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Chapter XXXIII - The Audience Chamber

KNOWING nothing of Acan precedents, Anne had thought it best to model her demeanour on what she supposed to be the usages of European courts, though her acquaintance with these was limited to the operatic boards. She condescendingly motioned the Elders to three chairs which had been set in front of the dais, and, as she re-seated herself, she signed Hansen to stand near her, a little to one side. Her maidens were ranged behind her.

“I must congratulate you upon the manner in which you have risen to circumstances,” murmured Hansen. “It's perfectly splendid. But have you any idea of the part you've just now got to play?”

“I've been trying to study it as well as I could without the words,” she answered composedly, “and I think I know what to do. Will you please translate for the old men everything I say, and give me back their answer?” Then turning at once to the Sacred Guardians, she smiled winningly, and addressed them in English, pointedly keeping her attention upon them, as Hansen translated her words.

“I am very glad to receive you, and to thank you for the welcome you have given me. I trust that the favour of the gods by which I am honoured seems to you worthily bestowed.”

She spoke with a sweet superiority, and again made them a charming salutation. The Elders bowed their right arms across their breasts in response. Kombo, his ears strained to catch the speeches, and his eyes alert, did likewise in solemn mimicry. The Elders

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looked slightly disconcerted. Zil-Zie smiled, Naquah scowled, and Kapoc made an angry movement, but they were propitiated by the black boy's ingenious pride in his own performance.

“I believe, Missa Anne, that all right now,” he remarked, squatting in his place once more. The corners of Anne's mouth twitched, and Hansen stifled a guffaw in an elaborate cough before he took up the Elders' reply. Said Naquah surlily—

“The gods distribute their favours as seemeth good to them, and though we hold it somewhat strange that the Daughter of Dawn should not speak our ancient language, nor be acquainted with our ancient customs, we have no will but the will of Viracocha, and of the intercessor Aak.”

“And thou, Daughter of Dawn, and Deliverer, hast made that will clear to us,” gently put in old Zilzie. “For in thee is the fulfilment of our old-time prophecy which tells of one, fair as thou art, who should walk across the sea-sands as thou hast walked, to bring tidings of joy to the Children of Aak.”

“Well do I know thy prophecy, Hu Aca Tehua,” answered Anne proudly, “for am I not verily she of whom it was said that she shall serve as your Priestess, and reign as your queen?”

Hansen duly rendered the emphasis of these words, though the extraordinary aplomb with which Anne made the amazing statement somewhat staggered him.

Kombo, the irrepressible, resentful of Naquah's tone to his beloved mistress, struck in—

“Yoai! Būjeri queen! Yuro Kateena! Suppose old fellow Red Man saucy, I b'lieve queen make-im altogether bong.”

Kapoc could not this time restrain his wrath.

“Was it the Zuhua Kak's pleasure that her black slave should thus break in with unseemly chatter?”

“Kombo, be quiet, or I'll tell Debil-debil to come down long-a you, and stop that ridiculous bowing,” murmured Hansen, chokingly.

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Kombo subsided with meekness.

“All right, Massa Hansen. Mine no make a noise.”

And Anne loftily craved indulgence for the zeal of her servant, who had not any wish to offend. He was no slave, she said, but had been especially commissioned by the gods to lead her and the interpreter hither; and to that end had the gods endowed him with knowledge of the land, while resembling that of the savages around, so that he had been enabled to preserve them through many dangers. Whereat, when Anne's speech had been interpreted, Zilzie's old eyes gleamed kindly, and he assured the High Priestess that no ill should happen one so wise and faithful.

“Perchance,” he added, “the gods have yet work in store for him, in the mission which thou, oh Daughter of Dawn, art called here to accomplish, and of which we would now speak with thee.”

“Speak on, my fathers,” said Anne sweetly, concealing beneath her mask of condescension the sudden sense she had of something brooding in the minds of the Guardians, and which might present a difficulty not quite easy to overcome on the spur of the moment. “Say what thou wilt. Doubtless the Spirit of great Aak will enable me to answer thee to thy satisfaction. But thou hast need, oh Zilzie, to remember that it is but a few hours since I came here, and that I have scarce seen thy land and thy city. It were well, perhaps, to wait before asking my opinion of the country and habits of the Acans till I have a better knowledge concerning them.”

Zilzie nodded considerately, but Naquah gruffly rejoined—

“Thy opinion of our country and its customs, Priestess, is not what we dost desire from thee, since in truth, as thou sayest, there is much for thee to learn concerning them. We would speak with thee of the mission which it is foretold thou shalt perform—that of which the prophecy telleth. Thou knowest that it

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is for thee to lead forth the people of the Aca to a land made ready for them beyond the Flame and the Flood, where they shall increase and once more become mighty, as in the days of their ancient renown. We would ask thee where that land lies, and the road, along which thou wilt guide us. For in this matter, no doubt, the gods have fully instructed thee.”

