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Chapter X

Describing Our Arrival At the Great White City and Our Battle With its Fierce Inhabitants.

WE resumed our journey with redoubled energy, and in half-an-hour had the extreme pleasure of beholding the dim, blue outline gradually transform itself into the bold and rugged peaks of a long, high range of hills. That we were the sport of no optical illusion was now proved beyond a doubt, for at each step we took, the range loomed up clearer and clearer. By the time we had approached within five or six miles of it, the sun had sunk, and we decided to camp on the plain that night, and resume our march again at day-break. Our object was, of course, to climb the hills through the Principal Street of the city, but as we had not yet even discovered that city, we were forced to wait the advent of the day.

Most of that night Dick and I passed in the wildest of wild talk, the most absurd and marvellous conjectures. We could not sleep. Even when stretched out for that purpose, so completely exhausted as we were, we found the sweet soother as coy as a wilful maiden who is dying to be kissed, but who for some unaccountable reason refuses the dear consolation. Now we had reached that point of our journey second only in interest to the lake itself, expectation rose to such a feverish pitch as to make the suspense almost unendurable. It grew beyond our control, and I felt myself trembling with the burden of my own thoughts. What after all if we failed to discover this city, this phantom city?—for my brain was haunted with the one horrible idea that it was nothing but a phantasy, a dream, brought on by misery and want and the thousand horrors which must have befallen that unfortunate fugitive. My

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heart grew sick at the thought. Was it not the most absurd story that ever emanated from man's brain? A city in this vast, unknown, unpopulated interior. Who but a madman could have told so wild, so improbable a story? and who but madmen would believe it? I tried to close my eyes, to dream that it was all real, but away up above the bright stars were mocking me, while the great white moon seemed to smile in derision as it sailed on and on through the misty blue.

Hardwicke was evidently as ill at ease as myself. Whenever I chanced to look towards him, he was either sitting up or wriggling and twisting beneath his rug. I pitied him, poor fellow, if on the morrow we failed to discover the object of our search. I dreaded to think how keen his anguish would be, how terrible his disappointment. I all along had been a disbeliever, or had only accepted the story with a half belief, but he placed implicit faith in Morton and his tale, and I knew that should he fail to discover the city, it would prove a blow almost as keen as death itself. Jimmy, as usual, slept as soundly as though cushioned on a bed of down with the happy prospect of a magnificent breakfast awaiting him when he awoke. He had heard us talk of the city we expected to find, but so little interested was he in the matter that he never took the trouble to ask a single question concerning it. It was quite enough for him that he had to carry his share of the burden and march on till he was told to stop.

When I awoke out of a dull, uneasy doze into which I had fallen, I beheld my cousin sitting up puffing vigorously at his pipe, and as there was apparently no chance of any more sleep for me that night, I got mine, and we sat and talked till the day began to break.

“To-day,” said he solemnly, “is a day so fraught with significance to us that I am almost afraid to see it dawn. How it will end God alone can tell. We are now, by the roughest calculation, many hundreds of miles from civilisation. Before us stretches the great unknown; behind, a

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road so long and difficult that to attempt to repass it means, in our present state, utter annihilation.”

“We must onward, Dick; we must onward. In a few hours we shall know our fate,” for I could see he was in doubt lest the city after all should prove a myth; “so let us not plague ourselves with vain imaginings. If we are to find it, so it is; if not, we are not beaten yet, and I am not going to cave in while there's a shot in the locker.”

I must confess my words were much bolder than my spirits, but I could not tolerate the idea of my companion being despondent. Once let him, the head and heart of our expedition, give way to uneasy fears, and the ultimate failure of the whole journey would be the result.

The first pale gleam of day had no sooner begun to whiten the eastern horizon, than we were up once more and away. We journeyed on for half-an-hour by the indistinct glow of the dying stars and the far-off morning light. But in these latitudes day comes with the rush of a whirlwind. Suddenly the sun shot forth like a blood-red ball of fire, flooding the dreary plains behind, and bathing the rugged hills in front with one great sheet of wonderful light.

An exclamation arose to our lips at the self-same moment:

The City!

