"Well, here I am, Lorry! Now tell me what on earth is the meaning of your mysterious message! Why, man, how serious you look! What's up? Anything wrong?"
Thus spoke, or rather shouted, Ralph Playfair, a tall, muscular youth, with a bright, good-looking face, and merry eyes, as he came bursting in upon his chum. Even while speaking his eager eyes roved about scrutinising everything around, as if he thought he might gather some notion of what was "up" by scanning the furniture.
The one addressed as Lorry was also tall and athletic-looking, with a handsome face and a splendid figure. The two young fellows had been at school together, where they had left behind them "records" in athletics, by the performance of feats which were likely to live as traditions in the school so long as it remained in existence.
Lorry, though a little taller, appeared to be rather the younger of the two. He was a veritable young giant; darker in complexion, and somewhat more thoughtful in manner than his volatile, high-spirited friend. But if Ralph was slightly less in height he was broader and sturdier in build, and looked, with his fair, curling hair and laughing eyes, a typical Britisher.
"To-morrow, Ralph," said Lorry, stretching his muscular arms, and taking a deep breath, "to-morrow I shall be twenty years of age—so I'm given to understand, and——"
"Is that all—why you might have told me that in your letter without bringing me all this way! Well, good-bye. I'm awfully pleased to hear it, and, maybe, to-morrow I'll look in again."
"And to-day," continued Lorry, disregarding the interruption, "Captain Woodham, my dear, kind, foster-father, has promised to tell me my own history—who I am, what I am, and where I came from—of which, as you are aware, I've known no more than the man in the moon.
"Further, the Captain has intimated to me that I shall have to make up my mind about a very important matter—to come to a momentous decision about something or other. So, as you are the best friend I have in the world—next to him—I asked permission for you to be present to hear the wonderful communication—for wonderful I understand it is really to be. The hints he has already let drop are enough to rouse the curiosity and fire the imagination of even a wooden image were they whispered into its wooden ears. Now, will you stay, or are you still in such a hurry to be off?"
"I'll stay, you bet! And I guess I shan't have to wait long, for here comes the Captain himself, and I can see he's bursting with the secret. See how tight his reefer looks on him to-day!"
As Ralph spoke, a big, burly figure, with the unmistakable rolling gait of a seaman, passed the window of the little cottage by the sea where this conversation took place. They heard the outer door open and shut, and a moment later Captain Woodham strode into the room.
He stood for a moment in the doorway looking at the two without speaking. He was almost Herculean in build; his form filled up the whole doorway, and he had to stoop as he came through it. In manner he was bluff, but hearty and honest-looking, and though his seamed and weather-beaten complexion and grizzled hair and beard made his face, when in repose, appear hard and stern, yet, when he spoke, his eyes would often twinkle with a light that was half-kindly, half-humorous.
"Ah! So you're here, Ralph," he said, and he extended his hand and took that of the visitor in a grasp which made even that young athlete wince. "You've come to hear the yarn I've promised to tell to-day, eh? Well, first, give me your promise that you'll regard it as a sacred confidence about which you're never to breathe a word to a living soul without permission. Then give me time to light my pipe, and I'm ready."
Ralph gave the assurance required and presently, when the three were seated round the table, the Captain started his pipe, took a few preliminary puffs, gazing thoughtfully the while through the window out over the sea, where the afternoon sun was nearing the horizon, and began his promised "yarn":
"It had been just such an afternoon as this—only far hotter, with a more fiery sky—that I lay becalmed in my ship, the Foam, in the Caribbean Sea—or rather upon the outer edge of what is known as the Sea of Sargasso—that is 'Sargasso Weed.' I don't suppose you youngsters know where that is. In school geographies they don't say much about it—"
"I've heard of it," Ralph put in. "An old sailor once told me something about it. He said that it is a most strange, mysterious region, a vast, desolate expanse——"
"Desolate! It's the most desolate spot on earth," broke in the Captain, bringing his fist down on the table to emphasise his words, "unless, perhaps, it may be the Polar regions—and as to its being mysterious—well, wait till ye've heard my story, then ye'll allow there's mystery enough to make a dozen ordinary sea yarns sound weak and commonplace by comparison.
"I'd been trading among the West Indian Islands, but had met with bad luck, and consequently I wasn't in a very good temper when the wind fell light and I found myself drifting about just outside that dreary waste of Sargasso Weed."
"Tell me what it's like," Lorry asked. "I don't quite understand."
"It's a tract," the Captain proceeded to explain, "many thousands of square miles in extent, where the sea appears to be, for the most part, comparatively shallow, and it is everywhere covered with a tangled mass of Sargasso weed brought down originally by the well-known Gulf Stream. No doubt there are rocks just under water, or, maybe, just awash in places, to which the weed clings. But you can't tell what is there or what isn't, really, because the weed is so thick, nobody can go far into it to see. You can't get very far beyond the outer edge or fringe. People who have tried to penetrate into it have got stuck fast and nearly lost their lives. Precious glad they were—and precious lucky too—if they managed to struggle back to open water again."
"Then," said Lorry thoughtfully, "no one can tell what there may be in the middle of this great tract?"
"Precisely," was the Captain's answer, and as he spoke he looked hard and curiously at the young man. "There may be inhabited land there," he continued slowly, "for anything that the rest of the world can tell. For all that our geographers know, there may be a thriving country hidden away in its midst, filled with the survivors of some ancient, long-forgotten race, who, through the slow accumulation of weed brought down by the great Gulf Stream during successive ages, may have been cut off from all communication with the outer world for a thousand years or longer."
"By Jove! What a fascinating idea!" exclaimed Ralph, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. "What a wonderful field it opens up to the imagination! What a chance for some fortunate explorer!"
"Ye're right there, lad, it is so," returned Captain Woodham with the same slow manner and curious look. "Is it the sort of adventure that would tempt you, d'ye think, if it were shown that there was any reasonable ground for suspecting the existence of such a country at the present day?"
There was no hesitation in giving a reply to this query, and no doubt as to its sincerity. The two listeners were as one, and declared they would only be too delighted to meet with any chance of joining in such an adventure.
The Captain eyed them both keenly, but made no comment; and resumed his narrative:
"It was after a very hot day, as I have said, that I found my vessel drifting almost without enough wind to give us steerage-way upon the very verge of this vast sea of weed. As the sun set, a mist had closed in upon us; but presently the moon rose. It was nearly full, and was gloriously brilliant, shining with a splendour that one finds only in the tropics. Then the mist cleared away almost entirely, and I saw before me a wide, open channel stretching right away up into the expanse of weed till it was lost in the haze which still hung over the extreme distance.
"Now this in itself was a remarkable discovery; for no sailor or navigator knew of such a channel or had heard of such a thing, so far as I was aware. But there was something yet more surprising to come.
"The night had become one of the most beautiful I ever remembered. Save, as I have said, for the distant horizon, everything was exceptionally clear. The moon hung above, poised in a cloudless sky of deepest blue, and shone straight down the strange channel, from which its bright rays were reflected as from burnished glass. Looking through my glasses I could make out distinctly numbers of the vessels which are at all times to be seen entangled in the weed. They are derelicts, for the most part, which have been abandoned at sea, and which, after perhaps years of lonely drifting, find here their final resting-place. Scientists account for this by telling us that the whole Atlantic Ocean is revolving slowly round and round, like a gigantic whirlpool, of which the Sea of Sargasso is the centre. Hence, numbers of vessels which have been abandoned hundreds—thousands—of miles away, if they should fail to sink at sea, are drifted, sooner or later, into this centre, and once there the weed seizes on 'em and holds 'em fast. And, strange to say, when there they do not seem to rot and go to pieces as they would elsewhere. Some suppose that the weed impregnates the water with some preservative principle; and no doubt, in any case, it lays hold of the timbers and binds 'em, and so helps to preserve the hulks. Also, where the weed is no waves can break, or foam and tumble; and in a general way there is not much wind. It is a region of calms and fogs and desolation, and there are no forces at work to aid in the break-up of these derelicts. So there they are, by the hundred, and by the thousand, some of 'em of very ancient build and rig; so that it is quite possible to believe there may be some foundation for the yarns which declare that old Spanish galleons are still to be met with there, laden with gold and treasure, if one could only get at them.
"Well, all the old yarns of this character that I had ever heard came crowding into my mind as I stood on the deck staring in stupid wonder at the long, clear strip of open water running right into the midst of the weed. Here, I thought to myself, is a means of testing some of these old legends. It might be worth while to get a boat out and row up yonder channel and investigate.
"And then, while I gazed and marvelled, there came into view, in the distance, a dark speck floating down the channel towards the sea, evidently drifting upon a current which was flowing in our direction.
"By degrees the speck increased in size, and I watched it through my glasses with intense curiosity, for it seemed to me that it was gradually assuming the shape of one of those ancient war-galleys of past ages of which one sees pictures in books.
"As it came nearer, this curious idea forced itself more and more upon my mind. I could see that the queer craft had a very high, curved prow, with the open jaws of some terrible monster by way of figure-head. It was battered and war-worn, and yet, somehow, appeared to be still strong and serviceable. Indeed it might very well have belonged to one of the navies of the ancient world when Greeks and Romans fought their sea-battles in vessels of somewhat similar design.
"Slowly, silently, the strange, weird-looking craft drifted on its way. Very uncanny, very ghostly, it seemed, floating there in the bright moonlight; and again there rushed into my mind various wild tales I had heard, at various times, as to the mysterious unknown region from the heart of which this queer, old-world vessel must have somehow escaped.
"Just as I was calculating how long the queer vessel might take to reach the open water where the Foam then was, a puff of wind blowing across the channel drifted it to the side, where it became entangled in a thick mass of weed. It seemed then pretty certain that its voyage was ended, and that if I wished to make closer acquaintance with it, it would be necessary to get out a boat; and I accordingly ordered one to be lowered.
"A few minutes later I was on my way in my gig, with a couple of stout rowers, to overhaul the stranger. So far, there had been nothing to indicate that there was anyone aboard of her; nor did it enter my mind for one moment that there was likely to be. My idea was that she was just a queer old relic of ancient days which had been entangled in the weed, and, after being thus strangely preserved for goodness only knows how many years, she had now somehow accidentally broken loose and drifted down towards the sea. As an antiquarian curiosity, the find might be worth looking at, and even, perhaps, worth securing and taking back to England. But beyond that I had no expectation of meeting with anything to pay for the trouble I was taking.
"In this frame of mind I approached the relic, and I was surprised to find that she was much larger than I had imagined. As we drew alongside I stood up and tried to peer over her side, so high was she out of the water. Finding I could not see much that way, I climbed up; and, without more ado, sprang on board.
"The next moment I had almost jumped hack again but that wonder held me fast; and I remained staring down in horror and astonishment at the scene that was there revealed!"
Captain Woodham paused for a while and remained silent and contemplative, as though the remembrance of the scene he had spoken of had still power to call up some unusual emotion in his mind. His listeners also remained silent, waiting with eager interest for what was to come.
"What I then saw," the narrator presently went on, "was so unexpected, so unaccountable, so utterly bewildering, that even now, at times, I find myself almost wondering whether it really happened or whether the whole affair was not a troubled dream.
"At such times I have to remind myself of the solid proofs of its reality which still exist. They, as you will presently learn, are too tangible, too real, for a doubt to exist in either my own mind or in that of anyone else who may come to know the true facts.
"What I saw, then, was this: I saw that the vessel I had boarded was in very truth a war galley built upon the ancient model. She had two decks, the lower one being for rowers. Lying about on the upper deck were several dead bodies."
"Dead bodies!" cried his hearers in a breath.
"Aye, dead bodies! That sounds queer enough, doesn't it—but queerer still, they were nearly all dressed in armour."
"Armour!" burst from the two eager auditors.
"Yes, armour! Beautiful armour, too! Wonderfully worked and inlaid with gold and silver. One man thus attired had evidently been carrying a banner of a deep red tint, with some device worked upon it in gold. He still clung to this with both hands, and he and his flag had fallen together upon the blood-stained deck. He had been killed by an arrow which had buried itself in his breast.
"There were three other dead bodies, all dressed in armour, and all
bearing evidence that arrows had caused their deaths. One of them was a very
fine, handsome-looking man, quite a giant in stature, and evidently a chief.
face was swarthy but by no means dark, and the features were refined and noble-looking, even in death. He was wearing the richest armour suit of any; from his shoulders hung a crimson cloak fastened by a diamond clasp
which sparkled and flashed in the moonlight. His sword was of great size and weight, indicating that he must have been of immense strength, and this, and a dagger at his belt, were set with precious stones. Beside him was a circlet or light crown of gold which seemed to have fallen from his head with his helmet. I picked this up and looked at it. What it was like I will tell you later—or rather you will see for yourself, Lorry—-"
"See for myself?" Lorry repeated wonderingly. "Why speak of me in particular?"
"You will hear directly. Just as I was handling the crown, I heard a cry as of a little child, and then a groan. Startled at these sounds I looked about and saw yet another prostrate form lying huddled up under a bench. I went to it and turned it over, and found a man dressed very differently to all the others, in a very plain, yet most bizarre costume, principally leather and a sort of coarse canvas. Stooping down, I found that his heart was still beating. At once I tried to move him further out on to the deck so that I might succour him the better, and as I did so I found that he had in his arms what looked like a bundle of wraps. With some difficulty I unclasped his arms and got it away from him. As I gently removed it there was another cry, the bundle unrolled, and disclosed to my astonished and bewildered gaze a little child!"
"Great Scott! What next, I wonder?" Ralph exclaimed.
"I took the child up and examined it; it was very richly dressed, and appeared to be unharmed. I called to my assistance one of the men I had brought with me, and he took the infant while I poured some brandy from my flask into the mouth of the man who was still alive. In a little while he revived sufficiently to be able to open his eyes, but was still too weak to speak. With the help of my men we moved him into my boat, and the child also; and then it was that I noticed certain signs which I knew to be the sure forerunners of one of those storms which, in the tropics, often spring up with unexpected suddenness.
"My two sailors noticed them also, and in spite of their interest in the derelict galley and its ghastly burden, they did not hesitate to urge an immediate return to the ship. The names of these two sailors, by the way, were Dan Oatly and Peter Roff—good, honest, trustworthy fellows, both of them. I mention their names on account of what has occurred since.
"'Theer's a sea mist a-comin' up, Cap'en,' I remember Dan Oatly, one of the two, saying, 'an' if we don't slip back to the ship pretty quick, we'll likely miss her altogether.' The wisdom of his advice was undeniable. Already the wind was beginning to moan over the desolate tract; and I decided, very reluctantly, that we must leave the galley where she was and trust to being able to return to her again when the storm had passed over. She was too heavy for us to attempt to take her in tow in the circumstances; and my gig was too small to take the dead bodies on board. There was nothing to be done, therefore, but leave them for the time where they were. I slipped back, with Dan, to examine them again, to make quite sure they were really dead; and then we rowed off as hard as we could, and only reached our ship in time. A few minutes later We were surrounded by a thick, driving mist, and had to make for the open sea to avoid being blown into the weed by the rising wind.
"The storm which followed proved to be a more serious affair than we had expected; it turned out to be a tempest of a character very unusual in those parts. For days we battled with it; and when finally it passed, and we were able to return to seek for the galley, all trace of it or of the open channel had disappeared, and we found no sign of either. Vainly we cruised about, examined through our glasses all we could see of the expanse of weed, and searched, with the boats, for an inlet. All our efforts failed, and we had at last to give up the quest and come away; and it thus came about that we never set eyes again upon that queer old craft, or its unfortunate occupants.
"Meantime, of the two we had rescued from her—the child and the man—the former throve famously, but the latter never really rallied. He was clearly sinking gradually, and seemed too ill to rouse himself to speak lucidly, though he sometimes mumbled incoherently in a tongue unknown to anyone on board.
"One day, however, there came a change. I could see it directly I went into the cabin where he was lying. I saw the light of reason in his eyes, but I also read there that he was not long for this world. Then came another surprise—he addressed me in English!"
"In English!" exclaimed Ralph. Both the young men had been listening with eager attention, too interested to interrupt the narrator with comments.
"It sounds strange," said the Captain, "and you can understand how astonished I was, but that particular matter was easy of explanation. He was an English sailor, he told me, and his name was Jackson. Some six years previously the ship he had been sailing in had been wrecked in the same neighbourhood as that in which we had found him, and he and his two companions had floated about in an open boat in a thick fog. When the fog cleared they found they had somehow drifted up an open channel which was surrounded on every side by the weed. Not knowing which way to go, they had followed up the channel in the wrong direction, going farther and farther away from the sea, until they came to a large expanse of open water in the very heart of the vast tract of weed. Here they came upon an altogether unknown country, where they met with adventures so strange that I should hesitate to tell you of them if I had not received every reasonable proof of the truth of the statements made to me."
Then followed an account of some of the adventures which had befallen the man Jackson and those with him. The worthy Captain had written them down at length, it seemed, as Jackson had narrated them, and he now showed the manuscript to the two young fellows. It is not necessary to give it all here, or to repeat the expressions of amazement and other comments, or the questions and answers which, from time to time, interrupted the narrative.
Briefly, the marvellous tale declared that the three sailors had lived for six years amongst an unknown race of people who inhabited a country hidden away in the very heart of the Sea of Sargasso. That they had at first been treated as slaves there, but that this particular sailor had latterly been made a servant of the reigning King, and accorded a certain amount of liberty. Then a revolt had broken out amongst the King's subjects, and the monarch had been obliged to fly and hide himself with a remnant of his followers in a remote district. From there, for a period, a sort of desultory, guerrilla warfare had been carried on with varying fortunes. At last, however, the King's party were surprised and once more reduced to hasty flight. The King himself embarked with his only child—an infant in arms—and a few followers, of whom Jackson was one, in a galley, but they were followed by two of their enemies' vessels, and a running fight ensued. The King and his companions were all killed by arrows; while Jackson was desperately wounded and became unconscious. The last he remembered was that a mist came up and separated the combatants, and he supposed that the pursuers had thus been prevented from capturing the galley. Then the rowers, finding that their leaders had all been killed, had probably taken the vessel to the nearest land and there deserted her, careless, or perhaps ignorant, of the fact that the bundle which was so tightly clasped in Jackson's arms was the still living infant son of their King.
Subsequently, the deserted vessel, with its helpless occupants, must have floated away and got caught in the current which had at last carried it to the place where Captain Woodham had met with it,
"And you, Master Lorry, or rather I should now say, Loronto—for Loronto is your true name," concluded the worthy captain, "you are the child I took from that drifting galley. It was your father I saw lying there with a great arrow through his heart. Sorry, very, very sorry I was, when I learned all this, that I had not been able to give him and his faithful followers decent burial. And I'm sorry, too, that, little thinking we should not have another chance, I did not bring away more than I did. I, however, took off his scarlet cloak to wrap you in, and brought away the diamond clasp by which it was fastened, the jewelled dagger at his side, the circlet I told you of, and a belt. These things I have carefully preserved; and to-day I shall hand them into your keeping."
Thus saying, Captain Woodham rose and went to a safe which stood in a corner of the room. Opening it, he unlocked an inner drawer and took out some parcels carefully wrapped in leather. Removing the covering of one of these, he displayed to view a slender crown of beautifully worked gold, in the front of which was a magnificent black opal, surrounded by diamonds and rubies worked into curious devices. Then he broke the seals of a quaint old belt and poured out from it a whole pile of treasure, consisting of small nuggets of pure gold, amongst an astonishing collection of diamonds and all kinds of precious stones. They lay there in a glittering heap beside the crown.
Both the young men had remained silent after the captain had concluded his story. Lorry, or, to give him his true name, Loronto, was lost in thought, and took little heed of the splendid jewels which were displayed before him. His thoughts went back to that drifting galley; to the tragedy that had taken place upon her bloodstained deck; to his father, lying there, cruelly done to death by his enemies. His friend Ralph understood his feelings and watched him in friendly sympathy.
Then the young man's breast heaved, his eyes lighted up with a stern fire, his mouth hardened. He drew himself up, and, turning to the Captain said, in a voice trembling with emotion:
"You spoke of some adventure—of some decision to be come to—do you mean that there is a way by which this foul deed—the murder of my father—can be avenged? Is such a thing possible? If so, you need not ask me to take time to consider; I am ready at once to embark in any undertaking, to run any risk, incur any danger, to punish those guilty of that cruel crime, if they are still alive and I can get at them! Though," he added regretfully, "it is likely enough that by this time the murderers may be dead, and so have escaped the punishment they deserved!"
"As to whether those who slew your father and usurped his place are still alive," returned the Captain, "I cannot say—but of that more later. The poor fellow, Jackson, left me certain explicit details and instructions, and if they are to be relied upon, the time is near for the opening of the channels through the weed—which takes place, he declared, at periodical intervals—when, if you choose, you will be able to find a way back to the land of your birth; of which, as I understand it, you are the rightful ruler."
"Will you stand by me—will you go with me?" asked Loronto with flashing eyes.
"Right willingly, my lad! It is what I have been saving myself for all these years!"
"And you, Ralph?"
"Can you ask?" cried Ralph. "Rather let me say, will you let me join with you?"
"Then we will set out together! And, if the fates should favour me, I swear that you two shall be the first and greatest sharers in whatever good fortune may come my way."
"And here," said Captain Woodham, handing him the circlet, "here is the sign of your authority—the crown your father wore. This wonderful black opal—the largest and most beautiful, as I truly believe, in the whole world—has been worn by your ancestors, I was told, through countless ages, and very glad am I that I should have been the means of saving it for you. May we both live to see you wear it in your rightful position in the country your father and forefathers ruled."
And the wonderful, lustrous opal seemed to flash with sudden, mysterious fire, as the young fellow held it in his hands for the first time in his life.
"I will not put it on my head," he declared solemnly, "while my father lies unavenged."
Then his glance travelled over the glistening heap of treasure, and he turned to Captain Woodham in amaze.
"And you—you, my dear friend—my second father—have guarded all these treasures for me!" said he with emotion. "You have kept them all these years, bringing me up and educating me out of your own scanty savings! Is it not so? You, who could have lived like a prince upon all this wealth, and none would have been the wiser!"
"I have done what I conceived to be my duty," answered Woodham simply. "I promised Jackson I would preserve everything intact until you should be twenty years old, according to the data he furnished as to the time of your birth; and then give it into your hands to do as you pleased with. It was a sacred trust, handed on from your father, through him, to me. I so regarded it—I gave my word—and I have kept it!"
"You have indeed!" exclaimed Loronto, "and how to show my gratitude—let alone repay you—I do not know! I shall never be able——"
"Pooh!" said the Captain, with a smile. "I want to see you restored to your own, my lad. For that purpose money will be wanted at the outset to fit out an expedition with. This, your father's treasure, would, I saw, provide; and I have been looking forward to the day when you would be old enough to make use of it.
"There is one thing more. You were wondering just now whether those who slew your father and usurped his place are still alive, and I answered that I could not say. I can, however, tell you this much—that they were still alive up to a couple of years ago. At that time they were still oppressing the country with a cruel, tyrannical rule and your father's faithful friends and followers—or those left of them—were still keeping up some sort of a guerrilla warfare."
Both his hearers started.
"How can you tell that?" asked Loronto in astonishment.
"It came to me in a very curious fashion. A small party of four castaways actually penetrated into the country, drifting in through a waterway which had been temporarily forced open by a great tidal wave. Now, by a most remarkable coincidence, one of the four was Peter Roff, who was with me when I discovered the derelict galley.
"Peter," continued the Captain, "is a rather quaint character. He is a capital sailor; a splendid shot, and a good hand with the cutlass; and as faithful and honest a man as can be found; but he has his weak point. He is very superstitious, and believes in witches and witchcraft, sorcery, and such-like foolishness. Therefore, when he came to me and solemnly gave me the account of his adventures, I was at first almost inclined to think that the worthy fellow's superstitious fancy had imagined it. When, however, he told me how they had been befriended by one of the outlaw chiefs, who had asked him whether he had ever heard tell of a derelict galley being found, with certain contents—amongst them a crown with a wonderfully fine black opal—then indeed I knew that Peter must have actually seen and spoken with one of those leaders who had espoused your father's cause."
"It's all very wonderful. It takes one's breath away!" exclaimed Loronto.
"Mine has gone long ago! I've lost the faculty of feeling surprised!" said Ralph philosophically.
"Well, you will be able to question the worthy Peter for yourselves shortly, for my friend, Professor Henson, in whose service he is, is returning to England in a week or two. He has taken Peter with him many times on his travels, and they have been half over the globe together. And that, by the way, reminds me that if—we should actually set out on this expedition, I have little doubt Professor Henson would like to accompany us if I were to give him the opportunity; in which case he would probably bring Peter with him.
"But," concluded Woodham, in a very serious tone, "I would not have you risk this wealth in what after all may prove to be an impossible venture—for we may fail to find a channel through the weed—without due consideration. That is why I have told you what I have to-day. To-morrow you will be twenty years old. Think over what I have said, ponder it to-night, and give me your final decision in the morning."
"I require no time for consideration," returned Loronto with enthusiasm. "My mind is made up! I shall follow the path which Fate has evidently marked out for me, let it end how it will!"
"Opening in the weed, sir!" called the lookout.
"Where away, Ben, where away?"
"Off the port bow, sir."
"What sort of an opening, Ben? Does it look like a creek? Does it run any distance? Look well, and see how far it runs up!"
"Aye, aye, sir." For half a minute there was silence. Then came the man's voice again:
"I can see a long channel, sir, a running up fur miles!"
With a curt, significant "Ha!" Captain Woodham went forward and mounted to where the look-out was stationed. He peered through his glass, and then returned aft to his two young friends, Loronto and Ralph, who were eagerly awaiting his report.
"All right, lads!" he cried, cheerily, even before he got to them. "Ben's right! There's an open channel, sure enough—and so far as I can judge, it looks like the one we want. It certainly runs in a long way!"
"At last, Lorry!" exclaimed Ralph to his chum. "I must confess I had been growing—a—well——"
"A little sceptical, Ralph; out with it," returned Loronto. "Your logico-mathematical training, if I may use such an expression, has led you, I fear, to look upon things romantic with a sort of doubting eye."
This remark was in allusion to Ralph's choice of a profession. He had been educated as an engineer, and had acquired—or perhaps sometimes affected—an ultra-practical, prosaic way of looking at things which was in contrast to the thoughtful, dreamy fits in which his chum sometimes indulged.
"Oh, well, one may be pardoned a little despondency under the circumstances," laughed Ralph. "Nearly a month have we spent prowling up and down on the outside of this dreary tract with nothing to look at day after day, but weed, weed—everlasting weed; and nothing to encourage one to hope that we should ever find what we came to look for. I fear, even now, that may be but a little creek we have chanced upon."
"A creek, say you? Look yonder!" cried Captain Woodham. "There lies the channel I rowed up in my boat that night—yonder is the place where I boarded the galley! So far as I can judge, this is truly the same channel, opened again—as that poor fellow Jackson said it would!"
Full of curiosity, the three crowded to the side of the vessel and gazed for a while in silence at the scene.
It was all as the Captain had described it to them. On one side there was the open sea; on the other, stretching far as the eye could reach, the interminable waste of weed—and now, almost straight ahead of them, a broad, open waterway, running right up into its midst.
"We must call the Professor to see this," said Captain Woodham. "He also has been among the unbelievers, I fancy. D'ye know where he is, Ralph?"
"I expect he's in his cabin setting up some specimens of a very curious creature which he captured when out in the boat yesterday amongst the weed, and which I understand is quite new to science."
Professor Henson, the friend of whom Captain Woodham had spoken, had gladly accepted his invitation to join the expedition in the hope of making some fresh discoveries. Though a comparatively young man he was already well known as an able scientist.
A seaman sent below to fetch the Professor returned with that gentleman's assistant and general factotum, Peter Roff. Peter, as we now, had formerly been a sailor, but of late years had travelled, a good deal with the man of science.
Peter was a character in his way; and since his intimate association with the Professor was apt to give himself airs, pluming himself upon the possession of scraps of learning picked up from his master, backed by a smattering of scientific terms—which he often ludicrously distorted.
"Well, Peter," cried Ralph, as he caught sight of the man's sturdy figure and good-humoured face, "I suppose the Professor's too busy to bother about the discovery we have made? What did you catch yesterday that has proved so interesting?"
Peter shook his head rather contemptuously.
"The Perfessor thinks a mighty lot o' the critter," was his answer, "but I can't say as I do! It's a square-shaped beast, cert'nly; a sort of 'alf butterfly, 'alf bird—but I don't think much of un—'cos why?—'ee doan't belong t' any proper spices, the Perfessor says 'ee's got no genius t' speak of—and as to 'is family—well, it can't be up to much, 'cos the Perfessor don't know it—never heerd on it!"
The Captain winked, the two young fellows laughed, and Peter, after a good look at the open channel, went back to report to his master.
"Well, there's plenty of time for the Professor to come and have a look," presently observed Woodham. "There will be a good moon tonight, and I think perhaps it might be better to wait for it; then alter our rig and creep up the channel quietly. If we should meet with any unfriendly natives it may scare 'em off and make it easier to get the yacht through the narrow parts into the open water which we know must lie somewhere beyond."
The words "alter our rig" require explanation. The yacht the adventurers were on—named the Wyvern—had been specially fitted out and adapted for this expedition, and had been supplied with some rather remarkable contrivances in addition to every ordinary modern improvement. She was well armed, and carried a crew who had been carefully selected and drilled by Captain Woodham himself. She had electric searchlights, and was propelled by engines worked not by steam, but by petrol.
Beyond all this, however, she boasted an altogether novel contrivance by which she could be converted, at short notice, into the outward semblance of a most awful monster—carrying out, as nearly as an exuberant fancy could suggest, the traditional idea of the mythical creature she had been named after. When thus changed she appeared as a very "fearsome wild-fowl!" indeed. A rearing, scaly neck, flanked by two wings, rose at the bow, carrying a hideous head with gaping jaws which opened and shut in a most natural manner, and two great eyes through which shot the dazzling, basilisk-like glare of the powerful searchlights. The two movable masts and telescopic funnel gave place to a sort of "turtle back," which covered the whole vessel from stem to stern, and ended in a long "practicable" tail, which could be made to lash the Waters into foam.
The idea of this grotesque disguise had been Ralph's, and he prided himself not a little on the life-like manner in which he had carried it out. While in home waters, or lying in harbour, the yacht showed a funnel and two masts, and appeared as trim and handsome a vessel as any seaman could desire. But when transformed, as described, she appeared—especially at night, or in uncertain light—well calculated to fulfil Ralph's idea of "astonishing the natives" of the unknown country they were in search of.
For the present, however, she was still in appearance merely a large private yacht; and they waited for darkness before making the necessary alteration.
When night fell she was rapidly transformed, and as the moon rose she entered the channel, and proceeded to cautiously feel her way into the midst of that vast ocean of weed. The channel grew wider as she advanced, opening out here and there, into lakes or lagoons, connected by numerous cross channels, until the adventurers found themselves involved in a sort of water maze.
Steering by compass, her Captain kept the vessel upon as straight a course as circumstances permitted, and by degrees those on board of her lost sight of the open sea and began to look anxiously ahead.
It had been easy enough, once they sighted the channel, to penetrate into this strange region; it might be a different affair altogether to find their way out again should the necessity arise!
Meantime all was silent—oppressively silent—and desolate—a very wilderness of desolation, it seemed. And ever, as they sailed onwards, they passed numbers of old hulks, which became continually more and more ancient in shape and rig. Gaunt and grim they showed above the general level of the weed, like ghosts of a long dead past—inexpressibly sad in their loneliness; strangely weird, mysterious monuments of bygone ages. The queer appearance the disguised vessel made as she crept up the waterways, uncouth as it was, scarcely seemed out of place amid such surroundings.
Presently, however, open water was seen ahead, and beyond, a reflection in the sky, as from a great fire or other unusual illumination.
In the interest and speculation aroused by these signs, the adventurers gradually threw off the depression which had begun to seize upon their spirits, and when, a little later, the strange-looking craft glided out of the intricate network of waterways into the broad expanse of what appeared to be a great, salt-water lake, Ralph drew a long breath. "Ah! Now we can breathe again!" he cried. "It was like being cooped up in a graveyard!"
The yacht was headed straight across the open water, and gradually the distant land rose before the gaze of the travellers until it loomed up in the shape of a high mountain, whose gloomy-looking, precipitous sides soon hid the moon, and threw a deep shadow over everything below.
Into this shadow the yacht crept, and the travellers eagerly scanned the shore, which appeared quite deserted. There was no sign of any habitation. In character it was wild and rocky, thickly covered in some places with dense thickets of dark-looking trees like firs; in others it was open, with low bushes scattered about.
Yet from over the mountain's top there still rose into the deep blue vault of the sky above, that strange appearance as of a reflection of some lurid light.
Captain Woodham looked up and down the coast and shook his head.
"I don't like the look of it," he said, scrutinising his surroundings with the eye of an experienced seaman. "Just the place for sunken rocks! I'd rather not cruise along this shore in the dark—and it won't do to anchor. If one had to shift suddenly it would mean the loss of one's anchor—and cable to boot!"
"I'm going ashore to investigate," Loronto declared. "This, as I understand it, is my native land, and I am full of curiosity to find out something of what it is like."
"It's a queer sort of home-coming for you, Lorry," said Ralph musingly. "I am coming with you, of course."
"And so am I!" exclaimed Professor Henson. He had "come out of his museum," as Ralph expressed it, some little time before, and had been a silent observer thus far of all the incidents of their venture into the midst of the weed.
The two chums loaded their rifles and revolvers and buckled on a cutlass each—for under the Captain's tuition they had both become expert swordsmen—and the Professor gravely imitated these precautions. Beside the towering forms of the young athletes the scientist looked small—for he was not by any means a big man—but he was tough and wiry, and known to be not only a good fighter, but plucky withal. With him went the worthy Peter.
Half a dozen trusty seamen, all well armed, rowed them ashore, and four of these were left in the boat, the other two being placed at a little distance as scouts.
Then the three, with only Peter as their attendant, made straight for the mountain, and began to ascend its rocky heights.
Slowly, and in silence, the little party climbed the mountain side. As a rule, Peter was somewhat garrulous; but under the influence of the potent spell cast upon them all by the strangeness of their surroundings, and the uncertainty as to what their adventure might lead to, even the talkative sailor recognised the wisdom of making no sound which might betray their presence to possible enemies.
Thus they pressed on until they were within a few yards of the summit. There they paused and listened.
A curious, low hum could be distinguished, coming, seemingly, over the top of the mountain. Now that they were higher, too, they could perceive that the glow in the sky was brighter.
A whispered consultation took place. Both the young men felt the thrill which precedes, the plunge, as it were, into a new discovery—for that they were on the verge of a discovery they felt certain. The very air up there seemed charged with a vague sense of something beyond. Ralph threw aside his "practical" theories, and his heightened colour and sparkling eyes showed that he was on the tip-toe of expectation. The Professor, though his wanderings over the earth had made him less easily impressed, evinced, by his restless manner, that he was looking for a surprise—a new experience.
And certainly none of them were disappointed; for, a minute or two later, they had topped the hill, and were looking down upon the other side—gazing down upon a scene so utterly strange and unexpected that they scarcely knew whether to regard it as reality or as the illusive effect of some wondrous hallucination.
They saw below them, upon the further side of an intervening stretch of water, another shore, and upon it a populous city, which, from where they were, appeared to be of marvellous beauty. There were stately palaces and buildings, noble-looking embankments, promenades, and bridges. There were towers and spires glistening in the moonlight with a sheen as of silver and gold. Beautiful gardens and grassy slopes stretched down to the water's edge amongst fountains, terraces, or colonnades. Beyond, were lofty viaducts, with a background of towering mountains. The whole of this fairy-like scene was ablaze with lights, while, in places, upon sculptured columns, were censers, from which dancing flames leaped upwards, and spiral columns of light vapour ascended towards the sky.
The gardens and terraces were filled with gaily-dressed crowds, and upon the water boats passed to and fro, some, with white, glistening sails, drifting slowly in the light breeze—others, of gondola shape, propelled lazily but gracefully by wielders of long paddles.
There was a general air as of a city "en fête"; and now and again, above the general confused hum, arose the sounds, softened and rendered indistinct by distance, of laughter and music.
Loronto and Ralph gazed upon this scene with indescribable feelings. For the first time there arose in the breast of the former a perception of the position he had been born to and had lost. Could it be possible, he asked himself, that he was really, as he had been assured, the rightful ruler of this golden city? It seemed a thing hardly to be believed; surely it must be a dream—or there had been a mistake somewhere!
In Ralph's mind, all his pseudo-practical ideas fell away, toppled over, so to speak, and in their place came a rush of romantic enthusiasm bubbling over with wonder and delight.
"By Jove, Lorry!" he gasped, under his breath, "you're a lucky fellow! Fancy! Heir to such a little paradise of a kingdom——"
Just then Peter laid a hand upon the speaker's arm with a warning pressure.
Not far away, a little below where they were standing, a rocky bluff ran out from the side of the hill, forming a spur or isolated pinnacle, which commanded an extensive view over the open water the travellers had come across, and the region of weed beyond.
There had been a sort of clicking sound, and a clang, as of the opening and closing of an iron gate! This sound, which had caught Peter's sharp ears, had come from the direction of a dense thicket of trees near the bluff; and he silently pulled his companions down into the shelter of some bushes from which they could watch without being seen.
He had scarcely done so, when a figure was seen emerging from the thicket, and it immediately afterwards appeared walking along the ridge or narrow ledge which connected the bluff with the side of the hill.
Arrived at the extreme edge of the bluff, lighted by the moonlight which fell across the summit of the hill, the figure remained gazing, as if in deep thought, out over the landscape. It was the figure of an old man with long white hair and beard, and noble-looking in pose, clad in a flowing dark robe, with a girdle round the waist. The breeze blew his long, white locks from his face, revealing a countenance which, in the bright moonlight, appeared handsome and attractive, yet tinged with a certain stern sadness. In his mien, as he gazed fixedly across the landscape, was an air as of expectation, and he raised his arms and extended them before him, as if in sympathy with some mentally-uttered exhortation.
Suddenly, Peter pointed to some bushes below the bluff, and the others, looking carefully, could see dark forms creeping stealthily in the shadow towards the solitary figure. They carried drawn swords in their hands, and all, it could be seen, by a slight gleam here and there, deep though the shadow was, wore some sort of armour.
The unseen spectators knew nothing of any of these people, but their sympathies went out at once to the figure on the bluff. There was something both of dignity and of pathos about him which appealed to them, and apart from that, the sight of several armed men, stealthily attacking another, who was unarmed and unsuspecting, naturally appeared to them brutal and cowardly.
They, therefore, as with one accord, decided to intervene and prevent what otherwise seemed likely to be a cold-blooded murder. At the same time they knew that it would be wiser to avoid the use of firearms if possible—for it had now become clear that the place was by no means uninhabited or deserted, as they had thought. The noise of firearms might precipitate matters, and cause complications which it would be better, for a while, at any rate, to avoid.
With these thoughts in his mind, Loronto drew his cutlass, and, signing to his companions to follow him, he commenced against the attackers a flank movement as silent and stealthy as their own.
Of the assailants there were half a dozen, and they now divided into two parties, four on one side of the narrow ridge and two on the other. The two detailed for the further side disappeared from view, while the others were so intent upon their design that they saw nothing of the little group closing in behind them.
A minute later, the leader had climbed up far enough, and his head and shoulders showed for a moment in the moonlight as he rose to deal a cowardly blow at his intended victim. But as he raised his arm, it was seized from behind in a grip which all but pulled it from the socket. The sword was wrenched from his grasp and thrown clattering down the rocks. Then two arms closed round his body, he was lifted off his feet, and cast down after his sword.
Loronto, who had thus disposed of the leader, leaped into his place, then up on the bluff, cutlass in hand, just in time to ward off a blow from a man who had appeared above the edge upon the other side. At the same moment, the old man these people had come to attack perceived his danger, and, with a muttered word, drew back along the ridge.
Below, Ralph and his two companions were engaged in a struggle with the three assailants still remaining on that side. This left Loronto with two to deal with on the bluff itself.
He had seized one as he sprang up, but had been himself grasped by the other, and the three were now locked in a deadly conflict which threatened to end in their all rolling down the precipice together.
The table or platform of rock upon which they fought lay full in the moonbeams which glinted across the top of the hill. They gleamed upon the polished armour of the two assailants, and at times there was a flash of a blade. All around was deep shadow, and to those below who were watching the struggle with breathless interest the conflict seemed weird and almost unreal. The men in the waiting boat, Captain Woodham and others of the crew upon the deck of the yacht, all looked upwards at the three figures as they swayed to and fro and swung about here and there, sometimes seeming to be poised upon the very edge of the precipice, then working back into the middle of the bluff.
The Captain held a rifle in his hand and twice he put it to his shoulder; but the figures were so interlocked that no chance offered to get in a shot with safety.
Suddenly the three figures parted. One of them fell flat upon the rock; another staggered backwards and with a loud cry disappeared into the shadows, and in the momentary stillness which followed there could be heard the sickening sound of a heavy body falling from rock to rock and crashing through the tops of the trees below.
One stood out on the bluff alone; and in a moment or two it became clear that it was Loronto. With a great effort he had summoned up all his strength and thrown the two from him—one with such force that he lay motionless upon the flat rock beside the victor—while the other had crashed over the side.
A cheer went up from the watchers below, and just then Ralph also showed upon the bluff. He had disposed of his own opponent and had climbed up to the assistance of his chum.
Meantime the two seamen left as scouts had ascended to the foot of the bluff and aided the Professor and Peter to settle with the other two.
For a minute there seemed to be an end of the encounter; when suddenly there came an outcry, and a number of fresh figures could be dimly seen making for the bluff from three sides.
Four or five climbed up on to it with such agility that the two victors found themselves, ere they had had time to recover their breath, involved in a fresh struggle, and this time against much greater odds.
Captain Woodham shouted an order to the men waiting in the boat ashore to leave her and hasten to the aid of their friends, and himself jumped into another boat which he had previously ordered to be got ready in case it might be wanted. A party of men fully armed had already taken their places in her, and as the Captain sprang in they started rowing.
But long before they reached the shore something had taken place above which rendered their aid unnecessary.
When Loronto had first appeared on the bluff and warded off a blow which had been aimed at the old man who had been standing there alone, the latter had, as already stated, retreated along the ridge. For a moment or two he had stood watching the struggle which followed as though too surprised to do anything. Then he looked about keenly first in one direction, then in another, and finally disappeared into the thicket of trees from which he had emerged a little while before.
Now, just as the fresh assailants showed themselves, this man appeared again, but this time not alone. With him there came a rush of armed men who threw themselves with resistless fury into the work of assisting the two young strangers.
Under a leader who seemed a veritable giant in stature—a man clad in a complete suit of magnificent armour—they speedily turned the tables upon the crowd of assailants, followed them up with relentless persistence, and in a few minutes had accounted for every one, bringing back with them, as bound prisoners, those who had attempted to save themselves by flight.
When the fight was over their leader and his companions, the old man first seen, turned to the strangers and spoke in a language which they could not understand. Then, seeing that it was strange to them, the one in armour spoke again, this time, not a little to their surprise, in good English, asking who they were and whence they came.
Loronto and Ralph looked at each other, then at their friend the Professor, who by that time had gained the bluff and was standing beside them. Their surprise at hearing themselves addressed in their own language was so great that for a moment or two they gave no answer.
