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Chapter XXXIV - The Conning Tower

THINGS went on for about a week much in the order of the first day. The early part of the forenoon was invariably devoted to the service of Aak, the remainder to secular occupations, and to studying the language, with which Anne made such quick progress that she could soon talk to Semaara, ungrammatically it was true, for the Mayan is one of the most complicated as well as the richest of tongues, but still fairly intelligibly. The lessons were a source of considerable amusement, and lightened the solemn decorum of the nuns' house, for Semaara in her turn attacked English with avidity, and playfully made a point of knowing the equivalent of the words she taught Anne, in what she called the speech of the gods. The other Virgins caught Semaara's spirit, and even Ishtal seized every opportunity of making herself acquainted with English words. Anne unsuspectingly took a pleasure in gratifying the elder Virgin's sudden thirst for knowledge, glad that anything should relax her stiff, unfriendly demeanour. It was not till one day when conversing with Hansen in the audience chamber, that, glancing towards the group of Virgins attending her, the High Priestess was struck by a peculiar expression, a look of crafty alertness on Ishtal's face, which, when she found herself observed, changed to its usual stolid calm. An uncomfortable feeling came over Anne. Was it possible that Ishtal had been picking up English for the purpose of playing the spy upon Anne and Hansen, and reporting to the enemy Naquah? For Anne, Eric, and even Kombo in his elementary fashion, were conscious of warring

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forces and divided sympathies among the Elders and more important Acans of the aristocratic and sacerdotal classes. Hotan made no secret of his animosity, especially since Hansen, at the instance of Keorah, had removed his quarters from Hotan's house, and established himself in a cave dwelling with an Acan attendant of Keorah's providing. Anne wondered within herself whether this man might not be a spy too, and her misgivings were not lessened when she heard Keorah address Hansen, on some occasion when the High Priestess was within hearing, in a curious but captivating medley of English and Mayan. It was a pretty jest, thought Anne bitterly, but might have unpleasant consequences, and after this she was wary in her manner of imparting information. But the mischief, alas, was done.

Kapoc, too, was inimical to the strangers, and there were many others of the wealthy Acans who were not altogether inclined to abandon their gardens and granaries and rock palaces on the strength of an ancient prophecy, and at the bidding of a little white girl, of whom it was already whispered that she was an impostor.

In the meantime, Anne took care to impress upon the people that she was diligently considering the question of the Exodus, conferring on the subject with Aak, and searching out the most convenient path. She cleverly played upon the hesitation of the citizens, knowing that they were ashamed to confess unwillingness to obey the gods, and would not venture, lest the people should judge them harshly, to put hindrances in her way. She boldly proposed exploring excursions in company of Kombo, with Semaara, who was agile and useful in the way of giving information, as the only Virgin in attendance. In this manner she searched the garden basin for a convenient outlet, finding none but the river, truly a water-gate, for it foamed in impassable rapids between high cliffs. The subterranean passage by which they had entered the mountain Anne did not

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care to attempt, nor would it have been possible without surer guidance than that of Semaara, so intricate was the labyrinth of tunnels. Hansen had passed out of it upon his hunting expedition with Keorah, but to find his way again would be beyond even his power. Moreover, it was only by a ruse that he contrived one day to meet and accompany the others. Keorah frowned upon any desire that he showed for Anne's society, and Keorah's wishes had, he felt, to be considered. Partly from politic motives, partly from a man's natural weakness, he feared to oppose the handsome red woman, who in truth attracted him. Anne did not believe in the motives of policy when he explained them to her. Hansen's enslavement to the red enchantress seemed to her too evident. She avoided the subject of Keorah; and a certain restraint crept up between the two, so that Hansen sometimes fancied that Anne was a little spoiled by the homage paid her as Zuhua Kak, and Anne, her heart sore within her, told herself that a strange woman had come between them, and that the old familiar friendship could never be again.

