The Isle of Pirate's Doom/The Second Day
Someone was shaking me out of my sound slumber. I stirred, then awoke suddenly and sat up, groping for blade or pistol.
"My word, sir, you sleep deep. John Gower might have stolen upon you and cut out your heart and you not aware of it."
It was hardly dawn and Helen Tavrel was standing over me.
"I had thought to wake sooner," said I, yawning, "but I was weary from yesterday's work. You must have a body and nature of steel springs."
She looked as fresh as if she had but stepped from a lady's boudoir. Truth, there are few women who could endure such exertions, sleep all night on the bare sand of a cavern floor and still look elegant and winsome.
"Let us to breakfast," said she. "Methinks the fare is a trifle scanty, but there is pure water to go with it, and I believe you mentioned fruit?"
Later, as we ate, she said in a brooding manner:
"it stirs my blood most unpleasantly at the thought of John Gower gaining possession of the Mogar treasure. Although I have sailed with Roger O'Farrel, Hilton, Hansen, and le Ban between times, Gower is the first captain to offer me insult."
"He is not like to find it," said I, "for the simple reason that there is no such thing on this island."
"Have you explored all of it?"
"All except the eastern swamps which are impenetrable."
Her eyes lighted.
"Faith, man, were the shrine easy to find, it had been looted long before now. I wager you that it lies somewhere amid that swamp! Now listen to my plan.
"It is yet awhile before sunup and as it is most likely that Gower and his bullies drank rum most of the night, they are not like to be up before broad daylight. I know their ways, and they do not alter them, even for treasure!
"So let us go swiftly to this swamp and make a close search."
"I repeat," said I, "it is tempting Providence. Why have a hiding place if we do not use it? We have been very fortunate so far in evading Gower, but if we keep running hither and yon through the woods we must eventually come on him."
"If we cower in our cave like rats, he will eventually discover us. Doubtless we can explore the swamp and return before he fares forth, or if not---he has nothing of wood craft but blunders along like a buffalo. We can hear them a league off and elude them. So there is no danger in hiding awhile in the woods if need be, with always a safe retreat to run to as soon as they have passed. Were Roger O'Farrel here-"she hesitated.
"If you must drag O'Farrel into it," said I with a sigh, "I must agree to any wild scheme you put forward. Let us be started."
"Good!" she cried, clapping her hands like a child. "I know we will find treasure! I can see those diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires gleaming even now!"
The first grey of dawn was lightening and the east was growing brighter and more rosy as we went along the cliffs and finally went up a wide ravine to enter the thicker growth of trees that ran eastward. We were taking the opposite direction from that taken the day before. The pirates had landed on the western side of the island and the swamp lay on the eastern.
We walked along in silence awhile, and then I asked abruptly:
"What sort of looking man is O'Farrel?"
"A fine figure with the carriage of a king," she looked me over with a critical eye. "Taller than you, but not so heavily built. Broader of shoulder, but not so deep of chest. A cold, strong handsome face, smooth shaven. Hair as black as yours in spite of his age, and fine grey eyes, like the steel of swords. You have grey eyes, too, but your skin is dark and his is very white.
"Still," she continued, "were you shaved and clad properly, you would not cut a bad figure, even beside Captain O'Farrel-how old are you?"
"I had not thought you that old. I am twenty."
"You look younger," I answered.
"I am old enough in experience," quoth she. "And now, sir, we had best go more silently, lest by any chance there be rogues among these woods."
So we stole cautiously through the trees, stepping over creepers and making our way through undergrowth which rose thicker as we progressed eastward. Once a large, mottled snake wriggled across our path and the girl started and shrank back nervously. Brave as a tigress when opposed to men, she had the true feminine antipathy toward reptiles.
At last we came to the edge of the swamp without having seen any human foe and I halted.
"Here begins the serpent-haunted expanse of bogs and hummocks which finally slopes down into the sea to the east. You see those tangled walls of moss-hung branches and vine-covered trunks which oppose us. Are you still for invading that foul domain?"
The only reply she made was to push past me impatiently.