Just then Captain Woodham, at the head of a squad of sailors, appeared on the hillside a little below them, and not understanding the situation, called out to his friends to ask them how it fared with them.
The stranger in the suit of armour turned to him.
"If you are one of the leaders here I would speak with you," said he. "I perceive you are a large party, and I desire a word or two with the leaders."
But ere anyone could reply the old man in the dark robe uttered a strange cry. He had been staring hard at Loronto and now he pressed forward and peered into the young fellow's face.
"Who are you, my lord?" he asked, in English, in quick eager tones. "Whence come you, and why?" He turned Loronto about so that the moonlight fell upon his face, and gazed at him with a strained anxiety which was almost painful to see. Then he cried out again, and, turning round, ran off the bluff and disappeared once more into the thicket.
The man in armour had watched all this in silence. Now he repeated his request.
"I would speak with your leaders," he said again.
"Sir," said Woodham, "I suppose we may assume that your intentions towards us are friendly since you have, as I have seen, extended timely assistance to my companions? At the same time, we do not know how we are situated here, or what risks we may be running by remaining where we are. I'm a blunt man, a plain, straightforward seaman, and I feel more at home on the deck of my ship than on shore in a strange country. So I say, if you want to talk, come aboard my ship. You'll be quite safe——"
"Ha! You have a ship! Where?"
"Here; just off the shore below us."
"But—how did you bring her here?"
"Well, we just came along an open channel we saw in the weed."
"But you must have had an object; no man trusts his ship inside the weed unless he either knows there is open wafer beyond or has some very urgent motive prompting him to run a great risk. Tell me, come ye in peace, or with warlike intentions?"
"That is as may be," returned the Captain cautiously. "If we had been asked that question an hour ago, I should have answered, 'we come in peace'; but after what has occurred I beg to observe that we are quite capable of taking our own part if a quarrel be forced upon us."
"This helps us little," returned the other, with a gesture of impatience. "Tell me why ye came at all—then can I better judge whether to offer my friendship. If I find on examination that I cannot grant it, then it were better ye should return at once by the way by which ye came whilst that way is open; for in coming hither you are courting dangers you little dream of, and which, well-armed though you may be, will overwhelm you if you have to trust to your own prowess alone!"
At this the adventurers looked at one another inquiringly. Captain Woodham and the Professor smiled. They considered their party, armed as they were with firearms, a match for any possible number of old-world warriors armed only with swords, spears, and bows and arrows.
But the two younger men were impressed with the dignity and earnestness of the stranger's manner, and they instinctively felt that there was something deeper in his warning than appeared on the surface.
They had been observing him attentively, and the more they saw of him the more his personality impressed them.
They saw before them a man of great height, with a powerfully-built frame, clad in a complete suit of armour made partly of steel and partly of gold and silver. Beneath a coat of mail was a red satin tunic embroidered with a star, the centre being black, and the rays, as it were, in gold. A cloak of dark hue, with white lining hung from his shoulders, where it was fastened with a diamond clasp. Round his left arm was a band as of some order or decoration, the centre being a black opal set in a ring of diamonds. Upon his head was a helmet of steel, damascened in gold and silver; by his side hung a sword of immense size, and round his waist, in a jewelled belt, was a dagger with hilt also set with precious stones.
But remarkable and surprising as was the dress, the face, figure, and general air of the stranger were still more striking. The hair and beard were iron grey, but he showed no other signs of age.
Upright in carriage, muscular and supple in build, he exhibited in his movements the ease and grace which often accompany great strength, while his face had in it that rare combination of sternness and kindliness which denotes the man born to command. This was particularly noticeable in the eyes, which could change in a moment from the flash of anger, or contempt, to the tenderest sympathy and pity.
Towards this man Loronto felt strangely drawn. There was something in his glance which attracted and held him, and there was that in his general bearing and manner which commanded his admiration.
And as he looked upon him he noticed again the diamond clasp which fastened his cloak at the shoulder. It was exactly like his own, the one which Captain Woodham had taken from that drifting galley; the one which they believed had belonged to Loronto's father.
When they entered the region of the weed, some fancy had led Loronto to take this clasp from the safe in the cabin, in which it lay with the wonderful black opal, and place it in his pocket. An idea now came upon him like an inspiration. He drew it out and held it in the rays of the moon so that the other could see it.
"Perhaps, sir," he said, in an undertone, so that his words should not be heard by everyone, "perhaps this clasp, which I perceive resembles one you are wearing, may convey something to your mind."
The stranger turned to him in surprise at the words, and then, as his glance fell upon the clasp, it was evident that he was deeply moved. He started forward and seized it, gazing with amazement from the jewel to the face of its owner.
As the other had done, he turned Loronto's face towards the moonlight, and gazed into it fixedly.
"Your name, lad, your name?" he asked, quickly.
"I'm called Loronto," was the quiet answer.
At the same moment the man in the dark robe came running out of the wood, bringing with him three or four others. He heard the words.
"Loronto!" he cried. "I knew it! I felt sure of it the moment my old eyes fell upon his face! He has come to us, as I knew he would! He has come—the son of my dear dead master—the son for whom I have watched, and waited, and watched again during so many years! Friends, greet him, for he is your lawful ruler! There, before you, stands your lord, Prince Loronto!"
And overcome by his emotion, the faithful watcher sank upon the rock in a faint.
An hour later, Loronto and his friends were once more looking down upon the wondrous city which they had caught a glimpse of from the top of the hill they had ascended.
Now they were gazing upon it, not from that point, but from a hidden post of observation within the hill itself—a place to which they had been conducted through a secret underground passage-way by their new friends.
In the interval many things had been explained to them, but in a manner so hasty and fragmentary as chiefly to lead them to desire further enlightenment which could not then be given.
They had, however, learned the names of some of their hosts. Thus, the one Loronto had saved from his cowardly assailants was named Ralmedus. Formerly he had been a priest, but had seceded from the fraternity. Another—the one dressed in the suit of armour—was named Montamah. He was not a native of the land, it seemed, but had drifted there, many years before, in a derelict vessel. There he had, by some turn of Fate's wheel, or, more probably, through his own inherent gifts, risen to great power and influence in the land, and had been the trusted adviser and counsellor of Dominta, Loronto's father. Who he was exactly, or whence he came, was involved in some mystery. It was a matter to which he himself—as the new-comers afterwards found—never referred, and he was not one whom any man would care to question upon subjects he desired to keep to himself.
Other two there were whom the adventurers were not a little surprised to meet—the two men, namely, who had been shipwrecked with Jackson, and had drifted to the land with him and shared his captivity. Their names were Galston and Ridge—British sailors both, though the first-named seemed to have been a man of some education. Since Jackson's disappearance, Fate had played many strange pranks with these two human derelicts, of which more will be told later on. It was owing partly to them, and partly to Montamah, that Ralmedus and a few others had learned to speak English.
Loronto watched with dreamy eyes the city over which his father and his ancestors had ruled through many ages. He only now for the first time learned its name—Ireenia—for upon that, as well as many other points, the information given by the unfortunate Jackson before his death had been incomplete.
Ralph came to the side of his friend, and Loronto, looking up with a start, asked him where he had been. He laughed as he replied:
"While you've been dreaming I've been working, talking, asking questions. What has occurred to-night shows that these caverns, which have long been the secret meeting-place of our new friends, will be no longer safe for them; therefore they are anxious to remove some stores which they had accumulated here. These are now being carried on board the yacht. There are suits of armour, swords, spears, and so on; bundles of fireworks——"
"Fireworks!" exclaimed Loronto. "How can that be?"
"Oh, there are lots of things, I am told, we have yet to hear of, far more surprising than that. It is a land of many wonders—so they declare. As to fireworks—well, have we not been told that they were known to the Chinese two thousand years ago? So why should it not be the same with this ancient people?"
"That is reasonable, certainly. Anything else?"
"Why, yes, here's a rum thing. That old johnny we went forth to save——"
"You mean Ralmedus—don't laugh at him——"
"Nay, my dear Lorry, I am full of admiration and wonder at the old joker's-er—I mean the grand old man's—patience and pertinacity. The fact that certain channels to the sea are open at intervals is naturally well known to the folk here—and every time they have been open the dear old jo—I mean Ralmedus—has kept a watch, believing that the lost Jackson would return bringing you with him."
"How do you mean? How could they guess——"
"That's just the wonder of it. The old galley Captain Woodham saw was afterwards found, it would seem, by them very much as the Captain left it; but Jackson had gone—so had you—so had your father's cloak with the diamond clasp; and last, but not least, the crown of the Black Opal, as they call it, had disappeared also. Thus they guessed that strangers had found the galley and carried off all that was missing. The question was, would Jackson—or, at least, would you—ever return? The old—I mean Ralmedus, prophesied—and he prophesied that you would return. To show his belief in his own predictions, he has watched and watched through the years—and now that his prophecy has been fulfilled the dear old chap is beside himself with joy—as they all are, in fact. In particular, they are crowing over the fact that you have brought back the much prized Crown of the Black Opal, for it will give them and you, it seems, a great advantage over your enemies. Their leader is one named Demundah. He is the present ruler of the country—uncrowned, however, because the crown was missing, and by their ancient laws no other crown—not even a good paste imitation—may be used in its stead. The old chappie—I mean Ralmedus—and his little band of stalwarts have come here to secret meetings, whenever the channels were open, expressly in the hope of being the first to meet you and so prevent your unwittingly falling into the clutches of your enemies. Strange to say, this particular night, of all nights—after their remaining unsuspected for so many years—some of Demundah's guards got to have an inkling of the matter and lay in wait for them."
"That is strange, indeed! But what wonderful devotion to my father's memory on the part of Ralmedus and his friends does this show! How, then, came Ralmedus, however, to miss seeing the yacht as we came across the open water in the bright moonlight?"
"Why," returned Ralph, with an air, half-puzzled, half-humorous, "I think that the old Johnny—he is a regular old brick—but I think that he must be a bit daft—off his head, you know. He saw us coming right enough; but thought we were—what do you think?"
"Goodness knows!" answered Loronto wonderingly. "No doubt our outlandish disguise puzzled him——"
"Not at all; he says he merely thought we were a—a—something or other—he mentioned some name, but I have forgotten it. It amounts, however, to this, that he took us for a real monster, and so—thought nothing of it!" And Ralph burst out laughing. "Mustn't he be a bit daft?"
Loronto looked at his chum in astonishment. "Took us for a real live monster?" he exclaimed. "What on earth does that mean?"
"I suppose he meant to imply that there are, in this queer country, real monsters as big and as awful-looking as my theatrical get-up—and that they are sufficiently common to cause no particular surprise if one is seen taking a promenade in the sweet moonlight alone."
"It sounds most extraordinary!" Loronto cried, in growing wonder; but ere he could pursue the matter further, Montamah entered the chamber where the two were talking.
"See!" said he, pointing through the well-screened window in the rock, "yonder are the grand illuminations in honour of your rival—the usurper, Demundah. To-night's fête is in his honour. Now the firework display is about to begin. You can watch it for a few minutes, and then we ought to start. Everything is on board your vessel in readiness."
As he spoke, there came across the water the sound of crackling reports and detonations, coloured fires burst out here and there, and rockets ascended into the air.
"They understand how to make good rockets, at any rate," observed Ralph, admiringly. "Those to the left are as fine as any I ever saw. They seem to be pleasing the crowd, too, judging by the cries of delight——"
"They are not cries of that sort," exclaimed Montamah, hurriedly, anxiety evident in his tone. "Ha! I feared so! Do you see those blue fireballs going up? That means danger for us! One of those who first attacked you to-night probably got away and has given the alarm. Quick! Follow me! We must hasten!"
When they reached their vessel they found that she had cast her skin, so to speak. She was once more the trim private yacht. This alteration had been made by the advice of Montamah.
They embarked upon her without further incident, and she put off from the shore, steering in a direction pointed out by Montamah, who now practically took command, as by general consent. She was headed across the open water, following a course to the east of the channels through which they had come.
They carried with them a dozen of Montamah's followers—rough, sturdy warriors in a dress partly of leather or buskin and partly of plate armour. Their only arms were swords or spears.
Besides these, there were some half-dozen prisoners captured from the party who had attacked them on shore. They had been searched and their arms taken from them, and they were loosely bound together.
"Captain," said Montamah, "I want you to lend me a rifle, and select a dozen of your best rifle shots to aid me, and to do as I shall direct."
"Let us make two out of the dozen—we can shoot," said Loronto, indicating his chum and himself. "The Professor can shoot, too—and, for the matter of that, so can the Captain——"
"I want him to make play with your cannon," was the reply. "Ah! See! They are beginning!"
From the high ground on the shore they had left, a stream of fire and sparks shot up into the air like a very big, heavy rocket. It reached out, as it were, towards them, and then the trail of light disappeared, leaving only a solitary, fiery red ball, which remained suspended in the air and travelled towards them like a sort of floating star. It seemed to travel slowly for a projectile, yet it moved faster than the yacht.
"You see that floating light," cried Montamah. "Aim at it; try to hit it, and any other that comes within range. If it touches your ship it will burn a hole clean through her; while if it touches the water near us it will surround us in a mist so dense that one can scarcely breathe. Round the headland yonder, perhaps, or elsewhere out of sight, hundreds of men in their war-galleys are waiting till this mist enshrouds us. Then they will issue forth and attack us, and we shall have but little chance against the numbers of desperate men they will hurl upon us."
As he spoke he fired at the red star, and evidently must have hit it, for it exploded with a sharp hissing report and disappeared. There was some hissing where pieces dropped into the water, and a few jets of steam shot up; and that was all. The "Long Tom" boomed out at the same moment, sending a shell at the place the rocket had sprung from.
Meantime, other rockets flew out from various points, and, despite more shells sent in reply, red stars floated through the air in several directions. Most of them were fired so as to get windward of the vessel, or to pass over their heads, and it was to these that the party of sharpshooters, under the direction of their leader, devoted their chief attention. Many of them were struck and dispersed harmlessly, but, in spite of all they could do, one or two here and there dropped directly in the vessel's path. No sooner did they come in contact with the water than masses of heavy, low-lying vapour arose, which hung in compact clouds, almost like something solid.
Yet there was no enemy anywhere to be seen. Their cannon, their Maxims, their rifles, their search-lights, were all useless.
Captain Woodham grew angry as he vainly tried to head the gathering banks of vapour, and to stop the rocket firers. Each time a rocket appeared, "Long Tom," sent a shell hurtling through the air towards the place from which it had started, till the gathering mist prevented his seeing them. But still the sound of them could be heard—now here, now there—though they could no longer be seen.
The yacht was stopped, and now lay motionless upon the water, in the centre of a great circle of vapour which had already shut out the view beyond, and was closing in upon all sides. Slowly it spread towards the vessel in heavy, rolling masses, suggestive of the writhing forms of phantom serpents hungering to enclose her in their fatal folds.
The moon was setting, and as it grew darker there was a strange, brooding silence, broken only by an occasional rifle shot when one of the floating red stars showed through the banks of fog and came within range.
Leaving the sharpshooters to deal with these, and thus keep a clear space round the yacht as long as possible, Montamah held a hurried consultation with Captain Woodham as to their next proceedings.
At his instance the Wyvern was once more metamorphosed, and took on again the likeness of a hideous, scaly monster.
By the time the change had been effected, the red fire-balls had ceased to appear, and the marksmen left on the watch could see nothing around them save the banks of thick fog.
"What is that noise?" Ralph asked of Montamah.
Upon the still air had risen a confused murmur, which seemed to swell in volume each minute.
"It is the sound of our enemies gathering round us in the mist," was the reply. "They are completing their circle, and hope to hem us in."
"Can't we make a dash upon some of them and give 'em a bit of a lesson?" Loronto put in impatiently. "It seems rather weak to wait here idle while they are quietly perfecting their little arrangements!"
"We shall do better by waiting till the moon has quite gone," the other answered quietly. "My plan is then to double back and break through their line behind us, which is pretty certain to be weaker than that in front of us. They saw a ship disappear in the mist in one direction. If now they see what, in the darkness, will seem to be a startling and unexpected apparition going in quite a different direction, they will be more likely to clear out of its way, and hasten off to make sure of the capture of the ship, which they will suppose to be still struggling in the mist. That this plan should have a fair trial it is necessary that there should be no more shooting on our side, and no sign of any living person on board."
"Good for you!" said Ralph approvingly. "It sounds a likely plan. The only thing I don't like about it is that it looks like hiding from the beggars. They'll think we're afraid of 'em."
"It will save our ammunition if it succeeds," said Montamah. "We shall be glad of it later on, and my advice is not to fire a single shot except you are compelled. The stores you have brought are not inexhaustible, and by and by they may be worth more than their weight in gold to us."
There could be no gainsaying the wisdom of this advice, and the young fellows said no more, but watched in silent curiosity the next proceedings of their new friend and his followers. From amongst the various packages they had brought on board, they now selected certain bundles from which, when they were opened, there rolled out on the deck a number of what seemed to be dominos, or masked head-dresses.
"Quick!" exclaimed Montamah to Captain Woodham. "Call up your men! Every man must don one of these!"
"What in thunder may they be?" demanded the astonished skipper.
"Masks; and unless you wear them the chances are you will never get through yonder fog alive!" was the enigmatical answer.
The professor would have paused to examine the curious appliances, but Montamah was insistent, and a few minutes later all were attired in the strange headgear. It consisted of a headpiece with a mask attached, which fitted closely over the face and fastened at the back with straps. The orifices which were left to breathe through were filled in with some highly aromatic fibrous material, which, Montamah explained, acted as a neutraliser of the noxious vapours they were about to pass through. For the most part these head pieces were of black, and plainly made, but some were fashioned with high ear-pieces and snouts roughly resembling the heads of animals, giving the wearers a grotesque and hideous appearance.
These preliminaries arranged, the "turtle back," which could be turned over so as to completely cover the whole deck from stem to stern, was drawn across, and the order was given to move slowly ahead.
Quietly, almost silently, the vessel travelled round the ever-narrowing ring where the air was comparatively clear, and then entered the dense masses of vapour, heading now in a direction almost opposite to that which she had previously pursued.
Montamah stood with Captain Woodham beside the steering wheel, and directed their course by the compass, peering through observation windows placed in a sort of conning-tower; stopping the engines now and again, and turning on or on, as he deemed best, the two searchlights which glared from the great "eyes" in the figurehead.
Practically nothing, however, could be seen. The mist enshrouded them completely, and its stifling effects became speedily felt amongst those on board, many of whom began to cough, and sneeze, and half choke, notwithstanding the virtues of the protecting masks.
But though nothing was to be seen, it soon became manifest that their enemies were drawing nearer, for the low murmur had grown into a confused roar of shouts and cries, mingled with the blowing of horns and beating of drums.
These noises increased in volume every minute, and at last sounded so loud that it was evident there must be quite a large number of people close to the yacht. Still nothing was to be seen save the intermittent gleam of the electric lights, as they now and then shot their beams into the dense fog.
Then a sudden uproar just ahead, louder than anything yet heard, told that they had been sighted by their enemies. The clamour increased, and above it all could be heard yells and shouts, some as of rage and defiance, but many as of terror and panic.
Loronto and Ralph, peering out by Montamah's side, saw a strange vision of ghostly galleys filled with armed men who were frantically yelling, gesticulating, and brandishing spears and swords, bows and arrows. All wore masks, some of the most fantastic design, making the whole scene appear weird and unreal.
Then came a rattling sound as a flight of arrows struck the light iron "turtle back," and glancing off, fell with a hiss into the water.
Then, with every symptom of astonishment and headlong panic, the galleys fell back on each side, leaving a lane straight ahead which was almost clear. But two of them obstinately refused to move, and defiantly rained arrows at the advancing foe.
Montamah now made the signal previously agreed upon, the skipper touched a lever, and the "monster" shot forward at full speed.
There were two or three crashes, followed by grinding and scraping sounds as the vessel forced her way onwards. Shrieks, yells, piercing outcries, were heard all around for a few moments; then the vessel seemed to shake herself free, and giving a great bound, passed on through the mist, leaving the wrecked vessels and their struggling crews, and the whole array of shouting enemies behind her.
Blindly, on through the darkness, cleaving her way through the choking mist, ploughed the stout craft, those on board trusting implicitly to the guidance of the one who had shown himself so well able to lead.
Gradually the vapour grew thinner, and after a while they met a welcome breeze which cleared it completely away. The vessel's speed was reduced, electric lights on the deck were turned up, and the adventurers were able to see one another. Next, the queer head-dresses were cast aside, and the wearers were once more free to breathe the fresh air.
"Well!" cried Woodham, drawing a long breath, "we're well quit o' yonder crowd o' yelling varmints at any rate! Blame me if I ever came across the likes o' such a crowd, though I've met with some queer fish in my time! Phaugh! I was nearly spiflicated with that queer arrangement over my face. Did we really want the things after all?"
The answer came in a very practical form, for just then there was a stir forward and a sailor came running aft. Two of his mates, it appeared, either out of bravado, or longing for fresh air, had been imprudent enough to remove their masks, with the consequence that they were then lying unconscious on the deck—whether dead or not the others could not tell.
"I will attend to them," said Montamah gravely. "It may be that I can revive them if they are not too far gone."
He hurried off with the man and the Professor, and the two chums followed, full of grave interest—which became graver still when Montamah, after a brief examination, declared that one of the two was already dead. Fortunately, however, he was in time to save the other, who presently revived under his ministrations.
This ghastly illustration of the nature of the danger they had passed through made the friends look wonderingly at one another as they made their way aft again to the skipper.
Professor Henson was perhaps the most puzzled and bewildered of them all. He was fain to admit that he was unprepared with any scientific theory that would explain the phenomena he had witnessed.
"Now we can appreciate still more the action of our friends who have watched for our coming with such faithful devotion," said Loronto, "and the service they rendered us in doing so. Snakes! Where should we have been if we had blundered unwarned into such a hornet's nest!"
"It's all a mystery to me," Professor Henson confessed. "I don't understand it at all! Why could we not have run on at full speed in the first place and got beyond their reach at once?"
"Whatever we did, the fireballs would have got ahead of us," Montamah explained. "The galleys you saw, too, were ahead of us, lying in wait to attack us, whichever way we had gone, and would have come to close grips directly we were entangled in the mist. Then, again, at a high speed, the vibration of the vessel would have made it more difficult to disperse those balls which came near us, and we should have run great danger of being set on fire and sunk that way."
"I see," returned the Professor meditatively. "And how, then, do we stand now? The Captain has stopped the ship, I note, and is going to alter our rig again, which signifies, I presume, that we are out of danger here. Is that so?"
The other nodded in assent. "So far as the fireballs are concerned, yes."
"Why?" inquired the persevering scientist.
"Because their rockets are fired from holes bored in the rock. These people have no cannon, or rocket tubes, as you understand them, but they have invented this ingenious plan for firing heavy charges of explosives. Their firing tube is simply a hole bored in the solid rock, much as miners in your country drill a hole for blasting-powder."
Henson regarded the speaker with fresh interest, and smiled.
"You speak of 'my country' as though you knew all about it," he said quizzically. "You have been there, then? You seem pretty well versed in the sciences for a recluse!"
Montamah shook his head. "You must not forget," said he, "that I have lived here only a part of my life. Previous to that I had wandered much about the world. As to the sciences, I am sadly behind the times, I expect, so far as the outer world is concerned. I doubt not that discoveries which were new to me then are old-fashioned to you now, and I know nothing of what has been discovered since.
"Upon this craft of yours alone I have already noted many curious inventions which are new to me, and which I shall desire to have explained to me later on. To take only one instance, all the vessels I ever saw which did not use sails were propelled by steam produced by coal fire. Here, I observe you employ mineral oil——"
"I can easily explain how that came about," Ralph volunteered. "The man Jackson happened to mention to Captain Woodham that there was no coal in this country, but that petroleum was plentiful. So I advised the Captain to have engines accordingly."
"That was fortunate," observed Montamah, "for Jackson was right, and a steam vessel which depended upon coal would have been useless here. As it is, you need not fear running short of fuel. But I may say, perhaps, that by way of compensation for losing touch with the discoveries and inventions of the outer world I have learned some things here which will be new to you, and which, I think, will surprise you in turn."
"I am beginning to think so," said the Professor. "Well, I am open to be taught. I am burning with interest and curiosity."
By the time they rejoined the Captain he had turned back the "turtle" covering and the deck was once more open to the sky. The stars were twinkling overhead, and there were signs that the dawn was near. So far as could be seen, they were out of sight of land, or if there were any near it was not discernible in the dim light.
Montamah scanned the surface of the water upon every side with a searching glance which had in it such evident signs of uneasiness and anxiety that Ralph asked him what it was he feared.
"So far as I can see," he added, "we have outdistanced our enemies and left them hopelessly behind us. They cannot now catch us up. But even if they did we need not fear a scrap with them here in the open. You say we are beyond the reach of their clever little inventions——"
"Beyond reach of their rockets and the deadly mist, yes," returned Montamah; "but they have other means of attack not less to be feared. Still, I am glad to say I see no sign of any foe about at present. If once we get past a certain point, a few miles ahead of where we now are, we shall be safe; but I would prefer to negotiate it by daylight. There are rocks and currents which make it a dangerous place to navigate in the dark."
Captain Woodham, who had been busy giving orders, now turned to Montamah as though to ask him a question, when from the look-out there came a hail which caused no small astonishment.
"Theer she blows!"
"Eh? What?" cried the startled skipper. "Why bless my lee scuppers, what's the man talking about!" He called to his mate: "Oatly!"
"Ay, ay, sir!"
"Who's that hailing? What sort o' green land-lubber have ye set on watch? Seme fool that thinks he sees something very like a whale——"
"Theer she blows!" came again from the unseen watchman. "A 'eadin' straight fur the ship. Look out, cap'n! She means mischief!"
There was heard a low, rushing, roaring sound, as of some great body forcing its way through the water, and, looking in the direction from which it came, the adventurers saw with amazement a column of water and spray travelling at a tremendous rate and evidently, as the watchman had warned them, making straight for the yacht.
Captain Woodham hurriedly bawled out one or two orders—or, rather, made the attempt. Ere, however, more than half a dozen words had left his lips there was a tremendous shock, and a mass of water and spray rattled on the deck. The vessel trembled from stem to stern and heeled over as though about to capsize.
There followed a scene of wild confusion; men were jostled one against the other, rolled against the bulwarks, flung upon the deck. The electric light went out, and for a few seconds all was in darkness. Then the yacht righted, the lights flashed out again, and the adventurers pulled themselves together; those who had fallen got upon their feet, assisted thereto by their more fortunate companions.
"Great Scott! What was that?" cried Captain Woodham. "Was that lubber right? Did he sight a whale?"
"'Twas a waterspout, I fancy," hazarded Ralph.
"A tidal wave, I feel sure," the Professor declared.
"'Twas the great sea serpent hisself, sir," Peter Roff solemnly avowed, as he helped one of the sailors to his feet. "What a chance we've missed to bag such a fine spec'men, sir! But he's gone, sir—he's gone! I saw 'un dive!"
Nobody had any clear idea of what had happened. Some declared for one thing, some for another; and as to the proximate cause there were the most confused and conflicting opinions.
Each one seemed to have a different version to give of what had been seen or had not been seen, and in the end all that was certain seemed to be that the vessel had most fortunately survived some terrible danger, and that the danger itself, whatever it was, had passed on and left them unhurt.
But even as to this they were wrong, for when the captain, after a brief examination and a good look round, gave the order to go ahead it was found that the engines could not be started.
Rixon, the chief engineer, came on deck to report. The shock the vessel had received had started some bolts and thrown the machinery out of gear, he explained, and it would take some little time to repair the damage.
"I'll come and have a look at it," said the Captain, and he went below, accompanied by Ralph and Montamah.
Loronto and the Professor, left to themselves, discussed over again the question what it was that had struck the ship, the while that they swept the water on all sides with their glasses, as the dawn appeared and the rising sun enabled them to get a better view of their surroundings.
In the distance, in the direction in which they had been heading, rose a wild, barren shore with mountainous rocks and precipices so steep that it was difficult to believe it possible to scale them. As a matter of fact, they afterwards found that their surmise as to this was correct, but for the time being they were more interested in what they could see on their own side than in speculating as to what might lie beyond.
Turning from their survey of this shore, they could see little on either side of them, save a small, low-lying islet, a mile or so away, off the weather bow. There was also, between this islet and the yacht, a large drifting mass, a sort of floating island of driftwood and weed intermingled. Upon this here and there could be seen a few sea-birds, fluttering about as though busy feeding or nesting.
Astern they could yet distinguish the dark, ugly bank of deadly vapour from which they had so recently escaped. It was hanging over the water like some great brooding thing of evil.
From the sombre depths of this fog bank there now emerged a fleet of small vessels filled with warlike crowds, who raised a great outcry as they caught sight of the yacht lying motionless upon the water.
"We haven't shaken them off, after all, it would seem," muttered Loronto, surveying the martial array through his glasses. "We may have the satisfaction of a set-to with them even yet, perhaps."
"It is to be hoped we shall get our repairs done before they come up with us," the Professor rejoined. "It may be a more serious matter than you think for if we have to fight them while our ship is disabled. Peter, go below and report to the Captain that our enemies are in sight, and bring us word how the repairs are progressing."
"Ay, ay, sir!" answered Peter, who had been lounging near, gazing idly over the taffrail. "Beggin' pardon, sir, I doan't like the looks o' yonder lot o' drift."
"Why, what's the matter with it, Peter?" his master asked in surprise.
"Dunno, sir. Can't say I notices anythin' I can ezactly lay 'old of, so ter speak, but I doan't like the look o' the thing, somehow."
He went off to execute his errand, however, and the two observers, after a glance at the drifting mass, turned again to watch the oncoming vessels.
"Look yonder! See! What are those great birds?" suddenly cried Loronto.
Overhead there had come into view a wonderful sight. A number of birds of extraordinary size, pure white in colour, sailed slowly upwards, their lustrous plumage taking an exquisite pink hue, changing to a salmon flush as it caught the beams of the rising sun.
"They must be swans!" exclaimed the scientist. "But what immense creatures! I. never heard of birds of such a size!"
They watched the birds with absorbed interest as they rose high in the heavens and winged their way towards the great rocky rampart which lay ahead of the yacht. Very stately and beautiful they appeared as they floated high above the dark precipices, and many startled exclamations of admiration burst from the wondering observers who stared after them long after they had passed out of sight.
Then they turned once more to look, at their distant enemies, who could now be clearly seen in the sunlight.
The sun's rays flashed and sparkled as they fell upon polished armour and glistening golden banners, or caught upon the dripping oars as they dipped and rose with slow, rhythmical precision.
"They are coming on pretty fast!" exclaimed Loronto. "I think I shall go down and warn our friends myself," and he hastened away after Peter; the Professor, after a few seconds of hesitation, following him.
It was some little time ere the repairs were finished, and the leaders of the party returned to the deck. Their surprise was considerable to find that while their enemies were rapidly nearing them on one side, they had all but drifted on to the floating island of weed and wood on the other.
The Captain shouted words of anger at the watch for allowing the mass to come so close without warning him. Then he gave orders to load up the guns and prepare to repel a possible attack.
"If," said he, "we should get our propeller choked with any of this drifting stuff, it may take us all our time to fight our way clear."
While his orders were being obeyed, and the men were taking up their posts, the yacht and the drifting island drew yet nearer to each other.
"Batten me down!" cried the Captain angrily, as he looked out over the tangled mass. Eyeing it keenly, he realized for the first time its unusual extent—there seemed to be an acre or two of it. "It'll take us pretty well half an hour to get round this stuff, and we shall be lucky if we don't get the propeller choked up with it before we get away!" he grumbled.
He gave the word for the helm to be put over, and the engine to be started. There were a few revolutions of the screw, and then it stopped.
"What in thunder's the matter now?" yelled the exasperated skipper.
Rixon's head appeared above the deck.
"Something's jammed the screw, sir," he declared.
A noise could be heard coming, as it seemed, from under the stern. A rush was made to the taffrail to discover what was going on, and at the same moment there arose around the boat a chorus of wild yells, as of a thousand shrieking fiends let loose at one sweep.
The drifting mass suddenly became alive with human beings. Nearly nude, armed for the most part with only sword or dagger, which they often carried in their teeth, these unexpected assailants swarmed forward and threw themselves into the water by dozens, ere the ship's company could recover from their surprise sufficiently to use their firearms. From all sorts of nooks and crannies in the drifting "island" they appeared, and, slipping into the water, dived out of sight in an instant, only showing a mouth now and again to draw a breath and instantly diving again like "dab chicks," till they rose in crowds close under the ship's counter, where they were for the moment comparatively safe.
Some carried thick ropes with hooks at the ends, evidently designed to assist in climbing up the sides of the yacht, and ere a minute had elapsed some of these had been flung upward and caught in the taffrail, and the reckless assailants were climbing up them as nimbly as monkeys, and striving to gain the deck.
It proved anything but an easy matter to beat back these determined enemies, or to dislodge their ropes. The latter were made of some material so tough that it resisted the sharpest knives, while the hooks were surrounded with an infinite number of smaller hooks, sharp and barbed, which tore the hands of those who touched them.
For a space there was a scene of the wildest tumult, the defenders, unable to bring their most deadly and effective weapons into play, fighting as best they could, each upon his own initiative, and trusting to whatever weapon came handiest, whether cutlass, revolver, or merely, as in many cases, a knife or handspike. But the confusion did not last long. The burly skipper, active and dashing, yet cool and resourceful, backed up by the exertions of Loronto and his chum, gradually brought order and discipline to bear. After beating off the first crowd of desperate boarders, he had cradles brought out, which he swung, some over the bulwarks, and some over the stern, and into these seamen rushed armed with quick-firing revolvers.
Loronto sprang into one of these and Ralph into another, and with a few picked companions they made such play with their pistols that they speedily cleared the ship's sides. Then, leaving their men to carry on the work there, they climbed back to the deck and repaired to the stern.
"We must free the screw," Ralph cried. "Come on, Lorry! Where's Peter? We shall want someone to load the pistols and hand them down to us! There's no time to lose. If we don't look sharp we shall have yonder yelling pack on to us with their warships and their bows and arrows before we can budge an inch."
"Good for you, Ralph! See what you can do to get the screw clear!" cried Woodham. "I can keep those gentry at a respectful distance for a good while yet!"
It was not an easy matter to get at the propeller, however, for the reckless swimmers, beaten off elsewhere, and fully aware of the importance of keeping the yacht helpless, crowded to the stern, and for a while succeeded in rendering all attempts to get near the screw too dangerous to persist in. Their dexterity in the water was marvellous; the way in which they threw their knives, too, compelled those in the cradles to exercise constant vigilance.
For a while there was little to be done beyond the endeavour to drive the attackers off. Numbers were killed or wounded, and at last both the strength and the courage of the survivors gave way, and they suddenly dived and made off in a panic.
While Loronto and one party remained above on guard to watch for any desperate swimmer who might return and deliver a treacherous stroke, Ralph was lowered to the water level: and from there the young engineer boldly slipped into the water beside the screw.
Meantime the sound of heavy firing on deck told that the crowd of galleys had come within range, and that Captain Woodham was sending them his messages. But though they made many gaps in the ranks of the enemy, and hopelessly wrecked some of the vessels, the rest came pluckily on nevertheless, and showed a determination to close in and try to rush the disabled vessel.
Captain Woodham peered over the stern.
"Making any progress, lad?" he asked of Loronto. "The beggars look like coming to close quarters, in spite of all we can do. We can't slew 'Long Tom' round so's to bring it to bear. If they get nearer they'll be sending their darned arrows your way, I'm thinking."
"Ralph's doing his best down there," Loronto replied, without looking up. "We've only just beaten 'em off so's to have fair play."
"I'm having a couple of boats got out. They're coming round to help you," said the Captain, as he went back to his men.
The noise from the approaching galleys grew louder every moment. Horns, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and gongs mingled their din with fierce snouts and hoarse yells, with shrieks of pain or rage as the bullets sped amongst the advancing host, and with furious screams of defiance and loud threats of vengeance.
To all this Loronto paid little attention. His eyes were watching the water below him, where Ralph, after rising to the surface to take breath, had dived again to get down to the screw.
A moment after, Loronto, throwing aside his pistol, leaped in too, close beside the place where his chum had disappeared. His quick eye had caught sight of a lurking foe shooting across under water to attack the worker.
Quick and wily as was the foe, however, Loronto was quicker. His plunge carried him down through the water plump onto the swimmer, whose throat he seized with an iron grip just as he was about to strike a knife into Ralph's back.
No need was there to struggle for the knife which the adversary carried in his hand. In the fury of his rage Loronto gave but one shake and released his hold; and as he rose to the surface the fellow sank beneath him without so much as a struggle. His neck had been broken.
But as the victor gained the surface, he was assailed by two fresh foes who had watched what had occurred from a hiding-place under the ship's counter, where they had been out of the sight of the sailors in the swinging cradles.
They each carried a dagger, and as Loronto was unarmed, it might have fared badly with him but for Ralph's timely intervention. He had just come up to take breath, and, glancing about him, saw what was going on.
Loronto was engaged in a brief struggle with a man whom he was forcing under water, but another was behind him almost near enough to strike. Already his dagger flashed in the sunlight as it was raised in the air for the blow. The next moment he was pulled backward, and was fighting for breath in Ralph's hands.
Just then a boat came round the yacht's stern, bearing the Professor with his faithful henchman and a party of sailors.
They hastened to give their assistance to the two chums, but it was not needed, for ere they reached them both encounters were over.
The assailants, clever swimmers though they were, were no match in strength or agility for the two young athletes—and they had both gone down to follow the first.
A second boat now appeared containing, besides another armed party of sailors, Rixon and a couple of mechanics.
Ralph, however, refused to let them finish what he had begun.
"You're not wanted here, Rixon," he declared, laughing. "Go back to your engines and get ready for a start. I've nearly cleared the screw. One or two more dives will do it, if you chaps will only keep those swimming johnnies from interfering."
"We'll do that, Ralph, never fear," Loronto called out, as he climbed into the boat beside the Professor, and took a revolver from a seaman. "You can trust Peter and me to account for any more that come near you."
Ralph dived again, and while Loronto and two or three vigilant watchers scrutinized the vicinity for signs of any fresh attack, others turned their attention to the oncoming crowd of vessels.
Suddenly, amid the general clamour, there arose an even greater outburst which, as it seemed to betoken some new move on the part of their enemies, drew the interested attention of the defenders.
"What's the game now, I wonder?" growled Captain Woodham, as he stood on the deck beside Montamah. "What's that white thing flopping about over yonder?"
"It is one of the big swans we have in this country," returned Montamah. "You will do well to shoot it if possible before it gets overhead. The idea is to drop something upon us—an explosive for choice, I expect."
"Deuce take their clever little notions," grumbled Woodham, taking up a rifle. "Oatly!"
"Pass the word to look out for any sky-scraping Mother Goose, and make the feathers fly."
"Ay, ay, sir," cried the mate. "And what about a witch on a broomstick, sir, if it comes our way? Shouldn't be surprised at anything in this outrageous country," he added, under his breath.
Oatly and the Captain were old and tried friends, and the mate was given to taking a liberty with his chief now and again. He had been, it will be remembered, with Woodham when Loronto had been taken from the derelict galley. From that time he had always believed that if there were any inhabited region in the midst of the weed, it must be a land of necromancy and witchcraft.
From the midst of the throng of boats there now rose, not one, but two huge birds, flapping their wings with a loud whir as they strove to make a start. What was the astonishment of the waiting observers to see that they were harnessed together, and that they carried up with them a human figure swinging in a sort of cage which dangled a few feet below them!
Slowly, heavily, they soared upwards, the man seeming to guide their movements by pulling at some thin cords attached to the necks of the monster birds.
So great was the surprise of the sailors that for a while they forgot to fire at the unexpected apparition, and merely stood and stared in stupid wonder.
At that moment Ralph came up, gasping and puffing from his exertions. He signed to his waiting friends that he had finished his task, and they assisted him into the boat.
"Great Jupiter! What're—those—johnnies?" he gasped, gazing in amazement at the two giant birds and their human companion.
They had already risen a good fifty feet or more straight in the air, and were moving in the direction of the yacht, when the Captain's voice was heard giving a sharp order. Half a dozen rifles rang out, followed, at an interval of a few seconds, by half a dozen more.
The devoted birds stopped in their flight, and their wings fluttered helplessly, there was a shriek from the man in the dangling cage, and something dropped from his nerveless hands.
At the same moment, birds, man, and all came down on the run; but even before they had fallen half way, there came a tremendous explosion from beneath, which hurled them again upwards, and scattered to the four winds a number of galleys and their unfortunate occupants.
The shock was so severe that it shook the yacht from stem to stern. A column of water shot up into the air, and this, in its fall, sent forth waves which swamped many of the galleys which had survived the explosion. The two boats lying beside the yacht were dashed against her side, and had a narrow escape of being stove in.
"Let's get aboard, Ralph!" exclaimed Loronto, horror and pity in his face. "We'd best hurry away if the screw will work. The longer we stay here the more bloodshed there will be!"
"They're 'hoist with their own petard,'" Ralph returned. "They seem to have some pretty ingenious ideas. They reckoned to drop that bomb, or whatever it was, on the yacht's deck, I suppose, little thinking that our rifles would never let 'em get overhead."
"True; but I can't forget that they are my subjects—or ought to be—and are fighting against me in ignorance," said Loronto, shaking his head.
When they had regained the deck he spoke to Montamah in the same strain, and asked him whether they ought not to try to succour some of the wounded before they left the scene.
Montamah laid his hand kindly on the young man's shoulder.
"Your feelings do you honour, my son," said he, "but your sympathy in the present case is thrown away. These people who are fighting against you are not the real populace—the workers in the country. They are their cruel oppressors—the instruments of the tyrant Demundah, and are as rapacious and as guilty as he is."
A few minutes later the yacht was travelling at full speed through the water, leaving the scene of the conflict far behind her; and the noise of the yelling crowds gradually grew less and less until it died away in the distance.
Then the adventurers turned their attention to what lay before them. The precipitous cliffs they had seen from afar loomed up higher and less inviting than ever as they drew nearer, until it began to look as though their further progress would be barred altogether.
Rocks showed above the water in many places, and the yacht slowed down as the navigation became more intricate. Presently they entered a winding channel, shut in on either side by rocky walls, where the water came down in a swirling current, and it was necessary to pick their way with extreme caution.
"Why, here is a river!" said Ralph. "Where does it come from?"
He asked the question of one of Montamah's followers, a good-looking young fellow in armour who, he had found, could talk a little English, which he had picked up from the two castaways. His name, he had told Ralph, was Kalma.
He seemed to take at once to the young engineer, and the two got on well together from the first. Kalma, it afterwards transpired, was one of Montamah's favourite officers, and he had, moreover, a turn for invention, so that the two found they had a good deal in common as regards their tastes and inclinations. When difficulty arose in consequence of the young Ireenian's limited stock of English, Galston, one of the two castaway sailors, was called in to assist.
Replying to the query concerning the river, Kalma surprised his questioners by declaring that he did not know where it came from.
"We know where it goes to—it flows, as you have seen, into the piece
of water we have just crossed, which we call the Sea of Markanda. But
where it comes from we do not know, beyond the fact that it flows out of that great rocky range you see in front of us. Our name for that range signifies a 'barrier'—since it is the great barrier on this side between our country and——" Here he hesitated.
"And what?" asked Ralph.
