STARTLED and amazed, Jones and the nihilist yet obeyed, for there was a certain sincerity back of the command which was not to be denied. Their rifles lay on the ground a few feet distant and Sergius himself, with his arms half into his coat, was peculiarly helpless.
Both looked over their shoulders, however, and there behind them, rifle pointed at the middle of the Russian’s back, stood Richard Holloway! He was still attired in his simple costume of shirt and trousers, now very ragged and dirty, and his face wore a grim smile.
“Who are you?” asked Sergius, although he may have guessed.
“It’s Holloway,” supplied Jones in a whisper.
“You don’t need to murmur it in his ear, sweet child,” interrupted the newcomer. “I’m so glad to meet you again, Rolly. You know I said I was sure we should be friends. But we thought after all a stalactite must have dropped and crushed out your innocent young life.”
Mr. Jones could think of no reply. Of course, now, the other party would never believe that he had not been lying when he said that he had nothing to do with Sergius Petrofsky. Even Jim Haskins would no longer believe him. Then he forgot his own troubles in wondering how this unexpected meeting would affect his newer friend, Sergius.
“Move farther back from those rifles,” commanded Holloway. “That’s right. And just remember that I don’t love either of you one little bit. The only pity is that my dear little vegetable garden didn’t succeed in getting both of you for its luncheon. It’s a lucky thing for you that you didn’t try conclusions with one of the really big fellows. That one was a mere child — poor innocent thing!” He shifted his rifle to the hollow of his arm and came toward them.
Sergius, his face white and strained with anger, still stood with his arms half way in the coat. “May I— have I your very kind permission, Mr. Holloway, to finish putting on my coat? I give you my word that we are neither of us armed, except for the rifles.”
“In just a minute, prince. Sorry about your word, but if you did happen to get careless about it, where would I be? Rolly, I’ve got you covered. Just go over and turn your friend’s pockets inside out for me, will you? And now your own? That’s right. No, I wronged your serene highness. You can put your coat on, though you must be a cold-blooded fish to want it in this sun.”
“We were just about to ascend,” said the Russian stiffly.
“Oh, I see. Well, you’re just about not to ascend now, so you won’t need it. We saw you fluttering gaily about over the valley, and saw you drop into this place. Paul (he really seems to retain a regard for you, for some reason), your brother, asked me to come out and pick up the remains, if there were any, which I doubted myself, knowing what sort of place you had landed in. He asked me to extend to you his apologies for not coming himself. He sprained his ankle in the caves, but Miss Weston is looking after him so well that really it can’t be much hardship.”
Sergius’ eyes narrowed, and Jones remembered that Jim Haskins had told him both brothers were seeking the girl’s favor.
Holloway picked up the two rifles from the ground and tucked them under his other arm. “So nice of you,” he murmured. “We’re rather short on arms and ammunition. But I know you’re anxious to be welcomed in camp. Turn to the right, please, and straight ahead. Don’t be frightened of the little cabbages. I won’t feed you to them this time.”
Jones was beginning to detest the young American as much as he had formerly been inclined to like him. His mocking banter in this place that smelt like the tomb and was the home of detestable death, seemed as out of place as the tinkle of a pianola in Purgatory.
However, the man must know a safe way out, or he could not have appeared there himself, so the two prisoners turned their faces in the direction indicated and started off, with Holloway close behind.
They crossed the glade obliquely and came into view of a broad road, or trail, which had apparently been trampled over and through the fungi and several of the young and comparatively small death plants which lay crushed and broken. Two of them, each well above ten feet from root to crest, had been actually torn up by the roots and tossed to some distance from the place where they had been growing.
What power or agency had been strong enough to perform such a feat with such victims?
As they involuntarily paused, staring, Holloway’s mocking voice answered the unspoken question:
“That’s the work of another of my lovely island’s children. Don’t get scared. He doesn’t prowl around much by daylight, but when he does take a walk, and things get in his way or annoy him, he just pushes them gently to one side — as you see. He’s a foul brute, but not foul enough to feed upon such carrion plants as these. He was probably hunting something.”
