Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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JOHN FOUNTAIN, seated in the bows of the canoe, tapped the bowl of his pipe against the gunwale. The red-hot ashes sizzled in the water.
"A pipe won't draw in a climate like this, he observed. "Wet as a vapour bath!"
"And hot as an oven," threw in the boy seated in the stern.
Fountain was silent a moment, his eyes glancing quickly from one bank of the river to the other, the fingers of his right hand gripping the small-of-the-butt of his rifle.
"I've had twenty years or more," said he, "of this flaming, fever-stricken continent; and I reckon I know Africa better than any man who ever lived—with one possible exception."
"Who's that?" asked the other.
"Henry Tremayne," said Fountain. "Never heard of him, Neil? Because you're young. Tremayne came here in the early days, when no white man had ever crossed the Zambesi, before the Great Lakes had been discovered, and the head waters of the Congo were believed to be the Nile. He was a wonderful man, in his way, was Tremayne. He had a positive genius for learning Kaffir languages; he knew as much about witchcraft as a Niam-Niam witchdoctor, and he understood the art of making friends with such as cannibals and pygmies. He made one expedition after another into the heart of the interior; and time and again he came back to civilization with never a scratch, and maps that he had made and specimens of metals, plants and such like. He was fever-proof, too. Once or twice we travelled together, and I never knew him to be sick for a day."
"Now you speak of him," said Neil Ranson, "I remember my father telling me about him. Tremayne was in Mashonaland when we were up there, buying cattle. But that was about seven years ago, when I was a boy of ten."
"He was a genius," said Fountain, as if to himself. "That's what he was. Tremayne looked like a sort of viking. He was well over six feet four in height, and broad in proportion, with a great sandy beard that covered his chest. And yet, though he was a Hercules to look at, all his interests in life were scientific. He was a naturalist and botanist, a geographer and scholar. Different kind of man to me. I've never been anything but a big game hunter."
"And what happened to him?" asked Neil.
Fountain shrugged his shoulders.
"I was going to tell you that," said he. "You know the saying, a pitcher may be taken to the well too often. Tremayne was last seen on the Kasai. He's believed to have gone alone into the Great Forest, where a man may be starved to death or flayed alive. That was three years ago, if I remember right, and nothing has been heard of him since."
Young though he was, Neil Ranson was already inured to a life of hardship and adventure. As quite a small boy, he had trekked into Mashonaland with his father, a transport rider who had made a small fortune out of cattle-trading, until the fatal rinderpest, or cattle disease, had ruined him—soon after which he had died, broken in spirit, his constitution undermined by malaria.
And John Fountain had found the boy in the wilderness, with no possessions in the world but a trek-wagon and a herd of goats. Fountain was a lonely man, a wanderer by instinct. He had grown grey and withered in the tropics. In some ways he lived the life of a primitive savage, the predatory man who lived by hunting. From the very first he had taken to the boy, though he was the last person in the world to give expression to any sentiment or emotion.
"You had better come along with me," he had said. "I'm kind of solitary; and it's a good thing to have someone to talk to at the end of the day's march when the camp-fire's alight."
And so these two had sojourned together for eighteen adventurous months, whither Fate and the current of the unknown rivers they traversed determined to take them.
The boy sat regarding thoughtfully the dark, impenetrable jungle through which the river flowed. Beneath gigantic trees, around the trunks of which innumerable creepers were interwoven, was an undergrowth so thick and tangled that it was as if they were encompassed by inaccessible and massive walls.
The river itself was broad; the current swift, swirling in eddies around islands in midstream. In the comparative cool of the evening, the canoe drifted rapidly, without the help of a paddle, save that which Neil used for steering.
A thick mist hung upon the surface of the water, and myriads of insects—gnats, mosquitoes and gigantic dragon- flies—droned with a sound like the constant humming of a top.
Whither they were going they knew not. It was enough for Fountain that they journeyed in comparative comfort into territory hitherto unexplored. The hunter's sharp grey eyes shot quickly from one bank to the other. He knew from experience that, at that hour of the day, he might at any moment get a shot at a buffalo or a rhino that had come down to the river to drink. John Fountain loved the wild, because danger and excitement were as necessary to him as food, because the one thing he never wanted to know was what would happen to him next.
The boy—as was natural enough—was of a more romantic turn of mind. The Great Forest, into which at that time few white men had ever ventured, where dangers were said to lurk unseen in almost every thicket, appealed to him with the fascination that must always attend the mysterious.
For weeks they had not seen a human being. They had been alone with Nature. By night, when their camp-fire burned, the silence was like that of the grave. By day, the sun beat down upon them with such fierce intensity that their great pith helmets felt like bands of red-hot iron.
Fountain was burnt as brown as a Hottentot. He was thin, too, as a rake, his skin like parchment, tight-drawn upon his cheek- bones. For the last few weeks he had allowed his short, crisp, grizzly beard to grow; whilst his clothes, like those of the boy, were in rags and tatters.
He looked like a tramp, and would have resembled a corpse had it not been for his extraordinary eyes, which glittered with life and animation. He was as sharp-sighted as a vulture, and a rifle- shot who seldom missed his mark. Quick to act, quicker still to think, he was never at a loss in a crisis.
As the sun went down beyond the tree-tops of the forest, a great black bank of cloud, irregular in outline like a mountain range, stood forth across the horizon to the north.
"Do you see that?" said Fountain, with a jerk of his thumb. "A storm's brewing. And we'll get the worst of it. There'll not be a dry rag on our backs to-night, my son."
"There's lightning, too," said Neil, who well knew the meaning of a tropic thunderstorm.
In the half light of sunset, the black clouds had opened. A huge rift had been dazzlingly illumined by a flash that was almost blinding.
"It's bearing down upon us like a tidal wave," said Fountain. "We had best find shelter if we can before it's dark."
Very carefully, as if it were something fragile and precious, he laid his rifle in the bottom of the canoe, and snatching up a paddle drove the blade into the water. The boy followed his example, with the result that almost at once they were driven downstream at the rate of almost fifteen miles an hour.
No other word was passed between them during the next few minutes, when at sunset darkness closed in upon the valley with such suddenness that great curtains might have been drawn across the sky. In a few minutes day had been converted into night.
Presently, the man spoke again.
"We're gathering pace," said he. "We're shooting down-river like an arrow. Neil, there's danger ahead!"
The last words he had almost shouted; for, even as he was speaking, the canoe had given a sudden bound forward, seeming to lift itself clear of the water like a leaping fish.
Though they could no longer see either bank of the river, they could tell by the rush of air in their nostrils and the angry swirl of the waters that they had found dangerous rapids, where, at any moment, they might be wrecked, dashed against one of the rocks or islets in mid-stream.
And at that very moment, as if the great forces of Nature were upon a sudden leagued against them, the storm came down upon them with a flash of lightning that illumined the glittering surface of the water and the giant trees of the forest, that was followed almost immediately by a deafening peal of thunder.
"Back-paddle, Neil!" Fountain shouted. "Back-paddle for your life! Sure as death, there's a cataract ahead!"
The boy, not slow to obey these orders, used all his strength and weight, whilst Fountain himself worked until the perspiration poured off him.
However, all their efforts served to do little more than to diminish the velocity at which they were travelling to destruction. The best they could hope for was to hold their own sufficiently to gain either bank; and this is what Fountain strove to accomplish, though every time he swung round the bows, the current straightened the canoe again, and sent her onward on her downward course.
By this time the thunder was even more deafening and continuous, though the lightning served a useful purpose, and, indeed, gave them presently a gleam of hope. For, by the light of a flash that endured for many seconds, Fountain made out the dark outline of an island, lying not two hundred yards in front of them, and almost on their course.
"If we can reach that, we save ourselves!" he cried, before his voice was drowned by another crash of thunder.
Neil Ranson felt already as if he had been placed upon the rack. Every muscle was strained; every joint and limb was aching. Desperation, however, lends a strength of its own. The boy had peered into the darkness; he had pictured to himself the great cataract in front of them, the black, foam-flecked rocks, the rush of tumultuous waters descending into a whirlpool where no swimmer could ever hope to live. He had imagined the canoe swept into eternity, whilst peal after peal of thunder rang the death knell of John Fountain, the little wizened hunter who for twenty years had faced savage beasts and still more savage men, pestilence and poison, who had grown grey and wrinkled in the wilderness.
It was these thoughts that gave Neil, as we have said, strength beyond his own. With clenched teeth, unconscious of exhaustion, he took advantage of each flash of lightning to keep the canoe headed for the island.
Fountain shouted at the full power of his lungs during one of those brief intervals of silence that were as intense as they were brief.
"Stick to it, my lad," he cried. "Your strength as well as mine is needed, if we're to come out of this alive!"
From out of the darkness came a shriek, long-drawn and piercing—a shriek that was terrible to hear. It was a cry of hopelessness, of unutterable dismay, of terror.
Echoed from the forest trees, carrying far upon the rushing, headlong waters of the river, sounding clear as a clarion in the silence between the thunder-claps, it was like the voice of a lost, tormented soul, crying its anguish in the midst of a dark, chaotic Underworld.
And then, yet another blinding flash made the scene as bright as day. For a few seconds it was as if the whole sky was ablaze.
"Look there!" cried Neil. "Look there! What's that?"
Fountain never answered—or if he did, his voice was drowned by the thunder. The lightning ceased quite suddenly. All was darkness again—impenetrable, inky blackness. But both had seen enough. They had seen more than they were able to explain.
A small canoe had shot past them—a flying, phantom canoe—in which they had seen distinctly the figure of a man, or else a ghost, standing upright, with arms uplifted high above his head.
Neil's brain was in a whirl. Half blinded by the lightning, half deafened by the thunder, he found himself hurled into the very vortex of a mad, raging world of terror, in which fled phantoms—a ghost that had cried out in a heartrending, piteous voice that was horrible to hear.
THEY had neither time nor inclination at that moment to solve the mystery of the phantom canoe that had flashed past them like a wraith. It was a time when even the fraction of a second meant the difference between life and death, between salvation and disaster. The island, they knew, was but a little way before them. When the next flash of lightning came, they would be given their last and only chance. If they did not gain the island, they would be swept past it to immediate destruction.
Every moment now the current of the rapids grew more swift, the waters more raging, more difficult to combat. Already the canoe was out of hand and their paddles all but useless in that violent, raging flood.
Neil Ranson heard Fountain's voice again.
"Stick to your guns!" he cried. "When the light comes, let her have it! It will be the end of things if we fail."
A moment after, the island was revealed, not fifteen yards away. Yet the current was like the rush of opened floodgates, and their fate was in the balance.
In the gleaming light Neil caught a glimpse of Fountain's face. His eyes were screwed, his teeth clenched, whilst the veins stood out upon his forehead like lug-worm casts on sand. With the strength of a desperate man, resolved to make one final, frantic effort to save his life and that of his young companion, he swung the canoe round, broadside-on to the stream.
She was caught like a cork by the flood, heeled half over, and was well-nigh swamped. Quick as thought, Fountain again plied his paddle, groaning as a man will do who exerts himself to the utmost.
It was as if the canoe pirouetted as a dancer does, spun round like a top. And then, with a thud that stretched both Fountain and the boy full length upon their backs, she lay beached upon a strip of sand in which her bows had been driven like a spade.
Darkness was again announced by rolling, reverberating thunder—thunder immediately above them. Fountain was on his feet in an instant. Groping in the darkness, he seized Neil by an arm and dragged the boy ashore. Though they were out of immediate peril, presence of mind was as necessary as ever.
"Haul her high and dry!" he cried. "If we lose her we're lost!"
Using their combined strength, they hauled the craft clear of the water, and, whilst they were thus employed, the black clouds above them opened with the greatest thunder-clap of all, and there descended a deluge.
It was as if the rain came down in one continuous sheet. It was not rain as we know it in temperate climes. They might have found themselves in the centre of a water-spout.
There was no wind. It was as if there was nothing to breathe but water, beneath the weight of which they could hear the branches of trees breaking with sharp reports like minute- guns.
And as the rain descended, the storm passed over to the south; the lightning became less vivid and occurred at longer intervals.
"We must make the canoe fast to a tree," said Fountain, "and give her all the rope we can. I've no idea how high the island stands above the level of the river; but you can take it from me that, after rain like this, the water will rise by feet, and the island may soon be flooded."
Fortunately they had on board a long tow-rope; for there had been times when they had employed friendly natives to tow the canoe—which contained all their supplies and ammunition—when they had found certain reaches of the river where the current had been too strong for them. The end of this tow-rope they now tied to the stoutest tree they could find, giving the canoe enough play on the rope to float free should the rising river completely submerge the island.
By this time a few stars had appeared in a clear sky of deep violet-blue. They discovered that the island was like a hog's back, reaching an altitude of quite twenty feet, and all along this central ridge were palm trees, many of which had been damaged severely by the storm.
And now they could hear for the first time the roar of the waterfall, but a little way below them—a dull, continuous sound, like the persistent beating of a great drum. Straining their eyes in this direction, they could see the vague outline of certain black rugged rocks, so far as they could judge, upon the very brink of the cataract, dividing the flood into many separate waves that swept downward to the lower rapids beyond.
As Fountain had predicted, they were drenched to the very skin, and there was no chance of drying themselves before sunrise. Nor could they light a fire, for there was not a dry stick upon the island.
"Neil," said Fountain, "prevention's better than cure. I prescribe quinine for both of us, to keep the fever out of our bones. And then we'll see what we can find to eat."
They searched the canoe for the medicine-chest and some sun- dried hippopotamus-meat which had been cooked the day before. This was unpalatable fare, but they were both well-nigh famished after their exertions.
"There'll be no sleep for you and me tonight," said Fountain. "We had best go for a walk to keep the blood moving in our veins."
He took the boy by an arm, and walked him to the other end of the island along the top of the ridge.
They found their place of refuge to be not much more than two hundred yards in length; and one might be disposed to think that it was a dull walk, in very truth, in the tropic starlight: from one end of the island to the other, and then back again, until by the end of an hour they had walked four miles at least.
But all the time Fountain talked to the boy. He told him tales, as he had often done before, of the forest and the veld, of the Great Lakes and the unknown snow-capped mountains in the heart of the interior; stories of wild men and hideous little dwarfs—the Batwa pygmies of the forest.
And then the moon came out—a glowing, crescent moon, hanging like a lantern above the tree-tops of the dark forest.
And the moon revealed what the starlight had never shown them. They stood together, still arm in arm, gazing down-stream from the lower extremity of the island.
They stared in mute amazement, like men who cannot believe the evidence of their eyes. They saw the smooth, swift water, gleaming like polished steel, and far down the river they could see the white foam in the rapids below.
The flood was already at its height. Many of the rocks were half submerged. The island itself had diminished considerably in area. But one huge rock, in the very centre of the cataract, stood forth like a fortress in the tide, black against the white surf down-stream.
And standing upon this rock, full in the moonlight, was the mystery of the falls—a sight that held them speechless and bewildered. They saw what appeared to be the figure of a man—and such a man as neither had ever seen before—one whose personal appearance, even the very garments he wore, caused them to believe they were dreaming.
FOR this man was no painted, half-clothed savage of the wilderness. He had neither the coarse, blunted features of the negro, nor was he even dark of skin. So bright was the moonlight, now that the storm was passed, that they were able to see distinctly every detail of one whom they believed at first to be a ghost.
He wore a white, skirted coat that reached almost to his knees, whilst round his waist was a girdle fastened with a bright metal clasp that glittered like silver. His hair was long and straight, and cut in a straight line level with his ears, and there was a kind of band across his forehead. Though he was too far away for them to see his features, as they found out afterwards, he was thin-lipped and his nose aquiline, more like that of a Jew than a negro. Moreover, he carried at his waist a short broadsword with a triangular point and a hilt in the shape of a cross—such a sword as had novel been fashioned in any forest forge.
In view of the peril of his situation and the mystery as to how he had got there, they could not believe at first that this was in reality a living man; until, upon a sudden, he raised his arms and cried out to them for help in some strange language that not even Fountain could understand.
Fountain gripped Neil Ranson by an arm and spoke in a voice that trembled with excitement.
"Tell me, Neil," he asked. "I've never been much of a reader of books. But, I fancy, I've seen pictures of people who dressed something in that style in bygone times: the Carthaginians or Egyptians—but, I tell you, I'm no scholar and never was."
There was no doubt that the man was endeavouring to attract their attention. They could not mistake his wild, almost frantic, gesticulations.
"He wants us to go to his help," said Fountain; "but, so far as I can see, no power on earth can save him. If the river rises higher, he'll drown like a rat before our eyes."
"Why," cried Neil, as the thought suddenly occurred to him, "this must be the man who came past us, more than an hour ago, when the storm was at its height!"
"That's right enough," said Fountain; "but how he managed to save himself in these rapids is little short of a miracle!"
"He must have jumped," said Neil, "at the very moment when his canoe was being swept over the cataract."
"Then he's as sure-footed as a mountain goat," the other answered; "and more than that, luck was with him, too. He could never have done it in the darkness. The lightning gave him his chance at the eleventh hour."
"It was the lightning that saved us, too," said the boy. "Had that flash not come when it did, we would have been swept past the island."
The man before them still cried out frantically for help. He could do nothing for himself, for the rock upon which he stood was not more than six yards across and wet and slippery with spray. He stood at his full height at the parting of the waters, with the rushing waves on either side of him, the cataract thundering at his back. It is hard to conceive a situation less secure.
Fountain turned away with a sigh. The very sight was alarming.
"We can do nothing!" said he. "We're powerless! Yet it's no easy matter to stand by in idleness when a man dies by inches. Even if the flood subsides, so far as I can see, he must starve to death. We can never hope to reach him."
"What about the tow-rope?" Neil cried, as the thought flashed into his mind.
"I had forgotten that," said he. "You're right, my son! I believe the rope's long enough."
"Can we hold the canoe against the current?" asked the boy.
Fountain thought for a moment.
"We can twist it round the trunk of a tree," he answered. "He's in a dead-line down-stream. But you will have to go down in the canoe, taking both paddles with you. And even then it will be as much as the two of you can do to paddle against the stream, though I give all my weight and strength to the tow-rope."
John Fountain was a man with whom action followed thought. No sooner had he decided what to do than he lost no time in doing it. Selecting one of the stoutest trees that grew upon the island, they passed the tow-rope round it, and then carried the canoe to the water's edge. With Neil Ranson on board, she shot out upon the current to the limited extent of the rope, which Fountain grasped with both hands, placing a foot against the trunk of the tree to prevent it from slipping.
The boy found himself swinging in midstream, like the pendulum of a clock, about halfway between the island and the crest of the waterfall. So restless was the canoe that he was obliged to grip the gunwales tightly to prevent himself from being hurled overboard, whereas the rope itself creaked beneath the heavy strain that was brought to bear upon it.
Foot by foot, almost inch by inch, Fountain paid out the rope, letting it slip slowly around the tree, and still keeping his left foot firmly pressed against the trunk. Gradually the boat was lowered toward the cataract, as Fountain himself had described it, like a bucket into a well.
The rope chafed and grated against the soft bark of the tree, through which presently it had worn a deep groove to the harder wood beneath. Neil had received orders to shout with all his lung-power when he was within reach of the castaway; for, if he did not warn Fountain in good time, the canoe would be dashed to atoms against the rocks.
As he approached the edge of the cataract, Neil could not fail to realize the extreme peril of his situation. Fountain had been positive that the rope would take the strain—for the canoe was light—yet the boy was compelled to recognize the possibility that it might break at any moment, in which case he would be swept downward to the rapids below, where he could never hope to survive. There was also a danger that the canoe would be swamped; for the bows that met the full resistance of the current were no more than a few inches above the surface of the swirling, seething water.
