Why was he there? What urge had drawn him thus, contrary to the habits and customs of his kind, upon this long and arduous journey? Where was he bound? What or whom did he seek? Only he, Numa, the lion, king of beasts, knew.
In his quarters in the palace, Erot paced the floor, angry and disconsolate. Sprawled on a bench, his feet wide apart, sat Xerstle deep in thought. The two men were facing a crisis, and they were terrified. Had Erot definitely fallen from the favor of the Queen, Xerstle would be dragged down with him; of that there was no doubt.
“But there must be something you can do,” insisted Xerstle.
“I have seen both Tomos and M’duze,” replied Erot wearily, “and they have promised to help. It means as much to them as it does to me. But Nemone is infatuated with this stranger. Even M’duze, who has known her all her life, has never seen her so affected by a passion as now. Even she feels that she may not be able to control the Queen in the face of her mad attachment for the naked barbarian.
“None knows Nemone better than does M’duze, and I can tell you, Xerstle, the old hag is frightened. Nemone hates her, and if the attempted thwarting of this new passion arouses her anger sufficiently it may sweep away the fear that the Queen has already held for M’duze, and she will destroy her. It is this that M’duze fears. And you can imagine how terrified old Tomos is! Without M’duze he would be lost, for Nemone tolerates him only because M’duze demands it.”
“But there must be some way,” again insisted Xerstle.
“There is no way so long as this fellow, Tarzan, is able to turn Nemone’s heart to water,” answered Erot. “Why, he does not even kneel to her; and he speaks to her as one might to a naughty slave girl. By the mane of Thoos! I believe that if he kicked her she would like it.”
“But there is a way!” exclaimed Xerstle in a sudden whisper. “Listenl” and then he launched forth into a detailed explanation of his plan. Erot sat listening to his friend, an expression of rapt interest upon his face. A slave girl came from Xerstle’s bedchamber, crossed the living room where the two men talked, and departed into the corridor beyond; but so engrossed were Erot and Xerstle that neither was aware that she had come or that she had gone.
In their quarters that evening Gemnon and Tarzan partook of the final meal of the day, far neither had enjoyed the prospect of again eating with the other nobles. Valthor slept in the bedroom, having asked not to be disturbed until morning.
“When you have definitely displaced Erot conditions will be different,” explained Gemnon; “then they will fawn upon you, shower you with attentions; and wait upon your every whim.”
“That will never occur,” snapped the ape-man.
“Why not?” demanded his companion. “Nemone is mad about you. There is nothing that she would not do for you, absolutely nothing. Why, man, you can rule Cathne if you so choose.”
“But I do not choose,” replied Tarzan. “Nemone may be mad, but I am not; and even were I, I could never be mad enough to accept a position that had once been filled by Erot. The idea disgusts me; let us talk of something pleasant.”
“Very well,” consented Gemnon with a smile. “Perhaps I think you are foolish, but I admit that I cannot help but admire your courage and your decency.
“And now for something more pleasant! Something very much more pleasant! I am going to take you visiting tonight. I am going to take you to see the most beautiful girl in Cathne.”
“I thought that there could be no woman in Cathne more beautiful than the Queen,” objected Tarzan.
“There would not be if Nemone knew of her,” replied Gemnon, “but fortunately she does not know; she has never seen this girl, and may Thoos forbid that she ever does!”
“You are much interested,” remarked the ape-man, smiling.
“I am in love with her,” explained Gemnon simply.
“And Nemone has never seen her? I should think that a difficult condition to maintain, for Cathne is not large; and if the girl be of the same class as you many other nobles must know of her beauty. One would expect such news to come quickly to the ears of Nemone.”
“She is surrounded by very loyal friends, this girl of whom I speak,” replied Gemnon. “She is Doria, the daughter of Thudos. Her father is a very powerful noble and head of the faction which wishes to place Alextar on the throne. Only Nemone’s knowledge of his great power preserves his life, but owing to the strained relations that exist between Nemone and his house neither he nor members of his family are often at court. Thus it has been easier to prevent knowledge of the great beauty of Doria coming to Nemone.”
As the two men were leaving the palace a short time later they came unexpectedly upon Xerstle, who was most effusive in his greetings. “Congratulations, Tarzan!” he exclaimed, halting the companions. “That was a most noble feat you performed in the lion pit today. All the palace is talking about it, and let me be among the first to tell you how glad I am that you have won the confidence of our gracious and beautiful Queen by your bravery, strength, and magnanimity.”
