But a new idea had shadowed itself in the mind of Karl; and it was in obedience to this, that he now proceeded with a fresh examination of the precipitous enclosure that imprisoned them. It is true it was but a sort of forlorn hope that he had conceived; but a forlorn hope was better than no hope at all, and therefore Karl was determined to be satisfied.
The thought that had been forming in his mind was, that after all it might be possible for them to scale the cliff. That they could not do so by climbing he was already satisfied; as were all three. Of this their former examinations had convinced them. But there were other ways of getting up a precipice, besides merely climbing with one's hands and feet; and one of these ways, as already said, had for some time been shadowing itself in the mind of Karl.
What plan, you will ask, had he now conceived? Did he design to make use of ropes?
Not at all. Ropes could be of no service to him in going up a cliff. They might, had they been fastened at the top; for then both he and his companions would soon have contrived some way of getting up the ropes. They could have made a ladder of a single rope by which they might have ascended, by simply knotting pieces of sticks at short intervals, to serve as rests for their feet, and they knew this well. Such a contrivance would have suited admirably, if they had been required to descend a precipice, for then they could have let the rope down, and fastened it at the top themselves. But to go up was altogether a different operation; and it was necessary for at least one to be above to render it at all practicable or possible. Of course, if one could have got to the top by any means, the others could have done so by the same; and then the rope-ladder would not have been needed at all.
No. Such a contrivance could not be used, and indeed they had never thought of it—since to the meanest comprehension it was plainly impossible. Karl therefore was not thinking of a rope-ladder.
Nevertheless it was actually about a ladder that he was thinking—not made of ropes, but of timber—of sides and rounds like any other ladder.
"What!" you will exclaim, "a ladder by which to scale the cliff! Why, you have told us that it was three hundred feet in sheer height? The longest ladder in the world would not reach a third of the way up such a precipice. Even a fireman's ladder, that is made to reach to the tops of the highest houses, would be of no use for such a height as that?"
"Quite true! I know all that as well as you," would have been Karl's reply to your objections.
"What, then, Master Karl? Do you design to make a ladder that will be taller than all we have ever seen—tall enough to reach to the top of a precipice three hundred feet high? We know you have both energy and perseverance; and, after witnessing the way that you worked at the building of your bridge, and the skill with which you built it, we are ready to believe that you can accomplish a very great feat in the joiner's line; but that you can make a ladder three hundred feet in length, we are not prepared to believe—not if you had a whole chest of tools and the best timber in the world. We know you might put a ladder together ever so long, but would it hold together? or even if it did, how could you set it up against the cliff? Never. Three of the strongest men could not do it,—nor six neither,—nor a dozen, without machinery to assist them; therefore scaling the cliff by means of a wooden ladder is plainly impracticable; and if that be your idea, you may as well abandon it."
"Quite true, I know all this as well as you," would have been Karl's reply; "but I had no idea of being able to scale the cliff by means of a ladder. It was not of a ladder, but of ladders, I was thinking."
"Ha! there may be something in that."
Karl knew well enough that no single ladder could be made of sufficient length and strength to have reached from the bottom to the top of that great wall; or if such could be constructed, he knew equally well that it would be impossible to set it up.
But the idea that had been forming in his mind was, that several ladders might effect the purpose—one placed above another, and each one resting upon a ledge of the cliff, to which the one next below should enable them to ascend.
In this idea there was really some shadow of practicability, though, as I have said, it was but a very forlorn hope. The amount of its practicableness depended upon the existence of the ledges; and it was to ascertain this that Karl had set forth.
If such ledges could be found, the hope would no longer have been forlorn. Karl believed that with time and energy the ladders might be constructed, notwithstanding the poor stock of carpenter's tools at their service; though he had scarce yet thought of how the holes were to be made to receive the rounds, or how the ladders themselves might be set upon the ledges, or any other detail of the plan. He was too eager to be satisfied about the first and most important point—whether there were ledges that would answer the purpose?
With his eyes, therefore, keenly scanning the face of the cliff, he kept on along its base, walking slowly, and in silence.
CHAPTER FORTY SIX.
KARL CLIMBS THE LEDGE.
He continued on until he had reached that end of the valley most remote from the hut, and along the whole of the cliffs that he passed his reconnoissance had been fruitless. He saw many ledges, and some of considerable width—quite wide enough to rest a ladder upon, and also allow it a proper lean to the wall. Some were higher and some lower; but unfortunately they were not above one another, as Karl desired to find them. On the contrary, they were far apart—so that if one of them could have been reached by means of a ladder, as many of them might, this would in no way facilitate communication with the one that was higher up.
Of course then, for Karl's purpose, these ledges were of no avail; and, after observing their relative situations, he passed on with looks of disappointment. At the farthest end of the valley—that is, the place farthest from the hut—there was a little bay, or indentation, in the cliffs. As already stated, there were several of these at intervals around the valley, but the one in question was the largest of any. It was very narrow, only a few yards in width, and about a hundred in depth—that is, a hundred yards from the line, which indicated the general outline of the valley, to the apex of the angle where the indentation ended. Its bottom was nearly upon the same level with that of the valley itself, though it was raised a little higher in some places by loose rocks, and other debris that had fallen from the impending cliffs.
Karl had entered this bay, and was regarding its cliffs all around with intense eagerness of glance. Any one who could have seen him at that moment would have observed that his countenance was brightening as he gazed; and that pleasant thoughts were springing up within his bosom. Any one who had seen that face but the moment before, and had looked upon it now, could not fail to have noticed the change that had so suddenly come over it—a perfect contrast in its expression. What had produced this metamorphosis? Something of importance, I warrant; for the young botanist, naturally of a sober turn, but now more than ever so, was not given to sudden transitions of feeling. What, then, was the cause of his joy?
A glance at the cliff will answer these interrogatories.
At the first glance it might be noted that that part of the precipice surrounding the bay—or ravine, as it might more properly be called—was lower than elsewhere,—perhaps not quite three hundred feet in height. It was not this peculiarity, however, at which Karl was rejoicing. A ladder of three hundred feet was not to be thought of any more than one of three thousand. It was that he had just observed upon the face of the cliff a series of ledges that rose, shelf-like, one above the other. The rock had a seamed or stratified appearance, although it was a species of granite; but the strata were not by any means regular, and the ledges were at unequal distances from each other. Some, too, were broader than the rest, and some appeared very narrow indeed; but many of them were evidently of sufficient width to form the stepping-place for a ladder. The lower ones especially appeared as though they might easily be scaled by a series of ladders, each from twenty to thirty feet long,—but with regard to those near the top, Karl had great doubts. The shelves did not seem more distant from each other than those below, but their horizontal breadth appeared less. This might possibly be an optical delusion, caused by the greater distance from which they were viewed; but if so, it would not much mend the matter for the design which Karl had in view—since the deception that would have given him an advantage in the breadth would have been against him in the height, making the latter too great, perhaps, for any ladder that could be got up.
If you have ever stood by the bottom of a great precipice, you may have noticed how difficult it is to judge of the dimensions of an object far up its face. A ledge several feet in width will appear as a mere seam in the rock, and a bird or other creature that may be seen upon it, will, to the eyes of the beholder, be reduced far below its real bulk. Karl was philosopher enough to understand these things, he had studied in an elementary way, the laws of optics, and therefore was not going to come to conclusions too hastily.
In order the better to form judgment about the breadth of the ledges, and the height of the respective intervals between them, he stepped back as far as the ground would permit him.
Unfortunately this was not far, for the cliff on the other side, as already stated, was but a few paces distant. Consequently he was soon stopped by the rocks, and his situation for viewing the upper portion of the cliff was anything but an advantageous one.
He scrambled up one of the highest boulders, and took his survey from its top, but he was still not satisfied with his "point of view." He saw, however, that it was the best he could obtain; and he remained for a good while upon his perch—with eyes bent upon the opposing precipice, now fixed upon a particular spot, and now wandering in one long sweep from bottom to top, and back again from top to bottom.
During this operation the expression upon his face once more changed to one of deep gloom, for he had discovered an obstacle to his designs that appeared insurmountable. One of the spaces between two of the ledges was too great to be spanned by a ladder, and this, too, was high up the cliff. It could never be scaled!
