They entered the cave and made good progress toward the light, for it showed them the dangerous fissures, sharp boulders and stalactites. They had walked along in silence for several minutes when the Alphian stopped abruptly and turned to his companion. "What is the matter?" asked Johnston.
"It cannot come from the internal fires," replied Branasko, "for the atmosphere grows cooler as we get nearer the light and away from the chasm."
Johnston was too much puzzled to formulate a reply, and he simply waited for the Alphian to continue.
"Let's go on," said Branasko; and in his tone and hesitating manner Johnston detected the first appearance of superstitious fear that he had seen in the brawny Alphian.
As Thorndyke watched the flying machine that was bearing his friend away a genuine feeling of pity went over him. Poor Johnston! He had been haunted all day with the belief that he was to meet with some misfortune from which Thorndyke was to be spared, and Thorndyke had ridiculed his fears. When the air-ship had become a mere speck in the sky, the Englishman turned back into the palace and strolled about in the vast crowd.
A handsome young man in uniform approached and touched his hat:
"Are you the comrade of the fellow they are just sending away?" he asked.
"Yes. Where are they taking him?"
"To the 'Barrens,' of course; where do you suppose they would take such a man? He couldn't pass his examination. You are not a great physical success yourself, but they say you pleased the king with your tongue."
"To the Barrens," repeated Thorndyke, too much concerned over the fate of his comrade to notice the speaker's tone of contempt; "what are they, where are they?"
The Alphian officer changed countenance, as he looked him over with widening eyes.
"Your accent is strange; are you from the other world?"
"I suppose so,—this is a new one to me at any rate."
"The world of endless oceans?"
"And the unchanging sun—forever white and——?"
"Yes; but where the devil is the Barrens?"
"Behind the sun, beyond the great endless wall."
"Do they intend to put him to death?"
"No, that would be—what do you call it? murder; they will simply leave him there to die of his own accord. And the king is right. I never saw such a weakling. He would taint our whole race with his presence."
Without a word Thorndyke abruptly turned from the officer and hastened toward the apartment of the king. He would demand the return of poor Johnston or kill the king if his demand was not granted. In his haste and perturbation, however, he lost his way and wandered into a part of the palace he had not seen. At every step he was more and more impressed with the magnificent proportions of the structure and the grandeur of everything about it.
Passing hurriedly through a large hall he saw an assemblage of beautiful women and handsome men dancing to the music of a great orchestra. Further on—in a great court—a regiment of soldiers were drilling, their rapid evolutions making no more sound than if they were moving in mid-air. In another room he saw a great body of men, women and children in vari-colored suits bathing in a pool of rose-colored, perfumed water.
He was passing on when a woman, closely veiled and simply dressed, touched his arm.
"Be watchful and follow me," she said, in a low, guarded tone.
The heart of the Englishman bounded and his blood rushed to his face, for the speaker was the Princess Bernardino. She did not pause, but glided on into the shade of a great palm tree, and, behind a row of thick-growing ferns of great height and thickness, she waited for him.
She lowered her veil as he approached and looked at him from her deep brown eyes in great concern. He stood spell-bound under the witchery of her beauty.
"I came to warn you, Prince," she said, and her soft musical voice set every nerve in Thorndyke's body to tingling with delight. "My father has banished the faithful slave that you love, but you must not show the anger that you feel, else he will kill you. You must be exceedingly cautious if you would save him. My father would punish me severely if he knew that I had sought you in this way. I was obliged to come in disguise; this dress belongs to my most trusted maid."
"And you came for my sake?" blurted out the Englishman, much embarrassed; "I am not worthy of such a high honor."
She smiled and tears rose in her eyes.
"Oh, Prince, don't speak to me so! You are far above me. I am weak. I know nothing. I never cared for other men than the king and my brothers till I saw you today, but now I would willingly be your slave."
"I am yours forever, and an humble one," bowed the courteous Englishman. "The moment I saw you at the throne of your father my heart went out to you. You wound it up in your music and trampled it under your dancing feet. I have been over the whole world, and you are the loveliest creature in it. It is because I saw you, because you are here, that I do not want to leave your country. They may do as they will with me if they only will let me see you now and then."
The princess was deeply moved. The blood rushed to her face and beautified it. Her eyes fell beneath his admiring glance. Thorndyke could not restrain himself. He caught her slender hand and pressed it passionately to his lips, and she made only a slight effort to prevent it.
"I am your obedient slave; what shall I do?" he asked.
"Do not try to rescue him now," she said softly. "I shall come to you again when we are not watched—you can know me by this dress. There is no need for great haste, he could live in the Barrens several days; I shall try to think of some way to save him, though such a thing has never been done—never."
Footsteps were heard on the other side of the row of ferns. A man was passing and others soon followed him. The bathers were leaving the great pool.
"I must leave you now," she whispered. "If the king honors you again by talking of his kingdom, continue to act as you did; your fearlessness and good humor have pleased him greatly."
"Could I not persuade him to bring Johnston back?"
"No; that would be impossible; those who are pronounced physically unfit are obliged to die. It has been a law for a long time; you must not count on that. I have, however, another plan, but I cannot tell you of it now, for they may miss me and wonder where I am, and then, too, my father may be looking for you. He will naturally desire to see you soon again."
Bowing, she turned away and passed on toward the apartments of the king, which the Englishman now recognized in the distance. Thorndyke went into the bathing-room to watch those remaining in the great pool of rose-colored water. The sight was beautiful. The waves which lapped against the shelving shores of white marble were pink and white, and the deeper water was as red as coral.
The Englishman was at once troubled over the fate of Johnston and elated over having won Bernardino's regard. Thoughtfully he strolled away from the bathers into a great picture-gallery. Here hung on the walls and stood on pedestals some of the rarest works of art he had ever seen. He passed through this room and was entering a shady retreat where plants, flowers and umbrageous trees grew thickly, when he heard a step behind him and the rustling of a silken skirt against the plants.
It was Bernardino.
"We can be unobserved here," she said, taking off her thick veil and arranging her luxuriant hair. "I hasten back. The king thinks, so my maid tells me, that I am asleep in my chamber. He is busy with an audience of police from a neighboring town and will not think of us."
She sat down on a sofa upholstered in leather, and he took a seat beside her. "I am glad that we can talk alone," he said, "for I have much to ask you. First, tell me where we are,—where this strange country is on the map of the world."
"It is a long story," she replied, "and it would greatly incense the king if he should find out that I had told you, for one of his chief pleasures is to note the surprise and admiration of new-comers over what they see here. But if you will promise to gratify his vanity in this particular I will try to explain it all."
"I promise, and you can depend on my not getting you into trouble," replied Thorndyke. "I never was so puzzled in my life, with that sullen sky overhead, the wonderful changing sunlight, and the remarkable atmosphere. I am both bewildered and entranced. Every moment I see something new and startling. Where are we?"
"Far beneath the ocean and the surface of the earth. I only know what the king has let fall in my hearing in his conferences with his men of science and inventors; but I shall try to make you understand how it all came about."
"It was a long time ago, two hundred years back, I suppose, that one of my ancestors discovered a little isolated island in the Atlantic Ocean. He was forced in a storm to land there with his ship and crew to make some repairs in his vessel. In wandering about over the island he discovered a narrow entrance to a cave, and, with two or three of his men, he began to explore it. When they had gone for a mile or two down into the interior of the cavern, which seemed to lead straight down toward the centre of the earth, they began to find small pieces of gold. The further they went the more they found, till at last the very cavern walls seemed lined with it.
"They were at first wildly excited over their sudden good fortune and were about to load their ship with it and return to Europe at once, but the better judgment of my ancestor prevailed. He explained that, if the world were informed of the discovery of such an inexhaustible mine of gold, that the value of the precious metal would decline till it would be worth little more than some grosser metal, and that if they would only keep their secret to themselves they could in time control the finances of the world. So, acting on this suggestion, they only dug out a few thousand pounds and took part of it to Europe and part of it to America and turned it into money.
"Then, to curtail my story, they elected my ancestor as ruler, and, with ships loaded with every available convenience that inexhaustible wealth could procure and a colony of carefully chosen men, they returned to the island.
"After the men and their families had settled in the great roomy mouth of the cavern my ancestor supplied himself with several strong men and food and lights, and sought to explore the entire cavern.
