Down the stairway the girls were coming. There were six of them. Their beautiful faces were radiant with happy smiles of welcome that instantly dispelled the gloom of the dark surroundings as the rising sun dissipates night’s darkness and replaces her shadows with light and warmth and happiness.
Beautifully wrought harness, enriched by many a sparkling jewel, accentuated the loveliness of faultless figures. As they approached a vision of Tavia sprang to my mind. Beautiful as these girls unquestionably were, how much more beautiful was Tavia!
I recall distinctly, even now, that in that very instant with all that was transpiring to distract my attention, I was suddenly struck by wonder that it should have been Tavia’s face and figure that I saw rather than those of Sanoma Tora. You may believe that I brought myself up with a round turn and thereafter it was a vision of Sanoma Tora that I saw, and that, too, without any disloyalty to my friendship for Tavia—that blessed friendship which I looked upon as one of my proudest and most valuable possessions.
As the girls reached the pavement they came eagerly toward us. “Welcome, warriors,” cried one, “to happy Ghasta. After your long journey you must be hungry. Come with us and you shall be fed, but first the great jed will wish to greet you and welcome you to our city, for visitors to Ghasta are few.”
As they led us along the avenue I could not but note the deserted appearance of the city. There was no sign of life about any of the buildings that we passed nor did we see another human being until we had come to an open plaza, in the center of which rose a mighty building surmounted by the lofty tower that we had seen when we first emerged from the forest. Here we saw a number of people, both men and women—sad, dejected looking people, who moved with bent shoulders and downcast eyes. There was no animation in their step and their whole demeanor seemed that of utter hopelessness. What a contrast they presented to the gay and happy girls who so joyously conducted us toward the main entrance of what I assumed to be the palace of the jed. Here, burly warriors were on guard—fat, oily looking fellows, whose appearance was not at all to my liking. As we approached them an officer emerged from the interior of the building. If possible, he was even fatter and more greasy looking than his men, but he smiled and bowed as he welcomed us.
“Greetings!” he exclaimed. “May the peace of Ghasta be upon the strangers who enter her gates.”
“Send word to Ghron, the great jed,” said one of the girls to him, “that we are bringing two strange warriors who wish to do honor to him before partaking of the hospitality of Ghasta.”
As the officer dispatched a warrior to notify the jed of our coming, we were escorted into the interior of the palace. The furnishings were striking, but extremely fantastic in design and execution. The native wood of the forests had been used to fine advantage in the construction of numerous pieces of beautifully carved furniture, the grain of the woods showing lustrously in their various natural colors, the beauties of which were sometimes accentuated by delicate stain and by high polishes, but perhaps the most striking feature of the interior decorations was the gorgeously painted fabric that covered the walls and ceilings. It was a fabric of unbelievable lightness, which gave the impression of spun silver. So closely woven was it that, as I was to learn later, it would hold water and of such great strength that it was almost impossible to tear it.
Upon it were painted in brilliant colors the most fantastic scenes that imagination might conceive. There were spiders with the heads of beautiful women, and women with the heads of spiders. There were flowers and trees that danced beneath a great red sun, and great lizards, such as we had passed within the gloomy cavern on our journey down from Tjanath. In all the figures that were depicted there was nothing represented as nature had created it. It was as though some mad mind had conceived the whole.
As we waited in the great entrance hall of the palace of the jed, four of the girls danced for our entertainment—a strange dance such as I had never before seen upon Barsoom. Its steps and movements were as weird and fantastic as the mural decorations of the room in which it was executed, and yet with all there was a certain rhythm and suggestiveness in the undulations of those lithe bodies that imparted to us a feeling of well-being and content.
The fat and greasy padwar of the guard moistened his thick lips as he watched them and though he had doubtless seen them dance upon many occasions, he seemed to be much more affected than we, but perhaps he had no Phao or Sanoma Tora to occupy his thoughts.
