Late in the spring the toiling cattle left the threshing-floors, and traversed the fields in long procession, two and two, lashed together by a bar across the horns instead of a yoke, and dragging heavy stone ploughs slowly after them to prepare the soil for a new planting. But while the whole left bank of the Nasr-Nil swarmed with Hotep's patient teams and their busy drivers, the right bank was deserted, idle, and lifeless. Every one wondered why the Pharaoh's planting was being delayed; no one knew why the Pharaoh's men and cattle were idle; and the old men shook their heads and muttered that the river would overflow its banks long before the Pharaoh's seed was in. After a while Zaphnath sent for me, and when I came before him he said,-- "The Pharaoh is sick with the plenty of the land, weary of the sight of grain-laden mules and ploughing cattle, and so cumbered about with mountains of wheat that he desireth not to plant his fields. Thou art not one to see his lands lie idle. If thou hast aught with which to tempt him, I can persuade him to let unto thee all his land and to hire unto thee all his men and mules and cattle. For hath he not acquired all his riches in seven years' harvests? and in another seven thou mayest be as rich as he."
"Mayhap, O Zaphnath, the coming seven years may not be as plenteous as the last seven have been; but, in any case, I have no more gold with which to tempt the Pharaoh, having parted with all of it in a bad bargain with Hotep, whom thou knowest, for half of his coming crops."
Thereupon he bade me remain, and sent for Hotep, and said to him,-- "Behold, have not the harvests of seven years made Pharaoh the richest man upon Ptah, so that he covets no more grain, but only things of rare beauty? And are not thy harvests reduced by half through thy compact with him from the Blue Star? Now, if thou likest to tempt the Pharaoh with an hundred of thy golden coins, and one-and-twenty of the moon-sized discs of gold such as thou wearest there, thou mayest hire his land for the next seven years, and all his men and animals for a like time, if thou wilt feed and nourish them; and then shall not both banks of the great river bring forth riches, and be burdened with the plenteous harvests of Hotep?"
"Is the Pharaoh indeed weary of rich harvests, or doth he rather itch for my gold? Yet, had I the seed to plant all his fields, I might consider the undertaking thou shewest me."
"Let not that delay thee," answered Zaphnath, "for I am sure he will gladly lend to such a man as Hotep the seed thou needest until thy next harvest be gathered."
So the matter was thus finally concluded, and I was a witness to the compact.
Then Hotep's Chief of Harvests worked early and late to finish planting before the Month of Midnight Snows, when the Nasr-Nil usually overflows its banks and waters the harvest. But, as if to oblige a man so industrious in preparing the way for it, the great river did not rise at its customary time, and Hotep was able to finish his seeding on both banks.
The black loam along the shores parched and crumbled, and borrowed the look of the great desert; the feathers of darkness fell later and later, until they began to appear with the dawn, and yet the river failed to rise; the priests went through their perfunctory rites to placate the god of the Overflow, and made their impotent sacrifices to tempt him to bless the harvest; but Hotep saw the Snowless Month, which should have ripened his grain, dawn upon fields that were dried to seas of drifting dust and void of all vegetation. His army of men, augmented by the Pharaoh's thousands, and his ten thousand cattle and mules, all ate and waited and waited and ate, and yet there was no work for them. The following spring there was no need to plough the fields, and no seed to plant them.
When Zaphnath learned that Hotep must deliver a hundred thousand mule-cargoes of wheat to me, or forfeit a hundred gold pieces, he sent for him, and sold to him for the hundred pieces enough of the Pharaoh's grain already on the plateau to pay me, and lent him the seed to plant all the land again. But aside from this, the Pharaoh sold not a bag of wheat, and during the first year all the small stores of grain throughout Kem were consumed, and the price rose to three times its former value. Therefore, Hotep consoled himself with the thought that he could make more out of one crop after a failure than he could have made out of two crops without it, and he happily sowed his fields anew.
Before the river was due to rise the second time, the poor began to suffer from the famine. There was no employment for the thousands who had been attracted to Kem to gather the previous large harvests. Only those fortunate enough to be slaves enjoyed an assured living, and this entire class was now dependent upon Hotep, for Pharaoh supported only his women and his personal servants. Many people desired to deliver themselves into slavery, but Pharaoh would not accept any, and Hotep already had more than he could feed. During the Month of Midnight Snows the entire population of the city watched the river with apprehension, noting its slightest fluctuation. But day after day the people saw no change, and idleness fostered grumbling and discontent among them. Zaphnath and the Pharaoh were privately criticised because they did not attend or contribute to the sacrifices made to the god of Overflow; because they hoarded so much grain, and did nothing to alleviate the distress of the people. And there were many who attributed the unusual action of the river to the presence upon Ptah of two strangers from the Blue Star.
When two fruitless months had passed without any rising of the waters, Hotep lost courage, and was obliged to proclaim that all his men and beasts must exist upon half-rations. It was then that public suffering became general. About this time I consulted with the doctor whether to press Hotep for the second delivery of a hundred thousand cargoes of wheat.
"Certainly; demand it from him," he answered, greatly to my surprise, "especially so long as it amounts to squeezing the wheat out of the Pharaoh. It is certain he will furnish the wheat in exchange for Hotep's gold, and a few coins are really nothing to him or to you either. As long as the Pharaoh covets them, make him pay well for them."
"But I expected you would advise leniency, as you have never sympathized with my wheat speculation in the least," I replied.
"I do not share your idle dream of riches, but nevertheless I want to get as much wheat into our hands as possible, especially if it comes from the Pharaoh. You do not seem to appreciate the real reason, but blindly chase after the bauble of fortune. It was the same when I first saw you in Chicago, and now you are just as impulsive and thoughtless. I have no doubt but you have already computed a hundred times how rich you are in Earthly terms and figures."
"The time for a big value has not quite come yet, but I confess I have estimated that it will run into many millions of dollars."
"Rubbish! What is the use of such childish nonsense? Even if we had our projectile to return with, you could never take any of your riches back to Earth with you!"
"And why not?" I demanded in astonishment.
"What is your fortune? It now exists in grain at an inflated famine value. You couldn't transport the grain back to Earth, and if you could, it would shrink in value and fail to pay the freight. What can you exchange it for here? For lands, for women, for slaves, none of which have any commercial value on Earth."
"But I can sell it for money!" I put in.
"Yes, for iron money worth a few dollars a ton on Earth! Why, not even your entire fortune will buy enough iron to build a new projectile to enable us to return. You parted with the only valuable and portable form of property when you exchanged your gold. Now that is rapidly going into the Pharaoh's hands, to remain there, and you can never return to Earth as rich as you left it, though you be worth all the money and property in the land of Kem!"
"Well, it does look a little as if I had been scheming for riches here, without knowing just why I want them."
"Yes, you have formed that habit on Earth. Only they carry it further there--swindle their brothers, deceive their parents, oppress the weak, extort from the poor; work, toil, plot, cheat, rob, yes, even kill! in order to lay up a store of something they can never take away with them, and which renders them unhappy oftener than happy while they remain to guard it."
"I have heard that sort of talk often before, Doctor, but I never saw the truth of it quite so plainly as now. I have outwitted and squeezed Hotep, the man on whom the whole city now depends for existence."
"They think they depend upon him, but you know as well as I do that he will be powerless; that he must see them starve by thousands, and part with the last bit of his cherished riches to save his own life. No, Isidor, your business sagacity has not been in vain, for this entire people depend not on Hotep, but on you! You alone have the food to preserve many of them alive through a famine and a pestilence whose horrors are just beginning. Pharaoh and Zaphnath will squeeze and pinch them, and see them die, and turn it all to their own profit; but let us constitute ourselves a relief committee, you and I. Let us set these Kemish rulers an example of humanity, as we know it on Earth."
Revolutionist and Eavesdropper In Kem, where agriculture was almost the only occupation, and where the ox was helpful both in planting and threshing the grain, it was quite natural that he should be revered, or at least respected as a partner in the toil, and that a strong prejudice should prevail against his being slaughtered for food. In fact, it was not the practice of the Kemish to eat any large animals, but they confined themselves to fish and small fowl for meats. Nevertheless, I urged upon Hotep the necessity of killing some of his cattle to provide food for his miserable and poorly-fed labourers. But he stubbornly refused to do so, saying his men would rather eat the flesh of mules than of cattle.
Without being pressed for it, he paid me the second hundred thousand cargoes of wheat, which he bought from the Pharaoh with gold, as he had done before. But I divided this entire quantity of grain among Hotep's labourers, which eked out their half-rations for almost a year. I stipulated that none of this grain should be used for seed, for I firmly believed it would be wasted. But Pharaoh again lent the seed for planting a third crop, insisting that the discouraged Hotep should put it in the ground, and reminding him that the only way he could get grain to pay his heavy debts was to raise a crop.
Thenocris had not been long in learning the location of our house near her favourite gate, and it was her habit to call on us every day at the time of the noon-day meal. She always carried and caressed her white rabbit, and they came to us like two dumb animals to be fed. Her tall, stately figure, traversing the city on her daily journey to our house, soon became a familiar sight; and when the people began to be oppressed by hunger, they gradually overcame their early fear of us, and followed her to our door for food. We had never turned any away, for beggary was rare enough in Kem, and no sane person ever resorted to it except in the sorest extremes of need.
Zaphnath doubtless looked with an evil eye upon the crowds that daily thronged our door to secure food. The Pharaoh rarely left his palace, and bothered little about affairs outside, and Zaphnath must have been at the bottom of an edict which was shortly issued. Nothing that I remember in Kem better illustrated the absolute power of the Pharaoh and the unrestrained enforcement of his merest whim. The edict referred to the scarcity of bread and the multitude of foreigners who were flocking to the city to secure it, and provided (ostensibly for the good of the Kemish people) that no man in the city of Kem should give bread or any sort of food to any but the members of his own household. Moreover, no man should sell grain or bread at a less price than that established by the Pharaoh for the sale of his own.
The doctor and I realized that this was aimed at no one but us. They were jealous of our charity, and wished to turn everybody's need to their own profit. We scoffed at the tyranny of such an edict, but it was the arbitrary sort of law to which the Kemish were accustomed. Yet if we gave up our undertaking, and the unfortunate multitude went unfed for a few days, bread riots were certain to break out, and they might result in the death or overthrow of the short-sighted Pharaoh, and the seizure of his grain. Even this would not settle the question, for the victors might enforce a worse monopoly of it, if that were possible.
"We must continue to feed them all outside the city,--at the Gnomons, for instance," I suggested.
"Yes, we must feed them there in a large chamber, and eat with them, so that they may be considered members of our household," added the doctor.
Thus it happened that the paths which Hotep's mules had worn so deeply were now thronged by a great multitude of the city's poor in their daily pilgrimage to the Gnomons. In an enormous chamber which we fitted up for that purpose, we served to each comer one generous meal, and there were so many who came that this meal was going on almost all day long. The Pharaoh fed no one but his favourites and his soldiers, and of these last he discharged a large number, reducing his army to a hungry, ill-fed thousand men. Those who were discharged came to eat with us, and many of those retained would gladly have done so, had we not excluded every one in the Pharaoh's service.
Meantime the Nasr-Nil ran lower in her banks than ever before, and gave no signs of rising; the nightly snows were brief and evanescent, and the rains, which had never been copious on Ptah, now ceased entirely. Every green thing gradually vanished from Kem, and Hotep's third crop rotted or lay sodden in the ground as the others had done. He knew that I had been offered the opportunity to plant the Pharaoh's fields, and that I had not only refused, but had hoarded grain. This may have led him to conclude that I knew some reason for the famine, and I was not surprised when he sought me one day at the Gnomons. He begged a strictly private interview with me, and I conducted him to a small room I had constructed by running two thin walls of porous stone from one Gnomon to another, and covering the enclosure with a flat roof.
"Dost thou know that thou hast linked together with thy slender walls the monuments of two antagonistic dynasties?" he began. "This structure to the left was built by the fifth ancestor of the present Pharaoh, in truth the first ruler of his dynasty. The structure to the right, however, is vastly older, and was built by the tenth Pharaoh of the dynasty, from which I am directly descended. My ancestors were vanquished by dint of wars, and their powers usurped by the ancestors of this same selfish Pharaoh, who hath not so good a right to rule as I."
I think I was born without a vestige of revolutionary spirit, for I have always felt a respect for the institutions that are, and an allegiance to the powers that rule. I remember the distinct shock which this utterance of Hotep's gave me. I said nothing, but he answered the surprised look on my face.
"Thou knowest well that the entire labouring population of Kem is fed by me in my fields on one side of the city; while all the poor and unfortunate are fed by you here on the other side. What man of Kem thinks of the grand palace of the Pharaoh in the midst of the city, but to curse it? What subject who knows how the Pharaoh and his favourites gorge themselves in luxurious plenty, while he nurses his hunger, but would a thousand times rather pay allegiance to those who save him from absolute starvation? And Zaphnath, in his nightly wanderings and his daily errands of espionage, thinkest thou he overhears a public grumbler who fails to curse him and his Pharaoh, and to extol the men from the Blue Star, and the unfortunate farmer, who, until now, has been able to give the people work and sustenance?"
"Doth Zaphnath spend his time in watching and spying, then?" I asked.
"Aye, that he doth! I crossed his path even now, coming through the city, and he set at following me, but by quick turns I eluded him. He it is who by his loans and compacts hath snared and tricked me until now I am utterly ruined, unless I can claim my rightful turn at ruling. Alone I cannot do it; with thy help I can."
"How, then, could I be of assistance to you?" I exclaimed in some astonishment, without stopping to think of the justice of his claims.
"From what I have heard of the thunder thou commandest, and the lightning thou art able to carry, it doth appear that thou couldst overcome the Pharaoh and his thousand half-starved men, who secretly itch to change masters. Thou hast the means to do it; I have the right to do it; and the people would unanimously applaud the doing of it. Let us strike together, then; let us seize the Pharaoh's grain and apportion it among our supporters and the needy, and when I am established as Pharaoh, thou shalt be my ruler in the place of Zaphnath."
"Thou temptest me but little, O Hotep. Once before I was offered a rulership in Kem which I refused. Besides, am I not bound by an agreement to loyalty and obedience to this Pharaoh?"
"Aye! Even as I am bound to come to a sure ruin; and as every man in Kem is bound to sit meekly by and starve. But is a ruler no way bound? May he claim the life of his subjects for his profit? How long will they suffer such treatment? And if we are restrained by loyalty, how long will it be till some one else strikes the blow we stick at----?"
He was interrupted by a vigorous knocking at the door, as of one who commands rather than entreats an opening. Who could it be? I turned to see, but Hotep caught me by the arm.
"Before thou openest, tell me if thou wilt join me in this undertaking for the sake of a suffering people?"
"Nay, Hotep; it is wrong, and I will not do it. I am bound to this Pharaoh, bad as he is, and to thy dynasty I owe nothing." The rapping began again and more loudly now, but Hotep still restrained me.
"For half of all my fields wilt thou furnish me the grain to pay the Pharaoh, and thus avert my ruin?"
"And if I would, how wouldst thou feed the men and mules and cattle through another year of famine, and another, and another?"
"Thou thinkest the crops will fail yet three more years!" he exclaimed, half stupefied by the thought.
"Aye, four! I know it for most certain," I answered, and the insistent knocking was vigorously renewed.
"Then I am too deep in the mire for thee or any one to pull me out. Open to this importunate knocker."
I threw open the door, and there stood the keen-eyed, angry-visaged Zaphnath! How long had he been listening outside there? How much had he stealthily overheard before he began knocking? All the Kemish had need to speak doubly loud to us from Earth, for our ears were not made for thin air and its weak sounds. Moreover, Hotep had spoken throughout with a fervent declamation. But what I said in my ordinary tones was always easily understood by Hotep's keen ears. Therefore it seemed quite certain that Zaphnath had heard through the thin wall all that Hotep had said, and probably none of what I said. So much the worse. He had doubtless supplied my speeches to suit himself, and made them fit into Hotep's plotting. At any rate there was hot anger in his face when he spoke to me,-- "Thou servest the Pharaoh well, by contriving how to cross his wishes at every point! It were well thy office were withdrawn; I have brothers about me now who could better fill it."
"Whenever it pleaseth the Pharaoh or his all-potent ruler to abrogate his compact with me, I am quite ready to begin where we left off when it was made," I retorted. I did not think till afterwards that this might serve wrongly to indicate to him the tenor of my answers to Hotep's scheming. His eyes flashed angrily at this, yet he made no reply, but spoke to Hotep instead.
"Before the end of the clock this day, the Pharaoh requireth of thee full settlement of all thou owest him. Attempt nothing but a just and full repayment, O most precious Hotep, for thy every act is watched and known to us!"
The Doctor Disappears Hotep saw that he was ruined, and he went to fall down before Pharaoh and beg for mercy. The monarch, not having the courage of his own hard-heartedness, answered him,-- "I desire not to deal harshly with thee, O Hotep; for thou hast struggled desperately against an unwilling soil and unpropitious seasons. But thou knowest all my affairs are in the hands of Zaphnath, without whom I do nothing. Therefore go thou before him and do even as he telleth thee."
