Things that are too wonderful to be true - sometimes are. So Stephen Inglesant was thinking as he read the cablegram. Even the receipt of a cablegram in this particular locality was itself a phenomenon. For this big, tawny-haired American, with the vitality and eagle-look of a Viking, was a visitor to one of the long-forgotten haunts of vanished men. He was standing now in the window of a dilapidated palacio in the small city of San Pablo, looking out to the vast, cold, glittering spectacle of night among the Cordilleras.
A candle guttered in the stiff breeze on a stand beside the window, its flame gilding fitfully the incredible message. Inglesant had read it many times but now he read it again with undiminished exultation.
Cairo, Egypt. Your Letter says San Pablo Ecuador. Remain there March Fourteenth Twenty fifth. Don Pascual perhaps there then. - Khaldun.
Don Pascual! Over and over again it rang through his brain. Name of magic - holding for him what possibilities of adventure and discovery. For Stephen Inglesant, though a celebrated world-traveler whose exploits furnished headlines and an occasional 'scoop' in the press of five continents, had not by any means attained his heart's desire. He was only thirty-two years old. Yet it seemed to him long indeed since the time of his senior year at Harvard when he had first come under the spell of the occult, and had determined almost at once to follow its elusive beckonings from the mysterious realm of the unknown.
His adventures and experiences had been many, upon occasion extraordinary. He had at times seemed to approach the very threshold of some half-hidden doorway. Yet success had always eluded him. There was, for example, the ancient Pali manuscript that he had idly bought from a queer old peddler in Samarkand. And its theft just as he had begun to catch a glimmer of its exciting implications. Then there was the tribe in Africa whose headman had outwitted him so neatly. But now the name, Don Pascual, had dropped at last like a key-word into a cryptogram. Inglesant felt that he was now in actual sight of the small, old path of occult discovery.
"Strange," he thought, "the chance that brought me here to this ancient decayed city of San Pablo." He gazed down eagerly into the small plaza below the window. The intense clear blackness revealed little besides gray outlines of buildings and the vague shape of a ruinous fountain in the center of the square. For night had already fallen before he reached San Pablo on the train that wheezed up from Guayaquil once every twenty-four hours.
San Pablo had been an outpost of the conquistadors. For two centuries now it had been crumbling comfortably away into the precipitous landscape of the Andes. Recently, however, a rich vein of gold had been suddenly uncovered in the abandoned Spanish mines above the city, and San Pablo had suffered resurrection. The railroad to Quito had thrown out a spur to San Pablo and modern bustle had begun to invade its senility.
Among the disturbers of its peace was one Porfirio Montebello MacCarthy, a drifting adventurer of mongrel origin. This plausible obese little man had recognised the knock of opportunity. He snapped up for a song one of the palacios on the old square, and was now sketching in with enthusiasm what he brazenly represented to the public as a luxury hotel, the Palacio Pizarro.
But Inglesant was too seasoned a traveler to fret over the absence of bathroom, fumes of candle grease and kerosene, or low-grade cuisine! He had come to San Pablo only because of a recent archaeological excavation in the vicinity, which promised to be of great importance. And that interest sufficed...!
The first thing the next morning he looked out in eager anticipation upon the beautiful antique houses surrounding the square. Mellow with age and lingering decay they looked back at him with benign indifference. They were all of the same lovely design, cream limestone corniced and carved elaborately, with graceful balconies. One however, the largest, which stretched the width of the small plaza, seemed in better condition. Though its balconied facade was closely shuttered it was in good repair. Inglesant observed its massive door ornamented by beautiful scrolls of brightly burnished copper.
And suddenly this door, fast shut, and mutely eloquent of a fascinating, withdrawn interior, became the symbol of his destiny. Intuition whispered that it was somehow bound up with the presence of Don Pascual.
"Can you tell me who lives in the house on the south side of the plaza?" he inquired of MacCarthy, who hovered, solicitous, while Inglesant disposed indomitably of breakfast.
"That is the Casa Hermosa. It now is the property of Senor Estaban Mendoza, the manager of the mines above here. He does not always live at the Casa but comes up frequently from Guayaquil, as necessary."
"Anyone living in the other houses?"
"At present no one. These families spend their time always at Lima or Valparaiso when they can. They come and go. Business is very little here, as you can see, Senor. But undoubtedly the mining interests will bring more, of that there is no doubt. And the archaeology too, that should bring people, if it develops, yes? For see, the Senor himself has come for that reason."
"The mines will certainly bring business, but not archaeology, I'm afraid. I am no indication, for archaeology is merely my hobby, not my profession."
Inglesant spent five days in San Pablo before anything of significance happened. Meanwhile, he presented his letters to the two men left in charge at the excavations, who were subordinates, but intelligent and enthusiastic. The excavations were not extensive though they had been rich in ancient finds. These, however, had all been removed and work would not be resumed until summer. Besides, since the reception of his cablegram vital interest in these discoveries had evaporated before the far more fascinating prospect opened out by the talismanic name, Don Pascual. So he loafed away the time, consuming as best he could his deep impatience.
And then, one afternoon, as he was returning to the hotel, he heard his name softly spoken. He whipped about at the voice to find an old, decent-appearing, Spanish man-servant at his elbow who handed him a note which Inglesant tore open eagerly as the man waited.
"To the Senor Stephen Inglesant, Friend of my Friend, Hafid Ibn Khaldun of Cairo on the Nile.
"If you will pardon this very informal invitation, and should you care for a little chat on matters of mutual interest I shall be happy if you will now accompany this man, whose name is Manuel, and who will bring you to me in the Casa Hermosa.
"It will be a great pleasure to me to greet one of whom Ibn Khaldun has spoken so kindly.
"Yours in sincerity,
Without a word Inglesant signed to the servant to precede him, and in a moment he found himself, without much surprise, entering the Casa Hermosa and heard the heavy door with its copper grill-work shut behind him. They were in an echoing stone hall across which the servant conducted him into the antique richness of a small room at the back.
A man rose quickly from a deep chair as Manuel opened the door - a very tall, lean, middle-aged man at whom Inglesant looked with eager though respectful curiosity. His first impression was of a fusion of lean but massive bulk with chiseled delicacy of outline, of swarthiness of coloring shot through with some controlled inner fire. An observer would have been struck with the fact that the younger man's fair leonine distinction became at once almost insignificant before the dark and fiery austerity of the other.
"El Senor Inglesant!" exclaimed his host, with a cordial grasp of the caller's hand. "So!" he went on in English. "And I am Pascual. I am happy indeed to meet you, Mr. Inglesant. It was courteous to so promptly accept my rather casual invitation, due to no want of respect to you, I assure you, but designed not to attract the attention of the curious. Be seated, please - here, where you can look into the garden."
Inglesant took the chair indicated, as he remarked in protest: "On the contrary, it was most kind of you, Excellency. I esteem it the greatest privilege of my life to meet you."
Don Pascual smiled with easy deprecation. He pulled the old-fashioned bell-cord before he seated himself in the deep chair opposite his guest. Here the pair exchanged a curious and friendly glance, the dark man with candid gravity that held a smile, the younger with a mixture of interest and of irrepressible reverence. Manuel, entering presently with coffee and sherbet interrupted this silent interchange.
"Now first we will smoke and enjoy this excellent Mocha," began Don Pascual when the man had departed. "And you shall tell me, perhaps, where you have been in the world recently and what has brought you in the first place to this out-of-the-way corner of the earth."
"I am afraid I am but an idle fellow, Don Pascual. But I am always somehow on the scent of strange knowledge, and this town lies on the border, as you of course know, of what was a very ancient civilization - one reputed to have been in possession of the Sacred Lore, which is a name I have heard applied in some parts of the world to that which I am forever seeking. The recent archaeological finds in this vicinity looked promising to me so I came up here to look about. I am always hoping to chance upon some gateway, or to find a clue that will guide me in my search for the ultimate secret - "
"And that is, you think?"
"I hardly know. But I feel that indeed there is something, perhaps some fourth dimension of experience - "
"And conferring no doubt the Philosopher's Stone at the very least, or the Elixir of Life - "
"Well no, not exactly that, Excellency. Thoughtful men have outgrown those delusions, don't you think?"
The other smiled with a touch of gentle malice.
"But you are disrespectful to modern science, Senor Inglesant, are you not? Surely now that science has discovered that all metals can be changed to gold, at least theoretically, the poor old Philosopher's Stone cannot be quite a delusion?" and he pulled at his cigar while observing attentively the other's abstracted expression.
"Oh, I wasn't referring to that kind of delusion, Excellency. It was to the delusion of banking on things like gold and physical immortality. I am sure the Great Secret goes deeper than wealth or the mere thirst of the insatiate senses or the mind."
"Ah! Now we draw a little nearer," remarked Don Pascual, in a tone of frank satisfaction. "Continue, please."
"Well, I hardly know what else to say. It is only that I feel sure there is a science far older, and far different, and far deeper than our modern lines of inquiry, wonderful as those are."
Don Pascual laid aside his cigar, delicately, and began to speak.
"You are right, my friend. And so it may be that you stand before the doorway you have been seeking."
He did not look at Inglesant as he continued, but seemed to gaze far away, and the austere fire that burned like a cold, consuming flame somewhere deep within him charged the very air with a spiritual significance.
"Whether you can find the entrance to this temple of ancient lore depends upon yourself. I can, as you perhaps have inferred from what our mutual friend has told you, direct you to the sources of this science. I can introduce you to teachers who will, if you prove yourself worthy, accept you as a neophyte in that ancient and sacred Order within whose circle this Science is most carefully guarded. But I cannot do this unless I can first feel sure as to your real motive in seeking knowledge."
He suddenly turned a piercing gaze upon Inglesant's face and waited for his answer.
"Well," remarked Inglesant, returning the searching glance with one of respectful boldness, "perhaps, Excellency, I can hardly answer that question to your satisfaction. I have told you that I am something of an idler. But that is because I seem always to be looking for a job that is on the way - at least that is the only way I can express it. But, anyhow, I am not what you would call an ambitious man. I am quite well fixed financially. My father was a scholar of some distinction. From my mother, who was a Danish woman, I inherited the nomadic Viking strain and that vein of mysticism which I am told is the curse of my existence, though I find it a source of endless interest and delight. But such heredity has not led me to care very much about rolling up money or seeking fame in any particular field."
Here Inglesant paused as if in some puzzlement as to how to account for his singular mental bias.
"As I say," he continued, "I am not ambitious and care little about things that most men crave and struggle for. Only two things really excite me. One is my belief that there exists an ancient secret Science which really explains life and will confer wonderful powers on the man who masters it. The other is an inexplicable feeling that I am not going to commit myself lest I miss a job of some kind that it is possible to find if I search hard enough and am patient. But what the job can be I can't imagine. So there you have all I know about myself, Don Pascual. And I realize how very unsatisfactory it must sound to any practical person."
Don Pascual picked up his cigar, enjoyed a meditative puff or two and then, rising, crossed to an old secretary which was fitted with a Yale lock. From the desk his host took an iron box of ancient workmanship and Inglesant saw as he opened it that it was filled with neat bundles of old parchment. From among these Don Pascual selected a document, replaced the box, locked the desk, and coming back to his chair handed the roll of parchment to his guest.
"Before you examine that ancient writing, Senor Inglesant, I will tell you that I have indeed a 'job' for you, to borrow your quaint American word. A quest - a labor of Hercules it might better be called, I am afraid. But you are not, I remind you most particularly, asked or be sought to undertake this labor. It is a work, the most horribly dangerous. I do not advise or suggest, even, that you undertake it. But if, after due and deliberate consideration; after thoroughly understanding its nature and possibilities, you care to apply for the work of - mark the word! - preparing yourself to undertake it, I will consider your application."
Don Pascual rose as he finished, but restrained with a gesture his guest from rising also.
"I shall now leave you for a time. You will want leisure to think over what I have said and to examine what you hold in your hand. For you will understand I feel sure that I cannot allow this manuscript out of my possession. It is a priceless relic, part of it being of the greatest antiquity. But here at this table beside the window you may spread it out and examine it at your leisure. Think well over what you find in this writing, and consider what it suggests to you."
As he spoke he moved a small table over to the sunny window and Inglesant placed his chair beside it.
"I have quite arbitrarily assumed, you will have noticed, that you will wish at least to consider this proposition of mine?" he inquired.
"You are a very good guesser, Don Pascual," was Inglesant's quick reply.
"Good! I am indeed glad to hear it. I will return, then, before sunset, and by that time you will doubtless have questions to ask. Of course our mutual friend, Ibn Khaldun, has told me of your gift for languages, so that I hope you may be able to translate some parts of the commentaries appended to the ancient pictograph of the original - enough at least to get their drift. If you need anything while I am away please use the bell-cord. Au revoir, then for a little."
Don Pascual then took his gaunt bulk lightly out of the room, closing the door without a sound behind him.
Inglesant lost no time in seating himself at the table where he unfolded the document. Knowing something by reliable report of Don Pascual and his unique connexions, he felt certain that he was about to encounter a mystery of the first significance.
Spreading carefully the fragile old parchment to the afternoon sunshine he first studied attentively the faint but clearly discernible pictographs outlined in green upon the ivory surface. There were two larger ones, the left-hand representing what resembled a human face. Inglesant studied it long and closely. It was unlike any type of face he had ever seen, even on his remotest travels. It was oddly rectangular, long and narrow, with eyes abnormally sunken, and grossly flaring nostrils. And even in this elementary conventional tracery there was a look of living power which Inglesant felt unpleasantly in the core of him. He had, sharply, to control a shudder. The right-hand pictograph showed a circle within a square, at the center of which the ansated cross was dearly outlined.
There were smaller pictographs of which he could make nothing, though one of them, oval in shape, and consisting of a single elaborate glyph, reminded him of an Egyptian cartouche. When he found that he could not discern the significance of these pictographs he turned his attention to the commentaries written below, first in beautiful old Castilian, then in German of an earlier period, and finally in a kind of Latin that seemed as he studied it to be antique in the extreme.
As he read, Inglesant became aware of a clock which ticked with irritating matter-of-factness through the deep afternoon silence. It seemed to call him back insistently, as his mind took in detail upon stammering detail of the first narrative. He shrugged, mentally, over this recital of facts, so jumbled and incoherent that it did no more than suggest a kind of frenzy in the writer. Yet he nevertheless felt an atmosphere of fear and hatred that stayed with him as he began the second commentary.
Here the narrative was steadier, although owing to the many obsolete forms of the old German in which it was written it was interrupted for him by obscurities and gaps. Plainly, however, it was a fragmentary diary of some mysterious and terrible struggle which pointed in the end to the self-destruction of the diarist. Of the third commentary he could make out almost nothing, as he found the ancient Latin, excepting for a few phrases here and there, practically undecipherable.
Inglesant examined and pondered over this peculiar document until he was convinced that so far as he was concerned it remained a riddle. Yet, as he studied again more closely the second commentary his attention was caught by a phrase which appeared throughout its detached and tortuous references with horrid iteration - du unsterbliches, finsteres Ding! - "thou undying, dark Thing!"
While he was musing upon these sinister words his glance strayed to the left-hand pictograph, and the enigmatic eyes, though gaping like vacuums, yet fixed him with a stare that sent a chill crawling disagreeably over his scalp.
"Ah!" he muttered, with a flash of insight, "du unsterbliches, finsteres Ding."
Inglesant jumped in his chair as the door opened upon a soft tap and Don Pascual re-entered the room.
When his host was seated again he regarded Inglesant with a smile. "Has your study of the manuscript proved interesting?" he inquired. "Yes, startlingly so, Excellency. And while I do not of course altogether understand - "
"Of course not," interrupted Don Pascual, "and upon second thought I believe it would be better if I gave you at once such explanations as I can rather than to delay over your questions." He paused a moment in thought.
"First, however," he at last resumed, "there are certain preliminary pledges I must ask of you. For you may feel, when you have thought it all over, that the matters connected with the subject suggested in that manuscript are not such as you care to deal with. That would be an entirely natural decision. But even if you decide in that way I must ask you never to mention to anyone but Ibn Khaldun your meeting with me; and not even to him the subjects discussed between us this afternoon."
He held up his hand as Inglesant started to speak.
"I cannot exact this pledge of you. There is nothing to prevent your refusal, but in that case there can be no further dealings between us." Inglesant returned his host's impersonally aloof glance with a frank smile. "Certainly, Don Pascual. I give you my pledge as you ask it, without reservations."
"Excellent. And I thank you. Now as to this task which I have suggested that you undertake. How about what you have seen and read on the parchment? I take it you have no very clear idea about it all?"
"Well, at first I hadn't, Excellency. But as we have been talking the matter has been moving forward in my mind - unfolding, so to speak.
And now it looks this way to me. There is perhaps a very ancient and deadly enemy of the human race at work somewhere. And my object would be to discover it, or destroy it, or both. Am I right?"
"Not destroy it - no. But put it out of action in this sphere."
"And these documents - "
"Were written by three of those others who in past times have essayed the trial - and failed. I have shown you these records that you may get at least the atmosphere of what I shall propose to you. For while I cannot tell you much more than this just yet, there is no wish to deceive you in any way."
"I cannot learn the whole story now?"
"No, that makes a difficulty. You cannot be told everything until you have given the final pledge which will entitle you to protection, and the training which will enable you later to protect yourself." Inglesant's eyes glowed.
"This training - could you tell me where I would go for it?"
"It is better not, Senor Inglesant, I assure you. That is only for the very end, when you are pledged irrevocably. When that time comes, should you so decide it, you will be given guides. I will arrange for all that."
His smile for Inglesant's somewhat crestfallen air was sympathetic. "And now, my friend, you will naturally wish to know more about me, since I am asking you to put a very grave trust in my reliability. Ibn Khaldun may have told you something, though probably not much, of the Brotherhood or Spiritual Order with which I have the high honor to be connected. I am of course a mere servant of that illustrious Order, its agent in various ways. May I ask what Ibn Khaldun has told you?"
"He said that your Order is a secret one, though anyone may learn about it if he cares truly about the objects it works for. Those objects I take to be various movements for the world's spiritual welfare. He told me some slight things about your powers as an Adept, and also that he would speak to you about me and that perhaps he might sometime be able to arrange a meeting."
"I see. Are there any questions you care to ask?"
"Not at the moment, Don Pascual, I think. I understand enough of these occult matters to leave all knowledge to find me at the proper time."
A look of deep pleasure illumined the face of Don Pascual.
"You are already over some of the worst stumbling-blocks for an Occidental, Senor Inglesant. I congratulate you. And I thank you for your confidence and commend your intuition. Now I must tell you that it was Ibn Khaldun who sent me a message to Lima that you had written him you were coming here for a few months. So, as the owner of this house is a good friend of mine, I came here on a visit.
"And I hope you will not take offense if I tell you that I have had you under observation since your arrival. The reason is that if you undertake this work your training will open to you secrets that are extremely dangerous. They can be equally fatal to those who come in contact with you as to you who use them. You can see therefore that the greatest care is necessary in choosing this candidate - the responsibility upon me is very great.
"I also wish to make one thing unmistakably clear to you at the outset and that is that it is not my own Brotherhood or Order, sometimes called The Great White Lodge, which will be employing you provided that you undertake this work. For this is a task which is quite foreign to the work of this order - "
"Then who - what - " broke in Inglesant, at a loss to understand. "If you will have confidence in me and a few more days of patience I will explain the who and how and why of this proposition of mine, in which I am simply acting on my own judgment as an individual. But for that very reason I have had to take extraordinary care before deciding to approach you with it."
He glanced at his guest, on whose face he read irrepressible disappointment.
"But that does not mean, Senor Inglesant, that your success or failure in this work will not be noted, so do not look so crestfallen. All that you desire so intensely may eventually be within your grasp. You understand me?"
His voice was so warm and reassuring that Inglesant's face cleared. "For a moment," he admitted, "I felt exactly like a small boy - "
"Who has been forbidden the circus till year after next," Don Pascual laughed with him. "But seriously, I want you to get clearly into your head the point I have just made. In explaining to you something about the Brotherhood of the Great White Lodge of which I am the agent, it is nevertheless not as its agent that I am suggesting this task to you."
He paused and glanced at Inglesant, who assured him earnestly of his complete acceptance of this fact.
"Now," went on Don Pascual, "I saw you from the window as you entered the square, and as I already had my note prepared for such a chance I felt it was a good time to approach you without exciting the curiosity of idle ears and eyes. I am afraid my method of reaching you must have seemed slightly melodramatic - "
"I have never objected to a touch of melodrama," laughed Inglesant. "Well, I can promise you a sufficiency of very genuine drama if you decide to go in for this affair," responded Don Pascual with gravity. "And now I suggest, Senor Inglesant, that you think this matter over very carefully. Take a few days to consider it and then I will communicate with you again. Of course I know that I'll be putting a strain upon your confidence in me. Because if you decide to undertake this proposition I shall have to ask you to disappear for an indefinite time, to go blindly into a dangerous and almost unknown country and to engage in a work of the most appallingly dangerous. On this last account I advise that even while as now only considering this matter you put a guard upon all that you do and avoid new acquaintances and unfamiliar places."
He let this sink in during a moment of silence and then resumed.
"It may be as well at present however to get some idea as to ways and means. So may I ask what arrangements on your part would be necessary in case you should decide to undertake this proposition?"
"Well, if an extended absence should be necessary I should have to go first to New York and arrange some business matters at present hanging fire, as they concern others besides myself. I might fly back if haste is necessary."
"As yet there is no stop-over at Guayaquil, though that will soon be arranged, I am told -perhaps by the time you return, though I doubt it. So you would probably lose very little by waiting for a boat.
"And now think it well over, this matter, and consider from all sides what it may mean for you. Perhaps death, perhaps madness, I will not conceal from you, although I feel that in your case this is really not to be actively feared. Yet it is my duty to warn you. So, now, do not too hastily decide."
They rose as Don Pascual was speaking. Twilight was falling and the old man-servant now entered with a lamp.
"Manuel will wait in the hall to show you out," and Don Pascual held out his beautiful, fine hand, taking Inglesant's in a firm grip. Manuel had taken the hint and departed as Don Pascual, still gripping Inglesant's hand, said in an undertone:
"Au revoir, Senor Inglesant. Listen, and remember this great phrase of our Order: To know, to will, to dare, and to remain silent." Inglesant, out in the Plaza once more, had to exert definite control over his racing thoughts. "What incredible luck - simply unbelievable!" he told himself, after he had subdued his mental excitement. He went over again point by point the events and revelations of the past three hours and there came to him in a flash of grim relish the opinions on his sanity which would agitate his friends if they could guess what he was planning to do.
"No one but a wild newspaper scout like Blade would give me a lick of sympathy, and I wager that even he would think it a good investment to take out an accident insurance on my chances. And that reminds me, I must manage somehow to give Blade the slip while I'm in New York, if I want to sidestep publicity. I suppose almost anyone would think me an utter saphead for not feeling even a glimmer of suspicion of Don Pascual and his offer. But then of course they haven't met him. And they haven't had my peculiar experience of the occult, and they don't know old Ibn Khaldun and the things he has done for me. No - I'll let no cheap horse-sense or sophistication stand between me and the chance I was born for!"
Back in the Palacio Pizarro, he sat down by the open window and spent an hour poring over his memory of the manuscript in order to print it indelibly upon his brain. For he felt certain that somehow, somewhere, and before so very long he should meet the stare of those hollow, malignant eyes again.
Afterward he changed and went down to what he expected would be a solitary meal in the dining salon. In this however, he was disappointed, for no sooner was be seated than MacCarthy brought a young American up to his table.
"This, Senor Inglesant, is the Senor Julian Vaughan, a compatriot. It would be more pleasant for you gentlemen to sit vis-a-vis, instead that you are placed glaring at one another from wall to wall. Is it not so?"
There seemed to be no help for it, so Inglesant gave a courteous welcome to the handsome young fellow, slight, blue-eyed and ingenuous looking, who appeared to be grateful for the courtesy.
"It's really awfully kind of you, Mr. Inglesant. Mine host grappled me and rushed me over here before I really knew what he was up to," remarked Vaughan as he took the chair opposite and unfolded a dubious napkin. "I must admit though that the food here is more appropriate to solitary confinement, isn't it?"
"It's certainly about the world's worst," agreed Inglesant. "If I were staying in this town for long I'd ration myself - like Sinclair and Littlewood at the excavations."
"I hope for the sake of present kindness that you will be able to pull out pronto," laughed young Vaughan.
"You can bet your passport on that," returned Inglesant, "and the same to you. Are you on your way to Lima?"
"No, I'm going home as soon as I've seen an old friend of mine, an engineer up at the mines. New York may be a good target for sarcasm when you're snugly there, but from this moldy dump it beckons like the shores of Elysium. Hope you are also on the homeward march?"
"Not exactly. I'm a sort of professional traveler you see. And travelers have to keep on the job if we want to make the tabloids or The National Geographic now and then."
"Not Stephen Inglesant!" and Vaughan's face lit up with sudden delight.
Inglesant cursed himself mentally in about seven and a half languages. "The same. Hope you have discovered nothing to his discredit?"
"Hardly," laughed Vaughan. "Unfortunately he's quite undiscovered country to me. But I've written some short stories - of course you haven't read them - on the kind of occult things you're supposed to be an expert in and - "
Inglesant's quick frown of assumed annoyance brought Vaughan to an embarrassed halt. Inglesant told himself that be must get rid of this attractive young idiot.
"Don't tell me you fall for such newspaper posh," be jeered. And then he proceeded to tear into shreds any illusions which Julian Vaughan might have built up as to his romantically mysterious personality. At the end, having reduced his admirer to a pale image of offended dignity, he rose, yawned slightly, and held out a limp hand.
"Good-bye, Mr. Vaughan. Glad to have met you. Sha'n't see you again, I'm afraid, as I'm off for a trip into the interior. Wish you good hunting - "
Thus Inglesant made his escape, nursing a disagreeable sense of meanness - and little suspecting that an introduction to Fate had just taken place!
"Too bad to bluff that nice boy so unfairly! But I have given a pledge. And I must hold myself to myself I suppose, especially if I'm to keep newshounds off the scent." Thus he placated himself as he went up to his room.
Later, as he dropped asleep he seemed to read in a scrawl of fire over his head -
To know - to will - to dare - and to remain silent.
The first thing Inglesant did next morning was to arrange for the sending of an inquiry to Guayaquil to find when he could catch a steamer for the U.S. and to engage a cabin if there was one to be had on a boat that would get him to New York by April fifteenth. The next day he learned that he might embark on Tuesday, that his cabin had been arranged for, and that if he did not go then he would have to wait another fortnight.
"Let's see," he calculated. "Tuesday. This is Thursday. If I can see Don Pascual on Monday I can make it by the coast-train from the mines that night. I'll simply have to make that train!"
Killing the next few days became for Inglesant a matter of sheer endurance. Yet he somehow managed to work through them, to be electrified on Monday morning by the presence of a note beside his breakfast plate. It requested him briefly to call upon Don Pascual at about 11.30. Promptly at the hour named Inglesant lifted the bronze knocker at Casa Pizarro and was immediately admitted by Manuel to the cool bare hall, and conducted up the wide staircase to a large salon above. Here he found Don Pascual standing beside the enormous fireplace of ornate stone carving smoking a cigarette, which he discarded as Inglesant entered. "Well?" he asked, as his guest approached across the great room, looking into the younger man's face with intense, impersonal fixity.
Inglesant's memory unconsciously photographed the picture he made. His great lean bulk, with something so fine in line and finish that it gave the impression almost of light; his dark gravity that was so instinct with benevolent humor and sweetness; the massive head with its glossy black hair and its poise of imperial power. And now again he saw the strange, secret expression in his eyes. Inglesant had caught it the first moment of meeting him, but though he had glimpsed it now and again - as if someone, so to speak not present, had looked at him suddenly - that was the nearest he could ever define it.
"Well?" repeated Don Pascual without urgency, and smiled.
Inglesant smiled in return. "Well, Excellency - it is to be yes. Of course I knew that, even on Friday, and I haven't seen any reason to change in thinking things over. So - if you'll have me, I'm your man!"
"You have well considered the danger?"
"Not especially. I have yielded to what seemed to me the pressure of some inner necessity. I feel that I must accept because there is a need somewhere in me that I cannot deny. It's a plain case of predestination, or that's how it feels to me."
"We had better leave it so, then," returned Don Pascual. "But now, Manuel has arranged for un petit dijeuner. Let us discuss our affairs at table, shall we? Senor Mendoza has gone down to Guayaquil, so we shall be alone."
On a balcony overlooking the patio, where there was a garden, glowing with tropic brilliance, a small table stood ready. Antique glass and silver, embroidered napery and a porcelain bowl of scarlet hibiscus made a delightful change from what Inglesant thought of as 'the layout of the Hermosa barracks.'
The silent and efficient Manuel provided the simplest of luncheons, an omelette, little crusty cakes of maize-flour, coffee, and a salad with cheese and fresh dates.
"I do not offer you wine," said Don Pascual, "but the coffee is, as you already know, of superlative excellence. And now - have you made any plans?"
"Yes, I leave for New York tonight - that is, I will take the coast train from the mines. It passes through here about nine o'clock. And I will sail from Guayaquil tomorrow."
"You are a true American," laughed Don Pascual, "all attack and efficiency. I do admire it! And what next?"
"According to sailing schedule, I shall arrive in New York on April 15th. It should take another fortnight to get my affairs in order, and another fifteen days back here.
"Better leave the return arrangements open, as yet," interposed Don Pascual. "I will communicate with you . Any letters or cablegrams will be signed 'Pelican.' This is a needed precaution, I assure you. There are a number of meddlers who take an intense interest in any arrangements of mine. To check me in some important particular would be a genuine satisfaction to two or three highly placed individuals - a matter which you will better understand when you know more about our work. So, if I should employ anyone personally, a messenger for instance, you will give passwords to establish identity. First you will say, Atlantis, and my messenger will reply Rediviva. But do not write these words down anywhere - they will never be used by anyone but yourself in combination with my personal agent.
"Does that sound too conspiratorial?" went on Don Pascual. "But, you have already said you do not object to the melodramatic - "
"I certainly take to it naturally. But I'm glad your mot-de-passe is so easy to remember.".
The host smiled as he drew a little notebook from his hip-pocket. "Here," he said, handing it to Inglesant, "I have jotted down the few special things you will need for the trip you must later take into the interior. And also I have noted there a large quantity of a particular chemical, and I shall be very grateful if you can bring it for me, as it cannot be obtained anywhere in the Americas except of that one chemist. It will, I am afraid, be a nuisance. It is not for me personally, but for a friend in Lima who has done many favors for me. He is anxious to get this chemical to Lima without attracting curiosity. He is making some experiments in connexion with the discovery of radium deposits. There is nothing illegal about it - merely a trade-secret, I believe you call it. No tariff involved. Would that be too much to ask of you?"
"Certainly not, Don Pascual. Now, how much money shall I bring with me?"
"About five hundred of your dollars. That will pay for pack animals and supplies, and leave something over for emergencies. As an old traveler you will of course provide for your own individual fancies. Bring not too many cigarettes as I believe the tobacco of the region where you are going will well content you. And do not bring blankets, as a sufficiency of those of llama-wool will be provided, and they are of the superlative best. You will have excellent quarters and be well provided for at your destination; and when you are ready to return to civilization, all will be provided for you."
A silence fell between the two men. Don Pascual broke it at last.
"I would like to tell you more about our Order, but that must wait now until we meet again. I wish now only to warn you - silence! Take absolutely no one into your confidence. Put all speculations as to the future out of your mind and heart. Learn to expect nothing and to be ready for all things."
Inglesant saw that the interview was at an end, and in the same moment both men rose. Don Pascual picked up a small square package as they crossed the room and handed it to Inglesant.
"Here is a little gift I should like you to have. These are manuscript copies in Spanish of two very ancient treatises which will give you some idea of the philosophy of life and of nature which my Order teaches. By studying these you will learn to make a beginning in that course of training which is founded on self-directed evolution. And if you study them in the right way you will find the clues to some very remarkable knowledge."
Don Pascual pulled the bell-cord and while waiting for Manuel the two new friends shook hands cordially, exchanging a deep glance of confidence and regard. Almost before he knew it Inglesant found himself in his room at the Palacio Hermosa.
About noon on Tuesday he arrived at Guayaquil where he had breakfast and a hot bath, after which he found his steamer just sighted. There was time merely for a stroll through the covered arcades of the modern city before he took tender for the Santa Clara, which was anchored some distance out in the roadstead. She was a luxurious boat although the cabin assigned to him was not one of her best. He was annoyed to find that he had to share it with a traveling companion. A protest to the purser was of no help as the ship was crowded and he had not applied for passage early enough to secure a cabin to himself. And then a little later his cabin-mate turned up and it proved to be the young American of the Palacio Hermosa, Julian Vaughan!
Inglesant swallowed his surprise and reluctance in a single gulp. "Well!" he exclaimed, as a rather stiff greeting was exchanged, "I'm certainly glad that I'm already acquainted with my cabin-mate. Odd I didn't see you on the tender?"
"Oh, I went by a friend's plane to Lima a few days ago and boarded her there. I understand it will be only a few months now till there is regular air-service between New York and Guayaquil. In the meantime I imagine we are going to be very comfortable here. This is a really excellent line, you know."
Inglesant was glad to see the stiffness melting from Vaughan's expression as he spoke, although it was evident that the meeting was as trying to Vaughan as to himself. But Inglesant's tone of warm friendliness was not to be resisted and Vaughan returned his offer of good fellowship with generous response.
"I hope you found your friend at the mines?" remarked Inglesant politely as he turned to begin unpacking.
"As a matter of fact, I didn't. But it wasn't a matter of much importance and I was glad to get away. New York begins to look mighty attractive to me."
"I'll say it does," agreed Inglesant. "For myself, I had to postpone further traveling for the present. My affairs in New York called me back. Now, Mr. Vaughan, how about these bunks? Hadn't you better let me have the longer one? When I have to fold up in sections I get kinda fractious."
Both laughed as they set about arranging the cabin for mutual comfort and then went up to the smoking-room together. Stephen had a feeling, which proved to be a sound one, that Vaughan was the type which acts on a hint and could be relied on not to mention his cabin-mate's celebrity.
And so began a lazy and delightful voyage. Inglesant was surprised after the lapse of a week to find how unconsciously intimate he had become with Vaughan. It was not that they had much to say to one another. Steve spent the greater part of the day reading and planning in a remote corner, while Julian seemed to have writing to do and also kept very much to himself. But in the dining-saloon where they sat opposite one another, and in occasional strolls together before breakfast or before turning in, a curiously deep intimacy somehow established itself between them. One forenoon Inglesant suggested a game of quoits. Just as they finished and Julian stooped to tie his shoe a miniature fell from his breastpocket. Rolling along the deck it was accidentally kicked by a romping child and broken.
Julian made a futile dash for it and Inglesant followed him to where the bit of porcelain lay in the scuppers, broken into three pieces.
"What a pity!" said Inglesant. "That's a rare bit of painting. I carry a jar of unusually good cement in my kit. I'm something of an expert in repairing antiques, and I can fix it up for you."
Julian laughed a little ruefully. "This is anything but an antique, old man. It's my kid sister, Dariel. I'd hate to lose it. I'll be grateful indeed if you can mend it."
Inglesant laid the pieces on his palm. "Of course - it'll be easy. See? They fit all right - only one tiny fleck at the throat is missing. I'll take it down now, there's just time to mend it before lunch. You run along and finish your chapter or whatever it is and I'll join you in the dining-saloon."
