Nightmare, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 8

ON one of the dark but cool chambers in the rock a rude couch of blankets had been laid. Beside it, upon a flattopped stone, stood an electric lantern of the type which, using large batteries, will burn for eighty or ninety hours, and which illuminated the place quite brightly. Beside it a bottle of arnica and some carefully folded bandages were arranged.

Upon the couch lay Paul Petrofsky, the lower part of one leg swathed in more and beautifully adjusted bandages. As the two captives entered, however, he sat up and gave utterance to an exclamation of joy as he recognized his brother.

For the first time, seeing them together, Jones realized the strong resemblance between the two men. There were the same broad, intelligent brow, the same high-bridged, symmetrical nose, the same thin-lipped, sensitive mouth, and pleasant, dark eyes. The only real difference between the two faces lay in the expression and in that slight inclination of Paul’s chin to recede.

Sergius’ eyes were keen as well as pleasant, his mouth was set in firmer lines, and his chin was of a squarish and very determined shape. Also, at time, his face wore a haughty and somewhat domineering look — a look which Paul’s countenance never assumed.

If, knowing neither of them, Jones had been asked to choose, he would have unhesitatingly named Sergius as the supporter of aristocratic government, and Paul as the man to be easily led, particularly into any scheme, however wild, for the betterment of his fellow Russians.

“Sergius!” exclaimed the man on the couch. There was pure relief in his voice. “Then you are safe. I was afraid — ”

“That some of your friend Holloway’s pets had made a meal an your dear brother? I should not have thought that would have appeared to you as a great trouble, Paul.”

His brother shook his head impatiently, with a slight frown.

“That is absurd, as you very well know. Because you have been misled by these murderous, bomb-throwing companions of yours is no reason for me to forget that you are my brother.”

Sergius flushed and straightened himself.

“My companions are not bomb-throwers, and you very well know the difference between nihilism and the madness of anarchy, although you choose to pretend that there is none. You are in a position to say what you please to me, Paul, but you know my feelings on that subject and it seems hardly generous — ”

“It is not a question of generosity, but of common sense,” the other broke out. “Someday you will thank me for standing out against your fanatical views. Russia will never be saved by such mad dreamers as your so-called friends. It is I who truly serve Russia in her hour of need. How long, think you, will the war which is slaughtering our people continue after I turn over to the government the — that which we have come to seek?”

“Long enough, I hope, to destroy every member of the cruel beaurocracy which holds her in its bloody grip. Yes, it is your friends who are bloody, Paul, not mine.”

“There is tyranny in every fixed government. Moreover, it is not the rulers of Russia who suffer most. It is the very peasantry which you profess to love so much. Turn your face from the mirage you are pursuing, my brother, and cast in your lot with us!”

“I will not desert my brothers,” replied Sergius briefly, but with evident sincerity.

“Then,” said Prince Paul with some firmness, “you will not be allowed to return to them either. Dick Holloway, I had hoped that after all I might persuade my brother — I have no brothers — to ally himself with us. Since he is not yet ready to do so, I must ask that you and James Haskins see to it that he remains in this camp. As for his companion, the spy, it would be no more than right if we should shoot him outright.”

Jones started slightly, This amiablelooking Russian seemed to be even more arbitrary than his nihilist brother.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” counseled Holloway, with an amused grin. “I’ll be responsible for it that — he doesn’t leave us so easily as he did before. By the way, prince, I left the aeroplane where they landed. Do you want the thing brought into camp?”

“No, I think not,” said Paul, after a moment’s hesitation. “I fail to see how it could be of any use to us. If you or Jim chance to go that way again you might see to it that it is rendered useless for any one, however.” He gave a significant glance in the direction of the plane’s rightful owner.

Then he dropped back upon his couch with a little grimace of pain. “Sergius, will you remain here with me? I should very much like to hear of what befell when you descended into the valley. That is, if you don’t mind telling me. Dick Holloway, please take this man Jones out with you and set him to work about the camp. We may as well make him useful since you are set on keeping him.”

Holloway looked doubtfully at the two brothers. Sergius saw the look and laughed bitterly.

“You had better assure your friend, Paul, that I am unlikely to murder you in his absence. Also you are mistaken in regard to Mr. Jones’s relations with me. I never met the gentleman until night before last, and we parted then because he managed to cut a hole in the side of his prison tent and escape. I will admit that I do now regard him as a friend, but that is because of his very excellent qualities. We are friends, however, and any treatment which you accord him I must beg you to offer me also.”

He looked very haughty and dignified as he uttered these sentiments, and Mr. Jones’s heart went out to him more than ever. The man had not only saved his life, but now he was defending him from undeserved oppression. Somehow, he determined, he would endeavor to repay Prince Sergius.

