Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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"BEHOLD!" cried Sabul Ahmid, with an upward sweep of his bare, brown arm, "behold the Sacred Temple of the people of Astrea!"
I stood up in the boat, my portfolio under my arm. High on the mountain's side, crowning a thick mass of laurel undergrowth, and flanked by a grove of deep, cool, byana trees, was the building to which my servant was pointing. The material whereof it was fashioned I could not at that distance determine. Only in the broad, tropical sunlight it flashed forth, a glorious and spotless white, as flawless and perfect as the purest marble or alabaster. Little minarets rose from the flat roof; and flowering shrubs, planted along the mountain terrace above, drooped about it, a brilliant scintilla of purple coloring. My fingers began to crave for my pencil. I turned to my guide with beaming face.
"You did well, Ahmid," I cried, "to bring me here. This will mean rupees for both of us, for you and for me. I must get a sketch of that temple at once."
Sabul Ahmid flashed a sorrowful glance at me from his dark melancholy eyes. Even the mention of rupees had not brought a smile to that impenetrable face.
"My Lord," he said, "I hope that I have done well. Truly, I hope that I have done well."
As we drew near the shore, the natives came running down from the village, and lined the beach, some of them standing knee-deep in the surf, and greeting us with hoarse shouts, waving their hands, and pointing to the spot where we might best effect a landing.
"They take us for traders," Ahmid explained, "yet we shall be welcome. They are a kindly people."
He stood up in the stern, and shouted to them in their own language. A fire of words flashed backwards and forwards, and a dozen willing hands caught the boat's prow and guided it into the smooth water. As we stepped out on to the dry, white sand, Ahmid was at once surrounded, and, obeying his gestures, the sailors produced the baskets full of rubbishy presents, which we had brought with us from the markets of Colombo. While the rifling was going on, he came over to my side.
"I have told them that you wish to stay among them for a day, and that you will give them more presents," he said. "They seem quite willing, and there is an empty hut which we can have. The village is yonder, behind the trees."
Ahmid led-the way, and, surrounded by a curious, chattering group, we began to climb the beach. Behind came two of the sailors, carrying hampers full of provisions, and a few more presents which we were keeping in reserve. Five minutes' rough walking across the shingle, and through a grove of byana trees, and we were at the village. With divers shouts and gesticulations we were conducted to a brown, wattled hut, with mud-caked sides, and a low opening through which it seemed almost impossible for a full-grown man to crawl. Ahmid turned to us.
"This is where the traders who come here from Rangoon for rubies are allowed to stay," he announced. "We are allowed to have it on condition that we give them more presents. There is good water here, and they will bring us game."
I stooped down to peer inside, but drew back again quickly. The interior was not savory. I looked round doubtfully at the little semi-circle of similar huts, of which the village was composed, and at the curious group of copper-colored natives who thronged round us, black-eyed and rabid with curiosity. Should I not be wiser to make a few sketches and return with the boat? Then an upward glance at that farfamed temple, its soft, white front, gorgeous now in the full sunlight, and its minarets like alabaster peaks, cleaving the deep-blue sky, reawakened all my former enthusiasm. The thirst of the explorer was upon me. I must know something more of this people, and of their strange religion. I had in my pocket a letter, received with our last budget of mail, from the chief of the illustrated weekly paper, from whom I held a roving commission to send them home foreign notes and sketches.
"All that you have sent is good," it said, "but remember that what we shall value most (if you can come across it) is something absolutely new." Here, then, was my chance. Here, at any rate, I should be breaking fresh ground. No traveler, to my knowledge, had ever sent home an authentic sketch of the Temple of Astrea. A woman, slim and graceful, came gliding through the undergrowth, like a dark shadow, with a brown jug of water upon her delicately poised head. There were copper bracelets on her long, sinewy arms, and her hair was as black as the plumage of a raven. It was a perfect Leighton study, and it turned the quivering balance in my mind. I unslung my rifle, and lit a cigar.
"I will have my hammock slung under those trees behind the hut," I said to Ahmid, pointing to a little clump of byanas in the background. "You can stow away the things in the hut, and sleep there yourself, if you like."
The two sailors quickly fixed up the hammock which I had brought with me from the yacht. Ahmid moved about like a dusky, brown shadow, unpacking the various parcels, and beginning to make the necessary preparations for my evening meal. By-and-by, when we had made it quite clear that, for the present at any rate, there were no more presents to be distributed, we were left almost to ourselves. Many of the natives, however, still lingered about the doors of their huts, talking to themselves, and pointing to me. From what Ahmid could gather of their remarks, he seemed satisfied. They were pleased with their presents and inclined to be friendly. He gathered, further, that the High Priest, who seemed to be their supreme temporal head, as well as the Priest of their strange religion, had been acquainted with my arrival, and had expressed himself favorably concerning it. Altogether, I began to feel that my adventure was likely to be a success, and that I had, after all, reason to be rather grateful than otherwise for that breakdown in the machinery which was really responsible for our lying-to.
"You can tell Sir Maurice that if he is ready to start before I am back, I will come directly he sends a boat," I said to Dick Hardy, our boatswain, when the men had finished their work. "Perhaps he will come on shore himself to-morrow, the natives seem quite friendly."
The man touched his cap, and looked around dubiously.
"Maybe, sir," he remarked. "They're a queer-looking lot, though, to my mind. Can't say as I should much fancy them myself."
"They are quite harmless," I assured him with a laugh. "Ahmid was born here, you know, and understands them perfectly. You might remind Sir Maurice of that. Good-night!"
"Good-night, sir! I'll give Sir Maurice your message."
The men withdrew, and presently, from some rising ground, where I had strolled to get a better view of the temple, I could see the trim little ship's boat making rapid way back to my brother's yacht, which was lying-to in smooth water, about half-a-mile out. I took my camp stool with me, and found a cool, sheltered spot among the deep, green shadows; and while Ahmid mixed me a cool drink, I began to sketch a little family group opposite—a crawling brown baby, with eyes as black as ink, and a girl, who held it tightly by the ankle, to prevent it rolling away, while she stared at me and my belongings with a curious, persistent stolidity. And, while I sketched, the sun sank down, a fluttering breeze came stealing from seawards, and a sudden darkness stole down like a soft, thick veil upon the earth. I put my portfolio up, and found Ahmid standing before me. With his usual profound bow, he announced the readiness of my evening meal.
I ate rice and stewed beef, and drank hock and seltzer with a little crowd of onlookers gathered round, and only restrained from thrusting themselves bodily upon me by Ahmid's constant threats. "There were to be no presents for those who interfered with the privacy of the White Sahib."
That was Ahmid's ultimatum, and that it was which restrained the little horde of men and women, who, from a respectful disstance, seemed to follow my slightest movement with boundless interest. I glanced at them almost with regret, as I lit my evening cigar, and brought out my portfolio. Alas! there was so much here that mocked reproduction—at any rate, from my hands.
I had nothing but pencils with me; and how could black and white in any way represent those long, sinewy limbs, as brown as coffee berries, that subtle coloring of eyes and dusky cheeks, that wonderful grace of the unrestrained, which made these halfsavage men and women resemble in physical respects the children of a God— I sat and watched them half-dozing. The lights of innumerable fire-flies were burning in the long grass, and humming insects flew around my head, the whirring of whose wings, upon the breathless air, reminded me curiously of the May flies darting in and out from the tall hedges of a Devonshire lane. Ahmid, barefooted and graceful, moved about like a figure in a dream— it was surely a little Lotos-land this, to which the mere chance of a fractured engine-shaft and a half-empty portfolio had brought me. Something of the spirit of the Lotos-eaters seemed to be gliding into my veins, to be lulling me into premature sleep. And then, like a thunderbolt from the blue, came a curious change in the deep, quiet peace which had been brooding over the place.
The wailing of a woman's voice seemed to start the chorus. It was a deep, full cry of alarm, and at its first thrilling note I sat upright in my hammock. I looked out upon a most curious sight. Men and women alike were gazing with upturned sorrowful faces toward the sky. There was a strange, discordant strain of lamentations. The women rent their hair; the men began to run about in confusion. Something unforeseen and calamitous had evidently occurred. I called to Ahmid, and found him standing by my side, tall and grave, with a shadow deeper than ordinary upon his face.
"What is it, Ahmid?" I asked eagerly.
"What has gone wrong with these people?"
He raised his long, sinewy arm, and pointed upwards. I followed his gesture. The clear, violet sky had become obscured by little dappled masses of gray clouds, which had come up swiftly from the sea. The stars were almost invisible. Only a few remained to be seen, dim and misty.
"It is the Holy Week here," Ahmid said.
"My Lord knows the strange religion of these people. They are star- worshippers. This is the week from which they draw augury for the prosperity of the coming year. Every night must be clear, and the stars must shine; else disaster waits upon them. Three clear nights they have had, and to-night was full of promise. But— my Lord sees!"
The gravity of Ahmid's tone had no effect on me. I looked out with intense interest upon the growing* excitement. The sound of wailing increased; men fell down and beat their heads upon the ground. Some of the women were playing strange music in a deep, minor key, upon rude instruments. I reached for my portfolio and sketched, silently and swiftly. It was the strangest scene I had ever looked upon.
"What will they do, Ahmid?" I whispered.
He looked upwards toward the Hill of Rubies, whereon stood the Temple of Astrea, the home of the High Priest, and the worshipping place of this strange people.
"The High Priest will come," he answered. "There will be a maiden taken away to the Temple and sacrificed."
"What! Killed!" I cried, my pencil suddenly stopping. Ahmid shook his head. His face was impenetrable.
"Who can tell?" he said. "There are many maidens taken there; but none ever return. It is a mystery; and my Lord," he continued, "my Lord will remember his promise."
I nodded slowly. Before Sabul Ahmid had consented to be my guide, he had extracted a promise from me, which at the time it had seemed easy to give. He had made me give my word, that I would not make any attempt to penetrate into the Temple of Astrea, or interfere in any way with the religious observances of these people.
"They were a quiet, peace-loving race," he told me, "mild-mannered and kindly disposed toward strangers. But as regards their curious faith, they were fanatics. Less," Ahmid explained, "was this to be attributed to anything particularly religious in their nature, than to the extraordinary influence gained over them by one man—their High Priest." Ahmid, too, seemed still to share some part of that peculiar fear. When I would have asked questions concerning him, he avoided the subject. Only that promise he had gravely, and with the utmost respect, insisted upon.
And I had given it.
By degrees the sounds of lamentations which had filled the air grew, less and less. The men had mostly risen to their feet, and were standing about in moody, but expectant, silence, with their faces turned to the Hill of Rubies, which towered above us. The moaning of the women and the clanging of strange instruments still continued.
For my part, I was getting more and more interested. Ahmid, on the contrary, was evidently nervous and uneasy. Once he left my side, and climbed on to the top of a little knoll, whence through an opening in the trees he could see the "Cormorant" lying at anchor. He stood there for several moments, apparently measuring the distance between the ship and the shore. I called to him softly through the darkness:
"Ahmid, come here!"
He glided back to my side at once.
"What is the matter, Ahmid?" I asked.
"You look as though you feared trouble. How are we concerned in it?"
"My Lord," he murmured, "perhaps there is nothing to fear. Yet I would that I had brought you here at any other time than during their Holy WeekJ If the sky were clear, and the stars shining upon them, these people would be as meek as lambs, and as harmless. But when the clouds come and the High Priest walks, they are a savage and a bloodthirsty people. And withal in his hands they are as plasterers* molds. My Lord, if he comes and speaks with you, be careful that you do not cross him. If he commands you to go, do not hesitate. If he would trade with you for rubies, do not refuse. You will get the worth of your gold, and it may be that you will save our lives. Listen!"
There was a sudden awesome silence. With one accord the copper instruments from which the deft fingers of those dusky women had evoked such strange chords were still! Men and women crept, without a single word, through the low openings into their huts. In less than a minute the little space where they had been was empty. There was no longer any murmuring of human tongues. In that curious, deep silence the slight night sounds of Nature seemed to gain a new significance. A faint, rustling breeze stirred in the thick leaves of the acacia trees, the whirr of winged insects shook the still air, from afar off came the long rolling of the waves against the surf-riven beach. Ahmid stood by my side, hidden in the shadows of a great tree, his deep, brown eyes fixed upon the broad path, which slanted down from the Temple on the hill. Following his gaze, I caught my breath with a sudden thrill of excitement.
A tall—marvelously tall—figure, clad from head to foot in some sort of a white garb, was coming slowly down between the thick banks of flowering laurel shrubs. He disappeared from our sight about half-way down the hillside, and Ahmid dragged me back with him into the shadows of the overhanging trees. He checked the questions, which I began to ask, by a hand which he—the most respectful and servile of men—did not hesitate to lay firmly upon my lips.
"Be silent," he whispered. "Do not breathe a word. It may be, that it is for our lives."
THEN I knew that this was indeed an adventure upon which I had stumbled; and with the consciousness of danger came that insidious thrill of pleasure which waits only on those who have undertaken strange wanderings, and met with perilous happenings. I was content to obey Ahmid's counsel, and to wait. Following his steadfast gaze, I saw in a few minutes that tall, white figure reappear on the hillside beyond the angle of the laurel bushes, and descend toward us with swift but easy strides. Soon he was within a dozen yards of us, and this clearer view which we had of him only confirmed my previous interest. Such a man was this as one sees but seldom in a lifetime. He was over six feet high, and his walk and carriage were more than dignified—they were regal. His complexion, to my surprise, was only slightly dusky; in that half-light, indeed, I should have declared that it differed very little in coloring from my own. His features were fine, and the poise of his head majestic. His hair was long, and he wore a magnificent black beard. His white robe was spotless, and it was fastened in the middle with a belt all ablaze with rubies.
He passed us by, and stood quite still in the center of the open space. Ahmid and I held our breaths. For several moments he remained without any movement. Then, slowly turning round, he faced one of the huts a little apart from the others, and furthest from mine. Lifting up both hands, he began to chant in a rich, deep tone. I was wild with curiosity to know the meaning of those long, musical syllables, and Ahr mid's hasty translation I have never forgotten. Something like this was the song he sang:
"Oh, daughter of a strange people,
Whose coming has been like the coming of the summer moon;
At whose soft breath the perfumes of all sweet flowers creep out into the air,
And the white night blossoms open their petals like stars of earth;
There is a voice from the hills which calls to thee:
A voice like the rushing of a summer wind in the cicala
A murmur like the trembling of the ocean beneath the midnight moon:
It bids you come and take your chosen place among the daughters of the stars,
Among those to whom the breath of life is like the perfume of musk in a garden of roses,
Among those whose pleasures are everlasting, and in whose hearts is kindled the fire of the one great joy:
It bids you come!
It bids you come!
It bids you come!"
The language was the language of the natives, instinct with a curious languorous sweetness; the voice itself was deep and wonderfully melodious. As the last lingering syllables of that thrice-repeated invocation died away upon the still air, his arms fell. We could almost hear the long, indrawn breathing of the natives crouching unseen within their huts. With slow, stately movements the High Priest walked to the door of the hut which he had been facing. He stretched out a white hand from among the folds of his flowing robe, and seemed to write something on the hard, brown mud above the opening. Then he turned round, and, without a moment's hesitation, looking neither to the right nor to the left, he walked swiftly away, and took the hillside path to the Temple. What he held in his hand I do not know, nor could Ahmid tell me. But there before us, gleaming like fire in the semi-darkness, was a small, bright star, luminous and golden, a little spot of burning light, eating its way into the hard surface. I should have hastened forward to look at it, but Ahmid held me back, almost roughly, with a grip of iron.
"My Lord must not let himself be seen," he muttered. "The people will be mad with excitement presently. This was an evil time for us to come here!"
Then he looked again toward the sea, and I knew that he was wishing that we were safe on board the "Cormorant." But I, ignorant of any real danger, and knowing nothing of the significance of what had happened, was only eager to see what the next move might be in this strange performance. Very soon I was to be enlightened.
