Presently I recalled the cord that had been attached to the parcel when i_ell at my side, and after a little groping my hand came in contact with i_gain. It depended from above, and when I pulled upon it I discovered that i_as rigidly fastened, possibly at the pit's mouth.
Upon examination I found that the cord, though small, was amply able t_ustain the weight of several men. Then I made another discovery—there was _econd message knotted in the rope at about the height of my head. This _eciphered more easily, now that the key was mine.
"Bring the rope with you. Beyond the knots lies danger."
That was all there was to this message. It was evidently hastily formed—a_fterthought.
I did not pause longer than to learn the contents of the second message, and, though I was none too sure of the meaning of the final admonition, "Beyond th_nots lies danger," yet I was sure that here before me lay an avenue o_scape, and that the sooner I took advantage of it the more likely was I t_in to liberty.
At least, I could be but little worse off than I had been in the Pit o_lenty.
I was to find, however, ere I was well out of that damnable hole that I migh_ave been very much worse off had I been compelled to remain there another tw_inutes.
It had taken me about that length of time to ascend some fifty feet above th_ottom when a noise above attracted my attention. To my chagrin I saw that th_overing of the pit was being removed far above me, and in the light of th_ourtyard beyond I saw a number of yellow warriors.
Could it be that I was laboriously working my way into some new trap? Were th_essages spurious, after all? And then, just as my hope and courage had ebbe_o their lowest, I saw two things.
One was the body of a huge, struggling, snarling apt being lowered over th_ide of the pit toward me, and the other was an aperture in the side of th_haft—an aperture larger than a man's body, into which my rope led.
Just as I scrambled into the dark hole before me the apt passed me, reachin_ut with his mighty hands to clutch me, and snapping, growling, and roaring i_ most frightful manner.
Plainly now I saw the end for which Salensus Oll had destined me. After firs_orturing me with starvation he had caused this fierce beast to be lowere_nto my prison to finish the work that the jeddak's hellish imagination ha_onceived.
And then another truth flashed upon me—I had lived nine days of the allotte_en which must intervene before Salensus Oll could make Dejah Thoris hi_ueen. The purpose of the apt was to insure my death before the tenth day.
I almost laughed aloud as I thought how Salensus Oll's measure of safety wa_o aid in defeating the very end he sought, for when they discovered that th_pt was alone in the Pit of Plenty they could not know but that he ha_ompletely devoured me, and so no suspicion of my escape would cause a searc_o be made for me.
Coiling the rope that had carried me thus far upon my strange journey, _ought for the other end, but found that as I followed it forward it extende_lways before me. So this was the meaning of the words: "Follow the rope."
The tunnel through which I crawled was low and dark. I had followed it fo_everal hundred yards when I felt a knot beneath my fingers. "Beyond the knot_ies danger."
Now I went with the utmost caution, and a moment later a sharp turn in th_unnel brought me to an opening into a large, brilliantly lighted chamber.
The trend of the tunnel I had been traversing had been slightly upward, an_rom this I judged that the chamber into which I now found myself looking mus_e either on the first floor of the palace or directly beneath the firs_loor.
Upon the opposite wall were many strange instruments and devices, and in th_enter of the room stood a long table, at which two men were seated in earnes_onversation.
He who faced me was a yellow man—a little, wizened-up, pasty-faced old fello_ith great eyes that showed the white round the entire circumference of th_ris.
His companion was a black man, and I did not need to see his face to know tha_t was Thurid, for there was no other of the First Born north of the ice- barrier.
Thurid was speaking as I came within hearing of the men's voices.
"Solan," he was saying, "there is no risk and the reward is great. You kno_hat you hate Salensus Oll and that nothing would please you more than t_hwart him in some cherished plan. There be nothing that he more cherishe_oday than the idea of wedding the beautiful Princess of Helium; but I, too, want her, and with your help I may win her.
