Chapter 4 (Page 2)
Presently she returned with a fine looking, white-haired woman, who proved to be her mother. The older woman carried herself with a regal dignity that seemed quite remarkable in a place of such primitive squalor.
The people fell aside as she approached, making a wide way for her and her daughter. When they had come near and stopped before me the older woman addressed me.
"My daughter has told me," she said, "of the manner in which you rescued her from the men of the elephant country. If Wettin lived you would be well treated, but Buckingham has taken me now, and is king. You can hope for nothing from such a beast as Buckingham."
The fact that Buckingham stood within a pace of us and was an interested listener appeared not to temper her expressions in the slightest.
"Buckingham is a pig," she continued. "He is a coward. He came upon Wettin from behind and ran his spear through him. He will not be king for long. Some one will make a face at him, and he will run away and jump into the river."
The people began to titter and clap their hands. Buckingham became red in the face. It was evident that he was far from popular.
"If he dared," went on the old lady, "he would kill me now, but he does not dare. He is too great a coward. If I could help you I should gladly do so. But I am only queen--the vehicle that has helped carry down, unsullied, the royal blood from the days when Grabritin was a mighty country."
The old queen's words had a noticeable effect upon the mob of curious savages which surrounded me. The moment they discovered that the old queen was friendly to me and that I had rescued her daughter they commenced to accord me a more friendly interest, and I heard many words spoken in my behalf, and demands were made that I not be harmed.
But now Buckingham interfered. He had no intention of being robbed of his prey. Blustering and storming, he ordered the people back to their huts, at the same time directing two of his warriors to confine me in a dugout in one of the trenches close to his own shelter.
Here they threw me upon the ground, binding my ankles together and trussing them up to my wrists behind. There they left me, lying upon my stomach--a most uncomfortable and strained position, to which was added the pain where the cords cut into my flesh.
Just a few days ago my mind had been filled with the anticipation of the friendly welcome I should find among the cultured Englishmen of London. Today I should be sitting in the place of honor at the banquet board of one of London's most exclusive clubs, feted and lionized.
The actuality! Here I lay, bound hand and foot, doubtless almost upon the very site of a part of ancient London, yet all about me was a primeval wilderness, and I was a captive of half-naked wild men.
I wondered what had become of Delcarte and Taylor and Snider. Would they search for me? They could never find me, I feared, yet if they did, what could they accomplish against this horde of savage warriors?
Would that I could warn them. I thought of the girl--doubtless she could get word to them, but how was I to communicate with her? Would she come to see me before I was killed? It seemed incredible that she should not make some slight attempt to befriend me; yet, as I recalled, she had made no effort to speak with me after we had reached the village. She had hastened to her mother the moment she had been liberated. Though she had returned with the old queen, she had not spoken to me, even then. I began to have my doubts.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that I was absolutely friendless except for the old queen. For some unaccountable reason my rage against the girl for her ingratitude rose to colossal proportions.
For a long time I waited for some one to come to my prison whom I might ask to bear word to the queen, but I seemed to have been forgotten. The strained position in which I lay became unbearable. I wriggled and twisted until I managed to turn myself partially upon my side, where I lay half facing the entrance to the dugout.
Presently my attention was attracted by the shadow of something moving in the trench without, and a moment later the figure of a child appeared, creeping upon all fours, as, wide-eyed, and prompted by childish curiosity, a little girl crawled to the entrance of my hut and peered cautiously and fearfully in.
I did not speak at first for fear of frightening the little one away. But when I was satisfied that her eyes had become sufficiently accustomed to the subdued light of the interior, I smiled.
Instantly the expression of fear faded from her eyes to be replaced with an answering smile.
"Who are you, little girl?" I asked.
"My name is Mary," she replied. "I am Victory's sister."
"And who is Victory?"
"You do not know who Victory is?" she asked, in astonishment.
I shook my head in negation.
"You saved her from the elephant country people, and yet you say you do not know her!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, so she is Victory, and you are her sister! I have not heard her name before. That is why I did not know whom you meant," I explained. Here was just the messenger for me. Fate was becoming more kind.
"Will you do something for me, Mary?" I asked.
"If I can."
"Go to your mother, the queen, and ask her to come to me," I said. "I have a favor to ask."
She said that she would, and with a parting smile she left me.
For what seemed many hours I awaited her return, chafing with impatience. The afternoon wore on and night came, and yet no one came near me. My captors brought me neither food nor water. I was suffering considerable pain where the rawhide thongs cut into my swollen flesh. I thought that they had either forgotten me, or that it was their intention to leave me here to die of starvation.
Once I heard a great uproar in the village. Men were shouting--women were screaming and moaning. After a time this subsided, and again there was a long interval of silence.
Half the night must have been spent when I heard a sound in the trench near the hut. It resembled muffled sobs. Presently a figure appeared, silhouetted against the lesser darkness beyond the doorway. It crept inside the hut.