Of the first few rods of that journey, I like not to remember. I hacked a way through hanging vines and thickly-grown bamboos with my cutlass, and the farther we went, the higher about our feet rose the stinking, clinging mud. Then the bamboos vanished, the trees thinned out, and we saw only rushes towering higher than our heads, with occasional bare spaces wherein green stagnant pools lay in the black, bubbling mud. We staggered through, sinking sometimes to our waists in the water and slime. The girl cursed fervently at the ruin it was making of her finery, while I saved my breath for the labor of getting through. Twice we tumbled into stagnant pools that seemed to have no bottom, and each time were hard put to get back on solid earth- solid earth, said I? Nay, the treacherous shaky, sucking stuff that passed for earth in that foul abomination.
Yet we progressed, ploughing along, clinging to yielding rushes and to rotten logs, and making use of the more solid hummocks when we could. Once Helen set her foot on a snake and shrieked like a lost soul; nor did she ever become used to the sight of them, though they basked on nearly every log and writhed across the hummocks.
I saw no end to this fool's journey and was about to say so, when above the rushes and foul swamp growth about us I saw what seemed to be hard soil and trees just beyond. Helen exclaimed in joy and, rushing forward, promptly fell into a pool which sucked her under except for her nose. Fumbling under the filthy water, I got a good grip on her arms and managed to draw her forth, cursing and spluttering. By that time I had sunk to my waist in the mud about the pool, and it was with some desperation that we fought our way toward the higher earth.
At last our feet felt a semblance of bottom under the mud and then we came out on solid land. Tall trees grew there, rank with vines, and grass flourished high between them, but at least there was no bog. I, who had been all around the swamp's edges, was amazed. Evidently this place was a sort of island, lapped on all sides by the mire. One who had not been through the swamp would think as I had thought: that nothing lay there but water and mud.
Helen was excited, but before she would venture further, she stooped and attempted to wipe some of the mud from her garments and face. Truth, we were both a ludicrous sight, plastered with mire and slime to the eyebrows.
More, in spite of the silk wrappings, water had soaked into Helen's pistols, and mine also were useless. The barrels and locks were so fouled with mud that it would take some time to clean and dry them so they might be recharged from her horn flask, which still contained some powder. I was in favor of halting long enough to do this, but she argued that we were not likely to need them in the midst of the swamp, and that she could not wait-she must explore the place we had found and learn if the temple did in truth stand there.
So I gave in, and we went on, passing between the boles of the great trees, where the branches intertwined so as to almost shut out the light of the sun which had risen sometime before. Such light as filtered through was strange, grey and unearthly, and the tall grass waved through it like thin ghosts. No birds sang there, no butterflies hovered, though we saw several snakes.
Soon we noticed signs of stonework. Sunk in the earth and overgrown by the rank grass lay shattered paves and tiles. Further on, we came to a wide open stretch which was like a street. Great flagstones lay, evenly placed, and the grass grew in the crevices between them. We fell silent as we followed this ancient street, for long-forgotten ghosts seemed to whisper about us, and soon we saw a strange building glimmering through the trees in front of us.
Silently we approached it. No doubt of it; it was a temple, squarely built of great stone blocks. Wide steps led up to its floor, and up these we went, swords drawn, still and awed. On three sides it was enclosed by walls, windowless and doorless; on the fourth by huge, squat columns which formed the front of the edifice. Tiling, worn smooth by countless feet, made up the floor, and in the middle of the great room began a row of narrow steps which led up to a sort of altar. No idol stood there; if there had ever been one, no doubt the Spaniards destroyed it. No carvings decorated wall, ceiling or column. The keynote of the whole was a grim simplicity, a sort of terrible contempt for man's efforts at beautifying and adorning.
What alien people had built that shrine so long ago? Surely some terrible and sombre people who died ages before the brown-skinned Caribs came to rear up their transient empire. ( glanced up at the altar which loomed starkly above us. It was set on a sort of platform built solidly from the floor. A column rose from the center of this platform to the ceiling, and the altar seemed to be part of this column.
