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Chapter XXXII - Aak Breakfasts

DAWN peered feebly into Anne's rock chamber, for she had left her curtains apart, and the morning light paled that of the lamps which still burned at the four corners of her bed. These lamps, emblematic of her lonely priestess-ship, brought back sharply to her mind the remembrance of last night's events, and she wondered whether Eric's torch of love shone yet upon Keorah's balcony. Half dazed she sat up, the veils of sleep falling from her eyes and brain, and the thought of the serpent-lamp uppermost in her mind. She sprang out of bed, her bare feet scarcely touching the skins and feather mats which strewed the floor, as she ran to the front opening, and, just as she was, stepped out upon the balcony.

She peeped round the partition. Yes, there in the pearly light, Anne saw the metal snakes rearing their open jaws, with the flax wick flaming brightly between them. The sun was not yet risen, but a faint pinkish radiance showed above the great back of the Tortoise hump, shedding a pale glow down upon the market-place, where already were some signs of life. Anne noticed that she was not the only person whose attention was attracted by the lamp on Keorah's balcony. Several booth-keepers had paused in the business of setting out their wares, and were standing with eyes upraised; while some herdsmen and labourers, evidently on their way to the fields, had halted too, and were laughing together and talking with jocose gestures, not altogether seemly, as they pointed to the emblematic serpents and the little flame they guarded. Anne

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hastily drew back, afraid lest these people had seen her, but she soon satisfied herself that it was the lamp and not she herself which had provoked their mirth. The girl blushed hotly. If she had been a little uncertain before as to the meaning of the lamp, she could no longer have the least doubt on the subject.

She went back to her bedroom, wide awake, her faculties brisk and alert. For so long had she been accustomed to wake in the small hours, and under curious conditions, that now her senses quickened naturally to activity, as they might have done aroused in an emergency by starlight, to continue her march through the bush.

Tucking her naked feet under her, she sat down on the edge of the bed. Near her was a miniature drum, like that put before Hansen at the feast, which she concluded was for the summoning of her maidens. But she determined not to call Semaara yet. She wanted to think out things in relation to her morning discovery. On a small table by her bed, the Virgins had placed, before leaving her the night before, a bowl of goats' milk, and some fruit and cakes. Anne drank the milk, and ate a little, glad of the early breakfast. It stimulated her brain, and helped her in forming a plan of action by which she resolved to guide herself. On the whole, Anne was a level-headed young woman, and, having once made up her mind what she would do, was not given to sentiment or vain regret.

After her little meal she dressed herself. Then her first care was to write up her vocabulary, committing to memory the words she had already put down, and practising herself in elementary phrases that she had picked up from Semaara. Next, she took stock of everything around her, with a view to further lessons. From her balcony she watched the Acans setting about their day's employments, and, bethinking herself of Kombo, looked to see if he were astir. But Kombo's blanket lay in an untidy heap, and it was not till she had peered about for some minutes that she espied him in

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the street that wound round the temple, apparently receiving hard usage at the hands of an Acan woman. He was vociferating loudly, and calling upon Yuro Kateena to pialla Mormodelik for his protection. Anne reflected that his thieving, or possibly his amorous propensities, had got him into trouble, and that a lesson might do him good. In any case, he escaped the clutches of the Red Mary, and disappeared in the dimness of the rock street. Anne looked up at the precipice with its many caves, and the wall closing in the market-place, and realised afresh with a shudder that she was a prisoner. The delicious morning air streaming down through the opening above the market-place came to her like a breath of liberty, and made her long for the old Bush days of hardship when she and Hansen and Kombo had tramped together, and at least had been free; when, too, there had been no other woman to come between Eric and herself. But that last thought she resolutely quelled. She had no time nor strength to spare for repining. Action was what was needed, and that of the wisest.

Before long the Virgins entered to pay their morning respects, and were surprised to find their High Priestess sitting dressed, calm and ready for whatever official duty she might be called on to perform. It was made clear to her that she would shortly have to go in procession to the temple, and by-and-by the stage mantle and the roseate head-dress, with the Eye of Viracocha, were brought forth. Ishtal performed the ceremony of robing. Poor Semaara hung back shy, and evidently frightened after her abrupt dismissal the previous evening. But Anne called her to her side, and found a few moments to talk to her alone, playfully chiding her in such phrases as she could put together, and re-winning the girl's confidence by her graciousness. She even commanded herself sufficiently to show Semaara the lamp on Keorah's balcony—now extinguished—and to try to ascertain what would be the order of proceedings in the wooing of Eric.

