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THIS RGL e-book was prepared from the original Union Jack Library edition of The Sunken Island; or, The Pirates of Atlantis, which Francis Henry Atkins published in 1904 under the nom de plume "Fenton Ash."
In 1905 a revised edition of the same story appeared under a different title—The Temple of Fire; or, The Mysterious Island. This version, for which Atkins used the pseudonym "Fred Ashley," was published by Sir Isaac Pitmans & Sons, London.
RGL offers illustrated e-book versions of both editions of the novel under their original titles.
—Roy Glashan, 6 May 2018.
"SO that is the far-famed Sargasso Sea—a small ocean of weed which, it is said, no mortal has ever yet traversed! Therefore no one knows, I suppose, what may be in the middle of it! How far does it extend, Captain Warren?"
"For hundreds and hundreds of square miles, Mr. Ray. You are right as to no man knowing what's in the middle of it, for no boat has ever succeeded in getting more than a few hundred yards from its edge. And I've heard that those who made the venture were hard put to it to get back again, and had reason to fear at one time that they would stick there for good and slowly starve to death!"
Raymond Lonsdale shuddered.
"I wonder," he said, "if any poor creatures have ever suffered such a horrible fate? Do you think it likely, captain? Why," he went on, as he looked steadily through a pair of powerful marine- glasses, "I declare it seems to me I can discern something like the shapes of vessels—old bulks! Yes, surely I can see a lot! They seem to be dotted about as far as the eye can reach! What does that mean?"
"Oh, ay; that's so, Mr. Ray. They're just wrecks—abandoned ships—derelicts! I've heard that they all drift here sooner or later if they're abandoned anywhere in the Atlantic and don't sink; and in course o' time they seem to get sucked further and further into the weed. And that's been going on for hundreds— perhaps thousands—of years, so scientific folk say; and somebody has reckoned up that there must be old hulks enough tangled up in that weed to supply the world with firewood for a hundred years! A regular ship's graveyard—that's what it is! You can get a good view now, because just here one can venture to get closer to it than one can with safety at other points. There's good anchorage here, though the fact isn't generally known amongst navigators. But I've been here before, so I know."
"I've heard," Ray observed, "that there are old Spanish galleons there even at the present day; and I once read a story about a fellow who managed to board one, and got a lot of treasure out of her. I wonder if that yarn is true?"
"Rats! Don't you believe any such tales as that, Mr. Ray! There are a good many yarns and legends floating about concerning this region. I've heard that some believe that if we could penetrate to the centre we should very likely find there an island—a part of the once great island of Atlantis!"
"Yes; I've heard something of the kind. I suppose, as you say, such ideas are merely fanciful yarns or legends, but recently— quite lately—other and newer stories have been put about which have an ugly sound. It is said that vessels have mysteriously disappeared in this neighbourhood and have never been heard of again. Have you heard anything of it?"
"Ay; I've heard some rubbish of the kind, but I don't believe a word of it. I've been in these waters before, as I've said, and the only danger I know of is that if you're not careful you may get your propeller tangled up with weed, and have the deuce and all of a bother to get it free again."
And with that Captain Warren, a tanned, grizzled, tough old veteran of the sea, turned and went forward to interview one of the hands who had come under his displeasure; while the youth he had been talking to remained looking dreamily out over the miles and miles of desolate tangled weed which, in one direction, extended to the distant horizon. It interested him to scan the lonely, battered hulks slowly rotting in the midst of it, and speculate upon what their histories might have been.
He was a good-looking English lad, with broad shoulders and sturdy muscular limbs, which told of athletic training, and a sun-browned face and general gait which suggested experience of the sea, and of an outdoor life generally. And so it had been with Raymond Lonsdale. He had seen a good deal of knocking about the sea, having lived much of his time on board the "Kestrel"—the vessel he was then on—a steam yacht belonging to his father.
He had seen some lively adventures on board that boat, too, for his father had taken sides in some of the civil wars that break out with tolerable regularity amongst the restless South American States.
The present occasion, however, was the first on which Ray had been out in the yacht without his parent. Mr. Lonsdale, senior, had been called away inland, and had sent his son to sea partly on a pleasure cruise, and partly to keep the yacht, with her warlike stores and fittings, beyond the reach of prying eves.
They were to anchor that night at that particular spot in order to meet next day another boat which would probably bring them letters and instructions. When night fell, therefore, the vessel was riding easily at anchor in a calm sea, and a few hours later found her with all her crew asleep, save one man, left as watch on deck.
Save also Raymond. He could not sleep, and about midnight he went silently up on deck and seated himself in the shadow of an awning that was stretched across the deck. He crept up quietly, because he did not like the man who was on watch, and did not wish to be bothered by any observations or conversation with him. It was a hot, oppressive night down below, but on deck there was a little air, and a moon about half-full peeped down now and again between fleecy clouds, lighting up a scene that to Raymond seemed curiously weird and fascinating.
He could not help recalling some of the tales about the region that their captain had referred to in his talk. He let his thoughts run upon all sorts of fanciful ideas. He wondered if the lost island of Atlantis had really ever existed there, and, if so, what curious outlandish sort of vessels their ancient ships would have been. Then his thoughts wandered to the old Spanish galleons which undoubtedly used to sail those seas, and many of which, 'twas said, were still to be found, if one could only get at them, rotting slowly, jealously kept from sinking by the tenacious grip of the slimy masses of interlacing weed.
In his fanciful imaginings, he could almost believe yonder dark shadow to be an ancient galley or state barge. Eh! What—what was that dark shadow creeping towards the yacht so stealthily, so silently?
Ray rubbed his eyes and looked again. The moon had become veiled by some thick clouds, and everything around had grown dim and shadowy.
But Ray's mind worked rapidly. Something was certainly approaching the yacht in a silent, suspicious manner. What did it mean? And the watch? Why had he made no sign of having seen it? Was he asleep?
Ray's mind was quickly made up. There might be nothing in it; but he was not going to give a chance to a possible enemy to catch them napping.
As silently as he had crept on deck he now stole back again, and quietly woke Captain Warren and told him the position.
The skipper, used to alarms, always had everything ready for an emergency, and in a few minutes had made his arrangements without even the man on deck becoming aware that anyone was awake on board but himself.
Then, mounting softly to the deck, Warren and Ray looked out from under the awning. The moon was still obscured, but there was no longer room for doubt.
A curious sort of craft was creeping up to the yacht—a great black galley-shaped affair, in design unlike anything the experienced skipper had ever set eyes on out of a museum. In some respects it resembled a great barge, but in others it might have been likened to the pictures one sees of the ancient ships of Greece or Rome propelled by two or three banks of rowers.
Long sweeps sunk, without sound, into the water, and rose dripping, but noiseless, with methodical swing; but so ghostlike was the whole affair that Ray caught himself debating whether what they saw was really an actual vessel filled with living people, or a visionary phantom, tenanted by shades of the dead.
But the practical-minded skipper had no such idea, doubts or speculations. He looked keenly at the advancing craft, and then his voice rang out clear and sharp and determined:
"Boat ahoy, there! Who are you? What d'ye want?"
No answer came from the ghostly vessel, which came on as steadily and noiselessly as before.
At the moment the captain's hail was heard the man who was supposed to be watching, but who was either asleep or pretending to be, had to be roughly seized by a couple of men, who had stolen up behind him and promptly bound him there and then.
"Take him below and put him in irons!" said the captain sternly. "I will deal with him to-morrow!"
And the fellow was unceremoniously bundled below.
"Boat ahoy!" sang out the captain's voice again. "No nonsense, you lubbers! Stop, or I will fire upon you!"
Still no answer; but the slow, heavy strokes of the long, black sweeps were perceptibly quickened.
Captain Warren hesitated no longer. He put a whistle to his mouth and blew a quick, shrill blast.
Instantly a small but businesslike-looking cannon made its appearance through what had appeared to be only an ordinary port- window, and the next moment there was a booming report, and a shot whizzed over the deck of the stranger.
Still she came on. Then there was heard another whistle, which was followed by another shot; and this time it did not fly overhead, but went crashing through the side of the strange craft, landing, apparently, amongst those who were handling the sweeps, and, for a minute or two, they fell into evident confusion.
But at the same time the hitherto silent vessel became alive with men. There were shouts in an unknown language; there was much rattling of arms and clanking of steel, and then a flight of arrows fell, some with a clatter upon the deck of the yacht, some against her sides, or passed overhead into the sea beyond.
"What in thunder does this mean?" exclaimed the captain, at this most unlooked for demonstration. "Who are these people who've come to fight us with bows and arrows?"
"What an extraordinary affair!" said Ray. "See, they have breastplates and spears, and suchlike arms; but no guns or pistols, it seems."
However, just then, as if in answer to what he had said, and to show that he was mistaken, there came a few straggling shots from firearms; but the bullets flew wide and no harm was done.
"This is getting serious," Warren now declared, "If we don't stop 'em they'll be alongside directly, and if they board us we shall have a job to throw 'em off, for there's a big swarm of the varmints."
He blew three sharp blasts upon his whistle, and in a moment the deck of the yacht was full of men. It seemed like a conjuring trick; and it was wonderful where they sprang from. They crowded along the bulwark, and a moment later poured a volley from their rifles into the crowded deck of the stranger.
At the same time the cannon boomed out again, and above the general din could be heard the grinding rattle of a Maxim gun. Then Warren sounded the cease fire, for it was clear that the fight was over. The stranger's crew saw that they had caught a tartar in this innocent-looking yacht, and were now only anxious to get away as quickly as possible.
Warren would have liked to follow them if only to find out who they were and what it all meant; but he had not steam up, and in any case to have captured the vessel it would probably have been necessary to engage in a terrible fight. So he reluctantly decided to let his unknown enemies go, and content himself with wondering and puzzling about the problem of their strange proceedings as best he could.
Just then Ray, who was alongside him, engaged in watching the retreating foe, caught sight of a dark form in the water evidently swimming towards the yacht. Others saw it too, and some were about to fire at it, but he stopped them.
"Let the poor fellow alone," he cried. "He is but one and cannot hurt us!"
"That's so," Warren assented. "Besides, if we get the beggar aboard he might tell us what the deuce this little excursion of his people may happen to mean!"
But those on the strange craft also saw the swimmer, and, no doubt, looking on him as a deserter, began shooting at him, and arrows fell near him for he suddenly threw up his arms as if in pain. Then his voice was heard calling for help.
"Help, Britishers, help!" he cried, "I am one of you! I was a prisoner over there! Save me! Save your own countryman!"
"He is a Britisher and a prisoner," cried Ray, "we must save him!" And ere anyone could say a word or interfere to prevent him he had plunged overboard and was swimming to the assistance of the stranger, regardless of the arrows, now mingled with a few bullets, which were falling around him.
FOR a minute or two the fight raged afresh, for the enemy's vessel paused in her retreat to pour a shower of arrows upon the wounded swimmer and his rescuer, while the crew of the yacht, without waiting for express orders, opened fire in a manner which quickly produced its intended effect. Loud cries and shrieks from the strange craft's crowded deck told of the execution that was effected, the rain of arrows ceased and once more the enemy retreated.
Meantime, Warren had ordered a boat to be lowered, and springing into it himself, he pushed off with a willing crew to help Ray in his plucky effort to save the wounded swimmer. The rescuers were just in time, for just as Ray had reached the stranger an arrow grazed his head, half-stunning him for the moment, so that he was on the point of sinking along with the one he had come to save. The two were lifted into the boat, taken on board and carefully tended by anxious friends and the ship's doctor. Ray was soon all right again, but the one he had rescued was some hours before he had recovered sufficiently to give an account of himself.
Then he told an extraordinary story.
His name, he said, was Peter Newlyn, and he and a younger brother had been on the way to seek their fortune in the Argentine, when the "Sunflower," the vessel in which they were making the voyage, had been caught and badly knocked about in a hurricane. When the wind had moderated they found themselves on the very edge of the Sargasso Sea—in fact, just about where the "Kestrel" then was, and the captain, hearing from a man on board who said he knew the ground, that there was good anchorage there, resolved to make a halt for a short time to repair damages. In the night they were attacked, just as the yacht had been, by the "Black Galley," as he called the vessel, and being taken by surprise, and having no arms on board save a revolver belonging to the skipper, they had fallen an easy prey. The captain, the first mate, and one or two others had been killed, and the rest, including himself and his brother had been carried off prisoners, and since had been treated by their captors as slaves. And they had been kept in this condition for a matter of two years.
"I was chained to the oar as a galley-slave," Newlyn declared, "and but that your shot freed me, I should now have been rowing these pirates back to their fastness under the lash of their whips; for we rowers were treated just like the slaves of old who were fastened to their oars and whipped to make them work faster." And he showed the scars left by the whip and by the irons by which he had been fastened.
"Your shot came crashing into the midst of us," he continued, "and injured several, put out our one lamp, and created great terror and panic. But providentially it set me free, and in the darkness and confusion I made my way to the side and leaped overboard."
"But where is the fastness, as you call it, of these people?" asked Captain Warren much mystified. "It sounds to me a very strange tale, and," he added bluntly, "If I hadn't myself seen what I have, I couldn't have believed it!"
"I can well understand that," was the reply, given with something like a sigh, "but there is stranger yet to come; and the rest is strange, so incredible, that I have had my fears whether I shall be able to convince you of its truth. Yet I am most anxious to do so because I want to enlist your sympathy and aid on behalf of my brother who is still a prisoner there, and whose lot, poor lad, is even worse than my own has been. Now you, with your vessel armed as I see she is—"
"But where is the place, man?" Warren interrupted impatiently. "I know of no possible spot in these seas that could serve as a secret hiding-place for such a lot as these lubbers seem to be. Where is the place, I say—?"
"It lies," answered the stranger slowly, "in the very midst of the great sea of Sargasso, and the name of the place is—"
"Stuff and nonsense!" Warren burst out. "There's no such place in the middle of the sea of weed—and if there were, no vessel could get backwards or forwards to it; everybody knows that! No; that story won't do for us, young man; you'd better save it up for the next batch of marines you come across!"
Just then some one came to say the captain was wanted on deck, and he went out leaving Ray alone with the stranger. The latter gazed after him, as it seemed to Ray, with tears in his eyes, and shook his head despondingly.
"I though so; I feared it!" he said sadly. "I was sure he would not believe me! Nor will you, I suppose. And if not, then is my poor brother doomed indeed—doomed to a horrible death!"
Ray gazed at him with concern and sympathy. Somehow he felt drawn towards the young fellow—for he appeared to be but a year or two older than himself. And he already felt a friendly feeling for the young brother he had spoken of.
"What is it you wish us to do?" he asked kindly. He liked the stranger's face, and could see he was weak from suffering and sorrow as well as from his recent hurts. Moreover, his speech was refined, and his whole manner that of a gentleman. "What is the name of this place you speak of?" he went on. "And what do you want us to do!"
"You will never believe it, I fear," said the other, shaking his head again; "but the place is called Atlantis, and these pirates of the 'Black Galley' are descendants of a very ancient people who have been shut out from the world for ages till quite recently, when it seems a channel unexpectedly opened through the weed to the open sea."
"Impossible!" Ray exclaimed in amaze.
"Ah! I knew how it would be! And yet I swear to you!" he declared, with a sudden access of energy and speaking earnestly— even, as Ray felt, eloquently—"I tell you that it is not only true, but there is wealth to be gained by these secrets! With a well-armed vessel like you have, aided by my knowledge of the channels, and assisted, as you would be, by the better half of the people whom these black pirates are brutally oppressing, you cannot only effect a great good there, and rescue my brother and other poor prisoners destined for a shocking, most terrible doom, but you would return wealthy beyond your utmost dreams! These people are rich—they have riches untold; and if you succeeded—as I am certain you could—you would return one of the richest persons in the world!"
Raymond Lonsdale made no immediate reply. He was pondering over the stranger's words, which had suddenly raised up a new train of ideas in his mind. His father was getting old, and had not been, he knew, fortunate of late in his operations from a business point of view, and Ray had been secretly worrying himself about the state of affairs, and wishing he could do something to help. All sorts of schemes and ideas had entered his head, and been carefully thought out, only, however, to be dismissed, one after the other, as unsuitable. None of those which were fairly practicable, he decided, seemed likely to be sufficiently remunerative, while those which promised to be really profitable were too risky; a conclusion to which many people, before Raymond Lonsdale, have doubtless come, in regard to similar matters. This suggestion of the stranger appeared to offer the outline of a new and hitherto undreamed-of scheme; and Ray now gravely debated with himself the question under which of the two categories indicated above he ought to range it. Deep down in his mind was probably a conviction that it was wilder and more chimerical than any of them, but of that he took not the least notice.
His cogitations were interrupted by the doctor, who came in to see how his patient was progressing. Ray's face at once brightened. Dr. Strongfold was a great friend of his, and he would submit this question to him.
The doctor listened, attentively to what Ray had to say, and then turned to the stranger and cross-examined him pretty shrewdly.
He was one who had seen a good deal of the world, was the doctor. A man of about fifty years of age, stout but active, florid of complexion, with a sharp, keen eye, which, however, had in it, latent, if not always openly expressed, a certain quiet, good-humoured twinkle.
"I confess I'm puzzled what to say, Ray, my lad," was his cautious comment. "Certainly our friend's account is a very extraordinary narrative. What does Captain Warren say?"
