AS the three staggered out, one after another, from the acid-fumed fungi onto the wiry grass of the central space, their ears were rent by a sound of hideous and continued screaming which drowned out all other noise entirely. Startled and shuddering, both Sergius and Jones directed the rays of their lanterns toward the sound, and a most extraordinary picture leaped into view.
The scene of the tragedy was one of the larger death-cabbages. Its seventyfive-foot leaves were spread almost flat, and all the inner tentacles were writhing and squirming upward, so that at first glance it looked as if this vegetable flesh-eater were all on fire with slim, scarlet flames. Then, as they moved their search-lights upward, they saw what it was that screamed.
Clinging with huge claws to the upper stalk, just below the tuft, was a dark, winged thing, and all about its body and head the tentacles were wound and fastened. So wide were its frantically beating wings that even where they stood, a hundred yards away, the wind of them struck their faces in heavy gusts. The stalk swayed and bent under the strain, but the tentacles had firm hold, and continually new scarlet cords shot upward to aid in the binding of the captive, until its body was no more than a bundle of flaming red.
The screaming grew weaker; the wings fluttered spasmodically for a few moments longer, then drooped down helpless. The tentacles took hold upon them, also. Into the field of light a pointed, serrated thing rose slowly, followed by others upon all sides. The death cabbage was closing its doors to feast in sacred privacy.
A moment later the vision of trapped prey was shut from their eyes.
With a long, shuddering sigh, Sergius turned his own light slowly about the grim ranks encircling the glade. Everywhere it fell upon spread leaves and living, ready tentacles Only one or two other of the cabbages were closed. Doubtless their dinner had come to them earlier in the evening.
“What are they? What is this place you have brought me to?”
It was Miss Weston. Both men turned to her with a guilty start, realizing that in their fascinated absorption they had for the time forgotten her.
“I am so sorry,” apologized Sergius, as if he and Jones had invented the vegetable horrors, as her tone implied.
“It is like — it is like a circle from Dante’s Inferno!” exclaimed Jones, laying his hand pityingly on the girl’s arm, and wishing with all his heart that he had never acceded to Sergius’ wishes; that they had left the girl at the caves, or stayed there themselves. What might not the effect of having witnessed such a scene be upon the mind of a delicate, high-strung woman?
But she drew slightly away, and spoke again to the Russian, From first to last she gave Mr. Jones no more attention than one grants to a supernumerary — a necessary adjunct to the play, but scarcely of more human interest than the furniture.
“You are sorry!” she repeated scornfully. “Your sorrow is rather late, it appears. Where is the aeroplane?”
The nihilist bowed gallantly to her contemptuous tone.
“As usual, Miss Weston, you speak directly to the point. The aeroplane is — why, where in the name of Heaven is it?”
For his light, flashing up the glade, encountered only empty space. The aeroplane, which they had left not far from where they now stood, had disappeared.
Jones felt his heart begin a slow, systematic descent toward his toes. If the machine were actually gone, what would they do? Then he gave a joyful cry as his own light, dancing spritelike over the grass, flashed upon something broadwinged and motionless over near the wilted death-cabbage which had so nearly made a meal of him and Sergius.
“There it is! It’s all right! It’s there!”
“Thank God!” breathed Miss Weston, frightened momentarily out of her attitude of disdainful indifference.
“But how did it get there?” frowned Sergius. “Miss Weston, you must not go so near as that to the cabbagges. Will you wait here with Mr. Jones, while I go after the plane?”
“I will not,” she replied instantly. “We will either all go, or none of us will go, whichever you please. Oh, I’m not troubled for your safety, Prince Sergius. Don’t imagine that. But if you should be killed or injured, who is to pilot the plane?
“I am overwhelmed by your solicitude for me,” murmured Sergius, bowing again. “If you must go, keep behind us. Here, take this light and one of the rifles. Yes, please, I want my hands free. Come on, then.”
He set off at a swinging stride, followed by Jones and Miss Weston, who looked pale by the reflected light of her lantern, but very determined indeed.