Sanoma Tora! The chiseled beauty of her noble face stood out clearly upon the screen of memory for a brief instant and then slowly it began to fade. I tried to recall it, to see again the short, haughty lip and the cold, level gaze, but it receded into a blur from which there presently emerged a pair of wondrous eyes, moist with tears, a perfect face and a head of tousled hair.
It was then that the warrior returned to say that Ghron, the Jed, would receive us at once. Only the girls accompanied us, the fat padwar remaining behind, though I could have sworn that it was not through choice.
The room in which the jed received us was upon the second level of the palace. It was a large room, even more grotesquely decorated than those through which we had passed. The furniture was of weird shapes and sizes, nothing harmonized with anything else and yet the result was a harmony of discord that was not at all unpleasing.
The jed sat upon a perfectly enormous throne of volcanic glass. It was, perhaps, the most ornate and remarkable piece of furniture that I have ever seen and was the outstanding specimen of craftsmanship in the entire city of Ghasta, but if it caught my eye at the time it was only for an instant as nothing could for long distract one’s attention from the jed himself. In the first glance he looked more like a hairy ape than a man. He was massively built with great, heavy, stooping shoulders and long arms covered with shaggy, black hair, the more remarkable, perhaps, because there is no race of hairy men upon Barsoom. His face was broad and flat and his eyes were so far apart that they seemed literally to be set in the comers of his face. As we were halted before him, he twisted his mouth into what I imagined at the time was intended for a smile, but which only succeeded in making him look more horrible than before.
As is customary, we laid our swords at his feet and announced our names and our cities.
“Hadron of Hastor, Nur An of Jahar,” he repeated. “Ghron, the Jed, welcomes you to Ghasta. Few are the visitors who find their way to our beautiful city. It is an event, therefore, when two such illustrious warriors honor us with a visit. Seldom do we receive word from the outer world. Tell us, then of your journey and of what is transpiring upon the surface of Barsoom above us.”
His words and his manner were those of a most solicitous host bent upon extending a proper and cordial welcome to strangers, but I could not rid myself of the belying suggestion of his repulsive countenance, though I could do no less than play the part of a grateful and appreciative guest.
We told our stories and gave him much news of those portions of Barsoom with which each of us was familiar and as Nur An spoke, I looked about me at the assemblage of the great chamber. They were mostly women and many of them were young and beautiful. The men, for the most part, were gross-looking, fat and oily, and there were certain lines of cruelty about their eyes and their mouths that did not escape me, though I tried to attribute it to the first depressing impression that the black and somber buildings and the deserted avenues had conveyed to my mind.
When we had finished our recitals, Ghron announced that a banquet had been prepared in our honor and in person he led the procession from the throne-room down a long corridor to a mighty banquet hall, in the center of which stood a great table, down the entire length of which was a magnificent decoration consisting entirely of the fruits and flowers of the forest through which we had passed. At one end of the table was the jed’s throne and at the other were smaller thrones, one for Nur An and one for me. Seated on either side of us were the girls who had welcomed us to the city and whose business, it seemed, now was to entertain us.
The design of the dishes with which the table was set was quite in keeping with all the other mad designs of the palace of Ghron. No two plates or goblets or platters were of the same shape or size or design and nothing seemed suited to the purpose for which it was intended. My wine was served in a shallow, triangular-shaped saucer, while my meat was crammed into a tall, slender-stemmed goblet. However, I was too hungry to be particular, and, I hoped, too well conversant with the amenities of polite society to reveal the astonishment that I felt.
Here, as in other parts of the palace, the wall coverings were of the gossamer-like silver fabric that had attracted my attention and admiration the moment that I had entered the building and so fascinated was I by it that I could not refrain from mentioning it to the girl who sat at my right.
“There is no such fabric anywhere else in Barsoom,” she said.
“It is made here and only here.”
“It is very beautiful,” I said. “Other nations would pay well for it.”