"To their astonishment they found that it was practically endless. When they had gone down about sixty or seventy miles below the sea level they found themselves on a vast, undulating plain, the soil of which was dark and rich, with the black roof of the cavern arching overhead like the bottom of a great inverted bowl. And when they had travelled about ten days and reached the other side my ancestor calculated that the cave must be over one hundred miles in diameter and almost circular in shape. But what elated and surprised them most was the remarkable salubrity of the atmosphere. In all parts of the cave it was exactly the same temperature, and they found that they scarcely felt any fatigue from their journey, and that they had little desire to eat the provisions with which they were supplied. Indeed, the very air seemed permeated with a subtle quality that gave them strength and energy of mind and body.
"Finally, when, after a month had passed, and they returned to their anxious friends, these people overwhelmed them with exclamations of surprise over their appearance. And in the light of day the explorers looked at one another in astonishment, for, in the dim light of the lanterns they had carried, they had not noticed the great change that had come over them. They had all become the finest specimens of physical health that could be imagined. Their bodies had filled out; they were remarkably strong; their skins shone with healthful color and their eyes sparkled with intellectual energy, and their minds, even to the humblest burden-carrier, were astonishingly acute and active.
"My ancestor was a remarkable man, and he had hitherto shown much inventive ability; but in that month in the cave he had developed into an intellectual giant. After mature deliberation, he proposed a prodigious scheme to his followers. He explained that, while they might, by using the utmost discretion, hold the financial world in their power by means of their inexhaustible wealth, that the laws and restrictions of different countries prevented men of vast wealth from really enjoying more privileges than men of moderate means. He grew eloquent in speaking of the underground atmosphere, and proposed that they light the great cavern from end to end and make it an ideal place where they could live as it suited them.
"I see that you guess the end. My ancestor was a great student of the sciences and had already thought of putting electricity to practical use. You are surprised? Yes, it has been applied to our purposes for two hundred years, while your people have understood its use such a short time."
"Great heavens!" exclaimed the Englishman. "I see it all; the sun is an electric one!"
"And it runs mechanically over its great course as regularly as clock-work."
"More accurately, I assure you, but there probably never was a greater mathematical problem than they solved in deciding on the size the sun should be and amount of light necessary to fill up all the recesses of the great vacancy. It was all very crude at the start; for years a great electric light was simply suspended in the centre of the cavern's roof and the light did not vary in color. A son of the first king suggested the plan of giving the sun diurnal movement and the changing light. The moon and stars were a later development. They found, too, that the light could not be made to reach certain recesses in the cavern where the roof approached the earth, so they finally built a great wall to keep the inhabitants within proscribed boundaries, and to prevent them from understanding the machinery of the heavens."
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Thorndyke. "But the temperature of the atmosphere, how does that happen to be so delightful and beneficial?"
"I believe they do not themselves thoroughly comprehend that. The heat comes from the internal fires, and the fresh air from without in some mysterious way. At first, in a few places, the heat was too severe, but the scientific men among the first settlers obviated this difficulty by closing up the hottest of the fissures and opening others in the cooler parts of the cavern."
"And the people, where did they come from?"
"From all parts of the earth. We had agents outside who selected such men and women that were willing to come, and who filled all the requirements, mentally and physically."
"But why do they desire to live here instead of out in the world, when they have all the wealth that they need to assure every advantage."
"They dread death, and it is undoubtedly true that life is prolonged here; our medical men declare that the longevity of every generation is improved."
"Is it possible? But tell me about the sun, when it sets, what becomes of it?"
"It goes back to its place of rising through a great tunnel beneath us."
Thorndyke sat in deep thought for a moment; then he looked so steadily and so admiringly into Bernardino's eyes that she grew red with confusion. "But you, yourself, are you thoroughly content here?"
"I know nothing else," she continued. "I have heard little about your world except that your people are discontented, weak and insane, and that your changeable weather and your careless laws regarding marriage and heredity produce perpetual and innumerable diseases; that your people are not well developed and beautiful; that you war with one another, and that one tears down what another builds. I have, too, always been happy, and since you came I am happier still. I don't know what it means. I have never been so much interested in any one before."
"It is love on the part of both of us," replied the Englishman impulsively, taking her hand. "I never was content before. I went roving over the earth trying to end my life at sea or in balloon voyages, but now I only want to be with you. I have never dreamed that I could be so happy or that I would meet any one so beautiful as you are."
Bernardino's delight showed itself in blushes on her face, and Thorndyke, unable to restrain himself, put his arm around her and drew her to his breast and kissed her.
She sprang up quickly and he saw that she was trembling and that all the color had fled from her face.
"What is the matter?" he asked, in alarm.
At first she did not answer, but only looked at him half-frightened, and then covered her face with her hands. He drew them from her face and compelled her to look at him.
"What is the matter?" he repeated, a strange fear at his heart.
"You have broken one of the most sacred laws of our country," she faltered, in great embarrassment; "my father would punish me very severely if he knew of it, and he would banish you; for, to treat me in that manner, as his daughter, is regarded as an insult to him."
"I beg your pardon most humbly," said the contrite Englishman. "It was all on account of my ignorance of your customs and my impulsiveness. It shall never happen again, I promise you."
Her face brightened a little and the color came back slowly. She sat down again, but not so near Thorndyke, and seemed desirous of changing the subject.
"And do you love the man my father has transported?" she questioned.
"Yes, he is a good, faithful fellow, and it is hard to die so far away from friends."
"We must try to save him, but I cannot now think of a safe plan. The police are very vigilant."
"Where was he taken?"
"Into the darkness behind the sun—beyond the wall of which I spoke."
A flush of shame came into Thorndyke's face over the remembrance that he had made no effort to aid poor Johnston, and was sitting listening with delight to the conversation of Bernardino. He rose suddenly.
"I must be doing something to aid him," he said. "I cannot sit here inactive while he is in danger."
"Be patient," she advised, looking at him admiringly; "it is near night; see, it is the gray light of dusk; the sun is out of sight. To-night, if possible, I shall come to you. Perhaps I shall approach you without disguise if you are in the throne-room and my father does not object to my entertaining you, but for the present we must separate. Adieu."
He bowed low as she turned away, and joined the throng that was passing along outside. An officer approached him. It was Captain Tradmos, who bowed and smiled pleasantly.
"I congratulate you," he said, with suave pleasantness.
"Upon what?" Thorndyke was on his guard at once.
"Upon having pleased the king so thoroughly. No stranger, in my memory, has ever been treated so courteously. Every other new-comer is put under surveillance, but you are left unwatched."
"He is easily pleased," said the Englishman, "for I have done nothing to gratify him."
"I thought he would like you; and I felt that your friend would have to suffer, but I could not help him."
"He shall not suffer if I can prevent it."
"Sh—be cautious. Those words, implying an inclination to treason, if spoken to any other officer would place you under immediate arrest. I like you, therefore I want to warn you against such folly. You are wholly in the king's power. Another thing I would specially warn you against——"
"And that is?"
"Not to allow the king to suspect your admiration for the Princess Bernardino. It would displease the king. She is much taken with you; I saw it in her eyes when she danced for your entertainment."
Thorndyke made no reply, but gazed searchingly into the eyes of the officer. Tradmos laughed.
"You are afraid of me."
"No, I am not, I trust you wholly; I know that you are honorable; I never make a mistake along that line."
Tradmos bowed, pleased by the compliment.
"I shall aid you all I can with my advice, for I know you will not betray me; but at present I am powerless to give you material aid. Every subject of this realm is bound to the autocratic will of the king. It is impossible for any one to get from under his power."
"The only outlet to the upper world is carefully guarded by men who would not be bribed."
"Is there any chance for my friend?"
"None that I can see, but I must walk on; there comes one of the king's attendants."
"The king has asked to speak to you," announced the attendant to Thorndyke.
"I will go with you," was his reply, and he followed the man through the crowded corridors into the throne-room of the king. Thorndyke forced a smile as he saw the king smiling at him as he approached the throne.
"What do you think of my palace?" asked the king, after Thorndyke had knelt before him.
"It is superb," answered the Englishman, recalling the advice of Bernardino. "I am dazed by its splendor, its architecture, and its art. I have seen nothing to equal it on earth."
The king rose and stood beside him. His manner was both pleasing and sympathetic. "I am persuaded," said he, "that you will make a good subject, and have the interest of Alpha always at heart, but I have often been mistaken in the character of men and think it best to give you a timely warning. An attendant will conduct you to a chamber beneath the palace where it will be your privilege to converse with a man who once planned to get up a rebellion among my people."