He noticed that the first ledge from the bottom was about half as high from the ground as this one was from that immediately below it.
Hitherto he had been but guessing at the height; but it now occurred to him that he should throw conjecture aside, and ascertain by actual measurement the distance from the ground to the first ledge. This might be easily accomplished—Karl saw that,—and once done, it would give him a better idea of the distance between the ledges high up.
It has been stated that the measurement could be easily made, and that Karl knew this; but how? The ledge appeared to be full forty feet from the ground, and how was it to be reached by a measuring rule? But Karl had no measuring rule; and it was not in that way he intended to go about it.
You will be conjecturing that he looked out for a tall sapling, of sufficient length to reach the ledge, and then afterwards ascertained the number of feet and inches of the sapling. Certainly this mode would have done well enough, and Karl would very likely have made use of it, had not an easier offered itself—or one that at the moment appeared readier to him. He could have told the height by triangulation, but that would also have involved the procuring of a sapling—and some tedious calculation besides, which would have required time, with not the most certain results either.
Both these plans had occupied his thoughts for a while. The first was rejected on account of the difficulty of obtaining a rod of sufficient length,—the second was set aside by Karl just then perceiving that without much difficulty, he might climb up to the ledge itself. There was a portion of the rock below with a slanting face, and here and there some broken hollows and jutting points that would serve him as foot-holds.
Once upon the ledge, the measurement would be simple enough. It would be only to let down a string with a small stone at the end, like a plumber's line; and then mark how much string it required to reach the ground.
He chanced to have about him a longish piece of rawhide thong, that would serve admirably, and to carry out his purpose, he at once determined upon ascending to the ledge.
Drawing the thong from his pocket, and attaching to one end of it the piece of stone, he approached the cliff, and commenced scrambling upward.
He found it a more difficult task than it had appeared, and it was just as much as he could do to reach the ledge in safety. Had it been Caspar, the climbing would have been a mere bagatelle, used, as the young hunter had been, to the precipices of the Alps while following the rock-loving chamois.
But Karl was no great hand at such gymnastic exercises; and he was all out of breath, and a little bit frightened at his rashness, before he had placed himself safely on the shelf.
Stepping along it, therefore, till he reached a point where the cliff below was vertical, he dropped his stone and line, and soon completed his measurement. Alas! it proved to be far higher than he had conjectured in viewing it from below. His spirits fell as he contemplated the result. He was now certain that the space higher up could not be spanned by any ladder they might be able to construct.
With sad heart, he returned to the place where he had made the ascent, intending to go down again. But it is sometimes easier to say go down than to do it; and to Karl's great consternation he saw at the first glance that he could no more go down than fly upward into the air. Beyond a doubt he was in a fix; regularly "nailed" upon the cliff.
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN.
KARL IN A FIX.
It is not difficult to comprehend the reason. Any one who has ever climbed up a steep ascent,—such as a piece of wall, the mast of a ship, or even an ordinary ladder,—will have noticed that the going up, is much easier than the getting down again; and where the ascent is very steep and difficult, it is quite possible that a person may make their way to the top, without being able to get back to the bottom. The difficulty of descending is much greater than that of ascending. In the latter, you can see where you are to set your feet, and also what you are to take hold of with your hands; whereas, in the former you have not this advantage; but must grope your way downward, and are therefore continually exposed to the danger of missing your footing, and being precipitated to the bottom.
This was just the situation in which the plant-hunter found himself. It was as much as he had been able to pull himself up; it was more than he could do to let himself down again; this he perceived at a single glance.
It is true that the rock slanted a little, and he had clearly seen this from below. Now that he looked at it from above, he could scarcely perceive any slant. It appeared almost vertical, and it was full forty feet to the bottom; a fearful height when viewed from above; he wondered how he had been able to climb up at all, and he was now vexed with himself for having been so rash and foolish.
But he could not stay there all night. Something must be done, to free him from his unpleasant situation; and, gathering resolution, he made an attempt to descend.
He knelt down upon the ledge, with his face turned toward the cliff and his back outwards. Then, grasping the rock, in his hands, he allowed his feet to slip over. He succeeded in finding the uppermost steps, but then came the difficulty. He dared not let go with his hands, so as to get another step downward; and, on lowering his feet to feel for a fresh foothold, he could not discover any. Repeatedly he ran his toes over the face of the rock, groping for a notch or jutting point, but he could find nothing upon which to rest either foot, and he was at length obliged to draw them up, and place himself back upon the ledge.
He now bethought him that there might be a better place for making the descent; and, rising to his feet, he proceeded to search for it. He had no difficulty in passing along the ledge; it was several feet in width, and he could walk erect upon it without danger. It extended for nearly fifty yards along the face of the cliff, and was of nearly equal breadth all the way.
Karl proceeded along it from one end to the other, at every step or two stopping and looking downward.
But his examination ended in disappointment. There was no path leading from it, at all practicable for any other creature than a cat, or some other animal with crooked claws,—at all events, there was no place where Karl himself could get down,—and he turned to go back to the point where he had ascended, with a feeling of apprehension that he was not going to get down at all!
On proceeding along the ledge, he had not yet bent his eyes upon the cliff that rose behind,—his attention being altogether occupied with the part that lay below; on going back, however, his eye ranged more freely, and he now noticed a dark hole in the rock, a few feet above the level of the ledge. This hole was about as big as an ordinary doorway, and upon closer examination, Karl perceived that it was the mouth of a cave. He noticed, moreover, that it appeared to grow wider beyond the entrance, and was no doubt a cavern of large dimensions. He had no further curiosity in relation to it; only that the reflection crossed his mind that he might be compelled to pass the night there. This was probable enough; unless, indeed, Ossaroo or Caspar should come in search of him before nightfall, and relieve him from his elevated prison. But it was just as likely they might not; for frequently one of the party was out for hours together, without causing any uneasiness to the rest, and it would be after night before they would feel any apprehension about his absence. In the darkness, too, they might go in the wrong direction to search for him, and might wander about through the woods a long time before coming near the place where he was. He was in the very farthest corner of the valley, and shut up in the ravine, with rocks and high woods between him and them; and thus his shouts could not be heard at any great distance.
These were the reflections that passed through his mind, as he returned along the ledge to the point where he had climbed up. He did not enter the cave to examine it—as he would certainly have done under other circumstances—but his curiosity was now controlled by the apprehension he very naturally felt in the dilemma in which he was placed.
That he could do nothing to free himself from it was clear enough to his mind. He must wait, therefore, until either Caspar came, or Ossaroo, or both; and, summoning all his patience, he sat down upon the ledge and waited.
Of course, he did not wait in silence. He had the sense to know, that if he kept silent they might not find him at all; and therefore, at short intervals, he rose to his feet, and shouted at the top of his voice, causing the cliffs to reverberate in numberless echoes.
The echoes, however, were the only replies he received. Loud as were his cries, they were not heard either by Caspar or Ossaroo.
CHAPTER FORTY EIGHT.
THE TIBET BEAR.
For full two hours sat Karl, chewing the cud of impatience. As yet the feeling he experienced was only one of impatience, mingled with a considerable amount of chagrin at being in such a scrape, and having got himself into it in so simple a manner. He had no very painful apprehensions about the result—since he made quite sure that his companions would come to his relief in the end. They might not find him that day, or that night, and he might have to remain all night upon the ledge. This, however, would be no great hardship. He might suffer a little from want of his supper, and he might have to sleep in the cave, but what of that to one so inured to hunger, and to sleeping in the open air, as he was? Even had there been no shelter, he could have stretched himself along the ledge, and slept that way without much minding it. Certainly in the morning the others would be after him, his shouts would guide them to the spot, and then it would be all right again.
Such was the reasoning of Karl, and therefore, knowing that he had but little to fear, he was not acutely anxious.
While he was thus comfortably communing with himself, however, his eyes rested upon an object that rendered him anxious enough—nay, more than anxious—badly frightened, would be nearer the words.
His ears first guided him to this new cause of alarm. While sitting on the ledge, and not saying a word, he heard a sound that resembled the snort of a jackass, just as one commences to bray.
There were some bushes growing at no great distance from the bottom of the cliff, and it was from the midst of these bushes the sound appeared to proceed.
