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Under the Andes(Chapter13)

2006-09-07 21:25

  Chapter XIII. Into the Whirlpool.

  I hardly know what happened after that. I was barely conscious that there was movement round me, and that my wrists and ankles were being tightly bound. Harry told me afterward that he made one last desperate stand, and was halted by a cry from Desiree, imploring him to employ the club in the intended office of the dagger.

  He wheeled about and raised it to strike; then his arm dropped, unable to obey for the brutal horror of it. In another instant he and Desiree, too, had been overpowered and carried to the floor by the savage rush.

  This he told me as we lay side by side in a dark cavern, whither we had been carried by the victorious Incas. I had expected instant death; the fact that our lives had been spared could have but one meaning, I thought: to the revenge of death was to be added the vindictiveness of torture.

  We knew nothing of Desiree's fate. Harry had not seen her since he had been crushed to the floor by that last assault. And instead of fearing for her life, we were convinced that a still more horrible doom was to be hers, and hoped only that she would find the means to avoid it by the only possible course.

  I have said that we again found ourselves in darkness, but it was much less profound than it had been before. We could distinctly see the four walls of the cavern in which we lay; it was about twelve feet by twenty, and the ceiling was very low. The ground was damp and cold, and we had neither ponchos nor jackets to protect us.

  A description of our state of mind as we lay exhausted, wounded, and bound so tightly that any movement was impossible, would seem to betray a weakness. Perhaps it was so; but we prayed for the end——Harry with curses and oaths, myself in silence. There is a time when misery becomes so acute that a man wants only deliverance and gives no thought to the means.

  That was reaction, and gradually it lessened. And when, after we had lain unconscious for many hours (we can hardly be said to have slept) they came to bathe our wounds and bruises and bring us food and drink, the water was actually grateful to our hot, suffering flesh, and we ate almost with relish. But before they left they again bound our wrists firmly behind us, and tightened the cords on our ankles.

  If they meditated punishment they certainly seemed to be in no hurry about it. The hours passed endlessly by. We were cared for as tenderly as though we had been wounded comrades instead of vanquished foes, and though we were allowed to remain on the damp, hard rock of the cavern, we gradually recovered from the effects of that gruesome struggle in the doorway, and our suffering bodies began to feel comparative comfort.

  "What the deuce are they waiting for?" Harry growled, after one of their visits with food and water. "Why don't they end it?"

  "Most likely because a well man can appreciate torture better than a sick one," I answered, not having seen fit to speak of it before. "You may be sure we'll get all that's coming to us."

  "But what will they do?"

  "Heaven knows. They are capable of anything. We'll get the worst."

  There was a silence; then Harry said slowly, hesitating:

  "Paul——do you think——Desiree——"

  "I don't think——I dare not think about her," I interrupted. "And it is our fault; we failed her. I should have put her beyond their reach, as I promised. I have reproached myself bitterly, Hal; you need add nothing."

  "Do you think I would? Only——there is something else. About what she said to you. I knew that, you know."

  I was silent; he continued:

  "I knew it long ago. Do you think I am blind? And I want to say this while I have a chance——it was uncommon good of you. To take it the way you did, I mean."

  His simplicity made me uncomfortable, and I made no answer. Indeed, the thing was beyond discussion; it was merely a bare fact which, when once stated, left nothing to be said. So I refused to humor Harry's evident desire to thrash out the topic, and abruptly changed the subject.

  We must have lain bound in that cavern little short of a week. Our wounds and bruises were completely healed, save one gash on Harry's side where he had been hurled against the sharp edge of one of the stone seats as he had been borne to the floor. But it was not painful, and was nearly closed. And we could feel the return of strength even through the stiffness caused by the inactivity of our muscles.

  We had given up wondering at the delay by the time it came to an end. When they finally came and cut our bonds and led us from the cavern we felt nothing keener than a mere curiosity as to what awaited us at the end of our journey. For myself, there was a distinct sensation of thankfulness that uncertainty was to end.

  They took no chances with us, but paid us the compliment of a truly royal escort——at least, in number. There could not have been less than two hundred of them in front, behind, and on either side, as we left the cavern and proceeded along a narrow, winding passage to the left.

  Once, as we started, we stretched our arms high and stood on tiptoe to relieve the stiffness of our joints; and immediately found ourselves clutched on every side by a score of hands.

  "Gad! We seem to have made an impression!" Harry grinned. On the way down the passage we marched with the Prussian goose-step, and felt the blood quickening to life in our legs and arms.

  We had proceeded in this manner for some ten minutes when we rounded a corner which I recognized at once by the peculiar circular formation of the walls. We were on our way to the great cavern——the cavern where we had first seen Desiree, and where later she had won the toss for our lives and then preserved them.

