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Title: The Island of Shadows Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402511h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Sept 2014 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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This newly-found short novel is presumably Fred M. White's first venture into the genre of science-fiction.† It pre-dates the "Doom of London" series, which made its first appearance in Pearson's Magazine in 1903, by almost 11 years. The e-book edition offered here was produced from digital images of the serial published in the British boys' magazine Illustrated Chums, copies of which are archived in the Digital Resources Section of the Cambridge University Library.
Readers who are familiar with the works of Fred M. White will notice that the style of The Island of Shadows is somewhat atypical. A possible explanation for this is that White was catering to the medium—a cheap boys'magazine—and its sensation-hungry readership.
However, the mention in Illustrated Chums that the author of the present book was also the author of a work entitled In the Eye of the Law gives rise to speculation that it might have been penned by another writer altogether—a journalist by the name of Fred M. White‡ who was on the staff of the 19th-century London newspaper The Morning Star.
The reason for this speculation is that, to date, no other record could be found of a book by any author named Fred M. White published under the title In the Eye of the Law. Information from readers who can shed light on this issue would be appreciated.
Regardless of the question of authorship, Roy Glashan's Library and Project Gutenberg Australia are proud to offer their readers a "lost" late-Victorian science-fiction novel that has never before appeared in book form.
[† Cf. the article on Fred M. White in the on-line Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.]
[‡ On October 23, 1895, the Pall Mall Gazette published the following obituary: "By a curious coincidence, the death is also announced to-day and at the same age  of Mr. Fred M White, a veteran London journalist, whose name in associated in the minds of his friends with the same troublous times in the history of the Italian people. He knew Mazzini; and his sister Jessie married Count Mario, a devoted follower of Garibaldi. Madame Jesse Mario, who is living in Italy still, has written the lives of both Mazzini and Garibaldi. Mr. White was on the editorial staff of the Morning Star, under Mr. John Morley, and in 1870 he joined the Press Association, of the original staff of which he was the oldest member, being the senior of the present manager, Mr. Edmund Robbins, as he used humorously to boast, by an hour. He only retired from the Association at the end of last on a pension. He was a man of much literary ability, of a singularly modest disposition, and a kindly, generous soul. He was beloved by all his colleagues, to whom he was known as the "Field-Marshal."]
ON a fine March evening some five years ago there sat, in the bay window of an old-fashioned Greenwich hostelry, two men who were pondering deeply over a confused mass of charts and plans that lay before them. The redly-setting sun flashed upon the bosom of the river, with its picturesque mass of shipping and masts like grey needles pointing to the sky, an flooded the low-roofed oak-panelled room, in which the men were seated, with a golden glory. They had the apartment quite to themselves, no other feet disturbed the sanded floor, and no maritime reveller disturbed the hallowed sanctuary of the place.
Concerning the quiet beauty of the scene, the flashing, winding river melting away into the golden horizon, the two men saw or cared nothing. The older of the twain had the air and manner of one born to the sea, his hard, rugged face was bronzed by a thousand gales, his bright blue eyes were keen and fearless, and his white hair seemed almost out of place on a man whose frame was as muscular and powerful as it had been five-and-twenty years before. Tom Armstrong, generally known by the generic title of Captain Armstrong, might have boasted, had he been a boasting man, that there was no quarter of the globe unfamiliar to him. For nearly five years he had given up the sea and lived retired on a small competency he had amassed, devoting his time to scientific pursuits, of which he was passionately fond. Very few people knew the extent of his knowledge in this direction, and few people were aware of the really startling discoveries that lay dormant in that magnificent old sea lion's head.
Armstrong's companion, Harold Coventry by name, was a young man somewhere about six-and-twenty years of age. Like his companion, the sea was his passion, and, whilst being anything but a well-to-do man, he contrived to maintain a small yacht, in which he had penetrated into every sea. His friendship with Armstrong was a long one, and from him he had derived all his knowledge of seamanship, a craft to which he had taken by instinct, for Coventry belonged to a famous old naval family, whose name had been a powerful one from the days of Elizabeth onwards. More than one Coventry had found his way to fortune on the Spanish Main in company with Drake and Frobisher and Martin. But a long course of adventuring and reckless plundering in search of excitement had had its effect and now the last of the Coventrys had nothing remaining to him besides the record of family glory by sea, an income of some three hundred pounds yearly, and a mass of papers, parchment and documents which were a matter of vague curiosity to him and a source of unfailing delight to Armstrong.
They had them out now, in Armstrong's room in "The Mermaid," the strong spring light falling upon faded papers and yellow parchments, and more especially upon the shred of parchment Armstrong held in his hand.
"You nay make as much fun of me as you like," he said; "but I am right."
"So, in this instance. Though I generally find you to be correct," Harold replied. "There is part of the cypher; the legend in our family came home to me intact concerning this fabulous treasure, and that is all I know."
"Let me repeat the story you told me," Armstrong said quietly. "Your ancestor, Amyas Coventry, with three other gentlemen adventurers, sailed from Plymouth in the month of June 1579, and after a successful voyage, reached Vera Cruz. He had his only daughter, Valerie, with him, a child of fourteen years. It was a strange thing to take a girl like that, but he took her. In the log-book of the Albatross, his ship, which is now in your possession, I find the following passage."
Armstrong took up a parchment-covered volume filled with symbols and scientific signs, and turning to a well-thumbed page, read as follows:—
"March 18, 1581.—Dyd this dae take after much peryl and adventure, ye Spanish bark, Don Gonzola, a prize of exceedinge value. Amongst ye treasure we found doubloons to ye value of eighty thousand pounds English, also rix dollars to a great many more times thatte sum, and being in ye Gulf of Mexico about three degrees west of Havana and one north of the Island of Pines did land on the island called Santa Anna, and bury ye treasure, whereof ye exact spotte and ye bearing of ye same are given in ye cypher what follows."
"Very well then," Armstrong went on, "we know that treasure to the extent of something more than a million pounds of our money lies buried there.''
"Yes," Coventry interrupted, "but where is the island? I was there all last summer in the Firefly, and although I went over every inch of ground there is positively no such island extant. There can be no possible mistake on this point, as log-book and observations will clearly demonstrate."
Armstrong searched amongst his papers until he produced what he required. It was an ancient chart of the Gulf of Mexico, and upon it was fully set out the various places therein. Upon one spot he placed a bony forefinger, and as Harold looked down he saw the words "Santa Anna" marked on the yellow parchment.
"It is very strange," he said, "and yet I am certain I am right. If that chart is correct the island must have disappeared."
But Armstrong did not smile; he regarded his young companion gravely.
"It has disappeared," he said, gravely. "By consulting the chart and going carefully into your observations I have satisfied myself that you must have sailed over the very place where Santa Anna was."
"In which case we need not give ourselves any further trouble in this matter."
"In which case," Armstrong repeated, gravely, "the trouble is about to begin. I am going to find that island and raise it to sea level again."
Harold laughed heartily. He knew something of Armstrong's visionary ideas, but the suggestion of raising a submerged island out of three hundred fathoms of water was wild and romantic even for the scientist before him.
"People always laugh at what they don't understand," Armstrong said, quite unmoved by Harold's laughter. "My theory is that the island was a coral one, one of those floating masses which rise to the surface and gradually accumulate matter until they become quite a respectable size. You know what vegetation in the tropics is and how rapidly things grow. Well, Santa Anna grew and spread, the birds brought the seeds there, trees grew, and the soil became fertile. But at the same time the island was a floating one, anchored to its moorings by the long tenacious fibres of weed and other marine plants like millions of ropes, each in itself fragile, but when combined, capable of keeping a continent in place. We know the island was there, we need not argue that, and for the sake of argument we admit that it was composed of coral. Now I come to a vital point. What caused it to disappear, or to speak more plainly, to sink?
"You think the island did sink then?" Harold asked.
"Beyond question, there is no other way to account for it. But why? For months I have been reading old voyages and adventures, both in manuscript and print, but at last my search has been rewarded. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, so I read in an old volume, a violent irruption took place on the island of Caraba, so violent, says the chronicle, that for fifty miles around the sea was one mass of dust and liquid fire, and no one could approach within the radius. When the irruption was over, sailors were surprised to hear that several islands round had entirely disappeared, burnt up, as they thought is their ignorance, but sank, as we know now. How far is Caraba from the spot where the island of Santa Anna ought to be?"
"Not far; certainly not more than thirty miles as the crow flies."
"Which all tends to prove my theory," Armstrong said, calmly. "You see that raft and the men below? If I were to pile it two feet high all over with blocks of stone, what would happen to it, do you think?"
"It would sink, Tom; even I can answer that question."
"Precisely in the same way the volcano at Caraba sunk Santa Anna. Thousands and thousands of tons of stone were thrown upon the thin coral shell, till gradually the weight, which was naturally equally distributed, pressed it down, and it settled to the bottom. Santa Anna buried in three hundred fathoms of water."
"It seems plausible enough," Harold replied; "but it is gone. There is an end of it."
"So some people would think; but I believe nothing to be impossible. So convinced do I feel of the fact that there is treasure there that I am going to put all my money into a venture to try and recover it. All we have to do is to get out to Caraba and go from thence to the island of Mea Culpa, which is within two miles of where Santa Anna used to be, and then raise the island."
Harold glanced at his companion in astonishment, but there was no glare of madness in Armstrong's glittering blue eyes as he puffed steadily at his pipe.
Much respect as he had for Armstrong's wonderful scientific knowledge, Harold could not do otherwise than regard the present suggestion as the wild scheme of a visionary. But the wonderful things done by Armstrong had been so many and so strange that it was never safe to contradict him on any matter of theory.
"Even if you can do it," Harold said, "it might take years to find the treasure."
"It might, because you see you have only half the cypher. And now I verily believe I have discovered where the other half is. Latterly I have been spending a deal of time at the British Museum and, naturally, I have been reading all the books relating to the Gulf of Mexico, especially those bearing upon volcanic eruption. Several times lately I have noticed a Spaniard, whose name I find in Barrados, has been interested in much the same volumes. Seeing that we were both engaged in similar pursuits, I spoke to him, and though he was taciturn at first, he warmed up wonderfully when I asked him if, in the course of his reading, he had come across any mention of an island of Santa Anna. It was the very object of his own research.
"You do not mean that?" Harold said with deepest interest. "Did he say more?"
"He will be here presently to speak for himself," Armstrong replied. "The man has in his possession the missing half of the cypher."
An exclamation of astonishment broke from Harold. He would have asked for further information had not the door opened at that moment and a stranger entered.
He was a dark, powerful-looking individual, with handsome, but somewhat sinister features, and he glanced very suspiciously at Harold as Armstrong performed the necessary ceremony of introduction.
"Mr. Miguel Barrados, Mr. Harold Coventry," he said. "It appears that Mr. Barrados can claim a relationship to you, although it is very slight, because Valerie Coventry, Amyas Coventry's daughter, married an ancestor of his."
"Perhaps I had better explain," Barrados took up the thread.
"I know all about you, sir, from Captain Armstrong, but you know nothing of me. After the treasure was hidden at Santa Anna. Amyas Coventry fell into the hands of my father, who commanded a ship in the Spanish Navy. As a freebooter he was condemned to death, but contrived to escape, and what became of him afterwards I am unable to say.
"But we took his ship back to Spain, and in the course of time Valerie Coventry, who remained with them, married the son of the man who had captured her father's vessel.
"There is a tradition in our family that she used to relate a story of how Amyas Coventry concealed a vast treasure at Santa Anna.
"No one was really interested in this until I discovered that at one time such an island as Santa Anna really existed.
"The story was further borne out by the fact that my ancestress, Valerie Barrados, handed down to her descendants part of a cypher written on parchment, the other half being retained by her father, she said, he having taken the precaution to divide it in case he should happen to fall into the hands of enemies.
"The coincidence, and my meeting with Captain Armstrong, is a very singular one, but as a proof that I am only speaking the truth, I will produce my half of the cypher."
Without further preamble, Barrados drew from his pocket a little leather case, and took therefrom a dingy scrap of parchment. With some natural excitement, Armstrong unlocked an iron safe and took out another piece. of vellum-like substance, and, approaching the window so that he might have the full benefit of the light, put the ragged edges together.
"It is the missing portion," he said, exultingly; "see for yourselves."
The three men eagerly scanned the cypher.
It was written in an uncertain hand with many strange signs, was all tattered and stained, and altogether looked anything but a valuable document, yet it contained, no doubt, the secret of the hidden treasure, if they could but decipher it.
Harold and Barrados looked down at the letter, and this is what they saw:—
"Not much to be made out of that," Harold laughed, after all three had examined the cypher intently. "There are the usual skulls, but nothing beyond.
"Doubtless, if we could be at the island, the cypher would be plain enough," Armstrong replied, "and I for one think it can be done."
"You may count on my assistance in that ease," Barrados remarked quietly. "I know you are a man of marked ingenuity, Captain Armstrong, and if you can show me how that is to be done, I do not mind risking £1,000 in the venture; that is, of course, if Mr. Coventry, who is equally interested, will do the same."
They both of them turned to Harold Armstrong, with his blue eyes flashing, and Barrados, with something like a challenge in his face. It was a lot of money to risk upon a visionary venture, but the spirit of the gambler was upon him.
"I will do it," he said. "Armstrong, when will you be ready to start?"
Armstrong rose from his seat and paced the room in strong excitement. In his mind's eye he saw already the accomplishment of his desire.
"Let us go at once," he said. "All we want is Coventry's yacht, manned by an extra fellow or two, who will make himself generally useful, and the less fuss we make the better. My scientific apparatus is a matter requiring but little time to prepare. I can be ready to sail in a week."
IT is a long jump from the bay-windowed room at Greenwich, overlooking the Thames, to an island in the Gulf of Mexico, but one that the reader's imagination will easily compass. The hour was not long before sunset began to tinge the blue waters stretching away to the horizon, and in a quiet little bay a peculiar scene was being enacted. To the dark-skinned inhabitant of the fertile palm-clad island of Mea Culpa, the little band of Englishmen were merely enthusiasts who had come out on an expedition to discover something of no possible interest, and their operations elicited only languid curiosity.
The yacht lay up in a little natural cove; most of the sailors had made their way to Havana, on the understanding that they would not he required for at least a month, so that there only remained the three original promoters and a certain Irish sailor, Larry O'Brady by name, a shrewd dare-devil individual whose admiration for Armstrong amounted to a passion. He could speak Spanish fluently and for this reason they had decided to retain him.
Some huts had been erected on the shore by permission of Don Zalva de Torredos, to whom Mea Culpa belonged, and whose hacienda was the only building of any importance. The adventurers found him a courtly, educated gentleman who took a great interest in the operations, as also did his daughter, Haidee, a dark, olive-complexioned, middling-aged beauty, who as time went on, contrived to distract Harold's attention from the work in hand. It was very pleasant to lounge up at the hacienda in the evenings, when the air was heavy with the scent of myrtles and the fireflies flashed in the purple darkness, chatting with the silver-voiced Haidee and looking into her beautiful eyes. But Armstrong didn't like it: he saw trouble looming in the distance. The same charm attracted Barrados, who looked on gloomily at what appeared to be the Englishman's success. Larry, too, had found a congenial companion in Haidee's maid, Isidore and many were the growls which he caused from the picturesome cigarette-smoking natives, who resented what they regarded as an infringement of their rights.
But no such thoughts troubled Armstrong on that perfect, still evening, as he stood on the shore looking out to sea. Behind him stood the tents and the wooden workroom, and before him a section of pontoon bridge formed of a series of light rafts running some two miles into the sea, at the end of which was a platform upon which Coventry and Barrados were standing.
Armstrong picked his way carefully along the pontoon, followed by O'Brady, who appeared to regard the whole thing as a huge joke got up for his own edification. In the course of time they reached the platform that lay still and solid in the glassy sea with three hundred fathoms of water below.
"Do you think we are out far enough?" Coventry asked. "According to the calculations, the raft we are on now ought to be exactly over Santa Anna, which was merely a hanger-on of the Mea Culpa—"
Which was originally coral, and became stranded on a shoal which, although so close by Santa Anna, was sunk in deep water. We are over the island right enough. O'Brady, have you laid the composite line as I told you?
By way of reply, O'Brady raised from the raft a long, thin tube, about the sixty-fourth part of an inch in diameter which apparently was connected with the shore. Attached to the end was a tiny nozzle which, as Armstrong touched a tap, emitted a stream of some dark fluid which penetrated the water and left, to the astonishment of the onlookers, a funnel-shaped opening therein. In other words, for the space of some few minutes, a continual hole was left in the water as if it had been a solid substance.
"Well, by the powers, but that's a funny thing now," O'Brady commented. "I've often heard tell of making a hole in the water, but never seen it done before. Sure, Captain, you'll make the Channel Tunnel with a pop-gun, after all."
"There are many things more unlikely," Armstrong returned, calmly. "By this means I propose to stand on this raft and examine different parts of the island."
"But you don't mean to say that, with a little tube and a jet of liquid, you can create a circular vacuum in three hundred fathoms of water?" Harold asked.
"Indeed, I do, although it is only a matter of minutes. I have been labouring on this invention for years. By means of the dynamo which is working in my workshop at the moment I create a mixture of ether and a substance I call onthal, for want of a better name. The effect of this extraordinary mixture is to repel water by the generation of certain gases made by the contact, and which lasts for some time."
"Could you create a vacuum large enough and permanent enough to enable us to descend to the bottom, provided we had the necessary appliances?" said Barrados.
"Well, frankly, no. If I had the force of Niagara to drive my dynamo, I could create a vacuum in the Atlantic a thousand miles square, but with the few appliances at my command, I can only guarantee a circular shaft, as if a chimney led up from the ocean's bed, about two feet in diameter."
With these words Armstrong pointed his tiny jet downwards, and in an incredibly short space of time the interested spectators were looking into a deep well eighteen hundred feet sheer, large enough to contain the body of a man, the sides appearing to be carved out of solid ice. Harold took a small coin from his pocket and pitched it into the funnel. It seemed to be minutes before an answering echo came as it struck some hard substance below.
"Exactly what I thought," Armstrong cried; "try another coin, will you?"
Harold did as directed, and again there came the same sharp ring.
"Precisely," Armstrong went on. "The bed formation of this gulf is sand and mud; below us there is apparently a rich formation, which confirms my theory that Santa Anna was sunk by the stone and lava thrown up by the volcano on the island of Caraba. Allowing something for speculation, those coins probably fell upon the lava with which Santa Anna is covered."
The speaker turned off the dark stream of fluid, and presently there came a hoarse, sullen rumbling from the bottom of the funnel. It seemed to close rapidly, as if filled by a tremendous subterranean spring, and as it closed there arose in the air a jet of water to the height of some hundreds of feet, the raft rocked like a boat on a troubled sea, a shower of stones—some of them of massive dimensions—fell upon the pontoon.
"Just as I expected," Armstrong remarked coolly as he examined one of the fragments, "these stones are decidedly volcanic."
Coventry and Barrados made no reply, they could not very well venture to express anything like a sound opinion in the presence of that master mind.
"I hope it's all right," O'Brady said, uneasily. "But sure, and I don't like these devils tricks, and this playin' with the laws of Nature. Bedad, when I go to sea again I'd like to have a bottle of that liquor."
"I don't see that we are any nearer to our object," Barrados remarked. "Couldn't you contrive to clear a space sufficient to descend without danger?"