“If we could get it to them,” she said, “but we have no intercourse with the world above us.”
“Of what is it woven?” I asked.
“When you entered the valley Hohr,” she said, “you saw a beautiful forest, running down to the banks of the river Syl. Doubtless you saw fruit in the forest and, being hungry, you sought to gather it, but you were set upon by huge spiders that sped along silver threads, finer than a woman’s hair.”
“Yes,” I said, “that is just what happened.”
“It is from this web, spun by those hideous spiders, that we weave our fabric. It is as strong as leather and as enduring as the rocks of which Ghasta is built.”
“Do women of Ghasta spin this wonderful fabric?” I asked.
“The slaves,” she said, “both men and women.”
“And from whence come your slaves?” I asked, “if you have no intercourse with the upper world?”
“Many of them come down the river from Tjanath, where they have died The Death, and there are others who come from further up the river, but why they come or from whence we never know. They are silent people, who will not tell us, and sometimes they come from down the river, but these are few and usually are so crazed by the horrors of their journey that we can glean no knowledge from them.”
“And do any ever go on down the river from Ghasta?” I asked; for it was in that direction that Nur An and I hoped to make our way in search of liberty, as deep within me was the hope that we might reach the valley Dor and the lost sea of Korus, from which I was convinced I could escape, as did John Carter and Tars Tarkas.
“A few, perhaps,” she said, “but we never know what becomes of these, for none returns.”
“You are happy here?” I asked.
She forced a smile to her beautiful lips, but I thought that a shudder ran through her frame.
The banquet was elaborate and the food delicious. There was a great deal of laughter at the far end of the table where the jed sat, for those about him watched him closely, and when he laughed, which he always did at his own jokes, the others all laughed uproariously.
Toward the end of the meal a troupe of dancers entered the apartment. My first view of them almost took my breath away, for, with but a single exception, they were all horribly deformed. That one exception was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen—the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, with the saddest face that I have ever seen. She danced divinely and about her hopped and crawled the poor, unhappy creatures whose sad afflictions should have made them the objects of sympathy rather than ridicule and yet it was obvious that they had been selected for their part for the sole purpose of giving the audience an opportunity to vent its ridicule upon them. The sight of them seemed to incite Ghron to a pitch of frenzied mirth, and, to add to his own pleasure and to the discomforts of the poor, pathetic performers, he hurled food and plates at them as they danced about the banquet table.
I tried not to look at them, but there was a fascination in their deformities which attracted my gaze and presently it became apparent to me that the majority of them were artificially deformed, that they had been thus broken and bent at the behest of some malign mind and as I looked down the long board at the horrid face of Ghron, distorted by maniacal laughter, I could not but guess the author of their disfigurement.
When at last they were gone, three large goblets of wine were borne into the banquet hall by a slave; two of them were red goblets and one was black. The black goblet was set before Ghron and the red ones before Nur An and me. Then Ghron rose and the whole company followed his example.
“Ghron, the jed, drinks to the happiness of his honored guests,” announced the ruler, and, raising the goblet to his lips, he drained it to the bottom.
It seemed obvious that this little ceremony would conclude the banquet and that it was intended Nur An and I should drink the health of our host. I, therefore, raised my goblet. It was the first time that anything had been served to me in the proper receptacle and I was glad that at last I might drink without incurring the danger of spilling most of the contents of the receptacle into my lap.
“To the health and power of the great jed, Ghron,” I said, and following my host’s example, drained the contents of the goblet.
As Nur An followed my example with some appropriate words, I felt a sudden lethargy stealing over me and in the instant before I lost consciousness I realized that I had been given drugged wine.
When I regained consciousness I found myself lying upon the bare floor of a room of a peculiar shape that suggested it was the portion of the arc of a circle lying between the peripheries of two concentric circles. The narrow end of the room curved inward, the wider end outward. In the latter was a single, grated window; no door or other openings appeared in any of the walls, which were covered with the same silver fabric that I had noticed upon the walls and ceilings of the palace of the jed. Near me lay Nur An, evidently still under the influence of the opiate that had been administered to us in the wine.
