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Under the Andes(Chapter20)

2006-09-07 21:35

  Chapter XX. An Inca Spear.

  Here I might most appropriately insert a paragraph on the vanity of human wishes and endeavor. But events, they say, speak for themselves; and still, for my own part, I prefer the philosopher to the historian. Mental digestion is a wearisome task; you are welcome to it.

  To the story. As I have said, we missed the wall of the tunnel by a scant ten feet, and we kept on missing it. Once under the arch, our raft developed a most stubborn inclination to bump up against the rocky banks instead of staying properly in the middle of the current, as it should.

  First to one side, then to the other, it swung, while Harry and I kept it off with our oars, often missing a collision by inches. But at least the banks were smooth and level, and as long as the stream itself remained clear of obstruction there was but little real danger.

  The current was not nearly so swift as I had expected it would be. In the semidarkness it was difficult to calculate our rate of speed, but I judged that we were moving at about six or seven miles an hour.

  We had gone perhaps three miles when we came to a sharp bend in the stream, to the left, almost at a right angle. Harry, at the bow, was supposed to be on the lookout, but he failed to see it until we were already caught in its whirl.

  Then he gave a cry of alarm, and together we swung the raft to the left, avoiding the right bank of the curve by less than a foot. Once safely past, I sent Harry to the stern and took the bow myself, which brought down upon him a deal of keen banter from Desiree.

  There the tunnel widened, and the raft began to glide easily onward, without any of its sudden dashes to right or left. I rested on my oar, gazing intently ahead; at the best I could make out the walls a hundred yards ahead, and but dimly. All was silence, save the gentle swish of the water against the sides of the raft and the patter of Harry's oar dipping idly on one side or the other.

  Suddenly Desiree's voice came through the silence, soft and very low:

  "Pendant une anne' toute entiere,Le regiment na Pas r'paru. Au Ministere de la Guerre On le r'porta comme perdu. "On se r'noncait a r'trouver sa trace,Quand un matin subitement,On le vit r'paraitre sur la place,L'Colonel toujours en avant."

  I waited until the last note had died away in the darkness.

  "Are those your thoughts?" I asked then, half turning.

  "No," said Desiree, "but I want to kill my thoughts. As for them——"

  She hesitated, and after a short pause her voice again broke into melody:

  "Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail That brings our friends up from the underworld;Sad as the last which reddens over one That sinks with all we love below the verge;So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more."

  Her voice, subdued and low, breathed a sweetness that seemed almost to be of another world. My ear quivered with the vibrations, and long after she was silent the last mellow note floated through my brain.

  Suddenly I became conscious of another sound, scarcely less musical. It, too, was low; so low and faint that at first I thought my ear deceived me, or that some distant echo was returning Desiree's song down the dark tunnel.

  Gradually, very gradually, it became louder and clearer, until at length I recognized it. It was the rush of water, unbroken, still low and at a great distance. I turned to remark on it to Harry, but Desiree took the words from my mouth.

  "I seem to hear something——like the surf," she said. "That isn't possible, is it?"

  I could have smiled but for the deep note of hope in her voice.

  "Hardly," I answered. "I have heard it for several minutes. It is probably some shallows. We must look sharp."

  Another fifteen minutes, and I began to notice that the speed of the current was increasing. The sound of the rushing water, too, was quite distinct. Still the raft moved more and more swiftly, till I began to feel alarmed. I turned to Harry:

  "That begins to sound like rapids. See that the spears are fastened securely, and stand ready with your oar. Sit tight, Desiree."

  One thing was certain: there was nothing to do but go ahead. On both sides the walls of the tunnel rose straight up from the surface of the water; there was nowhere room for a landing-place ——not even a foot for a purchase to stay our flight. To go back was impossible; at the rate the current was now carrying us we could not have held the raft even for a moment without oars.

  Soon we were gliding forward so swiftly that the raft trembled under us; from the darkness ahead came the sound of the rapids, now increased to a roar that filled the tunnel and deafened us. I heard Harry shouting something, but could not make out the words; we were shooting forward with the speed of an express train and the air about us was full of flying water.

  The roar of the rapids became louder and louder. I turned for an instant, shouting at the top of my voice: "Flat on your faces, and hold on for dear life!" Then I dropped down with my oar under me, passing my feet under two of the straps and clinging to two others with my hands.

  Another few seconds passed that seemed an hour. The raft was swaying and lurching with the mad force of the current. I called out again to Harry and Desiree, but my words were completely drowned by the deafening, stunning roar of the water. All was darkness and confusion. I kept asking myself: "Why doesn't it come?" It seemed an age since I had thrown myself on my face.