Inglesant went down to the cabin and prepared to mend the miniature, paying little heed to it until it was cemented. Then as he started to bind it firmly into position his attention fixed itself for the first time on the face in the miniature. He stared at it with a prolonged and silent whistle.
"What was her name, now - Dariel? That's it. What a beautiful head - like a golden, archaic goddess."
A moment later be found himself still gazing raptly at the face on his palm, a face full-molded yet chiseled exquisitely; the strange, ice-blue eyes with golden lashes; the thick tresses bound close about her classic head as if carven of massy gold. About it there breathed a look of serene golden power, very simple and pure.
Inglesant roused himself with a pitying smile for his moonstruck sensibility. "Shush, old man!" he thought, as he shrugged off the impression. "I don't believe nary girl on earth outside of a miniature looks like that in this day and age. Wait till you see her with a cocktail at her elbow and a cigarette stuck in her face - " and he laid the little portrait carefully out of harm's way before be went to the dining-saloon.
It is a truism that nothing in life stands still. Things either develop, or else deteriorate. There is always growth or dissolution. And so quite against Inglesant's conscious will he was constantly drawn closer into the heart and life of Julian Vaughan. This trivial incident of the miniature forged a subtil link between them, though at the time neither thought much about it. For the face in the miniature had sunk deep into Inglesant's consciousness and remained there like the grain of mica that at last in the silence and darkness becomes a pearl.
That same evening while the two friends were in the cabin preparing for sleep Steve returned the miniature to Julian. "It seems all right now. You ought to have a case to keep it in. It's the loveliest thing I ever saw of its kind."
"Isn't it? But not nearly so lovely as the original. Dariel gave it to me on my twenty-first birthday and I always have it with me when I'm traveling. You see we are orphans and so closer in feeling than most brothers and sisters. Besides, I have a special feeling for my sister; she is in a way out of place in modern life. She is so unusual - almost an anomaly - she might be called a freak by some people if she were not so beautiful. So that this miniature is only a poor shadow of Dariel at the best."
"Well, I suppose I should congratulate you upon having such a wonderful sister, but it's a responsibility too. However, I've always been such a foot-loose wanderer over the earth that I'm a poor judge I dare say, though at times being all alone in the world has its advantages. Well, we're out of the Canal tomorrow and then before we know it, New York. Its been for me an unusually pleasant voyage - we've made excellent cabin-mates I think, Vaughan?"
"Yes, we have, ripping. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
Inglesant's thoughts as he began to doze off drifted together in a pleasant confusion. Fragments of the sublime ideas from Don Pascual's Mss. mingled with his affection for Julian and were interwoven with the still, shining loveliness of Dariel Vaughan.
Suddenly, across this dreamy confusion there shot a lurid shadow and he thought he saw two hollow, malignant eyes fixed upon Dariel's faintly smiling beauty.
With a horrid wrench he was fully awake.
"Immortal gods! I must be careful. I've bound myself now to the destruction of the power of that dark being, and I carry danger with me. That means from now on Steve Inglesant has become - well, maybe it sounds a bit sensational, but it's true - I'm just that - anathema!"
"Well, here we are again before the topless towers of Ilium," jested Julian as the two friends stood beside the rail of the Santa Clara and watched the gigantic panorama of Lower Manhattan rising into view like an enchantment.
"Yes, it's pretty overpowering, no matter how often you see it, isn't it?" rejoined Inglesant. "Invariably gives me an ache in the solar plexus. You know, with all its disillusions for the unwary, New York always seems to me the proscenium arch to the biggest thing yet in civilizations."
"Look!" exclaimed Julian later as they drew close enough in for them to distinguish the small crowd on the wharf awaiting the boat's arrival. "That's Dariel - isn't she the real thing; in sisters to meet us like this at seven-thirty in the morning? See - she's the one standing beyond there at the left," and, confidingly, he handed the glass to his companion.
Inglesant raised it to his eyes and never forgot the picture it brought so close to him. She stood, behind a great coil of rope, erectly at ease and in her isolation unconscious of scrutiny; looking, he thought again, like an archaic goddess strayed into the modern world. Her costume accidentally deepened this atmosphere. A wisp of amber veil above her temples floated in the fresh breeze and revealed the dull shine of her coiled hair. She was swathed in a cloak of soft pale cloth gilded by the young morning light. To him she seemed a creature from the Golden Age of the world.
As unconsciously he prolonged his scrutiny while Julian turned aside to speak with their cabin-steward, the atmosphere of her personality, with its quietude, and a certain air of delicate and serene determination, sank deeply into his heart. And he knew in his last long glance before he returned the glasses to Julian that he had found the one woman - and found her only to lose her. There came deeply home to him in that moment the fatality of dark dedication that rested over his life. He saw with biting clarity that for him there might be now, if ever, no personal happiness or love. He had put his hand to the plow and might not - no, nor really desired to - turn backward. And remembering the sinister Thing that drew daily nearer out of the cloudy future he understood that he must above all allow no woman to be drawn into emotional touch with himself.
Inglesant had to submit to a fairly searching gauntlet of questions from two newspapermen who came aboard. But as they were neither of them seasoned hands his speciously cordial response easily turned aside any inconvenient questions as to his future movements.
Then, although he could not escape a meeting with Dariel he preserved a distant and distrait manner in response to her own rather impersonal cordiality. He finally escaped with an assumption of brusqueness from Julian's attempts to detain him, and from the offers of hospitality which he knew were sure to follow. And so Inglesant left them, with the dull expectation of never seeing either of them again.
He drove at once to a quiet boarding-house, where he had once lived with his father, rather than register publicly at a hotel, and plunged immediately into the business that had brought him back to New York. At once a number of snags developed in some matters he had expected to close out easily enough. But he filled in the intervals of waiting, of business interviews and consultations with his agents, with the acquiring of traveling equipment. As Don Pascual suggested in his notes he left the chemical, after ordering it explicitly for a certain date, to be picked up as the final item on his list.
It took nearly three weeks to get everything into shape. In the meantime he had arranged his sailing-date by means of an exchange of telegrams with Pelican. And then the last day came when Inglesant had arranged to drive out to the small chemical factory on Long Island, as indicated on Don Pascual's list, and pick up the package, after sending word that he was coming.
He had his passage for Lima booked for the next morning and his luggage was waiting at the docks for him to go aboard at midnight. During his stay in New York he had hired a small car which he drove himself. And so, on the lowering forenoon of the last day of April he started for Deerfield on Long Island. During the night the temperature had dropped sharply and as he neared his destination snow began to fall.
"What do you know about that!" he grumbled. "Now I'll have to rush for it. Really I shouldn't have put this item off till so late. Sailing tomorrow morning was shaving it altogether too fine. But Don Pascual seemed so keen on my not having the stuff on hand a minute longer than necessary."
A delay occurred at the factory while the particular man was found who had put up the formula. So that when Inglesant came out and found the storm had increased to a violence of wind-driven snow, he felt it might be safer to wait. Yet if the storm turned into a blizzard, as seemed likely, even train service might be broken off for no one knew how long. He couldn't afford to chance that.
"No, I'll push on. The road is straight as a string. I probably can follow it all right - I have to!"
He drove on, then, and so dashed straight into the accident that threw out all his closely timed arrangements. For passing a crossroads, invisible in the thickness of furiously driven snow he crashed into a big limousine. The rented car crumpled like pasteboard, and the last thing Inglesant remembered was his own violent irruption into snow-choked space.
* * *
A girl's laugh like a dash of silver spray, awoke him. He raised heavy lids and looked around dazedly without seeing anything very distinctly. A curious sensation took his attention, a baffling sense of paralysis. At the same moment he discovered that his ribs were in a plaster cast. Memory then brought crashing back his collision and spill in the blizzard. With a disagreeable shock he realized that he must have missed his boat, and that all his plans lay shattered.
His head began to throb and dizzily he closed his eyes. But in a few moments he felt better again and curiosity brought him now wide awake to the May afternoon that flooded in through the open windows.
Was this a hospital? No - too luxurious, too much originality and atmosphere in the large and splendid room. There was a clean opulence about it that he found, as his glance went slowly exploring, very restful and stimulating. The colors were rich but subdued, dusky purples and blues of summer twilight, with rose in the rugs and hangings. The furniture, fashioned on the modern lines that were becoming the vogue, and colored in faint silver, was nevertheless deftly inviting in design and arrangement. There were a few ornaments about which harmonized with the general air of restrained luxury.
"Might be the lounge of some ancient Egyptian aristocrat," thought Inglesant in dreamy appreciation.
Now he heard again the girl's laugh, but nearer, somewhere within the house. A little later the door softly opened and Steve gazed - in a fog of incredulity - upon the face which appeared around the door-jamb. It was the face of Dariel Vaughan!
He remembered then. Julian had once mentioned that they lived on Long Island.
The door closed as suddenly and softly as it had been opened, and Inglesant, after gazing for what seemed a long time at its blank silvery surface wearily shut his eyes. What would he be up against now! How could this new development be made to fit into the picture?
At the thought he found himself too discouraged to plan and let himself doze off again into blessed oblivion. He awoke after an hour's rest to find a man in white linen standing with his back to him while Julian looked over the man's shoulder at what Inglesant took to be a medical chart. They did not notice at first that Inglesant's eyes were open, so he could look at Julian unobserved for a moment, thinking how useless it is to try to dodge one's destiny. How gladly indeed would he have confided something of his plans to Julian, whose sensitive and responsive nature was framed so surely for the reciprocities of friendship. But this, he knew, could not be. He must never for a moment forget, he warned himself, that he was now a man set apart - in a sense, however fortunate he might rightly regard himself - a man accursed.
Julian suddenly looked around and their eyes met. Both smiled, recognising a comic element in the situation.
"How on earth, old man," questioned Steve in a curiously husky quaver, "did you happen to saddle yourself with a human millstone like me?" Julian laughed affectionately, in the spirit of complete generosity that Inglesant had experienced and loved in him before.
"Oh, you just naturally threw yourself at our heads," he teased in return. "Hope you don't mind, old fellow, but you were pretty badly crocked, and our diggings being handy we just hustled you over here. As it happened Dr. Reilly was right on the spot, so that was magnificently that."
"A sweet nuisance I am!" was Inglesant's first slightly bitter comment. "Really, Julian, you've been simply splendid - I can't begin to express - "
"Don't, Inglesant, don't say it. What does it matter between you and me? Borden," to the nurse, "just look up Mrs. Vaughan will you, and ask her to come here."
When Borden had gone - "How long have I been lying here, for heaven's sake?" asked Inglesant.
"About thirty-six hours. It was a near concussion you see. You were pretty lucky not to have been killed, old man," and Julian gave him a detailed account of the accident.
"Well!" exclaimed Steve when he had heard it all, "a queer coincidence all round, but a lucky one for me - "
"And for all of us, I assure you!" exclaimed a deep decided voice, and Inglesant gazed in some bewilderment upon a woman's figure that swept around the head of his bed. She was more like a vision of a Byzantine Empress than anything he could think of - a great Amazonian beauty, dark and extremely vivid in spite of frank middle-age.
"Inglesant," laughed Julian, "this is the only completely satisfactory stepmother in captivity. Let me present you to your hostess, Mrs. Theodosia Vaughan."
Mrs. Vaughan took the invalid's lean, outstretched hand into both of her beautiful warm ones.
"You dear boy!" she said in her strangely masculine voice that held more humor than sympathy. "It was a poor stroke of business when you decided to buck that blizzard. But never mind - it was our luck that time against yours for we're mighty proud to have the privilege of entertaining you, Mr. Inglesant. I may as well warn you at once that aside from the claims of mere friendship I'm a lion-hunter by temperament, training, and graduating exercises, and I don't care even if the lions know it. I told them to send for me instantly you woke. For years now I have been determined to know you."
"Now, Theo," scolded Julian, "you mustn't try out things like that on a man who's still suffering from a crock-up. You'd better run along - Dr. Reilly will be here soon, and he'll make short work of you. Besides, Dariel will want to hear about the patient's recovery - "
"Well," said Mrs. Vaughan, as she prepared to obey with unexpected docility, "I certainly hope he'll prescribe a man-size beefsteak for this case - that's all he needs, I feel sure. Mind you demand it, Mr. Inglesant. Au revoir, and don't give another thought to anything I say or do - I'm not as important as I look, really," and with her delightful, husky laugh, she departed.
Inglesant had tried, but had not been able to edge in a word.
"Take a nap now, Steve," advised Julian as he turned the patient over to Borden. Obediently, Inglesant dozed off again. And then after a time the doctor arrived, a brisk, silver-haired Irishman. He expressed hearty satisfaction and encouragement at the condition of his patient.
"Oh, well have the cast off in about three weeks," was his cheerful way of brushing aside Inglesant's exasperated groans over his helplessness.
"But is everything going to be all right with me - are you sure?" he demanded in sudden panic.
"Absolutely, my boy - you're as tough as a Kaffir - one of the finest constitutions I ever overhauled. By the way, here's a telegram. It "came by 'phone yesterday and I stopped into the office today and brought it over. I guess you're well enough now to have it."
He grinned at the pounce Inglesant made for the envelope.
"To judge by your expression, it's good news, Mr. Inglesant. And now I'll run along. Borden, come along and get orders, though he can eat pretty well as he pleases now. Just keep on as you're going, and I'll be satisfied. So long, see you tomorrow or the next day."
Inglesant now re-read his wire attentively.
Sorry your accident. Learned through Newstelegrams. Plenty of Time. Do not answer. Will telegraph later. - Pelican
"Ah-h-h!" breathed Inglesant with satisfaction. "I might have known he'd be right there with the goods. And that's one worry removed. Anyway, now I can rest easy for a time. And oh boy! Bacon and eggs for breakfast - it certainly listens good!"
And not only was it bacon and eggs, but grilled sweetbreads and deviled kidneys; with accompaniments lavish enough to furnish forth a gastronomic marathon. Fortunately he was of a frugal habit, so while he did good work with a number of basic ingredients he was still in good trim when Caesar, the ancient but still vigorous negro-butler of the Vaughan household, himself condescended to receive the wreckage from Borden's hands.
"I shush hopes you is feelin' mo' pussonable this mawnin, suh?" he inquired punctiliously.
"Thank you, Caesar. I'm all right excepting that I have a little the sensation of a mashed fly on sticky fly-paper."
Caesar chortled politely.
"Us nebber seems to know when we is bein' keered fo' by Lady Luck," he remarked cryptically, giving a solemn roll of white eyeballs as he left the room.
Then came Julian, bringing' good news.
"The doctor prescribes the garden this morning, Steve. So we're going to wheel your couch out now to the service elevator and see that orders are carried out. I imagine you won't register any objection?"
So in no time at all Inglesant found himself lying under a great horse-chestnut tree where he was skilfully wedged by Borden into a less recumbent position by means of a multiplicity of cushions. When he finally began to look about him he found himself in the midst of a scene that left him a little breathless.
Before him rose a vision of architectural wonder. At first he gazed at it with the same sensation with which he would have marveled over the sudden appearance of a Fata Morgana. It was a superlative imitation of a Venetian palace surrounded by formal gardens and leading by terraced marble stairways to the lapping blue Sound. The mansion was of two and a half stories, built of warmly colored marbles, diversified by balconies, loggias, and belvederes, and crowned by cornices which glowed where the sun touched them with vermilion and azure and gold.
He drew his breath sharply before this gleaming pile, and Julian, who was returning from a call to the 'phone, smiled at his guest's stupefaction.
"You're like all the rest, Steve," he said, "just pop-eyed over it. It's my stepmother's - by the way, we always call her Theo, it saves time. This creation is her most theatrical gesture to date. That's what she lives on, you must know, being fabulously wealthy and blessed by an imagination that stops at nothing."
"And I've been living in that Aladdin's palace, and never knew it," he thought feebly. "Strange that I've never heard of this place," he remarked aloud. "I'd think the tabloids would have gone cuckoo over it - "
"So they did, but that was while we were both away. They sent me some of the blurbs - skyrockets of ripe tomatoes, believe me, old man. And Lord! how our Theo did revel in it - she's the most delightful piece of innocent self-exploitation you could meet. She manages to be towntalk most of the time."
"Good Lord! It's - why it's like Kubla Khan," breathed Inglesant. "It must take some living up to, what?"
"Not for Theodosia!" laughed Julian. "She likes nothing better than queening it here with a house-party of lions and unicorns from the ends of the earth. But don't worry, old man. I've told her to lay off you. She just naturally hates to pass up such a good chance to gather an audience but I've made her see that this is one time when she can't have what she wants."
"Here comes Dariel," he remarked presently, rising to meet his sister, who as she came across the lawn was carrying the conventional housewife's morning basket of flowers. Beside her there paced sedately an aged brown spaniel.
"That storm has set back the gardens severely," explained Julian as Dariel paused here and there to examine anxiously some herbaceous borders. "Fortunately there are the greenhouses, so Dariel can still play the part of household flower-maiden."
Inglesant as he watched her leisurely approach thought what a sweet contrast she made with all this extravagant luxury of setting. Her plain morning gown of violet belted with white suede emphasized her young freshness. The unselfconscious simplicity that was the genius of her vestal loveliness touched deeply his waiting heart. This girl's image entered quietly there never again to leave its secret shrine.
"Good morning, Mr. Inglesant," she called gaily as she drew nearer, and stopping beside his chair she shook hands with cordiality. "Glad to see you don't regard me this morning as a mere apparition. Yesterday afternoon, after seeing your face when I opened the door - ! Not that I blame you. It must have taxed your credulity to jump from a blizzard to me - quite a contrast I flatter myself."
His impetuous response was engulfed in the sweep of Mrs. Vaughan's arrival accompanied by a footman in livery who carried a big pile of newspapers which he laid on the table at Inglesant's elbow!
"See what it is to be a celebrity," she congratulated him. "Every paper in New York reported your accident in full, in many cases with even marvelous embroideries. One man who signed his article cuttingly as 'Blade,' implied that you are about to spring some extraordinary discovery on the world - are you?"
Inglesant substituted a laugh for the irritation that swept over him. "Oh, Blade - that nuisance!" he complained. "He has the most pestiferous tendency to take me seriously - it can be intensely annoying. You've all been so kind, might I ask to be denied to all interviewers, but particularly to this man Blade? He's a good fellow and an old friend of sorts. But he does make himself a gadfly upon occasion."
"What does he look like?" asked Dariel.
"Very tall, and thin, and saturnine, with lank black hair and long burning brown eyes."
"Gracious!" laughed Dariel, "that man ought to be confined between the covers of Robert Louis Stevenson."
"I wish he were," said Inglesant with an intonation of utter weariness. Left finally to himself to read the various news stories of his accident Inglesant chose only the one that printed Blade's article. He read it with keen anxiety. Yes, the wily and shrewd newshound certainly had a hunch of some kind. What was this hunch and just how did it threaten to interfere with the prosecution of his task? Blade's uncanny insight constituted an active danger. How could he be best outwitted?
The next three weeks were filled for Inglesant with both happiness and pain. Inevitably the three younger people were much together and, helpless as he was to escape from the delightful intimacy, Steve found himself often unable to resist the alternatives of joy and depression that characterized those days of companionship. As physical strength returned to him he struggled to regain some measure of aloofness. But Julian's frank affection and Dariel's gaiety and charm made this increasingly difficult. So May ripened slowly into June.
The time came at last when he was free from the crippling plaster-of-Paris and pronounced generally fit as a fiddle, though forbidden more than the most perfunctory activities for a few days. The day after he was about again it rained continuously. The picnic on the Sound in Dariel's motor launch which she had planned had to be postponed. But Dariel proposed instead a celebration in her own apartment overlooking the treetops. Here Caesar served one of his inimitable dinners, for in his day he had been a notable chef.
Afterward, Mrs. Vaughan, whose gift for dramatic mimicry amounted to genius, entertained them endlessly with imitations of leading contemporary personalities. When the storm began suddenly to increase and the wind to howl around the cornices a fire was lighted on the hearth. The four friends now fell into what Inglesant most dreaded, a cosy and intimate chat, during which the fire of driftwood leaped and sparkled and made its own genial contribution to their mood.
Inglesant, knowing what was expected of him, told them stories of his travels in the East, deliberately avoiding, however, any of those reputed experiences of the occult which had helped to make him famous. But finally the moment came when Dariel said, looking at him in her most winsome way: "Do, please, Mr. Inglesant, tell us something about the time you ran across the old magician in the jungle - the newspapers were so tantalizing about that."
Inglesant smiled a little wryly at her question. "That's rather a sore subject with me, you know, Miss Vaughan. One or two scientific authorities gave me a real black eye over that one. They thought you see that it was just a publicity blurb. It's an odd characteristic of what's supposed to be an age of reason and free inquiry that if anyone unearths something in anthropology or archaeology or any other line that doesn't fit in with the prevailing view, not to mention finer forces than the material, the discovery tends to be ignored. Or else it's suppressed by ridicule. Of course now that extra-sensory perception, as they've called thought reading, has been tentatively accepted by a few scientists, things may improve. But I doubt it."
Mrs. Vaughan, who had been visibly squirming with boredom over the trend the conversation had taken, now resumed the helm.
"Let's not go into those heavy things tonight," she protested. "Tomorrow you three can go off on the launch and throw scientific rocks at each other all day if you enjoy that sort of thing. But at least for tonight, let's be gay. These things are too highbrow for me. The only real use I have for an archaeologist, Mr. Inglesant - as an archaeologist - is to use him for social bait. So that's that! Let's keep to comfortable things."
"Well, I'm really not an archaeologist, Mrs. Vaughan. I'm merely a man who's made traveling something of a profession. So that lets me out."
"Well, to me that sounds more human and entertaining anyway," she laughed. "Perhaps you'll think I'm lazy and ignorant, but with me hatred of all these mildewy topics has come to be an obsession. And that's partly Dariel's fault. If she would only drop these deadly dull things and go in for something young, I might - "
"Oh, I know what she's going to say, now," Dariel interrupted with a gleeful laugh. "Sooner or later, Mr. Inglesant, the influence of all our really intelligent friends is commandeered to talk me into becoming a modern girl. Isn't that it, Theo? Now confess."
Mrs. Vaughan actually snorted at this accusation, and Inglesant was secretly amused at the pugnacious resentment which suddenly contorted her face.
"Now Dariel," chided Julian, "you be quiet and hear what Theo thinks of you. Pitch in, Theo, I'm right with you."
Mrs. Vaughan's face cleared and she laughed at herself as suddenly as she had pouted at Dariel.
"But just think of this child, Mr. Inglesant. Think what I could do for her. This wonderful house, and all this money! With her brains and beauty she might be one of the junior leaders of the smartest of smart New York."
Dariel shrugged resignedly as she rose and slipped from the room.
"Dariel and Julian," mourned their stepmother, "belong to one of the old New York families. And I'm no parvenu myself. We could be at the very top anywhere in the world. And what does that child do?" Her voice deepened to tragic protest. "Why only last Christmas she spent the check I gave her, and a big check it was too - how do you think she spent it, Mr. Inglesant?"
"Afraid you'll have to tell me, Mrs. Vaughan."
"On a chemical laboratory!" Her tone of outraged disgust brought a shout of laughter from Steve and Julian.
"Well, that certainly was letting you down," admitted Stephen with genuine sympathy.
"It took the life out of the winter season for me," gloomily remembered Mrs. Vaughan. "And then," she went on, "can I get her even to go about occasionally to parties and mix with other young people? Nothing doing. But if it's some frump of a social worker who wants her to traipse around in the slums and hold hands with sick old women or rickety children? Or if she can talk with some baldheaded scientific mummy about neuters - "
"Neutrons, you surely must mean," Julian interposed with perfect solemnity.
"Well, whatever unpleasant things it is they do talk about, she can chatter fast enough - "
"But Dariel likes the theater, Theo - "
"The theater!" scorned Mrs. Vaughan. "Why, Mr. Inglesant, Julian and I talked ourselves into neurasthenia two years ago to keep Dariel from trying for a theatrical career. The little goose is always itching to do or be something deadly serious. Just living pleasantly isn't good enough for her."
Then they caught Inglesant's quizzical, amused stare and turned to find Dariel standing in the doorway with Caesar grinning in her wake. For a moment, so subtly had Dariel transformed her appearance, they hardly recognised her. She had been rifling Mrs. Vaughan's wardrobe and had contrived to pin herself into a skin-tight frock - an extravaganza in black velvet and ermine. Her golden hair was swept to the top of her head in a burlesque of the latest hair-do. In one hand sparkled a glass of champagne. From a long holder in the other wreathed the smoke of a cigarette. And by means of skillfully applied make-up she had completely changed her face into the semblance of a charming, inhuman puppet. She now stood carelessly regarding them in an attitude of lolling impertinence. Giggling inanely as they gaped at her, she perched herself pertly upon the arm of Inglesant's chair.
"Well," she demanded, "am I a success as a gaudy young sophisticate, or am I just a flop in the glamor role?"
Inglesant laughed. "It doesn't suit you, if that's your idea of it, young lady."
Mrs. Vaughan held herself ominously silent while Caesar rolled forward a service table with coffee and champagne cup. But when he had gone she broke out reproachfully: "Now, Dariel, you know that's not at all the sort of thing I mean."
"Oh yes, I know, Theo dearest," and Dariel dropped comedy to give her stepmother a warm and vigorous hug. "But while I feel that I really fall far short of what I might easily grow into, I just want to show you all how silly I look trying to be something I don't want to be. Also that I'm perfectly aware of how the trick is done. It's no use, Theo, I detest your modern young people, at least as we see them about here at the night clubs and at Palm Beach and the fashionable lounges. You see, I'm an example of Oscar Wilde's saying - you remember it? - 'The body is born young and grows old, and that's the tragedy of life; the soul is born old and grows young, and that's the comedy of life.' I'm old now and enjoying it. Someday I may grow to be as young and charming as you are, Theo - but oh, dear people, I like being an old soul in a young body. Do please let me enjoy a ripe old age while it's still possible." And rising, she dropped a demure curtsy before passing from the room.
"Well," said Julian, "that seems to be completely that. But what do you say, Inglesant?"
"Well, you know, I somehow sympathize with Mrs. Vaughan. Miss Dariel's play-acting doesn't by any means cover the case. I feel that your sister ought at least to some extent to take the place in the social world which belongs to her. And perhaps she will, Mrs. Vaughan, if you give up entirely your demands upon her to do it. Haven't you ever noticed that when you stop demanding something from life it is suddenly tossed into your lap?"
Mrs. Vaughan gazed at him for a moment and then held out her firm white hand. "Shake, O man who won't be lionized! I believe you've hit the thumb right on its sore spot. I'll take your sage advice."
One afternoon a day or two later, Inglesant was sitting alone in his particular garden-spot under the horse-chestnut, engaged in writing letters when a sudden movement somewhere near drew his attention. He looked up to find his old newspaper friend, Peter Blade; clad sketchily in bathing trunks, regarding him with an expression of blatant reproach. After the rigid orders given to all the servants about Blade, his appearance like this was a disagreeable shock. But Inglesant knew better than to show this and so got to his feet with prompt friendliness. After all, Blade was an old and valued associate however much of a pest his calling and the growth of native propensities sometimes made of him.
"Why, Blade! How splendid of you to look me up!" he cried heartily. "But say! Isn't that rather queer garb for a garden party? We're having one here presently; I understand."
"Oh yeah?" responded the tall, scraggy man of dark and saturnine visage. "I'll say it is splendid of me to look you up, considering that it meant chartering a motor-boat and swimming ashore in this x-ray disguise. No better way of convincing the public your plans are worth looking into, Steve, than by avoiding the attentions of Peter Blade."
"If I'm concealing any plans from you, you old nuisance, it would be the first time it ever happened - now wouldn't it?"
"Possibly. But I'm more interested in what you're going to pull off now than in your disreputable past. Come now," and Blade threw himself on the grass beside Inglesant as he sat down again, and looked up into his face with a wide, disarming smile.
"Come on now, Steve, tell your pestiferous little Peter what you've got up your sleeve."
Inglesant laughed wholeheartedly, as he returned to his seat.
"I wish I knew!" he responded with perfect truth. "You might tell me your suspicions, and I can at least say if you are hot or cold. What designs am I supposed to be harboring?"'
Well, if you'll show me the letter you're writing, I'll bet I can make a pretty good guess."
"Oh no, Peter, nothing doing! If I happened to be ordering a pair of bedsocks from Woolworth's you'd make a story out of it that would completely wreck what little reputation you've left me. Believe me! no low-minded tabloid will ever publish my letters to someone else's sweetie."
"Up foils then, Peter Blade, and to business!" exclaimed the reporter with a melodramatic gesture. "I'm determined to know, old man, why you were taking ten pounds of this here chemical stuff with you to Lima." "Ah, Peter, now you have me! What say if I tell you that I wanted to get ten pounds of that identical chemical stuff to Lima? Though why that should interest you is a complete mystery to Steve Inglesant."
"It will keep right on interesting me as long as you don't tell me."
"I suppose it will," sighed Steve. "And I didn't want to tell you because if there's one thing that spoils friendship its being made to stand and deliver." Blade grinned at the thrust, but his fixed stare did not even flicker.
Inglesant having noticed a reference in one of the newspapers to his being found with the package of chemical in his possession was ready for this moment. Now he plunged with just sufficient glibness into the fiction he had prepared.
"It's like this, Pete. I was in San Pablo, that little town above Guayaquil in Ecuador where the recent archaeological excavations were made - you remember?" Blade nodded.
"I really went there to see what the finds amounted to, and while there I got acquainted with Senor Estaban Mendoza, the new manager of the Torquemada mines - some excellent lodes of gold and copper and one or two other ores which were located last year about fifty miles above San Pablo."
Inglesant paused here, with an air of casual ease, to light a cigarette, offering his case to Blade, who refused to smoke.
"When Mendoza heard me mention that I had to go home to close out a sudden deal, but that I hoped to get back there again soon to take a hand in further excavations, he asked me to bring this stuff out with me when I returned. I don't even know the name yet. It seems they use it treating some of the metals, though I can't tell you much about it. I sent on the chemical a few days ago so now I won't have to go back. This accident has rather knocked the pins from under me, and I mean to take it easy for the summer anyway." Considering Blade's unscrupulous curiosity Inglesant felt no hesitation in deceiving him.
"Um! Guess your story sounds pretty reasonable," admitted Blade. The two men looked at one another. Inglesant's candor was a well assumed cloak and Blade's expression proclaimed the unbelief of a schemer. "Good Lord! Here's Miss Vaughan, Blade. I told you there's to be a garden party - you'd better vamoose."
"All right. So long then, old boy. Thanks for giving me the low down; see you before long maybe," and Blade disappeared among the shrubbery.
"Who was your simply clad friend?" Dariel asked with a flash of amusement.
"That was Blade - "
"Not the man you forbade the servants to admit?"
"The identical news-hound, only he broke in by water instead of land, as I might have known he would."
"The idea! What impertinence!"
"Yes, he's an incorrigible without a doubt. Still, Miss Dariel, if he happened to be your friend he'd do anything for you, short of passing up the story - legitimately obtained if possible, but still obtained somehow - of your elopement. And at heart he really is a good fellow. So if you ever meet him, please remember that and be as kind to him as you can."
It was the first time they had spoken alone together, and the only time he had ever used that tone of personal intimacy with her. Dariel blushed faintly under his lingering gaze. A feeling had come over him as they spoke apart like this. Something deep within bade him look well, for the end of this dear association approached swiftly.
Standing together so in the warm June silence Dariel waited, that same look of half tranced sweetness about her that he had noted as she stood apart on the pier. But he could not advance, would not speak, because he was pledged in honor not to do so, and because for her sake he dare not. There came a sudden burst of laughter as a party of guests led by Julian came out of the house and approached them. So their moment passed and became a part of his memories.
"Please excuse me, Miss Dariel, for just a moment," he said, and gathering up his letters, went into the house. He was met at the door of his room by Borden with a cablegram for him which he tore open with a sense of foreboding.
"Do not telephone. Deliver this message Inglesant personally. Inglesant leave New York ten o'clock P.M. Friday June fifteenth by plane. Meet pilot Cortesa at Hotel Madrid same day five P.M. All arrangements made. Bring package sure as agreed. - Pelican
"Good Lord," thought Steve, "today is what? - Immortal gods, the fifteenth - the very day! Can I possibly make it I wonder?"
He descended to the garden and watching his chance sought out Julian, whom he drew aside to a spot where Mrs. Vaughan was out of sight. "I've had a telegram that necessitates my going at once to New York, Julian. Do you think I could have a car? I'm awfully sorry to lose my first experience of Mrs. Vaughan's famous entertainments. Don't say anything to either her or your sister until you have to, as I can't say definitely whether I can get back in time."
"Oh, there'll be plenty of others," said Julian. "Of course you can have a car, I'll order it at once."
"All right, I'll get my hat and coat - and meet you at the side entrance in ten minutes," said Inglesant hurrying into the house.
So Julian saw him off, and Inglesant felt distressingly guilty as he said good-bye. He had nothing with him but a bag containing the package of chemical, and a few necessities. He waved his hand cheerily to Julian as the car rounded a curve and the beautiful Vaughan estate slid from view. The car was a small limousine and Inglesant, who had a feeling that Blade might be lurking near the village as they passed through, pulled the shades sufficiently to make it impossible for anyone to detect at a glance who was in the car.
His thoughts went instantly back to the telegram. He had not been really surprised to receive it. The newspaper accounts of his accident had been recorded with all details, which accounted for Blade's information; and his recovery too had been given considerable publicity. Besides, he realized that Don Pascual probably had his own avenues through which he could keep himself informed in any matter which really concerned his work. Of course Inglesant did not at all like the thought of being rushed away like this without time to adjust his departure to social obligations. He thought now with special regret of the ingratitude towards the Vaughans which his abrupt disappearance would resemble. But he also realized that his pledge had covered exactly such situations as this, and that he was obligated to make the best of it.
All his business and other arrangements had been completed a month ago, while everything he had packed for his journey but his suitcase stood ready and waiting at the docks in New York. All he had to do was pickup his baggage and move on. It was too late now for the bank but he still had the thousand dollars he had carried at the time of the accident. He drove to his boarding-house, dismissed the car and gave the chauffeur two hundred dollars to fee Borden, himself and the various servants. Then he sent for a taxi and after securing his suitcase and leaving the address of his New York agent with his landlady, drove to the Hotel Madrid.
This proved to be small and rather second-rate, a place patronized evidently by the needier class of South Americans. He told the taxi-driver to wait and going in to the desk asked if Senor Cortesa was in the hotel.
"He is just over there, sir," returned the clerk, and glancing over his shoulder Inglesant saw a small, dapper, black-haired individual writing letters at a desk in a corner of the lounge. Inglesant went across to him. As he drew near the letter-writer glanced up and, evidently realizing that this tall, handsome, tawny-haired stranger was the man he was waiting for, stood up briskly, giving Inglesant an inquiring look, though he said nothing.
"I am Stephen Inglesant," began Steve, "are you the one I am to meet?"
"Yes, if you know the word," was the man's low-voiced reply.
"Of course! I'd half forgotten," returned Steve in a correspondingly low tone. "The word is Atlantis."
"Rediviva," flashed back the other, and the Spaniard held out his hand with a very attractive smile. "I am to tell you at once," he began, "that we leave by plane tonight. You are to have all your bulky luggage sent by passenger-boat to Guayaquil with instructions to be left there for further directions as to final delivery. Can you see that this is attended to before dinner?"
"Of course, I have a taxi waiting outside now, and my luggage is already at the docks."