After hearing the snort, Karl kept both eyes and ears acutely bent—the former fixed upon the bushes; and in a minute after, the sound was repeated, though he did not see the creature that uttered it. He saw, however, by the motion of the twigs, that something was passing through the thicket; and the loud snapping of dead sticks, and crackling of branches, proved that it was an animal of great weight and dimensions.
Karl was not long in doubt as to the dimensions; for the instant after he beheld the body of a large beast emerging from the thicket, and moving out into the open ground.
It required no skill to tell what sort of animal it was—a bear beyond the probability of a doubt—and yet it was of a species that Karl had never before seen. But there is such a similitude between the members of the Bruin tribe, that he who has ever seen one—and who has not?— will easily recognise all the rest of the family.
The one which now presented itself to the observation of our plant-hunter, was of medium size—that is, less than the great polar bear, or the "grizzly" of the Rocky Mountains, but larger than the Bornean species, or the sun-bear of the Malays. It was scarce so large as the singular sloth-bear, which they had encountered near the foot of the mountains, and with which they had had such a ludicrous adventure. It was but little less, however, than the "sloth," and, like it, was of a deep black colour, though its hair was neither so long nor shaggy. Like the latter, too, its under lip was whitish, with a white mark on its throat resembling a Y—the stem of the letter being placed upon the middle of its breast, and the fork passing up in front of the shoulders—for this is a mark which belongs to several species of Southern Asiatic bears. In other respects the bear in question was peculiar. It had a neck remarkably thick; a flattened head, with the forehead and muzzle forming almost a straight line—and on this account distinguishing it from the sloth-bear, in which the forehead rises almost abruptly from the line of the muzzle. Its ears were of large size—its body compact, supported on stout but clumsy limbs—and its feet armed with claws of moderate dimensions, and blunted at their points. Such were the markings of the bear now before the eyes of Karl; and although he had never seen one of the kind before, he had read of one; and by these peculiarities he was able to recognise the species. It was the Tibet bear (Ursus Tibetanus)—more commonly styled by closet-naturalists Helarctos Tibetanus—one of the bears that inhabit the high table-lands of Tibet, and is supposed to range through the whole of the Upper Himalayas, since it has been found in Nepaul and elsewhere.
I have said that Karl was badly frightened with this black apparition. This was at the first sight of it, as it came out of the bushes; and, indeed, it is not at all surprising that he was so. There is no one,— not even a bear-hunter himself,—who can encounter a bear upon the bear's own ground without feeling a little trembling of the nerves; but when it is remembered that Karl was quite unarmed—for he had left his gun at the bottom of the cliff—it will not be wondered at, that the appearance of the bear caused him alarm.
His fright, however, was of short duration; and for two reasons. First, he remembered having read that this species of bear is of a harmless disposition; that it is not carnivorous, but feeds only on fruits, and in no instance has it been known to attack man unless when wounded or assailed. Then, of course, it will defend itself, as many animals will do that are otherwise gentle and harmless.
Another reason why he soon got over his fright was, that he chanced to be in such a position that it was not likely the bear would attempt to come near him. He was quite out of its way; and if he only kept silent—which he would be careful to do—the animal might not even look in that direction, but go off again without perceiving him. In hope that such would be the result, Karl sat without stirring, and kept as quiet as a mouse.
But Karl chanced to be building his hopes on a false foundation. The bear had no notion of going off as it had come—it had other designs altogether; and, after shuffling about over the stones—now and then uttering the same asinine snort that had first called attention to it— it marched straight forward to the cliff, just under the spot where Karl was seated. Then, rearing its body erect, and placing its fore-paws against the rock, it looked up into the face of the astonished plant-hunter!
CHAPTER FORTY NINE.
AN AWKWARD DESCENT.
It is probable that the bear at this moment was quite as much astonished as Karl, though perhaps not so badly scared. It must have felt alarm though, for on seeing him it permitted its paws to drop suddenly to the ground, and appeared for a moment undecided as to whether it should turn tail and run back into the thicket. It did actually make a turn or two, growling and looking up; and then, as if it had got over its surprise, and was no longer afraid, it once more approached the cliff, and planted itself to spring upward.
On first perceiving the bear, Karl had been seated upon the ledge, just above the path by which he had climbed up, and it was by this path that the animal was threatening to ascend. On perceiving its intention, Karl sprang to his feet, and set to dancing about on the ledge, uncertain what to do, or whither to flee.
As to opposing the ascent of the bear, he did not think of such a thing. He had no weapons,—not even a knife; and had he attempted to wrestle with it, trusting to his strength alone, he very well knew that the struggle would end either by his being hugged to death in the arms of the great brute, or pushed off the ledge and crushed to atoms in the fall. He had no idea, therefore, of standing on the defence—he thought only of retreating.
But how was he to retreat? whither was he to run? It would be of little use going along the ledge, since the bear could easily follow him; and if the animal meant to attack him, he might as well keep his ground and receive the assault where he stood.
Karl was still hesitating what to do, and the bear had commenced crawling up, when he chanced to remember the cave. This suggested an idea. Perhaps he might conceal himself in the cave?
He had no time to consider whether or not this would be a prudent step. If he hesitated any longer, the great black brute would lay hold of him to a certainty; and therefore, without reflecting another moment, he ran off along the ledge.
On arriving opposite the cave, he turned into it; and, groping his way for a pace or two, squatted down near the entrance.
Fortunately for him he had, upon entering, kept well to one side before he squatted. He had done so, in order to place himself under the darkness. Had he remained in the central part of the "entrance-hall," he would either have been run over by the bear, or gripped between its huge paws, before he could have pronounced those two famous words, "Jack Robinson." As it was, he had scarcely crouched down, when the bear entered, still snorting and growling, and rushed past him up the cave. It made no stop near the entrance, but kept right on, until, from the noises it continued to make, Karl could tell that it had gone a good way into the interior of the cavern.
It was now a question with the plant-hunter what course he should follow—whether remain where he was, or pop out again upon the ledge?
Certainly his present situation afforded him no security. Should the bear return to the attack, he could not expect it to pass without perceiving him. He knew that these animals can see in a very obscure light—almost in the midst of darkness; and therefore he would be seen, or if not seen, he would be scented, which was equally as bad.
It was no use, then, remaining inside; and although he might be no safer outside, he determined to go thither. At all events, he would have light around him, and could see his antagonist before being attacked; while the thought of being assailed in the cave, and hugged to death by an unseen enemy in the darkness, had something awful and horrible in it. If he were to be destroyed in this way, neither Caspar nor Ossaroo might ever know what had become of him—his bones might lie in that dark cavern never to be discovered by human eyes: it was a fearful apprehension!
Karl could not bear it; and, rising half erect, he rushed out into the light.
He did not pause by the entrance of the cave, but ran back along the shelf to the point where the path led up. Here he stopped, and for several minutes stood—now looking anxiously back towards the cavern's mouth, and now as anxiously casting his glances down the giddy path that conducted to the bottom of the cliff.
Had Karl known the true disposition of the Tibet bear, or the design of the particular one he had thus encountered, he would not have been so badly frightened. In truth, the bear was as much disinclined to an encounter as he, at a loss, no doubt, to make out the character of its adversary. It was probable that Karl himself was the first human biped the animal had ever set eyes on; and, not knowing the strength of such a strange creature, it was willing enough to give him a wide berth, provided he would reciprocate the civility!
The bear, in fact, was only rushing to its cave; perhaps to join its mate there, or defend its cubs, which it believed to be in danger, and had no idea whatever of molesting the plant-hunter, as it afterwards proved.
But Karl could not know this, and did not know it. He fancied all the while that the bear was in pursuit of him; that, to attack him, it had sprung up to the ledge; and that it had rushed past him into the cave, thinking he had gone far in; that, as soon as it should reach the interior, and find he was no longer there, it would come rushing out again, and then—
It is well-known that one danger makes another seem less, and that despair will often lend courage to cowards.
Karl was no coward, although in calm blood the descent of the cliff had cowed him. But now that his blood was up, the danger of the descent appeared less; and, partly inspired by this belief, and partly urged on by the fear of Bruin reissuing from the cave, he determined once more to attempt it.
In an instant he was on his knees, and letting himself over the edge of the rock.