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Semaara hung her head and laughed, conveying that it would be as Keorah pleased. She also volunteered the information—signified by signs and more picture-writing—that Keorah was organising a pleasure party outside the city in honour of Zaac Tepal. Oh! dear no, she added; the Virgins of the Flame did not go hunting, though Keorah, when Zuhua Kak, had sometimes indulged herself in this manner. Naquah and Zel-Zie, however, had not approved of her passion for out-door amusements. And, as for the rest of the nuns, after the service to Aak was over, they mostly remained indoors weaving linen for the sacred robes, and preparing certain beverages used at festivals. Only occasionally did they walk, accompanied by the Elders and Acolytes, in the garden domain below the great terrace.

Semaara's pantomimic confidences were pathetic. She too would have liked to amuse herself. For her own part, Anne was much too proud to suggest forcing herself upon Keorah's party, but she privately resolved that if the privilege had been accorded to the last Zuhua Kak, she would claim it forthwith, and organise a hunting party to which Keorah should not be invited. Furthermore, she registered a mental vow to command Zaac Tepal's attendance upon herself as interpreter, whenever this was conformable with the dignity she intended to assume.

Before long, the procession of Virgins went again by the passage in the mountain to the temple, there to do service to Aak. The great place was now lighted by openings in the roof that had been closed at the celebration of the Feast of Life and Death. The Life Disc shone dazzingly with prismatic colours, but the Death Stone triangle showed, in the presence of the sun, only a sinister blueness.

The Virgins passed up the huge aisle to the Chapel of Aak, and, at one side of the fretwork screen, paused before a small postern door wide enough to admit one at a time, which turned upon a pivot in the centre and

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gave admission to the sanctuary of Aak. Ishtal signed to the High Priestess to enter; and Anne, scarcely able to control her terror of the creature, went in, and found herself in the presence of the Tortoise-god.

It was a large cave strewn with fine sand, and lighted from the top as well as by a great archway that led out of the mountain itself into a space enclosed by a low wall—the pleasure-ground of Aak. This Anne saw but vaguely, for at first she was conscious of nothing but the monster who reposed his enormous bulk in the middle of the cave. He stirred slightly, and the round head, with its two horns erect, protruded sideways from beneath the mighty shell. Anne was relieved to find that the creature was sufficiently far from her to make it a matter of time before the unwieldy mass could be dragged in her direction. But at this moment the beat of the Acan drums sounded in the distance. There was a confused murmur of steps and voices, as a crowd came into the temple to attend the daily worship of their god. Aak stirred again as if expectantly; and now in the archway Anne saw a band of acolytes bearing large stoups of water, and open baskets containing green vegetables and herbage of different kinds. They did not enter the sanctuary, but stood waiting, while two of the priestesses went past the Tortoise, ranging themselves one on each side of the arch, as though to guard the sanctuary from profane intruders on that side. Two others stood at the temple entrance, and the remaining two began in a methodical manner certain operations for the comfort of Aak, such as scooping out the liquid left in a large flat dish shaped like a tortoise's shell—possibly the shell of some departed antediluvian monster—with scoops made of the backs of young tortoises, then wiping the water vessel with linen cloths ready for refilling. They also raked the sand of the cave, removing shreds of green stuff and strewing the ground afresh with fine sand that emitted a pleasant odour. This was taken, as well as the implements with which they performed their offices, from the acolytes in the outer court.

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All the time the drums beat, and the great creature showed elephantine signs of agitation. But Anne took heart of grace from the unconcerned manner in which the Virgins did their work, approaching their deity with formal reverence, but certainly without fear. Each time they passed the beast, the two ministering Virgins made a quick obeisance, and the other four, as well as those acolytes whose hands were not employed in the bearing of water and herbage, stood with their right arm folded across the breast in the Acan act of homage.