"Are you here?" whispered a childlike voice.
It was Mary! She had returned. The thongs no longer hurt me. The pangs of hunger and thirst disappeared. I realized that it had been loneliness from which I suffered most.
"Mary!" I exclaimed. "You are a good girl. You have come back, after all. I had commenced to think that you would not. Did you give my message to the queen? Will she come? Where is she?"
The child's sobs increased, and she flung herself upon the dirt floor of the hut, apparently overcome by grief.
"What is it?" I asked. "Why do you cry?"
"The queen, my mother, will not come to you," she said, between sobs. "She is dead. Buckingham has killed her. Now he will take Victory, for Victory is queen. He kept us fastened up in our shelter, for fear that Victory would escape him, but I dug a hole beneath the back wall and got out. I came to you, because you saved Victory once before, and I thought that you might save her again, and me, also. Tell me that you will."
"I am bound and helpless, Mary," I replied. "Otherwise I would do what I could to save you and your sister."
"I will set you free!" cried the girl, creeping up to my side. "I will set you free, and then you may come and slay Buckingham."
"Gladly!" I assented.
"We must hurry," she went on, as she fumbled with the hard knots in the stiffened rawhide, "for Buckingham will be after you soon. He must make an offering to the lions at dawn before he can take Victory. The taking of a queen requires a human offering!"
"And I am to be the offering?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, tugging at a knot. "Buckingham has been wanting a sacrifice ever since he killed Wettin, that he might slay my mother and take Victory."
The thought was horrible, not solely because of the hideous fate to which I was condemned, but from the contemplation it engendered of the sad decadence of a once enlightened race. To these depths of ignorance, brutality, and superstition had the vaunted civilization of twentieth century England been plunged, and by what? War! I felt the structure of our time-honored militaristic arguments crumbling about me.
Mary labored with the thongs that confined me. They proved refractory--defying her tender, childish fingers. She assured me, however, that she would release me, if "they" did not come too soon.
But, alas, they came. We heard them coming down the trench, and I bade Mary hide in a corner, lest she be discovered and punished. There was naught else she could do, and so she crawled away into the Stygian blackness behind me.
Presently two warriors entered. The leader exhibited a unique method of discovering my whereabouts in the darkness. He advanced slowly, kicking out viciously before him. Finally he kicked me in the face. Then he knew where I was.
A moment later I had been jerked roughly to my feet. One of the fellows stopped and severed the bonds that held my ankles. I could scarcely stand alone. The two pulled and hauled me through the low doorway and along the trench. A party of forty or fifty warriors were awaiting us at the brink of the excavation some hundred yards from the hut.
Hands were lowered to us, and we were dragged to the surface. Then commenced a long march. We stumbled through the underbrush wet with dew, our way lighted by a score of torchbearers who surrounded us. But the torches were not to light the way--that was but incidental. They were carried to keep off the huge Carnivora that moaned and coughed and roared about us.
The noises were hideous. The whole country seemed alive with lions. Yellow-green eyes blazed wickedly at us from out the surrounding darkness. My escort carried long, heavy spears. These they kept ever pointed toward the beast of prey, and I learned from snatches of the conversation I overheard that occasionally there might be a lion who would brave even the terrors of fire to leap in upon human prey. It was for such that the spears were always couched.
But nothing of the sort occurred during this hideous death march, and with the first pale heralding of dawn we reached our goal--an open place in the midst of a tangled wildwood. Here rose in crumbling grandeur the first evidences I had seen of the ancient civilization which once had graced fair Albion--a single, time-worn arch of masonry.
"The entrance to the Camp of the Lions!" murmured one of the party in a voice husky with awe.
Here the party knelt, while Buckingham recited a weird, prayer-like chant. It was rather long, and I recall only a portion of it, which ran, if my memory serves me, somewhat as follows:
Lord of Grabritin, we Fall on our knees to thee, This gift to bring. Greatest of kings are thou! To thee we humbly bow! Peace to our camp allow. God save thee, king!
Then the party rose, and dragging me to the crumbling arch, made me fast to a huge, corroded, copper ring which was dangling from an eyebolt imbedded in the masonry.
None of them, not even Buckingham, seemed to feel any personal animosity toward me. They were naturally rough and brutal, as primitive men are supposed to have been since the dawn of humanity, but they did not go out of their way to maltreat me.
With the coming of dawn the number of lions about us seemed to have greatly diminished--at least they made less noise--and as Buckingham and his party disappeared into the woods, leaving me alone to my terrible fate, I could hear the grumblings and growlings of the beasts diminishing with the sound of the chant, which the party still continued. It appeared that the lions had failed to note that I had been left for their breakfast, and had followed off after their worshippers instead.
But I knew the reprieve would be but for a short time, and though I had no wish to die, I must confess that I rather wished the ordeal over and the peace of oblivion upon me.