There was another very powerful charm to Hansen in the Acan city, and this was the tantalising study of the hieroglyphics. Some were totally unintelligible to him; others he could translate very imperfectly from the studies he had made at Copan and Palenque; but here memory failed him; he had no notes, no means of comparing signs, and all he could do was to draw the figures laboriously and clumsily with Acan brushes and pigments on the long strips of prepared bark which served the Acans as paper, in the hope of one day carrying his treasure away with him. But that dream he had of reading a paper before the scientists of his country, or the Royal Geographical Society of London, seemed every hour to become more distant.

It was one day, when Anne had started forth with the unacknowledged object of discovering the secret of the upper tunnel and the triangular doorway, that he

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joined her, and they mounted the rude stairway to the rock head of the Tortoise.

They found it a more difficult climb than they had anticipated. The steps were broken away, and here and there were yawning gaps in the rock itself, across which Hansen had to leap first, and then, with the help of a staff, assist Anne to pass. These very crevasses gave food for speculation. Clearly, they were due to the forces of nature, and the rock must have been riven after the building of the staircase. This either put the making of the stair back to the cataclysm that had swallowed up the city of the Aca, or it showed that there had been volcanic convulsions since that epoch. Hansen was of opinion that the clefts were of comparatively recent formation. In that case, there must have been an earthquake, perhaps an eruption, probably several of them in the intervening time; and no doubt it was the sense of insecurity continually present which had kept alive in the people's minds their ancient dread of the Four-footed Serpent Kàn.

“Otherwise,” said Hansen, “I can't see why they should always have stopped, shut up inside the Tortoise, so to speak, for they don't seem, within the memory of man, to have ventured even as far as the bit of desert on that side, or more than a few miles of the other. It must have been a pretty powerful superstition to make them so deadly afraid of a stone crocodile, that had been quiet and harmless for a thousand years or so. I should say that he had given them frequent frights to account for it. I wish I could find out when the last eruption happened.” But there was no one whom he or Anne could question concerning the records of the Aca, for Semaara had positively declined to ascend the monolith. She had not liked coming that way at all, and when Anne left her she asked permission to retrace her steps and return to the city by the lower route. Anne knew that this was in order to avoid passing the triangular opening

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in the face of the precipice, and spoke of the matter now to Hansen while they were resting after jumping one of the rifts, and climbing a steep bit where the stairway had been broken away. She asked if, in his talks with the Acans, he had heard anything to throw light on the subject. But it had never been mentioned, and the mystery of the doorway remained unsolved.

The sun was getting low, and they mounted as quickly as possible, considering the difficulties of the climb. The broken stairway—hardly now to be called a stairway, with the chasms that yawned between many of the steps—went up on the Acan side of the mountain, so that no view could be obtained of the outside country till, near the top, the staircase divided; one rude flight almost unscaleable, mounting to the extreme summit of the monolith, the other branching through a small cleft in the rock into a round cave that gave upon the Valley of Desolation through which they had approached the Tortoise region.

Kombo chose the more difficult ascent to the crown of the Head, creeping on hands and knees when he reached it, for he was afraid lest the Elders should see him from below, and resent with violence his ascent into a holy place. But whatever had been the use of this natural tower, clearly no foot, profane or other, now trod the sacred stair, and probably the Acans would have considered it a proof of divinity that the small white woman had accomplished the feat.

The mouth of the Tortoise was a long narrow cave, looking less like a mouth, now that they stood within it, than it had done from a little distance.

Round the cave into which Anne and Hansen entered was an inner rim, serving as parapet at the bottom edge, but cunningly designed to represent from the outside part of the eye-ball of the tortoise, for now Hansen realised that they must be in the eye-socket of the stone monster; and looking across over the parapet he perceived that to his left was a similar opening, making the other eye of the image. Glancing

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downward, he could see below the cavern mouth, of which the under lip projected in a triangular curve, over a deep gulley below. A glint of bluish stone caught his eye; he could see, also, beneath the abutting lip on the floor of the gully, flecks of white, spreading outward. He recognised the gruesome spot. It was Gunida Ulalà—the Place of Death.