"I cannot tell you anything of my own knowledge. But I have heard my father—who has been dead many years—say that there is an inhabited country on the other side, and that formerly there was a way to and fro. Perhaps it was by water, or by a tunnel through the Barrier. At any rate our people and those on the other side were friendly. Then there was a great earthquake, and that somehow broke off the intercourse. Maybe it shifted the weed and stopped people from going round by water. As to the Barrier, it is absolutely unscalable, and no one has succeeded in crossing it.
"No one can get across—unless he can fly," he added slowly, "and as to that—well I will tell you, at another time, of a little secret of mine—an invention, if you will—a contrivance—which I hope may one day enable me to get to the top, and over, and to see what really lies upon the other side."
At this point the old man, Ralmedus, came on deck and approached the pair. The ex-priest had remained in the Captain's cabin throughout the previous exciting events, in a state of prostration. The actual, ultimate advent of the son of his former chief, watched for with such unswerving faith through so many years, had caused a sort of reaction, and the faithful old servant had yielded to Montamah's injunctions to take a long rest.
He had caught some of the talk, and he now joined in:
"Mallenthah! the River of Death! It is the River of Death!" he said, staring up the stream ahead of the yacht.
Ralph started, and glanced inquiringly at the old man. "What—what was that?" he asked wonderingly.
Ralmedus seemed not to hear, but gazed fixedly before him like one whose thoughts are far away.
Ralph regarded him curiously. It was the first time he had seen him by a good light, and as he looked he felt irresistibly drawn towards him. There was something at once noble and pathetic in the expression of the fine features—something almost unearthly in the fire that glowed in the deep-set eyes.
"What said you, sir?" he queried respectfully.
"He told you the name of the river," said Kalma in a low tone. "It is called Mallenthah, which means the 'River of Death'!"
"The River of Death!" repeated Ralph, somewhat awed by the young officer's tone and manner.
"I will tell you," the latter continued in the same subdued voice. "We shall enter shortly an immense Grotto in the mountain—a cave with a lake in it big enough to float many big ships such as this. It is our stronghold. Demundah and his people cannot attack us there. The river comes in at the other end and flows through the Grotto. It comes bubbling and foaming out of the dark rocks—seems to come out of the bowels of the mountain—we know nothing beyond that—and it brings with it many dead bodies—that is why it is called the River of Death!"
"Dead bodies!" repeated Ralph, astonished, "What bodies?"
"Bodies of animals of all kinds, the names of which I do not know in English. Ah! Galston can tell you better, perhaps."
At his call there came up to them the man Galston, one of the two English sailors who had come into the country with Jackson, and lived there ever since. As has been noted, he had been a man of some education. He was now an elderly man with grizzled hair and beard, still upright and active, and eyes with a humorous twinkle in them that not even his long and trying adventures had been able to subdue.
At Kalma's request, he explained further to the mystified inquirer:
"It's a queer business, sir," he declared, shaking his head. "A shocking
ugly business, that's the truth! It's been going on for many a year, I'm
told, an' if I hadn't seen it myself I should scarcely have believed it; so I
you're a bit incredulous like. But the fact is, that every now and then we come across the dead bodies of animals and birds and so on—monkeys, pigs, wild beasts—and sometimes people——"
"People!" cried Ralph horrified.
"Ay, just that, sir," replied the sailor, dropping his voice—"men—sometimes——"
"Great Heavens! This going on, you say, for years, and on one taking any notice?"
Galston shook his head. "No one can do anything, because we can't get beyond where the water rushes out—nor over them crags "—waving his hand in the direction of the "Barrier."
"I should have thought you'd have got over the top of those rocks somehow, and gone down the other side to find out what is there!"
"Not possible, sir—unless we had a balloon. Ridge an' I led a party once an' we tried for three weeks; but we were dead beat, an' had to give in."
"And you mean to tell me that dead bodies of men come floating down to you on that terrible river, and you've got so used to it that you take no notice?"
"We buries 'em," said the man. "We've buried quite a good few first and last."
"Awful! Incredible!" exclaimed Ralph. "But—tell me—what do they look like? Do they fall in and get drowned, think you?"
The sailor shook his head. "No, sir. They don't look like that——But see!" he broke off, "there's one floating past us now. It's a monkey."
Ralph looked over the side of the yacht, and there, sure enough, he saw the dead body of a monkey floating past. But it was the mere husk, as it were, like unto the shrunken form of an orange from which all the juice has been sucked.
"And—are they—all—like that?" he asked, in low, horrified accents.
"Yes, sir. An' what it means we none of us know. It's all a dreadful mystery."
"It's a mystery that ought to be hunted down and put a stop to!" cried Ralph, fascinated by the gruesome floating carcase and the thought of the grisly tale that it might tell if it could speak. "If I know anything of Loronto, he won't rest until he has got to the bottom of it—and I'm sure I shan't sleep soundly at nights until I've helped him to do it!"
"Yonder's the place they call the great Grotto, sir," said Galston, breaking in upon the chain of sombre thoughts in Ralph's mind. "That is the end of our journey."
Ralph turned and looked about. The stream had opened out into a broad sheet of water—a small lake—almost land-locked. Across one side of it stretched the great "Barrier" of rock, which towered up almost perpendicularly from the water to an immense height. Upon the other sides were strips of tawny sand, backed up by cool green woods and stretches of undulating grassland, shut in, in turn, by another chain of rocks which formed a sort of outer wall or rampart, effectually shutting off the little lake from the open water called the "Sea of Markanda."
At the foot of the lofty precipice, which rose sheer out of the water, a large, dark opening appeared, big enough for the yacht herself to sail in or out of it easily. This was the entrance to the "Grotto"; and it was defended by immense gates of open metal work which appeared to be of very ancient workmanship.
Many people could now be seen, some in canoes, or galleys, others scattered about upon the shore, engaged in fishing and other occupations; and in and out amongst the boats sailed some of the gigantic swans, of whose existence in the country the new-comers had already had ocular evidence. So tame were they that two or three could be seen harnessed to boats, which they towed round the lake for the amusement of children.
The Professor regarded these giant birds with intense interest and curiosity, and, coming up to Galston, asked him many questions concerning them.
"They are dying out as a race of wild birds," the sailor explained. "Those you saw this morning are the only wild ones left; they live somewhere the other side of what we call the 'Barrier,' and only visit this side sometimes at night, going back to their own country at dawn."
"They seem very docile and friendly," said the scientist, with enthusiasm. "Ralph! When we go away from here I must have a specimen to take back and exhibit to naturalists at home!"
As he turned away to look again at the strange creatures, Peter stepped up to Galston.
"Talkin' o' spec'mins, mister," he said in a low tone, "the mate, Mr. Oatly, who's a pal o' mine, believes as there's a few fine, old-fashioned witches hereabouts, if a party only knows wheer to look for 'em. He's anxious t' bag a spec'min, an' 'as given me the job t' pickle an' presarve it for 'im if I comes across one. Now, seein' as how you've lived heer a good many years—so I've larned—maybe you could put me up to a wrinkle as to wheer to look for 'em. You knows their haunts, p'raps. Only, doan't you say nothin' to the Perfessor about it.. He doan't b'lieve theer's sich things existin', an' Mr. Oatly an' me, we wants t' surprise 'im like."
Galston reflected, took his ancient pipe out of his mouth, and looked at it inquiringly, as though seeking information.
"You say you want the good, old-fashioned sort," he mused. "Nutcracker nose and chin?"
"That's the genius," Peter answered approvingly.
"Same species, mate," Peter chuckled.
"Mostly to be met on stormy nights, scootin' around in company with a broomstick and a black cat?"
"I sees you know the family!" exclaimed Peter enthusiastically. "Mr. Oatly says he's sure this be a land o' witchcraft, an' we argues therefore that theer must be witches. Can you take us to their haunts?"
Before Galston could reply further, the attention of the volatile Peter was attracted by a swarm of canoes and galleys which came crowding round the yacht, filled with a motley array of enthusiastic citizens waving flags and banners, beating drums, blowing trumpets, and shouting and cheering in token of welcome.
"They have been prepared for our coming," observed Montamah to Loronto, in answer to his look of surprise. "I signalled to the men on the look-out before we entered the river, and they passed on the news to our friends here. But though they already know that the 'big ship' is a friendly visitor, they little dream that it has brought the long-lost son of their former King. This is a piece of news I propose to announce at a formal meeting by and by."
The yacht did not stop, but flags were run up, and a salute fired from the cannon in acknowledgment of the friendly greetings, and then, passing on through the astonished and admiring crowd, she swept between the huge gates, which opened to receive her, and disappeared into the entrance of the great cave.
For a few minutes the voyagers could see nothing—the place appeared so dark after coming from the brilliant sunshine outside. Then, however, as their eyes grew accustomed to the semi-obscurity, they became aware that they were in an immense cavern, lighted, in some places, by artificial light, and in others by slanting shafts opening overhead which let in a certain amount of daylight here and there.
Within was another lake, smaller, of course, than that outside, but still of considerable extent, and round its sides were wide platforms of rock, which formed quays and landing-places, whereon stood many low buildings. These were ablaze with light, many people passed to and fro, and the sound of hammering and a certain vague hum conveyed the idea of a busy underground town, with workshops and warehouses.
Passing these slowly, the yacht still kept upon her way. Looking straight ahead, there could now be seen in the distance a sort of tunnel, screened off by iron bars, through which rushed swiftly a stream of water, tumbling and foaming on its way. A shaft of light, which entered by some opening overhead, made it look like a weird picture set in a frame of sombre rock. Loronto, who had now joined Ralph and Kalma, gazed at it wonderingly. Turning suddenly to port, the yacht left this underground river on her starboard side and plunged info deep shadow.
"See!" said Kalma to Ralph. "Yonder is the stream I told you of, the one which feeds the lake outside and issues from it again by the channel we came through. The grating you see is placed there to catch what comes down—the dead bodies. But sometimes they get drawn underneath and come to the surface far away."
"What is he talking about?" asked Loronto, who had not heard Kalma's former explanation. "What is that river? Where does it come from?"
Ralmedus, who had been standing by, still staring dreamily over the side of the vessel, turned suddenly, and, gripping Loronto's arm, pointed to the stream. He seemed for the moment like one possessed; his face was haggard and wild, and his glowing eyes, previously so sunken and deep-set, seemed to be ready to start out of his head. He cried out again, as he had done before:
"It is Mallenthah—the River of Death!" Then he added, still pointing excitedly, "There lies thy fate, thy destiny, lord! For ages men have asked what means this dread river, why does it bring us naught upon its bosom but foam, and death? It is a riddle, a mystery, to which many have sought the answer in vain. But it is written that some day there should come to us from the outer world one who shall be a stranger, yet shall fight our enemies; one who is of our own race, yet speaks not our tongue; one who shall come to us knowing nothing, yet shall make plain the great riddle of Mallenthah, the River of Death! And then—then——"
Here the old man put his hands to his face as though in pain, or to shut out some terrible sight. He swayed and seemed as if he were about to fall, but, recovering a little, he went on in hoarse tones:
"I see, yet I cannot see! I see many, many things—but what I see is not clear—it is blurred. There are strange—strange sights—fields of battle—with fighting hosts—fields of death—death in many strange, terrible forms; vile, crawling shapes; grisly, creeping phantoms—monsters of cruelty—hideous revelries—the whirling dance—the dance of screaming fiends—and midst it all there strides ever the stranger—the young lord! See! how they crowd about him and strive to seize him! How they fight, and claw, and gnash their teeth! Will he fall, or shall he prevail? Ah! It is all blurred—vague—shadowy! It fades, it fades! It is gone—gone—gone! And—I did not see!"
The speaker's frenzied tones had risen higher and higher till the last words had been uttered in a shrill scream; and once more the old man fell to the ground in a swoon.
He was picked up and borne tenderly back to the cabin, Montamah going with him to tend him. A few minutes later the latter returned to the deck.
"Is—is—he mad?" Ralph asked dubiously.
Montamah shook his head.
"He is a mystic," he answered, "a man of many strange, wild fancies. Yet true it is that many of his wildest prophesies have turned out true!"
"Aye, I can bear witness to that!" said Kalma. "So, indeed, can most of us!"
In the meantime the yacht had brought up alongside a landing place, where she was quickly made fast by willing hands.
"As snug a berth as if we were in one of the docks at Liverpool!" cried Captain Woodham. "Well," he went on, "we've arrived somewhere at last! Who'd have thought yesterday, when we were cruising about in the Caribbean Sea, that we should be moored to-day in such a place as this!"
"We've been through a lot in twenty-four hours," said Loronto thoughtfully. "I wonder what the future has in store for us?"
"Well, if it is to be anything at all like what that old chappie—I mean Ralmedus—was gabbling about," observed Ralph, "it certainly won't be wanting in excitement!"
Here Montamah turned and addressed Loronto and his friends:
"I bid you welcome, sirs," he said, with grave, old-world courtesy, "in my own name and that of my friends, to our dwelling. For the time being at all events, you will be our guests. Later on we shall be able to take counsel together and decide upon plans for the future."
Bidding them follow, he led the way ashore. Then, passing through a lane of attendants, mostly of martial mien and clad in armour, he conducted them through passages and galleries, up many flights of steps, all cut in the solid rock, till they came to a great wide corridor with many doors.
Two heavy, double doors were thrown open at their approach by armed guards, and they were ushered into an immense hall, where were a few men in shining armour. To these, speaking in their own tongue, Montamah introduced the voyagers, and, though the difference of language made any interchange of ideas practically impossible except through the slow agency of an interpreter, there was no mistaking the warmth of the welcome that was extended to the strangers.
Kalma took Ralph aside and led him through a door out onto a roomy terrace. Here, to his surprise, he had a view over the whole country, as far as eye could reach. Below was the small lake, with the boats and the great tame swans; beyond, the channel they had come through; and beyond this, again, the "Sea of Markanda," where their encounters of the previous night and early morning had taken place. Now, however, no trace of the hostile fleet was to be perceived. The foe had gone off entirely, and nothing was to be seen save the extensive sheet of water shining in the sun like burnished brass, and in the extreme distance a low, dim shadow, which Kalma pointed to as the land of Ireenia.
Nearer to them Ralph could now see the rocky ramparts which sprang from each bank of the channel of the river like a great wall, forming a natural outer fortification to the lake and its shores.
"How is it," Ralph asked, "that the war galleys did not follow us here?"
"Look at the entrance to the river," was the reply; and Ralph, peering through his glasses, saw, to his surprise, a succession of grated barriers extending across the channel, one behind the other, completely closing it to navigation.
"Why," exclaimed Ralph, "where did those things spring from?"
"From the bottom of the river," laughed Kalma. "We passed over them, and they rose up behind us. Our foes know from former experience that their vessels cannot pass up that channel, so they do not now make the attempt."
Late in that afternoon, after refreshment and rest, there was a formal council of Montamah's principal officers and adherents, to whom he explained who Loronto was—for he had said nothing about it at their meeting earlier in the day.
Great was the delight and enthusiasm with which the news was received. Old warriors who had fought under his father pressed forward with tears in their eyes to kiss Loronto's hand and swear fealty. Loronto, on his side not less moved, swore to do his utmost to avenge his father's death and to deliver the country from the oppression of the usurper Demundah.
But when they came to compare notes, and to discuss the question of how they were to go to work to secure the desired end, they were fain to confess that the difficulties in their way were terribly great.
Montamah's adherents all told amounted to but a few hundred fighting men, while their enemies were, it seemed, numbered by thousands. The voyagers had brought what at the time they had thought would be ample stores of arms and ammunition; but they were fain now to admit that they were likely to prove very inadequate to the task before them.
"We will show you our stores of arms and armour," said Montamah, and led them through many large halls, cut in the rock, filled entirely with suits of armour, swords, spears, and such like old-world arms, all kept in splendid condition.
"You see we have the whole necessary outfit for quite a numerous army," said he, "fully equal to that which our enemies possess."
"Yes, I see that; but where are the men?" asked Captain Woodham.
"We are in hopes that when the news of the arrival of the son of their late King gets about among the citizens of Ireenia, numbers will flock to our standard," was the answer. "The people have been for many years most grievously oppressed, ground down, and subjected to cruelties and barbarities too horrible even for me to tell you of. They are sunk in misery and despair, and wait but the opportunity to turn on their tyrants. That opportunity we must either be content to wait for, or we must create one for ourselves."
He led the party along more galleries and through many other spacious apartments, showing that the rock was extensively honeycombed with passages and chambers, all looking out over the "Sea of Markanda." The place formed, in fact, an impregnable fortress, with dwelling accommodation sufficient for a small host.
Then he unlocked heavy iron doors which gave access to their treasure vaults, and exhibited before the astonished eyes of his visitors gold and silver and precious stones, such as made them inclined to think their whole adventures must be a marvellous dream.
"These have been saved for your coming," Montamah declared, addressing Loronto. "There is no lack, you perceive, of what have been called the 'sinews of war.' It is for us, with our united councils, so to employ them as to turn them to the best advantage against our enemies."
Finally, he opened one more vault, where the lanterns carried by the attendants flashed upon a magnificent suit of armour, set with jewels of exquisite brilliancy. Beside it was a great two-handed sword, a bow of unusual dimensions with arrows to match, a number of costly robes and vestments, and a chair of state, or low throne, beautifully mounted with gold and precious stones.
Montamah and his officers uncovered in the presence of these, and the others imitated their example.
"Behold the armour of your father, and his robes and chair of state!" said Montamah sorrowfully.. "You see here all the regalia save two things—the Crown of the Black Opal—which happily you have brought with you—and the sceptre, which Demundah stole, and now has in his possession."
As Loronto, filled with emotion, reverently bowed his head, the others turned and silently quitted the chamber, leaving him alone with these memorials of the father whom he had never known.
Half an hour later the council was resumed. Loronto had the Crown of the Black Opal brought from the yacht and placed upon the table, together with his father's jewelled dagger, the diamond clasp, the clothes in which, as a child, he had been dressed when discovered in the floating galley, and all other relics which had been secured by Captain Woodham.
"This crown must be locked away and stored with the rest of my father's regalia," he declared; "there to remain until either I have avenged his murder and freed my country from the yoke of his murderers, or perished in the attempt!"
"Come we now to our first step," said Montamah, "which is to send forth an announcement of your arrival in the country, and a formal demand upon Demundah to make submission and yield to you your father's place."
"Yes—but—how can that be done?"
"If I sent a herald, or any ordinary messenger," returned Montamah, "he would probably not be believed, and in any case would assuredly be put to death with terrible torture. Fortunately, however, chance has placed in our hands some prisoners—Demundah's own people. We will release two of them, give them our written message to carry to their master, then put them in a canoe and let them make their way back. It is necessary to send two—one might not be believed."
The suggestion was adopted, and in accordance with it the prisoners were brought before the council and ordered to choose two of their number to return to their master as bearers of the letter. When this had been done Montamah addressed the two chosen.
"It is considered necessary," he said, speaking in their own language, "that ye should be able to testify to your master and his supporters of the truth of the message ye will bear. There," pointing to Loronto, "stands Prince Loronto, the son of your lawful king, who was done to death by your master and his confederates. Upon the table ye see the lost Crown of the Black Opal, which the great Providence above has restored to us with our prince. Beside it ye see also King Dominta's dagger, and other relics which have been brought back by his son after having been lost for so many years. All these things lie there before you; look well upon them, that ye may be able to testify to your master of the truth of the statements in the letter ye shall bear."
The two prisoners looked scowlingly and disdainfully, yet with evident interest, first at Loronto, then at the display upon the table, and from that back again to Loronto. Of the two men, one appeared to be but a common soldier, while his companion had the appearance of a person of some importance, and was evidently an officer. His face was not ill-looking when in repose, but its expression was now anything but amiable, and his eyes had in them a sombre, revengeful light.
In reply to Montamah's questions, this man had given his name as Palaynus, and he had admitted that he was one of those in close attendance upon Demundah.
"So much the better," had been Montamah's comment to his colleagues; "his master will be the more likely to believe his report."
The man stood now gazing with a look of haughty defiance at Loronto as the latter talked in a low tone with Kalma, who had been translating all that went on. Then he took a step forward as though to get a better view. Had Loronto been looking at him, he might have noted the dangerous gleam in the fellow's eyes, and been on his guard, but he had turned just then to address his companion.
Suddenly Palaynus leaped forward and rushed at Loronto. There was a short scuffle, and the guards had dashed up and laid hold of him almost before Loronto himself had had time to turn and confront his assailant. The man was seized and bound, and stood panting in the midst of his captors, who had wrested from him a small, curious-looking weapon, something between a dagger and a stiletto.
Seemingly, he had failed in his purpose; his guards had been too quick for him. Yet Montamah's searching glance detected in the expression of his face, in place of the look of baffled rage that was to be expected, an evil, ominous gleam of complacent triumph.
Hastily he crossed over and took the weapon from one of the guards, looked at it intently, then with a face suddenly filled with a terrible anxiety, he went up to Loronto and laid a hand upon his shoulder.
"Tell me," he demanded hoarsely; "did the villain touch you—are you wounded?"
"Eh? N—no—I don't think so," Loronto answered, surprised at the other's excited manner. "At least—'tis but a scratch."
Montamah uttered a strange cry. "A scratch!" he exclaimed, and his voice sounded full of both fear and horror. "Where, where, for Heaven's sake—quick—show me where!"
But he waited in vain for an answer. Loronto seemed to have lost the power of speech. He stared vacantly about him, trembled and swayed, and the next moment fell unconscious into Montamah's arms.
A rush was made from all sides to take summary vengeance upon the treacherous assailant, but Montamah ordered his officers to take him away and guard him well until he could deal with him himself. Then he directed that Loronto should be carried to an adjoining chamber.
"What does it mean—oh, tell me what it all means?" cried Ralph.
"It means, my son," answered Montamah, in a voice that was full of anguish, "it means that your friend has been wounded by Demundah's own dagger, doubtless entrusted by him to this treacherous scoundrel to be used upon Ralmedus and myself. The slightest scratch is sufficient to cause paralysis, followed by death, for the blade is poisoned!"
Montamah's ominous words as to the effects of the wound which Loronto had received from the poisoned dagger proved but too true. The stricken man remained in a state of insensibility, so far as all outward signs were concerned, in spite of the anxious ministrations of his friends.
Montamah—who himself evidently possessed great medical skill—called to his aid not only Professor Henson, but the most experienced of his own colleagues, and they essayed every antidote, every method of treatment that their united counsel could suggest or the yacht's medicine-chest afford. But all their efforts proved fruitless, and they at last returned sorrowfully to the great hall to make report to those who there eagerly awaited their verdict.
"He is not dead, but we cannot revive him," said Henson, as Ralph rushed forward to meet him. "That is the position. The peculiar poison used is something altogether different from anything I have known elsewhere, wide and extensive as my travels have been."
"But he will die, then!" cried Ralph. "He will die! And what a terrible death! How sudden, how cruel! Just, too, as we had—oh, it cannot, it must not be! What can we do? Surely something can be done? He is not dead, so you say—are we then to sit down with folded hands and see him die slowly before our eyes?"
His distress and agitation were pitiful to look upon. Montamah laid a hand sympathetically on his shoulder.
"Courage, courage, my son," said he kindly. "You know the old saying, 'While there is life there is hope!'"
"Is there hope?" Ralph exclaimed, turning and eyeing the other searchingly. "This must be some native poison—well known here, I suppose? Is there no antidote known?"
"That is the point I have in my mind," Montamah returned gravely. "Listen for a moment, and I will explain how the matter stands. Both the poison and the antidote are obtained from plants—a shrub and a tree respectively—which formerly grew wild in a remote district in this country."
"Ah. And why, then——"
"Nay, nay, my son, have patience a moment,"' urged the old warrior, interrupting the young fellow's impulsive question. "I say there is an antidote, but the tyrant Demundah ordered every specimen of the two plants which could be discovered to be rooted up and destroyed, save a few which he transplanted to some so-called 'sacred gardens' of his own. By this means he has cunningly turned both poison and antidote to his own sole use and advantage. He even made it an offence punishable by death for a citizen to grow either plant in his own garden. Therein is our difficulty, you perceive. The 'sacred gardens' lie within the walls of what is known as the 'Golden Temple,' which is situated on the other side of the city of Ireenia."
"No matter where it is, or how difficult it may be to obtain," Ralph broke in, "we must have the antidote! And we will have it too, or I, at least, will die in the attempt!" he added fiercely. "Surely with our armament——"
Here Kalma came forward and whispered a few words in Montamah's ear, who nodded appovingly, and then the young officer turned to Ralph and said in a low tone, so that those around should not hear:
"Here is the chance, I think, my dear friend, to put to the test that little invention of mine, of which I have already hinted something to you. I have kept it very secret; thus far, only two or three know anything about it. We have thought this best, for reasons which you will understand by and by. As yet it has only been very partially tested, so I warn you that the risks must be very great. Nevertheless, if you are willing to share them with me, we will make an attempt to visit these sacred gardens to-night, and try to carry off some leaves of the wonderful tree. I think my plan, risky as it is, may yet be more likely to succeed than an attack in force."
"I am inclined to think so, too," Montamah agreed. "And, besides, there is no time for fighting. To be of any use the antidote must be used within three days—that is, within seventy hours. To attempt to fight our way into the temple in that time is hopeless; indeed, have we not already decided that we are not strong enough? Therefore, Kalma's plan, risky as it is, is the only one left to us. I fear it is but a forlorn hope——"
"No matter!" cried Ralph. "No matter how forlorn the hope, how great the risk! Only show me how to set about it and I am ready to start at once!"
"Nay, nothing can be done till night," said Kalma quietly. "We will get all ready to start as soon as possible after it is dark. Come with me now, and I will show you all about my little contrivance, and tell you how we shall have to go to work to make use of it."
"Let me first see Loronto," murmured Ralph, "and then I will gladly join in whatever you wish me to do."
They found him lying upon a sort of divan in an inner chamber, amongst cushions and wrappings of richest materials, with guards and attendants grouped around, all in attitudes of silent sorrow.
He seemed as though sleeping calmly and peacefully. There was only the slightest possible breathing. Yet it was a sleep from which he could not be roused—the sleep which, after a certain time, ended in death!
"I may never see him again!" said Ralph softly, as he took his hand and gently pressed it. Then he turned away and followed Kalma.
Outside they found Montamah waiting for them, accompanied by the professor, to whom he had briefly explained their plan. A few minutes' walk through passages and up more flights of steps brought them to another wide terrace, higher than the one they had lately left.
"This is where you will make your start from," said Montamah, "and there," pointing to a large cage, "are your aerial steeds."
Ralph and the Professor both stared, as well they might. They saw a large cage made by screening off a large portion of the terrace by iron bars. In the middle of it was a fountain surrounded by a spacious basin of water. And standing about or splashing in the water were four immense swans, larger than any they had yet seen.
Upon catching sight of Kalma they set up all kinds of demonstrations of delight, flapping their great wings, and stretching their long necks out through the bars, that he might stroke their heads as he passed by.
Ralph looked at Kalma in wonder. "These are some special pets of mine," the latter explained. "We call these birds kreldas here, and these are rare specimens. I have tamed them, and a long time past have been training them for the service I have in view. Now come with me a little further, and I will show you something strange."
He led the way through a door into another roomy apartment, a sort of workshop, where he pointed to a curious affair standing in the middle.
Here Montamah took up the story, as the young officer's English was hardly equal to giving a clear explanation.
"This is a somewhat remarkable country," said he, "for curious plants and trees. You have already heard of two, one of which gives a terrible poison, to which the other supplies the antidote. Another strange tree is that called by the people here 'sempris,' which may be interpreted as 'light-as-air.' Its wood is very porous, and though strong, is extraordinarily light—much lighter than cork, and the curious thing is that if you cut it, and dry it carefully, the longer you keep it the lighter it becomes.
"Investigation has shown that this is due to the formation of an extremely volatile gas in the pores of the wood, and our ingenious young friend here conceived the idea that if we could find a light covering, absolutely air-tight, and of the requisite strength and durability, and so imprison the gas until sufficient of it had accumulated under pressure, the resulting structure might even become lighter than the atmosphere. Experiment showed that the theory was correct, and we set to work to construct a couple of aerial cars. Here you see the results—or rather one of them, for the other is not yet finished.
"We first made the car in wood, then covered it with many coats of the strongest, toughest varnish we could obtain, and finally covered it again with a tight-fitting casing of 'moltrom,' which is a metal that has long been known to the people here. It is lighter than aluminium and much stronger."
Ralph and the professor proceeded to examine the car with the greatest curiosity, and were invited to get into it. In appearance it was a boat-shaped affair in a casing of metal of a greenish-grey tint, and presented a perfectly smooth surface, save in places where there were bands or ribs to strengthen the structure. Inside there were seats for four, though there seemed to be room for yet more. The spare space was required, however, it presently appeared, for ballast in the shape of baskets of pebbles.
When some of these were lifted out the car rose off the floor, carrying the two up with it.
"It is wonderful!" exclaimed the professor when the baskets had been replaced, and he had scrambled out again. "It is a veritable balloon, so far as lifting goes—but," he added doubtfully, "I don't see how you are going to make practical use of it. You cannot guide it, or control its course."
Kalma laughed. "I can quite understand that you can never guess," said he. "The fact is, however, that I have trained my kreldas—the large birds you saw in the cage outside—to draw me through the air in this car."
Professor Henson shook his head.
"Impossible! An impossible idea! Hardly practical enough for a circus turn, I should say," he cried disdainfully. Then, with a troubled look, he exclaimed: "And is this, then, your hopeful plan? Have we nothing better to go upon than that wild—a—swan chase? Would you seriously suggest that my young friend should risk his life in such a foolish freak?"
"But," said Kalma gently, "I have already made two trips in safety. Is it not so?" turning to Montamah.
"It is quite true," Montamah replied seriously. "They were both made at night, too, because we did not wish the idea to become generally known. You will understand the matter better when you have seen the perfect command that Kalma has attained over his pet birds."
"Come and see!" said the young officer, and they returned to the terrace.
There Kalma opened a great door and called his birds out. They indeed needed no calling, but tumbled over one another in their eagerness to get out—not, as it quickly appeared, to fly away, but to receive their master's caresses.
At his orders they executed all sorts of manoeuvres, flying round in circles, one, two, or more at a time, as he commanded. Each had its name, and knew it, obeying instantly when told either to fly or to remain quiet. Then Kalma produced some quaint-looking harness and coupled them together. Thus harnessed, they flew about as easily and obediently as when single. In the end even the sceptical professor was fain to admit that it was evident the young officer had perfect control over his huge pets, and could make them do practically whatever he liked.
"I confess it is wonderful!" he exclaimed finally. "Yet whether one can hope to travel about safely in such a contrivance is another matter. It is a great risk!"
"Not so great a risk as doing nothing and leaving Loronto to his fate!" Ralph exclaimed. "I am going to make the venture! If Kalma has come back twice safely from short trips, why should we not be as fortunate in a longer one? If he will take me I will go."
"Then it is settled! We will set out together as soon as it is dark. Let us make our preparations at once!" cried Kalma eagerly. "I have long had the dream of turning this contrivance to some useful purpose, but I had in my mind nothing more than sailing over the 'Barrier.' How much better to make it the means of saving the life of our newly-found prince! How proud I shall be if we succeed!"
This outburst was uttered in his own language, but there was no room for misunderstanding as to its meaning. It was reflected in the flashing eyes and enthusiastic bearing of the speaker, and Ralph seized his hand and pressed it in gratitude.
"Aye—to save Loronto!" he exclaimed. "You and I will save him or perish together!"
They began their preparations forthwith. As there was room for four, Ralph offered one place to Peter, who had proved himself one of the best shots on board the yacht, while Kalma offered the other to Galston, both of whom jumped at the offers, and entered zealously into the adventure. Rifles, revolvers, and ammunition were then brought up and stored away in the car, being so fastened that they would not be thrown out by any sudden oscillation, yet were ready to hand when required for use.
At Montamah's suggestion, a few rounds were fired close to the cage to accustom the great birds to the report of firearms, and by the time these and other preliminaries had been completed, the day had ended, night had come on, and the car was brought out on the terrace ready for the start.
Then the three adventurers took their seats, the ballast baskets were properly adjusted to the weight, and carefully secured, and two of the willing birds were harnessed and soon stood obediently awaiting the expected signal. Finally, at Kalma's word of command, they spread their great wings, and, drawing the car easily behind them, sailed off into the darkness.
It was a strange, eerie feeling that possessed the three adventurers as they felt themselves launched into the darkness in their frail, aerial chariot. At first nothing whatever could be seen, for the moon had not yet risen, but they passed swiftly onwards, sailing, as they knew, high above both land and water, trusting, for the nonce, entirely to the intelligence of their feathered steeds.
The swishing of the great wings, as they struck upon the air, was the only sound that could be heard. The birds drew the car after them with an easy, silent, swinging motion that was delightfully exhilarating. There was no jar, no vibration—nothing to be felt save an occasional slight, gliding swerve, and the passing breeze which fanned the faces of the voyagers.
Meanwhile Kalma was watching a little compass which Ralph had provided, illumined by a pocket electric lamp. It was placed under the counter in the fore part of the car, the light being carefully shaded so that no stray beam might be seen by possible enemies.
By degrees the eyes of the occupants of the car grew accustomed to the obscurity, and they were able, by the aid of the stars which shone brightly above, to dimly make out the great sheet of water called the Sea of Markanda, and, presently, the vague outlines of the mountains which lay upon its further shore.
Swiftly, thus, through the night, the car continued on its way. The birds were willing and docile, obedient to the least pressure upon the reins by which Kalma directed their course, and in a wonderfully short space of time they had passed over the water and were sailing high above the scene of the adventurers' first meeting with Ralmedus and Montamah.
They could now see the city of Ireenia, with its lines of lights, and a little later were sailing rapidly over it. It was not so brilliantly illuminated as when they had first caught sight of it, and even while they looked the place grew perceptibly darker. The majority of the citizens were beginning to seek their nightly rest, and lights were being extinguished.
Thus far not a word had been spoken, not so much as a whispered comment or question, though there were many queries that Ralph would have liked to ask—to say nothing of the loquacious Peter.
As they left the lights of the city behind them, there rose up in the distance the outlines of other mountains, and from the top of one of these there emanated a faint, ruddy glare which was reflected again in the sky above.
"The Golden Temple!" whispered Kalma. "Something is going on there. That may be unfortunate, I fear, for our purpose. It is usually dark and deserted at night, except when they have what they call a festival on."
"And what is that?" Ralph inquired.
Kalma shuddered. "Don't ask me," he replied. "Indeed, of my own knowledge, I could tell you nothing, but of what I have heard I scarcely dare even to speak."
As they sped onwards, the light from the top of the mountain grew in intensity, though no rays, as from any fixed light, were to be seen. It was as though they could perceive the glow or reflection of a great conflagration without being able to distinguish the fire itself.
"We must pass round it," whispered Kalma to Ralph, "and keep well out of the circle of light. There is certainly something going on in the temple. Judging by the sounds, there must be a lot of people gathered together, and for any of them to catch sight of us would put them on their guard, and render our enterprise doubly difficult."
Ralph nodded, and the car swerved to the left and swept round the mountain, without touching the confines of the circle of light thrown into the sky from below.
As they passed above, there came to them the sound of music and song, of laughter and revelry. They caught glimpses of beautiful gardens, with stately terraces and winding walks, wherein paraded numbers of gaily-dressed figures. A wondrous sort of luminous rose-coloured haze or vapour pervaded the scene, which, at times, made everything appear only half real, and seemed to have the effect, in places, of magnifying or distorting the forms of the revellers.
Then suddenly, above all else, would come a loud, discordant outburst, as of riot and uproar, ringing, boisterous mirth, or the tumult of wild carousal, gradually dying down again till nought could be heard beyond strains of sweet, enchanting music, and the vague, undefined hum or confused murmur which usually denotes the presence of a vast crowd.
Sailing serenely, silently overhead, the voyagers looked down, wondering not a little as to the meaning of all they saw and heard, but not venturing to discuss it even in whispers while they were anywhere near the zone of light.
Soon, however, they sailed past it and plunged again into the shadows, leaving the temple and its gardens, with their crowds of revellers well behind them. The music, the shouts and the laughter died away, and all became once more dark and still.
Then it was that they became aware of a strange kind of shrill scream, which could be heard at intervals coming from the direction in which they were travelling. Doubtless they had heard it before, and had confused it with the shouts and cries coming up to them from the temple, but now it was evident that it was in front of them, for it grew louder as they advanced.
Then the birds that drew them suddenly swerved, the car gave a great lurch, and at the same moment something flew past brushing against the car and uttering on its way the same shrill, weird cry.
"The saints preserve us!" cried Peter, looking round, with staring, terror-stricken eyes. "That were a witch—one o' them ye told me of!" He laid a trembling hand upon Galston's arm. "It almost touched me!" he declared.
Just then there came a perfect chorus of screams, and Peter's hand shook more than ever. "What a lot of witches there must be!" he said hoarsely. "I can see 'em flyin' round us like great bluebottles!"
There were indeed now a number of weird shapes dimly visible, flying around the car, diving down below it or darting above it, uttering the while blood-curdling cries, and evidently worrying and harassing their "steeds." The car began to lurch and sway unpleasantly, and their course became very erratic.
Galston had armed himself with a short, heavy stick, and with this he struck out at one or two of the flying forms.
"Bats!" he muttered in tones of annoyance.
"Bats?" cried Peter. He roused at once from his state of fright. "Whoever saw bats as big as them?" There was in his tone a curious mixture of relief and disappointment.
Ralph was not less surprised. "I never heard of bats the size of these creatures," he said.
"There are bigger ones still in these parts, as you'll very likely see by and by," returned Galston, "and precious vicious brutes some of them are, I can assure you, sir. They'll attack a man as soon as look at him, and when——"
He stopped abruptly as there rose suddenly from somewhere not far away, another loud cry—a cry different to the shrill screams they had heard thus far. It was a wail of heart-broken despair—a long-drawn, harrowing cry, as of one in the last extremity of agony and awful misery.
The startled adventurers stared about them in silent wonder, striving to pierce the gloom and to discover whence the sound had come.
Again the terrible, heart-rending cry rang out, this time evidently quite close at hand. The car swerved and turned, and swept past something which loomed large and heavy-looking, seemingly hanging in mid-air.
"Heavens! 'Tis the cage—the Cage of a Hundred Deaths!" exclaimed Galston, "and there is someone in it! He must have seen us! He cried out to us to help him!"
"Aye, but how to do it?" queried Kalma. "Could we get him out, think you? It would be a difficult thing to do, I'm afraid. However, we will go back and see how matters stand."
This proved a difficult manoeuvre, for their swans began to exhibit signs of restiveness. Something had evidently frightened them, and made them averse to going back.
'"Tis the Moldrahs," Kalma muttered, as he essayed to turn his feathered team.
"What are they?" Ralph asked.
Kalma did not reply, his whole attention being given to soothing and coaxing the creatures upon whose good behaviour their safety depended. Galston therefore explained:
"What we should call bats, sir," he said, "only ever so much bigger. They are the larger sort I spoke of just now—bigger than what you've seen. Great, vicious brutes they are—and some of 'em are round here to-night trying to make a meal off the poor chap in the cage. They come by night, and great eagles by day, and bite at the prisoner through the bars. The cage is swung on a long, bent bar, struck out from the side of the rock, and runs on a pulley. Every time the poor chap moves he swings the cage a bit further along the bar, till at last it drops off and he falls on the rocks hundreds of feet below. And if he doesn't move—well then he gets pecked to death—eaten alive by inches, ye see."
"What diabolical wickedness!" cried Ralph, in accents which told of the horror and disgust he felt. "Can we not save him? We must—even——"
"I am going to try," said Kalma, "but you must understand, my dear
friend," he went on, speaking in a hard voice through his teeth, "that
this, which is a bit of Demundah's fiendish work, is only one among many examples we may come across. If we are to turn aside, in each case, from the errand we came upon, to rescue his victims, I fear the chances of life for our
"You are right, friend Kalma," Ralph admitted. "We must keep our errand in view above everything—yet you thought that it might be necessary to wait a while before attempting to get into the Temple, in order to give time for yonder crowd to disperse."
"Yes—as you say, we must wait about for a time in any case, so we will see what can be done."
By this time they had swung round the larger portion of a wide circle, and were once more approaching the rock against which the cage was placed. It was a sheer precipice, and the long bar jutting out from it, almost at right angles, kept the cage suspended over a terrible abyss which lay wrapt in dense shadow down below.
Meantime Galston had whispered some instructions to Kalma; he knew the place, it seemed, and declared there was a terrace close by on which it might be possible to land. With some trouble, owing to the increasing restlessness of the swans, the terrace was found, and a landing effected.
"You must see to the rest," Kalma declared. "It will be as much as I can do to look after my birds and quiet them so that they may not fly off and leave us."
The moon was rising behind a distant ridge, and though it did not shine upon the terrace, the darkness was now less intense. Walking along the terrace for a short distance, they came to the place where the bar was fixed, and could dimly see the cage hanging from it.
Round about it they could also see more plainly the forms of the giant bats of which Galston had spoken, which darted to and fro, and as they passed the cage they would make an attempt to fasten on the bars and snap between them at the hapless prisoner within. Sometimes they succeeded, but were often driven off by others, which came up screaming, ready to fight for the first-comers' places.
It was a roomy cage—or appeared so at a first glance—and a stranger would not understand the cruel, fiendish cunning with which the whole contrivance had been designed. The bar which supported it jutted out for a distance of some fifteen to twenty feet, being made very thick and strong at the end resting in the rock, and tapering off almost to a point at the other extremity, and from this outer end depended a huge hook.
The bar was not quite horizontal, but curved downwards, and was threaded, so to speak, through a large ring, which carried a pulley inside, enabling it to travel easily backward and forward along the bar.
From the lower side of this ring the cage depended, and it could be made to travel to and fro along the bar by means of ropes worked from the rock. But when not thus fastened by the ropes the cage swung free, and, owing to the downward slope of the bar, at every slight movement, worked itself a little way further from the rock. Even the swaying caused by a gust of wind might move it slightly, while any very violent motion might start it running without a stop the whole length of the bar.
In any case it must, of necessity, reach the end sooner or later, and once there it dropped upon the big hook, which caused the whole cage to tilt up and fly apart, hurling out the occupant, much as the road-maker's wagons or buckets, used for carrying ballast, are made to automatically tilt over and empty themselves at the end of their little journey.
The miserable prisoner in the cage could only escape the attacks of the ravenous enemies, which assailed him by constantly shifting from one side to the other, well knowing that every movement, however carefully made, brought him nearer to his final doom, while any violent oscillation might have the effect of precipitating the end.
Hence the name of this fiendish machine—the Cage of a Hundred Deaths, since the wretched victim was on the very verge of destruction a hundred times or more, yet never knew when the fatal moment would actually arrive.
Galston called out to the prisoner, who answered back in accents of piteous entreaty. A colloquy ensued in the native tongue, which Ralph could not understand. At the end of it the old sailor turned to him and led him back to Kalma.
"It is Faronda," he said curtly, speaking, for Ralph's benefit, in English.
"Faronda!" exclaimed Kalma. He spoke in very evident surprise, and somewhat dubiously.
"Aye, Faronda. Half dead—almost dying—I should say—very bitter against Demundah, who has condemned him to this awful death on account of a quarrel. Faronda is ready to promise anything, declares himself ready to risk anything, either to help us, or to be revenged on Demundah. What shall I do, sir?"