"Excellent, Senor. Then meet me here at six-thirty exact, and we then discuss what next is to do. That will suit you?"
"I'll be here," said Steve. "And will you please take care of this bag - it contains something particular for Don Pascual."
"Ah yes, the chemical. I will take the best care of it, Senor Inglesant. Au revoir till dinner."
Steve rushed out to the taxi, tore down to the Panama Pacific docks of the Grace Line and soon concluded the necessary arrangements about his luggage. It was then five-thirty. He went to a booth and called up Julian and had a brief talk with him, explaining that he was obliged to leave suddenly by plane that night, expressing his deep regret at this sudden departure, leaving messages for both ladies with the promise to write at the earliest possible moment, and telling him about the two hundred dollars. To Julian he gave his agent's address in case, as he said, anything happened that he did not get back as soon as he intended.
There was nothing that was not warmly sympathetic in Julian's voice, and Inglesant found that comforting. When he left the 'phone he blessed Julian for the rare quality of an understanding and unselfish heart. How well was Dariel cared for with such a brother at her side!
At ten minutes to six he was back in the hotel with a few purchases. Cortesa was ready for him and had dinner ordered.
"A good one," laughed the Spanish pilot blithely. "I always prefer to start well provisioned against the unknown," and they sat down very pleasantly to an excellent meal. Over the courses Cortesa told Steve of the plans for their journey. They were not going to Lima as Inglesant had expected.
"His Excellency Don Pascual requested me to explain that we better go direct to Cuenca in Ecuador where he will be waiting our arrival, if that is to your satisfaction?"
"Most certainly. What time are we due to arrive there?"
"If we find this good weather all along the route, it will be some time on Thursday, perhaps even earlier. At nine o'clock now we go to the field where we can change. I have all prepared for you to take the air with me in comfort. You are used to flying, yes - and do you like it?"
"Oh, fairly. I've made several trips - can't say I like it particularly, though. I like to see where I'm going, unless I'm in the devil of a hurry. But I've nothing especially against it either. Certainly in our case it's particularly convenient."
"Then flying does not make you sick?" inquired Cortesa with polite anxiety.
"So far it hasn't, but I've always traveled in the big passenger planes. What make of plane have you?"
"Oh, but a beautiful two-seated Harker-Savil Dragonfly. You will like her - she is as cosy and sweet as the two arms of your little wife. Waiter, bring us our bill, please. And now we depart, no? The sooner we are away the quicker, as you Yanquis have it." So by ten o'clock sharp Inglesant and Cortesa, snugly boxed into the beautiful little plane lifted exultantly into the balmy June night and started on their first lap through starry space towards the Andes.
* * *
Peter Blade crushed a dilapidated roll of bills into his trousers' pocket. With controlled impatience he watched the man who stood beside him in his room at Deerfield, Long Island, as he carefully stored away three twenty dollar bills into a shabby wallet. This finished, the pair exchanged a glance of cordial understanding.
"Darn lucky for me, George," remarked Blade, "that you in particular happened to have just that particular job. I shan't forget your help. If this thing turns out to be something good there may be a hundred more in it for you. But don't count on it. These things are always pure gamble."
"That's O.K., Blade. This windfall will help wipe out my wife's hospital expenses. You know if it wasn't for that and my having been out of work for so long I wouldn't have done a thing like this. And you won't forget that I can lose my job over it."
"You won't lose it, old man. This information isn't for publication, as I've already told you. It's only to get my nose onto a blind trail, and no possible harm to anyone." The two shook hands and the telegraph operator left.
Blade threw himself into a chair beside the window. Eagerly he spread out the telegraph form which his friend had given him. And there he studied with deep absorption a copy of the identical cablegram which Inglesant had received three hours ago.
"Now I wonder," he mused, "who in Hades this 'Pelican' can be. A code name, of course." Blade glanced at his watch. "Ten o'clock he's supposed to leave, and it's now eight-thirty. Gives me mighty little time. Well, let's visit this Hotel Madrid and see what we shall see."
He 'phoned to the nearest garage and a quarter of an hour later was in swift flight towards New York.
"Lucky I had sense enough to hang about," he congratulated himself. "Otherwise I'd have missed seeing innocent Stevie as he left the Doge's palace stuffing a telegram into his pocket. George was a trump too. I've sure had the breaks this time. All the more reason for keeping strictly to the underbrush, Peter old scout."
Some distance below the Hotel Madrid he dismissed the taxi and made his way around the back of the hotel by a devious route. The last thing he cared for was to be seen by Inglesant at that moment. He reconnoitered cautiously outside at first. Finding no sign in the lounge of the men he was looking for he went in and walked boldly up to the desk. Getting information he needed by clever indirection was a part of his training, and he soon had confirmation of Inglesant's presence in the dining-room.
After that he concealed himself in a cleft between the front wall of the hotel and the building next door and waited. It was, he had noted by the dock in the lounge as he came through, a quarter to nine. In less than half an hour the two men be was expecting made their appearance, just as a taxi drew up at the curb.
He heard Cortesa say guardedly to the driver: "Dobb's Acres, the Bronx." And the car shot away.
"Flying field, probably," Blade told himself. "I never heard of it. Must be one of those swagger flying clubs. Let's try a taxi."
The driver also had never heard of Dobb's Acres, but once they were in the Bronx district the place was soon located and proved to be, as Blade had thought, the airport of a newly established aviation club.
"Cortesa's more of a toff than I'd supposed possible with his record. No hurry for me now, just so long as I get there before the dust begins to settle. I wonder if those two are headed for Lima. Simpler to use the public airways in that case you'd think. He may of course be going there, for it's a cinch that he wasn't going to San Pablo - altogether too frank, if you ask me. Still, you never can tell. I'll just have to trust my wits to find out. Anyway, Steve has something mighty important up his sleeve. I knew it the minute I saw the expression on his face over his letters that afternoon in Scheherezade's garden. I know my Stephen. And what was he doing with that chemical stuff - that's the fingerprint on the gun for Peter. Lead used in mining? Bunk!"
At exactly ten-thirty Blade appeared at the open gate of the flying field called Dobb's Acres.
"Has Cortesa gone yet?" he demanded breathlessly of the young gatekeeper who immediately challenged him.
"Took off a half hour ago - why?" Blade wilted realistically.
"Just my infernal luck!" he groaned, in dismal discouragement. "Now I suppose I'll have to chase him to Lima."
"He ain't gone to Lima," contradicted the gatekeeper, "where'd you get that?"
"His family thinks he has," was Blade's meek response.
"Well, tell his family," and he looked skeptically at Blade, "that if they go to Lima all they'll find is beans - get me?"
Blade looked into the hard, extremely competent young face which confronted him.
"Say, boy, how about a ten-spot? I'm a pressman, see? Cortesa's up to something spectacular and I'm looking for a scoop if there is one. What say?"
Silence for a moment.
"It's like this," and the gateman's voice was no longer clipped or sarcastic. "I don't know the exact facts and I ain't in a position to inquire. I only know what I've overheard. And I wasn't never told not to repeat it. Not that there's any particular secret about it, only we ain't supposed to spill any chatter, you get me? Still, I can say what I think, though it ain't in no ways official. But somehow I did get an impression that Dragonfly was headed for Ecuador. But don't blame me if I'm wrong, and don't say I told you, see?"
Blade tipped him a wink and the bill he had ready for such an event was quickly transferred.
"I guess he must have gone to San Pablo," he suggested.
"No," said the efficient one, "that ain't the name of the place. There's a sort of a landing spot up there somewhere on the edge of nowhere, but that ain't its name. But you better not ask any more questions, see? I've done the best I can for you."
"You're as near a royal straight flush as ever was," exulted Blade, "take off my hat to you," and suiting the action to the word he melted promptly away.
He had kept the taxi waiting and now paused where it stood under an arc-light to consult his watch.
"Time's passing. Where's a telephone around here - you know?" he asked the driver. "Oh yes, over there in the beanery. Wait just a minute." He walked into the restaurant and found a telephone booth where he gave a number in the Park Avenue district.
"Hello, this is Peter Blade. Is Mr. McCullough there?"
After a brisk interchange of backchat he finally left the booth, gave the taxi-man a number on Park Avenue, and in good time, was shown into a sumptuous library at the top of a vast tower, where an obese, porcine-faced man with sleepy eyes greeted him perfunctorily.
"Hello, Blade," he said in a thin shrewish voice. "Sit down. Here's cigars. Have a drink?" as the Japanese servant wheeled towards them a small service bar. "Now spill - I've only got half an hour. I go to bed early whenever I can. What is it you want?"
Blade lit his cigar while the Jap was leaving the room. Then be settled back comfortably into the deep, tapestry-covered chair. "You remember Inglesant - Stephen Inglesant?" he began.
"Of course! What about him? Got over his crash all right I understand."
"Yep, and left mysteriously for parts unknown at ten o'clock tonight in a private plane with Cortesa as pilot. Cortesa himself is no slouch of a news-item. He's been connected up with the revolutionary element in South America, and then suddenly passed it all up and dropped out entirely. Seeing him again like I did is a scoop in itself, but I don't want to use it unless this other matter don't click. Now this trip of Inglesant's has been so sudden and secret that I'm dead sure he has something up his sleeve that's worth keeping an eye on. He was so cute about his getaway that I had to resort almost to criminal methods to pick up his trail. But I've had the breaks and now I know where to look for him."
Blade glued his eyes upon McCullough's sleepy ones as he continued. "Listen, Mac. D'you notice anything particular in the stories about Inglesant's smash-up?"
"Not especially. What do you mean?"
"Well, all he had with him in his flivver was a big package which was marked with some queer name that didn't mean a thing to anyone who saw it. But I gathered from the little I know of chemistry that it was a lead preparation of some kind."
"Lead? Well - nothing very exciting about lead."
"Oh, yeah? 'Got a lot to do with the handling of radium, however." McCullough opened sharp eyes upon him then.
"Go on," he squeaked. "What next?"
"Inglesant's a real heavyweight, Mac - as a man, I mean, and also in the line he follows. He's bound to have a big reason for keeping this trip secret. Well, I'm a nosey bird as you know. And when I saw that the flivver was rented and where from I went after it. I had to follow Lizzie to the junk-heap where I finally located her carcass. There I easily got a chance to give her the twice-over. And sure enough, I found what I thought it likely I might - the package got torn in the crash and some of this chemical had seeped out onto the floor. I scraped up enough of it to get it analysed by a chemist I know. It was a new one on him, he said - "
"You didn't tell him - "
"Nix! My chemist hadn't the least idea where or when or how I got it. He couldn't give me the full and exact contents of the mixture - "
"Or just said he couldn't - "
"Quite likely," conceded Blade. "Anyhow it's a new and specially chemicalized preparation of lead. It's my idea it's to be mixed with some further chemical and used as a coating - a protection against radium. I'll bet that when Inglesant was in South America he got wind in some way of a big radium deposit. Such a spot couldn't be safely approached as you probably know without lead masks or lead body-shields or something of that sort. I'm not up in it all, but the whole thing looks like money to me."
He paused to light his cigar, and watched from the corner of his eye the greedy glitter of McCullough's half averted glance.
"Well?" responded McCullough at last.
"If there is such a deposit you and I may as well muscle in on it, huh? It can be done, because I'm an old friend of Inglesant's and I have a well founded scheme for swinging it which I believe I'm the only man that could. I've got a few hundred dollars of my own. If you contribute a grand I can follow Inglesant - the rest is easy. It's a gamble, I admit. But it's worth a try, I'm absolutely certain."
The argument that followed was long, intricate, and acrimonious. But it ended in Blade's departure with McCullough's check for one thousand dollars, and a heart like the proverbial feather.
The next morning, having cashed the check through private channels of his own, the early risen sun saw Blade embarking on a big passenger plane southward bound on the most enthralling manhunt of his career.
The Harker-Savil Dragonfly, carrying Inglesant and Cortesa, hovered for a moment, circled, then slanted gracefully down to a wide limestone mesa. Inglesant looked eagerly over the side and watched, fascinated, as the tumbled landscape of mountain and forest, with a small stucco city tucked away to the west, rose grandly to meet them. The plane alighted in an easy swoop, taxied a bit crazily over the weatherworn rock, and came to rest close to the spot where a road broke through the fringe of forest trees.
Here, as they climbed out upon solid earth once more, Inglesant saw two horses, one carrying a rider who evidently awaited their arrival.
"Ah, there is his Excellency, true to the minute," said Cortesa relapsing into Spanish for the first time since New York. "We have made the trip in but one hour over schedule - like your Yanqui clock-work, Senor," he boasted. As they walked forward, Don Pascual rode up to them.
"So. It is my good friend Inglesant at last," Don Pascual remarked in his quiet musical voice as he dismounted, giving them both a handclasp and his characteristic warm glance. "And the Senor Cortesa too, welcome indeed as he always is. You had a good trip I hope?"
"Perfectly uneventful. Thanks to those immortal gods, I do not doubt, that the Senor Inglesant is always calling upon," laughed Cortesa. "And now, gentlemen, I haven't a moment to linger, if you will excuse me - "
"But why are you in such a hurry?" inquired Don Pascual.
"I'm expecting McCracken with petrol, as he promised when I was here the other day. When I have touched up the crate I shall fly to Lima where I expect to pick up a passenger for New York in a day or two. And while in Lima I will deliver the package which the Senor Inglesant has left with me. That was your arrangement, Excellency?"
"Quite right, thank you. The package is impatiently awaited by my friend in Lima. He has, I believe, some grand scheme afoot by which our work may ultimately benefit. Hence I have been glad to help him. He will make everything right with you for your trouble, Senor Cortesa." Don Pascual then turned to Stephen and remarked in a tone of concern: "I am most grateful to you, my friend. You have had great inconvenience with this commission. I hate to think that you might have lost your life..."
"It all turned out most happily," interrupted Inglesant. "I actually made some very good friends whom I might never have known had it not been for that chemical, as I must tell you later."
Don Pascual gave him a swift glance before asking the pilot: "But you can surely take time to have luncheon with us?"
"Thank you, no, Excellency. McCracken is sure to bring sandwiches or something with the petrol. He is always thoughtful about such things. I shall be well provided for. And I must take advantage of the unusually good flying conditions to be on my way."
"Then there is nothing that I can do for you?" urged Don Pascual.
"Nothing, I thank you, Excellency. May all your plans prosper." And with a deep bow for Don Pascual and a gesture of goodwill towards Inglesant he turned briskly back to his plane.
Don Pascual's eyes followed him intently for a moment. As they walked out of hearing he said: "That is a fine boy, Senor Inglesant. I am happy to have been able to rescue him from the brutal chaos of revolution and give him a higher objective. I have great hope for that young man. He has well taken care of you, I have no doubt on your journey?"
"Superbly, thanks, your Excellency."
"And now we will go to Cuenca," said Don Pascual. "I hope your luggage is on the way?"
"Yes, it will leave New York today at noon and should be here in the necessary fortnight."
"That is fine. Now let us mount and make our way back to the hacienda where I shall have the privilege of entertaining you for the next two weeks. There we can talk everything over. Here among these lordly vistas, speech seems almost an impertinence - is it not so?"
They mounted the two excellent horses and followed a rough narrow track which wound down through massed trees, eucalyptus, with lovely willows and clumps of burgeoning wild cherries on the banks of a noisy river. Here and there through a break in the woodlands Steve glimpsed the far peaks of the higher Cordilleras dominated by lordly Tarqui in its remote grandeur.
Then the woodland fell back above them and only the jubilantly brawling river accompanied them into a shallow basin, hemmed in by barren sand-faced hills. Not far away the town of Cuenca lay spread out, a mass of low adobe houses broken by church towers, its market square, and the river with its trees and bridges.
They did not enter the little city but skirted its western fringe and finally turned in through a dense hedge of fuchsias into a small, parklike estate. Here the road, winding in and out among groups of handsome old trees stopped before the door of a wide house. It was built of pale limestone in the bare old Spanish style, but solid and comfortable looking.
"Welcome to Las Casas Cuencas, Senor," exclaimed Don Pascual as they dismounted, while a peon appeared who took charge of their horses. At the same time the door opened and there stood old Manuel smiling more like an old friend than a humble factotum.
They entered directly into a wide living-room, the crudeness of whose original construction had been mitigated by many modern touches. There were magnificent old Indian rugs on the floor and walls. The furniture was massive and simple. Arched openings led out through open glass doors at the back to a large patio, musical with a fountain that leaped high in the noon sunshine.
"Manuel," directed Don Pascual, "show our guest to his room." And to Stephen, "You will enjoy a bath I feel sure. And Manuel will then serve you with a meal restfully on your own balcony. When you are quite refreshed, say about two o'clock, perhaps you will come down to the library, here through this door at the left. We shall then have much of interest to discuss. Will that suit you?"
And so Inglesant, at peace, and strangely, deeply happy, followed Manuel up an outside stairway against the patio wall to a pleasant room. It was low-ceilinged and sparsely furnished, but looked out across the sandstone hills to the mountains which he could just glimpse above - a great rugged ramp extending to the southern horizon. A rather primitive bathroom opened out of this chamber where he however found a big, old-fashioned tin tub where he sketchily enjoyed a hot bath. Finally he seated himself on the small balcony at the back where he could take in the view . Here Manuel presently served him with one of those frugal yet delicately designed meals which Inglesant had learned to associate with Don Pascual's menage.
The neat-handed, small old man spoke no English so they conversed in Spanish at intervals, Manuel answering all Inglesant's questions about Cuenca with intelligent brevity. And then, when the big clock below boomed out two sonorous strokes Inglesant went down to the library where he found Don Pascual awaiting him in a sunny corner. Here two chairs of richly upholstered mahogany looked out into the patio garden, gay with old-fashioned roses.
"What a pleasant home you have here, Don Pascual," remarked Inglesant when they were seated with a table and smoking materials between them.
"Yes, it is a comfortable place," agreed Don Pascual, "but not really my home, though it is all my property in a sense. I might be said to hold it in trust. I come here when I wish to rest, or for seclusion, or to entertain some particular guest. The house is an old one, an ancient hacienda which I was commissioned to buy. I added another story to it, with the garden and other touches. But I have in reality no home, in your English sense of that delightful word, Senor - may I not call you Stephen?" he broke off to ask.
"'Steve' is what most of my friends call me, Excellency."
"But I feel that I prefer to call you Stephen - it shall be my own particular form of your name. And for you I am to be merely Don Pascual - we will drop the 'Excellency,' I think. And shall we not hereafter use the Spanish? I prefer English in some respects, it is often more to the point and comfortably unsentimental. But you will soon be using Spanish altogether so do you not think it convenient that we adopt it permanently?"
So it was arranged, and they smoked for a few moments in contented silence while the keen sweetness of roses in hot sunshine drifted in to them on a fresh breeze from the mountains.
"Since you are here," presently resumed Don Pascual, "I see that you are determined to go through with the task, or the quest, or whatever we may call it. But did nothing happen in your recent experience in New York which might have brought about a change in your viewpoint?"
Inglesant was aware of Don Pascual's extraordinary occult faculties because they had been many times described to him by their mutual friend, the Egyptian scholar, Ibn Khaldun. So he glanced now expectantly at the man whom he knew to be a genuine spiritual Adept, but Don Pascual's expression was one merely of mild personal interest.
"I think I had better tell you all that happened - it will be simpler," was Steve's answer. He then gave a brief sketch of his accident, his visit and friendship with the Vaughans, though he made no open reference to his feeling for Dariel, merely mentioning his conviction that a person in his peculiar position might be a possible danger to anyone, especially of the opposite sex, to whom he was emotionally attracted.
"You are indeed a wise man, my dear Stephen," said Don Pascual when he had finished. "And that is gratifying, to say the least." He was silent a moment, and then went on. "Somehow I believe that the day will come when you will be thankful beyond words for your insight and restraint. And now - enough of the past! I wish to say a little to you about my great Brotherhood. First of all I must emphasize again that this Brotherhood or Order to which I have the honor to belong has nothing to do with the task you are about to undertake. In securing you for this work I have not been acting as its agent. It is only a strange bit of personal destiny which brought me into the matter at all. I owe a great debt to a certain very old and strange people among whom you are going to be prepared for this work. And I had agreed to help them find a suitable person for the undertaking. But not in the least in my character as a member of my Brotherhood. Do you quite understand now how the matter stands?"
"Quite, Don Pascual. You will understand I am deeply disappointed - "
"And you feel perhaps that you have been misled, cheated even?"
"Don Pascual," earnestly responded Inglesant, "I have somewhere inside an intuitive understanding of this whole matter. I realize that even though I am not in any way working for your Brotherhood, yet I am being in a sense tested - that there is perhaps a discipline in merely waiting"
"Ah, discipline, yes, my boy! Self-discipline - there you have hit upon the right, even the very key-word. It is what the world so urgently needs - discipline accepted and used for self-development to universal ends of service. That is the only road to real freedom, and there you are voluntarily placing your feet. So, as I see you do indeed understand, we need say no more about that."
"And now, perhaps," Stephen put in here, "you will, as you have just suggested, tell me about this Brotherhood or Order which attracts me so much?"
"Yes, certainly, my friend, for although it is not for the present I hope some day to bring you into closer touch with it, perhaps after you have accomplished your present mission. This Brotherhood I may liken to a great University - an Esoteric University of Seers and Sages. Some call these great men Mahatmans. They are in all respects men like ourselves, yet they have graduated from that stage of evolution through which we and the race as a whole are now passing. Consequently they are in possession of spiritual powers and faculties which in most men are at present only latent or but feebly developed. In the keeping of these men is the Archaic Wisdom or Science which is the formulation in human language of the origin, structure, operations, and destiny of the Universe, and of our place and relations within it."
"But - a University?" objected Inglesant. "I had supposed it was a secret Lodge - "
You can call it that if you like, but it truly is a University since it is in possession of the Science of the Universe and Life, and is empowered to teach it to those who have the capacity and the will to master it. These Teachers are always on the lookout for those who can become like themselves, Graduates and Masters of Life. And it is secret mainly because the average man will not, or cannot believe in it. In ancient days when all men were well aware of the existence of the Esoteric Science of Life, these universities were called Mystery-Schools. Of course what was taught in them was strictly secret and only revealed to irrevocably pledged disciples. For the real Science of Occult Nature can be very dangerous in unscrupulous hands. Even the knowledge of physical science can be dangerous, as present world conditions abundantly prove. But the Mystery-Schools will nevertheless again be established..."
Here he was interrupted by Manuel who knocked and entered to say that El Hidalgo had arrived and awaited instructions.
"Good! Make him comfortable at La Casita, and say I will see him only after he has rested, for he has had a rapid and difficult journey. Tell him to have everything in readiness to begin preparations by tomorrow morning, when I will talk with him. I think that is all." Manuel disappeared with the message.
"You will have a particular interest in this remarkable fellow," Don Pascual told Steve. "El Hidalgo we always call him because his own name is nearly unpronounceable even to the Quechua Indian, and because he has such an authentically patrician character. I trust you are going to admire and like him as much as I do, for you are to be closely associated with him during the coming months. He is to be your guide and servant on the journey before you.
"And now, Stephen, to resume a topic that seems to interest you - we were speaking of the ancient Mystery-Schools and their connexion with the Brotherhood which I serve. Have you any more questions?"
"Indeed yes. First: how and when did this Brotherhood originate?"
"Its origin lies in the dim immemorial past. There have always been those rare and daring souls who are not satisfied to accept life as they find it - as a mere matter of conventional religion with its inadequate answer to the riddle of life, its commonplace matrimony, barter, and exchange; its fugitive happiness, certain misery, and inevitable death. There have been always those who have wondered if misery, pain, and death are really necessary - a question the Buddha asked and solved at last for himself.
"This Brotherhood, all down the ages has consisted of such men, our true scientific investigators. True, because they have not stopped at the microscope and scalpel or rather they have not needed to use them. And why? Because they have had the insight to develop within their own natures the true apparatus which enables a man to look upon the inner sources of physical energy and life. These are spiritual faculties which can look within the outer world to gaze upon reality, face to face.
"But I have here," Don Pascual remarked as he rose and walked to a small glass cabinet that hung above his desk, "a history of our Order and of some of the Adepts who have been members in various historical periods. Perhaps it would interest you to read it, and I have no doubt you can spend an agreeable hour or two examining all the books in this cabinet which are on the subject of Occultism in many of its most fascinating aspects!"
Inglesant moved over to examine the contents of the cabinet as Don Pascual remarked, "If you can occupy yourself for a time in this way I will finish some letters and other pressing business and we can meet again later in the evening."
Inglesant saw no more of his host for several hours, but was scarcely aware of his absence so enwrapped did he find himself in the revelations which the small cabinet opened out for his eager mind.
The next morning Don Pascual sent for the Indian, El Hidalgo, and Inglesant awaited with intense curiosity the appearance of this man who was to be both guide and instructor on his coming expedition into the unexplored wilds of the Andes. He and his host had just finished breakfast at a small table in the sunny patio. It was about eight o'clock when a very tall, majestic looking Indian, in a close-fitting tunic of leather, bronzed in some strange fashion to the same dark but ruddy tint as his skin, entered and immediately made an archaic gesture of obeisance with head and hands to Don Pascual. Then his glance shot to Inglesant who received with something of a shock that clear, burning look which seemed to strip the flesh from his bones. Yet it was neither unfriendly nor suspicious, merely penetrating.
"Be seated, please, Hidalgo," invited Don Pascual, pushing forward one of the wooden stools beside the table. "This gentleman is the Senor Inglesant, the Americano of whom I sent word to your chiefs some time ago. I have no doubt you are well informed of the matter in which he is to help your people?"
Inglesant and the Indian acknowledged the introduction with formal courtesy, accompanied on the American's side with a smile, on the Indian's with a look of utter gravity.
"Yes, Eminence," El Hidalgo agreed, speaking excellent Spanish in a voice of a peculiar bell-like richness. "The matter is known to all who must needs share the knowledge, that the time ripens again to its fruitage. I am one of those who must know and so I have received directions to put myself entirely at this Senor's disposal - under your orders naturally in the first place, Eminence."
"Well, then, Hidalgo, what do you suggest? Senor Inglesant's packages cannot arrive much before the new moon. What then?"
"That is as it should be, Eminence. For the Senor must undergo the dark transformation - he must be made to resemble as much as may be those whom you name as the Atalatli. Otherwise wherever he may journey the brightness of his skin and hair will linger behind like a legend, and the clever ones will soon discern our track and follow after. And your Eminence understands that would make at the least great inconvenience."
"You see what he means, Stephen? Your hair and skin must be darkened and your whole appearance and voice Indianized, so to say. Fortunately your eyes are hazel so the matter is simple enough. I hope you feel that you can agree to this?"
"Of course! It will be a lark. But now for the first time I am reminded of something. There may be a slight possibility of someone picking up my trail. The danger hardly exists, and yet I ought to mention it, though the possibility is so remote that I forgot to speak of it before. I have a prying newspaper friend in New York named Peter Blade."
Inglesant then told them about Blade and their conversation in the garden, and concluded: "I felt sure at the time that I had thrown him off the scent, particularly as he connects me with Lima and San Pablo and cannot possibly guess that I have come here. What's more, I felt justified in telling him a deliberate falsehood. I said I was not returning to South America now at all. Then, fortunately, right after he had left me your telegram came and I was out of his ken before he had any chance to get wind of my next move. But a man like that is always a danger. He has a sixth sense for anything he takes an interest in, and be stops at nothing."
"You are certain he had no way of tracing you?"
"How could he have? Though with Blade and his kind you can never be sure of anything. Still, I left nothing behind me but a few shirts and pyjamas, not even a scrap of paper. My luggage was all at the wharf and I warned my landlady not to answer questions of any kind but to refer everyone to my agent, whose address I gave her, though she knew nothing of my plans anyway."
"You can trust this Julian and his family, I dare say?" questioned Don Pascual thoughtfully.
"I told them nothing that needed trusting. I merely said that Blade was a nuisance and not to tell him anything that would enable him to pester me. I also said I had given up my trip to Lima; but I gave them no slightest hint of my movements beyond telephoning to Julian that I was called away suddenly and would write to him. I left no address of any kind with him, not even my agent's. The agent doesn't know where I am so cannot tell anything. It may get into the papers that I have gone, but no one can possibly know where, unless they guess Lima, and if they care enough about inquiring they will soon learn their mistake."
"How about my telegram?"
"No one saw it but myself. I destroyed it after I met Cortesa."
"Well, it isn't a very serious matter to us anyway. But the people to whom you are going are determined that no one shall discover their whereabouts, and that very fact creates a danger for anyone who comes nosing, so to say, in their vicinity. But I have no doubt you are right and the possibility is non-existent. It will be impossible to trace you once you are secreted in the place where you are going. And let us hope that we really have been too quick for the industrious Blade."
Don Pascual turned to the Indian. "You hear, Hidalgo? There is just a possibility that one of the clever ones may pick up a clue as to the Senor's passage unless we are very careful."
El Hidalgo smiled for the first time, a flash of haughty amusement. "This dog of the world shall never find the threshold, Eminence. Trust me and my helpers for that."
"Nevertheless, be cautious," warned Don Pascual. "Neither I nor your people care to answer for unnecessary responsibility. Certainly, I must avoid all complications in connexion with what I am doing for you. You understand that clearly, I hope?"
"Eminence," responded the Indian with a glance of beautiful humility, "I will take upon myself for my people - "
"Enough," interrupted Don Pascual. "It is only well to be on guard. Now when will you begin the transformation of this sun-colored man into a child of the Past?" and his smile cleared the situation of its tensity.
"Today - at once, if the Senor is ready. Following your instructions, I have all prepared. All is in readiness now at La Casita. If the Senor will dwell there until we start I can also give him every day an instruction in the Quechua dialects - it will help in many ways."
"Splendid! Come then, Stephen, and see your new quarters. La Casita is a small guesthouse formerly used on the estate. This place was once a famous hacienda and entertained lavishly. In the big house the furniture was all gone when I bought it but there are some fine old things in the guest-house which I left there - they preserve its antique charm."
They passed through the patio and threaded a dense plantation beyond which stood another building of yellow limestone but much smaller than the farm-house itself. The interior proved to have four rooms furnished with old Spanish pieces upholstered in worn Spanish leather. There were crudely painted beams across the ceiling, rich old rugs on the floor, with a quantity of antique brass and carvings that Inglesant thought must be priceless.
El Hidalgo occupied what had once been the kitchen, a large bare room with a big fire-place. Here he slept on a pile of Indian rugs in a corner and ate from a grand old table which with a plain wooden chair was all the furniture.
Don Pascual installed Inglesant in the best sleeping-room where there was a massive bed, a great mahogany chair, and a carved secretary with a few old books. Next to this chamber was a bathroom with a limestone tub connected with a brick stove for heating the water that was crudely laid from a mountain brook which fell over the rocks back of the house.
Here Don Pascual left Steve and El Hidalgo took him in charge. One of the first things the Indian did before going back to the house to fetch Inglesant's few belongings was to make a hot fire in the brick stove, over which he placed a copper kettle full of water. Later when this came to a boil he threw in a large quantity of dried herbs of different varieties. When this had boiled for a long time the bath was filled and the mixture suitably diluted so that Inglesant might soak in the solution.
Every day for a week Steve bathed in this medicated water and washed his hair in it till he was as dark and his skin as fadeless for the time being as Hidalgo's. Meanwhile, there was brought to him a shabby but scrupulously clean Indian outfit, cotton trousers, gaudy poncho, and big straw sombrero. And El Hidalgo also changed into the local garb. Steve made good progress in the Quechua patois over which he and his Indian guide spent hours of intensive work every day. So that they were at last able to go into Cuenca together and pose as Quechua visitors to the city. Here Inglesant could test out his powers cautiously as a linguist while they made purchases for their approaching trek.
It was during one of these sallies, on the day after his luggage had arrived that Inglesant received a rude shock. He and Hidalgo were in the small open market on one side of the Cathedral square, when a tall, lanky figure suddenly turned the nearest corner and Inglesant saw Peter Blade.
Inglesant was a quick thinker, and subconsciously he had been prepared for a sudden encounter with Blade. Swiftly he averted his eyes. The eyes and the glance of the white man speak a totally different language from that of the native. If the swift look with which Blade raked the crowd in the market square had encountered Inglesant's eyes, the fat he knew would have been in the fire. No disguise could have deceived Blade once his suspicions were aroused. So Inglesant had casually turned his back upon the interloper.
But he was horribly disturbed and he whispered urgently to Hidalgo: "The Americano standing now at the corner across the square is that dog of the world we spoke of that first morning at the Hacienda. He has got wind of me somehow. We must get away from here quietly at once."
El Hidalgo nodded and directing Inglesant to chaffer for a moment at the stall before which they happened to be standing he took one long, secret stare at the unconscious Blade. Then the two tall Indian figures passed quietly out of sight.
They reported at once to Don Pascual.
"Go into Cuenca immediately," was Don Pascual's order, "and have this man closely watched." Steve was relieved to see that he did not seem to be deeply concerned over their discovery. "Meantime we will devise some plan of our own in case he runs into anyone who might by chance suspect the Senor's presence in Cuenca. There is of course one channel through which he might discover something. There is a poor crack-brain somewhere in the town who imagines that I and my work are of the devil." He smiled a little as he went on. "But if Blade is watched we can easily checkmate his plans, I imagine." He fumed to Steve. "In case he does find out about you the great thing is to head him off until your party arrives where he cannot follow. The Senor's packages have arrived, Hidalgo. So prepare for your start tonight."
Hidalgo gave his familiar gesture of submission and departed.
"Come, Stephen. Manuel has served luncheon in the patio. I observe that you enjoy eating out among the flowers as much as I do. I have missed you these last days, I assure you. Let me tell you," and he took Stephen's arm affectionately as they passed through the glass doors to the patio, "you make a distinguished figure of an Atalatli. That is the name I have coined for the strange remnant of an archaic people whom you are about to visit. I remember how you impressed me when I first saw you, as if one of the sun-deities from the frozen north had entered my dwelling. Only your brown eyes were out of the picture. But I took that to be a good omen. For it gave promise of success in this transformation. You have now become one of another old race, and a great credit to them you are, I must say."
Steve laughed. "You believe in reincarnation, Don Pascual, I suppose?"
"Believe in it? I know that it is true. Why are we here now if we have not been here before? Why am I of my race and you an American if not as a consequence of our own bygone development towards this present consummation? Everything that is, my friend, is a direct consequence of something that has been. Of what am I a psychological consequence, if not of myself?"
"I only hope," said Don Pascual when they were seated and Manuel had served them from a silver dish with baked Indian corn, "that your friend Blade will not give us any real trouble. It might have serious results - I mean for himself."
"I've been thinking of that," worried Steve with an anxious frown. "Do you really believe that his life would be in danger?"
"Not from any of Hidalgo's people. That's just the trouble - it would be a nuisance to have to spend time and men, and plan devices to protect him. If we can head him off before we get too far from civilization it will come out all right. You see down in the Oriente there are some very savage tribes. Some are even head-hunters. Most of them have barbarous customs of one kind and another. Up to a certain point he can be taken care of. But if he manages to penetrate beyond a quite definite frontier he will find it as dangerous as Tibet in its most exclusive days. Besides the barbarians already mentioned, there is one tribe at least, I understand, whose hereditary duty it is to protect the people you are to visit from intrusion. If he should stray alone or with a party of ordinary guides into the reach of these savages no one could answer for the consequences."
"Might he not be warned?"
"Do you think he would heed any warning?"
