A DESPERATE ATTEMPT

But in this declaration I was wrong. Something happened within the
hour—a summons to attend the king. We had gone to bed but had not fallen
asleep when the messenger came, so in a few moments we were ready to
follow the captain of the guard to the throne room.

His Majesty was ready for the field. He bore a short spear with rows of
pearls set in the shaft, and over his shoulder was slung a bow and sheaf
of arrows. In his belt was the native two-edged tomahawk, and the young
fellow looked fit to render a good account of himself, had he been going
to fight savages like himself.

Beside the king stood the Crooked One, who bore no arms at all. We
afterward learned that this famous chieftain, contrary to the custom of
these islanders, never fought in person but contented himself planning
the battle and directing his men. In this he was unconsciously imitating
the great generals of the civilized world.

“Come,” said Attero. “We are ready for the journey.”

“Oh! are we to go along?” I asked in surprise.

“Yes,” said he, and marched out into the square. We followed. It was
pitch dark, but a group of men outside bore torches. Several litters had
been provided, similar to the “stretchers” we carry wounded men on. The
king took possession of one of these, the Crooked One of another. A
third and fourth were for the use of Joe and myself. As soon as I had
reclined upon the litter four men started away with it, going on a jog
trot, and I found it by no means uncomfortable.

It was a queer procession. Half a dozen runners carried torches ahead of
us to light the way. The king’s litter came first; then the chieftain’s,
followed by mine and Joe’s. More torchbearers closed the line. And so we
proceeded at a rapid pace over hill and dale through the black night to
the opposite end of the island.

As we came to the further edge of the forest, dawn broke. It was a gray,
dismal day and I thought the sky threatened rain.

A great assemblage of warriors met us and welcomed the king and the
Crooked One with evident satisfaction. I stood by and listened while
several leaders made their reports. It seemed the fighting had been
constant the day before, and time and again the natives had been
repulsed with heavy loss. The “stinging things” went straight through
the bark shields, which the wise Kuru had recommended, and they had
therefore been abandoned. Between the forest and the ship the plain was
strewn with dead and wounded Faytans, and their friends could only go
under cover of darkness to reclaim their bodies, as whenever they showed
themselves a hail of bullets greeted them.

I was very proud to learn that my friends were doing such excellent
work. Against their rapid-fire guns the poor natives with their
primitive weapons had no show whatever. Yet the simple creatures had
persisted in sacrificing themselves uselessly.

The Crooked One listened calmly to the reports. Then he asked:

“Have any of the invaders left the ship?”

Not any, they told him, since the two who were prisoners had flown away
through the air.

“Very good,” said he. “To-day, my warriors, we will capture all the
pale-skins.”

I was curious to learn how he would do it; but breakfast seemed the
first thing on the programme, and of this meal Joe and I were given an
ample share.

Afterwards the king walked aside with his chieftain while they conferred
together privately, speaking in low tones. The natives, stolid and calm,
obeying implicitly—and indifferent to life or death—awaited their
pleasure in silence. Then Joe and I were led to the edge of the forest
and permitted to step out into the open and observe the ship. There was
no sign of life on board at first, and rather anxiously I pulled out my
handkerchief and waved it to and fro, regardless of the Faytans just
behind me. Joe imitated my example and after a moment a flag was run up
on the mainmast and ducked once or twice to show we had been recognized.

To find only that short distance separating us from our friends was
distinctly aggravating and I was almost tempted to cut and run for the
ship and chance a spear thrust between my shoulders. Turning my head to
see how near the natives were I found the Crooked One grinning with much
satisfaction, and saw him exchange a triumphant glance with the youthful
king.

This nettled me, for I at once suspected we had been playing into the
hands of our enemies and for some reason had been placed where we were
in order that our friends on the ship might recognize us. A moment later
the chieftain gave a signal and we were seized by strong natives and our
hands bound firmly behind our backs.

Then the mystery was explained.

The Faytan warriors, fully armed, formed in two long lines just behind
us, Joe being placed in front of one line and I before another. It was
easy to guess their plan then. They intended to use us for living
shields, believing our friends would not dare to fire upon us, and so
advance near enough to the ship to board it with a rush and slay the
pale-skins by sheer force of numbers.

It was a desperate attempt, cleverly conceived, and based upon my
assertion to the Crooked One that our friends would sacrifice themselves
for our sakes.

But nature took a hand in the game just then. The sky had been overcast
since daybreak, and just as the two lines were advancing into the open,
pushing Joe and me before them, the clouds opened and immense drops of
rain came pattering down. It grew dark, too, so that we could scarcely
see the ship, and the Faytans hesitated and looked inquiringly at their
chieftain.

