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Under the Andes(Chapter8)

2006-09-07 21:23

  Chapter VIII. The Dance of the Sun.

  It seemed to me then in the minutes that followed that there were thousands of black demons in that black hole. At the first rushing impact I shouted to Harry: "Keep your back to the wall," and for response I got a high, ringing laugh that breathed the joy of battle.

  The thing was sickening. Harry is a natural fighting man; I am not. Without the wall at our backs we would have been overpowered in thirty seconds; as it was, we were forced to handle half a dozen of them at once, while the others surged in from behind. They had no weapons, but they had the advantage of being able to see us.

  They clutched my throat, my arms, my legs, my body; there was no room to strike; I pushed the knife home. They fastened themselves to my legs and feet and tried to bring me down from beneath; once, in slashing at the head of one whose teeth were set in my calf, I cut myself on the knee. It was difficult to stand in the wet, slippery pool that formed at my feet.

  Suddenly I heard a sound that I understood too well——the curious, rattling sound of a man who is trying to call out when he is being strangled.

  "Harry!" I cried, and I fought like a wild man to get to him, with knife, feet, hands, teeth. I reached his coat, his arm; it was dangerous to strike so near him in the dark, but I felt him sinking to the ground.

  Then I found the taut, straining fingers about his throat, and lunged forward with the knife——and the fingers relaxed.

  Again we were fighting together side by side.

  As their bodies fell in front of us we were pressed harder, for those behind climbed up on the corpses of their fellows and literally descended on our heads from the air. We could not have held out much longer; our breath was coming in quick, painful gasps; Harry stumbled on one of the prostrate brutes and fell; I tried to lift him and was unequal to the task.

  It appeared to be the end.

  Suddenly there rang throughout the cavern a sound as of a gigantic, deep-toned bell. The walls sent it back and forth with deafening echoes; it was as though the mountain had descended with one tremendous crash into its own bowels.

  As though by magic, the assault ceased.

  The effect was indescribable. We could see nothing; we merely became suddenly aware that there were no longer hands clutching at our throats or hairy bodies crushing us to the ground. It was as though the horde of unseen devils had melted into thin air. There were movements on the ground, for many of them had been wounded; a man cannot always reach the spot in the dark. This lasted for two or three minutes; they were evidently removing those who still had life in them, for the straining breath of men dragging or lifting burdens was plainly audible.

  Gradually that, too, died away with the last reverberations of the mysterious sound that had saved us, and we found ourselves alone——or at least unmolested——for in the darkness we could see nothing, except the dim outlines of the prostrate forms at our feet.

  The cavern was a shambles. The smell was that of a slaughter-house. I had had no idea of the desperateness of our defense until I essayed to scramble over the heap of bodies to dry ground; I shuddered and grew faint, and Harry was in no better case.

  Worse, he had dropped his knife when we stumbled, and we were forced to grope round in that unspeakable mess for many minutes before we found it.

  "Are you hurt, lad?" I asked when once we stood clear.

  "Nothing bad, I think," he answered. "My throat is stiff, and two or three of the brutes got their teeth in me. In the name of Heaven, Paul, what are they? And what was that bell?"

  These were foolish questions, and I told him so. My leg was bleeding badly where I had slashed myself, and I, too, had felt their teeth. But, despite our utter weariness and our wounds, we wanted nothing——not even rest——so badly as we wanted to get away from that awful heap of flesh and blood and the odor of it.

  Besides, we did not know at what moment they might return. So I spoke, and Harry agreed. I led the way; he followed.

  But which way to turn? We wanted water, both for our dry and burning throats and for our wounds; and rest and food. We thought little of safety. One way seemed as likely as another, so we set out with our noses as guides.

  A man encounters very few misfortunes in this world which, later in life, he finds himself unable to laugh at; well, for me that endless journey was one of the few.

  Every step was torture. I had bandaged the cut on my leg as well as possible, but it continued to bleed. But it was imperative that we should find water, and we struggled on, traversing narrow passages and immense caverns, always in complete darkness, stumbling over unseen rocks and encountering sharp corners of cross passages.

  It lasted I know not how many hours. Neither of us would have survived alone. Time and again Harry sank to the ground and refused to rise until I perforce lifted him; once we nearly came to blows. And I was guilty of the same weakness.

  But the despair of one inspired the other with fresh strength and courage, and we struggled forward, slower and slower. It was soul-destroying work. I believe that in the last hour we made not more than half a mile. I know now that for the greater part of the time we were merely retracing our steps in a vicious circle!

