Thus far the lad had gone without any difficulty; the tunnel-like passage which he had traversed for a distance of, as he estimated, nearly a mile, had been without pitfalls or complications of any kind, and he believed it would be possible for him to return by the way he had come without difficulty, even in the dark. He halted to consider the matter, debating within himself whether he should risk everything by pushing on, or whether he should go groping his way back over that long stretch of rough, rocky road in the darkness. There could be no question as to which was the more prudent of the two plans; but there was a vein of obstinacy in Cavendish's character; he hated to confess himself beaten, and a light draught of warm air coming from the direction toward which he had been heading decided him to take the more risky course of pressing onward.
Accordingly, he resumed his course, holding his rifle horizontally before him to guard himself against the chance of collision with unseen obstacles, while he carefully felt the ground before him with one foot before throwing his weight upon it. Proceeding thus cautiously, in about a quarter of an hour he became aware of a faint glimmer of greenish light on the walls of the tunnel on either hand, and a few minutes later emerged into what appeared to be a great chamber, or cavern, the interior of which was just sufficiently illuminated by the light entering through another tunnel on its opposite side, to reveal the fact that the vertical walls of the chamber were, like the cliff which was occupying Earle's attention, covered with sculptures from the floor upward as high as the light had power to reach. But it was altogether too feeble to reveal anything of the details of the sculptures, and with a mere glance about him Dick crossed the floor of the cavern—mechanically noting as he did so, that it was smooth and level—and passed into the opposite tunnel, entering which, he at once became aware that his journey was practically ended, for at a distance of but a few yards there appeared before him an irregular opening, into which, through a thick, screen of shimmering foliage, the light of day was streaming. A minute later, and he was once more in the open air, forcing his way through a tangle of bushes which effectually masked the opening from which he had just emerged.
Dick's first act, after forcing a passage for himself through the screen of bushes, was to look about him, when he found, not very greatly to his surprise, that he was within a short half-mile of the camp, the tunnel through which he had journeyed piercing the great mass of sandstone from one side to the other. Then, knowing that Earle would wish to examine the sculptured chamber, he sought some means of identifying the position of the opening, and soon found it in a peculiarly shaped projection in the face of the rock almost immediately above. This done, he made the best of his way to Earle, who was busy with his camera, and informed the American of his morning's adventure.
As Dick had anticipated, Earle manifested the utmost interest in the story of the cavern with sculptured walls, going even to the length of announcing his determination to visit it immediately after lunch. Dick accordingly proceeded to the camp and, summoning four of the Indians, instructed them to prepare a goodly supply of torches for the occasion.
When, some two hours later, the friends, accompanied by a couple of Indians—one to hold a pair of blazing torches aloft, and the other to carry the reserve supply—stood in the cavern and glanced about them, they at once became aware that they had stumbled upon a very remarkable and interesting monument. For the cavern, a great circular chamber, measuring forty-three paces in diameter—was, beyond all doubt, an ancient temple, as was made clearly manifest by the character of the sculptures on the walls. These depicted a number of different religious ceremonies, intermingled with subjects which seemed to be allegorical, but apart from the exceedingly curious scenes depicted, the most remarkable circumstance connected with the sculptures was that they were of a totally different character from those on the cliff outside, being much more crude in design and execution, and apparently of far earlier date. The fact, however, above all others, which stamped the cavern as a temple, was the presence of a hideously carved life-size idol, enshrined in a most elaborately carved niche, with a great block of stone before it which had evidently served as an altar.
The idol was a nude male figure, squatted cross-legged on a bench in the niche, its only decoration being a necklace with pendant attached. This ornament escaped the notice of the observers until they came to study the detail of the sculptured niche, when the glint of metal and a sheen of green rays attracted their attention and caused them to inspect it closely. The inspection ended in Earle taking possession of the thing, and subsequent examination revealed the fact that the chain was wrought out of pure gold, while the pendant consisted of a lozenge-shaped plate of gold nearly a quarter of an inch thick, chased all over both surfaces with strangely shaped markings or characters surrounding a great emerald. It was an unique ornament, if only from the barbaric character of its design and execution, while the emerald rendered it valuable, and Earle at once placed it round his own neck for safe keeping, voluntarily proposing to pay Dick its intrinsic value upon their return to civilisation, as his share in the profits of the discovery. He would fain have photographed the interior of the cavern but was reluctantly forced to forgo the gratification of this desire, from inability to produce artificial light of the necessary actinic value. But, to compensate for this disappointment, he spent no less than three days in the cavern, making sketches and voluminous notes.
At length, Earle having completed his photographs of the cliff, and provided against future disappointment by developing and fixing his negatives on the spot, the party moved on up the ravine, and came out upon the lower slopes of the mountain range toward which they had been steadfastly travelling from the moment when they first entered the great swamp. Two evenings later, greatly fatigued by a long day's march, they encamped near the head of a rocky pass, the steep sides of which were shaggy with bush and trees, among which a number of small monkeys gambolled and chattered incessantly until darkness fell, staring down curiously from the branches at the intruders upon their domain.
The place looked as solitary as though it had never before been trodden by the foot of man, but watch-fires were lighted and sentinels posted about the camp as usual; and in due time the party retired to rest with that feeling of perfect security which the observance of every proper precaution, coupled with a conviction of perfect immunity from danger, is wont to inspire.
Excessive fatigue, aided doubtless by the cooler air of the mountains, caused the leaders at least to sleep heavily until the early hours of the following morning, when they were suddenly awakened by a savage snarl from King Cole, ending in a doleful moan, and they started up on their pallets, instinctively groping for their weapons, only to find themselves instantly thrust back again and their limbs pinioned by an overwhelming crowd of assailants, so many in number that the tent was packed with them. Before they fully comprehended what had happened, or, still less, realised the completeness of the disaster which had befallen them, they were so effectually bound with raw-hide thongs that they could scarcely move a finger, and in that condition were dragged forth into the open air, over the dead and mangled body of poor King Cole, to find the camp in the possession of a band of some eighty stalwart and ferocious-looking Indians, with every one of their followers, save four, like themselves, bound hand and foot. The four exceptions were the unfortunate sentinels, the corpses of whom, transfixed by spears, could be seen lying close to the smouldering watch-fires.
The captors wasted no time in any attempt to rummage the contents of the camp; on the contrary, they took each prisoner, and while half-a-dozen hemmed him in and threatened him with instant death upon the points of their spears, a seventh cast loose the thongs that bound him. Then, still threatening him, they indicated certain portions of the camp equipment and signed to him to pick it up and carry it, thus distributing the entire contents among the eleven survivors, Dick and Earle being each assigned a load like the other captives. The only exception made was in the matter of the firearms, which the captors seemed to recognise as weapons of some sort, and distributed among themselves; though from the carelessness with which they were handled, it seemed doubtful whether the method of using them was understood. This done, the leader of the marauders gave the word to march, and the entire party of captors and captives set off up the pass, each prisoner still surrounded by half a dozen Indians with spears held ever ready to strike upon the least provocation; thus it was impossible for any of them to hold converse with the others, the whites, in particular, being kept as far apart as possible, Dick being stationed with the head of the column, while Earle was compelled to march with the rearguard.
Luckily, as it at first seemed, for the captives, their march was not a long one; for upon surmounting the crest of the pass they found themselves only a short two miles from a native village, the inhabitants of which no sooner perceived the approach of the party than they turned out and greeted it with songs and dances of rejoicing, the fervour of which became almost frantic when, a little later, the presence of the two white men became known. The language of the strangers was utterly incomprehensible to Dick and Earle, and so jealously was every movement of the two watched that they found it impossible to communicate with Inaguy; but after observing their captors for some time, while they seemed to be explaining matters to the villagers, Earle gradually got the impression that the strangers had somehow obtained knowledge of the presence of the explorers in the country and had been watching them for perhaps a day or two, waiting for a favourable opportunity to fall upon the camp and take it by surprise.
Upon their arrival at the village the entire plunder of the camp was deposited in a large hut which was hastily prepared for its reception, and this done, the prisoners were once more securely bound and distributed among the huts of the village, one prisoner to a hut, the owner of which, with the several members of his family, was held responsible for his safe keeping.
The ensuing three days were spent by the captives in this village, during which nothing of moment happened except that they were kept in such rigorous confinement that none was permitted to obtain even a momentary glimpse of another, otherwise they had not much to complain about, being kindly treated, according to savage ideas of kindness. But although, during those three days, the inhabitants of the village seemed to go about their business pretty much as usual, there appeared to be an undercurrent of subdued excitement, coupled with a condition of eager expectancy, which was plain to both Earle and Dick, and which somehow produced in both a considerable amount of apprehension as to their ultimate fate.
Then, well on toward evening of the third day, a runner, hot, tired, and dusty, wearing every appearance of having travelled far and fast, arrived in the village, evidently bearing an important message or communication of some sort; for within a few minutes of his arrival the entire population of the village became imbued with a spirit of the wildest rejoicing and excitement, which lasted far into the night; and early on the following morning the prisoners were brought forth, loaded up with the baggage belonging to the explorers and, surrounded by an armed guard of sixty men, they set out upon a forward march, accompanied by the entire populace of the village, who beguiled the tedium of the journey by continually singing what seemed to be songs of a highly jubilant character.
