Fire Island, by George Manville Fenn.
This is good vintage Fenn, with dreadful situation following dreadful situation, and the heroes (mostly) managing to get out of it somehow. Right up to the last chapter the reader never knows how the problems that throw themselves upon a little group of naturalists and the sailors that brought them to the island on which all these frightening events occur, will be solved. NH
FIRE ISLAND, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"Do I think it would be wise to put on a life-belt, Mr Lane?"
The words were shouted into the ear of one of the speakers, and yelled back as, like others about the vessel, they clung to the side, now to be raised high, now to be plunged down again, as the Planet, with only a rag or two of storm canvas set, rode over a huge wave and seemed as if turned into some new and ponderous kind of diving apparatus about to seek the wonders at the bottom of the eastern seas. But after her tremendous plunge right into a hollow she rose again, shook off the water which deluged the deck and staggered on.
Just then a dimly seen figure sidled up to the two speakers, held on tightly, and shouted—
"I say, Mr Rimmer, isn't that man steering very wildly?"
"Who's to steer tamely, sir, in a sea like this? Man has enough to do to keep from being washed overboard."
The newcomer nodded and took a fresh grip of the top of the bulwark as a sea came over the bows again, and swept along the deck, leaving them breathless and panting, with the water streaming from oilskin and mackintosh.
"Don't you want to put on a life-belt, too?" shouted the first speaker, as in the darkness of that terrible night his words seemed to be snatched away as soon as uttered.
"Yes; it would be safer; where are they?"
"Bah! Nonsense! Look down there. Suppose you had on a life-belt, what could you do in such a sea? You'd both be knocked to pieces or have the breath choked out of you in five minutes. Stick to the ship while you can. That's good advice."
"Is there any danger?" shouted the young man who was nearest the last speaker.
"Of course there is. No one could be in such a tornado without being in danger."
"But shall we be wrecked?" asked the fresh-comer.
"Heaven only knows, sir. We're all amongst the islands and reefs, and if one of them is in our way nothing can save us."
No words were spoken then for some time, and every man on board the Planet brig, which after a short stay at Singapore was off on a voyage of discovery along the coast of New Guinea, clung to bulwark, shroud and stay, or sheltered himself the best way he could from the waves which, like the wind, seemed ready to pluck them from their hold.
Everything possible in the way of navigation had been done when the frightful storm came on, after scant warning in the way of a falling barometer. Then nothing was left for the unfortunates on board but to hold on and wait for the end of the hurricane as they were swept along swiftly in its course.
Three days before, they had been sailing gently within sight of the towering volcanoes of Java. Now, as Mr Rimmer, the chief mate, said, they were "anywhere," the wind having veered round as if blowing in a vast circle, and all government of the brig being pretty well at an end.
Matters had been bad enough while it was daylight. When darkness came on the little hope which had remained was pretty well quenched; and Oliver Lane began to think of the home in England that he might never see again, and of how different the reality of the expedition was from all that he had pictured in his rather vivid imagination.
When the trip was planned, and he obtained permission to join it through the influence of his father, a famous naturalist, he saw himself sailing amid glorious islands, with gorgeous tropical foliage hanging over seas of intense blue, glittering like precious stones in the burning sunshine; coral reefs seen through transparent water with their groves of wondrous seaweeds, and fish of brilliant tints flashing their scale armour as they swam here and there. Then, too, his thoughts had run riot over the shore trips among lands where the birds were dazzling in colour, and the insects painted by nature's hand with hues impossible to describe; but, instead of these delights to one of eager temperament, they had encountered this fearful storm. The captain and man after man had been disabled, and for the rest as they tore onward through the spray, mist and darkness, grim death seemed to be just ahead, for a touch upon one of the many reefs which studded those seas meant instant destruction, since no boat could have been lowered to live.
"Never say die," shouted Ezra Rimmer, the mate, in his ear. "We may ride it out."
Oliver Lane made no reply. He was half stunned by the deafening roar, and his mind after the many hours of suffering had grown confused; but as the last comer twisted a line about his waist and secured it to the belaying-pins close at hand, the mate went on shouting a few words from time to time as he tried to make out their unfortunate companions.
"These storms end suddenly," he shouted. "Don't understand 'em— electricity or something to do with the volcanoes. Keep a stout heart, sir. If we do have to die, I don't think it will be very bad. Hold tight whatever you do. As aforesaid, 'Never say die.'"
Oliver Lane turned his head to him and tried to make out the expression on the face of a man who could speak so coolly about death. But it was too dark, and turning back to the companion who had joined them, he reached his arm farther round the shroud he was clinging to and touched him.
The young man raised his drooping head.
"Where's Drew?" shouted Oliver Lane; but the wind bore away his words, and he yelled out his question again.
"Cabin!" came back in a temporary cessation of the turmoil of roaring wind, hissing spray, and creaking and groaning of the vessel's timbers.
Oliver Lane tried to ask another question, but the wind caught him full in the face with such force that for a few moments he could only gasp and try to recover his breath, while directly after the vessel gave so tremendous a pitch and roll, he was jerked from his footing and hung by his hands with the sensation of having his arms jerked from their sockets.
But the young Englishman had been engaged in similar struggles for hours, and recovering himself he shouted, "Panton?"
"Is Drew hurt?"
"Yes. So am I."
"So we are all, Mr Panton," yelled the mate. "If we get through this we shall all be covered with bruises, let alone broken ribs and other bones—Yah!—Hold on."
The advice was not needed, for the two young men with him had suddenly seen something grey loom up in front, and taught by experience that it was a mass of foaming water, they clung for dear life, sheltering themselves as well as they could beneath the bulwark as the wave curled over and thundered along the deck with a hideous crashing din that literally stunned them. When it had passed over Oliver Lane shook his head and tried with his smarting eyes to get rid of the water and make out whether his companions were safe.
To his horror Arthur Panton was hanging from the belaying pin to which he had lashed himself, with his head down and his hands close to his feet, apparently lifeless, while the mate was gone.
It is good medicine for the mind to see others in peril, for it rouses to action the best feelings in our nature and subdues the love of self.
In an instant Oliver had forgotten his own sufferings, and, holding on by one hand, he tried to raise his companion to his old position, but for a few moments in vain. Then the reaction came, and the young man made a brave effort to assist, and soon after he was upright and clinging with his arms over the bulwark, gasping heavily to recover his breath.
Oliver Lane's next movement was to help the mate, whom he could dimly see lying across the deck half buried and wedged in amongst ropes, gratings, and the smashed-up wreck of one of the boats, which had been torn from the davits by the weight of the water.
He had to crawl to him, and then dragged away a great tangle of rope and several pieces of broken woodwork before the mate moved. Then he began to struggle, dragged himself out by the help of Oliver Lane's hands, and crawled back with him to the side, where he crouched down under the bulwark.
"Nice lark this, sir," he groaned.
"Much hurt?" shouted Oliver Lane.
"Tidy," came back. "Don't know yet, sir. Hah! Don't think I could stand much more of it, nor the old Planet, neither."
These words were uttered during a temporary lull. Then the wind came along with a fiercer rush than ever, bearing with it a perfect deluge of spray in great stinging, blinding drops torn from the surface of the waves, and forcing all on board to shelter their faces from its violence.
There was no more possibility of making one another heard for the furious blast. Every nerve and muscle had to be devoted to the task of holding on, and in this way hour after hour of that awful night slowly passed away till one and all of the crew strained their eyes, though vainly, for the coming of the day.
"At last!" shouted the mate.
Oliver Lane looked up in his direction, so thoroughly exhausted and weak that he could not comprehend the meaning of his companion's words. Then by slow degrees he began to realise that the wind was falling fast, though the vessel was labouring as much as ever.
Then he managed to grasp the fact that it was some time since the deck had been flooded by a wave, and with a faint gleam of hope crossing the darkness which had enshrouded them, he said with an effort—
"Lulling a little?"
"Lulling?" cried the mate. "You couldn't have talked to me like that a couple of hours ago."
"Then we have escaped?"
"I don't know yet. All that I know is that we are getting through the storm, and the sooner it is daylight the better I shall be pleased."
Some hours passed. The wind had died out and the sea was rapidly going down, but a strange feeling of uneasiness had come upon the occupants of the little vessel. Visit after visit had been paid to the cabins, and the watches which had been consulted and doubted were now acknowledged to be trusty and truth-telling, for the chronometers supported their evidence and announced that it was well on toward noon of the next day. Though to all appearance it was midnight of the blackest, dense clouds shutting out the sky, while the long-continued darkness had a singularly depressing effect upon men worn out by their struggle with the storm.
Arthur Panton, the mineralogist of the little expedition, had pretty well recovered from the battering he had received, and he at once gave his opinion as to the cause of the darkness.
"I cannot speak learnedly upon the subject," he said, "but these terrible storms, as Mr Rimmer says, do appear to be somehow connected with electric disturbances, and often enough these latter seem to be related to volcanic eruptions."
"And you think there is a volcanic eruption somewhere near?" asked Lane.
"I do not say somewhere near, for the wind may have brought this dense blackness from hundreds of miles distant but certainly I should say that one of the many volcanoes in this region is in eruption."
"If it were, sir, we should be having fine ashes coming down upon us," said the mate, gruffly, "and—"
"What's that?" cried Panton, holding up his hand.
"Thunder," said the mate, as a deep, apparently distant concussion was heard.
"No, the explosion from some crater," said Panton. "Hark!"
Another deep muttering report was heard, and soon after another and another.
"Only a bad thunderstorm," cried the mate. "There, let's go and get some food, gentlemen, and see how our friends are. I daresay we shall be having a deluge of rain before long, and then the sun will come out and I can take an observation."
He led the way to the cabin, where the steward had prepared a meal and retrimmed the lamps, going about with a scared look on his countenance, and turning his eyes appealingly from one to the other as the thunderlike reports kept on; but, getting no sympathy from those to whom he appealed silently, for they were as nervous as himself, he sought his opportunity and, following Oliver Lane into a corner, he began,—
"Oh, sir, the destruction's awful."
"But the ship is sound yet, and making no water."
"I mean my china and glass, sir," said the man, "I shan't have a whole thing left."
"Never mind that if our lives are saved."
"No, sir, I don't; but will they be saved?"
"Oh, yes, I hope so."
"But it's so dark, sir. Oh, why did I leave London with its safety and its gas? Why am I here, sir? I want to know why I am here?"
"Because you were not a coward," said Lane.
"Eh? You're not joking me, sir."
"No, I am serious."
