"Coming here, I guess," pronounced Earle. And half an hour later his surmise proved to be correct, for, still watching from the window, the pair again sighted the trio of horsemen urging their animals at top speed up the gentle slope of the cliff road toward the guard house.
A few minutes later the trio reined up their winded and sweat-lathered steeds and dismounted at the door of the guard house, where they were met and greeted with profound respect by Adoni; and while the leader, accompanied by Adoni, entered the building, the other two busied themselves unstrapping from their saddle bows the bundles which Dick had noticed, and bearing which they presently followed their leader.
For fully twenty minutes the newcomers remained in close conference with Adoni and the officer who had acted the part of medical examiner—and whose name, it transpired, was Camma—and at the end of the conference they were conducted by the two officers into the presence of Earle and Dick. It was Adoni who presented them, naming them respectively, Acor— who subsequently proved to be the captain of King Juda's guard—Tedek and Kedah, the two latter being lieutenants in Acor's corps. They were all fine, upstanding men, of distinctly imperious and haughty bearing— Acor perhaps exhibiting those characteristics most markedly, as was only natural, considering the exalted position which he occupied at Court, and the almost autocratic authority which he wielded; nevertheless, at the sight of Earle's talisman, they suddenly subdued their haughty demeanour to one of deep reverence, and bowed low before the American, with their hands crossed upon their breasts, while they murmured a few words, which sounded like something in the nature of an invocation. Then they turned to Dick and, with a glance of admiration at his stalwart frame, bowed again, though with somewhat less of deference than they had manifested toward Earle. As for Earle, he did his best to act up to the distinguished position into which Fate seemed to have pitch-forked him, returning the bows of the officers with a slight inclination of the head and a still slighter flexure of the body, while he gazed upon them with a kind of bland abstraction; Dick imitating his friend's deportment as closely as possible, though there was a gleam of frankness and friendliness in his eyes which Earle had not permitted to appear in his.
Notwithstanding a certain suggestion of reserve in the demeanour of the new arrivals, they could not altogether conceal the astonishment they evidently felt at the style and cut of the white men's clothes—by this time very much the worse for wear and travel stains—which afforded so marked a contrast to their own splendid habiliments. The three officers were attired alike in helmets, corselets, greaves, and gauntlets of gold plate worn over a shirt of fine chain mail, also made of gold, and were armed with short swords, encased in golden scabbards suspended from belts consisting of gold plaques linked together. But there were certain differences in the uniform of the three; for whereas the plumes which adorned the helmets of the two lieutenants were black, those of their chief were red; and whereas their helmets were perfectly plain, Acor's was richly decorated with embossed ornamentation. Also the arms of the two lieutenants were bare from corselet to gauntlet, while Acor's were clad in sleeves of thin red silk. The lieutenants' sashes were black and yellow; that of the captain red; they wore buskins of white leather, while his feet and legs were encased in golden armour to just below the knee; and lastly, his sword hilt, belt and scabbard were much more richly ornamented than theirs.
The introduction having been effected, Acor addressed himself at some length and with much gesture to Earle. Precisely what he said was of course unintelligible to the white men; but they gathered some hint of meaning from his gestures, which they interpreted—rightly, as afterwards transpired—as a sort of qualified welcome to Ulua, founded entirely upon Earle's possession of the mysterious amulet. Acor concluded his address by beckoning forward his two lieutenants and directing the attention of the white men to the contents of the bundles, which, when unrolled, proved to be two dresses made of an exceedingly fine, silky sort of woollen material. The dresses consisted of a sort of singlet without sleeves, a pair of short pants somewhat like those worn by football players, and an outer garment, cut somewhat like a shirt, but rather longer, the hem reaching to just below the knee. This garment, made quite loose, was confined at the waist by a belt. The costumes were completed by the addition of sandals and a kind of turban. But the two costumes, although similar in cut, were different in appearance; for while that which was offered for Earle's acceptance was decorated with turquoise blue braid sewn round the edges of the outer garment in a broad pattern very similar to the Greek "key" pattern, with an edging of bead fringe of the same colour, the ornamentation of the costume offered to Dick consisted of an elaborate pattern beautifully worked in red braid, with a fringe of red beads. The turbans, too, were somewhat different in shape, Earle's being considerably the higher of the two, intertwined with a rope of large blue beads, while Dick's was perfectly plain. Recognising that Acor was inviting them to accept these garments and don them, the two white men bowed their assent and took the garments, whereupon Acor and his lieutenants retired, leaving Earle and Dick to themselves. Truth to tell, the presented garments were most acceptable gifts, for not only were the clothes which the explorers were wearing grimy and tattered, but, having been originally designed for hard service, they were also unpleasantly heavy and hot, so that their owners were only too glad to discard them in favour of others much more suited to the climate, and the pair lost no time in effecting the change.
They had scarcely done so when the sound of horses' hoofs approaching up the road attracted their attention, and going to the window, they perceived a dozen horsemen, with two led horses, galloping toward the guard house. A few minutes later, these having arrived, Acor presented himself, and by signs invited the two white men to follow him. This they did, passing out of the guard house just as three servants led forth the horses of Acor and his two lieutenants, which meanwhile had been groomed and fed. Then, as the two white men stepped forth into the open, each of the newly-arrived horsemen flung up his right hand in salute and shouted a word that sounded remarkably like "Hail!" The two led horses were then brought forward, and with a gesture of deference, Acor invited his two guests—or were they prisoners?—to mount.
The horses were beautiful animals, full of mettle and fire, notwithstanding the journey which they had just performed, and they were most sumptuously caparisoned, the saddles, though differently shaped from the European or American article, being made of soft leather, thickly padded, with a handsome saddle cloth beneath, under which again was a fine net made of thin silk cord, reaching from the animal's withers to his tail, the edges of the net being fringed with small tassels.
Earle was of course an accomplished horseman, riding indeed like a cowboy, and therefore, out of a feeling of compassion for his companion, he chose what appeared to be the most mettlesome of the two proffered horses; but Dick, although a sailor, had also learned how to keep his seat upon a horse's back, and the manner in which the pair lightly swung themselves up into the saddle, and the easy grace with which they retained their seats, despite the curvetting and prancing of their steeds, evoked a low murmur of admiration from the beholders as the latter formed up round the white men.
Then, just as Adoni and Camma were bidding their strange guests a respectful farewell, Earle noticed that his Indian followers and all his goods had disappeared.
"Say!" he exclaimed, seizing Acor by the arm and pointing to the spot where the Indians had been camped a couple of hours earlier—"where are my Indians? Surely, you haven't turned them out, have you?"
The tone of voice in which the question was put and the gesture which accompanied it were evidently quite intelligible, for Acor instantly replied in deferential tones, at the same time pointing down the road; and, sure enough, after the cavalcade had proceeded about two miles, Inaguy and his companions were overtaken, trudging cheerfully along under the escort of a man who both Dick and Earle remembered having seen about the guard house earlier in the day.
The two friends, with their escort, reached the foot of the cliff road, after a ride of some six miles, shortly after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains at the western end of the valley. They were now in the valley itself, with mountains hemming them in on every hand; and as they gazed upward in wonder at the high, vertical cliffs all round them, they realised at last that they were inside an absolutely impregnable fortress, hewn out of the mountain range by the hand of Nature herself, and accessible only by air, or by the road which they had just traversed. After a thoroughly comprehensive survey of their surroundings, Earle explained to Dick that the only theory upon which he could account for so extraordinary a formation was, that thousands, or possibly even millions, of years ago the valley had been the crater of a gigantic volcano which, after the volcano had become extinct, had gradually filled with debris, leaving a depression in the middle, which in process of time, had become a lake. And, indeed, if the theory of a volcano upon so gigantic a scale could but be accepted, it looked very much as though Earle's explanation might be correct; for the soil of the valley—a belt of flat land some two miles wide, extending all round the lake—was light and friable, but extraordinarily rich, as is apt to be the case with volcanic soil, while the vertical cliffs which hemmed it in all round bore a striking resemblance to the interior of certain well-known craters.
Just clear of the foot of the cliff road the party came upon an encampment, easily recognisable as that of the body of soldiers seen advancing from the city earlier in the day; and here the night was spent, the two white men being housed in a capacious tent, most luxuriously furnished and adorned, in which, shortly after their arrival, a meal of so elaborate a description, that it might almost be termed a banquet, was served to them by a staff of reverentially obsequious servants, and in which they subsequently slept the sleep of the just, on great piles of soft rugs spread upon the short grass.
THEIR FIRST DAY IN ULUA.
With the rising of the sun on the following morning, the camp became a scene of bustling activity, the soldiers grooming, feeding, and watering their horses, while a little army of servitors bestirred themselves in the kindling of fires and the preparation of a meal, prior, as the two white men surmised, to a start for the city.
