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  ― 217 ―

Chapter XVI

Containing the History of the Sacred Axe and the People of the Mandanyah.

I AWOKE with the first sign of daybreak, Dick and Jimmy following suit almost immediately after. My first thoughts were naturally of the little axe which had so strangely made us masters of a terrible situation. I dwelt long and pleasurably upon the value of its possession, and thanked that providence to whose unremitting attention we owed our series of successes. The Great White City in the Mountains was, after all, not barren of good. The axe had been our safeguard in our most serious crisis, and of what untold value it might prove in future we had yet to learn.

Dick was now wide awake, stretching himself lazily upon his couch of skins. Jimmy had arisen, and was away preparing the breakfast.

“Well,” remarked my cousin, eyeing me slyly, “what do you think of the people of the Mandanyah?”

I could not conceal a shudder of disgust.

“Ay, you may well shiver,” he continued. “To be stranded as we are among a mob of man-eaters is a lookout black enough to scare the devil himself.”

“I have had enough of corroborees,” I said.

He laughed. “And I. It was the warmest corner I was ever in in my life, and that's saying something. Unfortunately we are not yet out of the wood.”

“Then you think they really intended making us a portion of the sacrifice?”

“Decidedly I do. And what's more, they have been feeding us up for the occasion.”

“By heaven, it's awful!”




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“Believe me, it's a fact. Jimmy guessed it a long time ago, but we were so blinded by our own superior penetration that we refused to see it.”

“But how strange Ada should never have told us that the people were cannibals. She must have known.”

“Undoubtedly; but perhaps she forgot, or purposely omitted talking of so disagreeable a subject. You must remember this dreadful custom would not seem half so savage to her as to ourselves; and though essentially objectionable to her own tastes, she knows not enough of our manners to be sure that we would regard it with equal abhorrence.”

“That may be so.”

“Believe me it is. And, as for warning us, she could not tell us more than she knew.”

“True.”

“Their intentions have been kept so strict a secret,” he went on, “that neither she, Jimmy, nor the girl Lusota could have heard so much as a whisper; had they, we should have known of it. The whole thing has been carried through with astonishing secrecy. Kalua and the priest hate us. The latter would not hesitate a moment in giving the order for our destruction; but the former is afraid, for, like most human beings, he has a weakness, and that weakness is Ada. However deplorable the association of their names may be, it is none the less a fact, and to that weakness—which does him credit—we owe our lives. True, the axe was our saviour last night, but who has been our saviour ever since we set foot in this cursed village?”

“The loveliest girl in the world,” I answered.

“Ay,” he repeated, looking at me in a sudden and curious manner, “the loveliest girl in the world—and the thought that by some accident we should eventually place ourselves in the power of the people in such a manner as to leave him not responsible for our destruction. The Temple of the Great Spirit was one trap; the corroboree the other. But luck was on our side. Blessed be the


  ― 219 ―
sacred axe for ever,” and with those words he arose and picked up his coat, which was lying three or four yards away. But he no sooner took it in his hand than he uttered an exclamation of woe and rage.

“The axe is gone, Archie! Stolen, as I am a living man.”

I was thunderstruck. “What do you say?” I cried.

“The axe is gone!” he repeated, as though he could scarcely believe his own words.

“Do you mean stolen?”

“I do. It was in my pocket when I turned in last night.”

“Then some one must have entered the hut while we were all asleep and carried it off!”

“Yes.”

“What's to be done, now?

“Heaven only knows.”

“Then we are lost after all!”

“Bad enough for even that. We must neither expect mercy nor consideration now. And I, of all men, am the cause; my God, Archie,” said he, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists, “I could blow my own stupid brains out!”

“Don't talk like that, old man,” I said, for I hated to see him take the thing so much to heart. “It was an accident—one that might have been avoided, truly—but as an accident let us make the best of it.”

