Not a moment was to be lost; he must carry this poor little creature out of the pit, and take it home to his mother as quickly as he could. He
eagerly fastened the cord round his waist, stuck on his lamp, clasped the child to his breast with his left arm, and, keeping his right hand free to hold the knife, he gave the signal agreed on, to have the rope pulled up.
It tightened at once; he began the ascent. Harry looked around him with redoubled care, for more than his own life was now in danger.
For a few minutes all went well, no accident seemed to threaten him, when suddenly he heard the sound of a great rush of air from beneath; and, looking down, he could dimly perceive through the gloom a broad mass arising until it passed him, striking him as it went by.
It was an enormous bird--of what sort he could not see; it flew upwards on mighty wings, then paused, hovered, and dashed fiercely down upon Harry, who could only wield his knife in one hand. He defended himself and the child as well as he could, but the ferocious bird seemed to aim all its blows at him alone. Afraid of cutting the cord, he could not strike it as he wished, and the struggle was prolonged, while Harry shouted with all his might in hopes of making his comrades hear.
He soon knew they did, for they pulled the rope up faster; a distance of about eighty feet remained to be got over. The bird ceased its direct attack, but increased the horror and danger of his situation by rushing at the cord, clinging to it just out of his reach, and endeavoring, by pecking furiously, to cut it.
Harry felt overcome with terrible dread. One strand of the rope gave way, and it made them sink a little.
A shriek of despair escaped his lips.
A second strand was divided, and the double burden now hung suspended by only half the cord.
Harry dropped his knife, and by a superhuman effort succeeded, at the moment the rope was giving way, in catching hold of it with his right hand above the cut made by the beak of the bird. But, powerfully as he held it in his iron grasp, he could feel it gradually slipping through his fingers.
He might have caught it, and held on with both hands by sacrificing the life of the child he supported in his left arm. The idea crossed him, but was banished in an instant, although he believed himself quite unable to hold out until
drawn to the surface. For a second he closed his eyes, believing they were about to plunge back into the abyss.
He looked up once more; the huge bird had disappeared; his hand was at the very extremity of the broken rope--when, just as his convulsive grasp was failing, he was seized by the men, and with the child was placed on the level ground.
The fearful strain of anxiety removed, a reaction took place, and Harry fell fainting into the arms of his friends.
CHAPTER XII NELL ADOPTED
A COUPLE of hours later, Harry still unconscious, and the child in a very feeble state, were brought to the cottage by Jack Ryan and his companions. The old overman listened to the account of their adventures, while Madge attended with the utmost care to the wants of her son, and of the poor creature whom he had rescued from the pit.
Harry imagined her a mere child, but she was a maiden of the age of fifteen or sixteen years.
She gazed at them with vague and wondering eyes; and the thin face, drawn by suffering, the pallid complexion, which light could never have tinged, and the fragile, slender figure, gave her an appearance at once singular and attractive. Jack Ryan declared that she seemed to him to be an uncommonly interesting kind of ghost.
It must have been due to the strange and peculiar circumstances under which her life hitherto had been led, that she scarcely seemed to belong to the human race. Her countenance was of a very uncommon cast, and her eyes, hardly able to bear the lamp-light in the cottage, glanced around in a confused and puzzled way, as if all were new to them.
As this singular being reclined on Madge's bed and