Chapter XXIII - In the Heart of Aak

AT first, the darkness of the tunnel was dense as pitch. They came to the block of stone with the openings on either side, which Hansen rightly conjectured to be a mass of the mountain that had fallen and interrupted the passage. Then, after following one of the forks a short distance, they found themselves in a wider space, broad and high enough for two to walk comfortably abreast, and which was dimly illuminated from an unseen opening. A cool current of air flowed past them, and they could hear the rushing sound of water. As Hansen's eyes grew more accustomed to the dusk, he discovered that there was a small cascade where the other fork of the tunnel also entered this larger space, and that they were now walking along a causeway with a low parapet on one side, and a stream running at the depth of a few feet over a smooth bed of rock below it. No doubt the builders of the tunnel had taken advantage of a subterranean channel bored by a river—perhaps that very one which they had last seen above ground on the other side of the desert; but it was clear also that the greater part of the work was due to the labour of man. Herculean labour it must have been, without blasting powder or modern mechanical contrivances, and Hansen found himself marvelling how the masses of rock had been quarried and disposed of, and speculating, as many another explorer of historic remains has done, whether we are so much ahead of our forefathers as we imagine, and whether they may

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not have possessed secrets of science, lost, and as yet, far from being re-discovered. So excited and interested was he, that he called together all his knowledge of the Mayan vocabulary and grammar, and questioned Naquah as to how and when this extraordinary tunnel had been constructed. But the Elder either could not, or would not, give him any definite information. It had always been there, he said. It had existed since there had been any record of the Aca. The mountain had been a sacred place from the beginning. Hansen gleaned a few facts with difficulty. The Great Builders had chosen it. They had known how to cleave the rock, and to lift stones upright that were beyond the power of many men. The secret of their magic had perished with them. There had been one left from the destroying power of the Serpent. It was he who had gathered into the Heart of Aak the remnant of the Faithful who were saved in that far-off day of terror. He had written the record, and delivered his magic to his son, who in turn had given it to his son, and so on for generations. But in later times, long after he was dead, the Serpent had again waxed furious, and had once more breathed out ashes and blackness. Thus it happened that while digging for certain graven pillars which had been buried in the valley below the temple on the hill, a second cataclysm had taken place, and in it, the last of the Wise Men, the last of the Great Builders, had perished, and had taken his magic with him. This had been many suns back, and from that time the wisdom of the Ancestors had been no more written; there was none to tell it from father to first-born, and again from first-born to first-born. Thus the Aca had built no more, but had been content to dwell in their sure refuge in the Heart of Aak, where never since, had the Serpent assailed them.

It was not from Naquah that all this information was extracted. The Chief Elder grew irritated by Hansen's poor management, as he considered it, of the

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Mayan tongue, which was scarcely surprising, for the speech of the Aca differed somewhat from the language Hansen had learned in Yucatan, and, moreover, he was stiff in the handling of it for want of practice, and, unless spurred by danger or excitement, had some ado in remembering the vocabulary. Thus, Naquah soon relapsed into dignified silence, and Hansen had recourse to Kapoc, who was younger and more communicative. Kapoc went on to say that the natural channel had been widened, and the causeway made by the Builders—the Great Builders, as in a tone of awe he called them—they who had made the city. This, according to tradition, had been a wonder of cities, and had spread to the edge of the water, and along the sides of the hills—a city of temples and palaces, and pyramids and many carvings, all of which had been first swept by the waters, and then swallowed up when the earth had opened. Of the country surrounding the city, only the mountains of the Tortoise, and the Crocodile—or, as the Aca named it, the Four-footed Serpent—had been left unscathed. Also the remains of the great temple, the encasing of rock, and the sacred stones which the flood had not swept away. In the time before the cataclysm, said Kapoc, the Aca had been a prosperous and powerful nation, and their ships had sailed where now was land, eastward to the far seas. “How long ago,” Hansen asked, “had the cataclysm happened?” He knew not, nay, for generations there had never been any wise men of the Aca who could say. The count of time was lost; the sculptured records of the ancient people were buried deep where no man could dig them; and there was nought but a certain sacred record that the first Wise Man, who was saved, had made—that Wise Man who had led the few by secret ways within the bosom of Aak.

All this time they had been following the course of the underground river, now descending by rude steps cut in the rock, or by a gentle incline, now by a level path which yet was anything but straight, for it turned

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and curved, leading through a labyrinth of corridors at right angles, parallel with each other, and branching in different directions so numerous and intricate, that it would have been almost impossible, without a guide, to make a way back to the opening. The place reminded Hansen of a subterranean labyrinth in Central America which he had once visited. The light continued dim, but was sufficient to enable them to pick their steps. Suddenly, however, they were again plunged in darkness for a few minutes; then the glare of torches ahead showed them a lofty circular hall, supported by rude pillars, in the centre of which was a large shallow basin of water, and round it stood a small company of men, holding aloft flaming brands. These men, who had evidently been sent to meet the returning party, were not dressed like the hunters in tunics and hide leggings, but wore a shapeless garment of yellowish white stuff, resembling the under vestments of the Elders, from which Hansen assumed that they belonged to the priestly order, and were no doubt servers or acolytes.

