The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

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“There was none,” replied Tasor. “Where they found him they left him and there to this very day his mouldering bones lie hid in some forgotten chamber of this forbidden suite.”

Tasor left them then assuring them that he would seek the first opportunity to speak with A-Kor, and upon the following day he would bring them food and drink.*

* Those who have read John Carter’s description of the Green Martians in A Princess of Mars will recall that these strange people could exist for considerable periods of time without food or water, and to a lesser degree is the same true of all Martians.

 

After Tasor had gone Tara turned to Gahan and approaching laid a hand upon his arm. “So swiftly have events transpired since I recognized you beneath your disguise,” she said, “that I have had no opportunity to assure you of my gratitude and the high esteem that your valor has won for you in my consideration. Let me now acknowledge my indebtedness; and if promises be not vain from one whose life and liberty are in grave jeopardy, accept my assurance of the great reward that awaits you at the hand of my father in Helium.”

“I desire no reward,” he replied, “other than the happiness of knowing that the woman I love is happy.”

For an instant the eyes of Tara of Helium blazed as she drew herself haughtily to her full height, and then they softened and her attitude relaxed as she shook her head sadly.

“I have it not in my heart to reprimand you, Turan,” she said, “however great your fault, for you have been an honorable and a loyal friend to Tara of Helium; but you must not say what my ears must not hear.”

“You mean,” he asked, “that the ears of a Princess must not listen to words of love from a panthan?”

“It is not that, Turan,” she replied; “but rather that I may not in honor listen to words of love from another than him to whom I am betrothed—a fellow countryman, Djor Kantos.”

“You mean, Tara of Helium,” he cried, “that were it not for that you would—”

“Stop!” she commanded. “You have no right to assume aught else than my lips testify.”

“The eyes are ofttimes more eloquent than the lips, Tara,” he replied; “and in yours I have read that which is neither hatred nor contempt for Turan the panthan, and my heart tells me that your lips bore false witness when they cried in anger: ‘I hate you!'”

“I do not hate you, Turan, nor yet may I love you,” said the girl, simply.

“When I broke my way out from the chamber of I-Gos I was indeed upon the verge of believing that you did hate me,” he said, “for only hatred, it seemed to me, could account for the fact that you had gone without making an effort to liberate me; but presently both my heart and my judgment told me that Tara of Helium could not have deserted a companion in distress, and though I still am in ignorance of the facts I know that it was beyond your power to aid me.”

“It was indeed,” said the girl. “Scarce had I-Gos fallen at the bite of my dagger than I heard the approach of warriors. I ran then to hide until they had passed, thinking to return and liberate you; but in seeking to elude the party I had heard I ran full into the arms of another. They questioned me as to your whereabouts, and I told them that you had gone ahead and that I was following you and thus I led them from you.”

“I knew,” was Gahan’s only comment, but his heart was glad with elation, as a lover’s must be who has heard from the lips of his divinity an avowal of interest and loyalty, however little tinged by a suggestion of warmer regard it may be. To be abused, even, by the mistress of one’s heart is better than to be ignored.

As the two conversed in the ill-lit chamber, the dim bulbs of which were encrusted with the accumulated dust of centuries, a bent and withered figure traversed slowly the gloomy corridors without, his weak and watery eyes peering through thick lenses at the signs of passage written upon the dusty floor.

 

CHAPTER XIX

THE MENACE OF THE DEAD

The night was still young when there came one to the entrance of the banquet hall where O-Tar of Manator dined with his chiefs, and brushing past the guards entered the great room with the insolence of a privileged character, as in truth he was. As he approached the head of the long board O-Tar took notice of him.

“Well, hoary one!” he cried. “What brings you out of your beloved and stinking burrow again this day. We thought that the sight of the multitude of living men at the games would drive you back to your corpses as quickly as you could go.”

The cackling laugh of I-Gos acknowledged the royal sally. “Ey, ey, O-Tar,” squeaked the ancient one, “I-Gos goes out not upon pleasure bound; but when one does ruthlessly desecrate the dead of I-Gos, vengeance must be had!”

“You refer to the act of the slave Turan?” demanded O-Tar.

