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Under the Andes(Chapter11)

2006-09-07 21:24

  Chapter XI. A Royal Visitor.

  If it had not been for the manifest danger, I could have laughed aloud at what I read in the eyes of the king. Was it not supremely ridiculous for Desiree Le Mire, who had been sought after by the great and the wealthy and the powerful of all Europe, to be regarded with desire by that ugly dwarf? And it was there, unmistakably.

  I sang out a sharp warning, but it was unnecessary; Desiree had already caught sight of the royal visitor. She pushed Harry from her bodily. He sprang to his feet in angry surprise; then, enlightened by the confusion in her face, turned quickly and swore as he, too, saw the intruder.

  How critical the situation was I did not know, despite Desiree's assertions. His eyes were human and easily read; they held jealousy; and when power is jealous there is danger.

  But Desiree proved herself equal to the occasion. She remained seated on the granite couch for a long minute without moving; confusion left her eyes as she gazed at us apparently with the utmost composure; but I who knew her could see that her brain was working with the rapidity of lightning. Then her glance passed to the figure at the doorway, and with a gesture commanding and truly royal in its simplicity, she held her hand forth, palm down, to the Inca king.

  Like an obedient trained monkey he trotted across the intervening space, grasped her soft white hand in his monstrous paw, and touched his lips to her fingers.

  That was all, but it spoke volumes to one who could divine the springs of action. I remember that at the time there shot through my mind a story I had heard concerning Desiree in Paris. The Duke of Bellarmine, then her protector, had one evening entered her splendid apartment on the Rue Jonteur——furnished, of course, by himself——and had found his divinity entertaining one Jules Chavot, a young and beautiful poet. Whereupon he had launched forth into the most bitter reproaches and scornful denunciations.

  "Monsieur," Desiree had said, with the look of a queen outraged, when he had finished, "you are annoying. Little Chavot amuses me. You are aware that I never refuse myself anything which I consider necessary to my amusement, and just now I find you very dull."

  And the noble duke, conquered by that glance of fire and those terrible words, had retired with humble apologies, after receiving a gracious permission to call on the following day!

  In short, Desiree was irresistible; the subjection of the Inca king was but another of her triumphs, and not the most remarkable.

  And then I looked at Harry, and was aware of a new danger. He was glaring at the Inca with eyes which told their own story of the fire within, and which were waiting only for suspicion to become certainty. I called to him:

  "Harry! Hold fast!"

  He glanced at me, gave a short laugh, and nodded.

  Then came Desiree's voice, in a low tone of warning:

  "On your knees!"

  Her meaning was clear; it was to us she spoke. The king had turned from her and was regarding us steadily with eyes so nearly closed that their meaning was impenetrable. Harry and I glanced at each other and remained standing. Then Desiree's voice again:

  "Harry! If you love me!"

  It was the appeal to a child; but love is young. Immediately Harry dropped to his knees, facing the king; and I followed him, wondering at myself. To this day I do not know what the compelling force was that pulled me down. Was it another instance of the power of Desiree?

  For perhaps a minute we remained motionless on our knees while the king stood gazing at us, it seemed to me with an air of doubt. Then slowly, and with a gait that smacked of majesty despite his ungainly appearance and diminutive stature, he stalked across to the doorway and disappeared in the corridor without.

  Harry and I looked at each other, kneeling like two heathen idols, and burst into unrestrained laughter. But with it was mixed a portion of anger, and I turned to Desiree.

  "In the name of Heaven, was that necessary?"

  "You do it very prettily," said she, with a smile.

  "That is well, but I don't care to repeat it. Harry, for the sake of my dignity, employ a little discretion. And what do you suppose the beggar will do about it?"

  "Nothing," said Desiree, shrugging her shoulders. "Only he must be pacified. I must go. I wonder if you know you are lodged in the royal apartments? His majesty's room——he has but one——is in the corridor to the left of this.

  "Mine is on the right——and he is probably stamping the place to pieces at this moment." She left the granite couch and advanced half way to the door. "Au revoir, messieurs. Till later——I shall come to see you."

  The next moment she was gone.

  Harry and I, left alone, had enough to think and talk about, but there was ten minutes of silence before we spoke. I sat on one of the stone seats, wondering what the result would be——if any——of the king's visit and his discovery.

  Harry paced up and down the length of the apartment with lowered head. Presently he spoke abruptly:

  "Paul, I want to know exactly what you think of our chances for getting out of this."

