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Chapter XXVII - The Judgment of Aak

DEEPLY impressed by the solemnity of the scene, grasping imperfectly the meaning of Keorah's gestures, and her own investiture with the priestess' dignities, though of her words she understood scarcely anything, Anne stood dazed, wishful to comport herself befittingly, but wholly uncertain of what might now be expected of her.

From the people she heard a cry of “Aak!”—a vague tumultuous murmur, the exact drift of which was of course unintelligible to her. It was rendered by Naquah the Elder in a short address to Keorah, who bowed her head, and made a sign to Anne, which the girl interpreted as a command to her to move into the presence of the god. Horrible thoughts of something she had read concerning the Aztec rites occurred to her. She wondered if it could be possible that she was to be led out for sacrifice to the god Aak. A frightened cry escaped her, but was stifled. At least, whatever destiny might be in store for her, she would confront it bravely.

She looked round and down the temple, like a trapped and helpless child, who yet will not show that it is afraid. Oh! she thought anxiously, if only Eric were near to give her courage and to tell her what it all meant. There was a rift in the half circle of Virgins and Elders. The nuns were advancing up the chancel, the Elders following them. And now she saw that in the crowd below some stir was taking place—a break in the ranks, and a man pressing forward, while those behind tried to hold him back. This was a man dressed richly in the Aca costume, with a short feather-trimmed

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cloak and a head-dress of feathers. Anne did not realise till their eyes met, that the man was Hansen, whom Hotan had apparelled, according to the orders of Keorah, in the best his wardrobe furnished.

Anne's alarm changed to gladness. She stretched out her hands with the golden ball between them, signing him to approach. The men who were holding him back desisted from their efforts, but still kept their hold upon him, evidently considering that he had no right to advance beyond the line of pillars, into the space reserved for the priestly officials. Yet, according to the law of the order, when the High Priestess commanded she must be obeyed, and Anne was now practically speaking, High Priestess. For the ratification of her appointment, there remained only that she should be presented to and approved by Aak. For this the multitude waited, but there was little doubt in their minds as to the issue. The difficulty was settled by Keorah, who, becoming aware of the commotion, and also seeing Hansen, beckoned to him and bade him approach alone. As he did so, she motioned to him to stand at the rear of the Virgins, slightly before the Elders who had formed themselves into two lines between which he passed.

“Our Priestess needs instruction in the Aca tongue,” said Keorah. “Till she has learned sufficient for the duties our Law requires of her, thy services as interpreter will be welcome. Wait and follow us in the order in which thou standest.”

So saying, she stepped to Anne's left side, and, laying her hand on the girl's arm, pointed to a wide archway, elaborately sculptured, between the pillars, on the left of the Disc. Within, was a recess that seemed to be less dark and to stretch much further back than the corresponding ones nearer to her on the right. Anne saw, too, that the opening had a stone fretwork screen, and she wondered if this could be the sanctuary of Aak.

The small procession re-formed, while the populace in

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the body of the temple remained, pressing as closely as possible to the chancel steps with heads craned forward, so as to get as advantageous a view as possible of the presentation to Aak. The two Virgins who had conducted Anne walked in front, carrying lighted tapers which had been brought to them by one of the acolytes in waiting at the side of the Chancel. Next came Keorah leading Anne, and followed by the other four Virgins; next, Hansen, prepared to act as interpreter, and watching Anne with deep interest and anxiety as she walked very erect, an imposing little figure, with the golden globe in her hands and her mantle sweeping the pavement. Last, came the seven Elders.

Thus, they crossed the Chancel, all bending low before the Disc of Life as they passed, till Keorah stopped about a couple of yards from the screen of fretwork. Anne now saw that it had wide apertures, and that the tracery was entirely covered with raised hieroglyphic figures; also that the frame of the arch was extremely massive, and was elaborately sculptured in bold relief.

Keorah motioned to Anne that she must kneel, and she herself and all her following, devoutly bent the knee, except the two foremost priestesses, who advanced with their tapers close to the screen, and proceeded to light a series of earthenware lamps placed in niches at different heights behind the arch. At first, Anne's attention was entirely occupied with the carvings—some grotesque in design, some of great beauty, which showed strikingly against the softly diffused light of the oil-lamps. Then she became aware of a monstrous shape behind the screen—something huge, dark, indefinable of outline, which made her forget everything else, so that she would have risen from her knees had not Keorah's firm hand held her down, and she could only stare wonder-stricken through the wide apertures of the fretwork into the further dimness of the cavern. The enormous shape seemed to shake slightly, as, one by one, the lamps flickered and

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flamed, but it did not rise. Very slowly it stirred, and when the light became clearer, Anne descried an immense and ponderous oval, and fancied that she saw something like a head bend from side to side at one end of the great mass, which she now made out to be a gigantic, land turtle.