The torches threw flickering gleams on the water in the basin, and over the walls and floor of this place, showing dark objects moving on the ground, of different sizes and uncouth appearance. These turned out to be turtles or tortoises of various sizes crawling about the edge of the basin. Ann gave an involuntary shriek as her feet came in contact with one of these. She now saw that this rock chamber was the home of a number of these creatures, some almost gigantic in size, others still in their infancy. The elder Naquah stopped, scrutinized a family of them, and, pointing to one of the smallest, gave some directions at which the torch-bearers salaamed, and one stooped and turned the creature on his back, while another assisted him to place it in a flat basket in which they carried it away. Kombo was charmed at sight of the tortoises.

“Būjeri fellow turtle, Missa Anne,” he cried, for Kombo had tasted turtle soup, and the prospect of a

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supper of turtle fat would have reconciled him to much devilry. He was beginning to realise that Debil-debils who made corn-cakes and provided roads through mountains which should form a barrier between his beloved Missa Anne and the pursuit of Elias Bedo, could not be such bad Debil-debils after all. He would have caught a tortoise on his own account, had not the torch-bearers rushed upon him and held him back with menacing gestures, nor did they loose their hold till the Hall of Tortoises was left some little way behind. Hansen asked Kapoc for what purpose the young tortoise was destined, and was answered oracularly that by it Aak would signify his inclinations. The Dane had heard of the ancient method of divination by means of the markings on a tortoise's back—a method still practised in parts of the East—and knowing also that the word Aak in Mayan signifies turtle, concluded that the sacred reptile had something to do with that venerable worship.

Daylight now showed through a wide archway before them, and, passing beneath the arch, they stood in what looked like an enormous amphitheatre, partly natural, and partly hollowed artificially in the mountain-side. Day was waning, and it was the rosy light of late afternoon which fell into the arena, through huge openings in an outer shell of rock closing in its south-western side, and through which a stretch of undulating cultivated land was visible. Apparently, they had completely penetrated the great hump of basalt, on the eastern side of which the wanderers had encamped. The top of this vast circle lay open to the sky; and, except in the outer wall and where side passages seemed to have been excavated into the heart of the mountain, enormous precipices towered many hundreds of feet. What gave the appearance of an amphitheatre was, that up to a considerable height the precipices shelved in terraces and balconies, and were honeycombed with large cells, evidently the dwelling-places of the tribe. The inner walls of these cells, in

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the recesses of which lights glimmered, glowed with colours—being painted, or hung with bright-hued tapestry—and stretched far back into impenetrable gloom. On the outside were windows and doors cut in the rock. Steps led up to these abodes, and here and there, a white-clad figure looked down from overhead. The inhabitants of this rock city seemed, for the most part, however, to have gathered in the clear space in the centre. This apparently served as a market-place, there being open stalls set about its sides spread with merchandise, and braziers here and there on which maize cakes, nuts, and plaintains were cooking, giving forth an appetising smell.

The crowd was not a large one—perhaps a hundred in all ; and Hansen reflected that if it represented even a third of the numerical strength of the Aca, Naquah had good reason to complain that the wives did not bear as the fruitful vine, and that the population had dwindled. This no doubt was due to inter-breeding through centuries, of the same stock, for there was no trace of aboriginal admixture. Notwithstanding, the people did not give, as far as physique went, the suggestion of degeneration. They were all of the same type as the hunters who had surprised the wanderers' camp—large, loose-limbed, of the high-cheek-boned, strong-featured, narrow, and somewhat melancholy cast of countenance which Hansen associated with that of the Shawnee and other tribes of American Indians, though when analysed the faces of the Aca were entirely different from theirs. These men were unlike any others that Hansen had ever seen. They wore mostly the tunic and leggings of the hunters, their upper garments of coarse stuff occasionally dyed brown, blue, or dull red. Many wore a sort of mantle knotted at the breast and hanging below the middle, which was usually painted, or worked in startling patterns and brilliant colouring, and fringed with feathers or the tails of small animals. The women were hardly inferior in point of stature to the men. Anne seemed a pigmy in

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comparison with them; and so far as could be seen in the fast fading daylight, they were handsome, with fine eyes, and a quantity of reddish-brown hair that harmonised with their reddish complexions. They were, however, fairer than the men, probably from living more closely in their rock dwelling, and being necessarily less exposed to the air and sun. They were dressed in clinging robes—the poorer ones in coarse, shapeless garments; those who were evidently of a better class, in finer draperies, and these wore mantles much longer and more flowing than the cloaks of the men, dyed also in brilliant and fantastic designs, and fringed with feather trimmings.

