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Chapter XXIV - Keorah

A BRIEF silence followed, and then came a one-throated cry:

“Keorah, Zuhua Kak! Keorah, Zuhua Kak!” And at that moment there sounded a clear ringing voice, proud and scornful in its intonation.

“I, Keorah, Zuhua Kak, High Virgin of the Flame and the Flood, answer to your call, People of the Aca.”

At the sound of the voice, Anne and Hansen raised their heads in the direction whence it came. On the side of the amphitheatre facing eastward, high above them, was a wide balcony, its base and roof supported by rudely sculptured pillars hewn from the rock. Standing in a statuesque attitude on the balcony was the most beautiful woman either had ever beheld.

Behind, and at the sides of this woman, six other women were grouped, each holding aloft a flaming brand or tall lamp—it was difficult to tell which—all of them robed in white. They were younger and fairer, it seemed, than the women of their race, with long, reddish hair falling unbound, save by a white fillet that was held on the forehead by a jewelled ornament. Hansen took in their presence in a swift, comprehensive glance, which returning, was enchained by the one excelling them all who was in their midst.

The rock city was now almost in darkness. The rosy afterglow that had greeted the strangers had faded. The short Australian twilight was deepening into night, and the lights above and below, and glimmering from the depths of the cave-dwellings, shone redly in the gloom, giving a most weird effect to the vast place.

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Adding to this weirdness, the full moon, now risen, hung like a great electric arc above the circular opening in the mountain, and lent its radiance to the face of the woman on whom the attention of all was centred—Keorah, Zuhua Kak.

Most commanding of mien was the High Priestess of Aak. Young too, of bounteous classic proportions; her bosoms full, her neck rising like a column above her white robes, that were girdled at the waist with a glittering zone. A long mantle, bordered with raised bands of rose, fell round her shoulders, the ends held together at her breast by a jewelled clasp. A band, with plume of pink feathers, circled her forehead, and in front of it was a great opal, which, when the torch rays struck it, sent out answering flames. Her eyes were large, and of a deep blue, and they shone brilliantly beneath level, strongly marked brows, giving out gleams something like the gleams of the opal above them. These eyes, lowered upon the crowd, met the eyes of Hansen, and lingered upon his face. As they did so, the fierce fire in them died, and her look of angry defiance melted. The masses of her red-gold hair fell forward as she stooped over the balcony, making a splendid veil, out of which the opal on her brow and the wonderful eyes glowed softly. Her gaze was seductive, and a feeling of mesmeric attraction overpowered Hansen. For a moment, he seemed to lose the sense of space and time, even of the unwontedness of scene and situation. The High Priestess' eyes drew him against his will ; he became conscious only of her. Anne's voice recalled him to the present, thrilling sharply in his ear.

“Eric,” she said, “I am frightened. Who is that woman, and why does she look at us so strangely? Oh! what do these people want with me? I see them pointing, and I cannot understand what they say. Tell me, for I don't think I shall be able to bear it much longer. I'm obeying you, Eric. You told me not to speak or to rebel, and I have been watching, and trying

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to do as you wished. But, oh! I'd rather almost be with the Maianbars—for I could understand and talk to them—than with this mysterious Red Race.”

Hansen turned from the gaze of the Priestess to meet Anne's pathetic eyes looking appealingly from her little white face, so child-like, and now so weary.

“Dear little comrade,” he whispered, reassuring her with a sudden inborn strength and tenderness, “be brave, as you have been all along. Trust in God—and in me.” He put his hand upon her shoulder, and his touch gave her new confidence. “Believe that I will let nothing harm you while I live to be your protector. I know how to deal with these people, and, by-and-by, I will explain everything that you don't understand. I'll teach you what I know of their language. Be certain, however, that they are a harmless, peaceable race, and mean good to you and not ill. That woman is, I gather, High Priestess of the god Aak—Aak means in the Mayan tongue, tortoise or turtle—a simple, innocent kind of fetish, who, it seems, only requires sacrifices of grass and water, and somebody to sing to him. I learn that to-morrow is the anniversary of some sort of religious festival, having to do with a prophecy about a priestess who was to walk over the desert and bring luck to this queer set of heathens. They have an idea that you are this priestess, and it is to be decided somehow in the temple to-morrow. I assure you there is nothing in it to make you nervous. All that you have to do is to sing, and the worst that can happen will be, that they'll turn us adrift again. But I must say, that I think it would be to the advantage of science if we could stop and study them for a bit. Only go on playing your part as I have told you, and stick to your revolver, whatever happens.”

