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Under the Andes(Chapter22)

2006-09-07 21:35

  Chapter XXII. The Beginning of the End.

  Neither Harry nor I spoke; our eyes were concentrated on the scene before us, trying to comprehend its meaning.

  It was something indefinable in Desiree's attitude that told me the truth——what, I cannot tell. Her profile was toward us; it could not have been her eyes or any expression of her face; but there was a tenseness about her pose, a stiffening of the muscles of her body, an air of lofty scorn and supreme triumph coming somehow from every line of her motionless figure, that flashed certainty into my brain.

  And on the instant I turned to Harry.

  "Follow me," I whispered; and he must have read the force of my knowledge in my eyes, for he obeyed without a word. Back down the passage we ran, halting at its end. Harry opened his lips to speak, but I took the words from his mouth; seconds were precious.

  "They have fired the column——you remember. Follow me; keep your spear ready; not a sound, if you love her."

  I saw that he understood, and saw too, by the expression that shot into his face, that it would go ill with any Incas who tried to stop us then.

  We rushed forward side by side, guessing at our way, seeking the entrance to the tunnel that led to the foot of the column. A prayer was on my lips that we might not be too late; Harry's lips were compressed together tightly as a vise. Death we did not fear, even for Desiree; but we remembered the horror of our own experience on the top of that column, and shuddered as we ran.

  As I have said, we had entered the great cavern at a point almost directly opposite the alcove, and therefore at a distance from the entrance we sought. It was necessary to half encircle the cavern, and the passages were so often crossed by other passages that many times we had to guess at the proper road.

  But not for an instant did we hesitate; we flew rather than ran. I felt within me the strength and resolve of ten men, and I knew then that there was something I must do and would do before I died, though a thousand devils stood in my way.

  I do not know what led us; whether a remorseful Providence, who suddenly decided that we had been played with long enough, or the mere animal instinct of direction, or blind luck. But so fast did we go that it seemed to me we had left the great cavern scarcely a minute behind us when I suddenly saw the steps of a steep stairway leading down from an opening on our right.

  How my heart leaped then! Harry uttered a hoarse cry of exultation. The next instant we were dashing headlong down the steps, avoiding a fall by I know not what miracle. And there before us was the entrance to the tunnel.

  I held Harry back, almost shouting: "You stay here; guard the entrance. I'll get her."

  "No," he cried, pushing forward. "I can't stay."

  "Fool!" I cried, dashing him back. "We would be caught like rats in a trap. Defend that entrance——with your life!"

  I saw him hesitate, and, knowing that he would obey, I dashed forward into the tunnel. When nearly to its end I made a misstep on the uneven ground and precipitated myself against the wall. A sharp pain shot through my left shoulder, but at the time I was scarcely conscious of it as I picked myself up and leaped forward. The end was in sight.

  Just as I reached the foot of the spiral stairway I saw a black form descending from it. That Inca never knew what hit him. I did not use my spear; time was too precious. He disappeared in the whirlpool beneath the base of the column through which Harry and I had once miraculously escaped.

  But despair filled my heart as, with my feet on the first step of the spiral stairway, I cast a quick glance upward. The upper half of the inside of the column was a raging furnace of fire. How or from what it came I did not stop to inquire; I bounded up the stairway in desperate fury.

  I did not know then that the stone steps were baking and blistering my feet; I did not know, as I came level with the base of the flames, that every hair was being singed from my head and body——I only knew that I must reach the top of the column.

  Then I saw the source of the flames as I reached them. Huge vats of oil——six, a dozen, twenty——I know not how many——were ranged in a circle on a ledge of stone encircling the column, and from their tops the fire leaped upward to a great height. I saw what must be done; how I did it God only knows; I shut my eyes now as I remember it.

  Hooking the rim of the vat nearest me with the point of my spear, I sent it tumbling down the length of the column into the whirlpool, many feet below. Then another, and another, and another, until the ledge was empty.

  Some of the burning oil, flying from the overturned vats, alighted on the stairway, casting weird patches of light up and down the whole length of the column. Some of it landed on my body, my face, my hands. It was a very hell of heat; my lungs, all the inside of me, was on fire.

  My brain sang and whirled. My eyes felt as though they were being burned from their sockets with red-hot irons. I bounded upward.

  A few more steps——I could not see, I could hardly feel——and my head bumped against the stone at the top of the column. I put out my hand, groping around half crazily, and by some wild chance it came in contact with the slide that moved the stone stab. I pushed, hardly knowing what I did, and the stone flew to one side. I stuck my head through the opening and saw Desiree.

