NO one could have told from Cartwright's manner as he chatted with his travelling companions that he was confidently looking forward to the time when one of them should be decapitated and the other imprisoned for life.
But this was the fate he had settled on for Wall and Farmer, and he manifested an eager solicitude for their welfare, occasioned by the natural regret he felt at the prospect of soon parting with them. Gamesters playing for high stakes can take an interlude, and the three men, despite their differences, had much to say to one another and, notwithstanding the oppressive heat, no moment was irksome. They started late one afternoon, and proceeded by easy stages; on the second day they began the descent of the nearer hills overlooking the plain they had to traverse before reaching the mountainous region which was their destination.
Descending the hills they came upon a level expanse, rocky, with but little depth of soil, but famed for its extraordinary fertility owing to the supply of water from the Alban Lake on the opposite hill-side.
Travelling along this level, none of them could help noticing the extremely scanty nature of the crops now nearly ripe for reaping, and Cartwright made a laughing allusion to the advantage of his kind of cereals.
Forest did not respond—he felt mortified at the poor showing of his farmers after the confidence he had expressed in them.
"It's about here," said Cartwright, "that one of the refuges I planned was dug."
"Papa," cried Laura, who was a little distance ahead, "why is it—it sounds as if the ground were metal?"
"You are on a piece of metal," said he, "a metal rod that covers the entrance to a refuge."
"Papa, I have always wanted to see one of these places," said she, "can we lift up the lid and look in?"
"What is the use," said Cartwright, "my brother says they are of no use."
"Not at all, friend," said Farmer, "everything has its use; they may have a use some day. By a blind instinct the bird makes its nest, and then turns it to a most unexpected use."
"I agree with you," said Cartwright, "the unexpected often happens—let's pass on, Laura, we won't look in." This he said considerately, feeling that Farmer might have the idea of a prison suggested to him by the sight of the dismal opening, but Laura appealed to Forest.
"Your men are so strong," she said, "they could easily lift up the end."
Her word was a command, the party halted, the end of the rod was found beneath the grass which had crept over it, and a few efforts prized it up. Then one by one they advanced and looked in.
"Why there's no end to it," said Laura, listening and hearing no reverberation from a stone she had dropped in.
"From that shaft the caves stretch out backward and forward," said Forest, "they are, I am informed, quite dry and commodious."
"Oh, Uncle," said Laura, "if it hadn't been for you, we should all have had to go down into those dreadful places! "
"They may turn out very useful yet," said Farmer, " we are by no means out of danger. The earth's bulk is very vast to be moved by the delicate instrumentality of men's thoughts." This he said in his desire not to let Cartwright feel too severely the mortification of having provided such useless caves.
"Shut the horrid place up, I hope we shall never open it again, never," said Laura.
"You may be very glad to," persisted her uncle.
It was a relief to the whole party when the covering of the aperture fell to again. In the bright world, the sun shining, the breeze wafting its incense, and all the pageant of nature's sumptuous robe spread before them, with the thoughts of ages incorporate in their mind, their hearts attuned to love and pity, hope and fortitude, —how could it come about that an accidental proximity of some distant inert mass could threaten the necessity of a descent into that chasm, the forced seclusion of that dismal and uncertain refuge!
Their resting place for the night was close at hand, and here Forest had appointed a meeting with the inspector whose duty it was to report on the quantity of grain which the district would furnish for the year.
The inspector made his appearance accompanied by several farmers, who wore an expression of dogged obstinacy. It appeared that there was but little grain in the whole district beyond the small supply necessary for the wants of the inhabitants.
"Sir," said the inspector, "these men have made all sorts of excuses, but every circumstance has been favourable to a good harvest."
Forest examined the unwilling witnesses and soon evoked the sullen admission that they had not planted their fields—they saw no reason why they should work for nothing, and had only sowed for their own needs.
Angry and over-hasty in his annoyance Forest declared that he would take all the grain they had.
"What shall we live on?" they asked.
"You can live on roots and berries, next year you will know better," and so saying he dismissed the sullen crew.
"Come, Forest," said Wall, "don't spoil our journey for such a trifle, I told you they were up to all manner of tricks, take this one good-humouredly and let us enjoy the advantage of your popularity."
"I'll think the matter over," said Forest, "there is time enough to-morrow."
On the next day, however, when the preparations had been made for an early march, Wall remarked, "I don't like this, Forest. Look ahead as far as you can see, not a living thing in sight."
It was true—far as the eye could reach no smoke rose, no figure was seen.
And as they looked, from the opposite hill-side in the distance a silver glint caught their eyes.
"That's water," said Forest, "the lake is over-flowing."
"It's worse than that," said Wall, as the whiteness spread.
"I believe those villains have blown up the dam," said Forest, his eyes fixed on the distance.
And so it proved. Microscopic in the distance, but advancing with incredible velocity was a wave—a consuming devouring wave, sweeping away before it all that it met. While they stood and gazed it ate up the distance. No speed could bring them to the refuge of the hills behind them. Sudden death stared them in the face.
Realising the peril, the hopelessness of it, Forest turned to Laura.
"I have brought you to this," he said, "you, I would have died a thousand deaths for."
"Miss Cartwright has to die sometime," observed Wall, "meanwhile let us get as near to the hills as we can."
At the crossing of the subterranean chamber he stopped.
"We could find a refuge in here," he said, "if we could be sure of ever getting out."
"Let us send the water in," said Laura.
They crossed over and then Wall set a couple of soldiers of the escort to work. In a few moments the rod which formed the covering of the aperture was dislodged and flung into the abyss.
Laura had stopped, looking at the men at work. Wall bade her hurry on.
"I want to see," she replied, and remained standing just behind him.
The great wave came toppling on, foam streaked high above their heads—leaped at them, but sank in the wide yawning chasm. Merely the crest leaped over and threw them all in a confused mass.
In that moment of imminent death, so quickly threatened, so speedily averted, a delicious sense of nearness came over both Laura and Harold. If only the elements had precipitated them into one another's arms no misunderstanding could have parted them. But waves are blind. The forces of nature must roll on, and Farmer's philosophical disquisitions are not ended. Hence the malignity of the elements threw these poor plane beings into a confused heap, and Laura catching hold of the first person she came across seized Forest's arm. When the yellow water was sucked back into the chasm in which the flood from beyond kept pouring with a roar, Wall saw her being tenderly revived by another. The sight was too much for him, and he hastened back to the city.