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Chapter XXXIX - The Death-Door

HANSEN awoke late that morning. He had passed a troubled night. Visions of Keorah, scornful, cajoling, triumphant, disturbed his slumbers, and Anne's pale, pained face rose repeatedly before him in his waking moments. Rivalry between these two had now become a terribly serious matter, and Hansen saw plainly that the only way out of the dilemma was by prompt escape, if that were possible. To-day would show how Kombo's plan had prospered, and if they could avail themselves of it. Should that fail, nothing short of a cataclysm would be likely to help them. And a cataclysm, if it came, might engulf them also. Reflecting upon the events of the previous day, Hansen remembered the heavy redness of the sky, which he had noticed in the direction of the Crocodile Mountain, and the lurid-looking clouds which had gathered towards sunset. He determined to climb the monolith as he had planned, and to take observations. True, it was considerably later than he usually rose, a heavy sleep into which, after much tossing and tumbling, he had at length fallen towards dawn, having lasted some hours, but there would still be sufficient time for him to make the excursion and return by mid-day. It was unlikely that Kombo would seek him out to report matters before then. The boy would need sleep himself after being up all night, and he had told Anne that he meant to pilfer from the booths in order to stock their saddle-bags—a process that would certainly require time and care. Hansen shrank from this deliberate despoiling of the Acans, but felt that Kombo in his generation was wiser

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than he. At all events, Anne must not be permitted to suffer more than was necessary; and in order to make sure of their liabilities as far as the Crocodile was concerned, Hansen hurried on his clothes, and prepared to climb the monolith.

Anne meanwhile was singularly irritable and restless. She no longer exhibited the serene calm of the High Priestess which had become her so well, and had sustained her in the difficult part she had to play. Her faculty for dramatic personation seemed to have deserted her, and with it, she knew too surely, her influence over the people of Aca would depart. But she had no spirit to pull herself together in so far as concerned her demeanour as Zuhua Kak. It did not seem worth while. In a few hours' time, provided all went well with Kombo's schemes, she would be quit of Aak and his children for ever. That hope inspired her with courage, and even secret joy of a tempered sort.

Among the Virgins, Ishtal was not slow to observe Anne's attitude, and to attribute it, in part at least, to its true cause. Her orders in regard to the supervision of her chief were strict, and she scarcely for a moment left Anne's presence—an intense aggravation of the girl's distress. Yet in Ishtal she felt that she had an almost acknowledged enemy, and such antagonism was, in her present mood, less painful than the sweet friendliness of Semaara which she found less easy to deal with.

Already Ishtal saw herself in fancy the successor of this little white usurper, and a worthy wearer of the Zuhua Kak's insignia of office. All her life she had coveted the position, and was in truth much better fitted to hold it than either Keorah or Anne. Her ascetic temperament found nothing to irk it in the restrictions of a priestess' life, and her flawless dignity of manner secured her respect from all classes.

Poor little Anne, cowed by the calm, steely gaze of Ishtal's grey eyes, tried to repress the eager anticipation of liberty which in spite of all would bubble up within her, lest the elder Virgin should suspect and frustrate.

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It was true that Anne's sweetest hope in the thought of escape—friendly reunion with Eric—was miserably clouded by what had passed the previous evening,—the hope that had flamed on high for a minute or two under the restrained tenderness of his avowal and had been unduly dashed away by Keorah's intrusion and triumphant claiming of—as she had put it—her betrothed husband.

Could that be true, Anne thought? Had Eric ever really made love to Keorah? Was it possible, in such case, that he could have so spoken, so looked at Anne herself, as to make her feel certain that his whole loyal devotion was hers, though while she remained Elias Bedo's wife honour forbade him to own it? In spite of appearances, in spite of his own damaging half admission, Anne's trust in him burned up again and would not be quenched.

She could not believe that he had been altogether false. Weak certainly he was in allowing himself to be swayed by Keorah's undoubted powers of fascination; culpable even towards her after the manner of men towards women whom they hold lightly—but not altogether inexcusable.

