― 412 ―

Chapter XL - The Wrath of Kan

IT was over. The trial, such as it was, had been gone through then and there in the market-place, hurried on by the vindictive jealousy of Keorah, and the fanatic rage of Naquah, who saw the altars of his gods desecrated and the holy traditions of his race violated, and who, refusing to listen to the deprecatory plea for delay from Zilzie, demanded loudly summary retribution for the insult.

The people seconded him in their hoarse-throated cries for vengeance on the impostor. The honour of their religion was the strongest passion of which they were capable, and the sin of sacrilege was consequently rare in their annals. According to their understanding this quondam priestess was judged, and found guilty of it, and she must die. Their elementary minds could grasp no possible middle course. Desire for bloodshed once awakened within them, so changed these mild-mannered Acans as to seemingly revolutionise their whole nature. And Anne stood, the butt of their fury, self-convicted, white with inward terror, but once more outwardly composed, her native courage feebly re-asserting itself, and struggling to meet her fate unshrinkingly, whatever it might be. Hansen was still absent, and so was Kombo, and there was not one person to say a word in her behalf, except indeed Semaara, who incoherently remonstrated and entreated, in her efforts to shield her mistress from the wrath of the mob. A strange trial it was, in which the prisoner had no defending counsel, in which the accuser—her husband—did not understand the language of pleaders and judges, or

  ― 413 ―
anything but the vaguest outline of the situation; and in which the accused, found guilty on evidence that was practically unprovable, since there could be no examination of witnesses, was unable to follow the words of her condemnation. But Anne knew well, if only by the awe-stricken and pitiful looks of Semaara, that a doom had been pronounced against her; and she knew also that it must have to do with the symbol of death and the triangular door, for at certain phrases uttered with great solemnity by Naquah, every man and woman in the assemblage, with the exception of herself and Elias Bedo, bent their bodies and drew the corners of their mantles over their faces, as the Elders and Virgins had done on passing the mysterious opening below the Tortoise's Head.

Oh! If Eric were but here to tell her what it all meant, thought poor Anne, to speak for her to the people in their own tongue, and to rescue her from the frightful penalty of a Zuhua Kak's transgression, at which Semaara had darkly hinted. Had Keorah planned that he should be away when she struck the blow? Would she—Anne—be killed before there was time for her to see Eric again, even to bid him farewell?

It seemed that this was to be. Evidently, no respite would be granted. At command of Naquah, the Virgins stripped her of her splendid mantle, and outer embroidered robe. They took away the rose-coloured head-dress, and the glittering Eye of Viracocha, and left her, a forlorn figure clad only in the plain white linen dress that, except for its fineness, had no distinctive mark of dignity. There was a movement to offer to Keorah the insignia of Zuhua Kak, and to re-instal her in her former office. But Keorah waved the emblems aside, and pointed to Ishtal as their rightful wearer. Not upon a woman who, by grace of the gods, had resigned the Priestess-ship, and betrothed herself in marriage, might the mantle of the Zuhua Kak again descend. To Zaac Tepal was she vowed—Zaac Tepal, whom yonder usurper had, by lying words, enticed into

  ― 414 ―
her service, but who was guiltless of wilful outrage upon the Acan sanctities. As wife of Zaac Tepal would Keorah give counsel to her people, even instructing in the closer mysteries Ishtal, her lawful successor. But as Zuhua Kak could she reign no more.

Thus it happened that Ishtal attained her long-cherished ambition, and they put upon her tall angular form the gorgeous mantle Anne had worn so regally, and set upon her head the rose-coloured plumes, and the sacred opal upon her brow. Now the people clamoured that their eyes should be no longer offended at sight of the impostor, and that the ancient decree made by the Great Builders should be forthwith put into execution.

