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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 8. The Six Castle Chambers
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The Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 8. The Six Castle Chambers Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2046

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The Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 8. The Six Castle Chambers

CHAPTER VIII. THE SIX CASTLE CHAMBERS

In an instant Nathaniel was upon his knees beside the prostrate form of the old councilor.

Obadiah's eyes were open, but unseeing; his face was blanched to the whiteness of paper; an almost imperceptible movement of his chest showed that he still breathed. Nathaniel lifted one of the limp hands and its clammy chill struck horror to his heart. Tenderly he lifted the old man and carried him to the cot at the end of the room. He loosened his clothes, tore off the low collar about his throat, and felt with his hand to measure the faint beating of life in the councilor's breast. For a few moments it seemed to grow fainter and fainter, and a choking lump rose in his throat as he watched the pallor of death fixing itself on the councilor's shriveled face. What strange chord of sympathy was it that bound him to this old man? Was it the same mysterious influence that had attracted Marion to him? He dropped upon his knees and called the girl's name softly but it awakened no response in the sightless eyes, no tremor in the parted, unquivering lips. Very slowly as the minutes passed there came a reaction. The pulsations of the weakened heart became a little stronger, he could catch faintly the sound of breath coming from between the old man's lips.

With a gasp of relief Nathaniel rose to his feet. Through the door he saw the red glare growing in the northern sky and heard the great bell at St. James ring a wilder and more excited alarm. For a few moments he stood in silent, listening inaction, his nerves tingling with a strange sensation of impending peril. Obadiah's madness, the mysterious trembling of the earth beneath his feet, the volcano of fire, the clanging of the bell and the councilor's insane rejoicing had all come so suddenly that he was dazed. What great calamity, what fearful vengeance, was about to come upon the Mormon kingdom? Was it possible that the fishermen and settlers of the mainland had risen, as Obadiah had said, and were already at hand to destroy Strang and his people? The thought spurred him to the door. The blood rushed like fire through his veins. What would it mean to Marion--to Neil?

In his excitement he started down the path that led to the lilac hidden home beyond the forest. Then he thought again of Obadiah and his last choking utterance of Marion's name. He had tried to speak of her, even with that death-like rattling of the breath in his throat; and the memory of the old councilor's frantic struggle for words brought Nathaniel quickly back to the cabin. He bent over Obadiah's shriveled form and spoke the girl's name again and again in his ears. There came no response, no quiver of life to show that the old man was conscious of his presence. As he worked over him, bathing his face and chest in cool water, the feeling became strong in him that he was fighting death in this gloomy room for Marion's sake. It was like the whispering of an invisible spirit in his ears--something more than presentiment, something that made his own heart grow faint when death seemed winning in the struggle. His watchfulness was acute, intense, desperate. When, after a time, he straightened himself again, rewarded by Obadiah's more regular breathing, the sweat stood in beads upon his face. He knew that he had triumphed. Obadiah would live, and Marion--

He placed his mouth close to the councilor's ear.

"Tell me about Marion," he said again. "Marion--Marion--Marion--"

He waited, stilling his own breath to catch the sound of a whisper. None came. As he bent over him he saw through the open door that the red glare of fire had faded to a burnt out glow in the sky. In the deep silence the sullen beating of the bell seemed nearer, and he could hear the excited barking of dogs in St. James. Slowly the hope that Obadiah might speak to him died away and he returned to the door. It still lacked an hour of midnight, when Marion, had promised to come to him. He was wildly impatient and to his impatience was added the fear that had filled him as he hovered over Obadiah, a nameless, intangible fear--something which he could not have analyzed and which clutched at his heart and urged him to follow the path that led to Marion's. For a time he resisted the impulse. What if she should come by another path while he was gone? He waited nervously in the edge of the forest, watching, and listening for footsteps. Each minute seemed like an hour marked into seconds by the solemn steady tolling of the bell, and after a little he found himself unconsciously measuring time by counting the strokes. Then he went out into the path. He followed it, step by step, until he could no longer see the light in the cabin; his pulse beat a little faster; he stared ahead into the deep gloom between the walls of forest--and quickened his pace. If Marion was coming to him he would meet her. If she was not coming--

