The following is a Gaslight etext....
A message to you about copyright and permissions
Originally printed in Argosy, (1918-sep-12 to oct-19)
CHAPTER IHidden in the Hills
"DON'T leave me All in " The words were barely distinguishable, but the tall figure in the lead, striding heavily through the soft, impeding sand, heard the mutter of them and paused without turning. He stood with drooped head and shoulders, as if the oppression of the cruel, naked sun were an actual weight that pressed him earthward. His companion, plowing forward with an ultimate effort, sagged from the hips and fell face downward in the sand.
Apathetically the tall man looked at the twitching heap beside him. Then he raised his head and stared through a reddening film at the vast, encircling torture pen in which they both were trapped.
The sun, he thought, had grown monstrous and swallowed all the sky. No blue was anywhere. Brass above, soft, white-hot iron beneath, and all tinged to redness by the film of blood over sand-tormented eyes. Beyond a radius of thirty yards his vision blurred and ceased, but into that radius something flapped down and came tilting awkwardly across the sand, long wings half-spread, yellow head lowered, bold with an avid and loathsome curiosity.
"You!" whispered the man hoarsely, and shook one great, red fist at the thing. "You'll not get your dinner off me nor him while my one foot can follow the other!"
And with that he knelt down by the prostrate one, drew the limp arms about his own neck, bowed powerful shoulders to support the body, and heaved himself up again. Swaying, he stood for a moment with feet spread, then began a new and staggering progress. The king-vulture flapped lazily from his path and upward to renew its circling patience.
After years in hell, where he was doomed forever to bear an intolerable burden across seas of smoking fire, the tall man regained a glimmering of reason. It came with the discovery that he was lying flat on his stomach, arms and breast immersed in liquid coolness, and that he was gulping water as fast and as greedily as swollen tongue and lips would permit.
With a self-control that saved two lives, he forced himself to cease drinking, but laved in the water, played in it with his hands, could scarcely believe in it, and at the same time thanked God for its reality. So sanity came closely back, and with clearing vision he saw the stream that meant salvation to sundrained tissues.
It was a deep, narrow, rapid flood, rushing darkly by and tugging at his arms with the force of its turbulent current. Flowing out from a rocky gorge, it lost itself again round a curving height of rocks.
What of the white-hot torture-pit? He was in shadow now, blessed, cool, revivifying. But alone.
Dragging himself by sheer will-power from the water, the tall man wiped at his eyes and stared about. There close by lay a motionless heap of brown, coated with sand in dusty patches, white sand in the tumble of black hair at one end of it.
Very cautiously the tall man got to his feet and took an uncertain step toward the huddled figure. Then he shook one dripping red fist toward a wide, shimmering expanse that lay beyond the shadow of the rocks.
"You missed us," he muttered with a chuckle almost childishly triumphant, "and you'll never get us not while my one foot can follow the other!"
Then he set himself to revive the companion he had carried through torment on his shoulders, bathing the face, administering salvation by cautious driblets on the blackened, leather-dry lips and tongue. He himself had drunk more and faster. His already painful stomach and chest told him that.
But this other man, having a friend to minister, need take no such chance with his life. From his face the sand was washed in little white rivulets; his throat muscles began to move in convulsive twitches of swallowing.
As he worked, the tall man cast an occasional glance at the gorge from which flowed the stream. Below was the desert; above, craggy heaps and barren stretches of stone towered skyward. Blind and senseless, led by some inner guidance, say instinct rather than sense, he had dragged himself and his fellow-prospector from the desert's hot, dry clutch. Would the hills prove kinder? Water was here, but what of food?
He glanced again up the gorge and saw that beside the swift water there was room for a man to walk. And downstream drifted a green, leafy branch, hurrying and twisting with the current.
As liquid iron cools, withdrawn from the fire, so the desert cooled with the setting of the sun, its furnace. Intolerable whiteness became purple mystery, overhung by a vault of soft and tender blue, that deepened, darkened, became set with a million flashing jewels.
And under the stars cool night-winds roved, like stealthy, invisible prowlers. Up among the rocks they came, stirring the hair of two escaped prisoners of the sun as if with curious fingers.
As their chill, stealthy breath struck through to his heated body the smaller man shivered in his sleep. His companion rolled over and took the unblanketed form in his arms; to share with it his own warmth and unconquerable vitality.
Dawn came, a hint of dun light. The stars faded and fled in a moment, and saffron glory smote the desert into transitory gold. One man had slept little and the other much, but it was the first who rose strongly from the bare rock and roused the second to action.
"We're our own men again," he asserted with confident optimism. "'Tis time we were proving it, and though cold water's a poor breakfast, that's but encouragement to find a better. Come, now. Stand up on your own two feet, Mr. Kennedy, the way we may be seeking it."
Unwillingly the other raised himself. His face, save for the dark stubble of a three days' divorce from the razor, was clean-shaven, and his black hair, dark, alert eyes, and the tan inflicted by a Mexican sun, gave him almost the look of an Indian.
His companion, on the other hand, was of that blond, freckled type which burns, but hardly tans at all, and his young, homely face flamed red beneath a thatch of hair nearly as ruddy.
Well over six fit in height, lean, tough, with great loose-moving shoulders and slim waist, Colin O'Hara looked what he was, a stalwart young Irishman whose full power was yet to come with years, but who even at twenty excelled most men in strength and stamina. Under his worn flannel shirt the muscles played, not in lumpy hillocks, but in those long, easy curves that promise endless endurance.
"Come along," he repeated. "They'll be waiting breakfast for us up the arroyo."
"Who will? Oh just some more of your nonsense, eh? Can't we even starve to death without your joking over it?"
"And for why should we starve; little man? Take the edge off your temper with this, then."
He tossed over something which Kennedy caught with eager hands, and bit through its gray-green skin almost before looking at it.
"A lechera pear, eh?" He gulped and bit again. "Where did you get it?" The other pointed at the rushing stream. "It came floating down last night and I saved it, thinking you might need a bit of encouragement the morn."
"Only one?" demanded Kennedy with a quick, greedily suspicious glance.
Finishing the milky pulp hurriedly, the dark man washed its sticky juice from face and hands and turned with a grin.
"You're a fool to have given it all away then too big a fool for me to believe in. How many did you eat, really?"
The Irishman's red brows drew together. He turned away.
"I gave you it all that I might be saved the carrying of you," he flung back. "I'd enough o' that yesterday."
He was striding upstream now, and Kennedy followed, scowling at his swinging back.
"I say, Boots," he called in a moment. "You know I meant nothing. You saved my life, I admit, and thanks for the pear."
"Boots" (the nickname being probably derived from the enormous pair of cowhides in which the young Irishman had essayed desert travel) flung back a brief: "It's all right," and tramped steadily on. He was not the man to quarrel over so trifling a matter.
As for their present goal, the best that even optimistic Boots hoped for was some uncultivated valley where they might precariously sustain life on wild fruit and such game as they could take without weapons.
Barren, unpopulated, forsaken even of the Indians, this region had an evil reputation. "Collados del Demonio," Hills of the Fiend, the Mexicans called it. So far as Cuachictin at the desert's rim the prospectors had come without trouble. Those were the days when Porfirio Diaz still kept his iron grip on the throat of Mexico, and by consequence even a "puerco gringo" might travel through it in safety.
But Cuachictin offered them no encouragement to further progress. Kennedy had tried in vain to persuade some native of that Indian settlement to accompany them as a guide. Gold? Ah, yes, there was gold in the hills. Gold in nuggets as big as your closed fist so. But also devils.
Was it not known that in ancient days all Anahuac was inhabited by giants? Even now, in turning new fields, a man was likely to uncover their enormous bones. Their terrible white ghosts overran the hills. They hunted the hills with the ghosts of white cougars for companions. They would twist off the head of a man and swallow it and his soul like melon seeds. No, no! Blanket was not woven nor knife forged that would pay a man for being eaten, soul and all, by devils!
In the huge, half-rotted brown thing like a strange log which they finally dragged forth to support their story of giants, Kennedy recognized the thigh-bone of a mastodon! The prospectors yielded hope of conquering a superstition rooted in the prehistoric past, and set out alone.
It was true that they had reached their goal, the hills, but with their own bare hands for sole remaining equipment, and for provision the hope of what the country itself might offer.
Shadowed from above by beetling cliffs, the curving path of the torrent led them on. The gorge widened. They reached a sharp bend of the walls and rounded it.
"Saints above!" came Boots' sharp ejaculation. "Mr. Kennedy, did you ever see the like o' that?"
Mr. Kennedy made no reply. Had the gorge opened out upon a pit of flaming brimstone, neither man could have halted more abruptly nor stared with a greater amazement.
Their emotion, however, was the opposite of dismay. To eyes sand-tortured and sun-weary, the vista before them seemed hardly less blessed than paradise.
On either hand steep, thickly wooded bluffs ran parallel to the reach of a gorgeously flowering and fruitful ravine. Through its midst meandered the stream, broadly shallow between pleasant banks, till it reached the rocks and swirled to a somber turmoil of revolt.
But better than flower, or fruit, or sparkling river, the scene held a certain homelier significance. The groves of fruit trees were set in orderly ranks. Pina noñas raised their sharp spikes in rows of military alinement. Along the stream a brown path trended toward that which confirmed the meaning of all the rest a gleam of white walls near the upper end of the ravine.
"A plantation!" cried Kennedy at last. "A plantation in the Collados del Demonio! And by report there isn't a square foot of cultivated land within a hundred and fifty miles of this spot."
Boots grinned cheerfully.
"Report's a liar. Maybe it's the house of the old hill devil himself we've blundered upon. So be, he owes us a breakfast for hunting him out!"
With the direct purpose of hungry men, they headed straight for those patches of shining white which betokended, as they supposed, the dobe house of a rancher.
In the orange groves, blossom and full golden sphere flourished side by side. Sapodillas, milk-pears, and ciruelas, hung with a million reddening globes, offered proof of generous soil and a kindly climate. Flocks of butterflies, crimson, blue, and metallic green, shared the air with humming birds whose plumage put the sailwings to shame for brightness. Musical-voiced blue sparrows, wild canaries and gaudy little parrakeets filled the trees with rainbow-hued vivacity.
"It's Eden without the " began Boots, when whir-r-r-r! came a sharp warning from the long grass that bordered the path. Boots bowed in mock salutation toward the sound. "Asking your pardon, Mr. Rattler! Eden, serpent and all, is what I'd meant to be saying."
"Don't crack any of your fool jokes when we reach the house," growled Kennedy. "Some of these Mexicans are as touchy as the devil."
"Ah, now, you'd soon soothe 'em down with a scowl or so," laughed Boots. "But well, don't you admire the look o' that, Mr. Kennedy? It's no ranch-house they have, but a full-fledged hacienda no less!"
It was true. Instead of the common dobe-plastered casa of a small rancher, the thinning trees revealed an establishment far more imposing. Wide-spread, flat-roofed, its walls even yet showing only in patches through rioting rose-vines, here was such a residence as might be owned by any wealthy gentleman of Mexico. To find it in these hills, however, was as surprising as to discover a Fifth Avenue mansion at the heart of a Bornean jungle.
From one chimney, presumably over the kitchen, a thin curl of smoke was rising. This was the only visible sign of life within. And now it struck them that in the whole length of the ravine they had not seen so much as one peon at work among the plantations.
The hacienda seemed very silent. Behind the walls of its courtyard no dog barked nor cock crowed. Save for the musical tumult of birds, they might, have wandered into a valley of magic stillness.
"Smoke spells fire and fire spells food," asserted Boots. "The cook's awake, and 'tis shame if the rest be sleeping with the sun up these two hours. Will we walk in or knock, Mr. Kennedy? You've the better knowledge of what's considered fitting in these parts."
"Knocks," came the curt advice of his companion. He was eying the hacienda suspiciously, but as suspicion was Kennedy's normal attitude toward the world, Boots paid that no attention.
He boldly advanced toward the wooden outer gates that stood open, yielding a pleasant glimpse through two archways to the inner patio, with its palms, gay oleanders, and tinkling fountain. His fist smote loudly on a leaf of the open gates.
Almost immediately, the summons brought response. On pattering bare feet a child came flying out from among the palms, only to pull up abruptly when she perceived that the visitors were strangers. She was a pretty enough youngster, between three and four years old, with curling black hair, bright, solemn, dark eyes, and a skin surprisingly pink and white for a Mexican child. Her dress was a single slip of brown agave fiber, clean, however, and painstakingly embroidered.
"Buenos dias, chiquita,"greeted Boots, whose Spanish, though atrociously accented, generally served the purpose. "Esta usted solo en la casa?" (Are you alone in the house?)
The curly black head shook in solemn negation. Then the round face dimpled into laughter, and running straight to her giant questioner she put up chubby arms in an unmistakable plea. With an answering laugh the Irishman caught the baby up and set her on the towering height of his shoulder.
Kennedy frowned weary irritation.
"Are we to stand here all day?" he queried.
Leaning forward, the child peered down at him around the ruddy head of her swiftly chosen friend.
"Do 'way," she commanded calmly. "Red man nice tum in. Black man do 'way 'way, 'way off!" She emphasized the order in her unexpected baby English by a generous wave of her hand toward infinite outside spaces.
Boots' shout of mirth at this summary choice and dismissal produced two results. Kennedy's annoyance was increased, and a man came out from some door which the first archway concealed, and strode quickly toward them. Dressed in immaculate white, well-groomed and confident of bearing, here seemed the probable master of the hacienda.
"What is this? Put that child down, sir! Who are you, and how did you come here?"
The Irishman shrugged a trifle resentfully.
"The little maid's in no danger," he protested. "We're seeking the common kindness of food and shelter; for the which we'll gladly pay and get on our journey again."
Without replying the man advanced, took the girl from her lofty perch and set her down. "Run in, the house, little daughter," he commanded briefly.
But with a wail of rebellion she flung both short arms around the Irishman's dusty boot. Foreseeing trouble for the young lady, he stooped and gently disengaged her.
"I've a little sister at home, colleen," he said, "that's the spit and image of yourself, save she's the eyes like blue corn-flowers. Don't you be crying, now. We'll see each other again."
As she still clung, her father stooped, lifted her and faced her about in the desired direction. "Go in!" he commanded, with a gentle sternness that this time won obedience.
Boots looked at her regretfully, for he liked children. He was, indeed, to see her again, as he had promised; but not to know her not though that recognition would have saved him terrible and bitter pain. But now she was to him only a small girl-child, who went at her father's insistence, and going turned to wave a chubby and reluctant farewell.
Upon her disappearance the fathers manner relaxed.
"You took me by surprise," he explained. "We are seldom favored with guests here, but I meant no inhospitality. You come from "
"The desert." Boots' brevity was indignant. Did the fellow think him a child-eating ogre that he snatched away his daughter so anxiously?
But Kennedy was more voluble. He plunged into an instant and piteous account of their recent sufferings, or, to speak more correctly, of his own, and before the tale was half finished, their unwilling host's last trace of hostility seemed to have completely vanished.
"Come in come in!" he ejaculated. "You shan't tell me that sort of story standing out here. Come in and I'll find you something or other worth eating, though I can't promise what it will be. My people " He paused and seemed to hesitate rather strangely. "My servants are off for the day," he at last concluded. "I'll do my best, and ask you to put up with any lacks due to their absence."
Both men offered willing though surprised assent.
"Off for the day!" thought Boots. "And where off to, I wonder? Does he give picnics to his peons? He's a different master, then, to any I've met in this slave-driver's country."
Having seated them in a great, cool, high-ceilinged and galleried dining-room, their host disappeared to return presently bearing a piled trayful of plunder from his own deserted kitchen.
The food, which included chicken, the inevitable tortilla, sweet potatoes crystallised in sugar, bananas and other fruits, was as typically Mexican as the hacienda. Yet all signs failed if their host were of Spanish blood..
No Spanish-American speaks English as if it were quite native to his tongue, and moreover, though his eyes were dark, and his hair save where it was liberally shot with gray, almost black, there was something about his keen, clean-cut face which spoke of some more northern race. "You're from the U.S.A.?" questioned Kennedy. The question was too blunt for courtesy, but the man nodded.
"Yes, I am an American. A Californian, though my parents were born on the Christiania Fiord."
"Ah, a Norseman, is it?" Boots' eyes lighted appreciatively. He had known a Norwegian or two, and thought them fine, upstanding, hard-hitting men of their hands. "I'm very glad to know you, Mr. "
"My name is Svend Biornson!" The tone was so challengingly abrupt that his guests involuntarily stared. If he had expected, however, to amuse another sort of surprise, he was disappointed. He saw it instantly and laughed as if to cover some odd embarrassment.
"Pardon my not presenting myself earlier. One forgets civilized forms in this, out-of-the-way place. And now I fancy you'd welcome a chance to wash and change to fresh garments. Will you follow me, gentlemen?"
The cool, airy chamber to which he escorted them opened off one of the two galleries surrounding the dining-room. Its three windows overlooked the patio, and through them one could step out upon another long, open gallery. There were two beds, draped with elaborate lace work, furniture of woven grass and wicker, and a bathroom with great, porous jars of cool water.
In his first glance about, Kennedy's eye was caught by a thing that stood on a bracket over one of the beds. Without apology he lifted the object down and examined it curiously.
It was an image, some ten inches high, done in brilliantly polished but unglazed porcelain. The face, though flat, bore a peculiarly genial and benignant expression. On the head was a sort of miter, adorned with black spots. A tunic, on which embroidery was simulated in red, blue and gilt enamel; a golden collar, gaiters spotted like the headdress, and dead-black sandals completed the costume.
On the left arm a round shield was carried. The right hand grasped a stag, terminating at the top in the curved neck and head of a snake, springing out of a collar or circlet of feathers.
It was a very beautiful piece of potter's art, but Kennedy had another reason for appreciation and interest.
"Quetzalcoatl, eh?" he said. "From Cholula, or did you find it around these parts?"
Biornson, who had not observed Kennedy's act, whirled like a flash. To the amazement of both men, his face had gone dead white, as if at receiving some intolerable shock.
"Quetzalcoatl!" he ejaculated in a quivering voice. "Sir, what do you know of Quetzalcoatl?"
Kennedy stared back in blank astonishment.
"Why this." He held up the image. "I didn't suppose that one of these existed, outside the museum at Mexico City. Don't you know its value?"
Slowly the pallor vanished from Biornison's countenance, and his nervous hands unclenched. With another of those queer, embarrassed laughs, he took the porcelain godling from Kennedy's hands.
"I had forgot the thing was in here," he muttered. "It belongs to my wife. She would be greatly annoyed if it were broken. Lucky piece, you understand. Superstition, of course, but no worse than throwing salt over your shoulder, or not walking under a ladder all that kind of nonsense. I'll put it in her room if you don't mind. Got everything you want? Then I'll leave you. Better sleep out the day nothing like siesta dinner whenever you desire to have it "
Still muttering detached phrases of hospitality, and with the image clutched firmly to his bosom, Biornson fairly escaped from the presence of his guests.
"What ails the poor man?" queried Boots. "Did they think we'd steal his china manikin, do you suppose?"
Kennedy scowled and shrugged.