The plane, they found, was fairly in the midst of the many-colored fungi. But worse, and more important, it was quite near to a thirty-foot vegetable which they had just had good testimony, would make no more than a good meal on all three of them. In fact, as they approached, it seemed to sense them, and stretched out a dozen hungry tentacles in their direction. Two or three of these, feeling blindly, encountered a rear strut of the aeroplane and curled about it. Then the tentacles contracted suddenly, and the aeroplane rolled backward an inch or so.
“That won’t do,” cried the nihilist, and seizing a forward strut he braced himself and pulled, but with no apparent effect. More tentacles reached toward him as he stood there, but he was partly shielded from them by the plane itself.
To his credit be it said that Mr. Jones, without an instant’s hesitation, dropped his rifle, handed his torch to Miss Weston, and springing to Sergius’ side flung his weight also into the tug-of-war. But it was evident that the strength of the vegetable was greater than their combined efforts. The utmost they could, do was to hold the machine where it was.
After several muscle and nerve-straining minutes, the nihilist said to Jones in a low voice, not to be overheard by the girl, “My friend, there is only one thing to be done and that is creep back there, over the tail, and cut some of those tentacles.”
“Impossible! Why, the others would get you in a second.”
“I don’t care if they do. I will cut them also. They are strong, but a knife goes through them easily. Do you not remember yesterday afternoon? Miss Weston, will you keep both lights trained on the rear of the plane for a few moments, please? I am going to try something.”
“I won’t let you do it — ” began Jones, but with a spring Sergius had mounted upon the plane and was working his way toward the rear.
The withdrawal of his strength was accompanied by a surge of the aeroplane backward, and Jones had to use all his muscle and attention to keep it in place. Sergius was now out of his sight, but by a sudden swaying and jolting and a scream from Margaret Weston, he knew that his too-daring companion must have been found by one or more of the questing tentacles.
The machine swayed again violently, then he heard Sergius’ voice.
“Hold those lights steady, Miss Weston. Ah! two at once. Roland, we needn’t have been so worried — one might as well be afraid of a stick of celery. You devil! Would you?”
There was a strangled, gasping sound, another scream from the girl, then the Russian’s voice again, somewhat hoarser but still cheerful. “He almost got me that time — but not twice! That is right. Send me a few more feelers! Pull! Pull, Jones, with all your force!”
Jones obeyed with the strength of desperation, as a sudden lightening in the weight and a renewed swaying told him that Sergius had jumped to the ground, Slowly at first, then with gathering ease and speed the plane moved. In a minute it was out of the fungi and rolling clear upon the turf.
The second that he dared, Jones let go and ran around to the rear. To his great relief there was his nihilist friend, leaning against, a strut and wiping his forehead. Miss Weston joined them with the lights, and they all stared at one another in silence.
Then Sergius dropped his handkerchief, and brought his hand down upon his thigh with a resounding slap.
“What a fool I am!” he exclaimed. “What an utter fool! All I had to do was to climb into the pilot’s seat and start the propeller. Even that brute could hardly have outpulled the engine. And my neck would have been saved a very unpleasant experience.” He felt of it tenderly, then laughed.
“Well, it is over now. Some inquisitive beast must have come by here and given the plane a push, so that it rolled down that little incline.”
He began a careful examination of wires, struts, taut varnished canvas, propeller blades and last, and most important, the engine itself and its tank. In a few minutes now their very lives might depend upon the thoroughness of that examination.
“I can find nothing wrong,” he said at last, and his announcement was greeted with an involuntary sigh of relief from both his companions.
“Miss Weston,” he continued, “I think you and Mr. Jones can manage to occupy that seat together. At any rate, in a few minutes we will be out of this intolerable odor. Here, Miss Weston, put on my coat, since you will find it cold in the upper air, if you will be so kind as to cover your face with your hands when we get up, you will not need goggles. Are we all ready?”
“I shall certainly not take your coat,” said the girl indignantly, waving the garment away. “Not that your comfort is so important, but I know a little about flying, and if you became numbed by the cold, what would happen to us?”