"You need not more than step from this room for an instant when I give you th_ignal. I will do the rest, and then, when I am gone, you may come and thro_he great switch back into its place, and all will be as before. I need but a_our's start to be safe beyond the devilish power that you control in thi_idden chamber beneath the palace of your master. See how easy," and with th_ords the black dator rose from his seat and, crossing the room, laid his han_pon a large, burnished lever that protruded from the opposite wall.
"No! No!" cried the little old man, springing after him, with a wild shriek.
"Not that one! Not that one! That controls the sunray tanks, and should yo_ull it too far down, all Kadabra would be consumed by heat before I coul_eplace it. Come away! Come away! You know not with what mighty powers yo_lay. This is the lever that you seek. Note well the symbol inlaid in whit_pon its ebon surface."
Thurid approached and examined the handle of the lever.
"Ah, a magnet," he said. "I will remember. It is settled then I take it," h_ontinued.
The old man hesitated. A look of combined greed and apprehension oversprea_is none too beautiful features.
"Double the figure," he said. "Even that were all too small an amount for th_ervice you ask. Why, I risk my life by even entertaining you here within th_orbidden precincts of my station. Should Salensus Oll learn of it he woul_ave me thrown to the apts before the day was done."
"He dare not do that, and you know it full well, Solan," contradicted th_lack. "Too great a power of life and death you hold over the people o_adabra for Salensus Oll ever to risk threatening you with death. Before eve_is minions could lay their hands upon you, you might seize this very leve_rom which you have just warned me and wipe out the entire city."
"And myself into the bargain," said Solan, with a shudder.
"But if you were to die, anyway, you would find the nerve to do it," replie_hurid.
"Yes," muttered Solan, "I have often thought upon that very thing. Well, Firs_orn, is your red princess worth the price I ask for my services, or will yo_o without her and see her in the arms of Salensus Oll tomorrow night?"
"Take your price, yellow man," replied Thurid, with an oath. "Half now and th_alance when you have fulfilled your contract."
With that the dator threw a well-filled money-pouch upon the table.
Solan opened the pouch and with trembling fingers counted its contents. Hi_eird eyes assumed a greedy expression, and his unkempt beard and mustach_witched with the muscles of his mouth and chin. It was quite evident from hi_ery mannerism that Thurid had keenly guessed the man's weakness—even th_lawlike, clutching movement of the fingers betokened the avariciousness o_he miser.
Having satisfied himself that the amount was correct, Solan replaced the mone_n the pouch and rose from the table.
"Now," he said, "are you quite sure that you know the way to your destination?
You must travel quickly to cover the ground to the cave and from thence beyon_he Great Power, all within a brief hour, for no more dare I spare you."
"Let me repeat it to you," said Thurid, "that you may see if I be letter- perfect."
"Proceed," replied Solan.
"Through yonder door," he commenced, pointing to a door at the far end of th_partment, "I follow a corridor, passing three diverging corridors upon m_ight; then into the fourth right-hand corridor straight to where thre_orridors meet; here again I follow to the right, hugging the left wal_losely to avoid the pit.
"At the end of this corridor I shall come to a spiral runway, which I mus_ollow down instead of up; after that the way is along but a single branchles_orridor. Am I right?"
"Quite right, Dator," answered Solan; "and now begone. Already have yo_empted fate too long within this forbidden place."
"Tonight, or tomorrow, then, you may expect the signal," said Thurid, risin_o go.
"Tonight, or tomorrow," repeated Solan, and as the door closed behind hi_uest the old man continued to mutter as he turned back to the table, where h_gain dumped the contents of the money-pouch, running his fingers through th_eap of shining metal; piling the coins into little towers; counting, recounting, and fondling the wealth the while he muttered on and on in _rooning undertone.
Presently his fingers ceased their play; his eyes popped wider than ever a_hey fastened upon the door through which Thurid had disappeared. The croo_hanged to a querulous muttering, and finally to an ugly growl.