  Suddenly the raft leaped up under me and away. It seemed as though some giant hand had grasped it from beneath and jerked it down with tremendous force. The air was filled with water, lashing my face and body furiously. The raft whirled about like a cork. I gripped the straps with all the strength that was in me. Down, down we went into the darkness; my breath was gone and my brain whirled dizzily.

  There was a sudden sharp lurch, a jerk upward, and I felt the surface of the water close over me. Blinded and dazed, I clung to my hold desperately, struggling with the instinct to free myself. For several seconds the roar of the cataract sounded in my ears with a furious faintness, as though it were at a great distance; then I felt the air again and a sudden cessation of motion.

  I opened my eyes, choking and sputtering. For a time I could see nothing; then I made out Desiree's form, and Harry's, stretched behind me on the raft. At the same instant Harry's voice came:

  "Paul! Ah, Desiree!"

  In another moment we were at her side. Her hands held to the straps on each side with a grip as of death; we had to pry off each of her fingers separately to loosen them. Then we bent her over Harry's knee and worked her arms up and down, and soon her chest heaved convulsively and her lungs freed themselves of the water they had taken. Presently she turned about; her eyes opened and she pressed her hands to her head.

  "Don't say 'Where am I?'" said Harry, "because we don't know. How do you feel?"

  "I don't know," she answered, still gasping for breath. "What was it? What did we do?"

  I left them then, turning to survey the extent of our damage. There was absolutely none; we were as intact as when we started. The provisions and spears remained under their straps; my oar lay where I had fallen on it. The raft appeared to be floating easily as before, without a scratch.

  The water about us was churned into foam, though we had already been carried so far from the cataract that it was lost behind us in the darkness; only its roar reached our ears. To this day I haven't the faintest idea of its height; it may have been ten feet or two hundred. Harry says a thousand.

  We were moving slowly along on the surface of what appeared to be a lake, still carried forward by the force of the falls behind us. For my part, I found its roar bewildering and confusing, and I picked up my oar and commenced to paddle away from it; at least, so I judged.

  Harry's voice came from behind:

  "In the name of goodness, where did you get that oar?"

  I turned.

  "Young man, a good sailor never loses an oar. How do you feel, Desiree?"

  "Like a drowned rat," she answered, but with a laugh in her voice. "I'm faint and sick and wet, and my throat is ready to burst, but I wouldn't have missed that for anything. It was glorious! I'd like to do it again."

  "Yes, you would," said Harry skeptically. "You're welcome, thank you. But what I want to know is, where did that oar come from?"

  I explained that I had taken the precaution to fall on it.

  "Do you never lose your head?" asked Desiree.

  "No, merely my heart."

  "Oh, as for that," she retorted, with a lightness that still had a sting, "my good friend, you never had any."

  Whereupon I returned to my paddling in haste.

  Soon I discovered that though, as I have said, we appeared to be in a lake——for I could see no bank on either side——there was still a current. We drifted slowly, but our movement was plainly perceptible, and I rested on my oar.

  Presently a wall loomed up ahead of us and I saw that the stream again narrowed down as it entered the tunnel, much lower than the one above the cataract. The current became swifter as we were carried toward its mouth, and I called to Harry to get his spear to keep us off from the walls if it should prove necessary. But we entered exactly in the center and were swept forward with a rush.

  The ceiling of the tunnel was so low that we could not stand upright on the raft, and the stream was not more than forty feet wide. That was anything but promising; if the stream really ran through to the western slope, its volume of water should have been increasing instead of diminishing. I said nothing of that to Harry or Desiree.

  We had sailed along thus without incident for upward of half an hour, when my carelessness, or the darkness, nearly brought us to grief. Suddenly, without warning, there was a violent jar and the raft rebounded with a force that all but threw us into the water. Coming to a bend in the stream, the current had dashed us against the other bank.

  But, owing to the flexibility of its sides, the raft escaped damage. I had my oar against the wall instantly, shoving off, and we swung round and caught the current again round the curve.

  But that bend was to the left, as the other had been, which meant that we were now going in exactly the opposite direction of that in which we had started! Which, in turn, meant the death of hope; we were merely winding in and out in a circle and getting nowhere. Harry and Desiree had apparently not noticed the fact, and I said nothing of it. Time enough when they should find out for themselves; and besides, there was still a chance, though a slim one.

  Soon the bed of the stream became nearly level, for we barely moved. The roof of the tunnel was very low——but a scant foot above our heads as we sat or crouched on the raft. It was necessary to keep a sharp lookout ahead; a rock projecting from above would have swept us into the water.

  The air, too, was close and foul; our breath became labored and difficult; and Desiree, half stifled and drowsy, passed into a fitful and broken sleep, stirring restlessly and panting for air. Harry had taken the bow and I lay across the stern. Suddenly his voice came, announcing that we had left the tunnel.

