Yersted's information convinced me that there was no time to be lost. I mus_each the Temple of Issus secretly before the forces under Tars Tarka_ssaulted at dawn. Once within its hated walls I was positive that I coul_vercome the guards of Issus and bear away my Princess, for at my back I woul_ave a force ample for the occasion.
No sooner had Carthoris and the others joined me than we commenced th_ransportation of our men through the submerged passage to the mouth of th_angways which lead from the submarine pool at the temple end of the water_unnel to the pits of Issus.
Many trips were required, but at last all stood safely together again at th_eginning of the end of our quest. Five thousand strong we were, all seasone_ighting-men of the most warlike race of the red men of Barsoom.
As Carthoris alone knew the hidden ways of the tunnels we could not divide th_arty and attack the temple at several points at once as would have been mos_esirable, and so it was decided that he lead us all as quickly as possible t_ point near the temple's centre.
As we were about to leave the pool and enter the corridor, an officer calle_y attention to the waters upon which the submarine floated. At first the_eemed to be merely agitated as from the movement of some great body beneat_he surface, and I at once conjectured that another submarine was rising t_he surface in pursuit of us; but presently it became apparent that the leve_f the waters was rising, not with extreme rapidity, but very surely, and tha_oon they would overflow the sides of the pool and submerge the floor of th_hamber.
For a moment I did not fully grasp the terrible import of the slowly risin_ater. It was Carthoris who realized the full meaning of the thing—its caus_nd the reason for it.
"Haste!" he cried. "If we delay, we all are lost. The pumps of Omean have bee_topped. They would drown us like rats in a trap. We must reach the uppe_evels of the pits in advance of the flood or we shall never reach them.
"Lead the way, Carthoris," I cried. "We will follow."
At my command, the youth leaped into one of the corridors, and in column o_wos the soldiers followed him in good order, each company entering th_orridor only at the command of its dwar, or captain.
Before the last company filed from the chamber the water was ankle deep, an_hat the men were nervous was quite evident. Entirely unaccustomed to wate_xcept in quantities sufficient for drinking and bathing purposes the re_artians instinctively shrank from it in such formidable depths and menacin_ctivity. That they were undaunted while it swirled and eddied about thei_nkles, spoke well for their bravery and their discipline.
I was the last to leave the chamber of the submarine, and as I followed th_ear of the column toward the corridor, I moved through water to my knees. Th_orridor, too, was flooded to the same depth, for its floor was on a leve_ith the floor of the chamber from which it led, nor was there any perceptibl_ise for many yards.
The march of the troops through the corridor was as rapid as was consisten_ith the number of men that moved through so narrow a passage, but it was no_mple to permit us to gain appreciably on the pursuing tide. As the level o_he passage rose, so, too, did the waters rise until it soon became apparen_o me, who brought up the rear, that they were gaining rapidly upon us. _ould understand the reason for this, as with the narrowing expanse of Omea_s the waters rose toward the apex of its dome, the rapidity of its rise woul_ncrease in inverse ratio to the ever-lessening space to be filled.
Long ere the last of the column could hope to reach the upper pits which la_bove the danger point I was convinced that the waters would surge after us i_verwhelming volume, and that fully half the expedition would be snuffed out.
As I cast about for some means of saving as many as possible of the doome_en, I saw a diverging corridor which seemed to rise at a steep angle at m_ight. The waters were now swirling about my waist. The men directly before m_ere quickly becoming panic-stricken. Something must be done at once or the_ould rush forward upon their fellows in a mad stampede that would result i_rampling down hundreds beneath the flood and eventually clogging the passag_eyond any hope of retreat for those in advance.
Raising my voice to its utmost, I shouted my command to the dwars ahead of me.
"Call back the last twenty-five utans," I shouted. "Here seems a way o_scape. Turn back and follow me."
My orders were obeyed by nearer thirty utans, so that some three thousand me_ame about and hastened into the teeth of the flood to reach the corridor u_hich I directed them.
As the first dwar passed in with his utan I cautioned him to listen closel_or my commands, and under no circumstances to venture into the open, or leav_he pits for the temple proper until I should have come up with him, "or yo_now that I died before I could reach you."
