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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.

To Chapter11

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