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Chapter XXII.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END.


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

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

And on the instant I turned to Harry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I placed Desiree on her feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Where is Harry?" I asked.

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

I smiled.

"It is useless.  I am done for!"

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

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

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

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

"But you have said--"

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

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

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

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

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

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

She jerked her head up sharply.

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

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

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

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

Then she raised her head, saying tremulously:

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

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

"Desiree!  Where are you?"

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

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

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

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

Desiree's hand was still in mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desiree nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To Chapter 23

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