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   Chapter 48 LOST IN THE OLD C .

The Fair God; or, The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico By Lew Wallace Characters: 10820

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The page at last awoke from his stupor. With difficulty he recalled his wandering senses. He sat up, and was confronted everywhere by a darkness like that in sealed tombs. Could he be blind? He rubbed his eyes, and strained their vision; he saw nothing. Baffled in the appeal to that sense, he resorted to another; he felt of his head, arms, limbs, and was reassured: he not only lived, but, save a few bruises, was sound of body. Then he extended the examination; he felt of the floor, and, stretching his arms right and left, discovered a wall, which, like the floor, was of masonry. The cold stone, responding to the touch, sent its chill along his sluggish veins; the close air made breathing hard; the silence, absolutely lifeless,-and in that respect so unlike what we call silence in the outer world, which, after all, is but the time chosen by small things, the entities of the dust and grass and winds, for their hymnal service, heard full-toned in heaven, if not by us,-the dead, stagnant, unresonant silence, such as haunts the depths of old mines and lingers in the sunken crypts of abandoned castles, awed and overwhelmed his soul.

Where was he? How came he there? With head drooping, and hands and arms resting limp upon the floor, weak in body and spirit, he sat a long time motionless, struggling to recall the past, which came slowly, enabling him to set the race again with all its incidents: the enemy in rear, the enemy in front; the temple stairs, with their offer of escape; the azoteas, the court, the dash into the doorway under the colonnade,-all came back slowly, I say, bringing a dread that he was lost, and that, in a frantic effort to avoid death in one form, he had run open-eyed to embrace it in another even more horrible.

The dread gave him strength. He arose to his feet, and stood awhile, straining his memory to recall the direction of the door which had admitted him to the passage. Could he find that door, he would wait a fitting time to slip from the temple; for which he would trust the Mother and watch. But now, what was done must needs be done quickly; for, though but an ill-timed fancy, he thought he felt a sensation of hunger, indicating that he had been a long time lying there; how long, of course, he knew not.

Memory served him illy, or rather not at all; so that nothing would do now but to feel his way out. O for a light, if only a spark from a gunner's match, or the moony gleam of a Cuban glow-worm!

As every faculty was now alert, he was conscious of the importance of the start; if that were in the wrong direction, every inch would be from the door, and, possibly, toward his grave. First, then, was he in a hall or a chamber? He hoped the former, for then there would be but two directions from which to choose; and if he took the wrong one, no matter; he had only to keep on until the fact was made clear by the trial, and then retrace his steps. "Thanks, O Holy Mother! In the darkness thou art with thy children no less than in the day!" And with the pious words, he crossed himself, forehead and breast, and set about the work.

To find if he were in a passage,-that was the first point. He laid his hand upon the wall again, and started in the course most likely, as he believed, to take him to the daylight, never before so beautiful to his mind.

The first step suggested a danger. There might be traps in the floor. He had heard the question often at the camp-fire, What is done with the bodies of the victims offered up in the heathen worship? Some said they were eaten; others, that there were vast receptacles for them in the ungodly temples,-miles and miles of catacombs, filled with myriads of bones of priests and victims. If he should step off into a pit devoted to such a use! His hair bristled at the thought. Carefully, slowly, therefore, his hands pressed against the rough wall, his steps short, one foot advanced to feel the way for the other, so he went, and such was the necessity.

Scarcely three steps on he found another dilemma. The wall suddenly fell away under his hand; he had come to the angle of a corner. He stopped to consider. Should he follow the wall in its new course? It occurred to him that the angle was made by a crossing of passages, that he was then in the square of their intersection; so the chances of finding the right outlet were three to one against him. He was more than ever confused. Hope went into low ebb. Would he ever get out? Had he been missed in the old palace? If hostilities had broken out, as intimated by the prince Io', would his friends be permitted to look for him in the city? The king was his friend, but, alas! his power had been given to another. No, there was no help for him; he must stay there as in his tomb, and die of hunger and thirst,-die slowly, hour by hour, minute by minute. Already the fever of famine was in his blood,-next to the fact is the fancy. If his organism had begun to consume itself, how long could he last? Never were moments so precious to him. Each one carried off a fraction of the strength upon which his escape depended; each one must, therefore, be employed. No more loitering; action, action! In the darkness he looked to heaven, and prayed tearfully to the Mother.