Again I looked about the room. I arose and went to the window. Far below me I saw the roofs of the city. Evidently we were imprisoned in the lofty tower that rose from the center of the palace of the jed, but how had we been brought into the room? Certainly not through the window, which must have been fully two hundred feet above the city. While I was pondering this seemingly unanswerable problem, Nur An regained consciousness. At first he did not speak; he just lay there looking at me with a rueful smile upon his lips.
“Well?” I asked.
Nur An shook his head. “We still live,” he said dismally, “but that is about the best that one may say.”
“We are in the palace of a maniac, Nur An,” I said. “There is no doubt in my mind as to that. Every one here lives in constant terror of Ghron and from what I have seen today they are warranted in feeling terror.”
“Yet I believe we saw little or nothing at that,” said Nur An.
“I saw enough,” I replied.
“Those girls were so beautiful,” he said after a moment’s silence. “I could not believe that such beauty and such duplicity could exist together.”
“Perhaps they were the unwilling tools of a cruel master,” I suggested.
“I shall always like to think so,” he said.
The day waned and night fell; no one came near us, but in the meantime I discovered something. Accidentally leaning against the wall at the narrow end of our room I found that it was very warm, in fact quite hot, and from this I inferred that the flue of the chimney from which we had seen the smoke issuing rose through the center of the tower and the wall of the chimney formed the rear wall of our apartment. It was a discovery, but at the moment it meant nothing to us.
There were no lights in our apartment, and, as only Cluros was in the heavens and upon the opposite side of the tower, our prison was in almost total darkness. We were sitting in gloomy contemplation of our predicament, each wrapped in his own unhappy thoughts, when I heard footsteps apparently approaching from below. They came nearer and nearer until finally they ceased in an adjoining apartment, seemingly the one next to ours. A moment later there was a scraping sound and a line of light appeared at the bottom of one of the side walls. It kept growing in width until I finally realized that the entire partition wall was rising. In the opening we saw at first the sandaled feet of warriors, and finally, little by little, their entire bodies were revealed—two stalwart, brawny men, heavily armed.
They carried manacles and with them they fastened our wrists behind our backs. They did not speak, but with a gesture one of them directed us to follow him, and, as we filed out of the room, the second warrior fell in behind us. In silence we entered a steep, spiral ramp, which we descended to the main body of the palace, but yet our escorts conducted us still lower until I knew that we must be in the pits beneath the palace.
The pits! Inwardly I shuddered. I much preferred the tower for I have always possessed an inherent horror of the pits. Perhaps these would be utterly dark and doubtless overrun by rats and lizards.
The ramp ended in a gorgeously decorated apartment in which was assembled about the same company of men and women that had partaken of the banquet with us earlier in the day. Here, too, was Ghron upon a throne. This time he did not smile as we entered the room. He did not seem to realize our presence. He was sitting, leaning forward, his eyes fixed upon something at the far end of the room over which hung a deadly silence that was suddenly shattered by a piercing scream of anguish. The scream was but a prelude to a series of similar cries of agony.
I looked quickly in the direction from which the screams came, the direction in which Ghron’s gaze was fastened. I saw a naked woman chained to a grill before a hot fire. Evidently they had just placed her there as I had entered the room and it was her first shrill scream of agony that had attracted my attention.
The grill was mounted upon wheels so that it could be removed to any distance from the fire that the torturer chose, or completely turned about presenting the other side of the victim to the blaze.
As my eyes wandered back to the audience I saw that most of the girls sat there glaring straight ahead, their eyes fixed with horror upon the horrid scene. I do not believe that they enjoyed it; I know that they did not. They were equally the unwilling victims of the cruel vagaries of Ghron’s diseased mind, but like the poor creature upon the grill they were helpless.
