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Under the Andes(Chapter9)

2006-09-07 21:23

  Chapter IX. Before the Court.

  I expected I know not what result from Harry's hysterical rashness: confusion, pandemonium, instant death; but none of these followed.

  I had reached his side and stood by him at the edge of the lake, where he had halted. Desiree Le Mire stopped short in the midst of the mad sweep of the Dance of the Sun.

  For ten silent, tense seconds she looked down at us from the top of the lofty column, bending dangerously near its edge. Her form straightened and was stretched to its fullest height; her white, superb body was distinctly outlined against the black background of the upper cavern. Then she stepped backward slowly, without taking her eyes from us.

  Suddenly as we gazed she appeared to sink within the column itself and in another instant disappeared from view.

  We stood motionless, petrified; how long I know not. Then I turned and faced our own danger. It was time.

  The Incas——for I was satisfied of the identity of the creatures——had left their seats of granite and advanced to the edge of the lake. Not a sound was heard——no command from voice or trumpet or reed; they moved as with one impulse and one brain.

  We were utterly helpless, for they numbered thousands. And weak and starving as we were, a single pair of them would have been more than a match for us.

  I looked at Harry; the reaction from his moment of superficial energy was already upon him. His body swayed slightly from side to side, and he would have fallen if I had not supported him with my arm. There we stood, waiting.

  Then for the first time I saw the ruler of the scene. The Incas had stopped and stood motionless. Suddenly they dropped to their knees and extended their arms——I thought——toward us; but something in their attitude told me the truth. I wheeled sharply and saw the object of their adoration.

  Built into the granite wall of the cavern, some thirty feet from the ground, was a deep alcove. At each side of the entrance was an urn resting on a ledge, similar to those on the columns, only smaller, from which issued a mounting flame.

  On the floor of the alcove was a massive chair, or throne, which seemed to be itself of fire, so brilliant was the glow of the metal of which it was constructed. It could have been nothing but gold. And seated on this throne was an ugly, misshapen dwarf.

  "God save the king!" I cried, with a hysterical laugh; and in the profound silence my voice rang from one side of the cavern to the other in racing echoes.

  Immediately following my cry the figure on the throne arose; and as he did so the creatures round us fell flat on their faces on the ground. For several seconds the king surveyed them thus, without a sound or movement; then suddenly he stretched forth his hand in a gesture of dismissal. They rose as one man and with silent swiftness disappeared, seemingly melting away into the walls of rock. At the time the effect was amazing; later, when I discovered the innumerable lanes and passages which served as exits, it was not so difficult to understand.

  We were apparently left alone, but not for long. From two stone stairways immediately in front of us, which evidently led to the alcove above, came forth a crowd of rushing forms. In an instant they were upon us; but if they expected resistance they were disappointed.

  At the first impact we fell. And in another moment we had been raised in their long, hairy arms and were carried swiftly from the cavern. Scarcely five minutes had elapsed since we had first entered it

  They did not take us far. Down a broad passage directly away from the cavern, then a turn to the right, and again one to the left. There they dropped us, quite as though we were bundles of merchandise, without a word.

  By this time I had fairly recovered my wits——small wonder if that amazing scene had stunned them——and I knew what I wanted. As the brute that had been carrying me turned to go I caught his arm. He hesitated, and I could feel his eyes on me, for we were again in darkness.

  But he could see——I thanked Heaven for it——and I began a most expressive pantomime, stuffing my fingers in my mouth and gnawing at them energetically. This I alternated with the action of one drinking from a basin. I hadn't the slightest idea whether he understood me; he turned and disappeared without a sign——at least, without an audible one.

  But the creature possessed intelligence, for I had barely had time to turn to Harry and ascertain that he was at least alive, when the patter of returning footsteps was heard. They approached; there was the clatter of stone on the ground beside us.

  I stood eagerly; a platter, heaped, and a vessel, full! I think I cried out with joy.

  "Come, Harry lad; eat!"

  He was too weak to move; but when I tore some of the dried fish into fragments and fed it to him he devoured it ravenously. Then he asked for water, and I held the basin to his lips.

  We ate as little as it is possible for men to eat who have fasted for many days, for the stuff had a sharp, concentrated taste that recommended moderation. And, besides, we were not certain of getting more.

  I wrapped the remainder carefully in my poncho, leaving the platter empty, and lay down to rest, using the poncho for a pillow. I had enough, assuredly, to keep me awake, but there are bounds beyond which nature cannot go. I slept close by Harry's side, with my arm across his body, that any movement of his might awaken me.

  When I awoke Harry was still asleep, and I did not disturb him. I myself must have slept many hours, for I felt considerably refreshed and very hungry. And thirsty; assuredly the provender of those hairy brutes would have been most excellent stuff for the free-lunch counter of a saloon.