Hansen, peering between the kneeling Virgins—who, joined by the taper-bearers, had ranged themselves behind Keorah and Anne in two segments of a half circle with a space between—could hardly repress an exclamation of astonishment and delight. Here he beheld a living specimen of one of the antediluvian turtles, the fossil remains of which are to be found with those of the Icthyosarus and the Plesiosaurus in the great cretacean graveyard of Central Australia, that mighty ocean of the Mesozoic age. He longed for the Thing to come closer, but the monster remained motionless. Now Keorah pressed Anne's wrist, and said something in her ear, which the girl did not understand, nor the imperative gesture which accompanied the words. Keorah impatiently looked over her shoulder, and signed Hansen to approach.

As he came up between the kneeling maidens, Keorah spoke to him in low rapid tones, desiring that he would convey her directions to Anne. Kneeling on one knee behind the two, he whispered to his comrade rather more lengthily than Keorah's communication demanded.

“She says that you must sing to the great god Aak. Don't be frightened; he's quite harmless. Mercy on us—what a monster! From the look of his shell I should think he was born before the Flood. Little friend, you've done magnificently, and you're safe now. This is the end of the ordeal. Aak will accept you. Turtles are extremely sensitive to music.” Anne's eyes spoke her gratitude and her joy at the sound of Hansen's voice again. But voice of her own she had none: it died in her throat. Keorah spoke again in authoritative tones. Hansen translated.

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“She says that you are to hail the great god Aak as your Lord and Master, and to beseech him to signify his approval of you as his new priestess. You can't do better than copy her manner when she gave that prayer to Viracocha. It was very fine. I never expected that we should come across anything like this when I told you that we should find wonders at the other end of the tunnel.”

Somehow, Hansen's exhortation, and his praise of Keorah's declamatory powers did not inspirit Anne as he had intended. She felt out of tune with the situation, and at her wits' end to know what she should sing that would be pleasing to Aak, the Tortoise-god.

“The Ave Baiamè,” Hansen suggested. “Only—stay, let me think of a Mayan word that will scan, and give the right meaning. Ah! I have one! Itzàla. It means supporter of the earth. Ave Itzàla.”

“Itzàla!” Keorah repeated the word suspiciously. He had to explain.

Evidently, Itzàla had no place in the Pantheon of the Red Men. She nodded acquiescently. Seeing her comrade's anxiety, and conscious of Keorah's cold bright eyes reading her face and darting glances first at her and then at Hansen, Anne found voice. Her notes were tremulous at starting, the “Itzàla” quavered, but as she went on, her voice gained volume and dramatic force. Notwithstanding, it was a spiritless performance, and neither Keorah, nor apparently Aak, as satisfied. The monstrous shape was scarcely agitated. Undoubtedly, the god gave no significant sign of approbation.

Keorah bent backward, and remonstrated in low sharp accents with the interpreter. He nodded, and again whispered to Anne.

“She says that is not enough. Aak is accustomed to loud singing and to violent gesticulation. You should raise your arms and act the suppliant. Screech. Do anything to pierce the Pachyderm senses. I know the creatures. They are vulnerable especially to sound, and

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they are curiously capable of attachment to humans. Little friend, throw yourself into the business. So much depends—for all of us—for science—on your success.”

His words fired the girl to enthusiasm. Her dramatic instinct came to her help. She lifted her arms and swayed her lithe body in harmonious gesticulations. Her voice leaped to a higher key, to more ear-rending intonations. “Ave Itzàla,” in the latest of its time-worn invocatory changes, would have melted the traditional rock. Anne's eyes grew larger and brighter as they strained into the cavernous depths of Aak's sanctuary.

She succeeded in making an impression. The great curved back of Leviathan shook like a world in convulsion. Slowy, slowly, the Thing upheaved itself. The ponderous mass rose higher, and gradually higher. Elephantine projections revealed themselves beneath, showing clubbed feet on short limbs uncouthly bent, which balanced the bulk with difficulty. Anne sang on as one inspired. She straightened her throat, letting her voice out to its full compass. She threw herself thoroughly into the part, forgetting that it was but a tortoise which she was straining every nerve to captivate.