Next to the torture itself, the most diabolical conceit of the mind that had directed it was the utter silence enjoined upon all spectators against the background of which the shrieks and moans of the tortured victim evidently achieved their highest effectiveness upon the crazed mind of the jed.
The spectacle was sickening. I turned my eyes away. Presently one of the warriors who had fetched us touched me on the arm and motioned me to follow him.
He led us from this apartment to another and there we witnessed a scene infinitely more terrible than the grilling of the human victim. I cannot describe it; it tortures my memory even to think of it. Long before we reached that hideous apartment we heard the screams and curses of its inmates. In utter silence, our guard ushered us within. It was the chamber of horrors in which the Jed of Ghasta was creating abnormal deformities for his cruel dance of the cripples.
Still in silence, we were led from this horrid place and now our guide conducted us upward to a luxuriously furnished apartment. Upon divans lay two of the beautiful girls who had welcomed us to Ghasta.
For the first time since we had left our room in the tower one of our escort broke the silence. “They will explain,” he said, pointing to the girls. “Do not try to escape. There is only one exit from this room. We will be waiting outside.” He then removed our manacles and with his companion left the apartment, closing the door after them.”
One of the occupants of the room was the same girl who had sat at my right during the banquet. I had found her most gracious and intelligent and to her I now turned.
“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded. “Why are we made prisoners? Why have we been brought here?”
She beckoned me to come to the divan on which she reclined and as I approached she motioned to me to sit down beside her.
“What you have seen tonight,” she said, “represents the three fates that lie in store for you. Ghron has taken a fancy to you and he is giving you your choice.”
“I do not yet quite understand,” I said.
“You saw the victim before the grill?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Would you care to suffer that fate?”
“You saw the unhappy ones being bent and broken for the dance of the cripples,” she pursued.
“I did,” I answered.
“And now you see this luxurious room—and me. Which would you choose?”
“I cannot believe,” I replied, “that the final alternative is without conditions, which might make it appear less attractive than it now seems, for otherwise there could be no possible question as to which I would choose.”
“You are right,” she said. “There are conditions.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“You will become an officer in the palace of the jed and as such you will conduct tortures similar to those you have witnessed in the pits of the palace. You will be guided by whatever whim may possess your master.”
I drew myself to my full height. “I choose the fire,” I said.
“I knew that you would,” she said sadly, “and yet I hoped that you might not.”
“It is not because of you,” I said quickly. “It is the other conditions which no man of honor could accept.”
“I know,” she said, “and had you accepted them I must eventually have despised you as I despise the others.”
“You are unhappy here?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Who but a maniac could be happy in this horrid place? There are, perhaps, six hundred people in the city and there is not one who knows happiness. A hundred of us form the court of the jed; the others are slaves. As a matter of fact, we are all slaves, subject to every mad whim or caprice of the maniac who is our master.”
“And there is no escape?” I asked.
“I shall escape,” I said.
“The fire,” I replied.
She shuddered. “I do not know why I should care so much,” she said, “unless it is that I liked you from the first. Even while I was helping to lure you into the city for the human spider of Ghasta, I wished that I might warn you not to enter, but I was afraid, just as I am afraid to die. I wish that I had your courage to escape through the fire.”
I turned to Nur An, who had been listening to our conversation. “You have reached your decision?” I asked.
“Certainly,” he said. “There could be but one decision for a man of honor.”
“Good!” I exclaimed, and then I turned to the girl. “You will notify Ghron of our decision?” I asked.
“Wait,” she said; “ask for time in which to consider it. I know that it will make no difference in the end, but yet—Oh, even yet there is a germ of hope within me that even utter hopelessness cannot destroy.”
“You are right,” I said. “There is always hope. Let him think that you have half persuaded us to accept the life of luxury and ease that he has offered as an alternative to death or torture, and that if you are given a little more time you may succeed. In the meantime we may be able to work out some plan of escape.”
“Never,” she said.