Whatever might be the climatic conditions in the valley later on in the day, the early morning air was fresh, cool, and fragrant, with the mingled odours of rich pastures, luxuriant cornfields, orchards, and gardens, brilliant with many-hued flowers.
As Earle and Dick emerged from their tent, fresh and buoyant after a sound night's sleep, the troopers, very lightly clad, were mounting their horses, bare-backed, with the evident intention of taking the animals down to the lake; and the idea occurred to Dick and Earle simultaneously, that there was nothing in the world they so ardently desired at that moment as a dip in the lake, which, gently ruffled by the lightest and most balmy of zephyrs, lay shimmering invitingly in the sunshine some two miles away. With one accord, therefore, they advanced toward where the horsemen, now mounted, awaited the word of command to march. Most of the troopers had only their own individual horses to look after, but there were some twenty or so who were each also in charge of a led horse, and walking up to a couple of these, the two white men took from the somewhat surprised but submissive soldiers a horse apiece, and vaulting upon the animals' bare backs, lined up alongside the officer in command, who received them with a respectful salute. Half an hour later, Dick and Earle were sporting in the lake like a couple of mermen, to the amazement and admiration of the Uluans, not one of whom appeared to possess the most elementary knowledge of swimming. The temperature of the water was just right to render a swim both invigorating and enjoyable, and when at length the two friends returned to camp, they were in excellent form to do justice to the breakfast which they found awaiting them.
The journey from the foot of the cliff road where the camp had been pitched, round the south-eastern extremity of the lake and so to the city, was taken at an easy pace, to spare the cattle which drew the camp carts, in which room had been found for Earle's impedimenta as well as for a few of the Indians, while those not so accommodated made no difficulty of running or walking beside the carts. The journey was devoid of incident, but the ride was an exceedingly pleasant one, since the road wound its way for the whole distance through fields and orchards, the flourishing condition of which bore eloquent testimony to the richness of the soil and the agricultural skill of the inhabitants. Here and there farms were passed which were devoted to the raising of horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, and the splendid condition of the animals was a source of constant admiration to the two white men.
The city was reached about noon, but long before then the strangers had begun to realise the splendour and magnificence of it. A peculiarity of it was that it had no suburbs, the farm lands coming right up to the gardens of the outermost houses of the city, which clustered as thickly on its outskirts as in its heart. A further peculiarity was that there were no rows of houses; each was completely detached and stood in its own grounds, the only difference being that some of the buildings were larger, more ornate, and had more extensive gardens than others. The buildings, though by no means overloaded with ornament, were exceedingly handsome in a quiet, chaste style, which Earle said reminded him very forcibly of certain Pompeiian houses; much of the ornamentation consisting of painted designs upon the white walls. All the houses appeared to be flat-roofed, and many of them had gardens on the roofs, the shrubs and trees showing over the low parapets. Others were covered with gay awnings, beneath which some of the occupants could be seen taking their ease in hammocks. The Uluans appeared to be passionately fond of flowers, the gardens being full of them, while their condition evidenced the care with which they were tended. Fountains, too, abounded, some of those adorning the public squares being of very curious and elaborate design. The streets were very wide, few being less than a hundred feet in width, while some were considerably wider, with narrow strips of garden running down the centre, full of the most exquisite flowers interspersed with umbrageous trees. Trees also overshadowed the rather narrow sidewalks.
Ulua, however, was by no means a city devoted exclusively to luxury. There was evidently a considerable amount of business done there also, for some of the streets were occupied entirely by shops, though who, except the inhabitants, patronised them, was a question, since all the indications pointed to the fact that there was no trade done with the outside world. The commodities exposed for sale seemed to consist mainly of fruit, vegetables, flowers, confectionery, what looked like bread in various fanciful shapes, embroideries, jewellery, silks, soft woollen materials, paintings, lamps and lanterns, harness, and other goods too numerous to mention.
What surprised the visitors most of all, perhaps, in this wonderful city was the extraordinarily lavish use made of gold; to them it appeared that everything that could possibly be made of gold was of that metal; and it was not until some time afterwards that they learned that gold was the most common of the metals with the Uluans, who valued it only because of its untarnishability and beauty of colour.
The wider thoroughfares, squares, and the spacious public gardens through which the cavalcade passed contained a fair number of people, although the visitors discovered, later on, that this was the hour when most of the inhabitants who were not called abroad by business preferred to remain in the seclusion of their own houses and gardens, this being the hottest hour of the day. Naturally, Earle and Dick regarded with some curiosity the people who paused to regard them as they passed, and they came to the conclusion that, on the whole, the Uluans were a distinctly attractive-looking people, the women especially reminding Earle of the Italians, not only as regarded the regularity of their features, but also in the grace of their form and carriage.
At length the cavalcade came to a halt in a spacious and beautiful square, situated, as the visitors judged, in about the centre of the city. One side of this square was entirely occupied by an enormous, lofty, and handsome building, the central portion of which was surmounted by an immense dome, covered with plates of gold, arranged in tiers or bands of different shapes among which that of the lozenge was the most conspicuous, while each corner of the building was crowned with a smaller dome, similarly covered and ornamented. Each of the five domes bore on its summit, as a sort of finial, the figure of a winged serpent, half of its body being arranged in a coil, while the other half, with outstretched wings, was upreared in a graceful curve. A similar figure crowned a large and beautiful fountain which occupied the centre of the square, and it was noticeable that every individual who passed this figure halted and bowed profoundly to it, from which the two white men inferred that the winged serpent was a sacred symbol, evidently held in the highest veneration. This surmise ultimately proved to be correct, the winged serpent being the figure of the Uluan god Kuhlacan, who was believed to dwell at the bottom of the lake, in its centre, and at whose annual festival sacrifices of jewels of immense value were made by casting them with much ceremony into the lake, from richly decorated boats. The building with the five golden domes was, of course, the temple, sacred to Kuhlacan, in which the god was daily worshipped. Earle, whose aesthetic sense was stirred by the beauty of the fountain and the wonderful workmanship of the figure surmounting it, directed Dick's particular attention to it and descanted at some length upon the taste of the design; and Dick, while listening to his companion, could not fail to observe that Acor, the officer in charge of the escort, as well as the members of the escort, and indeed all who were gathered in the square at the moment, regarded Earle intently, with an expression of mingled wonder and satisfaction. Acor waited respectfully while Earle was speaking and, when the latter had finished, gave the order to dismount.
At a signal from one of the officers, two troopers advanced and took charge of the horses which Earle and Dick had been riding, and then Acor, bowing respectfully to the pair, invited them by word and gesture to follow him into a building on the opposite side of the square from the temple.
This building, which, like the temple, occupied an entire side of the square, was much more elaborate, from an architectural point of view than the sacred edifice, the design of which was chaste, majestic, and rather severe, while its vis-a-vis—which proved to be the royal palace—was ornate and decorative in effect. It consisted of an immense block of buildings, arranged in the form of a hollow square enclosing a magnificent garden, adorned with many beautiful fountains and statues, access to which was gained through a wide and lofty archway closed by a pair of immense and beautiful gates, modelled apparently in bronze, the archway and gates being so treated as to form a distinctive feature in the general design of the building.
As Acor and his two companions approached the archway the great gates swung open, actuated by some unseen agency, and the trio passed through, saluted, as they went, by the two impassive sentries who stood on guard.
Wheeling sharply round to the left as soon as they had passed through the archway, Acor conducted his charges along a wide pathway paved with slabs of variegated marble, until they reached a lofty doorway, entering which, Earle and Dick found themselves in a spacious lofty hall, the temperature of which was delightfully cool compared with the blazing sunshine outside. They appeared to be expected, for upon their entrance, a little group of men, whose rich attire seemed to proclaim them palace officials, came forward and bowing low, were introduced by Acor, who simply pointed to each man and pronounced his name. This done, the captain of the guard gravely and respectfully saluted his charges and retired, leaving them in the hands of the little group of supposed officials.
One of these, an elderly man of very dignified mien and presence, whom Acor had named Bahrim, and who afterward turned out to be the major-domo of the palace, at once stepped forward and with a low bow, signed the two white men to follow him. He led the way to one side of the hall, where a noble staircase of elaborately sculptured marble swept upward to a wide gallery running round three of the walls, and ascending this, Earle and Dick were presently inducted into a suite of three lofty and luxurious rooms, two of which were furnished as sleeping-chambers, while the third, lighted by two lofty window openings, shaded by sun blinds, looked out over the garden. The rooms were all most sumptuously furnished, the furniture, of quaint but graceful design, being made, for the most part, of rare and beautiful woods, richly carved. In each of the sleeping-chambers there was a large marble bath, already filled with water, and on each of the couches was set out a change of apparel.
