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Chapter XXXVI - My Lover and my Lord!

AS they stood thus, hands clasped in hands, eyes meeting eyes through the gloom of the chamber, a low laugh sounded behind them,—a silvery laugh, high pitched, sweet but soulless, so empty of human feeling, unless it were malignant feeling, that it would have been difficult to believe the laugh was uttered by a woman. But Anne and Hansen both knew the voice; both dreaded it. They started and turned, and he made a movement of recoil—afterwards she remembered that he had done so—but she instinctively drew nearer to him, her heart warm yet with the glow of his tenderness, his presence giving her courage so that she felt strong enough to do battle even with Keorah.

For it was indeed Keorah who had laughed that tinkling scornful laugh, and who stood now framed in the entrance arch between the drawn curtains—a splendid figure illuminated by the torches that a pair of women held upraised behind her, and which drew glints of coloured light from the opal ornaments she still wore in right of her past priestess-ship, and which made her ruddy hair seem likewise a flame.

“Thou art all in the dark, oh! Zuhua Kak,” said the mocking voice, “in darkness of earth only, since through virtue of thine office, thine inner eyes must ever be lighted by that lamp of the Spirit which illumines not the ways of common humanity. Thou art in truth High Virgin of the Flame, and I who, at the will of the Eternal didst in outward seeming resign my privileges to thee, may not presume to question thy spiritual illumination. Nevertheless, I bring thee light, oh! Holy

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Virgin of the Flame. For where I am, there Light must follow me.”

She laughed again with shrill sweetness, and sailed into the room, her heavily embroidered draperies sweeping round her, while at a sign her women placed their torches in niches provided for the purpose at either side of the doorway, and disappeared into the darkness of the corridor. “We do not want listeners to our talk,” went on Keorah, affecting not to observe Hansen, who had relinquished Anne's hand and withdrawn towards the window. “I, who but a short time since was Zuhua Kak, come to thee, who art installed by decree of Viracocha in the place I held, to take counsel with thee in distress that is a penalty of ordinary womanhood. I know that as Daughter of the Gods, and foreordained messenger to the people of Aca, thou art skilled in deep lore, and in knowledge of the mind of man transcending that of a mere child of earth, and so I come to thee, oh! Zuhua Kak, in the hope that thou mayest be able to ease the heart of thy suffering sister. For was not I Zuhua Kak before thee, and am I not therefore thy sister? And in truth my heart is heavy to-night and my spirit sore within me.”

She paused and seemed to wait for Anne's reply, but the girl only bowed her head coldly, saying nothing. Keorah resumed.

“Thou who art set so high above thy kind, doubtless knowest naught by experience of the temptations which assail weaker women. Nevertheless, it seems to me that by the light of thy inner wisdom thou mayest see more clearly than thy humbler sister in what manner it were best to deal with human heart-burnings and perplexities, and mayest guide me, perchance, to those calm heights above the surges of passion in which thou thyself dost dwell. Well do I, who was ever faithful to my vows, know in what royal peace, by aid of power divinely vouchsafed, the High Priestess may maintain herself. But I—when in obedience to the Sign of the Red Ray, I delivered to thee the Symbols of my holy office—ceased

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to be thus mysteriously immune from the glamour of love and the strivings of my womanhood. Unlike to thee, oh! Child of Dawn, to whom men can never have seemed other than flitting shadows, I acknowledge my thraldom to him who by tender wooing has gained my heart, and I plead with thee, who dost so nobly hold thyself, for guidance, that in stooping to love I may comport myself as befits one who but a few weeks ago was as thou art, Zuhua Kak.”

Anne stood motionless, save for a slight heaving of her bosom and a nervous twitch of the muscles of her throat, listening to Keorah's words. She understood their drift, for in these weeks she had studied the Mayan language with success, and was sufficiently versed in its ornate phraseology to follow Keorah's clearly enunciated speech. As was its wont, her brain worked quickly, and she was rapidly weighing arguments that should decide for her the best course to pursue. Turning deliberately to where Hansen stood in the shadow of the window curtains, she motioned him forward towards the light.

“I have heard thee, Keorah, and I gather from thy words that thou dost desire advice from me upon some weighty matter that troubleth thee. But clearly, conversation is difficult between thee and me, since thou hast not been instructed in any language which is familiar to me, and I, though I understand somewhat of the Acan tongue, am not learned in its subtleties. First, then, I would say to thee that, as thou seest, I am not alone. Here is Zaac Tepal—as thou dost name him—the Interpreter commissioned by the gods. He will assist my imperfect understanding of thy tongue by translating to me what thou dost wish to say.”

Keorah gave a well-feigned start of surprise and virtuous dismay.

“Zaac Tepal—here! At this hour—and in the private apartment of the Zuhua Kak! Nay, I learn with astonishment, messenger of Viracocha, that thou

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dost hold thyself superior to the rules of the Acan Priestess-ship, decreed by our gods, and from the foundation of our community kept sacred. It is the law of our order that this chamber be held secure from masculine intrusion.”

