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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Treasure of the 'San Philipo' » Chapter XIX THE CAVE
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THE bos'n's proposal was hailed with enthusiasm, for, curiously enough, neither my father nor my uncle had given any thought to the blasting powder the use of which is an everyday occurrence in the mining districts of Cornwall.

"How much of the stuff have we?" asked my father.

"Mr. Herbert had over fifty pounds of it carried ashore before the gale," replied the bos'n. "It's all in air-tight cases, so it won't be damaged by being buried."

"It's a wonder the whole lot hadn't exploded during the storm! There's enough rock brought down from the cliff to show that the shock was exceptionally severe, to say nothing of the chance of it being struck by lightning."

"But it hasn't, sir, so that is something to be thankful for. However, it would be well to finish unloading the ballast from the yacht, but not to take the silver aboard till we have blown up the rock and made a clear passage through."

"For what reason, Mr. Wilkins?"

"Simply because we don't know what depth the new cutting will be. It might be twelve feet, it might be only six; so the lighter we can make the vessel the less draught she'll draw, and the greater chance she'll have of slipping through."

"But there will be greater difficulty in loading up outside the reef."

"Granted, sir; but we must take the risk, unless, of course, the blasting-powder cuts a deep and unobstructed channel."

So, directly we returned to the "Fortuna," message was sent to the wreck to defer the removal of the pigs of silver for the present.

On my uncle's return he reported that the twenty sows were correct in number, but only ten chests full of pieces-of-eight were to be found, so it was assumed that the remaining five chests had been broken open and their contents shared out by Humphrey Trevena immediately after the capture of the "San Philipo" by the "Anne."

Nearly five tons of ballast had been removed from the "Fortuna," more than sufficient to compensate for the additional weight of the specie; but, in view of the probable difficulty of taking the yacht between the reefs to the open sea, it was decided to proceed with the unloading of the iron ballast, till the "Fortuna's" draught would be reduced to the least margin of safety.

"We've done very well this forenoon," remarked my father, "so we can reasonably take a spell off till the sun is low down."

"As you like, but, personally speaking, I have a perfect craving for hard work," replied Uncle Herbert, "so I'll beat up volunteers and recover the blasting powder."

"You won't bring it aboard?"

"No, I will take it off to the reef, close to the channel you mentioned."

"I'll go, too," I exclaimed, "for I want very much to have a look at the great cave that we can see from here."

"I don't think so," objected my uncle. "A boatload of explosives, powerful enough to blow, us to infinitesimal particles, is hardly a safe cargo, so you will be safer on board the 'Fortuna.'"

"I know, but you can take the stuff off to the reef and come back for me. It's only a ten minutes' pull, you know. Don't be hard on a fellow, uncle. It's the first time I've had a chance to go ashore in that part of the bay, and I want to explore the cave."

"Very well, then," replied my uncle ungraciously. "But mind, no monkey-tricks, and don't run into mischief."

I ran below to the bos'n's locker, where I abstracted a ball of seaming-twine and a couple of candles, and, putting these articles into my coat pocket in company with a box of matches, I went on deck and clambered into the gig.

The spot where the explosives had been buried was in a grove, a short distance from a little bay, which was enclosed on either hand by tall cliffs, and inaccessible from the rest of the lagoon except by means of a boat, unless a path was cut inland through the dense scrub, which apparently had never yet been penetrated by human beings.

The taller of the two cliffs was almost divided from base to summit by the curiously shaped cave which Old Humphrey had laid particular stress upon in his log, and directly the boat touched the sandy beach I bounded off towards it on my trip of exploration, a final warning from my uncle falling lightly upon my ears.

A heap of loose boulders, which had fallen during the shock, encumbered the mouth of the cave; but these I easily surmounted, and advanced cautiously over the smooth floor, my eyes dim by the sudden change from the brilliant sunshine to the subdued light of the cavern.

The walls were composed of blocks of basalt, the general regularity of the vertical shafts broken here and there by gaping horizontal and diagonal fissures, while at intervals a thin stream of water fell from the roof with a cool and pleasing sound.

As I proceeded the roof gradually became lower, till, just as the daylight failed, its height was less than twenty feet. Taking the ball of twine out of my pocket, I made fast one end to a projecting ledge. The candles, I found, had united into a soft bent stick of wax by reason of the heat of the sun, but, straightening them out and cooling them in a pool of water, I had a double-wicked torch in place of the two candles.