For the first length of himself, he succeeded beyond his expectations, having found the steps below readily enough. He was gaining confidence, and the belief that it would be all right yet, and that, in a few seconds more, he would be at the bottom, where he could soon escape from the bear by taking to a tree, or defend himself with his gun, which was lying, ready loaded, on the ground. All the while, he kept his face upward, except during the moments when it was necessary to glance below, to discover the position of the steps.
No wonder he looked upward, with eyes full of anxiety. Should the bear attack him now, a terrible fate would be his!
Still there were no signs of the animal, and Karl was gradually getting lower and lower in his descent.
He was yet scarce half-way down, and full twenty feet were between his heels and the ground, when he arrived at a point where he could find no resting-place for his feet. He had found one upon a knob of rock; but unfortunately it proved brittle and gave way, leaving him without any thing broad enough to rest even his toe upon. He had already shifted his hold with the hands; and was, therefore, compelled to support the whole weight of his body by the strength of his arms!
This was a terrible situation; and unless he could immediately get a rest for his feet, he must fall to the bottom of the cliff!
He struggled manfully; he spread out his toes as far as he could reach, feeling the rock on both sides.
Its face appeared smooth as glass; there was nothing that offered foothold; he believed that he was lost!
He tried to reach the notches above him; first with one hand, then with the other. He could just touch, but not grasp them; he could not go up again; he believed that he was lost!
His arms were dragged nearly out of joint; his strength was fast going; he believed that he was lost!
Still he struggled on, with the tenacity by which youth clings to life; he hung on, though certain that every moment would be his last.
He heard voices from below—shouts of encouragement—cries of "Hold on, Karl! Hold on!"
He knew the voices, and who uttered them. They had come too late; a weak scream was all the answer he could make.
It was the last effort of his strength. Simultaneous with its utterance, his hands relaxed their hold, and he fell backward from the cliff!
A MYSTERIOUS MONSTER.
Karl, poor fellow! was killed, of course; crushed to death upon the rocks; mangled—
Stay—not so fast, reader! Karl was not killed; not even hurt! He was no more damaged by his tall, than if he had only tumbled from a chair, or rolled from a fashionable couch upon the carpet of a drawing-room!
How could this be? you will exclaim. A fall of sheer twenty feet, and upon loose rocks, too! How could he escape being killed, or, at the very least, badly bruised and cut?
But there was neither bruise nor scratch upon his body; and, the moment after he had relinquished his hold, he might have been seen standing by the bottom of the cliff, sound in limb, though sadly out of wind, and with his strength altogether exhausted.
Let us have no mystery about the matter. I shall at once tell you how he escaped.
Caspar and Ossaroo, having expected him to return at an early hour, took it into their heads, from his long absence, that something might be wrong; and, therefore, sallied forth in search of him. They might not have found him so readily but for Fritz. The dog had guided them on his trail, so that no time had been lost in scouring the valley. On the contrary, they had come almost direct from the hut to the ravine where he was found.
They had arrived just at the crisis when Karl was making his last attempt to descend from the ledge. They had shouted to him, when first coming within hail; but Karl, intently occupied with the difficulty of the descent, and his anxiety about the bear, had not heard them. It was just at that moment that he lost his foothold, and Caspar and Ossaroo saw him sprawling helplessly against the cliff.
Caspar's quick wit suggested what was best to be done. Both he and Ossaroo ran underneath, and held up their arms to catch Karl as he fell; but Ossaroo chanced to have a large skin-robe around his shoulders, and, at Caspar's prompt suggestion, this was hurriedly spread out, and held between the two, high above their heads. It was while adjusting this, that Karl had heard them crying out to him to "hold on." Just as the robe was hoisted into its place, Karl had fallen plump down into the middle of it; and although his weight brought all three of them together to the ground, yet they scrambled to their feet again without receiving the slightest injury.
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Caspar, "just in the nick of time! Ha! ha! ha!"
Of course there followed a good deal of rejoicing and congratulation upon this narrow escape. Narrow it certainly was, for had not Caspar and Ossaroo arrived in the "nick of time," as Caspar expressed it, and acted as promptly as they had, poor Karl would never have lived to thank them.
"Well," said Caspar, "I think I may call this one of my lucky days; and yet I don't know about that, since it has come so near being fatal to both my companions."
"Both?" inquired Karl, with some surprise.
"Indeed, yes, brother," answered Caspar. "Yours is the second life I've had a hand in saving to-day."
"What! has Ossaroo been in danger, too? Ha! he is quite wet—every rag upon his body!" said Karl, approaching the shikarree, and laying hand upon his garments. "Why, so are you, Caspar,—dripping wet, I declare! How is this? You've been in the lake? Have you been in danger of drowning?"
"Why, yes," replied Caspar. "Ossy has." (Caspar frequently used this diminutive for Ossaroo.) "I might say worse than drowning. Our comrade has been near a worse fate—that of being swallowed up!"
"Swallowed up!" exclaimed Karl, in astonishment. "Swallowed up! What mean you, brother?"
"I mean just what I have said—that Ossaroo has been in great danger of being swallowed up,—body, bones, and all,—so that we would never have found a trace of him!"
"Oh! Caspar, you must be jesting with me;—there are no whales in the lake to make a Jonah of our poor shikarree; nor sharks neither, nor any sort of fish big enough to bolt a full-grown man. What, then, can you mean?"
"In truth, brother, I am quite serious. We have been very near losing our comrade,—almost as near as he and I have been of losing you; so that, you see, there has been a double chance against your life; for if Ossaroo had not been saved, neither he nor I would have been here in time to lend you a hand, and both of you in that ease would have perished. What danger have I been in of losing both? and then what would have been my forlorn fate? Ah! I cannot call it a lucky day, after all. A day of perils—even when one has the good fortune to escape them—is never a pleasant one to be remembered. No—I shudder when I think of the chances of this day!"
"But come, Caspar!" interposed the botanist, "explain yourself! Tell me what has happened to get both of you so saturated with water. Who or what came so near swallowing Ossaroo? Was it fish, flesh, or fowl?"
"A fish, I should think," added Karl, in a jocular way, "judging from the element in which the adventure occurred. Certainly from the appearance of both of you it must have been in the water, and under the water too? Most undoubtedly a fish! Come, then, brother! let us hear this fish story."
"Certainly a fish had something to do with it," replied Caspar; "but although Ossaroo has proved that there are large fish in the lake, by capturing one nearly as big as himself—I don't believe there are any quite large enough to swallow him—body, limbs, and all—without leaving some trace of him behind: whereas the monster that did threaten to accomplish this feat, would not have left the slightest record by which we could have known what had become of our unfortunate companion."
"A monster!" exclaimed Karl, with increased astonishment and some little terror.
"Well, not exactly that," replied Caspar, smiling at the puzzled expression on his brother's countenance; "not exactly a monster, for it is altogether a natural phenomenon; but it is something quite as dangerous as any monster; and we will do well to avoid it in our future wanderings about the lake."
"Why, Caspar, you have excited my curiosity to the highest pitch. Pray, lose no more time, but tell me at once what kind of terrible adventure is this that has befallen you."
"That I shall leave Ossy to do, for it was his adventure, not mine. I was not even a witness to it, though, by good fortune, I was present at the 'wind up,' and aided in conducting it to a different result than it would otherwise have had. Poor Ossy! had I not arrived just in the right time, I wonder where you'd have been now? Several feet under ground, I dare say. Ha! ha! ha! It certainly is a very serious matter to laugh at, brother; but when I first set my eyes upon Ossaroo—on arriving to relieve him from his dilemma—he appeared in such a forlorn condition, and looked the thing so perfectly, that for the life of me I could not help breaking out into a fit of laughter—no more can I now, when I recall the picture he presented."
"Bother, Caspar!" cried Karl, a little vexed at his brother's circumlocution, "you quite try one's patience. Pray, Ossaroo, do you proceed, and relieve me by giving me an account of your late troubles. Never mind Caspar; let him laugh away. Go on, Ossaroo!" Ossaroo, thus appealed to, commenced his narration of the adventure that had occurred to him, and which, as Caspar had justly stated, had very nearly proved fatal; but as the shikarree talked in a very broken and mixed language, that would hardly be intelligible to the reader, I must translate his story for him; and its main incidents will be found in the chapters that follow.
CHAPTER FIFTY ONE.