Inglesant smiled wryly. "No, Don Pascual. You are right. Unfortunately, it would only egg him on."
"Besides convincing him that he was really on your trail and had something to gain by following you. No, Stephen. Your Peter Blade, if he pushes unbidden into the 'Tiger-country' as that region is sometimes called - well, he will just have to run his chances."
* * *
Blade stood for a long while at the corner where Inglesant had discovered him, looking out over the crowd of townspeople chaffering around the market-booths. Something deep in his subconscious mind was stirring uneasily. Knowing so well his own mental processes he felt obscurely certain that a clue of some kind had brushed his senses, but too lightly to be registered by anything but that unsleeping inner perception from which all his best 'hunches' had come. But strain as he would in search of it, he could recollect nothing.
Blade had been in Cuenca only a few hours, having slipped in as quietly as possible. Nearly a fortnight ago he had arrived in Guayaquil on his flight to Lima. He had closely questioned the pilot and learned that somewhere near Quito or Cuenca there was a natural landing-field that had once saved a lone flyer from a crack-up. But exactly where it was situated the pilot did not know.
So Blade traveled by train up to Quito. Finding nothing there to help him he left promptly but unobtrusively, alone and via mule-back, for Cuenca. He knew that he was unlikely to find anything resembling a hotel in the antique little city so his first move was to look it over for any chance clues, and it was then that Inglesant had seen him. Later, in looking for a lodging he confined himself to the fringes of the city hoping to find lodgment in some obscure corner.
After loafing about idly for some time he spoke to an ancient tatterdemalion who had been dogging him with discreet pertinacity.
"Well, Don Quixote," was the way Blade goodnaturedly hailed him Spanish. "You seem to admire me. Perhaps you can tell me where I can find a place, a clean place, mind - where I can stow myself and my saddlebags and mule for a few days."
The old creature nodded interminably as he guided Blade to a disused chapel on the outskirts and agreed to rent him a cell in the courtyard and furnish it with a chair and a mattress. Blade carried his own blankets and provisions, and the place having a good roof and a stout door with a huge lock he was soon installed in comparative comfort.
He rewarded his host with a couple of cigars. The old creature took them delicately with a hand of uncommon beauty and stowed the luxury away somewhere among his unspeakable rags. This ancient scarecrow interested Blade. There was personal history written all over him. None of the native ineptitude in that wrinkled nut-cracker face where the eyes surprised you with their bright knowing malevolence, like vipers peering from a scarred rock.
Blade rather liked him and made prompt use of him, especially as the ancient persisted in lingering upon his doorstep.
"I suppose you often have airplanes flying above here?" he asked casually as he cut a sausage and opened a bottle of wine from his saddlebag. A vigorous nod was the answer.
"But of course they must all fly over. They couldn't land. I wish they could, though - Id 'like very much to fly across these mountains to Lima."
"No, Senor, you cannot fly to Lima from this place. There are no regular planes. But arrive they sometimes do - private ones of a certainty, and they sometimes bring a passenger. There was one landed near here not so long since."
Blade laughed a little, scoffingly. "A plane land anywhere on this tipped-up landscape? Don't tell me fairy tales, Don Quixote," he joked as he offered half of his sausage to the old creature, who mouthed it revoltingly between his toothless jaws.
"I could show the Senor where a plane landed a passenger only so long ago as when the moon was full."
"Wish I could believe it," countered Blade, concluding his meal at once nevertheless, though without haste.
"Yes, if the Senor would pay me perhaps a small piece of the American silver I could show him - it is not far by muleback - "
"Don't get the idea that I am a millionaire in disguise, amigo mio," warned Blade cheerfully. "You have about as much chance at my wallet as a dog has with a flea. Nevertheless we will see this place. So lead on and earn your crass reward."
In less then half an hour, the ancient trotting contentedly beside him, the pair stood on the mesa where Inglesant had landed a fortnight ago.
"See!" exclaimed the Spaniard in some excitement, "the marks of the landing are still there in some places. Do I get my silver?"
Blade was more excited than his guide but did not show it. He slipped a hand into his pocket and held it there.
"You said there was a passenger?"
"Yes, the pilot was one Cortesa, a man well known in these parts. The passenger was an Americano. I saw much yellow hair when he took his cap off. Just before full moon that was. I saw him myself in broad daylight. I am one who keeps my eyes open and looks about him, Senor."
"Well, there's something to look at anyway," said Blade giving him a fifty-cent piece. "You know where this Americano went - where he is now?"
The sly face became suddenly, blandly inscrutable.
"Useless to close up like that," scoffed Blade. "If you give me information that I can use, as good as this about the landing-field for instance, you can depend upon it that I'll make it worth while."
Still the ancient hesitated. Blade dropped him for a moment from consideration as he speculated about whether he was too late, and how he might get some light on Inglesant's route in case he had already departed.
"It's an expedition into the Andes with Cuenca as a base, that's certain. And I'll have to act practically instantly, if I'm to be able to follow him. I must prepare myself at all points. But first I ought to find out where his base is."
He turned to the Spaniard. "Well, anything further, caballero mio?" The other seemed to make up his mind, yet still with a curious reluctance. "Will the Senor make one promise if I should make a single step - a very long step forward?"
"Depends upon what the promise is. If I can, I will. What promise?"
"To place himself entirely in my hands for the next few days, to let no one else see him?"
"Why do you ask me to promise that?"
"It is nothing to the Senor, but of importance to me that he should agree to this. Without this promise I can do nothing more for him. For if his movements are observed and he were discovered near a place I know of, it might be dangerous for me. It is a small matter that I ask of the Senor, is it not so?"
Blade turned this proposition over in his mind for a moment. "All right, I promise to keep out of sight as you ask for just as long as you and I are working together, but not longer. How's that?"
The old Spaniard was satisfied. Blade saw no help for it but to put himself for the present into the hands Blade this accidental, but he felt, not entirely untrustworthy, helper, who evidently had some knowledge that Blade felt to have an important bearing upon his quest. And as he was sure that the man's reliability was in exact ratio with his certainty of reward he felt himself well armed against him.
"Both of us being satisfied, the next step will be determined by you, Don Quixote," admonished Blade, "but don't think you will get anything out of me unless you earn it," he warned in conclusion.
The old man shrugged emaciated shoulder blades. "Mount quickly then, Senor. And to save time I will ride on your stirrup leathers. We must be quick so as to be seen by as few as possible."
The pair did not return immediately to Blade's lodgings but threaded through tortuous alley-ways till they came to a stone arch before which hung a greasy old leather curtain.
"Thank the Virgin we are here quickly, Senor. Fortunately it is market day - everyone is elsewhere." He jumped from his perch, led the mule behind the curtain and signed to Blade to dismount. He then led away the mule and returned presently in company with a lusty young Indian no cleaner or more prepossessing than the squalid, cavelike place which he called his tavern. This Indian addressed the old man contemptuously as "Reinaldo" but changed his tone when he saw the American.
"My friend here would like a quiet meal, and to have the mule fed also. You can arrange for that, I suppose, Juan?" demanded old Reinaldo with an antique swagger.
"But of course," was the obsequious response as Juan opened a door in a rickety partition at the back to disclose a little den with a rude table and two wooden stools. Blade discovered, however, that it was fairly clean and after he was seated and Reinaldo had left him the other brought in a tattered but clean cloth, with a pair of ancient brass candlesticks which he lighted, and then proceeded to set the table after a rude fashion.
As Blade waited for the meal to be served he found plenty of anxious and exciting occupation for thought. What connexion had Reinaldo with Inglesant - an unavoidable query, since he seemed to be in some degree informed about Steve's movements. Was this old reprobate really helping him, Blade, or was he perhaps a secret tool of Inglesant's? And why was it that the breaks were coming his way so persistently? His luck had begun with the sight of Steve's telegram. Then McCullough had actually swallowed his silly story about lead masks for radium mining. Blade had to grin over that one. And after that came the chance of his catching the first plane out of New York that made the new stopover at Guayaquil. Since then everything had seemed to play into his hands. Was all this really good luck, or just the contrary?
The meal when it finally came, though crude and hastily thrown together, was satisfying. Eggs baked with vegetables in a sort of colander and something that resembled corn pone, a bit of racy cheese and coffee. Blade ate heartily, topping off with three cups of black coffee and the best part of a package of virulent Mexican cigarettes.
"I'll need to be wider awake tonight than any feline at a mousehole." Thus he excused the unusual self-indulgence. It was nearer ten o'clock than nine, and Blade was beginning to fear that Reinaldo had failed him when there was a tap at the door and the sly wrinkled face peered around the jamb.
"Is the Senor ready?"
"Yes, and even growing impatient, amigo Reinaldo."
"Good. Then we start. Juan, the Senor departs."
Blade, as he had anticipated, was charged a stiff price for the meal, but he paid it willingly and left on excellent footing with the grinning Juan.
The two sudden and oddly contrasted associates rode in the same hasty fashion as before over what seemed to Blade a tortuous route. It skirted suburbs, tacked out across ledges and then swung around back towards Cuenca through a strip of dense woodland to a spot among the trees. Here they dismounted and Reinaldo tied the mule, then said in a scarcely audible whisper: "Come, we go now the rest of the way on foot, but without a sound - not one, even, that an owl could hear."
Reinaldo grasped Blade's arm firmly, for the road was here sunk in black darkness. Yet they crept along at a good pace which made Blade realize that the old man must often have come this way before, as he seemed to know every step of the road. Gradually Blade felt that the trees were thinning. Presently a patch of sky strewn with starclusters brilliant as diamonds in that high cold air, threw a faint gray visibility over tumbled rocks that rose on their left and a sort of park-like enclosure beyond a thick hedge on their right hand.
At a sudden gap in the hedge Reinaldo stopped abruptly and spoke close into Blade's ear.
"You will go in alone, Senor. I will return to the mule and wait. The buildings are to your left. There are no dogs about. What you will find, I know not, but I am certain from what I do know that there is much to be learned behind this hedge. "Before all, do not let yourself be discovered - you are in danger every moment."
"What kind of danger - are there criminals here?" demanded Blade involuntarily raising his voice a very little.
At the sound Reinaldo twisted out of his detaining grasp and vanished into the night.
"It must be nearly eleven o'clock," Blade thought as he stood impassively for a moment before a narrow opening in the hedge. About an hour now before moonrise. If he really intended to investigate this locality without danger of discovery he must set about it immediately. And yet he hesitated - baffled in some curious way by a feeling as if an invisible barrier somehow obstructed his entrance here. So for a moment he waited, trying to analyse this feeling. Was it one of warning? Or was it merely his nervous reaction to Reinaldo's own very evident fear and urgently cautioning words? Or did it perhaps mean that he was on a wrong scent? He had had such insistent and ultimately correct intimations before.
Then as he hesitated he heard suddenly, at quite a distance from where he stood, a sudden phrase called out in a voice he knew instantly. The words Of course, spoken in English with the quick, incisive emphasis with which he was so familiar. Inglesant's!
The sound electrified him. His master-passion leaped like a released harrier from its leash. At once he became an emotionless, remorseless interrogation-point. In a second he was noiselessly through the hedge into the grounds beyond. Following the many large trees and shrubs from blackness to blackness, he circled cautiously to the left in the direction where Reinaldo had told him the buildings stood, and from where he felt sure the sound had reached him.
Presently he perceived a narrow line of light as if a pencil of gold had marked for him the right place to aim for. He crept slowly forward and soon he was looking at a half opened door before which he could see a cluster of pack-animals around which dark human shapes were busily employed.
As he watched from the impenetrable darkness beneath the trees he saw two tall Indian figures come through the door. Presently as his eyes became more accustomed to the faintly starlit darkness of the open, he discerned a third tall figure that came around the. corner of the small building and joined the two Indians. Then the light was extinguished, he heard the door close, and presently the dark mass moved off eastward in the direction opposite to where Blade was standing.
That Inglesant was in this group; that this was his start on the expedition he had flown down here to undertake, Blade felt not a doubt. So there was nothing for him to do for the moment but to follow until he could get a reliable idea of their ultimate route. Then he must return, manage somehow to throw an expedition of his own together, and strike Inglesant's trail while it was still hot.
So he crept after the fast disappearing blot on the starlit night, noticing as he flitted warily from one tree to another that a sector of waning moon was just beginning to put an edge of silver on a dark peak ahead. Soon he was as close as he dared to get to the party. He hugged himself as well for self-congratulation as for warmth, when he distinguished a Spanish word now and then spoken in Inglesant's voice. His old friend spoke guardedly, but the air was clear and deathly still, and the words as well as the very timbre of the well-known voice came acutely to Blade's ears.
And now they struck into a rough sort of road which, like most of the trails in this region, was little more than a mule-track. It ascended by gradual stages, twisting upon itself in such fashion that Blade had to use the utmost caution not to be seen. Now and again he found himself almost abreast of the party he was trailing, when a hairpin turn of the track would bring them parallel with him not very many yards above the point where he followed their trail, himself too easily discernible to sharp native senses. Fortunately for him the road wound between low shrubberies and an occasional wide-spreading tree, and the trailer made good use of these natural advantages.
Blade felt that luck was wonderfully on his side. For lying in a depression as it did, departure from Cuenca could not be as swift as if one could drop at once down into the lower defiles of the mountains. Thus he hoped to overtake Inglesant and his party without too great difficulty. So he pushed on, stealthy and relentless. After nearly two hours of this rough going his stubbornness was rewarded. The track came to a fork with the regular highway out of Cuenca on a level stretch which widened into a brief rocky valley. Towards the north the track stretched across the valley and wound upward again toward the peaks; on the south it left the valley through a gap that the narrow moon picked out and showed to drop onto a ledge which apparently hung out into space.
Here at the fork the moving knot of men and animals came to a halt and Blade found himself fairly close above them where their every movement could be observed. Their conversation was clearly audible in the thin mountain air. Now he could discern the number of those in the party, two very tall Indians who seemed almost gigantic in the dim, silvery light. There was another big figure which Blade felt sure he recognised as Inglesant - a man with heavy boots and a wide Stetson hat. He was perhaps a little bulky for Inglesant, Blade considered as he studied the form intently. But probably that was due to a heavy sweater and corduroys - warm clothing was essential at night in these altitudes, as Blade had been uncomfortably realizing for the past three hours. There were about four other Indians in the group and five heavily-laden mules.
Some kind of colloquy was in progress. Blade's sharp ears fairly stood out from his head as he strained forward behind the bush where he was hidden and watched and listened avidly, drinking in the sentences which were so weighty for his immediate future.
"Lucky for me it's in Spanish and not in native patois," he was thinking in the back of his mind.
One of the Indians, the tallest of them all, did most of the talking, and Blade distinctly heard him say:
"And now I repeat so that you may remember and make no mistake. The Senor Inglesant and I will push on to Quito. There we will not depart for Llanganali until the guides you send shall join us - if they arrive before the moon is full. We intend to start before that time, so that if Jose and Cristobal are not arrived in time we will go forward and hire other guides at Ibarra. The Senor Americano only delays because he understands that these two men know so well the neighborhood of Llanganali at the place where he will begin his search. Do not fail to mention the exact price the Senor is willing to pay - half paid down upon the start of the expedition. Do you now understand all?"
There followed grunts of assent, accompanied by impatient shifting among the Indians, while all the animals began to fidget a little.
Then again Blade heard Inglesant's voice, a low-pitched remark to one of the Indians which he did not catch. Immediately three of the shorter of the natives each cut out a mule from the bunch and with gestures of mute farewell they turned south, and - watched by the group behind them - dropped at last through the narrow pass and descended out of the picture. Immediately, without a word, the others turned and pursued their way northward across the valley, following the track which led them upwards towards Quito and the higher Cordilleras.
When the valley beneath him lay empty in the moonlight Blade started a running retreat towards Cuenca. His mind, as he scrambled along as fast as breath and muscle would carry him, was turning over and over the insistent query: "Who is this Reinaldo? Why was he so persistent in approaching me? Like as not he is in Inglesant's pay, trying in some way to sidetrack me."
At last as, half exhausted, his clothes soaked with sweat, he found again the precincts of the Casa, he said to himself: "That's the first thing I've damn well got to find out."
As the words took shape in his brain there again stood the old beggar at his elbow.
Reinaldo fastened a bony claw upon Blade's arm. "The Senor has seen?" he insinuated in a harsh whisper.
His grip jabbed like a knife into Blade's nervous tension. "Seen?" he snapped. "Of course I've seen. Five Indians and a white man starting on some kind of an expedition. But what do you suppose that matters to me?"
"Doubtless it matters much," whined Reinaldo, "since the Senor followed them. It might matter still more if he could overtake them at their destination. Is it not so?"
"Look here, Reinaldo," demanded Blade, "before I go any further in this business, I mean to know who you are, what you represent, and what is your source of information in this matter. So you may as well be frank if you expect to keep in with me."
Reinaldo nodded with a look of intense satisfaction. "Come then, Senor," was his business-like rejoinder, "we will go back to Juan's little room and there I will lay before you many things of interest."
Reinaldo had brought the mule up with him. Both men now mounted and following the same roundabout route as before, they drew up in a short while behind Juan's tavern. Here all was in blackness. Reinaldo raised his voice in a peculiar croak like a gigantic raven's, and in a moment the door was unbarred and Juan grumblingly admitted them.
He carried a guttering candle which Reinaldo took from him and thrust into Blade's hand as he opened the door into the small room where Blade had eaten earlier in the evening, and almost pushed him in. There followed a whispered consultation between Reinaldo and Juan, after which Reinaldo joined him and be heard Juan lumbering rapidly towards the front of the house and his bare feet padding hurriedly away from the tavern.
"Be seated here, Senor," and Reinaldo pulled two stools forward to the table upon which Blade had placed the light. Both men lit cigarettes and then Reinaldo began his explanation.
"I am, Senor, very poor, very old man - all that is left of a once high Castilian family which followed the fortunes of the Conquistadores, and at one time owned much land and many Indians in this then province of Spain. So it is that my family, and myself who am last drop of their ancient pure blood, have been an intimate part of the life of this region for three centuries. I could tell you histories, such tales.... But not tonight. We must be quick, for the Senor must overtake these people and prevent the abduction of the Americano..."
"Abduction?" broke in Blade with a blank stare. "You must be crazy."
"No, Senor. These Indians in whose power he has so insanely placed himself are not of this region. They come from deep in the Andes - from exactly where I do not know. But what I do know is - Santa Maria!" - he crossed himself fervently - "they are all practicers of the accursed Black Art. If the yellow-haired Americano cannot be overtaken and persuaded to return - only the holy Saints and Martyrs can protect him. And that is truth."
Blade watched Reinaldo narrowly, during this hurried recital and recognised that as to his own origin he was evidently speaking the truth. Under the slyness, the shifty glance, the rags and the dirt, he could discern the delicate perfection in bones and skin, the pride of eye and nostril that so eloquently proclaimed the truth of his boast. As for the Black Art? He suppressed a shrug.
"But why should it matter to you what becomes of this fool Americano?" objected. Blade.
"It does not, Senor - not the value of one silver sucre! But I am old and have nothing. If by balking the enemies of God and the Saints I can secure what to you must be a small sum, but to old Reinaldo would be riches - why should I not? After all, I should be doing a pious action."
"Well, how can I help you to do this?"
"The Senor must make up a party of best local Indian guides and go after these men. He will overtake them and rescue the Americano. You, Senor, will pay me now for information already given. And if you succeed then both you and the yellow-haired Americano will pay me again. And it will be enough to keep me in comfort for the rest of my life. Is it not truth?"
Blade studied him coolly and Reinaldo gave him stare for stare. Looking at the matter as clearly as he could in the circumstances and from all angles he could not see any valid reason for doubting that the old Castilian at least believed he spoke the truth.
"What is this Casa Cuenca?" he at length inquired.
"It is the headquarters of these terrible enemies of all that is good. Have I not watched them for years whenever I could discover that they were in the neighborhood? Does not the red-haired weasel McCracken (Holy Saints! but the throat-dislocating name of that trap-mouth!) does he not thrive on their airplane work? - and the Government not knowing or perhaps conniving at the illegal landing-field on the shoulder of the mountain! I have never yet betrayed them - not I, Reinaldo of Castile. But, the time I have confidently awaited through all the starved years has now arrived. They are enemies of God and man - and I will foil them. And then I shall have gold, and wine, and warmth and raiment for delivering them into the hands - but here are the men, the guides I have sent Juan to fetch."
As he was speaking there were footsteps outside. Juan opened the door abruptly, grunted a word at Reinaldo, and three men followed him into the room, looking somewhat sleepily bewildered. But they appeared intelligent, even if not especially prepossessing in their malodorous but gaudy ponchos.
"These, Senor, are men of the best," Reinaldo assured him. "They will supply you with all necessities and be ready to start tomorrow noon after your party. You will not have much difficulty thus far in coming up with them, for they have gone over the south passes through the deadly and difficult 'Stairway of the Ancient Gods.' They have heavily laden animals - "
"But you are mistaken there," corrected Blade. "The Americano himself went north to Quito. I saw him myself. He sent a party of Indians south but they were to send back special guides."
"Pestes!" broke in Reinaldo. "Can you not see? - it was done to mislead you! As soon as you were out of sight and hearing the party to the north returned and followed the others - did I not see them myself? They are on their downward way now to the Stairway - "
"But they knew nothing about my being here!" protested Blade. "I only arrived in Cuenca last evening and I have been very careful - " "Careful!" scorned Reinaldo. "What is carefulness with people like that? It was known at once that you were in the city. Strangers are so rare in Cuenca that your coming was sure to be observed, particularly that either these people are perpetually on the watch or, as I believe, their Leader has the forbidden eye-sight -certainly they know you are here. Someone from their Casa has seen you, some of their Indians perhaps - those tall terrible men - "
"Wait!" exclaimed Blade; and suddenly out of his subconscious mind there flashed back his strange sense of nearness to some clue, as he stood in the cathedral square. At once he saw, dearly etched upon memory - two very tall Indians passing in dignified haste around the corner, as his eyes had roved attentively over the crowd.
"You're right, Reinaldo! I remember now two Indians - why! they were I believe those very two I saw in that party tonight! They were in the Square today and saw me. Inglesant," and Blade laughed shortly, "expected I might be after him, so he had pickets out. That explains," he said to himself, "some of the avalanche of lucky breaks that have been making me feel kind of leery all this time. I was certain some of them must be phony."
"And so you think," he went on looking thoughtfully at the group of Indians, waiting stolidly by, "that with these guides I can overtake - "
"Not these alone," interrupted Reinaldo. "These are the leaders. You must have ten men, and even then there will be danger. But you will undertake it for your friend, the yellow-haired Americano, is it not so? For he is your friend, I can see that by your eyes when you speak of him."
At the word 'friend' spoken so glibly by this decayed wisp of manhood, in this remote and half-barbarous world, there flashed up before Blade the resolute and eager face of Steve Inglesant. Was he indeed Steve's 'friend,' he whose secret he was thus relentlessly pursuing? For the sake of a fortune to be sure, and the rags of a questionable reputation as a newshound who never got left? He turned it over in thought and found consolation in the idea that at least Steve knew he was after him and might defend his secret if he could. He wasn't being betrayed in the dark, though no thanks to himself, Blade remembered with a cynical grin.
To consolation was finally added a sense of self-justification. "For it's more than likely that he really is in danger. What's to prevent those Indians from robbing him and tossing his body over a convenient precipice?"
The more he thought of it the more he became convinced that he was entirely justified in the course he had really never seriously considered abandoning. How could he suspect that he was about to set his feet upon a pathway where such justification might prove dangerous indeed.
Blade was too experienced and wary to complete any arrangements with Reinaldo or the guides while he was within their power. "No," he told Reinaldo emphatically, "I haven't enough money on me to conclude any kind of bargain here. I must call at the English club," he lied, "where I left my money. Who's the leader among these men?"
"Boabdil is the one who speaks the best Spanish. The others understand it but their speech is the Quechua - the Senor would not comprehend. Boabdil, stand forth."
The smallest of the four Indians, with a flat lean face and calculating eyes, which his ready smile did something to soften, stepped forward from the group.
"Well, then," Blade addressed this man with cool impersonality, "you come to the market square in the morning. I'll be there near the bridge - by seven o'clock tomorrow morning with money. Can you get an expedition together between that time and tomorrow noon, and have it - where had we best start from, Reinaldo, to avoid attracting attention?"
Reinaldo consulted with the Indians and then turned to Blade.
"You remember the valley where the party of the Americano pretended to divide and separate? You can meet the men there. Have you brought with you proper clothing and enough for such a trip?"
"Yes," admitted Blade, "I brought everything necessary to wear. But blankets, food, tents and the rest with mules to carry them will have to be provided. Can it be done so quickly?"
"Yes, yes, with my help these men can have everything ready in good time at the valley crossroads. Have you much baggage?"
"Very little. All that I have brought I can carry myself. I don't suppose we'll need very much, as I should think it cannot be much more than a week before we overtake the others?"
"You are right, Senor. Your supplies will not need to be so great as those of your friend who contemplates a long trip and a protracted stay - "
"What is your idea, Reinaldo, as to where and what he is going for? I know what I think - "
"And I know what he thinks," interrupted Reinaldo, "the sacre torpo! That fool Yanqui imagines that these men are taking him where he will learn wonderful secrets of the Black Art, and that he may even reach the City of the Secret People."
"What is that, the City of the Secret People?" demanded Blade.
"Who knows? Legendary ruins or the site of some moldy temples where the remnants of a prehistoric race is said to exist still. It is one of those Indian will-o'-the-wisps like the Fountain of Youth and the Philosopher's Stone," and Reinaldo spat in disgust.
Blade was amused, having his own secret ideas as to Inglesant's objective. But he thought it best to humor Reinaldo.
"It begins to look as if I might have considerable difficulty in persuading Inglesant to return with me," Blade complained to Reinaldo. "I would steal upon him in the night, Senor, and overpower him while he sleeps. These men can have a stretcher prepared and you can carry him off secretly. If you are clever you keep him under the influence of drugs till you get him back home safely, when if you report the matter to the authorities, I can assure you that he will make no more dangerous expeditions in this part of the world."
Blade hardly listened to this talk. Senseless, it sounded to him. "Well, anyway, the main point now is to give these men their instructions and get rid of them. Then I'll pay you for as far as we've gone and get back to my bed. I'm dog-tired and would like some sleep before starting out on this monkey-chase."When the room was cleared at last of all but himself and Reinaldo, Blade, after going through all his pockets, ostentatiously pulled out a shabby purse and emptied it on the table between them. He wished the greedy watcher to believe that he had no more money about him so that he would be in no danger of a knife in the back. However, he had really no suspicions of the Spaniard's good faith for it was patently to his interest to preserve this American gold-mine.
A little pile of money - two ten dollar bills and a store of small change lay in the guttering candlelight.
"That's yours for services well rendered," said Blade watching with a contemptuous amusement the sweep of Reinaldo's eager claws, and the furtive bestowal of this loot in various unsavory hiding-places among his tatters.
"Now I'll tell you," said Blade, rising and looking Reinaldo squarely in the eye, "I'm going on this expedition. I will pay these four men one hundred dollars apiece, and fifty dollars apiece to every other one added up to ten. But I shall only pay at the start what had been laid out on supplies, and with that one third of the whole price promised to each man. The other two thirds I shall leave on deposit in the bank at Quito, where most of my money now is. If anything happens to any of these men the money will be paid to anyone he will name to me before we start. But I will arrange all that before noon. As for you, when I return safely I will give you two hundred dollars."
He paused and watched the hot shadow that gathered in Reinaldo's eyes.
"But if any accident should happen to the Senor?" he protested at last.
"That would be very unfortunate - for all of us," remarked Blade with excessive dryness.
Reinaldo shook his head lugubriously.
"I am afraid Boabdil and his men would hardly like that."
"Then let's call it off," snapped Blade, getting to his feet. "I'm going home to bed now. You can talk it over with your cronies, and if they decide to accept my terms they can meet me in the morning as agreed. Otherwise," he shrugged. "And now adios, Senor Reinaldo y amigos," and Blade left the room, running into Juan in the corridor outside.
"If the Senor should wish it," this worthy whispered malodorously into Blade's ear, "I can arrange for better guides than these - "
"Thanks, but it looks as if I wouldn't need any guides after all." Blade returned indifferently as he passed outside.
There, drinking in the sparkling ether of the dark blue night, he looked up at the wheeling constellations and wondered from what point in the savage wilderness he would be viewing them tomorrow at the same hour. For he felt perfectly sure that Reinaldo and his associates would accept the terms. As he entered the cell where he was bivouacking, dawn broke over the white brow of the Cordilleras. He made sure before sleeping that his money belt, where be carried enough local currency to pay the guides the next day, was safely in place. Then he threw himself dressed on his blankets and fell into light and easy slumber.
* * *
Stairway of the Gods
Don Pascual and Inglesant drew rein and gazed, with fascinated wonder, at what lay beneath them. They were some distance ahead of the Indian escort, and now, in mid-afternoon, sat their drooping mounts at a point where the rocky trail stopped for a sudden plunge into the depths. Looking over the brink they gazed into a narrow gorge in the living rock, curiously terraced by some forgotten race into a descending stairway that stretched endlessly, it seemed infinitely, down and down; and still interminably down. It was filled with a strange blue silence that drew them like a presence.
Neither spoke for a long moment, and then it was Don Pascual who said:
"This is what is called the 'Stairway of the Ancient Gods' by those Indians hereabouts who still cling to native tradition. It is the first time I have seen it. We have come a long way, indeed, and tomorrow morning I must leave you."
"Are we going down to the very bottom?" asked Inglesant.
"Only part of the way. At a certain point there is a cave in which is a secret outlet to a short cut which will save a couple of days - not to mention the wear and tear of this tremendous descent, with probably another rise beyond. But as to that I don't know. I have never made this trip. We must wait for Hidalgo; he knows the trails and passes of the Cordilleras like the palm of his hand."
And presently Hidalgo appeared leading his Indians around a great jut of rock some way behind them. When all had caught up he directed that they dismount and lead the animals, for the stair was impracticable for mounted men.
"And be sure, Senor," he admonished Inglesant, "not to drop anything. We must leave behind no clues for your friend, the dog of the world, if by any chance he should not have been tricked by our stratagem. There is little likelihood of that, though, I suppose - "
"It seems to me more than possible," put in Don Pascual. "I have a feeling that we shall hear of our friend later. I am afraid that Caballero is a trouble-maker."
"I wish you did not have to leave us tomorrow, Don Pascual," said Inglesant, as El Hidalgo was arranging the order of their descent.
"So do I, Stephen. But it is not convenient to any of us for me to go beyond the cave. I will spend the night with you there, and tomorrow morning I will return."
"What if you should meet Blade?"
"I may meet him, but he will not see me," returned Don Pascual quietly. "That is one of the reasons why I came - I must keep an eye on that over-enthusiastic friend of yours if I can."
"I am relieved to hear you say it, Don Pascual, for I am worried about him. I hope you can protect him from danger?"
"I can protect him from much, but I cannot protect him from himself."
They were started now on the vast descent which was less difficult than it had looked from above. As they dropped downward in easy jerks deeper and deeper into the rocky rift Inglesant felt that he was now for the first time embarked on his real adventure. Their forced and hurried start three nights ago, the need to throw dust in Blade's eyes, the compulsion upon them almost of flight into the heart of the Cordilleras, these things had given him a thrill, but merely of excitement. Now mystery, strangeness, release, permeated his whole being. The crystal air of the gorge, bluer than the heart of Sirius, was like a transparent corridor leading deep into some inner world. And he, Stephen Inglesant, was passing in now through that dear stillness to - what?
For nearly an hour they descended. And then at a signal from Hidalgo, who was now moving down ahead of Don Pascual and Stephen, the party halted. At their right yawned a hole, a great narrow rectangle leading into the black heart of the Cliff. El Hidalgo called to one of the Indians who took from a pack-animal a torch of fatwood which he set alight, and held high as he stood just inside the entrance while the rest of them passed within. They found themselves in a small chamber of partially artificial construction within the mountain. From here, a narrow cleft at the back led them up a gentle gradient into a great cave, where, due to various fissures in the roof, there was a soft and restful twilight. At one side a hearthstone had been built of rocks, and was now thickly covered with old ashes. Animal-dung and litter of all sorts lay about in scattered heaps, and in a far corner was a great stack of logs and firewood.
Hidalgo gazed speculatively around the cave, and then gave his Indians the sign to set to work. Two of them unpacked the mules. The others set to with a will, making a good fire and clearing up the place generally. Some blankets were spread in a dark comer as beds for Don Pascual and Inglesant. The fire now glowed on the hearth, water was brought, and cans were opened. Corn meal was prepared in the Indian fashion and in an hour's time supper was served with hot coffee, Hidalgo and his men sitting somewhat apart to eat.
Then the fire was built up in good earnest as darkness descended. The pyre soon glowed royally with a pure glow that illumined every corner of the cave. The openings in the great cavern seemed to lie with the wind for there was no troublesome smoke from the fire.
Meanwhile Don Pascual and Inglesant made themselves comfortable beside the fire on a pile of llama-skins, fleecy and warm. They smoked for a long time in silence. El Hidalgo busied himself with some of his Indians in the care of the animals, while the others cleaned the few cooking utensils, tended the fire, and got all in order for the night.
"This is the last chance we will have for any conversation," Inglesant at length regretfully reminded Don Pascual.
"I know, Stephen, and there is still so much to say. In the first place I must tell you something more definite about the work you have agreed to put yourself into training for. And also I promised last time we spoke of these things to go somewhat more fully into the question of occult powers. For of course you know that there exist latent or unawakened in all men wonderful inner faculties. Have you any idea as to what these are?"
"Not exactly, Don Pascual. I am only convinced of one thing and that is that mediumship, which is usually regarded as an occult power, is not a power at all, but a weakness. Clairvoyance, or ordinary so-called seership, clairaudience, psychometry - I have known scores of people possessing these psychic senses. But I have never seen that the possession of them did such people any good, and generally they are more apt to be a danger to those who use them, a curse rather than a blessing. It is a curious fact that they never seem to lead to more knowledge about anything useful or to give people any more understanding or control of themselves."
"You are perfectly right; they are useless to man at the present time, and also highly dangerous. It is however not these lower psychic senses that I refer to, but to the true occult powers, which are spiritual. These are real powers and we would all possess them if we had the strength to live as we ought to. For these powers are rooted in the Spiritual Self and cannot be developed - like mediumship or ordinary clairvoyance - by making one's self passive or non-resistant to unknown influences. These higher powers spring only from a knowledge and mastery of the forces of human nature. True Occultism is the ethical science which trains a man to be first of all master of himself, and after that a Master of Life."
Don Pascual paused for a moment and silence fell, a silence as deep as the earth-darkness that enfolded them. The Indians had been listening in rapt absorption and sat now like statues in highly colored bronze within the circle of ruddy firelight. Then Don Pascual resumed his explanation.
"I indicated something of what I meant by the expression, 'A Master of Life' when we talked together at La Casa Cuenca, you remember, Stephen?"
"Yes indeed. I recall what you said perfectly. You told me then about the Mahatmans and their great Esoteric School or College somewhere in Asia."
"I believe I spoke too about Atlantis, did I not?"
"Yes, you said that as the epochs of geology follow one another, continents rise and sink beneath the oceans, and that each such great continental system bears its own appropriate series of races or human stocks. Atlantis, I remember you said, was the continent of the fourth great basic or root human stock."