  Her back was toward me. As I emerged from the opening the Incas seated round the vast amphitheater and the king, seated on the golden throne in the alcove, rose involuntarily from their seats in astonished wonder.

  Desiree saw the movement and, turning, caught sight of me. A sudden cry of amazement burst from her lips; she made a hasty step forward and fell fainting into my arms.

  I shook her violently, but she remained unconscious, and this added catastrophe all but unnerved me. For a moment I stood on the upper step with the upper half of my body, swaying from side to side, extending beyond the top of the column; then I turned and began to descend with Desiree in my arms.

  Every step of that descent was unspeakable agony. Feeling was hardly in me; my whole body was an engine of pain. Somehow, I staggered and stumbled downward; at every step I expected to fall headlong to the bottom with my burden. Desiree's form remained limp and lifeless in my arms.

  I reached the ledge on which the vats had been placed and passed it; air entered my burning lungs like a breeze from the mountains. Every step now made the next one easier. I began to think that I might, after all, reach the bottom in safety. Another twenty steps and I could see the beginning of the tunnel below.

  Desiree's form stirred slightly in my arms. A glance showed me her eyes looking up into mine as her head lay back on my shoulder.

  "Why?" she moaned. "In the name of Heaven above us, why?" I had no time for answer; my lips were locked tightly together as I sought the step below with a foot that had no feeling even for the stone. We were nearly to the bottom; we reached it.

  I placed Desiree on her feet.

  "Can you stand?" I gasped; and the words were torn from my throat with a great effort.

  "But you!" she cried, and I saw that her eyes were filled with horror. No doubt I was a pitiful thing to look at.

  But there was no time to be lost, and, seeing that her feet supported her, I grasped her arm and started down the tunnel just as Harry's voice, raised in a great shout, came to us from its farther end.

  "No!" cried Desiree, shrinking back in terror. "Paul——" I dragged her forward.

  Then, as Harry's cry was repeated, she seemed to understand and sprang forward beside me.

  Another second wasted and we would have been too late. Just as we reached Harry's side, at the end of the tunnel, the Incas, warned by my appearance at the top of the column, appeared above on the stairway, at the foot of which Harry had made his stand.

  At the sight of Desiree Harry uttered a cry of joy, then gazed in astonishment as I appeared behind her.

  "Run for your lives!" he shouted, pointing down the passage leading to the apartments beyond. As he spoke a shower of spears descended from above, rattling on the steps and on the ground beside us. I stooped to pick up two of them, and as Desiree and I darted forward into the passage, with Harry bringing up the rear, the Incas dashed down the stairway after us.

  We found ourselves at once in the maze of lanes and passages leading to the royal apartments. That, I thought, was as good a goal as any; and, besides, the way led to the cavern where we had once before successfully withstood our enemies. But the way was not so easy to find.

  Turn and twist about as we would, we could not shake off our pursuers. Harry kept urging me forward, but I was using every ounce of strength that was left to me. Desiree, too, was becoming weaker at every step, and I could hear Harry's cry of despair as she perceptibly faltered and slackened her pace.

  I soon realized that we were no longer in the passage or group of passages that led to the royal apartments and the cavern beyond. But there was no time to seek our way; well enough if we went forward. We found ourselves in a narrow lane, strewn with rocks, crooked and winding.

  Desiree stumbled and would have fallen but for my outstretched arm. A spear from behind whistled past my ear as we again bounded forward. Harry was shouting to us that the Incas were upon us.

  I caught Desiree's arm and pulled her on with a last great effort. The lane became narrower still; we brushed the wall on either side, and I pushed Desiree ahead of me and followed behind. Suddenly she stopped short, turning to face me so suddenly that I was thrown against her, nearly knocking her down.

  "Your spear!" she cried desperately. "I can go no farther," and she sank to the ground.

  At the same moment there came a cry from Harry in the rear——a cry that held joy and wonder——and I turned to see him standing some distance away, gazing down the lane through which we had come.

  "They've given up!" he called. "They're gone!"

  And I saw that it was true. No sound came, and no Inca was to be seen.

  Then, seeing Desiree on the ground, Harry ran to us and sprang to her side. "Desiree!" he cried, lifting her in his arms. She opened her eyes and smiled at him, and he kissed her many times——her hair, her lips, her eyes. Then he placed her gently on her feet, and, supporting her with his arm, moved forward slowly. I led the way.

  The lane ahead of us was scarcely more than a crevice between the rocks; I squeezed my way through with difficulty. Then the walls ended abruptly, just when I had begun to think we could go no farther, and we found ourselves at the entrance to a cavern so large that no wall was to be seen on any side save the one behind us.