The Crooked One eyed the sky, listened to the low growl of thunder, and
ordered his men back to the forest. Next moment the rain came down in
floods, and a bolt of lightning crashed overhead and sent a tall tree
toppling down upon us. No one was hurt, but it was now so dark we could
not see one another, and the great battle of the elements seemed to
render our puny human war insignificant.

I realized this would be a good time to make a break for liberty, but
our hands were tied and the cords held by stalwart Faytans, so that we
were unable to take advantage of the opportunity.

Crash after crash succeeded, and the thunder was deafening, while around
us the lightning darted like angry serpents. They have terrible storms
in these tropics, at times, and it is no unusual thing for an island to
suddenly disappear and never be heard of again. The tempest we now
experienced was so extraordinary that I believe it awed even the
natives.

I could hear the sea pounding against the rocks and wondered if the
boats patrolling the reefs could survive. An hour, perhaps, the storm
lasted; but it broke almost as suddenly as it began, and while the trees
still dripped rivulets upon us, who were drenched to the skin already,
the sun came out brilliantly, shining for the first time that day. The
clouds tumbled away hurriedly, as if they had business elsewhere; the
wind hushed and was still and only the fierce boom of the breakers
remained to remind us of our late fearful experience.

The Faytans also recovered quickly. A few moments sufficed to turn the
hundreds of dusky dripping statues into eager, alert warriors, and again
the Crooked One ordered the advance—in the same manner previously
attempted.

Neither Joe nor I was big enough to fully cover the lines of gigantic
warriors crowding behind us; but the idea was that our friends would not
dare fire for fear of hitting us. If the natives could in this manner
advance close enough to stampede up the rocks to the ship, they hoped to
get enough men aboard to conquer our small party very quickly. For at
close range the savages had no doubt of their own superiority.

For a time it seemed their plot would be successful. Joe and I held back
as much as we could, with that pushing crowd behind us, but steadily we
approached the ship and no sign came from those on board. I began to be
worried. Surely Uncle Naboth and Ned Britton were too clever to allow a
lot of half naked islanders to outwit them; yet not a head appeared
above the bulwarks, not a puff of smoke or rifle ball proved that our
tried and trusty seamen were prepared to sell their lives dearly and
defend the women to the last.

We had reached the first of the rocks that clustered above the shore and
had began to stumble over them when, with an abruptness that fairly made
me jump, a near by crack of firearms saluted us and a straggling volley
was poured upon the devoted natives. Not from the ship, however; the
shots came from a ridge of rocks directly to the left of us, and the
Faytans began falling by the dozens.

“Drop, Joe!” I cried, and at the same time fell flat upon my face
between two protecting rocks and lay there while the slaughter
continued.

I was exulting in the strategy that had outflanked the Faytans and
reflecting that our boys had made a dash for those rocks during the
darkness of the storm, when their movements could not be observed, when
two stout arms seized me and raised me bodily from the ground. I thought
at first some of our own people had rescued me, but being turned face
down over a broad shoulder I saw the dusky skin of a savage below me and
knew that I had been taken by a Faytan.

Instantly I began to struggle and cry out, but bound as I was I could
offer no serious resistance and my howls were almost drowned by the
crack of rifles, which continued unabated. I know now that my friends
saw my plight and Ned and Señor de Jiminez, who were both splendid
shots, made one or two attempts to bring down my captor; but my
sprawling body so covered him that only his head and legs were free, and
to fire at him at all was to put me in imminent danger.

He was a powerful fellow, and fairly ran with me—no light burden, if I
am small—back to the forest. There were few of his band as successful
and he doubtless owed his own safety to the fact that he bore me upon
his back.

The “stinging weapons” had played fearful havoc with the attacking
party, and even as the few stragglers who survived—most of them
wounded—crept back to the protecting forest, our men sallied from the
rocks, hastily stripped the pearl ornaments from the fallen, and
regained the ship without a single casualty.

I stood among the trees watching them, with the king at one side of me
and the Crooked One on the other side. My joy was equaled by the chagrin
of my enemies when we saw Joe was safe with his comrades and being
complimented on all sides, while the ladies waved their handkerchiefs to
him from the deck of the ship.

We were a silent party. I, because I was so disappointed and disgusted
at my hard luck that I could almost have cried, and the others because
their prettily conceived plan of attack had been thwarted and their
warriors mowed down by scores.