"No occasion to do that," Armstrong said dryly. "for the simple reason that I am going to descend without doing anything of the sort."
"Impossible! No human being could live in three hundred fathoms of water. The pressure would crush a skull composed of the finest steel."
"Given an equal pressure on all sides, how do you propose to crush a solid?" Armstrong asked. "You can break a nut between your teeth. But put on a million times the same steady pressure, like the force of water, for instance, and the nut defies you. Upon this theory I propose to act. I am not going to have any submarine tubes. I am merely going to make myself solid."
An incredulous smile broke out on the faces of Barrados and Coventry.
"I am going to make myself solid." Armstrong repeated. "You cannot gainsay the authenticity of the fakirs who sleep in a tomb for months at a time in a state of suspended animation. This suspended animation is easy enough; to get the same result and still be in possession of all the faculties is quite a different thing. This to what I propose to do."
"It's witchcraft." O'Brady remarked, "nothin' less. I shouldn't be surprised to find myself turned into a wizard at any moment. And that's a nice thing for a respectable man born of a decent family."
"I think I follow you," Harold said, with deep interest. "So long as animation— that is, so far as concerns the organs of the body— is suspended, you could live and move under water for any reasonable length of time. Can you suspend the heart and lungs and yet retain the use of the limbs and the brain?"
"Certainly. Suppose I could live with my mouth and ears and nostrils closed--that is, suspend the mere physical act of breathing— I could remain under water for days or even longer, and thus discover—."
"Yes, but what about the pressure we spoke of?" Barrados interrupted.
"Did not I tell you that I propose to make myself solid?" Armstrong asked, with the greatest calmness. "So far as a knowledge of the matter required to sustain life is concerned we are the greatest fools imaginable; we supply the furnace of life and let it run down before replenishing again. But no matter as to that. What I propose to do is to fill the body by injection with a peculiar fluid, which, when brought in contact with the gases of the body, becomes a gelatine. I shall simply be a living man stuffed with gelatine, upon which the organs of the body will thrive and remain practically neutral at the same time. But as chemical action is constantly taking place, and as this gelatine goes off in natural vapour, so it must be renewed, and this is done by a hollow India-rubber tube, which goes directly into the lungs, by means of which a constant supply is drawn from the surface into the body—in fact it is filtered into the system from a retort above. I need not tell yon that the greatest care must be exercised in this particular, as any neglect of the directions must naturally mean a lingering and terrible death."
"We will admit the possibility of all this," Harold observed. "But in the first place, how are you going to get down there, and having once got down, how do you propose to return? Remember there is eighteen hundred feet of water below us."
"It puzzles me at present, I admit," Armstrong replied, "but I shall do it."
There was no mistaking the determined ring is his voice. O'Brady looked at his revered chief with undisguised admiration.
"Of course he will," he exclaimed, "if he made up his mind to go to the centre of the earth, nothing but the heat as they say is there could stop him. And then he'd have something in his waistcoat pocket to put the fire out."
"We don't know what we can do till we try," Armstrong laughed at this tribute to his wonderful powers. "For the present I can see no tangible way of getting down or back again, unless it is by means of an electric screw machine, such as I partly worked out before I left England. I have the plates on the yacht and intend trying it tomorrow. If it will work downwards, we can come back easily enough, as all we have to do is to get inside the machine, exhaust the air, and rise to the surface."
"But what about the hollow tubes which feed, you with gelatine?" Barrados asked.
"We could cut those before we started, as the rise to the surface could only occupy a few minutes during which time no physical inconvenience would take place."
"And once down there what do you propose to do?" said Harold.
"Clear the island of the masses of stones that encumber it. Oh, you may laugh at me for a visionary, but I have an explosive here compared to which dynamite is a mere seidlitz powder. It is no larger than a rifle cartridge; yet were this to go off in my hands at this moment we should be not only annihilated, but the island of Mea Culpa would never be seen again. But of course the effect under water would be minimised, and the strength just sufficient to achieve our purpose. I will show you presently."
"Put it down now, Captain, dear," Harold remarked, looking at the cartridge Armstrong reproduced in comical dismay.
"It's a terrible thing that when anything happens to a Christian there shouldn't be enough left of him for a decent funeral, let alone a bit left of him to give excuse to the waking of him.
"Be quiet," Armstrong replied, "and give me that box you brought along."
Larry opened the little black box he had been carrying, and produced therefrom three brass tubes like binoculars, but far longer. There were glasses at either end and all were filled with some liquor of a thick inky hue.
"Lean over the raft and place one end to your eyes, the other being in the water, and tell me what you see," Armstrong commanded.
Harold and Barrados did as they were instructed and as they fixed the focus of the glasses a loud cry burst simultaneously from their lips. It was as if the water below had been dissolved and weed was swimming in the air, and as if they were looking down from a high precipice upon what had recently been a deep sea. The marine telescope had the power of penetrating the water.
"It is wonderful," Harold exclaimed, "the ocean has disappeared and I can distinguish what at one time must have been Santa Anna, a rock-covered mass in the centre of an expanse of bright mud and shifting sand."
"It is Santa Anna, beyond a doubt," Armstrong remarked, nothing moved.
"And do you think it could remove those gigantic boulders," Barrados asked.
"Certainly. You asked me just now how I proposed to remove those boulders. On the other side of what, for a better name, we will call an island, you will notice a rock that must be at least five hundred tons in weight. I take one of my cartridges of dolomite, and, attaching a mechanical screw to the end, direct its course at that rock thus."
With keen intentness the onlookers saw the little messenger making its way through the water—water which appeared like rarefied air through the telescope--till at length it struck the side of the rock. There arose a load of mud and rock. There was a tremendous booming noise whilst the raft rose and fell tremendously and when, finally, the vapour cleared away, the great rock, in size almost equal to a small house had totally disappeared.
"Wonderful!" Barrados exclaimed. "Really stupendous!"
A cry broke from Harold who was still gazing through his telescope. He pointed forward and bade them to look at the spot where the explosion had taken place and where the blast was already settling down.
"Don't you see that the native rock of the island has been laid bare?" he exclaimed in his excitement. "Upon it I can distinctly see three * * * just as they appear on Amyas Coventry's cypher."
ONCE well on the track of discovery, Armstrong was not the man to allow the grass to grow under his feet. A strong gale had ruffled the sea, rendering it impossible to do anything; and this time had been devoted by Armstrong to scientific research.
"I should very much like to try the effect of the scienatic acid," he said, as he emerged from his tent a few moments later. "This acid, you must know, is the gelatine to which I referred, and which I literally propose to fill myself with by the ordinary process of injection. It raises a kind of filmy vapour that fills up every portion of the body, after which the gastric juices turn it to a semi-opaque fluid of no particular flavour."
"But are you certain it will act?" Harold asked a little anxiously.
"So far as the human frame is concerned that is merely a matter of conjecture," Armstrong said, coolly. I injected some of the scienatic acid into a dog, and tying a heavy weight to the body, allowed it to remain under water for over two hours. When I raised it to the surface the animal became quite himself again directly the atmosphere acted and diffused the acid. What I propose to do is this: take one of the rafts, and, wearing an ordinary pair of divers boots, descend in about twenty fathoms of water. You can easily watch my movements with the glasses, and if anything goes wrong, haul me to the surface.
The experiment was certainly hazardous but, as Armstrong had decided to try the experiment, Harold knew that nothing could be gained by attempting to turn him from his purpose.
The sun was high in the heavens when they set out with the raft to a little bay where they knew the water did not exceed more than thirty fathoms anywhere. On the raft Armstrong had placed a stand containing a retort, which, when heated by a little spirit lamp below, gave off a certain gas which when again cooled by water, produced a semi-opaque fluid like starch. This, again, dropped into a metal cup, attached to a fine India-rubber tube of the required length, which Armstrong coolly pushed down his throat and into his stomach.
"You will see what to do," he said. "The action of that metal cup is automatic, and allows a certain portion only of the scienatic acid to percolate into the the tube at a time. The little ball you see below here acts like a throttle valve, or, perhaps I should say, more like a syphon, and as the cup fills so one drop at it time falls into the tube, which the weight of the increasing acid opens for that purpose. It is bound to fly straight down to me, as the air being exhausted it the tube, my lungs act as a force-pump of practically boundless power. Be careful to keep up exactly the same quantity of heat under the retort: and now, when my face becomes colourless and rigid, drop me feet first into the water, and at least two of you lower me to the bottom by a cord tied round my waist."
As Armstrong spoke, a change gradually began to come over him. His arms and legs appeared to retain their natural functions, but his body became stiff and rigid, and his chest and stomach distended till he bore a ridiculous likeness to a pouter pigeon. His head, too, swelled to an enormous size, till he was nothing else but the absurd caricature of a man. He was perfectly conscious of all that was taking place around him, but speech was impossible, as mouth, eyes, and nostrils appeared to fill and glaze over as if he had been absolutely varnished.
"Well, it's a queer use to put a man to," O'Brady remarked, as he regarded his employer with absolute petrifaction. "And to think that he's alive, too."
But the others were too astonished to listen to Larry's comments. With a peculiar stiff, rigid motion, Armstrong moved towards the side of the raft, where he stood until Barrados and O'Brady fixed a rope under his arms and gradually dropped him into the water, whilst Harold took the marine telescope with a view to watch the result and signal to the others in case anything happened. But apparently Armstrong's calculations were surely based. He reached the bottom safely enough, and by the aid of the wonderful glasses Harold was enabled to clearly see every motion of the man below.
Without breathing, and without being conscious of either heart or lungs, Armstrong alighted on his feet and proceeded to walk along the ocean's bed, his large iron-shod boots keeping him from rising. For nearly an hour he remained there without experiencing any inconvenience beyond a tremendous rushing sound in his ears and a peculiar tingling sensation in his extremities. He was perfectly conscious in a vague, dreamy way, as of a man who had partaken of too much alcohol, and yet not enough to steal away his faculties. He felt now that the desired consummation had been achieved, and that he had discovered something hitherto unknown—a means by which divers could reach ground in the deepest parts of the Atlantic ocean.
Barrados and Harold watched the experiment with the most breathless interest. They saw their fellow adventurer creeping about the ocean's bed as freely and conveniently as if he had been on dry land; they saw him examine different varieties of marine plants and shells with ease and freedom, He seemed to have quite forgotten those waiting for him above, till presently he gave a tug at the rope and was hauled on board the raft again.
Directly Harold removed the India-rubber tube from the diver's throat there was a marvellous transformation. The figure assumed its normal proportions, the face lost its glazed look, and Armstrong was himself again.
"It's a good thing your mother couldn't see you just now, for, by the powers, she wouldn't have known you," O'Brady exclaimed. "And what were they after saying to you down below there, Captain?"
"Nothing that could interest you," Armstrong laughed. "Still, my friends, I think I have proved to you that I have solved the problem as to how a man can live as well in water as on land. But there is a great difficulty still."
"What is that?" Coventry and Barrados asked in a breath.
"Why, how to reach bottom in three hundred fathoms of water, It is absurd to think of going down eighteen hundred feet and returning with a vehicle so primitive as a long rope. My plan is to try a kind of torpedo propelled by a screw worked by electricity, returning to the surface in the same iron shell by exhausting the air down below and floating to the surface. I propose to send this submarine boat up and down a stout wire strand running from the bottom to a place on the raft so as to procure the necessaries we require when below. I shall also establish, between the two points, a telegraphic apparatus."
"But why a telegraphic apparatus?" Harold asked.
"Because one can't speak under water, stupid," Armstrong replied with some little asperity, "and this is why I made you both learn the signs. By this means we shall be able to communicate directly with the surface, then one of you will remain whilst the other two are down below clearing the island of rocks, preparatory to floating it. There is no reason why we should not work for several hours at a stretch, as the work is light enough. And now just to give you confidence, I want you two to try what I have just been through. There is not the smallest possible danger."
For a few minutes Harold and Barrados regarded each other dubiously. But sooner or later the thing had to be done, and within half an hour both of them had spent at least ten minutes each enjoying the novel sensation of walking along the bed of the ocean, with at least thirty feet of water above them.
"Well, that's over, at any rate," Armstrong remarked, as they draw up the anchor of the raft and made their way back to the mainland. "I think after all that Larry ought to have had a lesson in case of accident."
"I never was of a curious disposition," Larry said, with a grin, "and the earth I was born upon is quite good enough for the likes of common people like me."
But Armstrong was already deeply immersed in his calculations. He began to see his way clearly now to a feasible method of descending to the island, and not only that, but of working there for several hours a day without the least discomfort. All he had to do now was to test the submarine boat, and if this could be successfully accomplished by means of a powerful electric screw, the rest of the descent would be easy.
Although the afternoon was by no means spent when they returned to the tents and indulged in a hearty lunch, they found that Don Zalva and Haidee had ridden down to see how operations were progressing. The former, a tall, handsome man of courtly bearing, listened with marked interest to Armstrong's narrative, whilst Harold and Barrados approached the olive-cheeked beauty with the dark eyes and melting lips, who reclined under the shelter of a friendly palm out of the rays of the brilliant sunshine.
"We came to see you," she said, in the soft, seductive Spanish language, that sounded so charmingly from her ruby lips, Harold thought. "My father is deeply interested, and I confess to a little curiosity."
"Not interest, then!" Harold laughed; "nothing on our account."
A little, somewhat forcible, compliment escaped the lips of Barrados, at which Haidee flashed him a look of anger, and turned disdainfully away from him.
She hates the cool, sulky, Spaniard, and though Barrados has discovered this, it only increased his admiration for Haidee the more.
"I mistrust that man," she said, as Barrados slunk away with a smile on his lips and a feeling of malignant rage in his heart; "and, if I mistake not, he hates you, Signor Harold. Have a care of him."
"Barrados is all right," Harold laughed; "it is only his peculiar way."
Haidee bent her dark eyes on Harold's face with a glance of peculiar significance.
"Never trust a Spaniard," she said, slowly. "I tell you that man hates you, and when the proper time comes I will prove my words."
The speaker rose from her seat, and declining Harold's assistance, walked across to the shed where Armstrong was describing his submarine boat to Don Zalva. He had not been idle during the last few days, and Harold looked on just as curiously, for he saw that nearly the whole floor was occupied by a huge conical machine, in shape something like a sharp-pointed egg. The affair was constructed of light boiler-plate material, being fitted with a rudder and screw, which appeared to be reversible. The entrance merely consisted of a small manhole which, being closed, rendered it quite watertight, especially as there was an inner chamber, which no water could possibly penetrate, as the doors could never by any chance be left open at the same time.
"You see, I have everything we require here," Armstrong explained. "We shall sink the construction for the first time by its own weight, as it is so constructed with a due regard for gravity, as to be only slightly heavier than water when the outer chamber is allowed to fill. I can guide it to on point we want, before we reach bottom, by the screw and rudder. Once bottom is touched, it is, of course, useless till we come to the surface again. When we want to rise, we get inside the first chamber, close the door, and by means of a vacuum pump, eject the water, although there is no occasion to do this when once the steel cable has been firmly laid. You follow me?"
"To a certain extent," Don Zalva replied. "You propose to attach this machine to the steel strand, and haul it up and down at will."
"Precisely, that is the way I shall always get my boat, as I call this thing, for want of a better name, to the same place. It will merely be used for our transmission up and down— once below we shall depend upon the scienatic acid tubes alone. We calculate to be able, by their means, to remain below for upwards of five hours at a time, and thus, by means of my dolamyte cartridges— which I shall take down in large quantities, as they are perfectly impervious to the water— we shall be able to displace the rocks, by which the island is held down, in ten days. By scientific calculations, I find that the amount of lava-rock— resting upon what was once known at Santa Anna, must be about three millions of tons."
"Yes, but if your explosive is as powerful as you represent it to be, you may only succeed in destroying the island entirely," Don Zalva observed.
"I have found a means to guard against that," Armstrong replied calmly. "The great peculiarity about the dolamyte is that it strikes horizontally only, and I can so regulate its strength that the explosion can strike up or down five, ten, or twenty feet at will, according to the strength. Now, coral formation is workable at a pressure of 12.005 to the square inch, therefore the amount of rock at present lying on the island I find, basing everything on that calculation, to be about nine to ten feet. If I succeed in blasting away four or, say, five feet, of this—and my explosive absolutely destroys all it touches—the island will float."
"With so powerful an explosive, wouldn't it be rather dangerous for us down there?" Harold asked dubiously. "I mean, if we happened—"
"Nothing of the kind," Armstrong interrupted. "You remember how every cartridge is fitted with a propelling screw, and that we could be a mile away, if necessary, which it is nothing of that sort, as the resisting power of water is enormous. A discharge of this on land would be awful, in the water you could be within twenty yards and not know that anything had taken place. And now, help me to get the machine up to the pontoon; I want to try its effect."
Monstrous as the thing looked, it was light enough, and presently it stood on the raft at the end of the pontoon, just over the submerged island. As if inspired by a sudden thought, Armstrong took two of the scienatic acid tubes, of which he had an enormous coil, and, fixing them to the retort and metal cups, pulled the end out of each coil—each one hundreds of feet in length—and bade Harold place it on his mouth.
"Let us tug now for an hour," he said; "Barrados can look after the retorts."
Haidee's lovely face turned a little pale, but she said nothing as Armstrong and Harold, after distending themselves, entered the boat, first attaching the ends of their scienatic tubes to the top of the queer-looking monster, so that they might resume them on reaching the bottom of the ocean. Armstrong thrust Harold inside, and making a sign for the craft to be pushed into the water, entered himself and closed the manhole. A moment later the boat sank, and the watchers with the telescopes could see it gradually falling, till at length it reached the bottom. They saw the voyagers emerge and resume the end of their scienatic tubes and move steadily forward.
"It is wonderful," Haidee exclaimed, heedless of the scowl on the face of Barrados. "I hope they are quite safe—but look," she ended in a scream, "look at the sharks; there must be at least five hundred of the monsters. Oh! they are lost, indeed."
IN the dense darkness of the tube, illuminated only by a glazed porthole by means of which Armstrong directed operations, the adventurers fell rapidly. The screw, worked by electrical apparatus, groaned and creaked in the water, leaving long streak of starry, silvery bubbles behind. It seemed to grow still blacker and darker till Armstrong was unable to direct the movements of the aquatic vehicle. They appeared to be passing through a sea of ink, an opaque gloom of which the watchers alone were ignorant. With his fingers, Armstrong made signs to Harold. Indeed, the deaf and dumb code alone was possible, since speech was practically out of the question.
Suddenly the gloom passed away as if they had shot out of a tunnel into broad sunshine, or as if water lay in dense or porous strata. A light, soft but brilliant, poured through the porthole like a shaded electric light. Everything was clear and luminous at that great depth, and when finally the boat reached bottom, and the occupants stepped out upon the lava rock with which the island appeared to be covered, and resumed their scienatic tubes, it seemed to their eyes that they were situated in a locality where there was not only no water, but the air was in a marvellously rarefied condition. From the island, which stood considerably higher than the surrounding plain of sand, mud and dense marine foliage, they appeared to be able to see for miles around, and for some few moments they stood contemplating the scene with rapt interest.