And Hotep, having made an invoice of all his money, and slaves, and mules, and cattle, took it before Zaphnath, saying,-- "Behold, O most merciful ruler of Kem, I have threescore-and-ten of the great golden discs, and seven hundredweight of the coins of Kem wherewith to repay the Pharaoh for the seed which the seasons have stolen from me. But I have neither food for all the men, and mules, and cattle which are the Pharaoh's, nor yet for mine own; wherefore I beg of thee to take back his slaves and animals, and release me from feeding them; and I will forfeit unto the Pharaoh all my working slaves, which are thirty score, and all my mules, which are a thousand and one, and all my cattle, which are an hundred score, and they shall be his for ever."
"Methinks thou borrowest with a large hand and repayest like a very miser," answered Zaphnath. "All the money thou namest will not buy a thousand cargoes of grain, for behold, is not wheat worth iron money, weight for weight? And to reimburse the Pharaoh for feeding all his men and animals through the famine, which may continue, it is a rare kindness in thee to desire to give him also all of thine to be fed and nourished! What wilt thou do with all thy land when thou hast no men or beasts to till it? And how wilt thou maintain thy proud palace, with three hundred women, when thou hast no revenues left?"
"'Tis true, O Zaphnath; and if the Pharaoh covet them, take them all--the palace, the women, the rich clothing and rare jewels, and even the endless fields which have cursed me! For the days of Hotep's riches are ended. Let him be acquit, and go from thee in peace!"
"Even with them all, thou knowest he is but poorly paid; yet it is I who have prevailed upon him not to be harsh with thee. But if the famine continue, what thinkest thou of doing to gain a living?"
"By my beard! Doth the Pharaoh wish to make a slave of me also?"
"Nay, Hotep; not a common slave. But hast thou a mind to starve? I have besought him to give thee an honourable and luxuriant service, befitting thy tastes and habits. He will make thee chamberlain of his palace."
"Is there no other thing thou canst think of or invent, O most merciful Zaphnath? Lands, slaves, animals, money, women, jewels, palace, and even my life and body for the gracious Pharaoh's service! Is that all? If so, I beg thee declare the bargain made and all my undertakings fully acquit."
Hotep came to me the following day, with his beard shaven and the Pharaoh's bird-wing on his brow. He wore the dress of the Pharaoh's chamberlain, and he told me how it had all happened. He also told me that the Pharaoh had now thrown wide open the doors of slavery, and offered to feed all who surrendered themselves to his service for life. And Zaphnath never ceased to itch for all the lands, and cattle, and slaves of every one in Kem and her tributary countries, either in exchange for the bare needs of life, or as pledges for seed which he knew would only rot and ruin the borrower.
I went about my affairs on the plateau that day, wondering how long I should continue there, or whether my threat had been effective in silencing the enmity of the rulers. When I returned that evening, I did not find the doctor at the house. My servant said that a messenger from the chamberlain had summoned him on important business, soon after the noon-day meal. I waited a little longer, and then I began to fear that the chamberlain had been used to decoy the doctor into some trap. If he was staying away of his own account, why did he not send me some word? Messengers were plenty. At last I sent the servant to the palace to inquire and search for him. After a long stay he returned, saying the doctor was nowhere to be found. No one had seen or heard of him there that day.
"And the chamberlain?" I demanded.
"He was not to be found in his rooms, and no one had seen him since noon-day."
"Didst thou make inquiry for the messenger who summoned the doctor?" I asked.
He had not thought of it; so I started to the palace myself. I had gone but a few steps when it occurred to me to act with a little more caution, and be prepared for some plot against myself. I turned back to the house, and had the servant remove the heap of pillows where I slept. Underneath was a loosened stone of the floor, and below it we kept the rifles, revolvers, and ammunition hidden. I carefully loaded all of them, and put all the remaining cartridges into our two old belts. I thought of strapping one of these about me, but reflected that this would have a hostile and treasonable appearance, so I contented myself with concealing one revolver in my coat, and then I carefully covered up all the rest, and had the servant pile the pillows over the stone slab again.
Then I went out and walked to the palace. Leaping the wall, I questioned every one I saw about the doctor, the chamberlain, and his messenger. No one had seen anything of them. The messenger was absent from his lodging, as well as the chamberlain. Either they were all gone somewhere secretly together, or they had all suffered a common mysterious fate. Unable to do anything more, I returned home full of apprehension.
I slept fitfully a few hours, and then I had a most realistic dream, which began among my old surroundings on Earth: the wheat pit, the closing of a turbulent session, the drive through the parks till I came suddenly in sight of the great spherical cactus design of the World in Washington Park. As I approached this, it seemed to leave its pedestal and move freely through space toward me. I seized one of its meridians, and, clinging tightly, was carried off over the park, over the lake, over seas of ice, through an ocean of sparkling light, faster and farther every moment, until presently my little globe refused to hold me longer, and repelled me through a long, giddy, awful fall which filled me with terror. But I landed in the dark chamber of a Gnomon, waist-deep in loose wheat. It seemed gradually to grow deeper about me, rose to my shoulders, to my chin; and as I looked up I saw Slater pouring in wheat in a steady stream. He meant to smother and choke me with it. Ah, if I only had a thousand, aye, ten thousand mouths to eat it, he could never do it. I could keep even with him. But it gradually rose past my mouth, past my nose; it covered my head and was smothering me. What an awful thing was too much food, after all! And then I wakened to find my head covered with pillows until I was half-choked for breath.
It was all so vivid I could not rid my mind of it. It seemed really to have happened but a moment ago. My mind was palpitating afresh with those Earthly scenes which had for years been fading out of it. What could it all mean? Then I thought of the doctor. Perhaps they were smothering him in one of the Gnomons. It seemed hardly probable, but the idea took a strange hold on me. The chambers were all full and sealed, but one; it had been opened, and wheat was daily being used out of it; none was at hand to be poured in. It was foolish to do so, but I could not rest until I had gone to the Gnomons to see. Of course I would find nothing there, but I should not be content till I had tried. At least, the night air and the gently falling feathers of darkness would restore my calmness again.
I had the precaution to take my revolver again, and after a very short walk I stood face to face with the great stone gate, barred and locked to confine all others within the city. The fact that it was fastened on the inside proved that the doctor's captors were not outside, or, at least, did not expect to return till after daylight. With a brisk jump I cleared the wall easily, and walked rapidly to the plateau. There was no sign of life there. I mounted the only unsealed Gnomon and shouted down into its cavernous depths. Of course there was no answer. I was now so wide awake it seemed to me quite silly to follow the promptings of a dream, so I began to return in a leisurely walk.
The night scene all about me, how different it was from those to which I had been accustomed on Earth! Out of a pink sky flakes of frozen dew were gently falling, starching the arid, verdureless soil with a glistening coat of evanescent white. Along the river bank, tall, slender, lightly-rooted trees reached far up into the breathless air, but there was never the movement of a bough or the rustle of a leaf, except from the flutter of birds. Jungles of spindling reeds also towered from waste marshes, in testimony to the easy struggle which vegetable sap had been able to accomplish over a weak gravity. Everything was eloquent with the reminder that I was on a different world; but yet, when I looked up at the starry heavens, they were the same. All the familiar constellations, changing their positions through the night with the same stately dignity, were there. The Pleiades, Orion, the Great Bear, with his nose constantly pointed at the Pole Star, made me feel that, at least in the heavens, I was at home! Only the colour of the night, the two little moons, and the planets looked different. Great Jupiter, king of the Martian night, whose brilliancy, if not his size, outrivalled the pale moons; Saturn, with his tilted ring, was visible to the naked eye; and yon pearly blue star, just rising to announce the morning, was Earth. Earth, which I had so unwillingly left, would I ever see her again as anything but a Sun-attending star? Would I ever walk her familiar paths, and know my brother creatures there again?
With this thought came over me an unspeakable sense of loneliness, a depressing home-sickness, an aching yearning for that life, tempestuous as it had been. And how I despised the monotony and lowness of the Martian life; how I loathed the spreading misery of the famine, and the vile and dreadful pestilences which it was begetting! How could I ever endure the four more slow years of it which I confidently expected to ensue? What would I not give to leave it all and return!
I had retraced my steps, leapt the wall again, and as I approached our house was surprised to see, in the dim light of the coming morning, a figure standing guard at the doorway. He was a soldier, and on closer approach I saw that he wore a beard, which showed him to be a captain. But what surprised me far more was that he held awkwardly in his arms one of our loaded rifles. Here was certain treachery. Since he stood guard, he doubtless had soldiers within; and if they had found one firearm they must have found the others also. But how had they succeeded in finding them? A mere search never would have revealed their secret place. Some one who knew of their location must have disclosed it. Could it have been the doctor? Had they brought him back, and forced him to produce the arms?
In that case, now was my chance to liberate him. Fortunately they did not know how to use the arms they had captured, and I had one revolver with five good loads in it. With five telling shots I ought to be able to create panic enough to enable the doctor to get possession of another gun and help me rout them.
All this flashed through my mind in a twinkling, and just as I drew out my revolver the captain caught sight of me. He quickly shifted the rifle in his hands and tugged at the hammer. He knew nothing of the necessity of taking aim, or of the use of the trigger. It would only be by the merest chance if he hit me. I had half drawn the trigger, and was just correcting my aim, when a long flash of flame from the rifle startled me, and unconsciously I fired wild. By lifting the hammer of the rifle and letting it snap back, the captain had exploded one cartridge at random. But my careful aiming had now taught him a trick; I saw him attempting the same arm's-length aim with the rifle. He did it awkwardly enough, and pulled up the hammer with the other hand. It fell with a snap on the discharged cartridge. He could be relied on never to learn the trick of ejecting them and reloading with the sixteen that lay ready up the length of the barrel. Therefore, instead of firing again, I rushed at him to capture the rifle. But he was too quick for me, for thrusting it inside the house with a quick command, the other was handed out to him. I was now at such extremely close range that his awkward aim covered me; but I was quicker on the trigger than he was on the hammer, and with a cry the first Martian to suffer by gunpowder fell to the ground. I sprang for his rifle just as some one from inside snatched it away and pointed it at me again. Whoever had it, stood half behind the door and out of range. But I aimed at his fingers on the rifle barrel, and by a lucky chance I hit them, for the rifle dropped and the body staggered into full view. Another quick shot sent this fellow to the ground, but as I reached for his rifle, it was snatched away again.
Now I saw the absolute necessity of possessing myself of another firearm, for I had but one load left in the revolver. I felt little fear of their awkward aim, therefore I made bold to rush inside on the chance of seizing the first gun I could lay my hands on. At the same time I would be able to see the position of the doctor. He must be gagged, for he had made no answer to my frequent cries to him in English. Once inside, I saw that the room was full of soldiers--twenty at least. They had a prisoner, true enough, but not the doctor. It was my servant, whom they had forced to disclose the location of the arms.
The soldiers quickly blocked the door and began closing in on me. One seized me by each arm, but with a quick shake I threw them off. Then a third fellow clutched my left arm so tightly I could not loosen him. Had I taken my eyes or my revolver off the crowd in front, they would have been upon me in a body; yet with my left arm I was able slowly to turn the clinging soldier around in front of me and to bring him gradually within close range of my revolver. When he saw its gleaming muzzle, he broke from me and fled to the others.
Little did they know that I could not afford to sacrifice my remaining load to kill a single man. I must use it to capture the other revolver, for rifles were of no use at such short range. I man[oe]uvred cautiously to keep most of the soldiers in front of me, and stealthily backed toward the door, where a soldier stood guard with the other weapon. I was reckoning on the cowardice of most of those in front of me, but I had failed to count on the men I had shot. As I now backed quickly towards the door, I suddenly felt the arms of the fallen man about my legs, and I stumbled backwards over him. In a twinkling the whole crowd was upon me, my revolver was seized, my arms were pinned to the ground, and the dying soldier clutched my legs in his last frenzy. I expected no better than to be shot immediately by a rifle held against my head, but their orders were evidently different. My arms were securely bound with rough fibrous thongs, and then they marched me to the palace just as the sun was rising.
The Revelation of Hotep I was not a little surprised to see that they carried me to the same ante-room in the palace which I had occupied on coming to Kem. But it was now quite stripped of all furnishings, and over each door were hung large, closely-spun fabrics, which completely covered and concealed them from sight. There were but two little windows high above my head, and had I been free to leap up to them, they were too small to afford me an exit. Driven into a stone slab of the floor were two large bent-wood staples. Between these they placed several cushions, upon which they laid me.
"May it please the strong man to rest here quietly, aye! and to slumber if he feel the need, until my master, the worshipful Zaphnath, be risen?" sneered the leader in polite irony, as the soldiers, having unbound my arms, proceeded to tie each hand securely to one of the wooden rings. Then with jeers they left me, pointing the fire-arms and swords at me as they went. I heard them bar the doors on the outside and try them with a severe shake; then their footsteps receded and all was still.