Hansen's heart quailed as he interpreted Naquah's address. How would Anne reply to it? How get out of the dilemma without losing the Elders' confidence, and bringing about disaster to them both? He thought uneasily of Hotan's insinuation that the new Zuhua Kak and Keorah's “White Lord” were no better than ragged impostors. For his own part, he had a shrewd suspicion that unless he gave himself up entirely to Keorah's wishes, she would prove a ruthless enemy. It would be bad enough to be chased out of the mountain before he had an opportunity of deciphering the hieroglyphics on the monuments, and of learning something more about this wonderful pre-Adamite survival, but who could say what worse might not befall them? He longed to make some sign to Anne, warning her of a danger she perhaps had not foreseen, but all through the audience she had kept her eyes steadily away from him. Now, however, he was reassured by her manner of grappling with the situation, and led to wonder anew at the powers of strategy she had so unexpectedly developed.

Anne turned on Naquah a surprised look, that with her readiness—for she did not hesitate a moment—contrived to check any suspicion that had arisen in the Elders' mind, and to make Hansen admire even more fervently her courage and adroitness. She threw evident astonishment into her voice as she answered the old man, in plain and simple words, which Hansen duly elaborated into more flowery but none the less decided Mayan terms.

“Nay, sacred fathers, methinks 'tis not I alone who

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am unversed in Acan lore. For in truth the manner of thy questioning would show that ye of the temple have become rusty in thy prison of stone, and being long unused to converse with thy Great Ones, canst not tell the way of working when they stoop to arrange the affairs of men. Shall I, then, who, though ignorant may be of the customs that have grown up among ye Acans, have learned something of the wisdom of the gods, instruct ye therein, Hu Aca Tehua? Know that now, as in olden time, the High God decrees; the Doer rough-shapes; the Instrument carves the lines. Know, too, that in their dealings is neither haste nor impatience, but all cometh to pass in its due time. Yonder, to the west, in the House of our Lord the Sun, lieth that place of delight to which the gods of their favour call ye. There shall the Flame devour not, nor the Flood drown. There doth everlasting Life reign, and the Red Ray eternally shine. There are palaces got ready for ye, and temples with which those of the Great Builders' fashioning may not compare. But the first steps from thy prison must needs be arduous, and the magic of the Four-footed Serpent Kàn may, even in slumber, be vigilant. Therefore counsel and fore-thought are needed, that the way chosen may be smoothest to thy feet, and that ye escape the vengeance which for many ages hath slept, but that may awaken at sound of alarm. To me, the Instrument, has been given this task, and I have been bidden by the light of my own understanding, and by the aid of Zaac Tepal, Lord of Fair Strength, and of the black guide whom the gods have specially endowed with knowledge of the wilderness stretching around ye, to choose and prepare the road by which ye shall travel, so that ye faint not, and that no mischance happen to obstruct the purpose of Viracocha, delivered through me, his servant.”

Anne paused, waiting with an appearance of lofty unconcern while Hansen translated her speech, to see the effect it produced on the Elders. Zilzie smiled benignantly. Naquah gazed dourly from his heavy

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brows, and seemed to be pondering her words, while Kapoc looked puzzled but pleased. It was Zilzie who replied.

“Thou speakest wisely, Daughter of Dawn. And I, who am old, and leap not quickly to adventurous enterprise, agree with thy holy counsel to do naught in haste. Moreover, hast thou considered that Aak himself hath a voice in this matter, for surely unless the gods aid in his transport, he would find it difficult to drag the great burden of his sacred flesh over the rocks and through the forest we must needs traverse to seek safety from the Four-footed Serpent?”

“Am I not, oh! Zilzie, chosen Priestess of Aak? And thinkest thou that his wisdom is hidden from me? Knowest thou not that it is the spirit of a god that is immortal, and that the outward form is but the prison-house which may be burst at will of the All Great? In countless returnings of the Sun, hath Aak worn impatiently his fetters of flesh. What if for him, too, the hour of deliverance is nigh? And is it for us to question the power of the Supreme? Be ye certain that, in spirit or in form, Aak will go with his children.”

Kapoc, intent on practical considerations, broke in almost before Hansen had rendered Anne's haughty utterance.

“I would gladly know, Priestess, by what means thou wilt set about choosing the road over which we are to travel.”

