Tarzan and the Forbidden City

Chapter 30

Edgar Rice Burroughs


UP AND UP through the waters of Horus, Helen was dragged by the ghostly figure until, at last, they reached the precipitous cliff, the summit of which forms the coast line near Ashair. Here the creature dragged his captive into the mouth of a dark cavern, a den of horror to the frightened girl.

Magra and Gregory had been held captives in the cavern for a night and a day waiting for the return of the true god, Chon, who was to decide their fate. They had not been ill treated; and they had been given food, but always there was the feeling of menace. It was in the air, in the strange garmenture of their captors, in their whisperings and in their silences. It affected both Magra and Gregory similarly, leaving them blue and despondent.

They were sitting beside the pool in the center of the cavern almost exactly twenty-four hours after their capture, the white robed figures crouching around them, when there was a sudden breaking of the still surface of the water and two grotesque diving helmets appeared, one white, the other dark.

“The true god has returned,” cried one of the priests.

“Now the strangers shall be judged, and punishment meted out to them.”

As the two figures emerged from the pool and removed their helmets, Magra and Gregory gasped in astonishment.

“Helen!” cried the latter. “Thank God that you still live. I had given you up for dead.”

“Father!” exclaimed the girl. “What are you doing here? Tarzan told us that you and Magra were prisoners in Tho-bos.”

“We escaped,” said Magra, “but perhaps we would have been better off there. God only knows what we face here.”

The figure in white that had emerged with Helen proved, when he removed his helmet, to be an old man with a bushy white beard. He looked at Helen in astonishment.

“A girl!” he cried. “Since when has false Brulor made ptomes of girls?”

“I am not a ptome,” replied Helen. “I was a prisoner of Brulor, and adopted this method to escape.”

“Perhaps she lies,” said a priest.

“If these be enemies,” said the old man, “I shall know when I consult the oracle in the entrails of the man. If they be not enemies, the girls shall become my handmaidens; but if they be, they shall die as the man dies, on the altar of the true god Chon and lost Father of Diamonds.”

“And if you find that we are not enemies,” demanded Magra, “what good will that do this man, whom you will have already killed? We tell you that we are friends, meaning you no harm. Who are you to say that we are not? Who are you to kill this good man?” Her voice was vibrant with just anger.

“Silence, woman!” commanded a priest. “You are speaking to Chon, the true god.”

“If he were any sort of a god at all,” snapped Magra, “he would know that we are not enemies. He would not have cut up an innocent man and ask questions of his entrails.”

“You do not understand,” said Chon, indulgently. “If the man is innocent and has told the truth, he will not die when I remove his entrails. If he dies, that will prove his guilt.”

Magra stamped her foot. “You are no god at all,” she cried. “You are just a wicked old sadist.”

Several priests sprang forward threateningly, but Chon stopped them with a gesture. “Do not harm her,” he said; “she knows not what she says. When we have taught her to know the truth, she will be contrite. I am sure that she will become a worthy handmaiden, for she has loyalty and great courage. Treat them all well while they are among us waiting for the hour of inquisition.”

 

Atan Thome fled upward along the secret passageway from the temple of Brulor, hugging the precious casket to his breast; and behind him came Lal Taask, his mind aflame with what was now the one obsession of his life—the killing of his erstwhile master. Secondary to that was his desire to possess the great diamond which reposed in the jeweled casket. Ahead of him he could hear the screams and jibberings of the madman, which served to inflame his rage still further. And behind them both came Brian Gregory, all his fine resolutions forgotten now that The Father of Diamonds seemed almost within his grasp. He knew that he might have to commit murder to obtain it; but that did not deter him in the least, for his avarice, like that of many men, bordered almost upon madness.

Out into the open and along the rocky hillside fled Atan Thome. When Lal Taask reached the open, he saw his quarry scarce a hundred yards ahead of him. Other eyes saw them both, the eyes of Ungo the great bull ape, which, with his fellows, hunted for lizards among the great rocks farther up the hillside. The sight of the two men, the screaming of Atan Thome, excited him. He recalled that Tarzan had told him that they must not attack men unless he were attacked; but there had been no interdiction against joining in their play, and this looked like play to Ungo. It was thus that playful apes chased one another. Of course, Ungo was a little old for play, being a sullen, surly old bull; but he was still imitative, and what the tarmangani did, he desired to do. His fellows were imbued with the same urge toward emulation.

As Brian Gregory came out into the open from the mouth of the secret passageway, he saw the great apes, jabbering with excitement, bounding down the hillside toward Atan Thome and the pursuing Lal Taask. He saw the men stop and then turn and flee in terror from the mighty beast-men charging down upon them.

