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The Old Man Of The Pits







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

"I shall not desert you, Ghek," said Tara of Helium, simply.

"Go! Go!" whispered the kaldane. "You can do me no good. Go, or
all I have done is for naught."

Tara shook her head. "I cannot," she said.

"They will slay her," said Ghek to Turan, and the panthan, torn
between loyalty to this strange creature who had offered its life
for him, and love of the woman, hesitated but a moment, then he
swept Tara from her feet and lifting her in his arms leaped up
the steps that led to the throne of Manator. Behind the throne he
parted the arras and found the secret opening. Into this he bore
the girl and down a long, narrow corridor and winding runways
that led to lower levels until they came to the pits of the
palace of O-Tar. Here was a labyrinth of passages and chambers
presenting a thousand hiding-places.

As Turan bore Tara up the steps toward the throne a score of
warriors rose as though to rush forward to intercept them.
"Stay!" cried Ghek, "or your jeddak dies," and they halted in
their tracks, waiting the will of this strange, uncanny creature.

Presently Ghek took his eyes from the eyes of O-Tar and the
jeddak shook himself as one who would be rid of a bad dream and
straightened up, half dazed still.

"Look," said Ghek, then, "I have given your jeddak his life,
nor have I harmed one of those whom I might easily have slain
when they were in my power. No harm have I or my friends done in
the city of Manator. Why then should you persecute us? Give us
our lives. Give us our liberty."

O-Tar, now in command of his faculties, stooped and regained his
sword. In the room was silence as all waited to hear the jeddak's
answer.

"Just are the laws of Manator," he said at last. "Perhaps, after
all, there is truth in the words of the stranger. Return him then
to the pits and pursue the others and capture them. Through the
mercy of O-Tar they shall be permitted to win their freedom upon
the Field of Jetan, in the coming games."

Still ashen was the face of the jeddak as Ghek was led away and
his appearance was that of a man who had been snatched from the
brink of eternity into which he has gazed, not with the composure
of great courage, but with fear. There were those in the throne
room who knew that the execution of the three prisoners had but
been delayed and the responsibility placed upon the shoulders of
others, and one of those who knew was U-Thor, the great jed of
Manatos. His curling lip betokened his scorn of the jeddak who
had chosen humiliation rather than death. He knew that O-Tar had
lost more of prestige in those few moments than he could regain
in a lifetime, for the Martians are jealous of the courage of
their chiefs--there can be no evasions of stern duty, no
temporizing with honor. That there were others in the room who
shared U-Thor's belief was evidenced by the silence and the grim
scowls.

O-Tar glanced quickly around. He must have sensed the hostility
and guessed its cause, for he went suddenly angry, and as one who
seeks by the vehemence of his words to establish the courage of
his heart he roared forth what could be considered as naught
other than a challenge.

"The will of O-Tar, the jeddak, is the law of Manator," he cried,
"and the laws of Manator are just--they cannot err. U-Dor,
dispatch those who will search the palace, the pits, and the
city, and return the fugitives to their cells.

"And now for you, U-Thor of Manatos! Think you with impunity to
threaten your jeddak--to question his right to punish traitors
and instigators of treason? What am I to think of your own
loyalty, who takes to wife a woman I have banished from my court
because of her intrigues against the authority of her jeddak and
her master? But O-Tar is just. Make your explanations and your
peace, then, before it is too late."

"U-Thor has nothing to explain," replied the jed of Manatos; "nor
is he at war with his jeddak; but he has the right that every jed
and every warrior enjoys, of demanding justice at the hands of
the jeddak for whomsoever he believes to be persecuted. With
increasing rigor has the jeddak of Manator persecuted the slaves
from Gathol since he took to himself the unwilling Princess Haja.
If the slaves from Gathol have harbored thoughts of vengeance and
escape 'tis no more than might be expected from a proud and
courageous people. Ever have I counselled greater fairness in our
treatment of our slaves, many of whom, in their own lands, are
people of great distinction and power; but always has O-Tar, the
jeddak, flouted with arrogance my every suggestion. Though it has
been through none of my seeking that the question has arisen now
I am glad that it has, for the time was bound to come when the
jeds of Manator would demand from O-Tar the respect and
consideration that is their due from the man who holds his high
office at their pleasure. Know, then, O-Tar, that you must free
A-Kor, the dwar, forthwith or bring him to fair trial before the
assembled jeds of Manator. I have spoken."