"Then thank you, sir. You're quite right. That's it, I'm not a coward, and I won't say another word."
The man nodded and smiled and went about his work, while Lane turned to a young man of seven or eight and twenty, who sat evidently suffering and looking pale and strange in the sickly light.
"I say, Lane," he said, "is this the end of the world?"
"Not to-day, Mr Drew," cried the mate: "Is no end to the world, it's round."
"To-day! It's noon, and as black as night."
"Mr Rimmer thinks we are going to have a tremendous rain storm now," said Oliver Lane, wincing with pain as he sat down.
"Then it is going to be a rain of black ink."
"Oh, no, sir, heavy thunderstorm and then the light will come. The clouds look almost solid."
"But surely that cannot be thunder," cried Oliver Lane, excitedly. "Hark!"
"No need to, sir," said the mate, smiling. "It makes itself heard plainly enough. By George!"
He sprang from the table and hurried out on deck, for a roar like that of some terrific explosion close at hand was heard, and Lane and Panton followed, expecting to see the lurid light of a fire or the flash of lightning forerunning the next roar.
But all was blacker than ever, and the sailing lights and a ship's lantern or two swung to and fro as the vessel rose and fell on the unquiet sea.
"What do you make of it, Smith?" cried the mate to one of the watch.
"Can't make nothing on it at all, sir," said the man, taking off his cap and scratching his head, while his face, like those of his companions' had a peculiar scared aspect. "'Tar'nt like a thunderstorm, cause there ar'n't a drop o' lightning."
"Bit, matey," said one of the man's comrades.
"Get out," growled the first man, "how can it be a bit, Billy Wriggs, when yer can't touch it? I said a drop and I mean it."
"Don't argue," said the mate, sharply. "Do you mean to say, all of you, that you saw no flash?"
"Not a sign o' none, sir," said the first man. "There?"
Another fearful detonation came with startling violence to their ears, and as they stood upon the deck the report seemed to jar them all in a dull, heavy way.
"Warn't no flash o' lightning there, sir."
"No, I saw no flash," said Oliver Lane, uneasily.
"No, there aren't been none, sir. Lightning allus flickers and blinks like, 'fore you hear any thunder at all."
"These dense black clouds might hide the flashes," said Lane.
"No," said Panton. "I should say that a flash of lightning would pass through any cloud. I don't think it's thunder."
"What, then, a naval action going on?"
"No war," said the mate, "it must be thunder."
Another detonation, louder than any they had heard before, made the ship literally quiver, and the men pressed together and turned their startled faces towards the mate as if for help and protection.
"World's coming to a hend," muttered one of the men.
"If I was skipper here," said another, "I'd just 'bout ship and run for it."
"Where to?" said Wriggs.
"Can't run your ship out o' the world, matey," grumbled the first sailor who had spoken, while the mate and the cabin passengers stood gazing in the direction from which the detonations seemed to come, and tried to pierce the dense blackness ahead. "Sims to me as there's something wrong in the works somewhere. I never see anything like this afore."
"Nor you can't see nothing like it behind, matey," said Wriggs. "It's like playing at Blind Man's Buff shut up in a water tank."
Another awful roar, ten times as deafening as that of the loudest peal of thunder, now struck them heavily—short, quick—sudden, but there was no echoing reverberation or rolling sound as with thunder, and now convinced that it could not be the effects of a thunderstorm, the mate turned to his companion, and said,—
"It's a big volcano hard at it somewhere, gentlemen, and these are not rain clouds shutting us in, but smoke."
"But what volcano can it be?" said Lane, as a peculiar nervous tremor attacked him.
"You tell me whereabouts we are, and I'll tell you what burning mountain that is. If you can't tell me, I can't tell you. Wait till the clouds open, and I'll get an observation. First thing, though, is to make sail and get away."
He knew the folly of his remark as he spoke, for the wind had completely dropped now, and it was noted as strange that no rush of air came after each explosion. There was the heavy concussion and then a terrible stillness, the air being perfectly motionless, and this appearing the more strange after the frightful tornado through which they had passed. Silence absolute, and a darkness as thick as that of the great plague of Egypt—a darkness that could be felt. And now, making no headway whatever, the vessel rolled heavily in the tossing waves, which boiled round them as it were, as if there were some violent disturbance going on far beneath the keel.
"I never see nought like this," whispered the first sailor Smith, as if he were afraid of his words being heard. "Ship's going it like a dumpling in a pot."
"And I never felt anything like it, gentlemen," said the mate in a low awe-stricken tone. "But we mustn't show any white feathers, eh, Mr Lane? Ah, Mr Drew, come to give us your opinion?"
This to the gentleman they had left in the cabin.
"I have come to bring terrible news, Mr Rimmer," said the fresh-comer, gravely. "A few minutes after you had left the cabin, Captain White rose suddenly upon his elbow. 'Fetch Mr Rimmer,' he said; 'no: don't leave me. He can do no good. It's all getting dark. Tell Mr Rimmer to do his best but I know he will. Stay with me to the last, Mr Drew.' I should have run and called for help, but it was all too plain, Mr Rimmer. He was dying, and directly after he sank back on his pillow, gave me one sad look as if to say good-bye, and all was over."
The terrible silence seemed to be more profound at this announcement, which came like a chill upon the little group already sufficiently unnerved.
The silence was broken by the mate, who said, softly,—
"God be merciful to him, and take him unto His rest! We've lost a good captain, gentlemen, and I a very faithful old friend."
Another deafening roar came from ahead. Away to the east it appeared to be one minute—to the west, south, north, the next, for the needle of the compass was all on the quiver, and appeared as if it followed a wandering magnetic attraction in the air.
Silence again, all but the hissing and splashing of the troubled sea, and the creaking of the beams as the brig rolled slowly from side to side.
The crew were all grouped together close by the mate, who had succeeded to the command of the little vessel, and as he stood there gazing over the side, thoughtfully, the three young men glanced at each other, and then at the man who had their lives in charge.
At last the mate turned, and the light of one of the lanterns shone full upon his haggard countenance.
"There's no doubt about it, gentlemen," he said, "we're near some volcano in a terrible state of eruption, and there is nothing to be done but wait. I am perfectly helpless till we get light and a breath of air. Ah, here's a change. There's no doubt now. I was wrong; we have got something to do."
For as he spoke the thick darkness suddenly became blacker; inasmuch as before it was all overhead, now it appeared to have gradually settled down upon the sea and obscured the light of the lanterns. For plainly enough there was the convincing proof of their being in the neighbourhood of some volcanic disturbance in the mighty band which runs through the Eastern Archipelago. The air became suddenly full of a thick, fine ash falling softly upon the deck, and to such an extent that the gangways were thrown open and the crew were set to work to sweep the powder off into the sea.
Here too, a strange effect was produced, for the ship gradually began to roll less violently, the soft fine ash which fell being sufficiently buoyant to float, and it became so thick that the rough waters were quieted, and the surface was rapidly covered with a thick coating of floating ash.
At first this dust settled softly down upon the deck, then it came down more thickly, lodging on the yards and sails, every rope and stay, too, taking its load till it was filled up so that it could bear no more, end consequently every now and then avalanches of ash were started from on high and came down with a soft rush and a heavy thud upon the deck.
This rapidly accumulated, and the men had to work harder and harder shovelling it to the gangways where others threw it overboard, where it fell silently and without a splash.
"Work away, everyone," cried the mate. "It will soon be all down, and then we shall get light."
But the fearsome detonations continued, and it was evident that at every discharge fresh clouds of the volcanic dust were formed, and the darkness remained as profound as ever.
"This can't go on," said Oliver Lane, in a husky whisper to his nearest companion as they both paused breathless, dropping with perspiration, choked, and blinded by the volcanic dust.
"I hope not," was the reply. "It seems to fall more quickly than we shovel it off."
"What's that?" cried Lane excitedly, and a low murmur full of horror and despair, arose from the ship as men threw down shovel and broom and made for the boats, for following close upon another of the awful explosions there was a sudden rushing noise, evidently in the opposite direction, and the vessel quivered from stem to stern as if it had suddenly, and without warning, struck upon a rock.
So startling was the concussion that the immediate conclusion was that she was going down, and it was not until a couple of similar concussions had been suffered that it was realised that the blows were shocks communicated through the water, which was once more in a fearful state of disturbance.
"We're in for it now, gentlemen," said the mate, in awe-stricken tones. "Look out!" he roared, directly after.
"Hold on everyone, rope and stays."
His words were hardly heard, for there was once more a deafening roar apparently somewhere ahead, and almost simultaneously a heavy sea struck them astern, making the vessel heel over as the wave swept the deck, and as she recovered herself another and another deluged her, and for the moment it seemed as if she must sink.
But the buoyant vessel rose again as the falling ashes were succeeded by cinders which came rattling and crashing down, literally bombarding the deck, while to add to the horror the black darkness began to give place to a blood-red lurid glare. Toward this they were now being drawn, slowly at first, then faster and faster: as, after the three waves that had struck the vessel, another came towering on astern, threatening to engulf them, but plunging beneath the stern, lifting and bearing them along upon its tremendous crest with a rush and deafening hissing roar. Faster and faster, and on and toward the deep glow now right ahead.
Oliver Lane was clinging to the fore shrouds and awake to the fact that his two friends, Panton and Drew, were at his side, for their faces loomed out of the black darkness, lit up by the blood-red glow from which now came a perceptible sense of heat. The next moment they were joined by the mate, who yelled to them, his voice plainly heard over the hiss and roar,—
"Earthquake wave! It's all over now."
He said no more, and they all clung there, with the vessel still balanced accurately upon the huge crest and borne on at almost express speed.
In his agony of despair and horror Lane now glanced to right and left to see by the blood-red glow the rolling hill of water upon which he rode spreading out to right and left, while from the clouds above it was as if the whole of the firmament were casting down its stars in one great shower of light as the fiery stones came rushing, hissing into the sea and many of them crashing upon the doomed ship.
Death was upon them in its most awful form, and as the young man was conscious of two hands gripping his arms, a voice close to his ear shouted,—
"The end of all things, my lad; we can never live through this!"
A BIT OF BLUE.
As if to endorse these words there was once more a deafening explosion, the blood-red glow toward which they were being driven suddenly flashed out into a burst of light so dazzling that all present covered their blinded eyes; a spurt of fiery blocks of incandescent stone curved over and fell into the boiling sea, and as the occupants of the deck were driven prostrate by the shock which followed, silence and darkness once more reigned.
"Much hurt, sir?"
Oliver Lane heard those words quite plainly, and lay wondering who it was that was hurt, and why he did not answer so kindly an inquiry.