Kalma hesitated. "I dare say he could help us very much," he mused, "if he is to be trusted. What think you?"
"I think we could trust him," was the answer, given gravely, and after a moment's reflection. "He declares he can enable us to obtain what we came for—can lead us through secret passages into the actual place where grows the tree we want. He says we shall never be able to get there in any other way—every door—every passage is jealously locked and guarded, and there is even metal network overhead covering the enclosure to prevent the very birds from carrying seeds."
"Oh, let us not waste time in discussion!" cried Ralph. "The poor wretch must be in agony, whoever he is! Let us release him at once! If he can then aid us, so much the better. If not we shall be no worse off."
"Yes, you are right," Kalma decided. "We will do what we can for this man—though we have no cause to love him, for he has been a bitter enemy in the past—"
"Y—yes—yet a brave chap, and honest," put in the other. "And it won't be so easy to get him out, for the rope's broke away. It'll take us all our time. Howsomever, he told me something useful. There's a place close by with iron gates, and they're open—just the place to put your birds in, sir, to keep 'em safe."
Kalma acted upon this hint, and a few minutes later the birds and car were safely housed in a spacious chamber or cavern in the rock, used as a storage place for, amongst other things, the horrible cage when not in use.
The rescue of the man now shut up in the deadly contrivance proved to be a more difficult matter than they expected. Galston had to climb out upon the bar and to grasp the pulley and drag it slowly and laboriously back, while Ralph followed astride upon it, armed with a short sharp sword, with which he beat off the aggressive bats while the work was in progress—for they dared not use their firearms.
But at last the task was accomplished, the cage was hauled back to the rock, and the unfortunate prisoner, who seemed more dead than alive, taken out.
Exhausted, wounded, and nearly dying, as the rescued prisoner had seemed to be when taken from the cage, he revived in a very rapid, almost astonishing fashion, after his rescuers had poured a little cordial between his lips and bathed his face with water from a small stream they found near at hand.
To this stream he himself promptly resorted as soon as he felt able, drinking from it copiously, and bathing his wounds; all the while speaking no word—not even so much as a word of thanks to his deliverers.
Ralph stood and watched him, observing with keen interest all that passed. He saw before him a tall, soldierly man of fine physique, with black hair and beard, and not unhandsome features; haughty in mien, with keen, fierce-looking black eyes, which, even in the semi-obscurity, seemed to flash as he glanced searchingly at first one then the other. His attention soon became centred upon Ralph and Peter. The others were known to him, but these two were evidently strangers to the country.
After he had tended his injuries, and bound up the worst of them, he turned with a lordly air and addressed Kalma in his own tongue. "You have saved my life," he begun, with a sort of haughty courtesy. "For that I am your debtor, and you shall not find me ungrateful. I never expected such a service from you, for up to now we have been sworn enemies. I understand that you expect some service of me in return. Let me clearly comprehend what it is, and if it lies in my power I will try to perform it. You may trust me fully, especially," he added grimly, "in anything that will help me to get my revenge upon Demundah."
"Why not ask him to join us wholly?" said Ralph when this speech had been translated to him. "He would find Loronto—if we can but save him, poor chap—a better master to serve than Demundah. Explain matters to him, he may be able to influence others. Tell him Prince Loronto would far rather gain his lawful subjects over peacefully than by fighting."
There ensued a somewhat long discussion. At first Faronda shook his head and moodily declared that to try to oust Demundah was a hopeless dream; that he was too firmly planted, and his power too great, and so on. But when he grasped the astonishing fact that Prince Loronto had actually arrived in the country, bringing with him the lost Crown of the Black Opal, his manner changed, and he at last declared he would gladly range himself under his banner.
"Not only that," he said, "there are many I can influence. I have a certain following in the country—a number of friends who, when they know what has happened to me, will demand vengeance, and will be ready to turn against the tyrant."
"Now," he went on rapidly, warming to his subject as he proceeded, "listen to me! You want some leaves of the 'Myontis'—the tree which yields the antidote to Demundah's poisoned dagger. I will take you where you can obtain them.
"But that alone is not sufficient. We want a plan, a ruse—I will furnish one—one by which we may even conceivably seize the person of the tyrant himself, and make him our prisoner. Here is my plan—
"To-night there is a grand festival in the Golden Temple, and the gardens around it. Various entertainments are going on—dances, games, and some novel frolics. People are there dressed in all kinds of strange costumes, some in imitation of animals, birds, reptiles and the like. I can arrange that you shall be dressed up in some such fashion, and thus we shall be able to mingle with the throng without being suspected.
"Finally," here Faronda's brows contracted into a deep scowl, and his voice grew hard and bitter, "finally I must tell you that Demundah seized upon me suddenly and unexpectedly—in such treacherous fashion that even my nearest friends are still in ignorance of what has happened to me. Demundah feared to let it be known before the festival, lest they should make some hostile demonstration on my behalf. I will go there with you in disguise, seek out my friends, and secretly acquaint them with all that has occurred. Then, if anything should miscarry, and we should be in need of a helping hand or two, there will be some, at least, ready to stand by us."
The adventurers greeted these suggestions with cordial approval, and it should be said that Faronda's manner impressed them even more than his words. He went on to fill in the details of his scheme with the air of one who could plan skilfully, and carry out resolutely. It was easy to see that his resentment against his former master was deep, and likely to be lasting; and that his talk of the revenge he meant to take was no idle boasting, but the expression of a grim determination.
Ralph and Kalma conferred apart with Galston for a few minutes, but they did not hesitate long.
"I believe we can trust him. I know he has always been a brave and fair fighter," said Galston, "and if you ask me, I think our mission begins to look more hopeful, and a jolly sight less of a wild goose chase, than I was at one time afraid it was likely to turn out."
As this practically voiced the opinion of the others, there was no more said, and they forthwith turned their whole attention to the necessary preparations.
Kalma produced from amongst his stores in the car a chain and lock, with which he fastened up the iron gates of the cavern in which the car had been placed. The swans at first demurred to being left alone in a strange prison, but were soothed into acquiescence. The rifles were left behind, but Ralph and Peter each took a revolver, and Galston carried a couple more, and some extra ammunition as a reserve.
Then they started off down the mountain. It was a stiff climb at first, but they presently reached a ridge which ran across to the hill upon which the temple was situated, so that they arrived under its walls much sooner than Ralph had expected, and he expressed his surprise.
"Beneath our feet," Faronda explained to Kalma, "is an underground passage, which would have been an even nearer way, but it is guarded at this end by people whom I cannot influence. Here is our goal. Let no one now speak save myself."
They were opposite to a little wicket gate in a high wall which ran across the side of the mountain. The place was in shadow, but not far away there rose high into the air some great gates between lofty towers which seemed from their appearance to justify the name of the place—the Golden Temple—for they appeared veritably to be of gold.
The moon was now getting well above the horizon and shone upon the gates and towers, from which its beams were reflected in thousands of glittering rays.
From within the walls came sounds similar to those they had heard when sailing in their aerial car overhead—save that the revellers seemed to have become more noisy as the night wore on.
Faronda approached and tapped at the wicket-gate in a peculiar manner. There came an answering tap, and several signals were thus exchanged before the gate was opened. Then Faronda beckoned to his companions, who advanced in turn, and a moment or two later they were inside, and the gate had been closed behind them by a silent attendant.
They were in a small lobby, dimly lighted by hanging lamps fashioned somewhat after the style of Chinese lanterns. Ralph and those with him were rather startled at the sight of a strange creature which came towards them, walking, indeed, upon two legs, but having what seemed to be three serpentine necks and heads upon the upper part of its body.
To this weird apparition Faronda spoke in a low tone, and while they conversed the three serpent-like heads swayed and wriggled about in horrible contortions, grotesquely suggesting the idea that each was desirous of having its separate share of the conversation.
Then once more Faronda beckoned to his companions, and they followed him and his strange guide through a doorway and along a passage into another chamber, which was evidently a sort of dressing-room.
Scattered about were numerous queer costumes—fancy dresses, as we should call them—thrown here and there in confusion, as though they had been tried on and impatiently cast aside.
Faronda turned to Kalma.
"I have suggested," he explained, "that we should be dressed as apes. There are many here to-night in that disguise, and it will be convenient for your friends, who do not know the language or the ways of the people. As apes, any eccentricity will be considered allowable, and if addressed they need only reply by a howl, or unmeaning chatter. Finally, we may have some climbing to do, and if detected it will excite less suspicion."
This suggestion having been approved, the dresses were produced, and in a short space of time the four adventurers, as well as Faronda himself, were transformed into wonderfully lifelike imitations of great hairy apes, of most hideous aspect.
"Gorillas!" commented honest Peter. "Species unknown—genius unknown—family—some o' the hairy guys as come out o' the ark!"
It was not until Ralph found himself launched, as it were, with his companions into the midst of the noisy crowd of revellers in the gardens of the temple, that he fully realised the daring and desperate nature of the adventure in which they were now involved. If their wild flight in the frail aerial chariot had seemed risky, even to foolhardiness, their present situation was decidedly not less perilous, though in a different way.
"Certainly," thought Ralph to himself, "of all possibilities that could have entered my head, the very last would have been the idea that I should be found to-night walking coolly about here among the intimate friends or invited guests of the dread Demundah. Can it really be true—or is the whole thing but a mad, wild dream? It is entering the lion's den with a vengeance!"
He pressed his hand quietly against his side to assure himself that his revolver was there, for the ape skins, though close fitting, were well padded, and furnished with pouches concealed beneath the long, shaggy hair. As an additional precaution, Faronda had given each one of them a peculiar whistle, which was only to be used in case of grave necessity.
"That whistle," he had declared, "is the rallying call of my friends and followers, and they will come to our aid from every part of the gardens where the sound can reach. But it must only be resorted to as a last resource."
Here they would pass by pleasant arbours and flower-scented bowers, wherein were gathered small parties of noisy roysterers; there, they would stroll by the shore of a small lake where gaily-decked canoes or barges floated about, crowded with merry-makers chanting in uproarious chorus.
Above all, through all, there was the strange ruddy glow which they had seen from above, and which there was no visible light to account for; and, at intervals, the sound of weird, unearthly music coming from they knew not where.
They saw many others dressed like themselves, of whom some merely eyed them in passing, while two or three attempted to play off some grotesque pranks upon them, but the party managed to evade them and proceed upon their way without exciting undue curiosity.
Presently, they met a group of three, made up as frogs, marching along arm-in-arm, each carrying a paper parasol—resembling small Japanese paper umbrellas—and between these and Faronda an almost imperceptible sign passed. Thereupon, with a burst of merriment, as though taking part in a huge joke, the frogs joined the party, one of them linking his arm through Faronda's, while another put his through Ralph's.
Faronda led the way to another and more secluded part of the gardens, where they presently came to a pavilion standing in the midst of a small thicket. Examination showed that it was empty, and at a sign from Faronda his companions followed him into the place, after posting one of the frog-like maskers outside, on guard.
The other two removed their masks and now appeared as men somewhat resembling Faronda himself in cast of countenance and bearing. Like him, too, they were officers of Demundah, and their names, it was stated, were Maranus and Sumandah.
Great was their indignation at the tale that Faronda had to tell. The scowls upon their brows, the flashing eyes, the growling interjections, told their own story to Ralph, even without the assistance of Kalma, who translated most of what was said. A very short talk, and a brief explanation of the position, were sufficient to decide them to take sides with Loronto.
"We heard Demundah talking of the cage but just now," said Maranus. "Little, however, did we think that the talk referred to you."
"Ah! What did he say?" Faronda asked.
"Someone had been sent to a look-out on the hill, to see if the cage was still occupied, and had come back with the report that it was hanging from the hook at the end, empty."
"I left it there on purpose to mislead them," said Faronda grimly. "So they think me dead, then; that I have fallen from the cage, and have been dashed to pieces on the rocks below, or washed away in the river!"
"Exactly. And greatly pleased Damundah showed himself; though he seemed rather surprised that the end had come so soon."
"No doubt. It is better, however, that he should think me dead for the present; it will be all the greater shock to him when I meet him face to face, and he finds he has yet to reckon with me."
"But now to our work. Go you and find all of our friends you can. Tell them the story, so far as you think well to entrust it to them, and we will meet again here in an hour. I have other work to do meantime."
The "frogs" obediently replaced their masks and went their way, and Faronda addressed himself to Kalma.
"The tree you seek is to be found upon the other side of the wall at the back of this little wood," he explained. "But how to get to it I cannot tell you nearer than the branches of the trees on this side touch the wall here and there, and I have heard there are one or two places where one can creep through. Let us see what we can do, then, to find a weak spot."
Having reconnoitred, and made sure that the vicinity was still deserted, they dived into the wood and silently made their way between the trees till they reached the wall. Then they separated, choosing trees a little way apart, taking care to select those which sent out branches reaching to the top of the wall.
For half an hour, during which they tried many trees, nothing satisfactory resulted. It was not difficult to reach the top of the wall, but upon it were so many curious defences and entanglements that it was impossible to get farther. Apart from these impediments, the whole place was covered, as Faronda had foretold, with an immense metal network, too strong to be cut through without special tools.
They worked in couples, Faronda and Kalma, and Ralph and Peter, Galston remaining just within the edge of the wood, as watchman.
Ralph and his companion, after several failures, at last ascended a tree which stood opposite to a place where the mortar had crumbled from the wall. From a branch which he had carefully followed out from the trunk, he caught sight of an aperture, through which he could see a patch of moonlight upon the ground on the other side. Instantly he perceived his opportunity, and calling softly to Peter to join him, the two set to work to loosen the mortar still further. In a few minutes they were able, to lift up the metal netting sufficiently to creep through.
They had no rope, but a long piece cut from a strong stout climbing plant near at hand answered as well, and a little later the two were in the mysterious garden, standing beneath the trees they had come to seek at such risk.
After a brief glance round, to make sure that there was no sign of an enemy, Ralph promptly climbed up the trunk of the nearest tree, which was no thicker than a pole. Acting upon the instructions which had been given him, he gathered a number of leaves, bruised some and smelt them, and finding they tallied in every way with Faronda's description, placed them in his pouch, and slid down the stem to the ground.
Excited and elated at his success, he was showing some of his trophies to Peter, when he heard a sound behind him, and looked round.
Two figures came towards them through the shadows, and as they crossed a patch of moonlight Ralph saw, as he thought, Kalma and Faronda in their apelike dresses. They came on silently, and when they were near enough, he was about to address them in a whisper, when they both rushed forward and he felt himself seized in the embrace of what seemed a veritable monster.
Peter went down at the same moment, struggling in a like powerful grasp; while in the ears of the two resounded the most horrible roars and snarls.
And then they realised that these were not their friends, as they had supposed, but veritable gorilla-like apes, set there as guardians!
The struggle between Ralph and his companion, and the two gorilla-like creatures which had sprung upon them, was fierce and obstinate.
The strength of the animals was terrible. The long sinewy arms closed round their human adversaries like steel coils, holding them in a grip from which escape seemed impossible, and which effectually prevented them from drawing their revolvers.
Ralph wrestled with his assailant with a furious energy that was born of despair.
For he knew—he felt, with every moment of useless struggle that passed—that only by some wondrous chance could he come with his life out of such a conflict. He had been taken by surprise, and no opportunity of bringing his own strength to bear was allowed him. The pressure of the creature's frightful embrace-grew tighter and tighter round his chest; the horrible eyes drew nearer to his, the hot breath played upon his face, the snarling lips were drawn back, displaying the lolling tongue and the great fangs bared in readiness to grip his throat.
Ralph felt that his senses were leaving him, when suddenly he heard a shrill whistle, followed by the sound of voices. There were cries and blows, shouts and deep growls, and then he seemed to rouse suddenly from his half-dazed condition to find himself in the grasp of several men.
Looking round he saw that Peter and Galston were also prisoners, and that their captors were armed men whose dress denoted that they were soldiers of Demundah. As to the apes which had first attacked them, they had disappeared, and no trace of them was now to be seen.
The soldiers bound their captives' arms and removed their masks, and then, with scant ceremony, tied them together in a string and led them away from the place.
Through gates and across various enclosures they went, till they reached a large, palatial-looking building. This they entered, and having passed its portals, they were marched through corridors and courtyards, till they halted in a roomy apartment, which had the appearance of being an outer chamber or lobby leading to a suite occupied by some person of importance.
Here many guards and attendants were standing about as if in waiting. To one who seemed to be the chief officer of these the leader now addressed himself, the two standing apart and conversing for a while in a low tone.
From without came the sounds of rioting and revelry, which told the prisoners that the festivities they had passed through when out in the gardens were still proceeding with undiminished gaiety.
Meanwhile they found themselves objects of curiosity to those lounging around, and to some of these Galston was evidently not altogether a stranger. They looked at him with disagreeably significant grins and signs, which he could not help seeing, though he treated them with outward indifference.
He was also known, it soon appeared, to the officer on duty, for when the latter had finished his talk with their captor, he came and stood opposite to the prisoners, looking them up and down in a manner which made the hot blood mount up into Ralph's face, and forced him to involuntarily try to free his hands.
This man was of medium height, heavily built, with a bullet head, grizzled hair and beard, and swaggering mien. His nose was hooked, almost like a hawk's beak, and his eyes narrow, hard, and cruel-looking. When he smiled he showed a row of glistening teeth which reminded Ralph irresistibly of those of a crocodile. His dress included a breastplate fitted over a tunic of dark purple—the colour which Ralph knew, by this time, denoted one in close attendance upon Demundah. Round his neck he wore a collar from which hung a single emerald of a very dark green; his ears were pierced, and from them depended two smaller emeralds of the same deep hue. For arms he had sword and dagger, the hilts of each being set with jewels. But Ralph thought that all these things sat badly on him, and that he seemed to carry them with an ill grace.
This man, after a sharp preliminary glance which included all three captives, turned his attention first to Galston, and as he recognised him there came into his face a sinister look of malicious, cruel triumph.
"So, Mintra!" he exclaimed. "This is a surprise—one that will give our lord no little satisfaction! Doubtless he will be interested to know that you have assumed your proper position in life." This was evidently meant as a sneer at the ape's dress. "You have escaped him very cleverly before; but this time he will repay himself for all, I'll warrant!"
Mintra, it seemed, was the name by which Galston was known amongst these people. He looked at the other, and answered quietly:
"I see you know me, Assandrus, in spite of my change of dress. You also," he added, with a contemptuous curl of the lip, "have changed your garb. When I first knew you you were one of the flunkeys of the lawful ruler of the country. You seem to have got on better since you turned your coat."
The man started as if he had been stung, an evil light leaped into his eyes and for a moment it seemed as if he were about to strike the unarmed prisoner. Then, with an obvious effort, he swallowed down his passion and muttered meaningly:
"Never mind, our master will deal with you quickly enough, and will give me my revenge in taking his own. To-morrow you will be hanging in the cage, dying of thirst, with the beaks of the eagles pecking at your flesh!"
"Don't be too sure of that, Assandrus," Galston returned. "You are forgetting—or perhaps you don't know—that your precious master's dear friend Palaynus is a prisoner in the hands of Montamah."
Evidently this statement came as a surprise to the other. He gave another start, and looked incredulously at the speaker.
"Dog of a slave, you lie!" he cried. "What you say is but a clumsy invention by which you think to save your miserable skin!"
"I left him there when I came away to-night," said Galston quietly. "He is a prisoner, he and half a dozen more of your beloved friends. So take care, Assandrus, and bid your master have a care, for as you deal with me, and with these our friends, so will Montamah deal with them!"
For a brief space Assandrus only stared hard at his prisoner, as though wondering whether this was really the truth or only an audacious concoction; then, shrugging his shoulders, he turned to the other two, and demanded roughly:
"And who are you? It seems to me I know you not."
"They are strangers from a far country," Galston answered for them. "They do not understand your language, so it is useless for you to question them."
"Oh, ho! Strangers from—from your own country; slaves, I suppose. Ah! This will be of interest to our lord! But what madness, then, brought you here to-night? You must have come with some very urgent purpose——"
At this moment another officer came to the speaker and said something in a low tone. Assandrus looked annoyed, as though impatient of being interrupted, then he once more shrugged his shoulders, and turning away, said, shortly:
"Very well, so be it. Take them away till I have seen our lord and have received his orders."
With that the three were led from the room, and a little later found themselves thrown roughly into a prison-like vault, with a barred door.
The place was empty, save for a thick log of wood, which, turned up on end, was supposedly meant for a table, and three or four smaller logs which might be intended for seats. The only light came from a few beams which struggled in through the barred door from a hanging lamp in the passage outside.
Ralph was plunged in the depths of despair. The outlook seemed hopeless indeed. Loronto's fate would be sealed by his failure, he reflected, and their own also; and just, too, as they had been so near success! As Ralph thought of the glad feelings of triumph with which he had gathered the precious antidote, and the contrast to his present state of mind, he could not help looking reproachfully at Peter.
But the honest sailor needed no reminder. He was full of sorrow at what had happened, and blamed himself bitterly.
"I knows 'twas my fault," he exclaimed remorsefully. "I knows I ought to a twigged the difference atween your friends an' real apes. But in the shadders I mistook 'em."
"Yes, I understand; it can scarcely be said to be altogether your fault," returned Ralph kindly, "but it was a terrible blunder for us. But for that I should have been able to draw my revolver, and have shot the beasts straight off."
Then, turning to Galston, he asked:
"And you—how did you come to be with us?"
"I followed you to warn you that some people had come into the wood," Galston explained. "In scrambling through, my dress caught, and the spare pistols I was carrying fell on the other side of the wall. Then I heard sounds as of a struggle, and hastened to your assistance—but was only in time to be pounced upon and caught myself."
"It seems to have been a muddle—a ghastly muddle," sighed Ralph. "The only comfort left to us is that we have still a couple of loaded revolvers and a few extra cartridges, which will enable us to sell our lives dearly."
"I knows mine won't go cheap," muttered Peter between his teeth. "But what's become o' your friends, Mr. Ralph?"
To this query no answer could be given. Galston it seemed had seen nothing of them.
"Can Faronda have turned traitor and betrayed us, I wonder?" Ralph mused. "If not, what has happened to him and Kalma?"
Galston asserted his unshaken belief in the trustworthiness of the man they had rescued, but beyond that he had no suggestion to offer as to what had become of the two.
Talking of Faronda reminded them that they still had the whistles with which he had furnished them, and they spent some time in speculations as to whether they could be made to serve them in their present straits.
Then suddenly they heard sounds as of jangling arms and the tramp of many feet. The door of their prison was thrown open and a harsh voice exclaimed:
"Come forth, slaves! The Lord Demundah has sent word to have you brought before him!"
The captives were once more conducted by their guards through a series of corridors, up and down flights of stairs, and finally into what appeared to be an underground passage. From this they emerged with suddenness into the open air, in the midst of a scene so bright, and altogether so unexpected, that it filled them with wonder and amazement.
For a few moments Ralph gazed about like one half-dazed. He put his hands to his eyes and rubbed them vigorously, then stared straight before him as though half in expectation that the whole scene would prove to be a waking dream, which would vanish from sight like some strange dissolving view. Then, finding it had not disappeared, but was still the same, he began to glance about in more critical fashion.
It was like a fantastic picture of ancient Rome. Around was a spacious amphitheatre, and he and his companions were standing in an arena which might have been one of those in which, in olden times, gladiators fought, and helpless victims were thrown to the lions, "to make a Roman holiday." Crowds of spectators sat or lounged upon terraces, their bright-hued dresses mingling with the colours of the richly-cushioned seats. Brilliant lights hung aloft or swung from the sides, flashing upon the glittering armour and shining weapons of officers and soldiers. Placed about at intervals were pillars carrying braziers or censers, from which ascended lambent flames, and wreathing columns of light-coloured vapour.
At one end, in the midst of the crowd, was a terrace broader and more sumptuously fitted than the rest, shut off from the arena by a low fence or screen of gilded metal work. Above it was a lofty canopy, which formed a roof over the whole length and width of the terrace. In the centre was a throne, carved and emblazoned, and at the back was seen an immense star, from which radiating beams of light shot out and seemed to be in motion, glistening, flashing, and quivering.
Upon the throne, with the star scintillating behind him, and a great banner waving above his head, sat the dreaded Demundah.
Ralph noted all these and many other details like one in a dream as his eyes swept the whole assembly, finally resting upon Demundah; and then he could not repress a shudder.
From what had been told him, still more, perhaps, from the tone and manner with which it had been told, Ralph was prepared to find in Demundah a person of unusual appearance and character. The very first view, however, of the man himself now impressed him with the conviction that the utmost he had heard or imagined fell very far short of the reality.
He saw before him a man of great height and muscular frame, clad in a dress that seemed half soldierly, half priestly. Upon his breast, worked in a dark purple vestment, was a large black opal set round with diamonds in the form of a star. His beard and hair were iron-grey, his skin of a swarthy hue, and his face, as a whole, was deeply lined.
The forehead, however, was high and massive, and, in a sense, commanding; and the shaping of the chin and nose denoted iron will and resolution. Thus far the countenance, though far from being attractive or handsome, appeared to possess a certain amount of what may be termed barbaric dignity.
But the character of the eyes overshadowed all else.
When Ralph first saw him, Demundah had been gazing in another direction. Now he turned, and after a passing look at his two companions, fixed his glance upon Ralph himself, as though intuitively aware that he was the leader, and that the others were of only secondary importance. And it is no disparagement of the young fellow's courage to say that beneath that glance a feeling of cold horror stole over his senses, and he stared at the priest with a sudden, startling idea that he was looking not at an ordinary man, but at some uncanny being masquerading in human form.
The outward shape was that of a human being, no doubt, but in the expression of those strange eyes there was the cold, deadly malignancy of the serpent, with a subtle suggestion of some terrible suppressed power, capable of leaping instantly into baleful energy and irresistible, overwhelming vigour. Now and again there seemed to dart forth little flashes that told of hidden fires, needing but some slight exciting cause to burst into flame fierce enough to blast the object of the man's malevolence.
These flashes made the beholder involuntarily recoil, as at the sight of some vague, undefined monster crouched in readiness to spring upon its victim; a monster that was the malignant enemy of all mankind; a creature that formed an incarnation of cruelty and relentless ferocity.
Thus the feeling of which Ralph was sensible was not so much of the nature of earthly fear as of that curious, natural repulsion which warns every person of manly, healthy instincts to avoid contact or association with evil things.
Demundah, on his side, seemed thoroughly aware of the impression he was making, and there appeared upon his hard mouth the shadow, as it were, of a sneering smile. It was but a slight parting of the lips, and scarcely showed, indeed, a trace of the wolf-like teeth beneath, but, nevertheless, there was in it a suggestion of mockery and contempt which roused in Ralph a burst of sudden rage. Perhaps it was as well that it was so; for he had been conscious, a moment before, of an almost irresistible desire to put his hands before his eyes to shut out the sight of those demoniacal-looking eyes, and a feeling like a cold perspiration had begun to creep over his whole body. The mortifying suggestion of scorn, however, in that smile, had called up a burst of indignant repudiation which acted, as a sharp tonic. It sent the hot blood galloping once more, through his veins, bracing his nerves, and enabling him to throw off the feeling of horror that had almost taken possession of his senses. He felt he could now return look for look, and he did so; though conscious that his ape-like dress detracted somewhat from the dignity he tried to throw into his glance.
However, Demundah seemed satisfied with the effect he had produced upon this young stranger, and now turned his attention to Galston, whom he regarded with a menacing scowl, and began to question.
Through him, as interpreter, he also put some queries to Ralph. Most of these were trivial enough, but others were of so searching a character that he did not care to reply to them, and as he found it difficult to fence with them, he was constrained at last to take refuge in an obstinate silence.
At this Demundah's brow grew blacker, and his scowl even more threatening; when suddenly his mood seemed to change, and he turned away to converse with those about him. Then he clapped his hands and gave some orders in a loud voice to an officer who appeared before him in response to the signal. There followed a burst of cheering from the assembled crowd.
"What did he say?" Ralph asked of Galston.
The sailor compressed his lips and his brows contracted.
"He's a fiend—that's what he is, and Assandrus is as bad," he answered between his teeth. "Assandrus said what a good fight it must have been between us three and the two great monkeys, and he wished he had been there to see it. Upon that Demundah said it would be easy to have it over again, and that it would afford the people some sport. So he has sent for the beasts to be brought out, and we've got to fight 'em."
Even as he spoke there was a series of horrible roars, and deep snarling, grunts and growls. The guards who had been standing beside them, hastily removed their bonds and retired. A moment later a barred gate flew open, and from it there issued the two great apes by which they had been attacked in the sacred garden.
Their first headlong charge carried them almost to the centre of the arena. There they stopped and looked about them.
For the first time Ralph was able to get a clear view of the creatures, and very grisly, formidable monsters they looked by a good light. Nearly six feet in height, with long, swinging arms, and chests of immense depth, they appeared each of them to equal in strength two or three ordinary men.
They stood beating with their great hairy paws upon their breasts a drum-like accompaniment to their hoarse roars; their huge tusks snapping like steel traps, and their wicked, bloodshot eyes peering out from under the dense eyebrows, seeking an enemy upon whom to vent their rage.
But Ralph, somewhat curiously, far from being dismayed, rather welcomed the coming combat. He was tired of playing an idle, passive part and brooding over his ill fortune; and he was ready for anything that meant sharp, stirring action. Moreover, he felt he owed these beasts "a turn" for having attacked him treacherously before.
It has been stated that he had the frame of a young giant, and on the voyage out from England both he and Loronto had passed much of their time in every kind of athletic exercise. They had realised that they were seeking an old-world country where, as "in the brave days of old," personal courage and strength counted for far more than is the case in lands where firearms enable the weak to meet the strongest on equal terms.
He drew himself up, and his eyes flashed as he swung his muscular arms.
"They want to see a fight," he said to his companions. "Well, let's show 'em what Britishers can do! Do you think you can tackle one between you, if I take on the other?"
"Aye," Galston returned, doubtfully, "but it ain't fair to you, sir; and a bullet would be better, seeing we've got the pistols——"
"No, no—only in the last resort—mind that! Let's meet the brutes and beat 'em at their own game. They attacked us unawares before—but they'll find it a different affair this time."
"I'm ready, pervided they be real monkeys, an' not witches a trickin' us," muttered Peter.
There was no time for more. There was a long, bellowing howl, a rush, and the next moment the two apes were upon them.
Ralph coolly stepped out, and a little to one side, and as the creature passed, he let fly with his fist a blow which made the recipient spin round and stagger backwards. But, recovering, it made for its assailant with a blood-curdling scream, gnashing its teeth, and rolling its eyes—the very picture of furious fiendish rage.
Again avoiding the rush, Ralph got in another smashing blow, this time catching his enemy behind the ear and causing it to reel in a half-dazed fashion. For a few seconds it swayed as if about to fall, and a low whispering sound went round amongst the surprised spectators—a sound that seemed to be a curious blending of applause and angry disappointment.
Ralph heard it and glanced round, noting with satisfaction that even Demundah was looking on in an attitude of evident astonishment. "He thought we should be done for at the first rush," the young fighter said to himself. "I don't think they know much about the science of fisticuffs, hereabouts. I only wish I had that beauty Demundah to knock about, instead of this brute! I'd teach him to smile the other side of his face!"
With such reflections running through his mind he doggedly continued the contest, springing nimbly aside at each charge of his heavy, blundering enemy, taking good care to keep well out of the reach of those long, hairy arms, and getting in a smashing blow here and there when the opportunity offered.
Meantime, his two friends were managing their fight with less science and caution, trusting more to the advantage offered them by the fact that they were two to one. Peter had taken the precaution to draw his revolver, and, as their enemy rushed towards him, threw it in the creature's face, striking one of its eyes with crushing force. Then he dropped suddenly and caught at its foot. A terrible kick, that almost broke his arm, resulted, but the beast fell, and Galston, who had been watching his chance, leaped upon its back, and snatching up the fallen revolver, rained upon the back of its head a succession of blows so heavily and so fiercely delivered that, thick and hard as the beast's skull was, they began to take effect. In its struggles, however, it had caught a hold upon Peter, and the two rolling over, Galston lost his advantage. A fierce wrestling match followed in which the three were mixed up in such a fashion that, in the dust they raised, it became difficult for the onlookers to distinguish which was the real ape, and which the sham ones.
Not far away another wrestling match was now to be seen. Ralph had also managed to assail his opponent in the rear; and flinging an arm round its neck, was bringing his whole strength to bear to wrench back the great, hideous head, heedless of the claws which were tearing savagely at him the while.
It was a terrible trial of endurance. Slowly, little by little, he forced the head further and yet a little further back, the ape sprawling upon its face on the ground, wriggling, squirming, scratching, uttering at one time deep bellows, and at others shrill screams. The sweat poured from Ralph's face in great drops. He began to be conscious that his strength was nearly spent, and a fear crept over him that he would have to let go his hold. Too well he knew that if he did so it would surely mean his own death, for in his exhausted state he would be no match for the creature face to face.
Almost in despair he summoned up his whole remaining strength and threw it all into one last jerk. There was a loud crack, and as his now nerveless arms relaxed their grip, the ape fell limply to the ground. Its neck was broken, and it was dead.
A moment later Ralph was on his feet, hastening to see how it fared with his friends, and ready, if need be, to lend them a helping hand. But there was no necessity. He met them hurrying, on their side, to assist him; on the ground behind them lay a huddled up, inert, almost shapeless mass, half hidden in a cloud of dust. It was the other ape—dead.
"Hoorooh!" cried Peter. "That was well done, Mr. Ralph! Ye must a had a rare old tussle for it! It tuk us all our time to master our beast—an' theer wur two of us!"
"You've done well all the same, my friends," was Ralph's reply. "We've shown yonder miserable rabble the sort of stuff Britishers are made of; and we've paid these ugly brutes something we owed them."
The light of battle was still in his eye, and as he glanced round upon the wondering crowd, his undaunted look called forth some expressions of approval, even among his enemies.
In other respects, however, the victors, it must be confessed, made a somewhat sorry show. Scratched, bleeding, covered with dust and blood, and with their dresses, such as they were, hanging mostly in rags, their general appearance was certainly far from being either martial or imposing.
But the excitement of the contest had affected all three, and imbued them with the spirit of the Irishman trailing his coat. Galston caught sight of Assandrus laughing at the figure he cut, and he shook his fist at him.
"Come down here, you gibing coward!" he shouted. "Come down here, and I'll knock your grinning teeth down your throat, as I did with your precious monkey yonder! You dare not come down and fight me—there are not three amongst you who dare come down and fight us three here, man to man! It suits you better to keep at a safe distance and jeer at men who have more courage in their little toes than flunkeys like you have in their whole bodies!"
Now Demundah had been sitting, silent and inscrutable, biting his nails, and staring with fixed gaze at the three victors. After the first involuntary look of surprise at Ralph's method of dealing with his formidable foe, he had remained an unmoved spectator. Even the defeat and death of his pet apes (for such as a matter of fact the animals had been), had called forth from him no sign beyond a darker scowl, and a passing flash from the watchful eyes.
Galston's challenge seemed to amuse him a little. He turned his glance upon Assandrus.
"What sayest thou?" he asked, and then went on, with a touch of contempt in his tone: "But I forgot—thou art not a fighting man." Assandrus flushed up, and then paled.
"F—fight?" he stammered. "Fight—with a slave?"
Just then there stepped forward a man richly attired in a dark purple tunic, and armour inlaid with gold and precious stones. In his helmet, with its waving plume, his sword and dagger, even in his belt glittering jewels flashed with each movement, and his whole dress and manner betokened that he was someone of importance. His swarthy features were not unhandsome, and his mien was soldierly and dignified, but his dark, steely eyes indicated a man of hard, cruel disposition, and his voice, when he spoke, was loud and harsh. His name, as it presently appeared, was Bydamah, and he was the captain—the commander, that is—of Demundah's soldiers.
He had watched Ralph's struggle with the ape with eager interest, and seemed to resent the air of natural elation which, despite the dust, and blood, and grime, could be discerned in the young fellow's face.
Demundah glanced at his captain in some surprise.
"What now, Bydamah?" he asked.
"Yonder slave's daring challenge deserves to be answered by men—not by cowards!" Bydamah answered slowly, with haughty emphasis on each word. "As to the slave himself, let who will take him up, but I see one amongst the three whose manner I like not—whose soaring spirit I would fain curb a little myself. If it seems good to thee, my lord Demundah, ask him if he will meet me face to face; and if he be willing, let him be suitably garbed and armed, and I will await his pleasure."
At this a great shout of applause went up from the listening throng. The suggestion was hailed with noisy assent, and even Demundah's evident disapproval produced no visible effect.
The assembly had seen one contest, and it had only whetted their appetite for more—and now that more was offered they were determined not to be baulked of the spectacle.
Bydamah, too, held out, obstinately determined upon fighting Ralph. Something in the young fellow's manner, some flashing glance, perhaps, which he had unconsciously thrown at the haughty captain, had roused that hot-blooded gentleman's ire, and provoked in him a spirit of martial defiance.
Seeing that he was determined, Demundah at last gave way, and then the crowd demanded that it should be made a combat of six, and that two others should be deputed to fight Galston and Peter.
To enable this to be carried out enquiry had to be made as to who Peter was, that a champion might be selected of his own rank in life.
Ralph, when Galston had explained the meaning of it all to him, was not a little astonished, but he never hesitated for a moment. As already hinted, the dormant fighting instinct of his nature had been thoroughly aroused; he "sniffed the battle from afar," and welcomed the proposed combat. Under Captain Woodham's able tuition he had become a proficient swordsman, and had no cause to fear a fair fight. He knew that Peter, too, was a good hand with the cutlass.
"My lads!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm, "take 'em on, take 'em on! If we fail—well, better to die a soldier's death than to pine in prison here, and let yonder tyrant slowly torture us to death, which, I suppose," he added more gravely, looking meaningly at Galston as he spoke, "is about what he would do with us?"
Galston nodded. "Aye, ye've hit it, sir."
Meantime, at a signal from Demundah, a squad of guards had closed round the three prisoners, and they were led back to their prison to be prepared for the coming ordeal. But before they were removed Bydamah, with rough chivalry, had arranged that they should have an hour for rest.
"I wish no advantage from any man," he said proudly. "These men have had a hard fight, and need rest and refreshment. We have time; the night is not yet spent."
In the excitement and tumult of thought roused in their minds by these unexpected proceedings, Ralph and his companions forgot their concealed pistols. Thus it happened that the weapons were discovered and taken from them by their guards when it came to the removal of what remained of their ape-skin dresses.
"There goes our last chance," said Ralph with a sigh, "though I suppose there was nothing else to be done. We couldn't hope to conceal 'em for long, and it's no good making a fight for 'em. But—what will they do with them—take them to Demundah, do you think?"
"Yes—and very likely he'll shoot himself trying to find out what they are for," Galston answered, with a short laugh. "It'll save a lot of trouble in the future if he does," he added hopefully.
Curious to state, Bydamah himself superintended the preparations, ordered wine and fruit to be brought for the prisoners' refreshment, and carefully examined and tested both the armour and the weapons with which they were invested; and this notwithstanding that he was filled with a sort of blind rage against Ralph, and was grimly resolved to kill him. An hour later, the three stood again in the arena, in the same place where they had fought and vanquished the two monstrous apes. But now they were transformed. Ralph, in particular, made a brave show in his armoured dress, a waving plume in his shining helmet, a gleaming sword in one hand, and upon one arm a shield that shone like a silver mirror.
A low murmur of involuntary admiration ran round the rows of spectators. The crowd had increased in numbers, for the news of the intended combat had been bruited about, and the revellers had all left the gardens and crowded into the amphitheatre, keenly eager not to miss such an exciting entertainment as this promised to be.
Bydamah, dressed in much the same fashion as Ralph, stood leaning upon his sword, a polished shield upon one arm, looking at his youthful opponent with a glance which was half-disdain, half-curious interest.
To Peter was opposed a soldier named Sonto, an ill-favoured, brutal-looking fellow who bragged loudly of how quickly he would dispose of his foe: and finally, to Galston's intense delight, he found that Assandrus had been induced to take up his challenge, and that he was, therefore, to have the satisfaction of a fight with his old enemy.
There was a short pause, and a loud flourish of trumpets. Then the signal was given, the six combatants rushed at one another, and the fight began in deadly earnest amid the shouts and, cries of the assembled crowds.
Ralph found that he was opposed by an experienced fighter, a man of great strength, who seemed to have nerves of steel. Though, in arranging the preliminaries, this man had, as has been stated, exhibited a certain amount of rough, chivalrous consideration, it quickly became evident that he was now bent upon the young fellow's death. Ralph, as he looked him square in the face, saw plainly enough that the fierce, cruel eyes were bent upon murder and nothing less; and that his only hope of coming out of the conflict alive lay in his own skill with the sword. It was not a hopeful outlook; for he soon found that he had to deal with one who was a far more practised fighter than himself, especially in that particular kind of combat. Ralph had never, for instance, used a shield before, and it proved, at first, almost an embarrassment rather than advantage; though, after a little while, he seemed to fall naturally into the use of it as a means of defence.
His foe, however, cunningly made almost a sort of offensive weapon of it by throwing it about in such a way that its highly-polished surface flashed reflections of the myriad lights in the other's face, dazzling his sight at critical moments.
These and other unexpected tricks of fighting compelled the younger man to adopt waiting tactics, in the hope that he might wear down his' adversary's patience—to wear out his strength seemed hopeless—when some chance might offer of which he could take advantage.
In other parts of the arena two duels, equally fiercely contested, were in progress. Though Assandrus had shown no great liking for the adventure, yet now that he had engaged in it, Galston found in him a much tougher fighter than he had expected.
A short distance from this couple, again, Peter fought sturdily with the brawny ruffian allotted to him. Between these two the battle raged with less science and rougher methods, and each had sustained some wounds.
Suddenly, there was heard a low, quick whistle. At the sound, the two opposed to the two sailors turned simultaneously and rushed across to where Ralph was maintaining his fight with his back to them, little dreaming of a cowardly attack in his rear.
A warning shout from Peter caused him to spring back and look round; but he was too late. The next moment the two treacherous foes had leaped upon him.
As Ralph was seen to go down under the attack made upon him by the two opponents who had been told off to fight the sailors, a great shout of delighted triumph went up from the assembled spectators.
In their eyes the trick by which the young champion had been suddenly isolated and subjected to the simultaneous assault of all three adversaries, was merely a "ruse de guerre"—a ruse not only allowable but one to be admired in the circumstances.
Yet there were evidently some who thought differently. Expressions of strong dissent were to be heard, sounding very like the groans and hisses uttered by British audiences in similar circumstances. In this case, the dissentients however did not all confine themselves to harmless signs of disapproval, for just as the exultant couple were raising their swords to give Ralph the "coup de grâce," an arrow came whizzing through the air, which passed through the throat of one of them and hurled him to the ground.
At the same moment Peter came up in hot and furious pursuit of the foe who had so unexpectedly eluded him, and was about to thrust at him, when he heard his death-shriek and saw him go under. At once he turned upon Assandrus instead, and that with such vehemence that he knocked the fellow's sword clean out of his hand.
Throwing down his own weapon, he leaped upon his disarmed adversary, and, clutching him by the throat, bore him to the ground, where they both fell, Peter, on top, keeping his hold, and talking vigorously, oblivious of the fact that his enemy could not understand one word of what he said.