Then the old man rose from the table, shaking his fist at the closed door. No_e raised his voice, and his words came distinctly.
"Fool!" he muttered. "Think you that for your happiness Solan will give up hi_ife? If you escaped, Salensus Oll would know that only through my connivanc_ould you have succeeded. Then would he send for me. What would you have m_o? Reduce the city and myself to ashes? No, fool, there is a better way—_etter way for Solan to keep thy money and be revenged upon Salensus Oll."
He laughed in a nasty, cackling note.
"Poor fool! You may throw the great switch that will give you the freedom o_he air of Okar, and then, in fatuous security, go on with thy red princess t_he freedom of—death. When you have passed beyond this chamber in your flight, what can prevent Solan replacing the switch as it was before your vile han_ouched it? Nothing; and then the Guardian of the North will claim you an_our woman, and Salensus Oll, when he sees your dead bodies, will never drea_hat the hand of Solan had aught to do with the thing."
Then his voice dropped once more into mutterings that I could not translate, but I had heard enough to cause me to guess a great deal more, and I thanke_he kind Providence that had led me to this chamber at a time so filled wit_mportance to Dejah Thoris and myself as this.
But how to pass the old man now! The cord, almost invisible upon the floor, stretched straight across the apartment to a door upon the far side.
There was no other way of which I knew, nor could I afford to ignore th_dvice to "follow the rope." I must cross this room, but however I shoul_ccomplish it undetected with that old man in the very center of it baffle_e.
Of course I might have sprung in upon him and with my bare hands silenced hi_orever, but I had heard enough to convince me that with him alive th_nowledge that I had gained might serve me at some future moment, while shoul_ kill him and another be stationed in his place Thurid would not come hithe_ith Dejah Thoris, as was quite evidently his intention.
As I stood in the dark shadow of the tunnel's end racking my brain for _easible plan the while I watched, catlike, the old man's every move, he too_p the money-pouch and crossed to one end of the apartment, where, bending t_is knees, he fumbled with a panel in the wall.
Instantly I guessed that here was the hiding place in which he hoarded hi_ealth, and while he bent there, his back toward me, I entered the chambe_pon tiptoe, and with the utmost stealth essayed to reach the opposite sid_efore he should complete his task and turn again toward the room's center.
Scarcely thirty steps, all told, must I take, and yet it seemed to m_verwrought imagination that that farther wall was miles away; but at last _eached it, nor once had I taken my eyes from the back of the old miser'_ead.
He did not turn until my hand was upon the button that controlled the doo_hrough which my way led, and then he turned away from me as I passed throug_nd gently closed the door.
For an instant I paused, my ear close to the panel, to learn if he ha_uspected aught, but as no sound of pursuit came from within I wheeled an_ade my way along the new corridor, following the rope, which I coiled an_rought with me as I advanced.
But a short distance farther on I came to the rope's end at a point where fiv_orridors met. What was I to do? Which way should I turn? I was nonplused.
A careful examination of the end of the rope revealed the fact that it ha_een cleanly cut with some sharp instrument. This fact and the words that ha_autioned me that danger lay beyond the KNOTS convinced me that the rope ha_een severed since my friend had placed it as my guide, for I had but passed _ingle knot, whereas there had evidently been two or more in the entire lengt_f the cord.
Now, indeed, was I in a pretty fix, for neither did I know which avenue t_ollow nor when danger lay directly in my path; but there was nothing else t_e done than follow one of the corridors, for I could gain nothing b_emaining where I was.
So I chose the central opening, and passed on into its gloomy depths with _rayer upon my lips.
The floor of the tunnel rose rapidly as I advanced, and a moment later the wa_ame to an abrupt end before a heavy door.
I could hear nothing beyond, and, with my accustomed rashness, pushed th_ortal wide to step into a room filled with yellow warriors.
The first to see me opened his eyes wide in astonishment, and at the sam_nstant I felt the tingling sensation in my finger that denoted the presenc_f a friend of the ring.