“You are a good fellow, Archie,” he replied, “though had you offered to kick me I should not have objected. Believe me, you are not nearly so much annoyed with me as I am with myself. Do you guess the enormity of my offence? I will tell you. It means that we are entirely at the mercy of the rascal who stole that axe. It means that I, through sheer thick-headedness, through a stupid feeling of over-security, have brought us all to such a pass that our very lives are dependent upon the whim of a cannibal's fancy.”

“Well,” said I, making as light of the occurrence as I


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could, for I knew a great disaster had befallen us, and that had he taken more care of the axe such a misfortune had never been, “let the cannibal only give us breathing space and we'll elude him yet. Come, cheer up, Dick.” I could not bear to see him so dejected; good, brave fellow that he was. “We've gone through more than this together; thick and thin, foul and fair, and the time's not come for tumbling under yet.”

At that moment Jimmy entered with the breakfast, which consisted of kangaroo steaks and a sort of sweet bread the natives manufactured, and we fell-to, though not with the same zest as of yore. We informed our dusky friend of our loss, and he looked really scared for, I believe, the first time.

“That's bad, Mass'r Dick,” he said. “That axe make black fellow awful scared. He think you belong all the same great spirit, you sabbee?—angel man—sort of fellow preacher-man jabber so dam much about. But now axe gone, black fellow forget all he think. Me no mind plenty fight, Mass'r Dick, but me no like this dam savage gobble me up.”

This speech of Jimmy's under more favourable circumstances would have provoked us to laughter, but there was no sign of it now. Dick vowed that he would there and then take instantaneous vengeance on both Kalua and the priest, and I know not to what length he might have carried his threat had not Ada at that moment entered with a pleasant “Good morning” and a bright and happy smile upon her face.

“I have heard all,” she cried, “you have the axe, the Sacred Axe. What luck, what fortune!” and before we had time to inform her that it was gone, she resumed with such rapidity and in such a whirl of excitement that her eyes blazed and her cheeks shone with joy: “Keep it, Dick, guard it well, for it is liberty, life, everything. It is the most sacred emblem of the Mandanyah tribe, a gift direct from the Great Spirit. With it you may defy king, priest, ay, the whole tribe, for none of them dare harm you now.”




  ― 221 ―

Poor Dick! If he was overwhelmed with Jimmy's remarks, his feelings may be imagined on hearing hers. His face grew deadly pale and he bit his lips till the blood started from them. He neither spoke nor looked at her, but kept his eyes fixed fiercely on the ground.

“What's the matter?” she said, not failing to see our distress. “Are you ill?”

“No,” I replied.

A look of relief passed over her face, but it was only momentary. It was succeeded by one of pale, anxious inquiry.

“The axe?” she scarcely more than whispered.

“Is gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yes, stolen,” and I told her how.

“Then God help us!” and she broke down and wept bitterly.

For a time nothing was heard but her sobs, the disappointment being so keen as to utterly crush her spirit.

Suddenly Dick turned to me. “I'll tell you what,” he said. “I've brought this trouble upon us and it behoves me to remedy it. Either Wanjula or the chief stole the axe, therefore one of them must possess it, or know where it is.”

“Well?”

“I shall demand it of them as my property. If they refuse to give it up, I'll shoot them both.”

“Alas! what good will that do? Will it give you back the axe?”

It was Ada who spoke. She had dried her eyes hurriedly, as though ashamed of her weakness.

“It will at least give me my revenge,” he said.

“And perhaps bring the whole village at our heels. No, Dick,” she continued, “the axe is gone, and it will never be seen by you again. I will not attempt to deny that an overwhelming calamity has befallen us. With that axe in our possession the way was clear for us to do whatever, or go wherever, we pleased; to demand whatever we desired, and they would not have dared to disobey.”




  ― 222 ―

“Is that so?” I could not help exclaiming.

“Wonderful as it may seem, it is nevertheless true,” she replied. “Both axe and people have a history, and the superstitions relating to the weapon account for the reverence bestowed upon it.