He did not call Anne's attention to the fact, fearing to alarm her, and seeing that she was occupied in examining the rough sculptures and frescoes on the walls of the cavern. These were emblematical and in a fair state of preservation, and Hansen determined to come again and examine them at his leisure. It was clear that there was a connecting passage between this and the other eye-socket—probably with the mouth as well—indeed, the presumption was that the whole interior of the Tortoise's head was, like its body, burrowed by secret passages. Presently, Anne came forward to the parapet, and in a puzzled way located the gorge. She thought, but was not quite sure, that this was the fateful spot of the Blacks' traditions, and he only vaguely enlightened her. Gazing beyond, he made her look at the strange landscape, illuminated by the reflection of the lowering sun, and with an unnatural stillness upon its every feature. Still, there was not a trace of animal or human life in the valley or upon the ridges surrounding it. All was utterly wild and desolate.

Now Hansen saw that they might have considerably shortened the journey up the gorge could they have come in a straight line, instead of having to take curves, to ascend and descend in order to avoid ravines and precipices. The sulphurous patch he had likened to the Big Hell of Japan seemed quite close; so, too, the strange Druidic circle where they had found the Tortoise Altar. The Place of Death, he concluded, must be immediately below, as he could not trace its where-abouts. The red reflection of the lowering sun gave an effect of nearness, and he might have imagined the Crocodile Mountain, bathed in a red glow, standing

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sentinal at the opening to the gorge, and to be but at the distance of half-an hour's walk. It stood out against a glimmering span of desert and a brassy sky, the veritable image of a gigantic petrified saurian, with long scaly back, distended jaws, and even the grotesque similitude of a clawed foot, formed by a projecting ridge of rock cloven in three places. Small wonder was it that fearsome myths had woven themselves around a freak of nature so extraordinary. Within the crater mouth of the monster were jagged points like teeth; and as Hansen looked a sudden fancy struck him, and he bent eagerly forward, straining his eyes through the field-glasses he still carried with him. Had a drifting cloud been caught and imprisoned, or could it be that the monster's lips emitted a thin trail of smoke? He altered the focus of his glasses, and looked again. Did imagination deceive him? Could it be that the volcano was once more showing signs of activity? Was the Four-footed Serpent, mysteriously warned of the contemplated Acan exodus, gathering up his dormant energies for a last outburst of wrath, whereby he might annihilate the remaining handful of victims whom he had held in abject terror for so long?

Hansen handed the glasses to Anne.

“Look!” he said excitedly. “I can't make this out. Is it cloud or smoke?”

Anne had been watching him. Now she too, scanned the mountain.

“I don't know,” she answered doubtfully. “There's something—but the sun is shining on the rock, and I can't tell properly. Eric, do you think—can it be that there's going to be an eruption?”

At that moment Kombo scuttled down from the Tortoise's forehead, full of alarm. “Massa Hansen,” he cried, “I believe Munduala, Fire Debil-debil, sit down and make-im smoke inside Kelan Yamina—old man Crocodile. Mine plenty frightened. Mine want-im run away other side of Mirrein.”

“You one fellow big fool,” said Hansen unceremoniously,

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for it did not fall in with his plans that Kombo should make a commotion among the Aca people. “Ba'al that smoke long-a Crocodile. That cloud like-it sky. Suppose you say that fire-debil, Red Man plenty coola, and take it waddy long-a Kombo. Then Kombo altogether sore—plenty sick like-it kobra,” and Hansen feelingly stroked his own head at a spot where the black boy's woolly pate had suffered recent damage. “You pidney—no fire long-a Kelan Yamina. Suppose you think it fire, no say. Keep-it mouth shut.”

