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H. RIDER HAGGARD

BLACK HEART AND WHITE HEART
AND OTHER STORIES

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First UK edition: Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1900

US editions as "Elissa—The Doom of Zimbabwe":
Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1900
McKinley, Stone & Mackenzie, New York, 1900

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2021
Version Date: 2021-11-19

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Illustration

"Black Heart and White Heart,"
Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1900


Illustration

"Black Heart and White Heart,"
Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1900


Illustration

"Elissa" ("Black Heart and White Heart"),
Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1900


Illustration

"Elissa" ("Black Heart and White Heart"),
Longmans, Green & Co., New York, 1900


Illustration

"Elissa" ("Black Heart and White Heart"),
McKinley, Stone & Mackenzie, New York, 1900


TABLE OF CONTENTS


LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS



DEDICATION
TO THE MEMORY OF THE CHILD NADA BURNHAM

...who "bound all to her" and, while her father cut his way through the hordes of the Ingobo Regiment, perished of the hardships of war at Buluwayo on 19th May, 1896, I dedicate these tales—and more particularly the last, that of a Faith which triumphed over savagery and death.

H. Rider Haggard, Ditchingham.




Illustration

Frontispiece. A very picture of gentle despair.


AUTHOR'S NOTE

OF the three stories that comprise this volume, one, "The Wizard," a tale of victorious faith, first appeared some years ago as a Christmas Annual. Another, "Elissa," is an attempt, difficult enough owing to the scantiness of the material left to us by time, to recreate the life of the ancient Phoenician Zimbabwe, whose ruins still stand in Rhodesia, and, with the addition of the necessary love story, to suggest circumstances such as might have brought about or accompanied its fall at the hands of the surrounding savage tribes. The third, "Black Heart and White Heart," is a story of the courtship, trials and final union of a pair of Zulu lovers in the time of King Cetywayo.



BLACK HEART AND WHITE HEART
A ZULU IDYLL

CHAPTER 1
Philip Hadden And King Cetywayo

AT the date of our introduction to him, Philip Hadden was a transport-rider and trader in "the Zulu." Still on the right side of forty, in appearance he was singularly handsome; tall, dark, upright, with keen eyes, short-pointed beard, curling hair and clear-cut features. His life had been varied, and there were passages in it which he did not narrate even to his most intimate friends. He was of gentle birth, however, and it was said that he had received a public school and university education in England. At any rate he could quote the classics with aptitude on occasion, an accomplishment which, coupled with his refined voice and a bearing not altogether common in the wild places of the world, had earned for him among his rough companions the soubriquet of "The Prince."


Illustration

Philip Hadden was a transport-rider and trader in "the Zulu."


However these things may have been, it is certain that he had emigrated to Natal under a cloud, and equally certain that his relatives at home were content to take no further interest in his fortunes. During the fifteen or sixteen years which he had spent in or about the colony, Hadden followed many trades, and did no good at any of them. A clever man, of agreeable and prepossessing manner, he always found it easy to form friendships and to secure a fresh start in life. But, by degrees, the friends were seized with a vague distrust of him; and, after a period of more or less application, he himself would close the opening that he had made by a sudden disappearance from the locality, leaving behind him a doubtful reputation and some bad debts.

Before the beginning of this story of the most remarkable episodes in his life, Philip Hadden was engaged for several years in transport-riding—that is, in carrying goods on ox waggons from Durban or Maritzburg to various points in the interior. A difficulty such as had more than once confronted him in the course of his career, led to his temporary abandonment of this means of earning a livelihood. On arriving at the little frontier town of Utrecht in the Transvaal, in charge of two waggon loads of mixed goods consigned to a storekeeper there, it was discovered that out of six cases of brandy five were missing from his waggon. Hadden explained the matter by throwing the blame upon his Kaffir "boys," but the storekeeper, a rough-tongued man, openly called him a thief and refused to pay the freight on any of the load. From words the two men came to blows, knives were drawn, and before anybody could interfere the storekeeper received a nasty wound in his side. That night, without waiting till the matter could be inquired into by the landdrost or magistrate, Hadden slipped away, and trekked back into Natal as quickly as his oxen would travel. Feeling that even here he was not safe, he left one of his waggons at Newcastle, loaded up the other with Kaffir goods—such as blankets, calico, and hardware—and crossed into Zululand, where in those days no sheriff's officer would be likely to follow him.

Being well acquainted with the language and customs of the natives, he did good trade with them, and soon found himself possessed of some cash and a small herd of cattle, which he received in exchange for his wares. Meanwhile news reached him that the man whom he had injured still vowed vengeance against him, and was in communication with the authorities in Natal. These reasons making his return to civilisation undesirable for the moment, and further business being impossible until he could receive a fresh supply of trade stuff, Hadden like a wise man turned his thoughts to pleasure. Sending his cattle and waggon over the border to be left in charge of a native headman with whom he was friendly, he went on foot to Ulundi to obtain permission from the king, Cetywayo, to hunt game in his country. Somewhat to his surprise, the Indunas or headmen, received him courteously—for Hadden's visit took place within a few months of the outbreak of the Zulu war in 1878, when Cetywayo was already showing unfriendliness to the English traders and others, though why the king did so they knew not.

On the occasion of his first and last interview with Cetywayo, Hadden got a hint of the reason. It happened thus. On the second morning after his arrival at the royal kraal, a messenger came to inform him that "the Elephant whose tread shook the earth" had signified that it was his pleasure to see him. Accordingly he was led through the thousands of huts and across the Great Place to the little enclosure where Cetywayo, a royal-looking Zulu seated on a stool, and wearing a kaross of leopard skins, was holding an indaba, or conference, surrounded by his counsellors. The Induna who had conducted him to the august presence went down upon his hands and knees, and, uttering the royal salute of Bayéte, crawled forward to announce that the white man was waiting.

"Let him wait," said the king angrily; and, turning, he continued the discussion with his counsellors.

Now, as has been said, Hadden thoroughly understood Zulu; and, when from time to time the king raised his voice, some of the words he spoke reached his ear.

"What!" Cetywayo said, to a wizened and aged man who seemed to be pleading with him earnestly; "am I a dog that these white hyenas should hunt me thus? Is not the land mine, and was it not my father's before me? Are not the people mine to save or to slay? I tell you that I will stamp out these little white men; my impis shall eat them up. I have said!"

Again the withered aged man interposed, evidently in the character of a peacemaker. Hadden could not hear his talk, but he rose and pointed towards the sea, while from his expressive gestures and sorrowful mien, he seemed to be prophesying disaster should a certain course of action be followed.

For a while the king listened to him, then he sprang from his seat, his eyes literally ablaze with rage.

"Hearken," he cried to the counsellor; "I have guessed it for long, and now I am sure of it. You are a traitor. You are Sompseu's[*] dog, and the dog of the Natal Government, and I will not keep another man's dog to bite me in my own house. Take him away!"

[*Sir Theophilus Shepstone's.]

A slight involuntary murmur rose from the ring of indunas, but the old man never flinched, not even when the soldiers, who presently would murder him, came and seized him roughly. For a few seconds, perhaps five, he covered his face with the corner of the kaross he wore, then he looked up and spoke to the king in a clear voice.

"O King," he said, "I am a very old man; as a youth I served under Chaka the Lion, and I heard his dying prophecy of the coming of the white man. Then the white men came, and I fought for Dingaan at the battle of the Blood River. They slew Dingaan, and for many years I was the counsellor of Panda, your father. I stood by you, O King, at the battle of the Tugela, when its grey waters were turned to red with the blood of Umbulazi your brother, and of the tens of thousands of his people. Afterwards I became your counsellor, O King, and I was with you when Sompseu set the crown upon your head and you made promises to Sompseu—promises that you have not kept. Now you are weary of me, and it is well; for I am very old, and doubtless my talk is foolish, as it chances to the old. Yet I think that the prophecy of Chaka, your great-uncle, will come true, and that the white men will prevail against you and that through them you shall find your death. I would that I might have stood in one more battle and fought for you, O King, since fight you will, but the end which you choose is for me the best end. Sleep in peace, O King, and farewell. Bayéte!"[*]

[*The royal salute of the Zulus.]

For a space there was silence, a silence of expectation while men waited to hear the tyrant reverse his judgment. But it did not please him to be merciful, or the needs of policy outweighed his pity.

"Take him away," he repeated. Then, with a slow smile on his face and one word, "Good-night," upon his lips, supported by the arm of a soldier, the old warrior and statesman shuffled forth to the place of death.

Hadden watched and listened in amazement not unmixed with fear. "If he treats his own servants like this, what will happen to me?" he reflected. "We English must have fallen out of favour since I left Natal. I wonder whether he means to make war on us or what? If so, this isn't my place."

Just then the king, who had been gazing moodily at the ground, chanced to look up. "Bring the stranger here," he said.

Hadden heard him, and coming forward offered Cetywayo his hand in as cool and nonchalant a manner as he could command.

Somewhat to his surprise it was accepted. "At least, White Man," said the king, glancing at his visitor's tall spare form and cleanly cut face, "you are no 'umfagozan' (low fellow); you are of the blood of chiefs."

"Yes, King," answered Hadden, with a little sigh, "I am of the blood of chiefs."

"What do you want in my country, White Man?"

"Very little, King. I have been trading here, as I daresay you have heard, and have sold all my goods. Now I ask your leave to hunt buffalo, and other big game, for a while before I return to Natal."

"I cannot grant it," answered Cetywayo, "you are a spy sent by Sompseu, or by the Queen's Induna in Natal. Get you gone."

"Indeed," said Hadden, with a shrug of his shoulders; "then I hope that Sompseu, or the Queen's Induna, or both of them, will pay me when I return to my own country. Meanwhile I will obey you because I must, but I should first like to make you a present."

"What present?" asked the king. "I want no presents. We are rich here, White Man."

"So be it, King. It was nothing worthy of your taking, only a rifle."

"A rifle, White Man? Where is it?"

"Without. I would have brought it, but your servants told me that it is death to come armed before the 'Elephant who shakes the Earth.'"

Cetywayo frowned, for the note of sarcasm did not escape his quick ear.

"Let this white man's offering be brought; I will consider the thing."

Instantly the Induna who had accompanied Hadden darted to the gateway, running with his body bent so low that it seemed as though at every step he must fall upon his face. Presently he returned with the weapon in his hand and presented it to the king, holding it so that the muzzle was pointed straight at the royal breast.

"I crave leave to say, O Elephant," remarked Hadden in a drawling voice, "that it might be well to command your servant to lift the mouth of that gun from your heart."

"Why?" asked the king.

"Only because it is loaded, and at full cock, O Elephant, who probably desires to continue to shake the Earth."

At these words the "Elephant" uttered a sharp exclamation, and rolled from his stool in a most unkingly manner, whilst the terrified Induna, springing backwards, contrived to touch the trigger of the rifle and discharge a bullet through the exact spot that a second before had been occupied by his monarch's head.

"Let him be taken away," shouted the incensed king from the ground, but long before the words had passed his lips the Induna, with a cry that the gun was bewitched, had cast it down and fled at full speed through the gate.

"He has already taken himself away," suggested Hadden, while the audience tittered. "No, King, do not touch it rashly; it is a repeating rifle. Look—" and lifting the Winchester, he fired the four remaining shots in quick succession into the air, striking the top of a tree at which he aimed with every one of them.

"Wow, it is wonderful!" said the company in astonishment.

"Has the thing finished?" asked the king.

"For the present it has," answered Hadden. "Look at it."

Cetywayo took the repeater in his hand, and examined it with caution, swinging the muzzle horizontally in an exact line with the stomachs of some of his most eminent Indunas, who shrank to this side and that as the barrel was brought to bear on them.

"See what cowards they are, White Man," said the king with indignation; "they fear lest there should be another bullet in this gun."

"Yes," answered Hadden, "they are cowards indeed. I believe that if they were seated on stools they would tumble off them just as it chanced to your Majesty to do just now."

"Do you understand the making of guns, White Man?" asked the king hastily, while the Indunas one and all turned their heads, and contemplated the fence behind them.

"No, King, I cannot make guns, but I can mend them."

"If I paid you well, White Man, would you stop here at my kraal, and mend guns for me?" asked Cetywayo anxiously.

"It might depend on the pay," answered Hadden; "but for awhile I am tired of work, and wish to rest. If the king gives me the permission to hunt for which I asked, and men to go with me, then when I return perhaps we can bargain on the matter. If not, I will bid the king farewell, and journey to Natal."

"In order to make report of what he has seen and learned here," muttered Cetywayo.

At this moment the talk was interrupted, for the soldiers who had led away the old Induna returned at speed, and prostrated themselves before the king.

"Is he dead?" he asked.

"He has travelled the king's bridge," they answered grimly; "he died singing a song of praise of the king."

"Good," said Cetywayo, "that stone shall hurt my feet no more. Go, tell the tale of its casting away to Sompseu and to the Queen's Induna in Natal," he added with bitter emphasis.

"Baba! Hear our Father speak. Listen to the rumbling of the Elephant," said the Indunas taking the point, while one bolder than the rest added: "Soon we will tell them another tale, the white Talking Ones, a red tale, a tale of spears, and the regiments shall sing it in their ears."

At the words an enthusiasm caught hold of the listeners, as the sudden flame catches hold of dry grass. They sprang up, for the most of them were seated on their haunches, and stamping their feet upon the ground in unison, repeated:—

Indaba ibomwu—indaba ye mikonto Lizo dunyiswa nge impi ndhlebeni yaho. (A red tale! A red tale! A tale of spears, And the impis shall sing it in their ears.)

One of them, indeed, a great fierce-faced fellow, drew near to Hadden and shaking his fist before his eyes—fortunately being in the royal presence he had no assegai—shouted the sentences at him.

The king saw that the fire he had lit was burning too fiercely.

"Silence," he thundered in the deep voice for which he was remarkable, and instantly each man became as if he were turned to stone, only the echoes still answered back: "And the impis shall sing it in their ears—in their ears."

"I am growing certain that this is no place for me," thought Hadden; "if that scoundrel had been armed he might have temporarily forgotten himself. Hullo! who's this?"

Just then there appeared through the gate of the fence a splendid specimen of the Zulu race. The man, who was about thirty-five years of age, was arrayed in a full war dress of a captain of the Umcityu regiment. From the circlet of otter skin on his brow rose his crest of plumes, round his middle, arms and knees hung the long fringes of black oxtails, and in one hand he bore a little dancing shield, also black in colour. The other was empty, since he might not appear before the king bearing arms. In countenance the man was handsome, and though just now they betrayed some anxiety, his eyes were genial and honest, and his mouth sensitive. In height he must have measured six foot two inches, yet he did not strike the observer as being tall, perhaps because of his width of chest and the solidity of his limbs, that were in curious contrast to the delicate and almost womanish hands and feet which so often mark the Zulu of noble blood. In short the man was what he seemed to be, a savage gentleman of birth, dignity and courage.

In company with him was another man plainly dressed in a moocha and a blanket, whose grizzled hair showed him to be over fifty years of age. His face also was pleasant and even refined, but the eyes were timorous, and the mouth lacked character.

"Who are these?" asked the king.

The two men fell on their knees before him, and bowed till their foreheads touched the ground—the while giving him his sibonga or titles of praise.

"Speak," he said impatiently.

"O King," said the young warrior, seating himself Zulu fashion, "I am Nahoon, the son of Zomba, a captain of the Umcityu, and this is my uncle Umgona, the brother of one of my mothers, my father's youngest wife."

Cetywayo frowned. "What do you here away from your regiment, Nahoon?"

"May it please the king, I have leave of absence from the head captains, and I come to ask a boon of the king's bounty."

"Be swift, then, Nahoon."

"It is this, O King," said the captain with some embarrassment: "A while ago the king was pleased to make a keshla of me because of certain service that I did out yonder—" and he touched the black ring which he wore in the hair of his head. "Being now a ringed man and a captain, I crave the right of a man at the hands of the king—the right to marry."

"Right? Speak more humbly, son of Zomba; my soldiers and my cattle have no rights."

Nahoon bit his lip, for he had made a serious mistake.

"Pardon, O King. The matter stands thus: My uncle Umgona here has a fair daughter named Nanea, whom I desire to wife, and who desires me to husband. Awaiting the king's leave I am betrothed to her and in earnest of it I have paid to Umgona a lobola of fifteen head of cattle, cows and calves together. But Umgona has a powerful neighbour, an old chief named Maputa, the warden of the Crocodile Drift, who doubtless is known to the king, and this chief also seeks Nanea in marriage and harries Umgona, threatening him with many evils if he will not give the girl to him. But Umgona's heart is white towards me, and towards Maputa it is black, therefore together we come to crave this boon of the king."

"It is so; he speaks the truth," said Umgona.

"Cease," answered Cetywayo angrily. "Is this a time that my soldiers should seek wives in marriage, wives to turn their hearts to water? Know that but yesterday for this crime I commanded that twenty girls who had dared without my leave to marry men of the Undi regiment, should be strangled and their bodies laid upon the cross-roads and with them the bodies of their fathers, that all might know their sin and be warned thereby. Ay, Umgona, it is well for you and for your daughter that you sought my word before she was given in marriage to this man. Now this is my award: I refuse your prayer, Nahoon, and since you, Umgona, are troubled with one whom you would not take as son-in-law, the old chief Maputa, I will free you from his importunity. The girl, says Nahoon, is fair—good, I myself will be gracious to her, and she shall be numbered among the wives of the royal house. Within thirty days from now, in the week of the next new moon, let her be delivered to the Sigodhla, the royal house of the women, and with her those cattle, the cows and the calves together, that Nahoon has given you, of which I fine him because he has dared to think of marriage without the leave of the king."


CHAPTER 2
The Bee Prophesies

"'A DANIEL come to judgment' indeed," reflected Hadden, who had been watching this savage comedy with interest; "our love-sick friend has got more than he bargained for. Well, that comes of appealing to Caesar," and he turned to look at the two suppliants.

The old man, Umgona, merely started, then began to pour out sentences of conventional thanks and praise to the king for his goodness and condescension. Cetywayo listened to his talk in silence, and when he had done answered by reminding him tersely that if Nanea did not appear at the date named, both she and he, her father, would in due course certainly decorate a cross-road in their own immediate neighbourhood.

The captain, Nahoon, afforded a more curious study. As the fatal words crossed the king's lips, his face took an expression of absolute astonishment, which was presently replaced by one of fury—the just fury of a man who suddenly has suffered an unutterable wrong. His whole frame quivered, the veins stood out in knots on his neck and forehead, and his fingers closed convulsively as though they were grasping the handle of a spear. Presently the rage passed away—for as well might a man be wroth with fate as with a Zulu despot—to be succeeded by a look of the most hopeless misery. The proud dark eyes grew dull, the copper-coloured face sank in and turned ashen, the mouth drooped, and down one corner of it there trickled a little line of blood springing from the lip bitten through in the effort to keep silence. Lifting his hand in salute to the king, the great man rose and staggered rather than walked towards the gate.

As he reached it, the voice of Cetywayo commanded him to stop. "Stay," he said, "I have a service for you, Nahoon, that shall drive out of your head these thoughts of wives and marriage. You see this white man here; he is my guest, and would hunt buffalo and big game in the bush country. I put him in your charge; take men with you, and see that he comes to no hurt. So also that you bring him before me within a month, or your life shall answer for it. Let him be here at my royal kraal in the first week of the new moon—when Nanea comes—and then I will tell you whether or no I agree with you that she is fair. Go now, my child, and you, White Man, go also; those who are to accompany you shall be with you at the dawn. Farewell, but remember we meet again at the new moon, when we will settle what pay you shall receive as keeper of my guns. Do not fail me, White Man, or I shall send after you, and my messengers are sometimes rough."

"This means that I am a prisoner," thought Hadden, "but it will go hard if I cannot manage to give them the slip somehow. I don't intend to stay in this country if war is declared, to be pounded into mouti (medicine), or have my eyes put out, or any little joke of that sort."


Ten days had passed, and one evening Hadden and his escort were encamped in a wild stretch of mountainous country lying between the Blood and Unvunyana Rivers, not more than eight miles from that "Place of the Little Hand" which within a few weeks was to become famous throughout the world by its native name of Isandhlwana. For three days they had been tracking the spoor of a small herd of buffalo that still inhabited the district, but as yet they had not come up with them. The Zulu hunters had suggested that they should follow the Unvunyana down towards the sea where game was more plentiful, but this neither Hadden, nor the captain, Nahoon, had been anxious to do, for reasons which each of them kept secret to himself. Hadden's object was to work gradually down to the Buffalo River across which he hoped to effect a retreat into Natal. That of Nahoon was to linger in the neighbourhood of the kraal of Umgona, which was situated not very far from their present camping place, in the vague hope that he might find an opportunity of speaking with or at least of seeing Nanea, the girl to whom he was affianced, who within a few weeks must be taken from him, and given over to the king.

A more eerie-looking spot than that where they were encamped Hadden had never seen. Behind them lay a tract of land—half-swamp and half-bush—in which the buffalo were supposed to be hiding. Beyond, in lonely grandeur, rose the mountain of Isandhlwana, while in front was an amphitheatre of the most gloomy forest, ringed round in the distance by sheer-sided hills. Into this forest there ran a river which drained the swamp, placidly enough upon the level. But it was not always level, for within three hundred yards of them it dashed suddenly over a precipice, of no great height but very steep, falling into a boiling rock-bound pool that the light of the sun never seemed to reach.

"What is the name of that forest, Nahoon?" asked Hadden.

"It is named Emagudu, The Home of the Dead," the Zulu replied absently, for he was looking towards the kraal of Nanea, which was situated at an hour's walk away over the ridge to the right.

"The Home of the Dead! Why?"

"Because the dead live there, those whom we name the Esemkofu, the Speechless Ones, and with them other Spirits, the Amahlosi, from whom the breath of life has passed away, and who yet live on."

"Indeed," said Hadden, "and have you ever seen these ghosts?"

"Am I mad that I should go to look for them, White Man? Only the dead enter that forest, and it is on the borders of it that our people make offerings to the dead."

Followed by Nahoon, Hadden walked to the edge of the cliff and looked over it. To the left lay the deep and dreadful-looking pool, while close to the bank of it, placed upon a narrow strip of turf between the cliff and the commencement of the forest, was a hut.

"Who lives there?" asked Hadden.

"The great Isanusi—she who is named Inyanga or Doctoress; she who is named Inyosi (the Bee), because she gathers wisdom from the dead who grow in the forest."

"Do you think that she could gather enough wisdom to tell me whether I am going to kill any buffalo, Nahoon?"

"Mayhap, White Man, but," he added with a little smile, "those who visit the Bee's hive may hear nothing, or they may hear more than they wish for. The words of that Bee have a sting."

"Good; I will see if she can sting me."

"So be it," said Nahoon; and turning, he led the way along the cliff till he reached a native path which zig-zagged down its face.

By this path they climbed till they came to the sward at the foot of the descent, and walked up it to the hut which was surrounded by a low fence of reeds, enclosing a small court-yard paved with ant-heap earth beaten hard and polished. In this court-yard sat the Bee, her stool being placed almost at the mouth of the round opening that served as a doorway to the hut. At first all that Hadden could see of her, crouched as she was in the shadow, was a huddled shape wrapped round with a greasy and tattered catskin kaross, above the edge of which appeared two eyes, fierce and quick as those of a leopard. At her feet smouldered a little fire, and ranged around it in a semi-circle were a number of human skulls, placed in pairs as though they were talking together, whilst other bones, to all appearance also human, were festooned about the hut and the fence of the courtyard.

"I see that the old lady is set up with the usual properties," thought Hadden, but he said nothing.

Nor did the witch-doctoress say anything; she only fixed her beady eyes upon his face. Hadden returned the compliment, staring at her with all his might, till suddenly he became aware that he was vanquished in this curious duel. His brain grew confused, and to his fancy it seemed that the woman before him had shifted shape into the likeness of colossal and horrid spider sitting at the mouth of her trap, and that these bones were the relics of her victims.

"Why do you not speak, White Man?" she said at last in a slow clear voice. "Well, there is no need, since I can read your thoughts. You are thinking that I who am called the Bee should be better named the Spider. Have no fear; I did not kill these men. What would it profit me when the dead are so many? I suck the souls of men, not their bodies, White Man. It is their living hearts I love to look on, for therein I read much and thereby I grow wise. Now what would you of the Bee, White Man, the Bee that labours in this Garden of Death, and—what brings you here, son of Zomba? Why are you not with the Umcityu now that they doctor themselves for the great war—the last war—the war of the white and the black—or if you have no stomach for fighting, why are you not at the side of Nanea the tall, Nanea the fair?"

Nahoon made no answer, but Hadden said:—

"A small thing, mother. I would know if I shall prosper in my hunting."

"In your hunting, White Man; what hunting? The hunting of game, of money, or of women? Well, one of them, for a-hunting you must ever be; that is your nature, to hunt and be hunted. Tell me now, how goes the wound of that trader who tasted of your steel yonder in the town of the Maboon (Boers)? No need to answer, White Man, but what fee, Chief, for the poor witch-doctoress whose skill you seek," she added in a whining voice. "Surely you would not that an old woman should work without a fee?"

"I have none to offer you, mother, so I will be going," said Hadden, who began to feel himself satisfied with this display of the Bee's powers of observation and thought-reading.

"Nay," she answered with an unpleasant laugh, "would you ask a question, and not wait for the answer? I will take no fee from you at present, White Man; you shall pay me later on when we meet again," and once more she laughed. "Let me look in your face, let me look in your face," she continued, rising and standing before him.

Then of a sudden Hadden felt something cold at the back of his neck, and the next instant the Bee had sprung from him, holding between her thumb and finger a curl of dark hair which she had cut from his head. The action was so instantaneous that he had neither time to avoid nor to resent it, but stood still staring at her stupidly.

"That is all I need," she cried, "for like my heart my magic is white. Stay—son of Zomba, give me also of your hair, for those who visit the Bee must listen to her humming."

Nahoon obeyed, cutting a little lock from his head with the sharp edge of his assegai, though it was very evident that he did this not because he wished to do so, but because he feared to refuse.

Then the Bee slipped back her kaross, and stood bending over the fire before them, into which she threw herbs taken from a pouch that was bound about her middle. She was still a finely-shaped woman, and she wore none of the abominations which Hadden had been accustomed to see upon the persons of witch-doctoresses. About her neck, however, was a curious ornament, a small live snake, red and grey in hue, which her visitors recognised as one of the most deadly to be found in that part of the country. It is not unusual for Bantu witch-doctors thus to decorate themselves with snakes, though whether or not their fangs have first been extracted no one seems to know.

Presently the herbs began to smoulder, and the smoke of them rose up in a thin, straight stream, that, striking upon the face of the Bee, clung about her head enveloping it as though with a strange blue veil. Then of a sudden she stretched out her hands, and let fall the two locks of hair upon the burning herbs, where they writhed themselves to ashes like things alive. Next she opened her mouth, and began to draw the fumes of the hair and herbs into her lungs in great gulps; while the snake, feeling the influence of the medicine, hissed and, uncoiling itself from about her neck, crept upwards and took refuge among the black saccaboola feathers of her head-dress.

Soon the vapours began to do their work; she swayed to and fro muttering, then sank back against the hut, upon the straw of which her head rested. Now the Bee's face was turned upwards towards the light, and it was ghastly to behold, for it had become blue in colour, and the open eyes were sunken like the eyes of one dead, whilst above her forehead the red snake wavered and hissed, reminding Hadden of the Uraeus crest on the brow of statues of Egyptian kings. For ten seconds or more she remained thus, then she spoke in a hollow and unnatural voice:—

"O Black Heart and body that is white and beautiful, I look into your heart, and it is black as blood, and it shall be black with blood. Beautiful white body with black heart, you shall find your game and hunt it, and it shall lead you into the House of the Homeless, into the Home of the Dead, and it shall be shaped as a bull, it shall be shaped as a tiger, it shall be shaped as a woman whom kings and waters cannot harm. Beautiful white body and black heart, you shall be paid your wages, money for money, and blow for blow. Think of my word when the spotted cat purrs above your breast; think of it when the battle roars about you; think of it when you grasp your great reward, and for the last time stand face to face with the ghost of the dead in the Home of the Dead.


Illustration

"O Black Heart and body that is white
and beautiful, I look into your heart."


"O White Heart and black body, I look into your heart and it is white as milk, and the milk of innocence shall save it. Fool, why do you strike that blow? Let him be who is loved of the tiger, and whose love is as the love of a tiger. Ah! what face is that in the battle? Follow it, follow it, O swift of foot; but follow warily, for the tongue that has lied will never plead for mercy, and the hand that can betray is strong in war. White Heart, what is death? In death life lives, and among the dead you shall find the life you lost, for there awaits you she whom kings and waters cannot harm."

As the Bee spoke, by degrees her voice sank lower and lower till it was almost inaudible. Then it ceased altogether and she seemed to pass from trance to sleep. Hadden, who had been listening to her with an amused and cynical smile, now laughed aloud.

"Why do you laugh, White Man?" asked Nahoon angrily.

"I laugh at my own folly in wasting time listening to the nonsense of that lying fraud."

"It is no nonsense, White Man."

"Indeed? Then will you tell me what it means?"

"I cannot tell you what it means yet, but her words have to do with a woman and a leopard, and with your fate and my fate."

Hadden shrugged his shoulders, not thinking the matter worth further argument, and at that moment the Bee woke up shivering, drew the red snake from her head-dress and coiling it about her throat wrapped herself again in the greasy kaross.

"Are you satisfied with my wisdom, Inkoos?" she asked of Hadden.

"I am satisfied that you are one of the cleverest cheats in Zululand, mother," he answered coolly. "Now, what is there to pay?"

The Bee took no offence at this rude speech, though for a second or two the look in her eyes grew strangely like that which they had seen in those of the snake when the fumes of the fire made it angry.

"If the white lord says I am a cheat, it must be so," she answered, "for he of all men should be able to discern a cheat. I have said that I ask no fee;—yes, give me a little tobacco from your pouch."

Hadden opened the bag of antelope hide and drawing some tobacco from it, gave it to her. In taking it she clasped his hand and examined the gold ring that was upon the third finger, a ring fashioned like a snake with two little rubies set in the head to represent the eyes.

"I wear a snake about my neck, and you wear one upon your hand, Inkoos. I should like to have this ring to wear upon my hand, so that the snake about my neck may be less lonely there."

"Then I am afraid you will have to wait till I am dead," said Hadden.

"Yes, yes," she answered in a pleased voice, "it is a good word. I will wait till you are dead and then I will take the ring, and none can say that I have stolen it, for Nahoon there will bear me witness that you gave me permission to do so."

For the first time Hadden started, since there was something about the Bee's tone that jarred upon him. Had she addressed him in her professional manner, he would have thought nothing of it; but in her cupidity she had become natural, and it was evident that she spoke from conviction, believing her own words.

She saw him start, and instantly changed her note.

"Let the white lord forgive the jest of a poor old witch-doctoress," she said in a whining voice. "I have so much to do with Death that his name leaps to my lips," and she glanced first at the circle of skulls about her, then towards the waterfall that fed the gloomy pool upon whose banks her hut was placed.

"Look," she said simply.

Following the line of her outstretched hand Hadden's eyes fell upon two withered mimosa trees which grew over the fall almost at right angles to its rocky edge. These trees were joined together by a rude platform made of logs of wood lashed down with riems of hide. Upon this platform stood three figures; notwithstanding the distance and the spray of the fall, he could see that they were those of two men and a girl, for their shapes stood out distinctly against the fiery red of the sunset sky. One instant there were three, the next there were two—for the girl had gone, and something dark rushing down the face of the fall, struck the surface of the pool with a heavy thud, while a faint and piteous cry broke upon his ear.

"What is the meaning of that?" he asked, horrified and amazed.

"Nothing," answered the Bee with a laugh. "Do you not know, then, that this is the place where faithless women, or girls who have loved without the leave of the king, are brought to meet their death, and with them their accomplices. Oh! they die here thus each day, and I watch them die and keep the count of the number of them," and drawing a tally-stick from the thatch of the hut, she took a knife and added a notch to the many that appeared upon it, looking at Nahoon the while with a half-questioning, half-warning gaze.

"Yes, yes, it is a place of death," she muttered. "Up yonder the quick die day by day and down there"—and she pointed along the course of the river beyond the pool to where the forest began some two hundred yards from her hut—"the ghosts of them have their home. Listen!"

As she spoke, a sound reached their ears that seemed to swell from the dim skirts of the forests, a peculiar and unholy sound which it is impossible to define more accurately than by saying that it seemed beastlike, and almost inarticulate.

"Listen," repeated the Bee, "they are merry yonder."

"Who?" asked Hadden; "the baboons?"

"No, Inkoos, the Amatongo—the ghosts that welcome her who has just become of their number."

"Ghosts," said Hadden roughly, for he was angry at his own tremors, "I should like to see those ghosts. Do you think that I have never heard a troop of monkeys in the bush before, mother? Come, Nahoon, let us be going while there is light to climb the cliff. Farewell."

"Farewell Inkoos, and doubt not that your wish will be fulfilled. Go in peace Inkoos—to sleep in peace."


CHAPTER 3
The End Of The Hunt

THE prayer of the Bee notwithstanding, Philip Hadden slept ill that night. He felt in the best of health, and his conscience was not troubling him more than usual, but rest he could not. Whenever he closed his eyes, his mind conjured up a picture of the grim witch-doctoress, so strangely named the Bee, and the sound of her evil-omened words as he had heard them that afternoon. He was neither a superstitious nor a timid man, and any supernatural beliefs that might linger in his mind were, to say the least of it, dormant. But do what he might, he could not shake off a certain eerie sensation of fear, lest there should be some grains of truth in the prophesyings of this hag. What if it were a fact that he was near his death, and that the heart which beat so strongly in his breast must soon be still for ever—no, he would not think of it. This gloomy place, and the dreadful sight which he saw that day, had upset his nerves. The domestic customs of these Zulus were not pleasant, and for his part he was determined to be clear of them so soon as he was able to escape the country.

In fact, if he could in any way manage it, it was his intention to make a dash for the border on the following night. To do this with a good prospect of success, however, it was necessary that he should kill a buffalo, or some other head of game. Then, as he knew well, the hunters with him would feast upon meat until they could scarcely stir, and that would be his opportunity. Nahoon, however, might not succumb to this temptation; therefore he must trust to luck to be rid of him. If it came to the worst, he could put a bullet through him, which he considered he would be justified in doing, seeing that in reality the man was his jailor. Should this necessity arise, he felt indeed that he could face it without undue compunction, for in truth he disliked Nahoon; at times he even hated him. Their natures were antagonistic, and he knew that the great Zulu distrusted and looked down upon him, and to be looked down upon by a savage "nigger" was more than his pride could stomach.

At the first break of dawn Hadden rose and roused his escort, who were still stretched in sleep around the dying fire, each man wrapped in his kaross or blanket. Nahoon stood up and shook himself, looking gigantic in the shadows of the morning.

"What is your will, Umlungu (white man), that you are up before the sun?"

"My will, Muntumpofu (yellow man), is to hunt buffalo," answered Hadden coolly. It irritated him that this savage should give him no title of any sort.

"Your pardon," said the Zulu reading his thoughts, "but I cannot call you Inkoos because you are not my chief, or any man's; still if the title 'white man' offends you, we will give you a name."

"As you wish," answered Hadden briefly.

Accordingly they gave him a name, Inhlizin-mgama, by which he was known among them thereafter, but Hadden was not best pleased when he found that the meaning of those soft-sounding syllables was "Black Heart." That was how the inyanga had addressed him—only she used different words.

An hour later, and they were in the swampy bush country that lay behind the encampment searching for their game. Within a very little while Nahoon held up his hand, then pointed to the ground. Hadden looked; there, pressed deep in the marshy soil, and to all appearance not ten minutes old, was the spoor of a small herd of buffalo.

"I knew that we should find game to-day," whispered Nahoon, "because the Bee said so."

"Curse the Bee," answered Hadden below his breath. "Come on."

For a quarter of an hour or more they followed the spoor through thick reeds, till suddenly Nahoon whistled very softly and touched Hadden's arm. He looked up, and there, about two hundred yards away, feeding on some higher ground among a patch if mimosa trees, were the buffaloes—six of them—an old bull with a splendid head, three cows, a heifer and a calf about four months old. Neither the wind nor the nature of the veldt were favourable for them to stalk the game from their present position, so they made a detour of half a mile and very carefully crept towards them up the wind, slipping from trunk to trunk of the mimosas and when these failed them, crawling on their stomachs under cover of the tall tambuti grass. At last they were within forty yards, and a further advance seemed impracticable; for although he could not smell them, it was evident from his movements that the old bull heard some unusual sound and was growing suspicious. Nearest to Hadden, who alone of the party had a rifle, stood the heifer broadside on—a beautiful shot. Remembering that she would make the best beef, he lifted his Martini, and aiming at her immediately behind the shoulder, gently squeezed the trigger. The rifle exploded, and the heifer fell dead, shot through the heart. Strangely enough the other buffaloes did not at once run away. On the contrary, they seemed puzzled to account for the sudden noise; and, not being able to wind anything, lifted their heads and stared round them.

The pause gave Hadden space to get in a fresh cartridge and to aim again, this time at the old bull. The bullet struck him somewhere in the neck or shoulder, for he came to his knees, but in another second was up and having caught sight of the cloud of smoke he charged straight at it. Because of this smoke, or for some other reason, Hadden did not see him coming, and in consequence would most certainly have been trampled or gored, had not Nahoon sprung forward, at the imminent risk of his own life, and dragged him down behind an ant-heap. A moment more and the great beast had thundered by, taking no further notice of them.

"Forward," said Hadden, and leaving most of the men to cut up the heifer and carry the best of her meat to camp, they started on the blood spoor.

For some hours they followed the bull, till at last they lost the trail on a patch of stony ground thickly covered with bush, and exhausted by the heat, sat down to rest and to eat some biltong or sun-dried flesh which they had with them. They finished their meal, and were preparing to return to the camp, when one of the four Zulus who were with them went to drink at a little stream that ran at a distance of not more than ten paces away. Half a minute later they heard a hideous grunting noise and a splashing of water, and saw the Zulu fly into the air. All the while that they were eating, the wounded buffalo had been lying in wait for them under a thick bush on the banks of the streamlet, knowing—cunning brute that he was—that sooner or later his turn would come. With a shout of consternation they rushed forward to see the bull vanish over the rise before Hadden could get a chance of firing at him, and to find their companion dying, for the great horn had pierced his lung.

"It is not a buffalo, it is a devil," the poor fellow gasped, and expired.

"Devil or not, I mean to kill it," exclaimed Hadden. So leaving the others to carry the body of their comrade to camp, he started on accompanied by Nahoon only. Now the ground was more open and the chase easier, for they sighted their quarry frequently, though they could not come near enough to fire. Presently they travelled down a steep cliff.

"Do you know where we are?" asked Nahoon, pointing to a belt of forest opposite. "That is Emagudu, the Home of the Dead—and look, the bull heads thither."

Hadden glanced round him. It was true; yonder to the left were the Fall, the Pool of Doom, and the hut of the Bee.

"Very well," he answered; "then we must head for it too."

Nahoon halted. "Surely you would not enter there," he exclaimed.

"Surely I will," replied Hadden, "but there is no need for you to do so if you are afraid."

"I am afraid—of ghosts," said the Zulu, "but I will come."

So they crossed the strip of turf, and entered the haunted wood. It was a gloomy place indeed; the great wide-topped trees grew thick there shutting out the sight of the sky; moreover, the air in it which no breeze stirred, was heavy with the exhalations of rotting foliage. There seemed to be no life here and no sound—only now and again a loathsome spotted snake would uncoil itself and glide away, and now and again a heavy rotten bough fell with a crash.

Hadden was too intent upon the buffalo, however, to be much impressed by his surroundings. He only remarked that the light would be bad for shooting, and went on.

They must have penetrated a mile or more into the forest when the sudden increase of blood upon the spoor told them that the bull's wound was proving fatal to him.

"Run now," said Hadden cheerfully.

"Nay, hamba gachle—go softly—" answered Nahoon, "the devil is dying, but he will try to play us another trick before he dies." And he went on peering ahead of him cautiously.

"It is all right here, anyway," said Hadden, pointing to the spoor that ran straight forward printed deep in the marshy ground.

Nahoon did not answer, but stared steadily at the trunks of two trees a few paces in front of them and to their right. "Look," he whispered.

Hadden did so, and at length made out the outline of something brown that was crouched behind the trees.

"He is dead," he exclaimed.

"No," answered Nahoon, "he has come back on his own path and is waiting for us. He knows that we are following his spoor. Now if you stand there, I think that you can shoot him through the back between the tree trunks."

Hadden knelt down, and aiming very carefully at a point just below the bull's spine, he fired. There was an awful bellow, and the next instant the brute was up and at them. Nahoon flung his broad spear, which sank deep into its chest, then they fled this way and that. The buffalo stood still for a moment, its fore legs straddled wide and its head down, looking first after the one and then the other, till of a sudden it uttered a low moaning sound and rolled over dead, smashing Nahoon's assegai to fragments as it fell.

"There! he's finished," said Hadden, "and I believe it was your assegai that killed him. Hullo! what's that noise?"

Nahoon listened. In several quarters of the forest, but from how far away it was impossible to tell, there rose a curious sound, as of people calling to each other in fear but in no articulate language. Nahoon shivered.

"It is the Esemkofu," he said, "the ghosts who have no tongue, and who can only wail like infants. Let us be going; this place is bad for mortals."

"And worse for buffaloes," said Hadden, giving the dead bull a kick, "but I suppose that we must leave him here for your friends, the Esemkofu, as we have got meat enough, and can't carry his head."

So they started back towards the open country. As they threaded their way slowly through the tree trunks, a new idea came into Hadden's head. Once out of this forest, he was within an hour's run of the Zulu border, and once over the Zulu border, he would feel a happier man than he did at that moment. As has been said, he had intended to attempt to escape in the darkness, but the plan was risky. All the Zulus might not over-eat themselves and go to sleep, especially after the death of their comrade; Nahoon, who watched him day and night, certainly would not. This was his opportunity—there remained the question of Nahoon.

Well, if it came to the worst, Nahoon must die: it would be easy—he had a loaded rifle, and now that his assegai was gone, Nahoon had only a kerry. He did not wish to kill the man, though it was clear to him, seeing that his own safety was at stake, that he would be amply justified in so doing. Why should he not put it to him—and then be guided by circumstances?

Nahoon was walking across a little open space about ten spaces ahead of him where Hadden could see him very well, whilst he himself was under the shadow of a large tree with low horizontal branches running out from the trunk.

"Nahoon," he said.

The Zulu turned round, and took a step towards him.

"No, do not move, I pray. Stand where you are, or I shall be obliged to shoot you. Listen now: do not be afraid for I shall not fire without warning. I am your prisoner, and you are charged to take me back to the king to be his servant. But I believe that a war is going to break out between your people and mine; and this being so, you will understand that I do not wish to go to Cetywayo's kraal, because I should either come to a violent death there, or my own brothers will believe that I am a traitor and treat me accordingly. The Zulu border is not much more than an hour's journey away—let us say an hour and a half's: I mean to be across it before the moon is up. Now, Nahoon, will you lose me in the forest and give me this hour and a half's start—or will you stop here with that ghost people of whom you talk? Do you understand? No, please do not move."

"I understand you," answered the Zulu, in a perfectly composed voice, "and I think that was a good name which we gave you this morning, though, Black Heart, there is some justice in your words and more wisdom. Your opportunity is good, and one which a man named as you are should not let fall."

"I am glad to find that you take this view of the matter, Nahoon. And now will you be so kind as to lose me, and to promise not to look for me till the moon is up?"

"What do you mean, Black Heart?"

"What I say. Come, I have no time to spare."

"You are a strange man," said the Zulu reflectively. "You heard the king's order to me: would you have me disobey the order of the king?"

"Certainly, I would. You have no reason to love Cetywayo, and it does not matter to you whether or no I return to his kraal to mend guns there. If you think that he will be angry because I am missing, you had better cross the border also; we can go together."

"And leave my father and all my brethren to his vengeance? Black Heart, you do not understand. How can you, being so named? I am a soldier, and the king's word is the king's word. I hoped to have died fighting, but I am the bird in your noose. Come, shoot, or you will not reach the border before moonrise," and he opened his arms and smiled.

"If it must be, so let it be. Farewell, Nahoon, at least you are a brave man, but every one of us must cherish his own life," answered Hadden calmly.

Then with much deliberation he raised his rifle and covered the Zulu's breast.

Already—whilst his victim stood there still smiling, although a twitching of his lips betrayed the natural terrors that no bravery can banish—already his finger was contracting on the trigger, when of a sudden, as instantly as though he had been struck by lightning, Hadden went down backwards, and behold! there stood upon him a great spotted beast that waved its long tail to and fro and glared down into his eyes.


Illustration

Already his finger was contracting on the trigger.


It was a leopard—a tiger as they call it in Africa—which, crouched upon a bough of the tree above, had been unable to resist the temptation of satisfying its savage appetite on the man below. For a second or two there was silence, broken only by the purring, or rather the snoring sound made by the leopard. In those seconds, strangely enough, there sprang up before Hadden's mental vision a picture of the inyanga called Inyosi or the Bee, her death-like head resting against the thatch of the hut, and her death-like lips muttering "think of my word when the great cat purrs above your face."

Then the brute put out its strength. The claws of one paw it drove deep into the muscles of his left thigh, while with another it scratched at his breast, tearing the clothes from it and furrowing the flesh beneath. The sight of the white skin seemed to madden it, and in its fierce desire for blood it drooped its square muzzle and buried its fangs in its victim's shoulder. Next moment there was a sound of running feet and of a club falling heavily. Up reared the leopard with an angry snarl, up till it stood as high as the attacking Zulu. At him it came, striking out savagely and tearing the black man as it had torn the white. Again the kerry fell full on its jaws, and down it went backwards. Before it could rise again, or rather as it was in the act of rising, the heavy knob-stick struck it once more, and with fearful force, this time as it chanced, full on the nape of the neck, and paralysing the brute. It writhed and bit and twisted, throwing up the earth and leaves, while blow after blow was rained upon it, till at length with a convulsive struggle and a stifled roar it lay still—the brains oozing from its shattered skull.

Hadden sat up, the blood running from his wounds.

"You have saved my life, Nahoon," he said faintly, "and I thank you."

"Do not thank me, Black Heart," answered the Zulu, "it was the king's word that I should keep you safely. Still this tiger has been hardly dealt with, for certainly he has saved my life," and lifting the Martini he unloaded the rifle.

At this juncture Hadden swooned away.


Twenty-four hours had gone by when, after what seemed to him to be but a little time of troubled and dreamful sleep, through which he could hear voices without understanding what they said, and feel himself borne he knew not whither, Hadden awoke to find himself lying upon a kaross in a large and beautifully clean Kaffir hut with a bundle of furs for a pillow. There was a bowl of milk at his side and tortured as he was by thirst, he tried to stretch out his arm to lift it to his lips, only to find to his astonishment that his hand fell back to his side like that of a dead man. Looking round the hut impatiently, he found that there was nobody in it to assist him, so he did the only thing which remained for him to do—he lay still. He did not fall asleep, but his eyes closed, and a kind of gentle torpor crept over him, half obscuring his recovered senses. Presently he heard a soft voice speaking; it seemed far away, but he could clearly distinguish the words.

"Black Heart still sleeps," the voice said, "but there is colour in his face; I think that he will wake soon, and find his thoughts again."

"Have no fear, Nanea, he will surely wake, his hurts are not dangerous," answered another voice, that of Nahoon. "He fell heavily with the weight of the tiger on top of him, and that is why his senses have been shaken for so long. He went near to death, but certainly he will not die."

"It would have been a pity if he had died," answered the soft voice, "he is so beautiful; never have I seen a white man who was so beautiful."

"I did not think him beautiful when he stood with his rifle pointed at my heart," answered Nahoon sulkily.

"Well, there is this to be said," she replied, "he wished to escape from Cetywayo, and that is not to be wondered at," and she sighed. "Moreover he asked you to come with him, and it might have been well if you had done so, that is, if you would have taken me with you!"

"How could I have done it, girl?" he asked angrily. "Would you have me set at nothing the order of the king?"

"The king!" she replied raising her voice. "What do you owe to this king? You have served him faithfully, and your reward is that within a few days he will take me from you—me, who should have been your wife, and I must—I must—" And she began to weep softly, adding between her sobs, "if you loved me truly, you would think more of me and of yourself, and less of the Black One and his orders. Oh! let us fly, Nahoon, let us fly to Natal before this spear pierces me."

"Weep not, Nanea," he said; "why do you tear my heart in two between my duty and my love? You know that I am a soldier, and that I must walk the path whereon the king has set my feet. Soon I think I shall be dead, for I seek death, and then it will matter nothing."

"Nothing to you, Nahoon, who are at peace, but to me? Yet, you are right, and I know it, therefore forgive me, who am no warrior, but a woman who must also obey—the will of the king." And she cast her arms about his neck, sobbing her fill upon his breast.


CHAPTER 4
Nanea

PRESENTLY, muttering something that the listener could not catch, Nahoon left Nanea, and crept out of the hut by its bee-hole entrance. Then Hadden opened his eyes and looked round him. The sun was sinking and a ray of its red light streaming through the little opening filled the place with a soft and crimson glow. In the centre of the hut—supporting it—stood a thorn-wood roof-tree coloured black by the smoke of the fire; and against this, the rich light falling full upon her, leaned the girl Nanea—a very picture of gentle despair.


Illustration

A very picture of gentle despair.


As is occasionally the case among Zulu women, she was beautiful—so beautiful that the sight of her went straight to the white man's heart, for a moment causing the breath to catch in his throat. Her dress was very simple. On her shoulders, hanging open in front, lay a mantle of soft white stuff edged with blue beads, about her middle was a buck-skin moocha, also embroidered with blue beads, while round her forehead and left knee were strips of grey fur, and on her right wrist a shining bangle of copper. Her naked bronze-hued figure was tall and perfect in its proportions; while her face had little in common with that of the ordinary native girl, showing as it did strong traces of the ancestral Arabian or Semitic blood. It was oval in shape, with delicate aquiline features, arched eyebrows, a full mouth, that drooped a little at the corners, tiny ears, behind which the wavy coal-black hair hung down to the shoulders, and the very loveliest pair of dark and liquid eyes that it is possible to imagine.

For a minute or more Nanea stood thus, her sweet face bathed in the sunbeam, while Hadden feasted his eyes upon its beauty. Then sighing heavily, she turned, and seeing that he was awake, started, drew her mantle over her breast and came, or rather glided, towards him.

"The chief is awake," she said in her soft Zulu accents. "Does he need aught?"

"Yes, Lady," he answered; "I need to drink, but alas! I am too weak."

She knelt down beside him, and supporting him with her left arm, with her right held the gourd to his lips.

How it came about Hadden never knew, but before that draught was finished a change passed over him. Whether it was the savage girl's touch, or her strange and fawn-like loveliness, or the tender pity in her eyes, matters not—the issue was the same. She struck some cord in his turbulent uncurbed nature, and of a sudden it was filled full with passion for her—a passion which if, not elevated, at least was real. He did not for a moment mistake the significance of the flood of feeling that surged through his veins. Hadden never shirked facts.

"By Heaven!" he said to himself, "I have fallen in love with a black beauty at first sight—more in love than I have ever been before. It's awkward, but there will be compensations. So much the worse for Nahoon, or for Cetywayo, or for both of them. After all, I can always get rid of her if she becomes a nuisance."

Then, in a fit of renewed weakness, brought about by the turmoil of his blood, he lay back upon the pillow of furs, watching Nanea's face while with a native salve of pounded leaves she busied herself dressing the wounds that the leopard had made.

It almost seemed as though something of what was passing in his mind communicated itself to that of the girl. At least, her hand shook a little at her task, and getting done with it as quickly as she could, she rose from her knees with a courteous "It is finished, Inkoos," and once more took up her position by the roof-tree.

"I thank you, Lady," he said; "your hand is kind."

"You must not call me lady, Inkoos," she answered, "I am no chieftainess, but only the daughter of a headman, Umgona."

"And named Nanea," he said. "Nay, do not be surprised, I have heard of you. Well, Nanea, perhaps you will soon become a chieftainess—up at the king's kraal yonder."

"Alas! and alas!" she said, covering her face with her hands.

"Do not grieve, Nanea, a hedge is never so tall and thick but that it cannot be climbed or crept through."

She let fall her hands and looked at him eagerly, but he did not pursue the subject.

"Tell me, how did I come here, Nanea?"

"Nahoon and his companions carried you, Inkoos."

"Indeed, I begin to be thankful to the leopard that struck me down. Well, Nahoon is a brave man, and he has done me a great service. I trust that I may be able to repay it—to you, Nanea."


This was the first meeting of Nanea and Hadden; but, although she did not seek them, the necessities of his sickness and of the situation brought about many another. Never for a moment did the white man waver in his determination to get into his keeping the native girl who had captivated him, and to attain his end he brought to bear all his powers and charm to detach her from Nahoon, and win her affections for himself. He was no rough wooer, however, but proceeded warily, weaving her about with a web of flattery and attention that must, he thought, produce the desired effect upon her mind. Without a doubt, indeed, it would have done so—for she was but a woman, and an untutored one—had it not been for a simple fact which dominated her whole nature. She loved Nahoon, and there was no room in her heart for any other man, white or black. To Hadden she was courteous and kindly but no more, nor did she appear to notice any of the subtle advances by which he attempted to win a foothold in her heart. For a while this puzzled him, but he remembered that the Zulu women do not usually permit themselves to show feeling towards an undeclared suitor. Therefore it became necessary that he should speak out.

His mind once made up, he had not to wait long for an opportunity. He was now quite recovered from his hurts, and accustomed to walk in the neighbourhood of the kraal. About two hundred yards from Umgona's huts rose a spring, and thither it was Nanea's habit to resort in the evening to bring back drinking-water for the use of her father's household. The path between this spring and the kraal ran through a patch of bush, where on a certain afternoon towards sundown Hadden took his seat under a tree, having first seen Nanea go down to the little stream as was her custom. A quarter of an hour later she reappeared carrying a large gourd upon her head. She wore no garment now except her moocha, for she had but one mantle and was afraid lest the water should splash it. He watched her advancing along the path, her hands resting on her hips, her splendid naked figure outlined against the westering sun, and wondered what excuse he could make to talk with her. As it chanced fortune favoured him, for when she was near him a snake glided across the path in front of the girl's feet, causing her to spring backwards in alarm and overset the gourd of water. He came forward, and picked it up.