The silence was continued until the Priest's tall figure became like a speck on the hillside, and finally vanished. Then, as though at a given signal, there commenced a veritable pandemonium. The little space was suddenly filled with men, leaping up at one another like mad things, brandishing knives and curiously shaped spears, shouting and crying out one to the other. Around them were gathered the women, their long hair streaming down their naked backs, beating on copper instruments, waving their hands above their heads with slow, rhythmical precision, and every now and then, with their faces turned upwards, echoing that same peculiar cry, in the same deep minor chord. The graceful deliberation of their movements, and the calm but stolid indifference of the men toward us seemed to have entirely vanished. In its place was something very different. Every now and then one of them, spear in hand, would run up to us and grin in our faces, gesticulate wildly for a moment, and then step backwards into the thick of the group. As for me, I should have continued to have enjoyed the spectacle, notwithstanding their altered attitude, but for Ahmid's deep and growing anxiety. When I questioned him about it, he only shook his head. "There was nothing definite," he murmured. Only every now and then I could not help seeing that unfriendly glances were darted toward us—a dagger was pointed, a hand thrown upwards to the cloud-strewn sky. In some way we were beginning to be held responsible for this night of lamentation. Personally, I did not share the full measure of Ahmid's uneasiness. The possession of youth and a Colt's revolver gave me a certain tangible sense of security. Besides, I was deeply interested. I had made some very successful sketches, and collected some valuable information.
Suddenly the tumult ended. The second act in the little drama (which was going on under our eyes) commenced. One by one the natives ranged themselves in a semicircle round the hut before which the High Priest had recited his strange chant. They drew themselves along upon their haunches until the gaps were all filled up and the circle was complete. The women remained standing behind them. Then there was an absolute and unbroken silence. The men sat as motionless as statues. The women, every now and then, without any apparent signal, but in perfect unison, stretched their long, brown arms upwards to the still clouddappled heavens. The jangling of their bracelets, as their hands rose and fell in that slow, graceful wave, was the only sound for several moments which broke the deep stillness. And then came the awakening; and there happened a thing so strange that at first my senses refused almost to credit it. A sound cleaved the heavy night air and echoed back from the hillside, at which my blood ran cold, and my heart gave a great throbbing leap. It was the cry of a girl in mortal fear—but the tongue!
What did it mean? Had I fallen asleep? Was it a nightmare born of these strange surroundings? No! It was truth. My muscles grew rigid. I stood on tiptoe, ready to spring forward. Ahmid, too, was sharing my amazement. His black eyes were sparkling, and the hand, which clasped my left wrist in a desperate effort at restraint, trembled. I muttered something to him. He shook his head.
"Be silent!" he hissed. "If you speak one word, if you raise your hand, it is death!"
So we waited. Then again there came that piteous cry, and this time there could be no possibility of any mistake. The shock and the surprise of the thing took my breath away and held me nerveless. From out of the hut, pushed by a native woman who followed close behind, came a girl dressed in a plain gown of European make. Her hair was streaming down her back, and her eyes were lit with a horrible fear. But the thing which held Ahmid and me speechless was that her face was whiter even than my own, and her hair was as ruddy as fine gold.
At the sight of the men sitting there waiting, grim, stolid, expectant, she turned back to the woman who had pushed her out, and once more the air was full of her musical wailings. The woman's tears mingled with hers. She was on the girl's side, but she was powerless. Slowly the men rose up, one by one, and pointed toward the hills. Two of the women came forward and held each a hand. The girl, recoiling from them, flung herself upon the ground, and to my horror I heard my native tongue:
"I will not go! I will die first! You can kill me here, but I will not go!" Then I knew that this thing, which seemed so strange, was indeed true. The girl was of my own race, and the task of rescuing her was mine. I broke from Ahmid's grip, heedless of his passionate torrent of eager remonstrance, and, with my revolver in my hand, I rushed across the little open space. My feet fell noiselessly on the soft turf, and no one noticed^my coming. When I got there, one of the men had passed his arm around her waist, and had half-dragged her up. I struck him with my left hand, and he rolled over like a log. Then I stood up by the side of the girl, and faced the astonished natives.
My coming had been so completely unexpected, and the idea of interference from anyone so far from their thoughts, that they seemed for a moment paralyzed—bereft alike of words and any power of movement. The men still sat huddled up upon the turf; the women gazed at me as one would gaze at a figure risen from the earth before one's feet. Then they, first to recover themselves, filled the air with their small shrieks. The men rose slowly up, and joined a circle round us. I turned to Ahmid.
"Tell them," I cried, "that the girl is English, that she is of my own race, and that they must not dare to touch her. If she or I meet with harm here, we shall be avenged. Our soldiers will burn their huts, and raze their temple to the ground. Tell them this quickly, Ahmid."
He told them this, and how much more I cannot say, waving his brown arms to give emphasis to his words, with many gestures, too, pointing to the sea and to the land and to the temple on the hill. And the men listened in grim silence. Only they kept all the while narrowing the distance between us, penning us in closer and closer until escape, even if we had thought of it, became impossible. They formed a complete circle round us. When Ahmid ceased at last, there was a full minute's breathless silence. Then one of the men rose slowly up, and stepping into the little, open space between us, spoke, pointing to me, to the sea, and to the temple. When he had finished, Ahmid slowly translated his words.
"He says that it is not true that she is of your race. You are English, and she is American. She was left here by her father, in charge of the people of this island, and she has become one of them. They say that the High Priest has chosen her, and if you interfere, it will mean death to both of us."
Meanwhile the girl had been making desperate efforts to gain my side, but without success. The women who were holding her were strong, and their arms were wound around her slim body. But the look on her face was enough for me. I thrust the men aside, and stood over her, regardless of their naked and threatening blades.
"She is of my race, and I shall protect her against your foul practices," I cried savagely. "Stand aside! I am going to take her to my hut."
I stooped down to take her up, but there was the flash of blue steel before my eyes, and with a rapid spring on one side I only just escaped the thrust, which was aimed at my head.
The flash and report of my revolver startled them for a moment; the man who had struck at me leaped into the air, and fell over, shot through the heart. It was useless. They were two hundred to one, for Ahmid was unarmed. Before I could pull the trigger again, some one from behind had wound a pair of long, brown arms round my throat. I was almost strangled, and in that moment they all closed round me. One, who stooped toward the girl, I shot through the body; but the revolver was promptly jerked out of my hand. I felt a blow on the side of my head, and then the natives, with their fierce, bloodthirsty faces, and the trees and the air seemed all whirling round me together; I heard the girl's shrieks—they were carrying her off now. Then there was silence, silence and darkness. I was on my back, and I had an idea that I was being dragged along the ground. After that came unconsciousness.
PING! whizz! crash! Up the long valley a shower of bullets came rattling through the drooping trees and flattened themselves harmlessly against the high wall of rock beyond. A twig scarcely a foot from my left ear was snipped clean off, and fell like a dead thing into the undergrowth. I moved cautiously on to my side, and gazed down the long, grassy defile.
"Trapped like a rat," I muttered slowly between my teeth. "What an end! If only Maurice would hear the firing, and send some men."
I cast a longing glance downwards over the tops of the trees, to where scarcely a mile out the "Cormorant" was lying at anchor, her long white sides and dainty shape thrown into vivid relief against the deep blue of the sea. If only Maurice could know! But alas! my brother, who was as brave as a lion and had never shirked a row against any odds, was probably dozing in his hammock with a cigarette between his teeth, and if he had heard the firing at all, he would only think that we were up in the woods looking for game. We had tried to steal down to the sea, and swim for it, but they had headed us off. It seemed as if the end was pretty near now. I dropped a couple of cartridges into my revolver with fingers which shook a little. At any rate I meant to sell my life dearly. But what a hideous, purposeless end!
I glanced upward through the thick canopy of rhododendron leaves, to the clear blue sky dotted all over with little specks of white clouds. Away across the waving rice fields was the sea, as calm and almost as motionless as an Italian lake. A faint breeze stirring the leaves above our heads was heavy with the perfume of a semi-tropical undergrowth. A great bunch of scarlet blossoms waved slowly backwards and forwards, almost touching my lips. Down the valley, clearly in sight now, though nearly a mile away, was an extended line of these dusky, pitiless natives, marching steadily up toward us, beating out every cover and firing into every clump of bushes where hiding would be possible. As I watched them, a passion of inarticulate fury seized me for a moment. I struck the soft, spongy turf with my clenched fist, and cursed my fate in a savage undertone. To die, like a rat in a hole, without glory or honor—for nothing—ineffectually! It was hideous!
Ping! whizz! I started half-upright with a cry of bitter rage. My cheeks were sprinkled with hot blood, not my own, alas! but the blood of my faithful servant, Sabul Ahmid. His death-moan, purposely stifled as much as possible, struck a harsh, discordant note upon the sunlit air. A doubled-up mass of dark limbs, he lay for a moment at my feet writhing in mortal agony. Then, at the touch of my hand upon his forehead, he slowly straightened himself out. From the first, I knew that there was no hope for him. His wound was mortal. There was death in his veins, and in his slackening heart. He looked up at me piteously, through filmy eyes, lit with an unutterable regret.
"I was wrong—to bring your honor here —to let you come!"
I laughed at him, lightly, yet a little bitterly.
"Nonsense, Ahmid! It was not you who brought me. It was I who would come. Besides, it was I who got us into this mess. Never fear! I am always lucky. I shall fight my way out of it somehow!"
He shook his head, and waved his hand toward the valley.
"Not by fighting, Sahib! Their numbers are too great. But—but there is one way—one other way—a chance!"
As he spoke slowly, and with long-drawn breaths, there stole into his pinched, sallow face some gleams of a terror which was not the terror of death. A greater awe was upon him. He half-raised himself, and spoke, turning on to his side and pointing to the great mountain wall behind us.
"The Hill of Rubies," he muttered. "The Temple of the Priest of Astrea."
"What of it?" I asked quickly.
After all had the fellow a purpose in coming this way, when we had fled stealthily from the village in the gray, starlit dawn. To all appearance our course had been a very foolish one, we seemed to have run almost into a trap. A side of the mountain, abrupt, inaccessible, blocked our way ahead; on the right all the country between us and the sea was bare of cover and open. I had taken it for granted, that Ahmid had lost his way—after all had he a purpose? Was there yet any chance of escape? The very thought of it steadied my nerves. I glanced from the dying man, who was struggling now for every breath, down into the grassy, flower-strewn valley below. That little line of shouting men had grown perceptibly nearer. They were barely half a mile distant. The time was short indeed.
"The Hill of Rubies! The Temple of Astrea—there!"
He pointed to the solid wall. I followed his shaking finger eagerly. It was true we had made an ascending semi-circle, and here was the summit of that hill, upon whose bosom flashed the white walls and minarets of that unholy temple. I picked up my revolver, and fingered it carefully. My heart was beating thickly,—Ahmid had some hope left! I began to have a suspicion as to what it might be.
"It was to the Temple that the girl was taken," I muttered. "Is there any way into it from behind here, Ahmid?"
The man slowly moved his head.
"There is a way," he murmured, "but the risk is awful. It is torture and a horrible death—for it leads into the sacred shrine of the Temple."
"If there is any way, which the feet of living men have ever trodden, I will take it," I answered. "Tell me how to find it?"
The man closed his eyes: he was nursing his strength. As for me, the blood ran warm in my veins once more. If I could reach the front of the Temple, I could steal down to the shore unseen from the village. I bent low down over the dying man, fearful lest I might lose a single syllable of his directions.
"How do I go?"
Ahmid opened his eyes, but he did not answer me at once. The foam of death was on his lips. He was gathering all his strength for a last effort.
"Stand up," he said. "Look at that rock about half-way down, and in a line with that row of trees. Do you see anything?" I followed his finger, and looked intently at the towering wall of granite close in front of us. At first I could see nothing. Then a little, low cry, instantly suppressed, broke from my lips. A tiny speck of fire seemed to be flashing strange colored rays out into the sunlight, rays of red and glinting gold and purple. I looked at it amazed.
"It is the Sacred Ruby of Astrea," Ahmid whispered. "It is set in the rock, so that nothing but an earthquake can ever dislodge it. It has been there for a thousand years. The God Prophet of Astrea himself imbedded it there! Ah!"
He began to mutter to himself in the native tongue. There was a rattling in his throat like the rattling of death. I looked round through the canopy of green leaves, and gave a little cry of dismay, as I saw how close those dusky, stealthy-footed warriors had crept. The whizz of a harmless bullet whistled past my ear. I looked down at the man, whose life-blood was fast reddening the green turf, and my heart died away. He seemed too far gone now to speak again. It was too late. He had something to tell me! The Ruby was perhaps a guiding mark. What an evil fate, that he could not have lived a moment or two longer! Then his eyes slowly opened again. There was still a hope! He fought desperately for speech.
"Twelve yards back from the Ruby! A dead bush — it is the Sacred Way — they dare not follow!"
I stooped down and wrung the poor fellow's hand fervently. There was a lump in my throat—I could not see clearly. A faint smile flickered over his face, and, when it passed away, he was dead. Then I rose up to make my last effort for life. There was nothing more to be learned, although what I knew was little enough. Stooping low, I crept out of the thick undergrowth in which we had been lying. Before rne that strange gem flashed red fire out into the sunlit space. I measured twelve yards from it with my eye. A dead bush was there, indeed—so dead and so old, that the stem and boughs were black, and portions of it lay rotting on the ground. A few hasty strides and I was kneeling down before it. Close to the roots was a little square patch of small flints. I kicked them away right and left, and my heel struck something hard. It was an iron plate. I dropped on to my hands and knees, seeking eagerly for some means to move it. There was so little time left. From below came the voices of my pursuers, singing some deep, miserable chant, always with the same guttural refrain, reaching my ears more and more distinctly every moment. I tried the plate all round. I could not move it an inch. It seemed as if it were welded into the solid earth.
I began to get desperate. I tore at it wildly, until the blood streamed from my finger-nails. Still in vain. It did not move an inch. Close at hand now I could hear the measured footsteps of the natives, climbing the Sacred Hill, and the low singsong of their monotonous and dreary chant. It was maddening! The hot tears of ineffective rage stood in my eyes. Here was a chance of escape, ay, and of more than escape, a chance of rescuing that poor girl from the hands of this barbarous people— and it was useless to me! I could not use it. I stood upright and jumped upon it— and then the thing which I had been trying to achieve, happened without any warning. The plate tipped up beneath me, and I felt myself falling violently into darkness. One foot struck hard ground, the other dangled into space. Above my head the plate, which evidently worked upon a pivot, shut to with a dull thud. I recovered my breath as well as I could, and leaned back against the wall.
The place wherein I found myself was dark, with the damp, fetid darkness of an atmosphere into which the sun has never shone. I myself was in no very secure position. I was half-sitting, half-crouching upon what seemed to be a slanting ledge, barely half a yard wide, and one of my legs was dangling into empty space. I had one or two matches: and, after a moment's hesitation, I carefully lit one.
For a while it flickered, and I nursed it carefully in the hollow of my hand. Then it gathered strength, and burned bravely. I stood up and looked eagerly around. Outside in the face of death I felt comparatively cool. Now for the first time I felt the chill of absolute fear. I began to tremble in every limb.
The match went fizzing from my fingers, and dropped down into the great, silent gulf below. The fingers which had held it were shaking painfully. That brief glare —what I had seen, and what I had not seen, had unnerved me. I began to almost long forthe sunlight and death. There was something hideously grewsome in my present position. I was crouched upon a ledge narrower than I had at first supposed, which seemed to descend in spiral fashion round and round a hollow chasm, into whose black depths my feeble illumination had altogether failed to penetrate. I drew a coin from my pocket, and leaning forward, let it drop. Then I listened intently, holding my breath. There was no sound whatever. I could not hear it fall. I was afraid; I covered my face with my hands. Almost my nerves gave way. And then there came a thought, which saved me—a thought which has saved other men before in desperate straits. I thought of what freedom might mean, freedom and life and home. I felt what grit was in me coming back, and I began to feel ashamed. I set my teeth together, and on my knees, keeping my side pressed close to the wall, began to descend.