There had come suddenly a stern harshness into the king's tone that roused the fears of Thorndyke. He was about to reply, but the king held up his hand. "Wait till you have visited the dungeon of Nordeskyne, then I am sure that you will be convinced that strict obedience in thought as well as deed is best for an inhabitant of Alpha." Speaking thus, he signed to an attendant who came forward and bowed.
"Conduct him to the dungeon of Nordeskyne, and return to me," ordered the king.
Thorndyke's heart was heavy, and he was filled with strange forebodings, but he simply smiled and bowed, as the attendant led him away. The attendant opened a door at the back of the throne-room and they were confronted by darkness. They went along a narrow corridor for some distance, the darkness thickening at every step. There was no sound except the sound of the guide's shoes on the smooth stone pavement. Presently the man released Thorndyke's arm, saying:
"It is narrow here, follow close behind, and do not attempt to go back."
"I shall certainly stick to you," replied the Englishman drily. They turned a sharp corner suddenly, and were going in another direction when Thorndyke felt a soft warm hand steal into his from behind, and knew intuitively that it was Bernardino. The guide was a few feet in advance of them and she drew Thorndyke's head down and whispered into his ear.
"Be brave—by all that you love—for your life, keep your presence of mind, and——"
"What was that?" asked the guide, turning suddenly and catching the Englishman's arm, "I thought I heard whispering."
"I was saying my prayers, that is all," and the Englishman pressed the hand of the princess, who, pressed close against the wall, was gliding cautiously away.
"Prayers, humph—you'll need them later, come on!" and he caught the Englishman's arm and hastily drew him onward. Thorndyke's spirits sank lower. The air of the narrow under-ground corridor was cold and damp, and he quivered from head to foot.
Branasko paused again in his walk towards the mysterious light.
"It cannot be from the internal fires," said he, "for this light is white, and the glow of the fires is red."
"Let's turn back," suggested Johnston, "it can do us no good to go down there; it is only taking us further from the wall."
"I should like to understand it," returned the Alphian thoughtfully; "and, besides, there can be no more danger there than back among the hot crevices. We have got to perish anyway, and we might as well spice the remainder of our lives with whatever adventure we can. Who knows what we may not discover? There are many things about the land of Alpha that the inhabitants do not understand."
"I'll follow you anywhere," acquiesced Johnston; "you are right."
They stumbled on over the rocky surface in silence. At times, the roof of the cavern sank so low that they had to stoop to pass under it, and again it rose sharply like the roof of a cathedral, and the rays of the far-away, but ever-increasing light, shone upon glistening stalactites that hung from the darkness above them like daggers of diamonds set in ebony.
"It is not so near as I supposed," said the Alphian wearily. "And the light seemed to me to be shining on a cliff over which water is pouring in places. Yes, you can see that it is water by the ripples in the light."
"Yes, but where can the light itself be?"
"I cannot yet tell; wait till we get nearer."
In about an hour they came to a wide chasm on the other side of which towered a vast cliff of white crystal. It was on this that the trembling light was playing.
"Not a waterfall after all," said Branasko; "see, there is the source of the reflection," and he pointed to the left through a series of dark chambers of the cavern to a dazzling light. "Come, let's go nearer it." He moved a few steps forward and then happening to look over his shoulder he stopped abruptly, and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"What is it?" And Johnston followed the eyes of the Alphian.
"Our shadows on the crystal cliff," said Branasko in an awed tone; "only the light from the changing sun could make them so."
Johnston shuddered superstitiously at the tone of Branasko's quivering voice, and their giant shadows which stood out on the smooth crystal like silhouettes. So clear-cut were they, that, in his own shadow, the American could see his breast heaving and in Branasko's the quivering of the Alphian's huge body and limbs.
"If we have happened upon the home of the sun, only the spirit of the dead kings could tell what will become of us," said Branasko.
"Puh! you are blindly superstitious," said Johnston; "what if we do come upon the sun? Let's go down there and look into the mystery."
Branasko fell into the rear and the American stoutly pushed ahead toward the light which was every moment increasing. As they advanced the cave got larger until it opened out into a larger plain over which hung fathomless darkness, and out of the plain a great dazzling globe of light was slowly rising.
"It is the sun itself," exclaimed Branasko, and he sank to the earth and covered his face with his hands. "I have not thought ever to see it out of the sky."
The American was deeply thrilled by the grand sight. He sat down by Branasko and together they watched the vast ball of light emerge from the black earth and gradually disappear in a great hole in the roof of the cavern. It left a broad stream of light behind it, and, now that the sun itself was out of view, the silent spectators could see the great square hole from which it had risen.
As if by mutual consent, they rose and made their way over the rocks to the verge of the hole, which seemed several thousand feet square. At first, owing to the brightness of the sun overhead, they could see nothing; but, as the great orb gradually disappeared, they began to see lights and the figures of men moving about below. Later they observed the polished parts of stupendous machinery—machinery that moved almost noiselessly.
Johnston caught sight of a great net-work of moving cables reaching from the machinery up through the hole above and exclaimed enthusiastically:—"A mechanical sun! electric daylight! What genius! A world in a great cave! Hundreds of square miles and thousands of well organized people living under the light of an artificial sun!"
The Alphian looked at him astonished. "Is it not so in your country?" he asked.
Johnston smiled. "The great sun that lights the outer world is as much greater than that ball of light as Alpha is greater than a grain of sand. But this surely is the greatest achievement of man. But while I now understand how your sun goes over the whole of Alpha, I cannot see how it returns."
"Then you have not heard of the great tunnel of the Sun," replied the Alphian.
"No,what is it?"
"It runs beneath Alpha and connects the rising and setting points of the sun. There is a point beneath the king's palace where, by a staircase, the king and his officers may go down and inspect the sun as it is on its way back to the east during the day."
"And once a year a royal party goes in the sun over its entire course. It is said that it is sumptuously furnished inside, and not too warm, the lights being only innumerable small ones on the outside."
The two men were silent for a moment then Johnston said:
"Perhaps we might be able to get into it unobserved and be thus carried over to the other side, or reach the palace through the tunnel."
Branasko started convulsively, and then, as he looked into the earnest eyes of the American, he said despondently:
"We have got to die, anyway; it may be well for us to think of it; but on the other side, in the Barrens, there is no more chance for escape than here. But the adventure would at least give us something to think about; let's try it."
"All right; but how can we get down there where the sun starts to rise?" asked the American, peering cautiously over the edge of the hole.
"There must be some way," answered Branasko. "Ah, see! further to the left there are some ledges; let's see what can be done that way."
"I am with you."
The rays of the departing sun were almost gone, and the electric lights down among the machinery seemed afar off like stars reflected in deep water. With great difficulty the two men lowered themselves from one sharp ledge to another till they had gone half down to the bottom.
"It is no use," said Branasko, peering over the lowest ledge. "There are no more ledges and this one juts out so far that even if there were smaller ones beneath we could not get to them."
"That is true," agreed the American, "but look, is not that a lake beneath? I think it must be, for the lights are reflected on its surface."
"You are right," answered Branasko; "and I now see a chance for us to get down safely."
"The workers are too far from the lake to see us; we can drop into the water and swim ashore."
"Would they not hear the splashing of our bodies?"
"I think not; but first let's experiment with a big stone."
Suiting the action to the word, they secured a stone weighing about seventy-five pounds and brought it to the ledge. Carefully poising it in mid-air, they let it go. Down it went, cutting the air with a sharp whizzing sound. They listened breathlessly, but heard no sound as the rock struck the water, and the men among the machinery seemed undisturbed. Only the widening circles of rings on the lake's surface indicated where the stone had fallen.
"Good," ejaculated the Alphian; "are you equal to such a plunge? The water must be deep, and we won't be hurt at all if only we can keep our feet downward and hold our breath long enough. Our clothing will soon dry down there, for feel the warmth that comes from below."
The Alphian slowly crawled out on the sharpest projection of the ledge. "Are you willing to try it?" he asked, over his shoulder.
"Well, wait till you see me swim ashore, and then follow."
Johnston shuddered as the strong fellow swung himself over the ledge and hung downward.
"Adieu," said Branasko, and he let go. Down he fell, as straight as an arrow, into the shadows below. For an instant Johnston heard the fluttering of the fellow's clothing as he fell through the darkness, and then there was no sound except the low whirr of the cables and the monotonous hum of the great wheels beneath. Then the smooth surface of the lake was broken in a white foaming spot, and, later, he saw something small and dark slowly swimming shoreward. It was Branasko, and the men to the right had not heard or seen him.