IN THE HANDS OF THE MANGEROMAS.
For five weary days did that company tramp up hill and down dale through rugged, mountainous country, the Indian women carrying their meagre belongings in small bundles wrapped in matting upon their bowed shoulders, while their lords and masters strode blithely along, encumbered only with the weapons they carried, making the air vibrate with their barbarous songs, the unhappy captives meanwhile, staggering under their heavy loads, being compelled to keep pace with their light-footed guard. It was not so bad for Dick and Earle as it was for their unfortunate servants, for the two white men were by this time in the very perfection of training, and capable of an amount of physical exertion that, six months earlier, they would have regarded as impossible; moreover, they were both highly endowed with that inestimable quality known as "grit," while the miserable bearers were, in addition to their heavy loads, weighed down by a premonition that their present misery was but the prelude to an inconceivably horrible and lingering death.
Late in the evening of the fifth day, after an exceptionally long and fatiguing march, the company reached what was without doubt the capital of the country, for it covered some two hundred acres of ground, and contained dwellings capable of accommodating, at a moderate estimate, at least five thousand persons. It is true the dwellings were of the most primitive description, consisting of huts, for the most part built of wattles and palm thatch, with here and there a more pretentious structure, the walls of which were adobe, and it was indescribably filthy; yet the place was laid out with some pretension to regularity, being divided up into several wide streets, while in the centre of the town there was a wide, open space, or square, one side of which was occupied by a hideous and ungainly idol of gigantic proportions, with a long sacrificial altar at its feet, while on the other three sides stood dwellings of such pretentious character that they could only belong to the chief dignitaries of the place.
The arrival of the captives in this town—the name of which, it subsequently transpired, was Yacoahite—was the signal for an outburst of most extravagant rejoicing on the part of the inhabitants, who turned out en masse to witness the event, crowding about the party so persistently that it was only with the utmost difficulty that the guards, reinforced by a strong body from the town, were able by a free use of the butts of their spears, to force a passage along the streets. The delight of the populace, it appeared, was almost wholly due to the capture of the white men, who were the objects of their unquenchable curiosity, to such an extent, indeed, that it looked very much as though they had never before seen a white man. At length, however, the procession reached the central square, and after having, in obedience to signs, deposited their burdens in one of the biggest of the buildings, the prisoners were divided up and marched away, Dick and Earle, to their mutual delight, being placed together in a small hut, which was at once surrounded by an armed guard of such strength as to render escape impossible.
Fortunately, their limbs were not bound, or their movements hampered in any way, therefore the moment that the wattle door of their prison was slammed upon them and barred on the outside, the pair joyously shook hands as they exchanged greetings.
"Well, Dick, how goes it, old son?" demanded Earle, as he wrung his friend's hand. "Tired?"
"Yes, I am, a bit," admitted Dick; "tired, and thirsty too. And just look at me. Jove! I'm ashamed to be seen. I feel as though I hadn't washed for a month. And you don't look very much better, old chap. Say! what would you give for a swim in a good, deep river, free from alligators, at this moment?"
"What would I give?" repeated Earle. "Why, a thousand good American dollars, willingly. And I'm not sure that I should worry very much as to whether there were any 'gators in it, or not. By the way, how did you come off that morning when those ginks rushed the camp? Did you get hurt any?"
"Not a scratch," answered Dick. "Hadn't a chance to. The beggars were upon me and had me trussed up so that I couldn't move hand or foot, before my eyes were fairly open. Hadn't even time to make a snatch for my revolver. Did you get hurt at all?"
"Nope," replied Earle. "I was just as completely taken by surprise as you were. And I am not at all sure, Dick, but that it was as well. If we—you and I—had been able to put up a fight, we could never have beaten them off, there were too many of them. We should no doubt have killed a few, but it would have ended eventually in our meeting the same fate as poor old King Cole. Poor chap! I'm sorry they killed him."
"So am I," agreed Dick. "But I suppose it was bound to be. He would never have allowed them to lay hands upon either of us, so they would be compelled to kill him, sooner or later. And I believe he did not suffer much. They must have killed him on the spot, I think. Peace to his ashes! And now, what do you think is going to happen to us?"
"I don't know," answered Earle, suddenly adopting a much graver tone. "My motto is, 'Never say die,' for I have been in a good many tight places and have always managed somehow to get out of them. But there is a proverb to the effect that 'the pitcher which goes oft to the well gets broken at last,' and it may be that here is where I get 'broken.' I don't know; I don't care to hazard an opinion. But I wish to heaven, now, that I had not brought you along with me, Dick."
"Do you really think it as serious as all that, then?" demanded Dick.
"What do you think yourself?" retorted Earle. "What does the capture of us at all mean? Friendly disposed natives don't do that sort of thing, you know. And why, having captured us, are they taking such extreme care that we shall get no chance to escape? I'm afraid, Dick, it means that they want us for some particular purpose, of which, probably, we shall very strongly disapprove."
"You mean—?" began Dick.
"Yes," answered Earle. "Something like that. But say! don't you take what I'm saying too seriously. I give you credit for being no more afraid of death than I am, therefore I think it only right you should have an inkling of what may possibly be in store for us. But don't believe that I am going to take lying down what may be coming to us. I shall do everything I know to persuade these savages that they could not do a more unwise thing than hurt either of us. If we should by any chance be brought within earshot of that idol on the opposite side of the compound, I shall try the ventriloquial dodge again, among other things. The worst of it is that I can't speak these beggars' language; and for a man's own idol to address him in a foreign tongue is not altogether convincing, is it?"
"It is not," admitted Dick, "although it worked away back there, and it may again. Poor Grace! If it were not for her, I should not mind so much."
"What's that about Grace?" demanded Earle.
"My sister, you know," explained Dick. "I have been hoping that, in one way or another, this expedition would enable me to provide for her, so that she would not be compelled to go on very much longer earning her own living. She is all right so long as she can remain with the Mcgregors; but if anything should happen necessitating her leaving them—"
"Say, Dick, don't you worry about that," interrupted Earle. "Your sister is all right for three years from the signing of our contract, anyway, for she will have your pay to fall back upon if anything should go wrong during that time. And for the rest, I may as well tell you for your comfort that although, in view of this confounded expedition, I did not think it right to bind Grace to me by a definite engagement, she and I understand each other to the extent that if I should return to England within three years, she will do me the honour to become my wife. And— this of course is strictly between you and me and my lawyer in New York—if I should not turn up in three years, I am to be presumed to be dead, and my will is to be executed forthwith. That will was made on the day before we left New York, and by its provisions your sister inherits everything that I possess."
"What is that you say?" demanded Dick, utterly bewildered. "My sister— Grace—inherits everything you possess?"
"Guess that's what I said," replied Earle, composedly.
"But—but—" stammered Dick, "I can't understand it. Why should you leave Grace all your property?"
"For two very excellent reasons," answered Earle, "the first of which I have already explained to you, namely, that I love her—and mean to make her my wife, please God, if we should by any chance get out of this fix. And the second is, that if we don't and I die, I have nobody else to whom to leave my property. You look astonished, Dick; and, come to think of it, I suppose it is only natural. For while you were kept busy, way back there in Liverpool, over the inquiry into the loss of the Everest, I saw a good deal of your sister, with, I believe, the full approval of your friends, McGregor and his wife. I was attracted to Grace from the very first, and the more I saw of her, the greater grew my admiration of her. McGregor saw what was happening, I guess, and at length he brought me to book upon the matter, pointing out that my attentions to Grace were such as threatened ultimately to engage her affections. I was glad that he did so, for it enabled me to come to a clear understanding with myself. It enabled me to realise that your sister was the one woman in all the world for me; and the upshot was that, after a very frank exchange of views, I was able to satisfy McGregor, and ultimately to come to an understanding with Grace. But, of course, she knows nothing about my will, although I made up my mind what I would do immediately that she consented to wait for me. And the reason why I have not mentioned this matter to you before is that I preferred we should, for a time at least, remain upon our original footing as simple comrades and co-adventurers. But, say, Dick, now that I have told you, are you agreeable to accept me as your brother-in-law?"
"My dear chap," exclaimed Dick, grasping Earle's outstretched hand with a strength which made the latter wince—"of course I am. I have seen enough of you and your character to convince me that you will be good to Grace—if we survive long enough to return to her. And if she loves you—and I know that she would never have encouraged you if she didn't— why—that's all that really matters. But—poor girl, it will be worse than ever for her if we should both be wiped out."