"Exactly, your memory is excellent. Well, then! Atlantis was a vast continent, and it bore some of the most wonderful civilizations this earth has known. The only historic knowledge of these splendid cultures was preserved by the ancient Egyptian priestly hierarchy in its secret or esoteric schools. For the Egyptian civilization was originally an offshoot of Atlantis. Plato gave us all that outwardly remained in his day of this knowledge when he tells us something about the last poor remnants of Atlantis in his Timaeus. Another fact - all of the prehistoric races and civilizations of the South American continent and some in North America were originally integral parts of the Atlantean culture."
Here Don Pascual paused and took a pipe out of a pocket in his khaki tunic. One of the Indians was instantly on his feet to offer a light. Settling himself more comfortably he then went on: "And now, Stephen, we are coming to what nearly concerns your immediate future."
Stephen's heart leaped. But Don Pascual interrupted again to say: "You men had better put on another log or two, so that we will have more light to surround with a cheerful atmosphere what I can promise you is a very sinister subject."
Inglesant waited in hardly controlled suspense while more logs were laid on the fire. They were arranged with such native craft that almost at once a mass of clear and gentle flame illuminated the picturesque group so strangely brought together in that hidden place.
"In Atlantis," said Don Pascual, resuming his narrative, "a knowledge of the occult forces of Nature was common. And that was because those early people lived in quite a different layer of their consciousness, so to speak, from that of you men of today. For thousands of years human beings have been so sunk, so enmeshed in the personal-material side of themselves that they no longer even suspect the existence in their inner constitution of wonderful areas or layers of consciousness, which are thus entirely foreign to them. It is part of the work of our sublime Brotherhood to awaken men wherever possible, to an awareness of these lost countries within themselves. And if you should succeed in your present undertaking it may be your privilege to be one of those chosen for eventual training for the higher levels of their great work."
"And if I should fail? - but no!" Inglesant reproved himself, "I will not fail. I feel, I know I can succeed if I follow faithfully the teachings you have given me."
"That is the right way to regard the matter," approved Don Pascual. "Besides, you forget that you are to receive special and intensive occult training for that very purpose - that you may not fail. For your success is most terribly important. And you recall those words of the great Master of Life who said: 'To him that hath it shall be given'?
"Well, then, to return to our tale. In Atlantis some of the greatest secrets of nature were in the possession of many. But those peoples were still morally more or less like undeveloped children. They were a true primitive race - primitive in time and in the lack of evolution of certain of those higher qualities which make man truly a man. For you must never forget that the possession of mere culture or powers does not necessarily mean a high degree of evolution. Real evolution is spiritual and is shown in the growth of character. It is governed by heart qualities, by true love of others, by sympathy, compassion, pity, the desire to serve. So in that sense our present world, in which is being born the idea of a world governed by interdependence and co-operation throughout all its parts, is ahead of the ancient Atlanteans. For they, with all their glory of great arts and sciences lived, as a race, only for self-gratification.
"The result of all this was that sorcery and what we call the black arts were widely practised. The occult forces of nature, you understand, are not in themselves evil - they are only black when they are devoted to base uses. But in that form they are accursed. So as the centuries passed and the splendor of that sumptuous civilization sank slowly into decay there appeared one of the darkest of their great sorcerers and magicians. He was a master of these occult powers devoted to base ends. He had lived to an immense age. But his descent to the hell of his black soul became at the approach of death inevitable."
"Do you mean to tell me you believe in a hell after death?" Inglesant's interruption was one of shocked incredulity.
"Hell is mental, and it exists for the weak and the wicked as well in life as after death. There is of course no hell in the sense of everlasting torment, for nothing in nature is everlasting. Hell is in the soul of the being who creates it for himself. We see people living in a hell of remorse or disappointment on every side of us. We are each one making our future hell or heaven with every thought we think. Those who try to do right and who cherish an ideal are creating the conditions now of their future heaven. But the truly evil man's hell is that he has made no heaven for himself, and so after death he must remain in the only hunting ground he knows - the earth-atmosphere of base human self-indulgence. Only of course when he is dead his special hell will consist in the fact that he has no body - he will be but a raging appetite without the corpus to satisfy it. Fortunately, there are relatively few who are in this terrible state after death.
"But our Sorcerer-king was one who would have been doomed to such a state of mind par excellence, if death had once caught him. He lived for evil power, that was his one appetite; for no real magician or sorcerer is ever a creature of mere physical lusts. His lusts are psychological. He lived to enslave and prey upon others. There are not a few such among evil suicides, the depraved, and selfish dabblers in the black arts. Pity them!"
As these words were spoken there suddenly arose all about them a mysterious sound, mournful and shuddering. It sank to hollow woe in the shadows and the fire paled and fainted as it swelled again upon the horror-struck listeners.
Then Don Pascual raised his hand and Steve caught his look of unutterable pity and sadness. At his gesture the sound faded lingeringly until at last there was only a murmur that died away like a spent wave in the distance. But still the atmosphere pulsated with a withdrawn and voiceless desolation that Inglesant was never to forget.
"Is it any wonder?" asked Don Pascual in a tone of poignant feeling, "that men who have genuine knowledge of these things sacrifice everything that the world holds dear, every personal opportunity, happiness, and comfort to bring knowledge of the path of self-mastery and spiritual freedom to men?"
El Hidalgo meanwhile had replenished the fire and now he produced from somewhere a handful of yellow powder which he threw upon the flames. Instantly they changed to a pure azure radiance; and fragrance, a delicate delicious freshness, spread through the air, like a wind that comes down from mountain meadowlands vernal with flowers.
"It is the incense of my people," explained Hidalgo to Inglesant.
"Let me conclude this dismal tale," Don Pascual went on. "You will have a long and difficult day tomorrow, and it is growing late. Now this sorcerer-king well knew that his days of earthly power were at last numbered, and when he realized that be could no longer stave off physical dissolution he fashioned a magic talisman - a sort of jewel or cartouche, which you have seen a drawing of. You remember?" Inglesant nodded.
"This jewel resembled an emerald in appearance but was artificially constructed by him on magical lines so that it could not be destroyed excepting in one peculiar magical way. At the heart of it he sealed a peculiar minute phial in which he had fixed a speck of the liquor vitae of which Paracelsus speaks - his own individual nervous essence. This droplet of liquor vitae made a living link which has connected, all down the ages, the magician of Atlantis with life on this physical earth. By means of that immortal speck of his own vital essence he has been able to keep intact his wicked psychological eidolon - his astral form or soul, which otherwise would long ago have been wiped out by the beneficent processes of nature. As soon as someone wore the jewel and warmed this vital spark the magician could obtain possession of the personality of the hapless victim. He would then gradually paralyse the soul he had overpowered and so could live like a parasite in his borrowed habitation. Now I am sure you begin to realize the meaning of the Mss. you read?"
"Yes, but I have always had a queer understanding of what they meant from the very first," returned Inglesant.
"Now I must tell you," went on Don Pascual, "that there exists still a certain tribe in Ecuador which comes down in lineal descent from the race to which this sorcerer-king belonged. They are the only living remnant, with perhaps the exception of the Basques, of the true Atlantean stock. For this South American tribe I have adopted the name 'Atalatli' as their true patronymic is unpronounceable by moderns, and compared with Atlantis the Egyptian pyramids are of yesterday. This tribe of Atalatli has never been discovered, for the excellent reason that in their isolation within a secret fastness of the Andes they have been enabled to preserve intact through the ages their immemorial occult lore, and so know well how to protect themselves against discovery.
"These people, very few in number today of course, have inherited the duty of destroying this baleful gem, the Jewel of Atlantis. Because it is not only a deadly menace to the souls of all those over whom the still living astral magician can obtain dominance, but to the human race in general through his deadly powers. There have been thousands of victims of its possession, some of them those great criminals of history whose malignant hatred for humanity has been the wonder of historians. But these victims also number those who have heretofore undertaken the task of destroying the jewel."
"The people of the Mss. again?" said Stephen.
"Yes, but those are records written by only three of them. There have been many, many others. So now you see something of what you are to encounter in the work you are undertaking?"
"Go on," begged Steve, as Don Pascual paused significantly. "Well, you know of course that history and nature, and human life everywhere, are all subject to cyclic law. The seasons return, each in its appropriate and inevitable hour. Tides rise and fall, sun-spots wax and wane and come again, and racial history repeats itself. Man, the individual, also passes through his phases as surely as the moon. The cycle of human life opening from invisibility at birth rounds back upon itself again to invisibility at death.
"And so today there is a return of a racial and psychological cycle in which the possibility of successfully grappling with this menace and removing it has returned. For in all the long years behind us the world has been passing through a minor descending cycle, a cycle of spiritual barrenness. But now a new era is opening over the earth. The sun has recently passed into a new constellation, Aquarius, and there are great things at this moment in preparation for humanity. So that while in the past this magician had some of the material forces of evolution on his side, today there is everywhere a spiritual awakening. So the Atalatli hope that if all goes well we may see the end of this sinister, this almost immortal scourge.
"But now listen carefully. For I must emphasize again the fact that this task in which you have been given the opportunity to assist has no connexion whatever with the work of my Brotherhood, the Great White Lodge. Again and again I must insist upon this fact. Their work is constructive. It seeks only to spread the science of self-knowledge so that men may learn how scientifically to build up in themselves their moral and spiritual stamina to resist and advance, never to destroy.
"Nevertheless, because of certain strange connexions of my own with the Atalatli and with lost Atlantis it is my duty to assist them if they make the appeal to me. And when their chiefs begged me to find for them someone who was equal to undergo once more this training, and perchance to destroy this jewel I felt compelled to make the effort.
"You will understand, Stephen, how I happened to fix upon you as a possibility. When I first heard of you from Ibn Khaldun I sensed at once that you would be exactly right, and I have never changed that opinion. But even so, not the twentieth part of this dangerous adventure has been or could yet be understood by you. No one who has not experienced the subtle resourcefulness or malignance of such a being can have any real idea of what he will be up against. Well has it been called through the centuries that 'undying dark Thing."'
"I know - "
"Do not answer me now, Stephen. Morning will be time enough to let me hear your final and irrevocable decision. Give it the benefit of one more night's consideration, now that you have had it more clearly described to you. Then make your final decision in the cold clear light of morning."
But Inglesant had no need in his own mind to think over the matter again. Even all these details had been in some sort previsioned by him as he had been long considering the matter in the light of the facts Don Pascual had from time to time given him. All that he had just heard had but deepened his resolve to undertake and to accomplish the unspeakable business. And, somehow, that deep tragic call out of the dark unknown that had just so knocked upon the door of his soul - he felt that as the final, mysterious compulsion of destiny.
He was awakened the next morning under his warm covering of llamawool blankets by the stir of men and animals and the good smell of roasting coffee. On an up-ended packing case nearby he found a basin of ice-cold water, some paper towels, with his dressing-case lying open to his hand. So, having first made sure that Don Pascual was still there - seeing him in earnest talk with El Hidalgo at the far side of the cave - he made a very comfortable toilet. By that time breakfast was ready - canned beans, tinned biscuit and coffee.
Soon afterward the time arrived for Don Pascual and Inglesant to part. They stood withdrawn together and talked. Meanwhile the men put out the fire, reloaded the mules, and scattered the debris about again much as it had been when they arrived, to conceal as far as possible traces of recent occupancy.
Don Pascual and Inglesant, preceded by El Hidalgo leading the Spaniard's horse, now went back through the cleft to the entrance upon the giant stair-case.
"We must part now," remarked Don Pascual, "and I wonder when we shall meet again. There are one or two points which I left until this morning. The first and most important is that from now on you are in actual danger from the forces of which you have now become more clearly aware. I had not intended to tell you all the facts about your coming mission knowing that they might be more safely given to you by your teachers after you had arrived at your destination. But the Chiefs have sent me word that this might not be. They have, it seems, an unalterable and of course a very wise rule that no one shall, under any circumstances, be admitted to their secret fastness without having been first irrevocably pledged. So that now I must have your double word of sacred honor, not only to undertake the work as already shown to you and to complete the training, but also to bury forever in silence the existence even of such a locality as the one you are going to. Do you feel that you can take this double pledge?"
"I certainly can, and do," was Inglesant's reply.
"Very well; then you are now an accredited agent of this ancient occult fraternity of old Atlantis. But remember - being now pledged to the destruction of the jewel of Atlantis you will go in continual danger of your life. So be on guard every moment. And here is something," drawing as he spoke a small metal tube from an inner pocket, "that you may badly need in a sudden emergency."
He unscrewed the top and held a tiny phial to the light. Inglesant saw that it contained a liquid of a deep rose color, like melted rubies. "If you should be taken with an illness, no matter what the cause of it, this cordial will throw you into a deep sleep and cure you completely. But there is here only one dose. So it is all that stands between your life and your work in case danger takes the shape of some fatal attack. It will heal any wound, neutralize the most poisonous snake-venom and paralyse the germs of any fever. So treasure it as you would life itself, for the accomplishment of your task may depend upon it."
Inglesant thanked Don Pascual with a glance as he carefully secreted the tube in a special emergency-pocket. Don Pascual held out his hand and Steve took it, and wrung it with deep feeling.
"But surely you are not going back alone for three days over that rough trail!" protested Inglesant. "It can't be safe."
The other looked at him a little queerly and smiled.
"You have not sufficiently understood the meaning of what we were talking about last night to know that I am in no danger whatever. Alone, I am safer than with others, for whom I may be responsible. I cannot explain now, but if you think over all that I have said and study the books that I have given you I think you will soon comprehend what it is that protects one who has mastered some of the inner forces of himself and of Nature. And now I won't say 'good-bye.' For there is no real parting between those whose inner selves are in pure and harmonious vibration. You will often know me to be near you and you may believe that henceforth your welfare will be dear to me."
He took the bridle of his horse from Hidalgo, and with a brief gesture of parting from them both led it clattering up the long ascent which finally twisting very slightly to the left, hid him from sight.
"He has taken no blankets or food!" suddenly exclaimed Inglesant in consternation.
"These he will not need," Hidalgo assured him placidly. "He has friends in places off the trail here and there who will see that he is cared for. And now, Senor, we must absolutely start at once. With your permission I will go first," and Hidalgo led the way back into the cavern. Inglesant was startled to find that the rest of the party had disappeared. "Oh! there is another exit, that's it!" he remembered.
"Yes, it is this way, please follow me again, Senor. We take now the secret pass."
In a dark corner of the cavern there hung a group of great stalactites. Behind this there was a rough opening through which shone a dim smoky light. As he stooped to follow El Hidalgo through this opening Steve thought what a very tight squeeze it must have been for the loaded mules. Meanwhile El Hidalgo had waited to adjust a stone which had been artificially shaped and pivoted into perfect jointure with the rough opening.
A resin-wood torch had been stuck into a cleft in the wall by the advance party which revealed how the passage widened further along. El Hidalgo, as he passed, plucked the brand from its socket and the pair pushed rapidly ahead. The corridor was very lofty and at the point where it widened began to drop downward. The torch being almost burned out Inglesant banded his guide the powerful electric flashlight which he had been husbanding for emergencies. So they passed downward through the black corridor, accompanied by uncanny shadows and ghostly echoes - down, down till it seemed to be leading them to the very gates of Hades.
"I feel like Orpheus," thought Inglesant with a touch of amusement, "descending to the underworld to rescue his beloved."
Well for him in that moment that he could not foresee the extraordinary prophecy which he had just so lightly and so unconsciously expressed. A long two hours passed before Inglesant and his guide saw a pinpoint of light hovering far ahead of them. As the corridor rose and dropped again, turned or straightened, the silver gleam disappeared to reappear as a star and then a blotch, until finally it spread into an irregular oblong of sunlight.
In five minutes the pair emerged from the cave and found themselves overlooking a fertile valley which stretched southeastwards. A moist yet pleasant heat arose from a tree-scattered meadow, for at the near end a stream entered and spread in a wide shallow channel as it sought egress at the further outlet towards the Andes. All about the valley crowded the foothills of the Cordilleras covered luxuriantly with trees. Some distance up the valley the rest of their party awaited them.
"How far do you think we have come down, Hidalgo?"
"Well," said the other, after reckoning silently for a moment, "by your style of counting it might be about eight thousand feet. But now we keep for a time on level ground, or at least with only a gentle slope towards the east. There is a chain of valleys through here and this stream runs through them all. It is easy to follow and it will bring us after a time just about where we come to the parting of the ways. At that point we really start for my country."
He smiled as he said this and a light of eager anticipation shone in his dark eyes. It suddenly occurred to Inglesant for the first time to wonder what sort of place he was headed for. Thus far his mind had been preoccupied. First with the extraordinary things that Don Pascual had talked about. Then with the engrossing subject of the new work ahead. He had actually never felt any inclination to speculate about the place or the people which were to make his home for the immediate future. But now his thoughts began to stretch ahead and to discover that he had not even the shadow of a picture in his mind as to what lay before him.
And El Hidalgo would tell him nothing. When questioned he only smiled the same eager smile as before and remarked carelessly: "The Senor should have patience. No one can describe the city of the Secret People. It is beautiful, but so unlike what he has known - the Senor should wait."
So they pursued their daily way through the valleys, which descended gently in linked terraces from level to level. Generally they camped in the open, for the weather grew almost tropical as they descended. They only erected their tents or sought out an occasional cave the heavy and frequent storms of the locality drove them to it.
"Evidently we follow an unfrequented route," Inglesant said to Hidalgo one night. "We haven't passed a village or seen a single human since we left the cavern and Don Pascual."
The party had just made camp for the night very snugly in a green bight which led off the main valley and was partially sheltered in case of rain by an overhanging shelf of rock.
"You see, Senor," said Hidalgo, "this route has been carefully chosen. It leads to the southeast where there are no villages. Therefore men who are not world-farers like yourself have no call to follow it. For the country to the south and east is either arid in the high altitudes or marshy in the lowlands."
"How long shall we be on the way do you think, Hidalgo?"
"Under two weeks, if all but go well, Senor."
"Any wild tribes hereabouts?"
"Further on where the tropic forests begin there are the Zaparos, some of whom are very savage people. But they will not dare to trouble those whom you call the Atalatli."
That night Inglesant was restless. The little valley, though pleasantly sheltered, was moist and airless. It did not catch the prevailing winds, and Inglesant, unlike the Indians who slept easily in any circumstances, found himself tossing in discomfort. Besides, he was somehow worried about Blade. Since hearing more from the Indians during their evening meal about the character and customs of the Zaparos and other tribes of the lowlands his mind had been tormented with pictures of Blade ignorantly stealing down after him to fall defenseless into the hands of these hostile savages, head-hunters, or worse. Finally he stole from his bed and started to walk across the deeply grassed enclosure.
A great moon, just beyond the full, swung high above the tree-crested precipices that shut them in. There was a slight mist and the moonlight flooded the mountain recess like milk in a beaker of emerald. He picked his way across the marshy meadow to a spot where the rocks parted. He had noticed the cleft when they first pitched camp and now wished to satisfy his curiosity. As he went he turned over in his mind all that Don Pascual had said about keeping an eye on Blade, and he tried to extract some comfort from it.
He had reached the gap and was just about to rest his hand on a projecting rock in order to lean through the gap when his arm was jerked violently backward and Don Pascual's voice said distinctly: "Stand back! Take care!"
As Inglesant, in automatic response to the voice of warning, jerked back, the whole projection snapped off and he heard it rocketing into space far beneath.
"Look after it, but carefully," said Don Pascual's voice again. Inglesant dazedly obeyed. Beyond the cleft there was no mist and his glance plunged straight down into what looked like infinity. He shuddered and drew back.
"God! what an escape!" he cried, and turned back to thank Hidalgo for so opportunely jerking his arm back.
There was no one behind him. Across the meadow the campfire showed a dull gleam, but between him and the camp itself not even a tree-form stood up in the white moonlight. And now Inglesant sat down suddenly. The shock of such an escape and the manner of it bereft him of coherent thought. His nerves went suddenly slack. He leaned against a rock and slowly forced his mind back into its ordinary focus.
Presently he felt better. Across at the camp he now saw the form of El Hidalgo detach itself from the shadows and move swiftly towards him.Inglesant rose and went to meet him.
"Senor!" called out El Hidalgo urgently, "have you been hurt?"
"Not in the least," he called back and hoped the Indian could not at that distance detect the slight tremor in his voice. "Why do you ask?" "Because," Hidalgo reproached him, "you have been in most terrible danger, as I think you know; also, that only the power of Don Pascual has saved you."
He came up to Inglesant as he spoke and his eyes flashed in the moonlight.
"And I am hurt, Senor - yes, and angry. For you are in my care - please you do not again wander. What do you think my chiefs would say if those dark powers... if I return without you? Disgrace for me. Ruin! And most of all for that which must be accomplished - failure! Will not the Senor promise not to go anywhere alone until we are in the City of the Secret People?"
"Oh hell!" thought Inglesant. "Will there never be an end of promises? - they are beginning to bore me." He was instantly conscious that this was the first feeling of impatience which he had known through the whole adventure; and immediately he was ashamed.
"I must be more shaken than I had thought possible," he told himself, after he had apologized to El Hidalgo and given the promise. After all it was reasonable enough in the circumstances.
But there still remained much to think of. As regards the miracle of Don Pascual's help, he did not for a moment question the reality of it. For he had long known that the Spaniard was a true spiritual Adept, one who had mastery over the inner and sometimes reverse processes of the obvious forces of Nature. That the intervention had not been necessarily actually physical he realized. A shock of psycho-magnetic energy, perhaps? At any rate he had seen enough of psychic and astral phenomena to understand that such happenings were comparatively simple to bring about. Nor was the phenomenon of the voice, so close and distinct, surprising. It was, after all, probably only a very sharp and dear case of telepathy. What really impressed him was the fact that Don Pascual had instantly been aware of his danger. That was the aspect of what most people would ignorantly call a 'miracle' which drew his attention. The power to protect and help - that seemed to him the greatest instance he had ever encountered of the nature of true occult power. How different from the table-tipping, platitude-chattering, poll-parrot repetitions from the past of the seance-rooms and the itinerant 'magicians'!
And it comforted him as well to feel that this beneficent power could exert itself so far as possible over that rash butter-in, poor old Blade. Then as he lay down again beside the fire, too excited to sleep, there came suddenly back to him a sound he had, he recalled now, heard floating upward out of the darkness where the rock had been swallowed up. In the excitement of the moment it had failed to register. But it must have lodged somewhere in the niches of memory whence it returned to him suddenly in the moonlight - a long, low, unhuman chuckle, pierced through with malice.
"Now what the devil do you suppose that was!" he thought sitting up again suddenly. "I guess Hidalgo is right. There's something mighty dangerous stalking me now, and I had better watch my step."
There was no sleep for him that night. Dawn was swiftly approaching as he got up and replenished the fire. When it was really light and the men began to stir he had breakfast ready for them.
So time passed, and the morning came when they left the last of the pleasant upland valleys behind and plunged down into the rank forest growth of the lower eastern foothills. Here trails were dim and dangerous, the moist heat all but intolerable. Pests and poisonous snakes, vampire-bats and deadly insect life of all kinds made life a burden. The vegetation was squat and unhealthy. Twice they saw the smoke of Zaparo villages, but these they avoided.
Finally there came a night when the Stalker again reminded them of his stealthy espionage.
They had changed to a southwest direction, gradually mounting again into the unexplored country of fertile valleys which wind back like veins of rich ore into the heart of the eastern Andes. They had struck camp at sunset at a spot where the living rock again cropped out to the surface, and the first cool breeze they had enjoyed for several days swept them clean of nervous fatigue. When night fell it was like a cool silken garment. They pitched tents and made a rousing fire in a mood of boyish delight in the fact that their faces were again set towards the heights.
They were all gathered for a moment about the leaping fire where their dark forms were darkly silhouetted against the light. Inglesant and El Hidalgo turned aside for a moment to one of the tents and at the instant they moved came a swift, piercing hum, with a shaft that swooped, gleaming fiercely in the firelight. The Indian who had been standing just behind Inglesant when he turned away collapsed, escaping by an inch or two the wind-blown flames, and lay still.
He had been pierced through the lung by a thin wooden spear.
"Zaparo?" suggested Inglesant.
"The spear, yes. But the Zaparos, never! They would not dare molest the Atalatli! No - it is another 'accident' like the one in the valley above. It was intended for you - ."
"Wait!" joyfully cried Inglesant. In a flash he brought out from an inner pocket the little tube with its phial of ruby cordial, showing it triumphantly to El Hidalgo.
"That'll fetch him! Here, old fellow," he said stooping down to the faintly moaning figure - when El Hidalgo snatched the tube from his hand.
"That is not for Torres, Senor," he whispered sternly, as he hastily concealed it in his tunic. "It is only for you - do you not remember the warning of his Eminence?"
Inglesant sprang to his feet and glared into the dark, determined face of his friend.
"Absurd, Hidalgo! What! to see this man die at my very feet when I can save him? I'd rather die myself twenty times over! Give him that medicine..." and, as El Hidalgo stood immobile Steve took a step towards him and exclaimed in cold fury: "Give it to him at once - I command it."
So for a tense second they stood confronted - the dark, strange immemorial past and the clear-cut, dominating present.
"No, Senor," replied Hidalgo at last with gentle stubbornness, "I will not give it to him. I have been forbidden."
"Then let me have it - I'll take the responsibility of your disobedience," was Steve's somewhat scornful demand. "Quick! or he will die while we are wrangling."
El Hidalgo shook his head sadly and moved back a few paces.
"Very well," returned Inglesant with a shrug. He turned away towards where the tents stood ready, and made as if to move away. El Hidalgo was thus unprepared for Steve's sudden spring when he flashed about and precipitated himself like a catapult upon the unsuspecting Indian. They crashed in a heap and the sinking firelight showed two dark forms, mauling and gripping, writhing like a pair of catamounts on the ground. Surrounding them a circle of silent watchers, tense, almost without breath; eyes and teeth sharply agleam, but looking like a group of picturesque statues in the firelight. The silence labored with the panting of the fighters and the coughing moan of the dying Indian. Gradually one of the distorted forms gained the ascendancy. It was Hidalgo. Steve, though a fine wrestler would never at any time have been a match for the superb and ascetic physique of the Indian, even if he had not been still somewhat touched in wind by his recent accident. Hidalgo now managed to extricate himself sufficiently to struggle to his feet with Steve fastened about his middle. He was just about to toss the tube to the nearest Indian when Steve, by a sudden swift maneuver in jiu jitsu, struck him into agonized immobility.
Steve caught the tube as it fell from El Hidalgo's inert fingers. Turning quickly he knelt beside the wounded Torres and forced open his stiffened lips to moisten his tongue. As the man's jaws relaxed he administered a few drops, and then a few more of the ruby cordial. When it became evident that the Indian was returning to life Steve gave him the rest of the cordial. Then, rising, he turned back to where Hidalgo stood like a graven image. It had been less than five minutes since Steve had practised the sleight upon him. As he came back he found that El Hidalgo had worked himself somehow free of the twist, and stood darkly regarding the form of the now sleeping Torres.
Steve looked Hidalgo frankly in the eyes. "Forgive me, friend," he apologized, "but if I had let that poor fellow die in my place I never could have succeeded in the work ahead. Such a treachery to everything I have been educated to feel would have wrecked my self-confidence - what we call morale. So in saving him, I really saved myself for the work - will you not understand and forgive?"
Hidalgo returned Steve's glance with one of aloof sadness. "Suppose the next stroke is successful - what then?"
"It is not going to be, Hidalgo. I trust my star and in Don Pascual. Come, take my hand, and say you will overlook my unfair tactics - shake, old man!" And he held out his hand with his persuasive smile.
Hidalgo did not smile or appear to yield an inch mentally, but he took the proffered hand and raising it suddenly laid it for an instant upon his forehead. Then he turned silently away.
Inglesant went to his own tent. He was thankful to be alone. He made a table for himself out of two boxes and set up his strong electric torch in the shaded stand he had contrived for it. Then he got out his loose-leaf book to write up the diary he always faithfully kept when traveling.
He spread the fresh page under his hand and was just about to begin his entry when he was stopped by an amazing sight. He rubbed his eyes and stared incredulously at first at the words forming themselves rapidly in what looked like red pencil, line after line, as if an invisible hand were writing on the page before him. This process continued until the page was full. But though the writing was in small legible English Steve was too paralysed in all his faculties to do more than follow the swift movement of the script across and down the sheet until it stopped with the signature, Pascual at the bottom.
"Bravo, Stephen!" he read when his brain had cleared of bewilderment. "This is to let you know that what I said is true about friends not being necessarily separated even when their bodies are far apart.
"I say 'bravo!' because instantly and without question you remained true to conscience and humanity. These are the initial qualities for matriculation in the 'Esoteric University' of the Masters of Wisdom and Compassion. Do you recall a saying in one of the Mss. I gave you at the very opening of our friendship? 'Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.' It is the spirit lying within this injunction that awakens in a man the power to serve and protect others. If you had mistakenly yielded to El Hidalgo you would most certainly have failed in what lies ahead. Tests and trials in the earlier stages of true occult training must come from life itself and events by the wayside, so to speak. There are no set tasks as in a fairy-tale. The cordial was truly intended for you, as I said. El Hidalgo lived up to his instructions - not from me but from his own superiors, with whose orders to him I do not concern myself. But you would not only have failed with me if you had obeyed El Hidalgo rather than your own sense of humanity and rectitude, but would have also laid the foundation for failure in coping with the kind of entities that you will some day have to face and overcome.
Go on now, and finish the task you have undertaken. I have great hope for your future if you can only win through this terrible and uncertain quest.
Inglesant read and reread this message, enjoying the peculiar atmosphere that always came with his association with Don Pascual, a wonderfully keen sense of inner rest and happiness. Nevertheless, he felt that an experiment was permissible. Being in a highly charged nervous state he felt that he might easily be visually deluding himself, and that no message might be in reality lying before him. He was well acquainted with the strange power of the psychological apparatus to create images so real to the mind that they actually take a shape that seems visible. So now he tore out the sheet, folded it, sealed it into an envelope, and then went in search of El Hidalgo.
He found him standing in a deep muse beside the fire and the two met with as casual a cordiality as if nothing at cross purposes had happened between them.
"Hidalgo, please put this envelope away for me, will you? I'll ask you for it tomorrow sometime. It's just a little test of my sanity that I'm making."
The Indian took the envelope and slipped it into one of the numerous receptacles of his bronze leather jerkin. Then he turned back to his contemplation of the fire, and Inglesant went gladly to his bed of llama skin blankets.
The next midday found them climbing steadily. And Steve was amazed and delighted to find Torres his usual active self.
There was something, Steve decided, very unusual about the quality of the air on these eastern slopes. Although, according to El Hidalgo, they were not yet more than three thousand feet up, the distances were of a crystalline purity and color entrancing to see. The air was balmy but invigorating. Vegetation was luxuriant yet of a vernal freshness, and waterfalls called to them in headlong merriment. Flowers gushed from the very rocks in cascades of lemon and purple, and little gray birds companioned them with sudden delicious wild flutings that lifted the heart.
During the course of the afternoon, as the caravan pushed briskly onward through blue shadow and sunlight like golden wine Steve asked El Hidalgo for his envelope. When he opened it he found that the message in red was there just as he had seen it on the previous night. He had of course felt sure that it would be, knowing Don Pascual for the Adept he was; but the test satisfied that demand for objective confirmation where possible which was native to his mentality.
As they journeyed Inglesant asked one day: "Hidalgo, who are these 'clever ones' you and Don Pascual have so often referred to?"
"Well," and the Indian hesitated, seeming to choose carefully the form of his answer, "they are those people who act consciously against the work of the Brotherhood which Don Pascual has told you of. Of course every evil and selfish man acts unconsciously against that work - a man like your Blade, for example - because the Brotherhood exists only to bring about good in the world. But there are also those who are direct tools of certain evil influences behind the outward life of man - these influences themselves being the sort of creature that the Atlantean Sorcerer is. There are plenty of them in the background today, just as the White Brotherhood exists in the background. But you will learn all about that later..." and El Hidalgo could not be induced to say anything more upon the subject.
That evening they camped on an upland meadow within sound of a cascade, a spot overlooked by an out-thrust shoulder of granite. Supper had been a leisurely affair and now as they spread blankets on the thick wet grass beside the rock where their fire was built Steve said to El Hidalgo: "I wish you had some more of that incense. It would seem like the very soul of such a spot as this."
El Hidalgo smiled and drew a leather pouch from underneath his jerkin. From this he took a generous handful of the yellow powder and threw it upon the flames. Steve watched in delight how they changed to sapphire splendor from which plumes of an azure transparency spread abroad a fragrance of delight. He watched dreamily the blue and silvery glow that sparkled upon the granite behind them and exclaimed:
"Look, Hidalgo! There is someone standing there. He seems to have actually stepped out of the precipice!"
Hidalgo turned sharply and followed Steve's glance. Then with a smothered note of anxiety he rose and hastened to where the mute figure stood like a shadow attached to the rock. Inglesant heard distinctly a rapid conversation in a curious liquid tongue quite unfamiliar to him but which he thought slightly resembled Chinese. Then El Hidalgo returned while the shadow seemed to melt again into the rock.
"One of our messengers," stated the Indian as he rejoined the party around the fire. "He brings word that your Dog of the World has outwitted us all and is on our trail. It seems that in some way our people, who were to engage themselves to him as guides, failed to connect with him. Your friend found in a hurry some other men to take him. I know how it was arranged. There is a poor half-cracked but very cunning old Castilian fox named Reinaldo who has his hole somewhere in the back lanes of Cuenca. He is, without knowing it, an agent of the Clever Ones. And they have thrust in through the crack in his brain the maggot of hatred and cupidity so that he has spied upon the work of Don Pascual when he could. Whenever he discovered anything that looked like information he has sold it to those who make it their business to oppose the work of his Eminence.
"Your friend's guides are the worst for us that could have been found, for they know the trails almost as well as we do. They have evidently understood how to approach over passes above here and so to force the march. If this matter of your friend could have been trusted to me I would have been able to deal with it, but Don Pascual - "
"But why could he not have used his great power to prevent this plot against our work?"
"Many reasons, Senor - from his way of looking at things. And perhaps it is better so - to keep this stupid interference from taking the form of an appeal to the authorities on the ground that you were being lured into some trap. You see, this man Blade's own lack of honor will be used to prevent him from doing real harm to your work. Much better so than that Don Pascual should waste his occult energies in doing what otherwise is so easily accomplished. On the other hand physical force must not be resorted to. In the accomplishment of his work for his Brotherhood the use of force is unlawful. An Occultist belonging to his Order will never interfere with the free actions of others but has every right to use their weaknesses to bring to pass their own best good and the good of others. You see?"
"Yes. But I find it difficult to feel easy about Blade. It throws a shadow over everything."
"And yet you have already seen how Don Pascual can protect others. I have not of course any authority for saying that your friend will be protected, for his lack of honor and his self-seeking lay him open to the attacks of evil forces. There is no protection in life like rectitude and unselfishness, and this man has thrust himself in where he is stripped naked to all the bitter winds of wickedness. As Don Pascual told you once he can protect your friend only in so far as the interloper has the material in himself to respond to the forces of good. Besides, Senor, worry will not help - it will only surround your friend with a confusing cloud. Rely in your thought upon the higher forces of destiny and be sure that only they can save him from what he has brought upon himself." Hidalgo ended with a gesture of finality. "And now these people are not many hours behind us. We must strike camp at once. Are you ready?"
In no time at all they had taken up the trail again moving swiftly to where the valley closed in to a pass some distance above them to the south. This defile proved to be narrow and stony. It wound upwards tortuously, at first in the light of the young moon and then for hours in darkness under the discomfort of a whistling wind that keened monotonously through the fissure.