Paul shrugged his shoulders and smiled rather dubiously at his brother. “’ Of course, if you say he did not come to our camp as a spy I shall have to take your word. You are in a position to know if any one is. Holloway, we will have to treat the gentleman courteously, since my brother is determined to share his fate.” He laughed. “I really don’t care to make you wash dishes Sergius.”

Holloway and Mr. Jones went back to the camp fire, leaving the two brothers alone together. There was no exit to the cavern chamber, save that by which they had entered, and even Holloway did not really believe that the nihilist would harm his brother for mere revenge.

Jones longed to ask some questions in regard to this mysterious war which had been again hinted at, but he still suffered from a deep-seated dread of what the answer might reveal, and also of being regarded by these strangers as hopelessly feeble-minded.

“Let it wait. If I’m really crazy I’m bound to find it out soon enough,” he thought bitterly.

In a short time supper was prepared, consisting of canned goods and the fresh meat of some animal, probably one of those creatures which still grazed quietly in the distant meadow. Jones, for one, was ravenously hungry. He had eaten nothing save the bowl of stew brought him by Doherty for thirty-six hours or more, and did full justice to Miss Weston’s cooking, which was excellent. She explained this by saying that she had taken a course in domestic science to supplement a brief hospital training, preparatory to her work as a Red Cross nurse in the European battlefields.

The European battlefields! How much of Europe then was involved in this mad, chimerical war of theirs? Whoever the fighters might be, he felt that they had missed a very beautiful and determined young nurse when Miss Weston was sidetracked into this equally mad island affair. Mr. Jones was feeling more and more as if, having slept a single night, he had awakened into a new and entirely unfamiliar world.

Paul had managed to hobble out of his cavern retreat, supporting himself on the shoulder of his brother, and the whole party, including the two sailors, ate together without regard to caste or rank. Paul was glad to sit down at once, but Sergius first wandered about for a few moments, apparently inspecting the arrangements. Jones wondered if his reckless companion had designs on the rifles, three of which lay together close by; but if this were so he resigned them as impracticable, for presently he came and seated himself between Holloway and his brother.

As he did so he leaned across, behind Holloway’s back, and whispered something to Jones, who had taken his place just beyond. Jones, however, did not catch the words, and he thought best not to attract the attention of the company by asking for a repetition.

The upper rim of the sun was just disappearing below the western wall as they finished, and only a few minutes later the sudden tropic night was upon them, with its wonderful stars and refreshing, fragrant breath of coolness.

It brought something more than coolness in its wake, it brought a rising wave of sound from the jungle beyond the open meadow. The valley of the day was no more, and the valley of night had swung wide its doors for all the creatures which crouched, awaiting the liberating touch of darkness.

The first intimation of this other valley, which none of the party save Holloway really knew, was a deep-throated roar from the jungle immediately opposite. This was followed by a sort of wild, bubbling shriek, as of a creature slivering from nightmare. The sound ended so abruptly that one could only judge the shrieker to have been swallowed by the roarer. Next there was a great snarling and yowling and crashing of branches, as if two enormous tom-cats were engaged in a combat to the death. The noise of battle was soon drowned out, however, by the full rising chorus of night life, the separate notes of which, all blended as into one mighty, discordant cry, rising harshly toward the white, indifferent stars.

Only Holloway remained entirely unaffected by the uproar. Miss Weston, the intrepid, actually trembled and shrank toward the protecting of her Russian lover — that is, of the Russian lover she favored.

The two sailors sprang to their feet and looked longingly in the direction of the caverns. Arizona Jim reached casually over and drew his rifle up beside him. Sergius also gazed desirefully in the direction of the rifles, forbidden to him and Jones, while the latter, shuddering inwardly, remembered that they had actually walked through the midst of all that only a couple of hours ago.

“Some opera, isn’t it?” remarked Holloway, with an amused glance about the little circle of white faces. “When I first came here I used to lie all night and shiver and shake and try to make up sleep in the daytime. I had a gun, but only a little ammunition, you know. I found that a good-sized fire would keep all but the really big fellows away, though, so I got in the habit of building one in front of a small cave and sleeping behind it. If a little fellow came along, he was afraid of the fire. A big one couldn’t get in the cave. Great Scott! For a while after I got taken off the island I couldn’t sleep at all. Missed the noise, you see.”

“Great Heaven! What was that?”

The whole party, except Holloway, sprang to their feet and stared wildly into the air. Something huge, black, monstrous had flapped out of the darkness and into it again, passing so close that the wind of its flight scattered burning brands right and left from the fire.

“Guess we’d better be going to bed,” said Holloway, rising but with no undue haste. “I don’t know exactly what those things are, because I’ve never caught a glimpse of the brutes by daylight, but the fire really seems to attract them instead of keeping them away. Once one of ’em made a grab at me in passing. Made a nasty gash on my cheek. I just dodged into my little boudoir in time.”

