashore, and then walked briskly towards Alec.
"Doctor gone, I s'pose?" he queried.
"Yes, captain. Been gone some time. Did you want to see him, captain?"
"Yes, I rather wanted to speak to him. I had intended to be here sooner, but got detained. Something has happened that I don't like."
Alec opened his eyes.
"Why, what's the idea, Captain Barron?"
The young fellow spoke lazily, and with a slight suggestion of banter in his tone. The skipper was regarded as a bit nervous in matters relating to the safety of his ship. He seemed to be always inventing some fresh precaution, adding some new item to his plan of defence. So much so, that the two young explorers sometimes thought he was overdoing it—a bit too anxious.
Later on they had reason to alter their opinion in this respect. But so it had been hitherto, and the fact influenced Alec in his remarks.
"I notice, by the way," he continued, "that you have steam still up. Rather later than usual, isn't it?"
Ever since Captain Barron had learned about Diego and his vessel he had had a fire lit under his boiler every night before sundown. The doctor himself was a little inclined to demur to this on the grounds that they had no coal to spare; but Captain Barron insisted. He was not going to allow himself to be caught by those pirates at night with no steam up. So he kept up the practice, letting the fires go out in the early morning shortly after dawn.
However, Alec, looking across at the yacht now, had seen that there was still a thin trace of smoke floating from the top of the smoke-stack.
"IT'S unusually late for it; but, as I said, something unusual has happened, my lad," Barron said, and Alec, now perceiving for the first time that his face was stern, and that even the habitual humorous twinkle was no longer lurking in his eyes.
Alec began to feel there must be something very unusual to account for this.
"What is it, captain?" he queried. "I hope nothing serious?"
"That's as may be. The fact is, some of my men are missing—seem to have deserted."
"Why," Alec answered with a laugh, "that's just the case with me. That's why you see me here—a mere idle loafer this morning. My two darkies, always so faithful and constant in their attendance on yours truly, seem to have deserted. They've taken French leave, for a wonder—it is a wonder, too. I can tell you—and gone off."
Barron gave a sly shrug, indicating that he did not think the circumstance of much importance.
"That's not a serious matter," he said. "Your chaps will come back—mine won't. They've gone for good—or, rather, for bad." He gave a short laugh. "It has a bad look, Mr. Alec. You know the old belief about rats and the sinking ship!"
Alec looked at him inquiringly, struck by his unusually grave tone and manner.
"Is it the rest of the Valparaiso lot?"
"Yes. Every one of them has vamoosed."
"One would be almost inclined to say—'and a good riddance,'" Alec muttered, "only, of course, you don't like to be treated in such a way."
"It is a good riddance in one way. I'm not altogether sorry to be clear of 'em. I couldn't trust 'em. But now look here, Mr. Alec. I'll explain what's bothering me. There's one or two things connected with this desertion. In the first place, why has it happened now? Why have these men stayed on so long, as they have, and then gone off suddenly? Does it not look as though they know something we don't know? Diego and his pirate ship have been away. Perhaps they have come back. Let us suppose they have, and that these men somehow got to know of it, and that we are now likely to be attacked at any time suddenly—well, of course, they'd want to make themselves scarce, wouldn't they? They wouldn't want to stay here to be shot at by their own friends, would they?"
"I see your argument, captain," said Alec, now as serious as the skipper himself. "This may mean something, or it may not; but I can understand your wish to take every precaution. If you want me to help I'm quite ready. I wish, though, the doctor had known of this! It would have put him, too, on his guard a bit."
"I was in hopes of catching him, as I told you," Barron returned, "but I was detained. I'm glad, as it happens, that you're here to-day. My idea is to go over everything as though there was an alarm—have a sort of rehearsal, in fact, of what we should do if there was an attack, though I've been expecting it would more probably come at night and not by day. Still, there's no knowing. And, you see, I did not care to let those rats know all my plans. If they were going to the traitors, I wanted 'em to know as little as possible."
"Naturally. A good precaution. They know all about your ship—"
"Not altogether. I've kept them in the dark as much as I could, and laid down two or three false scents for 'em to nose round if they chose. And I've kept 'em close on board, so that they shouldn't know what we'd arranged on shore. But now that they've cleared out I'm more free, and I should like to go over it all with you if you will. Then I shall feel more satisfied in my mind—I shall feel we're better prepared to meet any sudden attack."
"All right, captain I'm quite at your service," cried Alec heartily. "Where do we begin?"
"We will go up to the crow's nest, and have a complete rehearsal. That's why, when I found those scoundrels had sloped, I ordered steam to be kept up."
"You're going to move the yacht, then?"
"Yes; just as I planned it out with the doctor."
"I see. And what—if we were attacked—would become of all these things?"
Alec glanced round at the tents and various stores.
"You leave 'em for the most part as they are. Just take your rifles and so on, and skip up to the crow's nest. From there you fire over all this, and no one can get to them here so long as there's anybody left up there to fire a shot."
"Not by daylight, of course. But what about night?"
"Same thing. As long as you keep the searchlight in the crow's nest going."
"I see. Good! Now I begin to tumble, and I'll call the natives together and try to make 'em understand a little as to what we're going to do."
In order that this talk as well as what followed it should be understood by the reader, it should be explained that the crow's nest referred to was not a perch on board the yacht, as might he supposed, but a roomy platform of rock, which overlooked the shore at that part.
It rose abruptly right under a lofty, overhanging precipice, which was inaccessible. Behind the platform in this precipice were several pretty extensive caves, not large enough to hold a lot of stores, and the doctor had made them his storerooms for whatever he wanted to keep on shore, save those things in daily use in the tents below.
Arrived on the platform, the captain and Read, with their sailors, quickly brought out first a six-pounder and then a maxim from one of the caves, and placed it in position so as to command approach along the shore below.
After a short time taken up in this and similar preparation, Barron paused, and, turning to Alec, said:
"D'you see just what I mean lad?"
Alec's eyes glistened.
"Ay, I see what the idea is—and I'll see that it's carried out just as though it was a real instead of a sham fight. Hullo! What's that?"
A dull, heavy booming sound had come floating on the morning air. It was like the sound of the explosion of a pretty big charge of mining powder or dynamite.
"IS that a blast now, or is it another of the little volcanic tune-ups we have had several of lately, I wonder?" said the captain, as he stood straining his ears and listening intently.
Since their arrival they had had many reminders that they were on an island which was practically the upper part of an active volcano. Not only was there frequently that pall of smoke high up in the sky which they had seen when they had first caught sight of the place, but there were frequent rumblings and other curious sounds.
And of late these had rather increased in frequency, and had even at times taken the form of small explosions. Therefore they were now rather in doubt as to whether what they had just heard was due to the same cause or to something more unusual.
"I'd almost swear that's villainous saltpeter, as they call it," the skipper went on.
"But how can that be?" Alec asked. "Nothing they might be doing inside the mine would make such a noise as to be heard here. Why, it would mean they had blown the whole mine up—and themselves too!" he added half jestingly, half anxiously.
"Well, it had a very old, sinister sort of sound, and I don't like—" Barron began; when again there came an interruption.
From a ledge on the side of the wall of rock behind them came a cry of "Sail ho!"
And on top of that came the sound of three shots fired quickly one after the other, but in a peculiar way.
"Hark! Our signal!" exclaimed Alec. "Surely it must be someone back from the mine—or perhaps my darkies. Anyway, it must mean that there is something amiss!"
"I see one thing that is amiss," the captain, who had promptly climbed on to a high boulder, called out. "I see smoke—and it may mean the Hawk coming this way! Ah! And—Yes, you're quite right! I can see your two darkies coming along the shore. They're running like mad, as if the very devil himself is after 'em. It all means mischief, my lad, and it begins to look to me as if our rehearsal is going to be turned into something very like the real thing!"
The two natives, fleet of foot, came racing along at a great pace. And as they ran they were joined by other natives, who had been out in various directions, scouting or otherwise engaged, and who had been warned by signal shots that something was amiss.
They saw Alec on the top of the rocky platform, and hastened on to him direct, scaling the steep path like mountain goats.
Then partly in broken words, but chiefly by signs, they delivered their momentous message.
And this is the news which they brought, though as to some points Alec did not clearly understand it until subsequently. For the sake of clearness, therefore, it is given here as he afterwards understood it.
Menga and Kalma had gone out to the mine, intending to get some of their belongings which they had left there, and which, now they were staying in camp, they wanted. They had left a message with another native, explaining their absence, and saying they would return as quickly as possible, which message, however, the men promptly forgot to give to Alec.
The two reached the mine, and after obtaining what they had come for started on the way back to the camp.
Suddenly they heard the sound of shots, then of shouts and cries, and, making their way cautiously back, they got near enough to the entrance to the mine to see that a lot of Diego's men were in possession, and the two guessed at once what must have happened. They guessed that the freebooters had ambushed the natives left on guard, no doubt killing them all, and had taken their places.
Menga and his companion considered the best thing they could do would be to hurry back to the camp and give warning of what they had seen.
They set off, therefore, at once, expecting to be pursued, and were rather surprised that this was not the case. No one followed them, but, as they were drawing near the camp, they heard the sound of the explosion.
Greatly frightened—for it sounded to them where they were much louder than it did to those at the camp—they ran on faster than ever, firing their rifles now as they ran. And this timely warning had the effect, as above stated, of collecting all outlying natives, as well as preparing those at the camp for what was to come.
The horror of it that seized upon Barron and Alec when they knew the terrible truth can be better imagined than described.
Barron had no difficulty in understanding what had happened.
"The fiends had blown in the entrance to the mine—that's what the explosion meant," he declared. "They've sealed up our friends inside, and will leave them to die while they come on here to loot the camp and capture the yacht."
Alec was so overwhelmed that he seemed for a while unable to realise the position of danger in which they all now stood. He talked wildly of hurrying at once to the rescue of the doctor and those with him, forgetting, as the cooler-headed skipper pointed out, that such a thing was absolutely impossible.
"Buck up, my lad!" cried Barron. "We must stay here and fight the rats off first, and trust to Providence. If we can get the better of 'em here we'll lose no time in going to the help of our friends. Now do you think you understand your part?"
"I think so, captain," Alec declared determinedly. "It sha'n't be my fault if we don't beat 'em off. I see how fortunate it is that you had your plans all ready beforehand."
"So long, then, lad, so long. I guess we'll meet no more till we've either taught 'em a lesson or they've busted us."
The two clasped hands, and the captain hastened away to the boat that was waiting for him. Within a very short space of time he was on board the yacht, had hauled up the anchor, and was heading her as though to make his way up the creek.
The sunken reef was a ledge—not of coral, but of volcanic rock— which ran not far under water nearly across the creek. It had been discovered by the natives when swimming and diving, and they had reported it to the captain. He had surveyed it himself, and had found that there was a gap at one part, not far from the shore and just opposite the crow's nest, where a large vessel could pass through. Everywhere else the reef was so near the surface that only small boats and canoes could pass over it with safety.
In order to be quite certain, however, Captain Barron had carefully sounded the whole of it, and in places where he thought the rock lay a little lower he had had bags of shingle secretly sunk there, so as to make it shallower. It was to assure himself that these bags were still in position and had not been shifted by the currents or the waves that he had gone out the first thing that morning, and so had missed seeing the doctor before he started for the mine.
Alec now watched the yacht as she made her way slowly through the gap. In order to do this she had to pass within a few hundred yards of the crow's nest. And as this towered up, fifty feet or more above the level of the water, those on it, peering over the boulders which had been placed round almost like battlements, could look right down on the yacht's deck.
So narrow was the channel that she could only go very cautiously; indeed, they could see Captain Barron feeling his way all the time with the lead.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Alec, "if the Hawk should attempt to follow her through there, we could shoot down every soul on board her as easy as knocking over a lot of ninepins!"
Tom Read grinned.
"I'm only hopin' as she will try, sir," he said between his teeth. "Maybe we may get our chance that way to be free t' go an' look fur the doctor and Mr. Clive."
This reminder of what these callous-minded ruffians had done set Alec's blood boiling again. He pictured his chum Clive and the doctor sealed up in that underground passage with their native followers and their small stock of food and oil for their lanterns. He pictured the awful despair with which they must regard their terrible situation, and he thought with a sickening feeling that the only alternative to staying there and dying of hunger was to go down once more to that horrible underground lake, where perhaps some other dreadful death would be awaiting them. He shuddered at the thought of their going back there without even so much as a boat with which to attempt the passage of the tunnel.