Tarzan nodded in acknowledgment of the man’s avowal and started to move on, but Xerstle held him with a gesture. “We must see more of one another,” he continued. “I am arranging a grand hunt, and I must have you as my guest of honor. There will be but a few of us, a most select party; and I can assure you of good sport. When all the arrangements are completed, I will let you know the day of the hunt; and now goodbye and good luck to you!”
“I care nothing about him or his grand hunt,” said Tarzan as he and Gemnon continued on toward the home of Doria.
“Perhaps it would be well to accept,” advised Gemnon. “That fellow and his friends will bear watching, and if you are with them occasionally you can watch them that much better.”
Tarzan shrugged. “If I am still here, I shall go with him if you think best.”
“If you are still here!” exclaimed Gemnon. “You certainly are not expecting to get away from Cathne, are you?”
“Why, certainly,” replied Tarzan. “I may go any day, or night; there is nothing to hold me here, and I have given no promise that I would not escape when I wished.”
Gemnon smiled a wry smile that Tarzan did not see in the semi-darkness of the ill-lit avenue through which they were passing. “That will make it extremely interesting for me,” he remarked.
“Why?” demanded the ape-man.
“Nemone turned you over into my keeping. If you escape while I am responsible for you she will have me destroyed.”
A frown knit the brows of the lord of the jungle. “I did not know that,” he said; “but you need not worry; I shall not go until you have been relieved of responsibility.” A sudden smile lighted his countenance. “I think I shall ask Nemone to give me over into the keeping of Erot or Xerstle.”
Gemnon chuckled. “What a story that would make!” he cried.
An occasional torch only partially dispelled the gloom beneath the overhanging trees that bordered the avenue that led toward the palace of Thudos. At the intersection of a narrow alleyway, beneath the branches of a wide-spreading oak a dark figure lurked in the shadows as Tarzan and Gemnon approached. The keen eyes of the ape-man saw and recognized it as the figure of a man before they came close enough to be in danger; and Tarzan was ready even though he had no suspicion that the man’s presence there was in any way concerned with him, for it is the business of the jungle bred to be always ready, whether danger threatens or not.
Just as the two came opposite the figure, Tarzan heard his name whispered in a hoarse voice. He stopped. “Beware of Erot!” whispered the voice. “Tonight!” Then the figure wheeled and lumbered into the denser shadows of the narrow alleyway; but in the glimpse that Tarzan got of it there was a familiar roll to the great body, just as there had been a suggestion of familiarity in the voice.
“Now who do you suppose that is?” demanded Gemnon. “Come onl We’ll capture him and find out,” and he started as though to pursue the stranger down the alley.
Tarzan laid a restraining hand upon his shoulder. “No,” he said; “it was some one who has tried to befriend me. If he wishes to conceal his identity, it is not for me to reveal it.”
“You are right,” assented Gemnon.
“And I think I would have learned no more by pursuing him than I already know. I recognized him by his voice and his gait, and then, as he turned to leave, a movement in the air brought his scent spoor to my nostrils. I think I would recognize that a mile away, for it is very strong; it always is in powerful men and beasts.”
“Why was he afraid of you?” asked Gemnon.
“He was not afraid of me; he was afraid of you because you are a noble.”
“He need not have been, if he is a friend of yours. I would not have betrayed him.”
“I know that, but he could not. You are a noble, and so you might be a friend of Erot: I do not mind telling you who it was, because I know you would not use the knowledge to harm him; but you will be surprised; I surely was. It was Phobeg.”
“No! Why should he befriend the man who defeated and humiliated him, and almost killed him?”
“Because he did not kill him. Phobeg is a simple-minded fellow, but he is the type that would not be devoid of gratitude. He is the sort that would bestow doglike devotion upon one who was more powerful than he, for he worships physical prowess.”
At the palace of Thudos the two men were ushered into a magnificent apartment by a slave after the guard at the entrance had recognized Gemnon and permitted them to pass. In the soft light of a dozen cressets they awaited the coming of the daughter of the house to whom the slave had carried Gemnon’s ring to evidence the identity of her caller. The richness of the furnishings of the room were scarcely less magnificent than those Tarzan had seen in the palace of Nemone; and again, here, were the trophies of the chase prominent among the decorations upon the walls.