Now, their homely services rendered, the two Virgins came to Anne and conducted her with much ceremony towards the Tortoise, signing to her that she should make a genuflexion as they themselves did. Anxious to omit no necessary and harmless formula, Anne complied, though with difficulty repressing nervous laughter the while. Then the maidens brought forward a basket of lettuce, from which Anne understood it was her duty to feed the monster. Anne took the basket, staggering slightly in her nervousness under its weight, for it was a large one and well filled. Aak evidently possessed a healthy appetite. With head eagerly protruding, Aak was awaiting his meal in the full relish of anticipation. Inwardly quaking, Anne went nearer. The calm demeanour of the attendant Virgins made her feel ashamed of her own terror, and summoning all her courage, she broke the lettuce leaf by leaf, and held it towards Aak. The god stretched himself enjoyably; his snake-like neck swayed; the creases of his throat straightened; his nostrils dilated as he delicately smelt at the herbage; then the slit-like mouth opened, and in a mumbling fashion Aak chewed his lettuce. He was a deliberate feeder, and took time over his breakfast, but presently the contents of the basket were swallowed, and another was handed to Anne, who went on feeding the monster till he began to show signs of satisfaction. Then she proceeded to fill the water vessel from the stoups handed her by the acolytes, but there was an un-priestesslike celerity in her movements as she

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stepped gingerly to and fro past the monster. Aak seemed to be conscious of her personality, and extended his head each time as she went by, elevating his horns, which twinkled at the tips like little eyes watching her. He had obviously some remembrance of the fascination she had exercised over him on the previous day, and was ruminating upon it,

At last the Great Aak's appetite was appeased. He had eaten and drunk, and the telescopic lids drooped over the small glittering eyes, and the odd wrinkled face, so like that of an aged man, wore an expression of senile complacency. The acolytes withdrew by the outer gateway, Anne having deposited several baskets of green stuff within the cave for Aak to regale himself with when he felt so disposed.

Now the Virgins led Anne out through the archway in the rear of the cave into a sanded court bounded by a low wall outside which a number of spectators had gathered in the hope of seeing their god take his morning exercise. In the middle of the enclosure, which was of great extent, was a large tank hollowed in the rock, artificially shelved at the sides, so that Aak might have less difficulty in dragging his unwieldy bulk up and down, when he chose to lie in the water or to bask near it in the sun. Beneath the wall, all round the court, was a carefully tended wide border of grass with beds of the vegetation that Aak specially enjoyed. In places, the rock ground showed; in others, there were drifts of sand in which the reptile might almost bury himself if he desired. It was a paradise for tortoises, though it had but one gigantic occupant. Anne found herself wondering whether Aak sometimes felt lonely, and sighed for an antediluvian spouse.

Having been conducted round the god's domain, she was taken back to the temple, and quitted Aak's sanctuary with no small feeling of thankfulness that her personal ministrations were over for that day at least. She had still to sing to the monster, and this constituted part of the morning worship for which the people in the

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temple were assembled. They were anxious to hear whether the new Zuhua Kak would continue to acquit herself creditably, but they were soon satisfied on that point. The procession passed through the revolving door, and the Virgins, all kneeling, ranged themselves in a semicircle behind Anne before the fretwork screen, after the order of the previous day, only that the Elders did not come up to the chapel of Aak, but remained in the nave of the temple.

As before, at the sound of Anne's voice, the Tortoise awoke from his stupor of repletion, and the same process of fascination went on. The great thing stirred and heaved; then, putting one foot slowly before the other, advanced towards the opening with its carved partition. There he again rested his head upon the stone work; the strange old man's face reared itself; the diminutive nostrils puffed breath in agitated clouds; and the shining eyes, like enormous beads, blinked repeatedly, and at last closed in an ecstasy of delight.

Anne sang on while the congregation listened. The influences of the temple again enveloped her, so that to herself her voice came forth as in a dream. Turbulent emotions filled her; loathing of the whole ceremonial and of the monster whom she had fed and served, yet with this a curious pity both for the huge helpless creature, and for the ignorant people who worshipped it as a god. Then, too, the trapped feeling of being a captive in the heart of a mountain among a strange race which seemed a survival of some forgotten phase of evolution, alien to her in every ordinary bond of human sympathy, and revolt against being compelled to join in such a travesty of religion, while underlying the disgust, was some subtle recognition of primal godhead, caged and dwarfed since the beginning of the world, nevertheless asserting itself in these dumb symbols of a barbaric worship.