The little crowd parted and congregated again in two long lines as Naquah and Kapoc advanced, preceded by the torch-bearers—the torches being, it appeared, a sign of sacerdotal rank. The Elders had Anne and Hansen between them, while Kombo walked behind. Kombo's interest in the rock-city, the booths and braziers, and above all, the Aca women, was uncontrollable and farcical in its expression. He grinned and ogled, and sniffing the roasted nuts, rubbed what he would have called his “binji,” uttering ejaculations indicative of pleasure. But the ladies of the Aca regarded him scornfully as one of the black, outside race, and showed scant curiosity concerning him, so absorbed were they in the white man and woman. Hansen they admired, and he knew sufficient Mayan to understand their outspoken commendation of his fairness and his build. They did not conceal their opinion that the man was both strong and beautiful, but the woman they declared to be of little account, and so small as to be only fit for a child's doll. Whence, they asked, had the strangers come, and how had they gained admission into the Heart of Aak, the Citadel of the Saved—for it was by a name conveying this meaning that the rock town was called? The hunters scattered among their women-folk, and the lines of people broke into knots, while the men recounted their tale. But they were

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recalled by the voice of Naquah, as he and Kapoc stepped forward, commanding silence. Then Naquah spoke, and Hansen without much difficulty seized the gist of his address.

“Children of Aak,” said the Elder,—“In the Hall of Tortoises, Hotan the hunter, returning, found us and told us of the wonder that had befallen. So, following him, we went, and, at the foot of the Great Shell—the roof of Aak's refuge—we found this woman who stood singing in a strange tongue a song of praise to the gods. With her were this man and the black slave who has served them on their way thither. In our ancient language, that of the land of Mayab, whence came our forefathers of old, did the man address us, claiming to be the maiden's protector, and a messenger from our most high gods. True it is that he knows the sacred names, and can speak of the doctrine They have delivered to us. It would appear also that among the inferior race which inhabits the forest, the maiden's divinity is established, since she is hailed by the black slave, who hath guided them across the desert, as Lady of the Clouds, and Sister of the Stars. But whence otherwise she has come, and what her earthly origin, I know not, for she understands not the tongue of the Aca, only—so the white man, her protector, declareth—that of the Spirits of Space. This too, is a thing unaccountable to me. Nevertheless, who shall dare pass judgment on the ways of the gods? And moreover, the man is acquainted with that old-time prophecy which was graven on the fallen stones, and given to us in the writing of our Saviour, the Great Ancestor, so that it hath been handed down in the Temple, from Elder to Elder, ever since there has been knowledge of hidden matters. Ye know the Prophecy—for is it not sung on each returning of the month and the Day of Humiliation and Terror, by the mouth of the Zuhua Kak, at command of the Intercessor, between the people and our Lord the Sun? Ye know how that prophecy tells of a priestess that shall, in the fulness of ages,

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walk dry-shod over the bed of the sea, and lead forth to new life and hope the forsaken Children of Aak. Whether this maiden, who in looks is no more than a child, be in very truth that god-sent priestess, is not for me to declare, though it doth appear to me that strange and small as arc her stature and the fashion of her face, her countenance beareth the stamp of the gods.

“This is my counsel, People of the Aca, to be delivered to the five Elders :—it is, that to-morrow the maiden be presented in the temple, when, by the mouth of the Zuhua Kak, of the Virgins of the Flame, the Elders, and the people, penance shall be said before the Symbol of Xibal, Lord of Death, and afterwards supplication beneath the Disc of Life to Him whose raiment is the Sun, and to Viracocha, the Doer, Lord of Dawn, that our nation and our dwelling-place be no more destroyed by the Bursting Fires and Great Waters. Then shall the maiden stand within the sacred circle and await the Sign of our Lord of the Sun. And if it be so that He Whose Name be not spoken, Whose utterance is the Red Beam, shall shed upon her the light of His Glory, and make manifest in her the Supreme Will—then shall the mantle of the Zuhua Kak be placed upon her, and the sacred Eye be set on her brow, and she shall be taken into the sight of Aak the Intercessor, and shall sing in his ears her wondrous song, heard by me—Naquah, and by Kapoc the Elder and the hunters of our company—which resembles no song of woman that ever before moved the souls of men. And if her song be pleasant in the ears of Aak, and he shall accept her as his priestess, henceforth shall she render service in the temple, making obeisance before the Throne of the Radiant One.”