The Warriors of the Waters.
By J.-H. Rosny.
[Published as Nymphée in 1893.]
Translated from the French by John W. Harding for THE ECLECTIC MAGAZINE.
I HAVE always been convinced that notwithstanding the discoveries made in all parts of the world by armies of explorers, there exist many things, many lands and strange beings that we wot not of, the like of which we have never dreamed in our philosophy. This conviction has been strengthened in no small measure by the extraordinary adventures that happened to me in Eastern Asia, and which I venture to recount in detail, partly from data committed to my diary, partly from memory; for though, as it will be seen, circumstances were not always favorable to the taking of notes, the events which befell in such rapid succession were of so startling a nature as to impress themselves indelibly upon my mind.
Yes, there are many mysterious places on the earth: swamp and forest land, mountains and subterranean regions with marvelous rivers that still remain uncharted. Travelers have no doubt skirted them, but have been headed off by bogs and stagnant waters breeding sickness and death, by hunger and thirst, and impenetrable brushwood. In regard to caverns, speaking only of Europe, Asia and America—for certain parts of Africa and Australia are still terra incognita, and no man has penetrated to the extreme Arctic and Antarctic latitudes—there are several wonderful grottoes, even in France itself, that have never been explored.
What I am about to relate is the plain, unvarnished truth, and inasmuch as I am inventing nothing, I make bold to say that it is one of the most stirring, most absorbing stories of travel and adventure ever told. Should the reader fall to indorse my opinion, it will be because I am unable to set down my exploits in a sufficiently attractive manner, but this will detract nothing from their phenomenal character.
I will refrain from unnecessary preliminary explanations. Suffice it to say that despite my comparative youthfulness, I accompanied, in the capacity of naturalist and physician, the geographical expedition sent out a few years ago by the French Government to the regions of the Amoor on the confines of Russia in Asia and the Chinese Empire. Our leader was Jean Louis Devreuse, captain of the cruiser Hero whose fame as an explorer of the Antarctic regions being universal, it is not needful for me to descant upon.
The story begins in the eighth month of our voyage.
THE LAND OF DREARY WATERS.
The country through which we were traveling is remarkable for its fecundity. Few, if any, human beings live there. Profound silence reigns over the formidable marshes. The brute creation increases and multiplies undisturbed on land and in the water: birds fill the air to the very clouds; the rivers positively teem with aquatic life. There the soul expands. For months I felt the intoxicating joy of living, gave full freedom to the flights of my fancy and imagination.
At the outset we saw large droves of wild horses and packs of wolves and bears roving about, and great flocks of cranes and wood pigeons rose as we approached them.
Then we came to the marshes. A country of uncertain, uninviting appearance stretched away to the left, jutted with long capes upon which innumerable herons ruminated solemnly and the wind moaned among the rushes. We waded through several weed-covered lagoons, and crossed a deep swamp on a raft made from a tree that had been blasted and stricken down by lightning. And the black-looking country widened, heaving with feverish reptilian life: gigantic toads hopped along the banks, serpents wriggled in the mud and rotting herbage, myriads of insects burrowed in the soft soil. Insipid, sickly gases that became phosphorescent at night and flickered in countless wills-o’-the-wisp rose from the bogs. The sky cloudy and opaque, was so low that it seemed to rest upon the strips of earth that barred the slimy waters in the distance. It was grandiose, but frightful, and it filled us with awe. We pushed on, not having the courage to turn back, and daily expecting to reach drier and more salubrious country.
It was toward the end of August. For three weeks we had been roaming at hazard, trusting to luck to pull us through. In crossing some rapids we lost our tents, and our men were visibly discouraged; but the chief would not give up. Imbued with the restless spirit of exploration, endowed with stubborn energy, stern, implacable, almost cruel, he pertained to that race of aggressive fighters who scorn all obstacles, rule men with an iron hand and know how to die heroically, if necessary, but whose private life is morose, monotonous, devoid of interest. He held us under the yoke of his will.
Our Asiatic guide had lost his reckoning completely, and had not the remotest idea as to where we were. To all our inquiries he replied with the impassible sadness peculiar to Orientals:
“Me no sabe—land of bad men—me no sabe.”
Our men began to show signs of mutiny. I personally did not care. My only anxiety was for dainty little Sabine Devreuse, daughter of the captain. How ever she obtained permission to accompany the expedition I could never understand. Doubtless the captain, in capitulating to her pleading, had imagined that the journey would be a short one and fraught with no particular danger. It is a fact that those who wander about the world become in course of time inexplicably optimistic and place unbounded confidence in their lucky star.
Each day Sabine Devreuse had become dearer to me. She shed the light of grace over the company. Because of her our arduous journey seemed to me but a happy excursion, our halts in the evening an incomparable poem. Notwithstanding her delicate beauty and frail appearance she was never ill, scarcely ever weary.
One morning we thought we had reached a more promising territory. The captain was disposed to congratulate himself, for we were crossing a plain that was only dotted by a few ponds.
“We shall emerge to the east, probably on to prairie land, as I foresaw,” he said.
I confess I did not share his optimism. As I gazed toward the horizon I had the presentiment that we were far from being at the end of our troubles. It turned out that my apprehensions were well founded for we were soon floundering in the swamps again. To add to our discomfort a steady, interminable downpour of rain set in. The ground, where there happened to be any, was covered with spongy moss, and mucous lichens. We wasted days in going round deep swamps, while all kinds of paludinous creatures glided about and frightened our horses. Our water-proof overcoats were worn full of holes and we were drenched to the skin.
Our halt on August 30, on a small stony eminence that would not have afforded shelter to a rat and was bare of anything that could serve as fuel was one of the most disheartening episodes of the voyage. The captain, as stiff and stern as the Assyrians escorting their prisoners on the bas-reliefs of Khorsabab, spoke to no one. An abominable twilight was expiring in the deluge. The Implacable -humidity, the funereal greyness, exercised a still more depressing effect upon everybody. Sabine Devreuse alone summed up courage enough to smile. Dear girl! She symbolized the comfort of our Western homes; and in listening .to her silvery voice I forgot alike my sadness and lassitude.
Figure to yourself, if you can, our position, lying on the viscous soil in absolute darkness; for it was the period of the new moon, and the sky was covered from east to west with threefold curtains of clouds. Yet I slept, though my slumber was disturbed at intervals by frightful nightmares.
About an hour before dawn our horses began to stamp and snort with terror, and made frantic efforts to break their leather halters. The guide touched my arm.
“The man-eater!” he said.
You cannot imagine the horror these words inspired in the inky darkness and the cold, incessant douche. I sat up quickly and reached for my rifle, which was protected by a case of thick oiled leather. Then I peered into the darkness. I might as well have tried to look through a brick wall.
“How do you know?” I asked.
A muffled growl on the plain answered the question and left no room for doubt that the man spoke sooth. It was, indeed, the great man-eating tiger of the north, successor, if not the descendant, of the lord of the quaternary age, that crosses the frozen rivers to ravage the small cities of the Amoor.
It was not the first time he had tracked us, but previously twelve men, well armed, all good shots, and protected by a bright camp fire had nothing to fear. Now, however, it was different. Though he could see us, we could not see him in the dense night, blacker than the Egyptian plague of darkness, strain our eyes as we would, and could only await the attack in anxious suspense.
“Form a square,” ordered the captain.
We sprang to our feet. The horses were plunging more frantically than ever, and it would have been dangerous to seek to use them as a rampart against the enemy.
“He come—me hear him!” exclaimed the guide.
No one doubted that he was right for we all knew that the Asiatic’s hearing was wonderfully acute, and—oh! that wall of humidity, that pall of rain, the unspeakable mystery of the night! I in turn soon heard the monster creeping stealthily toward us. The feeling that he could see us, was preparing to spring upon us suddenly, without warning, filled us with dread. It was calculated to make the bravest quail, and it did.
There was a pause. The tiger was probably hesitating in the choice of his victim. He must have been astonished at the presence of men and horses in those endless solitudes. Then we could hear him moving again. He was somewhere to the left of my side of the square and nearer to us than the horses.
“Take a chance shot,” murmured Devreuse to me, for I was considered to be the best marksman of the troop.
A roar followed the sharp crack of the rifle, and then we heard the fall of a heavy body. Next we knew that the tiger was very near to us, for we could hear him breathing heavily, in short gasps.
“Shoot, Lachal, you, too, Alcuin!” cried the captain.
By the light of the two flashes we saw the monster crouching to spring, then, before Devreuse could give another order, there was a rush through the air, and in the impenetrable darkness arose the agonized shriek of a man.
For two seconds we were paralyzed with horror. No one dared to shoot. Another shriek, a crunching sound, and somebody fired. The flash revealed two men on the ground and the tiger preparing to strike down a third victim. A shower of blows with the butt end of the rifles descended upon the man-eater, and four reports rang out, answered by a prolonged, frightful howl.
“He wounded,” whispered the guide.
Hardly had he spoken when there was another roar, I felt a great mass hurled against me, and I was seized, rolled over, shaken as a rat is shaken by a terrier, and carried off.
“It is all up with me,” I thought.
An incredible resignation came over me, a sort of lucid hallucination. I gave myself up to death. I was not hurt and I still clutched my rifle.
After awhile the tiger stopped. I was dropped on the ground, felt a hot, fetid breath upon my face, and suddenly all my resignation gave place to extreme terror and regret of life. A great paw descended upon me, and I felt that I was about to be crushed, torn to pieces and devoured.
“Farewell!” I shouted feebly.
In my desperation I had instinctively raised my rifle. A flash, a report! The tiger howled and leaped into the air. I, extended on the ground, awaited death. I could hear a heavy grunting three paces from me. A glimmer of hope entered my breast: How is this? Am I to live, am I to die? Why is the monster grunting and rolling, instead of taking his vengeance?
He struggled up, fell down again,
there was a frightful gasp, then silence. The next thing I knew I was on my feet and heard the sound of approaching voices.
“He very dead!” exclaimed the Asiatic, and his hand seized mine in the darkness.
I responded with a vise-like grip. My mind was still filled with anguish, doubt as to whether the tiger was really dead, fear that he would bound upon me again. But I could only hear the monotonous trickling of the rain and the footsteps of my companions as they groped their way cautiously toward me.
“Robert, are you safe?” shouted the captain.
“Yes, all right,” I responded.
After several vain attempts I succeeded in striking a match under cover of my overcoat. The scene disclosed by the faint flicker was striking in the extreme. The tiger, lying in the blood-dyed mud, was a magnificent creature. Even in death it preserved a menacing attitude. Its lips were drawn back as in an angry snarl, baring the cruel fangs, and a paw raised showed the strong, sharp claws. How was It possible that I was among the living? I could scarcely realize that I had been snatched by a miracle from the jaws of dead.
“He very dead!” repeated the Asiatic.
We rejoined the captain and felt our way back to the knoll.
“Are you hurt?” asked a voice in sweet, tremulous tones that made my heart beat violently.
“No, mademoiselle,” I answered her; “or at any rate not seriously. The brute must have gripped me by the leather and india rubber of my clothing. But what about the others?”
“I believe I have got a nasty scratch on the chest—the tiger left me at once,” replied Alcuin.
Another and more plaintive voice exclaimed:
“And I am wounded on the hip, but the shock was even worse than the bite.”