He wondered if they were waiting expecting that he and the skipper were hastening to their aid? Did they realise that, so far from doing that, all at the camp had now to fight for their own lives?
And there before him he could now see the people who had planned this diabolical thing. There was the Hawk steaming towards the shore, its crew ready to complete their infamous work by the shooting down and murdering wholesale any who opposed them, and selling the survivors into lifelong slavery.
Small wonder is it that, as these thoughts passed through his mind, Alec began to "see red." For the first time in his life he felt the battle fever; for the first time he was impatient to begin, eager to pour forth death and destruction upon this scoundrelly gang, who, it seemed to him, more than ever must consist, as Storbin had said, of fiends rather than human beings.
He wondered that the party, which he knew must be on its way from the mine after carrying out their fell work there, had not yet put in an appearance.
As a matter of fact, they were just then waiting out of sight along the shore. It was a part of their plan not to attack the camp before the Hawk had got close enough to help them with its guns, which threw small shells. Two or three of these fired amongst the defenders should, they reckoned, be sufficient to drive them out like rats from a burning haystack, sending them an easy prey to the party on shore waiting in ambush for them.
The Hawk came on, and Alec, through his glasses, could now see that her deck was crowded with men. Doubtless what Captain Barron had said was correct. Diego had been away to one of those coast towns to which he retired at intervals to spend his unholy gains, and there he had picked up reinforcements. That meant some of the scourings of the seaboard—a collection of thieves, scoundrels, and murderers of many types and, doubtless, of divers nations. And these had joined together for the nonce to capture so attractive a prize as the explorer's yacht and all their belongings, and then take up their interrupted task of treasure-hunting.
As the pirate vessel came yet closer Alec noticed a stir on board. They were making preparations to begin hostilities. He could now, by the aid of his glasses, see even the faces of the men, and he had certainly never seen so many evil countenances gathered together in one place before in his life.
It was a good thing indeed, Alec reflected, that they had had warning, and that Captain Barron had shown such foresight in devising a plan for thwarting these men. What chance would the explorers have had had they been caught unawares, and with no settled plan of defence to guide them?
NOW Alec could see them uncovering a small cannon and loading it. A minute later there was a flash, and even before the sound of the report had come to their ears a cannon-ball had come whizzing into the camp below the platform of rock, knocking over one of the tents and sending a great cloud of sand and shingle up into the air.
"There goes one of our tents, Tom," said Alec regretfully. "It's a pity we hadn't time to take 'em down and stow 'em away."
"They makes a good decoy fur their shot," Tom remarked philosophically. "They thinks we be all down there in them tents instead o' up here."
So far things had gone as the defenders had desired. But now they began to go wrong.
The shore party suddenly made their appearance, and made a rush towards the camp, and Alec gave the signal to his men to open fire. This was all as per programme. Sailors and natives joined in an irregular volley, which, coming from the rock above instead of from the camp itself, evidently took the assailants by surprise.
They were thrown into confusion, and halted: then, as the firing continued and men began to fall, they made a rush to one side, and took shelter behind some rocks. From there they began firing at the defenders, and bullets came whistling round the occupants of the crow's nest.
So far so good. The assault on the camp had been checked, and that with rifle-fire alone. Now, according to Captain Barron's programme, the filibusters should have moved on to follow up the yacht, leaving the camp and the people on the crow's nest to be dealt with on their return.
But they did nothing of the sort. Instead they got out their boats, and began clambering into them the while that the cannon was trained on to the crow's nest, and a shot came hurtling at the defenders.
Evidently Diego had decided to deal with the camp before dealing with the yacht. He was going to send his boats full of men to join with those on shore in a determined effort to capture the place first by an irresistible assault.
Seeing this, his men on the shore at once plucked up heart again. From behind the rocks they now started a fierce fusillade, and this, together with the booming of the cannon and the sight of the men getting into the boats, had a bad effect upon the natives. They began to fire wildly, and as they were mostly armed with but old-fashioned guns, it was becoming clear that the filibusters were not much afraid of them.
"What are we to do, Tom?" Alec asked of the mate. "The captain's instructions were not to make use of the maxims. But if we don't we shall be rushed, and even now it may be almost too late, for I'm afraid we can't trust these natives. They have such a fear of Diego and his desperadoes that I can see they are ready even now to rush off in a panic."
Just then a shot from the cannon came screaming along, and struck a boulder, exploding with a loud report—for it was a shell. This was too much for most of the blacks. With cries of fear and terror they began scrambling down the path to the shore, only anxious for a chance of escape before the dreaded men in the boats could reach them.
In the underground passage within the mountains, a few miles away, Dr. Campbell was holding a council of war with Clive and Ben Grove.
Instead of the whistling bullets, the screaming of shells, and the hoarse shouts and cries of men fighting for their lives, such as rang in Alec's ears, the doctor and his companions were surrounded by the pressing silence. And in place of the blazing sunlight there was utter, terrible darkness, relieved only by the dim gleam of lanterns, which they knew would vanish altogether when their limited store of oil ran out.
The men in these underground caverns were fighting for their lives no less than were their friends in the sunlight. It was a duller, more gloomy fight, it had no excitement in it, and to them at least it seemed more hopeless.
Nevertheless, the doctor was not one to give way to despair. It was his duty, he considered, to do everything that could be done to husband such stores as they could get in order to make them last as long as possible. For he was not altogether without hope that his friends at the camp would yet find some way of rescuing him. Captain Barron was not only brave and loyal, but resourceful; and he would not leave his leader to die without making an effort to get to him. And the longer the underground prisoners could make their stores last, therefore the greater their chances of ultimate rescue would be.
Reasoning thus, the doctor set about a careful examination of his resources, in order that he might draw up a sort of table of the amount to be allowed all round per day. Assisted by some of the natives, he and Clive were inspecting with the light of a lantern some barrels of biscuits which had been placed in one of the side galleries leading out of the large grotto.
Suddenly one of the natives uttered an exclamation. The doctor, turning round, saw that he was looking at a part of one of the barrels down near the rocky floor on which it rested, and feeling it with his fingers. The man was one of the native scouts, and he spoke a little English. He now tried to explain himself to the doctor. Something, he said, had been gnawing at the wood of the barrel. Furthermore, the gnawing was fresh—it had been done quite recently—since the barrel had been brought to that place.
The doctor started. He had grasped the man's idea. It was that some ratlike animal had been there, and, guided by its instinct or keen sense of smell, had been trying to get at the biscuits within.
But where, then, had such creatures come from? Had they come from the underground lake, for instance, or from some other direction? On the answer to that question much might depend.
At once the doctor and the scout began a careful scrutiny of the floor of the gallery. There they found some traces which led them further, till their investigations were barred by the fall from the roof.
The scout lay down at full length, and sniffed about here and there. Then he uttered a grunt of satisfaction.
"Him beast come in an' out dis way," he declared. "I smell him. And it blow!"
"Blows?" exclaimed the doctor. "Can he mean, I wonder, that there is a current of air down there? Clive, get some tools, and we will move some of the rubbish. There may be nothing in it, but the instinct of these men is wonderfully acute sometimes. It may be that this man's instinct is telling him there is a way out here."
Needless to say, it did not take Clive and Grove very long to bring some picks and shovels. Acting still upon the suggestion of Akrola, as the scout was named, some of the rubbish was cleared away, until a narrow pathway had been made into it for a few feet in length.
Here they came upon a very evident run, which had been made by some small animal, and the doctor himself could now distinctly feel a current of air coming through it.
Somewhat cheered by this, the workers applied their tools faster, and other natives came to help.
And finally, after two or three hours' work, they came to the end of the fall, and found themselves in a broad gallery of fair height, which seemed to be quite clear, and might extend for any distance.
A strong draught came through, showing that there must be an outlet to the open air somewhere further along.
Then the doctor called all his followers together, and taking with them their arms, lanterns, and plenty of ammunition, they all set out in a state of excitement to explore the new passage.
They found it fairly free from falls, so were able to march along without impediment, till presently they began to notice a low murmuring, which increased at last to a roar, telling of an underground stream.
A little later they reached a vast grotto, where an underground river rushed suddenly into view out of the darkness, and disappeared again as suddenly into the inky depths of a terrible gulf.
The dim light of lanterns showed them vaguely great masses of white foam and rolling clouds of spray and vapour. Everything was wet and slippery and slimy, and when they looked about for some means of continuing their progress they found the only way lay down some slimy steps cut in the rock beside the fall.
These steps looked uninviting and dangerous, but there was no other road, and they had perforce to descend them by the dim light of their lanterns.
The overpowering thunder of the fall in their ears all the time during the descent rendered speech utterly impossible.
However, the descent was effected at last, and then it was found that the river went off one way while the path continued in another direction through a further gallery.
This was but a short passage, and then, quite unexpectedly, as it seemed, they found themselves in another grotto, larger than any they had yet seen, and containing fresh and startling surprises.
Looking down on them through the gloom were several large faces of unutterable ugliness. They belonged, it appeared, to some great stone images, which reared themselves to such a height that they were all but lost in the darkness above.
"AN ancient temple!" exclaimed the doctor, after peering round. "Yes, an underground temple! What a singular thing to find here— for this part of the island has been raised above the sea, you know; which would seem to imply that it was first of all above the sea level, then was plunged below, and now has been once more raised above it.
"See!" he continued, pointing to some curious-looking masses hanging from the side. "Here we have seaweeds and sea anemones— ay, and barnacles and other creatures, now dead, but still clinging to the rotten wall. And I see many other signs proving that this strange temple has lain deep in the sea for many years, and then has been raised above it!"
Strange and intensely interesting as this was, however, the travellers were more intent just then upon the question of finding a way out into the open air.
After a search in the dark recesses of the temple, they discovered another passage on the opposite side, and which they followed in its turn. Like the others they had passed through, the floor was mostly strewn with bare rock, with loose pieces lying about here and there.
Then, quite suddenly, they became aware that the nature of the floor had undergone a change. It was no longer bare, smooth rock, but was covered with sand and small pebbles and other gritty substances. In fact, they were evidently here again in the bed of a watercourse.
Clive uttered an ejaculation. Stooping down, he picked something up. "See! See, doctor!" he cried excitedly, "see, Ben, what I have found!"
By the light of the lantern they saw something glistening in his hand. He had a handful of pebbles and shells, of which several had a coating of gold like those they had found near the underground lake.
But whereas the pebbles they had there picked up had been dull, with the coating almost worn off, these were comparatively fresh and bright.
Looking about further on the floor, they found many more glittering specimens.
"Why, these are by far the best we have come across!" the doctor declared. "It seems to me as though we must be really on the track of the gold water at last!"
"But where does all this come from?" Clive queried. "There must be another channel which has joined this. But where is it?"
It seemed rather a puzzle, for there was the sand underfoot, but nothing to show where it had come from or how it had got there. There was no branch or side passage to account for it.
Suddenly the doctor glanced up at the roof, and then the riddle was explained. Above their heads was a tunnel-like aperture going straight up into the darkness. Evidently what, amongst mountaineers, is technically known as a chimney.
"H'm! A stream of water at times comes running down that chimney," said Doctor Campbell, "bringing sand and pebbles, and runs along this gallery to some outlet beyond. We shall have to explore that chimney somehow if we want to follow the gold water up to its source. However, just now it is more important to find our way out. It begins to look as if these galleries are interminable. We're in a regular labyrinth."
But their patience and perseverance were not put to much further test. A few minutes later they caught sight of a glimmer of light in the distance, and soon saw enough to tell them they were coming out into the open air—and that near the sea.
But now, as they drew nearer and nearer to this outlet, they heard the sound of fighting and firing. There was the sharp cracking of rifles, and the booming of cannon, and mingled with it all were shouts and yells and screams.
The passage suddenly opened to right and left, and they emerged upon a sloping ledge or terrace, which had somewhat the appearance of being an old landslide.
Around, on the sloping ledge, rocks, stones, and boulders were piled and thrown about in wild confusion. Looking beyond these, they had a view over the sea and the shore below, and there they beheld an extraordinary scene.
To return to Alec and his companions on the rocky platform called the crow's nest. Just as the natives with him had started to descend the path to the shore the way was barred by two dark figures springing, rifles in hand, in their path. They were Menga and Kalma.