"You have spoken well and to the point, U-Thor," cried O-Tar,
"for you have revealed to your jeddak and your fellow jeds the
depth of the disloyalty that I have long suspected. A-Kor already
has been tried and sentenced by the supreme tribunal of
Manator--O-Tar, the jeddak; and you too shall receive justice
from the same unfailing source. In the meantime you are under
arrest. To the pits with him! To the pits with U-Thor the false
jed!" He clapped his hands to summon the surrounding warriors to
do his bidding. A score leaped forward to seize U-Thor. They were
warriors of the palace, mostly; but two score leaped to defend
U-Thor, and with ringing steel they fought at the foot of the
steps to the throne of Manator where stood O-Tar, the jeddak,
with drawn sword ready to take his part in the
melee.

At the clash of steel, palace guards rushed to the scene from
other parts of the great building until those who would have
defended U-Thor were outnumbered two to one, and then the jed of
Manatos slowly withdrew with his forces, and fighting his way
through the corridors and chambers of the palace came at last to
the avenue. Here he was reinforced by the little army that had
marched with him into Manator. Slowly they retreated toward The
Gate of Enemies between the rows of silent people looking down
upon them from the balconies and there, within the city walls,
they made their stand.

In a dimly-lighted chamber beneath the palace of O-Tar the
jeddak, Turan the panthan lowered Tara of Helium from his arms
and faced her. "I am sorry, Princess," he said, "that I was
forced to disobey your commands, or to abandon Ghek; but there
was no other way. Could he have saved you I would have stayed in
his place. Tell me that you forgive me."

"How could I do less?" she replied graciously. "But it seemed
cowardly to abandon a friend."

"Had we been three fighting men it had been different," he said.
"We could only have remained and died together, fighting; but you
know, Tara of Helium, that we may not jeopardize a woman's safety
even though we risk the loss of honor."

"I know that, Turan," she said; "but no one may say that you have
risked honor, who knows the honor and bravery that are yours."

He heard her with surprise for these were the first words that
she had spoken to him that did not savor of the attitude of a
princess to a panthan--though it was more in her tone than the
actual words that he apprehended the difference. How at variance
were they to her recent repudiation of him! He could not fathom
her, and so he blurted out the question that had been in his mind
since she had told O-Tar that she did not know him.

"Tara of Helium," he said, "your words are balm to the wound you
gave me in the throne room of O-Tar. Tell me, Princess, why you
denied me."

She turned her great, deep eyes up to his and in them was a
little of reproach.

"You did not guess," she asked, "that it was my lips alone and
not my heart that denied you? O-Tar had ordered that I die, more
because I was a companion of Ghek than because of any evidence
against me, and so I knew that if I acknowledged you as one of
us, you would be slain, too."

"It was to save me, then?" he cried, his face suddenly lighting.

"It was to save my brave panthan," she said in a low voice.

"Tara of Helium," said the warrior, dropping to one knee, "your
words are as food to my hungry heart," and he took her fingers in
his and pressed them to his lips.

Gently she raised him to his feet. "You need not tell me,
kneeling," she said, softly.

Her hand was still in his as he rose and they were very close,
and the man was still flushed with the contact of her body since
he had carried her from the throne room of O-Tar. He felt his
heart pounding in his breast and the hot blood surging through
his veins as he looked at her beautiful face, with its downcast
eyes and the half-parted lips that he would have given a kingdom
to possess, and then he swept her to him and as he crushed her
against his breast his lips smothered hers with kisses.

But only for an instant. Like a tigress the girl turned upon
him, striking him, and thrusting him away. She stepped back, her
head high and her eyes flashing fire. "You would dare?" she
cried. "You would dare thus defile a princess of Helium?"

His eyes met hers squarely and there was no shame and no remorse
in them.

"Yes, I would dare," he said. "I would dare love Tara of Helium;
but I would not dare defile her or any woman with kisses that
were not prompted by love of her alone." He stepped closer to her
and laid his hands upon her shoulders. "Look into my eyes,
daughter of The Warlord," he said, "and tell me that you do not
wish the love of Turan, the panthan."

"I do not wish your love," she cried, pulling away. "I hate you!"
and then turning away she bent her head into the hollow of her
arm, and wept.

The man took a step toward her as though to comfort her when he
was arrested by the sound of a crackling laugh behind him.
Wheeling about, he discovered a strange figure of a man standing
in a doorway. It was one of those rarities occasionally to be
seen upon Barsoom--an old man with the signs of age upon him.
Bent and wrinkled, he had more the appearance of a mummy than a
man.