The service in the temple over, Anne had scarcely reentered the nuns' house, when a message reached her, sent through one of the acolytes and rendered intelligible

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by Semaara, to the effect that a deputation of the Elders desired to wait upon the Zuhua Kak in the audience chamber to confer with her upon a matter of importance.

As soon as she had grasped what was required of her, Anne realised instinctively that the occasion was a crucial one, so ceremoniously was the message delivered, and with such evident awe on Semaara's part, that she felt sure it had some definite purport, and resolved to commit herself to nothing without being fully aware of what she was doing. She saw here, too, an opportunity of asserting herself in regard to Hansen, and, woman-like, made the most of it. So after a minute's rapid thought she signified her gracious assent to the Elders' wishes, but demanded the presence of Zaac Tepal at the interview to act as interpreter. Her request was a perfectly natural one; but Semaara's diffident manner, and the glance of amused consternation on some of the maidens' faces as they glanced in the direction of Keorah's balcony, showed that it was likely to clash with the arrangements of the former Zuhua Kak. Anne let it be seen that she divined their thoughts, and loftily dismissed the question of Keorah's pleasure by commanding that a messenger should be sent at once to find Zaac Tepal. She also desired that Kombo should be found, and bidden attend her in the audience chamber, which she learned from Semaara was immediately below the nuns' dwelling, with an entrance from the market-place, a sort of neutral ground where the High Priestess might hold state receptions of both sexes, which it was contrary to Acan usage that she should do in the nunnery itself.

In a short time the messenger—an acolyte—returned, and Semaara brought the information that Zaac Tepal was below, awaiting the pleasure of the High Priestess. Anne scribbled a few brief lines on a page of her notebook, saying that she expected shortly to receive certain of the Sacred Guardians in the audience hall below the nuns' house, and required his presence as interpreter. The note puzzled Hansen a little as he read it, for he

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scarcely recognised in this autocratic High Priestess his little friend Anne. She seemed to have doffed with her fibre petticoats her old charming simplicity. Moreover, he found himself in a predicament: he was now on his way to join the hunting party, and had been looking forward with some amusement to astonishing the Acans by his use of firearms. And then he knew that Keorah was not the sort of woman who tamely submits to interference with her plans by other people.

Hansen had vague, uncomfortable recollections of his sayings and doings the previous evening, though no one had told him plainly the meaning of that mystic lamp that he had lighted. He made a good guess, from the hints and suggestive looks of the Acans, as well as from Hotan's scowling dejection, that it was something compromising, and he had trusted to smoothing matters with Keorah on this day's excursion. There was no help for it, however. Anne was High Priestess, and Anne seemed to have discovered that the High Priestess'word was law. He thought it odd, and unlike Anne, that she had not come out herself to explain things, but supposed that this would be contrary to Acan etiquette, and with a shrug he turned to go back to Hotan's house, in which he lodged, to leave his gun and get ready for the audience. The sound of voices, and sight of a gay crowd issuing from Keorah's house made him pause. His enchantress greeted him with an arch air of appropriation, the men in her train pointedly made way for him, and the women looked shyly up at the lamp attached to the balcony, and made him significant salutations. Hotan, in full hunter's garb, appeared just then from another direction, and tauntingly challenged the stranger to show his skill in the chase. Here Hotan felt sure of excelling his rival, and had dreamed wild dreams of reinstating himself again in the favour of Keorah.

The sorceress laughingly chided her new lover.

“Hast thou forgotten thy vow of service, Zaac Tepal, that thou dost not offer to carry my bow, which in truth is heavy for a woman's arm. Where, too, are thy

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weapons? For thee, Hotan, before challenging thy foe, it would have been generous to give him choice of thy bow and spear. Thou hast but ill obeyed my directions to show hospitality to the White Lord. Perchance thou didst remember that I am no longer Zuhua Kak, and have not now the power to enforce obedience.”

Hotan insolently threw down his bow and quiver and the short spear he carried on the pavement at Hansen's feet.

“At Keorah's command my best is thine, Stranger, but it shall advantage thee nothing,” he said rudely. “Yesterday thou didst conquer me. To-day I have my turn. And to-morrow, mayhap, thou, Keorah, wilt claim my service again for the chastisement of this impostor who has publicly insulted thee by making a jest of that which among the people of Aca is held sacred. 'Twas in jest, not in earnest, as I know well, that the lamp on thy balcony was lighted last evening.”