It was no optical illusion, no phantasy. There, lying before us, with its towers actually glistening in the bright red sunshine, was the City of the Mountains. I could scarcely believe my eyes, and for a moment hardly knew if I were awake or dreaming. But it was no dream, unless life is a dream, and we live in imagination only.

Hardwicke laid his hand on my shoulder. “Look, look! How wonderful!”

And I looked and saw what appeared to be a marble city, over which was thrown a blood-red mantle of sunshine. It stretched from the base of the hill to the very top, and there huge spires and towers arose, many hundreds of feet in the air. These spires the great light flooded till they

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shone and sparkled like huge pillars of crystal. I could easily discern the streets, which seemed to run at right angles to one another, thereby giving the city an appearance of being built in great white blocks; while to add the more confusion to our already bewildered senses, we were actually walking straight into the Principal Street.

We stood utterly dumbfounded, gazing on one another in wonder. Dick's face was wreathed with a strange smile of gladness and awe. Though he had advocated so strenuously reliance upon Morton's story, he seemed scarcely to understand that the wild, strange tale was realised at last.

“Well,” said he, at length waking from his long reverie; “who would have guessed it? Who would have dreamt of such a place as this? A city, a veritable city, and perhaps inhabited too. By whom?”

“Onward, and we shall see,” I answered.

“Yes, yes.”

By this time the sun had mounted to a considerable height in the heavens, and had dispelled all the morning shadows, consequently the hills now loomed up clearly, and I thought there was something unnatural-looking about the place, especially those great squares I had taken for blocks of buildings. True, the whole scene most strongly resembled an eastern hillside city, and yet its massive grandeur was so unlike anything I had ever seen that doubts of its reality began to assail me.

“By golly,” cried Jimmy, who had been watching it intently, with wonder depicted upon his ebony countenance, “this a mighty fine place, Mass'r Dick. Knock spots out of Melbourne. Nebber see anything like this before. Nebber can think how black fellow build 'em such a place.” And he continued to jabber thus for a considerable time, till he suddenly burst forth with, “Good Lord, Mass'r Dick, that no belong township,” and he laughed convulsively.

The same idea had already dawned upon us. A closer inspection, for we had rapidly drawn near, disclosed the fact that our supposed city was nothing more than the

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curious groupings of a huge mass of whitish granite, while what we had taken to be crystal pinnacles or spires proved to be but vast boulders of pure white stone. Thus rudely was our dream of discovering an inhabited city dispelled, but so like a city was it, viewed from a distance, that we blamed Morton but little for thus definitely naming it, though we were sorry he had not given us a little more information on the subject.

We camped at the foot of what I shall call, for want of a better name, the Principal Street, for so the broad white way that stretched above us had been designated. Here we discovered a clear, fresh spring of water, and as there were plenty of shrubs and small trees about, we roasted two ducks we had brought down previously from a flock that was flying over our heads. We saw two dingoes (wild dogs), allured no doubt by the fragrant smell of the baked meat. They were gaunt, wild, half-starved looking brutes, and advanced within an impertinent distance of us, whining and uttering their short, sharp yelp. Unable to bark like an ordinary dog, their strange, weird howl, when heard in the lonely bush at night, sounds like the ghostly wail of some inhuman spirit. A dog baying the moon creates “sweet discords” by comparison. So closely had these particular savages encroached upon what we rightly or wrongly deemed our preserves, and so indifferently did they treat our presence, that my feelings, like Alexander Selkirk's, were exceedingly shocked. It was, therefore, necessary to drive them off, which I only succeeded in doing after wounding one with a shot from my revolver.

After our meal, Dick and I began an exploration of the city, the streets of which we found, in most cases, to be nothing but great yawning chasms, the bottoms of which it was impossible to see. And yet it seemed as though the hand of man had been here too, for as we pursued our course along a very uneven way of great loose stones, we were struck by the fact that excavations in the shape of caves had been made in the solid granite walls at regular intervals, and we felt sure that such remarkable regularity

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could not have been a freak of nature. We penetrated into several of these apertures, but as nothing worthy of remark met our eyes, we were at a loss to even conjecture their uses. At last, at the extreme end of the street we trod, a somewhat broader opening appeared, and as it seemed to lead up instead of down, as was the case of the others, we both entered, Dick leading the way. A sharp hiss welcomed our approach, but as neither of us had been bitten, it troubled us but little.

