This story was originally published in 1904 by The Amalgamated Press, London, under the title The Sunken Island; or, The Pirates of Atlantis in the Union Jack Library series (Vol. 2, No. 30). It was printed under the byline "Fenton Ash"—one of Francis Henry Atkin's noms de plume.
The version of the novel given here was prepared from the edition published, with a preface and some editorial changes, by Sir Isaac Pitmans & Sons, London, in the following year under the new title The Temple of Fire, or: The Mysterious Island. For this edition Atkins used another of his pseudonyms—"Fred Ashley."
RGL offers illustrated e-book versions of both editions of the novel under their original titles.
—Roy Glashan, 6 May 2018.
THE up-to-date, quasi-scientific romance or adventure story is so well known in these days as a distinct type of juvenile fiction, that no remarks would be called for by way of introduction to the present effort, were it not that it happens to be the first of my tales of the kind to be issued in book form.
My previous "fanciful flights" in this field have been printed only in the boys' magazines for which they were written; but if one may judge by the favour with which they have been received by the youthful readers of those publications, then I should have the best of reasons for hoping that this new venture may prove popular and successful.
We all know, however, that boys do not choose their own books to the same extent that they choose their weekly magazines. Their books are, for the most part, probably, bought for them as gifts by their friends and relatives, who are sometimes a little shy of a "new writer." A few words to them, therefore, may not be out of place.
I would like to say, for their satisfaction, that they will not find in my imaginative creations anything which is unsuitable for healthy, manly boys to read; they are neither "ornamented" with vulgar slang, nor loaded up with a preposterous amount of "battle, murder, and sudden death." Indeed, so far is this from being the case, that I would like to claim that they have a distinct educational value, were it not that I am aware that here one must tread lightly, lest young readers should scent suspiciously something of that bête noire of the juvenile mind—the "instructive" story-book.
As a matter of fact, however, there is nothing in the following pages which is not scientifically possible, or which goes beyond what may be fairly termed, the Romance of Science and Natural History.
"YONDER lies the so-called island, Mr. Ray. I've brought my ship to the place, and so have fulfilled my part. What's going to be the good of it all is another matter. But there! you've known my opinion of this crack-brained voyage all along!"
"You say 'so-called' island, Captain Warren. Isn't it an island, then, after all?"
"Pooh! You can't call a place an island unless you know there's land there—real, hard, solid land. Now, so far as is known there's no real land here at all— nothing but a great tract of sea covered with tangled vegetation; just a vast, steaming swamp, in fact. Ye may sail round and round it, and ye'll find it everywhere the same; and you may struggle into it— as far as you can, and that's not far—and ye'll find it all just the same—no sign or trace of dry land can you actually touch, so to speak. In the distance, 'tis true, you can see something which may be rising ground—but you can't get near enough to make quite sure."
"How far have people penetrated into this swamp, then?"
"Oh, not very far—you can't get far. This marine growth is too dense to allow any boat to navigate it. No ship dare sail into it, while as for a steamer, well, of course, her propeller'd get tangled up in no time. Between you and me, Mr. Ray, I should have thought that a matter-of-fact, hard-headed scientist, as Dr. Strongfold is supposed to be, would have had more common sense than to bring us all sweltering here into the tropics on a wild- goose chase o' this sort!"
"H'm! Well, the doctor's keen on exploring unknown regions, as you know, and so—But there!
what does it matter? We've only come on a cruise, after all; and we had to do something to pass the time until my father comes back!"
This talk took place on board the steam yacht Kestrel, then on a cruise in the Southern Seas, and the two speakers were Marcus Warren, the captain of the vessel, and young Raymond Lonsdale, son of the owner.
A tanned, grizzled, tough old veteran of the sea was Captain Warren, but in his steady grey eyes there was a glint of good- nature to be seen mingling with the shrewd, albeit somewhat stern, glance habitual to them.
His companion, Raymond—or Ray, as he was usually called—was a good-looking English lad, well grown, with broad shoulders and sturdy, muscular limbs which told of athletic training, a sun-browned face, and general gait which suggested experience of the sea, and of an outdoor life generally. And so it had been with him; he had already seen a good deal of knocking about, for he had lived much of his life on board the Kestrel. On her he had already met with more than one lively adventure, too, for his father had been mixed up in some of the civil wars which break out now and again among the restless states of South America, and had taken part in some pretty stiff fighting.
Tiring of this, and finding in it neither glory nor profit, Mr. Lonsdale had gone for a voyage in the Pacific, and finally to Australia, where at Sydney he got news of some newly-discovered gold region, and started off upon an expedition into the interior to investigate.
Ray had been left with Captain Warren and another friend of his father, Dr. Strongfold; with leave given to pass away the time in a further cruise in the Southern Seas if they wished it.
Then it was that the worthy doctor resolved to try to see something of a mysterious island of which he had been told, where, it was said, had been seen some very strange people. They were declared to be a race who had lived so long among the tangled vegetation of dense swamps, and passed so much of their time in the water, that they had developed webbed feet and hands, and become a sort of half men, half frogs.
"Travellers' tales, my dear sir, mere travellers' tales," Captain Warren had declared, contemptuously, when the doctor had unfolded his plans, and asked him whether he thought he could take the Kestrel to the island, and give him the chance of discovering some members of this wonderful race. "Of course I can take you to the island—it lies not a great way from New Guinea, and I have myself already sailed round it, twenty or twenty-five years ago. But you can't get beyond the outer fringe of it—no one has ever yet succeeded in penetrating the miles upon miles of swampy vegetation—and as for any 'freaks' of the sort you've been told of —Pooh! such ideas are travellers' tales—the sort of thing, in fact, which we keep on board ship to be served out specially to the marines!"
However, the doctor's scientific curiosity had been aroused, and in the end he had prevailed upon Warren to take the vessel in the direction of the mysterious island, instead of going, as had at first been intended, on a cruise to New Zealand.
So here they were, in due course, in sight of "Doubtful Island"—as the place has been called on some old charts—and Ray, taking up a pair of powerful glasses, stared through them for some time without speaking. Then he put them down with a disappointed air.
"Certainly the place doesn't look very promising, Captain Warren," he said. "As you say, there seems to be no sign of dry land. One can understand now why they have called it 'Doubtful Island.' I am sorry, for—well, I expect you know without my telling you—I was looking forward to some adventures in exploring an unknown country."
"For the matter of that," said the captain in a low voice, "I'm not so sure but what you may have an adventure yet—if ye mean fighting. Not very far away, on t' other side, there are some islands inhabited by a lot o' swabs—vile cannibals, every one of 'em; and for some reason or other they're fond of coming over and hanging around 'Doubtful Island.' What their little game is I don't rightly know. Some say that they come for fish; others that they find here amongst the swamps some curious big lizards which they kill for the skin, which is supposed to be harder and tougher than crocodile skin. May be so, may be not. But I've got some notions of my own about all that."
Ray looked inquiringly at the speaker. In his manner, more than in his words, there was a suggestion of something mysterious which roused the young fellow's curiosity.
"What do you mean, captain?" he asked eagerly. "What are the 'notions' you hint at? Tell me what you mean—I'm dying to know."
"Well, perhaps it's better you should know, Mr. Ray," was the answer, spoken in serious fashion. "In fact I was going to tell ye on the quiet that I want you to keep a sharp look-out all the time we're in these waters—as sharp as ye can without exactly letting anybody notice. D'ye understand?"
"Why no, I don't," returned Ray, frankly. "Whatever are you driving at, captain? Who is it I am not to let know? The doctor— ?"
"Oh no! I didn't refer to Dr. Strongfold, o' course. Only it's not much use speaking like that to him—he is too abstracted and careless—too much taken up with his scientific hobbies, and— "
"Ay, aye; I quite see that. But who, then—of whom are you afraid?"
"Pooh! I'm not afraid of anybody, of course— specially with a ship like the Kestrel, in which I've had many a stiff fight— aye, and have beat off much bigger vessels, too, as you know— "
"And we are so well armed, too," Ray put in. "What can there be—or who can there be—about here to be afraid of?"
Ray looked thoroughly puzzled. It has been already hinted that the Kestrel had seen some fighting. As a matter of fact, though ostensibly a private yacht, she had been built and fitted out almost as a gun-boat; and she carried a very formidable armament, though it was so artfully hidden away, when not required, that there was little trace of it to be seen by any save a very keen observer.
"'Tain't that, lad; 'tain't that," answered the old sea dog, shaking his head. "Of course I know we can fight anything or anybody we're likely t' have to fight in these seas, if it comes to fair fighting. But they do say—there are rumours—dark stories—a bit wild and vague too, yet possible enough—of ships having mysteriously disappeared in these waters. What's become of 'em nobody knows; no trace of the ship—no survivor—nothing's ever come to land to explain. The place is a veritable mystery of the sea. The only reasonable theory is that the missing vessels may have been surprised by a lot o' these cannibal natives, with their swarms of canoes—swabs who'd loot an' burn the vessel, and then dine off the people on board her."
Ray shuddered. "I begin to catch your idea, captain," said he. "But so far as we are concerned, of course, the only thing we have to fear is a surprise?"
"Yes—and no," Warren answered, dubiously. "Ye know that we lost some of our best hands at Sydney; these rumours of fresh gold discoveries got hold of 'em, they got the gold fever and went off. And the chaps I had to take on in their places are a muddle-headed lot—if there ain't worse among 'em. I wouldn't trust to 'em to keep a proper sharp look-out at night, an' that's why I give ye the hint. So keep your eyes open, Mr. Ray, and help me to keep a sharp lookout, especially at night—an' more especially still if ye see any suspicious canoes hovering about. Even one or two may mean mischief, because there may be swarms more skulkin' out o' sight close at hand. This swampy region we're nearing is just the place for the cunning beggars to hide in an' to help 'em bring off an ambuscade business. See?"
"Yes! I quite see now, captain; and you may rely upon my keeping my eyes open and my wits about me," replied Ray, promptly.
"And I have taken my precautions and laid my plans," Warren declared finally. "My oldest and trustiest hands have been warned and told exactly what to do in case of anything suspicious being seen; so now we can end our little talk, and if you like you can fetch the doctor up. He's dozing in the cabin, I guess. I expect he'll like to know we're nearing the place where he hopes to find his wonderful frog-men."
With a cheery laugh the skipper went off towards the bow, while Ray went to tell the news to the scientist.
Five minutes later he returned to the deck; accompanied, this time, by Dr. Strongfold. The doctor was about fifty years of age, stout but active, florid of complexion, with a sharp keen eye, which, however, had in it, latent if not always openly expressed, a certain quiet, good-humoured twinkle.
"At last, Ray, my lad, at last!" he cried, enthusiastically, as he patted his young companion on the shoulder. "At last we shall see whether I've been rightly informed!"
"I've never been able to make out yet who 'twas gave you the information, sir," Ray observed, with a suggestion of reproach in his tone.
"Because I was made to promise I wouldn't tell," said the doctor. "My informant made that an important condition, and having promised, of course I've kept to it. However, you shall know all in good time. We shall be able to put the matter to the test very soon
"Then we shall see what we shall see, doctor," laughed the captain, who had just joined the two. "Well! There's your precious island, sir. What d'you think of it?"
Apparently the savant did not think very much of it, for, like Ray, he first stared through the glasses and then put them down with a distinct suggestion of disappointment.
"Goodness!" he exclaimed. "Why, it looks like merely a vast expanse of floating sea-weed, with a lot of driftwood mixed up in it. Call that an island—"
"I never called it an island," Warren reminded him. "Very much the other way."
"Humph!" The worthy doctor looked somewhat gloomily forth over the conglomeration of weed and driftwood which was all that was visible. Then he took out a pocket book, opened it, and drew from it a sheet of paper.
"Upon the south side, near the south-eastern corner, is a sort of bay," he said, reading from his notes, "and there will be found a wide channel running up into the swamp—a channel, apparently, which was originally that of a wide river, but which has become greatly choked by vegetation. Eh?" He looked up sharply, as he caught a chuckle from the skipper.
"I shall be greatly choked in a minute," Warren exclaimed, with difficulty swallowing down his inclination to laugh. "Why the whole place is 'choked with vegetation'; any one can see that! May I ask where you got that valuable prescription, doctor, and who wrote it out?"
"Never mind," the scientist replied, good-humouredly. "I've given you the prescription—it's for you to make it up. Find me the south-east corner and the bay, and then we'll get out a boat and look for the channel."
With a shrug of the shoulders, as who should say, "I wonder what the next nonsense will be?" the captain went to the compass to consult it, gave some orders to the helmsman, and an hour later brought the yacht up in the middle of a deep bay. Here— greatly to his surprise—he discovered there was a good anchorage.
"Why, whoever would have thought it!" he cried. "I never knew there was an anchorage in this miserable, world-forsaken place."
The doctor rubbed his hands.
"Shows my informant knew what he was talking about, anyway," he remarked, blithely. "Now, captain, please let a boat be got out, and pick me a good crew. Let 'em bring rifles and revolvers—and—ah—let Shorter be one of 'em."
The captain gave a scarcely perceptible start.
"Shorter!" he repeated. "Why Shorter?"
"Never mind now; I want him with me," said the doctor, quietly.
Ridd Shorter, as he was called, was one of the new hands the captain had referred to in his talk with Ray—one of those recently taken on at Sydney. He was no favourite with his officer, but the skipper acceded to the request with a half- muttered protest.
"You seem to 've taken a great fancy to Shorter doctor! I'd rather you kept to our old hands! However, of course you can take him if you choose."
Ray got into the boat with the exploring party, and an hour later they found the channel as predicted by the doctor, and entering it, soon lost sight of the ship.
"There must be land, or those trees couldn't grow as they do," observed the doctor, pointing to the banks on either side. "Ha! What is it, Shorter?"
Ridd Shorter was pointing to something in the distance. It looked like a canoe moored to the bank under a dense mass of foliage. The boat's course was altered, and she presently drew up beside the bank. There, close to her, was a very old-looking canoe, half on the bank and half in the water.
"There's something lying in the bottom," cried the doctor, as he stood up to get a better view. "Why, it's—it's—"
"It looks like the dead body of a man—the body of a native," said Ray, as he, too, stood up and peered into the craft. "Why, it seems quite dried up—a mere mummy!" he went on, in astonishment.
The doctor had already sprung ashore on the marshy bank, and reached the side of the canoe. He bent over the queer form lying in it, touched it, moved it a little; picked up one of the dried- up, withered legs, and dropped it again.
"Yes!" he said, in a tone half of awe, half of triumph. "You are right, Ray, as to its being a mummified body of a man—but—it's a man with webbed feet!"
AN hour later, just before sunset, the boat with the exploring party returned to the ship, towing behind them the canoe with its grim occupant.
The skipper's face was a study as the men hauled the relic on board.
"Handspikes and fishhooks!" he exclaimed. "What in thunder 've you got there? Is it a new kind of fish?"
"It's a 'find,' captain," said the doctor, rubbing his hands. He was greatly elated at this early success—doubly pleased, in that it was not only a remarkable scientific discovery in itself, but it enabled him to turn the tables, so to speak, upon his friend the skipper. For the sceptical man of the sea had chaffed the man of science unmercifully throughout the voyage, losing no opportunity of declaring his frank disbelief in the existence of the "men with webbed feet." And now, lo! behold! the doctor had scored by capturing a specimen at the very first attempt!
"It's a great 'find,' a grand find!" continued the doctor. "Ha! what will they say in England when I lecture on this at the Royal Institution?"
"Harpoons and codfish! It beats everything!" muttered the old mariner, as the scientist pointed out the webbed feet. "Blow me up with a sky rocket, if ever I'd 've believed it!"
Dr. Strongfold carried off his prize to the little cabin which he had been allowed to use as a sort of combined laboratory and "mounting" room. Here he was wont to dissect and "mount" all sorts and kinds of queer, out-of-the-way zoological and entomological specimens. He had already got together a fearsome and awe-inspiring collection—or so the wondering sailors considered it—but there was nothing amongst the whole accumulation of monstrosities to equal this last addition.
Later on, when walking to and fro upon the deck with Ray, smoking his pipe, under a light awning which shaded them from the rays of a half-moon high overhead, the skipper showed himself to be a bit puzzled.
"Seems a little queer, ye know, Mr. Ray, this grand find o' the doctor's. I wouldn't like to say such a thing to him—but, to my mind, ye see—hum! well, it's a rum go!"
"Very remarkable, captain," assented the young fellow, who was frankly delighted at the doctor's unexpected success. "What a noise it will make at home when all the big-wigs come to hear about it! There'll be lots of articles in all the papers, and they'll be talking about the Kestrel's cruise as a voyage of scientific discovery, and we shall all—"
"All have our names in print," the old salt interrupted, somewhat testily. "Pooh! I'm not thinking about that! Of course I'm glad for our good friend the doctor's sake—but—" Then he broke off, sniffed discontentedly, and gazed in gloomy silence out over the moonlit sea.
"Then what is it you're thinking about, sir?" Ray asked, looking at his companion in surprise.
Warren remained for a space staring straight before him without speaking. Presently he passed a hand across his forehead, as though he were trying to brush away some confusing thought that was worrying him. Then he took a seat against the bulwark, and motioned to Ray to do the same; looked round to make sure that no one was listening, and resumed the talk, speaking in low, cautious accents.
"It's this way, Mr. Ray. I'm a rough old sailor, as ye know, and am little given to fancies, or sentiments, an' that sort o' rubbish; but I do confess to you as I am bothered with a sort o' feeling that something's in the wind more than you and I are aware of."
"A—a—why, not—not—a presentiment, Captain Warren?" Ray stared in astonishment, as well he might, for he knew that the skipper was usually about the last man in the world likely to confess to such a weakness as a "presentiment."
"I dunno anything about presentiments," Warren answered, a little shamefacedly, "but I've got a sort of idea that things are not right. This grand discovery of the doctor's has come about a little too easily—looks a little too much like being all 'as per programme,' if you can understand." He paused as if in perplexity.
"But—I can't see how. I'm sure I can't make out your ideas, captain."
"Nor can I myself—not to my own satisfaction," Warren admitted. "However, let me put it another way, then p'rhaps you'll see my drift. This thing you came upon so pat and brought back with you this afternoon—you were hardly gone a couple of hours— this mummified frog, or froggified man, or whatever it is—how long d'you suppose it'd been lying where you came upon it?"
"How long?—oh! I'm sure I've no idea. How can I tell?"
"Well, it couldn't have been long, could it? In this region— here, almost under the equator—things of flesh an' blood don't be about long before something happens—do they? even if, as the doctor calls it, mummified?"
Ray assented to this proposition.
"Well, you know the whole thing has a sort of 'got up' look. The canoe is old, dried up, rotten; the body is dried up, too, same as if some one had put 'em there like that to give the idea they'd laid there for a long time—months—years. Yet we know that's impossible. Ants, alone, would 've found the thing an' ate it up in no time; to say nothing of other creatures. Therefore it must 've been put there very recently—yesterday—p'rhaps to-day. The thing didn't put itself there: an' it didn't die accidentally and dry up like that?"
"No; I suppose you're right."
"Then somebody put it there just as if they knew you were going to look for it—and not long before we arrived here; just as if they had sighted the yacht coming and had been waiting ready."
"Im—possible!" exclaimed Ray, drawing a long breath. "Why! to suppose that would be to suppose—oh! all sorts of impossible things, Captain Warren!"
"So it seems—at first sight—but—somehow—By the way, who really found the thing? I mean, who led the way to it, or who first caught sight of it—you or the doctor?"
"Why—h'm—neither, I fancy," answered Ray, rather confusedly trying to carry his thoughts back to what had actually occurred. "It was—yes—it was Shorter who first caught sight of the canoe as it lay under some trees. And he pointed it out to the doctor."
It was all the captain said. After that he remained silent, puffing vigorously at his pipe and staring straight before him. Nor did he resume the talk later on, but got up, after a brief space, and walked away without another word. Yet there was a suggestion of so much hidden meaning in the one word he had spoken, that Ray opened his eyes and gazed at the skipper with looks of something very like amazement.
Then the doctor came on deck, full of enthusiasm, and brimming over with scientific information concerning the examination he had been making of his "find." Nothing more, however, was said that evening upon the part of the subject which seemed to have so interested the worthy captain.
"We'll turn in early to-night, lad," said the doctor, at last, as he caught Ray trying to stifle a yawn. "I'm going to start in the boat again early in the morning to make a further exploration. This time we will go prepared to carry our quest much further, even to camp out for a night or two if needs be. I feel sure that that channel extends a long way. It may even lead us into the interior."
"Strange that such a channel should exist and never been discovered before," murmured Ray, sleepily. "Captain Warren declares that years ago he sailed clean round the whole place, searching for something of the kind, and that he could not see a trace of it."
"That may well have been the case at that time," returned the scientist. "I noted many signs, to-day, tending to show that this opening has been made recently—that is, within the last few years. I am inclined to think there are volcanic forces at work in the interior, and something must have burst its barriers, as it were, and rushed down, breaking through the tangled growth, and so opening a way to the sea. However, we'll turn in now so that we can be up the earlier in the morning. You'd like to come with me, Ray?"
"Very much indeed, sir. Will Captain Warren come, too?"
"No; he says he will not risk leaving the vessel, though what he's afraid of I can't quite understand. One would almost think that after pooh-poohing my web-footed men all along, he had been induced, by our find of to-day, to believe that the whole region is alive with 'em, and that he fears they will make a descent on the yacht in their thousands, while he is away."
And laughing genially at the fancy thus called up, the doctor sought his bunk.
Ray sought his, too; but he could not sleep. Something in the captain's manner had oppressed him with a vague sense of hidden danger. At last he got up and crept silently on deck.
There he found the skipper pacing tirelessly and noiselessly up and down.
"Are you not going to turn in, sir?" he asked, in surprise. "Aren't you going to get some sleep; you must be as tired—"
"Not now," returned the skipper, almost in a whisper. "Not here. While we remain here I prefer to get what sleep I want in the day time. However, that's nothing to do with you, my lad; so off you go back to your bunk again!"
Thus urged, Ray obeyed; and this time he got to sleep.
IT has been said that Ray at last got to sleep, but if the truth be told it was a sleep disturbed by some queer, wild dreams, in which the grotesque and the gruesome were strangely intermingled.
For instance, he dreamed, at one time, that they were all back in England, where the country was ringing with the noise of their discoveries, and with praises of their exploits in the now famous Kestrel. Crossing Trafalgar Square, he saw the whole side of the National Gallery covered with a gigantic poster on which was his own name in letters reaching from the roof to the ground. Turning from this, he perceived a crowd around a colossal monument standing in the place which the well known fountains used to occupy. Wondering as to what they could be gazing at so reverently, he glanced upwards, and lo! there was a statue of himself, in "heroic" size—and something more—dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. But as he looked, he noticed that one eye of the statue was closed, as if winking, and that one hand pointed downwards. Following the direction of the pointing finger, he saw, to his horror, that this amazing statue of himself had webbed feet!
As he cast a glance down towards his own feet, to make sure that this was not a true representation of his lower limbs, he perceived that he was in evening dress; and just then some one took him by the arm and urged him onwards. "They're waiting for ye, Mr. Ray," said a voice, which he recognized as that of Tom Waring, the first mate of the Kestrel. Inquiries, as they hurried along, elicited from Tom—who was also in evening dress— the information that he (Ray) was overdue at Burlington House, where the King and the President of the Royal Geographical Society were waiting to hear his promised lecture upon "The Dried Frogs and Mummified Toads of Doubtful Island." When, however, they reached the place, he found that it was a ball-room, and the assembled guests were waiting for him to lead off in the first dance.
Immediately he arrived, he was seized upon by His Majesty on one side, and the President of the Royal Society on the other, and they all joined hands and danced wildly round in a circle, in which were the Prime Minister, Captain Warren, Dr. Strongfold and others; while, as he whirled about, he noticed that Ridd Shorter was playing the big drum. Suddenly the latter gave a tremendous thump, which seemed to be a sort of signal, for immediately those around him let go hands, and each began dancing a hornpipe on his own account. Louder and wilder grew the music, and faster went the legs of His Majesty, the President, the Prime Minister, and all the rest, as with folded arms and perspiring faces they tried to keep up with the ever-increasing speed of the music. Then Ray looked down, and behold! they all had bare, webbed feet; of which, however, they seemed particularly proud, for they were doing their best, as they danced, to draw the onlookers' attention to them and show them off!
At that moment there came a louder bang at the drum, and a crash as if Shorter had jumped on it and fallen through—and Ray woke up.
"They're waitin' for ye, Mr. Ray," said the voice again—the same voice he had heard in his dreams.
"Where am I to go now, Tom?" Ray asked, wearily. "I'm about tired out! I tried my best to keep step with His Majesty, but he went too fast for me—"
"The doctor's waitin' for ye, Mr. Ray."
Ray sprang out of his bunk and stared at Tom Waring, the mate.
"You—why—you're not in evening dress, Tom!" he spluttered; and then he looked down at his feet. "Are your feet all right, Tom," he asked, anxiously, "or have they turned to webbed—"
"Ye're not awake yet, sir," grinned Tom. "But ye'd better make haste, or the boats 'll go off without 'ee."
Then Ray perceived that he had been dreaming.
"Wait half a jiff, Tom, and I'll be ready," he cried.
"I'm goin' too, to-day; cap'en's orders," Tom remarked, while waiting. "Special service—to look after you."
"After me?" Ray asked, wonderingly. "Why after me in particular?"
"Dunno! cap'en's orders! Says he's goin' to look after th' ship, an' I be to look after you."
A tough-looking old son of the sea was Tom Waring, with his grizzled beard sticking out from his chin in a fashion which seemed half saucy, half a challenge, so to speak, to all and sundry. Honest and trustworthy to the core was Tom; and the captain knew it. And since the skipper could not be with his ship and with Ray too, he had decided upon what he considered the next best thing—to send his trusted mate with the boat party.
"An' take care ye look after the lad, Tom, an' don't ye trust him out o' your sight—specially in company of Sh—, of any of these new hands we've taken on," he growled. "Don't you forget that I'm responsible for the lad to his father. If anything happened to him, how'd I ever look Mr. Lonsdale in the face again?"
"Or me, either?" Tom assented.
"Oh you—if you were to come back without the lad you'd never be here to see his father."
"Why not, cap'en?" Tom inquired, innocently.
"Because I'd string ye up at the yard-arm," was the startling answer.
But the threat did not anger honest Tom. He and his chief understood one another. Many were the fights they had seen together, many were the "tight corners" they had been in together; many were the times each had been indebted to the other for his life—more times than they could count. At heart they were the closest of friends—though at times, before the sailors, Warren would find fault with his mate and swear at him roundly.
"Cap'en don't mean nothin'," Tom would say at such times, philosophically. "It's all done for effeck! It has a good effeck on the others!"
The boats sailed away—there were two of them this time, one being laden with provisions, tents, and camp equipage—and the breeze being favourable, they soon passed out of sight of the ship, and made the channel, where there was still enough wind to take them at a steady rate against the gentle current flowing down towards the sea. As they went on, the waterway opened out, the banks were farther apart, and low rocks appeared, which gradually became higher and bolder in shape till they took the form of cliffs and low, rugged-looking hills.
Presently the explorers could see, through a haze, the outlines of distant mountains.
"I think we'll make a mid-day halt here and wait for the cool of the afternoon before going further," said the doctor at last. "On the shore, yonder, I see a stretch of greensward with a stream tumbling from the rocks, and beside it a shady grove. That should make a good camping ground, I'm thinking, where we could pass the night if needs be, after we've explored the neighbourhood."
The boats were steered to the bank, and a good landing place having been chosen, the doctor and Ray, with two or three men, took up their arms, and went to reconnoitre, before landing more of their party.
It was a wild, gloomy-looking spot they had chanced upon. Great masses of rock were piled about in picturesque confusion, while at the end of the valley, steep cliffs, many of them covered with thickets of dark-looking trees, rose one behind the other, frowning down upon them and seemingly completely shutting them in. Near the shore, however, was a flat stretch of green upon which was the leafy grove which the doctor had descried. Through this, beneath the welcome shade, tumbled and foamed a small stream which issued from the rocks beyond and finally found its way across the green, meadow-like flat to the shore. Except for the sombre, forbidding aspect of the towering rocks in the background, however, the spot seemed in many respects an ideal camping ground for the hot and thirsty travellers.
"No sign of any inhabitants," decided the doctor, after a careful look round.
Nor had they seen any evidence of human occupation on their voyage up the broad waterway. There had been ample signs of almost every other kind of life. Through his glasses Ray had scanned the banks on either side, and had noted that the region teemed with living creatures. Crocodiles—some of immense size— were to be seen basking in the mud or crawling sluggishly up the banks; flamingoes, in flocks, were fishing in the pools on the shore; herons and cranes abounded, and gaudily- plumaged parrots screamed and darted to and fro amongst the trees. Palms and great tree-ferns were growing here and there in luxuriant profusion, while eagles, vultures and other big birds of prey were constantly met with, hovering overhead, as if meditating a swoop upon the boats and their venturesome occupants. Every now and then they disturbed flocks of wild swans, ducks and other waterfowl, which rose in the air with a sudden startling whir, and circled noisily round and round ere finally taking themselves off to other haunts. None of these, however, had been shot at by the travellers.
"Best not to attract the attention of possible inhabitants by firing just now," the doctor had decided. "Evidently there is plenty of game about, and we can get it whenever we want it later on."
"The place is just a hunter's paradise," said Ray, with a half-regretful sigh. "But I dare say you are right, sir, and it's best to be cautious; though so far as one can see there is no trace of human beings—web-footed or otherwise," he added, with a glance at the doctor. "And that makes it the more extraordinary that we should have come across what we did yesterday."
"Time will show; we must be patient," the scientist answered.
And now that they were on the shore and could examine the ground around them more thoroughly, there was still no sign or trace of human inhabitants; and the doctor, having satisfied himself as to this, gave the order to bring the tents ashore. A few minutes later the sailors were busily engaged in landing the tents and some of their stores, and setting out their camping ground.
After a meal and a brief rest, Ray gained permission to go out with his rifle to see what he could shoot for their evening meal. The doctor deputed one of the sailors named Gale to accompany him, saying that he and Tom Waring would follow a little later.
"Don't go far, and if we don't catch you up, wait about for us," said the scientist. "I think we had better make up our minds to remain here for tonight at any rate, so there is no hurry. I will catch you up after I have settled all arrangements here. If you don't see us soon, fire two shots as a guide."
Matters being thus arranged, Ray and his companion started going inland up the valley, and were soon lost to view behind the great boulders which were strewed about in all directions.
Jim Gale was one of the yacht's regular crew. He was, moreover, a great chum of the first mate. Waring felt, therefore, that he was in no wise breaking the trust Captain Warren had given him in letting his chum accompany the lad, instead of himself, until he and the doctor should catch up with them.
So the two made their way up the valley, Jim, a young sailor endowed with an inexhaustible fund of high spirits, evidently entering with gusto into the adventure.
"My father were a hunter in the backwoods of America," he informed Ray, "an' I saw a lot of trappin' an' shootin' with him afore I turned sailor. It's a'most like old times to turn out again wi'a rifle in yer hand, and t' see a place wi' plenty o' game about, like this."
"Yes; I can understand that," returned Ray, sympathetically. "And certainly there seemed to be plenty of life as we came along; though just here," he added, looking round in some surprise, "we seem to have dropped upon the one spot where there is nothing to be seen!"
They went on a little further, and then climbed a low, rocky eminence, from which to get a better view of their surroundings. Again the outlook was disappointing. All they could see was a wilderness of rocks strewn about in endless confusion, with here and there dark gullies and caverns, and amidst it all numerous solitary pools, or small lakes, of stagnant water.
"I think we'd better turn back, Jim," said Ray, as he gazed round with a sort of shiver. "We can meet the doctor coming up and advise him to try another direction. There is evidently no game here of the sort we want; though, perhaps, it might make a good hunting ground for snakes, and lizards, and small deer of that kind. Ugh! It gives one a dismal, uncanny sort of feeling! Great Scot! what's that?"
A shriek had rung out and echoed from rock to rock. The two started and loosened their rifles which, in full expectation that the place was uninhabited and that there was nothing worth shooting at, they had now slung at their backs.
Ray peered about on all sides, but could see nothing to account for the sound they had heard.
Suddenly it rose again—the long, despairing cry of one in mortal dread, or terrible danger. Yet still nothing could be seen to account for it.
Gale pointed to a part of the edge of the cliff fifty or sixty yards away from where they were standing.
"Sounded to me as if it came from below the edge there," he said, in a low voice.
"We'll go and see," Ray returned; and they hurried at once to the place and looked over. A strange and terrible sight met their gaze.
Immediately below them they saw the dark waters of a large pool, with steep, rocky sides, upon which, here and there, grew a few scrubby bushes.
Clinging to one of these bushes was a man, who held on desperately with one hand and arm, while with the other he seemed to be trying to free himself from what the onlookers at first took to be a rope or lasso which had coiled round his body. Tracing this "rope" to its origin, they saw, to their astonishment and horror, that it proceeded from the open jaws of some great monster in the pool. Only the head could be seen, but a commotion in the surrounding water suggested that the creature was of considerable length, and that a great tail was lashing the surface of the pool several yards behind it.
Although they could not understand the exact situation, the two spectators saw enough to grasp the fact that the man was being attacked by some terrible reptile and was in deadly peril, and they both fired at the great green eyes they could see glaring just above the water. Instantly the "rope" vanished, and the man was free, and a moment later the monster vanished also, disappearing in the pool's sombre depths with a great splash and a mighty swirl of the water.
The man looked up and feebly waved a hand by way of acknowledgment, but he seemed either to be badly injured, or too dazed and exhausted by his struggle to be able to climb the steep bank out of further danger.
The two above shouted to him, but he seemed not to hear.
"I believe he's fainted," Ray exclaimed. "What on earth can we do? One of us must go down to him," he declared, laying his rifle aside. "And it had better be me, because I am lighter than you."
To this Gale at first demurred, but finally gave in in view of the consideration that he, being the stronger of the two, would be more useful at the top when it came to hauling on the line.
Ray had seen a good deal of hunting in South America, where he had learned the use of the lariat, and he had taken the precaution to bring one with him, coiled round his body. This he quickly unwound, and having fastened one end round his own body, he gave the other to Gale, who tied it to his waist and then lay down full length, with his arms over the edge of the rock, and prepared himself to assist the other's descent.
The lariat was of hide, very tough and strong, and Ray descended by its aid, climbing downwards where the nature of the rock allowed, and in other places trusting to the line alone. In this manner he reached the stranger, whom he found, as he had expected, in a fainting condition. Taking out his flask he poured some brandy into the man's mouth, and had the satisfaction of seeing him revive. A few moments later he roused up from his lethargy and seemed to begin to collect his scattered wits.
He was a dark-skinned, beetle-browed fellow, by no means prepossessing either in appearance or manner. When spoken to he answered in English with a Portuguese accent, and Ray put him down in his mind as a "Dago," in which, as it afterwards turned out, he was right.
Having given him time to rouse himself, Ray signified that it was necessary to make an effort to get out of their present situation; and finally he fastened the end of the lariat round the fellow's waist, and urged him to try to climb with its aid, while his sailor friend hauled from above.
Suddenly, he heard again that ominous swirl in the water behind him. He made a move and looked round, and instinctively grasped the bush nearest to him, the same—as it chanced—that the man had clung to.
Ere he could turn, however, something swept up and pinioned his arm to his body—something like another lariat, save that it was cold, slimy, sticky. Looking downward he now saw the gleaming eyes of what looked like a gigantic lizard of most hideous aspect. It was the long, flexible tongue of this creature which had shot out and wound round his body, and Ray realized that he was himself now in the same peril as that from which he and his companion had rescued the stranger.
IN the meantime, many feet above, Jim Gale looked down upon the scene and almost froze with horror as he looked.
His rifle lay on the ground out of reach behind him, and both his hands were employed in gripping and hauling at the line, the while that Ray was struggling in the coils of the frightful monster below.
The honest sailor realized, in that terrible moment, that if he released his hold and reached for his rifle, the stranger would fall and slip back into the very jaws of the creature waiting for its prey. Possibly, that might save his friend, but it looked like sacrificing the stranger in a very cold-blooded fashion. On the other hand, if he held on to the line, he could do nothing to aid Ray, whose fate would then be sealed.
What was he to do?
The solution of the problem came from an unexpected quarter.
There was a sound of firing, the great reptile of the pool again gave up its intended victim, and disappeared, with a tremendous plunge, beneath the water.
"Let go of the line an' leave it t' me, Jim," said the welcome, hearty voice of Tom Waring, and Gale was glad enough to relinquish his rescue work into other hands.
"Whom have you got there?" Dr. Strongfold now asked. He had heard the two shots just as he had been coming out of camp accompanied by Waring, and had hurried on in the direction from which they had seemed to come. Luckily, the two had chanced upon the scene just in time to rescue Ray and relieve Gale from the difficulty in which he had been placed.
"Goodness knows," the latter now replied, in answer to the doctor's query. "Some chap who was in the same plight you saw Mr. Ray in. Mr. Ray went down to help him, and got caught himself. I'm thankful you came up when you did, sir."
"So am I, my lad. What was the creature in the pool?"
"I saw no more of it than you did. Seemed to be a sort o' monster lizard, with a wonderful sort o' long tongue."
"Humph! Well, here's the stranger brought to bank, as the miners would say. Now to help Ray to make the ascent."
In two or three minutes more Ray was also safely back amongst his friends.
"Before we talk we'd better get back to the camp," the doctor counselled. "Come along, friend," he added, turning to address the stranger. "You can give us an account of yourself, and how you came to be here, over a cup of coffee, which we shall all be glad of, I expect."
Later on, when they had reached their camp, the doctor questioned the man first as to his presence on the island, and afterwards as to his adventure at the pool.
He answered glibly enough, that his name was Pedro; he had been cook on board a vessel supposed to be engaged in ordinary trading amongst the islands, but, in reality, carrying on what is known as "black- birding"; which is only next door to slave hunting. When he discovered this, the honest Pedro declared, with a great show of virtuous indignation, he had quarrelled with the skipper over it, and, in revenge, that unscrupulous "trader" had set him ashore on this island—believed to be uninhabited—and left him there.
"What! put you ashore as far from the sea as this?" Dr. Strongfold asked.
"Humph." The doctor looked at Ray and said in a low tone, "Then this open waterway, leading up through the swamps, must be known to others besides ourselves." Then, turning to the stranger, he resumed his cross-examination.
"You were marooned, in fact?" he observed.
"Exactly, Excellency," replied the ex-cook. "I have lived here alone for two months."
"Goodness me! And you had no arms to kill any game with! Yet— you don't look exactly starved, you know."
"One finds here many turtles, and fishes—lots of fishes, and oysters, Excellency," was the answer.
"Humph! Well, what were you doing when you were attacked—and what was the creature that seized you?"
As to these points, the "Dago" explained that from the higher ground he had seen the boats approaching, and had hastened down to the shore, rejoicing in the expectation that he would now be able to get away from his island prison. In passing round the margin of a large pool, which lay in his way, he had been seized by some terrible monster, and had been so terrified he had not even looked to see what it was like. He had clung by blind instinct to a bush which happened luckily to be handy, and had in his terror screamed aloud, never daring to hope that there was any one near who could help him.
This brought them to the question of the monster itself, and what sort of a creature it could be. Here Ray was able to give a clearer idea than the stranger. It was exactly like an iguana lizard, he declared, only "a hundred times as big."
"As to the thing that shot out and seized me," he said, "it was the brute's tongue—I could see that, plainly enough. A beastly, long, slender affair, horridly cold, and slimy, and sticky."
"Yes," commented the doctor, thoughtfully; "supposing we admit the existence of a gigantic iguana, it would, in all probability, have just such a tongue as you describe, which it would dart out and seize its prey with. But who ever heard of an iguana of that size—and, above all, living in water! The whole thing is an enigma! Boys, we must capture that reptile wonder! To a scientist its bones would be almost as wonderful a trophy as even a mummified man with webbed feet!"
He ceased speaking abruptly, struck by the flash he had seen in the stranger's eyes at the mention of "webbed feet." The words had slipped from him unthinkingly, and he now regretted the slip; for he did not feel disposed to open his heart to this stranger and tell him exactly what he had come there for. However, save for that one sudden flash, the ex-cook showed no further sign of special interest, but broke out into a long string of protestations of his unbounded thankfulness and undying gratitude to them all for having saved him from a dreadful death.
"Well," at last said the doctor, "if you've been on the island so long, you probably know your way about a little, and could doubtless act as our guide. I am interested in rocks and minerals, and wish to explore the caves of this island. If you desire to serve us in return for what we have fortunately been able to do for you, you can start with us to-morrow morning, and show us the quickest and easiest way to reach the higher parts of the island."