The mob divided, and reclosed in more orderly file. The Virgins ranged themselves in pairs behind Ishtal—all but Semaara, who had to be forcibly separated from her former mistress, and, weeping bitterly, took her place last in the train. The Elders followed at a little distance; and at Naquah's order the musicians recommenced, and the choir raised their voices again, but this time it was not the anthem to the Zuhua Kak that they sang, but the hymn to Xibal, Lord of Death. Immediately behind the band of Virgins, and a little in front of the Elders, was led the small, white figure of Anne between two stalwart acolytes, her hands bound by a linen cord; while further back, Keorah, who with her following had come down from the platform, walked in company of Hotan, still keeping watch over Elias Bedo. Hotan, enlightened at last by Keorah's open declaration of her betrothal to Zaac Tepal, and realising that notwithstanding all he had done for her, his own cause was hopeless, was too disappointed to care much what happened next. He had become moody and silent, and walked along, his gaze fixed on the ground, paying small attention to Bedo. Amused and scornful, but not caring to press his services still further, Keorah kept a keen look-out over the prisoner herself.

  ― 415 ―

Sharply as Hotan was suffering, his feelings were slight in comparison with those of the unhappy Bedo. Though he was now perfectly sure that he had done a very bad thing for himself in denouncing Anne as his wife, Bedo did not yet fully realise the depths of the disaster into which he was plunged. He had not, of course, understood a word of the speeches made by the Sacred Guardians, Keorah, and the rest, but he had observed the angry looks of the populace, had seen Anne stripped of her fine robes and outward marks of sovereignty, and had already come to the conclusion that he had better have held his tongue. He did not at all like the attitude of Keorah, who, from the moment upon which they had entered upon this scene of magnificence, had bestowed upon him no more smiles or blandishments. His uneasiness became abject terror when he found himself dragged down from the platform, surrounded by an increased guard of burly Acans, and, at command of Keorah, again gagged and bound, while he was forced into the procession and so surrounded by these big, red men that he could see nothing of what was going on. He had heard some short, sharp sentences in what he thought a very queer language, interchanged between his enchantress—no longer, it seemed, inclined to enchant—and the strange old bearded men whom he perceived to be persons of authority. These remarks, it was quite apparent to him, related to himself; and he had not at all liked the gesture of Keorah and the expression of her face as she closed the discussion, having, he inferred, made her will clear concerning him. It was very evident that her intentions were not benevolent, and he sought in vain to propitiate her by vociferations of gallantry. It was then that she had bidden her serving-men gag him, and he was now led along in the wake of this relentless Circe, who remained impervious to his distress, while a horrible uncertainty was coming over him as to what might be in store.

The procession passed out of the city through one of

  ― 416 ―
the openings in the rock-shell, and turned along the terrace in the direction of the Tortoise's Head. As it advanced, a faint trembling shook the ground beneath. It lasted but a moment, and the multitude moved on unheeding. Following this, came a low rumbling, like the roar of distant thunder, which reverberated from one side to the other of the cultivated basin lying below. The rock walls enclosing the great hollow looked strangely forbidding. They were of a livid greyness; every fissure and projection showed on the steep escarpments; and their jagged tops, with old gnarled gum trees, some lightning-blasted, stretching eldritch arms over the precipices, stood out portentously distinct against a brassy sky. It was the sort of sky that may be seen when bush fires are raging. Behind the Tortoise's Head a thick cloud was rising, spreading upward to the sun, an oddly-shaped cloud with branching arms of vapour and a dull redness at the base. Everywhere, brooding hush prevailed. All nature seemed awaiting the march of death.

Keorah murmured to Hotan that a storm was nigh, but he, occupied with his own thoughts, did not hear her, and for the most part, the people were too absorbed with the business in hand to pay attention to atmospheric warnings.

Along the broad terrace the procession filed, while the crowd pressed behind and beside it, and scattered forward down the slope and into the fields and gardens where men climbed the dividing walls, and even the roofs of goat-herds' dwellings, to obtain a better view of what was passing. But all halted at one particular point, above which the monolith towered. They went no further, but waited, crouching slightly, and drawing partly over their faces the folds of their mantles, behind which eager eyes peered upward.