We forgot all about our fatigue and the rain. Our escape from the deadly peril, in which we had been placed, filled us with an excitement that was almost joyous. Finally a faint greyness appeared in the Bast and lightened reluctantly until we were able to see each other. The cheerless day dawned upon a scene of desolation— the abomination of desolation—a scene of flooded marshes all around us; and our excitement was succeeded by gloomy foreboding, though, as far as I was concerned, I had only eyes and thoughts for Sabine, and would have put up with anything so that I could be near her. Our wounds were not serious enough to render a continuance of the halt imperative, and we pushed on.
Another day was spent in the horrible solitude and the rain that soaked all the energy out of us. The men began to grumble seriously. They kept at a distance and held whispered conferences among themselves. Whenever I happened to approach them they regarded me distrustfully. It was easy to see that they were plotting, and though I personally was prepared to follow the captain to the end of the world, I could understand their dissatisfaction and felt sorry for them.
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon Devreuse decided to call a halt. Apart from our excessive fatigue and the attention due to the wounded men, the halt was occasioned by the discovery of a shelter.
In the middle of the plain was a queer hillock of rock about ninety feet high. We entered a hollow that seemed to have been widened by human hands and came near the top to a plateau and a spacious grotto, fairly well lighted, and with a sloping and perfectly dry floor.
After being two days in the rain there seemed to be something providential in the discovery of this shelter, and the men manifested the intention of passing the night there. The chief could not refuse a demand so reason
able. Our horses easily made the ascent, and we found ourselves lodged with unhoped-for comfort. I say unhoped-for, because, branching from the grotto were a number of passages, and in a depression of the plateau a small lake that the rain kept filled with running water; so that we were able not only to perform much needed toilet operations, but to rinse a part of our clothing and hang it in the passages to dry, after which we ate the provisions remaining from our last hunt— a few cooked slices of moose. How glad we should have been to wash the food down with a cup of hot tea, I need hardly say; but alas! there was no means of making a fire.
“It would be advisable to cut a few branches,” observed one of the men.
“They wouldn’t have time to dry,” said the captain morosely.
The tone of the man’s remark struck me. I was standing at the entrance to the grotto with Sabine. We were gazing out upon the landscape through the melancholy curtain of the rain. But it was a blissful moment to me. Sabine, in her gray mantle, her hair caught up negligently, a glow of color in her cheeks, was the embodiment of youth, life and grace. She inspired me with an exquisite fear, a mystic palpitation. Her sweet smile banished all my homesickness and anxieties.
As I said, the tone of the man’s remark (it was Alcuin who had spoken) struck me, and I turned round. Devreuse had also noticed it, and demanded with severity:
“What is that you say?”
Alcuin, troubled at first, answered, after some hesitation, with respectful firmness:
“You see, captain, it’s like this: We are very tired. A rest of a few days is necessary—and Lefort’s wound wants a lot of nursing.”
His comrades nodded approval, which fact ought to have made the chief reflect; but, as usual, his unreasonable obstinacy asserted itself.
“We go on to-morrow morning,” he announced curtly.
“We can’t do it,” remonstrated Alcuin, and he ventured to add: “We wish for five days’ rest. The shelter is good, and we should be able to pull ourselves together in that time.”
The chief’s hard face betrayed a suspicion of indecision, but the man, decidedly, was inaccessible to kindly sentiments, too carried away by his belief in his absolutism and prescience. He had now decided that there was a passage to the southwest, and would not lose a day in attaining it.
“We go on to-morrow morning,” he repeated.
“But suppose we cannot?” insisted Alcuin mildly. Devreuse frowned
“Do you refuse to obey my orders?”
“No, captain, we don’t refuse, but we really cannot go any further. The expedition was only to last three months.”
Devreuse, agitated, evidently recognized that there was some justice in his subordinate’s demands, or he would not have hesitated before replying. I still hoped that he would have the good sense to accord the respite, but no, he could not make up his mind to give way.
“Very well,” he said, “I will go alone.”
Then, turning to me, he added: “You will wait here ten days for me.”
“No,” I retorted; “if the others intend to abandon you, it is not for me to judge their conduct. As for me, 1 swear that I will not leave you till we reach civilization again.”
The men remained impassible. Devreuse’s lips quivered with unaccustomed emotion.
“Thank you, Robert,” he said warmly, and addressing the others disdainfully:
“Taking into consideration the length and hardship of the journey, I will not denounce your conduct. But I order you to wait here for us for fifteen days. This time, unless compelled by uncontrollable circumstances, disobedience of my order will be treason.”
“Until the evening of the fifteenth day at the very least,” said Alcuin humbly, “and we regret”
Devreuse interrupted him with a haughty gesture, and a long and gloomy silence fell upon the company.
THE OLD STORY.
I rose at daybreak. The others were still sleeping soundly. I was nervous and racked with uneasiness on account of delicate little Sabine, whose father was about to expose her to new dangers. I regretted my resolution of the previous night. Had I sided with the men the captain might not have been so obstinate. I was worried by this idea, although I argued that, unbending, as he was, such action on my part would have made no difference. He would have gone all the same, taking Sabine with him, and separation from the latter would have been more bitter to me than death.
Thus I mused at the entrance of the grotto. Another dismal day had begun in the relentless rain. The whole country was under water. Water triumphed over earth and sky.
Suddenly I heard a slight noise, light footsteps behind me. I turned. It was Sabine. Enveloped in her little mantle she advanced with a charming air of mystery, and all my sadness vanished. Motionless, hypnotized, I could scarcely articulate a word of polite greeting.
“I want to speak to you,” she murmured. “I was greatly touched by your devotedness yesterday. My father, who will be eternally grateful to you, does not know how to thank any one. Shall I thank you for him?”
Her sweet voice sent the blood coursing madly through my veins. Oh! how I loved her! It was as much as I could do to restrain myself from taking her in my arms and blurting out the secret that my lips feared to tell. I would cheerfully, nay, eagerly, have laid down my life for her, gone anywhere, done anything, confronted any danger to merit a smile of approval from her.
“If in speaking as I did I but pleased you, the reward is too great,” I stammered.
She gazed at me with her wondrous blue eyes, then lowered them and blushed. I was shaking like a leaf, almost irresistibly compelled to declare my love, dreading lest I should lose the consolation of accompanying her and being near her if I did.
“Yes, too great. Your thanks would more than repay any peril incurred, any devotedness.”
She kept her eyes lowered, and I felt that the supreme moment had arrived, that I was face to face with my destiny, that she represented Life or Nirvana to me.
“My devotion frightened you?” I faltered.
“I should be timid, indeed, were that the case,” she said with a tinge of irony, but an irony so sweet, so kind!
My doubt continued—the fear of losing all by a throw of the dice: a “yes,” a “no.”
“Will you not let me follow you always?” I ventured, hardly conscious of what I was saying.
“Yes, all my life!”
She became serious. I was desperate. There was no receding now. The die was cast. I continued:
“May I not ask your father whether he will take me with him as his son?”
An air of doubt passed over her visage; then with charming bravery she said:
“Yes, ask him!”
“Sabine,” I cried, choking with emotion, “can I dare to believe that you love me?”
“What, then, would you believe?”
This was said with a tinge of her former irony, delicious, tender Irony.
Oh! that beautiful rainy morning,
that paradise of swamps. Gently I had caught her hand, gently I had raised it to my lips. I was king of the world.
SNATCHED PROM DEATH BY A STRANGE BEING.
Two days had elapsed since we—the captain, Sabine and I—had quitted the men in the grotto. The country grew more dismal as we advanced, though it was not devoid of a certain sombre and grandiose beauty. Whether there was an issue or not it was certain that the journey was hourly becoming more painful. Luckily we had only brought Sabine’s little horse with us; our own mounts would have been an encumbrance rather than a help.
The rain had ceased, and we were trudging along a ridge of land that was surrounded in every direction by pools.
“Night is coming on. Another effort,” urged the captain.
And night was coming on. We made for what appeared to be a knoll. I do not know what came over Sabine’s horse, but it suddenly took it into its head to bolt, and away it dashed, passing to the left of the knoll like a streak of lightning. We heard Sabine scream, and running forward found that the animal had plunged into a bog. Without taking time to reflect I rushed to the rescue, and in an instant was floundering beside the girl in the treacherous soil.
“Our movements only make us sink deeper,” remarked Sabine.
There could be no doubt about It . Caught in a net of plants we could neither advance nor recede. We were in one of those traps in which inert Nature seems to suck under with slow but sure ferocity the living beings that fall into them.
The captain, however, had not lost his presence of mind. He approached by a round-about way along a narrow tongue of land that jutted obliquely in our direction. He had uncoiled a few yards of rope, and was gathering it up to throw us the end of it. Our only hope was in him, and we followed his movements with anguish. Suddenly he slipped, stumbled, tried to recover himself and draw back. The soil of the promontory, composed, doubtless, at the extremity where he was standing, of a decayed vegetable crust gave way. Devreuse flung out his hands trying to clutch at something to save himself, but in vain, and he found himself in the same position as we were!
Moreover, night had set in, and everything appeared vague and indistinct. In the penumbra of the vast solitude we could hear the sighing and wailing of the brute creation. Wills-o’-the-wisp flickered around us. We were prisoners of the slough. At the slightest motion we sank a little deeper. Every minute marked a stage toward the inevitable doom that awaited us, of being swallowed up by the earth. The moon, fuliginous and languid, made its appearance between misty banks of clouds, and hung like a great ball on a distant curtain of poplars. The horse was burled to the haunches, and Sabine gazed at me despairingly.
“Robert, we are lost!” she exclaimed.
Once more I made a desperate effort to extricate myself, but it only hastened the fatal hour.
“Well,” cried the captain, “unless help arrives—and I don’t see where it is to come from—it is all up with us, my poor children.”
There was an inflection of tenderness in his stern voice that went to my heart. Sabine’s eyes dilated with horror. They wandered alternately from her father to me, and all three of us felt our strength deserting’ us, realizing that the end was not far off.
“God help us,” sighed Sabine.
The moon, rending her misty veil, shone brightly over all. In the south a few stars twinkled solitarily, like a little archipelago on the bosom of the ocean. The wind swept slowly over the marshes with a heavy, poisonous sweetness.
The mud was up to my shoulders. In half an hour I should have disappeared. Sabine stretched forth her hand to try and keep me up.
“Let us die together, Robert,” she murmured.
• • • • •
A confused melody was wafted over the marshes. It was a weird, strange music, that belonged to no epoch, no country that I knew of, with intervals inappreciable to the ear, yet perceptible. We looked in the direction whence it came and in the refulgent light of the moon perceived the silhouette of a man standing on a strip of earth, a sort of elongated islet. In his hands he held an object the shape of which I could not discern.
All at once we saw an extraordinary sight. Giant salamanders clambered on to the islet and gathered about the man. They were followed by toads and water snakes. Bats fluttered over his head; grebes hopped around him; rats and other creatures crept up; water fowl and owls mingled with the audience. The man continued his bizarre music, and it diffused a great gentleness over the scene, a sentiment of pantheistic fraternity that communicated itself even to us, notwithstanding the horror of our position.
We lifted up our voices in a cry of distress.
The music ceased and the man turned toward us. When he noted the predicament we were in he leaped from the islet and disappeared among the weeds. Mingled anguish and hope kept us as motionless as statues. In a few minutes that seemed an eternity of time to us the man reappeared close by and came toward us. We were unable to follow his movements, but presently Sabine and I felt ourselves seized and dragged along. A few seconds later we were floundering through a less perfidious mire and soon were standing on solid earth once more. Devreuse, rescued in the same manner, rejoined us, and the stranger contemplated us with deep, but kindly interest.
He was almost nude, his sole garment consisting of a loin cloth of fibre. The hair of his head was thin and resembled barbated lichens, but he had no hair on the face or body, and his skin, which bore no trace of the mud into which he had waded was shiny, in fact appeared to be oily.
