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Under the Andes(Chapter18)

2006-09-07 21:27

  Chapter XVIII. A Victory and a Conversation.

  We stood for a long moment rooted to the spot, unable to move. Then, calling to Harry and grasping Desiree by the arm, I started to turn.

  But too late. For Desiree, inspired by a boundless terror, suddenly raised her spear high above her head and hurled it straight at the glowing, flashing eyes.

  The point struck squarely between then with such force that it must have sunk clear to the shaft. The head of the monster rolled for an instant from side to side, and then, before I was aware of what had happened, so rapid was the movement, a long, snakelike coil had reached out through the air and twisted itself about Desiree's body.

  As she felt the thing tighten about her waist and legs she gave a scream of terror and twisted her face round toward me. The next instant the snaky tentacle had dragged her along the ground and lifted her to the head of the monster, where her white body could be seen in sharp outline sprawling over its black form, between the terrible eyes.

  Harry and I sprang forward.

  As we did so the eyes closed and the reptile began to move backward with incredible swiftness, lashing about on the ground before us with other tentacles similar to the one that had captured Desiree.

  I cried out to Harry to avoid them. He did not answer, but rushed blindly forward.

  Desiree's agonized shrieks rose to the pitch of madness.

  The eyes were closed, leaving but a vague mark for our spears, and besides, there was the danger of striking Desiree. We were barely able to keep pace with the thing as it receded swiftly down the broad passage. Desiree had twisted her body half round, and her face was turned toward us, shadowy as a ghost. Then her head fell forward and hung loosely and her lips were silent. She had fainted.

  The thing moved swifter than ever; we were barely able to keep up with it. Harry made a desperate leap forward.

  I cried out a warning, but one of the writhing tentacles swept against him and knocked him to the ground. He was up again on the instant and came rushing up from behind.

  Suddenly the passage broadened until the walls were no longer visible; we had entered another cavern. I heard the sound of running water somewhere ahead of us. The pace of the reptile had not slackened for an instant.

  Harry had again caught up with us, and as he ran at my side I saw him raise his spear aloft; but I caught his arm and held it.

  "Desiree!" I panted.

  Her body covered the only part of the thing that presented a fair mark. Harry swore, but his arm fell.

  "To the side!" he gasped. "We can't get at it here!"

  I saw his meaning and followed at his heels as he swerved suddenly to the right and sprang forward in an attempt to get past the reptile's head.

  But in our eagerness we forgot caution and went too close. I felt one of the snaky tentacles wrap itself round my legs and body, and raised my voice in a warning to Harry, but too late. He, too, was ensnared, and a moment later we had both been lifted bodily from the ground and swung through the air to the side of Desiree. She was still unconscious.

  I writhed and twisted desperately, but that muscular coil held me firmly as a band of steel, tight against the huge and hideous head.

  Harry was on the other side of Desiree, not three feet from me. I could see his muscles strain and pull in his violent efforts to tear himself free. I had given it up.

  But suddenly, quite near my shoulder, I saw the lid suddenly begin to raise itself from one of the terrible eyes. I was almost on top of the thing and a little above it. I turned my head aside and called to Harry.

  "The eye!" I gasped. "To your right! The spear! Are your arms free?"

  Then as I saw he understood, I turned a quarter of the way round——as far as I could get——and raised my spear the full extent of my arm, and brought it down with every ounce of my strength into the very center of the glowing eye beneath me.

  At the same moment I saw Harry's arm descend and the flash of his spear. The point of my own had sunk until the copper head was completely buried.

  I grasped the shaft and pulled and twisted it about until it finally was jerked forth. From the opening it had made there issued a black stream.

  Suddenly the body of the reptile quivered convulsively. The head rolled from side to side. There was a quick tightening of the tentacle round my body until my bones felt as though they were being crushed into shapelessness; and as suddenly it loosened.

  Other tentacles lashed and beat on the ground furiously. The reptile's swift backward movement halted jerkily. I made a desperate effort to tear myself free. The tentacle quivered and throbbed violently, and suddenly flew apart like a released spring, and I fell to the ground.

  In an instant Harry was at my side, and we both leaped forward with our spears, slashing at the tentacle which still held Desiree in its grasp. Others writhed on the ground about our feet, but feebly. There came a sudden cry from Harry, and his spear clattered on the ground as he opened his arms to receive Desiree's unconscious body, which came tumbling down with the severed coil still wrapped about it.

  But there was life in the reptile's immense body. It staggered and swayed from side to side in drunken agony. Its monstrous head rolled about, sweeping the air in a prodigious circle. The poison of its breath came to us in great puffs. There was something supremely horrible about the thing in its very helplessness, and I was shuddering violently as I stooped to help Harry lift Desiree from the ground and carry her away.

  We did not go far, for we were barely able to carry her. We laid her on the hard rock with her head in Harry's lap. Her body was limp as a rag.