"I suppose," he retorted, "that this Biornson, if that's his real name, is a rather queer sort, and that while w are in this house his eccentricities will bear watching."
Weary though both were, they did not find it easy to fall asleep. There was something oppressive about this vast, silent hacienda. The mystery of its emptiness, the mystery of its very existence, combined with the odd manners of their host to fill their brains with riddles. They lay silent, uneasy, while outside the drowsy heat increased and even, the vociferous bird-life ceased its clamor.
Out of the silence, however, rest was born at last, and it was late in the afternoon when they woke.
"By the way, Mr. Kennedy," Boots said, "if you'll forgive changing the subject to something more recent, what was the bit of bric-a-brac that Biornson snatched out of your hand? Quetz Quetz what was the name of it?"
"Quetzalcoatl. A piece of old Aztec work. Down in Yucatan one can pick up all sorts of stone and terra-cotta images among the ruins, but not like that."
"And this Quetz what's-his-name who was he? One o' the poor heathens idols, maybe?"
"The lord of the air. The fathered serpent." Kennedy was generally willing to talk, when he could air some superior knowledge. "By tradition he was a man, a priest, who was afterward deified for his beneficent acts and character. It is said that he ruled Mexico in its Golden Age Anahuac they called it then and when he left his people he promised to return at the head of a race of men as white as himself.
"He was a white god, you must understand. For that reason, when the Spaniards first landed the natives believed the lost god's promise had been kept. Images of him are common enough, but not in porcelain of that quality. Biornson surprised me into giving away its real value, like a fool, but at that I could pay him a good price for the thing and still make a profit. It would bring almost any sum from a New York collector."
"Don't deceive yourself that he didn't know its value! You could see in his eye that he did."
"What do you think of Biornson, anyway?"
"A fine, soft-spoken man after the first minute."
"Did you notice how he boggled over his name? Svend Biornson! I dare swear he has another, and one he has reason to conceal."
But the other's retort was cold and to the point.
"We Irish do hate an informer. Are you ready yet to go down?"
Save for a look of black resentment, Kennedy made no reply. However, as their briefest discussions generally ended in a clash, Boots ignored the glance and passed out to the dining-room gallery. There was yet no sound of life in the house, but on descending and finding their way out into the patio, they discovered Biornson there and he was not alone.
Seated on a stone bench by the fountain was a woman. She was a tall, slender person, of unusual beauty, and Boots thought her dark eyes and hair and peculiarly roselike complexion reminiscent of the child who had first greeted them. She was dressed in a simple gown of some silky, leaf-green material, and as she talked with Biornson her hand fondled the long, soft ears of a white hound, whose head rested on her knee.
None of the three seemed at first aware of the guests' approach, but as they came nearer the woman's face lifted with a quick, startled attention. She sprang to her feet, and the dog, as if in imitation, reared up beside her. On its hind legs the brute stood nearly as tall as she; and an ominous rumble issued from its throat.
"Quiet!" cried Biornson sharply. He laid a hand on beast's neck, pushing it downward. "Gentlemen, I had hardly expected you to awaken so early."
He had grasped the hound by its silky white fur, for it wore no collar, and under that insecure hold the animal surged disobediently forward. Its eyes flamed in a menace more savage than the bared fangs beneath; and as the dog seemed about to spring, Biornson flung his arms about its neck. In a flash it turned and tried to reach his face with snapping jaws.
At that the woman, whose dark, startled eyes had been fixed on the strangers, seemed for the first time to become aware of her pet's misbehavior. She spoke to it in a murmur of soft, indistinguishable syllables, and the hound, which had so resented Biornson's interference, subsided instantly. A moment later it was flat on the ground at her feet.
"That's a fine dog," approved Boots, "and you've a finer command over him, madam. May I ask what breed he is?"
Before the woman could reply, Biornson intervened.
"Just a hound of the hills," he said quickly. "Astrid, these gentlemen are those of whom I told you." He presented them more formally and, as Boots had expected, introduced the lady as his wife.
The name "Astrid" had a Scandinavian sound, and her beauty might well be as Norse as her husband's ancestry, but they had little time to study her. After murmuring a few shy words of welcome, she excused herself and left the guests to Biornson's entertainment.
As her green-clad form, with the white hound pressing close beside, receded into the inner shadows, the eyes of one man followed with a gleam of interest not aroused by her beauty.
Her accent was the thing that troubled Archer Kennedy. That it was neither American, Norwegian, nor Spanish he was ready to take oath. Her appearance, too, had a vague hint of something different from any white woman he had ever seen. Yet surely no dark blood flowed in those pink-nailed hands, nor behind such rose-leaf cheeks.
Dismissing the problem as immaterial, he returned to his host.
CHAPTER IIThe Moth Girl
"MR. KENNEDY, we should go early to bed, for I think we'll be leaving the morn just so soon as we can barrow or buy means of travel."
Rising, Boots cast away his brown leaf-cigarette with an impatient gesture.
It was now nine in the evening, and for half an hour, following another picked-up meal eaten by the three men alone together, they had sat in silence.
During that afternoon and evening Biornson's embarrassment had taken refuge in a distinct coldness and reserve. Their questions he put aside, or calmly left unanswered, but there was a worried line between his brows and he had developed a speculative, tight-tipped and narrow-eyed way of watching his guests which made it clear to him they were a Problem with a capital P.
Boots, who possessed more worldly knowledge than his years or careless manner would indicate, began to look speculative himself. Men with secrets to keep sometimes dispose of their Problems in an unpleasantly summary manner, and certainly this ravine was secret.
To believe that such a vivid jewel in the barren Collados del Demonio had been kept from knowledge of the world by accident was folly. In the common course of events, the plantation would have been famed if only for its isolation.
By what means and for what reason had Biornson prevented the spreading of its repute? From the first they had sensed something wrong in the ravine. As time passed, and their host's peculiar manner became more and more emphatic, they began to believe that nothing was right.
At Boots' half-irritated suggestion, Biornson rose with suspicious alacrity, and Kennedy could do less than follow suit, though he scowled in the darkness. For hours he had been waiting with the patience of a cat at a rat-hole for their host to let slip some careless word or phrase that would give him the key to a possibly profitable mystery. But he and young Boots were an ill-matched couple, and he was more annoyed than surprised that his watch should be put an end to by the latter's impatience.
Having for the second time escorted them to their gallery beds, Biornson handed the small triple candelabra he had brought to Boots and bade them a brief good night. Then he closed the heavy door behind them and a second later there came certain unmistakable sounds from outside, followed by the unhurried footsteps of their departing host.
With an oath Kennedy sprang for the door and wrenched vainly at the handle. As his ears had already informed him, it was locked and not only that but bolted.
With the sudden frenzy of the trapped, he kicked it, beat at it with his hands; then, with the same furious and futile energy, sprang across the room and attacked the solid wooden shutters which, though he had not at first observed them, were closed when they entered.
Still holding the candelabra, Boots stood near the middle of the room and watched his companion from under drawn, troubled brows. After a moment he set down the candles, took one stride forward, and grasping Kennedy by the shoulder forced him away and into a wicker armchair.
"That's no way to behave," he said reprovingly. "D'ye want to be frightening Mrs. Biornson with your bangings and your yells like a he banshee? Your throat's not cut yet, nor like to be."
"You young fool!" snarled the other. "Shall we sit here quiet till they do it? Use that big body of yours to some purpose and help me break out before that cursed brigand comes back!"
"He'll not come back."
"How do you know?"
"'Tis not reasonable he should. For why would he entertain us all day, herd us off alone with himself for watchman, keep his wife and bit child from our company lest they drop some word to betray them, and he plotting to murder us the night? All the hours we lay sleeping here why, a bit of a knife-thrust would have just as well settled the business then. Better, for he's put us on guard now with this foolishness of locked doors and barred shutters."
"Murderers are not logical." Kennedy's first flurry of rage and fear was past, and a cold hatred for the man who had imprisoned them was replacing it. "You were fool enough to let him know we have money in our belts. You may wait if you choose to be pig-stuck and robbed, but my motto is strike first and strike hard. Help me out of here and I'll show you how to deal with this Biornson's sort."
"Will you so? Now hear me, Mr. Kennedy, and just remember that, though you're older nor me and of perhaps more refined education, yet in the last showing and betwixt the two of us 'tis myself has the upper hand. You'll make no more disturbance, but you'll lay down, or sit there in your chair, till such time as I see fit to act. Then you'll do as I say and no otherwise. Dye understand all that?"
Kennedy glowered blackly up at him, making no reply, but Boots seemed content to take his obedience for granted. Turning away, he made a brief, careless inspection of door and shutters, then flung himself on the bed and lay quiet.
Time passed. The candles burned down toward their sockets and the closed room grew swelteringly hot, but still neither man spoke to the other.
Once or twice Kennedy rose and paced up and down the floor, or drank from a clay water-jar on the table. But the giant figure on the bed did not stir. The iron muscles of a hibernating bear were never less restless than the Irishman's when he had no occasion for their use.
Yet at last he yawned, stretched, and sat up. "We'll go now;" he coolly announced. "Now blow out the candles!"
He caught at the edge of the shutter as the hinges gave way. Pushing it a little further outward he worked the bolts loose and eased it carefully down on the balcony outside.
Sullenly the other followed, as the dominant Irishman stepped out on the balcony. Around them the inner walls of the hacienda rose dark and silent. Not a light showed anywhere.
"A poor jailer who trusts to doors and shutters alone," thought Boots. "It speaks well for his lack of practice that he's set not even the dog to watch us or we'll hope he's not set the dog!"
With his boots slung about his neck, he cautiously climbed the railing; a moment later he was hanging by his fingers to the edge of the balcony floor, whence he dropped, to land with scarcely any sound, for all his weight, on the hard clay that paved the patio.
Again Kennedy followed, but not caring to risk a broken leg he improvised a rope from the bedding, slid down it, and at that made more noise than the Irishman.
No one, however, seemed to have been aroused, and in three minutes they stood together safe outside the hacienda. Once clear of their room, there had been nothing to hinder escape, for the wooden gates were merely shut to, and neither locked, barred nor guarded.
About them night lay so black, so oppressively breathless, that it gave almost the impression of a solid, surrounding substance. They were in a region where rain, when it does fall, comes always between two suns. This night the world was roofed with thick cloud, like a lid shut down on the air, compressing it to the earth, making it heavy and unsatisfying to the lungs.
"We're in for a storm," whispered Boots. "I'd not reckoned on a night like this."
"Reckoned on it for what?" Kennedy's tone was keenly unpleasant. "To go after another sand-bath? If you are too cowardly to settle with Biornson, let me go back alone. I'll engage to find him, and by the time I'm through he'll be glad enough to let us have supplies or anything else if he's still alive."
"Time enough for all that tomorrow. Body o' me, little man, have you no curiosity? I brought you out here to find the secret Biornson's so set on concealing, and all you can think of is retaliation and general blood-letting! This ravine isn't all the plantation. 'Tis a grand big hacienda. He's not crops enough in the ravine to support it, and I've a notion that the upper end leads to the place or the thing he wants hidden.
"We'll find out what it is, and then go leave the poor man in peace, since he's so afeared of us. But see it I will, if only to make clear to him his mistake in locking us up so uncourteously."
The other swore, as he realized that Boots' curiosity was a thing cherished purely for its own sake. Boots steered him away from the hacienda, down to the stream, and along the narrow path that followed it.
Kennedy was cursing again, for he had stumbled against the spike-tipped leaves of an agave with direful results, and then blundered into the water before he knew they had reached it, but Boots was cheerful.
An occasional flare of distant lightning gave them twilight glimpses of the way, but otherwise they stumbled through breathless blackness, their only guide the feel of the trodden trail to their feet and the soft rush and gurgle of water beside it. The path grew steeper and more difficult, as it left the stream to flow between rapidly heightening banks.
Came another flare of lightning, brighter and nearer. Boots halted so abruptly that Kennedy trod on his heels.
A forest Of giant ferns had leaped into existence on their right, and immediately before them, almost upon them, it appeared, was an enormous, grayish figure, huge, flat-faced, that leered and grinned.
Like the flick of a camera shutter the light had come and gone. They were blind again, but flee leader flang out his hands and touched the thing he had glimpsed.
"Stone!" Boots' voice was distinctly relieved. "It's just a big image by the path." Boots struck a match and held it high,
Six feet above his head the gray face leered downward. Its grin seemed alive in the wavering light alive and menacing, but Boots grinned back more good-naturedly. "You poor heathen idol! You gave me a start, you did. Aztec, do you think, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Of course. Tlaloc, God of the Hills and the Rain. Unless I'm mistaken. Yes, there is the cross of the Tlalocs carved at the foot. Where are you going now?"
"On, to be sure. We're coming to the pass I surmised was here that leads from the ravine into the hills beyond. It's the beyond I've a wish to investigate."
The path was indeed very narrow, and the sound of water came up as a low and distant murmur. On that side was blackness and the sense of space. On the other, an occasional brushing against face or hand told of the great ferns that stretched thin frond-fingers across the way.
Then abruptly the path ended, or seemed to end. Their feet sank in moss or soft turf, and Boots collided with an unexpected tree trunk. Both men halted and for a moment stood hesitant.
The silence was uncanny. Not a whisper among the ferns, not the call of a night-bird. Even the usual insect-hum was stifled and repressed to a key so low that it seemed only part of the stillness. The cloud-lid was heavy above earth. The dense air pressed on the ear drums, as on first descent into a deep mine or well.
Then, as they stared ahead through blackness, the attention of both men was suddenly attracted by a faint, purplish glowing. It was quite near the ground and a short distance ahead of them. There was grass there, straight, slender stems of it, growing in delicate silhouette against that low, mysterious light.
Advancing, Boots peered in puzzled question. As he neared it the light flashed brighter with a more decided tinge of purple, and out of the grass a wonder soared up to float away on iridescent wings.
It was a huge, mothlike insect, fully ten inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and the glowing came from its luminous body, in color pale amethyst, coldly afire within. The broad wings, transparent as a globular walls of a bubble, refracted the creature's own radiance in a network of shimmering color.
Boots gasped sheer delight, but Kennedy's comment was as usual eminently practical.
"Sa-a-y! That beauty would bring a fortune from any museum. Do you suppose there are any more about?"
The moth had settled in the long grass, where a dim glowing again marked its presence. Cautiously the two men moved in that direction.
They seemed to have come upon a sort of high meadow, though what might be its extent or general contour was impossible to say. As they went, another and yet another of the moths glowed, shimmered and rose, flushed up by their swishing progress through the grass.
"Like a dream of live soap bubbles," murmured Boots. "Wouldn't it be a shame now to catch one of those beauties and smother out the flaming life of him?"
"For a young man of your size you have the least practical sense hel-lo!"
There was cause for the astonished ejaculation.
He had glanced to one side and there, standing between two slender trees with a hand on each, appeared a figure so exquisitely, startlingly appropriate that it was no wonder if for a moment both men questioned its reality.
The form was that of a young girl of fifteen or sixteen years if she reckoned her age by mortal standards, which Boots for his part seriously doubted. But elf or human maiden, she was very beautiful. Her skin was white as that of Astrid, the wife of Biornson, and she watched them with wonderful, dark eyes, not in fear, but with a startled curiosity that matched their own.
All about the black mist of her hair the luminous moths were hovering. One, with slowly waving pinions, clung to her bare arm.
Recovering instantly from his first amazement, Kennedy surmised that the insects were tethered by fine threads, as women of the tropics fasten fireflies in their hair. To Boots, however, she seemed no less than the carnified spirit of the creatures, who held them to her by bond of their mutual natures.
Indeed, the garment in which she was draped had about its soft green folds a suggestion of the downy feathering of a moth's body, and the necklace about her slim throat seemed itself alive with soft fires. Its jewels, smooth and oval in shape, glimmered and glowed with the gentle motion of her breathing.
Under his roughness, big, homely, redheaded Boots concealed all the romance, all the capacity for worship of his Celtic forebears. He stood at gaze, almost afraid to breathe lest the vision float up against the heavy background of night and go drifting away across the grass.
But Kennedy had other thoughts in his head. To him the girl was a girl, the wonder-moths no more than convenient lanterns by which he saw something greatly to be desired.
"What opals!" he cried softly. "Look at them, man! Why, that Indian girl has a fortune round her neck. By Jupiter, here's where we square accounts with Biornson! There are opal-mines in these hills, and for some reason he doesn't want his holdings known. You went right for once, boy! We've stumbled straight upon his precious secret!"
CHAPTER IIIThe Guardians of the Hills
BEFORE Boots had grasped his companion's meaning, or guessed his purpose, Kennedy had crossed the short space between them and the lovely apparition. Like a child that has never been frightened by brutality, she watched his approach in grave, wide-eyed curiosity.
When, however, with one hand he grasped, her shoulder and with, the other snatched at the necklace, she gave a little cry and attempted to draw back. The moths fluttered wildly, dazzling Kennedy with then flashing bodies, beating their iridescent, panic-stricken wings in his very face. He released the necklace to strike at them, brush them aside.
Then at last Boots ran forward, but before he could reach them a sharp report shattered the heavy stillness and a bullet whined by so close to Kennedy's head that he jumped back and instinctively flung up his hands.
"Keep them there!" commanded a stern voice.
Boots, who had halted at the shot, saw a dim, white figure striding toward them. Before it more moths flickered up, and by their ghostly light the newcomer was revealed as Biornson.
His guests' informal departure had not, after all, gone undiscovered, and by the still smoking rifle he held at ready, and the brusk determination of his manner, the man intended an immediate resumption of his role as jailer.
At sight of him the moth-girl gave a low, birdlike thrill of pleasure. She began talking in soft, low tones, using a language strange to two of her hearers, but full of liquid, musical sounds.
Biornson answered her in the same tongue, though his accent was harsher and more forced. All the while he kept his rifle and his eyes trained on Kennedy. He finished speaking and the girl answered him briefly. Then Biornson deviated the threatening muzzle toward Boots, who had stood inactive since his coming.
"Stand over here, you! There, by your friend."
Boots obeyed He understood exactly how the scene had appeared one man ravishing the girl of her jewels, the other rushing to aid in the contemptible thievery.
"Mr. Biornson," he began, "I had no wish at all to "
"Silence! You big, red-headed bully, I have eyes and I saw what was going on here. Not that it surprises me. I took your measure when I first saw you in my gates. Now turn around, both of you. Do you see that stable lantern?"
They did. It was one which Biornson had brought to find his way by, and he had left it set on the path beyond the field of grass.
"March very straight and carefully toward that lantern. Remember that if I kill you it will only save me trouble."
Kennedy was shaking with futile rage, but Boots was less angry than disturbed. He found himself in the position of many another innocent, careless man condemned by the act of a rascally companion. But argument must wait. Just now there seemed nothing for either of them but obedience.
A little way from the spot where the girl stood looking wonderingly after, Kennedy struck his foot on a hidden stone, stumbled, and dropped to his knees. Seeing him fall, Biornson surmised the cause and waited for him to get up. He did, and in his hand was the stone he had tripped over.
