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Chapter XXXVIII - The Subjugation of Elias Bedo

IT was the next morning, and the sun was not yet high in the east. Outside the Tortoise Mountain, his rays poured upon the great grey precipice with its natural buttresses, its clefts and caverns beneath the jagged edge of the rock carapace, near to where the wanderers had camped upon the day of their entrance into the Heart of Aak.

The tunnel Hansen had then discovered, and by which the red men had emerged, showed a dusky patch, half concealed by bushes and scarcely distinguishable on the face of the cliff from many another hole made by time and weather. Outside the opening, her back to the mountain, Keorah stood enveloped in her Acan mantle, pale yellow in colour, and bordered and patterned with feathers of a contrasting orange. Her russet hair, even more brilliant in tint than her cloak, flowed down her back, flaming where the sun touched it, and thinning into feathery strands as the wind, which swept in small gusts up from the valley below, caught it playfully, spreading it on each side of her face.

The air was curiously oppressive for that time of year, even in this tropical region; and above the intersecting hills on the south coast, there hung a roll of lurid-looking clouds seeming to tell of a gathering storm. But overhead, the sky was of a brilliant blue, and here the breeze, though warm at mid-day, beating against the mountain through the moist belt of scrub which sloped down below the untimbered space at the foot of the precipice, was laden with pleasant odours. Whiffs from eucalyptus

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forests, and from the resinous Australian pine, the scent of scrub flowers and aromatic shrubs, and through all, as seemed to the red woman, whose nostrils savoured these perfumes, a breath of wide expanses and untrodden wastes from the distant sea and the world of men.

Both Keorah and Anne, though women of different types and conditions, were consumed by the same desire to escape from their luxurious Acan prison, even though it might be to risk death among the blacks. In Anne, it was the yearning for freedom; in Keorah, an unconquerable craving, inbred in her, for pleasure and power, and for a fuller and more magnificent world which she had learned at last from her talks with Hansen really existed beyond these fastnesses. Hitherto, her knowledge had been limited to the vague traditions preserved among the people of Aca, of a mighty civilisation in the far-back past, from which the race had sprung. Now she knew there were other grand civilisations, other countries and other peoples who were not all red like her own. To gain experience of these, and possession of the strangerman who had captivated her fancy, was the end and aim of Keorah's intrigues.

In pursuance of these, Keorah had risen with the dawn, and made her way to the outskirts of the mountain. All night her busy brain had worked, connecting and translating the shreds of talk she had overheard from behind the tapestry in Anne's chamber, and which, though imperfectly understood, had furnished her with a sufficiently direct clue to the terror dogging her rival and the means by which matters might be hurried to a crisis, the flight prevented, the High Priestess disgraced, and the White Lord secured for herself as a lover, and guide to the outer world. She knew the power of her wonderful eyes, the fascination of her long narrow face, and had no fear of not being able to mould Hansen to her purposes. And, in truth, seldom had the sun looked upon a woman more beautiful than Keorah as she lifted her face to his, and throwing back her mantle from her shoulder, drew into her chest through the red

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parted lips long inhalations of the morning fragrance. She had, with her craving for subtle and sophisticated experience, an almost animal delight in air and sunshine, the free indulgence of her senses and exercise of her body which her cramped life as Zuhua Kak had only inflamed. At this moment her heart was throbbing and her pulses tingling with wild hope at the prospect, however uncertain, of accomplishing her desire, and satisfying the passionate impulses within herself which clamoured to be in harmony with the common laws of nature. At last, at last, she might do this, and in her fancy, the radiance of the sun, and all the fresh scents of the bush which she was taking into her being, seemed harbingers of success.

But Keorah was not one to waste time in romantic imaginings, though the warm flutter of the wind as it crept up her bare arm and played upon her face seemed to her like a lover's fervid kisses and intoxicated her with the foretaste of future joy. Drawing her mantle again about her shoulders, she stepped carefully among the rocks and shrubs, and rounded the natural buttresses of the cliff in the direction where she expected to find signs of a stranger's camp.