“All right, Massa Hansen,” returned Kombo, demurely. “Mine no want-im waddy. But mine lookout sharp. Suppose mine see Fire Debil-debil sit down long-a Crocodile, then mine run quick, tell Massa Hansen and Missa Anne. Then we burra-burra quick yan. I b'lieve mine find-im road inside of mountain long-a river. Then Red Man no catch Kombo. My word!” The black boy heaved a deep sigh. “Plenty mine sorry me no been catch-im yarraman (horses) belonging to Massa Bedo and black policeman, when that fellow close-up camp. Suppose mine catch-im yarraman, mine plant him long-a cave. Then altogether we been run away. I b'lieve afterwards lose-im Massa Bedo—lose-im Red Man—lose-im Red Mary!” Kombo brought out the last words sadly, his face puckered into a grotesque mask of melancholy. He did not like to give up his dream of replacing black Unda with a handsome red woman, though so far his amorous pursuit had brought him nothing but contumely. And it needed another drubbing yet to complete the disillusionment. Anne wondered if Hansen was in like case, and whether for him the spell of the Red Mary was still unbroken. The thought brought its own bitterness. Hansen gave an odd little laugh, as though he followed what was passing in her mind.

“Come, Anne,” he said, “it is getting late, and we've got to climb down. In a double sense, may be. I don't know that we shall be able to live up to this god and goddess-ship much longer. Some of them are

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beginning to suspect us of being ordinary mortals. We must be humble and diplomatic, and humour the children of Aak—bearing in mind that there are still several hieroglyphics to be copied somehow, and the opal mine to be found.”

“I am not thinking of either the hieroglyphics or the opals,” said Anne gravely. “I am thinking of the best way to escape.”

“Well, we've discovered to-day that there's no chance of doing so by the river, unless we shoot the rapids in a barrel, as they do at Niagara. But Kombo swears to the tunnel going right round inside the cliff, and maybe there's an opening outside, beyond the river mouth. I wonder if that mysterious grating leads to the passage.”

“I don't know. I've tried several times to find out from Semaara what it means, but nobody will speak of the Death-Stone door.”

“The Death-Stone door!” he repeated. “Queer, isn't it? I'd like to chip off a bit of that blue marble from the gorge where our goat was killed, but when the red men go out hunting, they carefully avoid that direction. I've a notion that the Place of Death is a store-house of electricity. The other day I got round here by myself, and took a look at the triangular opening. I put my hand on the narrow line of blue round it, and each time I did so, had the sensation of a strong electric shock.”

“Did you go in?” exclaimed Anne.

“Yes, but there's a grating of stone a few paces up, quite immovable, though clearly it must be meant to move. I tried to find out how, and came to the conclusion that it must be worked on the ancient method by counterweights.”

There was silence for a minute; then Hansen went on—

“If it were not for the distrust of these people, which may prove dangerous, and the uncertainty about getting away from them, I'd like immensely to spend six

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months in the place. It's enormously interesting. But you're right, we must secure a line of retreat. I wish it might be a straight one, and not a labyrinth to which we have no clue. Kombo,”—he turned to the black boy,—“You say plenty cave sit down all about?”

“Yoai, Massa,” returned Kombo. “Yesterday mine find-im big fellow cave over there.” He pointed to the lower end of the earth-basin in a south-westerly direction. “I believe that hole go long-a mountain all the way, come out other side close-up where I find-im mogra (fish) when Red Man look out first time.”

“That's the way we came,” said Anne, shrinking at the suggestion. “I should not dare to go back by it—now.”

She was thinking of her pursuer. Hansen was thinking, too, of the possibility of a route round the back of the southern range, which Bedo and the black troopers on good horses might have taken instead of crossing the desert in their quest of Anne. This would mean that after tracking Kombo, when the black boy had dragged himself back to give warning of her husband's nearness, Bedo and the troopers would have had to retrace their road in part before taking the longer and circular route, which, although much easier for mounted men, would occasion considerable delay in their pursuit.

“It's a choice of evils,” said Hansen, gloomily. “East—the desert, the scrubs, the Maianbars, and Elias Bedo; West—the Gulf, wild Blacks, and the very remote possibility of striking some explorers' camp, and of finally getting to Burketown. On the other hand, the almost certainty, without horses, of being captured by the natives. North—South, the same rocks! And there are my priceless specimens buried at the edge of the desert! Well, we must trust to time and chance. Meanwhile, as I said, let us humour the Acans, and watch the Crocodile. An eruption just now, provided it wasn't a dangerous one, might serve us well. I believe that's smoke, and I shall come up here again and keep a look out. But it would be fatal to upset

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either Kombo or the Elders, who would want to fly at once; and what would become of my investigations? Bear up, Chummy. Keep a brave heart, and the Providence aloft, which has guided us so far, will lead us safely back again.” So saying, he took Anne's hand in his, and guided her out of the Eye-cavern, to where the stairway with its yawning crevasses descended to the terrace.