"Witches an' rowlocks," exclaimed the sailor—it was a favourite expression with Peter—perhaps he confused "rowlocks" with "warlocks"—"what d'you mean by such "—here he banged the other's head on the ground, and repeated the treatment at every other word or two afterwards—"such (bang) blamed, foxy (bang), cowardly (bang), treacherous (bang) devil's tricks, you (bang) murderin' son (bang) of a red herring? I'll choke—"
Here the indignant Peter was interrupted by Galston, who tried to pull him off with one hand, while with the other he held his sword over Ralph to guard him against any sudden onslaught from Bydamah.
"Get up," he said, and emphasised his words by an impatient kick. "Get up and leave the cur to me. He's my particular property; and I want him badly. Get up and help your master."
Peter, thus apostrophised, let go his hold upon his prostrate foe and sprang to his feet, and, picking up the sword he had dropped, threw himself between Bydamah and Ralph; while Galston put his foot upon the breast of Assandrus and held his sword to his throat.
"If you move—if you so much as attempt to struggle, I'll end your miserable life, you cowardly cur!" Galston growled, in the native tongue, between his clenched teeth. "And if you've killed our friend, I'll kill you just the same," he went on. "Why couldn't you fight fair and square, you skunk!" Then, in English he called out: "Have a care, Peter! Look out for some coward's trick from yonder brave captain!"
Galston cried this warningly to Peter as he saw Bydamah make a move as though towards them. But in this, as it soon appeared, he did Ralph's opponent an injustice.
"I do not approve of these tactics, and I would scorn to take advantage of them," said Demundah's champion, drawing himself up proudly. "What those two did was done without any consultation with me. I only hope they have not done your friend much harm, for he is a brave young man, and a clever fighter, and I wish not that he should die by such unworthy hands." He pointed to his two fallen friends; and so far from attempting to aid them, turned contemptuously away.
But meantime a great uproar had arisen amongst the spectators. An officer—he who had shot the arrow which had killed one of Ralph's assailants—had himself been set upon by a section of the crowd, who resented his action. He, in defence, had blown a whistle, which had had the effect of bringing to his aid a small band of friends, variously dressed and armed, who rallied round, interposing themselves between him and the surging angry crowd.
Just then Peter had helped Ralph to his feet; for it seemed that the young fellow's helmet had saved him from any very serious hurt. He had only been partly stunned, and had now revived.
"You hear that whistle?" he exclaimed. "That is the same as those which that man Faronda gave us, and which were taken from us—"
"Mine wasn't," said Galston. "I managed to hide it away! Here it is! Shall I blow it in answer?"
"Yes! We'll risk it!" Ralph promptly decided; and Galston, in obedience, at once sounded a shrill blast.
It had an instantaneous effect. The man who had shot the arrow so opportunely, turned at the sound and pointed to Ralph and his companions.
"See!" he cried to his followers. "Those three yonder are Faronda's friends. He gave them one of our signal whistles, and told them to use it when they needed help! Follow me to their aid!"
Springing into the arena, the speaker and his companions hurried towards Ralph, and as they drew near he shouted:
"Here we are, friends! We are ready to stand by you and defy Demundah and his whole crowd of fiends."
Galston translated this speech to Ralph and, at his instance, asked in return:
"Who are you, then?"
"Don't you know us? We are the frogs!" came the cheery reply. "I am Maranus—and here is Sumandah!"
"I need not say how grateful we are for your help—but where is Faronda, and the one who was with him—Kalma?" Ralph replied.
All this was spoken in a low tone, and the reply was given also in a low voice, accompanied by a shake of the head.
"We know not. They failed to keep the appointment he made with us. We cannot think what has become of them. Perhaps Faronda is dead, perhaps he has been captured again by the tyrant's minions and put in some secret dungeon. But dead or alive he would, we know, wish that we should aid you against his enemy—and we are ready to do so!"
Bydamah, on his side, was not a little amazed at the spectacle of some of his own people openly espousing the cause of the strangers. He was not near enough to hear what was said; but there was no mistaking the meaning of what he saw going on before his eyes, or of the friendly signs and gestures which passed between the two groups.
At the same moment Demundah started to his feet.
"What means this?" he cried. Then his eyes flashed, and he waved one hand towards Bydamah and the guards who were now crowding round their chief, while with the other he pointed at Maranus.
"Treason!" he thundered. "It is treason! Bydamah! Brakla! Abranda! Arrest yonder traitors, and bring them quickly, dead or alive, to my feet!"
This appeal to his officers was answered by a loud shout, and Bydamah, now filled with rage, shook his sword at Maranus.
"So! You take sides with these enemies against your own master!"
"Ask him what has become of Faronda!" Maranus called out. "Ask him to tell us what fiendish, treacherous trick he has played on our friend Faronda! If it be not so—if Faronda is alive and unharmed, let him be produced; then we are ready to submit. But if you cannot produce Faronda, then we know that Demundah has killed him; and we will do our best to avenge our friend!"
With that they crowded round Ralph, and signified, in all sorts of ways, their admiration of his qualities as a fighter, and their desire that he should be their leader.
Ralph looked round upon them in wondering excitement, his face flushing with pleasure, as he noted what sort of men these were who were clamouring to come under his leadership.
He certainly had no reason to be ashamed of his followers. Maranus and Sumandah, who had when he had first seen them been acting the part of rollicking "frogs" amongst the crowd of revellers, now appeared dressed as nobles of high degree, whose armour and jewelled weapons vied in richness with those of any nobles or officers present.
For arms they had for the most part simply the usual sword and dagger; but among the rank and file were many archers, and a few men carrying spears. Maranus, who had borrowed from one of the bowmen the bow and arrow with which he had shot down Ralph's assailant, still held the bow in one hand, and fingered another arrow in the other.
"Why not end the war at once by shooting the tyrant?" he growled. "I think I'll have a try anyway."
He fitted the arrow to the string as he spoke and took aim at Demundah.
Ralph put up a restraining hand, and called to Galston to stop him.
"Tell him," he said, "that it is not our custom to shoot at an unarmed man—for such Demundah is in the circumstances. Explain that we could easily have shot him with our fire-weapons when we first came before him, had we chosen to do so—but we would never think of taking such an advantage."
"I'll tell him, sir; though, to say truth, I don't agree with you," returned Galston, bluntly. Then he sighed. "Oh, for those revolvers now! They'd be worth their weight in gold!"
"I would say rather, 'Oh, that Loronto were here now," sighed Ralph. "How he would rejoice to be in my place—to be called upon to lead these splendid fellows against his enemy!"
And even in the midst of the exciting events going on around him, and the imminent dangers which threatened him, he could not help reflecting upon the queer turn of affairs which had placed him, all unseeking, in the place which ought to have been Loronto's.
In the loyal, unselfish love which he bore his friend, this state of things, far from exciting his vanity, as would have been the case with one of a less manly nature, had in his case exactly the contrary effect.
"Loronto," he thought, with exceeding bitterness, "is lying dead a few miles away—and it seems as though I were meanly usurping his lawful place." In the simple honesty of his nature it never occurred to him to reflect that the position, such as it was, had been merely the natural outcome of the admiration which his own courage and dauntless behaviour had excited in the breasts of the better-inclined amongst his enemies.
However, the time was not one suited to sentimental reflections. Their enemies were gradually drawing nearer, and he saw that if he was to do his best for the little band which had so pluckily taken his part, and prove himself worthy of their trust, he must make up his mind quickly to some plan of action.
While Ralph glanced round at the crowd of eager, hostile faces amongst the spectators, and noted the increasing number of those opposed to him in the arena, he was seeking strenuously in his mind for some inspiration which should help him in his critical position.
And truly his situation was a strange one. Up to a few months ago, he had been living the simple, uneventful life led by thousands of Britain's young sons at school and after. He had lived in the world of the twentieth century, with its railways and steamers, its telephones, its big guns, mighty battleships, wireless telegraphy, and the rest of the discoveries of modern science. Up to a week—even a couple of days—ago, such things seemed commonplace and matter-of-fact.
Yet here he was, now, in a few brief hours, pitchforked, so to speak, into a world such as he had till then read only about in the course of his Greek and Latin studies, in the dim, vague narratives set out under the name of Ancient History.
Now it was this ancient, half-mythical world which alone seemed real; and it was the modern world, with all its wonderful inventions, which seemed to have vanished into the dim past. For here he stood, in an old-world amphitheatre such as might have existed in Pompeii two thousand years ago, and he was about to fight for his life as did the ancient gladiators. For arms, he had merely what those gladiators relied on—and he was clad in armour even as they were.
Truly a wonderful—an incredible thing to happen "Common sense" whispered that the whole thing must be a dream. Yet—there it was—and it was no dream!
Meantime, while these thoughts passed rapidly through his mind, for some reason his opponents had paused, and seemed in no hurry to come to close quarters. What they were waiting for was not apparent; but it gave him a little breathing-time—a chance to form a plan. But what plan was there to form? What could he, with his twentieth-century education, know about the strategy that ruled in the amphitheatre two thousand years ago?
Galston came to him and spoke quietly in his ear.
"The one called Maranus tells me," said the old sailor, "that immediately behind us is a door seldom used, opening into a passage which leads out into the open. There's no one much that side—all the crowd are gathering opposite. He thinks he can force the door if the chance is allowed us—but we must seem to retreat upon it as if by accident. If they see that we are making for it purposely they will rush round and block the other end of the passage. It doesn't seem much of a chance—but it's the best plan he can think of."
"Then we will act upon it. I think I see a way to lead up to it," Ralph promptly replied. "Tell him to act his part, and I will act mine."
There followed a short whispered conference, in which Maranus and Sumandah joined, and then Ralph, in accordance with his promise, began to "act his part."
And a very curious part it was—one very unlike his usual behaviour.
He began to strut to and fro, flourishing his sword, talking and laughing with Galston, and casting meaning looks at Bydamah as the Captain of the guard stood talking to his officers. So much meaning did he manage to throw into his looks and gestures, and so sneering and provocative did his smiles and shrugs become, that at last Bydamah's attention was drawn to what was going on. Not his only, but that of the followers on each side, and he saw that significant signs and nods were being exchanged.
At last Bydamah grew angry, and bade one of his officers demand what it all meant. "Surely," he exclaimed, "yonder conceited coxcomb is not making grimaces at me?"
This led to a sort of informal parley, in the course of which Galston managed matters so artfully as to work Bydamah into uncontrollable rage.
"Our champion," said Galston, in effect, to the officer, "cannot but congratulate your captain upon the happy chance which interrupted the fighting. But for that you would have lost your commander before this."
"Does he dare insinuate that I was getting the worst of it?" demanded Bydamah furiously.
"He does, most noble captain; and what's more we all think the same here. We can see, at any rate, that you are afraid to take up his challenge again and renew the duel," said Galston, with a manner so insulting that the infuriated captain could stand it no longer.
"Tell the insolent puppy to come on! I am ready to meet him and chastise his presumption," he cried at last.
"Aye, and be set upon by two or three of you at once, as happened before," answered Galston scornfully.
"No!" roared Bydamah. "No man shall interfere—none shall cheat me of my due, this time—I will kill him myself. You hear, all of you?" He glared round at his followers. "I am about to meet this pretentious young cub again, and this time I will not desist till I have laid him dead at my feet! Let no man interfere between us, on pain of death. If any man dares to interrupt us I will myself run him through! Aye, even though he were my dearest friend."
At this, cheers went up from both sides; and as Bydamah stepped out, Ralph advanced to meet him.
Each side fell back a little to give the two ample room; and a moment later the fight between the two champions recommenced.
On the Ireenian's side the fight was renewed with a fury which it took all Ralph's skill and vigilance to withstand. Galston had done his work artfully and well, and had taunted the hot-blooded officer in such fashion that nothing less than the immediate death of his young foe would now satisfy him. His eyes literally sparkled with murderous hate, and he laid on in a fashion which bade fair to vanquish the other by the sheer weight of his blows.
But Ralph was the more agile of the two, and since his sole object in provoking a renewal of the fight had been to gain time, he did not trouble himself particularly to attack in return, save now and then when his adversary's impetuosity led him to overreach himself and so gave an opportunity. Of every such chance Ralph never failed to take full advantage; and once or twice only Bydamah's armour saved him from a bad wound.
Ralph's armour, too, bore the marks of dents in places, and a small streak of blood upon the left cheek showed that once, at least, he had narrowly escaped something more serious.
Then he began gradually to give way, foot by foot, and as he did so his friends behind him slowly retired also. At this, Bydamah's followers pressed forward in the rear of their champion, their exulting shouts and cries, which constantly grew louder, testifying to their increasing belief in Ralph's coming defeat.
So completely was their attention taken up with their expected triumph, that they failed to notice that the retirement was being effected precisely in the direction of the disused door.
This, it is scarcely needful to say, had been the whole object of the theatrical parade of defiance which had been carried out by Ralph and his companions. The statement made by Maranus had at once suggested the plan to reach the door by what should appear to be an involuntary retreat. Only by such a ruse could they hope to seize upon the exit, and utilise it before their enemies realised their intention.
A little later, Ralph had given so much ground that he and his adversary were within a short distance of the wall of the arena. Against this, his friends were now huddled in a disordered crowd, officers, archers, and men seeming to be mixed up in inextricable confusion. Some on the outside of this crowd were still shouting out words of encouragement to Ralph and defiance to their enemies, but others, in the centre, seemed almost as if they were fighting amongst themselves. Swords, spears, cloaks, banners were to be seen whirling about in such wild fashion that it was difficult to make out exactly what was really going on.
Suddenly the triumphant shouts of Bydamah's people died down into a sort of puzzled silence; then this pause was succeeded by a hoarse roar of rage and exasperation.
It was now seen that the little band huddled against the side of the arena was growing every instant less and less, and then it was realised that they were escaping down the unused passage.
All but two or three had, in fact, now got away, amongst them Galston and Peter, who, much against their own wills, had been swept in by the rush and were unable to get back to warn Ralph that it was time for him to make a dash to join them.
Those still in the doorway were indeed doing their best to make him understand this, but as they had no knowledge of English, what they said conveyed no meaning to him. Nor dared he, just then, take his eye off his opponent to look round, for Bydamah was pressing him hard, with a look in his eyes which told plainly that nothing less than Ralph's death would satisfy his murderous passion and injured pride.
Some soldiers leaped down from the wall of the arena and shut the gate, thus barring Ralph's retreat. At the same moment, another group, obeying a command from Demundah, closed in between the two fighters, and while some of them kept Bydamah back, others threw themselves upon Ralph, bore him to the ground, and disarmed him.
"What means this?" cried Bydamah in savage anger. "Who dares to come between me and my foe?"
"I do!" thundered Demundah. The tyrant had risen to his feet and was standing with outstretched hand, his eyes flashing fire, and his face green with rage. "Fool! See you not that you have been tricked? While this young boaster pretended to retreat before you, the rest of the rebel crew escaped by yonder door! I have sent men round to pursue them, but for the time, at any rate, they have got away—all except this one, and he——"
"And he—he belongs to me!" shouted Bydamah, struggling with his own men as they held him back.
"Not so," returned Demundah. "We will reserve him to make us better sport to-night! See!"—he went on, more calmly—"the sun is rising, and it is time to break up our meeting. To-night, friends, we will re-assemble. By then, those who have now escaped will have been re-taken, and you shall see some good sport. Yes! I can promise you good sport to-night, friends all—good enough to make up a hundredfold for your present disappointment."
Demundah had overcome his sudden access of fury and was now again outwardly calm. But in the cold, malignant gleam of his eyes, as he turned them upon the prisoner, and even more, perhaps, in his cruel smile, there was that which made many even of his own hardened myrmidons shudder.
"Take him back to his dungeon," ordered the tyrant, "we shall not want him again before to-night."
And Ralph, now the only captive left, after having so pluckily aided the escape of all the others, was hurried away and flung once more into the cell from which he had been brought an hour or two before.
The whole of the day which followed, Ralph lay upon the floor of his dungeon in what was, at some times, a deep sleep, at others, that semiconscious state, half dozing, half awake, which often follows upon a period of overwrought excitement.
So worn out was he with all he had gone through that exhausted nature refused to be longer denied the needful rest; and for many hours not even the desperate character of his situation could keep sleep from his eyelids.
Once more, the next night, there was a sea of faces upon the terraces around the arena; once more Demundah sat upon his magnificent throne, his eyes, with their cold piercing glitter, fixed with cruel expectancy upon his prisoner; and once more Ralph stood still dauntless and defiant, returning the tyrant's gaze.
Grouped about the throne were Bydamah and many others in shining armour, or brilliant dresses, but there was no sign of any of the friends who had dared so much on his behalf. His eyes swept the whole assemblage in vain; no face there looked back at him with friendliness or even pity. All there—or at least all near enough to be distinguished—were hard, cruel, and pitiless. Most of them, indeed, were distorted by an expression horrible to look upon—a gloating, expectant look of fiendish pleasure at the thought of the tortures which they were to see inflicted upon the helpless prisoner—at the near prospect of the "good sport" which Demundah had promised them.
Nor was there any sign of Galston, Peter, Maranus, or any of the companions who, thanks to Ralph's ruse, had so neatly got away. He heaved a sigh of relief as he noted this, and decided in his mind that they must have made good their escape; otherwise Demundah would have paraded them there before his followers.
The tyrant was, indeed, seething with rage at the failure of his myrmidons to recapture the fugitives. He had had Ralph brought before him privately, and tried to question him as to who he was, and where he came from; but the prisoner's obvious ignorance of the language of the country had rendered all such questions futile.
Meantime, the people had gathered in their places around the arena, and were clamouring for the promised "sport." Out of all those who had escaped, and whom Demundah had boastfully promised to retake and give to them for their "sport" that night, Ralph alone was available for the expected entertainment; but him, at least, the expectant crowd craved for, and meant to have.
So now, as he stood there before them all, waiting unflinchingly some cruel fate—he knew not as yet what it was to be—while the bloodthirsty crowd around eyed him much as the hungry wolf eyes the helpless lamb upon which it is about to spring.
From the repellent faces below, his eyes wandered to a strange arrangement of wires, or rather cables above, the meaning of which he could not in any wise understand.
At first view they had the appearance of telegraph cables or wires running in three parallel lines the whole length of the arena, at a height of some fifty or sixty feet from the ground.
But they were not telegraph cables; and he was not left long in ignorance of the fiendish use to which they were to be put.
From one of them a stout rope was lowered running through a travelling ring upon the wire above. His breastplate was removed, a broad leather band was laced round his breast, with a ring at the back. To this ring the rope was made fast and then, at a signal from Demundah, he was suddenly lifted off his feet and swung up into the air, where he remained swinging a few feet below the centre wire, in an attitude very much as if he had been flying.
Then, by means of other ropes, the ring from which he was suspended was made to travel to and fro across the arena, carrying him with it high in air, dangling, swinging, at times spinning round helplessly.
A roar broke out from the spectators—a roar partly of amusement at the figure cut by the hapless prisoner—partly of impatience for the next item in the performance.
Suddenly were heard loud, blood-curdling screams, horrible, ear-piercing screeches, a whirring as of gigantic wings—and then a strange sight appeared. At each end of the other overhead wires there came into view the form of a monstrous flying creature, attached by a short rope in much the same way as was Ralph, and, like him, dangling and twirling about, at the end of the cord.
These creatures were two immense specimens of the giant bats called "moldrahs," of the kind which Ralph had already seen attacking the cage from which he and his companions had rescued Faronda. Those he had then seen, however, formidable though they had been, were almost small by comparison with the two he now caught sight of.
These were indeed monsters which had for many years been kept in captivity, and fed up until they had grown into two colossal creatures, the most hideous, the most repulsive, that pen can describe or the fancy imagine.
These terrible foes were now let loose, one from either end, upon the hapless victim dangling in the air midway between them. Sweeping along with most horrible screams, they quickly closed in upon him, and the next moment he was engaged in a life and death struggle in which he knew there was no hope for him, and in which he was only urged to exert himself to fight by that animal instinct which prompts all creatures to struggle blindly.
His senses were almost overcome by the horrible, disgusting effluvium emitted by the loathsome monsters; his hands, arms, and face were torn and bleeding; the beasts made frantic attempts to reach his eyes and tear them out; they all three spun round and round and swung about mixed up in a sort of hideous knot. He felt his senses going, his head swam, when, suddenly, he was aware of two shocks, both the attackers fell away from him, and remained hanging at the end of their ropes, limp and motionless.
Ralph looked round, feebly wondering. Below him there was a great uproar—shouts, yells, cries, execrations, were bawled out on all sides. Yet, through it all, he seemed to hear a well-known voice calling his name, and he looked up.
There, above him, floating amidst the mist and smoke, which rose from the hundreds of lights, was Kalma's "air chariot"; and there, looking grimly down the barrels of their rifles, were Peter—and—Loronto himself!
It would be difficult to describe Ralph's feelings as he looked up and perceived his friend Loronto floating above in Kalma's "air chariot." Amazement and delight struggled in his breast with a vague distrust. He was half inclined to believe that this was but some trick of fancy—some hallucination of his brain, driven off its balance by the terrible ordeal he had undergone.
Yet—there were his horrible foes, the two gigantic bats—hanging now limp and harmless from the ropes by which they were attached to the wires above, and—most welcome evidence of all—there was his chum's voice, which he could hear calling to him, even amid the noise going on below.
"Quick, Ralph, quick!" Loronto cried.
"Seize the rope and cut yourself free. Then we can haul you up! Quick! They are shooting at you, and we can't shoot properly in reply till we've got you safe on board!"
A rope came swinging within reach, tied to it by a string he saw a knife, and as he put out one hand and caught the rope he clutched the weapon in the other.
He comprehended his friend's plan—it was that he should use the blade to cut himself free from the cord by which he was hanging from the overhead wire. It was not an easy matter, for the band or belt round his breast to which it was fastened was of stout leather, and was secured to the cord he hung from by a ring at his back, so that he could not get at it.
First, however, it was necessary that he should fasten himself to the rope Loronto had lowered, and he managed to slip this through the same ring, and then passed it round his body.
He was only just in time, for the next moment the cord he had been suspended by slackened. Those in charge of it had loosened it in order to let him drop to the ground. But instead of descending, as they expected, he now remained hanging from the "air-chariot."
The slackening of the rope he had been hanging by, however, gave him his opportunity. It fell below him in the loop, and he seized it at once and commenced hurriedly cutting at it with his knife. But it was made of some kind of native grass, and was tough and strong, so that the knife cut into it but slowly. And all the while, as he struggled with it, arrows came whizzing around him, some singing past his ears, while one grazed his arm.
The arrows were answered from above at first, by a hail of stones. This was a matter of necessity rather than calculation, since directly Ralph's weight was thrown upon the car it became needful to throw out ballast, or the whole affair would have been dragged downwards.
But the stones, coming from such a height, were almost as effectual as bullets, and there being such a number of them, were even more disconcerting to their enemies below.
For a space the archers, beaten down and dismayed by the rain of unlooked-for missiles, ceased their shooting, thus giving Ralph a short respite. A few seconds later he had severed the rope, and signalled his success to his friends overhead.
Then the car sailed quietly away, rising as it went, Ralph dangling below, the while that he climbed cautiously up the rope. He had to be careful in his movements, knowing that any sudden jerk might turn the car over.
Loronto, leaning over, watched his progress anxiously, scarce venturing, beyond uttering a word or two of encouragement, to speak, until he got quite close.
"Well done, Ralph! Well done! Oh, what a surprise to those 'johnnies.' Hullo, what's that?"
There had been a flash, followed by an explosion, and now there came, sailing slowly upwards, one of the red balls they had learned to dread. It passed on into the upper air, but the glare from it, and the sound of the explosion, had startled Kalma's swans, and they made a sudden dart. This set Ralph swinging about in a fashion which threatened the safety of the car and all its occupants.
"Jupiter!" muttered Loronto. "I spoke too soon! We haven't done with these 'johnnies' yet, it seems!"
"It's a bad look-out," said Kalma, "I did not know they had any of their rock-mortars hereabouts! If one of those fireballs touches us it will destroy us utterly. Can you fire at the balls and burst them, as you did on the water? Do you remember?"
"Aye, I understand," said Loronto between his teeth. "But who can shoot straight while our friend is swinging about in this fashion? Still—Peter—look out for the next fireball and aim at it."
The swans were flying round in a great circle as frightened birds often do, thus keeping within the danger zone instead of carrying the car away from it. For the time they had got out of hand, and Kalma had lost control of them.
There came another flash from below, followed by the usual detonation. The swans made another dive, and this time swung round in a descending circle, which brought them almost back to where they had been when they had thrown the rope to Ralph.
An outburst of triumphant shouting from below apprised the adventurers that their enemies were watching them, and had noted and were rejoicing at their dilemma. The sudden plunge of their feathered steeds had taken them well out of the path of the second fireball, which could be seen sailing slowly along some distance away, but a third had been sent up, and it passed too near to be pleasant.
Just then Ralph touched the side of the car.
"Give me a hand and keep the car steady, and I think I can climb in. I'm about pumped out," he gasped.
A moment later he was helped in by willing arms, and was quickly seated beside his chum.
"Heaven be thanked for that, Ralph!" exclaimed Loronto. "Now we shall get on better! There's a rifle at your feet; take it and give 'em a shot or two as soon as you feel your hand steady enough. I should think you feel you owe them a little attention of that sort. Now, Peter, if we must needs cruise round here a while, let's turn it to good account, you used to be a good shot; see what you can do now. Pick off the 'johnnies' who are firing those big guns of theirs."
They saw below them a clear space in the crowd. Not far from it some soldiers were busy getting a light from a brazier. One of them ran forward towards the centre of the space carrying the light at the end of a long cane.
Those above, watching him, divined that he was about to fire off another of their curious mortars, though there was nothing to be seen at all resembling a cannon. Clearly, as they had before been told, the "mortars" were merely holes bored into the rock, and fired by applying a light.
The car was steadier now, and Peter pressed the trigger of his rifle. The man carrying the light dropped it, threw up his arms, and fell to the ground.
"Good for you, Peter!" said Loronto coolly, as he saw another man snatch up the light and dart forward. He fired himself this time, and the man dropped. "And that's good for me!" he added, with quiet satisfaction.
"But we must get away if we can," Ralph urged. "I can see another of their mortars—two more—ah, there are more still over yonder! We can't manage to silence them all!"
Kalma had meantime been talking to his birds, soothing and coaxing them. Then he turned their heads once more, and this time they flew off rapidly in the desired direction.
The sounds behind them as more fireballs were sent up, this time only urged them forward, and in another minute or two they were well out of the range of fire, and sailing swiftly on into the darkness.
Kalma took up a lighted lantern which had been placed in readiness at the bottom of the car, and moved it up and down in a peculiar manner. Almost immediately the signal was answered by a light which appeared straight before them, and which imitated the motions he had made.
"Where are we going?" Ralph asked.
"To the terrace on the rock, where we found Faronda," answered Kalma.
"Ha! And is he there? Did he get away safely?"
"Yes, my dear Ralph," Loronto said. "And he is there now waiting for us with his friends Maranus and Sumandah and others—who all—including our good Peter, here—owe their escape to your plucky self-devotion. I've heard their story."
"Well, I haven't, Lorry," Ralph reminded him. "And I'm jolly well mystified as to how you yourself came to be here. I have pictured you as lying dead——"
Poor Ralph felt a lump rise up in his throat as he spoke. Amidst all his stirring adventures of the past days and nights, the thought of Loronto's fate had been ever with him, and the remembrance of what his feelings had been now seemed to surge up within him and choke his voice.
Loronto understood and pressed his hand.
"You've acted splendidly, Ralph," he said in a low tone. "I don't know all yet, but I know enough to enable me to guess at a good deal of what must have followed."
"But what of Faronda?" Ralph asked. "Did he turn out trustworthy?"
"Truly; it was he who, with Kalma, brought the precious antidote, which came in time to save me. But you shall hear all about it later on. See, here we are at the place where they are waiting for us."
A great cheer went up as the aerial car touched ground on the rocky ledge. There were lanterns, and by their aid Ralph, as he stepped out, saw quite a circle of well-known faces. Friends pressed round on all sides to shake his hand and express their joy at his escape.
Amongst the first to greet him were Galston, and some of the crew of the yacht; and they were followed by Faronda and his friends, who were just as ready to make a hero of him. They tried hard to show by their gestures and actions—for he could not, of course, understand their language—their appreciation of the pluck and unselfish courage he had displayed.
Under the influence of the cordial and affectionate reception all these accorded him, Ralph's spirits rose, and the recollection of all he had been through grew less vivid.
Later on, when the story of all that had happened on each side came to be told, Montamah spoke aside to Ralph concerning Faronda.
"You did well when you rescued him from his terrible plight," he declared. "You have gained for us a most zealous adherent, and one likely to be useful to us. It was a great risk to run—to trust him. I think I should have hesitated, had I been in your place, for he and I have been sworn enemies for many years, and I had learned to regard him as a fierce, relentless fighter, and a clever commander."
"Both Kalma and Galston seemed to respect him as an honest, brave, open foe, however," returned Ralph. "Else I should never have trusted him."
"Yes, yes! They said what was true; and you did well; it has turned out well! He appears to be now a loyal and devoted follower of Prince Loronto, and should be a valuable addition to our party, for he knows many secrets about Demundah and his supporters. Indeed, but for him, Prince Loronto would not be alive now. When he and Kalma had gathered the antidote, and he saw that you were captured, he did the best thing then possible. He led our friend back at once by a secret way, and the two brought the precious leaves of the antidote to us. Then, as soon as he saw that the antidote was successful, he suggested to us plans for rescuing you. First, we brought a number of our friends here, as you see, and sufficient arms——"
"Yes, I perceive that; but how could you do it—and why are you here?"
"Kalma came and returned many times, bringing three at a time. Faronda communicated with his friends and brought us news of all that went on, and of Demundah's intentions. Supposing we had been unable to rescue you by means of the air-chariot, we hoped to be able to rush the secret passage, seize Demundah, and hold him as a hostage."
"Ah! I see. But I doubt whether you could have managed that," said Ralph, shaking his head.
"It is better as it is," Montamah agreed. "And now the trouble will be for us all to get back to our stronghold. In Kalma's air-chariot we can only go three at a time, and the birds are tired. Moreover, the direct way, over the Temple and city is no longer open to us."
"What then are we to do?"
"One of our galleys is to be sent across the water to a rendezvous near an old tower by the shore some few miles away. We had better start for it as soon as possible, for even if we are unmolested we shall hardly reach it now before dawn. But it is more probable that we shall be pursued and have to fight our way there."
"Then let us set out at once."
"But you had better first don some armour," Montamah suggested. "We have brought some with us on purpose. You see your friend is putting his on. It is a necessity here, and we persuaded him to do as we do. It is a protection not only against arrows, but against treacherous dagger thrusts, such as he has suffered from already."
It seemed that Loronto and Peter had doffed their armour temporarily in order to lessen the weight in the air-chariot. They now proceeded to put it on again. At sight of Loronto's, Ralph burst out into surprise and admiration.
"It is a magnificent suit, Lorry!" he exclaimed, "one worthy of the ruler of so ancient a nation."
It was indeed; for though sable, as regards general colour, it was damascened and inlaid so beautifully with precious metals and stones that it constituted a veritable work of art. The helmet was surmounted by a plume which helped to set off Loronto's splendid figure.
"We've brought one nearly as good for you," Montamah observed. "We thought you might want it."
"I?" answered Ralph. "I only want a breastplate. They took mine away——"
'"Nay, it is not well that our friend should be indebted to our enemies for his armour," Montamah objected. "It would please us better that you should wear your own; for this is now yours."
He pointed to a suit lying in the cave amongst the spare arms and ammunition, and Loronto adding his appeal to Montamah's, Ralph could not but yield. In a few minutes he appeared clad in it "cap-à-pie," and Loronto regarded him critically.
"It's a splendid affair—too good for me!" exclaimed Ralph modestly. "Let me have something plainer——"
"No, no, Ralph! Rather ought you to have mine; for you have proved your right to wear it—you have christened your sword, and, like the knights of old, have won your spurs—while I," he added, regretfully, "have yet to prove my claim to appear in knightly guise."
"Merely because you haven't had the chance yet," Ralph reminded him, laughingly. "I wouldn't care to be the one upon whom you first try your knightly blade."
Shortly afterwards the whole party moved off down the mountain side, under the guidance of the Ireenians.
Silently they made their way, aided by a slight radiance which appeared in the sky as the forerunner of the moon not yet risen. Sometimes through dark woods, at others across wide stretches of open greensward, they travelled, now and again fording small streams, or climbing over rocky ridges which lay in their way. There seemed to be neither inhabitants nor roads—at least near the route which they followed.
In due time the moon rose. By its light they progressed faster so that it begun to look as though they had outdistanced the pursuers, whom they guessed were by that time upon their track.
It was indeed not until the dawn was actually appearing in the east that they saw or heard any signs of an enemy. Montamah had just been explaining to Loronto and Ralph that they were nearing their destination, and they were in consequence congratulating themselves upon their good fortune, when some Ireenians came hurrying up from the rear with news. A large party of Demundah's soldiers were close behind, they said, and an attack might be expected at any moment.
Nor was it long before it came to pass. The leaders had barely time to make their disposition and take up ground on a wooded knoll when arrows began to fly around them.
For a time little else happened. A small thicket on the top of the little hill afforded good shelter from the flying arrows, and as the pursuers showed themselves in no haste to attack, Montamah discreetly kept his men as much as possible out of sight.
Some desultory skirmishing followed, and meantime it grew light. Then it could be seen that the pursuers greatly outnumbered the defenders. A few of these, it is true, were armed with rifles and revolvers, which had been brought in the air-chariot. But as there was not much reserve ammunition, it was clear that what there was would have to be husbanded, and used only as a last resource. Hence the possession of firearms was but a small advantage in the actual circumstances.
As it grew lighter and the enemy could be more clearly discerned, an unpleasant discovery was made.
Ralph had been scanning some of the opposing leaders, of whom he recognized several through-his glasses. He pointed them out to Loronto.
"See, Lorry!" he exclaimed. "That fellow there, near the purple banner—the one in the gorgeous armour—is Bydamah, the chap I had the fight with! And the one next to him is Assandrus—the one Galston fought. As for the one next to him—that dark-visaged johnny—I seem to remember his face—and yet——"
"Why—it's uncommonly like the man who struck me down! The one they called Palaynus!" cried Loronto. "How on earth has he come here?"
Montamah had recognised the man almost at the same moment.
"Truly it is Palaynus!" he declared, evident chagrin in his tones. "Then he must have escaped in some extraordinary way since we left the Grotto, and must have managed to get across the water and join this party."
There he was at any rate; and his presence was a disagreeable shock to them all.
"Someone will have to suffer for this!" muttered Galston, as he noted Montamah's stern, set features. "I wouldn't like to be the gentleman responsible for letting him go!"
But they had just then more pressing matters to think of. To Loronto it seemed obvious that their enemies were for playing a waiting game.
"It's their policy to keep us penned up here while they bring more men up or something," he ventured to point out. "I don't believe in waiting an enemy's pleasure; I prefer to attack first myself."
"But I have a reason for not wishing to hurry," Montamah now said. "By this time a lot of our people—that is both mine and yours, Prince, must have reached the tower we are bound for. If they find we do not arrive it is part of our plan, as arranged, that they shall come to meet us. I'm in hopes that we may see them shortly. Your men, coming by boat, will bring their rifles and plenty of ammunition—which we were unable to manage in the air-chariot."
"Ah! Now I understand," returned the young man with a nod. "Still—don't you think——?"
His words were interrupted by a loud whistle and some shouts amongst their foes. Something or someone they had been waiting for must have arrived for there were now brisk movements in progress, which indicated that the period of inaction had come to an end.
"I see what they're up to," muttered Ralph. "They're going to surround us, and then try to rush the hill on all sides at once."
This, however, was not exactly the plan. A party had been sent round to cut off their retreat in the direction of the tower; but the main attack was made from the other side. And it came now in one headlong rush.
The assailants were allowed to charge more than half way up the slope without any sign of resistance. Then they were met with a staggering fire from ail the rifles and revolvers the defenders possessed, and before it several fell, while the others recoiled, astonished and dismayed.
The rest of the defenders did not wait to give their foes time to recover from their confusion, but burst upon them like a pack of wolves. Indignation at the way Ralph had been treated while in the hands of these people—the tale had got about even amongst the rank and file—hag helped to exasperate them almost beyond control.
They threw themselves amongst the disorganised crowd with such fury that they at first swept everything before them. In their impatience, some of those who had rifles or pistols, finding that the armour of their foes turned some of the bullets aside, threw down their firearms and hurled themselves upon the nearest adversaries, flinging them down and wrestling with them upon the ground.
Bydamah caught sight of Ralph, and with a loud cry challenged him to meet him. Ralph, nothing loth, and disdaining to take any advantage of his foe, dropped his rifle, and, drawing his sword, welcomed the combat. In a moment the two were engaged in a hand-to-hand fight which brought back memories of their encounter in the arena, before Demundah and his shouting crowds.
Near them, Galston had singled out Assandrus, with whom he had a long score to settle, and forced him into a duel which he would probably have much rather avoided.
Loronto, looking round, found friends and foes so mixed up that his rifle seemed likely to be an encumbrance rather than otherwise, and, hastily concealing it, therefore, in some bushes, he drew his sword and ran to the support of Montamah, who had been assailed by two of the opposing leaders.
They were both big men, evidently experienced fighters, and well versed in every trick and ruse of swordsmanship. Montamah was hard put to it between the two; but Loronto promptly attacked one of the pair and compelled him to give him his sole attention.
The battle soon became a wild scene of shouting, struggling, cursing combatants. It was waged with deadly obstinacy on both sides, for, be it said, Demundah's soldiers were good fighters, however uncivilised they might show themselves to be in other ways.
Montamah's adversary did not stand up to him for long. His name was Brakla; and, as in the case of Galston and Assandrus, there were old scores outstanding between the two.
Montamah was in a mood that was bad for Brakla, had he but known it. The treatment of Ralph, and the escape of the treacherous Palaynus, had roused his usually cool temperament to a degree which his oldest friends afterwards said they had never before seen. There was an ominous compression of the lips, and a dangerous light in his eyes, as he swung his great sword and advanced upon his foe. There were a few blows on each side, given and parried, and then Montamah beat down the other's guard and literally swept him from his path.
Pausing to take breath, Montamah surveyed the battle-field; and the outlook did not please him. He perceived that his people were outnumbered, and in their impetuosity they had, as already noted, rashly thrown away the advantage which their possession of firearms had given them. Nor were they all clad in armour as their enemies were. He hastened, therefore, to where he saw some of his friends hard pressed, to see what he could do to put matters on a better footing.
And then it was that he heard a very welcome sound, the sound of rifle-firing close at hand.
It was followed by a cheer—an unmistakable British cheer. A minute later Professor Henson appeared at the head of a dozen or so of bluejackets from the yacht. With him were a like number of Montamah's men under some of his lieutenants, amongst whom was to be seen the young inventor of the air-chariot, Kalma.
The appearance of reinforcements quickly turned the scale. The Ireenians gave up the contest, and most of them made off at once; only a few obstinate spirits, too proud to yield and too stubborn to fly, continued to fight doggedly. Among these were Bydamah and two or three of his henchmen.
Their obstinacy ended in their being made prisoners; and with their capture the fighting came to an end, for Montamah deemed it wise to stop all pursuit.
"What people have you with you?" he asked of the Professor. "How did you get here? Where is the yacht?"
"We came in a galley," was the answer. "Captain Woodham was doubtful about the depth of the water in the channels we came through, and did not like to risk the yacht. There are no more of us than you see."
"Not enough to make it prudent to remain here," Montamah decided. "We shall have other detachments down upon us directly. We had better return with you to where you left your galley and make a stand there so as to protect it from capture. It would not take us all, and it will not do to lose it."
Ralph greeted Kalma warmly. "It's jolly good of you to come to look for us," he said. "We were getting into a mess I'm afraid—our chaps were too venturesome and got out of hand—and you came just in the nick of time. How are the air-chariot and the birds going on?"
"The chariot is damaged, and I had a narrow escape on my last journey," returned Kalma, shaking his head. "My birds somehow became frightened, and made a rush for home. I could not hold them, or even guide them, and they ended by overturning the car and getting entangled in the harness, so that we all came down together. Fortunately, we were near home and over the water at the time. I clung to the car for a while, and then dropped off into the water and swam to the shore, which was not very far away. A few hundred yards from the bank I found the chariot badly knocked about, with the birds still entangled in the wreck. I set them free, and was glad to see them fly off unhurt; but the car I had to leave where it was. I then hastened to the 'Grotto,' made a report, and started off at once with a few more in the first craft we could find."
The handsome young officer looked very much upset at the accident to his now famous air-chariot, and for a while refused to be comforted.
There was not time for further talk. Orders were given to gather together their own arms and belongings, and as much of what had been left behind by their enemies in their flight as it was likely they would be able to carry away. There were many wounded, too, to be tended, and in some cases these had to be carried also. Finally they had several prisoners, including, as has been noted, Bydamah himself.
The men were formed up, and the whole party set off, intent for the time being only upon gaining the little fort of which mention has been made. There the leaders hoped to be able to make a stand until their friends could send them reinforcements, or boats to take them off.
As they marched onwards, Loronto and Ralph in turn recounted their adventures, to which their friends listened with not a little astonishment.
"But where is Peter?" presently asked Professor Henson. He had been looking about for his henchman who was nowhere to be seen.
His non-appearance led to a hasty count-up, and then it was discovered that two others were missing too, viz., Ben Pike and the old sailor, Ridge.
Their absence threw a gloom over the party. Ralph, in particular, was very much concerned, and would probably have turned back in search for him but that his impulse was overruled by the stern necessities of their situation.
"We must hurry on," Montamah declared. "We shall soon have our foes back upon our heels—those we have been fighting with, and other detachments as well, and you can see from our recent experience that we shall be hard put to it unless we can seize upon some point of vantage. It may be that the missing sailors have gone off on some little expedition of their own. There is one thing to be said; Ridge knows all the country round here well—far better, indeed, than I do."
Ralph was compelled to admit the wisdom of this view of the position, but he could not but feel anxious and alarmed.
"I thought we had all been so fortunate—for there are none of us badly hurt," he said. "But how can we tell that these poor fellows have not been so sorely wounded that they crept into the bushes out of sight?"
Truly, as he said, they had come off very well, considering. They had many wounded—Montamah, Loronto, and Ralph had all some hurts to show, fortunately only minor ones—but until then they could boast that they had not lost a man. Now, however, it turned out that three were missing.
But Montamah urged that they should hasten their steps. He was anxious to avoid another conflict in the open, he said; especially in view of the fact that they were encumbered with wounded and prisoners.
Ralph, taking Galston with him as interpreter, went the round of these "encumbrances," to make sure that they were all being well treated. He came, in turn, to Bydamah, who was in charge of some of Montamah's guards.
Ralph noticed that he was walking somewhat unsteadily, and asked Galston to inquire whether his bonds had been fastened too tightly, and were painful. To his annoyance, however, the prisoner remained silent and sullen, and refused to give any answer whatever.
It was all in vain that the kind-hearted young fellow persevered in his efforts to get a reply. At last one of the other prisoners spoke. This man, whose name was Bordoba, was one of Bydamah's officers, and he had himself been wounded while fighting by the side of his chief.
"The truth is," he muttered, as he flashed a look of hatred at Ralph from under his bushy eyebrows, "our lord was sorely wounded by that young upstart. He does not like to admit that he got the worst of the encounter; nor would I, were it not that I fear if he does not have his injuries attended to he will faint by the way. You can see for yourself that even now he sways as he walks."