"Back, back!" the first-named shouted in their own language. "Are we men or are we foxes, that we should leave the young white chief who saved us from these men to be torn to pieces by his enemies? He fought bravely to set us free when we were held in bondage by these white devils. Shall we desert him like cowards at the time when he most needs our help in return? Shame be on those who desert him! We will carry their names to our king and shout them aloud before all the people! They will be accursed in the land, and their wives and children shall be ashamed of them!"
This exhortation and the splendid example set by the two staunch fighters themselves had the desired effect. The natives raised a cheer for the brave young white chief, and swore they were ready to stay and fight for him—and die for him if required.
Alec, though he did not understand the exact words of the speech, guessed its import even before he saw its effect. He went over to his two gallant "darkies," as he always called them, and solemnly shook hands with them before all. Then he turned again to Read, as he heard him utter some exclamations.
"What's up, Tom?" he asked.
"Why, look, sir!" he cried. "D'ye see them boats? They bain't makin' for the shore after all. They doan't seem to be thinkin' of us. I believe they be thinkin' uv the yacht an' goin' t' make fur her."
"Make for the yacht!" Alec repeated in astonishment. "Why—what— I don't understand."
No more did Tom. Till then they had both taken it for granted that the men were coming ashore in the boats to try to rush the crow's nest. It had certainly looked like it, and the filibusters had turned the cannon upon the place. But now there was an evident change. Whether it was that they had altered their minds, or that they had merely made a feint in order to keep the party at the camp quiet, it was certain that they were now giving their attention to the yacht.
But not—unfortunately for all their well-laid plans—in the way Captain Barron had expected. Instead of following the yacht, and either running on the reef or trying for the gap, the Hawk now lay to, and, uncovering another cannon, trained them both on the Valda.
At the same time the boats began to move off in orderly, determined fashion in the direction of the yacht. And what a lot of them there were—boats and canoes—and what a lot of men!
As Alec had said, he could not understand it. Was it that Diego was aware of the hidden reef, and knew too much to be caught that way? Still, even so, why in that case did he not make for the gap if he wished to come to close quarters with the yacht? He could scarcely know, at any rate, how well armed the party on the crow's nest were.
It seemed a bold, daring thing to attempt to capture the yacht with boats filled with boarders. It might succeed, of course— Alec thought with a shiver of all that that would mean!—but it certainly seemed a wild venture. And if that was the pirates' plan, what part precisely, Alec wondered ought he to take in it? How could he best help the captain?
These speculations were interrupted by Read, who cried suddenly:
"Why, what be the matter wi' the yacht?"
Alec turned his glance from the Hawk, with its swarm of boats, to the Valda, and he certainly felt disconcerted at what he saw.
Instead, as one would have expected, of manoeuvring to either get farther away from the boats, or prepare to face them and run them down, the yacht appeared to be drifting helplessly with the current, which was slowly, but pretty surely, carrying her towards the very reef which her skipper had planned should be the undoing of his adversary.
AND now that the Hawk had opened fire upon the Valda, she was making no reply beyond a volley or two of rifle-shots. And very small volleys they were—for, of course, she had not many men.
That was the worst of it. Alec's heart fell as he thought of how small a company Barron had with him, after allowing for Read and those with him on the crow's nest. He knew only too well that, if all that savage lot in the boats once gained the yacht's deck and came to grips with her weak crew, all hope would be gone. They must inevitably capture her.
Alec's speculations, however, were again interrupted; this time by the necessity for prompt action.
The party on the shore, encouraged by the very evident signs of fright they had seen on the part of the natives, had grown bolder, and had been stealing an advance upon them. Creeping from rock to rock while Menga had been exhorting them, and Alec's attention had been given to the yacht, some of the assailants had managed to get quite close. From behind some rocks, only fifty yards or so away, they were keeping up a constant sniping, which was causing trouble again among the blacks. Already two or three had been wounded, and they were evidently becoming panic-stricken.
"We must do something to dislodge those fellows from behind that rock, Read," Alec said, pointing to the place. "What had we better do? I don't want to use a maxim or cannon just yet. I'd rather keep 'em as a reserve."
"Ay, ay, sir, I understand," he returned thoughtfully. "Tell ye what, sir, there be some rockets lyin' with the other stuff in the caves. That seems t' me t' be the sort of medicine to suit their complaint like."
"Why, of course! The very thing, Tom! What a silly I was not to think of it!" said Alec, laughing. "It's a capital idea! It'll help to make the blacks buck up, too, I'll bet, when they see how it will set those chaps down there skipping!"
Read laughed too, and went off to look for the rockets.
It has to be borne in mind that all this time firing was going on all around, and bullets were whistling overhead.
Clive's coolness in the midst of it all excited the admiration not only of Read, but also of the sailors with him. Read himself was an old man-o'-war's man, and had seen actual service. To him pluck and coolness in the midst of a fight were a sort of second nature. But he had not expected to find it in a young fellow so inexperienced, comparatively speaking, as Clive.
The real fact of the matter, was, however, that Alec was, as has been said before, filled with a hot anger against these piratical adventurers, who had resorted to such an infamous, low-down trick as that practised against the doctor and his companions.
"I'll pay 'em out for it! I'll shoot 'em down like the vile scum they are!" he growled out between his teeth. "I'll kill them with no more mercy than if they were a nest of crawling, wriggling, venomous serpents! Heaven helping me, I'll make it my special business to avenge my friends!"
Perhaps if he had not had this great incentive to take up his thoughts he might have thought more of the dangers he was courting. But the anger, disgust, and indignation he felt against Diego and his gang had lighted a smouldering fire which, for the time being, drove away all other thoughts save one—how to get even with this villainous, treacherous horde, and pay them back in their own coin.
Read soon reappeared with a bundle under his arm. From among the bundle he picked out a tripod and fitted a rocket. A moment or two later, and it started on its errand, hissing, screaming, and sending out volumes of fiery sparks.
It dropped just over the rock where the snipers had taken their stand, and scattered them like a lot of rabbits.
Alec and the sailors were on the look-out, and, as the snipers bolted, fired at them without scruple. This pleased the blacks immensely, and they entered at once into the spirit of the thing.
More rockets were fired, and sent whizzing, spitting forth fire amongst rocks where other snipers were hiding, and this time, as they bolted, Alec left the work of dealing with them to the natives.
Meantime, what of the yacht? What was Captain Barron doing?
Alas! he was eating his heart out with rage and chagrin, ready to tear his hair and rend his clothes. Instead of outwitting the pirates and leading them into the trap he had prepared for them, it was he who had become a victim to their clever treachery.
He had supposed that all the men whom he distrusted had deserted. He knew that they had disappeared, and that some, at any rate, had swum ashore in the night and gone off overland to join Diego's gang.
But he was wrong in taking it for granted that they had all done the same, the truth being that two of them had merely concealed themselves as stowaways might.
The skipper's suspicions and fears having been thus lulled by their supposed desertion, these men carried out a little plan of their own.
While Barron had been absent early that morning they had been busy, and it was not long after his return before the effects of their sinister industry became visible.
The captain had got under weigh, had passed safely through the gap in the reef, and had given the order to steam ahead—he wanted to work round to take up a certain position—when the engines suddenly stopped.
Captain Barron roared out inquiries down the tube, and then, dissatisfied with the answers he received, had rushed down into the engine-room to interview Macdonald, the chief engineer. There he found that a pin had somehow worked loose and flown out, the machinery had jammed, and Macdonald and his assistants were working like Trojans to repair the mischief.
While this was going on the Hawk was drawing near, and was already firing at the people in the crow's nest and getting out her boarders in the boats.
The Valda lay helpless, drifting slowly back towards that very reef which Barron had hoped to strand the Hawk upon. And the Hawk refused to walk into the trap; instead she had halted at a safe distance from it, and was making brisk preparations for capturing the yacht while she lay helpless.
The Hawk's boats would be able to pass over the reef, and the Valda could do nothing effective to stop them.
"Well, we can at least make a fight of it!" growled Barron, as, rushing on deck again, he was just in time to feel the wind of a cannon-ball.
"Stand by with Long Tom!" he roared out to the second mate. "Now then, what are you waiting for?"
Barron suddenly felt a sort of shiver seize him. It was a premonition that something else was wrong. It proved to be well founded. There was something the matter with their one cannon. It had been spiked!
"Heavens, man! Don't you dare to tell me that!" yelled Barron at Owen, the second mate.
The skipper fairly danced along the deck in his rage and mortification, all but stopping another shot from the Hawk with his body.
"Get a drill from below and drill it out!" he ordered one of the sailors. "And, Owen, take the maxims in hand. Y—you're not going to tell me you can't work 'em?"
Captain Barron almost screamed these words. His eyes were nearly starting out of his head. His face turned a deep purple. He looked as if he would burst.
He saw it all now! While he had been busy with his plan of battle these cunning scoundrels had been secretly plotting against him in a manner he had little idea of. And now, lo! here were the results of their crafty handiwork! The yacht lay helpless. She could neither fight nor run away. She was practically at the mercy of the boatloads of boarders who were now setting out towards him!
Barron raced round the deck to the sharpshooters he had placed in position, and urged them to keep up their volleys. Then he dived below to hurry up Macdonald.
"It's no sma' matter, skipper," that worthy grunted, in answer to Barron's excited urging. "It's not likely I'm lettin' the grass grow under me feet. But ye dinna ken the deefficulty of the job. But I'll have her right now in a little while."
"A little while!" roared Barron. "The boarders'll be here, and we shall be all knocked on the head before yer little while is up!"
He rushed on deck again like one demented. Owen and another man were busy on the gun despite the fact that bullets were singing to right and to left, and that every minute or so a big shot came shrilling past. One caught the gunwale of the motor-launch and sent a splinter or two flying. It gave the captain an idea. He called to a couple of his men.
"Get the launch out and tow the ship," he ordered. "Ye can keep her away from the reef, at any rate, till we can get the engines to work."
Thus it came about that Alec and Read, watching the yacht from the crow's nest, wondering each moment more and more at her behaviour, saw the motor-launch appear from behind the vessel with a rope and commence towing her.
Then they understood. They could only guess as to what had happened, but the miserable outcome was plain enough. The yacht was disabled. Something must have gone wrong with her engines.
A roar, half of derision, half of triumph, burst forth from the boatloads of boarders as they, too, realised what had happened. And at once they started rowing hard in order to close round the yacht and capture her while they had such a splendid chance.
Alec was in a fever of wild excitement at the sight. He was scarcely less upset than the captain on his deck.
"What on earth can have happened?" he exclaimed.
"Can't be anything very bad," Read growled thoughtfully. "Macdonald's too careful a man fur that. Some little thing p'raps as he'll put right directly—"
"But that will be too late, man," Alec cried. "Can't we help him—do something to gain time for him? Let us turn the fire of our cannon and maxims on those grinning, shouting devils in yon boats! That'll make 'em grin on the other side of their faces, and perhaps give the captain time. It's bound to stop 'em. They can't keep on under the fire we can treat 'em to."
"No, sir. It's bound, as ye say, t' stop 'em. But—have ye considered? It'll turn 'em on to us! They're bound to save theirselves. We shall have the whole lot of 'em on to us like a swarm of hornets!"
"I don't care. They may wipe us out, but it may be the saving of the yacht. Quick! There's no time to be lost!"
A minute later the triumphant, jeering filibusters were, as Alec had forecasted, grinning on the other side of their faces.
Quite suddenly, without the least warning, a terrible fire had been turned on them from the despised party in the crow's nest. The rattle of maxims, mingled with the booming of the cannon, throwing a six-pound shell, and the execution effected in the closely packed boats was terrible.
The boats stopped, one began to sink, and then the rest turned.
Diego, it seemed, was leading them, and he saw that there was but one thing to be done if he would avoid defeat. He must rush the crow's nest.
Some of the boats would fain have turned tail, but they dared not disobey him. All accordingly pulled madly for the shore, and, utterly regardless of the rain of bullets, they jumped ashore and raced like mad demons up the beach.
It was at that moment that the doctor and Clive with their party appeared high up on a rock in the rear, and gazed down in astonishment upon what was going on.
In a trice, as it were, Dr. Campbell's experienced eye had taken in everything, and he understood.
He had seen the helpless yacht being towed by the motor-launch, had seen the boats start forward to capture her, and heard the chorus of premature triumph which had been turned to shrieks and yells as the men on the crow's nest poured in their dread fire.
