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Chapter 21 Through Flood and Flame

  • 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.
  • Come."
  • "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.