"Wait here," he said laughing; "I will bring it to you full."

"Nay, Inkoos," she remonstrated, "that is a woman's work."

"Among my people," he said, "the men love to work for the women," and he started for the spring, leaving her wondering.

Before he reached her again, he regretted his gallantry, for it was necessary to carry the handleless gourd upon his shoulder, and the contents of it spilling over the edge soaked him. Of this, however, he said nothing to Nanea.

"There is your water, Nanea, shall I carry it for you to the kraal?"

"Nay, Inkoos, I thank you, but give it to me, you are weary with its weight."

"Stay awhile, and I will accompany you. Ah! Nanea, I am still weak, and had it not been for you I think that I should be dead."

"It was Nahoon who saved you—not I, Inkoos."

"Nahoon saved my body, but you, Nanea, you alone can save my heart."

"You talk darkly, Inkoos."

"Then I must make my meaning clear, Nanea. I love you."

She opened her brown eyes wide.

"You, a white lord, love me, a Zulu girl? How can that be?"

"I do not know, Nanea, but it is so, and were you not blind you would have seen it. I love you, and I wish to take you to wife."

"Nay, Inkoos, it is impossible. I am already betrothed."

"Ay," he answered, "betrothed to the king."

"No, betrothed to Nahoon."

"But it is the king who will take you within a week; is it not so? And would you not rather that I should take you than the king?"

"It seems to be so, Inkoos, and I would rather go with you than with the king, but most of all I desire to marry Nahoon. It may be that I shall not be able to marry him, but if that is so, at least I will never become one of the king's women."

"How will you prevent it, Nanea?"

"There are waters in which a maid may drown, and trees upon which she can hang," she answered with a quick setting of the mouth.

"That were a pity, Nanea, you are too fair to die."

"Fair or foul, yet I die, Inkoos."

"No, no, come with me—I will find a way—and be my wife," and he put her arm about her waist, and strove to draw her to him.

Without any violence of movement, and with the most perfect dignity, the girl disengaged herself from his embrace.

"You have honoured me, and I thank you, Inkoos," she said quietly, "but you do not understand. I am the wife of Nahoon—I belong to Nahoon; therefore, I cannot look on any other man while Nahoon lives. It is not our custom, Inkoos, for we are not as the white women, but ignorant and simple, and when we vow ourselves to a man, we abide by that vow till death."

"Indeed," said Hadden; "and so now you go to tell Nahoon that I have offered to make you my wife."

"No, Inkoos, why should I tell Nahoon your secrets? I have said 'nay' to you, not 'yea,' therefore he has no right to know," and she stooped to lift the gourd of water.

Hadden considered the situation rapidly, for his repulse only made him the more determined to succeed. Of a sudden under the emergency he conceived a scheme, or rather its rough outline. It was not a nice scheme, and some men might have shrunk from it, but as he had no intention of suffering himself to be defeated by a Zulu girl, he decided—with regret, it is true—that having failed to attain his ends by means which he considered fair, he must resort to others of more doubtful character.

"Nanea," he said, "you are a good and honest woman, and I respect you. As I have told you, I love you also, but if you refuse to listen to me there is nothing more to be said, and after all, perhaps it would be better that you should marry one of your own people. But, Nanea, you will never marry him, for the king will take you; and, if he does not give you to some other man, either you will become one of his 'sisters,' or to be free of him, as you say, you will die. Now hear me, for it is because I love you and wish your welfare that I speak thus. Why do you not escape into Natal, taking Nahoon with you, for there as you know you may live in peace out of reach of the arm of Cetywayo?"

"That is my desire, Inkoos, but Nahoon will not consent. He says that there is to be war between us and you white men, and he will not break the command of the king and desert from his army."

"Then he cannot love you much, Nahoon, and at least you have to think of yourself. Whisper into the ear of your father and fly together, for be sure that Nahoon will soon follow you. Ay! and I myself with fly with you, for I too believe that there must be war, and then a white man in this country will be as a lamb among the eagles."

"If Nahoon will come, I will go, Inkoos, but I cannot fly without Nahoon; it is better I should stay here and kill myself."

"Surely then being so fair and loving him so well, you can teach him to forget his folly and to escape with you. In four days' time we must start for the king's kraal, and if you win over Nahoon, it will be easy for us to turn our faces southwards and across the river that lies between the land of the Amazulu and Natal. For the sake of all of us, but most of all for your own sake, try to do this, Nanea, whom I have loved and whom I now would save. See him and plead with him as you know how, but as yet do not tell him that I dream of flight, for then I should be watched."

"In truth, I will, Inkoos," she answered earnestly, "and oh! I thank you for your goodness. Fear not that I will betray you—first would I die. Farewell."

"Farewell, Nanea," and taking her hand he raised it to his lips.


Late that night, just as Hadden was beginning to prepare himself for sleep, he heard a gentle tapping at the board which closed the entrance to his hut.

"Enter," he said, unfastening the door, and presently by the light of the little lantern that he had with him, he saw Nanea creep into the hut, followed by the great form of Nahoon.

"Inkoos," she said in a whisper when the door was closed again, "I have pleaded with Nahoon, and he has consented to fly; moreover, my father will come also."

"Is it so, Nahoon?" asked Hadden.

"It is so," answered the Zulu, looking down shamefacedly; "to save this girl from the king, and because the love of her eats out my heart, I have bartered away my honour. But I tell you, Nanea, and you, White Man, as I told Umgona just now, that I think no good will come of this flight, and if we are caught or betrayed, we shall be killed every one of us."

"Caught we can scarcely be," broke in Nanea anxiously, "for who could betray us, except the Inkoos here—"

"Which he is not likely to do," said Hadden quietly, "seeing that he desires to escape with you, and that his life is also at stake."

"That is so, Black Heart," said Nahoon, "otherwise I tell you that I should not have trusted you."

Hadden took no notice of this outspoken saying, but until very late that night they sat there together making their plans.


On the following morning Hadden was awakened by sounds of violent altercation. Going out of his hut he found that the disputants were Umgona and a fat and evil-looking Kaffir chief who had arrived at the kraal on a pony. This chief, he soon discovered, was named Maputa, being none other than the man who had sought Nanea in marriage and brought about Nahoon's and Umgona's unfortunate appeal to the king. At present he was engaged in abusing Umgona furiously, charging him with having stolen certain of his oxen and bewitched his cows so that they would not give milk. The alleged theft it was comparatively easy to disprove, but the wizardry remained a matter of argument.

"You are a dog, and a son of a dog," shouted Maputa, shaking his fat fist in the face of the trembling but indignant Umgona. "You promised me your daughter in marriage, then having vowed her to that umfagozan—that low lout of a soldier, Nahoon, the son of Zomba—you went, the two of you, and poisoned the king's ear against me, bringing me into trouble with the king, and now you have bewitched my cattle. Well, wait, I will be even with you, Wizard; wait till you wake up in the cold morning to find your fence red with fire, and the slayers standing outside your gates to eat up you and yours with spears—"

At this juncture Nahoon, who till now had been listening in silence, intervened with effect.

"Good," he said, "we will wait, but not in your company, Chief Maputa. Hamba! (go)—" and seizing the fat old ruffian by the scruff of his neck, he flung him backwards with such violence that he rolled over and over down the little slope.

Hadden laughed, and passed on towards the stream where he proposed to bathe. Just as he reached it, he caught sight of Maputa riding along the footpath, his head-ring covered with mud, his lips purple and his black face livid with rage.

"There goes an angry man," he said to himself. "Now, how would it be—" and he looked upwards like one seeking an inspiration. It seemed to come; perhaps the devil finding it open whispered in his ear, at any rate—in a few seconds his plan was formed, and he was walking through the bush to meet Maputa.

"Go in peace, Chief," he said; "they seem to have treated you roughly up yonder. Having no power to interfere, I came away for I could not bear the sight. It is indeed shameful that an old and venerable man of rank should be struck into the dirt, and beaten by a soldier drunk with beer."

"Shameful, White Man!" gasped Maputa; "your words are true indeed. But wait a while. I, Maputa, will roll that stone over, I will throw that bull upon its back. When next the harvest ripens, this I promise, that neither Nahoon nor Umgona, nor any of his kraal shall be left to gather it."

"And how will you manage that, Maputa?"

"I do not know, but I will find a way. Oh! I tell you, a way shall be found."

Hadden patted the pony's neck meditatively, then leaning forward, he looked the chief in the eyes and said:—

"What will you give me, Maputa, if I show you that way, a sure and certain one, whereby you may be avenged to the death upon Nahoon, whose violence I also have seen, and upon Umgona, whose witchcraft brought sore sickness upon me?"

"What reward do you seek, White Man?" asked Maputa eagerly.

"A little thing, Chief, a thing of no account, only the girl Nanea, to whom as it chances I have taken a fancy."

"I wanted her for myself, White Man, but he who sits at Ulundi has laid his hand upon her."

"That is nothing, Chief; I can arrange with him who 'sits at Ulundi.' It is with you who are great here that I wish to come to terms. Listen: if you grant my desire, not only will I fulfil yours upon your foes, but when the girl is delivered into my hands I will give you this rifle and a hundred rounds of cartridges."

Maputa looked at the sporting Martini, and his eyes glistened.

"It is good," he said; "it is very good. Often have I wished for such a gun that will enable me to shoot game, and to talk with my enemies from far away. Promise it to me, White Man, and you shall take the girl if I can give her to you."

"You swear it, Maputa?"

"I swear it by the head of Chaka, and the spirits of my fathers."

"Good. At dawn on the fourth day from now it is the purpose of Umgona, his daughter Nanea, and Nahoon, to cross the river into Natal by the drift that is called Crocodile Drift, taking their cattle with them and flying from the king. I also shall be of their company, for they know that I have learned their secret, and would murder me if I tried to leave them. Now you who are chief of the border and guardian of that drift, must hide at night with some men among the rocks in the shallows of the drift and await our coming. First Nanea will cross driving the cows and calves, for so it is arranged, and I shall help her; then will follow Umgona and Nahoon with the oxen and heifers. On these two you must fall, killing them and capturing the cattle, and afterwards I will give you the rifle."

"What if the king should ask for the girl, White Man?"

"Then you shall answer that in the uncertain light you did not recognise her and so she slipped away from you; moreover, that at first you feared to seize the girl lest her cries should alarm the men and they should escape you."

"Good, but how can I be sure that you will give me the gun once you are across the river?"

"Thus: before I enter the ford I will lay the rifle and cartridges upon a stone by the bank, telling Nanea that I shall return to fetch them when I have driven over the cattle."

"It is well, White Man; I will not fail you."

So the plot was made, and after some further conversation upon points of detail, the two conspirators shook hands and parted.

"That ought to come off all right," reflected Hadden to himself as he plunged and floated in the waters of the stream, "but somehow I don't quite trust our friend Maputa. It would have been better if I could have relied upon myself to get rid of Nahoon and his respected uncle—a couple of shots would do it in the water. But then that would be murder and murder is unpleasant; whereas the other thing is only the delivery to justice of two base deserters, a laudable action in a military country. Also personal interference upon my part might turn the girl against me; while after Umgona and Nahoon have been wiped out by Maputa, she must accept my escort. Of course there is a risk, but in every walk of life the most cautious have to take risks at times."

As it chanced, Philip Hadden was correct in his suspicions of his coadjutor, Maputa. Even before that worthy chief reached his own kraal, he had come to the conclusion that the white man's plan, though attractive in some ways, was too dangerous, since it was certain that if the girl Nanea escaped, the king would be indignant. Moreover, the men he took with him to do the killing in the drift would suspect something and talk. On the other hand he would earn much credit with his majesty by revealing the plot, saying that he had learned it from the lips of the white hunter, whom Umgona and Nahoon had forced to participate in it, and of whose coveted rifle he must trust to chance to possess himself.


An hour later two discreet messengers were bounding across the plains, bearing words from the Chief Maputa, the Warden of the Border, to the "great Black Elephant" at Ulundi.


CHAPTER 5
The Doom Pool

FORTUNE showed itself strangely favourable to the plans of Nahoon and Nanea. One of the Zulu captain's perplexities was as to how he should lull the suspicions and evade the vigilance of his own companions, who together with himself had been detailed by the king to assist Hadden in his hunting and to guard against his escape. As it chanced, however, on the day after the incident of the visit of Maputa, a messenger arrived from no less a person than the great military Induna, Tvingwayo ka Marolo, who afterwards commanded the Zulu army at Isandhlwana, ordering these men to return to their regiment, the Umcityu Corps, which was to be placed upon full war footing. Accordingly Nahoon sent them, saying that he himself would follow with Black Heart in the course of a few days, as at present the white man was not sufficiently recovered from his hurts to allow of his travelling fast and far. So the soldiers went, doubting nothing.

Then Umgona gave it out that in obedience to the command of the king he was about to start for Ulundi, taking with him his daughter Nanea to be delivered over into the Sigodhla, and also those fifteen head of cattle that had been lobola'd by Nahoon in consideration of his forthcoming marriage, whereof he had been fined by Cetywayo. Under pretence that they required a change of veldt, the rest of his cattle he sent away in charge of a Basuto herd who knew nothing of their plans, telling him to keep them by the Crocodile Drift, as there the grass was good and sweet.

All preparations being completed, on the third day the party started, heading straight for Ulundi. After they had travelled some miles, however, they left the road and turning sharp to the right, passed unobserved of any through a great stretch of uninhabited bush. Their path now lay not far from the Pool of Doom, which, indeed, was close to Umgona's kraal, and the forest that was called Home of the Dead, but out of sight of these. It was their plan to travel by night, reaching the broken country near the Crocodile Drift on the following morning. Here they proposed to lie hid that day and through the night; then, having first collected the cattle which had preceded them, to cross the river at the break of dawn and escape into Natal. At least this was the plan of his companions; but, as we know, Hadden had another programme, whereon after one last appearance two of the party would play no part.

During that long afternoon's journey Umgona, who knew every inch of the country, walked ahead driving the fifteen cattle and carrying in his hand a long travelling stick of black and white umzimbeet wood, for in truth the old man was in a hurry to reach his journey's end. Next came Nahoon, armed with a broad assegai, but naked except for his moocha and necklet of baboon's teeth, and with him Nanea in her white bead-bordered mantle. Hadden, who brought up the rear, noticed that the girl seemed to be under the spell of an imminent apprehension, for from time to time she clasped her lover's arm, and looking up into his face, addressed him with vehemence, almost with passion.

Curiously enough, the sight touched Hadden, and once or twice he was shaken by so sharp a pang of remorse at the thought of his share in this tragedy, that he cast about in his mind seeking a means to unravel the web of death which he himself had woven. But ever that evil voice was whispering at his ear. It reminded him that he, the white Inkoos, had been refused by this dusky beauty, and that if he found a way to save him, within some few hours she would be the wife of the savage gentleman at her side, the man who had named him Black Heart and who despised him, the man whom he had meant to murder and who immediately repaid his treachery by rescuing him from the jaws of the leopard at the risk of his own life. Moreover, it was a law of Hadden's existence never to deny himself of anything that he desired if it lay within his power to take it—a law which had led him always deeper into sin. In other respects, indeed, it had not carried him far, for in the past he had not desired much, and he had won little; but this particular flower was to his hand, and he would pluck it. If Nahoon stood between him and the flower, so much the worse for Nahoon, and if it should wither in his grasp, so much the worse for the flower; it could always be thrown away. Thus it came about that, not for the first time in his life, Philip Hadden discarded the somewhat spasmodic prickings of conscience and listened to that evil whispering at his ear.

About half-past five o'clock in the afternoon the four refugees passed the stream that a mile or so down fell over the little precipice into the Doom Pool; and, entering a patch of thorn trees on the further side, walked straight into the midst of two-and-twenty soldiers, who were beguiling the tedium of expectancy by the taking of snuff and the smoking of dakka or native hemp. With these soldiers, seated on his pony, for he was too fat to walk, waited the Chief Maputa.

Observing that their expected guests had arrived, the men knocked out the dakka pipe, replaced the snuff boxes in the slits made in the lobes of their ears, and secured the four of them.

"What is the meaning of this, O King's soldiers?" asked Umgona in a quavering voice. "We journey to the kraal of U'Cetywayo; why do you molest us?"

"Indeed. Wherefore then are your faces set towards the south. Does the Black One live in the south? Well, you will journey to another kraal presently," answered the jovial-looking captain of the party with a callous laugh.

"I do not understand," stammered Umgona.

"Then I will explain while you rest," said the captain. "The Chief Maputa yonder sent word to the Black One at Ulundi that he had learned of your intended flight to Natal from the lips of this white man, who had warned him of it. The Black One was angry, and despatched us to catch you and make an end of you. That is all. Come on now, quietly, and let us finish the matter. As the Doom Pool is near, your deaths will be easy."

Nahoon heard the words, and sprang straight at the throat of Hadden; but he did not reach it, for the soldiers pulled him down. Nanea heard them also, and turning, looked the traitor in the eyes; she said nothing, she only looked, but he could never forget that look. The white man for his part was filled with a fiery indignation against Maputa.

"You wicked villain," he gasped, whereat the chief smiled in a sickly fashion, and turned away.

Then they were marched along the banks of the stream till they reached the waterfall that fell into the Pool of Doom.

Hadden was a brave man after his fashion, but his heart quailed as he gazed into that abyss.

"Are you going to throw me in there?" he asked of the Zulu captain in a thick voice.

"You, White Man?" replied the soldier unconcernedly. "No, our orders are to take you to the king, but what he will do with you I do not know. There is to be war between your people and ours, so perhaps he means to pound you into medicine for the use of the witch-doctors, or to peg you over an ant-heap as a warning to other white men."

Hadden received this information in silence, but its effect upon his brain was bracing, for instantly he began to search out some means of escape.

By now the party had halted near the two thorn trees that hung over the waters of the pool.

"Who dives first," asked the captain of the Chief Maputa.

"The old wizard," he replied, nodding at Umgona; "then his daughter after him, and last of all this fellow," and he struck Nahoon in the face with his open hand.

"Come on, Wizard," said the captain, grasping Umgona by the arm, "and let us see how you can swim."

At the words of doom Umgona seemed to recover his self-command, after the fashion of his race.

"No need to lead me, soldier," he said, shaking himself loose, "who am old and ready to die." Then he kissed his daughter at his side, wrung Nahoon by the hand, and turning from Hadden with a gesture of contempt walked out upon the platform that joined the two thorn trunks. Here he stood for a moment looking at the setting sun, then suddenly, and without a sound, he hurled himself into the abyss below and vanished.

"That was a brave one," said the captain with admiration. "Can you spring too, girl, or must we throw you?"

"I can walk my father's path," Nanea answered faintly, "but first I crave leave to say one word. It is true that we were escaping from the king, and therefore by the law we must die; but it was Black Heart here who made the plot, and he who has betrayed us. Would you know why he has betrayed us? Because he sought my favour, and I refused him, and this is the vengeance that he takes—a white man's vengeance."

"Wow!" broke in the chief Maputa, "this pretty one speaks truth, for the white man would have made a bargain with me under which Umgona, the wizard, and Nahoon, the soldier, were to be killed at the Crocodile Drift, and he himself suffered to escape with the girl. I spoke him softly and said 'yes,' and then like a loyal man I reported to the king."

"You hear," sighed Nanea. "Nahoon, fare you well, though presently perhaps we shall be together again. It was I who tempted you from your duty. For my sake you forgot your honour, and I am repaid. Farewell, my husband, it is better to die with you than to enter the house of the king's women," and Nanea stepped on to the platform.

Here, holding to a bough of one of the thorn trees, she turned and addressed Hadden, saying:—

"Black Heart, you seem to have won the day, but me at least you lose and—the sun is not yet set. After sunset comes the night, Black Heart, and in that night I pray that you may wander eternally, and be given to drink of my blood and the blood of Umgona my father, and the blood of Nahoon my husband, who saved your life, and whom you have murdered. Perchance, Black Heart, we may yet meet yonder—in the House of the Dead."


Illustration

"Black Heart, you seem to have won the day."


Then uttering a low cry Nanea clasped her hands and sprang upwards and outwards from the platform. The watchers bent their heads forward to look. They saw her rush headlong down the face of the fall to strike the water fifty feet below. A few seconds, and for the last time, they caught sight of her white garment glimmering on the surface of the gloomy pool. Then the shadows and mist-wreaths hid it, and she was gone.

"Now, husband," cried the cheerful voice of the captain, "yonder is your marriage bed, so be swift to follow a bride who is so ready to lead the way. Wow! but you are good people to kill; never have I had to do with any who gave less trouble. You—" and he stopped, for mental agony had done its work, and suddenly Nahoon went mad before his eyes.

With a roar like that of a lion the great man cast off those who held him and seizing one of them round the waist and thigh, he put out all his terrible strength. Lifting him as though he had been an infant, he hurled him over the edge of the cliff to find his death on the rocks of the Pool of Doom. Then crying:—

"Black Heart! your turn, Black Heart the traitor!" he rushed at Hadden, his eyes rolling and foam flying from his lips, as he passed striking the chief Maputa from his horse with a backward blow of his hand. Ill would it have gone with the white man if Nahoon had caught him. But he could not come at him, for the soldiers sprang upon him and notwithstanding his fearful struggles they pulled him to the ground, as at certain festivals the Zulu regiments with their naked hands pull down a bull in the presence of the king.

"Cast him over before he can work more mischief," said a voice. But the captain cried out, "Nay, nay, he is sacred; the fire from Heaven has fallen on his brain, and we may not harm him, else evil would overtake us all. Bind him hand and foot, and bear him tenderly to where he can be cared for. Surely I thought that these evil-doers were giving us too little trouble, and thus it has proved."

So they set themselves to make fast Nahoon's hands and wrists, using as much gentleness as they might, for among the Zulus a lunatic is accounted holy. It was no easy task, and it took time.

Hadden glanced around him, and saw his opportunity. On the ground close beside him lay his rifle, where one of the soldiers had placed it, and about a dozen yards away Maputa's pony was grazing. With a swift movement, he seized the Martini and five seconds later he was on the back of the pony, heading for the Crocodile Drift at a gallop. So quickly indeed did he execute this masterly retreat, that occupied as they all were in binding Nahoon, for half a minute or more none of the soldiers noticed what had happened. Then Maputa chanced to see, and waddled after him to the top of the rise, screaming:—

"The white thief, he has stolen my horse, and the gun too, the gun that he promised to give me."

Hadden, who by this time was a hundred yards away, heard him clearly, and a rage filled his heart. This man had made an open murderer of him; more, he had been the means of robbing him of the girl for whose sake he had dipped his hands in these iniquities. He glanced over his shoulder; Maputa was still running, and alone. Yes, there was time; at any rate he would risk it.

Pulling up the pony with a jerk, he leapt from its back, slipping his arm through the rein with an almost simultaneous movement. As it chanced, and as he had hoped would be the case, the animal was a trained shooting horse, and stood still. Hadden planted his feet firmly on the ground and drawing a deep breath, he cocked the rifle and covered the advancing chief. Now Maputa saw his purpose and with a yell of terror turned to fly. Hadden waited a second to get the sight fair on his broad back, then just as the soldiers appeared above the rise he pressed the trigger. He was a noted shot, and in this instance his skill did not fail him; for, before he heard the bullet tell, Maputa flung his arms wide and plunged to the ground dead.

Three seconds more, and with a savage curse, Hadden had remounted the pony and was riding for his life towards the river, which a while later he crossed in safety.


CHAPTER 6
The Ghost Of The Dead

WHEN Nanea leapt from the dizzy platform that overhung the Pool of Doom, a strange fortune befell her. Close in to the precipice were many jagged rocks, and on these the waters of the fall fell and thundered, bounding from them in spouts of spray into the troubled depths of the foss beyond. It was on these stones that the life was dashed out from the bodies of the wretched victims who were hurled from above. But Nanea, it will be remembered, had not waited to be treated thus, and as it chanced the strong spring with which she had leapt to death carried her clear of the rocks. By a very little she missed the edge of them and striking the deep water head first like some practised diver, she sank down and down till she thought that she would never rise again. Yet she did rise, at the end of the pool in the mouth of the rapid, along which she sped swiftly, carried down by the rush of the water. Fortunately there were no rocks here; and, since she was a skilful swimmer, she escaped the danger of being thrown against the banks.

For a long distance she was borne thus till at length she saw that she was in a forest, for trees cut off the light from the water, and their drooping branches swept its surface. One of these Nanea caught with her hand, and by the help of it she dragged herself from the River of Death whence none had escaped before. Now she stood upon the bank gasping but quite unharmed; there was not a scratch on her body; even her white garment was still fast about her neck.

But though she had suffered no hurt in her terrible voyage, so exhausted was Nanea that she could scarcely stand. Here the gloom was that of night, and shivering with cold she looked helplessly to find some refuge. Close to the water's edge grew an enormous yellow-wood tree, and to this she staggered—thinking to climb it, and seek shelter in its boughs where, as she hoped, she would be safe from wild beasts. Again fortune befriended her, for at a distance of a few feet from the ground there was a great hole in the tree which, she discovered, was hollow. Into this hole she crept, taking her chance of its being the home of snakes or other evil creatures, to find that the interior was wide and warm. It was dry also, for at the bottom of the cavity lay a foot or more of rotten tinder and moss brought there by rats or birds. Upon this tinder she lay down, and covering herself with the moss and leaves soon sank into sleep or stupor.

How long Nanea slept she did not know, but at length she was awakened by a sound as of guttural human voices talking in a language that she could not understand. Rising to her knees she peered out of the hole in the tree. It was night, but the stars shone brilliantly, and their light fell upon an open circle of ground close by the edge of the river. In this circle there burned a great fire, and at a little distance from the fire were gathered eight or ten horrible-looking beings, who appeared to be rejoicing over something that lay upon the ground. They were small in stature, men and women together, but no children, and all of them were nearly naked. Their hair was long and thin, growing down almost to the eyes, their jaws and teeth protruded and the girth of their black bodies was out of all proportion to their height. In their hands they held sticks with sharp stones lashed on to them, or rude hatchet-like knives of the same material.

Now Nanea's heart shrank within her, and she nearly fainted with fear, for she knew that she was in the haunted forest, and without a doubt these were the Esemkofu, the evil ghosts that dwelt therein. Yes, that was what they were, and yet she could not take her eyes off them—the sight of them held her with a horrible fascination. But if they were ghosts, why did they sing and dance like men? Why did they wave those sharp stones aloft, and quarrel and strike each other? And why did they make a fire as men do when they wish to cook food? More, what was it that they rejoiced over, that long dark thing which lay so quiet upon the ground? It did not look like a head of game, and it could scarcely be a crocodile, yet clearly it was food of some sort, for they were sharpening the stone knives in order to cut it up.

While she wondered thus, one of the dreadful-looking little creatures advanced to the fire, and taking from it a burning bough, held it over the thing that lay upon the ground, to give light to a companion who was about to do something to it with the stone knife. Next instant Nanea drew back her head from the hole, a stifled shriek upon her lips. She saw what it was now—it was the body of a man. Yes, and these were no ghosts; they were cannibals of whom when she was little, her mother had told her tales to keep her from wandering away from home.

But who was the man they were about to eat? It could not be one of themselves, for his stature was much greater. Oh! now she knew; it must be Nahoon, who had been killed up yonder, and whose dead body the waters had brought down to the haunted forest as they had brought her alive. Yes, it must be Nahoon, and she would be forced to see her husband devoured before her eyes. The thought of it overwhelmed her. That he should die by order of the king was natural, but that he should be buried thus! Yet what could she do to prevent it? Well, if it cost her her life, it should be prevented. At the worst they could only kill and eat her also, and now that Nahoon and her father were gone, being untroubled by any religious or spiritual hopes and fears, she was not greatly concerned to keep her own breath in her.

Slipping through the hole in the tree, Nanea walked quietly towards the cannibals—not knowing in the least what she should do when she reached them. As she arrived in line with the fire this lack of programme came home to her mind forcibly, and she paused to reflect. Just then one of the cannibals looked up to see a tall and stately figure wrapped in a white garment which, as the flame-light flickered on it, seemed now to advance from the dense background of shadow, and now to recede into it. The poor savage wretch was holding a stone knife in his teeth when he beheld her, but it did not remain there long, for opening his great jaws he uttered the most terrified and piercing yell that Nanea had ever heard. Then the others saw her also, and presently the forest was ringing with shrieks of fear. For a few seconds the outcasts stood and gazed, then they were gone this way and that, bursting their path through the undergrowth like startled jackals. The Esemkofu of Zulu tradition had been routed in their own haunted home by what they took to be a spirit.

Poor Esemkofu! they were but miserable and starving bushmen who, driven into that place of ill omen many years ago, had adopted this means, the only one open to them, to keep the life in their wretched bodies. Here at least they were unmolested, and as there was little other food to be found amid that wilderness of trees, they took what the river brought them. When executions were few in the Pool of Doom, times were hard for them indeed—for then they were driven to eat each other. That is why there were no children.

As their inarticulate outcry died away in the distance, Nanea ran forward to look at the body that lay on the ground, and staggered back with a sigh of relief. It was not Nahoon, but she recognised the face for that of one of the party of executioners. How did he come here? Had Nahoon killed him? Had Nahoon escaped? She could not tell, and at the best it was improbable, but still the sight of this dead soldier lit her heart with a faint ray of hope, for how did he come to be dead if Nahoon had no hand in his death? She could not bear to leave him lying so near her hiding-place, however; therefore, with no small toil, she rolled the corpse back into the water, which carried it swiftly away. Then she returned to the tree, having first replenished the fire, and awaited the light.

At last it came—so much of it as ever penetrated this darksome den—and Nanea, becoming aware that she was hungry, descended from the tree to search for food. All day long she searched, finding nothing, till towards sunset she remembered that on the outskirts of the forest there was a flat rock where it was the custom of those who had been in any way afflicted, or who considered themselves or their belongings to be bewitched, to place propitiatory offerings of food wherewith the Esemkofu and Amalhosi were supposed to satisfy their spiritual cravings. Urged by the pinch of starvation, to this spot Nanea journeyed rapidly, and found to her joy that some neighbouring kraal had evidently been in recent trouble, for the Rock of Offering was laden with cobs of corn, gourds of milk, porridge and even meat. Helping herself to as much as she could carry, she returned to her lair, where she drank of the milk and cooked meat and mealies at the fire. Then she crept back into the tree, and slept.

For nearly two months Nanea lived thus in the forest, since she could not venture out of it—fearing lest she should be seized, and for a second time taste of the judgment of the king. In the forest at least she was safe, for none dared enter there, nor did the Esemkofu give her further trouble. Once or twice she saw them, but on each occasion they fled from her presence—seeking some distant retreat, where they hid themselves or perished. Nor did food fail her, for finding that it was taken, the pious givers brought it in plenty to the Rock of Offering.

But, oh! the life was dreadful, and the gloom and loneliness coupled with her sorrows at times drove her almost to insanity. Still she lived on, though often she desired to die, for if her father was dead, the corpse she had found was not the corpse of Nahoon, and in her heart there still shone that spark of home. Yet what she hoped for she could not tell.


When Philip Hadden reached civilised regions, he found that war was about to be declared between the Queen and Cetywayo, King of the Amazulu; also that in the prevailing excitement his little adventure with the Utrecht store-keeper had been overlooked or forgotten. He was the owner of two good buck-waggons with spans of salted oxen, and at that time vehicles were much in request to carry military stores for the columns which were to advance into Zululand; indeed the transport authorities were glad to pay £90 a month for the hire of each waggon and to guarantee the owners against all loss of cattle. Although he was not desirous of returning to Zululand, this bait proved too much for Hadden, who accordingly leased out his waggons to the Commissariat, together with his own services as conductor and interpreter.

He was attached to No. 3 column of the invading force, which it may be remembered was under the immediate command of Lord Chelmsford, and on the 20th of January, 1879, he marched with it by the road that runs from Rorke's Drift to the Indeni forest, and encamped that night beneath the shadow of the steep and desolate mountain known as Isandhlwana.

That day also a great army of King Cetywayo's, numbering twenty thousand men and more, moved down from the Upindo Hill and camped upon the stony plain that lies a mile and a half to the east of Isandhlwana. No fires were lit, and it lay there in utter silence, for the warriors were "sleeping on their spears."

With that impi was the Umcityu regiment, three thousand five hundred strong. At the first break of dawn the Induna in command of the Umcityu looked up from beneath the shelter of the black shield with which he had covered his body, and through the thick mist he saw a great man standing before him, clothed only in a moocha, a gaunt wild-eyed man who held a rough club in his hand. When he was spoken to, the man made no answer; he only leaned upon his club looking from left to right along the dense array of innumerable shields.

"Who is this Silwana (wild creature)?" asked the Induna of his captains wondering.

The captains stared at the wanderer, and one of them replied, "This is Nahoon-ka-Zomba, it is the son of Zomba who not long ago held rank in this regiment of the Umcityu. His betrothed, Nanea, daughter of Umgona, was killed together with her father by order of the Black One, and Nahoon went mad with grief at the sight of it, for the fire of Heaven entered his brain, and mad he has wandered ever since."

"What would you here, Nahoon-ka-Zomba?" asked the Induna.

Then Nahoon spoke slowly. "My regiment goes down to war against the white men; give me a shield and a spear, O Captain of the king, that I may fight with my regiment, for I seek a face in the battle."

So they gave him a shield and a spear, for they dared not turn away one whose brain was alight with the fire of Heaven.


When the sun was high that day, bullets began to fall among the ranks of the Umcityu. Then the black-shielded, black-plumed Umcityu arose, company by company, and after them arose the whole vast Zulu army, breast and horns together, and swept down in silence upon the doomed British camp, a moving sheen of spears. The bullets pattered on the shields, the shells tore long lines through their array, but they never halted or wavered. Forward on either side shot out the horns of armed men, clasping the camp in an embrace of steel. Then as these began to close, out burst the war cry of the Zulus, and with the roar of a torrent and the rush of a storm, with a sound like the humming of a billion bees, wave after wave the deep breast of the impi rolled down upon the white men. With it went the black-shielded Umcityu and with them went Nahoon, the son of Zomba. A bullet struck him in the side, glancing from his ribs, he did not heed; a white man fell from his horse before him, he did not stab, for he sought but one face in the battle.

He sought—and at last he found. There, among the waggons where the spears were busiest, there standing by his horse and firing rapidly was Black Heart, he who had given Nanea his betrothed to death. Three soldiers stood between them, one of them Nahoon stabbed, and two he brushed aside; then he rushed straight at Hadden.

But the white man saw him come, and even through the mask of his madness he knew Nahoon again, and terror took hold of him. Throwing away his empty rifle, for his ammunition was spent, he leaped upon his horse and drove his spurs into its flanks. Away it went among the carnage, springing over the dead and bursting through the lines of shields, and after it came Nahoon, running long and low with head stretched forward and trailing spear, running as a hound runs when the buck is at view.

Hadden's first plan was to head for Rorke's Drift, but a glance to the left showed him that the masses of the Undi barred that way, so he fled straight on, leaving his path to fortune. In five minutes he was over a ridge, and there was nothing of the battle to be seen, in ten all sounds of it had died away, for few guns were fired in the dread race to Fugitive's Drift, and the assegai makes no noise.


Illustration

So he fled straight on.


In some strange fashion, even at this moment, the contrast between the dreadful scene of blood and turmoil that he had left, and the peaceful face of Nature over which he was passing, came home to his brain vividly. Here birds sang and cattle grazed; here the sun shone undimmed by the smoke of cannon, only high up in the blue and silent air long streams of vultures could be seen winging their way to the Plain of Isandhlwana.

The ground was very rough, and Hadden's horse began to tire. He looked over his shoulder—there some two hundred yards behind came the Zulu, grim as Death, unswerving as Fate. He examined the pistol in his belt; there was but one undischarged cartridge left, all the rest had been fired and the pouch was empty. Well, one bullet should be enough for one savage: the question was should he stop and use it now? No, he might miss or fail to kill the man; he was on horseback and his foe on foot, surely he could tire him out.

A while passed, and they dashed through a little stream. It seemed familiar to Hadden. Yes, that was the pool where he used to bathe when he was the guest of Umgona, the father of Nanea; and there on the knoll to his right were the huts, or rather the remains of them, for they had been burnt with fire. What chance had brought him to this place, he wondered; then again he looked behind him at Nahoon, who seemed to read his thoughts, for he shook his spear and pointed to the ruined kraal.

On he went at speed for here the land was level, and to his joy he lost sight of his pursuer. But presently there came a mile of rocky ground, and when it was past, glancing back he saw that Nahoon was once more in his old place. His horse's strength was almost spent, but Hadden spurred it forward blindly, whither he knew not. Now he was travelling along a strip of turf and ahead of him he heard the music of a river, while to his left rose a high bank. Presently the turf bent inwards and there, not twenty yards away from him, was a Kaffir hut standing on the brink of a river. He looked at it, yes, it was the hut of that accursed inyanga, the Bee, and standing by the fence of it was none other than the Bee herself. At the sight of her the exhausted horse swerved violently, stumbled and came to the ground, where it lay panting. Hadden was thrown from the saddle but sprang to his feet unhurt.

"Ah! Black Heart, is it you? What news of the battle, Black Heart?" cried the Bee in a mocking voice.

"Help me, mother, I am pursued," he gasped.

"What of it, Black Heart, it is but by one tired man. Stand then and face him, for now Black Heart and White Heart are together again. You will not? Then away to the forest and seek shelter among the dead who await you there. Tell me, tell me, was it the face of Nanea that I saw beneath the waters a while ago? Good! bear my greetings to her when you two meet in the House of the Dead."

Hadden looked at the stream; it was in flood. He could not swim it, so followed by the evil laugh of the prophetess, he sped towards the forest. After him came Nahoon, his tongue hanging from his jaws like the tongue of a wolf.

Now he was in the shadow of the forest, but still he sped on following the course of the river, till at length his breath failed, and he halted on the further side of a little glade, beyond which a great tree grew. Nahoon was more than a spear's throw behind him; therefore he had time to draw his pistol and make ready.

"Halt, Nahoon," he cried, as once before he had cried; "I would speak with you."

The Zulu heard his voice, and obeyed.

"Listen," said Hadden. "We have run a long race and fought a long fight, you and I, and we are still alive both of us. Very soon, if you come on, one of us must be dead, and it will be you, Nahoon, for I am armed and as you know I can shoot straight. What do you say?"

Nahoon made no answer, but stood still at the edge of the glade, his wild and glowering eyes fixed on the white man's face and his breath coming in short gasps.

"Will you let me go, if I let you go?" Hadden asked once more. "I know why you hate me, but the past cannot be undone, nor can the dead be brought to earth again."

Still Nahoon made no answer, and his silence seemed more fateful and more crushing than any speech; no spoken accusation would have been so terrible in Hadden's ear. He made no answer, but lifting his assegai he stalked grimly toward his foe.

When he was within five paces Hadden covered him and fired. Nahoon sprang aside, but the bullet struck him somewhere, for his right arm dropped, and the stabbing spear that he held was jerked from it harmlessly over the white man's head. But still making no sound, the Zulu came on and gripped him by the throat with his left hand. For a space they struggled terribly, swaying to and fro, but Hadden was unhurt and fought with the fury of despair, while Nahoon had been twice wounded, and there remained to him but one sound arm wherewith to strike. Presently forced to earth by the white man's iron strength, the soldier was down, nor could he rise again.

"Now we will make an end," muttered Hadden savagely, and he turned to seek the assegai, then staggered slowly back with starting eyes and reeling gait. For there before him, still clad in her white robe, a spear in her hand, stood the spirit of Nanea!

"Think of it," he said to himself, dimly remembering the words of the inyanga, "when you stand face to face with the ghost of the dead in the Home of the Dead."

There was a cry and a flash of steel; the broad spear leapt towards him to bury itself in his breast. He swayed, he fell, and presently Black Heart clasped that great reward which the word of the Bee had promised Him.


"Nahoon! Nahoon!" murmured a soft voice, "awake, it is no ghost, but I—Nanea—I, your living wife, to whom my Ehlose [*] has given it me to save you."

[*Guardian Spirit.]

Nahoon heard and opened his eyes to look and his madness left him.

"Welcome, wife," he said faintly, "now I will live since Death has brought you back to me in the House of the Dead."


To-day Nahoon is one of the Indunas of the English Government in Zululand, and there are children about his kraal. It was from the lips of none other than Nanea his wife that the teller of this tale heard its substance.

The Bee also lives and practises as much magic as she dares under the white man's rule. On her black hand shines a golden ring shaped like a snake with ruby eyes, and of this trinket the Bee is very proud.


THE END


ELISSA

AUTHOR'S NOTE

THE world is full of ruins, but few of them have an origin so utterly lost in mystery as those of Zimbabwe in South Central Africa. Who built them? What purpose did they serve? These are questions that must have perplexed many generations, and many different races of men.

The researches of Mr. Wilmot prove to us indeed that in the Middle Ages Zimbabwe or Zimboe was the seat of a barbarous empire, whose ruler was named the Emperor of Monomotapa, also that for some years the Jesuits ministered in a Christian church built beneath the shadow of its ancient towers. But of the original purpose of those towers, and of the race that reared them, the inhabitants of mediaeval Monomotapa, it is probable, knew less even than we know to-day. The labours and skilled observation of the late Mr. Theodore Bent, whose death is so great a loss to all interested in such matters, have shown almost beyond question that Zimbabwe was once an inland Phoenician city, or at the least a city whose inhabitants were of a race which practised Phoenician customs and worshipped the Phoenician deities. Beyond this all is conjecture. How it happened that a trading town, protected by vast fortifications and adorned with temples dedicated to the worship of the gods of the Sidonians—or rather trading towns, for Zimbabwe is only one of a group of ruins—were built by civilised men in the heart of Africa perhaps we shall never learn with certainty, though the discovery of the burying-places of their inhabitants might throw some light upon the problem.

But if actual proof is lacking, it is scarcely to be doubted—for the numerous old workings in Rhodesia tell their own tale—that it was the presence of payable gold reefs worked by slave labour which tempted the Phoenician merchants and chapmen, contrary to their custom, to travel so far from the sea and establish themselves inland. Perhaps the city Zimboe was the Ophir spoken of in the first Book of Kings. At least, it is almost certain that its principal industries were the smelting and the sale of gold, also it seems probable that expeditions travelling by sea and land would have occupied quite three years of time in reaching it from Jerusalem and returning thither laden with the gold and precious stones, the ivory and the almug trees (1 Kings x.). Journeying in Africa must have been slow in those days; that it was also dangerous is testified by the ruins of the ancient forts built to protect the route between the gold towns and the sea.

However these things may be, there remains ample room for speculation both as to the dim beginnings of the ancient city and its still dimmer end, whereof we can guess only, when it became weakened by luxury and the mixture of races, that hordes of invading savages stamped it out of existence beneath their blood-stained feet, as, in after ages, they stamped out the Empire of Monomotapa. In the following romantic sketch the writer has ventured—no easy task—to suggest incidents such as might have accompanied this first extinction of the Phoenician Zimbabwe. The pursuit indeed is one in which he can only hope to fill the place of a humble pioneer, since it is certain that in times to come the dead fortress-temples of South Africa will occupy the pens of many generations of the writers of romance who, as he hopes, may have more ascertained facts to build upon than are available to-day.


CHAPTER 1
The Caravan

THE sun, which shone upon a day that was gathered to the past some three thousand years ago, was setting in full glory over the expanses of south-eastern Africa—the Libya of the ancients. Its last burning rays fell upon a cavalcade of weary men, who, together with long strings of camels, asses and oxen, after much toil had struggled to the crest of a line of stony hills, where they were halted to recover breath. Before them lay a plain, clothed with sere yellow grass—for the season was winter—and bounded by mountains of no great height, upon whose slopes stood the city which they had travelled far to seek. It was the ancient city of Zimboe, whereof the lonely ruins are known to us moderns as Zimbabwe.

At the sight of its flat-roofed houses of sun-dried brick, set upon the side of the opposing hill, and dominated by a huge circular building of dark stone, the caravan raised a great shout of joy. It shouted in several tongues, in the tongues of Phoenicia, of Egypt, of the Hebrews, of Arabia, and of the coasts of Africa, for all these peoples were represented amongst its numbers. Well might the wanderers cry out in their delight, seeing that at length, after eight months of perilous travelling from the coast, they beheld the walls of their city of rest, of the golden Ophir of the Bible. Their company had started from the eastern port, numbering fifteen hundred men, besides women and children, and of those not more than half were left alive. Once a savage tribe had ambushed them, killing many. Once the pestilential fever of the low lands had taken them so that they died of it by scores. Twice also had they suffered heavily through hunger and thirst, to say nothing of their losses by the fangs of lions, crocodiles, and other wild beasts which with the country swarmed. Now their toils were over; and for six months, or perhaps a year, they might rest and trade in the Great City, enjoying its wealth, its flesh-pots, and the unholy orgies which, among people of the Phoenician race, were dignified by the name of the worship of the gods of heaven.

Soon the clamour died away, and although no command was given, the caravan started on at speed. All weariness faded from the faces of the wayworn travellers, even the very camels and asses, shrunk, as most of them were, to mere skeletons, seemed to understand that labour and blows were done with, and forgetting their loads, shambled unurged down the stony path. One man lingered, however. Clearly he was a person of rank, for eight or ten attendants surrounded him.

"Go," said he, "I wish to be alone, and will follow presently." So they bowed to the earth, and went.

The man was young, perhaps six or eight and twenty years of age. His dark skin, burnt almost to blackness by the heat of the sun, together with the fashion of his short, square-cut beard and of his garments, proclaimed him of Jewish or Egyptian blood, while the gold collar about his neck and the gold graven ring upon his hand showed that his rank was high. Indeed this wanderer was none other than the prince Aziel, nick-named the Ever-living, because of a curious mole upon his shoulder bearing a resemblance to the crux ansata, the symbol of life eternal among the Egyptians. By blood he was a grandson of Solomon, the mighty king of Israel, and born of a royal mother, a princess of Egypt.

In stature Aziel was tall, but somewhat slimly made, having small bones. His face was oval in shape, the features, especially the mouth, being fine and sensitive; the eyes were large, dark, and full of thought—the eyes of a man with a destiny. For the most part, indeed, they were sombre and over-full of thought, but at times they could light up with a strange fire.

Aziel the prince placed his hand against his forehead in such fashion as to shade his face from the rays of the setting sun, and from beneath its shadow gazed long and earnestly at the city of the hill.

"At length I behold thee, thanks be to God," he murmured, for he was a worshipper of Jehovah, and not of his mother's deities, "and it is time, since, to speak the truth, I am weary of this travelling. Now what fortune shall I find within thy walls, O City of Gold and devil-servers?"

"Who can tell?" said a quiet voice at his elbow. "Perhaps, Prince, you will find a wife, or a throne, or—a grave."

Aziel started, and turned to see a man standing at his side, clothed in robes that had been rich, but were now torn and stained with travel, and wearing on his head a black cap in shape not unlike the fez that is common in the East to-day. The man was past middle age, having a grizzled beard, sharp, hard features and quick eyes, which withal were not unkindly. He was a Phoenician merchant, much trusted by Hiram, the King of Tyre, who had made him captain of the merchandise of this expedition.

"Ah! is it you, Metem?" said Aziel. "Why do you leave your charge to return to me?"

"That I may guard a more precious charge—yourself, Prince," replied the merchant courteously. "Having brought the child of Israel so far in safety, I desire to hand him safely to the governor of yonder city. Your servants told me that by your command they had left you alone, so I returned to bear you company, for after nightfall robbers and savages wander without these walls."

"I thank you for your care, Metem, though I think there is little danger, and at the worst I can defend myself."

"Do not thank me, Prince; I am a merchant, and now, as in the past, I protect you, knowing that for it I shall be paid. The governor will give me a rich reward when I lead you to him safely, and when in years to come I return with you still safe to the court of Jerusalem, then the great king will fill my ship's hold with gifts."

"That depends, Metem," replied the prince. "If my grandfather still reigns it may be so, but he is very old, and if my uncle wears his crown, then I am not sure. Truly you Phoenicians love money. Would you, then, sell me for gold also, Metem?"

"I said not so, Prince, though even friendship has its price—"

"Among your people, Metem?"

"Among all people, Prince. You reproach us with loving money; well, we do, since money gives everything for which men strive—honour, and place, and comfort, and the friendship of kings."

"It cannot give you love, Metem."

The Phoenician laughed contemptuously. "Love! with gold I will buy as much of it as I need. Are there no slaves upon the market, and no free women who desire ornaments and ease and the purple of Tyre? You are young, Prince, to say that gold cannot buy us love."

"And you, Metem, who are growing old, do not understand what I mean by love, nor will I stay to explain it to you, for were my words as wise as Solomon's, still you would not understand. At the least your money cannot bring you the blessing of Heaven, nor the welfare of your spirit in the eternal life that is to come."

"The welfare of my spirit, Prince? No, it cannot, since I do not believe that I have a spirit. When I die, I die, and there is an end. But the blessing of Heaven, ah! that can be bought, as I have proved once and again, if not with gold, then otherwise. Did I not in bygone years pass the first son of my manhood through the fire to Baal-Sidon? Nay, shrink not from me; it cost me dear, but my fortune was at stake, and better that the boy should die than that all of us should live on in penury and bonds. Know you not, Prince, that the gods must have the gifts of the best, gifts of blood and virtue, or they will curse us and torment us?"

"I do not know it, Metem, for such gods are no gods, but devils, children of Beelzebub, who has no power over the righteous. Truly I would have none of your two gods, Phoenician; upon earth the god of gold, and in heaven the devil of slaughter."

"Speak no ill of him, Prince," answered Metem solemnly, "for here you are not in the courts of Jehovah, but in his land, and he may chance to prove his power on you. For the rest, I had sooner follow after gold than the folly of a drunken spirit which you name Love, seeing that it works its votary less mischief. Say now, it was a woman and her love that drove you hither to this wild land, was it not, Prince? Well, be careful lest a woman and her love should keep you here."

"The sun sets," said Aziel coldly; "let us go forward."

With a bow and a murmured salute, for his quick courtier instinct told him that he had spoken too freely, Metem took the bridle of the prince's mule, holding the stirrup while he mounted. Then he turned to seek his own, but the animal had wandered, and a full half hour went by before it could be captured.

By now the sun had set, and as there is little or no twilight in Southern Africa it became difficult for the two travellers to find their way down the rough hill path. Still they stumbled on, till presently the long dead grass brushing against their knees told them that they had lost the road, although they knew that they were riding in the right direction, for the watch-fires burning on the city walls were a guide to them. Soon, however, they lost sight of these fires, the boughs of a grove of thickly-leaved trees hiding them from view, and in trying to push their way through the wood Metem's mule stumbled against a root and fell.

"Now there is but one thing to be done," said the Phoenician, as he dragged the animal from the ground, "and it is to stay here till the moon rises, which should be within an hour. It would have been wiser, Prince, if we had waited to discuss love and the gods till we were safe within the walls of the city, for the end of it is that we have fallen into the hands of king Darkness, and he is the father of many evil things."

"That is so, Metem," answered the prince, "and I am to blame. Let us bide here in patience, since we must."

So, holding their mules by the bridles, they sat down upon the ground and waited in silence, for each of them was lost in his own thoughts.


CHAPTER 2
The Grove Of Baaltis

AT length, as the two men sat thus silently, for the place and its gloom oppressed them, a sound broke upon the quiet of the night, that beginning with a low wail such as might come from the lips of a mourner, ended in a chant or song. The voice, which seemed close at hand, was low, rich and passionate. At times it sank almost to a sob, and at times, taking a higher note, it thrilled upon the air in tones that would have been shrill were they not so sweet.

"Who is it that sings?" said Aziel to Metem.

"Be silent, I pray you," whispered the other in his ear; "we have wandered into one of the sacred groves of Baaltis, which it is death for men to enter save at the appointed festivals, and a priestess of the grove chants her prayer to the goddess."

"We did not come of our own will, so doubtless we shall be forgiven," answered Aziel indifferently; "but that song moves me. Tell me the words of it, which I can scarcely follow, for her accent is strange to me."

"Prince, they seem to be holy words to which I have little right to hearken. The priestess sings an ancient hallowed chant of life and death, and she prays that the goddess may touch her soul with the wing of fire and make her great and give her vision of things that have been and that shall be. More I dare not tell you now; indeed I can barely hear, and the song is hard to understand. Crouch down, for the moon rises, and pray that the mules may not stir. Presently she will go, and we can fly the holy place."

The Israelite obeyed and waited, searching the darkness with eager eyes.

Now the edge of the great moon appeared upon the horizon, and by degrees her white rays of light revealed a strange scene to the watchers. About an open space of ground, some eighty paces in diameter, grew seven huge and ancient baobab trees, so ancient indeed that they must have been planted by the primaeval hand of nature rather than by that of man. Aziel and his companion were hidden with their mules behind the trunk of one of these trees, and looking round it they perceived that the open space beyond the shadow of the branches was not empty. In the centre of this space stood an altar, and by it was placed the rude figure of a divinity carved in wood and painted. On the head of this figure rose a crescent symbolical of the moon, and round its neck hung a chain of wooden stars. It had four wings but no hands, and of these wings two were out-spread and two clasped a shapeless object to its breast, intended, apparently, to represent a child. By these symbols Aziel knew that before him was an effigy sacred to the goddess of the Phoenicians, who in different countries passed by the various names of Astarte, or Ashtoreth, or Baaltis, and who in their coarse worship was at once the personification of the moon and the emblem of fertility.

Standing before this rude fetish, between it and the altar, whereon lay some flowers, and in such fashion that the moonlight struck full upon her, was a white-robed woman. She was young and very beautiful both in shape and feature, and though her black hair streaming almost to the knees took from her height, she still seemed tall. Her rounded arms were outstretched; her sweet and passionate face was upturned towards the sky, and even at that distance the watchers could see her deep eyes shining in the moonlight. The sacred song of the priestess was finished. Now she was praying aloud, slowly, and in a clear voice, so that Aziel could hear and understand her; praying from her very heart, not to the idol before her, however, but to the moon above.