With a wave of the hand, Bahrim indicated the rooms and their contents generally, and said a few words, from the tone of which Earle judged him to be asking whether they were satisfactory; for when Earle carelessly nodded an affirmative, Bahrim smiled, as though with gratification, and clapped his hands. This proved to be a summons to two attendants, who instantly entered and made their obeisances to the white men. These Bahrim introduced by the simple process of pointing to one and saying, "Shan," and to the other, saying, "Raba."
"Thanks," said Earle; "that will do nicely." Then, as Bahrim respectfully bowed himself out, the American turned to his friend and remarked:
"Say, Dick, how is this for high? Some lodging, this. What? I wonder how long it is to lunch time? That ride has proved a fine appetiser in my case. But those baths look good. Guess I'll have a dip now. I suppose these two guys are to be our servants. Which one will you have?"
"Oh," answered Dick, "either of them will do for me. They both look reasonably decent chaps. Take your choice."
"Right!" said Earle. "Then I guess I'll have Shan, because I think his name is the easiest to remember. Come along, Shan, and help me to get out of these togs. I'm going to have a bath. See?"
Shan apparently saw, which indeed was not difficult, since Earle pointed toward the bath as he spoke. The man bowed and turned to help Earle rid himself of his clothes, while Dick, beckoning to Raba, retired to the other sleeping-chamber, and a few minutes later was also luxuriating in the coolness of the bath.
Refreshed by their dip and a delicious luncheon, the two friends were seated in the deep embrasure of one of the unglazed windows of their sitting-room, Earle lazily smoking as he and Dick discussed the advisability of sallying forth, a little later, to learn the geography of the town, when they were interrupted by the appearance of Bahrim, the major-domo, accompanied by two other men, whom he introduced respectively as Zorah and Kedah.
The former was a tall, thin, ascetic-looking man of probably sixty or sixty-five years of age. He had doubtless been, in his prime, an exceedingly handsome man, for, even now, his features were well modelled and clean cut, but his sallow skin was deeply wrinkled about the forehead, eyes, and the wings of his nostrils—his mouth and chin were hidden by a thick moustache and long, straggling grey, almost white beard. A few thin wisps of long white hair escaped from the back part of the turban which covered his head, and fell to the level of his shoulders. But perhaps the most striking feature of him after his thin, hawk-like nose, was his eyes, which were large, black and piercing. He was attired in a dress which was a replica in every respect of that which had been provided for Earle, and his carriage, as he entered the apartment, was assured, haughty, almost arrogant, that of a man of high and assured position who possessed a profound faith in himself.
He bowed to Earle with a gesture of restrained humility which contrasted oddly with the hauteur of his expression, and striding up to the American, laid his two thin, talon-like hands upon the other's shoulders, and turned him round until Earle fully faced the light. Then, bending forward, he intently scrutinised the queer jewel, or talisman, which Earle now wore fully exposed to view. And as he did so, the expression of almost defiant pride which his features had worn upon his entrance, gradually relaxed until it vanished and gave place to one of humble conviction. Then, laying the extremities of his fingers to his forehead, he bowed very low and backing away from Earle, gradually bowing himself out of the chamber.
Meanwhile, the other man, Kedah, had stood, a profoundly interested and impressed spectator of the short scene. He, too, was an elderly man, short, rather inclined to be stout, and bald-headed save for two thick tufts of white hair that sprouted over his ears. He was attired very much like Earle, except that the garniture of his robe was emerald green, instead of turquoise blue; also, instead of a turban, he usually wore a small, close-fitting skull cap of green silk, which he had removed upon entering the apartment. In one hand he carried, as well as his skull cap, a rather clumsy-looking umbrella of green silk, modelled somewhat after the pattern of the Japanese article, while the other hand grasped a roll of what looked like thin parchment.
Upon the departure of Zorah, Kedah laid aside his umbrella and skull cap and, respectfully motioning the two white men to be seated, drew forward a small table, upon which he unrolled the parchment, revealing the fact that its inner surface was covered with small but beautifully executed drawings of a multitude of objects, such as men, women, boys, girls, infants, horses, cattle, sheep, etc. To several of these he pointed in turn, giving each its proper designation in the Uluan tongue, making his pupils—for such they were—repeat the words several times after him until they had caught the correct accent. Then, after he had named some twenty objects, he harked back to the beginning again, pointing to each object and then, by expressive motions of his hands and bushy eyebrows, requiring them to repeat as many of the names as they could remember. In this fashion they proceeded for about an hour and a half, by which time the two white men had mastered the designations of some fifty objects and were enabled to repeat them when pointed at haphazard. Kedah graciously expressed his satisfaction at their progress in a flow of words accompanied by so much action and spoken in such a tone that there was little difficulty in understanding his general meaning. This system of tuition was continued day after day, accompanied by a gradual extension of the hours of study, and, after the first week, by the introduction of short sentences, such as: "This is a table. That is a picture. There is a man. Yonder go a woman and child. Observe that crowd of people," and so on, the sentences gradually lengthening and becoming more intricate, so that by the end of two months, Kedah's pupils were not only able to gather the general sense of most of what was said to them, but also intelligibly to ask for almost anything they required.
Meanwhile, during the progress of that first lesson, certain muffled exclamations, accompanied by the sounds of heavy breathing and scuffling feet, reached the ears of the pupils from the adjoining apartments; and when, upon the conclusion of the lesson they entered those apartments, Dick and Earle had the satisfaction of finding that all their belongings had been brought up and were neatly stowed away; also that Inaguy and Moquit, two of their Indian followers, had been added to their staff of servants. And from these men they also received the satisfactory information that the rest of the Indians were lodged together and being well cared for in a chamber beneath the palace.
The afternoon was by this time so far advanced that the two white men felt they might safely venture to sally forth and see something of the city, without much fear of being unduly incommoded by the heat, and they were also curious to ascertain how far they were free agents to come and go as they pleased; they resolved, therefore, to put the matter to the test without further ado. Accordingly, each thrusting a pair of fully loaded automatics into his belt, as a measure of precaution against possible contingencies, they left their apartments and, descending the stairs, made their way to the garden quadrangle, from whence they passed, without interference, into the grand square, receiving the salute of the sentry at the gates as they went.
The temple, situate on the opposite side of the square, was naturally the first object to claim their attention, and observing that its great main entrance doors stood wide open, the pair sauntered across the square, reverentially saluted as they went by everyone they met, and passing up the long flight of steps leading to the open doorway, they boldly entered the building.
It was a magnificent structure, the rich and lavish ornamentation of its interior making ample amends for the severity of its exterior design. The four corners of the building were occupied by spacious rooms, or possibly subsidiary chapels, the doors of which were closed, but the main or principal temple was open, and into this the two friends boldly made their way, Earle declaring to Dick that he was determined to put to the test the exact measure of independence and power which the possession of the talisman conferred upon him, which he believed to be almost supreme, judging by the extraordinary reverence and veneration with which it had thus far been regarded by the Uluans.
The main temple was far and away the most spacious interior which either of them had thus far seen, Earle, after running his eye over it, expressing the opinion that its floor would accommodate at least twenty thousand persons comfortably. It was rectangular in shape, its longest dimension running east and west. Its main walls were about sixty feet high, tinted turquoise blue—as was the ceiling—with decorative designs in white. It was lighted by windows in the sides, fitted with slats instead of glass, so carefully adjusted that while admitting a sufficiency of light—when one's eyes became accustomed to the semi-obscurity—they effectually excluded rain. The centre of the ceiling was pierced by a circular aperture about one hundred feet in diameter, above which rose the majestic dome which, from the outside, had already attracted their admiring attention. This dome was supported by four enormous columns connected by arches, and its interior, while shrouded in gloom, was a mass of subdued scintillating colour, as though it were encrusted with innumerable gems and glowing enamels. The eastern wall of the interior was remarkable from the circumstance that it bore a gigantic replica of the jewel, or talisman, which Earle wore— a fact which finally and definitely confirmed the conviction already arrived at by the American that the possession of the ornament conferred upon him almost supernatural powers and authority. At a distance of some twenty feet from this eastern wall there was an immense figure—or statue—of the Winged Serpent, reproduced in the middle of the square and on the domes of the temple, and before it stood a very large altar which bore evidences that sacrifices were continually offered upon it.