Then, as a hand was laid upon his shoulder, he grasped the fact that it was the mate who was speaking, and that he was the object of the sailor's solicitude.
"I—I don't know," he said, making an effort to sit up, and succeeding. "Whatever is the matter? My head aches a good deal."
"No wonder, my lad, seeing how you were pitched against the mast. But you won't hurt now. I doctored it as well as I could. It bled pretty freely, and that will keep the wound wholesome."
"Bled?" said the young fellow wonderingly, as he raised his hand, and found that a thick bandage was round his forehead.
"Yes; we were all thrown down when she struck, but you got the worst of it."
"She struck?—the ship? Then we have all been wrecked?"
"Well, yes," said the mate, giving his head a vicious kind of rub; "I suppose we must call it a wreck. Anyhow, we're ashore."
"And it isn't so dark?" said Oliver, rising to his feet and feeling so giddy that he caught at the nearest rope to save himself from falling.
"No, it isn't so dark, for the clouds are passing away. We shall have daylight directly."
"No; it's quite late to-morrow afternoon," said the mate grimly.
"But I don't hear that thundering now?"
"No; it's all over seemingly, thank goodness," said the mate, as his injured companion looked wonderingly up at the thick, blackened clouds still hanging overhead, and listened quite expectant for the next terrible detonation. "I began to think we were going to be carried along full speed into some awful fiery hole on the top of that wave, and that when we struck the water was going on to put out the fire, and I suppose it did."
"What?" cried Lane, looking round him, and then at the mate, to see if he were in his right senses.
"Yes, you may look, Mr Lane," he said. "I'm all right, only a bit scared; I know what I'm saying, and as soon as it get's light enough you'll see."
"But I don't understand."
"No, nor anybody else, sir, but Nature, who's been having a regular turn up. I s'pose you know that we were in for a great eruption?"
"Yes, of course."
"And somehow mixed up with the storm, there was an earthquake?"
"No, I did not grasp that, only that we were being carried toward a burning mountain; but I don't see any glow from the volcano now."
"No; it's all out, and I ought to have said a sea-quake. It seems to me it was like this: a great place opened somewhere, out of which the flame and smoke and thunderings came, till it had half spent its strength, and then the sea mastered it, and ran into the great hole and put out the fire, but it took all the sea to do it."
"I say, Mr Rimmer," exclaimed Oliver Lane, staring hard at the mate, "did you get a heavy blow on the head when we came ashore?"
"No; I had all my trouble before the shock came that sent you down, I mean when we struck I'm as clear as a bell now, sir, and know what I'm saying."
"But the sea—I don't hear any waves now. There are no breakers, the deck is not flooded, and yet you say we are ashore?"
"You can't see any breakers, and they can't," said the mate, pointing to a group dimly seen through the gloom clustered together and looking over the vessel's side, "because it's as I tell you, the earth opened with that eruption, and the seas all ran down the hole."
"That's right, sir. We're ashore, but it's on the bottom of the sea."
"Nonsense!" cried Oliver Lane.
"Oh, very well, look over the side, then. Where's the water? I've been looking and listening, and there isn't a drop to be heard; it's too dark to see anything yet. Now, listen again."
"I can hear nothing," said Oliver.
"No, not a splash, and the great volcano is put out. That isn't smoke which makes it so dark, but steam rising from the big hole in the earth."
"Oh, impossible!" cried Lane.
"All right, sir, then make it possible by explaining it some other way. But, as far as I can make out, our voyage is over, and we've got to walk all the way home, and carry our traps."
"Wait till it gets light," said Lane confidently, "and you'll see that you are wrong. Who's that, Drew?"
"Yes. Are you better?"
"Oh, yes, only a little giddy. Where's Panton?"
"Over yonder. I say, what do you think of this? Isn't it awful! You know we are ashore."
"Mr Rimmer says we're on the bottom of the sea, with all the water run out."
"Well, it does seem like it, but that's impossible, of course. We're not in a lake."
"I don't know where we are gentlemen," said the mate, "only that I feel like a fish out of water, and I'm quite in the dark."
"Wherever we are," said Drew, "we have been in the midst of an awful natural convulsion, and if we can escape with life, I shall feel glad to have been a witness of such a scene."
"I'm thinking about our poor ship, sir," said the mate. "She's of more consequence to me than Nature in convulsions. Oh, if these clouds would only rise and the light come so that we could see!"
"It is coming," cried Lane. "It is certainly clearer over yonder. How still everything is!"
A long-drawn, piercing, and harsh cry from a distance.
"What's that?" cried Drew.
"Fish," said the mate, drily. "Found there's no more water, and it's going to die."
"Mr Rimmer," cried Lane, "what nonsense!"
"Nonsense? Why, I've many a time heard fish sing out when they've been dragged on board."
"That was a bird," said Lane, as he shaded his eyes to try and pierce the gloom around them. "There it goes again."
For the cry was repeated, and then answered from behind them, and followed directly after by a piping whistle and a chirp.
"We're ashore with birds all about us," said Oliver Lane decisively. We were carried right in by that earthquake wave, and the water has retired and left us stranded.
"Have it your own way, gentlemen," said the mate. "It's all the same to me whether my ship's left stranded at the bottom of a dry sea or right away on land. She's no use now—that's plain enough."
Just then the darkness closed in again, and save for the murmur of voices in the obscurity, the stillness was terrible. So utterly dark did it become that anything a yard away was quite invisible, and once more, suffering one and all from a sensation of dread against which it was impossible to fight, the occupants of the deck stood waiting to encounter whatever was next to come.
Oliver Lane was at the age when a youth begins to feel that he is about to step into a fresh arena—that of manhood, but with a good deal that is boyish to hold him back. And in those moments, oppressed and overcome as he was by the long-continued darkness, he felt a strong disposition to search out a hand so as to cling to whoever was nearest, but he mastered the desire, and then uttered a sigh of satisfaction, for Drew, his companion, suddenly thrust a hand beneath his arm and pressed towards him.
"Company's good," he whispered, "even if you're going to be hanged, they say; let's keep together, Lane, for I'm not ashamed to say I'm in a regular stew."
"So's everybody," said the mate frankly. "I've been through a good deal at sea, gentlemen, but this is about the most awful thing I ever did encounter. I wouldn't care if we were only able to see what was to happen next."
A cheer broke out from the crew at that moment, for right overhead the blackness opened, and a clear, bright ray of light shot down upon the deck, quivered, faded, shot out again, and then rapidly grew broader and broader.
"Blue sky!" yelled one of the sailors frantically as a patch appeared; and in his intense excitement he dashed off into the rapid steps of a hornpipe.
"Bravo, my lads!" cried the mate, who was as excited as the men. "Cheer again. Three cheers for the bit of blue!"
The men shouted till they were hoarse, paused, and then cheered again, while Panton turned now to where his friends were standing with the mate, and with the tears welling in his eyes, began to shake hands with first one and then another, all reciprocating and beginning in their hysterical delight to repeat the performance double-handed now, as the light grew broader and clearer. A soft, warm mellow glow, which grew and grew till the huge dense steam clouds were seen to be rolling slowly away in three directions, in the fourth—the north evidently, from the direction of the golden rays of light—there was one vast bank of vapour, at first black, then purple, and by degrees growing brighter, till the men burst forth cheering wildly again at the mass of splendour before them. For far as eye could reach all was purple, orange, gold and crimson of the most dazzling sheen, then darkness once more; for the sun, of which they had a momentary glimpse, was blotted out by the rolling masses of cloud which were floating away.
But it was the darkness of an evening in the tropics. The light had been, and sent hope and rest into their breasts, giving them the knowledge of their position as they lay stranded upon an open plain with the terrible convulsion of nature apparently at an end.
"One must eat and one must sleep," said Oliver Lane, "even if a fellow has been knocked on the head and nearly killed."
Every one was of the same opinion; but though there were a few attempts at jocularity, the mirth was forced, and all knew that they were trying to hide the deep feelings of thankfulness in their hearts for their safety, after passing through as terrible an ordeal as could fall to the lot of man.
There was another reason, too, for the solemnity which soon prevailed; the captain lay dead in the cabin—the man who not many hours before was in full possession of health, and now sleeping calmly there, beyond sharing the hopes and fears of those whom he had left behind. Consequently, men went to and fro as if afraid of their steps being heard, and for the most part conversed in whispers for some time, till the question arose about keeping watch.
"There's only one thing to keep a watch for to-night," said the mate to Oliver,—"savages."
"If there are savages here, would they not have been drowned, Mr Rimmer?"
"Perhaps—or burned to death. Then there's nothing to watch for."
"Not for the wave that may come and carry us back to sea?"
"No; that would be too long a watch, sir. Such an eruption as we have encountered only comes once in a man's lifetime. I'm in command now, and I shall let every poor fellow have ten or a dozen hours' good sleep, and I am so utterly done up that I shall take the same amount myself."
The consequence was that all through that natural darkness of night dead silence reigned.
But not for ten or a dozen hours. Before eight of them were passed, Oliver Lane was awake and on deck, eager and excited with all a naturalist's love of the wild world, to see what their novel surroundings would be like.
The sun was shining brilliantly; low down in the east the sky was golden, and as he raised his head above the hatchway, it was to gaze over the bulwarks at a glorious vista of green waving trees, on many of which were masses of scarlet and yellow blossom; birds were flying in flocks, screaming and shrieking; while from the trees came melodious pipings, and the trills of finches, mingled with deep-toned, organ-like notes, and the listener felt his heart swell with thankfulness, and a mist came before his eyes, as he felt how gloriously beautiful the world seemed, after the black darkness and horrors through which he had passed.
Then everything was matter-of-fact and ordinary again, for a voice said,—"Hullo! you up? Thought I was first."
"You, Drew? I say, look here." Sylvester Drew, botanist of the little expedition, shaded his eyes from the horizontal sunbeams, and looked round over the hatchway as he stood beside his companion, and kept on uttering disconnected words,—"Beautiful—grand—Paradise—thank God!" By one impulse they stepped on deck and went to the bulwarks, to stand there and look around, astounded at the change.
From where they had obtained their first glimpse of their surroundings they only saw the higher ground; now they were looking upon the level—a scene of devastation.
For they were both gazing upon the track of the earthquake wave, and all around them trees were lying torn-up by the roots, battered and stripped of their leafage, some piled in inextricable confusion, others half buried in mud. Some again had soft white coral sand heaped over them. Here, the surface had been swept bare to the dark rock which formed the base of the island or continent upon which they had been cast; there, mud lay in slimy waves, some of which were being disturbed at the surface by something living writhing its way through the liquid soil.
