Nightmare, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 4

“DID you catch any more bugs, Jim?” called Richard Holloway cheerfully as he approached. “No? Too bad. Hoped we could start a collection. Say, Mr. — er, what did you say your name was? Something unusual, wasn’t it?”

“Jones,” replied the castaway rather stiffly. He was a trifle tired of the disdainful attitude which every one except the cowboy had so far assumed toward him. “Roland C. Jones.”

“Mr. Roland C. Jones, I salute you.” Holloway bowed very low and straightened with a laugh. “Did you leave any last will and testament with his serene and nihilistic highness when he sent you over here? Because, you know, it’s just possible that something might happen to you inside. You’ve no idea how wonderfully exciting ‘inside’ is, Mr. Jones. Don’t let me alarm you, though.”

Jones laughed almost hysterically. “It can’t be much more exciting than — than everything else,” he said. “And as for getting killed, I’m beginning to have a suspicion that that’s the best thing which could happen to me.”

He was thinking of his own mental condition, but Holloway understood him differently.

“So bad as that?” he asked with mock commiseration. “No home? No friends? Somebody cooked your chestnuts for you? Never mind, sweet child. We’ll buy you some more — if we ever get off Joker Island. Coming, Prince?” he called back, as a voice hailed him from the little camp. “Come on, Jimmy; and you, too, Rolly! You don’t mind if I call you Rolly? I feel in my heart that we’re going to be friends, Rolly, and what’s a name between pals?”

“I don’t care what you call me,” replied Mr. Jones, smiling in spite of himself. After all, there was something very likeable about this impertinent, goodnatured fellow. He felt that he could get along very nicely if he had nobody but the cowboy and Richard Holloway to deal with.

They found the rest of the party eating a very informal breakfast, consisting of hardtack, a few rashers of bacon, and some really excellent coffee. Jones received his share thankfully. He could not remember a time when he had been so hungry, or hungry so often, as in the few hours since he had come to Joker Island.

Then the fire was extinguished; what provisions were left and some simple impedimenta were divided equally among the men, and the expedition started with only Miss Weston unburdened. She tripped lightly along beside her Russian admirer, apparently as merry and light-hearted as if they were bound on a picnic.

Dawn had come upon them with extraordinary suddenness as they ate, it seemed to Mr. Jones. There had been a few moments of ghostly twilight. Then the sun leaped into the sky, like a tiger springing from its lair, and flung at them his first rays with an ardor which promised insufferable heat later on.

Now that it was light, Jones perceived that the ravine, or split in the cliff wall, ended abruptly just beyond the camp. There the precipice towered as forbidding and unscalable as it hung above the outer beach. The little stream sprang from a mere crevice in the otherwise solid wall. There were certainly no caverns in that direction, and he was not surprised when Holloway, in his capacity of guide, led the way back down the ravine toward the sea; but he did wonder how they could emerge upon the beach without being seen by the nihilists.

They had followed the watercourse only a short distance, however, when Holloway turned aside and led them into a yet narrower crack in the rocks which branched off from the main ravine. The going became more and more difficult, and Paul Petrofsky was obliged to almost carry the girl over some places, while the rest of the party scrambled and sweated and swore sotto voce.

At last the crack widened; they caught a glimpse of blue beyond, and in another moment they came out upon a part of the beach which was cut off by a jutting promontory of rock from the small bay where the Monterey lay anchored. Jones thought that a bird’s-eye view of that island must show the cliff to be fairly scalloped with little bays and promontories.

And here the black rock was honeycombed with dark holes, bored out either by the sea or by volcanic agency; some of them no more than a foot or so across, a few large enough so that a motor-truck could have been safely driven in.

“This is only the beginning of ’em,” declared Holloway, addressing Petrofsky, but in loud enough tones to be heard by all. “Half way ‘round the island the rock is fairly-perforated. Some place for a tribe of cave men, no?”

Then, suddenly assuming the manner of a tourist guide: “Just step this way, lady and gentlemen. Here you may behold the finest — oldest — most dog-gonedest aggregation of black holes — ”

His voice died away and became indistinguishable, for he had dropped to hands and knees and crawled into one of the smaller caverns.