“But I cannot help their taking it from me, if they want to do so. And if I am to supplant that woman—she frightens me more than all the rest of them! Oh, Eric, I am so tired of being a goddess. I did hope there was an end of that, when we got away from the Maianbars,”

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“It is better to be a goddess than to be eaten,” said Hansen, trying to speak jestingly. “We must make the best of things, my dear—for the present, at any rate. There's always the chance of escape. Stay, the woman is speaking. I will translate for you what she says.”

“Naquah! Kapoc! The five Elders await you in the Council-Chamber,” the High Priestess' voice rang out. “Go, tell them what has come to pass, and consult with each other, if ye will, as to the prophecy of which we have heard much this day. Concerning its fulfilment, neither I, nor thou, Naquah, have aught to declare. Is it for us poor mortals to question the decree of Him whose Name may not be uttered—whose minister is Viracocha the Doer, and His Intercessor Aak—whose is the Red Flame and His Vestment the Sun. Now, touching the prophecy—thrice, as ye all know, on the return of our great day of prayer and abasement, when unveiled are the faces of Death and Life—thrice has our Lord the Sun withheld His holy beam—and this for no fault of ours, but that all might come to pass as was written of old. So it may well be that the priestess fore-ordained, from beyond the water's bed and the far sea, has now, in the fullness of time, come among us. To-morrow, therefore, shall it be seen, in presence of the people, whether she be illumined by the glory of the Red Flame, and singled out by that Holy Sign, and if afterwards the favour of Aak be vouchsafed to her. To-morrow, then, if the sign be given, will I, Keorah, Zuhua Kak, yield to her, who is chosen of the gods, my sacred mantle and the star upon my head, which is the Eye of Viracocha that closeth not in slumber. Then, clad with the emblems of holy office, this maiden messenger from the great Ones will prostrate herself before the Discs of Death and of Life, and sing the wondrous song some of ye have already heard, to delight the Ear of Aak our Lord. Gladly will I, who have served the gods, and have been obeyed by the

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people, do reverence to the Will of the Supreme, and, loosed from my Priestess' vows, will I henceforth take my place among the daughters of men. Faithfully have I striven to fulfil my office, and, peradventure, I shall receive my reward. It may be that as my heart desireth, so shall the gods do unto me. And with the thought of this I am content. Yet there is a word I would say unto ye, Elders and People of the Aca. Forget not the warning that was graven on the ancient stone, and written by him who saved us in the Fire and the Flood. Divide not Beauty and Fair Strength, nor suffer them to be constrained, lest evil befall the Children of Aak, and the Curse of the Serpent be not lifted from you. Therefore entreat the Lord Aak, and supplicate Viracocha—the wise and the far-seeing—for right judgment and clear vision; and abasing yourselves, cry aloud, ‘Guide us, Aak the Intercessor. Give us wisdom, Viracocha, Dweller in radiance, Builder, and Mighty Doer. Thou who hearest and dost perform, Who art stronger than Death, and defiest the Grave, Lord of the Four Winds, and Light of the Dawn!’ ”

The strange chant uprose, Keorah's voice leading, and all the people crying, “Guide us, Aak! Enlighten us, Viracocha, Lord of the Strong Hand, Chief over the Night, Darkness, Death and the Waters. Hear us, Viracocha!”

When the invocation had ceased, there was silence, and all prostrated themselves. Then Naquah stepped a little nearer to the balcony, and desired to know what were the High Priestess' wishes in regard to the lodgment of these strangers.

