The light grew brighter, but very slowly, until all at once I saw what seemed to be the gleam of an electric arc-light immediately ahead. It dazzled and half blinded me.
I started backward; and then the noble morning star disclosed herself, swinging in the sky like a blazing jewel in a translucent sea.
Before me was a projecting piece of rock, which had shut off the view, and but for that warning star I must have gone to my death. For my foot was slipping on ice—and I was clinging to the cliff-wall upon the other side of the tiny platform, where I had stood with Pierre, and the Old Angel thundered over me.
And, instead of noon, as I had thought it to be, it was only dawn, and the distant sky was banded with faint bars of yellow and gold, and the fresh morning air was in my nostrils.
I picked my way back, inch by inch, across the ice which coated the rocky floor for a few yards within the tunnel, until I stood in safety again.
The full purport of this discovery now came to me, and it filled me with frantic joy. For, since the cave connected with that platform beneath the cataract, it was evident that by crossing the ledge, a dangerous but not precarious feat, I should enter the main tunnel again and come out eventually beyond the hills, even allowing for a preliminary blunder into the wrong track.
The greatest danger lay in the possibility of Leroux or his aids lying in wait for me somewhere within the tunnel, and I had not much fear of that, for I did not believe they suspected that our cave connected with the main passage. It was more likely that they would wait in Duchaine’s room till hunger drove us out.
So I started back to Jacqueline. But I had not gone six paces before I heard a scream that still rings in my ears to-day, and a shadow sprang out of the darkness and rushed at me. It was old Charles Duchaine. His white hair streamed behind him; his face bore an expression of indelible horror and rage, and in his hand he held the other sword.
With a madman’s proverbial cunning he had pretended to be asleep; then he must have followed me stealthily as I made my journey of exploration; and now, doubtless, he ascribed all his wrongs and sufferings to me and meant to kill me.
His fears had snapped the last frail link that bound him to the world of sense.
He struck at me, a great sweeping blow which would almost have cut me in two. I had just time to parry it, and then he was upon me, raining blows upon my out-stretched sword. He was no swordsman, but slashed and hewed in frenzy, and the steel rang on steel, and the rust from the blades filled my nostrils with its sting.
But, though his attack was wild, the vigor of his blows almost beat down my guard. At last a random blow of mine swept the weapon from his feeble old hand and sent it whirling down the cataract into the lake below.
Then he was at my throat, and it was fortunate that there was firm rock instead of slippery ice beneath us, or we should both have followed the sword.