― 289 ―

Chapter XXXI - The Lighting of the Lamp

SILENCE followed Anne's song. The sun had disappeared; the red and gold of the heavens were being slowly veiled by the star-spangled purple of night, for twilight was short in these regions.

The ceremony was over. With the Acans, there always seemed an abrupt transition from religious to mundane interests, and a cross murmuring had arisen among the revellers, who were displeased that their feast had been curtailed even a little. Anne turned, not knowing what might happen. She had expected to be acclaimed, but evidently her share in the day's pleasure was considered to be over, and none seemed inclined to trouble themselves about her. They were a queer people, she thought, these Acans; even their enthusiasm was doled according to rule. The poor little High Priestess was glad at least that nothing more was required of her, and signified to Semaara that she would go back to the nun's house. She saw that the young priestess' eyes were wandering, and that her attention was distracted by some conversation near. Anne fancied that she recognised the voice of Keorah, as well as certain masculine inflexions at once familiar and strange. She followed the direction of Semaara's eyes. Hansen was leaning against a rock column roughly carved in the shape of two entwined snakes. Keorah, beside him, thrust forward her oddly fascinating face from between her somewhat disordered locks of waving amber. “Sabul kak yutz?” she pouted, and

  ― 290 ―
Semaara gave a slight meaning laugh. Anne knew that Kak meant flame in Mayan, and determined to ask later for a further translation. Hansen smiled indulgently. “Mà,” he said, shaking his head.

“Yalcab u kak!” pleaded Keorah. She touched the armlet on his arm, as though claiming by it his acquiescence to her wishes.

A look, half of flattered vanity, half of puzzlement, came over Hansen's face. He spoke some faltering words in Acan. He seemed to yield. He nodded. Keorah pressed her point. He nodded again. She laughed triumphantly. “Chichan u cha kak,” she said, impressively. “Chichan yacol ahtoc!” Anne heard an odd little exclamation from Semaara, and the young priestess' eyes gleamed curiously. It was clear to Anne that the words had a signification out of the ordinary.

“Chichan—u—cha—kak,” Hansen repeated, slowly, as though he were doubtful of the meaning of the phrase, and were trying to fix it in his mind. “Chichan yacol ahtoc,” added Keorah with marked emphasis. She pointed towards the wall of the city, and then to the sky.

“Chichan u cha kak,” Hansen said again. Keorah moved away, her tinkling laugh pealing back like an invitation to follow, but Hansen still supported himself against the column, and stared vacantly into the dusk. He might easily have distinguished Anne, but the dizziness of his brain made him unconscious of her presence. As she, too, moved along the terrace by Semaara's side, with her Virgins closing in behind her, she heard him muttering to himself “Chichan u cha kak!”

The High Priestess' apartments seemed wonderfully attractive and even home-like to tired Anne as she entered the rooms. They were lighted by barbaric-looking, yet graceful, lamps of coloured earthenware, the flax wicks burning in oil of a particular purity, so that the light was soft and pleasant as any which

  ― 291 ―
modern civilisation could have furnished. It threw up the designs of the feather tapestry, and the glint of metal upon the furniture in the front room; while in her bed-chamber the young priestesses made a special illumination that pleased Anne, for it gave her a grateful sense of importance. At each corner of the couch was a metal stand supporting a golden lamp in the shape of a tortoise, evidently emblematic of the Zuhua Kak's high calling, the light of these being more brilliant and of an even greater purity than those in the other room. Nothing more dainty in its way could be imagined than the sleeping chamber, the luxury of which was due, no doubt, to Keorah's taste, though she had but rarely occupied her official residence. Anne eyed longingly the low soft bed that seemed wholly modern, with its downy pillows and linen sheets spread by Semaara's deft hands.

The Virgins would have disrobed their High Priestess with ceremony, but Anne courteously dismissed all except Semaara. They retired, making the formal Acan salutation—Ishtal stiffly disapproving—and the two girls—for they were no more—were left together. Semaara at once took off the state mantle, the feather head-dress, and the out-door sandals. She would have proceeded to comb Anne's short curls with an implement made of a hard kind of wood, somewhat in the shape of a curry comb, but Anne bade her desist, conveying that she preferred to wait upon herself.