"Pooh-poohs the whole affair," said the captain himself, who just then entered the cabin, and had heard the doctor's question. "Ray," he went on, "the 'Swallow' has arrived, and her boat is now alongside and has brought this letter from your father. It seems he has started for England on business which he says will take him perhaps a couple of months; but what we are to do meantime he doesn't tell me. He encloses, however, a note for you which may explain matters further."
Ray eagerly took the letter which was held out to him, and, while he was reading it, Warren and the doctor had a further talk with the stranger.
Warren shook his head and openly showed his entire disbelief in Newlyn's assertions until, by chance, the latter happened to mention the name of one of those who had been fellow-prisoners with him.
Then Warren, who had been sitting on the centre table idly dangling one leg in the air, suddenly sprang up, an expression of new and intense interest appearing in his face. "What did you say?" he cried. "Keene, Hugh Keene, did you say? Do you mean to say that Hugh Keene is the hands of these pirate lubbers?"
"Yes, Captain Warren. He came from Liverpool, I believe, and was on his way out to Mexico when he was captured. He was sailing in the 'Osprey'; she was plundered and sunk."
"Yes, yes; that's right! We thought she had been wrecked—had gone down with all hands. And so he's alive is he? Hughie Keene's alive? Then I'm the man to try to rescue him. He did me a rare good turn once did Hughie Keene, and I'm not one to forget a favour or to forsake a friend." Then his face fell as he continued: "But I forgot. I dare not risk the yacht without Mr. Lonsdale's approval, and that we cannot possibly now get, for he is already by this time on his way to Europe."
"But that need not trouble us, Captain Warren," Ray put in, looking up from his letter. "My father here gives me full authority during his absence to engage in any cruise or expedition which may offer and seem to promise reasonable profit. He only wishes me to consult you and the doctor, and ask your counsel and advice before comitting myself; which, however, as he here says, he feels sure I should do under any circumstances. So, my dear friends, the matter, is in your hands. Have a further talk with Peter Newlyn, and let us hear the fullest possible particulars. Then, if you think the expedition is feasible, we can start this very night."
The upshot of the matter was that they did start that same night; for when the young stranger, thus encouraged to speak freely, gave a fuller account of his experiences, he soon succeeded in inspiring his hearers with some of his own enthusiasm.
"You must be prepared for a bit of hard fighting," he said in conclusion. "But, on the other hand, you will see many wonders, for it is in some respects a marvellous country. And if you succeed you will come away rich beyond your dreams; for the people are fabulously wealthy."
Captain Warren struck his fist on the table.
"I'm with you, Peter Newlyn," said he. "Let us rescue my old friend, Hughie Keene, and the other poor chap you tell of, and bring back the yacht safe, and I care nothing whether I return a little the richer or a bit the poorer."
And so it was settled.
"NOW we are coming to a strange and wonderful sight—nothing less than a group—two small fleets, in fact—of English and Spanish ships which must be hundreds of years old. You can see the masts over yonder."
It was the stranger, Peter Newlyn, who spoke. He pointed out quite a little forest of masts which could be seen in the distance, with dark, sombre-looking hulks beneath just showing above the level of the wilderness of sargasso-weed which stretched on all sides as far as the eye could reach.
The "Kestrel" was feeling her way cautiously along broad but tortuous channel in the sea of sargasso-weed. Peter had been as good as his word. He had piloted the vessel safely into the midst of the weed, and thus far the adventurers had found the going fairly easy, and had met with no opposition.
Not a trace of human inhabitants was to be seen on any side, though they had now penetrated for a very considerable distance from the outer edge. In every direction it was a scene of unutterable desolation, made the more weird and impressive by the oppressive silence which reigned around and the numberless old wrecks they passed upon their way.
Those were of every size, of every nation, and, as it almost seemed, of every period of history. The region was a veritable graveyard for uncountable legions of vessels from all parts of the world. Abandoned at sea, hundreds—thousands of miles away, after years of lonely drifting these derelicts had found here their final resting-place.
Inexpressibly sad, terribly solemn, and mutely eloquent were these relics, as they passed before the view of those upon the gliding yacht, and faded out of sight in her wake like a ghostly panorama of the past.
"There must be something in the air, or, perhaps, in the weed, which seems to preserve the timbers of these ancient vessels," observed the doctor musingly. "Of course, it is quite possible that the weed may possess some preservative properties which it may impart to the stagnant water and through it to the woodwork."
"I think it must be so," returned Newlyn, "because the farther you go the older you will find is the type of vessel, but, though the hulls may be black with age, and in any other climate would have rotted away long ago, here they still remain apparently much the same as they must have been when they first became entangled in the weed. One has to remember that they cannot get beaten to pieces by the waves, for this is a region, so far as the water is concerned, of everlasting calm."
"They had now drawn near to the group of vessels to which Newlyn had directed special attention. They lay in a narrow side opening some few hundred yards from the main channel. At the junction of the channels Newlyn requested the captain of the yacht to stop.
"I was once brought here," he said, "with a number of other galley-slaves and ordered to remove the old cannon which yet remained on board those ancient vessels. We took some pieces away, but when our masters learned what a lot of gunpowder must be used with them, they gave up the idea of carrying off the rest. So they are here still. It just occurs to me that possibly you might care to have some to increase your own armament. I think you might find them useful later on. I have already explained that our enemies know practically nothing about firearms, and have only a small store of powder and a few miscellaneous weapons, which they have secured from the vessels they have plundered, and which they do not know properly how to use. So this absurd idea of theirs never came to anything; but it gave me the opportunity of going on board these antiquated relics and seeing what they are like."
"And what are they like? What sort of vessels are they?" asked Ray, who had been scrutinising them through his glasses.
"They appear to consist of two fleets of Spanish and British vessels respectively, and I formed the idea that the one fleet had captured and made prizes of the other. I fancy, too, that the British had been the conquerors, but, of course, it may have been the other way about. Why or how they should all have been abandoned and got swept in here, I cannot form a guess. There seem to be about twice many Spanish vessels as British."
"I should like to see them immensely," said the doctor, who was a bit of an antiquarian. "What do you say, captain—couldn't we get into a boat and just go over to them for a short visit?"
"I should like to see them, too," said Ray. "And as friend Peter thinks some of the old cannon might be useful to us, I should think it would be worth while. There is no sign of anyone or anything to interfere with us."
"Well, there is just one thing I should first like to mention," said Peter, with some hesitation. "Before I was brought here, these craft had already been visited and inspected by a little expedition sent for the purpose, and I afterwards heard a strange, wild story of their having found the old hulks inhabited by a lot of savage creatures whom they termed Mecanoes, and with whom they had to fight quite a battle before they could drive them off."
"What sort of creatures?" asked Ray, who was still examining the group through his glasses. "Do you know, I have fancied once or twice, while we have been talking, that I caught sight of one or two dark forms creeping stealthily about, and watching us from behind the dingy-looking bulwarks."
"I really scarcely like to tell you what I heard," was the answer. "In any other part of the world, almost, I should scout the whole story as ridiculous. But I have seen so many extraordinary, almost incredible things in this curious country that I feel I ought not to let you go near those vessels without a warning. I was told that there exists a strange race of creatures, half ape-like men, half fish-like apes, who can walk on the weed or dive and get underneath it. They are said to have very large, flat, thin feet, webbed, and resembling the feet of frogs.
"Wait now!" interposed the doctor. "In a region like this that would not be so very wonderful, because I happened to read only the other day that Sir Francis P. Winter, Acting Administrator of New Guinea, has, in a report to the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, described a curious people recently discovered in the swamps of New Guinea; and his account, I'm thinking, would exactly fit the people you refer to. He describes them as expert swimmers, gliding with ease through beds of weeds, or over, through, or under masses of floating vegetation. Their legs, and the lower part of the body, are out of all proportion to the upper part of the frame, so that they can scarcely walk at all upon dry ground, and they consequently never leave their morasses and swamps."
"Well, I should say, doctor, that these creatures here—if they really exist—must be first cousins to those New Guinea johnnies. However, I have now told you all I know about them. I have never seen one myself."
"Come along!" exclaimed Ray. "Let's hurry up if we're going. We didn't start on this cruise with the idea of being frightened by bogies!"
A few minutes later they were on their way to visit the vessels. As they drew near both their interest and their curiosity increased, and when they were alongside the nearest and were able to note more exactly its remarkable state of preservation, they were filled with wonder and astonishment.
"It would be a good spec if one could tow this little lot away just as they are and moor 'em in the Thames by London Bridge as a show," observed the captain. "My! what a draw they would be!"
The ships seemed to have been of the time of the Great Armada— might quite possibly, indeed, have formed part of it, so far as the appearance of the Spanish vessels was concerned. They were larger and heavier than the British; but all lay locked together in an odd, inextricable manner, so that it was easy to walk or scramble from one to another throughout the whole number.
Ray and Peter went from ship to ship examining the curious old cannon which, though greatly rusted, was still not so far gone, they decided, but that some might be rendered serviceable. The doctor was wandering about by himself, rubbing at old brass plates to bring to light possible inscriptions, while the captain lounged on the deck smoking his pipe, chatting over the side with his men in the boat, and keeping a sharp outlook on all sides over the silent, dreary waste of weed. There was no sign, however, of life in any direction; and the old hulks themselves appeared to be completely deserted.
And then, all unexpected, came a rush of armed men, They had been hiding below, and now made their appearance so suddenly that the small visiting party were taken altogether by surprise. A number dashed at the captain, and some of them, passing him by, tumbled headlong over the broken bulwarks into the boat below, upsetting her and sending the three sailors in her, as well as themselves, into the water. Others had thrown themselves upon Warren, and though he shot down three of them before he was overpowered, he had shortly to yield to superior numbers and was bound and thrown roughly upon the deck.
Meanwhile, the doctor in one place, and Ray and Peter in another, were defending themselves as well as they could against a crowd of assailants. The doctor made two of his enemies bite the dust before they secured him by a combined rush, but the two youths, being together, and having been able to gain the shelter of an old hatchway, seemed likely to cause more trouble, and, for the time, compelling their adversaries to keep their distance.
A strange looking crowd they appeared to be, these assailants, attired only in shining breastplates and helmets or glittering coats of mail. Armed only with swords, spears, bows and arrows, and such-like antiquated weapons, they nevertheless had shown such determination and bravery in their first rushes in face of the revolver fire with which they had been met that they had all but captured the whole party at the first onset. But now they exhibited less willingness to charge the two lads, and preferred, for the nonce, to look on at the contest which was going on in the water, where the three sailors were being hunted by a dozen soldiers, clad, like those on the deck, in breastplates and helmets, and therefore heavily weighted for swimming, but who showed themselves, all the same, expert swimmers.
But this water hunt did not last long. Some barge-like boats, which had been lying concealed behind the old hulks, now came creeping round to assist; and in a little while the three sailors were captured, hauled on board, bound, and placed beside the captain and doctor.
Then the whole body, or greater part, moved across to the vessel where Ray and his companion were keeping those opposed to them at bay, and proceeded to hold a conference as to the steps to be taken to capture them and carry them off, before a rescue- party should arrive from the yacht.
"THE outlook's getting a bad one, I fear," muttered Peter, between his set teeth. "Do you see what their game is? If they get hold of us before help comes from your vessel, they can carry us through the labyrinth of small channels which lies beyond these hulks, and your people will never be able to follow or catch them—there are so many treacherous places and pitfalls which these people know all about. Worst of all, they will give the alarm, and the main channel will be closed by obstructions which the yacht could not force, both before and behind her, and in the end she must be captured, because they could starve her crew into surrender. So, altogether, this is a pretty kettle of fish! For me it means going back to slavery—to be chained to the oar under the whip—to be flogged by brutal taskmasters; your fate may or may not be the same, but, in any case, it will be horrible. I would rather force them to kill me here than go back to what I thought I had escaped from! And this is all my fault! It was I who suggested this foolish digression from our main object!"
"Nonsense, man! It is not your fault; it is the fortune of war; or rather let us say a consequence of your own anxiety about your brother, for you could have escaped right enough but for that. Let us trust that Heaven has something better in store than to send you back to such misery. Where we have been foolish is in not bringing more ammunition with us—for here we are with only a few cartridges between us—and we should have reconnoitred the ground more carefully. Besides, you did warn us to be careful; though your warning was against a danger which, as it seems, does not exist. But why don't they shoot at us? They have bows and arrows, and can hit pretty hard with them, too, as you and I both discovered the other night."
"They wish to take us alive, so as to be able to exhibit us to their people like wild animals, and sacrifice some of us to their horrible gods," Peter returned, with a shudder. "That is why the soldiers are ordered not to shoot, nor to wound us badly if they can possibly avoid it. And the officers value the lives of their men so little that they are absolutely indifferent how many it may cost, so that they can secure us, in the end, alive. I know the chief in charge here, and he knows me. Ah! I half expected this. He's signing to me that he desires a parley; going to try a soothing mixture of bunkum and soft sawder, probably. I'll see him—"
"Hist, man! Talk to him, Peter! It will all gain time."
"Ah! But they'll be up to some dirty trick or other meanwhile, so look out! Be on the watch on all sides; watch even the rickety old floor we're standing on."
One of the officers advanced a few paces, holding a white scarf in his hand, and as he stood waiting expectantly, Ray looked at him with interest.
It was the first time he had been able to get a good view of one of these strange people, and he was curious to know what they were like.
The man was tall and dark, with a black, close-cut beard, and a face that was decidedly handsome, albeit haughty and supercilious. His dress was remarkably rich, his armour being most exquisitely inlaid with gold and silver, and set with jewels, which flashed and sparkled in the sunlight as he moved. The hilt of his sword sparkled, too, with precious stones, and even the scabbard was elaborately damascened. Below the breastplate was a purple tunic, with devices worked in gold and gems; a dagger, also highly ornamented, was stuck in a jewelled belt; a short cloak, corresponding to the tunic, hung from his shoulders; and a waving, purple plume surmounted the whole costume.
Glancing from this man to others standing just behind him, Ray saw that they were attired in much the same manner; and he began to realize that Peter had not exaggerated when he declared that these people were possessed of enormous wealth, in the shape of gold and silver, and precious stones.
The parley was conducted in the strangers' language, which, from his long residence in the land, was perfectly well known to Peter. He translated it, as the talk proceeded, for the benefit of his companion, mingling with it such remarks of his own as he deemed apposite or necessary.
So it proceeded somewhat in this fashion:—
"What dost thou wish to say to me, Dyossa?" Peter called out, in the strange tongue. Then he added in a low tone to Ray: "Keep your eye on him, and shoot if he comes one step nearer."
"I would advise thee for thy good, slave," was the reply, given in a rich, full voice, but with an air of haughty condescension. "Thou knowest our laws, and what awaits thee. Thou canst not escape; but thou canst make thy fate worse by delay. Give in at once, and induce thy companion to do the same, and I will put in a good word for thee. But alter thy speech, or I will not listen. Thou forgettest to whom thou art speaking."
"Not I, my lord Dyossa." [To Ray: "What's that fellow with the axe on the right doing?"] "I know thee too well, and it seems to me thou forgettest what I already owe to thee when thou trustest thyself so near to this hand of mine. [There's a boat leaving the yacht. I must keep this up a bit; but look out.] Dost thou understand that I have but to move my finger and thou diest?"
"That is on the knees of the gods," said the other, calmly and without flinching, though he was looking down the barrel of Peter's revolver all the time. "Sometimes the gods, for reasons that men cannot understand, allow a slave to slay one of his lords. If they so will it, it is not for me to seek to evade my fate!"
In spite of his hatred of this man—and in the past he had had cause for hatred—his cool courage now won Peter's involuntary admiration. But he did not watch him and his companions the less keenly.
"What is their game, I wonder?" he said, under his breath, to Ray. "They must see the boat coming—and that another is just starting—as we do; yet they are wasting time in mere talk like this! Perhaps the fools think those who are coming to our rescue will prove as easy to capture as ourselves! Watch for some treacherous dodge!"
Then, to the one he had called Dyossa, he resumed:
"I am waiting to hear thy terms. The gods thou believest in have not yet delivered us into thy power, and will not until thou thyself and Lonolo, thy lieutenant, have fallen, for I hold your lives in my hand; and I warn you that, at the first move your people make against us, you will both die. It may be my lot to go back to slavery, but thou shalt not live to see it, or to lash me again with thy whip!"
"That is on the knees of the gods," repeated the other, as disdainfully as before. "But let me warn thee in turn. If thou thinkest that thy friends will come from yonder ship to thy rescue, thou art mistaken! See! They already stop! They are cowards! They fear too much to come any further. They have already decided to leave thee to thy fate!"
As he spoke, he pointed to the two boats which had left the yacht and rowed hurriedly some distance towards them. They had suddenly stopped, and their crews seemed to be consulting together and looking towards them in a hesitating fashion, as though doubtful whether to advance or return.
Peter translated the officer's words to Ray, who at first laughed them to scorn.
"They are but settling their plan of attack," said he.
"Surely, surely!" returned Peter, in accents which he tried to make confident and hopeful; though, at his heart, he felt the cold touch of a rising doubt.
"Can it be that Dyossa has some devilry afoot that we don't know of?" he asked himself, anxiously.
"Heaven help us, Peter! Can it be possible? Why, the cowards are turning back!" Ray gasped.
It was even so. One boat had partly turned as though to retreat; the people in the other seemed to be still hesitating. Finally they, too, turned; and both commenced to row slowly back towards the yacht.