There was no exaggerating its rareness, since they were placed as no mortal had ever been situated before. Around them were wonders calculated to excite the mind and stimulate the curiosity for all time. In the water, which did not look or feel like water at all, but like liquid sunshine, or, rather, a bath of air, fishes were apparently swimming, not in water, but floating, in defiance of all laws or gravity, in water. Uncouth monsters sailed by them, gigantic soles, larger than an ordinary dining-table, and things like shrimps that seemed to stand up to Harold's shoulder. Under feet were oysters of a size never dreamt of by mortal man, huge bivalves, some closed and some open and all of them containing immense pearls, as the adventurers could see as the light flashed upon them. But it would be a bold hand that would venture to stray within one of these mail-like shells. Harold, with some difficulty, rolled into one a huge rocky fragment, and immediately the bivalve closed with a force and impetus that crushed the mass of stone, as a Nasmyth hammer pulverises a hazel nut.
In front of the voyagers lay a long, level, sandy plain, apparently stretching away to what, on terra-firma, would be called the horizon, and here fish of every kind and description that ever were worked out of the grotesque brains of a pantomimist, sported and gambolled. There were eels of extraordinary length, a beautiful silvery fish marked with dark bars and red spots, like a salmon, another extraordinary-looking creature, apparently all head and mouth. Everything appeared to be on a gigantic sale; nothing was small or undersized.
From where the voyagers stood they could distinctly see the formation of the island, which may be briefly described as in the shape of a lobster's claw, with what at one time, when the island floated, must have been a land-locked bay.
"This must be the 'point' to which a allusion was made in the cypher," Armstrong signalled to his companion. "The formation is clear enough; but before we venture any further I must protect you as I have done myself. Take a good number of these dolomite cartridges. We are certain to encounter presently a marine monster or two who will not be so friendly as those below."
Harold took the explosives and placed them in a canvas bag he had slung over his shoulders before starting. There was something at the moment that attracted him more than the survey of the island or the prospect of stumbling on to some clue to the hidden treasure. To the left lay a gigantic mass of foliage far higher than the tallest trees known to man, and what appeared to be nothing less than a massive forest. The trees, if they may be so termed, were close together, but neither so close nor the undergrowth so thick that a passage into the forest was impossible.
"I should like to see a little more of that," Harold signalled. "We are not down here on any particular business, and my curiosity is aroused."
"I do not see any objection," Armstrong replied. "Let us try it. Our tubes are sufficiently long to permit us to go any distance in reason."
They moved forward as quickly as the resistance of the water would permit. As they reached the level plain below, Armstrong stopped and pointed to a huge school of fish, which apparently came out of space, and which were unmistakably advancing towards them. As they came closer, Harold's heart sank as he recognised them for sharks of the most terrible description.
They were indeed formidable-looking monsters, twelve or fourteen of them in all, and not one amongst the number being less than forty feet in length or less than twelve in diameter. Their powerful jaws opened to disclose row upon row of horrible looking hooked teeth, and as they approached the rest of the finny tribe scuttled away in terror.
"Keep cool for your life," Armstrong said as he hurriedly took out two of the dolomite cartridges, "we have evidently attracted the attention of these cruel monsters, who do not quite know what to make of us yet. Wait till one of them makes a rush and then discharge the cartridge at him point-blank."
Apparently the sharks, as if endowed with sense like human beings, hesitated and gathered together to formulate some scheme of attack upon their strange and novel foes. One or two of the bolder ones sailed near them and flashed their dull grey sides as if in the act of turning before making a grab with their powerful jaws. Then one, bolder than the rest, dashed from the group, poised on quivering fins and, like an arrow shot from the bow, made straight for the cool and intrepid Armstrong.
Not until he had reached within fifteen yards of the victim did Armstrong release, with a spin from his fingers, the pretty mechanical little toy, which Harold saw screwing its way through the water with a rapid dating motion as if a minnow had advanced to meet a whale. There was an anxious pause for a second, then as the tiny dart and the leviathan met, the latter seemed like a flash, to stand still, tremble, and utterly disappear. There was a little tinge of brown in the water as if a puff of submarine smoke had been wafted from somewhere, and all was over. A second shark, advancing towards Harold, met the same fate. Then, emboldened by their success, the voyagers moved forward and discharged a dozen cartridges in quick succession into the school of sharks, now standing suspiciously off, with such success that only three of the original number remained. These, warned by some peculiar instinct of the deadly superiority of their foes, pointed away towards the north, and in a few moments had disappeared from sight so quickly that it might have been all a dream.
"I think we are well out of that," said Harold. "We should have been in a nice position had you not hit upon the happy idea of those cartridges."
"I should not have dreamt of coming without some such protection," Armstrong replied, as they moved along towards the marine forest. "We know no more about the inhabitants of the deep seas than we know concerning the virgin depths of some of the African and Brazilian forests. Who would venture into the heart of an unknown country unarmed, and what right have we to assume that the seas contain no fish more dangerous than sharks because we have not chanced to meet them? I tell you the Brazilian virgin forest contains animal forms that man has never seen. I have listened on the skirts of the roads there to sounds from the throats of creatures to which we cannot give a name, and so it is with the deep seas, and we have to-day looked upon creatures such as you never dreamt of. And if I mistake not, in yonder forest we shall see forms more curious still."
They passed under the curious heavy foliage at length, then paused for a moment to contemplate its wondrous beauty. The trees were large and stately, floating and twisting as if stirred by some unfelt breeze, and though the trunks of these marvellous plants were of immense diameter, they did not stand erect like earthly plants; but it was apparent that the water sustained them. Indeed, the stems were soft and porous, and opaque like dark wine-coloured jelly. They had flowers of all kinds of brilliant hues, large striped parti-coloured blossoms, growing in large bunches out of masses of leaves, perfectly transparent and varied in hue, so as to utterly baffle description.
The forest illusion was rendered still more perfect by a huge number of peculiar looking creatures that crept like squirrels amongst the branches, a creature with a head covered with fur like a rat and also with long talon-shaped claws, whilst the tail tapered off like that of a fish.
"How wonderfully strange and beautiful!" Harold exclaimed, as he looked around him. "In my wildest dreams I never imagined this. But why do these very peculiar little creatures so suddenly seem to fall and disappear as if they had been abruptly deprived of life?"
"Look there!" Armstrong cried, "Down for your life."
As he spoke there arose, apparently from nowhere, a long tendril like a thin lasso, which, darting up some fifty or sixty feet, twisted round the neck of one of the first animals and brought it to the sand, dead and motionless. Then the lasso seemed to draw it along till lasso and victim disappeared behind a gigantic rock, a little further away.
"Not a nice thing to have wound lovingly round one's neck," Harold said with a little shudder. "Nevertheless I must see what it means."
"Best he careful," Armstrong advised, "goodness only knows what extraordinary creature is behind that rock. We had better make a wide detour."
They shifted round cautiously until they rounded the rock, fully two hundred yards on the further side. Underneath a hollow shelf-like ledge they could see something moving with long feelers, one of which doubtless had been used for the purpose of catching the creature's prey. As the spectators hesitated to go forward, they heard a peculiar snapping sound, and the lurking monster, like a colossal spider, ran out of his hole a little way and stood in their full view on the sand. He seemed to be angry and alarmed, and to cautiously regard one of the fish-creatures that lay a few yards away from his serpentine feelers.
The thing was nothing but a lobster. But what a lobster, with a body fully twenty feet in diameter, and three times the length, and with big claws, capable of closing round and crushing an ordinary horse! It had a great mouth fitted with teeth like those of a saw, and eyes large and round as moons glittering with rage and suspicious apprehension. It stood, arched like an angry cat, perched upon its smaller legs, if the huge, bony mailed extenders could be so called, and poised ready for a spring, keeping the round, angry eyes fixed on the prey a little distance of, whilst the claws snapped together, with a sound as great as a volley fired by a company of infantry.
"I trust all that is not intended for us," Harold observed. "Fancy having your body ripped between such a pair of claws as those."
"We are not the cause," Armstrong replied, "besides, we are armed. There is an enemy, and we shall probably see a fight."
Almost before the signs were finished on Armstrong's fingers, from beneath another rock emerged the hitherto unseen antagonist, which proved to be a lobster similar in size to the first, and who ran forward in the same cat-like manner, and then paused, snapping his tremendous claws in his turn. It was a strange and interesting spectacle as the feelers were thrown on either claw, lashing each other like whips. Directly there was an attempt to remove the prey, the other would thrust out a feeler and drive him off, only to get the same treatment in his turn. With a quick move, considering their enormous size, the monsters came near to each other, roaring as they approached.
With peculiar cries and a horrid din of rattling mail and clanging claws, the animals suddenly rushed upon each other and a moment later were rolling over one another, biting and snarling like two large dogs bent on a battle to the death. As claw met claw and mail clashed against mail, the sand and stones flew in all directions, and each thrust and parry was so rapid that the spectators could not follow anything like half the movements in the strange duel. For nearly an hour the combat proceeded till gradually the challenger seemed to weary and then turn tail with a view to escaping to his lair. The movement was fatal, however, as his antagonist immediately sprang upon his back and with the great powerful claw fairly crushed the head of his opponent, who suddenly drew out and lay perfectly still motionless and apparently dead upon the sand, whilst the victor ran nimbly to his hiding-place, apparently unhurt.
"We can get some idea of what the creature is like, now," Harold said, as he moved towards the prostrate monster. "I should like to measure him."
The words were scarcely out of his mouth before the lobster, not yet dead, shot out a claw and took him fairly round the waist with a pinch which, had not his body been fully charged with scienatic acid, would have meant instant death. It was a moment of deadly peril, as Armstrong instantly realised, for the mere pressure of the expiring monster was quite sufficient in time to crush the hardest substance, and from the expression of the fast-fading red eyes, it seemed to Armstrong that the lobster was still intent on vengeance. There was no alternative but to discharge one of the dolomite cartridges, and trust to Providence for Harold's safe delivery.
A moment or two later Harold lay quiet and motionless on the sand, his captor having been blown into space. It was impossible to determine then whether the unfortunate man was dead or alive and it was with feelings of the liveliest anxiety that those above saw Armstrong half dragging, half carrying his companion to the boat, into which, with infinite difficulty, he presently got him, having first disconnected the scienatic acid tubes. Presently they saw the boat begin to rise to the surface, slowly at first, then more rapidly as the air was exhausted. Five minutes later the adventurers emerged, and Harold was lying on the raft, still as death, whilst Armstrong, with his ear on his breast, strove to catch any sign of motion of the heart.
HAROLD'S injuries happily did not turn out to be very serious. The force of the grip and the violence which he had received when cast away by the monster in his dying agony had produced a slight attack of congestion of the brain, which, under the skilful treatment of a native doctor and Haidee's devoted nursing, rapidly improved. When he regained consciousness it was to find himself lying in a cool room in Don Zalva's hacienda, with Haidee in close attendance. There was only a little stiffness and fatigue, otherwise Harold felt quite himself again. But, despite his keen interest in the doings of his companions, he was not insensible to the charms of those dark eloquent orbs that looked into his with such flattering and tender interest.
"Ah, you are better, I see," Haidee murmured in her own liquid language, as she laid a cool hand upon his forehead. "How glad I am, Señor Harold."
"I remember now," Harold replied gratefully, as he carried the little hand to his lips, a proceeding Haidee seemed to rather like than otherwise. "I was attacked by a monster. But what happened afterwards I do not know."
Haidee briefly described all that had taken place, how Armstrong had succeeded in rigging up his steel cable, and how sufficient rocks had been removed from the island by the aid of dolomite without running the risk of destroying the treasure along with some portion of the original fabric.
"But you must promise me to take no further part in the undertaking." Haidee concluded, with a pleading glance. "I was horribly frightened before, and I do not want anything to happen to you."
There was no mistaking the tender inflexion of the last word, and Harold felt the hand in his tremble as she spoke. It was not the first time that those dark eyes had stirred his pulses, and more than once had he caught himself weaving rosy dreams with the brilliant Mexican beauty as the central figure. His heart beat warmly for her now, and the love which had been growing in his heart found its way to his lips.
"Would you really care," he whispered, "if I had been killed?"
A bright blush dyed Haidee's cheeks; her eyes grew very soft and luminous as he drew her down to him and looked into her flower-like face.
"I think you know I should," she murmured. "Ah, Señor, we women of the South are poor hands at hiding our feelings, so different to your colder beauties. I—I think if you had died my heart would have been broken. Oh, will you not promise me not to go into such terrible danger again?"
"I will be more cautious, little one, but I cannot desert my companions," Harold replied as he drew her down and kissed the olive cheek. "I must find this treasure, and then I shall want to share it with a dearer treasure still."
Haidee knew what he meant and asked no further questions. As the bright days flew swiftly on, and Harold grew strong again, they lingered in the shade of the balcony and taught one another the old, old story which is the same for all time and in every language. As she lay on his breast with his arms around her, or, with the force of tropical passion, kissed him as if her love were almost pain, they talked of the future, molested and suspected by none, says Barrados, who watched and spied as only a Spaniard can do. He cursed Harold's success, Haidee's contempt filled him with bitterness, for he loved her too, and swore to be avenged when the time and opportunity were ripe.
"Beware of him," Haidee said again and again. "Whenever you go down below the sea again, I shall be present to see that he does not play you false. I can manage the apparatus now as well as any one, and with that faithful O'Brady on my side will see that he does you no harm."
"He will not in any case," Harold said cosily. "He has too much at stake."
But this loving dalliance, pleasant as it was, did not suit Armstrong, who peremptorily cut it short by demanding to know when Harold intended to resume work again. They were very short handed, he explained as he came up to the hacienda one morning, and, besides, the time had arrived when a serious attempt to raise the island must be made.
"I am ready now," Harold replied, regardless of Haidee's entreating looks. "I had no idea that there was any hurry. Tell me what you have done."
Armstrong related everything as they walked down to the shore, accompanied by Haidee and Don Zalva, who, hearing that a great experiment was about to be tried, decided to join in watching the operations.
"I have taken as much of the lava rock from the island as I dare," Armstrong said; "if we go any deeper we might destroy the tectonic, which may be hidden on a high point of the original circle for all I know to the contrary. According to my calculations, the island ought to float now, and I cannot think why it does not, unless it has become attached to the native soil and been to a certain extent embedded in. The sand has been cleared away from round the edges and the short coral formation exposed; in fact, it is like a great hollow inverted tooth in a sound gum. I propose to crawl below it and insert sufficient dolomite underneath, and thus give the necessary shock to raise it."
"You think that that would have the desired effect?" Harold asked. "Perhaps, on the other hand, it may blow the coral all to pieces."
"Certainly not, because, as I told you before, the dolomite only strikes out in a horizontal direction, so that I shall, as it were, merely break off the fangs. Once that is done the island will float to a certainty."
Apparently much had been done during Harold's absence. By using one of the marine telescopes he saw that the island had been nearly cleared of stone, and only a few feet remained where the native coral cropped out here and there, and the shape of the island was as sharply defined as if it had been engraved on a map. Fortunately for the search party Don Zalva had succeeded in unearthing an ancient chart of Mea Culpa, Santa Anna, and in fact all the small islands dotted about, showing the exact names of every bay and gulf, even down to the most minute detail.
"This helps us greatly," Armstrong observed, as he displayed the chart for the benefit of Harold, who had not seen it before. "On the cypher, you remember, is a figure thus— [image of skull and right-pointing arrow]
"which is calculated to baffle anyone, but on the old plan you have in your hand you will see that the inland is shaped like a lobster's claw, with an almost landlocked bay between. The tips of these claws are severally called on the chart Three Star and Shule Points respectively. Look at the cypher and see how this helps us to read the first line."
"It seems feasible," Harold said, after a little time. "I can make it out to read: 'From ye Three Star Point take a—' Oh yes, that would be a boat, I suppose. 'Take a boat to Shule Point,' which means across from one point to another. The rest is all Greek at present."
"But do not forget that with the telescope we can distinctly see a coral rock on Three Star Point, where three deep stars have been engraved," Barrados exclaimed with intense eagerness. His eyes were flashing, his face was quivering with greed and avarice, so that Haidee turned away in disgust. "Once the inland is floated we could soon trace out the rest of the cypher. Why should we make any further delay in the matter?"
Eager as they all were now for the experiment to take place, the afternoon was wearing or before everything was ready for the descent. The submarine ship was equipped with everything necessary, including nearly an ounce of dolomite, that being a sufficient quantity on land, according to Armstrong's estimate, to destroy a city, though barely enough under water to dislodge the fangs by which the island was attached to the bottom. The voyagers were also equipped with everything they needed. This being done, Armstrong gave his final instruction.
"Coventry, you know how to work the scienatic tube," he said, "and if you forget anything, Larry is to be trusted. You will watch with the telescope and you will easily know when the mine is fired, which I shall do by attaching to the electric machine I have at the base of the steel strand, the large dolomite cartridge. I shall then place it directly under the island, and when I touch the battery below, the explosion will slice off the island as a knife cuts a carrot. Barrados, are you ready?"
"I?" Barrados asked, white as ashes. "Do you really propose to take me?"
"Of course I do, man, as Coventry is hardly fit, and Larry is out of the question."
"The saints be praised!" Larry ejaculated fervently. "It isn't often that I don't resent any reflections on my duty, but I forgive you this time, Captain dear."
Armstrong turned angrily on Barrados, who looked down doggedly as he saw the glance of contempt by which he was favoured on all sides. But despite the scorn with which they treated him, he remained unmoved.
"It is impossible," he faltered; "I cannot, I will not go with you."
Armstrong was not the man to waste time in unnecessary argument. He turned to Harold, who nodded his head, despite an exclamation from Haidee, which was not lost on Barrados, whose heart was berating with mortification.
"I must go," Harold said, speaking more to Haidee, than the rest. "There will be no danger like there was before, and this will be for the last time. Larry, help me on with my canvas suit, and see nothing is forgotten."
With a muttered curse on the cowardice of Barrados, Larry obeyed, whilst Haidee looked on with white face and clasped hands. She was afraid; some instinct told her that something was about to happen, and once the island floated she knew then those below would be entirely at the mercy of the Spaniard.
But she knew exactly how to act. O'Brady, who would do anything for her, was present also, and she determined to stay and see that no outrage was perpetrated upon Armstrong and the man she loved.
"There is nothing further to wait for," Armstrong said curtly, as he saw that everything was ready. "Lower the tube away there."
The voyagers entered, and were speedily running downwards, guided this time by the steel strand than ran through a loop in the top. The watchers with the telescopes saw them descend, then as Haidee turned round uneasily, she noticed that none of the distilled scienatic acid was falling into the metal cup. She indicated the fact to Larry, who replenished the retort, which he declared had been full a few moments before. Haidee turned to Barrados who affected to be watching the voyagers with the deepest interest.
"Don't try it again," she said between her white little teeth. "It is too dangerous."
"I do not understand," Barrados returned, with an evil smile. "If I were to—"
"You understand me, and I understand you, Señor. You may be sure of that. It is dangerous for those who are below, as I know very well. It will be still more dangerous for you if such a thing is repeated. There are a dozen men on the island who would shoot you like a dog if I only gave the word, and not ask a question first. Beware how you anger me."
Barrados turned away with some muttered apology, his heart more revengeful against Coventry than ever. And meanwhile the adventurous pair reached the ground in safety, and taking their materials, which included the wire from the electric battery, which had been moved for that purpose, advanced across the sands to where the island stood out, to use Armstrong's expression, like a gigantic hollow tooth inserted in a sound gum.