This was said in a very low tone to Galston, the speaker being evidently anxious that Bydamah should not hear it. Galston drew Ralph behind and repeated in English what had been said, and the latter went at once to Montamah and reported the matter to him.
"I know the difficulties of our position," Ralph urged, "and this man, according to all I hear, does not seem to be one deserving of much sympathy. Yet, when I was a prisoner yonder, and he was going to fight with me, he acted in a chivalrous sort of manner, and, in particular, sent me refreshment when I sorely needed it. He is more hurt, I fancy, than he will admit. Can we not do something for him?"
"I will come and look into it myself," said Montamah, "as soon as I can. I must go first to the front, for see! we are in sight of the shore, and yonder is the tower we are looking for!"
From the place where they were Ralph looked out over the waters of the inland sea, and could see rocks and mountains in the distance. Upon the shore itself, not far away, was a round tower placed upon an eminence. So far as could be seen it was deserted.
Ralph spoke a word or two to Loronto, and then to Professor Henson, whom he knew to be well skilled in medicine, and the three went forward to where Bydamah was walking—or rather staggering.
Even as they came up to him he swayed, stood still for a moment, and then lurched forward, and would have fallen but for Ralph's extended arms.
Ralph laid him gently upon the ground, while Loronto loosened his bonds and unbuckled his helmet and breast-plate. As the latter piece was removed they saw there was a deep cut in it, and that upon the inside it was smothered with blood. The gash in the armour had been covered up and hidden from sight by some of the gay trappings worn by the injured man.
The Professor's examination disclosed a deep wound upon the left shoulder, which had been bleeding freely.
"Why, it is almost a miracle that the man has not bled to death!" he exclaimed. "I wonder whose handiwork this is?" he muttered to himself as he prepared to staunch the wound and bind it up. "It was no ordinary blow, this!"
"'Twas your young friend's handiwork, sir," said Galston, who had followed the Professor.
"What, Ralph's?" exclaimed Henson, wonderingly.
"Yes, sir; so this other prisoner, here, declared."
"Great Scott! I should have said it must have been one of Montamah's blows!"
Loronto had heard, what was said and glanced round for Ralph; but he was not there. He had gone to get some water, and presently returned with a draught which he placed to the lips of the sufferer, who drank greedily, with closed eyes. Then he opened them, and evidently recognised the giver, for he gazed fixedly at him for some seconds.
"You—should—be—satisfied, young sir!" he said, speaking with difficulty. "You have done your work well!" And with that he fainted.
"It seems to me," said Henson, "that we had better find our galley and put him and the other prisoners on board. We shall be better without them here."
"A good thought, Professor," Montamah, who had just come up to the others, agreed. "We can halt here for a few minutes while you call up the boat if she is anywhere within hail."
Loronto and Ralph walked on by themselves into the little fort. Passing first through some gates, and then through a courtyard, they saw the door of the tower standing open and entered. Inside there was a spiral stone staircase.
"Perhaps if we get on to the roof we shall see something of the galley," Loronto suggested, as he commenced the ascent of the stairs.
The place seemed absolutely deserted, and all was still within. They reached the top, and Ralph, who was first, was crossing the fiat roof to obtain a good view on the side nearest the water, when a warning cry from his friend startled him.
Two men had sprung from some place in which they had been lying concealed, and thrown themselves upon the two strangers.
Taken thus at a disadvantage, neither of them had time to draw a weapon; and for a few seconds it looked as though their case was desperate.
But the man who had seized upon Loronto little knew the sort of young giant he had to deal with. There were a few moments of stern, silent wrestling, when muscles were tense and hard, and stood out like lumps of rounded steel.
Then, with a growl like an enraged lion, Loronto turned so suddenly and with such irresistible force that his adversary's grip fell away like a child's. The next moment the young athlete had caught the fellow up in his arms, and, stalking to the battlemented parapet which ran round the roof, he hurled him from him with a heave that sent him far out into the water below.
Then he turned to Ralph, who had not fared so well, and was indeed in evil case, for his assailant was lying upon him, and was even then raising a dagger to strike.
But the blow never fell. A hand seized the wrist in a grasp that all but dislocated it, another hand caught the man by the thigh and pulled him off his intended victim. Then he was lifted high in air and followed his comrade into the water at the foot of the tower.
Montamah and those with him, a hundred yards away, were astonished to see two figures thrown like dolls, one after the other, over the wall of the roof of the tower. It was the first intimation they received of what had been going on.
A rush was made at once for the place, but when they arrived there they only met the two chums, who were rather flushed, and somewhat out of breath, but smiling, and none the worse for their little adventure. Meantime their two crestfallen foes had swum ashore and disappeared.
Before much explanation could be given, a man left as look-out came running up with the news that a large party of the enemy had been descried from the top of a rock, and that they might be expected to appear in sight within a very short time.
There was a hasty council of war among the leaders, and a hurried glance round to sum up the possibilities of their little fortress and its capacity to stand a short siege.
The building stood upon a rocky bluff, which jutted out into the waters of the inland sea. The tower itself was surrounded by a massive wall with embrasures, built upon the edge of rocks which were washed by the water upon three sides, while the wall upon the fourth side—that which stretched across the neck of land joining the bluff with the shore—was defended by a deep trench.
The ground fell away abruptly shoreward for some distance, and then rose, first in a slope, and afterwards, by a series of rocky terraces, to a considerable height. Montamah eyed these terraces with misgiving. "They are not, of course, within bowshot," he observed, "but all the same they are nearer than I could wish. However, let us hope that our stay here will be but a brief one."
A galley now came into view upon the water. She seemed to have been lying concealed somewhere near, but those left in charge of her had evidently been on the watch, and had recognised their friends. "Yonder comes our galley," said the Professor.
"Now who is going in her to hasten on the others? We only want a couple more such craft and we could all get clear away."
Montamah shook his head and smiled. "I'm afraid they will scarcely let us reach our quarters quite as easily as that, Professor," he returned. "Demundah has galleys of his own, remember; and they will want to have a finger in this pie. They will be round here presently like a swarm of hornets, to cut off our retreat by water, while the soldiers make their attack on the land side."
"But the yacht? Could she not come with your galleys as escort?" asked Loronto.
"That is the question," said Montamah, "to put the case briefly, everything will depend upon that. She cannot travel round by the way by which she came to our retreat, without passing within reach of the 'fire balls,' which would almost certainly mean her destruction. Whether she can sail through what we call the northern channel—that by which this galley came—depends upon what water she draws, and the present depth of water in the channel. Those two points can only be settled by investigation upon the spot and consultation with Captain Woodham."
In the result it was decided that Montamah himself should return in the galley to organise a rescue party and hasten its despatch; and that he should take the prisoners with him. He offered also to take the Professor, but he declined.
"For the present my place is here, where my friends are in danger," he declared sturdily. "I can do my share of fighting, and they will want every man who can fire a rifle."
"What we want most of all just now is more ammunition," Ralph pointed out. "If you could send on a craft of any sort with a supply it would make all the difference to us."
"There is some in the galley," observed Henson. "We thought it as well to bring a reserve supply; but we shall want still more I am afraid."
"We'll see what can be done," Montamah promised. "If it cannot be sent to you by water perhaps Kalma can repair his air chariot and bring it that way. He had better come with me."
"A good thought, Kalma, my friend!" exclaimed Ralph, addressing the young officer. "Once more we find ourselves depending upon your invention, and your splendid feathered pets. Good luck go with you!"
A small party went along the shore to see the galley start and cover the departure if necessary. When they reached the place where the craft was waiting, they found that there were six rowers with her, and two archers, with a reserve stock of arrows. There was also on board, as the Professor had said, a supply of cartridges for rifles and revolvers. These welcome stores were landed and taken to the tower, while the galley, carrying Montamah, Kalma, and Oatly—who, they knew, would be wanted on board the yacht—and their prisoners, rowed off as fast as the long sweeps, handled by sturdy rowers, could take her.
The leaders then returned to their little fortress to hurry on the preparations for the defence.
The officer in charge of Montamah's people was a grizzled veteran named Mentris. He had served under Loronto's father, and had been one of Montamah's staunch lieutenants through all the troubled times which had passed since his royal master's death.
He was evidently pleased and proud now at the position in which the wheel of time had placed him; and he behaved towards Loronto with a curious mixture of deep respect, and fatherly solicitude. As he could not speak any English, Galston's services were again in demand as interpreter.
Mentris set to work to place his men, the archers being assigned posts on the top of the tower. As the reserve stock of arrows was unpacked, something fell out which the officer noticed with evident surprise. It seemed to be a banner or flag, and he commenced to unroll it.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "How came that here? It must have got amongst those stores by accident. But surely it is a lucky omen that we should find it to-day, for it is the royal banner! How say you, my lord, shall it remain rolled up and unused, or will you unfurl it for us to fight under?"
Galston repeated these words to Loronto, who took the banner and examined it with great interest. It was beautifully worked in gold and colours, and repesented a hand clutching the sceptre of the black opal.
A cheer broke forth from Mentris's men as they looked upon it; and the shout was taken up by the sailors, though they only guessed at its meaning.
Loronto could not gaze upon it without emotion. His father had fought under that banner! How many brave hearts, he wondered, had died in its defence?
"You will not roll it up and put it away again?" Ralph asked.
"Never! while our foes are in sight, and we are able to defend it!" was Loronto's reply. "Hang it out from the top of the tower! Let them see it; and let them come and take it if they can!"
And so it came about that Demundah's people, as they stood afar off, in sight of the tower—which they had expected to find held by their own people—saw, to their astonishment a flag run out which some of them recognised as the royal banner of the former king of the country. It had never been used in warfare, it seemed, since the death of Loronto's father.
The hostile force was under the command of two of Bydamah's lieutenants, a veteran warrior named Tokama, and a younger but redoubtable fighter named Bryondis. The men they had with them numbered somewhere about a hundred, and they had sent messengers to Demundah for more. But when they saw how few there were opposed to them in the fort, they decided not to wait for reinforcements, but to make an immediate assault. Why should they share the glory of the capture, and the favour it was sure to give them in the eyes of their lord Demundah with others? Thus they argued: and they had already, in leisurely fashion, begun their dispositions for the attack, when the appearance of the royal banner roused them to sudden energy and anger.
It was a defiant reminder that they had now a new foe to deal with, the son of the lawful ruler of the realm, a young prince who intended to assert his rights.
On the side of the defenders—of whom there were barely forty, all told—the display of the flag had produced a correspondingly stimulating effect.
Ralph, especially, was full of enthusiasm.
"It is a solemn reminder that we are fighting for a just cause—for the kingdom which belongs to you of right, Lorry," he declared.
"It is well to keep that in mind; well to remember that we are not here as a mere band of filibusters, bent upon conquest for the sake of loot—as Demundah doubtless declares to his followers that we are!" Professor Henson added.
"Aye; but how are we to bring the knowledge of the truth home to those same followers of his?" asked Loronto, with a sigh. "There they are—some of them, at any rate; probably what he considers the flower of his little army-making ready for their attack upon us. Would that I could address a few words to them first and try to gain them over that way, instead of shooting them down! They make a brave show!"
At a distance of a thousand yards or so, at the top of the grassy slope, there was a long ridge running parallel to the shore. It was covered with a belt of trees, and beneath these the opposing party had taken up their station.
They now came out and stood in a line, upon the top of the slope, with banners gaily waving, trumpets blaring, drums beating, and their accoutrements flashing in the sun. The armour and trappings of the officers, in particular, formed a magnificent display, and it should be said that most of the wearers were fine, martial figures, and bore themselves well. No wonder that Loronto looked upon them with a feeling which had in it more of admiration than of enmity, or that he felt he would rather march at their head as their commander, than see them fall under his bullets.
Ralph noted his friend's hesitating glance, and guessing his thoughts, shook his head.
"It were useless to attempt to parley with them—at present, at any rate," he declared, decisively. "They would but regard it as a proof of weakness—and repay it, perhaps, by some foul act of treachery. I can understand your feelings, Lorry. I thought the same way—once; but when I was amongst them, and had experience of their blood-thirsty, relentless cruelty, I altered my mind. They are of the serpent's brood, and must be treated as what they are. Afterwards—perhaps—when they have learned to respect you—"
"You are right, Ralph!" said Loronto, rousing into action. "They murdered my father, too—and would do it over again, to-day, if the chance offered. No! Justice first! It will be time to talk of mercy when we have conquered them!"
With that he set to work to prepare for the impending struggle, and quickly impressed his little band with a feeling of confidence in his abilities as a commander.
Scarcely had he finished his round of inspection, placed everyone at his post, and instructed him in the part he was expected to play, than a look-out on the roof of the tower sung out a warning:
"They're going to try to rush us!"
There was heard a sudden outburst of martial music of a barbarous kind, the blowing of whistles, and banging of drums. Then there arose a wild, confused shouting, and the whole line started at a run down the slope.
From their hoarse, frenzied shouts, their mad gesticulations, and wild antics, one might have thought a band of drunken men, or a company of lunatics had been somehow let loose. Yet, as they came on, it became apparent that there was method in their madness; for even in the midst of their headlong rush, they gradually formed themselves into four irregular groups, of which the two smaller were in front, and two, much more numerous, behind.
Loronto quickly divined the object of this formation. If the front ranks were successful, well and good; but if they should falter, they were to be swept onwards by the sheer weight of the masses behind them.
"Oh! for a Maxim or two!" sighed Ralph. "Or one of our little cannon from the yacht!"
They were but fifteen—those who had rifles—besides the three leaders—and their foes wore armour of such curious metal that bullets seemed to glance off unless they happened to strike dead. But this point had been discussed between the leaders, and the men had been instructed to aim low, for it had been noticed that the armour was worn chiefly on the upper part of the body.
As the attackers came on, a perfect cloud of arrows whizzed through the air in advance of them, some of which rattled against the walls while others clattered upon the stone flooring behind them.
Loronto allowed his assailants to come on for some distance without firing a rifle. He knew that he had no ammunition to waste, and that it would be folly to throw it away in long shots. And while he waited, he could not but wonder at the temerity with which these people came on to the attack.
In their confidence in their numbers and ignorance of the powers of modern weapons, they evidently considered the affair little more than a sort of military exercise.
But they were soon to discover their terrible mistake.
From the seemingly deserted wall, towards which they were surging in such noisy fashion—which lay sleeping quietly in the sunlight, in such strong contrast to their own tumultuous onrush—there came the sound of two words shouted in sharp, crisp tones:
And then that silent, deserted wall seemed to turn into a line of living, darting flame. A roar was heard, a deafening, thunderous crash; and lo! men staggered and fell about as though a sudden paralysis had seized upon them. Stalwart warriors, in all the glory of their flashing armour, fell headlong even while waving their gleaming swords over their heads—fell without cause—so it seemed—and lay where they had fallen.
Yet there was nothing to explain this strange behaviour so far as could be seen. There were no arrows to account for it, no spears or javelins, no stones or rocks. Neither was there anything of the nature of the "fire balls" with which they were familiar. There were no balls of fire coming sailing through the air at them; no missiles that they could detect.
Again and again the stolid, solid wall surrounding the tower burst out into lines of dancing flames. Each time there was the same roar, each time the same strange behaviour on the part of brave men in the advancing ranks. In ones, and in twos, and in threes, they swayed and staggered like ships tossing in a gale of wind, and one after another they tumbled helpless upon the ground.
And then a great fear fell upon the survivors. They seemed to be assailed by some devastating, fiery scourge too terrible for mortal man to contend against; and without more ado they turned and fled. Nor did any, even of the bravest, pause until they had ascended again that slope down which they had come so light-heartedly, and had gained the shelter of the belt of trees. On the side of the defenders there had been no casualties save one or two slight wounds from arrows.
Such was the end of the first attempt to take the tower.
"Well! We've won the first trick, anyway," said Ralph with a short laugh.
"Aye; but we've not done with them yet, I'm afraid," muttered Loronto. "We shall have a tougher struggle than this, I'm thinking, before we see the yacht again."
And the result showed that he was right.
The repulse of the first assault was followed by a long pause in the hostilities, during which the defenders made a more minute examination of their little fortress.
Their satisfaction was great to find that within the tower there was a well of fresh water. There was even a small supply of food, and a number of arrows, spears, and other articles which, in their triumphant haste, the former occupants had left behind them.
From the top of the tower, an anxious lookout was being kept for friendly vessels; but the hours crept slowly by without bringing any sign of the looked-for help.
Much to the surprise of Mentris and his men, Loronto insisted upon sending a message to his enemies that they were at liberty to remove their wounded friends lying out in the open. Galston wrote the notice upon a slip of paper. Then he went out with a small party—which included two of the leaders—flying a white handkerchief, and gave it to one of the wounded nearest at hand. They administered a cordial, bound his wounds, and explained the contents of the paper which they placed in his charge—for it turned out that he could not read—and he limped, off with it. They were fired at many times while engaged in this errand of mercy and humanity, but the arrows fell short, and evidently those who shot them lacked the courage to come out into the open.
Presently they had the satisfaction of seeing, first in one direction, and then in another, small groups venturing out upon the field in search of their wounded comrades; and when it was found that these were not harmed, more followed, until all the injured had been carried off.
"That's better!" exclaimed Loronto. "I felt I could not stay here and see those poor fellows lying out there in the sun! I should have felt compelled to bring them in here—which, I suppose, would be considered a very 'unsoldierly' thing to do, since it would certainly be adding to our difficulties."
But Faronda and Mentris, and their people, looked on at these proceedings as though they thought their new leaders had suddenly become demented.
The afternoon was well on the wane before anything further occurred. Then four distant specks upon the water—which were soon seen to be galleys—were sighted, making straight for the tower; at which there was great rejoicing amongst the little garrison. But alas! soon afterwards other specks were seen coming from the direction of Demundah's stronghold; and it soon became evident that these last were hastening to intercept the first-comers.
Then ensued an exciting and anxious time for those shut up in the fort. The first of the galleys which were hastening to their aid were evidently rowing their hardest; but the hostile boats had less distance to cover; and what was more serious, they gradually increased in number.
At first there had been but two, then there were four or five, and soon nearly a dozen could be counted, coming along parallel to the shore, and so close together that it seemed to the anxious watchers almost impossible for their friends to get through.
In the midst of this suspense, loud shouting was heard from their enemies at the top of the slope. It announced, Faronda declared, the coming of more soldiers; and probably—judging by the nature and volume of the succeeding clamour—the arrival upon the scene of battle of Demundah himself.
A few minutes later these surmises were confirmed by the appearance on the slope of a much larger number of foes than had yet been seen. The new-comers came out into the open, and defiantly shouted, and waved their flags, confident that their numbers would enable them to revenge the defeat of the first attack. In the midst of these Faronda pointed out the grim tyrant, standing gazing impassively first at the tower, and then at the hurrying craft upon the water.
For some time the attention of both parties of watchers was concentrated upon this aquatic contest, and upon the clever manoeuvring of Montamah's galleys in their endeavour to slip through the intercepting vessels.
It was obvious to those on the tower that their friends' boats were lighter and swifter than those of their enemies; but the latter had had a less distance to cover as they came along near the shore, and the foremost among them had succeeded in thrusting themselves between the devoted galleys and their goal.
The latter, however, continued to make most desperate attempts to elude their heavier pursuers, and passed so near to some of them that not only were arrows exchanged, but javelins and spears were freely thrown from one to the other.
These attempts to break through, however, it was noticed, were made only by three of Montamah's messengers. The fourth galley lay off in the distance, taking no part in what was going on, and seemingly content to keep out of danger.
Suddenly Ralph uttered an exclamation. He had been staring at this particular vessel through some glasses, not a little puzzled by her curious behaviour.
"By Jove!" he cried. "What fools we are! They are signalling to us! Woodham must have sent somebody with his heliograph apparatus!"
Loronto and Henson, standing by, listened to this with eager curiosity.
"What are they saying, then?" they both asked in a breath.
"Wait a moment," said Ralph, as he commenced to "spell" out the little flashes of light.
"Ah!" he almost gasped at last. "Then we are in a tight corner, and no mistake!"
"What do they say?" repeated Loronto impatiently.
"They say," answered Ralph slowly, "that the yacht has gone aground in the channel, and there seems very little chance of getting her off!"
"There go our friends," cried the Professor. "They have given up the attempt to get through!"
And so it proved; for all Montamah's galleys had turned and were hastening away.
"And yonder you see the reason!" exclaimed Loronto, pointing to the direction from which the enemy's boats had come. There the water was almost black with a great fleet of Demundah's galleys, which were following in the wake of the rest.
Within the little fort upon the shore the garrison busied themselves in many ways, strengthening the place against attack. Some were sent out to bring in loads of stones from the strand, which were carried laboriously to the top of the tower. There they were stored as useful missiles to hurl down upon the foe should the fighting come to close quarters.
Meantime, some of their best shots had been posted on the roof of the tower, with instructions to watch every movement of the enemy, and, in particular to fire at any men who were seen to be drilling holes in the rock.
Faronda had pointed out that herein lay their greatest danger.
"Do you notice," he said to Galston, "that Demundah's fleet still keeps in the distance, and that only a few galleys have been told off to watch the shore and prevent help from reaching us? That tells me that they are relying more upon their fire balls than upon the result of an assault."
These curious contrivances, he explained, were of two kinds; firstly, those which spread abroad what was merely a thick, heavy mist, or vapour, which impeded the breathing but was not actually poisonous; secondly, those which emitted fumes of a more noxious character.
"The second kind," he declared, "are so deadly that none ever survive the mysterious vapour they spread around. Therefore, my advice is to do everything possible to prevent our foes from drilling the holes in the rock from which they fire them. If I judge aright, you will find that Demundah will make one desperate attempt to capture the place, and to take as many of us alive as possible, that we may provide amusement for him and his crew in the arena. But if he fails he will kill us off like rats in a hole in the way I have told you."
The leaders, upon this being repeated to them, acted upon it promptly. The best shots were, as stated, set to watch every movement of the enemy, while Loronto and Ralph, and even the Professor, each took a rifle and tried their hands at long-range shooting. Three times had they driven off parties engaged in drilling the face of the rock, compelling them to move farther away and recommence in places which were less convenient for their purpose. Now, however, the rock-drillers had started at a spot which seemed to be secure; for several shots had been fired without a man being hit.
"I wish we had Peter here," said Ralph, with a sigh, after one of these failures. "He is the best long-range shot amongst us. I wonder what has become of the poor chap?"
"There are three of them missing," the Professor reminded him. "Possibly they are together somewhere, and may turn up together."
"It will be too late to give us their aid here," Ralph returned regretfully, as he took up his rifle for another shot. "Well, here goes to have one more try! If I miss this time I will not attempt another! It is only wasting our cartridges; and goodness knows we have none to spare!"
Very carefully he sighted his rifle and fired. Exclamations followed from those around.
"Good! Splendid! Capital!" and such-like words were heard as, through their glasses, his companions saw a man carried off from the working party.
"It was a fluke, I'm afraid," said Ralph modestly. "However, I'll try another."
A similar result followed his next essay, and those standing around cheered.
Their foes were evidently as much astonished as they themselves were. They all ran for cover, and for a while there seemed to be a difficulty in persuading the workers to venture out into the open. After an interval, however, they were either persuaded, or (as Faronda hinted was more likely) driven out by force, and the work was resumed.
Ralph was urged to take up his rifle once more. He aimed with the same care as before, and again met with success.
The Professor uttered an exclamation, and looked puzzled.
"Did you hear that echo?" he asked. "What a strange thing! It seems to be something new. I have not heard it before."
The party he had fired at made another dive for cover, and this time did not reappear in the same spot. But a little later they were seen at a fresh place, still farther away. Here, evidently feeling themselves quite secure, they started anew with more men to make up for lost time,
The afternoon was drawing to a close, and the night was now not far away.
"I'm afraid they've done us now," observed Loronto, taking up his rifle; "but I'll try a shot just to startle 'em a bit."
Aiming with great care he fired, and the shot was followed, as Ralph's had been, by a burst of admiration, for one of the workers had again been seen to fall.
"A magnificent shot!" cried Ralph, with enthusiasm; while the blue-jackets who had been watching raised a cheer which was heard in Demundah's camp.
"I heard the echo that time, sir!" observed Galston to Ralph.
"So did I," the latter answered.
Professor Henson took him on one side and spoke in a low tone.
"Here is a fresh wonder!" he said drily. "Echoes of sound are common enough, but did you ever hear of an echo of a flash? Because I saw one just now on the wall of rock which you see yonder. If you look carefully, you will also see a little thin smoke rising up!"
Ralph looked wonderingly through the glasses, and stared at the scientist.
"I see it!" he exclaimed. "What on earth does it mean?"
"It seems to mean," returned Henson, "that we have some mysterious, unknown friend with a rifle who is willing to aid us, but does not wish to draw attention to himself. So he stands ready, and fires when we do; and it is his bullets, not ours, that have hit the mark."
"But how the dickens——There's no friend of ours, there with a rifle! There can't be! Look at the place, too—it is just one perpendicular wall of rock! How can there be anyone in such a place?"
"Well, it's a mystery. Perhaps we had better not say anything about it for the moment. Whoever it is, he does not wish to court attention. I wonder can it be Peter who has come back and has concealed himself somewhere over there?"
Ralph gave a low whistle, and went across to Loronto to tell him of their discovery. Then they put others on to ply the rifle while they watched quietly together. And they soon saw enough to confirm what the Professor had guessed. But the mystery as to who it could be remained unsolved.
Then the night came, and their thoughts were taken up with other matters. With the darkness, or soon afterwards, they expected the attack to begin, and they had yet some dispositions to make which they had not thought it advisable to settle by daylight.
They first drew in their men, fearing that an attempt to defend the outer wall in the darkness would end disastrously. They all went into the tower, therefore, and shut themselves up there, manning every window and loophole with some of the riflemen, while the rest were placed on the top with Montamah.
"If we had but the yacht's searchlight!" sighed Ralph, trying to pierce the darkness. "What a help it would be to us now!"
Everything around was still. They strained their ears in vain for a sound that would guide them, as they had strained their eyes trying to pierce the gloom.
But several hours passed thus in suspense, without sign or sound of their enemies.
Then suddenly a rocket soared into the air, and as its light gleamed weirdly for a brief space over the surrounding scene it seemed as though the tower stood in the midst of a sea of armed men.
A rifle shot, followed by an outburst of hoarse cries, announced that the fight had begun. Other shots were followed by louder cries, with which shrieks and groans now intermingled. In the dense darkness nothing could be seen save when the flash of a rifle lit up a space of a few yards. Then it would be reflected for an instant upon gleaming armour, and dimly show, perhaps, half a dozen men, with faces more like fiends than men, frenzied with rage, hatred, and every unworthy passion.
The battle-cries continued in an unceasing roar, rising and falling, sometimes almost dying away into a confused, muffled moaning, then swelling into a deafening chorus of yells, as though a pack of devils had been let loose.
Loronto and his chum were running here and there, from post to post, to make sure that no window had been rushed, then up to the top to look over and see if ladders were being placed against the walls. Montamah's men were busy firing their arrows or hurling down the rocks and stones which had been accumulated, though aim there was none, for nothing could be seen in the intense darkness.
Suddenly the uproar was added to by some sounds that were new and quite unexpected. There were booming crashes, as of the fall of great rocks from the heights, and after each crash there was a fresh outcry—this time in the ranks of those farthest from the fort.
Crash succeeded crash, and then some rockets were sent up, and from numerous points there burst out flares, which sent forth a brilliant light, something like the coloured fires at fire-work displays.
Now, as it afterwards appeared, these had been intended to be lighted after victory had been secured, to aid the victors in the work of securing their prisoners. But rocks had been falling among the assailants, hurled down from the cliffs above, and they were falling not merely among the attackers but behind them, in and around the camping place of Demundah himself. Hence he had ordered the flares to be lighted in order to see who these new enemies were upon the heights, and to send a party of men to attack them in turn.
As the lights blazed out the fall of rock ceased, and attention was turned from them to an appearance in the upper air. It was Kalma, in his air-chariot, drawn by his great tame swans.
Even as they came into view, however, the birds swerved awkwardly. They seemed to be "shying" at the rockets, and Demundah, perceiving it, ordered more to be sent up, with the object of terrifying the feathered steeds still further.
As for the attack on the fort, he saw with rage and fury that the sudden lighting up of the scene had ended it. Whether it might have succeeded would never be known. All that was certain was that when the light revealed to the frenzied, half-mad assailants the havoc that had been made in their ranks, their zeal quickly cooled down. They could now see the mangled bodies of their comrades lying around, struck down, some by bullets, some by arrows, some merely by heavy stones; and while they looked and hesitated, fresh volleys came and more men fell to rise no more. Then the survivors turned and fled, as they had done once before, in the morning of that same day.
Demundah, realising his defeat, in a fit of ungovernable fury, ordered yet more rockets to be discharged against the air-chariot.
A few minutes later it became evident that his tactics were likely to succeed. The great swans, docile as they were in ordinary circumstances, were becoming terrified at the soaring rockets which whizzed and roared around them. Then one of the fiery, hissing messengers came plump against a frightened bird, and that completed the panic. With wild screams of terror, the team flew off into the surrounding darkness and were seen no more.
Demundah, grimly disappointed that the daring aeronaut had not been dashed to earth before his eyes, set to work to rally his disheartened followers, but desisted, as someone pointed out to him that the moon was rising and it would soon be light. And he knew that if his attacks could not succeed in the dark, they were unlikely to do so in the light.
"Smoke the rats to death with the fire-balls then," said he, in savage rage. "Kill them off while we have the chance. Then we will go home and get some breakfast!"
Thus it came about that as the moon rose, and just as the defenders were congratulating themselves upon the outcome of the fight, and upon their slight losses—for only a few men had been wounded, chiefly by stray arrows—there fell again upon their ears a distant tapping and tinkling. It was the sound made by the tools which were driving holes into the rock.
The workers were in shadow, and their whereabouts could only be guessed approximately, hence it seemed but a waste of ammunition to attempt to interfere with them.
While Loronto kept a look-out above, Ralph accompanied the Professor in a round to tend the wounded. Some of these complained of thirst, and there being no water at hand, Ralph, taking with him Galston and two or three men, went down to the lower storey to get supplies from the well.
To their astonishment they were met by several men who were rushing away from the place in a fright.
"Earthquake!" "A mine! A mine! We shall be blown up!" "The well is haunted!" Such were some of the incoherent expressions he heard as the men rushed past him.
Sternly stopping them in their flight, he was striding towards the mouth of the well, when to his astonishment a tremendous explosion was heard, seemingly coming from its depths.
At the same time the rope which ran down to the bucket below was violently rattled and shaken.
After a pause Ralph stepped gingerly forward and peered over the edge. All was dark in the well, but the rope continued to rattle and sway about.
Then a voice came from below—a voice muffled and far away, yet clear enough.
"Ahoy theer, on top! Ahoy! Haul up, ye lubberly louts! Haul up, I say! Give a hand t' the rope!"
"Why," cried Ralph, "it sounds like Peter's voice." Then he shouted down the well.
"Below there, ahoy!"
"Ahoy, up top! Haul up the bucket, ye silly duds!"
"Is that Peter down there?" Ralph shouted.
"Why, o' course. Be that Mr. Ralph up theer?"
"It is, Peter. Can you come up in the bucket if we pull it up?"
"Ay, ay, sir. That's what I bin a-sittin' here in it an' waitin' for the past 'alf-hour!"
"Hold tight, then. Up you come!" laughed Ralph, as he and those with him, now all reassured, hauled away at the rope.
And up came Peter, sure enough. As the bucket reached the surface he sprang nimbly out of it before the wondering eyes of his friends.
There were hurried greetings, and then a rain of questions; and Ralph asked, among other things, what the noise had been he had heard as of an explosion underground.
'"Twas me, Mr. Ralph," Peter explained. "I couldn't make nobody 'ear, so I fired my revolver two or three times to draw your attention like. An' it did, didn't it?"
"It sounded as if the whole place was being blown up," Ralph declared. "The walls of the well must have magnified the sound."
"Ay, ay, sir; it nigh made me deaf myself down theer," Peter confessed. "'Owsomever, we's come t' show ye a way out, so as you can give that old cut-throat yonder the slip."
"Who's with you?" Ralph asked.
"Ben Pike, sir, an' Ridge an' the old priest. An' later, when the moon sets an' it grows dark, there'll be some boats waitin' for us at a place not far away."
Peter then told a story of the adventures of himself and his two companions, how that, having at the end of the fight on the way to the tower, become separated from their friends, they had been guided by Ridge—who, as Montamah had said, knew the country well—to some caverns in the cliff opposite the tower.
It had been from one of these that they had watched through the holes in the side and had fired at the rock-drillers, as the Professor had guessed. Being much nearer to them than those in the tower, every shot had told, and they had avoided drawing attention to themselves by only firing when someone fired from the fort.
At night the three had crept up to the top of the heights behind Demundah's camp, with the intention of sending down rocks when an opportunity offered. While engaged in moving a number of big boulders into position, ready for pushing over the edge, they had met with Kalma. He had with him Ralmedus, the old priest, and the two were hunting about for the cavern which the three sailors had just left. Ralmedus, it seemed, whose memory went back to the time when the tower had been built by Loronto's father, knew that there was a secret passage from the well into a labyrinth of caves in the neighbouring cliffs. This secret way had not been known to Demundah or his people, and they had never suspected its existence. As soon as Montamah's galleys had returned to the "Grotto," bearing the news that Loronto and his company were besieged in the tower on the shore, Ralmedus had spoken of this secret passage. It had thereupon been determined that he should go with Kalma—who had meantime managed to patch up his car sufficiently to be able to venture on a journey—and try to find the cavern, and to get from it to the tower to communicate with the besieged, and arrange for their escape.
After this meeting with Ralmedus and Kalma they all returned to the caves, and after a little while found the secret way, and sent Peter through it to reconnoitre. He reached the well, but failed at the time to make anyone hear above. Satisfied that the way was clear, the party had then returned to the heights, and taken part in the fight by hurling down the rocks which had led to the interruption of the conflict. Kalma had also aided by throwing showers of stones out of his car, until the sudden whizzing of the rockets around him had startled his birds and caused them to fly off in a panic.
After a hurried council, the removal of the garrison through the secret way was commenced, and proceeded apace till nearly all had gone. Ralph, with Peter and Galston, remained in the tower to keep a watch on the enemy for a while after all the others had left, and these took advantage of an interval when a cloud passed over the face of the moon to haul down the royal banner and put an ordinary one in its place.
When the sun rose upon the sheet of water called the Sea of Markanda, its first rays fell upon a small fleet of galleys hurrying with all speed in the direction of what was known as the northern channel.
They were the vessels of Montamah's fleet, and they were carrying with them the garrison of the tower upon the now distant shore.
With them were two motor-boats which had come out in the yacht, and had been sent by Captain Woodham to accompany the galleys as the next best thing to the yacht itself, which still lay stranded upon a sandbank in the northern channel.
The motor-boats were named the Wave and the Swallow, and were armed in each case with a Maxim gun, besides ordinary firearms. Loronto was in command of the Wave, with Galston and a small crew; while Ralph, with Peter and another crew, was in charge of the Swallow.
Their object was to get into the channel where the yacht lay, as quickly as possible, without a meeting with Demundah's fleet, which seemed to have returned to its home. Thus far matters had gone well. Montamah's vessels had stolen out in the darkness which preceded the dawn, and had found Loronto and his party waiting for them in a cove a couple of miles away from the little fortress they had been defending. Nothing had been seen of the enemy either during the journey or while the party were embarking, and they were fain to hope that they would now at last reach Montamah's stronghold without molestation.
Loronto and Ralph were in high spirits at finding themselves once more free agents in craft to which they were used, and they amused themselves by giving their new friends an exhibition of what their motor-boats could accomplish in the way of speed and manoeuvring.
But in the midst of these evolutions there came the cry from the look-outs that some suspicious craft had come into view, and at once glasses were levelled at the strangers.
Not one or two were there merely, but several, as it proved; and they seemed to be signalling to others still farther away.
Montamah, who was himself in charge of his largest galley, urged his rowers to do their utmost. Practically his whole fleet was here; he had brought out all his largest and most powerful vessels to bring away Loronto's party and escort them to the stronghold. If Demundah's fleet—which was three or four times as strong—should intercept them ere they could gain the channel, then his (Montamah's) vessels would have but little chance, and would, in all probability, be destroyed.
Very quickly, however, it became obvious that a meeting could not be avoided. The hostile force were coming on diagonally, in a line four deep, from behind the shelter of a headland. Evidently they had been lying in wait there in case Montamah's vessels should venture out to attempt the rescue of the besieged garrison.
Loronto and Ralph came alongside his galley to concert a common plan of action, and then the two motor-boats went off alone to meet the enemy. Their object was to try to create confusion amongst the hostile vessels, and, if possible, give Montamah's force a chance of passing ahead before they could recover.
Both the motor-boats had been fitted up specially with a view to the possibility of their being required for work of this kind. The sides were iron-plated, and there were movable shields to protect the crew, and especially the Maxims.
Making for the extreme end of the advancing line, they passed round the farthest galley, and, in passing, delivered a terrible fire from the Maxims into the ranks of rowers. Then sheering off and turning, they swept round in a circle and returned to nearly the same place. By the time they had executed this manoeuvre the galley they had assailed, owing to the execution that had been effected among the rowers, had drifted astern, and was now in danger of collision with the vessels in her wake.
This threw the second in the line open to a similar attack, and in a few minutes she also was temporarily disabled, and was drifting across the bows of others behind her.
Then some of the fastest of the hostile fleet left the line in a vain attempt to attack these pestilent, mosquito-like foes. Having no idea of the actual capabilities of the little vessels, they were easily led on by them until, in the heat of the chase, they in turn were attacked suddenly, and their sweeps rendered temporarily idle.
But the hostile leaders now changed their tactics, and detached one portion of their force; to head off Montamah, while the others closed in upon the motor-boats in a circle. This forced them either to run the risk of being crushed by dead weight, or of making a dash to escape, which meant a retreat for the time.
Such was the headstrong bravery of the men they had to do with that once they had gauged the power of the firearms used against them, and grasped the fact that they fired nothing heavier than bullets, they exhibited but little of their first fear.
And while their attention had been thus taken up by a portion of the vessels opposed to them, Montamah had been surrounded by the remainder, and was now seen to be vigorously fighting a hopeless battle against overwhelming odds.
Without stopping to count up the chances, the two friends set their teeth, turned their boats, and made straight for the thick of the fight, though they knew well enough that the movement was, at the best, but a forlorn hope.
For a time the battle raged so furiously, and the vessels engaged were mixed up in such confusion, that the two friends in their motor-boats could do little more than look on.
And truly it was a strange scene that they gazed upon—so strange that they might well have wondered whether it could be real, or was not rather a wild, frenzied dream.
A week ago—but one short week—they had been in the world of the twentieth century; now they found themselves plunged back into the mists of antiquity. They seemed to be living in the times when Romans and Carthaginians fought for supremacy upon the sea in their queer-shaped galleys.
Just as they had drawn near, they saw Montamah beat back a crowd of the enemy who had boarded his ship. Like a veritable hero of olden time, he made such play with his great two-handed sword, that his foes fell away from before him like ninepins, rather than men of flesh and blood. And now Loronto had an opportunity of seeing what the men who supported his father's cause were really like, and the kind of life they had been leading.
Montamah was not only acting the part of a hero himself, but he was the leader of a little band of heroes.
Time after time, crowds of boarders swept up and surrounded them; only to sink back and fall away again, like waves that surge and dash in vain against grim, storm-beaten rocks.
But to their unspeakable chagrin they seemed to be condemned to remain, for a space, merely looking on. No opening offered, no chance by which they could see a way of aiding their friends. Their boats were too small to deal with these high, heavy, solid-built galleys, and too low in the water to enable them to bring their firearms into play.
Suddenly Loronto pointed to one of the enemy's galleys which, in the varying fortunes of the struggle, had been left almost deserted. It was the largest of them all, and was just then interlocked with one of Montamah's ships, on to which all its people had crowded, leaving the deck of their own ship almost deserted.
In an instant the friends saw their opportunity. Running their boats alongside, they made fast, and, leaving a man in each, they scrambled on board, followed by the rest. A couple of men who had been left on the deck were quickly dealt with. Loronto seized one and Ralph another; there was a brief struggle, then they were hurled over the side, and the victors were able to look down upon the galley beside them.
A fierce but unequal fight was being waged upon the deck of this vessel. A number of Montamah's followers were defending themselves against double their number of foes, and were being slowly forced backwards, step by step.
With loud shouts the new-comers threw themselves into the conflict, attacking Demundah's people with bullet and sword in such fashion that the tables were very quickly turned.
Loronto dashed into the mêlée with a fervour and fierceness which cowed the foes opposed to him, and almost astonished even those who knew him best. Now, there was but one thing for him and them to do—to fight for all they were worth, regardless of consequences; and, if needs were, to die fighting.
Indeed there was little else to be hoped for. Success against the overwhelming force arrayed against them was a thing it were hopeless to expect. But both the friends were of the same mind in one respect—they were not only willing to die, but were hotly determined that before the end came they would show that they were made of as good fighting stuff as their brave allies were proving themselves to be.
This being so, it can be imagined with what zest they launched into the conflict now that chance had pointed out a road. It so happened that Kalma had gone on board this galley, the Captain, whose name was Ornandah, being a friend of his. Loronto saw the two pressed back, still fighting gamely at the head of their men, and soon made his way to their side, while Ralph remained to bar the retreat of their foes to their own vessel.
A short but terribly fierce fight ensued. Caught between two fires, Demundah's people fought with dogged stubbornness, and many leaped overboard rather than submit to be made prisoners. Some continued to fight mainly in the hope that other vessels would come to their aid.
But they held out in this case in vain. After a brief, savage struggle, the survivors were made prisoners and securely bound.
Then Loronto went back on board the captured vessel to take a look round.
"Now," he cried, "this galley is ours; and I shall run up my flag upon her I She seems to be about the biggest of them all."
"She is," answered Kalma, "for she was the commander's ship. She is called the Ireenia, and we all know her well. Her commander is Afelda, Demundah's admiral, as you would call him, and he is among the wounded prisoners. It is a good thought to fly your flag on his vessel, my lord; it will encourage all the rest of our people."
"Ay," returned Loronto, his eyes lighting up at the news of the capture he had made. "We mean to do something more than encourage them; we mean to help them!"
Then he called Galston to him. "Can you two," he said to him and Kalma, "take charge of the rowers, and make them obey me? You can promise them in my name good treatment if we can get out of this tangle, and I come into my own."
"We will answer for them, my lord. We will give them your message—and we will also take upon ourselves to promise them something else if they don't obey you," Kalma answered grimly.
"And your Captain, Ornandah, must act under the orders of my friend," continued Loronto, indicating Ralph. "The old sailor Ridge will go with them and help."
He gave his men their orders, and in an incredibly short space of time they had hauled the Maxims, with their shields, on to the poops of the two vessels, with supplies of ammunition. Then Ralph went on board Ornandah's vessel, the grappling hooks were released, and the two fell apart, and hastened onwards to help their allies in the fight that was raging as fiercely as ever a short distance away.
The galley which Ralph was now in charge of was one of the finest of Montamah's fleet, the next, in point of size, to the one he himself was on. She was named the Dominta, after Loronto's father; and was well known to friend and foe alike, for she had been in many a hard-fought action.
