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Chapter XXVIII - Ix Naacan Katuna

THE new Priestess of Aak had, for the present at least, done all that was required of her in regard of the Tortoise-god, and for the remainder of the day was released from duty. She had been initiated in her office by Keorah, who afterwards, formally renounced her sacerdotal functions. Then the late High Priestess quitted the temple by the public entrance and went to her own house inherited from her father, there to retire into private life so far as might be possible in the case of one who was secularly, the richest and most important lady in the Aca community. For it had till now been the custom that she who was chosen among the Virgins of the Flame to be High Priestess, should be an orphan belonging to the wealthy and ruling class. Keorah, therefore, was a woman of distinction and property, and her apartments in the nunnery, where Anne was now to be installed, had been occupied merely officially, her actual residence being one of the largest of the cave dwellings which looked out upon the market-place, and was connected by a private corridor with that in which other six Virgins lived.

Thus Anne, some little time after her presentation as the Zuhua Kak, was returning from the temple, escorted by the maidens bearing their lighted torches, along the passage she had traversed a few hours before, behind Keorah and the Staff of Death. Neither this mysterious symbol nor the golden Globe of Life was carried in the returning procession. Each was laid in its appointed place beneath the triangular Death-Stone and the opal Disc. Anne was now parted from

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Hansen. He had tried to remain near her on plea of acting as interpreter, but Keorah, in a last exercise of authority, had dismissed him under charge of Hotan, when the crowd dispersed on conclusion of the religious ceremony, to prepare for the games and banquet which were always part of this annual festival of the Aca.

Anne felt very much the loneliness of her position, but she was still eager and interested. She greatly regretted that she had not Hansen's knowledge of Mayan, so as to be able to talk with the nuns and understand what was going on around her. Her only friend seemed the young priestess who, on the previous evening, had taught her a few Mayan words, and laughed over their English equivalents. There was a natural sympathy between herself and this girl, who was bright and attractive. Her name, Anne learned, was Semaara—signifying arrow—and she was very pretty, with merry grey eyes and a dimple at the corner of her rosy lips. She reminded Anne a little of her own sister Etta.

The procession halted before a wide stone archway hung with feather-embroidered curtains. Two of the maidens drew these apart, and all six ranging themselves, made obeisance, and indicated that the Zuhua Kak should pass between them into the abode which was now her own. Anne found herself in a large, low room, hollowed out of the rock, and with a great opening in front which gave upon a balcony—the same balcony whence Keorah had spoken to the people on the previous afternoon. She at once grasped the fact that these were the High Priestess' quarters, and was not ill-pleased with their aspect. From the larger room, opened an inner one, evidently a sleeping chamber, the curtains of which were also drawn aside by the Virgins. This appeared to be sumptuously furnished in barbaric fashion; so, too, the room in which she stood. The stone floor was strewn with rugs of skin and feathers, the walls were partly painted in bold designs, partly hung with feather tapestry.

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There were divans with fine skins and handsome cushions; sideboards jutting from the rock walls, and sculptured and adorned with lamps and utensils in a metal Anne imagined to be gold; some stools there were, too, and small tables, on one of which to Anne's delight, stood a large earthenware bowl filled with tastefully arranged flowers. Dishes of fruit and cakes were laid upon a side table; and when she saw them, Anne realised that she was hungry, and might have echoed Kombo's formula “Niai Kandu,” invariably uttered at the end of a march. Semaara saw her glance and laughed, saying something to one of the other nuns, who clapped her hands loudly. Whereat, a tall maiden clad in a scanty gown of rough linen, appeared, and after receiving her orders, went out again, returning presently with a dish of pasties which were made of some kind of meat—kid, Anne thought—wrapped in maize dough, fried and flavoured with chilies—exceedingly appetizing, as the new High Priestess found when she tasted them. Meanwhile, with much ceremony, Semaara had divested Anne of the Zuhua Kak's gorgeous mantle, had brought water in a pottery basin, and a fringed towel, and washed the Priestess' feet, shoeing them with delicate sandals. The novelty of being so waited on delighted poor Anne after her long wanderings and rough sojournings among the blacks; while to be clad in cool fresh garments of linen in contrast with her cast-off fibre petticoats and shreds of underclothing, was joy beyond compare. It was extremely pleasant to have a meal set before her that had not been cooked over a camp fire, and to which she had the seasoning of pounded rock salt. She found the various condiments in which the Acans seemed to indulge, as well as their culinary methods, excellent, and she greatly enjoyed a drink which Semaara poured from a metal jug—an effervescing mixture that was slightly alcoholic. On the whole, Anne began to think that her lot as High Priestess of the Aca would prove fairly endurable.