The better to understand his situation, and what he did, it may be well enough to say here, that the steps by which he descended into the court-yard faced th

e west; and as, from the court, he took shelter in a door to his right, the passage must have run due north. When, upon recovery from the fainting-spell, he started to regain the door, he was still in the passage, but unhappily followed its continuation northward; every step, in that course, consequently, was so much into instead of out of the labyrinth. And now, to make the situation worse, he weakly clung to the wall, and at the corner turned to the right; after which his painful, toilsome progress was to the east, where the chances were sure to be complicated.

If the reader has ever tried to pass through a strange hall totally darkened, he can imagine the young Spaniard in motion. Each respiration, each movement, was doubly loud; the slide and shuffle of the feet, changing position, filled the rock-bound space with echoes, which, by a cooler head than his, might have been made tell the width and height of the passage, and something of its depth. There were times when the sounds seemed startlingly like the noise of another person close by; then he would stop, lay hand on his dagger, the only weapon he had, and listen nervously, undetermined what to do.

In the course of the tedious movement, he came to narrow apertures at intervals in the wall, which he surmised to be doors of apartments. Before some of them he paused, thinking they might be occupied; but nothing came from them, or was heard within, but the hollow reverberations usual to empty chambers. The crackle of cement underfoot and the crevices in the wall filled with dust assured him that a long time had passed since a saving hand had been there; yet the evidences that the old pile had once been populous made its present desertion all the more impressive. Afterwhile he began to wish for the appearance of somebody, though an enemy. Yet farther on, when the awful silence and darkness fully kindled his imagination, and gave him for companionship the spirits of the pagans who had once-how far back, who could say?-made the cells animate with their prayers and orgies, the yearning for the company of anything living and susceptible of association became almost insupportable.

Several times, as he advanced, he came to cross passages. Of the distance made, he could form no idea. Once he descended a flight of steps, and at the bottom judged himself a story below the level of the court and street; reflecting, however, that he could not have clomb them on the way in without some knowledge of them, he again paused for consideration. The end of the passage was not reached: he could not say the door he sought was not there; he simply believed not; still he resolved to go back to the starting-point and begin anew.

He set out bravely, and proceeded with less caution than in coming. Suddenly he stopped. He had neglected to count the doors and intersecting passages along the way; consequently he could not identify the starting-point when he reached it. Merciful God! he was now indeed LOST!

For a time he struggled against the conviction; but when the condition was actually realized, a paroxysm seized him. He raised his hands wildly, and shouted, Ola! Ola! The cry smote the walls near by until they rang again, and, flying down the passage, died lingeringly in the many chambers, leaving him so shaken by the discordance that he cowered nearly to the floor, as if, instead of human help, he had conjured a demon, and looked for its instant appearance. Summoning all his resolution, he again shouted the challenge, but with the same result; no reply except the mocking echoes, no help. He was in a tomb, buried alive! And at that moment, resulting doubtless from the fever of mind and body, he was conscious of the first decided sensation of thirst, accompanied by the thought of running water, cool, sweet, and limpid; as if to add to his torture, he saw then, not only that he was immured alive, but how and of what he was to die. Then also he saw why his enemies gave up the pursuit at the passage-door. Lost in the depths of the C?, out of reach of help, groping here and there through the darkness, in hours condensing years of suffering, dead, finally, of hunger and thirst,-was he not as much a victim as if formally butchered by the teotuctli? And if, in the eyes of the heathen god, suffering made the sacrifice appreciable, when was there one more perfect?

"No, no," he cried, "I am a Christian, in care of the Christian's God. I am too young, too strong. I can walk; if need be, run; and there are hours and days before me. I will find the door. Courage, courage! And thou, dear, blessed Mother! if ever thou dost permit a shrine in the chapel of this heathen house, all that which the Se?or Hernan may apportion to me thou shalt have. Hear my vow, O sweet Mother, and help me!"

How many heroisms, attributed to duty, or courage, or some high passion, are in fact due to the utter hopelessness, the blindness past seeing, the fainting of the soul called despair! In that last motive what mighty energy! How it now nerved Orteguilla! Down the passage he went, and with alacrity. Not that he had a plan, or with the mind's eye even saw the way,-not at all. He went because in motion there was soothing to his very despair; in motion he could make himself believe there was still a hope; in motion he could expect each moment to hail the welcome door and the glory of the light.

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