"Might have given a fellow a call," said a voice, and Panton came up to them. "You fellows are as bad as schoolboys; must have first turn."
"Never thought of calling you," said Drew.
"Not surprised at you," said Panton to Oliver Lane, "you are only a schoolboy yet; but you might have called me, Drew."
"Don't take any notice, Oliver, lad," said Drew. "Panton always goes badly till he has been oiled by his breakfast."
"My word!" cried Panton, as he grasped the scene around them. "Look here, Drew! Look at the earth bared to its very bones. Volcanic. Look at the tufa. That's basalt there, and look where the great blocks of coral are lying. Why, they must have been swept in by the wave."
"Don't bother," said Drew. "I want to make out what those trees are in blossom. They must be—"
"Oh, bother your trees and flowers! Here, Oliver, lad, look at the great pieces of scoria and pumice. Why, that piece is smoking still. These must be some of the fragments we saw falling yesterday."
"Can't look," said Oliver, "I want to know what those birds are, and there's a great fish in that muddy pool yonder, and, if I'm not greatly mistaken, that's a snake. Here, quick! Look amongst those trees. There's a man—no, a boy—no. I see now; it's alive, and—yes—it's some kind of ape."
"Well, we can't go on fighting against each other, with every man for his own particular subject," said Drew, "we must take our turns. We've been cast on a perfect naturalist's paradise, with the world turned upside down, as if for our special advantage."
"Yes," said Panton; "we could not possibly have hit upon a place more full of tempting objects."
"But what about our exploration in New Guinea?" said Oliver.
"This may be the western end of that island," said Panton. "But where's the volcano that has caused all this mischief?"
"Yonder," said Oliver, pointing, "behind the cloud."
The others looked at a dense curtain of mist which rose from the earth, apparently to the skies, and hid everything in that quarter, the desolation extending apparently for a couple of miles in the direction of the curtain, beyond that the ground rose in a glorious slope of uninjured verdure, and then came the great cloud of mist or smoke shutting off the mountain, or whatever was beyond.
"But where is the sea?" said Oliver.
"All run down through a big hole into the earth, I say," said a deep voice. "Well, gentlemen, how are you?"
"Ah, Mr Rimmer, good morning," cried Oliver, shaking hands. "How are your hurts?"
"Oh, better my lad, and yours?"
"Only a bit stiff and achy. But who's to think of injuries in such a glorious place?"
"Glorious!" said the mate, screwing up his face. "Look about you. Everything's destroyed."
"Oh, yes," said Drew; "but in a month it will be all green again and as beautiful as ever!"
"Except my poor brig," said the mate. "Why, she's regularly planted here in the mud and sand, and, unless she strikes root and grows young vessels, she's done for."
"But where is the sea?" cried Oliver.
The mate looked round him and then pointed south-west.
"Yonder, if there is any," he said.
"How do you know?"
"Trees all standing in the other direction, and yes, there are others out that way," he said, pointing. "It's plain enough, the wave swept right across this low level. You can see how the trunks lie and how the rocks and the shells have been borne along. Far as I can make out the wave has cleared a track about a dozen miles wide. May be twenty. Why, you gentlemen seemed to be quite pleased."
"Why not?" cried Oliver. "It's grand. Look at the work cut out for us. We want all the British Museum staff to help."
"Better have my crew, then, for there's nothing for us to do. The brig's fast settled down on an even keel. I say, Mr Panton, kick me or pinch me, please."
"Because I must be asleep and all this a dream. No, it's real enough," he said, sadly; "wait till I get a glass."
He went back to the cabin and returned directly with a telescope.
"I'll go up to the main-top," he said, "and have a look round."
The three naturalists were too much taken up by the endless objects of interest spread around them to pay much heed to his words, so that he had mounted to the main-top and then to the topgallant masthead before his words took their attention again, just too, as plainly enough they could make a huge animal of the crocodile kind slowly crawling along the edge of a pool about a quarter of a mile away.
"Here you are, gentlemen," the mate shouted.
"Yes, what is it?" cried Oliver, in answer to his hail.
"You can trace it all from here with the glass. There is some sea left."
"So I suppose," said Panton drily.
"Lies about four miles away to the east-'ard, and the land's swept right up to us, and then away north-west for a dozen miles, I should say, to the sea on that side."
"Can you make out the mountain?"
"No; there's nothing but cloud to the norrard. I expect it's there, and not very far away."
"And how far-off is the nearest sea?" asked Oliver.
"'Bout four miles."
"And what do you make this out to be—an island?"
"Can't say, sir. Island or peninsula. Can't be mainland. But I shall be able to settle that before long."
He reached the deck just as the men were coming up from the forecastle, and they were soon at work swabbing the planks, squaring yards, shaking out the sails to dry, and getting the vessel in order just as if she were at sea, while the cook and steward attended to their work as coolly as if nothing had happened.
At mid-day the mate had taken his observations and marked down their position on the chart just where the map showed a broad blank in the Arafura Sea.
"But are you right?" said Oliver, as he followed the mate's pointing finger.
"As right as my knowledge of navigation will let me be, sir," said the mate quietly. "That's where we are."
"But where is that?"
"Just nowhere, sir."
"We're very cunning, sir, and think we know the whole world and everything there is; but now and then we find out that we are not so clever as we thought, and that there is just a little more to learn. I said that we were nowhere just now, which isn't quite correct, because we are here; but it strikes me that we're in a spot where no civilised vessel ever was before."
"What, right on shore?" said Oliver, smiling.
"No, sir, I didn't mean that. I meant no vessel ever touched here before, or it would have been marked down in the chart. Savages have been, perhaps. Maybe they're here still, but they have been frightened into their holes by the eruption."
Oliver looked out of the open cabin window as if expecting to see a party of the people coming, but he only made out something living in one of the pools left by the flood wave.
"I'm very sorry, gentlemen, the captain and I undertook to cruise with you along the New Guinea coast; but man proposes and—you know the rest. Here we shall have to stay till some vessel comes in sight to take us off, and to that end I propose that to-morrow morning we begin to make expeditions to the coast, and set up a spar here and there with a bit of bunting showing for a signal of distress."
"No, don't—that is—not yet," said Oliver, excitedly. "No place that you could have found would have equalled this."
"If we have no more eruptions," said Drew.
"And earthquake waves," added Panton.
"I think we have been most fortunate," cried Oliver.
"Oh, well, if you're satisfied, gentlemen," said the mate, "I'm sure I am. You mean to begin looking for your bits of stone and butterflies then, here?"
"Of course," cried Oliver; "and we can live on board just as if we were at sea."
"Oh, yes," said the mate drily; "and you'll always be able to find the brig. She won't stir just yet, and there's no need to lower down an anchor. Very well, then, gentlemen, so be it; and now, if you please, we'll go down and make our way across yonder where those trees are standing, and do our duty by our poor dead friend."
Silence fell upon the group at this, and an hour later the whole of the crew were standing upon an eminence about a couple of miles from the ship, where the earthquake wave had passed on, leaving the beautiful trees and undergrowth uninjured, and save at the edge they had escaped the storm.
Here in the wonderful solitude, where the sun's rays fell in silver rain upon the newly turned black earth, the dead captain was laid to take his long last sleep; and sad, but still lightened in heart, the party returned to the Planet to talk over their plans for the morrow, when the first exploration of the unknown land was to commence.
Still weary from the shock and exertions of the past days, bed was sought in pretty good time, and Oliver Lane lay in his berth close to the open cabin window for some time in a half dreamy fashion, inhaling the soft warm air, and fancying now and then that a puff of hot sulphurous steam was wafted in through the window. Then he listened to a dull low singing and murmuring noise, quite plain now in the distance as if steam was rising from the ground. Anon came a loud splashing and wallowing as of some large beast making its way through water, and this was followed by a series of heavy blows apparently struck on the land or liquid sand. Gasping sighs, the smacking of lips, and then again hisses and noises, which made the listener ask himself whether there could be dangerous beasts about, and whether it was wise for the mate to have a couple of stout planks laid from the gangway down to the sand in which the brig was bedded.
But somehow these things ceased to trouble him. The noises were undoubtedly caused by fishes or crocodiles, which would not come on board, and he dropped off to sleep, and then awoke, as if directly, to lie staring at the dim cabin lamp against the roof, and wonder what was the meaning of the heavy feeling of oppression from which he suffered.
"Was it a nightmare?" he asked himself. Certainly there was something upon his chest, and it was moving. He could feel it plainly stirring all over him, and he was about to give himself a violent wrench when something passed between his eyes and the cabin lantern—something so horrible that it froze all his faculties into a state of inaction. For he saw distinctly the glistening of burnished scales, and a serpent's head at the end of an undulating neck, and directly after a forked flickering tongue touched and played about his face.
"It's only a dream-nightmare; but how horribly real," said Oliver Lane to himself, as a feeling of resignation came over him, and he lay there waiting for his imagination to be darkened over by a deeper sleep.
For there was an utter cessation of all sense of fear, and in quite a philosophical fashion, he began to think of how clear it all was, and how his mind could occupy mentally the position of a spectator, and look on at the vivid picture in which his body was playing so important a part.
"I know how it is," he thought; "I asked myself this afternoon whether the writhing creatures I saw moving about in the mud were sea-snakes, and directly after I began looking away among the trees, and wondering whether there were any big boas among their branches. One generally can trace one's dreams."
And all the time the weight upon his chest increased, and the pressure grew more suffocating, while the serpent's head played about his lips, touching them from time to time with its moist, cool tongue.
He felt then that, in accordance with all he had read, the monster would now begin to cover him with what the wild beast showman call "its serlimer," and then proceed to swallow him slowly, till he lay like a great knot somewhere down its distended body, while the reptile went to sleep for a month.
"And that wouldn't do for me," thought Oliver, as he felt quite amused at the thought. "I want to be up and doing; so, as all these horrible nightmare dreams come to an end, and as writers say, just at the most intense moment—then I awoke, I think I've had enough of this, and that it's time I did wake up."
At that moment a shudder ran through him, and he turned cold. A deathly dank perspiration broke from every pore, and he lay absolutely paralysed.
He was awake. He knew it well enough now. No nightmare could be so vivid, and in no dream was it possible for him who had it to, as it were, stand aside from the sufferer, as he had imagined. Yes, he was wide awake, and this great reptile had nestled to him for the sake of heat, after being half drowned by the flood. For after undulating its neck for a few moments longer, it lowered its crest, and in place of seizing him with its widely distending jaws, let its head sink down upon his throat and then lay as if enjoying the warmth from his body, and about to settle off to sleep.