“It is useless, your Majesty,” announced the Crooked One, regretfully;
“the weapons of the pale-skins are too bitter for us to face. The other
plan is best. It will require time and patience; but it is best.”

“Come, then,” replied the King, briefly. “We will return to the city.”

“What is the other plan?” I inquired, as we were conducted to our
litters.

“We shall let thirst and hunger fight for us,” answered Attero, readily.
“Your people will soon need fresh water; but they cannot get it without
entering the forest, where my warriors will patiently await them.”

I got into my litter, where my bonds were removed and I was borne along
by my bearers beside the king.

“Did the boats escape the storm?” I asked presently.

He nodded.

“Of course. There was less danger to them on the water than to us in the
forest.”

“But the reefs—”

“My men are fishes first, and warriors afterward. They are used to
storms and do not dread them.”

I did not see how any living thing could withstand the breakers on the
reefs, but said nothing more on that subject.

The king was unusually quiet and seemed not to wish to converse with me.
I could not well blame him, seeing he had just witnessed the destruction
of many of his choicest fighting men.

Dismally enough we made our way back to the Pearl City, where to my
satisfaction I was taken to my old room at the back of the temple. I
missed Joe, but was glad he was safe with his friends. It was not the
room that I cared especially for, but the evidence that I still retained
the young king’s good will. Had he ordered me to some other place in
close confinement, I might know my end was not very far off.

Attero sent for me the following day and asked me to continue my
descriptions of American life. In view of the fact that he was
determined upon the destruction of our entire band I thought best to
impress upon him our national importance and to assure him that, as our
ships sailed every sea, it was only a question of time when others would
discover Faytan and come in such numbers that they could not be
successfully opposed. Also I explained many of the luxuries and
conveniences we enjoyed, of which the Faytans were wholly ignorant, and
informed the king that he and his people could readily secure them all
in exchange for a portion of their pearls.

“At present the pearls are of no value to you,” said I, “as you can use
them only as ornaments. But by disposing of even your smallest ones you
can secure practical inventions and manufactured goods that would have
the effect of civilizing your people and render their lives far more
pleasant and useful.”

Attero thought deeply upon this matter, and I could see my arguments
tempted him; but neither during this interview nor others could I
overthrow the prejudices inherited from a long line of exclusive
ancestors, who believed Faytan was the important portion of the world
and none but Faytans must ever be permitted to live upon the island.

“I would like the good things the pale-skins have,” he admitted, “but
not at the price we would have to pay. Our riches lie in our pearls; not
because they could be exchanged for so many other things, but because
they bring us good luck, and the vast collection we have keeps the Pearl
God here among us, and thus insures his protection. We are now
prosperous and do not miss your great inventions because we have never
had them. But if we allowed you to go away and return with more of your
people, think what would happen! Our happy life would become one of
turmoil and eagerness to gain worldly goods. Some of my people would
want more than their share, and that would lead to envy and quarrels. At
present all property belongs to the King, and each of his subjects is
given what he requires. My people are content with this condition and it
would be foolish for me to change it.”

“Then,” said I, “I have another proposition. Allow us to leave this
island, and do you come with us as our guest. We will take you to
America and show you our cities and our great civilization. You will
acquire much wisdom, much learning and experience. And afterward, if you
still desire it, we will bring you back here, land you upon your island,
and go away without telling anyone of Faytan or its king. We will
faithfully keep your secret, your Majesty, and you will be no worse off
than before we came, but far richer in knowledge of the world.”

I thought this would win him, for a time; but finally he rejected the
plan, as he did all others I suggested. We talked together on several
days, but my stories of our life and the wonders of our civilization
seemed to content him. One evening he said to me:

“You have given me much to think of, Steele; and after you are dead I
shall remember you as a good teacher. I am even sorry the law compels me
to put you to death; but it does, and my chiefs and medicine men are
beginning to reproach me for the delay.”

“The King is supreme,” I said rather uneasily.

“Because he obeys the same laws his subjects do,” was the answer. “Were
I to disobey the laws of my great ancestors there would soon be rebels
and traitors in Faytan.”

I remembered the suggestion of the Crooked One.

“The King who makes the laws has power to change them,” I asserted. “If
you proclaim a new law, saying that I, your friend, must be permitted to
live, your subjects will accept it willingly.”

He smiled and looked at me rather pityingly.

“It would please me to do that,” said he; “but it would be wrong. I must
not, for my own pleasure, disobey my forefathers, who in their wisdom
said that all strangers must be put to death. Is my own judgment so
perfect that I dare oppose that of twenty noble rulers of Faytan? No. I
have the power to save you in that way; but I will not do so.”