“Give them to eat, and clothe them,” commanded the High Priestess, “for truly it seems to me they are weary with travel, and their garments are earth-stained in a way unfitting for the messengers of the gods. Let them have of our best. To the child-maiden give robes of linen—this shall be the care of my virgins. And to the man who is Beautiful Strength, do not furnish

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priests' vestments, but manly habiliments such as are worn by the noblest and most valorous among you. Let the maiden be brought at once into the Virgins' House for refreshment and rest until the hour of our vigil be past. Then will I myself see that she is clad and prepared for the Festival of Death and Life on which to-morrow's dawn shall rise, and for presentation to our gods. For the man of Beauty and Strength, thou, Hotan the hunter, art responsible. Lead him to thy dwelling, feast him and do him honour, awaiting the counsel of the Elders, and my pleasure concerning him. And now, peradventure, it is the last time that I, Keorah, Zuhua Kak, charge you in virtue of my office, for before moonrise to-morrow, another may reign in my stead. Nay! I mourn not, nor do ye mourn if it be the Supreme Will that I descent to the level of ordinary womanhood; for bethink ye that the lower life has joys which to the Priestess are forbidden, and it may be that these shall be my recompense. Ill would it beseem me, then, to show ingratitude to the gods if, for the dignity and honour of the priestess-ship, they give me in exchange those simple and yet sweeter joys of which I have not dared to dream. To-morrow, then, our Lord shall make known his will, to which I, with you, will bow. We shall meet in the temple. Till that time, my bidding be done.”

She moved back, and disappeared through the arch behind, the band of virgins parting for her to pass, then with torches uplifted, they followed her within.

A hoarse murmur, partly of dissatisfaction, partly of excitement and surprise, swept through the crowd. It was not clear whether the Aca people regretted or desired the dethronement of Keorah, their present Zuhua Kak.

It seemed strange to them, as it also did to Hansen, that she should herself refer to the prospect with such remarkable equanimity, even giving a suggestion that release from her vows might not be wholly unwelcome. While she was speaking, he felt the spell of her eyes

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still upon him, and as he looked up and met their gaze, the heart of the woman leaping beneath the priestly band that reined it, became evident to him. A thrill of understanding ran like fire through his blood, and flashed upon his face, bringing a glow to Keorah's as she spoke her last words. When she turned, the spell seemed broken, and Hansen steadied his reeling senses, and responded warmly to the pressure of Anne's little cold hand, which slid trustfully into his, while the shouts of the populace were raised to Viracocha and Aak. He hurriedly interpreted to her the speech of the High Priestess, and again bade her be of good courage. But there was little time for talk. The hunter Hotan—he who had been foremost of the band outside the mountain—now approached, and with a deep obeisance pointed to the street, if it could be called so, that opened at a right angle with the balcony on which the Priestess had stood, signifying that Hansen must accompany him thither. At the same time, three of the linen-clad torch-bearers, Naquah's attendants, led poor bewildered Anne to a flight of steps cut in the rock at the right of the Priestess's balcony, and thence through a low arch into the dwelling of the Virgins of the Flame.

Kombo followed his mistress to the small portico at the head of the staircase. He was not permitted to go further in spite of his signs and protestations, and his mistress's dumb entreaties. Men, even black slaves, were not admitted into this nunnery. On the threshold of the inner doorway, the acolytes made reverence, turned, and descended into the street. But Kombo unslung his blanket, put down the tin billy and pint-pots, the tomahawk and pointed stick that he carried, and disposing of his properties in a corner, made it clear that not for all the Virgins nor the acolytes did he intend to budge.

“All right, Missa Anne, mine make it camp like-it this place,” he announced, cheerfully. And in truth, to Kombo, after his recent perils and privations, this

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sheltered porch, with the busy market-place below and all its array of lamps and braziers, with the chance of corn-cakes and roast plantains being handed up to him, presented a most desirable resting-place. He frowned on the acolytes at last when they persisted too long in trying to make him go.