The officer saluted and left me. The men filed rapidly past me and entered th_iverging corridor which I hoped would lead to safety. The water rose breas_igh. Men stumbled, floundered, and went down. Many I grasped and set upo_heir feet again, but alone the work was greater than I could cope with.
Soldiers were being swept beneath the boiling torrent, never to rise. A_ength the dwar of the 10th utan took a stand beside me. He was a valorou_oldier, Gur Tus by name, and together we kept the now thoroughly frightene_roops in the semblance of order and rescued many that would have drowne_therwise.
Djor Kantos, son of Kantos Kan, and a padwar of the fifth utan joined us whe_is utan reached the opening through which the men were fleeing. Thereafte_ot a man was lost of all the hundreds that remained to pass from the mai_orridor to the branch.
As the last utan was filing past us the waters had risen until they surge_bout our necks, but we clasped hands and stood our ground until the last ma_ad passed to the comparative safety of the new passageway. Here we found a_mmediate and steep ascent, so that within a hundred yards we had reached _oint above the waters.
For a few minutes we continued rapidly up the steep grade, which I hoped woul_oon bring us quickly to the upper pits that let into the Temple of Issus. Bu_ was to meet with a cruel disappointment.
Suddenly I heard a cry of "fire" far ahead, followed almost at once by crie_f terror and the loud commands of dwars and padwars who were evidentl_ttempting to direct their men away from some grave danger. At last the repor_ame back to us. "They have fired the pits ahead." "We are hemmed in by flame_n front and flood behind." "Help, John Carter; we are suffocating," and the_here swept back upon us at the rear a wave of dense smoke that sent us, stumbling and blinded, into a choking retreat.
There was naught to do other than seek a new avenue of escape. The fire an_moke were to be feared a thousand times over the water, and so I seized upo_he first gallery which led out of and up from the suffocating smoke that wa_ngulfing us.
Again I stood to one side while the soldiers hastened through on the new way.
Some two thousand must have passed at a rapid run, when the stream ceased, bu_ was not sure that all had been rescued who had not passed the point o_rigin of the flames, and so to assure myself that no poor devil was lef_ehind to die a horrible death, unsuccoured, I ran quickly up the gallery i_he direction of the flames which I could now see burning with a dull glow fa_head.
It was hot and stifling work, but at last I reached a point where the fire li_p the corridor sufficiently for me to see that no soldier of Helium la_etween me and the conflagration—what was in it or upon the far side I coul_ot know, nor could any man have passed through that seething hell o_hemicals and lived to learn.
Having satisfied my sense of duty, I turned and ran rapidly back to th_orridor through which my men had passed. To my horror, however, I found tha_y retreat in this direction had been blocked—across the mouth of the corrido_tood a massive steel grating that had evidently been lowered from it_esting-place above for the purpose of effectually cutting off my escape.
That our principal movements were known to the First Born I could not hav_oubted, in view of the attack of the fleet upon us the day before, nor coul_he stopping of the pumps of Omean at the psychological moment have been du_o chance, nor the starting of a chemical combustion within the one corrido_hrough which we were advancing upon the Temple of Issus been due to augh_han well-calculated design.
And now the dropping of the steel gate to pen me effectually between fire an_lood seemed to indicate that invisible eyes were upon us at every moment.
What chance had I, then, to rescue Dejah Thoris were I to be compelled t_ight foes who never showed themselves. A thousand times I berated myself fo_eing drawn into such a trap as I might have known these pits easily could be.
Now I saw that it would have been much better to have kept our force intac_nd made a concerted attack upon the temple from the valley side, trusting t_hance and our great fighting ability to have overwhelmed the First Born an_ompelled the safe delivery of Dejah Thoris to me.
The smoke from the fire was forcing me further and further back down th_orridor toward the waters which I could hear surging through the darkness.
With my men had gone the last torch, nor was this corridor lighted by th_adiance of phosphorescent rock as were those of the lower levels. It was thi_act that assured me that I was not far from the upper pits which lie directl_eneath the temple.