Upon entering the building the two friends were under the impression that it was empty; but they had scarcely been in it ten minutes, and were standing before the altar, studying the marvellous modelling of the Winged Serpent, when a strain of music smote upon their ears, and the next moment a curtain parted and a company of priests, some sixty in number, of whom about a third were playing upon quaint-looking musical instruments, filed into the building, headed by Zorah, their acquaintance of an hour or two earlier. Advancing with slow and solemn steps they halted before the two friends and, after bowing profoundly to Earle, broke into a slow and solemn chant, which gradually changed into a kind of triumphal hymn, at the conclusion of which they again bowed until their foreheads almost touched the pavement, and then filed out again.
The two white men, completely taken aback by the solemnity and unexpectedness of this apparently impromptu ceremony, knew not what to do, and therefore did nothing, which, as afterwards transpired, was the wisest course they could possibly have adopted. For, although they were quite unaware of it at the moment, their every movement was being carefully watched, and when they entered the temple, Zorah, the high priest, was instantly informed of the fact; whereupon he marshalled his subordinate priests and carried out the ceremony above recorded, in order to do honour to the individual who, in virtue of his possession of the mysterious jewel bearing the "sign" of Kuhlacan, the Winged Serpent, was implicitly believed to be either Kuhlacan's special ambassador to the Uluans, or, possibly, a human incarnation of Kuhlacan himself. The ceremony brought home a vague inkling of this state of affairs to both of the individuals most intimately concerned, and Earle, while expressing some embarrassment and dislike of the position in which he found himself placed, announced to Dick his determination to accept it, in the hope and belief that, before leaving Ulua, it might be his good fortune to wield the authority with which he was endowed for the benefit and advantage of the people, and quite possibly, the correction of abuses.
Leaving the temple, the two friends passed out of the square and entered a road which attracted them because of its extraordinary width, the magnificence of its shade trees, the beauty of its central strip of garden, the sumptuous character of its buildings, and the air of dignity and well-being which seemed to characterise the people who were promenading it. Taken altogether, it appeared to be Ulua's most aristocratic quarter, or at least its most fashionable promenade, for the men and women who thronged it were all elegantly dressed, and all had the air of belonging to the leisured class, while the roadway was thickly sprinkled with elegant and beautifully decorated chariots, drawn by teams of two, or sometimes three, handsome horses, driven by young men who appeared to be inviting the admiration of Ulua's fair ones.
Still unobtrusively followed by a palace official, the two friends wended their way down the street, receiving the respectful homage of all who passed them. They had traversed about half the length of the street, which was about two miles long, when suddenly loud and excited cries arose behind them, punctuated by the quick clatter of galloping hoofs, and wheeling round, they beheld a beautiful chariot, the body, wheels, and pole of which were entirely covered with plates of embossed gold, coming careering along the road toward them at full speed, and swerving wildly from side to side of the road as it came, the two cream stallions which drew it having evidently bolted.
The man who drove was doing his best to regain control of his terrified and mettlesome animals, and at the same time to avoid the chariots ahead of him, the drivers of which hurriedly drew in towards the sides of the road to give the runaways a free passage; but the lad—for he was apparently still in his teens—might as well have attempted to control the elements; the horses had got their heads and seemed determined not to stop until they were tired, while it was evident that a very serious accident was inevitable, the road being thronged with vehicles, horsemen and pedestrians—the latter seeming to use the roadway quite as much as the footpaths.
And even as Dick and Earle halted and turned to ascertain the cause of the commotion, the wildly careering chariot collided with another, a wheel of which it sheared off, while the impact of the two vehicles jolted the driver of the runaways off his feet and flung him violently into the road, where he lay motionless.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Dick, as the two creams came tearing along, with the reins trailing in the roadway, "the brutes will not only kill themselves, but dozens of people as well, if they are not stopped!" And before Earle could reply, or do anything to restrain him, the lad sprang into the roadway, close to the path of the runaways, and braced himself for a spring. The next instant the frantic horses were upon him; but meanwhile, with a leap, Dick had started to run in the same direction as the horses, and as they tore past, with one hand he snatched at the reins and got them, while with the other, he gripped the rear of the chariot and swung himself into it. Then, gripping the reins with a firm hand, and shouting all the time to warn those ahead, he brought a steady strain to bear upon the horses' mouths, guiding them meanwhile as best he could. And almost immediately his pull upon the reins began to tell, for his thews and sinews, hardened and tempered to the strength of steel by his long tramp from the banks of the Amazon, were very different from those of the effeminate youth who had been thrown out; and after traversing a couple of hundred yards, the animals acknowledged themselves beaten and came to a standstill without having done further damage. Then, turning the sweat-lathered animals gently round, Dick drove them at a foot pace, snorting and curvetting, back to the spot where the owner, still insensible, lay upon the footpath, being tended by sympathisers, of whom Earle was one. As Dick came up and dismounted from the chariot, which he surrendered to an official, he was greeted with loud plaudits, the people clapping their hands and shouting "Aha! aha!"
They made way for him as he came up and joined Earle, who was already bending over the insensible charioteer, feeling the youth's body and limbs.
"Any damage done?" he inquired, as he came to a stand and looked down on his friend.
"Hillo! you back?" returned Earle. "You've soon done the trick, Dick. Did you manage to stop 'em without hurting anybody else?"
"Yes, luckily," answered Dick. "Pulled 'em up, and brought 'em back again. They're in the road there, now, in charge of a fellow who, I suppose, is a sort of policeman. Is that dude hurt at all?"
"Left arm broken; but that seems to be the full extent of the damage," answered Earle. "If I could get a couple of sticks and a bandage, I'd set it while he is still insensible. Just see if you can find anything that will do, Dick, there's a good chap."
Dick looked about him, but could see nothing at all suitable until his gaze happened to fall upon the window of a house opposite him, which was closed by a kind of jalousie shutter. A couple of slats from this shutter would serve excellently, and without ceremony he wrenched two of them out and, breaking them into suitable lengths, handed them to Earle. Then, while the latter brought the ends of the fractured bone into position and held them there, Dick adjusted the splints, as directed by Earle, afterwards assisted by a bystander, binding them firmly into position with the folds of his turban, which he unwound for the purpose.
By the time that this was done the friends of the injured man had been summoned and were on the spot; and to them Earle handed over his patient, directing them by signs what to do, after which the two friends returned to the palace, amid the admiring murmurs of all whom they encountered.
EARLE SETTLES A DELICATE MATTER.
The following day was marked by two incidents, namely, a visit to Earle and Dick from the parents of Mishail, the young man who had been injured by being thrown out of his chariot, and the presentation of the two friends to Juda, the King of Ulua, and his granddaughter, the Princess Myrra.
The visit occurred shortly after the friends had finished breakfast, and the visitors were accompanied and introduced by Kedah, the individual who, on the previous day, had begun the task of instructing the two white men in the Uluan tongue.
Kedah introduced the visitors by simply indicating them and pronouncing their names, that of the man whom he introduced first being Hasca, while he named the lady Tua.
Judging by the deference which Kedah displayed toward them the visitors were people of high degree; an inference which was borne out in the first instance by the stately dignity of their manner and the richness of their garb, and afterwards by the sumptuousness of their abode, which was almost palatial in its spaciousness and the magnificence of its furnishing. Hasca was, in fact, one of the most powerful and influential nobles of Ulua, and the acquaintance which began with this visit was destined to have important results.
Hasca was a very fine specimen of Uluan manhood, some forty years of age, standing about five feet ten inches in his sandals, of swarthy complexion, with coal-black hair, beard and eyes, the latter very keen and piercing. There was a distinct touch of hauteur in his manner to Kedah; but to Dick he and his wife were friendliness itself, while to Earle they showed that deep reverence which seemed to be the invariable rule with the Uluans.
The lady Tua seemed to be some five years younger than her husband, dark, and decidedly handsome, but, like all the Uluan women of mature age, she displayed a distinct tendency to become stout.
Kedah undertook the task of explaining to his two pupils the object of the visit, and to do the old gentleman justice, he succeeded fairly well, considering the difficulties which confronted him. He talked a good deal, but speech, of itself, naturally did not count for much. He supplemented his words, however, with such a wonderful wealth of gesture, accent and tone, that the two white men found it by no means difficult to guess the general drift of his speech, especially as he adopted the novel method of further elucidating his meaning by a number of amazingly clever sketches produced upon a kind of papyrus, with the aid of a very fine brush and a small bottle of some kind of ink, which he had taken the precaution to bring with him.
With these aids, then, he managed to make Earle and Dick understand that the visit was, first, one of thanks for the assistance rendered to the unfortunate Mishail on the preceding day, and next, a request that one, or both, would be so very obliging as to visit the patient, who was either very ill, or suffering much pain—they could not quite make out which was meant—and see what could be done for him.
To this request the comrades at once willingly assented, the more readily because, having, by a piece of extraordinarily good luck, obtained entrance to what they understood was, to all intents and purposes, a forbidden city, so far as outsiders were concerned, it was now good policy on their part to establish the best possible relations with its people. Accordingly, Earle routed out his medicine case and, tucking it under his arm, signified his readiness to go at once.
