Human nature is prone to illusions. Of course, there had been all along a probability that the "Terror" had deserted the locality, even admitting that it was she Wells had seen the previous day. If some damage to her triple system of locomotion had prevented her from regaining either by land or by water her usual hiding-place, and obliged her to seek refuge in Black Rock Creek, what ought we to conclude now upon finding her here no longer? Obviously, that, having finished her repairs, she had continued on her way, and was already far beyond the waters of Lake Erie.
But probable as this result had been from the first, we had more and more ignored it as our trip proceeded. We had come to accept as a fact that we should meet the "Terror," that we should find her anchored at the base of the rocks where Wells had seen her.
And now what disappointment! I might even say, what despair! All our efforts gone for nothing! Even if the "Terror" was still upon the lake, to find her, reach her and capture her, was beyond our power, and it might as well be fully recognized beyond all human power.
We stood there, Wells and I, completely crushed, while John Hart and Nab Walker, no less chagrined, went tramping along the banks of the Creek, seeking any trace that had been left behind.
Posted there, at the mouth of the Creek, Wells and I exchanged scarcely a word. What need was there of words to enable us to understand each other! After our eagerness and our despair, we were now exhausted. Defeated in our well-planned attempt, we felt as unwilling to abandon our campaign, as we were unable to continue it.
Nearly an hour slipped by. We could not resolve to leave the place. Our eyes still sought to pierce the night. Sometimes a glimmer, due to the sparkle of the waters, trembled on the surface of the lake. Then it vanished, and with it the foolish hope that it had roused. Sometimes again, we thought we saw a shadow outlined against the dark, the silhouette of an approaching boat. Yet again some eddies would swirl up at our feet, as if the Creek had been stirred within its depths. These vain imaginings were dissipated one after the other. They were but the illusions raised by our strained fancies.
At length our companions rejoined us. My first question was, "Nothing new?"
"Nothing," said John Hart.
"You have explored both banks of the Creek?"
"Yes," responded Nab Walker, "as far as the shallow water above; and we have not seen even a vestige of the things which Mr. Wells saw laid on the shore."
"Let us wait awhile," said I, unable to resolve upon a return to the woods.
At that moment our attention was caught by a sudden agitation of the waters, which swelled upward at the foot of the rocks.
"It is like the swell from a vessel," said Wells.
"Yes," said I, instinctively lowering my voice. "What has caused it? The wind has completely died out. Does it come from something on the surface of the lake?"
"Or from something underneath," said Wells, bending forward, the better to determine.
The commotion certainly seemed as if caused by some boat, whether from beneath the water, or approaching the creek from outside upon the lake.
Silent, motionless, we strained eyes and ears to pierce the profound obscurity. The faint noise of the waves of the lake lapping on the shore beyond the creek, came to us distinctly through the night. John Hart and Nab Walker drew a little aside upon a higher ridge of rocks. As for me, I leaned close to the water to watch the agitation. It did not lessen. On the contrary it became momentarily more evident, and I began to distinguish a sort of regular throbbing, like that produced by a screw in motion.
"There is no doubt," declared Wells, leaning close to me, "there is a boat coming toward us."
"There certainly is," responded I, "unless they have whales or sharks in Lake Erie."
"No, it is a boat," repeated Wells. "Is she headed toward the mouth of the creek, or is she going further up it?"
"This is just where you saw the boat twice before?"
"Yes, just here."
"Then if this is the same one, and it can be no other, she will probably return to the same spot."
"There!" whispered Wells, extending his hand toward the entrance of the creek.
Our companions rejoined us, and all four, crouching low upon the bank, peered in the direction he pointed.
We vaguely distinguished a black mass moving through the darkness. It advanced very slowly and was still outside the creek, upon the lake, perhaps a cable's length to the northeast. We could scarcely hear even now the faint throbbing of its engines. Perhaps they had stopped and the boat was only gliding forward under their previous impulse.
It seemed, then, that this was indeed the submarine which Wells had watched, and it was returning to pass this night, like the last, within the shelter of the creek.