"O Queen of Heaven," she said, "thou whose throne I see but whose face I cannot see, hear the prayer of thy priestess, and protect me from the fate I fear, and rid me of him I hate. Safe let me dwell and pure, and as thou fillest the night with light, so fill the darkness of my soul with the wisdom that I crave. O whisper into my ears and let me hear the voice of heaven, teaching me that which I would know. Read me the riddle of my life, and let me learn wherefore I am not as my sisters are; why feasts and offerings delight me not; why I thirst for knowledge and not for wealth, and why I crave such love as here I cannot win. Satisfy my being with thy immortal lore and a love that does not fail or die, and if thou wilt, then take my life in payment. Speak to me from the heaven above, O Baaltis, or show me some sign upon the earth beneath; fill up the vessel of my thirsty soul and satisfy the hunger of my spirit. Oh! thou that art the goddess, thou that hast the gift of power, give me, thy servant, of thy power, of thy godhead, and of thy peace. Hear me, O Heaven-born, hear me, Elissa, the daughter of Sakon, the dedicate of thee. Hear, hear, and answer now in the secret holy hour, answer by voice, by wonder, or by symbol."

The woman paused as though exhausted with the passion of her prayer, hiding her face in her hands, and as she stood thus silent and expectant, the sign came, or at least that chanced which for a while she believed to have been an answer to her invocation. Her face was hidden, so she could not see, and fascinated by her beauty as it appeared to them in that unhallowed spot, and by the depth and dignity of her wild prayer, the two watchers had eyes for her alone. Therefore it happened that not until his arm was about to drag her away, did either of them perceive a huge man, black as ebony in colour, clad in a cloak of leopard skins and carrying in his right hand a broad-bladed spear who, following the shadow of the trees, had crept upon the priestess from the farther side of the glade.

With a guttural exclamation of triumph he gripped her in his left arm, and, despite her struggles and her shrill cry for help, began half to drag and half to carry her towards the deep shade of the baobab grove. Instantly Aziel and Metem sprang up and rushed forward, drawing their bronze swords as they ran. As it chanced, however, the Israelite caught his foot in one of the numerous tree-roots, which stood above the surface of the ground and fell heavily upon his face. In a few seconds, twenty perhaps, he found his breath and feet again, to see that Metem had come up with the black giant who, hearing his approach, suddenly wheeled round to meet him, still holding the struggling priestess in his grasp. Now the Phoenician was so close upon him that the savage could find no time to shift the grip upon his spear, but drove at him with the knobbed end of its handle, striking him full upon the forehead and felling him as a butcher fells an ox. Then once more he turned to fly with his captive, but before he had covered ten yards the sound of Aziel's approaching footsteps caused him to wheel round again.

At sight of the Israelite advancing upon him with drawn sword, the great barbarian freed himself from the burden of the girl by throwing her heavily to the ground, where she lay, for the breath was shaken out of her. Then snatching the cloak from his throat he wound it over his left arm to serve as a shield, and with a savage yell, rushed straight at Aziel, purposing to transfix him with the broad-headed spear.

Well was it for the prince that he had been trained in sword-play from his youth, also, notwithstanding his slight build, that he was strong and active as a leopard. To await the onslaught would be to die, for the spear must pierce him before ever he could reach the attacker's body with his short sword. Therefore, as the weapon flashed upward he sprang aside, avoiding it, at the same time, with one swift sweep of his sword, slashing its holder across the back as he passed him.

With a howl of pain and rage the savage sprang round and charged him a second time. Again Aziel leapt to one side, but now he struck with all his force at the spear shaft which his assailant lifted to guard his head. So strong was the blow and so sharp the heavy sword, that it shore through the wood, severing the handle from the spear, which fell to the ground. Casting away the useless shaft, the warrior drew a long knife from his girdle, and before Aziel could strike again faced him for the third time. But he no longer rushed onward like a bull, for he had learnt caution; he stood still, holding the skin cloak before him shield fashion, and peering at his adversary from over its edge.

Now it was Aziel's turn to take the offensive, and slowly he circled round the huge barbarian, watching his opportunity. At length it came. In answer to a feint of his the protecting cloak was dropped a little, enabling him to prick its bearer in the neck, but only with the point of his sword. The thrust delivered, he leapt back, and not too soon, for forgetting his caution in his fury, the savage charged straight at him with a roar like that of a lion. So swift and terrible was his onset that Aziel, having no time to spring aside, did the only thing possible. Gripping the ground with his feet, he bent his body forward, and with outstretched arm and sword, braced up his muscles to receive the charge. Another instant, and the leopard skin cloak fluttered before him. With a quick movement of his left arm he swept it aside; then there came a sudden pressure upon his sword ending in a jarring shock, a flash of steel above his head, and down he went to the ground beneath the weight of the black giant.

"Now there is an end," he thought; "Heaven receive my spirit." And his senses left him.

When they returned again, Aziel perceived dimly that a white-draped figure bent over him, dragging at something black which crushed his breast, who, as she dragged, sobbed in her grief and fear. Then he remembered, and with an effort sat up, rolling from him the corpse of his foe, for his sword had pierced the barbarian through breast and heart and back. At this sight the woman ceased her sobbing, and said in the Phoenician tongue:—

"Sir, do you indeed live? Then the protecting gods be thanked, and to Baaltis the Mother I vow a gift of this hair of mine in gratitude."

"Nay, lady," he answered faintly, for he was much shaken, "that would be a pity; also, if any, it is my hair which should be vowed."

"You bleed from the head," she broke in; "say, stranger, are you deeply wounded."

"I will tell you nothing of my head," he replied, with a smile, "unless you promise that you will not offer up your hair."

"So be it, stranger, since I must; I will give the goddess this gold chain instead; it is of more worth."

"You would do better, lady," said the shrill voice of Metem again, who by now had found his wits again, "to give the gold chain to me whose scalp has been broken in rescuing you from that black thief."

"Sir," she answered, "I am grateful to you from my heart, but it is this young lord who killed the man and saved me from slavery worse than death, and he shall be rewarded by my father."

"Listen to her," grumbled Metem. "Did I not rush in first in my folly and receive what I deserved for my pains? But am I to have neither thanks nor pay, who am but an old merchant; they are for the young prince who came after. Well, so it ever was; the thanks I can spare, and the reward I shall claim from the treasury of the goddess.

"Now, Prince, let me see your hurt. Ah! a cut on the ear, no more, and thank your natal star that it is so, for another inch and the great vein of the neck would have been severed. Prince, if you are able, draw out your sword from the carcase of that brute, for I have tried and cannot loosen the blade. Then perhaps this lady will guide us to the city before his fellows come to seek him, seeing that for one night I have had a stomach full of fighting."

"Sirs, I will indeed. It is close at hand, and my father will thank you there; but if it is your pleasure, tell me by what names I shall make known to him you whose rank seems to be so high?"

"Lady, I am Metem the Phoenician, captain of the merchandise of the caravan of Hiram, King of Tyre, and this lord who slew the thief is none other than the prince Aziel, the twice royal, for he is grandson to the glorious King of Israel, and through his mother of the blood of the Pharaohs of Egypt."

"And yet he risked his life to save me," the girl murmured astonished; then dropping to her knees before Aziel, she touched the ground with her forehead in obeisance, giving him thanks, and praising him after the fashion of the East.

"Rise, lady," he broke in, "because I chance to be a prince I have not ceased to be a man, and no man could have seen you in such a plight without striking a blow on your behalf."

"No," added Metem, "none; that is, as you happen to be noble and young and lovely. Had you been old and ugly and humble, then the black man might have carried you from here to Tyre ere I risked my neck to stop him, or for the matter of that, although he will deny it, the prince either."

"Men do not often show their hearts so clearly," she answered with sarcasm. "But now, lords, I will guide you to the city before more harm befalls us, for this dead man may have companions."

"Our mules are here, lady; will you not ride mine?" asked Aziel.

"I thank you, Prince, but my feet will carry me."

"And so will mine," said Aziel, ceasing from a prolonged and fruitless effort to loosen his sword from the breast-bone of the savage, "on such paths they are safer than any beasts. Friend, will you lead my mule with yours?"

"Ay, Prince," grumbled Metem, "for so the world goes with the old; you take the fair lady for company and I a she-ass. Well, of the two give me the ass which is more safe and does not chatter."

Then they started, Aziel leaving his short sword in the keeping of the dead man.

"How are you named, lady?" he said presently, adding "or rather I need not ask; you are Elissa, the daughter of Sakon, Governor of Zimboe, are you not?"

"I am so called, though how you know it I cannot guess."

"I heard you name yourself, lady, in the prayer you made before the altar."

"You heard my prayer, Prince?" she said starting. "Do you not know that it is death to that man who hearkens to the prayer of a priestess of Baaltis, uttered in her holy grove? Still, none know it save the goddess, who sees all, therefore I beseech you for your own sake and the sake of your companion, say nothing of it in the city, lest it should come to the ears of the priests of El."

"Certainly it would have been death to you had I not chanced to hear it, having lost my way in the darkness," answered the prince laughing. "Well, since I did hear it I will add that it was a beautiful prayer, revealing a heart high and pure, though I grieve that it should have been offered to one whom I hold to be a demon."

"I am honoured," she answered coldly; "but, Prince, you forget that though you, being a Hebrew, worship Him they call Jehovah, or so I have been told, I, being of the blood of the Sidonians, worship the lady Baaltis, the Queen of Heaven the holy one of whom I am a priestess."

"So it is, alas!" he said, with a sigh, adding:—

"Well, let us not dispute of these matters, though, if you wish, the prophet Issachar, the Levite who accompanies me, can explain the truth of them to you."

Elissa made no reply, and for a while they walked on in silence.

"Who was that black robber whom I slew?" Aziel asked presently.

"I am not sure, Prince," she answered, hesitating, "but savages such as he haunt the outskirts of the city seeking to steal white women to be their wives. Doubtless he watched my steps, following me into the holy place."

"Why, then, did you venture there alone, lady?"

"Because, to be heard, such prayers as mine must be offered in solitude in the consecrated grove, and at the hour of the rising of the moon. Moreover, cannot Baaltis protect her priestess, Priest, and did she not protect her?"

"I thought, lady, that I had something to do with the matter," he answered.

"Ay, Prince, it was your hand that struck the blow which killed the thief, but Baaltis, and no other, led you to the place to rescue me."

"I understand, lady. To save you, Baaltis, laying aside her own power, led a mortal man to the grove, which it is death that mortal man should violate."

"Who can fathom the way of the gods?" she replied with passion, then added, as though reasoning with a new-born doubt, "Did not the goddess hear my prayer and answer it?"

"In truth, lady, I cannot say. Let me think. If I understood you rightly, you prayed for heavenly wisdom, but whether or not you have gained it within this last hour, I do not know. And then you prayed for love, an immortal love. O, maiden, has it come to you since yonder moon appeared upon the sky? And you prayed—"

"Peace!" she broke in, "peace and mock me not, or, prince that you are, I will publish your crime of spying upon the prayer of a priestess of Baaltis. I tell you that I prayed for a symbol and a sign, and the prayer was answered.

"Did not the black giant spring upon me to bear me away to be his slave—his, or another's? And is he not a symbol of the evil and the ignorance which are on the earth and that seek to drag down the beauty and the wisdom of the earth to their own level? Then the Phoenician ran to rescue me and was defeated, since the spirit of Mammon cannot overcome the black powers of ill. Next you came and fought hard and long, till in the end you slew the mighty foe, you a Prince born of the royal blood of the world—" and she ceased.

"You have a pretty gift of parable, lady, as it should be with one who interprets the oracles of a goddess. But you have not told me of what I, your servant, am the symbol."

She stopped in her walk and looked him full in the face.

"I never heard," she said, "that either the Jews or the Egyptians, being instructed, were blind to the reading of an allegory. But, Prince, if you cannot read this one it is not for me, who am but a woman, to set it out to you."

Just then their glances met, and in the clear moonlight Aziel saw a wave of doubt sweep over his companion's dark and beautiful eyes, and a faint flush appear upon her brow. He saw, and something stirred at his heart that till this hour he had never felt, something which even now he knew it would trouble him greatly to escape.

"Tell me, lady," he asked, his voice sinking almost to a whisper, "in this fable of yours am I even for an hour deemed worthy to play the part of that immortal love embodied which you sought so earnestly a while ago?"

"Immortal love, Prince," she answered, in a new voice, a voice low and deep, "is not for one hour, but for all hours that are and are to be. You, and you alone, can know if you would dare to play such a part as this—even in a fable."

"Perchance, lady, there lives a woman for whom it might be dared."

"Prince, no such woman lives, since immortal love must deal, not with the flesh, but with the spirit. If a spirit worthy to be thus loved and worshipped now wanders in earthly shape upon the world, seeking its counterpart and its completion, I cannot tell. Yet were it so, and should they chance to meet, it might be happy for such brave spirits, for then the answer to the great riddle would be theirs."

Wondering what this riddle might be, Aziel bent towards her to reply, when suddenly round a bend in the path but a few paces from them came a body of soldiers and attendants, headed by a man clad in a white robe and walking with a staff. This man was grey-headed and keen-eyed, thin in face and ascetic in appearance, with a brow of power and a bearing of dignity. At the sight of the pair he halted, looking at them in question, and with disapproval.

"Our search is ended," he said in Hebrew, "for here is he whom we seek, and alone with him a heathen woman, robed like a priestess of the Groves."

"Whom do you seek, Issachar?" asked Aziel hurriedly, for the sudden appearance of the Levite disturbed him.

"Yourself, Prince. Surely you can guess that your absence has been noted. We feared lest harm should have come to you, or that you had lost your path, but it seems that you have found a guide," and he stared at his companion sternly.

"That guide, Issachar," answered Aziel, "being none other than the lady Elissa, daughter of Sakon, governor of this city, and our host, whom it has been my good fortune to rescue from a woman-stealer yonder in the grove of the goddess Baaltis."

"And whom it was my bad fortune to try to rescue in the said grove, as my broken head bears witness," added Metem, who by now had come up, dragging the two mules after him.

"In the grove of the goddess Baaltis!" broke in the Levite with a kindling eye, and striking the ground with his staff to emphasise his words. "You, a Prince of Israel, alone in the high place of abomination with the priestess of a fiend? Fie upon you, fie upon you! Would you also walk in the sin of your forefathers, Aziel, and so soon?"

"Peace!" said Aziel in a voice of command; "I was not in the grove alone or by my own will, and this is no time or place for insults and wrangling."

"Between me and those who seek after false gods, or the women who worship them, there is no peace," replied the old priest fiercely.

Then, followed by all the company, he turned and strode towards the gates of the city.


CHAPTER 3
Ithobal The King

TWO hours had gone by, and the prince Aziel, together with his retinue, the officers of the caravan, and many other guests, were seated at a great feast made in their honour, by Sakon, the governor of the city. This feast was held in the large pillared hall of Sakon's house, built beneath the northern wall of the temple fortress, and not more than a few paces from its narrow entrance, through which in case of alarm the inhabitants of the palace could fly for safety. All down this chamber were placed tables, accommodating more than two hundred feasters, but the principal guests were seated by themselves upon a raised daïs at the head of the hall. Among them sat Sakon himself, a middle-aged man stout in build, and thoughtful of face, his daughter Elissa, some other noble ladies, and a score or more of the notables of the city and its surrounding territories.

One of these strangers immediately attracted the attention of Aziel, who was seated in the place of honour at the right of Sakon, between him and the lady Elissa. This man was of large stature, and about forty years of age; the magnificence of his apparel and the great gold chain set with rough diamonds which hung about his neck showing him to be a person of importance. His tawny complexion marked him of mixed race. This conclusion his features did not belie, for the brow, nose, and cheek-bones were Semitic in outline, while the full, prominent eyes, and thick, sensuous lips could with equal certainty be attributed to the Negroid stock. In fact, he was the son of a native African queen, or chieftainess, and a noble Phoenician, and his rank no less than that of absolute king and hereditary chief of a vast and undefined territory which lay around the trading cities of the white men, whereof Zimboe was the head and largest. Aziel noticed that this king, who was named Ithobal, seemed angry and ill at ease, whether because he was not satisfied with the place which had been allotted to him at the table, or for other reasons, he could not at the time determine.

When the meats had been removed, and the goblets were filled with wine, men began to talk, till presently Sakon called for silence, and rising, addressed Aziel:—

"Prince," he said, "in the name of this great and free city—for free it is, though we acknowledge the king of Tyre as our suzerain—I give you welcome within our gates. Here, far in the heart of Libya, we have heard of the glorious and wise king, your grandfather, and of the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt, whose blood runs also within your veins. Prince, we are honoured in your coming, and for the asking, whatever this land of gold can boast is yours. Long may you live; may the favour of those gods you worship attend you, and in the pursuit of wisdom, of wealth, of war, and of love, may the good grain of all be garnered in your bosom, and the wind of prosperity winnow out the chaff of them to fall beneath your feet. Prince, I have greeted you as it behoves me to greet the blood of Solomon and Pharaoh; now I add a word. Now I greet you as a father greets the man who has saved his only and beloved daughter from death, or shameful bondage. Know you, friends, what this stranger did since to-night's moonrise? My daughter was at worship alone yonder without the walls, and a great savage set on her, purposing to bear her away captive. Ay, and he would have done it had not the prince Aziel here given him battle, and, after a fierce fight, slain him."

"No great deed to kill a single savage," broke in the king Ithobal, who had been listening with impatience to Sakon's praises of this high-born stranger.

"No great deed you say, King," answered Sakon. "Guards, being in the body of the man and set it before us."

There was a pause, till presently six men staggered up the hall bearing between them the corpse of the barbarian, which, still covered with the leopard skin mantle, they threw down on the edge of the daïs.

"See!" said one of the bearers, withdrawing the cloak from the huge body. Then pointing to the sword which still transfixed it, he added, "and learn what strength heaven gives to the arms of princes."

Such as the guests as were near enough rose to look at the grizzly sight, then turned to offer their congratulations to the conqueror. but there was one of them—the king Ithobal—who offered none; indeed, as his eyes fell upon the face of the corpse, they grew alight with rage.

"What ails you, King? Are you jealous of such a blow?" asked Sakon, watching him curiously.

"Speak no more of that thrust, I pray you," said Aziel, "for it was due to the weight of the man rushing on the sword, which after he was dead I could not find the power to loosen from his breast-bone."

"Then I will do you that service, Prince," sneered Ithobal, and, setting his foot upon the breast of the corpse, with a sudden effort of his great frame, he plucked out the sword and cast it down upon the table.

"Now, one might think," said Aziel, flushing with anger, "that you, King, who do a courtesy to a man of smaller strength, mean a challenge. Doubtless, however, I am mistaken, who do not understand the manners of this country."

"Think what you will, Prince," answered the chieftain, "but learn that he who lies dead before us by your hand—as you say—was no slave to be killed at pleasure, but a man of rank, none other, indeed, than the son of my mother's sister."

"Is it so?" replied Aziel, "then surely, King, you are well rid of a cousin, however highly born, who made it his business to ravish maidens from their homes."

By way of answer to these words Ithobal sprang from his seat again, laying hand upon his sword. But before he could speak or draw it, the governor Sakon addressed him in a cold and meaning voice:—

"Of your courtesy, King," he said, "remember that the prince here is my guest, as you are, and give us peace. If that dead man was your cousin, at least he well deserved to die, not at the hand of one of royal blood, but by that of the executioner, for he was the worst of thieves—a thief of women. Now tell me, King, I pray you, how came your cousin here, so far from home, since he was not numbered in your retinue?"

"I do not know, Sakon," answered Ithobal, "and if I knew I would not say. You tell me that my dead kinsman was a thief of women, which, in Phoenician eyes, must be a crime indeed. So be it; but thief or no thief, I say that there is a blood feud between me and the man who slew him, and were he great Solomon himself, instead of one of fifty princelets of his line, he should pay bitterly for the dead. To-morrow, Sakon, I will meet you before I leave for my own land, for I have words to speak to you. Till then, farewell!"—and rising, he strode down the hall, followed by his officers and guard.


The sudden departure of king Ithobal in anger was the signal for the breaking up of the feast.

"Why is that half-bred chief so wrath with me?" asked Aziel in a low voice of Elissa as they followed Sakon to another chamber.

"Because—if you would know the truth—he set his dead cousin to kidnap me, and you thwarted him," she answered, looking straight before her.

Aziel made no reply, for at that moment Sakon turned to speak with him, and his face was anxious.

"I crave your pardon, Prince," he said, drawing him aside, "that you should have met with such insults at my board. Had it been any other man who spoke thus to you, by now he had rued his words, but this Ithobal is the terror of our city, for if he chooses he can bring a hundred thousand savages upon us, shutting us within our walls to starve, and cutting us off from the working of the mines whence we win gold. Therefore, in this way or that, he must be humoured, as indeed we have humoured him and his father for years, though now," he added, his brow darkening, "he demands a price that I am loth to pay," and he glanced towards his daughter, who stood watching them at a little distance, looking most beautiful in her white robes and ornaments of gold.

"Can you not make war upon him, and break his power?" asked Aziel, with a strange anxiety, guessing that this price demanded by Ithobal was none other than Elissa, the woman whom he had rescued, and whose wisdom and beauty had stirred his heart.

"It might be done, Prince, but the risk would be great, and we are here to work the mines and grow rich in trade—not to make war. The policy of Zimboe has always been a policy of peace."

"I have a better and cheaper plan," said a calm voice at his elbow—that of Metem. "It is this: Slip a bow-string over the brute's head as he lies snoring, and pull it tight. An eagle in a cage is easy to deal with, but once on the wing the matter is different."

"There is wisdom in your counsel," said Sakon, in a hesitating voice.

"Wisdom!" broke in Aziel; "ay, the wisdom of the assassin. What, noble Sakon, would you murder a sleeping guest?"

"No, Prince, I would not," he answered hastily; "also, such a deed would bring the Tribes upon us."

"Then, Sakon, you are more foolish than you used to be," said Metem laughing. "A man who will not despatch a foe, whenever he can catch him, by means fair or foul, is not the man to govern a rich city set in the heart of a barbarous land, and so I shall tell Hiram, our king, if ever I live to see Tyre again. As for you, most high Prince, forgive the humblest of your servants if he tells you that the tenderness of your heart and the nobility of your sentiments will, I think, bring you to an early and evil end;" and, glancing towards Elissa as though to put a point upon his words, Metem smiled sarcastically and withdrew.

At this moment a messenger, whose long white hair, wild eyes and red robe announced him to be a priest of El, by which name the people of Zimboe worshipped Baal, entered the room, and whispered something into the ear of Sakon which seemed to disturb him much.

"Pardon me, Prince, and you, my guests, if I leave you," said the governor, "but I have evil tidings that call me to the temple. The lady Baaltis is seized with the black fever, and I must visit her. For an hour, farewell."

This news caused consternation among the company, and in the general confusion that followed its announcement Aziel joined Elissa, who had passed on to the balcony of the house, and was seated there alone, looking out over the moonlit city and the plains beyond. At his approach she rose in token of respect, then sat herself down again, motioning him to do likewise.

"Give me of your wisdom, lady," he said. "I thought that Baaltis was the goddess whom I heard you worshipping yonder in the grove; how, then, can she be stricken with a fever?"

"She is the goddess," Elissa answered smiling; "but the lady Baaltis is a woman whom we revere as the incarnation of that goddess upon earth, and being but a woman in her hour she must die."

"Then, what becomes of the incarnation of the goddess?"

"Another is chosen by the college of the priests of El, and the company of the priestesses of Baaltis. If that lady Baaltis who is dead chances to leave a daughter, it is usual for the lot to fall upon her; if not, upon such one of the noble maidens as may be chosen."

"Does the lady Baaltis marry, then?"

"Yes, Prince, within a year of her consecration, she must choose herself a husband, and he may be whom she will, provided only that he is of white blood, and does public sacrifice to El and Baaltis. Then after she has named him, this husband takes the title of Shadid, and for so long as his wife shall live he is the high priest of the god El, and clothed with the majesty of the god, as his wife is clothed with the majesty of Baaltis. But should she die, another wins his place."

"It is a strange faith," said Aziel, "which teaches that the Lord of Heaven can find a home in mortal breasts. But, lady, it is yours, so of it I say no more. Now tell me, if you will, what did you mean when you said that this barbarian king, Ithobal, set the savage whom I slew to kidnap you? Do you know this, or do you suspect it only?"

"I suspected it from the first, Prince, and for good reasons; moreover, I read it in the king's face as he looked upon the corpse, and when he perceived me among the feasters."

"And why should he wish to carry you away this brutally, lady, when he is at peace with the great city?"

"Perchance, Prince, after what passed to-night you can guess," she answered lowering her eyes.

"Yes, lady, I can guess, and though it is shameful that such an one should dare to think of you, still, since he is a man, I cannot blame him overmuch. But why should he press his suit in this rough and secret fashion instead of openly as a king might do?"

"He may have pressed it openly and been repulsed," she replied in a low voice. "But if he could have carried me to some far fortress, how should I flout him there, that is, if I still lived? There, with no price to pay in gold or lands or power, he would have been my master, and I should have been his slave till such time as he wearied of me. That is the fate from which you have saved me, Prince, or rather from death, for I am not one who could bear such shame at the hands of a man I hate."

"Lady," he said bowing, "I think that perhaps for the first time in my life I am glad to-night that I was born."

"And I," she answered, "who am but a Phoenician maiden, am glad that I should have lived to hear one who is as royal in thought and soul as he is in rank speak thus to me. Oh! Prince," she added, clasping her hands, "if your words are not those of empty courtesy alone, hear me, for you are great, a Lord of the Earth whom none refuse, and it may be in your power to give me aid. Prince, I am in a sore strait, for that danger from which I prayed to be delivered this night presses me hard. Prince, it is true that Ithobal has been refused my hand, both by myself and by my father, and therefore it was that he strove to steal me away. But the evil is not done with, for the great nobles of the city and the chief priests of El came to my father at sunset and prayed him that he would let Ithobal take me, seeing that otherwise in his rage he will make war upon Zimboe. When a man placed as is my father must choose between the safety of thousands and the honour and happiness of one poor girl, what will his answer be, think you?"

"Now," said Aziel, "save that no wrong can right a wrong, I almost grieve that I cried shame upon the counsel of Metem. Sweet lady, be sure of this, that I will give all I have, even to my life, to protect you from the vile fate you dread—yes, all I have—except my soul."

"Ah!" she cried with a sudden flash of her dark eyes, "all except your soul. If we women could find the man who would risk both life and soul for us, then, were he but a slave, we would worship him as never man was worshipped since Baaltis mounted her heavenly throne."

"Were I not a Hebrew you would tempt me, lady," Aziel answered smiling, "but being one I may not risk my soul even were such a prize within my reach."

"Nay, Prince," she broke in, "I did but jest; forget my words, for they were wrung from a heart torn with fears. Oh! did you know the terror of this half-savage Ithobal which oppresses me, you would forgive me all—a terror that to-night lies upon me with a tenfold weight."

"Why so, lady?"

"Doubtless because it is nearer," Elissa whispered, but her beautiful pleading eyes and quivering lips seemed to belie her words and say, "because you are near, and a change has come upon me."

For the second time that day Aziel's glance met hers, and for the second time a strange new pang that was more pain than joy, and yet half-divine, snatched at his heart-strings, for a while numbing his reason and taking from him the power of speech.

"What was it?" he wondered vaguely. He had seen many lovely faces, and many noble women had shown him favour, but why had none of them stirred him thus? Could it be that this stranger Gentile maiden was his soul-mate—she whom he was destined to love above all upon the earth, nay, whom he did already love, and so soon?

"Lady," he said, taking a step towards her, "lady—" and he paused.

Elissa bowed her dark head till her gold-bedecked and scented hair almost fell upon his feet, but she made no answer.

Then another voice broke upon the silence, a clear, strident voice that said:—

"Prince, forgive me, if for the second time to-day I disturb you; but the guests have gone; your chamber is made ready, and, not knowing the customs of the women of this country, I sought you, little guessing that, at such an hour, I should find you alone with one of them."

Aziel looked up, although there was no need for him to do so, for he knew that voice well, to see the tall form of the Levite Issachar standing before them, a cold light of anger shining in his eyes.

Elissa saw also, and, with some murmured words of farewell, she turned and went, leaving them together.


CHAPTER 4
The Dream Of Issachar

FOR a moment there was silence, which Aziel broke, saying:—

"It seems to me, Issachar, that you are somewhat over zealous for my welfare."

"I think otherwise, Prince," replied the Levite sternly. "Did not your grandsire give you into my keeping, and shall I not be faithful to my trust, and to a higher duty than any which he could lay upon me?"

"Your meaning, Issachar?"

"It is plain, Prince; but I will set it out. The great king said to me yonder in the hall of his golden palace at Jerusalem, 'To others, men of war, I have given charge of the body of my grandson to keep him safe. To you, Issachar the Levite, who have fostered him, I give charge over his soul to keep it safe—a higher task, and more difficult. Guard him, Issachar, from the temptation of strange doctrines and the whisperings of strange gods, but guard him most of all from the wiles of strange women who bow the knee to Baal, for such are the gate of Gehenna upon earth, and those who enter by it shall find their place in Tophet.'"

"Truly my grandsire speaks wisely on this matter as on all others," answered Aziel, "but still I do not understand."

"Then I will be more clear, Prince. How comes it that I find you alone with this beautiful sorceress, this worshipper of the she-devil, Baaltis, with whom you should scorn even to speak, except such words as courtesy demands?"

"Is it then forbidden to me," asked Aziel angrily, "to talk with the daughter of my host, a lady whom I chanced to save from death, of the customs of her country and the mysteries of worship?"

"The mysteries of worship!" answered Issachar scornfully. "Ay! the mysteries of the worship of that fair body of hers, that ivory chalice filled with foulness—whereof, if a man drink, his faith shall be rotted and his soul poisoned. The mysteries of that worship was it, Prince, that caused you but now to lean towards this woman as though to embrace her, with words of love burning in your heart if not between your lips? Ah! these witches of Baaltis know their trade well; they are full of evil gifts, and of the wisdom given to them by the fiend they serve. With touch and sigh and look they can stir the blood of youth, having much practice in the art, till it seethes within the veins and drowns conscience in its flood.

"Nay, Prince, hear the truth," continued Issachar. "Till moonrise you had never seen this woman, and now your quick blood is aflame, and you love her. Deny it if you can—deny it on your honour and I will believe you, for you are no liar."

Aziel thought for a moment and answered:—

"Issachar, you have no right to question me on this matter, yet since you have adjured me by my honour, I will be open with you. I do not know if I love this woman, who, as you say, is a stranger to me, but it is true that my heart turns towards her like flowers to the sun. Till to-day I had never seen her, yet when my eyes first fell upon her face yonder in that accursed grove, it seemed to me that I had been born only that I might find her. It seemed to me even that for ages I had known her, that for ever she was mine and that I was hers. Read me the riddle, Issachar? Is this but passion born of youth and the sudden sight of a fair woman? That cannot be, for I have known others as fair, and have passed through some such fires. Tell me, Issachar, you who are old and wise and have seen much of the hearts of men, what is this wave that overwhelms me?"

"What is it, Prince? It is witchery; it is the wile of Beelzebub waiting to snatch your soul, and if you hearken to it you shall pass through the fire—through the fire to Moloch, if not in the flesh, then in the spirit, which is to all eternity. Oh! not in vain do I fear for you, my son, and not without reason was I warned in a dream. Listen: Last night, as I lay in my tent yonder upon the plain, I dreamed that some danger overshadowed you, and in my sleep I prayed that your destiny might be revealed to me. As I prayed thus, I heard a voice saying, 'Issachar, you seek to learn the future; know then that he who is dear to you shall be tried in the furnace indeed. Yes, because of his great love and pity, he shall forswear his faith, and with death and sorrow he shall pay the price of his sin.'

"Then I was troubled and besought Heaven that you, my son, might be saved from this unknown temptation, but the voice answered me:—

"'Of their own will only can they who were one from the beginning be held apart. Through good and ill let them work each other's woe or weal. The goal is sure, but they must choose the road.'

"Now as I wondered what these dark sayings might mean, the gloom opened and I saw you, Aziel, standing in a grove of trees, while towards you with outstretched hands drew a veiled woman who bore upon her brow the golden bow of Baaltis. Then fire raged about you, and in the fire I beheld many things which I have forgotten, and moving through it was the Prince of Death, who slew and slew and spared not. So I awoke heavy at heart, knowing that there had fallen on me who love you a shadow of doom to come."

In these latter days any educated man would set aside Issachar's wild vision as the vapourings of a mind distraught. But Aziel lived in the time of Solomon, when men of his nation guided their steps by the light of prophecy, and believed that it was the Divine pleasure, by means of dreams and wonders and through the mouths of chosen seers, to declare the will of Jehovah upon earth. To this faith, indeed, we still hold fast, at least so far as that period and people are concerned, seeing that we acknowledge Isaiah, David, and their company, to have been inspired from above. Of that company Issachar the Levite was one, for to him, from his youth up, voices had spoken in the watches of the night, and often he had poured his warnings and denunciations into the ears of kings and peoples, telling them with no uncertain voice of the consequences of sin and idolatry, and of punishment to come. This Aziel, who had been his ward and pupil, knew well, and therefore he did not mock at the priest's dream or set it aside as naught, but bowed his head and listened.

"I am honoured indeed," he said with humility, "that the destiny of my poor soul and body should be a thing of weight to those on high."

"Of your poor soul, Aziel?" broke in Issachar. "That soul of yours, of which you speak so lightly, is of as great value in the eyes of Heaven as that of any cherubim within its gates. The angels who fell were the first and chiefest of the angels, and though now we are clad with mortal shape in punishment of our sins, again redeemed and glorified we can become among the mightiest of their hosts. Oh! my son, I beseech you, turn from this woman while there yet is time, lest to you her lips should be a cup of woe and your soul shall pay the price of them, sharing the hell of the worshippers of Ashtoreth."

"It may be so," said Aziel; "but, Issachar, what said the voice? That this, the woman of your dream and I were one from the beginning? Issachar, you believe that the lady Elissa is she of whom the voice spoke in your sleep and you bid me turn from her because she will bring me sin and punishment. In truth, if I can, I will obey you, since rather than forswear my faith, as your dream foretold, I would die a hundred deaths. Nor do I believe that for any bribe of woman's love I shall forswear it in act or thought. Yet if such things come about it is fate that drives me on, not my will—and what man can flee his fate? But even though this lady be she whom I am doomed to love, you say that because she is heathen I must reject her. Shame upon the thought, for if she is heathen it is through ignorance, and it may be mine to change her heart. Because I stand in danger shall I suffer her who, as you tell me, was one with me from the beginning, to be lost in that hell of Baal of which you speak? Nay, your dream is false. I will not renounce my faith, but rather will win her to share it, and together we shall triumph, and that I swear to you, Issachar."

"Truly the evil one has many wiles," answered the Levite, "and I did ill to tell you of my dream, seeing that it can be twisted to serve the purpose of your madness. Have your will, Aziel, and reap the fruit of it, but of this I warn you—that while I can find a way to thwart it, never, Prince, shall you take that witch to your bosom to be the ruin of your life and soul."

"Then, Issachar, on this matter there may be war between us!"

"Ay! there is war," said the Levite, and left him.


The sun was already high in the heavens when Aziel awoke from the deep and dreamless sleep which followed on the excitements and exhaustion of the previous day. After his servants had waited upon him and robed him, bringing him milk and fruit to eat, he dismissed them, and sat himself down by the casement of his chamber to think a while.

Below him lay the city of flat-roofed houses enclosed with a double wall, without the ring of which were thousands of straw huts, shaped like bee-hives, wherein dwelt natives of the country, slaves or servants of the occupying Phoenician race. To Aziel's right, and not more than a hundred paces from the governor's house in which he was, rose the round and mighty battlements of the temple, where the followers of El and Baaltis worshipped, and the gold refiners carried on their business. At intervals on its flat-topped walls stood towers of observation, alternating with pointed monoliths of granite and soapstone columns supporting vultures, rudely carved emblems of Baaltis. Between these towers armed soldiers walked continually, watching the city below and the plain beyond, for though the mission of the Phoenicians here was one of peaceful gain it was evident that they considered it necessary to be always prepared for war. On the hillside above the great temple towered another fortress of stone—a citadel deemed to be impregnable even should the temple fall into the hands of an enemy—while on the crest of the precipitous slope, stretching as far to right and left as the eye could reach, were many smaller detached strongholds.

The scene that Aziel saw from his window was a busy one, for beneath him a market was being held in an open square in the city. Here, sheltered from the sun by grass-thatched booths, the Phoenician merchants who had been his companions in their long and perilous journey from the coast were already in treaty with numerous customers, hoping, not in vain, to recoup themselves amply for the toils and dangers which they had survived. Beneath these booths were spread their goods; silks from Cos, bronze weapons and copper rods, or ingots from the rich mines of Cyprus, linens and muslins from Egypt; beads, idols, carven bowls, knives, glass ware, pottery in all shapes, and charms made of glazed faience or Egyptian stone; bales of the famous purple cloth of Tyre; surgical instruments, jewellery, and objects of toilet; scents, pots of rouge, and other unguents for the use of ladies in little alabaster and earthenware vases; bags of refined salt, and a thousand other articles of commerce produced or stored in the workshops of Phoenicia. These the chapmen bartered for raw gold by weight, tusks of ivory, ostrich feathers, and girls of approved beauty, slaves taken in war, or in some instances maidens whom their unnatural parents or relatives did not scruple to sell into bondage.

In another portion of the square, provisions and stock, alive and dead, were being offered for sale, for the most part by natives of the country. Here were piles of vegetables and fruits grown in the gardens, sacks of various sorts of grain, bundles of green forage from the irrigated lands without the walls, calabashes full of curdled milk, thick native beer and trusses of reed for thatching. Here again were oxen, mules and asses, or great bucks such as we now know as eland or kudoo, carried in on rough litters of boughs to be disposed of by parties of savage huntsmen who had shot them with arrows or trapped them in pitfalls. Every Eastern tribe and nation seemed to be represented in the motley crowd. Yonder stalked savages, naked except for their girdles, and armed with huge spears, who gazed with bewilderment on the wonders of this mart of the white man; there moved grave, long-bearded Arab merchants or Phoenicians in their pointed caps, or bare-headed white-robed Egyptians, or half-bred mercenaries clad in mail. Their variety was without end, while from them came a very babel of different tongues as they cried their wares, bargained and quarrelled.

Aziel gazed at this novel sight with interest, till, as he was beginning to weary of it, the crowd parted to right and left, leaving a clear lane across the market-place to the narrow gate of the temple. Along this lane advanced a procession of the priests of El clad in red robes, with tall red caps upon their heads, beneath which their straight hair hung down to their shoulders. In their hands were gilded rods, and round their necks hung golden chains, to which were attached emblems of the god they worshipped. They walked two-and-two to the number of fifty, chanting a melancholy dirge, one hand of each priest resting upon his fellow's shoulder, and as they passed, with the exception of certain Jews, all the spectators uncovered, while some of the more pious of them even fell upon their knees.

After the priests came a second procession, that of the priestesses of Baaltis. These women, who numbered at least a hundred, were clad in white, and wore upon their heads a gauze-like veil that fell to the knees, and was held in place by a golden fillet surmounted with the symbol of a crescent moon. Instead of the golden rods, however, each of them held in her left hand a growing stalk of maize, from the sheathed cob of which hung the bright tassel of its bloom. On her right wrist, moreover, a milk-white dove was fastened by a wire, both corn and dove being tokens of that fertility which, under various guises, was the real object of worship of these people. The sight of these white-veiled women about whose crescent-decked brows the doves fluttered, wildly striving to be free, was very strange and beautiful as they advanced also singing a low and melancholy chant. Aziel searched their faces with his eyes while they passed slowly towards him, and presently his heart bounded, for there among them, clasping the dove she bore to her breast, as though to still its frightened strugglings, was the Lady Elissa. He noticed, too, that as she went beneath the palace walls, she glanced at the window-place of his chamber, but without seeing him for he was seated in the shadow.

Presently the long line of priestesses, followed by hundreds of worshippers, had vanished through the tortuous and narrow entrance of the temple, and Aziel leaned back to think.

There, among the principal votaries of a goddess, the wickedness of whose worship was a scandal and a by-word even in the ancient world, walked the woman to whom he felt so strangely drawn and with whom, if there were any truth in the visions of Issachar and the mysterious warnings of his own soul, his fate was intertwined. As he thought of it a sudden revulsion filled his heart. She was wise and beautiful, and she seemed innocent, but Issachar was right; this girl was the minister of an abominable creed; nay, for aught he knew, she was herself defiled with its abominations, and her wisdom but an evil gift from the evil powers she served. Could he, a prince of the royal blood of the House of Israel and of the ancient Pharaohs of Khem, desire to have anything to do with such an one, he a child of the Chosen People, a worshipper of the true and only God? Yesterday she had thrown a spell upon him, a spell of black magic, or the spell of her imperial beauty, which, it mattered not, but to-day he was the lord of his own mind, and would shake himself free of it and her.


In the market-place below, the Levite Issachar also had watched the passing of the priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis.

"Tell me, Metem," he asked of the Phoenician who stood beside him, his head respectfully uncovered, "what mummery is this?"


Illustration

"Tell me, Metem,... what mummery is this?"


"It is no mummery, worthy Issachar, but a ceremony of public sacrifice, which is to be offered in the temple yonder, for the recovery from her sickness of the Lady Baaltis, the high-priestess."

"Where then is the offering. I see none, unless it be those doves that are tied to the wrists of the women?"

"Nay, Issachar," answered Metem smiling darkly, "the gods ask nobler blood than that of doves. The offering is within, and it is the first-born child of a priestess of Baaltis."

"O Lord of Heaven!" said Issachar lifting up his eyes, "how long will you suffer that this murderous and accursed race should defile the face of earth?"

"Softly, friend," broke in Metem, "I have read your Scriptures, and is it not set out in them that your great forefather was commanded to offer up his first-born in such a sacrifice?"

"Blaspheme not," answered the Jew. "He was commanded indeed, that his heart might be proved, but his hand was stayed. He Whom I worship delights not in the blood of children."

Here Issachar broke off, suddenly recognising the lady Elissa among the white-robed priestesses. Watching her, he noted her glance at the window of Aziel's chamber, and saw what she could not see, that the prince was seated there. "This daughter of Satan spreads her nets," he muttered between his teeth. Then a thought struck him, and he added aloud, "Say, Metem, is it permitted to strangers to witness the rites in yonder temple?"

"Surely," answered the Phoenician; "that is, if they guard their tongues, and do nothing to offend."

"Then I desire to see them, Metem, and so doubtless does the prince Aziel. Therefore, if it is your will, do me the service to enter his chamber in the palace where he is sitting, and bid him to a great ceremony that goes forward in the temple. And, Metem, if he asks what that ceremony is, I charge you, say only that a dove is to be sacrificed.

"I will wait for you at the gate of the temple, but do not tell him that I send you on this errand. Metem, you love gain; remember that if you humour me in this and other matters which may arise, doing my bidding faithfully, I have the treasury of Jerusalem to draw upon."

"No ill paymaster," replied Metem cheerfully. "Certainly I will obey you in all things, holy Issachar, as the king commanded me yonder in Judea."

"Now," he reflected to himself, as he went upon his message, "I see how the bird flies. The prince Aziel is in love with the lady Elissa, or far upon the road to it, as at his age it is right and proper that he should be, after a twelve months' journey by sea and land with never a pretty face to sigh for. The holy Issachar, on the other hand, is minded that his charge shall have naught to do with a priestess of Baaltis, as, his age and calling considered, is also right and proper. Then there is that black savage Ithobal, who wishes to win the girl, and the girl herself, who after the fashion of her sex, will probably play them all off one against the other. Well, so much the better for me, since I shall be a richer man even than I am before this affair is done with. I have two hands, and gold is gold whoever be the giver," and smiling craftily to himself Metem passed into the palace.


CHAPTER 5
The Place Of Sacrifice

SUDDENLY Aziel, looking up from his reverie, saw the Phoenician bowing before him, cap in hand.

"May the Prince live for ever," he said, "yet if he suffer melancholy to overcome him thus, his life, however long, will be but sad."

"I was only thinking, Metem," answered Aziel with a start.

"Of the lady Elissa, whom you rescued, Prince? Ah! I guessed as much. She is beautiful, is she not—I have never seen the equal of those dreamy eyes and that mysterious smile—and learned also, though myself, in a woman I prefer the beauty without the learning. It is a pity now that she should chance to be a priestess of our worship, for that will not please the holy Issachar whom, I fear, Prince, you find a stern guide for the feet of youth."

"Your business, merchant?" broke in Aziel.

"I crave your pardon, Prince," answered the Phoenician, spreading out his hands in deprecation. "I struck a good bargain for my wares this morning, and drank wine to seal it, therefore, let me be forgiven if I have spoken too freely in your presence, Prince. This is my business: Yonder in the temple they celebrate a service which it is lawful for strangers to witness, and as the opportunity is rare, I thought that, having heard something of our mysteries in the grove last night, you might wish to see the office. If this be so, I am come to guide you."

"Aziel's first impulse was to refuse to go; indeed, the words of dismissal were on his lips when another purpose entered his mind. For this once he would look upon these abominations and learn what part Elissa played in them, and thus be cured for ever of the longings that had seized him.

"What is the ceremony?" he asked.

"A sacrifice for the recovery of the lady Baaltis who is sick, Prince."

"And what is the sacrifice?" asked Aziel.

"A dove, as I am told," was the indifferent answer.

"I will come with you, Metem."

"So be it, Prince. Your retinue awaits you at the gate."

At the main entrance to the palace Aziel found his guard and other servants gathered there to escort him. With them was Issachar, whom he greeted, asking him if he knew the errand upon which they were bent.

"I do, Prince; it is to witness the abomination of a sacrifice of these heathens."

"Will you then accompany me there, Issachar?"

"Where my lord goes I go," answered the Levite gravely. "Moreover, Prince, if you have your reasons for wishing to see this devil-worship, I may have mine."

Then they set out, Metem guiding them. At the north gate of the temple, which was not more than a yard in width, the Phoenician spoke to the guards on duty, who drew back to let them pass. In single file, for the passages were too narrow to allow of any other means of progression, they threaded the tortuous and mazy paths of the great building, passing between huge walls built of granite blocks laid without mortar, till at length they reached a large open space. Here the ceremony had already begun. Almost in the centre of this space, which was paved with blocks of granite, stood two conical towers, the larger of which measured thirty feet in height and the smaller about half as much. These towers, also build of blocks of stone, were, as Metem informed them, sacred to and emblematical of the gods El and Baaltis. In front of them was a platform surmounted by a stone altar, and between them, built in a pit in the ground, burned a great furnace of wood. All the centre of the enclosure was occupied by the marshalled ranks of the priests and priestesses. Without this sacred ring stood the closely packed masses of spectators, amongst whom Aziel and his following were given place, though some of the more pious worshippers murmured audibly at the admission of these Jews.

When they entered, the companies of priests and priestesses were finishing a prayer, the sentences of which they chanted alternately with strange effect. In part it was formal, and in part an improvised supplication to the protecting gods to restore health to that woman or high-priestess who was known as the lady Baaltis. The prayer ended, a beautiful bold-faced girl advanced to an open space in front of the altar, and with a sudden movement threw off her white robe, revealing herself to the spectators in a many-coloured garment of gauze, through which her fair flesh gleamed.

The black hair of this woman was adorned with a coronet of scarlet flowers and hung loose about her; her feet and arms were naked, and in each hand she held a knife of bronze. Very slowly she began to dance, her painted lips parted as though to speak, and her eyes, brightened with pigments, turned up to heaven. By degrees her movements grew more rapid, till at length, as she whirled round, her long locks streamed out straight upon the air and the crown of flowers looked like a scarlet ring. Suddenly the bronze knife in her right hand flashed, and a spot of red appeared above her left breast; then the knife in the left hand flashed, and another spot appeared over the right breast. At each stroke the multitude cried, "Ah!" as with one voice, and then were silent.

Now the maddened dancer, ceasing her whirlings, leapt high into the air, clashing the knives above her head and crying, "Hear me, hear me, Baaltis!"

Again she leapt, and this time the answer that came from her lips was spoken in another voice, which said, "I am present. What seek you?"

A third time the priestess leapt, replying in her own voice, "Health for thy servant who is sick." Then came the answer in the second voice—"I hear you, but I see no sacrifice."

"What sacrifice would'st thou, O Queen? A dove?"

"Nay."

"What then, Queen?"

"One only, the first-born child of a woman."

As this command, which they supposed to be divine and from above, issued out of the lips of the gashed and bleeding Pythoness, the multitude that hitherto had listened in perfect silence, shouted aloud, while the girl herself, utterly exhausted, fell to the earth swooning.

Now the high priest of El, who was named the Shadid, none other indeed than the husband of her who lay sick, sprang upon the platform and cried:—

"The goddess has spoken by the mouth of her oracle. She who is the mother of all demands one life out of the many she has given, that the Lady Baaltis, who is her priestess upon earth, may be recovered of her sickness. Say, who will lay down a life for the honour of the goddess, and that her regent in this land may be saved alive?"

Now—for all this scene had been carefully prepared—a woman stepped forward, wearing the robe of a priestess, who bore in her arms a drugged and sleeping child.

"I, father," she cried in a shrill, hard voice, though her lips trembled as she spoke. "Let the goddess take this child, the first-fruit of my body, that our mother the Lady Baaltis may be cured of her sickness, and that I, her daughter, may be blessed by the goddess, and through me, all we who worship her." And she held out the little victim towards him.

The Shadid stretched out his arms to take it, but he never did take it, for at that moment appeared upon the platform the tall and bearded figure of Issachar clad in his white robes.

"Hold!" he cried in a loud, clear voice, "and touch not the innocent child. Spawn of Satan, would you do murder to appease the devils whom you worship? Well shall they repay you, people of Zimboe. Oh! mine eyes are open and I see," he went on, shaking his thin arms above his head in a prophetic frenzy. "I see the sword of the true God, and it flames above this city of idolaters and abominations. I see this place of sacrifice, and I tell you that before the moon is young again it shall run red with the blood of you, idol worshippers, and of you, women of the groves. The heathen is at your gates, ye followers of demons, and my God sends them as He sends the locusts of the north wind to devour you like grass, to sweep you away like the dust of the desert. Cry then upon El and Baaltis, and let El and Baaltis save you if they can. Doom is upon you; Azrael, angel of death, writes his name upon your foreheads, every one of you, giving your city to the owls, your bodies to the jackals, and your souls to Satan—"


Illustration

"Doom is upon you..."


Thus far the priests and the spectators had listened to Issachar's denunciations in bewildered amazement not unmixed with fear. Now with a roar of wrath they awoke, and suddenly he was dragged from the platform by a score of hands and struck down with many blows. Indeed, he would then and there have been torn to pieces had not a guard of soldiers, knowing that he was Sakon's guest and in the train of the prince Aziel, snatched him from the maddened multitude, and borne him swiftly to a place of safety without the enclosure.

While the tumult was at its height, a Phoenician, who had arrived in the temple breathless with haste, might have been seen to pluck Metem by the sleeve.

"What is it?" Metem asked of the man, who was his servant.

"This: the lady Baaltis is dead. I watched as you bade me, and, as she had promised to do, in token of the end, her woman waved a napkin from the casement of that tower where she lies."

"Do any know of this?"

"None."

"Then say no word of it," and Metem hurried off in search of Aziel.

Presently he found him seeking for Issachar in company with his guards.

"Have no fear, Prince," Metem said, in answer to his eager questions, "he is safe enough, for the soldiers have borne the fool away. Pardon me that I should speak thus of a holy man, but he has put all our lives in danger."

"I do not pardon you," answered Aziel hotly, "and I honour Issachar for his act and words. Let us begone from this accursed place whither you entrapped me."

Before Metem could reply a voice cried, "Close the doors of the sanctuary, so that none can pass in or go out, and let the sacrifice be offered."

"Listen, Prince," said Metem, "you must stay here till the ceremony is done."

"Then I tell you, Phoenician," answered Aziel, "that rather than suffer that luckless child to be butchered before my eyes I will cut my way to it with my guards, and rescue it alive."

"To leave yourself dead in place of it," answered Metem sarcastically; "but, see, a woman desires to speak with you," and he pointed to a girl in the robe of a priestess, whose face was hidden with a veil, and who, in the tumult and confusion, had worked her way to Aziel.

"Prince," whispered the veiled form, "I am Elissa. For your life's sake keep still and silent, or you will be stabbed, for your words have been overheard, and the priests are mad at the insult that has been put upon them."

"Away with you, woman," answered Aziel; "what have I to do with a girl of the groves and a murderess of children?"


Illustration

"Away with you, woman..."


She winced at his bitter words, but said quietly:—

"Then on your own head be your blood, Prince, which I have risked much to keep unshed. But before you die, learn that I knew nothing of this foul sacrifice, and that gladly would I give my own life to save that of yonder child."

"Save it, and I will believe you," answered the prince, turning from her.

Elissa slipped away, for she saw that the priestesses, her companions, were reforming their ranks, and that she must not tarry. When she had gone a few yards, a hand caught her by the sleeve, and the voice of Metem, who had overheard something of this talk, whispered in her ear:—

"Daughter of Sakon, what will you give me if I show you a way to save the life of the child, and with it that of the prince, and at the same time to make him think well of you again?"

"All my jewels and ornaments of gold, and they are many," she answered eagerly.

"Good; it is a bargain. Now listen: The lady Baaltis is dead; she died a few minutes since, and none here know it save myself and one other, my servant, nor can any learn it, for the gates are shut. Do you be, therefore, suddenly inspired—of the gods—and say so, for then the sacrifice must cease, seeing that she for whom it was to be offered is dead. Do you understand?"

"I understand," she answered, "and though the blasphemy bring on me the vengeance of Baaltis, yet it shall be dared. Fear not, your pay is good," and she pressed forward to her place, keeping the veil wrapped about her head till she reached it unobserved, for in the general confusion none had noticed her movements.

When the noise of shouting and angry voices had at length died away, and the spectators were driven back outside the sacred circle, the priest upon the platform cried:—

"Now that the Jew blasphemer has gone, let the sacrifice be offered, as is decreed."

"Yea, let the sacrifice be offered," answered the multitude, and once more the woman with the sleeping child stepped forward. But before the priest could take it another figure approached him, that of Elissa, with arms outstretched and eyes upturned.