The nihilist was too proud, and Jones too overcome, to question Holloway in regard to the mysterious “brute” to which he referred, and after a moment of hesitation they marched on through the sickening mess of broken fungi and wilted, blood-sucking tentacles. But first, at Holloway’s own suggestion, they all three again bound handkerchiefs over mouth and nose as a partial protection against the thrice-vile fumes rising from beneath their feet.
At last, however, a breath of purer air reached their nostrils, and raising his head, Jones’s watering eyes beheld a scene of weird and unearthly beauty. Behind them lay the field of death cabbages, in all its foul ugliness. Before them was a forest — but such a forest! The trees were mere slender, graceful stems, shooting up to an unbelievable height, where they branched out into a feathery tuft of graceful leaves, resembling palms.
But these slender stems were all wound and garlanded with gorgeous blossoms, like glorious floral butterflies swaying and fluttering to every breath of air.
Here and there huge balloonlike growths had forced their way upward between the palms, bending them aside and so making their own path to the sunlight. These, however, unlike the cabbages, had nothing horrible or loathsome in their appearance, but were of the most delicate shades of pink, shading into lemon yellow at the summits. They, too, were overgrown in the riotous embrace of a thousand blossoming vines.
Underfoot the ground was thickly carpeted with moss in wide patches, like rich rugs of velvet green, starred all over with little points of brilliant blue and scarlet, which were also flowers. Between the butterflylike blossoms of the vines innumerable real butterflies were flitting. Their colors were so similar to the flowers that it was impossible to tell if a blossom one’s eyes rested upon were really such or a butterfly, unless it suddenly spread its wings and flickered away through the slanting sunlight.
Moving forward slowly, like men in a dream of fairyland, they came at last entirely out of the zone of vile odors; and the more delightful by contrast, their nostrils were filled by the divine fragrance of this unlegended Garden of the Hesperides.
Again Holloway had his comment to make.
“You like this all right, now — but I just invite you to take the trip by moonlight!”
“By moonlight,” said the Russian softly, forgetting for the moment his animosity toward the speaker. “I should think by moonlight this place would be — ah, celestial!
“H— m! Well, I’ve been here, and take it from me it was more like the other place.”
“In the bright lexicon of Joker Island, there ain’t no such word, dear child. Your imagination needs exercise — or you wouldn’t have come here, so I’ll just permit you to exercise it on this. But I’ll give you one tip: You’ve seen the flora, but you haven’t seen the fauna — yet. Straight ahead, now, through that little lane between the vegetable balloons. No, not that way. Halt! Good Lord, man, if you’d gone down there you’d have wished you was safe inside one of those mild-tempered little cabbages back yonder!”
Sergius, absorbed in gazing at the wonders about them, had started to go to the left of the balloon in question instead of the right. The ground sloped sharply downward there, and as he drew back his foot in surprise at Holloway’s evident agitation, there was a sudden rattle and slide off falling gravel.
Both he and his fellow-captive looked keenly down the incline, but could see nothing out of the way. A tangle of gray, leafless vines formed a veil across the bottom of the slope, through which they could see nothing.
Then, the perspiration sprang out on Sergius’ forehead, and for the first time since Jones had met him the prince looked really frightened. For over that tangle of vines something was moving. It was a leg, and it had come out from between the vines. It was jointed in two places, the space between the upper joints being about three feet long, and at the end of it was a single, great, curved claw, black and gleaming like polished ebony.
Another similar leg followed it into visibility. Then two eyes came into view, round, black, and fastened upon the ends of stalks like those of a lobster.
“Good God!” breathed the Russian.
“What is the thing, Holloway?”
“Just a. little spider,” responded their captor cheerfully. “But plenty big enough to make three mouthfuls of you. That’s its web it’s sitting in, wondering why you don’t come on down to dinner. I’d shoot the old devil, but what’s the use? He’s only one. Shall we go on now?”
