[Illustration: “These sheep had become as wild as deer”]
CHANGE OF MASTERS
The next day we continued our explorations by land, and so for a week after that. I thought it best not to relinquish all authority, so I organised regular expeditions, and ordered their direction. The men did not object. It was all good enough fun to them.
The net results were that we found a nesting place of sea birds—too late in the season for eggs; a hot spring near enough camp to be useful; and that was about all. The sheep were the only animals on the island, although there were several sorts of birds. In general, the country was as I have described it—either volcanic or overlaid with fertile earth. In any case it was canon and hill. We soon grew tired of climbing and turned our attention to the sea.
With the surf boat we skirted the coast. It was impregnable except in three places: our own beach, that near the seal rookery, and on the south side of the island. We landed at each one of these places. But returning close to the coast we happened upon a cave mouth more or less guarded by an outlying rock.
The day was calm, so we ventured in. At first I thought it merely a gorge in the rock, but even while peering for the end wall we slipped under the archway and found ourselves in a vast room.
Our eyes were dazzled so we could make out little at first. But through the still, clear water the light filtered freely from below, showing the bottom as through a sea glass. We saw the fish near the entrance, and coral and sea growths of marvellous vividness. They waved slowly as in a draught of air. The medium in which they floated was absolutely invisible, for, of course, there were no reflections from its surface. We seemed to be suspended in mid-air, and only when the dipping oars made rings could we realise that anything sustained us.
Suddenly the place let loose in pandemonium. The most fiendish cries, groans, shrieks, broke out, confusing themselves so thoroughly with their own echoes that the volume of sound was continuous. Heavy splashes shook the water. The boat rocked. The invisible surface was broken into facets.
We shrank, terrified. From all about us glowed hundreds of eyes like coals of fire—on a level with us, above us, almost over our heads. Two by two the coals were extinguished.
Below us the bottom was clouded with black figures, darting rapidly like a school of minnows beneath a boat. They darkened the coral and the sands and the glistening sea growths just as a cloud temporarily darkens the landscape—only the occultations and brightenings succeeded each other much more swiftly.
We stared stupefied, our thinking power blurred by the incessent whirl of motion and noise.
Suddenly Thrackles laughed aloud.
“Seals!” he shouted through his trumpeted hands.