The two vessels lost no time in making their presence known and felt even amidst the wild excitement and stress of the battle that was raging. It was seen soon that their high poops formed a vantage-ground from which the fire of the Maxims could be made terribly effective.
Their first effort was to assist Montamah, who was still maintaining an unequal contest against two smaller craft which had grappled his vessel one on each side.
And now, as the Ireenia approached, both sides caught sight of her. From Demundah's people a great shout of triumph went up, for they thought that she was coming to aid them, and deemed themselves secure now of victory.
But to Montamah and his war-dogs the sight of the well known Ireenia bearing down upon them, at such a moment, was bitter indeed. They knew that their case had been desperate before; now, it appeared more hopeless than ever.
Montamah's keen, flashing eyes glanced at this new danger, his gaze, still alert and undaunted, seeking to gauge its probable effect. He looked on it at first defiantly, then wonderingly; for lo! he saw at the mast-head of this ship—the flagship of the enemy's squadrons—the royal banner of his long-dead master and friend, King Dominta. Those beside him, following the direction of his fixed gaze, started and stared in astonishment equal to his own, as they saw the flag. Then their gaze wandered to the vessel beside the Ireenia, which they recognised as the Dominta, one of their own fleet! How came it that she was sailing thus in company, and apparently in amity, with the chief ship of their enemies? And how, greatest wonder of all, came it about that this last was flying the flag of the dead Dominta himself?
They raised a cheer, a joyous shout which sent fear and trouble into the hearts of their foes, though these latter had as yet perceived no ground for anything but satisfaction. From their lower standpoint they had not seen all that those on the poop had seen.
But they were not long in doubt. The Ireenia swept quietly on, and now the banner flying proudly at her mast-head was seen plainly enough.
There was a long-drawn cry of wonder and fear, and a sort of superstitious idea that the dead king had returned and taken possession of one of their own vessels in order to crush them came upon them.
All doubt was soon resolved. A thunderous volley burst forth, the rattle of the Maxims was heard, and a hail of bullets swept the deck where the boarders were crowded.
Then the Ireenia grappled the vessel to the left of Montamah's ship, while the Dominta ran alongside that upon the right, and a swarm of men sprang upon the decks and rushed upon Montamah's assailants from both sides.
The fight did not last long here. Completely demoralised by the unexpected turn things had taken, Demundah's men were soon reduced to submission; and the victors, thus reinforced, were free to give aid to their friends elsewhere.
But the good fortune which had attended Loronto's operations thus far could not make up for the fact that the enemy's ships outnumbered those of his friends by something like three to one. Joining now with Montamah, he and Ralph dashed farther into the fight, and rescued some more of their hard-pressed allies. But all this time, that portion of Demundah's fleet which had been told off to try to capture or crush the two motor-boats, had been reforming and was now coming up. It was the larger portion, too, and when joined to those which had been fighting, and were still barring the road to the channel, it would make up a total which the smaller force could not hope to contend against.
An hour passed, and still it raged. The advantages steadily gained by Demundah's determined forces were becoming terribly plain, and all hope had died down in the hearts of the allies, when a sound fell upon their ears which startled both sides alike, and caused another temporary lull.
It was the booming roar of a cannon, and the scream of a live shell, as it came hurtling through the air. In their excitement neither side had perceived the yacht stealing swiftly up.
Since daylight, Captain Woodham and his men had been making tremendous exertions to get the yacht off the sandbank on which she had grounded, and these had been almost redoubled when the sound of distant firing had come across the water.
In the end they had succeeded. She had been got off undamaged, and now had come up to take part in whatever was going forward.
His shells set many of the hostile galleys on fire, and, ere another hour had passed, the battle was virtually over. Smoke was going up in clouds from quite a third of Demundah's great fleet; more than another third had been captured; and many had been sunk.
In the naval fight described in the last chapter, the usurper's fleet had been broken up, and his power upon the water reduced to a "negligible quantity"; but, secure in his formidable system of defence—the mysterious "fire-balls"—he was still able to laugh at all attempts to assail his stronghold.
Loronto's followers were not numerous enough to enable him to attack his enemy upon land, and thus the war became a long, desultory conflict, in which neither side was in a position to do serious harm to the other.
There were endless fights and skirmishes, "alarums and excursions"; but at the end of many months neither side could claim to have gained any solid advantage.
Loronto's following, it is true, gradually increased, for deserters constantly stole off, sick of the tyrant's sway, and begged to be allowed "to serve under their lawful prince."
Ralph had made some passing reference to the devotion of Loronto's "subjects" and their solicitous care on his behalf.
"'My subjects!'" repeated Loronto, with a sigh. "When will the rest of those who ought to be 'my subjects' be equally solicitous about me, I wonder? I begin to be a bit downhearted, Ralph, about our mission here. Consider! We have been here now more than eight months; and success seems as far off as ever."
"Eight months are not much, compared with the end in view," Ralph answered cheerily.
"No, not if they stood alone. But Montamah and his following have been more than twenty years in the wilderness! It seems to me I may, quite likely, be another twenty, without making any more headway. We little thought, when we set out to conquer this old-world country, that we should find the tyrant Demundah such a hard nut to crack!"
"We've cut his claws a bit, anyhow!"
"But nothing has come of it. He goes on in the same old way; scarce a day passes that we do not hear fresh tales of the blood-stained monster's cruelty and oppression. Some of them, indeed, are almost too horrible for belief. Yet his people—my people, as they ought to be—bow the neck to his yoke as if they gloried in it!"
"They have lost all hope, and with it the spirit to assert themselves, poor beggars! They are too cowed; and stand in too much terror of their terrible master!"
"Yes, yes," Loronto assented, with another sigh. "Sometimes I am almost tempted—for their sakes—to give up my own claims, and to call in outside assistance to overcome this monster."
"And see your country exploited by a band of unscrupulous filibusters, whose hands might prove almost as heavy as Demundah's? No, no; that would never do, Lorry! We must e'en be patient for a while, and watch for our chance. It will come one day, I feel sure—perhaps in some way that we least expect."
Perhaps Ralph's cheery words were to prove prophetic.
It happened that about this time the curious underground Mallenthah River—or "River of Death"—had greatly diminished in volume, and had fallen lower in its dark, tunnel-like course than any one living there could remember.
And then a strange thing occurred, one which threw a new air of mystery over the sombre stream, and raised some startling speculations concerning it.
One day a leathern bottle was floated down its gloomy waters, and as it happened, it was picked up and brought to Loronto, who opened it.
It contained only a slip of paper; but upon it were some words, of which the following is a translation:
"I, Talorna, am held prisoner by . . . who threatens to take my life, and torments me daily. Whoever finds . . . takes it to my father will be richly rewarded, and..."
The words in the blank spaces were blurred and illegible in the original, and the writing and language were somewhat different to that of the Ireenians, yet sufficiently like it to enable the two friends to read and translate it. For they had profited by their stay to learn the language, and had become proficient in it.
The mysterious appeal for help greatly interested them, and excited in their breasts an immediate desire to respond to it. The slip was shown to Montamah, and in turn to his officers, but none could explain it in any way, or throw any light upon who "Talorna" could be who was "held a prisoner,"
At last it was shown to the old priest, Ralmedus, and to everybody's surprise he immediately became intensely agitated. Of late he had appeared to have been in a state bordering on imbecility, unable—or unwilling—to reply coherently to ordinary questions.
But upon seeing this slip of paper he seemed to rouse himself as if from a long sleep, and in earnest tones he solemnly advised Loronto to endeavour to find and assist the one in trouble who had sent the appeal.
"Said I not," he asked, with a far-away look in his eyes, "said I not, when my young lord first came to us, that the Mallenthah River was concerned with his future? How I knew it I cannot tell—but something within bade me say the words! And, lo! now, this cry from some unknown one in trouble comes to lead thee, my young lord, along the road already pointed out by thy destiny!"
"All which," as Ralph afterwards remarked to his chum, "is vastly impressive, but not very clear or conclusive."
Such an attempt was rendered more feasible than would otherwise have been the case from the facts that the water had, as already stated, fallen unusually low, and that the adventurers possessed motor-boats which would be small enough to navigate it, and at the same time powerful enough to force their way against the current.
Once this new adventure had been resolved upon, the two chums did not take long to make their preparations. Apart from their natural curiosity concerning the mysterious prisoner, it was felt that the opening up of communication with people on the other side of the Barrier—if such a result should follow—might have an important bearing upon the whole future of the enterprise in which they had engaged.
Perhaps it should here be said that the newcomers had not spent the whole of their time in warfare.
Besides learning the language, Loronto and Ralph had initiated some works which seemed likely to be useful in the future. Montamah had already discovered, upon the mountain over the "Grotto," a petroleum spring, and they constructed a large reservoir on the side of the mountain in which to store it, and brought pipes down to the "Grotto" for general use. Similarly, they had made a great water reservoir as a secret means of defence in case of a sudden descent on the part of their enemies. In such an event the waters of the tank could be let loose in a great flood, which would sweep the hostile vessels out of existence. Both these projects had originated in the fertile brain of Ralph, the budding engineer.
Finally they had, under the direction of the Professor, erected a small powder mill, where they had managed to manufacture a very fair kind of gunpowder, and to lay up a stock of it against possible future requirements.
Thus they left the Grotto far safer from sudden attack during their absence than it had been when they had first come into the country.
Then, early one morning, Loronto and Ralph in their two motor-boats, the Swallow and the Wave, accompanied by a trusty party of their followers, left the light of day and the brilliant sunlight, and started upon their journey up the forbidding, rocky tunnel, through which flowed the mysterious river with the gruesome name.
The two motor-boats had been fitted with searchlights which, though not so powerful as those carried by the yacht, proved of immense service in the inky blackness of the tunnel.
Without the powerful rays to show the way they would have been in imminent danger at times of being dashed against the sides, or of running upon one of the ugly boulders which here and there reared themselves in their course, like grim monsters lying in wait to bar their passage.
Loronto and Ralph, with their good friends Montamah and Kalma, and with Peter and Galston, and a crew of the yacht's men, were in the Swallow, which led the way. The Wave, which was chiefly in use as a store-boat for extra supplies and ammunition, was in charge of Rixon, the yacht's engineer, with a crew which included the three sailors, Oatly, Pike, and Ridge.
A couple of hours were thus passed in Cimmerian darkness, relieved only by the weird flashes of the searchlights as they were turned this way and that. Everywhere they revealed a similar scene—the rough sides of black-green, slimy rock, the dark waters hurrying upon their way with silent swiftness, or swirling and hissing around one of the treacherous boulders.
Gradually, above the rushing of the water, there was heard another sound which had been first noticed as a low, humming noise, but which had now grown into a dull, muffled roar, and was still increasing in volume.
"It must be a waterfall," said Montamah at last. "An underground cataract, I judge, by the sound of it."
"But if the stream comes down a fall, then we are done!" exclaimed Ralph, in dismay. "That would mean the end of our little expedition! We certainly could not get past it, and there would be nothing to be done but turn round and go back!"
"We must wait and see," was the reply, and indeed there was evidently nothing else to be done.
Shortly after this they came to a place where the stream forked. They could hear the underground cataract in the branch which went off at an angle to their right; so they chose the channel on the left.
Here they entered upon the waters of what proved to be a vast subterranean lake, at one end of which they had a narrow escape from being sucked into the hungry vortex of a boiling whirlpool. Avoiding this just in time, they at last discovered another channel, through which the stream flowed in the opposite direction, that is to say, they now sailed onwards with the current instead of against it.
To their intense delight this second tunnel did not turn out to be of any great length. They-had not travelled for more than half-an-hour before a glimmer of light appeared in the distance. And in another quarter of an hour they reached the opening.
Here they emerged from the gloomy tunnel into the sunlight; and then there burst upon their view a scene so unexpected that they gazed for a while upon it in astonishment.
They were floating upon a broad, open, gently flowing river, bordered by woods and meadows, with cliffs in the background; the whole basking, as it were, in the rays of the sun in smiling, peaceful contentment.
In the distance, where the river, after many windings, seemed almost to fade into a purple haze, the sunlight fell upon stately, noble buildings and graceful terraces, as of some golden city of the plains.
Nor was there wanting a sterner touch, so to speak. Away to the right there ran out a spur, a rocky bluff from the mountain whose hollow interior the adventurers had just traversed. It rose abruptly, a sheer precipice, from the plain below; and upon it was a grim-looking castle, whose walls, built upon the very edge of the precipice, frowned down upon the peaceful landscape surrounding it.
Loronto expressed a wish to ascend a low hill which lay a little in front of them, whence, he suggested, they would be able to obtain a better view of this new country. The two boats were accordingly run into a creek at one side, and the leaders stepped out and made their way to the eminence he had indicated.
The top of this hill was crowned with a grove of trees which extended down the two sides and reached almost to the water's edge. In the welcome shade this afforded the surprised strangers paused and gazed again upon the distant city.
Suddenly Ralph uttered an exclamation, and pointed excitedly to a bend in the river half a mile or so away. From their present position they could now see a small procession of three boats coming slowly in their direction.
Very strange-looking craft they were, in some respects resembling the barges used in aquatic fêtes and festivities.
As this procession came nearer there could be heard sounds as of music and laughter; and presently the boats stopped opposite the foot of the hill upon which the wondering spectators, hidden in the shelter of the trees, were observing their movements.
"They are going to land!" said Ralph quietly. "Let us go down the slope and get a nearer view. If we keep under the trees they will not see us."
Presently they stood just within a thicket at the top of a gentle green slope which stretched down to the bank. Upon the greensward beside the river was another group of trees quite detached, and beneath these the people from the barges were now assembling.
A very gay, brilliant little throng they looked, though there were not many of them ashore. They appeared to consist of some grand ladies and their attendants, who might have come down the river for a little picnic by themselves. The only men in the party were the rowers and others in charge of the boats.
One of the chief figures amongst them all, it could now be seen, was a young and beautiful girl. Richly, yet tastefully dressed, she moved about amongst the others with the dignity of a princess, mingled with the graceful ease of a young fawn.
Loronto was gazing upon this fair vision, his eyes full of wonder and admiration, when Ralph put a hand upon his shoulder with a significant pressure.
He turned, and catching his chum's eye, followed the direction of his glance; and as he did so he could scarcely repress a start.
For across the slope, partially concealed by trees and bushes upon the other side, he saw some men creeping down with stealthy movements towards the unconscious group upon the bank. So rough and uncouth were they in dress and general appearance, and, above all, of such villainous countenance, that it needed no second glance to convince the onlookers that their purpose was an evil one.
A moment or two later two men, who had not till then been visible, stepped out into the open, and advanced towards the merry-makers, the other men remaining under the shelter of the trees.
The two who thus showed themselves were rather fine-looking men so far as outward appearance went. They were attired in handsome suits of armour set off with jewels and rich-looking accessories. One of them, from his manner, appeared to be the leader, and he walked a little in advance of his companion. There was one thing noticeable in their armour which was unusual—they both wore spiked helmets.
They were soon descried by the people who had just come ashore, and their presence was clearly anything but welcome, for some of the picnickers—if such they might be called—showed an inclination to make a rush back to their boats. The young lady herself, however, spoke some words which seemed to reassure them a little; and then, with a proud, somewhat indignant air, turned and advanced to meet the intruders. Finally she stood with the stately, dignified air of a queen, awaiting the two.
These approached to within a short distance, where one halted, while the leader continued on his way until within two or three paces. There he paused and bowed, and, as it appeared, some talk ensued between the two
Now Loronto felt sure that what the man was saying was highly distasteful to the young lady. He saw her flush with anger, and more than once she cast a look around as though seeking for aid, which, however, she knew was scarcely likely to come to her.
The talk and the accompanying gestures grew more animated, and then the young girl looked round towards the river and made a call as though for assistance.
A number of the men in charge of the boat responded and came towards her, whereupon the man who had been talking to her put a whistle to his lips and blew it, at the same time drawing his sword.
Then he stepped forward and seized the girl by the wrist, whilst his companion, who had also drawn his sword, caught her by the other; and they commenced to drag her off towards the wood, from which their followers were now running with arms in their hands, evidently with the intention of beating back the boatmen and preventing them from aiding their mistress.
Ralph had drawn a revolver, and had aimed it at their villainous leader, but hesitated to fire because he was almost in a line with the girl. But Loronto pushed his arm aside.
"Leave this to me!" he said, and, drawing his own sword, he stepped out into the open and strode towards the struggling group.
His friends followed closely behind, with pistol or rifle in hand, ready to meet any sudden rush on the part of the strangers.
Loronto called out in a loud, commanding tone, and at the sound of his voice those he addressed paused and stared in astonishment, while the two who had seized the young girl let go their hold.
She, on her part, was prompt to divine that the interrupter was a friend. Loronto placed himself between her and her persecutor, who turned and eyed him with supercilious curiosity.
"Who are you, and what do you mean by this interference?" he demanded.
The language in which he spoke was practically the same as that which was in use upon the other side of the mountain barrier, and which Loronto, as has been said, was now proficient in.
"It does not matter just now who I am," Loronto said quietly. "That can wait. As to why I interfere, I have only to say that I do so by the right which every man has to prevent a woman being assaulted by a coward."
"Coward! My pretty youth, you are over bold, and I shall have to teach you a lesson which I have taught to many others in my time—aye, to a good many while yet you were being dandled on your mother's knee," returned the other. "I never teach it more than once to the same pupil; they never live to need a second lesson," he added grimly. "I take it that you are a stranger hereabouts and do not know who I am?"
Now the stranger, as has been said, was a big, finely-built man, but not taller than Loronto himself; and though he was heavier, as regards mere bulk, yet there was nothing about him superior, so far as appearance went, to many of the foes Loronto had met during the past three months.
As he stood there, looking the young fellow up and down, the sun's rays sparkling upon the rich jewels set in the hilt of the dagger at his belt, in his helmet, and worked into the breast of his tunic, he was a picturesque, almost handsome figure, with a face which would have been good-looking but for the fact that it had become lined and marred by evil passions.
And now there came a diversion. The young girl stepped forward and spoke.
"Sir," she said, addressing Loronto, "I know not who you are, but I see that you interfered with kindly intentions towards myself. Since your timely intervention has been successful, there is no need for further parley with these people. I am now free to return, and I beg you and your friends to accompany me to my home, where my father, the King, will thank you far better than any poor words of mine can do."
She said this with sweet graciousness of manner, mingled with quiet, unaffected dignity; and such was the charm of her manner that even the rough-looking men, who had come to aid their masters, stood looking on with a certain sort of respectful attention.
But their leader laughed scornfully.
"'Tis well, Princess!" said he. "I see through your little ruse. You know what happens to those who dare to flout me, and as this young upstart has already gained a place in your good graces by his show of playing the protector of beauty in distress, you would reward him by saving him from the consequences of his vanity and folly!"
"You insulting villain!" cried Loronto hotly; but 'ere he could spring forward, a gentle touch upon his arm detained him.
"Nay, wait a moment," said the one who had been addressed as "princess." "Let me have speech with this man."
She raised her head now proudly, and her eyes flashed as she extended her hand threateningly towards her persecutor.
"Enough of this, Agrelda!" she said, in a voice of command. "Listen to me; and you, too, Dyro," she continued, addressing the second of the two leaders. "You have gone too far to-day; and if I tell my father what has occurred, it will reach the limit of his patience, I know; for he has declared that upon the next occasion of any insult towards myself he will break through his peaceful resolves and begin a war against you and yours which will not end until you are all destroyed, and your castle burned to the ground!"
Loronto would have broken in here, but again she restrained him. The one addressed as Agrelda, however, contemptuously declined the olive branch thus forgivingly proffered.
"You will not tell it to your father in any case, Princess!" he sneered, "because you will not return to him. You will come with me, as I bade you, and when you are my wife, your father will see that it is better to leave alone what cannot be undone. You cannot get away, for my people have seized your boats. You are safe here; and you will wait here till I have done with these precious strangers who have so taken your fancy!"
With that he again blew his whistle, and some men came running towards them from the riverside. While the general attention had been taken up with the parley, they had crept round and seized the boats, which the boatmen had left unprotected to go to the assistance of their mistress.
Montamah, however, had kept one eye, so to speak, upon them, and had quietly passed the word to be prepared for a sudden rush. The travellers were but six—including Kalma, who, however, now carried firearms, and knew how to use them—and a couple of sailors; for Peter had stolen off and gone to fetch reinforcements from the Swallow. Against them there were perhaps a score or more of men in sight.
As the fellows came towards them at the double, brandishing their weapons, and shouting vaingloriously at what they thought was going to be a very easy "victory," they were met with a volley which laid three of their number low, and spread astonishment and fear amongst the rest. They halted and looked at their fallen comrades; while Loronto strode towards their leader who was staring about him, evidently no less surprised.
"Coward!" said Loronto between his teeth, "cowardly, murdering dog! Think not that the wretches who follow you can save you from punishment at my hands! Order them back, if you have a spark of manliness in your vile body, and fight it out with me! If not, I swear that we will serve you and the rest as we have served those you see lying on the ground."
At this moment the one who had been called Dyro, and who had thus far remained a silent spectator, spoke in a low tone to his companion.
Evidently he was counselling prudence; for he pointed to their fallen followers. After a brief colloquy, Agrelda turned to Loronto with a snarl like a savage wolf.
"Be it so!" he growled. "I know not who you are, or whence you come; or whether, even, you are a fit person for one like myself to meet on equal terms——"
"Beware!" exclaimed Loronto, warningly, "no more insults!"
"You won't have a chance to be insulted," cried Agrelda, with a glance full of the most murderous hate. "I shall not finish while you have a whole bone in your youthful body!"
A moment later the two foes were engaged in a fight which proved to be the most momentous of the many Loronto had experienced. The man he was opposed to was—as quickly became evident—a man of iron frame and of extraordinary skill in fence. His style of fighting was at first to rain such a shower of terrific blows upon his adversary as to tire him out, and then to rush in and crush him by brute strength.
With energy born of venomous hate and vicious savagery on the one side, and righteous indignation on the other, the two fought on for some time with little visible advantage to either.
Suddenly, Agrelda made a feint, and then, putting his head down, charged at his adversary, like a bull, with his spiked helmet.
But the trick did not succeed, thanks to Montamah's warning. Loronto was on the watch, and he leaped aside, caught his foe round the throat, and the two rolled upon the ground together in a mortal struggle,
Agrelda had managed to grip Loronto round the breast with one arm, and was trying to get a hold with the other in order to bring his enormous crushing power to bear. For, as it afterwards appeared, the man was almost a very Hercules in the strength of his arms. Herein had been the secret of his boastfulness, and of his promise to crush his antagonist's bones.
It was now a question of brute strength on either side; but Agrelda had failed to get his usual grip, and had, besides, Loronto's arms round his throat—which he had not bargained for.
Each called up every particle of his reserve strength, and Loronto remembered what Ralph had told him of the way in which he had broken the great ape's neck in the arena; and now he was striving to carry out the same thing.
At last Ralph, watching closely, saw that Agrelda was turning black in the face. Making a sign to Montamah to keep a watch on the others, in case of treachery, he stepped to the side of the two. He perceived that Loronto could not waste breath in talking; so he spoke for him.
"Do you give in, or will you die?" he asked of Agrelda.
For two or three seconds there was no answer.
Then there came a gasping "yes!" with a gurgling curse tacked on to it.
"Will you promise to kneel and ask pardon of the lady you have insulted?"
Loronto relaxed his deadly grip, and the fight was ended.
"Loronto, Prince of Ireenia, thou art welcome to our city! Thrice welcome art thou, my son! Firstly, because thou art the son of King Dominta, whose father was my friend in by-gone days; secondly, for thyself, for thou hast honest eyes and strong limbs, and I love to see both; and thirdly—greatest of all—for the service thou hast rendered—the inestimable, incalculable, service, which you and your brave companions have rendered—in saving my daughter from that fiend in human form, Agrelda the Terrible!"
Thus spake Almanda, the aged King of Crylania—the name of the land Loronto and his friends had wandered into.
Agrelda and his men had been allowed to depart after his surrender to Loronto; not, however, until he had fulfilled his promise to kneel to Lyndine—as the princess was called whom he had treated so outrageously—and beg for her-pardon and his own life.
After he had performed this penance, he had been permitted to go his way with his followers; and he had gone off full of rage and fury, and bursting with a sense of bitter humiliation. Then the two parties—the princess's and Loronto's—had journeyed together to the city the travellers had seen in the distance—the city of Crylania, where they had been conducted, as honoured guests, to the king's palace; and finally into the presence of the aged monarch and his court.
Yet this land—otherwise peaceful and content, under the rule of a king both wise and good—had its troubles. There was a thorn in the side, so to speak, in the shape of the man Agrelda, an unruly noble who lived like a feudal baron of old in a sort of "Castle Grim" upon the side of the mountain barrier. It was, in effect, the castle which Loronto and his friends had seen upon the brow of the precipice which overlooked that part of the river where the fight had taken place.
Recently, however, he had seemed to turn over a new leaf, and it was thought that he had tired of his mode of existence and was really desirous of living in peace for the rest of his life. But it had turned out that the alteration in his behaviour had only arisen from the fact that he had chosen to consider himself in love with the elder of the King's two beautiful daughters, and had been smitten with a desire to marry her.
When his overtures in this direction had been declined, he had sulked for a while in his retreat; and finally determined to obtain his end by other means.
Now much of this had been told to the travellers on their way to the palace; but there had been so much to talk about, and so many novel sights to distract attention, that one important question had never been asked. Had it been asked before Agrelda had been released, it would, as matters afterwards turned out, have saved an immense amount of trouble, and much cruel bloodshed. That question the king now put:
"And now tell us," said he, "how came it about that ye travelled hither? What fortunate chance—fortunate certainly for us—we shall try in some way to make it fortunate also for you—was it that brought you?"
For answer Loronto took from the pouch the scrap of paper which had been floated down the tunnel in the leathern bottle, and laid it before the king.
No sooner had Almanda cast his eyes upon it than he uttered a loud cry. His two daughters, who were standing near, and some of his chief officers, ran forward; but with a dark frown he waved them aside.
"Here is a further service, my children," he said, "which our guests have rendered us. This is strange indeed!"
He remained for a while in thought, his face hard and set with anger.
"Ay, ay, 'tis a strange thing, my children! But take heart! We may rescue him yet." Then, addressing Loronto, he continued gravely;
"Prince, you have brought us strange news indeed—very welcome in one sense, but very momentous in another. My only son disappeared a short time ago; and we have mourned him as dead. We thought he had been drowned by the upsetting of a small canoe in which he had gone fishing. We found the craft overturned, and we had concluded that he must have been attacked by some water creature—we have such in our waters—pulled out of his boat, and devoured. Now you bring us news that he is alive, but a prisoner in the hands of this double-dyed villain Agrelda, who torments him daily and threatens his life.
"Great Heavens! And we—we let him go!" exclaimed Loronto.
"To think that we should have been so preoccupied that we forgot the actual object of our journey here!" cried Ralph.
"Truly, King Almanda, we have been terribly remiss, I fear," said Montamah. "But if you will permit us to make amends, we will follow the villain up, and do our best to rescue your son."
"Nay! I was as remiss as you, friends," Lyndine declared, kindly but sadly. "Had I but asked the question as to how your visit had come about, you would probably have enlightened me while there had been yet time to act."
"Still the fault is ours, Princess," cried Loronto impetuously. "My friend here, Montamah, has spoken wisely; and I, for one, shall know no rest until I have brought back your brother, or perished in the attempt. Give me permission, O King, to start at once, I and my friends—for I know they will gladly join with me in this!"
"Ay, ay, my son. The offer does credit to thy heart—though not perhaps to thy head," returned Almanda. "Thou canst not assault Agrelda's castle unaided—nor shall it be said that we left to strangers—good-hearted though they might be—the risks of rescuing my son.
"Your offer of help we gladly accept, but we will assist you in turn with our soldiers. Talk to my officers, and arrange matters with them. And my blessing and my prayers will go with you in your task!"
"And mine, too!" said Lyndine, and her beautiful eyes, which Loronto had seen flash with such fire and dignity, now looked at him softly, but with a world of sorrow and distress in them,
The stronghold of Agrelda the Terrible was a stone fortress of no mean strength. In appearance it somewhat resembled one of those fine old Norman castles of which some splendid ruins are still to be seen in a few places in Great Britain.
It was perched, as already explained, upon a precipitous spur, which jutted out from the mountain barrier, and overlooked the valley, the river, and the extensive plains beyond.
Below it there was now gathered a little army, small in numbers, but the most remarkable, in some ways, that can well be imagined. For here were mingled together the new and the old, the armoured soldier of ancient lore, proud and confident in the beauty and temper of his armour and his trusty sword-blade, and the bluejacket, equally confident in his dress of plain serge and his trusty firearms.
Of the latter men there were not more than a score and a half; while of the former there were several hundreds; but the weapons with which the sailors were armed—including the Maxims—made the score and a half almost equal, for the purpose in hand, to a reinforcement of double the number of their allies.
The combined forces had been placed by King Almanda under the command of Loronto and Montamah; and his chief officer, whose name was Dryonda, had, for a wonder, raised no objection and now showed no jealousy.
"I wish to see Agrelda the Terrible reduced to the position of Agrelda the dead, and his prisoner brought safely home," he declared, grimly. "I care not how it is done, or who does it—nor who afterwards claims the credit—so long as it is accomplished."
"It may be easier, good Dryonda, to accomplish the first part than to rescue your King's son alive," Loronto pointed out. "No man will be able to claim much credit, if we fail in that."
"That is true, Prince!" said the old warrior with a sigh. "However, I have a little plan which, if you will be good enough to look into it, may help materially towards that end. I have made inquiry amongst those of my people who know anything of the castle—and I have some who have actually been held prisoners there—and I think I can point out to you the window of the chamber in which our young master is probably confined. If I am right, we might be able to communicate with him."
"Advise him to barricade his door, if he can in any wise manage it, against his gaolers. If he could keep them out till we get in, he would be safe!"
"'Tis a good thought," said Montamah. "We must try it, at all events."
"And if it turns out well, I will take care that the King shall hear of it," Loronto promised.
"Nay, nay, Prince! I am not anxious upon that point. I would rather that our princess should hear of it, if there is found to be any merit in the idea, for we all love her. There is not one in the country who does not admire her; not one who is not anxious to stand well in her eyes and win her favour. And," he added, with a shrewd glance at Loronto, "I believe that I can say there are some who live in other lands than ours, of whom the same may truly be said."
Loronto coloured up as he heard these words, and, looking round, caught his chum exchanging meaning glances with Kalma. He felt half angry with the good-natured old soldier, yet half inclined to laugh at his sly hint.
However, for the time, other matters claimed his attention. The task before them was a stern and difficult one, and there was no time for aught else. Agrelda was a reckless and unscrupulous free-booter, and a hard fighter. He had with him over a hundred followers all as bad as himself; they were now at bay, and the fight was likely to be a desperate one.
An hour or so later, a formal summons to surrender was made, and this, meeting with no response, the attack was shortly afterwards begun.
In the meantime, however, the plan suggested by Dryonda had been successfully carried out. The window he had spoken of had been identified and found to be within bow-shot of some cliffs covered with trees. There was a great chasm between the two places, and the castle, being supposed to be inaccessible on that side, but little trouble was taken about it; the attention of the defenders being given to other sides which were considered to be more vulnerable.
The window was barred, but archers concealed amongst the trees upon the other side of the chasm fired arrows at it with notes attached, and one passed between the bars. The note fastened to it, after giving the instructions Dryonda had spoken of, requested the prisoner, if the paper reached him, to make certain signals if possible, by means of a scarf, or any piece of clothing. A little later the hidden watchers had the satisfaction of seeing a cloth being waved in a certain manner outside the bars. It was attached to the arrow which had carried the message; and the manner in which it was waved about carried back the captive's reply.
"It is Prince Talorna, right enough," Dryonda declared, after "reading off" these signals, and interpreting them to his companions. "To guard against deception I put something on the paper which only he and I would understand. He says he can keep the door against his gaolers for a time, at any rate; and he will signal again if anything fresh occurs."
Presently a confused hum, which soon became a clamorous uproar, announced that the battle had begun in earnest. Parties of men marched against the walls and fixed the scaling ladders under a fire of arrows and rocks thrown down by the defenders. These, in turn, were harassed by bodies of archers placed in convenient positions around, and doing their best to cover their comrades with the ladders.
But all this, though neither the defenders, nor even his allies, guessed it, was but a feint ordered by Loronto to prepare the way for his real attack.
The one gate of the castle faced a narrow neck of land which connected the outlying bluff, on which the building stood, with the adjacent mountain. Above the latter, on cliffs which overlooked the roof of the fortress itself, Loronto had placed his two Maxims, concealed amongst some dense scrub.
Against this gate, which was defended by a number of ingenious contrivances, another feint was in progress; but it seemed as though it had failed, and that the assailants were drawing off in confusion.
Agrelda, thinking he saw an opportunity for a sally, threw the gate open and rushed out, at the head of his men; in pursuit of what he supposed was a demoralised rabble.
Suddenly, from the cliffs overhead, burst forth the rattle of the Maxims. A storm of bullets swept down upon Agrelda and his men, and at the same moment, ere they could recover from the panic which followed, Loronto and his friends, at the head of a great crowd of armed men, fell upon them like a whirlwind.
At last the noise and hubbub subsided. Agrelda, in attempting one of his rushes, slipped and fell. Loronto, generously refraining from taking advantage of the mishap, called upon him to yield, and he pretended to do so. But as the victor, turned his head for a moment to see what was going on elsewhere, the treacherous ruffian attempted to stab him in the back.
Ralph, who had finished with his own opponent, was at that moment also looking round, with a pistol in his hand, and he saw the movement in time. Divining what it meant, he fired, with the result that Agrelda fell to the ground mortally wounded.
That finished the conflict. The survivors sullenly yielded, and were soon bound and given into the charge of guards; while Loronto and his companions went off to release the captive, and search the castle.
When the victors reached the chamber in which Talorna, King Almanda's son, was confined, they found that they had arrived none too soon. Some of Agrelda's myrmidons had been engaged in an endeavour to break open the door which the prisoner had barricaded against them, in accordance with the advice conveyed to him in the note fastened to the arrow.
Though, however, they had been unable to get it open, they had succeeded in splintering one part of it and making a small hole. As the captive still refused to remove the wedges, they had shot arrows at him through this aperture, and when the rescuers came they had found him lying wounded on the floor.
"You are only just in time, Dryonda!" said the prisoner, as he recognised the officer. "They would soon have done for me, I fear!" He stared wonderingly at the strangers with Dryonda; and it took a few minutes to explain matters, for he knew nothing of the arrival of Loronto's party in the country.
Loronto and those with him looked with interest and sympathy upon this young man, the son of the king of the realm, who, despite the fact that he was evidently badly hurt, and was in pain, insisted upon going at once to the assistance of other prisoners of whose existence he was aware.
He was a tall, good-looking young fellow, and he welcomed the strangers with an easy courtesy and friendliness which won their hearts at once. Loronto and Ralph went to his assistance, and after looking to his wound and bandaging it, helped to support him—for he would not act upon their advice and rest where he was—as he proceeded to guide the party to the dungeons of which he had spoken.
Great was the astonishment of Dryonda and his officers at the discoveries they now made; and the tale they told of what had been going on within the walls of that castle during previous years.
Just inside the mountain were a number of caverns and subterranean galleries connected with the castle by an underground passage. Some of the caverns were of great size, and in one of them rose the subterranean stream which was known to the Ireenians as the Mallenthah River.
In these caverns Agrelda, and an infamous priest, named Zotus, had, as it now appeared, long carried on a sort of fetish-worship of their own, which had been accompanied by terrible cruelties.
"Down there," said Talorna, pointing through some bars into a dark pit in which the mysterious stream rose, "in a den beside the stream, lives a horrible monster, of which all I can tell you is that it resembles in some respects an immense spider. It does not devour the victims upon which it feeds in the ordinary manner, but sucks their blood, and casts the dead body—drained as might be a sucked orange—into the river, which carries it over the fall you can hear in the distance, so that it is never seen again.
"Whether the priest Zotus deceived Agrelda by promises of gaining for him protection and general good luck, or whether the two delighted in cruelty for its own sake, I cannot tell you. Certain it is that it has been their abominable practice, at certain intervals, to sacrifice to this frightful monster some unfortunate human being whom they managed from time to time to kidnap and convey into the castle."
Loronto and his friends looked at each other in no little surprise. The river's gruesome secret had been revealed at last! Here was the explanation of the dead bodies which for so many years had been constantly brought down by the stream through the tunnel! It was from this foul den, then, that they had started; and it had no doubt been imagined that the mountain, with its subterranean waterfall, had swallowed them up and hidden them for ever afterwards from human sight and knowledge.
"How did you come to know that I was here?" Talorna now asked. "Who found the bottle with my message? In it I promised that whoever found it and took it to my father the King, should be well rewarded. What reward did he receive?"
"He has not had any yet, Prince—there has not been time," answered Dryonda, with a dry smile. "But when the time comes maybe it will be something very different from anything you had in your mind."
At this Talorna stared in astonishment, and then impulsively insisted on shaking his rescuers by the hand one after the other—Loronto, Montamah, Ralph, and Kalma.
"How to thank you I do not know," he declared. "You braved all kinds of unknown dangers to go to the help of one you did not even know, and had never before heard of
"We did no more than we hope others would do for us," Loronto answered simply. "But tell me—what made you think of throwing the bottle into that stream?"
"I did not," was the answer. "I have evidently been deceived; shamefully deceived. I bribed one of my gaolers, as I thought, to get me the bottle and let me write a message and enclose it within. For that I gave him the most valuable of the jewels I was wearing, and he promised to take the bottle out of the castle and place it where some ordinary citizen would be likely to see it. Thus there was the chance that it might be taken to my father, for the sake of the reward, without suspicion falling on the man I had bribed."
"I see. He deceived you, then; for instead of keeping his promise he must have thrown it into the underground river, where he supposed it would never see the light of day again," said Montamah.
"But tell me—why had Agrelda taken you and kept you here a prisoner?"
"To induce me to use my influence to gain my sister over," Talorna explained. "He offered to set me free if I promised to persuade her to marry him. And when he found he could riot induce me to do that, he planned to kidnap her too, bring her here, and then swear to her that if she did not marry him at once, and promise to declare afterwards to the King that she had done so of her own free will, he would cast me into yonder pit before her eyes! He hoped that the threat would induce her to consent!"
"The villain! The despicable scoundrel!" exclaimed Loronto, through his set teeth. "To hear it makes me regret I did not choke the life out of him when I had my grip on his throat! I made him kneel and beg your sister's pardon, though, Prince Talorna!" he added, with a sudden note of intense satisfaction in his tone.
"You did that?" Talorna asked wonderingly, his eyes lighting up with very evident pleasure.
"He did!" cried Ralph, no less pleased. "Now I know what I do about the gentleman, I shall look back upon that little circumstance with satisfaction for the rest of my life!"
At this Talorna impulsively insisted upon shaking hands with the two over again.
"You acted as I, her brother, would have acted, and in doing so you have acted the part of true brothers to myself," he declared, with emotion. "Henceforward you are my brothers, and my sisters will regard you as brothers; and the King, my father, will be proud to receive you as his sons!"
For some time afterwards the leaders were kept busy, searching the extensive fortress, questioning and disposing of prisoners, and attending to the wounded.
At last, when there came a pause, Ralph expressed a desire to get a glimpse of the creature that lived in the pit in the cavern.
"You will have some difficulty in getting a view of it—it is so dark in there," Talorna observed. "Lanterns are not of much use."
"Then we will try something else," said Ralph. "Some of our people have flares with them. I will send and get some."
It was Peter who brought what was required. He had been in close attendance on his leaders during the thick of the fighting, but had not been seen for nearly an hour. Ralph asked him where he had been.
"Wheer you be a goin' now, Mr. Ralph," he answered, and in his tone there was something which induced Ralph to look at him more closely. The sailor was hot and excited—but that was only what might be expected.
"As you seem to know so well where we are going, Peter, you had better conduct us. Though I can't guess how you knew."
"The man you sent told me, Mr. Ralph. That's why he didn't want t' go wi' you 'isself, so he 'anded the job over to me."
This dark speech certainly did not make things any clearer; but Ralph's thoughts were too much taken up with other matters to trouble further about it just then.
They went back—this time under the guidance of Peter and some of Dryonda's soldiers—to the dismal caverns where the subterranean river rose.
When their eyes grew more accustomed to the gloom, they could see that about half the bottom of the pit was a bed of gravel and sand sloping towards the stream, which occupied the other half. From it came a most sickly, offensive smell, so nauseous as almost to drive the spectators away even before they had had time to look round.
"Is that the creature yonder?" Ralph asked, pointing to a dark mass which could be dimly seen hunched up on the strand beside the water. "I can see some large, vague shape, but I can't make out what it is like."
"That's the critter, right enough, Mr. Ralph," Peter declared. "But ye'd better come away, sir. It's a sight as isn't good fur any honest man."
As he spoke, Peter lighted a flare, and flung it through the bars, in the direction of the dark objects on the strand.
As it fell, it revealed more clearly a huge, monstrous shape, which was crouching on the ground beside two prostrate figures. It was hard to say what the monster was. It had a great, clumsy body, covered with long hairs; frightful eyes, with an appalling green glare in them; several long, straggling legs, and two immense fore-claws. That was about all that the startled spectators could say, as, alarmed at the falling light, it left its victims, and, with a great leap, scuttled silently off into a dark cave in the side of the pit.
There was something weird, horrible, uncanny about the creature; something that made the very hair of those who looked upon it almost rise with horror—even though they could not have told what animal it was. It neither snarled nor growled, neither hissed nor snapped; its feet made no sound as it bounded away into its den. The light spluttered and flared out more brightly.
"Why," cried Ralph in amaze, "it is Agrelda—that one nearest to the water!"
"And the other is Zotus, the ex-priest, his infamous accomplice!" exclaimed Talorna. "Who has done this? How can we get at the victims? They may be alive!"
"No, sir, they hain't alive—they've bin dead half an hour agone. The chaps as threw 'em down 'ad a old-time grudge agen them two." It was Peter who spoke.
"But Agrelda was not dead. He was badly wounded, but might have recovered," Ralph declared.
"No, sir, he warn't dead—an' no more was t'other chap—but they be dead now right enough; the beast took care o' that!" said Peter grimly.
At that moment the flare went out, and the horrified spectators silently turned and left the place.
"Why are all these warlike preparations going on in the land, Talorna, my friend? Are you expecting an invasion? If so, who are the invaders, and where do they live?"
Thus spoke Loronto to his friend Talorna one day, about a month after the events related in the last chapter.
Talorna smiled slightly, but seemed indisposed to give a direct reply. He said something about the necessity of exercising their soldiers and keeping them in training, which, however, did not satisfy his questioner. He would doubtless have pursued the subject, but that just then Dryonda, the king's chief officer, was seen approaching. He came to summon them to the king's presence.
During the four weeks which had elapsed since their arrival in the country the travellers had been right royally entertained by their hosts. Not only the king, and his family and councillors, but the whole of the citizens, had done everything they could think of to show their friendship, and their appreciation of the timely assistance given in punishing Agrelda, and rescuing their young prince from his hands.
A few minutes after Dryonda's summons they all met in the great hall, where the king was awaiting them. The two princesses were there, too, and all the chief officers and councillors; and it was evident, at a first glance, that something more was in the air than one of the ordinary daily functions.