Devreuse thanked him in various dialects, but he only shook his bead. Obviously he did not understand. Overjoyed at our unexpected deliverance we grasped his hands warmly to express our gratitude. He smiled and said something, but his voice was not that of a human being: it was a moist, guttural croaking.
He noticed, however, that we were shivering with cold and signed to us to follow him. We passed along a natural road which, though narrow, was firm and hard. It widened and slanted upward until we came to a kind of platform in the middle of a lagoon. Here the man signed to us to stop and once more disappeared in the water.
“Has he abandoned us?” asked Sabine anxiously.
“What if he has, we have been saved.”
“And how miraculously!”
The moon was now high and almost white in its effulgence. As far as eye could reach spread the marshes, the Land of Dreary Waters. I was dreaming of all manner of things in a sort of hallucination, when I saw the man returning with Sabine’s horse.
“My poor Geo!” exclaimed the girl as she caressed the animal that had so nearly been the cause of our undoing.
The man, in addition, brought some dry weeds, wood and eggs. He tendered the eggs together with a few handfuls of nuts, after which he piled up the wood and weeds and started a fire. This done, he smiled upon us and again plunged off the platform. We ran to the spot where he had dived. The water was deep here, but he did not reappear. We looked at each other, stupefied.
“What is the meaning of this?” I cried.
“I cannot say,” replied Devreuse with a thoughtful air. “It is without question the most inexplicable, incredible thing I have met with in all my fifteen years of travel. But what is to happen, will happen. Let us have supper.”
We ate heartily, dried our clothing by the fire, and the weather being balmy soon dropped off to sleep. In the middle of the night I awoke. The queer music of our rescuer resounded a long distance away across the marshes, but the musician was invisible. Then the conviction came to me that I had entered upon a new life, a reality more fairy-like than the most extravagant fairy tale.
We all awoke at sunrise greatly recuperated by our slumbers.
“Captain,” I cried, and pointed to our outer clothing, of which, being heavy with mud, we had divested ourselves, and which was now clean and dry.
“It is the work of our Man of the Waters,” said Sabine. “I begin to think he must be some benevolent faun.”
We had a good breakfast of the nuts and eggs remaining from the previous night. The sun came out, and its sheen was reflected in the sombre, endless dreamland of marshes. We began to consider our position, and concluded that the outlook was anything but an encouraging one. We could not for the life of us see how we were going to get out of the marshes.
Suddenly Sabine uttered a little scream.
Something was floating rapidly toward us and we made it out to be a raft. It seemed to be moving through the green waters of its own accord, and this fact rather startled us. But presently a head emerged from the water, then a body, and we recognized our good genius. To our gestures of greeting the Man of the Waters responded with unequivocal demonstrations of cordiality.
His appearance astonished us even more than it had done in the moonlight. By the light of day we saw that his skin was a light green color; his lips were violet; his eyes strangely round and flat, with scarcely any white, the iris being the color of a carbuncle and the pupil indented and very large. Added to this there was a peculiar gracefulness and lithesomeness in his movements. I examined him at length and attentively, especially his eyes, the like of which I had never seen in any human being.
After tying Geo on the raft he signed to us to board it, too. We complied, though not without a certain distrust, which was accentuated when he disappeared under the water again, and the raft began to move off in the singular manner in which it had come to us.
We caught sight of our conductor now and then in the thick, slimy water, encumbered with vegetation, and although we had been floating along for twenty minutes he had not risen to the surface. Our camping ground of the previous night was left far behind. The scenery began to change. The water was clearer, and we skirted several delightful little islands.
The head of the Man of the Waters, as we had decided to call him, presently bobbed up. He pointed to the southward, and went under again. The breeze brought a cooler, purer air with it. Soon the stretch of marshes became narrower; we passed through a shallow channel and found ourselves scudding over a magnificent lake of cold, limpid water in an atmosphere that was positively heavenly.
THE NYMPHEAN LAKE.
The lake, which extended for miles and miles, was dotted with islands that were bordered with gigantic water lilies and thickly covered with flowers, grasses, bushes and trees. We were being propelled toward one of these islands. Our distrust had vanished with the drowsy, morbid vapors of the swamps. We breathed in health and vigor with the full power of our lungs, and our hearts expanded with hope and the poetry of the lake.
The raft stopped at the point of a promontory and the Man of the Waters emerged and signed to us to follow him. We did so, and witnessed a most extraordinary spectacle. On the shore a score of human beings were assembled, old and young, men and women, youths, maidens and little children. All were of a viridescent tint, with smooth skin, carbuncle eyes, violet lips and hair like barbated lichens.
At sight of us the children, young men and girls and a tall old man came running up and crowded around us, uttering croaking, batrachian cries and displaying an hilarious vivacity. More Men of the Waters emerged from the lake, and we found ourselves surrounded by this aquatic population, who appeared not only very human, but in their general features resembled the white race more closely than do certain terrestrial races. Even their greenish hue and the oily moisture of their skins were not displeasing to contemplate. The young people were of a pale green like that of nascent vegetation in springtime; the old people were of a deeper shade, like the velvety green of moss or of lotus leaves. Many of the girls were really prepossessing with their slender waists, tapering extremities and finely chiseled features.
It would be impossible for me to attempt to describe our wonderment . It was all like a delicious dream, and to the emotion of the captain and myself was added the pride of savants: what discovery had ever been made comparable to this? Here we found realized, shorn of all the mythical scaffolding of our ancestors, one of the most attractive traditions of every nation. Just as the gorilla, orang-outang and chimpanzee had justified the fiction of fauns and satyrs, so did the people before us transform into a visible, tangible reality the world-old legend of mermen and mermaids. What rendered our discovery especially and immeasurably valuable was that these people were real men and women and not merely anthropomorphous.
The first impression of astonishment passed, I experienced a kind of mystical intoxication which I observed was shared by Sabine and her father.
Our rescuer led us to a grove of ash trees, where there we’re a number of huts. Aquatic birds waddled about the place, ducks, swans and waterfowl, evidently domesticated. Fresh eggs and a grilled perch were brought to us, and after we had satisfied our hunger we returned to the shore.
The weather was warm, and all the afternoon we followed the movements of the Men of the Waters. They swam about like great frogs, dived and disappeared. Then a head -would emerge and its owner would leap on to the island. Moved by the happiness of their double life I continued to examine them with absorbing curiosity, seeking to discover some organ of adaptation which enabled them to remain so long under ‘water; but save that I perceived they were gifted with great thoracic capacity there was no indication that could enlighten me upon this point.
A group of them kept us company the whole afternoon, trying to converse with us and treating us with the greatest kindness. Notwithstanding the attraction these strange beings had for us, however, we resolved to leave the next morning, though we proposed to return as soon as possible after communicating with our men. In view of the superior interest of our discovery the captain had given up his Idea of seeking a southwest passage.
But destiny compelled us to modify our plans. In the night I was aroused by Devreuse who informed me that Sabine was ill. I jumped up and went to her. In the feeble light of an ash torch I saw my dear fiancé was shivering with fever. In great alarm I examined her and was thankful to find that she was in no particular danger.
“Is it serious?” questioned Devreuse.
“No, a few days’ rest and quietness will set her up again.”
“How many days?”
“Not a day.”
An expression of helplessness came over his face and he said:
“Robert, I can confide your fiancé to you. I have no doubt that I shall be able to persuade the men to wait a couple of months, and you can expect me back by the end of the week.”
He spoke with considerable agitation, and after a pause went on:
“Besides, if the weeks I purpose to pass among these extraordinary people do not suffice, we can organize another expedition. We have plenty of time. I will resign my commission, if necessary, so that I can spend years in pursuing my discoveries. All the more reason why I should not abandon my men.”
“But,” I protested, “it is I who ought to go and tell them.”
“Not at all. Your care as a medical man is indispensable to Sabine. I should be of no more help to her than a log.”
He placed both hands on my shoulders as he added:
“Is that not so?”
“I am at your orders,” I replied.
Sabine, though a little delirious, had perfectly well understood what we had been saying. She raised herself on her elbow.
“I shall be strong enough to go with you, father,” she exclaimed.
“Little girl,” said Devreuse authoritatively, “what you have got to do is to obey the doctor. I shall be back in six days, and I shall have done my duty. Do you presume to prevent me?”
Sabine, cowed, made no reply, and for a time nobody spoke. Then the girl began to shiver from the fever again and finally fell into an agitated slumber, while I watched beside her in the feeble light of the torch. I was aroused from the reverie into which I had fallen by the captain.
“You are quite sure it is not dangerous?” he insisted.
“In medical cases one can never be quite sure, you know.”
“But as far as it is possible for you to tell?”
“I have every reason to believe that she will be well and about again in a fortnight.”
“Then I will start this very morning.”
I knew that he had made up his mind and did not therefore attempt to dissuade him. Accordingly, a few hours later he set out upon his journey.
Sabine’s illness was even less serious than I had supposed. In three days she was convalescent and able to get up for a few hours. The weather was charming, and the beauty of the island and lake seemed to increase as we became familiar with them. Our lacustrine hosts manifested the utmost sympathy and did everything they possibly could to help us.
The week passed and the girl had almost completely recovered, but she became very anxious, for there was no sign of the captain. One afternoon, seated on the shore, I was consoling her as best I could, but with indifferent success.
“I am afraid something has happened to him,” she kept repeating.
I was at a loss what to say when a shadow was thrown in front of us and looking over my shoulder I saw that the Man of the Waters, who had rescued us, and with whom we were on especially friendly terms, was approaching. He smiled and pointed to a large cinder-colored swallow, peculiar to those regions, which he held in his hand, and which, when he came up, he gave to me.
“What is it?” demanded Sabine.
I noticed a little quill tube tied to its breast. It contained a piece of tissue paper, tightly rolled.
“It is a letter from your father.”
I read it aloud. It ran:
“Have arrived. Leg dislocated by fall. Nothing serious, but am detained. Don’t be uneasy and wait for me where you are. Don’t quit the island.”
Sabine burst into tears, while I marveled that the captain should have thought to take the bird with him. A smile from the Man of the Waters made me suspect that the idea did not originate with Devreuse. Sabine’s distress continued.
“It is not dangerous, dear,” I assured her, “only his leg put out. He won’t feel anything of it in a week or two.”
“Are you sure?”
The Man of the Waters had disappeared. Sabine had ceased to weep, but she was very mournful. I put my arm round her neck and comforted her. Her eyes, blue as the heavens above us, gazed gratefully into mine, and, despite our tribulations, I never experienced a more blissful moment
THE INHABITANTS OF THE LAKE.
The days went by, and we became more and more attached to the lake and its wonders. We visited the islands upon it in company with our amphibious friends. Troops of youths and maidens pushed our raft along and sported around it in the transparent water. We rested on cool banks in the shade of weeping willows or of tall poplars.
But our hosts themselves, whom we began to know, and with whom we were now able to exchange a few words, were the superior charm of this delightful existence. Let me hasten to say, however, that it was they who picked up these words from us. We were unable to catch a single word of their language, our ears being powerless to analyze the sounds by which they communicated among themselves.
Their manners were very simple. They had no notion of family life. The population of the lake amounted to about twelve hundred persons, as far as I was able to estimate. Men and women reared all the children without distinction, and we never saw one child neglected.