“Long ago,” she went on, plunging at once into that history, “so long that it seems to all the people like a dream, for there are no written records; nothing but disconnected stories, which have more of the supernatural than the real in them, there lived beyond the great burning desert in the midst of the White Mountains, as they were named, a people called the Mandanyah, who were the forefathers of this very tribe of Lake Dwellers. Little is known of them, but it is said they were a brave people, and as clever as they were brave, for out of the rocks did they carve all sorts of wonderful forms and made huge strange canoes which carried many men over the big water that laved the foot of the mountains.

“One day a son was born to the king, and the wise men foretold his coming greatness. When he grew up to man's estate he became renowned throughout the country for his rock-drawings, which they say were of surprising beauty and wonderful invention.

“When on the death of his father he became king he had a marvellous dream, in which he was told to go to a certain part of the mountains which was as white and clear as crystal, and there consecrate a portion of his life in glorifying the Great Spirit. This command he, being a devout man, readily obeyed, and he could think of no better way of pleasing the god than by dedicating to him a statue; in fact, the god made it known to him that such an offering would be the most acceptable. This statue he carved from the solid rock in a cave which had been specially excavated for that purpose by his own orders.

“Here the people came in throngs to worship, and to behold the handiwork of the king, and when they saw the face of the god many of them were struck insensible with terror, for it is said the face was too terrific to behold.”




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“We have seen it.”

“You have seen it?” she asked in bewilderment. “Do you mean to say that you have seen the statue of the God in the mountains?” and her face was alive with incredulous wonder.

“Yes.” I replied. “We explored the Great White Mountain, discovered the temple and the statue, and there found the Sacred Axe.”

“It is wonderful,” she murmured; “wonderful, wonderful! Many of the Mandanyah have tried to reach that place, but have never yet succeeded. This was long before my time, the last pilgrimage being in the early days of the old priest whom Wanjula slew. He it was who told me the history of the people, and all that I am telling you now. And he moreover said that in the days when they inhabited the regions of the White Mountains their faces were not black but brown. Oh, that he were alive now to hear from your own lips that you have seen the sacred statue, have trodden the sacred cave! Or even now, if the people only knew, you would be more honoured than king or twenty chief priests. Ah, why did you not tell me of these things before?”

“I have often meant to,” said Hardwicke, “and also to show you the axe, though I had not the ghost of an idea of its value then, and since I saw its fac-simile yesterday we have been so busy as to make me forget.”

“It is a thousand pities,” she answered; “a thousand pities.” And after further conversation on the subject of our misfortune, she again resumed the history of the Mandanyahs.

“On each side of this figure were carved six smaller ones, as in ours, though the great red stones which answered the purpose of eyes in each of the statues were both bigger and purer than the ones we have in ours.”

“And what became of those stones?” It was Dick who spoke.

“They must be with the statues yet.”

“Good heavens!” he cried. “And to think we never saw them.”




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“Covered with the dust of ages,” she replied; “that is not to be wondered at. But let me resume. The stories which relate to the sacrifices are extremely vague. The Great Wanjula (he it was who carved the statues, and from that time every chief priest has borne the name) is known to have possessed himself of two axes, the blades of which were composed of two magnificent royal stones of the Mandanyah, which you call rubies. The other portions were of pure gold, a metal which the people of those times thought greatly of, but which we see no use for here, though, as I have told you, it is rumoured that the chief priest has much of it in his possession. How the axes came into his hands were never known, though it is said they were brought to him by the god himself.

“On the golden portion of the axes were written strange characters which were a source of wonderment to all people, none being able to decipher them. They were, however, eventually proven to be ancient signs or letters as used by, to them in those days, the people of the olden times. The meaning of these was at last revealed by the Wanjula to the people, he getting the revelation direct from the god. One part of the writing told that the axe was to be the sacred weapon of the sacrifice; the other, that none but the great priests of the Spirit could touch it and live, and that whosoever should lay sacrilegious hands upon it, without the consent of the chief priest, would be struck down by the god. From that time it has been employed in the yearly sacrifice.”

“But do you mean to tell me,” said Dick, “that the people really believe it is the god who strikes them down?”

“They do, undoubtedly.”

“Dear me. And do you?”

She flushed rather painfully I thought.

“I did,” she replied; “but that was when I was young. No, it is Wanjula who kills them.”