Johnston saw him reach the shore, then he crawled out to the point of the projecting rock and tremblingly lowered himself till he hung downward as Branasko had done. He had just drawn a deep breath preparatory to letting go his hold, when, chancing to look down, he saw a long narrow barge slowly emerging from the cliff directly under him. For an instant he was so much startled that he almost lost his grip on the rock. He tried to climb back on the ledge, but his strength was gone. He felt that he could not hold out till the boat had passed. Death was before him, and a horrible one. The boat seemed to crawl. Everything was a blur before his eyes. His fingers began to relax, and with a low cry he fell.
To Thorndyke the dark corridor seemed endless. The king's last words had now a sinister meaning, and Bernardino's whispered warning filled him with dread. "Keep your presence of mind," she urged; was it then, some frightful mental ordeal he was about to pass through?
Presently they came to a door. Thorndyke heard his guide feeling for the bolt and key-hole. The rattling of the keys sounded like a ghostly threat in the empty corridors. The air was as damp as a fog, and the stones were cold and slimy. After a moment the guard succeeded in unlocking the door and roughly pushed the Englishman forward. The door closed with a little puff, and Thorndyke felt about him for the guide; but he was alone. For a moment there was no sound. With the closing of the door it seemed to him that he was cut off from every living creature. In the awful silence he could hear his own heart beating like a drum.
"Stand where you are!" came in a hissing whisper from the darkness near by, and then the invisible whisperer moved away, making a weird sound as he slid his hand along a wall, till it died away in the distance.
A cold thrill ran over him. He was a brave man and feared no living man or beast, but the superstitious fears of his childhood now came upon him with redoubled force. For several minutes he did not stir; presently he put out his hand to the door and his blood ran cold. There was no knob, latch, or key-hole, and he could feel the soft padding into which the door closed to keep out sound. Then he remembered the warning of the princess, and strove with all his might to fight down his apprehensions. "For your life keep your presence of mind," he repeated over and over, but try as he would his terror over-powered him. He laughed out loud, but in the dreadful silence and darkness his laugh sounded unearthly.
A cold perspiration broke out on him. It seemed as if hours passed before he again heard the sliding noise on the wall. Some one was coming to him. The sound grew louder and nearer, till a firm hand was laid on his arm; it felt as cold as ice through his clothing.
"Come," a voice whispered, and the Englishman was led forward. Presently another door opened—a door that closed after them without any sound. Here the silence was more intensified, the darkness thicker as if compressed like air.
Hands were placed on the shoulders of Thorndyke and he was gently forced into a chair. As soon as he was seated two metal clamps grasped like a vise his arms between the elbows and the shoulders, and two more fastened round his ankles.
There was a faint puff of air from the door and the prisoner felt that he was alone. Terror held him in bondage. He tried to think of Bernardino, but in vain. Did they intend to drive him to madness? He began to suspect that the king had discovered his natural superstition and had decided to put it to a test. What he had undergone so far he felt was but the introduction to greater terrors in store for him.
There was a sigh far away in the darkness—then a groan that seemed to flit about in space, as if seeking to escape the dark, and then died away in a low moan of despair. Before him the blackness seemed to hang like a dark curtain about ten yards in front of him, and in it shone a tiny speck of light no larger than the head of a pin, and which was so bright that he could not look at it steadily. It increased to the size of a pea, and then he discovered that, at times, it would seem miles away in space and then again to draw quite near to hand. Glancing down, he noticed that it cast a bright round spot about an inch in diameter on the floor, and that the spot was slowly revolving in a circle so small that its motion was hardly observable. Surely the mind of a superstitious man was never so punished! When Thorndyke looked steadily at the spot, the black floor seemed to recede, and the spot to sink far down into the empty darkness below like a solitary star; So realistic was this that the Englishman could not keep from fancying that this chair was poised in some way over fathomless space. Presently he noticed that the spot had ceased its circular movement and was slowly—almost as slowly as the movement of the hand of a clock—advancing in a straight line toward him.
No such terror had ever before possessed the stout heart of the Englishman. As the uncanny spot, ever growing brighter, advanced toward him, he thought his heart had stopped beating; his brain was in a whirl. After a long while the spot reached his feet and began to climb up his legs. With a shudder and a smothered cry, he tried to draw his feet away, but they were too firmly manacled.
"It is searching for my heart," thought Thorndyke. "My God, when it reaches it, I shall die!" As the strange spot, gleaming like a burning diamond in whose heart leaped a thousand different colored flames, and which seemed possessed of some strange hellish purpose, crossed his thighs and began to climb up his body, the brain of the prisoner seemed on fire. He tried to close his eyes, but, horror of horrors! his eyelids were paralyzed. It was almost over his heart, and Thorndyke was fainting through sheer mental exhaustion when it stopped, began to descend slowly, and, then, with a rapid, wavering motion, it fell to the floor, flashed about in the darkness, and vanished.
An hour dragged slowly by. What would happen next? The Englishman felt that his frightful ordeal was not over. To his surprise the darkness began to lighten till he could see dimly the outlines of the chamber. It was bare save for the chair he occupied against a wall, and a couch on the opposite side of the room. The couch held something which looked like a human body covered with a white cloth. He could see where the sheet rounded over the head and rose sharply at the feet.
Something told him that it was a corpse and a new terror possessed him. For several minutes he gazed at the couch in dreadful suspense, then his heart stopped pulsing as the figure on the couch began to move. Slowly the sheet fell from the head and the figure sat up stiffly. There was a faint hum of hidden machinery at the couch, and a flashing blue and green line running from the couch to the wall betrayed the presence of an electric wire.
Slowly the figure rose, and with creaking, rattling joints stood erect. Pale lights shone in the orbits of the eyes and the sound of harsh automatic breathing came from the mouth and nostrils. Slowly and haltingly the figure advanced toward Thorndyke. The poor fellow tried to wrench himself free from the chair, but he could not stir an inch. On came the figure, its long arms swinging mechanically, and its feet slurring over the stone pavement.
When within ten feet of the Englishman it stopped, nodded its head three or four times, and slowly opened its mouth. There was a sharp, whirring noise, such as comes from a phonograph, and a voice spoke:
"My voice shall sound on earth for a million years after my spirit has left my body; and I shall wander about my dark dungeon as a warning to men not to do as I have done."
The voice ceased, but the whirring sound in the creature's breast went on. The figure shambled nearer to Thorndyke and the voice began again:
"I disobeyed the laws of great Alpha and her imperial king and am to die. Beware of the temptation to search into the royal motives or attempt to escape. The fate of all the inhabitants of Alpha, the wonderful Land of the Changing Sun, is in the hands of its ruler. Beware! My death-torture is to be lingering and horrible. I sink into deepest dejection. I was eager to return to my native land and tried to escape. Behold my punishment! Even my bones and flesh will not be allowed to rest or decay. Beware, the king is just and good, but he will be obeyed!"
Slowly the figure retreated toward the couch and lay down on it. The whirring sound ceased, the light along the wire went out, and the darkness thickened till the couch and the outlines of the chamber were obscured. Then Thorndyke's chair was lifted, as if by unseen hands, and he was borne backward. In a moment he felt the cool, damp air of the corridor, and some one raised him to his feet and led him back to the throne-room.
In the bright light which burst on him as the door opened, the beautiful women and handsome men moving about the throne were to him like a glimpse of Paradise. The attendant left him at the door and he walked in, so dazed and weak that he hardly knew what to do. No one seemed to notice him and the king was engaged in an animated conversation with several ladies who were sitting at his feet.
In a bevy of women Thorndyke noticed Bernardino. She gave him a quick, sympathetic glance of recognition and then looked down discreetly. Presently she left the others and moved on till she had disappeared behind a great carved wine-cistern which stood on the backs of four crouching golden leopards in a retired part of the room. Something in her sudden movement made the Englishman think she wanted to speak to him, and he went to her. He was not mistaken, for she smiled as he approached.
"I am glad," she whispered, touching his arm impulsively, and then quickly removing her hand as if afraid of detection.
"Glad of what?" he asked.
"Glad that you stood that—that torture so well; several men have died in that chair and some went mad."
"I remembered your advice; that saved me."
"I have a plan for us to try to rescue your friend."
"Ah, I had forgotten him! what is it?"