  I unwrapped the poncho; then, crawling on my hands and knees, searched about the ground. As I had expected, I found another full platter and basin. I had just set the latter down after taking a hearty drink when I heard Harry's voice.

  "Paul."

  "Here, lad."

  "I was afraid you had gone. I've just had the most devilish dream about Desiree. She was doing some crazy dance on top of a mountain or something. and there was fire, and——Paul! Paul, was it a dream?"

  "No, Hal; I saw it myself. But come, we'll talk later. Here's some dried fish for breakfast."

  "Ah! That——that——now I remember! And she fell! I'm going——"

  But I wanted no more fever or delirium, and I interrupted him sternly:

  "Harry! Listen to me! Are you a baby or a man? Talk straight or shut up, and don't whine like a fool. If you have any courage, use it."

  It was stiff medicine, but he needed it, and it worked. There was a silence, then his voice came, steady enough:

  "You know me better than that, Paul. Only——if it were not for Desiree——but I'll swallow it. I think I've been sick, haven't I?"

  Poor lad! I wanted to take his hand in mine and apologize. But that would have been bad for both of us, and I answered simply:

  "Yes, a little fever. But you're all right now. And now you must eat and drink. Not much of a variety, but it's better than nothing."

  I carried the platter and basin over to him, and sat down by his side, and we fell to together.

  But he would talk of Desiree, and I humored him. There was little enough to say, but he pressed my hand hopefully and gratefully when I expressed my belief that her disappearance had been a trick of some sort and no matter for apprehension.

  "We must find her, Paul."

  "Yes."

  "At once."

  But there I objected.

  "On the contrary, we must delay. Right now we are utterly helpless from our long fast. They would handle us like babies if it came to a fight. Try yourself; stand up."

  He rose to his hands and knees, then sank back to the ground.

  "You see. To move now would be folly. And of course they are watching us at this minute——every minute. We must wait."

  His only answer was a groan of despair.

  In some manner the weary hours passed by.

  Harry lay silent, but not asleep; now and then he would ask me some question, but more to hear my voice than to get an answer. We heard or saw nothing of our captors, for all our senses told us we were quite alone, but our previous experience with them had taught us better than to believe it.

  I found myself almost unconsciously reflecting on the character and nature of the tribe of dwarfs.

  Was it possible that they were really the descendants of the Incas driven from Huanuco by Hernando Pizarro and his horsemen nearly four hundred years before? Even then I was satisfied of it, and I was soon to have that opinion confirmed by conclusive evidence.

  Other questions presented themselves. Why did they not speak? What fuel could they have found in the bowels of the Andes for their vats of fire? And how did sufficient air for ten thousand pairs of lungs find its way miles underground? Why, in the centuries that had passed, had none of them found his way to the world outside?

  Some of these questions I answered for myself, others remained unsolved for many months, until I had opportunity to avail myself of knowledge more profound than my own. Easy enough to guess that the hidden deposits of the mountain had yielded oil which needed only a spark from a piece of flint to fire it; and any one who knows anything of the geological formation of the Andes will not wonder at their supply of air.

  Nature is not yet ready for man in those wild regions. Huge upheavals and convulsions are of continual occurrence; underground streams are known which rise in the eastern Cordillera and emerge on the side of the Pacific slope. And air circulates through these passages as well as water.

  Their silence remains inexplicable; but it was probably the result of the nature of their surroundings. I have spoken before of the innumerable echoes and reverberations that followed every sound of the voice above a whisper. At times it was literally deafening; and time may have made it so in reality.

  The natural effect through many generations of this inconvenience or danger would be the stoppage of speech, leading possibly to a complete loss of the faculty. I am satisfied that they were incapable of vocalization, for even the women did not talk! But that is ahead of the story.

  I occupied myself with these reflections, and found amusement in them; but it was impossible to lead Harry into a discussion. His mind was anything but scientific, anyway; and he was completely obsessed by fear for the safety of Desiree. And I wasn't sorry for it; it is better that a man should worry about some one else than about himself.

  Our chance of rescuing her, or even of saving ourselves, appeared to me woefully slim. One fear at least was gone, for the descendants of Incas could scarcely be cannibals; but there are other fates equally final, if less distasteful. The fact that they had not even taken the trouble to bind us was an indication of the strictness of their watch.

  The hours crept by. At regular intervals our food was replenished and we kept the platter empty, storing what we could not eat in our ponchos against a possible need.

  It was always the same——dried fish of the consistency of leather and a most aggressive taste. I tried to convey to one of our captors the idea that a change of diet would be agreeable, but either he did not understand me or didn't want to.

  Gradually our strength returned, and with it hope. Harry began to be impatient, urging action. I was waiting for two things besides the return of strength; first, to lay in a supply of food that would be sufficient for many days in case we escaped, and second, to allow our eyes to accustom themselves better to the darkness.