  "Why——" I hesitated. "Harry, I don't know."

  "But you've thought about it, and you know something about these things. What do you think?"

  "Well, I think they are slim."

  "What are they?"

  "Nothing less than miracles. There are just two. First—— and I've spoken of this before——we might find an underground stream that would carry us to the western slope."

  "That is impossible——at least, for Desiree. And the second?"

  "Nature herself. She plays queer tricks in the Andes. She might turn the mountain upside down, in which case we would find ourselves on top. Seriously, the formation here is such that almost anything is possible. Upheavals of vast masses of rock are of ordinary occurrence. A passage might be opened in that way to one of the lower peaks.

  "We are surrounded by layers of limestone, granite, and quartzite, which are of marked difference both in the quality of hardness and in their ability to withstand the attacks of time. When one finds itself unable to support the other, something happens."

  "But it might not happen for a hundred years."

  "Or never," I agreed.

  Again silence. Harry stood gazing at one of the flaming urns, buried in thought——easy to guess of what nature. I did not think fit to disturb him, till presently he spoke again.

  "What do you suppose that ugly devil will do about——what he saw in here?"

  I smiled. "Nothing."

  "But if he should? We are helpless."

  "Trust Desiree. It's true that she can't even talk to him, but she'll manage him somehow. You saw what happened just now."

  "But the creature is no better than a dumb brute. He is capable of anything. I tell you, we ought to get her away from here."

  "To starve?"

  "And we're none too safe ourselves. As for starving, we could carry enough of their darned fish to last a year. And one thing is sure: we won't get back to New York lying round here waiting for something to turn up——even a mountain."

  "What do you want to do?"

  "Clear out. Get Desiree away from that ugly brute. If we only had our knives!"

  "Where would we go?"

  In that question was the whole matter. To escape with Desiree was possible——but then what? We knew by experience what it meant to wander hopelessly about in the darkness of those desolate caverns, without food, and depending on Providence for water. Neither of us cared to repeat that trial, especially with the added difficulty of a woman to care for. But what to do?

  We decided to wait for the future, and in the mean time lay in a supply of provisions, and, if possible, devise some sort of weapons.

  It is worth remarking here that the Incas, so far as we had seen, used no weapons whatever. This was most probably the result of their total isolation and consequent freedom from foreign hostility.

  In the matter of food we were soon to receive an agreeable surprise. It was about an hour after Desiree had left us that the royal steward——I give him the title on my own responsibility—— arrived, with pots and pans on a huge tray.

  In the first place, the pots and pans were of solid gold. Harry stared in amazement as they were placed in brilliant array on one of the stone tables; and when we essayed to lift the empty tray from another table on which it had been placed we understood why the steward had found it necessary to bring four assistants along as cup-bearers.

  There was a king's ransom on that table, in sober truth, for there could be no doubt but that this was part of the gold which had been carried from Huanuco when it had been demanded by Pizarro as payment for the life of Atahualpa.

  But better even than the service was that which it contained. It may not have been such as would enhance the reputation of a French chef, but to us then it seemed that the culinary art could go no farther.

  There was a large platter; Harry lifted its cover in an ecstasy of hope; but the next instant his face fell ludicrously.

  "Our old friend, Mr. Dried Fish," he announced sadly, and gave it up.

  Then I tried my luck, and with better success.

  First I uncovered a dish of stew, steaming hot! To be sure, it was fish, but it was hot. Then a curious, brittle kind of bread; I call it that, though on trial it appeared to be made from the roe of some kind of fish. Also there was some excellent fish-soup, also hot, and quite delicious.

  Four hundred years of development had taught the royal chefs to prepare fish in so many different ways that we almost failed to recognize them as of the same family.

  "Couldn't be better," said Harry, helping himself liberally to the stew. "We can eat this, and cache the dried stuff. We'll have enough for an army in a week."

  "As for me, I saw before me the raw material for our weapons. When we had emptied the golden platter that held our "bread," I secreted it under the cover of the granite couch. When the serving-men called to remove the dishes they apparently did not notice its absence. So far, success.

  Some hours later Desiree paid us a second call. She appeared to be in the gayest of spirits, and I eyed her curiously from a seat in the corner as she and Harry sat side by side, chatting for all the world as though they had been in her own Paris drawing-room.

  Was it possible that she was really satisfied, as she had said? What imaginable food could these black dwarfs find to appease her tremendous vanity? Or was she merely living the motto of the French philosopher?