It would be difficult, indeed, to describe the feeling of terrible despair which fell upon the two lads as they saw these movements, and realized that they were, in very truth, to be abandoned by those in whom they had so implicitly trusted. That there were many difficulties in the way of a successful attack by the boats, that it might fail, that they themselves might—very probably would—be killed in the mêlée instead of being rescued— all these contingencies they had taken into account, and were manfully prepared to face; but that they should have been deserted, and left to their fate, without a shot being fired on their behalf, seemed a thing too cruel, too monstrous to be believed.
Peter looked despairingly round for some chance of escape, but in vain. They were standing at the foot of one of the masts, the upper part of which was entangled with that of the neighbouring vessel. These decaying masts were supporting each other, in fact, and also an old "crow's-nest" above, with a network of odd spars entangled around it, and as Peter caught sight of it he determined to climb into it, and take his chances of the whole affair coming down.
"I fancy it is still strong enough to hold us safely," he said, as he told Ray of his idea. "We can defend ourselves better up there, for they can't rush us; and we can make the murdering hounds pay dearer for their prize when they do capture us."
"Good for you! There's shelter too, of a sort, from their arrows, if they take to shooting," Ray returned. "We can hold out there for some time, and perhaps the boats will return. Maybe, they've only gone back for a stronger force, or they did not bring the Maxim gun, or something."
"Maybe so," Peter returned, not very hopefully, however; for a moment's reflection suggested that if anything had been overlooked or forgotten, or any message had to be sent, one boat only would have returned to the yacht; leaving the other to watch the enemy till they returned.
They climbed nimbly up the mast, and so quickly and unexpectedly was their manoeuvre carried out that their enemies were taken by surprise, and the two lads were ensconced in the old dilapidated "crow's-nest," before any move had been made by the other side.
"There!" said Peter, "we're safe here against any of their 'rushes,' and fairly well sheltered against their arrows. As to the rest, it depends, of course—Hallo! Look yonder! What devilry are these wretches up to now?"
Ray looked; and then he began to understand why the boats had turned back.
From their present elevated position they could now look down into the "waist," or low centre-part of the vessel they had first boarded, and where they had left Captain Warren and the boat. There, upon the deck they saw five figures lying prone, their heads projecting outside the broken bulwark and over the water, so that they could be plainly seen by those on the yacht and in the boats which had put off from her.
The five forms were the captain, the doctor, and the three sailors. They lay in a row a little way apart, their limbs and bodies tightly bound, their collars turned down to bare their necks. Between each one stood a soldier, with drawn sword raised in the air, like an executioner about to decapitate his victim.
"Do you see what those fiends are doing?" Ray asked, hoarsely. "Do you understand? They threatened, by signs, that if the boats did not turn back, the heads of those poor fellows would be sliced off and fall into the water! Oh, I can understand now why the boats turned back! What could they do? And we, from where we were, could see nothing of all this ghastly signalling! What on earth can we do, Peter? I cannot stay here and look on. Hark! What is that?"
A strange booming sound was coming across the wilderness of swamp and rock. It was like the beating of a drum and the blowing of horns, and it seemed to be here, there, and everywhere at once. It rose and fell on the heavy air; it seemed to be above, below, around. It sounded inside the queer old hulks; it sounded as though it were underneath them; it seemed to rise out of the very weed.
Yet nothing was to be seen; nothing came into view that could account for the weird sounds.
But Ray and Peter saw that their enemies heard and recognized the noise, and that it instilled fear into their hearts; for signs of uneasiness began to show amongst them.
A few moments later, and the "executioners" flung down their swords and dashed away towards their boats; and then began a rush on the part of the rest of the soldiers which quickly developed, despite the efforts of their officers, into a mad, unreasoning panic.
THE panic-stricken stampede of their enemies was viewed by Ray with astonishment, which increased as the minutes went on and he still saw nothing to account for it.
More surprising still, however, was it to see some of those who had made for the boats in such reckless fashion, turn suddenly back before they had reached them, and attempt to fly in another direction. Two streams of fugitives, thus meeting, became jammed together, and began fighting with each other to get a clear road.
"They are shouting out something—some name which seems to have a terrible meaning for them! Can you distinguish what it is?" asked Ray of Peter.
"Yes!" he returned, gravely. "They are crying 'Mecanoes!' That is the name of the strange creatures I told you of, who are said to live amongst the weed and make their homes in these old hulls scattered about in it."
"Goodness! But I thought they were myths—bogies! Will they hurt us?"
"I don't know."
"Well, anyhow, I see nothing at present to account for all this fright. Don't you think we might take advantage of their panic to cut across yonder and set our friends at liberty? It may turn out to be a false alarm, and then they will swarm back upon us again!"
He paused a moment, and then cried, excitedly:
"See, Peter, see! The boats—our boats—are turning back again! They have seen that something has happened! Let us make an effort to loose our friends and stand by them till help comes."
"Yes, yes, Ray! We'll get down quietly, and try to slip past without their seeing us."
They quietly gained the deck, and stole cautiously but quickly forward in the direction of the vessel upon which their friends were still lying tightly bound in the place where their enemies had left them.
They sped across the ship they were on, scrambled on to the next without attracting attention, and managed to negotiate a third in a like manner without mishap. There was then but one more between them and the point they were making for. Upon that one, however, Dyossa was engaged with some others in the rear of his flying men, vainly endeavouring to rally them. He happened to turn and catch sight of the two lads just as they were stealing past, some forty yards or so behind him.
With a loud yell of rage, and calling upon those nearest to him to follow, he sprang after them. "Do you run on, Ray," said Peter quietly, "and see to our friends, while I square accounts with this gentleman. There is a long score to be settled between us; but still the fault will be his own if he compels a settlement now." Then, facing his foe, he called out to him in his own language to halt.
For a moment, Dyossa stopped and glared upon Peter, who kept him covered with his revolver. Then, finding that two of his officers were at his side in support, he rushed madly forward, his naked sword in his hand, and murder in his eye.
Three shots rang out—for Ray had remained to support his friend—and the three reckless assailants fell upon the deck.
At once those who had been trying to stay the retreat gave up the attempt and joined in the rout, and as they pressed upon the rear of the fugitives, the two lads were left alone with the three fallen leaders.
Peter, walking up to Dyossa, whom he had wounded in the shoulder, looked down, and addressed him in his own tongue:
"So! The account between us stands upon somewhat fairer terms from to-day! Wert thou in my place thou wouldst spit upon me and spurn me! As things are, I shall merely take from thee what I know thou prizest most. I want a sword and dagger badly; henceforth I shall have thine to remind me of thee!"
To Ray he said: "The spoils to the victor! I take these things, not because they are jewelled and valuable, but because it is considered a great disgrace amongst these gentry to be deprived of their side-arms. He would far rather I should kill him. I prefer to let him live—in disgrace. Now let us hurry on."
He buckled Dyossa's costly belt round his own waist, and hung upon it the sword and dagger. "We'll come back and look at the other two by and by," he said to Ray; and then they hurried away.
Two or three minutes afterwards they were bending over their friends, cutting their bonds, and helping to rub their stiffened limbs and assist them on to their feet.
There was no time for explanation. Among the other vessels of the group a great uproar was now going on which told that a battle of the fiercest character was raging upon the decks and round their sides. Yells, cries, shouts, mingled now and again with a sort of war-whoop—or rather war-shriek—of an absolutely blood-curdling character, that told that there were now other parties engaged in the proceedings besides their late assailants.
Ray and his companions mounted the high poop of the vessel they were on, and the two lads climbed higher still, upon some spars, to obtain a view, and from their perches looked down upon a scene of so wild, so extraordinary a character, that they were almost inclined to believe they were the victims of some nightmarish hallucination.
Swarming around the old hulks were large numbers of fantastic, queer-looking creatures, of whom it was virtually impossible to say to what classification in natural history they belonged. Their bodies were covered with a thick, seal-like fur, which, upon the head, and in places such as the elbows and thighs, grew into long, shaggy tufts or tresses. From the waist upwards their bodies were small, with very long arms; but below the waist the limbs developed enormously, resembling more the legs of frogs or kangaroos than those of human beings, or even apes. The feet were long, thin, flat and—as was afterwards seen—webbed.
As a consequence of this curious formation, these odd beings were most at home in the water or on the surface of the weed and floating vegetation. Upon the latter they could progress at a marvellous rate by a series of flying leaps from one mass of floating weed to another; while in the water they appeared to be veritable man-frogs, diving, swimming, sporting in it as only frogs or fish could do.
Ray and his companion gazed upon these weird creatures in amazement, which had in it some touch of awe. They felt considerable alarm, too, as to what was to happen if they should turn their attention to themselves, as presently no doubt they would. For the time, however, they seemed disposed to confine their hostility to the soldiers who had been attacking the party from the yacht.
Of these, there had been originally, perhaps, nearly a hundred, which number had been reduced by something like a dozen in the encounters which had taken place, so that there were still about eighty left to deal with the new arrivals. But the whole body had given way to utter panic and had lost their discipline, and now that their chief officers had been placed hors de combat they were a mere mob of armed men. Even so, however, they were—or might have been—a formidable force for another mob of creatures to attack armed only with what seemed to be long fish-spears.
But the uncanny assailants made up in agility and ferocity, in dexterity and lightning-like quickness—not to speak of their numbers, which must have been many hundreds—for what they lacked in other ways; and it was soon evident that the armed men were getting the worst of it. Some of them tried to escape in their boats, but new enemies arose out of the weed on all sides, leaped recklessly into the vessels and capsized them; and, once in the water, the soldiers had small chance indeed against their amphibious adversaries.
All this, Ray and Peter, as has been said, watched with amazement. Where these creatures had sprung from was a question which puzzled them not a little. They saw, however, that each one carried, in addition to a long spear, a curiously-shaped sea- shell, which they would put to their mouths at intervals, and with it produce those weird, booming sounds, which had so surprised the two youths, and so alarmed their attackers.
It now became apparent that these sounds were made for various distinct purposes and objects. Some were like words of command, and directed and governed all their combined movements; others were emitted by individual combatants, as might be cries of encouragement, or like the sound of trumpets or the skirl of the pipes, to inspirit the fighters.
Beyond all this, however, the attention of the onlookers was attracted to one strange figure—evidently a human being, and a big, stalwart one at that—who seemed to be the lord, or, at least, the supreme controller and director, of this extraordinary host. Clad in a most fantastic garb, which looked something like such a dress as a madman might evolve out of seaweed, shells, and similar marine productions, he was a most grotesque and, in some respects, outlandish figure. Yet, as he stood on the high stern of one of the hulks, directing, with a long stick, or wand, the movements of his strange host, there was in his actions a curious suggestion of mingled dignity and power. He did not shout, but made his commands known either by signs, or by the sound of his shell horn, which had so deep a note that its booming could be plainly heard above all the others.
As Ray turned from all this to his companion, his eyes denoted his state of bewilderment.
"What on earth does it all mean?" he asked helplessly. "Am I awake or asleep?"
"These," said Peter in a low, awed tone, "must be the strange people I told you of, the Mecanoes. The name signifies 'Wolves of the Weed.' And yonder big fellow must be the mysterious being they call Rulonda. Who he is I cannot tell you exactly; but his very name is dreaded throughout the whole country; though, to tell you the truth, I have always regarded him as more or less of a myth—as one might William Tell, or King Arthur. If this is he, however, it is evident that he is very much alive. He and his friends seem to have about settled our enemies for us; they've captured or killed every mother's son of 'em, so far as I can see!"
"Yes, the fight seems to be about over; but the question is, are they going to attack us?"
"I am inclined to think not, or we should have had some of 'em swarming round here before this. I fancy that Father Neptune yonder—he looks very like some of the old pictures of the sea-god—has sense enough to distinguish between us and those who were our enemies as much as his. Besides, the boats are creeping up, and will be alongside in a few minutes."
Sure enough, the boats were now almost within hail, and Captain Warren was signalling to them to hurry.
"Hallo!" said Peter suddenly. "Father Neptune is turning his attention to us at last! See! He is making signs—friendly ones, if I read them aright! Now, at last, I suppose, I shall learn something certain about this wonderful Rulonda, of whom I have heard legends and tales during the whole time I have lived in this country."
"CAPTAIN Warren," said Peter, as he and Ray approached the group on the poop, "the gentleman in shells and sea-weed, yonder, is making signs that he wishes for one of us to go and have a little gossip with him. Shall I go? I suppose I had better be the one to beard this oyster in his shell, as I know the language—"
"What, the language of their tootle-tootling horns?" asked Warren, with a smile.
"No, sir, I confess I don't understand that, nor do I know the frog language, but if our friend speaks the ordinary language of the country, I thought I might be able to get on with him better than you would."
"All right; sail in, my lad, by all means—that is, if you're not afraid he may play you false—"
"N—no, I don't fear that," Peter answered; not, however, without some slight hesitation. "At any rate, I'll risk it."
"Let me come with you," said Ray. "I'm dying to know more about these queer people."
This met with objection from both Warren and the doctor, but after a brief discussion, Ray got his own way, and the two started once more across the interlocked vessels, just as two boats from the yacht drew up alongside the first one.
They passed, on their way, the place where the three officers had fallen, and noted that they were no longer there.
"They've been carried off as prisoners, I suppose," Peter observed. "I wonder if anything has been done to tend their wounds? We must inquire into that, by and by, though"—he added bitterly—"if the positions had been reversed, we should have been left to die and rot without a second thought."
As they approached the spot where the strange being was awaiting them, they passed numbers of his followers, whom the lads looked at with the liveliest curiosity. They were standing about in groups, some in charge of gangs of prisoners—all bound, by the way, with thongs that bore a striking resemblance to dried or tanned sea-weed—or leaning idly on the bulwarks. They returned the curious looks the youths cast at them, but otherwise made no sign.
For a minute or two intervening obstacles hid the leader from the lads' view, and when finally they scrambled up on to the high, crumbling deck from which he had directed the operations, they paused in surprise.
No grotesque burlesque of a sea-god was there, but a fine, handsome-looking man, over six feet in height, clad in plain, armour, not jewelled or inlaid, like that of Dyossa and the others, but very serviceable and business-like withal. His figure was powerfully built, almost that of a giant in its proportions, his hair and beard were iron-grey, his eyes keen and alert as those of an eagle, his face changeful in expression, one moment seeming stern and hard, the next altering to most winning kindliness.
The two young ambassadors stood and stared at this unexpected apparition in astonishment, which was not by any means lessened when the stranger addressed them in English.
"And what are you doing here, Peter Newlyn?" he asked in a voice which sounded curiously musical and pleasing, albeit there was in it a ring of quiet authority.
Peter started to hear himself thus spoken to, and he stared hard at the speaker, trying to make out whether he had ever seen him before, but failing to recognize his features.
"How comes it, Peter Newlyn," the other resumed, "that, having escaped from the taskmaster's whip, you venture back, at imminent risk of coming again under its lash?"
Peter once more looked hard at his questioner before answering. The face was rugged and seamed, and it bore traces, he thought, of suffering; it was full, too, of a certain king-like dignity and pride; but over and above all these traits the lad seemed to detect something that won at once his respect and his confidence, and he returned softly:
"Sir, if you know so much of me, you probably know more; and I think, perhaps, you are already aware of what I should say if I answered your question in words."
The stranger looked at him keenly, but not unkindly; then, glancing at Ray, he said, abruptly:
"You have not introduced your companion. What is he doing here?"
"He came to help me in my quest—kindly, generously lent the aid of yonder yacht; and has to-day risked his life against those who still hold my brother in their cruel hands."
"Ah! So you two lads are on a quixotic expedition with a cockle-shell like yonder boat, to rescue your brother out of the power of the priests of the Temple of Fire, eh?"
"But she is something more than an ordinary yacht," Peter answered. "She is well armed, and has been in many stiff fights, I am told, before to-day."
"Still, what have you against you? A whole nation—small, no doubt, and lacking in firearms, but otherwise well armed and disciplined, boasting of fanatical courage and devotion to their leaders and their gods, ruthless and merciless if you fail and become their captives!"
Peter looked at him doubtfully, scarcely knowing how to take this strange being, who knew so much and yet revealed nothing about himself. But as he looked into his face, and saw there again that indefinable expression which had won his confidence at the first glance, a sudden impulse seized him. He clasped his hands, and exclaimed, in a broken voice:
"All that you say is true, and I know that the risks and difficulties of the enterprise are great. But, sir, you surely can advise, can help us? Will you aid me? Will you tell me if you know of any way in which it may be possible to rescue my brother, and will you show me that way if you know of one? Do not keep me in suspense, I pray of you, but tell me whether, in your view, it is possible or impossible!"
The tears were in Peter's eyes, and sobs in his voice, and he hardly dared to look in the face of the stranger, fearing to read there the refusal he dreaded.
But the other stepped forward and laid his hand kindly on his shoulder.
"Heaven alone can say what may be possible or impossible, my boy," he said sympathetically; "but so far as lies in human power I am going to help you. But we must act promptly, for the time is short. This day month is the great festival of the Priests of the Temple of Fire, at which there will be many captives sacrificed to their gods—and in particular to the great monster they call the Sacred Salamander."
Peter uttered a cry of distress.
"I have been living in dread of that!" he cried. "I feared it; I felt sure it would be so! A month did you say? Only one month? What, alas! can we hope to do in one little month?"
"Much, very much, if Heaven be with us," the other answered, cheerily. "Everything promises well just now. A large number of trustworthy men, filled with hatred and disgust against the wicked, bloodthirsty rule of this hierarchy who have usurped the power and position of the rightful ruler of the land, have banded themselves together and only await my signal to turn on their oppressors. But we want stronger help—the assistance, I mean, of a force used to carry firearms, and such a force you have here in the 'Kestrel'—that is, Mr. Ray, if Mr. Lonsdale, your father, has given permission or authority—"
Raymond stared in undisguised wonder.
