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Chapter XXIX - Zaac Tepal

BUT now a clangour of the drums announced the commencement of the games. The first of these was very pretty, a sort of Queen of the May dance round a tall pole ornamented with many garlands of differently coloured flowers, the object of the dancers, who were men and girls fancifully attired, being to entwine and disentangle the garlands in so deft a manner that in the last figure all remained in the hands of one performer, to whom was adjudged the prize. After this, came games of ball in which the women also joined. But Anne was less interested than she might have been in the exhibition of their skill, for she was wondering all the time when Eric would come and speak to her; and though she scarcely liked to send for him, she had a doubt lest, because of her semi-royal position, he would wait for her to summon him. She made surreptitious signs to Semaara, anxious to ascertain whether the social conventions of the Acans would permit her to do so. But Kombo's agile wits had already jumped to the situation, and before he could be restrained, the black boy had dashed down the rock stairway and along the arena to the judges' stand, shouting as he went:

“Yai! Yai! Massa Hansen! Yuro Kateena want to pialla white brother belonging to her. You come along, Massa Hansen. You tell Missa Anne what Red Men say. Kombo plenty stupid. Ba'al me pidney— me no understand. My word! Plenty coola (angry) that old man Naquah long-a me. Ba'al that fellow brother belonging to Kombo.”

Kombo in his trailing blanket and Acan cap, in which

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he had contrived to stick an emu's straggling feather, the expression of his face a blend of cunning, vanity, and consternation, was a sufficiently comical figure to draw some exclamations of amusement from the Acans; and when he pointed to Naquah and mimicked the Sacred Guardian's wrathful demeanour, the people laughed outright, though they lowered their heads immediately afterwards, shocked at their own temerity. Hansen, choking with merriment, came down from beside Hotan, and made his way to where Anne sat enthroned. But he was not prepared for her adroit wielding of the reins. He had expected to find her bewildered and uncertain how to act, and he was surprised to see the winning yet authoritative gesture by which she soothed Naquah's wounded pride, and while rebuking Kombo, made it evident that, as her personal attendant, she required that consideration should be shown to him.

Hansen realised with a start that this splendidly arrayed and extremely regal little person was a different Anne from his brave but draggled “Chummy,” in fibre petticoats and opossum-skin mocassins, who, tired, hungry, and sometimes despondent, had trudged by his side over the ranges and across the desert. Again he told himself that the Marley stuff was showing in her; and it pleased him to observe how her western polish and air of stately courtesy were, unconsciously to themselves, impressing the people among whom she had dropped so strangely.

He uncovered and bowed, standing in a respectful attitude before her. She motioned to Semaara to bring forward a stool, upon which he placed himself, and they talked in low tones while the games went on, their voices drowned by the roll of the drums and the shrieks of the flutes and stringed instruments. Hansen was intensely interested in the sports and manners of the people.

“Not so very far behind us, are they,” he said, “for the remains of a civilisation that was started here, perhaps, about the time that the Phœnicians discovered

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tin in Cornwall, and which has never moved out of this corner since? It's wonderful, Anne. They haven't the remotest idea of any other country in the world beyond the traditions of an earthly paradise from which their first progenitors were expelled about the Adam and Eve period. I wonder if Le Plongeon is right, and if this is the origin of the story of Cain and Abel? They keep asking me whether you have come from that Eden, and if you are going to lead them back there.”

“I should encourage that idea,” said Anne, calmly. “It will further our chances of escape. By all means study the Children of Aak as much as you please, Eric. Personally, I should like to find the mine from which these opals were dug.”

“I've been talking to Hotan,” rejoined Hansen, “and getting him to tell me everything he can about the history of the race. Hotan is not a bad chap, but he has got the hump, because when we were coming along here, Keorah—your predecessor in the priestly line—snubbed him finely.”

“Ah!” said Anne, softly.

Hansen might have augured a good deal from the tone of her voice, but on this occasion he was singularly lacking in perception.

“That's a queer study of a woman, Chummy,” he went on, “considering that she has been evolved from what one might call barbarism. She is a consummate woman of the world, and I don't think that Europe would have much to teach her in the art of flirtation.”

“And so you find her attractive, Eric!” laughed Anne.

“Don't you?” he counter-queried.

Anne laughed again in a way that puzzled him.

“I imagine that as a study, the lady would naturally prove more interesting to you,” she answered. “I am not a man, and so I have not the masculine admiration of a flirtatious woman. Besides, you forget, I don't understand the language.”

