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Under the Andes(Chapter10)

2006-09-07 21:24

  Chapter X. The Verdict.

  For many seconds we stood bewildered, too dazed to speak or move. The light dazzled our eyes; we seemed surrounded by an impenetrable wall of flame. There was no sensation of heat, owing, no doubt, to the immense height of the cavern and our comparatively distant removal from the flames, which mounted upward in narrow tongues.

  Then the details began to strike me.

  I have said the scene was the same as that we had previously beheld. Round the walls of the immense circular cavern squatted innumerable rows of the Incas on terraced seats.

  Below, at a dizzy distance, was the smooth surface of the lake, black and gloomy save where the reflections from the blazing urns pierced its depths. And directly facing us, set in the wall of the cavern, was the alcove containing the throne of gold.

  And on the throne was seated——not the diminutive, misshapen king, but Desiree Le Mire!

  She sat motionless, gazing directly at us. Her long gold hair streamed over her shoulders in magnificent waves; a stiffly flowing garment of some unknown texture covered her limbs and the lower part of her body; her shoulders and breasts and arms were bare, and shone with a dazzling whiteness.

  Beside her was a smaller seat, also of gold, and on this crouched the form of an Inca——the king. About them, at a respectful distance, were ranged attendants and guards——a hundred or more, for the alcove was of an impressive size. The light from the four urns shone in upon it with such brightness that I could clearly distinguish the whites of Desiree's eyes.

  All this I saw in a single flash, and I turned to Harry:

  "Not a word, on your life! This is Desiree's game; trust her to play it."

  "But what the deuce is she doing there?"

  I shrugged my shoulders.

  "She seems to have found another king. You know her fondness for royalty."

  "Paul, for Heaven's sake——"

  "All right, Hal. But we're safe enough, I think. Most probably our introduction to court. This is what they call 'the dizzy heights of prominence.' Now keep your eyes open——something is going to happen."

  There was a movement in the alcove. Four of the attendants came forward, carrying a curious framework apparently composed of reeds and leather, light and flexible, from the top bar of which hung suspended several rope-like ribbons, of various lengths and colors and tied in curious knots. They placed it on the ground before the double throne, at the feet of Desiree.

  All doubt was then removed from my mind concerning the identity of our captors and their king. For these bundles of knotted cords of different sizes and colors I recognized at once.

  They were the famous Inca quipos——the material for their remarkable mnemonic system of communication and historical record. At last we were to receive a message from the Child of the Sun.

  But of what nature? Every cord and knot and color had its meaning——but what? I searched every avenue of memory to assist me; for I had latterly confined my studies exclusively to Eastern archeology, and what I had known of the two great autochthonous civilizations of the American Continent was packed in some dim and little used corner of my brain. But success came, with an extreme effort.

  I recollected first the different disposition of the quipos for different purposes——historical, sacred, narrative, et cetera. Then the particulars came to me, and immediately I recognized the formula of the quipos before the throne. They were arranged for adjudication——for the rendering of a verdict.

  Harry and I were prisoners before the bar of the quipos! I turned to him, but there was not time for talk. The king had risen and stretched out his hand.

  Immediately the vast assemblage rose from their stone seats and fell flat on their faces. It was then that I noticed, for the first time, an oval or elliptical plate of shining gold set in the wall of the cavern just above the outer edge of the alcove.

  This, of course, was the representation of Pachacamac, the "unknown god" in the Inca religion. Well, I would as soon worship a plate of gold as that little black dwarf.

  For perhaps a minute the king stood with outstretched arm and the Incas remained motionless on their faces. Then he resumed his seat and they rose. And then the trial began.

  The king turned on his throne and laid his hand on Desiree's arm; we could see her draw away from his touch with an involuntary shudder. But this apparent antipathy bothered his kingship not at all; it was probably a most agreeable sensation to feel her soft, white flesh under his black, hairy hand, and he kept it there, while with the other arm he made a series of sweeping gestures which I understood at once, but which had no meaning for Desiree. By her hand he meant the quipos to speak.

  We had a friend in court, but she was dumb, and I must give her voice. There was no time to be lost; I stepped to the edge of the column and spoke in a voice loud enough to carry across the cavern——which was not difficult in the universal silence.

  "He means that you are to judge us by the quipos. The meaning is this——yellow, slavery, white, mercy; purple, reward; black, death. The lengths of the cords and the number of knots indicate the degree of punishment or reward. Attached to the frame you will find a knife. With that detach the cord of judgment and lay it at the feet of the king."

