But there were none. By turns we listened at the mouth of the passage for the echo of footsteps that never came. Nothing came to break a silence so intense that at last our ears, craving for sound, magnified the soft flitter of the bats into a noise as of eagle’s wings, till at last we spoke in whispers, because the full voice of man seemed to affront the solemn quietude, seemed intolerable to our nerves.
Yet for the first day or two we found occupation of a sort. Of course our first need was to secure a supply of food, of which we had only a little originally laid up for our use in the chambers of the old temple, tinned meats that we had brought from London and so forth, now nearly all consumed. We remembered that Maqueda had told us of corn from her estates which was stored annually in pits to provide against the possibility of a siege of Mur, and asked her where it was.
She led us to a place where round stone covers with rings attached to them were let into the floor of the cave, not unlike those which stop the coal-shoots in a town pavement, only larger. With great difficulty we prised one of these up; to me it did not seem to have been moved since the ancient kings ruled in Mur and, after leaving it open for a long while for the air within to purify, lowered Roderick by a rope we had to report its contents. Next moment we heard him saying: “Want to come up, please. This place is not pleasant.”
We pulled him out and asked what he had found.
“Nothing good to eat,” he answered, “only plenty of dead bones and one rat that ran up my leg.”
We tried the next two pits with the same result—they were full of human bones. Then we cross-examined Maqueda, who, after reflection, informed us that she now remembered that about five generations before a great plague had fallen on Mur, which reduced its population by one-half. She had heard, also, that those stricken with the plague were driven into the underground city in order that they might not infect the others, and supposed that the bones we saw were their remains. This information caused us to close up those pits again in a great hurry, though really it did not matter whether we caught the plague or no.
Still, as she was sure that corn was buried somewhere, we went to another group of pits in a distant chamber, and opened the first one. This time our search was rewarded, to the extent that we found at the bottom of it some mouldering dust that years ago had been grain. The other pits, two of which had been sealed up within three years as the date upon the wax showed, were quite empty.
Then Maqueda understood what had happened.
“Surely the Abati are a people of rogues,” she said. “See now, the officers appointed to store away my corn which I gave them have stolen it! Oh! may they live to lack bread even more bitterly than we do to-day.”
We went back to our sleeping-place in silence. Well might we be silent, for of food we had only enough left for a single scanty meal. Water there was in plenty, but no food. When we had recovered a little from our horrible disappointment we consulted together.