“Do you mean the language of flirtation, Chummy? No; you're a deal too simple and sincere for that!”

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Anne flushed.

“I meant the language of the Acan people, of course,” she replied.

“That's not so difficult. I can teach you that, at all events. We must find a way of meeting that is not in public. Unfortunately, Hotan gives me to understand that no men are allowed in the house of the Virgins of the Flame.”

“Virgins of the Flame!” repeated Anne. “Is that what they are called? It is a pretty title.”

“That is the meaning of Zuhua Kak,” he answered.

Anne crimsoned again. “But I—” she began.

“You are the chief of the Zuhua Kak, but you are a married woman—is that what you are thinking? Well, we needn't announce the fact; it might upset things. And we must have time to learn everything we can about this delightfully odd race. Think of the lecture I shall give before my college! We shall be the most famous persons in the world, Anne, when we get back.”

“We have got to get back first,” she said, philosophically. “Tell me, Eric—I want to know the exact meaning of the prophecy that relates to me, and which evidently induced them to choose me as priestess to that horrible tortoise.”

“Horrible! It is a living specimen of the fossil Mewlania—the great horned turtle now extinct but for this monster. Aak may not be beautiful, but he is a stupendous fact in natural history. I have been questioning Hotan, but there is no record of the age of Aak. They say, ‘He has always been, and there is no other of his kind.’ Oh! If I could transport him bodily to Europe!”

Anne smiled at the idea of Aak dragging his gigantic bulk across the desert and over the ranges through the scrub.

“If I am to lead the people to a new land,” she said, “what is to become of Aak?”

“I don't know. I am afraid the prophecy doesn't mention how we are to deal with such a difficulty.”

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“Tell me what the prophecy says,” she asked again.

“I'll translate it roughly. I've been jotting it down, and amusing myself by trying to turn it into verse. Here it is,” and he gave her his version of Keorah's song. Anne repeated some of the lines after him.

“Fair Strength is her sceptre, and Beauty her crown.” She thought to herself that in both these things Keorah greatly excelled her. Like most small dark women, Anne admired the blonde Junoesque type, and placed no store upon the fashion of her own comeliness.

“I am not beautiful,” she said, and glanced involuntarily towards Keorah, whose eyes were watching her and Hansen. An idea struck her.

“Are you ‘Fair Strength?” she exclaimed, suddenly.

He smiled in a slightly embarrassed manner.

“Do you know that is what they already call me. I have been christened Zaac Tepal, meaning literally, the white, strong man.”

Anne was silent, pondering his words. In her mind, she went over the prophecy. The phrase, “She shall serve as their priestess, and rule as their queen,” gave her pause.

“Since they have made me queen,” she said to herself, “I must rule as one—if we are ever to get away from here.” Aloud she repeated, “Zaac Tepal! They give curious names, these people. Do you not hear, Eric—they are calling it down there—they are calling for you. We ought to have been watching the games; it is rude to talk. What is it they want?”

Hansen listened to the hoarse roar of the crowd. Above it, shouts arose of “Zaac Tepal!” A spokesman, standing in the arena just below Keorah's box, was making a little speech in Mayan.

The spokesman was Hotan. He appeared defiant and excited. When he had finished his speech, he looked towards Anne's dais, and called also upon Zaac Tepal. Hansen rose. Then Keorah's shrill, sweet

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voice sounded high, hushing the clamour. She stood in front of her box, and addressed Hansen by his new name, evidently putting forth a proposition that brooked no denial. Hansen made a courtly salutation, and replied as fluently as he was able.

“They have delivered a challenge,” he hurriedly explained to Anne. “This is the High Priestess' prize, to be competed for by the two strongest men chosen by the people. They've selected Hotan and me as the combatants. It is a wrestling match.”

“But can you wrestle, Eric?” asked Anne, anxiously. “It won't do for you to be defeated.”

“I think I may be a match for Hotan,” he replied, grimly. “I know something about it, at all events. Of course, I must accept the challenge. Wish me well, Chummy.”