Why had it left the anchorage, if only to return? Had it suffered some new disaster, which again impaired its power? Or had it been before compelled to leave, with its repairs still unfinished? What cause constrained it to return here? Was there some imperious reason why it could no longer be turned into an automobile, and go darting away across the roads of Ohio?
To all these questions which came crowding upon me, I could give no answer. Furthermore both Wells and I kept reasoning under the assumption that this was really the "Terror" commanded by the "Master of the World" who had dated from it his letter of defiance to the government. Yet this premise was still unproven, no matter how confident we might feel of it.
Whatever boat this was, that stole so softly through the night, it continued to approach us. Assuredly its captain must know perfectly the channels and shores of Black Rock Creek, since he ventured here in such darkness. Not a light showed upon the deck. Not a single ray from within the cabin glimmered through any crevice.
A moment later, we heard some machinery moving very softly. The swell of the eddies grew stronger, and in a few moments the boat touched the quay.
This word "quay," only used in that region, exactly describes the spot. The rocks at our feet formed a level, five or six feet above the water, and descending to it perpendicularly, exactly like a landing wharf.
"We must not stop here," whispered Wells, seizing me by the arm.
"No," I answered, "they might see us. We must lie crouched upon the beach! Or we might hide in some crevice of the rocks."
"We will follow you."
There was not a moment to lose. The dark mass was now close at hand, and on its deck, but slightly raised above the surface of the water, we could trace the silhouettes of two men.
Were there, then, really only two on board?
We stole softly back to where the ravines rose toward the woods above. Several niches in the rocks were at hand. Wells and I crouched down in one, my two assistants in another. If the men on the "Terror" landed, they could not see us; but we could see them, and would be able to act as opportunity offered.
There were some slight noises from the boat, a few words exchanged in our own language. It was evident that the vessel was preparing to anchor. Then almost instantly, a rope was thrown out, exactly on the point of the quay where we had stood.
Leaning forward, Wells could discern that the rope was seized by one of the mariners, who had leaped ashore. Then we heard a grappling-iron scrape along the ground.
Some moments later, steps crunched upon the sand. Two men came up the ravine, and went onward toward the edge of the woods, guiding their steps by a ship lantern.
Where were they going? Was Black Rock Creek a regular hiding place of the "Terror?" Had her commander a depot here for stores or provisions? Did they come here to restock their craft, when the whim of their wild voyaging brought them to this part of the continent? Did they know this deserted, uninhabited spot so well, that they had no fear of ever being discovered here?
"What shall we do?" whispered Wells.
"Wait till they return, and then--" My words were cut short by a surprise. The men were not thirty feet from us, when, one of them chancing to turn suddenly, the light of their lantern fell full upon his face.
He was one of the two men who had watched before my house in Long Street! I could not be mistaken! I recognized him as positively as my old servant had done. It was he; it was assuredly one of the spies of whom I had never been able to find any further traces! There was no longer any doubt, my warning letter had come from them. It was therefore from the "Master of the World"; it had been written from the "Terror" and this was the "Terror." Once more I asked myself what could be the connection between this machine and the Great Eyrie!
In whispered words, I told Wells of my discovery. His only comment was, "It is all incomprehensible!"
Meanwhile the two men had continued on their way to the woods, and were gathering sticks beneath the trees. "What if they discover our encampment?" murmured Wells.
"No danger, if they do not go beyond the nearest trees."
"But if they do discover it?"
"They will hurry back to their boat, and we shall be able to cut off their retreat."
Toward the creek, where their craft lay, there was no further sound. I left my hiding-place; I descended the ravine to the quay; I stood on the very spot where the grappling-iron was fast among the rocks.
The "Terror" lay there, quiet at the end of its cable. Not a light was on board; not a person visible, either on the deck, or on the bank. Was not this my opportunity? Should I leap on board and there await the return of the two men?
"Mr. Strock!" It was Wells, who called to me softly from close at hand.
I drew back in all haste and crouched down beside him. Was it too late to take possession of the boat? Or would the attempt perhaps result in disaster from the presence of others watching on board?
At any rate, the two men with the lantern were close at hand returning down the ravine. Plainly they suspected nothing. Each carrying a bundle of wood, they came forward and stopped upon the quay.