We went up the steps. For myself, I was feeling not at all at ease, and Helen was silent and slipped her firm little hand into mine, glancing about nervously. A brooding silence hung over the place as if a monster of some other world lurked in the corners ready to leap upon us. The bleak antiquity of the temple oppressed and bore down upon us with a sense of our own smallness and weakness.
Only the quick nervous rattle of Helen's small heels on the stone steps broke the stillness, yet I could picture in my mind's eye the majestic and sombre rites of worship which had been enacted here in bygone years. Now, as we reached the platform and bent over the altar, I saw deep dark stains on its surface and heard the girl shudder involuntarily. More shadows of horror out of the past, and had we known, the horror of that grim shrine was not yet over.
Turning my attention to the solid column which rose behind the altar, my gaze followed it up to the roof. This seemed to be composed of remarkably long slabs of stone, except for the space just above the altar. There a single huge block rested, a stone of completely different character from those of the rest of the temple. It was of a sombre yellowish hue, shot with red veins, and of monstrous size. It must have weighed many tons, and I was puzzled by what means it was held in place. At last I decided that the column which rose from the platform upheld it in some manner, for this entered the ceiling beside the great block. From the ceiling to the platform was, I should say, some fifteen feet, and from the platform to the floor, ten.
"Now that we are here," said the girl, rather breathlessly, "where is the treasure?"
"That's for us to find," I replied. "Before we begin to search, let us prepare our pistols, for the saints alone know what lies before us."
Down the stair we went again, and part way down, Helen halted, an uneasy look in her eyes.
"Listen! Was that a footfall?"
"I heard nothing; it must be your imagination conjuring up noises."
Still she insisted she heard something and was for hurrying out into the open as quickly as might be. I reached the floor a stride or so before her and turned to speak across my shoulder, when I saw her eyes go wide and her hand flew to her blade. I whirled to see three menacing shapes bulking among the columns- three men, smeared with mud and slime, with weapons gleaming in their hands.
As in a dream I saw the fierce burning eyes of John Gower, the beard of the giant Bellefonte, and the dark, saturnine countenance of La Costa. Then they were on us.
How they had kept their powder dry as they crossed that filthy swamp I know not, but even as I drew blade, La Costa fired and the ball struck my right arm, breaking the bone. The cutlass dropped from my numb fingers, but I stooped and, catching it up in my left hand, met Bellefonte's charge. The giant come on like a wild elephant, roaring, his cutlass whirling like a flame. But the desperate fury of a cornered and wounded lion was mine. And, crashing on his guard as a smith hammers an anvil, until the clash of our steel was an incessant clangor, I drove him across the room and beat him to his knees. But he partly parried the blow that felled him, so that my cutlass, glancing from his blade to his skull, turned in my hand and struck flat instead of edgewise, stunning and not killing. At that instant, La Costa clubbed a musket and laid my scalp open so that I fell and lay in my own blood.
Of how Helen fared I was partly told later, and partly saw, dimly, as I lay dazed and unable to rise.
At the first alarum, she had attacked Gower and he had met her with his blade held in a posture for defense rather than attack. Now this Gower was a rare swordsman, able to hold his own for a time against even such a skill. as was Helen's, though his weapon was a heavy cutlass, a blade unsuited for tricky work.
He had no wish to slay her, and he had more craft than to leave himself wide open to her thrust by slashing at her. So he parried her first few tierces, retreating before her while La Costa sought to steal upon her from behind and pinion her arms. Before the Frenchman could accomplish this design, Helen feinted Gower into a wide parry that left him open. Then and there had John Gower died, but luck was not with us that day, and Helen's foot slipped as she thrust for his black heart. The point wavered and only raked his ribs. Before she could recover her balance, Gower shouted and struck down her sword, dropping his own to seize her in his huge arms.
She fought even then, clawing at his face, kicking his shins and striving to shorten her grip on her sword so as to use it against him, but he only laughed. And, having wrenched the rapier out of her hand, he held her helpless as a baby while he bound her with cords. Then he carried her over to a column and, standing her upright against it, made her fast-she raving and cursing in a manner to make one's blood run cold.