Finally I felt the lapping waters about my feet. The smoke was thick behin_e. My suffering was intense. There seemed but one thing to do, and that t_hoose the easier death which confronted me, and so I moved on down th_orridor until the cold waters of Omean closed about me, and I swam on throug_tter blackness toward—what?
The instinct of self-preservation is strong even when one, unafraid and in th_ossession of his highest reasoning faculties, knows that death—positive an_nalterable—lies just ahead. And so I swam slowly on, waiting for my head t_ouch the top of the corridor, which would mean that I had reached the limi_f my flight and the point where I must sink for ever to an unmarked grave.
But to my surprise I ran against a blank wall before I reached a point wher_he waters came to the roof of the corridor. Could I be mistaken? I fel_round. No, I had come to the main corridor, and still there was a breathin_pace between the surface of the water and the rocky ceiling above. And then _urned up the main corridor in the direction that Carthoris and the head o_he column had passed a half-hour before. On and on I swam, my heart growin_ighter at every stroke, for I knew that I was approaching closer and close_o the point where there would be no chance that the waters ahead could b_eeper than they were about me. I was positive that I must soon feel the soli_loor beneath my feet again and that once more my chance would come to reac_he Temple of Issus and the side of the fair prisoner who languished there.
But even as hope was at its highest I felt the sudden shock of contact as m_ead struck the rocks above. The worst, then, had come to me. I had reache_ne of those rare places where a Martian tunnel dips suddenly to a lowe_evel. Somewhere beyond I knew that it rose again, but of what value was tha_o me, since I did not know how great the distance that it maintained a leve_ntirely beneath the surface of the water!
There was but a single forlorn hope, and I took it. Filling my lungs with air, I dived beneath the surface and swam through the inky, icy blackness on and o_long the submerged gallery. Time and time again I rose with upstretched hand, only to feel the disappointing rocks close above me.
Not for much longer would my lungs withstand the strain upon them. I felt tha_ must soon succumb, nor was there any retreating now that I had gone thi_ar. I knew positively that I could never endure to retrace my path now to th_oint from which I had felt the waters close above my head. Death stared me i_he face, nor ever can I recall a time that I so distinctly felt the ic_reath from his dead lips upon my brow.
One more frantic effort I made with my fast ebbing strength. Weakly I rose fo_he last time—my tortured lungs gasped for the breath that would fill the_ith a strange and numbing element, but instead I felt the revivifying breat_f life-giving air surge through my starving nostrils into my dying lungs. _as saved.
A few more strokes brought me to a point where my feet touched the floor, an_oon thereafter I was above the water level entirely, and racing like ma_long the corridor searching for the first doorway that would lead me t_ssus. If I could not have Dejah Thoris again I was at least determined t_venge her death, nor would any life satisfy me other than that of the fien_ncarnate who was the cause of such immeasurable suffering upon Barsoom.
Sooner than I had expected I came to what appeared to me to be a sudden exi_nto the temple above. It was at the right side of the corridor, which ran on, probably, to other entrances to the pile above.
To me one point was as good as another. What knew I where any of them led! An_o without waiting to be again discovered and thwarted, I ran quickly up th_hort, steep incline and pushed open the doorway at its end.
The portal swung slowly in, and before it could be slammed against me I spran_nto the chamber beyond. Although not yet dawn, the room was brilliantl_ighted. Its sole occupant lay prone upon a low couch at the further side, apparently in sleep. From the hangings and sumptuous furniture of the room _udged it to be a living-room of some priestess, possibly of Issus herself.
At the thought the blood tingled through my veins. What, indeed, if fortun_ad been kind enough to place the hideous creature alone and unguarded in m_ands. With her as hostage I could force acquiescence to my every demand.
Cautiously I approached the recumbent figure, on noiseless feet. Closer an_loser I came to it, but I had crossed but little more than half the chambe_hen the figure stirred, and, as I sprang, rose and faced me.
At first an expression of terror overspread the features of the woman wh_onfronted me—then startled incredulity—hope—thanksgiving.
My heart pounded within my breast as I advanced toward her—tears came to m_yes—and the words that would have poured forth in a perfect torrent choked i_y throat as I opened my arms and took into them once more the woman _oved—Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.