Nightmare, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 5

WHEN sense at last returned to the castaway, he opened his eyes and stared blankly about for a moment. He had dreamed that he was in his own bedroom in his own New York bachelor apartment, and these walls of brown canvas, that strange face bent above his, seemed incredible, far more visionary than the dream itself. Then the whiff of an agreeable odor reached his nostrils. Food! Mr. Jones sat up, and reached out his hands in one single motion. Doherty placed the bowl which he carried with them.

“I’ve brought youse your scoffin’s,” he said. “Gee! Youse was a sight when youse fell out of diat hole. His nibs is waitin’ to see youse.”

“Let him wait,” commanded Jones in a determined voice. “Keep him out, can’t you, till I finish this? This is the first thing I’ve had to eat for — for week’s judging by the way my appetite feels.”

Doherty laughed and seated himself on the side of the cot. “I’ll tell him youse was pounding your ear so hard I couldn’t wake youse up.”

“Thanks, old man.” There was an interval of silence, then Jones handed back the polished bowl with a great sigh, swung his legs to the floor and sat up. “Where are my clothes?” he asked.

“Your clothes? Gee, youse ain’t got no clothes. There was a couple of old rags hangin’ to youse, but if dat Anthony Comstock guy ever seen youse he’d t’row a fit, sure. Them things youse has on now belongs to the captain.”

“But what am I to do? I can’t walk around in these pajamas.”

Doherty grinned. He seemed in an uncommonly good humor.

“Dat’s all right. His nibs has came across wit’ dese here glad rags. Climb, into ’em and look sharp, or I’ll get the hide tore off me for keepin’ him waitin’. There’s a basin over there if youse wants to wash some more, but gee! They sure had to give you one bath before they could put youse to bed even.”

“Well, I guess a little more water won’t hurt me.”

Jones also found a safety razor and a mug of luke-warm water beside the basin, and was glad enough to shave, although his beard was by this time a very stiff one to get rid of.

Then he dressed in the “glad rags” indicated by Mr. Doherty, which he found consisted of a suit of thin silk underwear, breeches and tunic coat of khaki, socks, puttees, and a pair of heavy, but wellmade shoes. In fact, as good an outfit for a tramping or hunting expedition as Jones could have bought anywhere in New York.

Very gratefully he donned the garments, which to his joy fitted him quite passably. The shoes were a little loose, but that was much more satisfactory than if they had been too tight.

He thought, as he dressed, that if they intended to abuse him — they had made a peculiar beginning. Sleep and food had done a great deal to bring him back to a normal outlook on life. His limbs still ached, but that was hardly strange in view of the strenuous character of recent experiences. Mr. Jones presently announced his readiness to go to or receive the waiting Sergius.

“Youse can wait here. I’ll get him,” said Doherty, who all the time preserved the same astonishing amiability. He did not even question Mr. Jones in regard to how he had come to return there, and not only return, but return in such a singular manner and condition. Some species of relief or joy fairly radiated from the man’s every glance and word.

Mr. Jones did not have to wait long after Doherty’s departure. He had gone to the entrance and stood looking out. The sun beat down from almost directly overhead, and he correctly surmised that this was the day following that on which he had emerged from the cave. He must have slept the clock fairly around.

Some distance up the beach a number of men were gathered about a large object which was partly obscured by an intervening tent, so that he could not quite make out its nature. In a moment he saw Sergius Petrofsky coming toward him alone.

“My friend,” said the nihilist, glancing him up and down with a smile, “you have a much improved appearance.”

“Thanks to you, Prince Sergius,” asserted Jones, wondering yet more at the apparent friendliness of every one.

“You are entirely welcome, Mr. Holloway. But come inside, please. We must talk together.”

They seated themselves, Jones on the cot, Sergius on the campchair.

“And now, Mr. Holloway, perhaps you will explain what has become of my brother and — and the young lady, Miss Weston.”

So that was it. They had discovered that the other party had vanished into thin air and looked to him to recover the trail. Jones determined in his own honest mind that he would never discover to them the location of those caves. Besides, they might try to make him enter them again! But he could not feel that any loyalty to a party which had, after all, treated him only as a spy and a liar, demanded further sacrifice than this.

“In the first place, Prince Sergius, I am not Richard Holloway. When you found me I had never seen or heard of such a person, but since that time I have met the man himself.”

Without reserve, save as regarded any implication of Doherty, Jones proceeded to tell his story, to which the Russian listened with an impassive face. At the end, however, he rose and extended his hand to his involuntary guest.

