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- Queen Sheba's Ring - 40/54 -
To take my own case, for instance. Here I was about to assist in an act which for aught I knew might involve the destruction of my only son. It was true we believed that this was the night of his marriage at the town of Harmac, some miles away, and that the tale of our spies supported this information. But how could we be sure that the date, or the place of the ceremony, had not been changed at the last moment? Supposing, for instance, that it was held, not in the town, as arranged, but in the courts of the idol, and that the fearful activities of the fiery agent which we were about to wake to life should sweep the celebrants into nothingness.
The thought made me turn cold, and yet the deed must be done; Roderick must take his chance. And if all were well, and he escaped that danger, were there not worse behind? Think of him, a Christian man, the husband of a savage woman who worshipped a stone image with a lion's head, bound to her and her tribe, a state prisoner, trebly guarded, whom, so far as I could see, there would be no hope of rescuing. It was awful. Then there were other complications. If the plan succeeded and the idol was destroyed, my own belief was that the Fung must thereby be exasperated. Evidently they knew some road into this stronghold. It would be used. They would pour their thousands up it, a general massacre would follow, of which, justly, we should be the first victims.
I reached the chamber where Oliver sat brooding alone, for Japhet was patrolling the line.
"I am not happy about Maqueda, Doctor," he said to me. "I am afraid there is something in that story. She wanted to be with us; indeed, she begged to be allowed to come almost with tears. But I wouldn't have it, since accidents may always happen; the vibration might shake in the roof or something; in fact, I don't think you should be here. Why don't you go away and leave me?"
I answered that nothing would induce me to do so, for such a job should not be left to one man.
"No, you're right," he said; "I might faint or lose my head or anything. I wish now that we had arranged to send the spark from the palace, which perhaps we might have done by joining the telephone wire on to the others. But, to tell you the truth, I'm afraid of the batteries. The cells are new but very weak, for time and the climate have affected them, and I thought it possible the extra difference might make the difference and that they would fail to work. That's why I fixed this as the firing point. Hullo, there's the bell. What have they got to say?"
I snatched the receiver, and presently heard the cheerful voice of Higgs announcing that they had arrived safely in the little anteroom to Maqueda's private apartments.
"The palace seems very empty," he added; "we only met one sentry, for I think that everybody else, except Maqueda and a few of her ladies, have cleared out, being afraid lest rocks should fall on them when the explosion occurs."
"Did the man say so?" I asked of Higgs.
"Yes, something of that sort; also he wanted to forbid us to come here, saying that it was against the Prince Joshua's orders that we Gentiles should approach the private apartments of the Child of Kings. Well, we soon settled that, and he bolted. Where to? Oh! I don't know; to report, he said."
"How's Quick?" I asked.
"Much the same as usual. In fact, he is saying his prayers in the corner, looking like a melancholy brigand with rifles, revolvers, and knives stuck all over him. I wish he wouldn't say his prayers," added Higgs, and his voice reached me in an indignant squeak; "it makes me feel uncomfortable, as though I ought to join him. But not having been brought up a Dissenter or a Moslem, I can't pray in public as he does. Hullo! Wait a minute, will you?"
Then followed a longish pause, and after it Higgs's voice again.
"It's all right," it said. "Only one of Maqueda's ladies who had heard us and come to see who we were. When she learns I expect she will join us here, as the girl says she's nervous and can't sleep."
Higgs proved right in his anticipations, for in about ten minutes we were rung up again, this time by Maqueda herself, whereon I handed the receiver to Oliver and retired to the other end of the room.
Nor, to tell the truth, was I sorry for the interruption, since it cheered up Oliver and helped to pass the time.
The next thing worth telling that happened was that, an hour or more later, Japhet arrived, looking very frightened. We asked him our usual question: if anything was wrong with the wires. With a groan he answered "No," the wires seemed all right, but he had met a ghost.
"What ghost, you donkey?" I said.
"The ghost of one of the dead kings, O Physician, yonder in the burial cave. It was he with the bent bones who sits in the farthest chair. Only he had put some flesh on his bones, and I tell you he looked fearful, a very fierce man, or rather ghost."
"Indeed, and did he say anything to you, Japhet?"