"Captain Tradmos likes you and has consented to aid us. We shall need an air-ship and he has one at his disposal which is used only for governmental purposes."
"What do you want with the air-ship?"
"To go beyond and over the great wall."
"But can we get away from here without being seen?"
"Under ordinary circumstances, neither by day nor night, but tomorrow the king has planned to let his people witness a 'War of the Elements.'"
"A War of the Elements?"
"Yes, the grandest fete of Alpha. There will be a frightful storm in the sky; no light for hours; the thunder will be musical and the lightning will seem to set the world on fire. That will be our chance. When it is darkest we shall try to get away unseen. We may fail. Such a daring thing has never been attempted by any one. If we are detected we shall suffer death as the penalty, the king could never pardon such a bold violation of law."
Johnston clung tenaciously to the rock. He tried to look down to see if the barge had passed beneath him, but the intense strain on his arm now drew his head back, so that he could not do so. Once more he made an effort to regain his position on the rock, but he was not able to raise himself an inch.
He felt certain that the fall would kill him, and he groaned in agony. His fingers were benumbed and beginning to slip. Then he fell. The air whizzed in his ears. He tried to keep his feet downward, but it was no use. He was whirled heels over head many times, and his senses were leaving him when he was restored by a plunge into the cold water.
Down he sank. It seemed to him that he never would lose his momentum and that he would strangle before he could rise to the surface. Finally, however, he came up more dead than alive. He had narrowly missed the flat-boat, for he saw it receding from him only a few yards away. On the shore stood Branasko motioning to him; and, slowly, for his strength was almost gone, Johnston swam toward him.
The latter waded out into the shallow water and drew him ashore.
"You had a narrow escape," he said, with a dry laugh. "I saw the boat come from under the cliff just as you hung down from the ledge. At first I hoped that you would get back on the rock, but when I saw you try and do it and fail I thought that you were lost."
The American could not speak for exhaustion; but, as he looked at the departing craft with concern, Branasko laughed again: "Oh, you thought it had a crew; so did I at first, but it has no one aboard. It is drawn by a cable, and seems to be laden with coal."
"Did they notice our fall up there?" panted Johnston, nodding toward the lights in the distance.
"No, they are farther away than I thought."
"Well, what ought we to do?" "Hide here among the rocks till our clothing dries and then look about us. We have nearly twenty-four hours to wait for the sun to return through the tunnel."
"Where is the tunnel?"
"Over on the other side of that black hill. There, you can see the mouth of the tunnel through which the sun comes."
"We need sleep," said the Alphian, when their clothing was dry, "and it may be a long time before we get a chance to get it. Let us lie down in the shadow of that rock and rest."
Johnston consented, and, lying down together, they soon dropped asleep. They slept soundly.
Johnston was the first to awake. He felt so refreshed that he knew he must have been unconscious several hours. He touched Branasko and the latter sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked about him bewildered.
"I had a horrible dream," he said shuddering. "I thought that we were in the sun and over the capital city when it fell down. I thought the fall was awful, and that all Alpha was aflame. Then the fires went out. Everything was black, and the whole world rang with cries of terrified people. Ugh! I don't want to dream so again; I'd rather not sleep at all. But hush! what is that?"
Far away, as if in the centre of the earth, they heard a low monotonous rumbling. They listened breathlessly. Every moment the sound increased. They could feel the ground trembling as if shaken by an earthquake.
"It is the coming sun," said Branasko. "We must get nearer the tunnel and see what can be done. It would be useless to try to go back now."
Stealing along in the shadow of the cliffs to keep from being seen by the workmen on the plateau above, they climbed over a rocky incline and saw in the side of a towering cliff, a great black hole. It was the mouth of the tunnel. Into it ran eight wide tracks of railway and six mammoth cables each twenty or thirty feet in diameter.
"The sun cannot be far away now," remarked the Alphian.
"Is it not lighted?"
"I presume not; I think it comes through in darkness. The light is saved for its passage over Alpha."
"Would it not be as safe for us to attempt to walk through the tunnel to the palace of the king?"
"Never; it would be over fifty miles in utter darkness. There may be a thousand trestles and bridges over frightful chasms: for the most part, I have heard the tunnel is a natural channel or a succession of caverns united by tunnels. The other is the safer way, though it certainly is risky enough."
Louder and nearer grew the rumbling noise, and a faint light began to shine from the tunnel and flash on the cliff opposite.
"It is the sun's headlight," explained Branasko.
Johnston was thrilled to the centre of his being as he saw the light playing over the polished tracks and cables and illuminating the walls of the great tunnel.
Suddenly there was a deep, mellow-toned stroke of a bell in the sun, and, as the two men shrank involuntarily into the deeper shade of the cliff, the great globe, a stupendous ball of crystal, five hundred feet in height, slowly emerged from the mouth of the tunnel and came to a stop under the opening in the rock which led to the space above.
"What had we better do now?" said Johnston.
"Wait," cautioned Branasko, and he drew the American to a great boulder nearer the sun, from behind which they could, without being seen, watch the action of the crowd of workmen that was hurriedly approaching. They placed ladders of steel against the sides of the sun and swarmed over it like bees.
"They are cleaning the glass and adjusting the lights," said the Alphian; "wait till they go round to the other side. Don't you see that square opening near the ground?"
The American nodded.
"It is the door," said Branasko, "and we must try to enter it while they are on the other side. Let us slip nearer; there is another rock ahead that we can hide behind." Suiting the action to the word, Branasko led the way, stooping near to the ground until both were safely ensconced behind the boulder in question. They were now so near that they could hear the electricians rubbing the glass.
One who seemed to be superintending the work opened the door and went into the sun and lighted a bright light. From where they were crouched Johnston and Branasko caught a view of a little hall, a flight of stairs, and some pictures on the walls.
Presently the man extinguished the light and came out.
"They are removing their ladders from this side," said Branasko in a whisper. "Be ready; we must act quickly and without a particle of sound. Run straight for that door and climb up the steps immediately."
The men had all gone round to the other side, and no one was in sight.
"Quick! Follow me," and bending low to the earth the Alphian darted across the intervening space and into the doorway. Johnston was quite as successful. As he entered the door he saw Branasko crawling up the carpeted stairs ahead of him, and, on his all-fours, he followed. The first landing was large, and there in the wall they found a closet. It would have been dark but for a dim light that streamed down from above. Branasko opened the closet door. "We must hide here for the present," he whispered.
They had barely got seated on the floor and closed the door when a bright light broke round them and they heard somebody ascending the stairs. The person passed by and went on further up. The two adventurers dared not exchange a word. They could hear the footsteps above and the sound of the electricians outside as they polished the lights and moved their ladders from place to place.
"If he should stay, what could we do?" asked Johnston, after a long pause, and when the footsteps sounded farther away.
"There are two of us and one of him," grimly replied the brawny Alphian.
Johnston shuddered. "Let's not commit murder in any emergency," he said.
"It would not be murder; every man has a right to save his own life."
Nothing more was said just then, for the footsteps were growing nearer. The man was descending. He crossed the landing they were on and went down the last flight of stairs and out of the door.
Branasko rubbed his rough hands together. "We are going alone," he said with satisfaction.
There was a sound of sliding ladders on the walls outside. The workmen had finished their task. A moment later a great bell overhead rang mellowly; the colossal sphere trembled and rocked and then rose and swung easily forward like the car of a balloon.
"We are rising," said the Alphian, in a tone of superstitious awe. Johnston said nothing. There was a cool, sinking sensation in his stomach and his head was swimming. Branasko, however, was in possession of all his faculties.
"We shall soon be through the shaft we first discovered and throw our light over Alpha." As he spoke the space about them broke into blinding brightness and for a few moments they could only open their eyes for an instant at a time. After a while Branasko opened the closet door and they went up the stairs.
The first apartment they entered was most luxuriously furnished. Sofas, couches and reclining-chairs were scattered here and there over the elegant carpet, and statues of gold and marble stood in alcoves and niches and strange stereopticon lanterns, hanging from the ceiling threw ever-changing and life-like pictures on the walls. The light streamed in from without through small circular windows. After they had walked about the room for some minutes, the Alphian pointed to a half-open door and a staircase at one side of the room.
"I think it leads to some sort of observatory on top," he said. "I have heard that when the royal family makes this voyage they are fond of looking out from it. Suppose we see." Johnston acquiesced, and Branasko opened the door. From the increased brightness that came in they were assured that the stairs led outward.