“If they knew it.”

“They will never know it. They will never think—they are too ignorant.”




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“But if they were told?” Dick continued.

“Ignorance hates its ignorance to be displayed.”

“Surely, old fellow,” I said, “you are not thinking of turning missionary?”

“No, sir,” he answered, “that is not in my line, but it seems a great pity they cannot be told what fools they are.”

“They would not thank you,” said Ada. She then continued her story.

“Much time has now to be bridged over, of which I can give no account, but it is said that by degrees the great water that washed the foot of the White Mountains disappeared into the earth and left nothing behind but a barren waste of sand. From that time the people's greatness faded, famine fell upon the land, and a portion of the community, more brave and venturesome than the rest, resolved to leave their country and seek one more prosperous and fertile. The man who was then the Wanjula undertook to lead the travellers, and for a charm or safeguard he was given one of the sacred axes.

“They journeyed over the mountains till they came to the great burning desert across which they with much difficulty passed, losing many people by the way. At length they reached this lake, and liking well the spot, finding grass, wood, and game abundant, they pitched their camp, and settled in their new home. The cave was discovered and in it the Wanjula, who was also famous at rock-carving, as all chief priests were supposed to be, carved the statues after the manner of those in the White Mountains, and created the temple where every sixth moon the same hideous scene is enacted.”

“But don't the people get used to the sight and retrain from screaming out?” I inquired.

“The men rarely scream,” she said, “but the women always, consequently the victims are nearly all women. And it is strange, too, that custom does not familiarise them with the horror of that face. I have known women gaze


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upon it half-a-dozen times without flinching, and then break down and become one of the sacrifice.”

“You have told us a remarkable story, Ada,” said Hardwicke, “and one which I, in my wildest dreams, would never have imagined. True, I have thought this great country could not always have been so barren of interest as it appears to the casual observer, but that one tiny portion of it really possessed so strange a history I had not dared to hope. If I had only heard it yesterday it would have made a world of difference. But that is past. Nothing will avail us now but courage and patience. I ask your forgiveness for my blunder, I cannot do more. But if I do not make up for it in the future it will not be for the want of trying.”

Then we fell to discussing our plans. So far she had arranged things most satisfactorily. Six strong and able men, fellows who were devoted to her, had offered to undertake the part of carriers. They were to set out that night and we the night following. We thought it advisable to grant them twenty-four hours start, for, should they accompany us and we should happen to be pursued, there would be no possibility of their escaping with their heavy packs.

Ada advised us before she left, not to show ourselves that day if we could avoid doing so, as the people would take some time to cool down after their savage excesses of the previous night, and there was no telling what they might not be guilty of, especially as we had cheated them out of a greatly anticipated pleasure—the taste of the white man. Therefore we kept well within doors that day, talking over our plan of escape and longing for the time to come when we should be free of the village and all its horrible associations, for what we had gone through and what we were likely to endure, made us utterly contemn the very thought of gold.

When the night came on I sallied forth to stretch my legs and enjoy a pipe of tobacco, for thank goodness a little of that valuable weed was left, though it was most sadly


  ― 227 ―
reduced in size. My walk took me to the back of the village, or up against the foot of the mountains, which was as deserted as a graveyard. The night was dark, a few stars alone being visible, while great lumps of clouds swept over the face of the sky hurled by the strong wind of the west. I was just thinking what an excellent night it was to carry out our design, when not far from me I heard a gentle footfall, so gentle that had I not been standing still I should never have heard it; then a figure, phantom-like, passed within a few yards of me and was gone in the darkness. Another immediately followed, then another, and another until I counted seven, though I thought the last one seemed somewhat different from the others. These figures I of course guessed were the carriers Ada had engaged. But who and what was the seventh? She had only spoken of six. Could it be a spy? Was our plot discovered? I shuddered as I contemplated the thought. Then the idea struck me that I ought to follow and find out for myself, and then again I thought that I would be no match for the savage at such a game. “Besides,” said I to myself, “if it is a spy he is sure to come back and report, and as he scents no danger he will return the way he went. This is the only track that leads over the mountains. If I stay here I am bound to catch him as he comes along.” And, unlike Macbeth, I was able to screw my determination to the “sticking place.”