Dick then lit a match and we found ourselves in a broad passage, the walls of which shone like crystal in the dim light and reflected the power of the tiny flame in a most marvellous manner. We could not see the roof, that apparently being of great height, but the floor was covered with a strong-smelling shrub, the same as we had found in the other apertures. A handful of this we tore up and lit, and it answered sufficiently well the purpose of a torch, though its flame was a sickly blue in colour and its odour far from pleasing.

Along this crystal-like passage we wandered for nearly a hundred yards, and were beginning to imagine it endless, when all of a sudden we entered into a spacious room or vault. We spoke and our voices echoed above and around us strangely. We were at a loss which way to turn, for our torch gave but a feeble light, and we were afraid to advance lest we should come to a sudden and undesirable end. What place we had discovered we knew no more than the man in the moon, and though our surmises were many I am afraid they were not over ingenious.

After we had debated some time the possibilities and impossibilities of the place, I suggested that we should move round by the wall, feeling carefully with our feet at every step. This we did, and found both wall and floor so extremely smooth, with the exception of an undergrowth on the latter, as to set us both fast thinking no end of improbable things.

“Good God! What's that?”

I was rudely awakened from my reflections by this

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exclamation of my cousin. His voice rang again and again throughout the strange chamber. Then, holding the light above his head to examine the cause of his sudden shock, he answered his own interrogation. “An idol. What a start it gave me,” and he laughed, and his laugh echoed and re-echoed in a thoroughly displeasing manner.

He had spoken truly. There, standing out in the mystic gloom, was as huge and hideous a piece of sculpture as it has been the lot of civilised man to gaze on. No wonder Dick received a shock. Seen suddenly in the strange gloom of the chamber, it was the embodiment of all one's grotesque fancies of the truly horrible. It was about twelve feet high, and had scaly legs, much like the tail of a fish, the breasts and body of a woman, and a head half-human and half beast with the jaws and teeth of a shark or some horrible marine monster. But what was most dreadful of all, was the fixed and horrid grin upon the awful face. It was a grin so outrageous, so disgusting, and so truly appalling as to almost make one's flesh creep. I dare say that such a figure would but create derision in the broad daylight, but in the weird gloom of that mystical chamber the hideously distorted thing seemed to make its influence felt.

“Well, you are a beauty,” said Hardwicke, apostrophising the image, “a perfect beauty.” Then he began to interrogate it. “Who stuck you up there, I wonder? Whose was the brain that conceived, the hand that made you? Who and what were the people that knelt before you, you grinning fiend, you misbegotten imp? If the thing could only speak, Archie,” he turned to me, “what could it not tell?”

But though speech was denied the awful thing, it actually appeared to grin the more. Its jaws positively seemed to expand, whilst its huge discoloured teeth shone with shocking brilliancy.

“Look, look,” he went on, “here are more of them;” and he held the light close to the left side of the great idol, and I saw more hideous forms, but on a smaller scale. On the right it was the same, six on each side, making twelve

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of the most outrageous pictures that ever emanated from the human brain. Above their heads hung, or seemed to hang (for all these things were cut from the solid rock), a whole host of beasts and reptiles of the most appalling description. No pains had been taken to copy nature as she was. On the contrary, to distort and outrage her seemed the only wish of the artist, and that he had succeeded well my own emotions told me.

“Well,” said Hardwicke at last, “this beats cock-fighting.”

This remark was not so elegant as expressive, but was appropriate enough for all purposes, and so I added—

“Indeed it does,” which shows that I was just as much at a loss for words to express my astonishment as he was.

“What do you think of it all?” he queried.

“There can only be one answer,” I replied. “These mountains must have been peopled in the long ago by a race of beings infinitely superior to the present denizens of the country. Not alone must they have had a religion, but a knowledge of the fine arts as well.”