  Again silence; and not one of the vast throng, nor the king himself, appeared to pay the slightest attention to my voice. The king continued his gestures to Desiree.

  She rose and walked to the frame of quipos and took in her hand the knife which she found there suspended by a cord. There she hesitated, with the knife poised in the air, while her eyes sought mine——and found them.

  I felt a tug at my arm, but I had no time for Harry then. I was looking at Desiree, and what I saw caused a cold shudder to flutter through my body. Not of fear; it was the utter surprise of the thing——its incredible horror. To die by the hands of those hairy brutes was not hard, but Desiree to be the judge!

  For she meant death for us; I read it in her eyes. One of the old stale proverbs of the stale old world was to have another justification. I repeat that I was astounded, taken completely by surprise; and yet I had known something of "the fury of a woman scorned."

  It was as though our eyes shot out to meet each other in an embrace of death. She saw that I understood and she smiled——what a smile! It was triumphant, and yet sad; a vengeance, and a farewell. She put forth her hand.

  It wavered among the quipos as though uncertainly, then closed firmly on the black cord of death.

  A thought flashed through my mind with the speed of lightning. I raised my voice and sang out:

  "Desiree!"

  She hesitated; the hand which held the knife fell to her side and again her eyes sought mine.

  "What of Harry?" I called. "Take two——the white for him, the black for me."

  She shook her head and again raised the knife; and I played my last card.

  "Bah! Who are you? For you are not Le Mire!" I weighted my voice with contempt. "Le Mire is a child of fortune, but not of hell!"

  At last she spoke.

  "I play a fair hand, monsieur!" she cried, and her voice trembled.

  "With marked cards!" I exclaimed scornfully. "The advantage is yours, madame; may you find pleasure in it."

  There was a silence, while our eyes met. I thought I had lost. Le Mire stood motionless. Not a sound came from the audience. I felt Harry pulling at my arm, but shook myself free, without taking my eyes from Le Mire's face.

  Suddenly she spoke:

  "You are right, my friend Paul. I take no advantage. Leave it to Fortune. Have you a coin?"

  I had won my chance. That was all——a chance——but that was better than nothing. I took a silver peseta from my pocket——by luck it had not been lost——and held it in the air above my head.

  "Heads!" cried Desiree.

  I let the coin fall. It rolled half-way across the top of the column and stopped at the very edge. I crossed and stooped over it. It lay heads up!

  Harry was behind me; as I straightened up I saw his white, set face and eyes of horror. He, too, had seen the verdict; but he was moved not by that, but by the thought of Desiree, for Harry was not a man to flinch at sight of death.

  I stood straight, and my voice was calm. It cost me an effort to clear it of bitterness and reproach. I could not avoid the reflection that but for Desiree we would never have seen the cave of the devil and the Children of the Sun; but I said simply and clearly:

  "You win, madame."

  Desiree stared at me in the most profound surprise. I understood her, and I laughed scornfully aloud, and held my head high; and I think a voice never held so complete a disdain as did mine as I called to her:

  "I am one who plays fair, even with death, Le Mire. The coin fell heads——you win your black cord fairly."

  She made no sign that she had heard; she was raising the knife. Suddenly she stopped, again her hand fell, and she said:

  "You say the purple for reward, Paul?"

  I nodded——I could not speak. Her hand touched the white cord and passed on; the yellow, and again passed on. Then there was a flash of the knife——another——and she approached the king and laid at his feet the purple cord.

  Then, without a glance toward us, she resumed her seat on the golden throne.

  A lump rose to my throat and tears to my eyes. Which was very foolish, for the thing had been completely theatrical. It was merely a tribute from one of nature's gamblers to the man who "played fair, even with death"; nevertheless, there was feeling in it, and the eternal mercy of woman.

  For all that was visible to the eye the verdict made not the slightest impression on the rows of silent Incas. Not a movement was seen; they might have been carved from the stone on which they were seated.

  Their black, hairy bodies, squat and thick, threw back the light from the flaming torches as though even those universal rays could not penetrate such grossness.

  Suddenly they rose——the king had moved. He picked the purple cord from the ground, and, after passing his hand over it three times, handed it to an attendant who approached.

  Then he stretched out his hand, and the Incas, who had remained standing, turned about and began to disappear. As before, the cavern was emptied in an incredibly short space of time; in two minutes we were alone with those in the alcove.

  There was a sound behind us. We turned and saw a great slab of stone slowly slide to one side in the floor, leaving an aperture some three feet square. Evidently it had been closed behind us when we had ascended; we had had no time to notice it then. In this hole presently appeared the head and shoulders of our guide, who beckoned to us to follow and then disappeared below.