Whirling with the nervous quickness of his anger and temperament, Kennedy flung the stone straight at the armed man behind them. More by good luck than aim it struck Biornson fairly between the eyes, so that he threw out his arms and reeled back and downward into the grass.
With a cry more like a wildcat's voice than a man's, Kennedy rushed to the fallen figure, snatched up the rifle and set its muzzle against Biornson's temple. His finger curled to the trigger.
Another moment would have seen the scattering of Biornson's brains, had not a hand intervened and snatched the gun aside.
"You interfering booby!" gritted Kennedy, as he wrestled for possession of the weapon. "Let me have it let me have it, I say!"
Stumbling over the victim's body, Boots lost his grip, and with a triumphant snarl the other sprang back and flung the rifle to his shoulder. But even as he took aim the sky above them ripped open in one jagged crevice of blinding fire.
The bolt shot across the clouds with a rattling, firecracker-like sound, splitting them asunder and releasing the pent-up deluge which all this while had hung above the earth. With the terrific explosion following that rattle and thrust of electricity, the clouds emptied themselves.
Startled and disconcerted, Kennedy had not fired and Boots again leaped in to close with him.
About them trees, meadow, and hills flickered through sheets of rain like scenes in an old-time moving picture.
Drenched, deafened by the incessant roar of rain and thunder, the two swayed stumblingly about. In that hampering turmoil Boots could not at first wrench the rifle from his antagonist, and though he might have easily killed the smaller man, bare-handed, this was far from his desire.
Then came an interruption more sudden and terrible than the storm, in whose tumult any warning noise there may have been was drowned.
Out of the curtaining rain a horde of ghost-white forms hurtled upon them. They were beasts; great snarling, white brutes, with slavering jaws and wolflike fangs.
Swept down by the rush, the human combatants were instantly buried under a piled, writhing heap of animal ferocity.
In the stress of that utterly unexpected attack, Boots did not try to analyze its nature. In the back of his mind there was a dim feeling of wonder that the elfin stillness and beauty of a few moments before should have culminated in such a series of cataclysms. For the rest, he knew that innumerable jaws and claws were tearing at his body, and that he was engaged in a mad, unequal fight to save his own life and Kennedy's.
In some rare men the protective instinct is ineradicable. Because Archer Kennedy was his mate and weaker than he, in spite of all that had taken place Boots was as ready to give up life for him now as he had ever been.
They had fallen so that his body shielded the other man. That was accident. But the effort which throughout that delirious battle kept their positions the same was no accident, and Boots paid dearly for acting as a shield.
Had he been willing to fight his way to his feet again, he might have had a better chance. Flat down, the best he could do was to throttle any furry throat within reach and keep his own neck free from the tearing, furious fangs.
For a full two minutes the struggle continued.
Boots had one white demon squeezed tight to his chest, the smothering weight of its flank protecting his face. His fingers were buried in the throat of a second But he could not breathe wet fur, and the jaws of a third enemy were worrying at his right arm muscles. From shoulder to heel he felt them tearing and biting.
Taken at a tremendous disadvantage, blind, smothered and over-matched, Boots was in a very fair way to be torn to pieces when, suddenly, another rush of feet came plunging through the rain.
He did not hear them come. The first Boots knew of a change in conditions was that most of his snarling, growling tormentors had inexplicably ceased to either snarl, growl or bite. Then he realized that the weight of them also was off him.
The dirty cowards! They had given up the fight and run!
That left only the pair in his actual grip. With a gasp of fierce joy, Boots tightened his hold, rolled off from Kennedy who, he greatly feared, was by this time smothered in the mud and got his knees under him. Incidentally, he clamped the head of one kicking, white monster under the knees. The one whose throat he had been squeezing had ceased to struggle and he dropped it.
With his face free at last of the blinding fur, Boots knelt up straight and looked for the rest of the pack.
Though rain still fell in torrents, the lightning's illumination was becoming more spasmodic, and Boots was hardly sure that what he saw was real.
Was he actually surrounded by a circle of strange, tall, white men? At each recurrent flash he seemed to see them. Tall men inhumanly tall the rain sluiced off bare, gleaming shoulders the rounded muscles shone wet and white their faces were stern, pallid, eyes fixed on him their hands waved they were pointing at him.
Through his Celtic brain flashed a wild suspicion that there stood the very beasts which had attacked him. Werewolves creatures neither man nor brute, but able to take the form of either.
Under his knee, the white thing he held there wriggled feebly. He had already strangled one. Here was another whose diabolical tricks he could stop.
Dropping his hands, Boots shifted to find its throat and keeled over quietly in the squelching, trampled grass. His last conscious emotion was self-scorn that he hadn't finished the "manwolf" before, like any common weakling, he died of his many wounds.
"Cheer up, or I'll think you hard to content. 'Tis the wonder of wonders, Mr. Kennedy, that they've let us live at all, and Biornson's face fair ruined by the rock you hove at him."
Swathed in bandages, lying on a grass-stuffed pallet in the cubical, brick-walled chamber which for three days had been their prison, Boots looked kindly reproof at his fellow captive.
Biornson himself had just paid them a brief call, and after his leaving, Kennedy's sullen countenance appeared more somber than usual. Now he stared at the Irishman with the shadow of some strange dread in his eyes.
"Tlapallan!" he muttered softly. "Tlapallan! Did he really say Tlapallan, or did I dream it?"
"He did that," the other confirmed. "And why, may I ask, should his saying it fill you with despair? It's a fine, hard word, I'll admit, but I'd never get it off my tongue like Biornson did, or you either, but "
"Tlapallan!" Kennedy repeated it as if the other had not spoken. "He called this place Tlapallan and if that is true but it can't be! Quetzalcoatl Tlapallan no, no; one can't believe the impossible and yet "
His head drooped and his voice lowered to an indistinguishable mutter.
Here was a phase of the older man's character entirely new to Boots, who eyed him with an amazement bordering on alarm. Their position was puzzling enough in all conscience, but Kennedy's manner and speech of the last few minutes hinted of some new riddle, some potentiality for harm in a mere word which Boots found vaguely disturbing.
For three days they had been held close prisoners. The cell of their confinement, bare, built of yellow polished bricks, or rather tiles, was in the daytime lighted to a golden gloom by one small, round window, offering a barren view across a brick-paved alley to a wall of highly polished white stone. As for what that alley might lead to, or what might lie beyond the wall, they knew practically nothing.
This place was no part of the hacienda. The experience of Kennedy, who had been in his senses when brought here, told them that. They were, it was almost equally sure, somewhere beyond that pass which Boots had so eagerly desired to explore. Here ended their certainties and began a mystery beside which that of the ravine faded to commonplace insignificance.
After the calling off of the white hounds in sober sense, and remembering the beast they had seen in the patio, Boots dismissed his thought of "werewolves" as nonsense Kennedy had staggered to his feet. Though half-strangled from being crushed in the mud, he was otherwise unhurt.
No sooner was he up, however, than his arms were seized, a bandage was whipped over his eyes, and, the grip of those so much stronger than he that struggle was futile, he was dragged helplessly away.
Like a child between two grown folk, he could hear the men who held him murmuring together over his head. "Great lumbering louts!" he said viciously, in describing the affair. "They must have been even larger than you are, Boots, and goodness knows you're big' enough. They went muttering along like a couple of silly fools talked the same gibberish as that girl with the opals. When I tried to ask a question, one of the brutes struck me in the face."
He had expected to be taken back to the ravine, and when, having walked a considerable distance, mostly down-hill, they came to a place where his feet found hard pavement under them, he at first took it for the courtyard of the hacienda.
As the march continued, however, turning corners, descending interminable flights of stairs, passing through covered ways he knew them by the echoes and the fact that they were out of the rain down yet more open stairs, and still onward, he became hopelessly bewildered.
At last, when he had began to believe the downward march would last forever, his arms were released and he was given a push that sent him headlong.
There was the closing of a door, and silence. He tore the bandage from his eyes. Darkness was, all around. Fearing to move, lest he fall into some chain, Kennedy remained crouched for another seemingly endless period, till dawn light replaced his imaginary chasms with the desolate, bare cell they still inhabited.
He was then alone, but later Boots joined him, being carried in on a stretcher, one mass of bandages from head to foot. Had he come from the operating-room of a city hospital, these dressings could have been no more skillfully adjusted, but the stretcher-bearers differed somewhat from the orderlies of such an establishment.
Boots, being then and for several hours afterward unconscious, did not see them, but Kennedy described them after his own characteristic fashion. Savages, he said, plumed, beaded, half-clad, and barbarous. Let their skin be as white as they pleased, they couldn't fool him. Nothing but buck Indians of a particularly muscular and light-hued type, but Indians and no better.
His tone inferred that an Indian was a kind of subhuman creature, whose pretensions to equality with himself should be firmly suppressed. But, though their physical proportions were not comparable to those of the giants who had called off the hounds, they were sufficiently stalwart, and Kennedy reserved his opinion of them for Boots' ears.
One who spoke fairly intelligible English instructed him to care for the "big red man," and informed him that if the patient failed to recover the fault would be his, Kennedy's, since the "sons of Tlapotlazenan" had done their part. He hinted, moreover, that these same offspring of an alphabetical progenitor would regard losing the patient as a personal affront, and probably take it out of the one responsible in a very painful manner.
The stretcher-bearers then departed, and, with one exception, that cell had received no visible callers since. Food and drink were set inside the door at night by a jailer whom they never saw. Refuse of the previous twenty-four hours was removed in the same manner.
Such conditions might not, one would think, be conducive to the rapid recovery of a man whose flesh had been ripped to shreds in a dozen places. But Boots seemed to be doing rather well. He awoke clear-headed, had developed no fever, and, though practically unable to move, he insisted that this was due more to a superfluity of bandages than the wounds they covered. Kennedy, however, perhaps recalling the stretcher-bearer's warning, would allow none of them to be displaced, and waited on his companion with a solicitude that astonished the recipient.
Late in the afternoon of the third day they heard a trampling of feet on the bricks outside. The door opened, and from his pallet Boots caught one glimpse of waving plumes and barbarically splendid figures before it closed again. The man who had entered, however, was of far more commonplace appearance, save for his head, which in the matter of bandages matched Boots' body.
It was not until he spoke that the latter recognized him as Svend Biornson.
Pointedly ignoring Kennedy, he walked over and stood looking down at the swathed figure on the pallet.
"You seem to have had a little more than enough, my man," he greeted Boots.
Because there was truth in that statement, and because he felt at a great disadvantage, Boots managed a particularly happy smile.
"Ah, now," protested he, "'twas a very amusing frolic while it lasted! Leave me try it again with me two feet under me and I'll engage to tame a few of those lap-dogs for you. And how is your face the day, Mr. Biornson?"
"It's still a face." The tone was rather grim. "It would have been less than that if your friend had got his way with the rifle, so I shan't complain."
"Mr. Kennedy is a bit quick-tempered," conceded Boots, "but sure, you're never the sort to hold against a man the deed done in hot blood, more especially when the worst of it was never done at all, but just thought of?"
The other laughed.
"That is an unusual plea. I'll consider it, and meantime let me thank you for having diverted the rife-muzzle from my head. I learned of your act from the daughter of Quetzalcoatl, whom your friend would have robed another, deed I suppose you place in the excusable 'just-thought-of' class!"
"The daughter of you can't mean the lass from fairyland, with the fire-moths in her hair? Don't tell me she has years enough to be the child of an old, dead heathen god like that!"
Biornson cast a nervous glance toward the closed door.
"Be careful! Never call Quetzalcoatl a dead god in Tlapallan! The Guardians of the Hills are inclined in your favor. They admire strength and courage, and it is seldom indeed that a hound of Nacoc-Yaotl's has been killed by a man bare-handed. But to speak against Quetzalcoatl is a cardinal crime. Only your life could ever wipe out that insult."
"Would you believe it now!" Boots' curiosity was immense, but he held back his questions, thinking Biornson might be more communicative if merely led on to talk. "And there I might have hurt the feelings of them by a slip of the tongue, had you not warned me! Fine, large, handsome men they are, too, with a spirit of fair play that matches your own, Mr. Biornson."
"It is good of you to say so." The other's voice was grave, but between the bandages his eyes were twinkling. "And fair speech matches fair play in Killarney, eh?"
"Kerry," corrected Boots. "But I meant my words."
"I believe you did. They are true enough, too, of the Tlapallans. I can't say exactly what will be done about you and your friend, but Astrid has promised to speak for you, and I'll do what I can. As for your wounds, the Tlapotlazenan gild are wonderful healers, and I shall expect to see you on your feet in a week or so. You have reason to be thankful that the Guardians of the Hilts called off their hounds when they did. A little more and it would have been scarcely worth while trying to piece you together."
"Guardians of the Hills," repeated Boots thoughtfully. "There was more truth than fancy, then, in the tales we heard of white giants, though the ghost-cougars they hunt with are just dogs, and there's little of the fantom about any of them. 'Tis all a most interesting discovery. An adventure after my own heart, though so far the head and the tail of it are well hid, and the middle past all understanding!"
The patient angler for information paused tentatively, but Biornson shook his head.
"For your own sake," he said, "it is better that you should not understand. I tell you frankly that there is a truth in these hills which no man has ever been allowed to carry beyond them. When you first came to my house, it happened that none of the folk were in the lower valley. It was the time of the Feast of Tlaloc, and they were all gathered in Tlapallan. As men of my own race, I would have done much to save you, but you know how my efforts resulted."
"I do not," Boots retorted. "Betwixt one mystery and the next my head is fair swimming!"
"Better perish of curiosity than meet the fate I am still trying to avert from you."
He looked pityingly down at the homely, good-humored Irish face, with its danger-careless eyes and smiling mouth.
"I told you there was a secret in these hills. I tell you now that there is also a horror a a thing a way they have "
In a spasm of inexplicable emotion he broke off, and it was a moment before he could control his voice to continue. "When I say that you are housed now, in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl it means nothing to you, but to me it means threat of a terror that I never think of when I can avoid it! When I was first here, a prisoner, I, who had never given much thought to religion, used to spend whole nights in prayer, entreating God to make it untrue or let me forget!
"And yet when I could have escaped I did not go. Though by staying I not only risked my soul, but betrayed a trust, I did not go! I knew by your faces at the house that you had never heard of Svend Biornson. Perhaps conscience exaggerated my fame in the world, and my dropping out of it left hardly a ripple. And yet I know that in some circles that could not have been so. But it was all so many years ago!"
He paused again.
"Very like," said Colin. "If 'twas so very many years ago I must have been a small, ignorant spalpeen in Kerry when it happened. 'Tis no wonder I never heard of you."
"I was younger myself," the other answered reflectively. He might almost have been talking to himself, instead of Colin arguing that old case that every man argues eternally before the inner tribunal "Young and impetuous. For all the standing I had achieved in the archeological field I know now how young I was! Very proud, too. Twenty-five, and set at the head of a scientific expedition! I wonder who has since done in Yucatan the things I set out to accomplish?
"And our party! Did any one of them survive to carry back a report? Wiped out by the Yaquis, and poor young Biornson, too! I can see the dear old gray-beards who sent me out shaking their heads and sighing for another young promise lost and sighing, too, for the work that had not been done. And I, who had been chosen, could have later taken them news whose confirmation would have made the university world-famous I fell in love and cast in my lot with Tlapallan! A trust betrayed and youth served! It isn't the biography that was prophesied for Svend Biornson!"
"If that's all you have on your conscience," consoled Boots, "it's lighter than most men's! Sure, to carry tales for the world is an interesting occupation, but I cannot see how you were damned in neglecting it. By your manner, I had thought you left a trail of murder and arson behind you!"
Biornson stirred impatiently and seemed ill at ease. "I'm a fool!" he said. "What is science or a scientific reputation to an ignorant boy like you? Of course you can't understand! But it isn't only, that! They are my friends, these folk. Sometimes I think they are the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs, who have left nothing to archeology but a memory.
"And sometimes I have other thoughts of them, thoughts that I can't put into words, for there are no words to express them. I know that they speak the Aztec tongue in all its ancient purity, and yet they are surely not of Aztec blood. However it be, they are good, true comrades, and my own wife is one of them, but I sometimes wonder if I have not have not lost my soul in living here! I am saying too much you can't understand and you must not. You shall go back to your own people and your own God "
Stooping unexpectedly Biornson seized the surprised Irishman's hand and gripped it hard.
"Boy," and his voice was a harsh whisper, "never bow your head to the gods of a strange race! Never! Not for our nor love, nor wealth, nor friendship! Not for wonders, nor miracles! You speak of mysteries. There is a mystery I could tell you of but your soul would be sick afterward sick you might even desert your Christ as I did, God help me!"
"I am a good Catholic," said Boots, gravely and simply.
"Then stay so! You are in a city where mercy and kindness excel, and their roots are set in a monstrous cruelty. Where beauty springs out of horror, and they worship benignant gods with the powers of devils! Don't seek to know the heart of Tlapallan! Go, if they'll let you and once away forget that you ever set foot in the Collados del Demonio!"
With no farewell but a final squeeze of the hand Biornson was gone.
A memory flashed across the mind of Kennedy. Tlapallan! The White People of Tlapallan! Grant that myth to be true, he thought, and anything was possible anything!
For the rest of the afternoon the materialist sat with his head in his hands, silent and glum, till Boots, who could accept miracles, gave up trying to get at the cause of the other man's perturbation, and fell peacefully asleep.
CHAPTER IVTlapallan or
"ARE we to rot here forever?"
Jerking to his feet, Kennedy glared as if it were some contumacious obstinacy of his companion which still kept them prisoners.
Six days had passed since Biornson's visit, and brought no increase of knowledge nor change in their condition.
Boots, whose wounds had closed with a rapidity that did credit to either an unusual constitution or the medicaments originally used, sat up lazily and stretched his arms.
"A few hours yet till night. Dye ever notice how still it all is, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Still as the tomb. Silent as the desert. I've thought of nothing but that silence for days. I wondered how long it would be before a glimmer of its meaning reached you."
"You've the unfortunate disposition to hold your thoughts till they sour on you. Never mind how thick my head is. Be kind to me, and say out the meaning, if you know it."
"I will if you'll shut up a minute yourself. The meaning is clear enough. It is simply that your dear friend Biornson is a particularly effective and artistic liar. That all his talk of Quetzalcoatl and Tlapallan is so much empty rubbish. I told you in the beginning that there were mines in these hills. I'm doubly sure of it now.
"Let us suppose, what is probably true, that Biornson is a man well and unfavorably known by the rurales, and in consequence a man who doesn't dare apply to the government for a mining concession. Suppose, then, that he sees a certain opportunity in the current superstitions about these hills. What would be simpler than to strengthen them with the aid of a few white followers and a pack of hounds, and proceed therewith to make his fortune in safe secrecy?"
"I can think of a lot of simpler things," said Boots reflectively, "though I'll not say you're wrong. But what's that then?" He pointed to the polished white wall opposite the window. "The back of a mining shack, maybe? It must be a magnificent fine one to be built of white marble!"
"That," Kennedy retorted, "is part of the same ruins that his men brought me down through blindfolded that first night. I'll grant you that we are in a city of the Aztecs, or possibly of the Mayas. But it is a city as dead as the bygone civilizations of those races. Once out of this cell, and I promise you the sight of empty ruins, and no more."