What to do?
It was plain enough; so long as he lay perfectly still there was nothing to fear, for the reptile's visit was neither inimical nor in search of food. It had evidently glided up the plank slope and through the gangway to escape from the chilling wet ground, then made its way into the cabin and found the young man's berth pleasantly attractive. But Oliver felt that the slightest movement on his part might incense the creature and rouse within it a feeling that it was being attacked and a desire to crush its aggressor.
He knew well enough how wonderfully rapid the motions of a reptile were, and that in all probability if he stirred he would the next moment, be wrapped with lightning speed within its folds, and crushed to death.
The muscular strength of these creatures was, he knew, prodigious; even an eel of two or three feet long could twine itself up in a knot that was hard to master, hence a serpent of fifteen or twenty feet in length would, he felt, crush him in an instant.
Oliver Lane lay sick with horror. The weight upon his chest grew unbearable, and the desire to cast it off stronger minute by minute, as he lay motionless, with his oppressor quite invisible now.
Panton was in the berth above him, Drew upon the other side of the cabin, and along the beams there were guns and rifles hanging ready for use, while a faintly heard tread overhead told him that the watch was on the alert. But though help and means of defence were so near and ready, they seemed to be too far-off to avail him much, and hence he still did not stir.
Twenty or thirty feet he felt the creature must be, and of enormous thickness. They could not, then, be upon an isle, he thought, for such a creature must be an inhabitant of the mainland. But what could he do, with the weight increasing now? He could not possibly bear it much longer, for the reptile must be far longer than he had first imagined— forty feet at least.
At last, after vainly hoping that the serpent might grow restless and leave him, he felt that he must make some effort, and determined to call to his comrades for help.
But he hesitated, for what would be the consequences? The monster would be aroused by the noise and the first movement he made; and if it did not attack him, it would seize Drew or Panton, who would wake up in complete ignorance of the danger at hand. They could not use their guns there, in the narrow cabin, and the serpent would be master of the field.
No; he dare not call for them to help him, nor speak till some one came into the cabin, for in all probability Mr Rimmer was on deck and would come down soon.
A hundred wild thoughts flocked through Oliver Lane's brain, as he lay there half-suffocated, and felt how hard it was to have escaped from the terrible dangers of the volcanic eruption to find his end in the embrace of a loathsome serpent.
At last his mind was made up to what seemed to be the only way of escape. He determined to try and collect his energies, and then, after drawing a long deep breath, suddenly heave the monster off him on to the cabin floor. This he knew—if he were successful—would enrage it, but at the same time it might make for the companion-way and escape on to the deck—to attack the watch!
He hesitated at this for a few moments, but self-preservation is the first law of nature, and the watch would hear the alarm and be able to ascend the rigging, out of the creature's reach.
"I must do it," thought Oliver, "before I become too weak, for he's sixty feet long if an inch," and beginning softly to draw in a deep breath, he felt, to his horror, a slight gliding motion on the part of the reptile, as if the heaving up were making it uncomfortable.
Oliver Lane lay motionless again, gathering force for his great effort. His mind was now wonderfully active, and the serpent had grown to fully a hundred feet long. Feeling that it was sheer cowardice to be passive, he was about to make a desperate effort to throw off his incubus, when there was a shout on deck, answered by Mr Rimmer's voice, evidently in a great state of excitement, but what was said could not be made out in the cabin. In fact, Oliver had his own business to mind, for at the first sound from the deck the serpent raised its head, and he could see its tongue quivering and gleaming in the light, and the neck wavering, while the whole of its great length began to glide over him in different directions, as if every fold was in motion.
The noise on deck increased; there was the sound of yells and shouts; then came a crack, as if someone had struck the bulwark a heavy blow, which was followed by the quick trampling of feet and the mate's voice giving directions.
By this time the serpent's head had been lowered, and as the movement of its body increased, Oliver knew that the reptile was gliding down from the berth on to the cabin floor and to endorse this came the feeling of the weight passing off from his chest.
"What is it? What's the matter?" cried Panton, waking up, and, directly after, Drew asked what was "up."
"Don't know," cried Panton. "Where's Lane? Hi! Lane, old chap, wake up! There's something wrong on deck."
He made a movement to swing his legs out on to the floor and Oliver tried hard to utter a word of warning, but he could not. His tongue was tied—the power to speak utterly gone; and he could only lie there, feeling the last folds of the serpent glide out of his berth as his friend lowered his bare feet, and then uttered a yell of horror, and dragged them back again, just as, consequent upon his action, a quick rustling sound was heard.
"What is it?" cried Drew, excitedly.
"Snake—serpent!" groaned Panton. "I put my feet right upon its back."
"Ugh!" grunted Drew, drawing back his own feet as the quick rustling sound went on. "Look! There it goes out of the door. A monster. Where's Lane?"
"Here!" sighed the young man in a voice which he did not know for his own.
"Look out! Big snake!"
"I know it," panted Oliver. "Woke up—on my chest."
"Here, get a gun, someone," cried Panton; "the brute must be in the companion-way in ambush."
But no one stirred.
"I say, Lane, can't you reach a gun without getting out of bed?" said Panton, in a piteous tone of voice. "They're over on your side."
"Yes; as soon as I can get my breath," replied Oliver. "I'm rather giddy and stupid yet."
"I don't know about giddy," grumbled Drew.
"Then you think I am the other thing?" said Oliver, rather huskily. "All right; but if you had had that great brute upon your chest this last hour, you would be stupid."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, old fellow!" cried Drew hastily. "I really didn't know. But, I say, what is going on upon deck?"
The answer came at once from Mr Rimmer, who hurried into the cabin.
"Here, gentlemen, for goodness' sake come on deck!" he cried, as he snatched down a double gun. "We've got a visitor there."
"Yes, I know—a great serpent," said Oliver.
"Eh!—how did you know?" cried the mate, as he examined the piece to see if it was loaded.
"Lane has had it in bed with him."
"What! That's nice! Look sharp, gentlemen; bring your guns and I can promise you some nice shooting, though it's rather dark. The brute has taken possession of the deck, and we've been hitting at it with hand-spikes, but every crack only made him wag his tail and hiss at us. There; hark at them; they must have got him into a corner."
For the shouts and the sound of blows came again, louder than ever.
"There, I'm off; but make haste; and mind how you shoot, for it's rather dark—only starlight."
The young men hurriedly slipped on their trousers, and each took a double gun and proceeded to load.
"Swan shot?" suggested Oliver. "It's a huge brute."
"Never fired at a snake in my life," said Panton; "but I owe this brute something for scaring me. Ready?"
"Yes, ready," was the response; and they all stepped up on deck to go cautiously forward with their pieces at full cock to where the noise and confusion were still going on.
"Hi! Look out!" cried Oliver, as they advanced, and, raising his piece, he fired at something shadowy which he made out by the light of the stars gliding slowly along beneath the bulwarks.
The gun flashed, and the report was followed by a loud hissing, and a violent blow, as if some enormous whip had been lashed at the three, who were thrown to the deck, their legs being swept from under them.
"Hi!—this way," cried the mate from forward. "We've got him here."
They sprang up and hurried forward, Oliver recharging his piece with a fresh cartridge as they went, but only in time to hear another report, for the mate fired, and the men uttered a shout as a more violent scuffling noise arose.
"That's settled him," cried the mate. "Here, get the lanterns down; we'll soon have him out of that. Big one, isn't he?"
This to Oliver, who looked down at the deck to see, heaving and throbbing as if there were plenty of life in it still, about seven or eight feet of the tail part of a great serpent, the rest of the reptile being down in the forecastle, into which it was making its way when the mate gave it a shot.
"Yes, the brute!" cried Oliver excitedly. "It woke me by crawling into my berth."
"Well, he won't do that again. Smith had a cut at him with an axe, and I a shot. Now, then, lay hold, some of you, and let's haul the beggar out."
The men hesitated, but the mate ejaculated and seized the tail, which immediately twitched and threw him off, making everyone laugh.
"Oh, that's nothing," said the mate, taking a fresh grip. "I know I gave it a death wound. Come along, lay hold, you're not afraid of a snake?"
Two of the men came up rather unwillingly, and, seizing hold together, they gave a sharp drag and drew it out, writhing and twining still, and beating its bleeding head upon the white deck.
"Shall I give it another shot?" cried Oliver excitedly.
"Waste of a good cartridge, sir," said the mate. "It is nearly dead now. Muscular contractions, that's all."
"Ahoy! Hi! Look out!"
"Oh, murder!" shouted someone.
"Why didn't you speak sooner, mate?" cried another from where he lay close up under the bulwarks. For the wounded serpent had suddenly lashed out with its tail, and flogged two of the men over with its violent blows.
"I say, sir," said the first man, "hadn't I better cut his muscular contractions off with a haxe afore he clears the deck?"
"No, no, Smith, don't do that," cried Oliver, "you would spoil its skin."
"Well, sir, but if he don't, he'll spoil our'n," said the sitting man.
"That's a true word, Billy Wriggs," said Smith, in a grumbling tone, as he began to rub himself. "If I'd my way, I'd chuck the beggar overboard."
"What's the good o' that, matey, when there arn't no water? You can't drown sarpents in dry earth."
"Hi! Look out!" shouted the men in a chorus, for the reptile began to beat the deck again, as it twisted and twined and flogged about with its muscular tail, which quivered and waved here and there, sending the men flying. One minute the creature was tied up in a knot, the next gliding here and there, as if seeking a way to escape.
Gun after gun was raised to give it a shot, but its movements were so eccentric, that the best marksman would have found it a difficult task by daylight; there in the shadowy darkness it would have been impossible.
No one present had any hesitation about giving the brute a wide berth, and at the end of a minute or two it uncoiled itself and lay in undulations, showing its length pretty plainly.
"That was its flurry," said the mate, advancing now, and the men came down from the shrouds, the top of the galley, and out of the boats where they had taken refuge; "but perhaps we had better pitch it over the side till morning."
A low murmur arose from the men.
"What's that?" cried the mate sharply. "Are you afraid of the thing?"
"Well, sir, not exactly afraid," said Smith respectfully, "only you see it arn't like handling a rope."
A tremendous shout or rather yell from away aft, and the sailor who had taken refuge in that direction, now came running forward.
"What's the matter, Wriggs?" cried the mate.
"Seen his ghost, sir," groaned the man, who looked ghastly by the light of the lanterns.