He had then seen the boats turn, and the men in them make for the shore, and he knew the dire danger in which the dauntless band of the crow's nest now stood.
He knew that Alec, in acting as he had in order to gain time for Captain Barron, had drawn the whole swarm of cut-throats against himself. It had either been a very mad thing to do, or an act of splendid, unselfish devotion. In any case, as things stood, it could have only one result.
There were but four white men on the rocky platform besides Alec. His native allies were nearly all armed with old rifles, and altogether were of little account when it came to real hard fighting with a swarm of desperadoes of the calibre of Diego and his men.
The latter were now in a seething, furious, desperate, devil-may-care state. They ran, filled with maniacal rage against the devoted band who had stopped their attack on the yacht and turned their expected victory into a retreat. Moreover, they were in that position when to stand still, to hesitate, meant death. They had but one chance—to rush the place, in spite of the hail of bullets from the maxims. In doing this they must, of course, lose heavily, but enough would survive to deal with the five white men and the natives.
Such was the position. The assailants knew it, and they kept on blindly, wildly. They were for the time homicidal maniacs, filled with ferocity and hatred and the desire for a terrible revenge for the losses they had already suffered.
"Heaven help that very young fellow and all with him if they storm the place!" muttered the doctor, with a heavy sigh.
"What can we do to help them, sir?" cried Clive "Surely—surely we can do something?"
He and Grove had already unslung their rifles, and had added their fire to that which Alec was sending forth; but a few bullets more or less seemed to make hardly any difference just then.
Something more was wanted. And now most of the assailants had reached the base of the rock, where they were comparatively safe for the moment. The overhanging rock itself protected them, and they had a breathing-time to collect their energies for the final rush up the path.
The path was on their left side, so that, in order to gain it, the stormers must pass in full view of the doctor and his companions.
The doctor would have descended to Alec's assistance before this could he have done so; but, as has been before explained, the side of the mountain behind the crow's nest was a wall of rock which, if not quite perpendicular, was so steep as to be practically unclimbable. Thus the doctors party had come out on a place where they were themselves virtually prisoners.
They were confined to a hanging terrace on the face of the cliff, a place of considerable extent, sloping, and covered with innumerable boulders and loose pieces of rock of all sorts and sizes and shapes. But beyond the limits of this terrace they could not travel, and if there had not been matters of so much more importance to occupy their thoughts, they would now have been trying to puzzle out how they were going to descend to the shore.
The doctor's glance flashed quickly this way and that, seeking desperately for some way in which to aid the devoted band on the platform below them. Looking for a moment out to sea, he caught sight of a number of specks coming round the distant headland. But he had no time even to consider what they might be, and his glance flashed back to the rocks lying around. And then it was that the idea so anxiously sought came to him. At that moment Alec looked up and waved his hand to his friends above. He meant it, they all knew, as a farewell. Another minute or two, and he and his faithful few would be overwhelmed, and their fate would be sealed.
"Quick! Quick!" cried the doctor to Clive and Grove. "Put your rifles aside and help me!"
They obeyed, wondering a little at first; but they quickly grasped the idea. A few moments later the air was filled with the thunder of great rocks crashing down the mountain side in a series of avalanches.
They swept down upon the place where the filibusters had begun to swarm up the path. Here the boulders came rolling down upon them, carrying with them confusion, fear, and death. The natives of the doctor's party lost no time in imitating their leader, and it is needless to say that it was a game at which they could play every bit as well as the white men.
Now just before Alec had, as stated above, waved a good-bye to his friends above. He had known for some minutes that they were there, for the sound of rifle fire overhead had drawn his gaze that way, and he had recognised them with mingled surprise and delight. He had realised, however, that they could not get down to him, nor could they help him to any material extent, situated as they were. He also knew that he and those with him were, in all human probability, doomed.
They could not hope to resist the ferocious crowd clamouring below and thirsting for their blood. There was but one thing left, and that was to sell their lives as dearly as possible. The more they could kill or disable now, the fewer there would be for Captain Barron to contend with afterwards.
Just after Alec had waved his hand to his friends above, the first of the stormers appeared at the top of the path.
Two or three were shot down, and rolled shrieking off the rock; but others took their places, and came on with such fierce and savage determination that the natives were dismayed, and retreated like a flock of frightened sheep—all save Menga and Kalma, who remained with great bravery beside their white friends.
There were but seven real fighters, therefore, all told now left to confront the bloodthirsty swarm who were storming up the path, and were already leaping over the boulders on to the platform Among these was Pedro Diego himself.
A desperate hand-to-hand fight began. Diego rushed at Alec, a cutlass in one hand and a revolver in the other. Alec sprang aside only just in time, and as Diego swung past and tried to pull up, Alec swung his rifle round and aimed a blow at him sideways.
It missed the ruffian's head, but caught his arm, and the shock caused him to drop his pistol. The next moment Alec found himself mixed up in a fighting, struggling, yelling crowd, in which his two darkies were ever beside him, trying either to aid him in attack or shield him from the blows aimed at him.
TOM READ and his sailors, meantime, were also fighting like heroes against heavy odds, when, in the midst of it all, there came the crashes of the great masses of rock down the mountain side.
The roar was deafening. The boulders came hurtling down, leaping against the base of the rock on which the platform stood, flying into a thousand pieces like exploding shells, with a noise like the booming of cannon.
The air became filled with rolling clouds of dust, so that the assailants could not see what had happened, or who or what it was that was attacking them. They could scarcely see one another; but they could hear the earth-shaking crashes, and as the dust-laden air was filled with flying pieces of rock, it seemed to their terror-stricken minds that the people on the rock, or some other unknown and unexpected foes, had opened upon them a terrific cannonade.
There was a momentary halt, an outcry of screams and cries, of curses and revilings, and then began a stampede back to the boat.
On the platform, a terribly fierce, determined struggle was still going on between the defenders and those who had gained a temporary footing there; but now the falling rock and the cries and shrieks of dismay and fear among the filibusters below told a tale of their own to the natives, who suddenly took heart again, and rushed to the assistance of the white men.
Diego and those with him were surrounded, and had to fight hard to make their escape. In the end, however, he and a few of his men made their escape, leaping buck over the boulders, and disappearing amid the thick cloud of dust and the flying pieces of rock, leaving several of their party dead or wounded behind them.
Alec and Read paused for breath and looked round. Many forms were lying about. Two of the sailors and several natives—Menga amongst them—were stretched on the rocky floor. Down Alec's face a little stream of blood was trickling. Tom Read had a wound in the left arm, which another sailor was binding up for him.
Kalma came up to Alec with a cloth he had got from somewhere, and insisted on binding round his head, for the young fellow had received a nasty cut, which he owed to the pirate leader himself, and which might have been fatal if it had not been partly parried by the devoted Menga.
Their foes by this time were rushing panic-stricken down the shore towards their boats, scrambling into them, and pushing off in frantic haste.
As soon as they were clear of the shore and beyond the reach of that awful cannonade of rock, they began looking round for their vessel, and here a fresh surprise awaited them.
In the near distance, a large number of canoes could now be seen coming towards them. They were filled with natives, and by their demeanour and the way they were brandishing their spears, firing their guns, and shouting and gesticulating, it was pretty clear they were not friendly visitors so far as the filibusters were concerned.
Meantime, those men who had been left on board the Hawk, seeing the canoes approaching and their hostile demonstrations, had deemed it prudent to shift their position. They were moving, therefore, in such a manner as partly to avoid the oncoming canoes and at the same time meet their own boats on their way from the shore.
No doubt the men left in charge were a scratch crew, unused to handling her, and doubtless, also, they knew nothing of the sunken reef, even if its existence was known to Diego himself.
However this may have been, it came about that, in going to meet the boats, the Hawk was run on the reef; and there she stuck fast, in spite of all the efforts of those on board to back her off.
History records that the British troops "swore terribly in Flanders." However strong their language may have been in those old days, it could not well have exceeded in emphasis what we may imagine Diego and his lieutenants indulged in when they found their vessel aground on the reef and a crowd of canoes filled with hostile natives in sight.
But yet worse was in store for the discomfited gang. They had now all left the shore and scrambled into their boats. There they were safe from any further avalanches of rocks, and the party on the crow's nest were for a while too busy tending their wounded to trouble much about them.
It looked as if there might be time to get the Hawk off and steam away before the canoes could come up. The boats were rowing hard, therefore, with that intention, when there came again the boom of a cannon, and a big shot came hurtling and screaming over their heads.
Looking to see whence it came, the yacht was visible, no longer in tow of the motor-boat, coming along under her own steam, evidently making for the gap, and firing as she came on.
The next shot was aimed at the Hawk, and another smaller explosion that followed with a burst of smoke and splinters on the vessel, told that it was a shell and that it had found its mark.
This destroyed the last hopes of the beaten crowd. With the yacht coming to close quarters on the one side and the canoes closing in on the other, it was obvious that all hope of saving their ship must be abandoned. If they stopped longer to try to get it her off, it would only end in their being all captured.
Pedro Diego saw this, and realised that his one chance of escape now lay in making off at once in the boat before either the yacht or the canoes got near her.
In a voice choking with blind fury, he gave the order to turn about once more and start off along the coast.
In order to execute this retreat, they had to pass in front of the crow's nest, well within rifle-shot, and Alec could have punished them still more severely had he so chosen. But he refrained from taking advantage of it. He saw how the land lay, and was now quite satisfied with things as they were.
He did not, indeed, restrain his natives from sending a few shots amongst the retreating foe, but he took no part in it himself.
The natives in the approaching canoes, however, were not going to let the gang escape so easily if they could help it. No sooner did they see that their old, hated enemies were trying to escape than they put on steam and started in pursuit.
An exciting chase followed. The filibusters, smarting under all their disappointments and defeats, plucked up courage so far when they found they had only the natives in pursuit as to make a running fight of it. But when the yacht, having got safely back through the gap, appeared in the wake of the canoes, and began to catch up to the fugitives, the last spark of the fighting fire died out.
The defeated ruffians ran their boats ashore, left them there, and ignominiously took to their heels.
And so finally ended Diego's attempt to capture the explorers' yacht and their camp.
The half-dozen men left on board the Hawk surrendered to Captain Barron, and he sent a party of his own men to take charge. Then he passed a tow-line on board, and, after a little trouble, pulled the disabled vessel off the reef. So far as could be seen, she did not appear to have suffered much real damage.
But now the victors were faced with a curious and perplexing problem. How were they to get Dr. Campbell and his party down from their ledge, high up on the face of the mountain? Captain Barron went on shore to consult with Alec, whom he shook warmly by the hand, and there were almost tears in his eyes as he spoke to him, and thanked him for what he had done.
"Ye helped me out of an awful hole, my lad," he said, "and gained me the time I wanted, and ye did it knowin' what terrible cost it would mean for yerself. I can't thank ye; words won't come. I can only say Heaven bless ye for it!"
"That's all right, captain." Alec returned cheerily. "You'd have done as much for me. I'm so glad it's all come out right! It was such hard lines your plan failing."
"Ah!" said the skipper, with a sigh. "'The best-laid plans o' mice and men.' You know the rest. It applies well here. Instead of outwitting those scoundrels, they outwitted me. Great Scott! How would it have gone if you had not put your oar in as you did?"
"Well, well! All's well that ends well, captain. Not only have we beaten them off, but we captured their ship; and there are our friends come back, without our having to go and hunt for them underground. I suppose they must have followed some passage they found, and then found it brought them out there."
"Yes," said the captain, looking up at the doctor and waving his hand to him, "I suppose it's something of that sort. But how the dickens are we going to get them down here?"
That was the puzzle, and while the two were considering the point they were joined by Storbin, who had given up the chase of their fleeing enemies and come ashore to greet them.
He came swaggering up, with a more wonderful figure than ever, with a yet bigger plume of feathers, his sword jangling, and all his brass armour-work clattering.
He was attended by a bodyguard of natives, and had the air of a victorious general on the field of battle.
"Sure, thin," he said, "Oi've kep' me wurrd, as ye see, an' it's a very lucky toime that I'm come, it seems t' me!"
"That's true enough! I'm very glad to see ye, and to thank ye for myself and me leaders," returned the captain heartily. "I think we can all congratulate one another. You've chased an old enemy; we've beaten dangerous foes off, and got their vessel. I'm not a great hand at words, and I guess our leader will thank you better than I can when he joins us. At present he's up yonder."