Petrofsky, pausing only to draw an electric torch from his pocket, immediately followed, and close upon his heels crept Miss Margaret Weston. To Jones’s amazement, the girl was laughing just before she disappeared. He could not have laughed himself to win a medal. However, Jim Haskins and the two sailors were looking at him expectantly.

There was nothing else for it, so he, too, dropped to his knees and crawled into the hole, pushing ahead of him the small bundle which had been assigned him to carry. He wondered bitterly if they were to crawl all the way through the cliff.

Ahead of him he could see a moving black mass against a dim glow of light, which he knew to be the intrepid Miss Weston, of Boston, Massachusetts. Jones had no light himself, and was too far behind the leaders to get any benefit from theirs. The rock was wet and a trifle slimy. He thought of snakes, but remembered gratefully that if there were any they would have a good chance to bite three people before they got to him.

Behind, he could hear a grunting and scraping, and knew the other three were following.

Then the glow ahead abruptly disappeared, and there was a scrambling, thumping sound. Had Holloway and the Russian fallen into some abyss? He halted, but immediately after heard a voice calling, “Come ahead! It’s all right! Oh, what a perfectly lovely, splendid place!”

It was the voice of Margaret Weston, and a moment later Mr. Jones scrambled out of the narrow hole into an enormous, scintillating cavern. The lights of two electric torches were reflected dazzlingly from a million fiery points.

“What perfectly gorgeous stalactites!” exclaimed the girl rapturously. “Oh, Mr. Holloway, I’m so glad you found this place! It’s worth anything just to have seen it. Why, if it were not so hard to reach, this would be one of the show places of the world, would it not?”

“It would,” admitted the flattered Mr. Holloway. “But I only wish I could let some sunlight into the hole for you. I’ve taken some pieces of this stuff out, and in daylight they are all colors of the rainbow. Look like stuff out of a jeweller’s window. The colors don’t show up in this light.”

“Thank you, but it’s quite beautiful enough as it is.”

Even Jones had to admit to himself that Miss Weston was, in a measure, right. Above their heads was a black void. The roof was too high and probably too dark in color for their lights to show it, but all about them, depending almost to the floor, hung a thousand icicle-points, which reflected the electric rays as if they had been encrusted with diamonds. From the floor, also, rose points and mounds of brilliant crystals. This lower forest of stalagmites seemed to extend itself indefinitely, certainly beyond range of the torches.

“Dick Holloway,” said the prince, “this is fairyland to which you have brought us. The air, too, which I had thought would be almost poisonous, it is fresh. It smells of the sea. There must be many more openings into this place than that by which we entered.”

“There probably are,” agreed Holloway, “but I’d hate to hunt for them. I was lost in these caves once — that was the way I happened to locate the way through — but I’d hate to risk it twice.”

“But tell me,” continued the prince, gazing upward curiously, “is there no danger from the falling of some of these huge masses from the roof?”

“Sure thing there is. But — Jimmy, there goes a beauty right this minute!”

There was an ominous crackling sound, the mild forerunner of a thunderous, deafening crash. The air was filled with a cloud of choking white dust, through which the torches gleamed faintly as through a fog. The noise was followed by a series of lesser crashes. Then came again the calm, unagitated voice of Holloway.

“Did that hit anybody? If it did, farewell to the dear departed. Is every one here?”

One by one the little party answered with their names, Jones last, and in a voice which he rendered steady with some effort. He had always known that caverns would be just like this. For a moment he had been deceived by the treacherous beauty of this one, but no more. Surely they would turn back now. Nobody could expect to pass through this place where at any moment a thousand pounds of glittering stalactite was liable to drop on him — It was the voice of Miss Weston which answered his unspoken thought.

“Well, there is no need of our standing here, is there? How in the world can you find your way, Mr. Holloway?”

“Been here before,” replied that gentleman cheerfully. “Know it like the streets of my hometown. Come along.”

