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Under the Andes(Chapter6)

2006-09-07 21:23

  Chapter VI. Captured.

  The fall——was it ten feet or a thousand? I shall never know. Hurtling headlong through space, a man can scarcely be expected to keep his wits about him.

  Actually, my only impression was of righteous indignation; my memory is that I cursed aloud, but Harry denies it.

  But it could not have been for long, for when we struck the water at the bottom we were but slightly stunned by the impact. To this Harry has since agreed; he must have been as lucky as myself, for I took it headlong with a clean cleavage.

  I rose to the top, sputtering, and flung out my arms in the attempt to swim——or, rather, to keep afloat——and was overjoyed to find my arms and legs answer to the call of the brain.

  About me was blackest night and utter silence, save a low, unbroken murmur, unlike any other sound, hardly to be heard. It was in my effort to account for it that I first became aware of the fact that the water was a stream, and a moving one——moving with incredible swiftness, smooth and all but silent. As soon as I became convinced of this I gave up all attempt to swim, and satisfied myself with keeping my head above the surface and drifting with the current.

  Then I thought of Harry, and called his name aloud many times. The reverberations throughout the cave were as the report of a thousand cannon; but there was no response.

  The echoes became fainter and fainter and died away, and again all was silence and impenetrable night, while I battled with the strong suction of the unseen current, which was growing swifter and swifter, and felt my strength begin to leave me.

  Terror, too, began to call to me as the long minutes passed endlessly by. I thought, "If I could only see!" and strained my eyes in the effort till I was forced to close them from the dizzy pain. The utter, complete darkness hid from me all knowledge of what I passed or what awaited me beyond.

  The water, carrying me swiftly onward with its silent, remorseless sweep, was cold and black; it pressed with tremendous power against me; now and then I was forced beneath the surface and fought my way back, gasping and all but exhausted.

  I forgot Desiree and Harry; I lost all consciousness of where I was and what I was doing; the silent fury of the stream and the awful blackness maddened me; I plunged and struggled desperately, blindly, sobbing with rage. This could not have lasted much longer; I was very near the end.

  Suddenly, with a thrill of joy, I realized that the speed of the current was decreasing. Then a reaction of despair seized me; I tried to strangle hope and resign myself to the worst. But soon there was no longer any doubt; the water carried me slower and slower.

  I floated with little difficulty, wondering——could it be an approach to a smaller outlet which acted as a dam? Or was it merely a lessening of the incline of the bed of the stream? I cursed the darkness for my helplessness.

  Finally the water became absolutely still, as I judged by the absence of pressure on my body, and I turned sharply at a right angle and began to swim. My weariness left me as by magic, and I struck out with bold and sweeping strokes; and by that lack of caution all but destroyed myself when my head suddenly struck against a wall of stone, unseen in the darkness.

  I was stunned completely and sank; but the ducking revived me; and when I returned to the surface I swam a few careful strokes, searching for the wall. It was not there, and I had no idea of its direction. But I had now learned caution; and by swimming a few feet first one way, then another, and taking care not to go far in any one direction, I finally discovered it.

  My hand easily reached the top, and, grasping the slippery surface with a grip made firm by despair, and concentrating every ounce of strength in one final effort, I drew myself out of the water and fell completely exhausted on the ground.

  Under such circumstances time has no place in a man's calculations; he is satisfied to breathe. I believe that I lay barely conscious for several hours, but it may have been merely as many minutes. Then I felt life stir within me; I stretched my arms and legs and sat up. Gradually entered my mind the thought of Desiree and Harry and the Andes above and Felipe shuddering with terror as he flew from the cave of the devil.

  First came Harry; but hope did not enter. It was inconceivable that he, too, should have escaped that fearful torrent; stupendous luck alone had saved me from being dashed senseless against the rocks and guided me to the ledge on which I rested.

  Then he was gone! I had no thought of my own peril. I had gone through the world with but little regard for what it held; nothing had been sacred to me; no affection had been more than a day's caprice; I had merely sucked amusement from its bitter fruit.

  But I loved Harry; I realized it with something like astonishment. He was dear to me; a keen, intense pain contracted my chest at the thought of having lost him; tears filled my eyes; and I raised up my voice and sang out wildly:

  "Harry! Harry, lad! Harry!"