"What?" cried the mate, as the three naturalists headed the shout of laughter which rose from the crew.
"Ah, you may laugh," grumbled the man, wiping the perspiration from his face, "but there it is all twissen up by the wheel and it made a snap at me as I got close up."
"You're a duffer," roared the mate. "Look here, my lads, he has seen the big hawser."
"No, sir," cried Wriggs, striking one hand heavily into the other, as a burst of laughter arose. "I see that there sarpent's sperrit twissen up round the wheel and the binnacle, and if you don't believe me, go and see. Ah! Look out: here it comes."
The man made a dash to get right forward out of the way, but, in his excitement, tripped over the body of the serpent lying gently heaving upon the deck, went headlong, yelling in his fear, and rolled over and over to the side.
But little attention was paid to him, the men thinking of nothing else but retreating, for from out of the gloom aft, and making a strange rustling in its serpentine course, a reptile, largely magnified by dread and the gloom, came gliding towards them with its crest raised about eight inches from the planks.
For a moment or two, as the men hurried away, the little party from the cabin stood staring in wonder.
"Run, gentlemen, run," shouted Smith. "He'll be orfle savage. T'ain't a ghost, it's t'other half. I knowed I cut him in two when I let go with the haxe."
"I know," cried Oliver, excitedly.
"Yes, sir. It's t'other half, sir," yelled Smith, who had swung himself up on one of the stays, where he clung like a monkey. "Shoot, sir, shoot, or it'll grow out a noo head and tail and be worse and more savager than ever."
"Yes," said Oliver to himself, "I'll shoot," and he fired both barrels of his piece as soon as he had a chance.
The effect was instantaneous. One moment the monster was writhing itself into a knot, the next it had rapidly untwined, and was gliding over the bulwarks, the later part rolling over rapidly, like a huge piece of cable, dimly seen, as it was carried down by an anchor.
"That's him," cried Smith; "but you didn't kill him, sir, or he wouldn't have got over the side like that. It was best half on him. My: what a whopper!"
Oliver ran to the side, followed by his friends, but they could see nothing below in the darkness, only hear the rustling noise of the beast writhing farther and farther away, the sound ceasing at the end of a minute, when they turned inboard.
"You didn't kill the other half," said Mr Rimmer, laughing.
"No, I wish I had," cried Oliver. "That was the beast that startled me. These things go in pairs, and the one you killed there was the second one come in search of its mate. Is it dead?" he continued, giving the long lithe body of the reptile upon the deck a thrust with his foot.
The answer came from the serpent itself, for it began to glide along under the bulwarks once more, making now, blindly enough, for the gangway, and as no one seemed disposed to stop it, the creature disappeared through the side and down the sloping planks to the earth.
"Look at that!" said Smith to one of his mates, as he lightly dropped on deck, "young Mr Lane thinks that's another sarpent, but we knows better, eh, lad? I chopped that there beggar clean in half, and one bit went forrard and t'other went aft."
"Yes, that's it," said Billy Wriggs, "and it was the head half as went aft."
"Nay, it was the tail," said Smith. "This here was the head bit."
"Now, what's the good o' bein' so orbstinit, mate," said Wriggs, reproachfully. "Think I don't know? I tell yer it was the head bit as went and twissened itsen round the binnacle and wheel, a-lying in wait for us poor sailors to go there and take our trick, when he meant to gobble us up. Don't matter how long a sarpent is, he can't bite you with his tail end."
"No; but he could sting with it; couldn't he?" said another man.
"Well, yes," said Smith, thoughtfully, "he might do summat o' that sort. If so be as we finds him lying dead. But I doubts it. Them sort o' beasts, mates, is full o' bad habits, and I shouldn't a bit wonder if this here critter crawls right away into the woods and lay hisself neatly together to make a fit, and then waits till it all grows together again, like graftin'."
"Think so, mate?" said Wriggs.
"Ay, that I do. Nat'ral hist'ry's the rummiest thing as I knows on, and that there young Mr Lane, as is a nat'ralist by purfession, knows a wonderful lot about it. Talk about conjuring; why, that's nowhere. I see him one day take a drop out of a bucket o' water on a slip o' glass and sets it on the cabin table."
"Why, you don't live in the cabin," growled one of the men.
"Yes, I do, mate, when he asts me to carry him in a bucket o' water, so now then! Well, matey, he goes then to a little m'ogany box and he takes out a tool like a young spy-glass, and sets the slip under it, and shoves his eye to one end and screws it about a bit, and then he says, says he, 'Now then Smith, would you like a peep into another world?' 'Yes, sir,' I says, 'I should.' 'Then just clap yer hye here,' he says, and I did, and there you could see right into a big sea, with a whacking great brute lying in the bottom, like a sugar hogshead, with a lot o' borcome structures got their heads in, and their long tails all waving about outside. He said it was a fusorior or something o' that kind, and all in that drop o' water, as looked as clear as cryschal when he took it out o' the bucket. Ah, he can show you something, he can."
"I know," said Billy Wriggs, "it was a mykreescope."
"Dessay it was," said Smith. "It might ha' been anything. It's wonderful what there is in nat're, my lads. Pity though as a man's hands and legs and arms don't grow again, as some things does."
"Tchah! They don't," said Billy Wriggs.
"What? Why, they do, lots of 'em. Don't lobsters' claws grow again, and lizards tails, and starfishes arms? What yer got to say to that? Mr Lane tells me that there's some kinds o' worms as when you cuts their heads off they grows again, and their tails too. There we are, though—to-morrow morning."
The man was right, for day was breaking, and, after the manner of the tropics, where there is scarcely any dawn, the sun soon rose to light up the desolation around the ship, where the earthquake wave had swept along, piling up sand and rock with heaps formed of torn-up trees, lying near the pools of water which remained in the depressions of the sand.
"Swabs," cried Mr Rimmer, coming forward, and buckets of water being fetched, the unpleasant stains left by the wounded serpents were soon moved, though the shot marks remained.
While the men were cleansing the deck and removing the traces left by the storm, a little party of three, all well armed, set off to try and trace the serpents and to get a truthful knowledge of their size, the darkness having given rather an exaggerated idea of their dimensions. In addition, if found dead, it was proposed to skin them for specimens, and to this end Smith accompanied them, declaring his willingness to master his fear of the reptiles and help in any way.
Before leaving the ship they took a good look round, at what promised to be a beautiful resting-place, as soon as the vegetation began to spring again, as it was certain to do in that moist tropical heat. Then taking it for granted that the serpents would make for cover, the steps of the little party were directed towards the nearest trees, a clump upon a broad elevated spot which had escaped the devastations caused by the wave and not many hundred yards from the ship.
"Seems rum, gentlemen," said Smith as they shouldered their guns, and strode off with a wonderful feeling of elasticity and freedom, after their long cooping up on board ship.
"What does?" said Oliver.
"The brig, sir. Ups and downs in life we see. Here was she built ashore, launched and then goes on her voyages, and then all at once she is launched again t'other way on, as you may say, and run up on land to stay till she dies."
"Unless we dig a canal back to the sea and float her, Smith," said Oliver.
"Zackly so, sir, but you'd want ten hundred thousand niggers to do the work."
"And the weekly wages bill would be rather big," said Drew.
"Look out," said Oliver, who was bending down and carefully examining the ground.
"What for?" asked Panton, cocking his piece.
"The serpents. Here is some dried blood."
"And here's a mark, sir," added Smith excitedly. "One of the bits come along here."
"Yes. I can see another mark," cried Panton. "Look." He pointed to what resembled the impression that would have been made by a large yard laid in a patch of half-dried mud in a depression, for either going or coming, a serpent had evidently passed along there.
The trees were close at hand now, and covered a far greater space than they had imagined. The spot was rugged too, with great masses of stone, which showed amongst the trunks and undergrowths, while opposite to them there was a black cavernous rift, as if the rock had been suddenly split open, all of which had been previously hidden by the dense growth.
"This is going to prove a lovely place," said Oliver eagerly.
"Ah! Too late. Did you see it?"
For a bird had suddenly hopped into view over the top of a bush, and, before the young naturalist could bring his gun to bear, darted out of sight among the foliage, giving those who saw it the impression of a vivid flash of fiery scarlet passing rapidly before their eyes.
"You're all right now," said Panton. "There are plenty of birds."
"Yes, and so are you two," replied Oliver. "Look at the rocks and trees."
"Hi! Gents, look out," cried the sailor. "Here we are."
The gun-locks clicked as the man started back after pointing before him at the narrow opening in the rocks, and upon Oliver carefully advancing, there lay just visible some dozen feet within the gloomy rift, about ten or a dozen inches of a serpent's tail, the reptile having taken refuge in the cavernous place.
"Here's one of them evidently," said Oliver, holding his gun ready.
"Yes, sir, tail end of him."
"Have it your own way. But come along, Smith. Here's a chance to distinguish yourself. Step forward and lay hold of the end, and pull the thing out. We'll cover you with our guns."
"You don't mean it, sir, do you?"
"Indeed, but I do."
"Well, sir, begging your pardon, as a man as wants to do his duty, it ar'nt to be done."
"All right, I'm not your captain, but if you will not, I must!"
"No, no, you'd better not," cried Panton.
"Pooh, the brute's dead, or nearly so. Will you go, Drew?"
"What, and pull that thing out of its hole? No. If it was a strange plant."
"Yes, or some wonderful mineral, but a huge snake. Ugh!"
"Hold my gun, Smith," said Oliver. "I mean to have that fellow's skin, but I expect he will be pretty heavy."
He handed his gun to the sailor, and stepped cautiously forward, separating the tangle of creepers, which hung down from above, and clambering over loose fragments of lava-like rock, found that he was at the entrance of what was evidently a rift penetrating far into the bowels of the earth, while a strange feeling of awe came over him, as he now became aware of low hissing and muttering sounds, evidently from somewhere far below.
"Quick's the word!" said the young man to himself, and stepping boldly in he seized hold of the serpent's tail with both hands, and at his touch galvanised it into life, for it gave a violent jerk, which dragged him off his feet. At the same moment, the loose blocks of stone beneath him gave way, and to the horror of his companions, there was a rustling sound as of an avalanche being set in motion, Oliver uttered a loud cry as he disappeared; then came a hollow booming roar, a whispering echo, and all was still.
"Lane!" shouted Panton, hurrying forward toward where his friend had disappeared.
"Mind! take care!" yelled Drew. "Here, you Smith, run back to the ship for ropes and help."