Dawn broke at last as the gorge angled around a spur where the pass widened to skirt the foot of vast precipices which soared sheer above them like a bastion of the gods. At their left rose enormous tumbled rocks.
Here was the beginning of an ancient stone pavement of cleverly fitted granite blocks laid down millenniums ago by a people whose civilization had become a hoary riddle when the pyramids were built. And now in the face of the vast rampart there began to be frequent breaks, clefts that looked strangely artificial as if purposely hollowed out. In one of these, a little larger than the others and something like a small three-walled chamber, they paused for a hasty bite, and particularly to feed the mules. They ate standing and El Hidalgo remarked to Inglesant:
"We will arrive now just before sunset at the City of the Secret People. You will be glad I think, Senor?"
They smiled at one another and Inglesant laid an affectionate hand on the shoulder of his Indian friend.
"I am more keen than I could ever tell you, Hidalgo mio. But not if it will mean that you and I must part?"
"No, no, Senor. I shall still have the privilege of serving you. At least I think so."
"In my country, Hidalgo, where we are at least supposed to be brothers-all, we would reply to that, 'Can the service stuff.'" He used English for this bit of slang, knowing no equivalent in Spanish. "However, whatever pleases you pleases me. Time to push on again? All right. Here goes for the last lap into oblivion!"
Their haste was now redoubled. The beasts, sensing the approach of journey's end, responded with alacrity. So at last and about an hour before sunset they discovered a true break in the cliff. Here stood a roughly triangular rock deeply cut with a great figure of the ansated cross. When they had entered this passage it made several almost right-angular twists and after a considerable distance brought them up short in a wide cul-de-sac surrounded on three sides by walls of living rock.
Here the party were confronted by an astounding and beautiful object.
A great portal or gate, in shape a truncated pyramid, was carved into the mountain before them. On either side like a pillar stood a gigantic stone figure. These were markedly different, Steve saw at once, from the elaborate grotesquerie of most South American statues. To him they looked like splendid archangels, though they had no wings. But the faces were veiled and the hands held strange and beautiful but to him unfamiliar implements of archaic symbolism. Above the portal appeared an immense relief of the winged globe, simpler even than the Mayan representation of that universal symbol of the deathless spirit of man and its immortal powers.
As he gazed up at this amazing interruption to their progress, thinking it a mere dummy, the stone curtain between the pillars started to move soundlessly upward. Steve could see that this stone curtain was of great thickness. Watching its slow ascent he marveled at the mechanical skill that could so smoothly groove and so effortlessly lift this immensely ponderous mass.
With what eagerness he looked within, only to discover another irregular passage beyond the now open portal. When the whole party had passed through El Hidalgo gave the order to halt and they waited till the curtain had descended again behind them.
Inglesant wondered by whom and where this mechanism was worked and how the signal for its raising had been given. But though he was to learn many extraordinary things in the months ahead, this was one secret which - not exactly to his surprise - was never to be revealed to him.
The caravan pushed eagerly forward over the fine packed sand which floored the narrow space and rendered their passage almost noiseless. The trend now was markedly upward. They mounted steadily between precipices until at last they found themselves with breath-taking suddenness on a great platform of rock overlooking a scene which to Inglesant was almost overpowering in its strangeness and beauty.
Below them lay a broad green valley. In an angle of the precipice at their right a magnificent waterfall dropped like a colossal ribbon of jade and silver to a pool far beneath. The thunder of falling water heightened the sublimity of the vast and templed metropolis that scaled the ascent at the far end of the valley.
This mighty terraced city lifted itself even at the distance of two miles, which Inglesant judged to be about the length of the valley, like a stronghold of giants. Yet its grandeur looked empty. For though it stood stupendous and untouched by the hand of time yet it bore about it the indefinable and poignant melancholy of forsaken things. And this atmosphere was strangely deepened by its alien beauty. It was built all of pink granite roofed and incrusted with gold. Its walls and bastions, its colonnades, palaces, and temples rose terrace above mighty terrace linked by soaring flights of stairs. Beyond it there closed in the peaks of a splendid mountain dazzling white against the cobalt-blue sky.
As Inglesant gazed at this amazing spectacle the sun sank behind the western heights and a rosy afterglow gradually flushed the snow-peaks above this city of the gods. The whole magic picture hung there in the sudden twilight suffused with an unearthly rose. And Inglesant remembered a line from the poets -
"A rose-red city, half as old as time."
But now lights sprang up here and there in the valley and along the hill slopes at either side. Here Inglesant observed that many buildings clustered among the groves and cultivated steadings that filled this wide aperture among the Andes. Near the center of the valley, at a point where many roads converged, stood a great pyramidal structure resembling the familiar ruined temples of Yucatan. But this place, evidently a temple or civic center of some sort was the living heart of the community. For he could see a stream of colorful figures passing up and down the immense flights of steps. At regular intervals along the main stairway were platforms where columns of smoke, tinted by the sunset, added their violet plumes to complete the picture.
A glance far below showed him where the pool of the waterfall divided into many channels which twisted under bridges and through gardens in patterns of glancing silver which sparkled in the sunset light. Over the whole enchanted scene rested an air of archaic simplicity and happy, self-contained peace.
At the same moment El Hidalgo spoke to him and he saw that the caravan was turning about to enter an opening in the cliff on their left. Here a tunnel spiraled down. Following this, it soon precipitated them to the level of the valley where they emerged into a small stone room at the end of the descent. As Inglesant and El Hidalgo entered this high narrow chamber they found standing there three enormous, grave men, apparently in expectation of their arrival. El Hidalgo made a brief sign to the other Indians as they entered after him and they filed out through a door on the further side.
During this brief delay Inglesant had contrived a swift and expert scrutiny of the waiting group to whom El Hidalgo now conducted him. And he recognised at once that these were remarkable men. Yet the type of their faces he found at first glance repellent. The color was a very rich, blackish red. They were narrowly rectangular with foreheads that jutted fiercely. Long noses with flaring nostrils above thin lips protruded with disagreeable dominance above their long powerful chins. There was something disturbing about these faces above the stiff leather garments bronzed and jointed, with capes of magnificent peacock-blue material falling stiffly behind. They were weird, Inglesant thought. Like great armored, piercing-eyed insects waiting to pounce.
But just as he was finding this impression intolerably realistic El Hidalgo made some unintelligible remark and the three Indians responded with grave nods. All glanced at him and in these nods and glances there was something indescribable, but yet definite and reassuring. It was almost as if an invisible ray of cool kindness had fallen like a fragrance upon his nervous suspicion. And of a sudden he was utterly at peace.
Then El Hidalgo turned to him and spoke. "These men," he began with a new, slightly aloof dignity, "are emissaries to you from the Overlord of the Atalatli. They bid me offer you most true and heart-deep welcome. The only member of our Council who speaks and understands the Spanish is away at present. But he returns in a few days and then the Council of Twelve will be able to deal directly with you. Until his return you are invited to rest. You are weary now, they say, and they beg that you will permit me to take you to your new home. This they hope may prove agreeable to you. When the Spanish-interpreter for the High Council returns you will then be ready and you will be introduced to the Inner Circle. All can then be arranged between you and those who are to lay the foundations for that which must be accomplished."
Inglesant acknowledged this address with a deep obeisance. In response the three emissaries raised each a dark hand, peculiarly long and fragile for their great gaunt frames, making in the air before Inglesant some sign which he could not even guess at. Following this they turned about as one man and left the chamber by a door which opened into the face of the rock.
"Come, then," said Hidalgo, when the door had clicked after them, "we will go now to your own apartments. Before I left here in response to the message of his Eminence, Don Pascual, I knew that it was an Americano who was coming and I took great care in selecting your home amongst us myself."
Outside the cave a covered cart was waiting, drawn by llamas. It was clumsy but comfortable. Behind its curtains the two rode through byways and empty streets between gardens to a building clear across the valley. This building stood above the city. It was of two stories with outside stairways and stone verandas. El Hidalgo led him to a large room in an upper story, in which were two narrow windows without glass. They looked out upon the grand pile of the deserted city and the snow peaks. Below lay a charming garden where a little cascade fell down from the crags behind the house in melodious freshness.
The room was simply but attractively furnished. There was a rather rude looking bed without linen. But it had a thick mattress and many brightly colored blankets of llama wool. There were fur rugs, a chair and table beautifully carved in geometrical designs. At doors and windows were white woollen hangings elaborately embroidered in rich colors. Beyond was a small room where he would later install the tin bath and other personal luxuries which he had brought with him.
Inglesant sighed with intense satisfaction and answered El Hidalgo's bright inquiring glance with the brief remark, "Beautiful, Hidalgo. Accept my best thanks. It is all actually too luxurious and delightful."
So there began for Inglesant that hidden life of intensive self-training in body, mind, and spirit of which he was never permitted to reveal anything, but which was to lead him to the severest trial and the greatest happiness of his life.
* * *
At the moment when Inglesant and El Hidalgo with their caravan entered the cleft in the precipice leading to the ancient rock portal and the end of their journey, there crouched beyond the edge of a spur some distance in their rear and far above them on the southern slopes the motionless figure of a man in khaki. This figure held a large pair of fieldglasses to its eyes which remained fixed for a long time on the fissure into which the caravan had disappeared. The watcher finally lowered his glasses and remarked to Boabdil, who knelt passively behind him: "Take a good look through the glasses at the spot where they turned off. I believe you're right - we are nearing the end of our man-hunt." Boabdil looked and suddenly his hatchet face seemed to grow incandescent with excitement. "Senor - it is! It is!"
"It is what?" snapped Blade.
"The place I've heard described in all the old tales. We have found it! There is the devil-mark cut into the rock!"
"Here, let me look again!" demanded Blade. He trained the glass once more upon the spot and saw now, even from this distance - what in his intentness upon Inglesant's party he had overlooked - the figure inscribed on a triangular rock as Boabdil had said. It was the ansated cross, a circle resting on the arms of the cross. He took pains to note besides this figure the exact position and configuration of the rock, fixing in his mind at the same time one or two other landmarks to identify the spot. For he realized that this might be one of many natural fissures and that other things might have been done in the way of repetition to deceive the credulous seeker.
Then he rose and beckoning to Boabdil they plunged down the mountain track which precipitated them rapidly to the floor of the gorge, where the rest of their party waited for them at a little distance back along the paved roadway.
As the ten men comprising his escort got into motion again and filed past him Blade thought how lucky it was that the end of their adventure was in sight. For even the hardiest of these Indians were worn out with forced marches over perilous short cuts and dizzy drops over precipices. Moreover, Blade's haste to be gone and his native willingness to gamble with destiny had hustled them off with supplies and equipment which were barely sufficient. They had recently lost two mules with their loads of provisions. For the past two days rations had been short, and as the need of pressing forward was becoming ever more urgent the men's tempers grew sullen and edgy. So now unless they could speedily connect with some source of supply their situation promised to become desperate.
The likelihood of finding even a village of mestizos in this region seemed remote. For they were nearing the southeastern corner of Ecuador where it was arid on the slopes, marshy and fever-soaked below. White men, or even the highland Indians seldom if ever penetrated here, and so far they had seen no slightest indication that they might happen across a fertile valley tucked away in the foothills.
Now, however, as Boabdil walked along the line and talked to the men in their Quechua patois which Blade did not understand, he was relieved, but also astonished, at the excitement which suddenly transformed them. They jabbered and gesticulated vehemently among themselves and lashed the jaded mules into unwilling animation.
"What are they jittering about now, I wonder," speculated Blade. "Boabdil, why are they so particularly wrought up?"
"But, Senor, did you not guess that your friend was being taken to the city of the Secret People? We have been sure of that always." Blade felt that he must not appear ignorant, so he inquired casually: "Yes, but what do they know about it more than I do? Do they think it means buried Inca treasure?" and he laughed with deliberate derision. "I don't believe that nonsense, you know. I've only come to rescue my friend from the clutches of those who have lured him away for ransom."
"It is not the treasure of the Incas, Senor," Boabdil replied. "The Senor can of course know little of the legends about this city - the Quechua do not tell such things to Gringos, for very good reasons. But since now we are here at its very door-step you must be told. This place is far, far older than any Inca city. So old that it goes beyond the rising of the ancient oceans. It was inhabited once by a race of giants. Its buildings are enormous. They are roofed with gold, and inlaid within with jewels beyond price. It has underground hiding-places where vast treasures are concealed. Do you wonder that poor arrieros like us are transported with joy?"
"I've heard all that," returned Blade scornfully; "but even if I believed it I never would credit that all this treasure is still there. Someone must have discovered and robbed the place long ago - don't tell me!"
Boabdil shook his head and his eyes returned with interest Blade's ready scorn. "You Yanquis are very ignorant, Senor. No one has ever found this treasure. If your friend discovers it that will be because he has had help from the people who guard it."
"What makes you think it has never been found?" urged Blade.
"Because it is protected by a terrible curse, and no one would dare to disturb it. And if one dared even to search for it," he replied to Blade's grin of mocking incredulity, "it is well protected, for the tribe which guards it has magic powers - " and he crossed himself with exaggerated devotion.
"Well, well, and well," drawled Blade to himself, being a trifle bored with this naive viewpoint. "It appears I've bitten off more than I thought I was paying for. So that's what my Viking friend is after, and probably not radium after all? I'm disappointed - can't get up much enthusiasm over treasure that's likely to be gone when you get there. Still, Inglesant is not given to following stale trails; and those Indians who were with him were different far from Boabdil and his men. Um-m - "
They had been making rapid progress along the paved way skirting the cliff, and now Blade, who had pushed in front of the party, exclaimed: "Here we are! Here's the rock, with the twisted tree I noted above it! The opening is just beyond here somewhere. But where is the figure cut in the rock?" he wondered. "This is surely the exact spot?"
The party scurried and jostled forward but no opening appeared. "It must be further along - I probably miscalculated the distance," decided Blade, a little nonplused at not seeing at once the expected fissure. But though they hastened onward for nearly a mile, and then retraced their steps feverishly for more than that distance they found no natural break in the unfriendly cliff that seemed endless in either direction. Nor, what appeared to Blade the most disturbing thing of all, was there any other landmark that he might have confused in his mind with the twisted tree growing from the cliff just above the triangular rock. The absence of the ansated cross did not disturb him much as that might be carved in such a tricky way as only to be visible from a distance. He had heard of such things. But altogether this must be the right spot, and this certainty rested like a blight upon his spirits.
The party brought up at last, baffled and drooping, at the point where the rock with its tree jutted above them.
"Boabdil, you climb back up there where we spied on the other party, while the rest of us stand here to mark this spot, and see if this isn't the very point we were looking at from above. Here, take the glass."
Boabdil obeyed and after a long interval returned with the information that it was undoubtedly the very spot - the 'devil-mark,' as he called the ansated cross, being clear as a donkey's hoof-print.
"It's of no use to persist, Senor," he desponded, "we shall never find that opening. I recall now an old proverb connected with this legend which I never understood before: 'He who would possess the treasure must first draw aside the secret veil.' Also I remember that my grandfather used to tell a story about a party of the old Conquistadores who had got wind of the city and its treasure. They had heard from some Inca priest of the devil-mark and recognised this spot by that. But they could never find the city - nor shall we. It must be true what is told - that the ancient gods protect it with a veil of invisibility."
Blade snorted in derision. "That kind of nonsense won't go down with me, friend Boabdil," he snapped. "I have just seen a party of real live men go into a crevasse in this cliff. This," and he struck the granite rampart with his fist, "is solid rock. We can all see and feel it. And I recognised at least one of that party so I know I am on the right track. The entrance they found is here somewhere and I intend to discover it."
The sun had set by this time and night, like a cold river of silence flowed in and swiftly blotted out everything.
"There'll be a moon before long," remarked Blade as he turned on his powerful electric torch, and then we can continue our search."
"Not stop here now another moment - no!" shrilled Boabdil. "Not camp here, Senor! Better we go back to where the stone way begins. So we are out of this demon-territory. We camp there till sunrise, then we search again if the Senor wishes - "
"Now look here, Boabdil. Forget all this superstitious rot - "
But Boabdil had turned to the men and a great clamor arose, so that finally as the men paid no attention to his raging protests, Blade had to agree to go back to the point Boabdil insisted upon.
When they had settled themselves well beyond the rocky spur which separated the ancient paved road from the outer country they made camp of a sort. There was no fuel to be found so they had to eat in cold and darkness what they felt they could spare of their supplies. Blade ate with reluctance a very small share of their vanishing food, although he persuaded himself that he felt certain that they would manage to overtake Inglesant and his party early the following day. For he had by now arrived at the conviction that the tales of the ancient ruined city were at least approximately true and doubted not that he should find it somewhere in the vicinity with Inglesant established there. And doubtless if the other party should not be able to share provisions with them, Inglesant's Indians would know where food could be obtained.
Blade's guides, with their temperamental reliance upon manana soon dropped asleep. But the American found himself intolerably restless. His failure goaded him. And when the first hardly discernible dawnlight spread a gray film upon the darkness he crept noiselessly from his blankets. Taking nothing beyond his powerful flashlight he slipped without a sound around the spur of rock.
Once on the pavement he broke into an uneasy run and after a time as the darkness faded to gray and gray brightened to pearl he came again to the triangular rock with its tree, looking like a distorted phantom leaning above it.
Here, as he held strongly in check his nervous dread of what failure meant, he searched methodically along the surface of the cliffs in both directions. He found nothing whatever to break the blank walls that towered above in such maddening refusal. As he approached for the fourth time vainly the rock and its now accursed tree an impulse of frenzy convulsed him. He sprang upon the rock and catching savage hold upon the misshapen tree wrenched at it viciously. It squirmed like a live thing under his assault but its roots held. He was about to wring it again when a curious feeling arrested him. He glanced over his shoulder and then whipped about to look down upon a picture that was to haunt him forever.
Blade found himself gazing directly into a half-circle of dark faces that glared up at him - sinister hatchet-faces with glittering slits for eyes and a fixed immobility of hatred that struck him into temporary syncope. His hold on the tree slipped and he fell into the very center of the hideous semi-circle. As he struck the pavement the shock jarred him back to command of his senses. Blade got to his feet just as a pair of arms locked themselves about his body in a clinch of steel.
And now all but the big figure in the center of the curving line fell back from Blade and his captor, yet stood closely grouped so that no break for freedom was possible. Then his captor released him and he found himself confronted by a long murderous knife. It gleamed in the hand of the man who now stood alone - plainly a priest or medicine-man, garbed in some outlandish combination of wild animal skins which stank abominably. On his greasy raven-black hair he wore a delicate garland of flowering vine, and as Blade's eyes popped at him he laughed with a slow, devilish, chuckling glee that was more convincing even than the knife which he was raising inch by inch over Blade's head.
And then Blade had an inspiration. Snatching the electric torch from his pocket he suddenly snapped the strong glare into the eyes of the medicine-man.
The burly figure reeled under the surprise. The knife grazed Blade's shoulder and rang against the rock as it fell. But the man who had first seized Blade crept up behind him and wrenched the torch from his hand. To Blade's joy, however, this action pushed back the catch and the light went out. Blade's captor then gave an order and a man stationed himself on either side of Blade and the priest and the other fell into excited examination of the flashlight but could not discover its secret.
Blade now made the most of this advantage by drawing himself to his full height, folding his arms and looking with an air of haughty indifference fixedly before him.
After a few moments of earnest talk that indicated doubt and indecision the priest came up to Blade, struck him sharply on the chest and pointed peremptorily at the torch. Blade stood like a rock. He rolled his eyes melodramatically at the priest and pierced him with as terrible a gaze as he could contrive but made no response whatever to the demand that he show them the secret.
So after a little more talk another order was given. One naked fellow, evidently a runner, was sent off in the direction opposite to Blade's camp. Then Blade between his guards was placed in the center of the column and the company, which he now saw numbered around twenty, moved off down the pass in leisurely fashion in the wake of their runner.
Blake's career as press adventurer had brought him into many a tight place up and down the world, but now, as this silent, sinister procession carried him along he dared not think. Safest, he felt, to keep cool and alert for escape. He refused even to think of the carelessness of leaving his pistol behind when he left camp. The gorge wound away between its cliffs interminably and Blade was discouraged to find after a mile or two that its trend was steadily downward. At the same time it widened and the pavement came to an end, while the temperature rose uncomfortably. At last rills of water and occasional vegetation began to appear. Then there broke though the hills on their left a little valley choked with trees. The column swung into the green forest-gloom to the southeast.
As they descended, tropic heat rose and inundated them so that Blade soon felt his clothes like wet cerements. He was tortured with insects, and the horrible reek of filthy bodies and the fetid skins of the priest's garments changed what might by this time have been ravenous hunger into an almost intolerable nausea. Yet the march went forward unabated and relentless, hour after steaming hour. Every so often Blade felt sure he was going to faint but by sheer will-power managed to keep on his feet until the wave passed over him.
Mid-afternoon found them in heavy forest twilight. Speed now slackened somewhat and at a point where two trails met a halt was called. An enormous gourd was unslung from the back of a rear guard to be passed methodically from mouth to mouth.
Blade was too thirsty and exhausted to be fastidious and took a good pull at what proved to be a lukewarm, sourish, but not unpleasant drink. What it was he had no idea but at any rate it was wet and perhaps also nourishing. Then the column moved on again and Blade found himself a little refreshed. About sunset a slight breeze sprang up, helped out by level bars of moonlight among the thinning trees.
Without warning then they moved out into the clearing and Blade's eyes bulged at the scene before him. In the center, a great stone altar reared itself upon a pyramid of many steps. Behind it, caressed by the cold moonlight, stood a huge idol straitlaced with marvelous stone embroidery. Its hands that clutched barbarous obscene symbols were folded stiffly against its breast, and its hollow eyes stared unhumanly into the jungle that shut it in. Surrounding the steps were three rows of seated Indians - three circles of dark bodies that glinted in the moonlight. Three circles of slit-eyed, waiting faces turned towards them, that edged in the startling picture with a living frame.
As his party advanced Blade noticed that a passage between the rows had been left leading to the foot of the altar steps, and that above, before the altar itself, two curiously robed forms watched their approach. As they drew near this passage the Indians who had formed the marching column broke line to find their places in the outermost row.
Blade saw his slender desperate chance. In a flash he had slipped between the moving bodies and darted for a spot where the trees were thinnest on the northern side. If he had not been so intent on taking advantage of the ground just ahead it might have surprised him that no outcry was raised behind him - no pursuit urged upon his flight. But he was thinking only of the risk of falling, and of putting immediate distance between himself and the altar with its waiting throng. Presently however the sixth sense of danger informed him of this curious silence in his rear. He slowed for a second, uneasily, and as he did so collided in the darkness with a surface of cold stone.
It was a high circular wall - no doubting that as he groped recklessly along its smoothness, searching without hope for some opening or cranny that might let him over or through. And when he was suddenly tripped up and captured by a pouncing sentinel he was too numb for surprise or resistance.
His ignominious return to the circle was met with the same daunting silence. It was like some dark forest-spell. But one change confronted him - the end of all. For high above the altar, secured in some way among the gruesome symbols in the idol's hands glared the strong beam of his electric torch. The button had been discovered and the only reason for keeping him alive was gone.
A group of Indians now pressed him forward through the circle of glittering-eyed watchers to the altar stairs. He struggled desperately. As well might he have tackled a pack of hyenas. The clothing was torn from his body as he was forced or carried step by step upward to the platform fronting the altar, mastering his frantic contortions as easily as a child might subdue an impaled insect.
Before Blade on the altar lay several horrid instruments from which his glazing sight wavered away. Behind him he heard the thud of his captors' feet as they retreated down the stairs. The two priests then approached, one at either elbow. The one on the right leaned forward, selecting with ceremonious gesture one of the deadly things that waited there.
And then, in a resonance of sudden, far-stealing sweetness came the mysterious call!
The distant sound wrought swift transformation. Like a nest of hornets released, a buzz of excitement broke out below. The priest hurriedly replaced the sacred implement upon the altar and the pair then whipped around towards the engirdling Indians. These had all sprung to their feet and stood - some gazing upward at their priests, and some with faces directed expectantly towards the spot where Blade had been brought into the altar-glade.
Again the clear musical call! The two priests at the sound abandoned Blade and swept down the stairs and towards the forest opening. Every Indian now turned towards the same point and Blade found himself forgotten. But all initiative had been wrung out of him. Reaction in the form of violent nervous ague racked his exhausted frame. He sank down into a shuddering heap before the altar, too unhinged in soul and body even to wonder whether rescue or doom in a worse shape was at hand.
Silence fell again. The moon, just sinking behind black surges of the jungle, gloated wanly upon the spectacle. Strangest of all, the glare of the powerful electric torch threw a long cone of light in a direct line to the inlet among the trees which all were watching.
Presently, there stepped into this bizarre spotlight a wondrous figure. It was a young Indian, immensely tall and of a haughty and beautiful aspect. He was clothed in a sort of armor of bronzed leather with a short flame-colored cape falling stiffly behind. In one hand he held a carved staff. At the tip of this shone a golden sun-disc, the twelve rays of which were fashioned of gems which scintillated in the electric beam with many colored fires.
This symbol be now raised commandingly aloft. At the movement every Indian sank instantly to earth, so that it was like a harvest field heavy before the menace of storm. Then the newcomer raised his voice and spoke to the prostrate figures before him.
What was it in the voice that passed like a wave of fresh vitality through Blade's collapsed frame? The language was a majestic stream of liquid, unintelligible sound. But it breathed of something - was it accusation, stern reproof? - to those dark images of humility.And it inspired Blade with fresh hope and courage.
He staggered to his feet and gazed in fascination at the barbaric and splendid figure. In the same instant the newcomer raised his eyes and looked full at Blade. Then he spoke again to the priests, sternly. They got at once to their feet in evidently abject obedience, strode swiftly to the stairs and so up to Blade's side, who shrank back from their approach against the altar.
Instantly a sentence electrified him! Incredibly, the Indian had spoken in Spanish! "Come down to me here!" he commanded. "I am a messenger, and I have been sent to take you away."
The words might have been ominous, but the whole atmosphere of the speaker - the timbre of his voice, his glance, the very serenity of his presence - promised rescue. Blade gave instinctive obedience and soon, reclothed after a fashion, and now ceremoniously conducted in the wake of the departing messenger, had left the terrible grove of human sacrifice behind.
At the crossroads where Blade's captors had halted with him that very afternoon there waited another group of Indians with a pair of fine llamas which alternately snuffed at the rank grass and fidgeted grumpily. Here the two priests were dismissed, but not till the messenger had ordered them to be given a bulky parcel from one of the packs. It was wrapped in a beautiful piece of woollen stuff elaborately embroidered. At sight of this gift their faces lit with greedy pleasure and after many timid and servile gestures of obeisance they were finally swallowed up by the backward-winding trail.
Blade was never to be able to recall with any sequence or detail what happened to him in the next ten days. When he finally opened his eyes in the hospital of San Vicente at Chita and came gradually into full possession of himself, all that remained of the journey from the lowlands was a confusion - something like a cinema reel too quickly unrolled. It made in his mind a sort of spectrum - alternating bands of lurid delirium and vague peaceful passages upward and ever upward through valley, gorge, and windy pass, crossed by black lines where unconsciousness blotted him out. He recalled the litter made of boughs and soft blankets and the care which seemed to have wrapped him solicitously round. All other externals were too hazy ever to be satisfactorily pieced together.
Soon after Blade's convalescence from fever and nervous prostration had set in permanently, he had a caller. A card was brought to him by the gaunt nun who looked after him and Blade read with wondering surprise the name engraved there:
Don Pascual Y Lorente De Sandoval
and then words pencilled in Spanish below:
A friend of your friend would be glad to be of assistance to you.
Blade, who had been feeling intolerably listless and forlorn, experienced a sudden revival of his normal zest for life. He sent word for the caller to be shown in, expecting to see one of the dapper examples of the local 'quality' appear in his doorway.
He was therefore astonished and decidedly disconcerted by the nobility and distinction of the man who presently stood beside his chair, greeting him with a pleasant though formal cordiality. With what curiosity he eyed this man, seeing with that third eye of the born news-hound that here was an extraordinary and perhaps mysterious personality.
At his invitation Don Pascual seated himself in the chair which the nun grudgingly brought for him. He waited until the sister could no longer find an excuse for fidgeting about the room and then moved his chair where it would have the open doorway in plain view.
"I hope, Senor Blade," he began in a voice the beautiful undertone of which remained like music in Blade's memory, "that you are in good care, and comfortable?"
"Very, thank you," said Blade with a slightly reluctant gratitude. Yesterday my money and baggage reached me from Cuenca - have I to thank you, Don Pascual for this courtesy?"
"Your thanks are due entirely to our mutual friend, Stephen Inglesant, to whom you most certainly owe your life, Senor Blade. I have here," and he drew a note from an inner pocket, "a message from him to you. You have been so much in his mind and heart since you arrived in Ecuador. And now he hopes, I imagine, that you will be reassured for him and return to your home with all dispatch possible. Will you please read the letter so that I can convey your reply to him?"
"I should prefer to read it later," said Blade with an unaccountable surge of surly defiance towards his visitor.
"Very well," returned the other rising. "In that case I will make my farewells."
"Shall I send my reply to him in your care?" interposed Blade quickly.
"No, for I leave Ecuador immediately, Senor. Good afternoon - "
"Wait!" exclaimed Blade in sudden capitulation. "Please sit down Sir, and forgive my childishness. A man who has put himself as thoroughly in the wrong as I have is pretty apt to act like a kid, or a particularly pestiferous army mule. You must just please pardon a sick man, Don Pascual. If you will wait a few moments I will read the letter, and be glad to have you take my reply."
So Don Pascual sat down in entirely friendly willingness and Blake broke the seal of the letter, which bore no date, and read:
Dear Old Man:
This is to tell you that I am well and happy, and that I will probably return to New York by next spring - June at the latest, I hope. Sorry you have been through so much, but my friends did the best they could for you, and in return I am asking you to do a few things for me.
1. That you will return this letter to its bearer when you have read and digested it.
2. That you will NEVER communicate to anyone in any fashion anything that has happened to you on this trip in Ecuador. And never tell anyone that you have heard from me.
3. That you will return at once without holding any personal communication with anyone so far met in Ecuador, and that you will on no account return here until after you see me again in New York.
Now understand, Blade, that, although I could do so, no compulsion of any kind is being put upon you. Your money and baggage have been returned and every facility will be given you to follow your own sweet will. It is all up to you. Personally, however, I am asking you as a friend to agree to all these things - but you must suit yourself in the matter.
Hoping for a good crack together before the roses have a chance to bloom again, I remain,
Yours as always,
Blade read through this letter several times. Then he glanced at Don Pascual who was studying with evident disgust a curious old print of the infernal regions which hung over Blade's cot.
"May I ask, Senor, if you know what is in this letter?"
"No," was his guest's reply, "I know nothing about it, but of course I can guess easily enough."
"Read it, please, sir," he requested.
Don Pascual glanced through the letter then back inquiringly at Blade.
"I'd be a pretty low cuss if I didn't agree to all of it, wouldn't I now, Don Pascual?"
The Spaniard's answer was a smile that Blade could only describe to himself by the word 'luminous'. Then he replaced the letter in his pocket. "And, now," he genially addressed Blade, "is there anything of real help that I can do for you?"
"Yes, there is indeed, if you can manage it," Blade responded gratefully. "I have been wondering in the last day or two about the ten Indians who were my guides - what became of them. Also I have wondered about an old man in Cuenca named Reinaldo. I owe all these people money, providing the guides came through all right, or their relatives if they didn't. That was my agreement. Do you think these people could be found?"
"Very probably, Senor Blade, if you care to leave the matter in my hands. Reinaldo is a well-known character in Cuenca, and easily found, and through him the others can be reached."
"But don't give that bird the money for the others!" exclaimed Blade. "He may be straight enough, but I'd hate to trust him. And I want those fellows to have the money. They earned. it."
"Yes, they surely did their bit, as you Americans express it," laughed Don Pascual. "How much money do you owe these people?"
They went into Blade's accounts, Don Pascual writing down in his notebook the various items to be paid.
"Hmm! This experience has been an expensive one for you, I'm afraid, Senor," and Blade saw that his visitor's sympathy was actually genuine rather than humorous.
"Serves me right," he growled. "But every gambler has his bad breaks, sir, and I'm a good loser. At that, I guess I've been lucky."
"Well," Don Pascual now told him, "if you will leave this money on deposit in the bank at Guayaquil with full instructions covering your wishes I will see that all is carried out as you desire. The bank will let you know the results. I will simply direct that these people be found and that they present themselves for payment. And if within six months, or whatever time you specify, they do not do so the money will be returned to you. Will that be satisfactory?"
"Sure! That will be swell, Don Pascual - and I thank you most sincerely. I sure have been treated like a white man."
"And now what reply shall I have conveyed to our mutual friend, Stephen?" asked Don Pascual.
"Just tell him everything is O.K. with me - he'll know what I mean; and say that I'll show my appreciation of what has been done for me by carrying out his wishes to the letter. I hope you get me, Don Pascual?"
"I most certainly get you, my dear fellow, and will have your message sent with its identic and admirable flavor," said Don Pascual as he rose.
"And may I ask you just one question, Don Pascual?"
The other smiled. "Surely you may ask, but I do not promise to answer. What is your desire?"
Blade explained his strange failure to locate the crevice where Inglesant had disappeared although Blade was certain that it must be there, and he asked why it was that he had been unable to find it.
"There certainly was some hocus pocus worked on me there - could you explain it to me, Don Pascual?"
"Yes, I think we may say that a certain amount of what you call hocus pocus does linger at that spot. An ancient legend says that a spell of some kind - or a veil of what Oriental philosophy calls Akasa and modem psychic research might mistakenly call ectoplasm has been woven across that crevasse. And this it is perhaps which holds the crevasse undiscoverable to all who seek it with a wrong motive, although of course this legend may be true, or it may not. Certainly that locality has protectors of a more malignant character than mere invisibility, as you know yourself, Senor Blade. And now I must really bid you farewell."
"Shan't I see you again, Sir?" asked Blade with, for him, a truly pathetic wistfulness.
"Who knows, Senor?" was Don Pascual's gravely smiling response. "I go to Guayaquil at once, and leave Ecuador as soon as possible, as I told you. But the future may hold another meeting for us, for it is as they say a small world, and growing everyday smaller - not? I wish you bon voyage, my friend, and may I not say also au revoir? We may indeed meet again sometime - who can tell?"
It was the following April at the opening of a new night club, The Harlequin, advertised with a sufficient flavor of truth, as the most sumptuous, original, and exclusive in New York that Blade saw Julian and Dariel. The night was warm and lovely. Blade was sitting with two newspaper cronies near one of the long windows which opened upon a formal garden whose clipped trees, sparkling with colored lights like huge bouquets of jewels, sheltered the tables set thickly beneath.
Within the great, six-sided, fantastically decorated room there was the hectic insistence of jazz mixed with the multiple odor of complicated foods, expensive liqueurs, perfumes and tobacco. Back-chat and laughter filled out the intervals of orchestral hysteria, and Blade, who loved above everything any typical metropolitan scene, was enjoying himself intensely in his queer saturnine fashion.
It was after one o'clock when at the reserved table next to theirs a party of four arrived. Blade, who knew at least by sight everyone he ought to know, recognised at once Mrs. Vaughan with Julian and Dariel, accompanied by the latest British celebrity who was en route to the Orient via New York.