  Harry was demanding that he be allowed to visit her apartment; this she refused, saying that if he were found there by the king nothing could avert a catastrophe. Harry's brow grew black; I could see his effort to choke back his anger. Then Desiree led him away from the topic, and soon they were both again laughing merrily.

  Some forty-eight hours passed; in that perpetual blackness there was no such thing as day. We saw no one save Desiree and the serving men. Once a messenger appeared carrying a bundle of quipos; I was able to decipher their meaning sufficiently to understand that we were invited to some religious ceremony in the great cavern. But I thought it injudicious to allow a meeting between Harry and the king, and returned a polite refusal.

  It may be of interest to some to know the method, which was extremely simple, as in ordinary communications the quipos are easy to read. I removed two knots from the white cord——the sign of affirmative——and placed two additional ones on the black cord——the sign of negative. Then on the yellow cord——the sign of the Child of the Sun and submission to him——I tied two more knots to show that our refusal meant no lack of respect to their deity.

  Which, by the way, was not a little curious.

  Here were the descendants of the subjects of Manco-Capac, himself a son of the orb of day, still holding to their worship of the sun, though they had not seen its light for four centuries. Deserted by their god, they did not abandon him; an example from which the followers of another and more "civilized" religion might learn something of the potency of faith.

  But to the story.

  As I say, I was anxious to avoid a meeting between Harry and the king, and subsequent events proved my wisdom. Harry was acting in a manner quite amazing; it was impossible for me to mention the king even in jest without him flying into a violent temper.

  As I look back now I am not surprised; for our harrowing experiences and the hopelessness of our situation and the wilfulness of Desiree were enough, Heaven knows, to jerk his nerves; but at the time I regarded his actions as those of a thoughtless fool, and told him so, thinking to divert his anger to myself. He took no notice of me.

  We were left entirely to ourselves. At regular intervals our food was brought to us, and within a week we had accumulated a large supply of the dried fish against necessity, besides my collection of six golden platters, of which more later.

  Once in about twenty-four hours two Incas, who appeared to be our personal attendants——for we were actually able to recognize them after half a dozen visits——arrived to perform the offices of chambermaid and valet. The floor of the apartment was scrubbed, the urns refilled with oil, and the skin cover of the granite couch was changed. It seemed that another belief——in cleanliness——had refused to be dislodged from the Inca breast.

  When I managed, by dint of violent and expressive gestures, to convey to our valet the idea that we desired a bath, he led us down the corridor some two hundred feet to a stream of cool running water. We took advantage of the opportunity to scrub our clothing, which was sadly in need of the operation.

  I had early made an examination of the urns which furnished our light. They were of gold and perfect in form, which convinced me that they had been brought by the fugitives from Huanuco, as, indeed, the quipos also, and several other articles we found, including our golden table service.

  The urns were filled with an oil which I was unable to recognize. There was no wick, but round the rim or lip of each was set a broad ring carved of stone, which made the opening at the top only about two inches in diameter. Through this the flame arose to a height of about two feet.

  Of smoke there was none, or very little, a circumstance which was inexplicable, as there seemed to be no possibility of the generation of gas within so small space. But the oil itself was strange to me, and its properties may be charged to nature.

  As I say, I had collected six of the golden platters, one at a time. Together they weighed about twenty pounds——for they were small and rather thin——which was near the amount required for my purpose. I explained the thing to Harry, and we set to work.

  We first procured a vessel of granite from the attendant on some pretext or other——this for melting the gold. Then we pried a slab of limestone from a corner of one of the seats; luckily for us it was very soft, having been selected by the Incas for the purpose of inserting in its face the crystal prisms. Then we procured a dozen or more of the prisms themselves, and, using them as chisels, and small blocks of granite as hammers, set to work at the block of limestone.

  It was slow work, but we finally succeeded in hollowing out a groove in its surface about eighteen inches long and two inches deep. That was our mold.

  Then to melt the golden platters. We took four of the urns, placing them in a group on the floor, and just at the tip of the flames placed the granite vessel, supported by four blocks of stone which we pried loose from one of the seats. In the vessel we placed the golden platters.

  But we found, after several hours, that we did not have sufficient heat——or rather that the vessel was too thick to transmit it. And again we set to work with our improvised chisels and hammers, to shave off its sides and bottom. That was more difficult and required many hours for completion.

  Finally, with the profane portion of our vocabularies completely exhausted and rendered meaningless by repetition, and with bruised and bleeding hands, we again arranged our furnace and sat down to wait. We had waited until the dishes from our dinner had been removed, and we were fairly certain to be alone for several hours.