  On the instant I guessed at the reason why the Incas had ceased their pursuit so abruptly, and I turned to Harry:

  "I'm afraid we've jumped from the frying-pan into the fire. If this cavern holds anything like that other——you remember——"

  "If it does, we shall see," he replied.

  Supporting Desiree on either side, we struck out directly across the cavern, halting every few steps to listen for a sound, either of the Incas, which we feared, or of running water, which we desired. We heard neither. All was blackness and the most complete silence.

  Then I became aware, for the first time, of intolerable pains shooting up through my legs into my body. The danger past, reason returned and feeling. I could not suppress a low cry, wrung inexorably from my chest, and I halted, leaning my whole weight on Desiree's shoulder.

  "What is it?" she cried, and for answer——though I strained every atom of my will and strength to prevent it——I toppled to the ground, dragging her with me.

  What followed came to me as in a dream, though I was not wholly unconscious. I was aware that Harry and Desiree were bending over me; then I felt my head and shoulders being lifted from the ground, and a soft, warm arm supporting me.

  A minute passed, or an hour——I did not know——and I felt hot drops of moisture fall on my cheek. I struggled to open my eyes, and saw Desiree's face quite near my own; my head was resting on her shoulder. She was weeping silently, and great tears rolled down her cheeks unrestrained.

  To have seen the sun or stars shining down upon me would not have astonished me more. I gazed at her a long moment in silence; she saw that I did so, but made no effort to turn her head or avoid my gaze. Finally I found my tongue.

  "Where is Harry?" I asked.

  "He is gone to look for water," she replied; and, curiously enough, her voice was quite steady.

  I smiled.

  "It is useless. I am done for!"

  "That isn't true," she denied, in a voice almost of anger. "You will get well. You are——injured badly——" After a short pause she added, "for me."

  There was a long silence——I thought it hardly worth while to contradict her——and then I said simply, "Why are you crying, Desiree?"

  She looked at me as though she had not heard; then, after another silence, her voice came, so low that it barely reached my ears:

  "For this——and for what might have been, my friend."

  "But you have said——"

  "I know! Would you make me doubt again? Do not! Ah"——she passed her hand gently over my forehead and touched the tips of her fingers to my burning eyes——"you must have cared for me in that other world. I will not doubt it; unless you speak, and you must not. Nothing would have been too high for us. We could have opened any door——even the door to happiness."

  "But you said once——forgive me if I remind you of it now——you said that you are——you called yourself 'La Marana.'"

  She shrank back, exclaiming: "Paul! Indeed, I need to forgive you!"

  "Still, it is true," I persisted, turning to look at her. The movement caused me to halt, closing my eyes, while a great wave of pain swept over me from head to foot. Then I went on: "Could you expect to confine your heart? You say we could have opened any door——well, tell me, what could we have done, you and I?"

  "But that is what I do not think of!" cried Desiree impatiently. "I would perhaps have placed my hand on your heart, as I do now; you would perhaps have fought for me, as you have done. I might even——" She hesitated, while the ghost of a smile that had died before it reached the light appeared on her lips, as her head was lowered close, quite close, to mine.

  A long moment, and then, "Must I ask for it?" I breathed.

  She jerked her head up sharply.

  "You do not want it," she said dryly.

  I raised my hand, groping for her fingers, but could not find them. She saw, and slowly, very slowly, her hand crept to mine and was caught and held there.

  "Desiree——I want it," I said half fiercely, and I forgot my pain and our danger——forgot everything but her white face in dim outline above me, and her eyes, glowing and tender against her wish, and her hand that nestled in my hand. "Be merciful to me——I want it as I have never wanted anything in my life. Desiree, I love you."

  At that I felt her hand move quickly, as for freedom, but I held it fast. And then slowly her head was lowered. I waited breathlessly. I felt her quick breath on my face, and the next moment her lips had found my lips, hot and dry, and remained there.

  Then she raised her head, saying tremulously:

  "That was my soul, and it is the first time it has ever escaped me."

  At the same instant we were startled by the sound of Harry's voice in the darkness:

  "Desiree! Where are you?"

  I waited for her to answer, but she was silent, and I called out to him our direction. A moment later his form appeared at a distance, and soon he had joined us.

  "How about it, old man?" he asked, bending over me.

  Then he told us that he had found no water. He had explored two sides of the cavern, one at a distance of half a mile or more, and was crossing to find the third when he had called to us.

  "But there is little use," he finished gloomily. "The place is silent as the grave. If there were water we would hear it. I can't even find an exit except the crevice that let us in."

  Desiree's hand was still in mine.

  "It may be——perhaps I can go with you," I suggested. But he would not hear of it, and set out again alone in the opposite direction to that which he had taken previously.