“E-li-as Be-do!” She pronounced the syllables slowly to herself as she had heard Anne and Hansen speak them; for that there was a strange man in pursuit of the High Priestess she was quite sure, and also that this was his name. Of his whereabouts she had learnt sufficient from Anne's account of Kombo's discovery to guide her in her quest. Hansen, in the few minutes she had spent alone with him after leaving Anne's presence upon the previous night, had sternly declined to gratify her curiosity, had indeed done all he could to refute her suspicions, but Keorah was too clever to doubt that something very serious and prejudicial to Anne lay behind the appearance on the scene of this new actor in the drama—something which would greatly simplify her own procedure for the ruin of the High Priestess. It was not Keorah's habit to dally in her workings, nor

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to take counsel with anybody. She knew that she must first satisfy herself of the truth of what she suspected, and till she had done this—a task she would not entrust to another—not one of her allies could be of much use to her. Once assured of Elias Bedo's relations with Anne, it would be time enough to instruct Naquah, Kapoc, Ishtal and the rest in the parts they were to play. Hotan was like a dog ready to do her bidding; she already had him in leash. He was at hand awaiting her further commands.

Keorah went on, her head bent towards the ground like a black tracker, though every now and then, she would give a quick glance in front and to the side, her eyes shining with the gleam in those of a panther in search of prey. And yet she meant no direct ill to Elias Bedo should she find him. Had it been her intention to secure him by force she would not have ventured thus, a woman alone, within his reach. She dealt in woman's weapons, fully alive to their efficacy. Meanwhile, below her breath, she practised herself in the English phrases she had picked up. They were mostly of an amatory character.

Suddenly, as she went round a projection of rock, she came upon the man she sought. He was lying half wrapped in his blanket, his head propped against his tilted saddle, and his face exposed to the full rays of the sun, which beat down and were reflected back from the shining surface of the precipice, focussing upon a locket that hung open from his pouch, and sending glints from the mounting of his rifle, which lay a little way from him, flung carelessly against a stone. He would have been an easy target for a black's spear or a red man's javelin, so profound was his slumber. Evidently Kombo's trick had succeeded, and the pituri had done its work. Beside him, in the ashes of the dead fire, with a half-consumed damper and a piece of roasted bandicoot, stood the empty billy which had held the drugged tea. He must have been asleep a long time, for there was not a spark among the ashes, and the piece of meat was

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covered with soldier ants. Were he to remain so till after noonday he would undoubtedly get sunstroke, and death would free Anne from his pursuit.

Keorah's eyes roved about, and lighted upon another camp a few paces off, where, stretched in the same heavy stupor, were the two native policemen who had accompanied Bedo. She stepped across, and looked with disgust at the black barbarians, kicking a pinch or two of gravel upon the out-stretched hand of one of them to see if he would stir, but he and his mate had drunk freely; possibly they had, like Kombo, gathered some pituri on their won account among the hills. Anyhow, it appeared as though nothing short of the last trump would waken them, and Keorah, peering round first to satisfy herself that there were no other human beings about, went back to the side of Bedo.

He was not a prepossessing object, and Keorah thought it was not surprising that Anne should run away from him; but she wondered that he, having come so far to regain her, and being within the precincts of possible enemies, should be content to lie there in a lethargy like that of a gorged python. She spurned him scornfully with the toe of her arched foot, and noticing that he stirred slightly, reminded herself that she had come to captivate and not to flout this singularly repulsive person. Her heart felt no temptation to swerve from its allegiance to Eric, however, as she compared the only two white men of her acquaintance. Very different from Hansen's clean-limbed, clear-skinned, and wholly attractive personality, was this corpulent, brutalised man, with his bull-throat, bulky trunk, and dark heavy face on which was a stubbly growth of black hair streaked with grey. Keorah did not like men who were black or red either, and Hansen's chief claim to her admiration lay in his Viking-like fairness.

