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Under the Andes(Chapter17)

2006-09-07 21:27

  Chapter XVII. The Eyes in the Dark.

  The thing was at a considerable distance; we could barely see that it was there and that it was moving. It was of an immense size; so large that it appeared as though the very side of the cavern itself had moved noiselessly from its bed in the mountain.

  At the same moment I became aware of a penetrating, disagreeable odor, nauseating and horrible. I had risen to my knees and remained so, while Harry and Desiree stood on either side of me.

  The thing continued to move toward us, very slowly. There was not a sound. The strength of the odor increased until it was almost suffocating.

  Still we did not move. I could not, and Harry and Desiree seemed rooted to the spot with wonder. The thing came closer, and we could see the outlines of its huge form looming up indistinctly against the black background of the cavern.

  I saw, or thought I saw, a grotesque and monstrous slimy head stretched toward us from about the middle of its bulk.

  That doubt became a certainty when suddenly, as though they had been lit by a fire from within, two luminous, glowing spots appeared about three feet apart. The creature's eyes——if eyes they were——were turned full on us, growing more brilliant as the thing came closer. It was now less than fifty feet away. The massive form blocked our view of the entire cavern.

  I pinched my nostrils to exclude the horrible odor which, like the fumes of some deadly poison, choked and smothered me. It came now in puffs, like a draft of a fetid wind, and I realized that it was the creature's breath. I could feel it against my body, my neck and face, and knew that if I breathed it full into my lungs I should be overcome.

  But still more terrifying were the eyes. There was something compelling, supernaturally compelling, about their steadfast and brilliant gaze. A mysterious power seemed to emanate from them; a power that hypnotized the mind and deadened the senses. I closed my eyes to avoid it, but was unable to keep them closed. They opened despite my extreme effort, and again I met that gaze of fire.

  There was a movement at my side. I turned and saw that it came from Desiree. Her hands were raised to her face; she was holding them before her as though in a futile attempt to cover her eyes.

  The thing came closer and closer; it was but a few feet away, and still we did not move, as though rooted to the spot by some power beyond our control.

  Suddenly there came a cry from Desiree's lips——a scream of terror and wild fear. Her entire form trembled violently.

  She extended her arms toward the thing, now almost upon us, and took a step forward. Her feet dragged unwilling along the ground, as though she were being drawn forward by some irresistible force.

  I tried to put out my hand to pull her back, but was absolutely unable to move. Harry stood like a man of rock, immovable.

  She took another step forward, with arms outstretched in front of her. A low moan of terror and piteous appeal came from between her slightly parted lips.

  Suddenly the eyes disappeared. The huge form ceased to advance and stood perfectly still. Then it began to recede, so slowly that I was barely conscious of the movement.

  I was gasping and choking for air; my chest seemed swelling with the poisonous breath. Still slowly the thing receded into the dimness of the cavern; the eyes were no longer to be seen——merely the huge, formless bulk. Desiree had stopped short with one foot advanced, as though hesitating and struggling with the desire to go forward.

  The thing now could barely be seen at a distance; it would have been impossible if we had not known it was there. Finally it disappeared, melting away into the semi-darkness; no slightest movement was discernible. I breathed more freely and stepped forward.

  As I did so Desiree threw her hands gropingly above her head and fell fainting to the ground.

  Harry sprang forward in time to keep her head from striking on the rock and knelt with his arms round her shoulders. We had nothing, not even water, with which to revive her; he called her name aloud appealingly. Soon her eyes opened; she raised her hand and passed it across her brow wonderingly.

  "God help me!" she murmured in a low voice, eloquent of distress and pain.

  Then she pushed Harry aside and rose slowly to her feet, refusing his assistance.

  "In the name of Heaven, what is it?" Harry demanded, turning to me.

  "We have found the devil at last," I answered, with an attempt to laugh, which sounded hollow in my own ears.

  Desiree could tell us nothing, except that she had felt herself drawn forward by some strange power that had seemed to come from the baneful, glittering eyes. She was bewildered and stunned and unable to talk coherently. We assisted her to the wall, and she sat there with her back propped against it, breathing heavily from the exhaustion of terror.

  "We must find water," I said, and Harry nodded, hesitating.

  I understood him. Danger could not have stayed him nor fear, but the horror of the thing which roamed about the cavern, dark as darkness itself and possessed of some strange power that could not be withstood, was enough to make him pause. For myself it was impossible; I was barely able to stand. So Harry went off alone in search of water and I stayed with Desiree.

  It was perhaps half an hour before he returned, and we were shaken with fear for him long before he appeared. When he did so it was with a white face and trembling limbs, in spite of his evident effort at steadiness.

  "There is water over there," said he, pointing across the cavern. "A stream runs across the corner and disappears beneath the wall. There is nothing to carry it in. You must come with me."

