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Chapter XXXV - The Tryst

IT was now the Acan supper hour, and the thorough-fares were deserted. Later, business would be in swing at the booths in the market-place; and Hansen hoped, under cover of the throng of people who would be making their purchases for the next day, and the noise of their talk, to gain unnoticed the stairway to Anne's balcony, and swing himself up into the shelter of a pillar where he might wait quietly the hour of the tryst. There would be less likelihood of detection then than if he waited till the city was still, with the chance that his movements might attract attention from some windows looking on the market-place, or from some belated passer-by.

Meanwhile he occupied himself with his own evening meal, served by the impassive Acan whom Keorah had provided for him. The man stood gravely as Hansen poured himself a bowl of chocolate and attacked the roast kid and maize cakes, for which in truth he had now small appetite.

He felt shaken by his meeting with Anne, though he could not tell what her hurried words portended. Her small pale face and shining eyes seemed to meet his gaze wherever he looked about the room. She was very dear to him, this little Chummy, dearer than he had before realised, and he knew that strange and strong as had been Keorah's power of fascination, it needed but a word from Anne to break the spell of that enchantress. And yet, though he felt Anne's uneasiness and distrust of his loyalty—he dared not even to himself call it jealousy—he could not lay bare his heart to her. For

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was she not alone, and committed to his care, and was she not still Elias Bedo's wife? His code of honour was a strenuous one, and to speak one word of love to Anne in these conditions would be to violate it.

His food choked him, but he forced himself to eat, knowing that he might need all his strength. He was irked by the presence of the serving-man and bade him go and amuse himself for the rest of the evening, as he required him no more. The man departed, and Hansen, looking at his watch, saw that it still wanted an hour to the time Anne had named. He leaned his head on his hands, and gave rein to his thoughts, frankly wishing Keorah, in company with Elias Bedo, and the whole Acan community, at a safe distance—in the maw of the Crocodile for all he cared—so long as he were left alone with Anne and the prehistoric records. This reminded him that only that day he had fancied out hunting, that there was a certain lurid reddening of that spiral cloud which hung as far as he could make out—for the mountain had not come prominently in view—over the open jaws of the Crocodile, and he made a mental note that upon the morrow he would, if circumstances permitted, ascend the monolith and take an observation from that vantage point.

He pulled himself together, and now ate vigorously, discovering that, apart from sentiment, his long day in the Acan hunting-ground had left him hungry. After all, man is nothing but a piece of machinery. Oil him, and he runs easily. Five minutes after he had swallowed his mess of kid, and drunk a glass or two of Acan liqueur — a special concoction from certain berries cultivated for the purpose—Hansen, who had badly needed his supper, felt a different being. He got up from the table, shaking back his shoulders, and his fair head with its untrimmed locks like those of a great shaggy dog; and humming unmelodiously enough a few bars of one of Anne's songs, he went into the adjoining cavern, which was lighted by one of the curious Acan lamps, and performed some sort of toilet,

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putting on the darkest cloak he could find in the wardrobe with which the forethought of Keorah or Hotan had furnished him during his residence in the huntsman's house. He then considered how he should arm himself in view of possible emergencies, and perhaps sudden flight, but decided that his gun being cumbersome, he had better leave it behind, and content himself with the revolver which he stuck in his belt.

He pulled the curtains of his rock doorway together behind—nearly all the cave houses opened thus on to a ledge and a stairway—and stood on the threshold, peering from side to side before he passed into the street.

A good deal of business of a kind was done after nightfall in the city of the Aca, but it mostly concentrated in the market-place. Here the great precipices, faintly dotted with specks and streaks of light from the windows of the cave dwellings, loomed darkly. Down below were ghostly grey patches, around which the torches flared upon the booths, making the blackness deeper beneath the projecting balconies and in places not given up to stall-keepers and their wares. In the market, the crowd was busy huckstering and packing up and carrying away their purchases before the booths closed and the Acan population took itself off to bed.

Nobody seemed to take any notice of Hansen, though every now and then he threw a glance over his shoulder to make sure that he was not being followed. All went well so far, and presently he found himself beneath Anne's balcony. He looked for Kombo on the small platform outside the entrance to the Priestess' house, but there was no sign of the black boy. From this platform Hansen, watching his opportunity, swung himself up to the ledge outside the stone railing, and then waited, crouching in the angle where it joined an abutting pillar—one of those which had framed Keorah and her Virgins when she had for the first time exercised upon him the magic of her beauty. The Zuhua Kak's rooms were curtained close, and all in darkness, but from Keorah's house next door there came gleams

