The Land of the Changing Sun by William N. Harben - HTML preview
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When Tradmos spoke the words of warning, Thorndyke put his arm round the princess and drew her after Tradmos, who was hastening away in the gloom.
"Wait," she said, drawing back. "Let us not get excited. We are really as safe here as there; for in their madness they will kill one another and trample them under foot." She led him to a parapet overlooking the great court below. "Hear them," she said, in pity, "listen to their blows and cries. That was a woman's voice, and some man must have struck her."
"Tell me what is best to do," said the Englishman. "I want to protect you, but I am helpless; I don't know which way to turn."
"Wait," she said simply, and the Englishman thought she drew closer to him, as if touched by his words.
There was a crash of timbers--a massive door had fallen--a scrambling of feet on the stone pavement, and they could see the dark human mass surging into the court through the corridors leading from the streets.
"What are they doing?" asked Thorn dyke.
She shrank from the parapet as if she had been struck.
"Tearing the pillars down," she replied aghast; "this part of the palace will fall. Oh, what can be done!"
There was a grinding of stone upon stone, a mad yell from an hundred throats, the crash of glass, and, with a thunderous sound, a colossal pillar fell to the earth. The roof beneath the feet of the princess and Thorndyke trembled and sagged, and the tiling split and showered about them.
Raising Bernardino in his arms, as if she were an infant, Thorndyke sprang toward the stairway leading to his chambers, but the roof had sunken till it was steep and slippery. One instant he was toppling over backward, the next, by a mighty effort, he had recovered his equilibrium, and finally managed to reach a safer place. As he hurried on another pillar went down. The roof sagged lower, and an avalanche of mortar and tiling slid into the court below. Yells, groans, and cries of fury rent the air.
Bernardino had fainted. Thorndyke tried to restore her to consciousness, but dared not put her from him for an instant. On he ran, and presently reached a flight of stairs which he thought led to his chambers. He descended them, and was hastening along a narrow corridor on the floor beneath when Bernardino opened her eyes. She asked to be released from his arms. He put her down, but supported her along the corridor.
"We have lost our way," he said, as he discovered that the corridor, instead of leading to his chambers, turned off obliquely in another direction.
"Let's go on anyway," she suggested; "it may lead us out. I have never been here before. I--" A great crash drowned her words. The floor quivered and swayed, but it did not fall. On they ran through the darkness, till Thorndyke felt a heavy curtain before. He paused abruptly, not knowing what to do. Bernardino felt of its texture, perplexed for an instant.
"Draw it aside, it seems to hang across the corridor," she said. He obeyed her, and only a few yards further on they saw another curtain with bars of light above and below it. They drew this aside, and found themselves on the threshold of a most beautiful apartment.
In the mosaic floor were pictures cut in colored stones, and the ceiling was a silken canopy as filmy and as delicately blue as the sky on a summer's night. The floor was strewn with richly embroidered pillows, couches, rugs and ottomans; and here and there were palm trees and beds of flowers and grottoes. A solitary light, representing the moon, showed through the silken canopy in whose folds little lights sparkled like far-off stars.
Thorndyke looked at the princess inquiringly. She was bewildered.
"I have no idea where we are," she murmured. "I am sure I have never been here before; but there is another apartment beyond. Listen! I hear cries."
"Some one in distress," he answered, and he drew her across the room and through a door into another room more beautiful than the one they had just left. Here, huddled together at a window overlooking the court, were six or eight beautiful young women. They were staring out into the darkness, and moaning and muttering low cries of despair.
"It is my father's ladies," ejaculated the princess aghast. "He would be angry if he knew we had come here. No one but himself enters these apartments."
Just then one of the women turned a lovely and despairing face toward them, and came forward and knelt at the feet of Bernardino.
"Oh, save us, Princess," she cried.
"Be calm," said the princess, touching the white brow of the woman. "The danger may soon pass; this portion of the palace is too strongly built for them to injure it." Then she turned to Thorndyke: "We must hasten on and find our way down; it would never do for us to be seen here." Then she turned to the kneeling woman and said gently: "I hope you will say nothing to the king of this; we lost our way in trying to get down from the roof."
"I will not," gladly promised the woman, and seeing that Bernardino knew not which way to turn, she guided them to a door opening into a dimly-lighted corridor. "It will take you out to the balconies and down to the audience-chamber," she said. The princess thanked her, and she and the Englishman descended several flights of stairs. Reaching one of the balconies they met the denser darkness of the outside and the deafening clang and clamor of the multitude. There was no light of any kind, and Thorndyke and his charge had to press close against the balustrade of the balcony to keep from being crushed by the mad torrent of humanity.