"It will," agreed Earle, gloomily. There was silence in the hut for a few moments as the two friends faced the doom that seemed to be impending; but neither of them was of a pessimistic nature, and presently Earle turned to his companion and said:
"Look here, Dick, you and I have got to buck up, for Grace's sake as well as for our own. We are not going to take it for granted that we're down and out, just because we happen to have fallen into the hands of a lot of savages. We're not going to take, lying down, anything and everything that they choose to hand out to us. I guess I am going to have a chance to make these ginks sit up and take notice before they have done with me, and you bet I mean to do it. Give me a quarter of an hour's talk with them, and I'll make them believe I'm the boss medicine-man of South America. If only we could get into touch with Inaguy and prompt him what to say, I would soon make it all right. But, anyway, I'm some conjurer as well as a ventriloquist, and it will be strange if I can't get a chance to astonish them before the end comes."
The two friends continued to chat far into the night, discussing various schemes of escape; but the difficulty in every case was their Indian servants, whom neither of them for a moment dreamed of deserting; and at length, quite unable to hit upon any practicable plan, they composed themselves to sleep in preparation for the possible ordeal of the morrow.
Nine days passed, however, and nothing happened, except that—as the prisoners discovered, by peeping through a small chink in the wail of the hut, by way of beguiling the time—day after day the town became more crowded with people, who seemed to be pouring into it from all directions, as though mustering for some great event; while singing, hideous blasts from trumpets made of burnt clay, and the pounding of drums made from hollowed sections of trees, created a deafening din that lasted from early dawn until far into the night. On the ninth day this state of things reached its climax, for the din lasted all through the night without intermission, raging with especial fury in the great square, in the centre of which an enormous fire was kindled, round which multitudes of people, mostly naked, danced furiously, shouting and yelling themselves hoarse, while the trumpeters and drummers seemed to vie with each other in the effort to drown all other sounds.
"I guess," yelled Earle into Dick's ear, when the babel of sound was at its height—"this is the eve of some great festival; and before twenty-four hours more have passed, you and I will know our fate. Now, there is just one thing that I want to say, Dick. You and I have done our level best to devise some scheme by which we might save the lives of not only ourselves, but also of Inaguy and the rest of our followers; and we have failed.
"Now, if the worst should come to the worst, there will be no sense in throwing away our own lives because we can't save those of the others— that would be carrying sentiment to a perfectly ridiculous extreme; therefore, in the last extremity, and if all other efforts should fail, you and I must endeavour to break away, make a sudden dash for the hut where all our belongings are stored, and get hold of a weapon or two. And if we should succeed in that, we must then be guided by circumstances, fight our way out, if there is a ghost of a chance; and if not, shoot ourselves rather than go tamely to the torture stake. How does that strike you?"
"I'm with you," shouted Dick in reply. "I shall watch for your signal, and act directly you give the word."
"Good!" returned Earle. And with a grip of the hand the two parted and made their way to opposite corners of the hut where, seating themselves, each in his own way proceeded to prepare himself for the anticipated tremendous ordeal of the morrow.
That ordeal seemed very near when, about an hour after dawn, the door of the hut in which Dick and Earle were confined was flung open, and a gigantic Indian, fully armed, and arrayed in a gorgeous mantle composed of the skins of brilliant plumaged birds, and with a narrow band of gold around his head, clasped to which, one above either ear, was a great scarlet and black wing, like that of a flamingo, beckoned the two prisoners forth. Hitherto they had been treated fairly well, having been supplied with three good meals per day; but no food was now offered them, and both thought the omission tragically ominous.
With a quick grip of the hand, which each felt might be his farewell to the other, the two stepped into the blazing sunlight, and, surrounded by a numerous guard, were led across the square and halted before the altar, which stood at the foot of the idol. But what a change had taken place within the last hour. The great square, as well as the streets leading to it was, with the exception of a small space, packed with people, as were the roofs of the buildings abutting on the square, yet the silence was so profound that, to use the hackneyed expression, one might have heard a pin drop. The small space left vacant consisted of an area some thirty feet square, bounded on one side by the sacrificial altar, and on the other by the front row of spectators, squatting on the ground, these evidently being, from the magnificence of their feather robes and the splendour of their barbaric ornaments, chiefs, to the number of about sixty, in the middle of whom sat an Indian who, by the superlative richness of his garb, the two white men at once decided must be the paramount chief, or king. The third side of this small open space was occupied by a front row of fantastically garbed men who eventually proved to be priests, behind whom stood a dense mass of ordinary spectators, while the fourth side was bounded by a row of nine massive posts, or stakes, to which—ominous sight—were securely bound Inaguy and the remaining eight of Earle's followers.
Arrived at a spot some five paces from the altar, the two white men were turned with their backs to the altar and the idol, and their faces toward the long array of chiefs, and then the armed guard stationed themselves to the right and left of the prisoners, while the silence hovering over the scene seemed to become more intense than ever.
It was broken by Earle, who turned to Dick and murmured in a low voice:
"That scheme of mine for making a dash at the hut containing our weapons won't work, Dick. We could never force our way through this crowd. I must try another stunt."
"All right," murmured Dick in return. "Go ahead. But I'm afraid it's all up with us. I don't see how—"
"You wait," interrupted Earle, and fell silent again.
Meanwhile, all eyes were intently fixed upon the line of priests who, presently, at a signal from him who seemed to be their chief, prostrated themselves with their faces to the earth, and so remained.
For the space of some thirty seconds nothing happened. Then that vast assemblage was suddenly electrified by a loud voice, issuing apparently from the mouth of the idol, saying, in the Indian language:
"Inaguy, son of Mali, and servant of my son Toqui, speak to this people and say that if they dare to hurt so much as a hair of the heads of the white men, or of you and the others, those white men's servants, I will visit them in my wrath and pour out upon them pestilence and famine, drought and fire, until not one remains alive. For the white man with black hair is a great medicine-man, capable of working wonders; he has come into this land to do good to my people, and it is my will that no harm shall come to him or his."
The incredible wonder of the thing, the marvel that their god, who had never before been known to speak, should at this particular and solemn moment see fit to break his long silence, absolutely paralysed the thousands who heard the voice. They could do nothing but stare, open-mouthed, at the gigantic figure, afraid almost to breathe, lest something frightful should happen to them. There were many present who comprehended the meaning of the words, although they were spoken in a different tongue from that generally in use among them, and these began to question themselves:
"Inaguy, son of Mali! Who is he? We know no priest of that name. Is he one of us? Why does he not speak?"
Meanwhile Inaguy, who had once before witnessed such a phenomenon, was not altogether surprised that a god should again intervene to save his master; and turning his face to the idol, he cried:
"Lord, first bid them to release me. It is not meet that I, thy servant, should deliver thy message, bound here to the torture stake."
"Nay, the man is right," murmured Jiravai, the king, who understood Inaguy's speech, and who began to fear that he was like to get into very serious trouble if he was not exceedingly careful. And, rising to his feet, he looked toward Inaguy and demanded:
"Art thou Inaguy, son of Mali?"
"Lord, it is even so," answered Inaguy.
"Then, release him," ordered the king. Turning toward the idol and prostrating himself, he continued:
"Great Anamac, god of the Mangeromas, forgive us, thy servants. What we have done was in ignorance—"
"Tell him, Inaguy, that I am displeased with him and his people, for acting as he has done without first consulting me, and that I refuse to listen to him or communicate with him, save through thee," interrupted the idol sternly.
At the king's command a crowd of officious guards dashed forward, and with the hardened copper blades of their spears quickly severed Inaguy's bonds, whereupon the latter strode forward and, puffed up with pride at again being made the mouthpiece of a god, stood before the grovelling figure of Jiravai, haughtily awaiting the moment when it should please his Majesty to rise and receive Anamac's message. And presently the king, realising perhaps that his grovelling was not doing any good, rose to his feet, and the message was duly delivered.
"It is well," returned Jiravai. "It must be as the Great Anamac pleases. Yet, say to him, good Inaguy, that if I have erred, it was through ignorance. To-day is his festival, and when the news was brought to me that two white men had been taken alive in my country, I rejoiced, and bade them and their followers be brought hither; for I thought that to sacrifice them upon the altar would be pleasing to him; while as for you and those with you, it was a great opportunity for—But it is as our great Lord Anamac pleases. And now, I would fain know what is his will toward the white men and you, their followers."
Facing round, Inaguy shouted to the idol, repeating the words of the king's apology. Whereupon the idol graciously replied:
"It is well. I know that the Mangeromas have erred through ignorance, therefore I forgive them. But it must never be permitted to happen again, for I do not forgive twice. There must be no more human sacrifices offered to me; nor must the Mangeromas ever again eat men; for both are offences in my sight. And touching these white men and their servants, it is my will that the king and his people shall make them welcome in Mangeroma, treating them as honoured guests and doing all things to help them; so shall the Mangeromas derive great profit and happiness from their visit. I have spoken."
This message Inaguy repeated in the tongue commonly used among the Mangeromas, shouting it in tones which were distinctly audible all over the square, and for some distance beyond it.