"So I percave," said Storbin, looking very perplexed. "How did he get there, an' how will he be gettin' down agen?"
"Just the question we were discussing when you came along," Barron told him. "By the by, where is your royal and august master?"
"Somewhere over there!" Storbin nodded his head in the direction of the canoe. "It's comin' ashore he'll be shortly!"
The captain then gave the Irishman as briefly as possible an account of what had happened, and explained the difficulty they were in.
"We'll have to make use of Tom Read's harpoon-gun again, I fancy," Alec suggested. "It'll be an awkward business to manage even then, but I don't see any other way."
More talk ensued, and various ideas were suggested. Tom Read was called in to assist at the council. His wound had fortunately proved to be only a graze, though a rather nasty one. He was cheery and good-humoured, however, and full of glee at the way things had turned out.
In the end, Alec's suggestion was adopted. The apparatus was brought, and the doctor was informed as well as could be done by signs of what was intended so that he and all his companions might get out of harm's way.
When all was ready, they retired up the passage for some distance, and Read started to try to get a harpoon with a line attached into the passage, which, as has been mentioned, opened out considerably just near the outlet, thus luckily making the operation rather more hopeful than would otherwise have been the case.
The first time the missile missed, and, striking the rock, fell back. The second went into the passage, but the weight of the line dragged it out again before those above could secure it.
However, at the fourth attempt they succeeded, and communication was established so far as a light line went.
Then a heavier rope was sent up, and, after that, some crowbars, chisels, hammers, and other tools, for the prisoners above had to arrange some means of holding the end of the rope securely before they could trust themselves to come down by it.
It was just getting dark when the doctor, Clive, and Grove descended and were able to shake hands with their friends.
Dr. Campbell took Alec aside.
"I saw it all, Alec," he said, with emotion. "I saw how you determined to try to gain Captain Barron the time he wanted, at no matter what cost to yourself. It was a most courageous act on your part. No words of mine can be adequate to thank you. You saved the yacht, and so saved us all."
"Pooh, pooh, sir!" Alec returned lightly. "You saved us on your side by turning on that shower of rocks. It was that that did the trick at the critical moment."
The doctor shook his head.
"That has nothing to do with what you did. All the same, I am bound to say I do not know how to feel thankful enough that those rocks were there ready to our hands, and that the idea was put into my mind to make use of them."
Relieved by the defeat of the filibusters and the capture of their vessel of the fear of further attack, the explorers were able for the first time to give their attention seriously and wholly to their treasure-hunting.
Deciding that it would be a very difficult and awkward matter to try to follow the underground watercourse through the chimney, the doctor resolved to reach the ground above it from the outside.
But the mountain proved to be absolutely inaccessible on every side, for during the next few days they travelled completely round it, only to be met with frowning walls of rock which no man could scale.
Now, therefore, was the time to make use of his aeroplane, which had not yet been utilised. It had been impossible to trust it on shore so long as there had been expectation of attacks by Diego's gang.
It was unpacked accordingly, the various parts fitted together, and a day or two later the doctor made a trial trip in it.
The astonishment of the natives when they saw the white chief rise in the air and circle to and fro across the face of the soaring mountain, as a gigantic eagle might have done, can scarcely be described. A scene ensued which baffles description, the men first falling on their knees and then on their faces in lowly abeyance, then, after he had returned to earth, breaking out into the wildest singing and dancing in celebration of the astounding event.
Having satisfied himself that the machine was in good working order, the daring aviator made several subsequent trips, taking a passenger each time In this way he landed Alec, Clive, and Grove on the top of the mountain, and afterwards taking up a tent for shelter at night and sufficient food to keep them going for a day or two.
They were lucky enough to discover a roomy cave, large enough to take the aeroplane complete, and, having stowed it away in this shelter, they started to explore the new ground around them.
HERE on the top of the mountain everything was very different from what was the case below. Rocks there were, but they were not the bare, sombre, forbidding rocks such as they found so much of below.
Instead, they were clothed with verdure, growing everywhere with tropical luxuriance. Streams of beautiful clear water, cascades of falling water dancing and sparkling in the sunlight, masses of gorgeous flowers—these and other natural beauties made the place seem a veritable fairyland after the sort of country they had been living in during the past weeks.
"We are now, I think we may assume," the doctor remarked, addressing himself more particularly to Ben Grove, "on the island as your unfortunate friend knew it and described it to you. Let us, then, for a moment recall what he told you. He said he had discovered a wonderful gold cave, where some curious kind of water had, by the dripping of ages probably, covered everything in it with a coating of pure gold. He showed you some pebbles, shells, and so on, which you kept, and which we now know were coated with pure gold, so that seemed to show that his story about the cave might be true enough.
"Also, since our arrival here we ourselves have actually found pebbles similarly coated, which is additional corroboration of his statements. Very well! Now, as to that gold cave. He said he had discovered it alone, unaided, the chief difficulty being, I understood, that it lay in a place difficult of access.
"Since then the place, as he said it existed, seems to have been raised higher out of the sea in such a manner as to make it still more difficult of access. But we have overcome that difficulty, and here we are on the high ground, and if what he said is true, and it exists to-day as it existed then, we ought to be able to find it without much difficulty. I suggest we separate and go different ways, assembling again here, say, in a few hours' time. But if any one of us should make any discovery or require help from the others, let him fire two shots quickly, and the others are then to hasten in the direction of the sound."
Alec glanced at Clive, and each knew what was in the other's mind.
"Does it matter, sir, if we two go together?" Alec asked. "I think if there is any wonderful golden cave to be discovered, and we should happen on it, it would be more pleasing if we both made the find together."
The doctor smiled.
"By all means—by all means," he answered. "I wish you luck! I hope you'll be the two to find it first, and I'm sure Ben Grove won't mind."
"Not me, sir!" he declared stoutly. "I'd be as glad as if I found it meself—ay, an' gladder!"
Thus, then, it was arranged, and the two young fellows set off one way, while the doctor and Grove went in other directions.
Wherever the two friends wandered, they were struck with the beauty of the place. The flowers exhaled most delicious perfumes, butterflies of wonderful colouring flitted from blossom to blossom, and here and there they came across delicious wild fruits.
"Hang it!" exclaimed Alec. "To think we have been wasting our time mooning about in that gloomy region below while all the time there was this beautiful place waiting ready to receive us up here!"
"Well, it's all through those blanked freebooters, Clive. We couldn't do anything in the exploring line in comfort so long as they were likely to attack us at any moment."
They came to a place where they had extensive views of the rest of the island. In the centre the great crater rose, and from its top smoke was issuing.
It was the first time they had either of them had a view of a volcano, and seeing it as they now did, so near and from a nearly equal height, it was a grand, awe-inspiring scene.
Alec and Clive sat side by side on a ledge or terrace of rock on the top of the mountain, taking a rest.
They had been hunting around for two or three hours without meeting with anything in the way of encouragement in their search, and now they were hot and tired.
From where they were sitting, they had an extensive view over a large part of the island below, with the sea on one side in the distance. Also, they could now see more than they had been able to see before of the volcano—the smoking mountain which rose, grim and frowning, in the centre of the island, shutting out all view of the landscape upon the other side of it.
The doctor and Ben Grove were each wandering about, as the two chums had been doing, but in different directions; and as nothing had been heard from them, it was pretty certain that they had fared no better in their quest than the young fellows themselves.
For it had been arranged that the first to make any "find" of any importance should fire two shots as a signal to the others, who would thereupon make their way towards the sound, to assist in following up whatever discovery had been made.
Alec puffed away at his pipe in rather pessimistic mood. He seemed to have had an idea that they had only to get to the top of the heretofore inaccessible precipices and they would very quickly find the golden grotto they had heard so much about, or, at least, come upon the source of the "water of gold"—the wondrous stream which covered everything upon which it flowed with the precious metal.
"It's very provoking!" grumbled Alec. "We seem not an atom nearer to finding what we are looking for up here than down below!"
"Well, there's no particular hurry, you know," returned Clive good-humouredly. "It's a charming place up here, and we are enjoying ourselves—at least, I know I am. It's a regular paradise after the sort of thing we were condemned to down below. Here you have luxuriant vegetation in place of bare rock, streams of pure, crystal water dancing and sparkling in the sunlight, the music of cascades and waterfalls, luscious fruits to be had for the picking, sweet, refreshing breezes—everything charming, delightful, fairy-like—"
How long Clive might have gone on in this strain it is difficult to say, but just as he had got so far he caught his chum's eyes turned upon him with such a whimsical expression in them that he stopped dead short.
"Great Scott!" breathed Alec, taking a long breath. "What a fine flow of adjectives, to be sure! So poetical, too! What a spring poet you would make! I should cultivate that gift, if I were you. I had no idea that you had it in you! But there's one thing you forgot to enumerate."
"What's that?" Clive asked, half sulkily, half laughing.
"Why, that fine, big, smoking mountain over yonder! We have never before had such a good view of it as we get from here. To tell the truth, though, I don't think it improves on acquaintance. The more clearly you can see it, the more ugly, repellent, sinister, sombre, baleful—"
Here he stopped short in his turn as Clive burst out laughing.
"My stars, Alec," the latter said, "you yourself seem to have a pretty good stock of adjectives stored up somewhere in that head of yours! But don't let us trouble about that silly old volcano! So long as it doesn't interfere with us more than it has so far—"
"That's just it!" Alec pointed out. "How do we know it won't? Volcanoes are very treacherous, uncertain affairs—never to be trusted, you know."
"Well, it's been well-behaved lately anyway, and it seems to me to be getting quieter."
"Don't you count too much upon that," Alec commented. "It's sometimes a bad sign, and it may be so here; and I fancy the doctor thinks so, too."
"The doctor?" exclaimed Clive, in surprise.
Alec nodded his head.
"Yes. I have an idea somehow that he is a bit doubtful or uneasy. I've noticed him consulting his stock of scientific contraptions— you know what I mean—a good deal just lately, and he's had two or three secret conferences with the captain."
"That may be only about Diego, or the position of the ship," Clive suggested, but a little doubtfully.
"Maybe. Anyhow, he's said nothing so far. I expect, therefore, that he doesn't feel very much troubled about it really, so we can put it on one side for the present. And now I suppose we ought to resume our Herculean labours of searching for this gold we've come up here to look for. Which direction shall we go in next?"
As he had been speaking he had risen to his feet, and Clive rose, too.
Alec had only taken one quick glance when he seized hold of his chum and forced him down.
"Down! Down! Down you go, man!" he hissed in a hoarse whisper; and just as they sank down a couple of bullets whistled close overhead.
There followed the sound of two shots. But they scarcely heard them, for Alec, in his sudden excitement and his eagerness to get his friend out of the line of fire, had acted so roughly that they both lost their footing and rolled off the ledge.
Down they bumped on to a narrower ledge just below, and off that again into a tangle of long grass and little bushes.
And here a fresh development awaited them. They came to earth, it is true, with a thud; but the earth itself seemed to give way, and they plunged clean through it—down, down, amid a lot of vegetation and soil, small bushes and clattering stones and rocks, down into almost total darkness, only stopping when they came to the floor of a cavern below.
This floor, fortunately for them, was covered with a bed of fine, soft sand, which broke their fall considerably.
Still, they were pretty well bruised and shaken, and dazed as well, when, after a space, they pulled themselves together, sat up, and looked round.
It was little they could see, however. The place seemed as dark as pitch. They were still in a cloud of dust, which had not yet subsided, and the only thing really visible was a sort of rift pretty high up overhead. Even this did not give them a clear view of the sky. What light there was had to filter, as it were, through a network of boughs and grass and other green-stuff.
There were mutual inquiries, and then an idea occurred to Alec. He produced from his pocket a small electric torch, turned it on, and looked about. By good luck the fall had not injured the lamp, and its rays shot out first in one direction and then in another as he turned it from side to side.
"Wh-what was it happened to us?" asked Clive, a little shakily. "And where are we?"
"As to where we are one can only say that we've tumbled into some underground hole or cave. We must have fallen clean through the roof, which, of course, must have been pretty thin. As to what happened—well, all I know is that, as I looked round, I saw the sun glinting on the barrels of two rifles pointed straight at us! I had only half a second in which to make up my mind. I'm afraid I was a bit rough! I knocked you over, didn't I?"
"Why, yes!" Clive replied, rubbing himself in two or three places. "Your method was certainly a bit drastic; but I expect, from what you say, that it saved my life. So I'm not grumbling. I can only thank you. But who on earth was it fired at us?"
