The moon had retreated behind a dense wall of cloud, and the landscape was enveloped in semi-darkness. Reaching the door of the vault, I unlocked it; it opened instantly, and fell back with a sudden clang. She whom I held fast with my iron grip shrunk back, and strove to release herself from my grasp.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, in a faint tone. “I—I am afraid!”
“Of what?”—I asked, endeavoring to control the passionate vibrations of my voice and to speak unconcernedly. “Because it is dark? We shall have a light directly—you will see—you—you,” and to my own surprise I broke into a loud and violent laugh. “You have no cause to be frightened! Come!”
And I lifted her swiftly and easily over the stone step of the entrance and set her safely inside. Inside at last, thank Heaven! I shut the great gate upon us both and locked it! Again that strange undesired laugh broke from my lips involuntarily, and the echoes of the charnel house responded to it with unearthly and ghastly distinctness. Nina clung to me in the dense gloom.
“Why do you laugh like that?” she cried, loudly and impatiently. “It sounds horrible.”
I checked myself by a strong effort.
“Does it? I am sorry—very sorry! I laugh because—because, cara mia, our moonlight ramble is so pleasant—and amusing—is it not?”
And I caught her to my heart and kissed her roughly. “Now,” I whispered, “I will carry you—the steps are too rough for your little feet—dear, dainty, white little feet! I will carry you, you armful of sweetness!—yes, carry you safely down into the fairy grotto where the jewels are—such jewels, and all for you—my love, my wife!”
And I raised her from the ground as though she were a young, frail child. Whether she tried to resist me or not I cannot now remember. I bore her down the moldering stairway, setting my foot on each crooked step with the firmness of one long familiar with the place. But my brain reeled—rings of red fire circled in the darkness before my eyes; every artery in my body seemed strained to bursting; the pent-up agony and fury of my soul were such that I thought I should go mad or drop down dead ere I gained the end of my long desire. As I descended I felt her clinging to me; her hands were cold and clammy on my neck, as though she were chilled to the blood with terror. At last I reached the lowest step—I touched the floor of the vault. I set my precious burden down. Releasing my clasp of her, I remained for a moment inactive, breathing heavily. She caught my arm—she spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“What place is this? Where is the light you spoke of?”