A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter XXIII

The Island of Fire

At last there appeared before us what seemed like a long line of dull-red fires, and as we looked we could see bursts of flame at fitful intervals, which shone out for a few moments and then died away. Upon this now our whole attention was fixed; for it seemed as though we were approaching our destination, and that this place was the Island of Fire — a name which, from present appearances, was fully justified. As we went on and drew steadily nearer, the mass of glowing fire grew larger and brighter, and what at first had seemed a line was broken up into different parts, one of which far surpassed the others. This was higher in the air, and its shape was that of a long, thin, sloping line, with a burning, glowing globule at each end. It seemed like lava running down from the crater of a volcano, and this appearance was made certainty on a nearer approach; for we saw at the upper point, which seemed the crater, an outburst of flame, followed by a new flow of the fiery stream. In other places there were similar fires, but they were less bright, either because they were smaller or more remote.

At length we heard beneath us the roar of breakers, and saw long white lines of surf beating upon the shore. Our athaleb now descended and alighted; we clambered to the ground, and I, taking the grapple, fixed it securely between two sharp rocks. We were at last on Magones, the Island of Fire.

The brightness of the aurora light had left us, but it needed not this to show us the dismal nature of the land to which we had come. It was a land of horror, where there was nothing but the abomination of desolation — a land overstrewn with blasted fragments of fractured lava-blocks, intermixed with sand, from which there arose black precipices and giant mountains that poured forth rivers of fire and showers of ashes and sheets of flame. A tremendous peak arose before us, with a crest of fire and sides streaked with red torrents of molten lava; between us and it there spread away a vast expanse of impassable rocks — a scene of ruin and savage wildness which cannot be described, and all around was the same drear and appalling prospect. Here in the night-season — the season of darkness and of awful gloom — we stood in this land of woe; and not one single sign appeared of life save the life that we had brought with us. As for food, it was vain to think of it. To search after it would be useless. It seemed, indeed, impossible to move from the spot where we were. Every moment presented some new discovery which added to the horror of Magones.

But Almah was weary, for our flight had been long, and she wished to rest. So I found a place for her where there was some sand between two rocks, and here she lay down and went to sleep. I sat at a little distance off on a shelf of the rock, with my back against it, and here, after a little time, I also went to sleep.

At length we awoke. But what a waking! There was no morning dawn, no blessed returning light to greet our eyes. We opened our eyes to the same scenes upon which we had closed them, and the darkness was still deep and dense around us. Over us both there was a sense of utter depression, and I was so deeply plunged into it that I found it impossible to rouse myself, even for the sake of saying words of cheer to Almah. I had brought a few fragments of food, and upon these we made our breakfast; but there was the athaleb to feed, and for him I found nothing, nor could I think of anything — unless he could feed upon rocks and sand. Yet food for him was a matter of the highest consequence, for he was all our support and stay and hope; and if the monster were deprived of food he might turn upon us and satisfy upon us his ravenous appetite. These thoughts were painful indeed, and added to my despondency.

Suddenly I heard the sound of running water. I started away toward the place from which the sound came, and found, only a little distance off, a small brook trickling along on its way to the shore. I called Almah, and we both drank and were refreshed.

This showed an easy way to get to the shore, and I determined to go there to see if there were any fish to be found. Shell-fish might be there, or the carcasses of dead fish thrown up by the sea, upon which the athaleb might feed. I left my pistol with Almah, telling her to fire it if she heard me fire, for I was afraid of losing my way, and therefore took this precaution. I left it lying on the rock full-cocked, and directed her to point it in the air and pull the trigger. It was necessary to take these precautions, as of course she was quite ignorant of its nature. After this I left her and tried to follow the torrent.

This, however, I soon found to be impossible, for the brook on reaching a huge rock plunged underneath it and became lost to view. I then went toward the shore as well as I could — now climbing over sharp rocks, now going round them, until at length after immense labor I succeeded in reaching the water. Here the scene was almost as wild as the one I had left. There was no beach whatever — nothing but a vast extent of wild fragments of fractured lava-blocks, which were evidently the result of some comparatively recent convulsion of nature, for their edges were still sharp, and the water had not worn even those which were within its grasp to anything like roundness, or to anything else than the jagged and shattered outlines which had originally belonged to them. All the shore thus consisted of vast rocky blocks, over which the sea beat in foam.