As it chanced, they had not very far to go, the Hasca residence being situated less than a mile from the palace, in an even more aristocratic looking avenue than the one in which the accident had occurred. They found Mishail, the patient, lodged in a sumptuous chamber, attended by his sister Lissa, a remarkably pretty girl, some sixteen years of age.
The patient appeared to be suffering great pain, was in a high state of fever, and in a condition bordering on delirium, which indeed was not surprising, since the unhappy youth was in a room upon the outer wall of which the sun beat all day, while the shutters of the two windows were closed and heavy curtains drawn across them. The room, in fact, was as stifling as an oven, and Earle's first act was to draw apart the heavy curtains and throw wide the shutters, thus letting in both air and light. Then he looked at the injured arm, which he expected to find properly dressed, naturally supposing that upon the arrival of the lad at his home, the family physician would be summoned and the fracture carefully attended to. To his great surprise, however, he found the limb in exactly the same state as when he had left it, with the makeshift splints still there, but shifted out of position by the restless movements of the patient, and he afterwards learned that this was because they had not dared to tamper or in any way interfere with the work of the illustrious representative of Kuhlacan!
Upon the arm being unstrapped, Earle found, as he fully expected, that the bone had become displaced and needed re-setting; and this he at once proceeded to do, having first secured all that he needed in the way of effective splints and bandages, and put his patient under chloroform. He took care that this time the job was properly done, and the patient's arm so securely strapped to his body that it could not be moved; and as soon as Mishail had recovered from his state of anaesthesia, Earle administered a draught designed to reduce the fever, and, having made his patient as comfortable as possible, left him, promising to call again some time during the evening. And, not to dwell at undue length upon the incident, it may here be said that, under Earle's skilful treatment the patient made a rapid and perfectly satisfactory recovery, to the admiration, delight, and gratitude of the entire family.
Upon leaving Hasca's house, the two friends indulged in a walk through a few of the streets that they had not yet visited; consequently it was after noon when at length they got back to the palace. Here they found Bahrim, the major-domo, in their suite anxiously awaiting their return. The poor man was evidently in a state of great excitement concerning some matter which he found himself wholly unable to explain; but by dint of signs he at length contrived to make them both understand that he desired them to bathe, and afterwards don certain festive garments, to which he respectfully directed their attention. Understanding at last what the old fellow required of them, and also that he was in a most desperate hurry, the two friends disappeared, to re-appear, about a quarter of an hour later, bathed, perfumed—by their assiduous servants, who insisted upon the process—and clad in garments of so sumptuous a character that there could be no doubt the wearers were booked for some exceedingly important ceremony.
They were immediately taken in charge by the obsequious Bahrim, who, by expressive signs, invited them to follow him. Led by the major-domo, the two friends rapidly traversed several corridors until they reached another wing of the palace, finally halting before a closed door, outside which two soldiers, clad in golden armour and armed with sword and spear, stood on guard. Signing to the white men to remain where they were, Bahrim opened the door, disclosing a drawn curtain beyond it, and closed the door behind him, only to re-appear, some two minutes later, beckoning his charges to follow him.
Not until having received the salute of the guards as they passed through the re-opened doorway, and the door was closed behind them, was the shrouding curtain withdrawn, and then Earle and Dick found themselves in a small but most sumptuously furnished apartment, at the far extremity of which were seated two people, a man and a girl.
The man was apparently between fifty and sixty years of age—and a very fine specimen of Uluan manhood, as the visitors presently discovered when he rose to his feet. Like most Uluans, he was dark complexioned, his hair, beard and moustache, all of which he wore of patriarchal length, having been originally black, though now thickly streaked with grey. His features were well formed, clean cut, and aristocratic looking, as they might well be, seeing that the man was none other than Juda, the King of Ulua, and direct descendant of a long line of kings whose origin was lost in the mists of antiquity. He wore a long sleeved garment, which reached from his throat to his feet, the colour of it being red, with a wide border containing an intricate pattern wrought in black, white and gold braid. On his head he had a kind of turban of red, black and gold, surrounded by a coronet that appeared to be made of iron, set with many beautiful stones, while its front was adorned with an aigrette of crimson feathers, fastened by a brooch which also appeared to be made of iron. A broad belt, embroidered in red, black and gold, encircled his waist, attached to which was a great cross-hilted sword which looked as though it might have originally belonged to a crusader. His feet were shod with sandals of crimson leather, and his fingers decorated with several rings, apparently of wrought iron, each of which was set with a very fine stone, either emerald, sapphire, ruby, or diamond.
Taken altogether, Juda was a remarkably imposing specimen of manhood, and a worthy progenitor of his handsome granddaughter, Myrra. She, however, unlike her grandfather, was fair as a summer's dawn, of medium height, with violet eyes, and an extraordinary wealth of ruddy-golden hair which, confined to her head by a fillet of what looked like red velvet set with precious stones, rolled thence to far below her waist in great waves. Her outer garment, sleeveless, might have been copied from those depicted on the Greek vases in the British Museum and, like her grandfather's, was red in colour, adorned with braiding in the same colours as his. Her sandals were of white leather, and she wore armlets and bracelets of beautifully worked iron encrusted with precious stones.
As the two white men, intuitively guessing the identity of those in whose presence they found themselves, walked slowly up the room, Juda and Myrra rose to their feet and stood gazing with the utmost interest at their visitors. Juda's eyes were intently fixed upon the amulet which Earle now habitually wore fully exposed to view; but after the first glance, Myrra seemed far more interested in Dick, with his stalwart frame and good-looking features.
Arrived within some half-a-dozen paces of the two august figures, Earle and Dick came to a halt and bowed, while Bahrim, who had been bowing almost to the earth during his progress up the hall, now knelt down, touched the marble pavement three times with his forehead, and then, rising to his feet, introduced the visitors in a long speech, which was of course utterly unintelligible to the white men, though they gathered from certain of Bahrim's movements and gestures that the incident of the runaway horses, of Dick stopping them, and of Earle's attentions to Mishail, the injured charioteer, formed part of the speech.
The two royal personages listened with the closest attention to Bahrim's long speech, the king nodding emphatic approval as the major-domo, with much appropriate gesture, described Dick's dash into the road and stoppage of the runaway horses, while the eyes of the princess flashed and sparkled with excitement and undisguised admiration at what, from the expression of the listeners, seemed to be a deed of most unparalleled heroism. The speech came to an end at last; and then, as Bahrim stepped back with the air of a man who has performed his duty well, Juda advanced to Earle and fixed his eyes upon the amulet, intently examining its every detail. Then, to the amazement of the two white men, he turned to the princess, addressed a few words to her, beckoned her to his side, and the next moment the royal pair had prostrated themselves at Earle's feet, with their foreheads humbly bowed to the pavement. They remained thus for nearly five minutes, until Earle, fearing that they were never going to rise from their humble posture, bent forward, touched each lightly upon the shoulder and, extending his hands, raised them gently to their feet, when, first Juda, and then the princess, reverently took the amulet in their hands, raised it to their foreheads, and bowing low, backed to their seats. The king then drew a handsome ring from his finger and, beckoning to Dick to draw near, slipped it on to the corresponding finger of the young Englishman's hand, while the princess, following suit, transferred one of her bracelets to Dick's wrist, each with a polite little speech, which Cavendish greatly regretted his inability to understand. This little ceremony performed, Juda bowed his dismissal of his visitors, and, led by Bahrim, the pair retired to their own quarters, a good deal puzzled by, yet very much pleased with, all that had passed.
As they went Earle turned to Dick and remarked:
"Gee! Dick, I guess this is some amulet, eh, when even a king and a princess of the blood royal do homage to it. Seems to me that I'm the most important personage in this realm; and as soon as we are able to understand the language a bit, and get the hang of things, I mean to use the power and influence which it bestows for the abolition of a few of the evils which are sure to exist, either in the religion or the government of the country."
"If you take my advice, you will leave this people's religion and politics alone," remarked Dick.
"I will," agreed Earle, "if there is nothing to find fault with, but not otherwise. Gee! What's the good of possessing such power as mine, if I don't make use of it? And, civilised as these people are in some respects, they are centuries behind the rest of the world in others; and I'm prepared to bet that, when we begin to understand things a bit, we shall find that there is plenty of room for improvement in a good many directions. And it is entirely against my principles not to do good when the opportunity offers. But—well, we shall see."
