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While the ring of their heathen death-song still echoed in my ear, and the hiss and roar of the volcanic fires still boomed and resounded wildly around me, I was dimly conscious in an interval of heat that the lava-flood fell back for a few moments, and that a lull had intervened in that surging tide of fiery liquid. I was sorry for that. It would do nothing now but needlessly prolong my horrible torture. When once one has made up one's mind to face death, in whatever form, the sooner one can get the wrench over the better. To be roasted alive is bad enough in all conscience; but to be roasted alive by intermittent stages is a thing to make even a soldier or a man of science shrink back appalled from the ghastly prospect.
In my agony, I looked up once more at the sheer precipice. As I looked, I saw yet another person had come down to join the group by the edge. My heart bounded with a faint throb of hope. It was Kea, Kea, pretty, gentle Kea.
"Surely," I said to myself in my own soul, "Kea at least will not desert me. Kea will try her very best to save me."
The light of the volcano lit up the faces of the men and the girl with a ruddy glow. I could see every movement of their muscles distinctly. Kea came down with clasped hands, and blanched lips, like one frantic with terror, and seemed to beg and implore the man in the mask to aid or assist her in some projected undertaking. The man in the mask shook his head sternly. It was clear he was adamant. Kea redoubled her prayers and entreaties. The priest rejected her petition with his hands outspread, and turned once more as if in blind worship toward the mouth of the crater. I knew that Kea was begging hard for my life, and that Kalaua, sternly refusing her prayer, was devoting me as a victim to his unspeakable goddess.
There are moments that seem as long as years. This was one of them.
Presently, Kea seemed to ask some favour, some last favour. The stern old priest made answer slowly. I fancied he was relenting. She turned to the men, as if to ask a question. The men in return assented with a solemn movement of their awestruck bodies. Then Kea looked up at her uncle again imploringly. She spoke with fervour, I could see it was some sort of compact or bargain between them she was trying to negotiate. At last the man in the mask gave in. He nodded his head and folded his arms. He appeared to look on like a passive spectator. I imagined somehow, quickened as my senses were by the extremity of the moment, that he had entered into an agreement with her, not indeed to save me, but to abstain from active interference with Kea's movements if she wished herself to assist me in any way.
I breathed more freely. As soon as their hasty conference was over, the girl drew near to the brink of the precipice. She raised her hands as if pulling at an invisible rope: then she made signs to me to wait patiently, if wait I could, for that help was going to arrive shortly. After that, she broke eagerly away with a gesture of sympathy, and ran off in hot haste towards the winding path that led from the floor to the summit of the crater.
I lay there some minutes more in an agony of suspense. Would she come back in time, or would the fiery flood burst up once more to the level where I lay before she had time to arrive with assistance?
The man in the mask, whom I took to be Kalaua, and the four natives who stood by his side, still watched me, unmoved, with stolid indifference, from the jagged brink of that high granite precipice.
By and by, they looked down with deeper attention still. I could tell by their gestures and their excited manner that the lava, after its lull, had begun to ascend afresh. The man in the mask advanced and prostrated himself. He quivered with emotion. He flung his arms up wildly. His limbs shook. He seemed as if in the bodily presence of Pélé.
Next moment, a roar like the roar of thunder, or the discharge of a volley of heavy artillery, boomed forth from the crater, loud and sharp, with explosive violence. The ledge about me began to gape with chinks. Fissures opened up in the solid rock by my side with a crackling noise. The Floor of the Hawaiians sweated fire. Liquid lava oozed forth from a huge rent not three hundred yards away from the place where I lay, and flowing in a stream over the bed inward, fell back again in a surging cataract of fire into the central hollow. I wondered I was not scorched to death outright, so near was the lava-flood. But the place where I lay still remained solid. How long it would remain so, I did not even dare to speculate.
At that instant, as I looked up in my agony of suspense towards the brink of the precipice, with the liquid fire rising apace to seize me, I saw Kea, all breathless with haste, rush eagerly up to the edge and lean over towards me. In her hands, O joy, she held a large coil or ring of something. Thank heaven! Thank heaven! My heart bounded with delight. Saved! saved! It was rope she was carrying!
She flung it down in a curl, sailor-fashion, towards the spot where I lay. I saw as it fell it was of different sizes, and knotted together with big rude knots in many places. Clearly she had not been able to find a single rope long enough for her purpose. She had made up this length as well as she was able out of different pieces hunted up by hazard in odd corners at Kalaua's on the spur of the moment.