"Oh! yes, plenty, O Physician, only I could not understand it all, because his language was somewhat different to mine, and he spat out his words as a green log spits out sparks. I think that he asked me, however, how my miserable people dared to destroy his god, Harmac. I answered that I was only a servant and did not know, adding that he should put his questions to you."
"And what did he say to that, Japhet?"
"I think he said that Harmac would come to Mur and settle his account with the Abati, and that the foreign men would be wise to fly fast and far. That's all I understood; ask me no more, who would not return into that cave to be made a prince."
"He's got hold of what Barung's envoys told us," said Oliver, indifferently, "and no wonder, this place is enough to make anybody see ghosts. I'll repeat it to Maqueda; it will amuse her."
"I wouldn't if I were you," I answered, "for it isn't exactly a cheerful yarn, and perhaps she's afraid of ghosts too. Also," and I pointed to the watch that lay on the table beside the batteries, "it is five minutes to ten."
Oh! that last five minutes! It seemed as many centuries. Like stone statues we sat, each of us lost in his own thoughts, though for my part the power of clear thinking appeared to have left me. Visions of a sort flowed over my mind without sinking into it, as water flows over marble. All I could do was fix my eyes on the face of that watch, of which in the flickering lamp-light the second-hand seemed to my excited fancy to grow enormous and jump from one side of the room to the other.
Orme began to count aloud. "One, two, three, four, five--/now/!" and almost simultaneously he touched the knob first of one battery and next of the other. Before his finger pressed the left-hand knob I felt the solid rock beneath us surge--no other word conveys its movement. Then the great stone cross-piece, weighing several tons, that was set as a transom above the tall door of our room, dislodged itself, and fell quite gently into the doorway, which it completely blocked.
Other rocks fell also at a distance, making a great noise, and somehow I found myself on the ground, my stool had slid away from me. Next followed a muffled, awful roar, and with it came a blast of wind blowing where wind never blew before since the beginning of the world, that with a terrible wailing howled itself to silence in the thousand recesses of the cave city. As it passed our lamps went out. Lastly, quite a minute later I should think, there was a thud, as though something of enormous weight had fallen on the surface of the earth far above us.
Then all was as it had been; all was darkness and utter quietude.
"Well, that's over," said Oliver, in a strained voice which sounded very small and far away through that thick darkness; "all over for good or ill. I needn't have been anxious; the first battery was strong enough, for I felt the mine spring as I touched the second. I wonder," he went on, as though speaking to himself, "what amount of damage nearly a ton and a half of that awful azo-imide compound has done to the old sphinx. According to my calculations it ought to have been enough to break the thing up, if we could have spread the charge more. But, as it is, I am by no means certain. It may only have driven a hole in its bulk, especially if there were hollows through which the gases could run. Well, with luck, we may know more about it later. Strike a match, Adams, and light those lamps. Why, what's that? Listen!"
As he spoke, from somewhere came a series of tiny noises, that, though they were so faint and small, suggested rifles fired at a great distance. Crack, crack, crack! went the infinitesimal noises.
I groped about, and finding the receiver of the field telephone, set it to my ear. In an instant all grew plain to me. Guns were being fired near the other end of the wire, and the transmitter was sending us the sound of them. Very faintly but with distinctness I could hear Higgs's high voice saying, "Look out, Sergeant, there's another rush coming!" and Quick answering, "Shoot low, Professor; for the Lord's sake shoot low. You are empty, sir. Load up, load up! Here's a clip of cartridges. Don't fire too fast. Ah! that devil got me, but I've got him; he'll never throw another spear."
"They are being attacked!" I exclaimed. "Quick is wounded. Now Maqueda is talking to you. She says, 'Oliver, come! Joshua's men assail me. Oliver, come!'"
Then followed a great sound of shouting answered by more shots, and just as Orme snatched the receiver from my hand the wire went dead. In vain he called down it in an agonized voice. As well might he have addressed the planet Saturn.
"The wire's cut," he exclaimed, dashing down the receiver and seizing the lantern which Japhet had just succeeded in re-lighting; "come on, there's murder being done," and he sprang to the doorway, only to stagger back again from the great stone with which it was blocked.
"Good God!" he screamed, "we're shut in. How can we get out? How can we get out?" and he began to run round and round the room, and even to spring at the walls like a frightened cat. Thrice he sprang, striving to climb to the coping, for the place had no roof, each time falling
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