"Hold, O priest!" she said, "for the goddess, breathing on my brow, inspires me, and I have a message from the goddess."

"Draw near, daughter, and speak it in the ears of men," the priest answered wondering, for he found it hard to believe in such inspiration, and indeed would have denied her a hearing had he dared.

So Elissa climbed the platform, and standing upon it still with outstretched hands and upturned face, she said in a clear voice:—

"The goddess refuses the sacrifice, since she has taken to herself her for whom it was to have been offered—the Lady Baaltis is dead."

At this tidings a groan went up from the people, partly of grief for the loss of a spiritual dignitary who was popular, and partly of disappointment because now the sacrifice could not be offered. For the Phoenicians loved these horrible spectacles, which were not, however, commonly celebrated by daylight and in the presence of the people.

"It is a lie," cried a voice, "but now the Lady Baaltis was living."

"Let the gates be opened, and send to see whether or no I lie," said Elissa, quietly.

Then for a while there was silence while a priest went upon the errand. At length he was seen returning. Pushing his way through the crowd, he mounted the platform, and said:—

"The daughter of Sakon speaks truth; alas! the lady Baaltis is dead."

Elissa sighed in relief, for had her tidings proved false she could scarcely have hoped to escape the fury of the crowd.

"Ay!" she cried, "she is dead, as I told you, and because of your sin, who would have offered human sacrifice in public, against the custom of our faith and city and without the command of the goddess."


Then in sullen silence the priests and priestesses reformed their ranks, and departed from the sanctuary, whence they were followed by the spectators, the most of them in no good mood, for they had been baulked of the promised spectacle.


CHAPTER 6
The Hall Of Audience

WHEN Elissa reached her chamber after the break up of the procession, she threw herself upon her couch, and burst into a passion of tears. Well might she weep, for she had been false to her oath as a priestess, uttering as a message from the goddess that which she had learnt from the lips of man. More, she could not rid herself of the remembrance of the scorn and loathing with which the Prince Aziel had looked upon her, or of the bitter insult of his words when he called her, "a girl of the groves, and a murderess of children."

It chanced that, so far as Elissa was concerned, these charges were utterly untrue. None could throw a slur upon her, and as for these rare human sacrifices, she loathed the very name of them, nor, unless forced to it, would she have been present had she guessed that any such offering was intended.

Like most of the ancient religions, that of the Phoenicians had two sides to it—a spiritual and a material side. The spiritual side was a worship of the far-off unknown divinity, symbolised by the sun, moon and planets, and visible only in their majestic movements, and in the forces of nature. To this Elissa clung, knowing no truer god, and from those forces she strove to wring their secret, for her heart was deep. Lonely invocations to the goddess beneath the light of the moon appealed to her, for from them she seemed to draw strength and comfort, but the outward ceremonies of her faith, or the more secret and darker of them, of which in practice she knew little, were already an abomination in her eyes. And now what if the Jew prophet spoke truly? What if this creed of hers were a lie, root and branch, and there did lie in the heavens above a Lord and Father who heard and answered the prayers of men, and who did not seek of them the blood of the children He had given?

A great doubt took hold of Elissa and shook her being, and with the doubt came hope. How was it—if her faith were true—that when she took the name of the goddess in vain, nothing had befallen her? She desired to learn more of this matter, but who was to teach her? The Levite turned from her with loathing as from a thing unclean, and there remained, therefore, but the prince Aziel, who had put her from him with those bitter words of scorn. Ah! why did they pain her so, piercing her heart as with a spear? Was it because—because—he had grown dear to her? Yes, that was the truth. She had learned it even as he cursed her; all her quick southern blood was alight with a new fire, the like of which she had never known before. And not her blood only, it was her spirit—her spirit that yearned to his. Had it not leapt within her at the first sight of him as to one most dear, one long-lost and found again? She loved him, and he loathed her, and oh! her lot was hard.

As Elissa lay brooding thus in her pain, the door opened and Sakon, her father, hurried into the chamber.

"What is it that chanced yonder?" he asked, for he had not been present in the sanctuary, "and, daughter, why do you weep?"

"I weep, father, because your guest, the prince Aziel, has called me 'a girl of the groves, and a murderess of children,'" she replied.

"Then, by my head, prince that he is, he shall answer for it to me," said Sakon, grasping at his sword-hilt.

"Nay, father, since to him I must have seemed to deserve the words. Listen." And she told him all that had passed, hiding nothing.

"Now it seems that trouble is heaped upon trouble," said the Phoenician when she had finished, "and they were mad who suffered the prince and that fierce Issachar to be present at the sacrifice. Daughter, I tell you this: though I am a worshipper of El and Baaltis, as my fathers were before me, I know that Jehovah of the Jews is a great and powerful Lord, and that His prophets do not prophesy falsely, for I have seen it in my youth, yonder in the coasts of Sidon. What did Issachar say? That before the moon was young again, this temple should run red with blood? Well, so it may happen, for Ithobal threatens war against us, and for your sake, my daughter."

"How for my sake, father?" she asked heavily, as one who knew what the answer would be.

"You know well, girl. Ever since you danced before him at the great welcoming feast I made in his honour a month ago the man is besotted of you; moreover, he is mad with jealousy of this new-comer, the prince Aziel. He has demanded public audience of me this afternoon, and I have it privately that then he will formally ask you in marriage before the people, and if he is refused will declare war upon the city, with which he has many an ancient quarrel. Yes, yes, king Ithobal is that sword of God which the Jew said he saw hanging over us, and should it fall it will be because of you, Elissa."

"The Jew did not say that, father; he said it would be because of the sins of the people and their idolatries."

"What does it matter what he said?" broke in Sakon hastily. "How shall I answer Ithobal?"

"Tell him," she replied with a strange smile, "that he does wisely to be jealous of the prince Aziel."

"What! Of the stranger who this very day reviled you in words of such shame, and so soon?" asked her father astonished.

Elissa did not speak in answer; she only looked straight before her, and nodded her head.

"Had ever man such a daughter?" Sakon went on in petulant dismay. "Truly it is a wise saying which tells that women love those best who beat them, be it with the tongue or with the fist. Not but what I would gladly see you wedded to a prince of Israel and of Egypt rather than of this half-bred barbarian, but the legions of Solomon and of Pharaoh are far away, whereas Ithobal has a hundred thousand spears almost at our gate."

"There is no need to speak of such things, father," she said, turning aside, "since, even were I willing, the prince would have nought to do with me, who am a priestess of Baaltis."

"The matter of religion might be overcome," suggested Sakon; "but, no, for many reasons it is impossible. Well, this being so, daughter, I may answer Ithobal that you will wed him."

"I!" she said; "I wed that black-hearted savage? My father, you may answer what you will, but of this be sure, that I will go to my grave before I pass as wife to the board of Ithobal."

"Oh! my daughter," pleaded Sakon, "think before you say it. As his wife at least you, who are not of royal blood, will be a queen, and the mother of kings. But if you refuse, then either I must force you, which is hateful to me, or there will be such a war as the city has not known for generations, for Ithobal and his tribes have many grievances against us. By the gift of yourself, for a while, at any rate, you can, as it chances, make peace between us, but if that is withheld, then blood will run in rivers, and perhaps this city, with all who live in it, will be destroyed, or at the least its trade must be ruined and its wealth stolen away."

"If it is decreed that all these things are to be, they will be," answered Elissa calmly, "seeing that this war has threatened us for many years, and that a woman must think of herself first, and of the fate of cities afterwards. Of my own free will I shall never take Ithobal for husband. Father, I have said."

"Of the fate of cities, yes; but how of my fate, and that of those we love? Are we all to be ruined, and perhaps slaughtered, to satisfy your whim, girl?"

"I did not say so, father. I said that of my own free will I would not wed Ithobal. If you choose to give me to him you have the right to do it, but know then that you give me to my death. Perhaps it is best that it should be thus."

Sakon knew his daughter well, and it did not need that he should glance at her face to learn that she meant her words. Also he loved her, his only child, more dearly than anything on earth.

"In truth my strait is hard, and I know not which way to turn," he said, covering his face with his hand.

"Father," she replied, laying her fingers lightly on his shoulder, "what need is there to answer him at once? Take a month, or if he will not give it, a week. Much may happen in that time."

"The counsel is wise," he said, catching at this straw. "Daughter, be in the great hall of audience with your attendants three hours after noon, for then we must receive Ithobal boldly in all pomp, and deal with him as best we may. And now I go to ask peace for the Levite from the priests of El, and to discover whom the sacred colleges desire to nominate as the new Baaltis. Doubtless it will be Mesa, the daughter of her who is dead, though many are against her. Oh! if there were no priests and no women, this city would be easier to govern," and with an impatient gesture Sakon left the room.


It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the great hall of audience in Zimboe was crowded with a brilliant assemblage. There sat Sakon, the governor, and with him his council of the notables of the city; there were prince Aziel and among his retinue, Issachar the prophet, fierce-eyed as ever, though hardly recovered from the rough handling he had experienced in the temple. There were representatives of the college of the priests of El. There were many ladies, wives and daughters of dignitaries and wealthy citizens, and with them a great crowd of spectators of all classes gathered in the lower part of the hall, for a rumour had spread about that the farewell audience given by Sakon to King Ithobal was likely to be stormy.

When all were gathered, a herald announced that Ithobal, King of the Tribes, waited to take his leave of Sakon, Governor of Zimboe, before departing to his own land on the morrow.

"Let him be admitted," said Sakon, who looked weary and ill at ease. Then as the herald bowed and left, he turned and whispered something into the ear of his daughter Elissa, who stood behind his chair, her face immovable as that of an Egyptian Sphinx, but magnificently apparelled in gleaming robes and jewelled ornaments—which Metem, looking on them, reflected with satisfaction were now his property.

Presently, preceded by a burst of savage music, Ithobal entered. He was gorgeously arrayed in a purple Tyrian robe decked with golden chains, while on the brow, in token of his royalty, he wore a golden circlet in which was set a single blood-red stone. Before him walked a sword-bearer carrying a sword of ceremony, a magnificent ivory-handled weapon encrusted with rough gems and inlaid with gold, while behind him, clad in barbaric pomp, marched a number of counsellors and attendants, huge and half-savage men who glared wonderingly at the splendour of the place and its occupants. As the king came, Sakon rose from his chair of state and, advancing down the hall, took him by the hand and led him to a similar chair placed at a little distance.

Ithobal seated himself and looked around the hall. Presently his glance fell upon Aziel, and he scowled.

"Is it common, Sakon," he asked, "that the seat of a prince should be set higher than that of a crowned king?" And he pointed to the chair of Aziel, which was placed a little above his own upon the daïs.

The governor was about to answer when Aziel said coldly:—

"Where it was pointed out to me that I should sit, there I sat, though, for aught I care, the king Ithobal may take my place. The grandson of Pharaoh and of Solomon does not need to dispute for precedence with the savage ruler of savage tribes."

Ithobal sprang to his feet and cried, grasping his sword:—

"By my father's soul, you shall answer for this, Princelet."

"You should have sworn by your mother's soul, King Ithobal," replied Aziel quietly, "for doubtless it is the black blood in your veins that causes you to forget your courtesy. For the rest, I answer to no man save to my king."

"Yet there is one other who will make you answer," replied Ithobal, in a voice thick with rage, "and here he is," and he drew his sword and flashed it before the prince's eyes. "Or if you fear to face him, then the wands of my slaves shall cause you to cry me pardon."

"If you desire to challenge me to combat, king Ithobal, for this purpose only I am your servant, though the fashion of your challenging is not that of any nation which I know."

Before Ithobal could reply, Sakon cried out in a loud voice:—

"Enough, enough! Is this a place for brawling, king Ithobal, and would you seek to fix a quarrel upon my guest, the prince Aziel, here in my council chamber, and to bring upon me the wrath of Israel, of Tyre, and of Egypt? Be sure that the prince shall cross no swords with you; no, not if I have to set him under guard to keep him safe. To your business, king Ithobal, or I break up this assembly and send you under escort to our gates."

Now his counsellors plucked Ithobal by the sleeve and whispered to him some advice, which at last he seemed to take with an ill grace, for, turning, he said, "So be it. This is my business, Sakon: For many years I and the countless tribes whom I rule have suffered much at the hands of you Phoenicians, who centuries ago settled here in my country as traders. That you should trade we are content, but not that you should establish yourselves as a sovereign power, pretending to be my equals who are my servants. Therefore, in the name of my nation, I demand that the tribute which you pay to me for the use of the mines of gold shall henceforth be doubled; that the defences of this city be thrown down; and that you cease to enslave the natives of the land to labour in your service. I have spoken."

Now as these arrogant demands reached their ears, the company assembled in the hall murmured with anger and astonishment, then turned to wait for Sakon's answer.

"And if we refuse these small requests of yours, O King?" asked the governor sarcastically, "what then? Will you make war upon us?"

"First tell me, Sakon, if you do refuse them?"

"In the name of the cities of Tyre and Sidon whom I serve, and of Hiram my master, I refuse them one and all," answered Sakon with dignity.

"Then, Sakon, I am minded to bring up a hundred thousand men against you and to sweep you and your city from the face of earth," said Ithobal. "Yet I remember that I also have Phoenician blood in my veins mixed with the nobler and more ancient blood at which yonder upstart jeers, and therefore I would spare you. I remember also that for generations there has been peace and amity between my forefathers and the Council of this city, and therefore I would spare you. Behold, then, I build a bridge whereby you may escape, asking but one little thing of you in proof that you are indeed my friend, and it is that you give me your daughter, the lady Elissa, whom I seek to make my queen. Think well before you answer, remembering that upon this answer may hang the lives of all who listen to you, ay, and of many thousand others."

For a while there was silence in the assemblage, and every eye was fixed upon Elissa, who stood neither moving nor speaking, her face still set like that of a Sphinx, and almost as unreadable. Aziel gazed at her with the rest, and his eyes she felt alone of all the hundreds that were bent upon her. Indeed, so strongly did they draw her, that against her own will she turned her head and met them. Then remembering what had passed between herself and the prince that very day, she coloured faintly and looked down, neither the glance nor the blush escaping the watchful Ithobal.

Presently Sakon spoke:—

"King Ithobal," he said, "I am honoured indeed that you should seek my daughter as your queen, but she is my only child, whom I love, and I have sworn to her that I will not force her to marry against her will, whoever be the suitor. Therefore, King, take your answer from her own lips, for whatever it be it is my answer."

"Lady," said Ithobal, "you have heard your father's words; be pleased to say that you look with favour upon my suit, and that you will deign to share my throne and power."

Elissa took a step forward on the daïs and curtseyed low before the king.

"O King!" she said, "I am your handmaid, and great indeed is the favour that you would do your servant. Yet, King, I Pray of you search out some fairer woman of a more royal rank to share your crown and sceptre, for I am all unworthy of them, and to those words on this matter which I have spoken in past days I have none to add." Then again she curtseyed, adding, "King, I am your servant."

Now a murmur of astonishment went up from the audience, for few of them thought it possible that Elissa, who, however beautiful, was but the daughter of a noble, could refuse to become the wife of a king. Ithobal alone did not seem to be astonished, for he had expected this answer.

"Lady," he said, repressing with an effort the passions which were surging within him, "I think that I have something to offer to the woman of my choice, and yet you put me aside as lightly as though I had neither name, nor power, nor station. This, as it seems to me, can be read in one way only, that your heart is given elsewhere."

"Have it as you will, King," answered Elissa, "my heart is given elsewhere."

"And yet, lady, not four suns gone you swore to me that you loved no man. Since then it seems that you have learned to love, and swiftly, and it is yonder Jew whom you have chosen." And he pointed to the prince Aziel.

Again Elissa coloured, this time to the eyes, but she showed no other sign of confusion.

"May the king pardon me," she said, "and may the prince Aziel, whose name has thus been coupled with mine, pardon me. I said indeed that my heart was given elsewhere, but I did not say it was given to any man. May not the heart of a mortal maid-priestess be given to the Ever-living?"

Now for a moment the king was silenced, while a murmur of applause at her ready wit went round the audience. But before it died away a voice at the far end of the hall called out:—

"Perchance the lady does not know that yonder in Egypt, and in Jerusalem also, prince Aziel is named the Ever-living."

Now it was Elissa's turn to be overcome.

"Nay, I knew it not," she said; "how should I know it? I spoke of that Dweller in the heavens whom I worship—"

"And behold, the title fits a dweller on the earth whom you must also worship, for such omens do not come by chance," cried the same voice, but from another quarter of the crowded hall.

"I ask pardon," broke in Aziel, "and leave to speak. It is true that owing to a certain birth-mark which I bear, among the Egyptians I have been given the bye-name of the Ever-living, but it is one which this lady can scarcely have heard, therefore jest no more upon a chance accident of words. Moreover, if you be men, cease to heap insult upon a woman. I who am almost a stranger here have not dared to ask the lady Elissa for her favour."

"Ay, but you will ask and she will grant," answered the same voice, the owner of which none could discover—for he seemed to speak from every part of the chamber.

"Indeed," went on Aziel, not heeding the interruption, "the last words between us were words of anger, for we quarrelled on a matter of religion."

"What of that?" cried the voice; "love is the highest of religions, for do not the Phoenicians worship it?"

"Seize yonder knave," shouted Sakon, and search was made but without avail. Afterwards, however, Aziel remembered that once, when they were weather-bound on their journey from the coast, Metem had amused them by making his voice sound from various quarters of the hut in which they lay. Then Ithobal rose and said:—

"Enough of this folly; I am not here to juggle with words, or to listen to such play. Whether the lady Elissa spoke of the gods she serves or of a man is one to me. I care not of whom she spoke, but for her words I do care. Now hearken, you city of traders: If this is to be thy answer, then I break down that bridge which I have built, and it is war between you and my Tribes, war to the end. But let her change her words, and whether she loves me or loves me not, come to be my wife, and, for my day, the bridge shall stand; for once that we are wed I can surely teach her love, or if I cannot, at least it is she I seek with or without her love. Reflect then, lady, and reply again, remembering how much hangs upon your lips."

"Do you think, king Ithobal," Elissa answered, looking at him with angry eyes, "that a woman such as I am can be won by threats? I have spoken, king Ithobal."

"I know not," he replied; "but I do know that she can be won by force, and then surely, lady, your pride shall pay the price, for you shall be mine, but not my queen."

Now one of the council rose and said:—

"It seems, Sakon, that there is more in this matter than whether or no the king Ithobal pleases your daughter. Is the city then to be plunged into a great war, of which none can see the end, because one woman looks askance upon a man? Better that a thousand girls should be wedded where they would not than that such a thing should happen. Sakon, according to our ancient law you have the right to give your daughter in marriage where and when you will. We demand, therefore, that for the good of the commonwealth, you should exercise this right, and hand over the lady Elissa to king Ithobal."

This speech was received with loud and general shouts of approval, for no Phoenician audience would have been willing to sacrifice its interests for a thing so trivial as the happiness of a woman.

"Between the desire of a beloved daughter to whom I have pledged my word and my duty to the great city over which I rule, my strait is hard indeed," answered Sakon. "Hearken, king Ithobal, I must have time. Give me eight days from now in which to answer you, for if you will not, I deny your suit."

Ithobal seemed about to refuse the demand of Sakon. Then once more his counsellors plucked him by the sleeve, pointing out to him that if he did this, it was likely that none of them would leave the city alive. At some sign from the governor, they whispered, the captains of the guard were already hastening from the hall.

"So be it, Sakon," he said. "To-night I camp without your walls, which are no longer safe for one who has threatened war against them, and on the eighth day from this see to it that your heralds being me the Lady Elissa and peace—or I make good my threat. Till then, farewell." And placing himself in the midst of his company king Ithobal left the hall.


CHAPTER 7
The Black Dwarf

SOME two hours had passed since the break-up of the assembly in the great hall. Prince Aziel was seated in his chamber, when the keeper of the door announced that a woman was without who desired to speak with him. He gave orders that she should be admitted, and presently a veiled figure entered the room and bowed before him.

"Be pleased to unveil, and to tell me your business," he said.

With some reluctance his visitor withdrew the wrapping from her head, revealing a face which Aziel recognised as one that he had seen among the waiting women who attended on Elissa.

"My message is for your ear, Prince," she said, glancing at the man who had ushered her into the chamber.

"It is not my custom to receive strangers thus alone," said the prince; "but be it as you will," and he motioned to the servant to retire without the door. "I await your pleasure," he added, when the man had gone.

"It is here," she answered, and drew from her bosom a little papyrus roll.

"Who wrote this?" he asked.

"I know not, Prince; it was given to me to pass on to you."

Then he opened the roll and read. It ran thus: "Though we parted with bitter words, still in my sore distress I crave the comfort of your counsel. Therefore, since I am forbidden to speak with you openly, meet me, I beseech you, at moonrise in the palace garden under the shade of the great fig tree with five roots, where I shall be accompanied only by one I trust. Bring no man with you for my safety's sake.—Elissa."

Aziel thrust the scroll into his robe, and thought awhile. Then he gave the waiting lady a piece of gold and said:—

"Tell her who sent you that I obey her words. Farewell."

This message seemed to puzzle the woman, who opened her lips to speak. Then, changing her mind, she turned and went.

Scarcely had she gone when the Phoenician, Metem, was ushered into the room.

"O Prince," he said maliciously, "pardon me if I caution you. Yet in truth if veiled ladies flit thus through your apartments in the light of day, it will reach the ears of the holy but violent Issachar, of whose doings I come to speak. Then, Prince, I tremble for you."

Aziel made a movement half-impatient and half-contemptuous. "The woman is a serving-maid," he said, "who brought me a message that I understand but little. Tell me, Metem, for you know this place of old, does there stand in the palace garden a great fig tree with five roots?"

"Yes, Prince; at least such a tree used to grow there when last I visited this country. It was one of the wonders of the town, because of its size. What of it?"

"Little, except that I must be under it at moonrise. See and read, since whatever you may say of yourself, you are, I think, no traitor."

"Not if I am well paid to keep counsel, Prince," Metem answered with a smile. Then he read the scroll.

"I am glad that the noble lady brings an attendant with her," he said as he returned it, with a bow. "The gossips of Zimboe are censorious, and might misinterpret this moonlight meeting, as indeed would Sakon and Issachar. Well, doves will coo and maids will woo, and unless I can make money out of it the affair is none of mine."

"Have I not told you that there is no question of wooing?" asked the prince angrily. "I go only to give her what counsel I can in the matter of the suit of this savage, Ithobal. The lady Elissa and I have quarrelled beyond repair over that accursed sacrifice—"

"Which her ready wit prevented," put in Metem.

"But I promised last night that I would help her if I could," the prince went on, "and I always keep my word."

"I understand, Prince. Well, since you turn from the lady, whose name with yours is so much in men's mouths just now, doubtless you will give her wise counsel, namely, to wed Ithobal, and lift the shadow of war from this city. Then, indeed, we shall all be grateful to you, for it seems that no one else can move her stubbornness. And, by the way: If, when she has listened to your wisdom, the daughter of Sakon should chance to explain to you that the sight of this day's attempted sacrifice filled her with horror, and that she parted with every jewel she owns to put an end to it—well, her words will be true. But, since you have quarrelled, they will have no more interest for you, Prince, than has my talk about them. So now to other matters." And Metem began to speak of the conduct of Issachar in the sanctuary, and of the necessity of guarding him against assassination at the hands of the priests of El as a consequence of his religious zeal. Presently he was gone, leaving Aziel somewhat bewildered.

Could it be true, as she herself had told him, and as Metem now asserted, that Elissa had not participated willingly in the dark rites in the temple? If so he had misjudged her and been unjust; indeed, what atonement could suffice for such words as he had used towards her? Well, to some extent she must have understood and forgiven them, otherwise she would scarcely have sought his aid, though he knew not how he could help her in her distress.


When Elissa returned from the assembly, she laid herself down to rest, worn out in mind and body. Soon sleep came to her, and with the sleep dreams. At first these were vague and shadowy, then they grew more clear. She dreamed that she saw a dim and moonlit garden, and in it a vast tree with twisted roots that seemed familiar to her. Something moving among the branches of this tree attracted her attention, but for a long while she watched it without being able to discover what it was. Now she saw. The moving thing was a hideous black dwarf with beady eyes, who held in his hand a little ivory tipped bow, on the string of which was set an arrow. Her consciousness concentrated itself upon this arrow, and though she knew not how, she became aware that it was poisoned. What was the dwarf doing in the tree with a bow and poisoned arrow, she wondered? Suddenly a sound seemed to strike her ear, the sound of a man's footsteps walking over grass, and she perceived that the figure of the dwarf, crouched upon the bough, became tense and alert, and that his fingers tightened upon the bow-string until the blood was driven from their yellow tips. Following the glance of his wicked black eyes, she saw advancing through the shadow a tall man clad in a dark robe. Now he emerged into a patch of moonlight and stood looking around him as though he were searching for some one. Then the dwarf raised himself to his knees upon the bough, and, aiming at the bare throat of the man, drew the bow-string to his ear. At this moment the victim turned his head and the moonlight shone full upon his face. It was that of the prince Aziel.


Elissa awoke from her vision with a little cry, then rose trembling, and strove to comfort herself in the thought that although it was so very vivid she had dreamed but a dream. Still shaken and unnerved, she passed into another chamber, and made pretence to eat of the meal that was made ready for her, for it was now the hour of sunset. While she was thus employed, it was announced that the Phoenician, Metem, desired to speak with her, and she commanded that he should be admitted.

"Lady," he said bowing, so soon as her attendants had withdrawn to the farther end of the chamber, "you can guess my errand. This morning I gave you certain tidings which proved both true and useful, and for those tidings you promised a reward."

"It is so," she said, and going to a chest she drew from it an ivory casket full of ornaments of gold and among them necklaces and other objects set with uncut precious stones. "Take them," she said, "they are yours; that is, save this gold chain alone, for it is vowed to Baaltis."

"But lady," he asked, "how can you appear before Ithobal the king thus robbed of all your ornaments?"

"I shall not appear before Ithobal the king," she answered sharply.

"You say so! Then what will the prince Aziel think of you when he sees you thus unadorned?"

"My beauty is my adornment," she replied, "not these gems and gold. Moreover, it is nought to me what he thinks, for he hates me, and has reviled me."

Metem lifted his eyebrows incredulously and went on: "Still, I will not deprive you of this woman's gear. Look now, I value it, and at no high figure," and drawing out his writer's palette and a slip of papyrus, he wrote upon it an acknowledgment of debt, which he asked her to sign.

"This document, lady," he said, "I will present to your father—or your husband—at a convenient season, nor do I fear that either of them will refuse to honour it. And now I take my leave, for you—have an appointment to keep—and," he added with emphasis, "the time of moonrise is at hand."

"Your meaning, I pray you?" she asked. "I have no appointment at moonrise, or at any other hour."

Metem bowed politely, but in a fashion which showed that he put no faith in her words.

"Again I ask your meaning, merchant," she said, "for your dark hintings are scarcely to be borne."

The Phoenician looked at her; there was a ring of truth in her voice.

"Lady," he said, "will you indeed deny, after I have seen it written by yourself, that within some few minutes you meet the prince Aziel beneath a great tree in the palace gardens, there—so said the scroll—to ask his aid in this matter of the suit of Ithobal?"

"Written by myself?" she said wonderingly. "Meet the prince Aziel beneath a tree in the palace gardens? Never have I thought of it."

"Yet, lady, the scroll I saw purported to be written by you, and your own woman bore it to the prince. As I think, she sits yonder at the end of the chamber, for I know her shape."

"Come hither," called Elissa, addressing the woman. "Now tell me, what scroll was this that you carried to-day to the prince Aziel, saying that I sent you?"

"Lady," answered the girl confusedly, "I never told the prince Aziel that you sent him the scroll."

"The truth, woman, the truth," said her mistress. "Lie not, or it will be the worse for you."

"Lady, this is the truth. As I was walking through the market-place an old black woman met me, and offered me a piece of gold if I would deliver a letter into the hand of the prince Aziel. The gold tempted me, for I had need of it, and I consented; but of who wrote the letter I know nothing, nor have I ever seen the woman before."

"You have done wrong, girl," said Elissa, "but I believe your tale. Now go."

When she had gone, Elissa stood for a while thinking; and, as she thought, Metem saw a look of fear gather on her face.

"Say," she asked him, "is there anything strange about the tree of which the scroll tells?"

"Its size is strange," he answered, "and it has five roots that stand above the ground."

As he spoke Elissa uttered a little cry.

"Ah!" she said, "it is the tree of my dream. Now—now I understand. Swift, oh! come with me swiftly, for see, the moon rises," and she sprang to the door followed by the amazed Metem.

Another minute, and they were speeding down the narrow street so fast that those who loitered there turned their heads and laughed, for they thought that a jealous husband pursued his wife. As Elissa fumbled at the hasp of the door of the garden, Metem overtook her.

"What means this hunt?" he gasped.

"That they have decoyed the prince here to murder him," she answered, and sped through the gateway.

"Therefore we must be murdered also. A woman's logic," the Phoenician reflected to himself as he panted after her.

Swiftly as Elissa had run down the street, here she redoubled her speed, flitting through the glades like some white spirit, and so rapidly that her companion found it difficult to keep her in view. At length they came to a large open space of ground where played the level beams of the rising moon, striking upon the dense green foliage of an immense tree that grew there. Round this tree Elissa ran, glancing about her wildly, so that for a few seconds Metem lost sight of her, for its mass was between them. When he saw her again she was speeding towards the figure of a man who stood in the open, about ten paces from the outer boughs of the tree. To this she pointed as she came, crying out aloud, "Beware! Beware!"

Another moment and she had almost reached the man, and still pointing began to gasp some broken words. Then, suddenly in the bright moonlight, Metem saw a shining point of light flash towards the pair from the darkness of the tree. It would seem that Elissa saw it also; at least, she leapt from the ground, her arm lifted above her head as though to catch the object. Then as her feet once more touched the earth her knees gave way, and she fell down with a moan of pain. Metem running on towards her, as he went perceived a shape, which looked like that of a black dwarf, slip from the shadow of the tree into some bushes beyond where it was lost. Now he was there, to find Elissa half-seated, half-lying on the ground, the prince Aziel bending over her, and fixed through the palm of her right hand, which she held up piteously, a little ivory-pointed arrow.

"Draw it out from the wound," he panted.

"It will not help me," she answered; "the arrow is poisoned."


Illustration

"The arrow is poisoned."


With an exclamation, Metem knelt beside her, and, not heeding her groans of pain, drew the dart through the pierced palm. Then he tore a strip of linen from his robe, and knotting it round Elissa's wrist, he took a broken stick that lay near and twisted the linen till it almost cut into her flesh.

"Now, Prince," he said, "suck the wound, for I have no breath for it. Fear not, lady, I know an antidote for this arrow poison, and presently I will be back with the salve. Till then, if you would live, do not suffer that bandage to be loosed, however much it pains you," and he departed swiftly.

Aziel put his lips to the hurt to draw out the poison.

"Nay," she said faintly, trying to pull away her hand, "it is not fitting, the venom may kill you."

"It seems that it was meant for me," he answered, "so at the worst I do take but my own."

Presently, directing Elissa to hold her hand above her head, he put his arms about her and carried her a hundred paces or more into the open glade.

"Why do you move me?" she asked, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Because whoever it was that shot the arrow may return to try his fortune a second time, and here in the open his darts cannot reach us." Then he set her down upon the grass and stood looking at her.

"Listen, prince Aziel," Elissa said after a while, "the venom with which these black men soak their weapons is very strong, and unless Metem's salve be good, it may well chance that I shall die. Therefore before I die I wish to say a word to you. What brought you to this place to-night?"

"A letter from yourself, lady."

"I know it," she said, "but I did not write that letter; it was a snare, set, as I think, by the king Ithobal, who would do you to death in this way or in that. A messenger of his bribed my waiting-maid to deliver it, and afterwards I learnt the tale from Metem. Then, guessing all, I came hither to try to save you."

"But how could you guess all, lady?"

"In a strange fashion, Prince." And in a few words she told him her dream.

"This is marvellous indeed, that you should be warned of my danger by visions," he said wondering, and half-doubtingly.

"So marvellous, Prince, that you do not believe me," Elissa answered. "I know well what you think. You think that a woman to whom this very morning you spoke such words as women cannot well forgive, being revengeful laid a plot to murder you, and then, being a woman, changed her mind. Well, it is not so; Metem can prove it to you!"

"Lady, I believe you," he said, "without needing the testimony of Metem. But now the story grows still more strange, for if you had done me no wrong, how comes it that to preserve me from harm you set your tender flesh between the arrow and one who had reviled you?"

"It was by chance," she answered faintly. "I learnt the truth and ran to warn you. Then I saw the arrow fly towards your heart, and strove to grasp it, and it pierced me. It was by chance, by such a chance as made me dream your danger." And she fainted.


CHAPTER 8
Aziel Plights His Troth

AT first Aziel feared that the poison had done its work, and that Elissa was dead, till placing his hand upon her heart he felt it beating faintly, and knew that she did but swoon. To leave her to seek water or assistance was impossible, since he dared not loose his hold of the bandage about her wrist. So, patiently as he might, he knelt at her side awaiting the return of Metem.

How beautiful her pale face seemed there in the moonlight, set in its frame of dusky hair. And how strange was this tale of hers, of a dream that she had dreamed, a dream which, to save his own, led her to offer her life to the murderer's arrow. Many would not believe it, but he felt that it was true; he felt that even if she wished it she could not lie to him, for as he had known since first they met, their souls were open to each other. Yes, having thus been warned of his danger, she had offered her life for him—for him who that morning had called her, unjustly so Metem said, "a girl of the groves and a murderess." How came it that she had done this, unless indeed she loved him as—he loved her?

Aziel could no longer palter with himself, it was the truth. Last night when Issachar accused him, he had felt this, although then he would not admit it altogether, and now to-night he knew that his fate had found him. They would say that, after the common fashion of men, he had been conquered by a lovely face and form and a brave deed of devotion. But it was not so. Something beyond the flesh and its works and attributes drew him towards this woman, something that he could neither understand nor define (unless, indeed, the vision of Issachar defined it), but of which he had been conscious since first he set eyes upon her face. It was possible, it was even probable, that before another hour had gone by she would have passed beyond his reach, into the deeps of death, whither for a while he could not follow her. Yet he knew that the knowledge that she never could be his would not affect the love of her which burnt in him, for his desire towards her was not altogether a desire of the earth.

Aziel bent down over the swooning girl, looking into her pale face, till her lips almost touched his own, and his breath beating on her brow seemed to give her life again. Now she stirred, and now she opened her eyes and gazed back at him a while, deeply and with meaning, even as he gazed at her.

He spoke no word, for his lips seemed to be smitten with silence, but his heart said, "I love you, I love you," and her heart heard it, for she whispered back:—

"Bethink you who and what I am."

"It matters not, for we are one," he replied.

"Bethink you," she said again, "that soon I may be dead and lost to you."

"It cannot be, for we are one," he replied. "One we have been, one we are to-day, and one we shall be through all the length of life and death."

"Prince," she said again, "once more and for the last time I say: Bethink you well, for it comes upon me that your words are true, and that if I take that which to-night you offer, it will be for ever and for aye."

"For ever and aye, let it be," Aziel said, leaning towards her.

"For ever and for aye, let it be," she repeated, holding up her lips to his.

And thus in the silent moonlit garden they plighted their strange troth.


"Lady," said a voice in their ears, the voice of Metem, "I pray you let me dress your hand, for there is no time to lose."

Aziel looked up to see the Phoenician bending over them with a sardonic smile, and behind him the tall form of Issachar, who stood regarding them, his arms folded on his breast.

"Holy Issachar," went on Metem with malice, "be pleased to hold this lady's hand, since it seems that the prince here can only tend her lips."

"Nay," answered the Levite, "what have I to do with this daughter of Baaltis? Cure her if you can, or if you cannot, let her die, for so shall a stone of stumbling be removed from the feet of the foolish." And he glanced indignantly at Aziel.

"Had it not been for this same stone at least the feet of the foolish by now would have pointed skywards. The gods send me such a stone if ever a black dwarf draws a poisoned arrow at me," answered Metem, as he busied himself with his drugs. Then he added, "Nay, Prince, do not stop to answer him, but hold the lady's hand to the light."

Aziel obeyed, and having washed out the wound with water, Metem rubbed ointment into it which burnt Elissa so sorely that she groaned aloud.

"Be patient beneath the pain, lady," he said, "for if it has not already passed into your blood, this salve will eat away the poison of the arrow."

Then half-leading and half-carrying her, they brought her back to the palace. Here Metem gave her over into the care of her father, telling him as much of the story as he thought wise, and cautioning him to keep silent concerning what had happened.

At the door of the palace Issachar spoke to Aziel.

"Did I dream, Prince," he said, "or did my ears indeed hear you tell that idolatress that you loved her for ever, and did my eyes see you kiss her on the lips?"

"It seems that you saw and heard these things, Issachar," said Aziel, setting his face sternly. "Now hear this further, and then I pray you give me peace on this matter of the lady Elissa: If in any way it is possible, I shall make her my wife, and if it be not possible, then for so long as she may live at least I will look upon no other woman."

"Then that is good news, Prince, to me, who am charged with your welfare, for be sure, if I can prevent you, you shall never mix your life with that of this heathen sorceress."

"Issachar," the prince replied, "I have borne much from you because I know well that you love me, and have stood to me in the place of a father. But now, in my turn, I warn you, do not seek to work harm to the lady Elissa, for in striking her you strike me, and such blows may bring my vengeance after them."

"Vengeance?" mocked the Levite. "I fear but one vengeance, and it is not yours, nor do I listen to the whisperings of love when duty points the path. Rather would I see you dead, prince Aziel, then lured down to hell by the wiles of yonder witch."

Then before Aziel could answer he turned and left him.


As Issachar went to his own chamber full of bitterness and indignation, he passed the door of Elissa's apartments, and came face to face with Metem issuing from them.

"Will the woman live?" he asked of him.

"Be comforted, worthy Issachar. I think so; that is, if the bandage does not slip. I go to tell the prince."

"Gladly would I give a hundred golden shekels to him who brought me tidings that it had slipped and the woman with it, down to the arms of her father Beelzebub," broke in the Levite passionately.

"Pretty words for a holy man," said Metem, feigning amazement. "Well, Issachar, I will do most things for good money, but to shift that bandage would be but murder, and this I cannot work even for the gold and to win your favour."

"Fool," answered Issachar, "did I ask you to do murder? I do not fight with such weapons; let the woman live or die as it is decreed. Nay, enter my chamber, for I would speak with you, who are a cunning man versed in the craft of courts. Listen now: I love this prince Aziel, for I have reared him from his childhood, and he has been a son to me who have none. More, I am sent hither to this hateful land to watch him and hold him from harm, and for all that chances to him I must account. And now, what has chanced? This woman, Elissa, by her witcheries—"

"Softly, Issachar; what witcheries does she need beyond those lips and form and eyes?"

"By her witcheries, I tell you, has ensnared him so that now he swears that he will wed her."

"What of it, Issachar? He might travel far to find a lovelier woman."

"What of it, do you ask, remembering who he is? What of it, when you know his faith, and that this fair idolater will sap it, and cause him to cast away his soul? What of it, when with your own ears you heard him swear to love her through all the deeps of life and death? Man, are you mad?"

"No, but some might say that you are, holy father, who forget that I am also of this religion which you revile. But for good or ill, so the matter stands; and now what is it that you wish of me?"

"I wish that you should make it impossible that the prince Aziel should take this woman to wife. Not by murder, indeed, for 'thou shalt not kill,' saith the law, but by bringing it about that she should marry the king Ithobal, or if that fail, in any other fashion which seems good to you."

"'Thou shalt not kill,' saith your law; tell me then, Issachar, does it say also that thou shalt hand over a woman to a fate that she chances to hold to be worse than death? Doubtless it is foolish of her, and we should not heed such woman's folly. Yet this one has a certain strength of will, and I question if all the elders of the city will bring her living to the arms of Ithobal."

"It is nought to me, Metem, if she weds Ithobal, or weds him not, save that I do not love this heathen man, and surely her temper and her witcheries would bring ruin on him. What I would have you do is to prevent her from marrying Aziel; the way I leave to you."

"And what should I be paid for this service, holy Issachar?"

The Jew thought and answered, "A hundred golden shekels."

"Two hundred gold shekels," replied Metem reflectively, "nay, I am sure you said two hundred, Issachar. At least, I do not work for less, and it is a small sum enough, seeing that to earn it I must take upon myself the guilt of severing two loving hearts. But I know well that you are right, and that this would be an evil marriage for the prince Aziel, and also for the lady Elissa, who then day by day and year by year must bear the scourge of your reproaches, Issachar. Therefore I will do my best, not for the money indeed, but because I see herein a righteous duty. And now here is parchment, give me the lamp that I may prepare the bond."

"My word is my bond, Phoenician," answered the Levite haughtily.

Metem looked at him. "Doubtless," he said, "but you are old, and this is—a rough country where accidents chance at times. Still, the thing would read very ill, and, as you say, your word is your bond. Only remember, Issachar, two hundred shekels, bearing interest at two shekels a month. And now you are weary, holy Issachar, with plotting for the welfare of others, and so am I. Farewell, and good dreams to you."

The Levite watched him go, muttering to himself, "Alas that I should have fallen to such traffic with a knave, but it is for your sake and for your soul's sake, O Aziel my son. I pray that Fate be not too strong for me and you."


For two days from this night Elissa lay almost senseless, and by many it was thought that she would die. But when Metem saw her on the morning after she had been wounded, and noted that her arm was but little swollen, and had not turned black, he announced that she would certainly live, whatever the doctors of the city might declare. Thereon Sakon, her father, and Aziel blessed him, but Issachar said nothing.

As the Phoenician was walking through the market-place early on the next day an aged black woman, whom he did not know, accosted him, saying that she had a message for his ear from the king Ithobal who was camped without the city and who desired to see the merchandise that he had brought with him from the coasts of Tyre. Now Metem had already sold all his wares at a great advantage; still, as he would not neglect this opportunity of trade, he purchased others from his fellow merchants, and loading two camels with them, set out for the camp of Ithobal, riding on a mule. By midday he had reached it. The camp was pitched near water in a pleasant grove of trees, and on one of these not far from the tent of Ithobal Metem noted that there hung the body of a black dwarf.

"Behold the fate of him who shoots at the buck and hits the doe. Well, I have always said that murder is a dangerous game, since blood calls out for blood," thought Metem as he rode towards the tent.

At its door stood king Ithobal looking very huge and sullen in the sunlight. Metem dismounted and prostrated himself obsequiously.

"May the King live for ever," he said, "the great King, the King to whom all the other kings of the earth are as the little gods to Baal, or the faint stars to the sun."

"Rise, and cease from flatteries," said Ithobal shortly; "I may be greater than the other kings, but at least you do not think it."

"If the king says so, so let it be," replied Metem calmly. "A woman yonder in the market-place told me that the king wished to trade for my merchandise. So I have brought the best of it; priceless goods that which much toil I have carried hither from Tyre," and he pointed to the two camels laden with the inferior articles which he had purchased, and began to read the number and description of the goods from his tablets.

"What value do you set upon the whole of them, merchant?" asked Ithobal.

"To the traders of the country so much, but to you, O King, so much only," and he named a sum twice that which he had paid in the city.

"So be it," assented Ithobal indifferently; "I do not haggle over wares. Though your price is large, presently my treasurer shall weigh you out the gold."

There was a moment's pause, then Metem said:—

"The trees in this camp of yours bear evil fruit, O King. If I might ask, why does that little black monkey hang yonder."


Illustration

"The trees in this camp of yours bear evil fruit, O King."


"Because he tried to do murder with his poisoned arrows," answered Ithobal sullenly.

"And failed? Well, it must comfort you to think that he did fail if he was of the number of your servants. It is strange now that some knave unknown attempted murder last night in the palace gardens, also with poisoned arrows. I say attempted, but as yet I cannot be sure that he did not succeed."

"What!" exclaimed Ithobal, "was—" and he stopped.

"No, King, prince Aziel was not hit; the Lady Elissa took that shaft through her hand, and lies between life and death. I am doctoring her, and had it not been for my skill she would now be stiff and black—as the rogue who shot the arrow."

"Save her," said Ithobal hoarsely, "and I will pay you a doctor's fee of a hundred ounces of pure gold. Oh! had I but known, the clumsy fool should not have died so easily."

Metem took out his tablets and made a note of the amount.

"Take comfort, King," he said, "I think that I shall earn the fee. But to speak truth, this matter looks somewhat ugly, and your name is mentioned in it. Also it is said that your cousin, the great man whom the prince Aziel slew, was charged to abduct a certain lady by your order."

"Then false tales are told in Zimboe, and not for the first time," answered Ithobal coldly. "Listen, merchant, I have a question to ask of you. Will the prince Aziel meet me in single combat with whatever weapons he may choose?"

"Doubtless, and—pardon me if I say it—slay you as he slew your cousin, for he is a fine swordsman, who has studied the art in Egypt, where it is understood, and your strength would not avail against him. But your question is already answered, for though the prince would be glad enough to fight you, Sakon will have none of it. Have you nothing else to ask me, King?"

Ithobal nodded and said:—

"Listen, merchant. I know your repute of old, that you love money and will do much to gain it, and that you are craftier than any hill-side jackal. Now, if you can do my will, you will have more wealth than ever you won in your life before."

"The offer sounds good in a poor man's ears, King, but it depends upon what is your will."

Ithobal went to the door of the tent, and commanded the sentries who stood without to suffer none to disturb him or draw near. Then he returned and said:—

"I will tell you, but beware that you do not betray my counsels in this or in any other matter, for I have sharp ears and a long arm. You know how things are between me and the lady Elissa and her father Sakon and the city which he governs. They stand thus: Unless within eight days she is given to me in marriage, I have sworn that I will make war upon Zimboe. Ay, and I will make it, for, filled with hate for the white man, already the great tribes are gathering to my banners in ten armies, each of them ten thousand strong. Once let them march beneath yonder walls, and before they leave it Zimboe, city of gold, shall be nothing but a heap of ruins, and a habitation of the dead. Such shall be my vengeance; but I seek love more than vengeance, for what will it avail me to butcher all that people of traders if—as well may chance in the accidents of war—I lose her whom I desire, whose beauty shall be my crown of crowns, and whose mind shall make me great indeed?

"Therefore, Metem, if may be, I would win her without war; let the war come afterwards, as come it must, for the time is ripe. And though she turned from me, this I should have done, had it not been for yonder prince Aziel, whom she met in a strange fashion, and straightway learned to love. Now the thing is more difficult. Nay, while the prince Aziel can take her to wife it is well-nigh impossible, since no threats of war or ruin can turn a woman's heart from him she seeks—to him she flies. Therefore, I ask you—"

"Your pardon, King," Metem broke in, "I see that you, like your rival, are so besotted with the beauty of this girl, that in all with which she has to do you have lost the rule of your own reason. I would save you perchance from saying words to which I do not wish to listen, and when you find a quiet mind again, that you may regret having spoken. If you were about to require of me that I should cause or be privy to the death of the prince Aziel, you would require it in vain; yes, even if you were willing to pay me gold in mountains, and gems in camel loads. With murder I will have nothing to do; moreover, the prince, your rival, is my friend and master, and I will not harm him. Further, I may tell you that after the adventure of last night none will be able to come near him to hurt a hair of his head, seeing that through daylight and through darkness he is guarded by two men."

"With a woman's body to set before him as a shield," said Ithobal bitterly. "But you speak too fast; I was not about to ask you to kill this man, or even to procure his death, because I know it would be useless, but rather that you should so contrive that he cannot take Elissa. How you contrive it I care nothing, so that she is not harmed. You may kidnap him, or stir up the city against him, as one destined to be the source of war, and cause him to be despatched back to the great sea, or bribe the priests of El to hide him away, or what you will, if only you separate him from this woman for ever. Say, merchant, are you willing to undertake the task, or must my good gold go elsewhere?"

Metem pondered awhile and answered:—

"I think that I will undertake it, King; that is, if we come to terms, though whether I shall succeed is another matter. I will undertake it not only because I seek to enrich myself, but because I and others who serve him think it is a very evil thing that this prince, Aziel, whose blood is the most royal in the whole world, without the consent of the great king of Israel, his grandfather, should wed the daughter of a Phoenician officer, however beautiful and loving she may be. Also I love yonder city, which I have known for forty years, and would not see it plunged in a bloody war and perhaps destroyed because a certain man desires to call a certain girl his sweetheart. And now if I succeed in this, what will you give me?"

Ithobal named a great sum.

"King," replied Metem, "you must double it, for that amount you speak of I shall be forced to spend in bribes. More; you must give me the gold now, before I leave your camp, or I will do nothing."

"That you may steal it—and do nothing," laughed Ithobal angrily.

"As you will, King. Such are my terms; if they do not please you, well, let me go. But if you accept them, I will sign a bond under which if within eight days I do not make it impossible for the prince Aziel to marry the lady Elissa, you may reclaim so much of the gold as I do not prove to you to have been spent upon your service, and no bond of Metem the Phoenician was ever yet dishonoured. No, on second thought I will learn wisdom from Issachar the Levite and put my hand to no writing which it would pain me that some should read. King, my sworn word must content you. Another thing, soon war may break out, or I may be forced to fly. Therefore, I demand of you a pass sealed with your seal that will enable me to ride with twenty men and all my goods and treasure, even through the midst of your armies. Moreover you shall swear the great oath to me that notice of this pass will be given to your generals and that it shall be respected to the letter. Do you consent to these terms?"

"I consent," said the king presently.


That evening Metem returned to the city of Zimboe, but those who led his two camels little guessed that now they were laden, not with merchandise, but with treasure.


CHAPTER 9
Greeting To The Baaltis

WHEN Metem accepted bribes from Issachar and from Ithobal, in consideration of his finding means to make the union of Aziel and Elissa impossible, he had already thought out his scheme. It was one which, while promoting, as he considered, the true welfare of the lovers, if successful would separate them effectually and for ever.

It will be remembered that Elissa had explained to the prince how, on the death of the lady Baaltis, another woman was elected by the colleges of the priests and priestesses to fill her place. This lady could marry, indeed she was expected to do so, but her husband must take the title of Shadid, and for her lifetime act as high-priest of El. Therefore, thought Metem, if it could be brought about that Elissa should be chosen as the new Baaltis, it was obvious that there would be an end of the possibility of her marriage to Aziel. Then, in order to wed her, he must renounce his own religion—a thing which no Jew would do—and pose as the earthly incarnation of one whom he considered a false divinity or a devil.

Indeed, not only marriage, but any further intimacy between the pair would be rendered impracticable, for upon this point the religious law, lax enough in many particulars, was very strict. In fact, so strict was it that for the lady Baaltis of the day to be found alone with any man meant death to her and him. The reason of this severity was that she was supposed to represent the goddess; and her husband, the Shadid, a god, so that any questionable behaviour on her part became an insult to the most powerful divinities of Heaven, which could only be atoned by the death of their unworthy incarnations. That these laws were actual and not formal only was proved by the instance that within the hundred years before the birth of Elissa, a lady Baaltis had been executed for some such offence, having been hurled indeed from the topmost pinnacle of the fortress above the temple to the foot of the precipice beneath.

All these sacerdotal customs were familiar to Metem, who argued from them that to procure the nomination of Elissa as the Baaltis would be to build an impassable wall between her and the prince Aziel. Also, by way of compensation, that office would confer upon her the highest dignity and honour which could be attained by any woman in the city. Moreover, her election would place her beyond the reach of the persecutions of Ithobal, since as lady Baaltis she was entitled to choose her own husband without hindrance or appeal, provided only that he was of pure white blood, which Ithobal was not.

Having thought the matter out, and convinced himself that such a course would not only benefit his own pocket, but prove to the lasting advantage of all concerned, Metem, filled with a glow of righteous zeal, set about his task with the promptitude and cunning of his race. It was not an easy task, for although she had enemies and rivals, the daughter of the dead Baaltis, Mesa by name, was considered to be certain of election at the poll of the priests and priestesses. This ceremony was to take place within two days. Nothing discouraged, however, by the scant time at his disposal or other difficulties, without her knowledge or that of her father, Metem began his canvass on behalf of Elissa.

First with a great sum of gold he bought over the ex-Shadid, the husband of the late lady Baaltis. As it chanced, this worthy had quarrelled with his daughter. Therefore it followed that he would prefer to see some stranger chosen in her place in the hope that, notwithstanding his years, by choosing him in marriage she might confirm him in his position of spouse to the goddess.

All Metem's further negotiations need not be followed: money played a part in most of them; jealousy and dislike in some. A few there were also whom he won over by urging the beauty and wisdom of Elissa, and her extraordinary fitness for the post, as evinced by her recent inspiration in the temple! He found his most powerful allies, however, among the members of the council of the city. To these grandees he pointed out that Elissa was a woman of great strength of character, who would certainly never consent to be forced into a marriage with Ithobal, although her refusal should mean a desperate war, and that her father was so much under her influence that he could not be brought to put pressure upon her. Therefore it was obvious that the only way out of the difficulty was her election as Baaltis. This must prove a perfect answer to the suit of the savage king, since the goddess could not be compelled, and even Ithobal, fearing the vengeance of Heaven, would shrink from offering her violence.

There support gained, having first sworn him to secrecy, he attacked Sakon himself, using similar arguments with him. He pointed out, in addition, that if the governor hoped to see his daughter married to prince Aziel, who was in love with her, however dazzling might be the prospects of such a match, it would certainly bring upon him the present wrath of Ithobal, and, in all probability, future trouble with the Courts of Egypt, of Israel, and through them, of Tyre. Thus working in many ways, Metem laboured incessantly to win his end, so that when at last the hour of election came he awaited its issue, fairly confident of success.

It was on this same afternoon that for the first time since she had received the arrow which was meant for his heart, Aziel was admitted to see Elissa. Now at length her recovery was certain, although she had not shaken off her weakness, and her right arm and wrist were still stiff and swollen. Except for two or three of her women, who were seated at their work behind a screen near the far end of the great chamber, she was alone, lying upon a couch in the recess of the window-place. Advancing to her, Aziel bent down to kiss her wounded hand.

"Nay," said Elissa, hiding it beneath the folds of her robe, "it is still black and unsightly with the poison."

"The more reason that I should kiss it, seeing how the stain came there," he answered.