"Can't say!" Alec answered laconically. "Couldn't see. No time to look."
"Well," said Clive musingly, "they were enemies, of course. And the question arises, who the deuce could they be, and how did they get up here? We had to make use of our aeroplane to get here, but they certainly had nothing of that sort to help them. So how did they do it?"
"You must ask me another, old chap! I give it up for the time being. Now, what about our belongings? Where are our rifles?"
He turned the light about, but it only revealed one rifle, which Alec picked up and examined.
"Here's mine," he muttered, "but I'm afraid it's had a nasty jar, and I'm rather doubtful whether it's what one may term usable. But as to yours—well, I can't see it anywhere!"
They both got on their feet and searched around, but were soon convinced that the missing weapon was certainly not there.
"I remember that I had laid it aside," said Clive regretfully, "so I suppose it's up top there still. Well, now, as to getting out! What's the position as to that?"
"JOLLY unpromising!" grunted Alec, as he turned the rays of the lamp upwards. "There's the opening we came through in such a hurry. A very nice opening. It let us through, so I suppose it's big enough for us to get back the same way if—if we could only get up to it. But there's the rub! I see no sort of way by which we can get up there!"
Nor could Clive. The aperture was in the roof of the place, high above their heads, with no possible means of reaching it.
"I say, this is no joke!" muttered Clive, as their helplessness became clear to him. "I do believe we've tumbled into another of those underground galleries. And now, I suppose, we shall have to start on another wandering tour through 'em in hopes of finding an outlet! I don't like it!"
"Nor do I!" Alec agreed. "It's rotten luck!"
"Look here!" said Clive suddenly. "Can't we fire some shots up through the roof? The doctor or Ben may hear them, and come to investigate, you now."
"So might our murderous foes—the two who shot at us!" Alec remarked drily, with a shake of the head. "It would be just as likely to bring them round to investigate as our friends. Then they might cover the hole up altogether, so that even our friends could not find it. Even as it is, I don't think it's quite safe to stop where we are. Those scoundrels may be up above, and be crawling to the side of the hole to get a shot at us as we stand here!"
"By Jove! that's true enough!" Clive agreed. "What had we better do?"
"I think we may as well look round a bit—get further away, out of the line of fire—till the coast seems clear. Then—if my rifle is all right—we could try your plan, and risk a few shots, perhaps."
It was certainly not a cheerful outlook; and Clive shivered a little as he reluctantly turned away from the glimmer of light above, and moved into the surrounding darkness, which seemed only to become all the more impenetrable by contrast with the spots momentarily illuminated by the little circle of light thrown by the electric torch.
In moody silence they wandered on, stumbling here and there against rocky obstacles, and doing their best to get some idea of the real nature of the place in which they were imprisoned.
As to that, they soon saw that they were in the bed of another subterranean watercourse, which, for the time being, was dry.
They followed it along for some little distance, and then the roof suddenly rose, the whole passage widened, and they entered some larger chamber, probably another of those spacious grottos of which they had seen several elsewhere.
But this was different, for, as they turned their light about, they uttered startled exclamations.
The light was reflected back! From every side, as it was turned this way and that, came the sheen of reflections from some bright, glistening surface!
After their first exclamations of surprise they were silent. Wonder had almost taken their breath away. They scarcely dared trust their eyes; they could hardly believe that it was real.
Presently Alec, who was carrying the light, moved slowly forward, like one in a dream, and, still without a word, touched the glittering sides, passing his hand along as if to test whether they were real.
But, by degrees, the almost incredible, almost overpowering truth forced itself upon them.
They looked at each other, turned their gaze away to the sides of the place, and, still without a word, looked at one another again.
Then it last they spoke:
"The golden cavern itself!" burst from Alec.
"The dream—old Ben's dream—has come true!" ejaculated Clive. "And that poor beggar who told him about it was not mad after all!"
Even now, they had not much to say at first. The whole thing was so unexpected; its very suddenness overcame them.
And small wonder, for the more they went about investigating, the greater did the miracle seem.
Evidently the whole of this great grotto had been filled at one time by the marvellous "gold water," which must have passed through it during long periods of time, slowly depositing the traces of precious metal it contained, exactly as the "petrifying wells," in Derbyshire, for instance, coat everything they run or trickle over with a deposit of lime.
All the rocky walls of the grotto, which ran into curious shapes in places, forming arches and minor grottos, were glittering with the shining coating. The very ledge at the side, which seemed as if fashioned purposely to form a seat, and on which the two spellbound explorers sat down, was covered like the rest, forming a veritable golden throne!
It took them some time to get used to the full import of the great discovery they had chanced upon, They moved about from one part to another, touching, testing, wondering, with awestruck feelings. Only by degrees were they able to get so far accustomed to their good fortune as to be able to talk calmly about it, and to bring their thoughts back to the question of how they were going to get once more into the open air, to carry the great news to their friends.
They came back at last to the discussion of this all-important question, and their spirits fell as they found that the more they considered the problem the more difficult it became.
They were prisoners in a golden prison. Was it possible that Fate was going to play a terribly scurvy trick upon them? Were they to reach the end of their quest, only to be left there to starve to death in the midst of uncountable riches?
After a while, as nothing happened, no one came to look for them, no sound, either of shots or anything else reached their ears from above, they decided to risk firing some themselves.
And then came a discovery which sent a wave of something like despair to their hearts. The one rifle they possessed had, as Alec had feared, received a jar which rendered it useless. The cartridge in it jammed when they tried to fire it. They had their revolvers, it was true, but no spare cartridges for them. If they fired away those few and were not heard by their friends, their prospects would become gloomy indeed!
Ben Grove, hunting around alone, was interested but little in the beauty of the place in which he now found himself. He thought neither of the flowers nor of the inviting streams of crystal water; even the wild fruits failed to attract more than a passing notice.
He did, however, stand and gaze attentively at the smoking crater of the volcano when he came in view of it, for that was one of the things his thoughts had been running upon.
Ben had had a wonderful experience that day. He had travelled in an aeroplane—had soared above the rocky precipice like a bird, and landed safely on the top. The latter part of the journey had been the most satisfactory. The journey itself—well, the less said about his feelings, perhaps, the better. If it had not tried the doctor's nerves, it had certainly tried Ben's—almost to breaking point. And when he had at last put foot on terra firma again, he had felt like one released from an awful nightmare.
Yet even that experience—recent and nerve-wracking as it had been—did not now occupy his thoughts.
Ben was thinking of two things—of the treasure cave, which ought to be so close to him, and of the volcano.
As to the first, here he was at last on the very spot, or pretty close to it, where the cave must be situated, if [what] that poor, demented shipmate of his had told him years ago were true. Here, then, was the great chance of Ben's life. If he was ever to make that fortune he had dreamed of, if his aspirations after horses and carriages, and his fancy for servants "in blue an' gold liveries," were ever to become realities, that chance must be made the most of. The gold cave, if it really existed, must be found—now.
Ay. now! And that for the other reason which had drawn his thoughts to the volcano.
The doctor had confided to him only that very morning that he did not like the look of certain signs and portents which he had noted during the last few days. He, like Grove, had sailed these seas before; and he had had some terrible experiences of the wild, whirling, devastating storms and great tidal waves with which the islands in these regions were swept at times; and he knew some of the signs by which they were often preceded.
Captain Barron knew them, too, and he was as uneasy as the doctor—probably even more so, as feeling himself responsible for the yacht's safety.
There were, however, certain points which puzzled the doctor. The delicate scientific instruments he had brought with him were behaving in a manner which certainly pointed to an approaching disturbance of some kind; and yet he was not satisfied that mere storms were indicated. A little puzzled by this fact, and seeking about for a possible explanation, the neighbourhood of the volcano offered itself as the answer to the problem.
True, the burning mountain had been quiescent rather than otherwise during the past week. There had been less smoke, less of the internal rumbling, and other portentous warnings. But that in itself might be a bad sign. Scientists know that a period of unusual quiet on the part of a volcano is often the prelude to an outburst.
True, the present interval of quiet had been only a week or so, which in itself was nothing. But there was the unusual behaviour of his various instruments to be accounted for; and the more the doctor thought matters over the more uneasy he became.
He did not, however, say anything to his young assistants, as he did not wish to alarm them—perhaps, after all, needlessly. But after talking it over with the captain, he had asked Grove, as a veteran traveller, his opinion, and Ben was now greatly perturbed in consequence.
The idea thus suggested—that, just as they seemed so near to positive success, all their chances might be dashed to the ground, and perhaps destroyed once and for all, by a convulsion of nature—was naturally one the worthy old mariner could not contemplate with equanimity.
So he gazed now at the crater and its thin spiral of smoke rising through the sunlight in the heated air far up into the azure sky with doubting and anything but friendly eyes. Indeed, he stared at it and shook his head with an air of exceeding strong disfavour. Then he turned away to resume his search for the gold cave, and set about it feverishly, impatiently. There was no time to lose if the doctor's apprehensions should prove to be well founded.
He was standing on a grassy knoll, which gave him a good view of the vicinity, though it was screened on his left by some high bushes; and just as he turned he caught sight in the distance of Alec and Clive. They and he had evidently wandered somewhat in the same direction; and he paused for a moment to see which way they would go next—whichever direction they chose he would leave to them and follow some other.
But at that moment there came the sound of rifle shots, and then of others; and he saw the two sink down as though—so it seemed to him—they had been shot.
Now Ben had also seen where the shots had come from. He had seen two heads rise up, two rifles suddenly appear, and then two spurts of flame and wreaths of smoke.
Ben's mind was filled at once with wrath and indignation. Gone, for the time, were all his dreams of gold, and even of volcanic eruptions. He only thought of the two treacherous murderers he had seen fire at his friends, and, as he believed, shoot them down. He did not even give a thought to the surprising puzzle of who the scoundrels were, and how they could have come there. He was filled with a righteous anger, and a determination to avenge his friends.
At once old Ben Grove became the alert, cautious, experienced stalker. All the knowledge, the tact, the strategy he had ever learned he summoned to his aid. He had marked down the place where the murderers were lying in ambush, and he commenced crawling towards them.
Thanks to the boughs and bushes which had screened him from their view, they had no idea he was there. That was obvious, for they would not knowingly have exposed themselves to the tender mercies of an enemy in their rear, as they had done here.
Ben could have shot at them from the rock as he had stood there; but though he could have made sure of one, the other might have got away. And he was sternly resolved that neither should escape him. He would get closer—to a position where he could make sure of the two before risking a shot. Besides, there might be more than two somewhere about; and to fire at one would only warn the others while he was too far off to deal with them.
As he crawled onwards, Indian fashion, dragging his rifle with him, he suddenly stopped and lay flat more than once as he saw the men he was stalking lift their heads to look round, seeking, as he knew, for some sign of the two they had fired at so treacherously. And as no such sign appeared, he became more and more certain that they were both dead or grievously wounded, and his blood boiled with rage, and he registered a fresh vow that he would kill both their murderers out of hand, rather than give either of them a chance of escape.
At last, just as he had drawn quite near, the two stood up. Evidently they now felt as sure as Ben did that their bullets had done their deadly work.
BUT even before they gained their feet there was a report close behind them, followed quickly by another. At the same moment a man rushed in upon them.
A man—yes, and an honest, brave man—yet one who was just then a raging demon, filled with murderous revenge, and possessed of a madman's strength.
Too eager and impatient to aim or fire again, he sprang upon them, and, with swinging blows, laid low the one who had escaped his bullet. Down he went beside his companion, who had fallen under Ben's first bullet.
And now, looking down on them as they lay motionless at his feet, he recognised them—they were the Dago Miguel and the deserter Slaney.
As the old seaman stood there gazing in some surprise on his fallen foes, watchful as a cat with a mouse for the slightest sign of resistance, he heard his name called.
He knew the voice; it was the doctor's But he would not take his eyes off the two.
"Come over here, sir," he called out. "Come and help me tie up these two—or," he went on, between his closed teeth, "help me to finish 'em. For they've killed Mr. Clive and Mr. Alec!"
Dr. Campbell had been brought up to the place by the sound of the shots. He had seen, as he had approached, the two strangers rise up from among the thick vegetation, and had seen Ben spring up, too, close by, fire at the pair, and then rush at them.