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The other priestesses did not eat with her, but attended to her wants, busying themselves otherwise in the arrangement of her chamber. Anne found them stiff and silent, till she discovered that it was not etiquette for them to speak till addressed by her. She then tried by signs to encourage them to talk, but without much success. The eldest Virgin, who had received Anne on her arrival in the house, and whose name was Ishtal, seemed rather a formidable person, much more sedate than the rest. Anne had the impression that this woman resented the deposition of Keorah, and was scandalized at her own unavoidable outrages of Acan decorum. Semaara was certainly the one whom Anne liked best, and who, she proposed to herself, should teach her the Acan language. Already she was learning the names of different objects in the room.

Presently the maidens all retired, leaving Anne alone to rest for an hour. Coming back about noon, they re-robed her in the gorgeous mantle which the poor Priestess would gladly have left behind, it was so cumbersome, and ill-suited to her little figure. But Ishtal was aghast at the suggestion, and Anne gathered that the mantle was an outward sign of the dignity she had to maintain. She was also decked in a head-dress of rose-coloured feathers, in the front of which was fastened the sacred opal.

Now they passed through the outer room, and descended the rock-hewn staircase. Down in the market-place a well-dressed crowd was gathered, and hilarity of a subdued kind prevailed—the Aca were not apparently a frolicsome race. At sight of the new High Priestess all became on the alert, but there was less curiosity than might have been supposed. The procession of Virgins crossed the space, Anne as Zuhua Kak, according to etiquette, walking alone, with the other maidens immediately behind. She was uncertain what to do or where to go, and violated custom again by calling Semaara to her side.

From Semaara she gleaned by means of signs something

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of what was going on, and what was expected of her. Thus she dimly ascertained that outside the temple and the nunnery—from which abode men were excluded—the High Priestess was more or less her own mistress, and by no means debarred from secular amusements, though compelled always to keep up a certain state and dignity. Now she discovered that games and feats of skill were to be performed beyond the walls of the city, and that to this entertainment she and her maidens, as well as the crowd were bound. Anne, though a little bewildered, was pleased at the prospect, for now she saw an opportunity of talking to Hansen, and getting him to explain to her the exact significance of the temple rites, and the extent of her power, which she was beginning to think might be considerable. She also wanted to know what had become of Kombo.

The black boy himself answered that question. At the corner of the temple street he darted from beside a booth, where he had been regaling himself on maize cakes and fried plantains, given him at the expense of a small crowd which was amused at his antics. The Priestess' procession had now been joined by the seven Elders and their attendant acolytes, who formed a sort of guard round the Virgins of the Flame. Bursting through them, Kombo, a ragged Bacchanalian figure—for it had not been considered necessary to provide him with fresh garments—accosted his mistress.

“Yai! Yai! Missa Anne!” he cried out. “Where you been sit down all night? What for you no look out for Kombo? Mine been stop long-a verandah. Ba'al mine sleep. Plenty tugra (cold) this fellow. Ba'al mine been have-im supper—ba'al breakfast. Ba'al mine find-im Massa Hansen. Mine want-im go long-a church, like-it Red Man, but that fellow make Kombo yan (go away). Cobbon woolla (much talk). Plenty angry long-a Kombo. Ba'al me pidney. Mine no understand. Missa Anne, you tell Red Man that Kombo brother belonging to you.”

Then a sudden sense of incongruity seemed to strike

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Kombo. He stopped, uttered long-drawn ejaculations, and stared in wonder and delight at Anne's magnificent array.

“My word! Būjeri you, Yuro Kateena! Būjeri dress belonging to you! Where you got-im that fellow? Tsck! Tsck! What that big stone with fire inside, like-it crown? I b'lieve you Queen same as big Missus long-a water. Yai! Būjeri feather! Būjeri blanket!” and Kombo stretched out a black sacriligious hand and stroked Anne's mantle of office. Whereat the Priestesses exclaimed, but tittered the while, and the Elders, frowning, spoke angrily in their own language.