And now, something like a month passed without anything occurring worthy of detailed record. Kedah, the instructor told off to teach the two white men the Uluan language, was indefatigable in the execution of his rather difficult task, while his pupils were equally indefatigable in their efforts to master the tongue spoken by all around them, with the result that they made excellent progress and were no longer obliged to remain dumb when addressed. They made a good many acquaintances, and not a few friends, chief among whom were the king and the princess, whose demeanour toward the white men was, like that of everybody else, indeed, a curious mingling of reverence and friendliness. They spent a good deal of time walking and riding about the city and its outskirts, thus in the course of time becoming intimately acquainted with every street, road, alley and by-way; while Dick early found an outlet for his superabundant energies among the shipbuilders, whose ideas concerning the most desirable model for their craft were of the crudest possible character. He also discovered that they knew nothing about sails and how to use them, and he enjoyed himself immensely in rigging one of their most suitable lighters as a fore-and-aft schooner, and then watching the crew's amazement and delight as he navigated her across the lake and back in about a quarter of the time usually occupied upon the trip.
It was about this time, when their progress under the tuition of Kedah was so far advanced that they were able to catch a glimmer of the meaning of what was said to them or in their hearing, that the two white men began to sense a suggestion of steadily growing excitement among the populace generally, accompanied, on the part of those with whom they were more intimately acquainted, by a continually increasing curiosity, not unmingled with anxiety, concerning themselves and something with which, in some mysterious manner, they (Dick and Earle) seemed to be intimately connected. They became aware that they were being keenly watched, and their slightest words and actions carefully noted, as though some word or action of extreme significance or importance on their part was being eagerly expected and watched for. More particularly was this the case with regard to Earle; but although the two friends frequently exchanged ideas upon the subject, neither of them caught the slightest clue to the mystery until Zorah, the high priest, one day sought Earle and, with the assistance of Kedah, the tutor, broached the subject of the approaching great Septennial Festival in honour of Kuhlacan, the Winged Serpent, god of the Uluans, who was supposed to have his abode at the bottom of the lake.
This was the first that either Earle or Dick had heard of the festival, but bearing in mind the fact that the amulet which he wore bore the "sign" of Kuhlacan, and that it was undoubtedly the possession of this amulet which, from the first, had inspired the Uluans with that profound reverence which had everywhere been shown him, the American at once began to suspect that the Uluans were in some way connecting his presence in the country with the approaching festival, and possibly expecting him either to take a leading part in it, or it might be, to issue some definite pronouncement in connection with it. Therefore, as soon as Earle clearly realised the attitude of the people toward him, and realised also that one or more important, perhaps vital, issues hung in the balance awaiting his pronouncement, he assumed what he deemed to be the correct oracular pose, in accordance with which he now bade Zorah set forth his statement, or propound his questions, without circumlocution.
Then the whole terrible truth came out, though it had to be wrung from Zorah bit by bit, the high priest using his utmost endeavours to induce Earle to endorse certain generalities put forward by the wily ecclesiastic. But Zorah, clever and astute as he was, was no match for the American, who simply listened to the priest's statements as he made them, one by one, and then, without comment, bade the man pass on to the next point. Earle's imperfect knowledge of the Uluan language, coupled with Zorah's rapid, excited speech, made anything like a clear understanding of the case exceedingly difficult. But Earle was in no hurry; no sooner did he get an inkling of the actual object of the high priest's visit than he determined to arrive at a perfectly clear and definite understanding of the whole case; and in this he was ably seconded by Kedah, who spared no pains to make every point advanced by Zorah intelligible.
Condensed into a few words the issue raised was as follows:
On a certain date, the anniversary of which was now rapidly approaching, an annual festival was held in honour of Kuhlacan, in the course of which offerings were made to the god by every Uluan, who, embarking in a gaily-decorated boat, proceeded to the middle of the lake and there cast into the depths the most precious thing in his possession, usually some costly article of jewellery made especially for the purpose. But every seventh year the festival assumed a much more serious and important character, inasmuch as that, in addition to the offerings above referred to, the nation as a whole was accustomed to make a joint offering; such offering consisting of the seven most beautiful maidens, between the ages of twelve and twenty, in Ulua, who, on this great day, were dressed in magnificent garments, loaded with jewels, until they could scarcely stand for the weight of them, and then taken to the middle of the lake, where, with much ceremony, and to the accompaniment of prayers and hymns chanted by the priests, they plunged into the lake, one by one, and were of course never again seen.
This ceremony, known as the Sacrifice of the Maidens, had been observed, it appeared, from time immemorial, and was regarded by the priests—who, being celibates, had no daughters to lose—as of the utmost importance and sanctity, to such an extent, indeed, that even the slightest approach to a murmur or protest against it was denounced as an unpardonable sin. Yet, as may be easily understood, the approach of every Septennial Festival was a time of infinite anxiety to all those who happened to have daughters eligible for the sacrifice, the more so that no family, not even royalty itself, was exempt, while the choice of the maidens rested with the priests, from whose decision there was no appeal. And the barbarity of the custom was accentuated in this particular year, from the fact that Princess Myrra was both by age and her remarkable beauty, to be certainly reckoned among the eligibles, while an impression had arisen, rightly or wrongly, that the priesthood, in order to manifest and assert their power, would assuredly so arrange matters that she should be included among the fatal seven.
It is supposed that the king's opposition to the immemorial custom really took definite shape on the day upon which his orphan granddaughter entered upon her thirteenth year. Be this as it may, it was not long afterwards that Juda, pious monarch as he was, ventured to hint to Zorah his opinion that the time had arrived when the Sacrifice of the Maidens might very well be abolished. But Zorah, a zealot of zealots, would not hear of such a thing, possibly because, among other reasons, the abolition would rob him of an appreciable amount of the power which he now possessed, and which power, it was hinted, had been more than once wielded to secure—for a substantial consideration—the elimination of a name from the list of the chosen. Juda, of course, might have approached the high priest with a similar proposal on behalf of his granddaughter; but there were several reasons against it, one of which was that the king was, according to his lights, a just monarch, and would have scorned to secure the princess's exemption by any such means, while another was that he shrewdly suspected Zorah would refuse to forgo such a marked demonstration of his power and, in addition, give himself away even at the cost of an enormous bribe.
Under these circumstances the king, while not actually revolting openly from the dictum of the high priest, had instituted among the people a practice of private prayer that the Septennial Sacrifice of the Maidens might be dispensed with; and when during the actual year of the Septennial Festival Earle had unexpectedly appeared, wearing an amulet bearing the "sign" of Kuhlacan, and demanding admission to Ulua, it is not to be wondered at if all who were in any way interested in the burning question should regard his appearance as, in one form or another, an answer to their petition. Whether that answer was to be in the affirmative or the negative was what everybody, and especially Zorah, were now particularly anxious to learn.
For Earle, with his as yet imperfect knowledge of the Uluan tongue to get a clear comprehension of a somewhat intricate case, took some time, and taxed Kedah's ingenuity to its utmost extent; but Kedah happened to be a vitally interested party, and believing, in common with everybody else, that Earle was in some mysterious fashion, either the incarnation of Kuhlacan, or an ambassador and representative of the god, he determined that, by hook or by crook, the white man should be made clearly to understand every point of the case, and he succeeded.
On the other hand, as point after point was unfolded and made clear to him, the quick-witted American began to realise that there was far more in the case than, at a first glance, met the eye; it quickly resolved itself, in fact, into a struggle between the priesthood and the laity; and it needed but a single glance at the fanatical high priest's stern, inflexible expression to assure oneself that he was not at all the sort of person to yield without a struggle. To add to the difficulty, Earle had no means of knowing what sort of a backing the priests would be likely to have, should the struggle for supremacy become an open one, which was by no means improbable. There was one point, however, upon which Earle's mind was very quickly made up, since the decision seemed to be left in his hands; let the consequences be what they might, the barbarous custom of human sacrifice must be abolished. Other developments must be left to take their course; but naturally, his influence, whatever it might amount to, would be thrown into the scale on the side of right and justice.
Therefore when at length Zorah, the high priest, had fully stated his case, and was expectantly awaiting an answer, Earle turned to him and said:
"Know, O Zorah, high priest of the god whom the people of Ulua call Kuhlacan, that to settle this important question of human sacrifice is one of the reasons for my presence in this country; and it was my purpose to have made the Divine Will known as soon as I had sufficiently mastered the intricacies of your tongue to render myself intelligible; but ye have forestalled me. The matter is urgent, I know, seeing that the Septennial Festival is at hand; yet, in virtue of the 'sign' which I bear"—here he lightly touched the amulet—"it would have been better had ye abided in patience until it was convenient for me to speak. Let that pass, however; your impatience was the outcome of your zeal, and it is therefore forgiven.
