The dawn, streaming into the niche, awakened us. A covey of partridges venturing too close yielded three to our guns. We breakfasted well, and a little later were pushing on down the cleft.
Its descent, though gradual, was continuous, and therefore I was not surprised when soon we began to come upon evidences of semi-tropical vegetation. Giant rhododendrons and tree ferns gave way to occasional clumps of stately kopek and clumps of the hardier bamboos. We added a few snow cocks to our larder — although they were out of their habitat, flying down into the gorge from their peaks and table-lands for some choice tidbit.
All that day we marched on, and when at night we made camp, sleep came to us quickly and overmastering. An hour after dawn we were on our way. A brief stop we made for lunch; pressed forward.
It was close to two when we caught the first sight of the ruins.
The soaring, verdure-clad walls of the canyon had long been steadily marching closer. Above, between their rims the wide ribbon of sky was like a fantastically shored river, shimmering, dazzling; every cove and headland edged with an opalescent glimmering as of shining pearly beaches.
And as though we were sinking in that sky stream’s depths its light kept lessening, darkening imperceptibly with luminous shadows of ghostly beryl, drifting veils of pellucid aquamarine, limpid mists of glaucous chrysolite.
Fainter, more crepuscular became the light, yet never losing its crystalline quality. Now the high overhead river was but a brook; became a thread. Abruptly it vanished.
We passed into a tunnel, fern walled, fern roofed, garlanded with tawny orchids, gay with carmine fungus and golden moss. We stepped out into a blaze of sunlight.
Before us lay a wide green bowl held in the hands of the clustered hills; shallow, circular, as though, while plastic still, the thumb of God had run round its rim, shaping it. Around it the peaks crowded, craning their lofty heads to peer within.
It was about a mile in its diameter, this hollow, as my gaze then measured it. It had three openings — one that lay like a crack in the northeast slope; another, the tunnel mouth through which we had come. The third lifted itself out of the bowl, creeping up the precipitous bare scarp of the western barrier straight to the north, clinging to the ochreous rock up and up until it vanished around a far distant shoulder.
It was a wide and bulwarked road, a road that spoke as clearly as though it had tongue of human hands which had cut it there in the mountain’s breast. An ancient road weary beyond belief beneath the tread of uncounted years.
From the hollow the blind soul of loneliness groped out to greet us!
Never had I felt such loneliness as that which lapped the lip of the verdant bowl. It was tangible — as though it had been poured from some reservoir of misery. A pool of despair —
Half the width of the valley away the ruins began. Weirdly were they its visible expression. They huddled in two bent rows to the bottom. They crouched in a wide cluster against the cliffs. From the cluster a curving row of them ran along the southern crest of the hollow.
A flight of shattered, cyclopean steps lifted to a ledge and here a crumbling fortress stood.
Irresistibly did the ruins seem a colossal hag, flung prone, lying listlessly, helplessly, against the barrier’s base. The huddled lower ranks were the legs, the cluster the body, the upper row an outflung arm and above the neck of the stairway the ancient fortress, rounded and with two huge ragged apertures in its northern front was an aged, bleached and withered head staring, watching.
I looked at Drake — the spell of the bowl was heavy upon him, his face drawn. The Chinaman and Tibetan were murmuring, terror written large upon them.
“A hell of a joint!” Drake turned to me, a shadow of a grin lightening the distress on his face. “But I’d rather chance it than go back. What d’you say?”
I nodded, curiosity mastering my oppression. We stepped over the rim, rifles on the alert. Close behind us crowded the two servants and the ponies.
The vale was shallow, as I have said. We trod the fragments of an olden approach to the green tunnel so the descent was not difficult. Here and there beside the path upreared huge broken blocks. On them I thought I could see faint tracings as of carvings — now a suggestion of gaping, arrow-fanged dragon jaws, now the outline of a scaled body, a hint of enormous, batlike wings.
Now we had reached the first of the crumbling piles that stretched down into the valley’s center.
Half fainting, I fell against Drake, clutching to him for support.
A stream of utter hopelessness was racing upon us, swirling and eddying around us, reaching to our hearts with ghostly fingers dripping with despair. From every shattered heap it seemed to pour, rushing down the road upon us like a torrent, engulfing us, submerging, drowning.
Unseen it was — yet tangible as water; it sapped the life from every nerve. Weariness filled me, a desire to drop upon the stones, to be rolled away. To die. I felt Drake’s body quivering even as mine; knew that he was drawing upon every reserve of strength.
“Steady,” he muttered. “Steady —”
The Tibetan shrieked and fled, the ponies scrambling after him. Dimly I remembered that mine carried precious specimens; a surge of anger passed, beating back the anguish. I heard a sob from Chiu–Ming, saw him drop.