"You've got a good head on your shoulders," conceded Boots rather sadly. "I misdoubt you're right. And here I'd hoped to be seeing the strange wild city of a tale, with its priests and its multitudes bowing down to their poor false gods, and maybe a bloody sacrifice or so to make it the more interesting!"
For once the older man laughed, but it was a contemptuous merriment. ,j
"From the curiosity of children and fools, good Lord deliver us! Biornson conjures up a frightful dream, and here you are ready to weep because it isn't real! Do you, know the meaning of Tlapallan?"
"I've been trying to wring it out of you for a week," was Boots' bitter reply.
"In the old mythology of Anahuac, Tlapallan was a city of white wizards. It was to rule this fanciful Community that Quetzalcoatl deserted the Chollulans. In Yucatan they still expect him to return leading the magic race of white giants who are to restore all Mexico to the Aztecs. It was clever in Biornson to use that legend as a kind of scarecrow. His men are costumed to the part, and I dare say more than one Indian or greaser has been well frightened by them and the pack of hounds in their trail.
"What I appreciate, though, is his nerve in trying to put the illusion over on me. He didn't want to do it. He was deathly afraid we'd run across some of his stage settings before he got rid of us. When we did, he decided to take the bull by the horns and try to victimize us through our imaginations, just as he's done for years with the Indians."
"But what's he to gain by cooping us here, and what of the queer language they all speak?"
"Aztec. You've heard it spoken in half a dozen Indian villages, but they give a queer twist to it here which I'll admit deceived even me. They are some white hill tribe over whom Biornson has got a hold, but take my word, the whole affair is a kind of elaborate hoax.
"For the rest, he has us here, and he doesn't exactly know what to do with us. I suppose some remnant of decency makes him hesitate at murder, and on the other hand, he's afraid to let us go. If you had only allowed me to kill him when I had the chance we should be free men today. What are you grinning over now?"
"Nothing or just the astonishing difference betwixt a murder and a killing. If we leave here tonight, will y'be content to do it without bloodshed?"
Kennedy brightened a trifle.
"You have a plan?"
"I've me muscle," was the placid retort. "If that fine actorman, Mr. Biornson, believes me disabled entirely by a few small scratches, 'tis deceiving himself, he is. I do hope the jailer he sends to feed us is an upstanding lad, for 'twould be shame to waste the returned strength of me on a man of contemptible proportions!"
As Boots had once pointed out, the fact that they were given no light after sundown was no great deprivation, since they had nothing to look at but each other, and the long, empty day was more than sufficient for that.
Tonight, however, it was a positive advantage. If they could not see their jailer, neither could he see them.
On these occasions the door was never opened wide. There was a chain outside, restricting the aperture to a matter of a dozen inches. Through this the invisible one passed his burden; fruit always, corn-cakes, boiled beans, or, more rarely, podrida of chopped chicken and peppers a plain but plentiful diet. For drink there was water and a kind of thin, sweetish beer, contained in the porous clay ollas that kept it cool.
Kennedy had never made any effort to attack this provision-bearing visitor. For one thing there was the chain, and for another, except in the fury of being cornered, or with an overwhelming force to back him, he had not to any great degree the spirit that attacks.
With Boots on his feet again, the situation changed, and it was a pity for the jailer's sake that he could not know this. Nine times had he approached that door, done his benevolent duty and departed unmolested, but on this tenth visit he met a different reception.
Playing second part willingly for once, Kennedy received his instructions, and around ten o'clock the unsuspecting one came slapping along , the alley on sandaled feet.
Setting down his basket he slid back the great bolt of solid copper, gave a warning rap, and pushed in the door to the length of the restraining links.
As was his custom, before taking the fresh provisions Kennedy thrust out the containers of the previous day, and this time he began with a water-jug, large and heavy, which he started to place in the waiting hands outside just as the groping fingers touched it, Kennedy let go. It was very neatly done. The jar, insecurely grasped, slipped, and instinctively the hands made a downward dive to catch it.
As the guard stooped, a long arm shot out, an elbow crooked about his lowered neck, and for one astonished moment he was helpless.
But Boots had got his wish. He had an adversary of no contemptible proportions, and that cramped grip through the doorway did not, could not hold. Even more quickly than Boots had expected the man broke away, but meantime Kennedy's part was accomplished.
Their hope had been set on the fastening of that chain. If it locked, failure was certain. It did not. The end was a great hook, caught over a ring-bolt in the wall. Kennedy's arm flashed out at the same moment with his ally's, felt along the links, found the hook the ring his finger-tips barely reached it and just as the enemy jerked free with an angry grunt, the chain rattled and fell.
When an Irishman charges he flings himself, muscle and mind and spirit, in one furious projectile.
The guard had scarcely straightened when his towering form crashed back, clean to the wall behind.
It was all in the dark, of course. Whether he thought himself attacked by a man or a raging demon cannot be known, but though the breath had been knocked from his body by Boots' first rush, he rallied magnificently.
The Irishman found himself caught in a clinch that was like the grip of a grizzly bear, and though his ribs were not pasteboard they felt that awful pressure. His right forearm came up beneath the other's chin, jolting it back, and he tore himself free by main force. When the other giant lunged after him, he was caught in a cross-buttock that sent him crashing down on the bricks.
But he was up with a resilience that Boots envied. For all his boast, the scarcely healed wounds he bore, coupled with nine days of inaction, had left the Irishman a good deal less than fit. And this jailer of theirs was a vast, dim, silent, forceful creature a pale shadow that, chest to chest, overtopped him by a good two inches; a terribly solid shadow, of iron-hard muscles and a spirit as great as his own.
For almost the first time in his life, Boots tried to dodge an adversary's rush. That grip on his ribs had warned him.
It was too dark for good foot-work. Tripping over the basket of fruit, he fell, and straightway an avalanche of human flesh descended upon him. Over and over they rolled, amid squelching oranges and bursting melons. Welded as in one figure, they rose and fell to rise again.
Boots' ribs were cracking, and his breath came in hoarse gasps.
Then one braced foot of the man he fought slipped in the mess of smashed fruit, and the slide of it flung him sideways. He recovered instantly, but no longer erect.
Boots' left arm was locked tight around the small of his back, the right was beneath his chin. Gasping, choking, his back curved in an ever-increasing arc, he yielded to that relentless pressure on his throat. Back and back, sweat poured down the Irishman's face, and the blood from opened wounds ran over his body, but he had his foe now where he knew that nothing could save him.
Bent almost double at last, the huge form suddenly relaxed. It was that or a broken back. A second later, Boots' knees were crushing the jailer's chest, his hands squeezing the last gasp out of his windpipe.
"That's the way, boy! Kill him kill him kill him!"
The whispered snarl at his shoulder brought the Irishman to his senses like a douche of cold water. There was something about it so base so bestial as if the very lowest depths of himself, the depths that a real man treads under and keeps there, had been suddenly externalized and had spoken with the voice of Kennedy.
He snatched his hands from the helpless throat. He rose, swift and silent. For one moment Kennedy was as near death as a man has a right to be, who whispers murder in a victor's ear.
Then Boots remembered the poor thing Archer Kennedy was, and his great hands dropped.
"Get back in the cell," he said quietly. "Two men have been fighting here, and the airs not safe for the likes of you to breathe Go!"
And Kennedy went.
Again the grass pallet in the corner was filled by a giant, bandaged figure. This time, however, the mouth too was swathed, and the coarse, strong strips bound arms and legs in a manner to preclude any possibility of movement. A stifled groan rasped through the dark, but no one was there to hear.
Beside the dim white wall outside, two other forms walked cautiously along.
"It's a scanty outfit of garments I got from that lad," grumbled a deep voice. "I'd feel more decent to be strolling with a blanket to my back, as was my original intention."
A grunt was the only comment elicited.
"Feathers," continued Boots, "are fine in their place. For the decorating of hats, and for dusters, and for the wing of the bird they grew on, there's nothing more appropriate than feathers. But to string a few of them together and hang them here and there on a person of good proportions, like myself why, to cell it a complete costume is no less than exaggeration!
"Here's an end to our going, unless yes, a gate there is, and praise be, no lock on it, either. Now for your city of tombs and ruins. A pity it's so dark we won't see them," Boots finished.
The alley, which had run straight between two high walls, ended in another as high. However, as Boots' words indicated, there was a gateway. The door that filled it, though not fastened, was astonishingly heavy. He had to put the strength of his shoulders to the pull before it swung slowly inward.
"Good heavens!" breathed Kennedy.
Boots said nothing at all. He was entirely occupied with gazing.
In the very first moment, he knew that it was Kennedy's dead city of tombs and ruins which had been the dream; Tlapallan, living and wonderful, the reality.
But a city! Surely, here was the strangest city that ever mortal eyes beheld.
They had expected to emerge from that gate on or near the floor of a valley. Instead, a straight drop of some hundred feet was below them. They had come out on a railed balcony, from whose built-up stairs of stone slanted down the face of an immense facade of sheer, black cliff.
They had thought to find night close and dark about them. But their view for miles was clear, and the base of the cliff was lapped by the pale ripples of a lake of light.
Wide and far extended that strange white sea. Its waters, if waters they could be called, were set with scores of islands. About it, like the rounded, enormous shoulders of sleeping giants, loomed the somber hills.
The light of the lake was not glaring It was more as if, when night swallowed the sun, Tlapallan had held the day imprisoned in its depths. Every painted temple and palace of its islands, every gorgeous, many-oared barge and galley gliding across its surface, showed clear and distinct of hue as though the hour were high noon, instead of close to midnight.
Clear and strange. For one thing, there were no reflections. For another, the shadows were wrong. It was the under side of things that was brightest, the upper that melted into shade. The light was upside down. The sky, as it were, was beneath instead of above.
Over all brooded that great stillness which they had felt in their cell, and interpreted as the silence of desolation. And yet it was not quite the perfect stillness they had thought, for a low murmur came up through it, like the rustle of leaves in a distant forest, or the murmur of waves on a far-off shore.
On the many islands, amid gardens and beneath flowering trees, moved the forms of Tlapallan's people. But no separate voice raised in speech or song floated up toward the watchers on the cliff.
The vessels of its traffic went to and fro, rowed by striped white oarsmen, who labored in an endless quiet. What lading did they bear, across an inverted sky, between islands as splendidly colored as sunset clouds?
A midnight traffic in dreams, one-would think, through the floating city of a vision.
Kennedy turned from the rail. Far up on the cliff there, they stood in a kind of spectral twilight. He saw his companion but dimly, a grotesque, gigantic figure, its huge limbs sketchily draped in a mantle made of strings of parrot feathers, that hid them none the better for having been through a wrestling match. Its height was increased by a helmet, shaped like the head of an enormous parrot and standing well out over the face. The golden beak of it curved down over the forehead, gaping, duel, lending its sinister shadow to the face behind.
And it stood so oddly motionless, that figure.
Kennedy's glance traveled to the unearthly scene below and back again. He was swept by a horrible sense of unreality, of doubt.
Was this his homely, tiresomely light-humored mate of the camp and trail? Or was it the thing it seemed the specter of some old Toltec warrior, massive, terrible, with folded, gory arms, gazing out to the fabled home of its blood-stained gods?
The broad chest heaved in a sigh that sent a menacing quiver to the golden beak. From the shadow of the parrot-head there issued a solemn voice.
"Priests, did I say, and processions, and the poor commonplace of gilt idols? To the devil with them all! Here's a sight worth owning two eyes for! Why, Shan McManus never saw the like o' this, when he spent twelve months in Blake Hill with the Little People!"
"Boots!" exclaimed the other, with a rather curious emphasis.
"Oh, nothing. I wish you'd shed that helmet, though. It's absurd."
"I will not," answered Boots firmly. "I do not know what it looks like, having seen it only in the dark, but I feel that it lends me an air of becoming dignity, . and moreover it is a part of me in disguise. Would you have us embark in one of those elegant boats we see, and myself with me bare red head shouting 'Irish' to every beholder?
"Ask what you like, but not for one string of these feathers I was slandering, and which I now perceive will enable me to move in the ranks of fashion. Dye see that boatload yonder? Not a gentleman passenger but is feathered like a bird o' the jungle. You'll notice, though, that the oarsmen are less particular. If you can't get a feather suit for yourself, Mr. Kennedy, you can shed what you've got and row."
"Are you actually insane enough to propose our hailing one of those vessels? Why, you great fool, they'd find you out in an instant. You can't even speak the language:"
"I can shut me mouth," was the placid answer. "I've all the right plumage of a citizen. Should they discover me true identity, I'll grant you that a shindy may follow. But what of that? Come or stay here, Mr. Kennedy. 'Tis a matter of indifference to myself."
A glance of mingled anger and despair was the sole reply, and when Boots set foot on the long stairs slanting lakeward, the older man made no motion to follow him.
ARCHER KENNEDY had two good reasons for failing to accompany Boots on his hare-brained expedition. One was the perfectly rational objection he had advanced that they would be found out and recaptured almost instantly.
The other, though less rational was far more powerful. It dragged him back through the gate before Boots had half accomplished his downward journey.
Kennedy was afraid. He was afraid as he had never been afraid in his life before, though he had experienced a warning thrill of it when Biornson visited their cell and spoke of the gods and Tlapallan.
A mythical city, set in a lake of cold fire, where fantom galleys moved in majestic silence, had no place in his conception of the universe. He had no curiosity about it. He desired no more intimate knowledge. It was simply without a place. He was seized with a desperate desire to escape, not only from Tlapallan, but from the very idea of Tlapallan.
As he plunged back through the valley, even the desert seemed a preferable memory to what he had just seen. Somehow he must make his way back to the ravine. Somehow he must provide himself with food, water, and a means to carry them, reach the gorge and, by no matter how painful a journey, return to a sane and credible world.
Coming to the cell of their recent confinement, he paused only to make sure by faint sounds through the window that the jailer was still a prisoner, then hurried on. In this direction also, he found that the alley terminated in a wall and gate. The latter he opened with some difficulty, to find himself in a covered passage, dark as the pit and coldly dank as a cellar. As it extended in only one direction, at right angles to the alley, he had no trouble in choosing his way.
Presently his foot shuck on what proved to be the first step of a flight of stone stairs. This was encouraging. On that first night he had been led down many stairs.
Very softly he crept up them, for silence could no longer deceive him with the assurance of being alone. He reached the top. It was blocked by a door a wooden door, that opened easily at a touch.
Beyond it there was a light. Stepping through, he came into a bare, rectangular chamber, paved and walled with stone, empty, and opening through an arch to some place from which light blazed, warm and golden, though from where Kennedy stood he could not see its source.
In his mind he cursed it. Man or beast, your fugitive fears light, as its revealing enemy.
Yet behind him there lay only the cell, with its outraged and doubtless furious occupant - and that lakeward gateway which he longed to forget.
Treading softly, he crossed the flagstones and crept along the wall. Very cautiously he thrust forward till his eyes just cleared the edge of the arch.
Then indeed did he forget the uncomfortable weirdness of Tlapallan. With his soul in his eyes Kennedy gazed and gazed. Here was that which might wipe out a thousand unadjustable memories. Here was that which Kennedy understood and loved with a great and passionate affection.
Here was gold.
Tons of it. Though the worshipped metal was cast and carved in many shapes, it was not the workmanship that appealed to Kennedy. It was the stuff itself the delightful, yellow-orange surface, the rich look of weight and body, the feeling of warmth behind the eyes that reveled in it.
Transcendent boldness welled up in Kennedy's heart, and Boot's himself could have crossed that threshold with no greater a carelessness for danger.
The room was lighted by four lamps, themselves suspended by massive yellow links, and beneath their radiance the place was one of splendor and glory polished metal. The walls themselves were sheeted wit beaten plates of it.
Ranged on a stone shelf; running clear around the chamber, stood dozens of urns, vessels and vases of massive size and crude but effective design. Set about the floor were various larger objects a thing like a baptismal font, where the basin, as long as the body of a man; was supported on the back of three nearly life-size cougars; a throne-like chair; two or three chests, of various shapes and sizes; some half-dozen five-branched candelabra, each one taller than a man and weighing more than any man could carry.
All of gold. All of the metal itself, pure, divine, beautiful, without alloy, so soft in its purity that Kennedy could mar the stuff with a reverent finger-nail.
There was a curious lack of care in the arrangement of these treasures. They were set about anywhere, anyhow, and the worn stone flags of the floor, the unbarred road he had come by, seemed to show that the chamber which held them was common thoroughfare for any feet that chose to pass.
It was like the lumber-room of some public edifice, into which furnishings not in use are carelessly thrust till required. A lumber-room for gold!
Kennedy's eyes glistened. Such cavalier treatment of the world's desire argued an astounding wealth behind it.
At one end of the room was a second doorway. Before it there hung two curtains, black, straight, made of heavy cotton stuff without ornament, austere in their splendid setting as the cassock of a Trappist monk at the court of a king.
What lay beyond? What manner of building was this that stood on the cliff, high and far from the island palaces of the lake? A store-house, perhaps? It seemed possible probable. And this was only one room, and an outer room at that.
What wealth what incredible stores of jewels might the other rooms reveal! More gold, of course and jewels
There was no sound anywhere. The curtains fascinated him.
On venturous tiptoes, Kennedy reached them, parted them, hesitated a moment only and passed through.
Behind him the curtains fell together and hung straight as before, black and shabbily sinister austere in their splendid setting as the robe of some inquisitor of old Spain.
The confident security in his borrowed plumage displayed by Boots was more jest than earnest. Before quitting their prison he had washed and rebound two deep gashes which the combat had opened in thigh and shoulder. But since, barring helmet and mantle, the only garment worn by the jailer had been a sort of kilt, made from soft cloth woven of cotton and feather-down, the white bandages, not to mention his other scars, seemed perilously conspicuous. Strings of parrot plumage were an inadequate concealment.
Of course, there might be other wounded heroes mingling with the society of Tlapallan. But Boots had a dark suspicion that gentlemen of his exact complexion and appearance were scarce enough there to arouse dangerous comment.
For these reasons he meant to take a long and careful survey of the scene before attracting attention from any of the boatmen. Beside the larger vessels, a few small craft were visible, canoes of one or more occupants, which darted and dodged here and there across the silver flood. A lone canoe-man, now, should be more easily deceived or overcome than a whole bargeload.
As he approached lake-level, however, he met an unexpected hindrance to his purpose. The nearer he drew to that glittering expanse, the more difficult it became for him to see it.
From above the view had been no more dazzling than is any common sheet of still water, just following sunset when the sky seems less bright above than in its mirrored reflection. But standing at the edge, as he presently did, the whole varied scene resolved itself into a molten glow that forced shut his lids and made him realize that the Tlapallans must be possessed of optic organs as unusual as their habitat unless they wore smoked glasses, a practice he had not noted.
"'Twould better be dark," thought Boots disgustedly, "than a sight so bright you can't see it. Now what am I to do?" -
The stairs had ended at a broad floating stage, made of barked logs fastened together. As he stood on it, hesitating whether to wait till his eyes became more accustomed to the general brilliance, or to give up the adventure as impossible, a slight thudding sound to the right reached his ears.