It so happened that Ossaroo had made for himself a regular fish-net. Not being permitted to poison the lake with wolf's-bane, and having no bamboo to make wicker-work of, he looked around for some other substance wherewith to construct a net; and soon found the very thing itself, in the shape of a plant that grew in abundance throughout the valley, and particularly near the shores of the lake.
This plant was a tall single-stemmed annual, with a few digitate and toothed leaves, and a loose panicle of greenish flowers at its top. There was nothing very remarkable about its appearance, except that its stem was covered with short rigid hairs, and rose undivided to a height of nearly twenty feet. Many plants were growing together, and when first discovered—all three of our adventurers were present at the discovery—Caspar had said that they reminded him of hemp. It was not a bad comparison Caspar had hit upon, for the plant was hemp, as Karl immediately made known—the true Cannabis sativa, though the variety which grows in India, or rather a drug extracted from it, is called Cannabis Indica, or "Indian hemp." It was the tallest hemp either Karl or Caspar had ever seen—some of the stalks actually measuring eighteen feet in length, whereas that of the northern or middle parts of Europe rarely reaches the height of an ordinary man. In Italy, however, and other southern portions of the European Continent, hemp attains a much greater height, rivalling that of India in the length of its stalk and fibre. It was noticed that nearly one half of the plants, although growing side by side, and mingled with the others, were much riper, and, in fact, fast withering to decay. The botanist explained this to his companions, by saying that these were the male plants, and the growing ones the females; for hemp is what is termed by botanists "dioecious"— that, is, having male flowers on one plant, and female ones upon another. Karl farther observed that the male plants, after having performed their office—that is, having shed their pollen upon the females—not only cease to grow taller, but soon wither and die; whereas the females still flourish, and do not arrive at maturity until several weeks afterwards. In consequence of this peculiarity, people who make a business of cultivating hemp pull the male plants at the time they have shed their pollen, and leave the females standing for four or five weeks after.
It is well-known that hemp is one of the finest articles in the world for the manufacture of coarse cloth, and every sort of cordage and ropes. The material used for the purpose is the fibrous covering of the stalk, which is separated almost by the same means that are employed in obtaining flax. The hemp, when pulled up, is tied in bundles, and for a time submitted to the action of water. It is then dried and broken, and afterwards "scutched," and rendered still cleaner and finer by a process called "hackling." It makes no difference in the fineness of the fibre whether the stalks be small or large, since the great coarse stems of the Italian and Indian hemp produce a staple equally as fine as the small kinds grown farther north.
The Russians extract an oil from the seeds of hemp, which is used by them in cooking, and by painters in mixing their colours.
Hemp-seed is also given to poultry—as it is popularly believed that it occasions hens to lay a greater number of eggs. Small birds are exceedingly fond of it; but a singular fact has been recorded in relation to this—that the effect of feeding bullfinches and goldfinches on hemp-seed alone, has been to change the red and yellow feathers of these birds to a total blackness!
Notwithstanding the many valuable properties of this plant, it has some that are not only deleterious, but dangerous. It contains a narcotic principle of great power; and, strange to say, this principle is far more fully developed in the Indian or Southern hemp than in that grown in middle Europe. Of course this is accounted for by the difference of temperature. Any one remaining for a length of time in the midst of a field of young growing hemp, will feel certain ill effects from it—it will occasion headache and vertigo. In a hot country the effect is still more violent, and a kind of intoxication is produced by it.
From observing this, the Oriental nations have been led to prepare a drug from hemp, which they make use of in the same way as opium, and with almost similar results—for it produces a drowsy ecstatic feeling, always followed by a reaction of wretchedness. This drug is known by the Turks, Persians, and Hindoos, under a variety of names, such as "bang," "haschish," "chinab," "ganga," and others; but under any name it is a bad article to deal in, either for the health of the body or the mind.
But Ossaroo was not deterred by any considerations about its baneful effects; and as soon as he saw the hemp growing in the valley, he recognised the plant with a shout of joy, and proceeded to prepare himself a dose of "bang." This he did by simply powdering some of the dry leaves, which he obtained from the withered male stalks, and then mixing the powder with a little water. An aromatic substance is usually added to give flavour to the mixture, but Ossaroo did not care so much for flavour as strength; and he drank off his "bang" without any adulteration, and was soon in the land of pleasant dreams.
The discovery of the hemp had made Ossaroo unusually happy. He had been suffering for the want of his "betel" for a long while, and the rhubarb tobacco had proved but a poor substitute. But the hemp was the very thing, as it not only afforded him an intoxicating drink, but its dry leaves were also good for smoking; and they are often used for this purpose when mixed with real tobacco. Of course Ossaroo had none of the genuine "weed" wherewith to mix them, else he would not have troubled his head about the rhubarb.
Ossaroo, however, was glad at discovering the hemp for another reason. From its fibres he could make cordage, and with that cordage a net, and with that net he would soon provide their table with a supply of fish.
He was not long about it. The hemp was soon pulled, tied in bundles, and carried to the hot spring. There it was immersed under the water, and soon sufficiently "steeped;" for it is well-known that hot water will bring either flax or hemp to the same state in a few hours that can be obtained by weeks of immersion in water that is cold.
Ossaroo soon prepared a sufficient quantity for his purpose, having separated the fibre by "hand-scutching;" and working continually at the thing, in a few days he succeeded in making a complete mesh-net of several yards in length.
It only remained for him to set it, and see what sort of fish were to be caught out of that solitary mountain lake.
And now for Ossaroo's adventure!
CHAPTER FIFTY TWO.
SETTING THE NET.
Karl had not been very long gone when Caspar and Ossaroo both left the hut, but not together. They parted from each other, taking different directions. Caspar had his gun, and went forth to search for game; while Ossaroo proceeded towards the lake, with the intention of capturing fish.
As nothing particular happened to Caspar—not even so much as the starling of a head of game, or the getting a shot at any thing—there is nothing to tell about him; and I shall therefore proceed at once to Ossaroo and his adventure.
The shikarree, on arriving at the lake, soon found a proper place to set his net in. There was a little bay on one side that ran for some twenty or more yards into the land, and ended just at the embouchure of the little rivulet that came from the hot springs.
This bay was narrower at its mouth than elsewhere, where it formed a kind of miniature "straits." The water in the bay was of considerable depth; but just at its entrance, where the straits were, it was not over three feet, with a white sandy bottom that could be seen shining like silver. Any one standing near this point, in clear weather, could easily observe fishes of several sorts and different sizes passing into the bay and out of it, and disporting themselves over the white sand bed that shone sparkling beneath them. It was an interesting sight to watch them at their innocent gambols, and the boys had more than once gone down to the edge of the straits to observe them.
But Ossaroo had always regarded the sight rather with feelings of chagrin than pleasure; for plainly as these beautiful fish could be seen, not one of them could he capture. Even the shoal-water of the straits, where there was a sort of bar, was too deep to be dammed up in any way, and Ossaroo had tried one or two plans for taking the fish, without effect. He had used his bow, and endeavoured to kill them with arrows; but they swam too deep, and, somehow or another, he always missed them. The fact was that Ossaroo was not practised in shooting fish with the arrow; and not understanding any thing about optics or the laws of refraction, he missed his mark by aiming too high.
Had he been an Indian of North or South America, instead of an Indian of the "East Indies," he would have pierced those fishes with an arrow at every twang of his bow.
Instead of that, he only missed them, and was constantly wading in to recover his arrows, but never to bring out any fish. He was, therefore, rather chagrined than pleased to see them so fearlessly and freely playing about over the silvery sand; and this very chagrin had caused him to work with greater diligence while preparing his mesh-net.
The net was now ready, and Ossaroo walked along chuckling and congratulating himself on the prospect of speedy revenge—for he had actually become inspired with a revengeful feeling against the poor fish, because he had not been able to capture and kill them!
The place where Ossaroo intended to set his net was across the strait that formed the mouth of the aforesaid bay. He had designed the net for this very place; and had made it of such length, that when at full stretch, it would just reach from one side to the other.
The upper edge of the net was attached to a strong piece of raw hide, for this was more easily attainable than a rope of hemp; and on the lower edge there was another strip of hide, to which were fastened the sinkers. These, with the floats at the top—made out of a sort of light-wood that he had found in the valley—would keep the meshes fully spread, and hold the net in a vertical position.