With cold shivers running up and down their spinal columns, Mr. Jones and his companion stepped carefully back from the entrance to the giant spider’s den, and entered a little path or trail which led windingly away through the lovely, treacherous forest. Jones, for one, heartily wished that their guardian would march in front instead of the rear. The death cabbages had been bad enough, but they had seemed such vast, unnatural prodigies that already his memory reproduced them dreamily.
That spider was another matter. He had, heard of spiders as large as dinner plates, and shuddered at the thought of them. This spider had been as large as well, judging from its forelegs it could better be compared with an extra large dining-table.
And Holloway had spoken of it as “only one.” How many more such fiends lay hidden, waiting for the false tread of a foot, or the careless speed of some hunted jungle thing? He began to be careful indeed to look where he trod, and suspicious of even the supposedly harmless flowers and butterflies. Beauty becomes more horrible than frank ugliness when one has learned that death lurks behind it.
Fortunately, however, for their peace of mind they saw no more of the “fauna” of which Holloway had hinted, although once in skirting a dark morass they heard distant crashing sounds, as if some large beast were threshing about somewhere in the depths.
“This place is like a Broadway cafe,” Holloway informed them. “Nothing much doing in the daytime — but — oh you midnight suppers. Eat and be eaten, that’s our motto after sunset.”
“You seem to know a whole lot about the place,” Jones ventured.
“Yes, indeed. Regular old homestead to little Willy. You see, I lived here for two years, and got real well acquainted with the inhabitants. Maybe we’ll let you and your dear friend Prince Sergius try it, when it comes time for us to leave. You’d learn a whole lot you never knew before, believe me. That is, if you survived the first week or two.”
Mr. Jones looked at him hopelessly. Was the man in earnest?
But Sergius laughed scornfully. “I should not particularly mind,” he said, “so long as we were relieved of your company, Mr. Holloway.”
“You don’t say! How very rude and unkind you are, prince. But never mind. I’d be sore, too, if I were in your place, so I forgive you like a true Christian. And here we are — home at last all safe and sound.”
For the path, turning sharply, passed out of the jungle and into the full light of day. Half a mile away, across a broad expanse of green meadow, the rim of the crater raised its black height, hidden from them until now by the forest. To the right, in the distance, some unidentifiable animals were grazing, and ahead, close to the wall, a pillar of smoke was rising, almost white against its dead blackness.
“There’s our camp. Keep right on going. Don’t worry, they’re expecting us.”
That they were expected was presently evidenced, for the figure of a man appeared coming toward them across the meadow. In a few minutes Jones was able to identify him, for it was Jim, Paul’s cowboy retainer. He met then, with a grin, which suddenly faded as he recognized Mr. Jones. He looked from him to Sergius and then back again.
“Well, of all the — snakes!” he exclaimed, and his hand dropped suggestively to his hip-pocket. “So that yarn of yours was just a string of whoppers, was it? By jiminy, I’ve a notion to drill you right now, you — you low-down horsethief! Lettin’ me get the notion that you was layin’ smashed back there in the cave, and me mad as thunder because they wouldn’t let me hike back to look for you. An’ all the time you pikin’ around with this here nihilanarchist bunch. Say, what kind of a low-down, lyin’ cattle-rustler are you, anyhow?”
“Shut up, Jimmy,” interrupted Holloway at last, although he had listened to the arraignment with a grin of pure enjoyment. “Rolly’s nerves are all upset as it is. How is Prince Petrofsky?”
Jim’s face relaxed again into a grin.
“Doin’ fine,” he answered. “I know now why he brought that female woman along. Gee! I wouldn’t mind sprainin’ a leg or so to get nursed that luxurious.”
“He’ll get well for pure joy when he sees who’s here. Forward the army. We’ll be right behind you, gentlemen. Sorry the hotel bus wasn’t running, so as to save your walking all this way, but you know what these summer resorts are.”
His cheerful nonsense bored Jones wretchedly, as they went on toward the camp. What sort of a greeting were he and Sergius likely to get? Not a very pleasant one, judging from the sample offered by Haskins. He heartily wised that Sergius had stuck to his original intention of “a mere reconnaissance.” They would have been back with the nihilists by this time, and at that moment the nihilist camp actually seemed like home to Mr. Jones.