"And leave him like that, sir?" cried the sailor. "Not me; I'm a-going after him, that's my job now."
The man stepped quickly forward to where Panton had paused, holding on by a mass of lava, and peering into the huge rift.
"Hold on a moment, sir," cried the man, who had now set aside his dread of the serpents, and placing his hand to his mouth, he sent forth a tremendous "Mr Lane, ahoy!"
His voice echoed right away into the depths, and set some fragments of stone falling with a low whispering sound but there was no reply.
"Mind!" cried Panton, excitedly, and seizing the sailor's arm, he jerked him away so roughly, that the man caught his heel and fell backwards over and over among the stones and creeping growth at the mouth of the rift, while Panton himself beat a rapid retreat.
"I see him," grumbled Smith, "but I warn't going to him now," and he rose to his knees, as the wounded serpent so rudely seized by Oliver Lane glided by him, hissing loudly; "I say, never mind that thing now, gents. Come and help Mr Lane."
A couple of reports came close upon his words, for Drew had fired at the escaping serpent, which now writhed in amongst the bushes, evidently in its death throes.
"Why, here's t'other bit under me," said Smith, as he rose to his feet and looked down at where, half hidden, the other serpent had crawled back to its lair to die. In fact the man had fallen upon it, and its soft body had saved him from a severe contusion.
But somehow the horror of the reptile was gone in one far greater, and, trembling with eager excitement, Smith began to make his way cautiously inward again, stepping carefully on till a stone gave way, and fell rattling down what was evidently a very steep slope.
"I shall have to go down," muttered the man, "I can't leave the poor lad there. Ah, that's right!" he cried as Panton's voice rang out,—"Ropes. Bring ropes."
"Yes, I may as well have a rope round me," muttered Smith. Then loudly, "Mr Lane, ahoy!"
There was no answer, and he called again and again without avail. Then a thought striking him, he got out his matchbox, struck a light, lit several, waited till the splints were well ablaze, and let them fall down burning brightly, but revealing nothing.
"I can't stand this here," he muttered, and feeling his way cautiously, he lowered himself down till he could get good foothold, and was in the act of descending farther, when steps approached, and the mate's voice was heard in company with Panton's.
"Here, one of you, run back for a lantern," cried the mate as he hurried to the mouth of the chasm. "Ahoy there, Mr Lane; Smith!"
"Ahoy it is, sir," came from below.
"Hold hard, my lad, and make this rope fast around you. Know where Mr Lane is?"
The man made no answer for a minute, as he caught and secured the rope about him.
"No, sir, I can't make out, but I'm a-going to see," he muttered between his teeth—"I mean feel, for we're having nothing but darkness this voyage."
"I'll send a lantern down after you directly, my lad. Ready?"
"Ay, ay, sir. Lower away."
"No, better wait for the light. It is like pitch down there."
"Ay, 'tis, sir, but that poor lad's waiting for help."
"Yes, I know, my man, but you must try to see where he is. Hi! anybody coming with that light?"
"Yes, the man's coming," cried Drew.
"What's that?" said the mate, sharply, as he leaned over the yawning hollow, rope in hand; "that peculiar odour?"
"What, that smell, sir?" said Smith. "I dunno, sir, it's like as if someone had been burning loocifers. Why, of course, I struck some and let 'em fall."
"Ah, that's better!" cried the mate, as a lantern was handed to him by Panton; and, passing the free end of the rope through the handle, he ran it along till it was all through, and he could let the light glide down to the sailor.
"That's all right, sir. Now, then, shall I climb or will you lower me down?"
"Try both, we'll keep a good hold. Heaven help him, I hope he has not gone far. Take hold here. No, Mr Panton, let the men. They are better used to handling a rope. Now, then lower away."
Smith began to descend with the lantern, and, as the mate and Panton gazed down, they could dimly make out that below them was a wide jagged crack, descending right away; while in front, a portion of the crack through the stone ran forward at a gradual slope, forming a cavern.
"Keep a sharp look out, my lad. Ah! mind! don't kick the stones down."
"Can't help it, sir. It's all a big slope here, with the stones waiting to go down with a jump."
Proof of this came directly, a touch sending pieces bounding and rushing down in a way that must have been fatal to anyone below.
The mate uttered a low ejaculation, and Panton drew in his breath with a peculiar hiss, as they heard the fragments go on bounding and rebounding below in the awful darkness, while the peculiar odour which the mate had noticed came up more strongly now.
"See him?" cried Mr Rimmer.
"No, sir. Lower away."
"Lower away, my lads. Here, you Tomlin, run back and get a couple more lengths. Quick."
The man darted off, and his comrades lowered away, while Panton and Drew stood with their heads bent and eyes strained to catch a glimpse of their friend in the dim light cast by the lantern now far below.
"It's all one slope, sir, right away down," cried Smith.
"Yes, can you make out the bottom?"
"No, sir. Don't seem to be none. Lower away."
The cry was faint, but it sent a thrill through all gathered at the mouth of the chasm.
"Ahoy!" roared Smith, as he violently agitated the rope. "All right, my lad, coming. Aloft there with the line. No, no, no, don't lower; haul. I'm too low down now."
The men gave a cheer, and began to haul up till the mate checked them.
"That right?" he cried to the sailor.
"Little higher, sir. Couple o' fathom. He's on a bit of a shelf, 'cross a hole, and I shall have to swing to him."
"That do?" cried the mate in the midst of the breathless excitement.
"Yes, that's about it, sir. Now, then, make fast. I'm going to swing."
Then the lantern began to pass to and fro, like a pendulum, and at every thrust given with his feet by the swinging man, the loose blocks of lava and pumice went rumbling and crashing down, sending up whispering echoes and telling of a depth that was absolutely profound.
"Can you manage?" shouted the mate.
"Yes, sir. That was nearly it," came from below. "This time does it."
They saw the light swing again a couple of hundred feet beneath them. Then it was stationary, and every man's breath came with a catch, for all at once the stones began to glide again; increasing their rush till it grew tremendous, and the watchers felt that all was over, for the light disappeared and the odour that ascended was stifling.
"Haul! Haul!" came from below, sending a spasm of energy through all at the mouth as they pulled in the rope.
"Steady, steady, my lads," cried the mate. "Got him?" he shouted.
"Ay, ay! Haul quick!" came in a stifled voice, and the mate and his companions felt a chill run through them as they grasped the fact that Smith was either exhausted or being overcome by the foul gas set at liberty by the falling stones.
"Haul steady, my lads, and quick," said the mate, as he went down on one knee. "No; walk away with the rope."
His order was obeyed, and the next minute he was reaching down as the dimly seen lantern came nearer and nearer, revealing Smith's ghastly upturned face and the strange-looking figure he held. Then, almost flat upon his chest, the mate made a clutch, which was seconded by Drew, Panton aiding, and Oliver Lane was lifted out of the chasm and borne into the open sunshine, slowly followed by Smith, as the men cheered about the peculiar-looking figure—for clothes, face, hair, Lane was covered with finely-powdered sulphur, in a bed of which he had been lying.
"Better get him back to the brig," said the mate.
"No, no!" cried Oliver, rousing himself. "I shall be better directly; I struck my head against a block of stone, or one of them struck me. It was so sudden. They gave way all at once, and it was hardly a fall, but a slide down. I was stunned though for a few moments."
"A few moments!" cried the mate with a grim laugh. "Why, my lad, we were ever so long before we could make you answer."
Oliver looked at him wonderingly, and then turned and held out his hand to Smith.
"Thank you," he said. "It was very plucky of you to come down and fetch me up."
"Oh, I dunno, sir," said the sailor in a half-abashed way. "Course I come down; anyone on us would. But it arn't a nice place, is it?"
"Nice place!" cried Panton, who was full of eager interest as he examined the fine sulphur clinging to his companion's clothes. "Why it must be one of the old vents of the mountain. You can smell the gases here."
"You could smell 'em there, sir," said Smith gruffly. "'Scaping orful. Thought they'd be too much for me. Felt as if I must let go."
"I'm better now," said Oliver, rising and drawing a long breath. "I say, Mr Rimmer, I'm very sorry to have given you all this trouble."
"Don't say a word about it, sir; but don't go tumbling into any more of these holes."
"Not if I can help it," said Oliver, smiling. "But the serpent—what became of it?"
The mate laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"We've got them both out here," said Drew.
"Both bits, sir?" asked Smith eagerly.
"Both nonsense, my man: both serpents! There were two. Here they are, pretty well dead now."
Oliver forgot all about the sickening blow he had received, and his narrow escape, in his eagerness to examine the reptiles which had caused so much alarm, and his first steps were to ask the men to put a noose around each, and draw them out into the open.
There was a little hesitation, but the men obeyed, and the two long tapering creatures were soon after lying in the sun.
"Hadn't you better come and lie down for a bit?" said the mate.
"Oh, nonsense!" cried Oliver good-humouredly. "Just for a crack on the head? I'm right enough, and I want to take the measurement of these things before they are skinned."
"As you like," said the mate. "Then we may go back."
"That looks as if I were very ungrateful," cried Oliver, "and I'm not, Mr Rimmer, believe me."
"Believe you? Why, of course I do, my lad," cried the mate, clapping him warmly on the shoulder.
"And you don't want me to lie up for a thing like that, do you?"
"I want you to take care of yourself; that's all, sir. There, don't give us another fright. I daresay you'll find plenty of other dangerous places. But what did you say, Mr Panton—that great hole was a vent of the mountain?"
"What mountain, sir?"
"The one that was in eruption."
"Yes, but we don't see one!"
"We see its effects," said Panton, "and I daresay we shall see it as soon as that line of vapour begins to clear away."
He pointed to the long misty bank in the distance, which completely shut off the view beyond the stretch of forest to the northward.
"Well then, gentlemen, as I have a great deal to do on board, I suppose I may leave you?"
"Unless you'd like to stop and help skin Lane's snakes?"
"Not I," said the mate merrily. "There, don't get into any more trouble, please."
"We'll try not," said Panton; and after the men had neatly coiled up the lines, they went back with the mate, all but Billy Wriggs, who offered to stop and help skin the snakes.
"You don't mean it, do you, Billy?" whispered Smith. "Thought you was too skeered?"
"So I am, mate; but I want to be long o' you to see their games. It's unnatural like to be doin' dooty aboard a wessel as ain't in the water."
"But you won't touch one of they sarpents?"
"Well, I don't want to, mate; but it's all in yer day's work, yer know. I thought you said it was only one in two halves?"
