Tarzan and the Forbidden City

Chapter 25

Edgar Rice Burroughs

HELEN GREGORY was, despite her flair for adventure and her not inconsiderable fortitude, essentially feminine. She was the type that stirred the deepest protective instincts of men; and, perhaps because of that very characteristic, she subconsciously craved protection, though she would have been the last to realize it. Fortified by the knowledge that masculine aid was within call, she might have dared anything; while the realization that she was alone among enemies, hopelessly cut off from all natural protectors, left her a frightened little girl upon the verge of panic. That she did not break under the strain speaks well for her strength of character.

Her steps did not falter as the three ptomes led her from the throne room and down a short corridor, through a room where many ptomes were gathered lying upon narrow cots or playing at games, their water suits and helmets hung upon pegs against the wall, their tridents standing in racks, and along another corridor to a massive door secured by huge bolts and flanked by valve hand-wheels and levers. Here one of the ptomes turned wheels and pulled on levers, and they all waited while he watched a gauge beside the door.

This, she thought, must be the door to the torture chamber; and she wondered what lay behind and how long death would be in coming to her rescue. Death! Man’s last refuge when hope is gone, his last friend, his life’s ultimate goal. She thought of her father and of Brian and of Paul d’Arnot. They would be following her soon. She wished that she and d’Arnot might have gone together. It would have been easier for both had it been that way.

At last the door swung open and the ptomes pushed her into a cylindrical chamber, following her in and closing and bolting the door. Here were other handwheels and levers and gauges; and there was an identical door on the opposite side of the chamber flanked by similar gadgets. She saw no signs of instruments of torture, and she wondered how they were going to kill her and why they had brought her here to do it and why they all wore the strange helmets. She watched while a ptome turned a handwheel, and caught her breath as she saw water rushing into the chamber. They couldn’t be going to drown her, for if she drowned, they would drown too. The chamber filled rapidly; and when it was full, one of them manipulated the wheels and levers beside the second door; and when it swung open, they led her out into the diffused light of the lake bottom.

Under other circumstances she would have been entranced by the beauty of the scene upon which the sun filtered down through the clear waters of Horus. She found herself being led along a gravel path between neat gardens of marine plants which other ptomes were tending to serve as delicacies for the courts of Atka and Brulor. Strange and beautiful fishes swam about them; and great turtles paddled clumsily away as they approached, while crabs of many colors scurried from their path. Here and there were marine trees towering high, their foliage undulating gracefully to the movement of the water, while bright colored fishes played among it like gay birds among the branches of terrestrial trees. All was beauty and movement and—silence. To the girl, the silence spoke more loudly than the beauty or the movement—it bespoke the silence of the tomb.

Inside the temple she had found walking arduous and slow, impeded by the heavy metal soles of the shoes they had put on her; but here she moved as though walking on air, lightly as a feather, effortless as the passing of a shadow. She felt that she might leap high above the trees if one of the ptomes were not holding her by the arm; but these were only flashes of thought breaking occasionally the dense gloom of the horror that engulfed her.

Presently she saw ahead of them a small circular building topped by a single dome, and realized that it was toward this the ptomes were leading her. When they reached the building, which seemed to have neither doors nor windows, two ptomes seized Helen’s arms, one on either side, and leaped lightly upward, carrying her with them, the third ptome following. A few swimming strokes carried them to the top of the dome, where the girl saw a circular door, which she recognized now, from the gadgets flanking it, as the entrance to an air chamber such as that through which she had passed from the temple to the lake bottom.

The chamber below was filled with water when they entered it, and it was several minutes before it emptied; then the ptomes removed her helmet and suit, lifted a trap door in the floor, pointed to a ladder, and motioned her to descend. As in the upper chamber, there was a window in the wall on the side opposite to that from which they had approached the dome, which she had previously thought windowless; and through this window the diffused light of the lake bottom dimly illuminated the interior of the circular room in which she was imprisoned. It was entirely bare—the walls, the window, and the ladder constituted her world. The ptomes had closed the trap door above her, and presently she heard water gushing into the chamber above; then it commenced to trickle down one wall of her prison, and presently the trickle became a little stream. As water covered the floor of her cell, she understood the nature of the torture and death that confronted her. The chamber would fill slowly. She might prolong life and agony by climbing the ladder, but the end was inevitably the same.

She realized what exquisite mental torture the minds of these people had conceived, that one should be condemned to die alone, drowned like a rat in a trap. She wondered if she would have the courage to end it quickly when the water was deep enough, or if she would drag out the torture to the topmost rung of the ladder.

And as the water rose slowly in Helen’s death cell, Herkuf whispered to Tarzan through the bars of his cage, “It will soon be time. Do you think you can do it?”

“I can do my part,” the ape-man assured him. “When the time comes, let me know.”