Now and then a strident voice would rise above the din:--
"Down with the palace! Death to the king!"
The trumpet in the tower sounded again and again.
"It is my father trying to attract their attention," explained the princess. "Something very serious has happened for once. In speaking of the time the sun went out before, he told me that he had made an invention which, in such a crisis, would instantly restore confidence to the people. I cannot understand why he does not use it. Oh, I am afraid they will kill him!"
Thorndyke tried to console her, for he saw that she was weeping, but just then there was a strange lull in the general tumult. What could have happened?
"The dawn! the ideal dawn!" cried Bernardino, pointing to the eastern sky. Thorndyke looked in wonder. A purple light had spread along the horizon, and as it gradually softened into gray and slowly turned to pink, the noise of the populace died down. No sound could now be heard save the low groans of wounded men and women. What a sight met the view as the rose-light shimmered over the city! The dead and dying lay under the feet of the crowd. Almost every creature bore some mark of violence. Eyes were blood- shot, clothing torn, limbs were bleeding, and mingled fury and sudden hope struggled in each ashen face. The young trees and shrubbery had been trampled under foot, and walls, arcades and triumphal arches had been thrown down. The fragments of statues lay here and there, and the bodies of human beings filled the basins of broken fountains.
"It is not the sun," explained Bernardino; "but the invention my father spoke of. He is doing it to calm them."
Thorndyke made no answer. He stood as if transfixed, gazing at the horizon. The roselight had spread over a third of the sky when gradually there appeared in its centre a bright circle of yellow light. The yellow light faded, leaving a perfect picture of the throne of the king; and as the now silent masses looked at the picture, a curtain behind the throne parted and the king himself appeared. He advanced and sat on the throne, and turned a calm face towards his subjects.
"Wonderful!"ejaculated Bernardino, and her face was full of hope. "See what he will do!"
"Where is the picture?" asked Thorndyke; "can it be seen by all of--of the people?"
"Yes, by all Alpha, for it is on the sky."
Thorndyke said nothing further, for the king had stood up, and with hands out-stretched was bowing. Above the circle of light, as if cut out of the solid blackness, in flaming letters stood the word,
And there was silence. Even the lips of the wounded men closed as the king began to speak. The sound of his voice seemed as far away as the stars, and to permeate all space: -
"All danger is over. Tidings from the west state that the sun is setting. No harm has come to it. It will rise in the morning, and the moon and stars will be out in a few hours. Let the dead be removed, the wounded cared for, and everything be repaired. This is my will."
That was all. The king bowed sedately and retired from the throne, and the circle and pink glow faded from the black sky. The stillness was unbroken for a moment, then glad murmurings were heard in all directions.
"They are lighting the palace," cried the princess. "See, down there is the arcade leading to the rotunda."
"I am glad it is over," said Thorndyke.
She grasped his arm and impulsively looked into his face. "But your friend, we have forgotten him, and done nothing to save him, and now it is too late."
"We could not help it; we had to think of our own safety."
"I shall send for Captain Tradmos and try to devise some other plan," she said, as they descended the stairs.
"We should not be seen together," she added, as they approached the throne-room; "besides, you ought to go to your chambers. No one is allowed to be out when the dead is being removed."
"Where is the dead taken?"
"Over the wall, to be burned in the internal fires," she concluded, as she was leaving him.
He found everything in order in his rooms and he lay down and tried to sleep, but he was too much excited over the happenings of the day. Hours must have passed when his attention was drawn to a bright light shining on the wall of his room. He went to a window and looked out on the court. The light came from the rising moon. Below lay the ruins of fallen columns, capitals, cornices and statues. Figures in black cloaks and cowls were removing the dead from the debris. With a fluttering sound something swooped down past his window to the ground. It looked like a great bird, carrying the car of a flying-machine. Thorndyke watched its circular descent to the earth, and shuddered with horror as the black figures filled the car with bodies and the gruesome machine spread its wings and rose slowly till it was clear of the domes and pinnacles of the palace, and then flew away westward.
Other machines came, and, one after another, received their ghastly burdens and departed. In a short time all the dead was removed, and hundreds of workmen came from the palace and began repairing the fallen masonry.
Thorndyke went back to his couch and tried to sleep, but in vain. Slowly the hours of night passed, and as the purple of dawn rose in the east he dressed himself and went up on the roof. The moon had gone down and the stars were fading from the sky. The dark earth below showed no signs of life; but as the purple light softened into gray he saw that the streets of the city were filled with silent expectant people, all watching the eastern sky. And, as the gray light flushed into rose, and the rose began to scintillate with gold, they began to stir, and a hum of joyful voices was heard. The promised day had come.