  I sat up quickly and looked round. The walls were no longer to be seen; we had evidently entered a cavern similar to the one in which we had embarked.

  "Shall we lay off? I asked, stepping across to Harry's side.

  He assented, and I took the oar and worked the raft over to the left. There was but little current and she went well in. In a few minutes we were in shallow water, and Harry and I jumped off and shoved her to the bank.

  Desiree sat up, rubbing her eyes.

  "Where are we?" she asked.

  Harry explained while we beached the raft. Then we broke out our provisions and partook of them.

  "But why do we stop?" asked Desiree.

  The words "Because we are not getting anywhere" rose to my lips, but I kept them back.

  "For a rest and some air," I answered.

  Desiree exclaimed: "But I want to go on!"

  So as soon as we had eaten our fill we loaded the stuff again and prepared to shove off. By that time I think Harry, too, had realized the hopelessness of our expedition, for he had lost all his enthusiasm; but he said nothing, nor did I. We secured Desiree on her pile of skins and again pushed out into the current.

  The cavern was not large, for we had been under way but a few minutes when its wall loomed up ahead and the stream again entered a tunnel, so low and narrow that I hesitated about entering at all. I consulted Harry.

  "Take a chance," he advised. "Why not? As well that as anything."

  We slipped through the entrance.

  The current was extremely sluggish, and we barely seemed to move. Still we went forward.

  "If we only had a little speed we could stand it," Harry grumbled.

  Which shows that a man does not always appreciate a blessing. It was not long before we were offering up thanks that our speed had been so slight.

  To be exact, about an hour, as well as I could measure time, which passed slowly; for not only were the minutes tedious, but the foulness of the air made them also extremely uncomfortable. Desiree was again lying down, half-unconscious but not asleep, for now and then she spoke drowsily. Harry complained of a dizziness in the head, and my own seemed ready to burst through my temples. The soroche of the mountains was agreeable compared to that.

  Suddenly the swiftness of the current increased appreciably on the instant; there was a swift jerk as we were carried forward. I rose to my knees——the tunnel was too low to permit of standing——and gazed intently ahead. I could see nothing save that the stream had narrowed to half its former width, and was still becoming narrower.

  We went faster and faster, and the stream narrowed until the bank was but a few feet away on either side.

  "Watch the stern!" I called to Harry. "Keep her off with your spear!"

  Then a wall loomed up directly ahead. I thought it meant another bend in the stream, and I strained my eyes intently in the effort to discover its direction, but I could see nothing save the black wall. We approached closer; I shouted to Harry and Desiree to brace themselves for a shock, praying that the raft would meet the rock squarely and not on a corner.

  I had barely had time to set myself and grasp the straps behind when we struck with terrific force. The raft rebounded several feet, trembling and shaking violently. The water was rushing past us with noisy impetuosity.

  There was a cry from Desiree, and from Harry, "All right!" I crawled to the bow. Along the top the hide covering had been split open for several feet, but the water did not quite reach the opening.

  And we had reached the end of our ambitious journey. For that black wall marked the finish of the tunnel; the stream entered it through a narrow hole, which accounted for the sudden, swift rush of the current. Above the upper rim of the hole the surface of the water whirled about in a widening circle; to this had we been led by the stream that was to have carried us to the land of sunshine.

  When I told Desiree she stared at me in silence! I had not realized before the strength of her hope. Speechless with disappointment, she merely sat and stared straight ahead at the black, unyielding rock. Harry knelt beside her with his arm across her shoulders.

  I roused him with a jerk of the arm.

  "Come——get busy! A few hours in this hole and we'd suffocate. Do you realize that we've got to pull this raft back against the current?"

  First it was necessary to repair the rent in the hide covering. This we did with strips of hide; and barely in time, for it was becoming wider every minute, and the water was beginning to creep in over the edge. But we soon had the ends sewed firmly together and turned our hands to the main task.

  It appeared to be not only difficult, but actually impossible to force the raft back up-stream against the swift current. We were jammed against the rock with all the force of many tons of water. The oar was useless.

  Getting a purchase on the wall with our hands, we shoved the raft to one side; but as soon as we got to the wall on the left the whirling stream turned us around again, and we found ourselves back in our original position, only with a different side of the raft against the rock. That happened three times.

  Then we tried working to the right instead of the left, but with no better success. The force of the current, coming with all its speed against the unwieldy raft, was irresistible. Time and again we shoved round and started upstream, after incredible labor, only to be dashed back again against the rock.

  We tried our spears, but their shafts were so slender that they were useless. We took the oar and, placing its end against the wall, shoved with all our strength. The oar snapped in two and we fell forward against the wall. We tore off some of the strips of hide from the raft and tried to fasten them to the wall on either side, but there was no protuberance that would hold them. Nothing remained to be done.

