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Chapter VIII.

THE DANCE OF THE SUN.


It seemed to me then in the minutes that followed that there were
thousands of black demons in that black hole.  At the first rushing
impact I shouted to Harry: "Keep your back to the wall," and for
response I got a high, ringing laugh that breathed the joy of battle.

The thing was sickening.  Harry is a natural fighting man; I am not. 
Without the wall at our backs we would have been overpowered in thirty
seconds; as it was, we were forced to handle half a dozen of them at
once, while the others surged in from behind.  They had no weapons, but
they had the advantage of being able to see us.

They clutched my throat, my arms, my legs, my body; there was no room to
strike; I pushed the knife home.  They fastened themselves to my legs
and feet and tried to bring me down from beneath; once, in slashing at
the head of one whose teeth were set in my calf, I cut myself on the
knee.  It was difficult to stand in the wet, slippery pool that formed
at my feet.

Suddenly I heard a sound that I understood too well--the curious,
rattling sound of a man who is trying to call out when he is being
strangled.

"Harry!" I cried, and I fought like a wild man to get to him, with
knife, feet, hands, teeth.  I reached his coat, his arm; it was
dangerous to strike so near him in the dark, but I felt him sinking to
the ground.

Then I found the taut, straining fingers about his throat, and lunged
forward with the knife--and the fingers relaxed.

Again we were fighting together side by side.

As their bodies fell in front of us we were pressed harder, for those
behind climbed up on the corpses of their fellows and literally
descended on our heads from the air.  We could not have held out much
longer; our breath was coming in quick, painful gasps; Harry stumbled on
one of the prostrate brutes and fell; I tried to lift him and was
unequal to the task.

It appeared to be the end.

Suddenly there rang throughout the cavern a sound as of a gigantic,
deep-toned bell.  The walls sent it back and forth with deafening
echoes; it was as though the mountain had descended with one tremendous
crash into its own bowels.

As though by magic, the assault ceased.

The effect was indescribable.  We could see nothing; we merely became
suddenly aware that there were no longer hands clutching at our throats
or hairy bodies crushing us to the ground.  It was as though the horde
of unseen devils had melted into thin air.  There were movements on the
ground, for many of them had been wounded; a man cannot always reach the
spot in the dark.  This lasted for two or three minutes; they were
evidently removing those who still had life in them, for the straining
breath of men dragging or lifting burdens was plainly audible.

Gradually that, too, died away with the last reverberations of the
mysterious sound that had saved us, and we found ourselves alone--or at
least unmolested--for in the darkness we could see nothing, except the
dim outlines of the prostrate forms at our feet.

The cavern was a shambles.  The smell was that of a slaughter-house.  I
had had no idea of the desperateness of our defense until I essayed to
scramble over the heap of bodies to dry ground; I shuddered and grew
faint, and Harry was in no better case.

Worse, he had dropped his knife when we stumbled, and we were forced to
grope round in that unspeakable mess for many minutes before we found
it.

"Are you hurt, lad?" I asked when once we stood clear.

"Nothing bad, I think," he answered.  "My throat is stiff, and two or
three of the brutes got their teeth in me.  In the name of Heaven, Paul,
what are they?  And what was that bell?"

These were foolish questions, and I told him so.  My leg was bleeding
badly where I had slashed myself, and I, too, had felt their teeth. 
But, despite our utter weariness and our wounds, we wanted nothing--not
even rest--so badly as we wanted to get away from that awful heap of
flesh and blood and the odor of it.

Besides, we did not know at what moment they might return.  So I spoke,
and Harry agreed.  I led the way; he followed.

But which way to turn?  We wanted water, both for our dry and burning
throats and for our wounds; and rest and food.  We thought little of
safety.  One way seemed as likely as another, so we set out with our
noses as guides.

A man encounters very few misfortunes in this world which, later in
life, he finds himself unable to laugh at; well, for me that endless
journey was one of the few.

Every step was torture.  I had bandaged the cut on my leg as well as
possible, but it continued to bleed.  But it was imperative that we
should find water, and we struggled on, traversing narrow passages and
immense caverns, always in complete darkness, stumbling over unseen
rocks and encountering sharp corners of cross passages.

It lasted I know not how many hours.  Neither of us would have survived
alone.  Time and again Harry sank to the ground and refused to rise
until I perforce lifted him; once we nearly came to blows.  And I was
guilty of the same weakness.

But the despair of one inspired the other with fresh strength and
courage, and we struggled forward, slower and slower.  It was
soul-destroying work.  I believe that in the last hour we made not more
than half a mile.  I know now that for the greater part of the time we
were merely retracing our steps in a vicious circle!

