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Chapter XXV - “By the Shining Blue Death-Stone”

ANNE was awakened by a sound of monotonous chanting that seemed to come from a curtained arch at the head of her couch. She rose, and peering through an opening in the heavily embroidered mats, discovered that these divided her from a kind of chapel in which the seven Priestesses of the Flame were engaged in praying. She concluded that one, slightly in advance of the rest, was the High Priestess, but it was impossible to distinguish any one in particular, for each was shrouded in a mantle of black, with a deep hood that overshadowed the features. All were kneeling with heads bowed, and the object of their devotion appeared to be a tripod on a slightly raised dais at one end of the chapel, from the basin of which issued a pale blue illumination. This ghastly light could not be described as a flame, for it was perfectly stationary except for a certain intermittency in its degrees of radiance. It waxed and waned like the throbbings of a pulse, and at once, Anne was reminded of a like effect which she and Eric had seen in that triangular patch of phosphorescence on the mountain's side at the spot they had afterwards identified as the Place of Death. The tripod, too, was triangular in shape.

But for this strange blue light, the chapel was in complete darkness; and as far as Anne could see, no other altar, nor any statue, nor picture accounted for the nuns' reverential attitude. They beat their breasts, and grovelled in extreme abasement before the tripod, while their voices were raised in a monotonous chant, meaningless to Anne as Abracadabra, in which she

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could only clearly make out certain phrases that recurred over and over again like the burden of an incantation:—

“Holi! Huqui! Xibal Xibalba!
Holi! Huqui! Xibal Xibalba!”

It was not till some time afterwards that she learned their interpretation:—

“We call thee! We beseech thee!
Xibal, Lord of the Dead!”

Anne crept back to her couch, and waited for an hour or more, as she fancied, while the chant droned on. Then she must have gone to sleep again, for suddenly, without preparation, she knew that the singing had ceased, and became conscious of the glare of lights where darkness had been. Looking towards the curtained doorway by which she had entered from the corridor, Anne now saw Keorah, the High Priestess, standing with two of her Virgins, one on each side of her, holding lighted lamps; while within the chamber, at the head and foot of her couch, were the four other Virgins of the Flame—foremost among them she who had received her at the banquet, bearing robes of white linen. Another held a veil of gossamer material, while the remaining two carried bottles containing unguents and essences.

Anne, dazed with sleep, stared vacantly around her. The High Priestess gave a command in her own tongue to the Virgins, and signed Anne to rise. The girl did so, and stood before Keorah. They made an interesting picture, these two rivals, if that could be called rivalry in which one had declared herself willing to yield, and the other desired not to take.

Unevenly matched they seemed: Anne comparatively diminutive—even insignificant; the insignificance redeemed only by the unconscious dignity of her expression; unformed, childlike, shrinking, with the linen garment provided by the priestesses drawn closely

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round her thin shoulders, her short hair ruffled over her brow, her delicately featured face, worn and pale to the whiteness of milk; her spirit, appealing yet indomitable, shining from the large dark eyes, that seemed as the eyes of another breed of woman, in contrast with the glittering almond-shaped orbs of the Priestess. So she stood, a pathetic yet forceful figure. Keorah towered above Anne, majestic in her proportions, magnificent in colouring and array, her red hair framing the strange, long, fascinating face, with its gleaming blue eyes and crimson mouth. Upon her forehead, the Eye of Viracocha shone dully beneath her pink feather head-dress, and her mantle of office with its curious feather border and designs—an eye and heart, a hand and a cross, embroidered in shades of red and blue—swept in ample folds round her splendid form, and was held in place by the jewelled tortoise at her breast.

Was the High Priestess so willing after all to exchange for human joys the privileges of her exalted position? There was nothing of the womanly submissiveness of her address to the people to be read now in her bearing and expression. It was as the upholder of saccrdotal authority that she came into the presence of this usurper of her rights.

She eyed Anne silently from head to foot. It seemed to the girl that Keorah was appraising her own points of vantage, and measuring weapons with the scanty armoury of her foe. But there was no possibility of words between them. Anne did not understand Keorah's language, and both women were too proud to descend to the common medium of signs. Thus they stood facing each other for a minute or two, neither uttering a sound.