Then others saw me, and there was a concerted rush to lay hands upon me, fo_hese were all members of the palace guard—men familiar with my face.
The first to reach me was the wearer of the mate to my strange ring, and as h_ame close he whispered: "Surrender to me!" then in a loud voice shouted: "Yo_re my prisoner, white man," and menaced me with his two weapons.
And so John Carter, Prince of Helium, meekly surrendered to a singl_ntagonist. The others now swarmed about us, asking many questions, but _ould not talk to them, and finally my captor announced that he would lead m_ack to my cell.
An officer ordered several other warriors to accompany him, and a moment late_e were retracing the way I had just come. My friend walked close beside me, asking many silly questions about the country from which I had come, unti_inally his fellows paid no further attention to him or his gabbling.
Gradually, as he spoke, he lowered his voice, so that presently he was able t_onverse with me in a low tone without attracting attention. His ruse was _lever one, and showed that Talu had not misjudged the man's fitness for th_angerous duty upon which he was detailed.
When he had fully assured himself that the other guardsmen were not listening, he asked me why I had not followed the rope, and when I told him that it ha_nded at the five corridors he said that it must have been cut by someone i_eed of a piece of rope, for he was sure that "the stupid Kadabrans woul_ever have guessed its purpose."
Before we had reached the spot from which the five corridors diverge m_arentinian friend had managed to drop to the rear of the little column wit_e, and when we came in sight of the branching ways he whispered:
"Run up the first upon the right. It leads to the watchtower upon the sout_all. I will direct the pursuit up the next corridor," and with that he gav_e a great shove into the dark mouth of the tunnel, at the same time cryin_ut in simulated pain and alarm as he threw himself upon the floor as though _ad felled him with a blow.
From behind the voices of the excited guardsmen came reverberating along th_orridor, suddenly growing fainter as Talu's spy led them up the wron_assageway in fancied pursuit.
As I ran for my life through the dark galleries beneath the palace of Salensu_ll I must indeed have presented a remarkable appearance had there been any t_ote it, for though death loomed large about me, my face was split by a broa_rin as I thought of the resourcefulness of the nameless hero of Marentina t_hom I owed my life.
Of such stuff are the men of my beloved Helium, and when I meet another o_heir kind, of whatever race or color, my heart goes out to him as it did no_o my new friend who had risked his life for me simply because I wore the mat_o the ring his ruler had put upon his finger.
The corridor along which I ran led almost straight for a considerabl_istance, terminating at the foot of a spiral runway, up which I proceeded t_merge presently into a circular chamber upon the first floor of a tower.
In this apartment a dozen red slaves were employed polishing or repairing th_eapons of the yellow men. The walls of the room were lined with racks i_hich were hundreds of straight and hooked swords, javelins, and daggers. I_as evidently an armory. There were but three warriors guarding the workers.
My eyes took in the entire scene at a glance. Here were weapons in plenty!
Here were sinewy red warriors to wield them!
And here now was John Carter, Prince of Helium, in need both of weapons an_arriors!
As I stepped into the apartment, guards and prisoners saw me simultaneously.
Close to the entrance where I stood was a rack of straight swords, and as m_and closed upon the hilt of one of them my eyes fell upon the faces of two o_he prisoners who worked side by side.
One of the guards started toward me. "Who are you?" he demanded. "What do yo_ere?"
"I come for Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, and his son, Mors Kajak," I cried, pointing to the two red prisoners, who had now sprung to their feet, wide-eye_n astonished recognition.
"Rise, red men! Before we die let us leave a memorial in the palace of Okar'_yrant that will stand forever in the annals of Kadabra to the honor and glor_f Helium," for I had seen that all the prisoners there were men of Tardo_ors's navy.
Then the first guardsman was upon me and the fight was on, but scarce did w_ngage ere, to my horror, I saw that the red slaves were shackled to th_loor.