"Love in the pits of O-Tar!" he cried, and again his thin
laughter jarred upon the silence of the subterranean vaults. "A
strange place to woo! A strange place to woo, indeed! When I was
a young man we roamed in the gardens beneath giant pimalias and
stole our kisses in the brief shadows of hurtling Thuria. We came
not to the gloomy pits to speak of love; but times have changed
and ways have changed, though I had never thought to live to see
the time when the way of a man with a maid, or a maid with a man
would change. Ah, but we kissed them then! And what if they
objected, eh? What if they objected? Why, we kissed them more.
Ey, ey, those were the days!" and he cackled again. "Ey, well do
I recall the first of them I ever kissed, and I've kissed an army
of them since; she was a fine girl, but she tried to slip a
dagger into me while I was kissing her. Ey, ey, those were the
days! But I kissed her. She's been dead over a thousand years
now, but she was never kissed again like that while she lived,
I'll swear, not since she's been dead, either. And then there was
that other--" but Turan, seeing a thousand or more years of
osculatory memoirs portending, interrupted.

"Tell me, ancient one," he said, "not of thy loves but of
thyself. Who are you? What do you here in the pits of O-Tar?"

"I might ask you the same, young man," replied the other. "Few
there are who visit the pits other than the dead, except my
pupils--ey! That is it--you are new pupils! Good! But never
before have they sent a woman to learn the great art from the
greatest artist. But times have changed. Now, in my day the women
did no work--they were just for kissing and loving. Ey, those
were the women. I mind the one we captured in the south--ey! she
was a devil, but how she could love. She had breasts of marble
and a heart of fire. Why, she--"

"Yes, yes," interrupted Turan; "we are pupils, and we are anxious
to get to work. Lead on and we will follow."

"Ey, yes! Ey, yes! Come! All is rush and hurry as though there
were not another countless myriad of ages ahead. Ey, yes! as many
as lie behind. Two thousand years have passed since I broke my
shell and always rush, rush, rush, yet I cannot see that aught
has been accomplished. Manator is the same today as it was
then--except the girls. We had the girls then. There was one that
I gained upon The Fields of Jetan. Ey, but you should have seen
--"

"Lead on!" cried Turan. "After we are at work you shall tell us
of her."

"Ey, yes," said the old fellow and shuffled off down a dimly
lighted passage. "Follow me!"

"You are going with him?" asked Tara.

"Why not?" replied Turan. "We know not where we are, or the way
from these pits; for I know not east from west; but he doubtless
knows and if we are shrewd we may learn from him that which we
would know. At least we cannot afford to arouse his suspicions";
and so they followed him--followed along winding corridors and
through many chambers, until they came at last to a room in which
there were several marble slabs raised upon pedestals some three
feet above the floor and upon each slab lay a human corpse.

"Here we are," exclaimed the old man. "These are fresh and we
shall have to get to work upon them soon. I am working now on one
for The Gate of Enemies. He slew many of our warriors. Truly is
he entitled to a place in The Gate. Come, you shall see him."

He led them to an adjoining apartment. Upon the floor were many
fresh, human bones and upon a marble slab a mass of shapeless
flesh.

"You will learn this later," announced the old man; "but it will
not harm you to watch me now, for there are not many thus
prepared, and it may be long before you will have the opportunity
to see another prepared for The Gate of Enemies. First, you see,
I remove all the bones, carefully that the skin may be damaged as
little as possible. The skull is the most difficult, but it can
be removed by a skilful artist. You see, I have made but a single
opening. This I now sew up, and that done, the body is hung so,"
and he fastened a piece of rope to the hair of the corpse and
swung the horrid thing to a ring in the ceiling. Directly below
it was a circular manhole in the floor from which he removed the
cover revealing a well partially filled with a reddish liquid.
"Now we lower it into this, the formula for which you shall learn
in due time. We fasten it thus to the bottom of the cover, which
we now replace. In a year it will be ready; but it must be
examined often in the meantime and the liquid kept above the
level of its crown. It will be a very beautiful piece, this one,
when it is ready.

"And you are fortunate again, for there is one to come out
today." He crossed to the opposite side of the room and raised
another cover, reached in and dragged a grotesque looking figure
from the hole. It was a human body, shrunk by the action of the
chemical in which it had been immersed, to a little figure scarce
a foot high.

"Ey! is it not fine?" cried the little old man. "Tomorrow it will
take its place in The Gate of Enemies." He dried it off with
cloths and packed it away carefully in a basket. "Perhaps you
would like to see some of my life work," he suggested, and
without waiting for their assent led them to another apartment, a
large chamber in which were forty or fifty people. All were
sitting or standing quietly about the walls, with the exception
of one huge warrior who bestrode a great thoat in the very center
of the room, and all were motionless. Instantly there sprang to
the minds of Tara and Turan the rows of silent people upon the
balconies that lined the avenues of the city, and the noble array
of mounted warriors in The Hall of Chiefs, and the same
explanation came to both but neither dared voice the question
that was in his mind, for fear of revealing by his ignorance the
fact that they were strangers in Manator and therefore impostors
in the guise of pupils.