Keorah, addressing her Virgins, broke the silence. It was not till later that Anne understood what she said.

“Time shortens. Dress the maid in fine white robes, as befits a suppliant of the gods. Veil her so that in the hour of abasement Xibal, Lord of Death, may not blight her by his baleful ray. Place upon her the black

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mantle without which none dare approach the Blue Stone. Then lead her last in my following, and let her kneel in the Circle of Virgins beneath the Disc of Death, till the moment when she must stand in the appointed place before the altar of Viracocha, Lord of Dawn, and receive the verdict of the most high god.”

The Chief of the Virgins now came forward, attended by those carrying perfumes, with which Anne was first anointed. Then they combed out and sprayed with essence her short curls; contemptuous, as she clearly saw, of the meagreness of her adornment in this respect, compared with their own masses of red-gold hair—in which, however, all were inferior to the High Priestess herself.

They bound a narrow white fillet upon Anne's forehead, then dressed her in the loose linen robe carried by the eldest Virgin, leaving it ungirdled, save by a thin cord of twisted strands of flax. Then they threw the muslin veil upon her head, letting it fall in front, and fastening it with bone pins at the shoulders; and over all, they put the long black mantle, with a large hood which completely covered her head and form.

After having thus apparelled her, and at a word from Keorah, who led the way, the Virgins conducted Anne into the chapel and left her standing at a little distance from the raised tripod, with its strange basin of phosphorescent light, while, in a sort of robing recess opening off the chapel, each donned a shrouding black cloak and hood similar to that worn by Anne, except that while hers was quite plain, those of the Virgins had a design in the centre of the back, none alike, but varying, doubtless, according to the rank held by its wearer. Keorah's mantle was more elaborately embroidered than those of the others, and she was robed with considerable ceremony by three of her attendants. Finally, she was given a long staff tipped with the same phosphorescent substance as that enclosed by the curved edge of the tripod, which glimmered palely in the half darkness of the chapel. This staff the priestesses

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handled reverently and with great care, presenting it on bended knee, while they chanted the words of the refrain, “Holi! Huqui! Xibal Xibalba!”

Now the nuns moved in procession, singing as they went, Keorah heading the band, alone. Her eyes were fixed on the staff, which she held upright a little way from her; and she led in a clear high-pitched, but somewhat thin, mezzo-soprano, the invocational hymn.

Anne was at first jarred by the strains, with their long monotonous cadences and strange harmonies, composed, it seemed to her, on a different musical scale from that common in Europe. Nevertheless, curious as was the diapason, she found the music affecting her after a few minutes almost to fascination.

After Keorah, the other six priestesses walked in pairs, the last two having Anne between them, and all of them, except the High Priestess, carrying torches. They went along winding passages hewn in the mountain, Keorah's staff shining like a dim star in the darkness at any point where the abutting rock momentarily intercepted the light of the torches. For it seemed a peculiarity of the phosphorescent stone, that it was absolutely dull in sunlight, and only emitted its full radiance in total darkness, though by lamp-light it was not entirely eclipsed.

Anne's dulled senses and exhausted nerves had been quickened and recuperated by food and sleep. She felt more herself again; her spirits had risen, and her brain was alert, taking in everything around her with curiosity, interest, and a feeling of awakening awe. Yet though keenly alive, she had still the sensation of living in an intensely real dream. The nuns walked on, chanting for perhaps ten minutes, then halted before an archway draped with heavy feather-embroidered curtains. Here, the torches were extinguished, only the ghastly blue flame of Keorah's death-stone staff shining in the blackness. The two foremost virgins drew the curtains apart. Keorah passed through, the others followed, and Anne now found herself in a vast

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shadowy hall, standing in a kind of chancel raised several steps above the body of the building, from which it was partly divided by a row of slender pillars. The chancel was illuminated only by a triangular object set in the wall, somewhat higher than a tall man's head, and protected by a stone balustrade reaching from the ground to within a few inches of its lower edge. This triangular object emitted a pale blue light, swelling and diminishing with wave-like regularity—the light which Anne already associated with that of the mysterious Death-Stone of Gunīda Ulàla—the same light as that of the tripod in the Priestess' chapel, and of the staff Keorah bore.