"It is good," answered the king. "Say to our Lord Anamac that his will shall be obeyed in all things, and the white men, ay, and ye, too, his servants, are henceforth my brothers, the sons of my father's house." Then, turning to the armed guards, he added, pointing to the eight figures still bound to the stakes:
"Release those men and take them to my guest house until my white brother with the black hair shall be pleased to express his wishes concerning them. As for my brothers, the white men"—he turned to the chiefs immediately about him—"make ye room for them that they may sit, the one on my right hand and the other on my left."
These orders having been carried out, Jiravai appeared to be somewhat at a loss what to do next. For to-day was the annual festival of the Great God Anamac, and an elaborate programme of proceedings had been prepared, the chief items of which had been the offering up of the white men as a sacrifice to the god, and the torturing to death of the white men's followers, to which festivity all the people of note throughout Mangeroma had been invited; and now, by the omission of these two "star" turns, so to speak, the whole affair was likely to fall woefully flat. In his perplexity, the king faced round toward the array of priests on the left side of the open space and, addressing the chief of them, said:
"Since the offering of human sacrifices is displeasing to our Lord Anamac, say now, O Macoma, in what other manner shall we fittingly and acceptably do honour to him on this day which is especially dedicated to his service?"
But Macoma, the chief of the priests, was in no humour just then to help his illustrious master out of a difficulty. He was an exceedingly proud and haughty man, the greatest man in Mangeroma, next to King Jiravai himself, and he felt slighted and humiliated to an intolerable extent that, before all that vast assemblage, consisting of the pick of the Mangeroma nation, Anamac should have absolutely ignored him, the chief priest, and have chosen instead to make his wishes known by the mouth of an obscure stranger, coming from heaven only knew where. Therefore, in response to the king's question, he rose to his feet and said:
"Nay, Lord, ask me not, for I cannot answer thee. Ask rather the man Inaguy, whom it has pleased our Lord Anamac so signally to honour this day before thee and all the people. Doubtless he will be able to tell thee all that thou may'st desire to know."
And in high dudgeon Macoma resumed his seat.
The king frowned. There was a hint of veiled insolence in Macoma's manner that at once set his majesty's easily kindled anger aflame; and it was not the first time that the chief of the priests had so offended, though never until now had the man dared to flout the supreme ruler of the Mangeroma nation in public, much less in the presence of all Mangeroma's nobility. The fellow threatened to get out of hand if he were not checked, and the present moment seemed to offer an excellent opportunity not only to check Macoma's growing insubordination, but also that of the priesthood in general, which had for some time past manifested a disposition to claim for itself rights and privileges which Jiravai was by no means willing to concede. Therefore he said to Macoma:
"Thou can'st not answer me, Macoma? Then will I act as seems good to myself. A sacrifice of some sort has always been offered to Anamac on this day, and he shall have one now. And what better sacrifice can we offer him than those who have devoted their lives to his service? Therefore, stand forth, Macoma; we will offer thee and ten other priests, to be chosen by lot, in the place of these strangers whom our Lord Anamac has forbidden us to sacrifice."
In a paroxysm of mingled anger and consternation Macoma sprang to his feet—as did all the rest of the priests—and for several seconds the king and the chief priest faced each other, the one smiling sardonically at the effect of the bomb which he had hurled into the enemy's camp, while the other stood clenching and unclenching his hands as he racked his brain in the effort to find an answer to what he had sense enough to understand was a personal challenge on the part of the king, and a challenge, moreover, which, unless he could quickly find the right answer to it, might very easily result in utter disaster to himself. For Jiravai, like most savage kings, was an absolute monarch whom none might beard with impunity, and now, when it seemed too late, the chief of the priests heartily execrated that sudden ebullition of ill-humour which had in a moment brought him and ten of his following to the brink of the grave. Then, suddenly, in a flash of memory and inspiration, the right answer came to him and, lifting his head, he said:
"Be it so, as my lord the king has said. Let him sacrifice us to Anamac, if he will. Doubtless, the man Inaguy was speaking only idle words when he said that our Lord Anamac forbade human sacrifice henceforth. Sacrifice us then, O my Lord Jiravai; and let all Mangeroma see what will happen, and whether any dependence is to be placed on the words of Inaguy."
The battle was won, and Macoma knew it. So also did the king; for absolute monarch though he was, there were certain things which he dared not do, and to go against the directly spoken word of the god Anamac, and that, too, when the word was the first which the god had ever condescended to utter—was one of them. Therefore, making the best of what he now perceived to have been a serious mistake, King Jiravai smiled across the open space at the now triumphant Macoma, and said:
"It is well, Macoma, I did but try thee. But now, perhaps, having had time to think, thou may'st be able to say what sacrifice, other than human, we may acceptably offer to Anamac."
Macoma shook his head. The king had given him, to say nothing of the other priests, a very nasty five minutes, and even now, when the danger was past, his nerves were all a-quiver from the shock of finding himself suddenly looking into the eyes of death; moreover he was a man who did not easily forgive; he was unwilling to abate one jot of his triumph, therefore he answered:
"Nay, Lord, I am still unable to answer thee, excepting in so far as this. Let Inaguy be recalled, and let him put thy question to our Lord Anamac, and if the god refuses to reply, then I say let Inaguy be sacrificed as a deceiver."
"Thou hast answered well, Macoma," retorted the king. "It shall be as thou sayest; and if our lord replies through his mouth it shall be a sign that Anamac prefers Inaguy to thee, and Inaguy shall be chief priest in thy stead."
Thus neatly did Jiravai turn the tables upon the man who, a moment before, had been congratulating himself upon having got the best of the king in a public battle of wits.
Meanwhile, Dick and Earle had been interested watchers of the scene; and although the language in which the king and the chief priest had been sparring was strange to them, they caught a word here and there which sounded so nearly like words with the same meaning in the language with which they were by this time becoming fairly conversant, that they were able to follow, without very much difficulty the general trend of the conversation, including that portion of it in which Macoma had ventured to cast a doubt upon Inaguy's bona fides. And although Earle had no great liking for the task of exercising his ventriloquial powers while seated in such close proximity to the king, he felt that he must make the effort, and make it successfully, too, if Inaguy's life was to be saved. Therefore, when a few minutes later, Inaguy was led forth, and the king put to him the question which Macoma had declared himself unable to answer, and Inaguy had in turn passed it on to the idol, the latter was heard to reply, sharply:
"Let a young bull be found, without blemish, and let him be slain upon the altar and his carcass be burned before me, and I shall be satisfied; for ye can offer me no more acceptable sacrifice than this and your obedience to my commands. It is enough. I have spoken. Henceforth, trouble me not, for I will speak no more."
A DEFINITE CLUE AT LAST.
This final communication from the god Anamac was received by the vast multitude with great shouts of rejoicing, for it was accepted as putting an end finally and for ever to the practice of offering annually human sacrifices to him. And upon those occasions the choice of victims was usually made jointly by the king and the chief priest; and the choice was always of so capricious a character that, when invited to attend the festival, no man could ever know whether he would survive to return from it. Therefore the substitution of a single animal for several human victims—seldom less in number than half a dozen—was regarded as a national boon; and never, perhaps, was Anamac worshipped with more sincerity, or with more gratitude, than he was upon the day when Dick Cavendish and Wilfrid Earle so narrowly escaped dying upon his altar.
The festivities not only lasted through the entire day, but were continued far into the night, some fifty oxen being slaughtered and roasted to provide a feast for the numerous visitors whom King Jiravai had invited to Yacoahite to participate in the great annual festival; and when at length it was all over, and the guests had departed to their respective homes, everybody agreed in the opinion that it had been the most joyous and successful festival within living experience. As for Dick and Earle, they were lodged in the king's own house, with Inaguy to act as their interpreter—that astute individual having soon made up his mind that service with the white men was safer, and likely to be more profitable in the end, than even the position of chief of the Mangeroma priests. And on the night of the festival, when the great square of Yacoahite was given up to the populace, and all the great chiefs were being entertained at a banquet given by the king, Earle, "the white man with the black hair," availed himself of the opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities as a great medicine-man by performing a few very clever conjuring tricks before the king and his guests, which the simple Mangeromas regarded as absolute miracles. It was a stroke of sound policy on Earle's part; for after seeing him cause a pack of cards to vanish into thin air, extract coins—a few of which he still had in his pocket—from the hair, ears and noses of great warriors, and perform sundry other marvels, there was not a Mangeroma in all that great assemblage who did not regard the American as something superhuman, or who would have ventured, even in the most secret recesses of his soul, to meditate treachery to him or anybody connected with him.
Taken altogether, the day had been a rather trying one for both Dick and Earle, for, to start with, neither of them had slept at all during the previous night, their minds having been in a state of extreme tension with regard to the events of the coming hours; and when at length the suspense was over and they knew that they had escaped a terrible fate by the bare skin of their teeth, the reaction, combined with the necessity to preserve during several hours a perfectly calm and unruffled demeanour in the presence of those about them, had told upon both rather severely, and especially upon Earle, upon whose cleverness and readiness of resource the safety of the entire party depended. Therefore it was with a sense of profound relief that the two friends at length found themselves alone together and free to throw off the strain to which they had been obliged to subject themselves all day.