"Now in the olden time the Deity whom all worship ordained that a portion of His worship should consist in the offering of sacrifices involving the shedding of blood; and, for a time, such sacrifices, accompanied of course with prayer and praise, and the living of an upright life sufficed.
"But the sacrifices of which I have just spoken were merely the figure, reminder of, and substitute for, a still greater sacrifice which in the fulness of time was made, but news of which I am the first to bring ye; and that sacrifice has rendered all others involving the shedding of blood and the destruction of life unnecessary; hence it is the will of Him whom all worship, that the Sacrifice of the Maidens shall cease for ever. I have spoken."
Evidently this was not at all the kind of pronouncement which Zorah had anticipated; he looked not only greatly surprised, but also profoundly disappointed; and there was also something in the expression of his strongly marked features which seemed to indicate that he was by no means prepared to accept Earle's dictum unless supported by proof of some sort. For a minute or more he stood silent and thoughtful, turning over the problem which presented itself to him. Then, looking up, he propounded his question.
"Lord," he said, "thou sayest that sacrifice is no longer necessary. How then shall we henceforth worship, seeing that the very essence of our worship is sacrifice?"
"Nay," answered Earle; "ye mistake me, Zorah. I said not that sacrifice is no longer necessary; but that sacrifices involving the taking of life are no longer required. Ye are accustomed to slay and burn animals upon your altars; but that is an easy thing for ye to do, involving no real sacrifice indeed, since it is only the animals who suffer. And ye make annual sacrifice by casting into the lake the most precious thing ye possess. But even that is not sufficient; ye must make sacrifices that are still more difficult, and cost ye more than that. Ye must steadfastly resist every temptation to do evil, to injure an enemy, to rob, defraud, to utter untruths, to do anything which ye know to be wrong. And ye must do this, not only at stated times set apart for worship, but ye must do it always, whenever the impulse to do evil comes. So shall ye offer the most acceptable sacrifice which it is possible for man to render to his God."
Again Zorah bent his mind to the full comprehension of all that Earle's words meant.
"Then," said he at length, "the festivals will be as heretofore, excepting that the Sacrifice of the Maidens is forbidden?"
"Even so," agreed Earle, "but with a further difference. Ye are accustomed every year to cast some very precious thing into the lake. That sacrifice also is unnecessary, since Kuhlacan has no need of jewels or ornaments of any kind. Yet, sacrifice, being an act of worship and an expression of gratitude for mercies and benefits received, is good, and therefore shall be continued, but in a different form. Here in Ulua, as elsewhere, ye have poor and sick; and henceforth your sacrifice shall take the form of ministering to them and providing them with those things necessary to their comfort and welfare which, by reason of their poverty, they are unable to provide for themselves. Therefore, henceforward it shall be that every person desiring to offer sacrifice shall, instead of casting some precious thing into the waters of the lake, take its value in money to the temple, and present it to the priests, who in their turn shall expend it in the manner which I have indicated."
Zorah nodded. "The plan seems good," he said; "yet I foresee many difficulties in the way. We shall need continual guidance from thee, lord, if the innovation is to be successfully accomplished."
"True," assented Earle. "And ye shall have all the guidance that ye need. I will speak to thee again of this. Now go in peace."
DICK CAVENDISH LOSES HIS TEMPER.
Earle thought he had good reason to congratulate himself upon the success with which he had grappled the problem of human sacrifice in connection with the septennial festival in honour of Kuhlacan; for, at the first, his pronouncement seemed to meet with universal approval. Yet but a few days elapsed before it was apparent that even so humanitarian an edict as Earle's, one which, it might have been supposed, would appeal more or less directly to everybody, was not without its objectors. True, those objectors were only to be found among those who had not, and were not in the least likely to have, daughters who might be reckoned as "eligible"; yet it was really surprising to find how many of these there were. Precisely why they objected it was very difficult to ascertain; but it was thought that the reason was that the "sacrifice" afforded an exciting spectacle to persons of a cruel, morbid and vicious disposition. Also, it soon began to be hinted that although Zorah, the high priest, had seemed to acquiesce in the innovation, the priesthood were in reality opposed to and were secretly stirring up the people to rebel against it.
Meanwhile, however, Earle had earned the undying gratitude of the king, the princess, and several of the most powerful and influential of the nobles, who treated him and Dick with greater respect and reverence than ever. The preparations for the festival proceeded apace; and to compensate the masses for the loss of the most spectacular feature of the event, Earle and Dick inaugurated a series of games and sports, with valuable prizes for those successful in them, sufficient in number to occupy the entire day; so that when that day arrived, it not only passed without any marked demonstration of dissatisfaction, but was pronounced to be a distinct improvement upon the old order of things.
True, it was not possible for those who keenly watched the demeanour of the crowd to avoid noticing that the satisfaction was by no means general; and another disconcerting fact in connection with the festival was that, when it was over and Zorah was requested to report to Earle the amount presented in the temple on that day, in lieu of the usual offerings cast into the lake, the sum named by the high priest was disappointingly meagre, amounting to less than a tenth of what had been anticipated. Earle mentioned privately to Dick his suspicion that there had been a tremendous amount of leakage somewhere, and expressed his determination to look into the matter at the earliest possible opportunity; but before he could do so his attention was distracted from it by other and more important happenings.
The first of these happenings was the sudden and wholly unexpected death of the king. When he retired to rest on the preceding night, Juda appeared to be in the enjoyment of perfect health; but when his servants entered the royal sleeping-apartment on the following morning to arouse his Majesty and attend him to the bath, he was found lying dead upon his couch, with every indication that dissolution had taken place several hours previously. Of course, the court physicians were instantly summoned; but they could do nothing except pronounce that death had actually occurred, and that it was due to natural causes. To the great surprise of Earle and Dick, no attempt was made to hold a post mortem, with the object of ascertaining the actual cause of death; but a little judicious inquiry soon elicited the fact that such investigations were unknown in Ulua, the skill and knowledge of the physicians not having advanced so far. With the permission of the princess, Earle was present when the physicians viewed the body, and he was compelled to admit that there was nothing in its appearance to justify the slightest suspicion of foul play, which indeed nobody so much as hinted at. Earle gave it as his opinion that the cause of death was some obscure and unsuspected affection of the heart.
Simultaneously with the summoning of the physicians upon the discovery of the royal demise, the "Council of Nobles"—a council, the functions of which correspond in some measure with those of the British Cabinet— was summoned to the palace; and it was to the members of this that the physicians formally reported the death of the king. Thereupon steps were immediately taken for the public announcement of the event, which took place at noon of the same day, the heralds proclaiming the death of the king and the accession of the Princess Myrra to the throne, first in the square before the palace, and next in four other squares situated respectively in the northern, southern, eastern, and western quarters of the city. And at the same time the state embalmers were called in and the body was handed over to them that they might at once begin the long and elaborate process by means of which the subject is rendered practically impervious, for all time, to the influences of decay.
The young queen was now allowed a clear week of complete retirement, in order that she might give free vent to her natural grief at the loss of her grandfather, and prepare herself for the discharge of the important duties which would now devolve upon her, during which period she was left entirely to herself, and was not asked to transact business of any sort whatsoever. At the expiration of the week she emerged from her seclusion, a little pale and worn-looking, but to all appearance perfectly calm, as the two white men were rejoiced to see, for it now transpired that the religious beliefs of the Uluans were such as to preclude anything in the nature of deep or lasting sorrow at the loss of relatives, an article of their faith being that the departed, unless they happened to be notoriously evil livers, found everlasting peace and happiness in a sort of Elysium, and that therefore there was no occasion for prolonged grief.
No sooner, however, did the young queen emerge from her temporary seclusion than she found herself face to face with a problem which, unless all the conditions are favourable, may easily resolve itself into one of the most unpleasant which a young woman so placed can be called upon to solve.
For it now appeared that Myrra occupied a position unique in the annals of Uluan sovereignty, being the only female who had ever succeeded to the throne. All the past monarchs had been male, from time immemorial; and the fact that a female had now succeeded, and she only a young girl, filled the Council of Nobles with consternation, which is easily to be comprehended, when it is remembered that in Ulua women are regarded as being so far inferior to men that they are considered as mere chattels and but little better than domestic animals. A Council of Nobles had already been convened to discuss so novel and disconcerting a situation, at which one more than usually daring spirit had actually ventured to suggest the election of one of themselves to fill the vacated throne. But this suggestion had been promptly vetoed by Lyga, the "Keeper of Statutes," who, referring to the musty tome in which were the laws relating to the government of Ulua, reminded the council that the law of succession explicitly provides that, upon the death of the sovereign, his next immediate successor becomes monarch. Or, failing an immediate successor, through pre-decease—as in the present case—then, the immediate successor of him who should have succeeded comes to the throne. The title of Princess Myrra to the throne was thus indubitably established, and the only question really before the council was how so unique a situation was to be met. A long and heated discussion followed, in the course of which two facts were clearly established, the first of which was that, by the law of succession, Myrra was now the Queen of Ulua; and the second, that the idea of being governed by a woman was utterly distasteful to the members of the Council of Nobles. Finally, it was decided that, since by immemorial custom, the Uluan wife was the subject of her husband, the only thing to be done was to request the queen to marry, when her husband would become virtually king. This decision was regarded as a quite satisfactory solution of the difficulty; and it was immediately proposed that a list of approved names should be there and then prepared for submission to her Majesty, and that she should be invited to select from that list the person whom she would accept as her spouse.
