Read CHAPTER VIII. of Among the Brigands , free online book, by James De Mille, on ReadCentral.com.

The worn-out Captive.-Light Slumbers.-Fearful Wakening.-The stealthy Step.-The overmastering.  Horror.-The lone Boy confronted by his Enemy.-The hungry Eyes.-Is it real, or a Nightmare?-The supreme Moment.

The darkness of the night and the impossibility of escape filled Bob with the most gloomy and distressing thoughts, which at first quite Overcame him.  But at length other thoughts came, which were of a less distressing character.  His mind once more reverted to the idea that he was held for ransom, and that for the present, at least, he was in safety; and not only so, but well cared for.  These people certainly had given him of their best.  They had made him share at the common meal, and though this bed of straw was not very elegant, it was at least comfortable, and was no worse than they themselves used to sleep upon.

He flung himself down upon the straw, and found that it was a soft and a refreshing couch.  Far better was this fresh straw than any formal bed could have been, for in such a house as that, a mattress or a bed would certainly have been hideous thing, as dirty, as greasy, and as squalid as the people of the house.  On the whole, Bob was pleased with his bed of straw, and with its clean, fresh smell.

Escape being thus cut off for the present, Bob’s frame of mind grew more placid.  As long as he entertained the idea of immediate flight, his mind was constantly on the strain; but now, when that idea had been dismissed, he grew calmer, and thought over his circumstances with more deliberation.  He remembered that one of the brigands had already gone away, and, as he supposed, to Salerno.  If so, he would, no doubt, either see his friends, or at least hear from them, some time on the following day.

The more he considered his situation, the more free from all immediate danger did it seem, and the more did his hopes increase.  He looked forward with eager hope, to the following day.  That would, without doubt, bring him news of his friends, or, perhaps, restore him to liberty.  Under the pleasant influence of thoughts like these, his mind grew more calm and cheerful every moment, and passed into a state of tranquil contentment Besides, he was tired, and his weariness brought on drowsiness.  As long as his excitement lasted, he could not feel the drowsiness; but now, as calmness returned, the weariness and sleepiness became stronger, and by degrees overpowered him.

Gradually the thoughts of his mind became intermingled with the fancies of dreams, and blended the realities around him with things at a distance.  All was still, outside and inside.  No sound whatever arose from below.  The family seemed all asleep.  At last Bob dozed off also, and passed into the land of dreams.

His sleep was not heavy.  Many things conspired to keep his senses somewhat on the alert even in that slumber of his, and he was in that condition which is called sleeping with one eye open.  The fact is, the extraordinary excitement of his donkey ride, and especially of his last adventure in thus falling into captivity, had so roused his faculties, so affected his nerves, and so sharpened his senses, that even in his sleep there still predominated the thoughts and the purposes of his waking hours.

In this state he remained for some time, sleeping, yet vigilant, the body gaining rest and refreshment, but the wary soul on the alert, as though to guard against danger.

How long this sleep continued, whether minutes or hours, Bob could never afterwards remember; but with a sudden shock through all his nerves, he opened his eyes.  He was lying, as he had flung himself on the straw, on his back, with his head elevated against a bundle of straw, in such a way that he could see the length of the room.

It was a noise that he heard.  He listened breathlessly, and looked with all his eyes.

Around him all was dark.  It might be near morning, or it might be early night; he could not tell.  All was still, outside and inside-the blackness of darkness and the stillness of death.

Yet now, in the midst of that black darkness and that deathly stillness, he became aware, of a sight and a sound.

It was a low, creaking sound, which was repeated at short intervals, accompanied by a sliding, shuffling noise.  It sounded in the direction of the opening by which the ladder led up from below.  Looking there, he saw a ray of light, faint and flickering, yet visible enough in that deep darkness; and as the grating, shuffling sounds succeeded one another at regular intervals, even so did the faint, flickering ray of light grow brighter and brighter.

As Bob looked at this and took it all in, one thought came to him in an instant,-

Somebody was coming up the ladder!