Their habitations were of wood, covered with branches and moss. They were erected principally as shelters during the winter, for there appeared to be no use for them in summer. All food was cooked in the open air. It consisted merely of fish, eggs, mushrooms and a few wild vegetables. They did not eat their domestic animals, or in fact any warm-blooded creature. We saw they were disgusted when we partook of the flesh of fowl or animal, and accordingly restricted ourselves to their food, and uncommonly well it agreed with us.
They possessed a few weapons, among them a helicoid harpoon which they were able not only to send skimming on the water in a straight line, but also in a series of curves, and cause to return to them like an Australian boomerang. They employed them to capture big fish. The fish in the lake were the most cunning and difficult to approach I ever saw. The presence of marine man among them had doubtless in course of time rendered them so. Our hosts had succeeded in taming some. These they never touched, though they collected their eggs. On the other hand, they were keen hunters of pike and perch.
Their industries were not complex, and, indeed, their mode of life, the simplicity of their material needs, afforded little scope for the development of handicrafts. They knew something about the potter’s art, and elementary carpentering. They used no metals, but a sort of very hard nephrite, out of which they fashioned harpoons, saws, axes and knives.
Their existence was more poetical than practical. Never have I met with a people more free from cares, encumbrances and possessions. They seemed to have retained the elements of happiness and set aside all vain suffering. Not that they were indolent. They adored exercise, swam great distances till they were exhausted, and like the natural denizens of the water were ever restless. Unlike savages, who indulge in prolonged spells of laziness after engaging in the excitement of the chase, they appeared to be indefatigable. But their activity had no productive aim. It was induced by a pure love of movement. They swam, sported and leaped as other people repose. Apart from an occasional hunting expedition in the water, solely after carnivorous fish, they moved for the sake of moving. I watched them solve miraculous problems of movement, a variety of attitudes and lines, and in comparison the suppleness of the swallow or salmon was clumsy. Their games were a continual deployment of art—swimming dances, complex and suggestive ballets. Seeing them darting, turning screws around each other, twisting, thirty at a time, in a whirlpool caused by their own gyrations, one could but feel that they were endowed with a sense of dynamic, of muscular thought unknown to other human beings.
They were especially admirable in the moonlight. I witnessed fetes under the water so beautiful, so dreamy, consisting of evolutions so varied that I can compare them to nothing in this world.
When the people were assembled in any number, these fetes were accompanied by a strange and delicious phenomenon. The lake agitated in rhythm with the ballet emitted a euphonious sound. It was a sweet, soft murmuring, a harmonious whispering, an indescribable melopoea that brought tears of exaltation to our eyes. It recalled the fabulous legends of antiquity. It reminded me of the seductive voices of the sirens heard by the navigators of old. It may have been these voices, to which we listened in the silvery night; but they breathed only fraternity and peace.
Thought expressed by movement was not merely general and poetical. By observing them closely I fancied I detected that they carried on conversation by action, and I succeeded in grasping a vague outline of their methods, not, assuredly, sufficient to follow the thoughts of the swimmers, but enough to enable me to understand that two particular persons were talking to each other.
During the aquatic lessons given to the children, at which I had the no small pleasure of assisting, my conviction became confirmed. Those teaching the little ones expressed their approval or disapproval by natatory inflections, and I managed at least to distinguish two of these. One caused the pupil to stop; the other to change his movement.
Love, naturally, also found expression. The Men of the Waters displayed an art of tenderness, supplication and pride that varied with the individual, but was very subtle, very delicate and far superior to our conversational idylls.
They did not appear to be in the least metaphysically minded, and I saw no evidence of a religion or belief in the supernatural, only an intense love of Nature. I have already referred to their gentleness with birds, animals and domesticated fishes. This gentleness placed them in intimate communication with the lower creation. They possessed the power of making themselves understood to a surprising degree. Thus, although the idea would appear chimerical to us, I have seen them give orders to salamanders, bats, birds and carp, instructing them, for instance, to go to a certain island or district of the lake. Swans at their order made journeys of many leagues, bats ceased to hunt for a given interval, carp temporarily ceased to shelter in their favorite haunts.
The scene we witnessed at our first meeting with the Man of the Waters was frequently renewed. By means of a little stone hook a melody, similar to that we had heard in the marches, was produced from a reed, in which grooves of different width and depth had been cut. The sound invariably attracted and cast a spell over reptiles, birds and fishes, and caused beasts of prey to accord a truce to their victims.
How often these scenes entranced us! How many hours we passed watching some musician with his rudimentary instrument renewing old-time fables! What extraordinary felicity was in all the sports, in the whole life of these aquatic people.
I said that their manners were simple and free, and that the notion of family life does not exist among them. But there is a reservation to this statement. Marriage between the sexes was governed by a tacit rule. The union lasted one lunar month, the new moon marking the period of choice. These unions were, of course, renewable at the will of the parties. They never occasioned the slightest trouble in the tribe, so far as I could ascertain. I certainly never saw the shadow of a dispute while I lived among them. The children belonged for a few months to the mother, but the whole community looked after their wellbeing.
As regards the organ of adaptation which could alone furnish an explanation of their ability to remain so long under water I never found any trace of it. It is true that my investigations were forcibly limited, inasmuch as I did not have the opportunity to dissect a body. The length of time they can remain below the surface is fully half an hour, and if the fact that they can swim at a speed of from thirty to thirty-five miles an hour be taken into consideration, it will be seen that they are the equals of whales and other cetacea. Moreover, they have a marked superiority over the latter in respect of their eyes, which are admirably adapted to aquatic vision.
This was easily apparent upon examination. Their large, flat eyeballs were as favorable to sight under water as the eyes of the falcon are to sight in the air. A posteriori the supremacy of this organ is amply demonstrated by the subtlety of their evolutions: they accomplish in bands marvels of precision, dashes which, were the distance not accurately calculated, would result in terrible shocks. In their piscatorial hunts they perceive the tiniest fish at hundreds of yards. Out of the water their sight is blurred, like that of presbyopes, within a distance of twelve yards, though beyond that they can see a very long way.
Their sense of hearing, too, is markedly different from ours. I have alluded to their music, which is intervaled as though punctuated by commas, and to their queer articulation of words. I concluded that their ears, like their eyes, are better adapted to an aquatic than to a terrestrial life. It is a well-known fact that the swiftness of sound is more than quadrupled in the water, and this would necessarily create wide divergencies between the acoustic apparatus developed in aquatic surroundings and that trained to catch aerial sounds.
AN ATTACK—UNWELCOME VISITORS.
One morning Sabine and I, seated on our raft, floated lazily about the lake. Our friend had at first accompanied us. He came and went, pushing the raft along and sporting around it like a dolphin. We stopped at an enchanting little island and sat down in the shade of a clump of ash trees. Before us white, wax-like waterlilies reposed upon their dark green leaves; the modest water ranunculus reared its head amid bowers of alguoe, and the fish in cohorts leaped in the sunshine. My arm was round Sabine’s waist and we were supremely, exquisitely happy, too happy to speak.
We were brought back to earth by a rumor of voices, and perceived about thirty men grouped upon a near-by island of poplars. They were joined by many others who emerged from the lake.
“The Men of the Waters,” I remarked, indifferently.
“Yes,” said Sabine, “but they are not like those we know.”
In effect, on noticing them more intently I saw that their skin was of a dark color, blue-black, it appeared to me.
Sabine, frightened, nestled closer and suggested that we should return to our friends.
“Perhaps it would be advisable,” I assented.
Before we could rise to our feet, however, the water surged and bubbled
near the raft and half a dozen men emerged. Like our friends, they had strangely round eyes with scarcely any white and with slightly indented pupils, but their hair, like their color, was very different, and their attitude was not reassuring.
They gazed at us from a distance, and one of them, a powerfully built, athletic young fellow, never took his eyes off Sabine. We saw that they were armed with harpoons, and Sabine turned pale.
The athletic man said something to us in croaking tones. I made signs that I did not understand him, whereupon they raised threatening cries and flourished their harpoons. The situation was becoming critical. I had my rifle with me, but when I had discharged both barrels they would be upon me before I could reload, and how could I make a successful defense against these beings familiar with an element in which they could hide and attack us with impunity? Besides, even if I managed to hold my own against the men confronting me, was there not on another island, 500 yards away, a multitude who would rush to their assistance?
The young athlete began to talk to us again, and I understood from his gestures that he insisted upon having a reply. I shouted at him, and for a moment the band stood dumfounded at the sound. They held a hurried consultation and then with angry cries began to flourish their weapons again. I raised my rifle. There was a moment of horrible suspense. I thought it was all over with us, and I determined to sell my life dearly and die gamely.
A cry arose from the lake. My antagonists turned about and a joyful shout escaped me. A troop of our hosts were speeding toward us, led by our rescuer who was making signs to the dark men. The latter lowered their harpoons, and soon after we were surrounded by our friends once more, saved from death—Sabine perhaps from a worse fate.
We then witnessed a ceremony in which our Men of the Waters welcomed the others. Prom the island of poplars the rest of the dark men came. Presents were exchanged, and arms interlaced in a peculiar manner. It struck me, however, that these demonstrations were somewhat lacking in sincerity, especially in the case of the dark visitors. The young athlete continued to stare at Sabine in a way that raised my wrath.
Our hosts had escorted us back to their island, and we were greatly relieved to find ourselves safe there again, though I still felt a vague uneasiness which I fancied was shared by the tribe. Our rescuer was especially troubled. He remained near us, showed his devotedness to us in every possible way, and, affection begetting affection, I came to love him like a brother.
The afternoon passed without incident, but an hour before sundown a deputation of the dark Men of the Waters arrived, among them being the strong man, who appeared to act as their leader. Our people rendered them every honor and offered them presents, after which there was a dance in the water in which light and dark men vied with each other in agility.
Sabine and I with our friend held aloof and watched the proceedings from behind a screen of lowering ash branches. interested at the spectacle in spite of our uneasiness.
When the dance was at its height two men emerged close to our retreat. Could they see us? Had they been spying upon us? However this may be, they came up to us. One of them was the young chief, but his face wore an amicable smile and he was gentleness itself. He said something to our friend, then moved off again, looking at Sabine as he did so with an avid, covetous look that made me shudder.
They returned to the lake. Then our friend, shaking his head, made no secret of his apprehension. He signed to me to look after Sabine, and intimated that he would also guard her.
The night was an anxious one for me, and I sat up and kept watch. Gleams of light flickered over the lake and among the foliage. The sound of strange music was borne to my ears. I caught glimpses of bands of swimmers shooting about in the water, in the uncertain light of the moon, which was on the wane.
About 1 o’clock in the morning the dark men came in a body to within a hundred yards of the island, and in response to their calls several of our young men joined in the nocturnal fete.
How charming, how profoundly interesting I should have considered these things, had Sabine not been there. With what joy I should have studied the customs of these beings, the remnant of an antique aquatic race that had in all likelihood ruled continents. Now and then I gave myself up to the poetry of the scene, but my worry soon returned, especially as I remarked that the two races distrusted each other, with a distrust born, may be, of old-time feuds. At all events their friendship appeared to be more tacit than sincere.
A bank of heavy clouds blotted out the moon and obscurity fell upon all around. I crossed over to Sabine’s hut and, rifle in hand, sat down before the narrow entrance. The fete had ended and silence reigned over the lake. Once or twice I fancied I heard some one prowling about, and it was broad daylight before I dozed off.
ABDUCTION OF SABINE.
Nothing of importance occurred during the remainder of the week. Every day deputations of dark Men of the Waters came to the island. Our people returned their visits on a neighboring isle where they had elected to encamp. The young men of both races continued to organize fetes in the water. His animation increased and the nights were spent in delightful dances and great aquatic ballets in the moonlight .