Young as she was, this small Anne had long cast her childhood behind her. She had not been married to Elias Bedo for nothing; nor had she drifted from her original home in the Australian wilds through the experiences of a musical student in London and back again to the Bush, without learning something of the world and its ways. She had seen a good deal of men and of their vices and follies during her short, varied existence, and had stored up the knowledge in her astute little brain. On sober reflection she was therefore able to make some allowance for her errant friend, and to realise that as man is constituted, the temptation to flirt with a woman of Keorah's character and charms, who advanced more than half the way herself, would have been difficult for a stronger male nature than Eric Hansen's to resist. Last night Anne had been indignant, outraged, her heart wounded to the quick.

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This morning, the solemn tender words that Eric had spoken just before Keorah's entrance came back to Anne, and now in the depth of her soul, she knew that he loved her. She felt that, notwithstanding all, she could put her hand in his again and renew her faith to him. That he would join her and Kombo in their escape she did not doubt, and escape seemed breathlessly near. As Anne stood at the wide window of what she called her prison-house and watched the first rays of the eastern sun glint over the frowning face of the mountain across the market-place, she felt almost in her nostrils the wild breath of the Bush, for which she, like Kombo, so ardently longed.

The scent of eucalyptus seemed wafted to her through the multifarious odours from the stalls beneath, where the vendors of cooked meat and fruit were displaying their goods. She, too, here in the shadow of the Tortoise rock, sensed as her rival was sensing the burning wastes of desert, the tangled stretches of scrub, the distant sea, and the world beyond. It was at this very moment that Keorah, standing outside the fortress of Aak, lifted her face to the sky and savoured love and freedom—another of Nature's children, though of so different a mould, clamouring for the mother-gifts she felt were her right.

Little did Anne dream, keenly alive though she was to the perils that beset her, how close would be the race between Keorah and herself. If she thought of Keorah at all at this moment, it was as a treacherous enemy, plotting in the darkness of the caves against her, to rob her of her lover and her life—not as one whose foot was even now placed upon the road leading to the outer world, whose one desire was like her own to leave the prison walls of Aak behind. Her thoughts, just then, were chiefly of the possibilities of Kombo's success; of her own chances of avoiding detection when it became time to answer the black boy's signal for flight; and of how Hansen would contrive to meet them. She thought, too, of the joy

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of being on horseback again, and of the wild ride down the gorge and along by the river to the unknown country at the head of the great gulf. It was from this picture that she was recalled by the voice of Ishtal, who demanded rather than requested that the High Priestess should prepare for attendance in the temple. Anne had, amid her preoccupation, forgotten that this was a day of religious ceremony among the Acans upon which she, as Zuhua Kak, had to go with the Virgins, Elders, and Acolytes, first in state to the temple, and thence to bless, in presence of the people, the storage of threshed corn and the harvesting of certain berries used for the compounding of that potent sacred beverage that had wrought Hansen's undoing. She had excused herself on plea of indisposition from the early offering of food and water to Aak, and had instructed Semaara to tend the god in her stead. This she had done partly to avoid the company of the girl, for her heart had been touched by Semaara's affection, and smote her at the thought that she was soon about to leave her only friend among the Acans without a farewell. If Semaara were occupied with the various duties that the High Priestess planned to delegate to her subordinate, she would, Anne hoped, have but little opportunity for noticing anything out of the common in the manner of her chief. Perhaps the fuss and the ceremonial of the festival, upon which Ishtal expatiated, would serve this purpose, thought Anne; and though her spirits sank upon hearing that as was usual on these occasions, there was going to be a banquet when the blessing of the corn was over, she reflected that, as the population of Aca would probably be heavy with drink, she and Hansen and Kombo might more easily get away unseen.

So she allowed herself to be dressed in her most gorgeous robe of office with the plume of rose-coloured feathers on her head and the sacred opal glittering on her brow, and prepared to descend, with her retinue, the rock stairs that led down to the market-place.

