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Chapter XXX - The Banquet

THE scene of the banquet was an enormous rock hall facing due west.

It was a natural cavern, as, indeed, were many of the dwellings and passages that made the Heart of Aak a huge human burrow. This one had been greatly enlarged by the prehistoric builders. To them were due the sculptures and vaultings of the ceilings, and the carving into symmetry of the great archway—the width of the cave itself which gave upon the terrace and the plain.

By prescribed rule, the banquet began two hours before sunset: and as the orb dipped westward, his rays filled the vast place, illuminating dark recesses, showing up barbaric paintings and reliefs, and bathing in a flood of yellow light the seven massive tables, which extended inward from the great opening. The tables were placed in slightly converging lines, and with such regard to astronomic conditions that at this particular season of the year the person seated at the head of the central one would exactly face the setting sun as it sank below the horizon. This person was always the Zuhua Kak.

The banqueting hall had no doubt, in the days of Acan prosperity, been exclusively for the priestly and aristocratic members of the community. Now three tables at most sufficed to accommodate these, and the remaining four tables, as well as a space on the terrace outside, were given up to the common folk who scrambled for the leavings of their betters. Wooden benches, with at stated distances a chair or stool of honour, were ranged

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along the three centre tables, which were covered with bright coloured cloths, and loaded with fruits, cakes, and cold viands—the hot meats being brought in separately, smoking from the fire.

The banqueting hall was already filled when the Zuhua Kak and her attendants came in to the peculiar orchestral accompaniment of the Acans, which sounded at their appearance, Anne and her maidens marching up the cleared gangway on one side of the chief table; the Elders and acolytes along the other.

All present rose as she entered, and she perceived that about fifteen paces down the middle table, Hansen was stationed at the side of Keorah. Now Anne's spirit arose—for she had plenty of grit in her—and though she knew nothing of the customs of the Aca at this religious feast, she determined to make her influence felt by the people and by Keorah. She had not lived among the Australian blacks for nothing, and was a quick judge of persons, and keen to perceive points of vantage.

She was ushered by Naquah to the place reserved for her; her Virgins of the Flame ranged themselves on either hand below her, and the Elders seated themselves, according to seniority, in places of dignity. The rest of the company, eager to attack their food, then settled down without regard to precedence. No great ceremony, it appeared, was observed at the Acan feasts, which were distinctly barbaric in kind. Anne's advent occasioned a slight displacement of the order of things, but of this she was not aware. Usually, a master of the ceremonies was appointed, who regulated proceedings, calling the guests' attention by striking a small drum placed before him, with a gold baton provided for the purpose. This office had, of late, been held by Hotan as winner of the “High Priestess' prize,” and he had always sat by Keorah's side. Now it devolved upon Hansen. Hotan, sitting opposite, somewhat lower down the table, scowled at his successful rival, and tried to carry off his discomfiture by an air of bravado, and a

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violent flirtation with a pretty Acan woman. Attendants, scantily clad, were bearing along great dishes of meat, bowls of chocolate, and jugs of pulque and other intoxicating drinks made from the pressed juice of the agave, and from certain roots and berries extremely potent in quality. A kind of beer made from crushed maize was being freely distributed among the common crowd, who were jostling each other at the outer tables. Even in the more select company, disorder prevailed, as corn-cakes, condiments provocative of appetite, and cooked birds, were handed rudely from one to another, and torn between the guests' fingers.

Anne's natural refinement revolted against the coarse prodigality of the feast, and the free and easy manners of those present. It was as though primitive instincts, excited by the games, and the suggestion of new-given vitality conveyed in the morning's religious rites, were unleashed, entirely altering the character and demeanour of the people. Even the grave, dignified cast of the Acan countenances had changed to an expression of almost brutal hilarity. For the first time, Anne realised, that in spite of the wonderful civilisation of the Aca, in some respects she might still be among savages.

It had been supposed that the Zuhua Kak, who had received her due meed of honour, would now seat herself and fall in with the general tone of license. No doubt this had been Keorah's way. Anne resolved that it should not be hers. Therefore the guests were surprised, when, after a noisy interval of several minutes, they perceived that she was still standing. Very upright was the small form of their new High Priestess, her head thrown back, her eyes sending a strongly disapproving gaze down the long table, while the Eye of Viracocha, on her forehead, leaped in answering flame to the reddening sun. Hansen caught Anne's look, and was even more surprised than the rest. Keorah saw it too, and smiled in sartirical courtesy while affecting consideration for the stranger's ignorance of Acan customs. She motioned Anne to seat herself

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and join in the banquet. But Anne took no notice of Keorah's hint. She, on the contrary, signed commandingly to her maidens, who, amid glances of astonishment, rose to their feet; and then Anne, turning, beckoned to Kombo, who, though he eyed longingly the feasting at the further tables, had not dared to disobey his mistress's orders, that he should be at hand in case she wanted him. She spoke sharply to him now, bidding him go and tell Hansen that it was her intention to sing a grace before the feast proceeded, and that she desired silence. All the company looked taken aback, not knowing what was about to happen. There was a lull, above which Keorah's shrill tones might be heard ordering that wine should be brought her.