Around and around I went with slow, cautious movements, till the knees of my trousers were cut and torn, and all my bones ached. Then I grew bolder, and rose slowly to my feet, clutching with the palms of my hands at the jagged edges of the walls. One, two, three, four, a dozen revolutions I made in safety; then I slipped and nearly fell: I had put my foot upon something soft. There was a moment's wild struggling; then I set my back against the wall, breathless with the fear of that almost fatal stumble, and lit one of my few remaining matches. For a second or two I held it above my head, and peered around; then, with a cry of terror, I saw within a foot of me the creature on which I had trodden. It was a snake—a hideous creature, black, with green spots, and dull yellow eyes that blinked up at me in that one moment of illumination with a wicked, angry gleam. Its fangs shot out, its neck reared and curved. I kicked with all my strength, and, more by good luck than anything, I kicked true. With a little hiss of rage, I heard it vanish down the black gulf; listening intently, I even fancied that I could hear a faint splash somewhere deep down below.
Then there was silence. I stood still and shuddered! Almost at that moment I would have bartered my chance of escape for a breath of fresh air, a gleam of sunshine and the light of day. For this was, indeed, a hideous place in which I found myself. The atmosphere was foul and poisonous. Fungi of strange and marvelous shapes grew out of the walls, and gave forth a sickly odor. Every now and then a sort of choking almost took away my breath. Then there came a wave of hot, damp air from somewhere below, and the perspiration stood out on my forehead like beads. A sort of desperate courage came to me. Somehow or other I must get out of the place!
I recommenced the descent. Then came my first gleam of comfort. The awful silence was broken by a faint, distant roar, coming and dying away with slow regularity. I stopped quite still, and listened to it. There could be no mistaking the sound,—it was the sea! At last, then, I must be nearing the level of the Temple! Around and around again I crept, keeping my shoulders always close to the edge of the jagged rock, and every now and then recoiling with a shiver from the touch of a wet fern or fungus upon my face.
At last, what I had been hoping for so long came to pass. The descent grew less and less precipitous. I stepped forward with more confidence, stretched out my trembling knees, and made more rapid progress. I was nearing the plateau on which the Temple stood. 'Soon I was sure that I had reached it. The abyss, round which I had been threading my tortuous way, seemed to be continued deep down into the very bowels of the earth; but the narrow pathway which I had been following encircled it no longer. I had walked into a blank wall, or, rather, my cautiously outstretched hands had come into contact with it.
After a few moments' reflection, I struck another of my remaining matches. Then I saw what proved to me that the end of my journey was at hand. I was standing on the threshold of a long, oval-roofed passage, running at right- angles to me, and continued at each end. The walls and the ceiling were inlaid with figuring of some strange device, and at the far end of the opening on my right was a light—not, alas! the white light of the outer air, but a deep, red fire, glowing and fading in intensity as I watched. On my left was darkness impenetrable. I looked away from it with a shudder. Light, even the light of danger, was more welcome to me than more of this thick, awful gloom.
I took a few steps along the passage to the right, and at once I was conscious of an approaching change. The damp, funereal atmosphere, which had been choking my lungs and creeping through my veins with a sort of deathly chill, was gone. The faint perfumes of flowers and sweet incense came to me in a slow, delicious wave down the hollow arched passage, and from the far distance—there, where the red light waned and faded—came a low croon of strange music. Louder it swelled, and then died away, only to repeat itself with soft, quivering cadence, which seemed to catch at my heart-strings and awaken a curious thrill of recollection. Of a sudden I remembered it: it was the night song of the High Priest of Astrea!
I knew then that the tale of Sabul Ahmid had been true. I knew where I was. Behind me was the famous ruby mine: in front was the Holy Temple of Astrea. The secret passage was no myth; I myself had descended by it. A few more steps, and I should be where the feet of unsanctified mortals had never before been set—I should be in the Shrine, behind the Veil of the Temple of the Priest of Astrea!
I STOOD quite still for several minutes carefully considering my position, and the more I thought of it the less enviable did it seem. Behind me, down that long, unlit passage, was the secret way to the ruby mine of Astrea, worked altogether by the priests of the lower order, 'and guarded only by natives. To advance in that direction was certain death.
Stories of poor Ahmid's, concerning the horrible cruelties practiced by the priests upon those who, by chance or design, had penetrated to their secret treasure place, were still in my mind. In front of me— there, where the red light glowed and faded—was the interior of the sacred Temple. Already, no doubt, preparations were being made there for the morrow's celebration, when the people would flock up from their huts, through the laurel and cypress groves, to the steps of the Temple, and lie upon the smooth green sward waiting for night and the coming of the stars.
It was the middle of the Holy Week, the most anxiously watched night of the whole year. If, as last evening, the clouds rose up and the stars were obscured, then the air was thick with the sounds of wailing, and rent with lamentations. The doors of the Temple remained closed. The priest did not appear. No one might enter or issue therefrom. It was a night of woe and mourning. But if the sky were clear and the stars bright, then commenced a very pandemonium. First the doors of the Temple were opened wide, and the priest showed himself, leading by the hand the chosen victim of the night before. The chosen victim! I felt my breath come short and fast, and my right arm grow strong, as the rest of Ahmid's grewsome story rose up in my mind.
In that dark, mysterious passage the little scene of the night before floated suddenly before my eyes. I saw the white, despairing face of that young girl, as they had dragged her off toward the distant Temple, her last eager look thrown toward me, half grateful, half still imploring. Then I forgot my own great danger, and the perils of my own escape from this barbarous island. My blood rushed hotly through my veins. Before me—there, where the red fire burned, and the perfume of flowers and incense sweetened the air—she was waiting for me; hoping against hope, perhaps, that some aid might come before the hideous night. Well, she should not long in vain: I would rescue her! I set my mind to it, and it seemed an easy task.
In the Temple itself the High Priest alone was suffered to dwell. It was one man against one man! I should meet him there, where suTrely the foot of a stranger had never fallen before; and it would go hardly with me if I, the assailant, prepared and armed, were not a match for him.
When once he was overpowered, what was there after all to make an escape so difficult? Barely a quarter of a mile from the Temple was the sea, and the space between was mostly sacred ground. Doubtless by this time, too, Maurice had discovered my danger. If he had landed no men upon the island, he would at least be on the lookout for me. I felt the cartridges in my revolver, and I set my teeth resolutely. Nothing in an actual contest for life could be more horrible than this creeping like a hunted rat through the darkness. I set out resolutely along the passage.
Now, the distance was greater than it had seemed by fully a hundred yards; but I grew near to the light at last, and met then with my first repulse. There was a gate of fine metal between me and the open Temple,—a gate fashioned of thin brass wires, almost transparent, beaten and twisted into a wonderful design. In the center of it a great ruby gleamed and burned. It was set upon staples of riven copper, and was, or appeared to be, firmly closed. I stopped a dozen paces from it, perplexed and anxious. If the gate were indeed fast, I was caught like a rat in a hole. I pressed my body against the wall, and stole slowly forward on tiptoe. Soon I saw into the Temple. Then I knew that all the stories which Ahmid had told me concerning it—and to which I had listened with a tolerant but distinct disbelief, looking upon them as wild and fantastic extravagances—were true, and more than true. I looked into the Temple of the People of Astrea, and I held my breath; gazing with fascinated eyes round the wonderful, dome-shaped building. The roof was of amber-colored glass, and the walls were covered with a wonderful design of stars, set in a sky of ultramarine blue. In the center of each painted star flashed a precious stone, and the walls were all afire with encrusted rubies. Even I, peering in from the darkness, had to cover my eyes with my hand. The place seemed full of scintillations of brilliant light. The floor was of polished white stone or marble, marvelously spotless.
I had seen so much, when my heart gave a sudden throb, and the splendors of the place held me spellbound no more. A stealthy movement forward had brought within the range of my vision a couch, or pedestal, set almost in the center of the place, covered with scarlet hangings, and smothered with flowers. Stretched upon it was the figure of a young girl, her white face almost deathlike against the brilliantly colored background, her eyes closed, her arms, laden with massive gold bracelets, hanging lifelessly down by her side. She was wrapped in a loose white robe, covered with gold embroidery, and little showers of light seemed to flash from her fingers, all ablaze with precious stones. But at the look on her cold, still face my blood ran cold, and my right hand trembled with a desire to strike. A gray pallor had drawn the color even from her lips, black lines were underneath her eyes, her pupils were dilated, and her underlip was stained with blood. She was in a paroxysm of fear.
And then, without any sound of footstep or audible token of his approach, there glided before her the Reader of the Stars, the High Priest of the People of Astrea, into whose face no man dared look; and who, save for that ghostly walk once a year, was said never to pass the confines of the sacred precincts. I looked upon him with a thrill of interest, almost of awe. He was a man of splendid appearance, over six feet high, broad, and of commanding presence. His beard and his eyes were as black as coals; his dress and the details of his person betokened a scrupulous and a fine care.
Everything about him seemed to suggest the sacerdotal. His white robe, fastened round his waist with a girdle of gold, was set with a collar and waistband all ablaze with rubies. He wore sandals of white upon his feet, and his fingers were covered with rings. He stood and looked down upon his terrified victim with a faint smile parting his lips. She shrank away from him, moaning. I drew a step nearer the gate.
He spoke to her, and to my amazement he spoke in English. His voice was clear and musical, and his enunciation was singularly pure. Every word came to me distinctly.
"Foolish maiden!" he said, letting his bejeweled hand touch for a moment her ashen and averted cheek; "you shrink from me as though you believed all the wild tales of those very simple children of mine. Am I indeed so terrible to look upon? What has happened yet to affright you? Have you not been well treated? The only harm which can come to you here is the terror bred of your imaginings. Have no fear, maiden!"
"Set me free," she moaned; "I am afraid!"
"Free!" he murmured contemptuously. "Free to dwell once more among a herd who are not fit to breathe the same air with youl What freedom is there in dwelling in a foul hut, the mate of ignorant savages? What poor reasoning is yours, child! Here you will dwell as the chosen bride of the High Priest. Here on the hilltop, in a splendor which by no other means could ever lighten your young life. There is nothing for you to fear! My word has been given. Ah! you are only a child yet, but believe me, love is not a thing to shrink from."
"I do not want to stay here," she moaned. "I do not want to stay on the island at all. You terrify me! There are some English people here, they will take me back to my own country. Oh, let me go!"
His face darkened strangely, though a vestige of the smile still lingered on his lips.
"Give up such idle dreams," he said more sternly. "What have you to gain by returning to your own country? You have neither money, relations, nor friends; and to the poor, the life there in the Western countries, the countries they call civilized, is slavery and worse than slavery. I know, child, for I have been there 1 I have been to test the civilization of which your father talked, and of which all people from Western countries talk, as though it were the ideal fulfillment of the great law of development. It is a folly and a curse! Men in those lands are drunk with greed, and women are their puppets. They forsake Nature, the great Mother, mistress of the world, to live nearer to the shadow of vainer things. Child, I know! for I have lived among your people. Life here we can make a dream of joy. We can eliminate the false and crush the vulgar! We can live nearer to the beautiful. Fate has given you to me! Be reconciled. Forget the idle tales of those ignorant people. You are part of a beautiful ritual, but no harm shall come to you. Indeed, it is no cruel fate which has brought you here."
Then he stooped down, and would have caressed her, but she pushed him away and screamed piteously. He bent down again, holding her white hands firmly in his, and at the sound of her moaning the blood boiled up in my veins, and the strength of two men was in my arms. I laid hold of that slender gate like a madman, with such force that the bars bent and the frail fastening snapped. Over the debris I sprang into the Temple, and stood facing them, half in the mind to shoot there and then and end the matter. But the priest was, or appeared to be, unarmed, and I could not bring myself to kill him like a dog, as had been indeed my first intent.
He turned and faced me with a great start. To do him justice, it was not so much fear which had whitened his face, as horror, horror tempered with the blankest amazement. He had spent some part of a lifetime there in the Temple, and never yet had the footstep of any mortal man pressed the sacred floor. Yet there I stood, pale with passion, the slender gate twisted out of all shape on the ground at my feet, my hand on my revolver. To him I must have seemed to have sprung from the bowels of the earth. Drawn to his full height, his eyes flashing black fire upon me, his strong features expressing something of the horror which he doubtless felt at this sacrilegious intrusion, he was a fine and picturesque object. My hand was on the trigger of my revolver, but a sudden instinct of admiration at the man's marvelous personality held me inert for a moment. It was a pause which nearly cost me my life; which cost me, at any rate, a scar which I shall never lose. The priest's hand had seemed suddenly to disappear among the loose folds of his robe. He leaned forward toward me, a quivering bolt of blue steel flashed across the great hall, and my leap to the right was barely in time to escape it. As it was, there was a burning pain upon my left temple, as though something had scorched me. Shaking like a live thing, the dagger buried itself in the wall behind.
If I had fired then at once, the struggle would have been over. But the priest now, at any rate, was unarmed, and the thing seemed to me—a man of peace at heart— like murder. I hesitated for one fatal second, and then, even as my finger pressed the trigger, he leaped upon me with the sudden spring of a panther. I fired, once, twice, in quick succession. The place was full of smoke, and eve'n in that thrilling moment I recollect how curiously the smell of gunpowder mingled with the perfume of the drooping purple flowers, and the incense which had been burning in a brazen pot. Then, as I fired for the third time, the revolver was dashed from my hand, a man's hot breath was on my cheek, a pair of long sinewy arms were round my body. I set my teeth hard, for I knew that this was to be a struggle for life or death. I was thirty years old, I had played halfback for my university, and I was myself over six feet; yet, from the first, I knew that I was in the grasp of a stronger man. Backwards and forwards we swayed across the slippery floor, and his hold round my waist was like a tightening band of iron. My breath came short and thick, and I expected every moment to hear my ribs snap; yet, from some slight knowledge of the art of wrestling which I had, and he had not, I kept myself from going under. He could break the bones in my body, but he could not throw me. Yet I think that he felt himself the master, and sure of his triumph; for, as he bent me backwards, his lips parted in a smile of savage hatred, and he murmured something to himself in his native tongue. Once, twice, I nearly stumbled on the floor, which was like polished glass, and I wound my right arm round his neck, madly determined that if I went, we rolled together. We swayed into the stone altar, and I thought then that the advantage was mine.
He had fallen with his back against it, and my hand was upon his throat. But with a sudden giant exercise of strength, he loosened the pressure, and the chances were even once more. Not, alas, for long!
Almost immediately afterward, I became conscious that he was putting forth a supreme effort. The place whirled round with me. The grasp of his arms was tightened, till the breath in my body came in sobs and black specks danced before my eyes. I felt my feet part with the ground. He had thrown himself down, and I was going with him. For a second or two I almost lost consciousness. When I could clearly understand anything, I was lying on my back, and he was kneeling upon me with a cruel smile of triumph on his dark face.
"You are going to die," he muttered. "I shall twist the life out of your neck! Dog! Sacrilegious hound!"
Then I think that I fainted.
I HAD lost all measure of time, but I was probably unconscious for only a moment or two. When I opened my eyes he was still kneeling there, regarding me with complacent hatred. I mada a desperate effort to rise. He laughed, and slowly loosening the girdle from his waist drew it round my neck. He held the loose ends in his hands and watched me, hoping that I should cry for mercy. But I saw other things, and the fire of hope was in my heart. I saw a white figure pulling away at the dagger, which quivered still in the wall. I saw her wrench it free, and I saw her coming with slow, stealthy footsteps across the shining floor, with her white face full of hatred and a light in her eyes which cheered me; for I felt that the end had not yet come, though the twisted girdle was already cutting my throat and the loose ends were in his hands.
Closer! Closer! Closer! I had shut my eyes, lest the light in them should give him any inkling of what was happening. Yet through my quivering eyelids I saw her creeping up on tiptoe, her teeth firmly set, and her bare arm raised. He heard no sound, and he suspected nothing. Then I saw the blue steel flash sudden lightnings, and there was a dull thud. The dagger had been driven home with no weak blow. The ends of the girdle slipped from his fingers. He gave one groan and rolled over on his side. Breathless, I staggered up to my feet. There was a livid mark round my neck, and I felt as though I were choking. The girl stood there, looking down at the priest. Her hand was outstretched, and the blood was dripping from her fingers on to the marble floor. I spoke to her.
"Is there anyone else about the place?" I asked.
"No one. There will be no one in the Temple for an hour."
I drew a long sigh of relief. The sun was still high, and as long as the day lasted I knew that, save for any myrmidons of the High Priest, the Temple—nay, the sacred hill itself—would be completely isolated.