He went down the steps into the arena, and Anne watched him stop on the way and speak to Keorah. No doubt he was receiving directions from the donor of the prize. Presently, he and Hotan disappeared. Anne supposed that preliminaries of the contest were being arranged. The drums blared once more. Two acolytes meanwhile approached her, bearing banners worked in feathers, and some small metal boxes. To her surprise she saw that they contained a kind of bean of a bright crimson, speckled with black, which she knew very well, though every year it is growing rarer in the Australian scrub. These beans are hard, and bright as precious stones, and are much esteemed as ornaments among the blacks. Semaara tried to convey to her that the Acans used them instead of money; but Anne only understood that the boxes containing them, also the banners, were to be presented as prizes to the winners in the maypole dance and the game of ball. She realised that she was to give the prizes, and presently the recipients appeared.

Two were youths, and two, women, of the Aca, wearing the fanciful attire of the performers in the dance and games—a combination of feathers and flowers adorning

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the tunics of the men and the linen drapery of the women. They prostrated themselves upon the steps of the dais, and then kneeled before Anne in a reverential attitude, with hands outstretched, the palms open. Semaara took the gifts from the acolytes, and handed them to the High Priestess, signifying their destination. It was an awkward moment for the poor untrained High Priestess, who did not know the Acan formula for such occasions, and who saw that the spectators were gazing expectant, at once curious and dissatisfied. It flashed into Anne's mind that Keorah would have acquitted herself admirably, and she was suddenly stimulated by the desire to emulate her rival. She determined to resort once more to melody, the charm of which never failed her. She sat very erect upon her throne, a small but stately stage-queen, and as she waved each banner over the head of its winner, and laid the box of beans on each extended palm with slow impressive gestures, she sang a few lines of such operatic airs as, on the spur of the emergency, occurred to her. Her voice was strong and clear, and the music was so unlike that to which the Acans were accustomed, that the crowd was at first startled and then enthralled. Hansen too was startled as he listened and watched, standing by Keorah's box. But his surprise was at this fresh exhibition of Anne's readiness and power. He had not even an impulse to laugh at the incongruity of many of the operatic words with the scene, so soul-stirring was Anne's delivery of them. He caught the infection of the multitude, and joined heartily in the “Uol, Zuhua Kak!” (Hail! Great Virgin of the Flame!) which echoed from the rock walls of the amphitheatre, as the winners of the prizes retired backward from the dais, and the brief ceremony was concluded.

His own turn had now come, and, throwing off his mantle, he stood, clad in the tight-fitting Acan jerkin, facing his opponent Hotan, in the sand-strewn space of the arena.

It was an exciting contest; horrible, Anne thought,

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to witness, as the two powerful bodies writhed and struggled, closing upon and entwining each other like two pythons in deadly embrace. Nevertheless, she could not turn away her eyes for a second, though her face went white as chalk. Keorah, on the contrary, flushed with excitement and pleasure, was watching with the fierce zest of some old-time Roman lady who had staked her jewels on her pet gladiator.

The men were evenly matched in point of muscle, but Eric was the better skilled of the two. So it came about that Hotan was overthrown, and that Hansen advanced amid the shouts of the populace to receive his guerdon from Keorah. The Acans were not wholly pleased. Hotan was a favourite, and had been their acknowledged champion. For several years past Keorah had clasped on his arm the golden bracelet which, by Acan custom, was the High Priestess' prize at this special annual festival. Therefore there was some feeling of resentment that it had been won by a stranger, repressed only on account of the general belief that the new Priestess and her interpreter were favoured by the gods. Keorah, however, was scarcely applauded when her fingers placed the armlet below Hansen's elbow.

With one knee on the ground, the Dane bent his head and kissed the hand that had decked him. This courtesy, so common in Europe, was quite unknown among the Acans, as it is among many so-called savage nations to-day. Its effect upon Keorah was sudden and unexpected. As Hansen's lips pressed her skin, he instantly felt the nerve-thrill that ran through her. The blood rushed to her face; her wild nature was set aflame. With difficulty she commanded herself. Looking up, he saw the blush, and his eyes met hers. Again he was affected by their odd fascination. She said some words in a low voice.

“It is well that we speak the same tongue, Zaac Tepal—white lord of the strong arm. By right of this token, I may claim thy fair strength in my service if I require it. Say, then, that we are friends.”

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“I am deeply honoured, Priestess,” replied Hansen. “Since thou accordest me thy friendship, the strength of my arm is assuredly thine, though in this peaceful community, and seeing in how great esteem thou art held, it seems to me that there will be small need of such service.”

Keorah smiled slowly, her eyes narrowing between their thick-fringed lids, which, with the slight uplifting of her pointed chin, gave a most attractive and yet malign expression to her long face.

