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Under the Andes(Chapter12)

2006-09-07 21:24

  Chapter XII. At the Door.

  Desiree shrank back against the wall, covering her face with her hands. Harry stood above the prostrate figure of the king, panting and furious.

  As for me, I gave no thought to what had been done——the imminent peril of the situation possessed my mind and stung my brain to action.

  I ran to the figure on the floor and bent over him. There was no movement——his eyes were closed. Calling to Harry to watch the corridor without, I quickly tore my woolen jacket into strips——my fingers seemed to be made of steel——and bound the wrists and ankles of the Inca firmly, trussing him up behind.

  Then with another strip I gagged him, thinking it best to err on the side of prudence. In another moment I had dragged him to the corner of the room behind the granite couch and covered him with its hide-cover.

  Then I turned to Harry:

  "Is the coast clear?"

  "Yes," he answered from the doorway.

  "Then here——quick, man! Get the clubs and the grub. Desiree——come! There's not a second to lose."

  "But, Paul——" she began; then, seeing the utter folly of any other course than instant flight, she sprang to Harry's side to assist him with the bundles of provisions.

  There was more than we could carry. Harry and I each took a bundle under our left arm, carrying the clubs in the other hand. Desiree attempted to take two bundles, but they were too heavy for her, and she was forced to drop one.

  With a last hasty glance at the motionless heap in the corner we started, Harry leading and myself in the rear, with Desiree between us.

  But it was not to be so easy. We were nearly to the door when there came a grating, rumbling sound from above, and a huge block of granite dropped squarely across the doorway with a crash that made the ground tremble beneath our feet.

  Stupefied, we realized in a flash that the cunning of the Incas had proved too much for us. Harry and I ran forward, but only to invite despair; the doorway was completely covered by the massive rock, an impenetrable curtain of stone weighing many tons, and on neither side was there an opening more than an inch wide. We were imprisoned beyond all hope of escape.

  We stood stunned; Desiree even made no sound, but gazed at the blocked doorway in a sort of stupid wonder. It was one of those sudden and overwhelming catastrophes that deprive us for a moment of all power to reason or even to realize.

  Then Harry said quietly:

  "Well, the game's up."

  And Desiree turned to me with the calm observation:

  "They must have been watching us. We were fools not to have known it."

  "Impossible!" Harry asserted; but I agreed with Desiree; and though I could see no opening or crevice of any sort in the walls or ceiling, I was convinced that even then the eyes of the Incas were upon us.

  Our situation was indeed desperate. With our every movement spied upon, surrounded by four solid walls of stone, and beyond them ten thousand savage brutes waiting to tear us to pieces——what wildest fancy could indulge in hope?

  Then, glancing up, my eye was arrested by the heap under the cover in the corner. There, in the person of the Inca king, lay our only advantage. But how could we use it?

  Desiree's voice came in the calm tones of despair:

  "We are lost."

  Harry crossed to her and took her in his arms.

  "I thank Heaven," he said, "that you are with us." Then he turned to me: "I believe it is for the best, Paul. There never was a chance for us; we may as well say it now. And it is better to die here, together, than——the other way."

  I smiled at his philosophy, knowing its source. It came not from his own head, but from Desiree's arms. But it was truth.

  We sat silent. The thing was beyond discussion; too elemental to need speech for its explanation or understanding. I believe it was not despair that kept back our words, but merely the dumb realization that where all hope is gone words are useless——worse, a mockery.

  Finally I crossed the room and removed the cover from the body of the Child of the Sun. He had recovered consciousness; his little wicked eyes gleamed up at me with an expression that would have been terrifying in the intensity of its malignant hatred if he had not been utterly helpless. I turned to Harry:

  "What are we going to do with him?"

  "By Jove, I had forgotten!" exclaimed the lad. "Paul, perhaps if we could communicate with them——" He stopped, glancing at the closed doorway; then added: "But it's impossible."

  "I believe it is possible," I contradicted. "If the Incas were able to lower that stone at any moment you may be sure they are prepared to raise it. How, Heaven only knows; but the fact is certain. Do you think they would have condemned their precious king to starvation?"

  "Then the king can save us!"

  "And how?"

  "Our lives for his. We'll give him nothing to eat, and if, as you say, they have some way of watching us, they'll be forced to negotiate. You can talk with the quipos, and tell them that unless they give us our freedom and let us go in safety they'll have a dead king. From the way they seem to worship him they'd come through in a minute."

  "Oh, they'd promise, all right," I agreed; "but how could we hold them to it?"

  "Well, a promise is a promise. And it's our only chance."

  "No, Harry; to trust them would be folly. The minute we stepped through that doorway they would be on us——the whole beggarly, smelly lot of them."

  "Then there is no chance——none whatever?" put in Desiree.