“I don't know much about fine art,” said my cousin, “but if this is a specimen of theirs, I can quite believe them equal to anything. But on the score of religion, I dare say you are right. This must have been the temple and that the god. Wonderful! And yet who knows what the people of this island might not have been? Their past is dead. The world shall never know their history, therefore it doubts they ever had one, forgetting that if events repeat themselves, as they say they do, what is to-day might have been thousands of years ago. Yet how people would laugh if they heard me argue so.”

“No doubt. Ignorance invariably laughs at a thing it cannot comprehend. The wise men of England called Harvey a fool, but he wasn't. What after all is oriental art but a mass of fantastic absurdities, almost as grotesque as these very images we think so little of? What is beautiful in China is barbarous in Europe. I believe the

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people who carved these images lived in what are commonly called the pre-historic days, the days when the whole of that sandy plain we have crossed was covered by the sea. And I will tell you why. Without the sea and its accompanying monsters as models, these fish devils could never have been executed.”

“You speak like a book, old chap,” said Dick as he stooped down to gather some more shrubs, which he no sooner lit than he began examining a small object that he held in his hand.

“By Jove!” said he, “what a strange little weapon. Look at it,” and he handed it to me.

It had a red glistening head, shaped not unlike that of an axe, with a point as sharp as a needle. It was let into a handle of some dark substance rather weighty and about nine inches in length.

“Put it in your pocket,” said I, “and we'll examine it closer when we get out.”

“Which I propose our doing at once,” he replied. “I have had enough of this uncanny chamber for a while.”

Being similarly disposed I accordingly acquiesced.

When we emerged into the sunlight once more, and had shaken the dust of the cave off our shoes, we examined with leisure the little axe, when, to our great surprise, we discovered that the head of the instrument, which we had taken for an ordinary red stone, was nothing less than a great ruby crowned with, to give it weight, a thick plate of gold, which when rubbed a little, shone brilliantly in the sunshine. The handle was also of solid gold with another large ruby let in at the extreme end of it. Strange signs and figures, partly obliterated by time, were wrought upon both the gold plate and the handle, but what they signified was of course a mystery to us. The workmanship was most excellent, and might have been executed by some first-class artist.

“By Jove! Dick, you have something valuable there if you never find the Golden Lake,” said I to my cousin, who was intently examining the pretty little weapon.

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“It looks valuable,” he replied. “This metal is certainly gold, but the rubies—I wonder if they are real rubies?”

“Not a doubt of it, my boy. I flatter myself I know a ruby when I see it, and you may depend upon it those stones are good. And what is more marvellous still, they are actually cut. Wonder upon wonder. What relics might we not discover in a month's earnest search among these hills. What a strange tale we should have to tell to the quidnuncs of the world. Keep the axe, Dick; you will find it worth the trouble of porterage, and if we don't strike the Golden Lake we shall have the queerest story to tell of the interior that mortal ears have ever listened to.”

On our return to the camp we showed Jimmy the axe, and also pointed out the the strange inscription on the gold plate and handle, but that intelligent savage evinced neither curiosity nor surprise, nor could he read the characters, nor had he ever heard—knew not even a legend of the people who at one time must have dwelt upon the shores of the great inland sea.

We shot half-a-dozen pigeons that afternoon as they flew westward in huge flocks above us. It was a welcome sight, for where game was, water would surely be found; besides, it fitted into the tale that Morton had told of the river on the other side of these very mountains that lost itself in the sand.

Jimmy was sent trudging up the Principal Street to see if he could obtain more water farther on, for we did not wish to resume our journey till the next day, and to camp anywhere but where we had a goodly supply of the precious liquid was not to be thought of for a moment. He returned an hour later with the news that he had discovered a good spring about a mile up the mountain, and we immediately hoisted our swags and set off to reach it.