By squinting desperately he could just make out the shape of a small boat of some kind. Then a low, clear voice murmured a sentence in the bird-like tongue of the Tlapallans.
Boots, taking emergency full face as was his custom, turned and walked boldly toward the voice. Dubious though he knew his position to be, there was no hesitation in either his manner or his stride.
Boldness is often a saving quality, but in this case it was a mistake.
Misled by that first thud, he had taken it for granted that boat and stage were in immediate juxtaposition. They were not. A good four-foot clearance intervened, and heading for the dark blur, which was all he could see, Boots carried his confident bearing straight over the edge and down into the glittering flood beyond.
An unexpected plunge bath is always startling. But a plunge bath in Tlapallan proved to have qualities of shock so far beyond the ordinary that Boots forgot every consideration in the world except an overwhelming desire to climb out again.
The instant his body touched the water, it was as if his skin were being lanced by a million red-hot needles. A dip in boiling oil could hardly have been more painful.
Straight down he went, to rise again so sick with agony that he could only clutch futilely at the air, and if left to himself his debut in Tlapallan would have meant an exit from life.
But the blade of a wooden paddle was thrust into his excited grasp, and he retained just sense enough to hang onto it. Swirled rapidly through the tormenting quid, his chest struck on something hard, and a second later he found his arms drawn up and over a rounded edge. It was the landing stage.
Somehow he dragged himself out upon it. Though dripping wet and so weak that he lay prone for more than a minute, he realized that the pain had eased off at once. Maybe, he thought, once thoroughly boiled, a man's capacity for suffering ceases.
Then he was gently prodded by a foot.
"Stand up!" The voice of the invisible speaker lent a musical softness to the harsh English words. Also if was the voice of a woman, and a young woman, too, or Boots had never heard a young girl speak.
Although in doubt if there were a whole square inch of skin left on him, he tried to obey. It proved astonishingly easy. The pain had entirely departed, and now he felt little worse than before the plunge. Some other quality of the water than heat must have caused his torture, and indeed it had been more like a highly electrified bath than anything else.
Except as a formless blur he could make out nothing of his rescuer, and he prayed, though not hopefully, that she could see him no better. The parrot head-dress was lost, and his borrowed feathers clung in bedraggled strings. Twenty is a self-conscious age where the opposite sex is concerned, and Boots felt that he cut a remarkably inglorious figure.
Something was thrust into his hands. It was the lost helmet.
"Cover your head," said the voice, which seemed to have taken command of him and the situation with the utmost coolness. "Your hair is beautiful, but it is a wrong color. Among us no man's hair is so so gay. Only Tlatlanhquetezatlipoca. He is red, like you, but he is a god who has no sons in Tlapallan. Tell me, did you paint your hair so red because you are a son of Tlatanhquetezatlipoca?"
"Me father's name was O'Hara," blurted Boots, rather desperate.
"O'Hara?" She pronounced it like two distinct words. "He has no seat in Tlapallan. You shall bring him here, and we will build him a red house, finer than the seat of Tlatlanhquetezatlipoca, who has no children."
"It's kindness' self you are," protested the bewildered one, "but the poor man's dead."
"Then he was not a true god," asserted the voice disapprovingly. "The true gods never die. You should forget him and serve another. Tlaloc is strong. Let your hair your hair grow black again and become a son of Tlaloc. And why do you shut your eyes? Is it because the eyes of O'Hara are closed in death? Think no more of a dead god, but open your eyes and look at me."
He grasped at the last arbitrary command as slightly more intelligible than the rest.
"With them open or shut, the beauty of you is equally hid from me. 'Tis the light that's to blame, not my will. 'Tis too glaring entirely!"
That truthful statement seemed to puzzle his new acquaintance as greatly as her remarks had bewildered him. It was some moments before she could be convinced that superfluity of light was really blinding to this stranger from the outer world.
That she knew him for a stranger had been evident from the first, and her calm acceptance, together with the excellent though slightly accented English she spoke, were as surprising as every other experience he had met in this home of surprises.
"If you really cannot see me," she said at last, "I will take you where the glory of Tonathiu (the Sun God) is not so great. Tonathiu sits in the roots of Tonathiutl to rest from his day's journey. His spirit flows out through the waters, and is brightest where it touches the shores of the land he loves. Around Tonathiutl itself the spirit is not so bright as here. I wonder if my lord Svend's eyes are as weak as yours? I must find out from Astrid. It is very interesting and curious. Come."
Willingly enough Boots accepted a guiding hand from this mysterious young person, and a few moments later was safely ensconced in the bottom of a fair-sized canoe, made of skins stretched over a bamboo frame. Had her words been a thousand times more incomprehensible, the risks involved incomparably greater, still Boots would have taken his chance and embarked in that canoe.
But though he could make little of what she said, the girl seemed amazingly friendly, and altogether he felt that the adventure was going rather well.
CHAPTER VIThe Black Eidolon
A VAST, circular chamber, lofty as the rotunda of some mighty cathedral, vaporous with ever-rising whirls of pale mist, made visible only by the livid effulgence which sprang from a strange luminous expanse that was its floor.
Having reached this place in his quest for carelessly stored wealth, Archer Kennedy halted and shrank back.
Through the black curtains he had come into a series of passages, lighted by hanging lamps like those in that outer room. In the polished white walls of these passages there had been no doors, and he had followed on, growing more doubtful with each step, yet driven still by that powerful desire of his, till he came down a flight of stairs that led to a lofty arch where he now stood, peering into the far loftier chamber to which it was the entrance.
He had been seeking gold and jewels. Gold and jewels were here. Round the outer rim of the rotunda at floor level ran a ledge or walk, set at brief intervals with throne-like chairs, and every chair of them carved from virgin gold. In the white, curving wall behind them their reflections gleamed, like gold drowned in milk.
High above the wall lifted an enormous dome, and through the vapors its vault glowed with sullen fires, scarlet, green, and azure the glowing eyes of a million jewels set there opals all, those most living and unfortunate of gems.
But Kennedy, lover of gold and seeker of jewels, gave their splendors hardly a glance. Wealth is very well, but a man must have life to enjoy it. There was that here which might well rend Kennedy's from him.
The place was shaped like a cathedral rotunda, but it was floored like like nothing on earth that he had ever seen.
A sort of unnatural marsh, or fen it was, where pale, slimy rushes grew thick out of steaming mire, and globular fungi shone with a livid, phosphorescent light. From its surface mist-wraiths rose continually, in twisting whirls and spirals, and the breath of it was dank in Kennedy's nostrils.
Like a marsh in a dream it was, and its reality was the reality of a nightmare. But it was not that which Kennedy thought of in the first moment.
Let a man, walking through the corridors of a public building, come suddenly upon the open gate of hell, alive with its demons, and his first emotion may well be dread of those demons, rather than wonder that hell should open there.
The pale rushes and luminous globes were strange and repulsive as some new, dank circle of the inferno. But among them moved living shapes that crept and lurked wolf-like, savage shapes that would have been snow-white save for the mire that plastered their silk fur. He had met shapes like those before. On that first night in the pass only chance and his companion's stubborn effort at protection had saved him from being torn to pieces by such as these.
"The white hounds of the Guardians here!" muttered Kennedy, and saw that around the marsh where they prowled there was no barrier.
Like any common dogs, they had been instantly aware of his presence. Three of them came splashing and floundering to the very edge of the reeds, and meeting the savage hunger of their eyes, he expected the rush that would end him. But it did not come. He stood quiet, not from courage, but because he feared that at the first sign of flight the beasts would pursue.
But as seconds passed and the white brutes kept inside the marsh's boundaries, nor made any effort to cross them, physical terror was engulfed by another sort fear. The intolerable strangeness of his discovery swept Kennedy like a flood.
What place in Nature had this domed-in, coldly steaming marsh, with its pale growth of rushes, its luminous fungoids, and wallowing wolf-like inhabitants?
The very character of the beasts was an anomaly. Had they been reptiles, saurians, creatures of mire by birthright they might have been terrible but in a comprehensive manner. But dogs! White hounds. In a sane world hounds are neither bred nor kenneled in a marsh!
Yet there they splashed and prowled, swaying the rushes, emerging to glare with fierce, unfriendly eyes, or wallowing their silky coats anew in the softer mire around some giant, isolated fungus, that was like a pale sphere of light.
And those thrones! What inhuman sort of spectators were wont to sit there, and for the enaction of what incredible spectacle?
Taken by themselves one can tolerate a white dog, a white reed, or a phosphorescent fungus. Assemble them in mire, multiply them, surround them with golden thrones, and roof them with a jewel-lined dome, and the combination becomes suspiciously weird.
Suddenly the man knew that he had seen too much.
He had feared the hounds and not dared to run from them. Now once more he feared a thought, and from that inescapable pursuer he did run, though not very far.
Half way up the stairs he halted and crouched, listening intently.
From beyond the arch came only an occasional splash or swishing of the reeds.
Yet somewhere a sound dissimilar to those had begun the first he had heard since leaving the alley of their former prison.
It was a kind of slap, slap, shuffle, slap a blurred, commingled noise, that to Kennedy was anything but welcome. It meant that along these passages he had so stealthily traversed, many sandaled feet were approaching.
He straightened stiffly, elbows bent, hands clenched, and trembling like a man with the ague. He was caught. What would be the penalty he did not know something vague and terrible those folk were no longer to him "just buck Indians of a particularly light-hued type." They were the white people of Tlapallan the mystic people who in a sane material universe had no place.
Crushed between two dreads, Kennedy stood still and shivered.
slap slap shuffle. They were very near now. They were coming, solemn and slow. The very leisureliness of their approach seemed inimical They knew he was here! They knew that he could not escape them! They knew
Turning suddenly he plunged back down the stairs. His one instinct was to hide.
Back through the arch he sprang. This side of the marsh there was no possible concealment, unless he should have chosen to join the wallowing hounds among the rushes. That scarcely appealed to him, and he ran on round the curving rim, following the narrow path that intervened between the line of thrones and the mire.
To his dismay several of the marsh-hounds tried to follow. Had they leaped out on the stone rim, they could have outrun him easily enough, but not one attempted to do that. Floundering, splashing they pursued in heavy, mud-hindered bounds, with ferocious eyes fixed always on the fugitive.
He could not doubt that those silent, snarling jaws longed to rend his flesh. There seemed no barrier to prevent their reaching him. And yet his flight had half-encircled the rotunda and still not a paw had been set on the path he followed.
Though seeking a place to hide, the terror of those lurching pursuers had kept his attention on the marsh. In consequence he collided heavily with some large object that blocked the way, and the breath was so thoroughly knocked out of him that he clung there a moment, gasping. Then he saw what from the rotunda's far side had been obscured by the vapors.
Here the white marble ledge broadened before what seemed to be a deep, narrow niche. On the broadened ledge outside this recess, ranged not carelessly but in a decorous regularity of order, were many more such golden vessels as he had seen in the outer room. The thing he had run against was another golden font, with its three nearly life-size cougars, and its basin long as the body of a man. Two other fonts, identical in appearance with the first, stood, just beyond, and beyond them again the line of thrones was renewed and continued.
On either side of the niche itself two great candelabra raised their golden branches, five to each, that bore tall candles like those set to burn by the bier of the dead. The candles, however, were not lighted, and the depths of the niche they guarded were very dark. The rotunda was walled with blank, white marble, but this recess in it had been built of stone, dead-black as unpolished ebony. The radiance of the fungi, diffused and made uncertain by mist wreaths, hardly penetrated the black niche at all.
Now, having looked for a place to hide, it seemed possible that he had found one, and yet he shrank oddly from exploring those dead-black depths.
Without reason he felt convinced that there was something in there something that lived.
As has been hinted earlier, curiosity in Archer Kennedy was, as a rule, sternly subordinated to more practical considerations. Curiosity about a living something that lurked darkly behind a livid, unnatural marsh, he found so easy to suppress that not even panic could at first drive him to investigation.
The white hounds had ceased to give him any attention, and looking for them he found that he had this side of the marsh to himself. The uncertain light and the vapors prevented his seeing across it, but he heard the brutes splashing around beyond. They were making back toward the entrance and he guessed why. Dogs ignore neither enemy nor friend, and even from where he stood there was audible again the steady shuffle of many approaching sandals.
Again the fugitive looked to the niche, vainly trying to pierce its impenetrable gloom. As on the stairway, fear was driving him whither fear had shrunk from going, and after all, how could there be anything alive in that niche? No sound of motion or breathing came out of it.
Cursing himself for an imaginative fool, Kenny tautened his nerves and made the forward step that set one foot on the black floor where it joined the ledge's whiteness. Then he stopped dead.
No light was reflected from the depths. He had been very sure of that, and yet, in the instant when his foot crossed the line, he began to see. Unless there is black light as well as white, perceive may be the better term, but whatever the faculty so abruptly acquired, it at least gave the sense of vision and after an extremely vivid fashion. By it he learned that he had cursed his imagination unjustly, for something did really lurk in the narrow niche. It was a face.
Though, black as its environing gloom, it appeared to reflect no light, to Kennedy every feature of that dark countenance grew unforgettably distinct.
It was not a good face. No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at. A toad's mouth is wide, ugly and rather funny., The mouth of this face was toad-like in width and narrowness of lip, but the grin of it was in no sense funny. A tense, cruel grin it was, that had never heard of humor. Cruel and monstrously alert. Alert stealth was in the very distention of the nostrils above it. The eyes were slits, but they were watchful slits.
The whole face gave the impression of being thrust forward by a neck strained with eagerness, but the threat of it was not the clean threat of death. Had it witnessed torture, not the victim but the tormentor would have held its avid attention. Not pain, but cruelty, not vice but viciousness and the corruption of all mankind could hardly have sated its ambition, nor the evil of a world-wide race of demons have quenched the desire behind its narrowed lids.
Poised rigid, Kennedy confronted it eye to eye. His gaze seemed so fixed that it might never waver through eternity, and yet, without glancing downward, he became gradually aware that beneath the face was a body. He knew that the thing squatted naked, and that the fingers clasped about its drawn-up knees were long, and stealthy, and treacherous.
But for once Archer Kennedy felt neither dread nor the impulse to flee. Of what the face meant those fingers were only another adequate symbol and the face drew him.
In the natures of different men there are, as one might say, certain empty spaces. Voids that long to be filled. So one craves beauty, and another love, a third goodness, and a fourth, perhaps, mere lust of the senses.
Meeting these, the emptiness is filled and the man is happy. So, Kennedy. He had craved gold, but bade of that desire was another and deeper lack an emptiness unknown and unacknowledged, even by himself. The face filled it.
Like a devout Buddhist, withdrawing his soul from earthly distractions, absorbed in contemplation of the mystic jewel in the lotus, so Archer Kennedy would have wished to stand there a long, long time, content, while the unguessed emptiness of him was filled at last.
But following the rotunda's marble rim many feet were approaching, and in another moment the vapors would no longer shield him from discovery.
CHAPTER VIIThe Cloak of Xolotl
"'TIS THE little lady of the fire moths." Boots knelt up straight and beamed upon his vis-à-vis like one who welcomes an old acquaintance. Impelled by a deft and vigorous paddle, the canoe had swiftly left the landing float, shot across what seemed a wide band of blinding fire, and now, some hundred yards from shore, Boots found the radiance much less intolerable. In fact, he could see very well, and his first glance was not for the islands nor the island craft, but toward the girl who had apparently taken him under authoritative protection.
"If you jump about so, we shall be upset," she admonished him.
"I'll not move a finger more," cried Boots, "for I can think of nothing more misfortunate than to end an acquaintance before it is fairly begun. Did you know me at first sight then, as I knew you?"
She tried to look serious and demure, but the effort ended in irrepressible merriment.
"Oh," she cried softly, "how could one help but know you? You are you are so different to look at from my brothers of Tlapallan!"
Self-consciousness claimed him again, and if his face was red before it was flaming now.
"The costume of your country is a fine, handsome selection, but maybe it's not so becoming to an Irishman."
"But I like you different! I would have you tell how it is, though, that you are wearing Xolotl's head and his cloak of honor. Did he give them to you for friendship?"
"You might say so." Boots surmised that Xolotl was the vanquished jailer, and caution seemed advisable. Then a gleam in those amused, dark eyes warned him. "You know otherwise!" he accused.
"I hope you did not kill him," she answered reflectively. "If you killed him, being a stranger, they may give you to Nacoc-Yaotl. Did you kill him?"
Had she been asking the time of night the question could have been no more indifferent.
"No," said Boots, shocked into curtness.
The mischievous smile flashed across her lips again.
"Then I shall laugh at him! Xolotl is a boaster. He thinks he should run the hills with the guardians. But he is only a small boy, grown tall and large. Some day, since he is not dead, and when he has finished his novitiate to Nacoc-Yaotl, I shall what is my lord Svend's word? I shall marry him; but I shall always laugh because you took away his cloak of honor."
With another mental gasp, Boots attempted changing the subject.
"It's fine English you speak. You maybe learned from Mr. Biornson?"
"Oh; all of my gild speak English. When I was only a little baby, my lord Svend came. Though he was a stranger, they spared him because of his wisdom and his knowledge of the gods. It had been thought that the gods were forgotten save in Tlapallan. But he spoke our tongue, and later he mated - married with a daughter of Quetzalcoatl. That brought him into our gild, though for some strange reason he will not live in Tlapallan, but built him a house in the lower valley. Very soon it became what was that phrase of Astrid's oh, yes, all the rage, to use English. The other gilds have picked up a little, too, but we never encourage them. Don't you think it sounds much more distinguished than the old-fashioned tongue?"
"Maybe; but when you speak your own language it sounds like a bird singing."
"But birds are so common, aren't they? See! There is Tonathiutl. If you do not care to serve Tlaloc, become the son of Tonathiu, who is sometimes as red as your beautiful, painted hair. Then perhaps I shall marry you instead of Xolotl!"
She said it with the air of one bestowing some incredible hope of favor, but things were moving a little fast for Boots. Lovely though she was, here cold-blooded reference to poor Xolotl's demise, and her equally cold-blooded annexation of himself, went clean outside the Irishman's notions of propriety.
"I'll think of it," he muttered, and for the first time really gave heed to his surroundings outside the canoe.
They had come well out on the liquid silver shield beneath which, according to the faith of Tlapallan, Tonathiu, the sun-god lurked throughout those hours when the rest of the world was dark and deserted of his spirit. Therefore at night and through night only they gleamed like Mezkli, the moon, and were terrible to touch as the superheated body of Mictlanteuctli, lord of hell.
So Boots was informed, as he gazed with great curiosity at the god's house. It was the first "heathen temple" he had ever seen where the worship was living, and not a mere dusty memory of the past.
Tonathiutl, smallest of the islands, was also nearest to the shore they had recently quitted. Unlike the others, it was low and flat, and the round structure which almost filled its circumference stood scarcely ten feet high. Nothing showed above the walls, and Boots, who had noted it from the cliff, recalled that the roof was flat as a pancake.
It was all built of something that he took for brass, though Kennedy, had he been present, would have better judged the metal's value. Doors and windows there were none, save one low arched aperture, and altogether it did not in the least fit with Boots' idea of a temple.