The stranger declared he would be both delighted and honoured to act as guide; and he was then turned over to Waring.
"Find him a shake-down, somewhere," said the doctor; and the mate accordingly led him away, but not caring to have him near himself, allotted him a corner in a tent which had been put up as a shelter for extra stores.
Having attended to this, the worthy Tom sought out Jim Gale, "jes' t' give him a bit of my mind," as he put it. Having found him he led him to a quiet spot a short distance away.
"D'you call this takin' care o' Mister Ray?" he then began, in highly indignant accents. "Cap'en's orders to me was as I was never t' let him out o' my sight. But I sez, sez I, 'I knows Jim Gale, an' l can trust 'im; an' it's the same thing if Mister Ray goes wi' him as if I was there.' Well! an' what comes o' my trustin' ee like that, Jim Gale?"
"I'm awful sorry, Tom, an' that's a fack," Jim declared, humbly. "But 't warn't no fault o' mine. We heard the Dago chap shriek out, an' Mister Ray he insisted on goin' down t' help him. Nothin' I could do'd keep him back."
"Rats!" snorted the angry mate. "Cap'en's order 's got t' be obeyed, my frien'—an' though you're a chum o' mine, dississipling must be kep' up. Cap'en said, if I came back without Mister Ray, as he'd string me up to the yard-arm. You've come very near bringin' that about—a precious sight too near t' please me—an' you must take the consekences."
"Why—what 're you goin' to do, Tom?" exclaimed Gale.
"I'm goin' t' give ye a durned, fine thrashing," Waring declared, rolling up his sleeves. "I ain't got no rope's end— "
Just then Ray's voice was heard calling for Tom, and the next moment he himself came upon the scene.
"I thought I saw you two coming this way," he cried. "Tom, the doctor wants you. We're going to try to catch the monster of the pool," he added, his voice full of eager excitement. Then, for the first time noticing how the two were glaring at one another, he asked, "What's up? What are you two quarrelling about? I can see it's a quarrel! I thought you were always such good friends."
"It's nothing, sir," muttered Tom, as he slowly turned to go. "We've had a hargiment, an' I was jes' about to explain t' Jim what dissiplinating means."
Ray opened his eyes as he puzzled over this lucid explanation. However, he thought it best to take no further notice of the matter, so he merely said,—
"Well, you must leave your argument to another time. The doctor wants you now," and with that he hurried them off to where the scientist was waiting for them.
"Tom, have you got anything amongst your outfit which will come in for fishing on a big scale?" the doctor asked. "I want to catch the creature we fired at up yonder. I mean to have the skin for my collection if it be humanly possible. It would be a unique specimen."
"Ay, ay, sir. I brought our harpoon tackle an' what we goes fishin' for sharks wi' sometimes. I guessed that in these swamps we might see some mighty big alligators as you'd want to bag— though," he added, "cert'nly I never expected to come across a critter like that as laid hold o' Mr. Ray."
"Hurry up then! Get your tackle together and bring three or four of the hands to help—and—er—don't forget something by way of bait."
Half an hour later they were back at the pool and had commenced operations for capturing its uncanny denizen.
THE mate had provided a huge piece of salt junk by way of bait, and this was fixed upon a hook "big enough," as one of the sailors remarked, "to hold a whale." The hook, in its turn, was fastened to a piece of rope which might have done duty for a cable for a very fair-sized vessel; and these formidable devices were backed up by a sort of masked battery—Tom's gun-like tube for firing his harpoon.
The hook, hidden in the piece of meat, was lowered into the water by means of a block and fall suspended, derrick fashion, at the end of a spar run out from the top of the rock overlooking the pool. It sank quietly beneath the surface and there remained, while the angling party gathered round and watched eagerly for the first signs of a "bite."
The afternoon sun poured down with terrific power, heating the arid rocks around until the whole place became like a baker's oven. Ray, after watching till he felt, as he expressed it, "half cooked," crept under the scanty shade of one of the dried-up looking bushes, and there meditated upon the question whether, when they had captured their hoped-for "specimen," it might be safe for him to venture on a plunge in the pool by way of cooling himself. On such a day, even its turgid waters looked cool by comparison.
As no monster showed, and nothing else happened, the general interest slackened; the doctor crept under Ray's bush, and presently began to doze. Waring and the other sailors crept under such shelter as they could find from the sun's scorching rays, and a few minutes later the whole company were fast asleep.
They were suddenly awakened by a prodigious commotion in the waters of the pool. Something was pulling and tugging at the rope with tremendous energy, the water swirled and tumbled, and waves, that were out of all proportion to the size of the sheet of water, splashed and foamed upon the banks.
In a moment the sleepers were on the alert but alas! too late. Ere Waring or any of his men reached the "derrick," the rope had run through the pulley and trailed off on to the bank below, where it wriggled about for a few seconds like a great snake, and then slipped at railroad speed into the water and disappeared. The end had been insecurely fastened, and the "catch" had made off with it—hook, salt junk, and all!
"Bless me!" cried the astonished doctor, as he sat up rubbing his eyes, "Wh—what's become of our rope?"
"Thunder an' soda-water!" roared Waring. "Which o' you lubbers was it spliced that end?"
"What was it?" asked Ray wonderingly. "Did any one see the creature?"
No one had seen it; no one could say what it had been like; no one could even say with any certainty what had happened. The only thing which they were all agreed upon was that they had lost their "tackle." Upon that point there could be no sort of doubt.
"An' the wust of it be as we've no more rope like that piece— an' not another piece o' salt junk," said the mate, ruefully.
The doctor, meanwhile, was scanning the soft ground near the water's edge.
"I fancy I can see some marks yonder which look like the prints made by huge claws," he declared, in some excitement. "I must go down and examine them."
And in this resolve he persisted, despite the objections raised by Ray and the mate.
"There is no danger now," he argued. "The creature that has gone off with that great hook in its throat will have something else to think about than to be coming back to look for another. We have lost our chance of catching it—that is pretty certain. But I can at least measure its footprints; they are by far the largest I have ever seen."
He decided to descend to the water's edge down a steep slope which he had noted. Ray, however, prevailed upon him to put a cord round his waist as a precaution, and a spare length which Waring had with him was brought into requisition for the purpose.
Thus equipped, with a rifle in one hand and his note book in the other, the enthusiastic scientist proceeded cautiously down the slope.
The other end of the cord was safe in the hands of the mate, who, this time, was determined to trust to no one but himself. Ray, meantime, stood watching the descent, rifle in hand, ready to render assistance should occasion arise. The other sailors stood around, keenly interested.
The doctor reached the bottom of the slope without mishap, and found that his surmise had been correct. There, sure enough, were the prints of immense claws, clearly defined in the muddy ground.
He set to work to measure them, after which he made some careful sketches in his note book. Then he turned and began to retrace his steps.
This was somewhat more difficult than the descent, as he had moved along the bank some few yards. Tom Waring, holding on to the other end of the rope on top, felt a sudden tug, and being unprepared for it, was jerked forward a little. Ray, seeing this, snatched up the loose end lying on the ground, and hauled upon it to assist Tom; and at the same moment Jim Gale, perceiving Ray's movement, ran up and also caught hold.
It was well they did; for though the sudden pull upon the line had only been caused by the doctor having slipped upon some loose rocks, something far more serious followed.
Even as he was recovering himself, and just as Ray and Gale had seized the rope above, there again came that ominous swirl in the water, a monstrous head showed above the surface, and from its jaws there shot forth the long, flexible, sticky tongue which Ray had described earlier in the day.
Like a flash it wound round the struggling scientist and began to drag him backwards towards the water—not only that, but the three above were dragged forward two or three paces in spite of all they could do.
Ray's calls, and Waring's more emphatic objurgations, quickly brought some more seamen to their aid.
Then came a lively tug of war—the monster of the pool on one side, and half a dozen sturdy sailors on the other, with the unfortunate doctor between them. At first, it seemed as if the reptile would gain the day—and the scientist; for the first three at the other end—Waring, Ray, and Gale—had already been pulled over the top on to the beginning of the slope, before their companions had come to their help.
"Belay there, belay!" roared Tom to another man, who came running up, and the sailor caught up the loose end, and, instead of wasting time hauling on it, promptly obeyed the mate's order by twisting it round an old stump which happened to be at hand. Tom looked round, saw that the hold was a good one, and then, leaving the rope, made a rush to where his harpoon gear was fixed.
The next moment there was a report, followed by a whizzing sound. Then a cheer went up as it was seen that Tom's aim had been good. The doctor was free, and the great lizard, with the harpoon in it, dived into the pool, leaving the water tinged with its blood. With it went the rope which had been fastened to the harpoon.
"We'll get him yet, lads, if the rope holds," cried the mate cheerily. "Now to get the doctor up!" Ray was already on his way down the slope to assist his friend, aiding his descent by keeping a hold on the line as he went. Waring and Gale now followed, and between them they brought Dr. Strongfold to the top. He was in a very exhausted condition, for in the struggle the breath had all but been squeezed out of his body, and it was found that he had injured his ankle.
He bravely insisted, however, upon remaining to see the issue of the attempt to catch his assailant; but when, a little later, the line fastened to the harpoon suddenly snapped, he resigned himself to the failure of his hopes for that day at any rate.
"It's no use!" he said, with a smile, to Ray. "We'll have to come again another day, better prepared. And now I'm afraid you will have to carry me to the camp, some of you; for I find that my ankle is too painful to allow of my walking back."
A stretcher was improvised, and the injured leader of the party was carried to his tent, where he prescribed cold water applications and rest as the best remedies for himself.
"I must hurry up and get well, for I mean to have that creature yet, and you'll never catch it without me—you'll want me for bait. I made a better bait than your salt junk, Tom, after all," the scientist told the mate, with a chuckle.
THAT night it seemed to Ray very hot and oppressive as he lay in his tent, turning and twisting and trying vainly to get to sleep. At last he could endure it no longer. He took his revolver from under his pillow, where he had placed it when he had turned in, and sticking it in his belt, he softly opened the flap of his tent and stole out.
Clouds were moving slowly across the sky, and between them a half-moon peeped out now and again, sending its beams down through the trees under which the tents were pitched. Ray's tent was the farthest one from the edge of the thicket, and it stood beneath a great tree with dense, bushy foliage, which threw a deep shadow around it.
Into this shadow Ray crept noiselessly, and looked about him. He was surprised to see no one on watch, and was about to move forward, when he fancied he heard a distant footstep. Then he detected the rustle of leaves and the snapping of a twig, and looking round, he dimly made out something which looked like one of the sailors, moving cautiously away from the camp and through the wood.
At once he resolved to follow, and taking every precaution that his previous hunting experiences could suggest to avoid being either heard or seen, he stole off through the wood in the wake of the mysterious prowler.
The latter seemed to have no suspicion of being followed, and went steadily on, keeping always near the margin of the wood, yet well within the shadows of the trees, and continued in this way for nearly half a mile. Then he suddenly disappeared.
Ray stood and looked about in surprise. He had seen the man's figure pretty clearly defined against the dim light outside the wood one moment, and the next he had vanished as completely as if the earth had swallowed him up. With infinite patience and care, Ray crept by degrees up to the spot upon which the man had been standing, and peered about on all sides, but could neither see any trace of him, nor form any sort of idea as to which way he had gone.
There was a small clearing at the place, and on one side of it some rocky ledges towered up, their bases half hidden by thick scrub. After waiting a little while and listening intently, Ray crept up to these rocks and decided to ascend them, in the hope that he might get a view which might give him some clue.
Arrived near the top, what was his surprise to hear distinctly the sound of voices below upon the other side. Peering over, he found himself looking down upon another clearing—a space quite shut in, not so much by trees as by almost perpendicular rocks, more or less covered by bushes. At the bottom was a light.
Creeping amongst some bushes, he wriggled himself forward until he was able to get a partial view of the clearing. There, through intervening foliage, he could make out several dusky figures seated round a fire. They looked like natives from some of the adjacent islands; and there, amongst them, was the Dago they had rescued from the monster of the pool!
How he had got to them seemed a mystery; but Ray guessed that there might be a secret way to this hidden retreat—perhaps through a cave or passage in the rock, the entrance to which might be concealed by bushes or creepers.
He decided to return to the camp and make sure that all was right there, and, in particular, see that a better watch was kept during the rest of the night. These natives might or might not be plotting mischief; in any case it would be best to be prepared; and as to the Dago—well, he would leave the doctor to deal with him in the morning.
So Ray set off on his return to the camp, and as he was nearing it he came suddenly upon Shorter.
"I—I—beg your pardon, sir," said the man somewhat confusedly. "I—I—had no idea you were about."
"Whom were you looking for, Shorter?" Ray asked. "And who is supposed to be on watch just now?"
"I am, sir, and I were just takin' a look round to see as everything were all right, when I heered some one a comin' along, an' I came to see who it could be."
"Humph! Well now, where's that Dago chap we brought into camp? Have you see anything of him?"
"Nothing, sir. I s'pose he's in his tent yonder."
Ray thought the man had started on his mentioning the stranger. He had intended going to the tent and proving to Shorter that he was not there; but an idea came into his mind that he would conceal, for the present, the knowledge he had just gained.
He therefore said nothing more, but bidding Shorter keep a good look-out, he went to his own tent and ostensibly turned in. As a matter of fact, however, he remained awake and kept a sharp look-out himself during the remainder of the night.
In the morning he found that the doctor was very unwell. His ankle had swollen badly, and looked so angry and inflamed that he reluctantly determined to give up, for the time, all idea of further exploration, and return to the ship, "where," he said, "I shall be within reach of the medicine chest."
Ray found that the Dago was missing, and he told the doctor what had occurred during the night.
"Ah! I'm not surprised," was the answer. "I fancied his tale was somewhat doubtful. He looked too fat and well-fed for a man who had been living alone and starving upon a diet of berries and shell-fish. Very likely he is in league with some natives from other islands, and perhaps has come over with a party. If we were going to stay here a day or two to explore further, it might be advisable to take some precautions against a possible surprise; but as we're returning to the ship, we can afford to say 'let him go and good riddance go with him.' "
With that Dr. Strongfold dismissed the subject from his mind, and gave the necessary orders for striking the tents and returning to the yacht.
Captain Warren had not expected to see the party again so soon, and was genuinely sorry at the doctor's mishap; but he showed only a languid interest in the account the explorers gave him of their adventures with the great lizard. When, however Ray told him about the Dago, and his midnight tramp through the forest, the old mariner's face puckered up.
"And Shorter was in it!" he mused. "This stranger fellow sneaks out of the camp and nobody knows anything about it—not even the man on watch—and that was Shorter! And the fellow had friends in the vicinity, too! I don't like the look of it, Mr. Ray, I don't like it."
The worthy captain shook his head dubiously as he went on deck, leaving Ray to tend the doctor in the cabin.
That evening Captain Warren sought Ray out, and after making sure that no one could overhear their conversation, asked him to aid him in keeping a sharp watch through the night.
"I've told you I'm uneasy in my mind, Mr. Ray," he said, "and during your absence from the ship I've been on the look-out myself nearly the whole time. I'm a'most done up. I'm responsible for the ship to your father, and somehow I felt mistrustful before; but your tale of that Dago chap, and the people you saw him steal out to meet, has made me more uneasy than ever. I don't like to say anything to the doctor—'specially now he's on the sick list—but you and I and Tom Waring must see to it that we keep up a good sharp look-out, between us, day and night!"
Ray was only too glad to help in the way suggested, and said so; and thus it came about that when the skipper turned in, Ray, who was supposed to have done the same, crept softly on deck instead, and ensconced himself in a corner under the awning, without the man on watch being aware of his presence.
The half-moon peeped out now and again between the drifting clouds, and Ray gazed dreamily across the water at the distant shores of the mysterious island. He began to feel a conviction that there was a great deal more to be discovered concerning the place than any one seemed to have an idea of. No doubt, for a long time—perhaps for hundreds of years—the country inland had been shut off from the rest of the world by the impassable swamps, with their rank growth of sea-weed and other tangled vegetation, which had baffled all the efforts of travellers to penetrate into the interior.
Now—comparatively speaking, quite recently—a waterway seemed to have opened which promised to make the task of future explorers less difficult—and who could say what those explorers might find there? Vague legends and stories came to his mind of lost races, and hidden cities. From them his thoughts passed to the captain's fears and misgivings, and his dark hints at acts of piracy which were said to have been committed in those seas, when whole ships, with their crews and passengers and cargoes, had disappeared without leaving behind a trace of the fate which had befallen them.
Suddenly, he started, and rubbed his eyes. The moon was behind some thick clouds, and the view around had become dim and obscured, yet surely there was something moving yonder! What was that large, black shadow, creeping stealthily out of the entrance to the inland waterway, and moving towards the yacht?
Again Ray rubbed his eyes, and then once more looked forth. The dark shadow was coming nearer. Something was certainly approaching the yacht in a stealthy, suspicious manner!
What did it mean? And the watch? Why had he made no sign of having seen it? Was he asleep or was he? Ray shrank from filling in the only possible alternative. He could not bring himself to believe in such vile treachery as the mere suspicion implied.
And while he turned these thoughts and speculations over in his mind, the mysterious black mass crept silently nearer and nearer to the yacht.
RAY'S mind was very quickly made up. There might be nothing hostile intended; but he was not going to give a chance to a possible enemy to catch them napping.
As silently as he had crept on deck, he now stole back again, and quietly woke Captain Warren and told him the position.
The skipper had everything ready for an emergency, and in a few minutes had made his arrangements without even the man on deck becoming aware that any one was awake on board but himself.
Then, mounting softly to the deck, Warren and Ray looked out from under the awning. The moon was still obscured, but there was no longer room for doubt.
A curious sort of craft was creeping up to the yacht—a great, black, galley-shaped affair, in design unlike anything the experienced skipper had ever set eyes on out of a museum. In some respects it resembled a large barge, but in others it might have been likened to the pictures one sees of the ancient ships of Greece or Rome, propelled by two or three banks of rowers.
Long sweeps sunk, without sound, into the water, and rose dripping, but noiseless, with methodical swing; but so ghostlike was the whole affair that Ray caught himself debating whether what they saw was really an actual vessel filled with living people, or a visionary phantom, tenanted by shades of the dead.
But the practical-minded skipper had no such doubts or speculations. He looked keenly at the advancing craft, and then his voice rang out clear, and sharp, and determined:—
"Boat ahoy, there! Who are you? What d'ye want?"
No answer came from the ghostly vessel, which came on as steadily and noiselessly as before.
At the moment the captain's hail was heard the man who was supposed to be watching, but who was either asleep or pretending to be, had been roughly seized by a couple of men, who had stolen up behind him and promptly bound him there and then. It was Ridd Shorter!
"Take him below and put him in irons!" said the captain, sternly. "I will deal with him to-morrow!"
And the fellow was unceremoniously bundled below.
"Boat ahoy!" sang out the captain's voice again. "No nonsense, you lubbers! Stop, or I will fire upon you!"
Still no answer; but the slow, heavy strokes of the long black sweeps were perceptibly quickened.
Captain Warren hesitated no longer. He put a whistle to his mouth and blew a quick, shrill blast.
Instantly a small but very business-like cannon made its appearance through what had appeared to be only an ordinary port- window, and the next moment there was a booming report, and a shot whizzed over the deck of the stranger.
Still she came on. Then there was heard another whistle, which was followed by another shot; and this time it did not fly overhead, but went crashing through the side of the strange craft, landing, apparently amongst those who were handling the sweeps. For a minute or two, they fell into evident confusion.
But at the same time the hitherto silent vessel became alive with men. There were shouts in an unknown language; there was much rattling of arms and clanking of steel, and then a flight of arrows fell, some with a clatter upon the deck of the yacht, some against her sides, or passed overhead into the sea beyond.
"What in thunder does this mean?" exclaimed the captain, at this most unlooked for demonstration. "Who are these people who've come to fight us with bows and arrows?"
"What an extraordinary affair!" said Ray. "See, they have breastplates and spears, and such-like arms; but no guns or pistols, it seems."
However, just then, as if in answer to what he had said, and to show that he was mistaken, there came a few straggling shots from firearms; but the bullets flew wide, and no harm was done.
"This is getting serious," Warren now declared. "If we don't stop 'em they'll be alongside directly, and if they board us we shall have a job to throw 'em off, for there's a big swarm of the varmints."
He blew three sharp blasts upon his whistle, and in a moment the deck of the yacht was full of men. It seemed like a conjuring trick; and it was wonderful where they sprang from. They crowded along the bulwark, and a moment later poured a volley from their rifles into the crowded deck of the stranger.
At the same time the cannon boomed out again, and above the general din could be heard the grinding rattle of a Maxim gun. Then Warren sounded the cease fire, for it was clear that the fight was over. The stranger's crew saw that they had caught a tartar in this innocent-looking yacht, and were now only anxious to get away as quickly as possible.
Warren would have liked to follow them, if only to find out who they were and what it all meant; but he had not steam up, and in any case to have captured the vessel it would probably have been necessary to engage in a terrible fight. So he reluctantly decided to let his unknown enemies go, and content himself with wondering and puzzling about the problem of their strange proceedings as best he could.
Just then Ray, who was alongside him, engaged in watching the retreating foe, caught sight of a dark form in the water, evidently swimming towards the yacht. Others saw it too, and some were about to fire at it, but he stopped them.
"Let the poor fellow alone," he cried, "He is but one, and cannot hurt us!"
"That's so," Warren assented. "Besides, if we get the beggar aboard he might tell us what the deuce this little excursion of his people may happen to mean!"
But those on the strange craft also saw the swimmer, and, no doubt, looking on him as a deserter, began shooting at him. Arrows fell near him, and one must have struck him, for he suddenly threw up his arms as if in pain. Then his voice was heard calling for help.
"Help, Britishers, help!" he cried. "I am one of you! I was a prisoner over there! Save me! Save your own countryman!"
"He is a Britisher and a prisoner," cried Ray, "we must save him!" And ere any one could say a word or interfere to prevent him, he had plunged overboard, and was swimming to the assistance of the stranger, regardless of the arrows, now mingled with a few bullets, which were falling around him.
FOR a minute or two the fight raged afresh, for the enemy's vessel paused in her retreat to pour a shower of arrows upon the wounded swimmer and his rescuer, while the crew of the yacht, without waiting for express orders, opened fire in a manner which quickly produced its intended effect. Loud cries and shrieks from the strange craft's crowded deck told of the execution that was effected, the rain of arrows ceased, and once more the enemy retreated.
Meantime, Warren had ordered a boat to be lowered, and springing into it himself, he pushed off with a willing crew to help Ray in his plucky effort to save the wounded swimmer. The rescuers were just in time, for even as Ray had reached the stranger, an arrow grazed his head, half-stunning him for the moment, so that he was on the point of sinking along with the one he had come to save. The two were lifted into the boat, taken on board and carefully tended. Ray was soon all right again, but the one he had rescued was some time before he had recovered sufficiently to give an account of himself.
The next day he told an extraordinary story.
His name, he said, was Peter Newlyn, and he and a younger brother, having lost both father and mother, had been on their way to seek their fortunes in the Argentine, when the Sunflower, the vessel in which they were making the voyage, had been caught and badly knocked about in a hurricane. When the wind had moderated, they found themselves just about where the Kestrel then was, and the captain, hearing from a man on board who said he knew the ground, that there was good anchorage there, resolved to make a halt for a short time to repair damages. In the night they were attacked, just as the yacht had been, by the "Black Galley," as he called the vessel, and, being taken by surprise, and having no arms on board save a revolver belonging to the skipper, they had fallen an easy prey. The captain, the first mate, and one or two others had been killed, and the rest, including himself and his brother, had been carried off prisoners, and since had been treated by their captors as slaves. And they had been kept in this condition for a matter of two years.
"I was chained to the oar as a galley-slave," Newlyn declared, "and but that your shot freed me, I should now have been rowing those pirates back to their fastness, under the lash of their whips; for we rowers were treated just like the slaves of old who were fastened to their oars and whipped to make them work faster." And he showed the scars left by the whip and by the irons with which he had been fastened.
"Your shot came crashing into the midst of us," he continued, "and injured several, put out our one lamp, and created great terror and panic. But providentially it set me free, and in the darkness and confusion I made my way to the side and leaped overboard."
"But who are these people who captured you and have been keeping you as a slave?" asked Captain Warren, much mystified. "You speak of 'pirates,' and from all I've heard I'm quite ready to believe there are some hereabouts. I've been saying so to young Mr. Lonsdale, here. But the 'pirates' I am thinking of are black chaps—natives from the other islands in these seas. Several ships are said to have been lost, and their disappearance has been put down to these black fellows—cannibals, some of 'em, 'tis said."
"They are wrong—those stories," the stranger broke in. "There are pirates indeed; but they are not black men. These islands— for there are more than one—comprise a large, extensive region— "
"I know," remarked the skipper; "I've sailed right the way round it."
"In the interior there exist hidden cities and a strange, unknown race—an old-world race of white men, who have been shut out from the world for hundreds of years. As a people, they are, to-day, just what they were ages ago, with their ancient armour, and bows and arrows, and shields—"
"Armour—fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Captain Warren. "Hidden cities—lost race—why, what people have ever been heard of in these seas save black men?"
"These people," said the stranger gravely, "have a tradition that they came from a great continent far away to the east—that, of course, would mean South America. The tradition declares that a large expedition sailed from that continent westwards and established a flourishing colony on this island, which was at that time very much larger than it is now—three or four times the size. They called the place Toraylia; and for many years communication was kept up with the country from which they had sprung. Then there came a great convulsion of nature, the island sank partly beneath the sea, and thousands upon thousands of the islanders perished. The survivors fled to the higher parts of the country, which alone remained above the ocean, forming, now, several islands, instead of one. When, however, they tried to reopen communication with their friends on the continent, it was found that the catastrophe had not only engulfed part of their land and many of their chief cities, but had surrounded what was left with a curious barrier of vegetation, torn from the submerged portion as it went under. So dense and tangled was this barrier that they were unable to make their way out through it. Thus the survivors—a mere remnant of the nation—lived on through the following ages, shut in completely from the outside world—till a few years ago."
"Ah! And what happened then?" asked Ray.
"Then," answered Newlyn, "there was another earthquake, in which many more perished. A mountain opened, and a great river burst forth, and made a waterway for itself to the sea. Then it was that these people turned pirates. They learned, somehow, that large ships, carrying cargoes of what, to them, seem very wonderful productions, pass to and fro near the island. They keep a look-out, and when a ship unsuspiciously anchors near, they attack her treacherously in the dark."
"But I have reason to think," continued the young fellow, "that your idea, captain, about black men being mixed up in it is partly correct, and some renegade white men—beachcombers, and what not, too— some of the scum from the adjacent islands. I have a notion that a few of these are concerned in some way in their piratical work, and help to lure ships into these waters."
Captain Warren slapped his hand upon his thigh.
"By thunder, yes!" he exclaimed. "And if that is so, then it accounts for your white men, without bringing in yarns about ancient cities!"
"But," Ray asked, "who could these people have been on the South American continent from whom this colony started?"
"That," was the reply, "is wrapped in mystery. It may be that the Spaniards found their way here from Peru or Chili—"
"Then these people would be descendants of the Spaniards!" Ray exclaimed, wonderingly.
"In that case, yes; and there are many things which favour the idea, such as their arms, and the style and make of their armour. On the other hand, their traditions point to some period much farther back as to time, suggesting some race which had flourished, and had their day and vanished, before the Spaniards discovered America. These people, too, are rank heathens—they are under the dominion of priests who offer human sacrifices to their deities—"
"Horrible! awful!" cried Ray. "And have you been living among such people?"
"Not only have I lived among them myself," said Newlyn, with emotion, "but I have left a brother there. He—a lad younger than myself—is a prisoner there still—a victim destined to be sacrificed in one of their hideous orgies—"
"Never! never!" Ray exclaimed. "Such horrors cannot—must not be!"
"Ah! surely you will rescue him?" Newlyn asked of Ray, appealingly. "With your vessel, manned and armed as I see she is, you could—"
"No, no, Mr. Peter Newlyn," Captain Warren broke in. "We must not talk of such a thing! I am sorry for you in such circumstances—sorry from my heart; but this yacht is in my care, and I dare not risk her in any such wild goose—"
"But, Captain Warren!" Ray interrupted. "Surely, to save a fellow creature from such an awful fate, and a countryman, too, poor little chap—"
"Several—to save several—all Britishers," Peter Newlyn urged. "My brother is not the only one."
Just then some one came to say the captain was wanted on deck, and he went out, leaving Ray alone with the stranger. The latter gazed after the skipper, as it seemed to Ray, with tears in his eyes, and shook his head despondingly.
"I thought so; I feared it!" he said, sadly. "I was sure he would not believe me! Nor will you, I suppose. And if not, then is my poor brother doomed indeed—doomed to a horrible death!"
"I think he believes you are telling the truth," Ray explained, gently, "and I am sure I do. But, of course, the story sounds an extraordinary one at the first go off, so to speak. And apart from that, Captain Warren is a great stickler for whatever he considers to be his duty. This vessel belongs to my father; but she is in Captain Warren's charge, and he would not let me, even, interfere with his discretion in anything which concerns the safety of the vessel."
"Yes, yes; I understand. Then, sir, I shall ask you to put me ashore again, that I may go back and share my brother's fate. I will not—I could not—be so cowardly, so cold-blooded, as to go off into freedom and leave him to the awful doom which awaits him!"
The speaker drooped his head dejectedly, and buried his face in his hands.
Ray gazed at him with concern and sympathy. Somehow he felt drawn towards the young fellow—for he appeared to be but a year or two older than himself. And he already felt a friendly feeling for the young brother he had spoken of.
"What is it you wish us to do?" he asked, kindly. He liked the stranger's face, and could see he was weak from suffering and sorrow, as well as from his recent hurts. Moreover, his speech was refined, and his whole manner that of a gentleman.
"I repeat that I think Captain Warren believes you, but of course—"
"No, no! He cannot believe me, or he would never talk of leaving some of his countrymen to their fate—in this case, such a fate, too! And yet I swear to you!" he declared, with a sudden access of energy and speaking earnestly—even, as Ray felt, eloquently—"I tell you that it is not only true, but there is wealth to be gained by these secrets! With a well-armed vessel like you have, aided by my knowledge of the channels, and assisted, as you would be, by the better half of the people whom these vile pirates are brutally oppressing, you can not only effect a great good there, and rescue my brother and other poor prisoners destined for a shocking, most terrible doom, but you would return wealthy beyond your utmost dreams! These people are rich—they have riches untold; and if you succeeded—as I am certain you could—you would return one of the richest persons in the world!"
Raymond Lonsdale made no immediate reply. He was pondering over the stranger's words, which had suddenly raised up a new train of ideas in his mind. His father was getting old, and had not been, he knew, fortunate of late in his operations from a business point of view, and Ray had been secretly worrying himself about the state of affairs and wishing he could do something to help. All sorts of schemes and ideas had entered his head, and been carefully thought out, only, however, to be dismissed, one after the other, as unsuitable. None of those which were fairly practicable, he decided, seemed likely to be sufficiently remunerative, while those which promised to be really profitable were too risky; a conclusion to which many people, before Raymond Lonsdale, have doubtless come, in regard to similar matters.
This suggestion of the stranger appeared to offer the outline of a new and hitherto undreamed-of scheme; and Ray now gravely debated with himself the question under which of the two categories indicated above he ought to range it. Deep down in his mind was, probably, a conviction that it was wilder and more chimerical than any of them; but of that he took not the least notice.
"I tell you what," he presently said, "we will go and talk this over with Dr. Strongfold. He would enter into any reasonably safe plan for exploring such a strangely interesting country as this must be—apart, altogether, from questions of humanity. Of course, we can return to Sydney and give information there, and they would doubtless send a warship to rescue the
"Too late; it would be too late!" Peter wailed. "It must be done now, or it will be too late!"
"Well, come with me and see the doctor." And with that Ray led him into Dr. Strongfold's cabin, and laid the whole matter before him.
The scientist listened attentively to what Ray had to say, and then turned to the stranger and cross-examined him pretty shrewdly.
"I confess I'm puzzled what to say, Ray, my lad," was his cautious comment. "Certainly our friend's account is a very extraordinary narrative. What does Captain Warren say?"
"Pooh-poohs the whole affair," said the captain himself, who just then entered the cabin, and had heard the doctor's question.
"He doesn't believe me," said Newlyn, sorrowfully.
"It isn't quite that, my lad," Warren declared. "But when it is proposed that I should risk the vessel in an utterly unexplored region, amongst unknown creeks and channels—"
"I know them all! I will undertake to pilot you safely!" Newlyn urged.
The captain shook his head.
"Think, sir, if it were you yourself there, what would you think of a brother sailor who went away, when so close at hand, and left you to your fate while he went off to inform the authorities and beg them to send a warship? Think how long it must be before any warship can reach this place! There are other sailors there—captains, or at least officers—"
"Eh?" queried the captain. "What's that you said? Captains?"
"Well, there's one, at least, who's been a captain, I believe, or something of the sort. His name is Keene—Captain Hugh Keene, I believe it is—"
Then Warren, who had been sitting on the centre table idly dangling one leg in the air, suddenly sprang up, an expression of new and intense interest appearing in his face.
"What did you say?" he cried. "Keene, Hugh Keene, did you say? Do you mean to say that Hugh Keene is in the hands of these pirate lubbers?"
"Yes, Captain Warren. He came from Liverpool, I believe, and was on his way out to Mexico when he was captured. He was sailing as a passenger, I think, in the Osprey; she was plundered and sunk."
"Yes, yes; that's right! We thought she had been wrecked—had gone down with all hands. And so he's alive, is he? Hughie Keene's alive? Then I'm the man to try to rescue him! He did me a rare good turn once, did Hughie Keene; and I'm not one to forget a favour or to forsake a friend." Then his face fell as he continued: "But I forgot. I dare not risk the yacht without Mr. Lonsdale's approval."
"But that need not trouble us, Captain Warren," Ray put in, taking a letter from his pocket and spreading it on the table. "In this letter—the last I had from him before we sailed—my father gives me full authority during his absence to engage in any cruise or expedition which may offer, and which seems to promise reasonable profit. He only wishes me to consult you and the doctor, and ask your counsel and advice before committing myself; which, however, as he here says, he feels sure I should do under any circumstances. So, my dear friends, the matter is in your hands. Have a further talk with Peter Newlyn, and let us hear the fullest possible particulars. Then, if you think the expedition is feasible, we can start this very night."
The upshot of the matter was that they did start that same night, or rather just as morning dawned; for when the young stranger gave a fuller account of his experiences, he soon succeeded in inspiring his hearers with some of his own enthusiasm.
"You must be prepared for a bit of hard fighting," he said in conclusion. "But, on the other hand, you will see many wonders, for it is in some respects a marvellous country. And if you succeed, you will come away rich beyond your dreams; for the people are fabulously wealthy."
Captain Warren struck his fist on the table.
"I'm with you, Peter Newlyn," said he. "Let us rescue my old friend, Hughie Keene, and the other poor chaps you tell of, and bring back the yacht safe, and I care nothing whether I return a little the richer or a bit the poorer."
And so it was settled.
"NOW we are coming to a strange and wonderful sight—nothing less than a group of ships which must be hundreds of years old. You can see the masts over yonder."
It was the stranger, Peter Newlyn, who spoke. He pointed out quite a little forest of masts which could be seen in the distance, with dark, sombre-looking hulls beneath, just showing above the level of the wilderness of swamp and sea-weed and low rocks, which stretched on all sides as far as the eye could reach.
The Kestrel was feeling her way cautiously along a broad but tortuous channel. Peter had been as good as his word. He had piloted the vessel safely, and thus far the adventurers had found the going fairly easy, and had met with no opposition.
Not a trace of human inhabitants was to be seen on any side, though they had penetrated for a very considerable distance from the outer edge.
They had now drawn near to the group of vessels to which Newlyn had directed special attention. They lay in a narrow side opening, some few hundred yards from the main channel. At the junction of the channels Newlyn requested the captain of the yacht to stop.
"How these vessels ever got here is one of the greatest mysteries of this wonderful country," he said. "If you go and examine them, you will agree with me, I think, that they resemble what we have been told of the old Spanish galleons. They have even a lot of old-fashioned brass cannon on board. There are traditions in the land that the isolation of the country from the rest of the world has been partially broken once or twice by earthquakes which, as you see now to be the case, opened up channels from the sea. They afterwards became blocked again; but while they remained open it is said some vessels found their way in. You may be sure if that was the case that they never found their way out again, nor any of their crews. The islanders would take care of that!"
Peter looked meaningly at his companions, and Ray shuddered.
"I expect," he went on, "these vessels got here in some such fashion. Probably they ran aground, and were plundered and stripped.
"Have you been on board," the doctor asked.
Peter nodded his head very gravely.
"I was once brought here," he said, "with a number of other galley-slaves, and ordered to remove the old cannon which yet remained on board those ancient vessels. We took some pieces away, but when our masters learned what a lot of gunpowder must be used with them, they gave up the idea of carrying off the rest. So they are here still. It just occurs to me that possibly you might care to have some to increase your own armament. I think you might find them useful later on. I have already explained that our enemies know practically nothing about firearms, and have only a small store of powder and a few miscellaneous weapons, which they have secured from the vessels they have plundered, and which they do not know properly how to use. So this absurd idea of theirs never came to anything; but it gave me the opportunity of going on board these antiquated relics and seeing what they are like."
"I should like to see them immensely," said the doctor. "What do you say, captain—couldn't we get into a boat and just go over to them for a short visit? My foot is much better to- day."
"I should like to see them, too," said Ray. "And as friend Peter thinks some of the old cannon might be useful to us, I should think it would be worth while. There is no sign of any one or anything to interfere with us."
"Well, there is just one thing I should first like to mention," said Peter, with some hesitation. "Before I was brought here, these craft had already been visited and inspected by a little expedition sent for the purpose, and I afterwards heard a strange, wild story of their having found the old hulks inhabited by a lot of savage creatures whom they termed Mecanoes, and with whom they had to fight quite a battle before they could drive them off."
"What sort of creatures?" asked Ray, who was still examining the group through his glasses. "Do you know, I have fancied once or twice, while we have been talking, that I caught sight of one or two dark forms creeping stealthily about, and watching us from behind the dingy-looking old bulwarks."
"I really scarcely like to tell you what I heard," was the answer. "In any other part of the world, almost, I should scout the whole story as ridiculous. But I have seen so many extraordinary, almost incredible things in this curious country that I feel I ought not to let you go near those vessels without a warning. I was told that there exists a strange race of creatures, half ape-like men, half fish-like apes, who can walk on the weed and floating vegetation, or dive and get underneath it. They are said to have very large, flat, thin feet, webbed, and resembling the feet of frogs."
At this unexpected statement the three listeners stared at each other.
"Why, they must be your web-footed men, doctor!" cried Ray, with enthusiasm.
"Dear me! That is interesting indeed," the scientist declared, rubbing his hands. "Do you know, Peter, that was what brought us here!"
"That?" exclaimed Peter. "How could it be that?"
"That and nothing else, my young friend. I had heard stories— very wild tales they seemed to me at first, I must admit—that something of the sort was to be found here, and I determined to come and investigate for myself."
"Well, that is certainly singular. It may be that the creatures really do exist here. I have never seen one—"
"We have," Ray declared. "Not only have we seen one, but we've got him safe."
"Where? How?" Peter asked, a bit bewildered.
"Safe under lock and key. It's a mummy. However, we will tell you all about that another time. Let's hurry up if we are going to have a closer look at yonder old curiosities!"
A few minutes later they were on their way to visit the vessels. As they drew near, both their interest and their curiosity increased, and when they were alongside the nearest, and were able to note more exactly its remarkable state of preservation, they were filled with wonder and astonishment.
"It would be a good spec if one could tow this little lot away, just as they are, and moor 'em in the Thames by London Bridge as a show," observed the captain. "My! what a draw they would be!"
Ray and Peter went from ship to ship examining the curious old cannons which, though greatly rusted, were still not so far gone, they decided, but that some might be rendered serviceable. The doctor was wandering about by himself, rubbing at old brass plates to bring to light possible inscriptions, while the captain lounged on the deck smoking his pipe, chatting over the side with his men in the boat, and keeping a sharp outlook on all sides. There was still no sign, however, of human inhabitants in any direction; and the old hulks themselves appeared to be completely deserted.
And then, all unexpected, came a rush of armed men. They had been hiding below, and now made their appearance so suddenly that the small visiting party were taken altogether by surprise. A number dashed at the captain, and some of them, passing him by, tumbled headlong over the broken bulwarks into the boat below, upsetting her and sending the three sailors in her, as well as themselves, into the water. Others had thrown themselves upon Warren, and though he shot down three of them before he was overpowered, he had shortly to yield to superior numbers, and was bound and thrown roughly upon the deck.