  Another minute and we had reached the steps leading to the tunnel under the lake. Here our guards seemed in doubt as to just what to do; those in front halted and stood hesitant, and it seemed to me that as they gazed below down the stone stair their eyes held a certain shrinking terror. Then one came up from behind and with a commanding gesture ordered them to descend, and they obeyed.

  Harry and I still found ourselves surrounded by a full company; there were fifty or sixty ahead of us and at least twice that number behind. The idea of a successful struggle was so patently impossible that I believe it never entered our minds.

  There was further delay at the bottom of the stairs, for, as I have said before, the tunnel was extremely narrow and it was barely possible to walk two abreast. None of them turned back, but Harry and I could scarcely restrain a laugh at the sight of those immediately in front of us treading on the toes of their fellows to keep out of our way. With all their savage brutality I believe they possessed little real bravery.

  Five minutes more and we had reached the end of the tunnel and found ourselves at the foot of the spiral stairway. The passage was so blocked by those ahead that we were unable to approach it; they flattened their squatty bodies against the wall and we were forced to squeeze our way past them.

  There we stood, barely able to make out their black forms against the blacker wall, when the one who appeared to be the leader approached and motioned to us to ascend. We hesitated, feeling instinctively that this was our last chance to make a stand, weighing our fate.

  That was a dark moment, but though I did not know it, Providence was with us. For, happening to glance downward, beneath the spiral stair——for there was no ground immediately beneath it——I saw a faint glimmer and a movement as though of a dim light in the black, yawning space at my feet. (You must understand that we were now inside the base of the column in the center of the great cavern.)

  Moved either by curiosity or a command of Providence, I stooped and peered intently downward, and saw that the movement was the almost imperceptible reflection of a stray ray of light from above on the surface of water. At the time I merely wondered idly if the water came from the same source as that in the lake outside, not thinking it sufficiently important to mention to Harry.

  Then a question came from him:

  "No good, Paul. They are a hundred to one, and we are empty-handed. Do we go?"

  "There is nothing else to do," I answered, and I placed my foot on the first step of the spiral stair.

  Behind us came the guide, with a dozen others at his heels.

  The ascent seemed even longer and more arduous than before, for then we had been propelled by keen curiosity. Twice I stumbled in the darkness, and would have fallen if it had not been for Harry's supporting hand behind me. But finally we reached the top and stepped out into the glare of the great cavern. I saw the stone slab close to behind us, noiselessly, and wondered if I should ever see it open again.

  We looked about us, and as our eyes sought the alcove in the wall opposite, we gave a simultaneous start of surprise, and from Harry's lips came a cry, half of gladness, half of wonder. For, seated on the golden throne, exactly as before, was Desiree. By her side was seated the Inca king; round them, guards and attendants.

  We gazed at her in astonishment, but she did not look at us; even at that distance we could see that her eyes were lowered to the ground. Harry called her name——there was no answer. Again he called, and I caught him by the arm.

  "Don't, Hal! She can't possibly do us any good, and you may do her harm. If she doesn't answer, it is because she has a reason."

  He was silent, but not convinced, and would probably have argued the matter if our attention had not been arrested by a movement in the alcove.

  The king rose and extended an arm, and the Incas who filled the seats surrounding the cavern fell flat on their faces.

  "We don't seem to have thinned them out any," I observed. "I believe there are actually more than before. Where do they all come from?"

  "The Lord knows!"

  "And, by the way, it is now apparent why they waited so long to attend to us. The king naturally wanted to be present at the entertainment, and he had to take time to recover from his little fasting operation. But now, what in the name of——my word, the thing is to be done in all propriety! Look!"

  The king had dropped his arm, and the Incas were again sitting as Nature had intended they should sit, instead of on their noses. And four attendants had approached the throne, bearing a frame of quipos.

  "So we are to have a fair trial," Harry observed.

  "With the king for judge."

  "And a hundred dead rats as evidence."

  "Right; they can't get even with us, anyway; there are only two of us. And as far as the other is concerned, I have an idea."

  The king had left his throne and approached the outer edge of the alcove, until he stood almost directly under the oval plate of gold representing Pachacamac or the unknown god.

  To this he knelt and made a succession of weird, uncouth gestures that suggested a lunatic or a traveling hypnotist. Evidently the good Pachacamac approved whatever suggestions the royal priest communicated, for he rose to his feet with a solemn grin and strutted majestically to the rear, facing the frame of quipos.

  It was evident that he no longer had faith in Desiree's interpretation of the divine will of the great Pachacamac. It is a royal privilege to be able to judge your own enemies.

  The hand of the Child of the Sun passed slowly up and down the frame of quipos, betraying a commendable reluctance. It touched the yellow cord and passed on; grasped the white and dropped it.