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It was now about noon. High in the sky, the sun hung just over the City of Refuge like a blinding, metallic disk, pouring hot rays down even into the usually cool recesses of the rock streets. In the Heart of Aak the atmosphere indeed was stifling. It had been strangely hot all that morning, a heaviness that increased hour by hour, varied only by occasional gusts of warm wind that circled round the subterranean spaces and died down as suddenly as it arose. In the intervening stillness, the heat grew more intense. Nevertheless, all was activity here amongst the people. The whole population of Aca had turned out of their rock dwellings, and were thronging the thoroughfares, while the goat-herds and husbandmen had all come up from the fertile earth-basin in which the fruit and corn were grown. It was customary on these agricultural festivals for the Zuhua Kak and her train to walk in procession round the public places and along the outer terrace by a more circuitous route to the temple. Presently, therefore, the semi-circular space where the great wall of the mountain riddled with caverns curved towards the garden hollow was filled with spectators dressed in grey feathered garments with plumes on their heads, who awaited the passing of the High Priestess.

The oppression of the atmosphere made Anne feel faint and dizzy, and the weight of her magnificent mantle trailing behind her was almost more than she could bear. But she managed to look quite regal at the head of her train of Virgins, though each one overtopped her by several inches. This was the last time, she thought to herself, that she would ever appear in this splendid panoply; and, woman-like, she regretted somewhat that she could not take with her these gorgeous robes with their rose-coloured trimmings, her opal clasps and girdle, and the specially perfect stone which held the feathers above her forehead. She looked round for some sign of Kombo that might assure her of the success of his venture, and at least

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of his safety, but could catch no glimpse of the black boy among that multi-hued throng. How grotesque and strange it all was! She felt like a woman in a dream; and in dream fashion, among various trivial incidents and objects stood out the animated face of a child held up in the arms of a goat-herd, which contrasted with the usual impassive Acan countenance; the ludicrous solemnity of a money-changer giving red beans for gold dust, and the antics of a tame emu which thrust its long neck from side to side among the booths. Then as she turned at the foot of the stairway from the nuns' house, and thus caught a direct view of the Virgins descending in pairs above her, Anne was struck by a peculiar alertness in the tiny live tortoises that the Virgins always wore on their breasts attached to a chain. The queer little things were moving restlessly over the shoulders and bosoms of their guardians, drawing sharply in and out their wee snakish heads and darting gleams from pin-point eyes. They seemed to feel something unusual and alarming in the air, which was in truth full of electrical disturbance. Always sensitive to the magnetism of a number of people, Anne was conscious of a spirit of unrest in the crowd, of lightly leashed emotion that might break forth at a touch, and transform these ordinarily phlegmatic folk into a very rabble of avengers, should they learn the truth about her whom they now hailed as half divine. The wild strains of the Acan orchestra, the hollow reverberations of the drums, the shrieking of the uncouth fiddles, and clashing of sistra, now preluded the uplifted voices of the choir in the hymn to the Zuhua Kak. Anne herself was more impressed than ever by this strange music, remembering that never again should she hear that song of praise ring out, the refrain echoing clearly back from the rock walls:—

Ix nacan katuna
Uol Zubua Kak!

A vague regret swelled in Anne's breast. It was

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so nearly over—the Priestess life, the Pagan worship. And in that worship, how much there was which appealed to certain religious instincts born in her, that had grown with her growth, and were interlinked by every fibre of her being with the primeval mysticism of the Australian Bush. So real to Anne was this nature faith, that often as she had kneeled before the sun's effigy—the shining disc of life—it had seemed to her that here was the purest and most expressive symbol of That which is unutterable—according to the Acan formula—ever given to man. And when by right of her office as Head Virgin of the Flame, she sang in the temple service the anthem

Uol Viracocha!
Oyoya KU
Zazil Huraca
Lahuna KU
Uol Viracocha!