Then one of them raised his voice, though not loudly. "Hullo! Captain!"
"All right," answered a voice from the boat.
Wells murmured in my ear, "There are three!"
"Perhaps four," I answered, "perhaps five or six!"
The situation grew more complicated. Against a crew so numerous, what ought we to do? The least imprudence might cost us dear! Now that the two men had returned, would they re-embark with their faggots? Then would the boat leave the creek, or would it remain anchored until day? If it withdrew, would it not be lost to us? It could leave the waters of Lake Erie, and cross any of the neighboring states by land; or it could retrace its road by the Detroit River which would lead it to Lake Huron and the Great Lakes above. Would such an opportunity as this, in the narrow waters of Black Rock Creek, ever occur again!
"At least," said I to Wells, "we are four. They do not expect attack; they will be surprised. The result is in the hands of Providence."
I was about to call our two men, when Wells again seized my arm. "Listen!" said he.
One of the men hailed the boat, and it drew close up to the rocks. We heard the Captain say to the two men ashore, "Everything is all right, up there?"
"There are still two bundles of wood left there?"
"Then one more trip will bring them all on board the 'Terror.'"
The "Terror!" It was she!
"Yes; just one more trip," answered one of the men.
"Good; then we will start off again at daybreak."
Were there then but three of them on board? The Captain, this Master of the World, and these two men?
Evidently they planned to take aboard the last of their wood. Then they would withdraw within their machine, and go to sleep. Would not that be the time to surprise them, before they could defend themselves?
Rather than to attempt to reach and capture the ship in face of this resolute Captain who was guarding it, Wells and I agreed that it was better to let his men return unassailed, and wait till they were all asleep.
It was now half an hour after ten. Steps were once more heard upon the shore. The man with a lantern and his companion, again remounted the ravine toward the woods. When they were safely beyond hearing, Wells went to warn our men, while I stole forward again to the very edge of the water.
The "Terror" lay at the end of a short cable. As well as I could judge, she was long and slim, shaped like a spindle, without chimney, without masts, without rigging, such a shape as had been described when she was seen on the coast of New England.
I returned to my place, with my men in the shelter of the ravine; and we looked to our revolvers, which might well prove of service.
Five minutes had passed since the men reached the woods, and we expected their return at any moment. After that, we must wait at least an hour before we made our attack; so that both the Captain and his comrades might be deep in sleep. It was important that they should have not a moment either to send their craft darting out upon the waters of Lake Erie, or to plunge it beneath the waves where we would have been entrapped with it.
In all my career I have never felt such impatience. It seemed to me that the two men must have been detained in the woods. Something had barred their return.
Suddenly a loud noise was heard, the tumult of run-away horses, galloping furiously along the shore!
They were our own, which, frightened, and perhaps neglected by the driver, had broken away from the clearing, and now came rushing along the bank.
At the same moment, the two men reappeared, and this time they were running with all speed. Doubtless they had discovered our encampment, and had at once suspected that there were police hidden in the woods. They realized that they were watched, they were followed, they would be seized. So they dashed recklessly down the ravine, and after loosening the cable, they would doubtless endeavor to leap aboard. The "Terror" would disappear with the speed of a meteor, and our attempt would be wholly defeated!
"Forward," I cried. And we scrambled down the sides of the ravine to cut off the retreat of the two men.
They saw us and, on the instant, throwing down their bundles, fired at us with revolvers, hitting John Hart in the leg.
We fired in our turn, but less successfully. The men neither fell nor faltered in their course. Reaching the edge of the creek, without stopping to unloose the cable, they plunged overboard, and in a moment were clinging to the deck of the "Terror."
Their captain, springing forward, revolver in hand, fired. The ball grazed Wells.
Nab Walker and I seizing the cable, pulled the black mass of the boat toward shore. Could they cut the rope in time to escape us ?
Suddenly the grappling-iron was torn violently from the rocks. One of its hooks caught in my belt, while Walker was knocked down by the flying cable. I was entangled by the iron and the rope and dragged forward --
The "Terror," driven by all the power of her engines, made a single bound and darted out across Black Rock Creek.