In his old fearless way he promptly made up his mind. He would go boldly to the cabin and tell her that Neil was waiting. He felt sure that the alarm sounding from St. James had drawn away the guards and that there would be nothing to interfere with his plan. If she had already left the cabin he would return quickly to Obadiah's. In his eagerness he began to run. Once a sound stopped him--the distant beating of galloping hoofs. He heard the shout of a man, a reply farther away, the quick, excited yelping of a dog. His blood danced as he thought of the gathering of the Mormon fighters, the men and boys racing down the black trails from the inland forests, the excitement in St. James. As he ran on again he thought of Arbor Croche mustering the panting, vengeful defenders; of Strang, his great voice booming encouragement and promise, above the brazen thunder of the bell; he saw in fancy the frightened huddling groups of women and children and beyond and above all the coming of the "vengeance of God"--a hundred beats, a thousand men--and there went out from his soul if not from his lips a great cry of joy. At the edge of the forest he stopped for a moment. Over beyond the clearing a light burned dimly through the lilacs. The sweet odor of the flowers came to him gently, persuasively, and nerved him into the open. He passed across the open space swiftly and plunged into a tangle of bushes close to the lighted window.

He heard a man's voice within, and then a woman's. Was it Marion? Cautiously Nathaniel crept close to the log wall of the cabin. He reached out, and hesitated. Should he look--as he had done at the king's window? The man's voice came to him again, harsh and angry, and this time it was not a woman's words that he heard but a woman's sobbing cry. He parted the bushes and a glare of light fell on his face. The lamp was on a table and beside the table there sat a woman, her white head turned from him, her face buried in her hands. She was an old woman and he knew that it was Marion's mother. He could not see the man.

Where was Marion? He wormed himself back out of the bushes and walked quickly around the house. There was no other light, no other sign of life except in that one room. With sudden resolution he stepped to the door and knocked loudly.

For a full half minute there was silence, and he knocked again. He heard the approach of a shuffling step, the thump, thump, thump of a cane, and the door swung back. It was the man who opened it, a tall giant of an old man, doubled as if with rheumatism, and close behind him was the frightened face of the woman. An involuntary shudder passed through Nathaniel as he looked at them. They were old--so old that the man's shrivelled hands were like those of a skeleton; his giant frame seemed about to totter into ruin, his eyes were sunken until his face gave the horror of a death mask. Was it possible that these people were the father and mother of Marion--and of Neil? As he stepped to the threshold they timidly drew back from him. In a single glance Nathaniel swept the room and what he saw thrilled him, for everywhere were signs of Marion; in the pictures on the walls, the snowy curtains, the cushions in the window-seat--and the huge vase of lilacs on the mantle.

"I am a messenger of the king," he said, advancing and closing the door behind him. "I want to speak with Marion."

"Strang--the king!" cried the old man, clutching the knob of his cane with both hands. "She has gone!"

"Gone!" exclaimed Nathaniel. For an instant his heart bounded with delight. Marion was on her way to the tryst! He sprang back to the door. "When? When did she go?"

The woman had come forward, her hands trembling, her lips quivering. Something in the terror of her face sent the hot blood from Nathaniel's cheeks.

"They sent for her an hour ago," she said. "The king sent Obadiah Price for her! O, my God!" she shrieked suddenly, clutching at her breast, "Tell me--what are they doing with Marion--"

"Shut up!" snarled the old man. "That is Strang's business. She has gone to Strang." With an effort he straightened himself until his towering form rose half a head above Nathaniel. "She has gone to the king," he repeated. "Tell Strang that she will wive him to-night, as she has promised!"

In spite of his effort to control himself a terrible cry burst from Nathaniel's lips. He flung open the door and stood for an instant with his white face turned back.