They could literally see beneath it in places where the coral formed caverns, some of them forty feet high, and having branch passages leading everywhere. In these gloomy caves, Armstrong and his companion could see several giant shadows moving, and occasionally the ugly snout of a shark obtruded, only to be greeted with one of the deadly cartridges, before which it fell like midges before a modern cannon. So far as they could see, the hollow dome of the island was one large cave, connected by wide irregular passages, into which neither of them cared to venture.
"This is a difficulty I did not foresee," Armstrong signalled. "To sever every fang, we must lay the cartridge somewhere near the centre, and to do that one of us must carry it there, which means quite half-a-mile walk and back again. It would be a nice thing to run up against one of those lobster gentlemen at such close quarters. I am not afraid of anything in the open."
It was an awkward situation, and one out of which there was apparently no possible escape except to run the risk of contact with some hidden monster. Finally they decided to enter side by side, and at every few yards discharge, to the right and left and in front, some of the dolomite cartridges, of which they had a great number. This precaution was apparently needed, for as they advanced there escaped out into the open such a number of erratic monsters as the mind of man never conceived. There were lobsters only a little less in size than the one that had been so nearly fatal to Coventry, water-snakes, and, more curious than all the rest, a species of alligator, without scales, like a gigantic newt, of which seemed to scent the approach of some unseen danger.
At the end of a quarter of an hour they had penetrated as far as Armstrong deemed it advisable to go, and, laying the cartridge on a level plateau of rock, with the electric wire attached, crawled back till they stood in the soft level light of open ocean again.
"Well out of that!" Harold exclaimed. "I am not a nervous man, but after the other day I like to know where I am going and where the danger comes from. Did you ever see such an extraordinary-looking lot of creatures in your life?"
Harold pointed to the marine curiosities now slinking back one by one to their lairs. But Armstrong was far too interested in the electric battery to pay any attention to the strange shapes he saw around him.
"I am going to fire the mine," he said. "If you will watch it carefully you will see a sight such as you have never seen in your life before, curious as these things appear to be. Now note the effect of the shot."
Armstrong pressed his finger on the button, and then, as if by magic, the island seemed to rock and tremble, and finally, after a convulsive movement, rose slowly and with a majestic motion upwards till it floated like a cloud into the inky strata of water above the voyagers' heads.
"Look!" Armstrong cried, as he caught Harold's arm, and attempted to drag him back. "What have we done? Heaven help us, we are lost!"
A brilliant light, small at first, but then increasing in size, rose from under their very feet, till they were nearly blind. As if impelled by some tremendous power, they were literally forced towards the light, and as they reached it, still clinging to each other, they were whirled round and round with dizzy force. Then they fell headlong into space with millions and millions of tons of water dropping through a chasm in the floor as fluid bursts from a gigantic nozzle.
THE island had floated, of that there could be no possible doubt. For a time the watchers above were too deeply engrossed in following this to notice the fate of Armstrong and Coventry. It seemed to them as if some Titanic monster of the deep had been freed from its cramping chains as the island swayed and tossed, each pitch throwing off the gigantic boulders that held down the coral, as one might raise one end of a board covered with stones and slide them off. Then the huge mass began to rise to the surface.
"Back to the land for your lives!" Barrados shouted. "Should that mass rise and strike this platform it would smash it into a thousand pieces."
Fortunately for the spectators the pressure of water upon the rising island was so tremendous that at first it came up slowly, and thus gave them ample time to rush along the pontoon and gain the land. Once there, they had not long to wait, as presently the enormous mass rose with a prodigious turmoil and lashing of waters. It seemed to strike the raft and pontoon and shiver it, as if it had been composed of paper. It was some time before the waves ceased to beat and lash and when finally the disturbance had subsided the spectators saw a huge bank of mud and ooze drifting slowly towards the shore, where eventually it grounded so close that at low tide there would be no necessity for a boat to connect it with the mainland.
"But where are they?" Harold asked, inspired by a sudden fear. "That mass appears to me to lie over the very spot where they ought to come up. Oh, they are lost! See, the steel rope has broken!"
It certainly had, as one end had been snapped, and the sudden tension had caused it to fly, as if it had been a piece of cotton carried on the breeze. Barrados, indifferent as he was to the fate of his companions, so long as the main object was achieved, regarded the speaker helplessly.
"It could not matter much," he said. "In any case they have the tube to rise in, the steel strand only being used as a guide. There is no cause for uneasiness on the score of their safety."
But Haidee was not to be convinced, Don Zalva and O'Brady sharing her apprehensions. Not until they had taken a raft and pushed off beyond the recovered island would she be satisfied, and even then she insisted upon accompanying the rest of the little company.
With the deepest apprehension she took O'Brady's glasses, and, looking over the edge of the raft, peered down into the depths made clear by Armstrong's marvellous telescope. There was nothing to be seen there save the curious marine monsters, the waving forest, and the peculiar strange light upon the spot where the wonderfully recovered island had lain. Over the luminous light the waters seemed to toss and whirl like a funnel of white foam, until it became clear that the sea was pouring into a deep chasm, drawing everything within a certain radius into to vortex. Haidee and the others noted how fish and other marine monsters came into the influence of the tremendous streams, and how, once they were whirled round once or twice, they then apparently were drawn down into the centre of the earth.
"I cannot understand this awful mystery," Haidee said at length, as he laid down her glass with a sob. "It looks to me as if a gigantic pit had been unsealed, and as if all the waters were pouring into the centre of the earth."
"And thus causing an enormous whirlpool," Don Zalva, much moved himself, replied. "There is no doubt now that our friends have been drawn into its influence and carried somewhere below. Even the tube has disappeared. We can hope; but as for the rest we must leave it to Providence."
The speaker put up his glass with an air of genuine sorrow and emotion. Haidee, maddened and distressed, her heart bursting with grief, demanded that she might be put back to shore, and so they returned quiet and sorrowful, with the exception of Larry, whose grief was more violent.
"And all this comes of trying to live where man has no business," he said, with the tears running down his furrowed cheeks. "Nature sent that island down there, and intended it to remain. And sure it's myself that would give that dirty strip of mud to see my master back again, and think I had the best of the bargain. Treasure! what's treasure to a man who dies before he lives to enjoy it?"
But the party was too overcome with grief to notice Larry's curious form of logic, all except Barrados, who inwardly rejoiced to find himself bereft of a rival and the sole claimant to untold treasure at the same time. Now that. Coventry was no more, there was no reason why he should not prevail open Haidee to share his lot, especially as now there was every probability of his claim being backed up by the possession of unknown wealth. But had he known the contempt his conduct during the day had inspired in Haidee's mind, he would have felt less confidence in the ultimate result. He said nothing as Haidee and her father walked sorrowfully homeward, and Larry, with his face to the sea, was calling down objurgations upon the fatal and mysterious island.
Afternoon changed to night, and night to morning, and no signs of the missing men appeared. Don Zalva came down to the shore personally to enquire, with the information that Haidee was too utterly prostrated by the calamity of the day previous to come down in person. After a little desultory conversation with Barrados, who was no favourite of his, he returned to his hacienda, leaving the Spaniard free to make what his impatient soul had been longing for—a full and thorough examination of the island.
Larry was safely out of the way, having been sent up to the hacienda on some idle pretext, where Barrados knew he would remain so long as Haidee's pretty maid, Isidore, chose to retain him. The powerful sun of the past two days had dried up all the mud and ooze that remained upon the fateful island, which was not much, as it had been thoroughly washed during its rise on the previous day. The tide was at the half-ebb as Barrados strode down the sand, and, wading across the little strip of water, found himself at length upon the very place which had occupied his exciting dreams for some years past.
There was no mistake as to the island being one of coral formation. All the soil had been washed away; all the lava boulders, with one or two exceptions, had also disappeared, and all that remained was the naked coral, embedded here and there with huge stones, round which the fabric had been constructed generations ago, when the world was young. Whatever the formation of the rocks might have been, they were part of the original fabric and entirely different from the lava slabs by which the island had been submerged when the eruption took place from the volcano on Caraba nearly three centuries before.
Barrados gazed anxiously around him and a sense of elation filled him as he noted how small was the area he had to investigate. So far as he could guess, from a rough calculation, the island was some seven acres altogether—not much, it is true, but quite enough without some guide to go upon. In the centre the coral rose till it attained the height of some fifty feet or so, and on this Barrados climbed. From that reign of vantage, with a strong binocular, he examined every portion minutely, so that he might, if possible, find something upon which to work out his calculations.
He took a copy of the cypher from his pocket and studied it intently for some moments. The first part was clear enough, and his heart gave a throb as, looking through his binocular, he noticed on the southern spur of the claw that formed the little partially-locked bay, the table-like rock on which were cut three star-shaped marks. What was on the other cape or claw, he could not see.
"It seems right enough," he muttered, "from the Three Star Point in a boat—yes that must be a boat to Skull Point, which means crossing over to the opposite point, which on Don Zalva's old chart is called Skull Point. Let us see what is there."
With these words Barrados descended and walked round to the northern horn. There he found, surrounded by a raised bed of coral, a number of flat stones, one of which bore the rude outline of a skull. His interest was still further excited as he noted that these flat stones had evidently been cemented in at some time, and three of them bore tolerably legible inscriptions.
"They are tombstones," said Barrados triumphantly. "Then these half-circles on the cypher were intended to represent the resting-place of certain sailors."
It seemed clear enough now, read in the light of this discovery. The searcher took the first tombstone upon which he could trace something. He passed the second, and then, coming to the third, with a thrill of exultation he read the following legend. The letters were rudely cut, and some of them had to be picked out with a knife before he could make out what was written:—
"To ye Memory of
For twenty-two years ye faithful friend of
By whom he was buried here."
"And dig down under the third tombstone, which is Richard Vaughan," Barrados muttered, as he read the cypher again. "Until I shall find a something I cannot understand and three skulls. So the scent is getting warmer. But to dig under that stone requires something more than the ordinary implements of husbandry—it will require to be blown up."
The stone was closely embedded in the coral. The cement, which had groove hard as the original fabric, defied the steel knife-blade. There was nothing for it but to procure a drill, and with a charge of powder, blow the stone from its long resting place.
Barrados looked cautiously around, but so far as he could see, no human being was in sight. Hurriedly he returned to the shore and, taking some powder, fuse, a steel drill, and a cord, returned to his exciting pastime.
As he hastened towards the island, Larry looked round the corner of the workshed and, stepping quietly inside, proceeded to watch the movements of the Spaniard with an interest which was largely increased by the suspicion with which he regarded that individual.
"If you had been an Englishman none of this would have happened," he said sorrowfully, as he shook his fist at the retreating figure. "I'll warrant you had a hand in this, you oily scoundrel. But so long as I'm here you don't walk off with all that treasure, Mr. Barrados, Esquire."
Unconscious of the espionage, Barrados returned to his task. With the powerful glass, Larry could watch every movement. He saw the Spaniard ply the steel drill and presently ram the hole he had made with a charge of powder. He lighted his fuse and quickly shielded himself behind a ledge of coral. There was a puff and a sudden report, and the tombstone lying over all that remained of Richard Vaughan was shivered into a thousand pieces. With something more than curiosity, the Spaniard approached to see the result of his handiwork.
Below lay a natural grave formed out of the coral bed. There was no coffin, since there was no occasion for anything of the kind. Within the narrow lid lay a perfect skeleton partially covered with clothes that had long since rotted away. There was a massive ring set with brilliants on the forefinger of the left hand, an earnest of something better to follow, that caused the Spaniard's eyes to gleam with rapacious greed. By the side of the skeleton lay a curious old mattock or spade, evidently the sign on the cypher, Barrados thought, and at the feet, neatly arranged, were three skulls.
"Until there is reached a spade and three skulls," Barrados muttered as he freely translated the cypher. "In the second skull will be found a key. Well, everything appears to be perfectly correct so far. And now to sea if I can find the key to which allusion is made."
The speaker raised the third skull, every movement being clearly visible to Larry, who followed it with breathless interest. Barrados drew therefrom a little packet strongly fastened with wax, and, replacing the skull again, opened the package, and there dropped into his hand a steel key, bright and clear as the day it had been turned out by the locksmith.
"So far so good," Barrados murmured. "The rest does not seems no easy."
It was simpler, however, than it appeared. It will be remembered that the cypher went on to describe the position of the treasure by the words:
"Then get [image of three tombstones] in one straight line, and about a [image of pistol] beyond, over against [image of block of stone] will be found a [image of 4 stars], and here all the money of mine."
The whole signed Amyas Coventry.
As the drift of this became clear to the mind of Barrados, he proceeded to attach his cord, by means of a weight, to the first tombstone, and, getting all three in one straight line, drew the cord out taut, stepping backwards till he had paced off what appeared to him to be about a pistol-shot distance.
Exactly upon that line, one way or another, he anticipated finding something in the nature of a mark containing four stars, and in this, after a little search, he was by no means disappointed. His back, as he walked backwards, came in contact with a ledge of rock placed vertically, like a step, over which the cord rose abruptly and, looking at the steep part of the step, Barrados saw the four stars.
He examined it with fast-beating heart. Like the tombstones, the stone with the four-star legend appeared to have been cemented in, and as Barrados tapped it with his heel, it gave out a hollow sound. With a strength born of excitement he plied his drill and worked away at the stone till he had made a hole deep enough to take another charge of powder.
He rammed home the charge and lighted his fuse, sheltering himself behind the same friendly ledge of rock, and waited for the charge to explode, with impatience that caused the time to seem like hours instead of minutes.
Scarcely had the dull report died away before he ran to the spot to find that the charge had been completely successful. Not only was the stone shattered, but part of the coral ore was pulverised, disclosing a large oak crest, clamped and bound with iron, and which had apparently escaped the shock.
"Now for it," Barrados muttered, with trembling hands and sweat-bedabbled face, as he applied the key to the lock. "Now to know my fate!"
Larry, watering closely, saw Barrados rise a moment later and wave his hands round his head, dancing and gesticulating like a madman meanwhile. He saw him fall forward and plunge his hands into something.
But O'Brady could not see one thing—he could not see the piles and piles of golden pieces, the priceless jewels, and the unique vessels of precious metals at which Barrados was gazing in dazed tremulous amazement. The secret treasure of Santa Anna had been found.
DOWN that tossing, rushing whirlpool, locked together in a convulsive grip, Armstrong and Coventry fell, dazed and battered, bruised and half senseless, until it seemed as if they were being carried down to another world. The warring currents hissed and roared in their ears; the tremendous force would have crushed them as a hammer smashes an eggshell had it not been for the scienatic acid with which their bodies were rendered impervious to any outside pressure.
So long as they kept falling it mattered little. What Armstrong, who still retained sense and reason, most feared was contact with some solid body, in which case escape was hopeless. As they continued to fall, still locked together, the condition of the water changed. The shaft of liquid crystal still retained its tunnel-like shape, but gradually became lighter and more diaphanous, until the luckless men could see through it as though they were being shot down an interminable hollow glass cylinder.
Presently they appeared to arrive at the base of the cylinder, which spread out and seemed to strike upon another body of water with a tremendous roar and hissing spray, as if an immense cataract had fallen from the clouds, twenty Niagaras in one hurtling upon a plane of placid and motionless ocean.
The rush and roar gradually faded away as the adventurers were carried down, down into the translucent depth by the enormous forces behind them, till presently they began to rise again, and finally reached the surface about gunshot distance from the round, shining pillar of water that appeared to fall out of space.
They did not rise a moment too soon, as the scienatic acid, no longer replenished by the tube, had commenced to evaporate, and a desire to breathe again had made itself painfully apparent. Armstrong's face as he rose was quite purple, and a little stream of blood oozed from Coventry's nostrils. For a few moments red spots danced and flickered before their eyes, then gradually, as they lay on their backs beating the water for air, sense and feeling returned.
They were saved. The scienatic acid had served them in good stead. Their bodies, almost petrified by the drug, had merely been shot down that awful shaft of water from one world into another ether, and they had come off quite unscathed, save that there was absolutely not a rag on either, and every hair, even to their eyebrows, had been taken away as clean as if they had been shaven. Nothing could better explain the force of the awful avalanche of water they had so recently experienced.
Now that all danger for the present was passed they had an opportunity of taking in their surroundings. Atmosphere or sky overhead there appeared to be none, although the soft brilliant light pointed to a planet somewhere. On all sides, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but clear crystal water, still and glassy except where the cataract was falling, and dotted at intervals by beautiful little domains floating on the water, each apparently anchored and divided off from its neighbour by aquatic lanes shaded by trees.
Imagine a kind of modern Venice transferred to the suburb of some large town, and instead of paths and roads nothing but the purest water and some idea of the scene as witnessed by our adventurers will be presented.
Each floating domain contained a house and garden perfectly square, round which trees were planted, hanging over the water's edge, so that each liquid thoroughfare was a grove or avenue of foliage. There seemed to be mile after mile of these residences, every one of which appeared to be composed of crystal, as they glittered and flashed in the brilliant but mellow light, the source of which seemed to be a mystery.
"We are not dreaming, I suppose?" Harold remarked, as he dragged himself on to one of the floating platforms and flung himself amongst the flowers, which appeared to grow like grass everywhere, breathless and exhausted. "We are evidently still in the universe, and it seems to me that we have come upon inside our own."
"So it would seem," Armstrong remarked coolly. "Indeed, from the way we were drawn in, it is certain that the earth is hollow, as the water found a vent somewhere. And, as I live, there is another of those water spouts!"
Armstrong pointed to a second column of descending water, some mile or two away, and which was exactly similar to the one which had so nearly caused a fatal catastrophe, so far as they were concerned. Still further on in the distance another could be seen, which accounted for the fact that the world into which they had so suddenly been hurled was a watery one entirely.
"I wonder what the size of this place is?" Armstrong went on. "From the time it took us to exhaust the scienatic acid, which was practically done by the time we rose to the surface again, we must have been falling for a steady hour. Allowing the fall to average five hundred feet a second, as it must have done, we in that time descended at the rate of over thirty thousand feet per minute, or say one million eight hundred thousand feet in the time. Six million yards is, roughly speaking, three hundred and forty miles, which takes some hundred miles off."
"If you would devote your attention to discovering some method whereby we could obtain something to cover us, it would be better," Harold interrupted impatiently. "You are a very good fellow, Armstrong, but you and your calculations have brought us to a sorry pass. I should not mind if I were clad, though."
"I was trying to work out a problem which occurred to me as to how we might return to our mundane sphere," Armstrong replied. "I almost had it in my grasp, when you interrupted me. Still, the clothes difficulty is a serious one, especially as I see some being coming this way."
Out of the crystal house, upon the square floating garden where the adventurers were seated, there came a dazzling white figure that bore down towards them. At first he appeared to be dressed all in white, but as he—for it was a man—came nearer, they saw that despite the fact that his limbs were exactly similar in shape to their own, and though his face was handsome and refined, the body was clothed, with the exception of hands, face and feet, in a beautifully fitting garment of some white fur, thick and shiny as sealskin, and equally glossy. But the skin was not a dress. It was a natural growth. The man was a human seal.
Without a particle of fear he approached the adventurers, and for some moments stood regarding them with the same curiosity they bestowed upon him. Bereft of his hairy coating, the denizen of the mysterious world presented no difference, save that he was fairer, and his face was beautifully soft and delicate, like a woman's; indeed, any society beauty would have envied such a complexion.
"Who are you, and what brings you here?" the strange being asked in peculiarly odd tones, but in excellent English, to the astonishment of the listeners. "You are like us, and yet you are quite different to an Astran."