“Ba'al mine yan,” said he. “Mine no go long-a you. Mine sit down close-up Yuro Kateena. You look out. I believe that fellow Cloud-Daughter pialla Mormodelik, suppose you take Kombo.” And he pointed first to Anne, then heavenward, then to himself, at which the acolytes prostrated once more, and hurried down quickly, being more than ever convinced of the divinity of the small stranger.

The Virgins met Anne with more curiosity than reverence, for till Aak and Viracocha confirmed her pretensions, they could not be sure that she was really the priestess who was to bring prosperity to the people of the Aca.

There were three of these maidens waiting to receive her, young, handsome, tall and stately, and curiously attractive with their long peculiarly expressioned faces, their russet hair, and graceful robes. All wore on their breasts what was evidently an insignia of the order, a tortoise in gold set with opals; and Anne noticed in wonder that what she had imagined to be a metal clasp on the left shoulder of each of them, was in reality a small living tortoise fastened by a chain. The little creatures appeared to be semi-comatose, but occasionally a weird wee head protruded itself, and showed two blinking pin-point eyes.

The Virgins led her through two ante-chambers lighted by oil lamps oddly shaped, like frogs and birds, made in earthenware. The walls of these rooms were painted in hieroglyphs or small barbaric-looking designs, and the floor was covered with a sort of matting. There were low stools of wood set about, and projecting from the walls, were several altar-like tables. Beyond was a larger apartment almost circular in shape, with cells

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branching from it. In this, the stone walls were rudely sculptured; opossum rugs and kangaroo skins strewed the floor, and a table in the centre was spread with a linen cloth on which were fruits, cakes, and earthenware bowls, some containing a mess of maize porridge, others a foamy brown liquid, which Anne discovered to be chocolate. In this room stood three more priestesses, making the number six. One of these was evidently more important than the others, and this lady advancing, greeted Anne with the same salutation that the hunters and Elders had made—crossing the left arm over the breast, with the left hand touching the right shoulder. She motioned Anne to a seat at the head of the table next herself, and after a grace incomprehensible to her guest and the pouring of a libation of chocolate into a hollow in the floor, the meal began with a bowl of porridge placed before each. Other dishes followed, simple but palatable. There were hot cakes of different kinds made of Indian corn, dipped in a sauce of chilies and tomatoes, fried beans, and plantains cooked in various fashions, together with chocolate which, though oily and flavoured with spice, seemed to Anne, unaccustomed now to anything but water, a most delicious beverage. The Virgins talked among themselves, but their talk was of course not understood by Anne. She was beginning, however, to pick up already one or two Mayan words, and one of the priestesses found amusement in making her say the English equivalent of the names of the dishes, and in endeavouring to imitate the pronunciation of what they believed to be the language of the gods.

Anne's spirits rose. There was certainly nothing alarming, so far, in the aspect and manners of this simple community of women like herself. She ate and was strengthened, and almost felt herself to be amongst friends. But she was glad that the High Priestess was not present, for Keorah, Zuhua Kak, had inspired her with a superstitious terror. She hoped, however, that it would wear off on closer acquaintance. At any rate,

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it was clear that these under-priestesses were amiably disposed to her. By-and-by, the eldest of the Virgins rose and motioned her to follow through a corridor cut in the rock. This passage appeared to end in a sleeping chamber, for the room they came to, held a raised couch covered with a feather rug; while in a semi-circular recess was a large basin scooped in the rock floor, let into the ground, and filled with bubbling water. The Virgin pointed to this and then to the couch, giving Anne to understand that she might bathe and sleep. Then she left her alone, and drawing a curtain over the doorway, Anne undressed and stepped into the bath, which was tepid, most exhilarating, and evidently a natural spring with some peculiarly invigorating mineral qualities. Afterwards, she wrapped herself in a linen garment placed in readiness on the couch, and, creeping under the feather blanket, was soon enjoying the most luxurious sleep she had known for many days.