"It goes down," explained the girl. "What you see is only the top. It goes far down, and there, below, Tonathiu slumbers in the midst of a circle of his priests. Should one, even one, of his sons sleep in these hours, Tonathiu would never climb the heavens again. He would die. Then Tlapallan and all Anahuac (Mexico) would perish in a darkness having no end. Is that not terrible fear? If you become a son of Tonathiu, you must never sleep at night. Do you ever sleep when you shouldn't?"
"More often than not," Boots hastily assured her. Whatever force it was that charged the waters, even his elementary knowledge of astronomy sensed a discrepancy between her version of "Tonathiu's" habits and the actual facts. But he could see no profit in arguing the matter, and just so he kept clear of any promise likely to involve him in strange religions, he was content to accept her statements as they were made.
"Here come Topiltzen, Nacoc-Yaotl's master priests," she suddenly announced, pointing to a galley of twenty oars which at this moment surged majestically past. "Look! There he stands near the bow, with the others crouched down around him. Tell me, is he not a fat, ugly, disagreeable old man?"
The individual in question, who stood pompously erect in the midst of an adoring circle on the quarter-deck, his fat paunch covered by a white and black emblem, draped in a feathered mantle of black, white, and green, might almost have heard the girl's remark. He whirled sharply and glared toward their canoe with pudgy mouth pursed and scowling brows.
"Are you not afeared to speak of your priests so disrespectfully?" queried Boots.
She shrugged high disdain.
"I am a daughter of Quetzalcoatl. My head need not bow to those of the lesser gilds. Did you see him look at you? He knew you for a stranger. If he dared he would take you for the mysteries; but fear nothing. You are with me and Quetzalcoatl guards his own. Even Nacoc-Yaotl cannot take you from me or I think he could not!"
She looked back toward the cliff they had left, and Boots' eyes followed hers. Now he saw what nearness had before shut from him. The dead-black rock was topped by a long, even wall of white stone. Above it rose the pale heights of a stupendous building.
In that building he and his mate had been imprisoned, and it seemed strange now to Boots that this had been so well nigh impossible that for nine days they had dwelt in that vast place, and remained as unconscious of its vastness as are coral insects of the mighty reef they inhabit.
It was a structure so large, so ruggedly massive, as to suggest one of nature's rock castles, though its lines were too regular for that. Like the temple of the sun, it was blank of windows, but unlike that smaller temple it was neither round nor flat-roofed A hundred turrets crowned it, and out of the very midst of them there curved a titanic white dome.
The dome form is one of the glories of architecture, but this one distinctly failed of beauty. It was squat ugly. It was as though the round top of an incredibly large white fungus had sprouted among the turrets and been allowed to remain because of its bulls and inaccessibility.
But the whole structure was in some indefinable way oppressive.
It had not been for fear's sake that Boots had left it and descended to the lake, but now, without knowing why, he felt sure that his course had been wiser as well as more reckless than Kennedy's.
Kennedy had returned into those blind, white depths. That foolish, protective instinct of Boots rose up at the thought. No matter what else Kennedy was, he was a poor, weak thing and Boots' mate. Should he go after him? Better get the good of some information, first.
He asked the building's purpose.
"That is the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl." A somber look shadowed the girl's mischievous face. "Nacoc-Yaotl, the black maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could. Some day they say that he will destroy Tlapallan, but I do not believe it. Our lord of the air, Quetzalcoatl, who was once human and is noblest of all the gods, is stronger than he. How they must hate each other, those great, strong gods! Would you not like to watch a battle between gods?"
"'Twould be a destructive spectacle. Watch yourself! Watch out!"
His shout of warning came barely in time. With two swift thrusts of her paddle, the girl shot them out of the path of a galley of twenty oars. It swept on by, and from near the bow glared Nacoc-Yaotl's master priest, thwarted malice in every line of his fat, furious face.
"He did hear you!" cried Boots. "And the old devil tried to run us down!"
The girl's face was sternly calm, but her eyes blazed with a rage more deadly than the priest's.
"I meant he should hear me," she said quietly. "Topiltzen is the mortal father of Xolotl, whom I despise!"
The galley had wheeled again and was heading back toward them.
"Paddle!" urged Boots desperately. "Paddle or let me!"
He stretched a hand, but the girl only shook her head and watched the oncoming galley with quiet scorn.
"Now you will hear him apologize," she said. "It was an accident for which the poor steersman will suffer. I am a daughter of Quetzalcoatl, who guards his own, and even Topiltzen will not dare admit that attack was intended. But had we been cut in two, as was meant, you would have died and I would have been let suffer the pain of Tonathiu's spirit for more than a little before they picked me up. Oh, I hate Xolotl and all the black god's cruel gild! Son of O'Hara, I wish that you had slain Xolotl!"
"Faith, I'm beginning to think you've cause to wish it. Look at the old fat villain bowing there!"
The galley's rowers were resting on their oars. Every face on board was turned toward them, and the master priest himself had crossed the quarterdeck and bent his head with a respect rather mocking, under the circumstances.
This was Boots' first view at close range of any of the men of Tlapallan. They were all white men whiter than himself, to speak the truth and yet, by certain subtle differences, Boots was quite sure they were not "white men" in the generally accepted sense. Whether or not Kennedy was right to call them "Indians," they were certainly of another than the Caucasian race.
Straight, black hair fell to their shoulders from beneath various fantastic head-dresses, fashioned to represent brightly colored beasts and birds. Such garments as they wore were of gaily hued cotton cloth, or the same downy, feathery stuff that the moth-girl was dressed in. Feather mantles like the one Boots had borrowed were worn by all save the rowers, whose attire was restricted to a broad girdle or a kilt.
Black-browed, straight-nosed, broad of shoulder and well muscled, they were as fine looking a set as Boots had ever set eyes on, and no more comparable to the common Indian tribes of Mexico than a Japanese of the "Sumurai" caste to a low-class Kolarian.
In the matter of athleticism, however, Topiltzen was an exception. He was a short, fat, pudgy little person, and the black scowl he wore now did not add to his beauty.
When he spoke it was in that hushed tone used by all in Tlapallan, as if it were some vast hospital in which the patients must on no account be awakened.
"Speak English," the girl interrupted curtly. "My friend here, the son of that great and powerful god, O'Hara, does not use our tongue."
The priest straightened and stared balefully at the "son of O'Hara," more balefully at the girl. His English was bad, and she knew it a petty embarrassment to put on her future father-in-law, but everything counts in war.
"Where," said the priest, slowly and painfully, "Xolotl thee head thee cloak I see look hard no Xolotl "
Breaking off in despair, he waved expressive hands toward Boots.
"You mean, I suppose," the girl was loftily superior "that you would have run us down in order to see if my friend here was Xolotl. Yes, it is the head of Xolotl. It is the cloak of Xolotl. But my friend is not Xolotl. He is a man much stronger and more courageous, and that is why he wears Xolotl's cloak of honor. Look very close indeed. You quite see, do you not?"
But that insolence was too much for Xolotl's father, who understood English better than he spoke it. With a snort of rage he whirled and addressed a hushed command to someone behind him.
Instantly, a man sprang to the side. The girl dipped her paddle in earnest now, but too late to avoid the fling of a small grappling iron, which fairly caught their bow.
Hand over hand they were hauled ignominiously in, while Topiltzen, no longer obsequious, grinned at them in obese triumph.
It occurred to Boots that the might of his arms was going to be of more immediate service than any protection Quetzalcoatl, or any other of Tlapallan's numerous gods, seemed likely to offer.
CHAPTER VIIIBefore the Black Shrine
ARCHER KENNEDY was, as Boots had once observed, "a man of more refined education" than the Irish lad. Moreover, he had a quick, furtive mind, that snatched at whatever came its way and hoarded it as a jackdaw hoards its stealings, on a bare chance that it might some day prove practically useful. Stored among many such smatterings was a fair knowledge of Aztec antiquities, picked up partly in his college days, partly at close range in Yucatan and Campeche.
When Biornson had said: "You are housed in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl," the words had not been quite meaningless to him.
In the tangled mazes of old Aztec theology, many a god possessed not only two or more names, but as many personalities, some of them as divergent from one another as black from white.
So Tezcatlipoca, "shining mirror," who descended from heaven at the end of a spider's thread, was a being of most virtuous and commendable qualities. Justice and mercy were his to administer, and if his enshrined eidolons sometimes presided from judgment seats made of piled human bones, this was in accordance with the rather grim ideas of a grim and bloody people.
But like the well-known Dr. Jekyll, Tezcatlipoca had a double nature, and a nature, moreover, of which the second and darker phase might have caused even Mr. Hyde to cover his reprehensible head in shame and jealousy.
As Nacoc-Yaotl, creator of hatreds, the virtuous Tezcatlipoca was accustomed to steal, invisible, through the streets, and in every Aztec city there were seats placed for his convenience seats in which no mortal man was allowed to seek repose. It seems improbable that any man would care to, considering who might be his companion there.
A temple consecrated to Nacoc-Yaotl as an individual deity, however, was an innovation of which Kennedy had never heard.
On encountering a dark face in a darker niche, he did not promptly comment: "Here is exactly what I would have expected to find the carved black image of Nacoc-Yaotl, an idol which these pale-hued and foolishly superstitious Indians are no doubt silly enough to worship."
Instead of making this sensible remark, he not only failed to identify the face, but unconsciously yielded to it a more sincere and whole-hearted worship than had probably come its way in many centuries.
His much-prized reasoning faculty went to sleep, as it were, while whatever Kennedy had for a soul basked in fascinated contemplation of its unacknowledged ideal. Alert stealthy desirous ruthless all that the secret soul would be, the face was, and raised, moreover to the nth and ultimate power.
But rapture, in this decidedly imperfect world, is proverbially of short duration.
The minor priests and acolytes of Nacoc-Yaotl, entering the rotunda with solemn tread, could not know that their deity was receiving the perfect worship of a real devotee. They themselves were rather shy of offering that perfect worship. In fact, the countenance of Nacoc-Yaotl, or rather of his eidolon, was seldom looked upon by his cautious "sons".
But, like other men, they had some inescapable duties. The affair before them now was of minor importance the captive being only a poor little specimen of a Yaqui Indian, strayed north in the hills and half-witted from fright but none the less must be gone through with.
Topiltzen, head of the gild and chief priest of the mysteries, had not deigned to attend. In consequence some fancier touches of ceremony might be dispensed with, and Marcazuma, officiating as Topiltzen's understudy, rather hoped to be through with it in time to attend a banquet given that night by the sons of Tlapotlazenan, mother of healing.
Like members of that gild the world over, the men of medicine were a pleasant lot, with a goodly collection of amusing jests and tales at their tongue-tips. Under his breath Marcazuma cursed his superior for shoving all the drudgery onto his shoulders so that he had little time for pleasure.
He cursed again and more earnestly when the staff of the standard-like insignia he bore caught behind the golden claw-foot of a throne, and wrenched the standard fairly out of his hand.
Such an accident in the temple's very sanctum was an omen of direst import. As the standard clattered to the pavement, a shudder and muttering ran the length of the plumed line behind him, and as if in sympathy the hounds of the marsh, silent hitherto, set up a low, concerted howling.
With a nervous glance for them, Marcazuma recovered his standard. To his increased dismay the white and black feathers at its tip had dipped in the mire of the marsh, and become seriously draggled. They were sacred feathers, not to be touched by bare human fingers, and he had to carry them on as they were, dripping slow black drops that ran down on his hand and arm.
He resumed his dignified pacing toward the shrine, but with thoughts effectually distracted from the banquet. He was a very young man to have reached the position he held, and Topiltzen had of late showed a disposition to find fault on that score, and because of a certain impediment in his assistant's speech, two defects which Marcazuma certainly could not help.
But when his chief heard of this night's carelessness, he guessed what might happen. Sidewise, he glanced at the hounds again and shivered.
The clatter of the standard, however, had brought dismay to another heart than his.
It woke Kennedy as from a dream. He started, looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse through the mist of nodding plumes. Fear came back with a rush, reason roused, and all his brief content was gone in an instant.
Not only were the people almost upon him, but he realized that he had been perceiving without light. The walls of his universe shook again at a thought, and though still drawn by the face he was also unutterably afraid of it.
He actually considered diving head foremost among the reeds and hiding there, in preference to the niche. But a wolf-like head thrust out from between two clumps of bushes promised such instant disaster that he took the second of two bad choices, shut his eyes tight and lunged forward into the recess.
One step two steps three and his outstretched hands came in contact with other hands. They neither yielded nor grasped at him. They were cold, smooth, polished as the marble walls outside. They were clasped around two rounded, polished knees.
A statue. The thing in the niche was only a statue! He opened his eyes and discovered that he could see with them with his eyes, not his soul. Just see! The niche was not half so dark as he had thought. What a fool he had been to let that idea of perception without light get a grip on him! This was a statue an idol, of course and though black, the highly polished surface had caught gleams from the marsh.
True, the face of it was not one tenth as clear to him now as it had been, but doubtless that could be laid to the change in their relative positions.
Outside the feet were still coming on, slow, ominous, inevitable as the tread of Fate, but Kennedy found himself smiling. He felt the relief of one who has snatched victory from defeat. Having been deceived into thinking he saw a demon by its own dark light why might not the other apparently irreconcilable ideas he had of this place its people turn out to be equally deceptive?
Finding a narrow space behind the statue, he slid hastily into it and crouched there.
"Good old idol!" he muttered, and patted Nacoc-Yaotl's adamantine, polished shoulder.
Into his range of vision very slowly there stalked a tall figure, plumed headdress nodding to each step. Its feather mantle was long and gorgeous. It bore a staff crowned with a human skull, above which a bedraggled spray of feathers dripped miry water into the skull's hollow sockets. _
The face of the standard-bearer was more hideous than the skull, for it was extravagantly beast-like and striped with bars of white, black, and gold. But again the hidden man smiled. He had seen devil masks like that before. They were common enough at every Indian ceremony. This leading figure he placed easily in his universe a priest of the sacrifice. An Indian priest. He must remember that and never let fancy play tricks on his keen intelligence.
Now the priest halted and set up his standard in a socket prepared for that purpose in the floor by the central font. Kennedy, peering over the idol's shoulder, observed that not once did the man so much as glance into the niche, but kept his back consistently toward it.
Two torch-bearers, dressed like the first-comer, but a bit less splendidly, were next to appear. They, too, presented only their backs to the shrine, and having lighted the ten candles before it they passed on out of sight. Marcazuma knew, what Kennedy could not, that they went to take their places on two of the thrones. All the thrones must be filled before the ceremony might proceed, but Marcazuma was no longer impatient.
Another pair of his followers advanced, escorting the captive. That unfortunate, whose naked brown hide was marked with scarcely healed wounds very similar to those borne by Kennedy's trail-mate, was then lifted, laid in the basin of the central font, and secured there with ropes of agave fiber.
Marcazuma watched through the eye-holes of his wooden mask. When the Yaqui writhed, moaning through his gag, the young priest shivered with sympathy. The sympathy was for himself, not the Yaqui. His prophetic eye saw the form of Marcazuma lying in that identical basin. Topiltzen was not a tolerant chief, and when he learned of that very bad omen
The captive's escort had left him and gone on. Several pairs of figures stalked solemnly past the niche without stopping. Then one lone acolyte, a boy by his stature, clothed in white and wearing a white mask, came and took his stand opposite to the officiating priest. With that the procession ceased to march, for all the others who formed it had enthroned themselves, and the circle being complete, Marcazuma might take up his duties.
Of all the ceremonies that Kennedy had ever witnessed, and he had seen quite a number, that was the strangest. In the first place there was none of the singing, chanting or dancing inseparably connected with barbaric ritual elsewhere.
In the second, the thrones being out of Kennedy's range, the only audience visible to him was formed of the marshhounds. All told there were probably a dozen of the great white dogs, and they came out of their radiant jungle to the curb's very edge. Eyes fixed on the central font, they crouched with quivering flanks, in an eagerness which to Kennedy seemed well understandable.
"Here," he thought, "we learn how the hounds of Tlapallan are fed," and he was very glad to crouch safely behind the old black idol.
Well-trained brutes, those dogs, though. Man-eaters, he was sure now, they had allowed a possible dinner in his own person to pass them safely. Having their masters' command, doubtless, to stay within the marsh's boundaries, there they had remained, hungry or not.
The body of the little Yaqui would hardly go round among that ravenous-looking dozen. He wondered if it would be tossed to them living, or slain first. He recalled that in the Aztecs' time of glory, when human sacrifices were made by thousands, the victim's living heart was invariably cut out with an obsidian knife and offered to the god.
So far, however, save in the matter of costume, nothing of the present ceremony conformed to those old customs. The fonts themselves did not remotely resemble the curved sacrificial stone over which a victim was bent conveniently backward, exposing his chest to the knife.
Having stood motionless for at least five minutes, the priest and his young acolyte stirred at last. The smaller figure sidled backward toward the presiding eidolon. Because of the candles, the niche was by no means so dark as it had been and Kennedy promptly ducked out of sight. For several minutes he dared not peer out again. He heard a low mumbling voice, that blurred the musical accents of the native language rather as if the speaker had no teeth. It mumbled on and on, till at last Kennedy peered cautiously round Nacoc-Yaotl's protruding marble ribs.
He needn't have hidden. The acolyte had barely crossed the dividing line between black floor and white ledge, his back was still turned and he stood with arms rigidly outstretched like a human cross. He gave an odd impression of being set there as a guard as a guard to withhold something from coming out of that niche.
But the black god never stirred how may stone move of its own volition? and the man behind it smiled sneeringly. He wasn't afraid of the old black thing. He patted its ribs. The high polish of them felt almost like live skin that writhed a little under his fingers, but he could never be deceived again. Stone was stone.
Peering under the acolytes out-stretched arm he could see the officiating priest, who stood before the font with its captive and was speaking across it. His mumbled remarks might have been addressed to the attentive canine audience in the marsh, but more likely he was speaking to no one in particular just going through some silly, empty ritual.
Ending at last, he stooped to a great golden vessel and withdrew from its depths several smaller vessels, also of gold. One of them was flask-shaped, carved all over with writhing, lizard-like forms, and fitted with a crystal stopper. The others were small jars of plain gold.
The officiating priest set them out on a kind of ledge that projected behind the font's basin. Then he stood motionless, hands stretched above the captive as if in blessing or consecration.
Silence settled in the rotunda, so that Kennedy could hear his own heart beating, and also a faint gasping sound that came from the gagged victim.
Then the priest's hands dropped with startling suddenness, he wheeled made one lightning-swift genuflection toward the niche and had his back to it again before Kennedy could even think of dodging from sight.
When was this mummery to be done with?
Immediately, it appeared. With the air of a man who gets down to business at last, the priest drew on a gauntleted glove he had carried in his girdle a glove that gleamed yellow as flexible, soft gold opened one of the golden jars, sniffed its contents testingly, dipped his gloved fingers in the stuff, whatever it was, and began swiftly anointing the Yaqui's naked body. The man writhed in his bonds, but whether from pain or fright Kennedy had no means of knowing and, to do him justice, did not particularly care.
