WE AGAIN EXPLORE THE CAVES
During the two days which followed the making of our compact with Captain Montbar we were busy with our preparations for a second visit to the place of the painted hands, where we knew that gold was to be obtained for those who had the courage to carry it away. This time we sailed round, so that we were saved the journey over the cliffs. We had caused to be made for Hartog, Janstins, and me dresses of sail-cloth, with masks like those worn by Inquisitors, the eye-holes being filled with glass. The sleeves of the jacket were made long, so as to cover our hands. Our sea boots and breeches we knew to be impervious to hornet stings, and, thus equipped, we hoped to succeed in carrying away the treasure which the Lamakera fishermen had abandoned.
We took the smallest of our ship’s boats, in which we rowed ashore, and, leaving the crew at the entrance to the caves, we three, as silently as possible, propelled the boat along the stream into the interior. As we progressed we met with evidences of our former visit. Lumps of stalactites lay where they had fallen when shaken from the vaulted roof by the discharge of our firearms. The body of the lad Bruno was also to be seen, half submerged, in the water of the stream. Close to the body was the heap of gold dust, and this we began to load into our boat, making as little noise as possible lest we should disturb the hornets from their nests.
We worked rapidly, and in less than an hour we had filled the boat with as much as she could carry of the heavy sand, nearly all of which was gold dust, when a humming warned us of the approach of the hornets. We had brought with us but a single torch, so as to avoid the light which we knew would attract the swarm of venomous insects, as also the bats and flying creatures which had made their home in these wonderful caverns; but the solitary gleam, in so much darkness, seemed to burn with the brightness of a conflagration. The smoke, also, from our torch, ascending into the vaulted roof of the cavern, was beginning to disturb the weird dwellers from their gloomy abode, and already ghostly, bat-like forms began to fill the air space above our heads. It was time to leave, and, reluctantly, we began to push the boat toward the mouth of the cave, promising ourselves to return next day for more of the precious stuff; of which there appeared to be an inexhaustible supply. As we neared the entrance to the cave, however, we were startled to observe a peril which had hitherto escaped our notice. Poised over the arch of the narrow passage was a mass of rock so finely balanced that it seemed to be held in its place by the weight of a number of bat-like creatures clustering at one of its angles. As we approached, these bats, startled by the light of our torch, began, one or two at a time, to rise from their resting place, causing the rock to topple toward us. Thus we stood in danger of being crushed by the mass should it fall as we passed the entrance, or, worse still, if it fell before we escaped into the cave beyond, we might find ourselves entombed alive in this dreadful place, to become a prey to the horrors of which we had had previous experience.