  It was well that it ended when it did, for we could not have held out much longer. Harry was leading the way, for I had found that that slight responsibility fortified him. We no longer walked, we barely went forward, staggering and reeling like drunken men.

  Suddenly Harry stopped short, so suddenly that I ran against him; and at the same time I felt a queer sensation——for I was too far gone to recognize it——about my feet.

  Then Harry stooped over quickly, half knocking me down as he did so, and dropped to his knees; and the next instant gave an unsteady cry of joy:

  "Water! Man, it's water!"

  How we drank and wallowed, and wallowed and drank! That water might have contained all the poisons in the world and we would have neither known nor cared. But it was cool, fresh, living——and it saved our lives.

  We bathed our wounds and bandaged them with strips from our shirts. Then we arranged our clothing for cushions and pillows as well as possible, took another drink, and lay down to sleep.

  We must have slept a great many hours. There was no way to judge of time, but when we awoke our joints were as stiff as though they had gotten rusty with the years. I was brought to consciousness by the sound of Harry's voice calling my name.

  Somehow——for every movement was exquisite pain——we got to our feet and reached the water, having first removed our clothing. But we were now at that point where to drink merely aggravated our hunger. Harry was in a savage humor, and when I laughed at him he became furious.

  "Have some sense. I tell you, I must eat! If it were not for your——"

  "Go easy, Hal. Don't say anything you'll be sorry for. And I refuse to consider the sordid topic of food as one that may rightfully contain the elements of tragedy. We seem to be in the position of the king of vaudeville. If we had some ham we'd have some ham and eggs——if we had some eggs."

  "You may joke, but I am not made of iron!" he cried.

  "And what can we do but die?" I demanded. "Do you think there is any chance of our getting out of this? Take it like a man. Is it right for a man who has laughed at the world to begin to whine when it becomes necessary to leave it?

  "You know I'm with you; I'll fight, and what I find I'll take; in the mean time I prefer not to furnish amusement for the devil. There comes a time, I believe, when the stomach debases us against our wills. May I die before I see it."

  "But what are we to do?"

  "That's more like it. There's only one hope. We must smell out the pantry that holds the dried fish."

  We talked no more, but set about bathing and dressing our wounds. Gad, how that cold water took them! I was forced to set my teeth deep into my lip to keep from crying out, and once or twice Harry gave an involuntary grunt of pain that would not be suppressed.

  When we had finished we waded far to the right to take a last deep drink; then sought our clothing and prepared to start on our all but hopeless search. We had become fairly well limbered up by that time and set out with comparative ease.

  We had gone perhaps a hundred yards, bearing off to the right, when Harry gave a sudden cry: "My knife is gone!" and stopped short. I clapped my hand to my own belt instinctively, and found it empty both of knife and gun! For a moment we stood in silence; then:

  "Have you got yours?" he demanded.

  When I told him no he let out an oath.

  His gun was gone, also. We debated the matter, and decided that to attempt a search would be a useless waste of time; it was next to certain that the weapons had been lost in the water when we had first plunged in. And so, doubly handicapped by this new loss, we again set out.

  There was but one encouragement allowed to us: we were no longer in total darkness. Gradually our eyes were becoming accustomed to the absence of light; and though we could by no means see clearly, nor even could properly be said to see at all, still we began to distinguish the outlines of walls several feet away; and, better than that, each of us could plainly mark the form and face of the other.

  Once we stood close, less than a foot apart, for a test; and when Harry cried eagerly, "Thank Heaven, I can see your nose!" our strained feelings were relieved by a prolonged burst of genuine laughter.

  There was little enough of it in the time that followed, for our sufferings now became a matter not of minutes or hours, but of days. The assault of time is the one that unnerves a man, especially when it is aided by gnawing pain and weariness and hunger; it saps the courage and destroys the heart and fires the brain.

  We dragged ourselves somehow ever onward. We found water; the mountain was honeycombed with underground streams; but no food. More than once we were tempted to trust ourselves to one of those rushing torrents, but what reason we had left told us that our little remaining strength was unequal to the task of keeping our heads above the surface. And yet the thought was sweet——to allow ourselves to be peacefully swept into oblivion.

  We lost all idea of time and direction, and finally hope itself deserted us. What force it was that propelled us forward must have been buried deep within the seat of animal instinct, for we lost all rational power. The thing became a nightmare, like the crazy wanderings of a lost soul.