It was well past midnight when the king's banquet having come to an end, the two white men were conducted with much deference and ceremony to an apartment in the king's house, in which, to their great delight, they found the whole of their belongings, including their two camp beds, which some thoughtful individual—who afterwards proved to have been Peter—had fixed up and prepared for their occupation. They lost no time in discarding their clothing and flinging themselves upon their pallets, for both were feeling utterly exhausted; but before surrendering themselves to sleep they exchanged a few remarks relative to the events of the past day.
"Yes," agreed Earle, in response to an observation of Dick's, "we have had an exceedingly narrow escape, Dick, and don't you forget it, a more narrow escape, indeed, than you probably realise. For example, do you know the name of this tribe of Indians?"
"Certainly," answered Dick. "I heard the king call the idol, this morning, 'Anamac, god of the Mangeromas,' so I suppose these johnnies are the Mangeromas."
"Correct, my son; they are," returned Earle. "Remember ever hearing anything about the Mangeromas?"
"Of course," returned Dick. "They are the tribe with the bad name that those Catu Indians told us about, and whom we have been looking for ever since, because they are supposed to know something of the whereabouts of the city of Manoa. Isn't that it?"
"That is it, Dick," assented Earle. "And you knew it? Well, you were so cool, so apparently unconcerned, during the whole time that our fate was hanging in the balance, that I thought you had missed the point of the king's remark."
"Not much," retorted Dick. "But why shouldn't I keep cool? What would have been the use of getting excited and anxious? That would only have given our show away and spoiled everything. But, although I may not have shown it, I don't mind admitting now, old chap, that I was most confoundedly anxious. For I knew that if your ventriloquial trick had been discovered, it would have been all up with us."
"You bet it would," agreed Earle. "And that was just where our narrow escape came in; for I was so nervous that, when the critical moment came, it was only by an almost superhuman effort that I was able to control my voice. However, here we are, still alive and well, thank God! And—Dick—after all, I'm glad that you are with me. A chap with a nerve like yours is worth a whole regiment of soldiers. Good-night!"
The two white men slept the sleep of exhaustion that night, to awake refreshed and re-invigorated on the following morning, with scarcely a trace remaining of the stress and strain through which they had passed on the preceding day. Inaguy and Peter presented themselves at daylight with the accustomed morning cup of chocolate; and the former, who was by this time well acquainted with his master's habits, mentioned that he had learned by inquiry, that there was a stream just outside the town in which the white lords might safely venture to bathe. Whereupon the pair sallied forth and enjoyed the now rare luxury of a swim, receiving, as they went and returned, the respectful salutations of the populace. Upon their return they found an excellent breakfast awaiting them, prepared by the indefatigable Peter from viands supplied by the king's especial order.
Earle announced his intention of accepting the king's proffered hospitality and remaining several days in Yacoahite, not only to afford his men time to recover from the hardships and sufferings which they had experienced while filling the role of prisoners doomed to the sacrifice, but also to enable him to prosecute the inquiries which he wished to make regarding the whereabouts of the city of Manoa. And he was not less anxious to stay than the king was to entertain him and get the benefit of his advice and guidance upon several burning questions which had of late been causing him uneasiness. For now that the great god Anamac had made it clear that the white strangers enjoyed his especial favour and protection, and were therefore not to be molested, but, on the contrary, were to be treated with the utmost honour and distinction, the astute Jiravai immediately arrived at the conclusion that they must certainly be something more than mere ordinary men—as witness the marvels which Earle had performed during the progress of the feast—and that consequently their advice and assistance must be of more than ordinary value, and well worth securing. Therefore the king took Earle and Dick unreservedly into his confidence and, with the help of Inaguy as interpreter, fully laid before the pair a number of exceedingly delicate and difficult problems which were just then confronting him. And Earle, being a born diplomatist, entered into the thing with keen zest, taking the problems one by one and asking question after question until, as he put it, he had fairly "got the hang of the thing," when, by a judicious admixture of his own diplomatic instinct with Dick's shrewd common sense, it became not very difficult to find solutions of the several problems, which not only effected a general clearing of the air, but also ultimately added considerable lustre to Jiravai's name as that of a wise and powerful monarch.
The settlement of these matters of high and intricate policy took time; so that it was not until some ten days after the festival of Anamac that Earle was able to introduce to the king's notice the subject of Manoa, to ask what his majesty knew about it and its precise situation, and to request his assistance to enable the expedition to find the place.
But no sooner was Earle's project mentioned than Jiravai began to throw cold water upon it. First of all, he denied all knowledge whatsoever of any city named Manoa; and when Earle met this denial with the admission that there might possibly be some mistake in the matter of the name, explaining that it was not this that was of importance, but the fact that there was a city distinguished by certain curious and remarkable characteristics that he was anxious to find and visit, the king, while reluctantly admitting that he had certainly heard of such a city, most earnestly besought Earle at once and for ever to abandon his intention of visiting the place, since rumour had it that the inhabitants so strongly objected to the intrusion of strangers among them that, of the few who had been known to force a way in, not one had ever been known to come out again. Jiravai asserted that he knew nothing whatever about the city, beyond the above-named peculiarity, and the fact that its actual name was Ulua—bluntly adding that he desired to know no more— and he greatly doubted whether there was any Mangeroma now living who possessed more information on the subject than himself; yet, if the white lords very particularly desired it, he would cause immediate inquiries to be made. To which statement Earle replied that the white lords desired the information in question more than anything else, except to find themselves within the walls of Ulua itself; and that the king could not more conclusively demonstrate his friendship than by causing the most exhaustive inquiries to be made forthwith. And there the matter rested for nearly a fortnight, during which Earle and Dick wandered about the district together, shooting, but finding very little game; for they soon discovered that the Mangeroma country was pretty thickly inhabited, and that, between hunting and the clearing of the land for cultivation, the game had been nearly all driven away or exterminated.
At length, however, in response to the inquiries which the king caused to be made, an old man was found who asserted that, many years ago, when he was but a lad, he had been lost while engaged in a hunting expedition, and in his wanderings had actually seen, from the summit of a high hill, a great city of palaces, which he believed could be none other than the legendary city of Ulua, but that he had made no attempt to approach it, being afraid that, if he did so, he would fall into the hands of the inhabitants, and never more see his kith and kin. Asked whether he believed it possible, after all those years, to find his way back to the spot from which he had beheld the city, he replied in the affirmative, provided that he could be carried thither and back again, but not otherwise, the way being altogether too long and rough for his old limbs to traverse unaided. Arrangements were accordingly made for the construction of a litter for the accommodation of the old man, and on a certain morning the expedition set out from Yacoahite, the party now consisting of thirty men all told, including the old man, Busa, who was to serve as guide, his eight bearers, and ten additional bearers to assist in the transport of the white men's baggage.
As Busa had warned them, the way proved both long and difficult, leading as it did up and down wild ravines, along the dry and stony beds of mountain torrents, through rough and narrow passes, and by the edge of dizzy precipices where a single false step would have meant a fall of hundreds of feet through space; but after ten days of arduous travel the journey was accomplished without accident, and without any very startling adventure, the party arriving, late in a certain afternoon at a "divide," from which they looked down upon a vast basin containing a lake some thirty miles long by twenty broad, on the northern shore of which stood a city which Busa had not misrepresented when he spoke of it as a city of palaces. For a city it certainly was, covering an area of ground about four miles long by three broad, and many of its buildings seemed palatial, if one might judge by their lofty white walls and glittering roofs, shining like gold in the rays of the declining sun. Of course, it was not possible to judge very accurately the character of the buildings, or to see much detail, for the city was some twenty miles distant from the spot to which Busa had conducted the party, while the rarefaction of the atmosphere rendered even the field-glasses of little use. But that the city was actually there before their eyes was indisputable, and it was a city consisting not of a mere agglomeration of mud huts with thatched roofs, but of stately buildings of solid masonry, possessing such architectural adornments as towers, pinnacles, and domes, evidencing on the part of the inhabitants a condition of high civilisation and refinement.
From his knapsack Earle produced a folded map of the northern portion of South America which he opened and spread out on a rock. It was the most modern and up-to-date map that he had been able to procure, and it was drawn to a scale large enough to show not only every town of any importance but also innumerable villages, some of them so small that, as the party had themselves proved, they contained less than a hundred inhabitants. Yet on the part of the map upon which Earle now placed his finger, and for hundreds of miles in every direction therefrom, there was no indication of town or village, and only a mere suggestion of the mountain range through which they had lately been travelling, while even the courses of rivers were merely indicated by dotted lines; in short, the party were now, and had been for several weeks, in a region which had not been explored. But by means of astronomical observations made and worked out by Dick, the track of the party had each day been plotted upon the map, and such details as the forests they had passed through, the rivers they had crossed, the Indian villages they had met with, the great swamp, and the mountain ranges, had all been carefully plotted.