Eager to find something, I toiled along this rocky shore for a long distance, but without seeing any change. I was unwilling to go back baffled, yet I was at length compelled to do so. But the necessity of feeding the athaleb was pressing, and I saw that our only course now would be to mount him again, leave this place, and seek some other. But where could we go? That I could not imagine, and could only conclude to trust altogether to the instinct of the athaleb, which might guide him to places where he might obtain food. Such a course would involve great risk for we might be carried into the midst of vast flocks of these monsters; yet there was nothing else to be done.

I now retraced my steps, and went for a long time near the sea. At length I found a place where the walking was somewhat easier, and went in this way up into the island and away from the sea. It seemed to lead in the direction where I wished to go. At length it seemed as if I had walked far enough, yet I could see no signs of Almah. I shouted, but there was no answer. I shouted again and again, but with the like result. Then I fired my rifle and listened. In response there came the report of the pistol far away behind me. It was evident that in coming back along the shore I had passed by the place where Almah was. There was nothing now left but to retrace my steps and this I accordingly did. I went back to the shore, and returned on my steps, shouting all the time, until at length I was rejoiced to hear the answering shout of Almah. After this it was easy to reach her.

We now took up the grapple and once more mounted. The athaleb, eager to be off, raised himself quickly in the air, and soon our late resting-place was far behind. His flight was now different from what it was before. Then he stood off in one straight line for a certain fixed destination, as though under some guidance; for though I did not direct him, still his long training had taught him to fly to Magones. But now training and guidance were both wanting, and the athaleb was left to the impulse of his hunger and the guidance of his instinct; so he flew no longer in one undeviating straight line, but rose high, and bent his head down low, and flew and soared in vast circles, even as I have seen a vulture or a condor sweep about while searching for food. All the while we were drawing farther and farther away from the spot which we had left.

We passed the lofty volcano; we saw more plainly the rivers of molten lava; we passed vast cliffs and bleak mountains, all of which were more terrific than all that we had left behind. Now the darkness lessened, for the aurora was brightening in the sky, and gathering up swiftly and gloriously all its innumerable beams, and flashing forth its lustrous glow upon the world. To us this was equal to the return of day; it was like a blessed dawn. Light had come, and we rejoiced and were exceeding glad.

Now we saw before us, far beyond the black precipices, a broad bay with sloping shores, and a wide beach which seemed like a beach of sand. The surf broke here, but beyond the surf was the gentle sandy declivity, and beyond this there appeared the shores, still rocky and barren and desolate, but far preferable to what we had left behind. Far away in the interior arose lofty mountains and volcanoes, while behind us flamed the burning peak which we had passed.

Here the athaleb wheeled in long, circuitous flights, which grew lower and lower, until at length he descended upon the sandy beach, where I saw a vast sea-monster lying dead. It had evidently been thrown up here by the sea. It was like one of those monsters which I had seen from the galley of the Kohen at the time of the sacred hunt. By this the athaleb descended, and at once began to devour it, tearing out vast masses of flesh, and exhibiting such voracity and strength of jaw that I could scarcely bear to look upon the sight. I fastened the grapple securely to the head of the dead monster, and leaving the athaleb to feed upon it, Almah and I went up the beach.

On our way we found rocks covered with sea-weed, and here we sought after shell-fish. Our search was at length rewarded, for suddenly I stumbled upon a place where I found some lobsters. I grasped two of these, but the others escaped. Here at last I had found signs of life, but they were of the sea rather than of the shore. Delighted with my prey, I hastened to Almah to show them to her. She recognized them at once, and I saw that they were familiar to her. I then spoke of eating them, but at this proposal she recoiled in horror. She could not give any reason for her repugnance, but merely said that among her people they were regarded as something equivalent to vermin, and I found that she would no more think of eating one than I would think of eating a rat. Upon this I had to throw them away, and we once more resumed our search.