Keorah felt a supreme contempt for Bedo. Yet she bent closer over him, so that her long hair swept his shoulder, and fluttered against his cheek while she pulled the little locket away from the pouch, and without

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much difficulty, detached it from a chain to which it was fastened. As she turned the open side upward, she started, and gave a low exultant laugh, for here was full confirmation of her suspicions. The locket held a coloured photograph of a woman's face, and Keorah instantly recognised the face as that of Anne, the reigning Zuhua Kak—Anne in her girlish days before the shadow of Elias Bedo had clouded her youth—a brighter, younger Anne, yet nevertheless bearing a likeness incontestable.

But how should the Daughter of Dawn, the messenger of the gods, the immaculate Virgin of the Flame, come to be pictured here in an amulet that this coarse son of earth carried about his person?

It was clear to Keorah's quick understanding that the owner of the locket must consider Anne in some sort of way his property; that undoubtedly he must stand to her in the position of either lover or husband—probably the latter, for had he been merely her lover, why should she not have discarded him without taking the trouble to put so great a distance between them? And the garments of these white people gave on arrival evidence that they had travelled far. Why, too, should she be in so great trepidation at the mere thought of his finding and claiming her? As Keorah stood with the trinket in her hand, gazing at the portrait, her senses all on the alert, her heart thrilling with the thought that success in her schemes was now almost a certainty, she did not consider the risk she might be running in thus exposing herself unprotected to the power of such a man as now lay before her. She looked down from Anne's portrait to the recumbent form, and her wonderful eyes seemed to gather in and emit force as she fixed them intently upon the face of the sleeper. Whether consciously or otherwise, she certainly sent forth a magnetic current which had the effect of rousing him from his stupor. His eyelids flickered and slowly lifted, his lips moved, the sound of a muttered oath came from between them. His limbs stirred; he partly raised himself

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and stared bewilderedly at the unexpected vision before him, his drugged brain not yet clear enough to decide whether it were reality or hallucination.

Like many materially-minded men Bedo was strongly given to superstition, and though he would have knocked any one down who called him a coward, he had a horror of anything bordering on the supernatural. Consequently, his first thought, when he beheld Keorah, was that she had come from another world. A howl of terror burst from him, that in other conditions must have immediately awakened the troopers and called them to arms, but they slept on undisturbed. Bedo gathered up his thick limbs and crouched back of a sudden upon his haunches, drawing himself away from her, while he looked up at her with an expression of fear and astonishment so comically blended, that Keorah laughed aloud.

“Damn you! What are you?” cried Elias Bedo, still shaking, but slightly reassured by the sound of her laughter.

Keorah smiled bewitchingly, and stretched out her arms, her mantle falling back so that the bare throat and part of her soft rounded neck showed above the generous curves of her bosom, draped in her close-fitting linen robe. Bedo's oath might have been a term of endearment for all she knew, for Hansen was not given to swearing at women. Eager to learn a new phrase, in her sweet high-pitched voice, with the most fascinating foreign accent, and an air of coquetry, she repeated the objurgation after him. “D—damn—you!” said she, making a little cooing sound, and stroking his rough, hairy hands clasped round his knees with her pretty pink fingers. The touch convinced Bedo that she was at least flesh and blood. His look of terror relaxed. His jaws broadened into a grin. He stared at her excitedly.

“What the dickens are you?” he exclaimed. Keorah did not understand, but, satisfied with the result of the newly-acquired phrase, cooed it again. “D—damn—you!”

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“The devil!” ejaculated Bedo.

Keorah seized upon the word. She had heard Kombo talk of debil-debil: she knew what that meant.

“Debil-debil? Ma (No).” She shook her head and pointed to herself. “Keorah,” she said.

“Keorah!” repeated Bedo, recovering himself. “A very pretty name, and you're an uncommonly pretty woman, my dear, though you aren't quite white. I suppose you're one of those famous red people the blacks talk about—eh?”

Keorah laughed and showed her white teeth and a dimple on one side of her narrow attractive face. She could not comprehend him much so far, but she felt that matters were progressing satisfactorily.