Anne laughed lightly, and made a gesture, conveying, that having dismissed the weightier subject, this point was easy to deal with, and indeed a reason for terminating the interview.

“Surely, good father, there is but one answer to thy question. The gods do not waste time and strength in providing supernatural means, when there are those at hand for which ordinary limbs and intelligence suffice. Does one choose a way out of a mountain by remaining closed up within it? Mine eyes of this body do not see through stone, and I would gladly take a survey in the

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open of thy country and the cliffs that surround it. I propose then that thou dost take me forth at once—thou, and such of the Sacred Guardians as will pleasure me with their company. My black friend shall go with us, and of my Virgins, Semaara must attend me during our walk.”

Anne turned, and with a graceful and gracious hand, drew the girl, blushing, to her side.

“I find this maiden hath an exceeding aptitude in reading my wishes, and interpreting them into the Acan language,” she said, “so that by converse with her, my knowledge of thy tongue is like to increase the more quickly. Therefore do I now dispense with the further service of my interpreter, who is free to join the hunting party from which I regret to have detained him. I wish thee good sport, Zaac Tepal.”

Thus, with a courteous gesture, Anne dismissed Hansen, who, greatly surprised, and by no means wholly pleased, left the audience-chamber. Then the High Priestess, after affable bows to the three Elders—each of which was solemnly reproduced by Kombo—told the black boy to wait for her outside, and departed with her Virgins to the mid-day repast, before starting out to explore the neighbourhood, an excursion which she promised herself should prove both useful and interesting.

Anne, and her little party of Virgins and Elders passed outside the natural wall of rock, and descending the terrace by rough-hewn steps, entered the cultivated basin which was at once garden, granary and live-stock farm to the people of Aca. It almost seemed that the earth depression had been, in some far back period, a volcanic lake—drained perhaps in the great cataclysm; or else a stupendous crater. This last theory was somewhat corroborated by the formation of the cliffs, which rounded the hollow from each side of the Tortoise Mountain and closed the basin, except for the abrupt break, through which the river flowed outward to empty itself no doubt into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

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The surface of the ground was irregular. Here and there small hillocks stood up, and there were also enormous boulders of stone, some of which had been hewn into obelisks, and were rudely sculptured into hieroglyphics.

Passing a row of these, Anne questioned Semaara after her fashion, and gleaned that they had a religious significance, and were in some way connected with the computation of time. Would Eric, thought Anne, succeed in getting tracings of the hieroglyphics, and if so, how should they carry them away? She thought, too, what interest Eric would have found in this tour of inspection she was making. She wondered in which direction he had gone hunting, and concluded, as she could see no signs of the party, that it must be on the other side of the encircling ridges. Looking towards these, she perceived large goat-yards divided by walls of loose stones from the cornfields and cacao and other plantations. A great number of these animals appeared to be kept by the Acans, and no doubt it was one more adventurous than the rest, which, clearing the ridge, had strayed down towards the Valley of Death. Anne, whose instinct of locality had been considerably sharpened during her wanderings, tried to place that grim gorge, and decided that it must lie almost at an angle with the market-place, south of the great rock forming the head of the Tortoise. She longed to get the bearings of the whole place with a view to ultimate escape, and inwardly determined to explore it on every opportunity that offered, and, if possible, alone with Kombo. That, she feared, would not be permitted, but at any rate she could impress upon the black boy to keep his eyes and his ears open. He had already, she discovered, learned a few words of Acan, and now she bade him “look out plenty sharp,” and tell her by-and-by all that he noticed. Her great desire was to ascertain what the country was like beyond the river outlet—whether desert or wooded, and if it offered facilities for escape. It might be that there was a gap

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in the high mountains which stretched northward up Cape York Peninsula, and if so, they might still gain the Port of Somerset, according to her original intention. She knew that on the Gulf side of the Peninsula there was no settlement nearer than Port Darwin, and to reach that without horses would be an impossibility, even if they escaped being murdered by savage blacks. These thoughts ran as an undercurrent in Anne's mind, while outwardly she gave her attention to everything about her, finding indeed much to interest her on all sides.

Conversation, unfortunately, was limited, and she half regretted not having made Hansen come with them. She wanted to ask questions, but could only do so by signs, which the Elders were slow in understanding. Naquah was still morose, but Zilzie and Kapoc pointed out the objects they fancied would please her. She would have liked to linger at the farms where scrub-turkeys and jungle-hens seemed to take the place of barn-door fowls, and where, in enormous aviaries, closed in by wide-meshed netting of an agave fibre, were hundreds of tame birds, some with very beautiful plumage. Specially did she notice one compartment devoted to those furnishing feathers of the sacred pink. Emus here seemed to resemble the ostrich, and there was a large bird with snowy breast, the skin of which Anne recognised as that supplying the bed coverings of the nunnery.