Kombo leaned over Hansen's shoulder, a grin on his face, but faint awe in his voice.

“Massa Hansen! Missa Anne want to say grace—you know, like-it white man with shirt outside of trouser —clergyman belonging to you. Missa Anne say Red Man ba'al woolla (must not talk). Mine tell you, Massa Hansen, you look out. I b'lieve Missa Anne no like that fellow Red Mary long-a you.”

Hansen laughed, but the reproach struck home. Yet he thought Anne ought to know that it was not his fault if Keorah insisted upon monopolising him. He got up, slightly confused, and striking the gong before him, according to the directions he had received, made known the High Priestess' wishes.

Keorah looked angry.

“My successor is over zealous,” she remarked, contemptuously. “At dawn we supplicate the gods. But when noon is over, we play and feast till the setting of the Sun, when we again offer our Lord praise. Do thou inform the new Zuhua Kak that this is the Acan custom, and bid her deliver herself now to mirth.”

But something in Anne's look told Hansen that Acan custom or no, Anne meant to assert her dignity. He again gave the announcement, but in his effort to collect himself, his Mayan faltered—he, too, had tasted

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pulque, and the laughter and unseemly movement of the company were not altogether stilled. Hotan came to the rescue, crying “Uol, Zuhua Kak!” at which all eyes turned towards Anne, and noise was hushed.

Then out burst the glorious voice, in what the Acans believed was the language of the gods. Was ever operatic Italian set to nobler use? The grace was sung —its literal meaning small matter, yet dramatically appropriate, as Hansen gladly owned. His heart filled with admiration of the girl, and he joined enthusiastically in the renewed shouts led by Hotan of “Uol, Zuhua Kak!” Anne majestically acknowledged the salute, and took her place, the rest of the people who had risen now reseating themselves.

Keorah's hand, oddly magnetic, touched Hansen's bare arm where her golden bracelet clasped it. She was pledging him in her own cup—a goblet of gold set with opals, and most curiously wrought in shape of two serpents intertwined, their open jaws forming a double mouth.

“It is thine,” she said, handing it to him, with a gracious smile, after her lips had touched the brim. “Keep it in remembrance of thy championship this day.” He sipped. The wine was sweet and strong. “Drink with me, Zaac Tepal,” said she, “and renew the vow of service thou hast made me. Nay! Start not. I exact no heavy dues. It is the Zuhua Kak who binds with chains of gold. Keorah, the woman, weaves only ropes of flowers.”

As she spoke she drew from across her bosom, where it lightly hung, a garland of orchids—pink, spotted with red and brown—shaped like some strange insect, a species Hansen had never seen, most uncanny but very beautiful. Lifting her finely moulded arms, rosily tawny, she threw the wreath over his head.

“Pledge me,” she said, her eyes gleaming on him intoxicatingly, and they drank, he clinking the cups to her amusement and delight.

“It is a way of my people,” he explained.

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“And its meaning, white lord?”

“Friendship and fealty,” he answered. The Mayan words rendered the signification poorly, and she affected to misunderstand it, and made him explain more elaborately, clinking and drinking again. He now saw that the lady next to Hotan had taken off her garland also, and placed it over the shoulders of her cavalier, and that many of the Acan men were so decorated, by which he concluded that Keorah was merely following an Acan custom, thus robbing her act of special significance. Nevertheless, a guilty pang shot through Hansen. He felt vaguely that something was not as it should be, but the strong wine was coursing through his veins, and Keorah's voice sounded wooingly.

“What thinkest thou of the blossoms?” she interrogated, coquettishly. “They are grown with much care, for we love flowers—we women of Aca. Tell me, Zaac Tepal—in the feasts of thine own land have thy women a delight in thus honouring the men who please their fancy?”

“Do I please thy fancy, Keorah?” asked Hansen, recklessly.

“That will I tell thee later, when thou hast satisfied my desire for knowledge,” answered she. “Have I not said to thee that body and brain and soul of me yearn alike for the life and the wisdom beyond that which is closed in the heart of Aak? But thou shalt visit me in thy house, Zaac Tepal. There will we talk at ease, and thou shalt say wherein I am different from the women of thine own kind. Perchance we have each something to learn from the other, for if thou hast knowledge of the outer world, I have power in the present. Now eat and drink, and disport thyself contentedly. Dost thou approve of our Acan dainties? This is boar, spiced and prepared after a fashion taught by the Builders of old; and this—nay, thou surely knowest Iguana flesh? But let me tell thee that since the sun last set on our Feast of Life, these great lizards have been kept and fed on plants of special properties

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under favour of the gods to whom the festival is dedicated. Thou wilt find the meat tasty. Wilt thou not pledge me again, Zaac Tepal? The wine is soft and mellow, and of a certainty cannot hurt thee, seeing that it is kept apart for the Virgins of the Flame.”