Sergius laughed. “There is no danger of my becoming numbed in the few minutes that we will be in the air. Your dress is a great deal thinner than my tunic. I am sorry, but you will have to take it or we cannot start.”
“Let her take mine,” interposed Jones. “I have nothing to do but sit still, and it really doesn’t matter whether I get numb or not.
“You are very kind, Mr. Jones.” Miss Weston smiled sweetly upon him. “Yes, since you insist, I shall be glad to borrow your coat.”
And suiting the action to the words she took it from him and slipped into it. Sergius frowned and looked as if he were about to say something, then checked himself and turned away, putting on his own coat without any further protest. But Mr. Jones caught what looked like an expression of amused triumph on Margaret Weston’s beautiful face. It was the first time that she had really succeeded in annoying Sergius Petrofsky.
A few minutes later, having pushed the machine to the extreme end of the glade, turned so as to face the open run, they all took their places and strapped themselves in. The rear seat was a tight fit indeed for both Jones and Miss Weston, but it was only to be for a few minutes, and the girl murmured that at least she was glad she did not have to sit so close to Sergius.
Mr. Jones might have felt more flattered if she had not put in the “at least.”
The Russian started his engine, the propeller began to revolve, and a second later the plane rolled forward across the uneven grass. They did not gather speed very quickly, however, and it looked as if the machine would refuse to rise in the limited course. Twice Sergius raised the elevator, and twice the plane continued on its rough and bouncing course up the glade, refusing to leave the earth.
They were now perilously close to the further end and the plane was running at a speed of about sixty miles an hour. To stop was impossible, and for a time it seemed as if their career was to end in the maw of a particularly wide-spread and hungry-looking death-cabbage, when just at the last minute he again raised the elevator, the plane tilted slightly and took the air beneath its taut canvas wings.
They barely cleared the crest of the deadly vegetable, and with their hearts still in their throats found themselves shooting onward and upward, away from thevalley of death.
Yet even as they drew in their first full breaths of relief and clean, cool air, Death itself, though in another form, rose after them.
The first consciousness that they were the object of attack came as Sergius banked his wings and swung in a wide circle, preparatory to straightening out on the seaward course. As the machine tilted against the light breeze, a large, dark thing shot by its nose, just missing the plane by a foot or so, and causing even the iron-nerved Russian momentarily to lose control.
The plane dipped and shot downward at a dangerous angle. They had risen scarcely four hundred feet, and there was not much room for evolutions. He just saved them from destruction, and rose again, casting anxious glances about in the darkness, for they had extinguished the electric torches before rising.
The girl was not aware that anything had happened, for she had covered her face with her hands to shield it from the sharp wind of their flight. Jones stared about as anxiously as their pilot, but could see nothing. Sergius’ eyes must have been, as he had said, of an unusual kind, for presently he shouted and pointed into the darkness.
A second later something huge came up from below, actually grazed the left wing, and was gone again.
Jones knew that the dark thing must be one of the flying monsters, of which this was the third they had encountered, and he earnestly hoped that its interference was purely accidental. He said nothing, fearing to frighten Miss Weston, but on a sudden impulse he loosened the strap that held bah of them, with a vague idea that if they should be flung to the earth they might have some chance of jumping clear.
That Sergius was fully aware of the danger was made evident, for he began to climb in a swift, steep spiral. Birds of the night hardly ever fly high, and if they could reach the upper levels of the air, so easily accessible to them, they would be safe.
But the evil genius of Joker Island had no idea of permitting them to escape so simply. Again, with a wild beating of vast pinions, the winged peril was upon them. This time it struck downward from above and even the skill of the nihilist could not save them.
Of what happened next Mr. Jones was never able to give a coherent account. Probably the weight and impact of the creature partially stunned him. At any rate, his next conscious memory was of finding himself swinging and dangling over empty space, his arms and hands firmly buried in something that felt like warm fur, and that he was being carried along in great swoops and lunges, so that it required his utmost strength to keep from being jerked off.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00