It was well that it ended when it did, for we could not have held out
much longer.  Harry was leading the way, for I had found that that
slight responsibility fortified him.  We no longer walked, we barely
went forward, staggering and reeling like drunken men.

Suddenly Harry stopped short, so suddenly that I ran against him; and at
the same time I felt a queer sensation--for I was too far gone to
recognize it--about my feet.

Then Harry stooped over quickly, half knocking me down as he did so, and
dropped to his knees; and the next instant gave an unsteady cry of joy:

"Water!  Man, it's water!"

How we drank and wallowed, and wallowed and drank!  That water might
have contained all the poisons in the world and we would have neither
known nor cared.  But it was cool, fresh, living--and it saved our
lives.

We bathed our wounds and bandaged them with strips from our shirts. 
Then we arranged our clothing for cushions and pillows as well as
possible, took another drink, and lay down to sleep.

We must have slept a great many hours.  There was no way to judge of
time, but when we awoke our joints were as stiff as though they had
gotten rusty with the years.  I was brought to consciousness by the
sound of Harry's voice calling my name.

Somehow--for every movement was exquisite pain--we got to our feet and
reached the water, having first removed our clothing.  But we were now
at that point where to drink merely aggravated our hunger.  Harry was in
a savage humor, and when I laughed at him he became furious.

"Have some sense.  I tell you, I must eat!  If it were not for your--"

"Go easy, Hal.  Don't say anything you'll be sorry for.  And I refuse to
consider the sordid topic of food as one that may rightfully contain the
elements of tragedy.  We seem to be in the position of the king of
vaudeville.  If we had some ham we'd have some ham and eggs--if we had
some eggs."

"You may joke, but I am not made of iron!" he cried.

"And what can we do but die?" I demanded.  "Do you think there is any
chance of our getting out of this?  Take it like a man.  Is it right for
a man who has laughed at the world to begin to whine when it becomes
necessary to leave it?

"You know I'm with you; I'll fight, and what I find I'll take; in the
mean time I prefer not to furnish amusement for the devil. There comes a
time, I believe, when the stomach debases us against our wills.  May I
die before I see it."

"But what are we to do?"

"That's more like it.  There's only one hope.  We must smell out the
pantry that holds the dried fish."

We talked no more, but set about bathing and dressing our wounds.  Gad,
how that cold water took them!  I was forced to set my teeth deep into
my lip to keep from crying out, and once or twice Harry gave an
involuntary grunt of pain that would not be suppressed.

When we had finished we waded far to the right to take a last deep
drink; then sought our clothing and prepared to start on our all but
hopeless search.  We had become fairly well limbered up by that time and
set out with comparative ease.

We had gone perhaps a hundred yards, bearing off to the right, when
Harry gave a sudden cry: "My knife is gone!" and stopped short.  I
clapped my hand to my own belt instinctively, and found it empty both of
knife and gun!  For a moment we stood in silence; then:

"Have you got yours?" he demanded.

When I told him no he let out an oath.

His gun was gone, also.  We debated the matter, and decided that to
attempt a search would be a useless waste of time; it was next to
certain that the weapons had been lost in the water when we had first
plunged in.  And so, doubly handicapped by this new loss, we again set
out.

There was but one encouragement allowed to us: we were no longer in
total darkness.  Gradually our eyes were becoming accustomed to the
absence of light; and though we could by no means see clearly, nor even
could properly be said to see at all, still we began to distinguish the
outlines of walls several feet away; and, better than that, each of us
could plainly mark the form and face of the other.

Once we stood close, less than a foot apart, for a test; and when Harry
cried eagerly, "Thank Heaven, I can see your nose!" our strained
feelings were relieved by a prolonged burst of genuine laughter.

There was little enough of it in the time that followed, for our
sufferings now became a matter not of minutes or hours, but of days. 
The assault of time is the one that unnerves a man, especially when it
is aided by gnawing pain and weariness and hunger; it saps the courage
and destroys the heart and fires the brain.

We dragged ourselves somehow ever onward.  We found water; the mountain
was honeycombed with underground streams; but no food. More than once we
were tempted to trust ourselves to one of those rushing torrents, but
what reason we had left told us that our little remaining strength was
unequal to the task of keeping our heads above the surface.  And yet the
thought was sweet--to allow ourselves to be peacefully swept into
oblivion.

We lost all idea of time and direction, and finally hope itself deserted
us.  What force it was that propelled us forward must have been buried
deep within the seat of animal instinct, for we lost all rational power.
 The thing became a nightmare, like the crazy wanderings of a lost soul.

