THE ORDEAL OF THE CAVERN
A man thinks of many things when dire peril con-fronts him; perhaps of his own safety last of all. I supposed at the first that the great stone had stood upon a balance, and had been so nicely poised that my weight set it sliding to the aperture. A second thought put this by, and would have it that human hands had done the thing and trapped me beyond any hope of release.
Of the suppositions, the latter was the more dreadful. It seized me in the grip of fear and sent me running back to the stone, my wit clean gone from me and my heart beating wildly. I thought that human eyes were watching me, and that men listened for my words. In a paroxysm of terror, I hurled myself at the stone, and pressed upon it until my hands were cut and bleeding and my clothes torn. Then I reeled back, and, sinking upon the floor of the cavern, I cried aloud to Roddy, as though he would hear me, out there by the lake-side.
Here I make no defence. The Cave of the Dead at Ice Haven is as terrible a mausoleum as the world knows. Three walls of it shaped from the rock, the fourth is of pure ice, and in this wall the bodies of the pirates lie. Time does not change them; to-day they are as yesterday; and all the mockery of life is to be read in their staring eyes. You might even think that they would answer if you spoke to them, and never shall I forget the hour when the mad Osbart called upon them to rise up that he might hear their voices and lead them back to the ship they had served so well.
And in this place I had been trapped. It might be by an accident of the stone; it might be by the design of those who had raced us to the haven for the treasure! Who shall wonder that the extremity of the peril drove me to such despair that I write of it even here with reticence.
How long this mental distress endured I am not able to say. The deep stillness of the place did not suggest the passing of time nor any hour of day or night. Such sounds as I heard were of the trickling of water amid the stalagmites and the drip from the rock, where a puny spring bubbled upon the dank floor. My supposition that human hands had trapped me grew less sure as the minutes passed, and at length I began to doubt it. For if it had been the truth, why did the men leave me here, and what was their motive? Did they think my friends would desert me at a nod or that the ship would weigh anchor and sail because the owner of it was lost ashore? This was not to be imagined. I came to see that a natural happening had contrived my imprisonment, and that in one hour or two I should be a free man. Roddy would miss me, and make his way back to the yacht. The skipper himself would come ashore and bring a party. I could not doubt it; and, hope quickening, I stumbled to my feet and began to search the cavern.
Now, I think for the first time, I remembered with what object I had come ashore. Osbart's letter from Parkhurst prison was still in my pocket, and I touched it with my fingers, ironically and in mockery. Of what profit to me were all the gold in the world while I lay trapped here in the very bowels of the earth, and knew not whether I would be alive or dead when the sun rose?
This was a truth I would not make light of; but, none the less, curiosity stood with it and would not be denied. Disdain the treasure as I might, the desire to know the truth about it prevailed and set me prying about the cavern. Line by line I recalled the strange document which had come to me from the prison, "Go where dead men's fingers point." So Osbart had written; and, shudderingly I turned and looked back at the tomb. Was it true that the outstretched hand of a dead pirate would show me the place? I feared almost to look; a cold sweat stood upon my forehead.
And yet the truth was there. Looking for the second time, and telling myself that the place was making a coward of me, I saw the fingers to which the writing referred, grown white as a woman's in the ice. Beyond them, lay the distorted, horrible face of a dead man, whose eyes were bent toward the flags at my feet. I remembered that I had matches, and struck one of them. The faint light drew me downward. I felt about with my hands, and then I knew.
A grey stone, laid in the very centre of the floor, had been newly stirred. I could see the imprint of heavy boots about it, and the marks of the nails with which they were shod. And I did not doubt that this had been the chamber of the treasure.
But again, had not Osbart written those cryptic words, "Turn the crescent of the tomb?" And what could the meaning of them be? A long while I searched vainly for the idea which lay behind the madman's message. Then it came to me suddenly that the wall of the cavern hereabouts jutted out in the shape of a crescent, and that when a man had turned the wall he stood upon the brink of the hiding-place, and might discover the flag at a step. All this, I say, after long debating in the silence of the place, and with all the unceasing mockery of the quest, the sure knowledge that it was without interest for me!