  Finally the gold was melted, stubbornly but surely. We took the thick hide cover from the couch and, one on each side, lifted the vessel of liquid metal and filled our mold. In an hour it was hardened into a bar the shape of a half-cylinder. We removed it and poured in the remainder of the gold.

  It would appear that the gain was hardly worth the pains, and I admit it. But at the least I had kept Harry occupied with something besides his amatory troubles, and at the best we had two heavy, easily handled bars of metal that would prove most effective weapons against foes who had none whatever.

  We had just removed the traces of our work as completely as possible and secreted the clubs of yellow metal in a corner of the apartment when the sound of pattering footsteps came from the corridor.

  Harry gave me a quick glance; I moved between him and the door. But it was Desiree.

  She entered the room hurriedly and crossed to the farther side, then turned to face the door. Her cheeks were glowing brightly, her eyes flashed fire, and her breast heaved with unwonted agitation. Before either she or I had time to speak Harry had sprung to her side and grasped her arm.

  "What has he done now?" he demanded in a tone scarcely audible in its intensity.

  "I——don't——know," said Desiree without removing her eyes from the door. "Let me go, Harry; let me sit down. Paul! Ah! I was afraid."

  "For us?" I asked.

  "Yes——partly. The brute! But then, he is human, and that is his way. And you——I was right——you should have gone to the Cave of the Sun when he required your presence."

  "But it was merely an invitation. Cannot one refuse an invitation?" I protested.

  "But, my dear Paul, the creature is royal——his invitations are commands."

  "Well, we were busy, and we've already seen the Cave of the Sun."

  "Still it was an error, and I think you will pay for it. There have been unusual preparations under way for many hours. The king has been in my apartment, and messengers and guards have been arriving constantly, each with his little bundle of quipos, as you call them."

  "Did you see the quipos?"

  "Yes."

  "Did any of them contain a red cord, suspended alone, with a single knot at either end?"

  "Yes, all of them," said Desiree without an instant's hesitation.

  "That means Harry and me," I observed. "But the message! Can you remember any of them?"

  She tried, but without success. Which will not surprise any one who has ever seen the collection at the museum at Lima.

  Then Harry broke in:

  "Something else has happened, Desiree. No bunch of cords tied in silly knots ever made you look as you did just now. What was it?"

  "Nothing——nothing, Harry."

  "I say yes! And I want to know! And if it's what I think it is we're going to clear out of here now!"

  "As though we could!"

  "We can! We have enough provisions to last for weeks. And see here," he ran to the corner where he had hidden the golden clubs and returned with them in his hands, "with these we could make our way through them all. Tell me!"

  There was a strange smile on Desiree's lips.

  "And so you would fight for me, Harry?" she said half-wistfully, half——I know not what. Then she continued in a tone low but quite distinct: "Well, it is too late. I am the king's."

  She lied——I saw it in her eyes. Perhaps she meant to save Harry from his folly, to quiet him by the knowledge that he need not fight for what was no longer his own; but she was mistaken in her man.

  Harry did not stop to read her eyes——he heard her words. He took two slow steps backward, then stood quite still, while his face grew deadly white and his eyes were fastened on hers with a look that made me turn my own away. His soul looked out from them——how he loved the woman——and I could not bear it!

  Nor, after a moment, could Desiree. She took a step forward, extending her arms to him and cried out:

  "Harry! No! It was a lie, Harry! Don't——don't!"

  And they gazed at each other, and I at Desiree, and thus we were unaware that a fourth person had entered the room, until he had crossed its full length and stood before me. It was the Inca king.

  I took no time for thought, but jumped straight for Harry and threw my arms round him, dragging him back half-way across the room. Taken completely by surprise, he did not struggle. I noticed that he still held in his hands the bars of gold he had shown to Desiree.

  The king regarded us for a second with a scowl, then turned to her.

  She stood erect, with flashing eyes. The king approached; she held out her hand to him with an indescribable gesture of dignity.

  For a moment he looked at her, then his lips curled in an ugly snarl, and, dashing her hand aside, he leaped forward in swift fury and grasped her white throat with his fingers.

  There was a strangled scream from Desiree, a frantic cry from Harry——and the next instant he had torn himself free from my arms, dropping the bars of gold at my feet.

  A single bound and he was across the room; a single blow with his fist and the king of the Incas dropped senseless to the floor.

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