The priest worked swiftly. He might be too young, as Topiltzen hinted; he might be possessed of faulty vocal organs, and of a not quite pleasant personal appearance; but none could deny him a deftness unequalled by any man of the gild. Would Topiltzen consider that? He set the empty jar aside and took up the flask.
As at a signal, the dogs that watched him pointed their noses straight upward and once more a long, doleful howl ascended to the opal-lined dome and was echoed dully back.
Marcazuma started nervously. Twice now had the white hounds howled the white, silent hounds, whose loudest utterance had ever been a low snarling, and that only in heat of combat. Unlucky indeed was the night! Flask in hand, he hesitated, wondering if Topiltzen would blame him more for continuing the ceremony, or breaking off in the middle. Then he shrugged. In either case, as he saw it, his doom was sealed. Two such omens, in one night!
He tugged at the flask's stopper, which stuck; but it always did, so that could hardly be counted as a third sign. He got it out at last and without further pause poured forth the contents in a glittering stream over the writhing form of the living man in the font.
It was a violet-tinted liquid, with a strong odor like bitter almonds, and as it touched the Yaqui's quivering skin it spread out thinly. It spread as oil does on water, swiftly, almost, one would have said, intelligently, so that in less than a minute the Indian's brown hide was entirely coated with a thin, purplish film.
This seemed a novel way of preparing a man to be torn in pieces by beasts. Kennedy watched intently.
The ceremony proceeded
Omens or no omens, Marcazuma was an expert at this task and he carried it through unfalteringly, without a slip from start to finish.
But near the rite's completion a scandalous interruption occurred, for a man a gasping, pallid, fear-sick wreck of a man plunged shudderingly out of the niche with its hidden god, brushed the acolyte aside, and began to run staggeringly along the curved edge of the marsh.
He was caught and held by the astonished occupant of the first throne he tried to pass, while for the third time that night the white hounds howled dolefully. But Marcazuma, startled beyond measure, nevertheless sent up a silent prayer of gratitude.
No wonder that there had been signs and omens in the temple!
Even Topiltzen could hardly blame him now. The mystery of mystery had been spied upon, the very shrine desecrated, and Marcazuma almost swelled visibly with the story that he had for Topiltzen's ear!
But Archer Kennedy, who had for once done a fellow-being a very good turn, would have scarcely appreciated the fact had he known it.
A sign and an omen there had been indeed for him that night!
He had seen the thing that Biornson, in the first days of his captivity, had prayed God to make not so, or at least to let him forget. Kennedy did not pray, but had his captors slain him forthwith he would have welcomed the stroke.
The walls of his universe had crashed down at last, and when, with blows and curses, he was dragged from the rotunda, he cared not at all whither they were taking him, just so it was away from that which now lay quivering in the font before Nacoc-Yaotl's somber den.
CHAPTER IXMaxatla Speaks
THOUGH unobserved by Boots, when the canoe was dragged to the galley's side, two other events took place simultaneously with its capture.
Far away at the end of the black cliff a boat rushed out of some invisible harbor, propelled by six oarsmen of such unusual muscle that the heavy vessel seemed fairly to leap from the water at every stroke.
And nearer at hand another galley, heading leisurely toward Tonathiutl, suddenly diverted its course and swept down toward the master priest's craft.
The prow of this second galley bore a strange figurehead the reared body of a gigantic serpent, crested with feathers like a heron, a collar of plumes about its golden neck.
Boots looked straight up into Topiltzen's leering face. The lesser priestlings had left their postures of adoration and crowded to the side, threatening hands outstretched to drag on board the insulters of their chief.
The Irishman did not wait to be dragged. A kneeling position in a light canoe is impossible to spring from, but, reaching up, he got handhold on some massive carving under the galley's bulwark. That was enough. He came over the side, agile as a sailor, leaving the girl in a madly rocking but uncapsized canoe.
Topiltzen, confronted by an unexpectedly aggressive foe, tried to retreat, tripped over his own flowing mantle, and a moment later was clasped tight to Boots' breast. It had all happened too quickly for interference. But now the under-priests closed in, and down the vessel's length the stalwart rowers dropped their blades and came surging toward the bow in a jostling mob.
Boots swung the fat, kicking little man in his arms toward the side. A stout girdle held the white and black emblem about Topiltzen's middle and it offered a grip.
The master priest of Nacoc-Yaotl suddenly found himself dangling in mid-air above the silver flood, while a great voice shattered the hushed quiet of Tlapallan:
"Get back! Get back, the whole pack of you or down he goes!"
Even to those who could not understand the words, Boots' meaning was unmistakable. It brought them all to a stand.
Topiltzen squeaked like a rabbit. Though the girdle had cut off his wind, he prayed that it might hold. Swimming was little good to a man when Tonathiu charged the waters with heatless fire.
"Cast off that iron!" Boots indicated the canoe with a bob of his parrot-crested head. The man who grasped the light cable attached to the grappling iron hesitated and looked toward the priests for orders. One of them shook his head slightly.
"Cast off!" roared Boots, and lowered his captive a foot nearer the water.
The threat should have been effective, but it wasn't. Not a man stirred or spoke, and Boots had a sudden creepy doubt that he had been shouting at fantoms. The shadows were all wrong the sky was under him he faced a throng of weird, silent, feather-decked ghosts and threatened to drop the chief of them into the sky! No, that was no ghost in his hands it was too heavy. But why did none of them move or answer him? Boots blinked and cast a wild glance outward, seeking the solidity of the hills to restore his mental balance.
Then the loop of a rope dropped over his head and shoulders.
That little event had been what they were waiting for. No bodiless fantoms ever rushed in on a victim with such a weight of flesh and strength of brawn.
Unfortunately for Topiltzen, however, the caster of that rope had miscalculated. He had meant to jerk the stranger so suddenly inboard that the master priest would come with him; but quick though a man may be, it is easier to relax muscles than to flex them.
As the rope touched his chest, Boots let go, and with one gurgling cry the priest splashed and vanished in the light beneath.
But on the quarter-deck poor Boots was hopelessly outnumbered. Underman to start with, his arms encumbered by the rope, he had not the shadow of a chance, and at the end of a brief struggle he rose, a bound and battered prisoner, grasped on either side by one of the stalwart crew.
Worse still, as the press cleared away from about him, he saw a bedraggled figure hauled over the bulwark by a dozen solicitous hands. It was Topiltzen, and though he promptly subsided on the deck, he was unquestionably alive.
In the midst of defeat, Boots grinned. He knew from personal experience that the master priest had at least endured a punishment he would not forget in a hurry.
And just at that moment, while the attention of all was focused on the prisoner, and on the limp and furious Topiltzen, there came one long, splintering crash.
Every oar in the starboard bank smashed to flinders, as the galley of the Feathered Serpent plowed ruthlessly alongside.
Nacoc-Yaotl's followers turned to meet the rush of a wave of silent assailants. They came leaping across the bulwark, leaving the serpent-headed craft to drift or stay as it might, and fell upon the startled defenders so suddenly that the latter were almost driven over the side in a body. Two or three did go over, but no one was bothering to offer a rescue then.
Battle swept up and down the galley, among the rowers' seats, in the open way between them; an indiscriminate whirl of interlocked limbs, flying plumes, and fierce white faces.
Boots' two guards were lost in the mêlée, and he made frantic efforts to break his bonds. Though unable to distinguish attackers from attacked, it was a most glorious shindy, and he longed to plunge into it.
But for once in his life he found he must watch a fight and take no part in it. In despair of freedom, he at last resigned himself to look on in silent admiration.
Silent! It suddenly struck him that here was the most remarkable battle ever fought. They were all silent. Save for the thud of blows, the crash of broken boat seats, or an occasional splash when some unfortunate descended into the spirit of Tonathiu, there was not a sound.
No yells, no groans, no battle-cries. And no weapons, either. It was hand to throat and fist to body, with never a sword or spear to grace it.
But they were men, the Tlapallans! Surrender was not in them. Until hammered into insensibility, or driven over the side, they would fight, and since both galleys had carried about the same complement, and they equally matched in sinew and stubbornness, the combat promised an indefinite duration.
And so it might have been, save for an unexpected intervention from without.
Up over the stern they came, white, stark, and terrible. They wore no plumes, those six. Their height required no headdress to increase it. Towering head and shoulders above the tallest fighter there, the galley warriors were as children before them.
Some, blind with rage, attempted to face that mighty onset, but the majority knew better. When the giant Guardians of the Hills took the field, lesser men stood out of their path or perished.
In this case short work was made of the resisters. Where a man was struck down, there he lay, and in a very few minutes peace reigned aboard the galley of Nacoc-Yaotl.
Then, and not till then, Boots remembered the girl. In the press of exciting events she had clean slipped from his mind, and when with a start of self-reproach he at last turned to look for her, the canoe was gone.
Moreover he discovered that the battle had been by no means without spectators. Very much as in more ordinary cities the crowds will gather to watch a fight, so the lake craft had swarmed in, until the contending galleys were almost entirely surrounded.
They were very quiet about it, though. There was something almost stealthy in the silent, eager, curiosity of those innumerable faces that thronged the decks and peered from every available vantage point.
In that still water, the serpent galley had drifted only a few feet from her victim, and by the time Boots' attention returned to them most of her crew who were able had sprung lightly back aboard.
The six gigantic peacemakers were advancing toward the quarterdeck, followed by a limping and disheveled crowd, and among them were three figures which Boots immediately recognized.
The group which presently gathered about the Irishman was a curiously assorted one.
There was Topiltzen, still a survivor, but one mass of cuts and bruises and with none of his finery left save the white-and-black emblem.
There were six white giants of proportions which Boots could only view with envious admiration.
There was the moth-girl, who with two of the others had come aboard in the peacemakers' wake. She had picked her way daintily through the wreckage, and now beamed upon her red-haired protégé from the arm of a tall, stern young man, whose head-dress of a crested serpent proclaimed him one of the invaders.
There was also Svend Biornson, his neat modern clothes giving a touch of the theatrical to all the rest; and last there was the gentleman who had returned into Nacoc-Yaotl's temple for dread of the white lake. Coatless, shirt half torn off, and his arms bound behind him, Archer Kennedy looked as if he had been through the wars himself. But his spirit seemed to have suffered the worst shock. His lips twitched continually, his whole body shook in spasms of trembling like a nervous horse, and he met Boots' half-amused, half-resigned: "You, too, Mr. Kennedy!" with a blank, unrecognizing stare.
"Well," began Biornson, his marred face grim and angry. "I see that you have recovered from your wounds enough to be about, O'Hara."
"I've had the evening of me life! Did you find Xolotl?"
"We did," was the stern retort. But before he could say more, the wreck which had been Topiltzen broke in with a torrent of low-voiced accusation. At least, Boots judged it to be accusation, though to him it was no more intelligible than the scolding of an angry sparrow.
Presently he said something that the Moth-Girl appeared to resent. With flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, she broke into the stream with a few remarks of her own; the young man beside her took it up, and they all talked at once with the energy and indifference to polite usage common among very angry people the world over.
The only word Boots understood was "Xolotl," and, that was tossed from mouth to mouth with significant frequency.
Biornson began cutting in with placative intent, but his sole success was in diverting a large share of the indignation to himself. At last, as he threw up his hands in despair, one of the six giants who had been grinning in the background with distinctly human amusement, strode forward and uttered a curt sentence.
Argument ceased. Even Topiltzen, who, red with fury, had been shaking his fist in Biornson's very face, subsided instantly. As an arbiter, Boots thought the giant admirably successful, but Biornson did not seem to share the opinion. He turned away with an air of dejection which flared into bitterness as he came face to face with the Irishman.
"You are responsible for this!" he accused. "In two hours, O'Hara, you have wrecked the consummation of five years of faithful effort!"
"Why, Mr. Biornson, what harm did I do?" protested Boots. "The jailer-lad wasn't hurt to speak of, except maybe in his feelings, and as for the little lady, we only took a bit of a ride on the lake. You can ask herself "
"I don't need to ask herself. If civil war is the result of tonight's work, you are the one primarily responsible. Quetzalcoatl rules the lake; Nacoc-Yaotl, the surrounding shores. There has always been an undercurrent of rivalry and hard feeling. Why, in past years the guardians, who are chosen from all the gilds and are neutral by oath, have shed more blood policing Tlapallan than in keeping the hills free of invasion.
"For years I have been trying to patch up the quarrel. I thought that I had succeeded, when the Gild of Quetzalcoatl consented that the daughter of their master priest should marry the son of Topiltzen, priest of Nacoc-Yaotl. But naturally, when she appeared on the lake with a stranger who wore Xolotl's garments of honor, Topiltzen was wild.
"Wasn't it enough for you to half-kill the boy, without disgracing him? He swears he will never show his face on the lake again! And to crown the insult you dropped his father overboard, and for reasons best known to herself the young lady signaled a galley of Quetzalcoatl to offer you a violent rescue. Now she declares her intention to marry my lord Maxatla, the captain of that galley, and Topiltzen is willing that she should.
"He says that Xolotl has been dishonored, and no child of his shall ever mate with a daughter of the Feathered Serpent. He says that reconciliation is impossible, and I very much fear he is right. That is the sum total of your evening's pleasure, young man, and I hope you are satisfied with it!"
Boots, who was trying to look properly overcome, just then caught the Moth-Girl's eye. There was a twinkle in it that he found irresistible.
"Yes, grin!" Biornson's exasperation was complete. "Trust an Irishman to think civil war delightfully amusing! confound you! I might have known by the color of your hair "
"But Mr. Biornson "
Boots stopped. A certain lovely young trouble-maker had used him ruthlessly for her own ends, and he was not too stupid to see it. He rather suspected that this sudden affair with "my lord Maxatla" was not half so sudden at it seemed. That careless offer of hers to marry Boots perhaps had been mere bait to keep interested one in whom she foresaw a glorious casus belli with her loathed fiancé's entire gild.
Well, she had got her wish and her love as well, for Maxatla did not look the man to give up his sweetheart lightly, once promised.
But Boots could not defend himself on those lines. The inbred chivalry of him forbade it.
"You saved my life," snapped Biornson, as if that were an added grievance. "I tried to help you in return, but this night's work is too much. You and Kennedy are a pair. You are both forfeit to Nacoc-Yaotl he because he was caught prying into the most sacred of mysteries, you for offering violence to the body of Topiltzen. Let them take you! My intervention is finished."
A gleam of satisfaction came into the master-priest's small eyes, but the Moth-Girl whispered a word to her young captain. He nodded, then with a slight bow to the guardians came forward and laid a hand on the bound Irishman's shoulder.
"My lord Svend," he said with stern dignity, "I believe that the Feathered Serpent is still supreme in Tlapallan. I claim this man in his name. He was wrongfully made prisoner while defending a daughter of Quetzalcoatl from the insults and violence of those who have no place on these waters save by tolerance. Under their oath to uphold the law, I call upon the guardians to support my intention. This man is Quetzalcoatl's. Let any son of Nacoc-Yaotl lay hand on him at his peril!"
Biornson frowned, but anxiety again had the upper hand of irritation. It had not been revealed to Boots exactly what position the man held in this unusual community, where the most common passions and rivalries of the human race were enacted against a background so weird and strange that it seemed only to be accounted for on a basis of the supernatural. But whatever his influence, it was sufficient in this case to avert the hostilities which Maxatla's challenge had threatened to reopen.
"Lord Maxatla," he answered, "no man has a higher respect for the Feathered Serpent than I. I spoke too hastily out of anger, but this is not a matter to be settled here. Will it satisfy you if both prisoners are held, and their cases decided before the council of gilds, as was first intended?"
"Held in the power of Nacoc-Yaotl?" demanded the other scornfully. "No!"
"Held in personal charge by the guardians," substituted Biornson patiently. "They will do this thing, I believe, for the sake of peace in Tlapallan."
"You are right, my lord Svend." The giant who had spoken before pushed Maxatla gently but firmly aside and laid his own enormous hand on Boots. "This is for the council to decide. We, Guardians of the Hills, and Keepers of the Peace of Tlapallan, take these two prisoners in our keeping. Do I speak well, my brothers?"
"You speak well," confirmed his five companions, and their voices, soft and murmurous as the night-wind, carried a decision that no man there dared question.
In a fold of the hills, a dim, twilight valley, where the verdure grew scant and starved between scattered boulders, a group of men had halted.
Though the sky was black above, the valley was grayly visible in what seemed a perpetual and never-growing dawn. It was the light of invisible Tlapallan, reflected and diffused from the rocks at the valley's entrance.
Scarcely an hour had elapsed since the prisoners passed into the guardians' charge. Carried ashore in the latter's low black boat, instead of being escorted to another prison, they were brought here. After disembarking, the whole company turned their faces to the hills, and only halted again when shut from the glittering lake by the walls of this desolate valley.
There was a foreboding of secret evil in the manner of all their keepers.
By Biornson's first words, the suspicion was no idle one.
"You saved my life, O'Hara, but I would rather have died than seen this feud reopened. You think it a light matter. A few lives lost, perhaps, and a few heads broken the sort of riot-play you Irish delight in. But Donnybrook Fair is not so far from Tlapallan as the ways of its people from your ways.
"Nacoc-Yaotl has horrors in command beyond all thinking by one who has not seen his power. The Feathered Serpent will fight fire with fire, and even the lesser gilds control forces that, if turned loose on the world, might almost wreck civilization. Only the delicate counterbalance of power and certain religious traditions have kept Tlapallan from long ago destroying itself. But I know that Nacoc-Yaotl grows restive
"Nacoc-Yaotl," continued Biornson in a changed voice, "would dwell in peace with the other gods, and to drive him into anger is folly. Therefore you, O'Hara, must leave Tlapallan. Quetzalcoatl has no possible claim on your mate, and the council will give him up to the priests whose mysteries he has pried into. But over you there would surely be fighting. Young Maxatla stands high in our gild, and having once claimed you he will never draw back. So you must escape tonight, friend O'Hara.
"Will you believe me when I say that to save these adopted people of mine and to prevent another possible thing I can't speak of I would condemn myself as readily as you?
"You will be taken blindfold far out into the desert, left so bound that by effort you may free yourself, and the rest will be between you and the drifting sands."
"Food and drink?"
"If you can find them. Goodby, O'Hara, and though you won't believe it I am sorry."
"Goodby," said Boots curtly, and as he felt himself gripped by two of his warders, he turned to go without another word of farewell.
But at that Kennedy came to life with a sudden vain leap against the hands that instantly restrained him. Struggling desperately, he called. after his mate as he had called in the desert, his voice like a wailing cry:
"Don't leave me, Boots! Don't leave me with these fiends! If you leave me it will be worse than murder worse, do you understand? I will tell you what I saw I will tell you "
The cry died as a heavy hand closed over his mouth, and he could only watch with agonized eyes as his mate was led helplessly away.
CHAPTER XThe First Visitation
"CLIONA, my dear, 'tis a quaint-looking present I've brought you, but they do say it's worth a power of money for its rarity. The value I put on it, though, is another sort. There's a tale behind it so wild I'd not tell it to even you, little sister, lest you think me a liar of outrageous imaginations."