  I started to obey, but turned to wait for Harry, who was gazing at Desiree. His back was toward me and I could not see his face; his eyes must have held an appeal, for I saw Desiree's lips part in a smile and heard her call:

  "You will see me!"

  Then he joined me, and we began the descent together.

  I found myself wondering how these half-civilized brutes had possibly managed to conceive the idea of the spiral stair. It was known to neither the Aztecs nor the Incas, in America; nor to any of the primitive European or Asiatic civilizations. But they had found a place where nothing else would do——and they made it. Another of the innumerable offspring of Mother Necessity.

  I took time to note its construction. It was rude enough, but a good job for all that. It was not exactly circular; there were many angles, evidently following the softer strata in the rock; they had bowed to their material——the way of the artist.

  Even the height of the steps was irregular; some were scarcely more than three inches, while others were twelve or fourteen. You may know we descended slowly and with care, especially when we had reached the point where no light came from above to aid us. We found our guide waiting for us at the bottom, alone.

  We followed him down the low and narrow passage through which we had previously come. But when we reached the steps which led up to the passage above and to the cave where we had formerly been confined, he ignored them and turned to the right. We hesitated.

  "He's alone," said Harry. "Shall we chuck the beggar?"

  "We shall not, for that very reason," I answered. "It means that we are guests instead of captives, and far be it from us to outrage the laws of hospitality. But seriously, the safest thing we can do is to follow him."

  The passage in which we now found ourselves was evidently no work of nature. Even in the semidarkness the mark of man's hand was apparent. And the ceiling was low; another proof, for dwarfs do not build for the accommodation of giants. But I had some faint idea of the pitiful inadequacy of their tools, and I found myself reflecting on the stupendous courage of the men who had undertaken such a task, even allowing for the fact that four hundred years had been allowed them for its completion.

  Soon we reached a veritable maze of these passages. We must have taken a dozen or more turns, first to the right, then to the left. I had been marking our way on my memory as well as possible, but I soon gave up the attempt as hopeless.

  Several times our guide turned so quickly that we could scarcely follow him. When we signified by gestures our desire to go slower he seemed surprised; of course, he expected us to see in the dark as well as he.

  Then a dim light appeared, growing brighter as we advanced. Soon I saw that it came through an opening in the wall to our left, which we were approaching. Before the opening the guide halted, motioning us to enter.

  We did so, and found ourselves in an apartment no less than royal.

  Several blazing urns attached to the walls furnished the light, wavering but brilliant. There were tables and rude seats, fashioned from the same prismatic stones which covered the column in the lake, and from their surfaces a thousand points of color shone dazzlingly.

  At one side was a long slab of granite covered with the skins of some animal, dry, thick, and soft. The walls themselves were of the hardest granite, studded to a height of four or five feet with tiny, innumerable spots of gold.

  Harry crossed to the middle of the apartment and stood gazing curiously about him. I turned to the door and looked down the outer passage in both directions——our guide had disappeared.

  "We appear to be friends of the family," said Harry with a grin.

  "Thanks to Desiree, yes."

  "Thanks to the devil! What did she mean——what could she mean? Was it one of her jokes? For I can't believe that she would—— would——"

  "Have sent us to death? Well——who knows? Yes, it may have been one of her jokes," I lied.

  For, of course, Harry knew nothing of the cause of Desiree's desire for revenge on me, and it would have served no good purpose to tell him.

  We talked for an hour or more, examining our apartment meanwhile with considerable curiosity.

  The gold excited our wonder; had it come from Huanuco four hundred years ago, or had they found it here in the mountain?

  I examined the little blocks of metal or gems with which the tables and seats were inlaid, but could make nothing of them. They resembled a carbon formation sometimes found in quartzite, but were many times more brilliant than anything I had ever seen, excepting precious stones.

  The hides which covered the granite couch were also unknown to me; they were of an amazing thickness and incredibly soft.

  We were amusing ourselves with an attempt to pry one of the bits of gold from the wall when we heard a sound behind us.

  We turned and saw Desiree.

  She stood in the entrance, smiling at us as though we had been caught in her boudoir examining the articles on her dressing-table. She was clothed as she had been on the throne; a rope girdle held her single garment, and her hair fell across her shoulders, reaching to her knees. Her arms and shoulders appeared marvelously white, but they may have been by way of contrast.

  Harry sprang across to her with a single bound. In another moment his arms were round her; she barely submitted to the embrace, but she gave him her lips, then drew herself away and crossed to me, extending her hands in a sort of wavering doubt.