  For many minutes we worked over her, rubbing her temples and wrists, and pressing the nerve centers at the back of the neck, but without effect.

  "She is dead," said Harry with a curious calm.

  I shook my head.

  "She has a pulse——see! But we must find that water. I think she isn't injured; it is her weakened condition from the lack of food that keeps her so. Wait for me."

  I started out across the cavern in the direction from which the sound of the water appeared to come, bearing off to the right from the huge, quivering form of the monster whose gigantic body rose and fell on the ground with a force that seemed to shake the very walls of the cavern.

  I found the stream with little difficulty, not far away, and returned to Harry. Together we carried Desiree to its edge. The blood was stubborn, and for a long time refused to move, but the cold water at length revived her; her eyes slowly opened, and she raised her hand to her head with a faltering gesture.

  But she was extremely weak, and we saw that the end was near unless nourishment could be found for her.

  I stayed by her side, with my arms round her shoulders, and Harry set out with one of the spears. He bore off to the left, toward the spot where the body of the immense reptile lay; I was too far away to see it in the darkness.

  "It isn't possible that the thing is fit to eat," I had objected, and he had answered me with a look which I understood, and was silenced.

  Soon a sound as of a scuffle on the rocks came through the darkness from the direction he had taken. I called out to ask if he needed me, but there was no answer. Ten minutes longer I waited, while the sound continued unabated. Once I heard the clatter of his spear on the rock.

  I was just rising to my feet to run to the scene when suddenly he appeared in the semidarkness. He was coming slowly, and was dragging along the ground what appeared to be the form of some animal. Another minute and he stood at my side as I sat holding Desiree.

  "A peccary!" I cried, bending over the body of the four-footed creature that lay at his feet. "How the deuce did it ever get down here?"

  "Peccary——my aunt!" observed Harry, bending down to look at Desiree. "Do peccaries live in the water? Do they have snouts like catfish? This animal is my own invention. There's about ten million more of 'em over there making a gorgeous banquet off our late lamented friend. And now, let's see."

  He knelt down by the still warm body and with the point of his spear ripped it open from neck to rump. Desiree stirred about in my arms.

  "Gad, that smells good!" cried Harry.

  I shuddered.

  He dragged the thing a few feet away, and I heard him slashing away at it with his spear. A minute later he came running over to us with his hands full of something.

  That was not exactly a pretty meal. How Desiree, in her frightfully weakened condition, ever managed to get the stuff down and keep it there is beyond me. But she did, and I was not behind her. And, after all, it was fresh. Harry said it was "sweet." Well, perhaps it was.

  We bathed Desiree's hands and face and gave her water to drink, and soon after she passed into a seemingly healthy sleep. There was about ten pounds of meat left. Harry washed it in the stream and stowed it away on a rock beneath the surface of the water. Then he announced his intention of going back for more.

  "I'm going with you," I declared. "Here——help me fix Desiree."

  "Hardly," said Harry. "Didn't I say there are millions of those things over there? Anyway, there are hundreds. If they should happen to scatter in this direction and find her, she wouldn't stand a chance. You take the other spear and stay here."

  So I sat still, with Desiree's body in my arms, and waited for him. My sensations were not unpleasant. I could actually feel the blood quicken in my veins.

  Civilization places the temple of life in the soul or the heart, as she speaks through the mouth of the preacher or the poet; but let civilization go for four or five days without anything to eat and see what happens. The organ is vulgar, but its voice is loud. I need not name it

  In five minutes Harry returned, dragging two more of the creatures at his heels. In half an hour there were a dozen of them lying in a heap at the edge of the water.

  "That's all," he announced, panting heavily from his exertions. "The rest have taken to the woods, which, I imagine, is quite a journey from here. You ought to see our friend——the one who couldn't make his eyes behave. They've eaten him full of holes. He's the most awful mess——sickening beast. He didn't have a bone in him——all crumpled up like an accordion. Utterly spineless."

  "And who, in the name of goodness, do you think is going to eat all that?" I demanded, pointing to the heap of bodies.

  Harry grinned.

  "I don't know. I was so excited at the very idea of a square meal that I didn't know when to stop. I'd give five fingers for a fire and some salt. Just a nickel's worth of salt. Now, you lie down and sleep while I cut these things up, and then I'll take a turn at it myself?"

  He brought me one of the hides for a pillow, and I lay back as gently as possible that I might not awaken Desiree. Her head and shoulders rested against my body as she lay peacefully sleeping.

  I was awakened by Harry's hand tugging at my arm. Rising on my elbows, I demanded to know how long I had slept.

  "Six or seven hours," said Harry. "I waited as long as I could. Keep a lookout."

  Desiree stirred uneasily, but seemed to be still asleep. I sat up, rubbing my eyes. The heap of bodies had disappeared; no wonder Harry was tired! I reproached myself for having slept so long.