Colin O'Hara passed his fingers reflectively over the polished bit of colored porcelain in his hand. Fifteen years had elapsed since first he set eyes on it, when his trail-mate had lifted it down from the bracket in Biornson's hacienda.
Those years had left no mark on the porcelain godling but they had wrought their inevitable changes in the man. The face that at twenty was broadly good-humored was good-humored still. But the blurred lines of youth had set to a deeper firmness, the lips could be stern as well as smiling, and the light-blue, kindly eyes were capable of flaring into anger as intolerant as was promised by the red thatch of hair above them. In both size and appearance the contrast between the man and the girl he had just addressed was striking to the point of absurdity.
Colin's height missed the seven-foot mark by a bare four inches, while Cliona O'Hara Rhodes, his young married sister, measured no more than five feet five. Her raven's-wing hair shadowed eyes that were wonderfully blue; from beneath straight, fine brows the lashes curved thick and long, and her skin had the tint of one of those small seashells that are like smooth, new ivory shading a to a center so delicate that to call it pink is almost desecration say, rather, angel-color.
Yet a resemblance to her brother might have been traced in the girl's generous forehead, the carriage of her head, and certain inbred mannerisms of speech and gesture.
Since the death of her parents, when Cliona was a very small child, this huge, rugged man had been her whole family and sole guardian. Many of those years he had spent world-wandering; yet he had ever kept in touch with his little sister, given her a convent education, and to this day she had all the love of his great, affectionate heart.
Now they sat together on a stone bench in the gardens that surrounded her bungalow home at Carpentier, a small suburb just within the wide-flung boundary line of a city in the eastern part of the United States.
As he fell silent she tapped an impatient foot on the gravel path.
"Had I guessed where you were off to when you left me six months ago, Colin, I should have kept you here or gone after you!"
"Ah, now," he protested, "am I not back safe and sound? 'Twas for that very reason I said nothing of it. With you just married and all, would I be spoiling your honeymoon with anxieties? Not that the danger was worth speaking of, but I guessed how you'd fret. And this journey was one I've had in the back of my head a-many years. Always there's been one thing or another risen to prevent. It seemed like fate was set against in ever learning the truth of the matter, and now now I'm less sure than before I went if 'twas all a dream and a fevered vision or a sober reality!"
"Tell me the story." Cliona took the porcelain Quetzalcoatl in her hands and examined it curiously. Though about it there was an indefinable look of age, its unglazed, polished enamel might have left the potter's hands but yesterday. From the delicately indicated embroidery of the tunic to the minute scaling of the serpent-headed staff it held, it was an exquisite bit of craftsmanship. The flat, benignant face eyed her with a kind of patient stoicism that brought a smile to Cliona's lips.
"Poor little idol-man!" she said whimsically. "Are all your worshipers dead and gone? Tell me the story, Colin."
"If I do, you'll neither repeat it to another nor think it a fabrication?"
"I know, but when I've finished you may 'Colin' me in another tone, my dear! It strains my own belief to think of it, and I'm not sure not sure at all to go back and find naught but a lake so deep there was no fathoming it; to find but the ruins of the hacienda, and they so overgrown one could scarce identify them, and only certain scars I bear to this day and the bit of image you hold in your hands as an evidence that 'twas not quite all a delusion! They and the name of Svend Biornson.
"He was once living, for I looked up the history of him. Sometimes I do think that I was sickening for the fever when we came to that valley; that poor Kennedy died of it there in the Norseman's house, and myself escaped Biornson's care to stray back to the desert, naked and raving, as I was, when some friendly Mayas found me and took me to their village.
"'Twas many a week before I was a man again, and then I was in the hospital at Vera Cruz. I'd never have known how I got there had not Richards, the American ornithologist who brought me in with his party, left word with the hospital authorities before he took ship for home.
And I had no money and no friends. I worked in the streets at cleaning and the like to keep body and soul together, and was so ate up with worry for you, who was but a babe and me with naught but an empty blessing to send those who had care of you, that I nigh went crazy before I got a paying job.
"Could I go back then, I ask you? I never left a mate in trouble before nor since, but poor Kennedy; may the saints have helped him, must have been a dead man long before I was on me feet again! That is, if the heft of it happened at all. Like a dream it was to me and yet with a differ betwixt it and the dreams of the delirium. 'Twas all so clear and bright-colored and and bright like. The little man in your hands is no clearer to your eyes than was the sight of Tlapallan to mine."
"Tlapallan! Ah, you strange, bright city, do you really lie ruined at the bottom of that black lake or were you the fancy of a fever?"
"Colin, that's no way at all to tell a story! Begin at the first, not the last. Now who was this Svend Biornson and who was Kennedy?"
"For the last, a man I picked up, in Campeche, on the Gulf. The both of us were on the gold trail. At least, I thought I was ready for it, though I was a raw, green boy then all this happened a matter of fifteen years ago, you must understand. I knew little then of the tricks of that hunt, and the half of what I knew being false information.
"But this Mr. Kennedy, he was a man of fine education, and with some dozen years the better of me in age and experience. He was wanting a mate for a desperate hard trip, with the yellow stuff to be picked up off the ground, so he said at the end of it be off there, Snookums, dog! You've untied my shoe-lace again!"
He paused to kick very gently at Cliona's bull-pup which retaliated by dashing upon the other shoe with great enthusiasm. Cliona caught the pup in her arms and gave him an admonitory pat.
As she set him down again the puppy tore off up the path to fling himself recklessly against the legs of a young man advancing along it. The newcomer swept Cliona into his arms with an abandoned disregard for O'Hara's presence, which caused that gentleman to frown disapprovingly.
"Tony, my lad, I can see you've no more idea of the behavior of a dignified husband than you had when I left ye!"
Anthony Rhodes released his wife, and turned a delighted countenance to her brother.
"When Cliona phoned me I dropped everything and made for the train!" His hand met Colin's in a long, friendly pressure. "We thought you had dropped clean off the earth, old man, till we had that postal from Texas."
On this afternoon in June luncheon was served in the glass and screen enclosed veranda, a place of yellow light and many comfortable chairs. Thence one could look out to a prospect of green lawns, flowering bushes, and between the trees, down and across Llewellyn Creek to delectable vistas, part forest, part open meadows beyond.
The bungalow itself stood on the crest of a hill, and was so surrounded by trees that only in winter could one hope for any general view of its outer architecture.
"Cliona," said Rhodes while they lingered over the coffee cups, "would you and Colin care for a trip to the capital tomorrow?"
He had given up trying to extract any satisfactory account of his brother-in-law's recent journeyings, and, surmising that he might have some good reason for reticence, had good-naturedly dropped the subject.
"I am to have a talk with Senator Dobson in connection with a new insurance law he is pushing through in the special session. He has promised me an interview as representative of my firm and several others. It's a business trip, of course, but when I heard Colin was back I thought we might run over in the car, all three of us, and make a sort of pleasure-jaunt of it."
His wife hesitated, then shook her head.
"Do you and Colin go. Later I'll drive with you all you please, but I've had enough of chasing the moon for awhile, and my house is not yet in order."
They would start the following morning. Colin's luggage had been brought up from the station, and while Cliona insisted on personally packing her two men's suitcases, the men in question sallied forth to give the car a thorough overhauling, dubiously assisted by David, man-of-all-work.
And so Colin's story remained untold, and the afternoon which Cliona had planned to drain with her returned wanderer like a cup of sunshine and summery wine was wasted after the commonplace way of the unforeseeing human kind.
How could she know that this was the last such cup this place would offer her, or guess the dark, strange cloud that was so soon to overshadow their pleasant bungalow home?
It was 3 P.M. of the day following when Mary, the trim and obliging maid whom Cliona justly regarded as "a treasure," approached that young housewife with the unmistakable air of one about to ask a favor.
"Please, Mrs. Rhodes, are you havin' any company this evening?"
"I am expecting none. Why do you ask?"
"You promised I might go spend the night with me sister in Chester some day this week, ma'am, and, seein' as Mr. Rhodes and Mr. OHara is both away an' you not doin' no entertainin like, I thought "
"That this would a good time for your visit? You may go, Mary, but try and be back tomorrow afternoon. I'll be needing your help then in work I have planned."
"Yes'm. I'll certain sure be here by lunch time and thank you, ma'am."
Cliona smiled after the maid's retreating figure. The girl had been with them since they had come to live in the bungalow, and this was the first favor she had asked.
Rhodes and Colin had departed early that morning, but the voluntarily deserted one had kept herself too busy to think much of how lonely she was going to be for practically the first time since her marriage. True, she might phone in to the city and persuade one or another of her women friends to come out and spend a night at the bungalow, but this she hardly expected to do. With books and fancy work she believed the evening would pass pleasantly enough.
The maid's defection, however, was followed an hour later by a more serious interruption to household affairs. The phone rang and a woman's voice asked for Mr. David King. Cliona sent the cook to look for David, who, besides being gardener and garage-man was, ex officio, the cook's husband. A few minutes later he was at the telephone, from which he turned with a very white face.
"What is it, David? Has anything happened?"
"Mrs. Rhodes " The man stopped, took a deep breath and continued. "It's my son, George. That that woman on the phone is a nurse at the City Hospital, ma'am. He has fell off a pole, and he's bad hurt she says "
He was interrupted by a scream, as Marjory, the cook, fairly flung her husband aside and grasped at the receiver; but the other party had hung up.
Cliona had intervened.
"Never mind the phone. David, get your hat. You've just three minutes to catch the four-fifteen there's the whistle now! Run, David! Marjory, you may take the next train if you like."
For she well knew how dear to the couple was their son, who was a hard-working young wireman in the employ of an electrical contractor.
David did run and caught the train, for the Carpentier station was almost at the foot of the hill which the bungalow crowned. Then Cliona had her hands full in offering what solace she might to her stricken cook.
There was another train at six, and in the meantime David called up, urging his wife to take it and come. He was alarmingly indefinite, but the very fact that the hospital authorities had suggested that the boy's mother be sent for told its own story.
Marjory King, good soul, able to consider another even in the midst of grief, urged her young mistress to accompany her and spend the night in town. The bungalow was too lonely. But Cliona hurried her off, assuring her that if she felt in the least nervous she could go and beg the hospitality of a neighbor. As a matter of fact, being as yet only slightly acquainted in the locality, she intended doing nothing of the sort.
Left alone, she reflected for a time on the sadness of losing an only son, thanked her stars in innocent selfishness that the hurt man was neither her husband nor brother, and proceeded to get her own supper.
By the time the dishes were cleared away and washed it was after eight and quite dark. Having first turned on all the lights in the front of the house, Cliona seated herself in the living-room beside Rhodes' own particular table with its brown-shaded reading lamp, and took up the knitting on which she was then engaged.
The living room was itself of a comforting and companionable appearance. Even alone in it, Cliona had a pleasant sense that its walls offered a sort of conscious protection.
Not that she was really nervous, but this was her first experience of that queer feeling of emptiness that pervades a house at night when deserted by all its customary occupants except one. And the bungalow was entirely isolated, in a practical sense, standing as it did among trees at the summit of a quite high hill. Until one came close to it, it could not even be seen.
About ten o'clock she rose, put away her work, and went through the house making sure that doors and windows were secure and the burglar-alarm system, so far as she could determine, properly set.
Outside the night was very still, frosted white by the radiance of a brilliant moon.
On an impulse she passed through the enclosed veranda, opened the door and stepped out. The air was pleasant, neither cold nor warm, and scented with the breath of flowers.
Slowly she walked around the house, Snookums, her bulldog, bouncing and wriggling before her. In the black shade of the trees the dog was a white shadow, but in the general paleness where the moon struck full he seemed almost to disappear. Indeed, it was as if only the ink-black shadows preserved the world from melting into invisibility. The open meadows overlooked by the hill were pale, wide pools of light.
On the path beneath Cliona's feet the moon, peering through foliage, wrought embroideries of black and white more intricate than any needle had ever traced.
The night was absolutely still so still that the gentle ripple of water reached her ears from Llewellyn Creek, flowing past the foot of the hill.
Presently a little wind came and shook the branches over Cliona's head with a sound strangely startling and mysterious, like feet running through the night far away.
It is true that there was a great peace upon the world, but it was a peace too coldly colored for Cliona's lonely ease. There was nothing human in it. When she presently returned into the bungalow, she was glad of its friendly walls and kindly rooms.
Having put Snookums in the kitchen and half reluctantly turned out the lights, she retired to her bedroom which, with three others, opened directly off the living-room. The servants' empty quarters were located in a small wing leading by a passage to the kitchen.
Shutting and locking her door, she began to brush her hair. And then at last the loneliness that had been creeping up on her all evening made its final spring. Cliona stopped suddenly, brush poised in the. air. What if what if
"Well, what if what?" she demanded aloud, staring at her mirrored reflection as if expecting a reply. "Cliona O'Hara Rhodes, shame upon you for a little, sniveling coward! What is it you're afraid of? Tell me that now."
The reflection looked back with big, indignant eyes. But the indignation was a sham, roused there to hide a less comfortable emotion, and well she knew it.
Unlocking her door, she went to the kitchen and called Snookums, who bounded joyfully from his basket in the corner and dashed ahead of her. On returning through the living-room, Cliona caught up a small, brightly colored object in passing, and with a whimsical smile set it beside Rhodes' automatic pistol on the table by her bed. Let it represent the giver, in whose protecting strength she had such perfect faith.
So the eyes of that little "heathen god" Quetzalcoatl, lord of the air, looked benignantly on as Cliona said her orisons before the shrine of another faith.
Snookums had been "put to bed" on the rug, but once his mistress had definitely retired he improved on the arrangement by jumping on the bed itself and curling up over her feet. Twice she put him off, then yielded to the pup's particular form of bulldog tenacity and let him remain.
The house was very empty she could feel it even through her closed door and the warmth of the small, live body through the sheet was comforting. Because she knew her nervousness to be mere folly, Cliona drifted off to sleep at last.
And all outdoors was drenched in its pallid moon bath.
At the foot of the hill Llewellyn Creek ran ripples of ebony and white fire, and where at one point there was a wide slope of treeless lawn, it was as if the turf were powdered with snow.
The natural voice of the creek became merged with a distant splashing. That second sound grew louder nearer. Presently from the little stream something came out and up something almost invisible in that false lucidity of moonlight.
Crossing the unshaded turf it was a vague largeness, wallowing clumsily upward. In the black shade of the trees it was a white shadow a white, frightful shadow, too terrible for the right to existence, even in a bad dream.
Cliona's sleep was untroubled by dreams, bad or good, but from it she was awakened by a frantic sound of barking, and realized that Snookums was bouncing about on the bed like a pup gone mad. He was tugging at the sheet with his teeth, and making racket enough for a dog twice his size.
Roused to that temporary superwakefulness which follows such a nightalarm, Cliona sat up. There was in her mind a notion, too, that the pup's barking had been preceded by some other and far different sound.
As his mistress roused, Snookums bounded off the bed, rushed to the door and scratched furiously at the crack beneath it, as if trying to dig under it through the floor. To Cliona but one explanation occurred. Someone had broken into the house, and for a ten months' pup Snookums was proving himself a pre good watchdog.
Cliona snapped on the electric light, picked up the pistol and hesitated She was no coward, but neither was she rashly indiscreet. To unlock that door at which the pup was still tearing would be to place herself in the power of whatever night prowler had entered.
If the dog's yapping ha not scared the supposititious burglar from the premises, then he would be a burglar on guard, and probably a burglar at least as well-armed as herself.
All their genuine plate and most of Cliona s jewelry were safe in the city. Was it worth while, would Tony thank her, to expose her own person to unknown danger in order to protect what valuables were in the bungalow?
Abruptly she received notice that an intruder was really present, and that he had been by no means frightened to the extent of leaving.
As has been said, four bedrooms, of which Cliona's was one, opened upon the living-room, and between that and the dining-room was an open archway hung with portieres. After clearing away her supper dishes, Cliona had set the table for breakfast.
Now she heard a great crash and jingle, as if someone had deliberately tipped up the heavy dining-table, allowing silver and dishes to slide to the floor. The bang of its mahogany legs as it fell back confirmed the supposition. _
With all her heart she wished that there had been a branch telephone in her bedroom, but there was not. To phone she must go outside her door.
It sounded to her as if every piece of furniture in the dining-room was being violently flung from one side of the room to the other. Now the intruder's attentions had been advanced to the living-room. She heard a smash and tinkle that told of the destruction of the brown-shaded reading-lamp of which her husband was so fond.
She was trembling, not so much with fear as because of her inability to cope with the situation. Her ears conveyed warning that the inside of their dear bungalow was being literally wrecked; yet she still hesitated at opening the door and trying to stop the destructive work.
Then Cliona became conscious of a new thing. It was an odor, and every moment it was growing stronger a penetrating, almost overpowering smell of musk.
Something whimpered about her feet. Looking down she saw Snookums writhing there in agonies of puppyish supplication. He was the valiant watch-dog no more, for his nose informed him of a terror unfit for his tender years to meet.
The intruder's noisy operations had ceased at last. Cliona had a moment's wild hope that he might have smashed his way clear outside, but it was a hope quickly dissipated. Something was being dragged now, or was dragging itself, across the floor of the living-room. It reached her door and paused.
She crept into bed and sat with the covers pulled up, eyes fixed on the door in an agony of anticipation. There followed a snuffing noise, much the same as Snookums had been making, only louder. Then something reared up and came rasping down the whole length of the door and she could hear the wood follow in great splinters.
Snookums squealed like a young pig and scuttled abjectly beneath the bed.
"Get away from that door or I'll fire!"
Cliona's voice was so hoarse that she scarcely knew it for her own. She had the pistol beside her.
The only reply was a sort of snort through the keyhole, and the knob was violently shaken. The rattling was accompanied by a low snarling sound of bestial rage, as if something were chewing at the knob and resented its hardness and refusal to part from the door.
The odor of musk became nauseating. A moment later the claws rasped down the door again. This time Cliona knew beyond chance of doubt that they were claws, no less.
In one place, where the wood was thinnest between panels, it was pushed out in a long splinter and for a single instant one great, whitish talon gleamed through, curved, needle-pointed, appalling in its vicious menace.
And at that sight Cliona for the first time really lost her head. What she should have done was to climb out the window, an easy thing since it was only a matter of a few feet above the ground, run down the hill and raise an alarm in Carpentier. That might have been course had the burglar turned out to be a burglar.
But this this thing of the midnight that thrashed snarled and ripped clean through a door with its pale, enormous claw it had robbed her of capacity to think or reason.
She screamed, jumped out of bed, and raised Rhodes' pistol. Without taking aim she loosed its ten shots in the general direction of the door.
The crashing rattle of the automatic was drowned in the tumult that answered from without. Shrieks like the scream of a mad stallion, and a furious thrashing against the weakened door mingled with the splintering sounds of wood ripped up by chisel talons.
The gun was empty. Cliona saw the door bulging inward, and she did what many a woman would have done nearer the beginning fainted and dropped to the floor, a pathetic heap of pretty silk and soft, dark hair, one white arm flung out with fingers extended, as if grasping again at the useless pistol they had just released.
(End of part one.)
(Prepared with assistance from Carolyn Dougherty)