Slowly I began to recover my breath, and to look around me. On a marble altar, a few yards away, a little heap of some sort of dark seeds were burning, giving a deep red flame, and emitting a curiously pungent odor. The couch where the girl had been lying, and the ground all round it, were strewn with purple and white flowers, whose faint perfume mingled with the more redolent odors of the place. Up to the high dome-shaped roof little puffs of white smoke were still curling. I moved a few steps to where the priest was lying. A dark stream of blood was tritiding out from his side across the spotless and polished floor. I looked down at him with a curious mixture of sensations.
"I wonder," I said, half to myself, "whether he will die?"
There was a clutch upon my arm, and a light moan in my ear. The girl was beside me. Once more, as she looked downwards, her face was lit with terror.
"Oh, come away!" she begged. "Come away! Let us leave this place. It is horrible!"
I touched his hand—a shapely and delicately cared for hand, with its weight of glittering rings. It was warm, and the pulse was still beating.
"He may die if we leave him like this," I remarked.
She was frankly indifferent. She turned away, and would not look at him.
"I hope that he will die," she said, with a strange flash of fire in her eyes. "I shall be happier all my life if I think I have killed him."
Then I remembered what Ahmid had told me as we lay on the mountainside in the gray dawn—that her father was a missionary, slain by order of the High Priest,— and I wasted no more pity on him. I stood up.
"And now for escape, then," I said. She caught hold of me with both her hands, clutching at my clothes in a sudden paroxysm of fear. Something in my words seemed to have suggested to her what had certainly never entered into my mind.
"You will not leave me behind?" she cried, her eyes dilated with horror. "The people would tear me to pieces. You will take me with you? You will save me?"
"Of course I will," I answered promptly. "Don't be afraid. We will escape together, or not at all."
She pressed her hand to her heart with a sudden relief, and her eyes flashed an eloquent glance upon me. I think it was then, for the first time, that I understood how beautiful she was. Her long hair had escaped the bands of white ribbon which had held it together, and was streaming upon her shoulders in wanton disorder. A faint flush was creeping through the gray pallor of her face. I had thought of her as a child; she was suddenly a woman.
"Ah!" she said; " God must have sent you to me."
I shook my head grimly.
"He would have chosen a more celestial champion," I said. "After all, it is you who have struck the only blow so far. Now, listen. What we have to do is to get to the steamer. It is less than a mile to the sea from here. We must descend the hill, and when we get to the laurel grove we must force our way through it straight on to the shore, instead of turning to the village. The worst of it is, that when we really get to the sea we shall be seen from the village. That will be our dangerous point. I don't suppose you can swim?"
"Oh, yes, I can!" she answered quickly.
"I can keep up for a mile."
This was a load off my mind. The thing began to look less desperate.
"Come, that is good!" I exclaimed cheerfully. "You understand what we have to do, then? Remember that we have a fair chance, and that is all. These natives are not savages. They have rifles, and seem to know how to use them. It will be a splendid piece of good fortune if we manage to reach the yacht unhurt. All the same, I think that we shall do it."
"You will not leave me," she faltered, "whatever happens?"
I took her hands in mine. They were as white and soft as any woman's hands I had ever felt.
"I promise," I said gravely. "We will escape, or we will die together."
We stood there a moment without moving. I, being a man of some emotions, found time to wonder at the strangeness of the situation into which I had drifted. All around us the deep, serene stillness of the place was unbroken, save for the slight hissing of the perfume upon the altar. There was something very thrilling in that deep hush, the strange half-lights, and the mingled perfumes—something of that peculiar and mysterious mysticism which is always attached to the temple of any strange and idealistic form of worship. From the stories of Ahmid, I did not doubt but that I was the first European who had ever set foot upon that marble floor. However that may have been, I had no great desire to linger there.
"Come," I said, "let us make a start. We pass through there, I suppose, to the outer temple?"
I pointed to a high arched door, set with clasps of copper. The girl nodded.
"It is locked," she said. "Wait, I will get the key."
She stooped down over the body of the priest and unfastened something from his waist. I walked onward to the door. When she caught me up she had a great key in her hand. We passed into the outer temple. The iron gates in front were wide open, in readiness for the evening's ceremony. With scarcely a glance round we found ourselves suddenly face to face with the flooding sunshine. I held out my hand, and she paused.
"Let me go first," I said. "I want to make sure that there is no one in sight."
I stood in the shadow of a pillar on the topmost of that great flight of broad steps, and, shading my eyes, looked cautiously out. The broad way from the village to the Temple was, as I had expected, deserted. Bamboo sticks, at every few yards on either side, supported an empty paper lantern, swaying gently in the light wind, and all in readiness for the evening's festival. No sound whatever came from the little cluster of huts below. Afar off inland the dark forms of stooping men in the rice fields, like insects upon the hillside, seemed the only signs of human life; and yonder, right below, almost at our feet as it seemed, was the blue sea, and the "Cormorant" lying at anchor. There was safety —safety for both of us! I beckoned to the girl.
"Come," I said, "there ,is no one in sight. We will make a bold start."
We stepped out into the burning sunlight, and walked swiftly down the steps and along the broad walk. All went well until we reached the point where the path curved to the left down into the village. Here, as we paused for a moment, we had a glimpse of the little circle of huts, and the blue smoke curling upwards through the trees. We could even see the little brown children rolling about, and the dusky forms of women stepping across the open space. From somewhere behind came the clanging of a copper instrument, low, harsh, and monotonous, borne to us, apparently, from a long distance, upon the hot, faintly moving air—herald of the night's ceremony. The girl at my side had evidently heard it before, and, notwithstanding the heat, shivered. I parted the first clump of laurel bushes with my hands and motioned to her.
"We must not follow the path any longer," I said. "We shall have to make our way through here. Keep as close to me as you can."
As we stepped from the warm sunlit air into the thick labyrinth of bushes a deep chill struck through my linen garments, and the girl by my side shivered. Step by step we fought our way through the densely growing mass of undergrowth. Once she stumbled, catching her feet in the roots, which ran like a network of tangled ropes backwards and forwards. Still we pressed on and we gained ground. I understood now, though, what Ahmid had meant when, pointing here from the boat on our first landing, he had spoken of the "poisoned grove." At times the rank odor from the flowering shrubs almost overpowered us, and we had to gasp for breath. The air was damp and fetid, and the thick canopy of broad leaves above our heads shut out the sunlight, and even the blue sky. Once a great yellow-bellied snake crept hissing out from the shelter of a mass of decaying leaves, and we saw his black eyes glisten like beads, and his skin quiver, as he seemed to hesitate whether or no to attack us. The girl shrank back with a smothered cry of terror. I held her tightly round the waist and hurried on, but for the rest of the way she trembled without ceasing. Fortunately we were only a few yards from the edge of the grove. With scarcely any warning, so thick was the vegetation, we found that we had reached it. I stepped with dazzled eyes on to the hard, white sands; but almost immediately I sprang backwards, and held out my hand to stop the girl. Down on the sands in front of the village, a little crowd of natives were gathered together, and the low " pom, pom, pom," of their war-drums came distinctly to our ears.
"They are all out and in arms," I whispered to the girl. "They look as if they were thinking of attacking the yacht. Perhaps they think that I have escaped there."
She peered out between the laurel leaves. A few hundred yards to the left, the sands were dotted all over with the dusky forms of the natives, and every moment the clanging of their brass and copper instruments grew louder and louder. A few were armed with rifles, others with long swords and spears. I gazed from them out to the little steamer anxiously.
"I wonder," I said, "if Maurice has landed a boat yet."
Almost as I spoke, there came a puff of white smoke from the yacht's side, and directly afterwards a loud report. I waited eagerly for the result.
"Maurice must know, by this time, that something has gone wrong," I remarked. "I wonder what he will do?"
Very soon I was to know. Something came bobbing round the side of the yacht itself. It was a boat full of menl A few yards behind came another. At the same time the "Cormorant" slowly backed a little closer in-shore. There was another puff of white smoke from her side, and then a terrified yell from the group of natives; this time old Blowden, our gunner, had found his mark.
My heart beat quickly and my eyes were dim.
"Oh, paragon of a brother!" I murmured. "Good old Maurice! What a brick he is!"
"Is he your brother?" she murmured. I nodded.
"Yes, and the best fellow on earth. Wait! I must think what to do. I don't want them to fight."
In the meantime the natives were sending messengers to the Temple. I saw the men who were chosen strip themselves naked and run up the hillside, like wild men. Then I knew that something must be done, and done quickly; for very soon they would know what would fill their hearts with the blackest rage toward us. The boats were half-way to the shore now, in an oblique line between us and the natives. I looked down at the girl.
"Have you nerve enough to run now and swim?" I asked.
"I am quite ready," she answered. "Anytime!"
I put my left foot out, and looked to the priming of my revolver.
"You must start first," I said to the girl.
"Do not wait or look behind, just run for the sea at about that spot." I pointed to a piece of gleaming seaweed. "If you can dive when you reach the water, do so. They will fire at us, no doubt! Directly we are seen I. will attract the attention of my people, and they will head their boats toward us. Now, go!"
She held up the skirts of her white gown in one hand, and, with a nod to me, poised herself for a moment upon her left foot, and then darted forward, running with a speed and a grace which amazed me. She had barely taken thirty paces when a low, hoarse murmur, gathering strength until it became a roar, burst from the clamoring little crowd preparing for battle on our left. Then I waited no longer. I fired one chamber of my revolver in the air, sprang out upon the sands, and with my hand to my mouth gave a mighty Leicestershire "Tally Ho!" and ran. Short though had been her start, she was knee-deep in the water before I was up with her, and she hesitated and looked round for me.
"On you go!" I cried. "Dive if you can!"
A bullet whizzed harmlessly over our heads. I was up to my waist now in the cool sea, and she had gone under with the grace of a mermaiden. More bullets came whistling over our heads—one plowed up a long line of spray only a yard or two behind. She was up again now, and we were swimming side by side, straight for the two boats which had been quickly turned toward us. The "Cormorant" was keeping up a steady broadside into the crowds of natives on the beach, with deadly effect, as we could judge from the yells of pain and fury. I struck the cool water with joy, and turned to my companion with a laugh.
"Those fellows cannot see us now," I cried. "They'll never touch us. Courage! How gloriously you swim!"
Almost as I spoke, there was a sharp, stinging pain in my shoulder, and a strange tune rang for a moment in my ears. I set my teeth hard, and grimly kept back that little cry of pain, which had very nearly escaped me. More bullets whizzed over our heads, and cut the water up around us.
The girl took not the slightest notice of them, swimming a little ahead of me, low down in the water, but with perfect ease. Now I cojuld see the prows of the "Cormorant's" boats coming nearer and nearer, and I was glad of it, for every moment my strength grew less. My teeth cut into my lips. I feared to open my mouth lest I should cry out. The girl was gaining on me with every stroke, there was quite a gap between us now; and there was Maurice, standing up in the bows of the nearest boat, cheering us on bravely. Was it Maurice though, or was it the dusky face of a blackbearded priest, mocking us, and waving us back? . . . There was a mist before my eyes, and the sky was suddenly dark.
What a strange, sickening sensation! Then a roar throbbed in my ears. My arms cleaved the water no more; I felt them sink helplessly to my side. I gave a little gasp, and for the first time the girl looked round and saw that the water between us was stained with blood.
I heard a sweet voice pleading in my ears—a sweet voice broken with sobs. I was up again in the light! The green sea was thundering no more in my ears. Her arm was round me. I could hear her praying.
"Oh, God, save him!" she murmured. "God save him!"
Then I felt a strange thing, the touch of wet warm lips upon my forehead, and taking heart once more, I stretched out my arms and swam; it was only for a moment or two. Hoarse voices were shouting to us close at hand. There was the gurgle and dripping of water, as a dozen pairs of oars struck the waves only a few yards away. Somehow or other I felt myself being lifted up into a boat, and Maurice's arm was round my neck.
"I'm all right," I said. "Thanks, old chap! Is the girl in?"
Maurice nodded, and a soft, dripping hand was laid on mine. She was by my side. Suddenly she half rose and stretched out her hand toward the hilltop.
"Look!" she cried. "Look!"
I followed her gaze, and the men rested for a moment on their oars. High up above the laurel grove, on the topmost steps of the Sacred Temple, a man was standing—a man of great height and commanding appearance. His arms were stretched out seawards—some instinct of his terrible wrath seemed to travel to us, without word or gesture, through the sunlit air. The girl at my side turned pale, and her eyes were full of trouble.
"If only mine had been a man's arm," she murmured; "if only I had reached his heart!"
AFTER all, it turned out that my wound was little more than a scratch. When I woke up after a long night's rest to find a cool wind blowing in through the open porthole, and the murmuring of a calm sea in my ears, I knew at once that the fever which had threatened me on the previous day had passed away. I got out of bed, and with some difficulty, for my shoulder was still stiff and sore, dressed myself. Then I hurried on deck. We were going at half-speed, with several sails flapping lazily in the faintly stirring breeze. When I looked around for the island of Astrea I saw only a dim, blue haze far astern. Maurice was near the poop, talking to the chief engineer. Directly he saw me, he broke off in the middle of a sentence, and came across the deck to my side.
"Didn't expect to see you about just yet, old chap," he remarked. "Are you all right?"
"Right as a trivet," I answered. "The bullet must have just grazed the skin, and glanced off the shoulder-blade. My only discomfort at present is excessive hunger! I had nothing to eat yesterday."
"Breakfast in five minutes. I was just waiting for the bell. How on earth did you manage to get those beggars' backs up like that?"
"It's quite a yarn," I answered. "I'll tell you all about it over breakfast."
Then there was a moment's silence. I wanted to thank him for the expedition, which without doubt saved our lives, but I knew that he hated thanks. At the same time it seemed ungrateful to say nothing. I fenced with the difficulty.
"That was a close thing," I remarked. He nodded, and knocked the ash off his cigarette.
"Yes; I ought to have started half an hour sooner. I might have known that something had gone wrong."
"I don't see how," I replied. "I think you timed it remarkably well."
"The young lady," he remarked, "was game—very game! Were there many more of her sort on the island?"
"Come down to breakfast, and I'll tell you all about it."
"What about our visitor?" he inquired; "or rather your visitor! Will she join us?"
"Where is she?" I asked.
"Oh, in the ladies' cabin," he answered, with a shade of irritation in his tone. "I didn't suppose I should get through the cruise without having to use it!"
I laughed outright. Maurice was something of a woman-hater, and it had been expressly stipulated that this was to be solely a bachelor outing.
"It's hard luck, Maurice," I admitted, "but it's not so bad as when Lady Montague and her niece boarded us at Gibraltar. I'll go and knock at the door and see if she's awake."
The ladies' cabin was on the deck and next to Maurice's own room. I knocked softly at the door. She answered at once:
"Are you going to get up for breakfast?" I asked.
"Oh, is that really you?" she cried, gladly. "Are you better then?"
"I am all right," I answered through the keyhole. "The bullet only grazed my shoulder. How do you feel?"
"Oh, me! Why, I'm quite well!" she answered hesitatingly.
"Well, won't you get up and have some breakfast?" I continued after a pause.
"That's just what I'm dying to do," she answered. "I have been wanting to for hours. But—"
"But what?" I asked.
"How can I?" she exclaimed impatiently. "The only clothes I have are soaking wet."
"I'm dreadfully sorry," I exclaimed penitently, with my mouth a little closer to the keyhole. "What a thundering ass I am! Shall I go and see whether I can find anything likely to be of use to you?"
"Are there any women on board at all?" she asked.
"Not one," I admitted.
"Then I don't suppose you have anything," she said dubiously. "If you can get me a dressing-gown and a needle and cotton, and let me have this little piece of deck just outside the door all to myself— the sun seems very hot there,—I think I could manage something."
This was evidently a young person of resource. I was very much relieved.
"All right," I answered. "I'll bring some breakfast, too, and put everything down outside."
I went down to the saloon, where Maurice was already peeling a banana. He saw me enter alone with evident satisfaction.
"Is she asleep?" he inquired, "or knocked up?"
"Neither. What idiots we are!" I exclaimed. "She hasn't any clothes."