"We speak the same language," Armstrong replied. "We are quite as astonished to see you as you are to see us, and we shall be happy to explain if you will find us something wherewith to hide our nakedness."
"You are not similarly clad by nature to us, then?" the Astran asked.
"Not covered with skins as you are," Harold put in. "We wear garments."
The Astran shook his head, as if the phrase had no meaning for him, and then, bidding the adventurers wait till his return, came back at length carrying a quantity of soft drapery which Armstrong and Harold arranged about themselves as well as they could, fastening the same with some thread, which their involuntary host took the precaution to bring along.
"Uncomfortable, but passable," Harold remarked, as he caught sight of his queer aspect and bald, shining head in the translucent water. "And now, sir, as we owe you a debt, we will tell you who we are and from whence we came."
The Astran listened with profound attention and many exclamations of astonishment to Armstrong's wonderful narrative and his lucid but necessarily brief account of the upper world. Then he spoke in his turn.
"You ask me who I am, and how I came to speak your language." he said. "I am Telba, the name which in borne by all my race, and this is the kingdom of Astra. Until today I, in common with my fellows, regarded regarded this as the one and only universe. How I came to speak your language I cannot tell, but it has always been our dialect since the world—our world—was created three hundred years ago by one Albert, our god and founder. That god was probably an adventurous Englishman who found his way here by some means we shall never discover. Our world is not a large one, being some eight thousand miles in diameter, and consists entirely of water, as you see here. Our residences are all floating ones. We borrow wood from those who can spare it from their trees as families are formed, and the rich mud from the bottom of the water soon becomes a beautiful garden when laid on the raft.
"Our houses are formed of a clear, crystal-like formation which we can obtain from the waters, it being the product of a certain insect. We have no rulers, all are on a perfect equality; and as for food, all we require you see before you. Our water evaporates quickly, and chemical action, as our elderly friend here calls it, acts upon the liquid, and produces everywhere the soft brilliant light which illuminates our kingdom.
"To make up for the evaporation, we have those huge cascades of water falling from where we cannot tell, except that it does come, and without it we should speedily be a muddy swamp. We do not eat as you speak of doing, but only drink the water, which is both in the nature of meat and drink to us. Therefore we do not require what you describe as fire. We have no means to cook, no clothes to wear, besides the soft white skins in which we were born. Consequently, every household requires nothing. No dust or dirt rises here, we have nothing to do but live our lives and enjoy them. No sickness troubles us—our happiness is complete. We are equally at home on land or water. We can pass our time above or stay in the crystal depths below at pleasure. Indeed, that is what we usually do in the daytime, which accounts for the quietness here."
Telba, as he called himself, paused and emitted a low piercing whistle, and immediately afterwards there appeared from the pellucid waters a number of forms like himself, who quickly sprang upon the floating gardens, where they stood contemplating the strangers with lively curiosity. Directly they emerged from the water they became perfectly dry, as a seal or an otter does. They were of all ages and sexes, the women especially the younger ones, being without an exception singularly beautiful. Their features were regular, classic, and with the sweetest possible expression. Every face was fair, and every eye a beautiful deep blue, whilst their skins were like alabaster, touched on the cheeks with the most transparent pink hue.
They did not crowd round with vulgar curiosity, but remained at a proper distance whilst Telba explained the singular narrative of the adventurers.
"Henceforth, they are our guests," Telba concluded. "Go and spread the news far and wide, and wherever they go let them be well and duly treated."
With many manifestations of friendship the beautiful creatures one by one plunged into the water again with graceful ease, and a few minutes later the adventurers were alone again with Telba.
"You spoke just now of food," Harold remarked. "I pray you show me where it can be found, for I am hungry after my journey."
By way of reply Telba made a cup out of the leaf of a pitcher-like plant, and, dipping it in the crystal tide, handed it to the speaker, at the same time bidding him drink freely of the contents. He did so, and found himself so immediately refreshed that he partook of another and another, till, after the third, he experienced the same sensations as a healthy hungry man does who has partaken of a good meal.
"It is a singularly happy and ideal life," Armstrong remarked when he had followed a similar example. "And you appear to have everything ready to your hand. But to mortals like ourselves it would become tedious in the extreme after a time. You understand?"
Telba inclined his head, as did Harold, who was thinking of Haidee's dark eyes and how she would take the news of his supposed death. He perfectly agreed with Armstrong, although politeness restrained him from saying so.
"I understand your meaning and appreciate it," Telba replied. "You mean that you would like to return some time to your own world."
"Precisely; and the sooner the better, as we have so much depending upon it. You say that you possess the power of living equally well on land as on water. Do you think it would be possible to convey that power to us?"
Telba shook his head thoughtfully. It was only an art that had come from the constant practice of generations.
"My idea is this," Armstrong went on, as he turned to Harold, "I want to get under that cataract of water again, as I have an idea that the base, falling as it does with a twisting motion like a corkscrew, is hollow. I believe that there is a large cone-shaped chamber there filled with air, into which it is quite possible to penetrate by diving deep and rising gradually to the surface. If I could once get there I should have hopes of returning to earth yet."
"But how," Harold asked, "could you penetrate such a tube of water as that?"
"By the outlet spray," Armstrong said boldly. "If it will penetrate downwards it will do the name upwards—indeed, more, as the gas rises upwards. That being done, I should have a hollow tube four hundred and fifty miles in length, up which we must contrive to make our escape to our proper sphere again."
Harold laughed, utterly amazed at the stupendous audacity of the idea. The suggestion of two men attempting to climb a tube of polished steel—for the water would give an equal resistance—a perpendicular tube reaching a greater distance than from London to Edinburgh was absolutely ridiculous.
"I am going to try it," Armstrong said, unmoved, "I can make a retort out of the crystal from which these dwellings are formed, and fire I can easily get. Once I have those things I can manufacture both onthal and dolomite, to say nothing of scienatic acid. If our friend here does not mind being our guide he can tow us down under the waterspout, and I can examine the air-chamber which I know exists in the centre."
"And that we shall do by charging ourselves with scienatic acid?" Harold asked. "It will be a risky experiment, especially as the acid is so transient, and we have no means of keeping up the supply."
Armstrong only smiled. To that wonderful man, difficulties were merely pastimes, little pleasures which cropped up only to be overcome by energy and determination.
"Give me a day or two to turn it over," he replied, "and I will then tell you all my plans. I begin to see a way already. We shall return yet."
Harold looked at the tremendous waterspout and smiled sarcastically.
NEVER till that moment had Harold fully appreciated Armstrong's wonderful ingenuity and marvellous fertility of resource. With apparently no material of any kind at hand, he began to construct an extraordinary contrivance for reaching the upper world again and, when once the novelty of the situation had passed away, and the Astrans accepted their visitors as a matter of course, operations commenced in earnest.
The Astrans, equally at home on land and water, and playing about in the depths below, were excited in discovering something that aroused their curiosity and which, when raised to the surface, turned out to be the iron tube, or submarine boat, which the adventurers had used to reach the submerged Santa Anna. It was bent and battered into a fantastic shape but Armstrong regarded the steel and iron framework with the eyes of a man who has discovered a treasure.
"The very material I wanted," he explained to Harold. "Indeed had not we found that I do not know what I should have done. If we could only contrive to force that battered mass open, it contains powders and liquids which would simply be invaluable to me at the present time. There is in the inner chamber, as you know, the raw material for making onthal, scienatic acid, and dolomite. Once that is done I am saved weeks of weary toil."
After many attempted they succeeded in removing the outer shell of the boat. Fire, a novelty for the Astrans, was used, and once the outer portion was removed, and Armstrong discovered his box of tools within, it was easy, to force a way into the inner chamber, which perfectly air-tight, and where numerous bottles and packages were discovered. They had now all that was required, metal and tools and the various powders used in manufacturing the several articles by which they had already accomplished so much.
With minute toil and difficulty, Armstrong succeeded in forming a retort out of the crystal of which the Astran dwellings were constructed. It was easy enough to store away the scienatic acid in bottles of which they had plenty, so that, were an attempt made to penetrate the gigantic waterspout, by diving under its base and into the hollow air tunnel, which Armstrong's scientific knowledge told him existed, it would be possible to convey enough of the acid with them to replenish their bodies for the return journey.
For short distances and those requiring speed, it would be quite sufficient to inhale the acid from a bottle direct, and one bottle would contain enough in a condensed form to last several hours. Of course when under the waterspout it would not be required.
"But I do not see that this is going to help you," Harold remarked as he watched his adventurous partner distilling the powerful essences. "If you find an air-chamber in the centre of that immense cataract, where the water lies smooth and peaceful, as you say, I do not reckon much on that. The great question as to how we are to return to earth remains as yet unsolved."
"It does now, but it will not do so long," Armstrong replied, calmly. "Remember what I did with a tiny spray of onthal. With it I pierced a hole two feet in diameter to the depth of eighteen hundred feet of water. The jet then was no larger than a pin-point, but you see the water was, as I may say, paralysed before it. Wherever that gas touches, it permeates. I firmly believe if I were to try a strong spray I could bore a hole in that fall of water from end to end, although, it is nearly five hundred miles in length. Pshaw! man, anything can be done by the man who thinks and tries. Look here!"
So saying, Armstrong unrolled some hundred feet or two of India-rubber piping, which was fitted at the one end with a small tap and hose. Out of the battered boat he also took a large square of India-rubber cloth, which he fashioned into a big cloth, something like the silk hollow of a balloon.
"I fill this with onthal," he went on, "or at least I fill it with onthal when I get to the centre of the waterspout, where I propose to erect a small platform if these good people will let me have wood enough. You shall see presently what means I am going to adopt to get this to play upon the water, and so make my funnel, up which we must climb to another world."
"'Must' is easy enough, but 'how' is a great deal better," Harold replied. "I confess that you make me more curious than ever."
"I dare say. You have seen an ordinary rocket thrown, say, two hundred feet in the air by means of some simple explosive like gunpowder. Now, with the aid of dolomite, I could construct rocket capable of raising us as high as fifty miles. That is fairly high, but nothing like enough, you may say. Suppose when the first rocket explosion has exhausted its force nearly, I can guarantee another explosion, and repeat this till I could guarantee a rise of as least a thousand miles; ay, if I could find the proper kind of metal, to the moon. But then we don't want to go to the moon; we don't even want to go more than half the thousand miles, which is my limit."
Further, for the present, Armstrong refused to be drawn. Day by day he worked until everything was ready, and the time came when he deemed it necessary to attempt an exploration of the waterspout. He found Telba and many of his companions quite willing to guide them, as the spirit of adventure is strong upon us all. Such a thing had never been attempted before by any Astran, but this did not deter them from entering heartily into the spirit of Armstrong's enterprise.
"The force of that water is tremendous," Telba observed; "but, nevertheless, it loses itself in the general sea, and many of us have frequently passed underneath one of these cataracts without any inconvenience, or, indeed, without any disturbance at all, although we have to swim under it at a considerably lowest depth. If, as you say, you have something that renders you indifferent to water for some length of time, I have no objection to being your guide, and my daughter Asteria shall perform the same office for our younger friend here."
The beautiful maiden with the pure face and blue eyes, whom Armstrong and Harold knew as Asteria, the child of Telba, laughed and nodded. There could be no possible danger either, as Armstrong pointed out, because, if they found the water too turbulent it would be easy to dive again, and thus get out of unpleasant consequences.
There would be no difficulty either, Telba informed him, in procuring enough wood to make a platform, provided that they succeeded in reaching the centre of the cataract, where Armstrong anticipated finding the quiet pool under the funnel of air.
"There is no occasion for delay," Armstrong remarked. "Let us go at once."
Telba and his daughter making no objection to the proposed arrangement, Armstrong proceeded to attach to his neck a portion of the India-rubber piping, and a small bag to contain later on enough onthal to try an experiment he had in his mind. The bottles containing the ingredients for the generation of the gas in question he secured about Harold's shoulders, and divesting themselves of everything besides the closely-fitting undergarments that they had constructed, they proceeded to charge themselves with the scienatic acid, which they did by absorbing it out of glass bottles, two of which they took on purpose, and having done so, launched themselves into the water.
Armstrong followed closely in Telba's wake, whilst Asteria, who appeared to divine her way by instinct, plunged downwards, Harold, who had his finger tips on her shoulders, allowing her to guide him as she wished. It was a new but by no means unpleasant experience to find himself drifting through the crystal depths with this beautiful mermaid.
Slowly at first, then faster and faster, they progressed, till having taken a steady downward direction, Asteria began to rise at a sign from her father. Watching them closely as he did, Harold could see that they were actually talking to one another, although, so far as he was concerned, no sound escaped their lips. They rose only to encounter a mass of foam and turbid waters, rushing with a force that fairly drove them downwards again as they tried backwards and forwards for an opening.
Just as Asteria, faint and exhausted, was about to give up the task she saw Telba dart forward a few feet and then, with his hands down to his sides and his head held up, rise with great rapidity. Smiling pleasantly at Harold, who had been driven to his scienatic acid bottle again, she darted gracefully forward, and in a moment had commenced to rise in her turn, through the now calm, green water, although a little beyond their radius Harold could see it hissing and boiling like an angry furnace. It seemed to get lighter and lighter as they rose and presently reached the surface.
"As I expected," Armstrong cried, as the air dissolved the acid, and he found his voice again, "I knew that water fell with a spiral motion."
Harold looked round and saw that they were floating on a small sea, quiet as green glass, a patch of fluid some two acres in extent, with a perfect wall of water around them and sitting over their heads to the height of a few feet, like a very obtuse funnel, or, to put it more plainly, as if they were in a bell tent of water. The apex was as fine as a needle. It was so still and quiet there that they were not even conscious of the tremendous din of the descending cataract. And it was this enormous mass, over four hundred miles long and considerably more than fifty feet in width, that Armstrong proposed to bore as engineers bore through a solid rock.
"This is better than I expected," Armstrong went on, "but do you think you could find your way here as easily again?"
"We could not miss it now," Telba explained. "I cannot make you understand, of course, but even in the open water there are certain signs and indications which our practised eye can read, although they are invisible to you. Asteria and I could hit the very spot blindfolded."
Armstrong nodded. It was all he wanted to know now. He rolled over on his back, and after a little trouble, succeeded, with Harold's assistance, in getting into the India-rubber bag the two essences necessary to cause onthal to be formed.
When it seemed so him that sufficient chemical action had taken place to generate the necessary gases, he raised the tube towards the apex, and, pressing the India-rubber bag under his arm, directed the stream of gas towards the green water spinning so rapidly that it appeared like one solid emerald mass. But firm and compact as it was, the effect of the onthal was instantaneous. A round cylinder opened immediately, and in a few minutes appeared to have penetrated hundreds of yards upwards, whilst Asteria and Telba looked on with astonishment.
"I want you to pay particular attention to this," Armstrong remarked, as he turned off the supply again, "because we shall require your assistance, and our safety depends to a great extent upon the manner in which you follow instructions. I am going to construct a large bag, to which will be attached some seven or eight of these little tubes. That bag will lie upon a platform I shall construct here, and upon that bag, when the gases are generated, I shall get a dozen or more of you to throw all your weight. You will take it in turns to do this for three hours altogether, taking care to keep the tubes pointed directly towards the apex. By this means, for nearly two hours I shall have a funnel eight or nine feet in diameter, pierced through that greet tower of falling water. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Telba, who had been following the speaker with intelligent interest, replied. "And I will get my friends to construct the platform you require without delay. But I confess I am curious to know how you propose to propel yourselves up the shaft to the outer world when it is completed."
"I can hardly explain that, because the details are not yet settled in my own mind," Armstrong replied. "I shall be obliged if you will see to the platform being made as soon as possible. A wooden frame or raft, such as your houses are constructed upon, will be quite sufficient. I shall require to have a great variety of things brought here, but that is a detail."
Anxious to get to work at once, Armstrong applied himself to his scienatic acid bottle, and Harold did the same, so that a few moments later they were diving down into the deep green water again, the water that represented both food and drink to the simple-minded Astrans.
Half-an-hour later Telba was back in his house, Asteria had gone off to join her young companion down below somewhere, and Armstrong was busily engaged upon his works as if every moment was of the most vital importance. But to a man of action idleness is an utter impossibility.
A miniature forge had been constructed, and for the next two days Armstrong, who appeared to be able to do everything, had turned out seven or eight large metal cups by melting downs the old marine wreck, each cup fitting within the other tightly, but in every case being about 4in. shorter than the other, and held in its place by a metal rim. To put it more plainly, the first cup was about 9ft.* in height, the next one 8ft. 8in., until the centre one, which was heavily weighted at the bottom, and covered over with a perforated conical top, was only 7ft. 8in. in height, and large enough in diameter to contain two men easily.
[* The numbers in this paragraph were barely legible in the magazine containing the story and those that have been recorded may not be correct. The numbers are not critical to the story as they are not referred to again.—ebook editor]
In the inner cup Armstrong had stored some bottles of scienatic acid fitted with tubes for immediate use, some dolomite cartridges he had constructed, together with a small, tightly-sealed bag of onthal, the use of which will be appreciated in a short time.
"What on earth are you going to do with those gigantic coffee-tins?" Harold asked, as at length the work was finished and Telba had come with the information that the platform had been completed.
"Get them conveyed to the platform in the first place," Armstrong replied dryly as he proceeded to envelope his curious invention in a rubber sheet, "if a few of Telba's neighbours will be good enough to help us."
A number, who had gathered round, hearing that some interesting experiment was about to be attempted, expressed their willingness, and everything being packed in what Harold called the gigantic coffee-tins, the package was entrusted to a few stalwart Astrans, who, guided by Astoria, plunged into the water with their burden, and slowly made their way to the waterspout.
"When are you going to make the attempt?" Harold asked.
"Now," Armstrong replied promptly. "I am very curious to hear the best or worst that is going to happen, and those coffee-tins as you wittily term them, are to be the means of escape from here. Get out your scienatic acid and let us be off at once. I am all impatience. Everything will be explained by the time we reach the cataract."
With a glance of admiration at the calm inscrutable features of his companion, Harold dropped into the water. Without hesitation Telba guided them to the centre of the waterspout, where the Astrans had already arrived with their heavy burden.
A breathless silence pervaded the scene as Armstrong stripped off the covering and laid his implements upon the platform.
FOR some moments Barrados was like a man bereft of reason. With fiendish glee he danced round the the chest, he laughed and chuckled as he plunged his arms deep down amongst the glittering gold pieces and let them run through his fingers in a stream like precious fire. Thousands upon thousands of pounds met his eye. There were jewels, diamonds, sapphires, pearls, and rubies beyond price, treasures to the amount of some two millions English, costly plate of gold and silver, all securely packed in the great chest.
Best of all, every ounce of it was his. There was nobody to dispute the possession of all that wealth which he had only to hide, a bit at a time, and then, when all suspicion had blown over, return for it directly he could get the Firefly manned at Havana. If he could only get O'Brady, the only sailor who really knew the cause of the expedition, one of the way, there was nothing to fear. It would be the work of a few days to remove the gold to the shore, where it might easily be secreted till Barrados could place it in the small iron-clamped boxes they had procured for that purpose before they had left England.
With these thoughts in his mind, Barrados hastily piled some loose coral upon the mound under which the box lay, and walked towards the shore. So far as he could see there was no one in sight, Don Zalva not having presented an appearance, and it was necessary now to put him off the scent.