"You seem to know everything about us, sir," he exclaimed.
"I knew your father, lad," was the smiling reply, as the speaker held out his hand and shook Ray's warmly, "and I am pleased to welcome his son into our country. From the manner in which you bore yourself to-day, under very trying circumstances, I am sure you are worthy to be the son of one I know to be brave and loyal, and whom I greatly respect. I saw the whole affair to- day—watched the approach of the yacht and recognized her. I also saw the ambuscade that was planned; but I could then only send out messengers to my faithful friends, whom you now see around me.
"They responded to my call, and have enabled me not only to rescue you from the peril you were then in, but to save the yacht—for had one boat got away to give the alarm, the fate of the 'Kestrel,' and all those in her, would have been sealed."
"Ay; I understood that, too," said Peter.
"Well, my friends' loyal response to my call has saved the situation. Unseen by you or by your lurking enemies, my messengers went forth on every side, and brought in their fellows, for they can travel through the weed like veritable eels, showing no sign upon the surface to any but one accustomed to their movements. We shall have their assistance in our further plans; and I may here tell you that as scouts and auxiliaries, wherever there is water, they will be invaluable. Thus, with their aid added to that of those I first spoke of, and the co- operation of the yacht and her crew, I do not think we need despair of overthrowing the atrocious gang who are at present the ruling power in this ancient, but now unfortunate, country!"
WITHIN half an hour, the "Kestrel" had resumed her interrupted journey up the Northern Channel, as the particular waterway she had entered was termed. But she now travelled more quickly, for she was steered by the mysterious stranger who had interposed in so timely and effectual a fashion between the adventurers and their crafty enemies.
His evident familiarity with the channels, and the energy he displayed in making and carrying out his plans, inspired all those on the yacht with confidence and hopefulness, even though it might be the case that one or two—Captain Warren in particular, who, like all skippers, desired always to be "first fiddle" on the vessel he commanded—were inclined to resent his masterful manner. But, if so inclined, they nevertheless thought better of it, and kept it to themselves, for there was that about this stranger which spread abroad the idea that he was not to be lightly crossed.
In tow of the yacht was a string of boats—or barges, to speak more exactly—those, namely, which had been captured from the enemy. In these the prisoners were placed, all securely bound, and guarded by squads of the uncanny-looking "Wolves of the Weed."
Numbers of these amphibious beings accompanied the progress of the yacht, swarming about her on every side like a lot of gigantic frogs, leaping from tuft to tuft of the weed, or swimming, diving, and sporting in the water, easily keeping up with her, though she was now going at a good speed. Many more, it was understood, had gone on far ahead to patrol the whole channel till open water was reached, and to give timely notice if any danger should threaten.
During the passage of this channel Rulonda—so it appeared the stranger was named, as Peter had divined—gave to the others a brief outline of his plans, and of the present position of affairs in the country.
The whole country, he averred, was, in very truth, what was left above water of the lost Island of Atlantis. That great island—or the greater part of it—had sunk beneath the waves thousands of years ago, and the rocks and shallows, but a few feet below the surface, upon which the vast expanse of weed was rooted, were nothing more or less than what had formerly been dry land—a land smiling with fertility and abundance.
When the general subsidence had taken place the mountain tops of the central portion alone remained above water, forming, as it were, a group of islands which to-day were still there, though the extraordinary growth of weed on all sides had shut them in, and caused their very existence to be unknown to the outside world.
Again, the vast island—or continent—called Atlantis had been inhabited, at the time of this subsidence, not by one nation, but by several different peoples, living together in a commonwealth. Hence, to-day, the descendants of those who survived the great catastrophe were still divided into three or four nations, and these did not dwell together, but inhabited between them several islands known by different names. Of these one island was still called Atlantis, and its people were supposed to be the true descendants of the ancient Atlantians. Another was named Cashia; and the people of this country had invaded and conquered Atlantis, and were now holding its inhabitants in bondage, under the tyrannous yoke of a confederacy of priests; a sect of fire-worshippers, whose chief place of worship was a hollow mountain in the Island of Cashia known as the "Mountain of Fire" The real rulers of the whole region, therefore, were the Cashians and their priests; and these were the people who had been making piratical raids and capturing stray vessels, in search partly of captives to sacrifice to their gods, and partly of firearms, which, as a means of overawing those they were oppressing, they greatly valued. These raids had only been rendered possible by the opening during the last few years of two main channels through the weed, one to the north and the other to the south-west The piratical expeditions always used the latter; and the northern channel—the one the yacht was then in—was at present almost entirely unused, though there had been some talk of building artificial obstructions across it, as a defence against possible incursions from the outer world.
"To-night," said Rulonda to Peter, in conclusion, "you shall see, and perhaps speak to your brother; or you may try to pass a note to him, that we may prepare him and his fellow-prisoners to co-operate in our plans. That is, if you have the courage to run the danger of going with me, in a disguise which I can procure, to the Temple of Fire, and mingling with the concourse of people there."
"I will run any risk you consider advisable, and shall be only too thankful for any chance of speaking with my poor brother," said Peter warmly.
"And who, if I may ask," said the doctor, "are these queer creatures or people, or whatever they are, who have rendered us such signal service to-day, and who seem to know and understand you so well—though to a stranger they hardly appear to be human beings at all?"
"They are certainly human beings," was the answer, "though, poor souls, they, as you say, do not look much like it. It is said that they are the descendants of escaped slaves who, in former days—how many hundreds or thousands of years ago none can say—escaped from their masters and lived a precarious life amongst inaccessible swamps and morasses.
"In time, I imagine, they took to the Sargasso Sea, as it is called, and there found ready-made habitations in the numberless old hulls of vessels which, as you now have seen, are everywhere scattered about throughout the vast expanse of weed. Then their physical development must have changed and become more suitable to the life they were leading, until they were what you now see them.
"They are a persecuted, ill-used race, regarded as mere animals by the Cashians, who frequently organise hunts, and chase them for sport wherever they can chance upon one or two alone.
"It is not surprising that as a result the poor creatures should make savage reprisals when opportunity offers, and so come to be regarded as untamable wild beasts—'wolves of the weed,' in fact, as their name implies. Yet, as you perceive, I have found them amenable to kindness; and towards myself, once they gained confidence, they have always proved most faithful, devoted, dog-like friends."
As the afternoon wore on the yacht neared the end of the channel, and then a halt was made until darkness had fallen.
From the place where the pause was made, the end of the channel could be seen, and, beyond it, a wide space of open water with hazy outlines of high lying land in the distance.
Then, when night had closed in, she stole out of the region of weed into the open water, and made her way across it without showing any lights, till within easy distance of the opposite shore, where another and longer halt was made.
A boat took the two lads—for Ray had begged to be allowed to join in the adventure—to shore in charge of the stranger; and they first visited a fisherman's hut where certain disguises were, as it appeared, kept in readiness. Rulonda put on a loose fisherman's costume, and then assisted to dress his young friends in similar dress, and instructed them in their behaviour; after which the three set out, accompanied by the fisherman himself— quite a young fellow, named Kubis—upon their dangerous mission.
An hour and a half's walking over rough ground brought them to the base of the mountain they were seeking, and after some further climbing, they reached a cave rather more than half way up. Here, for the first time, they met with two human beings; for so far they had encountered no one.
At a word from Kubis the two men, who appeared to be sentinels or watchmen, opened an iron gate, and the four passed through into an underground passage, which they traversed by the aid of a lantern carried by the fisherman.
Other gates were passed, and other galleries traversed until, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the party emerged from the last one on to a terrace, where there burst upon their view a marvellous scene.
THEY looked down upon a vast domed enclosure or theatre-like interior. It was, in fact, as Rulonda had explained beforehand, the inside of a great hollow mountain, but its resemblance to a colossal theatre was remarkable. Below them numbers of gaily-dressed people were walking to and fro, or engaged in talk or various amusements. Then there was a clear space that separated these throngs from what was not unlike a spacious stage raised a few feet above the rest of the enclosure—but in reality a platform of solid rock.
At the back of this descended with a deafening roar what appeared to be a cascade of living fire, flashing, sparkling, scintillating, coruscating in millions of points of light.
In the centre of the belt dividing the platform from the side where the promenaders were was a large basin covered with a sort of cage, the bars of which appeared to be of gold, and were placed two or three feet apart. From out of this basin, through the bars, leaped upwards a fountain of fire, which rose and fell, reaching at times a height of thirty or forty feet, then falling to no more than ten feet, and anon rising suddenly again to twenty or thirty.
On either side of the main fiery cascade at the back other smaller ones fell, scattering brilliant particles in all directions, while across the whole scene floated soft clouds of white or ruddy-tinted smoke or haze, which gave to the whole a very weird and almost unearthly effect.
What, however, seemed most surprising in tins strange scene, was that, upon the platform, white robed figures were seen, evidently priests, who walked to and fro in the midst of the cataracts of falling fire, seemingly none the worse for the fiery avalanche which fell upon and around them.
Suddenly, through the golden bars of the central basin a long, slender, wriggling, serpent-like shape was seen, swaying and twisting and turning this way and that, as though hungrily seeking for prey. Then a second similar shape appeared upon the opposite side, and between them a third, all pendulous, and swaying and playing about with a sinuous motion horrible to look upon; while all the time the fiery fountain rose and fell, and the sparkling drops tumbled about, some of them falling upon the twisting, snaky coils, glistening on them for an instant, and then slipping from them on to the rocky floor, whence they trickled in little shimmering streams into a rushing river, which disappeared into the rocky wall at the side.
"Those horrible, wriggling things," said Rulonda to Ray and Peter in a whisper, "are the frightful arms of their so-called 'Sacred Salamander,' which is in reality a gigantic cuttlefish or octopus, which lives in yonder basin, imprisoned in it by the cage-like contrivance you see fixed over the top. The victims destined for sacrifice are driven within its reach, and it drags them through the bars and devours them within."
"Oh, Heaven! Can it be possible?" murmured Peter, turning sick and faint. "Is that the awful fate that awaits my brother if we fail to rescue him? It seems to me—"
But here further talk was interrupted, for their attention was called to a commotion below. It was caused by the entrance of the prisoners themselves—the victims destined to be given to the horrible monster in the great cage—who were dressed in white, with flowers wreathed round their heads and bodies, after the custom, as it seemed, that obtained in ancient Mexico in the case of victims similarly doomed.
"There!" gasped Peter, with difficulty expressing a cry—"there is my brother Oliver; and there is Captain Warren's friend Keene!"
Ray gazed with interest and sympathy at the flower-decked figures of the unhappy prisoners destined to be the victims of the cruel rites of the priestly rulers of the place.
He had no difficulty in picking out Peter's brother, for there was a striking likeness between the two. Oliver was, indeed, in many respects but a smaller edition, so to speak, of his elder brother; but his face was wanting in the strong character and determination that marked Peter's lineaments. Instead, there was a look of boyish innocents which, in the circumstances in which the poor lad was placed, was singularly pathetic and touching.
Ray was full of distress as he looked from one brother to the other, and he gave Peter's hand a friendly grasp as he whispered:
"We must rescue him, Peter, if the thing is to be done! You can count on me to the very last! I don't wonder now that you risked everything to come back to try and save him from such fiends!"
Peter said nothing, but only returned the kindly pressing of the hand. But he breathed hard and his face was set and very white.
Rulonda, too, gazed down with a hard, grim look upon his fine features. He pointed to three of the white-robed priests who stood and conversed apart from the rest, and in a low tone that sounded, Ray thought, not unlike the half-suppressed growl of an angry lion, said:
"Those three are the chief priests; their names are Belfendi, Madomah, and Heldamah—three of the cruellest, the most detestable monsters this globe has ever seen! Even the terrible creature in the great cage should be less repulsive, less hateful in the sight of ordinary human beings than those three—for it does but kill, after its own fashion, to satisfy its natural hunger; whereas these three atrocious wretches seem to commit their abominable misdeeds merely to gratify an unnatural appetite for cruelty! Ha, my friends, you have had your day! But the hour of your punishment is approaching; and when it comes I know I shall be here to witness it!"
His look had become fixed, and had a dreamy, far-away expression in it that made him appear almost like an inspired prophet denouncing the wickedness and predicting the fate of the wicked ones whom Heaven had doomed.
Then, seeming to suddenly rouse himself, he made signs to his companions to follow him, and led the way from the terrace back to the galleries through which they had come.
They traversed many more passages, and descended several flights of steps, meeting no one on their way, till they emerged again into the open air.
Ray noticed that the door through which they finally came out was most cunningly made to resemble the rock with which it was surrounded. As they passed through it, someone inside, whom he had not seen, pulled it to, and then it was almost impossible to find it again. In fact, he occupied himself, while Rulonda was talking in an undertone with his young fisherman friend, in trying to make out exactly where the door was, and utterly tailed to find the slightest trace of it. After an interval of a minute or two, Rulonda turned to Ray.
"We are now going round to the public gate," he said, "where, by mingling with the crowd, we may obtain speech with the captives. But, as you can understand, it is a proceeding attended with grave danger. If we are discovered we shall find ourselves in a very tight place, and either be torn to pieces on the spot or added to the number of the priests' prospective victims. It is not necessary for our plans that you should run this risk; you can return with our young friend Kubis, while Peter and I go on. What say you, my lad?"
But Ray would not hear of going back. Wherever Peter ventured there he meant to go too, he declared; and so, after a few more words of warning and instruction as to their behaviour, they parted from the friendly fisherman, and set out upon their hazardous mission.
They skirted the base of the mountain, and soon came to signs of the district they entered being inhabited. First there were huts and cottages, then larger dwellings, and shortly a glow in the sky and a low hum, which grew louder as they advanced, indicating that they were approaching a populous city—the city called Cashia, Rulonda said.
Presently they found themselves passing along broad and well- lighted streets, and the buildings became larger and finer till, quite suddenly, as it seemed, they turned a corner, and reached the waterside.
Here Ray gazed about him in amaze. They stood upon what seemed to be the seashore. In front of them, the calm and still, extended for a great distance, till it was lost in the darkness beyond.
To right and to left a broad promenade stretched along the shore with a bold sweep, and behind this, again, rose noble palaces of gleaming white marble, surrounded by beautiful gardens, where glistening fountains could be seen playing amidst flowers and foliage.
Graceful, waving palms stood out, here and there, amidst clumps of smaller trees; terraces and flights of steps rose, one behind the other, many lighted by braziers, from which dancing flames leaped upwards into the flower-scented air.
Ray would fain have stayed awhile to look upon the marvellous scene, but Rulonda, with a significant pressure of his hand upon his shoulder, led him on.
It was indeed evident that the inhabitants were all making their way in one direction, and to have stood still or gone another way would have attracted attention. Everyone seemed bent upon the same thing; richly dressed nobles, officers, and soldiers in shining armour, poor fisher-folk, slaves—all mingled in a crowd that moved along the sea-front to some fixed destination, leaving empty and untenanted alike the gardens on the shore and the great gilded pleasure-barges and other vessels which were scattered about upon the water.
Soon Ray saw what it was they were all making for. They turned from the shore into a wide road, or rather grove, which ran at right angles from the sea in a straight line, rising all the way, to the massive base of the Mountain of Fire, which could now be seen rising, dim and mysterious, into the upper air. The towering mass was curiously illumined by strange flashes of lurid light which came and went and flickered about first in one place then in another, now high amongst the clouds, a moment later flitting amongst the trees which covered the base.
In the centre—that is to say, at the end of the long vista of road—rose two colossal gates flanked on either side by columns of luminous smoke or vapour, which soared up the face of the mountain, and from which the constant lurid flashes seemed to proceed.
Rulonda hurried his companions along still faster, and they pressed forward amongst the crowd, which seemed to get denser the farther they went. When they arrived at the great gates they were jostled amongst a crush of people who pressed round the stalls of flower-sellers just within the entrance. Here everyone purchased some floral device and carried it with him into the temple.
Ray felt very much as though he were in a dream. There was a nightmarish feeling about the whole affair, so utterly different had everything turned out from what he had expected.
"And these are the people we set out to conquer with a yacht's crew!" he thought to himself. "No wonder our new friend laughed at our temerity!"
He was borne along with the rest and found himself beside a sort of counter at a flower-stall, whereon were all sorts of quaint devices and designs made up out of flowers of the greatest beauty and fragrance. Rulonda purchased some of these and distributed part of them among his two companions, after which they pressed on through inner chambers and another pair of massive gates till they reached the great central hall upon which they had already looked down from the terrace above.
Here the scene was very much as they had seen it before—the fiery cascades fell with a continuous roar sending glittering particles flying about on all sides, the central fountain spurted its gleaming, feathery streams into the air, the seething river rushed past, tumbling and foaming in its bed and reflecting the light around. The long, twisting, snake- like tentacles shot out through the bars of the golden cage at irregular intervals, with the same hungry seeking prey; the miserable captives, doomed to be its helpless victims, standing about in groups in the enclosure between what may be termed the auditorium or great body of the hall, and the platform of rock that stretched across in front of the shining cataracts.
Rulonda, followed by his companions, made his way which through the throng till the three stood beside the railings which shut off the prisoners' enclosure. These railings were high and close, spiked at the top, and very strong and solid, yet apparently were of gold. Through the bars the crowd outside stared at the captives as they were marched to and fro under the charge of gaolers, much, as people at home stare at rare animals in a menagerie. Instead of offering them cakes or biscuits, however, they here proffered flowers, which some of the prisoners took and added to those they already had, or handed them over to their attendants. Many, however, fell unheeded upon the ground, which became strewed with them.