Maurice looked at me perplexed. Then the corners of his mouth twitched, and he burst out laughing.
"Well, you're a nice squire of dames!" he exclaimed. "Of course she hasn't. What are you going to do?"
I was a little annoyed, but Maurice rose at once and passed his arm through mine.
"Come into my cabin, old chap, and we'll see what we can find," he said. "I ought to have remembered that you didn't bring her luggage on board."
We looked through his wardrobe, and gravely selected a heterogeneous collection of articles which we imagined might be useful to her. Maurice was something of a Sybarite, and had always been most fastidious as to his person. I watched him with surprise carefully prepare a dressingcase with gold fittings, in which he took particular pride.
"Are you going to let her use that, Maurice?" I asked.
"I suppose so; as she is here, we must look after her," he answered carelessly.
"I don't use it much myself. It's a little overpowering. There's everything but hairpins and curling-tongs. How about those shawls and things we bought at Colombo for the mater and the girls?"
"The very thing!" I exclaimed. "We'll have a couple of them out at any rate."
Maurice hauled them into the light, and we regarded them with satisfaction.
"She can make a frock of them anyhow," Maurice remarked. "They're a trifle gaudy, but I daresay she won't mind that. If she don't like the pattern, she can cut up my white flannel dressing-gown. The Orientals will come in for evening wear."
We staggered out on to the deck with our bundles, and laid them down outside her door. The steward was waiting there with the breakfast I had ordered. I knocked softly, and bent down to the keyhole.
"We've brought you some things," I announced with a certain amount of justifiable triumph in my tone, as I looked down at the two huge bundles and at Maurice's dressing-case. "We are going away now, so you can open the door and fetch them in. There is some breakfast here, too."
"Why, thank you, ever so much," she answered. "I'm just ravenously hungry."
We walked away, and Maurice stopped for a moment to speak to the carpenter about fixing some sort of an awning round the few yards of deck in front of her door. When we returned we saw, with satisfaction, that both the bundles and the dressing-case had vanished.
"I think," I remarked, "that she will be rather surprised to find what a bachelor's wardrobe has been able to furnish. I should never have thought of half those things if it had not been for you."
Maurice stopped short for a moment— we were at the head of the gangway—and looked at me dubiously.
"What's that?" he asked.
"It sounds as though she were laughing," I admitted. And, indeed, there was no doubt at all about it. There was a pealing succession of musical trills ending abruptly, and then recommencing as though every moment she found some new cause for mirth. We walked on in silence. I really think that we were both a little hurt.
"It was those ridiculous stockings of yours with the gold-colored clocks," I said abruptly. "Fancy a man wearing such things! No wonder she was amused."
"I'll bet you a fiver it wasn't," Maurice answered with a broad grin.
"Come along, anyhow," I said quickly.
"I want my breakfast."
OVER breakfast I told Maurice the whole story of my adventure. We continued discussing it long afterwards, lounging in low chairs on deck and smoking—I my pipe and Maurice innumerable cigars. Somehow Maurice took it a little more seriously than I had expected. His first half-impatient query remained unanswered—a somewhat perplexing problem:
"What the mischief are we going to do with the girl?" That was without doubt a quandary, and a rather awkward one.
However, as I explained to Maurice, I had scarcely as yet exchanged a dozen sentences with her. We need not take it for granted that she was friendless, or that she had lived on the island since her childhood. The probabilities all seemed to point the other way. There was nothing in the least uncouth about her appearance or manners. She spoke the purest English, with just a slight American accent.
"I daresay," I remarked, carefully refilling my pipe, "that she has plenty of friends in India, and will be only too glad to be landed at Colombo. In any case, I don't think that she will be much of a burden to us."
"It isn't exactly that," Maurice said.
"Only one gets so sick of women on shore, that it has been a perfect luxury to be absolutely free from them for a while. I am a little superstitious too," he remarked calmly. "I always look upon a single woman as country people do upon a magpie! They bring bad luck. By-the-bye, that reminds me! There's a man on board wants to talk to you."
Maurice blew his silver whistle. The boatswain came hurrying forward.
"Send Hooley here," Maurice ordered. In a minute or two Hooley stood before us. He had a squat but honest face, and he wore earrings. He was evidently much embarrassed.
"This fellow knows all about your delightful island," Maurice said, turning to me. "You have been there often, the first mate tells me, Hooley."
The man pulled his cap respectfully.
"I've been there, sir," he answered. "Two years ago was my last trip there. I was mate on a Rangoon trading vessel running to the Philippines, and we used to call there regularly. Very go-ahead people for niggers, sir!"
"So I found them," I remarked drily.
"You'd have been all right with them, sir, begging your pardon, sir, if you hadn't run amuck with them on the religious tack. There's no shifting them off that. The Czar of Russia ain't no more a despot than that High Priest of theirs. If he told 'em all to cut their throats they'd do it. Begging your pardon, sir," the man continued, turning more directly to me, "there's some talk among the men, as how you'd half-killed him and brought the young woman away out of the Temple!"
"Something like that did happen," I admitted.
"It was a rare plucky thing to do, sir, begging your pardon, sir," the man said gravely; "but—but—"
I looked up at him from the depths of my chair. His face was troubled and perplexed. He moved uneasily from one leg to the other.
"What is it, Hooley?" Maurice asked.
"Speak out, man."
"You see, sir," Hooley explained, "I've been there pretty often, and I know how much store they set on that High Priest. What I want to say is this, sir, in the way of warning, and meaning no offense. This thing ain't done with. If you've struck the High Priest a single blow, there's them among 'em as'll follow you for it half over the world. There'll be no more festivals on the Island of Astrea until you or the young woman is the victim."
Maurice smiled incredulously, I laughed outright.
"Why, you are as bad as the natives, Hooley," Maurice declared. "How could any of that half-naked, ignorant crew follow us to England, and what could they do if they got there?"
Hooley shook his head.
"Three years ago, sir," he said, "our first mate, when he was half-drunk, chucked a pebble at the High Priest, because he wouldn't trade for rubies. The next morning he was found dead in his cabin, fifty miles out at sea, with a poisonous snake in his bunk. Lord only knows how it got there. I know that's true, because I was the one to find him, and there's many other tales of the same sort."
"Never mind the other tales, Hooley," I said. "This High Priest is certainly a wonderful-looking man. Do you know where he came from? He could never have been a native!"
"They say, sir, as he is an Indian Prince, who had lost caste and found his way to the island by accident. I don't know the rights of it. Anyhow, he was educated at Bombay University, and he can speak any language under the sun. He is a physician, makes gunpowder, and has taught them natives a sight of things. He can lead 'em just like blind sheep! They used to worship some sort of images up in that Temple before he came, but he converted them to Star worship. They very nearly killed me once because I climbed up a tree to look at him, when he was walking in the Sacred Grove."
We both laughed, yet we were both a little impressed. He 'was evidently desperately in earnest.
"I've no doubt they're fanatical enough for any mischief under the sun," I remarked thoughtfully; "but after all, I don't see what we can possibly have to fear now. If I were on the island, I wouldn't give a snap of the fingers for my life. But, as to their following me to England or anything of that sort—well, frankly I think it's all rot."
"Well, it don't seem likely, and that's a fact, sir," Hooley admitted. "Maybe I'm over-skeered! Anyway, sir, you're very fortunate to have got safe off."
The man touched his cap and withdrew. I looked back across the sea into the blue mists somewhere among which lay that Island of Astrea, and, notwithstanding the hot sun, I felt a shudder pass through my veins. It was not that I had any further fear on my own account. I was possessed in those days at any rate of an average amount of common sense, and I knew that, when once I found myself in my own country, any idea of pursuit or revenge on the part of these islanders was the most positive and futile absurdity. But on the other hand, I had no doubt but that they would revenge themselves on the first white man whom chance or hope of profit should lead to these shores. Maurice, who was lounging by my side, with a book turned face downwards upon his knee, seemed to be also impressed with a similar idea.
"I'll tell you what I think, old chap," he remarked presently. "Old Posset's chief at Colombo, you know. We'd better go and see him, and tell him all about it. Any traders likely to call there, from Rangoon or Colombo, ought to be warned. These fellows will about eat the next white man they get hold of."
"After all, it's a pity we didn't kill that fellow," I said, thoughtfully; "no doubt he deserved it, and it would have been safer."
An unfamiliar sound, the slight rustling of a woman's gown upon the deck, attracted our attention. Maurice looked quickly round. My shoulder was as yet too stiff for me to turn without difficulty.
"It's our guest, Maurice," I exclaimed.
We both rose to our feet. Maurice threw away his cigarette, and I laid down my pipe on the deck. The girl came toward us, her lips half-parted in a faint smile, her dark eyebrows raised as though in mute protest. Her head was quite uncovered, and the slight breeze was blowing through the wavy ripples of her hair. To us her dress seemed wonderful. It was fashioned from the white robe which she had worn in the Temple of Astrea, but a few touches seemed to have converted it into the semblance of a striking, but sufficiently conventional, costume. Around her waist was still that strange girdle of wrought gold. She was wearing stockings, but no shoes, and she walked with something of that wonderful grace which seemed to be her only kinship with those dusky women of Astrea.
As our eyes met hers a brilliant smile flashed over her face. Coming straight up to me, she held out both her hands and grasped mine. She did not speak at once, but her eyes slowly filled with tears. I felt a little embarrassed and stole a halfglance at Maurice. He was not smiling, or noticing me in any way; his eyes were fixed upon the girl. Her appearance had apparently taken him by surprise.
"Come and sit down," I said, pushing my deck chair toward her. "I am glad to see that you look all right this morning!"
"I am quite well," she said in a low tone.
"How is your shoulder?"
"Only a little stiff," I answered. "This is my brother Maurice."
She raised her eyes, and held out her hand shyly, over which Maurice bowed profoundly. I wished that he would go away, for the girl was evidently suffering from a very natural nervousness. But he remained leaning against the deck rail, and the girl sat with her eyes fixed upon her lap, and the color coming and going in her cheeks.
"I can't think how you managed to make your dress look so nice," I remarked. She laughed a little.
"Oh, I am used to making things," she said. "This was not difficult; there was so much of the material. But it is not finished yet. I just put it together anyway, so that I could come out."
"It seems very mysterious to us," Maurice remarked. "I am so sorry that I had no one to send to help you. Jim and I are bachelors, and this is a bachelors' cruise. We have not a woman on board."
She had raised her eyes for a moment when he had first spoken. Since then she had been looking steadily at the horizon.
"How far are we away?" she asked abruptly.
I looked over the vessel's side.
"About one hundred miles," I replied.
"We have seen the last of the Island of Astrea! You do not want to go back, do you?"
She drew in her breath, and her cheeks were suddenly pale. With a quick movement she passed her arm through mine, and held my hand.
"Never! never!" she cried passionately.
"Oh, my God, it was horrible!"
I held her hand tightly, and declined to look at Maurice.
"Well, it's all right now," I said consolingly. "You will never see the wretched place again; we are getting farther away every minute."
She leaned forward, and looked over the vessel's side.
"We are not going very fast, are we?" she asked, timidly.
For the first time I noticed that we were certainly not exceeding half- speed. I glanced toward Maurice.
"No; we are going slowly," he admitted. "You see, we hadn't finished the engine-shaft properly before you people came, and we had to patch things up and bolt. However," he added, turning toward the girl with a smile, "I don't think they will be able to catch us up in canoes."
"In canoes!" she repeated, quickly. "Why, no! But they have a steamship like this—only bigger!"
AT first we scarcely believed that the girl was speaking seriously. We looked at one another, and then at her, in blank amazement.
"A steamer!" Maurice repeated, incredulously. "Why, where do they keep it then? Up in the Temple?" The girl flashed an angry glance upon him, and addressed herself to me.
"They keep it in the Bay of Astrea," she said. "It is on the north side of the island. The High Priest bought it a year ago from a Dutchman, who used to call there and trade for rubies. They ran on shore one night in a gale, and the ship was nearly wrecked. The High Priest would not let the islanders help to rescue it, but bought it as it was. Then they floated it!"
"But what on earth do they want with a steamer?" I asked.
"He is going to take rubies to Rangoon and sell them there, or even to Colombo, and bring things for the island. He was to have started directly after the Festival."
"Who was going to do the navigation? Surely, they none of them understand that!"
"The High Priest understands everything," the girl answered. "He has been teaching some of the Astreans every day."
Maurice and I looked at one another. This was a contingency for which neither of us had been prepared. Maurice took it more seriously than I did, for he knew more.
"I think," he remarked, "that we will see what the mainsail will do for us; the breeze seems to hold up well."
He strolled away and ascended the bridge. The girl looked up at me anxiously.
"Do you think that they will come after us?" she asked in a low tone.
I shook my head.
"Not for a moment," I assured her.
"Even if they have the steamer, I should doubt whether they can navigate her yet. Besides, it would take at least a day to get her ready. I am sure that you need not be anxious. You will never see the Island of Astrea again."
She drew a long sigh. Very clearly it was not a sigh of regret.
"And now," I said, feeling more at my ease with her now that Maurice had left us, "suppose you tell me your name."
"Why, yes," she laughed. "How odd! It is Sara Foquonois."
"And your people?"
"I must tell you all about myself," she said gravely. "My father was an American missionary. We came to India twelve years ago, when I was very small indeed. It was the ambition of his life to get into the interior of China. He was years and years trying, but they would never allow him to pass into the country. He left me at Calcutta with an Englishwoman who kept a small school. It was when I was about fourteen years old that he gave it up, and came back to Calcutta. He worked there for a little time; and then he heard of this place somehow, and decided to come here. I wanted him to bring me, but he would not. He said he must first see whether the people were friendly. He said ' goodbye' to me; it was at night, but I got up and followed him to the ship. We had sailed before I was found among the passengers. Then he had to bring me."
"You were not happy at Calcutta, then?"
She shook her head vigorously.
"No; it was at a school—a cheap school. I was very miserable. The girls and everybody were horrid!"
"And at Astrea?"
"Oh, at first it was just lovely! The freedom and the odd way of living enchanted me. It was such a change. Father had brought presents for them, and they were very civil, and gave us any quantity of fruit and food and flowers. But after he had learnt a little of their language, he tried to preach to them. It was on a Sunday evening, and they all came to listen, squatting round in a circle just outside the hut. Father translated a little from the Bible, and then tried to explain it to them. They were all very attentive; but directly he spoke of a God, old Makao—he was our servant—plucked his sleeve and tried to stop him. It was no good, of course. Father went on, and he finished the service. The next morning he had a message from the High Priest. 'He was welcome to stay upon the island,' the High Priest said, 'and to teach the natives whatever he would that was useful for them to know; but he must not speak or preach of any God.' That was his first and last warning. Next Sunday my fatker preached again; though at his first appearance among them, with his Bible under his arm, the people fled from him as though he were a leper. Yet there were one or two who lingered, and he spoke to them. Before morning it was all over. He was dead!"
"They murdered him!" I cried, with a little shudder.
She looked up at me sorrowfully, and her eyes were full of fear.
"Do you know how?" she said, softly.
"Did you hear how they rid themselves of their enemies in the Island of Astrea?" I shook my head.
"No, I have not heard."
She shivered all over, and laid her hand upon my arm.
"There is a breed of serpents terribly venomous, which are only found in the laurel grove around the sacred Temple. One of the High Priest's servants does nothing but look after them. They are fed and tamed, so that they never wander away. When there is anyone whom they wish to destroy, they first of all keep one of these creatures without food for a day, then they put it into the hut, generally in the middle of the night. No one has ever lived for more than a hour after they have been bitten."
Notwithstanding the hot sun, I felt an icy shiver pass through my veins. Our own escape had been almost marvelous.
"Let us talk of something else," I said. "Let us leave those days for a while until they lie further behind."
She shook her head sadly.
"No! I want to talk of them now, and then forget for a long, long while. It was rash of my father, but I am afraid he was almost a fanatic. I prayed him to go away and work somewhere else, where there were Europeans, and where we should not be wholly at the mercy of that awful man. But he would not. He hoped to make such an impression on the people themselves, that they would not allow the priest to touch us."
I felt a suden impulse of anger against him.