"It is very wonderful," said Turan. "It must require great skill
and patience and time."

"That it does," replied the old man, "though having done it so
long I am quicker than most; but mine are the most natural. Why,
I would defy the wife of that warrior to say that insofar as
appearances are concerned he does not live," and he pointed at
the man upon the thoat. "Many of them, of course, are brought
here wasted or badly wounded and these I have to repair. That is
where great skill is required, for everyone wants his dead to
look as they did at their best in life; but you shall learn--to
mount them and paint them and repair them and sometimes to make
an ugly one look beautiful. And it will be a great comfort to be
able to mount your own. Why, for fifteen hundred years no one has
mounted my own dead but myself.

"I have many, my balconies are crowded with them; but I keep a
great room for my wives. I have them all, as far back as the
first one, and many is the evening I spend with them--quiet
evenings and very pleasant. And then the pleasure of preparing
them and making them even more beautiful than in life partially
recompenses one for their loss. I take my time with them, looking
for a new one while I am working on the old. When I am not sure
about a new one I bring her to the chamber where my wives are,
and compare her charms with theirs, and there is always a great
satisfaction at such times in knowing that they will not object.
I love harmony."

"Did you prepare all the warriors in The Hall of Chiefs?" asked
Turan.

"Yes, I prepare them and repair them," replied the old man.
"O-Tar will trust no other. Even now I have two in another room
who were damaged in some way and brought down to me. O-Tar does
not like to have them gone long, since it leaves two riderless
thoats in the Hall; but I shall have them ready presently. He
wants them all there in the event any momentous question arises
upon which the living jeds cannot agree, or do not agree with
O-Tar. Such questions he carries to the jeds in The Hall of
Chiefs. There he shuts himself up alone with the great chiefs who
have attained wisdom through death. It is an excellent plan and
there is never any friction or misunderstandings. O-Tar has said
that it is the finest deliberative body upon Barsoom--much more
intelligent than that composed of the living jeds. But come, we
must get to work; come into the next chamber and I will begin
your instruction."

He led the way into the chamber in which lay the several corpses
upon their marble slabs, and going to a cabinet he donned a pair
of huge spectacles and commenced to select various tools from
little compartments. This done he turned again toward his two
pupils.

"Now let me have a look at you," he said. "My eyes are not what
they once were, and I need these powerful lenses for my work, or
to see distinctly the features of those around me."

He turned his eyes upon the two before him. Turan held his breath
for he knew that now the man must discover that they wore not the
harness or insignia of Manator. He had wondered before why the
old fellow had not noticed it, for he had not known that he was
half blind. The other examined their faces, his eyes lingering
long upon the beauty of Tara of Helium, and then they drifted to
the harness of the two. Turan thought that he noted an
appreciable start of surprise on the part of the taxidermist, but
if the old man noticed anything his next words did not reveal it.

"Come with I-Gos," he said to Turan, "I have materials in the
next room that I would have you fetch hither. Remain here, woman,
we shall be gone but a moment."

He led the way to one of the numerous doors opening into the
chamber and entered ahead of Turan. Just inside the door he
stopped, and pointing to a bundle of silks and furs upon the
opposite side of the room directed Turan to fetch them. The
latter had crossed the room and was stooping to raise the bundle
when he heard the click of a lock behind him. Wheeling instantly
he saw that he was alone in the room and that the single door was
closed. Running rapidly to it he strove to open it, only to find
that he was a prisoner.

I-Gos, stepping out and locking the door behind him, turned
toward Tara.

"Your leather betrayed you," he said, laughing his cackling
laugh. "You sought to deceive old I-Gos, but you found that
though his eyes are weak his brain is not. But it shall not go
ill with you. You are beautiful and I-Gos loves beautiful women.
I might not have you elsewhere in Manator, but here there is none
to deny old I-Gos. Few come to the pits of the dead--only those
who bang the dead and they hasten away as fast as they can. No
one will know that I-Gos has a beautiful woman locked with his
dead. I shall ask you no questions and then I will not have to
give you up, for I will not know to whom you belong, eh? And when
you die I shall mount you beautifully and place you in the
chamber with my other women. Will not that be fine, eh?" He had
approached until he stood close beside the horrified girl.
"Come!" he cried, seizing her by the wrist. "Come to I-Gos!"





Next: Another Change Of Name

Previous: At Ghek's Command



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