Semaara, interpreting this as a dismissal, was about to follow her sister nuns, performing the ceremonious Acan obeisance. But a freakish impulse seized her. She laughed like a child who wants to show off a new trick. Returning, she kneeled before Anne, took the High Priestess' hand and kissed it, reproducing Hansen's air and gestures as he had kissed the hand of Keorah. The manner of the girl, her mischievous laugh, and the significant gleam in her eyes, suggested to Anne that she might then and there take another lesson from Semaara in the Acan language. So she signed to the

  ― 292 ―
girl to remain, and began touching one by one the things around her, giving the Acan form of interrogation, which she had already learned. Whereat Semaara told her the name of each object, and Anne repeating it, wrote down phonetically in one of Hansen's note-books that he had given her, with a worn piece of lead pencil preserved during their wanderings. Seeing this, Semaara gleefully fetched a brush and pigments, with a yard or two of the bark paper used in long narrow sheets by the Acans. This she folded into the shape of a book, and being smooth and shiny, it made an excellent surface for picture-writing—an accomplishment Semaara was eager to display, making Anne understand that it formed part of the education of the Virgins of the Flame, and was not common among the laity, who employed the hieroglyphic alphabet.

Semaara was no mean draughtswoman, and put considerable realistic expression into her pictures. Anne saw her own opportunity. It was but a step from the concrete fact to the abstract idea. She repeated with distinctness, as well as she could remember it, the conversation they had overheard between Keorah and Hansen, indicating that she desired a translation. Again the meaning look came into Semaara's eyes. She laughed, blushed, put her hands modestly over her face; then pointing to Anne and to herself, exclaimed “Zuhua Kak?—Mà!—Mà!” shaking her head, and showing clearly enough that as Virgins of the Flame they had, neither of them, any concern with such matters. There was no doubt that she meant by this all that pertained to love-making.

“But Keorah——” objected Anne; “she also was a Virgin of the Flame.”

Semaara negatived the assumption animatedly. There could not be two Zuhua Kaks. Anne herself was Zuhua Kak—Aak had chosen her. Therefore Keorah was released from her vows. Keorah might marry—Keorah was losing no time in taking advantage of her freedom; she had already, according to Acan

  ― 293 ―
custom, chosen her spouse. This in a series of rough but expressive sketches, perhaps not quite in conformity with western notions of propriety, but clearly indicating the life-long union of man and woman. The Acans, if crude in their forms, had evidently jealously preserved from their first teachers, the Great Builders, conventional principles of morality and monogamy. One of the drawings represented Hansen—Zaac Tepal—in the act of setting alight a lamp of peculiar form. It resembled the Greek caduceus, two serpents intertwined, a flame bursting from between their mouths. Anne recollected the column in front of the banqueting cave; the embracing serpents had appeared elsewhere in the frescoes on the rock walls. She had noticed, too, with wonder at the feast, that some of the men and women had drunk to each other in a cup with two mouths thus shaped, and she had felt jarred by the coarse laughter which she now guessed to have been ribald allusion accompanying the pledge. Semaara confirmed her instinctive understanding that the intertwined serpents were the Acan symbol for marriage. The priestess held up her drawing of Hansen lighting a lamp—equivalent, as she pantomimically explained, to the declaring of himself as a suitor, and roguishly reiterated, “Chichan u cha kak. Yacol ahtoc.”

So this had been the meaning of Keorah's words! Thus had the former High Priestess boldly wooed Eric as her lover! But had he really consented? Did he know what the formula implied? …. How dared she? Shameless woman! Anne's small frame shook with indignation. Her eyes blazed upon innocent Semaara. She signed abruptly to the girl to leave her, and the young priestess, puzzled and a little frightened, gathered up her picture writings and departed.

Anne threw herself upon her couch in the middle of the four emblematic lamps. Their light worried her. She buried her head in the pillows, half angry, half disconsolate, and a few dry sobs shook her, the outcome of fatigue, and lack of courage to face this new and

  ― 294 ―
most difficult of all contingencies. She was honest enough not to hide from herself that Hansen's defalcation was the real cause of her distress and emotion, which, she felt, was totally unbefitting her position as Elias Bedo's wife; and she had a comical realisation that her present attitude was still more unbefitting her dignity as Zuhua Kak, High Virgin of the Flame, Daughter of Dawn, and Priestess of the Sun.