But, great as the crisis was, though his life hung as upon a thread, the boy was rooted in amazement at the personal appearance of the mysterious stranger of whom he had now a better view.
The man stood motionless, like a marble statue, his arms folded upon his chest. He was straight of back and straight of limb, and held his head proudly. Now that he saw that a valiant attempt was being made to rescue him, he was quite calm.
Had it not been for his long black hair, he might have been a white man; for not only did his skin appear to be light in colouring, but he was unquestionably handsome. He was tall and slimly built; and, unlike a negro, both his hands and feet were small.
The canoe had been lowered stern foremost, the tow-rope being attached to the bows. And when she was not more than two yards from the rock, Neil gave the word to Fountain to let out no more rope.
"Jump!" cried the boy. "Jump for your life!"
The castaway at once realized what he was wanted to do. He crouched low, and almost before Neil was aware of it, had landed lightly in the body of the canoe.
An emergency which the boy had thought would be fraught with peril was over in an instant. The man had regained his balance in a manner that was little short of miraculous, and was now seated in the bows to trim the canoe.
Neil thrust the spare paddle into his hand and cried out to Fountain.
"All's well!" he shouted. "Pull for all you're worth!"
And now began a struggle in which all three put forth all their strength. In the canoe itself, Neil Ranson and the stranger wielded their paddles with desperate energy, to make what headway they could against the full strength of the stream. On the island Fountain strained and heaved until the perspiration poured off him.
The rope had been passed but once around the tree in the form of a loop; and this loop was prevented from slipping backward, allowing the canoe to lose headway, by Fountain's whole weight, assisted by his foot, which he kept against the trunk.
Whenever he heaved at the end of the rope, the loop slid around the groove in the trunk, already made smooth by friction. He was never able to haul in more than a few inches at a time; but every inch he gained was never lost, and there were intervals when they could pause to recover their breath.
It was a struggle between three men and the current of a flooded, swollen river. On the one side there was the weight of many tons of water; but on the other there was that divine intelligence which has made man what he is—and which conquered in the end.
Though it had taken but a few minutes to lower the canoe to the waterfall, more than an hour elapsed before Neil and the stranger were safe on shore. They beached the canoe high and dry; and then the stranger spoke:
"White man," said he to Fountain, "I bring you news of one of your own tribe."
Both Fountain and the boy let out a gasp. They could not believe what they had heard. They found it difficult at first to realize that this man had spoken in English.
"My own tribe!" Fountain exclaimed. "Who are you? And what do you know of my tribe?"
"I have a message," said the other in a strange, jerky accent, "a message from one whom you may know. His name is Tremayne."
IT must not be thought that the stranger could speak good English. Though he knew many words, he strung these together in so quaint a fashion that he was at times almost incomprehensible, whereas his pronunciation was difficult indeed to understand. The conversation that follows is not so much what he said as what he meant to say.
He told them his name was Idina, and that he came from a valley that was called Khandara, where there was a great city in which there lived a people ruled over by a queen whose name was Zarasis, who was as beautiful as the moon.
"My country," he declared, "is as old as the gods themselves. We came from the north. We have legends that tell of the ancestors of our Queen, who lived upon the banks of a great and sacred river."
Fountain turned to Neil.
"We've all heard rumours of a white race in the heart of the continent," said he; "and now I know it."
"When we were on trek," said Neil, "my father always carried in our wagon a few books, which I have read over and over again. One of these was the Bible, and another was a translation of Herodotus. In the Old Testament we read of traders who came from Ethiopia, where there must have been civilized countries, for Solomon had a throne of ivory and talents of gold. And Herodotus tells us of the deserters from Egypt who went down to the sources of the Nile and were never heard of again. Why should not these men have been the pioneers of a nation that has lived for centuries buried from the outer world?"
"Don't ask me, Neil!" said Fountain. "I'm no scholar, as I've said. You know more about that kind of thing than I do."
Turning to Idina, he questioned the man more closely.
"Two years ago," said the stranger, "there came into our land a white man who was great and strong and brave. He came alone, unattended by servants or companions. He was like no man that we had seen before. He was taller by a head and shoulders than any of our people; and the hair of his head and of his beard was the colour of sand, wonderful to behold.
"And therefore," he continued, "there were many of us who thought him a god. He was admitted into the presence of Queen Zarasis; and her woman's heart went out to him, for she had never beheld such a man."
"That I can understand well enough," Fountain cut in. "Tremayne had a personality that affected everyone he met."
"And he was wise," said Idina. "He was of great service to us. He taught us many things we did not know. He knew more of the stars than our astrologers; when we were sick, he knew better how to cure us than our sorcerers. He told us there were not many gods, but one God; and therefore he was hated by the priests."
"Is he still alive?" asked Neil eagerly.
The man bowed his head.
"He still lives," said he, "but as a prisoner. He has been cast into a dungeon by Punhri, the High Priest, who is jealous of his power. Until the coming of the stranger, Punhri was a power in the land of Khandara."
"And has Tremayne no friends in your country?" Fountain asked.
"He has many friends," replied the other. "I am his friend, or I would not be here, I would not have journeyed all these miles through a savage country, with news of him whom we call the White Wizard, the god with a beard of straw. The Queen loves him. And Dario, the Captain of the Host, has sworn to serve the Queen."
Fountain turned to Neil.
"It looks," said he, "as if Tremayne's in a bad way. There can be no mistaking what this fellow means. Tremayne has been living for three years or more in this buried city. If I know anything about him, he has learned the language."
He was interrupted by Idina who, becoming palpably excited, went on with his story.
"The White Wizard," he declared, "is in the power of Punhri, a sorcerer skilled in the black arts, famous for his magic. All fear him, for he is merciless and gifted with the 'evil eye'. Even the Queen herself dare not oppose him. It was the Queen who sent me out into the wilderness. I left her bowed down with grief, a prisoner in her own palace, weeping for your countryman, whose slave she is, though a queen."
Tears had actually come into Idina's eyes. He was in some ways more like a woman than a man. There was a gentleness about his manner and in the tones of his voice that one would not have expected to find in a youth who looked a warrior, who was tall and strong and straight of limb.
"It was the Queen who sent you on your errand?" Fountain asked. "Where did she send you? What did she ask you to do?"
Idina threw out his hands with a helpless gesture.
"It was our only chance," said he. "The White Wizard has a friend in Dario who commands the army, whose sword and whose strength alone protect the sacred person of the Queen from the wrath of Punhri. I serve under Dario, and it was at the Queen's command that I came into the forest across the mountains that encompass Khandara, to see if I could find men who belonged to the same race as the prisoner, that they might hasten to his help."
"And you have found us!" said Neil Ranson.
"You saved my life," said Idina simply. "Had it not been for you, I must have remained upon that rock until the tide rose to drown me, or I was so weak from exhaustion that I would have fallen to my death."
Fountain in the meantime had risen to his feet. He was not listening to what Idina had to say, but paced to and fro restlessly, like a man in a dilemma.
"Neil," said he, coming to a sudden halt, and gripping the boy by a shoulder, "you and I must decide once and for all whether or not we take the plunge. Can we leave Tremayne alone, a prisoner in this unknown city? Or shall you and I venture there, and see what fate holds in store for us?"
The boy never hesitated a moment. He believed John Fountain to be the greatest man on earth.
"I'll follow you," said he. "If you decide to go there, I'll come with you willingly enough."
Fountain held out a hand.
"Shake," said he. "It's a bargain, Neil, for good or ill. Idina shall guide us. You and I will behold with our own eyes this city of Khandara."
IT would be tedious to describe in detail a journey that took them more than a month. Idina guided them by the sun and by the stars toward the north. Leaving the river valley, where they left their canoe, they were many days in the forest; and when, at last, they came forth again into the sunlight they were all but skeletons, half starved to death, their clothes torn to ribbons.
Night after night, when they talked together at the camp-fire, Idina told them of Khandara, a city as wonderful as Memphis or as Thebes. And he described the gods that he worshipped—Osiris, Isis, Horus, and some score of others—the gods that had once been worshipped on the Nile. The citizens of Khandara were a cultured people, skilled in the arts, great masters of architecture, who could both read and write, making use of hieroglyphics little changed since bygone times.
Punhri—so Idina said—was the declared enemy of the Queen. He could not dethrone Zarasis, for she ruled by divine right, herself a divinity, the descendant of Osiris. But there was little else he dared not do. He disobeyed, and even cancelled on occasions, the royal commands. He thwarted the Queen at every turn. He allowed her no hand in the government of her kingdom, and saw to it that any who defied his authority were put instantly to death.
All this had Queen Zarasis borne in patience and without protest during the ten years that she had reigned—for she had become Queen on the death of her father when she was but a child of twelve. But now the High Priest pitted himself against her upon an issue which was to the Queen more than all her realm.
"I myself am a centurion in the royal bodyguard," Idina said, "the commander of a hundred men. I am therefore often on duty in the palace, where I have seen with my own eyes that Queen Zarasis loves the white man."
"And what of Tremayne?" asked Fountain. "What has he to say to it?"
"He has looked upon the Queen," said he. "He has seen that Zarasis is beautiful as moonshine upon lilies. If the Queen had her own way, she would place the White Wizard upon her throne; she would make him king of Khandara. Instead of which he has been thrown into a dungeon, where he lies awaiting the pleasure of Punhri, whose heart is like the heart of a poisonous snake."
Fountain turned to the boy.
"We'll get there too late to help Tremayne," said he. "He will have been put to death, murdered in his prison."
Idina, who every day was becoming more proficient in the English language, understood what had been said.
"I do not think so," he replied. "There are certain things that even Punhri cannot accomplish. The Queen has sworn an oath that she will worship daily at the shrine of Horus, that she will not paint the nails of her fingers, until the prisoner is set at liberty. Dario is with her. The royal bodyguard to a man would die for her. If any harm befalls the White Wizard, it will mean civil war."
Dario he described as the greatest warrior in the country, one who in battle gave no other order to his men than to follow where he went. His dazzling golden armour was for ever in the forefront of the fight; and he was scarred by wounds he had received in wars against savage forest tribes.
Punhri, the Sorcerer, on the other hand, held power by dint of his magic and what was called the "evil eye." There was no one who was proof against his subtle influence; all were afraid of him, save only Dario.
Because of these long nightly talks they felt, as they drew nearer to their destination, that they would not arrive as strangers in the city of Khandara.
At last they came forth from the forest upon an open, park- like country where they were able to make greater progress, often marching as many as thirty miles a day. This eventually became an open plain where herds of antelope abounded and where nothing grew but long, rank grass that waved in the wind like rye.
They did not want for food in these days; for, though they had left all their shotgun ammunition and such surplus stores as they could spare in the place where they had hidden their canoe, they had brought with them three rifles and their revolvers, dividing the ammunition for these equally between the three of them. Indeed, with the exception of the medicine-chest, they carried little else but arms and ammunition.
It took them three and a half days to cross the plain, which rose upon a gentle gradient to a higher altitude. Before them, wonderfully distinct in that clear atmosphere, was a great range of mountains, many of the peaks of which were snow-capped, that extended in a semicircle across the northern sky.
It was the convex, or outer, side of this semicircle they approached; but, as they drew nearer, they perceived in the far distance even higher peaks, which Idina described as belonging to the same rugged range.
He told them that these were the Mountains of Khandara, which formed a kind of fortress barrier around the valley where his people had lived for centuries. Many of the crags were so high above sea-level that they were often under snow.
Within this valley, which was more than fifty miles across, was a rich plain where there was a lake, upon the south side of which stood the city of Idina's people. The whole valley was cultivated: maize, corn, melons and ground-nuts being grown at different levels.
As they began the ascent of the lower slopes of the range, they realized for the first time how truly inaccessible to the outside world was the forgotten civilization that lay beyond. For the chasms, the great ravines and precipices that lay before them were, indeed, formidable; and there is little doubt that, if they had not had Idina to guide them, they could never have found a way across.
The man led them along narrow shelves of rock but a few feet across, a yawning abyss on one hand, a sheer cliff upon the other, rising to the very clouds.
Half-clothed as they were, after the steaming, stifling heat of the tropic forest, they were perished by the cold. By night, in the freezing starlight, when the moon shone bright upon the snows above them, they found it impossible to sleep; and yet, so perilous were these crevices and crags that it was only by daylight that they dared venture to climb.
They gained the summit upon a certain evening when there was no cloud to be seen in the sky. The tooth-shaped, snow-capped peaks were on either side of them, when they looked down upon what was, indeed, a wondrous sight.
In the clear evening light they beheld a plain, well-wooded save where it had been given over to cultivation. This plain was almost circular, embracing an area of near upon three thousand square miles, and, although the far side of it was shrouded in the evening mist, the mountain range beyond was clearly visible at a distance, perhaps, of sixty miles.
Near the centre of the plain, though somewhat toward the south, there was a lake as blue as Como, shaped roughly like the ace of hearts.
From that altitude the water was like a mirror, smooth as glass. Scattered upon the lake were islands; and on nearly every one of these were two or three great buildings, square, flat- roofed palaces with many windows, white in the sunshine, as if they had been built of marble.
But the greatest wonder of all was the city itself lying, as it seemed, upon the margin of the lake, but a little way below them. For here were temples and mansions, palaces and gardens, wide streets and open squares, great obelisks and gigantic statues, hundreds of feet in height, of strange, heathen gods.
"Behold!" Idina cried, with pride ringing in his voice. "Behold, the city of Khandara!"
BY the following evening they had gained the wooded country at the foot of the northern slope, which was very different in character from the steep ascent upon the other side. For it was no more than a gentle gradient where they could walk upright and without danger, though it was sometimes necessary to be careful.
Idina conducted them to a grove of gigantic yew trees, where there were also junipers and witch-hazels; and here they camped for the night, lighting no fire, however, for fear that they might attract the attention of the peasants whom they had seen working in the fields.
"You must remain here," said Idina, "until to-morrow night. Before daybreak I will return with news. On no account must you show yourselves, but remain hidden all day long. I go my way into the city to find Dario, who will befriend us."
"And then?" Fountain asked.
"I must warn them of your coming," said the man.
"But how are we to get into the city without being seen?" asked Neil. "It is surrounded by a great wall; and, surely, all the gates are guarded?"
"I know of an underground passage," Idina answered. "This leads from a secret entrance in the outer wall to the interior of the palace itself, beneath which are catacombs where the bygone monarchs of our race are buried. Formerly this passage was used by the priests, who were not permitted within the palace, who offered sacrifices by day and night for the souls of the departed. These rites are no longer observed; the passage is therefore never used; but Dario has the key."
Soon after that, Idina set forth alone upon his journey, whilst Fountain and Neil were glad enough to avail themselves of an opportunity to rest. Not only did both sleep soundly during the greater part of that night, but they dozed continually throughout the heat of the day. The arduous journey they had accomplished through the forest and across the mountain range had utterly exhausted even Fountain, who was as hard as nails. They had endured the extremes of temperature. They had passed through tangled, almost impenetrable thickets; they had waded knee-deep in quagmires, where they had been attacked by leeches; they had climbed mountain crags where the slipping of a foot would have meant instant death; and Neil Ranson had reached that state of physical fatigue when it is impossible even to think.
The evening of the next day found them refreshed and rested. There was a stream in the wood near by where they could quench their thirst as often as they liked; but both were conscious of the pangs of hunger before nightfall.
It was about one o'clock in the morning when Idina returned, approaching so silently through the wood that he took them by surprise.
"Come," said he, in a quiet voice, "Dario, the Captain of the Host, sends you greeting. At the same time he warns you that once you pass the city walls, you take your lives in your hands. He cannot be answerable for your safety."
"For that," said Fountain promptly, "we care little. Our main concern is to know whether Tremayne is yet alive?"
"Not a hair of his head has been touched," replied Idina. "The High Priest has tried every means to persuade the Queen to sign his death warrant."
"And she refuses?" asked Neil.
"She declares," said Idina, "that she herself would rather die. But, my friends, there is no time to lose. It is necessary that we enter the city before daybreak. Dario himself awaits us at the outer wall."
They followed a kind of bridle path that led downhill toward the lake. In the moonlight, as they drew nearer the city, they could see the towers and minarets of Khandara standing forth under the starry sky. The moonlight shimmered upon the surface of the water, where the palaces upon the islands resembled fairy castles. It was a land of wonders and amazement. It was like the city of a dream. As they came within sight of the great, massive walls, they could hear the night-watchmen, stationed upon the turrets, calling the hour from post to post.
But when Neil Ranson beheld Dario, the Captain of the Host, the boy was lost in admiration. For this mighty man of war reminded him of one of the paladins of old.
He was deep of chest and broad of shoulder; his bare, hairy arms were like those of a Hercules. In his golden armour, glittering in the moonlight, he was a soldier every inch. As Shakespeare has it, he was "bearded like the pard," and his face so disfigured with sword-cuts and white, horrid scars that he looked like a bulldog that is for ever fighting.
He saluted the strangers by raising his right hand above his head, and then addressed them in his own language, Idina acting as interpreter.
"Welcome to Khandara!" said he. "You are brave men upon a braver mission. I have orders to conduct you to the Queen."
"She will see us to-night?" asked Fountain.
Dario bowed. "We repair to the palace by way of an underground passage that is never used," said he. "We will be met by Didorian, the Queen's chief maid-in-waiting. I saw the Queen myself last evening. She gladly welcomes you, not only as honoured guests, but on behalf of the white man who is a prisoner in the castle."
Fountain, as he often liked to declare, was essentially a practical man. He had no wish to act in the dark.
"To gain admittance to the palace seems simple enough," said he; "and I have little doubt that we can escape from the city by the way we came, should that be necessary. But what concerns me most is the future. What are we to do when we are once inside the palace?"
Dario threw out his great hands.
"We are the children of the gods," said he. "Osiris watches over us; it may be that Anubis awaits us at the gate of the tomb. Destiny is ruled by the stars."
John Fountain shrugged his shoulders.
"Lead the way," said he. "My friend and I will follow."
Holding to the shadow of the city wall, they came presently upon a soldier whom Dario had posted at the entrance to the passage. This man carried a long spear and wore a square-cut beard, like the Captain of the Host himself, who opened with a key a little door in the wall that was no more than two feet square, through which they were obliged to crawl on hands and knees.
The soldier going before them with a lighted torch, they walked for a mile or more along a dark and narrow tunnel, until they came at last into a series of catacombs, where they entered one chamber after another, all alike inasmuch as the walls were adorned with various pictures and designs.
And then, a final spiral staircase brought them into a chamber that was magnificent to see. It was of marble, and in the centre of the floor was a great bath where a fountain played. At the top of the steps that led down into the bath was a couch, the ends of which were most wonderfully carved to resemble the heads of lions.
From the farther end of this great room a lady came toward them. She was but a girl in years, and very beautiful and slender. She was clothed in a tight-fitting garment that was caught about her knees, and around her head was a silver bangle.
When she saw the two Englishmen, she prostrated herself before them, actually going down upon her knees—for in this country it was the custom for the women to pay homage to the men.
When she had risen, she addressed them, Idina interpreting her words.
"Didorian, at your service, sirs," said she. "The Queen has bidden me conduct you into her presence."
"She is awake?" Idina asked.
"I left her sleeping," replied the lady. "Every day now she seems to grow more weary, more heavy of heart. The very fact that you are the friends of one whom we all admire will rejoice the heart of Zarasis."