So far, so good. But now, at the very moment when the great difficulty appeared to have been surmounted, other and equally awkward difficulties at once began to arise. The position of husband to the queen was one which naturally appealed to every member of the council, and equally naturally, each member claimed the right to have his name included in the list. Sachar, the most powerful of the nobles—he who had suggested the election of one of themselves to fill the throne—seized a parchment and, with the air of an autocrat, at once inscribed his own name at the head of the list, without deigning to inquire whether such action was or was not acceptable to his colleagues. Then, still retaining the pen in his hand, he glanced round at the assemblage and said:
"I propose that the next name upon the list shall be that of Lyga, the Keeper of Statutes."
For a moment the members regarded each other in amazement; then, under the impression that Sachar was perpetrating an ill-timed jest of more than questionable taste, they broke into a storm of protest; for Lyga was a little wizened, dried-up man, close upon eighty years of age.
But Sachar answered their protests with a stare of haughty surprise that quickly silenced them, for not only was he the most powerful man among them, but he was also of a headstrong, domineering disposition, impatient of opposition and quick to resent anything that in the least degree savoured of it. He was by no means popular, either with his colleagues or with the people at large; but he was greatly feared, because of the immense power and influence which he commanded, and the unscrupulous manner in which he wielded it.
"What mean ye?" he fiercely demanded. "Am I to understand that ye object to Lyga as unsuitable? And if so, upon what grounds? Is he not the 'Keeper of Statutes,' and as such, the most suitable man for the position of virtual ruler of Ulua? For who among ye knows a tithe so much as he of the laws by which we are governed; or who so likely to see that those laws are maintained in perfect integrity?"
"So far, perhaps ye are right, Sachar," retorted Lyga, who was the only man present entirely devoid of fear of the formidable noble. "But is my age to be counted as nothing? Am I a suitable consort for a girl of sixteen? Ye know that I am not; and ye know, too, that if the choice rested between me and thee, thou would'st be the chosen one. Go to! Ye are astute, Sachar, but not astute enough to deceive old Lyga. If ye are taking it upon yourself to propose names, propose those of men who shall not only be capable of efficiently discharging the duties of their exalted position, but who shall also be acceptable to her Majesty in point of age and disposition. I say that, in nominating such a man as myself, ye are lacking in respect and consideration to your sovereign."
There was a low murmur of approval at this fearless, straightforward speech from the old man, hearing which, Sachar, who perceived that his ruse had been seen through, savagely dashed down the pen and, wheeling round upon his colleagues, exclaimed:
"So ye approve of and endorse the unworthy insinuation which Lyga has preferred against me? It is well! Proceed ye with your nominations, uninfluenced by me. My aim was to nominate those who, by wisdom and experience, are most suited to rule over us, irrespective of age or other considerations. But since ye have seen fit to suspect my motives, nominate whom ye will. Understand this, however, I demand that my name shall be included, for I am at least as capable of governing as any man among ye; and understand this also, that I retain my right to vote against those nominated whom I may regard as unsuitable."
And therewith Sachar bowed to the assembly, a bow in which scorn and contempt were about equally expressed, and stalked out of the chamber.
For a few moments consternation reigned supreme among those who remained, for they knew Sachar well, and clearly understood that, quite unwittingly, they had made a bitter and implacable enemy of the most powerful and unscrupulous man in Ulua. But presently Lyga grappled with the situation and, with a few carefully chosen words, rallied his colleagues upon their alarm, which he assured them was altogether disproportioned and uncalled for, and brought them back to the business in hand, with the result that, after a long and acrimonious discussion, a list was drafted, containing some twenty names, for submission to her Majesty.
In due course the list was presented, with all the state and ceremony which so momentous an occasion demanded. And then consternation again reigned; for the young queen, after carefully perusing the list, handed it back to Sachar, who had presented it, with the calm pronouncement that none of the names therein was acceptable to her!
Thereupon the council retired in confusion; another meeting was held, another list prepared—in which Sachar insisted that his name should be included, notwithstanding the queen's previous rejection; and her Majesty was requested to name an early date for its presentation, which she did.
The second presentation took place at about half-past nine o'clock in the morning, a few minutes prior to which the Council of Nobles, having previously assembled in the antechamber, filed in and took their places. These were immediately followed by a squadron of the queen's bodyguard, fully armed, under the command of their officer, who drew them up across the lower end of the chamber, completely blocking all means of exit or entrance, except through the doorway at the upper end of the chamber, used exclusively by the monarch and his or her personal attendants. This done, a court messenger was dispatched to acquaint the queen that the council had assembled; and a few minutes later her Majesty entered, heralded by a flourish of trumpets moulded out of a sort of terra-cotta, and, accompanied by the ladies and officers of her household, among whom were Earle and Dick.
With slow and dignified step her Majesty moved to the throne and, bowing to the assembled council, seated herself, at the same time signing to the two white men to stand one on either side of her, to the undisguised astonishment of the nobles and the scarcely concealed indignation of Sachar.
A short pause now ensued while the members of council, who had risen upon the queen's entrance, seated themselves. Then Sachar, who occupied the place at the head of the table on the queen's right hand, rose to his feet and, addressing her Majesty, made a lengthy speech, in which he set forth, in considerable detail, all the reasons which had led up to the present action of the council, reminded her of her rejection of the first list presented, and in veiled dictatorial tones, ventured to express the hope that her Majesty would experience no difficulty in selecting a name from the list now about to be laid before her. Then he unrolled the parchment and, with a bow which seemed to say: "This is your last chance, so make the best of it," laid it upon the table before her.
Bowing in return, and with just the faintest suggestion of a smile lurking about her lips and in her eyes, Myrra stretched forth her hand and, taking the parchment began to read it. But no sooner had her eyes rested upon it than she laid it down again.
"How now, my Lord Sachar!" she exclaimed. "What means this?" And she laid her finger upon the place where his name again occupied the head of the list. "Have ye here the list which was first submitted to me?"
"No, your Majesty, we have it not here," answered Sachar. "Understanding that the names therein were unacceptable, we thought it unnecessary to produce it. But it can be procured in a very brief space of time, if your Majesty so desires."
"I do so desire," remarked the queen. "Let it be brought forthwith." And she sank back in her seat to await the arrival of the document.
A few minutes later Lyga, in whose charge it was, appeared with the first list, which he laid open upon the table before the queen. He wore a smile of amusement as he hobbled back to his place, for in common with most of the members of council, he pretty shrewdly guessed what was impending, and he would very cordially welcome anything that savoured of a snub administered to the haughty and domineering Lord Sachar.
"So!" continued the queen, placing a slim forefinger upon each of the documents. "I felt sure I was not mistaken. The name of my Lord Sachar heads each of these documents. Yet I think it will be remembered that, only a few days agone, I distinctly stated that none of the names in this list"—tapping Number 1 with her left forefinger—"was acceptable to me. How comes it, then, that a name once rejected by me is again submitted for my approval?"
And, so saying, Myrra stretched forth her hand and, taking the reed pen which Lyga smilingly handed to her, drew it firmly and deliberately through Sachar's sprawling signature.
For a moment there was a breathless hush, while the very atmosphere seemed to shudder in anticipation of that tempestuous and irreparable outbreak on the part of Sachar which the queen's deliberate snub might be expected to provoke. The man's sallow visage grew black with fury, his eyes blazed lightnings down upon the head of the girl who was smilingly erasing his name, his fists clenched until the knuckles showed white, and his beard and moustache bristled like the mane of an angry lion. Indeed, so menacing was his aspect that Dick Cavendish, with a single stride, interposed his own bulky form between that of the queen and the infuriated Sachar, into whose flashing eyes he stared so threateningly that the noble suddenly found a new object for the vials of his wrath. But Dick simply did not care a fig for Sachar or his anger; he already knew the man pretty well by reputation, and instinctively understood that there was but one way to deal with a bully, therefore he laid a heavy hand upon the noble's shoulder, glared as savagely at him as he knew how, and whispered—a whisper which reached the ears of every occupant of the table: