A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 31

As I paused at the top of the spiral ramp I felt quickly of my weapons to see that each was in its place. John Carter had fitted me out anew. Once more I stood in the leather and metal of Helium, with a full complement of weapons such as belong to a fighting man of Barsoom. My long sword was of the best steel, for it was one of John Carter’s own. Beside this, I carried a short sword and a dagger, and once again a heavy radium pistol hung at my hip. I loosened the latter in its holster as I started down the spiral ramp.

As I approached the bottom I heard a voice. It was coming from the direction of Phor Tak’s laboratory, the door of which opened upon the corridor at the bottom of the ramp. I crept slowly downward. The door leading to the laboratory was closed. Two men were conversing. I could recognize the thin, high voice of Phor Tak; the other voice was not that of Nur An; yet it was strangely familiar.

“—riches beyond your dream,” I heard the second man say.

“I do not need riches,” cackled Phor Tak. “Heigh-oo! Presently I shall own all the riches in the world.”

“You will need help,” I could hear the other man say in a pleading tone. “I can give you help; you shall have every ship of my great fleet.”

That remark brought me upstanding—”every ship of my great fleet!” It could not be possible and yet –

Gently I tried the door. To my surprise it swung open revealing the interior of the room. Beneath a bright light stood Tul Axtar. Fifty feet from him Phor Tak was standing behind a bench upon which was mounted a disintegrating ray rifle, aimed full at Tul Axtar.

Where was Tavia? Where was Nur An? Perhaps this man alone knew where Tavia was and Phor Tak was about to destroy him. With a cry of warning I leaped into the room. Tul Axtar and Phor Tak looked at me quickly, surprise large upon their countenances.

“Heigh-oo!” screamed the old inventor. “So you have come back! Knave! Ingrate! Traitor! But you have come back only to die.”

“Wait,” I cried, raising my hand. “Let me speak.”

“Silence!” screamed Phor Tak. “You shall see Tul Axtar die. I hated to kill him without someone to see—someone to witness his death agony. I shall have my revenge on him first and then on you.”

“Stop!” I cried. His finger was already hovering over the button that would snatch Tul Axtar into oblivion, perhaps with the secret of the whereabouts of Tavia.

I drew my pistol. Phor Tak made a sudden motion with his hands and disappeared. He vanished as though turned to thin air by his own disintegrating rays, but I knew what had happened. I knew that he had thrown a mantle of invisibility around himself and I fired at the spot where he had last been visible.

At the same instant the floor opened beneath me and I shot into utter darkness.

I felt myself hurtling along a smooth surface which gradually became horizontal and an instant later I shot into a dimly lighted apartment, which I knew must be located in the pits beneath the palace.

I had clung to my pistol as I fell and now, as I arose to my feet, I thrust it back into its holster; at least I was not unarmed.

The dim light in the apartment, which was little better than no light at all, I discovered, came from a ventilator in the ceiling and that aside from the shaft that had conducted me to the cell, there was no other opening in the wall or ceiling or floor. The ventilator was about two feet in diameter and led straight up from the center of the ceiling to the roof of the building, several levels above. The lower end of the shaft was about two feet above my finger tips when I extended them high above my head. This avenue of escape, then, was useless, but, alas, how tantalizing. It was maddening to see daylight and an open avenue to the outer world just above me and be unable to reach it. I was glad that the sun had risen, throwing its quick light over the scene, for had I fallen here in utter darkness my plight would have seemed infinitely worse than now, and my first ancestor knew that it was bad enough. I turned my attention now to the chute through which I had descended and I found that I could ascend it quite a little distance, but presently it turned steeply upward and its smoothly polished walls were unscalable.

I returned to the pits. I must escape, but now, as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light, I saw strewn about the floor, that which snatched away my last hope and filled me with horror. Everywhere upon the stone flagging were heaps and mounds of human bones picked clean by gnawing rats. I shuddered as I contemplated the coming of night. How long before my bones, too, would be numbered among the rest?

The thought made me frantic, not for myself but for Tavia. I could not die. I must not die. I must live until I had found her.

Hastily I circled the room, searching for some clue to hope, but I found only rough-hewn stone set in soft mortar.