Anne mollified them by a gentle smile and a bar or two of recitative—which produced obeisances from the seven Guardians and the acolytes—then waved Kombo a little to one side. But as she did so, she murmured—

“You been see Massa Hansen, Kombo?”

“Yoai,” (yes), replied the black boy. “You look out, Missa Anne. I b'lieve big Red Mary want-im that fellow for Benjamin belonging to her.” Which was Kombo's manner of reporting that Keorah had begun the wooing of Hansen.

“My word! He got-im bujeri blanket too! Poor fellow me!” went on Kombo discontentedly. “Ba'al mine got-im blanket—ba'al coat—ba'al trouser!” He gazed down ruefully at his naked legs over which hung the tattered remains of his grey flannel shirt. “Mine want-im blanket; mine want-im Red Mary like-it, Massa Hansen.”

Kombo's gestures were eloquent; his need of clothes evident.

Anne signed to Semaara, who gave an order in which Anne recognised the words Zuhua Kak, and knew that it purported to come from herself. A booth-keeper, dressed in the dun coloured linen and short cloak worn by middle-class Acans, ran forward with a bundle of garments from his stall, such as were supplied to the common folk. Kombo speedily grasped the situation, and chose the brightest coloured of the tunics—a dull

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red one, which he put on forthwith amid the amused comments of the Acans. The tunic descended to Kombo's knees, and pleased him vastly, but the short cloak was not to his liking. He wanted a mantle like those worn by Anne and the Elders; and when one made of coarse linen with a feather fringe was at last provided for him, he donned it with supreme satisfaction, folding it round him, and strutting proudly as the camp blacks used to do when they were presented with red and blue blankets on the Queen's birthday. The booth-keeper brought him a bowl of water to wash himself in, and a flat red cap, like those worn by the huntsmen. He then took his place calmly in the High Priestess's procession, Anne signifying by commanding gestures that he was her slave and must attend her. She now saw that her word would be considered law, though it was clear that the Elders did not approve of Kombo as her body servant, and that the Virgins were a little shocked. Ishtal looked severe, but Semaara laughed as Kombo openly ogled the young priestesses, and made diffident overtures to one whom he specially admired, but who rebuffed him with haughty astonishment. Presently, the great natural portals in the rock wall of the city were passed, and the country on the north-western side of the Tortoise Hump opened out before Anne's view. It seemed to her like an immense garden enclosed by walls of basalt, which must have been a thousand feet in height. Nothing could be imagined more different than this cultivated earth-basin; from the barren fastnesses, the desert tract, and the valley of desolation which they had traversed on the other side of the Acan territory. For some way beyond the overhanging rock carapace of the Tortoise, the ground spread in a broad level terrace, part of which was artificially raised. Then the land dipped gradually to a round plain, like the bottom of a platter, which was covered with fields and farms. The inaccessible precipice walled it on all sides, except for a narrow gap, that seemed to have been cut by Nature's

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hand to admit the passage of a river which watered the plain, and here boiling up in impassable rapids flowed between the cleft barrier out into the country beyond. It was the same river that had forced its subterranean way beneath the desert sands, and had reappeared in the heart of Aak. Now it emerged into daylight a little way from the great head of the Tortoise, where, falling down miniature precipices and over beds of water-worn stones, it wandered through fields of Indian corn, hemp, flax, and vegetables, and irrigated plantations of cocoa, bananas, palms, and many other tropical products, including a species of aloe, from which the wanderers learned later that fibre cloth and a spirituous liquor, similar to the Mexican mescal, were obtained. On the downs, and where the land was uncultivated, it was covered with the natural Australian forest. Yet even this seemed unlike ordinary bush; the gum-trees were larger and more spreading, and among them were palms and other varieties of vegetation. Along the river banks were belts of scrub, and in the clearings nestled wooden homesteads, the dwellings of goatherds and farmers, for Anne distinguished many flocks of the same species of chamois that had lured Hansen to the Place of Death. These animals appeared to be the only ones domesticated among the Aca, for of horses and cattle there were none to be seen.

But such characteristic features of the place were not then fully borne in upon Anne, as in truth she had no time for more than a sweeping survey of this fertile champaign. Before and behind her own procession, the crowd was pressing onward to a point on the terrace where the mountain hollowed inward, and again gave the effect of an amphitheatre. In the semi-circular curve banked up by the precipice, seats had been hewn in stages up to a certain height in the rock, while at the other end, only a low wall and abutting platform interfered with the splendid view of plain and distant hills to the horizon line. No more perfect situation could have been chosen for an out-of-door theatre.