"What did you say, Ben?" cried the scientist, as he got close. "They've killed Alec and Clive? Heavens, man, it can't be true? Tell me that I did not hear aright!"
"I be afraid it be only too certain, sir," Ben answered in a voice choked with emotion. "I meself see these two murdering hounds shoot 'em down behind their backs, wi'out warnin', wi'out givin' the poor young fellows a chance to defend theirselves. What shall we do with the dogs? Shall I finish 'em both off, like the snakes in the grass they've showed theirselves? It's the two as tried t' kill Mr. Alec afore—the Dago an' Slaney."
"No—no; you mustn't do that, Ben," the doctor replied gravely. "We must hasten to find the two—they may be wounded and in sore need of our aid. In which direction are they?"
"Over yonder, sir." Ben pointed to where he had last seen the two. "You go, sir," he begged in husky tones. "An' I'll stay an' keep guard here. I—don't feel—I be—ekal t' look on 'em—not jest yet."
The doctor put a hand on the old sailor's shoulder. Its firm, friendly pressure told that he understood. Then, with a heavy sigh, he murmured:
"So be it, Ben. Stay and watch these two, and I will go. You can signal to me if I am going right. And I will let you know at once how things are."
He set off in the direction Grove had indicated, and, looking back once or twice for guidance, speedily found the place where Alec and Clive had been.
It was easy to know when he came to it, because there was one of their rifles lying on the grass, and an impression on the herbage as of a body having lain there at full length.
But of the two young fellows themselves there was no sign whatever.
Yet there, alongside where they must have been, was a hole—a long trench rather—partly hidden by broken ferns and other plants.
The doctor went closer and examined the place. He could see an oblong-shaped opening, like a yawning grave; and, throwing himself down at full length, he peered into it in a state of mingled curiosity, astonishment, and anxiety.
He could see that there was a dark space below like a cave or vault, but his eyes could not pierce the gloom.
"Anybody there?" he asked tremulously.
And then there came back an answer—the sound of the voice seeming to him more welcome than almost anything he had ever heard in his life.
"Why, yes, doctor," said the voice—and the listener knew it was the voice of Clive. "We are down here, and we are all right, except for a few bruises. But how the dickens we're going to get out again I'm blessed if I know, unless you can get some rope or something to help us up. We were just going to try firing off our revolvers, in the hope that you might hear the shots, and come to our assistance."
The doctor's delight at hearing they were all right was so great that he could hardly find words to express himself.
"And you're really all right?" he said at last. "Ben thought you'd been shot, and he followed up the two who had fired at you, and nearly killed them both. In fact, he may have done so, for all I know. I didn't stop to see, but came on to look for you."
"Bravo, Ben! Good old Ben!" came from Alec. "So he soon avenged us, then, as he thought? Who are our two honourable foes? Any idea, sir?"
"Yes; they are two you ought to know well. One is Miguel the Dago, and the other is his crony, Slaney—the two who tried conclusions with you before."
"Fancy that!" he murmured. "Well, if Ben has given it 'em hot it only serves 'em right. But how in the world did they come to be up here? They seem to have found a way to get up here when we couldn't!"
"That must be so," the doctor agreed.
"The fact is," Clive put in, "this mountain seems to be a regular labyrinth of underground galleries. It must be honeycombed with 'em. But, doctor, we've got better news than that for you!"
"So; I shall be glad to hear it, my lad. I've reasons of my own for wishing to hear something cheerful. What is your news?"
"We believe we've found the cave of gold!" was the astonishing answer. "In fact, we've tumbled into it. The ground opened beneath us and let us through, and here we are in what seems to be a most wonderful place; only it's so dark down here we can't see properly, so can't yet tell you more exactly what it's like!"
"I can scarcely believe my ears!" exclaimed the doctor.
"We could scarcely believe our eyes," Clive returned, "when we grasped what was around us. We had felt more like swearing when we found ourselves tumbling down into the earth, and plunging into what, for all we knew, might be a sort of bottomless pit. And when we scrambled to our feet, in a smother of stones and dust, and found we couldn't reach the hole above us to get out, we were in a fine stew."
"I can well understand that," said the doctor.
"And then, you see, there was the question as to what the johnnies who had fired at us might do. They might come and peep in and shoot at us here from above, or they might try to cover the hole up in some way, and go off and leave us here, and perhaps you would never have found us. So we were in a regular pickle, as it seemed, and, on the whole, we thought it wiser to lie low for a bit, hoping the beggars might miss the place, and so leave us alone.
"I can see the dilemma you were in," the doctor commented.
"So we went off along the gallery we found we were in for a little way, to be out of sight in case they looked down. And then, using our little electric lamp, we found we were in a place which seemed all solid gold, I don't suppose it's that; but, any way, the whole place—sides, roof, even the floor and all, as far as we've been able to investigate—glistens in the light of our little lamp like polished gold!"
"Dear me, dear me!" exclaimed Dr. Campbell. "This is wonderful news, indeed! We must come down to you with some lanterns, and find out more. But first I must inform Ben. He's in a terrible way about you, poor fellow. It will be such a relief to him to know that you are safe. And then I must tell him the rest, too. I'll be back very shortly."
"All right, sir," said Alec. "We don't mind now. We're in no particular hurry to get out. We're not so used to being shut up in a cave of gold as to have grown tired of it yet."
The doctor laughed. It was a relief indeed to be able to laugh, after the strain of the last quarter of an hour. And he hastened away to where Ben awaited him, still standing over his prisoners, like a bulldog on guard.
The doctor signed to him before he came close that their two friends were safe. He did not call it out because he did not, wish the two men to hear. And the same applied to the other news.
Ben looked at him, wondering if he could have understood aright.
"They're not killed, sir?" he whispered, when his leader was quite close.
"They're all right, Ben. Only fell into a hole, and couldn't get out—that accounts for their not shooting back. But I've got more astounding news still!"
And then he told him, and the veteran's delight and joy and thankfulness were so great that he felt he could almost forgive the two he had captured.
To these the doctor now gave his attention. They were both pretty badly hurt, one—Miguel—having a bullet wound in the breast, while as to the man Slaney, Grove in his rage and indignation had so banged him about that he was evidently severely bruised all over.
Dr. Campbell and Ben between them carried the two to a stream of water which ran near, and there they bathed their injuries, and did the best they could for them. And both soon revived.
"We must go back to where we left our things," said the doctor, "and fetch a few articles we want; and amongst them we must bring some lint and bandages for these men."
"But we'll have t' tie 'em up, sir, whilst we're gone, won't we?"
"This one we will," indicating Slaney. "But there is no need to bind the other one. He is too badly hurt to be able to get away."
Ben had a length or two of line wound round his waist, and with this he bound the deserter. Then he and the doctor went back to where their two young friends were imprisoned, and held a short talk with them, honest Ben expressing in loud exclamations his wonder and delight at the discovery of the veritable cave of gold.
"And so it wor through them blackguards we've captured as ye found it!" he commented finally. "They tried t' murder ye, and made ye lie down—an' ye lay on the very place we was a-searchin' for!"
"That's how it was, Ben," Alec answered. "If it hadn't been for them we might have searched about for months before we found it."
"Well, well, well! For sure, Providence do find wonnerful ways of doin' things!" was honest Ben's pious comment.
Then he and his leader set off for the place where they had left the aeroplane. Dr. Campbell had taken the precaution to bring up from below some special lanterns, as well as ropes, and other articles that he thought might be useful in exploring dark caves and galleries.
In less than half an hour they were back, and the scientist sent Grove on to their two friends, while he himself took the two injured men in hand.
Having bound up their wounds and made them as comfortable as he could, he began to question them as to how they had gained access to the top of the mountain, and other matters. He found the Dago sullen and silent, but the man Slaney was evidently cowed and depressed, and was inclined to be communicative.
It seemed, from his account, that Miguel's imagination and greed had been so excited by what he had overheard the doctor say when he had listened outside the leader's tent that first night, after he had been rescued from the snake, and then from drowning in the pool, that he could think of nothing else. He went back and told the rest of Diego's gang, and thereafter they, too, as has been told, determined to search for the cave of gold after capturing or driving away the doctor's party.
BUT while Diego had been away beating up recruits, by way of getting a stronger party together, Miguel and Slaney had commenced operations on their own. And after a long search among the numerous underground galleries, had stumbled upon one with flights of stone steps which led to the top of the mountain.
It had not, however, led them to the gold cave, all the same. They had wandered about up there for over a fortnight, Slaney now declared, sleeping in the open, and living on the wild fruits which abounded, and they had come upon numerous caves, as well as endless galleries, leading out of the one which had brought them to the top. But though they had found, here and there, pebbles and shells coated with gold, they had come upon nothing of sufficient value to fulfil their expectations.
The man knew nothing about Diego's recent movements. He declared that he (Diego) did not know that the two had succeeded in reaching the top as they had done.
Asked about the pirate leader's habitation on the other side of the island, and his resources there, Slaney stated that Diego had there a number of canoes, and a sailing vessel of some size.
"Ha!" said the doctor thoughtfully. "Then he has boats enough to take him, and all those he has left with him, away from the island, if they should want to leave it?"
"Oh, yes, sir. There would be plenty of room for all of 'em."
"That is as well. They may be glad of it shortly," the doctor commented grimly. "Well, now, it may be worth your while to show us where your underground staircase is. It will he useful to us, and you can save us time hunting around for it if you like."
This, after some talk, Slaney finally agreed to do. Then the doctor left the two—bound securely as before—while he went to see how his friends were getting on.
He found that Grove had picked out a log, and managed to roll it to the place where Alec and Clive had fallen through, and get it into position, crosswise, over the opening. Then, securing his ropes to it, he was able to slip down to them, and they were able to climb out if they wished.
At present, however, none of the three wanted to return to the outer air—just, yet. They had found—now that they had the help of the brilliant lights—too much to interest them below ground.
So absorbed, indeed, were they in what they saw, that the doctor had some difficulty in attracting their attention. He shouted to them again and again; and finally, as no reply came, he let himself down into the gallery.
There he saw their lights in the distance, and hastened to join them.
As he passed along, he could see, even then, the gleam of the lights upon the glistening sides and floor of the gallery, though the lanterns were quite a long distance away.
When he drew closer, he found the three gazing about as though entranced, and he no longer wondered that they had been deaf to his calls.
Dr. Campbell himself, old and experienced traveller as he was, became almost spellbound as he glanced around.
They were actually in a grotto of gold, or, rather, a long gallery or cavern of gold. As they walked onward it grew in height and width; yet still everywhere—roof, sides, even the very floor—there was gold—nothing to be seen but gold! It covered everything, but without destroying its shape; therefore, one could see the forms of the rocks, and so on, and their edges and angles made an endless variety of glittering lines of kaleidoscopic, dazzling beauty.
But the explorers were really only, as yet, in a lofty, spacious passageway leading to something yet more marvellous.
There was a bend, and then they stepped out into what proved to be a great temple—a temple where everything was of gold!
The blazing acetylene lanterns threw their brilliant light upon immense images—idols—sixty feet or more in height, shining and glittering—all, to outward appearance, of solid gold.
It was the same on every side. The lofty, domed roof, the various altars—of these there were several—and alcoves, the rows of seats for worshipers—all appeared to be composed of the precious metal, or, at least, to be covered thickly with it.
It was evident that the astounded spectators stood in what had once been the great golden temple of some long-lost, prehistoric race. In this extraordinary sanctuary the people of that race had carried out their religious rites, had met to offer their prayers, perhaps to sacrifice their unhappy victims in seasons of trouble or defeat; and to acclaim their thanks and gratitude in times of victory and triumph over their enemies.
And the learned scientist, scrutinising, with thoughtful eyes, the various markings and hieroglyphics, was led to speculate upon the history of the place and its probable identity.
"Yes," he mused aloud, "I believe it must be so. I can think of no other theory which will fit in—which seems to explain all one sees here. It is that this island must be the highest part of the lost island of Atlantis, which, tradition asserts, once existed hereabouts. We mortals of to-day are standing in the legendary golden temple of lost Atlantis—lost to history for thousands of years!"
Presently, after they had looked their fill, so to speak, upon this gloriously wondrous scene, they went round and up and down, trying to find a way out; but in vain. They found no outlet save the passage by which they had entered, which itself ended abruptly, in a seemingly solid wall of gold, only a little way from the hole in the roof by which they had gained admission.