At last we came to a place where numbers of dead fish lay on the sand. Nearer the water they were more fresh, and not at all objectionable. I picked up a few which looked like our common smelt, and found that Almah had no objection to these. But now the question arose how to cook them; neither of us could eat them raw. A fire was necessary, yet a fire was impossible; for on the whole island there was probably not one single combustible thing. Our discovery, therefore, seemed to have done us but little good, and we seemed destined to starvation, when fortunately a happy thought suggested itself. In walking along I saw far away the glow of some lava which had flowed to the shore at the end of the sandy beach, and was probably cooling down at the water’s edge. Here, then, was a natural fire, which might serve us better than any contrivance of our own, and toward this we at once proceeded. It was about two miles away; but the beach was smooth, and we reached the place without any difficulty.

Here we found the edge of that lava flood which seemed eternally descending from the crater beyond. The edge which was nearest the water was black; and the liquid fire, as it rolled down, curled over this in a fantastic shape, cooling and hardening into the form which it thus assumed. Here, after some search, I found a crevice where I could approach the fire, and I laid the fish upon a crimson rock, which was cooling and hardening into the shape of a vast ledge of lava. In this way, by the aid of nature, the fish were broiled, and we made our repast.

There was nothing here to invite a longer stay, and we soon returned to the athaleb. We found the monster, gorged with food, asleep, resting upon his hind legs, with his breast supported against the vast carcass. Almah called it a jantannin. It was about sixty feet in length and twenty in thickness, with a vast horny head, ponderous jaws, and back covered with scales. Its eyes were of prodigious size, and it had the appearance of a crocodile, with the vast size of a whale. It was unlike a crocodile, however; for it had fins rather than paws, and must have been as clumsy on the land as a seal or a walrus. It lay on its side, and the athaleb had fed itself from the uncovered flesh of its belly.

There was nothing here to induce us to stay, and so we wandered along the beach in the other direction. On our right was the bay; on our left the rocky shore, which, beginning at the beach, ran back into the country, a waste of impassable rocks, where not a tree or plant or blade of grass relieved the appalling desolation. Once or twice we made an attempt to penetrate into the country, where openings appeared. These openings seemed like the beds of dried-up torrents. We were able to walk but a few paces for invariably we would come to some immense blocks of rock, which barred all farther progress. In this way we explored the beach for miles, until it terminated in a savage promontory that rose abruptly from the sea against which the huge billows broke in thunder.

Then we retraced our steps, and again reached the spot where the athaleb was asleep by the jantannin. Almah was now too weary to walk any farther, nor was it desirable to do so; for, indeed, we had traversed all that could be visited. On one side of the beach was the sea, on the other the impassable rocks; at one end the promontory, at the other the lava fires. There was nothing more for us to do but to wait here until the athaleb should awake, and then our actions would depend upon what we might now decide.

This was the question that was now before us, and this we began to consider. We both felt the most unspeakable aversion for the island, and to remain here any longer was impossible. We would once more have to mount the athaleb, and proceed to some other shore. But where? Ah! there was the question! Not on the island, for it did not seem possible that in all its extent there could be one single spot capable of affording a resting-place. Layelah’s information with regard to Magones had made that much plain. I had not taken in her full meaning, but now mine eyes had seen it. Yet where else could we go? Almah could not tell where under the sky lay that land which she loved; I could not guess where to go to find the land of the Orin. Even if I did know, I did not feel able to guide the course of the athaleb; and I felt sure that if we were to mount again, the mighty monster would wing his flight back to the very place from which we had escaped — the amir. These thoughts weighed down our spirits. We felt that we had gained nothing by our flight, and that our future was dark indeed. The only hope left us was that we might be able to guide the course of the athaleb in some different direction altogether, so that we should not be carried back to the Kosekin.

And now, worn out by the long fatigues of this jom, we thought of sleep. Almah lay down upon the sand, and I seated myself, leaning against a rock, a little distance off, having first reloaded my rifle and pistol.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/de_mille/james/strange/chapter23.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37