Her eyes met his, and she whispered, "Not my hand, but my brow, Prince, for so I shall be crowned."

He pressed his lips upon her forehead, and replied:—

"Queen of my heart you are already, and though the throne be humble it is sure. The life you saved is yours, and no other's."

"I did but repay a debt," she answered; "but speak of it no more. Gladly would I have died to save you; should such choice arise, would you do so for me, I wonder?"

"There is little need to ask such a question, lady; for your sake I would not only die, I would even endure shame—that is worse than death."

"Sweet words, Aziel," she answered, smiling, "of which we shall learn the value when the hour of trial comes, as come, I think, it will. You told me but now that you were mine, and no other's; but is it so? I have heard the story of a certain princess of Khem with whom your name was mingled. Tell me, if you will, what was it that set you journeying to this far city of ours?"

"The desire to find you," he answered smiling; then seeing that she still looked at him with questioning eyes, he added, "Nay, this is the truth, if you seek truth. Indeed, it is the best that I should tell you, since it seems that already you have heard something of the tale. A while ago I was sent to the Court of the Pharaoh of Egypt, by the will of my grandsire, the king of Israel, upon an embassy of friendship, and to escort thence a certain beautiful princess, my cousin, who was affianced by treaty to an uncle of mine, a great prince of Israel. This I did, showing to the lady courtesy, and no more. But the end of the matter was that when we came to Jerusalem the princess refused to be married to my uncle, to whom she was betrothed—" and he hesitated.

"Nay, be not timid, Prince," said Elissa sharply; "continue, I pray you. I have heard that the lady added somewhat to her refusal."

"That is so, Elissa. She declared before the king that she would wed no man except myself only, whereon my uncle was very angry, and accused me of playing him false, which, indeed, I had not done."

"Although the lady was so fair, Aziel? But what said the great king?"

"He said that never having seen him to whom she was affianced, he would not suffer that she should be forced into marriage with him against her will. Yet that her will might be uninfluenced, he commanded that I should be sent upon a long journey. That was his judgment, lady."

"Yes, but not all of it; surely he added other words?" she broke in eagerly.

"He added," continued Aziel, with some reluctance, "that if while I was on this journey the princess changed her mind, and chose to wed my uncle, it would be well. But, when I returned from it, if she had not changed her mind, and chose—to marry me—then it would be well also, and, though he was little pleased, with this saying my uncle must be satisfied."

"It does not satisfy me, prince Aziel," Elissa answered, the tears starting to her dark eyes. "I know full well that the lady will not change her mind, and take a man who is in years, and whom she hates, in place of one who is young, and whom she loves. Therefore, when you return hence to Jerusalem, by the king's command you will wed her."

"Nay, Elissa; if I am already married that cannot be," he said.

"In Judea, Prince, I am told that men take more wives than one; also, they divorce them," she replied; then added, "Oh, return not there where I shall lose you. If, indeed, you love me, I pray you return not there."

Before he could answer, a sound of singing and of all sorts of music caught Aziel's ear. Looking through the casement, he saw a great procession of the priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis clad in their festal robes and accompanied by many dignitaries of the city, a multitude of people and bands of musicians, advancing across the square towards the door of the palace.

"Why, what passes?" he exclaimed. As he spoke the door opened and two richly arrayed heralds, wands of office in their hands, entered and prostrated themselves before Elissa.

"Greeting to you, most noble and blessed lady, the chosen of the gods!" they cried with one voice. "Prepare, we beseech you, to hear glad tidings, and to receive those who are sent to tell them."

"Glad tidings?" said Elissa. "Has Ithobal then withdrawn his suit?"

"Nay, lady; it is not of Ithobal that the messengers come to speak."

"Then I cannot receive them," she said, sinking back in apprehension. "I am still ill and weak, and I pray to be excused."

"Nay, lady," answered the herald, "that which they have to tell will cure your sickness."

Again Elissa protested. Before the words had left her lips there appeared in the doorway he who had been husband of the dead Baaltis, followed by priests and priestesses, by Sakon her father, with whom was Metem, and many other nobles and dignitaries.

"All hail, lady!" they cried, prostrating themselves before her. "All hail, lady, chosen of the gods!"

Elissa looked at them bewildered.

"Your pardon," she said, "I do not understand."

Then, rising from his knees, he who was still the Shadid until his successor was appointed, addressed her as spokesman.

"Listen," he said, "and learn, lady, the great thing that has befallen you. Know, O divine One, that by the inspiration of El and Baaltis, rulers of the heavens, the colleges of the priests and priestesses of the city, following the voice of the oracles and the pointing of the omens, have set you in that high place which death has emptied. Greeting to you, holder of the spirit of the goddess! Greeting to the Baaltis!"

"I did not seek this honour," she murmured in the silence that followed, "and I refuse it. The throne of the goddess is Mesa's right; let her take it, or if she will not, then find some other woman who is more worthy."

"Lady," said the Shadid, "these words become you well, but it has pleased the gods to choose you and not my daughter, the lady Mesa, or any other woman, and the choice of the gods may not be set aside. Till death shall take you, you and you alone are the lady Baaltis whom we obey."

"Must I then be made divine against my will," she pleaded, and turned to Aziel as though for counsel.

"Be pleased to stand back, prince Aziel," said the stern voice of the Shadid, interposing. "Remember that henceforth no man may speak to the Baaltis save he whom she names with the name of Shadid to be her husband. Henceforward you are parted, since to seek her company would be to cause her death."

Now understanding that the doom of life-long separation had fallen upon them like the sudden sword of fate, Aziel and Elissa gazed at each other in despair. Then, before either of them could speak a word, at a sign from the Shadid, the priestesses closed round Elissa. Throwing a white veil over her head, they broke into a joyful paean of song, and half-led, half-carried her from the chamber to enthrone her in the palace of the goddess, which was henceforth to be her home.

Presently all the company, including the waiting women, having joined the procession, the chamber was empty, with the exception of Aziel, Metem and Issachar the Levite, who, drawn by the sound of singing, had entered the place unnoticed.

"Take comfort, Prince," said the Phoenician in a half-bantering voice, "if you and the lady Baaltis are truly dear to each other she may still be yours, for you have but to bow the knee to El, and she will name you Shadid and husband."

"Blaspheme not," cried Issachar sternly. "Shall a worshipper of the God of Israel do sacrifice to a demon to win a woman's smile?"

"That time will prove," answered Metem, shrugging his shoulders; "at least it is certain that he will win it in no other way. Prince," he added, changing his tone, "if you have any such thoughts, abandon them, I pray of you, for on this matter the law may not be broken. The man spoke truth, moreover, when he told you that should you be found with the Baaltis, not being her husband, you would cause her death."

Aziel took no notice of his words, but turning to the Levite, he asked in a quiet voice:—

"Did you plot this to separate us, Issachar? If so, you shall live to mourn the deed."

"Listen, Prince," broke in Metem, "it was not Issachar who plotted that the lady Elissa should be chosen Baaltis, but I, or at least I helped the plot. Shall I tell you why I did this? It was to save you and her, and if possible to prevent a great war also. You could not wed this woman who is not of your race, or rank, or religion; and if you could, it would bring about a struggle that must cost thousands their lives, and this city its wealth. Nor could you make of her less than a wife, seeing that she is well-born and that you are her father's guest. Therefore for your own sake it is best that she should be placed beyond your reach. For her sake also it is best, since she is ambitious and born to rule, who henceforth will be clothed with power for all her days. Moreover, had it been otherwise, in the end she must have passed to that savage Ithobal, whom she hates. Now this is scarcely possible, for the lady Baaltis can wed no man who is not of pure white blood, and whom she does not choose of her own free will. That is a decree which may not be broken even by Ithobal. So revile me not, but thank me, though for a little while your heart be sore."

"My heart is sore indeed," answered Aziel, "and if you think your words be wise, their medicine does not soothe, Phoenician. You may have laboured for my welfare and for that of the lady Elissa, or, like the huckster that you are, for your own advantage, or for both—I know not, and do not care to know. But this I know, that you, and Issachar also, are striving to snare Fate in a web of sand, and that Fate will be too strong for it and you. I love this woman and she loves me, because such is our destiny, and no barriers which man may build can serve to separate us. Also of this I am assured, that by your plots you draw the evils you would ward away upon the heads of us all, for from them shall spring war, and deaths, and misery.

"For the rest, do not think, Metem and Issachar, that I, whom you betrayed, and the woman you have ruined with a crown of greatness she did not seek, are clay to be moulded at your will. It is another hand than yours which fashioned the vessel of our destiny; nor can you stay our lips from drinking of the pure wine that fills it. Farewell," and with a grave inclination of the head he left the room.

Metem watched him go, then he turned to Issachar and said:—

"I have earned my hire well, and you must pay the price, but now it troubles me to think that I touched this business. Why it is I cannot say, but it comes upon me that the prince speaks truth, and that no plot of ours can avail to separate these two who were born to each other, although it well may happen that we shall unite them in death alone. Issachar," he added with fierce conviction, "I will not take your gold, for it is the price of blood! I tell you it is the price of blood!"

"Take it or no, as you will, Phoenician," answered the Levite; "at least I am well pleased that the promise of it bought your service. Even should the prince Aziel discharge this day's work with his young life, it is better that he should perish in the body than that he should lose his soul for the bribe of a woman's passing beauty. Whatever else be lost, that is saved to him, since those sorceress lips of hers are set beyond his reach. An Israelite cannot mate with the oracle of Baaltis, Metem."

"You say so, Issachar, but I have seen men climb high to pluck such fruit. Yes, I have seen them climb even when they knew that they must fall before the fruit was reached."

Then he went also, leaving Issachar alone and oppressed with a dread of the future which was none the less real because it could not be defined.


CHAPTER 10
The Embassy

WEAK as she was still with recent illness, half-fainting also from the shock of the terrible and unexpected fate which had overtaken her, Elissa was borne in triumph to the palace that now was hers. Around her gilded litter priestesses danced and sang their wild chants, half-bacchanalian and half-religious; before it marched the priests of El, clashing cymbals and crying, "Make way, make way for the new-born goddess! Make way for her whose throne is upon the horned moon!" while all about the multitude of spectators prostrated themselves in worship.

Elissa was borne in triumph. Vaguely she heard the shouts and music, dimly she saw the dancing-girls and the bowing crowds. But all the while her heart was alive with pain and her brain, crushed beneath the menace of this misery, could grasp nothing clearly save the completeness of her loss. Loss! Yes, she was lost indeed. One short hour ago and she was rejoicing in the presence of the man she loved, and who, as she believed, loved her, while in her mind rose visions of some happy life with him far away from this city and the dark rites of the worshippers of Baal. And now she found herself the chief priestess of that worship which already she had learned to fear if not to hate. More, as its priestess, till death should come to comfort her, she was cut off for ever from him whom she adored, cut off also from the hope of that new spiritual light which had begun to dawn upon her soul.

Elissa looked upon the beautiful women who leapt and sang about her litter, listening to the clash of their ornaments of gold, and as she listened and looked her eyes seemed to gain power to behold the spirits within them. Surely she could see these, dark and hideous things, with shifting countenances, terrible to look on, and themselves wearing in their eyes of flame a stamp of eternal terror, while in her ears the music of their golden necklaces was changed to a clank as of fetters and of instruments of torment. Yes; and there before the dancers in the red cloud of dust which rose from their beating feet, floated the dim shape of that demon of whom she had been chosen the high-priestess.

Look at her mocking, inhuman countenance, and her bent brow of power! Look at her spread and flaming hair and her hundred hands outstretched to grasp the souls of men! Hark! the clamour of the cymbals and the cry of the dancers blended together and became her voice, a dreadful voice that gave greeting to her princess, promising her pride of place and life-long power in payment for her service.

"I desire none of these," her heart seemed to answer; "I desire him only whom I have lost."

"Is it so?" replied the Voice. "Then bid him burn incense upon my altar and take him to yourself. Have I not given you enough of beauty to snare a single soul from among the servants of my enemy the God of the Jews?"

"Nay, nay!" her heart cried; "I will not tempt him to do this evil thing."

"Yea, yea!" mocked the phantom Voice; "for your sake he shall burn incense upon my altar."


The phantasy passed, and now the golden gates of the palace of Baaltis rolled open before Elissa. Now, too, the priestesses bore her to the golden throne shaped like a crescent moon, and threw over her a black veil spangled with stars, symbol of the night. Then having shut out the uninitiated, they worshipped her after their secret fashion till she sank down upon the throne overcome with fear and weariness. Then at last they carried her to that wonder of workmanship and allegorical art, the ivory bed of Baaltis, and laid her down to sleep.


At dawn upon the following day an embassy, headed by Sakon, governor of the city, in whose train were Metem and Aziel, went to the camp of Ithobal. The mission of these envoys was to give the king answer to his suit, for he refused to come to Zimboe unless he were allowed to bring a larger force than it was thought prudent to admit into the city gates. At some distance from the tents they halted, while messengers were sent forward inviting Ithobal to a conference on the plain, as it seemed scarcely safe to trust themselves within the stout thorn fence which had been built about the camp. Metem, who said that he had no fear of the king, went with these men, and on reaching the zeriba was at once bidden to the pavilion of Ithobal. He found the great man pacing its length sullenly.

"What seek you here, Phoenician?" he asked, glancing at him over his shoulder.

"My fee, King. The king was pleased to promise me a hundred ounces of gold if I saved the life of the Lady Elissa. I come, therefore, to assure him that my skill has prevailed against the poisoned arrow of that treacherous dog of the desert, which pierced her hand as she spoke with the prince Aziel the other night, and to claim my reward. Here is a note of the amount," and he produced his tablets.

"If half of what I hear is true, rogue," answered Ithobal savagely, "the tormentor and the headsman alone could satisfy all my debt to you. Say, merchant, what return have you made me for that sackful of gold which you bore hence some few days gone?"

"The best of all returns, King," answered Metem cheerfully, although in truth he began to feel afraid. "I have kept my word, and fulfilled the command of the king. I have made it impossible that the prince Aziel should wed the daughter of Sakon."

"Yes, rogue, you have made it impossible by causing her to be consecrated Baaltis, and thus building a barrier which even I shall find too hard to climb. It is scarcely to be hoped that now she will choose me of her own will, and to offer violence to the Baaltis is a sacrilege from which any man—yes, even a king—may shrink, for such deeds draw the curse of Heaven. Know that for this service I am minded to settle my account with you in a fashion of which you have not thought. Have you heard, Phoenician, that the chiefs of certain of my tribes love to decorate their spear-shafts with the hide of white men, and to bray their flesh into a medicine which gives courage to its eater?"

With this pleasing and suggestive query Ithobal paused, and looked towards the door of the tent as though he were about to call his guard.

Now Metem's blood ran cold, for he knew that this royal savage was not one who uttered idle threats. Yet the coolness and cunning which had so often served him well did not fail him in his need.

"I have heard that your people have strange customs," he answered with a laugh, "but I think that even a spear-shaft would scarcely gain beauty from my wrinkled hide, and if anything, the eating of my flesh would make tradesmen and not warriors of your chiefs. Well, let the jest pass, and listen. King, in all my schemings one thought never crossed my mind, namely, that you were a man to suffer scruples to stand between you and the woman you would win. You think that now she is a goddess? Well, if that be so—and it is not for me to say—who could be a fitter mate for the greatest king upon the earth than a goddess from the heavens? Take her, king Ithobal, take her, and this I promise you, that when your armies are encamped without the walls, the priests of El will absolve you of the crime of aspiring to the fair lips of Baaltis."

"The lips of Baaltis," broke in Ithobal; "do you think that I shall find them sweet when another man has rifled them? Secret chambers are many yonder in the palace of the gods, and doubtless the Jew will find his way there."

"Nay, King, for between these two I have indeed built a wall which cannot be climbed. The worshipper of the Lord of Israel may not traffic with the high-priestess of Ashtoreth. Moreover, I shall bring it about that ere long Prince Aziel's face is set seawards."

"Do that, and I will believe you, merchant, though it would be better if you could bring it about that his face was set earthwards, as I will if I can. Well, this time I spare you, though be sure that if aught miscarry, you shall pay the price, how, I have told you. Now I go to talk with these traders, these outlanders, of Zimboe. Why do you wait? You are dismissed and —alive."

Metem looked steadily at the tablets which he still held in his hand.

"I have heard," he said humbly, "that the king Ithobal, the great king, always pays his debts, and as I—an outlander—shall be leaving Zimboe shortly under his safe conduct, I desire to close this small account."

Ithobal went to the door of his tent and commanded that his treasurer should attend him, bringing money. Presently he came, and at his lord's bidding weighed out one hundred ounces of gold.

"You are right, Phoenician," said Ithobal; "I always pay my debts, sometimes in gold and sometimes in iron. Be careful that I owe you no more, lest you who to-day are paid in gold, to-morrow may receive the iron, weighed out in the fashion of which I have spoken. Now, begone."

Metem gathered up the treasure, and hiding it in his ample robe, bowed himself from the royal presence and out of the thorn-hedged camp.

"Without doubt I have been in danger," he said to himself, wiping his brow, "since at one time that black brute, disregarding the sanctity of an envoy, had it in his mind to torture and to kill me. So, so, king Ithobal, Metem the Phoenician is also an honest merchant who 'always pays his debts,' as you may learn in the market-places of Jerusalem, of Sidon and of Zimboe, and I owe you a heavy bill for the fright you have given me to-day. Little of Elissa's company shall you have if I can help it; she is too good for a cross-bred savage, and if before I go from these barbarian lands I can set a drop of medicine in your wine, or an arrow in your gizzard, upon the word of Metem the Phoenician, it shall be done, king Ithobal."


When Metem reached Sakon and the envoys, he found that a message had already been sent to them announcing that Ithobal would meet them presently upon the plain outside his camp. But still the king did not come; indeed, it was not until Sakon had despatched another messenger, saying that he was about to return to the city, that at length Ithobal appeared at the head of a bodyguard of black troops. Arranging these in line in front of the camp, he came forward, attended by twelve or fourteen counsellors and generals, all of them unarmed. Half-way between his own line and that of the Phoenicians, but out of bowshot of either, he halted.

Thereon Sakon, accompanied by a similar number of priests and nobles, among whom were Aziel and Metem, all of them also unarmed, except for the knives in their girdles, marched out to meet him. Their escort they left drawn up upon the hillside.

"Let us to business, King," said Sakon, when the formal words of salutation had passed. "We have waited long upon your pleasure, and already troops move out from the city to learn what has befallen us."

"Do they then fear that I should ambush ambassadors?" asked Ithobal hotly. "For the rest, is it not right that servants should bide at the door of their king till it is his pleasure to open?"

"I know not what they fear," answered Sakon, "but at least we fear nothing, for we are too many," and he glanced at his soldiers, a thousand strong, upon the hillside. "Nor are the citizens of Zimboe the servants of any man unless he be the king of Tyre."

"That we shall put to proof, Sakon," said Ithobal; "but say, what does the Jew with you?" and he pointed to Aziel. "Is he also an envoy from Zimboe?"

"Nay, King," answered the prince laughing, "but my grandsire, the mighty ruler of Israel, charged me always to take note of the ways of savages in peace and war, that I might learn how to deal with them. Therefore, I sought leave to accompany Sakon upon this embassy."

"Peace, peace!" broke in Sakon. "This is no time for gibes. King Ithobal, since you did not dare to venture yourself again within the walls of our city, we have come to answer the demands you made upon us in the Hall of Audience. You demanded that our fortifications should be thrown down, and this we refuse, since we do not court destruction. You demanded that we should cease to enslave men to labour in the mines, and to this we answer that for every man we take we will pay a tax to his lawful chief, or to you as king. You demanded that the ancient tribute should be doubled. To this, out of love and friendship, and not from fear, we assent, if you will enter into a bond of lasting peace, since it is peace we seek, and not war. King, you have our answer."

"Not all of it, Sakon. How of that first condition—that Lady Elissa the fair, your daughter, should be given me to wife?"

"King, it cannot be, for the gods of heaven have taken this matter from our hands, anointing the lady Elissa their high-priestess."

"Then as I live," answered Ithobal with fury, "I will take her from the hands of the gods and anoint her my dancing-woman. Do you think to make a mock of me, you people of Zimboe, whom I have honoured by desiring one of your daughters in marriage? You seek to trick me with your priests' juggling that you may keep her to be the toy of yonder princeling? So be it, but I tell you that I will tear your city stone from stone, and anoint its ruins with your blood. Yes, your young men shall labour in the mines for me, and your high-born maidens shall wait upon my queens. Listen, you"—and he turned to his generals—"Let the messengers who are ready start east and west, and north and south, to the chiefs whose names you have, bidding them to meet me with their tribesmen, at the time and place appointed. When next I speak with you, Elders of Zimboe, it shall be at the head of a hundred thousand warriors."

"Then, King, on your hands be all the innocent lives that these words of yours have doomed, and may the weight of their wasted blood press you down to ruin and death."

Thus answered Sakon proudly, but with pale lips, for do what they would to hide it, something of the fear they felt for the issue of this war was written on the faces of all his company.

Ithobal turned upon his heel, deigning no reply, but as he went he whispered a word into the ear of two of his captains, great men of war, who stayed behind the rest of his party searching for something upon the ground. Sakon and his counsellors also turned, walking towards their escort, but Aziel lingered a little, fearing no danger, and being curious to learn what the men sought.

"What do you seek, captains?" he asked courteously.

"A gold armlet that one of us has lost," they answered.

Aziel let his eyes wander on the ground, and not far away perceived the armlet half-hidden in a tussock of dry grass, where, indeed, it had been placed.

"Is this the ring?" he asked, lifting it and holding it towards them.

"It is, and we thank you," they answered, advancing to take the ornament.

The next moment, before Aziel even guessed their purpose, the captains had gripped him by either arm and were dragging him at full speed towards their camp. Understanding their treachery and the greatness of his danger, he cried aloud for help. Then throwing himself swiftly to the ground, he set his feet against a stone that chanced to lie in their path in such fashion that the sudden weight tore his right arm from the group of the man that held him. Now, quick as thought, Aziel drew the dagger from his girdle, and, still lying upon his back, plunged it into the shoulder of the second man so that he loosed him in his pain. Next he sprang to his feet, and, leaping to one side to escape the rush of his captors, ran like a deer towards the party of Sakon, who had wheeled round at the sound of his cry.

Ithobal and his men had turned also and sped towards them, but at a little distance they halted, the king shouting aloud:—

"I desired to hold this foreigner, who is the cause of war between us, hostage for your daughter's sake, Sakon, but this time he has escaped me. Well, it matters nothing, for soon my turn will come. Therefore, if you and he are wise, you will send him back to the sea, for thither alone I promise him safe conduct."

Then without more words he walked to his camp, the gates of which were closed behind him.


"Prince Aziel," said Sakon, as they went towards the city, "it is ill to speak such words to an honoured guest, but it cannot be denied that you bring much trouble on my head. Twice now you have nearly perished at the hands of Ithobal, and should that chance, doubtless I must earn the wrath of Israel. On your behalf, also, the city of Zimboe is this day plunged into a war that well may be her last, since it is because you have grown suddenly dear to her that my daughter has continued to refuse the suit of Ithobal, and because of his outraged pride at this refusal that he has raised up the nations against us. Prince, while you remain in this city there is no hope of peace. Do not, therefore, hate me, your servant, if I pray of you to leave us while there is yet time."

"Sakon," answered Aziel, "I thank you for your open speech, and will pay you back in words as honest as your own. Gladly would I go, for here nothing but sorrow has befallen me, were it not for one thing which to you may seem little, but to me, and perhaps to another, is all in all. I love your daughter as I have never loved a woman before, and as my mind is to hers, so is hers to mine. How, then, can I go hence when the going means that I must part from her for ever?"

"How can you stay here, Prince, when the staying means that you must bring her to shame and death, and yourself with her? Say now, are you prepared, for the sake of this maiden, to abandon the worship of your fathers and to become the servant of El and Baaltis?"

"You know well that I am not so prepared, Sakon. For nothing that the world could give me would I do this sin."

"Then, Prince, it is best that you should go, for that and no other is the price you must pay if you would win my daughter Elissa. Should you seek to do so by other means, I tell you that neither your high rank nor the power of my rule and friendship, nor pity for your youth and hers, can save you both from death, since to forgive you then would be to bring down the wrath of its outraged gods upon Zimboe. Oh! Prince, for your own sake and for the sake of her whom both you and I love thus dearly, linger no longer in temptation, but turn your back upon it as a brave man should, for so shall my blessing follow you to the grave and your years be filled with honour."

Aziel covered his eyes with his hand, and thought a while; then he answered:—

"Be it as you will, friend. I go, but I go broken-hearted."


CHAPTER 11
Metem Sells Images

UPON reaching the palace, Aziel went to the apartments of Issachar. Finding no keeper at the door, he entered, to discover the old priest kneeling in prayer at the window, which faced towards Jerusalem. So absorbed was he in his devotions that it was not until he had ended them and risen that Issachar saw Aziel standing in the chamber.

"Behold, an answer to my prayer," he said. "My son, they told me that some fresh danger had overtaken you, though none knew its issue. Therefore it was that I prayed, and now I see you unharmed." And taking him in his arms, he embraced him.

"It is true that I have been in danger, father," answered Aziel, and he told him the story of his escape from Ithobal.

"Did I not pray thee not to accompany this embassy?"

"Yes, father, yet I have returned in safety. Listen: I come with tidings which you will think good. Not an hour ago I promised Sakon that I would leave Zimboe, where it seems my presence breeds much trouble."

"Good tidings, indeed!" exclaimed Issachar, "and never shall I know a peaceful hour until we have seen the last of the towers of this doomed city and its accursed people of devil-worshippers."

"Yes, good for you, father, but for me most ill, for here I shall leave my youth and happiness. Nay, I know what you think; that this is but some passing fancy bred of the pleasant beauty of a woman, but it is not so. I say that from the moment when first I saw Elissa, she became life of my life, and soul of my soul and that I go hence beggared of joy and hope, and carrying with me a cankering memory which shall eat my heart away. You deem her a witch, one to whom Baaltis has given power to drag the minds of men to their destruction, but I tell you that her only spell is the spell of her love for me, also that she whom you named so grossly is no longer the servant of the demon Baaltis."

"Elissa not the servant of Baaltis? How comes she then to be her high-priestess? Aziel, your passion has made you mad."

'She is high-priestess because Metem and others brought about her election without her will, urged on to it by I know not whom." And he looked hard at Issachar, who turned away. "But what matters it who did the ill deed," he continued, "since this, at least, is certain, that here my presence breeds sorrow and bloodshed, and therefore I must go as I have promised."

"When do we depart, Prince?" queried Issachar.

"I know not, it is naught to me. Here comes Metem, ask of him."

"Metem," said the Levite, "the prince desires to leave Zimboe and march to the coast, there to take ship to Tyre. When can your caravan be ready?"

"So I have heard, Issachar, for Sakon tells me that he has come to an agreement with the prince upon this matter. Well, I am glad to learn it, for troubles thicken here, and I think that the woe you prophesied is not far from this city of Zimboe where every man seeks to serve his own hand, and is ready to sell his neighbour. When can the caravan be got ready? Well, the night after next; at least, we can start that night. To-morrow evening, so soon as the sun is down, I will send on the camels by ones and twos, and with them the baggage and treasure, to a secret place I know of in the mountains, where we and the prince's guard can follow upon the mules and join them. As it chances, I have a safe conduct from Ithobal. Still I should not wish to put his troops into temptation by marching through them with twenty laden camels, or to lose certain earnings of my own that will be hidden in the baggage. Moreover, if our departure becomes known, half the city would wish to join us, having no love of soldiering, and misdoubting them much of the issue of this war with Ithobal."

"As you will," said Issachar, "you are captain of the caravan, and charged with the safety of the prince upon his journeyings. I am ready whenever you appoint, and the quicker that hour comes, the more praise you will have from me."

"Come with me, I wish to speak with you," said Aziel to the Phoenician as they left the presence of Issachar. "Listen," he added, when they had reached his chamber, "we leave this city soon, and I have farewells to make."

"To the Baaltis?" suggested Metem.

"To the lady Elissa. I desire to send her a letter of farewell; can you deliver it into her own hand?"

"It may be managed, Prince, at a price—nay, from you I ask no price. I have still some images that I wish to sell, and we merchants go everywhere, even into the presence of the Baaltis if it pleases her to admit them. Write your scroll and I will take it, though, to be plain, it is not a task which I should have sought."

So Aziel wrote slowly and with care. Then having sealed the writing he gave it to Metem.

"Your face is sat, Prince," he said, as he hid it in his robe, "but, believe me, you are doing what is right and wise."

"It may be so," answered Aziel, "yet I would rather die than do it, and may my curse lie heavy upon the heads of those who have so wrought that it must be done. Now, I pray you, deliver this scroll into the hands of her you know, and bring me the answer if there be any, betraying it to none, for I will double whatever sum is offered for that treachery."

"Have no fear, Prince," said Metem quietly, but without taking offence, "this errand is undertaken for friendship, not for profit. The risk is mine alone; the gain—or loss—is yours."


An hour later the Phoenician stood in the palace of the gods, demanding, under permit from Sakon, governor of the city, to be admitted into the presence of the Baaltis, to whom he desired to sell certain sacred images cunningly fashioned in gold. Presently it was announced that he was allowed to approach, and the officers of the temple led him through guarded passages, to the private chambers of the priestesses. Here he found Elissa in a long, low hall, sweet with scented woods, rich with gold, and supported by pillars of cedar.

She was seated alone at the far end of this hall, beneath the window-plate, clad in her white robes of office, richly broidered with emblems of the moon. Her women, most of whom were employed in needle-work, though some whispered idly to each other, were gathered at the lower end of the hall near to its door.

Metem saluted them as he entered, and they detained him, answering his greeting by requests for news and with jests, not too refined, or by demands for presents of jewels, in return for which they promised him the blessings of the goddess. To each he made some apt reply, for even the priestesses of Baaltis could not abash Metem. But while he bandied words, his quick eyes noted one of their number who did not join in this play. She was a spare, thin-lipped woman whom he knew for Mesa, the daughter of the dead Baaltis, who had been a rival candidate for the throne of the high-priestess when Elissa was chosen in her place.

When he entered the hall Mesa was seated upon a canvas stool, a little apart from the others, her chin resting upon her hand, staring with an evil look towards the place where Elissa was enthroned. Nor did her face grow more gentle at the sight of the cunning merchant, for she knew well it was through his plots and bribery that she had been ousted from her mother's place.

"A woman to be feared," thought Metem to himself as, shaking off the priestesses, he passed her upon his way up the long chamber. Presently he had reached the end of it, and was saluting the presence of the Baaltis by kneeling and touching the carpet with his brow.

"Rise, Metem," said Elissa, "and set out your business, for the hour of the sunset prayer is at hand, and I cannot talk long with you."

So he rose, and, looking at her while he laid out his store of images, saw that her face was sad, and that her eyes were full of a strange fear.

"Lady," he said, "on the second night from now I depart from this city of yours, and glad shall I be to leave it living. Therefore I have brought you these four priceless images of the most splendid workmanship of Tyre, thinking that it might please you to purchase them for the service of the goddess."

"You depart," she whispered; "alone?"

"No lady, not alone; the holy Issachar goes with me, also the escort of the prince Aziel—and the prince himself, whose presence is no longer desired in Zimboe." Here he stopped, for he saw that Elissa was about to betray her agitation, and whispered, "Be not foolish, for you are watched; I have a letter for you. Lady," he continued in a louder voice, "if it will please you to examine this precious image in the light, you will no longer hesitate or think the price too high," and bowing low he led the way behind the throne, whither Elissa followed him.

Now they were standing beneath the window-place, which they faced, and hidden from the gaze of the women by the gilded back of the high seat.

"Here," he said, thrusting the parchment into her hand, "read quickly, and return it to me."

She snatched the roll from him, and as her eyes devoured the lines, her face fell in, and her lips grew pale with anguish.

"Be brave," murmured Metem, for his heart was stirred to pity; "it is best for all that he should go."

"For him, perchance it is best," she answered; as with an unwilling hand she gave him back the letter which she dared not keep, "but what of me? Oh! Metem, what of me?"

"Lady," he said sadly, "I have no words to soothe your sorrow save that the gods have willed it thus."

"What gods?" she asked fiercely; "not those they bid me worship." She shuddered, then went on, "Metem, be pitiful! Oh! if ever you have loved a woman, or have been loved of one, for her sake be pitiful. I must see him for the last time in farewell, and you can help me to it."

"I! In the name of Baal, how?"

"When do you have to leave the city, Metem?"

"At moonrise on the night after next."

"Then an hour before moonrise I will be in the temple, whither I can come by the secret way that leads thither from this palace, and he can enter there, for the little gate shall be left unbarred. Pray him to meet me, then—for the last time."

"Lady," he urged, "this is but madness, and I refuse. You must find another messenger."

"Madness or not it is my will, and beware how you thwart me in it, Metem, for at least I am the Lady Baaltis, and have power to kill without question. I swear to you that if I do not see him, you shall never leave this city living."

"A shrewd argument, and to the point," said Metem reflectively. "Well, I have prepared myself a rock-hewn tomb at Tyre, and do not wish that my graven sarcophagus of best Egyptian alabaster should be wasted, or sold to some upstart for a song."

"As assuredly it will be, if you do not obey me in this matter, Metem. Remember—an hour before moonrise, at the foot of the pillar of El in the inner court of the temple."

As she spoke Metem started, for his quick ears had caught a sound.

"O Queen divine," he said in a loud voice, as he led the way to the front of the throne, "you are a hard bargainer! Were there many such, a poor trader could not make a living. Ah! here is one who knows the value of such priceless works of art," and he pointed to Mesa, who, with folded arms and downcast eyes, stood within five paces of the throne, as near, indeed, as custom allowed her to approach. "Lady," he went on addressing you, "you will have heard the price I asked; say, now, is it too much?"

"I have heard nothing, sir. I stand here, waiting the return of my holy mistress that I may remind her that the hour of sunset prayer is at hand."

"Would that I had so fair a mentor," exclaimed Metem, "for then I should lose less time." But to himself he said, "She has heard something, though I think but little," then added aloud: "Well judge between us, lady. Is fifty golden shekels too much for these images which have been blessed and sprinkled with the blood of children by the high priest of Baal at Sidon?"

Mesa lifted her cold eyes and looked at them. "I think it too much," she said, "but it is for the lady Baaltis to judge. Who am I that I should open my lips in the presence of the lady Baaltis?"

"I have appealed to the oracle, and it has spoken against me," said Metem, wringing his hands in affected dismay. "Well, I abide the result. Queen, you offered me forty shekels and for forty you shall take them, for the honour of the holy gods, though in truth I lose ten shekels by the bargain. Give your order to the treasurer, and he will pay me to-morrow. So now farewell," and bowing till his forehead touched the ground, he kissed the hem of her robe.

Elissa bent her head in acknowledgment of the salute, and as he rose her eyes met his. In them was written a warning which he could not fail to understand, and although she did not speak, her lips seemed to shape the word, "Remember."

Ten minutes later Metem stood in the chamber of Aziel.

"Has she seen the letter, and what did she answer?" asked the prince, springing up almost as he passed the threshold.

"In the name of all the gods of all the nations I pray you not to speak so loud," answered Metem when he had closed the door and looked suspiciously about him. "Oh! if ever I find myself safe in Tyre again, I vow a gift, and no mean one, to each of them that has a temple there, and they are many; for no single god is strong enough to bring me safe out of this trouble. Have I seen the lady Elissa? Oh, yes, I have seen her. And what think you that this innocent lamb, this undefiled dove of yours, threatens me with now? Death! nothing less than death, if I will not carry out her foolish wishes. More, she means the threat, and has the strength to fulfil it, for to the lady Baaltis is given power over the lives of men, or at the least, if she takes life none question the authority of the goddess. Unless I do her will I am a dead man, and that is the reward I get for mixing myself up in your mad love affairs."

"Hold!" broke in Aziel, "and tell me, man, what is her will?"

"Her will is—what do you think? To meet you in farewell an hour before you leave this city. Well, as my throat is at stake, by Baal! it shall be gratified if I can find the means, though I tell you that it is madness and nothing else. But listen to the story—" and he repeated all that had passed. "Now," he added, "are you ready to take the risk, Prince?"

"I should be a coward indeed if I did not," answered Aziel, "when she, a woman, dares a heavier."

"And I am a coward, that is why I take it, for otherwise I also must dare a heavier. But what of Issachar? This meeting can scarcely be kept a secret from him."

Aziel thought awhile and said:—

"Go fetch him here." So Metem went, to return presently with the Levite, to whom, without further ado, the prince told all, hiding nothing.

Issachar listened in silence. When both Aziel and Metem had done speaking, he said:—

"At least, I thank you, Prince, for being open with me; and now without more words I pray you to abandon this rash plan, which can end only in pain, and perhaps in death."

"Abandon it not, Prince," interrupted Metem, "seeing that if you do it will certainly end in my death, for the girl is mad, and will have her way. Or if she does not, then I must pay the price."

"Have no fear," answered Aziel smiling. "Issachar, this must be done or -"

"Or what, Prince?"

"I will not leave the city. It is true that Sakon may thrust me from it, but it shall be as a dead man. Nay, waste no words, since she desires it; I must and will meet the Lady Elissa for the last time, not as lover meets lover, but as those meet who part for ever in the world."

"You say so, Prince; then have I your permission to accompany you?"

"Yes, if you wish it, Issachar; but there is danger."

"Danger! What care I for danger? The will of Heaven be done to me. So be it, we will go together, but the end of it is not with us."


CHAPTER 12
The Tryst

TWO days had gone by, and at the appointed hour three figures, wrapped in dark cloaks, might have been seen walking swiftly towards the little entrance of the temple fortress. Although it was near to midnight the city was still astir with men, for this very evening news had reached it that Ithobal was advancing at the head of tens of thousands of the warriors of the Tribes. More, it was rumoured freely that within the next few days the siege of Zimboe would begin. Late as it was, the council had been just summoned to the palace of Sakon to consider the conduct of the defence, while in every street stood knots of men engaged in anxious discussion, and from many a smithy rose the sound of armourers at their work. Here marched parties of soldiers of various races, there came long strings of mules laden with dried flesh and grain; yonder a woman beat her breast, and wept loudly because her three sons had been impressed by order of the council, two of them to serve as archers and the third to carry blocks of stone for the fortifications.

Passing unnoticed through all this crowd and tumult, Aziel, Issachar and Metem entered a winding passage in the temple wall, and came to the little gate. Metem tried it, and whispered:—

"She has kept her word; it is unlocked. Now enter to your love-tryst, holy Issachar."

"Do you not come with us?" asked the Levite.

"No, I am too old for such adventures. Listen, I go to make ready. Within an hour the mules with the prince's bodyguard will stand in the archway near the small gate of the palace, for by now the baggage and its escort await us a day's march from this accursed city. Will you meet me there? No; I think it is best that I should come to your chambers to fetch you, and, I pray you, let there be no delay, for it is dangerous in many ways. When once the prince has done with his tender interview, and wiped away his tears, there should be nothing to stay him, since the farewell cup with Sakon has been already drunk. Enter now swiftly before some prowling priest happens upon you, and pray that you may come out as sound as you go in. Oh! what a sight! A prince of Israel and an aged Levite of established reputation going to keep a tryst at midnight with the high-priestess of Baaltis in the sanctuary of her god! Nay, answer not; there is no time"—and he was gone.


Having passed the gate, Aziel and Issachar crept down the winding passages of stone, groping their path by such light as fell from the narrow line of sky above them, till at length they reached the court of the sanctuary. Here the place was as silent as death, for the noise from the city without could not pierce its towering walls of massive granite.

"It is the very pit of Tophet," murmured Issachar, peering through the dense shadows, "the house of Beelzebub, where his presence dwells. Whither now, Aziel?"

The prince pointed to two objects that were visible in the starlight, and answered:—

"Thither, at the foot of the pillar of El."

"Ah! I remember," said Issachar, "where the accursed woman would have offered sacrifice, and the priests struck me down because I prophesied to them of the wrath to come, and that is now at hand. An ill-omened spot, indeed, and an ill-omened tryst with the fiends for witnesses. Well, lead on, and I pray you to be brief as may be, for this place weighs down my soul, and I feel danger in it—danger to the body and the spirit."

So they went forward. "Be careful," whispered Aziel presently. "The pit of sacrifice is at your feet."

"Yes, yes," he answered, "we walk upon the edge of the pit, and, in truth, I grow fearful, for at the threshold of such places the angel of the Lord deserts us."

"There is nothing to fear," said Aziel. But even as he spoke, although he could not see it, a white face rose above the edge of the pit, like that of some ghost struggling from the tomb, watched them a moment with cold eyes, then disappeared again.

Now they were near the greater pillar, and now from its shadow glided a black-veiled shape.

"Elissa?" murmured Aziel.

"It is I," whispered a soft voice; "but who comes with you?"

"I, Issachar," said the Levite, "who would not suffer that he of whom I am given charge should seek such company alone. Now, priestess, say your say with the prince yonder and let us be gone swiftly from this blood-stained place."

"You speak harsh words to me, Issachar," she said gently, "yet I am most glad that you have come, for, believe me, I sought no lovers' meeting with the prince Aziel. Listen, both of you: you know that they have consecrated me high-priestess of Baaltis against my will. Now, I tell you, Issachar, what I have already told the prince Aziel—that I am no longer a worshipper of Baaltis. Yes, here in her very temple I renounce her, even though she takes my life in vengeance. Oh! since they made me priestess I have been forced to learn all her worship, which before I never even guessed, and to see sights that would chill your blood to hear of them. Now I tell you, prince Aziel and Issachar, that I will bear no more. From El and Baaltis I turn to Him you worship, though, alas! little time is left to me in which to plead for pardon."

"Why is little time left?" broke in Aziel.

"Because my death is very near me, Prince, for if I live, see what a fate is mine. Either I must remain high-priestess of Baaltis and to her day by day bow the knee, and month by month make sacrifice—of what think you? Well, to be plain, of the blood of maids and children. Or, perhaps, should their fears overcome their scruples, I shall be given by the council as a peace-offering to Ithobal.

"I say that I will bear neither of these burdens of blood or shame; they are too heavy for me. Prince, so soon as you are gone I too shall leave this city, not in the body, but in the spirit, searching for peace or sleep. It was for this reason that I sought to speak with you in farewell, since in my weakness I desired that you should learn the truth of the cause and manner of my end.

"Now you know all, and as for me there is no escape, farewell for ever, prince Aziel, whom I have loved, and whom I can scarcely hope to meet again, even beyond the grave." Then with a little despairing motion of her hand she turned to go.

"Stay," said Aziel hoarsely, "we cannot be parted thus; since by your own act you can dare to leave the world, will you not dare to fly this place with me?"

"Perhaps, Prince," she answered with a little laugh, "but would you dare to take me, and if so, would Issachar here suffer it? No, no; go your own path in life, and leave me death—it is the easier way."

"In this matter I am master and not Issachar," said Aziel, "though it be true that should it please him, he can warn the priests of El. Listen, Elissa: either you leave this city with me, or I stay in it with you. You hear me, Issachar?"

"I hear you," said the Levite, "but perchance before you throw more sharp words at my head, you will suffer me to speak. Self-murder is a crime, yet I honour this woman who would shed her own blood, rather than the blood of the innocent in sacrifice to Baal, and who refuses to be given in marriage to one she hates; who, moreover, has found strength and grace to trample on her devil-worship, if so in truth she has. If therefore she will come with us and we can escape with her, why, let her come. Only swear to me, Aziel, that you will make no wife of her till the king, your grandsire, has heard this tale and given judgment on it."

"That I will swear for him," exclaimed Elissa; "is it not so, Aziel?"

"As you will, lady," he answered. "Issachar, you have my word that until then she shall be as my sister, and no more."

"I hear and I believe you," said Issachar, adding: "And now, lady, we go at once, so if you desire to accompany us, come."

"I am ready," she replied, "and the hour is well chosen for I shall not be missed till dawn."

So they turned and left the temple. None stayed or hindered them, yet although they reached the chambers of Aziel in safety, their hearts, which should have been light, were still heavy with the presage of new sorrow to come.

Scarcely could they have been heavier, indeed, had they seen a white-faced woman creep from the pit of death and follow them stealthily till they had passed from the temple into the palace doors, then turn and run at full speed towards the college of the priests of El.

In the chamber of Aziel they found Metem.

"I rejoice to see you back again in safety, since it is more than I thought to do," he said, while they entered, adding, as the black-veiled shape of Elissa followed them into the room, "but who is the third? Ah! I see, the lady Elissa. Does the Baaltis accompany us upon our journey?"

"Yes," answered Aziel shortly.

"Then with her high Grace on the one side and the holy Issachar on the other it should not lack for blessings. Surely that evil must be great from which, separately or together, they are unable to defend us. But, lady, if I may ask it, have you bid farewell to your most honoured father?"

"Torment me not," murmured Elissa.

"Indeed, I did not wish to, though you may remember that not so long ago you threatened to silence me for ever. Well, doubtless your departure is too hurried for farewells, and, fortunately, foreseeing it, I have provided spare mules. So my deeds are kinder than my words. I go to see that all is prepared. Now eat before you start; presently I will return for you," and he left the chamber.

When he had gone they gathered round the table on which stood food, but could touch little of it; for the hearts of all three of them were filled with sad forebodings. Soon they heard a noise as of people talking excitedly outside the palace gates.

"It is Metem with the mules," said Aziel.

"I hope so," answered Elissa.

Again there was silence, which, after a while, was broken by a loud knocking at the door.

"Rise," said Aziel, "Metem comes for us."

"No, no," cried Elissa, "it is Doom that knocks, not Metem."

As the words passed her lips the door was burst open, and through it poured a mob of armed priests, at the head of whom marched the Shadid. By his side was his daughter Mesa, in whose pale face the eyes burned like torches in a wind.

"Did I not tell you so?" she said in a shrill voice, pointing at the three. "Behold the Lady Baaltis and her lover, and with them that priest of a false faith who called down curses upon our city."

"You told us indeed, daughter," answered the Shadid; "pardon us if we were loth to believe that such a thing could be." Then with a cry of rage he added, "Take them."

Now Aziel drew his sword, and sprang in front of Elissa to protect her, but before he could strike a blow it was seized from behind, and he was gripped by many hands, gagged, bound and blindfolded. Then like a man in a dream he felt himself carried away through long passages, till at length he reached an airless place, where the gag and bandages were removed.

"Where am I?" Aziel asked.

"In the vaults of the temple," answered the priests as they left the prison, barring its great door behind them.


CHAPTER 13
The Sacrilege Of Aziel

HOW long he lay in his dungeon, lost in bitter thought and tormented by fears for Elissa, Aziel could not tell, for no light came there to mark the passage of the hours. In the tumult of his mind, one terrible thought grew clear and ever clearer; he and Elissa had been taken red-handed, and must pay the price of their sin against the religious customs of the city. For the Baaltis to be found with any man who was not her husband meant death to him and her, a doom from which there was little chance of escape.

Well, to his own fate he was almost indifferent, but for Elissa and Issachar he mourned bitterly. Truly the Levite and Metem had been wise when they cautioned him, for her sake and his own, to have nothing to do with a priestess of Baal. But he had not listened; his heart would not let him listen—and now, unless they were saved by a miracle—or Metem—in the fulness of their youth and love, the lives of both of them were forfeited.

Worn out with sore fears and vain regrets Aziel fell at length into a heavy sleep. He was awakened by the opening of the door of his dungeon, and the entry of priests—grim, silent men who seized and blindfolded him. Then they led him away up many stairs, and along paths so steep that from time to time they paused to rest, till at length he knew, by the sound of voices, that he had reached some place where people were assembled. Here the bandage was removed from his eyes. He stepped backwards, recoiling involuntarily at the glare of light that poured upon him from the setting sun, whereon, uttering an exclamation, those who stood near seized and held him. Presently he saw the reason. He was standing on the brink of a precipice at the back of and dominating the dim and shadow-clad city, while far beneath him lay a gloomy rift along which ran the trade road to the coast.

Here in this dizzy spot was a wide space of rock, walled in upon three sides. The precipice formed the fourth side of its square, in which, seated upon stones that seemed to have been set there in semi-circles to serve as judgment chairs, were gathered the head priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis, clad in their sacerdotal robes. To the right and left of these stood knots of favoured spectators, among whom Aziel recognised Metem and Sakon, while at his side, but separated from him by armed priests, were Elissa herself, wrapped in a dark veil, and Issachar. Lastly, in front of him, a fire flickered upon a little altar, and behind the altar stood a shrine containing a symbolical effigy of Baaltis fashioned of gold, ivory and wood to the shape of a woman with a hundred breasts.

Seeing all this, Aziel understood that they three had been brought here for trial, and that the priests and priestesses before him were their judges. Indeed, he remembered that the place had been pointed out to him as one where those who had offended against the gods were carried for judgment. Thence, if found guilty, such unfortunates were hurled down the face of the precipice and left, a shapeless mass of broken bone, to crumble on the roadway at its foot.

After a long and solemn pause, at a sign from the Shadid, he who had been the husband of the dead Baaltis, the veil was removed from Elissa. At once she turned, looked at Aziel, and smiled sadly.

"Do you know the fate that waits us?" the prince asked of Issachar in Hebrew.

"I know, and I am ready," answered the old Levite, "for since my soul is safe I care little what these dogs may do to my body. But, oh! my son, I weep for you, and cursed be the hour when first you saw that woman's face."

"Spare to reproach me in my misfortune," murmured Elissa; "have I not enough to bear, knowing that I have brought death upon him I love? Oh! curse me not, but pray that my sins may be forgiven me."

"That I will do gladly, daughter," replied Issachar more gently, "the more so that, although you seem to be the cause of them, these things can have happened only by the will of Heaven. Therefore I was wrong to revile you, and I ask your pardon."

Before she could answer the Shadid commanded silence. At the same moment the woman Mesa stepped from behind the effigy of the goddess on the shrine.

"Who are you and what do you here?" asked the Shadid, as though he did not know her.

"I am Mesa, the daughter of her who was the lady Baaltis," she answered, "and my rank is that of Mother of the priestesses of Baaltis. I appear to give true evidence against her, who is the anointed Baaltis, against the Israelitish stranger named Aziel, and the priest of the Lord of the Jews."

"Lay your hand upon the altar and speak, but beware what you speak," said the Shadid.

Mesa bowed her head, took the oath of truth by touching the altar with her fingers, and began:—

"From the time that she was appointed I have been suspicious of the lady Baaltis."

"Why were you suspicious?" asked the Shadid.

The witness let her eyes wander towards Metem, then hesitated. Evidently for some reason of her own she did not wish to implicate him.

"I was suspicious," she answered, "because of certain words that came from the lips of the Baaltis, when she had been thrown into the holy trance before the fire of sacrifice. As is my accustomed part, I bent over her to hear and to announce the message of the gods, but in place of the hallowed words there issued babblings about this Hebrew stranger and of a meeting to be held with him at one hour before moonrise by the pillar of El in the courtyard of the temple. Thereafter for several nights as was my duty I hid myself in the pit of offerings in the courtyard and watched. Last night at an hour before the moonrise the Lady Baaltis came disguised by the secret way and waited at the pillar, where presently she was joined by the Jew Aziel and the Levite, who spoke with her.

"What they said I could not hear, because they were too far from me, but at length they left the temple and I traced them to the chambers of the Jew Aziel, in the palace of Sakon. Then, Shadid, I warned you, and the priests and you accompanied me and took them. Now, as Mother of the priestesses, I demand that justice be done upon these wicked ones, according to the ancient custom, lest the curse of Baaltis should fall upon this city."

When she had finished her evidence, with a cold stare of triumphant hate at her rival, Mesa stepped to one side.

"You have heard," said the Shadid addressing his fellow-judges. "Do you need further testimony? If so, it must be brief, for the sun sinks."

"Nay," answered the spokesman, "for with you we took the three of them together in the chamber of the prince Aziel. Set out the law of this matter, O Judge, and let justice be done according to the strict letter of the law—justice without fear or favour."

"Hearken," said the Shadid. "Last night this woman Elissa, the daughter of Sakon, being the lady Baaltis duly elected, met men secretly in the courts of the temple and accompanied them, or one of them, to the chamber of Aziel, a prince of Israel, the guest of Sakon. Whether or no she was about to fly with him from the city which he should have left last night, we cannot tell, and it is needless to inquire, at least she was with him. This, however, is sure, that they did not sin in ignorance of our law, since with my own mouth I warned them both that if the lady Baaltis consorts with any man not her husband duly named by her according to her right, she must die and her accomplice with her. Therefore, Aziel the Israelite, we give you to death, dooming you presently to be hurled from the edge of yonder precipice."

"I am in your power," said the prince proudly, "and you can murder if you will, because, forsooth, I have offended against some law of Baal, but I tell you, priest, that there are kings in Jerusalem and Egypt who will demand my blood at your hands. I have nothing more to say except to beseech you to spare the life of the lady Elissa, since the fault of the meeting was not hers, but mine."

"Prince," answered the Shadid gravely, "we know your rank and we know also that your blood will be required at our hands, but we who serve our gods, whose vengeance is so swift and terrible, cannot betray their law for the fear of any earthly kings. Yet, thus says this same law, it is not needful that you should die since for you there is a way of escape that leads to safety and great honour, and she who was the cause of your sin is the mistress of its gate. Elissa, holder of the spirit of Baaltis upon earth, if it be your pleasure to name this man husband before us all, then as the spouse of Baaltis he goes free, for he whom the Baaltis chooses cannot refuse her gift of love, but for so long as she shall live must rule with her as Shadid of El. But if you name him not, then as I have said, he must die, and now. Speak."

"It seems that my choice is small," said Elissa with a faint smile. "Praying you to pardon me for the deed, to save your life, prince Aziel, according to the ancient custom and privilege of the Baaltis, I name you consort and husband."

Now Aziel was about to answer her when the Shadid broke in hurriedly, "So be it," he said. "Lady, we hear your choice, and we accept it as we must, but not yet, prince Aziel, can you take your wife and with her my place and power. Your life is safe indeed, for since the Baaltis, being unwed, names you as her mate, you have done no sin. Yet she has sinned and doom awaits her, for against the law she has chosen as husband one who worships a strange god, and of all crimes that is the greatest. Therefore, either you must take incense and before us all make offering to El and Baaltis upon yonder altar, thus renouncing your faith and entering into ours, or she must die and you, your rank having passed from you with her breath, will be expelled from the city."