"Is the Queen to be disturbed?" Idina asked.
"Her commands were that I should take you to her the moment you arrived."
"Then, lead on," said Dario. "Go before us, and acquaint the Queen that we are here."
Following Didorian, they crossed the great room of the Bath, and entered a smaller chamber the pillars in which were painted all the colours of the rainbow. And here was a door with a great golden knocker, fashioned like the head of a hawk.
Didorian knocked three times, each time louder than before; and then, receiving no answer, she somewhat timidly turned the handle.
"Zarasis sleeps," she whispered. "Wait here. I will awaken her."
Silently she opened the door and passed into the room beyond, which was but dimly illumined by a single lamp burning upon a marble pedestal.
And then, upon a sudden, those without heard her give a faint shriek that was little more than a gasp.
Dario took a step forward, to meet Didorian upon the threshold. In the glaring light of the outer room the lady's face was like ash. Clasping her hands together, in the utmost state of alarm, she addressed herself to the Captain of the Host.
"The Queen is gone!" she cried. "She is not here!"
"Not here!" Dario exclaimed. "Impossible!"
"It seems so," she answered in a weak, faltering voice. "I left her sound asleep not three hours ago. And now—the Queen is gone!"
DARIO strode into the inner room, followed by the others. When more lamps had been lighted they found themselves in a magnificent chamber, the entire ceiling of which was of carved tortoise-shell. Incense burned before an image of the great god, Horus, the special deity that was supposed to watch over the fortunes of the Queen; and near a window was a wide couch, the cushions upon which were crumpled and bore the imprint of a human body.
"She slept there but a while ago!" said Dario. "And yet she is not here now."
"There is another door," exclaimed Didorian. "The door that leads to the garden. She never passed through the Room of the Bath, for I have never left it, and I have been awake all night."
"We must find her!" cried Idina. "There is black magic at the root of this!"
Like men who but vaguely understand what they are about, Fountain and Neil Ranson accompanied the others down a long corridor and a flight of steps, until at last they came forth into the palace garden.
They searched everywhere, and yet could find no trace of Queen Zarasis, until at last they came to the gate where two sentries were on duty, from whom they learned that the Queen had actually passed through the palace gates on foot and unattended, but a few minutes since.
"Fools!" cried Dario, when he was recovered from his amazement. "Fools, not to have reported it to the officer of the guard."
The men protested that they had not dared oppose the Queen; but Dario was not disposed to waste valuable time. Never before in the history of the nation had the reigning monarch walked alone and unattended in the public streets.
He turned quickly to Idina and ordered him to tell the two white men to return at once to the palace with Didorian, since it would be disastrous if they were seen in the city.
"Beyond doubt," cried Dario, "Punhri, the Sorcerer, has cast a spell upon the Queen."
Without wasting further time, and accompanied by Idina, he hastened into the street, whilst Didorian conducted Fountain and Neil back to the palace, where they awaited in grave anxiety in the great Room of the Bath.
The lady Didorian was in such distress that, from time to time, she brushed the tears from her eyes. Fortunately, however, they had not long to wait, for presently Dario returned.
The Captain of the Host walked, not looking where he went, but gazing down into the face of the woman whose hand he held in his.
She wore a robe like that of Didorian, save that it was made of more beautiful material; and the circlet around her head was of silver studded with gems, from which pendants hung down on both sides to below her ears. Around her neck was a necklace of great precious stones, of varied colours, and there were bracelets upon her arms above the elbows.
But it was her face that held both Neil and Fountain rooted in admiration. Her beauty was wonderful; but her expression, her whole deportment and demeanour, were even more remarkable.
For she walked as one who walks in sleep. Her eyes were wide open, and yet she did not appear to see anything. She moved slowly and with precision, though without looking where she went. The very paleness of her countenance suggested that she had been thrown into a trance.
Idina followed close upon her heels. He had the appearance of one who was both excited and alarmed.
"Of a certainty," he cried, "there's Black Magic here! Queen Zarasis has been bewitched."
"'Tis Punhri!" exclaimed Didorian. "This is the work of the Sorcerer. I know it."
Dario's hand went swiftly to the hilt of his sword—a sword so long and heavy that an ordinary man would have required two hands to wield it.
"Have you proof of that?" he asked, turning to the lady.
"Night after night," she answered, "I have seen him from the palace roof. He lives, as you know, not far from here; and of late it has been his custom every night, after the moon has risen, to appear upon the roof of his house, where he stands quite motionless, as immovable as a Sphinx. And then, upon a sudden, he throws up his hands toward the heavens, with the action of one who implores the assistance of occult and hidden forces."
"I can well believe it," said Dario. "The villain is a master of magic, as I know to my cost. There was a time when one of my most trusted officers fell under his influence. He had no will of his own; he could do nothing but obey the unspoken commands of Punhri."
"Day by day," said Didorian, "I have seen his evil power gradually work itself upon the Queen. She is afraid of him. She told me once that she felt herself to be no more than a feather on the wind. She drifted, despite herself, toward some dreadful and mysterious fate."
The Captain of the Host clenched his teeth, which showed ivory white in the blackness of his beard. With a ring his great sword leaped from its scabbard.
"Were I sure that were the truth," he cried, "though it cost me my eyesight, with this sword would I smite off Punhri's head!"
It was Didorian who now proved that she had not lost her woman's common sense.
"Of what avail, great Dario," she asked, "are hot words? Our first care is for the Queen; and it remains for us to find out, if we can, what mischief is afoot. Punhri has surely a reason for having cast a spell upon Zarasis, for having willed her to leave the Palace at so lonely an hour?"
The captain stroked his beard. For a moment he stood silent. Then, upon a sudden, he snapped a finger and thumb.
"I have it!" he exclaimed. "We'll snare the jackal! Do you, Didorian, dress yourself in the Queen's clothes, cover your face with a heavy veil, and leave the palace gates for the house of Punhri. Walk, as Zarasis walked, like one who dreams. There may be no need for you to speak; or, if you must, your voice might be mistaken for the Queen's. Bold as he is, he would never dare to snatch the veil from your face. Whilst you are with him, you should be able to find out what wickedness he means."
Didorian, as she listened, grew pale, and before Dario had finished speaking she had thrown herself down upon her knees, her hands clasped before her.
"Dearly as I love Zarasis," she cried, "this is more than I dare do! I tremble at the very sight of Punhri; I fear his evil eye. Nor dare I walk abroad in the streets at dead of night. What you propose, brave Dario, would only end in disaster. My heart would fail me at the eleventh hour. My duty, surely, is with the Queen herself?"
"You may be right," growled the Captain with a shrug. "I have lived my life with warriors, not women. Attend to the Queen. She sorely needs your aid."
Without another word Didorian led Zarasis back to her chamber.
As for the others, they remained without, in the Room of the Bath, where Idina supplied Neil and Fountain with a meal of cakes of wheaten flour and maize, luscious fruits such as pomegranates and the juice of prickly pears crushed in cream skimmed from goats' milk, whilst he explained to them the conversation that had taken place between Dario and the maid-in-waiting.
And it was then that Neil Ranson decided upon a course of action as rash as it was dangerous. Though he had been but a few minutes in the palace of Khandara, he was already a staunch partisan on the side of Queen Zarasis. He was determined to prove at the very outset that both he and Fountain were ready to risk their lives for right and justice.
"I am no taller than the Queen," said he, "and could be made to seem as slender. Why should I not be dressed in her clothes and veiled? Why should I not find my way to the house of the Sorcerer, if I am told which way to go? I have seen the Queen, and I know well how to act as if I were in a trance. Dario has declared that, being in a trance, I need not speak, but I can see through my veil all there is to see."
The Captain grasped the boy by both shoulders.
"Do you mean this?" he cried.
"Every word of it," said Neil. "I can promise nothing, except that I will do my best."
Dario burst into laughter.
"It is agreed," he cried. "I see now that there have come to Khandara those who will bring Punhri to his knees."
Not willingly did John Fountain assent to this. If he said nothing either for or against what had been suggested, it was because for the first time in his life he was at a loss to explain or to understand the situation in which he found himself.
Idina repaired to the Queen's chamber, knocked upon the door, and borrowed from Didorian a robe that the Queen often wore. When Neil was clothed in this, Didorian dressed the boy's hair, which had not been cut for weeks, and fastened around his forehead a golden circlet, in the front of which was the hooded head of a cobra fashioned in jade. Beneath this she had disposed a heavy veil that completely masked Neil's face. And when she stepped back and regarded her handiwork she clapped her hands like a child.
"It is the Queen herself!" she cried.
The boy was accompanied to the gates of the palace by his three companions, and there Dario gave orders to his astonished sentries to allow the Queen to pass. And Neil Ranson found himself alone in the wide, dark streets of the city of Khandara.
NEIL had already received definite instructions from Idina, who had told the boy to follow the main street, at the end of which was the palace gate, until he came to a square where there was a great obelisk guarded by two sphinxes that faced the east. He was to turn from this square toward the left, when, after walking a distance of about two hundred yards, he would come upon another, though a smaller, square, in which he could not mistake the palace of Punhri, for a flight of stone steps led to the portico, upon either side of which was a great image of a Sitting Scribe, as evidence that within lived one of the wise men of the land.
Arrived at his destination, Neil would be obliged to use his own discretion. He had a difficult part to play, but he must play it skilfully, or else his life would be forfeited.
Mingled feelings played havoc with the boy's imagination as he wended his way along the wide, straight street. He beheld Khandara for the first time in his life, and he saw it in the moonlight, at an hour when the streets were more or less deserted. He encountered only two or three wayfarers, men bare of foot who slunk past him stealthily, like cats, and then turned to regard him in amazement.
He walked as quickly as he dared until he came to the larger square, that impressed him more than anything he had yet seen, for it was crowded with the statues of goddesses and gods, all graven in a white stone that made them appear in the moonlight an army of colossal ghosts. And in the midst of these was a tall tower, sharp-pointed, rising more than two hundred feet into the air.
Neil, obedient to his instructions, took the main street to the right, and came in a little while upon another square, where the moonlight fell full upon an imposing building at the head of a flight of steps.
Here were the Sitting Scribes; and this place was therefore the palace of the Sorcerer. Growing more fearful every step he took, his heart beating violently, Neil ascended the steps slowly, keeping his body as motionless as he could, as if he walked in his sleep.
As he approached the doorway he faltered. Having no means of knowing what kind of reception was in store for him, he had made no plans. He had not the least idea what he was going to do. And then, very swiftly, and yet quite silently, the door before him opened.
He found himself in a wide hall, or passage, the floor of which was of mosaic. This hall was lighted by ornate metal lanterns suspended upon chains. And the light from these was red—a dull, ruby red—which, together with the strange intoxicating smell of incense with which the atmosphere was charged, gave the boy the immediate impression that he had found his way into a temple.
For the moment, however, he was overawed by the appearance of the man in whose presence he found himself. Punhri, the Sorcerer, the greatest man in the kingdom of Khandara, stood before Neil Ranson, whom he believed to be the Queen, for he bowed low, extending his arms before him.
And then he straightened, and laughed in his curled, square- cut beard.
He was somewhat above the middle height and very thin. His long hair, black as jet, hung down to the nape of his neck, where it was cut in a straight line. His eyebrows were dark and well defined, meeting upon the bridge of a nose that was like the beak of a bird of prey. In his eyes there was something terrible —a strange, metallic glint. They were like the eyes of a serpent.
Very deliberately he raised his hands and made a few passes before the boy's face, after the manner of a mesmerist. Neil was at once vaguely conscious of a sensation as if he were falling under the influence of an anaesthetic. At the same time, he could not fail to notice Punhri's hand, the fingers of which were long and claw-like, whilst upon many were rings in which were set gigantic emeralds and rubies.
He spoke in a deep voice; and although Neil could not understand a word, there was no mistaking the man's meaning, for he immediately turned upon his heel and walked slowly down the passage, at the end of which he ascended a narrow flight of stairs.
The boy followed, still like one in a trance. Indeed, the very atmosphere of the place and the personality of this extraordinary man made him feel that he might, at any moment, completely lose possession of his willpower.
They entered a little room at the head of the staircase, where the walls were draped with fantastic curtains that bore many strange, cryptic designs and mystic symbols. Here, too, was an oil lamp that burned with a bright-red glow upon a pedestal, at the foot of which, upon a slab, was a great crystal that reflected many beautiful prismatic lights.
There were several tables in this room, upon which were skulls and bones and little images of human beings made of clay and stabbed with golden pins. There was a huge lizard, too, more than three feet in length, that, as they entered, darted swiftly across the floor.
Punhri went straight to a small central table upon was which a roll of papyrus covered with hieroglyphics. Without a word, he thrust into Neil's hand a stylus, and with a gesture intimated that the Queen was to sign her name to the death warrant of the prisoner.
Suddenly aware of this, acting upon the impulse of the moment, Neil drew back, and cast the stylus upon the floor. And a moment after he believed that his last hour was come, for Punhri stood before him, his eyes ablaze with wrath, his arms stiff and quivering at his sides.
For a moment there was silence. They stood facing each other. And then the Sorcerer, with a loud cry that might have been an oath, seized Neil by a wrist and dragged him across the room.
He flung open a door, through which he hurled his victim. The door slammed. Neil heard the key turn sharply in the lock.
He found himself in comparative darkness, in which, coming from the red light of the outer room, he could not at first see a yard in front of him. A moment elapsed before he realized that he himself was now a captive—a prisoner in the house of Punhri, the Sorcerer.
IN a moment Neil's eyes had grown accustomed to the semi-darkness of the room. It was a bare, unfurnished chamber with a dome-shaped roof, and in one wall was a window about eight feet from the ground through which the moonlight streamed.
He realized at once that there could he no escape, unless by way of this window. Never in his life had he been so alarmed. Though he had seen Punhri for little more than a minute, he dreaded the man, whose appearance was sinister and forbidding.
Neil approached the window, to find at once that his movements were hampered by the tightness of the skirt he wore. Hitherto he had walked with short strides, imitating as well as he could the actions of a sleepwalker; but now, when he would jump to the level of the window-sill, which was well above his head, he saw that he must have the free use of his limbs, that he could do nothing in a woman's gorgeous dress that was caught tight around the knees.
The dress was of the very finest silk, into which had been interwoven threads of gold that shimmered in the light at every movement. Neil Ranson caught the hem of the skirt in both hands, and with a jerk tore it, ripping it upward, so that he had now the free use of his legs. With a rush he sprang and caught the window-sill, hoisting himself from the floor.
And here two details are of importance in regard to the architecture of Khandara. In the first place, these wonderful people had not yet invented glass, and, so far as the windows of their houses were concerned, glass was quite unnecessary, for the climate was never cold, and when it rained—as if often did—a kind of shutter was lowered, made of wood, that well served its purpose. Secondly, the roofs of the houses were flat, and these were often used as gardens, palms and tropical shrubs being planted in great earthenware pots arranged in rows.
Neil, seated upon the window-sill, found himself at a perilous height above the ground. The foundations of the house itself were well above the square in which it stood, and the long staircase Punhri and the boy had ascended had lead direct to the uppermost storey.
This window looked down upon the roofs of the neighbouring houses. In the moonlight the Royal Palace could be seen at no great distance, whilst the great obelisk, that was like Cleopatra's Needle, arose from the central square.
Level with the window-sill was a narrow ledge of masonry about two feet in width, which appeared to surround the entire building. Standing upon this, and grasping the woodwork of the shutter, Neil Ranson took in his surroundings.
The parapet of the roof was no more than nine or ten feet above him. But, from a position so precarious, he dared not jump, though he soon satisfied himself that the wooden shutter was strong enough to take his weight.
As swiftly as he could, and yet with extreme caution, he climbed until he was within reach of the parapet. He had always been as active as a monkey, and having a good head for heights, presently he found himself upon the roof of the building.
Here were neither plants nor palms, nor had any attempt been made at decoration. There was a table and a chair, and upon the table were many strange astrological instruments, which conveyed nothing to Neil.
The roof was square, and the boy had no need to walk round the parapet more than once to discover that he could not possibly hope to escape by way of the outer wall.
There were, however, at the eastern extremity of the roof, two stone images of those quaint dog-headed creatures whose duty—according to the ancient Egyptians—was to entrap the souls of human beings in a net. And between these was a flight of steps that led downward to the interior of the house.
As may be imagined, Neil dreaded to return, but he could not fail to see that he had no alternative. He must descend the stairs, trusting to providence that he would not be discovered, and that he would be able to find some way of escape.
The steps were in utter darkness, for they were spiral and therefore shut out from the moonlight. And this, in one sense, was fortunate, for the boy had not gone far when, to his utmost consternation, he heard footsteps approaching. Someone was ascending.
The central pillar around which the staircase turned was not round, but shaped like a figure of eight. In consequence of this, the steps were wider in some places than in others. And holding his breath, standing stiff and upright, Neil squashed himself into this central recess, where in fear and trembling he awaited the approach of the newcomer.
Someone passed quite near to him—so near, in fact, that he was brushed lightly by a flowing robe. A few moments after the man must have come forth upon the roof, for Neil heard the deep voice of one who spoke aloud—a voice that he recognized at once as that of the Sorcerer himself.
He waited no longer. Something like sheer terror possessed him. He was resolved to escape, if he could, whilst there was time. Punhri, at any rate, was out of the way.
Reaching the bottom of the steps, he found himself in a great room that he had not seen before, which he presumed to be upon the ground floor. Here were several doors, and, opening one at random, he entered a long, bare chamber where several men were asleep.
These were no doubt the High Priest's servants, for they wore little or no clothing, and lay upon rough beds of rushes. There was light enough to see every detail of the place, since the uncurtained window admitted the full rays of the moon.
Neil remained quite still long enough to satisfy himself that all these men were sound asleep. On tiptoe he then crossed the room and vaulted lightly to a window, where he discovered to his intense relief that he was not more than seven feet from the ground.
He dropped into a narrow thoroughfare, where, without thinking where he was going, he set off running as fast as he could.
He had not gone far before he came to a sudden halt. He did not know where he was. He could not find his way back to the palace unless he first found the smaller square in which stood Punhri's house. He therefore retraced his steps until he saw one of the great statues of the Sitting Scribe. And now, recognizing where he was, it took him not more than a few minutes to race to the Palace gates.
There he found Dario awaiting him, with whom also was Idina.
"You have returned in the nick of time," said Dario. "We have anxiously awaited you. In half an hour it will be daylight, and the streets thronged with people."
"Have you discovered anything?" Idina asked.
"I have found out much," replied the boy. "I have entered the house of Punhri. The Queen was thrown into a trance that she might sign the death warrant of Tremayne."
The Captain laughed loudly in his great black beard.
"We'll pay Punhri back in his own coin!" he cried, when he had heard the whole story from Idina. "He has cast a spell upon the Queen; he has dared to place her under lock and key; and it will seem as if she has been spirited away. We will cause Punhri to believe that this is the work of the White Wizard, the man whom above all others he hates and fears, of whom he is vilely jealous."
Dario could not continue speaking. Laughter compelled him to hold his sides. He clapped his great hands upon the golden breastplates of his armour.
"This is the greatest joke that ever was!" he roared.
But Idina was of a more serious turn of mind than this blunt, boisterous soldier.
"Naught can be a joke," said he, without a smile upon his face, "where Punhri is concerned. The High Priest is a sorcerer who can at any moment summon to his aid all the imps and devils of the Underworld."
FOR the next few days Neil Ranson and Fountain were housed in secret in a suite of rooms in the Royal Palace, and here they were given all the luxuries that the city could provide.