Anne, who was walking as in a dream, not having yet realised her impending fate, was straining her eyes this way and that, in the wild hope that Hansen might appear. But at sight of that ominous shrouding movement

  ― 417 ―
she remembered the spot, and now knew whither she was being led.. Cold horror clutched her heart. She tried to speak, but all the words she had known of Mayan forsook her; and of what use to appeal in English since none could understand her? It suddenly occurred to her that she might try her hitherto unfailing resource in moments of danger. She straightened herself, reared her head, bravely struggled to get the pitch of her voice, brought up a few quavering notes, and then sent forth, pathetically rich and clear, the opening bars of her Ave. But the high rock on one side of her, the human wall on the other, seemed to force her voice back, and stifle it in her throat. Still she might have struggled on, but Keorah laughed shrilly in the rear, and that laugh killed poor Anne's pitiful endeavour. And now the Acan drums, which had stopped during a short interval, beat again in hollow clangour. The fiddles shricked in direful strain, and above the instruments, rose a solemn swell of sound as Ishtal and her Virgins led the choir, and all the people joining in, there was poured forth the invocation before the Death Stone which had first broken Anne's slumbers in the nuns' house,—“Holi, Huqui, Xibal Xibalba!” The slow rhythm was awesome, and the peculiar harmony of the anthem made it seem truly a dirge of death.

While this chant was being sung, the Virgins and the Elders who had wheeled and divided, were standing in rows of four—two Virgins in the centre, and an Elder on either side of them,—their shrouded faces turned to the cliff. Then—with the ending of the chant came an impressive silence, in which all remained standing, but with heads bowed on their breasts. Anne alone continued upright, her face uncovered, her eyes lifted to the precipice frowning in front of her above the tall forms which, placed as she was, a little distance behind, hid the base of the rock from her view. An irony it was that this small white woman, so frail and helpless in her bonds, should be thus closely guarded by the band of lusty acolytes; for she was literally hemmed in beyond

  ― 418 ―
hope of deliverance by the multitude of her enemies. The people were massed around her at the back and upon either side, spreading over the wide terrace, every soul of them keenly on the alert and breathless with anticipation, though they now preserved an extraordinary quietude. Through the stillness Anne could hear Semaara's sobs, which went to her heart. Then another sound broke the silence. It was Keorah's high voice giving an order, which a slight scuffle and movement in the throng showed was being immediately obeyed.

Two vigorous Acans in Keorah's livery of yellow and brown pushed their way forward, dragging with them a human bundle—no other than Elias Bedo, flaccid from terror, gagged by a coarse linen cloth stuffed into his mouth and secured at the back of his head, his arms tied to his sides, and even his legs hobbled to prevent any chance of his escaping, so that he could only limp in maimed fashion after his warders. They placed him in a line with Anne, an acolyte and a warder between. And so at last, husband and wife, pursuer and prey, came almost within touch of each other. Anne turned upon him a glance of horrified pity, quickly averting her eyes, and saying nothing. But Bedo, with cold sweat upon his forehead, his features convulsed in rage and fear, his black eyes starting from their sockets, writhed in his bonds, and made ineffectual efforts to speak.

At a long, deep-drawn note from the musicians, the Virgins and Elders prostrated themselves for a moment or two and rose again. In those moments, on a level with the kneeling forms, Anne had seen herself confronted by the mysterious triangular opening in the mountain which was rimmed with the blue Death Stone. As they rose, Ishtal and Naquah went forward together—Kapoc, Zilzie, and the other Virgins following—Semaara's agonized gaze shooting back at the condemned High Priestess. Then Anne felt herself being pushed forward by the acolytes guarding her,

  ― 419 ―
and knew that Elias Bedo was being brought after her. She heard the grating on its rock pivot of a ponderous door within the entrance. She heard Keorah's mocking laugh at her shoulder; and turning her head, saw the long narrow face in its frame of red hair with the pointed chin tilted upward, close to her, and the cruel eyes gleaming upon her with exultant hatred. Then a darkness spread before Anne; it was the darkness of the dungeon into which she was being thrust. Her imagination leaped to the picture of a more horrible fate even than that designed for her. Was she to be buried alive in the mountain?

There was a crepitating sound, a fizzle of flints striking fire, and a tiny forest of torches flared, illuminating the dark recesses of a wide vaulted corridor hewn in the rock, the walls of which were frescoed and sculptured. At the further end of the passage, showed a three-cornered glimmer that widened gradually, as, chanting the death hymn, the procession moved on with solemn tread nearer and nearer to the aperture.

The patch of light soon grew into a great triangular mouth of which the lips curled down at the edges. The lower lip curved outward, making a platform that abutted at the height of perhaps a hundred feet upon a sinister-looking gorge below.

