The Cave Girl

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IV: Death's Doorway

LATE in the afternoon the girl suggested that they start that night upon the journey toward her village.

“The bad men will not be abroad after dark,” she said.

“With you at my side, I shall not fear Nagoola.” “How far is it to your village?” asked Waldo.

“It will take us three nights,” she replied. “By day we must hide, for even you could not vanquish a great number of bad men should they attack you at once.” “No,” said Waldo; “I presume not.” “It was very wonderful to watch you, though,” she went on, “when you battled upon the cliff-side, beating them down as they came upon you. How brave you were! How terrible! You trembled from rage.” “Yes,” admitted Waldo, “I was quite angry. I always tremble like that when my ire is excited. Sometimes I get so bad that my knees knock together. If you ever see them do that you will realize how exceedingly angry I am.” “Yes,” murmured the girl.

Presently Waldo saw that she was laughing quietly to herself.

A great fear rose in his breast. Could it be that she was less gullible than she had appeared? Did she, after all, penetrate the bombast with which he had sought to cloak his cowardice?

He finally mustered sufficient courage to ask: “Why do you laugh?” “I think of the surprise that awaits old Flatfoot and Korth and the others when I lead you to them.” “Why will they be surprised?” asked Waldo.

“At the way you will crack their heads.” Waldo shuddered.

“Why should I crack their heads?” he asked.

“Why should you crack their heads!” It was apparently incredible to the girl that he should not understand.

“How little you know,” she said. “You cannot swim, you do not know the language which men may understand, you would be lost in the woods were I to leave you, and now you say that you do not know that when you come to a strange tribe they will try to kill you, and only take you as one of them when you have proven your worth by killing at least one of their strongest men.” “At least one!” said Waldo, half to himself.

He was dazed by this information. He had expected to be welcomed with open arms into the best society that the girl’s community afforded. He had thought of it in just this way, for he had not even yet learned that there might be a whole people living under entirely different conditions than those which existed in Boston, Massachusetts.

Her reference to his ignorance also came as a distinct shock to him. He had always considered himself a man of considerable learning. It had been his secret boast and his mother’s open pride.

And now to be pitied for his ignorance by one who probably thought the earth flat, if she ever thought about such matters at all — by one who could neither read nor write. And the worst of it all was that her indictment was correct — only she had not gone far enough.

There was little of practical value that he did know. With the realization of his limitations Waldo Emerson took, unknown to himself, a great stride toward a broader wisdom than his narrow soul had ever conceived.

That night, after the sun had set and the stars and moon come out, the two set forth from their retreat toward the northwest, where the girl said that the village of her people lay.

They walked hand in hand through the dark wood, the girl directing their steps, the young man grasping his long cudgel in his right hand and searching into the shadows for the terrible creatures conjured by his cowardly brain, but mostly for the two awesome spots of fire which he had gathered from the girl’s talk would mark the presence of Nagoola.

Strange noises assailed his ears, and once the girl crouched close to him as her quick ears caught the sound of the movement of a great body through the underbrush at their left.

Waldo Emerson was almost paralyzed by terror; but at length the creature, whatever it may have been, turned off into the forest without molesting them. For several hours thereafter they suffered no alarm, but the constant tension of apprehension on the man’s already over-wrought nerves had reduced him to a state of such abject nervous terror that he was no longer master of himself.

So it was that when the girl suddenly halted him with an affrighted little gasp and, pointing straight ahead, whispered, “Nagoola,” he went momentarily mad with fear.

For a bare instant he paused in his tracks, and then breaking away from her, he raised his club above his head, and with an awful shriek dashed straight toward the panther.

In the minds of some there may be a doubt as to which of the two — the sleek, silent, black cat or the grinning, screaming Waldo — was the most awe-inspiring.

Be that as it may, it was quite evident that no doubt assailed the mind of the cat, for with a single answering scream, he turned and faded into the blackness of the black night.

But Waldo did not see him go. Still shrieking, he raced on through the forest until he tripped over a creeper and fell exhausted to the earth. There he lay panting, twitching, and trembling until the girl found him, an hour after sunrise.

At the sound of her voice he would have struggled to his feet and dashed on into the woods, for he felt that he could never face her again after the spectacle of cowardice with which he had treated her a few hours before.

But even as he gained his feet her first words reaasured him, and dissipated every vestige of his intention to elude her.

“Did you catch him?” she cried.

“No,” panted Waldo Emerson quite truthfully. “He got away.” They rested a little while, and then Waldo insisted that they resume their journey by day instead of by night. He had positively determined that he never should or could endure another such a night of mental torture. He would much rather take the chance of meeting with the bad men than suffer the constant feeling that unseen enemies were peering out of the darkness at him every moment.