Meanwhile, the doctor in one place, and Ray and Peter in another, were defending themselves as well as they could against a crowd of assailants. The doctor made two of his enemies bite the dust before they secured him by a combined rush, but the two youths, being together, and having been able to gain the shelter of an old hatchway, seemed likely to cause more trouble, and, for the time, compelled their adversaries to keep their distance.
A strange-looking crowd they appeared to be, these assailants, attired in shining breastplates and helmets, or glittering coats of mail. Armed only with swords, spears, bows and arrows, and such-like antiquated weapons, they nevertheless had shown such determination and bravery in their first rushes, in face of the revolver fire with which they had been met, that they had all but captured the whole party at the first onset. But now they exhibited less willingness to charge the two lads, and preferred, for the nonce, to look on at the contest which was going on in the water, where the three sailors were being hunted by a dozen soldiers, clad, like those on the deck, in breastplates and helmets, and therefore heavily weighted for swimming, but who showed themselves, all the same, expert swimmers.
But this water hunt did not last long. Some barge-like boats, which had been lying concealed behind the old hulks, now came creeping round to assist; and in a little while the three sailors were captured, hauled on board, bound, and placed beside the captain and doctor.
Then the whole body, or greater part, moved across to the vessel where Ray and his companion were keeping those opposed to them at bay, and proceeded to hold a conference as to the steps to be taken to capture them and carry them off, before a rescue- party should arrive from the yacht.
"THE outlook's getting a bad one, I fear," muttered Peter, between his set teeth. "Do you see what their game is? If they get hold of us before help comes from your vessel, they can carry us through the labyrinth of small channels which lies beyond these hulks, and your people will never be able to follow or catch them—there are so many treacherous places and pitfalls which these people know all about. Worst of all, they will give the alarm, and the main channel will be closed by obstructions which the yacht could not force, both before and behind her, and in the end she must be captured, because they could starve her crew into surrender. So, altogether, this is a pretty kettle of fish! For me it means going back to slavery—to be chained to the oar under the whip—to be flogged by brutal taskmasters; your fate may or may not be the same, but, in any case, it will be horrible. I would rather force them to kill me here than go back to what I thought I had escaped from! And this is all my fault! It was I who suggested this foolish digression from our main object!"
"Nonsense, man! It is not your fault; it is the fortune of war; or rather let us say a consequence of your own anxiety about your brother, for you could have escaped right enough but for that. Let us trust that Heaven has something better in store than to send you back to such misery. Where we have been foolish is in not bringing more ammunition with us—for here we are with only a few cartridges between us—and we should have reconnoitred the ground more carefully. Besides, you did warn us to be careful; though your warning was against a danger which, as it seems, does not exist. But why don't they shoot at us? They have bows and arrows, and can hit pretty hard with them, too, as you and I both discovered the other night."
"They wish to take us alive, so as to be able to exhibit us to their people like wild animals, and sacrifice some of us to their horrible gods," Peter returned, with a shudder. "That is why the soldiers are ordered not to shoot, nor to wound us badly if they can possibly avoid it. And the officers value the lives of their men so little that they are absolutely indifferent how many it may cost, so that they can secure us, in the end, alive. I know the chief in charge here, and he knows me. Ah! I half expected this. He's signing to me that he desires a parley; going to try a soothing mixture of bunkum and soft sawder, probably. I'll see him—"
"Hist, man! Talk to him, Peter! It will all gain time."
"Ah! But they'll be up to some dirty trick or other meanwhile, so look out! Be on the watch on all sides; watch even the rickety old floor we're standing on."
One of the officers advanced a few paces, holding a white scarf in his hand, and as he stood waiting expectantly, Ray looked at him with interest.
It was the first time he had been able to get a good view of one of these strange people, and he was curious to know what they were like.
The man was tall and dark, with a black, close-cut beard, and a face that was decidedly handsome, albeit haughty and supercilious. His dress was remarkably rich, his armour being most exquisitely inlaid with gold and silver, and set with jewels, which flashed and sparkled in the sunlight as he moved. The hilt of his sword sparkled, too, with precious stones, and even the scabbard was elaborately damascened. Below the breastplate was a purple tunic, with devices worked in gold and gems; a dagger, also highly ornamented, was stuck in a jewelled belt; a short cloak, corresponding to the tunic, hung from his shoulders; and a waving, purple plume surmounted the whole costume.
Glancing from this man to others standing just behind him, Ray saw that they were attired in much the same manner; and he began to realize that Peter had not exaggerated when he declared that these people were possessed of enormous wealth, in the shape of gold and silver, and precious stones.
The parley was conducted in the strangers' language, which, from his long residence in the land, was perfectly well known to Peter. He translated it, as the talk proceeded, for the benefit of his companion, mingling with it such remarks of his own as he deemed apposite or necessary.
So it proceeded somewhat in this fashion:—
"What dost thou wish to say to me, Dyossa?" Peter called out, in the strange tongue. Then he added in a low tone to Ray: "Keep your eye on him, and shoot if he comes one step nearer."
"I would advise thee for thy good, slave," was the reply, given in a rich, full voice, but with an air of haughty condescension. "Thou knowest our laws, and what awaits thee. Thou canst not escape; but thou canst make thy fate worse by delay. Give in at once, and induce thy companion to do the same, and I will put in a good word for thee. But alter thy speech, or I will not listen. Thou forgettest to whom thou art speaking."
"Not I, my lord Dyossa." [To Ray: "What's that fellow with the axe on the right doing?"] "I know thee too well, and it seems to me thou forgettest what I already owe to thee when thou trustest thyself so near to this hand of mine. [There's a boat leaving the yacht. I must keep this up a bit; but look out.] Dost thou understand that I have but to move my finger and thou diest?"
"That is on the knees of the gods," said the other, calmly and without flinching, though he was looking down the barrel of Peter's revolver all the time. "Sometimes the gods, for reasons that men cannot understand, allow a slave to slay one of his lords. If they so will it, it is not for me to seek to evade my fate!"
In spite of his hatred of this man—and in the past he had had cause for hatred—his cool courage now won Peter's involuntary admiration. But he did not watch him and his companions the less keenly.
"What is their game, I wonder?" he said, under his breath, to Ray. "They must see the boat coming—and that another is just starting—as we do; yet they are wasting time in mere talk like this! Perhaps the fools think those who are coming to our rescue will prove as easy to capture as ourselves! Watch for some treacherous dodge!"
Then, to the one he had called Dyossa, he resumed: "I am waiting to hear thy terms. The gods thou believest in have not yet delivered us into thy power, and will not until thou thyself and Lonolo, thy lieutenant, have fallen, for I hold your lives in my hand; and I warn you that, at the first move your people make against us, you will both die. It may be my lot to go back to slavery, but thou shalt not live to see it, or to lash me again with thy whip!"
"That is on the knees of the gods," repeated the other, as disdainfully as before. "But let me warn thee in turn. If thou thinkest that thy friends will come from yonder ship to thy rescue, thou art mistaken! See! They already stop! They are cowards! They fear too much to come any further. They have already decided to leave thee to thy fate!"
As he spoke, he pointed to the two boats which had left the yacht and rowed hurriedly some distance towards them. They had suddenly stopped, and their crews seemed to be consulting together and looking towards them in a hesitating fashion, as though doubtful whether to advance or retreat.
Peter translated the officer's words to Ray, who at first laughed them to scorn.
"They are but settling their plan of attack," said he.
"Surely, surely!" returned Peter, in accents which he tried to make confident and hopeful; though, at his heart, he felt the cold touch of a rising doubt.
"Can it be that Dyossa has some devilry afoot that we don't know of?" he asked himself, anxiously.
"Heaven help us, Peter! Can it be possible? Why, the cowards are turning back!" Ray gasped.
It was even so. One boat had partly turned as though to retreat; the people in the other seemed to be still hesitating. Finally they, too, turned; and both commenced to row slowly back towards the yacht.
It would be difficult, indeed, to describe the feeling of terrible despair which fell upon the two lads as they saw these movements, and realized that they were, in very truth, to be abandoned by those in whom they had so implicitly trusted. That there were many difficulties in the way of a successful attack by the boats, that it might fail, that they themselves might—very probably would—be killed in the mêlée instead of being rescued— all these contingencies they had taken into account, and were manfully prepared to face; but that they should have been deserted, and left to their fate, without a shot being fired on their behalf, seemed a thing too cruel, too monstrous to be believed.
Peter looked despairingly round for some chance of escape, but in vain. They were standing at the foot of one of the masts, the upper part of which was entangled with that of the neighbouring vessel. These decaying masts were supporting each other, in fact, and also an old "crow's-nest" above, with a network of odd spars entangled around it, and as Peter caught sight of it he determined to climb into it, and take his chances of the whole affair coming down.
"I fancy it is still strong enough to hold us safely," he said, as he told Ray of his idea. "We can defend ourselves better up there, for they can't rush us; and we can make the murdering hounds pay dearer for their prize when they do capture us."
"Good for you! There's shelter too, of a sort, from their arrows, if they take to shooting," Ray returned. "We can hold out there for some time, and perhaps the boats will return. Maybe, they've only gone back for a stronger force, or they did not bring the Maxim gun, or something."
"Maybe so," Peter returned, not very hopefully, however; for a moment's reflection suggested that if anything had been overlooked or forgotten, or any message had to be sent, one boat only would have returned to the yacht; leaving the other to watch the enemy till they returned.
They climbed nimbly up the mast, and so quickly and unexpectedly was their manoeuvre carried out that their enemies were taken by surprise, and the two lads were ensconced in the old dilapidated "crow's-nest," before any move had been made by the other side.
"There!" said Peter, "we're safe here against any of their 'rushes,' and fairly well sheltered against their arrows. As to the rest, it depends, of course— Hallo! Look yonder! What devilry are these wretches up to now?"
Ray looked; and then he began to understand why the boats had turned back.
From their present elevated position they could now look down into the "waist," or low centre-part, of the vessel they had first boarded, and where they had left Captain Warren and the boat. There, upon the deck they saw five figures lying prone, their heads projecting outside the broken bulwark and over the water, so that they could be plainly seen by those on the yacht and in the boats which had put off from her.
The five forms were the captain, the doctor, and the three sailors. They lay in a row a little way apart, their limbs and bodies tightly bound, their collars turned down to bare their necks. Between each one stood a soldier, with drawn sword raised in the air, like an executioner about to decapitate his victim.
"Do you see what those fiends are doing?" Ray asked, hoarsely. "Do you understand? They threatened, by signs, that if the boats did not turn back, the heads of those poor fellows would be sliced off and fall into the water! Oh, I can understand now why the boats turned back! What could they do? And we, from where we were, could see nothing of all this ghastly signalling! What on earth can we do, Peter? I cannot stay here and look on. Hark! What is that?"
A strange booming sound was coming across the wilderness of swamp and rock. It was like the beating of a drum and the blowing of horns, and it seemed to be here, there, and everywhere at once. It rose and fell on the heavy air; it seemed to be above, below, around. It sounded inside the queer old hulks; it sounded as though it were underneath them; it seemed to rise out of the very water-weeds.
Yet nothing was to be seen; nothing came into view that could account for the weird sounds.
But Ray and Peter saw that their enemies heard and recognized the noise, and that it instilled fear into their hearts; for signs of uneasiness began to show amongst them.
A few moments later, and the "executioners" flung down their swords and dashed away towards their boats; and then began a rush on the part of the rest of the soldiers which quickly developed, despite the efforts of their officers, into a mad, unreasoning panic.
THE panic-stricken stampede of their enemies was viewed by Ray with astonishment, which increased as the minutes went on and he still saw nothing to account for it.
More surprising still, however, was it to see some of those who had made for the boats in such reckless fashion, turn suddenly back before they had reached them, and attempt to fly in another direction. Two streams of fugitives, thus meeting, became jammed together, and began fighting with each other to get a clear road.
"They are shouting out something—some name which seems to have a terrible meaning for them! Can you distinguish what it is?" asked Ray of Peter.
"Yes!" he returned, gravely. "They are crying 'Mecanoes!' That is the name of the strange creatures I told you of, who are said to live amongst the weed and make their homes in these old hulks."
"Goodness! But I thought they were myths—bogies! Will they hurt us?"
"I don't know."
"Well, anyhow, I see nothing at present to account for all this fright. Don't you think we might take advantage of their panic to cut across yonder and set our friends at liberty? It may turn out to be a false alarm, and then they will swarm back upon us again!"
He paused a moment, and then cried, excitedly:
"See, Peter, see! The boats—our boats—are coming this way again! They have seen that something has happened! Let us make an effort to loose our friends and stand by them till help comes."
"Yes, yes, Ray! We'll get down quietly, and try to slip past without their seeing us."
They quietly gained the deck, and stole cautiously but quickly forward in the direction of the vessel upon which their friends were still lying, tightly bound, in the place where their enemies had left them.
They sped across the ship they were on, scrambled on to the next without attracting attention, and managed to negotiate a third in a like manner without mishap. There was then but one more between them and the point they were making for. Upon that one, however, Dyossa was engaged with some others in the rear of his flying men, vainly endeavouring to rally them. He happened to turn and catch sight of the two lads just as they were stealing past, some forty yards or so behind him.
With a loud yell of rage, and calling upon those nearest to him to follow, he sprang after them.
"Do you run on, Ray," said Peter quietly, "and see to our friends, while I square accounts with this gentleman. There is a long score to be settled between us; but still the fault will be his own if he compels a settlement now." Then, facing his foe, he called out to him in his own language to halt.
For a moment, Dyossa stopped and glared upon Peter, who kept him covered with his revolver. Then, finding that two of his officers were at his side in support, he rushed madly forward, his naked sword in his hand, and murder in his eye.
Three shots rang out—for Ray had remained to support his friend—and the three reckless assailants fell upon the deck.
At once those who had been trying to stay the retreat gave up the attempt and joined in the rout, and as they pressed upon the rear of the fugitives, the two lads were left alone with the three fallen leaders.
Peter, walking up to Dyossa, whom he had wounded in the shoulder, looked down, and addressed him in his own tongue:
"So! The account between us stands upon somewhat fairer terms from to-day! Wert thou in my place thou wouldst spit upon me and spurn me! As things are, I shall merely take from thee what I know thou prizest most. I want a sword and dagger badly; henceforth I shall have thine to remind me of thee!"
To Ray he said: "The spoils to the victor! I take these things, not because they are jewelled and valuable, but because it is considered a great disgrace amongst these gentry to be deprived of their side-arms. He would far rather I should kill him. I prefer to let him live—in disgrace. Now let us hurry on."
He buckled Dyossa's costly belt round his own waist, and hung upon it the sword and dagger. "We'll come back and look at the other two by and by," he said to Ray; and then they hurried away.
Two or three minutes afterwards they were bending over their friends, cutting their bonds, and helping to rub their stiffened limbs and assist them on to their feet.
There was no time for explanation. Among the other vessels of the group a great uproar was now going on which told that a battle of the fiercest character was raging upon the decks and round their sides. Yells, cries, shouts, mingled now and again with a sort of war-whoop—or rather war-shriek—of an absolutely blood-curdling character, that told that there were now other parties engaged in the proceedings besides their late assailants.
Ray and his companions mounted the high poop of the vessel they were on, and the two lads climbed higher still, upon some spars, to obtain a view, and from their perches looked down upon a scene of so wild, so extraordinary a character, that they were almost inclined to believe they were the victims of some nightmarish hallucination.
Swarming around the old hulks were large numbers of fantastic, queer-looking creatures, of whom it was virtually impossible to say to what classification in natural history they belonged. Their bodies were covered with a thick, seal-like fur, which, upon the head, and in places such as the elbows and thighs, grew into long, shaggy tufts or tresses. From the waist upwards their bodies were small, with very long arms; but below the waist the limbs developed enormously, resembling more the legs of frogs or kangaroos than those of human beings, or even apes. The feet were long, thin, flat and—as was afterwards seen— webbed.
As a consequence of this curious formation, these odd beings were most at home in the water or on the surface of the weed and floating vegetation. Upon the latter they could progress at a marvellous rate by a series of flying leaps from one mass of floating weed to another; while in the water they appeared to be veritable man-frogs, diving, swimming, sporting in it as only frogs or fish could do.
Ray and his companion gazed upon these weird creatures in amazement, which had in it some touch of awe. They felt considerable alarm, too, as to what was to happen if they should turn their attention to themselves, as presently no doubt they would. For the time, however, they seemed disposed to confine their hostility to the soldiers who had been attacking the party from the yacht.
Of these, there had been originally, perhaps, nearly a hundred, which number had been reduced by something like a dozen in the encounters which had taken place, so that there were still about eighty left to deal with the new arrivals. But the whole body had given way to utter panic and had lost their discipline, and now that their chief officers had been placed hors de combat they were a mere mob of armed men. Even so, however, they were—or might have been—a formidable force for another mob of creatures to attack armed only with what seemed to be long fish-spears.
But the uncanny assailants made up in agility and ferocity, in dexterity and lightning-like quickness—not to speak of their numbers, which must have been many hundreds—for what they lacked in other ways; and it was soon evident that the armed men were getting the worst of it. Some of them tried to escape in their boats, but new enemies arose out of the weed on all sides, leaped recklessly into the vessels and capsized them; and, once in the water, the soldiers had small chance indeed against their amphibious adversaries.
All this, Ray and Peter, as has been said, watched with amazement. Where these creatures had sprung from was a question which puzzled them not a little. They saw, however, that each one carried, in addition to a long spear, a curiously-shaped sea- shell, which they would put to their mouths at intervals, and with it produce those weird, booming sounds, which had so surprised the two youths, and so alarmed their enemies.
It now became apparent that these sounds were made for various distinct purposes and objects. Some were like words of command, and directed and governed all their combined movements; others were emitted by individual combatants, as might be cries of encouragement, or like the sound of trumpets or the skirl of the pipes, to inspirit the fighters.
Beyond all this, however, the attention of the onlookers was attracted to one strange figure—evidently a human being, and a big, stalwart one at that—who seemed to be the lord, or, at least, the supreme controller and director, of this extraordinary host. Clad in a most fantastic garb, which looked something like such a dress as a madman might evolve out of sea- weed, shells, and similar marine productions, he was a most grotesque and, in some respects, outlandish figure. Yet, as he stood on the high stern of one of the hulks, directing, with a long stick, or wand, the movements of his strange host, there was in his actions a curious suggestion of mingled dignity and power. He did not shout, but made his commands known either by signs, or by the sound of his shell horn, which had so deep a note that its booming could be plainly heard above all the others.
As Ray turned from all this to his companion, his eyes denoted his state of bewilderment.
"What on earth does it all mean?" he asked helplessly. "Am I awake or asleep?"
"These," said Peter in a low, awed tone, "must be the strange people I told you of, the Mecanoes. The name signifies 'Wolves of the Weed.' And yonder big fellow must be the mysterious being they call Rulonda. Who he is I cannot tell you exactly; but his very name is dreaded throughout the whole country; though, to tell you the truth, I have always regarded him as more or less of a myth—as one might William Tell, or King Arthur. If this is he, however, it is evident that he is very much alive. He and his friends seem to have about settled our enemies for us; they've captured or killed every mother's son of 'em, so far as I can see!"
"Yes, the fight seems to be about over; but the question is, are they going to attack us?"
"I am inclined to think not, or we should have had some of 'em swarming round here before this. I fancy that Father Neptune yonder—he looks very like some of the old pictures of the sea-god—has sense enough to distinguish between us and those who were our enemies as much as his. Besides, the boats are creeping up, and will be alongside in a few minutes."
Sure enough, the boats were now almost within hail, and Captain Warren was signalling to them to hurry.
"Hallo!" said Peter suddenly. "Father Neptune is turning his attention to us at last! See! He is making signs—friendly ones, if I read them aright! Now, at last, I suppose, I shall learn something certain about this wonderful Rulonda, of whom I have heard legends and tales during the whole time I have lived in this country."
"CAPTAIN Warren," said Peter, as he and Ray approached the group on the poop, "the gentleman in shells and sea-weed, yonder, is making signs that he wishes for one of us to go and have a little gossip with him. Shall I go? I suppose I had better be the one to beard this oyster in his shell, as I know the language— "
"What, the language of their tootle-tootling horns?" asked Warren, with a smile.
"No, sir, I confess I don't understand that, nor do I know the frog language, but if our friend speaks the ordinary language of the country, I thought I might be able to get on with him better than you would."
"All right; sail in, my lad, by all means—that is, if you're not afraid he may play you false—"
"N—no, I don't fear that," Peter answered; not, however, without some slight hesitation. "At any rate, I'll risk it."
"Let me come with you," said Ray. "I'm dying to know more about these queer people."
This met with objection from both Warren and the doctor, but after a brief discussion, Ray got his own way, and the two started once more across the interlocked vessels, just as two boats from the yacht drew up alongside the first one.
They passed, on their way, the place where the three officers had fallen, and noted that they were no longer there.
"They've been carried off as prisoners, I suppose," Peter observed. "I wonder if anything has been done to tend their wounds? We must inquire into that, by and by, though"—he added bitterly—" if the positions had been reversed, we should have been left to die and rot without a second thought."
As they approached the spot where the strange being was awaiting them, they passed numbers of his followers, whom the lads looked at with the liveliest curiosity. They were standing about in groups, some in charge of gangs of prisoners—all bound, by the way, with thongs that bore a striking resemblance to dried or tanned sea-weed—or leaning idly on the bulwarks. They returned the curious looks the youths cast at them, but otherwise made no sign.
For a minute or two intervening obstacles hid the leader from the lads' view, and when finally they scrambled up on to the high, crumbling deck from which he had directed the operations, they paused in surprise.
No grotesque burlesque of a sea-god was there, but a fine, handsome-looking man, over six feet in height, clad in plain, armour, not jewelled or inlaid, like that of Dyossa and the others, but very serviceable and business-like withal. His figure was powerfully built, almost that of a giant in its proportions, his hair and beard were iron-grey, his eyes keen and alert as those of an eagle, his face changeful in expression, one moment seeming stern and hard, the next altering to most winning kindliness.
The two young ambassadors stood and stared at this unexpected apparition in astonishment, which was not by any means lessened when the stranger addressed them in English.
"And what are you doing here, Peter Newlyn? "he asked in a voice which sounded curiously musical and pleasing, albeit there was in it a ring of quiet authority.
Peter started to hear himself thus spoken to, and he stared hard at the speaker, trying to make out whether he had ever seen him before, but failing to recognize his features.
"How comes it, Peter Newlyn," the other resumed, "that, having escaped from the taskmaster's whip, you venture back, at imminent risk of coming again under its lash?"
Peter once more looked hard at his questioner before answering. The face was rugged and seamed, and it bore traces, he thought, of suffering; it was full, too, of a certain king-like dignity and pride; but over and above all these traits the lad seemed to detect something that won at once his respect and his confidence, and he returned softly:
"Sir, if you know so much of me, you probably know more; and I think, perhaps, you are already aware of what I should say if I answered your question in words."
The stranger looked at him keenly, but not unkindly; then, glancing at Ray, he said, abruptly:
"You have not introduced your companion. What is he doing here?"
"He came to help me in my quest—kindly, generously lent the aid of yonder yacht; and has to-day risked his life against those who still hold my brother in their cruel hands."
"Ah! So you two lads are on a quixotic expedition with a cockle-shell like yonder boat, to rescue your brother out of the power of the priests of the Temple of Fire, eh?"
"But she is something more than an ordinary yacht," Peter answered. "She is well armed, and has been in many stiff fights, I am told, before to-day."
"Still, what have you against you? A whole nation—small, no doubt, and lacking in firearms, but otherwise well armed and disciplined, boasting of fanatical courage and devotion to their leaders and their gods, ruthless and merciless if you fail and become their captives!"
Peter looked at him doubtfully, scarcely knowing how to take this strange being, who knew so much and yet revealed nothing about himself. But as he looked into his face, and saw there again that indefinable expression which had won his confidence at the first glance, a sudden impulse seized him. He clasped his hands, and exclaimed, in a broken voice:
"All that you say is true, and I know that the risks and difficulties of the enterprise are great. But, sir, you surely can advise, can help us? Will you aid me? Will you tell me if you know of any way in which it may be possible to rescue my brother, and will you show me that way if you know of one? Do not keep me in suspense, I pray of you, but tell me whether, in your view, it is possible or impossible!"
The tears were in Peter's eyes, and sobs in his voice, and he hardly dared to look in the face of the stranger, fearing to read there the refusal he dreaded.
But the other stepped forward and laid his hand kindly on his shoulder.
"Heaven alone can say what may be possible or impossible, my boy," he said sympathetically; "but so far as lies in human power I am going to help you. But we must act promptly, for the time is short. This day month is the great festival of the Priests of the Temple of Fire, at which there will be many captives sacrificed to their gods—and in particular to the great monster they call the Sacred Salamander."
Peter uttered a cry of distress.
"I have been living in dread of that!" he cried. "I feared it; I felt sure it would be so! A month did you say? Only one month? What, alas! can we hope to do in one little month?"
"Much, very much, if Heaven be with us," the other answered, cheerily. "Everything promises well just now. A large number of trustworthy men, filled with hatred and disgust against the wicked, bloodthirsty rule of this hierarchy who have usurped the power and position of the rightful ruler of the land, have banded themselves together and only await my signal to turn on their oppressors. But we want stronger help—the assistance, I mean, of a force used to carry firearms, and such a force you have here in the Kestrel—that is, Mr. Ray, if Mr. Lonsdale, your father, has given permission or authority—"
Raymond stared in undisguised wonder.
"You seem to know everything about us, sir," he exclaimed.
"I knew your father, lad," was the smiling reply, as the speaker held out his hand and shook Ray's warmly, "and I am pleased to welcome his son into our country. From the manner in which you bore yourself to-day, under very trying circumstances, I am sure you are worthy to be the son of one I know to be brave and loyal, and whom I greatly respect. I saw the whole affair to- day—watched the approach of the yacht and recognized her. I also saw the ambuscade that was planned; but I could then only send out messengers to my faithful friends, whom you now see around me.
"They responded to my call, and have enabled me not only to rescue you from the peril you were then in, but to save the yacht—for had one boat got away to give the alarm, the fate of the Kestrel, and all those in her, would have been sealed."
"Ay; I understood that, too," said Peter.
"Well, my friends' loyal response to my call has saved the situation. Unseen by you or by your lurking enemies, my messengers went forth on every side, and brought in their fellows, for they can travel through the weed like veritable eels, showing no sign upon the surface to any but one accustomed to their movements. We shall have their assistance in our further plans; and I may here tell you that as scouts and auxiliaries, wherever there is water, they will be invaluable. Thus, with their aid added to that of those I first spoke of, and the co- operation of the yacht and her crew, I do not think we need despair of overthrowing the atrocious gang who are at present the ruling power in this ancient, but now unfortunate, country!"
WITHIN half an hour, the Kestrel had resumed her interrupted journey up the Northern Channel, as the particular waterway she had entered was termed. But she now travelled more quickly, for she was steered by the mysterious stranger who had interposed in so timely and effectual a fashion between the adventurers and their crafty enemies.
His evident familiarity with the channels, and the energy he displayed in making and carrying out his plans, inspired all those on the yacht with confidence and hopefulness, even though it might be the case that one or two—Captain Warren in particular, who, like all skippers, desired always to be "first fiddle" on the vessel he commanded—were inclined to resent his masterful manner. But, if so inclined, they nevertheless thought better of it, and kept it to themselves, for there was that about this stranger which spread abroad the idea that he was not to be lightly crossed.
In tow of the yacht was a string of boats—or barges, to speak more exactly—those, namely, which had been captured from the enemy. In these the prisoners were placed, all securely bound, and guarded by squads of the uncanny-looking "Wolves of the Weed."
Numbers of these amphibious beings accompanied the progress of the yacht, swarming about her on every side like a lot of gigantic frogs, leaping from tuft to tuft of the weed, or swimming, diving, and sporting in the water, easily keeping up with her, though she was now going at a good speed. Many more, it was understood, had gone on far ahead to patrol the whole channel till open water was reached, and to give timely notice if any danger should threaten.
During the passage of this channel Rulonda—so it appeared the stranger was named, as Peter had divined—gave to the others a brief outline of his plans, and of the present position of affairs in the country.
There were two distinct nations, it appeared, living at the present time on the islands; for inside the outer barrier of low- lying swamp and marsh there were large sheets of salt water studded with islands. Of these, the largest was called Toraylia, and the second in size was known as Cashia. But the larger island was now subject to the smaller, for the Cashians had invaded it and conquered its people, and were now holding its inhabitants in bondage. Both islands were now, in fact, under the tyrannous yoke of a confederacy of priests, a sect of fire-worshippers, whose chief place of worship was a hollow mountain in the island of Cashia known as "The Temple of Fire." The real rulers of the whole region, therefore, were the Cashians and their priests; and these were the people who had been making piratical raids and capturing stray vessels, in search, partly of captives to sacrifice to their gods, and partly of firearms, which, as a means of overawing those they were oppressing, they greatly valued. These raids had only been rendered possible by the opening, during the last few years, of two main channels through the weed, one to the north and the other to the south-east. The piratical expeditions generally used the latter; and the northern channel—the one the yacht was then in—was at present almost entirely unused, though there had been some talk of building artificial obstructions across it, as a defence against possible incursions from the outer world.
"To-night," said Rulonda to Peter, in conclusion, "you shall see, and perhaps speak to your brother; or you may try to pass a note to him, that we may prepare him and his fellow-prisoners to co-operate in our plans. That is, if you have the courage to run the danger of going with me, in a disguise which I can procure, to the Temple of Fire, and mingling with the concourse of people there."
"I will run any risk you consider advisable, and shall be only too thankful for any chance of speaking with my poor brother," said Peter warmly.
Meantime the doctor was burning with curiosity respecting the queer, web-footed creatures who were still accompanying the yacht in her progress. He was full of wonder and astonishment at having so strangely found the objects of his scientific quest. There they were before his eyes—the queer creatures which he had scarcely hoped ever to see alive! He now turned to Rulonda for information.
"And who, if I may ask," said he, "are those queer creatures or people, or whatever they are, who have rendered us such signal service to-day, and who seem to know and understand you so well— though to a stranger they hardly appear to be human beings at all?"
"They are certainly human beings," was the answer, "though, poor souls, they, as you say, do not look much like it. It is said that they are the descendants of escaped slaves who, in former days—how many hundreds of years ago none can say—escaped from their masters and lived a precarious life amongst the almost inaccessible swamps surrounding us. In the course of time I suppose that their physical development must have changed, and become more suitable to the life they were leading, until they have become what you now see. They are an ill-used, persecuted race, regarded as mere animals by the Cashians, who frequently organize hunts, and chase and kill them for sport wherever they can chance upon one or two alone.
"It is not surprising that as a result the poor creatures should make savage reprisals when opportunity offers, and so come to be regarded as untamable wild beasts—'wolves of the weed,' in fact, as their name implies. Yet, as you perceive, I have found them amenable to kindness; and towards myself, once they gained confidence, they have always proved most faithful, devoted, dog-like friends."
As the afternoon wore on the yacht neared the end of the channel, and then a halt was made until darkness had fallen.
From the place where the pause was made, the end of the channel could be seen, and, beyond it, a wide space of open water with hazy outlines of high lying land in the distance. Then, when night had closed in, she stole out of the region of marsh and morass into the open water, and made her way across it without showing any lights, till within easy distance of the opposite shore, where another and longer halt was made.
A boat next took the two lads—for Ray had begged to be allowed to join in the adventure—to shore in charge of the stranger; and they first visited a fisherman's hut where certain disguises were, as it appeared, kept in readiness. Rulonda put on a loose fisherman's costume, and then assisted to dress his young friends in similar dress, and instructed them in their behaviour, after which the three set out, accompanied by the fisherman himself—quite a young fellow, named Kubis—upon their dangerous mission.
On their way, the young fisherman talked sometimes in the language of the country, and sometimes, much to the astonishment of the two lads, in English. But nothing was said to explain how this came about; and it was not till some time afterwards, that they learned the real reason of what seemed yet another of the mysteries of the strange land they had wandered into.
An hour and a half's walking over rough ground brought them to the base of the mountain they were seeking, and after some further climbing, they reached a cave rather more than half way up. Here, for the first time, they met with two human beings; for so far they had encountered no one.
At a word from Kubis the two men, who appeared to be sentinels or watchmen, opened an iron gate, and the four passed through into an underground passage, which they traversed by the aid of a lantern carried by the fisherman.
Other gates were passed, and other galleries traversed until, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the party emerged from the last one on to a terrace, where there burst upon their view a marvellous scene.
THEY looked down upon a vast domed enclosure or theatre-like interior. It was, in fact, as Rulonda had explained beforehand, the inside of a great hollow mountain, but its resemblance to a colossal theatre was remarkable. Below them, numbers of gaily-dressed people were walking to and fro, or engaged in talk or various amusements. Then there was a clear space that separated these throngs from what was not unlike a spacious stage, a few feet above the rest of the enclosure—but in reality a platform of solid rock.
At the back of this descended, with a deafening roar, what appeared to be a cascade of living fire, flashing, sparkling, scintillating, coruscating in millions of points of light.
In the centre of the belt dividing the platform from the side where the promenaders were, was a large basin covered with a sort of cage, the bars of which appeared to be of gold, and were placed two or three feet apart. From out of this basin, through the bars, leaped upwards a fountain of fire, which rose and fell, reaching at times a height of thirty or forty feet, then falling to no more than ten feet, and anon rising suddenly again to twenty or thirty.
On either side of the main fiery cascade at the back, other smaller ones fell, scattering brilliant particles in all directions, while across the place floated soft clouds of white or ruddy-tinted smoke or haze, which gave to the whole spectacle a very weird and almost unearthly effect.
What, however, seemed most surprising in this strange scene, was that, upon the platform, red robed figures were seen, evidently priests, who walked to and fro in the midst of the cataracts of falling fire, seemingly none the worse for the fiery avalanche which fell upon and around them.
Suddenly, through the golden bars of the central basin, a long, slender, wriggling, serpent-like shape shot forth, swaying, and twisting, and turning, this way and that, as though hungrily seeking for prey. Then a second similar shape appeared upon the opposite side, and between them a third, all pendulous, and swaying and playing about with a sinuous motion horrible to look upon; while all the time the fiery fountain rose and fell, and the sparkling drops tumbled about. Some of these, falling upon the twisting, snaky coils, glistened on them for an instant, and then, slipping from them on to the rocky floor, trickled away in little shimmering streams into a rushing river, which disappeared into the rocky wall at the side.
"Those horrible, wriggling things," said Rulonda to Ray and Peter in a whisper, "are the frightful arms of their so-called 'Sacred Salamander,' which is, in reality, a gigantic cuttlefish or octopus, which lives in yonder basin, imprisoned in it by the cage-like contrivance you see fixed over the top. The victims destined for sacrifice are driven within its reach, and it drags them through the bars and devours them within."
"Oh, Heaven! Can it be possible?" murmured Peter, turning sick and faint. "Is that the awful fate that awaits my brother if we fail to rescue him? It seems to me—"
But here further talk was interrupted, for their attention was called to a commotion below. It was caused by the entrance of the prisoners themselves—the victims destined to be given to the horrible monster in the great cage—who were dressed in white, with flowers wreathed round their heads and bodies, following the custom, as it seemed, which is known to have obtained in ancient Mexico in the case of victims similarly doomed.
"There!" gasped Peter, with difficulty suppressing a cry— "there is my brother Oliver; and there is Captain Warren's friend Keene!"
Ray gazed with interest and sympathy at the flower-decked figures of the unhappy prisoners, destined to be the victims of the cruel rites of the priestly rulers of the place.
He had no difficulty in picking out Peter's brother, for there was a striking likeness between the two. Oliver was, indeed, in many respects but a smaller edition, so to speak, of his elder brother; but his face was wanting in the strong character and determination that marked Peter's lineaments. Instead, there was a look of boyish innocence which, in the circumstances in which the poor lad was placed, was singularly pathetic and touching.
Ray was full of distress as he looked from one brother to the other, and he gave Peter's hand a friendly grasp as he whispered:
"We must rescue him, Peter, if the thing is to be done! You can count on me to the very last! I don't wonder now that you risked everything to come back to try and save him from such fiends!"
Peter said nothing, but only returned the kindly pressure of the hand. But he breathed hard, and his face was set and very white.
Rulonda, too, gazed down with a hard, grim look upon his fine features. He pointed to three of the red-robed priests who stood and conversed apart from the rest, and, in a low tone that sounded, Ray thought, not unlike the half-suppressed growl of an angry lion, said:
"Those three are the chief priests; their names are Belfendi, Madomah, and Heldamah—three of the cruellest, the most detestable monsters this globe has ever seen! Even the terrible creature in the great cage should be less repulsive, less hateful in the sight of ordinary human beings than those three—for it does but kill, after its own fashion, to satisfy its natural hunger; whereas these three atrocious wretches seem to commit their abominable misdeeds merely to gratify an unnatural appetite for cruelty! Ha, my friends, you have had your day! But the hour of your punishment is approaching; and when it comes I know I shall be here to witness it!"
His look had become fixed, and had a dreamy, faraway expression in it that made him appear almost like an inspired prophet denouncing the wickedness, and predicting the fate, of the wicked ones whom Heaven had doomed.
Then, seeming to suddenly rouse himself, he made signs to his companions to follow him, and led the way from the terrace back to the galleries through which they had come.
They traversed many more passages, and descended several flights of steps, meeting no one on their way, till they emerged again into the open air.
Ray noticed that the door through which they finally came out was most cunningly made to resemble the rock with which it was surrounded. As they passed through it, some one inside, whom he had not seen, pulled it to, and then it was almost impossible to find it again. In fact, he occupied himself, while Rulonda was talking in an undertone with his young fisherman friend, in trying to make out exactly where the door was, and utterly failed to find the slightest trace of it. After an interval of a minute or two, Rulonda turned to Ray.
"We are now going round to the public gate," he said, "where, by mingling with the crowd, we may obtain speech with the captives. But, as you can understand, it is a proceeding attended with grave danger. If we are discovered we shall find ourselves in a very tight place, and either be torn to pieces on the spot, or added to the number of the priests' prospective victims. It is not necessary for our plans that you should run this risk; you can return with our young friend Kubis, while Peter and I go on. What say you, my lad?"
But Ray would not hear of going back. Wherever Peter ventured, there he meant to go too, he declared; and so, after a few more words of warning and instruction as to their behaviour, they parted from the friendly fisherman, and set out upon their hazardous mission.
They skirted the base of the mountain, and soon came to signs that the district they had now entered was inhabited. First there were huts and cottages, then larger dwellings, and shortly a glow in the sky and a low hum, which grew louder as they advanced, indicated that they were approaching a populous city—the city called Cashia, Rulonda said.
Presently they found themselves passing along broad and well- built streets, and the buildings became larger and finer till, quite suddenly, as it seemed, they turned a corner, and reached the waterside.
Here Ray gazed about him in amaze. They stood upon what seemed to be the sea-shore. In front of them the water, calm and still, extended for a great distance, till it was lost in the darkness beyond.
To right and to left a broad promenade stretched along the shore with a bold sweep, and behind this, again, rose noble palaces of gleaming white marble, surrounded by beautiful gardens, where glistening fountains could be seen playing amidst flowers and foliage.
Graceful, waving palms stood out, here and there, amidst clumps of smaller trees; terraces and flights of steps rose, one behind the other, many lighted by braziers, from which dancing flames leaped upwards into the flower-scented air.
Ray would fain have stayed awhile to look upon the marvellous scene, but Rulonda, with a significant pressure of his hand upon his shoulder, led him on.
It was indeed evident that the inhabitants were all making their way in one direction, and to have stood still or gone another way would have attracted attention. Every one seemed bent upon the same thing; richly dressed nobles, officers, and soldiers in shining armour, poor fisherfolk, slaves—all mingled in a crowd that moved along the sea-front to some fixed destination, leaving empty and untenanted, alike the gardens on the shore, and the great, gilded pleasure-barges and other vessels which were scattered about upon the water.
Soon Ray saw what it was they were all making for. They turned from the shore into a wide road, or rather grove, which ran at right angles from the sea in a straight line, rising all the way, to the massive base of the mountain-temple—for such, in reality, was the "Temple of Fire." It was a hollow mountain of rock, probably an extinct volcano—of which the travellers subsequently met with other smaller examples—the outside of which had been carved and hewn into the form of a colossal temple, somewhat after the same manner as that which they had already seen carried out in the interior.