"Now," remarked Earle, pointing to a pencil mark on the map, "that is where we were at noon to-day, and we are somewhere about here now. There is no indication of a town or village of any sort anywhere near, yet just about there"—laying his finger on another point of the map—"stands yonder city on the shore of a lake, in a great basin surrounded on all sides by mountains, of the existence of which this map affords no indication. What do I deduce from that? you will ask. I will tell you, Dick. I deduce from it that yonder city is the one which, though our friend Jiravai says it is named Ulua, has been spoken of ever since the Spanish conquest, and diligently sought, as the city of Manoa; and to us has fallen the honour and glory of having actually found it! Just think of the wonder of it, Dick. For over three and a half centuries the legend of the existence of that city has persisted, yet there is no absolutely authentic account of it having ever been reached, although hundreds, possibly thousands—if one could but know the whole truth—have most diligently and painfully sought it. And at last its discovery falls to the lot of two very undistinguished people, an Englishman and an American, as is quite in accordance with the fitness of things. Now let us make use of our remaining daylight to get down to a lower level, for, with the setting of the sun, it will be bitterly cold up here, and I have no fancy for spending the night in a temperature that will probably fall below freezing point."
So saying, Earle folded up his map and, replacing it in his knapsack, gave the word for the party to proceed, Dick and himself taking the lead. Picking their way among towering rocks and along narrow ledges, they travelled a distance of some three miles and effected a descent of about two thousand feet before night overtook them, finally pitching their camp on a little rocky plateau under the lee of an enormous vertical cliff, which effectually sheltered them from the icy wind which sprang up and roared overhead with the force of a gale almost immediately after sunset.
Notwithstanding the shelter afforded by the cliff, however, the cold was intense, and the party, acclimatised by this time to the hot, humid atmosphere of the plains, suffered severely, the more so that they were camped among bare rocks without a vestige of vegetation of any kind, and were therefore without the materials for a fire; the return of daylight therefore found them more than ready to resume the march, in the hope that before long they would reach a region where fuel of some sort would allow them to kindle a fire and prepare a much-needed hot breakfast.
They reached such a spot after about an hour's march, camping in the shelter of a small clump of stunted pines; and here, after breakfast, Busa approached the two white men with the request that, having performed his task of guiding the party to a spot from which the "city of palaces," could be seen, he and his bearers might now be permitted to set out upon the return journey, he and they being anxious to recross the divide during the hours of daylight, and so escape the bitter cold from which they had suffered so severely during the preceding night. The request seemed a reasonable one, for the old man's services were no longer needed; Earle therefore liberally rewarded the old fellow and his eight bearers, and dismissed them with a message of greeting and thanks to the king.
The two parties broke camp simultaneously, Busa and his bearers taking the back trail up the path which they had all descended an hour earlier, while the others, under Earle's leadership, proceeded down the mountain side at their best speed, being impatient to reach the fertile, cultivated country bordering the lake below.
But the task was not by any means so easy as it had first appeared, for they had scarcely gone a mile when they unexpectedly found themselves at the verge of a long line of precipitous cliffs overlooking the great basin in which lay the lake and the city. It was by no means a pleasant situation in which they found themselves, for they were standing upon a steep slope, clad with short, dry grass, almost as slippery as ice to walk upon, and this steep slope ended abruptly in a precipice which Earle, going down upon his stomach and peering cautiously over the edge, declared could be not less than six or seven thousand feet high. So terrible was the shock it gave him to find himself overhanging and gazing down into that dizzy void, that it induced a violent attack of vertigo, causing him to scream out that he was falling, and to beg those who were holding him to pull him back. They, of course, did so at once; but several minutes elapsed before the adventurous gazer sufficiently recovered his nerve to stand, and when he did so he was bathed in a cold perspiration, while his teeth chattered to such an extent that it was some time before he could distinctly articulate.
"Never had such a fearful shock in my life," he afterwards explained to Dick. "Of course, I knew that the valley was an enormous depth below us, but when I undertook to peer over the edge of the cliff I did not for a moment anticipate that I was going to find myself hanging over a sheer void, thousands of feet deep. I expected to find below me a precipitous cliff seamed and scarred with innumerable irregularities and projections, by means of which an ordinarily active man might easily make his way down; but, man alive, this precipice is sheer, from top to bottom like the wall of a house, without a single projection, so far as I could see, big enough for a fly to settle upon. It was awful to find myself lying there, with my heels higher than my head, gazing down into that dizzy hollow, at the bottom of which tall trees looked no higher than pins, and to feel that if I dared to move a muscle I should inevitably go sliding over, head first!"
"Ay," assented Dick. "I think I know the kind of feeling. I experienced something very like it myself the first time I climbed to the height of the royal yard. The hull of the ship below me looked so small, and so utterly inadequate to sustain the substantial spars about me, that, quite unconsciously, I found myself moving with the utmost precaution, lest my additional weight should capsize the ship."
"Yes," assented Earle. "I guess that was something like what I felt, except that, in my case, I was convinced I should never be able to get back to safety. Nevertheless, here I am, safe and sound. And now the question arises: How are we going to get down into that valley? So far as I can see the cliffs are everywhere vertical, like this one; yet there must be a way down somewhere; else how did the inhabitants of the city get there?"
"Oh yes, of course there is a way down, somewhere," agreed Dick. "We'd better camp, hadn't we, and pursue our usual tactics, you going one way, and I the other, exploring?"
"Yes," assented Earle. "But we won't camp just here, thank you. I should be afraid that some of us would go sliding over that cliff edge before we knew it. We will go along yonder, to the eastward, a bit. The ground looks less steep in that direction, and probably we shall find a suitable camping place before long."
They did, about a mile and a half to the eastward; and the camp having been pitched, Earle accompanied by Inaguy, set off in one direction, while Dick, accompanied by another Indian, named Moquit, went in the other, in search of a practicable route down to the plain and the shore of the lake, the two white men taking their rifles, as usual, and each carrying a pair of powerful binoculars slung over his shoulder.
The way taken by Dick led him back along the edge of the cliff by the route which they had traversed shortly before; and having reached the spot where Earle had taken his thrilling peep down into the abyss, the young man continued on, eventually entering a fir wood, through which he passed, bagging two brace of a species of pheasant as he went. Emerging from the wood, which was about a mile long, he found himself approaching a spot where the cliff seemed to dip somewhat, and halting for a moment to reconnoitre the prospect through his field-glasses, he became aware of the fact that work in the valley had begun for the day; for he observed smoke issuing from the chimneys of a number of detached buildings which he took to be farmhouses; while, studying the scene more intently, he was presently able to pick out the forms of numerous people apparently engaged in tilling the wide fields and at work in the orchards—as he took them to be—dotted here and there in the valley far below. Farther away, he perceived a number of small dots on the bosom of the lake, carefully watching which he at length became convinced that they were canoes, or some similar kind of craft, crossing the lake, some heading towards the city and others from it.
Some two hours later, Dick called a halt in a small pine wood, and ordered Moquit to kindle a fire and prepare a brace of the shot birds for their mid-day meal; and while this was being done the young Englishman sauntered off a little way in search of another spot from which he might advantageously effect a further reconnaissance of the valley. He found such a spot at no great distance and, unslinging his glasses, proceeded to search the valley and the face of the neighbouring cliffs from his new view point. But, look where he would, it everywhere seemed the same: vertical unscalable precipices of appalling height, and nowhere anything suggesting the existence of a road by means of which the valley might be reached.
Yet stay! As he was in the very act of removing the binoculars from his eyes his keen sight detected what appeared to be an infinitesimally small moving dot against the bare drab face of the cliff, some two miles away. Focussing his glasses afresh upon the spot, Dick watched it steadily for two or three minutes until he became certain that it was moving. Yes, moving downward along the cliff face toward the valley. Precisely what it was, he could not determine with any certainty, but he judged it to be a vehicle of some sort, a slow moving vehicle; and if so, it was of necessity travelling over a road, and that road, although it was indistinguishable from where Dick stood, was one of very easy gradient, judging from the movements of the object upon it. Satisfied now that he had made an important discovery, the lad carefully noted his surroundings, noted with equal care a number of objects which would enable him to fix the position of the road, and closing his glasses, walked briskly back to his temporary camp, where he found Moquit anxiously awaiting his return, with the birds cooked to a turn and just ready for eating.
Hurriedly dispatching his meal, Dick, with Moquit at his heels, resumed his task of exploration, proceeding first to the spot from which he had just observed the moving object, and there treating the face of the cliff to a further close scrutiny. But the object, whatever it may have been, was no longer to be seen; and, satisfied of this, Dick pressed on. Two miles farther on, still following the edge of the cliff as closely as was prudent, he halted, arrested by the sight of what, at the distance of about half a mile, had the appearance of a structure of some sort, clinging to the very verge of the cliff; and inspecting it through his binoculars, he saw that he was right in his surmise. It was a building, something in the nature of a wall, with what looked like a closed gateway in its centre. And on the parapet immediately above the gateway, there was a figure, apparently that of a sentinel, stalking slowly to and fro!