  Harry and I held a consultation then and agreed on the only possible means of escape. I turned to Desiree:

  "Can you swim?"

  "Parfaitement," she replied. "But against that"—— pointing to the whirling water——"I do not know. I can try."

  I, who remember the black fury of that stream as it swept past us, can appreciate the courage of her.

  We lost no time, for the foulness of the air was weakening us with every breath we took. Our preparations were few.

  The two spears and about half of the provisions we strapped to our backs——an inconsiderable load which would hamper us but little. We discarded all our clothing, which was very little. I took the heavy skin which Desiree had worn and began to strap it also on top of my bundle, but she refused to allow it.

  "I will not permit you to be handicapped with my modesty," she observed.

  Then, with Desiree between us, we stepped to the edge of the raft and dived off together.

  Driven as we were by necessity, we would have hesitated longer if we had known the full force of the undercurrent that seized us from beneath. Desiree would have disappeared without a struggle if it had not been for the support which Harry and I rendered her on either side.

  But we kept on top——most of the time——and fought our way forward by inches. The black walls frowning at us from either side appeared to me to remain exactly the same, stationary, after a long and desperate struggle; but when I gave a quick glance behind I saw that we had pulled so far away from the raft that it was no longer in sight. That gave me renewed strength, and, shouting assurance to Harry and Desiree, I redoubled my efforts. Desiree was by now almost able to hold her own, but we still supported her.

  Every stroke made the next one easier, carrying us away from the whirlpool, and soon we swam smoothly. Less and less strong became the resistance of the current, until finally it was possible to float easily on our backs and rest.

  "How far is it to the cavern?" Harry panted.

  "Somewhere between one and ten miles," was my answer. "How the deuce should I know? But we'll make it now, I think. Can you hold out, Desiree?"

  "Easily," she answered. "If only I could get some air! Just one good, long breath."

  There was the danger, and on that account no time was to be lost. Again we struck out into the blackness ahead. I felt myself no longer fresh, and began to doubt seriously if we should reach our goal.

  But we reached it. No need to recount our struggles, which toward the end were inspired by suffering amounting to agony as we choked and gasped for sufficient air to keep us up.

  Another hundred yards would have been too much for us; but it is enough that finally we staggered onto the bank at the entrance to the cavern in which we had previously rested, panting, dizzy, and completely exhausted.

  But an hour in the cavern, with its supply of air, revived us; and then we sat up and asked ourselves: "What for?"

  "And all that brings us——to this," said Harry, with a sweeping gesture round the cavern.

  "At least, it is a better tomb," I retorted. "And it was a good fight. We still have something in us. Desiree, a good man was lost in you."

  Harry rose to his feet.

  "I'm going to look round," he announced. "We've got to do something. Gad, and it took us a month to build that raft!"

  "The vanity of human endeavor," said I, loosening the strap round my shoulders and dropping my bundle to the ground. "Wait a minute; I'm going with you. Are you coming, Desiree?"

  But she was too tired to rise to her feet, and we left her behind, arranging what few skins we had as well as possible to protect her from the hard rock.

  "Rest your weary bones," said Harry, stooping to kiss her. "There's meat here if you want it. We'll be back soon."

  So we left her, with her white body stretched out at its full length on the rude mat.

  Bearing off to the left, we soon discovered that we would have no difficulty to leave the cavern; we had only to choose our way. There was scarcely any wall at all, so broken was it by lanes and passages leading in all directions.

  We followed some of them for a distance, but found none that gave any particular promise. Most of them were choked with rocks and boulders through which it was difficult to force a passage. We spent an hour or more in these futile explorations, then followed the wall some distance to the right.

  Gradually the exits became less numerous. High on a boulder near the entrance of one we saw the head of some animal peering down at us. We hurled our spears at it, but missed; then were forced to climb up the steep side of the boulder to recover our weapons.

  "We'd better go back to Desiree," said Harry when we reached the ground again. "She'll wonder what's become of us. We've been gone nearly two hours."

  After fifteen minutes' search we found the stream, and followed it to the left. We had gone farther than we thought, and we were looking for the end, where we had left Desiree, long before we reached it. Several times we called her name, but there was no answer.

  "She's probably asleep," said Harry. And a minute later: "There's the wall at last! But where is she?"

  My foot struck something on the ground, and I stooped over to examine it.

  It was the pile of skins on which Desiree had lain!

  I called to Harry, and at the same instant heard his shout of consternation as he came running toward me, holding something in his hand.

  "They've got her! Look! Look at this! I found it on the ground over there."

  He held the thing in his hand out before me.

  It was an Inca spear.

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