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of light through the window hangings, a sound of laughter, and the secular music of the Acans. Hansen wondered, if she were giving an entertainment, why he had not been invited. He was thankful, however, that he had not, and before long the music ceased, and a figure went down the stairway, that he recognised as that of Hotan — apparently Keorah's only guest. Hansen crouched lower, afraid lest his presence should be noticed, but Hotan went on his way without looking up. Peering round the pillar and the partition wall, Hansen could see the staircase by which he had mounted that memorable night when he had lighted the mystic lamp on Keorah's balcony. The two serpents were still there intertwined, but there was no flame in the vessel between their jaws. Hansen had often since that night thought of his action, but he did not yet fully realise its meaning, though he suspected that it was some pledge of betrothal. Keorah, however, had not directly alluded to it, and Hansen did not care to run the risk of questioning her. He was aware that Keorah was not a woman whom it was safe to thwart, and he could only hope that she was not like the four-footed serpent, nursing wrath in order to pour it forth later upon himself and hapless Anne. He could never understand why Keorah had so willingly allowed a stranger to supplant her in the important office of Zuhua Kak. He shrank from explaining it on the theory that Keorah had ulterior motives and passionate yearnings which had found their centre in himself, and in which as Virgin High Priestess she was not permitted to indulge. And yet this would have been plainly apparent to a less interested observer.

Gradually the lights below were extinguished, the bustle subsided, and the market-place became silent and deserted. Hansen watched anxiously. The hour of the tryst was passed; the curtains at the back of the balcony remained unstirred. At last from behind them a faint voice whispered, “Eric!” He moved nearer at the call.

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“Hush! Step softly. I am here. Give me your hand,” and as the hangings parted, he felt Anne's fingers quiver within his own. She drew him into the rock chamber. No lover could have found more romantic prospect of adventure. But the business of to-night was not love-making. Hansen felt instinctively that nothing was further from Anne's mind. The room was in darkness, except for a pale radiance cast through the curtained doorway of the inner chamber by the four emblematic lamps that the Virgins had lighted round Zuhua Kak's bed, and by the red glow of one or two torches still burning in the market-place. The other doorway, leading into the entrance corridor, was draped with feathered tapestry, and through the meshes of the foundation in the interstices of the pattern, there showed also a feeble glimmer from a lamp placed some way down the passage. The small form of the girl in her white linen robe seemed like a wraith in the gloom. He could see her face dimly, and knew that it was agitated. She trembled from head to foot, and he also saw that she had not control over the muscles of her throat. Anne hysterical! That was strange indeed.

“Chummy!” he said tenderly, “what is the matter? Were you afraid I shouldn't come?”

She took no notice of the question beyond drawing back when he put out his hands as though to place them upon her shoulders.

“Well,” he said, “what is it?”

“My husband is here,” she exclaimed bluntly.

“Here!” he cried, starting, and looking round. “Impossible!”

“Oh! I don't mean in this room—though I daresay it won't be long before he is down there,” and she pointed towards the market-place. “He is outside the mountain. Kombo saw him to-day.”

“You poor little soul! So that's the trouble.” His voice broke, but it was in pity for her. And his pity seemed just the thing Anne could not bear. She shook again, and a dry sob choked her.

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“They will find him; they will bring him in—and then—”

“Then you who are Zuhua Kak, and queen among the Aca, will order him to be driven out again. Where's the use of wearing a magnificent High Priestess' mantle, and what Kombo calls a ‘fire-stone’ on your forehead, if it doesn't mean that your orders are to be obeyed? Have no fear, Chummy! You and I together can deal with this business. After all, it is only what we expected.”

His tone jarred upon her rasped nerves. She could not realise that its lightness was affected as a cover to his real feeling.

“That is easy to say,” she answered; “but if you had”—she paused, commanding herself with an effort—“if you had had opportunities for weighing the responsibilities of my position,”—she laughed hysterically at her own stilted way of putting things.—“I mean, if you were me, you would know that the office of Zuhua Kak is not without its dangers.”

“Its dangers!” he echoed; “do you suppose I haven't thought of that? But I'm in the dark, Anne. Tell me exactly what you are thinking.”

“I am thinking,” she returned slowly, “that if it were proved I was Elias Bedo's wife, and not the messenger of the gods, not the daughter of Viracocha, my influence over the Acans would be gone. I should no longer be Zuhua Kak, and there would be some terrible punishment in store for me. Not that it would matter much,” she added bitterly. “The worst penalty would be that I should be given back to my lawful protector. I would risk anything to avoid that. I would try to escape, even if it meant death in the trying.”

His mouth twitched; he bit his lip. For a moment or two he did not speak, but her eyes were turned away. She had them fixed at the end of the room, near the entrance door to the corridor, upon a piece of feather tapestry, the pattern of which—a barbaric medley—seemed to stand out upon the lighter ground as though there were a light behind it.

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“Anne!” he said, earnestly, “I see that you have some plan in your mind. Now will you tell me exactly what it is—all that Kombo has given you to understand about your husband's movements—and let me have a voice in the matter? If it's an idea of escaping at once, nothing rash must be ventured. I shall not allow you to do anything by which you run any risk of your life.”