"He had no right to expose you to such danger 1" I said, hotly. "The influence of the Priesthood has been upon the people of Astrea for a thousand years. He must have been mad to have attempted their conversion in such a way."
"He is dead!" she said simply.
"Ay, he is dead! And you "
"I am here," she whispered, softly, "thanks to you."
Her voice shook with gratitude; her eyes were large, and bright, and soft. I felt a curious little thrill of emotion as her fingers stole caressingly on mine.
"May I ask—about your mother?" I said, hesitatingly.
"Yes, I had meant to tell you about her. I do not know whether she is living or not. She married my father before he was at all religious—long before he ever thought of becoming a missionary. When he decided to come to China—"
I interrupted her.
"Excuse me! Where were you living then?"
"In America, near Boston. My mother thought he had gone mad. She refused to go with him, and they were divorced. I have never heard from her since. I do not think I ever want to see her or hear from her again."
"Isn't that just a little hard on her?" I said, hesitatingly.
"I suppose it is! I guess it is! Anyway, I cannot help it! I feel like that! She ought not to have deserted my father!" I had my own ideas as to the desertion, but I did not pursue the subject.
"And your other relatives?" I asked.
"Have you any in England or America?" She shook her head.
"I do not know! I do not believe so; I never heard of any."
She seemed quite content with the fact. To me, however, it suggested an approaching dilemma.
"Well, but where do you wish to go?" I asked. "We are bound for England."
"I shall go with you, of course," she answered, without a moment's hesitation.
"I do not want to go anywhere else."
Now for a young man, and an artist, I have more than once been accused by my friends of distinct tendencies toward the conventional in certain respects. At any rate, her words came like a shock to me. I began to realize that I was engaged in an adventure of a highly romantic description. I had saved this girl's life undoubtedly. Well, that was rather the fault of circumstances,—the thing had been so presented to me, that in common humanity I could have found no alternative. It had certainly never entered into my mind that in rescuing her from that unholy bondage, I was assuming any very serious responsibilities as to her future. The thing now began to assume a very different light. I thought of our arrival in London, with this child upon our hands.
What were we to do with her? how were we to find her a home? I thought of our mother, stern, unimaginative, a little narrow ; a good woman, but a woman of many prejudices. I could see her eyebrows grow higher as we told our story, her lorgnette raised—I knew exactly in what light she would regard it all. Unconsciously, I smiled to myself, and then I became aware that the girl by my side was watching me closely. Her eyes were soft and bright, full of unshed tears, and her lips were quivering. How beautiful she was! I felt suddenly ashamed of my hesitation.
"Of course, we shall take care of you, child, at least till one comes who has a better right," I said.
"There will never be anyone else," she said, watching a wave break against the bows. "You saved my life."
Her voice was low; but her eyes, although she kept them half-averted, were full of eloquent fire. I felt my heart beat a little quicker, and I realized that it would be necessary for me very soon to lay down some unwritten laws as to our relative positions.
"Perhaps," she whispered, "you are not rich? I hope you are not. Look here!" She unloosed her girdle and shook out its contents into her lap. A cry of amazement broke from my lips. A little flood of deep flashing gems fell like a cascade into the folds of her dress, flashing and glowing in the sunlight as though they were touched by some unholy fire. Gems were there of a size I had never dreamed of. Maurice, who had seen the girl's action, came across the deck with a little cry. She picked up a deep purple stone, the size of a small egg, and held it up to the sun.
"These are the Sacred Rubies of Astrea," she said. "They are always kept in this girdle. It belongs to the priest. I suppose it was dreadful to bring them away," she added nai'vely. "I don't care."
Maurice, who was leaning over the back of my chair, burst into a peal of laughter; but, for my part, I felt little inclined for mirth.
"They have been in the Temple for five hundrfd years," I said slowly. "The natives have made songs about them— every one they say is a fallen star from Heaven! They are the Sacred Rubies of the High Priest of Astrea!"
"I SHOULDN'T be surprised, old chap, if your gallivanting don't land us in a bit of a mess before we get out of this," Maurice remarked, an hour or two later, blowing a little cloud of tobacco smoke from around his head.
I knocked the ashes from my pipe viciously out upon the deck. Gallivanting, indeed! Maurice was such an ass!
"Don't talk such rot!" I exclaimed, testily. "I did what I was bound to do— what you or any other decent fellow would have done in my place. The girl would have been shamefully used by that blackguard of a priest, and then very likely done to death. There are hideous stories about the way they treat their feast-night victims. It's turned out a bit awkward, I'll admit," I added slowly; "but how on earth was I to know that she meant walking those rubies off? I'd have chucked them back in the Temple if I had seen them."
Maurice shook his head.
"Not you!" he laughed. "At any rate, you'd have been a fool if you had. I think it was a jolly sensible thing of her to do."
There was a long silence. If Maurice took that view of it, I was certainly not going to be the one to contradict him. We were lying stretched out upon the deck in our pyjamas. A full yellow moon shone down upon us from a cloudless sky. It was midnight upon the Caribbean Sea. Phosphorescent lights blazed upon the smooth, oily surface of the water. The breathless air was still hot, and below the state-rooms were like ovens. We had brought our pillows up on deck, and were lying stretched out in the bows of the vessel, ready to catch the faintest suspicion of a breeze which might come up with the dawn. Even here the heat was so intense, that sleep was out of the question. From below came the constant sound of hammering and the hum of voices. We were lying-to, to complete the repairs which our flight from the island had interrupted.
"I wonder how far we have come today?" I asked irrelevantly.
"Barely eight miles," Maurice yawned.
"We've never been more than half-speed, and we've been tucked up for four hours. Robinson says that he hopes to get up full steam by morning. I don't care whether we go to Rangoon or Colombo, but I should like to get a bit further away from this beastly equator."
"We must not think of Rangoon," I said, decidedly. "The best thing we can do is to get into European waters as fast as we can steam."
Maurice nodded and turned over upon his elbow. Suddenly he sat bolt upright on the deck.
"Listen!" he exclaimed. "Keep quite still!"
He rose softly to his feet in a moment, and moved over to the side of the vessel. He stood there for several minutes, his head bent a little forward, his hand upraised. I looked at him in amazement.
"What is it, Maurice?" I cried. He made no answer. I began to be impatient.
"What on earth is the matter with you?" I exclaimed. "You say, 'Listen!' as though we were in an empty house at Highgate, waiting for burglars, instead of on one of the loneliest seas in the world."
Maurice turned slowly toward me; his face was troubled.
"Do you know that we are five hundred miles out of the track of all steamers?" he said.
"What of that?" I asked.
"Listen!" he said, softly.
We both held our breath. For a minute or two the deep midnight hush of the ocean seemed to me absolutely unbroken. I was on the point of making an impatient exclamation; then, suddenly, I heard what Maurice had heard. From far away across the surface of the glistening water—from somewhere behind that black, impenetrable veil which shrouded the horizon—came the measured thud, thud of a steamer. We looked at one another.
"That's odd," I remarked, quietly, though my heart was beating fast.
"It is more than odd," Maurice answered. "I am afraid it means pursuit. Didn't I hear that they had a steamer?" I nodded.
"Yes. It is a wretched, patched-up old affair, though. They bought it from a trading company running to the Philippines."
Maurice listened again intently. Then he stepped on one side and spoke to the watch.
"There is a steamer coming up to us, Johnson," he said; "can you hear her?"
"Some time ago, sir," the man answered.
"I should have reported her, but I thought you were asleep."
"How far away should you say she was?"
The man listened, and looked all round. There was not a capful of wind.
"About ten miles, sir."
"I'll take your place for a minute," he said. "Step below, and ask Mr. Robinson how long it will be before he could get steam up?"
The man touched his cap, and went down. He was back again in a few minutes.
"Fires could be lit in two hours, sir," he reported. "We could start half- speed soon after that."
Maurice leaned far over the vessel's side.
"We've been showing the green light all along, I suppose," he remarked.
Maurice blew his whistle.
"All lights out!" he ordered. "Send the first mate to me."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"To be prepared," he answered shortly.
"If that infernal priest and a steamerload of bloodthirsty natives are going to board us, I want to give them a warm reception. I am going to serve out cutlasses and small arms, and have the guns mounted. I have a little Maxim there," he added, with a complacent motion of his head toward a small gun-carriage, "which will sink an ordinary steamer."
"We shall get into a devil of a mess, you know," I said dubiously. "Astrea is a dependency of Siam or Burma, I am not sure which. If they hoist either flag, we shall commit an act of piracy by firing on them. Hanging offense, piracy, isn't it?" We looked at one another and laughed. In one respect my big brother was a typical Englishman. He loved a row.
"Anyway, we'll see whose flag she does fly," he remarked. "If it's one of their own—well, we're on the high seas, and we can never be blamed for resisting them, if they attempt to board us. I don't know about the rubies, though; perhaps we ought to give them up."
"By all means," I answered. "But the girl! You wouldn't!"
"No, I'm damned if I would," Maurice answered heartily. "If they fly all the flags in Europe, we'll keep the girl. The Lord only knows what we are going to do with her, but we'll protect her from that star-gazing priest!"
I held out my hand impulsively, and Maurice grasped it. We stood quite still for a moment, looking into one another's faces. Maurice's blue eyes were faintly troubled. Some shadow of that dark cloud, which was to come between us, seemed already to have loomed up, if not in effect, at any rate in suggestion.
"I'm beastly sorry to have landed you in this mess, old chap," I said. Maurice laughed cheerfully.
"You need not be," he declared. "I must confess I rather like a row, and this one promises to be unique."
He walked away to give some more orders. The silent deck had suddenly become tenanted by a little crowd of seamen. There was a low murmur of hoarse voices, and many signs of activity. Ropes were being dragged across the deck, guns were being mounted into position, and the first mate's voice, shouting orders, was every now and then raised above the din. I went below to fetch my revolver, and at the head of the gangway I came face to face with Sara.
"Is anything the matter?" she asked, quickly. "What is all the disturbance about?"
I hesitated, and then I told her the truth. It was best for her to be prepared. Besides, she might be able to give us some information.
"There is a steamer coming up," I said. "We do not know for certain, of course, but we thought it might be our friends from Astrea. You see, we are right out of the course of any ordinary traffic."
She was standing in the doorway, her slim figure sharply outlined against the dark background. At my words she trembled from head to foot. With a sudden movement forward, she caught hold of my hand and looked up eagerly into my face.
"You will not give me up," she gasped; "you are not thinking of that? Promise!"
"We will go to the bottom of the sea first," I answered, fervently. "We are getting ready to fight them now. But I am not at all sure that it is you whom they want. They have more cause for anger against me. Then there are the rubies!"
"Shall we have to give them up?" she asked ruefully.
"It may be desirable," I answered. She sighed again. After all she was only a child.
"Well, I will give them to you, to do what you think best with," she said.
"They are all here! Will you have them?"
"Not yet. Keep them for the present, only have them ready. Do you remember anything else you have heard about this steamer of theirs?" She looked thoughtful.
"It is much larger than this," she said; "but it is much more clumsy and very difficult to manage. They have only had it out of the harbor once, and they were three days bringing it in again. The coal they have on the island is not good."
"Are there any guns?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"None! It is very slow, too. Why do we not get steam up and go faster? I am sure that they could not catch us."
"Unfortunately we are disabled," I told her. "It was because of a slight accident that we put in at Astrea at all—they are just finishing the repairs now, though. Very likely we shall be able to start before they come up, and then we shall run right away from them. Hadn't you better go to your cabin?"
"No, I want to come on deck," she answered, linking her arm through mine.
"Let me, please. I could not possibly sleep and I am so lonely. That is why I came to look for you."
We made our way to a quiet corner, and looked down the deck. A long swivelgun had just been mounted, and by its side a small quick-firing Maxim. Maurice was busy giving orders, and was in high goodhumor. In a minute or two, he came to us.
"She is coming up bravely," he declared. "Do you see her light there, to the left?"
We looked over the vessel's side. There was a blue light astern coming steadily up to us. The girl looked up at the stars and smiled.
"To-night," she said, "they will dare anything. They will think themselves sure of success. There is not a cloud in the sky."
"Even now," Maurice remarked, "they will have to hurry up, or they will find us gone. Robinson has just sent up word that the fires are lit."
He walked away again, and the girl drew closer to me. Her face seemed very white and serious in the wan light.
"I want you to promise me one thing," she whispered.
"You have a revolver there. If by any chance there is fighting, you will not let me be taken! You will shoot me! I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid of him!"
I did not hesitate for a minute. I thought of the priest's dark, saturnine face and gleaming eyes—of those awful stories told me by Sabul Ahmid on the night before his death—and I promised.
"They shall not take you alive!" I declared. "But after all, it is impossible that they should beat us, even if they dare to fight at all."
Maurice came strolling back to us, nonchalant, yet evidently pleased with the arrangements which had for the moment transformed his trim little yacht into the semblance of a miniature man-of-war.
"Did you ever see such an old tub?" he exclaimed, pointing across the stretch of dark, moonlit water. "Look, how she rolls! The walls of her engine-room must be red-hot. She has a lot too much steam on. I shouldn't be surprised to see her blow up at any moment."
We leaned over the side watching her as she drew nearer and nearer, with slow, laborious pants, curdling the dark water all round her into white seething foam, and rolling heavily from side to side. Then we looked at the girl between us.
"Yes," she said, "that is their steamer. I know it by the odd figure- head; and do you see that the funnel is bent?"
Suddenly the comparative silence on our boat was broken by a familiar sound. From the engine-room, close behind us, came the slow, steady throb of machinery. Little puffs of white smoke shot up from the funnel, the water about the stern began to swell and gurgle. Maurice looked around and laughed out loud.
"We could slip away from her now, and be out of sight in an hour," he declared. "How mad your friends would be!"
"Let us do it," the girl whispered fervently.
But Maurice shook his head.
"We may as well hear what they have to say. See, they are sending a rocket up!"
We watched the operation eagerly.
"We'll stop now, anyhow," Maurice exclaimed. "We must know what they want with us."
They had come quite close to us now, and slowly obeying her helm the steamer swung round broadside on. We could see her sides lined with dark-brown forms, some carrying heavy spears, a few with rifles. A little way apart from them a figure, head and shoulders taller than the throng round him, was standing alone. As they drifted slowly nearer to us, he mounted the steps of the bridge, and stood there with his hands on the rail, a wonderfully majestic figure against the deep background of empty space. A white robe enveloped him from head to foot, concealing the outline of his form, but only enhancing the effect of its size and power. Sara had covered her face with her hands, so powerfully did the sight of him agitate her, and the little hand, which stole unexpectedly into mine, was as cold as ice. Maurice and I watched him with deep interest.
"What a splendid fellow!" my brother whispered, enthusiastically.
But I shuddered. Something of the girl's superstitious terror had affected me. It seemed so short a while since we had left this man apparently lifeless, stretched upon the floor of the Temple, that his rapid recovery and appearance there savored almost of the miraculous. I do not call myself a coward, but as he turned toward us and lifted up his right hand, I felt a cold shiver run down my back. The girl at my side was trembling in every limb. I passed my arm around her waist.
"Don't be frightened, child," I said cheerfully. "You are perfectly safe here."
She was white to the lips in the moonlight.
"While he is alive," she whispered, "there will be moments when I shall never feel safe. I wish that I had killed him!"
MAURICE had left our side, and running lightly up the iron steps, stood upon his own bridge, facing the High Priest. The two men were barely forty yards apart.
"How can we parley without an interpreter?" Maurice cried down to me; and the High Priest heard him.
"We need no interpreter," he answered in a deep, rich voice. "I speak your tongue! Are you the owner of that vessel?"
"I am the owner, and I am responsible for all on board," Maurice answered, promptly.
"Then your responsibilities are heavy for young shoulders," the Priest said. "There is one among you who is a robber and would-be murderer! Worse than that, he is guilty of sacrilege against an ancient faith, and wanton abduction of an innocent maiden!"
Maurice made no answer, but he glanced down at me with a smile at the corner of his lips.
"A bit rough on you, Jim," he remarked.
"These things are true," the Priest continued, "but let them pass. I have not followed you for vengeance or for blood! But I have a just demand to make! I demand the restoration of the sacred jewels stolen from the Temple of Astrea! For them, my children and I have come prepared to follow you, if necessary, to the end of the world, and to fight till the last drop of blood in our bodies is spent. But if you are wise, you will yield them up."