Some of the doomed prisoners, of whom there were now fully half a hundred assembled within the enclosure, behaved as though the contemplation of the terrible fate in store for them had driven them crazy, and they laughed and danced and sang in boisterous fashion. Frequently the spectators offered them drinks and fruit as well as flowers. Others of the unfortunates seemed stunned, and sat about by themselves, staring straight in front of them as if in a kind of trance. Others, again, moved quietly about in groups of two or three engaged in conversation and doing their best to cheer each other.
Amongst these last Peter's brother could be seen, He was walking beside Warren's friend Keene, and was listening in somewhat listless fashion to his companion, but his drooping head and haggard looks indicated that his thoughts were not following very intently the subject of their talk. He was, indeed, just then thinking of his brother, and wondering if the news that had reached him could be true. Only an hour or two before a slave who had been with the party which had attacked the yacht had been telling Oliver of Peter's escape from the galley, without, however, being able to say whether he had finally got clear away or been drowned in the attempt.
A wreath fell at Oliver's feet; but he scarcely noticed it, and was about to push it aside with his foot out of his path, when Keene stayed the movement and, stooping, picked it up. His quick eye had caught the flutter of a bit of white paper tied amongst the flowers.
Surprised that he should take so much trouble about what was so common an occurrence—for every night flowers were thrown into the enclosure, until at times the captives could scarcely walk about for them—Oliver raised his eyes and met his brother's burning gaze fixed upon him.
So unexpected was this re-encounter that Oliver fancied for a moment it must be a hallucination; or, he asked himself, had Peter indeed been drowned, and was this his spirit come back to—
The lad's head swam; he felt sick and dizzy, and he might have fallen had not Keene's strong arm been just then put through his.
"Steady, lad—steady!" whispered his comrade. "Hold up, and take no notice, or you'll betray your brother. How he got here and why he has come I can't imagine; but there is a note amongst these flowers which will probably explain. Pick up another thingumybob and pull the flowers off, as I am doing with this, and do not pause in your walk or look round."
Thus admonished and advised, Oliver recovered his presence of mind, and the two continued their walk for a while, never daring even to glance at the place where Peter had been standing. Nor could Keene get a chance to read the note which he had taken from the wreath while apparently engaged in idly picking off the flowers and throwing them about, just as Oliver was now doing with another floral device.
Gradually the two drew near to the rails, but at a point some distance from the spot where Peter had been. Then, still toying with the flowers, and not daring to trust himself to look round, Oliver stood with his back to the rails apparently interested in his talk with his companion. He expected that Peter would saunter up and watch for an opportunity of speaking; and in this he was not disappointed, for he presently heard his voice just behind him.
"I am here, Oliver, to try to save you," the voice breathed, in a tone so low that he could only just catch the words; "and I am not alone. We have a well-armed yacht and stout friends to help us. So keep up your courage. We mean to rescue you or die with you, and—"
The rest of the message was drowned in a noise which had arisen in another part of the hall. There were cries and shouts, and they sounded of an angry, vengeful character. The commotion grew, and a small group rushed from somewhere upon the platform. In their midst was Dyossa, the officer Peter had wounded. He looked first this way and then that, his eyes blazing with rage and fury, till at last he caught sight of Rulonda and his two young companions, and pointed them out.
"There they are! Seize them!" he shrieked. "Seize the dogs, and tear them limb from limb!"
And with a perfect howl of frenzied passion he led the rush of shouting people who darted forward to carry out his words.
RULONDA and his companions were seized from behind ere they could move a hand to defend themselves. Not that resistance could possibly have been of any use in the face of the odds they had against them. It afterwards appeared that some soldiers had been watching their movements suspiciously, and at the very first suggestion of something being wrong these worthies had thrown themselves upon the strangers and prevented them from drawing their arms.
After the first struggle—for there was a short, sharp tussle—it is not in human nature to yield, even to overwhelming force, without some sort of a struggle—a great cry of surprise and triumph went up from the captors of the three. Their exultation was not due to the recapture of Peter—that was rather a sort of private affair apparently affecting Dyossa chiefly—nor was it the seizure of a young stranger like Ray; it was inspired by the discovery that one of their prisoners was Rulonda.
Immediately the cry went up, "Rulonda! Rulonda! We have taken Rulonda!" And this brought about a pause on the part of the crowd. It was a pause which happened fortunately at the moment, for otherwise it seemed pretty certain, from the demeanour of Dyossa and his immediate followers, that they intended literally to carry out his orders, and tear their helpless prisoners limb from limb.
But on hearing the cry, "We have taken Rulonda!" the priest who had been pointed out to Ray as Belfendi, strode forward into the midst of the savage mob.
As his tall form pushed its way amongst them, the uplifted arm commanded silence, a great hush fell upon the assemblage.
"Let me see the prisoners! Bring them this way!" the priest ordered, in loud, sonorous tones that were heard throughout the spacious hall.
And as he spoke there was an evil light in his flashing eyes, a triumphant smile on the cruel mouth which boded no good for the prisoners.
Rulonda stood up and faced him. He was tightly bound; yet, even so, there was a dignity in his bearing which struck Ray, who still looked upon the scene with the feeling that it was, somehow, all part of a dream, as forming a striking contrast to the arrogant and sneering demeanour of the priest.
Of the colloquy which followed Ray understood nothing, since it was conducted in the language of the country. But there was very little opportunity for speech; the excitement of the crowd was evidently at fever-heat, and not even the authority of the priests could check it after the first few moments. From all sides resounded howls and shouts, and the impatience of those around increased with every moment.
"They are howling for our blood," said Peter coolly in an undertone to Ray; "and they mean to have it this time, I'm thinking! Well, we can die but once; and, since it must be so, I am content that I should lose my life in trying to save my brother. But with you it is different. It was I who persuaded you into this adventure, and—"
"Never mind that, Peter; don't go over that ground again," Ray interrupted. "Tell me what it is they are crying out now."
"His excellency, the chief priest, has just most generously offered to give us as a meal to their sacred monster in yonder cage; and the gentle beings, who form his congregation, are yelling themselves hoarse with delight at the suggestion. Only they stipulate it must he done here, now, at once; none of your crafty promises of a grand festival 'battue' next week. They are greedy to see the sight forthwith—and forthwith it's going to be."
Peter's further speech was stopped by Dyossa, who came up to him, and striking him brutally on the face, demanded of him what he had done with his sword and dagger; and finding that no answer was forthcoming, ordered the soldiers who were in charge of him to search him and find them.
But Peter had not brought them with him upon this risky expedition, and so the search would have proved a vain one had it been carried out; but the people howled again with such impatience that Belfendi gave the signal to drag the prisoners up on to the platform of rock, where was the cage which held the waiting "Sacred Salamander."
The order was carried out at once. The three were placed upon a spot well beyond the reach of the restless, writhing arms or tentacles of the horrible creature, their legs were unbound, and then tied again just sufficiently to admit of only a short, shuffling step. And then they were left together, their arms still tightly tied up, and their guards hurriedly retreated.
A moment or two later an encircling ring of metal network began to close in upon the doomed three on all sides, save that shut off by the river. There was no need, it was considered, for the netting, since the shackling of the victims prevented their attempting to escape by swimming.
By the crowd the glittering cascades were believed to be living fire, but Ray had already learned during their walk to the place they were only water, and that their fiery appearance was due to a remarkably high amount of phosphorus in the water. They came, Rulonda explained, from an underground lake high up on the mountain, the water of which was so highly charged with phosphorus that wherever it fell, when in motion, it seemed to burst into flame. The existence of the lake was a secret known only to the priests, who for countless generations had concealed the fact from the people and pretended that the glittering water was really a river of living fire, and that they themselves were able to go in and out amongst it unscathed, because they were the high priests of the god of fire. The allusion was heightened by clouds of smoke or vapour which were to be constantly seen ascending both inside and outside the temple. This vapour, however, came from hidden fires which were never allowed to go out from year's end to year's end.
Slowly the encircling network closed in upon the helpless victims, sweeping them onwards and causing them to shuffle closer and closer to those restless, hungry-looking "arms." And now Ray suddenly caught sight, through the bars of the cage, of two immense eyes, big as saucers, which were watching the enforced approach of the devoted three with a steady, unwinking stare, which had something awful in its suggestion of patient relentless ferocity. For the first time the full terror of his position took hold of the lad, and he became possessed by an overmastering horror.
The howling and yelling of the bloodthirsty crowd, the irritating, triumphant, sneering smiles of Dyossa and the priests—these and all other incidental sights and sounds were forgotten, obliterated by the fascination that lay in the watchful stare of those baleful eyes.
Ray felt himself swaying as though he were about to sink to the ground. A deadly feeling of nausea came over him, and a strong impulse seized upon him to rush forward to meet those waiting, snaky coils, and to end the intolerable horror of the thing. But at that critical moment an unexpected diversion occurred.
Out of the seething, glistening stream in which the reflection of the shining cascades looked almost like molten gold bubbling in a giant cauldron, there rose six figures—figures so weird and uncanny-looking that even the shouting throng became silent, and gazed at them in wondering astonishment.
Little time was allowed them to recover from their first surprise. Ere anyone there could move a hand to prevent it, these strange figures had rushed upon the intended victims, seized them, two to each shackled captive, carried them to the stream, and leaped with their burdens back into it, disappearing entirely from sight in what looked not unlike a shower of fireworks.
Many of the onlookers rubbed their eyes and stared round in bewilderment, as though asking one another whether it was all true. A minute ago the three helpless "sacrifices" had been standing on yonder rock, within a foot or so of the outstretched arms of the caged monster. It had certainly then seemed that no earthly power could save them. Few would have ventured close enough to those terrible, twisting coils to rescue them, even had the priests suddenly relented and ordered their minions to snatch them from their impending fate. And yet—now—they were gone! They had vanished, and that so suddenly, so completely, that the spectators could scarcely trust themselves to say how the miracle had been accomplished.
But a minute or two later a new uproar broke out. Screams of rage, and cries for vengeance on some one—any one, as it seemed— came from the disappointed mob.
Amidst cries of "Mecanoes! Mecanoes!" a rush was made against the bars of the enclosure in which were the other captives. Belfendi, however, was in no mood to have his arrangements for the approaching great festival interfered with by a premature sacrifice of the prisoners he had collected and saved up for the occasion. So he took his measures promptly; they were all marched out of sight before the angry mob could scale the railings which shut them off. Thus, for the time, they were saved, and the "Sacred Salamander" was left disappointed and hungry.
Oliver and his friend in misfortune, Keene, marched away with glad, thankful hearts. What the scene had meant to the lad, who had been compelled to stand by and see his brother in such peril, can be better imagined than described. Now the poor boy forgot, for a time, the position in which he himself still remained, in his joy at Peter's escape.
For that the three had escaped none, either of the priests, or their followers, doubted. How it should have come about that those creatures which they hated and despised, yet feared—the fierce "Wolves of the Weed"—should appear thus as the friends and rescuers of their intended victims, they could by no manner of means understand. But that the affair had meant a rescue they were fully convinced; and they all went back to their dwellings that night, in a tempest of impotent rage and disappointed fury.
WHEN the three helpless prisoners were seized upon by their strange rescuers, Ray, as has been said, had felt faint and sick from the feeling of horror engendered by the close contemplation of the horrible monster which he could see so plainly within its great cage. But the shock of the cool water, when he was plunged into the rushing river, quickly dissipated all such sensations, and recalled his wandering senses.
He learned now to appreciate better than he had before the marvellous swimming powers of their amphibious friends. Scarcely had they plunged into the boiling flood when he felt them, even while they were diving lower and yet lower, busily endeavouring to loosen his bonds; and, indeed, before they rose again he knew that he was free. But when they came to the surface all was darkness. He could see no glimmer of light to guide him or to afford an idea as to where they were or whither they were hurrying; for that they were speeding along at a great rate there could be no doubt.
He could hear the swishing of the racing current as it dashed against the rocks in its progress, and he guessed that they were now in an underground river running in a rocky bed, and doubtless with many great boulders in the channel. There were no phosphorescent gleams in this water to help them, and had he felt less confidence in his trusty guides he would have shrunk from the idea of threading such a channel in absolute darkness, and been in momentary expectation of having his brains dashed out against some stony obstacle.
But there was something in the mere touch of these strange friends, as they held him up in the surging flood, which instinctively gave him to understand that there was nothing to fear. Whether they were like cats, and could see in the dark, or how, if they could not, they were guiding their course, he did not stop to consider.
He made no attempt at swimming himself; that, he instinctively felt, would be useless. The touch of his rescuers said to him as plainly as though they had spoken in words, "Trust everything to us and we will take care of you; but if you struggle or try to swim we can do nothing." So he gave himself up entirely into their charge, and allowed himself to float along wherever and however they might direct their course.
The voyage, however, was not a very long one. The race, already fast, soon became furious, the noises in the ears more deafening; there was a great, swinging heave, during which the grip of his unseen companions tightened in a manner that seemed intended to warn him to prepare for some critical ordeal, and just as, profiting by the hint, he drew in a great breath, and then closed his mouth, there was a wild, downward sweep, and they sank again deep into the swirling flood. He knew that they were plunging down a waterfall.
It was a long dive this time; so long that, for the first time since he had started on this queer journey, Ray began to have some misgiving. He did not doubt his guides, either as to their skill or their intentions; but it did suddenly occur to him that they might miscalculate the time during which he could hold his breath. Undoubtedly, they could keep under water much longer than he could, and therefore might quite conceivably think nothing of a dive that would be long enough to drown him out and out.
But even as he began to feel he could hold his breath no longer, he found himself in the open air. His companions had suddenly released their hold, and he had risen high up above the surface of the water, falling back into it like a leaping fish. Then he struck out for himself, and took a look round.
The water about him was almost calm. High above, in a clear sky, sailed a bright, silvery moon. A few hundred yards away was a dark rock, which towered up, gloomy and frowning, for some hundreds of feet, almost perpendicularly. From a cavern in the face of this precipice a river rushed and fell, in the form of a cascade, to the level of the water in which he was then swimming. Ray comprehended that this must be the stream they had followed.
He looked about now for his late companions who had brought him so faithfully and successfully through this subterranean torrent; but, to his surprise, no trace of them could be seen. They had vanished so completely that he gazed around in astonishment, which increased as time passed, and they failed to reappear.
Suddenly, a few yards away, something shot up in the air in similar fashion to the way he had done a few moments before, falling back with a splash, as might a great salmon which had sprung up after a particularly toothsome tit-bit in the shape of a fly. Scarcely had he time to assure himself that this new arrival was Peter, when there came another splash which heralded the appearance of Rulonda. The latter caught sight of the others at once, and called out:
"Are you all right, you two!"
His voice rang out cheerily, as though nothing out of the way had occurred.
"Ay, ay, sir," Peter responded.
And Ray confirming the fact as regards himself, the other continued coolly:
"Good! Then follow me!"
And, without further remark or explanation, he began swimming vigorously towards a point on the nearest shore, which Ray now perceived was scarcely two hundred yards away.
Peter came to Ray's side.
"How did you get on?" he asked laughingly. "I need not ask whether your pilots navigated the underground river successfully, for if they hadn't you would not be here. But did all go well? You seem to have got here first; and therefore, I suppose, came through without a hitch; but we were hung up for a minute or two."
"How was that? Nothing happened to us."
"Oh, some beast of a fish wanted to make a meal of one of us; but our froggy friends were too much for him. Why, see! The beast has come through, and is floating dead yonder. Do you see him?"
"I see something," said Ray doubtfully. "What is it? It looks like a great sea-serpent!"
"'Tis a big conger-eel. They grow to the size of veritable sea-serpents about here, and are at times quite as savage and dangerous to swimmers. But where are our froggy friends?"
"That's what I can't understand. They let go of me, and I've not seen them since. One would almost think, if we were not here in the water, that the whole affair had been a dream!"
"Ah, it was no dream, though, when we were standing within a foot or two of that many-armed monster! I say, how those priests and all the other johnnies stared when we left them so unceremoniously, without even throwing them a kiss or murmuring one sweet good-bye! I've been laughing almost ever since at the last look I got of their faces, with those blank, disgusted looks!"
The reaction that had followed upon their fortunate and unexpected escape, and the excitement of their rapid transit along the rushing, roaring torrent, had acted like an exhilarating draught upon the two lads, and so raised their spirits that they were both now ready to laugh and joke about what had been so terrible while it lasted.
"It seems to me," Ray went on, "that—Hallo! What—why—?"
These exclamations were called up by a sudden commotion in the water a little way off. Before either of them had time to understand what had happened, something made a rush and seized Ray in its great mouth. It was the big conger, which had evidently not been dead, as had been supposed, and had now suddenly become active.
Rulonda turned back, and he and Peter hastened to their friend's assistance; but the lashing tail of the creature struck the latter a blow on the head, which nearly stunned him, and rendered him for a while incapable of rendering any aid.
Rulonda gained the other side of the beast just as it was on the point of diving with its prey. He had in his hand a long, naked dagger, which he buried to its hilt in the serpent-like neck, at the same time uttering a peculiar, long, piercing cry. Then all three disappeared from view; for Rulonda had hold of Ray with one hand and of the handle of the dagger with the other, and, as he would not let go, he was carried down as the great eel dived.