she did verily feel herself in some inexplicable bond of unity with the Ancient Spirit of Earth, Herald of the Greater Light; and at such moments she was in truth Priestess—Child of Viracocha, Daughter of the Dawn. As these thoughts passed through Anne's mind, Semaara, walking with Ishtal behind, was puzzled by the expression of her chief's face, for it seemed incongruous with the High Priestess' depression, even irritability of the morning. Ishtal, too, could not understand the change. The elder Virgin's crafty eyes turned from right to left scanning the approaches into the market-place as though she were on the watch for something that she expected to happen. She also had noticed Keorah's absence from the scene, though not aware of its cause. Keorah had not taken Ishtal wholly into her confidence, for Keorah was too wary to confide wholly in anyone, at all events, in any other woman. But Ishtal knew enough to be sure that Keorah would strike home when the fitting opportunity occurred, and that at any moment, chance might bring the opportunity, Ishtal fully realised.

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She was right. The moment came, and with it Keorah and Elias Bedo.

Keorah and Hotan had led the man down by the intricate, subterranean passage, and through the hall of tortoises and along the short rock corridor to the top of the flight of steps leading into the market-place.

Keorah had soothed Bedo's alarms as best she could, by smiles and such reassuring English words as she had at command; and, when they got into the light—dim though it was in the clearer part of the tunnel—had caused the gag to be removed and his arms unbound. The two serving-men, Acans of huge stature and girth, walked on each side of him, holding his hands; and behind, stepped Hotan, whose eyes continually followed Keorah as she moved in front, the pride of possession lighting them, for she had cleverly beguiled him, and he hoped now to gain the reward of his service.

Bedo's brain was still confused with the unaccustomed drug, and he made no attempt to escape, useless though it would have been. Besides, Keorah's eyes turning back continually in his direction were like magnets drawing him, and her tinkling laugh like the ghost-bell which, according to Indian superstition, lures the willing listener to his doom. His wife's name, too, was part of the spell. Pointing onward, Keorah said many times “Anne. … wife. … hus-band,” so that one idea impressed itself upon Bedo's dulled understanding—his chase had not been in vain; at the end of the passage he would find his prey.

The strains of the Acan hymn reached Keorah's ears, and told her that her operations had been well calculated. This was the time at which the Zuhua Kak and her Virgins were marching in procession to the temple.

The platform at the top of the little flight of steps looked down upon the market-place, and peeping round the archway that gave upon it, Keorah saw that on one side, the train of Virgins was approaching, while descending a narrow street on the other, came the

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seven Elders in full canonical array, Naquah, the chief, at their head, Zilzie and Kapoc following, the others in twos bringing up the rear. The platform on to which Keorah was about to advance, stood at an intersecting angle so that here, the three lines converged, making a central point of action in the drama.

An open roadway round the edge of the amphitheatre was reserved for the procession, the rest of the space being filled with the Acan crowd which a little while before buzzing like a swarm of bees, was now waiting in respectful silence for the Zuhua Kak to pass.

Keorah beckoned to Bedo, pointing with his other hand to the small figure of Anne nearing them with slow, stately tread. Bewildered by the sound of the music, the maze of colour and the whole novel scene that was presented to his astonished gaze, he did not at first recognise his runaway wife, and sent his eyes roving over the heads of the people in search of her whom he had been given to understand that he should see. Keorah spoke a few hurried words to Hotan, bidding him watch but not bind their prisoner; then, as the two streams of Elders and Virgins approached each other, she went forward and stood in view of the multitude at the front of the platform.

Looking up, Kapoc first caught sight of her with Hotan, and the stranger, craning forward between his two guards, a foot or two behind. Then Kapoc felt sure that serious business was in train and whispered to Naquah, who halted, and gazed up also at the newcomers.

Meanwhile, Anne proceeded unthinkingly, wrapped in her own musings, and almost a mechanical actor in the scene. She had not noticed the gestures of Kapoc and Naquah; she had not seen Keorah nor the dreaded figure of Bedo, nor did she notice the suspicious glances started by Ishtal, that from all sides were directed towards herself. She might have gone on past the platform, observing nothing and giving the lie to all those accusing glances by the simple indifference and

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unconsciousness of her manner, had not one of those freakish impulses made her look up at the critical moment when she came opposite the platform.