Something of the afterglow of that Pagan glory of a few hours back now lightened her gloom, and made her almost ashamed of giving way in this manner. She got up impatiently, and opening the closed curtain of her bed-chamber, passed into the outer room, which was in darkness, for the Virgins, before leaving, had extinguished the lamps. The heavy curtains dropped behind her, and the darkness, as she stepped slowly through it, felt like a living oppression. It seemed to envelope and choke her. Here, the curtains were drawn too across the opening to the balcony, making the gloom denser. She groped her way along the chamber. Never had she felt so lonely in the bush nights, when Hansen, wrapped in his blanket, and the faithful Kombo were slumbering near her. She wondered what had become of the black boy, whom she had lost sight of after the banquet, whether he was still camping at the head of the steps leading to the nuns' house, or whether the seductions of the Acan city had proved too great a strain upon his fidelity.

Anne drew aside the hangings and went out into the balcony. It was a relief to escape from the oppression of her rock chamber. Outside, the darkness had, if the term may be used, a sort of pale luminosity. In the circular space overhead, the sky was gemmed with stars, but she could not tell whether the moon, now on the wane, had risen behind the cloven mass of the mountain which towered eastward, riddled with the burrowings of the rock streets. Only the feeble glimmer of a lamp or two in the cave dwellings relieved the blackness of the precipice. In the market-place below all was

  ― 295 ―
quiet: the booths were empty and silent, and every sign of business had disappeared. Occasionally from a distance came the sound of some belated traveller. But the Acans seemed to take even their amusements as decreed by Fate, and subject to certain limitations of time and circumstance, and were doubtless already sleeping off the effects of pulque and other such potent intoxicants.

Anne leaned over the rock balustrade in front of her window, whence she had a glimpse both of her own stairway and of the winding steps leading to the adjoining balcony. She was pleased to see that on the little square platform outside the nuns' entrance door, and in its most sheltered corner, Kombo had stretched himself—a blanket-wrapped mummy, indistinguishable as a thing human, save for his stertorous breathing. The sight of Kombo gave her a sense of stay and comfort, though, as a matter of fact, the drums of the Aca would scarcely have awakened him from his heavy sleep.

To left of the nuns' house, and in a more protruding line, there jutted another balcony, separated from hers by a rough-hewn partition, and approached at the furthest end by a flight of steps cut slantwise in the cliff. This stairway forked at the top, a small flight leading to the door of an entrance into the cave dwelling, while two or three steps branched outward to a ledge skirting the stone balustrade of the balcony. Anne had already been told that this dwelling, adjoining that of the Virgins of the Flame, was Keorah's ancestral property, her private residence, connected by a back tunnel in the rock with the official quarters of the Zuhua Kak.

Now Anne became aware of a faint rustling near her, of the drawing of curtains, a shadow projected upon the balustrade, and a stealthy step upon the adjoining balcony. The girl drew back sharply into the shelter of a pillar, but was still able to see what went on. A figure bent close to the balustrade—a female figure, either closely veiled, or with the upper part of her form

  ― 296 ―
concealed by falling hair. Anne fancied that the form was that of Keorah. The woman was adjusting some fixture, a metal abutment—for the object gave a faint glint of starlight—to the stone coping of the balcony. The fixture, whatever it was, stood out a vague convoluted blur against the emptiness beyond. Having done her work, the woman retreated, moving across the balcony within range of the watcher's vision, into the deeper shadow of the adjacent window—an opening corresponding with that through which Anne, on her side, had passed. There the woman withdrew behind a curtain, but Anne felt confident that she had not moved altogether away.