  The cavern resounded. The call went from wall to wall, then back again, floating through black space with a curious tremor, and finally died away in some dim, unseen corridor. And then——then came an answering call!

  Owing to the conflicting echoes of the cavern, the tone could not be recognized. But the word was unmistakable; it was "Paul."

  I sprang to my feet with a shout, then stood listening. Out of the blackness surrounding me came the words, in Harry's voice, much lower, but distinct:

  "Paul! Paul, where are you?"

  "Thank Heaven!" I breathed; and I answered:

  "Here, Harry boy, here."

  "But where?"

  "I don't know. On a ledge of rock at the edge of the water. Where are you?"

  "Same place. Which side are you on?"

  "The right side," I answered with heartfelt emphasis. "That is to say, the outside. If it weren't for this infernal darkness——Listen! How far away does my voice sound?"

  But the innumerable echoes of the cavern walls made it impossible to judge of distance by sound. We tried it over and over; sometimes it seemed that we were only a few feet apart, sometimes a mile or more.

  Then Harry spoke in a whisper, and his voice appeared to be directly in my ear. Never have I seen a night so completely black as that cavern; we had had several hours, presumably, for our eyes to adjust themselves to the phenomenon; but when I held my hand but six inches in front of my face I could not get even the faintest suggestion of its outline.

  "This is useless," I declared finally. "We must experiment. Harry!"

  "Yes."

  "Turn to your left and proceed carefully along the edge. I'll turn to my right. Go easy, lad; feel your way."

  I crawled on my hands and knees, no faster than a snail, feeling every inch of the ground. The surface was wet and slippery, and in places sloped at an angle that made me hang on for dear life to keep from shooting off into space.

  Meantime I kept calling to Harry and he to me; but, on account of our painfully slow progress, it was half an hour or more before we discovered that the distance between us was being increased instead of lessened.

  He let fly an oath at this, and his tone was dangerous; no wonder if the lad was half crazed! I steadied him as well as I could with word of encouragement, and instructed him to turn about and proceed to the right of his original position. I, also, turned to the left.

  Our hope of meeting lay in the probability that the ledge surrounded a circular body of water and was continuous. At some point, of course, was the entrance of the stream which had carried us, and at some other point there was almost certainly an outlet; but we trusted to luck to avoid these. Our chances were less than one in a thousand; but, failing that, some other means must be invented.

  The simplest way would have been for me to take to the water and swim across to Harry, counting on his voice as a guide; but the conflicting echoes produced by the slightest sound rendered such an attempt dangerous.

  I crept along that wet, slimy, treacherous surface, it seemed, for hours. I could see nothing——absolutely nothing; everything was black void; it was hard to appreciate reality in such a nightmare. On the one side, nameless dangers; on the other, the unseen, bottomless lake; enough, surely, to take a man's nerve. My fear for Harry killed anxiety on my own account. We kept continually calling:

  "Harry!"

  "Yes."

  "Steady."

  "Yes. I'm coming along. I say, we're closer, Paul."

  I hesitated to agree with him, but finally there was no longer any doubt of it. His voice began to reach me almost in natural tones, which meant that we were near enough for the vibrations to carry without interference from the walls.

  Nearer still it came; it was now only a matter of a few feet; Harry gave a cry of joy, and immediately afterward I heard his low gasp of terror and the sound of his wild scrambling to regain a foothold. In his excitement he had forgotten caution and had slipped to the edge of the water.

  I dared not try to go his assistance; so I crouched perfectly still and called to him to throw himself flat on his face. How my eyes strained despairingly as I cursed the pitiless darkness! Then the scrambling ceased and the boy's voice sounded:

  "All right, Paul! All right! Gad, I nearly went!"

  A minute later I held his hand in mine. At that point the incline was at a sharp angle, and we lay flat on our backs. For many minutes we lay silently gripping hands; Harry was trembling violently from nervous fatigue, and I myself was unable to speak.

  What strength is there in companionship! Alone, either of us would probably have long before succumbed to the strain of our horrible situation; but we both took hope and courage from that hand-clasp.