When night came and darkness settled above Horus a faint light still filtered down through the waters to the death cell where Helen waited for the end. It was the light of heavenly stars, but it brought no hope of the doomed girl. The water was at her knees now; and she stood with one hand on the ladder, still wondering what she should do. She turned wearily; and, with both arms resting on a rung of the ladder, buried her face in them. She thought of d’Arnot and the happiness that might have been theirs had they met under different circumstances; and, even with hope gone, that thought made her want to cling to life as long as she could, for at least there was a certain sad happiness in envisioning the happiness she had been denied. She thought of Brian; and, without bitterness toward him, she execrated the avarice that had lured him to this awful place and cost the lives of so many people, people who loved him. And she prayed.

Again Herkuf whispered to Tarzan. “It is time,” he said. “They will all be asleep. But the bars are very strong.”

“Not so strong as Tarzan,” replied the ape-man. “I have tried them—watch!”

As he spoke, he seized two bars. The muscles stood out upon his shoulders as he exerted his strength upon the insensate metal. Herkuf watched, breathless, and filled with doubt; then he saw the bars spreading apart, and a moment later saw Tarzan squeeze between them and push them back into place. Similarly the ape-man liberated Herkuf.

“You are as strong as a bull elephant,” gasped the priest.

“Come!” said Tarzan. “We have no time to waste. Lead the way.”

“No,” replied Herkuf, “we have no time to waste. Even if we get through without delay, we may still be too late.”

Silently, stealthily, Herkuf and Tarzan crossed the temple toward a closed door. The other prisoners slept. No one had seen Tarzan escape and release Herkuf. Even the bars, bent back almost to normal position, gave little evidence of the manner of their liberation; and few would have believed the truth, for many have been the prisoners who had sought to bend them; but never before had it been done.

Herkuf led Tarzan down a short corridor to the room of the ptomes; and as the priest opened the door, Tarzan saw the lesser priests sleeping on their hard benches. He saw their water suits hanging on their pegs and their tridents in the racks. The ptomes slept thus without sentries and the temple went unguarded because it was considered impregnable.

Cautiously the two men took three water suits and helmets from their pegs, gathered up three tridents, and crossed the room to the doorway on the opposite side without awakening a ptome. Once past the door, each donned a suit.

“The gods have been with us so far,” whispered Herkuf, “and if we can pass through the air chamber without being discovered, we stand a good chance to succeed—if we are in time.”

As the water rose to Helen’s shoulders she finally gave up all thought of suicide. She would cling to life to the last moment. They might rob her of that; but they could not rob her of her courage, and as the water rose still higher she stepped to the lowest rung of the ladder.

Reminiscences rioted through her mind as she waited for death, and pleasant thoughts and bitter. She pondered the futility of man’s quest for sudden wealth and of the evil and suffering it entailed. Of what avail would success be now to either Brian or Thome if, by some chance, it should come to one of them? for one had lost his sister and, perhaps, his father; and the other had lost his mind. Now the water forced her up to a higher rung of the ladder. Step by step, she was climbing to her rendezvous with Death.

Herkuf and Tarzan passed safely through the air chamber out into the water of the lake. Through the garden of the ptomes they made their way toward the watery cell where Death was creeping relentlessly upon Helen Gregory, and dark shapes glided sinuously about them in this mysterious world of silence.

At last they reached the air chamber above Helen’s cell; and Herkuf started the pump that would eject the water, but it seemed to both men that it would never empty the chamber. They knew that the water had been rising for hours in the death cell beneath them and that death might come to the girl before they reached her, if she were not already dead.

Just below them, clinging to the last few precious moments of life, Helen had ascended the ladder as far as she could go; but the water pursued her relentlessly. Already her head was touching the ceiling. She could climb no farther. The cold hand of Death caressed her cheek. Suddenly she became alert, listening. She heard noises in the chamber above. What might they signify? Not rescue, certainly; perhaps some new torture.

At last the air chamber was emptied. Tarzan and Herkuf attempted to raise the trap door leading into Helen’s cell; but it defied their every effort, even the Herculean strength of the Lord of the Jungle. And what was happening, or had happened, in the cell below?—cell or tomb?

And while Tarzan and Herkuf labored with the trap door a ptome awoke and sat up upon his hard bench, rubbing his eyes. He had had a strange, disquieting dream in which enemies had passed through the room of the ptomes. He looked about to see if anyone was there who should not be. Mechanically, he looked for his water suit and helmet. They were gone, and two other pegs were empty. Instantly he awoke his fellows and disclosed his discovery, telling them of his dream. They were all much perturbed, for such things had never happened before in the memory of man. They started to investigate immediately, going first to the throne room, where they soon discovered that two of the prisoners were missing.

“Herkuf is gone and the man called Tarzan,” said one.

“But three suits and tridents were taken,” pointed out another.

By this time the prisoners were awake; and they questioned them, with many threats; but they learned nothing for the prisoners knew nothing, and were quite as surprised as the ptomes.