"She went to the castle--an hour ago?" he cried.

"Yes, to the castle--with Obadiah Price--" The last words followed him as he sped out into the night. As swiftly as a wolf he raced across the clearing to the trail that led down to St. James. Something seemed to have burst in his brain; something that was not blood, but fire, seemed to burn in his veins--a mad desire to reach Strang, to grip him by the throat, to mete out to him the vengeance of a fiend instead of that of a man. He was too late to save Marion! His brain reeled with the thought. Too late--too late--too late. He panted the words. They came with every gasp for breath. Too late! Too late! His heart pumped like an engine as he strained to keep up his speed. He passed a man and a boy hurrying with their rifles to St. James and made no answer to their shout; a galloping horse forged ahead of him and he tried to keep up with it; and then, at the top of the long hill that sloped down to the stronghold of the Mormon kingdom something seemed to sweep his legs from under him, and he fell panting on the ground. For a few moments he lay there looking down upon the city. The great bell at the temple was now silent. He saw huge fires burning for a mile along the coast, hundreds of lights were twinkling in the harbor, there came up to him softly, subdued by distance, the sound of commotion and excitement far below.

His eyes rested on the beacon above the prophet's home, burning like a ball of fire over the black canopy of tree-tops. Marion was there! He rose to his feet again and went on, reason and judgment returning to him--telling him that he was about to play against odds; that his work was to be one of strength and generalship and not of madness. As he picked his way more slowly and cautiously down the slope a new hope flashed upon him. Was it possible that the discovery of the approach of the mainlanders had served to save Marion? In the excitement that followed the calling of the Mormons to arms and the preparations for the defense would Strang, the master of the kingdom, the bulwark of his people, waste priceless time in carrying out the purpose for which he had sent for Marion? Hardly did hope burn anew in his breast when there came another thought to quench it. Why had the king sent for Marion on this particular night and at this late hour? Why, unless at the approach of his enemies he had feared that he might lose his beautiful victim, and in his overmastering passion had called her to him even as his people assembled in defense of his kingdom.

There was desperate coolness in Nathaniel's approach now. Whatever had happened he would do what Neil had threatened to do--kill Strang. And whatever had happened he would take Marion away with him if it was only her dead body that he carried in his arms. To do these things he needed strength. He advanced more slowly and drew deeper and deeper drafts of air into his exhausted lungs. At the edge of the grove surrounding the castle he paused to listen. For the first time it occurred to Nathaniel that the prophet might have assembled some of his fighters to the defense of his harem, which he knew would be one of the first places to feel the vengeance of the outraged men of the mainland. But he heard no voices ahead of him. There were no fires to betray the approach of the enemy. Not even the barking of a dog gave warning of his stealthy advance. Soon he could make out a light in the king's house. A few steps more and he saw that the door was open, as it had been on his first visit to the castle. He dodged swiftly from bush to bush, darted under the window through which he had seen Marion, leaped lightly up the broad steps and sprang into the great room, his pistol cocked in his hand.

The room was empty. He listened, but not a sound came to his ears except the rustling of a curtain in the breeze. The huge lamp over the table was burning dimly. The five doors leading from the room were tightly closed. Nathaniel held his breath, tried to still the tumultuous pounding of his heart as he waited for a sound of life--a step beyond those doors, a woman's voice, a child's cry. But none came. The stillness of desertion hovered about him. He went to one of the five doors. It was not locked. He opened it silently, with the caution of a thief, and there loomed before him a chaos of gloom.

"Hello!" he called gently. "Hello--Hello--"

There was no answer. He struck a match and advanced step by step, holding the yellow bit of flame above his head. It disclosed the narrow walls of a hall and an open door leading into another room. The match sputtered and went out and he lighted another. On a little table just outside the door was a half burned candle and he replaced his match with this. Then he went in.