I could not have taken up my position for more than ten minutes when I heard a very soft footfall coming down the path, and I edged a little more into the middle of it so that I might clutch the person before he had time to get away. A minute after I saw the outline of a figure in the gloom and prepared myself to spring, when a voice addressed me in the native language.

“Ada, by all that's living!” I exclaimed.

“Is that you, Archie?”

“Yes.”

It was the first time she had ever called me by my Christian name, and there was something so very


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charming about the hesitant way in which she spoke it that my poor nerves thrilled.

“I thought you were a spy,” she said, drawing close to me.

“And I you. The surprise is therefore so much the sweeter. I was about to give you a warm reception. I would not have you guess, for all the world, the horrible things I was going to do. You would think me as great a savage as any Mandanyah warrior.”

She laughed at this, a lovely little laugh, and drew, I thought, just a wee bit nearer.

“Were those the carriers?” I inquired.

“Yes,” she answered. “I could not rest till they were gone, till I had seen them safely on their way. It seems now as though part of our own trouble was over.”

“You are a brave girl, Ada.” I could have gone on calling her brave, beautiful, and all other excellent adjectives without ceasing.

“Oh, no, not brave,” she replied. “I want to save your lives.”

“And I yours, for yours is far dearer to me than my own.”

We walked slowly along through the still night. Strangely dark and quiet it was. No sound was heard but the occasional moan of the wind as it came soughing over the lake below. In the village the indistinct glare of a few camp fires added a still stranger aspect to the scene, lighting as they did the thick black air with misty gleams of fire. Mystically luminous they were, enticing yet uncanny; fit sentinels for such dreadful people.

Why my mind should have reverted to the people and their horrible doings, I know not, for it was entirely engrossed with something much more beautiful than native dances, skeleton forms, and demoniacal chants. But thought invariably gives birth to thought; so the image of the lovely Laughing Hair forced into prominence her barbarous surroundings: as, perhaps the fury of the infernal shades is drawn with such harsh vigour so as to better glorify the divine effulgence of heaven.




  ― 229 ―

For some time now this beautiful girl had been constantly in my thoughts. When I first saw her in her wild, half-savage garments she was a revelation of lovely womanhood to me. Indeed I thought then, nor has my mind changed since, that she was the perfection of womanly loveliness, her sun-tanned face, flushed with hot, young blood, the full and sensitive lip, the dainty nose, the dimpled chin, and last though not least, her heavenly blue eyes, made such a perfect combination of womanly charms that must prove irresistible to one who thinks there is no such beautiful thing on earth as a lovely woman. I could have loved her then for her face alone; but later on, when I was attacked with my serious illness and she nursed me day and night with the tenderness of a mother who watches the sick-bed of her child, I found her innate worth and she became the lodestar of my life.

As I walked beside her that night in the thick, warm air, the passion I had sought to suppress for fear that Dick or she should think I endeavoured to secure an advantage over her through her ignorance of the world, burst its bounds and I told her that I loved her. How it came about I scarcely know. My heart was too wild, my brain too full of the pain of such dear excitement for me to remember. I only know she took my hand to lead me round some massive boulders, and that as the spark is to the mine so was that touch of her small warm hand to my blood.

“Do you love me, Ada?” My arm was about her waist, and she was nestling close to me. I could feel her heart beat and her form tremble.

“Love you, Archie?” she replied, her breast all the while heaving tumultuously, “I scarcely know what love you means. But if it is to be happy when you are near, to be sorry when you are away, to be ever longing to see you, to have you always near me, then I love you very dearly.” And as if to emphasise this avowal she nestled closer still.

“God bless you, my darling, my darling.” And I drew her to me and kissed her with a very frenzy of joy.