Drake stopped, drew him to his feet. We placed him between us, thrust each an arm through his own. Then, like swimmers, heads bent, we pushed on, buffeting that inexplicable invisible flood.
As the path rose, its force lessened, my vitality grew, and the terrible desire to yield and be swept away waned. Now we had reached the foot of the cyclopean stairs, now we were half up them — and now as we struggled out upon the ledge on which the watching fortress stood, the clutching stream shoaled swiftly, the shoal became safe, dry land and the cheated, unseen maelstrom swirled harmlessly beneath us.
We stood erect, gasping for breath, again like swimmers who have fought their utmost and barely, so barely, won.
There was an almost imperceptible movement at the side of the ruined portal.
Out darted a girl. A rifle dropped from her hands. Straight she sped toward me.
And as she ran I recognized her.
The flying figure reached me, threw soft arms around my neck, was weeping in relieved gladness on my shoulder.
“Ruth!” I cried. “What on earth are YOU doing here?”
“Walter!” she sobbed. “Walter Goodwin — Oh, thank God! Thank God!”
She drew herself from my arms, catching her breath; laughed shakily.
I took swift stock of her. Save for fear upon her, she was the same Ruth I had known three years before; wide, deep blue eyes that were now all seriousness, now sparkling wells of mischief; petite, rounded and tender; the fairest skin; an impudent little nose; shining clusters of intractable curls; all human, sparkling and sweet.
Drake coughed, insinuatingly. I introduced him.
“I— I watched you struggling through that dreadful pit.” She shuddered. “I could not see who you were, did not know whether friend or enemy — but oh, my heart almost died in pity for you, Walter,” she breathed. “What can it be — THERE?”
I shook my head.
“Martin could not see you,” she went on. “He was watching the road that leads above. But I ran down — to help.”
“Mart watching?” I asked. “Watching for what?”
“I—” she hesitated oddly. “I think I’d rather tell you before him. It’s so strange — so incredible.”
She led us through the broken portal and into the fortress. It was more gigantic even than I had thought. The floor of the vast chamber we had entered was strewn with fragments fallen from the crackling, stone-vaulted ceiling. Through the breaks light streamed from the level above us.
We picked our way among the debris to a wide crumbling stairway, crept up it, Ruth flitting ahead. We came out opposite one of the eye-like apertures. Black against it, perched high upon a pile of blocks, I recognized the long, lean outline of Ventnor, rifle in hand, gazing intently up the ancient road whose windings were plain through the opening. He had not heard us.
“Martin,” called Ruth softly.
He turned. A shaft of light from a crevice in the gap’s edge struck his face, flashing it out from the semidarkness of the corner in which he crouched. I looked into the quiet gray eyes, upon the keen face.
“Goodwin!” he shouted, tumbling down from his perch, shaking me by the shoulders. “If I had been in the way of praying — you’re the man I’d have prayed for. How did you get here?”
“Just wandering, Mart,” I answered. “But Lord! I’m sure GLAD to see you.”
“Which way did you come?” he asked, keenly. I threw my hand toward the south.
“Not through that hollow?” he asked incredulously.
“And some hell of a place to get through,” Drake broke in. “It cost us our ponies and all my ammunition.”
“Richard Drake,” I said. “Son of old Alvin — you knew him, Mart.”
“Knew him well,” cried Ventnor, seizing Dick’s hand. “Wanted me to go to Kamchatka to get some confounded sort of stuff for one of his devilish experiments. Is he well?”
“He’s dead,” replied Dick soberly.
“Oh!” said Ventnor. “Oh — I’m sorry. He was a great man.”
Briefly I acquainted him with my wanderings, my encounter with Drake.
“That place out there —” he considered us thoughtfully. “Damned if I know what it is. Thought maybe it’s gas — of a sort. If it hadn’t been for it we’d have been out of this hole two days ago. I’m pretty sure it must be gas. And it must be much less than it was this morning, for then we made an attempt to get through again — and couldn’t.”
I was hardly listening. Ventnor had certainly advanced a theory of our unusual symptoms that had not occurred to me. That hollow might indeed be a pocket into which a gas flowed; just as in the mines the deadly coal damp collects in pits, flows like a stream along the passages. It might be that — some odorless, colorless gas of unknown qualities; and yet —
“Did you try respirators?” asked Dick.
“Surely,” said Ventnor. “First off the go. But they weren’t of any use. The gas, if it is gas, seems to operate as well through the skin as through the nose and mouth. We just couldn’t make it — and that’s all there is to it. But if you made it — could we try it now, do you think?” he asked eagerly.
