On the ground floor we found ourselves out of immediate danger, since the fire was attacking this part of the palace from above and burning downward. We had even time to go to our respective sleeping-places and collect such of our possessions and valuables as we were able to carry. Fortunately, among other things, these included all our note-books, which to-day are of priceless value. Laden with these articles, we met again in the audience hall, which, although it was very hot, seemed as it had always been, a huge, empty place, whereof the roof, painted with stars, was supported upon thick cedar columns, each of them hewn from a single tree.
Passing down that splendid apartment, which an hour later had ceased to exist, lamps in hand, for these we had found time to fetch and light, we reached the mouth of the passage that led to the underground city without meeting a single human being.
Had the Abati been a different race they could perfectly well have dashed in and made us prisoners, for the drawbridge was still intact. But their cowardice was our salvation, for they feared lest they should be trapped by the fire. So I think at least, but justice compels me to add that, on the spur of the moment, they may have found it impossible to clear the gateways of the mass of fallen or dead soldiers over which it would have been difficult to climb.
Such, at any rate, was the explanation that we heard afterwards.
We reached the mouth of the vast cave in perfect safety, and clambered through the little orifice which was left between the rocks rolled thither by the force of the explosion, or shaken down from the roof. This hole, for it was nothing more, we proceeded to stop with a few stones in such a fashion that it could not be forced without much toil and considerable noise, only leaving one little tortuous channel through which, if necessary, a man could creep.
The labour of rock-carrying, in which even Maqueda shared, occupied our minds for awhile, and induced a kind of fictitious cheerfulness. But when it was done, and the chilly silence of that enormous cave, so striking in comparison with the roar of the flames and the hideous human tumult which we had left without, fell upon us like sudden cold and blinding night upon a wanderer in windy, sunlit mountains, all our excitement perished. In a flash, we understood our terrible position, we who had but escaped from the red fire to perish slowly in the black darkness.
Still we strove to keep our spirits as best we could. Leaving Higgs to watch the blocked passage, a somewhat superfluous task, since the fire without was our best watchman, the rest of us threaded our way up the cave, following the telephone wire which poor Quick had laid on the night of the blowing-up of the god Harmac, till we came to what had been our headquarters during the digging of the mine. Into the room which was Oliver’s, whence we had escaped with so much