As though by magic, the assault ceased.
The effect was indescribable. We could see nothing; we merely became suddenly aware that there were no longer hands clutching at our throats or hairy bodies crushing us to the ground. It was as though the horde of unseen devils had melted into thin air. There were movements on the ground, for many of them had been wounded; a man cannot always reach the spot in the dark. This lasted for two or three minutes; they were evidently removing those who still had life in them, for the straining breath of men dragging or lifting burdens was plainly audible.
Gradually that, too, died away with the last reverberations of the mysterious sound that had saved us, and we found ourselves alone—or at least unmolested—for in the darkness we could see nothing, except the dim outlines of the prostrate forms at our feet.
The cavern was a shambles. The smell was that of a slaughter-house. I had had no idea of the desperateness of our defense until I essayed to scramble over the heap of bodies to dry ground; I shuddered and grew faint, and Harry was in no better case.
Worse, he had dropped his knife when we stumbled, and we were forced to grope round in that unspeakable mess for many minutes before we found it.
“Are you hurt, lad?” I asked when once we stood clear.
“Nothing bad, I think,” he answered. “My throat is stiff, and two or three of the brutes got their teeth in me. In the name of Heaven, Paul, what are they? And what was that bell?”
These were foolish questions, and I told him so. My leg was bleeding badly where I had slashed myself, and I, too, had felt their teeth. But, despite our utter weariness and our wounds, we wanted nothing—not even rest—so badly as we wanted to get away from that awful heap of flesh and blood and the odor of it.
Besides, we did not know at what moment they might return. So I spoke, and Harry agreed. I led the way; he followed.
But which way to turn? We wanted water, both for our dry and burning throats and for our wounds; and rest and food. We thought little of safety. One way seemed as likely as another, so we set out with our noses as guides.
A man encounters very few misfortunes in this world which, later in life, he finds himself unable to laugh at; well, for me that endless journey was one of the few.
Every step was torture. I had bandaged the cut on my leg as well as possible, but it continued to bleed. But it was imperative that we should find water, and we struggled on, traversing narrow passages and immense caverns, always in complete darkness, stumbling over unseen rocks and encountering sharp corners of cross passages.
It lasted I know not how many hours. Neither of us would have survived alone. Time and again Harry sank to the ground and refused to rise until I perforce lifted him; once we nearly came to blows. And I was guilty of the same weakness.