I ought not to have been worried, because. in the first place, we were well guarded, and, secondly, because the strangers had apparently forgotten all about us; yet I was, and greatly worried. It -was no good reasoning that the young chief, if he ever had entertained designs on Sabine, had, with the mobility characteristic of his race, probably abandoned them. A foreboding that I could not shake off tortured me continuously, and troubled my sleep. I would start up perspiring and every nerve strained to the utmost tension. It seemed to me that the distrust of our friends was increasing, instead of diminishing. They, I surmised, were not likely to be agitated by presentiments, and must have more serious reasons for their attitude.
One evening at moonrise the dark Men of the Waters came in unusually large numbers, accompanied by their old men. The visit was marked by more solemn demonstrations than customary, and the exchange of more numerous presents. I divined intuitively that the visitors were taking leave, preparatory to taking their departure for the regions whence they came.
The water fete was more marvelous than any that had preceded it. It was a harmonious reverie of movement. Light and dark bodies reflecting the moonbeams, throwing off spray of crystal and mother-of-pearl when they sped along the surface, darted upward and downward, to and fro, twisting, circling, entwining in arabesque full of an infinite sentiment of curves, in divine trajectory symphonies.
By 1 o’clock it was all over and the dark squadron scooted away.
“Ah,” said I to Sabine, “I believe they are off at last.”
“I think so, too,” she affirmed.
She raised her timid eyes to mine and I kissed her passionately.
“I was much frightened on your account, darling,” I murmured.
“If only my father would return now, I should be perfectly happy,” she sighed. “I am so anxious about him.”
“He will come soon, he is all right,” I assured her.
Nevertheless, I was not yet easy in my mind. I was oppressed by a vague fear that even the assurance, conveyed by signs, of our friend that the dark men had gone for good failed to calm.
However, about 2 o’clock I fell into a feverish slumber and, worn out by many nights of watching, slept for a couple of hours. Then I had a nightmare from which I awoke with a start.
“Sabine! Sabine!” I shouted in a paroxysm of terror.
Then, being fairly awake, I recovered my sangfroid and looked out of my hut. Day was dawning, and the ash grove was whispering in the morning breeze. Everything breathed calmness and confidence. I shook off the disagreeable impression left by my dream and sniffed the fresh air with elation.
“How nice it would be to live here always,” I thought.
I strolled over to Sabine’s hut. Horror—stupefaction—despair! It was empty!
PURSUIT OF THE DARK MEN OF THE WATERS.
My fury aroused the Men of the Waters, and especially our friend. Mad with despair I rushed toward him, frantically pointing to Sabine’s empty couch. Men and women crowded around me in the pale light of the breaking dawn, and their large, rigid, carbuncle-like eyes gazed at me with evident compassion.
Presently the sun rose, dispersing the morning mist; the horizon, save toward the East and West, became remarkably clear, and to the North I could discern an almost imperceptible moving speck to which I drew the attention of my brother of the waters. He took careful note of the direction, ran to the lake and plunged in. I followed him impatiently with my eyes and saw him heading northward under the crystal water, his body magnified and deformed by the ripples that ruffled the surface. At length he came up, uttered his batracian cry and vanished northward like a flash. A hundred of his companions, armed with helicoid harpoons, darted in his wake.
At the same time the raft upon which Sabine and I had been wont to make our excursions on the lake was brought to the bank. I installed myself upon it with my rifle and knife and was soon being towed along at incredible speed, but not, alas! more swiftly than the other raft that was bearing my terrified fiancé away.
The rapidity of movement and the somnolent, soothing calmness of wind and water gradually assuaged in a measure my anguish, and I began to examine the situation with greater coolness. From what I had seen of the dark as well as of the light Men of the Waters I felt pretty sure that the young kidnapper would not at the outset resort to force. I had frequently witnessed their long and patient courting, the graceful ruses, the gentle supplications of the lover to obtain the favors of his heart’s elect, and there was no reasonable ground for the supposition that the dark chief would adopt any other mode of procedure in regard to Sabine. Was not the romantic nature of the adventure calculated to excite the tendency of the race to overcome opposition by charming, rather than by using violence, toward such a captive?
Moreover, among primitive peoples the manners and customs of a tribe are rarely departed from, and even were his band to confer Sabine upon him, the young chief would probably have to submit to the customary rules governing marriage and go through the usual ceremonies. Finally, nearly a fortnight would elapse before the new moon, the period of choice, the only period at which the nuptials could be celebrated.
THE BATTLE UNDER THE LAKE.
Whether or not we were gaining upon the other raft I could not say. It continued to be but a speck upon the horizon, and I was apprehensive lest it might be shut out of sight altogether by a mist. My fears, as it proved, were only too well founded, for about noon large clouds spread over the sky, and the vapor that rose from the lake under the heat of the sun becoming condensed hung over the water like a pall. The speed of my raft, however, in no way slackened, and little by little I gave myself up to my thoughts. I conceived the wildest imaginable scheme for rescuing my beloved Sabine only to dismiss them despairingly as impracticable.
Suddenly I was aroused by the batracian cry of the Men of the Waters and found that we were about three hundred yards from a low lying island covered with tall poplars, through the foliage of which the light played and quivered fantastically. We had after all been gaining on the raft, for, despite the mist, I could perceive it through an opening in the trees, though it continued to be but a black, indistinct speck.
My attention, however, was soon distracted from the raft by the cries of my amphibious allies who had risen to the surface and were excitedly calling each other’s attention to a long, thick clump of rushes, in front of which the water was frothing and bubbling furiously. The raft stopped, and I seized my gun ready for an attack. I could see by the agitation of the water that something was approaching us, and soon realized that the dark band was making a stand.
All at once the agitation ceased, the oncoming wave dispersed in a succession of circles and the surface became calm. In the limpid depths of the lake big water plants, like a submerged forest, could be plainly discerned, the air globules covering their broad leaves, stems and trailing tendrils with bright silver heads. The color of the mud at the bottom was a dull yellow.
Save for an occasional cautious snakelike gliding, nothing could be seen of the men. They must have been buried in the mud, eyeing each other closely, ready to take prompt advantage of the least opening afforded. Presently a slight cloudiness in the water, caused by a man changing position, afforded a mark. In an instant a helicoid harpoon flashed through the water and a body rose close to the raft.
This enabled me to locate the position of the contending forces. The light men were lying a short distance ahead of the raft; their dark enemies were assembled in front of the clump of rushes. Twenty harpoons were hurled in response to the deadly shaft that had killed one of our side, and it was with ferocious satisfaction that I saw a couple of dark corpses rise to the surface. Then all was still again. The mud that had thickened the water settled down and I was once more able to see the vegetation at the bottom. It was patent to me that an attack by either side would be extremely dangerous, and that every man was carefully keeping under cover. But they could not continue their present tactics indefinitely.
It soon became evident that before engaging in a pitched battle they were disputing a strategical advantage that would inevitably fall to the side able to remain longest under water. Those whose breath gave out would be compelled to rise to the surface for air and would thus become an easy mark for their enemies. I awaited the issue of this duel of endurance with the keenest anxiety, occasionally raising my eyes to glance at Sabine’s raft which, like mine, was lying motionless a long distance off toward the horizon.
Gazing down at the luxuriant vegetation that covered the bottom of the lake I saw what looked like a shower of burnished gold and silver; the wide-leaved plants and their mass of delicate tendrils covered with glittering air globules began to sway and innumerable shoals of fish invaded the battle ground. At the same time I heard a sound of distant music to which a nearer burst of melody responded.
The dark men, it was evident, were desirous of placing this living barrier between themselves and their light pursuers, in order that they might rise under cover of it to obtain a fresh supply of air. For some reason or other the lives of the fish appeared to be sacred. It may have been a pact, or a rule of war. At any rate, it was a graceful and marvelous episode in the poignant drama. The darting fish of all shapes and sizes, whose scales flashed with metallic lustre amid the dark green diamond spangled growth of the sub-lacustrine forest, seemed like the visible notes of a prodigious orchestration, the rhythm and harmony of which were enjoyed by the eye instead of the ear.
The struggle to keep them there and to lure them away lasted for some minutes, but one of our men, having succeeded in reaching the raft in safety, clambered on to it and began to play upon a grooved reed, whereupon the finny cohorts rose toward the surface and swam away.
The fish having disappeared, it could be seen that the dark camp was in distress. A few warriors who had tried to reach the surface during the passage of the fish were floating with harpoons through the heart. Three others made a desperate break for air and met with the same fate, whereupon the harpoons of their comrades flew through the water like a flock of migrating swallows and fell in a heavy shower among the plants beneath me, wounding two of our men, who came up near the raft.
Then before the light warriors could answer with a single lance the enemy darkened the water by stirring up the mud and rose to the surface en masse. But my friends, rushing through the thick curtain, took up position beneath them and the battle was won. The enemy vanquished and having exhausted their supply of weapons, had no course left but to seek safety in flight. In this many succeeded, but a large number were killed and an equally large number taken prisoners. Pursuit of the remainder was useless, for their rear guard veiled their retreat by stirring up great clouds of slime and mud as they fled.
The captives, carrying their dead, were being marched under a strong escort toward a number of huts on the island, when half a dozen light men, bearing a little dark boy who was moaning piteously, emerged from the water and laid the waif on the raft. They signed to me to take care of him and pointed with compassion to his left arm. I examined it and found that the shoulder was dislocated, but paid little further attention to the child, for at this moment Sabine’s raft was disappearing in the mist, while mine was being towed ashore.
Our band rested, but showed no joy at their victory. They appeared rather to be disgusted and saddened by the bloody strife in which they had been engaged, and from time to time would give way to violent outbursts of indignation and wrath. While they were cooking fish I meandered about the island, going over fully two-thirds of its length. It was covered with high grass. In one place I remarked a kind of furrow where the grass had been trampled flat, but thought nothing of the fact at the time, though it recurred to me later, like snatches of ideas recur in dreams.
A few steps further the ground became stony, and sloped to a yawning cavern whose dismal depth was shrouded in Cimmerian darkness. I thought it might be a sepulchre, and peered in, seeking to fathom its mysteries and comparing it to the gaping wound and the void in my heart.
Was it an hallucination? I thought I heard a cry coming from the pit . It was a cry that resembled in nothing the croaking, humid cry of the Men of the Waters. It was clear and vibrating such as none but a European could have uttered.
“Sabine!” I shouted.
Was I mad? Sabine was being borne away from me on the waters, yet I listened in the hope of hearing the cry again, listened so intently that I could have heard the fluttering of a night moth’s wings as it flitted through the wood; but my fancy refused to repeat it, and musing upon my misfortune I returned to the camp.
The halt was a brief one, for as soon as the fish were cooked we started off again, taking the food with us. My friends, as I had frequently seen them do before, partook of the repast under water. I, of course, ate my share on the raft I had offered a part of it to my little companion, but he had refused it. In the anguish of mind I was in myself I had at first been indifferent to his sufferings; but his refusal of food, his continual thirst and his moans finally moved me, and recovering my energy I succeeded in setting his shoulder. As I bent over him to terminate the operation I was struck by a peculiarity. His eyes to a certain extent lacked the characteristics of the eyes of the other Men of the Waters. The white was distinctly visible, the pupil had a pronounced outward curve and the iris, though inclined to redness, was of no precise color. I had seen more than one European with similar optics. Greatly surprised, I examined the other parts of his body and found that he was not like the aquatic people among whom he lived, either in skin, hair or extremities, the latter being much thicker.
