Fred Ashman was greatly relieved when he had assisted Ariel down from the high, rocky wall, and they had picked their way to the spot where the little canoe had been left but a short time before.
He had felt a singular misgiving from the first about the boat, fearful that in this region of enchantment, as it seemed to him, something would cause it to disappear, and he and his lovely companion be left in a most exposed and dangerous situation.
But it was found just where it had been left, and helping her in it, he shoved it clear and then looked to her for directions as to what was to be the next step.
The maiden now made a singular statement. She said that some weeks before, she had visited this place with no companion but her father. They landed at a point which she indicated, and he ordered her to stay on the shore until his return. He was gone so long, however, that she undertook a little exploration on her own account, and made a discovery which she now hoped to turn to account.
The canoe touched at the spot she pointed out, and they stepped ashore. She said that her parent strolled off to the left, toward a passage which she showed, and which she had entered with him several times before, but from which he seemed desirous to exclude her on the occasion named.
It was while he was absent at that time, that Ariel walked some distance to the right. She clambered up the rocks a little way to a clump of bushes. She was examining a species of crimson berry, growing upon them, when she observed a passage, which she followed far enough to find that it led into a large cavern, whose full extent she did not attempt to learn. She withdrew, and, fearful of offending the king, told him nothing about it when he returned and found her with the boat.
Ariel was confident that neither her parent nor any of her people knew of her discovery, and she now proposed to Ashman that they should enter the strange cavern, and remain until the present danger was over. She believed that if her friends or enemies, as they might be considered, did not discover them soon, they would conclude that they had voluntarily met death together, and would give up the hunt.
Ashman was struck with the sagacity of the lady, and eagerly agreed to her suggestion. It would never do to leave the canoe as a tell-tale, and he gave it a shove which carried it far out on the lake. Discovered in that situation, no one could tell what point on the shore it had touched, and, being adrift, near the middle of the lake, it would suggest the theory of suicide, which they were anxious to impress upon their pursuers.
Carefully picking their way through the mass of brush and undergrowth which showed remarkable vigor, considering that the revivifying sunlight never touched it, Ashman readily found the opening described by his companion.
It was just broad enough to allow the passage of their bodies, its height being such that they could move by stooping slightly. Holding his Winchester in hand, he led the way with Ariel pressing him close.
The same fact was noticeable that struck him when paddling through the tunnel connecting the outer and the underground lake. The light increased as they progressed until everything was seen with a distinctness hardly less than that shown in the water they had just left behind them.
Suddenly Ashman paused with an expression of amazement. He had entered a cavern so striking in appearance that it almost took away his wreath.
It was several acres in extent, with an arching, dome-like roof rising fully two hundred feet above their heads. Stalactites and stalagmites dozens of feet in length were visible hanging from the roof and obtruding from the floor, the latter being broken by chasms and ravines, many of which seemed to have a depth that was fathomless.
No water was visible, but the proximity of the lake rendered it likely that some of the abysses were filled at the bottom with the element. It looked impossible for the lovers to advance beyond the entrance, and yet while Ashman was standing motionless he observed that a ledge put out on their right, along which they could make their way indefinitely, its course being hidden by scores of intervening obstacles.
It looked like a scene of enchantment indeed, the wonderful cavern illumined by the flood of crimson light, which was on every hand, while the radiating point was invisible.
Ariel stood silent and waited for her companion to recover from his astonishment. She had viewed all this before and had witnessed so many similar scenes that they produced less effect upon her imagination than upon his.
By and by he looked around, and she smilingly nodded her head. He began picking his way along the ledge, carefully feeling his way, for a misstep or a treacherous support was liable to precipitate him to the fathomless depths below with the inevitable certainty of instant death.
It was while the young American was working forward in this guarded manner, that he particularly noticed that the roof overhead, and all parts of the walls were dotted with what seemed points of living fire. While some were small, others were larger and gave out a light that was dazzling to the point of blindness.
He supposed they were composed of a species of quartz or mineral, but observing one of them within reach at his side, he reached upward with his knife and extracted it from the shale in which it was imbedded.
Taking it in his hand he turned it over several times with increasing curiosity. It appeared to be a rough pebble, from which he brushed away a portion of the dirt, so as to permit it to shine with a splendor that would have been tenfold greater in the full light of the sun.
"Don't you know what it is?" asked Ariel with another smile at his perplexed expression.
"I do not; can you tell me?"
"It is a diamond!"
"And," he asked, with a sweep of his arm, "are all those diamonds?"
"Great heavens!" gasped the astounded Ashman; "we have entered a cavern of diamonds."
"There can be no doubt of that," she calmly replied; "there are plenty of them among the rocks along other portions of the lake, for that is where the king has obtained them for years. There is gold there too. You know now the reason why he guards the approaches of the lake so jealously. I have seen our men digging for diamonds and they looked just like what these seem around us."
Ashman had paused again and his eyes roved around the magnificent scene, whose splendors were enough to turn the head of Solomon himself. Thousands of the points were gleaming from all portions of the roof, walls, and even on the ledge along which they were walking. There was enough wealth within his gaze to pay the national debt of his country and to effect a revolution in any nation.
"I would be a fool," he reflected,
"not to gather some of these while the chance is mine, even
though I may never live to carry them away."
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