The work of thus fashioning a whole mountain of rock into the likeness of a gigantic building, was one which must have taken years—almost, one would think, ages—to carry out. Whatever the time that had been occupied, whatever the numbers of people employed, however, the result was certainly in proportion—it was stupendous, overwhelming.
The whole face of the rock was sculptured and worked into immense arches, flanked by mighty columns, from the tops of which, reaching into the clouds, there ever floated upwards smoke and vapour by day, and by night weird, lambent flames, which leaped up into the dark sky, and lighted it with a continuous, mysterious glow.
Two lower columns, one upon each side of the gateway, were fashioned in the form of figures of most terrible, hideous aspect; and these figures, though small by comparison with the columns described above, were themselves fully sixty feet in height.
To-night, as Ray gazed upon it, the towering mass of this marvellous work was curiously illumined—in addition to the fires above, already described, by strange flashes of lurid light, which came and went, and flickered about, first in one place, then in another, now high upon the face of the temple, a moment later flitting amongst the trees which surrounded the base.
Rulonda, however, gave Ray no time to gaze upon this amazing sight. He hurried his companions along and they pressed forward amongst the crowd, which seemed to get denser the farther they went. When they arrived at the great gates, they were jostled amongst a crush of people, who pressed round the stalls of flower-sellers just within the entrance. Here, everyone purchased some floral device, and carried it with him into the temple.
Ray felt very much as though he were in a dream. There was a nightmarish feeling about the whole affair, so utterly different had everything turned out from what he had expected.
"And these are the people we set out to conquer with a yacht's crew!" he thought to himself. "No wonder our new friend laughed at our temerity!"
He was borne along with the rest, and found himself beside a sort of counter at a flower-stall, whereon were all sorts of quaint devices and designs made up out of flowers of the greatest beauty and fragrance. Rulonda purchased some of these, and distributed part of them among his two companions, after which they pressed on through inner chambers and another pair of massive gates, till they reached the great central hall upon which they had already looked down from the terrace above.
Here the scene was very much as they had seen it before—the fiery cascades fell with a continuous roar, sending glittering particles flying about on all sides, the central fountain spurted its gleaming, feathery streams into the air, the seething river rushed past, tumbling and foaming in its bed and reflecting the light around. The long, twisting, snake- like tentacles shot out through the bars of the golden cage at irregular intervals, with the same hungry seeking after prey; the miserable captives, doomed to be its helpless victims, standing about in groups in the enclosure between what may be termed the auditorium, or great body of the hall, and the platform of rock that stretched across in front of the shining cataracts.
Rulonda, followed by his companions, made his way through the throng till the three stood beside the railings which shut off the prisoners' enclosure. These railings were high and close, spiked at the top, and very strong and solid, yet apparently were of gold. Through the bars the crowd outside stared at the captives as they were marched to and fro under the charge of gaolers, much as, in England, we stare at rare animals in a menagerie. Instead of offering them cakes or biscuits, however, they here proffered flowers, which some of the prisoners took and added to those they already had, or handed over to their attendants. Many, however, fell unheeded upon the ground, which became strewn with them.
Some of the doomed prisoners, of whom there were now fully half a hundred assembled within the enclosure, behaved as though the contemplation of the terrible fate in store for them had driven them crazy, and they laughed, and danced, and sang in boisterous fashion. Frequently the spectators offered them drinks and fruit, as well as flowers. Others of the unfortunates seemed stunned, and sat about by themselves, staring straight in front of them as if in a kind of trance. Others, again, moved quietly about in groups of two or three, engaged in conversation and doing their best to cheer each other.
Amongst these last Peter's brother could be seen. He was walking beside Warren's friend Keene, and was listening, in somewhat listless fashion, to his companion, but his drooping head, and haggard looks, indicated that his thoughts were not following very intently the subject of their talk. He was, indeed, just then thinking of his brother, and wondering if the news that had reached him could be true. Only an hour or two before, a slave who had been with the party which had attacked the yacht, had been telling Oliver of Peter's escape from the galley, without, however, being able to say whether he had finally got clear away or been drowned in the attempt.
A wreath fell at Oliver's feet; but he scarcely noticed it, and was about to push it aside with his foot out of his path, when Keene stayed the movement and, stooping, picked it up. His quick eye had caught the flutter of a bit of white paper tied amongst the flowers.
Surprised that he should take so much trouble about what was so common an occurrence—for every night flowers were thrown into the enclosure, until at times the captives could scarcely walk about for them—Oliver raised his eyes, and met his brother's burning gaze fixed upon him.
So unexpected was this rencounter that Oliver fancied for a moment it must be a hallucination; or, he asked himself, had Peter indeed been drowned, and was this his spirit come back to—
The lad's head swam; he felt sick and dizzy, and he might have fallen had not Keene's strong arm been just then put through his.
"Steady, lad—steady!" whispered his comrade. "Hold up, and take no notice, or you'll betray your brother. How he got here, and why he has come, I can't imagine; but there is a note amongst these flowers, which will probably explain. Pick up another thingumabob and pull the flowers off, as I am doing with this, and do not pause in your walk or look round."
Thus admonished and advised, Oliver recovered his presence of mind, and the two continued their walk for a while, never daring even to glance at the place where Peter had been standing. Nor could Keene get a chance to read the note which he had taken from the wreath while apparently engaged in idly picking off the flowers and throwing them about, just as Oliver was now doing with another floral device.
Gradually the two drew near to the rails, but at a point some distance from the spot where Peter had been. Then, still toying with the flowers, and not daring to trust himself to look round, Oliver stood with his back to the rails, apparently interested in his talk with his companion. He expected that Peter would saunter up and watch for an opportunity of speaking; and in this he was not disappointed, for he presently heard his voice just behind him.
"I am here, Oliver, to try to save you," the voice breathed, in a tone so low that he could only just catch the words;" and I am not alone. We have a well armed yacht and stout friends to help us. So keep up your courage. We mean to rescue you or die with you, and—"
The rest of the message was drowned in a noise which had arisen in another part of the hall. There were cries and shouts, and they sounded of an angry, vengeful character. The commotion grew, and a small group rushed from somewhere upon the platform. In their midst was Dyossa, the officer Peter had wounded. He looked first this way and then that, his eyes blazing with rage and fury, till at last he caught sight of Rulonda and his two young companions, and pointed them out.
"There they are! Seize them!" he shrieked. "Seize the dogs, and tear them limb from limb!"
And with a perfect howl of frenzied passion he led the rush of shouting people who darted forward to carry out his words.
RULONDA and his companions were seized from behind ere they could move a hand to defend themselves. Not that resistance could possibly have been of any use in the face of the odds they had against them. It afterwards appeared that some soldiers had been watching their movements suspiciously, and at the very first suggestion of something being wrong, these worthies had thrown themselves upon the strangers and prevented them from drawing their arms.
After the first struggle—for there was a short, sharp tussle—it is not in human nature to yield, even to overwhelming force, without some sort of a struggle—a great cry of surprise and triumph went up from the captors of the three. Their exultation was not due to the recapture of Peter—that was rather a sort of private affair apparently affecting Dyossa, chiefly—nor was it the seizure of a young stranger like Ray; it was inspired by the discovery that one of their prisoners was Rulonda.
Immediately, the cry went up, "Rulonda! Rulonda! We have taken Rulonda!" And this brought about a pause on the part of the crowd. It was a pause which happened fortunately at the moment, for otherwise, it seemed pretty certain, from the demeanour of Dyossa and his immediate followers, that they intended literally to carry out his orders, and tear their helpless prisoners limb from limb.
But on hearing the cry, "We have taken Rulonda!" the priest who had been pointed out to Ray as Belfendi, strode forward into the midst of the savage mob.
As his tall form pushed its way amongst them, the uplifted arm commanding silence, a great hush fell upon the assemblage.
"Let me see the prisoners! Bring them this way!" the priest ordered, in loud, sonorous tones that were heard throughout the spacious hall.
And as he spoke there was an evil light in his flashing eyes, a triumphant smile on the cruel mouth, which boded no good for the prisoners.
Rulonda stood up and faced him. He was tightly bound; yet, even so, there was a dignity in his bearing which struck Ray, who still looked upon the scene with the feeling that it was, somehow, all part of a dream, as forming a striking contrast to the arrogant and sneering demeanour of the priest.
Of the colloquy which followed, Ray understood nothing, since it was conducted in the language of the country. But there was very little opportunity for speech; the excitement of the crowd was evidently at fever-heat, and not even the authority of the priests could check it after the first few moments. From all sides resounded howls and shouts, and the impatience of those around increased with every moment.
"They are howling for our blood," said Peter coolly, in an undertone to Ray; "and they mean to have it this time, I'm thinking! Well, we can die but once; and, since it must be so, I am content that I should lose my life in trying to save my brother. But with you it is different. It was I who persuaded you into this adventure, and—"
"Never mind that, Peter; don't go over that ground again," Ray interrupted. "Tell me what it is they are crying out now."
"His excellency, the chief priest, has just most generously offered to give us as a meal to their sacred monster in yonder cage; and the gentle beings, who form his congregation, are yelling themselves hoarse with delight at the suggestion. Only they stipulate it must be done here, now, at once; none of your crafty promises of a grand festival battue next week. They are greedy to see the sight forthwith—and forthwith it's going to be."
Peter's further speech was stopped by Dyossa, who came up to him, and striking him brutally on the face, demanded of him what he had done with his sword and dagger; and finding that no answer was forthcoming, ordered the soldiers who were in charge of him to search him and find them.
But Peter had not brought them with him upon this risky expedition, and so the search would have proved a vain one had it been carried out; but the people howled again with such impatience that Belfendi gave the signal to drag the prisoners up on to the platform of rock, where was the cage which held the waiting "Sacred Salamander."
The order was carried out at once. The three were placed upon a spot well beyond the reach of the restless, writhing arms, or tentacles, of the horrible creature, their legs were unbound, and then tied again just sufficiently to admit of only a short, shuffling step. And then they were left together, their arms still tightly tied up; and their guards hurriedly retreated.
A moment or two later, an encircling ring of metal network, began to close in upon the doomed three, on all sides, save that shut off by the river. There was no need, it was considered, for the netting in that direction, since the shackling of the victims prevented their attempting to escape by swimming.
By the crowd, the glittering cascades were believed to be living fire, but Ray had already learned, during their walk to the place, that they were only water, and that their fiery appearance was due to a remarkably high amount of phosphorus in the water. They came, Rulonda explained, from an underground lake high up on the mountain, the water of which was so highly charged with phosphorus that wherever it fell, when in motion, it seemed to burst into flame. The existence of the lake was a secret known only to the priests, who for countless generations had concealed the fact from the people, and pretended that the glittering water was really a river of living fire, and that they themselves were able to go in and out amongst it unscathed, because they were the high priests of the god of fire. The illusion was heightened by clouds of smoke or vapour which were to be constantly seen ascending, both inside and outside the temple. This vapour, however, was said to rise from hidden fires which were never allowed to go out from year's end to year's end.
Slowly, the encircling network closed in upon the helpless victims, sweeping them onwards, and causing them to shuffle closer and closer to those restless, hungry-looking "arms." And now Ray suddenly caught sight, through the bars of the cage, of two immense eyes, big as saucers, which were watching the enforced approach of the devoted three with a steady, unwinking stare, which had something awful in its suggestion of patient, relentless ferocity. For the first time the full terror of his position took hold of the lad, and he became possessed by an overmastering horror.
The howling and yelling of the bloodthirsty crowd, the irritating, triumphant, sneering smiles of Dyossa and the priests—these and all other incidental sights and sounds were forgotten, obliterated by the fascination that lay in the watchful stare of those baleful eyes.
Ray felt himself swaying as though he were about to sink to the ground. A deadly feeling of nausea came over him, and a strong impulse seized upon him to rush forward to meet those waiting, snaky coils, and to end the intolerable horror of the thing. But at that critical moment an unexpected diversion occurred.
Out of the seething, glistening stream, in which the reflection of the shining cascades looked almost like molten gold bubbling in a giant cauldron, there rose six figures—figures so weird and uncanny-looking that even the shouting throng became silent, and gazed at them in wondering astonishment.
Little time was allowed them to recover from their first surprise. Ere any one there could move a hand to prevent it, these strange figures had rushed upon the intended victims, seized them, two to each shackled captive, carried them to the stream, and leaped with their burdens back into it, disappearing entirely from sight in what looked not unlike a shower of fire- works.
Many of the onlookers rubbed their eyes and stared round in bewilderment, as though asking one another whether it was all true. A minute ago the three helpless "sacrifices" had been standing on yonder rock, within a foot or so of the outstretched arms of the caged monster. It had certainly then seemed that no earthly power could save them. Few would have ventured close enough to those terrible, twisting coils to rescue them, even had the priests suddenly relented and ordered their minions to snatch them from their impending fate. And yet—now—they were gone! They had vanished, and that so suddenly, so completely, that the spectators could scarcely trust themselves to say how the miracle had been accomplished.
But a minute or two later a new uproar broke out. Screams of rage, and cries for vengeance on some one— any one, as it seemed—came from the disappointed mob.
Amidst cries of "Mecanoes! Mecanoes!" a rush was made against the bars of the enclosure in which were the other captives. Belfendi, however, was in no mood to have his arrangements for the approaching great festival interfered with by a premature sacrifice of the prisoners he had collected and saved up for the occasion. So he took his measures promptly; they were all marched out of sight before the angry mob could scale the railings which shut them off. Thus, for the time, they were saved, and the "Sacred Salamander" was left disappointed and hungry.
Oliver and his friend in misfortune, Keene, marched away with glad, thankful hearts. What the scene had meant to the lad, who had been compelled to stand by and see his brother in such peril, can be better imagined than described. Now the poor boy forgot, for a time, the position in which he himself still remained, in his joy at Peter's escape.
For that the three had escaped none, either of the priests, or their followers, doubted. How it should have come about that those creatures which they hated and despised, yet feared—the fierce "Wolves of the Weed"—should appear thus as the friends and rescuers of their intended victims, they could by no manner of means understand. But that the affair had meant a rescue they were fully convinced; and they all went back to their dwellings that night, in a tempest of impotent rage and disappointed fury.
WHEN the three helpless prisoners were seized upon by their strange rescuers, Ray, as has been said, had felt faint and sick from the feeling of horror engendered by the close contemplation of the horrible monster which he could see so plainly within its great cage. But the shock of the cool water, when he was plunged into the rushing river, quickly dissipated all such sensations, and recalled his wandering senses.
He learned now to appreciate better than he had before the marvellous swimming powers of their amphibious friends. Scarcely had they plunged into the boiling flood when he felt them, even while they were diving lower and yet lower, busily endeavouring to loosen his bonds; and, indeed, before they rose again, he knew that he was free. But when they came to the surface all was darkness. He could see no glimmer of light to guide him, or to afford an idea as to where they were or whither they were hurrying; for that they were speeding along at a great rate there could be no doubt.
He could hear the swishing of the racing current as it dashed against the rocks in its progress, and he guessed that they were now in an underground river running in a rocky bed, and doubtless with many great boulders in the channel. There were no phosphorescent gleams in this water to help them, and had he felt less confidence in his trusty guides, he would have shrunk from the idea of threading such a channel in absolute darkness, and been in momentary expectation of having his brains dashed out against some stony obstacle.
But there was something in the mere touch of these strange friends, as they held him up in the surging flood, which instinctively gave him to understand that there was nothing to fear. Whether they were like cats, and could see in the dark, or how, if they could not, they were guiding their course, he did not stop to consider.
He made no attempt at swimming himself; that, he instinctively felt, would be useless. The touch of his rescuers said to him as plainly as though they had spoken in words, "Trust everything to us and we will take care of you; but if you struggle, or try to swim, we can do nothing." So he gave himself up entirely into their charge, and allowed himself to float along wherever and however they might direct their course.
The voyage, however, was not a very long one. The race, already fast, soon became furious, the noises in the ears more deafening; there was a great, swinging heave, during which the grip of his unseen companions tightened in a manner that seemed intended to warn him to prepare for some critical ordeal, and just as, profiting by the hint, he drew in a great breath, and then closed his mouth, there was a wild, downward sweep, and they sank again deep into the swirling flood. He knew that they were plunging down a waterfall.
It was a long dive this time; so long that, for the first time since he had started on this queer journey, Ray began to have some misgiving. He did not doubt his guides, either as to their skill or their intentions; but it did suddenly occur to him that they might miscalculate the time during which he could hold his breath. Undoubtedly, they could keep under water much longer than he could, and therefore might quite conceivably think nothing of a dive that would be long enough to drown him out and out.
But even as he began to feel he could hold his breath no longer, he found himself in the open air. His companions had suddenly released their hold, and he had risen high up above the surface of the water, falling back into it like a leaping fish. Then he struck out for himself, and took a look round.
The water about him was almost calm. High above, in a clear sky, sailed a bright, silvery moon. A few hundred yards away was a dark rock, which towered up, gloomy and frowning, for some hundreds of feet, almost perpendicularly. From a cavern in the face of this precipice a river rushed and fell, in the form of a cascade, to the level of the water in which he was then swimming. Ray comprehended that this must be the stream they had followed.
He looked about now for his late companions who had brought him so faithfully and successfully through this subterranean torrent; but, to his surprise, no trace of them could be seen. They had vanished so completely that he gazed around in astonishment, which increased as time passed, and they failed to reappear.
Suddenly, a few yards away, something shot up in the air in similar fashion to the way he had done a few moments before, falling back with a splash, as might a great salmon which had sprung up after a particularly toothsome tit-bit in the shape of a fly. Scarcely had he time to assure himself that this new arrival was Peter, when there came another splash which heralded the appearance of Rulonda. The latter caught sight of the others at once, and called out:
"Are you all right, you two!"
His voice rang out cheerily, as though nothing out of the way had occurred.
"Ay, ay, sir," Peter responded.
And Ray confirming the fact as regards himself, the other continued coolly:
"Good! Then follow me!"
And, without further remark or explanation, he began swimming vigorously towards a point on the nearest shore, which Ray now perceived was scarcely two hundred yards away.
Peter came to Ray's side.
"How did you get on?" he asked laughingly. "I need not ask whether your pilots navigated the underground river successfully, for if they hadn't you would not be here. But did all go well? You seem to have got here first; and therefore, I suppose, came through without a hitch; but we were hung up for a minute or two."
"How was that? Nothing happened to us."
"Oh, some beast of a fish wanted to make a meal of one of us; but our froggy friends were too much for him. Why, see! The beast has come through, and is floating dead yonder. Do you see him?"
"I see something," said Ray doubtfully. "What is it? It looks like a great sea-serpent!"
"'Tis a big conger-eel. They grow to the size of veritable sea-serpents about here, and are at times quite as savage and dangerous to swimmers. But where are our froggy friends?"
"That's what I can't understand. They let go of me, and I've not seen them since. One would almost think, if we were not here in the water, that the whole affair had been a dream!"
"Ah, it was no dream, though, when we were standing within a foot or two of that many-armed monster! I say, how those priests and all the other johnnies stared when we left them so unceremoniously, without even throwing them a kiss or murmuring one sweet good-bye! I've been laughing almost ever since at the last look I got of their faces, with those blank, disgusted looks!"
The reaction that had followed upon their fortunate and unexpected escape, and the excitement of their rapid transit along the rushing, roaring torrent, had acted like an exhilarating draught upon the two lads, and so raised their spirits that they were both now ready to laugh and joke about what had been so terrible while it lasted.
"It seems to me," Ray went on, "that—Hallo! What—why—?"
These exclamations were called up by a sudden commotion in the water a little way off. Before either of them had time to understand what had happened, something made a rush and seized Ray in its great mouth. It was the big conger, which had evidently not been dead, as had been supposed, and had now suddenly become active.
Rulonda turned back, and he and Peter hastened to their friend's assistance; but the lashing tail of the creature struck the latter a blow on the head, which nearly stunned him, and rendered him for a while incapable of rendering any aid.
Rulonda gained the other side of the beast just as it was on the point of diving with its prey. He had in his hand a long, naked dagger, which he buried to its hilt in the serpent-like neck, at the same time uttering a peculiar, long, piercing cry. Then all three disappeared from view; for Rulonda had hold of Ray with one hand and of the handle of the dagger with the other, and, as he would not let go, he was carried down as the great eel dived.
Peter, recovering from the blow he had received, looked in helpless distress at the place where his two friends had disappeared. He felt in his belt for his knife, and drew it out in readiness to use it if a chance should offer. Ere, however, he had time even to consider what he could possibly do, there was another swirling eddy in the water a few yards off, and three or four "wolves" appeared, bearing between them Ray's almost unconscious form, which they proceeded to carry towards the shore. A moment or two afterwards Rulonda reappeared, looked round, and caught sight of Peter.
"'Tis well," he said, in his quiet, cool fashion. "I do not think the lad is hurt. You can follow us to land in peace now. Our friends yonder heard my call, and closed round and killed the enemy even before I could get my blade free for a second blow."
"It's wonderful! Where on earth did they spring from? Where were they hiding?" Peter could not help asking, as he swam alongside.
"Oh, they were all round us, lying in wait to see if I wanted them further. They can rest just under the surface of the water, so cunningly, that you would never see them unless you knew exactly where to look."
A few seconds more and they were on shore, and Rulonda was bending over Ray and supporting his head as he lay on the sand. The plucky lad was already trying to assure his friends that he was not hurt, though he could as yet only speak in gasps.
By degrees he came round, and ere long was able to stand. As it turned out, the monstrous eel had seized him round the body, and the mouthful had been more than he could manage properly, so that his teeth had not penetrated the lad's clothes.
"'Tis well, my boy, 'tis well," Rulonda finally decided. "'Tis a fortunate escape, for if the conger had seized upon an arm or a leg he would have almost certainly bitten it off, or so crushed it that you would have lost the use of it. They have terrible teeth, those big eels, and they are often as ferocious, and as much to be dreaded, as the largest sharks."
"There is the brute!" Peter exclaimed, pointing to a large mass which could be seen floating on the top of the water. "There he is again—dead enough this time, I fancy, though. I suppose our froggy friends killed him."
"Yes; they attack these monsters in their own element and kill them for food," Rulonda replied. "And now, lads, keep a look-out for a light, for a boat is coming here to seek for us and take us back to the yacht."
Even as he spoke, they caught sight of a far-off gleam, which came across the water, dancing in the ripples of the calm, silent sea. Rulonda regarded it steadily for a while, and then, satisfied with his scrutiny, turned and walked along the shore, away from the direction in which they had come.
The boat was evidently making for a point some distance further along than they then were, and, as a matter of fact, it grounded on the beach just as the three came up to it.
From the boat there leaped upon the beach, first, the young fisherman, who had accompanied them in the early part of the evening. He came forward and greeted Rulonda eagerly, in a manner which showed he had been anxious as to the result of their visit. A few words passed between them in their own language, during which other figures landed from the boat, and Ray, running forward, found his two friends, Captain Warren and the genial doctor. They explained that the yacht was waiting for them round the next headland; and the whole party then set out to find her.
Half an hour later they were on board, and were soon engaged in relating to their friends all the adventures of the night; while the yacht, under the guidance of their new allies, steamed out from the land into darkness and unknown waters.
"THERE! I think that last touch is decidedly artistic! It gives fire and life, so to speak, to the eye of our monster? Don't you think so, Peter?"
It was Ray who spoke. He put down a great pail of paint he had been carrying in one hand, and forgetting the huge paint-brush, still dripping, in the other, he stepped back a few feet to survey the general effect of his handiwork.
The consequence was that the wet brush came in contact with the head of a sailor who happened to be at work in a kneeling position just behind him. A loud outcry caused him to turn sharply round.
"Why, Tim!" Ray exclaimed, "I had no idea you were there! I'm sure I'm very sorry—"
"Oh! Mother o' Moses, I'm half blinded. Shure it's bunged me oie up, an' plastered me hair over, an' now it's tricklin' down me back!"
Poor Timothy O'Brien presented so pitiable a sight with splotches of red paint upon his face and head that neither Ray nor Peter, vexed with himself for his own carelessness though the former was, could help laughing.
"Well, it matches yer hair, Tim, anyway," cried Gale, who was working close by. "An' it gives a gineral idea of how you'd look with side-whiskers."
"You shut up, Jim, or maybe ye'll git one on the nose as'll paint your face red," returned Tim, threateningly. "But, Mr. Ray, darlint, why did ye take me for yer monster an' paint me up like this for? If ye thought I wanted more colour on my face, why thin av course there's other methods—two or three extra glasses o' rum, fur instance, isn't a bad way av turning
a man's face red—"
"Go and get one on account now, Tim, to console you, and say I sent you," Ray said, still laughing. "And get that paint cleaned off before it dries on."
Tim went off smiling, too, and Ray, having put away his brush, turned again to Peter.
"In all seriousness you have not looked at my painting work and admired it as I think you ought. Come and tell me what you think of it."
"Well, since you have put that terrible brush away, and are now, so to speak, unarmed, I think I may venture near enough to do as you wish. What are those posts in the bow for?"
"Posts? Why, they're teeth, man! These are the creature's jaws, aren't they? Then, of course, it must have some show of teeth, mustn't it?"
"Oh, yes, I see! And that long, red affair—what's that? 'Tis like an old, red umbrella—"
"Red umbrella? Why, that's its red tongue, you ignoramus! It's pretty obvious that I shall get no applause in this quarter, so I shall do no more."
"Well," said Peter with a sigh, "there's no particular need for hurry, so far as I can see. I'm sick of this inaction. More than a fortnight have we been stuck here on this island, doing almost nothing. Nothing, that is, in the way of finishing up what we came here to do—though, of course, we have been far from idle."
"You are a bit impatient, Peter," Ray returned. "Rulonda must make his preparations. It's no use making an attempt and failing, is it?"
"No; that's true; but I can't help getting into low spirits now and then, as I see the days go by and we seem to be no nearer to setting Oliver free! And if it seems slow and wearisome to us, think what delay must mean to him! How long, how miserable a time a fortnight must seem to him! How terrible this suspense! Still, I suppose Rulonda knows best. No doubt he knows what he's about."
"I feel sure of that; and we should have got on faster if that particular friend of yours, Dyossa, had not escaped in the way he did. Rulonda says that but for his unfortunate escape we could, in all probability, have surprised the town of Cashia and rushed their whole island within a day or two of our arrival. However, it's no use crying over spilt milk!"
"No!" said Peter, between his teeth; "but it makes me mad to think that that cold-blooded wretch is back among the prisoners again, free to bully, and whip, and torture my poor brother, as he is sure now to do, if only because he knows what suffering and pain his doing so will cause to me!"
At the time of this conversation the Kestrel was lying snugly moored in a little natural harbour in a small rocky island named Livia, which stood in the open water, between the great outer belt of swamp and marsh and the main islands it encompassed.
On one side of this island there was but a narrow channel separating it from the commencement of the swamp. On the other side was a broad expanse of water, out of which the island rose a hundred feet or so above the sea level.
Livia was supposed to be uninhabited. It lay far out of the way of all traffic between the larger islands, and was equally distant from the two channels which led to the open sea. It was, therefore, seldom visited. It had, however, numerous caves and subterranean chambers and passages, and amongst these Rulonda had established depôts and stores, which had rendered it a useful secret rendezvous for himself and his followers.
At one point a narrow entrance led into a creek, which broadened, as has been indicated, into a natural harbour, surrounded by wooded rocks, and here the Kestrel was well out of sight of passing boats, supposing any should happen to come near the island.
None, however, were ever seen by day—for Rulonda's people only came and went by night. The creek or harbour just described formed the only safe landing-place in the island, so steep and precipitous were its rocky sides; and the entrance was not only scarcely discernible to those unacquainted with it, but was so formed as to be very easily defended by a few against superior forces.
The shores of the little harbour now presented a busy scene. In the rocks with which it was girt, and which rose from the strips of pebbly or sandy beach, were roomy caves, some of which were now converted into temporary workshops, and here a numerous company could be seen at work preparing against any attack which might be made upon the island by the Cashians—the followers, that is, of the hierarchy of the terrible Priests of the Temple of Fire.
Amongst these preparations one of the most curious was the work upon which Ray had been engaged, and to which he had just been giving the last touches of paint. It consisted in the metamorphosis of a small steam launch into the likeness of a horrible marine monster of so frightful a form that it was hoped its mere appearance amongst the ignorant and superstitious Cashians would cause a panic.
The Kestrel carried two launches, one worked by steam, and the other by electricity, and it was the former which had been thus temporarily altered; with what success will be seen later on.
"Tell you what, Peter; a change of occupation would do you good," Ray presently observed; "a little mild excitement, for instance, such as fishing for one of those mighty big congers! What do you say? Suppose we get a boat and go out by ourselves for a turn? I'll look out some jolly strong tackle, and we'll see if we can't bag a whopper!"
Peter agreed readily enough, and the two set off for another part of the harbour where lay a big, strong boat which had been kept specially for fishing.
Having put on board their gear—including the "jolly strong tackle" Ray had spoken of—and their rifles and ammunition, they took their places and were about to push off when they saw Gale running towards them. They waited for him to come up, and as he did not speak, Ray asked him what was the matter.
The man had an air of mystery about him, and looked carefully round before replying. Then he came close to the boat's side and said, in a low tone:
"A man has just told me a curious thing, sir. He was sent up to the high ground to bring down something that was wanted, and he passed near the look-out man at the top. He told him that a boat had just put off from the other side of the island, that there were three or four men in it—and one of them, he is sure, was Shorter."
"A boat gone off from there? Well—but—there's no landing-place, so far as I have heard."
"No, sir; but there's one or two places, it seems, where a man might drop down with a rope into a boat if it was waiting for him."
"Ha! But what makes him think it was Shorter?"
"He could make him out pretty plainly through his telescope."
"H'm! It sounds a bit suspicious, certainly; though, of course, they may only have gone off with the same intentions as ours—to get a bit of fish. Tell you what, Gale, you go and report to Captain Warren, and we'll follow these chaps and see what they are really up to."
Gale went away to make his report, and the two lads pushed off, and taking a pair of sculls each, were soon well outside the harbour. There they found that there was a bit of a breeze, whereupon they hoisted a sail and turned the boat's head in the direction which the mysterious craft was said to have taken.
Gradually they rounded part of the island's coast line, and after a little while gained the opposite side; and there, sure enough, as they sailed beyond a bluff, they saw, a good way off, a small vessel which seemed to be heading for the distant shores of one of the larger islands.
She carried a big sail, and seemed to be going very fast.
"She's not one of our boats at all! She's some kind of native craft!" cried Ray, in surprise. "Now what the dickens does this mean? They're not going fishing—you may be certain of that!"
"Funny Shorter should be in it again," said Peter thoughtfully. "I've been very doubtful about that fellow after all I've heard. I'm pretty sure he's not to be trusted."
"Well, I mean to follow and overhaul them if I can, and insist on knowing what their little game is!" Ray exclaimed, determinedly. "We'll make Shorter explain matters to our satisfaction, or lug him back to see the captain—one thing or the other!"
For two or three days after the night attack upon the yacht Shorter had been kept in confinement; but, since there was no direct evidence against him, he had finally been released upon the express intercession of Dr. Strongfold.
"The doctor has a better opinion of that johnny than I have," Ray presently muttered, in allusion to this intervention of the good-natured scientist. "I'd rather have seen him kept under lock and key—only then should I feel quite certain he was out of mischief. Peter, can't you haul a little on that sheet, and get a bit more wind on the sail? It strikes me we shall be a long time catching the beggars up, at this rate!"
The craft they were following was, in fact, steadily leaving them farther and farther astern. Ray was pretty clever in handling a boat, but the one they were in was too heavy, and the sail was too small, to give them any chance in such a chase. By degrees the strange vessel drew away, and the two had perforce to acknowledge that they had no chance of coming up with her.
Moreover, they were approaching a wild, forbidding shore, where a rugged mountain rose high into the air, rocky and precipitous, the only visible opening being a dark, gloomy gorge.
"We'd better not go any further," said Peter at last. "Yonder gully looks a likely place for some of our enemies to be lying in wait."
"Well, we can stay here and fish for a while," Ray suggested. "It's pretty certain that Captain Warren will send out another boat, or perhaps a couple, after us; and when they come up we shall be able, at any rate, to point out which way Shorter and his precious friends have gone."
They accordingly took down their sail, got out their fishing tackle, and then sat quietly down to await developments, each keeping one eye, so to speak, upon the lines they had thrown over the boat's side, and the other upon the fast-receding stranger.
But the latter did not, as they had expected, make for the land, but, turning aside, went off in a different direction, and in a little while passed completely out of sight.
RAY had dropped over the side of the boat one very strong line, with an immense hook baited with meat. This was the special tackle he had brought with him in the hope of catching what he termed a "whopper." He had fastened it securely—too securely, as it afterwards turned out—to the bow, and, in the excitement of pulling up a few small fish on his other lines, had forgotten all about it.
Suddenly both lads became aware of the fact that the boat was beginning to move. There seemed to be no current thereabouts, and the breeze had fallen light. They sat for some moments staring in astonishment, as the craft glided along at a pace which gradually became swifter and ever swifter. Very soon the water under her bows began to gurgle loudly, and a line of foam seethed and hissed in her wake.
"What's up?" Peter exclaimed. "Has the boat gone mad?"
"It seems like it," muttered Ray, endeavouring to show a composure he by no means felt. "I think—oh, it's my line—look!" He pointed to his "special strong line," which was stretched out taut as a wire hawser. He had, in very truth, caught his "whopper"; or rather it almost seemed as if the "whopper" had caught them.
They had, unfortunately, no hatchet with which to hack themselves free from this inconveniently big catch; and they dared not attempt to drop their anchor for fear of being dragged beneath the surface.
"There's nothing for it but to hang on by our eyebrows," cried Ray, who had taken the helm in the hope of steadying the plunging boat a little.
"Keep her straight if you can," Peter called out, as he pushed some cartridges into his rifle and clambered forward. "If the beast shows, I shall fire," he added.
But there came no sign of their unknown steed, and meanwhile they were being taken rapidly towards the frowning mountain, which reared its bare slopes upon the very edge of this uninviting shore.
The monster which had them in tow seemed to shape its course with a deadly precision of purpose, which suggested that it knew of some hidden fastness among the sombre rocks ahead of them— some uncanny, marine cavern, perhaps, where it could deal with them at leisure. All at once it swerved, making straight for the dark gorge in the rocky wall, and a little later the boat was dashing up a narrow channel between two towering precipices. On either side the cliffs rose straight up for a height of many hundreds of feet; so high were they, indeed, that the light which struggled down from their lofty summits seemed half exhausted ere it reached the water below.
Darker and darker became the passage, until at last all vestige of light vanished, and they found themselves in pitchy darkness, through which there came no sound save the gurgle of the water under the prow of their boat, and the "slap" of the ripples against the rocky walls in their wake.
Once, two fiery eyes glared at them from some unseen ledge overhead. At another time, for a brief interval, their speed sensibly slackened, and a violent plunging sound came back to them from the darkness ahead. But the check was only momentary, and then, with a jerk, they surged forward once more. As they did so there came a soft grating noise beneath the boat, and for the space of a few seconds she lifted and appeared to be sliding over something which moved. Then they slipped back again into the water, and proceeded at even a greater pace than before. A strong and sickening smell of musk pervaded the air; in fact so powerful was the stench that Ray called to Peter, who was still lying in the bow.
"Peter, that's the smell of alligator."
"Maybe," Peter replied: "but that thing we just passed over was no alligator, it was something softer—like—like a lizard, perhaps."
When the last gleam of light had faded out overhead, both boys had quite given themselves up for lost. Yet so pertinacious is hope that Ray still held the rudder straight, and Peter still gripped his rifle ready for any, even an unseen foe.
And then, after what seemed to them hours of waiting for they knew not what, the faintest glimmer of light showed like a haze far ahead of them. Gradually this glimmer grew stronger, until they could distinguish the rocky walls of the tunnel—for such it evidently was—through which they were travelling. By degrees the water took on a greenish hue, and the taut fishing-line could be followed by the sight to the point where it cut into the water.
Finally, they shot out on to the placid bosom of a lake, which seemed as if it might be the interior of an extinct volcano. Here, even in the daytime, it was nearly always twilight, for, except for one brief time in each twenty-four hours, the sun's rays never penetrated. Such light as there was came down from the small mouth of the crater, which appeared to be hung overhead like a pale moon in a black sky.
Just at this juncture an idea struck Peter which had escaped him during the excitement of the perilous voyage. "There was a way to cut themselves adrift, of course! how stupid of him not to have thought of it before!" He leaned cautiously forward, and placing the muzzle of his rifle against the fishing line, fired. Instantly the severed portion vanished into the water, and they glided forward, free. Free, yes, but for how much did the word count? They were in the very heart of a hollow mountain! And to get back they would have to face that terrible tunnel again, and run the gauntlet of its awesome inhabitants!
But if they thought they had finished with the monster responsible for their dilemma, they were reckoning without their host, so to speak.
Ray, who had been looking round interestedly at the vast, natural, roofed amphitheatre, suddenly uttered a shout of warning.
"Look, Peter!" he exclaimed, pointing with outstretched arm to a spot on the water fifty yards away. Peter looked, and started back amazed. There, floating on the dark calm water, was a gigantic, flat, black head—a head with two glaring eyes which seemed to watch them with a cold, almost fiendish ferocity. Nothing more was to be seen; just the head, with its dog-like nose, its mask-like visage, and the fiery, wolfish eyes. Even as they looked it sank, as noiselessly and stealthily as it had appeared. In a few moments, however, it showed again; this time on the other side of the boat, and a little nearer.
"See!" cried Ray excitedly. "There's my line!" and, ere the creature vanished at the sound of the voice, Peter had had time to see the fishing line floating from its mouth. Again it appeared—this time still nearer—and again it vanished, only however to come up each time in a fresh spot. There seemed something ghost-like, uncanny, in the creature's method of cautious observation and approach; something well calculated to strike terror into the stoutest heart. For some moments both the young fellows remained almost motionless, staring at the apparition; it seemed as though they were literally mesmerized into inaction. Perhaps it was by some such means that this marine monster secured its prey!
Be that as it may, Ray suddenly realized, like one awaking from a dream, that to give way to the deadly fascination meant death. He stooped and hurriedly snatched up his rifle, but as he did so, the fish—for the monster was in fact an immense fish— reared itself clear of the water, and sprang, like a flash, straight for the boat. A huge, black, flat body, with a long, sinuous tail, it appeared actually to sail towards them through the air. There was a little spit of flame, a sharp report, which ran echoing round the giant roof, a sickening soft "plop," as the hollow-nosed bullet found its mark, and the monster fell headlong back into the water.
Peter, awakened by the report from his stupor, at once seized a pair of sculls and commenced to row for his life. Having seen something of the fish frequenting the Cashian waters, he recognized their assailant for a giant, spine-backed ray, a kind of enormous "skate," a great flat fish closely related to the sharks. It was dreaded, not only for its ferocity, but also for the long, toothed spine situated on the upper part of its tail, by means of which it could inflict terrible lacerations on its foes.
The wounded creature remained for some minutes dashing and lashing about on the surface of the water, and once the whip-like tail hissed through the air almost within a foot of Ray's head.
"Shoot, man; shoot!" shouted Peter hurriedly. "If it once gets its tail over the boat we're done for!"
Again Ray fired, and yet again, into the great flapping body, till at last it plunged beneath the agitated, blood-splashed waters.
"Row for all you're worth!" gasped Peter, bending to his sculls with all his might. "The thing may come up under the boat and capsize us!"
Ray at once seized upon his sculls, and in a few minutes their united efforts brought them to a sandy shore at the side of the lake.
Nor were they any too soon, for they had scarcely drawn the boat from the water when the giant ray came flapping to the surface and made another furious charge. In the intensity of its pain and ferocity, it nearly stranded on the sand, and only saved itself by a terrific spring back.
As they were now safe, for the time being, the young fellows could afford to review their strange situation more at their ease. As they looked about them, they became aware of an odd sound which was as yet subdued and indistinct, but which puzzled them not a little.
"What the dickens can that noise be?" exclaimed Ray, after listening for a few seconds.
"Well," said Peter, "if I didn't know that the thing was impossible, I should say it was a small paddle-steamer coming up the tunnel."
"It certainly sounds something like it," Ray admitted. "Whatever it is it must have a pretty decent power behind it. It's shifting!"
It certainly was "shifting," for the steady thud, thud, thud, as of paddle wheels, now dominated the air, and was drawing very rapidly nearer. Louder and yet louder it grew, until the echoes which lived among the terraced rocks, and under the great canopied roof, took it up and magnified it. Then, with a throbbing rush, there burst from the tunnel a huge, greyish-white shape. It followed the course of the curve taken by their boat, until it reached the spot where the ray had been first wounded. Here it hunted around, almost on the surface of the water, apparently smelling at the floating blood, just for all the world, Ray thought, as a hound would act on a trail.