  "What has happened?" I asked, for even his voice was unsteady.

  "I saw it," he replied simply, but expressing enough in those three words to cause a shudder to run through me.

  Then, speaking in a low tone that Desiree might not hear, he told me that the thing had confronted him suddenly as he was following the opposite wall, and that he, too, had been drawn forward, as it were, by a spell impossible to shake off. He had tried to cry aloud, but had been unable to utter a sound. And suddenly, as before, the eyes had disappeared, leaving him barely able to stand.

  "No wonder the Incas wouldn't follow us in here," he finished. "We must get out of this. I'm not a coward, but I wouldn't go through that again for my life."

  "You take Desiree," said I. "I want that water."

  He led us around the wall several hundred feet. The ground was level and clear of obstruction; but we went slowly, for I could scarcely move. Harry kept his eyes strained intently on all sides; his experience had left him more profoundly impressed even than he had been willing to admit to me.

  Soon we heard the low music of running water, and a minute later we reached the stream Harry had found.

  The fact that there was something to be done seemed to infuse a new spirit into Desiree, and soon her deft fingers were bathing my wounds and bandaging them as well as her poor material would allow.

  The cold water took the heat from my pumping veins and left me almost comfortable. Harry had come off much easier than I, since I had so often sent him ahead with Desiree, and myself brought up the rear and withstood the brunt of the attack.

  As Harry had said, the stream cut across a corner of the cavern, disappearing beneath the opposite wall, forming a triangle bound by two sides of the cavern and the stream itself. I saw plainly that it would be impossible for me to move any distance for at least a few days, and that triangle appeared to offer the safest and most comfortable retreat.

  I spoke to Harry, and he waded across the stream to try its depth. From the other side he called that the water was at no point more than waist-high, and Desiree and I started to cross; but about the middle I felt the current about to sweep me off my feet. Harry waded in and helped me ashore.

  On that hard rock we lay for many weary hours. We had no food; but for that I would soon have been myself again, for, though my wounds were numerous, they were little more than scratches, with the exception of the gash on my shoulder. Weakened as I was by loss of blood, and lacking nourishment, I improved but slowly, and only the cold water kept the fever from me.

  Twice Harry went out in search of food and of an exit from the cavern. The first time he was away for several hours, and returned exhausted and empty-handed and without having found any exit other than the one by which we had entered.

  He had ventured through that far enough to see a group of Incas on watch at the other end. They had seen him and sprung after him, but he had returned without injury, and at the entrance into the cavern where we lay they had halted abruptly.

  The second time he was gone out more than half an hour, and the instant I saw his face when he returned I knew what had happened.

  But I was not in the best of humor; his terror appeared to me to be ridiculously childish, and I said so in no uncertain terms.

  But he was too profoundly agitated to show any anger.

  "You don't know, you don't know," was all he said in answer to me; then he added; "I can't stand this any longer. I tell you we've got to get out of here. You don't know how awful——"

  "Yes," said Desiree, looking at me.

  "But I can scarcely walk," I objected.

  "True," said Harry. "I know. But we can help you. There must be another exit, and we'll start now."

  "Very well," I said quite calmly; and I picked up one of the spears which we had carried with us, and, rising to my knees, placed the butt of the shaft against the wall near which I lay.

  But Harry saw my purpose, and was too quick for me. He sprang across and snatched the spear from my hand and threw it on the ground a dozen feet away.

  "Are you crazy?" he shouted angrily.

  "No," I answered; "but I am little better, and I doubt if I shall be. Come——why not? I hinder you and become bored with myself."

  "You blame me," he said bitterly; "but I tell you you don't know. Very well——we stay. You must give me your promise not to act the fool."

  "In any event, you must go soon," I answered, "or starve to death. Perhaps in another twenty-four hours I shall be stronger. Come, Desiree; will that satisfy you?"

  She did not answer; her back was turned to us as she stood gazing across the stream into the depths of the cavern. There was a curious tenseness in her attitude that made me follow her gaze, and what I saw left me with no wonder at it——a huge, black, indistinct form that moved slowly toward us through the darkness.

  Harry caught sight of it at the same moment as myself, and on the instant he turned about, covering his face with his hands, and called to Desiree and me to do likewise.

  Desiree obeyed; I had risen to my knees and remained so, gazing straight ahead, ready for a combat if it were not a physical one. I will not say that a certain feeling of dread did not rise in my heart, but I intended to show Desiree and Harry the childishness of their terror.

  Nothing could be seen but the uncertain outline of the immense bulk; but the same penetrating, sickening odor that had before all but suffocated me came faintly across the surface of the stream, growing stronger with each second that passed. Suddenly the eyes appeared——two glowing orbs of fire that caught my gaze and held it as with a chain.