Now Aziel understood the trap that had been laid for him, and saw in it the handiwork of Sakon and Metem. Elissa having flagrantly violated the religious law, and he, being the cause of her crime, even the authority of the governor of the city could not prevent his daughter and his guest from being put upon their trial. Therefore, they had arranged this farce, for so it would seem to them, whereby both the offenders might escape the legal consequences of their offence, trusting, doubtless, to accident and the future to unravel this web of forced marriage, and to free Aziel from a priestly rank which he had not sought. It was only necessary that Elissa should formally choose him as her husband, and that Aziel should go through rite of throwing a few grains of incense upon an altar, and, the law satisfied, they would be both free and safe. What Metem, and those who worked with him, had forgotten was, that this offering of incense to Baal would be the most deadly of crimes in the eyes of any faithful Jew—one, indeed, which, were he alone concerned, he would die rather than commit.

When the prince heard this decree, and the full terror of the choice came home to his mind, his blood turned cold, and for a while his senses were bewildered. There was no escape for him; either he must abjure his faith at the price of his own soul, or, because of it, the woman whom he loved, now, before his eyes, must suffer a most horrible and sudden death. It was hideous to think of, and yet how could he do this sin in the face of heaven and of these ministers of Satan?

The moment was at hand; a priest held out to him a bowl of incense, a golden bowl, he noticed idly, with handles of green stone fashioned in the likeness of Baaltis, whose servant he was asked to declare himself. He, Aziel of the royal house of Israel, a servant of Baal and Baaltis, nay, a high-priest of their worship! It was monstrous, it might not be. But Elissa? Well, she must die—if this was not a farce, and in truth they meant to murder her; her life could not be bought at such a price.

"I cannot do it," he gasped with dry lips, thrusting aside the bowl.

Now all looked astonished, for his refusal had not been foreseen. There was a pause, and once more the woman Mesa, in her character of prosecutrix on behalf of the outraged gods, appeared before the altar, and said in her cold voice:

"The Jew whom the lady Baaltis has chosen as husband will not do homage to her gods. Therefore, as Mother of the priestesses and Advocate of Baaltis, I demand that Elissa, daughter of Sakon, be put to death, and the throne of Baaltis be purged of one who has defiled it, lest the swift and terrible vengeance of the goddess should fall upon this city."

The Shadid motioned to her to be silent, and addressed Aziel: -

"We pray you to think a while," he said, "before you give one to death whose only sin is that, being the high-priestess of our worship, she has named an unbeliever to fill the throne of El and be her husband. Out of pity for her fate we give you time to think."

Now Sakon, taking advantage of the pause, rushed forward, and throwing his arms about Aziel's knees, implored him in heart-breaking accents to preserve his only child from so horrible a doom. He said that did he refuse to save her because of his religious scruples, he would be a dog and a coward, and the scorn of all honest men for ever. It was for love of him that she had broken the priestly law, to violate which was death, and although he had been warned of her danger, yet in his wickedness and folly he had brought her to this pass. Would he then desert her now?

But Issachar thrust him aside, and broke in with fiery words: -

"Hearken not to this man, Aziel," he said, "who strives to work upon your weakness to the ruin of your soul. What! To save the life of one woman, whose fair face has brought so much trouble upon us all, would you deny your Lord and become the thrall of Baal and Ashtoreth? Let her die since die she must, and keep your own heart pure, for be assured, should you do otherwise, Jehovah, whom you renounce, will swiftly be avenged on you and her. At the beginning I warned you, and you would not listen. Now, Aziel, I warn you again, and woe! woe! woe! to you should you shut your ears to my message." Then lifting his hands towards the skies, he began to pray aloud that Aziel might be constant in his trial.

Meanwhile, Metem, who had drawn near, spoke in a low voice:—

"Prince," he said, "I am not chicken-hearted, and there are so many young women in the world that one more or less can scarcely matter; still, although she threatened to murder me three days ago, I cannot bear to see this one come to so dreadful a death. Prince, do not heed the howlings of that old fanatic, but remember that after all you are the cause of this lady's plight, and play the part of a man. Can you for the sake of your own scruples, however worthy, or of your own soul even, however valuable to yourself, doom the fair body of a woman who risked all for you to such an end as that?" And shuddering he nodded towards the gloomy precipice.

"Is there no other way?" Aziel asked him.

"None, I swear it. They did not wish to kill her, except that wild-cat Mesa who seeks her place, but having put her on her public trial, if you persist—they must.

"This is one of the few laws which cannot be broken for favour or for gold, since the people, who are already half-mad with fear of Ithobal, believe that to break it would bring the curses of heaven upon their city. Perhaps we might have found some other plan, but none of us even dreamed that you would refuse so small a thing for the sake of a woman whom you swore you loved."

"A small thing!" broke in Aziel.

"Yes, Prince, a very small thing. Remember, this offering of incense is but a form to which you are forced against your will—you can do penance for it afterwards when I have arranged for both of you to escape the city. If your God can be angry with you for burning a pinch of dust to save a woman, who at the least has dared much for you, then give me Baal, for he is less cruel."

Now Aziel looked towards him who held the bowl of incense. But Elissa who all this while had stood silent, stepped forward and spoke:—

"Prince Aziel," she said in a calm and quiet voice, "I named you husband to save your life, but with all my strength I pray of you, do not this thing to save mine, which is of little value and perhaps best ended. Remember, prince Aziel, that being what you are, a Jew, this act of offering, however small it seems, is yet the greatest of sins, and one with which you should not dare to stain your soul for the sake of a woman, who has chanced to love you to your sorrow. Be guided, therefore, by the true wisdom of Issachar and by my humble prayer. Make an end of your doubts and let me die, knowing that we do but part a while, since in the Gate of Death I shall wait for you, prince Aziel."

Before Aziel could answer, the Shadid, either because his patience was outworn, or because he wished to put him to a sharper trial, uttered a command. "Be it done to her as she desires."

Thereon four priests seized Elissa by the wrists and ankles. Carrying her to the edge of the precipice, they thrust her back till she hung over it, her long hair streaming downwards, and the red light of the sunset shining upon her upturned ghastly face. Then they paused, waiting for the signal to let her go. The Shadid raised his wand and said:—

"Is it your pleasure that this woman should die or live, prince Aziel? Decide swiftly, for my arm is weak, and when the wand falls opportunity for choice will have passed from you."

Now all eyes were fixed upon the wand, and the intense silence was only broken by Sakon's cry of despair. Metem wrung his hands in grief; even Issachar veiled his eyes with his robe, to shut out the sight of dread, and the priest, who bore the bowl of incense, thrust it towards Aziel imploringly.

For some seconds, three perhaps, though to him they seemed an age, the heart of Aziel was racked and torn in this terrific contest. Then he glanced at the agonized face of the doomed woman, and just as the wand began to bend, his human love and pity conquered.

"May He Whom I blaspheme forgive me," he murmured, adding aloud, "I will do sacrifice." Taking the incense in his hand now he cast it into the flames upon the altar, repeating mechanically after the Shadid: "By this sacrifice and homage, body and soul I give myself to you and worship you, El and Baaltis, the only true gods."


Illustration

"I will do sacrifice."



The echo of Aziel's voice died away, and the fumes of the incense rose in a straight dense column upon that quiet air. To his tormented mind, it seemed as though its smoke took the form of an avenging angel, holding in the hand a sword of flame, wherewith to drive away his perjured soul from Heaven, as our first forefathers were driven from the shining gates of paradise. Yes, and they were not human, those spectators who, in the intense glow of the sunset, stood in their still ranks and stared at him with wide and eager eyes. Surely they were fiends red with the blood of men, fiends gathered from the Pit to bear everlasting witness to the unpardonable sin of his apostasy.


CHAPTER 14
The Martyrdom Of Issachar

IT was done, and from the mouths of the circle of priests and priestesses leapt a shrill and sudden cry of triumph. For had not their gods conquered? Had not this high-placed servant of the hated Lord of Israel been caught by the bait of a priestess of Baaltis, and seduced by her distress to deny and reject Him? Was not evil once more triumphant, and must not they, its ministers, rejoice?

Again the Shadid raised his wand and they were silent.

"Brother you have, indeed, done well and wisely," he said, addressing Aziel. "Now take to wife the divine lady who has chosen you," and he pointed to Elissa, who lay prostrated on the rock. "Yes, take her and be happy in her love, sitting in my seat, which henceforth is yours, as ruler of the priests of El and master of their mysteries, forgetting the follies of your former faith, and spitting on its altars. Hail to you, Shadid, Lord of the Baaltis and chosen of El! Take him, you priests, and with him the divine lady, his wife, to bear them in triumph to their high house."

"What of the Levite?" asked the woman Mesa.

The Shadid glanced at Issachar, who all this while had stood like one stricken to the soul, woe stamped upon his face, and a stare of horror in his eyes. "Jew," he said, "I had forgotten you, but you also are on your trial, who dared against the law to hold secret meeting with the lady Baaltis. For this sin the punishment is death, nor, as I think, would any woman name you husband to save you. Still in this hour of joy we will be merciful; therefore do as your master did, cast incense on the altar, uttering the appointed words, and go your way."

"Before I make my offering on yonder altar according to your command, I have indeed some words to say, O priest of El," answered Issachar quietly, but in a voice that chilled the blood of those who listened.

"First, I address myself to you, Aziel, and to you, woman," and he pointed to Elissa, who had risen, and leaned, trembling, upon her father. "My dream is fulfilled. Aziel, you have sinned indeed, and must bear the appointed punishment of your sin. Yet hear a message of mercy spoken through my lips: Because you have sinned through love and pity, your offence is not unto death. Still shall you sorrow for it all your life's days, and in desolation of heart and bitterness of soul shall creep back to the feet of Him you have forsworn.

"Woman, your spirit is noble and your feet are set in the way of righteousness, yet through you has this offence come. Therefore your love shall bear no fruit, nor shall the blasphemy of your beloved save your flesh from doom. Upon this earth there is no hope for you, daughter of Sakon; set your eyes beyond it, for there alone is hope.

"Yonder she stands who swore our lives away?" and he fixed his burning gaze on Mesa. "Priestess, you plotted this that you might succeed to the throne of Baaltis; now hear your fate: You shall live to sweep the huts and bear the babes of savages. You, priest," and he pointed to the Shadid, "I read your heart; you design to murder this apostate whom you greet as your successor that you may usurp his place. I show you yours: it lies in the bellies of the jackals of the desert.

"For you priests and priestesses of El and Baaltis, think of my words, and raise the loud song of triumph to your gods when you yourselves are their offering, and the red flame of the fire burns you up, all of you save your sins, which are immortal. O citizens of an accursed city, look on the hill-top yonder and tell me, what do you see in the light of the dying day? A sheen of spears, is it not? They draw near to your hearts, you whose day is done indeed, citizens of an accursed city whereof the very name shall be forgotten, and the naked towers shall become but a source of wonder to men unborn.

"And now, O priest, having said my say, as you bid me, I make my offering upon your altar."

Then, while all stood fearful and amazed, Issachar the Levite sprang forward, and seizing the ancient image of Baaltis, he spat upon it and dashed the priceless consecrated thing down upon the altar, where it broke into fragments, and was burned with the fire.

"My offering is made," he said; "may He whom I serve accept it. Now after the offering comes the sacrifice; son Aziel, fare you well."


For a few moments a silence of horror and dismay fell upon the assembly as they gazed at the shattered and burning fragments of their holy image. Then moved by a common impulse, with curses and yells of fury, the priests and priestesses sprang from their seats and hurled themselves upon Issachar, who stood awaiting them with folded arms. They smote him with their ivory rods, they rent and tore him with their hands and teeth, worrying him as dogs worry a fox of the hills, till at length the life was beaten and trampled out of him and he lay dead.

Thus terribly, but yet by such a death of martyrdom as he would have chosen, perished Issachar the Levite.

Unarmed though he was, Aziel had sprung to his aid, but Metem and Sakon, knowing that he would but bring about his own destruction, flung themselves upon him and held him back. Whilst he was still struggling with them the end came, and Issachar grew still for ever. Then, as the sun sank and the darkness fell, Aziel's strength left him, and presently he slipped to the ground senseless.


Thereafter it seemed to Aziel that he was plunged in an endless and dreadful dream, and that through its turmoil and shifting visions, he could see continually the dreadful death of Issachar, and hear his stern accents prophesying woe to him who renounces the God of his forefathers to bow the knee to Baal.

At length he awoke from that horror-haunted sleep to find himself lying in a strange chamber. It was night, and lamps burned in the chamber, and by their light he saw a man whose face he knew mixing a draught in a glass phial. So weak was he that at first he could not remember the man's name, then by slow degrees it came to him.

"Metem," he said, "where am I?"

The Phoenician looked up from his task, smiled, and answered: -

"Where you should be, Prince, in your own house, the palace of the Shadid. But you must not speak, for you have been ill; drink this and sleep."

Aziel swallowed the draught and was instantly overcome by slumber. When he awoke the sun was shining brightly through the window place, and its rays fell upon the shrewd, kindly face of Metem, who, seated on a stool, watched him, his chin resting in his hand.

"Tell me all that has befallen, friend," said Aziel presently, "since—" and he shuddered.

"Since you were married after a new fashion and that bigoted but most honourable fool, Issachar, went to his reward. Well, I will when you have eaten," answered Metem as he gave him food. "First," he said, after a while, "you have lain here for three days raving in a fever, nursed by myself and visited by your wife the lady Baaltis, whenever she could escape from her religious duties—"

"Elissa! Has she been here?" asked Aziel.

"Calm yourself, Prince, certainly she has, and, what is more, she will be back soon. Secondly: Ithobal has been as good as his word, and invests the city with a vast army, cutting off all supplies and possibilities of escape. It is believed that he will try an assault within the next week, which many think may be successful. Thirdly: to avoid this risk it is rumoured that the priests and priestesses, at the instance of the council, are discussing the wisdom of giving over to the king the person of the daughter of Sakon. This, it is said, could be done on the plea that her election as the lady Baaltis was brought about with bribery, and is, therefore, void, as she was not chosen by the pure and unassisted will of the goddess."

"But," said Aziel, "she is my wife according to their religious law; how then can she be given in marriage to another?"

"Nay, Prince, if she is not the lady Baaltis your husbandship falls to the ground with the rest, for you are not the Shadid, an office with which perchance you can dispense. But all this priestly juggling means little, the truth being that the city in its terror is ready to throw her—or for the matter of that, Baaltis herself if they could lay hands on her—as a sop to Ithobal, hoping thereby to appease his rage. The lady Elissa knows her danger—but here she comes to speak for herself."

As he spoke the curtains at the end of the chamber were drawn, and through them came Elissa, clad in her splendid robes of office and wearing upon her brow the golden crescent of the moon.

"How goes it with the prince, Metem?" she asked in her soft voice, glancing anxiously towards the couch which was half-hidden in the shadow of the wall.

"Look for yourself, lady," answered the Phoenician bowing before her.

"Elissa, Elissa!" cried Aziel, raising himself and opening his arms.

She saw and heard, then, with a low cry, she ran swiftly to him and was wrapped in his embrace. Thus they stayed a while, murmuring words of love and greeting.

"Is it your pleasure that I should leave you?" asked Metem presently. "No? Then, Prince, I would have you remember that you are still very weak and should not give way to violent emotions."

"Listen, Aziel," said Elissa, untwining his arms from about her neck, "there is no time for tenderness; moreover, you should show none to one who, in name at least, is still the high-priestess of Baaltis, though in truth she worships her no longer. It was noble of you indeed to offer incense upon the altar of El that my life might be saved. But when I prayed you not, I spoke from the heart, and bitterly, bitterly do I grieve that for my sake you should have stained your hands with such a sin. Moreover, it will avail nothing, for the doom of the prophet Issachar lies upon us, and I cannot escape from death, neither can you escape remorse, and as I think, that worst of all desires—the desire for the dead."

"Can we not still flee the city?" asked Aziel.

"Metem will tell you that it is impossible; day and night I am watched and guarded, yes, Mesa dogs me from door to door. Also Ithobal holds Zimboe so firmly in his net that no sparrow could fly out of it and he not know. And there is worse to tell: Beloved, they purpose to give me up as a peace-offering to Ithobal. Yes, even my father is of the plot, for in his despair he thinks it his duty to sacrifice his daughter to save the town, if, indeed, that will suffice to save us."

"But you are the Baaltis and inviolate."

"In such a time the goddess herself would not be held inviolate in Zimboe, much less her priestess, Aziel. I have discovered that this very night they have laid their plans to seize me. Mesa and others have been chosen for the deed, and afterwards they think to offer me as a bribe to Ithobal, who will take no other price."

Aziel groaned aloud: "It were better that we should die," he said.

She nodded and answered: "It were better that I should die. But hear me, for I also have a plan, and there is still hope, though very little. Perhaps, as you drew near to Zimboe by the coast road, you may have noted three miles or more from the gates of the city, and almost overhanging the path on which you travelled, a shoulder of the mountain where the rock is cut away, showing the narrow entrance to a cave closed with a gate of bronze?"

"I saw it," answered Aziel, "and was told that there was the most sacred burying-place of the city."

"It is the tomb of the high-priestesses of Baaltis," went on Elissa, "and this day at sunset I must visit it to lay an offering upon the shrine of her who was the Baaltis before me, entering alone, and closing the gate, for it is not lawful that any one should pass in there with me. Now, the plan is to lay hands on me as I go back from the tomb to the palace—but I shall not go back. Aziel, I shall stay in the tomb—nay, do not fear—not dead. I have hidden food and water there, enough for many days, and there with the departed I shall live—till I am of their number."

"But if so, how can it help you, Elissa, for they will break in the gates of the place, and drag you away?"

"Then, Aziel, they will drag away a corpse, and that they will scarcely care to present to Ithobal. See, I have hidden poison in my breast, and here at my girdle hangs a dagger; are not the two of them enough to make an end of one frail life? Should they dare to touch me, I shall tell them through the bars that most certainly I shall drink the bane, or use the knife; and when they know it, they will leave me unharmed, hoping to starve me out, or trusting to chance to snare me living."

"You are bold," murmured Aziel in admiration, "but self-murder is a sin."

"It is a sin that I will dare, beloved, as in past days I would have dared it for less cause, rather than be given alive into the hands of Ithobal; for to whoever else I may be false, to you through life and death I will be true."

Now Aziel groaned in his doubt and bitterness of heart; then turning to Metem, he asked:—

"Have you anything to say, Metem?"

"Yes, Prince, two things," answered the Phoenician. "First, that the lady Elissa is rash, indeed, to speak so openly before me who might carry her words to the council or the priests."

"Nay, Metem, I am not rash, for I know that, although you love money, you will not betray me."

"You are right, lady, I shall not, for money would be of little service to me in a city that is about to be taken by storm. Also I hate Ithobal, who threatened my life—as you did also, by the way—and will do my best to keep you from his clutches. Now for my second point: it is that I can see little use in all this because Ithobal, being defrauded of you, will attack, and then—"

"And then he may be beaten, Metem, for the citizens will at any rate fight for their lives, and the Prince Aziel here, who is a general skilled in war, will fight also if he has recovered strength—"

"Do not fear, Elissa; give me two days, and I will fight to the death," said Aziel.

"At the least," she went on, "this scheme gives us breathing time, and who knows but that fortune will turn. Or if it does not, since it is impossible for me to escape from the city, I have no better."

"No more have I," said Metem, "for at length the oldest fox comes to his last double. I could escape from this city, or the prince might escape, or the lady Elissa even might possibly escape disguised, but I am sure that all three of us could not escape, seeing that within the walls we are watched and without them the armies of Ithobal await us. Oh! prince Aziel, I should have done well to go, as I might have gone when you and Issachar were taken after that mad meeting in the temple, from which I never looked for anything but ill; but I grow foolish in my old age, and thought that I should like to see the last of you. Well, so far we are all alive, except Issachar, who, although bigoted, was still the most worthy of us, but how long we shall remain alive I cannot say.

"Now our best chance is to defeat Ithobal if we can, and afterwards in the confusion to fly from Zimboe and join our servants, to whom I have sent word to await us in a secret place beyond the first range of hills. If we cannot—why then we must go a little sooner than we expected to find out who it is that really shapes the destinies of men, and whether or no the sun and moon are the chariots of El and Baaltis. But, Prince, you turn pale."

"It is nothing," said Aziel, "bring me some water, the fever still burns in me."

Metem went to seek for water, while Elissa knelt by the couch and pressed her lover's hand.

"I dare stay no longer," she whispered, "and Aziel, I know not how or when we shall meet again, but my heart is heavy, for, alas! I think that doom draws near me. I have brought much sorrow upon you, Aziel, and yet more upon myself, and I have given you nothing, except that most common of all things, a woman's love."

"That most perfect of all things," he answered, "which I am glad to have lived to win."

"Yes, but not at the price that you have paid for it. I know well what it must have cost you to cast that incense on the flame, and I pray to your God, who has become my God, to visit the sin of it on my head and to leave yours unharmed. Aziel, Aziel! woman or spirit, while I have life and memory, I am yours, and yours only; clean-handed I leave you, and if we may meet again in this or in any other world, clean and faithful I shall come to you again. Glad am I to have lived, because in my life I have known you and you have sworn you love me. Glad shall I be to live again if again I may know you and hear that oath—if not, it is sleep I seek; for life without you to me would be a hell. You grow weak, and I must go. Farewell, and living or dead, forget me not; swear that you will not forget me."

"I swear it," he answered faintly; "and Heaven grant that I may die for you, not you for me."

"That is no prayer of mine," she whispered; and, bending, kissed him on the brow, for he was too weak to lift his lips to hers.

Then she was gone.


CHAPTER 15
Elissa Takes Sanctuary

TWO more hours had passed, and in the evening light a procession of priestesses might be seen advancing slowly towards the holy tomb along a narrow road of rock cut in the mountain face. In front of this procession, wearing a black veil over her broidered robes, walked Elissa with downcast eyes and hair unbound in token of grief, while behind her came Mesa and other priestesses bearing in bowls of alabaster the offerings to the dead, food and wine, and lamps of oil, and vases filled with perfumes.


Illustration

In front... walked Elissa.


Behind these again marched the mourners, women who sang a funeral dirge and from time to time broke into a wail of simulated grief. Nor, indeed, was their woe as hollow as might be thought, since from that mountain path they could see the outposts of the army of Ithobal upon the plain, and note with a shudder of fear the spear-heads of his countless thousands shining in the gorges of the opposing heights. It was not for the dead Baaltis that they mourned this day, but for the fate which overshadowed them and their city of gold.

"May the curse of all the gods fall on her," muttered one of the priestesses as she toiled forward beneath her load of offerings; "because she is beautiful and pettish, we must be put to the spear, or become the wives of savages," and she pointed with her chin to Elissa, who walked in front, lost in her own thoughts.

"Have patience," answered Mesa at her side, "you know the plan—to-night that proud girl and false priestess shall sleep in the camp of Ithobal."

"Will he be satisfied with that," asked the woman, "and leave the city in peace?"

"They say so," answered Mesa with a laugh, "though it is strange that a king should exchange spoil and glory for one round-eyed, thin-limbed girl who loves his rival. Well, let us thank the gods that made men foolish, and gave us women wit to profit by their folly. If he wants her, let him take her, for few will be poorer by her loss."

"You at least will be richer," said the other woman, "and by the crown of Baaltis. Well, I do not grudge it you, and as for the daughter of Sakon, she shall be Ithobal's if I take her to him limb by limb."

"Nay, sister, that is not the bargain; remember she must be delivered to him without hurt or blemish; otherwise we shall do sacrilege in vain. Be silent, here is the cave."

Reaching the platform in front of the tomb, the procession of mourners ranged themselves about it in a semi-circle. They stood with their backs to the edge of a cliff that rose sheer for sixty feet or more from the plain beneath, across which, but at a little distance from the foot of the precipice ran the road followed by the caravans of merchants in their journeys to and from the coast. Then, a hymn having been sung invoking the blessing of the gods on the dead priestess, Elissa, as the Baaltis, unlocked the gates of bronze with a golden key that hung at her girdle, and the bearers of the bowls of offerings pushed them into the mouth of the tomb, whose threshold they were not allowed to pass. Next, with bowed heads and hands crossed upon her breast, Elissa entered the tomb, and locking the bronze gate behind her, took up two of the bowls and vanished with them into its gloomy depths.

"Why did she lock the gates?" asked a priestess of Mesa. "It is not customary."

"Doubtless because it was her pleasure to do so," answered Mesa sharply, though she also wondered why Elissa had locked the gate.

When an hour was gone by and Elissa had not returned, her wonder turned to fear and doubt.

"Call to the lady Baaltis," she said, "for her prayers are long, and I fear lest she should have come to harm."

So they called, setting heir lips against the bars of the gate till presently, Elissa, holding a lamp in her hand, came and stood before them.

"Why do you disturb me in the sanctuary?" she asked.

"Lady, because they set the night watch on the walls," answered Mesa, "and it is time to return to the temple."

"Return then," said Elissa, "and leave me in peace. What, you cannot, Mesa? Nay, and shall I tell you why? Because you had plotted to deliver me this night to those who should lead me as a peace-offering to Ithobal, and when you come to them empty-handed they will greet you with harsh words. Nay, do not trouble to deny it, Mesa. I also have my spies, and know all the plan; and, therefore, I have taken sanctuary in this holy place."

Now Mesa pressed her thin lips together and answered:—

"Those who dare to lay hands upon the person of the living Baaltis will not shrink from seeking her in the company of her dead sisters."

"I know it, Mesa; but the gates are barred, and here I have food and drink in plenty."

"Gates, however strong, can be broken," answered the priestess, "so, lady, do not wait till you are dragged hence like some discovered slave."

"Ay," replied Elissa, with a little laugh, "but what if rather than be thus dishonoured, I should choose to break another gate, that of my own life? Look, traitress, here is poison and here is bronze, and I swear to you that should any lay a hand upon me, by one or other of them I will die before their eyes. Then, if you will, bear these bones to Ithobal and take his thanks for them. Now, begone, and give this message to my father and to all those who have plotted with him, that since they cannot bribe Ithobal with my beauty, they will do well to be men, and to fight him with their swords."

Then she turned and left them, vanishing into the darkness of the tomb.

Great indeed was the dismay of the councillors of Zimboe and of the priests who had plotted with them when, an hour later, Mesa came, not to deliver Elissa into their hands, but to repeat to them her threats and message. In vain did they appeal to Sakon, who only shook his head and answered:—

"Of this I am sure, that what my daughter has threatened that she will certainly do if you force her to the choice. But if you will not believe me, go ask her and satisfy yourselves. I know well what she will answer you, and I hold that this is a judgment upon us, who first made her Baaltis against her will, then threatened her with death because of the prince Aziel, and now would do sacrilege to her sacred office and violence to herself by tearing her from her consecrated throne, breaking her bond of marriage and delivering her to Ithobal."

So the leaders of the councillors visited the holy tomb and reasoned with Elissa through the bars. But they got no comfort from her, for she spoke to them with the phial of poison in her bosom and the naked dagger in her hand, telling them what she had told Mesa—that they had best give up their plottings and fight Ithobal like men, seeing that even if she surrendered herself to him, when he grew weary of her the war must come at last.

"For a hundred years," she added, "this storm has gathered, and now it must burst. When it has rolled away it will be known who is master of the land—the ancient city of Zimboe, or Ithobal king of the Tribes."

So they went back as they had come, and next day at the dawn, with a bold face but heavy hearts, received the messengers of king Ithobal, and told them their tale. The messengers heard and laughed.

"We are glad," they answered, "since we, who are not in love with the daughter of Sakon, desire war and not peace, holding as we do that the time has come when you upstart white men—you outlanders—who have usurped our country to suck away its wealth should be set beneath our heel. Nor do we think that the task will be difficult for surely we have little to fear from a city of low money seekers whose councillors cannot even conquer the will of a single maid."

Then in their despair the elders offered other girls to Ithobal in marriage, as many as he would, and with them a great bribe in money. But the envoys took their leave, saying that nothing would avail since they preferred spear-thrusts to gold, for which they had little use, and Ithobal, their king, had fixed his fancy on one woman alone.

So with a heavy and foreboding heart, the city of Zimboe prepared itself to resist attack, for as they had guessed, when he learned all, the rage of Ithobal was great. Nor would he listen to any terms that they could offer save one which they had no power to grant—that Elissa should be delivered unharmed into his hands. Councils of war were held, and to these, so soon as he was sufficiently recovered from his sickness, the prince Aziel was bidden, for he was known to be a skilled captain; therefore, though he had been the cause of much of their trouble, they sought his aid. Also, should the struggle be prolonged, they hoped through him to win Israel, and perhaps Egypt, to their cause.

Aziel's counsel was that they should sally out against the army of Ithobal by night, since he expected to attack and not to be attacked, but to that advice they would not listen, for they trusted to their walls. Indeed, in this Metem supported them, and when the prince argued with him, he answered:—

"Your tactics would be good enough, Prince, if you had at your back the lions of Judah, or the wild Arab horsemen of the desert. But here you must deal with men of my own breed, and we Phoenicians are traders, not fighting men. Like rats, we fight only when there is no other chance for our lives; nor do we strike the first blow. It is true that there are some good soldiers in the city, but they are foreign mercenaries; and as for the rest, half-breeds and freed slaves, they belong as much to Ithobal as to Sakon, and are not to be trusted. No, no; let us stay behind our walls, for they at least were built when men were honest and will not betray us."

Now in Zimboe were three lines of defence; first, that of a single wall built about the huts of the slaves upon the plain, then that of a double wall of stone with a ditch between thrown round the Phoenician city, and lastly, the great fortress-temple and the rocky heights above. These, guarded as they were by many strongholds within whose circle the cattle were herded, as it was thought, could only be taken with the sword of hunger.

At last the storm burst, for on the fifth morning after Elissa had barred herself within the tomb, Ithobal attacked the native town. Uttering their wild battle-cries, tens of thousands of his savage warriors, armed with great spears and shields of ox-hide, and wearing crests of plumes upon their heads, charged down upon the outer wall. Twice they were driven back, but the work was in bad repair and too long to defend, so that at the third rush they flowed over it like lines of marching ants, driving its defenders before them to the inner gates. In this battle some were killed, but the most of the slaves threw down their arms and went over to Ithobal, who spared them, together with their wives and children.

Through all the night that followed, the generals of Zimboe made ready for the onslaught which must come. Everywhere within the circuit of the inner wall troops were stationed, while the double southern gateway, where prince Aziel was the captain in command, was built up with loose blocks of stone.

A while before the dawn, just as the eastern sky grew grey, Aziel, watching from his post above the gate of the wall, heard the fierce war-song of the Tribes swell suddenly from fifty thousand throats and the measured tramp of their innumerable feet. Then the day broke, and he saw them advancing in three armies towards the three points chosen for attack, the largest of the armies, headed by Ithobal the king, directing its march upon the walled gate of which he was in command.

It was a wondrous and a fearful sight, that of these hordes of plumed warriors, their broad spears flashing in the sunrise, and their fierce faces alight with hereditary hate and the lust of slaughter. Never had Aziel seen such a spectacle, nor could he look upon it without dreading the issue of the war, for if they were savages, these foes were brave as the lions of their own plains, and had sworn by the head of their king to drag down the sheltering walls of Zimboe with their naked hands, or die to the last man.

Turning his head with a sigh of doubt, Aziel found Metem standing at his side.

"Have you seen her?" he asked eagerly.

"No, Prince. How could I see her at night when she sits in a tomb like a fox in his burrow? But I have heard her."

"What did she say? Quick man, tell me."

"But little, Prince, for the tomb is watched and I dared not stay there long. She sent you her greetings and would have you know that her heart will be with you in the battle, and her prayers beseech the throne of Heaven for your safety. Also she said that she is well, though it is lonesome there in the grave among the bodies of the dead priestesses of Baaltis whose spirits, as she vows, haunt her dreams, reviling her because she desecrates their sepulchre and has renounced their god."

"Lonesome, indeed," said Aziel with a shudder; "but tell me, Metem, had she no other word?"

"Yes, Prince, but not of good omen, for now as always she is sure that her doom is at hand, and that you two will meet no more. Still she bade me tell you that all your life long her spirit shall companion you though it be unseen, to receive you at the last on the threshold of the underworld."

Aziel turned his head away, and said presently:—

"If that be so, may it receive me soon."

"Have no fear, Prince," replied Metem with a grim laugh, "look yonder," and he pointed to the advancing hosts.

"These walls are strong and we shall beat them back," said Aziel.

"Nay, Prince, for strong walls do not avail without strong hearts to guard them, and those of the womanish citizens of Zimboe and their hired soldiers are white with fear. I tell you that the prophecies of Issachar the Levite, made yonder in the temple on the day of the sacrifice, and again in the hour of his death, have taken hold of the people, and by eating out their valour, fulfil themselves.

"Men hint at them, the women whisper them in closets, and the very children cry them in the streets.

"More—one man last night pointed to the skies and shrieked that in them he saw that fiery sword of doom of which the prophet spoke hanging point downwards above the city, whereon all present vowed they saw it too, though, as I think, it was but a cross of stars. Another tells how that he met the very spirit of Issachar stalking through the market-place, and that peering into the eyes of the wraith, as in a mirror, he saw a great flame wrapping the temple walls, and by the light of it his own dead body. This man was the priest who first struck down the holy Levite yonder in the place of judgment.

"Again, when the lady Mesa did sacrifice last night on behalf of the Baaltis who has fled, the child they offered, an infant of six months, stirred on the altar after it was dead and cried with a loud voice that before three suns had set, its blood should be required at their hands. That is the story, and if I do not believe it, this at least is true, that the priestesses fled fast from the secret chamber of death, for I met them as they ran shrieking in their terror and tearing at their robes. But what need is there to dwell on omens, true or false, when cowards man the walls, and the spears of Ithobal shine yonder like all the stars of heaven? Prince, I tell you that this ancient city is doomed, and in it, as I fear, we must end our wanderings upon earth."

"So be it, if it must be," answered Aziel, "at the least I will die fighting."

"And I also will die fighting, Prince, not because I love it, but because it is better than being butchered in cold blood by a savage with a spear. Oh! why did you ever chance to stumble upon the lady Elissa making her prayer to Baaltis, and what evil spirit was it which filled your brains with this sudden madness of love towards each other? That was the beginning of the trouble, which, but for those eyes of hers, would have held off long enough to see us safe at Tyre, though doubtless soon or late it must have come. But see, yonder marches Ithobal at the head of his guard. Give me a bow, the flight is long, but perchance I can reach his black heart with an arrow."

"Save your strength," answered Aziel, "the range is too great, and presently you will have enough of shooting," and he turned to talk to the officers of the guard.


CHAPTER 16
The Cage Of Death

AN hour later the attack commenced at chosen points of the double wall, one of them being the southern gate. In front of the advancing columns of savages were driven vast numbers of slaves, many of whom had been captured, or had surrendered in the outer town. These men were laden with faggots to fill the ditch, rude ladders wherewith to scale the walls, and heavy trunks of trees to be used in breaching them. For the most part, they were unarmed, and protected only by their burdens, which they held before them as shields, and by the arrows of the warriors of Ithobal. But these did little harm to the defenders, who were hidden behind the walls, whereas the shafts of the garrison, rained on them from above, killed or wounded the slaves by scores, who, poor creatures, when they turned to fly, were driven onward by the spear-points of the savages, to be slain in heaps like game in a pitfall. Still, some of them lived, and running under the shelter of the wall, began to breach it with the rude battering rams, and to raise the scaling ladders till death found them, or they were worn out with excitement, fear and labour.

Then the real attack began. With fierce yells, the threefold column rushed at the wall, and began to work the rams and scale the ladders, while the defenders above showered spears and arrows upon them, or crushed them with heavy stones, or poured upon their heads boiling pitch and water, heated in great cauldrons which stood at hand.

Time after time they were driven back with heavy loss; and, time upon time, fresh hordes of them advanced to the onslaught. Thrice, at the southern gate, were the ladders raised, and thrice the stormers appeared above the level of the wall, to be hurled back, crushed and bleeding, to the earth beneath.

Thus the long day wore on and still the defenders held their own.

"We shall win," shouted Aziel to Metem, as a fresh ladder was cast down with its weight of men to the death-strewn plain.

"Yes, here we shall win because we fight," answered the Phoenician, "but elsewhere it may be otherwise." Indeed for a while the attack upon the south gate slackened.

Another hour passed and presently to the left of them rose a wild yell of triumph, and with it a shout of "Fly to the second wall. The foe is in the fosse!"

Metem looked and there, down the great ditch, 300 paces to their left, a flood of savages poured towards them. "Come," he said, "the outer wall is lost." But as he spoke once more the ladders rose against the gates and flanking towers and once more Aziel sprang to cast them down. When the deed was done, he looked behind him to find that he was cut off and surrounded. Metem and most of his men indeed had gained the inner wall in safety, while he with twelve only of his bravest soldiers, Jews of his own following, who had stayed to help him to throw back the ladders, were left upon the gateway tower. Nor was escape any longer possible, for both the plain without and the fosse within were filled with the men of Ithobal who advanced also by hundreds down the broad coping of the captured wall.

"Now there is but one thing that we can do," said Aziel; "fight bravely till we are slain."

As he spoke a javelin cast from the wall beneath struck him upon the breastplate, and though the bronze turned the iron point, it brought him to his knees. When he found his feet again, he heard a voice calling him by name, and looking down, saw Ithobal clad in golden harness and surrounded by his captains.

"You cannot escape, prince Aziel," cried the king; "yield now to my mercy."

Aziel heard, and setting an arrow to his bow, loosed it at Ithobal beneath. He was a strong and skilful archer, and the heavy shaft pierced the golden helmet of the king, cutting his scalp down to the bone.

"That is my answer," cried Aziel, as Ithobal rolled upon the ground beneath the shock of the blow. But very soon the king was up and crying his commands from behind the shield-hedge of his captains.

"Let the prince Aziel, and the Jews with him, be taken alive and brought to me," he shouted. "I will give a great reward in cattle to those who capture them unharmed; but if any do them hurt, they themselves shall be put to death."

The captains bowed and issued their orders, and presently Aziel and his companions saw lines of unarmed men creeping up ladders set at every side of the lofty tower. Again and again they cast off the ladders, till at length, being so few, they could stir them no more because of the weight upon them, but must hack at the heads of the stormers as they appeared above the parapet, killing them one by one.

In this fashion they slew many, but their arms grew weary at last, and ever under the eye of their king, the brave savages crept upward, heedless of death, till, with a shout, they poured over the battlements and rushed at the little band of Jews.

Now rather than be taken, Aziel sought to throw himself from the tower, but his companions held him, and thus at last it came about that he was seized and bound.

As they dragged him to the stairway he looked across the fosse and saw the mercenaries flying from the inner wall, although it was still unbreached, and saw the citizens of Zimboe streaming by thousands to the narrow gateway of the temple fortress.

Then Aziel groaned in his heart and struggled no more, for he knew that the fate of the ancient town was sealed, and that the prophecy of Issachar would be fulfilled.


A while later Aziel and those with him, their hands bound behind their backs, were led by hide ropes tied about their necks through the army of the Tribes that jeered and spat upon them as they passed, to a tent of sewn hides on the plain, above which floated the banner of Ithobal. Into this tent the prince was thrust alone, and there forced upon his knees by the soldiers who held him. Before him upon a couch covered with a lion skin lay the great shape of Ithobal, while physicians washed his wounded scalp.

"Greeting, son of Israel and Pharaoh," he said in a mocking voice; "truly you are wise thus to do homage to the king of the world."

"A poor jest," answered Aziel, glancing at those who held him down; "true homage is of the heart, king Ithobal."

"I know it, Jew, and this also you shall give me when you are humbler. Who taught you the use of the bow? You shoot well," and he pointed to his blood-stained helm, which was still transfixed by the arrow.

"Nay," answered Aziel, "I shot but ill, for my arm was weary. When next I draw a string against your breast, king Ithobal, I promise you a straighter shaft."

"Well said," answered the king with a laugh, "but know, dog of a Jew, that now it is my turn to draw the string—how, I will show you afterwards. Have they told you that the city has fallen, and that my captains hold the gates, while the cowards of Zimboe are penned like sheep within the temple and on the cliff-edged height above? They have fled hither for safety, but I tell you that they would be more safe on yonder plain, for I have the key of their stronghold, a certain passage leading from the palace of the Baaltis to the temple; you know if it, I think. Yes, and if I had not, very soon hunger and thirst would work for me.

"Well, Jew, I have won, and with less trouble than I thought, and now I hold the great city in hostage, to save or to destroy as it shall please me, though that arrow of yours went near to robbing me of my crown of victory."

"So be it," answered Aziel, indifferently; "I have played my part, now things must go as Fate may will."

"Yes, Jew, you fought well till they deserted you, and the doom of cowards is little to a brave man. But what of the lady Elissa? Nay, I know all; she has taken refuge in the tomb of Baaltis, has she not, with poison in her bosom and bronze at her girdle to be used against her own life, should they lay hands on her or give her to me? And all this she does for the love of you, prince Aziel; for the love of you she refuses to become my queen, ruling over that city which I have conquered, and all my unnumbered tribes.

"Do you guess now why I caused you to be taken living? I will tell you; that you may be the bait to draw her to me. To kill you would be easy; but how would that serve, seeing that then she herself would choose to die? But, perchance, to save your life she will live also—yes, and give herself to me. At least, I will try it; should the plan fail—then you can pay the price of her pride with your blood, prince Aziel."

"That I would do gladly," answered Aziel, "but oh! what a cross-bred hound you are who thus can seek to torture the heart of a helpless woman! Have you then no manhood that you can stoop to such a coward's plot?"

"Fool! it is because of my manhood that I do stoop to it," said Ithobal angrily. "Doubtless you think that a mad fancy and naught else drives me to the deed, but it is not so, although in truth my heart—like yours—chooses this woman to be my wife and none other. That fondness I might conquer, but look you, of all things living this lady alone has dared to cross my will, so that to-day even the sentries on their rounds and the savage women in the kraals tell each other of how Ithobal, the great king of an hundred tribes, has been baffled and mocked at by a girl who despises him because his blood is not all white. Thus I am become a laughing-stock, and therefore I will win her, cost me what it may."

"And I, king Ithobal, tell you that you will not win her—no, not if you torture me to death before her eyes."

"That we shall see," said the king with a sneer. Then he called to his guard and added, "Let this man and his companions be taken to the place prepared for them."

Now Aziel was dragged from the tent and thrust into a wooden cage, such as were used for carrying slaves and women from place to place upon the backs of camels. His soldiers, who had been taken with him, were thrust also into cages, and, with himself laden upon camels that were waiting, two cages to each camel. Then a cloth was thrown over them, and, rising to their feet, the camels began to march.

When they had covered a league or more of ground Aziel learned from the motion of the camel upon which he was secured, and the sound of the repeated blows of its drivers, that they were ascending some steep place. At length they reached the top of it, and were unloaded from the beasts like merchandise, but he could see nothing, for by now the night had fallen. Then, still in the cages, they were carried to a tent, where food and water were given them through the bars, after which, so weary was Aziel with war, misery and the remains of recent illness, that he fell asleep.

At daybreak he awoke, or rather was awakened, by the sound of a familiar voice, and, looking through his bars, perceived Metem standing before them, guarded but unbound, with indignation written on his face, and tears in his quick eyes.

"Alas!" he cried, "that I should have lived to see the seed of Israel and Pharaoh thus fastened like a wild beast in a den, while barbarians make a mock of him. Oh! Prince, it were better that you should die rather than endure such shame."

"Misfortunes are the master of man, not man of his misfortunes, Metem," said Aziel quietly, "and in them is no true disgrace. Even if I had the means to kill myself, it would be a sin; moreover, it might bring another to her death. Therefore, I await my doom, whatever it may be, with such patience as I can, trusting that my sufferings and ignominy may expiate my crimes in the sight of Him whom I renounced. But how come you here, Metem?"

"I came under the safe-conduct of Ithobal who gave me leave to visit you, doubtless for some ends of his own. Have you heard, Prince, that he holds the gates of the city, though as yet no harm has been done to it, and that its inhabitants are crowded within the temple, and upon the heights above; also that in his despair Sakon has fallen on his sword and slain himself?"

"Is it so?" answered Aziel. "Well, Issachar foretold as much. On their own heads be the doom of these devil-worshippers and cowards. Have you any tidings of the lady Elissa?"

"Yes, Prince. She still sits yonder in the tomb, resolute in her purpose, and giving no answer to those who come to reason with her."

As he spoke the guard let fall the front of the tent so that the sunlight flowed into it, revealing Aziel and his twelve companions, each fast in his narrow and shameful prison. "See," said Metem, "do you know the place?"

The prince struggled to his knees, and saw that they were set upon the top of a hill, built up of granite boulders, which rose eighty feet or more from the surface of the plain. Opposite to them at a distance of under a hundred paces was a precipice in the face of which could be seen a cave closed with barred gates of bronze, while between the rocky hill and the precipice ran a road.

"I know it, Metem; there runs the path by which we travelled from the coast, and there is the tomb of Baaltis. Why have we been brought here?"

"The lady Elissa sits behind the bars of yonder tomb whence her view of all that happens upon this mount must be very good indeed," answered Metem with meaning. "Now, can you guess why you were brought here, prince Aziel."

"Is it that she may witness our sufferings under torment?" he asked.

Metem nodded.

"How will they deal with us, Metem?"

"Wait and see," he answered sadly.

As he spoke Ithobal himself appeared followed by certain evil-looking savages. Having greeted Metem courteously he turned to the Hebrew soldiers in the cages and asked them which of their number was most prepared to die.

"I, Ithobal, who am their leader," said Aziel.

"No, Prince," replied Ithobal with a cruel smile, "your time is not yet. Look, there is a man who has been wounded; to put him out of his pain will be a kindness. Slaves, bear that Jew to the edge of the rock, and—as the prince will wish to study a new mode of death—bring his cage also."

The order was obeyed, Aziel being set down upon the very verge of the cliff. Close to him a spur of granite jutted out twenty feet or so from the edge. At the end of the spur a groove was cut and over this groove, suspended by a thin chain from a pole, hung a wedge of pure crystal carefully shaped and polished. While Aziel wondered what evil purpose this stone might serve, the slaves had fastened a fine rope to the cage containing the wounded Hebrew soldier and secured its end. Then they set the rope in the groove of the granite spur, and pushed the cage over the edge of the cliff, so that it dangled in mid-air.

"Now I will explain," said Ithobal. "This is a method of punishment that I have borrowed from those followers of Baal who worship the sun, by means of which Baal claims his own sacrifice, and none are guilty of the victim's blood. You see yonder crystal—well, at any appointed hour, for it can be hung as you will, the rays of the sun shining through it cause the fibres of the grass rope to smoke and smoulder till at length they part and—Baal takes his sacrifice. Should a cloud hide the sun at the appointed hour, then, Baal having spared him, the victim is set free. But, as you will note, at this season of the year there are no clouds.

"What, Prince, have you nothing to say?" he went on, for Aziel had listened in silence to the tale of this devilish device. "Well, learn that it depends upon the lady Elissa yonder whether or not this fate shall be yours. Send now and pray her to save you. Think what it will be to hang as at this moment your servant hangs over that yawning gulf of space, waiting through the long hours till at last you see the little wreaths of smoke begin to curl from the tinder of the cord. Why! before the end found them I have known men go mad, and, like wolves, tear with their teeth at the wooden bars.

"You will not. Then, Metem, do you plead for your friend. Bid the Baaltis look forth at one hour before noon and see the sight of yonder wretch's death, remembering that to-morrow this fate shall be her lover's unless she foregoes her purpose of self-murder and gives herself to me. Nay, no words! an escort shall lead you through the lower city to the gateway of the tomb and there listen to your speech. See that it does not fail you, merchant, unless you also seek to hang in yonder cage. Tell the lady Elissa that to-morrow at sunrise I will come in person for her answer. If she yields, then the prince and his companions shall be set free and with you, Metem, to guide them, be mounted on swift camels to carry them unharmed to their retinue beyond the mountains. But if she will not yield, then—Baal shall take his sacrifice. Begone."

So, having no choice, Metem bowed and went, leaving the caged Aziel upon the edge of the cliff, and the Hebrew soldier hanging from the spur of rock.

Now Aziel roused himself from the horror in which his soul was sunk, and strove to comfort his doomed comrade, praying with him to Heaven.

Slowly as they prayed, the hours drew on till at length, upon the opposite cliff, he saw men whom he knew to be Metem and his escort, approach the mouth of the tomb, and faintly heard him call through the bars of the gateway. Turning himself in his cage, Aziel glanced at the rope, and watched the spot of light born from the burning glass of the crystal creep to its side.

Now the fatal moment was at hand, and Aziel saw a little wreath of smoke rise in the still air and bade his wretched servant close his eyes. Then came the end. Suddenly the taut rope, eaten through by the sun's fire, flew back and the cage with the soldier in it vanished from his sight, while, from far below, rose the sound of a heavy fall, and from the tomb of Baaltis rang the echo of a woman's shriek.


CHAPTER 17
"There Is Hope"

IT was dawn. Ithobal the king stood without the gates of the tomb of Baaltis, the grey light glimmering faintly on his harness, and knocked upon the brazen bars with the handle of his sword.

"Who troubles me now?" said a voice within.

"Lady, it is I, Ithobal, who, as I promised by Metem the Phoenician, am come to learn your will as to the fate of my prisoner, the Prince Aziel. Already he hangs above the gulf, and within one short hour, if you so decree it, he will fall and be dashed to pieces. Or, if you so decree it, he will be set free to return to his own land."

"At what price will he be set free, king Ithobal?"

"Lady, you know the price; it is yourself. Oh! I beseech you, be wise! spare his life and your own. Listen: spare his life, and I will spare this city which lies in the hollow of my hand, and you shall rule it with me."

"You cannot bribe me thus, king Ithobal. My father whom I loved is dead, and shall I give myself to you for the sake of a city and a Faith that would have betrayed me into your hands?"

"Nay, but for the sake of the man to whom you are dear, you shall do even this, Elissa. Think: if you refuse, his blood will be upon your head, and what will you have gained?"

"Death, which I seek, for I weary of the struggle of my days."

"Then end it in my arms, lady. Soon this fancy will escape your mind, and you will remain one of the mightiest queens of men."

Elissa returned no answer, and for a while there was silence.

"Lady," said Ithobal at length, "the sun rises and my servants yonder await a signal."

Then she spoke like one who hesitates.

"Are you not afraid, king Ithobal, to trust your life to a woman won in such a fashion?"

"Nay," answered Ithobal, "for though you say that their fate does not concern you, the lives of all those penned-up thousands are hostages for my own. Should you by chance find a means to stab me unawares, then to-night fire and sword would rage through the city of Zimboe. Nor do I fear the future, since I know well that you who think you hate me now, very soon will learn to love me."

"You promise, king Ithobal, that if I yield myself you will set the prince Aziel free; but how can I believe you who twice have tried to murder him?"

"Doubt me if you will, Elissa, at least, you cannot doubt your own eyes. Look, his road to the sea runs beneath this rock. Come from the tomb and take your stand upon it and you shall see him pass; yes, and should you wish, speak with him in farewell that you may be sure that it is he and alive. Further, I swear to you by my head and honour, that no finger shall be laid upon you till he is gone by, and that no pursuit of him shall be attempted. Now choose."

Again there was silence for a while. Then Elissa spoke in a broken voice.

"King Ithobal, I have chosen. Trusting to your royal word I will stand upon the rock and when I have seen the prince Aziel go by in safety, then, since you desire it, you shall put your arms about me and bear me whither you will. You have conquered me, king Ithobal! Henceforward these lips of mine are yours and no other man's. Give the signal, I pray you, and I will cast aside the dagger and the poison and come out living from this tomb."

Aziel hung in his cage over the abyss of air, awaiting death, and glad to die, because now he was sure that Elissa had refused to purchase his life at the expense of her own surrender. There he hung, dizzy and sick at heart, making his prayer to heaven and waiting the end, while the eagles that would prey upon his shattered flesh swept past him.

Presently, from the opposing cliff, came the sound of a horn blown thrice. Then, while Aziel wondered what this might mean, the cage in which he lay was drawn in gently over the edge of the precipice, and carried down the steeps of the granite hill as it had been carried up them.

At the foot of the hill its covering was torn aside, and he saw before him a caravan of camels, and seated on each camel a comrade of his own. But one camel had no rider, and Metem led it by a rope.

The servants of Ithobal took him from the cage and set him upon this camel, though they did not loosen the bonds about the wrists.

"This is the command of the king," said the captain to Metem "that the arms of the prince Aziel shall remain bound until you have travelled for six hours. Begone in safety, fearing nothing."


"What happens now, Metem," asked Aziel, as the camels strode forward, "and why am I set free who was expecting death? Is this some new artifice of yours, or has the lady Elissa—" and he ceased.

"Upon the word of an honest merchant I cannot tell you, Prince. Yesterday, as I was forced, I gave the message of king Ithobal to the lady Elissa yonder in the tomb. She would answer me only one thing, which she whispered in my ear through the bars of the holy tomb; that if we could escape we should do so, moreover that you must have no fear for her since she also had found a means of escape from Ithobal, and would certainly join us upon the road."

As Metem spoke, the camels passed round the little hill on to the path that ran beneath the tomb of Baaltis. There, standing upon the rock some fifty feet above them, was Elissa, and with her, but at a distance, Ithobal the king.

"Halt, prince Aziel," she called in a clear voice, "and hearken to my farewell. I have bought your life, and the lives of your companions, and you are free, for the road is clear and nothing can overtake the twelve swiftest camels in Zimboe. Go, therefore, and be happy, forgetting no word that has passed my lips. For all my words are true, even to a certain promise which I made you lately by the mouth of Metem, and which I now fulfil—that I would join you on your road lest you should deem me faithless to the troth which I have so often sworn to you.

"King Ithobal, this shape is yours; come now and take your prize. Prince Aziel, my soul is yours, in life it shall companion you, and in death await you. Prince Aziel, I come to you." Then, before he could answer a single word, with one swift and sudden spring she hurled herself from the cliff edge to fall crushed upon the road beneath.

