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|Under the Andes||Rex Stout|
|Page 4 of 8||
"You win, madame."
Desiree stared at me in the most profound surprise. I understood her, and I laughed scornfully aloud, and held my head high; and I think a voice never held so complete a disdain as did mine as I called to her:
"I am one who plays fair, even with death, Le Mire. The coin fell heads--you win your black cord fairly."
She made no sign that she had heard; she was raising the knife. Suddenly she stopped, again her hand fell, and she said:
"You say the purple for reward, Paul?"
I nodded--I could not speak. Her hand touched the white cord and passed on; the yellow, and again passed on. Then there was a flash of the knife--another--and she approached the king and laid at his feet the purple cord.
Then, without a glance toward us, she resumed her seat on the golden throne.
A lump rose to my throat and tears to my eyes. Which was very foolish, for the thing had been completely theatrical. It was merely a tribute from one of nature's gamblers to the man who "played fair, even with death"; nevertheless, there was feeling in it, and the eternal mercy of woman.
For all that was visible to the eye the verdict made not the slightest impression on the rows of silent Incas. Not a movement was seen; they might have been carved from the stone on which they were seated.
Their black, hairy bodies, squat and thick, threw back the light from the flaming torches as though even those universal rays could not penetrate such grossness.
Suddenly they rose--the king had moved. He picked the purple cord from the ground, and, after passing his hand over it three times, handed it to an attendant who approached.
Then he stretched out his hand, and the Incas, who had remained standing, turned about and began to disappear. As before, the cavern was emptied in an incredibly short space of time; in two minutes we were alone with those in the alcove.
There was a sound behind us. We turned and saw a great slab of stone slowly slide to one side in the floor, leaving an aperture some three feet square. Evidently it had been closed behind us when we had ascended; we had had no time to notice it then. In this hole presently appeared the head and shoulders of our guide, who beckoned to us to follow and then disappeared below.
I started to obey, but turned to wait for Harry, who was gazing at Desiree. His back was toward me and I could not see his face; his eyes must have held an appeal, for I saw Desiree's lips part in a smile and heard her call:
"You will see me!"
Then he joined me, and we began the descent together.
I found myself wondering how these half-civilized brutes had possibly managed to conceive the idea of the spiral stair. It was known to neither the Aztecs nor the Incas, in America; nor to any of the primitive European or Asiatic civilizations. But they had found a place where nothing else would do--and they made it. Another of the innumerable offspring of Mother Necessity.
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