Despite my cares, I was irresistibly agitated by conjectures and scientific hypotheses. Had I happened upon a specimen of a race that was a cross between the ordinary men of earth and the Men of the Waters? Was the boy’s resemblance to the former due to some phenomenon of heredity? Might not the process of transformation have been so rapid that a few centuries had sufficed to change the terrestrian into an aquatic man? I recalled scraps of what I had read in the works of ancient writers who asserted the ability of certain extraordinary beings to live under water.
Sabine’s abductors placed every possible obstacle in the way of pursuit by stirring up the mud over a vast extent of the lake, but my sagacious companions succeeded in keeping track of them, and about 2 o’clock, to my great joy, the sun having rent the mist on the horizon, I again caught sight of the raft. Thereafter I kept my finger pointed toward the moving speck, and the men towing and pushing me redoubled their efforts.
We were visibly shortening the distance between us. Sabine’s raft gradually became more distinct until I was able to make out the vague silhouette of a female form upon it, and shouted with glee. My delight, however, was suddenly dampened by a terrible doubt. Might not the young Chief, rather than abandon Sabine, drag her with him to the bottom of the lake? The thought was maddening.
Onward, nearer and nearer we sped, and my band of brave, tireless swimmers surrounding the raft, raised their voices in a weird, wild chant as they cleft the dancing water with their powerful strokes. Sabine’s adorable form now stood out so distinctly that I could easily discern her little cloak. Barely five hundred yards now separated us. I sprang. to my feet and my whole soul went out in yearning toward her. I was wild with hope and impatience. Yet she did not see me. Her back was turned toward me, and she was gazing fixedly before her over the lake. By what artifice was she prevented from turning her head?
When we were about three hundred yards off those of our swimmers who were not hauling or pushing my raft made a spurt for the other one. Instantly a man rose beside Sabine, and my blood froze with horror as I saw him throw his arms about her and drag her to the edge of the raft, though she resisted desperately. To describe my anguish as I watched the struggle would he impossible. It was too atrocious for words. My hair turned white in places and I felt the effects of it for years.
The resistance of my gentle, frail little sweetheart could avail nothing against the brute strength of her captor. He raised her bodily in his arms and leaped overboard. Frantic with grief and despair I plunged headlong into the lake, and heavily, slowly, as powerless as a fly in a glue pot, struck out toward the spot where my beloved had disappeared; but speedily realizing how useless were my efforts, and determined not to survive her, I threw up my arms and sank.
QUEER SIGN LANGUAGE OF THE CHILD OF THE WATERS.
The next fact of which I was conscious was that I was lying alone on the raft, which was stationary. My little wounded companion had disappeared. Not a swimmer was to be seen. The lake, rippled by the breeze, danced in the glad sunlight; the bright-scaled fish streaked the crystal water with many colors as they flashed hither and thither in their sport.
I noticed these things in a languid, stupid way, and after a while became aware of the presence of a man in the lake. He was at too great a depth to be clearly distinguishable, hut I could see that he was moving slowly and with precaution. He presently came up bearing on his arm the boy captured among the rushes. In his disengaged hand he held my knife, which he had fetched from the bottom. I helped him to clamber on the raft.
These movements recalled the events through which I had passed, and broken-hearted, tortured beyond endurance, I fell into a stupor of grief and despair. I was aroused by a touch on the shoulder. The boy was standing
beside me, gazing at me compassionately, and making persistent signs of denial accompanied by a pantomime that I could not for the life of me understand.
This continued for some time, when he stopped discouraged and remained thoughtful. At last his face brightened and taking my knife he cut five pieces of wood from one of the logs of the raft and went through the following curious performance:
First clasping one of the pieces of wood to his breast, he caressed it with the greatest tenderness. He obliged me to do the same, afterward laying the stick beside me, and I wondered what fetish rite he was trying to initiate me into. He next laid a second piece of wood upon the water and made me understand that it was a raft. A third piece of wood was then made to seize the first piece and carry it to the miniature raft .
This aroused my interest to the highest pitch, for I now understood that the poor child was relating what had happened to Sabine. He saw that I followed him, and his face expressed consolation and hope as he continued the experiment.
The raft bore Sabine away and stopped at an island. Sabine landed, accompanied by the dark chief and a fourth piece of wood took Sabine’s place on the raft.
It was all as clear as daylight to me now. The child laughed gleefully and went on while I followed his performance with more thrilling interest and excitement than if I had been witnessing one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Sabine and the chief remained on the island. The fourth piece of wood continued on its way on the raft. The fifth piece, seizing it, plunged into the lake, and again the boy laughed delightedly.
Sabine, then, was alive! It was all a ruse of her dark captors! The female figure I had seen on the raft had been substituted for her while she had remained behind on the island. The certitude of it filtered into my heart more softly than the rays of the rising sun through the dense verdure of a dark African forest. My love was alive, but where was she? Did the intelligent child know, and, if so, would he be able to make me understand?
He showed that he was able not only to do this, but to accompany the story with a wealth of detail that astonished me. We had found a language in which we could converse. One success led to another until it became possible to express not only delicate sensations, but even a few elementary abstract ideas.
In this way I learned that Sabine was landed on the island near the clump of rushes, and that she had been hidden in a deep cavern a short distance away—a fact that I should easily have guessed for myself.
My supposed hallucination, then, was nothing of the kind. The cry that I had heard at the mouth of the dark cavern into which I had peered really was uttered by my hapless fiancée. Prom this cavern she must have been conveyed to the land of the black Men of the Waters, which the boy gave me to understand lay to the westward.
THE MYSTERIOUS CHANNEL.
Resolved to rejoin Sabine at all hazards, I raked my brains in an effort to devise a means of accomplishing my purpose. Out of one of the small logs of the raft I fashioned a scull or paddle with my knife, and having been familiar with the use of it from my childhood up managed to attain a speed of fourteen or fifteen yards a minute. It would take many hours at this rate to reach the invisible shore I was heading for, but the labor was infinitely preferable to inaction. Hope gave courage to my heart and strength to my arms, and I worked the paddle hour after hour, while the boy slept.
The sun was setting when I sighted land. Undecided where to disembark I awoke my little companion. He pointed
out a spot about three-quarters of a mile to the right on the outskirts of a large forest. I made for it and came to the entrance of a wide channel into which, in accordance with the boy’s instructions, I turned the raft.
The stream flowed so sluggishly that it seemed to come from a lake rather than a mountain. To right and left, like colossal pillars, the trees rose in gigantic colonnades, and their spreading branches cast a shadow over the water that deepened as we progressed, and was lightened at intervals by blood-like splashes caused by the crimson glow of the sunset as it glinted through the verdant canopy.
In the water beneath me I could see big, sightless, odd-shaped fish swimming lazily, mammoth Crustacea, green with slime and weeds, crawling on the bottom, and cephalopoda of an unknown species with enormous eyes. The atmosphere was dank and chilly, and all around was manifest the pallid fecundity of creatures and plants that shun the blessed light. Weeds, many yards in length, carpeted the bottom of the channel where the water was shallow and trailed in the direction of the current; banks of luxuriant, variegated lichens formed feeding grounds for insects that resembled turtles with their great oval bucklers; a spider, as big as a man’s fist, hanging from a branch, dropped to seize its nerveless prey; big white flies lighted upon livid fungi; my paddle disturbed a mammal with a beak like a bird’s, and hundreds of bats of all sizes circled overhead.
The banks of the channel became higher, the trees bent toward each other over the waterway until their tops mingled, and the last distant blood-splash waxed fainter and fainter until it became merged in the appalling blackness. The child had fallen asleep again, and I, quaking with a nameless terror, but buoyed up by the hope of seeing my Sabine once more, stationed myself forward on the raft and paddled steadfastly on through the night.
THE LUMINOUS FOREST HAUNT OF THE MEN-WADING-BIRDS.
It must have been about midnight when the boy awoke. His shoulder was better. We were ravenously hungry, and he succeeded in finding some edible nuts, after partaking of which I fell into a light slumber. When I awoke, I perceived a pale ghostly glimmer through the trees in the distance on the left which I took to be moonlight. It outlined the leaves and the delicate drapery of the pendant creepers with a nebulous whiteness, as though the forest were covered with hoarfrost.
Along the colonnade of trees that lined the banks of the channel a profound darkness reigned which at intervals was splashed with light by the passing glow of the phosphorescent scales of a fish. I took to the paddle again. I had to advance with extreme caution, so that it took fully three hours to cover a mile and a half. An obscure cliff rose in front of me at a bend of the stream, while to the left it became singularly light. Could it be the sun already, and could its rays possibly penetrate through such a dense mass of verdure as that by which we were surrounded? Ten minutes later I rounded the bend and my eyes were almost blinded as I gazed upon a vast landscape that shone more brightly than snow-covered country in the moonlight. And yet it was Illumined neither by the sun nor moon.
A mobile, wavy luminosity was upon the waterway that now expanded into the proportions of a lake. The water, which extended away into an inundated forest, was shallow, for the upper forks of the tree roots were visible. From these roots the luminosity emanated in dense circles that became thinner as they expanded. But it was without shadow, and everywhere it floated, undulated, went out, revived. It trickled from the brushwood in little cascades and was borne on the breeze in flakes of light. In the very few places where the water could reflect it, it oscillated widely. Not the slightest sound disturbed the profound silence that reigned over the scene.
I stood motionless, petrified at the fairy-like spectacle. I passed in turn through the naive admiration, the mysterious terror, the invincible curiosity and the hair-raising dread of the occult it would have inspired in a little child. I fancied that I was in some fabulous town, in which the Men of the Waters had found means to illuminate the bottom of the lake. I, the representative of the superior races, experienced the shy, melancholy resignation of the races that have been vanquished; the innate pride at the conviction that I appertained to the highest form of humanity crumbled within me! I understood how our poor rivals resignedly allow themselves to glide into the abysm of nothingness, excluding dreams and confused theories from their lives, understood the consolations of Nirvana.
This spell was broken by the appearance on a distant islet of a man whose form was outlined on the background of light. He was incredibly tall and thin. His head reached to the lower branches of a neighboring ash tree that were more than nine feet from the ground, and he appeared to be more legs than anything else. Four similar men joined him, and they entered the water, which came up to their waists. They advanced toward us with rapid strides, and I awoke my companion.
Bewildered and dazed by the light he rubbed his eyes and shaded them with his hand, the better to examine the approaching giants, but the cry he uttered betokened neither fear nor surprise. On they came, sometimes immersed to the bust, sometimes with their ankles barely covered, and I had time to note that their arms, like their legs, were ridiculously long, as thin as a pipe stem, and covered with yellowish scales instead of hair. The body, on the other hand, was white and covered with soft hair, the head small and narrow, with large, cold and excessively mobile eyes.
The boy seemed to take pleasure in their presence, a pleasure tinged with banter. He called to them, and I listened eagerly for their response. They did not speak with the batraclan, rippling voice, the humid accent of the Men of the Waters. It was a sharp, hard cackling, and their jaws worked rapidly, chopping the syllables, as it were. Gravely they surrounded the raft . Their whole being bore the stamp of a joyless race, doomed to a precarious existence in an unproductive land. Their pallor was that of subterranean life. The hair of their heads was ash-colored; that on their breasts was of a lighter shade than that on their backs.