“It looked like a — like a great, impossible bat,” cried Margaret Weston, and there was a hysterical note in her voice. “Oh, why was I brought to this frightful place? Why did we not retire into the caverns before sunset, as we did last night?”

“Poor little girl,” said Paul Petrofsky gently. “I never would have brought you here, if there had been any other way. Come. You shall sleep to-night on that nice, soft couch you prepared for me, Miss Margaret, and Dick Holloway and I will sleep in the cave entrance. Nothing shall come near you that can harm.”

“There’s really no need for you to be frightened,” interrupted Holloway in a more serious and considerate tone than one usually heard from his lips. “There are five men of us, at least, who are wellarmed, and any one of us would die before we would let harm come to the only girl in Joker Island.”

Sergius bit his lip, but said nothing. By his “five men” the American had carefully left him and Mr. Jones out of the number of Miss Weston’s protectors.

“You and Rolly,” continued Holloway, addressing the nihilist, “can sleep in Room 5, Suite A. Here it is, and here’s a torch. Be sparing with it, for we haven’t many more batteries.”

He pointed out the cave which he humorously dignified with the title of Room 5. “Jimmy boy will be right at your door in case you want anything in the night,” he added significantly.

The prisoners entered, Sergius leading the way with the torch. They found it to be a small but dry cavern, and as they spread down their heavy coats to sleep on, it seemed as decent a bedroom as could be expected. It also formed a very efficient jail, since, like the other where Paul had lain, it had but the one exit, and that way led past the presumably wakeful Jim Haskins.

At least he had enough to keep him awake in listening to the wild night chorus of Joker Island and keeping his little fire going at the entrance.

For a time the two companions in misfortune lay silent, listening to the uproar which was somewhat muffled by the rocky walls about them. It was Jones who spoke first, voicing a question which had been all along in his mind.

“Prince Sergius,” he said, “what on earth are you and the rest of them after in this place? I mean, why did Holloway want to come back, and why did he persuade your brother to fit out a yacht and come after him, and why did you — ” He paused suddenly, wondering just how sensitive the prince was on that subject.

But his companion laughed softly in the darkness.

“That American — that Jim — he did not tell you everything, eh?”

“I think he told me all he knew. But of course, if you don’t want to trust me, just say so. I’m only curious, that’s all.”

“But I do trust you.” Sergius reached over, caught Jones’s hand, gripped it hard, and then dropped it as suddenly. “Really — do not laugh — you are the only friend I have within two thousand miles at least. Those men of mine? They are of the rough peasant type whom I pity but cannot love. My Captain Ivanovitch? He is — well, to be frank, I do not like him. He has not the least refinement. My brother? Ah, yes, I love him, but we are not friends — not now. He is my elder, the head of my house since our father died.

“Paul was educated in America, and our father sent me to Oxford, for he was a man of broad, splendid ideas. He thought thus we two should share the education of two continents, but instead it was so we grew apart. At Oxford I met other Russians, thinking men, one of whom — alas, he is now in Siberia — changed the whole course of my life. But I cannot now tell you of all that. Paul, in your free America, clung still to the old, I call them the cruel and tyrannous, ideals.

“But you I liked, even when I thought you were that beast, Richard Holloway. It is true that I threatened you, but then I was angry, because I wished you to do something reasonable and you would not. But when we met again and I asked you to come with me into this place of hell, you did not even hesitate. You came like an old friend — a comrade.”

“But you saved my life afterward, prince,” said Jones, amazed at this tribute and the evidently sincere feeling which lay behind it. “I am in your debt for that and for standing up for me to your brother.”

“And why not? Comrades must not desert one another. And I do not like to be named prince. Such titles stand for all I most abhor, Call me Sergius and I will call you Roland, as friends should. Tell me, would you go yet further and accompany me upon a greater adventure than any of these dogs that hold us dare attempt?”

“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Jones, somewhat startled.

“I mean,” the other replied, lowering his voice to a whisper, “that to-morrow they will destroy our only means of escape — the aeroplane. To-night it still stands there, safe unless some night-devil has trampled it. In half an hour we could be on board the Monterey. Is it not worth some risk to attain that? And we could return, but next time we would not be trapped so easily. We would be upon our guard.”

“Good Lord,” groaned Mr. Jones. “What you propose is impossible, prince — I mean, Sergius. We should be killed before we had gone fifty yards into that nightmare out there.”

“You hesitate? But I have not yet answered your question. Listen. In this island — this island which contains so many strange and unaccountable surprises — in its soil is a substance more valuable a thousand times than gold.”

“Radium?” hazarded Mr. Jones.