Hansen broke in ill-advisedly—

“For this intrusion I would crave pardon. I would explain that my mistress, the Zuhua Kak, required my presence in view of the transporting of the great Aak.”

Keorah's lip curled disdainfully.

“Methinks,” she said, “that the great Aak, who is himself interpreter between gods and men, should be able to give his own counsel to his high priestess. I spoke not to thee, Zaac Tepal. No doubt thou art here, as thou sayest, at thy mistress' orders, and it is the Zuhua Kak who is accountable for thy presence. The great Aak supplies but a badly needed excuse.”

Anne looked confusedly at Hansen. She had not quite followed the rapid interchange of Mayan, for Keorah spoke excitedly, and at her request he was forced to give a clumsy translation of what had passed. Anne's lips grew white, and she stood very erect as she answered him steadily: “Repeat to the woman that you are here by my orders, and for the reason that I required to consult with my interpreter. Say to her, also, that since I gave no permission for the admittance of a visitor into my private rooms, I enquire by what right she has forced her way here.”

Hansen hesitated. He felt himself between two opposing forces, and though he did not greatly care what happened to him individually, he feared that serious damage might result from the clash against each other of these two floods of feminine passion. Then, too, though Anne had certainly proved herself capable of holding her own among the Acans in any ordinary emergency, she had not yet been pitted in actual personal combat against Keorah. The beautiful red woman was a formidable enemy, and one whom

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it would be wiser to tranquillize rather than exasperate. Therefore he gave Keorah a somewhat modified version of Anne's remarks. Both women watched him closely; neither was deceived. Keorah sneered contemptuously and glared at her rival; the savage suddenly unveiled. Anne reared herself in yet more stately fashion, and summoning all her resources in the Mayan tongue, addressed the red woman with a frigid courtesy that would have done credit to a great lady in some European drawing-room.

“I have asked by what right you confer upon me the honour of your presence unannounced?”

Keorah scented a refinement of social warfare in which she must be worsted, and completely dropped her mask of civilisation. She made a threatening gesture; her eyes sent out lightnings of rage. Her sinuous form quivered like that of a panther gathering strength before it springs. Then she suddenly swerved to Hansen's side. The furious look changed to one of cunning. “Reply for me to the Zuhua Kak, oh! Zaac Tepal. Tell her that Keorah will stoop no more to dissimulate, and that she shall know of a truth why I forced my way hither. Tell her that an Acan woman has the right to follow her future lord even into the chamber of the Zuhua Kak, and that it is to claim thee, my lover and my betrothed husband, that I am come. Nay, feign not surprise like some coy maiden, Zaac Tepal, for by thine own lips have the binding words been said, and thou art surely mine, White Strength, my lover and my lord, since the night when thou didst first pledge me in the betrothal cup, and when according to ancient usage among the Acans thou didst light the marriage lamp upon my balcony.”

She stopped, her glittering eyes fixed upon his face with that odd magnetic power in them which, when she chose to exert it in its full force, affected him against his reason and his will. It was like the spell of a witch, he often thought to himself. There were times when he had the power to struggle against it,

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and there had been other times when she had taken him in his weaker moments, and he had yielded to its seductive attraction. To-night he had no mind to yield, yet a certain native chivalry in him, the presence of Anne, the remembrance of past weakness and something in the woman herself, made it impossible for him to give her the lie direct. He reddened, and stirred awkwardly. His embarrassment appeared to the indignant Anne almost a confession. Keorah saw her advantage. There had been a note of appeal in her voice, but it was the appeal of one who holds a yet stronger weapon hidden.

Hansen at length stammered out, “That's all a mistake, Keorah—a foolish prank performed in ignorance.”

The savage element in Keorah blazed forth at once. She cut short his excuse with an indignant wave of her hand.

“Thou dost call thyself a lord of men and wouldst deny thine own deed and speech! Thinkest thou that the meanest Acan hind would play double to a woman? I command thee by thy manhood to interpret to her the words I have said.”

“How can I interpret them, oh! Keorah?” he answered, totally at a loss before her. “Let that matter remain between thee and me. The Zuhua Kak knows nothing of what thou art pleased to call our betrothal.”

Keorah smiled in malicious triumph.

“Then is it the more needful that she should learn the truth, Zaac Tepal. Tell her, oh! husband of my choice, whom the gods have sent to reward me for loss of greatness given to her in my stead—tell her of the bond of union between us, soon to be confirmed by the marriage rite. Bid her be glad with our gladness, and rejoice with us that her hand hath led thee to me. For had not the gods ordained her to that high loneliness in which I must have dwelt for ever unmated, never should I have known thee, my beloved; never should I have tasted of the fulness of life.”

