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. 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.
Back to the Under The Andes Index...