Ascending many flights of stairs and traversing a narrow winding gallery which seemed to be gradually sloping upward, they finally reached the outside, and found themselves on a platform about forty feet square surrounded by iron balustrades. Above hung impenetrable blackness, below curved a majestic sphere of white light.
The sunlight was fading into gray when the princess turned to leave Thorndyke. Night was drawing near.
"Have they assigned you a chamber yet?" she paused to ask.
"Then they have overlooked it; I shall remind the king."
Her beautiful, lithe form was clearly outlined against the red glow of the massive swinging lamp as she moved gracefully away, and Thorndyke's heart bounded with admiration and hope as he thought of her growing regard for him. He resumed his seat among the flowers, listening, as if in a delightful dream, to the seductive music from bands in different parts of the palace and the never-ceasing sound in the air which seemed to him to be the concentrated echo of all the sounds in the strange country rebounding from the vast cavern roof.
It grew darker. The gray outside had changed to purple. In the palace the brilliant electric lights in prismatic globes refused to allow the day to die. He was thinking of returning to the throne-room when a page in silken attire approached from the direction of the king's quarters.
"To your chambers, master," he announced, bowing respectfully.
Thorndyke arose and followed him to an elevator near by. They ascended to the highest balcony of the great rotunda. Here they alighted and turned to the right, the page leading the way, a key in his hand. Presently the page stopped at a door and unlocked it and preceded the Englishman into the room. As they entered an electric light in a chandelier flashed up automatically.
It was a sumptuous apartment, and adjoining it were several connecting rooms all elegantly furnished. The page crossed the room and opened a door to a little stairway.
"It leads to the roof," he said. "The princess told me to call your attention to it, that you might go out and view the starlight."
When the page had retired, Thorndyke, feeling lonely, ascended the stairs to the roof. It was perfectly flat save for the great dome which stood in the centre and the numerous pinnacles and cupolas on every hand, and was very spacious. The Englishman's loneliness increased, for no matter in what direction he looked, there was not a living soul in sight. Far in front of him he saw a stone parapet. He went to this and looked down on the city. The electric lights were vari-colored, and arranged so that when seen from a distance or from a great height they assumed artistic designs that were beautiful to behold.
The regular streets and rows of buildings stretched away till the light in the farthest distance seemed an ocean of blending colors. Overhead the vault was black, and only here and there shone a star; but as he looked upward they began to flash into being, and so rapidly that the sky seemed a vast battlefield of electricity.
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" he ejaculated enthusiastically, when the black dome was filled with twinkling stars. He leaned for a long time against the parapet, listening to the music from the streets below, and watching the flying-machines with their vari-colored lights rise from the little parks at the intersection of the streets and dart away over the roofs like big fireflies. Then he began to feel sleepy, and, going back to his chambers, he retired.
When he awoke the next morning, the rosy glow of the sun was shining in at his windows. On rising he was surprised to find a delectable breakfast spread on a table in his sitting-room.
"Treating me like a lord, any way," he said drily. "I can't say I dislike the thing as a whole." When he had satisfied his sharp hunger he went out into a corridor and seeing an elevator he entered it and went down to the throne-room. The king was just leaving his throne, but seeing Thorndyke he turned to him with a smile.
"How did you sleep?" he asked.
"Well, indeed," replied Thorndyke, with a low bow.
"I cannot talk to you now. I intended to, but I have promised my people a 'War of the Elements' to-day and am busy. You will enjoy it, I trust."
"I am sure of it, your Majesty."
"Well, be about the palace, for it is a good point from which to view the display."
With these words he turned away and the Englishman, as if drawn there by the memory of his last conversation with Bernardino, sought the retreat where he had bidden her good-night. He sat down on the seat they had occupied, and gave himself over to delightful reveries about her beauty and loveliness of nature. Looking up suddenly he saw a pair of white hands part the palm leaves in front of him and the subject of his thoughts emerged into view.
She wore a regal gown and beautiful silken head-dress set with fine gems, and gave him a warm glance of friendly greeting.
"I half hoped to find you here," she said, blushing modestly under his ardent gaze; "that is, I knew you would not know where to go——" She paused, her face suffused with blushes.
"I did not hope to find you here," he said, coming to her aid gallantly, "but it was a delight to sit here where I last saw you."
She blushed even deeper, and a pleased look flashed into her eyes. "It was important that I should see you this morning," she continued, with a womanly desire to disguise her own feeling. "I wanted to tell you where to meet me when the storm begins."
"Where?" he asked.
"On the roof of the palace, near the stairs leading down to your chambers. At first it will be very dark, and it is then that we must get out of sight of the palace. No other flying-machines will be in the air, and Captain Tradmos thinks, if we are very careful, we can get away safely before the display of lightning."
"If we find my friend what can we do with him?"
She hesitated a moment, a look of perplexity on her face, then she said: "We can bring him back and keep him hidden in your chambers till some better arrangement can be made. We shall think of some expedient before long, but at present he must be saved from starvation."
Thorndyke attempted to draw her to a seat beside him, but she held back. "No," she said resolutely, "it would never do for us to be seen together. If my father should suspect anything now, all hope would be lost."
Thorndyke reluctantly released her hand.
"You are right, I beg your pardon," he said humbly. "I shall meet you promptly. Of course I want to save poor Johnston, but the delight of being with you again, even for a moment, so intoxicates me that I forget even my duty to him."
After she left him he wandered out in the streets along the busy thoroughfares, and into the beautiful parks, the flowers and foliage changing color as each new hour dawned. The fragrance of the flowers delighted his sense of smell, and the luscious fruits hung from vine and tree in great abundance.
He was impatient for the time to arrive at which he was to meet the princess. After awhile he noticed the people closing the shops and booths, and in holiday dress going to the parks and public squares. He hastened to the palace. The great rotunda and the throne-room were energetically astir. Everybody wore rich apparel and was talking of the coming fete. The king was on his throne surrounded by his men of science. In a cluster of ladies in court dress, the Englishman recognized Bernardino. Catching his eye, she looked startled for an instant, and, then, with a furtive glance at the king, she swept her eyes back to Thorndyke and raised them significantly toward his chambers. He understood, and his quick movement was his reply. He turned immediately to an elevator that was going up, and entered it. Again he was alone on the palace roof. The color of the sunlight looked so natural that he studied it closely to see if he could not detect something artificial in its appearance, but in vain. He found that it did not pain his eyes to look at the sun steadily. He took from his pocket a small sunglass, and focussed the rays on his hand, but the heat was not intensified sufficiently to burn him.
Just then he heard a loud blast of a trumpet in a tall tower to the left of the palace. It seemed a momentous signal. The jostling crowds in the streets below suddenly stood motionless. Every eye was raised to the sky. Not a sound broke the stillness. Following the glances of the crowd a few minutes later, Thorndyke noticed a dark cloud rising in the west, and spreading along the horizon. A feeling of awe came over him as it gradually increased in volume, and, in vast black billows, began to roll up toward the sun.
Suddenly out of the stillness came a faraway rumble like a fusillade of cannon, now dying down low, again reaching such a height that it pained the ears. Belated flying-machines darted across the sky here and there, like storm-frightened birds, but they soon settled to earth. Every eye was on the cloud which was now gashed with dazzling, vivid, electric flashes. Thorndyke looked over the vast roof. He was alone. He walked to the western parapet to get a broader view.
The clouds had increased till almost a third of the heavens were obscured by the madly whirling blackness. There was a rumble in the cloud, or beyond it, like thunder, and yet it was not, unless thunder can be attuned, for the sound was like the music of a great orchestra magnified a thousand-fold. The grand harmony died down. There was a blinding flash of electricity in the clouds, and the Englishman involuntarily covered his eyes with his hands. When he looked again the blackness was covering the sun. For a moment its disk showed blood-red through the fringe of the cloud and then disappeared. Total darkness fell on everything.
The silence was profound. The very air seemed stagnant.
Then the wind overhead, by some unseen force, was lashed into fury, and all the sky was filled with whirlpools of deeper blackness. Suddenly there was a flash of soft golden light; this was followed by streams of pink, of blue and of purple till the whole heavens were hung with banners, flags, and rain-bows of flame. Again darkness fell, and it seemed all the deeper after the gorgeous scene which had preceded it. Thorndyke strained his sight to detect something moving below, but nothing could be seen, and no sound came up from the motionless crowds.