At this end of the temple there was no other illumination; but far away in the blackness beyond, showing the vast extent of this rock-hewn hall, a few torches glimmered feebly. All else was shadow. The gloom seemed even denser within the weird radius of the Death-Stone, where, to right and left, with an empty space between, was gathered a concourse of black shrouded figures, all bowed towards the ground, and wailing the same monotonous chant that Anne had heard in the chapel, with its ever-recurring burden, “Holi! Huqui! Xibal Xibalba!”

The doorway by which the procession of priestesses had entered was near the triangle of the Death-Stone. Before it, forming a line round the protecting balustrade, were the Seven Elders, who called themselves Hu Aca Tehua—Sacred Guardians of the Aca people. Naquah stood in the centre of the line; but as Keorah advanced, it parted, and the Elders re-formed in two rows, one on each side of the triangle, thus giving place in the centre to her and her maidens. Keorah immediately prostrated herself, the others following her example, they kneeling in a semi-circle with Anne in the middle, so that as she knelt in line with them, she was behind the figure of the High Priestess, and in front of the Death-Stone.

Anne dimly perceived that there was now some elaborate ritual in which the Elders assisted, connected with the placing of the staff Keorah had carried inside

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the stone balustrade. There, it glowed like a corpse candle below the witch-like flame aloft. All that Anne could see of Keorah and the Virgins on either side of the High Priestess, was the shapeless outlines of their concealing cloaks and hoods; but of the Elders who who were in profile to her, she could discern, by the blue light of the Death-Stone, cadaverous features, and in four of them, long grey beards, the other three, of whom one was Kapoc, being apparently younger. Of the congregation, Anne could only catch, as her eyes roved sideways over her shoulders, partial glimpses; and in the uniform mass of black, it was impossible for her to conjecture the whereabouts of Hansen. She wondered whether he were present, and what had become of Kombo, who in face of the Death-Stone, must be a prey to the direst terror. But even these speculations regarding her only protectors relaxed their hold upon her attention as the service proceeded in motet and antiphon, Keorah's voice leading, the Elders and Virgins returning the phrase, which again was echoed in muffled tone by the bowed congregation. Anne had not prostrated herself after the manner of the Virgins upon either side of her, each of whom kept upon her arm a warning and detaining hand. She kneeled upright, a small stiff figure, staring about her, at first as best she could, beneath her overhanging hood, then with her gaze becoming gradually fixed in the direction of the Death-Stone in front of her. She tried not to look at it, but a feeling as though she were being mesmerized was gradually overpowering her. For, in the position in which she was placed, the blue light seemed to converge upon her, sweeping over the heads of the Virgins and Elders, and enveloping her head and shoulders as the ray passed and spread, growing wider till it was merged in the further darkness of the temple. And now, as the chant went on, an increasing sense of awe stole over Anne; she became more and more controlled by the pageant and its atmospheric conditions, and by something stronger and more

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compelling—the spirit, perchance, of this barbaric worship at which she was assisting. She felt herself at the feet of Xibal, Ruler of the Shades, and her heart went out in the supplicatory expressions of his ritual. All seemed grimly appropriate, terrifically real —the darkness of the temple, the black shrouds of the devotees, the absence of any altar or propitiatory offering beneath the bare triangular symbol—for what offering short of life itself can be acceptable to the Lord of Death? Everything impressed the novice painfully, and carried her beyond herself. Nothing but a curious upbounding of her heart within her as the thought of her companions crossed her mind, seemed left of the original blithesome Anne. Yet she was not afraid, nor did she even feel herself a lonely stranger in the midst of an adverse crowd, alien to herself though it was, in nature and in faith, but rather the momentary centre of primal elements, for which she had always in her bush wanderings been vaguely conscious. There were powers, she knew, which had in the beginning created order out of chaos, and who presided still over the appointments they had made, and the Faiths which served them. To their mighty aid, Anne trusted, lifting, amid her strange surroundings, her wordless petition for courage and support, with the appealing voices of the Aca. Involuntarily, then, she covered her head and bent her body in reverence, while the Hymn to Xibal rose and fell in ear-piercing cadences. At the time the strange, and, as they seemed to her, uncouth phrases, conveyed no meaning to her mind, but later on, she learned the interpretation of them.


  (Lord of Death.)