Just then came a sound upon the rock pavement of the market-place,—the heavy and slightly uncertain pad-pad of two sandal-shod feet. It was one person walking alone. The steps slackened. They halted immediately below; then shuffled on for a moment or two, and stopped again, as though the pedestrian was not sure of his destination. Anne peered from behind her sheltering pillar, and in the dimness discerned the figure of a man in Acan costume. She almost laughed under her breath as she found herself noting the details of his dress. Of course! What else should anyone wear here among the people of Aca? The whole world, for all practical purposes, as far as concerned Hansen and herself, was narrowed down just now to the kingdom of the Aca. Even Eric was apparelled as an Acan. Her heart beast faster at the thought. Could it be that this man was Eric?—that he was keeping a tryst?

The darkness was too dense for her to distinguish the man's face, and besides, the stairway curved, and his back was towards her. He mounted stumblingly. The long Acan cloak concealed his figure, and was bunched up at the throat, hiding his hair. He did not go in at the door of the house, but turned sideways along the ledge below the balustrade, stopping at the object which had been fastened by the woman to the coping of the

  ― 297 ―
balcony. Anne waited in suspense. Presently she heard the scrape of a lucifer match. That told her that it was Eric, for the Acans used flint and tinder. She crept closer to the rock partition between the two balconies, and bent cautiously forward. He was fumbling still with his back to her, but the lighted match showed her his hand, which was certainly the hand of Eric. The lighted match revealed also the shape of the twisted thing standing up above the rim of the balustrade. There could be no manner of doubt as to its meaning in Anne's mind. The metal gleamed in the spluttering light, and now she had no difficulty in recognising the hand-wrought convolutions of two snakes' bodies coiled round the stem of an earthenware bowl, upon the brim of which twin snakes' heads rested. The match went out as it touched the wick floating in the bowl—the lighter's hand was unsteady. Another match was struck, and the second attempt proved more successful. The lamp now burned up brilliantly, and, as Hansen moved a little, it shone full upon his face. He was leaning over the narrow ledge, holding the balustrade with his left hand, and staring across it at the curtained doorway into Keorah's house as though he expected the curtains to part, and some acknowledgment of his presence, and of the act which he was evidently rather proud of, to be vouchsafed. His face still wore a vacuous look, but it was also marked by an air of complacency, the appearance of one who has accomplished under difficult conditions an unusual and only half comprehended feat. He gave a chuckle of somnolent satisfaction, and gurgled out half audibly, “Chichah u cha kak!” But there came no response. Hansen waited a minute or two, and then, gravely regarding the beacon lamp as though it had failed in the result expected of it, he crept along the ledge again, and unsteadily descended the stairway. Anne saw him look up at the emblematic lamp as he passed, with a glance of such comical dissatisfaction that she would have laughed outright at any other time; but

  ― 298 ―
now she held her breath and remained silent, her soul filled with an odd mixture of revulsion and pity, while he went on his way across the deserted market-place, and up the narrow rock street leading into the heart of Aak. She could hear the pad-pad of his feet as he went, and had a sudden impulse to call after him, and bid him return and extinguish the lamp, for she felt quite sure that he had not fully grasped the significance of what he had done. The maternal instinct that lurks in every woman's breast moved her to defend him against himself, but she could not forget how readily he seemed to succumb to Keorah's fascinations, and pride kept her from speaking. Thus the appeal she longed to utter died on her lips, and she was turning back to her own chamber, when a soft, indescribable sound of mirth caught her attention, and she saw on Keorah's balcony, framed within the now parted hangings, the figure of Keorah herself. Her opal coronet and feather plumes, her glittering belt and resplendent robes had been removed; and the woman now stood, clad in simple linen draperies like those of Anne herself, with no touch of colour about her save in the masses of her red-gold hair, upon which the lamp-light leaped. In her long, clever face, her brilliant eyes shone like fire, and kindled to an expression of intense satisfaction. It was to Anne, who had thought she knew Keorah, as though a strange and sumptuous animal was gazing through these windows of the red woman's soul. The elementary instincts of that sex so long held in unnatural subjection, had arisen triumphantly and were wantoning in their emancipation.

Keorah looked at Anne and smiled, but it was not a smile of animosity, nor even of derision. At the moment, Keorah felt neither one nor the other. She was too secure in her own sense of possession and of gratification —in the knowledge that not for a small thing had she bartered the barren dignity of Zuhua Kak. The two women faced each other, in a silence more significant than speech, a minute. Then Anne, never lowering

  ― 299 ―
her eyes, passed like a shadow into the darkness of her own room.