Maurice leaned down toward us.
"They want the rubies," he said. "I suppose we must give them up?"
The girl unslipped her girdle, and held it out to him.
"They are welcome," she answered. "I will give them up! Only be careful! He did not bring all the fighting men of Astrea here for nothing. Make him come for them alone."
Maurice stood once more upright upon the bridge.
"The jewels shall be restored to you upon certain conditions," he declared.
"Name them!" the High Priest answered calmly.
"That you come here for them alone, and that no one else leaves your ship."
The priest was silent for a minute. He appeared to be thinking. Then he lifted his head, and asked an apparently irrelevant question.
"Why are you lying to?" he asked. "Are you disabled?"
"We have been repairing our shaft," Maurice answered. "We have had a bad fracture."
The priest's dark eyes flashed in the moonlight; not a muscle of his face moved, however.
"I accept the conditions," he answered shortly. "I will come!"
He descended the bridge with slow, stately movements. A little bank of clouds, which had risen up suddenly from the horizon, floated across the face of the moon; and a sudden darkness fell upon us! The black hull of the other ship became almost invisible, only from her sides there floated out the low, monotonous croon of the Astrea warriors, a few measured bars chanted in a deep minor key. Maurice, who had descended from the bridge, and had been leaning over the ship's side, trying to pierce the darkness, came over to us.
"I can't say that I altogether like the look of things," he muttered softly, drawing me a little apart. "That fellow has got some blackguardly trick in his head, I believe. I shall set an armed watch all round the ship, and tell Robinson to get up speqjd. Their decks are simply packed with men— ugly-looking customers, too!"
He walked away, and gave some quick orders. Then we heard the soft splash of oars, and the grating of a boat against the vessel's side. A rope was let down, and the High Priest, disdaining the loop, drew himself hand over hand, and stepped fearlessly on to the deck.
There was a moment's intense silence. Maurice, who saw him at close quarters for the first time, and as an artist, was filled with a vivid and irresistible admiration of the man who stood there in our midst, a wonderful and striking personality, in his unusual attire and the unusual beauty of his person. He seemed to tower head and shoulders above us all, and though he was surrounded with armed sailors, who eyed him with none too much respect, he held himself with the same hauteur and dignity as though he were standing upon the steps of his own sacred Temple, and confronted with his own groveling and obedient natives. His dark eyes flashed over the deck, missing me for a moment, where I stood in the shadow of the poop, and lit upon Maurice.
"It is you with whom I have been speaking, sir," he said, in excellent English. "You are the owner of this vessel?"
My brother took a step forward. He was above the average height, but he seemed almost undersized before the man whose question had challenged him.
"I am," he answered.
"Then there are three things, sir," the Priest continued, "for which I make formal demand to you after the fashion of civilized nations. I require the jewels which have been stolen from the Sacred Temple of Astrea; I require the thief— that girl yonder!" he cried suddenly, pointing a long forefinger to where Sara cowered by my side; "and I require that man, her accessory, and my attempted murderer "—he pointed now to me.
"That man, sir, is my brother," Maurice answered, "and from all I can hear of your infernal practices, he was more than justified in all he did. As for the girl, she chooses to remain with us, and you may be very sure that I shall not give her up!"
"Nevertheless, I make my formal demand, as a matter of peace and justice," the High Priest answered. "Give them up and all shall be well! Refuse—at your peril!"
I saw a light flash across Maurice's face, and knew that he was in no humor for such idle bandying of words, as indeed events proved. Doubtless, too, it occurred to him, as it did to me, that the man's persistence and measured speech were assumed in order to gain time for the furtherance of some diabolical scheme.
"Let us come to the point!" Maurice cried. "The man is my brother. If he fought with you, he fought as a brave man for an innocent maiden to save her from your devilry; and as he fought, so would I have fought, or any other man of my nation. As for the girl, I would as soon throw her overboard as hand her to you. She has claimed our protection, and she has it. The jewels are yours. Take them and go!"
The Priest lifted a mighty arm from underneath his white tunic, and stretched it out toward me with a sudden, threatening gesture.
"As for that man," he cried fiercely, "your yielding him up or not is after all a small matter. His death is a solemn charge upon every man and woman, and every creeping thing upon our Island of Astrea! He has done what no living creature has dared to do before, and whether he hides himself in the heart of your civilization, or in the remotest land upon which the fires of night have ever fallen, his death is as sure and as certain as the waning of the old and the birth of the new moon. So as to him, for the sake of peace, I yield. But the girl I will have! The girl, and with her, the jewels!"
Then Maurice grew hot and almost lost his temper.
"What sort of men are we, do you think?" he cried, "to yield up a young maiden of our own race to be the victim of your foul practices? Take your jewels, and leave my ship, sir, and be very thankful that you leave it with a whole skin!"
"Astrea! Astrea! Yoketa Murijah!"
While we wondered at these words, and the change in his face, a new thing happened. A handful of dark, half-naked men appeared as it were from the sea, leaping all wet upon the deck with knives in their teeth, and some with swords. I saw what was coming, and shouted loudly to Maurice. The handful was becoming a stream, but our watch had not been set in vain. My cry and the crack of my revolver, as I dodged a knife and shot down a fierce assailant, was the signal for a perfect volley.
The air was rent with strange cries—the battle-call of the islanders, and more hideous still their death-moans as they fell like ninepins before that terrible revolver fire. For a moment I lost sight of the Priest, for the brawny hand of a savage was upon my throat, pinning me down, and the flash of his steel was actually in my eyes before I could wrench my arm free for a moment.
Then I shot him through the lungs, and he stood quite still for a minute, blinking hideously at me. I thrust him aside, and he rolled over dead, and made my way toward the gangway where Sara had been, looking right and left for the High Priest, shooting one man whose knife cut open my left arm, but saving my fire from any purpose save defense, for I had but three shots left. Through the clouds of smoke I could see that our men were clearing the savages away, and running out the Maxim. But nowhere could I see the High Priest, though my heart was all on fire to meet him face to face. Then suddenly my blood ran cold in my veins. A girl's shriek of horror rang out above the din. A dozen steps and I was at the door of her cabin. It stood wide open, and on the threshold I came face to face with the man I sought, holding Sara high in his arms. He seemed on the point of springing for the side of the vessel, and when he saw me he gave a little cry of rage, which came through his teeth like a hiss.
"Let go the girl!" I thundered. "Stand away! This time I shall not miss!"
He held her up between us, and although I longed to, I dare not shoot, for she was shaking with the horror of his grasp, and he held her before him with devilish cunning. But in that moment of hesitation I laughed outright, for I felt a swaying beneath my feet, and I knew that Maurice had outwitted this man and his horde of savages! Our engines were working steadily. The Priest looking over my shoulder saw it too, and he shook with passion. I glanced around for a moment. We were almost a hundred yards away from the other steamer, and the sea between us was dotted all over with the heads of men swimming desperately but ineffectually after us. Those who had succeeded in boarding us suddenly realized the position, and rushed for the side of the vessel. I heard Maurice's voice high above the din:
"Let them go, men! Let them go! Cease firing!"
They leaped into the water, some running from the sides, even while they poised themselves for the spring, and heedless of Maurice's merciful order, throwing their daggers at our sailors. And still the High Priest and I stood face to face, and he looked into the dark muzzle of my revolver without flinching, or any apparent concern. Then seeing him unarmed, brave and at my mercy, it seemed to me that there was but one thing to be done. To kill him would have been brutal slaughter. He must go!
"Drop the girl, and you can go!" I said shortly.
Although I never lowered my revolver, he took my word at once. He laid the girl down upon a couch with a tenderness which was almost incredible, and stood there looking at her for a moment with his back to me. She lay with closed eyes, white and half-fainting. Stooping low, he murmured something in the tongue of his people, and raising her hand, kissed it. Then he swung suddenly round, and with a fierce look at me, he stooped down and passed out on the deck. I saw him for a moment with his knee upon the side of the vessel! He stood upright, a great figure against the empty background, poised himself for a second, and leaped. There was a splash in the water, and he was gone.
I turned back to go to Sara, but the first mate came hurrying across the deck to me. His face was bloodstained and white, and his eyes were full of trouble.
"Will you come aft at once, sir?" he said. "I am afraid that Sir Maurice is badly hurt!"
I rushed past him to where several men were standing round a prostrate form. Maurice was lying there, white and still, with a little stream of blood trickling from his side on to the deck. I set my teeth, and I cursed myself that I had let the Priest go.
DECIDEDLY I was in no working humor. The broad stream of light, which had flooded my little studio for half a day, had waned and faded into twilight, and I had not even taken up my brushes. It had been an idle and a purposeless day with me, and as I sat there toward its close, there rose up before me the vision of other similarly illspent hours; and I began to feel the lashings of a bitter dissatisfaction. Something had gone awry with me. It was not only the fear of death, which a few hours ago had been very near indeed—not even the shock which the coming of this thing had caused me. No, it was behind all these more tragical events. I knew very well what it was, although I dared to deny it even to myself.
The door of my room was softly opened —probably Mrs. Wright with my afternoon tea, and I did not at once look up. But surely no skirt of Mrs. Wright's ever rustled like that, or even in her younger days could she have moved so lightly!
I looked up quickly, and almost at the same moment some instinct seemed to tell me who it was. My heart beat quickly. I rose up in some confusion, and from out of the shadows Sara came laughing toward me.
"Why, Jim," she cried, "what on earth are you doing here in the darkness? Why, how miserable you look! I don't believe you have done a stroke of work either all the afternoon!"
"I have been trying to think out a picture," I explained.
"And is it necessary to sit in an unlit room before an empty canvas with a scowl like that on your face?" she laughed.
"May we have lights, please, and some tea?"
I rang the bell, and my visitor ensconced herself in my easiest chair.
"Am I going to be scolded for coming?" she asked tentatively.
I shook my head.
"That is all very well," she declared;
"but the last time I came you did scold me, you know, and so did Lady Duncarrow when I got home. But I don't care. I think you're real horrid. Why don't you come to see us sometimes?"
"I came last week."
"Last week!" indignantly. "Of course, if you don't care to come "
"I called yesterday afternoon, and you were out with Maurice."
"Idiots!" she murmured. "No one ever told me. Still, I'm glad you came. Sit down where I can see you, Jim. Is anything wrong? Have I done anything to displease you?"
She was leaning over the arm of her easy-chair, and her eyes were raised to mine with a sort of frank wistfulness which was very hard to withstand. She had grown very beautiful. Would she ever understand, I wondered.
"Of course not," I answered. "Only, you see, I have my work, and—and you have Maurice "
"Maurice is not you!"
Her eyes met mine intently. My fingers grasped the sides of my chair, and I was thankful for the twilight. What if I were mistaken? What if it were I—not Maurice? Then I thought of what had happened only a few hours ago in that room, and a cold shiver went through my veins.
"No! But Maurice is a better companion for you! He is younger than I am in everything but years, and " There was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Wright brought in the tea, an interruption for which I was devoutly thankful. When she had disappeared Sara did not pursue the subject. Watching her closely, I knew that she was angry.
"How is Maurice?" I asked. "I haven't seen him for more than a week."
"He is quite well," she answered briefly.
"And the mater?"
"Her cold is better. She is going out tomorrow."
She continued to eat bread and butter, and sip her tea in silence. Suddenly she turned to me.
"I think you are horrid, Jim," she declared. "This is the last time I shall come and see you. I am sorry that I came today."
A little quiver in her tone almost unmanned me. I rose up and bent over her chair.
"Forgive me, Sara," I whispered. "I am very stupid and a great boor. A few hours ago I had—rather a shock and it has upset me."
"I am so sorry," she said softly, and I knew by the pressure of her delicately gloved fingers that my peace, for the moment at any rate, was made.
"Isn't it anything you could tell me?" she asked.
I shuddered, turning away that she might not see my face. Tell her, indeed! God forbid!
"No, I could not tell you," I said quietly. "Don't ask me about it, please. I am going to take you home, if I may. We will take a hansom and drive round by the Park."
"I should like that," she said. "What is that canvas over there? I don't remember it."
She was half-way across the floor before I could stop her. Then I cried out, and my voice must have sounded to her like the voice of a madman.
"Stop! Come back, Sara! Don't!"
And then she, too, cried out. She was looking down on the floor, her face white with terror. I hastened to her side.
She pointed downward.
"It is blood!" she cried. "You have been trying to hide it!"
I was white to the lips, but I nodded.
"Yes, it is poor little Major," I said, "I had to shoot him. He was ill."
She looked at me, and I am afraid that I was a bad actor.
In the corner of the room before us, I had carefully covered something over with a rough mat. Before I could stop her, she sprang toward it, threw the rug aside, and then stood still, transfixed with horror. Underneath was the dead body of my poor little dachshund, and by its side, with a dozen revolver bullets in its head and body, a short, yellow-bodied snake, with a black head covered with green spots.
Sara fainted in my arms. When she recovered, we were in Mrs. Wright's sittingroom, to which I had carried her. For the moment I had forgotten everything. My arms were around her, and I was on my knees by her side. She smiled faintly up at me.
"I am sorry," she said. "I am quite well now."
I muttered something incoherent.
"I want you to tell me all about it," she said. "I am not surprised at all. I always thought that—that it would come."
"It was an evil chance that brought you to my rooms this afternoon of all others," I said bitterly.
"I do not think so," she answered simply. "I would rather know."
"There is very little to tell you! Last night, for the first time for a month, I did not sleep here. I was down at Duncarrow for the day. I got back here about eleven. When I was coming up the stairs, I heard Major barking furiously. You know what a quiet little animal he is, and I felt sure at once that something must be wrong. I was just passing my little room below, where I keep my oddments, so I slipped in and got my revolver. When I got here it was all over with poor Major, and that beast was sitting up ready to spring. I stood in the doorway, and riddled it with shots. Then I covered them both up, and sat down to think it over. That is one reason why I have done no work this afternoon."
"Have you asked your caretaker any questions?"
"Yes, my rooms were locked when I left yesterday at noon. No one else has a key. She declares that no one could have passed up or down stairs without her hearing them. Yet that beast slept in my bed through the anteroom yonder. It is hard to understand."
She held my fingers.
"Very. And it is through me that you are going to live in danger now, night and day. Oh, it is horrible! I wish that I had died upon that wretched island!"
I kissed her upon the forehead gently, and as I would have kissed my own sister, if ever I had had one.
"Don't wish anything so horrible, child," I said. "Think of the last two years, how happy we have all been. I don't know what the mater would do without you. I want you not to talk any more just now. Do you feel well enough to go home if I send for a hansom?"
We drove to my mother's house in Gloucester Square almost in silence, but Sara's hand was in mine most of the way. For the first time I began to have strange doubts about a certain matter which I had long ago looked upon as settled. After I had left Sara, I inquired for Maurice and learned that he was at his club in Piccadilly. I drove on there, and found him in the smoking-room.
"Maurice, old chap, I have come to ask you a question," I said promptly. He looked up at me surprised. Then he motioned me to an easy-chair by his side. There was no one in the room near us.
"A year ago," I began, "you told me that you cared for Sara—that you were going to ask her to marry you!"
He nodded, and let fall the eyeglass from his eye.
"Quite true," he murmured. "I do care for her, and I have asked her to marry me."
"You have asked her?" I exclaimed.
He nodded again.
"And she refused me."
For a minute the room seemed to whirl round with me. I had never dreamed until this afternoon of the possibility of her doing anything of the sort. From those days on the yacht, when, by her nursing and skilful attentions, she had certainly saved Maurice's life, I had looked upon the matter as settled. Maurice was an amusing, even a brilliant, companion for women; and I had found those days of his convalescence trying ones for me. They were continually together. Sara seemed always amused and happy. It became as though I were almost a stranger. 'With me she was always quieter and more reserved. Gradually I had detached myself from them.
When we had reached England I fell back upon my old character of woman- hater, and went almost at once to live at my studio in Chelsea. I had looked upon them as absolutely made for one another. Maurice's words came upon me like a thunderclap.