  In a few minutes he returned, reporting no better success than before. On that side, he said, the wall of the cavern was quite close. There was no sign anywhere of water; but to the left there were several narrow lanes leading at angles whose sides were nearly parallel to each other, and some distance to the right there was a broad and clear passage sloping downward directly away from the cavern.

  "Is the passage straight?" I asked, struck with a sudden idea. "Could you see far within?"

  "A hundred feet or so," was the answer. "Why? Shall we follow it? Can you walk?"

  "I think so," I answered. "At any rate, I must find some water soon or quit the game. But that isn't why I asked. Perhaps it explains the sudden disappearance of the Incas. They knew they couldn't follow us through that narrow crevice; what if they have made for the passage?"

  Harry grumbled that we had enough trouble without trying to borrow more.

  We decided to wait a little longer before starting out from the cavern; Harry helped me to my feet to give them a trial, and though I was able to stand it was only by a tremendous effort and exertion of the will.

  "Not yet," I murmured between clenched teeth, and again Desiree sat on the hard rock and supported my head and shoulders in her arms, despite my earnest remonstrances. Harry stood before us, leaning on his spear.

  Soon he left us again, departing in the direction of the crevice by which we had entered; I detected his uneasiness in the tone with which he directed us to keep a lookout around in every direction.

  "We could move to the wall," I had suggested; but he shook his head, saying that where we were we at least had room to turn.

  When he had gone Desiree and I sat silent for many minutes. Then I tried to rise, insisting that she must be exhausted with the long strain she had undergone, but she denied it vehemently, and refused to allow me to move.

  "It is little enough," she said; and though I but half understood her, I made no answer.

  I myself was convinced that we were at last near the end. It was certain that the Incas had merely delayed, not abandoned, the pursuit, and our powers and means of resistance had been worn to nothing.

  Our curious apathy and half indifference spoke for itself; it was as though we had at length recognized the hand of fate and seen the futility of further struggle. For, weak and injured as I was, I still had strength in me; it was a listlessness of the brain and hopelessness of the heart that made me content to lie and wait for whatever might come.

  The state of my feelings toward Desiree were even then elusive; they are more so now. I had told her I loved her; well, I had told many women that. But Desiree had moved me; with her it was not the same——that I felt. I had never so admired a woman, and the thrill of that kiss is in me yet; I can recall it and tremble under its power by merely closing my eyes.

  Her warm hand, pressed tightly in my own, seemed to send an electric communication to every nerve in my body and eased my suffering and stilled my pain. That, I know, is not love; and perhaps I was mistaken when I imagined that it was there.

  "Are you asleep?" she asked presently, after I had lain perfectly quiet for many minutes. Her voice was so low that it entered my ear as the faintest breath.

  "Hardly," I answered. "To tell the truth, I expect never to sleep again——I suppose you understand me. I can't say why——I feel it."

  Desiree nodded.

  "Do you remember, Paul, what I said that evening on the mountain?" Then——I suppose my face must have betrayed my thought——she added quickly: "Oh, I didn't mean that——other thing. I said this mountain would be my grave, do you remember? You see, I knew."

  I started to reply, but was interrupted by Harry, calling to ask where we were. I answered, and soon he had joined us and seated himself beside Desiree on the ground.

  "I found nothing," was all he said, wearily, and he lay back and closed his eyes, resting his head on his hands.

  The minutes passed slowly. Desiree and I talked in low tones; Harry moved about uneasily on his hard bed, saying nothing. Finally, despite Desiree's energetic protests, I rose to my knees and insisted that she rest herself. We seemed none of us to be scarcely aware of what we were doing; our movements had a curious purposelessness about them that gave the thing an appearance of unreality——I know not what; it comes to my memory as some indistinct and haunting nightmare.

  Suddenly, as I sat gazing dully into the semidarkness of the cavern, I saw that which drove the apathy from my brain with a sudden shock, at the same time paralyzing my senses. I strained my eyes ahead; there could be no doubt of it; that black, slowly moving line was a band of Incas creeping toward us silently, on their knees, through the darkness. Glancing to either side I saw that the line extended completely around us, to the right and left.

  The sight seemed to paralyze me. I tried to call to Harry——no sound came from my eager lips. I tried to put out my hand to rouse him and to pick up my spear; my arms remained motionless at my side.

  Desiree lay close beside me; I could not even turn my head to see if she, too, saw, but kept my eyes, as though fascinated, on that silent black line approaching through the darkness.

  "Will they leap now——now——now?" I asked myself with every beat of my pulse.

  It could not be much longer——they were now so close that each black, tense form was in clear outline not fifty feet away.

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