  "None. We may as well admit the worst. And the worst is best for us now. Really, we are in luck; we die in our own way and at our own time. But there is one difficulty."

  Then, in answer to their glances of inquiry, I added significantly: "We have no weapons. We cannot allow ourselves to starve——the end must come before that, for as soon as they saw us weakening we would be at their mercy."

  There was comprehension and horror in Desiree's eyes, but she looked at me with a brave attempt to smile as she took from her hair something which gleamed and shone in the light from the flaming urns. It was a tiny steel blade with a handle of pearl studded with diamonds.

  I had seen it before many times——a present, Desiree had told me, from the young man I had seen in the royal coach on that day in Madrid when I had first heard the name of Le Mire.

  "Will that do?" she asked calmly, holding it out to me with a firm hand.

  Brave Le Mire! I took the dagger and placed it in my pocket, and, looking at Harry, exchanged with him a nod of understanding. No words were necessary.

  "But I must confess I am a coward," said Desiree. "When the time comes I——I could not bear to see——to wait——"

  I looked at her and said simply: "You shall be first," and she gave me a smile of thanks that spoke of a heart that would not fail when the final moment arrived. And in my admiration of her high courage I forgot the horror of the task that must be mine.

  It was a relief to have admitted the worst and discussed it calmly; there is no torment like suspense, and ours was at an end. A load was lifted from our hearts, and a quiet sympathy created between us, sincere as death itself. And it was in our power to choose for ourselves the final moment——we were yet masters of our fates.

  All action seems useless when hope is dead, but certain things needed to be done, and Harry and I bestirred ourselves. We extinguished the flame in all the urns but one to save the oil, not caring to depart in darkness.

  Our supply of water, we found, was quite sufficient to last for several days, if used sparingly; for we intended to support life so long as we had the fuel. Then responsibility ceases; man has a right to hasten that which fortune has made inevitable.

  The hours passed by.

  We talked very little; at times Desiree and Harry conversed in subdued tones which I did not overhear; I was engaged with my own thoughts. And they were not unpleasant; if, looking death in the face, a man can preserve his philosophy unchanged, he has made the only success in life that is worth while.

  We ate and drank, but gave neither water nor food to our fellow prisoner. Not because I really expected to force negotiations with the Incas——but the thing was possible and was worth a trial. I knew them well enough to appraise correctly the value of any safe-conduct they might give us.

  I was a little surprised to find in Desiree no levity, the vulgar prop for courage based on ignorance. There was a tenderness in her manner, especially toward Harry, that spoke of something deeper and awoke in my own breast a deeper respect for her. The world had not known Desiree Le Mire——it had merely been fascinated and amused by her.

  Many hours had passed in this tomblike apathy. Two or three times I had advised Desiree to lie down to rest and, if possible, to sleep. She had refused, but I became insistent, and Harry added his voice to my own. Then, to please us, she consented; we arranged the cover on the granite couch and made her as comfortable as possible.

  In five minutes she was fast asleep. Harry stood a few feet away from the couch, looking down at her. I spoke to him, in a low tone:

  "And you must rest too, Hal. One of us must remain on watch; I'll take it first and call you when I feel drowsy. It may be a needless precaution, but I don't care to wake up and find myself in the condition of our friend yonder."

  He wanted to take the first watch himself, but I insisted, and he arranged our ponchos on the ground, and soon he too was sleeping easily and profoundly. I looked from him to Desiree with a smile, and reflection that Socrates himself could not have met misfortune with more sublime composure.

  It was possible that the stone curtain across the doorway could be raised noiselessly, and that made it necessary to keep my eyes fastened on it almost continuously. This became irksome; besides, twice I awoke to the fact that my thoughts had carried me so far away from my surroundings that the stone could have been raised to the roof and I would not have noticed it.

  So, using my jacket for a cushion, I seated myself on the ground in the threshold, leaning my back against the stone, and gave myself up to meditation.

  I had sat thus for three hours or more, and was thinking of calling Harry to relieve me, when I felt a movement at my back. I turned quickly and saw that the stone was moving upward.

  Slowly it rose, by little frequent jerks, not more than an eighth of an inch at a time. In fifteen minutes it was only about four inches from the ground. There was no sound save a faint grating noise from above.

  I stood several feet away, holding one of the golden clubs in my hand, thinking it unnecessary to rouse Harry until the space was wide enough to cause apprehension. Or rather, because I had no fear of an assault——I was convinced that our ruse had succeeded, and that they were about to communicate with us by means of the quipos.

  The stone was raised a little over a foot, then became stationary. I waited, expecting to see a bundle of quipos thrust through the opening, but they did not appear.

  Instead, five golden vessels were pushed across the ground until they were inside, clear of the stone; I could see the black, hairy hands and arms, which were immediately withdrawn.