Aziel saw. In his agony he strained so fiercely at the bonds which held him that they burst like rushes. He leapt from the camel and knelt beside Elisa. She was not yet dead, for her eyes were open and her lips stirred.

"I have kept faith, keep it also, Aziel! the story is not yet done," she gasped. Then her life flickered out, and her spirit passed.


Illustration

"I have kept faith, keep it also, Aziel!"


Aziel rose from beside the corpse and looked upward. There upon the edge of the rock above him, leaning forward, his eyes blind with horror, stood Ithobal the king. Aziel saw him, and a fury entered into his heart because this man, whose jealous rage and evil doing had bred such woe and caused the death of his beloved still lived upon the earth. By the prince was Metem, who, for once, had no words, and from his hand he snatched a bow, set an arrow on the string and loosed.

The shaft rushed upwards, it smote Ithobal between the joints of his harness so that the point of it sunk through this neck.

"This gift, king Ithobal, from Aziel the Israelite," he cried, as the arrow sped.

For a moment the great man stood still, then he opened his arms wide and of a sudden plunged downward, falling with a crash on the roadway, where he lay dead at the side of dead Elissa.


"The play is played, and the fate fulfilled," cried Metem. "See, the servants of the king speed yonder with their evil tidings; let us away lest we bide here with these two for ever."

"That is my desire," said Aziel.

"A desire which may not be fulfilled," answered Metem. "Come, Prince, since we cannot go without you. Surely you do not wish to sacrifice the lives of all of us as an offering to the great spirit of the lady who is dead. It is one that she would not seek."

Then Aziel knelt down and kissed the brow of the dead Elissa, and went his way, saying no word.


That night, when the darkness fell, the sky behind these travellers grew red with fire.

"Behold the end of the golden city!" said Metem. "Zimboe is food for flames and its children for the sword. Issachar was a prophet indeed, who foretold that it should be so."

Aziel bowed his head, remembering that Issachar had foretold also that for Elissa and for him there was hope beyond the grave. As he thought it, a wind beat upon his brow and through it a soft voice seemed to murmur to his heart:—

"Be of good courage: Beloved, there is hope."


So, turning from the death behind him, this far away forgotten lover set his face to the sea of Life and passed it, and long ago, at his appointed hour, gained its further shore, to be welcomed there by her who watched for him.

And thus, because of the fateful and predestined loves of Aziel the prince, and Elissa the priestess and daughter of Sakon, three thousands years and more ago, the ancient city of Zimboe fell at the hand of king Ithobal and his Tribes, so that to-day there remain of it nothing but a desolate grey tower of stone, and beneath, the crumbling bones of men.

THE END


THE WIZARD

CHAPTER 1
The Deputation

HAS the age of miracle quite gone by, or is it still possible to the Voice of Faith calling aloud upon the earth to wring from the dumb heavens an audible answer to its prayer? Does the promise uttered by the Master of mankind upon the eve of the end—"Whoso that believeth in Me, the works that I do he shall do also... and whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do"—still hold good to such as do ask and do believe?

Let those who care to study the history of the Rev. Thomas Owen, and of that strange man who carried on and completed his work, answer this question according to their judgment.


The time was a Sunday afternoon in summer, and the place a church in the Midland counties. It was a beautiful church, ancient and spacious; moreover, it had recently been restored at great cost. Seven or eight hundred people could have found sittings in it, and doubtless they had done so when Busscombe was a large manufacturing town, before the failure of the coal supply and other causes drove away its trade. Now it was much what it had been in the time of the Normans, a little agricultural village with a population of 300 souls. Out of this population, including the choir boys, exactly thirty-nine had elected to attend church on this particular Sunday; and of these, three were fast asleep and four were dozing.

The Rev. Thomas Owen counted them from his seat in the chancel, for another clergyman was preaching; and, as he counted, bitterness and disappointment took hold of him. The preacher was a "Deputation," sent by one of the large missionary societies to arouse the indifferent to a sense of duty towards their unconverted black brethren in Africa, and incidentally to collect cash to be spent in the conversion of the said brethren. The Rev. Thomas Owen himself suggested the visit of the Deputation, and had laboured hard to secure him a good audience. But the beauty of the weather, or terror of the inevitable subscription, prevailed against him. Hence his disappointment.

"Well," he thought, with a sigh, "I have done my best, and I must make it up out of my own pocket."

Then he settled himself to listen to the sermon.

The preacher, a battered-looking individual of between fifty and sixty years of age, was gaunt with recent sickness, patient and unimaginative in aspect. He preached extemporarily, with the aid of notes; and it cannot be said that his discourse was remarkable for interest, at any rate in its beginning. Doubtless the sparse congregation, so prone to slumber, discouraged him; for offering exhortations to empty benches is but weary work. Indeed he was meditating the advisability of bringing his argument to an abrupt conclusion when, chancing to glance round, he became aware that he had at least one sympathetic listener, his host, the Rev. Thomas Owen.

From that moment the sermon improved by degrees, till at length it reached a really high level of excellence. Ceasing from rhetoric, the speaker began to tell of his own experience and sufferings in the Cause amongst savage tribes; for he himself was a missionary of many years standing. He told how once he and a companion had been sent to a nation, who named themselves the Sons of Fire because their god was the lightning, if indeed they could be said to boast any gods other than the Spear and the King. In simple language he narrated his terrible adventures among these savages, the murder of his companion by command of the Council of Wizards, and his own flight for his life; a tale so interesting and vivid that even the bucolic sleepers awakened and listened open-mouthed.

"But this is by the way," he went on; "for my Society does not ask you to subscribe towards the conversion of the Children of Fire. Until that people is conquered—which very likely will not be for generations, seeing that they live in Central Africa, occupying a territory that white men do not desire—no missionary will dare again to visit them."

At this moment something caused him to look a second time at Thomas Owen. He was leaning forward in his place listening eagerly, and a strange light filled the large, dark eyes that shone in the pallor of his delicate, nervous face.

"There is a man who would dare, if he were put to it," thought the Deputation to himself. Then he ended his sermon.

That evening the two men sat at dinner in the rectory. It was a very fine rectory, beautifully furnished; for Owen was a man of taste which he had the means to gratify. Also, although they were alone, the dinner was good—so good that the poor broken-down missionary, sipping his unaccustomed port, a vintage wine, sighed aloud in admiration and involuntary envy.

"What is the matter?" asked Owen.

"Nothing, Mr. Owen;" then, of a sudden thawing into candour, he added: "that is, everything. Heaven forgive me; but I, who enjoy your hospitality, am envious of you. Don't think too hardly of me; I have a large family to support, and if only you knew what a struggle my life is, and has been for the last twenty years, you would not, I am sure. But you have never experienced it, and could not understand. 'The labourer is worthy of his hire.' Well, my hire is under two hundred a year, and eight of us must live—or starve—on it. And I have worked, ay, until my health is broken. A labourer indeed! I am a very hodman, a spiritual Sisyphus. And now I must go back to carry my load and roll my stone again and again among those hopeless savages till I die of it—till I die of it!"

"At least it is a noble life and death!" exclaimed Owen, a sudden fire of enthusiasm burning in his dark eyes.

"Yes, viewed from a distance. Were you asked to leave this living of two thousand a year—I see that is what they put it at in Crockford—with its English comforts and easy work, that you might lead that life and attain that death, then you would think differently. But why should I bore you with such talk? Thank Heaven that your lines are cast in pleasant places. Yes, please, I will take one more glass; it does me good."

"Tell me some more about that tribe you were speaking of in your sermon, the 'Sons of Fire' I think you called them," said Owen, as he passed him the decanter.

So, with an eloquence induced by the generous wine and a quickened imagination, the Deputation told him—told him many strange things and terrible. For this people was an awful people: vigorous in mind and body, and warriors from generation to generation, but superstition-ridden and cruel. They lived in the far interior, some months' journey by boat and ox-waggon from the coast, and of white men and their ways they knew but little.

"How many of them are there?" asked Owen.

"Who can say?" he answered. "Nearly half-a-million, perhaps; at least they pretend that they can put sixty thousand men under arms."

"And did they treat you badly when you first visited them?"

"Not at first. They received us civilly enough; and on a given day we were requested to explain to the king and the Council of Wizards the religion which we came to teach. All that day we explained and all the next—or rather my friend did, for I knew very little of the language—and they listened with great interest. At last the chief of the wizards and the first prophet to the king rose to question us. He was named Hokosa, a tall, thin man, with a spiritual face and terrible calm eyes.

"'You speak well, son of a White Man,' he said, 'but let us pass from words to deeds. You tell us that this God of yours, whom you desire that we should take as our God, so that you may become His chief prophets in the land, was a wizard such as we are, though grater than we are; for not only did He know the past and the future as we do, but also He could cure those who were smitten with hopeless sickness, and raise those who were dead, which we cannot do. You tell us, moreover, that by faith those who believe on Him can do works as great as He did, and that you do believe on Him. Therefore we will put you to the proof. Ho! there, lead forth that evil one.'

"As he spoke a man was placed before us, one who had been convicted of witchcraft or some other crime.

"'Kill him!' said Hokosa.

"There was a faint cry, a scuffle, a flashing of spears, and the man lay still before us.

"'Now, followers of the new God,' said Hokosa, 'raise him from the dead as your Master did!'

"In vain did we offer explanations.

"'Peace!' said Hokosa at length, 'your words weary us. Look now, either you have preached to us a false god and are liars, or you are traitors to the King you preach, since, lacking faith in Him, you cannot do such works as He gives power to do to those who have faith in Him. Out of your own mouths are you judged, White Men. Choose which horn of the bull you will, you hang to one of them, and it shall pierce you. This is the sentence of the king, I speak it who am the king's mouth: That you, White Man, who have spoken to us and cheated us these two weary days, be put to death, and that you, his companion who have been silent, be driven from the land.'

"I can hardly bear to tell the rest of it, Mr. Owen. They gave my poor friend ten minutes to 'talk to his Spirit,' then they speared him before my face. After it was over, Hokosa spoke to me, saying:—

"'Go back, White Man, to those who sent you, and tell them the words of the Sons of Fire: That they have listened to the message of peace, and though they are a people of warriors, yet they thank them for that message, for in itself it sounds good and beautiful in their ears, if it be true. Tell them that having proved you liars, they dealt with you as all honest men seek that liars should be dealt with. Tell them that they desire to hear more of this matter, and if one can be sent to them who has no false tongue; who in all things fulfills the promises of his lips, that they will hearken to him and treat him well, but that for such as you they keep a spear.'"

"And who went after you got back?" asked Owen, who was listening with the deepest interest.

"Who went? Do you suppose that there are many mad clergymen in Africa, Mr. Owen? Nobody went."

"And yet," said Owen, speaking more to himself than to his guest, "the man Hokosa was right, and the Christian who of a truth believes the promises of our religion should trust to them and go."

"Then perhaps you would like to undertake the mission, Mr. Owen," said the Deputation briskly; for the reflection stung him, unintentional as it was.

Owen started.

"That is a new idea," he said. "And now perhaps you wish to go to bed; it is past eleven o'clock."


CHAPTER 2
Thomas Owen

THOMAS OWEN went to his room, but not to bed. Taking a Bible from the table, he consulted reference after reference.

"The promise is clear," he said aloud presently, as he shut the book; "clear and often repeated. There is no escape from it, and no possibility of a double meaning. If it is not true, then it would seem that nothing is true, and that every Christian in the world is tricked and deluded. But if it is true, why do we never hear of miracles? The answer is easy: Because we have not faith enough to work them. The Apostles worked miracles; for they had seen, therefore their faith was perfect. Since their day nobody's faith has been quite perfect; at least I think not. The physical part of our nature prevents it. Or perhaps the miracles still happen, but they are spiritual miracles."

Then he sat down by the open window, and gazing at the dreamy beauty of the summer night, he thought, for his soul was troubled. Once before it had been troubled thus; that was nine years ago, for now he was but little over thirty. Then a call had come to him, a voice had seemed to speak to his ears bidding him to lay down great possessions to follow whither Heaven should lead him. Thomas Owen had obeyed the voice; though, owing to circumstances which need not be detailed, to do so he was obliged to renounce his succession to a very large estate, and to content himself with a younger son's portion of thirty thousand pounds and the reversion to the living which he had now held for some five years.

Then and there, with singular unanimity and despatch, his relations came to the conclusion that he was mad. To this hour, indeed, those who stand in his place and enjoy the wealth and position that were his by right, speak of him as "poor Thomas," and mark their disapprobation of his peculiar conduct by refusing with an unvarying steadiness to subscribe even a single shilling to a missionary society. How "poor Thomas" speaks of them in the place where he is we may wonder, but as yet we cannot know—probably with the gentle love and charity that marked his every action upon earth. But this is by the way.

He had entered the Church, but what had he done in its shadow? This was the question which Owen asked himself as he sat that night by the open window, arraigning his past before the judgment-seat of conscience. For three years he had worked hard somewhere in the slums; then this living had fallen to him. He had taken it, and from that day forward his record was very much of a blank. The parish was small and well ordered; there was little to do in it, and the Salvation Army had seized upon and reclaimed two of the three confirmed drunkards it could boast.

His guest's saying echoed in his brain like the catch of a tune—"that you might lead that life and attain that death." Supposing that he were bidden so to do now, this very night, would he indeed "think differently"? He had become a priest to serve his Maker. How would it be were that Maker to command that he should serve Him in this extreme and heroic fashion? Would he flinch from the steel, or would he meet it as the martyrs met it of old?

Physically he was little suited to such an enterprise, for in appearance he was slight and pale, and in constitution delicate. Also, there was another reason against the thing. High Church and somewhat ascetic in his principles, in the beginning he had admired celibacy, and in secret dedicated himself to that state. But at heart Thomas was very much a man, and of late he had come to see that which is against nature is presumably not right, though fanatics may not hesitate to pronounce it wrong. Possibly this conversion to more genial views of life was quickened by the presence in the neighbourhood of a young lady whom he chanced to admire; at least it is certain that the mere thought of seeing her no more for ever smote him like a sword of sudden pain.


That very night—or so it seemed to him, and so he believed—the Angel of the Lord stood before him as he was wont to stand before the men of old, and spoke a summons in his ear. How or in what seeming that summons came Thomas Owen never told, and we need not inquire. At the least he heard it, and, like the Apostles, he arose and girded his loins to obey. For now, in the hour of trial, it proved that this man's faith partook of the nature of their faith. It was utter and virgin; it was not clogged with nineteenth-century qualifications; it had never dallied with strange doctrines, or kissed the feet of pinchbeck substitutes for God. In his heart he believed that the Almighty, without intermediary, but face to face, had bidden him to go forth into the wilderness there to perish. So he bowed his head and went.

On the following morning at breakfast Owen had some talk with his friend the Deputation.

"You asked me last night," he said quietly, "whether I would undertake a mission to that people of whom you were telling me—the Sons of Fire. Well, I have been thinking it over, and come to the conclusion that I will do so——"

At this point the Deputation, concluding that his host must be mad, moved quietly but decidedly towards the door.

"Wait a moment," went on Owen, in a matter-of-fact voice, "the dog-cart will not be round for another three-quarters of an hour. Tell me, if it were offered to you, and on investigation you proved suitable, would you care to take over this living?"

"Would I care to take over this living?" gasped the astonished Deputation. "Would I care to walk down that garden and find myself in Heaven? But why are you making fun of me?"

"I am not making fun of you. If I go to Africa I must give up the living, of which I own the advowson, and it occurred to me that it might suit you—that is all. You have done your share; your health is broken, and you have many dependent upon you. It seems right, therefore, that you should rest, and that I should work. If I do no good yonder, at the least you and yours will be a little benefited."


That same day Owen chanced to meet the lady who has been spoken of as having caught his heart. He had meant to go away without seeing her, but fortune brought them together. Hitherto, whilst in reality leading him on, she had seemed to keep him at a distance, with the result that he did not know that it was her fixed intention to marry him. To her, with some hesitation, he told his plans. Surprised and frightened into candour, the lady reasoned with him warmly, and when reason failed to move him she did more. By some subtle movement, with some sudden word, she lifted the veil of her reserve and suffered him to see her heart. "If you will not stay for aught else," said her troubled eyes, "then, love, stay for me."

For a moment he was shaken. Then he answered the look straight out, as was his nature.

"I never guessed," he said. "I did not presume to hope—now it is too late! Listen! I will tell you what I have told no living soul, though thereafter you may think me mad. Weak and humble as I am, I believe myself to have received a Divine mission. I believe that I shall execute it, or bring about its execution, but at the ultimate cost of my own life. Still, in such a service two are better than one. If you—can care enough—if you——"

But the lady had already turned away, and was murmuring her farewell in accents that sounded like a sob. Love and faith after this sort were not given to her.

Of all Owen's trials this was the sharpest. Of all his sacrifices this was the most complete.


CHAPTER 3
The Temptation

TWO years have gone by all but a few months, and from the rectory in a quiet English village we pass to a scene in Central, or South Central, Africa.

On the brow of a grassy slope dotted over with mimosa thorns, and close to a gushing stream of water, stands a house, or rather a hut, built of green brick and thatched with grass. Behind this hut is a fence of thorns, rough but strong, designed to protect all within it from the attacks of lions and other beasts of prey. At present, save for a solitary mule eating its provender by the wheel of a tented ox-waggon, it is untenanted, for the cattle have not yet been kraaled for the night. Presently Thomas Owen enters this enclosure by the back door of the hut, and having attended to the mule, which whinnies at the sight of him, goes to the gate and watches there till he sees his native boys driving the cattle up the slope of the hill. At length they arrive, and when he has counted them to make sure that none are missing, and in a few kind words commended the herds for their watchfulness, he walks to the front of the house and, seating himself upon a wooden stool set under a mimosa tree that grows near the door, he looks earnestly towards the west.

The man has changed somewhat since last we saw him. To begin with, he has grown a beard, and although the hot African sun has bronzed it into an appearance of health, his face is even thinner than it was, and therein the great spiritual eyes shine still more strangely.

At the foot of the slope runs a wide river, just here broken into rapids where the waters make an angry music. Beyond this river stretches a vast plain bounded on the horizon by mountain ranges, each line of them rising higher than the other till their topmost and more distant peaks melt imperceptibly into the tender blue of the heavens. This is the land of the Sons of Fire, and yonder amid the slopes of the nearest hills is the great kraal of their king, Umsuka, whose name, being interpreted, means The Thunderbolt.

In the very midst of the foaming rapids, and about a thousand yards from the house lies a space of rippling shallow water, where, unless it chances to be in flood, the river can be forded. It is this ford that Owen watches so intently.

"John should have been back twelve hours ago," he mutters to himself. "I pray that no harm has befallen him at the Great Place yonder."

Just then a tiny speck appears far away on the plain. It is a man travelling towards the water at a swinging trot. Going into the hut, Owen returns with a pair of field-glasses, and through them scrutinises the figure of the man.

"Heaven be praised! It is John," he mutters, with a sigh of relief. "Now, I wonder what answer he brings?"

Half an hour later John stands before him, a stalwart native of the tribe of the Amasuka, the People of Fire, and with uplifted hand salutes him, giving him titles of honour.


Illustration

Half an hour later John stands before him.


"Praise me not, John," said Owen; "praise God only, as I have taught you to do. Tell me, have you seen the king, and what is his word?"

"Father," he answered, "I journeyed to the great town, as you bade me, and I was admitted before the majesty of the king; yes, he received me in the courtyard of the House of Women. With his guards, who stood at a distance out of hearing, there were present three only; but oh! those three were great, the greatest in all the land after the king. They were Hafela, the king that is to come, the prince Nodwengo, his brother, and Hokosa the terrible, the chief of the wizards; and I tell you, father, that my blood dried up and my heart shrivelled when they turned their eyes upon me, reading the thoughts of my heart."

"Have I not told you, John, to trust in God, and fear nothing at the hands of man?"

"You told me, father, but still I feared," answered the messenger humbly. "Yet, being bidden to it, I lifted my forehead from the dust and stood upon my feet before the king, and delivered to him the message which you set between my lips."

"Repeat the message, John."

"'O King,' I said, 'beneath those footfall the whole earth shakes, whose arms stretch round the world and whose breath is the storm, I, whose name is John, am sent by the white man whose name is Messenger'—for by that title you bade me make you known—'who for a year has dwelt in the land that your spears have wasted beyond the banks of the river. These are the words which he spoke to me, O King, that I pass on to you with my tongue: "To the King Umsuka, lord of the Amasuka, the Sons of Fire, I, Messenger, who am the servant and the ambassador of the King of Heaven, give greeting. A year ago, King, I sent to you saying that the message which was brought by that white man whom you drove from your land had reached the ears of Him whom I serve, the High and Holy One, and that, speaking in my heart, He had commanded me to take up the challenge of your message. Here am I, therefore, ready to abide by the law which you have laid down; for if guile or lies be found in me, then let me travel from your land across the bridge of spears. Still, I would dwell a little while here where I am before I pass into the shadow of your rule and speak in the ears of your people as I have been bidden. Know, King, that first I would learn your tongue, and therefore I demand that one of your people may be sent to dwell with me and to teach me that tongue. King, you heard my words and you sent me a man to dwell with me, and that man has taught me your tongue, and I also have taught him, converting him to my faith and giving him a new name, the name of John. King, now I seek your leave to visit you, and to deliver into your ears the words with which I, Messenger, am charged. I have spoken."'

"Thus I, John, addressed the great ones, my father, and they listened in silence. When I had done they spoke together, a word here and a word there. Then Hokosa, the king's mouth, answered me, telling the thought of the king: 'You are a bold man, you whose name is John, but who once had another name—you, my servant, who dare to appear before me, and to make it known to me that you have been turned to a new faith and serve another king than I. Yet because you are bold, I forgive you. Go back now to that white man who is named Messenger and who comes upon an embassy to me from the Lord of Heaven, and bid him come in peace. Yet warn him once again that here also we know something of the Powers that are not seen, here also we have our wizards who draw wisdom from the air, who tame the thunderbolt and compel the rain, and that he must show himself greater than all of these if he would not pass hence by the bridge of spears. Let him, therefore, take counsel with his heart and with Him he serves, if such a One there is, and let him come or let him stay away as it shall please him.'"

"So be it," said Owen; "the words of the king are good, and to-morrow we will start for the Great Place."

John heard and assented, but without eagerness.

"My father," he said, in a doubtful and tentative voice, "would it not perhaps be better to bide here awhile first?"

"Why?" asked Owen. "We have sown, and now is the hour to reap."

"It is so, my father, but as I ran hither, full of the king's words, it came into my mind that now is not the time to convert the Sons of Fire. There is trouble brewing at the Great Palace, father. Listen, and I will tell you; as I have heard, so I will tell you. You know well that our King Umsuka has two sons, Hafela and Nodwengo; and of these Hafela is the heir-apparent, the fruit of the chief wife of the king, and Nodwengo is sprung from another wife. Now Hafela is proud and cruel, a warrior of warriors, a terrible man, and Nodwengo is gentle and mild, like to his mother whom the king loves. Of late it has been discovered that Hafela, weary of waiting for power, has made a plot to depose his father and to kill Nodwengo, his brother, so that the land and those who dwell in it may become his without question. This plot the king knows—I had it from one of his women, who is my sister—and he is very wroth, yet he dare do little, for he grows old and timid, and seeks rest, not war. Yet he is minded, if he can find the heart, to go back upon the law and to name Nodwengo as his heir before all the army at the feast of the first-fruits, which shall be held on the third day from to-night. This Hafela knows, and Nodwengo knows it also, and each of them has summoned his following, numbering thousands and tens of thousands of spears, to attend this feast of the first-fruits. That feast may well be a feast of vultures, my father, and when the brothers and their regiments rush together fighting for the throne, what will chance to the white man who comes at such a moment to preach a faith of peace, and to his servant, one John, who led him there?"

"I do not know," answered Owen, "and it troubles me not at all. I go to carry out my mission, and in this way or in that it will be carried out. John, if you are fearful or unbelieving leave me to go alone."

"Nay, father, I am not fearful; yet, father, I would have you understand. Yonder there are men who can work wizardry. Wow! I know, for I have seen it, and they will demand from you magic greater than their magic."

"What of it, John?"

"Only this, my father, that if they ask and you fail to give, they will kill you. You teach beautiful things, but say, are you a wizard? When the child of a woman yonder lay dead, you could not raise it as did the Christ; when the oxen were sick with the pest, you could not cure them; or at least, my father, you did not, although you wept for the child and were sorry at the loss of the oxen. Now, my father, if perchance they ask you to do such things as these yonder, or die, say what will happen?"

"One of two things, John: either I shall die or I shall do the things."

"But"—hesitated John—"surely you do not believe that——" and he broke off.

Owen turned round and looked at his disciple with kindling eyes. "I do believe, O you of little faith!" he said. "I do believe that yonder I have a mission, and that He Whom I serve will give me power to carry out that mission. You are right, I can work no miracles; but He can work miracles Whom everything in heaven and earth obeys, and if there is need He will work them through me, His instrument. Or perhaps He will not work them, and I shall die, because thus His ends will best be forwarded. At the least I go in faith, fearing nothing, for what has he to fear who knows the will of God and does it? But to you who doubt, I say—leave me!"

The man spread out his hands in deprecation; his thick lips trembled a little, and something like a tear appeared at the corners of his eyes.

"Father," he said, "am I a coward that you should talk to me thus? I, who for twenty years have been a soldier of my king and for ten a captain in my regiment? These scars show whether or no I am a coward," and he pointed to his breast, "but of them I will not speak. I am no coward, else I had not gone upon that errand of yours. Why, then, should you reproach me because my ears are not so open as yours, as my heart has not understanding? I worship that God of Whom you have taught me, but He never speaks to me as He does to you. I never meet Him as I walk at night; He leaves me quite alone. Therefore it is that I fear that when the hour of trial comes He may desert you; and unless He covers you with His shield, of this I am sure, that the spear is forged which shall blush red in your heart, my father. It is for you that I fear, who are so gentle and tender; not for myself, who am well accustomed to look in the eyes of Death, and who expect no more than death."

"Forgive me," said Owen hastily, for he was moved; "and be sure that the shield will be over us till the time comes for us to pass whither we shall need none."


That night Owen rose from the task at which he was labouring slowly and painfully—a translation of passages from the Gospel of St. John into the language of the Amasuka—and going to the open window-place of the hut, he rested his elbows upon it and thought, staring with empty eyes into the blackness of the night. Now it was as he sat thus that a great agony of doubt took possession of his soul. The strength which hitherto had supported him seemed to be withdrawn, and he was left, as John had said, "quite alone." Strange voices seemed to whisper in his ears, reproaching and reviling him; temptations long ago trampled under foot rose again in might, alluring him.

"Fool," said the voices, "get you hence before it is too late. You have been mad; you who dreamed that for your sake, to satisfy your pride, the Almighty will break His silence and strain His law. Are you then better, or greater, or purer than millions who have gone before you, that for you and you alone this thing should be done? Why, were it not that you are mad, you would be among the chief of sinners; you who dare to ask that the Powers of Heaven should be set within your feeble hand, that the Angels of Heaven should wait upon your mortal breath. Worm that you are, has God need of such as you? If it is His will to turn the heart of yonder people He will do it, but not by means of you. You and the servant whom you are deluding to his death will perish miserably, and this alone shall be the fruit of your presumptuous sin. Get you back out of this wilderness before the madness takes you afresh. You are still young, you have wealth; look where She stands yonder whom you desire. Get you back, and forget your folly in her arms."

These thoughts, and many others of like nature, tore Owen's soul in that hour of strange and terrible temptation. He seemed to see himself standing before the thousands of the savage nation he went to save, and to hear the mocking voices of their witch-finders commanding him, if he were a true man and the servant of that God of Whom he prated, to give them a sign, only a little sign; perhaps to move a stone without touching it with his hand, or to cause a dead bough to blossom.

Then he would beseech Heaven with frantic prayers, and in vain, till at length, amidst a roar of laughter, he, the false prophet and the liar, was led out to his doom. He saw the piteous wondering look of the believer whom he had betrayed to death; he saw the fierce faces and the spears on high. Seeing all this his spirit broke, and, just as the little clock in the room behind him struck the first stroke of midnight, with a great and bitter cry to God to give him back the faith and strength that he had lost, Owen's head fell forward and he sank into a swoon there upon the window-place.


CHAPTER 4
The Vision

WAS it swoon or sleep?


Illustration

Was it swoon or sleep?


At least it seemed to Owen that presently once again he was gazing into the dense intolerable blackness of the night. Then a marvel came to pass, for the blackness opened, or rather on it, framed and surrounded by it, there appeared a vision. It was the vision of a native town, having a great bare space in the centre of it encircled by hundreds or thousands of huts. But there was no one stirring about the huts, for it was night—not this his night of trial indeed, since now the sky was strewn with innumerable stars. Everything was silent about that town, save that now and again a dog barked or a fretful child wailed within a hut, or the sentries as they passed saluted each other in the name of the king.

Among all those hundreds of huts, to Owen it seemed that his attention was directed to one which stood apart surrounded with a fence. Now the interior of the hut opened itself to him. It was not lighted, yet with his spirit sense he could see its every detail: the polished floor, the skin rugs, the beer gourds, the shields and spears, the roof-tree of red wood, and the dried lizard hanging from the thatch, a charm to ward off evil. In this hut, seated face to face halfway between the centre-post and the door-hole, were two men. The darkness was deep about them, and they whispered to each other through it; but in his dream this was no bar to Owen's sight. He could discern their faces clearly.

One of them was that of a man of about thirty-five years of age. In stature he was almost a giant. He wore a kaross of leopard skins, and on his wrists and ankles were rings of ivory, the royal ornaments. His face was fierce and powerful; his eyes, which were set far apart, rolled so much that at times they seemed all white; and his fingers played nervously with the handle of a spear that he carried in his right hand. His companion was of a different stamp; a person of more than fifty years, he was tall and spare in figure, with delicately shaped hands and feet. His hair and little beard were tinged with grey, his face was strikingly handsome, nervous and expressive, and his forehead both broad and high. But more remarkable still were his eyes, which shone with a piercing brightness, almost grey in colour, steady as the flame of a well-trimmed lamp, and so cold that they might have been precious stones set in the head of a statue.

"Must I then put your thoughts in words?" said this man in a clear quick whisper. "Well, so be it; for I weary of sitting here in the dark waiting for water that will not flow. Listen, Prince; you come to talk to me of the death of a king—is it not so? Nay do not start. Why are you affrighted when you hear upon the lips of another the plot that these many months has been familiar to your breast?"

"Truly, Hokosa, you are the best of wizards, or the worst," answered the great man huskily. "Yet this once you are mistaken," he added with a change of voice. "I came but to ask you for a charm to turn my father's heart—"

"To dust? Prince, if I am mistaken, why am I the best of wizards, or the worst, and why did your jaw drop and your face change at my words, and why do you even now touch your dry lips with your tongue? Yes, I know that it is dark here, yet some can see in it, and I am one of them. Ay, Prince, and I can see your mind also. You would be rid of your father: he has lived too long. Moreover his love turns to Nodwengo, the good and gentle; and perhaps—who can say?—it is even in his thought, when all his regiments are about him two days hence, to declare that you, Prince, are deposed, and that your brother, Nodwengo, shall be king in your stead. Now, Nodwengo you cannot kill; he is too well loved and too well guarded. If he died suddenly, his dead lips would call out 'Murder!' in the ears of all men; and, Prince, all eyes would turn to you, who alone could profit by his end. But if the king should chance to die—why he is old, is he not? and such things happen to the old. Also he grows feeble, and will not suffer the regiments to be doctored for war, although day by day they clamour to be led to battle; for he seeks to end his years in peace."

"I say that you speak folly," answered the prince with vehemence.

"Then, Son of the Great One, why should you waste time in listening to me? Farewell, Hafela the Prince, first-born of the king, who in a day to come shall carry the shield of Nodwengo; for he is good and gentle, and will spare your life—if I beg it of him."

Hafela stretched out his hand through the darkness, and caught Hokosa by the wrist.

"Stay," he whispered, "it is true. The king must die; for if he does not die within three days, I shall cease to be his heir. I know it through my spies. He is angry with me; he hates me, and he loves Nodwengo and the mother of Nodwengo. But if he dies before the last day of the festival, then that decree will never pass his lips, and the regiments will never roar out the name of Nodwengo as the name of the king to come. He must die, I tell you, Hokosa, and—by your hand."

"By my hand, Prince! Nay; what have you to offer me in return for such a deed as this? Have I not grown up in Umsuka's shadow, and shall I cut down the tree that shades me?"

"What have I to offer you? This: that next to myself you shall be the greatest in the land, Hokosa."

"That I am already, and whoever rules it, that I must always be. I, who am the chief of wizards; I, the reader of men's hearts; I, the hearer of men's thoughts! I, the lord of the air and the lightning; I, the invulnerable. If you would murder, Prince, then do the deed; do it knowing that I have your secret, and that henceforth you who rule shall be my servant. Nay, you forget that I can see in the dark; lay down that assegai, or, by my spirit, prince as you are, I will blast you with a spell, and your body shall be thrown to the kites, as that of one who would murder his king and father!"

The prince heard and shook, his cheeks sank in, the muscles of his great form seemed to collapse, and he grovelled on the floor of the hut.

"I know your magic," he groaned; "use it for me, not against me! What is there that I can offer you, who have everything except the throne, whereon you cannot sit, seeing that you are not of the blood-royal?"

"Think," said Hokosa.

For a while the prince thought, till presently his form straightened itself, and with a quick movement he lifted up his head.

"Is it, perchance, my affianced wife?" he whispered; "the lady Noma, whom I love, and who, according to our custom, I shall wed as the queen to be after the feast of first-fruits? Oh! say it not, Hokosa."

"I say it," answered the wizard. "Listen, Prince. The lady Noma is the only child of my blood-brother, my friend, with whom I was brought up, he who was slain at my side in the great war with the tribes of the north. She was my ward: she was more; for through her—ah! you know not how—I held my converse with the things of earth and air, the very spirits that watch us now in this darkness, Hafela. Thus it happened, that before ever she was a woman, her mind grew greater than the mind of any other woman, and her thought became my thought, and my thought became her thought, for I and no other am her master. Still I waited to wed her till she was fully grown; and while I waited I went upon an embassy to the northern tribes. Then it was that you saw the maid in visiting at my kraal, and her beauty and her wit took hold of you; and in the council of the king, as you have a right to do, you named her as your head wife, the queen to be.

"The king heard and bowed his head; he sent and took her, and placed her in the House of the Royal Women, there to abide till this feast of the first-fruits, when she shall be given to you in marriage. Yes, he sent her to that guarded house wherein not even I may set my foot. Although I was afar, her spirit warned me, and I returned, but too late; for she was sealed to you of the blood-royal, and that is a law which may not be broken.

"Hafela, I prayed you to return her to me, and you mocked me. I would have brought you to your death, but it could not have availed me: for then, by that same law, which may not be broken, she who was sealed to you must die with you; and though thereafter her spirit would sit with me till I died also, it was not enough, since I who have conquered all, yet cannot conquer the fire that wastes my heart, nor cease to long by night and day for a woman who is lost to me. Then it was, Hafela, that I plotted vengeance against you. I threw my spell over the mind of the king, till he learnt to hate you and your evil deeds; and I, even I, have brought it about that your brother should be preferred before you, and that you shall be the servant in his house. This is the price that you must pay for her of whom you have robbed me; and by my spirit and her spirit you shall pay! Yet listen. Hand back the girl, as you may do—for she is not yet your wife—and choose another for your queen, and I will undo all that I have done, and I will find you a means, Hafela, to carry out your will. Ay, before six suns have set, the regiments rushing past you shall hail you King of the Nation of the Amasuka, Lord of the ancient House of Fire!"

"I cannot," groaned the prince; "death were better than this!"

"Ay, death were better; but you shall not die, you shall live a servant, and your name shall become a mockery, a name for women to make rhymes on."

Now the prince sprang up.

"Take her!" he hissed; "take her! you, who are an evil ghost; you, beneath whose eyes children wail, and at whose passing the hairs on the backs of hounds stand up! Take her, priest of death and ill; but take my curse with her! Ah! I also can prophecy; and I tell you that this woman whom you have taught, this witch of many spells, whose glance can shrivel the hearts of men, shall give you to drink of your own medicine; ay, she shall dog you to the death, and mock you while you perish by an end of shame!"

"What," laughed the wizard, "have I a rival in my own arts? Nay, Hafela, if you would learn the trade, pay me well and I will give you lessons. Yet I counsel you not; for you are flesh, nothing but flesh, and he who would rule the air must cultivate the spirit. Why, I tell you, Prince, that even the love for her who is my heart, the lady whom we both would wed, partaking of the flesh as, alas! it does, has cost me half my powers. Now let us cease from empty scoldings, and strike our bargain.

"Listen. On the last day of the feast, when all the regiments are gathered to salute the king there in his Great Place according to custom, you shall stand forth before the king and renounce Noma, and she shall pass back to the care of my household. You yourself shall bring her to where I stand, and as I take her from you I will put into your hand a certain powder. Then you shall return to the side of the king, and after our fashion shall give him to drink the bowl of the first-fruits; but as you stir the beer, you will let fall into it that powder which I have given you. The king will drink, and what he leaves undrunk you will throw out upon the dust.

"Now he will rise to give out to the people his royal decree, whereby, Prince, you are to be deposed from your place as heir, and your brother, Nodwengo, is to be set in your seat. But of that decree never a word shall pass his lips; if it does, recall your saying and take back the lady Noma from where she stands beside me. I tell you that never a word will pass his lips; for even as he rises a stroke shall take him, such a stroke as often falls upon the fat and aged, and he will sink to the ground snoring through his nostrils. For a while thereafter—it may be six hours, it may be twelve—he shall lie insensible, and then a cry will arise that the king is dead!"

"Ay," said Hafela, "and that I have poisoned him!"

"Why, Prince? Few know what is in your father's mind, and with those, being king, you will be able to deal. Also this is the virtue of the poison which I choose, that it is swift, yet the symptoms of it are the symptoms of a natural sickness. But that your safety and mine may be assured, I have made yet another plan, though of this there will be little need. You were present two days since when a runner came from the white man who sojourns beyond our border, he who seeks to teach us, the Children of Fire, a new faith, and gives out that he is the messenger of the King of heaven. This runner asked leave for the white man to visit the Great Place, and, speaking in the king's name, I gave him leave. But I warned his servant that if his master came, a sign should be required of him to show that he was a true man, and had of the wisdom of the King of Heaven; and that if he failed therein, then that he should die as that white liar died who visited us in bygone years.

"Now I have so ordered that this white man, passing through the Valley of Death yonder, shall reach the Great Place not long before the king drinks of the cup of the first-fruits. Then if any think that something out of nature has happened to the king, they will surely think also that this strange prayer-doctor has wrought the evil. Then also I will call for a sign from the white man, praying of him to recover the king of his sickness; and when he fails, he shall be slain as a worker of spells and the false prophet of a false god, and so we shall be rid of him and his new faith, and you shall be cleared of doubt. Is not the plan good, Prince?"

"It is very good, Hokosa—save for one thing only."

"For what thing?"

"This: the white man who is named Messenger might chance to be a true prophet of a true God, and to recover the king."

"Oho, let him do it, if he can; but to do it, first he must know the poison and its antidote. There is but one, and it is known to me only of all men in this land. When he has done that, then I, yes, even I, Hokosa, will begin to inquire concerning this God of his, who shows Himself so mighty in person of His messenger." And he laughed low and scornfully.

"Prince, farewell! I go forth alone, whither you dare not follow at this hour, to seek that which we shall need. One word—think not to play me false, or to cheat me of my price; for whate'er betides, be sure of this, that hour shall be the hour of your dooming. Hail to you, Son of the King! Hail! and farewell." Then, removing the door-board, the wizard passed from the hut and was gone.


The vision changed. Now there appeared a valley walled in on either side with sloping cliffs of granite; a desolate place, sandy and, save for a single spring, without water, strewn with boulders of rock, some of them piled fantastically one upon the other. At a certain spot this valley widened out, and in the mouth of the space thus formed, midway between the curved lines of the receding cliffs, stood a little hill or koppie, also built up of boulders. It was a place of death; for all around the hill, and piled in hundreds between the crevices of its stones, lay the white bones of men.

Nor was this all. Its summit was flat, and in the midst of it stood a huge tree. Even had it not been for the fruit which hung from its branches, the aspect of that tree must have struck the beholder as uncanny, even as horrible. The bark on its great bole was leprous white; and from its gaunt and spreading rungs rose branches that subdivided themselves again and again, till at last they terminated in round green fingers, springing from grey, flat slabs of bark, in shape not unlike that of a human palm. Indeed, from a little distance this tree, especially if viewed by moonlight, had the appearance of bearing on it hundreds or thousands of the arms and hands of men, all of them stretched imploringly to Heaven.

Well might they seem to do so, seeing that to its naked limbs hung the bodies of at least twenty human beings who had suffered death by order of the king or his captains, or by the decree of the company of wizards, whereof Hokosa was the chief. There on the Hill of Death stood the Tree of Death; and that in its dank shade, or piled upon the ground beneath it, hung and lay the pitiful remnants of the multitudes who for generations had been led thither to their doom.

Now, in Owen's vision a man was seen approaching by the little pathway that ran up the side of the mount—the Road of Lost Footsteps it was called. It was Hokosa the wizard. Outside the circle of the tree he halted, and drawing a tanned skin from a bundle of medicines which he carried, he tied it about his mouth; for the very smell of that tree is poisonous and must not be suffered to reach the lungs.

Presently he was under the branches, where once again he halted; this time it was to gaze at the body of an old man which swung to and fro in the night breeze.

"Ah! friend," he muttered, "we strove for many years, but it seems that I have conquered at the last. Well, it is just; for if you could have had your way, your end would have been my end."

Then very leisurely, as one who is sure that he will not be interrupted, Hokosa began to climb the tree, till at length some of the green fingers were within his reach. Resting his back against a bough, one by one he broke off several of them, and averting his face so that the fumes of it might not reach him, he caused the thick milk-white juice that they contained to trickle into the mouth of a little gourd which was hung about his neck by a string. When he had collected enough of the poison and carefully corked the gourd with a plug of wood, he descended the tree again. At the great fork where the main branches sprang from the trunk, he stood a while contemplating a creeping plant which ran up them. It was a plant of naked stem, like the tree it grew upon; and, also like the tree, its leaves consisted of bunches of green spikes having a milky juice.

"Strange," he said aloud, "that Nature should set the bane and the antidote side by side, the one twined about the other. Well, so it is in everything; yes, even in the heart of man. Shall I gather some of this juice also? No; for then I might repent and save him, remembering that he has loved me, and thus lose her I seek, her whom I must win back or be withered. Let the messenger of the King of Heaven save him, if he can. This tree lies on his path; perchance he may prevail upon its dead to tell him of the bane and of the antidote." And once more the wizard laughed mockingly.


The vision passed. At this moment Thomas Owen, recovering from his swoon, lifted his head from the window-place. The night before him was as black as it had been, and behind him the little American clock was still striking the hour of midnight. Therefore he could not have remained insensible for longer than a few seconds.

A few seconds, yet how much he had seen in them. Truly his want of faith had been reproved—truly he also had been "warned of God in a dream,"—truly "his ears had been opened and his instruction sealed." His soul had been "kept back from the pit," and his life from "perishing by the sword"; and the way of the wicked had been made clear to him "in a dream, in a vision of the night when deep sleep falleth upon men."

Not for nothing had he endured that agony, and not for nothing had he struggled in the grip of doubt.


CHAPTER 5
The Feast Of The First-Fruits

ON the third morning from this night whereof the strange events have been described, an ox-waggon might have been seen outspanned on the hither side of those ranges of hills that were visible from the river. These mountains, which although not high are very steep, form the outer barrier and defence of the kingdom of the Amasuka. Within five hundred yards of where the waggon stood, however, a sheer cliffed gorge, fire-riven and water-hewn, pierced the range, and looking on it, Owen knew it for the gorge of his dream. Night and day the mouth of it was guarded by a company of armed soldiers, whose huts were built high on outlook places in the mountains, whence their keen eyes could scan the vast expanses of plain. A full day before it reached them, they had seen the white-capped waggon crawling across the veldt, and swift runners had reported its advent to the king at his Great Place.

Back came the word of the king that the white man, with the waggon and his servant, were to be led on towards the Great Place at such speed as would bring him there in time for him to behold the last ceremony of the feast of first-fruits; but, for the present, that the waggon itself and the oxen were to be left at the mouth of the gorge, in charge of a guard, who would be answerable for them.

Now, on this morning the captain of the guard and his orderlies advanced to the waggon and stood in front of it. They were splendid men, armed with great spears and shields, and adorned with feather head-dresses and all the wild finery of their regiment. Owen descended from the waggon and came to meet them, and so for a few moments they remained, face to face, in silence. A strange contrast they presented as they stood there; the bare-headed white man frail, delicate, spiritual of countenance, and the warriors great, grave, powerful, a very embodiment of the essence of untamed humanity, an incarnate presentation of the spirit of savage warfare.

"How are you named, White Man?" asked the captain.

"Chief, I am named Messenger."

"The peace of the king be with you, Messenger," said the captain, lifting his spear.

"The peace of God be with you, Chief," answered Owen, holding up his hands in blessing.

"Who is God?" asked the captain.

"Chief, He is the King I serve, and His word is between my lips."

"Then pass on, Messenger of God, and deliver the word of God your King into the ears of my king, at his Great Place yonder. Pass on riding the beast you have brought with you, for the way is rough; but your waggon, your oxen, and your servants, save this man only who is of the Children of Fire, must stay here in my keeping. Fear not, Messenger, I will hold them safe."

"I do not fear, Chief, there is honour in your eyes."


Some hours later, Owen, mounted on his mule, was riding through the gorge, a guard in front of and behind him, and with them carriers who had been sent to bear his baggage. At his side walked his disciple John, and his face was sad.

"Why are you still afraid?" asked Owen.

"Ah! father, because this is a place of fear. Here in this valley men are led to die; presently you will see."

"I have seen," answered Owen. "Yonder where we shall halt is a mount, and on that mount stands a tree; it is called the Tree of Death, and it stretches a thousand hands to Heaven, praying for mercy that does not come, and from its boughs there hangs fruit, a fruit of dead men—yes, twenty of them hang there this day."

"How know you these things, my father," asked the man amazed, "seeing that I have never spoken to you of them?"

"Nay," he answered, "God has spoken to me. My God and your God."

Another hour passed, and they were resting by the spring of water, near to the shadow of the dreadful tree, for in that gorge the sun burned fiercely. John counted the bodies that swung upon it, and again looked fearfully at Owen, for there were twenty of them.

"I desire to go up to that tree," Owen said to the guard.

"As you will, Messenger," answered their leader; "I have no orders to prevent you from so doing. Still," he added with a solemn smile, "it is a place that few seek of their own will, and, because I like you well, Messenger, I pray it may never be my duty to lead you there of the king's will."

Then Owen went up to the tree and John with him, only John would not pass beneath the shadow of its branches; but stood by wondering, while his master bound a handkerchief about his mouth.

"How did he know that the breath of the tree is poisonous?" John wondered.

Owen walked to the bole of the tree, and breaking off some of the finger-like leaves of the creeper that twined about it, he pressed their milky juice into a little bottle that he had made ready. Then he returned quickly, for the sights and odours of the place were not to be borne.

Outside the circle of the branches he halted, and removed the handkerchief from his mouth.

"Be of good cheer," he said to John, "and if it should chance that I am called away before my words come true, yet remember my words. I tell you that this Tree of Death shall become the Tree of Life for all the children of your people. Look! there above you is its sign and promise."

John lifted his eyes, following the line of Owen's outstretched hand, and saw this. High up upon the tree, and standing clear of all the other branches, was one straight, dead limb, and from this dead limb two arms projected at right angles, also dead and snapped off short. Had a carpenter fashioned a cross of wood and set it there, its proportions could not have been more proper and exact. It was very strange to find this symbol of the Christian hope towering above that place of human terror, and stranger still was the purpose which it must serve in a day to come.

Owen and John returned to the guard in silence, and presently they set forward on their journey. At length, passing beneath a natural arch of rock, they were out of the Valley of Death, and before them, not five hundred paces away, appeared the fence of the Great Place.

This Great Place stood upon a high plateau, in the lap of the surrounding hills, all of which were strongly fortified with schanses, pitfalls, and rough walls of stone. That plateau may have measured fifteen miles in circumference, and the fence of the town itself was about four miles in circumference. Within the fence and following its curve, for it was round, stood thousands of dome-shaped huts carefully set out in streets. Within these again was a stout stockade of timber, enclosing a vast arena of trodden earth, large enough to contain all the cattle of the People of Fire in times of danger, and to serve as a review ground for their impis in times of peace or festival.

At the outer gate of the kraal there was a halt, while the keepers of the gate despatched a messenger to their king to announce the advent of the white man. Of this pause Owen took advantage to array himself in the surplice and hood which he had brought with him in readiness for that hour. Then he gave the mule to John to lead behind him.

"What do you, Messenger?" asked the leader of the guard, astonished.

"I clothe myself in my war-dress," he answered.

"Where then is your spear, Messenger?"

"Here," said Owen, presenting to his eyes a crucifix of ivory, most beautifully carved.

"I perceive that you are of the family of wizards," said the man, and fell back.

Now they entered the kraal and passed for three hundred yards or more through rows of huts, till they reached the gate of the stockade, which was opened to them. Once within it, Owen saw a wonderful sight, such a sight as few white men have seen. The ground of the enormous oval before him was not flat. Either from natural accident or by design it sloped gently upwards, so that the spectator, standing by the gate or at the head of it before the house of the king, could take in its whole expanse, and, if his sight were keen enough, could see every individual gathered there.

On the particular day of Owen's arrival it was crowded with regiments, twelve of them, all dressed in their different uniforms and bearing shields to match, not one of which was less than 2500 strong. At this moment the regiments were massed in deep lines, each battalion by itself, on either side of the broad roadway that ran straight up the kraal to where the king, his sons, his advisers and guards, together with the company of wizards, were placed in front of the royal house.

There they stood in absolute silence, like tens of thousands of bronze statues, and Owen perceived that either they were resting or that they were gathered thus to receive him. That the latter was the case soon became evident, for as he appeared, a white spot at the foot of the slope, countless heads turned and myriads of eyes fastened themselves upon him. For an instant he was dismayed; there was something terrifying in this numberless multitude of warriors, and the thought of the task that he had undertaken crushed his spirit. Then he remembered, and shaking off his fear and doubt, alone, save for his disciple John, holding the crucifix aloft, he walked slowly up the wide road towards the place where he guessed that the king must be. His arm was weary ere ever he reached it, but at length he found himself standing before a thickset old man, who was clad in leopard skins and seated upon a stool of polished wood.

"It is the king," whispered John behind him.

"Peace be to you," said Owen, breaking the silence.

"The wish is good, may it be fulfilled," answered the king in a deep voice, sighing as he said the words. "Yet yours is a strange greeting," he added. "Whence came you, White Man, how are you named, and what is your mission to me and to my people?"

"King, I come from beyond the sea; I am named Messenger, and my mission is to deliver to you the saying of God, my King and—yours."

At these words a gasp of astonishment went up from those who stood within hearing, expecting as they did to see them rewarded by instant death. But Umsuka only said:—

"'My King and yours'? Bold words, Messenger. Where then is this King to whom I, Umsuka, should bow the knee?"

"He is everywhere—in the heavens, on the earth, and below the earth."

"If He is everywhere, then He is here. Show me the likeness of this King, Messenger."

"Behold it," Owen answered, thrusting forward the crucifix.

Now all the great ones about the king stared at this figure of a dying man crowned with thorns and hanging on a cross, and then drew up their lips to laugh. But that laugh never left them; a sudden impulse, a mysterious wave of feeling choked it in their throats. A sense of the strangeness of the contrast between themselves in their armed multitudes and this one white-robed man in his loneliness took hold of them, and with it another sense of something not far removed from fear.

"A wizard indeed," they thought in their hearts, and what they thought the king uttered.

"I perceive," he said, "that you are either mad, White Man, or you are a prince of wizards. Mad you do not seem to be, for your eyes are calm, therefore a wizard you must be. Well, stand behind me: by-and-by I will hear your message and ask of you to show me your powers; but before then there are things which I must do. Are the lads ready? Ho, you, loose the bull!"

At the command a line of soldiers moved from the right, forming itself up in front of the king and his attendants, revealing a number of youths, of from sixteen to seventeen years of age, armed with sticks only, who stood in companies outside a massive gate. Presently this gate was opened, and through it, with a mad bellow, rushed a wild buffalo bull. On seeing them the brute halted, and for a few moments stood pawing the earth and tearing it with its great horns. Then it put down its head and charged. Instead of making way for it, uttering a shrill whistling sound, the youths rushed at the beast, striking with their sticks.

Another instant, and one of them appeared above the heads of his companions, thrown high into the air, to be followed by a second and a third. Now the animal was through the throng and carrying a poor boy on its horn, whence presently he fell dead; through and through the ranks of the regiments it charged furiously backward and forward.

Watching it fascinated, Owen noted that it was a point of honour for no man to stir before its rush; there they stood, and if the bull gored them, there they fell. At length, exhausted and terrified, the brute headed back straight up the lane where the main body of the youths were waiting for it. Now it was among them, and, reckless of wounds or death, they swarmed about it like bees, seizing it by legs, nose, horns and tail, till with desperate efforts they dragged it to the ground and beat the life out of it with their sticks. This done, they formed up before the king and saluted him.

"How many are killed?" he asked.

"Eight in all," was the answer, "and fifteen gored."

"A good bull," he said with a smile; "that of last year killed but five. Well, the lads fought him bravely. Let the dead be buried, the hurt tended, or, if their harms are hopeless, slain, and to the rest give a double ration of beer. Ho, now, fall back, men, and make a space for the Bees and the Wasps to fight in."

Some orders were given and a great ring was formed, leaving an arena clear that may have measured a hundred and fifty yards in diameter. Then suddenly, from opposite sides, the two regiments, known as the Bees and the Wasps respectively, rushed upon each other, uttering their war-cries.

"I put ten head of cattle on the Bees; who wagers on the Wasps?" cried the king.

"I, Lord," answered the Prince Hafela, stepping forward.

"You, Prince!" said the king with a quick frown. "Well, you are right to back them, they are your own regiment. Ah! they are at it."