As I lay on my back looking up at the vaulted stone roof, I had my first leisure to reflect on the desperate condition into which we had at last fallen. The arms, which had meant our supremacy, were in the hands of our enemies; Hotep, our only friend in the palace, had mysteriously disappeared; the doctor was taken, perhaps killed by this time; and I could hardly outlast the day, for Zaphnath would reserve but one fate for a conspirator who sought his place. How soon would he come, and how would he dispose of me? I remembered having seen the punishment for treason of a noble personage, with whom I had once eaten at the Pharaoh's table. He was confined at the bottom of a tight stone pit, and a heavy, poisonous gas was slowly poured into it. He could see it slowly fill the pit, and as it gradually rose toward his nostrils, he could feel his death gradually measured out to him by inches. When he had breathed it in a little, his face swelled a livid purple, he choked and strangled, staggered and fell beneath the murky surface to die out of sight. The terror of such a slowly creeping danger! the horror of such a repulsive death! I remember saying at the time that in his place I would have snatched a quick respite from the lingering agonies by strangling myself, or tearing my wrist open with my teeth. Now, as I thought of it, I suddenly remembered my dream of being similarly smothered in the Gnomons by slowly inpouring grain. A superstitious mind would have feared that dream foretold my fate, but I was rational enough to perceive that it must have been suggested to me by a vagrant memory of the poisoning I had seen.
As I lay thinking thus, I shifted my position a little on the pillows for better comfort, and my eyes wandered slowly from the vaulted roof to the daylight at the two little high windows. I started in terror at what I saw, but blinked my eyes to make sure I was awake, and then looked more intently. There was no dreaming this time! I saw clearly, and at both windows, a curling, purple stream of dense, noxious gas pouring down into the room! It was much heavier than the air, and trickled slowly down like the ghost of murky waters gradually filling up a great well. Then I turned to look at the floor, the stones were no longer visible, but a coat of muddy purple covered them to a depth of several inches, and the noisome gas already reached almost to the tops of my cushions! All this had trickled in within ten minutes, and twice as much more would rise and cover me completely. Then an awful but silent death would creep into my lungs, and my only friends, the common people of Kem, would never know how I had perished.
Did I try to strangle myself or tear open my wrist? I could not get hand and mouth near enough together for either of these expedients, had the stubborn instinct of self-preservation left them any place in my mind. I kicked away the cushions, which gave me a little more room to work my knees under me. Then by straining on my thongs I was able to lift my head and shoulders upright, and save my nostrils from the noxious stuff for many minutes longer. All the years of my life on Ptah I had been vain of my superior physical strength. Would it serve me now to break the thongs that bound me? I tugged, and pulled, and struggled until I cut the flesh, but they only drew tighter; yet at each effort I gained a little more length of thong.
The purple surface, on which death floated, crept up toward me. The room was gas-tight; the doors were so covered that they could not leak, and had I succeeded in breaking loose I could not have shaken their bars. To save myself, I must make a breach in the floor; I must pull up a slab and let the gaseous poison run out below. That was my only chance. I worked my knees back as nearly as possible to the edge of the slab into which the wooden staples were fastened, and threw all my weight and strength into the effort. The stone did not move. Yet I got more thong-room, and succeeded in doubling my feet under me to give more force to the next heave. I felt sure I could have lifted the weight of the stone if it were free, but struggle as I would, I could not loosen it from its wedged position. The purple poison had risen to my waist by this time, and in my violent efforts I had stirred it into billowing waves which occasionally surged almost to my nostrils. I had breathed a little which made me faint and giddy. I feared lest I should stagger and fall into it. Once my head below the surface, and I was most surely and horribly drowned!
I stood resting a second, anxiously thinking, planning in desperation and keeping my eyes always fixed on the rising purple. Suddenly, though I had given no tug, I heard the stone under me crunch at its edges, and felt it begin to rise a little at one side! What could have loosened it, when all my efforts had failed? No matter! if I could pull it away now and make a breach, I would at least gain a long respite. I tugged again and found it easy to pull the loosened stone up on one edge, till it tottered and fell over against me. Feverishly I watched the poison about me; it rose no longer; slowly it began to sink away. Thank God for so much!
Then suddenly I heard voices calling me. They seemed to come from below. Yes! It was Hotep in Kemish,--and the doctor in English! Were they confined in the cavern below, then? And had the gas been reserved for them, when it had finished its dread work with me? Horrible thought! If so, in saving myself I was only sending the sure poison to them. Where were they? I could not see down through the murky stuff; but I must warn them.
"Halloo! The gas is poisonous! Leap through, save yourselves! Climb out, or it will kill you!"