  Finally he spoke:

  "In Heaven's name, where are we, Paul?"

  "You know as much as I do, Harry. This cursed darkness makes it impossible even to guess at anything. According to Felipe, we are being entertained by the devil."

  "But where are we? What happened? My head is dizzy——I don't know——"

  I gripped his hand.

  "And no wonder. 'Tis hardly an every-day occurrence to ride an underground river several miles under the Andes. Above us a mountain four miles high, beneath us a bottomless lake, round us darkness. Not a very cheerful prospect, Hal; but, thank Heaven, we take it together! It is a grave——ours and hers. I guess Desiree knew what she was talking about."

  There came a cry from Harry's lips——a cry of painful memory:

  "Desiree! I had forgotten, Desiree!"

  "She is probably better off than we are," I assured him.

  I felt his gaze——I could not see it——and I continued:

  "We may as well meet the thing squarely like men. Pull yourself together, Harry; as for Desiree, let us hope that she is dead. It's the best thing that could happen to her."

  "Then we are——no, it isn't possible."

  "Harry boy, we're buried alive! There! That's the worst of it. Anything better than that is velvet."

  "But there must be a way out, Paul! And Desiree——Desiree——"

  His voice faltered. I clapped him roughly on the shoulder.

  "Keep your nerve. As for a way out——at the rate that stream descends it must have carried us thousands of feet beneath the mountain. There is probably a mile of solid rock between us and the sunshine. You felt the strength of that current; you might as well try to swim up Niagara."

  "But there must be an outlet at the other end."

  "Yes, and most probably forty or fifty miles away——that's the distance to the western slope. Besides, how can we find it? And there may be none. The water is most probably gradually absorbed by the porous formation of the rocks, and that is what causes this lake."

  "But why isn't it known? Felipe said that the cave had been explored. Why didn't they discover the stream?"

  Well, it was better to talk of that than nothing; at least, it kept Harry from his childish cries for Desiree. So I explained that the precipice over which we had fallen was presumably of recent origin.

  Geologically the Andes are yet in a chaotic and formative condition; huge slides of Silurian slates and diorite are of frequent occurrence. A ridge of one of these softer stones had most probably been encased in the surrounding granite for many centuries; then, loosened by water or by time, had crumbled and slid into the stream below.

  "And," I finished, "we followed it."

  "Then we may find another," said Harry hopefully.

  I agreed that it was possible. Then he burst out:

  "In the name of Heaven, don't be so cool! We can't get out till we try. Come! And who knows——we may find Desiree."

  Then I decided it was best to tell him. Evidently the thought had not entered his mind, and it was best for him to realize the worst. I gripped his hand tighter as I said:

  "Nothing so pleasant, Harry. Because we're going to starve to death."

  "Starve to death?" he exclaimed. Then he added simply, with an oddly pathetic tone: "I hadn't thought of that."

  After that we lay silent for many minutes in that awful darkness. Thoughts and memories came and went in my brain with incredible swiftness; pictures long forgotten presented themselves; an endless, jumbled panorama. They say that a drowning man reviews his past life in the space of a few seconds; it took me a little more time, but the job was certainly a thorough one. Nor did I find it more interesting in retrospect than it had been in reality.

  I closed my eyes to escape the darkness. It was maddening; easy enough then to comprehend the hysterics of the blind and sympathize with them. It finally reached a point where I was forced to grit my teeth to keep from breaking out into curses; I could lie still no longer, exhausted as I was, and Harry, too. I turned on him:

  "Come on, Hal; let's move."

  "Where?" he asked in a tone devoid of hope.

  "Anywhere——away from this beastly water. We must dry out our clothing; no use dying like drowned rats. If I only had a match!"

  We rose to our hands and knees and crawled painfully up the slippery incline. Soon we had reached dry ground and stood upright; then, struck by a sudden thought, I turned to Harry:

  "Didn't you drink any of that water?"

  He answered: "No."

  "Well, let's try it. It may be our last drink, Hal; make it a good one."

  We crept back down to the edge of the lake (I call it that in my ignorance of its real nature), and, settling myself as firmly as possible, I held Harry's hand while he lowered himself carefully into the water. He was unable to reach its surface with his mouth without letting go of my hand, and I shook off my poncho and used it as a line.