“Radium — bah! No, it is a strange, secret substance, which for ages has been sought by science until it has been termed a vision of fools and madmen.” He lowered his voice yet more. “It is that which was once named the Philosopher’s Stone — and it will change the nature of what have been called the elements. My friend, this substance will transmute common lead to gold!”

“Oh, is that all?” sighed Mr. Jones. “I thought it was probably something about gold, but believe me, it isn’t worth it, prince — it really isn’t.”

Sergius sat up, and Jones knew that he was staring at him in amazement.

“You are a very strange man, my friend. Has gold no temptation for you?”

“Not a bit — not that sort of gold, anyway. Do you realize that if this mythical stuff of Holloway’s proves what he has claimed to you people, it will upset the financial systems of the entire world, and become itself of no more value than — than mud?”

“Not at all. Do you think we would be so mad as to flood the world with gold? No, we will give out that we have discovered a very valuable mine and we will only release it in such quantities as may prove judicious. For myself, I desire it only for the cause. Russia shall be freed from herself and become a blazing lamp of liberty to enlighten the whole world. Paul, he desires only to help the government in overcoming the Germans. I desire to make the Germans my brothers.”

So, it was really Germany that Russia was fighting! It all seemed very strange. If it had been England, now — “As for this Holloway,” continued Sergius, “who discovered it, he thinks only of himself. He says he wants to be a captain of industry.”

“But why didn’t he bring some of the stuff away with him in the first place?”

“He could carry only a little, and that was used up in demonstrating to us its value. But there is a great deal more here — the whole soil is impregnated with it, and he discovered it by the chance of a leaden bullet falling into the fire. The heat melted the bullet and it sank to the earth beneath. And in the morning, when he swept away the ashes from before his cave, there lay a splash of gold upon the ground. He is a bright man, this Richard Holloway, and after thought he experimented with another bullet.”

“Yes, he would,” sighed Mr. Jones in spite of Sergius’ assurance, the effect on himself and all his friends, if this improbable tale proved true, was staggering to contemplate. “Now I know why I dislike the man so much. Isn’t the air in here frightfully stuffy? I can hardly keep my eyes open.”

“A little smoke from the fire at the entrance, perhaps. Or — my friend, do not tell me that you ignored the warning I gave you!”

“Warning? What warning?” Jones felt himself growing drowsier and drowsier. He wished Sergius would shut up and let him sleep.

He realized that some one was shaking him vigorously. “The soup — the tomato soup! Tell me, surely you did not eat of it?”

“Yes — sure. Good soup. Mighty nice soup — nice girl — too — ”

His voice dwindled away. He was drifting comfortably off upon a sea of the softest down. Then something hard, unpleasant, was thrusting itself against his teeth. His mouth filled with fire-liquid fire. Coughing, strangling, he sat up and recovered sufficiently to push his companion’s hand away from his mouth.

“Wha’ — wha’ you tryin’ to do?” he asked hoarsely. His throat and lips felt stiff and numb.

“Trying to revive you, my friend. Here, drink some more of this.”

“No. ‘S horrid stuff. Take — away.”

“Drink. You must.”

Again something was forced against his teeth in the dark, and his mouth was flooded with the fiery liquid.

It was “horrid stuff,” but it was effective. Jones felt the numbness going out of his vocal organs, and his brain cleared.

“What’s the matter with me?” he gasped. “Have I been poisoned?”

“No, no, just a harmless drug, but it would have been disastrous had you succumbed to it, though I pray Heaven the rest have done so. I warned you not to touch that soup. Why did you do it?”

“Was that what you whispered to me? I didn’t understand. But do you mean to tell me that you have — that you have — ”

“I’ve put them all to sleep, that’s all. The stuff is a perfectly harmless soporific, but it tastes a little, and that is why I put it in the highly seasoned soup, which all would be most likely to eat. But it is fortunate I had with me also the antidote, or my plan would have surely reacted upon myself, for I would not leave you here to meet their anger.”

Jones staggered to his feet.

“I can’t say I like the idea, my friend, but I suppose from your point of view you were justified. What are we to do now?”

“Get back to the aeroplane. It is useless for us to attempt the cavern without a guide, and even if I could awaken Holloway, I doubt if he could be induced to help us.”

“You would leave them here — in a drugged sleep — defenceless? Why man what are you thinking of? It would be worse than murder! And the girl, too. Why, the idea is criminal!”

“For what sort of devil do you mistake me, Roland Jones? No, I have thought of everything. We will place them all in the cavern chamber where Miss Weston now lies. Then we will block, up the entrance with large stones, build before it a great fire, and they will certainly be as safe until morning as anyone can be in this perilous place.”

“I see. Well, perhaps it could be done. But first, hadn’t we better find out if every one is really asleep?”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/nightmare/chapter8.html

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