“Turan, yes, and the slave Tara, who slipped beneath my hide a murderous blade. Another fraction of an inch, O-Tar, and I-Gos’ ancient and wrinkled covering were even now in some apprentice tanner’s hands, ey, ey!”

“But they have again eluded us,” cried O-Tar. “Even in the palace of the great jeddak twice have they escaped the stupid knaves I call The Jeddak’s Guard.” O-Tar had risen and was angrily emphasizing his words with heavy blows upon the table, dealt with a golden goblet.

“Ey, O-Tar, they elude thy guard but not the wise old calot, I-Gos.”

“What mean you? Speak!” commanded O-Tar.

“I know where they are hid,” said the ancient taxidermist. “In the dust of unused corridors their feet have betrayed them.”

“You followed them? You have seen them?” demanded the jeddak.

“I followed them and I heard them speaking beyond a closed door,” replied I-Gos; “but I did not see them.”

“Where is that door?” cried O-Tar. “We will send at once and fetch them,” he looked about the table as though to decide to whom he would entrust this duty. A dozen warrior chiefs arose and laid their hands upon their swords.

“To the chambers of O-Mai the Cruel I traced them,” squeaked I-Gos. “There you will find them where the moaning Corphals pursue the shrieking ghost of O-Mai; ey!” and he turned his eyes from O-Tar toward the warriors who had arisen, only to discover that, to a man, they were hurriedly resuming their seats.

The cackling laughter of I-Gos broke derisively the hush that had fallen on the room. The warriors looked sheepishly at the food upon their plates of gold. O-Tar snapped his fingers impatiently.

“Be there only cravens among the chiefs of Manator?” he cried. “Repeatedly have these presumptuous slaves flouted the majesty of your jeddak. Must I command one to go and fetch them?”

Slowly a chief arose and two others followed his example, though with ill-concealed reluctance. “All, then, are not cowards,” commented O-Tar. “The duty is distasteful. Therefore all three of you shall go, taking as many warriors as you wish.”

“But do not ask for volunteers,” interrupted I-Gos, “or you will go alone.”

The three chiefs turned and left the banquet hall, walking slowly like doomed men to their fate.

Gahan and Tara remained in the chamber to which Tasor had led them, the man brushing away the dust from a deep and comfortable bench where they might rest in comparative comfort. He had found the ancient sleeping silks and furs too far gone to be of any service, crumbling to powder at a touch, thus removing any chance of making a comfortable bed for the girl, and so the two sat together, talking in low tones, of the adventures through which they already had passed and speculating upon the future; planning means of escape and hoping Tasor would not be long gone. They spoke of many things—of Hastor, and Helium, and Ptarth, and finally the conversation reminded Tara of Gathol.

“You have served there?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied Turan.

“I met Gahan the Jed of Gathol at my father’s palace,” she said, “the very day before the storm snatched me from Helium—he was a presumptuous fellow, magnificently trapped in platinum and diamonds. Never in my life saw I so gorgeous a harness as his, and you must well know, Turan, that the splendor of all Barsoom passes through the court at Helium; but in my mind I could not see so resplendent a creature drawing that jeweled sword in mortal combat. I fear me that the Jed of Gathol, though a pretty picture of a man, is little else.”

In the dim light Tara did not perceive the wry expression upon the half-averted face of her companion.

“You thought little then of the Jed of Gathol?” he asked.

“Then or now,” she replied, and with a little laugh; “how it would pique his vanity to know, if he might, that a poor panthan had won a higher place in the regard of Tara of Helium,” and she laid her fingers gently upon his knee.

He seized the fingers in his and carried them to his lips. “O, Tara of Helium,” he cried. “Think you that I am a man of stone?” One arm slipped about her shoulders and drew the yielding body toward him.

“May my first ancestor forgive me my weakness,” she cried, as her arms stole about his neck and she raised her panting lips to his. For long they clung there in love’s first kiss and then she pushed him away, gently. “I love you, Turan,” she half sobbed; “I love you so! It is my only poor excuse for having done this wrong to Djor Kantos, whom now I know I never loved, who knew not the meaning of love. And if you love me as you say, Turan, your love must protect me from greater dishonor, for I am but as clay in your hands.”