“I have it!” cried a ptome at last. “It is quite plain that they have gone to the little chamber in the lake to release the girl, that is why they took the extra suit. Quick! Into your helmets! In the name of Atka, hurry!”

“We must not all go, or the rest of the prisoners may escape as the others did,” suggested one; so only six of them donned their suits and hurried into the waters of Horus in pursuit of the two missing prisoners. Armed as they were, with tridents and knives, they had no thought but that they could easily overcome and recapture their quarry.

For many precious minutes the trap door refused to yield to the efforts of Tarzan and Herkuf; but at last it gave way, and they threw it open. Looking down into the darkness, they at first saw nothing; then Tarzan espied, dimly, a wan face apparently floating on the surface of the water. Were they, after all, too late? Was this the face of a dead girl?

Holding to the ladder and floating with her nose just above the water, Helen heard increasing sounds of activity just above her; then the trap door was lifted, and she saw two ptomes looking down at her. As they dragged her into the air chamber, she guessed that they had come to inflict some new torture.

They helped her to don the extra water suit, and led her out of the air chamber into the lake. In their suits and helmets, she did not recognize them; and as there was no means of communication, she went on with them, ignorant of their identity, wondering what next Fate had in store for her.

As Herkuf led them away from the vicinity of the temple, the pursuing ptomes discovered them and hurried to overtake them. In the silence of the watery depths, no sound reached the ears of the fugitives; and they were ignorant of the danger approaching from behind; until, finally, Tarzan, always the wary jungle beast, looked back and saw the ptomes approaching. He touched Herkuf and Helen, and pointed; then he gathered them together, so that they all stood back to back to await the assault of the enemy he well knew they could not outdistance in flight. What the outcome of such a battle would be, he could not even guess. He knew that they were all unused to fighting in such a medium and with such weapons. A single rent in a suit might mean death by drowning, and doubtless their antagonists were adepts in the use of tridents. What he did not know was that the ptomes were as unused to underwater fighting as was he. Sometimes they had to defend themselves from the more dangerous denizens of the deep, but never had they been called upon to face human antagonists and weapons identical to their own.

So it was that Tarzan and Herkuf drew first blood; and now, for the first time, Helen realized that she might be in the hands of friends; yet that seemed entirely implausible, for how could she have friends among the ptomes?

With two of their number dead in the first encounter with the enemy, the four remaining ptomes became more wary. They circled cautiously, waiting for an opening; but there seemed no opening in the impregnable defense of the three, who could not be lured from the compact formation that presented a trident on every front. Suddenly one of the ptomes leaped above the heads of the quarry to attack them from a new angle; and as he did so, his fellows rushed in. But they rushed too close, and two of them went to their deaths on the tridents of Herkuf and Tarzan; then the one above them floated down and struck at the ape-man. As he did so, Helen jabbed suddenly upward with her trident, catching the fellow squarely in the chest. He wriggled horribly, like a speared fish, and then sank limply at her feet. The girl had to steel herself to keep from fainting.

With his fellows dead, the remaining ptome turned and fled toward the temple; but Tarzan dared not let him escape to bring reinforcements; so he pursued him, feeling like one in a bad dream, who makes strenuous efforts but accomplishes little or nothing. However, the ptome had the same watery medium to contend with; but not the giant muscles to overcome it that his pursuer possessed; so gradually Tarzan gained on him, while Herkuf and Helen followed in his wake.

When the ptome realized that he could not make good his escape, he turned at bay and prepared to fight; and Tarzan found him the most dangerous antagonist of all, for he was fighting with the desperation of a cornered rat. It was the strangest duel the ape-man had ever fought. The weird, mysterious silence of the depths; the grotesque medium that retarded his every movement; all baffled him. He was accustomed to fighting on one plane and not having antagonists leap above his head and thrust down at him, as the ptome suddenly did; but he fended the thrust, and seized his foe by the ankle. The ptome struggled to free himself, thrusting savagely with his trident; but at last Tarzan was sure of himself, as he dragged the lesser priest toward him.

At close quarters, the tridents were useless; and both men discarded them, each drawing his knife, the ptome slashing viciously but awkwardly at Tarzan, while the ape-man sought to seize the other’s knife wrist; and while they fought, a large fish, swimming low, approached them; and Helen and Herkuf hurried up, like two hideous robots held back by an invisible hand.

Tarzan’s fingers were touching the wrist of the ptome, he had almost succeeded in seizing the hand that held the dagger, when the great fish, frightened by the approach of Helen and Herkuf, darted past in an effort to escape, struck Tarzan’s legs a heavy blow and upset him. As the ape-man fell backward, the ptome saw and seized his opportunity. He lunged forward upon the falling Tarzan, his knife ready to plunge into his foe’s heart.

But once again Tarzan fended the weapon aside; and as he parried the blow, Helen and Herkuf reached him and plunged their tridents into the body of the ptome. As Tarzan floated to his feet, Helen wondered whose life it was she had helped to save and what his intentions toward her might be.

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