With his drill, Barrados removed the inscription from the tombstone and also the star-shaped marks from the rocks, so that no indications pointed to in the cypher might remain, and having done this, and also removed all traces of his late occupation, the Spaniard turned inland and disappeared in the direction of Don Zalva's hacienda.
"Curiosity in some people is less of a fault then a disease," Larry muttered, as at length he emerged from his hiding-place, "and I expect I inherited it from an ancestor who had it badly. Sure, I must see what he's found, even if it's only to show that I take an interest in the general proceedings."
Larry, in spite of his easygoing disposition, was by no means a fool. He had watched Barrados sufficiently closely, and had observed the landmarks with careful attention enough to know almost where the Spaniard had stood when he indulged in his extraordinary manifestations of joy. Within a short time the genial Irishman was standing over the mound of coral that Barrados had piled up to conceal the enormous treasure from the prying eyes of strangers.
When at length he had removed the stones, and the full force of the treasure burst upon him, he simply staggered back and sat down to think. After a moment or two he replaced the stones, and then returned to the shore with his hands in his pockets, whistling softly. He could not quite grasp the whole situation yet, save that Barrados had made a discovery which he fully intended to keep to himself. Having come to this sapient conclusion, Larry lost no time in repairing to the hacienda, there to describe all he had seen and to ask Don Zalva's advice in the matter.
He found the latter and Barrados seated together on the balcony with a flask of wine between them and a cigarette between the lips of each, whilst Haidee, pale and languid and attended by Isidore, sat in the shadow. The latter flashed a bright coquettish glance at Larry, who responded with a florid bow. The pretty Mexican girl had made a conquest of Larry's susceptible heart, but at the same time she had contrived to lose her own in the exchange.
"I don't believe there is any treasure on the island at all, and if there ever was, it must have disappeared long ago," Barrados was saying as O'Brady came up. "The hot lava would be sufficient to destroy it."
Larry restrained the speaker with an expression which he intended to be cunning, but which only served to arouse the Spaniard's suspicions. It never struck the simple-minded Irishman that under present circumstances his best policy was one of silence.
"I shall make a thorough search to-morrow," Barrados went on, with the peculiar smile that Haidee found so hateful, "and if I find nothing, shall send O'Brady here across to Havana to get the crew of the yacht together. They have had a long holiday, and after what has happened I don't care to remain here."
"And small blame to ye either," Larry burst out, "if ye was only honest about it 'stead of talking that way. Never a bit do I go to Havana and leave you here to find the treasure, when you have found it already. What were ye doin' only an hour ago, you lying thief of a cowardly Spaniard?"
White and trembling with rage, Barrados rose, and his hand sought his left side, with a significant gesture. Larry, nothing daunted, would have continued had not he caught a warning glance in Isidore's eyes, and not till then did he realise that he was bringing about just what he desired to prevent.
"The fellow is mad," Barrados said hoarsely; "he has been drinking."
"He does not sound like an intoxicated fellow," Don Zalva said dryly. "We should like to hear more of what you were saying, my good O'Brady."
But Larry sulkily declined to say any more. He had made one mistake and did not intend his tongue to lead him into another. Muttering something about a mistake, and his objection to assert any positive opinion, he dropped into the background whilst Barrados showed his teeth in an engaging smile. But in his inmost heart the suspicious Spaniard registered a vow which, if carried out, meant a deadly peril to the over-loquacious Irishman.
"You fool!" Isidore exclaimed as she found means to get away towards a shady group of myrtles with Larry at a command from her mistress to try and discover what had really happened. "What have you found out, and why do you let that hateful man know? He will do you a mischief yet."
"I never saw the foreigner yet that I was afraid of," Larry returned valiantly.
"What a pretty compliment to me and my countrymen!" Isidore laughed; "you are positively the most stupid man I ever met, and why I care for you is a mystery."
"But you do care for me, pretty one?" Larry interrupted with tenderness.
"Of course I do or I should not be here, silly man," Isidore said as she pretended to avoid the threatened caress. "You are too careless and insolent. If that man has discovered the treasure, he knows that you are aware of it. There will be trouble yet, and it behoves you to be careful. But here is something else I want to speak to you about. Before you came here I had four or five lovers, and—"
"Now you have six," Larry put in, "and still they are not satisfied, confound 'em."
"Satisfied! Alonzo and Paulo and Andrea and all the rest of them are furious with you; they have sworn to have your blood. Oh, do not laugh like that, do not take it so easily, you do not know how treacherous and merciless they are. They are all of them incensed against Don Zalva, too, and only need a little encouragement to plunder the hacienda and murder us all. I overheard them talking last night in a way that made my blood run cold. Remember, if they do break out, we have nobody to protect us but the Don and you."
Larry clenched his teeth savagely. In his present mood against Barrados the notion of a brush with him or anyone like him, as all foreigners were creatures to be condemned in O'Brady's eyes, was rather pleasant than otherwise.
"They won't do anything," he said, "and don't you get worrying your pretty little head about that. Fair fighting, and I could beat the lot."
"You might," Isidore shuddered, "but that is not their way. Even you are powerless against a treacherous thrust in the back some dark night—this very one, perhaps."
No such gloomy forebodings troubled Larry, his contempt for the average man of anything but English blood was far too great. He promised cheerfully enough to take every precaution to protect himself from danger, but nothing, not even the fear of Alonzo and Paulo and Andrea, prevented him from returning with Isidore to the servants' quarters. He was not going to leave her to be annoyed by a lot of greasy Mexicans, a remark Isidore accepted in very good part considering that Larry was reviling her own countrymen.
They sat out under the myrtles and lemon boughs till the fireflies began to twinkle out, whilst the men servants smoked their papelilos to the sleepy music of a gaiter. Isidore's recreant lovers sat moodily together, casting threatening glances from to time in Larry's direction, as he coolly monopolised the fair cause of all the turmoil.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the thoughts that were troubling him, Barrados remained at the hacienda long after dinner had been disposed of, and Haidee, under pretence of a headache, had retired for the night. Don Zalva, who was hospitable before all things, pressed the Spaniard to take up his quarters there for the night, and indeed, so long as he remained on the island of Mea Culpa. But Barrados, with the memory of that treasure strong upon him, dared not run the risk.
"I think I am better where I am," he said reluctantly, "besides, I have been so long a wanderer that I could not sleep in a bed. And I am going to devote the rest of my stay here to hunting for the treasure."
Don Zalva looked sharply at the speaker. He had not yet forgotten O'Brady's words, and the Spaniard saw that such was the case.
"You seem to doubt me a little," he said, with a forced laugh. "Surely you would take my solemn word before that of an ignorant sailor."
"You are my guest, and a gentleman always accepts a statement till be knows it to be incorrect," Don Zalva said politely. "But even yet, such is the faith I have in that wonderful Signor Armstrong, I have not given up all hopes of seeing him and his young friend again. If this treasure is found practically upon my property, and you decide to leave us, I must courteously request that two-thirds of the same be left in my hands until I have satisfied myself that our friends are really dead. You may claim it in six months."
"I make no objection," Barrados said coolly. "Indeed, your proposal is a fair one. When I find the treasure I will let you know."
With these words Barrados rose to go. The night was getting on and already most of the household had retired to rest as the Spaniard lighted is final cigarette and, having shaken hands with his host, set out for his tent under the seashore.
He had not a long distance to go, and even in the dark every step was familiar to him. He had not proceeded far before he became conscious of the fact that someone was following him. He stepped cautiously on till presently he wheeled round suddenly and, striking a match, held it above his head. In the circle of light caused by the flame he saw the figure of a man crouch down. Quick as thought he whipped out a revolver and pointed it towards the still motionless figure.
"Rise and throw up your hands, or by heavens I shall fire!" he commanded.
Hesitatingly the man obeyed, and as Barrados moved towards him he recognised the swarthy, sinister features of the individual whom Isidore had spoken of as Paulo. He looked at Barrados with sullen fear.
"I was not following you. I did not mean any harm to you, I swear," he said.
"How do I know that? What brings you here at this time, then?"
A sudden passion blazed up in Paulo's eyes. In his anger he forgot his fear.
"I will tell you then," he hissed. "I was following that sailor who came here with you, this O'Brady. Jesu, what a name! He has been warned more than once if he persists in his attentions to—but you understand—and he will not be warned. I watched and waited outside the hacienda to-night and when you came out I thought you were him—and—"
"And you followed me under the impression that I was O'Brady. If I had been, you would have murdered me, I suppose?" Barrados asked grimly.
"What would you have?" Paulo said, with a careless shrug. "He has been warned."
Barrados pulled his moustache reflectively. His quick mind showed him that here was a way out of his difficulty. He read greed and cunning in the dark eyes of the man watching him, and determined on a bold stroke.
"Let us suppose that I have a good reason for wishing to see O'Brady out of the way," he said. "Supposing I say nothing about this to anyone, but let you go unscathed. Supposing I could show you how to make five hundred dollars without any risk, would you be prepared to follow me?"
"Follow you, Señor," Paulo laughed. "For five hundred dollars I would do anything. I could leave here and take Isidore along. I—caramba! only try me."
"I am going to try you, and I am going to test you also," Barrados said grimly. "I want you to procure four men like yourself and come to my tent to-morrow morning at daybreak. If O'Brady returns to-night you must not come, as there will be no dollars, you understand. But if he does not return—"
Barrados paused with a significant smile, whilst Paulo showed his yellow teeth in an ugly grin of appreciation. Without another word the Spaniard resumed his walk towards the shore whilst Paulo crept back to the hacienda. Half an hour later, with three desperadoes as abandoned as himself, he was hiding behind some mimosa bushes, waiting for Larry to pass. Their patience was not put to a very severe test as presently, utterly unconscious of his danger, and whistling some light ditty, O'Brady came along, and as he passed the mimosa bushes the ruffians dashed upon him.
Like a flash he realised his danger, and as the first form, with knife uplifted, came towards him his fist shot out and dashed against the forehead of the would-be assassin with a sickening crash.
"Come on, all of ye, and see what a real Irish welcome is!" he cried. "Holy Moses, if you put those knives down I'm good for the lot at once! Ah, ye murtherin' coward! you'd strike a defenceless man in the back, would ye."
Like lightning the Irishman wheeled round, and at the expense of a flesh wound in the arm warded off the descending blow, and a moment later his antagonist was lying in the dust with hie nose almost smashed to the face. But it was Larry's last effort as, like an arrow from a bow, another ruffian dashed forward and buried his knife in the Irishman's left side. With a cry and a groan he fell to the ground.
"He's dead enough," Paulo remarked as he spurned the prostrate body with his foot. "Tesla, he strikes like the kick of a mule. My face will carry the mark to the grave. Throw the body into the bushes there for the present."
Coolly enough the three desperadoes obeyed the command of their ringleader, and no sound came from the body as it crashed into the undergrowth. Scarcely had the retreating footsteps of the assassins died away than the figure of a woman emerged from the darkness. With a little sob she set upon the body and laid her ear to O'Brady's heart. As if satisfied by her examination, and as if endowed for the time with phenomenal strength, she took Larry up in her arms and by easy stages carried him to Don Zalva's hacienda.
ARMSTRONG placed his curious contrivance on the edge of the platform, and for some minutes occupied himself with a careful examination of the affair. He satisfied himself that the cups or tins fitted exactly inside one another, and this being done, he drew up from the bottom of the inside one a series of hollow wires fitting into one another to the number of eight. The inner who was about an inch longer than the one into which it was fitted, so that he could press it down until it disappeared, and leave number two uppermost about an inch above number three, until the whole were exhausted. Each of these wires corresponded with one of the caps, the longest one being attached to the outer canister and the shortest one to the last canister but one.
A layer of dolomite was packed in the bottom of each cup, and the wires were intended to fire one charge after another from the outer one inwards and upwards. Then Armstrong placed his essences in the huge India-rubber bag and, giving the eight tubes to various Astrans, bid them hold them upwards in a circle towards the apex of the watery ceiling, whilst a dozen more of the spectators flung themselves upon the bag, and so acted as weights do when attached to a gasometer, thus causing the gas, when generated, to rush upwards.
"This gas is so powerful," Armstrong explained, "that it will penetrate anything like water, which has at the same time the power of attracting and being repelled by it. If you will keep those tubes steadily directed upwards for a few moments the water will be bored as far as it goes upwards."
In an incredibly short space of time the wondering spectators were looking up a black endless shaft at least ten feet in diameter. The walls appeared to be constructed of solid shining steel. If it had been lined with gun-proof metal the effect could not have been mere satisfactory.
"After we are gone I will get you to remain as you are till the gas in that bag is exhausted," Armstrong went on. "Not that there will be any need, because long before that our experiment will have terminated one way or another, but I like to be on the safe side. By this time the way of connection between this and the waters of the upper world is complete."
"But I am quite ignorant as to how you intend to climb the shaft," Harold said. "All I can see at present is a peculiarly long canister, with a top something like a modern chimney cowl."
"I was just coming to that. The apparatus you see before you is nothing but what I call a recurring rocket—that is, a rocket that, by a series of properly regulated explosions, rises higher and higher till the force is exhausted. With ordinary gunpowder I could construct such a firework that would rise forty thousand feet, or twice the height of Mont Blanc. How much more then can I do with the dolomite—"
"Which you say only strikes horizontally," Harold ventured to suggest.
"Yes, if made in a certain way, with the addition of a certain material, it strikes downwards, and by granulating it, I can make it take an upward direction. See these wires inside that tube. By pressing the longest one, that goes down to the base of my nest of canisters, I fire a charge of dolomite that leaves the inside seven whilst the outer one acts as a mortar, such as ordinary bombs are fired from. As all the force strikes upwards, there is no possible danger for the spectators and, such is the power of the dolomite, we shall be carried upwards a distance of not less than forty miles."
"Then you actually propose that we should be in the rocket."
"In the inner and last chamber, certainly. Do not interrupt me for a moment. I know what you are going to say. Forty miles out of nearly four hundred is not very much, but we shall be at least twenty minutes rising so high. Directly the speed slackens, I touch the second wire and discharge another bomb, as it were. The second canister acts as a mortar like the first, and again we rise a similar distance. Firing the charges one after another we could rise to the height of four hundred miles, but there will be no necessity to fire more than five, for a reason that any schoolboy can understand."
Harold was silent. It might be palpable to most people, but so far as he was concerned, he could not understand matter at all. As he looked up the black, glittering, forbidding-looking funnel he shuddered to contemplate the great and unknown danger they were about to explore.
"I am willing to trust myself in your hands, and to run any hazard you deem necessary," he said, "but if anything went wrong what an awful fate would be ours! Still, I will place no obstacle in your way."
Armstrong looked up so calmly and fearlessly that his courage and resolution had a stimulating effect on Coventry. No danger seemed to awe the old sailor and, above all, he had unbounded confidence in his own powers. And yet the proposed undertaking was one calculated to quell the stoutest heart.
"I have not entered upon this thing lightly," he said, "and no man risks his life without counting the cost. All my experiments have stood the test of practical experience. But if you do not care to undertake—"
"Do not mention that," Harold interrupted. "I am going to accompany you."
Armstrong waited for more. Heartily grasping Telba's hand, and having greeted the rest of the Astrans in the same manner, the adventurers entered the cylinder, and Armstrong adjusted the cap.
"Good-bye!" he shouted cheerfully. "Do not forget to remain where you are until all the gas in the bag is exhausted. And now stand clear, and do not touch this tube, as you value your lives. Are you right there?"
Scarcely had the response been given when the old sailor took up a hammer from the floor of the cylinder and brought it down sharply upon the topmost wire. There was a tremendous explosion that rang in the ears of the spectators for days afterwards, a slight vibration, and true as an arrow from a bow, the conical ballet-shaped mass sped up the watery funnel with the swiftness of the wind, leaving nothing but the lowest empty canister behind.
For a few minutes, such was the velocity of their ascent, all Armstrong and Coventry could do was to crouch upon the floor of their prison house and try to recover their scattered senses. The air pressing down the shaft hissed and whistled like ten thousand demons as they sped upwards. The deadly pressure cut their faces like knives and caused the blood to flow freely from their nostrils.
Always strong and sturdy, Armstrong threw off the awful feeling and, striking a rude match of his own composition, set fire to a couple of inflammable substances that sent a glare up the funnel and filled the cylinder with light. He raised the cap and, standing upright, looked out.
For a moment the wind was so strong that it nearly beat him back again. In the ruddy glare he could see that they were still progressing upwards as the down-falling water hissed and sparkled. Presently the pressure of wind grew less, the peculiar candles burnt with a more steady glare, and then the upward motion of the peculiar aerial ship began to flag and roll ominously.
Nothing daunted by this, Armstrong struck the second longest wire, and as it disappeared, without the slightest shock or vibration, the cylinder darted upwards again, like a thing filled with new life.
An exclamation of triumph broke from Armstrong's lips. The experiment was going to be wholly successful.
It was some little time before Harold had sufficiently recovered to take any interest in what was going on around him. The fourth charge had been fired, and the cylinder was still rising with terrific velocity, before he ventured to stand up and look out of the shining wall of water with Armstrong, whose face was beaming with success.
"How far do you calculate that we have risen by this time?" Harold asked feebly.
"Nearly two hundred miles." Armstrong replied, and he touched the fifth wire. "I am now beginning to know exactly how long to allow between each discharge. And unless I am greatly mistaken, we shall not want to try another."
"Not another and we have still half the distance to travel!"
Armstrong made no reply. He was watching the wall of water with deep interest. The minutes sped on, but they did not slacken. The time for firing the next shot was long past and yet they seemed to rise rapidly. Presently Harold gave a lurch, and a feeling came over him as if someone were trying to lift him out of the cup when Armstrong banged the cowl to and fastened it. The same queer sensation overcame them both. It seamed as if the cylinder had turned over. When they scrambled to their feet again they were standing on the cowl. The bottom of the canister had by some mysterious means become the roof.
"What on earth does it all mean?" Harold asked. "Are we falling?"
"Of course we are," Armstrong cried exultingly. "Exactly what I anticipated has happened, and there will no longer be occasion to fire a charge, even if we could in this inverted condition. We within the area of the earth's attraction now and we are falling, but falling towards our own outer planet. So long as this shaft remains open we are bound to return to earth. We are falling towards it, or rising towards it now, exactly for the same reason that Newton's apple came to the ground.
"I follow you," Harold said as he grasped the gist of Armstrong's remarks, "but where should we land eventually, and what is to prevent us, when we come to the end of our journey, from being crushed into the earth?"
"I have made every provision for that," Armstrong said calmly. "Directly the atmosphere becomes more dense, which will, I calculate, be at the time these lights have burned out, I know that we shall be abut the pit made when the Island of Santa Anna was floated, and therefore instead of a wall of water, as we have at present, or rather a chimney of water surrounded by air, we shall be back into what, for want of a better term, I will call the solid sea.
"Once that is reached I propose, directly we rise above the orifice by which we descended, to turn this tube towards the well of water by our united strength, with a discharge of the sixth load of dolomite to force our way through and thus get out of the vortex of the whirlpool that dragged us down. With three charges left we have quite enough to take us beyond the radius of the maelstrom."
"It seems plausible enough and, indeed, I have no right to doubt you after all you have done, but how are you to know when we have passed out of this passage into the Mexican Gulf?" Harold asked. "If you make a mistake of forty or fifty miles we should shoot clean through the water shaft and nothing could prevent us landing upon what I might call the inner earth's crust, and in that case not even your ingenuity could save us from destruction."