Peter, recovering from the blow he had received, looked in helpless distress at the place where his two friends had disappeared. He felt in his belt for his knife, and drew it out in readiness to use it if a chance should offer. Ere, however, he had time even to consider what he could possibly do, there was another swirling eddy in the water a few yards off, and three or four "wolves" appeared, bearing between them Ray's almost unconscious form, which they proceeded to carry towards the shore. A moment or two afterwards Rulonda reappeared, looked round, and caught sight of Peter.
"'Tis well," he said, in his quiet, cool fashion. "I do not think the lad is hurt. You can follow us to land in peace now. Our friends yonder heard my call, and closed round and killed the enemy even before I could get my blade free for a second blow."
"It's wonderful! Where on earth did they spring from? Where were they hiding?" Peter could not help asking, as he swam alongside.
"Oh, they were all round us, lying in wait to see if I wanted them further. They can rest just under the surface of the water, so cunningly, that you would never see them unless you knew exactly where to look."
A few seconds more and they were on shore, and Rulonda was bending over Ray and supporting his head as he lay on the sand. The plucky lad was already trying to assure his friends that he was not hurt, though he could as yet only speak in gasps.
By degrees he came round, and ere long was able to stand. As it turned out, the monstrous eel had seized him round the body, and the mouthful had been more than he could manage properly, so that his teeth had not penetrated the lad's clothes.
"'Tis well, my boy, 'tis well," Rulonda finally decided. "'Tis a fortunate escape, for if the conger had seized upon an arm or a leg he would have almost certainly bitten it off, or so crushed it that you would have lost the use of it. They have terrible teeth, those big eels, and they are often as ferocious, and as much to be dreaded, as the largest sharks."
"There is the brute!" Peter exclaimed, pointing to a large mass which could be seen floating on the top of the water.
"There he is again—dead enough this time, I fancy, though. I suppose our froggy friends killed him."
"Yes; they attack these monsters in their own element and kill them for food," Rulonda replied. "And now, lads, keep a look-out for a light, for a boat is coming here to seek for us and take us back to the yacht."
Even as he spoke, they caught sight of a far-off gleam, which came across the water, dancing in the ripples of the calm, silent sea. Rulonda regarded it steadily for a while, and then, satisfied with his scrutiny, turned and walked along the shore, away from the direction in which they had come.
The boat was evidently making for a point some distance further along than they then were, and, as a matter of fact, it grounded on the beach just as the three came up to it.
From the boat there leaped upon the beach, first, the young fisherman, who had accompanied them in the early part of the evening. He came forward and greeted Rulonda eagerly, in a manner which showed he had been anxious as to the result of their visit. A few words passed between them in their own language, during which other figures landed from the boat, and Ray, running forward, found his two friends, Captain Warren and the genial doctor. They explained that the yacht was waiting for them round the next headland; and the whole party then set out to find her.
Half an hour later they were on board, and were soon engaged in relating to their friends all the adventures of the night; while the yacht, under the guidance of their new allies, steamed out from the land into darkness and unknown waters.
"THERE! I think that last touch is decidedly artistic! It gives fire and life, so to speak, to the eye of our monster? Don't you think so, Peter?"
It was Ray who spoke. He put down a great pail of paint he had been carrying in one hand, and forgetting the huge paint-brush, still dripping, in the other, he stepped back a few feet to survey the general effect of his handiwork.
The consequence was that the wet brush came in contact with the head of a sailor who happened to be at work in a kneeling position just behind him. A loud outcry caused him to turn sharply round.
"Why, Tim!" Ray exclaimed, "I had no idea you were there! I'm sure I'm very sorry—"
"Oh! Mother o' Moses, I'm half blinded. Shure it's bunged me oie up, an' plastered me hair over, an' now it's tricklin' down me back!"
Poor Timothy O'Brien presented so pitiable a sight with splotches of red paint upon his face and head that neither Ray nor Peter, vexed with himself for his own carelessness though the former was, could help laughing.
"Well, it matches yer hair, Tim, anyway," cried Gale, who was working close by. "An' it gives a gineral idea of how you'd look with side-whiskers."
"You shut up, Jim, or maybe ye'll git one on the nose as'll paint your face red," returned Tim, threateningly. "But, Mr. Ray, darlint, why did ye take me for yer monster an' paint me up like this for? If ye thought I wanted more colour on my face, why thin av course there's other methods—two or three extra glasses o' rum, fur instance, isn't a bad way av turning a man's face red—"
"Go and get one on account now, Tim, to console you, and say I sent you," Ray said, still laughing. "And get that paint cleaned off before it dries on."
Tim went off smiling, too, and Ray, having put away his brush, turned again to Peter.
"In all seriousness you have not looked at my painting work and admired it as I think you ought. Come and tell me what you think of it."
"Well, since you have put that terrible brush away, and are now, so to speak, unarmed, I think I may venture near enough to do as you wish. What are those posts in the bow for?"
"Posts? Why, they're teeth, man! These are the creature's jaws, aren't they? Then, of course, it must have some show of teeth, mustn't it?"
"Oh, yes, I see! And that long, red affair—what's that? 'Tis like an old, red umbrella—"
"Red umbrella? Why, that's its red tongue, you ignoramus! It's clear that I shall get no applause in this quarter, so I shall do no more."
"If what I heard just now is true there'll he no time. We're likely to be attacked very soon, may be to-day, may be to-night or to-morrow, and your patent monster will he wanted; so you'd better let it dry now. You don't want to send it into action with wet paint on it, do you? I'm afraid it would scarcely send our enemies off as easily as it did Tim."
"To-morrow, say you—or perhaps to-day? Ah, then now we shall have a chance to do something. I'm sick of this inaction. More than a week have we stuck about on this island doing nothing. Nothing, that is, in the way of finishing up what we came here to do, though, of course, we've been far from idle."
"Yes, that's true; and poor Oliver still in the same position! Think what it must mean to him! How long, how miserable a time a week must seem to him; how terrible this long suspense! Still, I suppose Rulonda knows best. No doubt he knows what he is about."
"I feel sure of that; and we should have got on faster if that particular friend of yours, Dyossa, had not escaped in the way he did. Rulonda says that but for his unfortunate escape we could, in all probability, have surprised the town of Cashia and rushed their whole island within a day or two of our arrival. However, it's no use crying over spilt milk!"
"No!" said Peter, between his teeth; "but it makes me mad to think that that cold-blooded wretch is back among the prisoners again, free to bully, and whip, and torture my poor brother, as he is sure now to do, if only because he knows what suffering and pain his doing so will cause to me!"
At the time of this conversation the "Kestrel" was lying snugly moored in a little natural harbour in a small rocky island named Livia, which stood in the open water, between the great outer belt of swamp and marsh and the main islands it encompassed.
On one side of this island there was but a narrow channel separating it from the commencement of the swamp. On the other side was a broad expanse of water, out of which the island rose a hundred feet or so above the sea level.
Livia was supposed to be uninhabited. It lay far out of the way of all traffic between the larger islands, and was equally distant from the two channels which led to the open sea. It was, therefore, seldom visited. It had, however, numerous caves and subterranean chambers and passages, and amongst these Rulonda had established depots and stores, which had rendered it a useful secret rendezvous for himself and his followers.
At one point a narrow entrance led into a creek, which broadened, as has been indicated, into a natural harbour, surrounded by wooded rocks, and here the "Kestrel" was well out of sight of passing boats, supposing any should happen to come near the island.
None, however, were ever seen by day—for Rulonda's people only came and went by night. The creek or harbour just described formed the only safe landing-place in the island, so steep and precipitous were its rocky sides; and the entrance was not only scarcely discernible to those unacquainted with it, but was so formed as to be very easily defended by a few against superior forces.
The shores of the little harbour now presented a busy scene. In the rocks with which it was girt, and which rose from the strips of pebbly or sandy beach, were roomy caves, some of which were now converted into temporary workshops, and here a numerous company could be seen at work preparing for the attack upon the island which it was known was sure to be made sooner or later by the Cashians—the followers, that is, of the hierarchy of the terrible Priests of the Mountain of Fire.
Amongst these preparations one of the most curious was the work upon which Ray had been engaged, and to which he had just been giving the last touches of paint. It consisted in the metamorphosis of a small steam launch into the likeness of a horrible marine monster of so frightful a form that it was hoped its mere appearance amongst the ignorant and superstitious Cashians would cause a panic.
The "Kestrel" carried two launches, one worked by steam, and the other by electricity, and it was the former which had been thus temporarily altered; with what success will be seen later on.
"Well, I've done my task," said Ray, "and now I vote we go out in a boat to see if there are any signs of the enemy; and if not we can have an hour or two's fishing. I'm tired of being pent up in this little harbour and should be glad to get a breath of air outside."
To this Peter agreed, and in the course of half an hour the two were settled outside the harbour in a fishing boat and were casting their lines and pulling up fish almost by the dozen.
Suddenly they heard the boom of the "Kestrel's" small cannon which was a signal that the enemy had been sighted and that everyone must hasten to his appointed post.
"We'd better hurry back," said Peter. "Now that Rulonda is a king he expects to be obeyed like one."
This remark referred to a new development of the situation which had recently come about. It had been formerly announced that Rulonda was, in reality, the rightful King of Atlantis, and that the young fellow they had known as "Kubis the fisherman," was Prince Loroyah, Rulonda's son.
It seemed that at the time when Rulonda was a child, his parents, the former king and queen, and all his relations, had been killed outright by Belfendi and his gang, but Rulonda himself had escaped. He had been carried off by some faithful dependents, and hidden away in a remote district for some years. Here, as a youth, he had somehow scraped acquaintance with the outlawed "Wolves of the Weed," and for a long period lived constantly in their company, and virtually under their protection. With them he had been accustomed to traverse all parts of the Sea of Sargasso, sleeping at night in one or other of the battered hulks; and it was in this way that he had been one of the first to know of the unexpected opening of navigable channels through the wilderness of weed.
One day, when on the extreme edge of the weed, he met with a boat containing some shipwrecked English sailors, who had somehow drifted into one of the numerous cross channels, and were unable to find their way out. A sudden desire came upon the young prince to see something of the great world which he then began to understand must lie beyond. He fed the sailors and made friends with them while he sent home for a supply of gold and jewels, of which he had a good store hidden away, but which, situated as he had been, had not been of any use to him. Finally, he started off with the castaways, and they were all picked up by a passing vessel.
Thus began wanderings about the world which lasted for many years. Rulonda married and had a son, then his wife died; whereupon he lost interest in the outer world, and resolved to return to Atlantis and watch for an opportunity of winning the people over to him, and—for his son's sake more than his own— asserting his right to the ancient throne of his ancestors. He took passage in a small vessel, the skipper of which agreed for a certain sum to take him and his son to the edge of the Sargasso Sea, and there set them adrift in a small boat. Thence he found his way into one of the channels, and soon came across his old friends, the "Wolves of the Weed," by whom he was not only received with open arms, but made a sort of chief.
Such had been the romantic history of these two—Rulonda, the mysterious chief of the "Wolves," and "Kubis, the fisherman," his son.
Since the arrival of the "Kestrel" and her people, however, Rulonda had determined to throw off further disguise and proclaim himself King of Atlantis, and call upon those, who sympathised with his cause to support him and raise a revolution in his favour. He had visited the island still called Atlantis secretly, and found that he could depend upon almost the whole of the inhabitants; and secret engagements had been entered into by which that portion of the Cashian fleet which was manned chiefly by Atlantians was to steal off and join his party at the small island where the "Kestrel" was lying. The revolutionists were now, therefore, only waiting a favourable opportunity, and might be expected at any hour of the day or night.
Thus it came about that when Ray and Peter returned in their fishing boat to the harbour, they were not greatly surprised to hear that from the look-out two fleets had been sighted; one, probably friendly, coming from the direction of Atlantis, was a comparatively weak force; but the other quite a small armada, and undoubtedly hostile was approaching from Cashia.
"Good!" was Peter's comment. "I am growing tired of inaction, and shall be glad to see something exciting once more going on—so long as we are in the midst of it and have our share of the fighting."
"No fear as to that, Ray answered. You and I are to handle the two launches and we shall be in the thick of the fight!"
IN the harbour there was much bustle, and the sound of preparations could be heard on all sides. The steam launch, which had been turned temporarily into a hair-raising specimen of an ocean-going monster of a good old-fashioned type, already had steam up, and was ready to go into action, even though the last artistic touches Ray had laid on with so much care had scarcely yet had time to dry. The "Kestrel," too, was getting up steam.
Ray was to be in command of one steam launch; the other was to be commanded by Peter. Rulonda's post was with the captain on board the "Kestrel."
Ray was very proud of his commission, and chaffed his friend not a little about the difference in their respective commands, to which Peter responded good-humouredly.
The electric launch was a very dainty, prettily built, natty- looking affair, and had been unanimously dubbed "The Beauty" by the sailors of the yacht. And now that Ray had turned his little steamer into the semblance of a monster, it was but natural that the two should henceforth be known as "Beauty and the Beast."
However, serious business was now looming in sight, and mutual chaff and banter were put aside for a more convenient season.
The friendly boats were the first ones to reach the island, and they were directed to await the attack of the advancing Cashians, and then to turn and pretend to fly, in order to draw them into pursuit and scatter them as much as possible.
Rulonda was a man, as the adventurers had already found, averse to bloodshed whenever he could gain his end in any other manner, and all his plans were now laid with a view to securing a victory with as little loss of life on either side as might be possible. For this reason he refused to use the cannon and Maxim guns to fire at the crowded galleys of his enemies unless actually compelled to do so.
Many poor creatures, he argued, too, were compelled by their brutal masters to fight against their will, and he was loth to deal death and slaughter amongst them if any way could be found to bring about their capture or peaceful surrender.
As the Cashians came on the breeze dropped, and a few vessels which had been sailing were fain to take in their sails and fall back upon their oars. As they drew near the entrance to the harbour they were ranged in battle array in three lines or columns, all keeping place and moving with remarkable regularity and precision.
Then the Atlantians began to flee before them, and they all passed the harbour and went in pursuit. Just as the last had gone by Ray's terrible monster was seen to issue from the harbour entrance. And a very fearsome beast it certainly looked. It had been roofed over, so to speak, so that it had a rounded or turtle deck; this, as well as the sides, was smooth and slippery as glass—the covering being, in fact, thin steel plates painted with a highly-polished lacquer. From its "nostrils" clouds of blinding steam spurted forth, while its immense "eyes" gleamed with dazzling electric-lights. Finally, it had a gaping "mouth," with tremendous jaws, which snapped viciously, and displayed a perfectly appalling array of great, sharp, jagged teeth; while there was nothing to show that human beings were concealed within, and were guiding and directing the movements of the terrible creature.
This frightful apparition sped along in the wake of the rearmost Cashian galley and speedily caught it up. Instead, however, of attacking the panic-stricken crew, as they expected, it went sweeping past at a distance of a few feet. The special rage of this mysterious monster seemed to be directed against the sweeps or oars, at which its snapping jaws bit furiously on its way, like great steel shears—as, indeed, they were—so that when it had passed by with a rush, accompanied by much snorting, mingled with the crash of breaking and splintering wood, the frightened mariners on board found that it had, after all, done them no harm beyond smashing up their long sweeps. To their relief it then left them alone and went on its way, treating the next galley it came to in the same fashion.
In the course of a little while, this novel fighting monster had traversed the whole of one line, breaking up all the oars or sweeps it encountered, and, of course, stopping the progress of the vessels attacked and throwing them into confusion. Then it turned and travelled down the second line, and back again up the third, returning in due time, to the first line and passing thence again upon the other side.
Thus, within a very short time, the whole fleet had been placed practically hors de combat, for, without their oars the galleys could do nothing, and were soon to be seen drifting helplessly about upon the unruffled sea.
Wherever spare sweeps were put out the watchful "monster" made a rush at them and treated them like the rest. And the enraged Cashians found, to their disgust, that it was quite invulnerable against their own weapons. Arrows and spears only glanced off its armoured sides and fell harmlessly into the water. Even their slings and heavy catapults could make no impression. They could do nothing in the face of such novel and entirely unexpected tactics.
Meanwhile, the electric launch had been hovering about watching events and ready to render aid in case of any untoward hitch, such as the fouling of the screw of the "monster" by the floating wreckage.
Only once did this occur. For a little while the propeller was jammed, and the "Beast" lay idly on the water, exposed to the attentions of the raging occupants of one of the largest galleys, who rained upon its devoted sides every kind of projectile and missile they could bring to their aid. Moreover, daring swimmers sprang overboard and crowded round her, endeavouring to find some point by which they could climb on board.
But in a few minutes the "Beauty" came skimming past, a line shot out like a huge lasso, and caught upon a hook purposely placed for the purpose in the fore part of the turtle deck, and in a few seconds the light, swift, little craft dragged off her consort beyond the reach of the attentions of the marksmen, and actually taking with her some of the swimmers.
For, just as they began to move ahead, Ray acted upon an idea that had suddenly suggested itself to him. He opened a trap-door at the stern, and threw out a great dragnet over the crowd of assailants in the water, entangling a number of them, and carrying them off with the launch, plunging and struggling like netted fish.
All this time the "Kestrel" had been lying in reserve with steam up, guns shotted, and eager crew ready to intervene whenever required. But the battle was practically over. As she steamed slowly up to the drifting vessels, threatening to run them down unless they surrendered, they suddenly yielded, one after the other. Thus was the whole fleet captured and all its fighting men made prisoners, with the exception of a few who were put into two of the smallest boats, and told to hasten back and carry the news of what had taken place to their waiting friends on shore.