It would thus form a complete gate, shutting up the little bay, and leaving neither egress nor ingress for any fish that could not squeeze itself through the meshes. These last had been made very large; for Ossaroo did not care for the "small fry."
It was the big fishes he was desirous of capturing—some of those large fellows who had so often glided from under his arrows, and put him out of temper by their saucy sporting.
He would see now if they would so easily escape the meshes he had so cunningly contrived for them.
Proceeding, therefore, to the straits, he set his net across the narrowest part, and just by the entrance to the bay. The thing was easily accomplished, he tied the rawhide rope to a sapling on one side, that grew down by the edge of the water. Then holding the upper edge— so that the net would settle regularly in the water—he waded across, carrying the line along with him, and made it secure on the other side. Of course the sinkers did their work by dragging the lower selvage downward, while the floats kept the upper edge from dipping below the surface of the water.
There was a large tree upon the opposite side—so large that its great branches spread half-way across the little strait—and when the sun was on that side, which it always was after the hour of noon, this tree, covered with thick foliage, quite shadowed the water, rendering it of darkish colour, and somewhat obscure. At this hour the fish could not be so easily seen, even against the background of the silvery sand at the bottom.
Now Ossaroo had chosen the hour when the sun was gone behind the tree, for he knew that in a very clear sunshine the fish would perceive the net, and of course put about, and shy off from it. He had, therefore, waited for the afternoon to make his first essay.
Having fastened both ends, and adjusted the whole matter to his liking, he sat down upon the bank; and, summoning all his patience, awaited the result.
CHAPTER FIFTY THREE.
OSSAROO STUCK FAST.
For more than an hour sat the shikarree watching every ruffle upon the water, and every motion of the floats, but no movement, either of wood or water, seemed to indicate that there were fish in the lake. Once or twice there appeared a little "purl" on the surface, near the line of the floats, and Ossaroo fancied he had made a "take" of it; but, on wading in and examining the net, not a fin could be found, and he had to wade out again with empty hands. These "purls" were occasioned either by very small fish passing through the meshes, or else by large ones who came up, and touching the net with their snout, had taken the alarm and beat a retreat back to the pools whence they had come.
Ossaroo was beginning to grow very impatient with his ill-fortune, and was thinking, too, what a sorry figure he would cut in the eyes of his companions, after returning to the hut. He had calculated on a great triumph to be obtained by means of this net; and now he began to doubt whether it might not turn out a humiliation rather than a triumph.
At this crisis, however, an idea occurred to him which promised success. It was simply to drive the fish into the net, by wading into the water, and making as much noise and commotion as he could. This was certainly a very good plan, and Ossaroo lost no time in putting it into execution. Having procured a long stick, with an armful of large stones, he entered the bay above the point where the net was placed, and then plunging through the water, at the same time beating it with his stick, and flinging his stones into the deepest part, he succeeded in making noise enough to have frightened all the fishes in the lake.
His plan succeeded admirably. In less than five minutes—nay, in less than half that time—the violent shaking of the floats told to the attentive eyes of the shikarree that one or more large fishes were in the net and struggling within its meshes. He now gave up beating the water and ran to make sure of the prey. On approaching the strait, he perceived that a very large fish had been caught. It was near the middle of the net, and Ossaroo, wading out, soon "grabbed" and secured it. The strong creature struggled hard, and endeavoured to escape from the grasp of its captor; but the latter put an end to its efforts, by giving it a sharp knock on the head with one of the stones which he still carried.
He next proceeded to release it from the meshes; but these, on account of the desperate struggles which the fish had made, were warped and twisted around its gills and fins, and worked into such a labyrinthine puzzle, that Ossaroo found it no joke to get them clear. He was full ten minutes in accomplishing this feat, but he at length succeeded, and, holding the huge fish triumphantly in his hands above the surface of the water, he uttered a shout of victory.
He was about to wade out to the bank with his prize, when, to his astonishment, he found that he could not move a step! He tried to lift first one leg and then the other, but without success. Both were held as fast as if screwed in a vice! At first he was only puzzled and astonished, but his astonishment soon changed to dismay, when he found that, exert himself as he might, he could not move a limb! He at once perceived the cause, for there was no mystery about that. He perceived that both his legs were fast in a quicksand, into which, while engaged with the meshes of the net, he had been gradually sinking. The surface of the sand was already above his knees, so that he could not even bend the joints, and there he stood as firmly as if he had been planted!
For some time he struggled to relieve himself, but his struggles were of no avail—he could not drag out one foot or the other. The sand was wedged around his limbs, and held him as firmly as if it had been Roman cement. He could not stir from the spot!
At first, I have said, Ossaroo felt only astonishment, but this feeling soon changed to dismay. It became absolute terror when he perceived that he was still gradually sinking!—yes, beyond a doubt, he was going down deeper and deeper. The sand was already up to his thighs, and, as the water was nearly a yard in depth, his chin almost touched the surface. Six inches more, and he would drown! Drown, thus standing erect, with part of his head above the surface, and his eyes wide open and gazing upon the light of heaven! It was an awful situation—a fearful fate that threatened him!
It would not be true to say that Ossaroo remained silent during all this terrible trial. He did nothing of the kind; on the contrary, as soon as he became aware of his danger, he set up a continuous screaming, and yelling, and shrill piping, that caused both the woods and rocks to ring around him, to the distance of a mile at least.
Fortunately for the shikarree, Caspar chanced to be within the circumference of that mile, wandering about with his gun. The quick ear of the hunter caught the sounds, and knew that they were signals of distress. Without a moment's delay, therefore, he set off; and, guided by the cries, soon arrived upon the ground.
It was some time, however, before Ossaroo was relieved from his perilous position, for although Caspar could wade in to his side, he was quite unable to drag him out of the sand. In fact, Caspar himself sank so rapidly, whenever he stood still, that he was compelled to keep constantly moving, and changing from one foot to the other. His strength, then, was quite unequal to the task, and both began to be uneasy about the result.
Up to this time Caspar had been laughing heartily at the ludicrous spectacle which Ossaroo presented, with only his head above the water, and his face wearing the most lugubrious of looks; but Caspar's mirth was soon dissipated, when he perceived the real danger in which the shikarree was placed; his laughter was brought abruptly to an end, and an expression of anxiety now clouded his countenance.
But Caspar was just the one for quick thought and action in a ease of danger like this, and, almost in an instant, he conceived a plan by which Ossaroo might be saved. Crying to the latter to keep still, he dashed out of the water and loosed the net at both ends. He then drew out the long rope that formed its upper border, cutting away the meshes and floats. This done, he rapidly climbed the great tree, and sprawled out along one of its horizontal limbs that stretched right over the place where the shikarree was fixed. He had taken the rope along with him; and, now throwing one end to Ossaroo, and directing him to fasten it around his body, he passed the other over the branch, and slipped down it into the water.
In a few seconds the rope was made fast upon the body of Ossaroo—just under his armpits—and then both laid hold of the other end, and commenced pulling with all their might.
To their great joy their united strength proved sufficient for the purpose. It out-balanced the weight and tenacity of the sand; and after a good spell of pulling and tugging, Ossaroo's limbs were drawn upward and once more set free. Then both rushed out to the bank, and the same trees and rocks that so lately echoed the mournful cries of the shikarree, now rang with shouts of joy.
CHAPTER FIFTY FOUR.
A DEMAND FOR BEAR'S GREASE.
The peril from which he had just escaped, drove all thoughts of fishing out of Ossaroo's head, for that day at least. Moreover, the net was damaged by the rope having been so rudely taken out, and would require repairs before it could be set again; so, taking up the fish that had been caught and the net also, Caspar and the fisherman walked off toward the hut.
On arriving there, they were surprised to find that Karl had not returned, for it was getting late; and fearing that some accident might have happened to him, they lost no time in setting forth in search of him.
As already known they were guided upon his trail by Fritz, and arrived just in time to save Karl's life.
"But tell us, brother," inquired Caspar after a while, "what took you up there anyhow?"
Karl now entered into a detail of his afternoon's adventures—telling them at the same time of the hope he had conceived of their being able to scale the precipice with ladders.
When he came to the bear, Caspar was all ears.
"What! a bear?" he exclaimed; "a bear, you say, brother?—Which way did it go?"