“Never mind,” said I; “we will speak of this matter again, some other
time.”

He gave me a steady look.

“There will be no opportunity,” was his reply. “I like you, Steele. I am
glad you have been my friend. But to-morrow you will be put to death.”

“To-morrow!”

“I have waited too long already. My people are unhappy to see a
pale-skin alive when the law condemns him to death. It will be
to-morrow.”

He turned away.

“Wait, your Majesty—hear me!” I pleaded.

He waved me aside with a haughty gesture and left the room. The Faytans
are philosophers and accept death without a murmur. The king, my friend,
could not understand my protest.

Friend? Well, it was a queer sort of friendship that made no effort to
save me; that had no sympathy for my unhappy fate.

I am a good deal of a coward at times. That night I could not sleep.
Thinking over my predicament with sober care I could see no possible way
of escape. My prison was well guarded. If I managed to leave it there
was no chance of my being able to pass through the native city and gain
the ship unchallenged. Still, desperate conditions require desperate
remedies, and I had my two revolvers in my pocket, both fully loaded.
About midnight it occurred to me to make a bold dash for liberty. If I
failed I could be no worse off than now, since I was condemned to die
the next morning.

The windows of my room were not glazed or barred. They were big square
openings placed about five feet above the floor. By standing on the
stone bench that ran around the room I could look out upon the square at
the rear of the temple. I had no light; neither was there any light
burned outside; but the stars were bright enough for me to observe all
surrounding objects distinctly. I found the square deserted save by a
solitary form standing almost directly beneath my window, his back
toward me. A blanket covered his head and shoulders, for the natives
dread the chill night air and usually wear a blanket in this manner when
abroad at night.

I waited for the man to move away, but when a half hour passed and he
did not stir I decided he was a sentry placed there to prevent my
escape. It was the first time a guard of any sort had been set to watch
over me.

The sight of his blanket gave me an idea. I gathered up one of the
heaviest of those with which my bench was provided and creeping into the
thick embrasure of the window I spread the blanket, dropped it swiftly
over the head of the sentry, and then leaped down and caught him firmly
around the arms, bearing him to the ground with my weight.

Although muffled in the blanket, which obstructed free action, the
fellow struggled desperately, and I soon realized I could not subdue
him. I dared not fire a revolver, as the sound would bring a horde upon
me; so I managed to draw my pocket knife and open the blade. With this I
stabbed repeatedly at the blanket, trying to reach the man’s heart, but
the cloth was so thick and closely woven that the rather blunt end of my
knife would not penetrate it, and all the while I was having greater
difficulty in holding him down.

Rendered desperate by this condition I suddenly sprang away and made for
the nearest alley that led out of the square, leaving the sentry to
fumble with the blanket until he could free his head.

Before he could do this I had entered a narrow street, up which I ran at
my best speed. By good luck it led westward, and I had visions of making
a successful run across the island when suddenly in the darkness a pair
of strong arms were flung around me and I was pinioned in a viselike
grip.

“Pardon me,” said a low, sneering voice, in the native tongue. “It is
not wise to walk out at night. The dews of Faytan are dangerous.”

It was the Crooked One.

Panting and breathless I stood an unresisting prisoner, for I knew the
game was up. But I did not reply, understanding that any remark would
only call forth more triumphant sneers. As we stood there footsteps
hastily approached and another joined us.

“Have you got him?” asked the newcomer.

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“Good,” said Attero. “He nearly smothered me.”

“I beg your Majesty’s pardon,” said I. “I had no idea it was you.”

“And had you known—what then?” he asked.

“I believe I should have acted in the same way.”

The Crooked One laughed, and said:

“While I hold him, your Majesty will do well to search him. He may carry
dangerous weapons.”

Attero had no hesitation in obeying this request. He took away my
revolvers. My knife I had dropped in the square. Then I was led back to
my prison.

“I suspected,” said the Crooked One as he thrust me into my old room,
“that on this night you would attempt to escape, knowing you are to die
to-morrow.”

“It was but natural,” added the king, calmly. “So we watched, my
chieftain and I, that we might prevent it. Good night, Steele. Myself, I
cannot sleep because of your impending doom. It makes me very unhappy.
But die you must.”

With these words he left me, but the Crooked One remained to say:

“Every street is well guarded. Escape is impossible. Be patient,
therefore, for no man can evade his fate.”

He shuffled after the king, and left alone I threw myself upon the bench
and waited for daylight.