The voices of the men and the lions receded in the distance, until finally quiet reigned about me, broken only by the sweet voices of birds and the sighing of the summer wind in the trees.
It seemed impossible to believe that in this peaceful woodland setting the frightful thing was to occur which must come with the passing of the next lion who chanced within sight or smell of the crumbling arch.
I strove to tear myself loose from my bonds, but succeeded only in tightening them about my arms. Then I remained passive for a long time, letting the scenes of my lifetime pass in review before my mind's eye.
I tried to imagine the astonishment, incredulity, and horror with which my family and friends would be overwhelmed if, for an instant, space could be annihilated and they could see me at the gates of London.
The gates of London! Where was the multitude hurrying to the marts of trade after a night of pleasure or rest? Where was the clang of tramcar gongs, the screech of motor horns, the vast murmur of a dense throng?
Where were they? And as I asked the question a lone, gaunt lion strode from the tangled jungle upon the far side of the clearing. Majestically and noiselessly upon his padded feet the king of beasts moved slowly toward the gates of London and toward me.
Was I afraid? I fear that I was almost afraid. I know that I thought that fear was coming to me, and so I straightened up and squared my shoulders and looked the lion straight in the eyes--and waited.
It is not a nice way to die--alone, with one's hands fast bound, beneath the fangs and talons of a beast of prey. No, it is not a nice way to die, not a pretty way.
The lion was halfway across the clearing when I heard a slight sound behind me. The great cat stopped in his tracks. He lashed his tail against his sides now, instead of simply twitching its tip, and his low moan became a thunderous roar.
As I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the thing that had aroused the fury of the beast before me, it sprang through the arched gateway and was at my side--with parted lips and heaving bosom and disheveled hair--a bronzed and lovely vision to eyes that had never harbored hope of rescue.
It was Victory, and in her arms she clutched my rifle and revolver. A long knife was in the doeskin belt that supported the doeskin skirt tightly about her lithe limbs. She dropped my weapons at my feet, and, snatching the knife from its resting place, severed the bonds that held me. I was free, and the lion was preparing to charge.
"Run!" I cried to the girl, as I bent and seized my rifle. But she only stood there at my side, her bared blade ready in her hand.
The lion was bounding toward us now in prodigious leaps. I raised the rifle and fired. It was a lucky shot, for I had no time to aim carefully, and when the beast crumpled and rolled, lifeless, to the ground, I went upon my knees and gave thanks to the God of my ancestors.
And, still upon my knees, I turned, and taking the girl's hand in mine, I kissed it. She smiled at that, and laid her other hand upon my head.
"You have strange customs in your country," she said.
I could not but smile at that when I thought how strange it would seem to my countrymen could they but see me kneeling there on the site of London, kissing the hand of England's queen.
"And now," I said, as I rose, "you must return to the safety of your camp. I will go with you until you are near enough to continue alone in safety. Then I shall try to return to my comrades."
"I will not return to the camp," she replied.
"But what shall you do?" I asked.
"I do not know. Only I shall never go back while Buckingham lives. I should rather die than go back to him. Mary came to me, after they had taken you from the camp, and told me. I found your strange weapons and followed with them. It took me a little longer, for often I had to hide in the trees that the lions might not get me, but I came in time, and now you are free to go back to your friends."
"And leave you here?" I exclaimed.
She nodded, but I could see through all her brave front that she was frightened at the thought. I could not leave her, of course, but what in the world I was to do, cumbered with the care of a young woman, and a queen at that, I was at a loss to know. I pointed out that phase of it to her, but she only shrugged her shapely shoulders and pointed to her knife.
It was evident that she felt entirely competent to protect herself.
As we stood there we heard the sound of voices. They were coming from the forest through which we had passed when we had come from camp.
"They are searching for me," said the girl. "Where shall we hide?"
I didn't relish hiding. But when I thought of the innumerable dangers which surrounded us and the comparatively small amount of ammunition that I had with me, I hesitated to provoke a battle with Buckingham and his warriors when, by flight, I could avoid them and preserve my cartridges against emergencies which could not be escaped.
"Would they follow us there?" I asked, pointing through the archway into the Camp of the Lions.
"Never," she replied, "for, in the first place, they would know that we would not dare go there, and in the second they themselves would not dare."
"Then we shall take refuge in the Camp of the Lions," I said.
She shuddered and drew closer to me.
"You dare?" she asked.
"Why not?" I returned. "We shall be safe from Buckingham, and you have seen, for the second time in two days, that lions are harmless before my weapons. Then, too, I can find my friends easiest in this direction, for the River Thames runs through this place you call the Camp of the Lions, and it is farther down the Thames that my friends are awaiting me. Do you not dare come with me?"
"I dare follow wherever you lead," she answered simply.
And so I turned and passed beneath the great arch into the city of London.Next