Quite suddenly this new arrival stopped, and raised a huge, blunt, livid head, and the spectators saw, with a gasp of horror, that it was blind. It had no eyes, only sockets where they should have been. Possibly, it had never had any eyes, for in the pitchy darkness of its home it would be obliged to rely entirely upon its senses of smell and touch. Doubtless, somewhere in the dim, forgotten past, some giant lizard had chosen to reside in this haunt of darkness, and its descendants had gradually lost their eyesight through disuse.
"Great snakes!" exclaimed Peter. "Why, it's the 'Blind White Lizard,' the creature which the priests talk about; which 'tis said no one but they have ever seen. Look, Ray!" he continued excitedly, "isn't it a whacker? Whatever is the thing playing at?"
Ray looked, and, even as Peter spoke, the "Blind White Lizard," which the priests were said to worship, reared its tremendous bulk from the surface, and swayed half its gigantic form slowly to and fro, erect. It shook the water in showers from its grey-white sides, and only its lower limbs and tail remained beneath the surface. It was sniffing the air. Then, ere it sank again beneath the water, it uttered one long-drawn sigh—a sigh so mournful, so full of hopeless melancholy, that both the onlookers, without knowing why, were seized with a deep compassion for this giant white creature which was blind.
But they were not left much time in which to indulge in thought, for all at once the water about the middle of the lake became violently agitated. It seethed and swirled, and sprang into bubbling foam, as if the volcano itself had been suddenly awakened beneath it. That some deadly struggle was taking place, the lads had no doubt. At last, after perhaps ten minutes, there shot up into the air the huge, black form of the ray. Not once did it jump from the water, but many times, and at each spring it would sail through the air for perhaps ten yards, and those who watched knew it was leaping for its life. For the great, blind beast, which must have smelt the ray's blood from afar, had, no doubt, tracked it to its lair for the very reason that it was wounded. And who can tell but that the lizard may have realized dimly, in its sluggish brain, that now, if at any time, was its chance of regaining its monarchy of this little kingdom of darkness?
At last the leaps of the ray began to grow weaker, and finally its strength seemed to fail it, for it twice fell back ere it had fairly left the water. Frantically it rushed along the surface, and then, with one last, mighty plunge, it dived into those turbid depths and they saw it no more. But a long time after, the lads heard the "Blind White Lizard" threshing its way back up the tunnel to its home of perpetual night, and they guessed that it had settled for ever its account with a lifelong foe.
"IT may be possible to find some other way out of this place than that of the tunnel," said Ray, breaking a long silence which had followed after the events recorded in the last chapter.
"Yes," returned Peter. "It may be possible, as you say; and those terraces of rock up above certainly invite exploration. Let's have a look round now we're here, anyway."
Accordingly both lads began to climb up the steep bank. It seemed to be a mixture of soil and rock of a dull-red colour, and here and there strange plants, of unknown genera, had taken root, and spread with tropical profusion. What was at once noticeable about this vegetation was its strange colour, or rather lack of colour, for with few exceptions it was either a sickly, greyish white, or of such a pale green that it gave one the impression that it was fading. The exceptions were a number of stunted bushes which were scattered about sparsely. Rather curiously, each of these bushes occupied a clearing of its own, as it were; as if the other plants were afraid to grow within reach of its branches. Their colour was a dull purple. Indeed, in general appearance, they very much resembled sea-anemones. Here and there huge boulders of the dull-red rock had fallen, presumably from the roof, whilst in places pumice-stone was visible, protruding from the thin soil in layers.
Everything around seemed wet and damp. The hollow sound of water continually dripping broke the silence of this giant's vault, as great drops fell from the roof into the turbid lake. In places the soil was worn away into tiny channels, as water oozed, rather than trickled, downwards; and a thin, humid mist hung in the air like a gauze curtain.
"This is scarcely a cheerful sort of place," said Ray, giving voice to his thoughts rather loudly. The next instant he started back amazed, as a hollow booming voice answered from across the lake, "sort of place."
"Hist, man! What was that?" Ray cried, turning to Peter in astonishment; and the deep answer came back clearly from over the water, "What was that?"
"Echo," said Peter. "It's only an echo," and he burst out laughing. Instantly the dim distance became alive with laughter. Louder and louder it grew, until the whole place seemed filled with wild, almost thunderous merriment. It was flung from terrace to terrace, it leapt from lake to roof; it died away into unknown darkness, only to return again with renewed vigour from a dozen places at once. It took unto itself several voices, now deep, low, and musical; now harsh and strident; now high-pitched and shrill; and then, at last, it became like the soft cooing laughter of a little child, ere it lost itself among the shadows.
Both lads stood dumbfounded at this unexpected and marvellous chorus, which sounded all the stranger in what had seemed a veritable abode of silence. Suddenly, however, Peter bent forward with a quick indrawing of the breath. He had caught the sound of a new mocking and persistent note, which had mingled with the echoes of mirth—a note which had something cruel and fiendish in it. Was there not some other voice than theirs adding to the echoes—a human voice, which stayed in one place, and did not vary? But strain his eyes as he would, he could see no living creature in the gloom around them. Not a movement was there among the still, sickly-looking undergrowth which would serve to confirm his suspicions.
"Did you hear that?" Peter asked of Ray, when the laughing echoes had at last ceased.
"Hear what?" answered Ray perplexedly.
"I thought I heard a strange voice laughing across yonder!" Peter replied. "Perhaps it was only fancy; and yet—surely my ears could not have been deceiving me?"
"I rather think they must have done, old chap," said Ray. "I did not notice it, at any rate. This is an uncanny place where one is apt to imagine things."
"Ah!" observed Peter, as he turned slowly and re-commenced his climb. "I have been in too many places of horror, and seen too many uncanny things, in this strange land, for my nerves to play me tricks now. I am not frightened by this," and he waved his arm at the twilight solitude around them. "I am extra careful; that is all."
By the time he had finished speaking they had gained the top of the shelving bank which reached to half the height of the crater. Their direct way was here barred by perpendicular rock rising upwards to the slope of the vast roof.
Ray sat down upon a boulder, and looked down upon the lake, now, perhaps, a hundred feet below him; but Peter remained standing, alert and watchful. His suspicions had been aroused by the voice he had heard, or fancied he had heard, in chorus with the echoes.
"We have only two hours to sunset," Ray observed, looking at his watch. "Won't it be—?"
He stopped speaking abruptly, for a stone whizzed from somewhere behind them and fell with a soft "plop" at his feet. Peter wheeled upon his heel, his rifle at the "ready," but there appeared to be no living creature within view. He scanned the face of the rocky wall which rose not ten yards distant, but there was nothing to be seen to account for the starting of the stone. He peered at the foliage around them, but if anything lurked in hiding there it was not visible.
"Shall we beat the place around?" asked Ray, "and drive the stone-throwing chap—or ghost— out?"
"No," said Peter decidedly. "We might simply walk into some trap or ambuscade."
"Well, what do you reckon it is, anyway? You ought to know," Ray continued.
"That's just what makes me uneasy," replied Peter. "I don't know. All this business is something beyond my knowledge of the islands."
"Come on, then," said Ray at last, striding forward. "I vote we walk round the wall of the place, and try to find some way out as quickly as we can. It's no use waiting here to be stoned by you don't know what."
Peter agreed, and followed in Ray's tracks; but he watched the cliff above carefully; he had no wish to be brained by a chance- flung stone.
They came upon many caves, some of large size, but all of them either terminated abruptly some ten feet from the entrance, or else narrowed down to so small an aperture that there was no room even to crawl. Coming to one which was larger than the others, Ray became curious to explore its interior. He had, indeed, actually penetrated some distance into it, and Peter was following closely at his heels, when suddenly there was a great rush of wings. The darkness about them became peopled with unseen creatures, which fluttered hither and thither above their heads in wild whirling confusion, uttering the while a peculiar, twittering, screaming noise. Then there was a confused rush for the entrance. Something large and soft and furry struck Ray full in the face and hurled him backwards. Peter struck, with his fist, at a grey shadow which flew at him from out the darkness, but missed it, and was obliged to bend almost to the ground to avoid it. When Ray had collected his wits sufficiently to stumble to his feet, Peter was staring out of the cave after a flock of large, shadowy creatures, which were fast vanishing into the darkness under the roof.
"They were only bats after all," said Peter, turning back into the cave.
"Only!" growled Ray, rubbing his nose tenderly. "Only, indeed! They were as big as cats anyway. What more do you want?"
"Well," said Peter, laughing at his companion's expression. "They might have been some dangerous beasts, you know."
"Couldn't have frightened me more if they were," returned Ray, smiling in spite of himself. But the smile died on his face as writing is wiped from a slate, and he remained staring straight before him, his face expressing wondering surprise.
"Bats!" went on Peter, still gazing thoughtfully after the retreating flying shapes. "Bats, and large ones, too. Is it possible, I wonder, that they are the bats of which I have heard? The bats which destroy silently while one is asleep? The bogies of the Cashian fairy tales? The blood-suckers—good gracious! Ray, what's up?"
He had turned as he spoke the last words, and was observing with surprise the expression on his friend's face. Following the direction of his gaze down to the lake, he saw a sight which caused him to glide like a silent shadow behind the nearest boulder, dragging Ray with him.
For there, slowly emerging from a half-hidden tunnel on the opposite side, was a large red canoe. In outline it resembled an ancient Roman galley: the prow rose high, and was shaped like the neck and head of a serpent, which, in its gaping jaws, held a skull—a human skull. At the twelve oars, which were particularly strong and heavy, sat twelve of the most loathsome and evil-looking dwarfs that imagination can depict. These horrible beings sat so low that one could only see their monkey- like faces and the fact that they were, undoubtedly, dwarfs. In the bow stood two men, evidently Cashian officers. They were dressed in red armour of handsome design and workmanship. At the high stern were three others, and one of them, a dwarf like the rowers, held the oar which acted as rudder. He seemed to be nearly as broad as he was long, whilst the length of his arms was out of all proportion to the rest of his body. He, too, was in red armour, which made him look even more hideously evil than his companions. The other two beside him were priests of the "Temple of Fire," wearing each a flowing red garment. The one who appeared to be the chief of the party was distinguished by a plain band of gold encircling his head, in the front of which was set a single immense ruby, of such wonderful fire and brilliancy that it seemed to emit little shafts of red flame.
There was something weird, and almost unearthly, in the silent, gliding approach of this grim boat; and its eerie appearance was heightened by the gloom of its surroundings; while the oars seemed to have been muffled, for they made but little sound as they rose and fell with rhythmical motion.
Slowly this strange craft made its way across the lake, finally disappearing into another tunnel not far away, the mouth of which had been hidden from view by the contour of the rock. Scarcely had it vanished, and hardly were the lads beginning to breathe comfortably again, when a second canoe appeared, so like the first one, in every detail, even to its occupants, that one could scarcely have told them apart. Gliding over the still water, with the same ghost-like and deliberate motion, it vanished, in its turn, into the same tunnel. This time Ray and Peter waited for some minutes before they ventured to rise and stretch themselves.
"Peter," said Ray at last, "there may be some way out where those people have gone!"
Peter agreed. "I wonder what they were up to?" he mused. "No good, I'll bet. They were priests, Ray; of course you saw that?"
"I guessed as much," Ray answered.
Peter turned suddenly towards his companion.
"Shall we follow them?" he said quickly. "We can do so, I think, without much risk of being seen; and if we are, we've got this," and he handled his rifle significantly. "Shall we do it, Ray? We may find out something useful; and in any case we can't stop here."
"All right!" Ray cried, catching something of Peter's enthusiasm. "I don't mind risking it, if you don't. We must hurry up and be quick about it, though, or we shall lose them!"
NO sooner said than done; the young adventurers scrambled hastily down to their boat, and having wrapped some strips of rag round the oars to prevent the noise they would otherwise make in the rowlocks they pushed off. A rattling of stones behind them attracted Ray's attention as they left the shore. He looked round sharply, and beheld a large party of dog- like apes scampering after them to the water's edge. When they were stopped by the water one or two of the creatures picked up stones, and flung them after the fast-retreating boat.
"Well, I'm sugared!" Peter ejaculated. "That explains where that first stone came from! The cunning rascals must have been watching us unseen all along."
"Perhaps they can laugh also," replied Ray.
"Um! Maybe they can," Peter admitted. "By Jove! Just look at that big fellow, and listen to his disgraceful language."
A fine old veteran of his kind had, in the hurry of the moment, passed so close to one of the peculiar purple plants as almost to touch it. Immediately the stunted branches or tentacles began to move, waving to and fro as if feeling for or trying to clasp that which they could not see. There was something horribly suggestive in the sight of this vegetable-like creature dumbly, blindly, pawing the air, craving for something—the spectators knew not what. As for the grey ape, it was dancing about out of reach, like a cat on hot plates, gibbering the while with fear and hatred. It behaved just as though the plant had stung or bitten it.
"My stars!" exclaimed Peter all at once, ceasing to row.
"What's the matter now?" asked Ray.
"It—it moved," came the answer, in a tense whisper.
"Moved! What moved? The ape?"
"The ape, no! The plant—or bush—or whatever it is."
"Well, I know its branches are moving. I can see that, though I should say it was a kind of giant sea-anemone myself."
Peter leant upon his oars and replied with decision. "No, man alive! I don't mean the branches, I mean 'it,' the thing itself," he declared. "It walked or—or slid, or something. Anyway, I tell you I am positive I saw it move." He pointed a finger at one of the queer plants.
"See!" he continued quickly. "A minute ago it was at the edge of that piece of rock; and now it is quite a foot away!"
"Have you ever heard of a—a thing like that walking?" asked Ray.
"No," replied Peter. "But I can believe my own eyes." Then he bent to the oars, and in a few minutes the tunnel had swallowed them up, and the scene within the crater had vanished from view.
For a while the tunnel was intensely dark, but there was no difficulty in following the strangers, since each canoe was now carrying a light—and very bright lights they seemed to be. They left behind them two long luminous ladders, as it were, of light, which seemed to stretch deep down into the sullen waters, shimmering and quivering in the ripples caused by their passage.
Then there came a change. At first it was so slight, so indefinite, that they were puzzled by it, and scarcely understood what it meant. But as they passed onwards they perceived that the whole place was becoming lighter, though they could not quite understand by what means. The shadows seemed less dense, vague forms of rocks and crags showed, jutting out from the sides, and the long, quivering shafts of light in the water seemed to grow brighter and yet brighter, till at last they completely outshone the lights in the canoes from which they proceeded.
Suddenly the meaning of this flashed into Ray's mind.
"The water is becoming phosphorescent!" he exclaimed. "And the farther we go the brighter it gets! If it continues we shall have to slow down or halt for a time to let yonder johnnies get ahead."
"I fancy we'd better do so now while we're on the right side. They don't seem to have seen us yet—but they may at any moment."
Peter ceased rowing as he spoke, and Ray, following his example, stopped also and began to look about.
He could see the roof and sides of the tunnel very plainly now—at least he could see the sides in places; between these places, however, there were great black patches where the shadows were still so deep as to be impenetrable. This fact greatly puzzled him for some time until, presently, the boat solved the problem by drifting into one of the dark spaces. Then the explanation became obvious enough—there were side tunnels or caves on each side; in fact the tunnel they were in was a main water-channel linking up a number of caves and smaller tunnels.
"One could easily lose oneself in a place like this," said Ray, with a shiver, "and it would be an awful thing to do!"
"If we trusted ourselves in these side tunnels, yes," Peter agreed; "but we are pretty safe while we have light like this from the water. Now the question is, is it safe to go ahead, or had we better—"
He cast a thumb over his shoulder in the direction they had come.
"I confess I don't like the idea of trying to find our way back," Ray returned, with another shiver. "Let's go on and chance it. Those johnnies are out of sight now. We'll go slow, and keep a sharp look-out, and if we see any sign of their returning, we can slip into one of these side openings."
After some further talk it was arranged that Peter should row and Ray should steer, keeping his rifle across his knees ready for any emergency.
In this manner they resumed their journey, and the further they went the brighter grew the phosphorescent illumination. The tunnel became lighter and lighter, and then, to add to the wonder of the scene, the roof and sides of the tunnel, where there were any, seemed to become phosphorescent too. The passage was cut, it seemed, through a kind of quartz—some glistening rock which reflected the gleams of light given off by the water so perfectly that it became almost difficult to say which it was that was causing the light, and which was reflecting it.
A low "Hist!" from Ray caused Peter to stop and look round. Then, obeying his friend's gestures, he rowed cautiously and silently into a side passage. This they followed for some distance, the light gradually dying down as they drew away from the main channel until the boat glided along in comparative shadow.
"What is it?" Peter presently asked in a whisper.
For a space nothing was to be heard save the lap, lap of the water against the sides of the passage. Then there came a queer sort of chant or song, something after the style of the rhythmical cries which sailors are wont to indulge in over their work. Accompanying it were sounds as of the moving and setting down of heavy weights—and all these were magnified, repeated, and confused by the echoes and reverberations amongst the rocky channels and caves.
Presently was heard a tremendous clang, as of the closing or falling back of some immense metal gates. Then for a space there was silence.
Peter looked about for some deeper shadow or recess in the rock in which to hide, and thought he could make out that the side tunnel in which they then were took a turn a little further along.
Noiselessly he dipped his sculls, and the boat once more glided forward and revealed, as he had surmised, a bend in the passage.
Another quiet stroke or two took them out of sight of the main tunnel and into almost complete darkness.
Suddenly there arose a wild medley of sounds. Shrill, shrieking laughter, shouts, and cries, were heard echoing and re- echoing among the rocks; not, this time, behind them, but seemingly in front of them—in fact close at hand—almost beside them!
AMAZED and wondering, the two friends sat peering about on all sides; but though their eyes were becoming more accustomed to the semi-obscurity, they could discern nothing to account for what they heard.
Still the noises increased, and there were now added to them strains of wild, fantastic music, and a song, or rather chorus, which rose and fell in harsh, discordant accompaniment.
Ray leaned forward and whispered:—
"Look! Do you see a slight ray of light yonder? Row quietly on—but be cautious—and see where it comes from! I will keep my rifle ready!"
Slowly and quietly Peter sent the boat forward, and gradually the faint gleam which Ray had seen came closer and grew brighter. It was but a single beam, and it seemed to shoot out from the rocky wall of the tunnel some twelve or fifteen feet above their heads.
Stealthily, and with infinite care and watchfulness, the two brought the boat beneath it, felt about, and found some ledges upon which it seemed possible to climb up to the aperture through which this light came.
They knew now that the sounds which had so startled them came through this same aperture. They could hear them now more plainly than ever; and Ray was seized with an eager curiosity to find out what they all meant. He determined to climb up to that opening, if it were humanly possible, and have a peep through.
He held a whispered conference with Peter, who finally agreed to his proposal, and assisted him on to the first ledge, remaining himself in the boat on the watch.
Groping about with his hands, Ray drew himself up from ledge to ledge until at last he succeeded in gaining a footing upon one high enough to look into the aperture through which came the solitary beam of light.
And then he saw a strange scene indeed!
He found himself gazing into a large cavern, the bottom of which was partly water, partly level rock. Into the water tumbled what seemed, at first sight, a veritable stream of fire. It was, in reality, one of those remarkable phosphorescent cascades of which Ray had already seen examples upon the occasion of his well-remembered visit to the Temple of Fire.
Here, however, the effect was even more striking. The falling water looked like fire itself; and that which it fell into resembled a small lake of liquid metal. The roof and walls of the place were here again composed of quartz, and they caught up and reflected the dazzling radiance in flashes and gleams which looked like living, leaping flame. From the roof fell smaller streams, which were in places mere drips, yet they all added to the beauty of the scene, for they glistened like a rain of golden drops.
When the hidden spectator turned his gaze from the water to the rest of the place his wonder was, if possible, increased.
From the roof were suspended strings of glittering jewels, fastened together like ropes of pearls, and hanging within two or three feet of the rocky floor. Precious stones of every kind known to the greed of man seemed to be there. The whole roof was a kaleidoscope of flashing colours and dazzling darts of light, which shot from diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, opals and a dozen other rare gems, most of them of extraordinary size. The wealth of kings, the treasures of many nations, seemed to have been gathered together here in this one cave.
Nor was this all. Scattered about at intervals upon the rocky floor were bags of gold; some were filled with coins, others with small ingots, but most of them contained the precious metal in the form either of nuggets of various sizes, or gold dust.
And now comes what was by no means the least surprising part of the sight upon which the astonished young fellow stood gazing as though entranced.
Some sort of a dance was going forward. The dwarfs who had been seated at the oars in the two red canoes were disporting themselves in grotesque revelry. They were grim-looking creatures with short legs, thick-set bodies, above which were long muscular arms and enormous heads, which, like their arms, seemed out of all proportion to the rest of their bodies. As to their faces, they were almost demoniacal in their repulsive hideousness, and their voices, as they shouted, or sang, or laughed, sounded like the shrieks and yells of a legion of fiends.
The priests and officers were standing apart looking on in silent indifference, whilst the whirling throng leaped and danced before them, each holding in his hand one of the hanging strings of jewels. With these they darted in and out between the bags of gold somewhat after the fashion of merry-makers around a maypole, causing the glittering gems to flash and sparkle in emulation of the falling water, the whole making up a scene more like the weird fancies of a fevered nightmare than an actual, earthly reality. Whence came the queer "music" which accompanied this grotesque revel, Ray could not in any wise make out; but it never ceased for an instant. It rose and fell in strange, wild rhythm, and frenzied, fantastic cadences, like nothing the wondering hidden listener had ever heard in his life before.
After gazing, almost spell-bound, for a while, upon this extraordinary sight, Ray made his way down the rocks, and dropping into the boat, whispered to Peter to go up and look for himself. He felt that no words could give him an adequate idea of what was happening upon the other side of the dividing wall of rock.
Peter climbed up accordingly and looked down, in his turn, upon the amazing scene, till suddenly there was heard a shrill whistle.
The "music" and the dancing ceased as if by magic, the leading priest gave a signal, and the dwarfs crowded back into the canoes and took their places at the oars. Then the leaders embarked, and the vessels moved out of the cavern; there was again a sound as of the clanging to of heavy metal gates; and the wonderful treasure-cave was left to itself.
Peter crept cautiously down into the boat and conferred in whispers with his chum. They decided to wait where they were till the canoes were well on their way back before making a move.
They had not long to wait. Very soon the sound of many oars as they dipped into the water came to their ears, muffled though they were, and then died away, telling them that the two vessels, with their queer crews, had passed the mouth of the side tunnel, and were pursuing their way back to the lake in the ancient crater.
Then the two young adventurers rowed quietly back themselves till they came to the main tunnel. Here, peering round the corner, they could make out the canoes by the lights they carried.
"I suppose we'd better go after them," said Peter, "I don't see what else is to be done. If there had been any other way out I suppose they would have taken it. Anyway, we should only lose ourselves if we tried to find another way in this underground maze."
"Yes; I'm afraid it's our only chance," returned Ray thoughtfully. "But look here, Peter! Couldn't we take some of those jewels with us? I should like a few—if only to convince our friends that we didn't dream it all!"
Peter stared. "Don't see how you're going to manage that, my friend," he said in surprise. "You don't suppose they've left the doors, or gates, or whatever they are, open for us, do you?"
"No; I don't expect we could get in that way," Ray answered, "and of course we can't creep through the hole we peeped through. But—those long strings of glittering jewels have fascinated me, and I should dearly like to pull one through the hole, and—"
"Jupiter! That's a grand idea, Ray!" exclaimed Peter enthusiastically. "Maybe with our boat- hook, or with a line and a hook—eh?"
"Something of that kind might do the trick, I was thinking," returned Ray, laughing. "We may get out of here alive, and we may not; but if we do, we may just as well take something with us to pay us for all this trouble!"
It seemed a daring sort of idea; but the two carried it out nevertheless. They returned to their "loophole," and at imminent risk of getting a bad tumble off the rocks, they began "fishing" for one of the hanging strings of jewels. After several failures they succeeded in hooking one and drawing it through the opening. From it they gleefully filled their pockets, and then, taking their places in the boat, rowed once more into the main tunnel, and started off to face the perils and uncertainties of the return journey. When they got back to where they had last seen the mysterious canoes they had vanished, and there was not a trace to be seen of them, or of the lights they had carried.
The navigation of the tunnel presented no great difficulty so long as they could steer by keeping in a direct line with the glow from the phosphorescent water behind them; but as they advanced even this slight glimmer faded until they were once more in darkness. Then, after one or two collisions against the sides of the tunnel, they came at last to a dead stop, and peered anxiously round for something to guide them.
For what seemed a long time they looked and stared about in vain, and their hearts sank within them as they began to realize their terrible situation, alone in such a place, with no clue to assist them in finding their way out.
Just, however, as they were almost giving up hope, Peter uttered an exclamation.
"Look!" he cried. "See! Is not that a glimmer of light yonder?"
It proved to be one—a faint, far-off touch of light showing at the end of the tunnel. Catching up their sculls the two rowed feverishly towards it; and as they advanced it gradually became a little brighter. As they drew near to it and saw that it marked the end of the tunnel, they slowed down and proceeded more cautiously. It was well they did so, for as they reached the tunnel's mouth and emerged on the waters of the lake in the crater, they found the whole place dimly lighted by the moon, which was shining directly through the opening overhead, and there they saw the two red canoes moored to the shore. Their occupants were ashore on the sloping bank, and seemed to be hunting about among the loose boulders as if in quest of some one or something.
Suddenly there was a loud shout, and a man started up almost from under the feet of one of the dwarfs, and began running up the slope as if for his life!
WITH what astonishment the two adventurers beheld this sudden and dramatic turn of events can be easily imagined. But even greater surprise was yet in store for them, for just at this moment, as though some clouds had cleared away, the moonlight brightened and showed everything up quite plainly. It was then that Ray uttered a half smothered exclamation of amazement.
"Great Scott! Why, Peter, it's Kubis the fisherman!" he cried beneath his breath. One glance was sufficient for them to take in the situation, and they acted like true British lads; that is to say, they impulsively rushed to the assistance of their friend, without thought for their own personal safety. Landing hastily on the nearest part of the shore, they ran upwards on a course parallel with that which was being taken by pursued and pursuers alike. When they were half way up the steep bank, which, on three sides of the crater, led up to the great, red, rocky walls, they saw Kubis turn suddenly and start running in their direction. They therefore stopped also, and as it did not appear that they had as yet been seen by the enemy, they concealed themselves behind some rocks, from which they could watch his progress and aid him, if necessary, by shooting at his pursuers.
In the space between him and them—a space of about five hundred yards—a large cluster of the peculiar anemone-like growths intervened, standing fairly close together in a kind of thicket. Even there, however, it was again noticeable that each plant or bush occupied a certain space to itself, which it seemed to somehow manage to keep clear.
Instead of turning again to avoid this thicket, Kubis appeared, on the contrary, to be making directly for it. His pursuers were gaining upon him rapidly, but unfortunately it was impossible for either lad to use his rifle, as the dwarfs were behind the fugitive and were partly covered by his body as he ran. So close was the leading dwarf now, that he raised his sword to strike, when, quite suddenly, Kubis stumbled, partly recovered himself, and then pitched headlong, rolling some few yards down hill, where he fetched up, in a huddled heap, against a rock, and lay still. The leading dwarf checked his stride and clambered down to the spot with a yell of joy. Again he raised his sword, and was about to plunge it into the motionless form of the fallen fisherman, when a tongue of flame licked upwards from the prostrate figure, followed by the sharp crack of a revolver. The dwarf staggered back, and fell with a crash, dead. Instantly Kubis was on his feet again, and with a shout of derision plunged among the strange plants.
"By Jingo!" cried Ray enthusiastically. "That was a smart trick! But he doesn't seem to be very happy where he is, though," he quickly added.
As a matter of fact Kubis was very unhappy, for they could see him threading his way among the restless plants with the utmost care. Now and then he would dart forward or backward as he accidentally touched one of the tentacles and set the whole group around him in hungry motion.
While he was thus making his slow way along, his enemies were running round the thicket on all sides in the hopes of cutting him off and surrounding him. In a few seconds, however, the fisherman had cleared his strange haven of refuge, but even so there were three dwarfs close on his heels. Up to this time he had not shown in any way that he had seen the two young adventurers, but when he was within some ten yards of their hiding-place he suddenly swerved to the right, shouting as he did so:—
"Now is your chance, lads! Let them have it!"
Crack! crack! The two sharp reports rang out almost together and plunged echoing round the vaulted roof. Two dwarfs pitched heavily forward and lay still. The third stopped short amazed, and waited for his comrades, who were not far behind. But he never spoke to them, for ere they could reach him a third report rang out from Peter's rifle, and he also fell to rise no more.
"Quick, lads; quick!" panted Kubis, running up. The sweat showed upon his forehead in great beads, and his breath came in short gasps.
"There is no time to lose!" he panted, as he led the way upwards towards the overhanging, rocky wall. The boys followed at a good pace. They had scarcely started, when a howl of rage from below gave evidence of the fact that they had been seen, and Ray, glancing over his shoulder, saw that some twenty dwarfs were giving chase and were spread out like a cloud of skirmishers in the rear. When he arrived at the rampart of red rock which hemmed them in, he discovered, to his surprise, a rope ladder hanging from a ledge some forty feet above them.
Without waiting to explain matters, Kubis turned to Peter, who was the next to come up after him.
"Now then, my friend!" he said, quickly, "give me your rifle, and slip up to that ledge as quickly as you can. Be careful how you go, and sing out when you are safe!"
"But," commenced Peter, "let Ray go first; he isn't—"
Kubis cut him short with a gesture. "Never mind that; this is no time to argue," he said, curtly. "Up you go, lad!"
So up Peter went, hand over hand, whilst Ray hung on to the bottom of the rope ladder to steady it, and Kubis stood facing the enemy, rifle in hand. As may be imagined, Peter was not long on his way, and soon found himself kneeling upon a roomy ledge, on one side of which the mouth of a cave yawned darkly.
He called out to those below that he was all right, and lying flat upon his stomach he peered over the edge of the cliff down upon the scene underneath. He could tell, by the violent swaying of the ladder, that Ray was already ascending. A sharp report, and a flash which stabbed the obscurity below, told where Kubis was at work defending his friends' retreat. The enemy Peter could make out pretty plainly, as their ungainly shapes darted hither and thither, moving forward in sharp rushes, and always gradually closing in upon where the fisherman stood at bay.
Then Ray's head bobbed up over the ledge. He sung out to Kubis below, and lying down beside Peter, at once opened fire with his rifle upon their foes. Kubis leaped to the ladder and began climbing upwards for his very life, but scarcely had he ascended ten feet when two dwarfs came rushing up. Crack! The first dwarf fell wounded by Ray's rifle from above, but the second was upon the ladder in an instant, where he knew he was covered from those who would fire at him by the swaying form of Kubis overhead.
A certain number of dwarfs had clustered together, sheltering from Ray's fire, behind some rocks; but now, inspired no doubt by the success of their comrade, they rushed forward with blood- curdling howls like the ravening of a pack of wolves. Ray, aiming carefully at the leader, fired, and the creature fell; but as he lay on the ground he waved on the others.
Again Ray's rifle rang out; that was a miss! Crack! Yet again he fired, another miss. No! one man had dropped his sword and was holding his arm; but the others still swept on. Now they were within ten yards of the ladder. Would Kubis never appear? Now they were within five yards of the ladder. Ray was firing madly, almost like one possessed; never before, however, had he shot so well. Time after time a dull thud told where his deadly bullets had found their mark. Time after time a dwarf sank to the ground wounded or dead; but always fresh ones came running up from the water's edge to take the disabled ones' places.
"Where on earth was Kubis?" Peter wondered; for by reason of the natural inward sway of the ladder it was impossible for any one on the ledge to see the climber.
"Give me your revolver!" he suddenly cried; and ere Ray had time to pass it, he snatched the weapon from his belt, and knelt down beside his friend, close to the ladder. A moment later there appeared over the ledge the face of Kubis, the veins upon his forehead standing out as if they would burst. He came slowly and painfully, like one who is dragging a great weight behind him, and from time to time he gasped.
Then Peter leaned forward suddenly, and, bending round Kubis, fired twice with Ray's revolver at something below. There was a smothered groan, followed by a scream, such a scream as men can only make in great agony, or when they plunge to certain death. A few seconds of aching silence followed, and then came a sickening thud upon the rocks below. At the same instant Kubis scrambled on to the ledge and began hastily pulling up the rope ladder.
"Thank you, Peter! Thank you both!" he said, quietly. "That last shot saved my life, I think, for that fellow had hold of me by the ankle. I had to climb the last ten rungs dragging his weight as well as my own; and I very much question whether I could have held on many seconds longer!"
Below, some ten or a dozen dwarfs were raging at the escape of their enemy, gesticulating wildly with their enormous arms, and shaking their naked swords in a manner which boded ill for the three on the ledge should they ever fall into their clutches.
"What is the matter, Kubis?" asked Ray on a sudden, "You look very glum for a man who has just escaped with his life! I hope you are not wounded?"
"No, my friend, I am not wounded, thank you," Kubis rejoined. "I am sorry for those poor creatures down below."
"Sorry for them?"
"Yes! Sorry for them. They know not the risk they are running. Did they but know this place as well as I do, they would have taken to their canoes long before this."
Kubis flung out his arms in a frantic gesture of warning to those below, for he was a great-hearted fellow, and mercifully inclined even towards such ruthless enemies as he knew these to be.
"Ah!" he cried. "It is too late! They are already doomed!"
"But why?I don't quite understand," said Ray. "Those queer- looking purple things," Kubis replied, "are half plants, half animals, and they are flesh-eaters—bloodthirsty, hungry, insatiable! They have got between the dwarfs and their galleys— and they won't now let them pass. They will devour every one!"
Peter and Ray stepped back a pace, each uttering an exclamation that went beyond mere words. Below them, to the left, in the half-shadow, something—a vague dark mass was moving slowly forward. In a few seconds it emerged into the moonlight, and revealed itself as ten or a dozen of the strange creatures of which Kubis had spoken. They looked like giant anemones. They advanced, climbing upwards towards the spot where the dead dwarfs lay, and where their living comrades were grouped at the foot of the rock. Their progression was accomplished by means of a strange rippling motion of the base of their oddly shaped trunks, which caused them to roll slightly from side to side. Soon this weird activity spread to other groups, and yet others, till there were hundreds in motion, all making for the same spot.
As those which were near the water climbed upwards, others, all wet and glistening, came up out of the water and followed in their wake, till at last the whole face of the slope became alive with these fearful growths, over which waves of restless, rolling motion continually played.
As for the dwarfs gathered round the spot where the rope ladder had hung, they were now exhibiting the utmost terror. They stood huddled together, chattering hoarsely like great apes, which, indeed, they much resembled. Then they began to dash wildly up and down the front of the advancing groups of anemones, seeking for some lane amid the waving tentacles by which they might regain the water. Finding no such outlet, some cast themselves upon their faces, or capered about in a mad dance, throwing up their long arms, and shrieking to unknown gods to save them from this terror, which was worse than death. Slowly, inexorably, the oncoming foe closed in upon the doomed wretches, until at last they were herded together against the rock.
Then, and not till then, these dwarfs, which were after all men of a sort, drew their swords and fought the creeping plant- like foes—not for their lives— nothing, they knew, could save them now—but because it was easier to die fighting than otherwise. The moonlight had been growing dim, and now a gathering darkness drew a hazy curtain over the horrors of the scene below. What happened down there, those upon the ledge could not tell exactly; only sounds of turmoil came up to them, ghastly sounds, such as one may hear in a very bad nightmare. After a while these also ceased, and there remained only the strange "swishing" sound made by the anemones as they glided about in the darkness.
"Come!" said Kubis, breaking the silence.
He led them into the cave which lay behind them, and up a narrow passage, where, having taken a lantern from a ledge and lighted it, he conducted them through a very labyrinth of damp tunnels till, after half an hour's walking, they at last came out into the open air. On the way, Ray told all about their adventures, and Kubis showed no small delight on hearing of the finding of the treasure-cave.
"You have," he said,"chanced upon the priests' horde, the value of which must be fabulous, for it has been collected—or rather, I suspect, stolen—from collections each many hundreds of years old."
"If it has been stolen," laughed Ray, "we are justified in keeping what we have brought away. What about the rest?"
"That lies 'on the knees of the gods,' as we say here. It is one thing to know where it is stored; it may be quite another to gain possession of it. However, if we succeed in doing so, you may be sure you and every member of your party will have a share."
As he spoke he pointed across the water—for they had come out upon the shore—to some lights which were visible a good way off.
"Yonder are our friends," said he. "I expect they are looking for you."
He began moving his lantern up and down in a peculiar manner; and they had the satisfaction of seeing that it was answered from the distant boats, which at once began to come towards them.
"What about our boat, by the way?" asked Ray suddenly. Till then he had forgotten all about it.
"It's lost—at all events for the present, and you must be content to go back without it," was the reply. "You cannot regain it now; it is useless to trouble about it."
"Very well," said Ray resignedly; but as he spoke a slight sigh escaped him.
"I do believe he's sighing for his splendid, extra-strong fishing tackle which our catch ran off with," laughed Peter. "As if the jewels we have brought back are not worth a hundred fishing lines—and a hundred boats as well, for the matter of that!"
"No, no," Ray declared, laughing too. "I was sorry for the good doctor, that is all. He will be so disappointed when he hears we had such a splendid catch and let it go. We seem unlucky that way. We never caught that great, long-tongued monster, you know—and now we've missed what would have been, for him, another splendid specimen!"
A few minutes later they were amongst their friends and on their way back to their island
"YOU two truants are likely to have 'a bad quarter of an hour' with our friends when you see them. Captain Warren is like a bear with a sore head. Rulonda, too, is decidedly upset about this escapade of yours, and declares that you are disarranging and imperiling all his carefully-laid plans!"
Thus spoke Dr. Strongfold to his two young friends as they were on their way back. He had come out with a search-party to hunt for them, when the two boats which had been sent out to pursue Shorter had returned, saying they could find no trace either of him or of the two who had gone after him.
"We were forced to the conclusion," the doctor continued, "that instead of your capturing Shorter, he and his friends must have suddenly turned and captured you and carried you off. You can understand, therefore, the trouble we have been in about you."
"I am truly sorry, doctor," said Ray humbly. "We had no idea when we set out that we should go so far or be away so long. But we were really, as you put it, carried off—though not by Shorter, The fact is, a great beast of a fish got hold of us, boat and all—"
"Eh? What's that?" exclaimed the startled scientist. "A great fish got hold of you and carried you off, boat and all?"
Neither Ray nor Peter could help laughing heartily at the tone in which their friend made this inquiry. It implied that the doctor had vague ideas of some colossal monster which had swallowed them and their boat, Jonah fashion, and finally coughed them up again.
"It's a fact, sir—the beast carried us off bodily; though he didn't actually swallow us. I dare say he would have liked to do that later on—piecemeal—after he had towed us into his den. As it was, he towed us simply because he couldn't help himself. He swallowed our bait, the hook held fast—and so did the line, where it was fastened to the boat. The consequence was, he started off, pulling us with him, just as a whale does sometimes with the boat which has harpooned him."
"I see, I see." The good doctor seemed somewhat relieved at this explanation! "And how did it end then? Did you kill the fish and capture it in your turn?"
In answer, Ray began a recital of their adventures, so far as concerned the giant fish and the lake in the ancient crater; but of the wonderful treasure-cave he said nothing, deeming it more prudent to reserve that part of their story until they were alone. Shorter's desertion seemed to prove that there were traitors, or at least doubtful characters, even amongst their own crew, and some of these might be in the boat with them at that moment, listening to all that was said, whilst seeming to be only quietly at work at the oars.
So many were the questions asked by the doctor, and so many little explanations had to be given, that they arrived at the entrance to the harbour before the tale was half told, and the finish of it had therefore to be postponed till another opportunity.
A white rocket had been sent up from one of the boats which had been seen from the look-out on the island. This signal had been agreed upon as indicating to those on the watch that the missing ones had been found. A red one would have denoted the failure of the search thus far, and would have brought out a larger party, including Captain Warren himself, in the yacht.
As they entered the harbour they saw the Kestrel, with steam up, ready to start; and as they drew near the captain hailed them from the taffrail.
A minute or two later the boat was alongside, and Ray and Peter clambered nimbly on deck.
"Come aboard, sir," said Ray, smartly saluting the skipper.