Beyond, the landscape was formed of barren hills where gaunt, almost naked eucalyptus trees of an immense age reared their twisted limbs among boulders of basalt. The lines of these hills seemed to intersect each other in the zig-zags of a widening valley—that valley of desolation into which the wanderers had entered from the desert. North-eastwards on the horizon, above the down-sloping spaces, appeared the ends of two monstrous fangs, the open jaws of Kelan Yamina—the old-man Crocodile Mountain of the Blacks. Resting upon the petrified snout, and caught in the jagged teeth, was a lurid cloud, flame-coloured at its base, and raising aloft dusky branching arms menacingly to the darkened

  ― 420 ―
face of the sky. The whole sweep of the heavens seemed to have suddenly lowered. Grim shadows, caused by the straying vapour, flitted among the distant hills. High in mid-heaven, the luminous disc of the sun, paled to a strange whiteness amid its inky setting, hung majestic and remote, as though unwilling to look upon the dreadful scene. A purple mist shrouded the ravine below the Tortoise mouth, but through this, at the bottom of the gorge, could be discerned white patches like streaks of gypsum.

Anne knew the spot. Twice had she been close to it. It was the gorge strewn with bones into which the chamois had leaped on the day when they had entered into the Heart of Aak. And she and Hansen had looked down upon it from the cave Eye-Socket in the Tortoise's Head. It was Gunīda Ulàla of the Blacks' tradition—the Place of Death. Well, if her doom was to be that of the hunted chamois, Anne felt glad to think that she would be killed outright.

The two prisoners were at once brought forward to the edge of the platform, the Virgins and Elders with Keorah and Hotan and others of the chief personages in the Acan community, ranging themselves in a half-circle, while the multitude pressed up the corridor at the back. Looking down shudderingly Anne saw beneath her a space of the shining blue floor of the gorge unencumbered with bones, and guessed that death would be instantaneous at contact with the life-destroying stone. She turned her eyes compassionately on the huddled form of Bedo, bound hand and foot, with the gag covering his mouth, and shivering in the most abject terror, though he had no idea of what was to come.

“It will not hurt, Elias,” she said. “Very soon all will be over. Try to be brave, and make all the delay you can. God may save us yet. But at least, let us forgive each other if we are to die together.”

The beating of the drums drowned her words. Bedo strained to make out the syllables, and his features were contorted with the wild effort to speak, while his eyes

  ― 421 ―
sought hers in dumb, frenzied appeal. Then at a sign from Keorah the men in charge removed him to the further end of the platform, placing themselves between him and Anne so that she should hold no communication with him.

Her thoughts, however, it must be confessed, were chiefly of Eric. She had hoped till the last that he might come and save her, and now gazed desperately up the sides of the gorge where the precipice shelved towards the great head, in the mouth of which she knew she must be standing. The eye-sockets were above her. Oh! If by some blessed chance he had gone up there and could look down and see the horrible thing impending, and descend—she knew not how—to her deliverance! But there was no glimpse nor sound of him. How could there be in this awful death-trap? She was alone, helpless, at the mercy of her enemies, with not even Kombo nigh to give her aid. Why, on this day of all days, should it happen that the two were away from her? It was as though the insulted gods of Aca had carefully planned her destruction, and were offering her up as a propitiatory victim to the dread Four-Footed Serpent, whose hideous presence seemed to dominate this scene of sacrifice. As though in answer to her thought, there came the sound of a sharp concussion somewhere in the bowels of the earth. It seemed to shake the entire panorama, and cause even the monstrous mouth of the Tortoise to tremble. It was followed by a lengthened rumbling which, echoing among the hills, could be distinctly heard above the noise of the instruments. The red and brown vapour shot up, a denser volume, enveloping the Crocodile in cloud, amid which apparently forked lightning played. A faint sulphurous odour was borne across the valley. The leviathan seemed to be vomiting fire and smoke. It was a sight to make men grow pale. Those in the hinder part of the throng had no opportunity for observing the phenomenon, save for the trembling of the earth, which passed almost unheeded by them in the

  ― 422 ―
excitement of the moment. But those who stood on the lip of the Tortoise exchanged startled glances. Even Hotan lifted his sullen face, and pointed to the Crocodile warningly. The musicians stopped playing. A murmur was heard of “Ximal yani!” (Death is in the day), and there was a movement among the people to hurry proceedings, and depart.

