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THE OLD MAN OF THE PITSEdit

"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!"