She was unreasonably exasperated by his words, which seemed to her to indicate unwillingness to leave the city of the Acans.

“You have no power to prevent me,” she answered, “unless you were to betray my plan to the Elders and to Keorah.”

“What! You can think that of me!” he exclaimed, surprise and pain in his face and in his voice. “How have I deserved this of you, Anne? If you had had any thought of that kind, why did you tell me to come here this evening? Give me your confidence freely, or else let me leave you.” He turned as if to go. He was wounded to the heart, and intuitively she felt this, yet with a woman's perversity would not acknowledge that she had wronged him.

“No, don't go,” she said, but with no great warmth in her tone. “I'll tell you what Kombo said to me, and the plan he has worked out. It is your right to hear it, and to choose what you will do. Of course, I know that even if you don't care to follow it, you will keep silence and help us as far as you can. I spoke hastily. I do not distrust you in that sense.”

“In what sense, then?” he asked, resentfully, but she did not seem to hear him. A sudden look of apprehension had come over her face; he could tell that by the way she strained forward, her eyes fixed intently upon a piece of feather tapestry that hid a portion of the rock wall. His tone changed. “What is the matter? Has anything startled you?”

She did not answer at once; then her gaze turned slowly from the feather-wrought monsters on the wall.

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“No. I thought I saw that bit of embroidery move. I fancied there was a gleam of light behind it, and I was afraid.”

His eyes followed the direction of hers.

“I don't think it's anything. That's only one of their feather pictures. Here's another survival of the ancient Mexicans—another corroboration of my theory, if I wanted one. It's an Aztec art. I'll strike a match and look if you like whether there's a door behind it. But matches are precious in these days.”

“No, don't waste one. That's not a doorway. The entrance to these rooms is over there.” She pointed to the heavily draped archway. “But it seems to me that the whole of the rock is undermined with secret caves and passages, and I'm always fancying that I'm being spied upon. Never mind. I must have been mistaken. You shall hear now all that Kombo told me this afternoon.”

So, unaware that, hidden behind the feather monster, Keorah was listening eagerly, and piecing together as far as she was able the English words of which she understood the meaning, Anne related the substance of her interview with Kombo in Aak's garden. She told Eric how the black boy had discovered a passage in the double wall of rock, how he had seen Elias Bedo, her husband—Keorah knew the word husband—encamped close to the spot where the Red Men had first found them; how Kombo's sharp wits had grasped the whole situation; how the black boy had put pituri in the white man's and the troopers' tea, and how he had planned returning that night, and while the men slept a drugged sleep, stealing the horses and concealing them in the cave, ready for flight upon the following evening. All this she set before Hansen quietly and distinctly—the very calmness to which she forced herself, though every nerve in her was tingling, and the clearness of her enunciation making the eavesdropper's task easier. Hansen deliberated gravely, pointing out dangers, weighing possibilities,—the risks of taking that route

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through unknown country where the explorer Burke had met his death, and where a similar fate might befall them at the hands of cannibal blacks—the unlikelihood of their reaching Burketown—that one point of civilisation in the middle of the Bight of Carpentaria—the doubt whether it would not be wiser to trust to the chances of the Acan Exodus, and the question of being able thus to secure valuable spoils which would materially aid scientific investigation, and be a benefit to the world at large.

Anne chafed. His arguments seemed cold-blooded. In them she read the desire to remain, the disinclination to abandon Keorah, and with her the opportunity for study of the Acan hieroglyphics. In comparison with these delights she thought that her peace of mind, her deliverance from the clutches of Elias Bedo, counted as nothing. At last she cried passionately—

“What do I care for all that? What does it matter to me whether you can find a key or not to the hieroglyphics? That is nothing in comparison with chances of safety, it seems to me. All I know is this—I cannot stay to face my husband. Kombo and I are of one mind about our escape. He is only a black boy, but I have trusted him before, and I shall trust him again. Poor Kombo! He has his own reasons for wanting to be quit of the Red Men. His experience has been less fortunate than yours.” She laughed unsteadily. “Anyhow I have made up my mind that if Kombo can get hold of the horses, I should be foolish to delay. It remains to be seen, Eric, what you desire to do.”

“Since you have made up your mind, there is only one thing for me to do,” he replied, and to her sensitive fancy there was something very uncompromising in his voice. “You came to this place under my protection, and under my protection, if you so choose, you shall leave it. I am at your service absolutely. All I wish is, that you should realise the risks you may be running. For the rest”—he faltered, and his eyes sought hers in the dimness pleadingly, but Anne's look was averted—“you

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seem to me to have changed, Anne, since you became Zuhua Kak. A sort of barrier has arisen between us. I don't quite understand you.”