Behind him he heard a soft footstep on the stone tiling. It drew nearer. A hand was being carefully slid along the parapet. The hand reached him and touched his arm.
It was the princess. "Ah, I have at last found you," she whispered, "I saw you in the lightning, but lost you again."
He put his arm round her and drew her into his embrace. He tried to speak, but uttered only an inarticulate sound.
"I could not possibly come earlier," she apologized, nestling against him so closely that he could feel the quick and excited beating of her heart. "My father kept me with him till only a moment ago. Captain Tradmos will be here soon."
"When do we start?" he asked.
"That is the trouble," she replied. "We had counted on getting away in the darkness, before the display of lightning, but there is more danger now. If our flying-machine were noticed the search-lights would be turned on us and we would be discovered at once."
"But even if we get safely away in the darkness when could we return?"
"Oh, that would be easy," she replied. "As soon as the fete is over, commerce will be resumed and the air will be filled with air-ships that have been delayed in their regular business, and, in the disguises which I have for us both, we could come back without rousing suspicion. We could alight in Winter Park and return home later."
"What is Winter Park?"
"You have not seen it? You must do so; it is one of the wonders of Alpha. It is a vast park enclosed with high walls and covered with a roof of glass. Inside the snow falls, and we have sleighing and coasting and lakes of ice for skating. It was an invention of the king. The snowstorms there are beautiful."
Thorndyke's reply was drowned in a harmonious explosion like that of tuned cannon; this was followed by the chimes of great bells which seemed to swing back and forth miles overhead.
"Listen!" whispered Bernardino, "father calls it 'musical thunder,' and he declares that it is produced in no other country but this."
"It is not; he is right." And the heart of the Englishman was stirred by deep emotion. He had never dreamed that anything could so completely chain his fancy and elevate his imagination as what he heard. The musical clangor died down. The strange harmony grew more entrancing as it softened. Then the whole eastern sky began to flush with rosy, shimmering light.
"My father calls this the 'Ideal Dawn of Day,'" whispered Bernardino. "See the faint golden halo near the horizon; that is where the sun is supposed to be."
"How is it done?" asked the Englishman.
"Few of our people know. It is a secret held only by the king and half a dozen scientists. The whole thing, however, is operated by two men in a room in the dome of the palace. The musician is a young German who was becoming the wonder of the musical world when father induced him to come to us. I have met him. He says he has been thoroughly happy here. He lives on music. He showed me the instrument he used to play, a little thing he called a violin, and its tones could not reach beyond the limits of a small room. He laughs at it now and says the instrument that father gave him to play on has strings drawn from the centre of the earth to the stars of heaven."
The rose-light had spread over the horizon and climbed almost to the zenith, and with the dying booming and gentle clangor it began to fade till all was dark again.
"Captain Tradmos ought to be here now," continued the princess, glancing uneasily toward the stairway. "We may not have so good an opportunity as this."
Ten minutes went by.
"Surely, something has gone wrong," whispered Bernardino. "I have never seen the darkness last so long as this; besides, can't you hear the muttering of the people?"
Thorndyke acknowledged that he did. He was about to add something else, but was prevented by a loud blast from the trumpet in the tower.
Bernardino shrank from him and fell to trembling.
"What is the matter?" he asked. "The trumpet!" she gasped, "something awful has happened!"
A moment of profound silence, then the murmuring of the crowd rose sullenly like the moaning of a rising storm; a search-light flashed up in the gloom and swept its uncertain stream from point to point, but it died out. Another and another shone for an instant in different parts of the city, but they all failed.
"Something awful has happened," repeated Bernardino, as if to herself; "the lights will not burn!"
"Had we not better go down?" asked Thorndyke anxiously, excited by her unusual perturbation.
For answer she mutely drew him to the eastern parapet. Far away in the east there still lingered a faint hint of pink, but all over the whole landscape darkness rested.
"See!" she exclaimed, pointing upward, "the clouds are thinning over the sun, and yet there is no light. What can be the matter?"
At that juncture they heard soft steps on the roof and a voice calling:
"Bernardino! Princess Bernardino!"
"It is Tradmos," she ejaculated gladly, then she called out softly:
"Here!" the voice said, and a figure loomed up before them. It was the captain. He was panting violently, as if he had been running.
"What is it?" she asked, clasping his arm.
"The sun has gone out," he announced.
A groan escaped her lips and she swayed into Thorndyke's arms.
"The clouds are thinning over the sun, yet there is no light. The king is excited; he fears a panic!"
"Has such a thing never happened?" asked Thorndyke.
"An hundred years ago; then thousands lost their lives. As soon as the people suspect the cause of the delay they will go mad with fear."
"What can we do?" asked the princess, recovering her self-possession.
"Nothing, wait!" replied Tradmos. "This is as safe a place as you could find. Perhaps the trouble may be averted. Look!"
The disk of the veiled sun was aglow with a faintly trembling light; but it went out. The silence was profound. The populace seemed unable to grasp the situation, but when the light had flickered over the black face of the sun once more and again expired, a sullen murmur rose and grew as it passed from lip to lip.
It became a threatening roar, broken by an occasional cry of pain and a dismal groan of terror. There was a crash as if a mountain had been burst by explosives.
"The swinging bridge has been thrown down!" said Tradmos.
Light after light flashed up in different parts of the city, but they were so small and so far apart that they seemed to add to the darkness rather than to lessen it.
"The moon, it will rise!" cried the princess.
"It cannot," said Tradmos in his beard, "at least not for several hours."
"They will kill my father," she said despondently, "they always hold him responsible for any accident."
"They cannot reach him," consoled Tradmos. "He is safe for the present at least."
"Is it possible to make the repairs needed?"
"I don't know. When the accident happened long ago the sun was just rising."
"Has it stopped?"
"I think not; it has simply gone out; the electric connection has, in some way, been cut off."
The tumult seemed to have extended to the very limits of the city, and was constantly increasing. The smashing of timber and the falling of heavy stones were heard near by.
Tradmos leaned far over the parapet. "They are coming toward us!" he said; "they intend to destroy the palace; we must try to get down, but we shall meet danger even there."
Johnston and Branasko looked down at the great ball of light below them in silent wonder. Johnston was the first to speak. He pointed to the four massive cables which supported the sun at each corner of the platform and extended upward till they were enveloped in the darkness.
"They hold us up," he said, "where do they go to?"
"To the big trucks which run on the tracks near the roof of the cavern; the endless cables are up there, too, but we can not see them with this glare about us."
"We can see nothing of Alpha from here," remarked Johnston disappointedly, "we can see nothing beyond our circle of light."
"I should like to look down from this height at night," said the Alphian. "It would be a great view."
"What is this?" Johnston went to one side of the platform and laid his hand on the spokes of a polished metal wheel shaped like the pilot-wheel of a steamboat. Branasko hastened to him.
"Don't touch it," he warned. "It looks as if it were to turn the electric connection off and on. If the sun should go out, the consequences would be awful. The people of Alpha would go mad with fear."
The American withdrew his hand, and he and Branasko walked back to the centre of the platform. Johnston uttered an exclamation of surprise. "The light is changing."
And it was, for it was gradually fading into a purple that was delightfully soothing to the eye after the painful brightness of a moment before.
"I understand," said the Alphian, "we are running very slow and are only now about to approach the great wall, for purple is the color of the first morning hour."
"But how is the light changed?" asked Johnston curiously.
"By some shifting of glasses through which the rays shine, I presume," returned the Alphian; "but the mechanism seems to be concealed in the walls of the globe."
Not a word was spoken for an hour. They had lain down on the platform near the iron railing which encompassed it, and Branasko was dozing intermittently. Again the light began to change gradually. This time it was gray. Johnston put out his hand to touch Branasko, but the Alphian was awake. He sat up and nodded smiling. "Wait till the next hour," he said; "it will be rose-color; that is the most beautiful."
Slowly the hours dragged by till the yellow light showed that it was the sixth hour. Branasko had been exploring the vast interior below and came back to Johnston who was asleep on the floor of the platform.
"I have just thought of something," said Branasko. "This is the day appointed by the king to entertain his subjects with a grand display of the elements."
"I do not understand," said Johnston.
"The king," explained the Alphian, "darkens the sun with clouds so that all Alpha is blacker than night, and then he produces great storms in the sky, and lightning and musical thunder. We may, perhaps, hear the music, but we cannot witness the storm and electric display on account of the light about us. It usually begins at this hour; so be silent and listen."