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The arena was level, and strewn with fine sand. At one point in the circle was an erection which appeared to be a judges' stand. Here, amid a group of Acans, the chief of which was Hotan, Anne saw Hansen seated. He looked extremely well, she thought, in his Acan dress, and was conversing cheerfully with Hotan. It was a relief to her, though she would hardly have confessed this to herself, that at least he was not a captive in the train of Keorah. She expected that he would at once descend and take his place beside her, but etiquette evidently forbade such a proceeding, and he merely followed the example of Hotan and his friends, who all rose and made a ceremonious obeisance, standing while she passed.

A burst of strange music from a row of performers beneath the stand greeted the priestesses on their entrance. It was scarcely harmonious, and Anne eyed curiously the instruments of the musicians. These seemed mostly of the nature of drums; some huge, and made of skin stretched over the hollowed segment of a tree trunk, which stood between the knees of the players, and when beaten, gave out a wild reverberating note; others were smaller and tinkling in sound. There were also flutes, and an instrument like the Egyptian sistrum, as well as a very primitive kind of violin, also made from a hollow stem of a tree, with catgut strings, the wail of which was uncanny, but not unpleasant. To the accompaniment of this strange orchestra, an anthem was sung by the populace all standing—a hymn specially dedicated, it seemed, to the Zuhua Kak, this title recurring continually in the refrain with the phrase, “Ix naacan katuna!” (May she be for ever exalted!).

The spectators spread themselves in two rows round the upper end of the amphitheatre, the empty rock seats rising in tiers behind them, showing that the place had been originally constructed for the accommodation of a much greater number. In the very centre of the half circle, a wide deep space seemed to be reserved for the people of highest rank and importance. Here was a

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raised dais, approached by rock steps, carpeted with skins and having cushioned seats. About fifty smiling well-dressed men and women occupied the dais—the rank and fashion, no doubt, of the Acans—who all rose and formally saluted the Zuhua Kak and her train. From this dais, three or four more steps led to a higher platform, in the middle of which was a stone arm-chair projecting from the other seats—the throne of the High Priestess—and into this Anne was inducted with considerable pomp. The Virgins ranged themselves behind her; the Elders had their places at the sides immediately below; and Kombo, who would have stationed himself among the ladies beside his mistress, was sternly motioned by Naquah to squat on the lowest step at her feet.

Anne's eyes, wandering on either side of the lower dais, were not long in discovering Keorah. The late High Priestess was seated in a private compartment which had its own approach by a small flight of steps, and was surrounded by a goodly company of attendant men and maidens. She was certainly, with the exception of Anne herself, the most important lady present; and though she had resigned the fenced-in state of the Zuhua Kak, it was in favour of a splendid and probably more enjoyable dignity.

Her appearance was magnificent. Though the Eye of Viracocha no longer blazed on her forehead, she wore a coronet of very fine opals, and the pale yellow and bright orange plumes above it were even more becoming than those of the sacred rose. Her mantle was a gorgeous work of art, being like her linen robes—these not now of the virginal white—richly embroidered in a design of variously coloured feathers, which gave the suggestion of some wonderful tropical flower. Her hair, unbound, rippled over her shoulder in waves of ruddy gold; her waist was girdled with opals; and to protect her face from the sun's rays she carried a large fan of lyre birds' feathers, set in a golden handle.

She smiled at Anne, but there was nothing cordial

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about the smile. There seemed, indeed, to be mockery in her salutation; and to Anne, who had been amused and interested at the whole spectacle, and was enjoying the honour paid her, this reminder of her rival's presence came disagreeably.

Though Keorah had yielded the sacerdotal palm, it was plain that she intended rivalry in more mundane matters, and her look seemed to say that Anne should pay dearly for the dignities thrust upon her. Momentarily dismayed, her girlish pleasure sharply checked, Anne stood without movement, gazing gravely at Keorah's taunting loveliness; then the Marley blood reasserted itself, her natural pride arose, and with a sufficiently gracious, but decidedly condescending bend of the head, she signified her acceptance of and response to Keorah's salute.