The blackness was spangled with watching, diamond eyes!—with tiny insect eyes that moved; upon the floor, upon the walls, upon the ceiling! A choking cry rose to my lips.
“Smith! Barton! for God’s sake, look! The place is alive with scorpions!”
Around we all came, panic plucking at our hearts, around swept the beam of the big lamp; and there, retreating before the light, went a veritable army of venomous creatures! I counted no fewer than three of the giant red centipedes whose poisonous touch, called “the zayat kiss,” is certain death; several species of scorpion were represented; and some kind of bloated, unwieldy spider, so gross of body that its short, hairy legs could scarce support it, crawled, hideous, almost at my feet.
What other monstrosities of the insect kingdom were included in that obscene host I know not; my skin tingled from head to feet; I experienced a sensation as if a million venomous things already clung to me—unclean things bred in the malarial jungles of Burma, in the corpse-tainted mud of China’s rivers, in the fever spots of that darkest East from which Fu-Manchu recruited his shadow army.
I was perilously near to losing my nerve when the crisp, incisive tones of Nayland Smith’s voice came to stimulate me like a cold douche.
“This wanton sacrifice of horrors speaks eloquently of a forlorn hope! Sweep the walls with light, Kennedy; all those filthy things are nocturnal and they will retreat before us as we advance.”
His words proved true. Occasioning a sort of rustling sound—a faint sibilance indescribably loathsome—the creatures gray and black and red darted off along the passage. One by one, as we proceeded, they crept into holes and crevices of the ancient walls, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs—the pairs locked together in deadly embrace.
“They cannot live long in this cold atmosphere,”
cried Smith. “Many of them will kill one
another—and we can safely leave the rest
British climate. But see that none of them drops upon you in passing.”
Thus we pursued our nightmare march, on through that valley of horror. Colder grew the atmosphere and colder. Again the thunder boomed out above us, seeming to shake the roof of the tunnel fiercely, as with Titan hands. A sound of falling water, audible for some time, now grew so loud that conversation became difficult. All the insects had disappeared.
“We are approaching the River Starn!” roared Sir Lionel. “Note the dip of the passage and the wet walls!”
“Note the type of brickwork!” shouted Smith.
Largely as a sedative to the feverish excitement which consumed me, I forced myself to study the construction of the tunnel; and I became aware of an astonishing circumstance. Partly the walls were natural, a narrow cavern traversing the bed of rock which upcropped on this portion of the estate, but partly, if my scanty knowledge of archaeology did not betray me, they were Phoenician!