"Into the cave—it is still there."
"Still in the cave! Good! we'll have him out—let us go after him at once."
"No, brother, it is better not,—it might be dangerous to attack, him in the cave."
"Not a bit of it," replied the daring hunter; "Ossaroo says that these bears are great cowards, and that he would not be afraid to attack one single-handed with his spear. You think so, shikarree?"
"Yes, Sahib, he bear—big coward, me no fear him anywhere."
"You remember, Karl, how the other one ran from us—just like a deer would have done."
"But this one is a different kind," suggested Karl; and Karl proceeded to describe the bear which he had encountered.
Ossaroo, however, knew the animal by the description given, and declared that it was quite as timid a creature as the sloth-bear. He had hunted this kind in the Sylhet Hills—where he had been upon an expedition—and where, he asserted, the Tibet bear was to be found in considerable numbers. It would not be dangerous, therefore, to attack it in the cave, or anywhere else. Such was the opinion of the shikarree.
Karl at length ceased to urge his objections. He began to think that the bear had not been in pursuit of him, after all,—else it would have returned out of the cave on not finding him—most likely the cave was its den, and it was to hide itself there that it had rushed so determinedly past him. This appeared probable enough, since they had been waiting a good while, and Bruin had not yet condescended to show himself upon the ledge.
It was resolved, therefore, that they should all enter the cavern, and kill the bear if possible.
This resolve, however, was not made without considerable deliberation; but two reasons were at length brought forward that not only decided the point in favour of killing the bear, but rendered it a matter of some consequence that they should succeed in this design.
The first reason was that they really wanted the animal, and it was of importance to them that it should be killed.
It was not for its fine skin they wanted it—though that might be of use to them in the cold winter, now near at hand—nor did they want to kill the bear merely for the pleasure and excitement of the thing. No. They had a very different object in view. They wanted the carcass, or rather that portion of it that is termed the "fat." They wanted the "bear's grease."
For what purpose? you will ask. To make their hair grow? Nothing of the sort. The hair of all three, from late neglect, was long enough— quite as long as they could have wished it. Caspar's curls hung over his shoulders, and Ossaroo's snaky black tresses dangled down his back like the tail of a horse. Even Karl's silken locks were long enough to have satisfied the most romantic of refugees. No. They wanted the bear's fat, not for their hair, but for their kitchen. They wanted it to cook with, for one thing, but a still more important use they intended to apply it to,—and that was for making candles! For both of the above purposes they had need of the bear's fat, since the other animals which they were accustomed to hunt and kill were chiefly ruminant animals, with very little fat upon them, and never enough of it to cook their own flesh.
You who live in a land where there is plenty of lard and butter, can hardly understand what it is to be without these essential articles of the cuisine. In most civilised countries that valuable pachyderm,— the pig,—supplies the desideratum of lard; and you will scarce appreciate the importance of this article until you have travelled in a country where the hog is not found among the domesticated animals. In such places the smallest morsel of fat is highly prized, for without it, good cooking is a dry and difficult business.
Such considerations as these determined the fate of the bear. The hunters well knew that animals of this kind yield large quantities of the very best fat, which they then stood in want of, and would need still more during the long nights of winter. Perhaps there might be more than one bear in the cave; so much the better; one or more, they must be attacked and killed.
But there was another reason why they had determined to enter the cave; one of far greater consideration than the killing of the bear. It was Caspar who had suggested it.
"Why," asked he, "why might we not get out by this very cave? What if it should prove to run upward, and have an entrance above, or on the other side of the mountain?"
Both Karl and Ossaroo were startled at the suggestion. The idea put all of them into a flurry of excitement.
"I have read of such things," continued Caspar; "of great caverns that extended from one side of a mountain to the other. There is one in America that has been traced for twelve miles; the Mammoth, I mean! This might be one of the same kind. You say you saw far into it, Karl? Let us explore it then, and see where it leads to."
It was but a slight hope, still it was a hope; and it could not cost much trouble to give the cave a thorough exploration. It would be but a small matter compared with the construction of ladders to scale the cliff; besides, they were now convinced by a farther examination of the precipice that this was not practicable, and had quite abandoned all thought of it. Should the cavern prove to be of vast extent, and have another opening elsewhere than in the valley, they might escape from their terrible prison, and their troubles would be at an end.
With such hopes,—that were indeed little better than fancies,—they consoled themselves for the moment.
It was resolved, then, that on the morrow the cave was to be entered. For all the assistance they would have from the light of the sun, they might as well have begun their exploration at night. But they were not ready to begin. Torches had to be procured; and a notched tree by which to ascend the cliff; and to obtain these required time. They would have them ready by the morrow.
With this determination, they returned to their hut; and at once set about making the torches, and preparing the notched tree for their ladder. There were other little preparations to be made, but most of them were completed before they thought of retiring to rest.
CHAPTER FIFTY FIVE.
BEAR-HUNT BY TORCH-LIGHT.
As soon as it was daylight again, they went to work once more, and finished their preparations for entering the cave, and at a tolerably early hour they took the route for the ravine.
Two of them carried the improvised ladder; which was only a slender pine-tree, of about forty feet long, notched by the axe, the notches being at intervals of a foot to eighteen inches apart. At its more slender part, there were no notches required, as the natural branches of the tree, lopped into short stumps, were to be used as foot-holds, and would serve the purpose better than any notches.
Forty feet of even the slenderest tree when green would be load sufficient for a couple of stout men. This one was not green; for they had been fortunate enough to find one that had fallen long ago, and that was now quite dead and dry. For all that, it "tied" the united strength of Caspar and Ossaroo to carry it along, for it was they who performed this duty. Karl was loaded with the guns, torches, and the great spear of the shikarree. Fritz carried nothing except his tail; and this he bore aloft in a swaggerish manner, as though he knew that something more than common was designed, and that grand game was to be killed that day.
They moved but slowly; but after about two hours' walking, including many stoppages and rests, they arrived within the ravine and under the ledge.
It occupied about another hour to erect the ladder. It was placed nearly opposite the mouth of the cave, instead of by the path; for there appeared a favourable crevice in the rocks, which promised to hold it steady, and keep it from turning round; an important consideration with so rude a ladder. The upper end of the tree was laid into the crevice, and fitted exactly. The lower end was rendered firm by something like a cartload of heavy boulders being built around it. It could neither shift nor turn. It was fast as a shut trap. Nothing now remained but to ascend, light the torches, and enter the cave.
A question, however, arose, whether Bruin might still be inside? It was doubtful enough, and there was no means of knowing. He had ample time to have gone out, since they left the place on the preceding evening, and, very likely, had wandered forth for a nocturnal ramble; but, had he returned? was he now "at home" to receive them? or, was he still abroad, robbing the bushes of their fruit, and the bees of their honey?
No one could tell; there was no sign visible; no hint far visitors. The door was open, and all who came night enter or not, as they pleased.
For a while, our hunters had some hesitation about this matter, and debated the point as to whether it might not be better to lie in ambush, and watch for Bruin going out or returning home. Most certainly the cave was his home. The path leading up had all the appearance of being much used. The rocks were scratched by his claws, and discoloured by his feet—his, or those of other animals. Karl had noticed all this, when making his first ascent; therefore, there need be no fear but that the bear would come back in one direction or another.
He might be trapped, and that would save a struggle; but this mode was not to the liking either of Caspar or Ossaroo, and Fritz apparently voted for a bear-fight.
Ossaroo, especially, declared that there was not the slightest danger in attacking him, armed as they were; not so much as there would be in an encounter with a sambur stag. He suggested, moreover, that it might be days before they would set eyes upon him; that he might go to sleep in his den, and lie there for a week without showing himself; and, therefore, it would never do to wait for him. He must be looked for within the cave, and assailed in his gloomy stronghold. So counselled the Hindoo hunter.
But it needed no argument. Karl alone was for the prudent way of setting a trap, and capturing the animal without risk; but Karl was as anxious as either of the others to explore the cave. The words of Caspar had made a deep impression upon him; and, slight as was the hope that Caspar's conjecture might be true, still there was something in it. It might be so. Once more, it was like the drowning man catching at the straw.
Without farther hesitation the ladder was set up, as already described; and, shortly after, all four—for Fritz is to be counted in this adventure—stood upon the ledge in front of the cavern's mouth.