Without interest? Why did I say it? For if this flag had been lifted, was not the treasure already taken? And by whom? Not by Mitchell's men, surely; for, had that been so, he would have weighed anchor and sailed for New York the day he did it. By whom, then? By those who fired the gun at Mitchel's ship! Oh, surely that was something to think upon, something to set my brain aflame.
I have told you that I struck a match to examine the floor of the cavern, and I would say that this discovery of matches in my pocket was the first piece of good fortune I knew that night. My watch now told me that it was past eleven o'clock, and though I held it to my ear and listened, to be sure that it had not tricked me, I could not pass by its warning.
Three hours must have passed since I had entered the cavern; three hours should have brought Roddy to the place, and the Captain with him. I thought of his disquietude at my absence, of the curiosity it would awake, and of what would be done when I did not come. Possibly he had entered a little way into the galleries and listened; but then, had I not hailed him again and again, lifting my voice vainly, and having no answer but those of the haunting echoes? And he had not come; I was alone with the dead, whose fingers still pointed at me in mockery.
With this my courage could not bear, and it gave way utterly at last. I saw myself starved in the tomb; living terrible hours; deserted by those who should have been the first to come to me; dying as dreadful a death as a man may know. The realities of my position could no longer be denied. The dead had trapped me, and with them lay the victory.
But I shall dwell no longer upon such a situation or the price I paid for it. I had passed from the rigours of terror to a sullen and inevitable submission; had abandoned hope, perhaps, and ceased to think about it at all, when first I heard the tread of a foot in the passage, and sprang to my feet as a man possessed. Oh, madman, I thought, to believe that your friends would desert you; fool to make so much of a mishap which a little measure of prudence would have averted! For what had it all been but a slip of the great stone, an hour or two of waiting, and then the good friends from the ship, and the strong arms, and the welcome home. So I thought of it as I ran to the door, and climbing upon the rock bawled "Roddy" with all my lungs. And when he did not answer me, I repeated the cry until the very vault rang with it. "Roddy, Roddy, I am here in the cave; the stone has shut me in; don't you understand?"
There was no reply; not so much as a whisper. Had the stone shut the aperture completely, I could have understood it; but there was a space as broad as a man's hand at the head of it, and but for the formation of the rock I could have looked into the gallery beyond. And more surprising than the silence of those who had come to the cavern was the shuffling of footsteps I now heard distinctly, and then the clang as of some implement, and at last the whisper of voices and the glint of a lantern seen through the interstice. Now I knew that my friends were not there, and instantly bethought me of Mitchell's men. What could their coming mean but a fulfilment of the threat?
Well, I dropped down quietly from the stone and began to blame myself bitterly for leaving my rifle with Roddy when its possession would have meant so much to me. True, I had my revolver, and that would serve me better, perhaps, in the confined space where the fight must be. Drawing it immediately and looking to the chambers, I stepped lightly to the further and darker end of the great cave, and there crouched as a dog waiting for the attack. My blood was up and all fear of the place now cast behind me. Memories of the days I had lived in Ice Haven when Black was King, some recollection of the night when I had bearded the great pirate himself and saved my life by so doing, stood by me and helped me to a resolution. These men might kill me, but some of them should pay a price. And so I waited for them, kneeling in the shadow and listening to the beating of my heart. What an intolerable interval of delay! Why, I could count the very blows of their picks as they worked at the great stone. The temptation to make an appeal to them surged to my lips and needed all my courage to keep back. It must come, I said, this issue of life or death; why, then, should it not come quickly?
Here was a question which the rocks themselves at length bent to answer. I saw that the great stone had begun to slip inward toward the cavern and was inclining inch by inch toward me. Presently it gave a lurch and came bounding down with a mighty thud, raising clouds of the white dust and nearly choking me. Springing to my feet, I had my pistol at the cock and waited for the onset. The dust was slow to settle; the wan light in the cave appeared to be wholly blotted out by it; there was a new age of waiting, and then as some vivid scene of a drama, the picture shaped itself.
I saw the dark figures of men; a lantern flashed in my eyes; some one advanced toward me and uttered my name.
"Osbart," I cried, reeling toward him as a man in a delirium.
He lifted his lantern, the old smile curled about his lips; he offered me his hand.
"I thought I would have good news for the Captain," he said, and without another word he turned and led me from the place.