"I think you may safely leave that to me," Armstrong replied quietly. "Up to now my calculations have been amply verified by results."
As he spoke the lights became gradually low until they almost disappeared. Rapidly Armstrong took up the two bottles of scienatic acid and bade Harold inhale his without loss of time, and then secure it to his person. Scarcely was the operation complete when the lights went out altogether, and immediately the atmosphere became grey and luminous. Armstrong paused just a moment and flung himself down sideways, dragging Harold with him.
"Now!" he cried, as the cylinder swung across the shaft till the funnel pointed against the watery wall, "take the hammer and strike quickly."
He did not speak a moment too soon, as the cylinder swayed ominously. Harold, without a moment's hesitation, struck the wire. There was a tremendous splash and hissing gurgle as the cylinder crashed against the liquid barrier, and with a mighty impetus penetrated it until it was brought almost to a standstill by the resistance, after having traversed a couple of hundred yards.
"Again," Armstrong signalled, as he slightly steered the course of the cylinder, which stopped and began to retrogress. "Quick, for your life!"
Again the charge was fired, and again the cylinder bored its way through the waves, only to stop again after making a few hundred yards' headway, and when the last explosion lifted it forward, till it finally stopped, wavered and commenced again to feel the force of that powerful suction.
Armstrong wrenched the funnel open and, dragging Harold out, flung himself upon a rocky fragment and held on to it for dear life itself.
The force of the current was tremendous. One explosion less, and the whole experiment must have ended in disastrous failure. Slowly and painfully they clung to the hard rocky bottom and little by little worked their way along till they finally found themselves outside the power of that awful whirlpool.
It was quite time, for they were utterly exhausted, and a thrill of anxiety pervaded Armstrong as he realised that the amount of scienatic acid in their bodies would not last out much longer. They charged themselves again, and Armstrong, feeling that it was safe at length to relinquish their hold, they gave way and commenced to rise to the surface, a distance of eighteen hundred feet.
Before the tube had drifted back towards the vortex, Armstrong had taken the precaution to secure all the loose dolomite cartridges therein, a precaution which he had every reason to congratulate himself upon before very long.
Some time before they reached the surface, for bodies rise but slowly, all the scienatic acid in the bottles was exhausted. Coventry's head commenced to swim, and red spots danced before his eyes with the effort to keep his breath as the acid passed away. His head seemed to be bursting, and he flung up his arms and would have sunk again had not Armstrong caught him.
With this agony upon them, they still rose, and as they did so it became darker and darker, till at length the blackness became absolutely dense. A feeling akin to despair agitated the old sailor as he felt what a dead weight his companion was in his arms, and then, when all seemed to be lost, his head touched something, which he grasped with one hand and, putting his herculean strength into the task, climbed on to a sharp shelving ledge of coral rock. They were saved.
When Harold came to himself with a fluttering sigh, he was lying on some hard surface in the pitch darkness, without an idea as to where he was. Armstrong's hand was on his heart and the old salt gave a joyful exclamation as he saw that his young companion had not suffered severely from the awful journey.
"Where are we?" Harold asked, "and why is it so dark?"
"I can only guess," Armstrong replied. "We had a terrible journey upwards and I had not breath enough left to steer a proper course. But so far as I can judge, we have struck one of the caves under the floating island. We are safe enough here and there is plenty of air. The next question is, How are we going to get through to the surface? as the scienatic acid is completely exhausted. Once let us find a way to penetrate the crust above us, and we are free."
HOW Isidore contrived to get the body of the wounded man to the hacienda she never knew.
Although the rest of the house was plunged in darkness, even to the servants' quarters, as if none of them had been moving lately, there was still a faint ray of light streaming from under the green jalousies of the apartment which Don Zalva kept as a combined office, library and smoking-reran. She tapped lightly upon the blind, and in a few moments Don Zalva appeared.
His face grew black and stern as he listened to the incoherent recital of the distracted girl. There was no time to be lost in idle questions, and the first thing was to get O'Brady to a place of safety, and where his wound might receive due attention. Situated as he was, and dependent in a great measure upon himself in matters of this kind, the Don possessed a considerable knowledge of surgery, and once Larry had been removed to a bedroom, he found that the wound was not so dangerous as might have been expected under the circumstances.
"This must be kept a secret from the household at present," he said quietly. "There is no one here that I can absolutely depend upon, and if those scoundrels knew that we had discovered their perfidy, they would not hesitate a moment to murder us all. Go to your room now and leave this man to me, and remember that not a soul must know that he is here."
Despite the difficulty of keeping anything of so serious a nature a secret, part of the following day went by without discovery. Barrados, simulating distress and uneasiness, called at the hacienda to know if they had seen anything of O'Brady. Don Zalva listened with polite interest and regret, but as the Spaniard proceeded he could not conclude otherwise than that he was acting a part, and that he was party to the cowardly deed.
"If he is the victim of foul play, depend upon it, the villains will suffer," he said sternly. "Had not you better come here to sleep?"
Barrados declined hastily, so hastily that the Don's suspicions were confirmed. But what object could Barrados have in getting rid of O'Brady unless he had discovered the long-lost treasure? The Don turned this problem over in his mind, and determined to discover the truth for himself. As the day wore on he could not help noticing that a change had come over Paulo and the other male servants, a sullen vindictiveness that caused him to tremble for the safety of his beloved daughter.
But he was by no means the only one who was aroused sad watchful. Isidore, mad and distracted at the dastardly outrage perpetrated on the man she loved, and longing with all the passionate eagerness of her race for vengeance on her enemies, watched them with the intentness of a cat watching a mouse.
To Paulo and Andrea and the rest, she was gay and reckless. She professed to regard O'Brady's mysterious disappearance as a matter of indifference, but no motions of theirs escaped her, and more than one hint did she hear dropped concerning the plans of the conspirators. Under her flashing smile, Isidore masked her rage, as she learnt that Barrados was at the bottom of the diabolical conspiracy.
The evening fell again at length, and as yet the would-be assassins were ignorant of the fact that their victim was so near them. As darkness came over the island first one, and then another, of the men slipped away, Paulo being detained upon some household duty till the last, but when he crept cautiously from the house, Isidore felt that it would be safe to follow.
With cat-like tread she dogged his footsteps to the shore until he came at length to the tent that Barrados occupied, where, from the sound of muffled voice, the girl rightly guessed that the others had forgathered. They paused as Paulo's step was heard but, directly he entered the tent, the babel of voices resumed. Very cautiously Isidore crept a little closer and listened intently.
"I am a little late," she heard Paulo say, "obeying my master's commands for, I hope, the last time. What have you decided, my friends?"
"Nothing until you came," Barrados replied. "I want the assistance of you all to help me to run the yacht to the Philippine Islands, as most of you are sailors enough to do that, for which I will pay you five hundred dollars."
"Down," Andrea remarked. "For the risk we must have the money first."
"Half down and half when we reach our destination, then. It is a fair offer, I think, and one which will be hard to find again. Besides which you may take what you like from the hacienda here, and I shall not be likely to say anything, provided that Don Zalva is silenced, you understand, and his daughter accompanies us."
"It is a risk," Paulo muttered, "the money is not much for that."
"It was a risk you had been contemplating long before I ever came here," Barrados replied grimly. "I could see that, directly I met you. And if you murder the Don, as you fully intend to do, how do you expect to get away from this island? I find you a comfortable, well-found yacht and a large sum of money when once you are beyond the range of pursuit. All I ask in return is that you help me to navigate the yacht for a few hundred miles, and that you be on board to-morrow night when the tide makes—with Donna Haidee to keep you company."
The ruffians looked at one another somewhat uneasily. It was easy work to plot and boast and swagger, but a very different thing when at came to prompt, bold action. Barrados flung away his cigarette with an impatient curse.
"You are afraid," he said contemptuously. "I thought you would be."
"Not afraid to strike you down as we did O'Brady," Paulo said, with a flash of his glittering eyes, "if we have any more of your insults. It is easy enough for you to say do this and do that when you do not share the danger."
"Bah! I pay you to run the risk, and where duty and inclination go together there should be no hesitation whatsoever. I must get away from here, and unless you agree to accompany me I must try to make up a crew from one of the adjacent islands. Besides, where is the danger? There are five of you against an unsuspecting old man who may be lured out of the house on any pretext, and finished off with one of those neat strokes you understand so well. The tide makes at midnight to-morrow, and I see nothing to prevent us starting."
"It shall be as you wish," Paulo replied. "But you would not object were we to bring Isidore—merely to look after her mistress, you understand?"
A burst of brutal laughter followed this sally. Isidore clenched her little teeth, and vowed that the speaker should pay dearly for his temerity. Her courage rose as she began to appreciate the danger in which she stood.
"One woman more or less makes no difference," Barrados answered. "Let it be as you like. And now let us fully understand one another. I shall not trouble to communicate with you further, but at midnight go on the yacht, where I will keep lights burning, and leave a boat on the shore to take you off. There is nothing more that I need to say."
The conspirators rose, seeing that the interview was ended. With more coarse jests at the expense of their intended victims the conspirators slunk away, and as they did so, Barrados, after looking carefully round to see that they had really deported, took up his lamp and repaired to the workshop where, until recently, Armstrong had carried on his experiments. Impelled by some feeling of curiosity, Isidore followed him, and, treading like a cat, concealed herself so that she could follow all his movements.
Barrados placed the light upon a huge packing-case, and, taking a key from his pocket, opened one small square box after another until the lamp flashed upon as least a dozen dazzling heaps of treasure. By dint of perseverance and caution he had continued to convey the gold and precious stones from their hiding-place to the boxes which had been constructed purposely to hold it when found, until in the original hiding-place designed by Amyas Coventry there remained not more than ten thousand dollars in gold, which Barrados had left till the following morning. The treasure was quite safe, even exposed as it was, as its existence was not suspected by anyone with the exception of Don Zalva and Haidee.
"I wonder what those rascals would do if they knew of this?" Barrados muttered. "Murder me very likely. I wish it were all safely stored away in the yacht's hold. There is a day's work before me tomorrow, enough for a giant."
Still muttering, he closed the lids one after another and then turned to go, but not before Isidore had stolen away into the darkness. She saw it all now: Barrados had found the enormous treasure of which she had heard something from Haidee, and the plan was to get it safely away before Don Zalva should discover what had happened and lay an embargo upon the whole sum. For this the Don was to be foully murdered and she and Haidee to be forcibly carried off.
She lost no time in informing Don Zalva of her discovery. Late though it was, he decided to make Larry—whose robust constitution was making headway against his wound—acquainted with the turn of affairs, and to ask his advice upon the matter.
"Would it be wise, do you think?" Isidore asked. "He is weak, and any excitement—"
"He is far better than you think, girl," Don Zalva replied. "I have a scheme which may be successful, but I cannot carry it out without consulting O'Brady, who can tell me everything I wish to know. No one knew more of Armstrong's experiments than he did, and with his assistance I think I could contrive to keep back the intended catastrophe."
"Until we could find some means to communicate with the mainland?"
"Precisely. If something happened to postpone the departure of Barrados for, say, a week, I could contrive to make communication with my friends, and thus surprise the ruffians. Without assistance we are powerless.
"We could die hard," Isidore said with flashing eyes. "The villain who laid violent hands on me would have cause to repent his temerity. You have no man who can assist you here, but you may rely on me, if I am but a woman.
"I believe you," Don Zalva said with gentle courtesy. "And now let us tell everything to this Irishman and see if he can help us."
They found Larry in a peaceful sleep from which he awoke directly the Don touched him. He appeared to have rallied from his injury in a really wonderful manner and followed all that Don Zalva had to tell him with rapt attention.
"Sure, and it's hardly worth while to wake a man up if you haven't any better news than that to tell him," he said in his driest manner. "I am not of much account now, worse luck, but you can count upon me for a little."
"It is only a little that is required," Don Zalva replied, "I have a plan in my head and you can help me to carry it out. Barrados dare not trust those scoundrels, and if I could only make it impossible for him to carry off the treasure without their assistance, he would stop the present scheme, and we should thereby gain the delay which is of such vital importance to us."
"I see," Larry said quietly. "And your plan is to—"
"To get at that silver and transform all the gold and silver into one solid mass. Once this was done Barrados dare not take Paulo and the other ruffians into his confidence. If it could only be done and he was delayed for a day or two."
"It can be done!" Larry exclaimed with marvellous energy for a wounded man. "Do you remember the last experiment the old captain ever showed you?"
"That is exactly what I em alluding to," Don Zalva replied. "I told him that this island contained iron end copper ore which could not be worked for want of proper machinery. I showed him a mass of both metals, and with some acid he produced he immediately turned the whole into one great ball with a view to further experiment at a later period. O'Brady, if we can only procure this acid, and get at the treasure, our lives are saved."
"Give it me and I will do it," Isidore exclaimed. "I am not afraid."
"The two men regarded the speaker for a few moments in silent admiration. Taken as they were by her spirit and boldness, they naturally hesitated to confide such a dangerous task to the hand of a woman.
"Why do you hesitate?" she went on. "Do I look timid or fearful? Your place, Don Zalva, is here, and you have nobody but me. I know where the treasure is and I will accomplish your desire if you will but arm me with a reliable revolver. As you know, it is safe in my hands."
Don Zalva nodded. Isidore was no mean shot, as he knew.
"Let her try, the purty creature," Larry said tenderly. "She knows the workshop, and all is quiet now. If she goes in there and reaches to the top shelf of the cupboard she will find a bottle marked 'intallic acid'. Once all the gold you speak of is laid out on the floor a few drops will be sufficient."
"We will both go," Don Zalva said, with sudden determination, "and at once."
Larry made no reply. Nothing but his own lack of strength prevented him from making an attempt to join the expedition. With a fervent hope that they would be successful, he bade them go, and a few moments later silence reigned supreme.
It was nearly half-an-hour afterwards that Don Zalva and his companion reached the workshop, which was situated some three hundred yards from Barrados's tent. They had little or no difficulty in opening the door, and once inside got to work with great rapidity. With a tin lantern to light them, Don Zalva, assisted by Isidore, who worked as if dear life depended upon her exertions, contrived to pour all the treasure into a large packing case, so that none of it might escape. The perspiration ran down the faces of the toilers, but at length their task was completed. All that remained now was to find the acid and apply it to the glittering mass.
"Thank Heaven," Don Zalva muttered as he came upon the right phial at last. "And now let us make this thing sure at once."
He wrenched the glass-stopper from the bottle, and lavishly sprinkled the contents over the mixture of gold and jewels and precious stones; the latter, he knew, would suffer no injury by contact with the acid. Immediately he did so a dense cloud of smoke and film arose which, when it cleared away, disclosed a realised concrete lump of gold of tremendous weight. It was a little warm, but cooled rapidly, scarcely burning the receptacle in which it was contained.
"That is accomplished," Don Zalva said; "let us go back at once to the hacienda."
Morning dawned and Barrados rose to his hard day's toil. He opened the treasure chests one after the other to find them empty. Frantically he wrenched open one packing case after the other in his despair, till at length he reached the right one. And then when he saw what had happened he fell against the wall with a groan.
"What am I to do?" he said with a bitter curse. "They could not have done it because they knew nothing, and if I told them they would only murder me too. Who on earth could—" Here a cold perspiration broke upon him. "Can those men have escaped death in some miraculous way? Paulo must be stopped going on with his scheme at once. I must have time to work out another plan."
FOR some two hours Armstrong and Coventry lay upon the rocky ledge until they had entirely recovered from the effects of their terrible journey. It was perfectly dark there, but entirely devoid of all danger, save the very unpleasant one of starvation. But so long as there was life there was hope, and Armstrong had too often been in situations of peril to feel alarmed at the present situation.
"We cannot stay here," he said, when at length he had made a thorough examination of their prison house. "There is one thing I can see for it, and that is to swim about till we find some opening for escape for us."
"But supposing we cannot find anything of the sort?" Harold suggested. "We might swim about in these caves without finding any outlet or, indeed, any place where we could rest when we were tired, and if we could not find our way back to this place again, we might be drowned like rats."
"Not if one of us were to go and leave the other behind."
"How would that assist us? We might just as well starve together."
"Not if I can find what I want," Armstrong replied cheerfully. "All we want is a rope long enough to give one plenty of scope to swim about whilst the other remains here to haul him back if necessary, and it was found impossible to discover an opening. Supposing you remain here holding one end of the rope whilst I swim about. If the rope becomes taut, you will know that I have been successful, in which case you must attach one end here and feel your way along till you come to the opening."
"An exceedingly good notion," Harold replied, "provided that you can find the rope."
But Armstrong was not the man to be easily daunted. There was something near him, if he could only find it, that would solve the desired purpose, he knew, and that was the long, leathery, thong-like seaweed that grows so freely in the Mexican Gulf, and which, when plaited together, would form a cord long enough and strong enough to support a heavy weight. It was a long search that Armstrong had before he came upon the desired object, but at last success crowned his efforts and, with a triumphant shout he laid his hand upon the slimy, snake-like weed in a corner of the cave where they had so providentially landed. There was enough, and more than enough, for the purpose required, as the plant lay very compactly together. Indeed, with time and perseverance, they could have made a strand quite a mile in length.
"Knowledge of any subject is never wasted," Armstrong said cheerfully as he groped his way back to Harold's side, trailing the seaweed behind him, "and fortunately we both know something of splicing and twisting ropes. Lend a hand here, and we'll soon turn out a serviceable hawser a few fathoms long; quite enough, as the island that covers us is not very much longer than that."
Only too anxious to do anything to while away the monotony of the blank darkness, Harold complied as Armstrong arranged the long fibres to his needs. How long they worked it was impossible for either to tell, but, after a steady perseverance, Armstrong commenced to measure off the rope yard by yard until he had made the discovery that it was ample for the purpose required.
"Now you know what to do," he said as he fastened one end round his waist. "By this means if I find no outlet I can easily draw myself back again."
As Harold made no reply, he plunged into the sea and then there was another long spell of weary waiting.
At one time the rope would be drawn to its utmost limit, and hope would begin to agitate Harold's breast only to be dashed an instant later as the cord relaxed again. Finally Harold's ears, intensified by the still darkness, heard something approaching, and a moment later Armstrong crawled upon the ledge, weary, breathless, and thoroughly disappointed.
"I am utterly puzzled," he said. "I can find no opening, and I dared not dive under the obstacles in my way lest I should sever the connection. I could not even find such a thing as another ledge to rest upon. It seems as if we had escaped one death only to fall into another more—What is that?"
Armstrong paused, as three quick dropping splashes after another rang in his ear. The noises appeared to come from the ledge upon which they lay, and for some time Harold had imagined that he had detected several shadowy little forms popping in and out of the water.
"Only rats, I expect," he said gloomily. "Waiting for us probably."
"More likely to be seals," Armstrong replied, "the small hairless seal peculiar to these parts. Yes, that was undoubtedly the sound made by them."
They listened for a moment and, as the place grew still, the sounds came again, this time from several parts of the cave. With suppressed excitement Armstrong leant over and grasped Harold firmly by the arm.
"Be silent for a time," he whispered. "I have a plan, and I must have one of these little animals to help me. I wonder if I could catch one?"