  Already we were able to see with a fair amount of clearness; we could easily distinguish the forms of those who came to bring us food and water when they were fifteen or twenty feet away. But the cavern in which we were confined must have been a large one, for we were unable to see a wall in any direction, and we did not venture to explore for fear our captors would be moved to bind us.

  But Harry became so insistent that I finally consented to a scouting expedition. Caution seemed useless; if the darkness had eyes that beheld us, doubly so. We strapped our ponchos, heavy with their food, to our backs, and set out at random across the cavern.

  We went slowly, straining our eyes ahead and from side to side. It was folly, of course, in the darkness——like trying to beat a gambler at his own game. But we moved on as noiselessly as possible.

  Suddenly a wall loomed up before us not ten feet away. I gave a tug at Harry's arm, and he nodded. We approached the wall, then turned to the right and proceeded parallel with it, watching for a break that would mean the way to freedom.

  I noticed a dark line that extended along the base of the wall, reaching up its side to a height of about two feet and seemingly melting away into the ground. At first I took it for a separate strata of rock, darker than that above. But there was a strange brokenness about its appearance that made me consider it more carefully.

  It appeared to be composed of curious knots and protuberances. I stopped short, and, advancing a step or two toward the wall, gazed intently. Then I saw that the dark line was not a part of the wall at all; and then——well, then I laughed aloud in spite of myself. The thing was too ludicrous.

  For that "dark line" along the bottom of the wall was a row of squatting Incas! There they sat, silent, motionless; even when my laugh rang out through the cavern they gave not the slightest sign that they either heard or saw. Yet it was certain that they had watched our every move.

  There was nothing for it but retreat. With our knives we might have fought our way through; but we were unarmed, and we had felt one or two proofs of their strength.

  Harry took it with more philosophy than I had expected. As for me, I had not yet finished my laugh. We sought our former resting-place, recognizing it by the platter and basin which we had emptied before our famous and daring attempt to escape.

  Soon Harry began:

  "I'll tell you what they are, Paul; they're frogs. Nothing but frogs. Did you see 'em? The little black devils! And Lord, how they smell!"

  "That," I answered, "is the effect of——"

  "To the deuce with your mineralogy or anthromorphism or whatever you call it. I don't care what makes 'em smell. I only know they do——as Kipling says of the oonts——'most awful vile.' And there the beggars sit, and here we sit!"

  "If we could only see——" I began.

  "And what good would that do us? Could we fight? No. They'd smother us in a minute. Say, wasn't there a king in that cave the other day?"

  "Yes; on a golden throne. An ugly little devil——the ugliest of all."

  "Sure; that why he's got the job. Did he say anything?"

  "Not a word; merely stuck out his arm and out we went."

  "Why the deuce don't they talk?"

  I explained my theory at some length, with many and various scientific digressions. Harry listened politely.

  "I don't know what you mean," said he when I had finished, "but I believe you. Anyway, it's all a stupendous joke. In the first place, we shouldn't be here at all. And, secondly, why should they want us to stay?"

  "How should I know? Ask the king. And don't bother me; I'm going to sleep."

  "You are not. I want to talk. Now, they must want us for something. They can't intend to eat us, because there isn't enough to go around. And there is Desiree. What the deuce was she doing up there without any clothes on? I say, Paul, we've got to find her."

  "With pleasure. But, first, how are we going to get out of this?"

  "I mean, when we get out."

  Thus we rattled on, arriving nowhere. Harry's loquacity I understood; the poor lad meant to show me that he had resolved not to "whine." Yet his cheerfulness was but partly assumed, and it was most welcome. My own temper was getting sadly frayed about the edge.

  We slept through another watch uneventfully, and when we woke found our platter of fish and basin of water beside us. I estimated that some seventy-two hours had then passed since we had been carried from the cavern; Harry said not less than a hundred.

  However that may be, we had almost entirely recovered our strength. Indeed, Harry declared himself perfectly fit; but I still felt some discomfort, caused partly by the knife-wound on my knee, which had not entirely healed, and partly, I think, by the strangeness and monotony of our diet. Harry's palate was less particular.

  On awaking, and after breaking our fast, we were both filled with an odd contentment. I really believe that we had abandoned hope, and that the basis of our listlessness was despair; and surely not without reason. For what chance had we to escape from the Incas, handicapped as we were by the darkness, and our want of weapons, and their overwhelming numbers?

  And beyond that——if by some chance lucky we did escape——what remained? To wander about in the endless caves of darkness and starve to death. At the time I don't think I stated the case, even to myself, with such brutal frankness, but facts make their impression whether you invite them or not. But, as I say, we were filled with an odd contentment. Though despair may have possessed our hearts, it was certainly not allowed to infect our tongues.