  "The old hypocrite!" exclaimed Harry in disgust. "Does he imagine he is playing with us?"

  Then there was an imperceptible movement, rather felt than seen, throughout the vast assemblage, and Desiree sank back on her throne of gold with a shudder as the king severed with the knife the black cord of death and laid it on the ground at her feet.

  I looked at Harry; his face became slightly pale, but his eyes met mine firmly, speaking of a fortitude unconquerable. Then we again riveted our gaze on the alcove opposite.

  An attendant approached from the rear and stood before the golden throne, while the king motioned to Desiree to take up the black cord. For a moment she did not understand him, then she drew back, shaking her head firmly.

  The king did not wait to argue the matter, but stooped himself and picked up the cord and handed it to the attendant, who received it with a great show of respect and retired to the rear, where a commotion was created by its appearance.

  The judgment was passed, but what was to be the nature of the execution? That uncertainty and the weirdness of the scene gave to the thing an air of unreality that shut out the tragic and admitted only the grotesque.

  I have many times in my life felt nearer to death than when I stood on the top of that lofty column, surrounded by the thousands of squatting dwarfs, whose black bodies reflected dully the mounting light from the flaming urns.

  I cannot say what we expected, for we knew not what to expect. Many conjectures entered my mind, but none of them approached the fact. But, thinking that our guide might now return at any moment to lead us below, and not caring to be surprised by an attack from behind on that narrow precipice, I moved across to the rear, where I could keep my eyes on the alcove opposite, and at the same time watch the stone slab which closed the opening to the spiral stairway. A word to Harry and he joined me.

  "Perhaps we can open it from above," he suggested.

  "Not likely," I answered, "and, anyway, what's the use?"

  He knelt down and tugged at it, but there was no edge on which to obtain a purchase. The thing was immovable.

  Five minutes passed, during which there was no movement, either in the audience on the stone seats or in the alcove. But there was an indefinable air of expectancy on the faces of the king and those surrounding him, and I kept a sharp eye on the stone slab.

  Another five minutes and still nothing happened. Harry called across to Desiree, or rather began to call, for I stopped him with a jerk. It was impossible for her to aid us, and her situation was already sufficiently perilous.

  Then, becoming impatient, I decided to try to move the stone slab myself. Kneeling down, I placed the palms of my hands firmly against its surface and pressed with all my weight.

  And then I knew. Complete comprehension flashed through my brain on the instant. I sprang to my feet, and my thought must have shown on my face, for Harry looked at me in surprise, demanding:

  "What is it? What is it, Paul?"

  And I answered calmly:

  "We're caught, Hal. Like rats in a trap. Oh, the black devils! Listen! We have no time to lose. Bend over and touch the palm of your hand to the ground."

  He did so, plainly puzzled. Then he drew his hand hastily away, exclaiming: "It's hot!"

  "Yes." I spoke quickly. "Our boots kept us from feeling it before, and the stone doesn't throw out enough heat to feel it in the air. They've built a fire under us in the column. The stone is thick and heats slowly."

  "But what——that means——"

  "It means one of two things. In a few minutes this floor will be baking hot. Then we either fry on their stone griddle or drown in the lake. You see the distance below——only a man crazed by suffering or one incredibly brave would take that leap. This is their little entertainment——they expect us to dance for them."

  "But the lake! If we could take it clean——"

  I saw that the lake was our only chance, if there could be said to be any in so desperate a situation. To be sure, there seemed to be no possibility of escaping, even if we took the water without injury. On every side its bank was lined with the watching Incas, and the bank itself was so steep that to ascend it would have required wings.

  The heat began to be felt even through the soles of our heavy boots; involuntarily I lifted one foot, then the other. I saw the Child of the Sun in the alcove lean forward with an appreciative grin. Another minute——

  I jerked my wits together——never did my brain answer with better speed. And then I remembered that flash of water I had seen under the spiral stairway at the base of the column. I had thought at the time that it might be connected with the lake itself. If that were so——

  I turned to Harry and conveyed my idea to him in as few words as possible as we walked up and down, side by side. It was impossible longer to stand still——the stone was so hot that the bare hand could not be held against it for an instant. I saw that he did not comprehend what I said about the water in the column, but he did understand my instructions, and that was all that was necessary.

  We ran to the edge of the column nearest the alcove.

  Removing our woolen knickerbockers——for better ease in the water——we placed them on the hot stone, and on top of them our boots, which we had also removed. Thus our feet were protected as we stood on the extreme edge of the column, taking a deep breath for strength and nerve.

  I saw the thousands of black savages——who had been cheated of their dance——crane their necks forward eagerly.

  I saw the king gesture excitedly to an attendant, who turned and flew from the alcove.