  I did not attempt to avoid it, but returned the gaze with another as steadfast. I was telling myself: "Let us see this trick and play one stronger." My nerves centered throbbingly back of my eyes, and I gave them the whole force of my will.

  The thing came closer and the eyes seemed to burn into my very brain. With a great effort I brought myself back to control, dropping to my hands and knees and gripping the ground for strength.

  "This is nothing, this is nothing," I kept saying to myself aloud——until I realized suddenly that my voice had risen almost to a scream, and I locked my teeth tight on my lip.

  I no longer returned the gaze from my own power; it held me of itself. I felt my brain grow curiously numb and every muscle in my body contracted with a pain almost unbearable. Still the thing came closer and closer, and it seemed to me, half dazed as I was, that it advanced much faster than before.

  Then suddenly I felt a sensation of cold and moisture on my arms and legs and a pressure against my body, and I realized, as in a dream, that I had entered the stream of water!

  I was crawling toward the thing on my hands and knees, without having even been conscious that I had moved.

  That brought despair and a last supreme struggle to resist whatever mysterious power it was that dragged me forward.

  Cold beads of sweat rolled from my forehead. Beneath the surface of the water my hands gripped the rocks as in a vise. My teeth had sunk deep into my lower lip and covered my chin with blood, though I did not know that till afterward.

  But I was pulled loose from my hold, and forward. I bent the whole force of my will to the effort not to move, but my hand left the rock and crept forward. I was fully conscious of what I was doing. I knew that if I could once draw my eyes away from that compelling gaze the spell would be broken, but the power to do so was not in me.

  The thing had halted on the farther bank of the stream. Still I moved forward. The water now lapped against my chest; soon it was about my shoulders.

  I was fully conscious of the fact that in another ten feet the surface would close over my head, and that I had not the strength to swim or fight the current; but still I went forward. I tried to cry out, but could force no sound through my lips.

  Then suddenly the eyes began to disappear. But that at least was comprehensible, for I could distinctly see the black and heavy lids closing over them, like the curtain on a stage. They fell slowly.

  The eyes became half moons, then narrowed to a thin slit. I rose, panting like a man exhausted with extreme and prolonged physical exertion.

  The eyes were gone.

  A mad impulse rushed into my brain to dash forward and touch the monster, to see if that dim, black form were really a thing of flesh and blood or some contrivance of the devil. I smile at that phrase as I write it now in my study, but I did not smile then. I was standing above my knees in the water, trembling from head to foot, divided between the impulse to go forward and the inclination to flee in terror.

  I did neither; I stood still. I could see the thing with a fair amount of distinctness and forced my brain to take the record of my eyes. But I could make nothing of it.

  I guessed at rather than saw a hideous head rolling from side to side at the end of a long and sinuous neck, and writhing, reptilian coils lashing the rock at the edge of the water, like the tentacles of an octopus, only many times larger. The body itself was larger than that of any animal I had ever seen, and blacker even than the darkness.

  Suddenly the huge mass began to move slowly backward. The sharpness of the odor had ceased with the opening of the eyes, which did not reappear. I could dimly see its huge legs slowly rise and recede and again meet the ground. Soon the thing was barely discernible.

  I took a step forward as though to follow; but the strength of the current warned me of the danger of proceeding farther, and, besides, I feared every moment to see the lids again raised from the terrible eyes. The thought attacked my brain with horror, and I turned and fled in a sudden panic to the rear, calling to Harry and Desiree.

  They met me at the edge of the stream, and their eyes told me that they read in my face what had happened, though they had seen nothing.

  "You——you saw it——" Harry stammered.

  I nodded, scarcely able to speak.

  "Then——perhaps now——"

  "Yes," I interposed. "Let's get out of here. It's horrible. And yet how can we go? I can hardly stand."

  But Harry was now the one who argued for delay, saying that our retreat was the safest place we could find, and that we should wait at least until I had had time to recover from the strain of the last half-hour. Realizing that in my weakened condition I would be a hindrance to them rather than a help, I consented. Besides, if the thing reappeared I could avoid it as Harry and Desiree had done.

  "What is it?" Harry asked presently.

  We were sitting side by side, well up against the wall. It was an abrupt question, with no apparent pertinence, but I understood.

  "Heaven knows!" I answered shortly. I was none too pleased with myself.

  "But it must be something. Is it an animal?"

  "Do you remember," I asked by way of answer, "a treatise of Aristotle concerning which we had a discussion one day? Its subject was the hypnotic power possessed by the eyes of certain reptiles. I laughed the idea to scorn; you maintained that it was possible. Well, I agree with you; and I'd like to have about a dozen of our modern skeptical scientists in this cave with me for about five minutes."