After a few minutes there was a rumble from below like the roar of a volcano and an answering echo from the black dome overhead. This died away and was succeeded by a crash of musical thunder that thrilled Johnston's being to its very core. Branasko's face was aglow with enthusiasm.
"Grand, glorious!" he ejaculated, "but if only you could see the lightning and the dawn in the east you would remember it all your life. The sunlight is cut off from Alpha by the clouds, and there is no light except the wonderful effects in the sky."
Johnston had gone back to the wheel and was examining it curiously.
"I have a mind to turn off the current for a moment anyway," he said doggedly; "if the sun is hidden they would not discover it."
Branasko came to him, a weird look of interest in his eyes. "That is true," he said; "besides, what matters it? We may not live to see another day."
Johnston acted on a sudden impulse. He intended only to frighten Branasko by moving the wheel slightly, and he had turned it barely an eighth of an inch, when, as if controlled by some powerful spring, it whirled round at a great rate, making a loud rattling noise. To their dismay the light went out.
"My God! what have I done?" gasped the American in alarm.
"Settled our fate, I have no doubt," muttered the Alphian from the darkness.
Johnston had recoiled from the whirling wheel, and now cautiously groped back to it, and attempted to turn it. It would not move.
"It has caught some way," he groaned under his breath.
"And we have no light to find the cause of the trouble," added the Alphian, who had knelt down and was feeling about the wheel. Presently he rose.
"I give it up," he sighed, "I cannot understand it. The machinery is somewhere inside."
"It has grown colder," shuddered Johnston.
"We were warmed by the light, of course," remarked Branasko, "and now we feel the dampness more. We are going at a frightful speed."
Just then there was a jar, and the sun swung so violently from side to side that the two men were prostrated on the floor. The speed seemed to slacken.
"I wonder if we are going to stop," groaned the American, and he sat up and held to Branasko. "Perhaps they will draw us back to rectify the mistake, and then——"
"It cannot be done," interrupted the Alphian. "The machinery runs only one way. We shall simply have to finish our journey in darkness."
"They may catch us on the other side before the sun starts back through the tunnel," suggested the American.
"Not unlikely," returned Branasko. "There, we are going ahead again. One thing in our favor is that we can more easily escape capture in darkness than if the sun were shining."
"Does the sun stop before entering the tunnel?"
"I do not know," replied Branasko; "perhaps somebody will be there to see what is wrong with the light. We must have our wits about us when we land."
Johnston was looking over the edge of the platform. "If the king's display is taking place down there I can see no sign of it."
"How stupid of us!" ejaculated Branasko. "Of course, clouds sufficiently dense to hide the sun from Alpha would also prevent us from seeing the display below. I ought to——"
He was interrupted by a grand outburst of harmony. The whole earth seemed to vibrate with sublime melody. "Our blunder has not been discovered yet," finished Branasko, after a pause, "else the fete down below would have been over. I am cold; shall we go inside?"
Johnston's answer was taken out of his mouth by a loud rattling beneath the floor, near the wheel he had just turned; the sun shook spasmodically for an instant, and its entire surface was faintly illuminated, but the light failed signally.
"It must have been an extra current of electricity sent to relight the lamps," remarked Johnston; and, as he concluded, the sun trembled again, and another flash and failure occurred. "Look," cried the American, "the clouds are thinning; see the lights below! They have discovered the accident!"
They both leaned over the railing and looked below. As far as the eye could reach, within the arc of their vision, they could see fitful lights flashing up, here and there, and going out again. And then they heard faint sounds of crashing masonry and the condensed roar of human voices, which seemed to come from above rather than from below. The Alphian turned. "I cannot stand the cold," he said.
Johnston followed him. The rapid motion of the swinging sphere made him dizzy, and he caught Branasko's arm to keep from falling.
"How can we tell when we go over the wall?" he asked anxiously.
"We shall have to guess at it," was the answer. "At any rate we must be near the lower door so as to get out quickly if it is necessary to do so to escape detection."
In the darkness they slowly made their way down the stairs to the great room.
"There ought to be some way of making a light," said the Alphian, and his voice sounded loud and hollow in the empty chamber. After several failures to find the stairs they descended to the door they had entered. Branasko opened it a little, and a breeze came in. They sat down on the stone, and after a while, in sheer fatigue, they fell asleep. Hours passed. Branasko rose with a start, and shook Johnston.
"Our speed is lessening," he exclaimed. "We must be going down. Be ready to jump out the instant we stop. There, let me open the door wider."
When Tradmos spoke the words of warning, Thorndyke put his arm round the princess and drew her after Tradmos, who was hastening away in the gloom.
"Wait," she said, drawing back. "Let us not get excited. We are really as safe here as there; for in their madness they will kill one another and trample them under foot." She led him to a parapet overlooking the great court below. "Hear them," she said, in pity, "listen to their blows and cries. That was a woman's voice, and some man must have struck her."
"Tell me what is best to do," said the Englishman. "I want to protect you, but I am helpless; I don't know which way to turn."
"Wait," she said simply, and the Englishman thought she drew closer to him, as if touched by his words.
There was a crash of timbers—a massive door had fallen—a scrambling of feet on the stone pavement, and they could see the dark human mass surging into the court through the corridors leading from the streets.
"What are they doing?" asked Thorn dyke.
She shrank from the parapet as if she had been struck.
"Tearing the pillars down," she replied aghast; "this part of the palace will fall. Oh, what can be done!"
There was a grinding of stone upon stone, a mad yell from an hundred throats, the crash of glass, and, with a thunderous sound, a colossal pillar fell to the earth. The roof beneath the feet of the princess and Thorndyke trembled and sagged, and the tiling split and showered about them.
Raising Bernardino in his arms, as if she were an infant, Thorndyke sprang toward the stairway leading to his chambers, but the roof had sunken till it was steep and slippery. One instant he was toppling over backward, the next, by a mighty effort, he had recovered his equilibrium, and finally managed to reach a safer place. As he hurried on another pillar went down. The roof sagged lower, and an avalanche of mortar and tiling slid into the court below. Yells, groans, and cries of fury rent the air.
Bernardino had fainted. Thorndyke tried to restore her to consciousness, but dared not put her from him for an instant. On he ran, and presently reached a flight of stairs which he thought led to his chambers. He descended them, and was hastening along a narrow corridor on the floor beneath when Bernardino opened her eyes. She asked to be released from his arms. He put her down, but supported her along the corridor.
"We have lost our way," he said, as he discovered that the corridor, instead of leading to his chambers, turned off obliquely in another direction.
"Let's go on anyway," she suggested; "it may lead us out. I have never been here before. I—" A great crash drowned her words. The floor quivered and swayed, but it did not fall. On they ran through the darkness, till Thorndyke felt a heavy curtain before. He paused abruptly, not knowing what to do. Bernardino felt of its texture, perplexed for an instant.
"Draw it aside, it seems to hang across the corridor," she said. He obeyed her, and only a few yards further on they saw another curtain with bars of light above and below it. They drew this aside, and found themselves on the threshold of a most beautiful apartment.
In the mosaic floor were pictures cut in colored stones, and the ceiling was a silken canopy as filmy and as delicately blue as the sky on a summer's night. The floor was strewn with richly embroidered pillows, couches, rugs and ottomans; and here and there were palm trees and beds of flowers and grottoes. A solitary light, representing the moon, showed through the silken canopy in whose folds little lights sparkled like far-off stars.
Thorndyke looked at the princess inquiringly. She was bewildered.
"I have no idea where we are," she murmured. "I am sure I have never been here before; but there is another apartment beyond. Listen! I hear cries."
"Some one in distress," he answered, and he drew her across the room and through a door into another room more beautiful than the one they had just left. Here, huddled together at a window overlooking the court, were six or eight beautiful young women. They were staring out into the darkness, and moaning and muttering low cries of despair.
"It is my father's ladies," ejaculated the princess aghast. "He would be angry if he knew we had come here. No one but himself enters these apartments."
Just then one of the women turned a lovely and despairing face toward them, and came forward and knelt at the feet of Bernardino.
"Oh, save us, Princess," she cried.
"Be calm," said the princess, touching the white brow of the woman. "The danger may soon pass; this portion of the palace is too strongly built for them to injure it." Then she turned to Thorndyke: "We must hasten on and find our way down; it would never do for us to be seen here." Then she turned to the kneeling woman and said gently: "I hope you will say nothing to the king of this; we lost our way in trying to get down from the roof."