And neither then nor subsequently, it may here be said, did they discover any communication leading to the labyrinth of galleries which they knew lay outside and probably all around. Some such connection must, of course, have existed, but it had been too artfully concealed that no trace of it could now be found.
This marvellous temple had been sealed up in some way, and so it would have remained if it had not been that, in some way, the roof of the gallery leading to it had become so thin that at last it had given way and a hole had been formed.
It seemed likely that the man who had raved to Grove—as he supposed—about "the cave of gold," years before, may actually have found that hole and entered by it, afterwards covering it up, as well as he could, in order to conceal it from others. And when Alec and Clive had thrown themselves down in that very place, to escape the bullets of the two desperadoes, their weight had sufficed to cause the slight covering to give way and let them through into the golden gallery beneath!
The intrepid band of explorers had thus, by a strange and remarkable concurrence of events, succeeded beyond—it may truly be said—their wildest dreams. Here, indeed, before them was wealth "beyond the dreams of avarice." Would they be able to reap the harvest which lay there ready to their hands, or was it to be snatched from them at the last moment by some convulsion of nature of which Dr. Campbell had noted so many ominous signs?
That was the weighty and disconcerting question which troubled the scientist and his captain when they came to discuss together the amazing discovery the aviators had made upon the mountain top.
The task which now lay before the treasure hunters was a curious one. They had found a cavern or gallery full of what was undoubtedly pure gold, and yet was not solid gold. The rocks which seemed to be lumps of gold were—like the shining pebbles and shells Ben Grove had shown to Alec in the first place, only covered with a facing of the precious metal.
The thickness of this facing varied in different places; in some parts it was found to be comparatively thin, while in others it might be as much as half an inch.
So intimately had it worked itself into the rough surface of the rock, and into all dents, interstices, cracks, and so on, that it was found impossible to scrape or chip it off save in a few rare cases.
Many more or less ingenious plans were tried to get over this difficulty. Somebody was seized with a new idea, on the average, about twice a day. All the proposed methods, however, turned out useless when tried in actual practice, save one. This was to break off the rock in pieces, as thin as possible, carry it to some place where a fire had been made giving out sufficient heat, and melt the coating down into lumps or ingots.
This was not only a laborious method, but a work of time; and as the days went on the leaders grew increasingly anxious, for the signs of an imminent eruption of the volcano became day by day more ominous.
The knowledge was no longer confined to the leaders, however. The portents were now obvious to all there, including even the natives.
The first symptom had been a great increase in the volume of smoke issuing from the crater in the midst of the island. This, in itself, did not at first seem of much importance; but when the soaring column of smoke began to spread out far above, like a huge black mushroom, shutting out the sunlight and plunging the whole island into a kind of gloomy twilight, then it affected everyone more or less.
The deep, dark shadow thus caused, which was of a curious bronze or coppery hue, was dazzling to the eyes as well as depressing to the spirits, apart from its effect as a portent of what might be to come.
Then other things began to happen. At night sparks and flames rose high in the air amidst the smoke, affording a grand and awe-inspiring sight which, at any other time, would have driven the natives from the island in a panic.
But they, no less than the white men, were now bitten with the gold fever. The more threatening the symptoms became the harder they worked, black men and white men alike. When the plan of melting down the gold covering up above seemed too slow, they picked out the best pieces and carried them all the way down to the shore on their backs. And when this, in its turn, appeared too dilatory, they shot them over the face of the cliff in barrow-loads for those below to sort out and do the best they could with.
The interior flights of rocky staircases discovered by Miguel and Slaney were, it is needless to say, of great service to the "gold miners" at this time. Indeed, they would have been able to do very little without them. All day long—ay, and even all night long—natives were running up and down these steps in feverish haste with but one thought in their minds—how much gold could they secure before the threatened eruption?
Even when matters grew worse they would not cease their toil for a moment. When, in addition to smoke and sparks and flames, the burning mountain began throwing up stones and mighty rocks with reports and reverberations like the ring of heavy artillery, the gold seekers showed no inclination to leave the place and seek safety in flight.
They even welcomed the lurid glare given out by the volcano at night as a useful light which enabled them to work the faster.
The doctor watched developments, it need scarcely be said, with an anxiety which increased from day to day. He would fain have gone away for a time, content with what they had collected, but now he had to reckon with the gold-lust which had been awakened in others.
CAPTAIN BARRON avowed himself in a difficulty. His men, he told the doctor, were so badly bitten with the fever that he feared they would mutiny if he ordered them to start so long as there seemed any opportunity of adding to their gains. They had all been admitted to a sort of co-partnership, under a scheme suggested by the doctor, and they were restlessly anxious to make their shares as large as possible.
On the other side were Storbin and his royal master, Oltra, both imbued with similar feelings. Even where the natives were getting frightened and were anxious to leave, their king insisted on their still working and slaving to fill his canoes with more and yet more of the curious mixture of rock and gold.
This same mixture was now being stowed away on both the yacht and the Hawk as ballast, the ballast already in the hold being thrown into the sea to make room for it.
Far away from this scene of frenzied activity the remnants of Diego's band were also suffering from an attack of gold hunger. But with them it was a hunger which could not be satisfied. They were reduced to looking on whilst their enemies enriched themselves.
"Looking on" was indeed their part, both figuratively and literally. For they passed much of their time on hills and heights from which, through their glasses, they could watch the proceedings of the gold miners, doubtless biting their nails and grinding their teeth at them in impotent fury, yet not daring to risk a hostile movement so long as the native allies of the white men remained.
By degrees, finding that the miners were too much engrossed in their work to trouble about scouting, or even watchmen, the filibusters grew bolder and drew nearer. They even, at last, concealed themselves amongst the shadows near where parties were at work, and crept out and hastily grabbed armfuls from some heap of the golden refuse that had been discarded, taking their chance of being shot at if discovered.
Like everybody else on the island, they knew now that it would be wiser to sail away from the place while there was yet time. But the lure of the gold held them with its potent spell, and they tarried in the vague hope that some unexpected turn of the wheel might enable them to get a big share of the gold they saw being shipped under their very eyes.
The explosions became more violent, and, in addition, there were times when the earth trembled. Then something began to creep down the exterior of the crater in thin, winding wisps, which at night glowed like fiery serpents. These were streams of lava, white-hot up above, turning to a glowing red below as they became cooler.
By this time the whole of the gallery which led up to the golden temple had been practically stripped of its store of precious metal. And the doctor allowed the great images to be pulled down and broken up in like manner. They were so huge and heavy that it was impossible to carry away even any portions as antiquarian relics.
Then the leader put his foot down and decided that it was time to leave.
"We have enough and to spare," he said to the captain. "Let us leave the wonderful, ancient temple untouched, save as regards its idols, which we have already pulled down and broken in pieces. Let us pack up now and get away while we still have the chance."
The order went forth accordingly, and preparations began for departure. It was arranged that if the "packing up" could be done in time they would sail next day; if not, then the day after.
"And a good thing, too," was Alec's comment to Clive. "We ought to have cleared out before this. I think the doctor's been too good-natured, and has run risks just to save a little trouble with the sailors. After all, who is the safest judge in such matters, who is likely to know best—Dr. Campbell or the crowd in the forecastle?"
Clive agreed. Neither he nor Alec had been victims to the gold fever to any extent—nor, for that matter, had honest Ben Grove. They had felt an honest, manly satisfaction at the success of their enterprise. They had taken their share of hard work with the rest, and now they felt particularly pleased that their faithful follower, who had started them on the quest, would be so well rewarded.
Now, somehow or other, a rumour went round among the natives that the white men were going to leave that night, and at once a scare set in. They were seized with a sudden fear that the white men were going to desert them, and a great horror came upon them of being left alone to battle with "the demons of the burning mountain." That was how it appeared to them; and the consequence was that group after group of them secretly determined to be the first away. They crept into their canoes and silently paddled away. In the morning there were only a few canoes left. Oltra and his "general," Storbin, found themselves deserted by nearly all their followers, who had gone off carrying with them quantities of gold; and, in great rage, they forthwith set off in pursuit of the thieves, as they called them.
Meantime, the departure of the canoes had been seen by those members of Diego's band who had been prowling about near the camp, and they carried the news to their chief, who promptly decided to risk a surprise attack on the white men.
He had intended to wait till they had gone, and then help himself to what was left; but who could tell, in the present threatening state of the volcano, if he would be allowed the chance? Here were stores of gold, ready harvested, waiting to be taken. A surprise attack, a desperate fight, and all this rich booty might be theirs at once!
The secret departure of the natives had been all the easier because the yacht's party were engaged in carrying their tents and other belongings on board the yacht, and preparing that vessel and the Hawk for sailing early on the morrow. And Storbin and his master had been interested in watching the operations and securing for themselves many "unconsidered trifles" which the departing travellers threw away.
Before nightfall the work had been finished. The boiler fires had been lighted and were to be kept going, and both vessels were ready to start in the morning. Then the tired workers turned in, weary and sleepy, to snatch a few hours' rest.
It was just getting near dawn when Alec was awoke in his bunk by Menga, who made him understand, partly by words, but more by signs, that something serious was amiss.
He started out of his berth and rushed on deck, where he found Kalma, and a sailor who was supposed to have been on watch, but who had, instead, fallen asleep.
Kalma pointed across the water at the shore, towards the east— that is, the opposite direction from where the friendly natives had kept their canoes—and whispered:
"Canoes—ship! Bad men come 'gain to shoot and kill!"
That was as far as his English would take him; but Alec understood, and he promptly rushed below again and awoke the captain and Dr. Campbell.
Ever ready and alert in emergencies, the two leaders were not only on deck themselves within a minute or two, but they had turned out the crew and told them to arm themselves.
A boat was silently lowered, and a man sent to warn those on the Hawk, and then the two leaders held a short conference.
Meantime, the fires were being stirred up, and word came from the engineer that he was ready to start the engines.
As a result of the consultation between the captain and the doctor the cables were shipped, and both vessels got under way.
They had not gone far when they suddenly found themselves in the midst of a number of canoes, and just then a dark shadow swept up from one side and came straight for the Valda.
Captain Barron rushed to the helm, and the yacht swung suddenly round. There were two or three moments of breathless suspense, then a shock as the yacht's bow crushed into something ahead.
It was a large sailing vessel of lugger rig, and it carried Diego and a number of his men. He had intended to run alongside the yacht, throw grappling irons on board, and try to board her. But Barron's prompt manoeuvre had forestalled him, and the yacht had run into the pirate vessel instead.
Now she backed away, amid a chorus of yells and shrieks, and then crashed on through the canoes which tried to close round her. A few half-hearted attacks were made by some of the more desperate of the gang to get on board, but they were easily beaten off, and then the yacht sailed away free.
The Hawk, meanwhile, had, obeying orders sent to her, made for the open sea more to the west, and so avoided the hostile crowd.
Neither vessel had, so far, been carrying lights. Now the yacht hung hers out, and the Hawk followed suit, and bore round to keep her closer company. And thus the two vessels left the island and went their way.
Dawn was just breaking in the east when there came the sound of an awful explosion. It seemed as though the very ocean trembled with the shock. All eyes were turned towards the island, and the horrified spectators saw the whole upper part of the burning mountain fly apart and come sliding towards the sea. Then the whole scene was hidden in clouds of steam and black, rolling vapours, amid which could be seen tongues of forked lightning playing about and darting from one side to the other.
Then followed great waves which threatened to destroy both the vessels, and though they fortunately weathered them they were, for a time, in such danger that many on board gave themselves up for lost.
It is needless to say that had they been at anchor, as would have been the case had the pirates not come to attack them, they must have inevitably been overwhelmed. Thus, once again, the reckless cut-throat gang did them a good turn without intending to.
Later on, after the sea had gone down, and, indeed, for nearly the whole of the day that followed, the two vessels cruised about looking for possible survivors of Diego's band—but they could not find one!
Nor could they find the island! It had once more sunk beneath the waves, this time completely, carrying with it the wonderful golden temple of Atlantis!
Following out the programme which had been arranged, the successful treasure seekers visited King Oltra at his island home. He and most of his people had reached it before the catastrophe took place, and had escaped unharmed.
Dr. Campbell and his party stayed with their native friends for a couple of months, and had a rattling good time of it with the hospitable chief and his swaggering, but warm-hearted, "Prime Minister."
Before they left they made the worthy Storbin's heart happy by presenting him with the Hawk, in addition to his share of the treasure obtained from the vanished Eldorado Island!
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