  Breakfast was hilarious. Harry sang an old drinking-song to the water-basin with touching sentiment; I gave him hearty applause and joined in the chorus. The cavern rang.

  "The last time I sang that," said Harry as the last echoes died away, "was at the Midlothian. Bunk Stafford was there, and Billy Du Mont, and Fred Marston——I say, do you remember Freddie? And his East Side crocodiles?

  "My, but weren't they daisies? And polo? They could play it in their sleep. And——what's this? Paul! Something's up! Here they come——Mr. and Mrs. Inca and all the children!"

  I sprang hastily to my feet and stood by Harry's side. He was right.

  Through the half darkness they came, hundreds of them, and, as always, in utter silence. Dimly we could see their forms huddled together round us on every side, leaving us in the center of a small circle in their midst.

  "Now, what the deuce do they want?" I muttered. "Can't they let us eat in peace?"

  Harry observed: "Wasn't I right? 'Most awful vile!'"

  I think we both felt that we were joking in the face of death.

  The forms surrounding us stood silent for perhaps ten seconds. Then four of their number stepped forward to us, and one made gestures with a hairy arm, pointing to our rear. We turned and saw a narrow lane lined on either side by our captors. Nothing was distinct; still we could see well enough to guess their meaning.

  "It's up to us to march," said Harry.

  I nodded.

  "And step high, Hal; it may be our last one. If we only had our knives! But there are thousands of 'em."

  "But if it comes to the worst——"

  "Then——I'm with you. Forward!"

  We started, and as we did so one of the four who had approached darted from behind and led the way. Not a hand had touched us, and this appeared to me a good sign, without knowing exactly why.

  "They seem to have forgotten their manners," Harry observed. "The approved method is to knock us down and carry us. I shall speak to the king about it."

  We had just reached the wall of the cavern and entered a passage leading from it, when there came a sound, sonorous and ear-destroying, from the farther end. We had heard it once before; it was the same that had ended our desperate fight some days before. Then it had saved our lives; to what did it summon us now?

  The passage was not a long one. At its end we turned to the right, following our guide. Once I looked back and saw behind us the crowd that had surrounded us in the cave. There was no way but obedience.

  We had advanced perhaps a hundred, possibly two hundred yards along the second passage when our guide suddenly halted. We stood beside him.

  He turned sharply to the left, and, beckoning to us to follow, began to descend a narrow stairway which led directly from the passage. It was steep, and the darkness allowed a glimpse only of black walls and the terrace immediately beneath our feet; so we went slowly. I counted the steps; there were ninety-six.

  At the bottom we turned again to the right. Just as we turned I heard Harry's voice, quite low:

  "There are only a dozen following us, Paul. Now——"

  But I shook my head. It would have been mere folly, for, even if we had succeeded in breaking through, we could never have made our way back up the steps. This I told Harry; he admitted reluctantly that I was right.

  We now found ourselves in a lane so low and narrow that it was necessary for us to stoop and proceed in single file. Our progress was slow; the guide was continually turning to beckon us on with gestures of impatience.

  At length he halted and stood facing us. The guard that followed gathered close in the rear, the guide made a curious upward movement with his arm, and when we stood motionless repeated it several times.

  "I suppose he wants us to fly," said Harry with so genuine a tone of sarcasm that I gave an involuntary smile.

  The guide's meaning was soon evident. It took some seconds for my eye to penetrate the darkness, and then I saw a spiral stair ascending perpendicularly, apparently carved from the solid rock. Harry must have perceived it at the same moment, for he turned to me with a short laugh:

  "Going up? Not for me, thank you. The beggar means for us to go alone."

  For a moment I hesitated, glancing round uncertainly at the dusky forms that were ever pressing closer upon us. We were assuredly between the devil and, the deep sea.

  Then I said, shrugging my shoulders: "It's no good pulling, Harry. Come on; take a chance. You said it——going up!"

  I placed my foot on the first step of the spiral stair.

  Harry followed without comment. Up we went together, but slowly. The stair was fearfully steep and narrow, and more than once I barely escaped a fall.

  Suddenly I became aware that light was descending on us from above. With every step upward it became brighter, until finally it was as though a noonday sun shone in upon us.

  There came an exclamation from Harry, and we ascended faster. I remember that I counted a hundred and sixty steps——and then, as a glimmering of the truth shot through my brain into certainty, I counted no more.

  Harry was crowding me from below, and we took the last few steps almost at a run. Then the end, and we stumbled out into a blaze of light and surveyed the surrounding scene with stupefaction and wonder.

  It was not new to us; we had seen it before, but from a different angle.

  We were on the top of the column in the center of the lake; on the spot where Desiree had whirled in the dance of the sun.

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