Then Rulonda determined to carry the war into the enemy's country. He manned all the captured vessels with his own people— of whom by this time he had gathered a very considerable following—and at dawn, a couple of days later, he set sail for Cashia, accompanied by an array of craft, which, when seen all together, made up a suitable little armada.
THE "Kestrel" and her attendant armada made a brave show as at early morning they were seen approaching the town of Cashia, in the form of a great crescent, of which the yacht formed the centre, and the two launches were at the extreme points of either end.
Not only a brave show, however, but a brave noise did they make. There was much blowing and tootling of horns and trumpets and banging of drums and cymbals, and above all that the boom and thunder of the "Kestrel's" biggest cannon loaded with heavy charges of powder only so as to produce the greatest possible noise without actual mischief.
And certainly the adventurers had no reason to complain of the effect produced; indeed, it was rather the other way, for the scare which the tales of the survivors of the great fight had caused amongst the inhabitants who had stayed at home, added to the terror inspired by the noise and threatening appearance of the present demonstration, seemed likely to have as its result the entire desertion of the city and its absolute abandonment to the victors.
But this was not what Rulonda desired. He did not wish to take possession of an empty town with the prospect before him of a long and exhausting guerilla warfare. What he aimed at was a formal surrender acquiesced in by and carried out under the orders of the responsible authorities—or those left of them after the removal of the more atrocious members of the hierarchy to whom he had determined to mete out stern and unflinching punishment.
The terms of surrender must also, he declared, include the giving up of the miserable prisoners, unarmed and without the retention of any amongst them, no matter of what nationality or what the pretext under which they had been kept in confinement—and last, but by no means least, in his eyes, the setting free of every poor slave, whether native or foreign, at present held in bondage.
Through their glasses the leaders, standing on the deck of the "Kestrel," could see the people hurriedly running out of their dwellings and fleeing, some in the direction of the Mountain of Fire, others of the open country. Many of them were loaded with all kinds of goods and chattels, furniture and ornaments, or treasures of special value. Strings of slaves so burdened could be distinguished here and there, and amongst these were the slave-drivers with the lashes of their long whips flying in snaky coils in the air, and descending each time upon the bare skin of some wretched toiler.
This sight in particular set Peter's blood boiling, and made him impatient to bring the operations to an issue. The recollection of what he had himself suffered, and the thought of what his brother might even at that moment be enduring, rendered it difficult to restrain his eagerness.
"Shall we be in time? Oh! shall we be in time to save them?" he wailed every now and then. "Would that I could fly like an eagle and fall upon those inhuman monsters with beak and talons and tear their black hearts out!"
His face, usually good-humoured, had become haggard, and his eyes had ever now a fierce, restless, eager look in them, which told only too eloquently of the fever of consuming anxiety that burned in his blood, and boding ill for any of his brothers oppressors who might come under his hand.
Then at the "Kestrel's" peak the signal was made ordering a general halt, followed by another signal for the launches to come to the yacht. A few minutes later they were alongside, and Ray and Peter had clambered on board. Rulonda then explained his plan to them.
Each launch was to take in tow a few galleys and make as quickly as possible for the rear of the Mountain of Fire, land a sufficient force, and endeavour to intercept the fleeing populace so as to prevent their reaching the open country, and, if possible, drive them back into the city.
"The route," said Rulonda, "is the same as the one which we followed that night when we visited the temple; but as it was then dark you would not be able to find the shortest road without a guide. You shall have the same guide, however, that we had then—Kubis the fisherman."
"Hurrah for Kubis the fisherman!" Ray cried out cheerily. "Which of us is to have the honour of his company, the 'Beauty' or the 'Beast'?"
Loroyah chose to go with Peter, for he had noticed his gloomy manner and haggard looks, and sympathetically divining that the young fellow would be the better for the society of a companion with whom he could talk freely while he was suffering from the strain of the uncertainty as to his brother's ultimate fate.
The manoeuvre was successfully accomplished and met with no attempt at opposition so far as the landing was concerned. Presently a compact and well-armed force was marching across the country in the rear of the mountain dragging with them a small cannon in addition to a Maxim gun.
The "Kestrel" and the remainder of the galleys rested where the others had parted from them, apparently idle, but in reality the leaders ware watching through their glasses everything that went on on shore—watching with what patience they could muster for some sign that the diversion had been successful, and that the fleeing inhabitants were being turned back towards the town.
The young men, meanwhile, steadily plodding on with their men, found the difficulties of their task increase as they went along. The ground seemed swaying and the roads bad, so that it became at last a question whether they would not he compelled to leave the heavier portion of their armament behind.
Ray expressed surprise.
"It was not like this," he said to Loroyah, "when we came this way before—or, at least, I do not remember to have come through any ground so marshy as this we are now upon."
Loroyah looked perplexed.
"I cannot understand it, I confess, either," he said. "We all know that there has been a good deal of rain during the last week, but hardly enough, one would think, to flood the whole district like this."
Just then Peter, who had been walking along moodily, as if plunged in reflection, stopped and looked round.
"I don't like this, Ray," he said, after a keen survey of their surroundings. "It appears to me, the water is rising. It seems to spread and get deeper every minute."
"You have put into words the very thoughts that were in my mind, Peter," was Ray's answer. "What does it mean? Don't you think we had better call a halt and watch developments for a few minutes? Then we can consult together as to what is best to be done. I don't like to say so, but, upon my word, I almost begin to think we may have to go back and leave our task undone."
"There is no going back," Peter exclaimed with sudden conviction. "Look yonder!"
They were standing on a slight eminence at this time, which gave them a view back over the way they had come. To Ray's astonishment, the road along which they had tramped was not to be seen. There was nothing visible but a wide-spreading flood, which seemed to be advancing rapidly in their direction.
They glanced round with anxious looks. The whole country was flat and lay very low; there were no hills, only here and there a low mound similar to the one they were on, but crowned, in a few instances, with thickets.
"There is no time to be lost," said Peter, "and there is very little choice. It is clear that from some cause or other a flood is rising over the whole country; and if we don't look sharp we shall be drowned like so many rats."
"But where can we go?" Ray asked, bewildered. "Loroyah, what does this mean?"
Loroyah shook his head.
"I have heard it said," he answered, "that the priests were able, in times of danger, to flood the country round about, and so isolate their mountain from the rest of this island; but I have never heard of its being done, nor did I ever pay any serious attention to the story. I looked upon it as a sort of legend or out-of-date superstition."
"Well, I begin to think the legend is true," Peter put in. "What are we to do? It won't do to stay here. We can't tell how high the waters may rise. We had better make for yonder bit of wood. It is high as any spot hereabouts, and if needs be we can climb into the trees—that is, some of us can. I doubt, though, if there will be even tree-room for us all," he added dubiously.
The suggestion was adopted, and an immediate move made towards the group of trees indicated. Even before they reached them, however, the water began to spread around them, and when they had ascended the mound and so gained the trees and turned to look back, their track was covered.
It would be difficult to give any idea of the chagrin, the gloomy disappointment that fell upon the whole party as they contemplated this inglorious finish to their expedition. There had not even been a fight—not so much as a scrimmage, as Ray put it. There was not even anyone to oppose them, and yet there they were condemned to irritating inaction—put, for the time being, completely hors de combat.
The outlook was certainly gloomy. If the flood rose high enough the boats might come to take them off, or again they might not, for the water might fall as suddenly as it had risen, and leave them stranded far inland. Then if their ammunition got wet they would be practically disarmed, or if they managed to keep that out of the reach of the rising flood their heavier weapons must inevitably be damaged.
Peter proceeded to climb a tree, partly to get a more extended view and partly to see whether, if needs were, they might be able to stow some of their armament amongst the branches. A minute or two later his voice was heard, and in its tones there was a ring of satisfaction.
"I can see someone coming this way," he called out. "They seem to be—ah!—yes!—they are our froggy friends, and they are coming on rafts to help us!"
And so indeed it proved. Once more the faithful "Wolves of the Weed" had come to their assistance. Although they were seldom seen when nothing particular called for their presence, they, nevertheless, appeared to be ever on the watch for an opportunity to help their friends when they were in trouble or danger.
They were not long before they reached the mound on which the party had taken refuge. It had by then become an island, and, as the water still rose, it seemed likely to be covered altogether within a little time more.
At first, it seemed almost an impossibility to get to the high ground on the mountain-side and carry all their impedimenta with them. Their "froggy allies," as Peter called them, however, set to work with a will to accomplish the task, and they brought to bear upon it so much energy and ready resource that in the end it was successfully carried through. To them, indeed, the whole business seemed no more than a sort of water frolic, and they chattered to one another in their own language, and grinned and gesticulated in a boisterous fashion that seemed intended to show their friends they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Thus, amidst much splashing and tumbling about, sometimes on the rafts, sometimes in the water, these amphibious creatures transported the whole party to the base of the so-called mountain of fire, without damage or harm to their weapons or ammunition; and when this had been done, they went off again in their usual abrupt manner, without any kind of leave-taking and without waiting to be thanked.
Then the march was resumed upon the high ground of the base of the mountain, from which the party could look with comparative indifference upon the flood below them. The only harm it had done them, after all, lay in the delay it had caused, and this they endeavoured to make up by pushing on with redoubled energy.
But presently they came to know that this delay had nearly cost them dear, for their watchful enemies were at that very time taking advantage of it to remove the captives from the temple where they had hitherto been imprisoned to another far in the interior of the island.
After what seemed a long tramp the party at last came in sight of the suburbs of the city. Some of the dwellings here were on ground not much above the level of the sea; but, as it was now seen, they were protected from the advancing flood by a rocky ridge, which ran across from the "Mountain of Fire" to the hilly country towards which most of the inhabitants of the city were now making their way. It formed, in fact, a kind of high causeway, and upon it was a road, which was now crowded with fugitives.
Just as Ray with his two friends, marching at the head of their company, turned a corner and found themselves on a low hill which overlooked this road, another party were coming down the mountain-side from the temple-gates, evidently bound for the same road. This procession consisted of some white-robed priests accompanied by a guard of officers and soldiers, and with them a number of prisoners chained together in batches, beside whom men with long whips, yelling and shouting, and lashing at the miserable captives like brutal drovers in charge of a team of lazy oxen.
When Ray and his companions caught sight of this cortege they called a halt, and looked at it through their glasses. Instantly all their previous weariness was forgotten, and keen, intense excitement took its place.
Peter especially became a different being. His gloomy, abstracted manner vanished; he became alert and watchful. But his hands twitched, and his lips were firmly compressed, and the light in his eye told of the passion only half suppressed that was smouldering in his breast.
"At last—at last!" he muttered, between his teeth. "Yonder are some of the prisoners. Whether my brother is amongst them, I cannot tell, but I can see Dyossa, and if Oliver is not amongst these, I'll make him take me to him, or I'll shake his black heart out of him."
He turned and pointed Dyossa out to the others.
"You all can see that man," he cried fiercely. "No one must shoot at him, no one must kill him. He belongs to me, and I will deal with him myself."
Promptly their plans were decided upon. The party was divided into two; to the first portion was alloted the task of driving off the guard—against whom they could not use firearms for fear of hitting the prisoners—rescuing the captives, and capturing, if possible, the priests and officers. The second half took up the work they had set out to do—the turning back of the fugitives.
Ray remained with the second contingent, while Peter and Loroyah led the first.
In his impatience to accomplish what had for so long been the dearest wish of his heart, Peter disdained any preliminary skirmishing, and simply ordered his men to charge. Placing himself at their head, a revolver in one hand and Dyossa's sword in the other, he raced off at such speed, that even Loroyah could scarcely keep up with him. Behind them at a little distance came a score of bluejackets armed with rifles and bayonets, besides their ordinary cutlass at their sides; and these were followed by a squad of Loroyah's men, numbering fifty or thereabouts, armed after the manner of the country.
Ray had another score of his sailors, and nearly a hundred of Rulonda's soldiers under their own officers, who, however, as they could not speak English, were of but uncertain value.
Within a couple of minutes their cannon was booming, firing blank cartridge, with, the double object of frightening the fugitives and inducing them to turn back towards their city, and letting their friends on the "Kestrel" know of their arrival; for they were not as yet in view of the sea, but they knew that the sound of the firing would be heard.
Meanwhile, the first detachment came rushing down upon the priestly procession like a pack of hounds upon their quarry. They stayed not to fire, nor trouble themselves about the arrows that were aimed at them. With a rush, carried out with a determination doubtless inspired by Peter's example, they fell upon the enemy and quickly drove them off without having fired a shot.
The prisoners were then the first consideration. Some of their guards were captured, and the keys of the locks upon the chains were taken from them. Then the locks were opened and the captives set free.
But Oliver Newlyn was not among them, nor was Captain Warren's friend, Hugh Keene. The batch consisted of three English sailors, and one or two other Europeans; the rest were friends and followers of Rulonda. Some of the latter were personally known to Loroyah and the soldiers with him, and they all rejoiced together accordingly.
But Peter stood apart once more with a bitter disappointment gnawing at his heart, for he seemed no nearer to obtaining the object so dear to him, and somehow in the mêlée Dyossa had escaped him and got clear away.
THE mutual congratulations, however, of rescuers and rescued were cut short in a very unexpected manner. The priestly faction took heart at the fact that their enemies had not used firearms against them, and doubtless thinking therefore that they had none, and seeing that they were very inferior to themselves as regards numbers, they took their courage in both hands and came back to attack them and recover, if possible, their lost prisoners.
They were joined by reinforcements who poured out of the temple until altogether a very considerable force had gathered; and these came down upon the Atlantians so suddenly that they were taken by surprise, and the Cashians were amongst them before they could so much as fire a shot.
A hand-to-hand fight ensued, in which Peter Loroyah's followers were handicapped by reason of the fact that their firearms were of little use to them in such a confined space, and that their formation had been broken in the first onset.
Just then Ray glanced across to see how they were faring, and saw, with surprise and dismay, how completely the tables had been turned. When last he had looked their way they were victorious, and had succeeded in their object of liberating the prisoners. Now they were evidently fighting hard to hold their own.
Fortunately, Ray had finished his own task. He had turned back the tide of fugitives with very little trouble, and had drawn a cordon across the whole causeway which effectually stopped any further exodus, so that he was free to go with the rest of his force to the assistance of his friends.
Without hesitation he set off at the double for the scene of strife, closely followed by his men, and as it happened they arrived there at a critical moment, for their friends had got penned in by the pressure of superior numbers and the inability to use their firearms to advantage in a very confined space commanded by a high rock near from which some of their adversaries were sending down a rain of arrows and spears, big stones, and any missiles that came to hand.
The advent of the reinforcement, led by Ray, quickly changed the aspect of affairs. A well-directed fire drove off those on the rock as well as all the crowd outside the actual combatants, thus giving Peter's hard-pressed men a fine chance to fight on more equal terms. This opportunity was quickly seized upon, and there followed a sharp but short struggle, at the end of which nearly all the Cashians were in full retreat, all who remained being either wounded or prisoners.
It was in this last fierce struggle that Peter at last came face to face with Dyossa. Up to that moment this hateful supporter of cruelty and oppression had managed—intentionally or unintentionally—to avoid a close meeting. Dyossa was by no means wanting in personal courage, as has already been recorded, and in his haughty ignorance and disdainful pride he regarded Peter as merely a slave, and therefore scarcely worth consideration. But when he now stood confronting him there was something in the look of this hated "slave" which reached even through his armour of arrogance and self-glory, and sent a sort of sudden cold chill down his back, if the expression may be used.
The hatred and iron determination written in Peter's blazing eyes for a moment daunted the proud Cashian, and for a moment he actually looked round as though seeking for some plausible pretext of declining or avoiding the personal struggle which he saw the other was seeking for.
But Peter gave him no time. Flinging down his revolver he attacked his enemy with his own sword, and with such resistless fury that he beat down his guard and knocked his sword from his hand. Then Peter threw away the one he held and closed with the disarmed adversary, seizing him by the throat, and bearing him backwards with a relentless grasp that carried him off his feet and caused him to fall heavily to the ground with Peter upon him.
Just then one of Dyossa's followers picked up one of the discarded swords and was about to plunge it into Peter's back as he lay on his opponent, when Ray, who had been watching the struggle with breathless interest sent a pistol bullet through his shoulder, causing him to drop the sword with a scream of pain. Two others of Dyossa's men here rushed in, one to attack Ray and the other to assist his officer; but Loroyah struck the first one a terrible blow on the head with his sword as he rushed past, while Ray, who had been too intent on helping Peter to trouble about himself, sprang forward and seized the new assailant by the throat. He knew that his revolver was empty and he had no other weapon at hand.
A brief tussle followed, which might have ended badly for the youth—for he was no match for the burly fellow he had so hardily assailed—had not Loroyah again interfered and ended the affair by another sword-tap on the head. The fellow fell like a stone, and Ray, with a grateful word to his rescuer, turned once more to see how Peter was faring.
He had Dyossa still by the beard, and was holding his—Dyossa's—dagger at his throat. But the Cashian's courage seemed this time to have deserted him or his strength was spent, and he lay without further attempt at resistance glaring at his conqueror.
Peter called to one of his men who, at his bidding, brought a cord and bound Dyossa's arms. He was then allowed to rise, and he stood silent and sullen while his captor looked round to see how matters had gone in other ways.
The fight was over, he found, and seeing that there was nothing calling for immediate attention, he turned again to his prisoner and proceeded to question him in his own language, demanding that he should tell him where his brother then was.