For the moment Lal Taask discarded all thoughts of vengeance, as the first law of Nature dominated and directed him; but Atan Thome clung tenaciously to his precious casket. Ungo was delighted with this new game, as he came bounding after the fleeing, screaming Thorne, whom he easily overtook. The man, thinking that death was upon him, tried to beat off the ape with one hand while he clung tightly to the casket with the other; that, he would not give up, even in death. Killing, however, was not in the mind of the anthropoid. It was the game in which he was interested; so he snatched the casket from the screaming man as easily as one man takes another’s wife in Hollywood, and went bounding off, hoping that some one would pursue him that the game might continue.

Lal Taask, running away, glanced back over his shoulder to see his dream of riches irremediably shattered, leaving nothing now in life for him but his hatred of Atan Thome and his desire for vengeance. Furious with hate and thwarted avarice, he ran back to Thorne to wreak his final revenge, barehanded, upon the screaming maniac. Lal Taask was choking and beating Atan Thome when Brian Gregory reached them and dragged the infuriated Indian from his victim. “What are you fools thinking of?” he demanded. “You’re making enough noise to attract every warrior in Ashair. I ought to kill both of you; but right now we’ve got to forget all of that and work together to escape, for we’ll never see that casket again.”

Lal Taask knew that Gregory was right, but Atan Thome knew nothing. He could only think of The Father of Diamonds which he had lost, and impelled by a new maniacal impulse he suddenly broke away from Brian and ran screaming in the direction in which Ungo had disappeared with the casket. Lal Taask started after him, a curse upon his lips; but Brian layed a detaining hand on the man’s arm.

“Let him go,” he said; “he’ll never get the casket from Ungo—he’ll probably get himself killed instead. That accursed casket! So many have suffered and died because of it, and that poor fool has gone mad.”

“Perhaps he is the most fortunate of all,” said Lal Taask.

“I wish that I had never heard of it,” continued Brian. “I have lost my father and sister, and probably all of their friends are dead because of my greed. A moment ago I would still have risked my life for it, but the sight of that jibbering idiot has brought me to my senses. I wouldn’t have the thing now; I am not superstitious, but I believe there is a curse on it.”

“Perhaps you are right,” said Lal Taask. “I do not care so much about the casket as I did about killing that mad devil, but the gods have willed it otherwise. I shall have to be content.”

Apelike, Ungo soon tired of his new bauble; and tossed the casket carelessly to the ground, his thoughts reverting to the matter of lizards and other dainty articles of food. He was about to lead his tribe in search of sustenance when they were attracted by loud screams. Instantly on guard, they stood watching the approach of the mad Thorne. Nervous, irritable beasts, it was a question whether they would run away or attack, as the man dashed among them and threw himself on the ground, clutching the casket to his breast. For a moment they stood there, apparently undecided, their little, red rimmed eyes blazing; then they moved slowly away, their menacing growls lost upon the poor maniac.

“It is mine! It is mine!” he shrieked. “I am rich! In all the world there is none so rich as I!”

The great apes lumbered down the hillside, their short tempers upset by the screaming and jabbering of Thorne, until Ungo was about to return and silence him forever. Just then he espied Brian and Lal Taask and transferred his anger from Thorne to them. They were tarmangani, and suddenly Ungo wanted to kill all tarmangani.

Attracted by the growls of the anthropoids, the two men looked up and saw the herd charging down the hill toward them. “Those beasts mean business,” cried Brian. “It’s time we got out of here.”

“There’s a cave,” said Lal Taask, pointing toward the cliff. “If we can reach it ahead of them, we may be able to hide from them. There’s just a chance that they may be afraid to go into a dark hole like that.”

Running at top speed, the men reached the cave long before the apes could overtake them. The interior was not entirely dark, and they could see that the cave extended beyond the range of their vision.

“We’d better go as far as we can,” said Brian. “We’ll be in a devil of a fix if they do come in and follow us; but perhaps if they can’t see us at first, they may give up the chase.”

“It may be a cul-de-sac,” admitted Lal Taask, “but it was the only chance we had; they’d have had us sure if we’d stayed in the open.”

They followed a dark corridor that ended suddenly in a magnificent grotto, the splendor of which fairly took their breath away.

“Great Scott!” exclaimed Brian. “Did you ever see anything so gorgeous?”

“It’s magnificent,” agreed Taask; “but, right now, quite incidental—the apes are coming! I hear them growling.”

“There’s another cave in the other side of this cavern,” said Brian. “Let’s try that.”

“There is nothing else to try,” returned Lal Taask.

As the two men disappeared into the dark opening in the rear of the cavern, Ungo and his fellows streamed into the chamber they had just quitted, unimpressed by its magnificence; and still holding to the idea that dominated them for the moment—the chase. A bug, a beetle, or a bat might distract their attention and launch them upon a new adventure, for they could not hold long to a single objective; but there were none of these, and so they searched the grotto for their quarry. They circled the place, looking behind stalagmites, sniffing here and there, wasting much tune while the two men followed a new corridor deeper into the heart of the cliff.


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