I felt a vague pity for them, I scarcely knew why. Maybe the patronizing attitude of the child inspired it; maybe I recognized intuitively that these narrow-headed people were pariahs. I fell a-theorizing, and it seemed to me that they were metamorphic abortions: Originally driven by powerful Mongolian nations into these paludal regions, inaccessible to the rest of mankind, they must have led a shy, hand-to-mouth existence. The ceaseless search for food in the marshes and ponds must in the course of centuries have elongated their limbs and rendered them dry and scaly. Then other peoples of the same origin probably made their advent . Having pushed through to the great lakes, or time having effected an improvement in the region, the newcomers must have boldly adapted themselves to an amphibious life, thus leaving far behind them their saddened precursors, the Men-Wading-Birds, thenceforth relegated to the shallow waters of the forest land.
I gathered that the child was requesting them to push the raft along, though from the tone of his voice it seemed to be more of an order than a request. Gently, melancholy, with, I thought, a consciousness of their weakness, they obeyed, and the raft glided through the wondrous luminous forest. It was like a dream, and I could scarcely persuade myself that I was really awake.
The water thrown off by the raft swelled away to right and left in waves of light that in the distance formed beautiful and radiant strata of mother-of-pearl, into which the dull trail behind us gradually merged and became transformed. I plunged my hand over the side and it dripped light. I examined the water closely and found a number of minute vegetal cells, which from subsequent investigation I learned contained phosphorescent zoospore of certain species of water weeds that became animated, probably at the period of reproduction, by a movement similar to that of tadpoles.
After we had been journeying for some hours the channel became narrower and the water rose to the necks of our poor, panting escort, Who, after swimming for a few minutes, gave up exhausted and made for the bank. We were on the confines of the land of light, and darkness once more lay before us. I shouted my thanks to our bird-like friends and the boy also cried out to them in cordial tones. They cackled something in answer and strode off along the shore. Nothing could be imagined more humble, more pitiable than these melancholy skeletons, and I gazed after them with deep and sympathetic interest as they trotted away until they were lost to sight among the trees.
I then began paddling again, and the water becoming deeper and the trees scarcer, I made good progress, in spite of the obscurity. The boy, I think, had fallen asleep again. I grew despondent in the gloom and loneliness. I imagined that the raft was being drawn into a bottomless pit, and that I should nevermore set eyes upon my beloved. I remembered that I had passed through trials and dangers almost as terrible in the course of the voyage, but on those occasions I had been encouraged by Devreuse’s energy, the presence of Sabine, of European companions, and the perils we encountered had been more or less foreseen and provided against . Now, alone, I was facing the awful solitude and darkness of the interminable forest, beset by the fear of falling into an ambush laid by men of limitless power and totally different from us, in momentary anticipation of encountering some adventure, more weird, more marvelous than those I had already gone through, and which I felt my reason would not be able to withstand.
A great lassitude and dizziness came over me. I ceased to work the scull except spasmodically, almost unconsciously. Sometimes I did not know
whether I was paddling or not, could not tell whether the raft was moving or stationary. I fancied that I was walking through a country lane, then that I was seated high up in a lighthouse. I began to babble incoherently, and it was only by an immense exercise of will power that I was able to bring my thoughts back to the river, the darkness and the raft. I felt, however, that 1 could not long stave off the inevitable, that 1 was slowly but surely lapsing into unconsciousness, and I remember that my last effort before I succumbed was to keep the raft headed toward a glimmer of daylight that appeared in the distance like a white speck on the channel.
WRECK OF THE RAFT AND RESCUE OF SABINE.
When I awoke the raft was moving at a good rate. We had passed through the channel and were out in an open lake. It was fearfully hot and oppressive, and big ominous clouds, heavily charged with electricity, occasionally veiled the sun. I looked around for the boy. He was swimming in rear of the raft and pushing it along with his valid arm. He smiled at me and pointed northward toward some rocky and cavernous hills. “Is it there?” I asked. He nodded affirmatively and placed his hand upon his breast, a sign which in our language signified Sabine. I invited him to come on the raft and rest, but he refused; so, picking up the scull, I resumed my paddling. I was bathed in perspiration. Though there was not much wind, the lake began to get very rough and choppy. On the right the sombre mass of the forest was enveloped in gathering gloom, and from a kind of desert whirlwinds of sand came through a pass in the hills and filled the air. I felt myself imbued with a strange spirit of emulation, of rivalry against the elements. I worked the paddle steadily and powerfully, the boy pushed with all his strength and under our combined efforts the raft sped swiftly toward the shore.
We were little more than a hundred yards from it when the tempest broke upon us. It lashed the lake instantly into gigantic waves that reared and tumbled furiously over each other. A tremendous downpour of hail shut the surrounding landscape from sight, and the big stones stung my face and hands like slashes with a whip and almost stunned me. Then a waterspout lifted me, sucked me under the lake and whirled me to the surface again, where, bewildered though I was, I was able to catch hold of and cling to one of the logs of the little raft, which threatened to break up as each wave struck it. The boy had disappeared, and I conjectured that he had sought refuge several feet below the surface and was keeping watch upon me. This proved to be the case. The tail end of the waterspout having caught the raft, the latter went to pieces, and I was hurled into the lake, but was immediately seized by my young friend and borne safely ashore.
At the first clap of thunder that rumbled sullenly in the distance, stifled in the heavy clouds, the boy manifested great alarm. His terror increased when the lightning shot its forked javelins over the lake and tore great vivid rents in the darkened heavens. The thunder that followed, crashing and roaring incessantly, seemed to paralyze him, and I signed to him to take shelter in the lake. He needed no second bidding, and vanished into the boiling waves.
The rain fell in torrents and ran from my clothing like a tarn down a mountain side. I divested myself of my coat and waistcoat and leaving them to serve as a landmark set out to explore the environs. I could not see five yards before me, when the lightning was not playing, which, however, was only at rare intervals, for the air was filled with electricity. Twice the shock of the discharge threw me down and each time I picked myself up with a cynical rictus. I had reached the lowest depth of adversity and misfortune and experienced the sombre voluptuousness of the utterly desperate. I braved the tempest and its threats, its infernal tumult and cutting hail with the spirit of a fanatical Hindoo or of a holy martyr of the primitive Church.
Through the deluge and the vapors that rose from the wet and overheated soil I could just see the caverns, and made toward them. I had hardly advanced fifty paces when a brilliant flash of lightning lit up the scene, and I dropped to the ground, not from the electric shock this time, but because I had seen Sabine. She was seated on a big stone at the entrance to one of the caverns, and watching the storm. She had not seen me.
I determined to act with the greatest prudence, for the dark Men of the Waters, I argued, must certainly be in the cavern. Then suddenly it occurred to me that, like my boy companion, Sabine’s abductors, in fear of the thunder, might have taken to the lake. The more I reflected upon it the more was I convinced that I was right. But if this were the case, how was it that Sabine made no attempt to escape? On a closer scrutiny the reason was plainly apparent: She was bound hand and foot.
Wild with joy I remained for a moment breathless, and then rushed toward her. She recognized me instantly, and struggling to her feet fell swooning into my arms. I quickly cut her bonds, and when she revived, which she soon did under my caresses we fled away through the storm.
Everything in the universe appeared good to us now. The lightning flashing and the thunder cracking overhead no longer held any terrors for us: it was the artillery of heaven firing a salvo of victory and jubilation. Sabine, her sweet face streaming with rain, clung to me, and her blue eyes smiled lovingly into mine. Delicious with happiness, melting with tenderness, I pressed her to my heart, and amid a peal of thunder that made the earth tremble our lips met in the ecstacy of a long-awaited kiss. Then, her little hand clasped in mine, we ran to where I had left my coat .
The boy came out of the lake as we reached the place. Sabine, who had at first taken him to be one of our allies, was so frightened when she saw that he was black that I had considerable difficulty in reassuring her. There was no time to lose. The only obstacle to our flight was the boy’s fear of the thunder, but as he managed to overcome it sufficiently to accompany us, I was thankful that the storm continued, for I knew that while it lasted, there was no danger of Sabine being missed and, consequently, of our being pursued.
When the child caught hold of my hand to lead us he at once became calmer, and I felt instinctively that his trouble was more physical than moral. He was shaken by veritable undulations of electricity which abated at the contact with me. We walked along in silence for half an hour and then, to my astonishment, he conducted us toward a dark and spacious grotto.
“Where are you taking us?” I demanded.
The boy’s look appealed to Sabine to speak.
“Did you, then, not come here through a grotto?” asked the girl, turning to me.
“No,” I replied. “We came by a sort of river.”
“I was brought through a series of immense subterranean passages,” she explained.
“Do you think we ought to risk it? I don’t like the Idea of it myself,” I said.
Then, addressing the boy, I signed to him that we desired to take some other route. He made me understand that it was impossible, that the grotto was our only road to safety. He wore an air of assurance that showed that he knew perfectly well what he was about, and I concluded that the best thing to do was to trust ourselves to him.
Sabine clinched the argument by the very pertinent remark that any risk, however great, was preferable to that of being recaptured. So, clasping hands again, we entered the darkness.
THROUGH THE BOWELS OP THE EARTH.
In the grotto the thunder rumbled away in endless echoes. It was in itself an awesome thing to grope our way through the vast and dark passages, but the flashes of lightning that illumined them kept us in perpetual fear of an impending cataclysm. And the danger was by no means imaginary. Once the mountain, struck, I presume, externally, trembled to its base, and after the last echo of the roar that followed the flash had died away we heard with a terror that almost paralyzed us the fall of a mass of rock so near that a fragment struck my shoulder.
I clasped Sabine’s hand tightly, and we pressed forward in the silence and obscurity, our hearts beating high with mingled anxiety and hope. Our guide walked on as though perfectly familiar with the way, and I concluded that there was only one passage with no lateral branches, but in this I was mistaken for we presently came to a place where several other tunnels converged. At the end of one (which we did not take) was a silvery orifice.
“I wonder how he is able to find his way among so many different roads?” I remarked to Sabine.
“I cannot say,” she replied. “The same thing struck me when they were
bringing me through these endless passages. These Men of the Waters seem to be endowed with the same faculty as carrier pigeons.”
“Yes, dear, their science of movement, the long distances they are able to go under water may in course of time have developed this faculty.”
“I believe, too,” she added, “that they see better than we do in the dark.”
After two hours’ further progress the grotto became wider. In the distance a bronze-like reflection indicated the presence of water. It became larger, greenish and vaccinating. Then we found ourselves in the dim, uncertain vertical light that suffuses the entrance to caverns. We were in a spacious, lofty cave, the roof of which we could hardly discern. The water extended deep and wide along a gallery on the right through which the daylight streamed. Several large birds rose noisily as we approached, and we saw them for some time hovering in the tunnel. Sabine and I stood motionless in the light, feeling as though we had just awakened from a horrible nightmare. The child looked pleased at our relief and motioned to us to repose ourselves, and we gladly acquiesced while he vanished under water.
“Sabine,” I said, as she nestled In my arms, “we shall love each other the more for sharing such prodigious perils and adventures. Our love will preserve the trace of so many terrible emotions. As long as life lasts, we shall never forget our flight through these majestic subterranean galleries.”
THE INTERIOR LAKES AND THEIR HOSPITABLE DENIZENS.
After following a narrow path we entered an obscure passage that must have bridged water, for we caught the vague glimmer of it through a crevice in the rocky floor. We tramped on for a couple of hours a good deal more light-heartedly than in the morning, notwithstanding that the darkness was, If anything, deeper, the atmosphere damper and the passage narrower. !At length we issued into a valley and daylight. The storm was abating, and glimpses of blue sky could be seen through the mass of fleecy clouds.
The valley was a part of the grotto, the roof of which had caved in during some great upheaval. The sides were bare and almost perpendicular for about ten feet, then creeping plants and brushwood covered them In luxuriant profusion. Below ‘were piled immense jagged masses of the rock that had fallen in and which the elements had carved into rough fantastic shapes of monsters.