Dario, the Captain of the Host, took the wise precaution of swearing to secrecy every one of his men, all of whom were quartered in the palace itself. It was believed, also, that the palace servants could be trusted, and it seemed improbable therefore that the secret could leak out. And all this while Henry Tremayne was held a prisoner in the great Castle, built upon one of the largest islands in the lake.
During these days the two royal guests had many talks with Dario and Idina. They were all agreed that some attempt should be made to set the prisoner free; but exactly how they were to set about an enterprise so hazardous it was not easy to decide, for it was possible to approach the Castle only by boat, whilst the place itself was strongly guarded by the civic soldiers, or militia, all of whom were in favour of Punhri and in opposition to the Queen.
The Sorcerer had already played his cards with an exceeding cleverness. There can be little doubt that the High Priest aimed at the throne. He had, therefore, caused a rumour to be bruited abroad that the Queen was bewitched, that she had fallen under the evil influence of the White Wizard, whom, for that very reason, he held a prisoner in the Castle. Unfortunately, Neil Ranson, disguised as the Queen herself, had been seen at dead of night in the city streets. This unheard-of occurrence was soon the common talk of the people, who were rapidly coming round to the belief that the Queen was, indeed, possessed of an evil spirit, and therefore incompetent to rule.
Punhri, in making his plans, had overlooked nothing. Whilst using every effort to bring the Queen under his hypnotic influence, he had caused certain soothsayers to predict in the market-place and at all public meetings that very shortly a great calamity would befall the nation, that a dynasty that had survived for centuries would suddenly come to an end.
The laugh was no longer on the side of Dario. It was a very serious and wrathful warrior who conferred nightly with John Fountain and Neil.
"Every day," said he, "Punhri becomes more powerful. Soon he will take it into his own hands to put to death the White Wizard to whom we owe so much, though by the law of the land no one has the power of life and death but the reigning monarch."
"We must rescue him," said Fountain, "and lose no time about it."
Dario shook his head.
"Were I to attack the Castle with the guard," said he, "I could rescue the captive in less than an hour. But it would mean civil war. Not only the people, but the priests, too, would be against us."
Idina now spoke deliberately, with his eyes fixed upon the floor.
"Let no such calamity fall upon Khandara but as a grave necessity," said he. "Listen, I have a friend who is in the priesthood, who serves in the Temple of Isis, and from him I have heard that Punhri will shortly revive a cruel and horrible ceremony which has not been practised among our people for many years."
"What will he do?" asked Dario.
"He is about to restore a foreign god who long ago was worshipped in Khandara. The Sorcerer, as the High Priest of the nation, will announce the Feast of Moloch."
"The god of Fire!" exclaimed Neil.
"That is so," said Idina, "though how you should have heard of Moloch I cannot tell, for he is a god who demands a human sacrifice; and, if Punhri brings him back into the land, you may depend upon it he will declare to the priests and to the people that Moloch must be appeased for generations of neglect."
John Fountain sprang to his feet.
"I see what you're driving at!" he cried. "The Sorcerer proposes to restore this barbaric custom, since he can think of no other way of getting rid of Tremayne."
Idina shrugged his shoulders.
"I myself have thought it possible," said he. "I heard this news for the first time to-day. I determined to discuss the situation this evening with Dario and yourself."
They turned to the Captain of the Host, to see what he would say. Dario had taken off his golden armour and his helmet, and lay stretched at his full length upon a couch. Sprawling upon silken cushions, with his great hairy arms and legs and his scarred and battered face, he resembled a huge gorilla clothed in a purple, sleeveless tunic.
"We can make no plans," said he, "until we now exactly what Punhri means to do. Certain it is, the clouds are gathering. Soon the storm will burst. So far as I am concerned, I fear Moloch no more than the Sorcerer himself."
Punhri, having no power to put the prisoner to death or to do him bodily harm as High Priest, had devised this method of accomplishing his ends. And three days afterwards the Feast of Moloch was publicly announced, criers parading the streets, the priests commanding all the people to attend.
Though not for many generations had such a shameful ceremony taken place in Khandara, there were few who did not know the tradition. Moloch had been the savage god of the ancient Carthaginians—from whom no doubt the ancestors of these people had inherited the deity who was, in truth, more devil than god. But, beyond the fact that a great image of Moloch was to be exhibited in public, and certain rites would be performed in the Temple of the Sun, Punhri had published no other details of his programme.
For all that, there could be no question that Tremayne was to be brought before the priesthood, and the oracles consulted as to whether or not he should be put to death to propitiate this deadful and revengeful god. If the Queen herself forbade the sacrifice, it would seem that she was acting in opposition to the gods.
"The situation is serious," said Dario. "Zarasis must go to the Temple of the Sun. She dare not refuse. And since all men are bidden to attend the ceremony, I, also, go with five hundred guards; and we march through the streets with naked swords."
"If there is to be fighting," said Fountain, "I and my young friend are not inclined to be left out of it. You must disguise us as two of your men, and let us march in the ranks."
Dario burst into laughter.
"That will be easy enough," said he, "though I doubt that either of you can use a broadsword after the manner of my warriors."
The day of this strange and awful ceremony arrived—a red-letter day in the history of Khandara. The streets were crowded with people who had come forth to behold a spectacle that in bygone times had been the principal event of every year.
The priests marched from the various temples in the city and forgathered in the great central square around the obelisk. And thither, too, came a gigantic and hideous idol upon a cart with sixteen wooden wheels, drawn by thirty oxen. Then the whole procession, followed by the crowd, made the circuit of the city walls, and passing into the main street by the western gate, advanced toward the Temple of the Sun.
This was a vast, roofless building, not unlike the Colosseum at Rome, capable of accommodating as many as twenty thousand people. In the centre was a great arena where there were stone monoliths and altars, necessary for the proper worship of the Sun god; and around this were many tiers of stone seats, like steps, where the multitude might sit to behold the sacred rites. In the royal enclosure, at the east end of the amphitheatre, was Queen Zarasis, attended by her maids-in-waiting, amongst whom was Didorian. On either side of her were the royal bodyguard, with John Fountain and Neil Ranson in the ranks of these sunburnt, seasoned warriors; whilst immediately before the Queen stood Dario, his great sword drawn.
The High Priest himself stood in the centre of the arena. With cunning and subtlety he had devised this scheme to deprive Zarasis of what little authority remained to her before the eyes of her people.
The image of Moloch had been made of painted wood. It had been drawn up before a great slab of black marble upon which were various inscriptions and hieroglyphics.
In this place in former times human sacrifices had been offered to Moloch; but there were few there who knew that this slab was a trap-door beneath which was a subterranean river that connected with the lake not far away. It was into this that the lifeless bodies of the unfortunate victims had been thrown, after they had been murdered to appease the wrath of this barbaric deity.
The ceremony began with a long oration from the High Priest, in which he declared that a vision had appeared to him—a vision that had also been seen by many of the priesthood. Moloch, the god of their forefathers, had sent a messenger to earth, demanding to know why the god of Vengeance was no longer worshipped in Khandara.
Moloch was without pity. He was terrible; he was powerful; and he was hungry as fire. The god had conveyed to the High Priest a threat. If the people of Khandara continued to ignore him, his vengeance would be terrible, and the city would be destroyed.
It behoved them, therefore, once again to worship Moloch, who had declared that he would be satisfied, that he would forget and forgive the neglect of many years, if a white man was sacrificed in his honour.
Thus did Punhri prepare the way for what he meant to do. There was no one there who did not guess what was coming. The Queen was seen to blanch; Dario to grip his sword more tightly.
Neither Fountain nor Neil could understand a word of what was being said; but the former was heard to matter to himself when Henry Tremayne, escorted by civic guards, was led into the arena.
Neil Ranson gazed at him in astonishment and admiration. He had seen tall men before, but few so tall as this. Tremayne was over six feet four in height, and, in spite of his great breadth of shoulder, appeared to be even taller. He was fair of complexion, with a great golden beard that was spread upon his bare chest; for he wore no clothes save the skin of a lion that was clasped upon a shoulder.
The ceremony continued, Punhri directing everything according to his plan. He declared that this was the White Wizard, the man who had bewitched the Queen, who had cast a spell upon her; and he made this announcement in front of Zarasis herself.
And then, with arms extended, he advanced toward the image. He demanded judgment. And the voice of one whom he had hidden within the hollow god answered in the name of Moloch that the white man must surely die.
At this juncture the young Queen could contain herself no longer. Accompanied by Didorian, she left the royal enclosure, and advanced toward Punhri in the presence of her people.
"This murder I forbid," she cried. "This false god I publicly denounce."
A sound came from the assembled multitude that was like a groan. The hundreds who were there were aghast at the courage of Zarasis; and they were all afraid.
"By what right, O Queen," asked Punhri, "do you defy the gods?"
"By the right of my sovereignty," she answered boldly. "It is well known to you, and to everyone, that no one in this land may be put to death without my sanction and my seal."
"Is the Queen of Khandara greater than Moloch?" the High Priest demanded.
"I am Zarasis," she replied.
Punhri turned to the people and threw out his arms.
"She is bewitched!" he cried. "Are we to be ruled by one in whom there is an evil spirit?"
With her fists clenched, with her arms stiff and straight at her sides, she drew even nearer to the man.
"Thou shalt not do murder here," she cried, "in the name of Moloch or any other heathen god!"
And scarcely had the words left her lips than she stood as if transfixed, as if paralysed in every limb.
Punhri's cold, glittering eye was upon her. For a moment he raised his hands and passed them across her face.
She swayed a little, as if about to fall, and then remained motionless, as still as a statue, her eyes staring vacantly in front of her.
Once again Punhri flung out his arms toward the people.
"Behold!" he cried. "Judge for yourselves whether or not Zarasis be bewitched!"
BUT the worst of Punhri's villainy was yet to come.
He was, in truth, master of the situation. He had the false god, Moloch, on his side; and the great, hideous idol seemed to grin down upon him in approval. The civic guards were there, ready to support him, to obey his commands. The Queen was under his hypnotic influence, no longer responsible for what she said or did; whilst the majority of the people were partisans of the High Priest.
One man only did Punhri dread; and that was Dario. He knew that no soldier of the royal bodyguard would break his oath of allegiance. Not only were they trained and hardened warriors whose courage had been put often to the test, but each was loyal to the Queen.
And there was one other there who was a traitor in Punhri's camp. The priest of Isis, who was Idina's friend, was eager to help the Queen, though he dared do nothing openly.
Seeing that Zarasis was in sore distress, this man now drew near to Idina who stood at the head of the soldiers under his immediate command.
"See for yourselves," cried Punhri to the people, "your Queen is mad! Is it right that one who is bereft of reason should hold in her hands the destiny of a nation?"
A multitude of ignorant and superstitious people is very like, in many ways, a flock of senseless sheep. They have no mind of their own. They will believe whatsoever they are told; they will go whither they are led.
"Restore her to her reason," they shouted. "Recall Zarasis to her senses, and let the White Wizard die!"
The High Priest was seen to smile—nothing but a gleam of white teeth above his black, square-cut beard.
"That will I do," he answered. "By means of sorcery, I have prepared a cordial that will revive her."
He took from the hands of an attendant priest a silver chalice, and with this approached the Queen.
"The soul of Zarasis is ill at ease," said he. "Her heart is weary. Drink of this cordial, and be restored to strength."
"I am thy servant," she replied.
All were amazed. Without question she was mad.
Punhri, with the chalice in one hand, held out the other toward her, as if he were distressed.
"What ails thee?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Naught," she answered. "I am thy slave. I am here but to obey thy commands."
The High Priest turned with a gesture of despair to his attendants.
"She is ill," said he. "She is bewitched."
It was then that the priest of Isis whispered in Idina's ear.
"That cup is poisoned," he declared. "Punhri would have the people believe that Moloch has struck her dead."
"And here I have wine," the Sorcerer went on, "that has been dedicated to Moloch. Drink of this, O Queen; pray that the devil that possesses thee may depart, and all will yet be well."
He held the goblet toward Zarasis, who took it in both hands. She had raised it to her lips, and was on the point of drinking, when all were startled by a sudden shout, a loud cry of alarm. Henry Tremayne had broken from his guards, three of whom he had hurled to the ground, and came running toward her.
He called upon the Queen by name, and at the sound of his voice she shivered and straightened as with a jerk. And then it was as if, upon the instant, she had become alive.
Idina rushed to Dario.
"Beware!" he cried. "The silver cup is poisoned!"
The bright blade of Dario's sword glittered in the sunshine.
Punhri had drawn back a step or two before Tremayne. Both his fists were tightly clenched. Trembling with rage, he groped in a senseless manner at his waist-band, as if he would there find some weapon with which to strike the white man down.
Tremayne himself did not appear to notice him. He was then looking at the Queen. Without violence he took the golden cup from her hand, and turned again to the High Priest, speaking in the language of Khandara.
"What does this contain?" he asked.
"That is no affair of thine," replied the other sharply.
"Thou shalt answer me," roared Tremayne. "What does this cup contain?"
The Sorcerer turned to the commander of the civic guards.
"Arrest this man," he cried. "He was brought here a prisoner, not a judge."
The officer approached to obey his orders, when he fell back before the gleaming sword of the Captain of the Host. The voice of Dario was like thunder.
"An end to all this talk!" he cried. "If any man lay hands upon the White Wizard, who was ever the friend of the citizens of Khandara, the royal bodyguard unsheath their swords!"
"What has this to do with thee?" cried Punhri, glaring at the grizzled warrior.
"Before the assembled people," said Dario, "I ask thee, Punhri, the question that remains unanswered: What does this cup contain?"
"A cordial. The elixir of life and strength and hope."
"Then," cried Dario, directing the blade of his sword at the High Priest's heart, "thou shalt drink it thyself; or here and now—though this be sacred ground—I strike thee dead."
Punhri drew back.
"Why should I not drink sacred wine?" he laughed. "But I can drink only at the feet of the god from whom such wine is a gift. Come hither," he added, turning to Tremayne "and see that I drain the chalice to the last drop."
He turned and walked a little way to the great image of Moloch, Tremayne following until he stood upon the black marble slab.
"Behold!" cried Punhri. "I drink to the god of Fire, the god of Vengeance!"
He raised the cup to his lips, but at the same moment his right foot stamped upon a bronze knob by the side of the marble slab which fell after the manner of a trap-door—and below was a pit as black as a bottomless grave.
Tremayne, standing upon the slab, lost his balance, and then made one vain and frantic attempt to throw himself upon the ground. He gripped for a moment the edge of the pit, and hung there, swinging and struggling, no more than his head visible to the assembled people. And, in that instant, the Queen herself rushed to him and endeavoured to haul him back to safety.
It was all over in a second, before Dario could help.
Zarasis had no strength. And yet she held fast to the wrists of the man she loved; whilst he, hanging at first by his fingers only, and then by no more than his finger-nails, slid slowly back into that dark, gaping death-trap.
The Queen held to him until the very last. And then together these two plunged into the darkness beneath the temple floor.
Punhri straightened himself. He stood like a man turned to stone. And then he dashed the silver cup upon the ground.
At that moment, from far below them, from out of the darkness of that black, yawning cavity, there came a splash—the sound of something heavy falling into water.
HENRY TREMAYNE had always been a strong swimmer, and during his stay in Khandara he had accomplished many remarkable feats, actually swimming on one occasion the whole length of the lake.
He now found himself in a dark pool, many feet below the level of the temple floor. He had sunk several feet beneath the water, but, on rising to the surface, he had at once seized the body of the Queen. Not only was she as light as a feather, but, as she was then in an unconscious condition, Tremayne experienced no difficulty in keeping her afloat.
The pool was circular, and not more than ten yards in diameter. Tremayne, still holding the Queen, swam round the walls, to find that I here was no way of exit.
He listened, but could hear no sound above him. It was so dark that he could see nothing. He tasted the water, and found that it was fresh. There was, therefore, some outlet from the well into the lake—which he knew to be close at hand—for, had there been no such opening, the water would have been stagnant and foul.
He swam round the walls again to assure himself that there was no such channel upon the surface level. He found many holes or niches in the stone, but no passage by means of which the water might flow in and out.
He spoke to the Queen, and to his great relief she answered. He explained to her what he wanted her to do, and then asked her if she thought she had the strength to cling for a few seconds to one of the niches in the wall.
At first she replied that she could not do so, but when he told her that otherwise they must both perish, she answered that for his sake she would attempt it.
He found a place where she could procure a firm hold upon the wall. And there he left her, half floating, half hanging upon the brickwork, whilst he himself dived deep, swimming lower and lower under the water, descending by a series of spirals, and feeling the wall as he went.
In a moment, he came to the surface again.
"And now, courage," said he. "Do as I bid you, and we may yet be saved. Take a deep breath, and then keep your lips tight shut. Fear nothing. Our lives are in the hands of the God of whom I have taught you."
Then he dived, and swam with her under water, straight as a fish, through the subterranean passage that he had already found—a place like a drain, choked with water to the top.
He swam onward in desperate haste. From time to time his back struck the brickwork above them. He knew that upon his strength and powers of endurance alone depended the future of Khandara.
And then, at last, the compression of the water above him suddenly became less. He rose to the surface with Zarasis still in his arms, took in one deep gasp of breath, and then looked up—and beheld the sun.
He had gained the lake, at last—and even then, perhaps, too late, for the Queen's white face was like the face of death.
For his first thoughts were of her. She lay in his arms, unconscious again, her dark hair floating on the water. And yet she lived; her heart still beat. He looked at the great walls near by, at the corner of which stood the Temple of Isis, the special deity who was presumed to watch over the destiny of the Queen.
With a few powerful strokes he swam swiftly to a flight of landing-steps where several boats were moored.
He now acted with the greatest caution. Fortunately all the priests and people were gathered in the amphitheatre of the Temple of the Sun. Seeing no one about, and deeming it safe to land, Tremayne dragged the Queen's body from the water, and laid her down upon the steps, where he knelt beside her.
Her hands were icy cold. Her eyes were closed. There was no sign of life about her, save for the almost imperceptible beating of her heart.
He took both her hands in his and rubbed them vigorously, to cause the blood to circulate, and was presently rewarded by the flicker of an eyelash—a sure sign that she was returning to consciousness.
Tremayne knew that he had no time to spare. He must hasten to the palace with all speed, for soon Punhri and his people would come forth from the Temple of the Sun. Lifting the Queen in his arms, he ran like a madman, realizing that, if he were seen and recognized, all would be lost, since he was known to be a prisoner charged with having bewitched the Queen.
Fortunately, it was but a short distance to the palace, and the young Queen was but a featherweight to carry. With long strides, dressed in his lion's skin, Henry Tremayne dashed through the streets of that most wonderful of cities.
Suddenly he was brought to a standstill. He stood motionless, listening, at first unable to explain the meaning of what he heard.
From the direction of the Temple of the Sun there came the noise of tumult and confusion; loud shouts, cries of panic, and the furious clash of arms.
The valiant Dario and his men had struck in their own defence. When the Queen had vanished into the depths, Punhri, on the spur of the moment, had tried to save the situation. Clever as a serpent, quick as a bird of prey, he had striven to throw the responsibility for what had happened upon the false god in whom he would have the citizens believe.
"Moloch has answered!" he cried. "Moloch himself has decreed that not only the White Wizard, but Zarasis herself must die."
"Then," roared Dario, "thou, too, shalt die, and by this sword that has served me faithfully for near a score of years!"
So crying, he had rushed upon the High Priest, who fled in fear before him. And in a moment there was uproar and disorder.