“I was mistaken, Mr. Jones, and I have to ask your forgiveness. We must have seemed to you not only inhospitable, but boorish in the last degree to so threaten you who deserved only our help and kindness. But your story of the Lusitania you yourself will admit was — well, let us speak no more of that. Perhaps some day you will entrust me with your full confidence. Now, however, you are in a position to extend to me a very great service.

“No — ” he raised a protesting hand as Jones started to speak, “I do not longer ask that you reveal the cavern entrance. Your own experience shows what is the most likely fate of those attempting it without good guidance. We have done all in our power to make you forget our past unjust treatment, even while we still deemed you Richard Holloway. May I expect your favor in return?”

“Why, of course,” replied Jones in some surprise. “But I don’t exactly see what I could do — ”

“You will see,” said the prince, with a rather peculiar smile. “Will you be pleased to follow me?”

Together they left the tent and walked across the sands toward the object of which Jones had earlier caught a glimpse. Now he saw what it was. It was an aeroplane. The nihilist was again speaking:

“I had planned to take with me the man, Doherty, but he is an ignorant fellow, entirely unsuited to such an undertaking. Also, he was afraid to go. None other of the men are suitable. Ivanovitch, he must remain to look after our crew. My mechanic is ill on board the Monterey. The others are too stupid. They are fellow Russians and brothers in the cause, but you see I speak frankly. You, on the other hand, are young, intelligent, and — ”

“You want me to go up in that thing with you?” gasped Mr. Jones.

“Of course. I am a good airman, You need feel no alarm, for in the air you will be in no danger. It is when we descend to what is within that I desire with me a reliable companion. Are we to be comrades?”

“You give me a choice?”

“But yes. Unless you come willingly, I would better make my flight alone.”

“All right. I’ll go.”

Yes, it was really Roland Chesterton Jones, the coward of the caverns, who said these words! As a matter of fact, Jones was not a coward at all, but a victim of subconscious terror of the dark. Given a fair chance and the open air, he had always felt perfectly willing to face danger, although his life before coming to Joker Island had not been an adventurous one and he was by choice a young man of quiet life and manners.

The prince gave him an approving nod.

“I am not a bad reader of features. We will’ meet everything like comrades, eh? And you will not be tempted, if we should come upon them, to return to my brother and his people?”

“I will not,” said Jones firmly. He had nothing against any of them, but he possessed a natural predilection toward any one who treated him courteously, nihilist or not.

Moreover, there was something about Sergius Petrofsky which had attracted him from the first, in spite of his brutal threat that first night. Fanatical, cruel even, when thwarted, there was yet about him that invisible aura which we term personality, for lack of a better name. If he had been an actor he would undoubtedly have been an idol of the matinee girls. Jones wondered, when he thought of it, that Miss Weston had turned from him to his less attractive brother.

They had now reached the group of sailors gathered about the monoplane. Captain Ivanovitch was nowhere in sight, and they were lounging about in the sand, but all sprang to their feet at sight of Sergius. He said something sharply to them in Russian and all save two went off toward the tents. Then he turned again to his guest.

“I have been obliged to do almost all the work of assembling the plane with my own hands, because of this unfortunate illness of Thoreau, my mechanic. Are you in the least familiar with this sort of engine? It would be too much to hope that you know anything of the science of flight.”

Mr. Jones hastened to disclaim any knowledge on either subject. He had always left even the mysteries of his own motor-cars, and his big power-boat, the Bandersnatch, to the expert attentions of their respective chauffeurs and captain. The most he knew about gasoline was that it sometimes exploded, and was used to drive automobiles, powerboats, and aeroplanes. Of the dark secrets of spark, ignition, carburetor, and so forth he was as innocent as a child.

“Then it is of no use for me to try to instruct you in the brief space which lies between us and departure. Your part will be to sit quiet in that seat which you see behind the pilot’s place, and if we come to any grief I will endeavor to play the part of driver and mechanic also. We are taking with us no provisions, save a slight luncheon in that hamper, but these rifles may prove convenient. It is my purpose to make, as it were, a reconnaissance, and we may not even descend into the inner valley or crater until a later flight.”

At this moment Captain Ivanovitch came up, accompanied by Doherty. The captain entered into conversation with Sergius in Russian, and as Mr. Jones waited for the next move, Doherty said in a low voice, “Gee, ain’t I glad youse showed up? I ain’t got no use for them flyin’ things. If ever I gets to be a angel I suppose I’ll have to flutter me wings — but till I gets ’em I sticks right to the ground floor.”