That night, when the other Virgins had left her, Anne succeeded at last in drawing from Semaara, in part at least, the information she wanted about the mysterious doorway. Semaara appeared greatly depressed. On returning from the walk, Anne had found her in converse with Ishtal, and there were tears in the younger Virgin's eyes, a display of emotion rare among the Acans. Indeed, Anne sometimes wondered to herself whether this strange impassive people knew what love was—whether that fatalistic calm was ever broken by the deeper human feelings.

She questioned Semaara as to the cause of her disquietude. Semaara only shook her head; but suddenly, drooping upon her knees, she kissed Anne's hand with almost impassioned fervour. Then Anne put her arm round the girl, and, drawing her close, the two wept together. Anne, touched to weakness and to the momentary forgetting of her sovereign part, confessed her own sense of loneliness, her dread lest evil should befall Hansen and herself, her suspicions of emnity against them on the part of Keorah, Naquah, Hotan and others of the ruling persons. Motives of policy kept her from including Ishtal in the list of her enemies.

Tears were at first Semaara's sole answer, confirming Anne's guess that there was a plot against her. Semaara faintly shook her head when Zaac Tepal was mentioned, indicating clearly enough that Keorah had no grudge against him. The plot was against Anne. So much she admitted. Keorah was the instigator, Hotan and Ishtal willing accomplices. For the wily Keorah, though bent on subjugating Hansen, was at the same

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time coquetting with Hotan, and in fact playing a double part all round. This Anne knew from instinct as well as from Semaara's hesitating confidences. She had already realised that they were surrounded with spies, and that this was the reason of Ishtal's assiduity in learning the language of the gods. Now she knew that Keorah had not wasted her opportunities either. Semaara ingenuously related how that lady had been taking lessons from Zaac Tepal, doubtless with the object of understanding any conversation between the Zuhua Kak, Zaac Tepal, and even the black slave. Semaara, her tongue loosened under Anne's influence, confessed that she had unwittingly lent herself to these aims. She, who was more frequently with her mistress, had better opportunities for learning English words and phrases, and had in playful pride taught these back again to Ishtal. Only this afternoon had Ishtal aroused the younger girl's suspicions by becoming vaguely confidential, hinting that Keorah had some deep-laid scheme, though what that was Semaara could not guess, though she had cudgelled her brains severely over the matter. All she knew was that Keorah and Ishtal had been in close consultation that very afternoon. Was the Daughter of Dawn aware that a passage connected the nuns' house with that of the former High Priestess, which had been invariably used by Keorah during her reign of office, and was so still whenever she chose to take advantage of it? Semaara feared that some talk between Anne and Hansen in the audience chamber had been overheard. At all events, it was suspected that the two were not, as they alleged, messengers of the gods, but merely strayed wanderers who had imposed upon the credulity of the Children of Aak. Oh! If by any machinations the Elders and the people were to be induced to believe this——! Semaara had no words wherewith to continue. She shuddered and wept.

“And if the people believed me false,” Anne asked calmly, “what then, Semaara?”

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The Virgin gazed at her aghast, and trembled anew.

“Dost thou not know?” she cried: “Thou, Daughter of Dawn, to whom the gods have revealed their wisdom, thou who art in the counsel of Aak! Art thou then ignorant of the ancient custom which has been from the beginning?”

Anne, pulling herself together, was silent a moment or two. At last she said:

“Am I then so ignorant, Semaara, as thou seemest ready to believe? May it not be the will of Viracocha, that through me, his chosen one, the cunning of Keorah, Ishtal, and Naquah, unworthy servants of the gods, be brought to naught, and turned to their own undoing?”