  Then the granite curtain fell with a crash that caused me to start with its suddenness and awakened both Harry and Desiree.

  Two of the vessels contained water, two oil, and the other dried fish. Harry, who had sprung to his feet excitedly, grumbled in disgust.

  "At least, they might have sent us some soup. But what's their idea?"

  "It means that Desiree was right," I observed. "They have some way of watching us. And, seeing that we refused to provide their beloved monarch with provender, they have sent him an allowance from the pantry."

  Harry grinned.

  "Will he get it?"

  "Hardly," said I with emphasis. "We'll make 'em treat with us if it's only to observe their diplomacy. There'll be a message from them within twenty-four hours. You'll see."

  "Anyway, we know now that they can raise that stone whenever they feel like it. But in the name of Archimedes, how?"

  He advanced to the doorway and examined the block of granite curiously, but there was no clue to its weight or thickness from the inside. I explained that there were several ways by which the thing could be raised, but that the most probable one was by means of a rolling pulley, which required merely some rounded stones and a flat surface above, with ropes of hide for stays.

  It had been several hours since we had last eaten, and we decided to at once convey to the spies without our intentions concerning our prisoner. So we regaled ourselves with dried fish and water, taking care not to approach the king, who had rolled over on his side and lay facing us, looking for all the world, in the dim light, like a black dog crouched on the floor.

  Harry relieved me at my post against the door, and I lay down to sleep. Desiree had seated herself beside him, and the low tones of their voices came to me as I lay on the couch (which Desiree had insisted I should occupy) in an indistinct, musical murmur. This for perhaps ten minutes; then I slept.

  That became our routine. During the many weary hours that followed there was never a moment when one of us was not seated with his back against the stone across the doorway; we dared not trust our eyes. Usually Harry and Desiree watched together, and, when I relieved them, slept side by side on the couch.

  Sometimes, when we were all awake, Desiree was left on guard alone; but Harry and I were never both asleep at the same time.

  An estimate of the time we spent thus would be the wildest guess, for time was heavy and passed on leaden feet. But I should say we had been imprisoned for something like four days, possibly five, when the monotony came to an abrupt end.

  I had come off watch, and Harry and Desiree had taken my place. Before I lay down I had taken some water to the prisoner, for we had some time before admitted the necessity of giving him drink. But of food he had had none.

  Harry told me afterward that I had slept for two or three hours, but it seemed to me rather as many minutes, when I was awakened by the sound of his voice calling my name. Glancing at the doorway, I sprang to my feet.

  The stone was slowly rising from the floor; already there was a space of a foot or more. Desiree and Harry stood facing it in silence.

  "You have seen nothing?" I asked, joining them.

  "Nothing," said Harry. "Here, take one of these clubs. Something's up."

  "Of course——the stone," I observed facetiously, yawning. "Probably nothing more important than a bundle of quipos. Lord, I'm sleepy!"

  Still the stone moved upward, very slowly. It reached a height of two feet, yet did not halt.

  "This is no quipos" said Harry, "or if it is, they must be going to send us in a whole library. Six inches would have been enough for that."

  I nodded, keeping my eyes on the ever-widening space at our feet.

  "This means business, Hal. Stand ready with your club. Desiree, go to the further corner, behind that seat."

  She refused; I insisted; she stamped her foot in anger.

  "Do you think I'm a child, to run and hide?" she demanded obstinately.

  I wasted no time in argument.

  "You will go", I said sternly, "or I shall carry you and tie you. This is not play. We must have room and know that you are safe."

  To my surprise, she made no reply, but quietly obeyed. Then, struck by a sudden thought, I crossed to where she stood behind a stone seat in the corner.

  "Here," I said in a low tone, taking the little jeweled dagger from my pocket and holding it out to her, "in case——"

  "I understand," she said simply, and her hand closed over the hilt.

  By that time the stone was half-way to the top of the doorway, leaving a space over three feet high, and was still rising. I stood on one side and Harry on the other, not caring to expose ourselves immediately in front.

  Suddenly he left his post and ran to one of the stone seats and began prying at the blocks of granite. I saw at once his intention and our mistake; we should have long before barricaded the door on the inside. But it was too late now; I knew from experience the difficulty of loosening those firmly wedged blocks, and I called out:

  "No good, Hal. We were fools not to have thought of it before, but there is no time for it now. Come back; I couldn't stop 'em alone."

  Nevertheless, he continued his exertions, and succeeded in getting one of the blocks partially free; but by that time the doorway was almost completely uncovered, and he saw the folly of attempting further.

  He resumed his post on the right of the door——I was on the left.

  The stone appeared to be going faster. It reached the top—— passed it——and quickly swung in toward the wall and disappeared, probably to rest on a ledge above.