“How know we what may come, Zaac Tepal?” she answered. “Since yesterday even the order of things has greatly changed amongst the Acan people. And thou art wrong to call me ‘Priestess.’ Yonder sits thy Priestess. I am no longer Zuhua Kak, but a simple woman with no claim to honour but that of woman-hood.”

“To the most beautiful of women, then, I tender my homage,” said Hansen, with thoughtless gallantry, but he almost repented the words when he saw the flush mount anew to Keorah's cheeks. Yet he was a man, and he felt flattered. Besides, as he looked at her, he could not help feeling that the compliment was not an exaggeration. She was beautiful; he really had never seen a woman with so strange a power of fascination. And he liked her thin sweet voice, which resembled certain high-pitched notes of a stringed instrument, and seemed to suit so well the language she spoke.

“I thank thee, my lord stranger,” she said. “It is well that thy heart inclines thee, for according to custom of my people, the winner of this prize,”—and she touched the bracelet on his arm,—“is specially bound to do the giver's bidding until the Festival of the Sun returns again. For some time past it has been Hotan's part to render me such small services as a woman may need, but now the office is transferred to thee. Tonight, therefore, thou shalt sit by my side, and in our converse together we will become better friends. I would learn somewhat of the land thou hast left, and if

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it irk thee not, I would have thee talk to me of the world beyond the seas, and of the men and women who dwell therein. For I am weary, oh! Zaac Tepal, of the shut-in homes and the narrow thoughts of my people of the Aca. Fain would I hear what earth holds beyond the walls of our City of Refuge, wherein, ages back, the Great Builders imprisoned our race, for fear of Kàn, the venomous serpent; though it seems to me,” and she laughed derisively, “that the venom of that rock monster hath long since departed. I confess to thee that my body craves and my soul yearns for that which it is not in the power of the Aca people to bestow. Perchance it hath been reserved for thee to supply my need for knowledge, and truly with rejoicing will I feed my hungry heart upon thy wisdom.”

The charmer charmed deftly, appealing to the immemorial sense of supremacy in the animal man. Hansen, moreover, reasoned subtly that intercourse with Keorah would further all his scientific aims, since through her he could acquaint himself with Acan customs and history, and thus be enabled to shape his course to advantage, besides, all the better qualifying himself as Anne's instructor. He therefore took the seat to which Keorah waved him, and the two were soon absorbed in conversation, while they viewed together some feats of tumbling and spear throwing, and an archery contest among the huntsmen.

Anne, throned in lonely state, had seen Hansen kiss Keorah's hand, and now watched the pair as they conversed in obvious enjoyment of each other's society. At sight of that kiss, a sharp stab had pierced Anne. It was not caused by envy nor by wounded pride. She shrank from analysing the feeling; she only knew that it was pain. Nevertheless, Hansen's conduct gave her strength, for it lashed her spirit, always daring and quick to respond. She saw how necessary it was that she should become mistress of the situation, and determined to lose no time in learning to speak Acan. On the spot, she began to take lessons from Semaara,

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and was rapidly enlarging her vocabulary. Ishtal scowled upon her preference for the younger Priestess, and talked aside to Naquah and another of the more ancient Elders who was named Zel-Zie. Anne began to suspect that Ishtal had designs upon the Priestess-ship for herself. It seemed clear, however, that the new Zuhua Kak was establishing herself in the favour of the people, probably because of the strangeness of her appearance and ways. Anne was quick-witted enough to realise that as she knew no precedents, it would be wiser to start innovations. She resolved therefore to keep eyes and ears open, and to strike out a line of her own; and failing Hansen's assistance, she thought that it would be well to turn Kombo to account.

She looked round for the black boy, but he too had deserted her. As a matter of fact, Kombo's amorous inclinations having been severely checked by the Virgins of the Flame, he had been busy casting his eyes over the ladies of humbler degree in search of a suitable “Red Mary.” Among Keorah's servants, he had found one who condescended to smile upon his antics, and now he was perched like a monkey upon the edge of the lower platform behind Keorah and Hansen, and, taking example by his master, he was to the best of his ability paying court to the maid.

Anne smiled, not without bitterness, but reflected philosophically that to be lonely is the penalty of greatness. She was not sorry when the games ended, and when, after she had presented the last banners and boxes of red beans, the crowd began to circulate among the booths set about the terrace on the east side of the amphitheatre, and the Zuhua Kak's procession was reformed for an adjournment to the great banqueting hall.