What could there possibly be in the crater valley of sufficient value to make all these people so very anxious to reach it? Unless the were seeking the rather morbid pleasure of being killed and eaten, he could conceive of nothing liable to be there which would repay the extreme trouble and risk attendant upon obtaining it.
A gold mine? How could anybody work a gold mine in a place like this? Diamonds, perhaps? He himself would have cheerfully forfeited a full ownership in Tiffany’s just to escape from the place.
He had never had any opportunity to question Sergius Petrofsky, and as that gentleman stalked along moodily by his side now he did not look in a good humor to answer such interrogations. Both men had long since removed their heavy coats and were carrying them, but even-so their clothing was saturated with perspiration.
Hot, weary, and disgusted, they neither of them looked as they came into camp, as if they had been upon any pleasurable expedition.
A fire was snapping and crackling cheerfully in the cliff shadow, and about it lay scattered various paraphernalia, but no one was in sight.
“All in the cave,” said Jim, in an explanatory tone. “Some cliff-dwellers, our bunch, ain’t we, Holloway?”
“First-class apartments,” corrected the other. “Dry, airy, cool, but dogs and children barred. Hey, there! Anybody home?”
At Holloway’s hail a woman appeared in the entrance to one of a large number of the dark openings which perforated the crater wall. It was of course Margaret Weston.
“Oh, did you find them, Mr. Holloway? Who is that with the prince? Isn’t that the man we lost in the caverns?”
“It sure is, ma’am,” grinned the cowboy, not giving Holloway a chance to reply. “He ain’t crushed none, not so you could notice it. I take off my hat to you, ma’am. You was dead right about the snake, but I was too plumb pigheaded to know it.”
“That is all right, James,” said the girl, smiling sweetly. “A woman’s intuition is sometimes correct after all, is it not? Prince Sergius,” with a sudden severe formality, “your brother would like to see you as soon as it is convenient.”
The nihilist bowed with a dignity equal to her own. His face was sternly set, but Jones, watching curiously, saw a look flash up into his eyes as they rested on the girl which confirmed the cowboy’s statement in regard to his feeling toward her. He could hardly be blamed, either. Miss Weston looked a good deal more than attractive, standing there with one white, shapely arm extended to support herself on the precarious foothold of rocks at the cavern door. She looked very young, girlish and utterly out of place in that nightmare valley. Her smooth cheeks were slightly flushed, her scarlet lips were set just sufficiently to bring out their exquisite lines, and her big blue eyes were shining with some emotion, but one hardly favorable to Sergius, if Mr. Jones were any judge.
In fact, Miss Weston was angry, and Jones felt vaguely sorry for Sergius Petrofsky. He wondered again at the girl’s ardent dislike for his friend.
“I am grateful to my brother,” said Sergius slowly, “for sending such a charming messenger!”
“Thank you. But kindly reserve your compliments for some one who will better deserve and — appreciate them. Mr. Holloway, will you kindly accompany these gentlemen? The sailors are in the other cave, and I hardly think it safe for Prince Paul to receive them alone — ”
Sergius flushed deeply. The thrust evidently went home.
“Certainly, Miss Weston,” assented Holloway, with a smile of amusement. “But I was just going to start cooking supper.”
“I am not myself such a bad cook as you seem to think,” laughed the girl. “What use is a woman in camp if she can’t do the nursing and cooking?”
“You’re dead right, ma’am,” commented Jim, but in a most respectful voice. Jones reflected sadly that even this woman-hater appeared to have been converted to admiration for the girl. Probably he regarded her diagnosis of his, Jones’s, character as a symptom of most unusual wisdom.
“Go right in, gentlemen,” commanded Holloway. “Here, Jim, will you take these rifles? And lend me your little popgun? Thanks. A rifle is no good at close quarters.”
With a disdainful shrug Sergius turned his back on the voluble American and entered the cave, Mr. Jones close at his heels.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13