The citizens arose from their seats, and many of those who were armed hastened to the aid of the Sorcerer. Punhri was surrounded by his civic guards and the priests of the various temples, all of whom—though this was a religious ceremony—now drew swords from beneath their priestly robes.
And at that hour began the Civil War. The conflict in the arena of the Temple of the Sun was the beginning of hostilities that endured for many weeks.
The men of the bodyguard fought bravely for Zarasis, but they were outnumbered by more than twenty to one, and there was a time when they were surrounded by their enemies.
Dario was an experienced commander who knew that, if the victory was to be gained, he must fight upon ground of his own choosing. No place in the city was more suitable for a prolonged defence than the Royal Palace itself.
But, not until he was compelled to do so, did he give the order to retire. And then he and his men fought their way out from the Temple, and thence through the city streets.
It was the sound of the fighting in the temple that had attracted the attention of Tremayne. He well knew his way about Khandara, for he had now lived in the place for more than two years, and was able to speak the language fluently. Quite suddenly the street in front of him became thronged with people who had hastened in panic from the conflict.
Many of these, recognizing Tremayne at once, set up a great cry of astonishment when they beheld him, for they believed that with their own eyes they had seen him perish.
For a moment Tremayne placed the Queen upon her feet. She was able to stand, though she leaned for support against a pillar. A youth came running past, and Tremayne caught him by the throat.
"Tell me," he demanded, "what has happened in the Temple of the Sun? Is Dario victorious, or has Punhri won the day?"
The youth, who was terrified out of his life, blurted out the truth.
"To the palace!" cried Tremayne. "We must gain the palace before it is too late."
Again he snatched up the Queen and hastened upon his way; and even as he reached the palace gates he came upon two soldiers wearing the armour of the bodyguard.
One of these was a youth, the other was bearded, wizened and thin, and—in spite of middle-age—sinewy and wiry.
It was this man who addressed Tremayne in English—his mother tongue that he had not heard for years. It was as if he had heard a Voice from the Dead.
"Henry Tremayne!" cried John Fountain. "You and I parted company some years ago, at the mouth of the Zambesi!"
Tremayne stood staring at the other in a dazed manner, like one unable to believe the evidence of his eyes.
"Who in the name of all that's wonderful are you?" he asked.
"John Fountain," said the hunter, with a laugh. "And this is my young friend, Neil Ranson, whose father you also knew."
There came a howl behind them, like that of a pack of wolves, as the mob surged into the main street. Looking back, they beheld the armed priests, shrieking like fanatics, all frenzied with excitement.
"Come," said Tremayne, "this is no time for talk."
Still carrying the Queen, and followed by Fountain and Neil, he passed into the palace.
AND now began the siege of the Royal Palace of Khandara.
That evening Punhri had assembled outside the palace walls a great mob of people, priests and civic soldiers, who watched the various gates by day and night, though they did not dare attack for fear of Dario and his men.
The Sorcerer, certain of his ground, was content to bide his time. He knew that every day the palace was invested Zarasis must lose more and more of her authority. It was known that the Queen had been saved by the prisoner who had now escaped from the Castle on the lake, for both had been seen by many people in the public streets.
But Zarasis was now a queen only in name. The people could not be expected to honour a sovereign who remained a prisoner in her own palace. Punhri did not fear Tremayne, for long since the white man had been deprived of his arms, his rifle and revolver. In one respect only were the calculations of the High Priest at fault; he had not the least idea that there were also with the Queen two other white men who were armed with firearms, which they well knew how to use.
Zarasis having been saved at the eleventh hour, Punhri was determined not to fail a second time. As before, he made his plans with almost fiendish ingenuity.
Of the exact nature of these plans those within the palace had no idea. Tremayne was now quartered in the same suite of rooms as John Fountain and Neil. Seldom did a day pass that they did not see Zarasis, though Dario's visits were few and far between, for he was continually on duty at the gates and at the outer palace walls, where the mob might break in at any moment.
For the first week or so there was fit tie or no danger, for those who clamoured without the walls, though they showed no sign of retiring, made no attempt to attack.
"Keep your firearms," Dario had said to Fountain, "until the crisis comes. It may be that loyalty and common sense will yet win the day by peaceful means."
"The gods forbid that there should be further bloodshed," said Idina, who was always present at these interviews.
"And so say I," said Dario, "though I would that the Queen would order me to sally forth and put these rascals to the sword. Sooner or later Punhri will devise some means of battering down the walls."
"Then," said Idina, "shall we fight to the last man, even in the palace itself. We either save the throne, or die for Queen Zarasis."
Henry Tremayne laughed.
"Punhri will be no such fool," said he. "He knows that in these courtyards and passages the rabble he commands will never hold their own against the trained warriors of the bodyguard."
"Let him risk it, if he will," said Dario. "We have, as you know, a surprise in store for him. When they find themselves opposed by the firearms of our white men, they will return quicker than they came."
Since Neil Ranson and John Fountain knew less of Punhri than the others, they came in a little time to look upon the siege as a farce. Certainly they could not leave the palace; but so far as that was concerned they were no worse off than they had been.
Dario had decided that it would be best to let Punhri make the first move, thereby placing himself in the wrong; but days passed—and nothing happened.
But during the third week of the siege increased activity took place outside the palace walls. Punhri's men dragged to the gates certain light battering-rams, used in warfare to destroy the stockades of the savage tribes who lived beyond the mountains.
The three Europeans, having talked late one night, lay down to sleep shortly before midnight. They no longer enjoyed the luxuries with which they had formerly been regaled, since the palace was running short of provisions. However, they were well cared for in every way, and treated with the greatest consideration, the Queen's servants being in constant attendance upon them—except at night, when they were left alone in the suite of rooms that had been allotted to them.
Neil Ranson was the first to be awakened by such a noise and commotion as caused him to believe that the long expected attack had begun. Though it was the early hours of the morning, the mob was evidently gathered in force at each of the palace gates, where there was loud shouting, punctuated from time to time by the heavy thuds of the battering-rams at work.
John Fountain and Tremayne were soon upon their feet, and it was then that, from the tower of a neighbouring temple, they heard the loud voice of a priest. Tremayne, who understood the language, could hear every word distinctly from a window that was not more than two hundred yards from the tower.
"O people of Khandara," the priest announced, "the Queen is mad. Queen Zarasis is bewitched. Black magic is at work. Before the dawn she dies. This very night Zarasis leaves the world."
Great gongs were sounding everywhere. Sentinel priests upon the roofs of the various temples were shouting the same message. Even from within the palace people could be heard hurrying through the streets, demanding of one another the cause of the disturbance.
Tremayne swung round from the window and faced his two companions.
"There's mischief here!" he cried. "Punhri, at last, shows his hand."
John Fountain stroked his grizzly beard.
"You're right," he answered. "The man would never dare predict the death of the Queen if he had not some plan. We may be certain Zarasis is in danger."
Tremayne snatched up a great sword, and turned towards the door.
"We must hasten to her aid," said he. "There is no one with her but her women. Bring your revolvers, and see that they are loaded."
He rushed to the door, seized the handle, and made several vain attempts to open it.
"Merciful powers," he cried. "We're locked in! We are trapped like rats!"
THERE burned in the room one of the oil lanterns common throughout the palace, made of bronze and in the shape of a water-lily. By the light of this they stared at one another in amazement.
"Locked in!" cried Neil. "The thing's impossible!"
"It's possible enough to be the truth," said Fountain. "We've been caught napping with a vengeance! Either traitors or Punhri's men are in the palace."
Tremayne, in the meantime, had tried to break open the door; but even his great weight was useless, for the door was of the hardest wood and studded with heavy nails.
For a moment there was silence, during which they heard again the voices of the priests, proclaiming from the towers of the city temples:
"O Citizens of Khandara, the Queen is doomed! Zarasis, Queen of Khandara, dies this very night. Thus have the soothsayers predicted. Thus have the gods decreed."
"That villain's at the back of this!" let out Tremayne. "He would never have dared go thus far had he not been sure of his ground."
"That may be so," said Fountain. "The question is, what are we to do? We can't remain here in idleness until somebody takes it into his head to let us out; and yet, we're caged—we're fooled!"
Neil Ranson was at one of the windows. He could hear the temple gongs sounding everywhere throughout the city. Not only did the noise continue, but seemed to be louder than ever, to be drawing nearer to the palace. The boy could hear, too, the beating of drums and the shouting in the streets. The citizens were being summoned from their beds to learn of the death of Queen Zarasis.
"I believe," said Neil, "that I can climb out. There are gargoyles projecting from the wall that look strong enough to bear my weight." The other two, on either side of him, peered into the semi-darkness of the night. There was no moon, but the tropic sky was aglow with stars. A gentle wind stirred the branches of the trees that grew in the palace gardens.
"And where can you get to?" asked Fountain. "So far as can be seen, there's no possible way of reaching the ground."
"I would never attempt that," said Neil. "One might as well try to climb down the face of a precipice. We are at least sixty feet above the courtyard; and there's no chance of making Dario hear. The best I can hope for is to reach another window, by way of which I can re-enter the palace. If I can gain the Room of the Bath, I can find Idina, who will take me to the steward, who has duplicate keys for every lock in the building."
"In that case," said Fountain, "you can let us out. I would try it myself, but I am not active enough; I'm too stiff in the joints, and Tremayne's too heavy."
The boy clambered to the window-sill and a moment after found himself hanging at a perilous height above the courtyard of the palace. Far below him were the flat roofs, white in the star- light, of the houses of the city.
From the high wall of the building, at this level, a series of quaint gargoyles projected, each of which represented one of the ancient gods of Egypt. There were Anubis, Thoth, Ra, Horus and a score of others. Fortunately, these gargoyles were not more than three feet apart, and the boy was therefore able to swing quite easily from one to another, as a gymnast moves along a ladder. Neither strength nor much agility was needed; but, at the same time, it was a situation that brought Neil's heart into his mouth.
And whilst he swung in mid-air, he had a view of a scene beyond the palace walls. The people were shouting in a wild, excited manner. Gongs were still beating, and before the main gate, where Dario and his men stood ready for the attack, there was a vast mob, the sound of whose voices was like the droning of a hive of bees.
Neil had already progressed several yards from the window by which he had escaped. He now saw a little way above him another window that was narrow, but which he judged was wide enough to admit him. The windows of the palace, unlike those of most modern houses, were not all on the same level nor were they equal distances apart.
Neil guessed that the window above him belonged to the Council Chamber or an adjacent room, and resolved to make an attempt to gain it.
He hoisted his weight to the level of the gargoyle. As the window was quite five feet above the level of his waist, it would be necessary for him to stand upon the gargoyle, and there to balance himself for an instant before he grasped the window for support.
Knowing full well that the longer he thought about it the greater the danger would seem, very cautiously he raised his right knee and placed it upon the gargoyle, keeping his balance all the time. Then he brought his right hand across, and grasping the gargoyle from the other side, realized with a sigh of relief that the first danger was past.
It was now necessary for him to stand upon his feet. The gargoyle was not more than a foot across, but luckily it was flat, and not concave, at the top.
Neil rose to his full height with his arms extended after the fashion of a tight-rope walker. For an instant he trusted solely to balance and a good head for heights. A second after he had grasped the window-sill and hauled himself to safety.
He looked down into a triangular room that he recognized at once as the Council Chamber. Here were stone chairs, benches and seats that resembled pews in a church, disposed in a semicircle around a central ivory throne.
On tiptoe he crossed the room, and was relieved to find the door ajar. He passed out into a passage that was quite dark, which he knew led to the great Room of the Bath.
The suite of rooms in which Tremayne and his two companions were quartered was situated on the side of the palace furthest from the Queen's apartments. These rooms were shut off from the rest of the building by a narrow passage that connected with the central Room of the Bath, on the other side of which was a similar passage that led to the apartments of the Queen and the ladies of the court.
The great marble Room of the Bath corresponded in a way to the atrium of the Roman villa, in which there was generally a bath and a fountain, and from which there were entrances to the other rooms. As Neil Ranson approached this central hall he became conscious of the sound of voices in front of him. Still advancing on tiptoe he drew his revolver from its holster.
The passage turned at a sharp angle, he became suddenly conscious of a dim light in front of him, and a little after he could see the marble pillars that surrounded the Room of the Bath.
This advised him that the door at the end of the passage was wide open; and therefore he went down on all fours, and thus passed into the great chamber, where one or two lamps were burning.
The room was about thirty yards in length and almost as broad. The entire floor, the walls and the pillars that supported the roof, were all of white marble, streaked with the red and grey and the green of serpentine. Here and there enormous palms grew in earthenware vases; and it was behind one of these that the boy rapidly took post.
For the sight that he beheld had deprived him of his breath. He believed then that the cause of Queen Zarasis was as good as lost.
Upon the steps that led to the bath, crowding the aisle beyond the pillars on the other side of the room, were at least thirty armed men: priests whose heads were shaven and soldiers of the civic guard. And with these was Punhri, the Sorcerer, robed as the High Priest of Khandara, but carrying in his hand a naked sword.
The High Priest with a party of picked men had somehow gained ingress to the palace. Moreover, it was evident that his presence there had not yet been discovered. Dario was on duty at the main gate; the men of the royal bodyguard manned the walls; John Fountain and Tremayne were locked in their rooms, and the men- servants in the palace itself were all fast asleep.
With his sword Punhri indicated the door that led to the apartments of the Queen, and spoke to his followers.
"To the Queen!" said he. "The gods have decreed that this night Zarasis dies. By morn, Punhri, the Sorcerer, will be King of all Khandara."
As the words left his lips, Neil Ranson raised his revolver and fired.
The report, echoing in that vast chamber, was like a thunderclap. Neither Punhri nor any of those with him knew anything of modern firearms. That single shot was electrifying in its effect upon men taken wholly by surprise. It might have been that the gods of Ancient Egypt had intervened, hurling in their wrath a thunderbolt into the midst of those unworthy of the priesthood.
Punhri himself was the first to recover his presence of mind.
"Seek shelter!" he cried. "We have to deal with white men!"
Little did he dream that he was confronted by a boy, single- handed, and yet resolved to render a good account of himself.
IN planning the desperate attempt which he made that night upon the life of Queen Zarasis, Punhri had neglected nothing that was likely to ensure success.
He had experienced no difficulty in finding a certain locksmith, an old man who had been employed in the building of the palace which had been reconstructed by the Queen's father. This locksmith, who was a master of his craft, was ordered to make a bunch of skeleton keys, which he declared would open every door in the palace, with the exception of that which led from the Room of the Bath to the Queen's private apartments.
Having gained possession of those keys, Punhri ordered up his battering-rams, desiring to do nothing more than to hold the royal bodyguard to the gates and outer walls, so that the palace itself would be left unprotected.
He knew of the subterranean passage by means of which John Fountain and Neil Ranson had entered the city. Indeed, as we shall presently see, the man was thoroughly familiar with the secrets of the palace, having officiated in his younger days at the religious ceremonies that had been wont to take place in the catacombs and vaults.
He knew that this underground passage would be guarded by Dario's men, whom he was resolved to take by surprise.
This part of his plan could not have been more successful. Accompanied by some thirty priests whom he knew he could trust, Punhri attacked the guard at the entrance to the tunnel. A brief combat took place in one of the subterranean chambers, in which the men of the royal bodyguard were outnumbered and overpowered, whilst no sound of the fighting reached the ears of those within the palace.
The High Priest had now every reason to believe that his object was as good as gained, that Queen Zarasis was doomed. In order to clear himself of all guilt, he had already caused the soothsayers to predict that the Queen would die that night! As he entered the Room of the Bath, his hireling priests were announcing this national calamity from the towers of the neighbouring temples.
Followed by his men, he entered the Queen's palace at dead of night. He hoped to take the inmates of the royal apartments by surprise, and to have a clear field in which to do away with the young Queen in a manner at once cunning and relentless.
All within the building were asleep; and, whilst they slept, every door that gave upon the courtyard was locked and bolted from the inner side, so that Dario and his men could not hasten to the help of the Queen.
Returning to the Room of the Bath, Punhri locked all the other doors by means of his skeleton keys, with the sole exception of that which led to the Queen's private rooms. Thus it was that the three white men were trapped whilst they were asleep.
The High Priest made several vain attempts to open the door of the Queen's apartments. But though he tried one key after another none would fit. The locksmith had been right: this was a lock specially devised and different from any other.
Thus Punhri found himself balked when within easy reach of his goal. Desiring to commit the crime he contemplated as stealthily as possible, and to retreat swiftly by the way that he had come, he had no wish to break in by force. And yet it seemed for the moment that there was no alternative. He was in the act of conferring with his men as to what was best to do, when he was fired upon by Neil.
As we have said, that single shot might have been a thunderbolt. It is one thing to be surprised; it is another to find oneself confronted by something entirely novel to one's experience. The result was something in the nature of a panic.
Neil, though he was but one against many, had certain advantages on his side. Crouching behind a pillar, unseen by his opponents, he could fire at his leisure, whilst he had every reason to believe that the sound of the firing would soon attract the attention of Dario and the men of the bodyguard, who would hasten to his help. It never occurred to him that every door was locked.
Elated at his success, he fired four more shots in quick succession, emptying the chambers of his revolver, and reloading in the utmost haste. It was quite clear to him that his enemies, with the sole exception of Punhri, had no other idea but to make good their escape. Knowing that there was but one exit open to them—namely, the subterranean passage by which they had come—they jostled and shouldered one another in their eagerness to get out of danger; and although Punhri, livid with wrath, loudly abused them as cowards, within a few seconds the High Priest was left with no more than three followers.
Knowing that everything depended upon the success of his night's work, and that the sound of the firing would certainly awaken everyone within the central building—even if it was not heard by the bodyguard at the gates—the man hurled himself in a kind of frenzy at the door of the Queen's apartments, and strove to burst it open.
Not all his strength could move it the fraction of an inch. The door itself was heavy: the lock was strong. The Sorcerer paused for a moment, the perspiration standing in beads upon his forehead. He ran his fingers through his beard as he tried to make up his mind what course to take.
And, in the meantime, Neil had seen a chance that he had never hoped for. If the Queen were to be saved, the boy must have the assistance of both John Fountain and Tremayne. Keeping under cover of the marble pillars, Neil crossed to the door that communicated with the chamber from which he had escaped. When he gained this, he could hear his two friends on the other side endeavouring to force the door open.
Neil wrenched at the handle, and immediately recognized Fountain's voice.
"Is that you, Neil?" he cried.
"Stand clear of the door," the boy answered. "I'll shoot the lock in."
He waited an instant for Tremayne and Fountain to get out of danger, and then he peppered the woodwork around the lock with the contents of his revolver chambers.
"Stand clear on your side!" cried Fountain. "I'll finish the job."
Neil moved aside in the nick of time, reloading whilst Fountain splintered the woodwork with five shots in the pattern of a semicircle around the lock.
Tremayne, snatching up the hunter's rifle, dealt the door a smashing blow with the butt-end. The woodwork being already broken, the entire lock with its hasp was driven out of the door, and Henry Tremayne and Fountain burst into the Room of the Bath.
For an instant they stood regarding Punhri, who was still before the door that led to the Queen's apartments. Had John Fountain's revolver been loaded he might have shot the man then and there, and there is little doubt that he would have done so.
Punhri stood motionless, irresolute, his long fingers playing in his black beard. He realized then that he was foiled. Deserted by his followers—for now even the three who had remained staunch to him had fled—unable to break into the Queen's room, he knew not what to do.
And then, the very door through which he desired to pass upon a sudden was opened before the eyes of the three astonished spectators, and there upon the threshold stood Didorian, the Queen's lady-in-waiting.