Forward--forward--forward!  It was a mania.

Then Harry was stricken with fever and became delirious.  And I think it
was that seeming misfortune that saved us, for it gave me a spring for
action and endowed me with new life.  As luck would have it, a stream of
water was near, and I half carried and half dragged him to its edge.

I made a bed for him with my own clothing on the hard rock, and bathed
him and made him drink, while all the time a string of delirious drivel
poured forth from his hot, dry lips.

That lasted many hours, until finally he fell into a deep, calm sleep. 
But his body was without fuel, and I was convinced he would never
awaken; yet I feared to touch him.  Those were weary hours, squatting by
his side with his hand gripped in my own, with the ever-increasing pangs
of hunger and weariness turning my own body into a roaring furnace of
pain.

Suddenly I felt a movement of his hand; and then came his voice, weak
but perfectly distinct:

"Well, Paul, this is the end."

"Not yet, Harry boy; not yet."

I tried to put cheer and courage into my own voice, but with poor
success.

"I--think--so.  I say, Paul--I've just seen Desiree."

"All right, Hal."

"Oh, you don't need to talk like that; I'm not delirious now. I guess it
must have been a dream.  Do you remember that morning on the
mountain--in Colorado--when you came on us suddenly at sunrise? Well, I
saw her there--only you were with her instead of me.  So, of course, she
must be dead."

His logic was beyond me, but I pressed his hand to let him know that I
understood.

"And now, old man, you might as well leave me.  This is the end.  You've
been a good sport.  We made a fight, didn't we?  If only Desiree--but
there!  To Hades with women, I say!"

"Not that--don't be a poor loser, Hal.  And you're not gone yet.  When a
man has enough fight in him to beat out an attack of fever he's very
much alive."

But he would not have it so.  I let him talk, and he rambled on, with
scarcely an idea of what he was saying.  The old days possessed his
mind, and, to tell the truth, the sentiment found a welcome in my own
bosom.  I said to myself, "This is death."

And then, lifting my head to look down the dark passage that led away
before us, I sprang to my feet with a shout and stood transfixed with
astonishment.  And the next instant there came a cry of wonder from
Harry:

"A light!  By all the gods, a light!"

So it was.  The passage lay straight for perhaps three hundred yards. 
There it turned abruptly; and the corner thus formed was one blaze of
flickering but brilliant light which flowed in from the hidden corridor.

It came and went, and played fitfully on the granite walls; still it
remained.  It was supernaturally brilliant; or so it seemed to us, who
had lived in utter darkness for many days.

I turned to Harry, and the man who had just been ready to die was rising
to his feet!

"Wait a minute--not so fast!" I said half angrily, springing to support
him.  "And, for Heaven's sake, don't make any noise! We're in no
condition to fight now, and you know what that light means."

"But what is it?" demanded the boy excitedly.  "Come on, man-- let's
go!"

To tell the truth, I felt as eager as he.  For the first time I
understood clearly why the Bible and ancient mythology made such a fuss
about the lighting up of the world.  Modern civilization is too far away
from its great natural benefits to appreciate them properly.

And here was a curious instance of the force of habit--or, rather,
instinct--in man.  So long as Harry and I had remained in the dark
passage and byways of the cavern we had proceeded almost entirely
without caution, with scarcely a thought of being discovered.

But the first sight of light made us wary and careful and silent; and
yet we knew perfectly well that the denizens of this underworld could
see as well in the darkness as in the light-- perhaps even better.  So
difficult is it to guide ourselves by the human faculty of pure reason.

Harry was so weak he was barely able to stand, even in the strength of
this new excitement and hope, and we were forced to go very slowly; I
supported him as well as I was able, being myself anything but an engine
of power.  But the turn in the passage was not far away, and we reached
it in a quarter of an hour or less.

Before we made the turn we halted.  Harry was breathing heavily even
from so slight an exertion, and I could scarcely suppress a cry of
amazement when, for the first time in many days, the light afforded me a
view of his face.

It was drawn and white and sunken; the eyes seemed set deep in his skull
as they blinked painfully; and the hair on his chin and lip and cheeks
had grown to a length incredible in so short a space of time.  I soon
had reason to know that I probably presented no better an appearance,
for he was staring at me as though I were some strange monster.

"Good Heavens, man, you took like a ghost!" he whispered.

I nodded; my arm was round his shoulder.

"Now, let's see what this light means.  Be ready for anything,
Harry--though Heaven knows we can find nothing worse than we've had. 
Here, put your arm on my shoulder.  Take it easy."