Soft mortar! With the realization, hope dawned anew. If I could remove a few of these blocks and pile them one on top of the other, I might easily reach the shaft that terminated in the ceiling above my head. Drawing my dagger I fell to work, scraping and scratching at the mortar about one of the stones in the nearest wall. It seemed slow work, but in reality I had loosened the stone in an incredibly short time. The mortar was poor stuff and crumbled away easily. As I drew the block out my first plan faded in the light of what I saw in front of me. Beyond the opening I saw a corridor at the foot of a spiral ramp leading upward, and from somewhere above, daylight was filtering down.

I knew that if I could remove three more of those stones before I was detected I could worm my body through the opening into the corridor beyond, and you may well believe that I worked rapidly.

One by one the blocks were loosened and removed and it was with a feeling of exultation that I slipped through into the corridor. Above me rose a spiral ramp. Where it led, I did not know, but at least it led out of the pits. Cautiously, and yet without any hesitation, I ascended. I must try to reach the laboratory before Phor Tak had slain Tul Axtar. This time I would make sure of the old inventor before I entered the room and I prayed to all my ancestors that I should be in time.

Doors, leading from the ramp to various levels of the palace, were all locked and I was forced to ascend to the roof. As it chanced the wing upon which I found myself was more or less detached, so that at first glance I could see no way whereby I could make my way from it to any of the adjoining roofs.

As I walked around the edge of the building hurriedly, looking for some means of descent to the roof below, I saw something one level below me that instantly charged my attention. It was a man’s leg protruding from a window, as though he had thrown one limb across the sill. A moment later I saw an arm emerge, and the top of a man’s head and his shoulders were visible as he leaned out. He reached down and up and I saw something appear directly beneath him that had not been there before, and at the same instant I caught a glimpse of a girl, lying a few feet further down, and then I saw the man slide over the sill quickly and drop down and disappear, and all that lay below me was the flagging of a courtyard.

But in that brief instant I knew precisely what I had seen. I had seen Tul Axtar raise the hatch of the Jhama. I had seen Tavia lying bound upon the floor of the ship beneath the hatch. I had seen Tul Axtar enter the interior of the craft and close the hatch above his head.

It takes a long while to tell it when compared with the time in which it actually transpired; nor was I so long in acting as I have been in telling.

As the hatch closed, I leaped.

 

XVII. — I FIND A PRINCESS

IT would be as unreasonable to aver that I fully visualized the outcome of my act as I leaped out into space with nothing visible between me and the flagstones of the courtyard forty feet below as it would be to assume that I acted solely upon unreasoning impulse. There are emergencies in which the mind functions with inconceivable celerity. Perceptions are received, judgments arrived at and reason operates to a definite conclusion all so swiftly that the three acts appear simultaneous. Thus must have been the process in this instance.

I knew where the narrow walkway upon the upper deck of the Jhama must lie in the seemingly empty space below me, for I had jumped almost the instant that the hatch had closed. Of course I know now, and I knew then, that it would have been a dangerous feat and difficult of achievement even had I been able to see the Jhama below me; yet as I look back upon it now there was nothing else that I could have done. It was my one, my last chance to save Tavia from a fate worse than death—it was perhaps my last opportunity ever to see her again. As I jumped then I should jump again under like conditions even though I knew that I should miss the Jhama, for now as then I know that I should rather die than lose Tavia; although then I did not know why, while now I do.

But I did not miss. I landed squarely upon my feet upon the narrow walkway. The impact of my weight upon the upper deck of the craft must have been noticeable to Tul Axtar, for I could feel the Jhama drop a little beneath me. Doubtless he wondered what had happened, but I do not think that he guessed the truth. However, he did not raise the hatch as I hoped he would, but instead he must have leaped to the controls at once for almost immediately the Jhama rose swiftly at an acute angle, which made it difficult for me to cling to her since her upper deck was not equipped with harness rings. By grasping the forward edge of the turret, however, I managed to hold on.

As Tul Axtar gained sufficient altitude and straightened out upon his course he opened the throttle wide so that the wind rushing at me at terrific velocity seemed momentarily upon the point of carrying me from my precarious hold and hurtling me to the ground far below. Fortunately I am a strong man—none other could have survived that ordeal—yet how utterly helpless I was.

Had Tul Axtar guessed the truth he could have raised the after hatch and had me at his mercy, for though my pistol hung at my side I could not have released either hand to use it, but doubtless Tul Axtar did not know, or if he did he hoped that the high speed of the ship would dislodge whoever or whatever it might have been that he felt drop upon it.

I had hung there but a short time before I realized that eventually my hold must weaken and be torn loose. Something must be done to rectify my position. Tavia must be saved and because I alone could save her, I must not die.