As Anne stood patiently waiting for the end, she felt the touch of warm lips, and of a face wet with tears, upon her bound hands, and saw Semaara kneeling at her feet. The poor girl poured forth incoherent protestations of affection and loyalty, till Ishtal's stern voice bade her cease, and the other Virgins dragged her back to her place among them. Anne felt all the bitterness of death in that farewell, though her mind was growing confused. The clutch of the acolytes was on her shoulders, and, realising that the time was becoming short, she strove to compose her thoughts and lift them to heaven, but her brain was in a whirl. She seemed to see Eric's face in the black cloud that was sweeping up over the valley. Several times she fancied that she heard his voice in the thunderous rumblings. She could remember only that they had parted in pain and anger, and a passionate regret filled her, not that she was about to be flung down on the Death Stone, and cut off in her bloom from the joys of living, but that Eric would never know how dearly she loved him. And then, amid Semaara's sobs, and the mutterings of the wrathful sky, Anne did indeed hear a sound that sent the blood, well-nigh congealed with terror, rushing anew through her body, and caused her heart to leap wildly in her throat. It was in very truth the voice of Hansen speaking in Mayan, but with accents so strange, so stern and menacing, that it seemed like that of some inspired prophet of old calling down vengeance upon a sinning people. The next moment Anne thought that imagination must be deceiving her, for there was no sign of his presence; yet his voice, thundering above the roar of the elements, issued from the dense cloud

  ― 423 ―
that now clothed the monolith above her. But with all her senses quickened by this new hope, Anne grasped the meaning of the ringing Mayan words sufficiently to understand that a tremendous denunciation was being hurled at her would-be murderers.

“Hu Aca Tehua! Oh! Virgins of the Flame! Oh! Rebellious Children of Aak! Hear the wrath of the Gods, which I, their Interpreter, proclaim unto you, if ye will slay the Daughter of Dawn, the Chosen of our Lord the Sun.”

And thus, Eric Hansen from his post of observation, whence he had suddenly realised what was about to happen, gathering up all the power of which he was capable, strove to strike awe into the superstitious souls of the Acans, and gain if it might be only a brief respite in which to save the woman he loved. Thus he cursed the people—in the names of the Nine Lords of Night, of the Grim Lords of the One Death, and the Seven Deaths; in the names of Tohil and Huracan, Wielder of Thunderbolts, and Ruler of Winds; in the names of Aak the Intercessor, of Viracocha Zazil, and of KU the Unutterable.

He cursed them in their waking, and in their sleeping; in their marrying and in their begetting; in their living and in their dying; in the gardens where they planted, and in the caves wherein they dwelt; in their City of Refuge, and in the Promise of that Land to which no Deliverer should lead them; in the trackless valley of oblivion, and in Ximokasan, realm of shades. So he cursed the Children of Aak.

And the people were swept back like a mighty wave before an opposing wind. They cowered against the rock, veiling their faces, and for the space of a few seconds fear paralysed them. Then the mocking laugh of Keorah, who cared little for her country's gods, echoed, silvery and clear. She had recognised the ring of apprehension in Hansen's voice, and had her own reasons for desiring that there should be no unnecessary delay. At the tinkle of her laugh, Bedo,

  ― 424 ―
struggling with his keepers, contrived to turn his fettered body, and bent towards her, frenzied appeal in his staring eyes, and inarticulate jabberings coming from behind the linen cloth over his mouth. Pointing to him, Keorah spoke rapidly to Naquah, who addressed to the unhappy man a few curt phrases. They were wholly unintelligible to Bedo, who believed that Keorah had interceded for him and would once more take him into favour. When at a command from her, the two men drew him round again with his face to the platform, he submitted quietly under the impression that they were about to loose his bonds. But instead of that, they prodded him in the back with the butt end of their javelins, and pushed him to the brink of the death gulf. He gave a gurgling sound that died in his throat as he rolled over, a helpless inert mass. There came a dull thud, and in this manner, without a moment to prepare his soul, Elias Bedo was hurled into eternity.