Again he crushed her to him and then as suddenly released her, and rising, strode rapidly to and fro across the chamber as though he endeavored by violent exercise to master and subdue some evil spirit that had laid hold upon him. Ringing through his brain and heart and soul like some joyous paean were those words that had so altered the world for Gahan of Gathol: “I love you, Turan; I love you so!” And it had come so suddenly. He had thought that she felt for him only gratitude for his loyalty and then, in an instant, her barriers were all down, she was no longer a princess; but instead a—his reflections were interrupted by a sound from beyond the closed door. His sandals of zitidar hide had given forth no sound upon the marble floor he strode, and as his rapid pacing carried him past the entrance to the chamber there came faintly from the distance of the long corridor the sound of metal on metal—the unmistakable herald of the approach of armed men.

For a moment Gahan listened intently, close to the door, until there could be no doubt but that a party of warriors was approaching. From what Tasor had told him he guessed correctly that they would be coming to this portion of the palace but for a single purpose—to search for Tara and himself—and it behooved him therefore to seek immediate means for eluding them. The chamber in which they were had other doorways beside that at which they had entered, and to one of these he must look for some safer hiding place. Crossing to Tara he acquainted her with his suspicion, leading her to one of the doors which they found unsecured. Beyond it lay a dimly-lighted chamber at the threshold of which they halted in consternation, drawing back quickly into the chamber they had just quitted, for their first glance revealed four warriors seated around a jetan board.

That their entrance had not been noted was attributed by Gahan to the absorption of the two players and their friends in the game. Quietly closing the door the fugitives moved silently to the next, which they found locked. There was now but another door which they had not tried, and this they approached quickly as they knew that the searching party must be close to the chamber. To their chagrin they found this avenue of escape barred.

Now indeed were they in a sorry plight, for should the searchers have information leading them to this room they were lost. Again leading Tara to the door behind which were the jetan players Gahan drew his sword and waited, listening. The sound of the party in the corridor came distinctly to their ears—they must be quite close, and doubtless they were coming in force. Beyond the door were but four warriors who might be readily surprised. There could, then, be but one choice and acting upon it Gahan quietly opened the door again, stepped through into the adjoining chamber, Tara’s hand in his, and closed the door behind them. The four at the jetan board evidently failed to hear them. One player had either just made or was contemplating a move, for his fingers grasped a piece that still rested upon the board. The other three were watching his move. For an instant Gahan looked at them, playing jetan there in the dim light of this forgotten and forbidden chamber, and then a slow smile of understanding lighted his face.

“Come!” he said to Tara. “We have nothing to fear from these. For more than five thousand years they have sat thus, a monument to the handiwork of some ancient taxidermist.”

As they approached more closely they saw that the lifelike figures were coated with dust, but that otherwise the skin was in as fine a state of preservation as the most recent of I-Gos’ groups, and then they heard the door of the chamber they had quitted open and knew that the searchers were close upon them. Across the room they saw the opening of what appeared to be a corridor and which investigation proved to be a short passageway, terminating in a chamber in the center of which was an ornate sleeping dais. This room, like the others, was but poorly lighted, time having dimmed the radiance of its bulbs and coated them with dust. A glance showed that it was hung with heavy goods and contained considerable massive furniture in addition to the sleeping platform, a second glance at which revealed what appeared to be the form of a man lying partially on the floor and partially on the dais. No doorways were visible other than that at which they had entered, though both knew that others might be concealed by the hangings.

Gahan, his curiosity aroused by the legends surrounding this portion of the palace, crossed to the dais to examine the figure that apparently had fallen from it, to find the dried and shrivelled corpse of a man lying upon his back on the floor with arms outstretched and fingers stiffly outspread. One of his feet was doubled partially beneath him, while the other was still entangled in the sleeping silks and furs upon the dais. After five thousand years the expression of the withered face and the eyeless sockets retained the aspect of horrid fear to such an extent, that Gahan knew that he was looking upon the body of O-Mai the Cruel.