At a glance he knew that he had entered a woman's room, redolent with the perfume of flowers. On one side was a bed and close beside it a cradle with a child's toys scattered about it. The tumbled coverlets showed that both had been recently used. About the room were thrown articles of wearing apparel; a trunk had been dragged from a closet and was half packed; everywhere was the disorder of hurried flight. For a few moments the depth of his despair held Nathaniel motionless. The castle was deserted--Marion was gone! He ran back into the great room, no longer trying to still the sound of his footsteps, and opened a second door. The same silence greeted him, the same disorder, the same evidence that the wives and children of the Mormon king had fled. He went into a third room--and then a fourth.

For an instant he paused at the threshold of this fourth chamber. A light was burning in the room at the end of the hall. The door was closed with the exception of an inch or two.

"Marion!" he called softly, and listened intently.

He went on when there was no reply, and pushed open the door.

A candle was burning on a stand in front of a mirror. The room was as empty as the others. But there was no disorder here. The bed was unused, the garments in the open closet had not been disarranged. On the floor beside the bed was a pair of shoes and as Nathaniel saw them his heart seemed to leap to his throat and stifled the cry that was on his lips. He took one of them in his hand, his whole being throbbing with excitement. It was Marion's shoe--encrusted with mud and torn as he had seen it in the forest. With her name falling from his lips in a pleading cry he now searched the room and on the stand in front of the mirror he found a lilac colored ribbon, soiled and crumpled. It was Marion's ribbon--the one he had seen last in her hair, and he crushed it to his lips as he ran back into the great room, calling out her name again and again in the torture of helplessness that now possessed him.

Mechanically, rather than with reason, he went to the fifth and last door. His candle had become extinguished in his haste and after he had opened the door he stopped at the threshold of the black hall to light it again. There was a moment's pause as he searched his pockets for a match, a silence in which he listened as he searched, and suddenly as he was about to strike the sulphur tipped splint there came to his ears a sound that held him chained to the spot. It was the sobbing of a woman; or was it a child? In a moment he knew that it was a woman; and then the sobbing ceased.

There was nothing but darkness ahead of him; no ray of light shone under the door; the chamber itself was in utter gloom. As quietly as possible he relighted his candle. A glance assured him that this hall was different from the others; it was deeper, and there were two doors at the end of it instead of one. Through which of these doors had come the sound of sobbing he had heard?

He approached and listened. Each moment added to his excitement, his fears, his hopes, but at last he opened the door on the left. The room was empty; there was the same disorder as before; the same signs of hurried flight. It was the room on the right! His heart almost stopped its beating as he placed his hand on the latch, lifted it, and pushed the door in. Kneeling beside the bed he saw a woman. She had turned toward the light and in the dim illumination of the room Nathaniel recognized the beautiful face he had seen at the king's castle the preceding day--the face of the woman who had sent him to find the prophet, who had placed her gentle hand on Marion's head as he had looked through the window. There was no fear in her eyes as she saw Nathaniel. Something more terrible than that shone in their glorious depths as she rose to her feet and stood before him, her face lined with grief, her mouth twitching in agony. She stood with clenched hands, her bosom rising and falling in the passion of the storm within her; and she sobbed even as Nathaniel paused there, unmanned in this sudden presence of a distress greater than his own; sobbed in a choking, tearless way, waiting for him to speak.

"Forgive me," he spoke gently. "I have come--for--Marion." He felt that he had no reason to lie to this woman. His face betrayed his own anguish as he came nearer to her. "I want Marion," he repeated. "My God, won't you tell me--?"

She struggled to calm herself as he spoke the girl's name.

"Marion is not here," she said. She crushed his hands against her bosom and a softer look came into her eyes; her voice was low and sweet, as it had been the morning he asked for Strang. As she saw the despair deepening in the man's face a great pity swept over her and she stretched out her arms to him with an aching cry, "Marion is gone--gone--gone," she moaned, "and you must go, too! O, I know you love her--she told me that you loved her, as I love Strang, my king! We have both lost--lost--and you must go--as--I--shall--go!" She turned away from him with a cry so heart-breaking in its pain that Nathaniel felt himself trembling to the soul. In another instant she had faced him again, fighting back a strange calm into her face.