We advanced to the corner together within the patch of light and turned
to the right, directly facing its source.

It is impossible to convey even a faint idea of the wild and hugely
fantastic sight that met our gaze.  With us it was a single, vivid flash
to the astonished brain.  These are the details:

Before us was an immense cavern, circular in shape, with a diameter of
some half a mile.  It seemed to me then much larger; from where we stood
it appeared to be at least two miles to the opposite side.  There was no
roof to be seen; it merely ascended into darkness, though the light
carried a great distance.

All round the vast circumference, on terraced seats of rock, squatted
row after row of the most completely hideous beings within possibility.

They were men; I suppose they must have the name.  They were about four
feet tall, with long, hairy arms and legs, bodies of a curious, bloated
appearance, and eyes--the remainder of the face was entirely concealed
by thick hair--eyes dull and vacant, of an incredibly large size; they
had the appearance of ghouls, apes, monsters--anything but human beings.

They sat, thousands of them, crouched silently on their stone seats,
gazing, motionless as blocks of wood.

The center of the cavern was a lake, taking up something more than half
of its area.  The water was black as night, and curiously smooth and
silent.  Its banks sloped by degrees for a hundred feet or so, but at
its edge there was a perpendicular bank of rock fifteen or twenty feet
in height.

Near the middle of the lake, ranged at an equal distance from its center
and from each other, were three--what shall I call them?--islands, or
columns.  They were six or eight feet across at their top, which rose
high above the water.

On top of each of these columns was a huge vat or urn, and from each of
the urns arose a steady, gigantic column of fire. These it was that gave
the light, and it was little wonder we had thought it brilliant, since
the flames rose to a height of thirty feet or more in the air.

But that which left us speechless with profound amazement was not the
endless rows of silent, grinning dwarfs, nor the black, motionless lake,
nor the leaping tongues of flame.  We forgot these when we followed the
gaze of that terrifying audience and saw a sight that printed itself on
my brain with a vividness which time can never erase.  Closing my eyes,
I see it even now, and I shudder.

Exactly in the center of the lake, in the midst of the columns of fire,
was a fourth column, built of some strangely lustrous rock.  Prisms of a
formation new to me--innumerable thousands of them--caused its sides to
sparkle and glisten like an immense tower of whitest diamonds, blinding
the eye.

The effect was indescribable.  The huge cavern was lined and dotted with
the rays shot forth from their brilliant angles.  The height of this
column was double that of the others; it rose straight toward the unseen
dome of the cavern to the height of a hundred feet.

It was cylindrical in shape, not more than ten feet in diameter.  And on
its top, high above the surface of the lake, surrounded by the mounting
tongues of flame, whirled and swayed and bent the figure of a woman.

Her limbs and body, which were covered only by long, flowing strands of
golden hair, shone and glistened strangely in the lurid, weird light. 
And of all the ten thousand reflections that shot at us from the length
of the column not one was so brilliant, so blinding, as the wild glow of
her eyes.

Her arms, upraised above her head, kept time with and served as a key to
every movement of her white, supple body.  She glided across, back and
forth, now this way, now that, to the very edge of the dizzy height,
with wild abandon, or slow, measured grace, or the rushing sweep of a
panther.

The thing was beauty incarnate--the very idea of beauty itself realized
and perfected.  It was staggering, overwhelming.  Have you ever stood
before a great painting or a beautiful statue and felt a thrill--the
thrill of perception--run through your body to the very tips of your
fingers?

Well, imagine that thrill multiplied a thousandfold and you will
understand the sensation that overpowered me as I beheld, in the midst
of that dazzling blaze of light, the matchless Dance of the Sun.

For I recognized it at once.  I had never seen it, but it had been
minutely described to me--described by a beautiful and famous woman as I
sat on the deck of a yacht steaming into the harbor of Callao.

She had promised me then that she would dance it for me some day--

I looked at Harry, who had remained standing beside me, gazing as I had
gazed.  His eyes were opened wide, staring at the swaying figure on the
column in the most profound astonishment.

He took his hand from my shoulder and stood erect, alone; and I saw the
light of recognition and hope and deepest joy slowly fill his eyes and
spread over his face.  Then I realized the danger, and I endeavored once
more to put my arm round his shoulder; but he shook me off with hot
impatience.  He leaped forward with the quickness of lightning, eluding
my frantic grasp, and dashed straight into the circle of blazing light!

I followed, but too late.  At the edge of the lake he stopped, and,
stretching forth his arms toward the dancer on the column, he cried out
in a voice that made the cavern ring:

"Desiree!  Desiree!  Desiree!"

To Chapter 9

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