  Harry had arranged himself a bed that was really comfortable with the skins of his kill.

  "That is great stuff," I heard him murmur wearily; then all was still.

  I sat motionless, stiff and numb, but afraid to move for fear of disturbing Desiree.

  Presently she stirred again, and, bending over her, I saw her eyes slowly open. They met my own with a curious, steadfast gaze——she was still half asleep.

  "Is that you, Paul?" she murmured.

  "Yes."

  "I am glad. I seem to feel——what is it?"

  "I don't know, Desiree. What do you mean?"

  "Nothing——nothing. Oh. it feels so good——good——to have you hold me like this."

  "Yes?" I smiled.

  "But, yes. Where is Harry?"

  "Asleep. Are you hungry?"

  "Yes——no. Not now. I don't know why. I want to talk. What has happened?"

  I told her of everything that had occurred since she had swooned; she shuddered as memory returned, but forgot herself in my attempt at a humorous description of Harry's valor as a hunter of food.

  "You don't need to turn up your nose," I retorted to her expressive grimace; "you ate some of the stuff yourself."

  There was a silence; then suddenly Desiree's voice came:

  "Paul——" She hesitated and stopped.

  "Yes."

  "What do you think of me?"

  "Do you want a lengthy review?" I smiled.

  What a woman she was! Under those circumstances, and amid those surroundings, she was still Desiree Le Mire.

  "Don't laugh at me," she said. "I want to know. I have never spoken of what I did that time in the cavern——you know what I mean. I am sorry now. I suppose you despise me."

  "But you did nothing," I objected. "And you wouldn't. You were merely amusing yourself."

  She turned on me quickly with a flash of her old fire.

  "Don't play with me!" she burst out. "My friend, you have never yet given me a serious word."

  "Nor any one else," I answered. "My dear Desiree, do you not know that I am incapable of seriousness? Nothing in the world is worth it."

  "At least, you need not pretend," she retorted. "I meant once for you to die. You know it. And since you pretend not to understand me, I ask you——these are strange words from my lips—— will you forgive me?"

  "There is nothing to forgive."

  "My friend, you are becoming dull. An evasive answer should always be a witty one. Must I ask you again?"

  "That——depends," I answered, hardly knowing what to say.

  "On——"

  "On whether or not you were serious, once upon a time, when you made a——shall we call it a confession? If you were, I offended you in my own conceit, but let us be frank. I thought you were acting, and I played my role. I do not yet believe that you were; I am not conceited enough to think it possible."

  "I do not say," Desiree began; then she stopped and added hastily: "But that is past. I shall not tell you that again. Perhaps I forgot myself. Perhaps it was a pretty play. You have not answered me."

  I looked at her. Strange and terrible as her experiences and sufferings had been, she had lost little of her beauty. Her face was rendered only the more delicate by its pallor. Her white and perfect body, only half seen in the half-darkness, conveyed a sense of the purest beauty with no hint of immodesty.

  But I was moved not by what I saw, but by what I knew. I had admired her always as Le Mire; but her bravery, her hardihood, her sympathy for others under circumstances when any other woman would have been thinking only of herself——had these awakened in my breast a feeling stronger than admiration?

  I did not know. But my voice trembled a little as I said: "I need not answer you, Desiree. I repeat that there is nothing to forgive. You sought revenge, then sacrificed it; but still revenge is yours."

  She looked at me for a moment in silence, then said slowly: "I do not understand you."

  For reply I took her hand in my own from where it lay idly on my knee, and, carrying it to my lips, pressed a long kiss on the top of each of the slender white fingers. Then I held the hand tight between both of mine as I asked simply, looking into her eyes:

  "Do you understand me now?"

  Another silence.

  "My revenge," she breathed.

  I nodded and again pressed her hand to my lips.

  "Yes, Desiree. We are not children. I think we know what we mean. But you have not told me. Did you mean what you said that day on the mountain?"

  "Ah, I thought that was a play!" she murmured.

  "Tell me! Did you mean it?"

  "I never confess the same sin twice, my friend."

  "Desiree, did you mean it?"

  Then suddenly, with the rapidity of lightning, her manner changed. She bent toward me with parted lips and looked straight into my eyes. There was passion in the gaze; but when she spoke her voice was quite even and so low I scarcely heard.

  "Paul," she said, "I shall not again say I love you. Such words should not be wasted. Not now, perhaps; but that is because we are where we are. And if we should return?

  "You have said that nothing is worth a serious word to you; and you are right. You are too cynical; things are bitter in your mouth, and doubly so when they leave it. Just now you are amusing yourself by pretending to care for me. Perhaps you do not know it, but you are. Search your heart, my friend, and tell me——do you want my love?"