Of animals she saw none of those—if the striped goats could be excepted—which are domesticated in other countries. Horses and cattle seemed unknown; the Acans had, however, a dog of the dingo breed used by the goat-herds. They kept wild hogs penned, to be fattened for the table. The kangaroo tribe was no doubt considered worthless, but a kind of marsupial platypus appeared to be regarded with favour, either for cooking purposes, or for the sake of its soft fur. Anne wondered if this was the creature that Eric had been so anxious to find. Various small animals cooped, or

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running in yards, were preserved for eating, and to this use also were put certain reptiles and insects; while some delicacies indicated by Semaara, such as frog spawn, a species of fly and a worm infesting the aloe, made Anne feel that the Blacks' feasts of larvæ, snakes, and grubs, were clean and wholesome by comparison.

One farm was devoted entirely to the rearing of iguanas, which, after having been fed on an aromatic diet, were much esteemed as food by the Aca.

In the maize fields, husbandmen were busy, for it was the time of threshing the golden grain upon a primitive floor of crossed saplings. The pods on cacao trees hung ripe; so too the pepper berries and fruits and spices were ready for gathering. The great millstones crushed roots and nuts. Flour was being ground from the yucca plant, and young shoots of agave and bamboo were being prepared into a vegetable pickle. All seemed prosperous, though on the faces of the labourers—men and women—was the same look of stolid resignation, which brightened, however, into a gleam of curiosity as the High Priestess passed. Anne wondered how the Acans could bear to think of leaving so well-ordered and fertilised an abode, to wander through desert and forest in search of the new land promised them in the prophecy. Then she reflected that the dwindling race imprisoned during untold centuries within rock walls, and watching its own decay, might welcome at any cost the chance of infusing new life into its sluggish veins, and might indeed long to enlarge its activities. Perhaps she ought rather to feel surprise that there was any energy left in the Acans, and that their intellects and wills had not atrophied under the conditions of an existence which, however interesting to a stranger, must to them by this time have become exceedingly monotonous. The greater marvel was that a character like that of Keorah should have been produced from such a stock.

There was no time to-day, Semaara explained, to see the sheds where flax was got ready for the weavers, or

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the work of the tanners, or the pottery manufacturers and workers in metal. The mines from which gold and opals were procured lay some distance away in the mountains, she replied, when Anne questioned her on that subject, pointing to the stones on her forehead and at her breast. The opal was considered sacred, and Anne learned that only the priestly class was permitted to wear it; but gold, except for the manufacturer of implements or ornaments, seemed to be of as little account among the Acans as it was in the day of Solomon. The money currency was represented by certain kinds of beans, of which the little red ones with black spots were the rarest and most valuable. If only, Anne thought, Hansen could find and take away gold and opals sufficient to make him rich for life! But that she plainly foresaw would be difficult.

The path which they took back led near the wall of the earth-basin, where the cliff dipped down from the rock head of the Tortoise. This reared itself, a gigantic monolith, above them. There were two ways of returning—the other being a road through a garden tract, where grew many brilliant flowers and blossom-bearing trees and shrubs. The atmosphere there was laden with perfume, and after the free air of the country outside Anne felt it heady and enervating. The Elders chose the low road, but Kombo had darted up a track towards the cliffs, calling out “Būjeri look-out, Missa Anne!” and Anne, imagining that he was directing her attention to some feature of the place likely to serve her own purposes, insisted upon following him. The fact was, however, that Kombo had espied a rude stairway going up the monolith, from which he knew there would be a fine view, and an opportunity, perhaps, for finding out what was going on in the world they had left. The fear of Massa Bedo and the black troopers was always before Kombo's eyes, and he would have been glad to assure himself that Anne had not been tracked to her refuge. But his intention of climbing the Head was frustrated by the acolytes, who raised

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their voices warningly, and made menacing movements with their arms; and Kombo, having received one severe drubbing at the hands of the red-folk, had no desire for another, so slunk back to the protection of his mistress.

Anne noticed that there was surprise and dissatisfaction on the Elders' faces when she pointed to the raised road below the precipice, which, extending like a rampart round the monolith, finally descended by a short flight of steps to the broad terrace outside the market-place and theatre. It was clear that they did not like the suggestion, and she soon saw that this was a path not greatly frequented, and suspected that there must be some reason, of course inexplicable to her, for her companions' hesitation to accede to this simple desire of hers. But she had already discovered that it was the High Priestess' prerogative to do as she pleased in such matters, and the line of conduct she had resolved upon was to assert that prerogative on all possible occasions.