God of Shadows! Breath of Night!
Wielder of the dreadful might,
Quencher of our life and light,
Hear us, oh! Xibalba.

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We are kneeling at thy throne,
By the shining blue Death-Stone;
List! the Aca make their moan
Unto thee, Xibalba.

Thou who hast so strong a hand,
That the face of all the land
Darkened is at thy command,
Spare us, Lord Xibalba.

Thou who leapest in the waves,
Thou who lurkest in the caves,
Thou who diggest deep our graves,
Slay us not, Xibalba.

Thou who makest ghosts of men;
Who may call, we know not when,
Man or maid from mortal ken,—
Hush thee, Lord Xibalba.

Thou who drawest in the breath,
Who art Lord of every death,
List to what the Aca saith;—
Rest thee now, Xibalba.

Sing we softly unto thee
Prayer and praise on bended knee,
That thy people may go free;
Waken not, Xibalba!

Sleep, Xibalba, sleep in peace!
Here, thy worship shall not cease
If thou lettest us increase;
We are thine, Xibalba.

When thou wakest, men must weep,
Therefore lull thee into sleep,
While thy slaves their vigil keep
Tremblingly, Xibalba.

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We at length shall long for rest,
And creep, thankful, to thy breast,
Knowing that what is, is best;
Life or Death, Xibalba.

Which the greater mystery
Matters not; for we shall see
All that was, or that will be,
When we wake, Xibalba.

Though the night be dark and drear,
Yet the morning shall appear
Which shall make all meanings clear,
Even thine, Xibalba.

When our journeyings are past,
In one vision strange and vast
We shall understand at last
Death and Life, Xibalba.

Therefore sleep, oh ! sleep in peace,
For thy worship shall not cease
Till we win from thee release
Eternally, Xibalba.

Now in the half mesmeric condition in which the blue light of the Death-Stone and the weird music had plunged her, Anne became aware that the final invocation, repeated three times in strains growing gradually fainter, was dying in a last long echo through the vast hall, and with its expiring sigh, absolute silence reigned in the temple. The Virgins and the Elders were mute, with bowed forms, before the Death-Stone; the worshippers remained soundless and prostrate. Not a movement, not a breath fluttered the black, shrouded mass. The silence was deep and profound as the silence of the grave—the grave, no longer empty of life and given over to corruption, but filled with the spirit that is in itself all-being. Thus did the silence which spread through the place seem to Anne. How long it lasted

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she did not know. The awesome stillness, and the sense of an overpowering Presence that pervaded it, were to her the only realities of time and place. She was aroused at last by a faint stir, and a sound as of a long in-drawn sigh, telling her that the tension was relaxed. The priestesses kneeling on either side of her, pressed their hands again upon her arms, and, as they rose swiftly and noiselessly to their feet, she rose also. They turned, and Anne turned with them, facing the opposite end of the temple, where, in the far distance, she perceived a faint glimmering light coming, as she at first fancied, through a round window.

The nuns leading her, she descended the steps into the nave of the temple, which she now traversed along a broad clear space, between the rows of kneeling black-robed worshippers. Immediately after she and her conductors had passed, the people in each row rose and reversed their positions. Now in the rear, she heard music sounding again, not this time that of human voices, but the muffled clash of cymbals, and the rhythmic beat of some peculiar kind of drum, which gave back a curious hollow rumbling, and blended with the subdued tramp of feet upon the stone pavement. Anne dared not look behind her; she was too spell-bound to show curiosity, but she guessed that the Priestesses and Elders and others of the congregation were following her towards the glimmering round, which grew larger as she approached it, while the faint light it shed expanded and became clearer. A beautiful silvery radiance seemed struggling out of moving shadows like that of a full moon lightly veiled by clouds. She now saw that this end of the temple was also a sort of chancel, approached by steps, and partly screened by a row of pillars set at a considerable distance apart. The round window, as she had at first fancied it to be, was placed high—but not so high as the Death-Stone triangle opposite—in what appeared the terminal wall of the temple. But now she saw that it was not a window. It looked more like a disc of burnished metal,

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from the surface of which there leaped up pale little flames and white points of light, among which were brilliant, coloured specks, that shifted and changed like the multi-tinted fires in an opal. It was, in fact, an immense shield encrusted with opals of peculiar brilliancy.