  We stood waiting, tense and alert. The open doorway gaped on the black, empty corridor, into which the light from our single urn shone dimly. We could see or hear nothing, no indication that any one was in the passage, but we dared not look out in that darkness. The suspense was trying enough; Harry ripped out an impatient oath and made a movement as though to step in the entrance, but I waved him back.

  Then came the avalanche, with a suddenness and fury that nigh overwhelmed us.

  Crouching, rushing forms filled the doorway from both directions and leaped savagely at us. After so many weary days of dull inaction and helpless, hopeless apathy, a mad joy fired my brain and thrilled my heart as I raised my club on high and struck a blow for freedom and life.

  That blow crushed the skull of one whose fingers were at my throat, and he dropped like a log at my feet; but his place was already filled. Again I swung the club; another swayed, toppling against the doorway and leaning there with the blood streaming from his broken head, quite dead, but held erect by the pressure of his fellows from behind.

  If the doorway had been but a foot wider we would have been overwhelmed almost instantly. As it was, but three or four could get to us at once, and they found the gold which their ancestors had carried from the temples of Huanuco waiting for them. My arm seemed to have the strength of a hundred arms; it swung the heavy club as though it had been a feather, and with deadly accuracy.

  Harry fought like a demon. I think I did all that a man could do, but he did more, and withal more coolly. I brought down my club on heads, shoulders, chests, and rarely failed to get my man.

  But the impact of Harry's blows was like the popping of a Maxim. I saw him reach over and grasp the throat of one who had his teeth set in my shoulder, and, holding him straight before him with his arm extended, break his neck with one blow. Again, his club descended on one black skull with a glancing blow and shot off to the head of another with the force of a sledge-hammer.

  At the time I did not know that I saw these things; it was all one writhing, struggling, bloody horror; but afterward the eyes of memory showed them to me.

  Still they came. My arm rose and fell seemingly without order from the brain; I was not conscious that it moved. It seemed to me that ever since the beginning of time I had stood in that butcher's doorway and brought down that bar of gold on thick, black skulls and distorted, grinning faces. But they would not disappear. One fell; another took his place; and another, and another, and another.

  The bodies of those who fell were dragged away from underneath. I did not see it, but it must have been so, or soon we would have raised our own barricade for defense——a barricade of flesh. And there was none.

  I began to weaken, and Harry saw it, for he gasped out: "Steady——Paul. Take it——easy. They can't——last——forever."

  His blows were redoubled in fury as he moved closer to me, taking more than his share of the attack, so that I almost had time to breathe.

  But we could not have held out much longer. My brain was whirling madly and a weight of a thousand tons seemed dragging me remorselessly, inevitably to the ground. I kept my feet through the force of some crazy instinct, for will and reason were gone.

  And then, for an instant, Harry's eyes met mine, and I read in them what neither of us could say, nor would. With the fury of despair we struck out together in one last effort.

  Whether the Incas saw in that effort a renewed strength that spoke of immortality, or whether it happened just at that moment that the pressure from behind was removed, no longer forcing them to their death, I do not know. It may have been that, like some better men, they had merely had enough.

  From whatever cause, the attack ceased almost with the suddenness with which it had begun; they fell back from the doorway; Harry lunged forward with raised club, and the forms melted away into the darkness of the corridor.

  Harry turned and looked at me as I stood swaying from side to side in the doorway. Neither of us could speak. Together we staggered back across the room, but I had not gone more than half way when my legs bent under me and I sank to the floor. Dimly I saw Harry's face above me, as though through a veil——then another face that came close to my own——and a voice:

  "Paul! My love! They have killed him!"

  Soft white arms were about my neck, and a velvet cheek was pressed against my own.

  "Desiree!" I gasped. "Don't! Harry! No, they have not killed me——"

  Then Harry's voice:

  "That's all right, old fellow. I know——I have known she loves you. This is no time to talk of that. Listen, Paul——what you were going to do for Desiree——if you can——they will be back at any moment——"

  That thought kindled my brain; I raised myself onto my elbow.

  "I haven't the strength," I said, hardly knowing how I spoke. "You must do it, Harry; you must. And quick, lad! The dagger! Desiree——the dagger!"

  What followed came to me as in a dream; my eyes were dim with the exhaustion that had overcome my body. Desiree's face disappeared from before my face——then a silence——then the sound of her voice as though from a distance:

  "Harry——come! I can't find it! I dropped it when I ran across——it must be here——on the floor——"

  And then another sound came that I knew only too well——the sound of rushing, pattering feet.

  I think I tried to rise to my own feet. I heard Harry's voice crying in a frenzy: "Quick——here they come! Desiree, where is it?"

  There was a ringing cry of despair from Desiree, a swinging oath from Harry, and the next instant I found myself pinned to the floor by the weight of a score of bodies.

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