Beyond her was a corridor, brilliantly illumined by several hanging lamps, and at the far end of this could be seen the white faces of some half-dozen terrified women, who stood together with clasped hands and parted lips.
Didorian had been guilty of a folly that all but cost Zarasis her life. For all that, she was the only one of the Queen's attendants who had had the courage to go and find out the cause of the disturbance.
She had opened the door no more than a few inches, when, seeing the High Priest, she gave vent to a quick cry of alarm and tried to close it again. But Punhri, as quick as thought, had thrust a foot between the door itself and the jamb. And then, with a loud cry of triumph, he struck Didorian a cowardly blow that sent her staggering backward; and a moment after he was in the corridor itself, and had closed the door with a slam before either Fountain or Neil could reload and fire.
Tremayne was the first to cross the room, to hurl himself at the door.
"It's locked," said he. "It's locked from the inner side!"
"Didorian must have had the key," cried Fountain.
Tremayne could not at once grasp the truth of it. Then the full significance of the calamity burst upon him.
"Punhri will murder her!" he cried. "Not without a reason has he ordered the soothsayers to predict this very night the death of Queen Zarasis!"
"If any harm befall her," Fountain answered between his clenched teeth, "then Punhri will not live another day. I swear it, on my life."
Tremayne was a strong man, but he was now so shaken and distressed that he trembled visibly.
"Somehow we must save her," he cried, and again hurled his weight at the door.
STILL striving to open the door, Tremayne was like a madman. Clothed as he was in his lion's skin, he was like some savage, wounded beast. One of his shoulders was quite bare, and his great muscles could be seen working like those of a cart- horse that strains at a heavy load.
Finally he fell back exhausted.
"It's no good," said he. "This door is even stronger than the other. And the Queen is within, at the mercy of that villain!"
"We must find a way," cried Fountain. "But there's no time to lose—not a second!" Neil hastened to the double doors that communicated with the passage that led to the courtyard.
"We must get Dario!" he cried. "He will find some means of breaking in."
But these doors, too, were locked. Dario was locked out. No sooner was Fountain aware of this than he rushed to one of the windows that faced the main gateway of the palace.
"There's fighting in the streets!" he cried. "Dario has sallied forth, resolved to fight his way out, and to enter by the subterranean passage through which Punhri must have come."
Fountain had guessed the truth. But the danger was as great as ever. It would take Dario time to reach the outer wall of the city, and during those eventful minutes the life of the Queen was in jeopardy.
For though the High Priest was himself caught like a rat in a trap, revengeful by nature, and now driven desperate, he would not hesitate to carry out the crime that he intended.
It was Didorian who afterwards told the story of what happened in the royal apartments during those critical moments. Punhri was outwardly calm, though his eyes glittered like those of a reptile. The Queen stood at her full height, regarding the Sorcerer as a terrified bird might observe the movements of a snake.
The High Priest saluted her and smiled.
"It is rumoured in the city," he declared, "that Queen Zarasis is bewitched."
Straightening her arms and clenching her fists, she drew even nearer to the man, and seemed to be trembling in every limb.
"Then it is a lie!" she cried.
The ladies of the court had been awakened by the gongs and the shouting in the streets; but the firing in the outer room had alarmed them beyond measure. And now they believed Punhri to be the incarnation of some potent evil spirit.
Ambitious and unscrupulous, the man played for the highest stakes. He was now in a position so perilous that in his heart, perhaps, he never thought that he would escape with life. But he was resolved that, if he himself was doomed, he would take with him into the World of Spirits the young soul of the beautiful Queen.
"I have come here, O Queen," said he, "to save thee, if I can."
She was still herself. She yet defied him.
"To save me!" She forced a laugh. "How? And from whom?"
"From the evil spirits by whom Zarasis is possessed," he answered. "By means of sorcery."
"Restore me to my friends," she took him up. "Then, and then only, will I believe that you are not my enemy."
He held his naked sword. He might have killed her then and there, but, before so many witnesses, he dare not. He was resolved that she should kill herself.
He raised his hands before her face, and made several passes very slowly, with his eyes fixed upon hers.
Shrinking away from him, she was seen to tremble even more violently. And then it was as if she received some kind of electric shock, for a shudder left her rigid, whilst her eyes looked dazed and staring.
"Tell me," said Punhri in a soft, silken voice, "is Zarasis now bewitched."
"There is some evil thing within my heart," she answered. "An evil spirit has entered my soul."
"Cast it out!" he cried. "For the sake of Khandara, I beseech thee, cast it out!"
She clutched at her heart as if she were in pain.
"I cannot," she groaned. "It is stronger than I."
"I hereby cast a spell upon this hostile ghost," said he. "Before the power of my magic it is strengthless. And now, canst thou cast it out?"
She seemed to be struggling with herself. Both her hands were clasped upon her breast.
"It is stronger than I," she repeated.
It was as if Zarasis suffered agony. Her face was no longer beautiful; her features were contorted like those of a fury. She was pitiful and tragic to see. With tears streaming from her eyes, she flung herself upon the ground.
"A demon possesses me!" she cried. "An invisible fiend drags me downward into depths that are as dark night."
Kneeling at Punhri's feet, she flung up her arms. Her hair had become disordered. Her eyes were wild, as if she were mad. The ladies of her court drew back in horror. Only one, Didorian, remained by her side.
"Slay this evil thing!" cried Punhri. "Slay it—that it may harm thee no more."
He leaned a little toward her, and this gave her the chance he wanted. She was not master of herself. She did no more than obey the Sorcerer's commands. As quick as thought she snatched the bejewelled dagger from his belt.
Punhri sprang back, feigning astonishment, even alarm. He had willed this woman to take her own life with her own hands in the presence of witnesses who could never fasten the guilt upon himself. Of hypnotism they knew nothing. They believed in sorcery and witchcraft.
With the dagger in her hand, Zarasis rose to her feet.
"Thus doth Zarasis offer her soul to the gods of her forefathers, the gods of Ancient Egypt," she declared. "Thus doth she drive forth the demon that would rule her every action!"
She made as if she would plunge the dagger into her heart; but at that moment Didorian rushed forward.
She grasped the Queen's wrist, but failed to hold it. Zarasis was possessed of more than her natural strength. The dagger fell; but Didorian had turned the blow aside. The sharp blade, instead of entering the Queen's heart, gashed her shoulder.
She sank to the ground upon the marble floor, and there lay motionless—perhaps unconscious. The other women stood aghast, mute and helpless. Punhri threw out his arms. Once again there was a smile upon his face.
"The will of the gods be done!" he cried.
There came a crash that was deafening. A loud report like the bursting of a bomb. Overwrought, unnerved, those who had now approached the prostrate figure of the Queen drew back in terror. Even Punhri was seen to start. He whipped round like a wolf at bay, his sword gleaming in his hand.
HE found himself confronted by Henry Tremayne, who was followed by Neil Ranson and Fountain. The other two were armed; Tremayne in his haste to save the Queen had thrust himself in front of his companions when they had broken in the door.
This they had done by using as a battering-ram one of the earthenware vases in which the palms were growing in the Room of the Bath. Using all their strength, the three of them had been able to carry one of the smaller trees, whilst the great weight of the earth around the roots had been enough to smash in the door at the first attempt.
When Punhri set eyes upon Tremayne he let out an oath—for this was the one man whom above all others he hated. Dario he had always despised, although he feared him; but the High Priest had for long regarded the White Wizard as one who threatened to overthrow him and change the religion of the people.
For once Punhri lost possession of his senses. No longer crafty and calculating, he acted like a madman, rushing blindly at his adversary, whom he endeavoured to strike down with his sword.
Tremayne, quick as a tiger, grasped the man's wrist and wrenched the sword from Punhri's hand. The High Priest, finding himself disarmed, sprang backward, retreating to the inner room where stood the Queen's attendants.
Either Neil or Fountain might have killed him then, had they ventured to fire. But Tremayne was in front of them, and there was a chance that a bullet might strike one of the women attendants in the inner room.
And then it was that Punhri seized his only chance. Knowing there was no way of escape for him except along the passage that led from the Room of the Bath, one after the other he dashed the oil lanterns that illumined the Queen's apartment to the ground. The man flew here and there like one bereft of reason, until the whole place was plunged in darkness.
Didorian hastened into an inner room, and presently returned with a lamp, which Tremayne took from her hand. And not until then was it discovered that the High Priest had escaped.
Tremayne's first thoughts, however, were for the Queen herself, who lay prostrate on the ground. She was more overwhelmed by the shock she had received than seriously hurt; and, besides, she was still to some extent under the hypnotic influence of the man who had willed her to take her own life.
Tremayne lifted her in his arms and carried her to a couch. And then Fountain grasped him by an arm.
"We do but waste time," cried the little hunter. "We will run down this villain yet and make him answer for his crimes."
"He has but one way of escape," said Neil. "He can pass none of the gates where Dario's men are on guard. He must have entered the palace by the subterranean passage; and thither he has fled."
Tremayne still stood by the Queen. It was plain to see that he was loth to leave her as she was.
"Come," cried Fountain, "no harm can befall her now! She will be well cared for by her own attendants. It is for us to capture Punhri."
Tremayne swung round upon his heel.
"You're right," he cried. "That is fit work for us. If we are quick, we may overtake him."
The three of them hastened down the corridor to the Room of the Bath, Tremayne taking with him another lamp that Didorian had brought him. They crossed the threshold, where the door lay splintered into fragments, and found, as they expected, the door of the subterranean passage open—evidence that Punhri had passed that way before them. Still there was every chance that, if they made haste, they might overtake the High Priest before he reached the passage-end.
They did not know—or they did not realize at the time—that the High Priest was well acquainted with every part of the palace; and, moreover, he had keys upon him that enabled him to go wherever he wished.
Tremayne went first with the light, whilst the other two held their loaded revolvers ready in their hands. It was within one of these subterranean chambers that the valiant Dario, the Captain of the Host, came within an ace of losing his life. He appeared suddenly from out of the darkness in the light of Tremayne's lantern, and both Neil and Fountain were on the point of firing when they recognized Dario's golden armour.
They were astonished to behold him.
"How did you get here?" cried Tremayne. "We thought you were at the outer gates."
The Captain of the Host, at whose back were several of his men, showed his teeth like a bulldog.
"For an hour or more," he answered, "I have been endeavouring to break into the palace. I heard shots within, and knew that some mischief was afoot. But every door was locked, and I therefore decided to break through the mob, to gain the city gates, and enter by way of the underground tunnel where I believed my own men to be on guard."
"If they are still there," cried Neil, "Punhri cannot have escaped! He is but a little way in front of us."
"This night has seen the foulest work," said Dario. "My soldiers at the entrance to the tunnel were attacked and overpowered. Punhri and his priests broke into the palace, but they have since returned in greater haste than they came."
As Neil knew, these were the priests who had left Punhri in the Room of the Bath.
"Has Punhri, too, escaped?" he asked. "If so, your men must have seen him."
Dario shook his head.
"The High Priest has not gone this way," he answered. "If he had I must have passed him."
"Then he is still in the palace!" Fountain cried.
"If that be so," said Dario, "we have the rascal caught. It may take time to find him, but, sooner or later, he'll be brought to book."
Dario despatched Neil and Tremayne to the end of the tunnel to warn the soldiers he had left there to keep a sharp look-out. Accompanied by Fountain, he then repaired to the Room of the Bath, and, breaking down another door, released the royal steward who had the palace keys.
A little after all the doors were unlocked. Dario's party was reinforced by men from the main gate, and the palace was searched from end to end.
But search where they might, from roof to floor, they could find no trace of Punhri. By daybreak the mob had dispersed from without the palace walls. For the time being, at least, there was peace in the city of Khandara. And although the search continued throughout all that day until late in the afternoon, the Sorcerer could not be found. He had vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as if he had called to his aid the Black Magic that was his boast.
WHEN it was assured that Punhri was nowhere within the palace, where it was believed that all the secret passages and vaults had been explored, there were many who were superstitious and foolish enough to suspect that the Sorcerer had made himself invisible.
For by then it was ascertained that he was not in the palace; and although the royal bodyguard searched the city from end to end, no trace of the High Priest could be found.
"It is, indeed, Black Magic!" said Idina.
Tremayne laughed, and laid a hand upon Idina's shoulder.
"I thought," said he, "I had taught you the folly of such things. That he has escaped somehow from the city there can be little doubt. It is possible he is now hiding in the mountains."
Dario shrugged his shoulders.
"That is difficult to believe," he observed. "Punhri can only have left the palace by way of the underground passage, from which he could not have issued without being seen."
It was John Fountain who went straight to facts.
"I take it the villain's still alive," said he. "Had he been slain, someone would have found his body. The fact remains that, for the present, at any rate, we have a clear field, and would be fools not to make the most of it. We must take every precaution against another insurrection. We must see to it that Zarasis is secure upon the throne."
"We can never be assured of that," said Tremayne, "until we know for certain what has become of Punhri. Fountain," he went on, "I would have a word with you to-night. It is but fair that you and Neil should know what is in my mind."
That night Tremayne and his two friends sat together upon a stone seat in the palace gardens. At their feet was a pond upon which a fountain played and where water-lilies bloomed. The great round leaves floated on water that shone like burnished steel. Near by was a statue of the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, Mother of the Nile.
The civilization of these people had come down to them throughout the centuries from the north of Africa. They were probably the descendants of the Egyptians and the Carthaginians, their blood being mixed—so far as the poorer classes were concerned—with that of ancient Ethiopian tribes.
The city itself was more wonderful than any of the great cities of the Nile that now lie buried under the sand. And upon this tropic night, from the gardens of the palace on the hill, the temple towers, the great obelisks and statues made the whole place look more than ever like a glimpse of fairyland.
Tremayne was seated with Fountain on one side of him and Neil Ranson on the other. His voice was very quiet, raised little above a whisper.
"I have come to love these people," he was saying. "I have lived with them now for so many months that, I think, I have learnt to know them. Why should I ever go back to what you call civilization? Why should I return with you, when here there is so much for me to do?"
Fountain looked up in surprise.
"Do you mean," he asked, "that you propose to stay in this land for the rest of your life?"
"I do," said the other, apparently without emotion. "These people are not savages. In many ways they are highly civilized. If they worship false gods, if they are ignorant and superstitious, why should they not be taught? Why should they not have the benefit of such knowledge as is ours? To do all this is a life's work worthy of any man, and I feel that I am capable of doing it."
Fountain was serious.
"You're not an old man yet, Tremayne," said he. "If Neil and I leave you here, we leave you—buried alive!"
Tremayne leaned forward with his great hands clasped between his knees. He was silent a moment, and then he spoke in a deeper voice, though no louder than before.
"I will never leave Zarasis," said he. "Only to-day we have spoken to each other."
He was silent again; then quite suddenly he sprang to his feet, and, standing in the brightness of the moonlight, he laughed again.
"I never dreamed," said he, "that I should one day become a king; and yet it seems now that that must be my fate."
Fountain also rose.
"I guessed as much," said he. "These things have never come my way. However, of one thing I am sure: If the Queen is to keep the kingdom in order, she wants a strong man at her side, to advise and help her. And I'll say this, Tremayne: Though she searched the whole world, she would never find another man like you. In three months you will be greater than Punhri ever was."
Neil had taken no part in this conversation, though he had listened to every word. When the other two rose to return to the palace, the boy told them that he would prefer to remain where he was. He wanted to think things out for himself.
He watched Tremayne and Fountain walking arm in arm across the moonlit garden; and very strange they looked together—the one, short and thin and wizened, and the other, all but a giant. Seated alone upon the stone seat, Neil allowed his imagination to run away with him.
Had he not been so attached to Fountain, the boy himself would quite willingly have remained in Khandara, to take service under Tremayne. He saw himself in the near future the great Dario's second in command, destined some day to be the Captain of the Host, to lead hundreds of these swarthy, battle-scarred warriors forth to war against the savage forest tribes.
He conjured up visions of the Khandara of the future, a land of prosperity and sunshine, of industry and happiness, governed by Tremayne.
The boy had no desire to sleep. The night was refreshingly cool. A gentle wind stirred the leaves upon the trees in the palace gardens. No sound disturbed the silence, save now and again the rattle of arms at the main gate where the soldiers were on guard.
Neil had no idea how long he had remained thus, lost in his own thoughts, when he suddenly beheld a white figure, like a ghost, moving slowly and silently upon one of the flagstone paths.
A ghost it might have been, for it glided rather than walked. And it was white—snow-white in the moonlight.
Neil caught his breath. Quite unable to explain what he saw, he was conscious that his heart was beating rapidly. He half rose to his feet, and stood staring in front of him.
The white spectre was too far away to have any definite shape. He listened, but could hear no footsteps upon the pavement.
Resolved to find out what it was, taking cover behind the various shrubs and trees that were growing in the garden, he stole forward on tiptoe, drawing nearer and nearer to the object that presently assumed a human shape.
It was the figure of a woman—a woman dressed in white.
Neil drew closer still, crouching behind a stone image by which she must soon pass.
It was the Queen. It was Zarasis. And she walked bare of foot, her arms rigid at her sides, her face a little lifted and her eyes wide and staring in the moonlight, and yet seeing nothing.
The boy knew her to be fallen into a trance from which he feared to awaken her. Nor did he dare let her out of his sight. Cautiously he followed her.
He had every reason to suppose that in a moment she would turn back toward the palace, where Neil would be able to call the assistance of some of her attendants. Instead, she walked straight toward a little temple in the garden that was dedicated to the great god Horus, the hawk-headed deity of Ancient Egypt.
Here, before the image of the god, two alabaster lanterns burned by day and night. And one of these the Queen took; and, passing behind the image, she began to descend some stone spiral steps that led to the vaults below.
The boy was now at his wits' end what to do. He knew that it would be quite hopeless to cry out for help, for no one would hear him. He had no alternative, therefore, but to continue to follow Queen Zarasis.
She led him into a veritable labyrinth, catacombs in which, entombed in sarcophagi, were the mummies of the former great men of Khandara. One passage led to another. It was like an endless maze. These underground rooms and tunnels were nothing new to Neil, who had accompanied Dario's soldiers when they had searched for Punhri. Dogging the Queen's footsteps, determined not to let her out of his sight for an instant, he came at last to a chamber with painted pillars and a painted ceiling that he remembered to have seen before.
This room was connected with the palace itself by means of the long passage that led from the Room of the Bath to the outer city wall; and, to the boy's surprise, the Queen, instead of returning to the palace, followed the direction of the tunnel toward its outer entrance.
It seemed as if she intended to leave the city; and, if that were so, it was more necessary than ever that Neil should not let her out of his sight. He had actually decided that the best thing he could do would be to take her gently by the hand and attempt to lead her, without using any force, in the opposite direction—that is to say, back to the palace—when upon a sudden Zarasis came to a halt.
She stood staring at the wall before her, holding the lamp upon a level with her eyes. Very slowly she moved her head from side to side; and then, extending her right hand, she passed it here and there, backwards and forwards, upon the smooth surface of the wall, until it came to rest at last upon a small iron knob.
Again the Queen seemed to hesitate. Then she pressed the knob inward, and immediately there was a creaking sound like that which is made by old, rusty hinges—a metallic, grating noise, and at the same time a portion of the wall about six feet square began to revolve as if upon a central pivot. It turned slowly, like a weather-vane. The creaking noise continued until it was as if there were two doorways in the passage wall, one on either side of the revolving stone, which now proved to be not more than a foot in thickness—two black, gaping slits, like embrasures. And, at that moment, in one of these appeared the figure of a man.