In the day they would at least have the advantage of seeing their foes before they were struck. He did not give these reasons to the girl, however. Under the circumstances he felt that another explanation would be better adapted to her ears.

“You see,” he said, “if it hadn’t been so dark Nagoola might not have escaped me. It is too bad — too bad.” “Yes,” agreed the girl, “it is too bad. We shall travel by day.

It will be safe now. We have left the country of the bad men, and there are few men living between us and my people.” That night they spent in a cave they found in the steep bank of a small river.

It was damp and muddy and cold, but they were both very tired, and so they fell asleep and slept as soundly as though the best of mattresses lay beneath them. The girl probably slept better, since she had never been accustomed to anything much superior to this in all her life.

The journey required five days, instead of three, and during all the time Waldo was learning, more and more woodcraft from the girl. At first his attitude had been such that he could profit but little from her greater practical knowledge, for he had been inclined to look down upon her as an untutored savage.

Now, however, he was a willing student, and when Waldo Emerson elected to study there was nothing that he could not master and retain in a remarkable manner. He had a well-trained mind — the principal trouble with it being that it had been crammed full of useless knowledge. His mother had always made the error of confusing knowledge with wisdom.

Waldo was not the only one to learn new things upon this journey. The girl learned something, too — something which had been threatening for days to rise above the threshold of her conscious mind, and now she realized that it had lain in her heart almost ever since the first moment that she had been with this strange young man.

Waldo Emerson had been endowed by nature with a chivalrous heart, and his training had been such that he mechanically accorded to all women the gallant little courtesies and consideration which are of the fine things that go with breeding. Nor was he one whit less punctilious in his relations with this wild cave girl than he would have been with the daughter of the finest family of his own aristocracy.

He had been kind and thoughtful and sympathetic always, and to the girl, who had never been accustomed to such treatment from men, nor had ever seen a man accord it to any woman, it seemed little short of miraculous that such gentle tenderness could belong to a nature so warlike and ferocious as that with which she had endowed Waldo Emerson. But she was quite satisfied that it should be so.

She would not have cared for him had he been gentle with her, yet cowardly. Had she dreamed of the real truth — had she had the slightest suspicion that Waldo Emerson was at heart the most arrant poltroon upon whom the sun had ever shone, she would have loathed and hated him, for in the primitive code of ethics which governed the savage community which was her world there was no place for the craven or the weakling — and Waldo Emerson was both.

As the realization of her growing sentiment toward the man awakened, it imparted to her ways with him a sudden coyness and maidenly aloofness which had been entirely wanting before. Until then their companionship, in so far as the girl was concerned, had been rather that of one youth toward another; but now that she found herself thrilling at his slightest careless touch, she became aware of a paradoxical impulse to avoid him.

For the first time in her life, too, she realized her nakedness, and was ashamed. Possibly this was due to the fact that Waldo appeared so solicitous in endeavoring to coerce his rags into the impossible feat of entirely covering his body.

As they neared their journey’s end Waldo became more and more perturbed. During the last night horrible visions of Flatfoot and Korth haunted his dreams. He saw the great, hairy beasts rushing upon him in all the ferocity of their primeval savagery — tearing him limb from limb in their bestial rage.

With a shriek he awoke.

To the girl’s startled inquiry he replied that he had been but dreaming.

“Did you dream of Flatfoot and Korth?” she laughed. “Of the things that you will do to them tomorrow?” “Yes,” replied Waldo; “I dreamed of Flatfoot and Korth.” But the girl did not see how he trembled and hid his head in the hollow of his arm.

The last day’s march was the most agonizing experience of Waldo Emerson’s life. He was positive that he was going to his death, but to him the horror of the thing lay more in the manner of his coming death than in the thought of death itself. As a matter of fact, he had again reached a point when he would have welcomed death.

The future held for him nothing but a life of discomfort and misery and constant mental anguish, superinduced by the condition of awful fear under which he must drag out his existence in this strange and terrible land.

Waldo had not the slightest conception as to whether he was upon some mainland or an unknown island. That the tidal wave had come upon them somewhere in the South Pacific was all that he knew; but long since he had given up hope that succor would reach him in time to prevent him perishing miserably far from his home and his poor mother.

He could not dwell long upon this dismal theme, because it always brought tears of self-pity to his eyes, and for some unaccountable reason Waldo shrunk from the thought of exhibiting this unmanly weakness before the girl.

All day long he racked his brain for some valid excuse whereby he might persuade his companion to lead him elsewhere than to her village. A thousand times better would be some secluded little garden such as that which had harbored them for the ten days following their escape from the cave men.

If they could but come upon such a place near the coast, where Waldo could keep a constant watch for passing vessel, he would have been as happy as he ever expected it would be possible for him in such a savage land.