"So I see!" returned the old mariner drily. "I trust you've enjoyed yourselves! A nice time of it we've had here! If I'd had any idea that you young—"
"Never mind, captain; don't scold 'em!" said the good-natured doctor, who had followed closely upon the heels of the pair. "When you've heard their story you'll agree, I think, that it's not their fault. They went after Shorter, you know—"
"Did they catch him? Have they brought him back?" gruffly questioned the captain. "If they have—why then—"
Ray laughingly put his hand upon the arm of the grumbling skipper, and said, in a low tone:—
"We've brought back something that's worth more than a thousand such fellows as Shorter, captain! Just you wait till we're by ourselves, and you hear what we have to tell!"
"Humph! It's your father I'm thinking of, Mr. Ray," Warren growled, only partly mollified. "What could I have said to him if ye hadn't come back?"
In the captain's private cabin, an hour later, after they had had some refreshment and a rest, and when Rulonda had joined them, they told the whole story of all that had happened, finishing up by emptying their pockets and laying before the astonished gaze of their auditors quite a pile of sparkling, flashing, lustrous gems.
"We only brought these away with us," Ray declared apologetically, "as a sort of 'guarantee of good faith,' as the editors say. We did not desire to steal anybody else's property— not even anything belonging to those ugly old priests—but we felt the necessity of bringing back something to show that what we had to tell was true, and that we had not dreamed the whole affair. As to the rest—we give them into your custody for you to do what you think best with. For my part I don't want any jewels belonging to such bloodthirsty johnnies—I should feel there was a curse upon them—"
"The treasure in that cave does not belong to them," Rulonda interrupted, speaking with emphasis.
"Ah! They stole it, no doubt. Kubis said as much. But to whom then, I wonder, does it belong?"
"To me!" said Rulonda curtly.
"To you, sir!" exclaimed Ray. He stared in surprise at the speaker, as did, indeed, the others present; and for a space there was a wondering silence.
Ray was the first to break it.
"It seems, then, that we have only brought what belongs to you, sir! I am glad of that—glad to think we should be the means of restoring some of your property."
"Nay, it is yours, lads; it is yours," was the unexpected answer. "I, to whom it rightfully belongs, hand it back to you as part of the lawful spoils of war. It has been legitimately won by your pluck and the risks you have run."
"If it is part of the lawful spoils of war it ought to be divided amongst us all, like prize-money," Ray objected. "It would not be fair for us to take more than our share—"
"If you're thinking of me, you can leave me out of the account," Captain Warren put in with decision. "You two won it, and to you it belongs."
"Certainly!" the doctor agreed. "We had no part in the adventure—took no share in its dangers and hardships; it would be a mean thing, indeed, if we coolly took a share of what was so hardly won. No! You must leave me out of it, at any rate!"
"Well—but there's the crew," Ray persisted. "In such an expedition as that we are now engaged in they will expect a share of prize-money. This is the first which has been gained; it wouldn't be quite fair—in fact, as Dr. Strongfold says, it would be a mean thing to keep the news that we had gained it to ourselves and say nothing at all about it. The men came out in the night willingly to hunt for us; they have all been anxious and worried about us—are we to pretend that we gained nothing by our little trip—that we came back empty- handed?"
"Hear! hear! I agree with every word Ray has said," Peter declared, sturdily.
The others would have spoken, but Rulonda stopped them with that air of authority which seemed to sit upon him so naturally— albeit it showed itself all unconsciously.
He put a hand upon the shoulder of each of the young fellows and looked benevolently at first one and then the other.
"These sentiments do you honour," he said quietly. "They show that both of you, though strangers to each other till the other day, are akin in disposition. You have both been trained in a good school—many are so trained, yet how few profit by it! Now listen to me; said I not that yonder treasure belongs to me?"
"Yes, sir," came from both of them.
"Then I can do as I please with it; and I say this part of it which you have brought shall be yours. It belongs to you, and I shall hand it over to Dr. Strongfold and Captain Warren to be held by them jointly in trust for you two, over and above anything which may fall to your share later on. And now let us turn to other subjects, for I have matters in hand that are pressing. Later on you will understand how it comes about that I lay claim to the contents of yonder treasure-cave; meantime I must ask you to take it to be as I have stated, for I would have you give ear to more urgent affairs. Captain Warren, is the yacht ready for action?"
"Quite ready, sir; and so are the crew—drilled to the last man."
Captain Warren, bluff old autocrat as he usually was on board the vessel of which he was in charge, spoke as though he were addressing a superior officer. It was remarkable that the mysterious Rulonda seemed to exercise over all who had dealings with him that subtle, intangible influence which enforced respect in spite of themselves. Neither Warren nor Dr. Strongfold had the slightest idea who Rulonda was. So far as appeared, he might be simply an irresponsible adventurer—a reckless filibuster— attempting to exploit the state of things in this strange country for his own advantage. Yet there was that in his quiet, matter-of-fact assumption of authority, in his masterful though unassuming dignity, which proclaimed him as a born leader of men, and inclined all around to yield a sort of instinctive confidence and obedience. And thus it had been that when he had said, "Yonder treasure belongs to me," his listeners never thought for a moment of doubting the statement, even in their own minds.
When, therefore, he questioned the captain as to the state of his ship and her crew, and their readiness for action, that worthy seaman answered him much as he would have replied to an admiral commanding a fleet of which he and his yacht formed but a fighting unit.
Rulonda eyed him keenly.
"Aye, I know they are well drilled, and as fit as a clever, experienced commander can hope to make them. But are they all loyal and reliable—that is the question! Are there no doubtful recruits among them?"
Warren coloured. "A month or two ago," he declared, "I'd have been ready to fight the man who cast a doubt upon any of my crew, from rough Tom Waring down to—to—"
"To me, say," put in Ray modestly. "I suppose I'm your very latest recruit, captain. This is the first time I've reckoned myself amongst your fighting strength."
"Maybe you're reckoning without your skipper now, Mr. Ray," grunted Warren, with a humorous twinkle in his eyes. "There're some recruits one is doubtful about trusting; and there are others who're trustworthy enough, but who are, for all that, more plague than—than—"
Warren hesitated, and the doctor smiled—so did Peter—and so, to be strictly accurate, did Rulonda, even.
"Come, captain, be just to the lad," he said. "You were going to say 'than profit,' which is scarcely applicable in face of this little collection of baubles," indicating, with a wave of the hand, the pile of precious stones which lay on the table.
The old sea-dog looked quizzically first at the lad and then at the gems. Then, with a more serious air, he went on:—
"Well, sir, I was going to say that a couple of months ago I knew I had a splendid crew, and that I could depend upon every man Jack of 'em. But some of 'em got bitten with the gold fever at Sydney and left me—I don't mean to say but what they had a perfect right to—and I had to take on, in their places, whatever I could get. As to these newcomers—something near a dozen in all—I know of nothing for certain against 'em—but somehow, things have happened—and this fellow Shorter—well—"
Here, all unexpectedly, the doctor intervened. He raised a hand and interrupted the hesitating skipper's talk.
"As to Shorter," said he very gravely, "I've a little confession to make! I've something to tell you which I ought perhaps to have told before; at any rate I feel I ought not to keep silent any longer!"
SILENCE fell upon the little group in the captain's cabin as the doctor made his unlooked-for statement. Without waiting for any comment, however, he started at once upon an explanation:—
"There is not a great deal to tell," he began, "and I feel sure you will believe me when I say that in what I did I acted innocently. The fact is, to put it in a nutshell, Shorter is the cause of our being here today."
"Shorter! The cause of our being here!" repeated Warren, in a bewildered tone.
"Yes; Shorter. He is the direct cause. It was through him that I made up my mind to ask Mr. Lonsdale to allow me to come here for a cruise in his yacht during his absence, instead of going elsewhere."
"I don't understand," said Warren vaguely. "I didn't know that you knew the man!"
"I didn't," returned Dr. Strongfold, a little sheepishly. "But he, somehow, knew me—or seemed to. He came to me with a very mysterious air, and after a great deal of beating about the bush, and insisting, a dozen times, that I should give him a solemn promise that I would keep what he had to say an absolute secret, he declared that he knew of an unexplored island, generally supposed to be uninhabited, where there were to be found some very queer people with webbed feet!"
"Oh, ho! I think I begin to understand!" exclaimed Warren.
"Our bargain was a perfectly innocent one," continued the scientist, "on my side, at any rate. I agreed that if his information turned out correct, and I really discovered a man with webbed feet, that I would give him fifty pounds."
"Oh, ho!" came again from the skipper, this time in a lower tone. He was listening intently, and seemed to be thinking deeply at the same time.
"He told me a tale—probably, now I look at it again, a cock-and-bull story—of how he and two other men had been shipwrecked and cast away in an open boat; how they had drifted to this island up an unknown channel and landed upon a desolate, swampy shore. How they had been attacked by some dwellers of the swamp who had, amongst many other strange characteristics, webbed feet, and how he and his companions had been so frightened that they had put to sea again; preferring to trust to the known perils of the ocean rather than fall into the hands of such uncanny folk. Shortly afterwards they had been picked up by a vessel and brought to Sydney. There, hearing that I was a scientist given to hunting after strange things in natural history, he had thought of a way of turning his adventure to account by offering to give me the information privately for a money reward. It sounded an innocent tale enough, and—well, if it was true, and he really could be the means of my making such a remarkable discovery known to the scientific world, I thought it worth my while to pay the fifty pounds. He declared that he had lost all he had in the world when he had been shipwrecked, and that this would be a means of making it up. I saw no harm in it—if he could really perform what he promised—"
"No; but why all this secrecy?" Warren asked.
"He stipulated for it; said something about his not wishing others to know what he was to be paid, as he was afraid they would try to make him share the sum with them; and—well, having—perhaps a little weakly—given my word, you see, I was compelled to keep it."
A significant "Humph!" from Warren told that the old mariner did not see things in quite the same light.
Then Rulonda, who had thus far remained silent, spoke:—
"It is a very suspicious affair, certainly," said he. "I fear there is little doubt, Dr. Strongfold, but that the man deceived you and traded upon your natural scientific curiosity, and the fact that he knew he could depend upon your keeping his connection with it a secret, once you had passed your word."
"Yes—but why?" queried the doctor. "I confess that even now I don't understand why."
"Don't you—I do!" Warren burst in, excitedly. "I believe I see through the whole cunning conspiracy! And I almost guessed at it, too! Ask Mr. Ray there if I didn't! Shorter was afraid that if you had told me I should smell a rat and take precautions. As it happened—luckily for all of us—I did, even though I was quite in the dark. He is in league with the swabs here, and planned with them to lure us here in order to capture the yacht! Ask Mr. Ray if I didn't tell him of my fears that something of the sort was in the wind; if I didn't say I believed that that finding of the mummified chap so pat was a put-up job; and ask him if he and I didn't take secret precautions to guard against a surprise!"
"That's right enough, sir," said Ray, "though I don't understand how the villain worked it."
"You suspected he was in league with—with these people here, and planned to guard against surprise, when you said the place was uninhabited?" returned the doctor, evidently much perplexed.
"I knew nothing of these people here, of course; indeed, when Peter talked of something of the sort, I pooh-poohed it, I know. But I thought it quite possible that Shorter might have made friends with some gang of South Sea pirates, backed up by some of the lawless natives from islands round about, or some bloodthirsty brood of cannibals from New Guinea—which, as you know, isn't far away!"
"Ha! I begin to see your idea."
"Good thing I had an idea or two of my own on the subject, or we should all have been dead men or prisoners now; and the yacht would have been captured!"
"The captain is right," observed Rulonda, very seriously. "From all I've heard, the man must have been here before— captured by the myrmidons of the priests, probably—and had then been offered his life and good pay if he would act as decoy to bring vessels within their reach. The yacht, with her store of up-to-date guns and ammunition, and the rest of it, would be a great prize, of course. It would be almost as good as capturing a vessel of war—a thing they dared not attempt. I must say it was an ingenious plan—to tempt you here by the hope of such a scientific discovery. They evidently knew it was the only thing likely to attract you!"
"Great Heavens!" ejaculated the doctor aghast. "And yet—how could it be? That mummified body—how could Shorter have pre-arranged that?"
"The priests would know how to arrange it," Rulonda declared grimly. "Well, you escaped the snare providentially, and it's of little use to talk about it now. The important thing is the light it sheds upon the sort of people we have to deal with, and the warning it conveys as to the future.
"This man Shorter has managed to get away and rejoin his friends amongst the priestly gang. He will inform them of our exact strength, give them full particulars of our armament, and so on."
"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Dr. Strongfold, holding out the palms of his hands in a confused, helpless manner. "I see now how foolishly—nay, how wrongly—I have behaved in not taking my friends into my confidence. But I did it in all innocence!"
"We are all quite assured of that, my dear friend. The thing is, we must act promptly, and try to forestall any advantage that Shorter's information is likely to afford our enemies. Captain Warren—to come back to my former question—what men are there among your crew who may still be considered doubtful? One traitor is more to be feared in present circumstances than a dozen open enemies. I would advise that you put every man you cannot absolutely depend upon under lock and key until—well, until we see how matters turn out."
"I think there are only two or three; the rest have already gone off with Shorter—and good riddance go with them," said Warren, wrathfully.
"Now, Mr. Ray, what of your alterations upon the steam launch. Did Shorter know of them before he went away?"
"I think not, sir. We followed your instructions most carefully and carried out the work in the cave allotted to us, where we could lock everything up out of sight when we were not working. And only two or three of our oldest and most trusted hands helped us."
"Good! Be equally discreet in regard to the future, until such time as we want the vessel for actual service. Now you two had better turn in. It is early morning as yet. Have a good sleep; we will call you if you are wanted."
The two young fellows were glad enough to avail themselves of this permission. They were completely tired out, and they dropped off to sleep almost as soon as they tumbled into their bunks.
They slept for some hours, and then were awakened by a great hubbub which mingled at first with their dreams in all sorts of queer ways, and finally chased sleep away.
After a hasty toilet they hurried up the companion, the commotion seeming to increase every instant. There were cheers and shouts, the blowing of horns and trumpets, and the heavy tramp of armed men could be heard on the deck. As they stepped clear of the hatchway, they saw a scene that was at once impressive and bewildering.
There, on the deck, stood a number of strangers, some of whom were dressed in armour of the most magnificent description it is possible to conceive. Above their shining helmets great plumes waved majestically, their swords and armour clanked and glittered at every move, while the jewels with which they were ornamented flashed in the morning sunlight.
Near them, evidently in attendance upon their chiefs, were groups of men in armour and trappings only a little less gorgeous. A few feet away, facing them, stood Rulonda and Kubis the fisherman, also dressed in armour, while Captain Warren, Dr. Strongfold and others, were close by, looking on with wonder and perplexity strongly written upon their faces. Meanwhile, from the shouting throngs around, went up cries which Peter interpreted as "Long live King Rulonda and Prince Loroyah!"
"LONG live Rulonda, King of Toraylia! Long live Prince Loroyah!"
Peter repeated to Ray in English the words as he heard them shouted out in the native tongue, amid the beating of drums, the blowing of trumpets, and the cheers of a large assemblage seemingly in the last stage of excitement.
Wonderingly the two gazed around them. The harbour was full of vessels of strange, old-world shapes, resembling, for the most part, the war-galley which had attacked the yacht on that eventful night when Peter had escaped from his bondage. They were filled with men in glittering armour, and were gay with fluttering banners and waving flags carrying strange devices, and blazoned with gold and every colour of the rainbow.
Ray stared in astonishment. "Wh—who are—these?" he asked in perplexity. "Are—are—they—friends? If so—where on earth have they sprung from?"
"They are people from Toraylia," returned Peter, as he looked about and recognized their banners and other distinctive badges. "They come from the large island of Toraylia, which the Cashians have conquered and tyrannized over for many a year; and," he added shrewdly, "I suspect this means revolution! It is a demonstration, or a deputation, or a state visit to Rulonda, asking him to lead them, or something of the sort, you bet!"
"I begin to grasp the idea. Then these people want to make friends with us and help us to fight those brutes of priests, eh, Peter? What a jolly lark, eh? Don't they make a brave show! This is something like an adventure! Fancy having all these people on our side! We shall be all right now, Peter, my boy; we shall be able to meet your enemies in fine style now! Pooh! we shall make mincemeat of 'em!"
Full of excitement at "the brave show," and the thought of the assistance it would be in the task they had before them, Ray kept jerking out sentences such as the above, turning his gaze this way and that, and making comments upon all he saw.
Peter looked at the position a little more soberly, knowing, as he had good reason to know, the real strength of their enemies; but he could not help feeling some touch of the enthusiasm with which Ray had become fired.
"It means a revolution if I understand matters aright," he repeated. "They are turning against their tyrants and have come over to offer to help Rulonda and to make him their king. That's how I read it!"
"Their king! Rulonda a king!" cried Ray, looking at Peter as though he half doubted whether he was quite serious. "Fancy that! Our friend Rulonda going to be their king! But there! I always said he looked like one, from the first moment I set eyes on him!"
"And I too!" Peter agreed. "I never met a man who appeared so completely a sort of natural born king!"
"True for you! But look at Kubis! What is he doing here, dressed up in that splendid suit of armour? How different he looks to what he appeared in his own dress—the fisherman's clothes we have always seen him in!"
Just then there was a fresh outbreak of shouts and cries; and Ray, listening carefully, could distinguish again the word "Loroyah."
"Loroyah!" he repeated, "what does that mean, Peter?"
"It is Prince Loroyah they are shouting," Peter explained.
"Why, look at Kubis!" cried Ray again. "He is saluting, and bowing, and taking the shouts of 'Loroyah' to himself. What on earth does it all mean?"
At that moment one of the stately-looking chiefs advanced with a mien which was half humble, half proud, such as might become a haughty noble making obeisance to his sovereign. With a low bow he took Rulonda's outstretched hand and kissed it; then, passing onwards, he did the same to Kubis. After him the others filed one by one, each going through the same ceremony.
Ray looked on, lost in wonder; then, his eye lighting upon Captain Warren and the doctor, who were standing apart, it suddenly occurred to him to go up to them and ask what was really going on.
To his surprise he found that they knew no more than he himself. Indeed they scarcely knew as much, because they had no interpreter at hand to explain even so much as Peter had been able to do.
"Shiver my Maxims! Paint my funnel green!" spluttered the skipper. "Bothered if I can tell ye what it is that's going on, Mr. Ray. It'd make a fine circus show—that's all I can say!"
"But surely you know what it all means, sir!" said Ray, turning to the doctor. "You must have seen these people arrive, and Rulonda must have said something? We were asleep, you see, Peter and I. We'd had such a doing—"
"So had we, young sir," Warren reminded him. "For once I was in my bunk, and these strangers caught me napping, so to speak."
"True, captain, I had forgotten," Ray answered. "Of course our absence had kept you from sleep just as much as it did us. When, then, did these people arrive?"
"They must have come in the night, I take it," Dr. Strongfold answered. "Probably they were expected, and came very quietly in the dark, just before dawn, to escape the attentions of their enemies. Anyway, we knew nothing of what was going on till just before the shouting began. Then the mate came and roused us, saying there were a lot of strange vessels in the harbour which must have crept in so silently in the night that he hadn't heard them. We came up and found Rulonda and Kubis already on deck, and these people coming up over the side."
"Blow my funnel, yes!" growled Warren. "A good thing for Waring that he's had the sense not to come near me since! A pretty fine watch he must ha' kept here after I turned in! I'll— I'll—have him—"
Whatever awful punishment the vexed skipper was about to plan out for honest Tom was never known, for at that moment they perceived Rulonda beckoning to them.
The four approached him in a body, and as they drew near he astonished them not a little by saying:—
"My friends, allow me to present you to one you have hitherto only known in his disguise as Kubis, the poor fisherman. As such he has been known for many years to all and sundry. The time has now come, however, to proclaim his real identity. My friends, this is my son Loroyah!"
"Prince Loroyah!" said Peter quietly. "So, unless I am mistaken, I heard the people calling out!"
"Ha! You heard that, Peter, eh? Well, you are right, as it happens; for I am the rightful king of Toraylia, and this is my son, Prince Loroyah!"
IF Ray and Peter had admired Rulonda for his courtly grace and unconscious dignity of mien, they were not less charmed with the qualities which Loroyah—to give "Kubis" his true name—quickly showed he possessed.
They had already come to like him. They had gone through perils and dangers with him, and had good reason to know that he was brave, a true reliable friend and a good fighter. But though friendly up to a certain point, they had both been sensible of a certain reserve about the young fellow, and a feeling that somehow they were not in his confidence. He appeared unexpectedly and disappeared abruptly in mysterious fashion without offering any explanation of his comings and goings; and altogether they had come to regard him with respect and curiosity rather than any decided liking.
Now all these things seemed to have slipped away from him, so to speak—to have been put off with his change of costume. For even as he looked, now, in his splendid armour suit, "every inch a prince"—and a handsome one at that—so had he assumed an air of cordiality, a bright vivacious manner and an air of grace and ease, which fairly captivated the two young fellows at once. Probably, instead of saying that he had "assumed" these qualities, it would be more correct to say that his former manner had been assumed, and that he had only now reverted to his true disposition.
"Gladly reverted" might perhaps be a still better term; for he appeared to be genuinely delighted at the opportunity of showing himself in his real character.
He put Ray and Peter at their ease forthwith, treating them with a mixture of bonhomie, and laughing, confidential friendliness which completely won their hearts; and from that time forth they became staunch, firm friends.
Nor was he less successful in gaining the approval of the bluff skipper and the good-natured doctor; and in a few minutes the five were talking and laughing freely together; while Rulonda conferred apart with the grand nobles with the lofty, imperious bearing, who had kissed his hand.
Presently, he presented the Britishers to these grandees, but as neither party—with the exception of Peter—could speak the other's language, the introduction led to little beyond the interchange of somewhat formal bows and gestures, and a few complimentary sentences translated by Rulonda or his son.
Presently Loroyah turned to the doctor saying:—
"This is rather uninteresting to you, my friends, I am afraid; and I feel assured you are dying to know what it all signifies, and why my father and myself have for so long lived the kind of life we have been leading. Now my father wants to have a long talk with these gentlemen, about which he will tell us by-and-by, but which won't be very interesting to you while it is going on. So I suggest that we ask Captain Warren to allow us to adjourn to his cabin for a while, and there I will tell you our history. By that time the council will be over, and we will, if you like, go round the fleet and look at the galleys and their warlike equipment.
A few minutes later they were seated accordingly in the skipper's state room, and Loroyah proceeded to relate his father's history.
Rulonda, it seemed, was the son of a former king of Toraylia, who had been murdered, together with his queen, by Belfendi, the chief priest of the Temple of Fire, who had then usurped his place, conquered his country, and ever since ruled it with savage, remorseless cruelty.
Rulonda, the only child of the murdered couple, was at the time a child, and he had been saved and carried off by some faithful dependents, and hidden away, for some years, in a remote district. There, as a youth, he had somehow scraped acquaintance with the outlawed "Wolves of the Weed," and for a long period lived constantly in their company, and virtually under their protection. With them he had been accustomed to traverse all parts of the seemingly impenetrable swamps, and it was in this way that he had been one of the first to know of the unexpected opening of navigable channels through the wilderness of morass.
One day, when paddling in a canoe in the channels near the sea, he met with a boat containing some shipwrecked English sailors, who had somehow drifted into one of the numerous cross- channels, and were unable to find their way out. A sudden desire came upon the young prince to see something of the great world which he then began to understand must lie beyond. He fed the sailors and made friends with them, while he sent home for a supply of gold and jewels, of which he had a good store hidden away, but which, situated as he had been, had not been of any use to him. Finally, he started off with the castaways, and they were all picked up by a passing vessel.
Thus began wanderings about the world which lasted for many years. Rulonda married and had a son; but after a few years his wife died. Thereupon he lost interest in the outer world, and resolved to return to Toraylia, and watch for an opportunity of winning the people over to him, and—for his son's sake more than his own—asserting his right to the ancient throne of his ancestors. He took passage in a small vessel, the skipper of which agreed, for a certain sum, to take him and his son to the swampy shores from which he had set out many years before, and there set them adrift in a small boat. Thence he found his way into one of the channels, and soon came across his old friends the "Wolves of the Weed," by whom he was not only received with delight but made a sort of chief.
Such had been the romantic history of these two—Rulonda, the mysterious chief of the "Wolves," and "Kubis the fisherman," his son.
Since the arrival of the Kestrel and her people, however, Rulonda had determined to throw off further disguise and proclaim himself King of Toraylia, and call upon those who sympathized with his cause to support him and raise a revolution in his favour. He had visited the island of Toraylia secretly, and found that he could depend upon almost the whole of the inhabitants; and secret engagements had been entered into by which that portion of the Cashian fleet which was manned chiefly by Toraylians was to steal off and join his party at the small island where the Kestrel was lying.
"Thus you will understand," said Loroyah, when he had come to the end of his narrative—of which the above is but a brief summary—"that the fleet of boats you see here gathered in the harbour, had been waiting for some days an opportunity of stealing off unobserved and joining us at this rendezvous. That chance came unexpectedly last night, and they took advantage of it promptly; otherwise, I may say, as a matter of fact, we had not really expected they would be here for some days yet.
"You may be sure," he added, "that the Cashians will not let the grass grow under their feet, as you say in England, when they find what has happened. I expect they will follow our friends up and attack us at once, in the hope of crushing us before we have completed our organization and general arrangements. Indeed, I should not be surprised to hear that they have been sighted at any moment. But they won't catch us at a disadvantage, for my father has already completed his preparations."
Even as the young prince was speaking, a messenger in armour came clanking down the companion and burst into the cabin.
He said a few words in his own language to Loroyah, who turned to the others.
"My friends," he said, "what I was speaking of has happened! The Cashian fleet has been sighted, and we must now go out and fight it for our lives, and for our people's liberty!"
Ray started a cheer in which the others joined.
"Hoorooh!" he shouted. "We're with you through thick and thin, Loroyah! We'll back you up! Just show us your enemies and what you want done, and we'll have a go at 'em with the Kestrel!"
And with that they all started off and scrambled up the companion on to the deck.
IN the harbour there was much bustle, and the sound of preparations for the coming fight could be heard on all sides.
Rulonda conferred apart with Captain Warren, and the result of the conference was speedily made known.
It has been already explained that the Kestrel had two launches, one being a large steam launch, while the other, which was smaller, was worked by electricity.
The former, as explained, had been altered, and painted, and fitted, in such manner as to give it a passable resemblance to some terrible monster of the deep. The electric launch, on the other hand, was a very dainty, prettily-built, natty-looking affair, and had some time before been unanimously dubbed the Beauty by the sailors of the yacht. It was now, therefore, known by that name, though the word had never been painted upon any part of it.
Rulonda and Captain Warren had decided to put Ray in command of the steam launch in its present strange form, with Tom Waring to assist; and they now proceeded to instruct them in the part they were to play.
Peter was, in like manner, placed in charge of the electric boat, Beauty, with Jim Gale, and they likewise received their sailing orders.
Rulonda and the doctor, with Loroyah and some of the strange chiefs who had come to them that morning, remained on board the yacht with Captain Warren.
The Kestrel had kept her boiler fires going, and now had steam up. The steam launch had already been brought alongside, and steam was being got up on her also. She created rather a sensation, particularly among the strangers, as she was taken to her station. The sailors of the yacht greeted her with a cheer, and laughingly named her the Beast, in contradiction to the Beauty, calling the pair "Beauty and the Beast."
There was a good deal of laughing discussion and argument about the respective merits of the two boats as their young commanders took their places; and the latter were treated to some good-natured jokes and chaff by the sailors, to which they responded with humorous counter-sallies.
However, serious business was now looming in sight, and mutual chaff and banter had to be put aside till a more convenient season.
The Cashian fleet was drawing near. There was very little breeze, and the vessels had to depend entirely upon their long sweeps. They made a fine spectacle as they approached, with their banners and gaily- painted hulls, the sunlight flashing upon the armour of the soldiers, and sparkling among the showers of drops which fell from the long, dripping oars.
Then the Toraylian fleet—or rather about one half of it, acting upon instructions, and following out the plan which had been schemed out by Rulonda and his friends—stole out of the harbour and made as if to flee before the Cashians.
The latter thereupon increased their speed and hurried on in pursuit beyond the harbour, where nothing was to be seen as they passed the entrance.
They were ranged in battle array, in three lines or columns, which they kept with remarkable skill and precision. As already recorded, they made a gallant show, as they passed along, amid the beating of their drums, the blowing of trumpets, clashing of cymbals, and the exultant, vain-glorious shouts of the occupants of the vessels, who fancied themselves an all-conquering host.
And still, as they swept triumphantly onwards, no enemy showed save the fleeing vessels they were now pursuing, none appeared to challenge them or to dispute their passage.
Rulonda was a man, as the Englishmen had already found, averse to the shedding of blood whenever he could gain his end in any other manner, and all his plans were now laid with a view to securing a victory with as little loss of life on either side as might be possible. For this reason he refused to use the cannon and Maxim guns to fire at the crowded galleys of his enemies unless actually compelled to do so.
Many poor creatures, he argued, too, were compelled by their brutal masters to fight against their will, and he was loth to deal death and slaughter amongst them if any way could be found to bring about their capture or peaceful surrender.
Scarcely, however, had the hostile array gone past, than Ray's terrible monster was seen to issue from the harbour entrance. And a very fearsome beast it certainly looked. The deck of the launch had been roofed over, so to speak, so that it had a rounded or turtle deck; this, as well as the sides, was smooth and slippery as glass—the covering being, in fact, thin steel plates painted with a highly polished lacquer. From its "nostrils" clouds of blinding steam spurted forth, while its immense "eyes" gleamed with dazzling electric-lights. Finally, it had a gaping "mouth," with tremendous jaws, which snapped viciously, and displayed a perfectly appalling array of great, sharp, jagged teeth; while there was nothing to show that human beings were concealed within, and were guiding and directing the movements of the terrible creature.
This frightful apparition sped along in the wake of the rearmost Cashian galley and speedily caught it up. Instead, however, of attacking the panic-stricken crew, as they expected, it went sweeping past at a distance of a few feet. The special rage of this mysterious monster seemed to be directed against the sweeps or oars, at which its snapping jaws bit furiously on its way, like great steel shears—as, indeed, they were—so that when it had passed by with a rush, accompanied by much snorting, mingled with the crash of breaking and splintering wood, the frightened mariners on board found that it had, after all, done them no harm beyond smashing up their long sweeps. To their relief it then left them alone and went on its way, treating the next galley it came to in the same fashion.
In the course of a little while, this novel fighting monster had traversed the whole of one line, breaking up all the oars it encountered, and, of course, stopping the progress of the vessels attacked and throwing them into confusion. Then it turned and travelled down the second line, and back again up the third, returning in due time to the first line and passing thence again upon the other side.
Thus, within a very short time, the whole fleet had been placed practically hors de combat, for, without their oars the galleys could do nothing, and were soon to be seen drifting helplessly about upon the unruffled sea.
Wherever spare sweeps were put out, the watchful "monster" made a rush at them and treated them like the rest. And the enraged Cashians found, to their disgust, that it was quite invulnerable against their own weapons. Arrows and spears only glanced off from its armoured sides and fell harmlessly into the water. Even their slings and heavy catapults could make no impression. They could do nothing in the face of such novel and entirely unexpected tactics.
Meanwhile, the electric launch had been hovering about watching events, and ready to render aid in case of any untoward hitch, such as the fouling of the screw of the "monster" by the floating wreckage.
Only once did this occur. For a little while the propeller was jammed, and the Beast lay idly on the water, exposed to the attentions of the raging occupants of one of the largest galleys, who rained upon its devoted sides every kind of projectile and missile they could bring to their aid. Moreover, daring swimmers sprang overboard and crowded round her, endeavouring to find some point by which they could climb on board.
But in a few minutes the Beauty came skimming past, a line shot out like a huge lasso, and caught upon a hook which had been placed for the purpose in the fore part of the turtle deck. A few seconds later, the light, swift little craft dragged off her consort beyond the reach of the attentions of the marksmen.
And with them they actually carried off some of the swimmers, for, just as they began to move ahead, Ray acted upon an idea that had suddenly suggested itself to him. He opened a trap door at the stern, and threw out a great drag-net over the crowd of assailants in the water, entangling a number of them, and carrying them off with the launch, plunging and struggling like netted fish.
All this time the Kestrel had been lying in reserve with steam up, guns shotted, and eager crew ready to intervene whenever required. But the battle was practically over. As she steamed slowly up to the drifting vessels, threatening to run them down unless they surrendered, and the Toraylian fleet, which they had been pursuing, turned and closed in upon them, they incontinently yielded, one after the other. Thus was the whole Cashian fleet captured. All its vessels were seized, and the fighting men were made prisoners, with the exception of a few who were put into two of the smallest boats, and told to hasten back and carry the news of what had taken place to their waiting friends on shore.
WHEN the victorious fleet returned to the harbour, Ray and Peter in their two launches, Beauty and the Beast, led the way, each towing one of the captured galleys. The Kestrel came next, dragging a string of three; after her came galley after galley, each towing a captured vessel, all filled with prisoners in charge of Toraylian guards.
Great was the rejoicing among the victors, and, as may be readily conceived, Ray was the hero of the hour; while Peter only came second to him in the applause that was freely bestowed upon the plucky crews of the launches.
The next two days were passed in disposing of the prisoners, who were placed in temporary camps under strict guard, and making further preparations for the attack on the city of Cashia which Rulonda was now planning.
On the morning of the third day, however, the victors were startled by the news that another Cashian fleet had been sighted from the high ground in the centre of the island. A little later it was known that it was but a small flotilla, and those in charge seemed to be already meditating a retreat.
The yacht had not steam up, and so would be unable to go out in time to be of much use if the vessels turned back at once—as they seemed likely to do.
Ray and Peter at once begged to be allowed to go out in chase of the hesitating strangers ere they should have time to make good their retreat. After a brief council, leave was given to the two launches to go out, accompanied by a number of the Toraylian galleys.
Within a very short time this plan had been put into execution, and Ray and Peter started off once more, each towing a galley filled with armed men, while others followed in their wake as fast as their long sweeps, manned by the exulting Toraylian rowers, could travel.
With Ray, this time, went Loroyah, who had been lamenting that he had not accompanied him before. He was determined, he said, that "he would not be out of any fighting that was going this time." So he took his place in the launch when Ray started on his second sally from the harbour; and it was well, as it afterwards turned out, that he did so.
When they had cleared the harbour and rounded that part of the island, they caught sight of the hostile galleys, and saw that they had already put about and were in full retreat. For a time the pursuers continued steadily in their wake, but finding that they were not greatly gaining upon them, Ray decided to throw off the galley he was towing and forge ahead. He considered that it would be wiser to try to head off the fleeing vessels, and delay them until the Toraylian galleys could come up under their own oars, than to continue the towing.
"I agree with you," said Loroyah, when Ray had told him of his intention. "At this rate you will not catch them up this side of Cashia, where probably are other vessels which will sally out against us. Besides, my father's orders were very precise that we were not to follow them very far."
Ray, thereupon, communicated with the officer of the craft he was towing, and having explained his plans, threw off the line and went ahead. Peter, in the Beauty, which was a little away astern, seeing what had been done, and catching the idea, threw off his line also; and the two launches began quickly to lessen the distance which still separated them from the objects of their pursuit.
The chase became exciting. It seemed to the pursuers, who watched the proceedings of their enemies through their glasses, that the latter were straining every nerve, and resorting to every device they could think of, to make good their escape.
"See how they are plying their whips upon the poor wretches at the oars!" exclaimed Ray, as they drew near enough to distinguish what was going on. "Just as Peter has told us they used to do with him!" he added, full of indignation and disgust.
"Steer to the left of them and try to drive them over to the right," advised Loroyah. "And signal to Peter to follow us and help to drive them in that direction; otherwise he is likely to try to get round upon their other side."
"All right!" assented Ray, and he ordered Waring to make the necessary signal to the Beauty. "But why that way, in particular?"
"Don't you remember," returned his companion, "that the extinct volcano lies over there, that bare rocky shore where we had our adventure—"
"Yes, of course! I see your idea! Drive 'em against the rocks!"
"Exactly. There are only one or two places where one can land. Our foes must then either fight or surrender, since they will neither be able to get away by water nor even leave their boats and take to the shore."
It seemed to be not very easy to drive their game in the required direction, and it necessitated some rather delicate manoeuvring. Those on board the flying vessels appeared to have no great liking for the rocky inhospitable shore which they knew lay in that direction. Neither, however, had they any desire to try conclusions with Ray's mysterious "monster," and perceiving what was intended, they kept heading now this way, now that, in vain efforts to break away in the direction of their own country.
"It be somethin' like drivin' a lot o' ducks into a yard where they doesn't want to go!" observed Tom Waring, his weather-beaten visage aglow with the ardour of the hunt. "An' I doant s'pose we shall get 'em all inter the yard, wherever it be, neither. One or two of 'em's pretty sure to break away."
"I don't much care if one or two do," said Loroyah. "But I should prefer to overhaul the beggars, all the same. I've a notion that some of the priests may be on board."
At the mention of the priests, Loroyah's face became very hard and stern, and Ray divined that he, like Peter, had reasons for hating and detesting the whole priestly confederacy.
Peter and Gale in the other launch, cleverly backed up Ray's tactics, and their foes lost so much time in twists and turns that both launches were able to slow down, and the ponderous Toraylian war-galleys astern began to draw up rapidly.
Gradually they approached the dark, forbidding shore so well remembered by the two "anglers"; and still the vessels they were pursuing were driven closer and closer to it, while their friends were now but a little distance behind.
Suddenly Loroyah, who had been very intently scanning the whole scene in front of them through a pair of marine glasses, uttered an exclamation:—
"There goes a red galley!" he cried. "She's creeping along the shore in the hope that we shan't see her! Now there are sure to be priests on board of her, while I begin to think it is very doubtful whether, after all, there are any in these galleys we have been following! I've watched them very carefully, and can't see a sign of one!"
Ray took the glasses, and looked through them. At first he could not see the red galley of which the other had spoken; but after a little peering about he suddenly caught a glint or two from the dripping oars.
"I see them! The red galleys—two of 'em!" he exclaimed. "And I believe I can make out some priests in red robes!"
"Ah!" Loroyah took the glasses and looked again.
"Yes, yes; you are right! There are two galleys, and I can see the priests! I can see, too, that they are rowing frantically, striving to get into the gorge which leads into the lake in the mountain! Now why, I wonder! They would have a better chance of escaping us if they turned round and made for home! They must have some special game afoot, and I would give much to know what it is! Belfendi himself may be on board!"
"IF there's a chance of capturing Belfendi, the arch-plotter, and the murderer of your grandfather and grandmother," said Ray thoughtfully, "it would almost be worth while to let these other vessels go, I should think!"
"Yes, Ray, it would; but then it was only a wild guess that he might be on board, of course."
"Anyway, some priests are on board; we know that. And for downright, thorough-going wickedness there's not much to choose between them, according to all I've heard?"
"What you've heard is about right."
"Then I vote we go for 'em! There are only seven of these galleys, and there are ten or twelve of our friends' galleys close up now. We can safely leave the Toraylians to deal with the seven, I should say, especially as the Cashians are disheartened and are not likely to have much fight in 'em. Besides, our friends will have Peter to look after them and help them with his firearms—why, here he comes, making frantic signals. I wonder what's up. Stop her, Tom!"
"Ay, ay, sir," answered the mate, and he, in turn, bawled out the order to the engineer. The next moment the engine stopped, and the launch waited for her consort to come up.
Peter was seen vigorously waving a large telescope in one hand, and pointing with the other in the direction of the red galleys. And meantime he was evidently running his vessel at her highest speed. She came along at a tremendous rate, sending a shower of spray flying from her bows, and leaving behind her a wake of trembling waves and hissing foam.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Ray, as he watched the approach of the Beauty. "Something's up, for certain! I wonder what on earth it can be!"
"He's pointing to the red galleys," said Loroyah. "He thinks we haven't seen them."
Ray shook his head. "No! it must be something more than that," he declared. "He's got our big telescope, I notice. It's a splendid glass, and you can see things with it that are invisible with ordinary glasses. We call it 'Big Ben.' I guess he's seen the priests on board, and recognized some of 'em—Belfendi himself, perhaps!"
But it turned out to be something even more near to their hearts than the possible capture of the archpriest, which had so excited Peter. A minute later he was within hailing distance, and then they heard him shouting, in half-frenzied fashion:—
"The prisoners! The prisoners! They're over there! In those boats with those demons of dwarfs!"
He was so excited, and seemed so out of breath, that he had to repeat the sentence several times before the listeners could distinguish the words. Then Loroyah started, and laid a hand upon Ray's shoulder, who turned and stared at him.