Therefore she signed imperiously that her wish was to be obeyed, and moved on, following the black boy. She saw that Ishtal and Naquah exchanged sinister glances, that Zilzie's face was sad as at an ill omen, and that Kapoc's expression was craftily exultant. Semaara walked dejectedly by the High Priestess' side, and made no attempt, as before, to enlighten her upon points of interest. An ominous hush fell upon the party, and there seemed indeed something unusually forbidding in the aspect of the precipice, black from ancient volcanic fires, and that of the grass and lichen-covered pavement upon which they trod. Great holes, like burst bubbles, showed in the face of the cliff, and Anne fancied that a subterranean tunnel was hollowed in the ridge, in which certain borings, that appeared at intervals above their heads, might be supposed to admit air and light. Kombo eyed these curiously, and only terror of the Red Men kept him from scaling the rocks and exploring them. Occasionally, a bat or a flying fox flew out of one of them; and once an eagle hawk swooped down

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with an angry screech, and circled above their heads. Looking aloft towards the summit of the monolith, the rough stairway led to one side of the similitude of a mouth, and on to the caves which were hollowed into the shape of eyes. Protruding from the open mouth of the rock monster, appeared a little platform. It seemed a regular conning-tower, from which one might well watch the approach of any foe. The same thought which disturbed Kombo was also in Anne's mind. Instinctively, her thoughts flew to her husband. Had Elias Bedo got across the strip of desert, and was he even now lying in wait outside this mountain prison? What if he should discover a means of entering, and denounce her as an impostor—his wife, masquerading as a Virgin Priestess! In such case, how would the people of the Aca punish her for what they might justly consider an act of sacrilege? She had no reason to suppose that a terrible fate would await her at the hands of this people who were apparently gentle, and not addicated to bloody ritual. Nevertheless she shuddered, and for the moment the whole aspect of life seemed to become grim and terrifying. The gloomy visages of Naquah and Ishtal frightened her; in Kapoc, too, she scented distrust and dislike. It was as though she was walking in a nightmare. The grimness of the situation oppressed her as it had not done since her entrance into the Heart of Aak.

Suddenly, after rounding a slight projection in the precipice, and just before gaining the stairway to the Tortoise's mouth, the procession halted, and all, with the exception of Anne and the black boy, drew a corner of their mantles over their faces, while muttering a few words in their own language—a prayer or an incantation; then made a deep obeisance, and passed on in trembling and fear. Anne alone remained upright and unmoved, for even Kombo, catching the infection, called “Debil-debil,” gabbled the aboriginal form of exorcism, “Ibbi-ri-bita Wanga!” and went by crouchingly like the rest.

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Anne perceived in the face of the precipice a patch of deeper blackness, a triangular opening, perhaps into the tunnel of which she suspected the existence, perhaps into a cavern, associated it might be with some deadly and mysterious rite in the Acan religion. The triangle, she knew, was for some occult reason among them connected with the Death Stone, and she saw round the doorway—which resembled an inverted V—a narrow border of that uncanny-looking blue marble of which the symbol of death in the temple was composed. On each side of the blue line were rows of hieroglyphics, which would probably, she thought, give Eric the clue to the mystery, were he able to decipher them.

When they had gone on a few steps, the Virgins, Elders, and acolytes uncovered their faces, and Anne saw all eyes fixed upon her with, she fancied, amazement and horror. It flashed upon her mind, that as Zuhua Kak, she too, should have been overcome with awe before the triangle instead of exhibiting unconcern. The angry suspicion in the eyes of Ishtal and Naquah, and the vague pity in those of Zilzie, made her conscious of her mistake, but she tried to retrieve it by holding her head high and returning fearlessly the gaze of her companions. She was guilty, however, of the weakness of asking Semaara by a sign the meaning of the triangular doorway. Semaara shrank and would not answer, throwing a timid glance backward at the Elders, which seemed to warn Anne against indiscreet questioning. The girl looked troubled, and also a little suspicious, but Anne knew intuitively that the affection she had inspired in Semaara's heart would outweigh distrust, and so she merely kept silence for the present, waiting till a favourable opportunity should occur for gaining the information she desired. But notwithstanding her high spirit, the poor little fate-decreed Priestess felt her heart sink within her, and the nightmare oppression deepened.

She had recovered herself somewhat before reaching

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the nunnery, where she graciously saluted the Elders, dismissing them with an appropriate gesture towards the setting sun, and chanting a few bars of recitative, which she was glad to see had some effect in removing the impression her ignorance had made.