Skirting these we crossed the valley and descended into the bowels of the earth again, only to issue after a twenty-minutes’ tramp. into another valley. For two hours we went on alternately passing through dark galleries, marvelous caverns and verdant valleys. Finally we came to the end of the galleries on the bank of a gigantic basin, into which a river emptied itself by a waterfall 250 feet wide and 60 feet high.
Then the boy shouted gleefully and motioning us to follow him rushed on ahead. This we did as fast as we could, and on rounding a cape of high rocks found ourselves close upon a number of human habitations similar to those of the Men of the Waters. At the cries raised by some women, a crowd of people emerged from the water and came running toward us.
They were of the same type as the boy. Their hair was long and fine, and their extremities thicker than those of the Men of the Waters. Their greater resemblance to us, however, demonstrated a backwardness in evolution, an inferiority to the former, and accounted for their relegation to the subterranean lakes and rivers. My first hypothesis that they were the latest arrivals in the country was disproved by ulterior researches. They more probably were among the first peoples who found their way here a few centuries after the Men-Wading-Birds, and the latter defended their marshes with sufficient energy to compel the newcomers to take to the interior valleys, where the depths of the lakes rendered them amphibious. It is equally probable that the dark Men of the Waters are but a detached branch, become perfected for an aquatic existence of the races inhabiting the valleys, and that the light Men of the Waters, on the other hand, came straight from the plains and adapted themselves to their new condition of life out of pure imitation. Intermarriage between the different species of these aquatic peoples is very rare, and if traces of fusion between the dark and light elements are occasionally to be found, there is no reason to suppose that either has ever contracted a union with the Men-Wading-Birds, the latter being regarded as an inferior race, fallen into the melancholy of the outcast and hopeless, and rapidly becoming extinct.
No longer worried in regard to Sabine, I gave myself up to enthusiasm over my marvelous discoveries. I promised myself a long sojourn among these aquatic populations in the hope of solving the mystery surrounding them, from the historical, ethnological and other scientific points of view. I was saddened, however, by the thought that other expeditions would follow ours, that peradventure colonies of terrestrial men would ferociously destroy the admirable work of centuries and annihilate the various species of amphibious man. I derived some consolation, though, from the thought that it would be next to impossible for the invaders to cross the swamps where we came so near perishing; that it would be many years before the scanty surrounding populations would dream of confronting the perils of emigration and that a century hence the Men of the Waters might be organised sufficiently to be able to defend their territory against all aggressors. Finally, these regions, though admirable and perfectly salubrious, were, nevertheless, essentially lacustrine and, therefore, little accessible to terrestrial man.
We received a most hospitable welcome. In accordance with the custom of these peoples, after we had been served with a delicious repast a grand aquatic fete was held in our honor. They displayed remarkable agility and great resistance to asphyxiation, though in a lesser degree than their flat-eyed rivals. After our fatiguing experiences it was good to rest and refresh ourselves. . Sabine was worn out and slumbered on my shoulder. Twilight descended upon the valley, everything breathed peace and tranquillity and I resolved to pass the night among our cordial hosts.
A NIGHT OF ANGUISH.
Sabine was installed in a cabin and I, closing the door and placing my couch against it, lay thankfully down, while the boy curled up outside under a covering of plaited rushes. Through a crack in the door I could see that several men of the village were mounting guard, and confident that all was well I fell asleep.
We must have been sleeping for about five hours, when I was awakened by a tumult outside. I peeped through the crack. It was a beautiful moonlight night. Around a brazier that was burning briskly a score of old men squatted. With them were several young men, who from their flat eyes, barbated, weed-like hair and dusky color I saw were our adversaries. Moreover, the dark athlete immediately attracted my attention. My breast was bursting with jealous rage, and I could hardly refrain from rushing out and measuring myself against him. I reflected, however, that Sabine might be made the prize of the contest by the tribe, and resolved to act with diplomatic prudence and only to resort to violence in the last extremity.
The gathering around the brazier was obviously a council of the elders of the hospitable tribe, and the tumult was caused by the young strangers who were trying to intimidate them. Suddenly the young braves burst through the circle and rushed toward our cabin, but over a hundred Men of the Valleys appeared as by magic and drove them back. The braves then attempted to resume the conference, but the most imposing of the old men, who appeared to be the president, scattered the flaming brands with a kick and spoke long and loud and angrily in the light of the moon. Then our cabin was surrounded by the whole population of the village, and the braves withdrew and camped on the bank of the lake.
Sabine slumbered peacefully through it all. I went to her couch and bent over her. The moonbeams played upon her hair that encircled her head like a halo of gold and her lips were parted in a happy smile. Invoking a blessing upon her, I lightly kissed her pure brow and returned to my post at the door.
The dark men by the lake seemed to be waiting for the day to break. Uneasy at their presence there I opened the door. The multitude gazed at me in mute consternation. My gentle little friend was weeping. I called to him and he came, but could not make me understand what caused the consternation of the crowd, nor why he was weeping. All that I could gather was that we must not quit the cabin, and that the dark men were awaiting reinforcements.
What was to be done? Would the proud old men, who had refused to surrender us just now, give way when the reinforcements arrived? Why were the dark athlete and his companions allowed to remain there unmolested? Gloomily I kept watch. The sleep of my beloved reminded me of the last sleep of a prisoner condemned to be executed in the morning. I realized with bitterness how utterly helpless I was, that any attempt at escape would be useless and might end in disaster.
I was engrossed in my dismal reverie when Sabine awoke. She read my trouble in my face.
“Robert, you are suffering. Are you ill?” she exclaimed.
I explained the situation to her, and she peered through the door at our enemies.
“So you think, Robert, they will give us up?” she said.
“In all probability,” I answered.
Like a frightened gazelle Sabine threw herself into my arms and I pressed her to my heart fiercely, passionately in an access of love, pride and pain. I knew that she would die rather than fall into the bands of her abductor again.
I was still folding her in my arms, when there was a noise from the crowd outside, and we went to the door. The first faint streak of nascent dawn was struggling for supremacy with the pale light of the waning moon. Facing the old men was a form which we speedily recognized as that of our friend, the light Man of the Waters, who had saved up from the bog.
Opening the door, amid the sympathetic murmurs of the crowd, and elated with a new-found hope we joined him. He greeted us with demonstrations of joy and affection. All, save the group by the lake, were visibly touched at our gratitude and his kindness, and they became positively enthusiastic when, taking the little dark boy in my arms, I presented him to my aquatic brother.
ARRIVAL OF THE LIGHT MEN OF THE WATERS.
We awaited daylight in company with the old men, the boy and our benefactor. The sun was just rising above the hill tops when a great wave came sweeping up the river and hundreds of swimmers tumbled over the waterfall into the lake. Sabine shrieked and clung to me, but I could see from the smiles of our friend that there was no cause for alarm.
The swimmers issued from the water, and I saw that there were light as well as dark men among them. On the shore they formed into two divisions. according to color. At the same time the Council of the Men of the Valleys assembled upon a neighboring knoll, which was solemnly surrounded by the whole tribe. Then the dark athlete and three old men of his race placed themselves in front of and a little to the left of the Council, while our rescuer and three old men of his people stationed themselves on the right.
The events of the night and the reason the consternation of the multitude and grief of the boy had been changed to enthusiasm and rejoicing were now clear to me, and Sabine shared my belief when I made it known to her. It was certain that before the opportune arrival of the light Men of the Waters the Council of the Tribe, now acting as judges, had, in view of their weakness and fear of their powerful rivals, decided to hand us over to the tender mercies of the dark athlete.
We watched the proceedings with an anxiety easier to be imagined than described. Not only did the judges receive the reclamations favorably, but the dark Men of the Waters, probably weary of the war, approved what he was saying, and in face of the overwhelming odds against him the dark athlete sulkily withdrew and all his companions quitted him. We were given into the care of our dear friends, the light Men of the Waters, amid the most touching demonstration of sympathy and satisfaction from the population of the valley.
The boy remained with us, caressed by Sabine, our friend and myself. He was suffering somewhat from Ms shoulder and his eyes, burning feverishly, gazed at us with the deepest affection. Owing to the pain in his shoulder, the lad was unable to take part in the general rejoicing, which took the form of marvelous aquatic performances by the three peoples.
Our rescuer was the first to dive in the lake. Sabine and I both sought to distinguish him among the others, but were unable to do so and he did not issue again, though nearly all the swimmers emerged, one after the other, to salute us. We soon forgot all about him, however. We were so happy in our love, so confident of a bright and glorious future. We thought only of finding Devreuse and the other members of the expedition and returning to Europe.
Two hours passed in this way, and we were still watching the sports, when I was suddenly thrown to the ground with great violence and Sabine was seized and carried off like a leaf caught up by a cyclone. When I scrambled to my feet the athlete with Sabine in his arms was speeding toward the river as fast as his legs would carry him, along a narrow path on the cliffs that circled our side of the lake and sheered almost perpendicularly to the water.
The boy was running after him, and screaming loudly. Once the man turned savagely upon him and ordered him to go back, but the lad kept after him. I started in mad pursuit, and when he saw me, and that the whole lake was in an uproar he stopped a moment, and his flat eyes blazed with jealous hate and fury.
Above the path a cornice projected, access to which could only be had by climbing a shaky, undermined mass of rock. The athlete’s purpose, it was evident, was to reach this cornice, but, hampered by his beautiful burden, he was overtaken by the boy, and I was close behind.
He snarled something at the child, who responded with intrepid anger. Then, quicker than it takes to recount the crime, the man grasped the little fellow with one hand and hurled him against the rock below, smashing his skull. Insane with grief and wrath, I bounded toward my formidable adversary, followed by the howling, vengeful crowd, but the murderer, clambering to the cornice, placed Sabine upon it and, exerting all his strength, displaced the shaky rock which fell with a crash, cutting off all immediate means of following him. We were unable to reach the cornice even by clambering upon each other’s shoulders, and I wore the flesh from my fingers in my vain efforts to scale the rocky wall.
Clever marksmen though they were in the water, none of my friends would venture to hurl a harpoon at the fugitive for fear of killing Sabine. Meanwhile he sped upward toward the dark gallery by the river. I knew that if he reached it I should never see my darling alive again, for I had read his terrible purpose in his eyes.
He was disappearing into the yawning grotto, and I was struggling furiously in the bands of a dozen men who were trying to prevent me from hurling myself over the cliff, when there was a shout from the other side of the lake and the sharp crack of a rifle rang out, followed almost simultaneously by another report.
The dark athlete dropped his precious burden, reeled backward, and his body turned over and over as it fell on to the rocks below. On the other side of the lake, their smoking rifles in their hands, stood Jean Louis Devreuse and Lachal, after myself the best shot of the expedition. With them was my aquatic brother.
• • • • •
We returned to the lake inhabited by our friends, the light Men of the Waters, and enjoyed their cordial hospitality for more than a month. We did not see anything further of the dark Men of the Waters or the Men of the Valleys. Devreuse told me all about the role played by our rescuer in the events I have narrated. Sabine and I could not forget the tragic death of our gentle little friend, and always shall grieve for him.
The expedition, commanded by Jean Louis Devreuse, returned to Paris early in April last with documents from which an important and valuable work will be compiled. In May Sabine and I were married and we are superlatively happy; but in the soft, dreamy twilight our thoughts often wander with a vague regret to the wonderful land where we passed through so many stupendous adventures.
Source: The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 148 (1907.)