"The prisoners!" Ray repeated incredulously. "Eh? Can he have seen aright, do you think?"
"If he is right we must go after them!" cried Loroyah. "Very likely he is! Belfendi and his gang may be moving the prisoners to those caverns in the mountain for safer custody!"
Ray shuddered. "Say you so! The fiends! Then indeed we ought not to hesitate about going after them! Tom! Stand by!"
"Ay, ay, sir!" and the mate repeated the order to the engineer, who had put his head through an opening in the "turtle" to see what was going on.
Meantime, the Beauty had come up and was abreast of the other launch, at a distance of only a few yards. She did not stop or slow down, however, but went tearing onwards, and in a few moments had dashed past.
"Oliver! Oliver! The prisoners!" they heard Peter shout as he passed, pointing the while at the red galleys. "Oliver! Oliver!" and his voice died away, and was lost in the hiss of the swirling water.
"Full speed ahead, Tom!" cried Ray promptly. "And see that you send her along! Tell Nash to fire up!"
Then as the boat shot forward, he stared again at Loroyah. "Oliver!" he exclaimed. "His brother! Can it be possible? No wonder the poor chap seems a bit mad over it! It's enough to turn his head, the bare thought of his brother being carried off by such a gang, to be immured in that awful place!"
"Ay! You're right! But we must save the poor young fellow! If Peter is not mistaken, we have a splendid chance now to rescue him, and any others who may be with him!"
"It shall be done if—if it be humanly possible," Ray declared, setting his teeth determinedly. "Can we follow them through the gorge—and—and beyond— through the tunnel even, if needs be, do you think? Would it be possible to take our launches there?"
"I think so. I know all the tunnels and passages well—at this end, at any rate. I can pilot you into the lake—if we should need to go so far!"
While they had been speaking the launch had been steadily putting on speed, and was racing along rapidly in the wake of Peter's boat. But they were not catching her up. Ray noticed this, and shook his head.
"He's going too fast!" he muttered. "He'll use up his stock of electricity, and then where will he be!"
"Beg pardin', sir," put in Waring, "wheer might we be agoin'?"
Tom had been looking at the shore they were approaching, and the more he saw of it the less he liked it. Captain Warren had expressly warned him that they were not to go out of sight of the island, and that he was to "look after Mr. Ray and prevent him from running into 'mischief' "—in other words, into imminent danger. These were "cap'en's orders," and honest Tom began to have sore misgivings, as he saw unmistakable signs of an intention to abandon the business upon which they had set out, in favour of some new and unknown adventure.
"We've got something more important on this time, Tom, than a frolic, or than even the capture of a few more old-fashioned canoes," Ray told Waring in a serious tone. "What's in hand is the most important affair we've yet been engaged in. It's the aiding of innocent prisoners, the saving of their lives, the delivering of them from horrible cruelties—from torture and every sort of wickedness. And there are Englishmen among them, and more yet, a poor lad—Mr. Newlyn's young brother. So, Tom, my lad, just give a look round! See that everything is in readiness, the rifles, 'Long John,' the searchlights, the Maxim, and all the rest!"
"The searchlights!" repeated Tom in surprise. "Why, it beant afternoon yet, an' the sun won't be settin' fur hours!"
"There's precious little sun where we are going to—if we get so far!" Ray assured him. "Now hurry up! Wake up the men and tell 'em we've got hard fighting before us—and—Tom!—tell 'em what it's for. Tell 'em we're going to rescue our countrymen from the clutches of these priests, and that there's a boy amongst them— Mr. Peter's young brother!"
"Ay, ay, sir!" cried Waring heartily. "We'll all stand by 'ee in such a job as that, never fear! An' as to cap'en's orders—" Tom paused and looked fixedly out across the water—"well, if it should come to that there yard-arm even, I sh'll feel I've got a honest concious!"
"It won't come to that, Tom, never fear!" laughed Ray. "Now hurry up and tell the chaps! Mind you pitch it strong about the priests! Nothing you can say is likely to be strong enough compared with the actual truth!"
Tom went off and harangued the rest of the crew, and he did it with vigour. Ray's last words he regarded as a sort of challenge. "Thinks I won't put it strong enough, do 'ee?" he had said to himself. "Well, for once, the chaps shall 'ear, proper, 'ow strong I can reelly put anythink when I'm on me mettle! I'll startle 'em!" And he did.
THE steam launch of which Ray was in charge was, as has been stated, a large one considering that she had to be carried on board the yacht when at sea. She was very strongly built, too, and like the yacht had also been in more than one tough fight in other parts of the world; and in those fights Waring and most of her present crew had taken part.
When, therefore, they heard what they had before them, they gave one loud cheer and each man took up his post quietly, but with that grim determination which marks the British sailor. The information that the errand they were on was the rescue of helpless prisoners from a terrible fate, added a zest to their task, and brought into their eyes a look which boded ill for those who should attempt to stop them.
There were twenty on board the launch, and they had, besides a plentiful supply of small-arms, a Maxim and one cannon—a long, slender affair called "Long John," in contradistinction to the much larger "Long Tom" on board the yacht. "Long John," though but small comparatively, was by no means to be despised, especially as against foes armed only with bows and arrows. There was also a searchlight on board—or rather two now, since one had been fitted in each glaring "eye," supplied with electricity from accumulators, which had been charged that morning from dynamos worked by the engines of the yacht.
Peter's launch was much smaller, and carried about a dozen men only. She was armed with one small brass cannon, and a Maxim. Her motive power was contained in accumulators, and was therefore a limited quantity. Being lightly built, with light motor engines, and no boilers, she was a fast boat—so long as the store of electricity should hold out. Metal screens had been put up round her sides as a protection for her crew against the arrows, lances, and other missiles of their enemies.
Unfortunately, all these advantages, great as they were at first sight, were considerably reduced, in regard to the work before them, by the fact that they would be unable to fire at their enemies, or try to sink their vessels, for fear of injuring the prisoners.
This was a serious drawback, and caused both Ray and Loroyah much perplexity.
"See here, Ray," said the latter, "your cannon, your Maxims, your rifles and pistols, even, will be very little use in the coming struggle. One can see that! Take my advice, and rig your men out with the breastplates and helmets my father sent on board, and wear them yourself. In this kind of warfare you have no idea, unless you have had actual experience, how useful they are! Why give your enemies unnecessary advantages, and run risks, which such a simple thing will help to obviate?"
Rulonda, with that foresight and thoughtfulness which he brought to bear upon every detail, had provided each launch with a supply of breastplates, casques, shields, and some minor accoutrements, and had advised that the crew should wear them. But the men, being unused to such things, had scornfully objected to don them, and Ray, trusting to the shelter afforded by the "turtle back," had not thought it worth while to insist.
Now, however, the conditions were likely to be different, and he yielded to Loroyah's advice, and ordered the sailors to make use of the store, setting the example by putting a breastplate and a casque on himself. And this precaution was the means, as it happened, of saving many lives.
The "turtle" covering had been made in three parts, and each one of these could be shifted back, thus throwing that part of the deck open to the sky without affecting the others.
During the launch's attacks upon the Cashian galleys, the whole of the deck had been covered, the leaders directing the operations by looking through protected openings somewhat after the fashion of the conning-tower of a submarine. While pursuing the galleys, however, thus far, the after-portion of the deck had been thrown open, affording a far better view of the surroundings than could be obtained through the observation-gratings.
These details are given here because they will enable the reader to follow more easily the subsequent events.
Meantime the red galleys had entered the gorge, and the two launches followed, passing the galleys they had been pursuing at a distance of less than a quarter of a mile, and then leaving them behind without bestowing upon them any further notice than a few glances through the glasses.
While the men were busy donning their armour, Loroyah was occupied in signalling, in a fashion of his own, to those in the galleys astern, endeavouring to explain the reasons for their new departure. For without such explanation, their present proceedings would look very much like abandoning their friends in the face of the enemy.
As they raced into the frowning gorge, the light very quickly began to fade, as had been the case when the two fishers had made the same journey in tow of the giant ray. The lofty, towering cliffs on each side drew so close together that there seemed to be but a mere crack visible overhead, and Ray deemed it prudent to decrease the speed. Then he gave a series of signals with the steam whistle, and the surrounding rocks took up the sounds and multiplied them a hundred times.
These whistles were a message to Peter to slow down and let the Beast come up that they might arrange a common plan. He scarcely hoped, all the same, that Peter would check his impetuous pursuit; he had seemed too excited when he had passed Ray a few minutes before.
Peter, however, had had time to get the better of his first mad impulses, which had so carried him away that he had thought of nothing save rushing onward to seize and rescue his brother forthwith, and shoot down any one who dared to say him nay. Later, as they entered the gorge, and he realized the difficulties which lay before them, he had cooled down considerably; and when he heard Ray's signals he gave orders to slacken speed. Even at the reduced speed he quickly perceived that they could keep their distance from the red galleys, which were now not far ahead.
As it grew darker, he turned his searchlight on to them, and then, handing his best pair of glasses to Gale, bade him keep an eye on the vessels and their occupants.
"Watch their every movement," he warned the sailor. "They're quite capable of stabbing their prisoners and throwing them overboard, thinking that then they themselves would be able to get away in the darkness of the tunnel in front of us."
As he saw Ray's boat draw near, he turned to speak with him, and both launches stopped for a few minutes while the leaders conferred together.
Ray briefly explained the plan upon which he and Loroyah had decided.
"We cannot fight them in the tunnel; there is no room, and it would probably only end in our running against the sides and sinking our boats," he pointed out. "So we have decided to follow them to the lake and attack them there, on the open sheet of water.
"That awful lake—the haunt of those horrible, grisly, man-eating fish-plants," said Peter, with a shudder. "I hoped I should never see that place again! I told Dr. Strongfold I wouldn't take him there for all the gold in the treasure-cave! But of course to save my brother I'm ready to go anywhere, to risk anything. But I'm on tenterhooks! I've got a horrible fear on me that they will stab the captives and throw them overboard." Then he added, as he noticed the armour, "I see you have already done what I was going to advise. You are wise; and you can see that I have put some armour on myself, and induced my men to do the same. I've been here long enough to know the value of armour in fighting these people."
"Hang on and let us take you with us," Ray advised. "It will economize your store of electricity, and we can still get along quite fast enough."
The suggestion was adopted, and the two launches travelled onwards for a while side by side, just keeping astern of the red galleys, which they watched keenly. They could make out the dwarfs, clad in their red armour, toiling vigorously at the long sweeps, in a vain endeavour to increase the distance between them. They could also see some men, presumably priests, attired in red robes; and on each vessel, huddled together like sheep, groups of figures in white vestments, which they guessed must be the prisoners. Their view, however, of those on the galleys was much hampered by their high prows and sterns, which were in the way of their own brilliant lights.
Proceeding in this fashion, the procession entered the tunnel which the two lads had such cause to remember, the red galleys making no alteration in their speed as they plunged into its black mouth.
"Why!" exclaimed Ray, a little later, "I'm blessed if the other beggars are not coming after us!"
Sure enough, looking back, they could see, in the dim light behind, all the vessels they had been chasing. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity of trying to make good their escape, they were actually now following in the wake of the launches.
"Jupiter! That's rum!" Peter commented. "Perhaps, though, our friends are pressing them so close they think it's their only chance!"
Whatever the reason, they came on steadily, and after a little while were all well within the tunnel. Then there were heard ponderous clanging sounds, which reverberated within the rocky sides and awoke the deep echoes.
"What on earth is that? What does it mean?" cried Ray.
"I think I understand what it means," observed Loroyah very gravely. "They have closed some great iron gates behind them, and so have barred our friends out, and shut us in between themselves and their friends in front of us. And unless we can fight the lot and beat them, we shall have some trouble to get out again!"
THE friends stared at one another—as well, indeed, they might. It did not require much consideration to convince them that they had somehow blundered into a situation very different from that which they had expected.
Shut in in this horrible hole, with vessels full of savage, warlike, relentless foes both in front of them and astern, under conditions which precluded them from taking full advantage of their firearms, the outlook was about as bad as could well be imagined.
"We're trapped!" said Loroyah coolly. "I don't quite understand whether it has come about by deep design or pure accident, but there is the fact; and it is of little use to deny it, or to pretend to hide from ourselves the disagreeable, unlucky truth. I ought to have foreseen it. I knew there were great barred gates there!"
"We'll fight our way out somehow!" cried Peter between his clenched teeth. "We'll either do that and take the prisoners with us, or die with them and sink into these dark waters together! That's my fixed resolve!"
"Perhaps there are no prisoners," said Loroyah thoughtfully. "This affair has such an air of having been planned, that I shouldn't be surprised to find that there are no prisoners on board yonder red galleys, after all!"
"But I saw them, saw their white robes, which I know so well," protested Peter.
"But you were not close enough to recognize them," Loroyah pointed out. "If our cunning foes decided to try to decoy us in here, it would have been an easy thing to dress up some of their own people in white clothes as a ruse! Still," he added, as he noted the blank look which fell upon the faces of his two friends, "I don't say that that is the case; I only say it may be."
"If we knew it to be so we could send a shot or two from 'Long John' into the midst of 'em," muttered Ray, "and follow it up with a shower of bullets, which I fancy would make 'em more anxious to sneak off than to come to closer quarters!"
"That is the trouble; we don't know," returned Loroyah. "And it is quite likely that they may have genuine prisoners there and be anxious to get away with them, for here are the other vessels astern hastening on to attack us! I think that means they desire to hang on to us while those in front get away!"
"That ought to decide our plan, then," Peter urged. "We must keep those behind us at a distance, and follow up those in front."
But though he spoke bravely, he knew, and they all three knew, that their chances were desperate. If they attempted to board the red galleys, those behind would close up and beat them down by sheer weight of numbers.
"See!" cried Ray, "we are near the end of the tunnel! If we can get into the lake before we are squeezed in between these two lots, we shall have more room to fight in! Let's put on speed, and if we can get the chance, go right past 'em into the lake! Perhaps," he added, with a laugh, "we can snip off some of their oars, as a little friendly attention, in passing. Let me go first, Peter, and you hang behind, ready to follow through if I make a passage."
"Right you are! I'll follow you!"
"Whatever you do, however," Loroyah warned him, "don't get entangled with them. If you do, those behind will come up and close in on us at once. They might sink us by merely rowing full tilt into us!"
This was obviously true; and they saw that it behoved them to be wary as well as plucky. "We've got a lot of cunning old foxes to deal with here; don't forget that!" Loroyah reminded them both; and in view of the way they had been trapped in the tunnel the warning could scarcely be deemed superfluous.
The turtle covering was pulled into its place, and the small launch fell astern. As he dropped behind, Peter made a suggestion:—
"Give 'em a shot from 'Long John' just before you make your rush, Ray," he said. "Blank cartridge will do. It will make a thundering row in this queer place, and may frighten 'em a bit."
"Good idea! We'll try it!" was the reply, as the Beast went ahead.
As quickly as possible a heavy charge of powder only was substituted for that already in the cannon, and the full power of the searchlights was turned on to the red galleys, which were now but a short distance ahead. They were almost at the mouth of the tunnel, where it opened into the lake, but the rowers of one had stopped, and the two were manoeuvring to get abreast. It appeared pretty evident that those on board intended to bar the way, and to try to keep the launches in the tunnel until the vessels astern could overtake them.
The searchlights flashed out suddenly with unexpected power, the rays, as they played about, dazzling the eyes of those on board the two galleys, and just then there came the boom of the cannon, which in the narrow passage sounded like a piece of artillery a dozen times its actual size. The report sped with a thunderous roar along the rocky sides out into the lake, whence it was echoed back a hundred times. The din was terrific and deafening, and helped to complete the confusion into which the dazzling lights had thrown their foes ahead, and to turn it into a panic as they saw the "monster" suddenly shoot forward in the midst of the noise and make for their vessels. On came the Beast with glaring eyes, a rush of hissing steam issuing from its jaws; while, to add to the effect, the steam siren and the smaller whistle were both turned on and uttered a series of ear-piercing screams, such as might have come from a crowd of yelling fiends.
The rowers in the red galleys were suddenly seized with ungovernable fear, and tried their best to get out of the way of the oncoming monster. This gave the opportunity which he was waiting for, and Ray swept past, crushing as he did so into some of the oars and snapping them off as he had done in the fight which had taken place near the island.
A minute or two later the launches emerged on to the waters of the lake, for Peter had followed close in the wake of his friend; and sweeping round they both turned and faced their enemies.
The place was filled with a dull twilight sufficient to enable them to see things fairly well anywhere near the centre. But the sides were dim and shadowy, much as when the two had first seen them. Their searchlights, therefore, were still of great service.
The launches stopped after they had swung round; and they now lay motionless within a few yards of each other.
Throwing back the after-part of their covering, Ray and Loroyah were able to resume their conference with Peter, while watching their enemies' proceedings.
It was decided that Ray should attack the red galleys again, and try to disable them completely, as soon as they came out from the tunnel. But, to their disappointment, the vessels stayed where they were, just within the tunnel's mouth, no doubt repairing damages, and waiting for their friends to join them.
Peter waxed impatient at this delay. His spirits, which had risen when they had decided to make the rush, and there had been a prospect of immediate fighting, now fell again, chafing at the inaction.
"They will pass the prisoners into the other boats behind them, and we shall not be able to get near them!" he declared.
Something of the sort seemed to be going forward even as he spoke, though so dark was the entrance to the tunnel that it was difficult to make out exactly what was happening. For a while they could hear sounds as of armed men shuffling about and shifting from one vessel to another. They could hear sharp, short words of command, and see the lights of lanterns shifting to and fro in the darkness, but it was some time before anything further occurred. Whatever their enemies' new plans might be, they evidently required time to carry them out.
Meanwhile, those in the launches had, perforce, to remain idle. They dared not open fire upon their foes so long as there was a possibility of any of the prisoners being amongst them; nor was it possible to attack them in any other manner while they kept just within the shelter of the tunnel.
"Oh! that we knew for certain what is going on!" Peter cried impatiently. "How long are we to be forced to stick about here like this, doing nothing? When are they coming out to attack us? I suppose that is what they intend doing!"
"Perhaps not," muttered Loroyah. "As I've already told you, they have more of the nature of the fox in them than of the lion."
"Well?" Both Peter and Ray stared at him in uneasy expectation. There was that in his tone which suggested some new, perplexing development.
"Well, I was just thinking," said Loroyah, "I was thinking what would happen if they simply did nothing at all—just remained where they are, and blocked the tunnel to prevent our getting out. There are more than thirty of us here; how long could we remain here with nothing to eat or drink? For we have not on board enough in the way of provisions to make one good meal for the lot, and the water of the lake is salt!"
AFTER what seemed to those on the launches a long wait, the hostile vessels were once more seen to be making a move.
They now advanced boldly, one by one; but each, as it cleared the mouth of the tunnel, slowed down and turned a little to the right or left, leaving room for another to advance in the centre. In this way they spread out completely across their end of the lake, and then came on slowly in line, keeping as close together as they possibly could.
The friends in the launches perceived now the reason for the delay that had occurred. The prisoners—or those who appeared to be such—had been distributed amongst the whole of the nine vessels. They had been placed here and there amongst the rowers in groups of two or three in such a manner that it would scarcely be possible to fire at any of the galleys without the risk of hitting them.
Further, in the advancing line, all the vessels were now so close together as to preclude the launches from repeating the previous tactics of disabling them by breaking off their oars.
"Whoever is directing their movements knows what he is about," muttered Loroyah. "You see their plan, Ray? If you attack one, the next to it will swing round and try to squeeze you in between the two. It's a clever idea in the circumstances, but you mustn't be caught that way! We must back across the lake a bit, and get more room."
The others saw the wisdom of this advice. It was somewhat galling to have to retreat, even for a short distance, but there was nothing else to be done. The launches were no match, if it came to "ramming," for the heavy galleys, with their high prows and dead weight of armed men. Ray knew that if they once allowed either of the launches to be thus rammed, the one struck would almost certainly be sunk. Meantime the line, at present, reached nearly to the shore at each end, leaving no room for an attack upon either flank. To retreat and watch keenly for an accidental opening was, therefore, their obvious—practically their only possible—policy.
"Plague take 'em," muttered Peter, "I wonder who's engineering this little game? No native, I'm thinking! It looks as if it's somebody who jolly well knows exactly what we can do and what we can't do as well as we know ourselves. Those old fossils of priests don't understand all that, you bet!"
"No," said Ray, "but there's a chap amongst them who does know, and I just caught sight of him." Ray had been looking intently through his glasses, and he now put them down and look up his rifle.
"How—what do you mean?" Peter asked.
"Why, Shorter, of course! I saw his foxy face bob up into the beams from our searchlights! I'm going to have a shot at him if I see him again, and chance it. What's more, that Dago chap we saved from the lizard at the pool is there with him!"
"Are you sure?" exclaimed Peter incredulously.
"Certain; and that's how it is they know so exactly the sort of tactics likely to succeed best against us."
"The swab! The traitorous hound!" cried Peter wrathfully. "I'll have a shot at him myself."
"Ay, and tell your lads to look out for him, too. They all know him," Ray answered.
As he spoke he fired. There was heard a shriek from one of the oncoming vessels, and a moment later a shower of arrows came hurtling through the air. They were the first shots on either side, and heralded the real commencement of the fight. Acting under the instructions of their leaders, the sailors began firing at individual foes, those with bows and arrows in particular, as they stood up to take aim. Cries and shouts of rage told that many of these shots were effective; while on the other hand, some of the sailors were wounded by arrows, and many more had narrow escapes, thanks to the protection afforded by their armour.
The launches backed slowly and cautiously, watching for an opening, and on the alert to dash forward at once to take advantage of it if one should offer. Their foes, on their side, advanced with equal caution, evidently well aware of their own weak points and determined not to give away a chance if they could help it.
As the launches drew out towards the middle of the sheet of water, Ray tried to edge off to the right with the intention of making a rush for the end galley, whereupon the whole line swerved in that direction and frustrated the scheme.
It could be seen that they feared him principally, for when Peter made a feint of starting to attack the other end, no notice was taken of the movement, whereupon he backed again alongside his consort.
Ray bit his lips. "The beggar who's directing them knows what he's about," he muttered. "At this rate we shall be pushed right over to the other end and jammed against the shore! Peter, we must risk something! I'm going to get into their rear, so as to attack them when they begin to turn. Follow up as well as you can!"
Then began some very pretty manoeuvring on the part of the two launches. Ray made dashes here and feints there. Again and again he circled round and then raced across the enemy's line, from end to end, only to be foiled time after time. At last, however, he saw his opportunity, and rushed at their right, crashing into the oars of the end vessel; and the steel jaws, working viciously, bit their way through them, snapping off every one.
The rowers upon the other side of the vessel, in the confusion, were not stopped in time, and the vessel "yawed," thus affording Ray an opening between it and the next one, of which he availed himself as soon as he could turn. He attacked the oars upon the other side, smashing all but one or two; then, turning swiftly, came on once more against those of the second galley in the line.
"One disabled, at any rate!" he growled, as he turned again to repeat the manoeuvre, expecting that the second vessel would swing round as the first had done. This time, however, he was baulked, for the rowers upon the starboard side had been stopped in time, and the craft did not yaw, but hung closely to the one next to it, making it unsafe to venture between them.
Meantime the one he had, as he thought, disabled, had put out fresh sweeps, and at once closed up again to the end of the line.
"Do you see what they have done?" said Loroyah. "If you notice, you can see now that the vessels near the centre of the line have less than their usual number of sweeps out. They have put the others on board the end vessels, as a precaution against what has actually happened!"
It was even so. While he had been speaking, fresh sweeps had appeared in both the vessels which had been attacked; and Ray found that he was no better off than before.
Indeed, he was worse off, for his launch had sustained some damage. The missiles hurled at them had done them no injury, for they had fallen harmlessly into the water from the turtle covering, but the "shears" in the bow began to show signs of wear. The joints were working loose, and required screwing up, which could not be done, as they could not be got at under present conditions. It seemed, too, as though some of the wreckage had become entangled in the propeller, for it began to bump ominously.
It was absolutely necessary that they should stop while an attempt was made to clear it. And while this was being done their watchful foes—evidently seeing and understanding their dilemma,—proceeded to turn round, with the obvious intention of coming on again before they could get free.
All this time Peter had been circling about at a little distance, watching for any chance that might offer. Now he also was seen to be in difficulties. His searchlight suddenly went out, and the launch refused to move. The supply of electricity had failed!
At that moment a heavy, thunderous boom was heard, followed by a great crash, and then by a roar, which awoke the echoes and made a deafening din throughout the rocky interior.
As the sounds died down Ray cried joyfully:—
"I think I know what that means! Our friends have come after us, and they are blowing down the gates at the end of the tunnel! If we can hold out long enough, they will be here to help us!"
But their foes seemed to understand this, too, and began to hasten their movements in the hope of crushing the two launches by their superiority in weight and numbers before reinforcements should arrive.
Matters were approaching a crisis; and the outlook for the launches appeared a poor one as their foes swung round and once more advanced upon them in line, while they still lay helpless.
Suddenly Loroyah uttered an exclamation. His quick ear had caught a sound which was well known to him. He listened intently for a few seconds, and then called out excitedly:—
"The Mecanoes! The Mecanoes! They have got in through the barred gates and are coming through the tunnel. I can hear them!"
There was a low, booming, humming sound, which Ray also now recognized. It was the sound he had heard when the strange, web- footed people had come to their aid upon the old hulks. A minute later a great outcry from their enemies told that they also had recognized what the sound implied, and that the knowledge had filled them with affright. They stopped, hesitated, and then, with one accord, turned their vessels towards the shore.
Ere they could reach it their amphibious foes were swarming around them, hanging to their oars, and climbing by the dozen, and soon by the hundred, on to the galleys.
There was another deafening report, and this time a heavier crash told that the gates had given way.
"They have smashed in the gates," exclaimed Ray. "They will soon be here now!"
The din and uproar which came from the galleys told that a terrible life and death struggle was going forward in the shadows near the further end of the lake, though what was actually occurring could not be discerned.
"Can we not help our friends?" cried Ray. "Are we to sit here, like dummies, while these brave little creatures fight our battle for us?"
He gave the word to start the engines. There were a few turns of the screw, a heavy bumping sound, louder than before, and then the machinery stopped dead.
"Perhaps it is best so," said Loroyah. "The Mecanoes are certain to win; their numbers alone will ensure that; and we should only be in the way if we were to interfere."
"But the captives!" Ray reminded him. "What of them?"
"They will be quite safe; our friends understand as to that," was the answer.
The noise of the conflict was still at its height when shouts were heard proceeding from the mouth of the tunnel. Large galleys with lights were seen emerging from the dark entrance.
One by one they came swiftly out on to the waters of the lake. The rate at which they were moving, and the cries of those on board encouraging the rowers, told that the crews were straining every nerve to hasten to the rescue. As the leading boat approached the launches, Rulonda's towering form was seen leaning on the prow, and beside him was Dr. Strongfold.
Rulonda spoke but a few words in passing, and then, taking in the situation, swept on to the scene of the struggle.
Galley after galley came into view and followed after him, till the lake seemed half filled with vessels, and the water, usually so calm and stagnant, was everywhere dancing with little waves, which began breaking upon the rocky shores.
The sounds of deadly strife, the shouting and the clamour, gradually died down, for their enemies perceived that it was hopeless for them to contend against the crowd of boats now brought against them; and they surrendered almost en masse. A few minutes later, the fight was over, and the victors were able to discover who and what it was they had captured.
There were really a number of Belfendi's prisoners on board, as it turned out, but neither Peter's brother nor Captain Warren's friend was amongst them. The unfortunate young fellow, therefore, was disappointed once more, and was constrained to school himself to wait and hope yet longer with such patience as he could call to his aid.
For the rest, nearly all the captives thus rescued were personal friends of Rulonda or his son, or of some among the rescuers; and between these there were mutual congratulations and rejoicing. Amongst those who now became prisoners in their turn were half a dozen priests of subordinate rank, and a number of the hideous dwarfs.
The latter were objects of great interest to the doctor, who examined them with much curiosity. A little later he was joined by Ray, who had cleared the screw of his launch and taken Peter off the now helpless Beauty.
"While they are tying up their prisoners and so on, I should like to go ashore and investigate this strange place a little," said the scientist. "In particular, I want to capture a specimen or two of those queer anemone-plants you told me about."
"I'll show you where you can see them," returned Ray, "but if you take my advice you won't go near enough to try to capture one. It makes me shudder to find myself here again in the place which is their haunt, remembering—as I cannot help—what I saw them do to those miserable wretches of dwarfs."
Loroyah went off to join Rulonda, and the doctor, with Ray and Peter, walked along the shore. Presently Peter stopped and pointed to a crowd of dark objects about a hundred yards away:
"See! There they are!" he said, almost in a whisper. "But what are they about? They are after something! Ah! Ray, do you see?"
Some beams from the searchlight upon the launch happened to fall upon the spot Peter had indicated, and it revealed a terrible, a ghastly scene.
A number of forms lay about, clad, for the most part, in armour, which caught and reflected the light. They were some of their enemies, fugitives who had got ashore and run away, thinking thus to escape capture. Doubtless they had blundered, all unknowingly, into the midst of a number of the deadly "cannibal plants." Some amongst the wretched fugitives had been wounded, and fell at once an easy prey; and blood thus once spilled, the scent of it filled the air and drew towards the spot crowds more of the terrible creatures. They surrounded their victims, closed in upon them, and—as had been the case with the dwarfs—overpowered them, spite of their armour, of their struggles, spite, even, of their swords and daggers.
The hideous consequences were there before the eyes of the horrified spectators, revealed only too clearly by the rays of the electric light. Not one human being remained alive to tell the tale. All were prone on the ground, silent, motionless; while to them and about them clung those strange, grisly, man-eating "plants."
They did not know it then, but it turned out subsequently, that the man Shorter, and his renegade companions, including the mysterious Dago, were lying there, also dead, amid that bloodstained heap.
"Let us get away from this!" cried the doctor. "I have seen enough—too much! I no longer desire to possess even a specimen of such creatures!"
Not long afterwards they commenced the return journey, the doctor accompanying Ray and Peter in the Beast, which took the still helpless Beauty in tow until they had got out into open water. There they found the Kestrel, with Captain Warren anxiously awaiting them, and they went on board to tell him their adventures while waiting for the rest of the galleys to emerge from the tunnel.
In the last one came Rulonda and Loroyah, and they presently also boarded the yacht.
"I have gained a good deal of information from some of the people we are bringing back," said Rulonda. "I have heard news which tells me that we shall do well to make our intended attack upon the city of Cashia as quickly as possible. I propose, therefore, to carry it out to-morrow, starting with our whole fleet at daylight."
A cheer from those around greeted this announcement, and they set out on their return to the harbour in high spirits.
As before, now that their work was done, the "Mecanoes"—their faithful, web-footed friends—were nowhere to be seen. They had vanished as mysteriously as they had come.
Arrived at the harbour, every one entered with zest into the completion of the necessary preparations; and at last, when the night was far advanced, they were finished, and the tired workers turned in for a well-earned rest.
They were astir again, however, just before dawn, and a little later the whole fleet, including the yacht and the two launches— now both again in fighting trim—set out upon their momentous expedition against the city of Cashia, and the grim priests of the Temple of Fire.
THE Kestrel and her attendant armada made a brave show as, at early morning, they were seen approaching the town of Cashia in the form of a great crescent, of which the yacht formed the centre, and the two launches were at the extreme ends.
Not only a brave show, however, but a brave noise did they make. There was much blowing and tootling of horns and trumpets, and banging of drums and cymbals; and above all could be heard the boom and thunder of the Kestrel's biggest cannon, loaded with heavy charges of powder only, so as to produce the greatest possible noise without actual mischief.
And certainly the adventurers had no reason to complain of the effect produced; indeed, it was rather the other way. The scare caused amongst the inhabitants, added to the terror inspired by the noise and threatening appearance of the present demonstration, was so great that it seemed likely to lead to the entire desertion of the city, and its absolute abandonment to the victors.
But this was not what Rulonda desired. He did not wish to take possession of an empty town, with the prospect before him of a long and exhausting guerilla warfare. What he aimed at was a formal surrender acquiesced in by, and carried out under the orders of, the responsible authorities—or those left of them after the removal of the more atrocious members of the hierarchy. To these he had determined to mete out stern and unflinching punishment.
The terms of surrender must also, he declared, include the giving up of the miserable prisoners, unharmed and without the retention of any amongst them, no matter of what nationality or what the pretext under which they had been kept in confinement. Last, but by no means least, in his eyes, his conditions included the setting free of every poor slave, whether native or foreign, at present held in bondage.
Through their glasses, the leaders, standing on the deck of the Kestrel, could see the people hurriedly running out of their dwellings and fleeing, some in the direction of the Mountain of Fire, others towards the open country. Many of them were loaded with all kinds of goods and chattels, furniture and ornaments, or treasures of special value. Strings of slaves so burdened could be distinguished here and there, and amongst these were the slave-drivers with the lashes of their long whips flying in snaky coils in the air, and descending each time upon the bare skin of some wretched toiler.
This sight in particular set Peter's blood boiling, and made him impatient to bring the operations to an issue. The recollection of what he had himself suffered, and the thought of what his brother might even at that moment be enduring, rendered it difficult to restrain his eagerness.
"Shall we be in time? Oh! shall we be in time to save them?" he wailed every now and then. "Would that I could fly like an eagle, and fall upon those inhuman monsters with beak and talons, and tear their black hearts out!"
His face, usually good-humoured, had become haggard, and his eyes had ever now a fierce, restless, eager look in them, which told only too eloquently of the fever of consuming anxiety that burned in his blood; boding ill for any of his brother's oppressors who might come under his hand.
Then, at the Kestrel's peak, a signal was made ordering a general halt; and this was followed by another signal for the launches to come to the yacht. A few minutes later they were alongside, and Ray and Peter had clambered on board. Rulonda then explained his plan to them.
Each launch was to take in tow a few galleys and make as quickly as possible for the rear of the Mountain of Fire. There they were to land a sufficient force, and endeavour to intercept the fleeing populace in the rear of the city, so as to prevent them from reaching the open country, and, if possible, drive them back into the town.
"The route," said Rulonda, "is the same as the one which we followed that night when we visited the temple; but as it was then dark, you would not now be able to find it again without a guide. You shall have the same guide," he added with a smile, "that we had then—Kubis the fisherman."
"Hurrah for Kubis the fisherman!" Ray cried out cheerily. "Which of us is to have the honour of his company, the Beauty or the Beast?"
Loroyah chose to go this time with Peter, for he had noticed sympathetically his gloomy manner and haggard looks. He divined instinctively that the young fellow would be the better for the society of a companion, with whom he could talk freely, while he was suffering from the strain of the uncertainty as to his brother's ultimate fate.
The first part of Rulonda's plan—the landing of a sufficient force upon the other side of the mountain—was carried out successfully, and met with no attempt at opposition. Presently a compact and well-armed force was marching across the country in the rear of the mountain, dragging with them a small cannon in addition to a Maxim gun.
The Kestrel and the remainder of the galleys rested where they were, apparently idle. In reality, however, the leaders were watching through their glasses everything that went on on shore— watching with what patience they could muster for some sign that the diversion had been successful, and that the fleeing inhabitants were being turned back towards the town.
The young fellows, meanwhile, steadily plodding on with their men, found the difficulties of their task increase as they went along. The ground seemed swampy and the roads bad, so that it became at last a question whether they would not be compelled to leave the heavier portion of their armament behind.
Ray expressed surprise.
"It was not like this," he said to Loroyah, "when we came this way before—or, at least, I do not remember to have come through any ground so marshy as this we are now upon."
Loroyah looked perplexed.
"I cannot understand it, I confess," he said. "We all know that there has been a good deal of rain during the last week, but hardly enough, one would think, to flood the whole district like this."
Just then Peter, who had been walking along moodily, as if plunged in reflection, stopped and looked around.
"I don't like this, Ray," he said, after a keen survey of their surroundings. "It appears to me the water is rising. It seems to spread and get deeper every minute."
"You have put into words the very thoughts that were in my mind, Peter," was Ray's answer. "What does it mean? Don't you think we had better call a halt and watch developments for a few minutes? Then we can consult together as to what is best to be done. I don't like to say so, but upon my word I almost begin to think we may have to go back and leave our task undone."
"There is no going back," Peter exclaimed with sudden conviction. "Look yonder!"
They were standing on a slight eminence at this time, which gave them a view back over the way they had come. To Ray's astonishment, the road along which they had tramped was not to be seen. There was nothing visible but a wide-spreading flood, which seemed to be advancing rapidly in their direction.
They glanced about anxiously. The country around them was flat, and lay very low; there were no hills, only here and there a low mound similar to the one they were on, but crowned, in a few instances, with thickets.
"There is no time to be lost," said Peter, "and there is very little choice. It is clear, that from some cause or other, a flood is rising over the whole country, and if we don't look sharp we shall be drowned like so many rats."
"But where can we go?" Ray asked, bewildered. "Loroyah, what does this mean?"
Loroyah shook his head.
"I have heard it said," he answered, "that the priests were able, in times of danger, to flood the country round about, and so isolate their mountain from the rest of this island; but I have never heard of its being done, nor did I ever pay any serious attention to the story. I looked upon it as a sort of legend or out-of-date superstition."
"Well, I begin to think the legend is true," Peter put in. "What are we to do? It won't do to stay here. We can't tell how high the waters may rise. We had better make for yonder bit of wood. It is as high as any spot hereabouts, and if needs be we can climb into the trees—that is, some of us can. I doubt, though, if there will be even tree-room for us all," he added, dubiously.
The suggestion was adopted, and an immediate move was made towards the group of trees indicated. Even before they reached them, however, the water began to spread around them, and when they had ascended the mound and so gained the trees, and turned to look back, their track was covered.
It would be difficult to give any idea of the chagrin, the gloomy disappointment which fell upon the whole party as they contemplated this inglorious finish to their expedition. There had not even been a fight—"not so much as a scrimmage," as Ray put it. There was not even any one to oppose them; yet there they were condemned to irritating inaction—put, for the time being, completely hors de combat.
The outlook was certainly gloomy. If the flood rose high enough the boats might come to take them off; or again they might not, for the water might fall as suddenly as it had risen, and leave them stranded far inland. Then, if their ammunition got wet they would be practically disarmed; or if they managed to keep that out of the reach of the rising flood, their heavier weapons must almost inevitably be damaged.
Peter proceeded to climb a tree, partly to get a more extended view, and partly to see whether, if needs were, they might be able to stow some of their armament amongst the branches. A minute or two later his voice was heard, and in its tones there was a ring of satisfaction.
"I can see some one coming this way," he called out. "They seem to be—ah!—yes!—they are our froggy friends, and they are coming on rafts to help us!"
And so indeed it proved. Once more the faithful "Wolves of the Weed" had come to their assistance. Although they were seldom seen when nothing particular called for their presence, they nevertheless appeared to be ever on the watch for an opportunity to help their friends when they were in trouble or danger.
They were not long before they reached the mound on which the party had taken refuge It had by then become an island, and as the water was still rising, it seemed likely to be covered altogether within a little time more.
At first it seemed almost an impossibility to get to the high ground on the mountain-side and carry all their impedimenta with them. Their "froggy allies," as Peter called them, however, set to work with a will to accomplish the task, and they brought to bear upon it so much energy and ready resource, that in the end it was successfully carried through. To them, indeed, the whole business seemed no more than a sort of water frolic, and they chattered to one another in their own language, and grinned and gesticulated in a boisterous fashion that seemed intended to show their friends they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Thus, amidst much splashing and tumbling about, sometimes on the rafts, sometimes in the water, these amphibious creatures transported the whole party, and all their outfit, to the base of the Mountain of Fire, without damage or harm to their weapons or ammunition. When this had been done, they went off again in their usual abrupt manner, without any kind of leave-taking, and without waiting to be thanked. Then the march was resumed upon the high ground of the base of the mountain, from which the party could look with comparative indifference upon the flood below them. The only harm it had done them, after all, lay in the delay it had caused, and for this they endeavoured to make up by pushing on with redoubled energy.
But presently they came to know that this delay had nearly cost them dear, for their watchful enemies were at that very time taking advantage of it to remove the captives from the temple to another stronghold far in the interior of the island.
After what seemed a long tramp, the party at last came in sight of the suburbs of the city. Some of the dwellings here were on ground not much above the level of the sea. They were protected, however, from the advancing flood by a rocky ridge which ran across from the "Mountain of Fire" to the hilly country towards which most of the inhabitants of the city were now making their way. It formed, in fact, a kind of high causeway, and upon it was a road which was now crowded with fugitives.