At the sound of the scuffle, Anne, who had been eagerly gazing upward, glanced down again. She was just in time to see her husband's body disappear over the brink, and shrank back, appalled. It was too late, then! Hope was vain. The moment had come. She shrieked aloud one piercing cry of “Eric! save me!” as she felt her own warders push her forward. Then a great black wall rose suddenly before the ledge of the precipice, blotting out the valley and the mountains. The startled warders relaxed their hold and uttered guttural cries of the vengeance of the gods. Anne, feeling herself free, save for her bound hands, rushed sideways, and cowered in a recess of the cavern. In the confusion that ensued, it was not difficult to hide. Superstitious terror, fairly let loose among the Acans, rendered them almost mad. Faces convulsed with fear showed in the gloom, their starting eyes that saw nothing but the horror that had come upon them, gleaming fiercely in the flare of a few torches. A thrill of dreadful expectancy ran through the crowd; it could be felt

  ― 425 ―
like the quiver of a tense wire. Out of the darkness that menacing voice spoke again:—

“Behold! Children of Aak! Our Lord the Sun hideth His face from you. He changeth His glorious vesture for the raiment of mourning and woe. Out of the Place of Death will He of a surety gather His own, but upon you, and upon your children, and your city, shall His vengeance fall. Even now destruction cometh. The four-footed Serpent awaketh. Kan upriseth! See! Ye are delivered over unto the Ancient Enemy.”

Hansen's voice trembled with the agony of apprehension that racked him, but his words bore full weight. While he spoke, a terrific flame shot up out of the cloud that enveloped the Crocodile Mountain, and a shower of immense sparks rose and fell, covering the entire heaven. The Tortoise Mountain shook like some great palsied monster. A stench of sulphurous vapour poisoned the air, and through the din of crashing boulders, sounded heart-breaking shrieks, as men and women trampled upon each other in frantic efforts to escape from the death-trap into which they had thronged.

Now above the wailing voices and the roar of elements Anne heard a strange shout—the corroboree whoop of the Moongars, then Kombo's frenzied yell.

“Tulumi Mirrein! Tulumi Mirrein! Debil debil Kelan Yamina! Missa Anne! Missa Anne! Where you sit down? Mine been plenty busy, but mine lookout after you. Mine got-im yarraman. Massa Hansen close-up. Murra—make haste. Ba'al stop! Mine find-im road outside Tortoise. Nalla Yan! Nalla Yan!”

The girl gave a faint cry of relief—she was almost spent—at sound of the familiar tones. She put out her roped hands and touched Kombo's wealed chest. He was close to her—closer than he had known. She felt herself drawn along in his arms, and borne so swiftly that her feet scarcely brushed the ground. Through

  ― 426 ―
the darkness they sped, the black boy's unerring instinct leading them right—far along a winding passage, in an opposite direction from the Tortoise's Head, the mountain meanwhile seeming to upheave in a manner something like the living Aak when preparing to rise. Anne laughed hysterically, and shook in the black boy's arms like a terrified child. He tried to cheer her as he ran.

“All right, Missa Anne. Būjeri you! Good boy Kombo! Mine no one fellow dam fool. Mine got him fire-stone—you feel, inside shirt. Mine take-im when big Red Mary tumble down. What for that fellow put on frock belonging to you?”

But Anne's sobbing laugh quavered on. Nevertheless her world was getting a little steadier. She could walk now, and the ground felt firmer, though the mountain trembled still, and the thunder of the Tortoise with the groans of the Acans, and the crash of falling stones came to her muffled by the masses of intervening rock. Livid light flashed through the air-holes of the passage. They were in the tunnel which ran round inside the encircling walls of the great garden of Aak, the passage which led to liberty. Echoing footsteps followed them at a distance, but Anne felt no fear. Her heart told her it was Eric's tread, but Kombo would not let her stop. A joyful grin overspread the black boy's countenance. He brought Anne to a standstill at length, where the passage terminated in a wide-mouthed cave, beyond which a stretch of open, level country could be seen. Fresh winds swept it; the sky in front shone blue and clear; and here, close at hand, were tethered the stolen horses, with well-stocked saddle-bags beside them.

Anne's happy eyes ran over, but she could not speak till Hansen, hurrying after them, pale and eager, entered the cave. He went straight to Anne, and seeing she was still in bonds, drew out an Acan knife he carried, and cut the rope that bound her hands asunder. Then he took them both in his.