He was thin—thin as a starved vulture. His face was like that of a corpse, the skin drawn tight upon his cheek-bones, the eyes great hollows in a skull, cadaverous and ghastly. The hand that he extended was bony and claw-like. And this hand dashed the lamp from the grasp of Zarasis and smashed it on the ground.
And then all was darkness.
BUT, before the light went out, a shriek had come from the Queen's lips, as if she had suddenly realized the extreme peril of her situation. And then she turned and fled head-long down the passage.
Neil Ranson had seen enough; he had seen that the man who stood in the black opening in the wall was Punhri—no more than a shadow of his former self. Hunger had reduced him to a mere skeleton. His lips were cracked and dried with thirst; his eyes wild and bright. His long priestly robes could not conceal this thinness. His shoulders were angular and sharp, as bony as his claw-like hands.
And yet, though the man looked more dead than alive, something remained within him of his old fire and energy, for when Neil turned to hasten after the Queen the boy was gripped by the throat, lifted bodily off his feet, and then borne along the passage through the darkness until they came to the outer city wall.
Fumbling with his bunch of keys until he found the right one, Punhri opened the little door, beyond which could be seen the stars and the moonlight.
They passed through to find themselves outside the city wall, which towered high above them. For a moment the Sorcerer stood erect, taking in deep breaths of the cool night air. Suddenly he spoke, as if to himself.
"You are worth more to me alive than dead," said he. "I will yet be master of Khandara."
Neil now knew enough of the language to understand him. After a pause the man spoke again.
"A life for a life," said he. "That is an honest bargain. I am like one risen from the grave."
Still holding the boy by a wrist, he walked rapidly through the wood of Cyprus trees and cedars in which Neil Ranson had first set eyes upon Dario.
Punhri often stumbled from sheer weakness. They descended a downward gradient, where long grass was growing—grass that was wet with dew. Before them they could see the moonlight and the reflections of the stars upon the smooth surface of the lake.
It was now that the boy made one desperate effort to escape. They were in open country, and if he could but free himself for a second Punhri would never be able to overtake him.
Neil had hoped that a sudden wrench, a quick turn of the wrist, might be enough; but Punhri was prepared.
"We will settle this matter once and for all," said he, breathing heavily. It was plain to see from his livid face that he was so exhausted that at any moment he might faint.
Neil beheld, glittering in the moonlight immediately before his eyes, the blade of Punhri's dagger. However, the man had no other intention than to cut a long strip from his robe. This he twisted after the manner of a rope, and with it bound Neil's hands behind his back. Nor was he satisfied with this, for he had also tied the boy's ankles together, giving Neil freedom enough to walk, but making it quite impossible for him to run.
"I will have no more trouble from you," said he. "Should we see anyone, and should you cry out for help, I will not hesitate. This dagger will do its work."
He made Neil rise to his feet, and together they walked for a little distance toward the shore of the lake. Passing round a village in which there were several lights, they came to the lake itself at a place where many small fishing-boats were moored alongside the shore.
It took Punhri some time to satisfy himself that there was no one about, and then, availing himself of a moment when the moon had disappeared behind a cloud, he stepped into one of the smaller boats and ordered the boy to lie down in the bows. A little after they were rowing out toward the centre of the lake.
Punhri himself propelled the boat by means of a long oar, used rudder-wise attached to the stern. The boat moved noiselessly, and yet swiftly, upon the smooth surface of the water. And presently the moon came out again, when Neil was astonished to observe how far away they were from the shore.
The boy racked his brains in vain to think what fate could be in store for him. Where was Punhri taking him? What villainy did the man propose?
No word was passed between them as the boat drew toward the centre of the lake. And presently there appeared from out of the darkness, but a little way in front of them, a great black rock that stood forth from the water like a fortress. As they drew nearer the island assumed a more definite shape, and Neil could make out quite clearly, not only steep cliffs and jagged pinnacles of rock, but a building with many towers upon the crest of the hill.
Punhri rowed round the island to a place where there was a narrow inlet, or creek, to which a long flight of steps descended from the building above.
At the foot of these steps stood a group of three or four men, who had no doubt seen the boat approaching in the moonlight. One of these, in a loud voice, hailed the newcomers, warning them that no man was allowed to set foot upon the sacred island, which was dedicated to the worship of the Sun-god, Ra.
A voice from the boat made answer.
"It is Punhri who comes, the High Priest of Khandara."
Neil had often heard of a sacred island in the lake, whereon was a monastery where lived several monks belonging to a strange sect who practised many secret rites.
Not until he was safely ashore did Punhri's strength give way. Almost starved to death, he had over-exerted himself. He was obliged to sit down upon the ground whilst the monks gathered round him.
A few whispered words were passed, and then the whole party, accompanied by Neil, whose bonds were untied, began to ascend the steps.
After a long and tedious climb the boy found himself in a huge bare room, all built of stone, where there were scores of images of heathen gods and goddesses, many with the heads of animals.
Here they were greeted by the chief monk, who prostrated himself before Punhri, who thereupon declared that the one thing above all others that he wanted was food, since he had had nothing to eat for days.
Soon afterwards, Neil was led away to be locked in a small room off the large central chamber, where he was given food of the coarsest description and water to drink.
Here he was left for more than an hour, until Punhri returned accompanied by one or two monks.
They conducted their captive down the long flight of steps that led to the landing-place upon the lake, where Punhri and Neil as well as two of the monks embarked in a boat.
Punhri now seated himself by the side of the boy in the bows, whilst the monks took it turn and turn about to handle the oar. And thus the boat was propelled across the lake toward the north- western shore.
Already the first signs of dawn were visible beyond the mountains to the east; and soon it was possible to see for a considerable distance. Neil observed that they were approaching a shore that was rugged and inhospitable. Great black rocks arose on every side of them. High above them were the mountain crags, between which a roaring, tempestuous torrent thundered down into the lake.
The monks were obliged to exercise some skill in the navigation of the boat, for it was not possible to approach the land anywhere near the place where the cataract descended, and where the water was white with foam.
They selected a place where a string of rocks ran out into the water; and here they landed and began the arduous ascent of the mountain slope. The monk who went first appeared to know the way, whilst he who followed carried a basket containing some food.
It was broad daylight when they reached the crest of a rocky hill that arose above the torrent. Neil, standing upon the rock, had a view of the greater part of the lake. Far away were the white houses and temples, the palaces and towers, of the city of Khandara; and in the foreground, as if floating like a ship, was the sacred island from which they had come.
Almost gently, but with a fiendish expression upon his shrunken countenance, Punhri placed both hands upon the boy's shoulders.
"Whether you live or die," said he, in a voice strangely calm, "is no affair of mine. We are all the playthings of the gods."
Whilst Punhri was speaking the other monks—unseen by Neil—had rolled away a great stone that lay upon the hill- top. Beneath this stone was a circular hole nearly a yard in diameter.
And then Neil Ranson was suddenly and violently pushed backward. Falling, he grasped the jagged edge of the hole, to find his feet in mid-air. He had no time to see what lay beneath him. He could hear the roar of the torrent like thunder in his ears. And then, with a loud laugh, Punhri stamped like a madman upon the boy's hands until Neil was compelled to let go his hold.
He fell like a stone a distance of some twenty feet. Bruised and alarmed, he gathered himself together and looked about him—to find himself in a cave into which the daylight streamed.
Something fell by the side of him. It was the basket filled with food. And then the stone above was rolled back into its place.
Neil struggled to his feet. It took him no more than a second to realize the hopelessness of his situation. There was no escape, except by death itself. The only opening—besides that in the roof—which was now covered by the stone—was the mouth of the cave at the very lip of which the mountain torrent roared and tumbled in waves.
IN the reign of the Queen's father, Punhri, the High Priest, had assisted in the various religious ceremonies that had been wont to take place at stated intervals in the palace vaults. It was then that he had learnt of the existence of a certain secret room, called the Chamber of Anubis, in which, at funerals, certain mystic rites took place after the embalmers had done their work.
It will be remembered that Punhri escaped from the Queen's apartments by means of smashing the lanterns and plunging the room in darkness. He had then fled across the Room of the Bath, entering the long tunnel that led to the outer wall.
By way of this he had hoped to make good his escape. He knew that the door at the end was both open and unguarded. His dismay, therefore, may be imagined when, about halfway down the passage, he heard shouts in front of him and recognized at once the loud voice of Dario.
As we know, Dario, the Captain of the Host, had forced his way through the mob outside the palace gate, and had passed round the city wall with the idea of entering the palace. He had with him about a score of men, many of whom carried torches, the light of which Punhri was able to see in the distance.
The Sorcerer found himself, as it were, between the hammer and the anvil. He knew that, if he continued to advance, he must be captured by Dario; whereas, if he turned back he would most assuredly fall into the hands of the three white men who had started in pursuit of him.
At the very moment when he believed himself to be lost he remembered the secret chamber of Anubis, which could not be more than a few yards from where he was. He had no light; but the tunnel at that place was dead straight, and he could see the torches of Dario's men before him. He retreated rapidly to a point where the tunnel turned almost at right angles. The secret room, he knew, to be somewhere here.
Running his hand along the wall at the required level, he soon found the knob, and pressing this caused the great stone slab to revolve upon its axis.
The slab moved slowly into a position at right angles to the wall, leaving both openings clear and then remained quite stationary. Punhri passed through into the inner room, where he at once realized that he was not yet out of danger.
The revolving door could be opened from the passage side, but it had to be closed by hand. Hearing the approach of Dario and his men, he became highly alarmed, and threw himself against the stone. He had not meant to close it altogether, but in his great haste he used all his strength and weight; and the result was disastrous for himself—for the stone swung back into its place and was caught in the catch that held it with a sharp metallic "click."
That sound in Punhri's ears was like the brief, pitiless sentence of some relentless judge. He was condemned to death—moreover, to the most terrible of deaths. The last hours of his life were to be eked out in impenetrable darkness, in a silence like that of the grave. Without food or water, he was doomed to die by inches.
He heard but faintly the footsteps of the men of the bodyguard who hurried past along the passage. It was as if he were frozen with horror. Mute with dismay, he never thought of calling out for help until it was too late.
He was doomed, and he knew it. He may have succeeded in escaping from his enemies, but he had fallen into the clutches of Death himself—an inexorable and mighty conqueror from whom no reprieve could be expected.
In those circumstances another might have gone raving mad; and there are few men who would not have given themselves up to despair. Punhri had recognized that he had failed completely in his enterprise. He—who had sworn, that very night, that Zarasis should die—now found himself buried alive. There was no one in the palace who knew of the existence of the secret room.
However, the man's strange hypnotic powers still remained to him. He was the master of what was believed in Khandara to be Black Magic; he possessed "the Evil Eye." The Queen herself was under his influence. Seated upon the ground in the impenetrable darkness of his subterranean prison, he exercised his will-power by day and night to compel the Queen to come to his aid.
There were times when the man's strength was all but gone, when he thought that he would fail. And then, quite suddenly, he became aware that Zarasis, when fast asleep, had responded to his call.
Once again the Queen was in his power. Though she was far away from him, she would obey the dictates of his will. He compelled her to rise from her bed, to dress herself, and then to pass like one in a dream from her own apartment into the garden.
There she was seen by Neil, who followed her to the Temple of Horus, and thence down into the vaults, where she found her way to the secret door of the Chamber of Anubis.
And thus had Punhri effected his own release at the eleventh hour. As for the Queen, white and terrified, she found her way back to the Room of the Bath, where her loud cries awakened her attendants.
It was Didorian who came to her, to whom she related in broken, breathless sentences as much as she could remember. And it was not long before Dario, Tremayne and Fountain had arrived upon the scene to hear a story from the Queen's own lips that they could scarcely credit.
For Zarasis was prepared to swear that she had set eyes upon Punhri himself. She had seen the man no longer than an instant, haggard and shrunken, resembling a ghost. And she had seen, too, Neil Ranson, whom Fountain and Tremayne had left in the garden but an hour before.
Search was immediately made throughout the subterranean passages and vaults. The door of the secret room was found wide open, and at the end of the tunnel the door in the outer wall was also open, proving that Punhri had escaped that way.
When daylight came the whole city was searched again from end to end; but no traces could be found of the High Priest. They knew now that he was alive, but they had no idea where he was—until three days afterwards, when there came to the palace a shaven monk, an old and wrinkled man, dressed in rags, who brought a message signed by the High Priest himself.
This message was brief and to the point. Punhri declared that he held Neil Ranson in his power, imprisoned in a secret place. He demanded that a royal proclamation should be issued, signed by the Queen herself, granting him a full pardon for such offences as he was alleged to have committed.
A council was immediately summoned, which was attended by Dario, Tremayne and Fountain, and presided over by Queen Zarasis herself. There were present also several aged senators, men who had been the Queen's advisors for many years, and these advised the publishing of the proclamation. They declared that it would be folly to oppose Punhri, who, though a fugitive, was as dangerous and as powerful as ever. Moreover, he was the master of black arts impossible to combat.
But it was to the White Wizard that the Queen looked mainly for advice. Tremayne realized that, if the High Priest returned to the city and established himself in his old position, there would be another insurrection, which might end in the dethronement of the Queen and the death of all who had remained loyal to her. At the same time he was determined to save Neil's life.
"On his own showing," he declared, "this monk has come from the island of Ra; and although he refuses to tell us anything, it is quite evident that the monks are on terms of friendship with Punhri. I propose, therefore, that this very night a strong party under the command of Dario himself takes possession of the island. There we may hear news of Punhri, or at any rate of Neil."
John Fountain stroked his beard. He sat silent a moment, his face thoughtful, his eyes downcast.
"I don't like the idea of it," said he. "That boy is under my protection in a way."
"Fountain," Tremayne answered, "consider what happens if we give in to this man. If Punhri comes back to Khandara, he will not rest until he has placed himself upon the throne. I believe it will be possible to find out where Neil is, and to save the boy's life; whilst there is also a chance that we may run Punhri to earth."
"Maybe you're right," said Fountain. "To give in, to the scoundrel would be playing a coward's part; and I know Neil himself would be the first to agree with you."
They decided to leave the whole matter in Tremayne's hands; and that very evening arrangements were made for a strong party of the royal bodyguard to cross the lake to the island of Ra and take possession of the monastery.
Soon after nightfall Dario and many of his men, accompanied by John Fountain and Tremayne, embarked in boats and set forth across the water. The moon had risen early, but the sky was flecked with long, dark clouds, behind which at times the moon was masked, so that at one moment they were in darkness, and the next in brightest moonlight.
It was when the boats were at a distance of not more than a quarter of a mile from the island that Punhri himself saw them approaching from one of the uppermost windows of the monastery. He immediately descended in great haste to the central hall, the room of many gods, where he lost no time in giving his instructions to the head monk. And a few minutes afterwards he made good his escape in a boat which was rowed round the island.
When Dario and his men landed, a small guard was left behind in charge of the boats. The rest of the party, with whom were Fountain and Tremayne, gathered in the great hall of the monastery, and there demanded of the head monk the whereabouts of the white boy who had been taken prisoner. The monk stubbornly refused to answer; and then, upon a sudden, in a remote part of the temple, there broke out an uproar that could be heard for some distance across the lake. Gongs were beaten; trumpets were sounded; there were loud cries for help, accompanied by the clash of arms. The men who had been left as escort to the boats, believing that their comrades within the monastery had been attacked in force, immediately drew their swords and hastened to the rescue.
They found that Dario and the others were as much mystified as they at the turmoil that still continued. The noise had been created by a party of monks in a different quarter of the building with the sole intention of decoying the escort away from the boats. Tremayne realized too late that they had been fooled. By the time he and Fountain had approached the bottom of the steps, they discovered to their dismay that they were imprisoned on the island, cut off from Khandara where the Queen remained in her palace protected only by a small detachment of the bodyguard.
They had no means of escape and no means of communication with their friends in the city—for every boat had been stove in and sunk.
AND for all these hours Neil Ranson had been left in the cave by the mountain torrent that thundered down into the lake. The boy could not very well starve so long as anything remained in the food basket. There was also water to drink, for in places the torrent actually washed the mouth of the cave.
Hence it was manifest to Neil that, for some reason or other, Punhri wanted to keep him alive; and for that very reason he was determined to make every effort to escape.
He began by searching all parts of the cave, examining the walls, hoping that he might find another hole similar to that in the roof down which he had been thrown. A few minutes, however, sufficed to make it quite clear to him that the walls were solid rock.
He then went to the mouth of the cave and looked out, and for a moment contemplated the prospect of throwing himself into the stream and trusting to Providence, in the hope that he might eventually be washed out into the lake.
But one glance assured him that such an action would amount to sheer suicide. No human being could possibly hope to live in that swirling, seething cataract. The water rushed past the cave at a velocity almost incredible. The snow upon the mountains had recently thawed, and the stream was swollen to its utmost. Here and there, in the midst of the green, cold water flecked with foam, black rocks stood forth against which a swimmer must inevitably be dashed to death.
Neil turned back with a sinking feeling. He might have known that Punhri would have taken good care that his prison was secure. From what he had seen of the surrounding country, he knew that he was in a lonely part of the mountains where no one came. He might cry out for help until exhaustion overcame him, but his cries would never be heard.
Almost in despair, he walked round and round the cave aimlessly, endeavouring to think. And then he came back to the mouth of the cave, where he stood ankle-deep in running water.
The swollen waters of the torrent overflowed the rocky floor for a distance of about five yards or even more. Neil advanced cautiously, until he was but a few inches from a point where the cliff dropped sheer, where the raging water was several feet in depth. If he stepped over the edge he would immediately be swept away.
Looking upward, he beheld the blue sky above him. The floor of the cave projected some little way beyond the roof. Neil calculated his chances. If he stood in the shallow water, and took a standing jump, he might succeed in catching the projecting edge above him. If he could but cling there for a few seconds, he might be able to hoist himself up and thus make good his escape.
He went back into the cave, and took off the native sandals he was wearing. With bare feet he thought he would have a better chance of success.
He took in a deep breath, and then sprang as high as he could, endeavouring to clutch at the edge of the overhanging rock. Ten times he tried—and ten times failed, though on four occasions he touched the roof with his fingertips. And this encouraged him to try again.
Making a supreme effort, he sprang at least an inch higher than he had ever done before, and grasped for a moment the thin overhanging lip of rock. And there he hung, his legs dangling.
He was on the point of making a final effort, of attempting to haul himself up to the top by the strength of his arms, when he realized quite suddenly that the rock to which he clung was giving way above him.
He saw a crack run along its under surface like a streak of forked lightning. And then a great piece came away, and Neil Ranson found himself lying flat upon his back in two or three inches of water, but a little distance from the black, roaring torrent.
Wet, and to some extent crestfallen, he got to his feet. The great boulder that had fallen lay in the shallow water, and Neil realized at once that if he stood upon this he might have a better chance of success.
This time he took a standing jump, not from the floor of the cave itself, but from the top of the great boulder that had fallen. Once again he grasped the projecting portion of the roof of the cave; and again the rock came away beneath his weight, and another piece descended to the ground.
He had now discovered a certain way of escape, and redoubled his efforts, time and again breaking away large portions of the rock, until there were as many as a dozen of these lying upon the threshold of the cave.
These boulders were all too heavy for him to lift, but he had strength enough to roll them, one after the other, toward the centre of the cave. This he did; and, although it took him some time, he finally succeeded in making a small pyramid of rock immediately beneath the round hole in the roof down which he had been thrown.