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We walked slowly back to the village, very slowly indeed for my arms were about her and I stopped every few yards to feast my soul with kisses, and yet we seemed to arrive at our destination all too quickly. The huts of the village loomed up out of the darkness and I had taken her in my arms once more to bid her good-night, when the moon suddenly shot forth from behind a cloud, illuminating the surrounding scene with unusual brilliancy.

At that moment I heard a quick step, and, on looking round, saw my cousin Hardwicke not half-a-dozen yards off.

“I wondered what had become of you, Archie,” he cried out. “Why, you dog, who've you got——” But he stopped short on recognising Ada. “I beg your pardon.” And he was gone as suddenly as he had appeared.

“Was Dick angry?” she whispered.

“Angry, dear. No. Why should he be?”

“I don't know.” But she did, and I also was to know before long.

We lingered but a short while after this. Our talk was of the morrow and especially of the morrow's night when we were to make the bid for freedom. Her child-like faith and trust in us were beautiful. She never questioned where or to what she was going. I naturally refrained from telling her the true history of her father's life. She would not have understood me if I had. I had made up my mind that if we ever reached the Swan River Settlement I would find out all I could of Harold Mayne. If he turned out to have been a worthless fellow she should know no more of him than I had already told her—viz., that he had died through exhaustion while trying to cross the continent; but should he have been more sinned against than sinning and was the victim of a cruel wrong, as set down in Morton's story, she should weep for him as a martyr. His failings would cause no diminution of my love for her.

I bade her good night, impressing her to be ready for the morrow, and stealing one more kiss, made my way to our hut with a heart as light and joyous as though no


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danger darkened or would ever darken the bright horizon of my life.

Dick was not in when I entered. I called his name gently, but received no reply. Jimmy only was complacently snoring in his corner. What had become of Dick? I asked myself time after time. One, two hours went by, and still he returned not. Then I grew alarmed. It was not his wont to prowl about in such a manner. I thought some accident must have befallen him. That perhaps Kalua or the priest, finding him alone, had seized him, and this thought suggested a thousand horrible ones, causing me no little anxiety. I dared not even attempt to guess the fate that would befall him should he be in the power of those most unscrupulous savages. I knew that his disdain had engendered hate, and that that hate would take such revenge as would make even horror creep.

I was on the point of arousing Jimmy, when I heard a footstep outside, and a moment after the wanderer entered.

“By Jove! Dick, I'm glad you've come. I was beginning to get alarmed at your absence. The ways of the savage are inscrutable, you know. In another minute I should have had Jimmy up and begun to search for you.”

He laughed, but said nothing. It was not a pleasant laugh. It seemed both forced and cold, a thing so unusual in him that I asked if anything was the matter. He replied in the negative, but in such a weary manner that I was certain he was trying to evade my queries. However, as he refused an explanation it was not my place to press the subject, so I immediately dropped it. I could not sleep. My mind was full of Ada and the love that had so newly blossomed. I thought a thousand bewildering thoughts, I invented a thousand pleasures for her. Indeed, so far did my imagination run riot that I entirely overlooked our present position and the great journey which awaited us before we saw again the face of a civilised man.

I was suddenly awakened from my dreams of rapture by hearing Dick call my name.

“Archie!”




  ― 232 ―

“Well?”

There was a long pause before he answered.

“You love Ada?”

“I do indeed.”

Again he paused.

“And she—she—” with an effort, “loves you?”

“Yes.”

No answer came, but I thought I heard the sound of a stifled sigh, and by his hard breathing I knew that he was greatly agitated. Then the truth dawned on me in a moment, and I saw why Ada had asked me if he was angry. He was in love with her himself!

Presently his voice came through the gloom again. He spoke with an effort, and yet with great firmness.

“Of course you—you love her as an honourable man?”

My first impulse was one of anger. I felt like asking him his right to question me. Then I remembered what he had been to me, of the great love I had borne him, and that he too loved her, and had a sacred right to be answered.

“Don't be angry,” he said. “You know she is a convict's daughter, and has not been brought up under the refining influences of an English life.”

“If God should spare us to once more regain civilisation,” I answered, “she shall be my wife. Is there anything more you would know?”

“No. God bless you both. Good night.”

“Good night.”

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