Then, seeing that I was struggling to arise, he ordered La Costa to bind me. The Frenchman answered that both my arms were broken. Gower commanded him to bind my legs, which he did, and dragged me over near the girl. And how the Frenchman made this mistake I know not, unless it were that because of the blow on my head, I seemed unable as yet to use my limbs, so he assumed my left arm broken also, besides my right.
"And so, my fine lady," said John Gower in his deep menacing voice, "we end where we began. Where you got this brawny young savage, I know not, but methinks he is in a sad plight. For the present there is work to do, after which I may ease his hurts."
Dazed as I was, I knew that he meant not by saving but by slaying me, and I heard Helen's quick intake of breath.
"You beast!" she cried. "Would you murder the boy?"
Gower gave a cold laugh and turned to Bellefonte, who was just now rising in a muddled sort of way.
"Bellefonte, is your brain yet too addled for our work?"
"Nay," snarled the giant. "But may I roast in Hades if I ever felt such a bash, I would-"
"Get the tools," ordered Gower, and Bellefonte slouched out, to return presently with picks and a great sledge hammer.
"I will tear this cursed building to pieces or find what I look for," quoth John Gower. "As I told you when you asked the reason for loading the sledge into the longboat, my pretty Helen. Comrel died before he could tell us just where this temple lay, but from the hints he had let drop from time to time, I guessed that it lay on the eastern side of the isle. When we came hither this morn and saw the swamp, I felt our search was done. And truth it was, and our search for you also, as I found when I stole up to the columns and peered between them."
"We waste time," broke in Bellefonte. "Let us be tearing down something."
"All a waste of time," said La Costa moodily. "Gower, I say again that this is a fool's quest, bound to end but evilly. This is a haunt of demons; nay, Satan himself hath spread his dark wings o'er this temple and it's no resort for Christians! As for the gems, a legend hath it that the ancient priests of these people flung them into the sea, and I, for one, believe that legend."
"We shall soon see," was Gower's imperturbable reply. "These walls and pillars have a solid look, but persistence and appliance will crumble any stone. Let us to work."
Now strange to say, I have neglected to make mention of the quality of the light in the building. On the outside there was a clear space, no trees growing within several yards of the walls on either side. Yet so tall were those trees which grew beyond this space, and so close their branches, that the shrine lay ever in everlasting shadow, and the light which drifted through between the columns was dim and strange. The corners of the great room seemed veiled in grey mist and the humans moving about appeared like ghosts-their voices sounding hollow and unreal.
"Look about for secret doors and the like," said Gower, beginning to hammer along the walls, and the other two obeyed. Bellefonte was eager, La Costa otherwise.
"No luck will come of this, Gower," the Frenchman. said as he groped in the dimness of afar corner. "This daring of hethen deities in heathen shrines-nom de Dieu!"
We all started at his wild shriek and he reeled from the corner screaming, a thing like a black cable writhing about his arm. As we looked aghast, he crashed down in the midst of the tiled floor and there tore to fragments with his bare hands the hideous reptile which had struck him.
"Oh Heavens!" he screeched, writhing about and staring up at his mates with wild, crazed eyes. "Oh, grand Dieu, I burn, I die! Oh, saints, grant me ease!"
Even Bellefonte's steel nerves seemed shaken at this terrible sight, but John Gower remained unmoved. He drew a pistol and flung it to the dying man.
"You are doomed," said he brutally. "The venom is coursing through your veins like the fire of Hell, but you may live for hours yet. Best end your torment."
La Costa clutched at the weapon as a drowning man seizes a twig. A moment he hesitated, torn between two terrible fears. Then, as the burning of the venom shook him with fierce stabbings, he set the muzzle against his temple, gibbering and yammering, and jerked the trigger. The stare of his tortured eyes will haunt me till Doomsday, and may his crimes on earth be forgiven him for if ever a man passed through Purgatory in his dying, it was he.
"By God!" said Bellefonte, wiping his brow. "This looks like the hand of Satan!"