  Well, there was no need to search my heart, she had laid it open. I hated myself then; and I turned away, unable to meet her eyes, as I said:

  "Bon Dieu!" she cried. "That is an ugly speech, monsieur!" And she laughed aloud.

  "But we must not awaken Harry," she continued with sudden softness. "What a boy he is——and what a man! Ah, he knows what it is to love!"

  That topic suited me little better, but I followed her. We talked of Harry, Le Mire with an amount of enthusiasm that surprised me. Suddenly she stopped abruptly and announced that she was hungry.

  I found Harry's pantry after a few minutes' search and took some of its contents to Desiree. Then I returned to the edge of the water and ate my portion alone. That meal was one scarcely calculated for the pleasures of companionship or conviviality.

  It was several hours after that before Harry awoke, the greater part of which Desiree and I were silent.

  I would have given something to have known her thoughts; my own were not very pleasant. It is always a disagreeable thing to discover that some one else knows you better than you know yourself. And Desiree had cut deep. At the time I thought her unjust; time alone could have told which of us was right. If she were here with me now——but she is not.

  Finally Harry awoke. He was delighted to find Desiree awake and comparatively well, and demonstrated the fact with a degree of effusion that prompted me to leave them alone together. But I did not go far; a hundred paces made me sit down to rest before returning, so weak was I from wounds and fasting.

  Harry's spirits were high, for no apparent reason other than that we were still alive, for that was the best that could be said for us. So I told him; he retorted with a hearty clap on the back that sent me sprawling to the ground.

  "What the deuce!" he exclaimed, stooping to help me up. "Are you as weak as that? Gad, I'm sorry!"

  "That is the second fall he has had," said Desiree, with a meaning smile.

  Indeed, she was having her revenge!

  But my strength was not long in returning. Over a long stretch our diet would hardly have been conducive to health, but it was exactly what I needed to put blood and strength in me. And Harry and Desiree, too, for that matter.

  Again I had to withstand Harry's eager demands for action. He began within two hours to insist on exploring the cave, and would hardly take a refusal.

  "I won't stir a foot until I am able to knock you down," I declared finally and flatly. "Never again will I attempt to perform the feats of a Hercules when I am fit only for an invalid's chair." And he was forced to wait.

  As I say, however, my strength was not long in returning, and when it started it came with a rush. My wounds were healing perfectly; only one remained open. Harry, with his usual phenomenal luck, had got nothing but the merest scratches.

  Desiree improved very slowly. The strain of those four days in the cavern had been severe, and her nerves required more pleasant surroundings than a dark and damp cavern and more agreeable diet than raw meat, to adjust themselves.

  Thus it was that when Harry and I found ourselves ready to start out to explore the cavern and, if possible, find an exit on the opposite side from the one where we had entered, we left Desiree behind, seated on a pile of skins, with a spear on the ground at her side.

  "We'll be back in an hour," said Harry, stooping to kiss her; and the phrase, which might have come from the lips of a worthy Harlem husband leaving for a little sojourn with friends on the corner, brought a smile to my face.

  We went first toward the spot where lay the remains of "our friend with the eyes," as Harry called him, and we were guided straight by our noses, for the odor of the thing was beginning to be——to use another phrase of Harry's——most awful vile."

  There was little to see except a massive pile of crumpled hide and sinking flesh. As we approached, several hundred of the animals with which Harry had filled our larder scampered away toward the water.

  "They're not fighters," I observed, turning to watch them disappear in the darkness.

  "No," Harry agreed. "See here," he added suddenly, holding up a piece of the hide of the reptile; "this stuff is an inch thick and tough as rats. It ought to be good for something."

  But by that time I was pinching my nostrils with my fingers, and I pulled him away.

  Several hundred yards farther on we came to the wall of the cavern. We followed it, turning to the right; but though it was uneven and marked by projecting boulders and deep crevices, we found no exit. We had gone at least half a mile, I think, when we came to the end. There it turned in a wide circle to the right, and we took the new direction, which was toward the spot where we had left Desiree, only considerably to the left.

  Another five minutes found us at the edge of the stream, which at that point was much swifter than it was farther up. We waded in and discovered that the cause was its extreme narrowness.

  "But where does the thing go to?" asked Harry, taking the words from my mouth.

  We soon found out. Proceeding along the bank to the left, within fifty feet we came to the wall. There the stream entered and disappeared. But, unlike the others we had seen, above this there was a wide and high arch, which made it appear as though the stream were passing under a massive bridge. The current was swift but not turbulent, and there was something about the surface of that stream flowing straight through the mountain ahead of us——

  Harry and I glanced at each other quickly, moved by the same thought. There was an electric thrill in that glance.

  But we did not speak——then.

  For suddenly, startlingly, a voice sounded throughout the cavern——Desiree's voice, raised in a shrill cry of terror.

  It was repeated twice before our startled senses found themselves; then we turned with one impulse and raced into the darkness toward her.

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