The thought went through him with a pang.

Somebody is coming up the ladder!

Who?

What for?

That mysterious somebody was coming slowly and stealthily.  It was the tread of one who wished to come unobserved.

On waking out of sleep suddenly, the mind is often confused; but when, after such a sudden awakening, it is confronted by some horrible presence, the shock is sometimes too great to be endured.  So was it with Bob at this time.  His awaking had been sudden; and the horror that he found in the object that now presented itself was, that the shuffling sound that arose from the ladder was the step of Doom,-and the mysterious visitant was stealing towards him to make him its prey.  There arose within him an awful anticipation.  His eyes fixed themselves upon the place where the light was shining; all his soul awaited, in dreadful expectation, the appearance of the mysterious visitor, and as the stealthy step drew nearer and nearer, the excitement grew stronger, and more painful, and more racking.

At length the figure began to emerge above the opening.

Bob’s eyes were fixed upon the place.

He saw first the light.  It emerged above the opening-an old oil-lamp held in a bony, grisly, skinny hand.  Then followed an arm.

Bob’s excitement was now terrible.  His heart beat with wild throbs.  His whole frame seemed to vibrate under that pulsation which was almost like a convulsion.

The arm rose higher!  Higher still!

It was coming!

There arose a matted shock of greasy, gray hair.  The light shone down upon it as it was upheld in the bony hand.  The hair came tip, and then, gradually, a face.

That face was pale as ashes; it was lean and shrivelled; the cheeks were sunken; the cheek bones projected; and a million wrinkles were carved upon the deep-seamed brow and corrugated cheeks.  Over that hideous face the gray hair wandered.  Bob’s blood seemed to freeze within his veins.  The old fable tells of the Gorgon, whose face inspired such horror that the beholder stiffened into stone.  So here.  Bob beheld a Gorgon face.  He felt petrified with utter horror!

As the face came up it was turned towards him.  It emerged higher and higher, and at length stopped about a foot above the opening.  Here it fixed its gaze upon Bob, bending itself forward, and holding forth the light as far as possible, so that it might light up the room, and peering through the gloom so as to see where Bob was.

There seemed something indescribably evil, malignant, and cruel, in those bleary eyes which thus sought Bob out, fastened themselves upon him, and seemed to devour him with their gaze.  There was a hideous eagerness in her look.  There was a horrible fascination about it,-such as the serpent exerts over the bird.  And as the bird, while under the spell of the serpent’s eye, seems to lose all power of flight, and falls a victim to the destroyer, so here, at this time, Bob felt paralyzed at that basilisk glance, and lost all power of motion.  He could not speak.  He tried to scream.  No cry came.  He was dumb with horror.  He was like one in a nightmare; but this was a waking night-mare, and not the fanciful terrors of dreamland.

But the horror was too great to be endured.  He closed his eyes tight, and thus shut out the sight.

But though he shut out the sight, he could not shut oat sound; and soon he became aware of something which brought a fresh terror over his soul.

It was a stealthy step.

It was advancing towards, him.

Slow, cautious, cunning, yet steady, and nearer and still nearer, came the awful step!  Bob opened his eyes, to assure himself once more of the worst.  He opened them by a resistless impulse.

The figure was now half way between the opening and the bed.  The old hag stood now fully revealed.  Her bleary eyes were fixed on Bob.  One hand upheld the flickering lamp, and in the other was a sharp weapon.

Bob closed his eyes in an anguish of horror.  He was dumb.  He could utter no cry.  He could not move.  The blow was coming.  The destroyer was here, yet he could not make one motion to ward off that blow.  His brain whirled, his heart seemed to stop beating.

There was a terrible moment of dumb, motionless, breathless expectancy.

The old woman knelt by his side.

She put the lamp on the floor.

Then she reached out one of her long, lean, bony, skinny, shrivelled hands, and took Bob by the hair of his head, while with the other she raised her sharp weapon.