“Nor I you,” she returned impetuously, now turning to him, her voice and mien showing a lofty disregard of convention—if, indeed, as he grimly thought, there could be any idea of the conventionalities in their present situation. The man and woman stood facing each other, each seeing the face of the other as a glimmering white patch in the dusk.

“From what I have observed,” she went on, “I can only infer that you would prefer to remain here, where there is, I am sure, much to interest you, and where you are very welcome among the chief of the people, until it suits you to go back to Europe, with the result of your investigation. For me, of course, things are different.”

Hansen stared at her bewilderedly. Man is an obtuse animal, and he was only beginning to understand the workings of the feminine mind.

“You thought I cared about deciphering the hieroglyphics and the rest of that scientific rubbish more than I care for your safety!” he said. “Anne! Anne! I can only say again, how have I deserved this?

He put out his hands once more and took hers. But though their strong grasp was a denial to her feeble asseveration, she shook them off and drew back as before.

“No, Eric, I did not think it was the hieroglyphics and the scientific rubbish, as you call it, that you cared for more than my safety,” she answered, her voice cutting like a diamond edge. “I thought you cared more for that other woman than for anything which concerned me.”

There was something very childlike and very feminine about Anne as she said these words, which a little while before she would have thought it impossible she could utter. But something stronger than pride had leaped in her bosom, and turned the stately little priestess into a mere ordinary woman with a woman's

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weaknesses, a woman's inconsistency; and through his anger and his hurt, Hansen felt a sudden joy, though he stood stiffly, making no sign.

“It is quite natural,” Anne went on, borne away by the flood of feeling. “You and I have been good friends, but at best I have been but a burden to you. You have been very chivalrous in not letting me see it, and I thank you for all your kindness. I was foolish not to realise that I must be a hindrance in your plans when I almost asked you to take me with you. But it's not too late now for you to carry them out without me, for you will have that woman's help, and you need be in no anxiety on my behalf. Kombo and I got on very well before, and you can trust him to take care of me again. We went through a good deal, you know, before we met you. Once free of this people, we can fight our way to the coast. That is the plan we propose.”

“And may I ask,” said Hansen huskily, “what plan you propose for me?”

“I should not presume to make plans for you,” answered Anne. “I conclude that you want to go on with your scientific discoveries, and I don't imagine that now you will find any lack of advantages in that respect.”

“Chief of these being Keorah,” he said; and she might have seen in the twilight of the room, had she been watching his face, the flicker of a smile, but she kept her eyes steadily away from him. Now he had regained something of his composure.

“Anne! Anne!” he said, “it rejoices me to see that you are after all, but yet a woman. You have tried to be cold and judicial, and in spite of everything your heart has spoken.”

He was close to her. She could feel his breath upon her cheek. She could see the flame of passion scintil-late in his eyes. Her nerves thrilled, and her body shook with suppressed emotion. She made a valiant but ineffectual stand.

“How could you—how dare you think that I'm

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jealous of Keorah? What right have you? You know it is not that. How could it be that?”

“I should never dare to suppose such a thing,” he replied humbly. “As you say, what right have I—and how could it be that? But, my child, nevertheless, I think you are a little mistaken in your thoughts of me, and that's where you prove yourself a woman after all. You fancied that I cared more for Keorah and for science than for you. I could not show you—how was it possible?—what you are to me. You must know how I am tied and bound by the conditions under which we have been thrown together. But the old friendship was very precious. And now this strange red woman has stepped in and spoiled it all.”

“But has she spoiled it?” Anne cried, proving herself even more a woman by her anxiety to retrieve that which a few minutes back she had been so ready to cast away. “Has she come between us in that? I don't think, Eric, that the old friendship is ‘altogether bong,’ as Kombo would say.” She laughed a soft laugh that was music in his ears, for there was a ring of happiness in it, and when Hansen's fingers again closed on hers, she did not draw herself away.

“Chummy!”—and the man's voice deepened and faltered—“it is not only friendship that I want of you. Only, it's all that I dare ask of you as things are, my dear. You must know—you must understand. Won't you trust me, child—even though——”

“Even though Keorah may appear singularly attractive in your eyes, and no matter how freely she lavishes her blandishments upon you, or how pleased you may seem to be at them! Is that how it is, Eric?” returned Anne lightly, with the old cheery note he had known so well in the bush. “I suppose that I must trust you, for, indeed, to tell you the truth——” She hung her head and hesitated for a moment, but then went on bravely, “To tell you the truth, Eric, I think something in me would have gone ‘altogether bong’ if you had said that you meant to stay behind.”

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He crushed the little hands in his; then raised one passionately to his lips. But he did not stoop to kiss her face, nor would he even put his arm around her. Anne realised in that moment, perhaps more fully than ever before, the loyalty of the man—in spite of his many manly imperfections—with whom she had to deal.