Straining every thew I dragged myself further forward until I lay with my chest upon the turret. Slowly, inch by inch, I wormed myself forward. The tubular sheeting of the periscope was just in front of me. If I could but reach that with one hand I might hope to attain greater safety. The wind was buffeting me, seeking to tear me away. I sought a better hold with my left forearm about the turret and then I reached quickly forward with my right hand and my fingers closed about the sheathing.

After that it was not difficult to stretch a part of my harness about the front of the turret. Now I found that I could have one hand free, but until the ship stopped I could not hope to accomplish anything more.

What was transpiring beneath me? Could Tavia be safe even for a brief time in the power of Tul Axtar? The thought drove me frantic. The Jhama must be stopped, and then an inspiration came to me.

With my free hand I unsnapped my pocket pouch from my harness and drawing myself still further forward, I managed to place the opened pouch over the eye of the periscope.

Immediately Tul Axtar was blind; he could see nothing, nor was it long before the reaction that I had expected and hoped for came—the Jhama slowed down and finally came to a stop.

I had been lying partially upon the forward hatch and now I drew myself away from and in front of it. I hoped that it would be the forward hatch that he would open. It was the closer to him. I waited, and then glancing forward I saw that he was opening the ports. In this way he could see to navigate the ship and my plan was blocked.

I was disappointed, but I would not give up hope. Very quietly I tried the forward hatch, but it was locked upon the inside. Then I made my way swiftly and silently to the after hatch. If he should start the Jhama again at full speed now, doubtless I should be lost, but I felt that I was forced to risk the chance. Already the Jhama was in motion again as I laid my hand upon the hatch cover. This time I was neither silent nor gentle. I heaved vigorously and the hatch opened. Not an instant did I hesitate and as the Jhama leaped forward again at full speed, I dropped through the hatchway to the interior of the craft.

As I struck the deck Tul Axtar heard me and wheeling from the controls to face me, he recognized me. I think I never before beheld such an expression of mingled astonishment, hatred and fear as convulsed his features. At his feet lay Tavia, so quietly still that I thought her dead, and then Tul Axtar reached for his pistol and I for mine, but I had led a cleaner life than Tul Axtar had. My mind and muscles coordinate with greater celerity than can those of one who has wasted his fiber in dissipation.

Point blank I fired at his putrid heart and Tul Axtar, Jeddak and tyrant of Jahar, lunged forward upon the lower deck of the Jhama dead.

Instantly I sprang to Tavia’s side and turned her over. She had been bound and gagged and, for some unaccountable reason, blindfolded as well, but she was not dead. I almost sobbed for joy when I realized that. How my fingers seemed to fumble in their haste to free her; yet it was only a matter of seconds ere it was done and I was crushing her in my arms.

I know that my tears fell upon her upturned face as our lips were pressed together, but I am not ashamed of that, and Tavia wept too and clung to me and I could feel her dear body tremble. How terrified she must have been, and yet I know she had never shown it to Tul Axtar. It was the reaction— the mingling of relief and joy at the moment that the despair had been blackest.

In that instant, as our hearts beat together and she drew me closer to her, a great truth dawned upon me. What a stupid fool I had been! How could I ever have thought that the sentiment that I entertained for Sanoma Tora was love? How could I ever believe that my love for Tavia had been such a weak thing as friendship? I drew her closer, if such were possible.

“My princess,” I whispered.

Upon Barsoom those two words, spoken by man to maid, have a peculiar and unalterable significance, for no man speaks thus to any woman that he does not wish for wife.

“No, no,” sobbed Tavia, “Take me, I am yours; but I am only a slave girl. Tan Hadron of Hastor cannot mate with such.”

Even then she thought only of me and my happiness, and not of herself at all. How different she was from such as Sanoma Tora? I had risked my life to win a clod of dirt and I had found a priceless jewel.

I looked her in the eyes, those beautiful, fathomless wells of love and understanding. “I love you, Tavia,” I said. “Tell me that I may have the right to call you my princess.”

“Even though I be a slave?” she asked.

“Even though you were a thousand times less than a slave,” I told her.

She sighed and snuggled closer to me. “My chieftain,” she whispered in a low, low voice.

That, as far as I, Tan Hadron of Hastor, is concerned, is the end of the story. That instant marked the highest pinnacle to which I may ever hope to achieve, but there is more that may interest those who have come thus far with me upon adventures that have carried me half way around the southern hemisphere of Barsoom.