During her service in the temple and her official intercourse with the Elders and Virgins, Anne had acquired many of the Mayan turns of speech, and the lofty-sounding phrases peculiar to that ancient tongue were beginning to fall gibly from her lips. Even in speaking English she sometimes found herself unconsciously fashioning her language upon the ancient Mayan model, which the people of the Aca followed. There was about it a rhythm that pleased her musical ear. Now she spoke with the solemnity of one inspired; and in truth the part she was called upon to fulfil was, by sheer force of the conditions surrounding her, rendered painfully real. Only by upholding their verisimilitude could she hope to escape from them.

“Hast thou so little faith in me, Semaara,” she proceeded, “and not in me alone, but in the divine Red Ray by which That of the Unutterable Name did show me to the assembled people as their fore-ordained Priestess and Deliverer?”

Semaara flung her arm across her breast, and bowed herself after the Acan manner of rendering homage.

“Thou art indeed the Priestess chosen by the gods,” she cried. “That I well know. I could not doubt thee. And yet,” — the girl stammered, — “Naquah said, in truth thou didst appear to be ignorant——”

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“Of what, Semaara?” asked Anne, softly caressing the bent head. “Nay, I can read thy mind; and this would I say to thee:—Has thou not heard that a decree delivered by the gods is sometimes ill-translated by men, so that in the passing of ages, by reason of man's lust and cruelty and self-seeking wile, They who are all-wise and merciful would scarce recognise their own again? Then is it that They seeing from above appoint a deliverer to undo the evil. To this end am I come, and for this purpose have I beheld and made no sign. Nevertheless, for the searching of hearts, would I hear from thy lips of that ancient custom among the Acans—of the doom of sacrilege, and of the opening of the Door of Death.”

She spoke at a venture, her thoughts instinctively turning to the mystery of the triangular opening, and the perils of her own situation, should she—Priestess of Prophecy, and elected Zuhua Kak—be denounced as an impostor. The effect of her words upon Semaara was surprising. The girl lifted her face, wet from weeping, but radiant with relief.

“Ah! Thou dost know! Thou canst save thyself. It was but to try our faith that thou didst pretend to be ignorant. Oh! Forgive me. Never again will I doubt thee!”

Anne kissed Semaara, deeply moved. She felt that she could trust this one of the Virgins at least, even though all the others and the whole Acan tribe were treacherous.

“Thou art brave and true, Semaara, and I love thee,” she said. “Speak, and fear not. Tell me when last the Death Door was opened.”

Semaara shook her head.

“When? I know not. I am not learned, nor can I read the records. I am but the youngest of the Virgins, to whom has not yet been committed the hidden knowledge of the Elders. It was a long time back—before my mother was born—before the last time when the Serpent arose and shook the earth. But I have

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heard Ishtal tell that in those days the black barbarians were suffered to enter our land, and that with one of them—a mighty chief—the Zuhua Kak was in league that she might flee from our City of Refuge to where the hills rise beyond that sand which once was sea.”

“And was it for this that she suffered the doom?”

“For this, and because through her the black barbarians caused our land to become corrupt, and evil to enter the holy place. Then did the Chief Elder give forth a decree made in old times by one of the Great Builders and …” Semaara's voice fell to a whisper. “And the Door was opened.”

Instinctively Semaara drew a corner of her mantle across her face as in the act of worship before the death symbol.

“And then?” asked Anne, eagerly, not having wholly followed the sonorous Mayan words, which, as the Virgin's awe deepened in approaching a sacred subject, fell undiluted from Semaara's lips, instead of the medley of English and more colloquial Acan in which the two had begun to talk.

“Did the High Priestess go through it? What happened to her? What was there—beyond the Door?”

Anne shook Semaara in her anxiety as she bent forward, her two hands upon the girl's shoulders. But Semaara drooped her head lower, and covered her face more closely still. Anne had to stoop down to catch her faltering accents.

“Beyond it … was the end. The Lord Xibalba … awoke.”