This Dyossa sullenly refused to do, and after a time Peter had to give up for the moment any further attempt. But he had, as it now appeared, thought out a plan of his own to bring his enemy to reason.
He took from his pocket one of the small chains and locks which had been taken from two of the released prisoners, and which he had evidently put aside for this special purpose. Then he looked round at the prisoners his men had taken, and from amongst them he selected one who appeared to be about the lowest and most brutal ruffian of the lot, and him he proceeded to bind to Dyossa with the chain and lock precisely as the priests' captives had been chained. Finally, he asked Loroyah to pick him out from amongst his own people, "a man used to the care of slaves of not too humane or sensitive a nature." Such a person having been found, Peter put into his hand one of the whips taken from the slave-drivers they had captured, and placed him in charge of Dyossa and his companion.
"Be not too considerate, I charge thee," he said to this man in his own language. "Consider that this fellow is recalcitrant; if thou canst bring him to reason I will reward thee handsomely."
To Dyossa he said: "Thou refusest to tell me where I can find my brother, or to guide me to him. We shall see how long thou wilt care to become a slave as he and I have been, and endure something of what we have suffered. When thou tirest of this treatment, and consentest to do what I demand, thou shalt be released from the chain—but not before." And with that he turned his back upon him and left him.
Ray came up and took Peter aside.
"My dear friend," said he, "are you not carrying this a little too far? Consider—"
Peter put his hand on the other's shoulder.
"I do consider, Ray," he answered quietly. "I consider all the spite, the contumely, the torture and suffering this devil in man's shape has been inflicting on my innocent brother, because he could not get at me. I have not been there to see; but I know it has been so, for I know the man. As for the rest I have put before him a simple request. I want him to tell me truly where my brother now is, and he refuses. Go you and argue with him, and persuade, if you like; you will only fail. But whenever he tells me what I want to know he shall be released as I promised him; but not before."
And Ray said no more, feeling that he could not deny that Peter had good reason for his bitter feeling.
There came, then, an unexpected but very welcome turn of events. A man on the look-out announced joyfully that a party of their own people were approaching along the road, and Ray at once hastened to the place from which they had been descried.
Through his glasses he quickly made out the doctor and some half-dozen of the "Kestrel's" crew, accompanied by a company of Rulonda's soldiers.
Ray waved a handkerchief, which was at once seen and answered by the waving of three banners borne by some of the Atlantians.
The doctor's handkerchief fluttered out also as a personal greeting, and the company altered their course and came across the intervening ground to the scene of the fight.
After many inquiries on both sides the doctor gave them his special news.
"Well, lads," said he, "you will be glad to hear that the war is over. The City has made its submission, and our friend Rulonda is now undisputed king of both Atlantis and Cashia.
"Belfendi and his rascally crew of priests and swaggering tyrants are shut up in their temple, where they are securely penned in, every outlet being guarded by our friends. Curiously enough, their escape by the rear of the mountain was cut off, Rulonda has heard, by an inundation which they themselves had somehow caused—"
"Hoping to have drowned us on our way here," Ray put in.
"Oh, that was their game, was it? Well, it has recoiled on themselves, for when they saw that we were on the point of knocking at the front gates they slipped out by the back door, so to speak. But finding that the waters were up, and that they had no boats with which to cross them, they returned to their temple, where, as I have said, they are all safely bottled up."
"Ay, ay; that is good news indeed, doctor—so far as it goes!" said Peter. "But what of the prisoners still in their hands? We have released some; but there are others still in their power—my brother, whom I came here specially to rescue, amongst them."
"Why, yes, that is true," the doctor replied soberly; "but Rulonda has good hopes as to their safety. He thinks the priests will not dare to harm them now, but are pretty sure to take good care of them in order that they may make good use of them in bargaining for their own miserable lives."
This answer scarcely satisfied Peter's anxious doubts, but he was fain to accept it as covering all that could be said or done for the time being.
"And now," continued the doctor, looking at the dead and wounded who strewed the ground, "I see there is work for me to do here. It is well that I came to bring this news, for I see that there is more need of me here than elsewhere. On our side we have had scarcely any fighting—everything has been settled by peaceful surrender."
"But what about the soldiers?" Ray asked. "There were a lot of them came on to attack us; we managed to drive them off, and they left some behind here, as you see; but the great mass of them ran away, and must be still about somewhere."
"They, too, have all surrendered," the doctor declared. "When they retreated from you they went back towards the temple, where they found us waiting outside to receive them. And they were so surprised, and had become so demoralised in their flight after their encounter with you, that they had no more fight left in them, and the whole lot gave in. And that, as I have said, ends the war, and makes our friend the undisputed ruler of this ancient country."
"I SEE by your face that you bring bad tidings, Ray. Tell me at once what they are. Have those fiends in human form already murdered my unhappy brother—or are they threatening some new atrocity?"
"I am sorry to say, Peter, that the situation is grave—critical, perhaps, would be more exact."
"Tell me, tell me at once," Peter urged impatiently "Let me know the worst."
"But we none of us know the worst yet. It is difficult to recount in a few words all that took place at the parley—especially as it had to be interpreted to me in a whisper as it went on by Loroyah. You shouldn't have stayed away; you really ought to have been there."
"I couldn't, Ray; I dared not. You know why I couldn't trust myself to face those sneering murderers, and quietly argue this thing out with them as Rulonda I suppose did—and with Dyossa there laughing at me, too! I suppose he would be there to laugh at us after his last escape? I should have throttled him on the spot, I think."
For Dyossa had bribed his guard and once more escaped, and Peter was correspondingly despondent and incensed.
"But let me now give you Rulonda's message," Ray concluded. "He bade me say to you that you are not to despair, for he hopes yet to find a way of thwarting them and restoring your brother to you. And you know, Peter, such a message from him may mean much. He has never yet failed to carry out what he promises."
Peter made no answer but only nodded his head and remained for some time lost in thought, while his friend, full of sympathy for his distress, remained silent too, fearful of saying anything which at such a time might jar upon his feelings.
It was three days after their triumphant entry into Cashia. During that time much had been done to confirm and secure the fruits of their victory and to consolidate Rulonda's position.
It should here be said, in explanation of Peter's intense feeling against Dyossa in particular, that he suspected that that brutal tyrant was maltreating and probably torturing his brother as a sort of indirect means of inflicting pain on Peter himself. Subsequent information showed that he had not been wrong in this, but had gauged the villain's character correctly. Every day, in fact, that Dyossa had been at hand in the temple, since his last escape from Peter, had been a time of suffering and misery to the poor lad, towards whom the callous wretch seemed to have acted the part of inveterate tormentor. If it be considered, therefore, that Peter, in his own mind, felt, and knew this almost as well as if he had been there to see, his feeling of exasperation against such an enemy can be well understood.
It was while he sat gloomily immersed in the reflections Ray's tidings had aroused that Rulonda came to see him. The new king had taken possession of the principal palace of the city and had assigned his friends, apartments in it so long as they cared to stay. Ray and Peter occupied together an apartment looking out over the sea-shore and the water beyond, and it was here Rulonda found the youth staring vacantly out of the window.
"Peter," said he abruptly. "I am going to-day upon a sort of forlorn hope—I am going to attempt the rescue of the captives still left in the temple. It is a desperate mission, but I have just heard that certain arrangements for which I was obliged to wait have been completed and they may render success just possible. I want two or three trustworthy volunteers to support me. Will you be one?"
No need to say how joyfully Peter accepted this offer, or how quickly he changed once more from the desponding, brooding dreamer, to the alert, hopeful soldier. Rulonda noted the transition and nodded approval.
"That's better," said he. "Keep up your courage, lad. Remember that a battle is never lost till it has been won."
Two hours later a small party entered the door in the rock through which Ray and his friends had emerged on the night of their first visit to the temple. The party now consisted again of Ray, Peter, and Rulonda, with "Kubis the fisherman," but there were added to them Captain Warren, the doctor, and about a dozen of Rulonda's most trusted officers.
They traversed, as before, many subterranean galleries, ascended many flights of steps, and finally, as before, reached the balcony or hanging terrace.
Here they looked down upon the interior of the great temple. There were a good many persons assembled there engaged apparently in the celebration of religious rites. The three chief priests were there, and so was Dyossa, who was as conspicuous in the part he took in the proceedings as the priests themselves.
There was much chanting and singing and banging of cymbals, and marching to and fro in processions. In these the prisoners, still dressed in their white costumes, and decorated with flowers—now faded, however—were forced to join. Amongst them were Oliver and Keene, both of whom were evidently either lame or in a very weak state, for they limped painfully along. Yet, notwithstanding their evident inability to move faster, Dyossa and Belfendi who had whips in their hands, frequently laid the lashes across their backs, or sometimes across their faces, to hurry their halting steps.
Peter could scarcely endure this sight in silence, but Rulonda gripped him by the shoulder to enjoin caution, and then led him out into the galleries beyond. With the two went also Ray and Loroyah, leaving Warren and the doctor and the remainder of the party on the balcony.
Upon all these Rulonda had already enjoined strict caution, and instructed them not to allow themselves to be seen, explaining that he had accidentally discovered the secret passages leading to this balcony, the existence of which was unknown even to the present generation of priests.
The passages had been choked up with rubbish, but he and his friends had, with much labour, cleared them; and he had been thus enabled, from time to time, to secretly observe what went on in the great temple.
The group left behind on the balcony watched the scene below intently and anxiously. Soon they saw preparations going on for giving the victims to the monster in the cage; and the suspense became painful when the wire netting began to enclose the hapless victims, and force them, little by little, towards the cage.
It was noticed, too, that the rushing river was now covered over with similar pieces of wirework, so that no rescues were now possible similar to that in which Ray and Peter had played such important parts.
SUDDENLY, from behind the glittering cascade at the back, a small group of figures came into view. They carried other figures and at once flung them down within reach of the hungry-looking, snaky arms which were writhing and twisting in every direction in their restless seeking after prey. These arms or tentacles seized greedily upon the figures thus flung within their grasp, and coiling round them, began to drag them towards the cage. This left room for the hazardous dash the new-comers were waiting to make.
Rushing past the hideous coils, the rescuers, who were now seen to be Rulonda and his son, with Ray and Peter and three or four "Wolves of the Weed," seized the shackled captives and bore them off.
But just when Rulonda, who was carrying Oliver in his arms, and was behind all the others, was almost beyond reach of the tentacles, one shot out and caught him round the leg, threw him down, and commenced to drag him also towards the cage.
As he fell, he threw from him the lad he held in his arms, who rolled over and lay helplessly watching his rescuer struggling in the toils he had himself so narrowly escaped.
It was Peter who, glancing back and perceiving what had happened, came at once to the assistance of his friend. By that time another tentacle had joined the first, and had wound itself round Rulonda's arms, effectually preventing him from doing anything to free himself from his terrible position.
Peter looked at Oliver, saw that where he lay he was out of harm's way for the time being, and then, satisfied upon that point, dashed boldly in, drew Rulonda's great sword out of its sheath, and proceeded to hack vigorously at the tentacle nearest him.
During the time that these unexpected events had occupied, a great hush had fallen upon the noisy, bloodthirsty throng who had been looking on so callously at what they supposed was to end in the cruel deaths of the last of the captives they had so long imprisoned, terrified and tortured. But when the rescuers had appeared on the scene they had ceased their cries and chants and gazed in stupefaction at this development, which seemed pretty certain to deprive them of the expected spectacle.
Belfendi, indeed, shrieked out confused orders and appeals for someone to interfere and baulk the rescuers of their triumph; but no one responded to his frantic appeals. None present cared to enter within the space enclosed by the metal netting, within possible reach of those terrible arms.
When, therefore, it was seen that one of the would be liberators was himself in the toils, screams and yells of delight rent the air; and as the name of Rulonda went round from mouth to mouth, and it was known that it was in very truth their conqueror who had thus fallen into the grip of their "Sacred Salamander," the crowd became nearly mad with joy at what they looked upon as the triumphant intervention of their gods on their behalf.
They became quiet once more, however, as they watched the fight Peter was making. But when Dyossa saw and recognised him, he shouted for someone to go and pick Oliver up or push him also within reach of their monster; and when he found that no one obeyed, he scornfully declared that he would undertake the task himself. He looked upon both Rulonda and Peter as doomed, and it only remained, therefore, to make sure that Oliver should share their fate.
A minute later he was inside the netting, and was walking warily round close to the extreme outer part of the space it enclosed towards the spot where Oliver lay. Just then Peter had freed his friend from the hold of one tentacle, and was about to attack the other, when Rulonda, who had his arms now free, seized the sword from him, and with one mighty blow severed the tentacle which had grasped his leg.
Then he sprang to his feet, pushing Peter before him to hasten his retreat, and so assist him in turn to get beyond reach ere the wriggling but shortened arms could close on them again.
Rulonda stooped and once more took up Oliver, and started in the direction of the cascade, behind which was a secret door in the rock which had given them access to the platform.
Dyossa, enraged at the turn things had taken, sprang forward with a howl like a wild beast to seize Rulonda, when he was himself gripped by Peter, who had but that moment caught sight of him.
Then ensued a terrible struggle between these two mortal foes, each urged on by long pent-up hatred. Dyossa was mad with furious rage and disappointment. Peter was nerved, not only by the memories of a thousand insults and blows, but was fighting once more for his beloved brother's life. He cared nothing now for himself—he was quite willing and ready to die, provided he could hold Dyossa long enough to ensure the escape of the one who bore Oliver in his arms.
Not more than a foot or two away, as these mortal foes clutched and swayed, the mutilated arms were twining and flapping, stretching out every few seconds, to try to reach them. It seemed more than likely that the fight would end by both being enmeshed, and that they would be dragged, side by side, into the cage, where those great eyes were looking on at the contest with that horrible, watchful, unwinking stare.
But it shortly appeared that the eyes were doing something else besides looking on, for a third tentacle came stealthily gliding along the ground in the direction of the combatants. Luckily, Peter, who, in spite of his excitement, had kept his wits about him, caught sight of it, and comprehended what it meant. Exerting all his strength, he hurled his antagonist from him, and promptly leaped backwards.
Dyossa staggered, swayed, and then, recovering himself, started to rush again upon the young fellow. But he was too late. The lithe, gliding tentacle had reached him—another moment, and it had leaped up and encircled him, dragging him relentlessly within reach of the shortened, but still active, tentacles, which were waiting to assist. The three coiled round him; and the last Peter saw, as he turned from the horrible sight to follow his friends, was the gleam of deadly hate and despair that shot from the fierce eyes of the doomed wretch.
A few minutes later the whole party were again together on the balcony, where Rulonda now openly showed himself with the rescued captives, looking down with a quiet scorn upon the furious throng who howled at him from below.
"They cannot escape, they cannot get away," he told his wondering friends. "Every door is barred, and they cannot climb the rocky walls. The fools! They should have accepted my terms while yet they were open to them! I would have spared their worthless lives to have saved those of their unhappy captives; but now they are safe, I have no mercy in my heart for these murderers. They shall die by the same monster to which they have sacrificed so many innocent victims.
"Why—what do you mean?" cried the doctor.
"Wait!" was the enigmatic reply. "Wait and see! Watch the great cage!"
Peter was happy now in the company of the brother whom he had tried so hard and risked so much, to save. Captain Warren was rejoicing at the escape of his friend, Hugh Keene; and all the rest were talking excitedly of the stirring events of the last few minutes, when a sudden increase in the uproar below, and the sound of shrieks and yells that told of some great and terrible terror, caused them all to rush to the front and once more look down.
The top of the immense cage was loose, and a struggling tentacle was seen lifting it slowly higher and higher. Other "arms" crept through the gap, which every moment yawned wider, until, with a deafening crash, it slid off on to the floor, and the great monster within, with its immense staring eyes and cruel-looking beak, like that of some giant bird of prey, commenced to crawl out of its cage on to the floor.
"Come away—come away!" said the doctor, his face pale with horror. "I have seen enough! May Heaven have mercy upon the miserable wretches!"
Ray and Peter and their friends and followers were publicly thanked and feted and generally petted, and lived for a few weeks in the midst of scenes of gaiety and festivity.
Then one day Rulonda called the leaders together, and told them he had some serious news to impart.
It was nothing less than that the channels which had opened so curiously through the sea of weed, a few years before, were fast silting up again. In a few days—a week or less, perhaps—they would not be answerable for the "Kestrel's" being able to get through; and so, unless the adventurers wished to remain in the country, probably for the rest of their lives, it would be imperative that they should depart at once.
So the "Kestrel" and her captain and crew, with the worthy doctor, Ray, and Peter and his newly-recovered brother, sailed away from what to-day remains of the ancient Island of Atlantis, almost as suddenly and unexpectedly as they had arrived on her shores. They were loth thus to part from their new and hospitable friends; and the separation had to be accepted as final. For it is unlikely those strangely-formed but fugitive channels will be found open again during the life-time of any of those who paid that memorable visit to the lost country.
But they did not come away unrewarded—far, very far from that. They came away, as Peter had predicted, wealthy beyond their utmost dreams; and Ray, when he met his father again, had the satisfaction of handing over to him a fortune that even some millionaires might envy.
The father and son finally settled down in South America upon an estate adjoining one Peter and his brother had purchased, and there they pass most of their time. Now and then, however, they are seized with a restless, wandering fit, when the four young men send word to Captain Warren at Rio to prepare the "Kestrel" for sea, and they start off upon another cruise in search of adventure. But they have never met—and are never likely, they think, to meet—with another experience so thrilling and exciting as that eventful cruise when they assisted in the defeat and overthrow of "The Pirates of Atlantis."