Each had now possession of his own weapons: Karl, his rifle; Caspar, the double-barrel; and Ossaroo, his spear, bow and arrows, hatchet and knife.
There were two torches, each one nearly a yard in length, with handles that measured nearly another yard. They were made of splints from the pine-trees, that had been shared off while dressing the latter for the bridge. They were now quite dry, and, tied together in a bundle, would burn splendidly. They were no novelty, these torches. They had made similar ones before, and tried them; and, therefore, they could depend upon them to give them light within the cave.
They entered without lighting the torches, intending only to use them when it became necessary. Perhaps, after all, the cave might be of small extent, though Karl believed that such was not the case. He had noted that the bear had gone a good way back, as he was able to judge by his snorts and growling.
This point was soon settled. When they had proceeded many paces from the entrance, and the light of the sun began to fail them, they could perceive that the cavern grew wider and higher, and, like a great, black gateway, yawned far back into the rocks. Apparently, there was no termination to it!
The tinder which they had prepared was now set on fire; and the ends of the torches, touched with pine-tree resin, were soon ignited, and began to blaze.
All at once the cavern shone with a thousand lights, which had not been hitherto observed. The sparkling stalactites projecting downward from the roof, with here and there the drops of clear filtered water, gave back the glare from the torches in a thousand coruscations. It seemed to our young hunters as though they were treading the famed halls of Aladdin's palace.
On they marched along the wide passage, holding their torches on high, and, at intervals, pausing to examine some nook or chamber that opened right or left—still searching for the bear. As yet, they had seen no traces of the animal; though, from the excited baying of Fritz, it was plain to them that either Bruin himself, or some other quadruped, had passed up the cave before them. The dog was evidently upon a hot scent, and lifting it as fast as they could follow him.
A little after, Fritz doubled to one side, and appeared busy with some object by the side of the cave. The hunters were under the impression that the game had been found, and halted, each bringing his piece to the ready.
After a moment, however, Fritz glided out, and again sprang forward on the trail. The torches were carried up to where Fritz had made his temporary pause, and, under their light, a large pile of withered leaves and grass was made visible. It was the snug den of Bruin—still warm where his huge carcass had lain; but the cunning brute was no longer "abed." He had been roused by the noises of his enemies, and had retreated farther into the cavern.
Fritz was again moving forward along the trail, uttering an occasional "growl" as he went. He was by no means a fast dog at taking up a scent, nor yet on the run. These were not his qualities. But he was stanch and sure, and desperate when once he grappled with the game. So sure was he, that, whenever he started off upon a trail, you might rely upon it, with perfect confidence, that the game was before you.
The three hunters thought no longer of looking for the bear anywhere else than before the snout of Fritz; and, therefore, the chase became simplified to keeping the hound in view. The nature of the ground—here covered with blocks of loose stone, there with huge stalagmites— prevented the dog from making rapid progress. The bear had often doubled and halted, no doubt having some difficulty himself in making way in the darkness; and this doubling caused much delay to Fritz; so much, that the torch-bearers could generally keep him in sight.
Now and again, he became lost to view; and then there was a halt, and some moments of indecision, which were ended only by the long howl of the hound echoing through the cavern, and guiding them to his whereabouts.
You will be surprised that they should at any time have lost the chase. You will fancy that, by keeping on, they must overtake Fritz in time, or meet him returning.
Such might have been true, had there been only one passage through this stupendous cavern; but, instead of one, they saw scores of vaulted aisles forking at intervals, and traversing in very different directions. They had long since turned both to the right and the left— more than once turned—without any other guide than the baying of the hound, or the view of his yellow body, as he scrambled along the trail. An immense cavern if was, full of ways, and passages, and halls, and chambers; many of them so like each other, that the hunters could not help thinking they were running in a maze, and going repeatedly over the same ground!
By this time Karl had begun to reflect, and his reflection was, that they were proceeding rashly. Certain ideas were rising in his mind— ideas somewhat undefined—but one among the rest was, that, going as they were, without taking either "bearings or distances," they might get lost!
Before he had time to call his companions to a halt and take some deliberation about the matter, a peculiar noise struck upon their ears— a noise that was easily recognised as being made by the united voices of two angry animals—a dog and a bear.
Beyond a doubt it was Bruin and Fritz—beyond a doubt they were "in grips!"
The Plant Hunters—by Captain Mayne Reid
CHAPTER FIFTY SIX.
LOST IN THE CAVE.
The scene of their encounter was at no great distance—about twenty yards off; and, guided by the loud growling and "worrying," the hunters easily directed themselves towards the spot. After stumbling over stalagmites, and now and then hitting their heads against the projecting points of the stalactites, they arrived upon the ground; and the glare of the torches was thrown upon two animals—a dog and a bear. They were near the middle of an immense open hall, or chamber of the cavern. Both were in fighting attitudes; the bear standing upon the flat top of a rock—about three feet above the surrounding level—and the dog assailing his leg, now on one side of the rock, and now upon the other. The bear was defending himself with his huge paws; and at intervals flung the forepart of his body downward, with the design of seizing the hound in his hug.
Fritz well knew the danger of being embraced in the fore-arms of a bear, and therefore made his attacks from behind; springing up at the hind-quarters of Bruin, and biting him in the hams. To avoid these assaults upon his rear, the bear kept turning round and round, as though he was spinning about upon a pivot!
It was altogether a laughable sight to witness the curious contest between the two quadrupeds, and had the hunters been pursuing the bear for mere amusement, they would have permitted the fight to go on for some time without interfering in it. But amusement was just then out of the question. The fat of Bruin was a thing of far more importance; and now that the hunters had become aware of the vast size and endless labyrinths of the cavern, they perceived that it was quite possible in such a place to lose both the bear and his fat. He might have escaped them as easily as if he were in the open woods.
With these ideas, therefore, they were only too anxious to put an end to the struggle, and secure the game.
The bear could not have offered them a better opportunity. His position upon the rock rendered him a conspicuous mark, both for the bullets of the guns and the arrows of Ossaroo. Besides, there was no danger of wounding Fritz, if good aim was taken by the marksmen.
Good aim was taken—a couple of loud reports echoed through the cave— one of Ossaroo's arrows whistled, and penetrated the thick shaggy skin— and the next moment the huge black mass rolled down from the rock, and lay back uppermost, kicking his paws about in the last throes of death. Then Fritz leaped upon his upturned breast, seized the white throat between his jaws, and choked and worried at it till the last breath was squeezed out of poor Bruin's body, that the next moment lay quite limp and motionless.
Fritz was now scolded off, and the torches were held near, in order that the hunters might examine the game they had killed. A splendid specimen the bear was—one of the biggest and fattest of his kind; and no doubt would yield them a large amount of the precious "grease."
They had scarcely made this reflection when another of far different character forced itself upon their minds, and compelled them to stand gazing at each other with looks of mute inquiry. Each waited for one of the others to speak; and although no one had yet said a word, all equally felt that they were in a dilemma.
What dilemma? you will ask. The game had been secured—what difficulty would there be in dragging it out of the cave, and afterwards taking it home to their hut?
All this may appear easy enough to you, because you do not yet understand the situation in which the hunters were placed—you do not comprehend why they stood gazing upon each other with troubled looks.
Why they did so was simply this:—while examining the carcass of the bear, they observed that their torches were burnt out! Not quite to the ends, it is true; but so near that they could not be depended on to light them a score of yards. They were already flickering and burning dimly—in a few seconds more they would be quite extinguished; and what then?
Ay, what then? that was the thought that was troubling them—that it was that caused them to stand looking anxiously towards one another.
Even they themselves did not fully comprehend the peril of their situation. They saw that they were going to be left in darkness—the perfect darkness of a dungeon—but it had not yet occurred to them that they might never again see the light! That appalling thought had not yet shaped itself in their minds—they only believed that the want of torches would put them to much inconvenience—they would have great trouble, and perhaps difficulty, in finding their way out of the cave, and getting the bear along with them—they might first have to grope their way out, and then get fresh torches, and return for the game; and all this would take a good deal of time, and give them a large amount of trouble; but never mind that—the prize they had obtained in the fat of the bear, and his fine hide—which would make a grand winter robe—would repay them for all.