Apparently there was nothing easier. As the men lay there the little creatures passed quite close to them, and actually ran across their bodies. As Armstrong felt one run across his chest his hands closed together with a vice-like grip and, despite the bite of the frightened creature, he held on tightly.
"Make a short rope end tie it securely round this little fellow's neck," he said. "Yes, that is what I want, and now let him go. Of course he takes to the water naturally. Fasten the long strand round my waist again, I am off on another adventure."
"What wonderful scheme have you got on hand now?" Harold asked.
"It is merely an experiment. Of course you have seen a dog piloting a blind man along a crowded street. Well, this seal is going to be my dog, and so far as this place is concerned I am certainly a blind man."
"But surely you will gain nothing by that," Harold exclaimed as the seal that was now attached to Armstrong began to plunge and struggle. "It will only be a case of going out with the sole purpose of returning, I fear."
"I don't doubt my guide will try that on at first," Armstrong replied, "but when he sees that there is no purpose to serve that way, he will do what other hunted animals always do, and make for the open, or at least that is what I calculate upon. If I could only find some means of letting him know what I wanted, he would take me fast enough. If the cord draws taut with three jerks, follow me."
Again the gallant sailor plunged into the water with the freshness and zeal of a young enthusiast. With very little hope, Harold waited minute after minute whilst the cord alternately tightened and slackened, until at length it drew firm and rigid after three pulls which had the same effect on Harold's nerves as if he had received an electric shock.
"At last!" he said. "I wonder if we are really safe at length?"
He hesitated no longer, but commenced to follow the rope. For a time it lay on the face of the water, but presently it took a decidedly downward course, taking Harold under the water till he could no longer keep his head above it.
He swam on and on, deeper and deeper, under the pitchy darkness, till it seemed as if he could not hold his breath any longer, and just when he was commencing to feel faint and weak he saw that the gloom was breaking. A few more strokes and he rose to the surface with the sun shining down upon him, and Armstrong's cheery voice ringing in his ears. Nothing tended to strengthen nerve and muscle like the sight of that welcome, blessed sunshine.
Armstrong's calculations had been fully verified. The seal, now again rejoicing in his accustomed liberty, had made for the open when instinct taught it that no chance of escape lay in the caverns.
As Harold looked around him he saw the myrtles and lemon-trees of Mea Culpa lying in front and, peering out of a corner, Don Zalva's hacienda. A sense of happiness and gratitude to heaven caused the tears to rise to his eyes as he realised how merciful the escape from death had been.
"No more experiments for me," he said with a shudder, "not for ten thousand times the treasure there may be concealed here."
Armstrong made no reply. As they crept along the island towards the shore the hardy old mariner's eye did not fail to detect the fact that someone had recently been making a thorough investigation of the place. He saw the marks of the explosions, where Barrados had been forced to use gunpowder, and when he came at length to the grave containing the skeleton and three skulls and the rest, excitement fairly got the better of him. Like Harold, he knew the cypher by heart and this evidence was sufficient to convince him that Barrados had at least made an effort to find the treasure.
"Look here," he cried, "see how it all points to what the cypher indicated. Here are the gravestones which have been mutilated for some purpose—"
"Barrados." Harold interrupted. "There has been some underhand work here."
"Well, it certainly does look like it," Armstrong admitted. "I cannot see why these inscriptions should have been removed unless Barrados wanted to keep his discovery to himself. And what is this cord doing here?"
The speaker pointed to the string which Barrados had used to take his straight line from the grave of Vaughan to the three-star mark and which, in his excitement, he had forgotten.
Walking to the end of this guide, Armstrong came upon the piled up mound of coral placed by the Spaniard over the place where the treasure had been concealed. Hastily removing the stones, the old sailor disclosed the old oak chest in which nothing remained now but some ten thousand dollars in gold.
"The treasure!" Harold cried. "But what about the legend which alluded to millions instead of thousands? What we have found here would barely recompense us for our outlay. It is not more than £1,000 apiece."
"Not here, but look at the marks on that old chest. Every indication points to the fact that until quite recently it must have been crammed with treasure. Has Barrados played us false and gone off with the remainder?"
"Not as long as anything remained," Harold suggested, "unless, indeed, he found it impossible to carry any more with him. I must confess I don't like the very quiet appearance of things on shore yonder. Depend upon it, something is wrong Barrados is not the man to disclose what he has found to anyone, and if he thought that he could get safely away—"
Harold paused as Armstrong gripped his arm and pointed towards the shore. There they saw Barrados coming from the direction of Don Zalva's hacienda in company with Paulo, and both of them gesticulating violently as they came towards the island.
"I do not like to see those men together and we not armed," Armstrong said dryly, "I am going to play the coward for once and hide behind this rock. Some instinct tells me that it would not be prudent to disclose our happy escape just at this particular moment."
They had not long to wait, as Barrados and his companion walked straight in the direction of the island, and as they come nearer their angry excited voices were distinctly carried to the listeners' ears. Presently the Spaniard paused directly before the treasure, which Armstrong had hastily covered again, and turned savagely upon his companion.
"You talk like a fool, like a dreamer of dreams," he said with a curse.
"Very likely," Paulo replied more quietly, "but we intend to have more than five hundred dollars. Where is the treasure I hear so much of?"
"Treasure! A paltry ten thousand dollars or so. Who told you of it?"
"Isidore, though how she knew of it, I cannot say. We are five to one, and we mean to have our share. Carramba! are we to kill the old man and carry off the girls whilst you get off free and have the lion's share of the plunder besides? No, share and share alike."
"You are under some strange misapprehension," Barrados said, striving to speak calmly. "I did not tell you, I should have been foolish to do so, that I had found any treasure at all. But I will show it you, and then you can determine for yourselves whether I speak the truth or not. Look there."
He indicated the coral rocks piled over the chest, all of which he removed, and when he had done so bade Paulo see for himself. The eyes of the assassin sparkled with greed as he dipped his hand in the golden stream, and allowed the deep red gold to run like water through his fingers.
"It is satisfactory," he said with a growl of satisfaction, "and we all share alike."
"So be it, then," Barrados replied with simulated chagrin. "You shall have no reason to complain upon that score so long as you get to work, and that speedily."
"It shall be as you wish, since you are willing to pay the price; but if you have played us false, if you have kept anything back for yourself, have a care, for by Heaven I would shoot you with as little thought as I would a dog."
"Bah! It would be a small dog, then," Barrados replied, "It is easy to talk like that when you are as five to one. Have you secured the arms?"
"I have. Don Zalva has not so much as a pop-gun to protect himself with. But we have had talk enough now, and I have much to do. We have already lost two days by your prevarication, and I want to be away. A pistol shot will rid us of the Don, and an hour later we could be on board with the girls. Have you anything more to add to the programme?"
"Nothing," Barrados said. "I will return to the hacienda now to see that no suspicion has been aroused, and later in the afternoon we can return here and convey the treasure to the yacht. We need not say anything."
"I tell you they all must know," Paolo exclaimed. "You do not know them as well as I do. We must be all present when that money is conveyed on board the yacht or else we shall have murder done. Once we have got it away, we could return to the hacienda, despatch Don Zalva, and carry off the women. I have arranged it to the minutest detail."
"Very well, then, I will go up to the hacienda now, and when you see me leave, get the others together, when we can come down here and transfer the money on board the yacht. I would willingly spare the old man; but in that case we should speedily be followed, and dead men tell no tales."
The listeners behind the rocks strained their ears to catch what followed, but Paulo's voice had dropped to a whisper. For a few moments the conspirators discussed thus, till at length Barrados gave vent to a sinister laugh in which triumph was plainly blended with cunning.
"Enough," he said, "we are merely wasting time here; let us begone."
"Very well," Paulo replied in his deep tones, "everything is settled. But mind, if there has been anything concealed from us—"
He said no more, but the pause was more significant than words.
THE voices and footsteps of the conspirators died away at length, and as they plunged into the woods leading towards the hacienda Armstrong rose with such a look of grim determination on his features as Harold had never seen before. He appeared to be an avenging Nemesis.
"We are all unarmed and in the power of these ruffians," he said slowly. "I am the last man in the world to shed blood unnecessarily, but in self-defence it is absolutely necessary. I shall be even with them yet. Meanwhile, there is no time to lose. You must make your way to the hacienda and contrive, unseen by these scoundrels, to warn the inmates of their danger."
"And you?" Harold asked, nothing loth to obey, as he realised the terrible position in which his beloved Haidee stood, "had we not better be together!"
"I have something else to do," Armstrong said sternly. "Hark you, Harold, it is a question between these ruffians and ourselves. If we do not utterly destroy them they will certainly murder us, and that Barrados has a vast amount of treasure concealed somewhere. I do not doubt for a moment. If he knew we were alive it would be to his interest to get us out of the way before the fact of his safety became generally known, therefore it behoves us to let our friends know of our whereabouts. Afterwards I shall cope with the ruffians."
"Yes, but how? We are totally unarmed."
"I know the way, and before night I shall rid the world of five scoundrels. My better nature shrinks from the task, but it must be done. And now away, as any moment's delay might frustrate my plans."
Harold asked no further questions, being content to leave matters in the hands of one whose head was so much wiser than his own. As he reached the shore and crept cautiously towards the woods, Armstrong entered his workshop, where the huge mass of gold had been buried by the disappointed Barrados, and gave a sigh of relief when he noted that nothing had been tampered with during his involuntary absence.
All the retorts were in their right places, his store of dolomite cartridges had not been disarranged, and even the electric batteries were intact and in their places. It was all that he wanted to find. There was nothing needed to complete his plain of retaliation.
"Only just in the nick of time," he muttered, "and now to surprise the rascals who have counted so much upon our deaths."
It was a long, tedious journey for Harold, and one fraught with many dangers. He knew that once he betrayed himself by his presence his life would not be worth a moment's purchase, unarmed as he was, and especially as his reappearance meant so much to the disadvantage of the conspirators. With his lantern face and bald, shining head, where the down was just commencing to appear again, he looked a curious figure as he crept through the myrtle and mimosa bushes that grew close up to the hacienda.
FROM his hiding-place he could see the servants going about as if nothing particular were about to happen. He saw Don Zalva, a little more pale and anxious-looking than usual, smoking his cigarette on the balcony, and Harold's heart gave a leap as he saw Haidee looking thin and careworn, as she leant over his chair with loving solicitude. He could almost catch their words.
Presently Haidee retired and Don Zalva commenced to pace the balcony with hurried and impatient strides. He descended to the open patch of green below, and after a time skirted round till Harold could have touched him.
"Hist!" Harold said cautiously. "Do not say anything to attract attention. Walk round again and when you reach this spot once more, pretend to be interested in something. Don't you recognise my voice, Don Zalva?"
"If I do it is a voice from the grave," Don Zalva said quietly, though with a violent start. "But tell me one thing. Are you both saved?"
As Harold replied in the affirmative Don Zalva strode on with the same listless air but inward he was in a state of painfully-suppressed excitement. Twice did he pass the spot where Harold was concealed before he could control himself sufficiently to feign interest in something on the ground, whilst in a few hurried whispers Harold explained the adventures which had happened to himself and Armstrong.
"But it does not in the least matter about us," he said. There is danger threatening you quite equal to anything that we have gone through. There is a plot afoot amongst Paulo and his rascally companions to murder you this very afternoon and carry your daughter away.
"I knew it, but I did not expect it would be quite so soon," Don Zalva replied in tones of resignation. "But, like you, we are utterly unarmed and powerless unless that wonderful Armstrong can hit upon some plan for the destruction of the villains. Did he suggest anything?"
"There was no time, as he wanted to commence at once to lay out his plans for compassing the rascals, which will probably be attempted when they go down in a body this afternoon to remove the treasure from the island."
"Which is already done. I have seen it with my own eyes, an enormous mass of gold and jewels which must be equal to at least £2,000,000 of your English money."
"Then Barrados must have deceived his 'confederates," Harold exclaimed, as Don Zalva hastily explained what had taken place with Haidee's assistance.
"But there is a part of it remaining on the island and it is intended to fetch it this afternoon. The bulk will probably be hidden till Barrados can find a safe opportunity of coming here and conveying it away. But it was well done on your part."
"It was absolutely necessary," Don Zalva said. "And now what is to be done?"
"Remain where you are and keep a careful watch on the ruffians," Harold suggested. "If you note that they all leave at the same time, you will know that the arrangement as to fetching the treasure from the island holds good, and then you can follow them and watch the result of Armstrong's experiment, whatever it may be. Even if it fails, we could all reach the hacienda and barricade ourselves in before the rascals discovered our presence. But I have great faith in Armstrong."
"As I have myself," Don Zalva exclaimed. "Surely Providence must have sent that marvellous man back for our protection. It is something to hear that I am not quite alone in the hour of danger."
"Then you will follow the rascals at a safe distance," Harold replied. "Meanwhile I shall remain here and watch, and directly they have started, join you in the hacienda. You had better return to it now, as you do not know what manner of suspicion you may be arousing by your absence."
Don Zalva took the hint and retired. By this time Harold had heard everything, even down to the dastardly attack upon Larry, whose presence in the hacienda, thanks to Isidore's caution, had not been made known to the conspirators. There was a new elasticity to the Don's step and a brightness in his eyes that aroused the suspicions of Paulo, who watched him closely.
"Ah, we shall change all that presently," he said between his teeth, "and shall wash out many a slight and insult at the same time. And as for Isidore, I shall find some way to tame her spirit yet."
Slowly the time crept on towards the afternoon, and then Don Zalva noticed that the ruffians gradually drew together in one corner of the green sward before the hacienda, where they appeared to be deeply discussing some matter much more important than the dominoes upon which they were ostensibly engaged.
After a little dramatic display, for your Mexican does nothing without a motive, they rose one at a time, as if they had mutually decided to abandon an unpleasant game, and one by one lounged off in the direction of the shore.
Scarcely were they all out of sight before Harold rose from his uncomfortable position, and rapidly crossed to the balcony of the hacienda. There was a broken cry of pleasure as a graceful figure rose from a dusky corner and came forward with outstretched hands.
"Father told me of your marvellous escape," Haidee cried, for it was she. "Oh how glad add thankful I am! Heaven be thanked that you are here!"
Despite the peculiar appearance that Harold presented, Haidee's bright eyes regarded him with a loving look that there was no mistaking. He took the little hands in his, and bent over till his lips touched her cheek.
"Would it have mattered so very much if I had been lost altogether, little one?" he asked tenderly. "I thought of you, but I did not dare to hope—'
"You did; you knew!" Haidee said laughing and crying in a breath. "Harold, you knew that all the world to me was nothing unless I had you."
Harold looked into the beautiful flushed face, all aglow with love and tenderness. Then he took her in his arms, where she lay quiet and contented.
"We have not passed beyond all danger yet," he said, "but if we can tide over this, will you give me the right to shield and guard you always?"
The light that flashed in Haidee's eyes was enough. But further tender passages were cut short by the abrupt appearance of Don Zalva with an intimation that it would be as well to follow the miscreants to the shore.
"No, you must remain here. O'Brady and Isidore will be sufficient protection until we return," he said, as Haidee pleaded to be permitted to accompany them.
"When we come back again you will know your fate."
Pressing Haidee's hand once more, and bidding her to be of good cheer, Harold followed his host into the belt of trees that sheltered the hacienda from the beach. Apparently everything had transpired as Armstrong had expected, and as soon as the companions emerged into the open they saw the five conspirators on the island, bending down and looking intently at the spot where the treasure had lain buried.
They crept along, keeping the workshop between them and the five desperadoes. Not that they had any occasion for precaution, as the ruffians were too deeply engaged in their enthralling conversation. At the moment that Don Zalva and his companion reached the workshop, the door opened and Armstrong appeared. He seemed to have no fear of being seen, for he strode towards the island which, it will be remembered, had practically become part of the main shore, and without a moment's hesitation bailed the ruffians, who were scarcely a hundred yards away.
"Barrados," he cried with a voice like an avenging spirit. "Barrados, what have you done with what belonged by every right to us?"
AS if a bullet had struck him, Barrados bounded to his feet, and turned in the direction of the speaker, his face white and ghastly. A curse broke from the rest of the gang, who were prepared, now that their greed had been fired by a sight of the treasure, to repel opposition by fair or foul means.
"Keep back," Barrados returned hoarsely, "keep back, unless you wish to be sent back to the grave from which you have returned."
"Make a rush for them," Paulo suggested as he caught sight of Don Zalva and Harold. "They are unarmed, and it must be done sooner or later."
Every word was distinctly audible, in the thin dry air, to the little group standing on the sand. Quick as thought, Armstrong laid his hand upon switch to which was attached an electric motor, a pretty toy enough, big absolutely deadly in the hands of a man of someone like himself.
"Be warned in time." he said with great sternness. "Were I only to press my finger upon the tiny disc under my hand you would be all blown into eternity. Providentially, we heard you this morning, and in our own defence laid the mine that is now under your foot. It is for us to make terms."
"He lies," Paulo growled, seeing for effect of the speaker's words upon his less bold companions. "Let us make a dash forward, and—"
He said no more, but darted forward. As he did so the others, inspired by his action, made a rush, Barrados merely standing and covering his face with his hands, as if to close out some awful mental vision.
"They will have it," Armstrong muttered. "After all, it is fated so to be."
The smallest pressure, the infinitesimal downward motion of the tiny disc, scarcely more than a puff of wind might have done, and along the wire the electric spark ran on its swift message of death.
It seemed to the spectators like some rapid optical illusion: one moment they were watching the ruffians racing forward over the rocks, and the next instant of time and the island was absolutely no more. It had absolutely gone. There was a tremendous reverberation, a rushing wind that carried the onlookers off their feet, a shower of stones and fragments of rock, a tremendous inrushing sea, and then all was over.
Armstrong's plan of vengeance had been awfully successful and the little party were free.
"There was no alternative," Armstrong said as he came forward and shook hands with Don Zalva. "But those rascals are not worth another thought. But I am sorry if I have been compelled to destroy all the treasure."
For answer Don Zalva led the way to the workroom, where a great pile of earth told him that the huge mass of gold lay buried. A hasty examination disclosed the glittering nugget, absolutely studded with precious stones, and then in a few words Don Zalva told the whole story.
"I can soon alter all that," Armstrong said. "I can easily fuse it out again and convert it into small bars. As to the precious stones, they will not hurt at all. And now, my boy," the speaker concluded, cheerfully, "you cannot deny that what lies there before you was worth all the risk."
Harold smiled. The gold in itself was nothing, but the treasure in conjunction with Haidee's love was certainly worth everything. He had gained something which, after all, was worth far more than Amyas Coventry's millions.
THERE is a beautiful house in the shire of broad acres where Harold Coventry lives with his charming Mexican wife. Society has taken kindly to her southern loveliness, and society pronounces Don Zalva to be the model of a gentleman. For the Don has sold his property, and prefers to live in England which, if gloomier, is much safer than his native land.
Larry, who prefers to remain near his old friends, is comfortably settled in one of the Coventry Hall lodges where he fights his battles over again for the benefit of his admirers, whilst Isidore is bright and coquettish as of yore.
Last, but by no means least, Armstrong, who strenuously refuses to accept more then £20,000 of the treasure, lives in a marvellous house hard by where he conducts all kinds of weird experiments. The spirit of adventure it still strong upon him, and he hopes to revisit the land of the Astrans again when his experiments are complete. Some day we may have something more to tell of the doings of the marvellous wizard known as Captain Armstrong.
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