“You mustn't damn people,” Bedo went on. “That's not pretty for a woman.”

“Pretty woman,” she repeated with her slow captivating smile, having previously learned the appropriateness of the words as applied to herself. Seeing that she did not altogether follow him, he tried black talk.

“Look here, Keorah, where camp belonging to you? You got him brother? Cobbon būjeri chief this fellow. Mine sit down long-a you.”

Keorah laughed on, but he could not feel sure that she understood black talk.

“Pretty wo-man,” irrelevantly pronounced Keorah. “Pret-ty man—Ma!” Her lip curled in coquettish disdain. She laughed meaningly into his face. “Husband—E-li-as—Be-do!”

“By Jove! How the dickens does she know my name?” He jumped to his feet and came close, leering at her.

“Husband—eh? You want-im husband belonging to you? All right, my dear. Būjeri gin you belonging to me,” and he made as though to kiss her. But with a quick movement Keorah evaded him. Lightnings flashed from her eyes. All the majesty of the late unapproachable Zuhua Kak sat upon her brow. Perhaps it was well for Elias Bedo at that moment

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that she was not in her own city as Zuhua Kak, among her guarding acolytes, or his shrift would have been a short one.

Bedo stood, checked and appalled.

“The deuce! What a spitfire! I've a good mind to force a kiss, you handsome demon.”

Keorah saw her danger. She leaned towards him deprecatingly, and smiled in her seductive way, subduing him by the magic of her eyes. She really understood a good deal of his speech by this time, but wished him to believe that she did not do so. Now she pointed to the mountain behind her, and along the unwooded space beneath it.

“Keorah … be-au-ti-ful … wo-man!” she stammered with dulcet expression. She did not know quite what to say in the emergency, but she remembered that when Hansen had been most kind and pleasant to her, he had called her a beautiful woman, and she thought the phrase might re-establish safe and friendly relations with this too familiar stranger. Bedo chuckled coarsely.

“Beautiful woman! I believe you—a doosid sight better looking, though you are red, than most white ones. And I don't know that I like you any the worse for putting a good value on yourself. You aren't going to let yourself be caught by chaff, eh, my fine bird?”

Steadying himself against a boulder, for the drug had left him not quite master of either his limbs or his brain, he gazed at her in open-mouthed admiration, taking in confusedly the details of her attire, from the cream-coloured, fine-woven underdress, to the feathered mantle and sandalled feet. His cupidity was aroused at sight of the gold and opal belt round her shapely waist.

“Hullo!” he cried, “what's that? Have you more of the same kind where that came from?” and he would have snatched at the cincture, had not Keorah's compelling gaze kept him at a distance. She still pointed to the mountain, and her gesture seemed to him to signify that there the treasure lay.

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“Inside there, my pretty? But how are we to get at 'em? You'll show me the road—eh? But I must make sure of that. No killings and roastings and eatings—being eaten it would be—for me! Not if I know it! No hanky panky, Miss Keorah. We'll see first how you came to know my name—whether it was Anne that told you. By Jingo! I see it now. It must have been Anne that told it you. And if you haven't eaten Anne, the odds are you won't want to eat me.” He swayed himself to and fro, chuckling still, and again leering at her. Keorah caught at the name.

“Anne!” she said, and his eyes, following hers, fell upon the open locket which she had let drop on the ground when he had tried to kiss her. He lurched forward, and stooping picked it up.

“So you've been robbing me? You're a nice baggage! And you know who it is—do you? Now I'm seeing daylight. Yes, that's Anne, sure enough; and the devil take her—after I've done with her. You—you devilish fine woman—d'you know where she is? Here—” and he tapped the locket. “White Mary like-it this. You pidney where that fellow sit down?”

“Yo-ai!” Keorah laughed again like a pleased child. In the course of her assiduous attention to the white people's talk she had picked up even a smattering of Kombo's queer jumble of English and Aboriginese. She tossed her head now, with its wealth of red hair, back towards the mountain. “Come,” she said again, “E-lias—Be-do—Hus-band. … Anne—Wife. … Keorah—be-au-ti-ful woman. … Anne—be-au-ti-ful—wife.”