“You may be right,” Jones admitted.

“I thought we’d butt into the valley by the subway after all when I seen youse come out. But, gee, this lets little Willie out complete. Youse is welcome to the job.”

“Mr. Jones,” interrupted Sergius, “will you put these things on? It is not so warm up above there, you know.”

He was holding out a heavy coat and a sort of hood, which Jones donned, while the nihilist put on a similar outfit. To the hood was attached a pair of large goggles which could be pulled down over the eyes. It was not a regular aviator’s costume, but near enough for the short flight contemplated.

Then the two strangely assorted companions climbed to their places. Needless to say, it was the first time Mr. Jones had ever been in an aeroplane. He had attended meets, watched the daring evolutions of the dragon-flylike things against the sky, and had one or two opportunities to go up himself, but he had never experienced any desire to rise higher above solid earth than the top floor of a skyscraper.

Yet now he found himself strangely cool and unperturbed. Sergius Petrofsky inspired him with a great deal of confidence in his ability as a man of action.

Now Ivanovitch and a seaman had grasped the monoplane, one on each side at the rear, and were standing with feet braced as if expecting some great strain upon their muscles. Sergius did something with a lever and the engine burst forth into a roar which startled Mr. Jones extremely. He had forgotten what a racket the things make.

Then he felt a slight jerk and the plane was rolling swiftly along the sand. He was thrown back in his seat, as the machine tilted upward, and a moment later shut his eyes; for he had seen the beach dropping away from under them, and it seemed as if a violent wind had suddenly arisen. Remembering the goggles he reached up and pulled them down over his eyes before opening them again.

Glancing downward he saw the sea, rocking and swaying beneath them, had a moment of nausea, and realized that it was the plane which was rocking. They were up, they were actually flying through the air. The wind of their flight was beating upon his fate. The experience was different from anything which he had ever imagined, arid yet it was strangely exhilarating too. For the first time since he had found himself adrift in the sea, he was glad that he had fallen off the liner.

No matter what might befall, nothing could ever rob him of the memory of this moment when he learned the real meaning of man’s victory over the air.

Sergius turned slightly and shouted something over his shoulder, but the roar of engine and propeller drowned his voice. Jones shook his head and shouted back something equally indistinguishable. He had meant to say “Grand! Glorious! Splendid!” but the wind seemed to hurl the words back down his throat.

He looked down again and saw to his amazement how high they had already climbed. The island lay beneath them, with that maplike appearance which one notices in bird’s-eye views. The black cliff which had appeared so awesome and forbidding was now no more than a huge, irregular oval line of black. And this line surrounded — what? A sea of green, it seemed, probably the tops of trees, although the foliage was indistinguishable from that height. Moreover it all appeared to be swinging in vast circles, for they were ascending in a steep spiral.

Jones began to wonder how high they were to mount. He had imagined, in the brief time given him for thought, that they would simply rise above the cliff and immediately descend upon the other side.

Then, abruptly, the steady roar of the engine slackened and died. The nose of the plane dipped earthward and they were sliding down the air, swiftly, but so smoothly that the sensation was one of pure delight. The circles of their descent were so wide that, as they came nearer, Jones had plenty of time to study the strange valley which lay shut off from and unsuspected of the outer world.

That the island had been one huge volcanic crater at one time in its history, there could be no doubt. Now, however, there was nothing to suggest a volcano save the wall itself, and within was a wide expanse of the greenest verdure. The great oval was about ten or twelve miles long. Its floor was of a slightly undulating, parklike appearance, the upper, darker green being broken here and there by lighter patches which. Jones presumed to be little lawns and open glades in the forest.

The engine roared out again, but this time Sergius did not ascend. He turned so sharply that the plane “banked” at what seemed to his passenger an alarming angle, and shot straight across the valley. Then he once more cut out the engine and shot downward swiftly and steeply.

Suddenly Jones perceived what they were aiming at, a broad, smooth space of green, about a quarter of a mile in length, which the prince in his circlings had picked out for a landing place. An instant later dark masses shot upward on both sides, the pilot deftly straightened out the plane, and with a stiff jolt they had struck the earth.

The lawn, which had looked so smooth and even from above, proved to be an expanse of villainous hummocks over which they bounded and sprang for fifty yards or so, and at last came to a creaking, swaying halt.

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