Keorah drank freely, and Hansen reckoned that it would be rudeness to refuse her. And she was right in saying that the wine was soft and mellow. Yet, in spite of her assurance, Hansen was compelled to think that the Virgins of the Flame must possess strong heads. He felt his own brain getting confused. He knew that his laughter was vacuous, and had a dim consciousness that there was pain—perhaps contempt—in Anne's grave eyes which regarded him from the end of the table. Yet Keorah's gaze had a witch-like effect upon him. So, too, the strange beauty of her long narrow face, and the splendour of her amber hair, the threads of which thrilled him with an electric charm as she bent towards him, almost leaning at times against his bare arms and shoulder.

The hall and the assemblage swayed before him, and the revelry rang to its height. Anne's face became a blur. The din of talk, and the unfamiliar sound of the Mayan syllables which differed somewhat from the language he had studied, increased the sense of bedazzlement. Most of the people were chattering shrilly, the men and women lolling in pairs. At the great table only the Zuhua Kak and her Virgins had chosen no swains.

More than once, when the revelry was passing the bounds of decorum, Anne sent some message by Kombo, a request that Hansen would make known her wishes on certain matters—the manner of serving, a demand for information—anything that she thought might create a diversion, or curtail the banquet. Occasionally, one of the Elders, who maintained their priestly dignity throughout, in quaint contrast to the license permitted the revellers—would remind Hansen of his duties as Master of the Ceremonies. Then the young man would

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spring uncertainly to his feet, and, striking feebly with his baton, give out a stammering announcement.

At this part of the table a little drama was going on, and though Hansen did not seize its full import, he knew himself to be a chief actor in it. Hotan, opposite to him, was another. The Acan was drinking deeply, but unlike Hansen, accustomed to the beverages, he was enabled to keep a clearer head. Hopeless of piquing Keorah, he took no more notice of the lady seated beside him, who was forced to content herself with her other neighbour, while Hotan directed all his attention to the late High Priestess and her companion. The muscles of his bare arm, on which were four of Keorah's golden armlets—signs of championship—stood out as he clenched his hands stormily, while his copper-red skin took a tinge of vermilion. Mad with jealousy, he threw taunts at the white stranger, and, but for Keorah's interposition, there must have been a quarrel between the two men. But this Acan woman—semi-savage though she might be—was well versed in feminine wiles. She made herself a buffer between the antagonists, turning a thrust with the rapier edge of her wit; amusing herself now by leading on Hotan, then by laughing at him; provoking Hotan's jealousy by her open favour of Hansen, and again spurring Hansen to fresh demonstrations of gallantry by pitting him against his rival.

“Is thy fair strength so great a thing after all?” she murmured. “Lies it in thy wits, or in thine arm alone? It has been enough, I know, to bring thee hither, and to serve thee, with the black slave's aid, in guiding our Priestess yonder, over mountain and sea-bed to her destined place in the Temple of Aak. By it, too, thou hast robbed Hotan of his prize, but will it suffice thee against such woman's weapons as I may choose to wield for one of my race against a stranger?”

“I challenge thy weapons, Priestess,” he cried, inflamed by the mockery of her voice. “But to thee only will I yield back Hotan's prize, since thou dost desire him again for thy champion. Test my strength,

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then, in warfare of wit or muscle as seemeth good to thee.”

“Said I that I desired Hotan again for my champion?” She laughed softly. “To all women change is pleasant. But wilt thou never forget that I am no longer Priestess? Perchance, Zaac Tepal, the contest will be between thee and me alone, and mayhap I am testing thee already. Drink to my success!” And again she filled the goblet she had given him.

The banquet lasted more than an hour. As it proceeded, noise and license increased, so that the feast seemed likely to end in an orgie. Anne sat, stately and pale, eating little, and drinking only chocolate. A feeling of illusion came over her. The whole scene was like a dream, and the one thing in it that seemed real was the sun. Now the great orb was shining a fiery ball low in heaven and right in front of the cave. It drew Anne's eyes insensibly, seeming to lift her soul from her body, and rekindling in her the religious enthusiasm she had felt at the flaming forth of the Red Ray in the temple. She might have been a Pagan stirred to Nature worship, and put back by Time to the infancy of the world. Truly the sun appeared to her as the very outward emblem of Deity—the immortal visible symbol of Supreme Creative Force. Beams of glory streamed from him, which penetrated the place, and, in the half obscurity of the cavern, deepening to a luminous purple, filled with moving motes of brilliant light.