I felt myself go white.
“Not — not for a little while,” I stammered.
He nodded, understandingly.
“I see,” he said. “Well, we’ll wait a bit, then.”
“But why are you staying here? Why didn’t you make for the road up the mountain? What are you watching for, anyway?” asked Drake.
“Go to it, Ruth,” Ventnor grinned. “Tell ’em. After all — it was YOUR party you know.”
“Mart!” she cried, blushing.
“Well — it wasn’t ME they admired,” he laughed.
“Martin!” she cried again, and stamped her foot.
“Shoot,” he said. “I’m busy. I’ve got to watch.”
“Well”— Ruth’s voice was uncertain —“we’d been hunting up in Kashmir. Martin wanted to come over somewhere here. So we crossed the passes. That was about a month ago. The fourth day out we ran across what looked like a road running south.
“We thought we’d take it. It looked sort of old and lost — but it was going the way we wanted to go. It took us first into a country of little hills; then to the very base of the great range itself; finally into the mountains — and then it ran blank.”
“Bing!” interjected Ventnor, looking around for a moment. “Bing — just like that. Slap dash against a prodigious fall of rock. We couldn’t get over it.”
“So we cast about to find another road,” went on Ruth. “All we could strike were — just strikes.”
“No fish on the end of ’em,” said Ventnor. “God! But I’m glad to see you, Walter Goodwin. Believe me, I am. However — go on, Ruth.”
“At the end of the second week,” she said, “we knew we were lost. We were deep in the heart of the range. All around us was a forest of enormous, snow-topped peaks. The gorges, the canyons, the valleys that we tried led us east and west, north and south.
“It was a maze, and in it we seemed to be going ever deeper. There was not the SLIGHTEST sign of human life. It was as though no human beings except ourselves had ever been there. Game was plentiful. We had no trouble in getting food. And sooner or later, of course, we were bound to find our way out. We didn’t worry.
“It was five nights ago that we camped at the head of a lovely little valley. There was a mound that stood up like a tiny watch-tower, looking down it. The trees grew round like tall sentinels.
“We built our fire in that mound; and after we had eaten, Martin slept. I sat watching the beauty of the skies and of the shadowy vale. I heard no one approach — but something made me leap to my feet, look behind me.
“A man was standing just within the glow of firelight, watching me.”
“A Tibetan?” I asked. She shook her head, trouble in her eyes.
“Not at all.” Ventnor turned his head. “Ruth screamed and awakened me. I caught a glimpse of the fellow before he vanished.
“A short purple mantle hung from his shoulders. His chest was covered with fine chain mail. His legs were swathed and bound by the thongs of his high buskins. He carried a small, round, hide-covered shield and a short two-edged sword. His head was helmeted. He belonged, in fact — oh, at least twenty centuries back.”
He laughed in plain enjoyment of our amazement.
“Go on, Ruth,” he said, and took up his watch.
“But Martin did not see his face,” she went on. “And oh, but I wish I could forget it. It was as white as mine, Walter, and cruel, so cruel; the eyes glowed and they looked upon me like a — like a slave dealer. They shamed me — I wanted to hide myself.
“I cried out and Martin awakened. As he moved, the
man stepped out of the light and was gone. I think he had
not seen Martin; had believed that I was alone.
“We put out the fire, moved farther into the shadow of the trees. But I could not sleep — I sat hour after hour, my pistol in my hand,” she patted the automatic in her belt, “my rifle close beside me.
“The hours went by — dreadfully. At last I dozed. When I awakened again it was dawn — and — and —” she covered her eyes, then: “TWO men were looking down on me. One was he who had stood in the firelight.”
“They were talking,” interrupted Ventnor again, “in archaic Persian.”
“Persian,” I repeated blankly; “archaic Persian?”
“Very much so,” he nodded. “I’ve a fair knowledge of the modern tongue, and a rather unusual command of Arabic. The modern Persian, as you know, comes straight through from the speech of Xerxes, of Cyrus, of Darius whom Alexander of Macedon conquered. It has been changed mainly by taking on a load of Arabic words. Well — there wasn’t a trace of the Arabic in the tongue they were speaking.
“It sounded odd, of course — but I could understand quite easily. They were talking about Ruth. To be explicit, they were discussing her with exceeding frankness —”
“Martin!” she cried wrathfully.
“Well, all right,” he went on, half repentantly. “As a matter of fact, I had seen the pair steal up. My rifle was under my hand. So I lay there quietly, listening.