Amid her luxurious surroundings, the poor little High Priestess lay down, feeling more hopeless and desolate than she had ever been during her sojourn among the Maianbars, and gave her bitter thoughts rein. They were very broken and disjointed, most of them, for she was too tired to think clearly. She only fancied that the web of a cruel fate was closing round her, and that she was friendless indeed. The camp of the Maianbars appeared as freedom in comparison; though her only friends there had been savages and cannibals, they had somehow made her conscious of a certain sympathy which—at all events latterly—they had frankly extended to her. Even old Būli had been kind to her in his primitive fashion, and had there been need, they would all have fought for her—unless, indeed, they had been commanded to eat her by Multuggerah the King. In any case, they would have been true to their own code of loyalty, which she understood as she could not understand the code of this Aca people.

The Maianbars had revered her as divine, but befriended her humanity. To these people, from Keorah downwards, Anne began to realise that she was nothing more than a symbol, the embodiment of a prophecy, and even in that not greatly to their taste, being built on a different, and in their eyes, less attractive mould from their own. On the other hand, there was about them, Anne felt, something essentially alien to her instinctively modern ideas—the very type of countenance, with its fatalistic expression, the mingling amongst them of civilisation and barbarism, the beauty and coarseness, the ignorance and yet culture of a primitive sort, the superstition which for ages had dominated the nation, confining it within the narrow precincts of this rock refuge—all revolted her. Anne knew that she had successfully impressed the Acans, but she knew too that the threads of government lay loosely in her hand, and that it would require effort to

  ― 300 ―
hold them. She saw that she must contrive by bold dealing to establish her supremacy, for it was her only hope of escape. But whatever she might succeed in bringing about, there would be Keorah to reckon with. To mollify Keorah would mean giving up Eric. And how could she escape without Eric? How, too, could she leave him in Keorah's power?

The scene in the balcony had created a tumult in her mind. She felt again the woman's pity and the woman's contempt for man's weakness. The Eric to-night had revealed to her was a new Eric—not the chivalrous, self-contained companion of her wanderings, whose chief characteristics had seemed brotherly consideration for her, and scientific enthusiasm in his explorations—but a man like any other man, easily turned off his balance by the wiles of a designing woman, and the vulgar temptation of strong drink. She judged unfairly, as women do, but her pain was deeper than she dared acknowledge. The suggestion of Eric Hansen as another woman's lover—half savage though she were—showed Anne a chamber in her own heart which, while Elias Bedo lived, she might not enter. But as brother and friend she bewailed her chum, for had she not had his companionship in the interval between the present time and her departure from Maianbar's camp, her solitary position would not have appeared so overwhelming. She could have called forth her natural courage with a lighter heart, and might have tackled her fate as she had done before, bravely, with only the aid of Kombo.

True, Kombo still remained to her. But had not Unda, the black gin, lured him into the camp of the Maianbars; and was it not extremely likely that some yet more bewitching “Red Mary” would make him unwilling to quit this land of women and maize cakes? Whether white or black, men were all alike, thought poor Anne. The excitement of the day, which so far had buoyed her up, was followed by reaction in which she saw everything darkly, and presently the tension of

  ― 301 ―
her tired spirit gave way, and she buried her face among the pillows, and wept like a weary child.

Never had she felt so desolate, not even in those nights under the stars, near Cooktown, or in the cave at Kooloola, when she had known that all her relations in Australia were murdered; and when she had been frightened even of Kombo, and had sung her evening hymn in trembling faith, casting herself upon the protection of unseen powers before closing her eyes in sleep. She would have liked to sing the simple hymn again, but was afraid to raise her voice lest some of the Virgins might break in upon her. She could only lift her heart in dumb supplication, and, as she did so, a curtain of peace seemed to fall upon her. She crossed her hands upon her breast as she had done in her invocation of the Sun Spirit whom the Aca adored. Perhaps the great Pagan deity would overshadow her, and draw her within his protection. This was her last waking thought. The rays of the four lamps at the corners of the Zuhua Kak's bed seemed to blend into a shining disc—the symbol of eternal life and love, and with a long, soft sigh she fell asleep.