The rays swept down along the great tables—impalpable golden bars that were cut short, Anne fancied, at the Zuhua Kak's chair of state. It seemed to her that the sun was stretching forth the welcoming arms, and thus ratifying the choice of herself as his Priestess. At this moment there came a beating of the hollow-sounding drums, and a slow shrieking from the primitive fiddles.

The Elders rose to their feet, and the band of acolytes filed up from the lower part of the hall to the upper end, where the priestesses and guardians had their places.

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Semaara leaned towards Anne, and, pointing to the setting sun, crossed her right arm on her breast in the Acan act of homage. Anne quickly understood that a parting salutation was to be delivered to the Lord of Light. The crowd of feasters had risen; a hush had fallen upon their merriment. Naquah and Zel-Zie, who were heading the tables on either side of the High Priestess, signed to her that she should lead the song of praise. Anne saw Keorah looking at her, and signalling in a patronizing manner. Then an inspiration came to the girl. She would conduct the rite in a fashion that she guessed was unprecedented—breaking up the feast, and leading out the people for a valediction in the open.

She rose from her chair, commanded pause by an authoritative gesture, and summoning Kombo, bade him deliver a message to Hansen. The Dane, muddled by wine, and supporting himself by a hand on the table, only vaguely took in its import.

“Missa Anne—you know, Yuro Kateena”—for Kombo made a distinction between Anne the wanderer, and Anne in official capacity as a goddess—“that fellow say everybody go outside see sun lie down. Yure Kateena go first long-a Red Maries belonging to Tortoise; then old men, and by'm-by Massa Hansen and big fellow Red Mary. Missa Anne want to pialla sun before he go to bed. Missa Anne say you makeim Red Man pidney (understand).”

Hansen blinked amiably, and gave a vacuous smile. Kombo, who recollected his own past experience, uttered a grunt of deep commiseration.

“Poor fellow you, Massa Hansen! I b'lieve you drunk. Ba'al mine like grog belonging to Red Mary. I b'lieve that make white man plenty sick. You no drink any more, Massa. All right now—Kombo look out long-a you. Mine no tell Missa Anne you drunk.”

Kombo's plain speaking sobered his master. Hansen assured himself that he was certainly not the worse for liquor. It was that red witch Keorah who had confused

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his faculties by her mad talk. But he saw that Hotan was jeering. He straightened himself, struck the gong with his baton, and made the announcement, but it was only half audible. Keorah took the words from his mouth, and repeated them in sweet high-pitched tones. The Zuhua Kak was about to introduce a new custom among the Acans. She desired that the feast should end, and that all should follow her outside the banqueting hall, where she would sing to his rest, our Lord the Sun. Keorah's manner was scornful. She ostentatiously quaffed the last drops of her goblet, and bade Hansen and Hotan do likewise. Now all eyes were turned on Anne. The little form reared itself regally, shoulders back, head raised, arms lifted at first as in adoration, then folded upon the breast, not in the Acan mode, but as in the picture of Murillo's Madonna.

So Anne stood till all sound, save the music, was stilled. Then, with her gorgeous mantle floating behind her, and followed closely by her Virgins, she swept slowly down the hall between the rows of feasters who had turned, and remained standing for her to pass. She looked neither to right nor left, but with rapt eyes fixed upon the dying sun, moved out through the great arch of the cave, and took her station upon the terrace facing the orb, which sank slowly to the level gap in the ramparts of hills closing in the plain. All before her, steeped in evening light, spread the wide garden-land of the Aca with its natural fortifications and river gateway, over which the sun hung poised, a blood-red ball, resting on a sea of molten gold. Above it, lines of fire faded into an expanse of purplish pink, which was flecked by tiny cloudlets, like the rosy finger of a babe.

Anne stood motionless for several minutes as the Elders, the acolytes, the musicians, and the throng following them, passed out through the arch, and made two semi-circular bands from the cavern's mouth to the edge of the terrace. Now, as the red globe neared the horizon line, Anne stretched out her arms in an attitude of invocation. The drums ceased their rhythmic beat.

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There was no shout. Not for the common multitude was it to cry. “Uol!” to the Lord of the Universe. But all the people bowed themselves, and there was silence in which every ear was strained. Then, as the sun sank behind the earth, Anne began her chant.

Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” was the lullaby she chose for its magnificent melody. Poured forth from her lips, it rose and swelled, to fall and rise again in sound waves of wonderful grandeur and sweetness, over the wide expanse of sky and plain, throbbing through the listening air in exquisite cadences from above the bowed heads of the worshippers, right away into the golden west. Never, surely, had the Sun-god of the Acans been hymned in strains so majestic.