"It was only last night," Maurice said slowly. "The first time I fancied, from something in her manner, that there might be some hope for me. I was deceived. She doesn't care a rap for me, except in a sisterly way. The way she answered me last night settled it once for all. I am off to the Rockies or for a cruise as soon as I can get a man to go with me."
I had not much to say in the way of sympathy. I was myself strangely excited. Should I tell Maurice of the visit to my rooms and the attempt upon my life?
While I hesitated, he laid his hand upon my shoulder.
"Old chap," he said, "we don't often have a night together. Dine with me here, and we'll go somewhere. My man shall fetch your togs. He's waiting outside. You mustn't refuse me. To tell you the truth, I hated the thought of going home to dinner. I'll send a telegram. They give you a rattling good dinner here. We'll play at being young again—do the Empire and have supper somewhere."
I was something in the same mind myself. I, too, wanted to forget.
"Agreed!" I cried. "Only I will take the brougham back and change. There is something I have to see to in my rooms. I'll be back in an hour."
"In an hour," Maurice answered, "I shall be ready."
THE first part of our programme we had faithfully caried out. We had dined, and dined remarkably well; and at the Empire we were unexpectedly amused. Neither of us had been to a music hall for years; the programme was a good one, and we threw ourselves into the spirit of the thing with a common desire—the desire to forget.
Maurice had telephoned for a box, and we lounged in comfortable chairs sipping our coffee and smoking very excellent cigars. More than once we assured one another that we were enjoying ourselves very much indeed—which, so far as I was concerned, was really not very far from the truth. Then, in the midst of a song, Maurice suddenly sat upright, his cigar slipped from his fingers, and a look of blank amazement came into his face.
"What is it?" I asked eagerly.
For a moment he did not answer me. His eyes were fixed upon a certain dark corner in the promenade. I, leaning over his shoulder, could see nothing. I questioned him again eagerly.
"It's that damned High Priest!" he exclaimed breathlessly. "I never forget a face! I'll swear to him!"
I sprang to my feet, without any definite idea as to what we were about to do. Maurice threw open the door of the box, and elbowed his way down the promenade. I followed him. A few yards beyond the cigar stall, a man was leaning against the wall leisurely smoking a cigarette and watching the passers-by. His unusual height made him the object of some attention, to which he seemed absolutely indifferent. He was perfectly dressed in evening clothes, and the details of his toilette were all in exact accord with the latest decrees of fashion. Only a few yards from him we paused. Maurice was right. He had shaved off his beard, but his face there was no possibility of ever mistaking. It was the High Priest! Suddenly he recognized us. He seemed in no way discomposed. A faint smile parted the corner of his lips. He nodded pleasantly.
"How do you do?" he said.
Maurice took a lopg breath and looked at me. I looked back at him. Certainly our vis-à-vis had the advantage of us so far as composure went.
"What the devil are you doing here?" Maurice exclaimed bluntly.
The High Priest frowned.
"You might, I think, make use of more courteous language toward a stranger in your wonderful country," he said mockingly. "Have I not the right to be here if I choose?"
"Oh, certainly," Maurice answered.
"Have you brought the island with you?" He lit another cigarette carefully before he replied.
"No; my connection with Astrea ceased two years ago! My brother has now succeeded me! For many hundreds of years the men of my family have served in Astrea as Priests to their strange religion. My term now is over. I have resumed my proper name and position. I am not unthankful."
"May we know your proper name and position?" Maurice asked in a dazed manner. This thing was almost past realization.
"Certainly. Permit me."
He handed us a card from an exquisite little morocco case. On it was engraved:
"I am really an Indian, as you may have assumed," he continued calmly.
"Without any desire to boast, I might remark that I own a territory a little larger than your country, and that my family have held it for a thousand years. I mention these things as you seem still to look upon me as a sort of charlatan. Between the people of Astrea and the people of my province there has been a close bond for many hundreds of years. Some day I will tell you the whole history, if you are interested."
I ground my heel into the thick carpet. There was no doubt as to our whereabouts. We had not wandered back into the Arabian Nights. We were in the promenade at the Empire.
"Come and have a drink," Maurice said suddenly. "I want to be sure that you are not waxwork."
The Prince laughed softly and followed us down the promenade—a noticeable and commanding figure. Maurice ordered a bottle of wine. We all three sat down at a table together.
"How many more snakes did you bring over?" I asked abruptly.
The Prince set down his glass and reflected.
"There are only six more, I believe," he said. "Three died on the voyage, and you killed one this morning, I understand. I have no doubt that six will be plenty, though," he added blandly. "If not, there are other means."
I could not help it. I burst into a fit of laughter, which was half hysterical. Maurice looked at me in bewilderment.
"Nothing less than my life will satisfy you then," I said.
He looked thoughtful.
"Well, I am not sure," he said. "I believe that if you would prefer to live, some arrangement might be made."
"Well, I should like to know the terms anyhow," I said. "I don't care for your snakes at all. Your first one has killed my favorite dog."
"I am exceedingly sorry," the Prince answered. "You see, it had not eaten for a week. It is better that they should be starving. It was very unfortunate that the dog should have got in the way. They like dog."
"What the devil are you talking about?" Maurice broke in. Some inkling of the truth seemed to be dawning upon him.
I laid my hand upon his arm.
"Never mind, old chap, I will tell you presently. Will you give me your address, Prince Singhisten? I will come and ask your terms."
He wrote on the back of a card, and handed it to me. "Dorchester House!"
Evidently he was a millionaire.
A woman, spreading herself out like a butterfly with gorgeous wings, came and sat by our side. She dropped her handkerchief at the Prince's feet. He restored it to her with a courtly gesture, but took no further heed of her blandishments. He sat between us, sipping his wine and smoking, with the air of a man thoroughly at his ease, enjoying alike his company and his surroundings. I feared him more at that moment than I had done in the Temple of Astrea, or on board the "Cormorant."
"London and Buda-Pesth," he murmured, "are the only two cities in the world in which one lives."
Maurice answered him—they drifted into an easy conversation, while I sat there only half-listening. At last he rose, looked at his watch, and declared regretfully that he must go.
We strolled along the promenade together. At the entrance he turned to me.
"If you should favor me with a visit to-morrow," he said, "would twelve o'clock suit you?"
"I will come at that time," I said.
He nodded, and strolled buoyantly away. Maurice and I re-entered our box and sat down facing one another. I told him then of the narrow escape I had had the night before. He was dumbfounded.
"There is absolutely nothing which we can do," I said dejectedly. "If we go to the police they will treat us as lunatics. I don't believe even that we have either of us a friend who would believe our story."
"I don't believe we have," Maurice echoed. "You are going to see him tomorrow?"
"There is very little to hope from that," I answered. "I have an idea what his terms will be."
"Do you think—do you mean—Sara?"
"You would not help him?"
"I would blow his brains out first!" I answered, fiercely.
IT was as I expected. The Prince's terms were—Sara! He received me in the magnificent library of Dorchester House, which looks out upon Hyde Park. Curiously enough, I had been in it often before, the guest of the man who had leased it to him. Nothing appeared to be much altered, and yet somehow the man's presence seemed to have diffused an odor of Orientalism about the place. There was a curiously pungent perfume about the hall and the room, and the servants were white-turbaned, copper-colored Indians. The Prince was in riding clothes of English cut and make, and had evidently just come in from a gallop. "I am glad that you have come," he said, rising as I entered the room. "Try the easy-chair at your side. Will you drink? Smoke? No! Very good! To business then."
"To business," I repeated thoughtfully, setting down my hat upon the table.
"You are young," the Prince began, "and you are a Westerner; that is to say, you do not know philosophy. Fatalism is only a term of the schools with you! You are physically brave enough, but you value your life, and you want to preserve it!"
"Without doubt," I admitted.
"For the sake of argument," the Prince continued, "we will take for granted what is certainly true—that your life is at my disposal. You come to ask me the terms on which I withdraw my claim upon it! Good! I answer you. I want the missionary's daughter, Sara!"
"Then you will have to want for ever!" I answered hotly. "I would die many times over sooner than see her in your hands!"
The Prince waved his hand—a gentle, deprecatory gesture.
"It will be better for us perfectly to understand each other," he said. "I do not desire anything irregular. I wish to marry the young lady according to your English customs, and I may add that I intend to make my permanent home in England. I am very rich, my rank will find recognition here; my wife will be a princess; and I do not fancy that, even among the daughters of your nobility, I should have any difficulty whatever in finding a suitable wife. But of that no more! The only woman whom I shall ever marry will be—Sara! With your aid or without it, I shall marry her! She is the only woman who has ever eluded me. Consequently, she is the only woman who has ever excited within me any interest."
I had heard enough! The man maddened me! The idea of Sara, the woman whom I loved, being so coolly discussed by such an ineffable blackguard kindled a quick passion in my heart, and sent the blood coursing hotly through my veins.
"I will hear no more!" I cried, reaching for my hat. "Sooner than see her married to you, I would shoot her! But, thank God, that will never be! If there is one man on this earth whom she loathes and detests, it is you!"
"Women are so unreasonable," the Prince murmured. "But then, too, you are young; when you are older you will know that there is very little difference between the hate and the love of a woman! It is her indifference alone that is fatal! I have some power over men—a little over women! Stranger things have happened than that her hate may change into love!"
"Not while I live!" I cried passionately.
"Decidedly not," he assented indulgently. "But then we must not forget— you are not going to live. A week or two is positively all you have to look forward to!"
"We shall see!" I answered fiercely. "You may be a charlatan, but you are not omnipotent. I may yet have a voice in my own destiny and in yours. What if I were to pull this trigger?"
A little pocket revolver, without which I never stirred a yard now, flashed from my pocket. I leaned across the table toward him, the muzzle was within a few feet of his cheek. He did not flinch for a moment.
"If your object is to live," he remarked, "you would immediately defeat it."
"We are alone," I answered. "Who could tell that it was not an accident?"
"Look behind you and see!" he answered.
I glanced over my shoulder. There were three doors to the library. They were all open, and on the threshold of each was standing a white-turbaned servant. Another was so close behind my chair that in turning round I brushed his sleeve.
I put the revolver into my pocket and rose.
"You ought to take a theatre, Prince," I said drily. "Your ideas of dramatic effect are incomparable."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It was an electric bell," he remarked, "nothing more. I am sorry that our interview has not been more satisfactory. Won't you stay and see my pets? I keep them in the conservatory to the right."
"Damn your pets!" I answered, losing for a moment all control over myself. "I wish you good-morning!"
I strode out of the house with the echoes of his laugh in my ears, and turned into Piccadilly. For a minute I hesitated; then I called a cab and drove to Pall Mall and on to Downing Street. I sent my card in to a very great man, who happened to be a distant connection, and after an hour's waiting I was accorded an interview.
Lord D shook hands with me and asked me to sit down. I plunged at once into my business.
"Do you know anything of an Indian fellow—calls himself Prince Singhisten?" I asked.
My distinguished connection raised his eyebrows and glanced at some papers by his side.
"Certainly," he answered.
His lordship laughed.
"He's all right," he said. "I have a score of letters about him. He is a prince of one of the richest and noblest races in Central India. He will receive every attention from Her Majesty's Government while he is in this country."
"Her Majesty's prison would be the best place for him!" I answered savagely.
"Can you give me ten minutes?" Lord D looked at the clock on his table.
"Twenty," he answered, "especially to talk about Prince Singhisten! I am interested in him."
"Here goes then," I said, and told him the whole story. Before I had finished, I caught him watching me furtively through half-closed eyes. He was wondering whether I had been ill. Evidently he doubted my sanity. I did not blame him. When I had finished, he twirled his mustache for a moment in silence.
"It's a curious story," he remarked.
"The curious part about it is, that it is true," I answered bitterly.
"Yes, of course. What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. I don't know what you can do. I don't see what anybody can do. The man has occult ways and means of his own. He is a sorcerer. To put our detectives against him would be like asking you or me to stand up against Jackson. But I'll admit I've no desire to be his victim."
"Naturally! Of course not! It's an odd story. I don't quite see how to move. The worst of it is, we are desired particularly to conciliate him. I will go and see him this afternoon."
"You will be charmed," I remarked. "His manners are perfect."
"Call and see me to-morrow," Lord D said, dismissing me. "I will think the matter over between now and then."
I glanced at my watch when I reached the street. It was about the luncheon hour at Gloucester Square. I drove there, and in the hall came face to face with Sara. She greeted me coldly.
"Have you had luncheon?" I asked. She nodded.
"Yes, we had it early. Lady Mortimer is calling for me at half-past two. We are going to the rink."
"It is only a quarter past," I answered.
"Will you come into the library for a moment. I have something to say to you."
She followed me at once. I closed the door. The next few minutes were going to be very important ones for me.
I HANDED Sara a chair, and stood over her where I could watch her face.
"I have news for you," I said.
"It is not good news, then," she said, "or you would not look so grave."
"No, it is not good news. It is bad news for you and for me. The High Priest is in London."
She shuddered a little.
"I feared it!"
"He is here," I continued, "in a new character. He is now an Indian Prince— Prince Singhisten, he calls himself. His connection with Astrea is over! His brother has taken his place there! He seems to be now simply a pleasure seeker, and he intends to live in England. He also intends to marry you!"
It was the Sara of Astrea, whose eyes flashed fire upon me through that gossamer veil! The little pearl-gloved hands were clenched together. She was superbly angry.
"Sooner," she cried, "a thousand deaths! I will not see him or speak to him. May God keep us apart!"
"Yet," I answered, "you must be prepared. He will enter and take his part in the very innermost circles of society here! His rank is very little short of Royal. You may meet him anywhere, at any time."
"I shall know," she answered proudly, "how to meet him! I shall know how to check his advances!"
"I believe that you will," I answered. "I may not be always at hand to help you, Sara, but—"
She laid her fingers upon my shoulder, and interrupted me.
"Jim!" she said anxiously. "Jim!"
"Have you been in danger again? Tell me!"
I shook my head.
"No! But I think he means to get rid of me! He says so at any rate; and, upon my word, I don't know what I can do to prevent it."
One of the little hands suddenly found its way into mine. Beneath her veil I could see her eyes were very soft and very bright, shining like stars.
"Jim, you will be careful! For my sake!"
"For your sake! Should you care very much?"
It was only a monosyllable, but I needed no more. She was in my arms, and, utterly heedless of her crushed hat, her head rested upon my shoulder! She gave a little sigh of content, and I took her face between my hands and kissed her!
"And I thought it was Maurice," I whispered. "I have been miserable for more than a year."
"You silly boy!" she whispered. "It has never been anybody but you. It never could have been."
An hour later Sara had excused herself to Lady Mortimer, under plea of a headache. I left Gloucester Square and turned toward Piccadilly. Passing close to Dorchester House, I heard my name called, and a brougham and pair of horses, which had been coming rapidly in the opposite direction, stopped suddenly by my side. Lord D stepped out on to the pavement and accosted me.
"Have you heard the news?" he asked.
I saw, to my surprise, that Lord D was looking pale and seemed to be suffering from a shock. I shook my head.
"I have been down at Gloucester Square since I left you," I answered. "I have heard nothing."
"I have just been to call upon Prince Singhisten," he said.
"He is dead!"
"What?" I shouted. "You're joking!"
"An ugly subject to joke about," he answered drily. "Really, I don't think I ever had such a shock. It hadn't happened five minutes when I was there. It seems he had some beastly poisonous snakes, which he used to take around with him, and which were generally as tame as possible. For some reason or other, they were starving one of them, and the Prince mistook it for one of the others, took it up and was bitten. He was dead in less than half-an-hour. This is the story his servants tell, anyhow. What an idiot a man must be to have such pets!"
I was a little dazed, and I could not speak for a minute. Lord D took me by the arm and led me to his carriage.
"You always were a lucky fellow, Duncarrow," he said. "I wonder what they were starving that snake for?"
With the tragedy of Prince Singhisten's death ended finally all our associations with the Island of Astrea. We never intend to re-visit it, and though we are going for a cruise with Maurice in the autumn, we certainly shall not choose the neighborhood of the Astrean Sea. Sara sometimes speaks of it—for me, its horrors seem very little, when I consider that, after all, if there had been no Astrea, there would have been no Sara; and if there had been no Sara, I might still have been a bachelor.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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