“You can realize, Walter, that when I caught sight of those two, looking as though they had materialized from Darius’s ghostly hordes, my scientific curiosity was aroused — prodigiously. So in my interest I passed over the matter of their speech; not alone because I thought Ruth asleep but also because I took into consideration that the mode of polite expression changes with the centuries — and these gentlemen clearly belonged at least twenty centuries back — the real truth is I was consumed with curiosity.
“They had got to a point where they were detailing with what pleasure a certain mysterious person whom they seemed to regard with much fear and respect would contemplate her. I was wondering how long my desire to observe — for to the anthropologist they were most fascinating — could hold my hand back from my rifle when Ruth awakened.
“She jumped up like a little fury. Fired a pistol point blank at them. Their amazement was — well — ludicrous. I know it seems incredible, but they seemed to know nothing of firearms — they certainly acted as though they didn’t.
“They simply flew into the timber. I took a pistol shot at one but missed. Ruth hadn’t though; she had winged her man; he left a red trail behind him.
“We didn’t follow the trail. We made for the opposite direction — and as fast as possible.
“Nothing happened that day or night. Next morning, creeping up a slope, we caught sight of a suspicious glitter a mile or two away in the direction we were going. We sought shelter in a small ravine. In a little while, over the hill and half a mile away from us, came about two hundred of these fellows, marching along.
“And they were indeed Darius’s men. Men of that Persia which had been dead for millenniums. There was no mistaking them, with their high, covering shields, their great bows, their javelins and armor.
“They passed; we doubled. We built no fires that night — and we ought to have turned the pony loose, but we didn’t. It carried my instruments, and ammunition, and I felt we were going to need the latter.
“The next morning we caught sight of another band — or the same. We turned again. We stole through a tree-covered plain; we struck an ancient road. It led south, into the peaks again. We followed it. It brought us here.
“It isn’t, as you observe, the most comfortable of places. We struck across the hollow to the crevice — we knew nothing of the entrance you came through. The hollow was not pleasant, either. But it was penetrable, then.
“We crossed. As we were about to enter the cleft there issued out of it a most unusual and disconcerting chorus of sounds — wailings, crashings, splinterings.”
I started, shot a look at Dick; absorbed, he was drinking in Ventnor’s every word.
“So unusual, so — well, disconcerting is the best word I can think of, that we were not encouraged to proceed. Also the peculiar unpleasantness of the hollow was increasing rapidly.
“We made the best time we could back to the fortress. And when next we tried to go through the hollow, to search for another outlet — we couldn’t. You know why,” he ended abruptly.
“But men in ancient armor. Men like those of Darius.” Dick broke the silence that had followed this amazing recital. “It’s incredible!”
“Yes,” agreed Ventnor, “isn’t it. But there they were. Of course, I don’t maintain that they WERE relics of Darius’s armies. They might have been of Xerxes before him — or of Artaxerxes after him. But there they certainly were, Drake, living, breathing replicas of exceedingly ancient Persians.
“Why, they might have been the wall carvings on the tomb of Khosroes come to life. I mention Darius because he fits in with the most plausible hypothesis. When Alexander the Great smashed his empire he did it rather thoroughly. There wasn’t much sympathy for the vanquished in those days. And it’s entirely conceivable that a city or two in Alexander’s way might have gathered up a fleeting regiment or so for protection and have decided not to wait for him, but to hunt for cover.
“Naturally, they would have gone into the almost inaccessible heart of the high ranges. There is nothing impossible in the theory that they found shelter at last up here. As long as history runs this has been a well-nigh unknown land. Penetrating some mountain-guarded, easily defended valley they might have decided to settle down for a time, have rebuilt a city, raised a government; laying low, in a sentence, waiting for the storm to blow over.
“Why did they stay? Well, they might have found the new life more pleasant than the old. And they might have been locked in their valley by some accident — landslides, rockfalls sealing up the entrance. There are a dozen reasonable possibilities.”
“But those who hunted you weren’t locked in,” objected Drake.
“No,” Ventnor grinned ruefully. “No, they certainly weren’t. Maybe we drifted into their preserves by a way they don’t know. Maybe they’ve found another way out. I’m sure I don’t know. But I DO know what I saw.”
“The noises, Martin,” I said, for his description of these had been the description of those we had heard in the blue valley. “Have you heard them since?”
“Yes,” he answered, hesitating oddly.
“And you think those — those soldiers you saw are still hunting for you?”
“Haven’t a doubt of it,” he replied more cheerfully. “They didn’t look like chaps who would give up a hunt easily — at least not a hunt for such novel, interesting, and therefore desirable and delectable game as we must have appeared to them.”
“Martin,” I said decisively, “where’s your pony? We’ll try the hollow again, at once. There’s Ruth — and we’d never be able to hold back such numbers as you’ve described.”
“You feel strong enough to try it?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11