It was enough; the structure before him was undoubtedly the gateway at the head of the road giving access to the valley, and his mission was accomplished. His first impulse was to go on and view the gateway, or whatever it might be, at close quarters; but the inhabitants of the valley were evidently jealous of the intrusion of strangers, as was clear from the presence of the sentinel on the parapet; and giving the matter a few moments' consideration, Dick came to the conclusion that, before revealing his presence, it would be well to return to Earle and report. He therefore faced about forthwith and, keeping under cover as well as he could, retired in good order, pretty confident that, up to that moment, he and his follower had not been seen.
The sun was just sinking behind the mountain ridges to the westward of the mysterious city when Dick reached the camp. Earle, he found, had not yet returned, but he arrived some ten minutes later, greatly disgusted at his own want of success. He had searched the northern cliffs for a distance of some twelve miles, it appeared, and nowhere had found a spot where even a goat or a monkey might have passed up or down them. But he had penetrated to within some eight or nine miles of the city, and having viewed it at that distance and from a great height through the lenses of his powerful glasses, was fully persuaded that, let the name of the city be what it might, it was none other than that which, crowned with the halo of legend and romance, had been spoken and written of and sought for as "Manoa."
"It is a magnificent city, Dick," he exclaimed, enthusiastically; "a city of palaces embowered in gardens; and the roofs of many of its buildings are covered with gold. They must be," he insisted, in reply to Dick's incredulous shrug of the shoulders, "otherwise they would not gleam so brilliantly in the sun as they do. And to-morrow night, please God, we will rest our weary limbs in that same city, and perhaps, if luck is with us, make the acquaintance of El Dorado himself, or at all events, his successor."
The camp was astir with the coming of dawn on the following morning; and after an early breakfast the expedition started, under Dick's guidance, for the gateway, which was reached shortly before noon. As the party approached, the sentinel was seen pacing to and fro across the parapet, as on the preceding afternoon; and that he was keeping a sharp look-out was manifest, for the little band had scarcely emerged from the pine wood in which Dick had halted for his mid-day meal on the preceding day, when the man was seen to pause in his monotonous march to and fro and gaze toward them under the shadow of his hand. Then, apparently satisfied that the party were bound for the gateway, he was seen to move a few paces and bend over, with his hand to his mouth, as though shouting to someone below, after which he resumed his march as before, occasionally eyeing the strangers as they approached.
Arrived at length at the gateway, it was seen that the structure consisted of a wall, some thirty feet high, very solidly built of great blocks of masonry dressed to a perfectly smooth face, and so accurately jointed that, even at the distance of a few paces, the joints were scarcely perceptible. The wall was built with a vertical face to a height of some twenty feet, above which it swelled outward in the form known as a "bull-nose," the upper surface of which sloped so steeply upward as to render it unclimbable; so that, even if a man, or men, should climb as far as the swell of the bull-nose by means of a pole or ladder, the would-be intruders could get no farther. The wall was semi-circular in plan, jutting out from the edge of the cliff for a distance of some fifteen feet at either end and descending the face of the cliff, diminishing as it went, until it died away to nothing, some fifty feet below, rendering it an impossibility for anyone to pass round either end of it. The middle of the wall was so constructed as to form a watch-tower, some thirty feet square, with a flat roof, upon which it appeared a sentinel was always posted; and it was in the base of the watch-tower that the gateway, about ten feet wide, was pierced, the opening being filled with a pair of wooden doors of exceedingly solid construction.
As the party halted, the sentinel, who wore a burnished helmet and corselet that flashed in the sun like gold and was the colour of gold, leaned over the parapet and shouted to them what seemed to be an inquiry; but the words, though quite distinctly pronounced, were utterly unintelligible to all.
"Wants to know our business, I guess," remarked Earle. "Step forward, Inaguy, and explain that we wish to pay our respects to his majesty, El Dorado. Try him in all the dialects you happen to be acquainted with."
Inaguy accordingly stepped forward and did his best, but without avail; the sentinel, though he listened attentively to all that was said, could evidently make nothing of it, replying only with shakes of the head.
"It is the usual fate of the explorer who enters a new country," remarked Earle. "He is unable to understand or make himself understood. But there is always the language of signs to fall back upon. Let me see what I can do in that way."
Stepping forward and thus claiming the sentinel's attention, he pointed first to himself, then to Dick, then, with a comprehensive wave of the hand, to the Indian carriers, and finally to the door, motioning with his hands as though opening it. This seemed to be intelligible to the sentinel, for he nodded, and stepping aside a few paces, shouted a few words to someone below in the interior of the tower. A few moments later a second man appeared on the top of the tower and, approaching the parapet, regarded the would-be visitors intently. The inspection appeared to result satisfactorily, for a few moments later he disappeared; a short interval of waiting ensued, then the gate swung open, and he came fearlessly forward, while the gates swung to behind him, and there was a sound of ponderous bars being shot into their sockets.
Judging from the richness of his dress and the quiet dignity of his manner, the man was probably an officer. He was apparently about thirty years of age, some five feet ten inches in height, and was well-made though perhaps a trifle slight in build. In complexion he was somewhat sallow, but he was distinctly good-looking, with a somewhat Hebrew cast of features, and with coal-black hair, eyebrows, beard and moustache, the beard trimmed square, and the hair worn rather long, trimmed square across the nape of the neck, with a short fringe trimmed square across the forehead. His eyes were black and piercing, but there was a straightforward honest look in them that instantly created a favourable impression. He was attired in helmet and corselet, apparently of gold, like those worn by the sentinel, but with the addition of a splendid plume of long black feathers surmounting his helmet. Beneath his corselet appeared a sort of skirt of fine chain mail reaching to just below the knees, and his legs were protected by greaves made of the same metal as the rest of his armour. His feet were encased in buskins, a sash of black and yellow passed over his left shoulder and was knotted upon his right hip, while at his left dangled a short sword encased in a jewelled scabbard, supported by a jewelled belt or chain of broad links, all made of the same gold-like metal. As he strode forward, his eyes glancing questioningly from Earle to Dick and back again, he threw up his open right hand, palm forward, and said a few words, which sounded like a greeting, in a full but very pleasant tone of voice. Like the speech of the sentinel, his words were quite unintelligible to those addressed, but his action seemed easily interpretable as the sign of peace, and Earle instantly imitated it.
"Thanks, old chap," the American replied, beaming amiably upon the soldier; "it is good of you to say so; but I'm awfully sorry that I can't understand you. The fact is, you know, that I and my friend Cavendish"—he indicated Dick with a wave of his hand—"have come all the way from New York expressly to discover your city—which I learn is called Ulua—"
The officer instantly caught the name Ulua and repeated it, smilingly pointing in the direction of the city.
"Yes," proceeded Earle, "that is so. I guess you get me all right. We want to go in through that gate and make the acquaintance of your king, El Dorado, or whatever his name may be. Do you get that?"
All this was accompanied by much gesture, but it did not seem to be very illuminating to the officer, who merely repeated the word Ulua, pointing again toward the city. Then, pointing to himself, he pronounced the word "Adoni," following it up by pointing at Earle, and uttering a word that sounded like "Hu."
"Yes, sirree, I get you all right," was Earle's reply as he gripped the astonished man's right hand and shook it heartily, smiling in his eyes as he did so. "Gee!" he exclaimed, turning to Dick, "we're getting on like a house afire. He says his name is Adoni, and he asks who I am. Isn't that right, old golden image?"
The "old golden image" looked a trifle nonplussed for a moment, but presently repeated his last performance; upon which Earle remarked:
"Of course, I knew I wasn't mistaken. You sir," pointing, "are named Adoni—" The officer nodded. "And I," he continued pointing to himself, "am named Earle—Earle. You get that?"
"Adoni," replied the officer, pointing to himself, "Earle"—pointing to the owner of the name.
"Right!" agreed Earle. "You are a quite intelligent guy, if I may be permitted to say so. And this youngster's name is Dick—Dick. That's easy enough to remember, isn't it?"
"Adoni," replied the officer, again pointing to himself. "Earle—Dick," pointing first to one and then the other.
"Sure!" exclaimed Earle, delighted with the progress which he considered he was making. "I knew there must be a way of making you understand." And he proceeded to explain all over again, and speaking very slowly, with plenty of gesture, his desire that he and his party might be allowed to pass through the gate and visit the city of Ulua. It was a tedious and lengthy process, but apparently it was in the end attended with a certain measure of success, for eventually the officer shouted an order, the gate was thrown open, and, taking Dick and Earle each by an arm, Adoni led the pair through. Inaguy and the other Indians, who had grounded their burdens while the long colloquy was proceeding, hastened to resume them and follow the white men, but before they could do so their leaders were inside, and the gate was bolted and barred upon them.
Taken by surprise for the moment, Earle did not realise what was happening until it was too late; but the instant that he did so he broke free from Adoni's grasp and dashed up a flight of steps, which he saw a little ahead of him, and which he rightly guessed led up to the parapet. Arrived there he brushed aside the sentinel, who half-heartedly sought to bar his way and, rushing to the parapet, ordered Inaguy and the rest to remain where they were, and on no account to think of departing, for he would certainly arrange, sooner or later, for their admission. Then he calmly descended and surrendered himself to the astonished and somewhat amused Adoni, who said a few words which sounded as though they were intended to be reassuring.