Now the reptile's head, which had been partially indrawn, was protruded, thrust well out from under the mountain of shell, the slender horns, like those of an enormous snail, protruding; the face grotesque, yet strangely human, like that of a shrivelled old man in his dotage, with its sunken nostrils, its deep-set beady eyes, and heavy wrinkled lids. The thick creases of the throat smoothed as the telescopic neck lengthened itself. With restless movements the head darted blunderingly from side to side as the huge mass swayed, while the great feet slithered through the sand with which the floor of the cavern was thickly strewed.

So with its head facing the screen, its brilliant eyes flashing, as it seemed to the girl, answering glances to her own gaze, its small nostrils emitting a thin vapour, the Tortoise-god approached his new priestess. Placing

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one great foot heavily and carefully before the other, it came till it was within a few inches of the fret-work. Here it sank again, an inert mass, upon the sand, only its head moving, a smile of senile satisfaction upon its face. The eyes blinked ecstatically; the neck was thrust still further forward in Anne's direction.

With her heart beating high against the linen garment she wore, Anne sang on. In her soul was a strange blend of loathing, yet of fascination for the creature before her, and of pity for the ignorance of its worshippers. Was it possible that Keorah could believe this thing to be a god? She glanced sideways at the beautiful face with the inscrutable eyes that told her nothing. The High Priestess' gaze was fixed upon her, and Keorah's lips made a faint sound of approval. It seemed wonderful to Anne that Keorah should be glad to resign her place and power among the Aca people, though not so wonderful, perhaps, that she should be willing for another to supplant her in the favour of the beast. It must become monotonous, thought Anne, this singing to Aak—this travesty of worship. For a moment, Anne's soul quaked within her. Was she doomed to be hence-forth cooped up with the Tortoise, while Keorah enjoyed life, light, and freedom? If so, no wonder that Keorah was glad to escape. But she remembered Keorah's appearance on the balcony, how her word had been law, and how the people and the Elders had treated her almost as a queen. Then she—Anne—who was now Priestess, was to rule in Keorah's stead, and a burning desire came over her to master the situation, to show herself no mere puppet of circumstance, but a keenwitted ruler able to dominate events, and to turn her sovereignty to her own and Eric Hansen's advantage.

While these thoughts passed through her mind, her voice swelled louder in the concluding bars of her song; and the Tortoise, charmed by the melody, stretched his neck still further, and placed his nose upon the ledge of a piece of carving on the screen so near to Anne that his breath, rising in a little cloud from the dilated nostrils,

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stirred the feather trimmings of her cloak. The glittering eyes gazed into her face; then slowly, the creased lids closed over them, and the Tortoise remained motionless in a rapture of enjoyment. Horrible as was the shrivelled face on its snaky neck coming out of the great body, there was something even pathetic in the monster's abject subjugation by the voice of this small, proud, frightened girl.

As the last strains of the Ave died away, the breathless suspense of the crowd which waited below in the temple, found vent in a long low murmur, gathering in sound like the break of a wave on the shore. It was now for Keorah to inform the people that Aak had unmistakably signified his approval of the new priestess. She had drawn slightly to the rear, and was kneeling beside Hansen, watching him from between her narrowed eyelids. He seemed unaware of the scrutiny, so intently was his attention fixed upon the Tortoise and upon the result of the ordeal. Yet he felt in a subconscious way the magnetic influence she exercised over him and chafed against it, sensing emotional disturbance in her which must work for ill. In truth, Keorah's heart had been beating as wildly as that of Anne, though for a different reason. The nerve tension in her had been extreme. For her, too, the issue was momentous, although not in the manner that might have been supposed. She had been rejected, set aside in favour of a stranger, but she was by no means crestfallen. Rather did she seem the victor than vanquished.

She rose to her feet, and the other worshippers did so likewise. All made an obeisance to the Tortoise, which, at the conclusion of the song, had drawn in its head and was again lying, an inert mass, upon the floor of the cavern.

Naquah, at a few rapid words spoken by Keorah, motioned to Anne to come forward in the procession which now began to move. Keorah swept in advance of it to the edge of the chancel steps, and stood for a moment or two without speaking—a most striking figure

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in her plain linen robes with no mantle but her splendid hair; no jewels but those on the zone which clasped her waist. Nevertheless, she seemed more beautiful in her simple attire than in all her former panoply. And, unaccountable though it appeared, Keorah's face wore an irrepressible look of elation, and there was a ring of triumph in her voice, as she cried out three times:—“Manel! Manel! It is done. At the Will of Viracocha, the Flame burned. Aak beheld the Sign, and bowed before it. The gods have chosen their Priestess. Behold the Zuhua Kak!”