He wanted the girl with him for companionship; he was more afraid when he was alone. Of course, he realized that size was no fit companion for a man of his mental attainments; but then she was a human being, and her society much better than none at all. While hope had still lingered that he might live to escape and return to his beloved Boston, he had often wondered whether he would dare tell his mother of his unconventional acquaintance with this young woman.

Of course, it would be out of the question for him to go at all into details. He would not, for example, dare to attempt a description of her toilet to his prim parent.

The fact that they had been alone together, day and night, for weeks was another item which troubled Waldo considerably.

He knew that the shock of such information might prostrate his mother, and for a long time he debated the wisdom of omitting any mention of the girl whatever.

At length he decided that a little, white lie would be permissible, inasmuch as his mother’s health and the girl’s reputation were both at stake. So he had decided to mention that the girl’s aunt had been with them in the capacity of chaperon; that fixed it nicely, and on this point Waldo’s mind was more at ease.

Late in the afternoon they wound down a narrow trail that led from the plateau into a narrow, beautiful valley. A tree-bordered river meandered through the center of the level plain that formed the valley’s floor, while beyond rose precipitous cliffs, which trailed off in either direction as far as the eye could reach.

“There live my people,” said the girl, pointing toward the distant barrier.

Waldo groaned inwardly.

“Let us rest here,” he said, “until tomorrow, that we may come to your home rested and refreshed.” “Oh, no,” cried the girl; “we can reach the caves before dark.

I can scarcely wait until I shall have seen how you shall slay Flatfoot, and maybe Korth also. Though I think that after one of them has felt your might the others will be glad to take you into the tribe at the price of your friendship.” “Is there not some way,” ventured the distracted Waldo, “that I may come into your village without fighting? I should dislike to kill one of your friends,” said Waldo solemnly.

The girl laughed.

“Neither Flatfoot nor Korth are friends of mine,” she replied; “I hate them both. They are terrible men. It would be better for all the tribe were they killed. They are so strong and cruel that we all hate them, since they use their strength to abuse those who are weaker.

“They make us all work very hard for them. They take other men’s mates, and if the other men object they kill them. There is scarcely a moon passes that does not see either Korth or Flatfoot kill some one.

“Nor is it always men they kill. Often when they are angry they kill women and little children just for the pleasure of killing; but when you come among us there will be no more of that, for you will kill them both if they be not good.” Waldo was too horrified by this description of his soon-to-be antagonists to make any reply — his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth — all his vocal organs seemed paralyzed.

But the girl did not notice. She went on joyously, ripping Waldo’s nervous system out of him and tearing it into shreds.

“You see,” she continued, “Flatfoot and Korth are greater than the other men of my tribe. They can do as they will. They are frightful to look upon, and I have often thought that the hearts of others dried up when they saw either of them coming for them.

“And they are so strong! I have seen Korth crush the skull of a full-grown man with a single blow from his open palm; while one of Flatfoot’s amusements is the breaking of men’s arms and legs with his bare hands.”

They had entered the valley now, and in silence they continued on toward the fringe of trees which grew beside the little river.

Nadara led the way toward a ford, which they quickly crossed. All the way across the valley Waldo had been searching for some avenue of escape.

He dared not enter that awful village and face those terrible men, and he was almost equally averse to admitting to the girl that he was afraid.

He would gladly have died to have escaped either alternative, but he preferred to choose the manner of his death.

The thought of entering the village and meeting a horrible end at the hands of the brutes who awaited him there and of being compelled to demonstrate before the girl’s eyes that he was neither a mighty fighter nor a hero was more than he could endure.

Occupied with these harrowing speculations, Waldo and Nadara came to the farther side of the forest, whence they could see the towering cliffs rising steeply from the valley’s bed, three hundred yards away.

Along their face and at their feet Waldo descried a host of half-naked men, women, and children moving about in the consummation of their various duties. Involuntarily he halted.

The girl came to his side. Together they looked out upon the scene, the like of which Waldo Emerson never before had seen.

It was as though he had been suddenly snatched back through countless ages to a long-dead past and dropped into the midst of the prehistoric life of his paleolithic progenitors.

Upon the narrow ledges before their caves, women, with long, flowing hair, ground food in rude stone mortars.

Naked children played about them, perilously close to the precipitous cliff edge.

Hairy men squatted, gorillalike, before pieces of flat stone, upon which green hides were stretched, while they scraped, scraped, scraped with the sharp edge of smaller bits of stone.

There was no laughter and no song.

Occasionally Waldo saw one of the fierce creatures address another, and sometimes one would raise his thick lips in a nasty snarl that exposed his fighting fangs; but they were too far away for their words to reach the young man.

Return to the The Cave Girl Summary Return to the Edgar Rice Burroughs Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson