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Under the Andes(Chapter23)

2006-09-07 21:36

  Chapter XXIII. We Are Two.

  Whether I would have been able to rouse myself to action before the shock of the assault was actually upon us, I shall never know.

  It was not fear that held me, for I felt none; I think that dimly and half unconsciously I saw in that black line, silently creeping upon us, the final and inexorable approach of the remorseless fate that had pursued us ever since we had dashed after Desiree into the cave of the devil, rendering our every effort futile, our most desperate struggles the laughing-stock of the gods.

  I was not even conscious of danger. I sat as in a stupor.

  But action came, though not from me, so suddenly that I scarcely knew what had happened. There was a cry from Desiree. Harry sprang to his feet. The Incas leaped forward.

  I felt myself jerked violently from the ground, and a spear was thrust into my hand. Harry's form flashed past me, shouting to me to follow. Desiree was at his heels; but I saw her halt and turn to me, and I, too, sprang forward.

  Harry's spear whirled about his head, leaving a gap in the black line that was now upon us. Through it we plunged. The Incas turned and came at us from behind; one whose hands were upon Desiree got my spear in his throat and sank to the ground.

  "Cross to the left!" Harry yelled. He was fighting them off from every direction at once.

  I turned, calling to Desiree to follow, and dashed across the cavern. We saw the wall just ahead, broken and rugged. Again turning I called to Harry, but could not see him for the black forms on every side, and I was starting to his rescue when I saw him plunge toward us, cutting his way through the solid mass of Incas as though they had been stalks of corn. He was not a man, but a demon possessed.

  "Go on," he shouted. "I'll make it!"

  Then I turned and ran with Desiree to the wall. We followed it a short distance before we reached one of the lanes of which Harry had spoken; at its entrance he joined us, still bidding us to leave him to cover our retreat.

  Once within the narrow lane his task was easier. Boulders and projecting rocks obstructed our progress, but they were even greater obstacles to those who pursued us. Still they rushed forward, only to be hurled back by the point of Harry's spear. Once, turning, I saw him pick one of them up bodily and toss him whirling through the air into the very faces of his comrades.

  I had all I could do with Desiree and myself. Many times I scrambled up the steep face of some boulder and, after pulling her up safely after me, let her down again on the other side. Then I returned to see that Harry got over safely, and often he made it barely by inches, while flying spears struck the rock on every side.

  It is a wonder to me now that I was able even to stand, after my experience on the spiral stairway in the column. The soles of my feet and the palms of my hands were baked black as the Incas themselves. Blisters covered my body from head to foot, swelling, indescribably painful.

  Every step I took made me clench my teeth to keep from sinking in a faint to the ground; I expected always that the next would be my last——but somehow I struggled onward. It was the thought of Desiree, I think, that held me up, and Harry.

  Suddenly a shout came from Harry that the Incas had abandoned the pursuit. It struck me almost as a matter of indifference; nor was I affected when almost immediately afterward he called that he had been mistaken and that they had rushed forward with renewed fury and in greater numbers.

  "It is only a matter of time now," I said to Desiree, and she nodded.

  Still we went forward. The land had carried us straight away from the cavern, without a turn. Its walls were the roughest I had seen, and often a boulder which lay across our path presented a serrated face that looked as though it had but just been broken from the wall above. Still the stone was comparatively soft——time had not yet worked its leveling finger on the surfaces that surrounded us.

  We were standing on one of these boulders when Harry came running toward us.

  "They're stopped," he cried gleefully, "at least for a little. A piece of rock as big as a house gently slid from above onto their precious heads. It may have blocked them off completely."

  We hurried forward then; Harry helped Desiree, while I painfully brought up the rear. At every few steps they were forced to halt and wait for me, though I did my utmost to keep us with them. Harry had taken my spear that I might have both hands to help me over the rocks.

  Climbing, sliding, jumping, we left the Incas behind; no sound came from the rear. I began to think that they had really been completely shut off, and several times opened my mouth to call to Harry to ask him if it would not be safe to halt; for every movement I made was torture. But each time I choked back the cry; he thought it was necessary to go on and I followed.

  This lasted I know not how long; I was staggering and reeling forward like a drunken man, so little aware of what I was doing that when Harry and Desiree finally stopped at the beginning of a level, unbroken stretch in the lane, I stumbled directly against them before I knew they had halted.

  "Go on!" I gasped, struggling to my feet in a mania.

  Harry stooped over to assist me and set me with my back resting against the wall. Desiree supported herself near by, scarcely able to stand.

  "We can go no farther," said Harry. "If they come——"

  As he spoke I became aware of a curious movement in the wall opposite——a movement as of the wall itself. At first I thought it a delusion produced by my disordered brain, but when I saw Desiree's astonished gaze following mine, and heard Harry's cry of wonder as he turned and saw it also, I knew the thing was real.

  A great portion of the wall, the entire side of the passage for a length of a hundred feet or more, was sliding slowly downward. Glancing above I saw a space of several feet where the rock had departed from its bed. The only noise audible was a low, grating sound like the slow grinding of a gigantic millstone.

  None of us moved——if there were danger we would seem to have welcomed it. Suddenly the great mass of rock appeared to halt in its downward movement and hang as though suspended; then with a sudden jerk it seemed to free itself, swaying ponderously toward us; and the next moment it had fallen straight down into some abyss below, thundering, tumbling, sliding with terrific velocity.

  There was a deafening roar under our feet, the ground rocked as from an earthquake, and it seemed as though the wall against which we stood was about to fall in upon us. Dust and fragments of rock filled the air on every side, and one huge boulder, detached from the roof above, came tumbling at our feet, missing us by inches.

  We were completely stunned by the cataclysm, but in a moment Harry had recovered and run to the edge of the chasm opposite thus suddenly formed. Desiree and I followed.

  There was nothing to be seen save the blackness of space. Immediately before us was an apparently bottomless abyss, black and terrifying; the side descended straight down from our feet. Looking across we could see dimly a wall some distance away, smooth and with a faint whiteness. On either side of us other walls extended to meet the farther wall, smooth and polished as glass.

  "The Incas didn't do that, I hope," said Harry, turning to me.

  "Hardly," I answered; and in my absorbing interest in the phenomenon before me I half forgot my pain.

  I moved to the edge of one of the walls extending at right angles to the passage, but there was little to be made of it. It was of soft limestone, and most probably the portion that had disappeared was granite, carried away by the force of its own weight.

  "We are like to be buried," I observed, returning to Harry and Desiree. "Though for that matter, even that can hardly frighten us now."

  "For my part," said Harry, with a curious gravity beneath the apparent lightness of his words, "I have always admired the death of Porthos. Let it come, and welcome."

  "Are we to go further?" put in Desiree.

  Just as Harry opened his mouth to reply a more decisive answer came from another source. The rock that had fallen, obstructing the path of the Incas, must have left an opening that Harry had missed; or they had removed it——what matter?

  In some way they had forced a passage, for as Desiree spoke a dozen spears whistled through the air past our heads and we looked up to see a swarm of Incas climbing and tumbling down the face of a boulder over which we had passed to reach our resting-place.

  I have said that we had halted in a level, unbroken stretch that still led some distance ahead of us. At its farther end could be seen a group of rocks and boulders completely choking the lane, Beyond, other rocks arose to a still greater height——the way appeared to be impassable.

  But there was no time for deliberation or the weighing of chances, and we turned and made for the pile of rocks, with the Incas rushing after us.

  There Desiree and I halted in despair, but with a great oath Harry brushed us aside and leaped upon a rock higher than his head with incredible agility. Then, lying flat on his face and extending his arms downward over the edge, he pulled first Desiree, then myself, up after him. The whole performance had occupied a scant two seconds, and, waiting only to pick up the three spears he had thrown up the sloping surface of the rock to another yet higher and steeper.

  "Why don't we hold them here?" I demanded. "They could never come up that rock with us on top."

  Harry looked at me.

  "Spears," he said briefly; and, of course, he was right. They would have picked us off like birds on a limb.

  We scaled the second rock with extreme difficulty, Harry assisting both Desiree and me; and as we stood upright on its top I saw the Incas scrambling over the edge of the one below. Two or three of them had already started to cross; many more were coming up from behind; and one, as he made the top and arose to his feet, braced himself on the sloping rock and raised a spear high above his head.

  At sight of him I started, crying to Harry and Desiree. They turned.

  "The king!" I shouted; and I saw a shudder of terror run over Desiree's face as she, too, recognized the black form below. At the same instant the spear darted forward from the hand of the Child of the Sun, but it landed harmlessly against the rock several feet away.

  The next moment the Inca king had bounded across the rock toward us, followed by a score of others.

  I was minded to try my luck with his own weapon, but we had no spears to waste, and Harry was dragging Desiree forward and shouting to me to follow. I turned and ran after them, and just as we let ourselves down into a narrow crevice below the Incas appeared over the edge of the rock behind.

  Somehow we scrambled forward, with the Incas at our heels. Sharp corners of projecting rocks bruised our faces and bodies; once my leg bent double under me as I fell from a ledge onto a boulder below, and I thought it was broken; but Harry jerked me to my feet and I struggled on.

  Harry seemed possessed of the strength of ten men and the heart of a thousand. He pulled Desiree and me up and over boulders and rocks as though we had been feathers; the Lord knows how he got there himself! Half of the time he carried Desiree; the other half he supported me. His energy and exertions were titanic; even in the desperate excitement of our retreat I found time to marvel at it.

  We did not gain an inch; our pursuers kept close behind us; but we held our own. Now and then a stray spear came hurtling through the air or struck the rock near us, but they were infrequent and we were not hit.

  One, flying past my head, stuck in a crevice of the rock and I grasped the shaft to pull it out, but abandoned my effort when I heard Harry shouting to me from the front to come to his aid.

  He and Desiree were standing on the rim of a ledge that stood high above the ground of the passage. At its foot began a level stretch leading straight ahead as far as we could see.

  "We must lift her down," Harry was saying.

  He let himself over the ledge, hung by his hands, and dropped. "All right!" he called from below; and I lay flat on the rock while Desiree scrambled over the edge, holding to my hands. For a moment I held her suspended in my outstretched arms; then, at a word from Harry, I let her drop. Another moment and I was over myself, knocking Harry to the ground and tumbling on top of him as he stood beneath to break my fall.

  By then the Incas had reached the top of the ledge above us, and we turned and raced down the long stretch ahead. I was in front; Harry came behind with Desiree.

  Suddenly, as I ran, I felt a curious trembling of the ground beneath my feet, similar to the vibrations of a bridge at the passing of a heavy load.

  Then the ground actually swayed beneath me; and, realizing the danger, I sent a desperate shout to Harry over my shoulder and bounded forward. He was at my side on the instant, with Desiree in his arms.

  The ground rocked beneath our feet like a ship in a storm; and, just as I thought we were gone, my foot touched firm rock as I passed a yawning crevice a foot wide under me.

  One more leap to safety, and we turned just in time to see the floor of the passage which we had traversed disappear into some abyss beneath with a shattering roar.

  We stood at the very edge of the chasm thus suddenly formed, gazing at each other in silent wonder and awe.

  "The beggars are stopped now," said Harry finally. "That break in the game is ours."

  Looking back across the chasm, we saw the Incas tumbling by twos and threes over the boulder on the other side. As they saw the yawning abyss that separated them from their prey they stopped short and gazed across in profound astonishment.

  Others came to join them, until there were several hundred of the black, ugly forms huddled together on the opposite rim of the chasm, a hundred feet away.

  I ran over the group with a keen eye, seeking the figure of the Inca king, and soon my search was successful. He stood a step in front of the others, a little to the right. I pointed him out to Harry and Desiree.

  "It's up to him to walk right out again," said Harry.

  Desiree shivered, and proceeded to send her last invitation to the devil.

  Turning suddenly, she grasped Harry's spear and tore it from his hand. Before we realized her purpose, she stepped forward until her foot rested on the very edge of the chasm, and had hurled the spear across straight at the Inca king.

  It missed him, but struck another Inca standing near full in the breast. Quick as lightning the king turned, grasped the shaft of the spear, and pulled it forth, and with his white teeth gleaming in a snarl of furious hate, sent it whistling through the air straight at Desiree.

  Harry and I sprang forward with a shout of warning; Desiree stood motionless as a statue. We grasped her frantically and pulled her back, but too late.

  She came, but only to fall lifeless into our arms with the spear buried deep in her white throat.

  We laid her on the ground and knelt beside her for a moment, then Harry arose to his feet with a face white as death; and I uttered a silent and vengeful prayer as I saw him level a spear at the Inca king across the chasm. But it went wide of its mark, striking the ground at his feet.

  "There was another!" cried Harry, and soon he had found it where it lay on the ground and sent it, too, hurtling across.

  This time he missed by inches. The spear flew just past the shoulder of the king and caught one who stood behind him full in the face. The stricken savage threw his arms spasmodically above his head, reeling forward against the king.

  There was a startled movement along the black line; hands were outstretched in a vain effort at rescue; a savage cry burst from Harry's lips, and the next instant the king had toppled over the edge of the chasm and fallen into the bottomless pit below.

  Harry turned, quivering from head to foot.

  "Little enough," he said between his teeth, and again he knelt beside the body of Desiree and took her in his arms.

  But her fate spoke eloquently of our own danger, and I roused him to action. Together we picked up the form of our dead comrade and carried it to the rear. I hesitated to pull forth the barbed head of the spear, and instead broke off the shaft, leaving the point buried in the soft throat, from which a crimson line extended over the white shoulder.

  A short distance ahead we came to a projecting boulder, and behind that we gently laid her on the hard rock. Neither of us had spoken a word. Harry's lips were locked tightly together; a lump rose in my throat, choking all utterance and filling my eyes with tears.

  Harry knelt beside the white form and, gathering it gently in his arms, held it against his breast. I stood at his side, gazing down at him in mute sympathy and sorrow.

  For a long minute there was silence——a most intense silence throughout the cavern, during which the painful throbbing of my heart was plainly audible; then Harry murmured, in a voice of the utmost tenderness: "Desiree!" And again, "Desiree! Desiree!" until I half expected the very strength and sweetness of his emotion to bring our comrade back to life.

  Suddenly, with a quick, impulsive movement, he raised his head to glance at me.

  "She loved you," he said; and though there was neither jealousy nor anger in his voice, somehow I could not meet his gaze.

  "She loved you," he repeated in a tone half of wonder. "And you——you——"

  I answered his eyes.

  "She was yours," I said, with a touch of bitterness that persuaded him of the truth. "All her beauty, all her loveliness, all her charm, to be buried——Ah! God help us——"

  My voice broke, and I knelt on the ground beside Harry and pressed my lips to the white forehead and golden hair of what had been Le Mire.

  Thus we remained for a long time.

  It was hard to believe that death had in reality taken possession of the still form stretched as in repose before us. Her body, still warm, seemed quivering with the instinct of life; but the eyes were not the eyes of Desiree. I closed them, and arranged the tangled mass of hair as well as possible over her shoulders. As I did so the air, set in motion by my hand, caused some of the golden strands to tremble gently across her lips; and Harry bent forward with a painful eagerness, thinking that she had breathed.

  "Dearest," he murmured, "dearest, speak to me!"

  His hand sought her swelling bosom gropingly; and his eyes, as they looked pleadingly even into mine, shot into my heart and unnerved me.