On arriving at our destination we discovered half-a-dozen dingoes drinking at the spring, and immediately dispersed them, upon which they sneaked off, snarling ominously. During the cooking of our evening meal we were also much annoyed by them, the brutes appearing in every

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conceivable place, and growing more bold as though contact with our presence created impudent familiarity. On either side of the rocks above our heads (for we were camped in a sort of gully) they stood, and, yelping dolefully, sniffed in the air that carried the incense of the broiled pigeons. We were very glad at that moment the dingo was not a thinking animal; for had he been, he might have made our position extremely uncomfortable by rolling big stones down upon us. Dick thought they looked nasty, and even Jimmy mumbled something about their queer behaviour, so we unstrapped our shooting irons, deciding to be prepared in case Mr. Dingo should think it worth his while to attack.

It was a beautiful night. The great white moon flooding with rays of silver this city of the dead, created a solemn and magnificent sight. I stood on a lofty eminence of rock, and let my eyes wander over the strange, dead, ghostly scene. Like a city of the Titans it seemed, huge, petrified in the eternal sleep of death. No sound broke the stillness of the night, save now and then the wild howl of the dingo on the adjacent rocks, or the weird cry of the curlew as it rushed through the air above. Fit inhabitant, fit songster.

We held some conversation later on as to the advisability of keeping watch that night for fear of an attack from the wild dogs, but as both Dick and Jimmy declared the dingo to be a most arrant coward, we decided that such a course would be unnecessary. Therefore, feeling perfectly secure in the protection our camp fire afforded us, we, being utterly exhausted, soon fell into a profound slumber.

How long it lasted I know not, but I was awakened by the low growl of an animal close to my head, and on looking up I saw the wild blazing eyes of a huge dog almost directly over me. His teeth glistened brightly in the moonlight, and his great hot tongue lolled so far out of his mouth that I seemed to feel it upon me. I riveted my eyes upon his, feeling at the same time for my revolver, but not daring to turn round and look lest the moment my eyes were withdrawn, the brute would spring upon me. I

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luckily felt my hand touch the weapon, and, drawing it slowly and deliberately back, I raised it quickly and fired full in the animal's open mouth. Nor was I a moment too soon. He had perceived the movement of my arm and was in the very act of springing. As it was, the body rose in the air and then, carried by its own impetus, fell full upon me.

My shot aroused my companions, who were on their feet in a moment, and soon shot after shot rang out upon the night air, mingled with the yells of the frightened and infuriated animals. One glance was enough to take in the situation. We were attacked by the dingoes—a fierce, wild pack of gaunt and famished brutes. They had defied the fire (usually a perfect safeguard) and that instinctive dread of man which seems implanted in every beast, and, driven on by hunger, had attacked us in this unprecedented manner.

“This is a pretty go,” roared my cousin Hardwicke between the flashes of his revolver; “keep your back to the wall, old fellow, and don't let them get behind you.” A good piece of advice which I am afraid was not carried out to the letter by any of us.

Shot now succeeded shot in quick succession, and by the indifferent light of the moon we beheld many of our savage adversaries writhing upon the ground, but those that were not seriously wounded, becoming maddened with the pain, threw themselves upon us with terrific fury, snapping and snarling in so dreadful a manner that we were all severely bitten before we could beat them off. So many of them were there that no sooner was one given his quietus than another sprang, as if by magic, in his place.

I had, with a dexterity I would not have given myself credit for, managed to reload my revolver, but to attempt such a feat again would have been the acme of supreme folly; so, with it in one hand and my knife in the other, I stood at bay and slashed and hit whenever the opportunity occurred. The ferocity of the great dogs seemed to increase with the increasing quantity of blood. They literally screamed

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with anger as they rushed upon us, utterly regardless of the destructive blows that we were raining upon them. Their numbers seemed endless; the horror of their discord was deafening, and I already began to see visions of the dreadful end. One huge fellow sprang upon me while I was engaged giving a final blow to another, and so close did he get to my throat that his hot bloody nostril grazed my chin as I ran my knife into him, and he fell dead.