"Ain't it the queer old world!" Blade reflected as he eyed the party with speculative attention. "Here am I with this letter from Reinaldo burning a hole in my tuxedo and right then in walks the identical socialite who could help me out if he had the sense to take a hint, which I suppose is too much to expect."
He drew the letter from his pocket and read for about the fifty-seventh time the fantastic address on the dirty envelope:
Al Escritor Corresponsal,
de la ciudad Nueva York,
"Can the sealed instructions, No. 999-X," nicked in the chum at his elbow. "No C.I.D. work needed here. I can positively identify the British bloke at the next table as the actual brother of the Duke of Beanberries - I met him myself at Ascot in the royal box last June."
Blade serenely ignored this pleasantry, whereupon his other companion remarked: "Who knows, though, Jock me boy, but what this Englishman may be secretly headed for some mysterious region of South America where he'll be skinned of his last dollar? Stap me vitals! but it hurts me even to think of it!" and he gazed raptly into his just replenished highball.
Opportunely for Blade's peace of mind Julian rose at this moment, and Blade heard him say to the English guest:
"I'll send the telegram at once, then." So Blade too rose and hastily followed him from the room. He waited about until the telegram was despatched and then went up to Julian and handed him Reinaldo's letter with the remark:
"Just so there won't be anything anonymous about this transaction I'm handing this to you myself," and turning like a flash he hustled his hat and overcoat from the attendant and bolted from the restaurant.
Julian gazed in some bewilderment after the vanishing figure. Then he scanned the envelope, at a complete loss to account for its significance to himself. But when he drew out the letter and glanced through it he sat down suddenly in a chair standing near and read with a horrible intent clarity the effusion in Reinaldo's flighty Castilian:
To the Senor, etc.,
You who are born with the sharp vision of the trackers of men will easily perceive how it was that at long last I discovered your name and also in which of the great haunts of men you pursue your illustrious calling.
Before everything would I send you on the wings of gratitude my acknowledgment of moneys delivered to me by the bank at Guayaquil. It is that you did not forget your pledged word that lays it now as a duty upon my immortal soul to lay before you what has been told to me in regard to him who was taken to the City of the Secret People. What of him you followed? If Boabdil speaks truth he and two of his men in searching for you after your disappearance came upon a tiny pocket in the heights, through which they could look down as it were through a narrow tunnel into a certain cave-dungeon of what they believe with good reason to be the City of the Secret People. Here, loaded with chains, they say that they saw a Yanqui - a big man with dark eyes and yellow hair, who paced and paced, and then gazed upward suddenly with terrible eyes at his watchers to whom he raised manacled hands which he wrung beseechingly. He did not speak - not even a whisper! What if his tongue had been but too well silenced!
Boabdil and his companions made gestures of promise and encouragement to him as well as their position allowed - silently also, not daring to raise their voices lest they be discovered and a like fate overtake them. They hastened immediately away and back to Cuenca. They made the journey as swiftly as they could, which was not very swift - as you remember Senor they had almost no provisions. Their sufferings were great, they and their animals. But at last some of them reached me. When I had heard Boabdil's story I set about finding a way to reach the Senor. At the bank at Guayaquil I could learn nothing, and I feared for myself lest I be implicated in the almost certain fate of your friend.
Can it be possible the Senior will not return -
Julian read no more. He sprang from the chair and stood for a moment blindly tormented by his thoughts. Then he pulled himself together and thrust the letter into an inner pocket of his dinner coat. It would never do to let Dariel guess his state of mind. After a moment be was able to compose his features, when he strolled back to the table and sat down with a nod to his guest to show that the telegram had been sent.
The next morning after breakfast, a meal at which Mrs. Vaughan seldom appeared, Dariel said to him: "Julian, I had a terrible dream last night about Stephen Inglesant - "
He jumped as if she had struck him.
"I'm worried about him, Julian. You may think me silly"
"What was the dream?" he asked as carelessly as he could.
"Oh, vague - but frightful! I felt him to be menaced by something that seemed to be approaching him stealthily but surely - Oh!" and she shuddered convincingly - "something like a great cloudy devil-fish - it was awful!"
Julian got up hastily. "You're a goose, Dariel! Why do you let a mere nightmare upset you? It's all bosh! Want to come up to New York with me? I've business, and you could invite me later to lunch at the Colony Club."
"No, it would be nice, but I can't. I've arranged to take a bunch of crippled children from the hospital for an auto-drive into the country. I can't disappoint them, they have so little, poor dears."
Julian was relieved. "All right, then. See you at dinner. So long!" Although his glance at the man who had handed him the letter was of the briefest, Julian felt sure it was Blade. And it did not take him long to discover where Blade worked or to find himself entering the premisses of the Daily Inquirer where Blade himself soon came forward to meet him. They exchanged the briefest of greetings.
"Come in here to the 'Morgue,' it's empty for the moment," said Blade; and they stepped into the little room where press photographs were filed. "Sit down, please, and spill," was Blade's invitation.
Julian drew out Reinaldo's letter. "What do you make of this, Mr. Blade? You must take some stock in it or you wouldn't have given it to me."
"Not necessarily, Mr. Vaughan - just passing the buck, really," drawled Blade. "There are several reasons why it sounds like hooey to me, the chief one being this bird Reinaldo. He naturally regards me as a paying investment and has concocted this yarn I feel pretty sure to coax me back into liquidation. Besides, the letter is full of absurdities and contradictions, though of course that might be the very reason why it's true. But then again I have what seems to me excellent reasons for believing - though I must admit I don't actually know on the evidence of my senses - that it's a lie. Nevertheless - well, you probably can guess my state of mind - "
"Exactly! I'm suffering from the same thing myself."
Blade rose. "Sorry, Mr. Vaughan, but I can't be a particle of help to you. For reasons which I can't explain I'm unable to move in this matter. However, if you decide to run down to South America - "
"If I paid your expenses and also for your time, would you be willing to come with me?" interposed Vaughan eagerly.
"Nothing doing, Mr. Vaughan. Me and South America have parted company for this incarnation, as you might say. And now I really must run."
Julian stood on Broadway letting the full tide of spring morning activity flow past him without seeing it. Finally he made up his mind, called a taxi, and drove to the offices of the Panama Airways where he engaged a passage to Guayaquil by the first plane out the next day. That night at dinner he remarked casually: "Mr. Mottram has been after me for some time to make another trip to Lima for the firm. I think I'll go - I may run into Inglesant down there. What do you say, Dariel?"
'Mottram and Blair, Inc.' was the big manufacturing company in which a part of Dariel's and Julian's money was invested, and sometimes Julian was entrusted with confidential business commissions by them. Although not yet thirty his good sense, discretion, and diplomacy made him an ideal commercial liaison agent.
"O Julian!" sighed Dariel. "What a comfort that would be!"
Mrs. Vaughan flashed a look at her but only commented with a flick of good-natured sarcasm: "I suppose the social functions of the Old Ladies Joyride Association would prevent your going too?"
"That's a brilliant idea, Dariel - why not come?" urged Julian.
An expression of characteristic reserve clouded Dariel's eyes. Observing it Mrs. Vaughan gave a resigned shrug. But Julian, who understood the reason for her unwillingness, reluctantly conceded: "Well, I suppose it doesn't commend itself - "
"But bring me a surprise, anyway, Julian," was her lame attempt to make amends. "Something really unusual. There must be all sorts of strange left-overs in that ancient land. Now remember - no mere trinkets or Spanish gew-gaws, but something as antique as you can dig up. Promise?"
From Guayaquil up to Cuenca was not much of a trip and Julian found himself three days later in the narrow picturesque streets of the little mountain city. Nor was it difficult for him to decide as to Reinaldo's truthfulness once be had located and interviewed him. He found the old fellow easily enough, for Reinaldo was living now on the edge of respectability. His little adobe shelter was almost clean and his garments were intact if not exactly tidy, when Julian unpleasantly surprised him with a call.
Reinaldo's greeting was ceremoniously insincere. Julian brushed it aside by abruptly producing his own letter to Blade and then replacing it securely in an inner pocket.
"If what you say in this letter is true, Senor Reinaldo" Julian demanded, "why did you not report the matter at once to your government?"
Reinaldo countered with horrified protest. "Impossible, Senor! It would have put me in a very dangerous position, as having such information."
"But it will not be dangerous for me to have it in my possession, I can assure you. In a day or two I shall be in Quito where I shall lay your letter at once before the authorities."
Reinaldo turned pale and squirmed visibly. Julian waited.
"Do not do that, Senor, I implore you," he presently quavered. "It would ruin me. If the Senor will but give me back my letter I will tell him all I know."
After Reinaldo had told his tale and submitted to a rigid and prolonged cross-examination, Julian felt he had learned nothing actually decisive. It seemed to him fairly certain, however, that Inglesant had gone away quite voluntarily with the party of Indians Blade had seen him with. Blade's motive in following Inglesant had been perfectly clear to Reinaldo and was easily read by Julian himself. But he also realized that Blade could have given no credence to Reinaldo's story of Inglesant's having been enticed away. Blade knew Inglesant well. What Julian had deduced from Inglesant's character and experience would have been even clearer to Blade, who must be well acquainted with his friend's ability to provide for and protect himself. Thus all the facts that Julian could piece together from Reinaldo's and later from Boabdil's accounts served finally to convince him of Inglesant's safety. And later, to clinch the matter, when Julian had found and questioned Boabdil as to the tale in Reinaldo's letter he had given a bewildered and patently sincere denial.
The conclusion in Julian's mind was that Inglesant was perfectly well off with some tribe of friendly Indians in the Andes. And he felt sure he must be engaged upon some undertaking which he would deeply resent having his friends interfere with. Therefore he decided to abandon further inquiry as to Inglesant's whereabouts. And after telegraphing this happy result to Dariel he returned to Guayaquil and took the first plane for Lima.
Here he established himself in the Hotel Maury, only to learn that the man he had come to see on an important matter was away and would not be in Lima for at least a week. To pass the time Julian decided to make the trip to Cuzco which he had never found possible on other trips to Lima. This would also enable him to avoid his acquaintances in the gay and sociable city. He was in no mood for that kind of diversion.
He found upon inquiry that a trip to Cuzco, including a visit to the interesting pre-Inca ruins of Macchu Picchu, would consume at least a week, as it involved two train-journeys on the inefficient local railways, with waits in between. This he decided, would fill in his time very agreeably, so the next morning he departed by train.
It was on his last day in Cuzco that he discovered a gift for Dariel. He asked his guide to the ruins and sights of the neighborhood, a cheery young mestizo named Pedrillo, if he knew of any unusual antique which was a genuine souvenir of the Incas. Pedrillo considered for a moment.
"No, Senor, at the moment I do not recall anything like that, but I will inquire."
The next day as they were returning to the city from a trip on horseback among the mountains Pedrillo said: "Senor, I have heard that there is a very old Indian hermit - real Indian of the ancient race, who lives in the neighborhood of Macchu Picchu. He is said to have something odd in his possession. Just what it is I do not know. But as we are making your trip up there tomorrow we can perhaps find the old man. Then you can see if he has what you desire."
Macchu Picchu proved of enormous interest to Julian - a spot of magnificently mournful and impressive antiquity. The climb up the precipitous ascent to the ruined temples and palaces hidden away on their 2000 foot height from curious or predatory neighbors, was destined to take a unique place in his memories. The building, as massively constructed as if by giants, as delicately articulated, stone to gigantic stone, as if by the hands of genii, presented again their ever unanswerable problem to the modern engineering, clumsy in comparison with that vanished magic.
It was in the vicinity of these ruins, overtopped by the jagged peak of the lone crag behind, that they expected to find the cave of the old Indian hermit known in the locality as 'Tio Altro.' That this was not a term of affection was evident by the glances of frightened aversion that his name seemed to evoke from all who gave them directions as to the old man's whereabouts. Finally a friend of Pedrillo's consented to go with them and locate the spot after Julian had promised a good fee.
Following Pedrillo's friend they finally passed around behind the foot of the great crag to a tiny gorge in its northern side. Here tucked away at the end of this little pocket there was a cave with a curtain of flowering vines over the entrance. Pedrillo's companion gave a shrill nervous hail, and when the sound had been several times repeated there shambled out into the sunlight a shaggy wisp of something that hardly seemed humanity. It peered up with incurious wary eyes, but said nothing.
Julian noticed that when the ancient appeared, the two Indians stepped back hastily and crossed themselves, but not without ostentation.
"Buenos dias, Tio Altro," began Pedrillo's friend with assumed heartiness, "here is la buena fortuna herself calling to you in my poor voice, for this Yanqui Senor has come immensely far across the world to look at your ancient stone, perhaps even to purchase it, if you are not too greedy."
For a moment it seemed as if this bit of human wreckage had not heard them. Then surprisingly he seemed to come alive. His eyes darted to Julian and he fixed a strange, suddenly vivid glance upon his face. The others watched him curiously and for a moment it seemed as if a spell had struck the group into paralysis. Finally the old man nodded with decision and mumbling something between toothless gums turned back into the cave. He returned in a moment holding in his hand a small box of dark metal elaborately carved. This he handed to Julian with some words in the local patois which Julian could not understand, so he glanced at his guides.
"He says, Senor, that this is immensely old."
Julian turned the box over, noting that the metal had a curious blue iridescence like clouded steel.
"Abre! Abre!" piped the ancient in tremulous senile impatience. Julian forced open the snug lid and drew out what at first looked like an enormous emerald. At the sight of it the two Indians drew still further away and crossed themselves openly and with exaggerated emphasis. Looking more closely at the stone Julian saw that it was probably not an emerald as it showed no evidence of crystallization. It was flat and thick, and about an inch and a quarter square. It had an extra ordinary vitality of feel and color. As he held it the stone seemed to give off an electric current of warmth and vitality to his hand.
The carving or entaglio was almost obliterated, yet from the half effaced lines a face looked out at him - what a face! He was gazing at it with fascinated horror when Pedrillo suddenly touched his elbow. "We must not spend more time here, Senor. We have to make our train back to Cuzco."
"How much for this?" asked Julian of the ancient man. And then to Pedrillo: "If I give him money isn't he likely to be robbed?"
The two Indians exchanged a glance of shuddering comprehension. "No one would dare to rob Tio Altro, Senor. Something very terrible protects him, everyone knows. No, it is safe to leave money with Tio Altro - safer than the bank itself at Lima."
"Very well, then. How will fifty dollars do?" and Julian drew out that amount in gold libras. The shaky bit of human antiquity gazed steadily at the ten gold pieces which he passively accepted and then up at Julian with a deep cunning look which Julian was glad to interpret as a belief that he had over-reached the purchaser. For Julian suspected that he was acquiring something that might prove of unique value. Five minutes completed the transaction and Julian made his train to the minute. Back in Lima he found that his business friend had returned unexpectedly, and he was able to leave Lima for New York within two days.
He assured himself upon careful examination that the stone was most certainly not an emerald, but what its composition could be he could form no idea. Into the green surface had been incised the head and chest of a singular being. Julian could only call it a 'being' for it was too strange to be called a man, and yet somehow too strangely human to be merely a pictograph of Inca symbolism. The face was abnormally narrow and oblong, and although all the features but the deep-sunken eyes and flaring nostrils had been worn away there was still a look of specific power and intelligence about it that gave to the eyes a startling sinister life.
Turning it over he saw the faint outlines of a geometrical design engraved on the back, a circle within a square and at the center of this an ansated cross was still perfectly distinct. The head was crowned with what looked like a circlet of flames.
"You certainly are a royal-looking gazabo - perhaps I'm looking at an intaglio of old Manco Capac himself. Dariel will be delighted with you, old man - you'll be the most important jewel in her collection."
And Julian was not disappointed in Dariel's reception of his curious gift. From the first moment it appeared to fascinate her. When he gave her the box they were alone together after dinner in Dariel's sitting room beside the fire, Mrs. Vaughan having gone to a huge entertainment for charity in New York.
"But Julian, how simply extraordinary!" she cried when she had opened the box and was gazing for a moment at the stone as it lay like a square of phosphorescence on her palm. "How strange it feels! And do you see that curious face? What an immensely old look it has! It is certainly hideous, but it is frightfully majestic and powerful too. The eyes simply command you - don't you feel it?"
"Yes, I thought it a remarkable piece of work, perhaps a cartouche of some monarch - might be archaic..."
"That's it, you've hit it exactly! it's the personal seal of some king of pre-history who governed a race and a civilization far greater than any of our puny historical period. It must be ages old - I can sense its immemorial, mysterious life..."
Her voice trailed off and to Julian it seemed to hold a queer undertone that he did not like.
"Don't get too thrilled over it, Dariel. That stone may have hypnotic properties. I've heard of such jewels - "
"Who's being silly now!" she ridiculed him. "Look, Julian! see those two holes in the circlet of flames around the head? I know what I'll do - wait here a minute till I try something," and she sprang up and flitted from the room.
When she returned she had run an antique silver chain strung with tiny emeralds through the two holes in the circlet and the stone now lay against her bosom where the firelight touched it to lambent green.
"It's almost too striking to wear, Dariel," objected Julian.
"Nothing is too striking for a simply marvelous young person like me, Julian. I mean to live up to this regal personage. I believe the stone is a talisman. I feel already as if I were looking into another world. It's this world still of course, but different - deeper somehow, more vivid and exciting."
"Let's show the jewel to someone - some expert, one of the men at the Metropolitan Museum, and find out."
"No!" flashed Dariel, and she stamped her foot. "I don't want any expert guesswork. I only want my own ideas about this wonderful thing," and she laid her palm warmly over the green flame at her breast.
It delighted Julian that she seemed to have completely forgotten her anxiety about Inglesant. So while he wondered a little at the excitement which appeared to have taken possession of her, he encouraged her interest.
The next morning as he was shaving there suddenly appeared beside him, like an enraged hornet, Sanna, the old colored nurse who had been in the family since before the Civil War. She had been a slave, pedigreed as of royal descent, and certainly the power and dignity of her character had borne out the truth of the slave-dealer's claim. Her exact age was unknown but that she was close to ninety years there could be little doubt. Naturally, the small wizened creature of faded chocolate black, was a privileged character. The serene and self-confident efficiency with which she still insisted upon maiding her young mistress made her present hysteria all the more unaccountable.
Julian stared at old Sanna in amazement rendered comical by an astonished blob of lather at the end of his nose.
"How dare you gib dat horribjious debil-face to ma snow-Chile?" she furiously demanded, using the pet name that she still loved from Dariel's childhood. And then subsiding into threatening solemnity, she went on: "Ain't you-all got no sense in yo' haid? Git dat mumbo-jumbo right away from yo' sistah, and th'ow it straight in de middle ob de Sound. Ef yo' don' do dat - O Marse Julian, what was you a-thinkin' of! You ma'k mah words - you sure am goin' to rue dis yere day! We-all goin' be sorry mah snow-chile ebber been bon'." And she burst suddenly into terrible, racking sobs.
Julian gazed at her in paralysis, completely at a loss to explain or to deal with her state of mind. The very fact that her horror struck a secret sympathetic chord deep down in his own consciousness increased his impotence. But man-like, the presence of this involuntary superstition in himself roused him to protest.
"Come, now, Sanna. I'm surprised at you. You're acting more like a Voodoo mammy than a descendant of kings."
Sanna sniffed in disgust as she pulled herself together. "Voodoo? Dat stuff! It's bad 'nuff, de good Lawd knows. But 'tain't nuthin' a'tall to what you-all has brung into dis yere house and hung roun' de white throat of mah snow-chile."
"Now look here, Sanna," interrupted Julian soothingly, aware that her excitement must be dealt with, "you must just leave this to me. If I see any damage being done to Dariel I'll be the first to act, I promise you - "
"Niffin' yo' don', Marse Julian, Ah ain' nebber goin' forgib yo'. No, not-in dis worl' nor de nex'," she ended grimly as Julian turned determinedly back to lathering his chin.
At breakfast Dariel was in high spirits, and watched with some amusement Mrs. Vaughan's rather disillusioned outlook upon the rich variety of nourishment that confronted her. She had the air of a daring child as she remarked casually to her step-mother: "I believe that I'll give a house-party next week on my very own!"
"A house-party!" ejaculated Mrs. Vaughan. And added with a flick of malice: "East side tabbies or introverts from Greenwich village, which?"
"No, old dear, something far otherwise. I am going to cultivate some of these racketeers. Do you remember what Lord Ingraham told us about
these people that night at the Harlequin? It simply thrilled me!" Without noticing the gasps of her breakfast companions she rattled on: "Of course, you know, these people don't interest me in themselves, only their type, or perhaps their psychology. I have a strange feeling about them. Do you believe in souls that have taken the wrong turning, as it were towards the light that failed? Oh, I can't explain - I don't know just what I mean! But it seems to me there's some material there that I could shape towards some extraordinary end - "
Mrs. Vaughan's groan was genuine melodrama. "Their psychology will interest you a good deal less after you've been held to ransom for a few weeks, and paid a couple of million for the privilege of rejoining your family - "
Julian, who had observed an undertone of settled purpose beneath Dariel's light remark, now broke in. "Are you crazy, Dariel? What's come over you?"
She laughed, long and gleefully. "I see I've managed to get you both wide awake anyway. The fact is that I want some fun - oh, not what's called fun - jazz and cocktail crushes where the jaded lot are just playing at being alive. That would bore me to death. I want something real - "
"Well!" dashed in Mrs. Vaughan determinedly, "if that's what you are after I can offer something better than the sordid realities of racketeering - something truly exciting and also novel. Have you heard of Lazlo Sereki?"
"No," said Dariel. "What a dizzy name! Who is he?"
"He's the latest international firebrand, and a really unusual man. How he got past Ellis Island I can't imagine, but he did. I met him last night at the Harlequin. And believe me he's not only brilliant and daring intellectually, but he has a curious and fascinating quality of dangerousness. I doubt if he is quite aware of it himself. I'll give a party for him out here so you can look him over. Perhaps you can get a kick out of discovering just what lies behind my feeling about him. Of course he may turn out to be just another dud, but there's no harm in finding out. What do you say?"
"It sounds definitely attractive. Get busy, Theo, and have the party at once."
"If it wasn't native charity," scoffed Julian, "I'd say you two were composing a silly symphony. I never heard such drivel in my life."
Dariel gave him a cool, wounding look. "I'm afraid that to our Long Island Simple Simon the latest news about a good many things may sound ridiculous," she threw at him as she rose from the table. "By the way, Theo mia, will you come with me today on a shopping spree? For I am intending to step out - something like this," and she flung herself into a wild rhythmic caracole around the long room. "I mean to lead a life henceforward of really reck-a-less splendor. New York has long needed its Lucrezia Borgia, and I intend to be exactly that."
Without waiting for an answer she swung to the door, stabbing Julian as she passed through with a look enigmatic, utterly unlike his sister. It seemed to tell him that this was not play-acting but something else, something - Sanna's frantic warning dashed suddenly in his memory.
"But that's preposterous -insane!" he groaned, as Theo left the room. I don't intend to let that crazy voodoo psychology get hold of me. Dariel's been more unhappy over Inglesant's queer departure and her failure to hear from him than I imagined, that's all. And all this nonsense is just a girl's wild reaction to that unhappiness. She means to forget him, and takes this violent way of drowning inconvenient feelings."
This sounded so plausible that it satisfied him temporarily. For the next few weeks he watched the strange but undeniable changes in Dariel without much uneasiness. They were, he felt, but temperamental and temporary. Lazlo Sereki was taken up and proved about as lasting as a new mechanical toy in the hands of a precocious child. What seemed especially strange to Julian was the peculiar vein of sophistication which Dariel now showed. She had chosen to live always such an unmodern and almost secluded life that he was amazed at the sudden shrewd discrimination which showed in her selection of amusements and companionships. She became a voracious but extremely selective tester of experience and people. But she had showed so far not the slightest interest in any particular person. The Hungarian agitator's fall was hastened by the infatuation for her which he almost immediately developed. Dariel's new interest in people was strictly analytical and calculating - there was no sex, not even sentiment in it. It rested entirely on the power of her associates to contribute an original point of view, and not at all upon personal charm.
And then came Solovieff! But even before the advent of the horrid little man Julian had begun to give in to Sanna's point of view. He had to admit that at any rate some alarming degenerative process was at work in Dariel. She had become crazily extravagant, throwing money about in senseless abandon and showing traits of greed and vindictiveness grotesquely foreign to her nature.
And the alteration seemed to be external as well. The charming touch of Ariel that had always characterized his sister's personality gave place to a certain heavy power - something resembling a gross flexibility was the only way Julian could describe it to himself. And the contrast was sometimes almost more than he could bear.
But Solovieff was the last straw. He was a grotesque little Russian charlatan, half medieval alchemist, half spiritistic medium with enough real scientific training thrown in to make him useful to Dariel in the series of experiments which she now entered into shut up with him in her laboratory.
Julian decided that it was time at last to get hold of the jewel and destroy it. But this would, he saw, be very difficult. Dariel let no one touch it, and so after consulting with a friend, a clever young specialist on nervous diseases - a man full of new ideas in many directions - he sought out Sanna. It was one of the frequent evenings when Dariel was off with Solovieff.
He found Sanna sitting on the floor in Dariel's bedroom in a patch of white moonlight. Julian switched on the light.
"Sanna!" he exclaimed, "you must get that ornament away from Dariel at once, and then I'll take your advice and throw it in the ocean." Sanna looked up at him with sad and bitter eyes. "'Taint no use mah tryin', Marse Julian. Yo' should've got it when Ah done toll yo' in the beginnin'. That debil-face! He's got her now for sure. O, my snow-chile! Oh my beautiful white snow-chile! - " and she rocked distractedly in the moonlight.
"Now Sanna, stop carrying on like that! It won't get us anywhere. You get me that jewel and I'll attend to the rest!"
"He ain't nebber goin' let her part wid dat jewel, Marse Julian. Ain't Ah tried my best to git it away f'om her? But she wears it night and day. Once in de night, didn't Ah try to steal it? But now dey's always a night lamp beside her bed. She waked right up and my Gawd! - if you could've seed dat deep, wicked, awful look it gave me! And the way it wrenched at my arm. It didn't need to say nothin'. Ah understood. And Ah ain't nebber done touched dat dar wicked Mumbo-jumbo no more."
"Well, I'll tell you, Sanna. Can't you get her to take a sleeping powder? I've a special one put up for me by a doctor - "
"Not me, Marse Julian. Dat debil-face mighty suspicious of Sanna. Best person to do hit is Mis' Vaughan. He likely not think she 'mount to much - too flighty and flibberty-jib, Am thinkin'."
So then Julian consulted Theo, whom he found to be quite as panicky but less resourceful than himself. However, between them they evolved a stratagem which, though doubtful, might possibly succeed. The result was that when Dariel returned about two o'clock that morning she found a note on the table beside her bed.
"I waited up for you, but you were too late! There was such an interesting man here you must meet later, if he stays in N.Y., De Vorhees, an archaeologist. He brought letters to me from Georges Faure and we had a long and delightful talk. He also brought me a present of a bottle of old Greek wine from Rome. He and I and Julian drank most of it. We found it very curious, having a peculiar flavor and even more curious psychological results. But we won't tell you how it affected us until we can compare notes tomorrow. Too bad there was only this little left in the bottle which I am leaving beside your bed, as we rather wasted it in experimenting with it. Perhaps you might care go sample it, but if not save it carefully as I mean to show it to an expert in such things. If you do drink it lift the bottle carefully as too much motion affects it unfavorably. Goodnight, dearest girl.
Sanna was hidden where she could watch the result of the experiment and notify Julian at once of its results. She saw Dariel read the letter and then turn her deep cold regard, like light from splintered blue ice, upon the quaintly shaped glass bottle on the table beside her bed. It held about a small wine-glassful of a cloudy, jade-green wine. She gazed speculatively at it for a few moments and Sanna hugged herself in nervous tension. Would she drink it?
Dariel yawned a little, and then after glancing through the letter again a bit contemptuously she lifted the bottle and gazed narrowly at the liquor. Then she carefully poured it into a silver cup and tasted it, savoring it, and finally she carelessly drank it all.
A sigh, noiseless as death, escaped from the watcher.
About an hour later Julian crept into the room. Dariel lay at her ease, breathing deeply. So he was able to sever the chain with his cutters and detach the jewel, though at one moment the figure on the bed stirred suddenly and lashed out with both arms. But Julian had the jewel tightly in his hand and now slipped out of the room without a backward glance.
He made for the short flight of stairs which connected Dariel's apartments with the main part of the mansion. Darting down these he tripped on a loose edge of the thick carpet and fell headlong. His right foot twisted sharply under him and the jewel, jumping from his hand, rolled away and vanished from sight.
Julian lay still for a moment, dizzy with pain. Finally he managed to turn over, expecting to find his ankle broken. To his relief, the injury was no worse than a sprain, though the pain was so excruciating that he felt sure a ligament must have been torn. Nevertheless he managed to get himself over to the corner where the jewel had rolled. Whatever else happened, he must make sure of that.
But search as he would - and every moment he had to pause and control himself to keep from fainting - he could not find the jewel. And at last he gave it up for the moment. He was near the library and managed to get to the electric bell which rang in Caesar's room. In less than ten minutes the old man appeared looking like a scared raven in his dark dressing-gown and big ebon-shining eyes.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, Marse Julyum - what's happened yo'?"
"Sprained my damned ankle," groaned Julian. I'm in a bad way, Caesar. But before I get to bed one thing has to be done, so don't ask any questions, but go and get the electric flashlight on my writing desk." Caesar obediently disappeared, and when he returned with the flashlight Julian, making a crutch of the old man's shoulder hobbled on one foot with him out to the corner where the jewel had disappeared. Between them they managed a thorough search for it but not a trace could they find.
Julian's ankle at last was in such a serious condition that he had to give up and go to bed. But he laid the most solemn commands upon Caesar to make, with Sanna's aid, a careful, but strictly secret search for the jewel until it was found and restored to him.
"And on no account, Caesar, is Miss Dariel to know anything about it, and the jewel must not be given to her, do you understand? If you can get Sanna here without disturbing anyone else she might help this beastly sprain."
The grimness of Caesar's acquiescence in these injunctions showed that the old negro understood something of what was in Julian's mind.
Sanna did what she could for the injury, but when Dr. Reilley came in the morning he declared the ligaments to be badly torn and the inflammation serious. He ordered complete immobility with drastic treatment for the inflammation and declared that once that had subsided a plaster cast must be applied.
"I wouldn't have to use the cast for some people," he told Julian, "but I can't trust you. So I'll just put you out of commission for a couple of weeks," brushing aside Julian's protests.
"What's eatin' you, young feller-me-lad?" jested the breezy Irishman. "You act like a lover whose young lady has just been kidnaped by racketeers."
Julian suppressed a groan of mental anguish. And after the doctor had gone he had a very bad half hour. But he was able finally to take comfort in the thought that for the present anyway, and for good when the cursed jewel was found, his sister would be free from its sinister influence.
And when Dariel visited him soon after breakfast he noted at once that she had already regained something of her own normal and serene femininity. He was further cheered to find from her bright eyes and alert gay chatter that the sedative had left no nervous-reaction.
"What happened to give you such an accident, Julian? Dr. Reilley says that from what you tell him he can't account for the extent or severity of the inflammation. He thinks," and she laughed with her own natural mischief, "that you must have been brilliantly lit up, as he called it."
"Well, perhaps I was, Dariel" and he was glad of the escape thus offered him. "You remember that wine - or didn't you sample it?" As he watched her covertly while speaking he received a really horrid shock. For she had no recollection of having taken the wine!
She merely glanced at him in mild surprise and remarked: "What wine? After all, you must have been walking in your sleep, and dreamed you were intoxicated - is that it? So perhaps Dr. Reilley was right," she teased as she turned to speak to the parlor maid, Rosa, a smart mulatto girl, who appeared in the doorway.
"What is it, Rosa? Come in."
Rosa came forward and on her outstretched palm Julian saw the wicked green fire of the jewel! "It's this yere jool, Miss Dariel. I found it just now when I was cleanin' the hall."
"Oh, thank you, Rosa! I wondered where it was this morning. I found the chain broken and the jewel gone when I got up this morning. Julian. Wasn't that odd?"
"I think you'd better put it away in your cabinet, Dariel. It isn't really safe to wear it - you might lose it at any time. But let me keep it this morning and make a drawing of it - it will give me something to do."
It delighted him to find her giving it to him willingly; and then she sought out his board and drawing materials from the study beyond before she went away to keep her engagements for the day.
He was busy drawing when the telephone at his elbow rang. He took up the receiver.
"Julian Vaughan," he said inattentively.
"Julian Vaughan himself - in person?"
"Yes, certainly," was his impatient return. "Who is this?"
"A radiogram marked strictly private, only for Julian Vaughan himself."
"This is Julian Vaughan himself," he came back alertly. "Shoot!"
And then the voice at the other end of the wire responded:
"Cuenca Ecuador. Julian Vaughan the Palassio Deerfield Long Island New York. Note that Jewel bought at Macchu Picchu dangerous perhaps fatal. Hide Jewel. But do not destroy it. Secrete it safely. Very important I see it. Returning New York shortly. Tell absolutely no one of my return. Love, Steve."
Julian made them repeat the wire so that he could write it down. His sense of relief upon getting the message was so overwhelming that tears stood in his eyes. He brushed them away unashamed as he conned the message over. But wonder as to Steve's knowledge of his purchase at Macchu Picchu was as nothing compared with the feeling of security that relaxed the nervous tension under which he had been living. Besides, the message assured him of what had remained like a floating speck in his subconsciousness - that Steve's sudden mission in South America was part of a destiny shared by them all. And he had a most sure confidence in the part, unguessable as yet, which Inglesant was set to play.
After a few minutes of deep thought he sent for Caesar, who came presently in a state of righteous disgust.
"Marse Julyum! - dat fool yaller girl Rosa - you know what she done did? I couldn't fin' dat ol Mumbo-jumbo nohow, an' - "
"Yes, never mind, Caesar. Here it is," and he drew the jewel from an inner pocket. At sight of it the darkie's grizzled hair prickled on his scalp like an old hound's at the scent of a wildcat.
"Now this must go into my safe in the corner -look there behind the cupboard, Caesar. Push the cupboard out - there it is. You'll have to open the door first though - confound this blamed ankle! Can you understand how to work a combination? - Here! I'll write it out for you."
"Yes, suh! Yes, suh! Don' yo' fret yo'self. I kin fix it plumb easy," and Caesar was as good as his word.
"Now," went on Julian, "put this cursed fetish, or whatever it is, into the bottom left hand drawer - that's it. Now lock the safe again - no dash it! -reverse the combination boy! There you are. And mind, Caesar! I'm trusting you mighty deep. No one but you and me knows what's in that safe or how to get it out again - not Miss Dariel nor Sanna, - but particularly not Miss Dariel. You understand?"
"Rest easy, Marse Julyum. Me an' you is de onliest critters what knows whar dat possum hid hisself, haw! haw! haw! Ain' dat so? And now, you all is jest goin' to ax me fo' yo' luncheon-tray, ah reckon," concluded Caesar, as with many fat chuckles and self-congratulatory nods he ambled from the room.
After luncheon Dr. Reilley appeared and after putting the ankle in a cast he ordered: "Now for three days - not even crutches. I've warned Boardman and Caesar - you're not to move out of that chair except at bedtime until I say so - you hear me?"
About tea-time Mrs. Vaughan breezed in to cheer him up.
"Well, old top - how's the wounded conspirator - all comfortable and okay? Good! Now," and she lowered her voice to a portentous pitch, "what about it? I take it our ruse succeeded? Dariel has kept me so on the go all day that I haven't had a chance to ask. But she was so much more like herself that I guessed it went through all right?"