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Her accents had regained their silveriness, and there was in them a deeper note of genuine emotion. She extended her arms in a movement extraordinarily graceful and enticing. It was the passionate woman pleading for and with her lover. And Anne could not have doubted that Hansen was indeed Keorah's lover, but for that which had passed between herself and him a few minutes back. Even then, in those moments of exquisite assurance, the dagger of distrust was only just withdrawn from her breast. Now the wound reopened. She gazed at Hansen, a whole world of anxious tenderness, of enquiring reproach in her brown eyes; then withdrawing them, for his were lowered, she met Keorah's exultant gaze. The red woman went closer to him and laid her outstretched hands upon his arm.

“Speak, Zaac Tepal,—my conqueror, my lord!”

“Thou dost ask too much,” he muttered. “I have said—this thing, if it were true, is not one with which to trouble the Zuhua Kak.”

If it were true? Perjurer! Thou art but jesting with me to try my faith. Was it not only last night that thou didst solemnly pledge me in my wine-cup—that thou didst whisper sweet vows to me both in thy tongue and in mine? Didst thou not call me most beautiful of all the women thou hast ever known? Didst thou not salute me after the manner of lovers in thine own land? Didst thou not kiss me, Zaac Tepal?”

Keorah uttered the English syllable archly and with dulcet sweetness.

Anne heard and understood. It was evident that Keorah had been an apt pupil to a willing instructor. Hansen's laugh—harsh, contemptuous, but truth-telling —dispelled all doubt in Anne's mind. She turned away and stared vacantly at the wall beyond; but there she still seemed to see Keorah, clinging now unrebuked to Hansen's side, her fingers stroking proudly the gold trophy he had carried off at the games, and which she had then clasped below his elbow, and which

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he had worn ever since. Her round rosy arm stole up slowly, with a suggestion of delicious enjoyment, till it circled his shoulder. Anne saw it all, even though her eyes were turned away—saw his shame-faced acceptance of the caress; knew that Keorah had not lied; made no allowance for the fact that wine is a potent factor, and that man thinks little of snatching a proffered kiss. She turned suddenly upon him, able to bear no more.

“Zaac Tepal, I dismiss thee! To-night I have no further need of thy services,” she said, retaining sufficient possession of her faculties to speak in her studiously acquired Mayan, so that Keorah might also understand. Her own voice sounded to Anne far away, and the shadowy room seemed to rock around her, and become dimmer still, only those two figures standing out stationary and distant.

“Zaac Tepal!” she cried, her voice in Hansen's ears sounding like the voice of an animal in pain. “Dost thou not hear me? I have no further need of thee. Go!”

He started as if from a dream, and roughly shook himself free from Keorah's hold.

“Come,” he said to her gruffly. “Our presence is an insult to the Zuhua Kak.”

Keorah cringed mockingly, and made as though she would plead with Anne.

“I pray thee, grant us grace, oh! Zuhua Kak. Fain would I stand in thy favour, for as thou knowest, it will be thy office to hold forth to us the holy orb which, kneeling' before thee on our marriage day, we shall solemnly touch with our right hands, making to each other the vows that are binding, till Xibal, Lord of Death, calls us to the Place of Sleep. And seeing that by the will of the gods thou must join us in union, I know not wherein we have deserved thine anger, nor what insult there can be in the humble suing of a highborn Acan woman and of him who is to be her husband.”

Keorah spoke in her own language, but paused a

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moment, and then bending backward with a swaying movement of her lithe form, she took Hansen's right hand in hers, and drawing him to her side, said in English, with halting but exquisite intonation, “My husband!”

Anne knew that Eric must have taught her the words. She waved the two imperiously aside.

“Begone, woman! Mr Hansen, take her away.”

For a moment of tragic issue, the three stood, Keorah's and Hansen's eyes fixed upon Anne; the red woman's full of elation, his deeply sorrowful as they searched Anne's face for some sign of relenting. But there was none; the small features were rigid, and her right arm, motionless as marble, was extended, pointing to the doorway.

Keorah gave her cruel laugh.

“I obey thee, Zuhua Kak, but ere long it may be, thou wilt repent this ungracious dismissal. Come, Zaac Tepal, we will depart.”

She drew his arm within her own, and he allowed her to lead him. She covered his grim acquiescence by her proud complacency, her rapt eyes dwelling on his moody face, her every movement towards him as she walked, a caress. Thus the two passed through the archway, and were swallowed up in the gloom of the rock corridor.

Now, forgetting everything but her pain, Anne gave a long shuddering moan. Her tense form collapsed, and she sank in a heap on the floor, her face hidden in her linen robe, her curly head resting upon her drawn up knees. There, Keorah's women saw her, as with silent footsteps they came back to remove their torches. They were obeying their mistress's orders, and like well-drilled servants exchanged no word. They only glanced from the bowed form of the High Priestess meaningly at each other, and went out, leaving the room in darkness.