The fighting now grew more fast and furious, if such a thing were possible, and I became so distressed that I foresaw an awful termination to the battle, unless the unforeseen should suddenly turn up in our favour. Things seemed to be going dead against us, and I thought then that, situated as we were, our defensive tactics would be the undoing of us. Hardwicke must have thought similarly, for suddenly, with the agility of a cat, he seized a rifle that was lying on the ground a few yards from him, and after discharging its contents into the howling mass, he charged them with such fury as to scatter them before him. Crash, crash, crash! went the instrument, as with mighty strokes he brought it down on the head or body of the brutes, beating to a jelly whatever part of the animal it struck. They gave way before his giant strokes, snapping and snarling all the time, and I doubt not but that he would gradually have driven them off, had he not in steping forward quickly to administer the death-blow to one gigantic brute, slipped in some unaccountable manner, and fallen heavily to the earth. In a moment the great dog he had sought to demolish was upon him, while the others, emboldened by the accident which had befallen their opponent, leapt furiously forward.

I happened to see Hardwicke fall, and also beheld the great dog rush upon him, and then another follow suit; but unfortunately I could render him no assistance, for we, Jimmy and I, were so beset by the animals that to turn from them for a moment would have been to court instant defeat. I, however, shouted to him words of encouragement, and then seizing the rifle which had flown from his

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grasp as he tripped, I laid about me with such good will, and was so well backed up by Jimmy, who, with a long knife in his hand, fought like a veritable demon, that in a few moments we had the extreme felicity of knowing that the battle was over. I retraced my steps hurriedly, calling the good news to Dick; but to my exceeding astonishment I received no answer. I felt a deadly, sickening dread creep over me, and could scarcely stagger to where I saw his still form in the moonlight. One of the great dogs was lying across his breast, and the other by his side. Both were dead. He had strangled them, and even in his unconscious state, his hands still held their vice-like grip upon the brutes' throats, while on his face was the fixed, hard look that always came there when he had something difficult to do, and when he meant to do it. He was breathing, though, and with the exception of a cut on the side of the head, which he must have inflicted upon himself when he fell, seemed to be little the worse for his encounter. I held his head and poured some water down his throat, and in a few minutes his eyes slowly opened, and, seeing my face above him, he recognised me with a smile.

“It's all over, Archie?” he queried.

“Yes,” I replied, “we've driven the enemy off. Jimmy is at the present moment giving several of them the finishing touch. How do you feel, old man?”

“A bit sore about the head.”

“You cut it when you fell.”

“Then that accounts for my fainting,” he said, sitting up. “And you, old fellow?”

“A few scratches—nothing serious.”

“That's well. And Jimmy?”

“Oh, nothing affects him.”

“Did he fight well?”

“Like a Spartan.”

“I am glad of that. I, it seems, was the only lady this time. I don't know how I slipped, I'm sure. I heard you shout to me and then I pulled myself together a bit and

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seized both dogs by the throat. Then I have an indistinct recollection of their blood-shot eyes and big teeth, and I felt myself put forth all my strength for a final effort—and then I remember no more.”

“Thank heaven it is all over now,” said I. “Though it was pretty tough while it lasted.”

“It was indeed,” he answered. “If I had been told the dingo would have shown such fight I should have laughed at the yarn.”

“There were so many of them,” I ventured. “Besides, they were mad with hunger.”

“That's it,” said Dick. “And hunger and companionship made them defiant.”

We kept watch all through the rest of the night, and though we were not molested we discharged our rifles at any too adventurous dingo, for we were in deadly terror lest they should again assail us. They, however, refrained from so doing, though they howled dolefully round all through the long night, attracted to the camp, despite their fear, by the smell of blood.

In the morning the field of battle presented a ghastly spectacle. Fully a score of our canine opponents lay dead, exhibiting strange distortions of nature. Above soared several birds of prey, only awaiting our departure, while from the rocks around the wild, sharp yelp of the dingoes told the sophisticated ear how anxiously they were waiting to dine off their brothers.

We were not long in packing up our traps and departing, the sun having no sooner risen out of the great desert beyond than we were away with thrice our ordinary speed, and I do not believe we could have gone more than twenty yards before the birds were down upon their victims, while the sharp growls of the dingoes told us that the feast of blood had begun.

“We are well out of that, Dick.”

“We are indeed. It is positive proof that fate intends us to accomplish our journey. So onward, Archie, onward.”

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“Yes, onward!” And we pursued a rapid course along the broad white street, glad enough to get far beyond the wild inhabitants of the City in the Mountains.