  I saw Desiree spring up from the golden throne and run to the edge of the alcove, crying to us in a tone of despair. But I did not hear her words, for I myself was calling:

  "Take it clean, Hal. Ready——go!"

  The next instant we were flying headlong through the air toward the surface of the lake a hundred feet below.

  Men have told me since that I never made that dive, or that I greatly overestimated the distance, and I admit that as I look back at it now it appears incredible. Well, they are welcome to their opinion, but I would not advise them to try to argue the matter with Harry.

  The impact with the water all but completely stunned me; as I struck the surface it seemed that a thousand cannons had exploded in my ears. Down, down I went——lucky for us that the lake was apparently bottomless!

  I seemed to have gone as far below the water as I had been above it before I was able to twist myself about and meet it with my belly. Then, striking out with every ounce of strength in me, I made for the surface as rapidly as possible. I had started with my lungs full of air, but that headlong plunge had emptied them.

  I made the surface at last and looked round for Harry, calling his name. For perhaps thirty seconds I called in vain, then there came an unanswering shout off to the left. The urns were far above us now, and the light on the surface of the lake was very dim, but soon I made out Harry's head. He was swimming easily toward me, apparently unhurt.

  "All right, Hal?"

  "Right. And you?"

  "Sound as a whistle. Now make for the column."

  At the instant that we turned to swim toward the column I became aware of a strong current in the water carrying us off to the right. It was inexplicable, but there was no time then for speculation, and we struck out with bold, sweeping strokes.

  The Incas had left the stone seats and advanced to the water's edge. I could see their black, sinister faces, thousands of them, peering intently at us through the dim light, but they made no sound.

  Once I cast a glance over my shoulder and saw Desiree standing at the edge of the alcove with her clenched fists pressed to her throat. Beside her stood the Child of the Sun. Harry, too, saw her and sent her a shout of farewell, but there was no answer.

  We were now less than thirty feet from the column. Its jeweled sides sparkled and shone before us; looking up, our eyes were dazzled. Something struck the water near me. I glanced to the right and saw what moved me to hasten my stroke and call to Harry to do likewise.

  The black devils were increasing the fun by hurling stones at us from the bank——apparently with the kind approval of Pachacamac.

  As we neared the column the current which tended to carry us to the right became stronger, but still we seemed not to be approaching the bank. What could it mean? The struggle against it was fast taking our strength.

  Looking up, I saw that we had swung round to the other side of the column——it was between us and the alcove. Then I understood. We were in a whirlpool, ever increasing in force, which was carrying us swiftly in a circle from left to right and approaching the column.

  I called a swift warning to Harry, who was some ten feet to my left, and he answered that he understood. The stones from the bank were falling thick about us now; one struck me on the shoulder, turning me half round.

  The current became swifter——so swift that we were almost helpless against it and were carried around and around the column, which was but a few feet away. And always complete silence.

  Nearer and nearer we were carried, till, thrusting out my arm, the tips of my fingers brushed against the side of the column. The water whirled with the rapidity of a mill-stream; ten more seconds and our brains would have been dashed against the unyielding stone. It was now but half an arm's length away. I kept thrusting out my arm in a wild endeavor to avoid it.

  Suddenly my outstretched hand found a purchase in a break in the wall, but the force of the water tore it loose and swept me away. But when I reached the same spot again I thrust out both hands, and, finding the edge, held on desperately. The next instant Harry's body was swept against mine, doubling the strain on my fingers.

  "The column!" I gasped. "Inside——through the wall——opening——I am holding——"

  He understood, and the next moment he, too, had grasped the edge. Together we pulled ourselves, little by little, toward the opening; for our strength was nearly spent, and the force of the maelstrom was nigh irresistible.

  It was as I had thought. The base of the column consisted merely of two massive pillars, some twelve feet in length and circular in shape. The water rushed in through each of the two openings thus left, and inside of the column was the center of the whirlpool, sucking the water from both sides. The water I had seen; I had not counted on the whirlpool.

  We had pulled ourselves round till our bodies rested against the edge of the opening, clinging to either side. Inside all was blackness, but we could judge of the fury of the maelstrom by the force of the current outside. Stones hurled by the Incas were striking against the sides of the column and in the water near us.

  We were being hunted from life like dogs, and a hot, unreasoning anger surged through my brain——anger at the grinning savages on the bank, at the whirling black water, at Harry, at myself.

  Whichever way we looked was death, and none worth choosing.

  "I can't hold——much longer," Harry gasped. "What's the use—— old man——Paul——come——I'm going——"

  He disappeared into the black, furious whirlpool with that word. The next instant my own fingers were torn from their hold by a sudden jerk of the water, and I followed.

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