  Forward——forward——forward! It was a mania.

  Then Harry was stricken with fever and became delirious. And I think it was that seeming misfortune that saved us, for it gave me a spring for action and endowed me with new life. As luck would have it, a stream of water was near, and I half carried and half dragged him to its edge.

  I made a bed for him with my own clothing on the hard rock, and bathed him and made him drink, while all the time a string of delirious drivel poured forth from his hot, dry lips.

  That lasted many hours, until finally he fell into a deep, calm sleep. But his body was without fuel, and I was convinced he would never awaken; yet I feared to touch him. Those were weary hours, squatting by his side with his hand gripped in my own, with the ever-increasing pangs of hunger and weariness turning my own body into a roaring furnace of pain.

  Suddenly I felt a movement of his hand; and then came his voice, weak but perfectly distinct:

  "Well, Paul, this is the end."

  "Not yet, Harry boy; not yet."

  I tried to put cheer and courage into my own voice, but with poor success.

  "I——think——so. I say, Paul——I've just seen Desiree."

  "All right, Hal."

  "Oh, you don't need to talk like that; I'm not delirious now. I guess it must have been a dream. Do you remember that morning on the mountain——in Colorado——when you came on us suddenly at sunrise? Well, I saw her there——only you were with her instead of me. So, of course, she must be dead."

  His logic was beyond me, but I pressed his hand to let him know that I understood.

  "And now, old man, you might as well leave me. This is the end. You've been a good sport. We made a fight, didn't we? If only Desiree——but there! To Hades with women, I say!"

  "Not that——don't be a poor loser, Hal. And you're not gone yet. When a man has enough fight in him to beat out an attack of fever he's very much alive."

  But he would not have it so. I let him talk, and he rambled on, with scarcely an idea of what he was saying. The old days possessed his mind, and, to tell the truth, the sentiment found a welcome in my own bosom. I said to myself, "This is death."

  And then, lifting my head to look down the dark passage that led away before us, I sprang to my feet with a shout and stood transfixed with astonishment. And the next instant there came a cry of wonder from Harry:

  "A light! By all the gods, a light!"

  So it was. The passage lay straight for perhaps three hundred yards. There it turned abruptly; and the corner thus formed was one blaze of flickering but brilliant light which flowed in from the hidden corridor.

  It came and went, and played fitfully on the granite walls; still it remained. It was supernaturally brilliant; or so it seemed to us, who had lived in utter darkness for many days.

  I turned to Harry, and the man who had just been ready to die was rising to his feet!

  "Wait a minute——not so fast!" I said half angrily, springing to support him. "And, for Heaven's sake, don't make any noise! We're in no condition to fight now, and you know what that light means."

  "But what is it?" demanded the boy excitedly. "Come on, man—— let's go!"

  To tell the truth, I felt as eager as he. For the first time I understood clearly why the Bible and ancient mythology made such a fuss about the lighting up of the world. Modern civilization is too far away from its great natural benefits to appreciate them properly.

  And here was a curious instance of the force of habit——or, rather, instinct——in man. So long as Harry and I had remained in the dark passage and byways of the cavern we had proceeded almost entirely without caution, with scarcely a thought of being discovered.

  But the first sight of light made us wary and careful and silent; and yet we knew perfectly well that the denizens of this underworld could see as well in the darkness as in the light—— perhaps even better. So difficult is it to guide ourselves by the human faculty of pure reason.

  Harry was so weak he was barely able to stand, even in the strength of this new excitement and hope, and we were forced to go very slowly; I supported him as well as I was able, being myself anything but an engine of power. But the turn in the passage was not far away, and we reached it in a quarter of an hour or less.

  Before we made the turn we halted. Harry was breathing heavily even from so slight an exertion, and I could scarcely suppress a cry of amazement when, for the first time in many days, the light afforded me a view of his face.

  It was drawn and white and sunken; the eyes seemed set deep in his skull as they blinked painfully; and the hair on his chin and lip and cheeks had grown to a length incredible in so short a space of time. I soon had reason to know that I probably presented no better an appearance, for he was staring at me as though I were some strange monster.

  "Good Heavens, man, you took like a ghost!" he whispered.

  I nodded; my arm was round his shoulder.

  "Now, let's see what this light means. Be ready for anything, Harry——though Heaven knows we can find nothing worse than we've had. Here, put your arm on my shoulder. Take it easy."