"It was completely successful, Theo. And now I've got the blasted thing tucked away where she'll never see it again. You say she has been more like herself all day?"
"Well, this morning especially, she was quite the old Dariel for several hours. But this afternoon - u-m-m - at the concert she began to get terribly restless. I had to - Hush! Here she comes - "
Just then Dariel darted into the room.
"O, joy - tea!" she exclaimed. "I'm simply ravening for food. But let's not have the lights, this firelight is too spiffing. Hello, Julian! By
the way, did you get your drawing done? Let me see it - let's have the light after all," and she turned on two of the wall fixtures. "Let me see it, Julian," and she held out her hand with impatience.
"I didn't have any success with it," he said as he showed her his purposely incomplete sketch. "I guess I'm not up to much, so I just put the jewel away until tomorrow."
"Where is it?"
"I've got it put away safely," he returned, pretending abstractedly to study his sketch. But he could see the glassy, restless stare that she threw around the room, and his heart began to ache again. But patience! All this would now gradually pass away. Only courage and patience! Inglesant would soon be here.
Dariel fixed a piercing gaze on her brother's face. "But where is the jewel," she insisted, with a fluttering, nervous urgency painful to see. "I've got to know, Julian."
"I've locked it into my secret drawer - you remember, the one in my desk. But what's eatin' ya? - to quote your particular pet, Dr. Reilly," Julian came back at her with a poor attempt at banter.
"But I must keep the jewel myself," she shrilled. "I can't trust anyone else with it, do you hear?"
"You'll have to trust me with it tonight, old girl," he decided the matter. "Now don't you suppose you could stay home tonight and give me a little music? Boardman can run me into the study beside the piano and you could play me some Beethoven, and even Rachmaninoff if you want to. How about it?"
"A good idea," interposed Mrs. Vaughan. "You were complaining, you remember, Dariel, about having to go to Blanche's how-de-do for the Countess de Mirville - I'll go for you now and make your excuses. You two make your own arrangements - I've got to run."
"Well," hesitated Dariel. Then after appearing to cogitate deeply, a curious sly look passed across her face. "All right," she agreed briskly, "I'll stay."
"Why not have dinner here with me, then? I'd love that," he suggested.
The slyness vanished and she fixed him with that strange, cold, penetrating look he had come to dread so. It was like the bleak reflexion of moonlight on an iceberg.
Then she turned her eyes from his and remarked: "No - I can't - I've - no I think not. I'll come back later," and rising hastily she left him a prey to nervous gloom. He managed to shake this off however when Caesar arrived with two colored footmen loaded with trays which groaned beneath the elaborate dinner which was the work of Caesar's own hands.
They rolled Julian in his wheeled chair into his study and there, stimulated by Caesar's delight in serving him he succeeded in making a very creditable onslaught upon the feast which, if left to himself, he would have been unable to negotiate.
About nine o'clock, as he sat moping by the fire, Dariel returned. She had changed to a dress he admired yet disliked to see her wear. It was a daring combination of color - violet and vivid ruby - in the sheerest of chiffon velvets marvelously embroidered with heavy passion-flowers. The last time she had worn it this costume had set off perfectly the bold sparkle and the subtle grossness of fibre that she had recently developed. Now, it somehow looked like a garish rag in contrast with the delicate charm of the real Dariel. Yet though this fact at first rejoiced him there gradually appeared something unnatural and disquieting in her manner that checked complete satisfaction. He detected frequently as he sat listening to her music that curious sly glance fluttering to his face.
And then, unexpectedly, she softly called his name, and as he turned his eyes in surprise to hers she began to improvise - or what was it she was playing? - something with a peculiar dark rhythm beating through its barbaric melody - a soft, ghostly beat like the far-off tattoo of phantom drums. And as she played she held his eyes with hers - or was it really Dariel's eyes that held him, or the gaze from two malign deep-sunken orbs that smouldered in the air beside her?
Too late Julian knew his will to be caught like a writhing fly in the web woven of that insistent rhythm and the snare of the basilisk eyes.
How long the wicked spell lasted he never knew, only that he came to himself suddenly as Dariel was playing the last bars of his great favorite, the Consolation of Mendelssohn, and the clock on the mantel was chiming twelve.
Dariel arose from the piano then and yawned slightly.
"You ought to be in bed, Julian. Aren't you sleepy?"
She appeared impatient to be gone and Julian, who felt strangely spent and indifferent did not try to detain her.
"Send Boardman in, will you?" he requested as she was leaving.
But after Boardman had come and rolled him into the other room Caesar appeared.
"You-all kin go to bed now, if you likes, Bo'dman," said Caesar, " 'cause dey is sumpum I got to say to Marse Julyum, so I jes 'ten to him mase'f."
When Julian was ready for bed Caesar went and looked up and down the corridor, then locked the door and returned to Julian.
"I seen Miss Dariel a minute ago, Marse Julyum. She lookin' mighty queer - like one o' dey ancien' queens what has jes' thrown somebody to de crockerdiles. You mus' jes escuse me, Marse Julyum, but dat de onliest thing I kin think ob when Ah see her face, as she glidin' 'long to'ds her room. You got that thar misforunit jool all safe locked up, Ah suppose, has yo?"
Premonition cut like a knife through Julian's memory - could that be the meaning of the unaccountable lapse of consciousness which he had forgotten till this moment?
"Look in the safe, Caesar! My God! - the paper with the combination - there it is, lying right there on the floor! - we forgot to throw it in the fire. Open it - open the safe, quick!"
And when Caesar's quaking fingers had the door of the safe open at last and had pulled out the lower lefthand drawer - it was empty. And a search of the safe revealed no trace of the jewel. But Julian felt only too sure where it could be found.
Dariel appeared the next morning wearing the jewel. From that time on things with her seemed to go from bad to worse. What he called to himself now 'the real Dariel' - as if he were talking of a scientific case instead of a beloved sister - seemed to have given place almost entirely to a being who spent long hours in the laboratory. From here she emerged from time to time only to go off somewhere with Solovieff, bringing often from those expeditions strange looking men, and occasionally a woman - people of subnormal types, the cracked visionaries, cranks, and eccentrics who are the gypsy outposts on the borderline of normal humanity. That she had ceased to be the mere drifting, senselessly enjoying, extravagant Dariel and was for the first time up to something definite and purposeful Julian and Theo could plainly see.
"I feel," Mrs. Vaughan remarked one night as they lingered in Theo's sitting room discussing the situation, "as if I were being held over a bomb. And when it explodes it will let loose something new in the way of poison gas, believe me. Oh, Julian! What is it all about? Oh, what, what can we do?"
"Well," said Julian, thinking of Inglesant's telegram, "All we can do is to wait - for awhile now, I feel sure."
And so they left it.
Julian did not see Dariel for more than a fortnight, but when he did he sensed a brooding watchful quality toward himself and saw that she disguised it under an air of affectionate gaiety. And he felt himself in the position of a half awakened sleep walker upon the brink of an unseen but horribly realized abyss.
Nothing but the thought that Inglesant was coming home served to sustain Julian through the increasingly terrible changes in his sister. At first these had been largely in her character, and showed more in nervous fiber than in actually bodily alterations. But now he had seen that even here the invisible evil had begun to set its seal upon her.
Dariel for some unexplained reason had given up sea-bathing, and so Julian ended by going in often alone. One hot morning in August he arose just at sunrise and went down to a little strip of beach at the extreme end of the garden. As he approached this spot behind a light screen of bushes he suddenly saw Dariel standing, dripping wet, at the edge of the foaming combers. The surf here was high and its violence had washed her silk bathing-tunic from one shoulder. And suddenly he saw with sharp distinctness in the clear level sunlight a dark patch running up her white back from waist to shoulder, a horrible reddish black stain, like the skin of a piebald negro.
With an involuntary cry of horror he was by her side. She turned and looked at him as she snatched the tunic over her shoulder. And what a look! - dark, fierce and secret, it scorched into his brain. As they separated hastily, without a word, Julian was aware of something that stayed with him, a sense of menacing power, wise and wicked, and incredibly ancient.
And still no further word from Inglesant! But after that dreadful morning on the beach, things suddenly seemed to mend between him and his sister. It puzzled him why it should be so. And thinking it over, he concluded it might be that the dark creeping undertow which had been dragging her irresistibly toward some bourne beyond his imagining had reached its height; and now it seemed to be abating perceptibly. Little by little Dariel regained something of her own joyous serenity, though Julian's heart bled to see how the delicate bloom and vitality of her girlhood had faded, like a lily whose creamy perfection is slowly blighted by the worm at its heart.
A week or two of quiet now succeeded the summer's protracted strain. Julian was delighted when, as the end of a glorious August drew near Dariel suggested that just the two of them should take one of their accustomed trips to 'Story Island.' This was a tiny island, just a sand dune really which lay among the chain of islands scattered along the south shore of Long Island. It belonged to Dariel and had been named 'Story Island' by her because it was there that she and Julian had gone for their youthful picnics and acted out the tales of adventure they both loved.
Dariel owned a sizable motor-launch, and one morning about ten o'clock, after Caesar had seen to the stocking of their cabin with suitable hot weather delicacies they put off for a cruise. It was a marvelous cerulean day, one flawless drop spilled from the brimming chalice of summer. They cruised and swam for hours, visiting all the enchanted haunts of their childhood, reliving the dreams and inventions and absurdities of those delightful, fading vistas. Julian had not known for months such happy relaxation of heart and mind.
About one o'clock they landed upon Dariel's miniature domain, and spread their elaborate meal on the end of the flat rock which stretched out in a small shrub-shaded promontory into the deep beryl-clear pool which surrounded Story Island. Julian had slipped on his coat in the sudden cool breeze but Dariel did not seem to notice the change in temperature.
"Did you bring your clasp-knife, Julian?" she asked suddenly.
"Yes, do you want it? - What for?"
"I can't open this tough carton. Give me the knife."
"Here, let me open it - you don't need a knife."
Dariel shrugged impatiently away from his outstretched hand. "No, I'll open it myself," she snapped, her voice deepening on that hateful note of excitability he dreaded to hear. As he handed her the knife he noticed with leaping pulses her slanting look of sly satisfaction and how strangely she snatched the knife from him. Then she rose and walked a little away.
As she did so Julian suddenly became aware of movement along his body stretched out along on the rock. The sun had crept around and as he turned a beam of bright sunshine fell upon - what? He recoiled in horror. At once the long, hairy tendril that had been lying so affectionately against his body, tightened, and began to tug gently at his fright-stiffened form. And he saw then, looking up at him from the deep pool, two greedy, staring eyes, close-set for malignant vigilance in a great, fat, disgusting - Something! - lurking there in the green translucent water. In a flash he reached for his knife - it was gone; Dariel had it!
Even as he felt the relentless urge of his body towards that awful Thing, he recalled with the very sickness of dissolution Dariel's maneuvers to get his knife - and then, clear as a bell, a voice within him spoke "Your cigarette-lighter - quick!"
His fingers fumbled desperately and just as the water slipped over his feet he managed to extract it and snap it alight. Fortunately it was a larger size than ordinary and he jabbed the flame deep into the great hairy tentacle where it locked his body tightest. A violent shudder ran through the loathly thing. It relaxed. Again and again and yet again he applied the torture. A terrible scream rang out behind him as the deadly grip loosened and fell away.
Julian was so unnerved that at first he had difficulty in extricating himself from the slackened folds that encumbered him. But when at last he succeeded in getting shakily to his feet he turned to find Dariel writhing in agony from half a dozen deep burns on the flesh of her arm!
In a terrible silence he gave her what help he could, and then of the sullen hatred in her face and manner he sternly demanded:
"Is it safe to go home now, do you think?"
"Yes," she ripped out, "Get me home where I can be cared for!"
And so they speeded back to their own jetty where Julian, leaving Dariel to explain her condition as best she could to Mrs. Vaughan who met them in the garden, went up to his room and stripped for a hot shower. He felt contaminated as if by the slime of the primordial abyss. And only after he had viciously scrubbed and sluiced his body and clothed himself again in immaculate garments did he give way to the despair that had been beating for this last hour, a black tide against heart and brain.
"My life absolutely is threatened - and by Dariel!" he whispered as he dropped into a chair and fixed a bleak stare on the August afternoon outside his window. "I may not be alive when Inglesant comes! - unless I go away. Shall I do that?"
As if in answer to his query the telephone rang. A sudden feeling that this time it must be Inglesant lifted him in one bound from his chair to the instrument.
"Julian Vaughan speaking."
"Hello!" said Inglesant's voice. "Come to me at the Hotel Madrid at once. And watch your step - you're in horrible danger."
Julian smiled wryly. "All right - coming!" and he hung up.
He called the garage and told the chauffeur to take his small roadster out by the back lane and wait for him where the lane joined the highway. Then without a word to anyone he slipped from the house by a garden door on the side opposite Dariel's wing and passed around the garden by a devious route through the shrubberies till he found the car. "At dinner time, but not before, Halverson," he instructed the chauffeur, "just let Mrs. Vaughan know that I've gone to New York and say I'll call her up later." And finally, with a heart somewhat lifted by hope he started to burn up the distance between himself and Inglesant.
Standing face to face at last with Stephen in his room at an obscure hotel, passionate thankfulness took Julian so tightly by the throat that he could utter not a word in greeting. Besides, as Inglesant gripped his hand, smiling a little grimly, it swept over him like light - the change in his friend.
"Well," said Inglesant, "here we are again!"
They smiled at each other and Julian relaxed into grateful comfort in the deep chair which Inglesant pushed forward and lit a cigarette from a box on the table between them.
And all the time they took mental notes of one another; Steve thinking how Julian's bright youth had declined to the verge of gaunt and haggard maturity; while Julian observed the still intensity, the look of bridled power and purpose that so transfigured Inglesant's old restless Viking energy.
"Have you brought the jewel with you?" broke forth Inglesant irresistibly at last.
"No," said Julian bitterly, "I did get it once, but it was snaked away from me. Whatever it is the Thing's too clever for me."
"Then your sister is still wearing it?"
"She had it on at breakfast this morning. But tell me how you know so much about all this, Inglesant?"
Then the two talked and compared notes, Julian telling Stephen everything and Steve telling his friend all that he was permitted to say - the merest outline of his adventures without any very definite reference to Don Pascual or the fact that a genuine mission had been given to him.
"And now Julian," he began again after they had finished this exchange of experiences and had sat a few moments smoking in silence, "if you expect to save your sister we'll have to get that jewel and destroy it. The reason I warned you to keep it for me is because merely throwing it into the sea which is the only way you yourself could dispose of it would simply be to postpone the destruction of it till some later time. Sooner or later it would find the surface again, and perhaps at a time when conditions for destroying it would not be so favorable as now. It is, as you already know, a fetish of the most malignant type, with genuine magical properties - prepared in a certain ceremonial way, and of occult ingredients which make it impossible to destroy it except by one very special method. What that method is I know, and I am one of the very few men alive who can destroy it. I have been looking for the fetish for that very purpose, you see, Julian."
"Then if only I hadn't gone to South America in search of you, I would never have heard of the accursed thing! And Dariel - "
"Let's forget the might-have-beens, old fellow. If you hadn't brought it to light who knows if it might not have been cunningly hidden again for another century, or two, when as I said the time for destroying it might not be so propitious. No, the time has come, the hour for the earthly activities of that dark undying Thing has struck. Providing, that is, that all goes well, and my instructions can be carried out with perfect fidelity and accuracy. It is all fate, or destiny, or karma - whatever you choose to call it. It has drawn us all together, perhaps not for the first time. And if I have been trained to destroy the jewel my training will certainly also enable me to restore your sister completely to herself - providing we succeed in our experiment. But I must keep warning you how difficult and dangerous the effort will be. And now tell me, is Sanna still alive? For a good deal depends upon her cooperation."
"Sanna? Yes, of course she is still with Dariel. But how can she help?"
"She is a negress and of old and royal blood. The negroes are immensely distant offshoots of the Atlanteans. They still have a faint psychic affinity in blood and vitality with the nature of the lost race. So you see that Sanna is the nearest thing I can find in this part of the world to the nature of the being we are dealing with. And now we must get into action as quickly as possible, otherwise some terrible evil may come upon you all. As I said before, all now depends upon how fully we are able to prepare and how faithfully we can carry out details. For you see we shall be dealing with energies, etheric and also the lower psychological - what modern dabblers in the occult sometimes call 'psychic forces,' without quite knowing what they mean.
"But we must act tomorrow for several reasons, one being that you have to be protected, and the moment this entity discovers, as it will almost immediately, that you are under some occult protection, Dariel will be driven away and we may never see her again."
"That's exactly what occurred to me," agreed Julian miserably. "It's been trying first to eliminate me..."
"Yes, you certainly must go warily. The real protection against such danger is of course in the heart itself. It lies in selfless love. In lack of fear. In unaggressive courage, if you get me. A non-resisting, absolute trust in the power of goodness and love. You perhaps harbor hatred and loathing for this malign Thing. But after all its fate is the most tragic and awful fact of the universe - the loss of a soul. We are not responsible for that, however - we are only about to destroy, if we can, the channel of its communication with our world. It is your hatred and loathing for this Thing which may give it power over you. For hatred is as strong and magnetic a force as love in this world of material evolution. So don't oppose it in your thoughts. No one not trained to deal with it can do that, for it is powerful and wise beyond any mortal knowledge. Merely feel for it - if you must think of it at all - just pity and compassion, and at the same time selfless love and devotion for your sister. Such feelings make the real charm against all the evil of the world - visible and invisible - or of the Universe. Do you get me, old man?"
Julian nodded, too stricken in heart to speak.
"Now sit down again," went on Inglesant, "and let's go into all the intricate details of our preparation. Time is short, for as I said, tomorrow about midnight happens to be exactly the right time for this experiment. And if we go at it right, and you and Sanna carry out my instructions accurately and faithfully, I think we can feel confident that we will then see the last act of the long and terrible drama surrounding the jewel of Atlantis."
Julian resorted to a ruse to make sure of Dariel's presence at dinner with Inglesant the next evening. Both were certain that if she should discover that Stephen was coming she would bolt. Julian had easily persuaded Mrs. Vaughan to announce a sudden decision to take most of the servants and go for a few days to her camp in the Adirondacks where she would entertain a set of people whom Dariel always made a point of avoiding. Discussion of this plan before Dariel was so arranged that she and Julian would be alone in the house with only Sanna and Caesar to care for them. Inglesant hoped that the malice of the unseen enemy might recognise another opportunity for its dark purpose and fall into the net.
This was exactly what happened.
The next day was hot, a bronze-bright morning of late August with a sea deepening as the day wore on to the color of grapes beneath a sky of thick cloudless blue. The trio were together over a rather languid breakfast when Mrs. Vaughan suddenly broached the Adirondacks plan.
Julian, who was guarding his every glance - even his very thoughts - against Dariel's suspicions, saw, as Theo's plan was apparently carelessly discussed, a flicker of bleak satisfaction pass across his sister's face. Evidently the opportunities of the situation struck her.
"Lord!" exclaimed Julian, "how I'd hate to have to travel on a day like this! You must be crazy, Theo. Dariel, let's you and I have dinner by ourselves in the belvedere - it's so hot," he turned to Dariel and fixed a cleverly candid gaze upon her hateful, brooding eyes. "Caesar will give us one of his masterpieces which he loves to serve himself. And we'll have the Italian wine you're so fond of - mayn't we Theo? Properly cooled it would be delicious at the end of such a broiling day. Will you consult Caesar and see about it?" - giving her no excuse to refuse.
She agreed, reviewing in her mind, as he could feel, all the sinister possibilities. And so the day wore on. It was Sanna's part to keep watch and see that Dariel did not, becoming suspicious, slip away from them. But providentially she found the garden and the sea the two pleasantest places to spend the day in, suffering as she still was from the shock of the terrible events at 'Story Island.' This enabled Julian to carry out with secrecy all the details that must be arranged for.
Inglesant arrived by the back road about four o'clock and they managed to smuggle him into the house through a side door and get him unnoticed to Dariel's sun-parlor at the top of the house. Here Julian had placed in readiness some of the necessary materials for their midnight undertaking and Inglesant, after locking himself in, went about the completion of his final arrangements.
At the dinner hour Julian and Dariel sat down to a flower-decked table laid in the pillared belvedere of white marble built above the Sound. A lingering sunset glow suffused sky and water with the tints of Paradise and their airy pavilion shimmered like a chamber of pearl. Julian succeeded in being his natural self, mastering both dread and anxiety from the sheer necessity for doing so.
Yet he found the effort decidedly daunting. Dariel's sultry gaze, intent upon him secretly, made the need for watchfulness imperative. That she had some design against him was evident, and the only thing he could feel certain of was that it would be sudden and deadly. And then as he felt his nerves strained to the breaking point, the conspirators' first card was played. Caesar, all bland smiles and scrapings, suddenly appeared in the pillared entrance with Inglesant behind him.
"Mr. Stephen Inglesant have arrived fo' dinnah, Miss Dariel," announced the delighted darkie, and vanished, to reappear as suddenly to set a place for the guest.
Julian sprang up with a shout while Inglesant remained standing at the entrance lest Dariel make some sudden move towards escape. But she was completely taken by surprise, and gazed almost incredulously at the unexpected guest.
"Inglesant! you old prestidigitator - where did you appear from so suddenly?" cried Julian, trying by noise and excitement to create a confusion so that Dariel might not gather her wits together.
"I came from the skies, of course," he laughed, "where travelers frequently drop from nowadays. I just took a chance that if I tumbled in there might be someone here who would be glad to see me," and he came forward to shake hands.
At the sound of his voice and the touch of his hand, in which he held hers for a moment, a shaft of light seemed to envelop Dariel. From the black deeps into which she was being slowly drawn down love seemed to call back her spirit.
"How wonderful, Stephen, for you to appear suddenly like this with the afterglow," she said, and Julian's heart swelled unbearably as he saw her eyes suddenly like pools of morning light, dwelling upon Inglesant's face.
And then they found themselves seated and chatting together as naturally as if they were back in the golden days before the shadow had engulfed them. Just before the last course Inglesant remarked casually upon the curious gem which Dariel was wearing. Without a word Julian leaned over, snapped open the clasp that secured the chain, and before Dariel could speak the jewel lay in Inglesant's hand.
There followed a pause in which a dangerous gleam came into her eyes and she displayed an almost uncontrollable restlessness. She even made as if she would have snatched the jewel from Inglesant. But he prevented this by closing the jewel lightly in his hand to get, as he said, "the feel of it." Then he continued, still holding it close:
"I wonder if you know that this jewel is unique? - a hoary relic from prehistoric times? It is a tradition among some of the remoter South American tribes. I happened to run across its story. Perhaps you would like to hear it?"
At this point Caesar entered bringing a salver on which three tiny goblets holding a ruby liquid winked rosily and exhaled a delightful fragrance as of some celestial attar.
"I hope you will both forgive me," said Inglesant as Caesar placed a goblet beside each of the trio, "but I felt that I wanted to contribute some touch of my own to our breaking of bread together after my long absence. So I hope you will pardon my presumption and drink to our health and happiness in this rare cordial. It was distilled by a very wonderful and ancient Indian tribe that I discovered in my travels through the Andes. I am sure you will find it agreeable."
To the intense relief of the two conspirators Dariel sipped the rose-red liquid with delight, and even took her brother's share when he offered it to her with a little teasing laugh; for Inglesant had warned him not to do more than touch it with his lips. Its effect upon her soon became apparent. The restlessness that had been increasing with each moment now died down, and her eyes cleared again magically. Julian, as he guardedly watched her noted with joy the slow beautiful change that came over her features. Little by little her natural golden serenity began to emerge, like the writing upon an exquisite palimpsest, as the dark lineaments of the nameless evil slowly broke, and melted, and all but vanished. She sighed deeply and leaned back in her chair.
Then Inglesant told his story. He related it all from the standpoint of an explorer who comes across in his travels as if by inadvertence the adventures he relates.
"I may not tell you very much about the Indians themselves," he took up his description, "because while my discovery of them might have appeared to be accidental, my stay with them was under the strictest pledges of secrecy about all their own concerns. It was the Chief Priest who told me about this fetish, which they know as 'The Jewel of Atlantis.' "
He then continued in almost the same words as Don Pascual had used to him in giving the strange history of the jewel.
"It seems, that in the immemorial days of the great Sorcerer-Kings of Atlantis, one of the last and wickedest of them - a terrible black magician who well knew that his days of power were numbered, and that as a lost soul he must in the ordinary course of death descend into eternal darkness - this ancient and powerful sorcerer fashioned with diabolical wizardry this jewel. At the heart of it he sealed a minute phial within which he had fixed a speck of his own liquor vitae - you may not remember, this is the name that Paracelsus, a great Occultist of the middle-ages gave to man's individual, nervous essence. Not only that but this jewel has been so constructed that it cannot be destroyed except in one very peculiar manner."
Dariel was listening with dilated eyes. Inglesant, leaning towards her, offered his own untouched glass of cordial.
"Drink it all," he said persuasively as she raised it to her lips.
"This drop of liquor vitae," he went on, "made a vital link, which has conferred a sort of immortality upon the energies and lower individuality of the Atlantean Sorcerer-King who otherwise would have been swept by death into oblivion. It has made a link, all down the ages, connecting that magician of Atlantis with life on earth. By means of it he was able, you see, to keep intact his wicked, psychological eidolon, or astral form, which otherwise would long, long ago have perished, wiped out by the beneficent processes of Nature. As soon as someone wore the jewel he could obtain possession of the personality of that unconscious victim, and so live again to satisfy his powerful and evil propensities."
Inglesant had been keeping his mind on Dariel who seemed strangely to listen with some inner sense while her body relaxed more and more.
"The High Priest," continued the narrator, "told me that his clan has inherited through the ages the job of destroying this jewel and so cutting off connexion between the Sorcerer of Atlantis and any further living victims. This tribe of Indians, whose origins stretch back into the dawn of time has been trying, for ages to get hold of and destroy this baleful gem, which is a deadly menace to the souls of all those over whom the still living astral magician has obtained dominance. And of course the Sorcerer is a corrupter of all he comes in contact with besides. The difficulty in destroying it is, I understand, not so much that the magic which protects it is of the most secret and powerful kind, for the wise men of the tribe have been intensively trained for the purpose of coping with that. The trouble has been that those who have worn it heretofore have always been so untrained and ignorant themselves that to free them from its influence and destroy the fetish has been impossible. For of course there must be at least some desire in the victim to be liberated from his dark thraldom. But now for the first time it has fallen into the hands of purity and virtue - "
He turned towards Dariel and, calling her name in a low urgent voice, fixed his eyes with deep, impersonal benignity upon hers.
"Will you consent that I draw this influence from out your being, dear child, and break its power forever?"
Suddenly, as he asked the question, a strange green twilight like the shadow that sometimes goes before a tropical storm, enveloped the group. As it swelled over them Dariel struggled wildly to her feet.
"Yes - yes - yes!" she shrieked in anguished extremity. "Save me from it - save me - "
Stephen caught her gently, as life itself seemed to desert her sinking form.
It was close upon midnight when Inglesant summoned his two helpers. A wide corridor ran across one end of the spacious solarium above Dariel's living-rooms. The trio stood near the door of this apartment in a final, low-voiced consultation.
"You are absolutely certain," just breathed Inglesant, "that there isn't a servant in the house to spy upon us?"
"Nary a one," whispered old Sanna. "Mis' Vaughan she tuk de whol' raft o' dey niggahs clean away to de 'Rondacks. An' Caesar hisself is on de watch outside de locked do' to dis wing down stairs. We safe's we can be, nohow."
"Fine! Now I want you to bear in mind two things. First, I will save Dariel if nothing in this world happens to oppose me. Second, you had both better know that I was given a mission to break this evil power - not only to save Dariel, but so to wipe out the psychic link by which this deadly being fastens itself upon its victims that never again can it work its fatal will upon a human soul. Do you both get me? ... All right. Now, having said this, have I your absolute trust?"
Both his hearers nodded emphatically.
"Good again! Now, Julian and Sanna, I must demand silence. At every moment we will be in danger of our lives, or worse. No matter what happens, trust me - and keep an unbroken silence. Do not speak - do not utter a sound! Do you understand - absolutely? And are you certain that you will obey?"
Julian nodded again.
"So he'p me Gawd!" whispered Sanna.
Inglesant glanced at her and a ripple of uncertainty disturbed his thoughts. He hesitated. Here was the weak point in his strategy. Sanna's very nearness to Dariel, while it was essential to the success of his undertaking, was also its greatest hazard. Still, he had to take some risk where not to act was the one certain danger.
"Come, then," he said finally, "we haven't a moment to spare. Let's get to work," and opening the door he entered the solarium and the others followed him into, the wide square room.
In a far corner a standard lamp burned dimly beside an empty couch. Close to the center of the room, where a thick woolen blanket had been spread upon the floor, Dariel's still form lay like a recumbent statue. What feeble light there was seemed gathered into that prone loveliness of ivory and gold. Encircling her, there had been traced in black upon the marble floor a wide geometrical figure repeating the design on the back of the jewel, a circle within a square. This symbol was enclosed within a hexagon of golden lines. At the exact center of this figure and close beside Dariel's head had been painted in some phosphorescent green material a large ansated cross, which glimmered uncannily in the dimness. A small tripod above a spirit-lamp stood at the junction of the circle with the cross, and on the tripod rested a bronze bowl. Standing near was a large flower-pot filled with damp earth.
Inglesant motioned them within the figure. Then, taking what looked like a large pencil of yellow chalk from his pocket he completed the hexagon around the outside of the square, making two interlaced triangles, or a six-pointed star, broken at only one place, where a point of the star had been left open. From this outside line traced by the stick there now rose a star-shaped veil of misty radiance like the gleam of light from virgin gold, broken only at that one place where a point of the star had been left open.
Sanna seated herself at Dariel's feet and Julian stood on the far side of her tranced form. From an inner pocket Inglesant now drew the jewel and detaching it from its chain laid it in the bronze bowl. Then he sat down close to Dariel's side and fixed his eyes upon her.
Two pairs of eyes gazing unwaveringly at Inglesant's face saw that his lips moved and Julian divined that he repeated over and over again, with an ever deepening fixity of will, some mantram or magic formula.
Minutes passed and nothing happened. Then, slowly, whisperingly, like the sibilance of a jungle-hidden python uncoiling from sleep, a bodiless presence drew out of the invisible caverns of the air. Julian sickened at the core of him with its icy menace; Sanna shook like a withered leaf; but neither moved a muscle.
Inglesant stirred, arousing Julian by a swift, prearranged gesture. After a second or two Julian forced his nerves to obedience. He stooped, and lifting Dariel in his arms bore her quickly out of the star-figure at the point where it had been left unfinished. At his heels came Inglesant, who, instantly, when Julian with his burden had cleared the diagram, completed the sixth point of the star with his yellow stick, while Julian laid Dariel on the couch and seated himself on the floor with his back to her.
There was now a complete six-pointed barrier of golden light, shutting out Dariel and Julian, shutting Sanna and Inglesant into the magic diagram. And there between them within the charmed figure brooded a bodiless will, invisible, watchful, malignant.
Inglesant now beckoned to Sanna. She wavered to him and held her bony arm above the tripod. Inglesant with a tinder-spark set alight a violet flame underneath. Afterward, with quick, skillful movements he drew from the faithful creature's arm just enough blood to cover the jewel lying at the bottom of the bowl. This done, he quickly cared for the wound and helped Sanna to the blanket where Dariel had lain. Before turning away he gave her a phial which held a quantity of the ruby cordial. Sanna had just raised it to her lips when a shattering howl, bestial and desolate, tore the silence. The hot, thick air rocked and shuddered. Gradually, out of this monstrous travail something of a sinister portent came into dark visibility. From the bronze bowl there ascended a sickly vapor and the purr of boiling liquid, while above it hung a loathsome horror that writhed and palpitated.
Behind Inglesant, whose whole attention was concentrated upon this menace Sanna half rose from the floor and stared with insane terror at the mortal throes of her enemy. Suddenly all movement ceased, as if with one desperate effort the Evil ingathered its waning energies. An instant, and it made a dark rush toward the point of the star beyond which Dariel lay. Sanna gave a smothered shriek and sprang to throw herself into its path, upsetting the tripod. The bronze bowl rolled over and from it there oozed a few drops of a pale viscous fluid upon the marble floor.
Inglesant remained like a rock, eyes and will set upon the straining specter beyond. Julian could see him there above the lambent glow, erect, pale, powerful, like an avenging angel. The horrid shape, chained by his will from the center, and checked by the boundaries of its mystic prison, shuddered slowly, slowly downward and melted at last into the surrounding night.
Inglesant now turned to Sanna and kneeling beside her put his ear against her heart. Finally he gathered her pitiful shrunken form into his arms and replaced it reverently upon the blanket. After that he threw the earth from the flowerpot over the stain on the floor, and rubbing the two substances well together, he scraped the floor, washed it, and put everything connected with the ceremonial - tripod, bowl, and water - into the big flowerpot, working them into the muddy soil.
And now the misty gold of the six-pointed star sank and died out. Inglesant spoke to Julian. "Better carry your sister down to her own room and make her comfortable. She'll sleep safely round the clock now, perhaps. Then come back here."
Julian obeyed, and while he was gone Inglesant took the flowerpot down by an outside stairway into the garden. It was still dark but he knew exactly where to go. In a sort of dingle he found a deep hole prepared and here he buried the flowerpot with its contents and, filling the hole, stamped the immemorial Evil into oblivion.
When he re-entered the sun-room he found Julian bent above Sanna's form.
"Steve!" he cried, "she's dead! I thought she had only fainted."
"Yes, Julian. You remember I warned you both to be silent? A few moments sooner and the whole thing would have failed! I would never have brought Sanna into it, but her negro blood of such pure descent, and her close psychic sympathy with Dariel were the nearest I could come to the only conditions under which this fetish could be destroyed. I had arranged with her to take a good dose of the cordial and thus put her out of danger, but she was not quick enough. She took fright and spilled it. Even so, if she had only sprung at It nothing like this need have happened. But she cried out and through that it recognised her physical presence - see!"
He pointed to a spot on Sanna's neck as he said: "Don't grieve, dear boy - you may be sure that Sanna herself is satisfied. Greater love hath no man than this - grand old Sanna!"
Julian saw, through his tears, on the skin just below her ear a curious mark, like a brand. As he bent nearer he recognised it for a tiny, distinctly imprinted, ansated cross.
Mid-afternoon and a fresh west wind. A yacht with all sails spread, winging like a silver spirit of joy between the vast blue enchantment of sea and sky. Two figures swayed together at the rail that rose and dipped to the rhythmic ocean swell. They stood, poised like young gods of an older time, two beautiful images in sunlight white and gold.
It was Dariel who first broke the melody of sea-silence.
"Isn't it strange, Stephen, that I remember almost nothing? - only a vague feeling remains of that tormented time!"
"Not strange, my darling. You have passed through that dark fire yourself untouched. Your purity was the altar, and the white flame of your sacrifice has made you a benefactor of all the world and even of centuries to come, though they will never know of it. Who can tell, Dariel - we understand so little of all those mysterious things which make the background of life! In some far-off existence on this earth you may yourself have chosen to be the one to bring about just this beneficent accomplishment. That is what my inner sense tells me is the fact, Beloved. Knowing that, we can leave all those immemorial mysteries to be dissolved behind us forever in the silent ocean of the past."
Last Update : January