As I went on, making a careful survey of the ground for fear of pitfalls, I noticed that on either hand numerous side passages branched out, some large, some small; but, keeping as straight a direction as I could, I advanced slowly, paying out the twine as I went.

At length the smooth floor gave place to a ridge of rock, about four feet in height, leaving an opening of barely three feet between it and the roof. Here I stopped, debating with myself whether it would be wiser to retrace my way, but a feeling of uncontrollable curiosity urged me to continue my investigations.

Having unrolled a length of twine, I threw the ball over the barrier. Having one hand free, I began to clamber over the ridge, holding the lighted candle carefully in my left hand. Beyond I could see that the floor was even, though higher than on the side which I had left, so I unhesitatingly slipped down the opposite slope of the rock and gained the interior of the inner cave.

The light flickered on innumerable stalactites, which glittered like pinnacles and pendants of dazzling gems, while, for the first time, I became aware of the dismal silence and tomb-like solitude of the cave. I tried to whistle, but no sound came from my parched lips; then I called in a low tone, and to my surprise the echoes surpassed my voice in the volume of sound and then gradually died away, till it seemed as if, from the remote recesses of the cavern, came a mocking laugh.

I repeated the call, and again yet louder, when suddenly there was a rush and a roar, and I found myself lying on my back in utter darkness.

For some considerable time I lay helpless, the utter blackness and the terrifying solitude almost depriving me of my senses. Something heavy was gripping my left foot, and I found that I was held by a mass of fallen stone. The candle had been thrown from my hand, and was extinguished by the fall; but with feverish haste I drew the box of matches from my pocket and struck a light. Close at hand was the candle, and by its renewed light I saw, to my horror, that a fall had occurred from the roof, and my retreat was cut off by a tightly wedged mass of stone.

By a supreme effort I wrenched my foot free and staggered upright, stifling a desire to shout for fear that a further fall might occur. Hastily I tried to find a communication through the barrier, but there was no hope in that direction. Even the twine was held as firmly, as if tied to a post, and, on attempting to pull it, the thread broke off close to the rock.

I broke into a cold sweat, but after a few minutes I recovered my senses to a certain extent, arguing with myself that I should be missed before long, and that plenty of willing hands could remove that mass of rubble which held me prisoner.

The light, however, gave me grave misgivings, for the double-wicked candle was burning away rapidly, so, by the aid of my knife, I split the wax cylinder lengthways, thus giving me two candles, as I had originally. One I blew out and put in my pocket, with the feeling of satisfaction of having a light for six hours at the least.

Slowly the time passed. Surely, I thought, my uncle must have taken the explosives to the reef long before now; why had he not come to look for me? Fearful thoughts flashed through my bewildered brain. Supposing the blasting powder had exploded, blowing my uncle and the boat's crew to atoms. My father would naturally conclude that I had shared their fate, and I would be left to perish miserably in the awful darkness of this lonely cavern. Probably it was the detonation of the explosion and not the vibration of the sound of my voice that had dislodged the roof of the cave.

At length, after hours, as it seemed, of weary waiting, I heard a dull rumble in the direction of the mouth of the cavern, and gradually the sound came nearer and nearer.

"Can't go no 'igher, sir," came a faint voice. "The string stops 'ere, an' the whole place is broken up."

"Reggie! Reggie! Are you there?"

"I'm here, uncle. Don't shout, or you will bring some more rock on your head. I'm shut up and can't get out."

"Are you hurt?


"Wait a little longer and we'll fetch more help. We can't shift these stones alone."

"Stay with me, uncle!" I cried despairingly. "It's so horrible alone in this place."

"I'll stop here," replied my uncle reassuringly, and I heard the footsteps of the men as they went off to procure help.

"Have you a light?" asked my uncle.

"Yes—have you?"

"No—we had only one box of matches between us; but never mind, it's only a question of an hour or so."

"How long have I been here?"

"Less than an hour."

Less than an hour! It seemed six times that length of time. However, I had a kind of empty satisfaction in knowing that Uncle Herbert was in the darkness, while I, although penned in, had the benefit of a feeble light.

Notwithstanding that my uncle kept up a desultory conversation, the time passed very slowly; but before the rescue party returned I learnt that the explosives had been safely transported to the reef, and that, on my failing to return, the boat's crew had explored the cave, finding the clue of seaming-twine and following it till it disappeared between the debris. I then told him of my adventure, relating the cause of the roof caving-in, and cautioning him to prevent the others making too much noise.