Then he climbed to the top of the pyramid, where he found that his head was not more than a few inches from the roof. Bending his arms, he used all his strength in an attempt to move the boulder which blocked the hole above him. To his intense relief, the great stone slowly moved. And presently it rolled away from above him, leaving the hole wide open.
Neil climbed through, to find himself once again upon the hill-top. All about him were the rugged mountains, jagged pinnacles of rock, beyond which towered the snow-capped peaks that shut out the kingdom of Khandara from the rest of the world.
He looked up at the sun, and saw that it was sinking rapidly. The afternoon was nearly gone. He therefore resolved to set forth without delay toward Khandara. It would be a long journey round the lake, but he could not very well miss his way, for, even if nightfall overtook him, there would be a moon, by the light of which he would be able to follow the coastline of the lake.
When night fell, the boy had gained the shore of the lake; but he was still a considerable distance from the city, which he calculated he could not reach before daybreak.
He came upon a strip of sandy beach where it was possible for him to walk quickly. But after a time this beach came to an end and he found himself clambering over great rocks, across which he was able to make but the slowest progress, until he found a path that he followed for several miles.
From this path he obtained a clear view of the lake that mirrored the stars. No sound disturbed the silence save the boy's own footsteps, until upon a sudden he heard the grating sound of oars, and soon afterwards made out six boats moving toward the island of Ra.
He little dreamed that in these boats were his own friends, not only Dario and his soldiers, but also Henry Tremayne and Fountain. It would have been quite easy for Neil to have hailed them; but, knowing that the monks upon the island were the friends of Punhri, he naturally thought these people were his enemies. He therefore remained silent, even waiting until the boats had reached the island; and then he continued his way, following the direction of the coastline.
He experienced many delays: there were steep rocks to climb, and streams to cross; and it was not until long after midnight that he entered a wood that he knew to lie to the north-east of the city.
By then the moon had gone down, and Neil was greatly fatigued. However, he struggled on, and just before daybreak came to one of the main gates of Khandara, where, to his surprise, he found no soldiers on guard. Inside the city he was astonished to discover that, in spite of the earliness of the hour, the streets were crowded.
He asked an old man what all the excitement was about, and why there were no guards at the city gates.
"Have you not heard?" was the reply. "Punhri has returned to Khandara. Even now he is on his way to the palace with a large party of armed priests and men of the civic guard. He has publicly declared that he will capture Queen Zarasis before the sun sets this day."
BELIEVING that Dario and all his men, as well as Fountain and Tremayne, were still within the palace, Neil could scarcely believe what he had been told. But when he had reached the palace gate, Idina, who was in command of the guard, eagerly seized the boy by the shoulders.
"Where is Dario?" he asked. "And where is the White Wizard and he who fears nothing, who has the eye of a hawk?"
"Are they not here?" cried Neil in astonishment.
"No," said Idina. "They left the palace last night. A messenger came from Punhri, telling us that he held you a prisoner, and that he would put you to death if he was not restored to power."
"But where is Dario now?" asked Neil.
"Upon the island of Ra. Thither they went and none of them has returned."
Neil was now fully alive to the peril of the situation. In an excited manner he grasped Idina by an arm.
"You know," said he, "that Punhri means to attack the palace?"
"Would that I did not!" Idina answered. "For, in Dario's absence, I am in command, and I have scarce men enough to man the walls."
"Listen," said Neil. "I will do what I can. Keep them at bay as long as you can. Every minute—perhaps every second—may count. I will go back to the lake. I will find some means of crossing to the island. If Dario is there, I will find him."
"If you go down to the lake," Idina answered, "you go to almost certain death. Punhri has taken possession of all the boats and shipping; and his men have orders to kill anyone who endeavours to embark. There is some reason to suppose that all the boats have been taken away from the island of Ra, so that Dario and those with him cannot return to the city."
Neil thought for a moment, and then remembered that upon the eastern shore of the lake he had come upon a fishing village where he had seen several boats.
"Give me some money," said he. "I can purchase such help as I want."
Idina, asking no further questions, passed into the guard- room, where he opened a safe in which the money was kept to pay the soldiers. From this he took a bag filled with silver coins—silver being of greater worth in that country than gold. Neil fastened the bag of money to his girdle, and hastened into the palace for his revolver and ammunition.
Five minutes later he was again in the city streets. He avoided the Square of the Obelisk, where a great crowd was gathered. War-gongs and drums were being beaten in the neighbourhood of Punhri's palace.
The utmost disorder prevailed throughout Khandara. On this eventful morning no man thought for a moment of going about his proper business. All was excitement and commotion, for the word had been passed that Punhri had returned, the Sorcerer had risen from the dead, to be more powerful, more invincible than ever.
Punhri was, indeed, now playing his trump card. For the time being he had got rid of Dario and Tremayne. The bodyguard was considerably reduced in strength. If he attacked the palace, he could not be opposed by the firearms of the white men.
Neil lost no time in reaching open country, where he set forth running toward the wood that lay upon the lake shore toward the east. Here he was safe, though it took him more than two hours to reach the village, where he found the fishermen busy with their nets, which they were drying in the sun. Some score of boats lay moored in the narrow creek around which the village was built.
The first person he met was a woman, who expressed considerable curiosity at beholding one of the white men of whom she had often heard. As a matter of fact, Neil at this time was so sunburnt that his complexion was as dark as that of the majority of the natives, though his blue eyes and brown hair betrayed his nationality.
The good woman desired to ask the boy a hundred questions, but Neil made it clear to her that he was in great haste, that matters of grave import were even then taking place within the city. Thereupon she led him to the head man of the village—a wrinkled old fellow with a head completely bald and shaped like an egg.
He bowed low when he learned who his visitor was, and then declared that more than once he had seen the White Wizard in the streets of Khandara.
"A giant in stature!" he declared. "More a god than a man. And I have heard it said that his wisdom was even greater than his strength."
"That is true enough," the boy replied. "But I am not here to speak of my own tribe. In Khandara things have come to this pass: every man must declare himself to be either for Punhri or the Queen. You and your people, like the rest of us, must choose. Will you throw in your lot with Zarasis, with whom are Dario and the White Wizard of whom you speak? Or will you join hands with Punhri, the Sorcerer, a man who follows only the dictates of his black and jealous heart?"
"I am for the Queen," said the old man. "We are simple fisher folk who reverence the traditions of our country. The forebears of Zarasis have ruled this land since the beginning of the world."
"Then realize," said the boy, "that this very day the Queen is in the greatest peril. My friends and I are ready to die for her. I can promise you that, if you throw in your lot with us, you will not go unrewarded should the day go for the Queen."
The old man hesitated. For a while he mumbled to himself, as if unable to make up his mind. It was the jingling sound of the silver coins that caused him to come to a decision.
"Here is money," Neil went on; "more than you and your people can make in many moons by means of fishing in the lake. I am ready to give half of this now to those men who will help me. The rest they shall have when the work is finished."
The head man at once agreed. And Neil explained the situation, declaring that he wanted at least eight boats to put out to the island.
By means of blowing a queer-shaped horn, the old man summoned his villagers; and when he had explained to the younger men what was wanted there was no lack of volunteers. Each boat could only be propelled by means of a long oar at the stern; but Neil selected sixteen men in all, in order that there might be two in each boat, so that one could relieve the other.
It must have been about ten o'clock in the morning when they set forth upon the waters of the lake. The eight boats moved in two lines, four abreast, and made straight for the island, which could be seen but dimly in the distance through a thin haze that had spread itself upon the surface of the water.
On the other hand, toward the city of Khandara the atmosphere was remarkably clear, and the white houses, palaces and temples, as well as the city walls, could be seen in every detail.
Neil, who was in one of the foremost boats, kept a sharp lookout upon the wharves and jetties of the harbour. Here he could see distinctly the figures of armed men; and presently it was manifest that an alarm had been given, for many people were seen to be hurrying toward the boats.
Neil knew at once that they had been sighted, that they would have to row for their lives. However, he had every reason to feel confident. Punhri's followers, who were starting in pursuit, were more than a mile away.
There was not a breath of air to fill a sail, and had the chase been taken up by small sailing boats similar to those of the fishermen, the boy and his companions must have reached the island long before their pursuers. Unfortunately there were in Khandara several big war canoes, some of which could accommodate as many as twenty rowers. And the boy's heart sank within him when he beheld one of these shoot out from the harbour and take up the chase.
There followed a breathless race for life, during which the loyal fishermen strained every muscle to reach the island before the war canoe. Each man worked desperately with his oar, using all his strength and weight; and no sooner did exhaustion get the better of him than he was relieved by his companion.
Neil, compelled to remain inactive, felt his heart beating within him like a hammer. Looking back from time to time, he saw that the war canoe was rapidly gaining upon them, whereas the other boats that accompanied it were a long way behind.
Soon the war canoe was so close that Neil could see that it was manned by soldiers of the civic guard, who were armed with long spears and bows and arrows.
Yard by yard the fugitives were overtaken. The island now showed clearly in front of them; the black rocks, with the white monastery upon the hill-top, and the long flight of stone steps leading upward from the beach. At last an arrow was discharged that fell but little short of the last boat.
It looked then as if Neil's gallant enterprise was doomed to failure, when the boy ordered his own canoe to drop astern of the others, and opened fire with his revolver.
NEIL had hoped, by discharging his revolver in the air, to turn back their pursuers. But the war canoe came on. He cast an anxious look toward the island and saw at once that it would be touch-and-go, though the leading boat was then not more than two or three hundred yards from the foot of the steps that led to the monastery.
Neil was resolved not to fire until he found himself compelled to do so; but when a stream of arrows came whistling past his head he retaliated in self-defence.
It was a moment of intense excitement. Throwing himself down in the body of the boat, Neil rested the barrel of his revolver on the gunwale, and fired one shot after another. At the same time he shouted at the top of his voice to the fishermen, assuring them that they would be safe when once they succeeded in landing on the island.
Neil's boat was some distance astern of the others, and the boy already realized that, even if he lost his own life, he would succeed in his object. There would be boats enough to convey Dario and his men back to Khandara.
The air was alive with arrows, the majority of which fell harmlessly into the water of the lake. The gallant young fisherman who rowed Neil's boat worked desperately, until the perspiration poured from off his sunburnt, naked shoulders. And then, upon a sudden, he was struck. An arrow caught him in the throat, and with a loud cry he dropped the oar and sank down upon the flooring of the boat.
The other man hastened to take his comrade's place, whilst Neil, reloading the chambers of his revolver, fired more rapidly than ever.
Anxiously Neil glanced toward the island shore. He could see the rocks at the bottom of the stone steps, but no sign of life was to be seen anywhere upon the whole island, and the boy's heart sank within him. He could not think what could have happened to Dario and the others. If no help came in a moment his own boat must certainly be captured, and he himself put instantly to death.
To Neil those brief and breathless seconds were like many hours. It seemed to him, with the arrows of his enemies streaming past his ears, that the boat progressed at a snail's pace.
Those in the war canoe now believed that the fugitive could not escape. The prow of the canoe was but a few feet away from Neil's boat. The island shore was still twenty or thirty yards distant. Many of the fishermen had already landed; and these, panic-stricken and fearful of the vengeance that would be wreaked upon them, were running in all haste up the long flight of stone steps toward the monastery.
Neil looked about him in despair. He could see quite clearly the faces of those in the war canoe. So sure were they of capturing their prize that they had even desisted from discharging their arrows—when upon a sudden there arose from out of the midst of the rocks that fringed the island shore a battle-cry that echoed far across the lake.
And on the instant it was as if that still and lonely island was stirred to sudden life. The sunshine glittered everywhere upon the armour of the heroes of the bodyguard. And in the foreground, rushing forward until he was almost knee-deep in the water, was Dario himself, bearded, dazzling, the great sword in his right hand that no common man could wield.
The war canoe put about. Those on board gave vent to a loud cry of alarm. And in three seconds they were rowing desperately for safety, making away from the island with all the speed they could.
It was John Fountain who grasped Neil by a hand.
"How did you get here, my boy?" he asked. "We thought you a prisoner!"
"I was, indeed," said Neil. "But I was lucky enough to escape and find my way to Khandara. Punhri is there, and is now attacking the palace."
At this juncture they were joined by Tremayne and Dario.
"Neil," said Tremayne, "we have been bottled up here for hours like so many goldfish in a bowl."
"When I came within sight of the island," said Neil, "I began to have doubts whether you were here at all."
"We did not intend you to see us," Tremayne laughed. "We saw your boats approaching through the mist, and the war canoe in pursuit. We lost no time in hastening down the steps, at the foot of which we lay in ambush among the rocks. But we waste time!" he went on. "We must return to Khandara at once."
In less than five minutes the whole party had embarked; in spite of which it was long past midday, and the sun was beginning to sink toward the snow-capped mountains in the west, when they drew alongside in the harbour.
Though many of Punhri's soldiers and armed priests were crowded upon the shore, there was not one among them who dared discharge an arrow or throw a spear. The very sight of the great Dario himself, standing at his great height in the prow of the leading boat, the red sun glittering upon his golden armour, was enough to strike fear into the hearts of every one of them.
They stood herded together, like so many frightened sheep, staring blankly at their approaching enemies. And then, one man taking to his heels, the others did not hesitate to follow his example.
"Sheep!" roared Dario as he sprang ashore, brandishing his sword. "Sheep you are, and I'll make mutton of whomsoever comes within the circle of my sword!"
But before then they were away, scurrying through the back streets of the city, where no doubt the loud voice of the Captain of the Host—which was, indeed, like the roar of a lion—came to their ears as they ran.
Dario formed up his men, and presently the whole party set forward through the great gate and along the main street that led toward the palace.
They had not gone far before they heard the sounds of the conflict that was there taking place. The mob was shouting as one man. They could hear the heavy thud of Punhri's battering-rams directed upon the outer palace wall.
Dario gave the command for his soldiers to advance at the double; and as they broke into a run there came a crash, like the falling of an avalanche, that resounded throughout the city.
They wheeled into the main street that led from the Square of the Obelisk. The palace was to their left, and they saw at once that the wall had been battered down; and over the débris and the rubble and the broken brickwork Punhri's men were swarming into the courtyard and the gardens.
The outer wall was captured. The Sorcerer was all but master of the day.
THROUGHOUT the greater part of that day the combat had raged around the palace walls. Punhri had a great force of priests and civic soldiers under his command. From the very first, it had been evident that he meant to press home the assault with the utmost vigour upon all sides of the palace.
Heavy battering-rams had been brought into action quite early in the day. By one o'clock the main attack had developed against the gate; for here, by reason of the breadth of the street, the enemy could assault upon a wide frontage.
Here was Idina, who continued throughout the heat of the engagement to encourage his gallant men to hold their ground. Attack after attack was repulsed, until Punhri himself took command. Having already weakened the defence, and greatly damaged the wall on both sides of the gate, he led up his reserves of picked men, nearly all of whom were priests from the various temples, armed not only with swords and bows and arrows, but also with slings capable of hurling stones a considerable distance.
The soldiers at the gateway were hard pressed to hold their own, but it was not until late in the afternoon, when the walls crumbled on either side of the gateway, that they found themselves compelled to retire.
Great breaches had been made in several places, and when the whole wall itself gave way, the brickwork—which was as much as forty feet in height—descended with a roar that was like the bursting of a tidal wave, whilst a cloud of dust rose high into the air.
Punhri immediately ordered the advance, and led his followers in person. Idina's warriors retired across the gardens of the palace, there being nothing left to them but to defend the royal building itself.
Thither, like an oncoming tide, came Punhri and his followers, until the whole courtyard and the palace garden were choked with a press of shouting, frenzied men. Punhri's tall figure appeared in the very front of the mob. At that very moment a great cheer arose behind him, and, turning, the High Priest beheld, to his consternation, in the shattered gateway of the outer wall, the glittering, golden armour of Dario, the Captain of the Host.
Nor was Dario alone, for Henry Tremayne was on one side of him and Neil Ranson and Fountain on the other. And at their backs were the stalwart, sturdy soldiers of the bodyguard.
Punhri was caught between two fires. He was given time neither to turn about to face this unexpected onslaught from the rear nor to look about him for some method of escape.
Panic ensued upon the instant—panic which Dario and his men were not slow to turn to their advantage. Even to the last Punhri displayed the greatest courage, turning upon his enemies like a wounded, infuriated tiger. Recognizing that his cause was lost, almost mad with wrath, he turned, sword in hand, upon the first man that he encountered.
It was an ill hour for him that this was none other than Dario himself. Their bright swords flashed for an instant in the sunlight; and then Punhri, the Sorcerer, sank to the ground, lifeless and terrible in death. The great sword of Dario had done its work. The day was won for the Queen.
UPON the death of the Sorcerer, the insurrection that he had stirred up came to an end, and once again peace and order reigned in the city of Khandara.
And upon a certain morning, four months afterwards, a large party wended its way from the city walls toward the mountains in the south.
Neil Ransom and Fountain had put off from day to day the date of their departure. In many ways they were both loth to go, for this lost country wherein survived an ancient, and in some ways an enlightened, civilization, was now a pleasant land in which to live.
Already Henry Tremayne occupied a position that was unique in the history of the nation. For he was both King and High Priest, the spiritual and the temporal leader of the people.
No motives of mere ambition had urged him to take upon his broad shoulders the weight of such a responsibility. He had married Queen Zarasis because from the first he had loved her, because she was willing to trust herself and her country to the greatest and the wisest man she had ever known.
And Tremayne, for her sake, and because he loved humanity, had resolved to make the welfare of her people his one and only care. He had attained such eloquence that the great meetings he held in the Temple of the Sun were attended by thousands of people, who gathered to listen to the doctrine of Christianity. It must not be thought that he succeeded in converting a nation in an hour. Paganism for centuries had held sway in Khandara. Many, especially the priests who had thriven on superstition, were disposed to dispute the teaching of the new religion. But it was obvious to all who could see into the future that the White King, whom all honoured and esteemed, would in the end carry the whole nation with him.
For Tremayne was heart and soul in this Christian work, as well as the regeneration of the country, the reconstruction of the laws, the establishment of a school of medicine, hospitals, the organization of a police force, as well as a ministry of education.
It was quite plain to Fountain that Tremayne had found an outlet for his energies; but the little hunter himself was a man who could never remain long in one place. Both he and Neil were anxious to get back to civilization, and, moreover, they could take a message from Tremayne to the outside world.
They set forth from Khandara with the object of opening up a line of communication across the mountains and of making known their discovery of this buried, hidden city.
It was not until they had reached the crest-line of the mountains that Tremayne said goodbye to his friends.
"You came here to save me," said he, as he took John Fountain by a hand; "but it seems that you have saved a nation."
"Supposing," said the other, "that we never get through alive?"
Tremayne smiled and shook his head.
"I have no fear of that," said he. "You are too old and too experienced an explorer. That you will find your way back to the Zambesi I have not the slightest doubt. And you will take my message to the world."
"And you really mean," asked Fountain, "to remain here all your life?"
"All my life," said the other. "I have a life's work to do; and, with God's help, I'll do it."
He turned and laid one of his great hands upon Neil's shoulder.
"I owe everything to you," said he. "Had it not been for you, Punhri would now have been reigning in Khandara. When you get back to the world think of me sometimes as working hard, and happy in my work."
And at that they parted, Fountain and Neil going down the mountain slope toward the dark forest that lay spread in the midst of a steaming haze as far as the eye could reach, Tremayne and those with him descending to the white city that lay spread at their feet upon the shore of the azure lake, calm and mirror- like beneath the golden tropic sun.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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