  But that was no time for hostilities, and I took the hands in my own and bent over them till my lips touched the soft fingers.

  "A visit from the queen!" I said with a smile. "This is an honor, your majesty."

  "A doubtful one," said Desiree. "First of all, my friend, I want to congratulate you on your savoir faire. Par Bleu, that was the part of a man!"

  "But you!" cried Harry. "What the deuce did you mean by pretending to play the black? I tell you, that was a shabby trick. Most unpleasant moment you gave us."

  Desiree sent me a quick glance; she was plainly surprised to find Harry in ignorance of what had passed between us that evening in the camp on the mountain. Wherein she was scarcely to be blamed, for her surprise came from a deep knowledge of the ways of men.

  "I am beginning to know you, Paul," she said, looking into my eyes.

  "Now what's up?" demanded Harry, looking from her to me and back again. "For Heaven's sake, don't talk riddles. What does that mean?"

  But Desiree silenced him with a gesture, placing her fingers playfully on his lips. They were seated side by side on the granite couch; I stood in front of them, and there flitted across my memory a picture of that morning scene in the grounds of the Antlers at Colorado Springs, when Desiree and I had had our first battle.

  We talked; or, rather, Harry and Desiree talked, and I listened. First he insisted on a recital of her experiences since her reckless dash into the "cave of the devil," and she was most obliging, even eager, for she had had no one to talk to for many days, and she was a woman. She found in Harry a perfect audience.

  Her experience had been much the same as our own. She, too, had fallen down the unseen precipice into the torrent beneath.

  She asserted that she had been carried along by its force scarcely more than a quarter of an hour, and had been violently thrown upon a ledge of rock. It was evident that this must have been long before the stream reached the lake where Harry and I had found each other, for we had been in the water hardly short of an hour.

  She had been found on the ledge by our hairy friends, who had carried her on their backs for many hours. I remembered the sensations of Harry and myself, who were men, and together, and gave a shudder of sympathy as Desiree described her own horror and fear, and her one attempt to escape.

  Still the brutes had shown her no great violence, evidently recognizing the preciousness of their burden. They had carried her as gently as possible, but had absolutely refused to allow her to walk. At regular intervals they gave her an opportunity to rest, and food and water.

  "Dried fish?" I asked hopefully.

  Desiree nodded, with a most expressive grimace, and Harry burst into laughter.

  Then of the elevation to her evident authority. Brought before the king, she had inspired the most profound wonder and curiosity. Easy, indeed, to understand how the whiteness of her skin and the beauty of her form and face had awakened the keenest admiration in the breast of that black and hairy monarch. He had shown her the most perfect respect; and she had played up to the role of goddess by displaying to the utmost her indifferent contempt for royalty and its favors.

  Here her remarks grew general and evasive, and when pressed with questions she refused details. She declared that nothing had happened; she had been fed and fawned upon, nor been annoyed by any violence or unwelcome attentions.

  "That is really too bad," said I, with a smile. "I was, then, mistaken when I said 'your majesty'?"

  "Faugh!" said Desiree. "That is hardly witty. For a time I was amused, but I am becoming bored. And yet——"

  "Well?"

  "I——don't——know. They are mine, if you know what I mean. Eh, bien, since you ask me——for I see the question in your eye, friend Paul——I am content. If the world is behind me forever, so be it. Yes, they are unattractive to the eye, but they have power. And they worship me."

  "Desiree!" cried Harry in astonishment; and I was myself a little startled.

  "Why not?" she demanded. "They are men. And besides, it is impossible for us to return. With all your cleverness, M. Paul, can you find the sunlight? To remain is a necessity; we must make the best of it; and I repeat that I am satisfied."

  "That's bally rot," said Harry, turning on her hotly. "Satisfied? You are nothing of the sort. I'll tell you one thing ——Paul and I are going to find our way out of this, and you are coming with us."

  For reply Desiree laughed at him——a laugh that plainly said, "I am my own mind, and obey no other." It is one of the most familiar cards of the woman of beauty, and the most effective. It conquered Harry.

  He gazed at her for a long moment in silence, while his eyes filled with an expression which one man should never show to another man. It is the betrayal of the masculine sex and the triumph of the feminine.

  Suddenly he threw himself on his knees before her and took her hands in his own. She attempted to withdraw them; he clasped her about the waist.

  "Do you not love me, Desiree?" he cried, and his lips sought hers.

  They met; Desiree ceased to struggle.

  At that moment I heard a sound——the faintest sound——behind me.

  I turned.

  The king of the Incas was standing within the doorway, surveying the lovers with beadlike, sparkling eyes.

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