After certain preliminary ceremonies, Loronto found himself suddenly addressed by King Almanda:
"Loronto, Prince of Ireenia," said the aged monarch, "we have been
considering what there is that we can do for thee to mark our
of the priceless service which thou didst render us upon the occasion of thy first arrival in our country——"
Here Loronto, taken by surprise, began to protest vigorously that the kindly reception he and his friends had met with had more than counterbalanced any little assistance they might have been able to render in punishing an infamous evildoer. But the king waved aside his protests:
"Well do we know how invaluable was the aid thou didst render in the work of rescuing my son," said he. "That counts in our eyes far above everything else. True it is that my forces would doubtless have prevailed eventually, and the evildoer would have met his just deserts, even without thy aid. But it would have been, we know too well, but a barren victory; for by then mine only son would have fallen a victim to the relentless wickedness of his captors. This is a service which is deeply felt not by me alone, but by the whole of my people. There is not one of-us who does not feel that he is personally thy debtor on this account!
"That being so, it is fitting that the acknowledgment should be a national one also; one in which everyone can participate. So, as I have said, we have taken counsel together, and have decided. We are going to assist thee to attain thy rightful position in thine own land! Thou art the lawful ruler of that unhappy country, Ireenia, which has groaned for so many years under the tyranny of the usurper. Friends," concluded the generous-hearted king, looking round, "let your voices be heard in confirmation of what I have said, that this is not merely my wish but the wish of you all!"
Then from the whole assembly there went up a great shout. Cheers and acclamations were heard in such volume that for some time Loronto and his companions could neither reply nor so much as speak one to the other. From those in the hall the enthusiasm spread to the people outside the palace.
As the cheering and tumult continued for some time, Loronto took advantage of the interval to ask, as well as he could amidst the noise, the opinions of his faithful friends as to what he ought to do.
Ralph shook hands with him energetically, saying, "Of course you will accept, old man! It is the only way I can see by which you can hope to succeed for many years to come!"
Captain Woodham, the Professor, and Montamah were of the same mind, and equally emphatic. Thus it came about that by the time silence had been restored, and Loronto was able to make himself heard, he had decided that it would be folly to decline so generous an offer.
In a short speech, in which he spoke with a voice full of emotion, he thanked the aged king and his people, and expressed his sense of the magnitude of the favour they were conferring upon him.
"If I succeed," he said finally, "and am able to rule in the place which my father filled so well, it will be my greatest wish that the two nations—yours and mine—shall be allied in the future as I have heard they were once in the past. They will certainly be united upon our side by every tie which can bind them together—by gratitude, by mutual interests, and by affection!"
"And by marriage, before very long, I'm thinking!" muttered Dryonda, in an undertone to Montamah, as he caught sundry glances which Loronto, in his excitement, had flashed across at the beauteous Princess Lyndine—glances which had, so to speak, been returned in kind.
Loronto's statement as to the two nations having been allied in the past referred to what he had heard from the king himself. Formerly, it seemed, it had been possible to get from one country to the other in two ways: one, a roundabout route, by water; the other by a tunnel through the mountain barrier. Both, however, had been closed by an earthquake and great tidal wave which had caused extensive damage throughout the whole region, and had choked the tunnel and altered the disposition of the weed, completely cutting off all communication between the two countries.
"That is how I came to know thy grandfather," Almanda told Loronto. "I myself was but a boy at the time. Long afterwards when we thought of setting to work to reopen communication, we became aware that both he and his son—your father—were dead, and that the country was ruled by the usurper. So, as we had no wish to be friends with such a man, we took no further steps in the matter. I daresay that on your side of the barrier there are not now many left alive who remember our existence, save as a tradition. Montamah only came into your country long after the earthquake, and knew nothing, therefore, beyond what hearsay and tradition affirmed. He himself, he tells me, has been too much occupied with the constant warfare he has been engaged in, to be able to undertake any other enterprise, or he would probably have tried to find us out before this."
Later on, when Loronto came to talk matters over more quietly with his friends, the problem of how they were to transport a large number of men across the subterranean lake, past the whirlpool, and through the further tunnel, into the "Grotto," seemed a difficult one to solve.
"We've got plenty of galleys and vessels upon our side," he observed, "once we get the men through; but how to take them through with their stores and the necessary supplies, I don't quite see!"
"We will find a way," returned Montamah hopefully. "The current is with us in both tunnels going back; and as to the lake—we must find some means of marking the exact route and lighting it while the work of transportation is going on."
The suggestion which Montamah had made with regard to a means of facilitating the dispatch of men and stores through the tunnels and across the underground lake, was successfully carried out. A chain of small boats was established, which became, in their turn, a line of lights, by which other boats, laden with soldiers, were enabled to find their way through the mountain barrier with comparative ease.
Loronto received many proofs that his new friends did not do things by halves. Having offered their aid, they determined that the enterprise should not fail for want of care in planning it, or liberality in carrying it out in the matter of either men or the necessary supplies.
Thus at the end of a few weeks Ireenia's lawful prince found himself at the head of a small, well-equipped army, encamped upon the shores surrounding the Grotto. He had—thanks to what had been captured in the great naval fight—a fleet of galleys large enough to carry all his forces across the Sea of Markanda, and land them upon Demundah's territory at a point where his formidable fire-balls were not to be feared. With these troops, and the aid of the bluejackets with their firearms, maxims, and cannons to be landed from the yacht, things began, as Captain Woodham expressed it, "to look ship-shape."
Then, one day, at the Grotto, in the great hall hewn out of solid rock—the hall in which Loronto had been struck down just after his first arrival in the country—there was a brilliant assembly.
Loronto, clad in the magnificent suit of armour which had belonged to his father, King Dominta, was holding a sort of court.
Hitherto he had absolutely refused to allow the introduction of any kind or form of ceremony beyond what had been usual at the meetings of Montamah and his adherents previous to his coming.
"We are all of us soldiers of fortune," he had remarked to Montamah, "and as such I wish you to regard me until I shall have won the right, by deeds, to another title. Till that time arrives—if it ever does—we are simply companions in arms."
To this he had strictly adhered throughout the time that had elapsed and the chequered series of adventures they had experienced.
Now, however, circumstances had altered somewhat. Not only did he unexpectedly find himself at the head of a little army, completely equipped in every respect according to the fashion of the country, but he had, as allies and honoured guests, a prince of another nation with his nobles and officers, all used to the routine of King Almanda's court. He could hardly expect these guests to fall in with their informal customs, and, therefore, some more formal procedure became a necessity.
The storehouses of Montamah and his followers contained suits of splendid armour, and rich court dresses in abundance, as has before been stated, but for the last score years or more they had been consigned to resting-places in a museum The armour which was in everyday use showed signs of blows and hard usage, and was scarcely fitted for wear alongside that worn by their guests.
Hence it was that at this, the first occasion of the kind since the death of Loronto's father, everyone present had donned festive attire, and the result was a brilliant and striking assemblage.
It was into the midst of this that the attendants ushered an officer who had hurried thither with news that caused consternation and dismay.
His report was to the effect that the Swallow, which had gone out a few hours earlier that morning on special service, had been sighted returning in company with several galleys, all flying their flags at half-mast.
Apprehension that some untoward calamity had occurred' had seized the look-out party; and one of the leaders in charge had been immediately despatched to notify the leaders.
At once the assembly broke up and the chiefs hastened to the shore, where they awaited with impatience the arrival of the mournful procession.
Loronto's great fear was that Ralph had been struck down, and his relief was great when through his glasses he at last made out the form of his chum standing at the stern of the Swallow.
Slowly, sorrowfully, the vessels came alongside, and then a terrible story was told. At the tower by the shore, from which Loronto and Ralph had escaped by the secret passage, a foul deed had been committed.
This tower had been the scene of more than that first fight; and had been held, for a while, in turn, sometimes by one side and sometimes by the other. At this time it had been manned by a small party of Loronto's people, and these, it now appeared, had been suddenly set upon in the night and almost every soul massacred.
The Swallow and the galleys with her had brought three survivors who had managed to make their escape; and of these, one had been so badly wounded that he had died on board.
Bitter and deep were now the denunciations that were to be heard of the perpetrators, and loud the cries that went up for vengeance.
At a hasty council it was resolved to send a force at once to seize the tower and its atrocious occupants, by attacking it in the rear, from a direction in which their murderous "fire-balls" would be of no use to them.
Their preparations had been already so far advanced that it did not take long to complete them sufficiently for the purpose in hand. Within an incredibly short time the yacht had started off, towing a string of galleys filled with armed men, and accompanied by the motor-boats.
They landed, just at dusk, a mile or two from the tower, and under the guidance of Ridge marched round to a point inland whence scouts were sent to reconnoitre. But they soon returned with news that the tower was again deserted, and that there were now none of the enemy in the vicinity.
The force thereupon marched in and took possession once more, being careful, this time, to search out and destroy the holes in the cliff from which the fatal missiles had been fired.
The yacht, assisted by the two motor-boats, patrolled the waters almost out of sight, with the object of keeping the hostile galleys at such a distance as to prevent their occupants from gaining information of what was going on.
During the night which followed two men reached the camp in an exhausted condition. They were some of Montamah's people who had been taken prisoners by Demundah some time previously, and had since been kept as slaves. They had managed to escape, and they now gave a pitiable account of the terrible treatment to which they had been subjected. They brought, besides, certain information which added rather than otherwise to the difficulties of the position.
They declared that Demundah was making preparations for a sacrifice of the whole of the prisoners in his hands, of whom a considerable number had been captured from time to time in the course of the long guerilla warfare. Those who had thus far escaped being put to some cruel death, had, like these two, been treated as slaves. Now, it seemed, they were all to be massacred to propitiate the strange gods upon whose protection and assistance Demundah and his infamous crew relied.
Other information brought by the fugitives was to the effect that Demundah was carrying out many cunning devices upon the main road leading to his capital, with the object of resisting the march of the force which he knew was being accumulated against him.
This report led to a council of war among the leaders, at which it was decided to divide their forces in such a manner that, while the larger part marched along the main road, as originally intended, the two smaller columns should pursue a parallel course on each flank, with the object of turning the positions taken up by the enemy.
By the end of the third day everything was in readiness, and at dawn on the fourth, the march began which was to determine Loronto's future and that of his country.
As it turned out, the warnings given by the two escaped prisoners saved the invaders from falling into more than one trap which their cunning foe had planted. But, as a consequence, they were compelled to advance so warily that the progress made seemed terribly slow and tedious. In many places the road was blocked with immense rocks which had been hurled down from the cliffs, and at such spots Demundah had occupied the heights and drilled holes for his terrible fire-balls.
Montamah had taken the precaution to bring with him his masks and head-dresses, of which use had been made during the attack upon the yacht the first night of its arrival. But the stock of these was limited, and only sufficed for small parties of scouts. Moreover they were not invulnerable to the fumes of the most deadly kind of fire-ball. They were only a partial protection which might enable the wearer, if attacked suddenly, to avoid inhaling the fumes long enough to make a dash to get beyond their influence.
The advance was not effected, however, without loss. There were incessant skirmishes, and one small party fell into a trap, where every soul perished from the dreaded fire-balls ere they could be rescued.
No progress at all could be made at night, and thus it took several days to accomplish what, if the way had been clear, would have been less than one day's march.
Gradually, however, the enemy were cleared from the road, and driven back, and at last, one evening, just as night fell, the invaders reaches the top of a hill, and saw, upon a low eminence in the valley beyond, the lights of the Golden Temple.
"And this is the night fixed by yonder fiend," said Loronto, "for the sacrifice of his prisoners—my unfortunate followers. Unless we can act at once and manage to rescue them they will be the victims of another of his hideous crimes—one greater, if possible, than even he has ventured upon before!"
Loronto and his companions gazed for a while in gloomy silence across the dark, intervening space to the hill where the "Golden Temple" could be seen, gay and brilliant with its many lights.
The problem which confronted them was somewhat similar to that which they had had to solve, previous to the storming of Agrelda's castle, only that the present one was far more difficult. There they had only one man's safety to consider; here there were many who would be sacrificed if the assailants failed to rescue them.
Prince Talorna and his chief officer, Dryonda, who were standing near, also gazed upon the scene with deep interest, apart from the immediate business in hand. They had heard the stirring story of the adventures which had befallen Ralph and his companions there, and this remembrance of it came back and roused their curiosity as they glanced across at the temple.
Faronda here stepped forward and addressed himself to Loronto. He had been contemplating the scene with sombre, lowering brows. He had not forgotten his hours of agony in the awful "death-cage," or the debt he owed to Demundah.
"If my lord will permit me to make a suggestion," said he, "I have a plan which I think may prove useful. That is if my lord feels he can trust me."
"I think there is no need to put that in, Faronda," returned Loronto kindly. "Have we ever exhibited signs of distrust since you joined our side? Your hand brought the antidote which saved my life. I have not forgotten that."
"Nor have I forgotten, Prince, the hearty good-feeling with which you and your brave followers have welcomed me into your ranks and forgotten all the harm I tried to do your cause in the past, of which," he added, with a regretful sigh, "I do now grievously repent myself. However, my lord, that is not what I set out to say."
Faronda then proceeded to explain his plan. "The lord Ralph," he said, "would remember his (Faronda's) friends of that eventful night, who had been dressed up as frogs." There was something more, it seemed, than a passing bit of frivolity in connection with the assumption of this costume. There was a very old institution in the country, known as "The Ancient and Honourable Society of Frogs," analogous, possibly, to the Ancient Order of "Buffaloes," or "Odd Fellows," which are well-known and old established societies in Great Britain. Upon public holidays and festive occasions, the members of this Ireenian Society were in the habit of dressing themselves up in the semblance of frogs, hence Ralph's meeting with some of them in the gardens of the temple.
Now the society had a very large number of members, who were all bound together by mutual ties and oaths, and latterly they had taken up politics, and had come to the conclusion they had had about enough of the Demundah régime.
"They are ripe for revolt!" Faronda declared in conclusion, "and they have sent me a message by these two prisoners who have escaped and come back to us. It is to the effect that they are ready to rise against the usurper and fight for their lawful prince at the first opportunity. Surely that opportunity has arrived—or will when you make your attack upon the temple. It is pretty certain to be successful, for there are no fire-balls here to be feared, and immediately it begins my friends will help you from inside."
"Good, my friend—very good! I shall be very glad to be able to reckon the members of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Frogs amongst my trusty adherents," said Loronto. "But—how does that help us with the unfortunate prisoners?"
"I suggest that I go at once, dressed as a frog, amongst the crowd in the gardens of the temple. My friends will be there in force to-night. In our disguise, and while seeming to be bent merely upon roystering, we can take counsel together. We may be able to find some way of intervening in the prisoners' behalf and saving them."
"It is a bold idea," observed Loronto thoughtfully. "Perhaps some would think it a little wild—"
"Not wilder than when we dressed up as apes," Ralph put in. "I tell you what it is, Faronda, if you go, I will come too. I know my way about that place now, a little, you know, and may be of use. Besides——"
"And I will come, too," said Loronto, to the astonishment of his hearers. And in spite of the protests of his companions, he stuck to his resolve.
"What others dare on behalf of my cause, I will dare," he declared simply, but firmly. "Ralph has risked as much for me, shall I not do the same for others—for my faithful followers who have bled in my service and lost their liberty—and are now in danger of losing their lives—for my cause?"
And, in effect, to this resolve he adhered; and a little later a small party started off, with Faronda as guide, upon the perilous adventure.. The party consisted of Loronto and his chum, with Peter and Galston—for the two latter, who had shared Ralph's former adventure, had begged so hard to be allowed to join that their leaders found it difficult to refuse them. With them went Faronda's two friends, Maramus and Sumandah, who had been wearing the Frog's dress when Ralph had first met with them.
In less than an hour the daring seven had managed, under Faronda's astute guidance, to smuggle themselves into the gardens, where, wearing the queer costume over their armour, they mingled with the crowd of merry-makers.
If there was a minority who thought differently they took care not to express their opinions aloud; indeed, they pretended to more hilarity, even, than the others, lest they should be suspected of disloyalty to Demundah and incur his wrath.
Thus it was that Ralph soon noticed that there were a great many more "Frogs" among the throng than had been the case at his former well-remembered visit. They went about arm-in-arm, in groups, and between them and Faronda slight, scarcely perceptible signals passed. Finally, Faronda led the way to a retired part of the grounds, where they found quite a small assembly of persons, all dressed in the same outlandish costume.
With them Faronda conferred aside for a while in low tones. Then he returned to Loronto.
"All goes well, my lord," he whispered. "At the right moment they will seize this end of the underground passage, and if your men do as I directed, at the other end, they will find the way clear. Now let us hasten back.";
As they strolled slowly towards the centre of the gardens, they found that the people were all moving in one direction.
"They are making for the arena," Faronda whispered to Ralph. "It is a place you have reason to remember."
"Ay, I remember it too well to make the recollection pleasant. Must we go there again? By the way, I'm afraid there's something in the air that is of bad augury for us! Do you perceive what a share of notice we are attracting? I'm afraid there's something up. Keep your revolver ready, Lorry."
There was certainly some subtle under-current which made itself felt rather than seen—some vague feeling of unrest and doubt, and it seemed to be connected, in some way, specially with the Frogs.
As a matter of fact, even though Faronda had not noticed it, the members of the society were being "shepherded" into the arena by Demundah's spies. Those who were wending their way thither of their own accord were not interfered with, but others received mysterious whispered messages, seemingly from harmless strangers, telling them that they were wanted at once in the arena.
Within a short time almost the whole of the people were gathered together in the enclosure, where they found the unhappy prisoners standing in rows. Upon the raised platform sat Demundah, in the midst of a small group of his officers and attendants. In his hand he held the Sceptre of the Black Opal, a fact which in itself denoted that the present was an unusual and highly important occasion. Amongst those near him, Loronto particularly noticed Palaynus, the man who had stabbed him.
Very grim and forbidding the tyrant looked as he cast his eyes around. He glanced at the prisoners with lowering looks, and a cruel, evil flash in his eyes.
Loronto, who had never been so close to the man before, felt an almost uncontrollable impulse come over him to end the long struggle by shooting his enemy then and there. But despicable though the miscreant might be, veritable monster of wickedness and cruelty as he undoubtedly was, one of naturally brave, honourable instincts, such as Lorry was, shrank from the air of cold-blooded murder which such an act would wear.
The hapless prisoners, bound together in batches, by strong cords, were drawn up in two ranks, and a little way off were two ranks of soldiers, standing with drawn swords, and near them several more ranks of archers, armed with bows and arrows. Whether, however, these men were intended to act the part of guards, or executioners in the butchery to come, was not apparent.
Overhead, men were busy with some scaffolding which, judging by the impatient and expectant looks cast at it now and again by some of those on the platform, was probably some new device of Demundah's for torturing those he had condemned to death, and affording "sport" for his bloodthirsty myrmidons.
Suddenly some signal was given, and Palaynus came forward to the front of the platform, where he waved his hand to claim attention. Immediately the general confused hum died away, and the silence became profound.
"Our high and gracious lord," said Palaynus, "has reason to suspect that some spies have made their way in here to-night, under the guise of our good friends, the Society of Frogs. In order to discover them, if indeed our suspicion is true, every one here so attired is commanded to take off so much of his dress as will enable us to see clearly who he is."
Now this came as a bolt from the blue amongst the Frogs generally, for they were all wearing armour beneath their disguise, a thing strictly forbidden by the authorities. If, therefore, they removed their dress, or any part of it, this fact would become evident, and they would be liable to punishment, and there was no saying what form that might take in the circumstances. Demundah was in an evil mood, it was known. Things had not gone well with him of late; his men had been defeated in a series of small skirmishes, and he was about to sacrifice a number of unhappy prisoners to propitiate his gods.
For Loronto's party the position was, of course, still more critical. They would be recognised at once, and then "the fat would be in the fire."
Loronto held a hurried, whispered conference with Ralph and Faronda. It was agreed that there was but one thing to be done, viz., to precipitate the fight which was clearly inevitable. Faronda put his whistle to his lips—the whistle whose sound was well known to all members of the society—but before he could blow it an arrow flew past, grazing his cheek. Others of the party were struck, but fortunately the missiles glanced off from the armour which they were wearing beneath their disguise.
Then Loronto and his companions understood Demundah's diabolical intention. He suspected the "Frogs," and had resolved upon a sudden massacre of a number of them, as a means of striking terror into the hearts of the rest, and the archers had been placed where they were for that very purpose. Well was it for those thus treacherously attacked that they were wearing armour, for otherwise few of them would have been left alive.
Loronto and Ralph, filled with furious indignation at this onslaught, gave the order to the others, and they sent a volley of revolver bullets amongst the archers, spreading such a panic amongst them that they forthwith turned and fled.
A similar volley among the other armed guards raised a panic there also, and in the confusion which ensued, Faronda's whistle brought numbers of his friends to his side. Each, as it turned out, had a spare sword beneath his disguise, and these were thrust into the hands of the prisoners at the same moment that their bonds were cut.
"Now follow us and fight for your lives!" they were told, and with a cheer the poor fellows, who had little thought to have such a chance for life and liberty offered them, joined Faronda and the throng of Frogs who were crowding after Loronto and Ralph.
These were already making a rush to storm the platform, dealing death and destruction to all who essayed to stop them. With a revolver in each hand, the leaders pressed onwards, clearing a lane through which their allies promptly followed, and within a minute or two, as it seemed, they were climbing on to the platform.
In the momentary pause here, Faronda and his friends surrounded those armed with firearms, and warded off many a thrust from sword or spear which, in their impetuous rush, they did not stop to parry.
Once on the platform, Loronto made straight for Demundah. A second or two later he had seized him by the throat, and was trying to wrest the sceptre from his grasp.
Ralph was at death-grips with Palaynus, while Peter and the others were busily engaged in "keeping the ring."
Suddenly, above all the frenzied cries of the combatants, and the clash of arms, came a deep booming. It was the sound of cannon, the firing of the yacht's guns.
Almost at the same instant another crash was heard within the gardens, and close at hand. This time it was the sound of rifle-volleys, and was accompanied by some ringing British cheers.
There was a complete stampede of Demundah's people. The underground passage, of which mention has already been made, had been forced by Loronto's people, and his friends were already pressing towards the arena, driving their foes before them.
What then exactly followed no one seemed able to afterwards remember with certainty. In the rush of panic-stricken soldiers swarming across the platform to a door at the back, Loronto and those near him were knocked over and almost trampled under foot. When they picked themselves up and came to look round their enemies—all, that is, who could run—had disappeared, and the place was in their hands.
Loronto, bleeding from a couple of wounds, had yet managed to hold on to the sceptre which he had wrested from Demundah, and he now waved it aloft amid the cheers of his followers. Then, turning, he led them on in pursuit of their flying enemies, guided by the yacht's guns, which told, by their continued booming, that the fight was not yet ended.
In the splendid palace in the city of Ireenia, Prince Loronto was holding a reception. Some days had passed since the fight in the gardens of the temple—a fight which had ended in Demundah escaping in the darkness with a considerable number of his followers in their galleys.
Captain Woodham, in the yacht, by cutting off their retreat across the water to the rocky ridge opposite the city, where they had a store of their fire-balls, and the means of firing them, had cleverly prevented them from making a last stand in this stronghold.
As it was, the defeated usurper, and those who still stuck to him, were now fugitives, hiding in some remote recesses of the weed.
The task of finally hunting him down had to give place, just then, to the more pressing duties of recognising the country, and establishing order in the city.
Loronto had issued a manifesto, announcing that he had assumed the title of king and the position of his dead father, and promising an amnesty for those who came in and made submission by a certain day—all, that is, but Demundah himself and a certain number of his more atrocious adherents, whose names were all well known, and were published with the manifesto. Upon their heads a price was set, and the citizens were encouraged to assist in their capture.
All the officers of the allied forces were present, including Captain Woodham, and Loronto again wore the magnificent suit of armour which had belonged to King Dominta.
The guardianship of the Grotto had been entrusted temporarily to Peter, who had with him Pike, Ridge, and Oatly, as well as a small force of Montamah's people. Knowing the natural strength of the stronghold, and how Montamah had held it for so many years against forces greatly superior to his own, no doubt entered into the mind of Loronto or his friends as to the place being perfectly safe. But in this, as it turned out, they were underestimating Demundah's cunning and resource.
In the midst of the general rejoicing and congratulations, it became somehow known that a boat had been sighted hurrying towards the city post-haste. Now Professor Henson had gone out early that morning a-fishing, and had not yet returned, and Ralph supposed that he was now hastening back, hoping to get in before the end of the grand ceremonial.
Presently Loronto beckoned first to his chum, and then to Montamah, and when they came to him asked them to go out and see a messenger who had arrived with, he had been told, important news.
Ralph and Montamah accordingly hastened to an ante-chamber, where the messenger was waiting, and were surprised to find that it was the old sailor, Dan Oatly.
But their surprise at seeing the man himself was slight compared with the astonishment and consternation created by the tale he had to tell. It was a story of almost incredible treachery and daring, and gave the first news of what appeared nothing less than a crashing disaster.
It was to the effect that Demundah had suddenly appeared in the early morning with a fleet of galleys at the Grotto, and had succeeded in seizing the place. He must have crept up the channel from the Sea of Markanda, in the darkness, and surprised the guard when the great gates—which were always closed at night—were thrown open at dawn.
"And what of Peter and those with him?" Ralph asked breathlessly.
The man shook his head. "Dead, sir, I be feared—killed in the fight, or else took pris'ners, I 'spects. Or else, o' course, they would defend the place, as well as they could. But theer's too many agen 'em. It be a bad biz'ness! But theer's worse still, sir!"
"Worse still? Worse than such a fate for the faithful friends we left in charge?" cried Ralph.
"Well, I doan't mean as t' that, sir, but it's a bigger biz'ness than ye thinks for, an' theer's some traitorism a-mixed up in it all."
"Traitors? What do you mean, Dan?"
"Well, sir, ye mind the two sailors, Hunt an' Bryant, as we thought 'ad bin killed?"
"Ay, poor chaps! They were killed in that fight——"
"No, the black-hearted traitors, they wasn't killed at all——"
"Well, they were missing, and we thought they must have been killed—or taken prisoners—and they were certainly not amongst those we liberated."
"No, they wasn't," replied the old sailor wrathfully, "'cause they'd turned traitors, that's why. No, sir, they be two wrong 'uns, as 'ave gone over to the enemy, body and soul. I seed 'em myself, a' dressed up like officers, a struttin' about, an' orderin' t'other people about like dooks. An' I heerd 'em boastin' an' braggin', an' sayin' as theer's a fine chance open fur 'em all in a land flowin' wi' milk an' honey t'other side the tunnel, an' as theer beant nobody theer now t' defend it. All the soldiers, they said, 'ad bin brought over heer, an' the king's an old buffer as won't give no trouble to anybody. An' the way theer's quite easy, wi' the motor-boat as they've got—the Wave—as were lyin' in the Grotto, d'ye see?"
Ralph did see, and the thought of it all made his face blanch. A feeling as of deadly sickness seized him. He understood in a moment what it all meant, and a horrible vision arose before his mental view of this horde of merciless cutthroats swooping down upon the fair land of Crylania, where there was now no force capable of withstanding them.
"We must acquaint the Prince with this at once" said Montamah.
Ralph made a sign of assent. He felt stunned; and almost seemed to have lost the faculty of thinking clearly, much less speaking.
Mechanically he accompanied Montamah and the sailor to Loronto's private room, where word was seat to him. A minute or two later he left the brilliant assembly at which he had been presiding, and came in, his face flushed with pleasure and excitement, his bearing instinct with a pleasing air of natural dignity and manly pride.
It was indeed a cruel awakening from the dream of success and future happiness in which he had been indulging—for now it seemed to have been but a dream—and like Ralph he appeared to reel and stagger under the blow. The news sounded too terrible to be true, too frightful to be possible.
"Why," he cried, with despair in his voice, "what can we do? What can we do? It isn't merely the fact that if Demundah's people have seized the Grotto they can hold it and keep us at bay for a time—if they choose! They won't need even to trouble to do so! A few trips in the motor-boat will take them all through the tunnel, and then a charge of gunpowder will close it against us for ever. Those scoundrels Hunt and Bryant know enough to be able to accomplish the work effectually—and they've plenty of our own powder to do it with—the powder we made with so much care and trouble!"
The friends were indeed almost beside themselves in these, the first minutes, following the blow which had fallen with such awful suddenness.
Montamah was the first to recover himself. Anticipating Loronto's wishes, he called messengers and sent them forth with orders to the chief officers; while he himself went into the gay assembly which Loronto had just quitted, and hurriedly dissolved it.
"Who shall tell Talorna?" Loronto asked of Ralph, when Montamah had left them. "How can we meet him and tell him of the peril which threatens his father and sisters? Who trusted everything to my leadership, the leadership which has brought us to this pass!"
Montamah returned after but a short absence to the room where Loronto and Ralph were awaiting him.
"I have broken the news to Prince Talorna," he said quietly, "and Captain Woodham has gone down to the yacht, and will be ready to start by the time our men are assembled. Dryonda is collecting his people, and my officers are doing the same with ours. I have also sent messengers to call up our galleys, and ordered them to await our coming."
Loronto thanked him by a silent grasp of the hand. He would not trust himself to speak, but the sombre light in his eyes told of the iron resolution which had now taken the place of the first wild outburst.
When Prince Talorna came in it could be seen that the news had affected him in much the same way. His handsome features had lost their almost boyish expression, and he looked years older. He did not waste time in discussion, but turning to Oatly he asked him to tell him, in as few words as possible, what he knew, and how he had come by the knowledge.
Oatly told how that by a chance he had been out all night with some fishermen, who had gone on an excursion to get a supply of a certain kind of fish, which was much liked as food, and could only be caught at night.
On their way back, a few hours after daylight, they left their boat and walked across to a hill to take a look round, to make sure that there were no hostile vessels in sight. There they had been surprised to see smoke rising from some place near the entrance to the channel leading from the Sea of Markanda to the Grotto.
Suspecting something wrong, Oatly and another made a detour, and, hidden by trees and bushes, managed to approach near enough to see who the strangers were.
Oatly found not only that they were a party of Demundah's people, but saw amongst them two of the yacht's men who were supposed to be dead. Astonished, as well as alarmed, he crept nearer still, and listened to their talk, from which he learned what has already been related. These particular men had been sent back to keep a good look-out, but they seemed just then more intent upon making a good meal than anything else. From this Oatly judged that they had come a long way, and had had little to eat on the voyage, for they seemed, he said, half-famished.
Then he and his companion had stolen back to their boat, and, thanks to the pre-occupation of their foes over their meal, had been fortunate enough to put off and make their way to the city unseen, and so had been able to bring the news to their friends.
By the time the sailor had finished the recital of these details and answered a few questions, word was brought that the yacht had taken on board as many men as she could find room for, and was ready to start.
Loronto and his companions hastened to the landing-place, and a few minutes later the vessel was driving at full speed across the Sea of Markanda.
At the place they had left all was bustle and excitement, for men were being hurried on board galleys which were to follow as fast as they were filled. But now the babel of sounds died away in the distance, and all became silent save for the vibration of the engines and the throb of the screw.
The afternoon was drawing to its close, and it seemed already to be getting dark; though this was partly due to some heavy, wild-looking clouds which were gathering right in their path, as though to bar their way.
And Captain Woodham, as he marched to and fro upon the bridge, muttered to himself something not very complimentary to the weather—which he prophesied was likely to turn out "dirty, or something worse!"
While the yacht was speeding towards the Grotto in the fast gathering darkness, a little party of hard-beset, desperate men, in the inner recesses of the place, were fighting pluckily for their lives, and endeavouring to hold the place till help came.
They were three sailors, Peter Roff, Ben Pike, and Ridge, and half a dozen of Montamah's men.
Beaten back at the first attack with the loss of some of their number, the survivors had continued the conflict, retreating still farther, from time to time, as their foes forced the doors and drove them from one chamber to another.
Mention has been made of the fact that Ralph had carried out certain works during his stay at the Grotto, partly as matters of convenience to the dwellers in the stronghold, and partly as a means of adding to the defences in case of sudden emergency.
One piece of work was a huge reservoir, but made for the purpose of storing petroleum, not water. Years before Montamah had there discovered a spring of the oil, which had been useful to him as a means of lighting the extensive galleries and chambers of the place. Ralph had noticed that the supply was fitful, and that when there came a rush much of it was allowed to run away, and he had made the tank as a means of saving what had hitherto been wasted.
Now Peter had been instructed how to utilise the water in case of any sudden need, but unfortunately the exigencies of the fight had driven him and his party in the wrong direction. The water reservoir was upon the other side of the Grotto from that on which he and his gallant little band were fighting.
But even in the heat of the conflict Peter's resourceful brain was busy trying to think out some means of escape, or, at least, of delaying the triumph of his foes.
"I doan't see," honest Peter argued with his chums, during a pause in the fighting, "why we shouldn't turn the ile down on 'em, as we can't get at the water. 'Tain't quite the same thing, o' coorse, an' theer baint so much on it-still, it'll make a fine, greasy mess, an' the smell may upset their stummicks a bit. Who knows?"
"How're ye goin' to do it?" Ben Pike asked, in a practical, judicial sort of tone.
"Theer's a way," Peter declared, "if I could only get round t' the right place. If you beggars could 'old on heer a while wi'out me, I could steal off theer an' manage it. Theer's a waste pipe fur clean'-out purposes, as runs out down by the shore. It's stopped by a plug, but I think I knows a way t' get 'n out!"
At the time of this little talk they were in the chamber adjacent to one of the hanging terraces which overlooked the land surrounding the inner lake, with a view of the Sea of Markanda beyond. Their foes were banging and hammering at the ponderous metal door, but it was of extra strength, and had withstood their efforts now for a long time.
Ridge expressed himself as sceptical as to the utility of emptying the great oil tank amongst their enemies below, but when pressed argumentatively by Peter for a good reason against the scheme, confessed he hadn't one.
"Do this petroleum stuff mix wi' the water or sink t' the bottom?" Ben asked.
No one seemed to know exactly. Peter had a hazy idea that it sometimes floated on the top, but he admitted he wasn't prepared to assert it as an absolute fact.
"But if it do, look you," he pointed out shrewdly, "p'raps some on it might catch fire an' frighten 'em a bit!"
"Catch fire!" said Ben Pike scornfully, "'ow could it catch fire on water? Why the water'd put it out, wouldn't it?"
This seemed a poser, and Peter admitted that he was not able to contradict the assertion. Nevertheless, he argued, his orders had been that if he ever found himself in such a position as he then happened to be in, he was to pour down a lot of water, and as he couldn't do that he was going to obey orders by pouring out what he could—and that settled it.
Then, the opposition, which had been but vague at the best, collapsed, and Peter prepared to carry out his idea. First, he inspected the next doorway—that opening on to the terrace—and having satisfied himself that it was at least as strong as the one the enemy were trying to force, he went his way.
"Ye'll bolt fur t'other door in good time, ye mind, an' not get caught sudden!" he impressed upon the others, as he went out, and they promised to keep on the alert.
He was away half an hour, at the end of which time he returned with a smile of satisfaction on his face, and found that matters were still in pretty much the same position.
"That's a rippin' old door!" he exclaimed admiringly. "It's stopped 'em fur hours, now!"
"Have ye done the trick?" Ridge asked. Peter nodded sagely.
"Ay, ay," he said. "The ile's a pourin' out nineteen t' the dozen, as the sayin' is. Ye can see it sinkin' in the big tank, but ye can't see nuthin' of it in the water, 'cos the pipe runs right out t'other side, yonder As I come along," he added, "I guv a look out t' sea, as one may say, an' I'm jiggered if I didn't think as I could make out the yacht aheadin' fur this place. But it's gettin' so dark I couldn't see proper. Theer's some big clouds a-comin' up; an' it strikes me we're in fur a storm."
Just then there came a tremendous blow upon the door as from some ponderous battering ram.
"Strike my flag, but I do believe she's givin'!" exclaimed Peter. "Scoot, lads! Scoot, while theer's time!"
His companions lost no time in following his example. They made a rush for the terrace, closing the heavy door behind them.
The light was getting very bad; wild, tumultuous-looking clouds were piling up in the sky, and even as they looked a flash of lightning quivered through the air. It was followed, a little later, by a sullen, low rumbling of distant thunder.
"Ah, it's comin' up!" Pike remarked. "An' Peter, I b'lieves ye're right. I b'lieve I could make out the yacht in the flash!"
This greatly excited the whole of the little party; but an arrow which came whizzing up from below reminded them that their enemies were on the alert, and that they were exposing themselves unnecessarily.
Peter warned them to stand back, while he himself, crouching down, crept to the low wall which formed a parapet on the outer side of the terrace, and peered cautiously over.
He could see some galleys starting off across the inner lake and towards the channel which led out into the Sea of Markanda.
The wall over which he peered was built flush with the rock, which went down, a sheer precipice, to the ground below. It was perfectly safe from assault by their enemies on that side, but it was not out of reach of their arrows.
But now he found that they were no longer giving the terrace their attention. Those who had been on the shore were returning to their galleys and hastening after the others.
"Boys!" cried Peter. "Come an' look! It's quite safe! Somebody's sighted the yacht an' sent word, an' they be a-goin' out to stop her a comin' inter the channel—if they can!"
The others joined him, and they watched the galleys crowding towards the channel. One larger than the rest came out from the Grotto and brought up the rear.
Just then there came another flash of lightning, much more brilliant than the last, and a deafening crash of thunder followed very soon after.
"That's Demundah's galley!" cried Ridge. "An' that was him an' Palaynus a-standin' up on the poop! I saw 'em both plain when that flash came."
No one answered, for they were all too much taken up in trying to pierce the gloom in order to follow the movements of the galleys and the yacht. There came other flashes, and each time the thunder followed more quickly, and each time they could see that the galleys had got further away; but the yacht seemed still too far off to show up clearly.
Suddenly there came a flash so dazzling as almost to blind them, and it was succeeded, upon the instant, by a peal of thunder which seemed to shake the very mountain of which the terrace formed part.
A great glare went up and illuminated the sky and everything in sight, but a second glance showed that the fire was on the water and nowhere else.
The whole channel was, in fact, a river of fire, which extended over a part of the inner lake as well; and in the midst of the flame and volumes of smoke that floated upwards, were to be seen Demundah's galleys.
Then such shrieks and cries rent the air as made the listeners sick to listen to.
Down the channel, one by one, or in twos and threes, many of them locked together, came Demundah's doomed ships, some still in flames, some mere charred hulks, as the current, itself a running river of fire, drifted them down and out into the water beyond.
Loronto and those with him watched from the yacht, the while that she backed slowly to keep beyond the flaming belt, and they counted the ships as they came into view. And at the end of them all they recognised Demundah's own galley, and guessed that he was probably on board.
"Our work has been done for us," said Loronto grimly. "I do not think Demundah will be likely to trouble us any more!"
"Going to leave us, Captain Woodham? Must it be so?"
"There's no choice in the matter, Ralph, my lad! The work we came here to do is finished; Lorry—God bless him!—has come into his own, and to-morrow he will wear the Crown of the Black Opal, which I was so lucky as to save for him many long years ago. What more is there for an old sea-dog to do?"
"Lots, lots! Why should you not settle in the country as I am going to do? Lorry is going to give me the post of Chief Engineer and Constructor. He would make you——"
The veteran sailor shook his head. "No," he answered. "Ye see I'm not the only one to be considered, lad. There's Professor Henson and my crew. Thanks to the munificence with which we have all been rewarded, every one of us will go home with a tidy little fortune, and my men have wives and children, or sweethearts, they want to get back to. Now, Ralmedus, who seems to be well versed in the business of foretelling the times of the opening of channels through the weed—though how he does it is a mystery to an old-world buffer like myself—declares that if I don't start within the next week, there won't be a chance for another ten years—and you can understand that the men would be ready to mutiny if I suggested that they should wait that time."
"Yes, I see how it is," said Ralph regretfully. "But—well—ten years! If the channels are open then, couldn't you come and see us?"
The skipper smiled, half humorously, half sadly.
"We may none of us be alive then," he returned slowly, "but if I am, well, yes! I think I shall be found cruising somewhere round about. Lorry has made me a present of the yacht, and p'raps I'll bring her back to see how you are going on!"
And with that Ralph had to be content—or profess himself so.
This talk took place a fortnight after the terrible doom which had fallen upon Demundah and his followers.
Peter and his brave band had escaped better, the terrace being high up, and the wind having fortunately carried the smoke and fumes the other way.
He was a little frightened at what he had done, and seemed to expect a reprimand from Ralph for wasting their store of petroleum and causing such a catastrophe. "But who'd a thought," as he put it argumentatively, to Ben Pike, "who'd a thought as a little ile w'd a kicked up sich a smother?"
Such being Peter's feeling about the matter, it can be understood how agreeably surprised he was to find that he was looked upon as a hero instead of being admonished.
However, honest Peter did not bother his head with problems just then. He had gladly accepted an offer from Ralph to stay on in his service. Galston and Ridge, he found, were going to stay, and he decided to do the same.
By this time the Mallenthah river had fallen still lower, and the current had become so sluggish that the underground whirpool had disappeared; hence the journey to and fro became a matter of no difficulty, and people made the passage both ways daily in canoes. Ralph even began to devise plans for pumping it dry and transforming its bed into a road.
Amongst those who made the journey was the aged King Almanda himself; and he brought with him his two lovely daughters to grace the ceremonial of Loronto's coronation by their presence.
When the day came the Crown of the Black Opal was brought out once more into the light of day, and in the midst of an assemblage which was the largest, it was said, ever seen in the land, it was placed on the young king's head by Ralmedus himself. Thus did the faithful old priest live to see the fulfilment of his own prophecies.
A few days later, when the citizens of the two countries were about worn out with the long-continued festivities, there was a great gathering of canoes and galleys.
This was to be the last of the public functions, the wind-up, as it were, of the great carnival of gaiety, the final, formal holiday, and the occasion was the departure of Captain Woodham and his party in the yacht.
Reports had already been brought in to the effect that there was, for the time being, a wide, open waterway through the weed, and presently the long string of vessels entered it. A pleasant little trip, upon a placid current, carried them to the place where the channel broadened out into the open sea.
Here the string of boats came to a stop, and the yacht slowed down to allow King Loronto and his friends to leave her. After much handshaking they passed over the side, and stepped into one of the waiting motor-boats, which at once hoisted the royal banner—that ancient flag which had such a fateful history.
Captain Woodham and Professor Henson stood together on the bridge, taking their last looks at their friends, and waving their last adieux.
"What was it Ralph said to you just at the last?" the Professor asked. He had seen the old mariner's face light up with a good-humoured smile.
"The young dog wanted to know whether even then I would not change my mind and stay a little longer. As an extra inducement, he confessed that if I did so I should probably be able to be present at a double wedding."
"Ho, ho! Then 'tis all settled? They are to wed the two princesses?"
"So 'twould seem," said the skipper with a smile. And then he lapsed into a reverie, and it was some minutes before he spoke again, and when he did so it was in a very different tone.
"It was just such an evening as you now see, in this very place," he said gently, "when this romance began by my finding in that bloodstained galley, yonder lad, then a mere baby, and the crown which belonged to him. Here the romance began, and here its chapters close. The child has grown to manhood, and come into his own, and so," he waved his hand to what had become a confused, vague crowd in the distance, "farewell to Ireenia, and to the honoured wearer of the Crown of the Black Opal!"