It was a giddy height to which to trust one's self, even with the stoutest and strongest cable ever woven on earth. But with that weak and patched-up line of rotten old cords? Impossible! Impossible! If one of the knots were to give way with my weight, if one of the pieces were to break in the middle, I should be hurled down again a second time, yet more helpless than ever, and dashed into little pieces in an instant on that sharp and stubborn granite platform!
But drowning men clutch at straws. This was no moment to deliberate or reason. I would have trusted myself just then, broken leg and all, to a line of whipcord, if nothing else came handy.
The rope descended in a whirl through the air. It fell taut—plumb to the bottom. A fresh disappointment! To my utter horror, the end still dangled some ten feet above me!
I couldn't possibly jump up to reach it. With a loud cry of distress Kea saw it was too short. In a moment without stopping to think or hesitate, she had torn the lower part of her long native dress into strips and shreds, and lengthened the frail cord by this insecure addition just far enough to reach me as I stood on tip-toe.
I clutched it at last with both my hands, and threw back my head as a signal to Kea that all was right, and she might begin pulling.
Never shall I forget the awful sensations that coursed through my body as I dangled there, half-way in air, while that delicate young girl, thin and graceful, but strong of limb, with the inherited strength of her savage country-women, hauled me slowly up by main force of struggling nerve and sinew, past all possible conception of her natural powers.
She hauled me up by first passing the rope round a jagged peak of lava, which thus acted as a sort of rude natural pulley, enabling her to get rid of the direct strain, and to throw the weight in part on the edge of the precipice, and then by winding it round her own waist as a living windlass. Slowly, slowly, clinging by my hands to the hard rope, that cut and bruised my poor bleeding fingers, and with my broken leg dangling painfully in mid-air with excruciating twitches, I rose by degrees towards the brink of the abyss. How Kea had ever strength to raise me I do not know to this very day. I only know that as each knot on the rope grated and jerked round the edge of the peak that served for pulley it sent a thrill of incredible and unutterable pain through my injured limb, and almost made me let go my hands off the hard rope they were grasping and clutching with all their energy.
Meanwhile, the man in the feather mask and the natives by his side stood stolidly by, neither helping nor hindering, but gazing at me as I dangled in mid-air with sublime indifference, as one might gaze at a spider running up his own web with practised feet towards his nest on the ceiling. It was clear my life was no more to them than that. If the rope had given way, if the crumbling peak of honey-combed lava had broken short with the weight, and precipitated me, a mangled mass, to the bottom, they would have stood there as stolidly, and smiled as imperturbably at my shattered limbs in the awful embrace of their fiery goddess. Truly, truly, the dark places of the earth are full of cruelty.
As I rose in the air the lava, now belching forth with renewed vigour, followed me fast up the mouth of the crater. It followed me fast, like a living creature. One might almost have fancied that Pélé, disappointed of her victim, made haste in her frantic efforts to snatch him from the hands of that frail mortal maiden who strove almost in vain to rescue him in time by violent means from her cruel clutches. I didn't wonder any longer that those ignorant and superstitious natives should picture the volcano to themselves in their own souls as a living will. I almost felt it alive myself, so wildly and eagerly did the tongues of flame seem to dart forth towards me with their forked and vibrating tips, as if thirsting to lick me up and swallow me down in their hungry lunges.
The time I took in rising was endless. Could I hold on till the end? that was the question. At last, after long intervals of giddy suspense, I reached the top, or almost reached it; I clutched the crumbling peak with my hooked fingers. Kea still wound the rope round and round her body, as she approached to help me. She held out her hand. I grasped it eagerly. "You must jump," she cried: and all wounded as I was, I jumped with wild force on to the solid floor of the upper platform. My broken leg thrilled through with pain. But I was safe—safe. I was standing by her side on the Floor of the Strangers. The lava sank down again with a hideous sob, as if disappointed of its living prey. I gazed around me for the priest and his acolytes. Not a sign or a mark of them anywhere was to be seen. I stood alone with Kea by the brink of the precipice. The rest had melted away to their hidden lairs as if by magic.
I was rescued, indeed, but by the skin of my teeth. Such peril leaves one unmanned as one escapes it.
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