Just as Ray, with his two friends, marching at the head of their company, turned a corner and found themselves on a low hill which overlooked this road, they perceived another party coming down the mountainside from the temple-gates, evidently bound for the same road. This procession consisted of some red-robed priests accompanied by a guard of officers and soldiers. Behind them came a number of prisoners, chained together in batches, beside whom there walked men with long whips, yelling, and shouting, and lashing at the miserable captives like brutal drovers in charge of a team of lazy oxen.
When Ray and his companions caught sight of this cortège they called a halt, and looked at it through their glasses. Instantly all their previous weariness was forgotten, and keen, intense excitement took its place.
Peter, especially, became a different being. His gloomy, abstracted manner vanished; he became alert and watchful. But his hands twitched, and his lips were firmly compressed, and the light in his eye told of the passion, only half suppressed, that was smouldering in his breast.
"At last—at last!" he muttered, between his teeth. "Yonder are some of the prisoners. Whether my brother is amongst them, I cannot tell, but I can see Dyossa, and if Oliver is not amongst these, I'll make him take me to him, or I'll shake his black heart out of him."
He turned and pointed Dyossa out to the others.
"You all can see that man," he cried, fiercely. "No one must shoot at him, no one must kill him! He belongs to me, and I will deal with him myself!"
Promptly their plans were decided upon. The party was divided into two. To the first portion was allotted the task of driving off the guard—against whom they could not use firearms for fear of hitting some of the prisoners—rescuing the captives, and capturing, if possible, the priests and officers. The second half took up the work they had set out to do—the turning back of the fugitives.
Ray remained with the second contingent, while Peter and Loroyah led the first.
In his impatience to accomplish what had for so long been the dearest wish of his heart, Peter disdained any preliminary skirmishing, and simply ordered his men to charge. Placing himself at their head, a revolver in one hand and Dyossa's sword in the other, he raced off at such speed that even Loroyah could scarcely keep up with him. Behind them, at a little distance, came a score of bluejackets, armed with rifles and bayonets, besides their ordinary cutlasses at their sides; and these were followed by a squad of Loroyah's men, numbering fifty or thereabouts, armed after the manner of the country.
Ray had another score of his sailors, and nearly a hundred of Rulonda's soldiers under their own officers, who, however, as they could not speak English, were of but uncertain value.
Within a couple of minutes their cannon was booming, firing blank cartridge, with the double object of frightening the fugitives and inducing them to turn back towards their city, and letting their friends on the Kestrel know of their arrival. For though they were not as yet in view of the sea, they knew that the sound of the firing would be heard.
Meanwhile, the first detachment were racing down upon the priestly procession like a pack of hounds upon their quarry. They stayed not to fire, nor troubled themselves about the arrows that were aimed at them. With a rush, carried out with a determination doubtless inspired by Peter's example, they fell upon the enemy and quickly drove them off without having fired a shot.
The prisoners were the first consideration. Some of their guards were captured and the keys of the locks upon the chains were taken from them. Then the locks were opened and the captives set free.
But Oliver Newlyn was not among them, nor was Captain Warren's friend, Hugh Keene. The batch consisted of three English sailors, and one or two other Europeans; the rest were friends and followers of Rulonda. Some of the latter were personally known to Loroyah and the soldiers with him, and they all rejoiced together accordingly.
But Peter stood apart once more, with a bitter disappointment gnawing at his heart, for he seemed no nearer to obtaining the object so dear to him. And somehow, in the mêlée, Dyossa had escaped him and got clear away.
THE mutual congratulations, however, of rescuers and rescued were cut short in a very unexpected manner. The priestly faction took heart at the fact that their enemies had not used firearms against them, and doubtless, therefore, thought that they had none. They perceived, too, that their opponents were very inferior to themselves as regards numbers, and they took their courage in both hands and came back to attack them and recover, if possible, their lost prisoners.
They were joined by reinforcements who poured out of the temple, until altogether a very considerable force had gathered. These now came down upon the little force so suddenly that they were taken by surprise, and the Cashians were amongst them before they could so much as fire a shot.
A hand-to-hand fight ensued, in which Peter and Loroyah's followers were handicapped by reason of the fact that their firearms were of little use to them in such a confined space, and that their formation had been broken in the first onset.
Just then Ray glanced across to ascertain how they were faring, and saw, with surprise and dismay, how completely the tables had been turned. When last he had looked their way they had been victorious, and had succeeded in their object of liberating the prisoners. Now they were evidently fighting hard to hold their own.
Fortunately, Ray had finished his own task. He had turned back the tide of fugitives with very little trouble. He had also drawn a cordon across the whole causeway which effectually stopped any further exodus, so that he was free to go with the rest of his force to the assistance of his friends.
Without hesitation he set off at the double for the scene of strife, closely followed by his men; and as it happened they arrived at the critical moment. They found that their friends had got penned, by the pressure of superior numbers and the inability to use their firearms to advantage, into a very confined space. This space was commanded by a high rock, from which some of their adversaries were sending down a rain of arrows, spears, big stones, and any missiles that came to hand.
The advent of the reinforcement led by Ray quickly changed the aspect of affairs. A well-directed fire drove off those on the rock, as well as all the crowd outside the actual combatants, thus giving Peter's hard-pressed men a chance to fight on more equal terms. This opportunity was quickly seized upon, and there followed a sharp but short struggle, at the end of which nearly all the Cashians were in full retreat, leaving behind them many wounded and prisoners.
It was in this last fierce struggle that Peter at last came face to face with Dyossa. Up to that moment this hateful supporter of cruelty and oppression had managed—intentionally or unintentionally—to avoid a close meeting. Dyossa was by no means wanting in personal courage, as has already been recorded, and in his haughty ignorance and disdainful pride he regarded Peter as merely a slave, and therefore scarcely worth consideration. But when he now stood confronting him, there was something in the look of this hated "slave" which reached even through his armour of arrogance and self-glory, and sent a sort of sudden, cold, chill down his back—if the expression may be used.
The fierce resolution, and iron determination, written in Peter's blazing eyes, at first seemed quite to daunt the proud Cashian; and for a moment he actually looked round as though seeking for some plausible pretext of declining or avoiding the personal struggle which he saw the other was seeking for.
But Peter gave him no time. Flinging down his revolver, he attacked his enemy with his (Dyossa's) own sword, and with such resistless fury that he beat down his guard and knocked his foe's weapon from his hand. Then Peter threw away the one he held, and closed with his disarmed adversary, seizing him by the throat, and bearing him backwards with a relentless grasp that carried him off his feet, and caused him to fall heavily to the ground, with Peter upon him.
Just then, one of Dyossa's followers picked up the discarded sword, and was about to plunge it into Peter's back as he lay on his opponent, when Ray, who had been watching the struggle with breathless interest, sent a pistol bullet through his shoulder, causing him to drop the weapon with a scream of pain. Two more of Dyossa's men here rushed in, one to attack Ray, and the other to assist his officer. Loroyah dealt with the first one, giving him a terrible blow on the head with his sword as he rushed past; while Ray, who had been too intent on helping Peter to trouble about himself, sprang forward and seized the other assailant by the throat. He knew that his revolver was empty, and he had no other weapon at hand.
A brief tussle followed, which might have ended badly for the youth—for he was no match for the burly fellow he had so hardily assailed—had not Loroyah again interfered and ended the affair by another sword-tap on the head. The fellow fell like a stone, and Ray, with a grateful word to his rescuer, turned once more to see how Peter was faring.
He still had Dyossa by the beard, and was holding his— Dyossa's—dagger at his throat. But the Cashian's courage seemed this time to have deserted him, or his strength was spent; for he lay without further attempt at resistance, glaring at his conqueror.
Peter called to one of his men, who, at his bidding, brought a cord, and bound Dyossa's arms. He was then allowed to rise, and he stood silent and sullen, while his captor looked round to see how matters had gone in other ways.
The fight was over, he found, and seeing that there was nothing calling for immediate attention, he turned again to his prisoner and proceeded to question him, in his own language, demanding that he should tell him where his (Peter's) brother then was.
This Dyossa sullenly refused to do, and after a time Peter reluctantly gave up the attempt. But he had, as it now appeared, thought out a plan of his own to bring his enemy to reason.
He produced from his pocket one of the small chains and locks which had been taken from the released prisoners, and which he had evidently put aside for this special purpose. Then he looked round at the prisoners his men had taken, and from amongst them he selected one who appeared to be about the lowest and most brutal ruffian of the lot, and him he proceeded to bind to Dyossa with the chain and lock, precisely as the priests' captives had been chained. Finally, he asked Loroyah to pick him out from amongst his own people, "a man used to the care of slaves of not too humane or sensitive a nature." Such a person having been found, Peter put into his hand one of the whips taken from the slave-drivers they had captured, and placed him in charge of Dyossa and his companion.
"Be not too considerate, I charge thee," he said to this man in his own language. "Consider that this fellow is recalcitrant: if thou canst bring him to reason I will reward thee handsomely."
To Dyossa he said: "Thou refusest to tell me where I can find my brother, or to guide me to him. We shall see how long thou wilt care to become a slave as he and I have been, and endure something of what we have suffered. When thou tirest of this treatment and consentest to do what I demand, thou shalt be released from the chain—but not before." And with that he turned his back upon him and left him.
Ray came up and took Peter aside. "My dear friend, said he, "are you not carrying this a little too far? Consider—"
Peter put his hand on the other's shoulder.
"I do consider, Ray," he answered quietly. "I consider all the spite, the contumely, the torture and suffering this devil in man's shape has been inflicting on my innocent brother, because he could not get at me. I have not been there to see: but I know it has been so, for I know the man. As for the rest, I have put before him a simple request. I want him to tell me truly where my brother now is, and he refuses. Go you and argue with him, and persuade, if you like; you will only fail. But whenever he tells me what I want to know, he shall be released, as I promised him; not before."
And Ray said no more, feeling that he could not deny that Peter had good reason for his bitter feeling.
There came, then, an unexpected but very welcome turn of events. A man on the look-out announced joyfully that a party of their own people were approaching along the road, and Ray at once hastened to the place from which they had been descried.
Through his glasses he quickly made out the doctor and some half-dozen of the Kestrel's crew, accompanied by a company of Rulonda's soldiers.
Ray waved a handkerchief, which was at once seen and answered by the waving of banners borne by some of the Toraylians.
The doctor's handkerchief fluttered out, also, as a personal greeting; and the company altered their course and came across the intervening ground to the scene of the fight.
After many inquiries on both sides, the doctor gave them his special news.
"Well, lads," said he, "you will be glad to hear that the war is over. The city has made its submission, and our friend Rulonda is now undisputed king of both Toraylia and Cashia.
"Belfendi, and his rascally crew of priests and swaggering tyrants, are shut up in their temple, where they are securely penned in, every outlet being guarded by our friends. Curiously enough, their escape by the rear of the mountain was cut off, Rulonda has heard, by an inundation which they themselves had somehow caused—"
"Hoping to have drowned us on our way here," Ray put in.
"Oh, that was their game, was it? Well, it has recoiled on themselves, for when they saw that we were on the point of knocking at the front gates, they slipped out by the back door, so to speak. But finding that the waters were up, and that they had no boats with which to cross them, they returned to their temple, where, as I have said, they are all safely bottled up."
"Ay, ay; that is good news, indeed, doctor—so far as it goes!" said Peter. "But what of the prisoners still in their hands? We have released some; but there are others still in their power—my brother, whom I came here specially to rescue, amongst them."
"Why, yes, that is true," the doctor replied, soberly; "but Rulonda has good hopes as to their safety. He thinks the priests will not dare to harm them now, but are pretty sure to take good care of them in order that they may make use of them in bargaining for their own miserable lives."
This answer scarcely satisfied Peter's anxious doubts; but he was fain to accept it as covering all that could be said or done for the time being.
"And now," continued the doctor, looking at the dead and wounded who strewed the ground, "I see there is work for me to do here. It is well that I came to bring this news, for I perceive that I am more wanted here than elsewhere. On our side we have had scarcely any fighting—everything has been settled by peaceful surrender."
"But what about the soldiers?" Ray asked. "There were a lot of them came on to attack us. We managed to drive them off, and they left some behind here, as you see; but the great mass of them ran away, and must be still about somewhere."
"They, too, have all surrendered," the doctor declared. "When they retreated from you they went back towards the temple, where they found us waiting outside to receive them. And they were so surprised, and had become so demoralized in their flight after their encounter with you, that they had no more fight left in them, and the whole lot gave in. And that, as I have said, ends the war, and makes our friend the undisputed ruler of this ancient country."
"I SEE by your face that you bring bad tidings, Ray. Tell me at once what they are. Have those fiends in human form already murdered my unhappy brother—or are they threatening some new atrocity?"
"I am sorry to say, Peter, that the situation is grave— critical, perhaps, would be more exact."
"Tell me, tell me at once," Peter urged, impatiently. "Let me know the worst."
"But we none of us know the worst yet. It is difficult to recount, in a few words, all that took place at the parley— especially as it had to be interpreted to me in a whisper, as it went on, by Loroyah. You shouldn't have stayed away; you really ought to have been there."
"I couldn't go, Ray; I dared not. You know why I couldn't trust myself to face those sneering murderers, and quietly argue this thing out with them as Rulonda, I suppose, did—and with Dyossa there, laughing at me, too! I supposed he would be there to laugh at us after his last escape. I should have throttled him on the spot, I think."
For Dyossa had bribed his guard, and once more escaped; and Peter was correspondingly despondent and incensed.
"I asked Loroyah to pick me out a trustworthy man to look after my prisoner," he continued, wrathfully, "and this is what comes of it! The fellow he selects has played us false, and let Dyossa loose on my brother again! Think of it! I wouldn't care so much if the skunk were taking his revenge on me; but it is poor Oliver who has to bear the brunt of his rage and spite against myself!"
"I don't know," said Ray sagely. "Dyossa and his fellows have enough to do just now, I should say, in trying to think how to save their own skins. You must remember that if they still hold the last of the captives, we, in turn, hold them safely enough! They can't escape save by bargaining for their lives with Rulonda; and if they murder their captives, or even seriously harm them, they will have nothing left to bargain with!"
This talk took place three days after Rulonda's triumphant entry into Cashia. During that time much had been done to confirm and secure the fruits of his success, and to consolidate his position as undisputed ruler of the whole country.
The only persons who refused him submission were the priests and their more immediate followers—those, in effect, who had had any important share in the nameless cruelties and atrocities which had been inflicted during the past years upon the helpless victims they happened to pick out, or who happened to incur their ill will. All these miscreants were "bottled up," as the doctor had expressed it, in the Temple of Fire; every means of exit from the place being closely guarded day and night by Rulonda's people.
Unfortunately, they still had with them a few unhappy prisoners, not more now than half a dozen, but among them were Peter's brother, and Captain Warren's friend, Keene.
Belfendi and his "inner gang," as they may be termed, were cunning enough to understand the value placed by Rulonda upon the lives of these, the last of their intended victims, and had sent out messengers under a flag of truce, offering to surrender them upon certain conditions. These conditions, however, were of such a nature that Rulonda had at once rejected them as utterly impossible.
Subsequently there had been another conference, at which Dyossa and two or three of his officers, under the protection of the flag of truce, met Rulonda, and delivered a sort of ultimatum of a kind almost amazing for its cool, arrogant impudence. They declared, moreover, that if their terms were not accepted within twenty-four hours, they should proceed to sacrifice their prisoners as they had originally intended.
Their demands amounted to nothing less than that Rulonda should be content to withdraw to Toraylia, and give up all claim to Cashia or any other of the islands; these to be left to Belfendi to deal with as he saw fit.
Rulonda refused the terms absolutely. The very utmost he would concede was a promise to spare the lives of the villainous confederacy on condition that they retired to a small island which he was willing to allot to them, there to pass the remainder of their lives in a sort of exile. And even this offer he made with reluctance, for he knew only too well the restless, relentless nature of these people, and was perfectly aware that they would not be likely to abide by the terms of any promises they might give. He knew, quite well, that they would be a menace and a danger to him and the rest of the country so long as they retained their worthless lives.
However, even these future risks he was willing to face for the sake of saving the lives of the unhappy ones still in their power, if they would but give them up unharmed.
This was the conference or parley Ray had referred to. Peter had been invited to attend it with Rulonda, but he had moodily refused. He had felt, as he now declared, that he could not trust himself in sight of the insolent, hateful Dyossa and his aiders and abetters.
Ray's attempt to console him by pointing out that to murder the prisoners would be to destroy their only hope of saving their own lives, failed to afford him any comfort.
"You do not understand Belfendi and his crew," he said, shaking his head. "They are fanatics, and you cannot measure the limits to which such fanatics will go, or the mad wickedness they are ready to perpetrate. There are those among them who will urge that these poor creatures should be sacrificed at once to propitiate their gods. They are quite likely to proceed to slay them deliberately at any moment, in the full expectation and belief that a miracle will follow. Their idea is that their gods, who are now angry with them, will be thereby appeased and will perform some wonderful miracle by which we, the unbelievers, will be all swept away, and the faithful priests and their followers be restored to their former position in the country."
"I will go and speak to Rulonda again," said Ray, after a pause. "He is conferring now with Captain Warren and the doctor, and two or three of his own chiefs. I'll ask him to come and see you; since you don't care to go and talk with them."
Peter only shook his head, and remained staring gloomily out of the window over the waters of the bay.
The new King Rulonda had taken possession of the principal palace of the city, and made it his headquarters, and had assigned to his friends apartments in it so long as they should stay. Ray and Peter occupied rooms together, looking out over the shore and the water beyond.
To these apartments, presently, Rulonda came, and found the young fellow still staring vacantly out of the window.
"Peter," he said quietly, "our attempts at making a bargain with these people have failed, as Ray has already told you. Not even to save the unfortunates still in their hands could I bring myself to agree to their terms. On the other hand, I found it hard—harder than I can describe to you—to refuse, knowing that I seemed to be closing the last door of escape open to the unhappy captives who have already borne so much.
"Some might say—you, yourself, may be inclined to think—that I am cruel in coming to this decision. You may think that I am considering only my own interests and those of my country, and selfishly balancing them against the lives of those poor people, of whom one is very dear to you.
"To show that this is not the case, and to prove how little I am thinking of myself, and my own individual safety, I have come to tell you that I am about to start upon a sort of forlorn hope, a last desperate expedient, for such, I fear me, it really is, to save your brother. I am going to attempt to rescue him myself, personally. If you like to join me you can do so, but I must warn you that the danger and risk are great, and the hope of success, at best, about as slight as can possibly be!"
No need to say how joyfully Peter accepted this offer, or how quickly he changed once more from the despondent, brooding dreamer, to the alert, hopeful soldier. Rulonda noted the transition, and nodded approval.
"That's better!" said he. "Keep up your courage, my lad! Remember! A fight is never lost until it has been won!"
He proceeded to explain his plans. It seemed that what Peter had been dreading—what, in fact, he had foreshadowed in his talk with Ray a few minutes before, was, in very truth, about to take place. The fanatical element among the priestly faction had got the upper hand, and it had been decided to endeavour to propitiate their gods by the sacrifice of all the remaining captives. Moreover, in order to prevent all chance of rescue, it was to be carried out forthwith.
Rulonda, however, had taken measures to keep himself informed in case any such sudden act were resolved upon; and his agents had notified him at once.
"The secret entrance by which we gained admission and obtained a view of their proceedings that first night of your arrival," he explained, "is still available. From the hidden balcony above, we can observe all that goes on. If it would effect what we want, we could shoot down the greater part of the bloodstained confederacy from that post of vantage, and force the rest to hide like rats in the underground passages. But, as you can understand, it would not save our friends; for the very first shot would but be the signal for their immediate massacre!"
"I quite see that, sir," Peter returned sorrowfully. "And that is why I cannot conceive what plan you can possibly have formed which is likely to succeed in saving them. Whatever we do, the moment we show ourselves the murderous demons will fall upon their prisoners and stab them to death, or tear them limb from limb. We shall be able to avenge them, but," shaking his head, "that, it seems to me, will be all. If so, I fervently hope that I, at least, may die in the final fight!"
"Come with me and we will see!" returned Rulonda. "If Providence so wills we may yet find a way to save them!"
TWO hours later, a small group entered the door in the rock through which Ray and his friends had passed on the night of their first visit to the temple. The party now consisted again of Ray, Peter, and Rulonda, with "Kubis the fisherman"; but there were added to them Captain Warren, the doctor, and about a dozen of Rulonda's most trusted officers.
They traversed, as before, many subterranean galleries, ascended many flights of steps, and finally, as before, reached the balcony, or hanging terrace.
Here they looked down upon the interior of the great temple. Once more they saw a number of persons assembled there engaged, apparently, in the celebration of religious rites. The three chief priests were there, and so was Dyossa, who was as conspicuous in the part he took in the proceedings as the priests themselves.
There was much chanting and singing and banging of cymbals, and marching to and fro in processions. In these, the half-dozen prisoners, still dressed in their white costumes, and decorated with flowers—now faded, however—were forced to join. Amongst them were Oliver and Keene, both of whom were evidently either lame or in a very weak state, for they limped painfully along. Yet, notwithstanding their evident inability to move faster, Dyossa and Belfendi, who had whips in their hands, frequently laid the lashes across their backs, or sometimes across their faces, to hurry their halting steps.
Peter could scarcely endure this sight in silence, but Rulonda gripped him by the shoulder to enjoin caution, and then led him out into the galleries beyond. With the two went also Ray and Loroyah, leaving Warren, the doctor, and the remainder of the party on the balcony. To the latter, Rulonda, before his departure, uttered a few words of caution, strictly enjoining them not to allow themselves to be seen from below.
He had already explained to them how it had come about that he was able thus to avail himself of this balcony and the galleries leading to it. The use of them by the priests had been discontinued so long ago that their very existence was unknown, it seemed, to the present generation. When Rulonda had accidentally discovered them, they had been choked up with rubbish, and it had taken him and his friends a long time, and much arduous labour, to secretly free them from it. When, however, they had at last got them clear, they had been well rewarded for their trouble by finding that they were henceforth able to keep a watch upon the priests, and, unknown to them, observe all that went on in the temple.
After the departure of Rulonda and his companions upon their fateful mission, the group left behind on the balcony watched the scene below intently and anxiously. Soon they saw preparations going on for giving the captives to the monster in the cage; and the suspense became painful when the wire netting began to enclose the hapless victims, and force them, little by little, towards the cage.
It was noticed, too, that the rushing river was covered over with similar pieces of wirework, so that no rescues were now possible similar to that in which Ray and Peter had played such important parts.
Suddenly, from behind the glittering cascade at the back, a small group came into view. They carried in their arms certain figures which they flung down within reach of the hungry-looking, snaky tentacles which were writhing and twisting in every direction in their restless seeking after prey. It subsequently appeared—it may here be explained—that these figures were dummies which had been soaked in bullocks' blood. By this skilful ruse the hungry-seeking tentacles were for a while deceived and their attention diverted. These arms or tentacles seized greedily upon the "prey" thus flung within their grasp, and, coiling round the dummies, began to drag them towards the cage. This left room for the hazardous dash the new-comers were waiting to make.
Rushing past the hideous coils, the rescuers, who were now seen to be Rulonda and his son, with Ray, Peter, and three or four "Wolves of the Weed," seized the shackled captives and bore them off.
But just when Rulonda, who was carrying Oliver in his arms, and was behind all the others, was almost beyond reach of the tentacles, one shot out and caught him round the leg, threw him down, and commenced to drag him also towards the cage.
As he fell, he threw from him the lad he held in his arms, who rolled over and lay helplessly watching his rescuer struggling in the toils he had himself so narrowly escaped.
It was Peter who, glancing back and perceiving what had happened, came at once to the assistance of his friend. By that time another tentacle had joined the first, and had wound itself round Rulonda's arms, effectually preventing him from doing anything to free himself from his terrible position.
Peter looked at Oliver, saw that where he lay he was out of harm's way for the time being, and then, satisfied upon that point, he dashed boldly in, drew Rulonda's great sword out of its sheath, and proceeded to hack vigorously at the tentacle nearest him.
During the time that these unexpected events had occupied, a great hush had fallen upon the bloodthirsty throng who had been looking on noisily and callously at what they supposed was to end in the cruel deaths of the last of the miserable captives they had so long imprisoned, terrified and tortured. But when the rescuers had appeared on the scene they had ceased their cries and chants, and gazed in stupefaction at this unexpected development, which seemed pretty certain to deprive them of the eagerly awaited spectacle.
Belfendi, indeed, shrieked out confused orders and appeals for some one to interfere and baulk the rescuers of their triumph; but no one responded to his frantic calls. None present cared to enter within the zone enclosed by the metal netting, within possible reach of those terrible tentacles.
When, therefore, it was seen that one of the would-be liberators was himself in the toils, screams and yells of delight rent the air. When, moreover, the name of Rulonda went round from mouth to mouth, and it was known that it was in very truth their conqueror who had thus fallen into the grip of their "sacred salamander," the crowd became nearly mad with joy. They all looked upon the wonderful occurrence as proving the triumphant intervention of their gods on their behalf.
They became quiet once more, however, as they watched the fight Peter was making. But when Dyossa saw and recognized him, he shouted for some one to go and pick Oliver up and push him also within reach of their monster; and when he found that no one obeyed, he scornfully declared that he would undertake the task himself. He looked upon both Rulonda and Peter as doomed; and it only remained, therefore, to make sure that Oliver should share their fate.
A minute later he was inside the netting, and was walking warily round, keeping close to the extreme outer part of the space it enclosed, towards the spot where Oliver lay. Just then Peter had freed his friend from the hold of one tentacle, and was about to attack the other, when Rulonda, who had his arms now at liberty, seized the sword from him, and with one mighty blow severed the tentacle which had grasped his leg.
Then he sprang to his feet, pushing Peter before him in order to hasten his retreat and thus assist him, in turn, to get beyond reach ere the still wriggling, but shortened, tentacles could close on them again.
Rulonda stooped and once more took up Oliver, and started in the direction of the cascade, behind which was the secret door in the rock which had given them access to the platform.
Dyossa, enraged at the turn things had taken, sprang forward with a howl like a wild beast to seize Rulonda, when he was himself gripped by Peter, who had but that moment caught sight of him.
Then ensued a terrible struggle between these two mortal foes, each urged on by long pent-up hatred. Dyossa was mad with furious rage and disappointment. Peter was nerved, not only by the memories of a thousand insults and blows, but was fighting once more for his beloved brother's life. He cared nothing now for himself—he was quite willing and ready to die, provided he could hold Dyossa long enough to ensure the escape of the one who bore Oliver in his arms.
Not more than a foot or two away, as these mortal foes clutched and swayed, the mutilated arms were twining and flapping, stretching out, every few seconds, to try to reach them. It seemed more than likely that the fight would end by both being enmeshed, and that they would be dragged, side by side, into the cage, where those great eyes were looking on at the contest with that horrible, watchful, unwinking stare.
But it shortly appeared that the eyes were doing something else besides looking on, for a third tentacle came stealthily gliding along the ground in the direction of the combatants. Luckily, Peter, who, in spite of his excitement, had kept his wits about him, caught sight of it, and comprehended what it meant. Exerting all his strength, he hurled his antagonist from him, and promptly leaped backwards.
Dyossa staggered, stumbled, and then, recovering himself, started to rush again upon the young fellow. But he was too late! The lithe, gliding tentacle had reached him—another moment, and it had leaped up and encircled him, dragging him relentlessly within reach of the shortened, but still active, tentacles, which were waiting to assist. The three coiled round him; and the last Peter saw, as he turned from the horrible sight to follow his friends, was the gleam of deadly hate and despair that shot from the fierce eyes of the doomed wretch.
A few minutes later the whole party were again together on the balcony, where Rulonda now openly showed himself with the rescued captives, looking down with a quiet scorn upon the furious throng who howled at him from below.
"They cannot escape, they cannot get away," he told his wondering friends. "Every door is barred, and they cannot climb the rocky walls. The fools! They should have accepted my terms while yet they were open to them! I would have spared their worthless lives to have saved those of their unhappy captives; but now that their intended victims are safe, I have no mercy in my heart for these murderers. They shall die by the same monster to which they have sacrificed so many innocent victims. I have loosened the fastenings of their monster's cage!"
"Why—what do you mean?" cried the doctor.
"Wait!" was the enigmatic reply. "Wait and see! Watch the great cage!"
Peter was happy now in the company of the brother whom he had tried so hard, and risked so much, to save. Captain Warren was rejoicing at the escape of his friend, Hugh Keene; and all the rest were talking excitedly of the stirring events of the last few minutes, when a sudden increase in the uproar below, and the sound of shrieks and yells that told of some great and terrible terror, caused them all to rush to the front and once more look down.
The top of the immense cage was loose, and a struggling tentacle was seen lifting it slowly higher and higher. Other tentacles crept through the gap, which every moment yawned wider, until, with a deafening crash, the whole massive covering slipped off, and the great monster within, with its huge, staring eyes, and cruel-looking beak, like that of some giant bird of prey, commenced to crawl out of its cage on to the floor.
And now, for the first time, those looking on could see the actual size of this mighty, terrible creature. The shrieking men, upon whom it advanced with horrible deliberation, and with no sound save the ghastly "rustling" of its snaky tentacles, seemed but a few mouthfuls for the monster. They rushed hither, and darted thither, while some climbed as far as they could go up the rocky sides, or scrambled up a pillar or column. But it was all in vain; the powerful tentacles sought them out, grasped them, and held them, one by one, in their fatal embrace.
"Come away—come away!" said the doctor, his face pale with horror. "I have seen enough! May Heaven have mercy upon the miserable wretches!"
THE triumph of Rulonda and his allies was complete. The last of his enemies perished in that awful tragedy within the great Temple of Fire. Not one of them escaped from the place, which became, in effect, their tomb, for Rulonda decreed that it should be used no more as a place of public assembly.
"Let it be closed for ever," he said. "Let the horrible slaughter-house be so sealed up that its bloodstained floor may be hidden for ever from our sight, and from the eyes of our descendants!"
If it had been an ordinary edifice, built with stones, he would have had it razed to the ground. But this could scarcely be done in the case of a mountain of rock; and he had to content himself, therefore, with blocking the entrances with great slabs of rock.
As may be supposed, Ray and his friends, and Peter, came in for a shower of thanks and congratulations for the important and plucky part they had played in the deliverance of the country from the yoke of the cruel hierarchy who had tyrannized so long and so cruelly over the inhabitants. They were publicly thanked, feted, and petted, and lived for a few weeks in the midst of scenes of gaiety and festivity.
Peter was now quite happy. He tended and watched over his brother like an affectionate parent, and, under his care, and the kindness of all around him, the sorely-tried youth soon picked up both in spirits and in health. By degrees, all that he had suffered began to lose its terrors, and to fade, as it were, into the semblance of a long-past, half-forgotten dream.
The three—Ray and the two brothers—were inseparable. They made exploring trips, hunting excursions, and fishing expeditions, together; and, amongst the rest, visited the scene of the adventure with the great lizard of the pool, and spent much time in devising cunning schemes for capturing the monster. In this particular, however, they were disappointed; for they failed to see it again, or to find any trace of its continued existence.
The crew of the Kestrel were given liberal leave ashore, where they were made much of by the grateful citizens, who kept open house for as many as chose to visit them.
There was one great day, especially, when another visit was paid to the tunnels in the ancient volcano; this time to investigate the wondrous treasure-cave. The Beauty and the Beast navigated, once more, those dark, underground waters, and, when the gates had been found and forced open, helped to carry away some of its marvellous stores of gold and jewels. Afterwards, Ray and Peter assisted in the division of a share among the faithful sailors who had so gallantly backed them up, and so uncomplainingly taken their part, in the dangers of their adventurous enterprise.
"What are you going to do with your share, Tom?" asked Ray, of the mate of the Kestrel. "Will you go home to England now, and settle down?"
"Dunno sir," answered honest Tom. "I can't say as yet. I ain't 'ad capen's orders yet."
Ray laughed. "Well," he said, "I don't suppose the captain will order you to stay on the yacht against your wishes. And Gale—what is he going to do, do you suppose? Is he going to settle down?"
A shadow came over Tom's face.
"He'll 'ave t' settle wi' me first," he muttered, darkly. "We've never settled that there argiment as you interrupted, when I was goin' t' explain to 'im what dissiplinatin' meant!"
Dr. Strongfold found himself in a naturalist's paradise, and passed the days in bagging wonderful specimens of all sorts and kinds of new creatures, large and small, and stuffing or mounting them for his collection. For his special behoof, Rulonda induced some of his web-footed friends to visit him, and to allow the doctor to examine them at his leisure. He measured them, sketched them, photographed them, and even began to be able to understand a few words of their language.
As to Captain Warren, that bluff old mariner was a favourite with every one he came across. He entered vigorously into whatever was going—whether hunting, fishing, or dancing; and was discovered, upon one occasion, by Ray and the doctor, spiritedly assisting his two mates to teach some of the natives the hornpipe.
One day, Rulonda sought out the captain and Ray; and as soon as they caught sight of him they knew that something was amiss.
"What's wrong, sir?" Warren asked; while Ray waited and listened, a little anxiously, for the answer.
The reply startled them. It was nothing less than that changes seemed to be taking place in the channels by which they had reached the place from the sea.
"There are frequent landslips—avalanches—from the heights, in places," Rulonda said gravely. "They are bringing down immense masses of rocks, and great quantities of vegetation, and these together are gradually blocking the waterways again; so that I begin to have misgivings as to whether the Kestrel may be prevented from getting back to the open sea!"
At once Warren became the careful skipper, the stern, watchful ship-captain.
"If that is so we must shift forthwith," he declared. "It would never do to stay here, with my vessel, till we were shut in and couldn't get out again!"
"I think you would be wise to move the yacht down to the sea while the way is still open," was Rulonda's advice. "I need not say that I have no wish to cut short your visit, or to lose your companionship—"
"But I think it is time we returned, all the same," said Warren. "Mr. Lonsdale will be back at Sydney, and he will be wondering what has become of us, and will be anxious!"
"Yes!" Ray agreed. "I think you are right, captain—but—" he looked appealingly at Rulonda—"I should like to come again, sir, and bring my father. He will want to thank you for your kindness to us all!"
"Come again, and bring Mr. Lonsdale by all means!" was the hearty answer. "You will always be welcomed in Toraylia!"
Their preparations were quickly completed, and the Kestrel made her way to the place where she had anchored on that memorable night when she had been attacked by Belfendi's piratical craft. On board went, not only Captain Warren's friend, Hugh Keene, but also Peter and Oliver, who had decided to resume their interrupted journey to South America, where they hoped to be able to find some of their father's relatives.
From the difficulties the Kestrel met with in the passage of the waterway it was certain that Rulonda's warning had been well founded, and had been given none too soon. Indeed, Captain Warren at times looked something more than anxious, and evidently breathed more freely when the open sea was finally reached.
Some galleys accompanied them to the end of the channel; and then there was a warm leave-taking. The Kestrel fired her guns by way of salute, and steamed away with a great display of bunting in her rigging and ringing cheers from her crew, which were answered by shouts from the occupants of the galleys.
And that was the last the adventurers saw of their friends. An hour or two later they lost sight of the low-lying shores, and Ray turned his thoughts to the expected meeting with his father, and to the agreeable surprise in store for him.
For, as Peter had predicted, he had come away rich—wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. So, indeed, had all on board. No need was there for any of them to court further adventure, at any rate in search of gain. All brought back something more than a competency; while Ray had the satisfaction, when he met his father, of handing over to him a fortune which even some millionaires might envy.
"We can carry out our dream now, father," said Ray, "of settling down in South America. Peter and his brother want to live there, too; so we can all be near each other; and Captain Warren—"
"Pooh, pooh!I shall never settle down!" the old seaman declared.
"Well; we shall live near the sea, of course, and shall look forward to a cruise now and again in the dear old Kestrel; and of course we couldn't trust any one but you to sail her for us!"
"Pooh, pooh! I know what that means," the captain declared, with a twinkle in his eye. "It means that after settling down, as ye call it, for a while, ye'll be wanting to be off again after some other adventure. I don't mind, as you say, an occasional cruise, but," and here he looked at Mr. Lonsdale for approval, "we don't want any more such exciting times as we had with those old pirate swabs, the Priests of the Temple of Fire!"
For the information of those readers who are interested in Natural History, the following notes are appended by the author:
People with Webbed Feet.—These beings are not altogether a creation of the imagination. They have quite recently been discovered in the large island of New Guinea, in territory which, though it has belonged to Great Britain for many years, has only lately been explored.
The region in which they were met with includes extensive tracts of swamp and morass, lying not far from the equator. Here there is a rank undergrowth, and an immense amount of floating weed and other vegetation, amongst which pedestrian locomotion is impossible, and even navigation in canoes is extremely difficult.
It was in these almost impenetrable wildernesses that a Government exploring party came in touch with several extraordinary races or tribes of Swamp-dwellers, whose existence was previously unknown to, and unsuspected by, scientists. Some of these have webbed feet; and of most of them it is recorded that their physical development seems to have been quite altered by their gradual adaptation, through successive ages, to their surroundings.
Thus, Sir Francis P. Winter, the Acting Commissioner of New Guinea, says in his Report:
"It is evident that their mode of life has reacted upon their physical development, with the result that they are not able to walk properly upon dry ground, their feet bleeding if they try to do so.
"They are, however, expert swimmers, gliding through beds of reeds, or over masses of floating vegetable matter, with ease."
Describing some of the extraordinary "physical developments " alluded to, Sir Francis says of one:
"He would have been a fair-sized native had his body, from the hips downwards, been proportionate to the upper part of his frame. He had a good chest and a thick neck, and his arms matched his trunk; but the lower limbs were out of all proportion to the rest of the body. The skin above the knees was in loose folds, and round the loins there were also several folds of thick skin or muscle. The feet were very thin and flat, and seemed to rest on the ground something like wooden feet would do. In figure and carriage he was more ape-like than any human being I have ever seen."
Of others of these swamp-dwellers we are told that they were dwarfs with enormously long arms, and that they were reputed to be "very wild and repulsive cannibals."
Gigantic Cuttle-Fish.—That creatures of the octopus, or cuttle-fish, kind, of immense size, actually exist in the sea in some places, is now known as a scientific fact, though it is only within recent times that it has been admitted by naturalists. Victor Hugo's large octopus, described by him in his book, Toilers of the Sea, a few years ago, was derided by many scientists because he therein described a man as being seized and drowned by such a creature. Yet, since that time, it has become known that specimens of the family have been met with of such size that the one depicted by the famous French author would have been small by comparison.
The reason that so remarkable a fact had not been sooner demonstrated to the satisfaction of scientists lies in the circumstance that these creatures possess no bones. If a whale eighty or ninety feet in length is stranded upon a lonely shore, there is a skeleton left to testify to its size long after the flesh has rotted away. With the cuttle-fish or octopus it is not so; there is no skeleton. Hence the accounts of fishermen who have met with and killed these awful monsters of the deep have been ridiculed by experts, in many cases, because the carcases have melted away and disappeared before some authority, whose description would be accepted as indisputable, has arrived on the scene.
Latterly, however, parts of specimens of gigantic size have been rescued and preserved in spirits by naturalists, who have placed them in museums, where they may now be seen, notably in St. John's, Newfoundland, New York, and the British Museum. Chambers' Journal for August 28,1897 ("Science and Art " column), thus describes a "find" of this description, to which it is only necessary to add that it is not by any means the largest known discovery:
"Part of a large octopus, the proportions of which must throw all descriptions of such an animal by imaginative writers into the shade, was lately cast upon the beach near St. Augustine, Florida. Professor Verril, of Yale University, examined the curious derelict, and believed it to be a distinct species from all known forms, and he suggested that it should be named Octopus Giganticus. The part of the creature thrown up by the sea weighed six tons, and it is calculated that the living animal must have had a body with a length of 26 feet, and a girth of 5 feet, with 'arms' or 'tentacles' 72 feet long, provided with suckers as large as dinner plates."
Flesh-eating Anemone-like Plants—The flesh-eating plants described in the course of the story are but a variation of the common sea-anemone familiar to most visitors to the seaside. These creatures are half plants and half flesh-eating marine animals. The smaller ones live on minute creatures of the sea, while the larger ones will seize and devour shrimps and even small crabs which happen to pass within their reach. They appear to be growing like plants to the rocks to which they attach themselves, but they have the power of moving from one place to another, and frequently do so if they find they cannot get enough food at the spot first fixed upon. In Jersey, Sark, and others of the rocky Channel Islands, some of the caves which are filled by the sea at every tide contain large numbers of these strange creatures of all sizes, some of them very brilliantly coloured, forming a remarkable display when the caves are visited at low water. In similar caves in the tropics they grow to an immense size.