At length the rescuers arrived, and, without delay, they attacked the rocks with crowbars, trying to dislodge and remove the huge boulders. For a long time they worked incessantly and energetically, but finally they desisted, and I could hear a consultation taking place, though the words were inaudible.

"I've sent for some blasting powder, Reggie," said my father. "The rocks are too large and too tightly wedged together to shift otherwise."

"Won't the explosion bring down more of the roof?" I cried out in my anxiety.

"We must take the chance. Wait a little longer and I'll tell you what to do."

There was a lull in the conversation, and I heard a dull, grinding sound, as if some steel instrument was being bored into the rock. Then, after a considerable time, my father spoke again.

"How far does the cave extend?"

"A long way, with passages on each side."

"Very well. Go about a hundred yards from this heap of rock and hide in one of the side-tunnels. Take your coat off, and place it over your head to deaden the sound. I am going to set fire to the fuse, and the explosion will take place in five minutes."

I immediately set off to a place of safety, and walking as rapidly as I could by the dim light of the candle, the floor, fortunately, being even, I counted a hundred and twenty paces; then, turning abruptly to the right, I set the candle on the ground, wrapped my head in my coat, and waited.

Presently came the short sharp crack of the explosion and a dull rumble of falling stones. A sudden rush of air, an appalling echo, and the noise of a shower of rock falling from the roof, instantly followed the detonation, and an acrid smell filled the cave.

Tearing away my coat from my head, I found that the air current had extinguished the candle, and with considerable haste I struck a match. Stones still fell at intervals from the roof, but my range of vision was limited by the feeble glimmer of the light and the thick haze of the smoke and dust caused by the explosion.

Then I heard the sound of returning footsteps, and my name was called. Hastening back to the barrier that held me captive, I saw a shaft of light from the men's lanterns glancing through a narrow hole close to the roof. The aperture was less than eighteen inches in height and slightly more in width, while its upper portion was overhung by a sharp wedge-shaped piece of rock, that reminded me forcibly of the knife of a guillotine.

"Tell him to hurry up, sir," I heard the bos'n exclaim anxiously. "A fall may take place at any moment."

"Reggie," exclaimed my father, "climb up and squeeze through that hole."

"But I can't, father!" I replied, regarding the opening with dismay.

"You must!" he repeated sternly—even harshly, it seemed. "Get up, instantly!"

Carefully I negotiated the ascent of a bank of shattered rock, till I was on a level with the hole, and, looking through, I could see the heads and shoulders of the rescue party on the other side of the barrier. But the sight of that fearful-looking piece of jagged rock overhanging the way to safety caused my courage to ebb, for in my imagination I saw it slowly, yet surely, descending to crush the life out of my body.

"Now, then, hurry up!" repeated my father, in a voice that was sterner than before.

With a despairing effort I tried to creep through the aperture, but, being unable to use my arms or legs, the attempt was useless.

"Look here, Mr. Reginald," exclaimed the bos'n, "we are going to pass a rope through to you. Put both your feet in the bowline, grip the rope like grim death with your right hand as high above your head as you can reach, and keep your left down close to your side. Give the word when you are ready, and we'll haul you through in a jiffy."

The rope was thrust through the hole by means of a long pole, and I did as I was directed, although, I am afraid, I gave the word to haul away in a very undecided tone. A steady strain on the rope, and I began to slide towards the narrow path that led to safety. Grazed by the sharp edges of the jagged rock, my knuckles, hips, and knees bleeding, and my feet jammed together by the strain on the bow-line, I felt that the perilous journey would never end.

With wide-open eyes I stared blankly at the rock above me, at one time less than six inches from my face. The confinement of the narrow passage produced a feeling of suffocation, and with it the impression that the walls of the tunnel were contracting; but at length willing hands seized my outstretched arm, then my shoulders, and I was free.

"Back, all of you!" shouted the bos'n, and in the rush for safety I was boldly carried off by one of the sailors. There was another rumbling sound, and the place through which I had just emerged was choked by a still greater fall of rock. I—nay, the whole party—had escaped by the very skin of our teeth.

No time was lost in gaining the open air. It was night, but by the glimmer of the lanterns I saw that my father's eyes were filled with tears as he kissed me—even in front of all the men.

As we were rowed back to the "Fortuna," and I sat in the stern-sheets with my father and uncle, I whispered, "What made you speak so crossly to me, pater?"

"Necessity, my boy—stern necessity. Had I not compelled you to do what I told you, your hesitation would doubtless have proved fatal, though, believe me, Reggie, you will never be able to realize your father's agony of mind when he spoke thus."


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