"Bah!" Gower spoke impatiently. "'Tis but a swamp snake which crawled in here. The fool was so intent upon his gloomy prophesying that he failed to notice it coiled up in the darkness, and so set his hand in its coils. Let not this thing shake you-let us to work, but first look about and see if any more serpents lurk here." ,
"First bind up Mr. Harmer's wounds, if you please," spoke up Helen, a quaver in her voice to tell how she had been affected. "He is like to bleed to death."
"Let him," answered Gower without feeling. "It will save me the task of easing him off."
My wounds, however, had ceased to bleed, and though my head was still dizzy and my arm was beginning to throb, I was nowhere near a dead man. When the pirates were not looking, I began to work stealthily at my bonds with my left hand. Truth, I was in no condition to fight, but were I free, I might accomplish something. So lying on my side, I slowly drew my feet behind me and fumbled at the cords on my ankles with strangely numb fingers. while Gower and his mate poked about in the corner and hammered on the walls and columns.
"By Zeus, I believe yon altar is the key of this mystery," said Gower, halting his work at last. "Bring the sledge and let us have a look at the thing."
They mounted the stair like two rogues going up the gallows steps, and their appearance in the dim light was as men already dead. A cold hand touched my soul and I seemed to hear the sweep of mighty bat-like wings. An icy terror seized me, I know not why, and drew my eyes to the great stone which hung broodingly above the altar. All the horror of this ancient place of forgotten mysteries descended on me like a mist, and I think Helen felt the same for I heard her breath come quick and hard.
The buccaneers halted on the platform and Gower spoke, his voice booming like a hollow mockery in the great room, re-echoing from wall to ceiling.
"Now, Bellefonte, up with your sledge and shatter me this altar." The giant grunted doubtfully at that. The altar seemed merely a solid square of stone, as plain and unadorned as the rest of the fane, an integral part of the platform as was the column behind it. But Bellefonte lifted the heavy hammer and the echoes crashed as he brought it down on the smooth surface.
Sweat gathered on the giant's brow with the effort, and the great muscles stood out on his naked arms and shoulders as he heaved up the sledge and smote again and yet again. Gower cursed, and Bellefonte swore that it was waste of strength cracking a solid rock, but at Gower's urging, he again raised the hammer. He stood with his legs spread wide, arms above his head and bent backward, hands gripping the handle. Then with all his power he brought it down and the hammer handle splintered with the blow; but, with a shattering crash, the whole of the altar gave way and the fragments flew in all directions.
"Hollow, by Satan!" shouted John Gower, smiting fist on palm. "I suspected as much! Yet who would have thought it, with the lid so cleverly joined to the rest that no crack showed at all? Strike flint and steel here, man, the inside of this strange chest is as dark as Hades."
They bent over it and there was a momentary flash, then they straightened.
"No tinder," snarled Bellefonte, flinging aside his flint and steel. "What saw ye?"
"Naught but one great red gem," said Gower moodily. "But it may be that there is a secret compartment below the bottom where it lies."
He leaned over the altar-chest and thrust his hand therein.
"By Satan," said he, "this cursed gem seems to cling fast to the bottom of the chest as though it were fastened to something--a metal rod from the feel- ha, now it gives and-"
Through his words came a muffled creak as of bolts and levers long unused--a rumble sounded from above, and we all looked up. And then the two buccaneers beside the altar gave a deathly cry and flung up their arms as down from the roof thundered the great central stone. Column, altar and stair crashed into red ruin.
Stunned by the terrible earthquake-like noise, the girl and I lay, eyes fixed with terrible fascination on the great heap of shattered stone in the middle of the temple, from under which oozed a river of dark red.
At last after what seemed a long time, I, moving like a man in a trance, freed myself and unbound the girl. I was very weak and she put out an arm to steady me. We went out of that temple of death, and once in the open, never did free air and light seem so fair to me, though the air was tainted with the swamp reek and the light was strange and shadowy.
Then a wave of weakness flooded body and brain; I fell to the earth and knew no more.