  I rose to my feet, scarcely able to stand, and moved away.

  But the fate that had finally intervened for us——too late, alas! for one——did not leave us long with our dead. Even now I do not know what happened; at the time I knew even less. Harry told me afterward that the first shock came at the instant he had taken Desiree in his arms and pressed his lips to hers.

  I had crossed to the other side of the passage and was gazing back toward the chasm at the Incas on the other side, when again I felt the ground, absolutely without warning, tremble violently under my feet. At the same moment there was a low, curious rumble as of the thundering of distant cannon.

  I sprang toward Harry with a cry of alarm, and had crossed about to the middle of the passage, when a deafening roar smote my ear, and the entire wall of the cavern appeared to be failing in upon us. At the same time the ground seemed to sink directly away beneath my feet with an easy, rocking motion as of a wave of the ocean. Then I felt myself plunging downward with a velocity that stunned my senses and took away my breath; and then all was confusion and chaos——and oblivion.

  When I awoke I was lying flat on my back, and Harry was kneeling at my side. I opened my eyes, and felt that it would be impossible to make a greater exertion.

  "Paul!" cried Harry. "Speak to me! Not you, too——I shall go mad!"

  He told me afterward that I had lain unconscious for many hours, but that appeared to be all that he knew. How far we had fallen, or how he had found me, or how he himself had escaped being crushed to pieces by the falling rock, he was unable to say; and I concluded that he, too, had been rendered unconscious by the fall, and for some time dazed and bewildered by the shock.

  Well! We were alive——that was all.

  For we were weak and faint from hunger and fatigue, and one mass of bruises and blisters from head to foot. And we had had no water for something like twenty-four hours. Heaven only knows where we found the energy to rise and go in search of it; it is incredible that any creatures in such a pitiable and miserable condition as we were could have been propelled by hope, unless it is indeed immortal.

  Half walking, half crawling, we went forward.

  The place where we had found ourselves was a jumbled mass of boulders and broken rock, but we soon discovered a passage, level and straight as any tunnel built by man.

  Down this we made our way. Every few feet we stopped to rest. Neither of us spoke a word. I really had no sense of any purpose in our progress; I crept on exactly as some animals, wounded to death, move on and on until there is no longer strength for another step, when they lie down for the final breath.

  We saw no water nor promise of any; nothing save the long stretch of dim vista ahead and the grim, black walls on either side. That, I think, for hours; it seemed to me then for years.

  I dragged one leg after the other with infinite effort and pain; Harry was ahead, and sometimes, glancing back over his shoulder to find me at some distance behind, he would turn over and lie on his back till I approached. Then again to his knees and again forward. Neither of us spoke.

  Suddenly, at a great distance down the passage, much further than I had been able to see before, I saw what appeared to be a white wall extending directly across our path.

  I called to Harry and pointed it out to him. He nodded vaguely, as though in wonder that I should have troubled him about so slight an object of interest, and crawled on.

  But the white wall became whiter still, and soon I saw that it was not a wall. A wild hope surged through me; I felt the blood mount dizzily to my head, and I stilled the clamor that beat at my temples by an extreme effort of the will. "It can't be," I said to myself aloud, over and over; "it can't be, it can't be."

  Harry turned, and his face was as white as when he had knelt by the body of Desiree, and his eye was wild.

  "You fool," he roared, "it is!"

  We went faster then. Another hundred yards, and the thing was certain; there it was before us. We scrambled to our feet and tried to run; I reeled and fell, then picked myself up again and followed Harry, who had not even halted as I had fallen. The mouth of the passage was now but a few feet away; I reached Harry's side, blinking and stunned with amazement and the incredible wonder of it.

  I tried to shout, to cry aloud to the heavens, but a great lump in my throat choked me and my head was singing dizzily.

  Harry, at my side, was crying like a child, with great tears streaming down his face, as together we staggered forth from the mouth of the passage into the bright and dazzling sunshine of the Andes.

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