When Tavia and I could tear ourselves apart, which was not soon, I opened the lower hatch and let the corpse of Tul Axtar find its last resting place upon the barren ground below. Then we turned back toward Jhama, where we discovered that earlier in the morning Nur An had come to one of the roofs of the palace and been discovered by Phao.

When Nur An had learned that I had entered the palace just before dawn, he had become apprehensive and instituted a search for me. He had not known of the coming of Tul Axtar and believed that the Jeddak must have arrived after he had retired for the night; nor had he known how close Tavia had been, lying bound in the Jhama close beside the palace wall.

His search of the palace, however, had revealed the fact that Phor Tak was missing. He had summoned the slaves and a careful search had been made, but no sign of Phor Tak was visible.

It occurred to me then that I might solve the question as to the whereabouts of the old scientist. “Come with me,” I said to Nur An; “Perhaps I can find Phor Tak for you.”

I led him to the laboratory. “There is no use searching there,” he said, “we have looked in a hundred times today. A glance will reveal the fact that the laboratory is deserted.”

“Wait,” I said. “Let us not be in too much of a hurry. Come with me; perhaps yet I may disclose the whereabouts of Phor Tak.”

With a shrug he followed me as I entered the vast laboratory and walked toward the bench upon which a disintegrating rifle was mounted. Just back of the bench my foot struck something that I could not see, but that I had rather expected to find there, and stooping I felt a huddled form beneath a covering of soft cloth.

My fingers closed upon the invisible fabric and I drew it aside. There, before us on the floor, lay the dead body of Phor Tak, a bullet bole in the center of his breast.

“Name of Issus!” cried Nur An. “Who did this?”

“I,” I replied, and then I told him what had happened in the laboratory as the last night waned.

He looked around hurriedly. “Cover it up quickly,” he said. “The slaves must not know. They would destroy us. Let us get out of here quickly.”

I drew the cloak of invisibility over the body of Phor Tak again. “I have work here before I leave,” I said.

“What?” he demanded.

“Help me gather all of the disintegrating rays shells and rifles into one end of the room.”

“What are you going to do?” he demanded.

“I am going to save a world, Nur An,” I said.

Then he fell to and helped me and when they were all collected in a pile at the far end of the laboratory, I selected a single shell and returning to the rifle mounted upon the bench I inserted it in the chamber, closed the block and turned the muzzle of the weapon upon that frightful aggregation of death and disaster.

As I pressed the button all that remained in Jhama of Phor Tak’s dangerous invention disappeared in thin air, with the exception of the single rifle, for which there remained no ammunition. With it had gone his model of The Flying Death and with him the secret had been lost.

Nur An told me that the slaves were becoming suspicious of us and as there was no necessity of risking ourselves further, we embarked upon the flier that John Carter had given me, and, taking the Jhama in tow, set our course toward Helium.

We overtook the fleet shortly before it reached the Twin Cities of Greater Helium and Lesser Helium and upon the deck of John Carter’s flagship we received a welcome and a great ovation, and shortly thereafter there occurred one of the most remarkable and dramatic incidents that I have ever beheld. We were holding something of an informal reception upon the forward deck of the great battleship. Officers and nobles were pressing forward to be presented and numerous were the appreciative eyes that admired Tavia.

It was the turn of the Dwar, Kal Tavan, who had been a slave in the palace of Tor Hatan. As he came face to face with Tavia, I saw a look of surprise in his eyes.

“Your name is Tavia?” he repeated.

“Yes,” she said, “and yours is Tavan. They are similar.”

“I do not need to ask from what country you are,” he said. “You are Tavia of Tjanath.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Because you are my daughter,” he replied. “Tavia is the name your mother gave you. You look like her. By that alone I should have known my daughter anywhere.”

Very gently he took her in his arms and I saw tears in his eyes, and hers too, as he pressed his lips against her forehead, and then he turned to me.

“They told me that the brave Tan Hadron of Hastor had chosen to mate with a slave girl,” he said; “but that is not true. Your princess is in truth a princess—the granddaughter of a jed. She might have been the daughter of a jed had I remained in Tjanath.”

How devious are the paths of fate! How strange and unexpected the destinations to which they lead. I had set out upon one of these paths with the intention of marrying Sanoma Tora at the end. Sanoma Tora had set out upon another in the hopes of marrying a Jeddak. At the end of her path, she had found only ignominy and disgrace. At the end of mine I had found a princess.