By this time the white dust had somewhat settled, and Jones could see his companions clearly. They were starting off single file between the innumerable stalagmites, apparently careless of disaster. On an impulse he crouched down behind a white mound.

Jim Haskins passed within hand’s reach, but did not see him in the shadow. The two sailors were a little behind, and on a sudden thought Jones cautiously pushed his bundle of miscellaneous camp articles out from behind his mound.

An instant later one of the sailors stumbled over it, and as Jones had craftily foreseen, imagined that it had been dropped by one of the men ahead. Grumbling, the man picked it up and added it to his own load, and with no thought for a possible escaping prisoner, passed on.

In fact, nobody gave Mr. Jones a thought. He was alone, neglected and forsaken, and the fact gave him supreme relief. He had looked carefully, while there was still sufficient light, and a seen a black hole yawning, the hole by which they had entered this place of terror. Having honestly restored to his captors the goods with which he had been entrusted, Mr. Jones felt no scruples about deserting them.

Just before the last gleam of light from the electric torches faded and disappeared, Mr. Jones plunged back into the small tunnel and began rapidly wriggling his way toward open air and the blessed light of day.

Somehow or other the passage seemed much longer than when he had come that way at the heels of the Boston girl. Jones crawled and crawled, until his knees and elbows were sore, but still he could see no gleam of light ahead. It seemed to him that he had been crawling for hours. What could be the matter?

Suddenly the horrifying explanation dawned upon him. This was not the tunnel by which they had entered, but another of the labyrinthine system of caves to which Holloway had referred!

Mr. Jones stopped crawling and tried to turn himself about. There was not room enough, however, and he only hurt himself still more upon the slimy rock. There was no use in trying to wriggle backward, for he knew that he would become exhausted before he could ever regain the cave of stalactites by such a laborious process. Besides, he reflected, even if be did get back there he would be no better off. Surrounded by impenetrable midnight darkness, how could he hope to rediscover the passage he had been unable to identify while there was light?

With a sinking heart he contemplated the many hours of mental and physical suffering which lay before him if he should fail to extricate himself. He must go on. What a fool he had been to desert the party of adventurers! After all, they were kindly, honest folk and it would have been far better to have died suddenly by the fall of a stalactite, or in some merciful abyss, than here alone in the darkness of the damned.

He must get out! And when “must” drives, a man will do a great deal more than appears possible. Roland C. Jones did. He crawled literally for hours, turning, winding with the tunnel, like an unhappy and desolate angle-worm in the black bosom of Earth.

Once, exhausted, he let himself subside, and despite all the terrors of darkness went to sleep. He had not slept for v. long time, and when he awoke, though he ached in every limb, he felt refreshed and took new courage to crawl on.

Crawling is a slow process — at least, for a human being — but if a man crawl far enough, and encounters no obstruction, he is bound to get somewhere sometime, and that is what happened to Mr. Jones. He had long since given up all hope, and become a mere, dogged crawling-machine, when it happened. It was a tremendous thing and an experience which in all his after-life he never forgot. He saw the rock beneath him!

Then he raised his head, hopefully, prayerfully, and there, far ahead, beamed a glorious star of light!

Then did Mr. Jones perform prodigies of crawling. As if he had just started, he wriggled and scrambled along, and at last actually emerged from the black womb of death into the adorable, intolerable brilliance of day. Also into the very arms of Doherty, his former rescuer!

Behind Doherty stood Captain Ivanovitch, and beside him was Sergius Petrofsky. Mr. Jones had crawled windingly through the rock, all the way from behind the promontory, around the end of the ravine, and back to the little bay whereon the Monterey still lay at anchor.

He had expected anything — but not this. In the eternity which had elapsed since entering that black rat-hole he had forgotten that such a person as Sergius Petrofsky existed. His clothing was ripped to slimy rags. In a dozen places his body and limbs were scraped raw, he was faint and sick for lack of food and drink — and before him stood the man who had promised to torture him that day. The villainies of Fate were too prodigious.

Mr. Jones slipped suddenly from the sustaining grip of Doherty, and dropped in a wretched heap upon the sand.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30