Keorah's face paled with anger, and she thrust out her arm as though she would have struck Hotan, but recollecting herself, she made a feint of misunderstanding his speech. Turning a strange smile upon Hansen, she said with acid sweetness: “Nay, it is not I who am now in charge of the sacred symbols of Aak. I rob not our new Priestess of her office. Let me pray thee, White Lord, to pardon the unmannerliness of one who hath overvaunted his prowess, and is angered at the victory of another. Do not, in thy turn, mistake jest for insult.”

“Willingly do I excuse my host, to whom I owe hearty thanks for his generous entertainment,” replied Hansen courteously. “Yet, since I but did thy bidding, Lady, I would gladly understand wherein lies the difference, according to Acan prejudices, between jest and insult.”

A little titter went round the group, and Hotan gave a triumphant jeer.

“Said I not the truth?” he cried. “And may it not happen that, to-morrow or later, vengeance will be taken upon these impostors? Were they true messengers of

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the gods—this Zaac Tepal, as thou callest him, and the small white woman in rags whom he brought hither, and whom, thou, Keorah, for thine own purposes, hast suffered to usurp thy place—were they messengers of the gods, I say, would they need instruction concerning a time-honoured custom among the children of Aak?”

Keorah's eyes flashed fire.

“Silence!” she cried, the sonorous Mayan word dropping like a bomb from her lips. “No more of thy jealous gibes, Hotan, if thou would'st keep my favour and be my guest to-day. Zaac Tepal, look to thy weapons. We start at once.”

Hansen bowed, and stammered his apologies.

“A thousand regrets, Lady. I had hoped to show thee a more potent weapon than these that mine host has obligingly thrown at me. But I have received a counter command, which forbids me to accompany thy party in the chase.”

“There can be no counter command to outweigh mine,” said Keorah, haughtily. “Whence comes it, fair Lord? 'Twill be easily set aside.”

Kombo, in tow of the acolyte who had been sent to find him, burst just then upon the scene, and immediately began pouring forth his woes.

“Massa Hansen! Massa Hansen! Ba'al you go out long-a big fellow Red Mary,” he cried, his sharp wits at once comprehending Hansen's dilemma. “I believe Missa Anne plenty coola (angry) like-it that fellow,” he went on. “Mine go look out Missa Anne. Mine tell Missa Anne red man take waddy (stick) long-a Kombo. Poor fellow me! Red man been hit Kombo—Red Mary been hit Kombo. What for? Ba'al me pidney. Mine no like-it this place. Mine want to go back long-a bush. Mine want-im brother belonging to me. Ba'al mine got-im brother—ba'al mine got-im gin. I b'lieve mine go back and find-im Unda.”

At the remembrance of his deserted wife, whose worst fault had been her devotion to him, Kombo wept. He

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looked a pitiful object; and indeed it would appear that not only had the Red Mary, but the Red Mary's brothers and cousins, punished him for his presumption. There was a weal across his face; he had lost his emu's feather; his cloak was torn, and his arms and legs were bleeding.

Keorah was exceeding wroth at the interruption.

“Let the black slave be driven back into the forest,” she cried. “He belongs to the barbarians, and his presence among us is forbidden by law. Beat him, and lead him out into the desert.” She signed to the acolyte who was in charge of Kombo.

The youth, accustomed of old to render her strict obedience, hesitated, torn by contending fears.

“The Zuhua Kak claims him as her slave, and bids him attend her in the audience room,” stammered the acolyte. Keorah laughed in angry scorn.

“The Zuhua Kak, it seems, hath small respect for Acan dignity to choose a black barbarian for her body-servant,” she said. “And thee——?” She turned imperiously to Hansen. “Perhaps thou too, wilt tell me that it is the Zuhua Kak who orders thy presence. Art thou also the slave of this strange woman?”

“Not so, Lady; I am the friend and interpreter of her whom the gods have sent,” replied Hansen, again bowing courteously, but already somewhat disenamoured of his enchantress, whose primitive instincts were getting the better of her, and whose want of self-control compared unfavourably with Anne's quiet dignity. “The Zuhua Kak, who, I have been given to understand, is sovereign among the Aca, has bidden me be present to make known her will to the Sacred Guardians when she receives them. They have demanded an audience of her. Already I see them approaching. In my country, the Queen's invitation is a command superseding all others. Therefore, craving thy pardon, I may not consult my own wishes, but must obey those of the High Priestess, to whom thou hast resigned thy throne.”