"So I did, mate—so I did—and so it ought to ha' been, 'cording to my ideas, and the way I let go at it with a haxe. But there, one never knows, and it was in the dark now, warn't it?"
"Seventeen feet, five inches," said Oliver, just then, as he wound up his measuring tape, "and sixteen feet, four—extreme lengths," as Panton entered the sizes in Oliver's notebook for him.
"Hark at that now!" said Billy Wriggs in a hoarse whisper. "Why, I should ha' said as they was a hundred foot long apiece at least."
"And, arter all, they ain't much bigger than a couple o' worms."
Five minutes later the two men were hard at work skinning the reptiles; the example set by Oliver in handling them shaming both into mastering the repugnance they felt, and first one skin and then the other was stretched over the limb of a tree to dry; while the bodies were dragged to the cavernous chasm, and tossed down "to cook," as Smith put it.
Meanwhile Drew had been busy examining the trees and plants around; and Panton had been fascinated, as it were, by the place, picking up fragments of stone and sulphur-incrusted lava—when he was not listening to a low hissing, gurgling sound, which told plainly enough that volcanic action was still in progress, somewhere in the depths below.
"There!" cried Oliver. "I'm ready. Where next?"
"Are you fit to go on?" asked Drew.
"Fit? Yes. Let's get to a pool and have a wash, and then I'm ready for anything."
"Some water over yonder, sir," said Smith, pointing to where the sun flashed from a spot beyond the trees.
"Then let's get to it," said Oliver. "What do you say to exploring onward toward the mist bank?"
"I say yes, and let's go through it," cried Panton. "I want to look at the mountain. What's the matter, Smith? See anything?"
The man held up his hand.
"Hinjun, sir," he whispered.
"Eh! Where?" cried Drew, cocking his piece.
"Just yonder, sir, past that lot of blocks like an old stone yard; I see one o' their heads peeping over, and they've got a fire, cooking something, I should say, for—phew! they can't want it to warm themselves, for it's hot enough without."
They looked in the direction pointed out, and there, plainly enough, was the light, fine, corkscrew-like wreath of a pale blue smoke, rising slowly up beyond quite a wilderness of coral rock, swept there by the earthquake wave.
"Tommy Smith, old matey," whispered Wriggs, "why warn't you and me born different?"
"That 'ere's a question for your godfathers and godmothers, Billy, as stood sponsors for you when you was born. But what d'yer mean?"
"Why, so as to be like these here gents and have plenty o' money to spend in tools o' all kinds."
"Ay, 'twould ha' been nicer, I dessay, matey."
"Course it would. You see they allus has the right tackle for everything, and a proper pocket or case to keep it in. Look at Mr Panton there, with that there young double-barrelled spy-glass of his'n."
"Ay, they've each got one-sidy sort o' little barnacle things as they looks through to make bits o' stone and hinsecks seem big."
"Now, we wants to wash our hands, don't us?"
"Ay, we do, matey," said Smith, raising his to his nose.
"Mine smell a bit snakey and sarpentine, I must say."
"Steam or smoke?" said Drew.
"Both, I think," replied Panton, closing his glass.
"Then the savages has got the pot on and it's cooking," whispered Smith. "I hope it don't mean a mate."
"Whatcher talking in that there Irish Paddy way?" grumbled Wriggs. "Can't you say meat?"
"Course I can, old mighty clever, when I wants to. I said mate."
"I know you did, Tommy, and it's Irish when you means cooking meat."
"Which I didn't mean nothing o' the sort, old lad, but mate. I meant, I hoped the savages hadn't got hold of one of our messmates and was cooking he."
"What! Canniballs?" whispered Wriggs, looking aghast. "Why not? There's plenty on 'em out in these 'ere parts, where the missionaries ain't put a stopper on their little games, and made 'em eat short pig i'stead o' long."
"Come, my lads, forward!" said Oliver, who seemed to have quite got over his adventure.
"Beg pardon, sir," said Smith, "we ain't got no weepons 'cept our jack-knives; had we better scummage up to 'em?"
"Skirmish? Oh, no; there is nothing to mind."
"That's what the farmer said to the man about his big dog, sir, but the dog took a bit out of the man's leg."
"But that wasn't a dog, Smith, it was a cat."
"What, out here, sir, 'long o' the savages? Think o' their keeping cats!"
"No, no, you don't understand. There are no savages here."
"Why, a-mussy me, sir, I see one looking over the stones yonder with my own eyes."
"You saw a big, cat-like creature, with its round, dark head. It must have been a panther, or leopard, or something of that kind."
The sailor looked at him and scratched his ear.
"Mean it, sir?" he said.
"Of course I do. Come along."
Oliver went on after his two companions, and the sailors followed.
"How about the canniballs, Tommy?" asked Billy Wriggs with a chuckle.
"Here, don't you spoil your figger-head by making them faces," said Smith, shortly. "I was right enough, so own up like a man."
"You says, says you, that it was canniballs as had got a pot on over a fire, and that they was cooking one of our mates."
"Loin! how I do hate a man as 'zaggerates! I only said I hoped it warn't. It's you as put the pot on."
"Yes, you did, old lad, and I dessay I was right arter all, 'cept as it was only one canniball, and he'd got four legs 'stead o' two."
Billy Wriggs chuckled again, and then smelt his hands, looked disgusted, and scooped up a little moist earth to rub them with.
"Look sharp, they're close up," said Smith, "and I want to see about what fire there is, and how it come."
"I know; it's one o' they red hot stones as come down and it's set fire to something."
A minute later they were within fifty yards of the rising vapours, when Wriggs roared,—"Look out!" and began to run.
For there was a peculiar rushing noise close overhead, followed by a duet of hoarse cries, and they had a glimpse of a couple of great, heavily-billed birds, passing close to them in the direction of their leaders.
Oliver took a quick shot at one and missed, the smoke hiding the second bird, and they passed on unharmed.
"Hornbills!" he cried, excitedly. "Come, we shall be able to collect here."
"Hear that, mate?" whispered Smith, "hornbills, and can't they blow 'em too?"
They stepped in among the stones and found the cat-like creature's lair just beneath one of them, and plenty of proofs of how it lived, for close around lay many of the brightly-coloured feathers it had stripped from different birds.
"Evidently preyed upon these," said Oliver, eagerly, picking up some of the feathers to examine.
"Hear that, Tommy?"
"Ain't it gammon?"
"No; nat'ral histry's all true, lad."
"But I never heard o' cats being religious. I've heard o' their being wicked and mischievous enough for anything."
"'Ligious! Why, what have you got hold of now?"
"Nothing. You heard him too. He said as the cat prayed on them feathers."
"Get out. Don't be a hignoramus. Wild cats is beasts o' prey."
"He said beasts as pray, and I don't believe it."
"And I don't believe your head's properly stuffed, mate. Yes, sir," he continued, as Oliver spoke. "You call?"
"I said if you want to wash your snakey hands, here's a good chance."
The sailor stepped down into a hollow, above which a little cloud of vapour hung over a basin of beautifully blue water, enclosed by a fine drab-coloured stone. It was not above a foot deep, save in the centre, where there was a little well-like hole, and a dozen feet across, while at one side it brimmed over and rippled down and away in a tiny stream, overhung by beautifully green ferns and water-plants, which were of the most luxuriant growth.
"Looks good enough for a bath, gentlemen, when you've done," said Smith.
"Try your hands first," said Oliver. "But wait a moment," and he took a little case from his pocket, and from it a glass tube with a mercury bulb.
"Look at that!" whispered Billy Wriggs. "Tools for everything, mate. What's he going to do—taste it first?"
"I dunno," said Smith, watching Oliver Lane attentively, as the young man plunged the mercury bulb in the water, and held it there for a few moments, and then drew it out.
"Go on, my lads," he said. "Like some soap?"
As he spoke he took a small metal box out of his pocket, and opened it to display a neatly fitting cake of soap.
"Look at him," whispered Smith to his companion—"ay, tools for everything. Thank-ye, sir," he added as he took the soap, stepped down close to the edge of the basin, and plunged in his hands, to withdraw them with a shout of excitement.
"What's the matter?" said Drew, laughing.
"It's hot, sir. Water's hot!"
"Well, my lad, it is a hot spring. There's nothing surprising in that. We're in a volcanic land."
"Are we, sir?" said the man, staring at him. "And is this volcanic water?"
"But where does it get hot, sir?"
"What! is there a fire underneath where we are standing?"
"Yes; deep down."
"Then where's the chimney, sir?"
"Out beyond that smoke and steam, I expect. There, wash your hands. It's not hot enough to scald your hard skin."
"No, sir; take a deal hotter water than that; but if you'll excuse me, gents, I'll get away from here, please. It don't feel safe."
"Give me the soap," said Lane, handing his gun to Panton.
"There, Smith, my lad, a man who comes to such a place as this mustn't be frightened at everything fresh he sees."
"Oh, I'm not frightened, sir, not a bit," said the man. "Am I, Billy?"
Wriggs grunted, and this might have meant anything.
"Only you see, sir," continued Smith, "it seems to me as it's a man's dooty to try and take care of hisself."
"Of course," said Oliver Lane, as he laved his hands. "What beautiful soft, silky hot water. We must come here and have a regular bathe. It is nicely shut in."
This to his companions, while Smith stood looking on in horror, and turned to his messmate.
"Look at him, Billy! Ain't it just awful? Come away 'fore we gets let through, and are boiled to rags."
"Hold yer tongue," growled Wriggs. "You'll have the gents hear yer. Ask 'em to let us go back."
"You'll have to analyse this water, Panton," said Lane, as he went on with his washing. "There must be a deal of alkali as well as carbonate of lime in solution."
"Strikes me, mate, as it won't have us in slooshum?" whispered Smith. "Don't ketch me slooshing myself in it."
The water assumed another shade of blue where Oliver Lane was washing, while Panton chipped off the petrification formed round the basin, and Drew examined some peculiar water-plants which grew just where the hot water issued to form the little stream.
"Be a fortune for anyone if he had it upon his own land in England," said Panton. "Can you see where the spring rises?"
"Yes, down here in the middle, there's quite a pipe. This must be similar to what we read about, connected with the geysers?" said Oliver. "Here, you two, don't be so cowardly. Come and wash. Catch!"
He threw the soap to Wriggs, who caught it, let it slip from his fingers, and it went down into the beautiful blue basin of water with a splash.
"There, fetch it out!"
Accustomed to obey, Billy Wriggs stepped forward, plunged in his hands, caught the soap, and kept his fingers beneath the surface. "Why, it's lovely, matey!" he cried reproachfully to Smith. "Here, come on."