Resuming the role of guide, Adoni now conducted the pair into a room in the rear portion of the tower, in which was a window opening, unglazed, affording a delightful view of the valley and lake, with the road leading thereto; and here they were turned over to another officer, who by signs, indicated a request that the strangers should remove their outer garments. Earle at first evinced a disposition to refuse this request, but Dick was less fastidious, and stripped to the waist without demur, whereupon the unnamed officer, who was evidently a physician of sorts, after glancing admiringly at the young Englishman's stalwart proportions and magnificent muscular development—to which he particularly drew Adoni's attention—proceeded to tap Dick on the chest and between the shoulders, listen to the action of his heart and lungs, punch him in the ribs, and act generally as though he were examining the lad on behalf of a life insurance company; finally expressing his approval of the youngster's physical condition in a manner which there was no possibility of mistaking.
Then Earle was again invited to subject himself to the same ordeal, and this time he did so without demur, stripping off first his thin linen jacket, and next the light woollen singlet which he was wearing as a substitute for a shirt.
And now came a startling surprise. For the removal of Earle's singlet revealed the curious lozenge-shaped jewel with its inset emerald, which he had removed from the neck of the idol in the sculptured cave discovered by Dick, and which the American had ever since worn round his neck for safe keeping. No sooner did the eyes of the examining officer glimpse the jewel than he uttered a strange cry, suggestive of the utmost astonishment. He gazed upon it with awe-struck eyes, drew cautiously near to inspect it more closely, half stretched forth a hand, seemingly to touch it, and then, suddenly, saying something to Adoni which seemed to suggest that a most wonderful and amazing thing had happened, prostrated himself at Earle's feet, an example which Adoni instantly followed.
"Now, what in the nation does this mean?" demanded Earle in a low voice of Dick. "Why are these two guys kowtowing to me in this fashion? Gee! They surely don't think that I'm some fancy god of theirs, come down from Olympus to visit them, as a special mark of favour, do they?"
"Well, it looks very much like it, by the way that they are carrying on," returned Dick. "I think that it might help matters a bit, both now and in the future, if you were to play up to the idea and infuse a general air of benevolent condescension into your intercourse with them. I don't see that it could possibly do any harm. Do you?"
"Don't know," answered Earle. "It might if, later on, they were to come to me and demand that I do some impossible thing for them. But, on the other hand, I guess it would be up to me to refuse, if I chose. On the whole, perhaps—and yet, I don't know—Yes, I guess I'll try it, and see how it works."
Bending down, he lightly touched the two officers upon the shoulder and, when they ventured to glance up at him, graciously signed to them to rise, which they did, with every mark of the most profound reverence. From that moment there was no further trouble. Without waiting for permission from the examining officer, Earle calmly resumed his singlet and coat, taking care now, however, to leave fully exposed the jewel, or amulet, or whatever it was, that had produced such a wonderful effect; and this done, he signed to Adoni to open the gate and admit Inaguy and the rest of the Indians, which was instantly done. In the meantime, while the Indians were with much deliberation gathering up their loads and adjusting them upon their shoulders, in response to Earle's reassuring call, Adoni and the other officer had withdrawn to a little distance and were plunged into an earnest, anxious consultation, the result of which was that, a few minutes later, a man, naked save for a sort of breech cloth wrapped about his loins, started out from the guard house and set off down the road leading to the city, as though running for his life.
As the last of the Indians passed through the gateway, the massive timber gates were closed and securely barred behind them, and Earle and Dick stepped forward to place themselves at their head, intending to resume their march toward Ulua. But Adoni, perceiving their intention, at once intervened and, firmly yet with the utmost reverence of manner, intimated by signs an earnest desire that the party would postpone their departure. He did this by standing before them in the middle of the road, with his arms outstretched as though to bar the way; then he signed to the Indians to remove themselves to a wide plot of grass by the side of the road and deposit their burden there; and finally beckoned the two white men to accompany him into the guard house, where he conducted them into a plainly but comfortably furnished room, and signed to them a request to rest themselves upon a couple of couches which he indicated, at the same time giving them to understand that a meal would presently be served to them.
Earle, well pleased at the success which had attended his effort to penetrate to the interior of the forbidden country, signified his acquiescence by seating himself on one of the couches, whereupon Adoni, equally well pleased, withdrew, with a profound bow, leaving the two friends to themselves.
"Well," remarked Earle, rising from the couch and gazing with satisfaction upon the glorious prospect of lake and valley revealed by the window opening before which he placed himself, "we are inside the gate, and that is something achieved, anyway. For, at first, I feared that they were going to refuse us admission, and if they had done so I guess we should have found it a pretty difficult matter to get in. But our friend Adoni has evidently no authority to allow us to go on without first referring to the boss, whoever he may be; and I guess that naked runner was the bearer of a report and a request for further instructions. Now of course our line of conduct will be to conform to the manners and customs of the natives, so far as may be, and give no trouble; for our only object in coming here is to see the country and the people, and that can best be accomplished by keeping on good terms with everybody; therefore we will just let them make all the arrangements, and we will fall in with them. But I have great hopes from the possession of this jewel, which evidently has some powerful mystic significance in the eyes of these people. Adoni and the other fellow appeared to recognise it at once, and there can be no question as to the reverence with which they regard it. Judging from the behaviour of those two, the thing ought to secure us a very favourable reception at headquarters. I wish I knew the history of it."
"We shall perhaps learn that later on," returned Dick. "And I anticipate that when we do, it will prove both curious and romantic. The mere finding of it in that wonderful cavern was remarkable enough, but the astonishment and delight of Adoni at recognising it were still more remarkable, to my mind. To me, their behaviour was that of men suddenly brought face to face with something that they had almost despaired of ever seeing again."
"Yes, I guess you are right," agreed Earle. "Not that either of those two could ever have actually seen the thing, for it must have lain hidden in that cave for—well, a hundred years or more, I should say. But be that as it may, it is evidently in their eyes an object of extraordinary sanctity, and should—indeed, most probably does—confer some very special privileges upon its possessor, of which I shall feel justified in making the fullest use."
The pair were still chatting in a somewhat desultory fashion when two men, evidently servants, entered the room, bearing a table already set for a meal, and they were immediately followed by others who brought in several smoking dishes of food, a jar of a light kind of wine, an open-work metal tray heaped with small cakes, and a piled-up basket of fruit, consisting of oranges, grapes, nectarines, and one or two other kinds which neither Earle nor Dick was able to identify. The plates, dishes, and drinking-cups were unmistakably of gold, but quite plain, as were the dagger-like knives and a kind of skewer which was evidently intended to serve as a fork. The food consisted of a stew, apparently of kid's flesh, a roasted bird about the size of, and somewhat similar in flavour to, a duck, roasted yams, ears of green maize, boiled, and a dish of some kind of bean which both pronounced delicious; indeed the meal as a whole was excellent, and was done full justice to by both participants. The wine, too, if wine it was, was almost icy cold, and of exceedingly agreeable though somewhat peculiar flavour, and was apparently unfermented, for although both drank freely of it, it might have been pure water, so far as its intoxicant effect was concerned. At the conclusion of the meal Earle produced his pipe and, lighting up, sallied forth with Dick, to see how the Indian bearers were faring; his appearance, with smoke issuing from his mouth and nostrils, again so profoundly impressing the beholders that they were once more impelled to prostrate themselves as he passed by. The Indians, with characteristic philosophy, had camped on the grass plot at the side of the guard house, and had been as well cared for in their way as had their masters, and were evidently quite satisfied with the state of affairs in general.
The afternoon was well advanced when, as Dick and Earle sat in the embrasure of the window, looking out over the lake and valley, and chatting together upon the sort of reception which they might expect from the Uluans, they observed a light yellow cloud-like appearance across the lake, on that side of it upon which the city was built, and bringing their glasses to bear upon it, they perceived that it was dust, in the midst of which could be perceived the forms of horsemen and the glitter of accoutrements. After careful scrutiny, Earle pronounced the troop to be about a hundred strong, and it appeared to be advancing at a fairly rapid pace.
While the American kept his glasses bearing upon the cavalcade, Dick permitted his gaze to search the nearer landscape; and it was while he was thus engaged that he detected another and much smaller dust cloud, almost immediately beneath the guard house, on the road which wound round the south-eastern extremity of the lake toward that part of the valley where the cliff road leading to the guard house began. Focussing his glasses on this smaller dust cloud, he saw that it was caused by a group of three horsemen who were riding as if for their lives. Judging from the richness of their garb and the sumptuous trappings of their horses, they were persons of considerable consequence, and Dick, who always had an eye for detail, noticed that two of them, who rode a horse's length in the rear of the third, carried each a capacious roll or bundle of some sort strapped to the bow of his saddle. He directed Earle's attention to the little group; and together they watched it until it disappeared round a bend in the road.