A human head, surmounted by a golden helmet, frowned down from sightless eyes from a place of honor above the main entrance. Though shrunken and withered in death there was still strength and majesty in its appearance; and Tarzan gazed for some moments at it, intrigued by the thought of all that had passed within that dry and ghastly skull before it found its way to grace the trophies upon the palace walls of the noble Thudos. What fierce or kindly thoughts, what hates, what loves, what rages had been born and lived and died behind that parchment forehead? What tales those dried and shrivelled lips might tell could the hot blood of the fighting man give them life once more!
“A splendid trophy,” commented Gemnon, attracted by his companion’s evident interest in the head. “It is the most valuable trophy in Cathne; there is no other to equal it, and there may never be another. That head belonged to a king of Athne. Thudos took it himself in battle as a young man.”
“I rather like the idea,” said Tarzan thoughtfully. “In the world from which I come men fill their trophy rooms with the heads of creatures who are not their enemies, who would be their friends if man would let them. Your most valued trophies are the heads of your enemies who have had an equal opportunity to take your head. Yes, it is a splendid idea!”
The light fall of soft sandals upon stone announced the coming of their hostess, and both men turned toward the doorway leading into a small open garden from which she was coming. Tarzan saw a girl of exquisite beauty; but whether she were more beautiful than Nemone he could not say, there are so many things that enter into the making of a beautiful countenance; yet he acknowledged to himself that Thudos was wise in keeping her hidden from the Queen.
She greeted Gemnon with the sweet familiarity of an old friend, and when Tarzan was presented her manner was cordial and unaffected, yet always the, fact that she was the daughter of Thudas seemed a part of her.
“I saw you in the stadium,” she said, and then, with a laugh, “I lost many drachmas because of you.”
“I am sorry,” said Tarzan. “Perhaps had I known that you were betting on Phobeg I should have let him kill me.”
“That is an idea,” exclaimed Doria, laughing. “If you fight in the stadium again I shall tell you beforehand which man I am placing my money on, and then I shall be sure to win.”
“I see that I must make you like me so well that you will not want to bet on my opponent.”
“From what I have seen of him,” interjected Gemnon, “I think Tarzan will always be a safe bet—in an arena.”
“What do you mean?” demanded the girl. “There is the suggestion of another significance in your words.”
“I am afraid my friend will not be so safe in a boudoir,” laughed the young noble.
“We have already heard that he has been more than successful,” said Doria with just the faintest note of something that might have been disgust.
“Do not judge him too harshly,” pleased Gemnon; “he is still doing his best to get himself destroyed.”
“That should not be difficult in tha palace of Nemone, though we have already heard startling tales of his refusal to kneel before the Queen. One who has survived that may not have as much to fear as we have imagined,” returned Doria.
“Your Queen understands why I do not kneel,” explained Tarzan. “It is through no disrespect nor boorish bravado, but because of the habits of a lifetime and the exigencies of my existence. Had I not been commanded to kneel, I might have knelt. I am afraid that I cannot explain the psychology of my position so that another may understand it; but it is plain to me that I must not bow to any authority against my will, unless I am compelled to do so by force.”
The three had spent the evening in pleasant conversation, and Gemnon and Tarzan were about to leave, when a middle-aged man entered the room. It was Thudos, the father of Doria. He greeted Gemnon cordially and seemed pleased to meet Tarzan whom he immediately commenced to question relative to the world outside the valleys of Onthar and Thenar.
Thudos was a strikingly handsome man, with strong features, an athletic build, and eyes that were serious and stern that yet had wrinkles at their corners that betokened much laughter. His was a face that one might trust, for integrity, loyalty, and courage had left their imprints plainly upon it, at least for eyes as observant as those of the lard of the jungle.
When the two guests rose to leave again, Thudos seemed satisfied with his appraisal of the stranger. “I am glad that Gemnon brought you,” he said. “The very fact that he did convinces me that he has confidence in your friendship and loyalty, for, as you may already know, the position of my house at the court of Nemone is such that we receive only assured friends within our walls.”
“I understand,” replied the ape-man. He made no other reply, but both Thudos and Doria felt that here was a man who might be trusted.
As the two men entered the avenue in front of the palace of their host, a figure slunk into the shadow of a tree a few paces from them; and neither saw it. Then they walked leisurely toward their apartments in the palace, discussing the noble Thudos and his matchless daughter.
“I have been curious to ask you,” said Tarzan, “haw Doria dared came to the stadium when her life is constantly in danger should her beauty become known to the Queen?”