This was indeed an unwelcome way of putting things

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to Keorah, but Hansen saw that the situation necessitated plain speech.

At that moment the deputation of Elders, arrayed in ceremonial mantles, halted close by on their road to the audience chamber. Naquah, Kapoc, and Zil-Zie represented the Sacred Guardians. Zil-Zie, with his long white beard and fatherly expression, seemed to Hansen a more prepossessing person than crusty Naquah, and he at once addressed him, making known the difficulty, and commending Kombo to his protection.

Zil-Zie gave the black boy into charge of the acolytes, bidding them dress Kombo's wounds before taking him to the audience room, then diplomatically attempted to soothe Keorah's wrath.

“'Tis no common barbarian,” he said, “but the guide who led our Priestess's feet across the sand where once was sea, and who may perchance have received commission from the gods to aid her when she again leads forth the people. Remember, too, that the maiden does not yet speak our tongue, and needs both her interpreter and the slave. But if thou desire it, thou shalt enter with us, my daughter, by virtue of thy recent office. So shalt thou hear what passes between us and the Chosen of Viracocha, and give thy counsel thereon. Thou wilt not need long to defer thy chase.”

But this invitation Keorah proudly and sullenly declined, much to Hansen's relief. He felt it would be extremely difficult to act as he should do in Anne's service, before those keenly flashing eyes. Keorah vouchsafed him no farewell, but, making a scant courtesy to the Elders, swept round and back to her own house, her guests following her with some diffidence. Evidently her wrath was acknowledged a dreaded thing. Hansen smiled grimly to himself, recognising that he had but temporarily escaped it.

Meanwhile, in the audience chamber, Anne and her maidens were gathered, awaiting their august visitors. It was a long, low hall, hollowed, like all the rest, in the heart of the mountain, open in front, and adorned

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with frescoes and anaglyphs of curious design. It was lighted up by lamps placed upon ledges in the walls. A dais at the end of the room was raised by one step; it was spread with skins, and upon it a great carved chair was set for the Zuhua Kak. Other seats were placed about the room. All was in readiness before Anne appeared, descending the short flight of stairs leading from the nuns' apartments, and followed at equal distances by her Virgins. She had of set purpose insisted upon all the accessories of her new rank, and looked quite a queenly little person, with her long mantle sweeping behind her, the rose-coloured plumes, and the Eye of Viracocha upon her forehead.

She rose at the entrance of the Sacred Guardians, and with much graciousness bowed separately to the three. Kombo somewhat spoilt the effect of this reception by rushing forward with an irrepressible cry, “Missa Anne! Plenty mine want-im you. My word! Cobbon būjeri fellow you! Altogether like-it big Missus long-a water. You tell Red Mary Kombo brother belonging to you.”

He would have precipitated himself on the platform and seized her hand, but Anne restrained him with a gesture, seeing the necessity of inculcating in Kombo a proper sense of her dignity.

“Ba'al you come alongside of me,” she said. “You pidney. Now mine like-it queen. Outside, ba'al mine brother belonging to black fellow. Inside, plenty mine brother to Kombo. But when Red Men look out, Kombo sit down close-up floor, and make-it bow to Yuro Kateena like-it Red Men.” This injunction Anne delivered with a grandiloquent air, in measured tones which impressed alike Kombo and the Acans. Hansen was deeply amused, but his respect for his little comrade's cleverness and resource was rapidly increasing. Kombo's eyes twinkled; he jumped to the situation. There was nothing Kombo enjoyed more than acting a part, and to “take in” the Red Men was indeed a salve to his wounded pride and his bruised

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limbs. He promptly squatted on the step of the dais, and first looking to see that the eyes of the assembly were upon him, made a half somersault at Anne's feet, knocking his head with great solemnity three times on the ground.

Anne with difficulty restrained a smile. She dared not meet Hansen's eyes, lest she should break into a laugh, but she had the comforting reflection that, at a pinch, she might safely rely upon Kombo's native intelligence.