  "But what is it? A reptile!" Harry exclaimed. "The thing is as big as a house!"

  "Well, and why not? I should guess that it is about thirty feet in height and forty or fifty in length. There have been species, now extinct, several times as large."

  "Then you think it is just——just an animal?" put in Desiree.

  "What did you think it was?" I nearly smiled. "An infernal machine?"

  "I don't know. Only I have never before known what it was to fear."

  A discussion which led us nowhere, but at least gave us the sound of one another's voices.

  We passed many hours in that manner. Utterly blank and wearisome, and all but hopeless. I have often wondered at the strange tenacity with which we clung to life in conditions that made of it a burden almost insupportable; and with what chance of relief?

  The instinct of self-preservation, it is called by the learned, but it needs a stronger name. It is more than an instinct. It is the very essence of life itself.

  But soon we were impelled to action by something besides the desire to escape from the cavern: the pangs of hunger. It had been many hours since we had eaten; I think we had fasted not less than three or four days.

  Desiree began to complain of a dizziness in her temples, and to weaken with every hour that passed. My own strength did not increase, and I saw that it would not unless I could obtain nourishment. Harry did not complain, but only because he would not.

  "It is useless to wait longer," I declared finally. "I grow weaker instead of stronger."

  We had little enough with which to burden ourselves. There were three spears, two of which Harry had brought, and myself the other. Harry and I wore only our woolen undergarments, so ragged and torn that they were but sorry covering.

  Desiree's single garment, made from some soft hide, was held about her waist by a girdle of the same material. The upper half of her body was bare. Her hair hung in a tangled mass over her shoulders and down her back. None of us had any covering for our feet.

  We crossed the stream, using the spears as staffs; but instead of advancing across the middle of the cavern we turned to the left, hugging the wall. Harry urged us on, saying that he had already searched carefully for an exit on that side, but we went slowly, feeling for a break in the wall. It was absolutely smooth, which led me to believe that the cavern had at one time been filled with water.

  We reached the farther wall and, turning to the right, were about to follow it.

  "This is senseless," said Harry impatiently. "I tell you I have examined this side, too; every inch of it."

  "And the one ahead of us, at right angles to this?" I asked.

  "That too, " he answered.

  "And the other——the one to the right of the stream?"

  "No. I——I didn't go there."

  "Why didn't you say so?" I demanded.

  "Because I didn't want to," he returned sullenly. "You can go there if you care to; I don't. It was from there that——it came."

  I did not answer, but pushed forward, not, however, leaving the wall. Perhaps it was cowardly; you are welcome to the word if you care to use it. Myself, I know.

  Another half-hour and we reached the end of the lane by which we had first entered the cavern. We stood gazing at it with eyes of desire, but we knew how little chance there was of the thing being unguarded at the farther end. We knew then, of course, and only too well, why the Incas had not followed us into the cavern.

  "Perhaps they are gone," said Harry. "They can't stay there forever. I'm going to find out."

  He sprang on the edge of a boulder at the mouth of the passage and disappeared on the other side. In fifteen minutes he returned, and I saw by the expression on his face that there was no chance of escape in that direction.

  "They're at the other end," he said gloomily; "a dozen of 'em. I looked from behind a rock; they didn't see me. But we could never get through."

  We turned then, and proceeded to the third wall and followed it. But we really had no hope of finding an exit since Harry had said that he had previously explored it. We were possessed, I know, by the same thought: should we venture to follow the fourth wall? Alone, none of us would have dared; but the presence of the others lessened the fear of each.

  Finally we reached it. The corner was a sharp right angle, and there were rifts and crevices in the rock.

  "This is limestone," I said, "and if we find an exit anywhere it will be here."

  I turned to the right and proceeded slowly along the wall, feeling its surface with my hand.

  We had advanced in this manner several hundred yards when Desiree suddenly sprang forward to my side.

  "See!" she cried, pointing ahead with her spear.

  I followed the direction with my eye, and saw what appeared to be a sharp break in the wall.

  It was some fifty feet away. We reached it in another moment, and I think none of us would have been able to express the immeasurable relief we felt when we saw before us a broad and clear passage leading directly away from the cavern. It was very dark, but we entered it almost at a run.

  I think we had not known the extent of our fear of that thing in the cavern until we found the means of escape from it.

  We had gone about a hundred feet when we came to a turn to the left. Harry stumbled against the corner, and we halted for an instant to wait for him.

  Then we made the turn, side by side——and then we came to a sudden and abrupt stop, and a simultaneous gasp of terror burst from our lips.

  Not three feet in front of us, blocking the passage completely, stood the thing we thought we had escaped!

  The terrible, fiery eyes rolled from side to side as they stared straight into our own.

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