“She is always disguised when she goes abroad,” replied Gemnon. “A few touches by an expert hand and hollows appear in her cheeks and beneath her eyes, her brow is wrinkled; and beholdl she is no longer the most beautiful woman in the world. Nemone would not give her a second thought if she saw her, but still care is taken to see that Nemone does not see her too closely even then. It is informers we fear the most. Thudos never sells a slave who has seen Doria, and once a new slave enters the palace walls he never leaves them again until long years of service have proved him, and his loyalty is unquestioned.
“It is a monotonous life for Doria, the penalty she pays for beauty; but all that we can do is hope and pray that relief will come some day in the death of Nemone or the elevation of Alextar to, the throne.”
Valthor was asleep on Tarzan’s couch when the ape-man entered his bedroom. He had had little rest since his capture, and, in addition, he was suffering from a slight wound; so Tarzan moved softly that he might not disturb him and made no light in the room, the darkness of which was partially dispelled by the moonlight.
Spreading some skins on the floor against the wall opposite the window, the ape-man lay down and was soon asleep, while in the apartment above him two men crouched in the dark beside the window that was directly above that in Tarzan’s bedroom.
For a long time they crouched there in silence. One was a large, powerful man; the other smaller and lighter. Fully an hour passed before either moved other than to change a cramped position for one more comfortable; then the smaller man arose. One end of a long rope was knotted about his body beneath his armpits; in his right hand he carried a slim dagger-sword.
Cautiously and silently he went to the window and looked out, his careful gaze searching the grounds below; then he sat on the sill and swung his legs through the window. The larger man, holding the rope firmly with both hands, braced himself. The smaller turned over on his belly and slid out of the window. Hand over hand, the other lowered him; his head disappeared below the sill.
Very carefully, so as to make no noise, the larger man lowered the smaller until the feet of the latter rested on the sill of Tarzan’s bedroom window. Here the man reached in and took hold of the casing; then he jerked twice upon the rope to acquaint his fellow with the fact that he had reached his destination safely and the other let the rope slip through his fingers loosely as the movements of the man below dragged it slowly out.
The smaller man stepped gingerly to the floor inside the room. Without hesitation he moved toward the bed, his weapon raised and ready in his hand. He made no haste; his one purpose for the present appeared to be the achievement of absolute silence. It was evident that he feared to awaken the sleeper. Even when he reached the bed he stood there for a long time searching with his eyes for the right spot to strike that the blow might bring instant death. The assassin knew that Gemnon slept in another bedroom across the living room; what he did not know was that Valthor, the Athnean, lay stretched on the bed beneath his keen weapon.
As the assassin hesitated, Tarzan of the Apes opened his eyes. Though the intruder had made no sound his mere presence in the room had aroused the ape-man; perhaps the effluvium from his body, impinging upon the sensitive nostrils of the sleeping beast-man, carried the same message to the alert brain that sound would have carried.
It is said that a sleeping dog awakened by the touch of a cart wheel reacts so quickly that he can escape harm by leaping aside before the wheel crushes him. I do not believe this; but I am convinced that the so-called lower animals awaken in full and complete possession of all their faculties; not slowly, faculty by faculty, as is the case with man. Thus awoke Tarzan, master of all his powers.
At the instant that he opened his eyes he saw the stranger in the room, saw the dagger raised above the form of the sleeping Valthar, read the whole story in a single glance, and in the same moment arose and leaped upon the unsuspecting murderer who was dragged back from his victim at the very instant that his weapon was descending.
As the two men crashed to the floor, Valthor awoke and sprang from his cot; but by the time he had discovered what was transpiring the would-be assassin lay dead upon the floor, and Tarzan of the Apes stood with one foot upon the body of his kill. For an instant the ape-man hesitated, his face upturned as the weird scream of the victorious bull ape trembled on his lips; but then he shook his head, and only a low growl rumbled upward from the deep chest.
Valthor had heard these growls before and was neither surprised nor shocked. The man in the room above had heard only beasts growl, and the sound made him hesitate and wonder. He had heard, too, the crash of the two bodies as Tarzan had hurled the other to the floor, and while he had not interpreted that correctly it had suggested resistance and put him on his guard. Cautiously he stepped closer to the window and looked out, listening.
In the room below, Tarzan of the Apes seized the corpse of the man who had come to kill him and hurled it through the window into the grounds beneath. The man above saw and, turning, slunk from the room and vanished among the dark shadows of the palace corridors.