“By the Lord Harry, you're wrong there, Miss Keorah,” exclaimed Bedo, with a harsh guffaw. “She don't hold a candle to you. And I'm sick of her—damned sick of her and the chase she's led me.”

The infuriated husband fired forth a volley of profanity which irritated even Keorah's uncomprehending ears, and she gave an angry frown, which changed, as

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she recollected herself, to a brilliant smile, the piquancy of the transformation completing Bedo's enslavement.

“Well, you are——!” he began, and words failed for the moment. “Stunning,” he added, as Keorah's tinkling laugh echoed among the rocks. “You'd keep a chap alive—you would. Now if you were only Baroness Marley, with a fortune at your back, and I'd married you for it, and run you up half way through Australia, and got you yarded and roped at last, and the flashness whipped out of you, why, we'd have a high old time of it, Miss Keorah. We'd make tracks for the old country, and go on the burst, that we would. And I ain't so sure that I shan't do it. I'll yard in and rope the two of you. And I ain't so sure that I won't chuck the other by-and-by—if you can put me on to where those opals and the gold comes from.”

Keorah did not make much out of this tirade. It was uttered too rapidly, and the ex-bullock driver's vernacular was not the language employed by Hansen when, after the banquets at which he had sat by her side, the White Lord had indulged his hostess' fancy for learning the “speech of the gods.” But she wanted to humour him, and to secure beyond a shadow of doubt the incriminating testimony against Anne. So she still cooed in his face, and stroked his sleeve with one hand, while with the other, she touched the picture in the locket.

“Anne—wife—belonging to you?” she queried insinuatingly. “Tell Keorah.”

“Yes, bad luck to her! Yo-ai, Keorah, that wife belonging to me.”

“You—hus-band?” There was a whole volume of questioning in her shrill sweet voice.

Bedo snarled assent. The fact was clear. Keorah had gained her point. He began to regret having been so explicit; possibly a stringent code of morals might be in force among the red people. At once he endeavoured to convey, partly in words, partly by pantomimic

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expression, that though Anne was his wife, though he desired above all things to know her where-abouts, it was only with a view to punishing and repudiating her, and that henceforward, Keorah should reign alone in his affections.

She nodded as if she understood, and smiled on, poking forward her chin and throwing aslant at him through her narrowed eyelids, a gleam of daring between the red lashes that entirely captivated him. With snake-like grace she sidled closer, laying one hand upon his arm as she began to lead him away from his camp towards the opening in the mountain. He moved on obediently; her half closed eyes were magnets drawing him. He had thought a moment before that he would take his gun and wake up the troopers, but now the gun and the troopers were alike forgotten. Suddenly, when they had gone several paces, she opened her eyes to their fullest extent, and turned her head round to him as she walked, while she softly pulled him by the hand. The effect was mesmeric. Bedo was like a man bewitched. He followed stupidly where she led him, forgetting everything but that fascinating face. Only before the dark hole in the mountain side did he draw back, refusing with an oath to go further.

But Keorah's touch was electric. Her voice lured him, her voice, purring caressingly in that enchanting foreign accent, “Come … Come.” Her eyes were like stars shining before him till he was well within the tunnel. There the darkness swallowed them; but what did it matter, thought he. She held his hand, and what danger could there be in a woman alone and unarmed?

Suddenly her soft clasp relaxed. The hands she had held were seized by stronger ones, and prisoned behind. He heard Keorah speak in a strange tongue,—she was addressing someone as Hotan. She had glided ahead, and a great burly man taller than Bedo, was by his side, gripping his arm, while two other men behind him tied

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a linen cloth over his mouth effectually gagging him, and stifling the oaths which came from his throat. Then a glimmer of light showed through an aperture overhead, and Elias Bedo heard the rush of the river over its subterranean bed. He was being led into the Heart of Aak.