  "How does it taste?" I asked.

  "Fine!" was the response. "It must be clear as a bell. Lord. I didn't know I was so thirsty!"

  I was not ignorant of the fact that there was an excellent chance of the water being unhealthful, possibly poisoned, what with the tertiary deposits of copper ores in the rock-basins; but the thought awakened hope rather than fear. There is a choice even in death.

  But when I had pulled Harry up and descended myself I soon found that there was no danger——or chance. The water had a touch of alkali, but nothing more.

  Then we crept back up the wet ledge, and once more stood on dry ground.

  The surface was perfectly level, and we set off at a brisk pace, hand in hand, directly away from the lake. But when, about a hundred yards off, we suddenly bumped our heads against a solid wall of rock, we decided to proceed with more caution.

  The darkness was intensified, if anything. We turned to the right and groped along the wall, which was smooth as glass and higher than my best reach. It seemed to the touch to be slightly convex, but that may have been delusion.

  We had proceeded in this manner some hundred yards or more, advancing cautiously, when we came to a break in the wall. A few feet farther the wall began again.

  "It's a tunnel," said Harry.

  I nodded, forgetting he could not see me. "Shall we take it?"

  "Anything on a chance," he answered, and we entered the passage.

  It was quite narrow——so narrow that we were forced to advance very slowly, feeling our way to avoid colliding with the walls. The ground was strewn with fragments of rock, and a hasty step meant an almost certain fall and a bruised shin. It was tedious work and incredibly fatiguing.

  We had not rested a sufficient length of time to allow our bodies to recuperate from the struggle with the torrent; also, we began to feel the want of food. Harry was the first to falter, but I spurred him on. Then he stumbled and fell and lay still.

  "Are you hurt?" I asked anxiously, bending over him.

  "No," was the answer. "But I'm tired——tired to death——and I want to sleep."

  I was tempted myself, but I brought him to his feet, from some impulse I know not what. For what was the use? One spot was as good as another. However, we struggled on.

  Another hour and the passage broadened into a clearing. At least so it seemed; the walls abruptly parted to the right and left. And still the impenetrable, maddening darkness and awful silence!

  We gave it up; we could go no farther. A few useless minutes we wasted, searching for a soft spot to lie on——moss, reeds, anything. We found none, of course; but even the hard, unyielding rock was grateful to our exhausted bodies. We lay side by side, using our ponchos for pillows; our clothing at least was dry.

  I do not know how long I slept, but it seemed to me that I had barely dozed off when I was awakened by something——what?

  There was no sound to my strained ears. I sat up, gazing intently into the darkness, shuddering without apparent reason. Then I reflected that nothing is dangerous to a man who faces death, and I laughed aloud——then trembled at the sound of my own voice. Harry was in sound sleep beside me; his regular breathing told of its depth.

  Again I lay down, but I could not sleep. Some instinct, long forgotten, quivered within me, telling me that we were no longer alone. And soon my ear justified it.

  At first it was not a sound, but the mere shadow of one. It was rhythmic, low, beating like a pulse. What could it be? Again I sat up, listening and peering into the darkness. And this time I was not mistaken——there was a sound, rustling, sibilant.

  Little by little it increased, or rather approached, until it sounded but a few feet from me on every side, sinister and menacing. It was the silent, suppressed breathing of something living——whether animal or man——creeping ever nearer.

  Then was the darkness doubly horrible. I sat paralyzed with my utter helplessness, though fear, thank Heaven, did not strike me! I could hear no footstep; no sound of any kind but that low, rushing breathing; but it now was certain that whatever the thing was, it was not alone.

  From every side I heard it——closer, closer——until finally I felt the hot, fetid breath in my very face. My nerves quivered in disgust, not far from terror.

  I sprang to my feet with a desperate cry to Harry and swung toward him.

  There was no answering sound, no rush of feet, nothing; but I felt my throat gripped in monstrous, hairy fingers.

  I tried to struggle, and immediately was crushed to the ground by the overpowering weight of a score of soft, ill-smelling bodies.

  The grasp on my throat tightened; my arms relaxed, my brain reeled, and I knew no more.

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