"I love Marion," she breathed softly. "I would help you--I would help her--if I could." For a moment her pale beautiful face was filled with a light that might have shone from the face of an angel, "Don't you understand?" she continued, scarcely above a whisper. "I have been Strang's one great love--his life--until Marion came into his heart. I have lost--you have lost--but mine is the more bitter because Marion loves you, and Strang--"

With a cry Nathaniel sprang to her side. The candle fell from his hand, sputtered on the floor, and left them in darkness.

"Marion loves me! You say that Marion loves me?"

The woman's voice came to him in a whisper filled with the sweetness of sympathy.

"She said so to-night--in this room. She told me that she loved you as she never thought that she could love a man in this world. O, my God, is that not a balm for your heart, if it is broken? And Strang--my Strang--has forgotten his love for me!"

Nathaniel reached out his arms. They found the woman and for a time he held her hands in his, while a great silence fell upon them. He could hear the sobbing of her breath and as her fingers tightened about his own his heart seemed bursting with its hatred of this man who called himself a prophet of God; a hatred that burned furiously even as his being throbbed with the wild joy of the words he had just heard.

"Where is Marion?" he pleaded.

"I don't know," replied the woman. "They took her away alone. The others have gone to the temple."

"Do you think she is at the temple?" he inquired insistently.

"No. One of the others came back a little while ago. She said that Marion was not there."

"Where is Strang?"

This time he felt the woman tremble.

"Strang--"

She drew her hands away from him. There was a strange quiver in her voice.

"Yes--where is Strang?"

There came no reply.

"Tell me--where is he?"

"I don't know."

"Is he at the temple?"

"I don't know."

He could hear her stifled breath; he could almost feel her trembling, an arm's reach out there in the darkness. What a woman was this whose heart the Mormon king had broken for a new love!

"Listen," he said gently. "I am going to find Marion. I am going to take her away. To-morrow you shall have Strang again--if he is alive!"

There was no answer and he moved slowly back to the door. He closed it after him as he entered the hall. Once in the big room he paused for a moment under the hanging lamp to examine his pistol and then went outside. The grove in which the castle stood was absolutely deserted. So far as he could see not even a guard watched over the property of the king. Nathaniel had become too accustomed to the surprises of Beaver Island to wonder at this. He could see by the lights flaring along the harbor that the castle was in an isolated position and easy of attack. From what Strang's wife had told him and the evidences of panic in the chambers of the harem he believed that the Mormon king had abandoned the castle to its fate and that the approaching conflict would center about the temple.

Was Marion at the temple? If so he realized that she was beyond his reach. But the woman had said that she was not there. Where could she have gone? Why had not Strang taken her with his wives? In a flash Nathaniel thought of Arbor Croche and Obadiah--the two men who always knew what the king was doing. If he could find the sheriff alone--if he could only nurse Obadiah back into sane life again! He thrust his pistol into its holster. There was but one thing for him to do and that was to return to the old councilor. It would be madness for him to go down to St. James. He had lost--Strang had won. But his love for Marion was undying. If he found her Strang's wife it would make no difference to him. It would all be evened up when he killed the king. For Marion loved him--loved him--

He turned his face toward Obadiah's, his heart singing the glad words which the woman had spoken to him back there in the sixth chamber.

And as he was about to take the first step in that long race back to the mad councilor's he heard behind him the approach of quick feet. He crouched behind a clump of bushes and waited. A shadowy form was hurrying through the grove. It passed close to him, mounted the castle steps, and in the doorway turned and looked back for an instant in the direction of St. James.

Nathaniel's lips quivered; the pounding of his heart half choked him; a shriek of mad, terrible joy was ready to leap from his lips.

There in the dim glow of the great lamp stood Strang, the Mormon king.

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