Keorah she saw standing with one arm outstretched towards her, the other pointing to Bedo, an embodiment of remorseless fate. But her eyes went past Keorah and were transfixed by that ungainly form in bushman's garb, which had now moved, pressing forward from the rear, the eager unkempt head thrust out, the furious blood-shot eyes meeting hers in a stare of triumphant recognition.

The man gave a malignant shout of “Anne! Anne!” He shook his clenched fist at her, and would have cleared the steps and burst down among the crowd to confront her, but for Keorah's warning exclamation to Hotan, and the restraining hold of the Acan keepers.

“Just wait till I can get at you!” Bedo cried furiously. “I shall not let you escape me now. You've led me a pretty chase, and by—I don't mean to let you go again. You're my wife, Anne, remember, whatever you may call yourself here, dressed up in that toggery. I'll unmask you. I'll have the law on you. I'll force you to come back with me.” He raved at her. His very utterance of her name was condemnation in the ears of the Elders and Virgins, for they had heard Hansen call her Anne. Indeed, the looks of husband and wife gave too sure evidence that they were closely connected with each other. Stern words of reprobation broke from Naquah, and all through the crowd, went a hoarse murmur like the growl of an angry beast. Keorah alone stood scornful and unmoved. It was part of her scheme to pose as champion of the outraged gods, showing no personal animus against the impostor.

All Anne's customary presence of mind forsook her. She had never been brave in presence of this man. Probably she would not have married Bedo, had he not physically cowed her. There are women upon whom certain men have such an effect. A sharp

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moan broke from her lips. She stared back at him, her eyes wide with horror, her face going white as chalk. She had stopped dead, her form rigid for a moment or two. Then, seized with a great trembling, she swayed dizzily, and might have fallen, but for Semaara's sustaining arm. Not expecting this sudden pause, Anne's maidens, pressed by the crowd, broke their line, separating on either side of her while she, shorn already of the pomp of procession, stood like some helpless, hapless creature caught in a snare. She looked wildly round in search of Hansen or Kombo, but there was no sign of either.

Now there rose a tumult among the people. She heard cries in which the words “Zuhua Kak” sounded above a shrill confusion of Mayan. It seemed to her that they were demanding an explanation. Then old Naquah's voice uprose, she supposed in arraignment, and above the noise, came Bedo's wrathful asseverations while he pointed at her, at himself, and at Keorah, who only smiled, biding her time to speak, but by her darting gaze, her cold and scornful attitude inflaming the crowd to fiercer imprecations.

By uncouth pantomimic gestures, Bedo appeared to be conveying the fact that the High Priestess was his wife; and it was clear that the Acans fully grasped his meaning, and that they believed him, and were madly exasperated at the imposture practised upon them, and the sacrilege against their ancient traditions. The deep-mouthed roar swelled louder. This people, which a short time before had acclaimed their High Priestess as a divinity, now wanted to rush upon her and destroy her. In the tumult of speech that followed, Anne lost all hold upon the language she had acquired so laboriously. She did not know what was said. She only knew that her fate rested with Keorah and that Keorah was pitiless. For now as by common consent, and under the sway of old habitude, the populace called upon their former High Priestess.

“Keorah, Zuhua Kak! Keorah, Zuhua Kak!” as

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they had done upon that evening of the wanderer's entrance into the Heart of Aak—so long ago, it seemed—when in the paling afterglow the flaming torches of the Virgins had illumined Keorah's statuesque form and oddly beautiful face, above which the Eye of Viracocha gleamed, and the then High Priestess had replied as she did now, though in slightly varying terms:

“I, Keorah, who may not again be Zuhua Kak, High Virgin of the Flame, do nevertheless answer to your call, oh! People of the Aca.”