  We advanced to the corner together within the patch of light and turned to the right, directly facing its source.

  It is impossible to convey even a faint idea of the wild and hugely fantastic sight that met our gaze. With us it was a single, vivid flash to the astonished brain. These are the details:

  Before us was an immense cavern, circular in shape, with a diameter of some half a mile. It seemed to me then much larger; from where we stood it appeared to be at least two miles to the opposite side. There was no roof to be seen; it merely ascended into darkness, though the light carried a great distance.

  All round the vast circumference, on terraced seats of rock, squatted row after row of the most completely hideous beings within possibility.

  They were men; I suppose they must have the name. They were about four feet tall, with long, hairy arms and legs, bodies of a curious, bloated appearance, and eyes——the remainder of the face was entirely concealed by thick hair——eyes dull and vacant, of an incredibly large size; they had the appearance of ghouls, apes, monsters——anything but human beings.

  They sat, thousands of them, crouched silently on their stone seats, gazing, motionless as blocks of wood.

  The center of the cavern was a lake, taking up something more than half of its area. The water was black as night, and curiously smooth and silent. Its banks sloped by degrees for a hundred feet or so, but at its edge there was a perpendicular bank of rock fifteen or twenty feet in height.

  Near the middle of the lake, ranged at an equal distance from its center and from each other, were three——what shall I call them?——islands, or columns. They were six or eight feet across at their top, which rose high above the water.

  On top of each of these columns was a huge vat or urn, and from each of the urns arose a steady, gigantic column of fire. These it was that gave the light, and it was little wonder we had thought it brilliant, since the flames rose to a height of thirty feet or more in the air.

  But that which left us speechless with profound amazement was not the endless rows of silent, grinning dwarfs, nor the black, motionless lake, nor the leaping tongues of flame. We forgot these when we followed the gaze of that terrifying audience and saw a sight that printed itself on my brain with a vividness which time can never erase. Closing my eyes, I see it even now, and I shudder.

  Exactly in the center of the lake, in the midst of the columns of fire, was a fourth column, built of some strangely lustrous rock. Prisms of a formation new to me——innumerable thousands of them——caused its sides to sparkle and glisten like an immense tower of whitest diamonds, blinding the eye.

  The effect was indescribable. The huge cavern was lined and dotted with the rays shot forth from their brilliant angles. The height of this column was double that of the others; it rose straight toward the unseen dome of the cavern to the height of a hundred feet.

  It was cylindrical in shape, not more than ten feet in diameter. And on its top, high above the surface of the lake, surrounded by the mounting tongues of flame, whirled and swayed and bent the figure of a woman.

  Her limbs and body, which were covered only by long, flowing strands of golden hair, shone and glistened strangely in the lurid, weird light. And of all the ten thousand reflections that shot at us from the length of the column not one was so brilliant, so blinding, as the wild glow of her eyes.

  Her arms, upraised above her head, kept time with and served as a key to every movement of her white, supple body. She glided across, back and forth, now this way, now that, to the very edge of the dizzy height, with wild abandon, or slow, measured grace, or the rushing sweep of a panther.

  The thing was beauty incarnate——the very idea of beauty itself realized and perfected. It was staggering, overwhelming. Have you ever stood before a great painting or a beautiful statue and felt a thrill——the thrill of perception——run through your body to the very tips of your fingers?

  Well, imagine that thrill multiplied a thousandfold and you will understand the sensation that overpowered me as I beheld, in the midst of that dazzling blaze of light, the matchless Dance of the Sun.

  For I recognized it at once. I had never seen it, but it had been minutely described to me——described by a beautiful and famous woman as I sat on the deck of a yacht steaming into the harbor of Callao.

  She had promised me then that she would dance it for me some day——

  I looked at Harry, who had remained standing beside me, gazing as I had gazed. His eyes were opened wide, staring at the swaying figure on the column in the most profound astonishment.

  He took his hand from my shoulder and stood erect, alone; and I saw the light of recognition and hope and deepest joy slowly fill his eyes and spread over his face. Then I realized the danger, and I endeavored once more to put my arm round his shoulder; but he shook me off with hot impatience. He leaped forward with the quickness of lightning, eluding my frantic grasp, and dashed straight into the circle of blazing light!

  I followed, but too late. At the edge of the lake he stopped, and, stretching forth his arms toward the dancer on the column, he cried out in a voice that made the cavern ring:

  "Desiree! Desiree! Desiree!"

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