By this time the scene was that of a hell broken loose upon the earth. The two regiments, numbering some 5000 men in all, had come together, and the roar of their meeting shields was like the roar of thunder. They were armed with kerries only, and not with spears, for the fight was supposed to be a mimic one; but these weapons they used with such effect that soon hundreds of them were down dead or with shattered skulls and bruised limbs. Fiercely they fought, while the whole army watched, for their rivalry was keen and for many months they had known that they were to be pitted one against the other on this day. Fiercely they fought, while the captains cried their orders, and the dust rose up in clouds as they swung to and fro, breast thrusting against breast. At length the end came; the Bees began to give, they fell back ever more quickly till their retreat was a rout, and, leaving many stretched upon the ground, amid the mocking cries of the army they were driven to the fence, by touching which they obtained peace at the hands of their victors.

The king saw, and his somewhat heavy, quiet face grew alive with rage.

"Search and see," he said, "if the captain of the Bees is alive and unhurt."

Messengers went to do his bidding, and presently they returned, bringing with them a man of magnificent appearance and middle age, whose left arm had been broken by a blow from a kerry. With his right hand he saluted first the king, then the Prince Nodwengo, a kindly-faced, mild-eyed man, in whose command he was.

"What have you to say?" asked the king, in a cold voice of anger. "Know you that you have cost me ten head of the royal white cattle?"

"King, I have nothing to say," answered the captain calmly, "except that my men are cowards."

"That is certainly so," said the king. "Let all the wounded among them be carried away; and for you, captain, who turn my soldiers into cowards, you shall die a dog's death, hanging to-morrow on the Tree of Doom. As for your regiment, I banish it to the fever country, there to hunt elephants for three years, since it is not fit to fight with men."

"It is well," replied the captain, "since death is better than shame. Only King, I have done you good service in the past; I ask that it may be presently and by the spear."

"So be it," said the king.

"I crave his life, father," said the Prince Nodwengo; "he is my friend."

"A prince should not choose cowards for his friends," replied the king; "let him be killed, I say."

Then Owen, who had been watching and listening, his heart sick with horror, stood forward and said:—

"King, in the name of Him I serve, I conjure you to spare this man and those others that are hurt, who have done no crime except to be driven back by soldiers stronger than themselves."

"Messenger," answered the king, "I bear with you because you are ignorant. Know that, according to our customs, this crime is the greatest of crimes, for here we show no mercy to the conquered."

"Yet you should do so," said Owen, "seeing that you also must ere long be conquered by death, and then how can you expect mercy who have shown none?"

"Let him be killed!" said the king.

"King!" cried Owen once more, "do this deed, and I tell you that before the sun is down great evil will overtake you."

"Do you threaten me, Messenger? Well, we will see. Let him be killed, I say."

Then the man was led away; but, before he went he found time to thank Owen and Nodwengo the prince, and to call down good fortune upon them.


CHAPTER 6
The Drinking Of The Cup

NOW the king's word was done, the anger went out of his eyes, and once more his countenance grew weary. A command was issued, and, with the most perfect order, moving like one man, the regiments changed their array, forming up battalion upon battalion in face of the king, that they might give him the royal salute so soon as he had drunk the cup of the first-fruits.

A herald stood forward and cried:—

"Hearken, you Sons of Fire! Hearken, you Children of Umsuka, Shaker of the Earth! Have any of you a boon to ask of the king?"

Men stood forward, and having saluted, one by one asked this thing or that. The king heard their requests, and as he nodded or turned his head away, so they were granted or refused.

When all had done, the Prince Hafela came forward, lifted his spear, and cried:—

"A boon, King!"

"What is it?" asked his father, eyeing him curiously.

"A small matter, King," he replied. "A while ago I named a certain woman, Noma, the ward of Hokosa the wizard, and she was sealed to me to fill the place of my first wife, the queen that is to be. She passed into the House of the Royal Women, and, by your command, King, it was fixed that I should marry her according to our customs to-morrow, after the feast of the first-fruits is ended. King, my heart is changed towards that woman; I no longer desire to take her to wife, and I pray that you will order that she shall now be handed back to Hokosa her guardian."

"You blow hot and cold with the same mouth, Hafela," said Umsuka, "and in love or war I do not like such men. What have you to say to this demand, Hokosa?"

Now Hokosa stepped forward from where he stood at the head of the company of wizards. His dress, like that of his companions, was simple, but in its way striking. On his shoulders he wore a cloak of shining snakeskin; about his loins was a short kilt of the same material; and round his forehead, arms and knees were fillets of snakeskin. At his side hung his pouch of medicines, and in his hand he held no spear, but a wand of ivory, whereof the top was roughly carved so as to resemble the head of a cobra reared up to strike.

"King," he said, "I have heard the words of the prince, and I do not think that this insult should have been put upon the Lady Noma, my ward, or upon me, her guardian. Still, let it be, for I would not that one should pass from under the shadow of my house whither she is not welcome. Without my leave the prince named this woman as his queen, as he had the right to do; and without my leave he unnames her, as he has the right to do. Were the prince a common man, according to custom he should pay a fine of cattle to be held by me in trust for her whom he discards; but this is a matter that I leave to you, King."

"You do well, Hokosa," answered Umsuka, "to leave this to me. Prince, you would not wish the fine that you should pay to be that of any common man. With the girl shall be handed over two hundred head of cattle. More, I will do justice: unless she herself consents, she shall not be put away. Let the Lady Noma be summoned."

Now the face of Hafela grew sullen, and watching, Owen saw a swift change pass over that of Hokosa. Evidently he was not certain of the woman. Presently there was a stir, and from the gates of the royal house the Lady Noma appeared, attended by women, and stood before the king. She was a tall and lovely girl, and the sunlight flashed upon her bronze-hued breast and her ornaments of ivory. Her black hair was fastened in a knot upon her neck, her features were fine and small, her gait was delicate and sure as that of an antelope, and her eyes were beautiful and full of pride. There she stood before the king, looking round her like a stag. Seeing her thus, Owen understood how it came about that she held two men so strangely different in the hollow of her hand, for her charm was of a nature to appeal to both of them—a charm of the spirit as well as of the flesh. And yet the face was haughty, a face that upon occasion might even become cruel.

"You sent for me and I am here, O King," she said, in a slow and quiet voice.

"Listen, girl," answered the king. "A while ago the Prince Hafela, my son, named you as her who should be his queen, whereon you were taken and placed in the House of the Royal Women, to abide the day of your marriage, which should be to-morrow."

"It is true that the prince has honoured me thus, and that you have been pleased to approve of his choice," she said, lifting her eyebrows. "What of it, O King?"

"This, girl: the prince who was pleased to honour you is now pleased to dishonour you. Here, in the presence of the council and army, he prays of me to annul his sealing to you, and to send you back to the house of your guardian, Hokosa the wizard."


Illustration

The repudiation of Noma.


Noma started, and her face grew hard.

"Is it so?" she said. "Then it would seem that I have lost favour in the eyes of my lord the prince, or that some fairer woman has found it."

"Of these matters I know nothing," replied the king; "but this I know, that if you seek justice you shall have it. Say but the word, and he to whom you were promised in marriage shall take you in marriage, whether he wills or wills it not."

At this speech, the face of Hafela was suddenly lit up as with the fire of hope, while over that of Hokosa there passed another subtle change. The girl glanced at them both and was silent for a while. Her breast heaved and her white teeth bit upon her lip. To Owen, who noted all, it was clear that rival passions were struggling in her heart: the passion of power and the passion of love, or of some emotion which he did not understand. Hokosa fixed his calm eyes upon her with a strange intensity of gaze, and while he gazed his form quivered with a suppressed excitement, much as a snake quivers that is about to strike its prey. To the careless eye there was nothing remarkable about his look and attitude; to the observer it was evident that both were full of extraordinary purpose. He was talking to the girl, not with words, but in some secret language that he and she understood alone. She started as one starts who catches the tone of a well-remembered voice in a crowd of strangers, and lifting her eyes from the ground, whither she had turned them in meditation, she looked up at Hokosa.

Instantly her face began to change. The haughtiness and anger went out of it, it grew troubled, the lips parted in a sigh. First she bent her head and body towards him, then without more ado she walked to where he stood and took him by the hand. Here, at some whispered word or sign, she seemed to recover herself, and again resuming the character of a proud offended beauty, she curtseyed to Umsuka, and spoke:—

"O King, as you see, I have made my choice. I will not force myself upon a man who scorns me, no, not even to share his place and power, though it is true that I love them both. Nay, I will return to Hokosa my guardian, and to his wife, Zinti, who has been as my mother, and with them be at peace."

"It is well," said the king, "and perhaps, girl, your choice is wise; perhaps your loss is not so great as you have thought. Hafela, take you the hand of Hokosa and release the girl back to him according to the law, promising in the ears of men before the first month of winter to pay him two hundred head of cattle as forfeit, to be held by him in trust for the girl."

In a sullen voice, his lips trembling with rage, Hafela did as the king commanded; and when the hands of the conspirators unclasped, Owen perceived that in that of the prince lay a tiny packet.

"Mix me the cup of the first-fruits, and swiftly," said the king again, "for the sun grows low in the heavens, and ere it sinks I have words to say."

Now a polished gourd filled with native beer was handed to Nodwengo, the second son of the king, and one by one the great councillors approached, and, with appropriate words, let fall into it offerings emblematic of fertility and increase. The first cast in a grain of corn; the second, a blade of grass; the third, a shaving from an ox's horn; the fourth, a drop of water; the fifth, a woman's hair; the sixth, a particle of earth; and so on, until every ingredient was added to it that was necessary to the magic brew.

Then Hokosa, as chief of the medicine men, blessed the cup according to the ancient forms, praying that he whose body was the heavens, whose eyes were lightning, and whose voice was thunder, the spirit whom they worshipped, might increase and multiply to them during the coming year all those fruits and elements that were present in the cup, and that every virtue which they contained might comfort the body of the king.

His prayer finished, it was the turn of Hafela to play his part as the eldest born of the king. Kneeling over the cup which stood upon the ground, a spear was handed to him that had been made red hot in the fire. Taking the spear, he stabbed with it towards the four quarters of the horizon; then, muttering some invocation, he plunged it into the bowl, stirring its contents till the iron grew black. Now he threw aside the spear, and lifting the bowl in both hands, he carried it to his father and offered it to him.

Although he had been unable to see him drop the poison into the cup, a glance at Hafela told Owen that it was there; for though he kept his face under control, he could not prevent his hands from twitching or the sweat from starting upon his brow and breast.

The king rose, and taking the bowl, held it on high, saying:—

"In this cup, which I drink on behalf of the nation, I pledge you, my people."

It was the signal for the royal salute, for which each regiment had been prepared. As the last word left the king's lips, every one of the thirty thousand men present in that great place began to rattle his kerry against the surface of his ox-hide shield. At first the sound produced resembled that of the murmur of the sea; but by slow and just degrees it grew louder and ever louder, till the roar of it was like the deepest voice of thunder, a sound awe-inspiring, terrible.

Suddenly, when its volume was most, four spears were thrown into the air, and at this signal every man ceased to beat upon his shield. In the place itself there was silence, but from the mountains around the echoes still crashed and volleyed. When the last of them had died away, the king brought the cup to the level of his lips. Owen saw, and knowing its contents, was almost moved to cry out in warning. Indeed, his arm was lifted and his mouth was open, when by chance he noted Hokosa watching him, and remembered. To act now would be madness, his time had not yet come.

The cup touched the king's lips, and at the sign from every throat in that countless multitude sprang the word "King!" and every foot stamped upon the ground, shaking the solid earth. Thrice the monarch drank, and thrice this tremendous salute, the salute of the whole nation to its ruler, was repeated, each time more loudly than the last. Then pouring the rest of the liquor on the ground, Umsuka set aside the cup, and in the midst of a silence that seemed deep after the crash of the great salute, he began to address the multitude:—

"Hearken, Councillors and Captains, and you, my people, hearken. As you know, I have two sons, calves of the Black Bull, princes of the land—my son Hafela, the eldest born, and my son Nodwengo, his half-brother—"

At this point the king began to grow confused. He hesitated, passing his hand over his eyes, then slowly and with difficulty repeated those words which he had already said.

"We hear you, Father," cried the councillors in encouragement, as for the second time he paused. While they still spoke, the veins in the king's neck were seen to swell suddenly, foam flecked with blood burst from his lips, and he fell headlong to the ground.


CHAPTER 7
The Recovery Of The King

FOR a moment there was silence, then a great cry arose—a cry of "Our father is dead!" Presently with it were mingled other and angrier shouts of "The king is murdered!" and "He is bewitched, the white wizard has bewitched the king! He prophesied evil upon him, and now he has bewitched him!"

Meanwhile the captains and councillors formed a ring about Umsuka, and Hokosa bending over him examined him.

"Princes and Councillors," he said presently, "your father yet lives, but his life is like the life of a dying fire and soon he must be dead. This is sure, that one of two things has befallen him: either the heat has caused the blood to boil in his veins and he is smitten with a stroke from heaven, such as men who are fat and heavy sometimes die of; or he has been bewitched by a wicked wizard. Yonder stands one," and he pointed to Owen, "who not an hour ago prophesied that before the sun was down great evil should overtake the king. The sun is not yet down, and great evil has overtaken him. Perchance, Princes and Councillors, this white prophet can tell us of the matter."

"Perchance I can," answered Owen calmly.

"He admits it!" cried some. "Away with him!"

"Peace!" said Owen, holding the crucifix towards those whose spears threatened his life.


Illustration

"Peace!" said Owen.


They shrank back, for this symbol of a dying man terrified them who could not guess its significance.

"Peace," went on Owen, "and listen. Be sure of this, Councillors, that if I die, your king will die; whereas if I live, your king may live. You ask me of this matter. Where shall I begin? Shall I begin with the tale of two men seated together some nights ago in a hut so dark that no eyes could see in it, save perchance the eyes of a wizard? What did they talk of in that hut, and who were those men? They talked, I think, of the death of a king and of the crowning of a king. They talked of a price to be paid for a certain medicine; and one of them had a royal air, and one—"

"Will ye hearken to this wild babbler while your king lies dying before your eyes?" broke in Hokosa, in a shrill, unnatural voice; for almost palsied with fear as he was at Owen's mysterious words, he still retained his presence of mind. "Listen now: what is he, and what did he say? He is one who comes hither to preach a new faith to us; he comes, he says, on an embassy from the King of Heaven, who has power over all things, and who, so these white men preach, can give power to His servants. Well, let this one cease prating and show us his strength, as he has been warned he would be called upon to do. Let him give us a sign. There before you lies your king, and he is past the help of man; even I cannot help him. Therefore, let this messenger cure him, or call upon his God to cure him; that seeing, we may know him to be a true messenger, and one sent by that King of whom he speaks. Let him do this now before our eyes, or let him perish as a wizard who has bewitched the king. Do you hear my words, Messenger, and can you draw this one back from between the Gates of Death?"

"I hear them," answered Owen quietly; "and I can—or if I cannot, then I am willing to pay the penalty with my life. You who are a doctor say that your king is as one who is already dead, so that whatever I may do I cannot hurt him further. Therefore I ask this of you, that you stand round and watch, but molest me neither by word nor deed while I attempt his cure. Do you consent?"

"It is just; we consent," said the councillors. "Let us see what the white man can do, and by the issue let him be judged." But Hokosa stared at Owen wondering, and made no answer.

"Bring some clean water to me in a gourd," said Owen.

It was brought and given to him. He looked round, searching the faces of those about him. Presently his eye fell upon the Prince Nodwengo, and he beckoned to him, saying:—

"Come hither, Prince, for you are honest, and I would have you to help me, and no other man."

The prince stepped forward and Owen gave him the gourd of water. Then he drew out the little bottle wherein he had stored the juice of the creeper, and uncorking it, he bade Nodwengo fill it up with water. This done, he clasped his hands, and lifting his eyes to heaven, he prayed aloud in the language of the Amasuka.

"O God," he prayed, "upon whose business I am here, grant, I beseech Thee, that by Thy Grace power may be given to me to work this miracle in the face of these people, to the end that I may win them to cease from their iniquities, to believe upon Thee, the only true God, and to save their souls alive. Amen."

Having finished his prayer, he took the bottle and shook it; then he commanded Nodwengo to sit upon the ground and hold his father's head upon his knee. Now, as all might see by many signs, the king was upon the verge of death, for his lips were purple, his breathing was rare and stertorous, and his heart stood well-nigh still.

"Open his mouth and hold down the tongue," said Owen.

The prince obeyed, pressing down the tongue with a snuff spoon. Then placing the neck of the bottle as far into the throat as it would reach, Owen poured the fluid it contained into the body of the king, who made a convulsive movement and instantly seemed to die.

"He is dead," said one; "away with the false prophet!"

"It may be so, or it may not be so," answered Owen. "Wait for the half of an hour; then, if he shows no sign of life, do what you will with me."

"It is well," they said; "so be it."

Slowly the minutes slipped by, while the king lay like a corpse before them, and outside of that silent ring the soldiers murmured as the wind. The sun was sinking fast, and Hokosa watched it, counting the seconds. At length he spoke:—

"The half of the hour that you demanded is dead, White Man, as dead as the king; and now the time has come for you to die also," and he stretched out his hand to take him.

Owen looked at his watch and replied:—

"There is still another minute; and you, Hokosa, who are skilled in medicines, may know that this antidote does not work so swiftly as the bane."

The shot was a random one, but it told, for Hokosa fell back and was silent.

The seconds passed on as the minute hand of the watch went round from ten to twenty, from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty. A few more instants and the game was played. Had that dream of his been vain imagining, and was all his faith nothing but a dream wondered Owen? Well, if so, it would be best that he should die. But he did not believe that it was so; he believed that the Power above him would intervene to save—not him, indeed, but all this people.

"Let us make an end," said Hokosa, "the time is done."

"Yes," said Owen, "the time is done—and the king lives!"

Even as he spoke the pulses in the old man's forehead were seen to throb, and the veins in his neck to swell as they had swollen after he had swallowed the poison; then once more they shrank to their natural size. Umsuka stirred a hand, groaned, sat up, and spoke:—

"What has chanced to me?" he said. "I have descended into deep darkness, now once again I see light."

No one answered, for all were staring, terrified and amazed, at the Messenger—the white wizard to whom had been given power to bring men back from the gate of death. At length Owen said:—

"This has chanced to you, King: that evil which I prophesied to you if you refused to listen to the voice of mercy has fallen upon you. By now you would have been dead, had it not pleased Him Whom I serve, working through me, His messenger, to bring you back to look upon the sun. Thank Him, therefore, and worship Him, for He alone is Master of the Earth," and he held the crucifix before his eyes.

The humbled monarch lifted his hand—he who for many years had made obeisance to none—and saluted the symbol, saying:—

"Messenger, I thank Him and I worship Him, though I know Him not. Say now, how did His magic work upon me to make me sick to death and to recover me?"

"By the hand of man, King, and by the virtues that lie hid in Nature. Did you not drink of a cup, and were not many things mixed in the draught? Was it not but now in your mind to speak words that should bring down the head of pride and evil, and lift up the head of truth and goodness?"

"O White Man, how know you these things?" gasped the king.

"I know them, it is enough. Say, who was it that stirred the bowl, King, and who gave you to drink?"

Now Umsuka staggered to his feet, and cried aloud in a voice that was thick with rage:—

"By my head and the heads of my fathers I smell the plot! My son, the Prince Hafela, has learned my counsel, and would have slain me before I said words that should set him beneath the feet of Nodwengo. Seize him, captains, and let him be brought before me for judgment!"

Men looked this way and that to carry out the command of the king, but Hafela was gone. Already he was upon the hillside, running as a man has rarely run before—his face set towards that fastness in the mountains where he could find refuge among his mother's tribesmen and the regiments which he commanded. Of late they had been sent thither by the king that they might be far from the Great Place when their prince was disinherited.

"He is fled," said one; "I saw him go."

"Pursue him and bring him back, dead or alive!" thundered the king. "A hundred head of cattle to the man who lays hand upon him before he reaches the impi of the North, for they will fight for him!"

"Stay!" broke in Owen. "Once before this day I prayed of you, King, to show mercy, and you refused it. Will you refuse me a second time? Leave him his life who has lost all else."

"That he may rebel against me? Well, White Man, I owe you much, and for this time your wisdom shall be my guide, though my heart speaks against such gentleness. Hearken, councillors and people, this is my decree: that Hafela, my son, who would have murdered me, be deposed from his place as heir to my throne, and that Nodwengo, his brother, be set in that place, to rule the People of Fire after me when I die."

"It is good, it is just!" said the council. "Let the king's word be done."

"Hearken again," said Umsuka. "Let this white man, who is named Messenger, be placed in the House of Guests and treated with all honour; let oxen be given him from the royal herds and corn from the granaries, and girls of noble blood for wives if he wills them. Hokosa, into your hand I deliver him, and, great though you are, know this, that if but a hair of his head is harmed, with your goods and your life you shall answer for it, you and all your house."

"Let the king's word be done," said the councillors again.

"Heralds," went on Umsuka, "proclaim that the feast of the first-fruits is ended, and my command is that every regiment should seek its quarters, taking with it a double gift of cattle from the king, who has been saved alive by the magic of this white man. And now, Messenger, farewell, for my head grows weary. To-morrow I will speak with you."

Then the king was led away into the royal house, and save those who were quartered in it, the regiments passed one by one through the gates of the kraal, singing their war-songs as they went. Darkness fell upon the Great Place, and through it parties of men might be seen dragging thence the corpses of those who had fallen in the fight with sticks, or been put to death thereafter by order of the king.

"Messenger," said Hokosa, bowing before Owen, "be pleased to follow me." Then he led him to a little kraal numbering five or six large and beautifully made huts, which stood by itself, within its own fence, at the north end of the Great Place, not far from the house of the king. In front of the centre hut a fire was burning, and by its light women appeared cleaning out the huts and bringing food and water.

"Here you may rest in safety, Messenger," said Hokosa, "seeing that night and day a guard from the king's own regiment will stand before your doors."

"I do not need them," answered Owen, "for none can harm me till my hour comes. I am a stranger here and you are a great man; yet, Hokosa, which of us is the safest this night?"

"Your meaning?" said Hokosa sharply.

"O man!" answered Owen, "when in a certain hour you crept up the valley yonder, and climbing the Tree of Death gathered its poison, went I not with you? When, before that hour, you sat in yonder hut bargaining with the Prince Hafela—the death of a king for the price of a girl—was I not with you? Nay, threaten me not—in your own words I say it—'lay down that assegai, or by my spirit your body shall be thrown to the kites, as that of one who would murder the king'—and the king's guest!"

"White Man," whispered Hokosa throwing down the spear, "how can these things be? I was alone in the hut with the prince, I was alone beneath the Tree of Doom, and you, as I know well, were beyond the river. Your spies must be good, White Man."

"My spirit is my only spy, Hokosa. My spirit watched you, and from your own lips he learned the secret of the bane and of the antidote. Hafela mixed the poison as you taught him; I gave the remedy, and saved the king alive."

Now the knees of Hokosa grew weak beneath him, and he leaned against the fence of the kraal for support.

"I have skill in the art," he said hoarsely; "but, Messenger, your magic is more than mine, and my life is forfeit to you. To-morrow morning, you will tell the king all, and to-morrow night I shall hang upon the dreadful Tree. Well, so be it; I am overmatched at my own trade, and it is best that I should die. You have plotted well and you have conquered, and to you belong my place and power."

"It was you who plotted, and not I, Hokosa. Did you not contrive that I should reach the Great Place but a little before the poison was given to the king, so that upon me might be laid the crime of his bewitching? Did you not plan also that I should be called upon to cure him—a thing you deemed impossible—and when I failed that I should be straightway butchered?"

"Seeing that it is useless to lie to you, I confess that it was so," answered Hokosa boldly.

"It was so," repeated Owen; "therefore, according to your law your life is forfeit, seeing that you dug a pit to snare the innocent feet. But I come to tell you of a new law, and that which I preach I practise. Hokosa, I pardon you, and if you will put aside your evil-doing, I promise you that no word of all your wickedness shall pass my lips."

"It has not been my fashion to take a boon at the hand of any man, save of the king only," said the wizard in a humble voice; "but now it seems that I am come to this. Tell me, White Man, what is the payment that you seek of me?"

"None, Hokosa, except that you cease from evil and listen with an open heart to that message which I am sworn to deliver to you and to all your nation. Also you would do well to put away that fair woman whose price was the murder of him that fed you."

"I cannot do it," answered the wizard. "I will listen to your teaching, but I will not rob my heart of her it craves alone. White Man, I am not like the rest of my nation. I have not sought after women; I have but one wife, and she is old and childless. Now, for the first time in my days, I love this girl—ah, you know not how!—and I will take her, and she shall be the mother of my children."

"Then, Hokosa, you will take her to your sorrow," answered Owen solemnly, "for she will learn to hate you who have robbed her of royalty and rule, giving her wizardries and your grey hairs in place of them."

And thus for that night they parted.


CHAPTER 8
The First Trial By Fire

ON the following day, while Owen sat eating his morning meal with a thankful heart, a messenger arrived saying that the king would receive him whenever it pleased him to come. He answered that he would be with him before noon, for already he had learned that among natives one loses little by delay. A great man, they think, is rich in time, and hurries only to wait upon his superiors.

At the appointed hour a guard came to lead him to the royal house, and thither Owen went, followed by John bearing a Bible. Umsuka was seated beneath a reed roof supported by poles and open on all sides; behind him stood councillors and attendants, and by him were Nodwengo the prince, and Hokosa, his mouth and prophet. Although the day was hot, he wore a kaross or rug of wild catskins, and his face showed that the effects of the poisoned draught were still upon him. At the approach of Owen he rose with something of an effort, and, shaking him by the hand, thanked him for his life, calling him "doctor of doctors."

"Tell me, Messenger," he added, "how it was that you were able to cure me, and who were in the plot to kill me? There must have been more than one," and he rolled his eyes round with angry suspicion.

"King," answered Owen, "if I knew anything of this matter, the Power that wrote it on my mind has wiped it out again, or, at the least, has forbidden me to speak of its secret. I saved you, it is enough; for the rest, the past is the past, and I come to deal with the present and the future."

"This white man keeps his word," thought Hokosa to himself, and he looked at him thanking him with his eyes.

"So be it," answered the king; "after all, it is wise not to stir a dung-heap, for there we find little beside evil odours and the nests of snakes. Now, what is your business with me, and why do you come from the white man's countries to visit me? I have heard of those countries, they are great and far away. I have heard of the white men also—wonderful men who have all knowledge; but I do not desire to have anything to do with them, for whenever they meet black people they eat them up, taking their lands and making them slaves. Once, some years ago, two of you white people visited us here, but perhaps you know that story."

"I know it," answered Owen; "one of those men you murdered, and the other you sent back with a message which he delivered into my ears across the waters; thousands of miles away."

"Nay," answered the king, "we did not murder him; he came to us with the story of a new God who could raise the dead and work other miracles, and gave such powers to His servants. So a man was slain and we begged of him to bring him back to life; and since he could not, we killed him also because he was a liar."

"He was no liar," said Owen; "since he never told you that he had power to open the mouth of the grave. Still, Heaven is merciful, and although you murdered him that was sent to you, his Master has chosen me to follow in his footsteps. Me also you may murder if you will, and then another and another; but still the messengers shall come, till at last your ears are opened and you listen. Only, for such deeds your punishment must be heavy."

"What is the message, White Man?"

"A message of peace, of forgiveness, and of life beyond the grave, of life everlasting. Listen, King. Yesterday you were near to death; say now, had you stepped over the edge of it, where would you be this day?"

Umsuka shrugged his shoulders. "With my fathers, White Man."

"And where are your fathers?"

"Nay, I know not—nowhere, everywhere: the night is full of them; in the night we hear the echo of their voices. When they are angry they haunt the thunder-cloud, and when they are pleased they smile in the sunshine. Sometimes also they appear in the shape of snakes, or visit us in dreams, and then we offer them sacrifice. Yonder on the hillside is a haunted wood; it is full of their spirits, White Man, but they cannot talk, they only mutter, and their footfalls sound like the dropping of heavy rain, for they are strengthless and unhappy, and in the end they fade away."

"So you say," answered Owen, "who are not altogether without understanding, yet know little, never having been taught. Now listen to me," and very earnestly he preached to him and those about him of peace, of forgiveness, and of life everlasting.

"Why should a God die miserably upon a cross?" asked the king at length.

"That through His sacrifice men might become as gods," answered Owen. "Believe in Him and He will save you."

"How can we do that," asked the king again, "when already we have a god? Can we desert one god and set up another?"

"What god, King?"

"I will show him to you, White Man. Let my litter be brought."

The litter was brought and the king entered it with labouring breath. Passing through the north gate of the Great Place, the party ascended a slope of the hill that lay beyond it till they reached a flat plain some hundreds of yards in width. On this plain vegetation grew scantily, for here the bed rock of ironstone, denuded with frequent and heavy rains, was scarcely hidden by a thin crust of earth. On the further side of the plain, however, and separated from it by a little stream, was a green bank of deep soft soil, beyond which lay a gloomy valley full of great trees, that for many generations had been the burying-place of the kings of the Amasuka.

"This is the house of the god," said the king.

"A strange house," answered Owen, "and where is he that dwells in it?"

"Follow me and I will show you, Messenger; but be swift, for already the sky grows dark with coming tempest."

Now at the king's command the bearers bore him across the sere plateau towards a stone that lay almost in its centre. Presently they halted, and, pointing to this mass, the king said:—

"Behold the god!"


Illustration

"Behold the god!"


Owen advanced and examined the object. A glance told him that this god of the Amasuka was a meteoric stone of unusual size. Most of such stones are mere shapeless lumps, but this one bore a peculiar resemblance to a seated human being holding up one arm towards the sky. So strange was this likeness that, other reasons apart, it seemed not wonderful that savages should regard the thing with awe and veneration. Rather would it have been wonderful had they not done so.

"Say now," said Owen to the king when he had inspected the stone, "what is the history of this dumb god of yours, and why do you worship him?"

"Follow me across the stream and I will tell you, Messenger," answered the king, again glancing at the sky. "The storm gathers, and when it breaks none are safe upon this plain except the heaven doctors such as Hokosa and his companions who can bind the lightning."

So they went and when they reached the further side of the stream Umsuka descended from his litter.

"Messenger," he said, "this is the story of the god as it has come down to us. From the beginning our land has been scourged with lightning above all other lands, and with the floods of rain that accompany the lightning. In the old days the Great Place of the king was out yonder among the mountains, but every year fire from heaven fell upon it, destroying much people: and at length in a great tempest the house of the king of that day was smitten and burned, and his wives and children were turned to ashes. Then that king held a council of his wizards and fire-doctors, and these having consulted the spirits of their forefathers, retired into a place apart to fast and pray; yes, it was in yonder valley, the burying ground of kings, that they hid themselves. Now on the third night the God of Fire appeared to the chief of the doctors in his sleep, and he was shaped like a burning brand and smoke went up from him. Out of the smoke he spoke to the doctor, saying: 'For this reason it is that I torment your people, that they hate me and curse at me and pay me little honour.'

"In his dream the doctor answered: 'How can the people honour a god that they do not see?' Then the god said: 'Rise up now in the night, all the company of you, and go take your stand upon the banks of yonder stream, and I will fall down in fire from heaven, and there on the plain you shall find my image. Then let your king move his Great Place into the valley beneath the plain, and henceforth my bolts shall spare it and him. Only, month by month you shall make prayers and offerings to me; moreover, the name of the people shall be changed, for it shall be called the People of Fire.'

"Now the doctor rose, and having awakened his companions, he told them of his vision. Then they all of them went down to the banks of this stream where we now stand. And as they waited there a great tempest burst over them, and in the midst of that tempest they saw the flaming figure of a man descend from heaven, and when he touched the earth it shook. The morning came and there upon the plain before them, where there had been nothing, sat the likeness of the god as it sits to-day and shall sit for ever. So the name of this people was changed, and the king's Great Place was built where it now is.

"Since that day, Messenger, no hut has been burned and no man killed in or about the Great Place by fire from heaven, which falls only here where the god is, though away among the mountains and elsewhere men are sometimes killed. But wait a while and you shall see with your eyes. Hokosa, do you, whom the lightning will not touch, take that pole of dead wood and set it up yonder in the crevice of the rock not far from the figure of the god."

"I obey," said Hokosa, "although I have brought no medicines with me. Perhaps," he added with a faint sneer, "the white man, who is so great a wizard, will not be afraid to accompany me."

Now Owen saw that all those present were looking at him curiously. It was evident they believed that he would not dare to accept the challenge. Therefore he answered at once and without hesitation:—

"Certainly I will come; the pole is heavy for one man to carry, and where Hokosa goes, there I can go also."

"Nay, nay, Messenger," said the king, "the lightning knows Hokosa and will turn from him, but you are a stranger to it and it will eat you up."

"King," answered Owen, "I do not believe that Hokosa has any power over the lightning. It may strike him or it may strike me; but unless my God so commands, it will strike neither of us."

"On your head be it, White Man," said Hokosa, with cold anger. "Come, aid me with the pole."

Then they lifted the dead tree, and between them carried it into the middle of the plain, where they set it up in a crevice of the rock. By this time the storm was almost over them, and watching it Owen perceived that the lightnings struck always along the bank of the stream, doubtless following a hidden line of the bed of ironstone.

"It is but a very little storm," said Hokosa contemptuously, "such as visit us almost every afternoon at this period of the year. Ah! White Man, I would that you could see one of our great tempests, for these are worth beholding. This I fear, however, that you will never do, seeing it is likely that within some few minutes you will have passed back to that King who sent you here, with a hole in your head and a black mark down your spine."

"That we shall learn presently, Hokosa," answered Owen; "for my part, I pray that no such fate may overtake you."

Now Hokosa moved himself away, muttering and pointing with his fingers, but Owen remained standing within about thirty yards of the pole. Suddenly there came a glare of light, and the pole was split into fragments; but although the shock was perceptible, they remained unhurt. Almost immediately a second flash leaped from the cloud, and Owen saw Hokosa stagger and fall to his knees. "The man is struck," he thought to himself, but it was not so, for recovering his balance, the wizard walked back to the stream.

Owen never stirred. From boyhood courage had been one of his good qualities, but it was a courage of the spirit rather than of the flesh. For instance, at this very moment, so far as his body was concerned, he was much afraid, and did not in the least enjoy standing upon an ironstone plateau at the imminent risk of being destroyed by lightning. But even if he had not had an end to gain, he would have scorned to give way to his human frailties; also, now as always, his faith supported him. As it happened the storm, which was slight, passed by, and no more flashes fell. When it was over he walked back to where the king and his court were standing.

"Messenger," said Umsuka, "you are not only a great doctor, you are also a brave man, and such I honour. There is no one among us here, not being a lord of the lightning, who would have dared to stand upon that place with Hokosa while the flashes fell about him. Yet you have done it; it was Hokosa who was driven away. You have passed the trial by fire, and henceforth, whether we refuse your message or accept it, you are great in this land."

"There is no need to praise me, King," answered Owen. "The risk is something; but I knew that I was protected from it, seeing that I shall not die until my hour comes, and it is not yet. Listen now: your god yonder is nothing but a stone such as I have often seen before, for sometimes in great tempests they come to earth from the clouds. You are not the first people that have worshipped such a stone, but now we know better. Also this plain before you is full of iron, and iron draws the lightning. That is why it never strikes your town below. The iron attracts it more strongly than earth and huts of straw. Again, while the pole stood I was in little danger, for the lightning strikes the highest thing; but after the pole was shattered and Hokosa wisely went away, then I was in some danger, only no flashes fell. I am not a magician, King, but I know some things that you do not know, and I trust in One whom I shall lead you to trust also."

"We will talk of this more hereafter," said the king hurriedly, "for one day, I have heard and seen enough. Also I do not believe your words, for I have noted ever that those who are the greatest wizards of all say continually that they have no magic power. Hokosa, you have been famous in your day, but it seems that henceforth you who have led must follow."

"The battle is not yet fought, King," answered Hokosa. "To-day I met the lightnings without my medicines, and it was a little storm; when I am prepared with my medicines and the tempest is great, then I will challenge this white man to face me yonder, and then in that hour my god shall show his strength and his God shall not be able to save him."

"That we shall see when the time comes," answered Owen, with a smile.

That night as Owen sat in his hut working at the translation of St. John, the door was opened and Hokosa entered.

"White Man," said the wizard, "you are too strong for me, though whence you have your power I know not. Let us make a bargain. Show me your magic and I will show you mine, and we will rule the land between us. You and I are much akin—we are great; we have the spirit sight; we know that there are things beyond the things we see and hear and feel; whereas, for the rest, they are fools, following the flesh alone. I have spoken."

"Very gladly will I show you my magic, Hokosa," answered Owen cheerfully, "since, to speak truth, though I know you to be wicked, and guess that you would be glad to be rid of me by fair means or foul; yet I have taken a liking for you, seeing in you one who from a sinner may grow into a saint.

"This then is my magic: To love God and serve man; to eschew wizardry, wealth, and power; to seek after holiness, poverty and humility; to deny your flesh, and to make yourself small in the sight of men, that so perchance you may grow great in the sight of Heaven and save your soul alive."

"I have no stomach for that lesson," said Hokosa.

"Yet you shall live to hunger for it," answered Owen. And the wizard went away angered but wondering.


CHAPTER 9
The Crisis

NOW, day by day for something over a month Owen preached the Gospel before the king, his councillors, and hundreds of the head men of the nation. They listened to him attentively, debating the new doctrine point by point; for although they might be savages, these people were very keen-witted and subtle. Very patiently did Owen sow, and at length to his infinite joy he also gathered in his first-fruit. One night as he sat in his hut labouring as usual at the work of translation, wherein he was assisted by John whom he had taught to read and write, the Prince Nodwengo entered and greeted him. For a while he sat silent watching the white man at his task, then he said:

"Messenger, I have a boon to ask of you. Can you teach me to understand those signs which you set upon the paper, and to make them also as does John your servant?"

"Certainly," answered Owen; "if you will come to me at noon to-morrow, we will begin."

The prince thanked him, but he did not go away. Indeed, from his manner Owen guessed that he had something more upon his mind. At length it came out.

"Messenger," he said, "you have told us of baptism whereby we are admitted into the army of your King; say, have you the power of this rite?"

"I have."

"And is your servant here baptised?"

"He is."

"Then if he who is a common man can be baptised, why may not I who am a prince?"

"In baptism," answered Owen, "there is no distinction between the highest and the lowest; but if you believe, then the door is open and through it you can join the company of Heaven."

"Messenger, I do believe," answered the prince humbly.

Then Owen was very joyful, and that same night, with John for a witness, he baptised the prince, giving him the new name of Constantine, after the first Christian emperor.

On the following day Nodwengo, in the presence of Owen, who on this point would suffer no concealment, announced to the king that he had become a Christian. Umsuka heard, and for a while sat silent. Then he said in a troubled voice:—

"Truly, Messenger, in the words of that Book from which you read to us, I fear that you have come hither to bring, 'not peace but a sword.' Now when the witch-doctors and the priests of fire learn this, that he whom I have chosen to succeed me has become the servant of another faith, they will stir up the soldiers and there will be civil war. I pray you, therefore, keep the matter secret, at any rate for a while, seeing that the lives of many are at stake."

"In this, my father," answered the prince, "I must do as the Messenger bids me; but if you desire it, take from me the right of succession and call back my brother from the northern mountains."

"That by poison or the spear he may put all of us to death, Nodwengo! Be not afraid; ere long when he learns all that is happening here, your brother Hafela will come from the northern mountains, and the spears of his impis shall be countless as the stars of the sky. Messenger, you desire to draw us to the arms of your God—and myself, I am at times minded to follow the path of my son Nodwengo and seek a refuge there—but say, will they be strong enough to protect us from Hafela and the warriors of the north? Already he gathers his clans, and already my captains desert to him. By-and-by, in the spring-time—may I be dead before the day—he will roll down upon us like a flood of water——"

"To fall back like waters from a wall of rock," answered Owen. "'Let not your heart be troubled,' for my Master can protect His servants, and He will protect you. But first you must confess Him openly, as your son has done."

"Nay, I am too old to hurry," said the king with a sigh. "Your tale seems full of promise to one who is near the grave; but how can I know that it is more than a dream? And shall I abandon the worship of my fathers and change, or strive to change, the customs of my people to follow after dreams? Nodwengo has chosen his part, and I do not blame him; yet, for the present I beseech you both to keep silence on this matter, lest to save bloodshed I should be driven to side against you."

"So be it, King," said Owen; "but I warn you that Truth has a loud voice, and that it is hard to hide the shining of a light in a dark place, nor does it please my Lord to be denied by those who confess Him."

"I am weary," replied the old king, and they saluted him and went.

In obedience to the wish of Umsuka his father, the conversion of Nodwengo was kept secret, and yet—none knew how—the thing leaked out. Soon the women in their huts, and the soldiers by their watch-fires, whispered it in each other's ears that he who was appointed to be their future ruler had become a servant of the unknown God. That he had forsworn war and all the delights of men; that he would take but one wife and appear before the army, not in the uniform of a general, but clad in a white robe, and carry, not the broad spear, but a cross of wood. Swiftly the strange story flew from mouth to mouth, yet it was not altogether believed till it chanced that one day when he was reviewing a regiment, a soldier who was drunk with beer openly insulted the prince, calling him "a coward who worshipped a coward."

Now men held their breaths, waiting to see this fool led away to die by torture of the ant-heap or some other dreadful doom. But the prince only answered:

"Soldier, you are drunk, therefore I forgive you your words. Whether He Whom you blaspheme will forgive you, I know not. Get you gone!"

The warriors stared and murmured, for by those words, wittingly or unwittingly, their general had confessed his faith, and that day they made ribald songs about him in the camp. But on the morrow when they learned how that the man whom the prince spared had been seized by a lion and taken away as he sat at night with his companions in the bivouac, his mouth full of boasting of his own courage in offering insult to the prince and the new faith, then they looked at each other askance and said little more of the matter. Doubtless it was chance, and yet this Spirit Whom the Messenger preached was one of Whom it seemed wisest not to speak lightly.

But still the trouble grew, for by now the witch-doctors, with Hokosa at the head of them, were frightened for their place and power, and fomented it both openly and in secret. Of the women they asked what would become of them when men were allowed to take but one wife? Of the heads of kraals, how they would grow wealthy when their daughters ceased to be worth cattle? Of the councillors and generals, how the land could be protected from its foes when they were commanded to lay down the spear? Of the soldiers, whose only trade was war, how it would please them to till the fields like girls? Dismay took hold of the nation, and although they were much loved, there was open talk of killing or driving away the king and Nodwengo who favoured the white man, and of setting up Hafela in their place.

At length the crisis came, and in this fashion. The Amasuka, like many other African tribes, had a strange veneration for certain varieties of snakes which they declared to be possessed by the spirits of their ancestors. It was a law among them that if one of these snakes entered a kraal it must not be killed, or even driven away, under pain of death, but must be allowed to share with the human occupants any hut that it might select. As a result of this enforced hospitality deaths from snake-bite were numerous among the people; but when they happened in a kraal its owners met with little sympathy, for the doctors explained that the real cause of them was the anger of some ancestral spirit towards his descendants. Now, before John was despatched to instruct Owen in the language of the Amasuka a certain girl was sealed to him as his future wife, and this girl, who during his absence had been orphaned, he had married recently with the approval of Owen, who at this time was preparing her for baptism. On the third morning after his marriage John appeared before his master in the last extremity of grief and terror.

"Help me, Messenger!" he cried, "for my ancestral spirit has entered our hut and bitten my wife as she lay asleep."

"Are you mad?" asked Owen. "What is an ancestral spirit, and how can it have bitten your wife?"

"A snake," gasped John, "a green snake of the worst sort."

Then Owen remembered the superstition, and snatching blue-stone and spirits of wine from his medicine chest, he rushed to John's hut. As it happened, he was fortunately in time with his remedies and succeeded in saving the woman's life, whereby his reputation as a doctor and a magician, already great, was considerably enlarged.

"Where is the snake?" he asked when at length she was out of danger.

"Yonder, under the kaross," answered John, pointing to a skin rug which lay in the corner.

"Have you killed it?"

"No, Messenger," answered the man, "I dare not. Alas! we must live with the thing here in the hut till it chooses to go away."

"Truly," said Owen, "I am ashamed to think that you who are a Christian should still believe so horrible a superstition. Does your faith teach you that the souls of men enter into snakes?"

Now John hung his head; then snatching a kerry, he threw aside the kaross, revealing a great green serpent seven or eight feet long. With fury he fell upon the reptile, killed it by repeated blows, and hurled it into the courtyard outside the house.


Illustration

He killed it by repeated blows.


"Behold, father," he said, "and judge whether I am still superstitious." Then his countenance fell and he added: "Yet my life must pay for this deed, for it is an ancient law among us that to harm one of these snakes is death."

"Have no fear," said Owen, "a way will be found out of this trouble."

That afternoon Owen heard a great hubbub outside his kraal, and going to see what was the matter, he found a party of the witch-doctors dragging John towards the place of judgment, which was by the king's house. Thither he followed to discover that the case was already in course of being opened before the king, his council, and a vast audience of the people. Hokosa was the accuser. In brief and pregnant sentences, producing the dead snake in proof of his argument, he pointed out the enormity of the offence against the laws of the Amasuka wherewith the prisoner was charged, demanding that the man who had killed the house of his ancestral spirit should instantly be put to death.

"What have you to say?" asked the king of John.

"This, O King," replied John, "that I am a Christian, and to me that snake is nothing but a noxious reptile. It bit my wife, and had it not been for the medicine of the Messenger, she would have perished of the poison. Therefore I killed it before it could harm others."

"It is a fair answer," said the king. "Hokosa, I think that this man should go free."

"The king's will is the law," replied Hokosa bitterly; "but if the law were the king's will, the decision would be otherwise. This man has slain, not a snake, but that which held the spirit of an ancestor, and for the deed he deserves to die. Hearken, O King, for the business is larger than it seems. How are we to be governed henceforth? Are we to follow our ancient rules and customs, or must we submit ourselves to a new rule and a new custom? I tell you, O King, that the people murmur; they are without light, they wander in the darkness, they cannot understand. Play with us no more, but let us hear the truth that we may judge of this matter."

Umsuka looked at Owen, but made no reply.

"I will answer you, Hokosa," said Owen, "for I am the spring of all this trouble, and at my command that man, my disciple, killed yonder snake. What is it? It is nothing but a reptile; no human spirit ever dwelt within it as you imagine in your superstition. You ask to hear the truth; day by day I have preached it in your ears and you have not listened, though many among you have listened and understood. What is it that you seek?"

"We seek, Messenger, to be rid of you, your fantasies and your religion; and we demand that our king should expel you and restore the ancient laws, or failing this, that you should prove your power openly before us all. Your word, O King!"

Umsuka thought for a while and answered:—

"This is my word, Hokosa: I will not drive the Messenger from the land, for he is a good man; he saved my life, and there is virtue in his teaching, towards which I myself incline. Yet it is just that he should be asked to prove his power, so that an end may be put to doubt and all of us may learn what god we are to worship."

"How can I prove my power," asked Owen, "further than I have proved it already? Does Hokosa desire to set up his god against my God—the false against the true?"

"I do," answered the wizard with passion, "and according to the issue let the judgment be. Let us halt no longer between two opinions, let us become wholly Christian or rest wholly heathen, for to be divided is to be destroyed. The magic of the Messenger is great; once and for all let us learn if it is more than our magic. Let us put him and his doctrines to the trial by fire."

"What is the trial by fire?" asked Owen.

"You have seen something of it, White Man, but not much. This is the trial by fire: to stand yonder before the face of the god of thunder when a great tempest rages—not such a storm as you saw, but a storm that splits the heavens—and to come thence unscathed. Listen: I who am a 'heaven-herd,' I who know the signs of the weather, tell you that within two days such a tempest as this will break upon us. Then White Man, I and my companions will be ready to meet you on the plain. Take the cross by which you swear and set it up yonder and stand by it, and with you your converts, Nodwengo the prince, and this man whom you have named John, if they dare to go. Over against you, around the symbol of the god by which we swear, will stand I and my company, and we will pray our god and you shall pray your God. Then the storm will break upon us, and when it is ended we shall learn which of us remain alive. If you and your cross are shattered, to us will be the victory; if we are laid low, take it for your own. Your judgment, King!"

Again Umsuka thought and answered:—

"So be it. Messenger, hear me. There is no need for you to accept this challenge; but if you will not accept it, then go from my country in peace, taking with you those who cleave to you. If on the other hand you do accept it, these shall be the stakes: that if you pass the trial unharmed, and the fire-doctors are swept away, your creed shall be my creed and the creed of the land; but if the fire-doctors prevail against you, then it shall be death or banishment to any who profess that creed. Now choose!"

"I have chosen," said Owen. "I will meet Hokosa and his company on the Place of Fire whenever he may appoint, but for the others I cannot say."

"We will come with you," said Nodwengo and John, with one voice; "where you go, Messenger, we will surely follow."


CHAPTER 10
The Second Trial By Fire

WHEN this momentous discussion was finished, as usual Owen preached before the king, expounding the Scriptures and taking for his subject the duty of faith. As he went back to his hut he saw that the snake which John had killed had been set upon a pole in that part of the Great Place which served as a market, and that hundreds of natives were gathered beneath it gesticulating and talking excitedly.

"See the work of Hokosa," he thought to himself. "Moses set up a serpent to save the people; yonder wizard sets up one to destroy them."

That evening Owen had no heart for his labours, for his mind was heavy at the prospect of the trial which lay before him. Not that he cared for his own life, for of this he scarcely thought; it was the prospects of his cause which troubled him. It seemed much to expect that Heaven again should throw over him the mantle of its especial protection, and yet if it did not do so there was an end of his mission among the People of Fire. Well, he did not seek this trial—he would have avoided it if he could, but it had been thrust upon him, and he was forced to choose between it and the abandonment of the work which he had undertaken with such high hopes and pushed so far toward success. He did not choose the path, it had been pointed out to him to walk upon; and if it ended in a precipice, at least he would have done his best.

As he thought thus John entered the hut, panting.

"What is the matter?" Owen asked.

"Father, the people saw and pursued me because of the death of that accursed snake. Had I not run fast and escaped them, I think they would have killed me."

"At least you have escaped, John; so be comforted and return thanks."

"Father," said the man presently, "I know that you are great, and can do many wonderful things, but have you in truth power over lightning?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because a great tempest is brewing, and if you have not we shall certainly be killed when we stand yonder on the Place of Fire."

"John," he said, "I cannot speak to the lightning in a voice which it can hear. I cannot say to it 'go yonder,' or 'come hither,' but He Who made it can do so. Why do you tempt me with your doubts? Have I not told you the story of Elijah the prophet and the priests of Baal? Did Elijah's Master forsake him, and shall He forsake us? Also this is certain, that all the medicine of Hokosa and his wizards will not turn a lightning flash by the breadth of a single hair. God alone can turn it, and for the sake of His cause among these people I believe that He will do so."

Thus Owen spoke on till, in reproving the weakness of another, he felt his own faith come back to him and, remembering the past and how he had been preserved in it, the doubt and trouble went out of his mind to return no more.

The third day—the day of trial—came. For sixty hours or more the heat of the weather had been intense; indeed, during all that time the thermometer in Owen's hut, notwithstanding the protection of a thick hatch, had shown the temperature to vary between a maximum of 113 and a minimum of 101 degrees. Now, in the early morning, it stood at 108.

"Will the storm break to-day?" asked Owen of Nodwengo, who came to visit him.

"They say so, Messenger, and I think it by the feel of the air. If so, it will be a very great storm, for the heaven is full of fire. Already Hokosa and the doctors are at their rites upon the plain yonder, but there will be no need to join them till two hours after midday."

"Is the cross ready?" asked Owen.

"Yes, and set up. It is a heavy cross; six men could scarcely carry it. Oh! Messenger, I am not afraid—and yet, have you no medicine? If not, I fear that the lightning will fall upon the cross as it fell upon the pole and then——"

"Listen, Nodwengo," said Owen, "I know a medicine, but I will not use it. You see that waggon chain? Were one end of it buried in the ground and the other with a spear blade made fast to it hung to the top of the cross, we could live out the fiercest storm in safety. But I say that I will not use it. Are we witch doctors that we should take refuge in tricks? No, let faith be our shield, and if it fail us, then let us die. Pray now with me that it may not fail us."


It was afternoon. All round the Field of Fire were gathered thousands upon thousands of the people of the Amasuka. The news of this duel between the God of the white man and their god had travelled far and wide, and even the very aged who could scarcely crawl and the little ones who must be carried were collected there to see the issue. Nor had they need to fear disappointment, for already the sky was half hidden by dense thunder-clouds piled ridge on ridge, and the hush of the coming tempest lay upon the earth. Round about the meteor stone which they called a god, each of them stirring a little gourd of medicine that was placed upon the ground before him, but uttering no word, were gathered Hokosa and his followers to the number of twenty. They were all of them arrayed in their snakeskin dresses and other wizard finery. Also each man held in his hand a wand fashioned from a human thigh-bone. In front of the stone burned a little fire, which now and again Hokosa fed with aromatic leaves, at the same time pouring medicine from his bowl upon the holy stone. Opposite the symbol of the god, but at a good distance from it, a great cross of white wood was set up in the rock by a spot which the witch-doctors themselves had chosen. Upon the banks of the stream, in the place apart, were the king, his councillors and the regiment on guard, and with them Owen, the Prince Nodwengo and John.

"The storm will be fierce," said the king uneasily, glancing at the western sky, upon whose bosom the blue lightnings played with an incessant flicker. Then he bade those about him stand back, and calling Owen and the prince to him, said: "Messenger, my son tells me that your wisdom knows a plan whereby you may be preserved from the fury of the tempest. Use it, I pray of you, Messenger, that your life may be saved, and with it the life of the only son who is left to me."

"I cannot," answered Owen, "for thus by doubting Him I should tempt my Master. Still, it is not laid upon the prince to accompany through this trial. Let him stay here, and I alone will stand beneath the cross."

"Stay, Nodwengo," implored the old man.

"I did not think to live to hear my father bid me, one of the royal blood of the Amasuka, to desert my captain in the hour of battle and hide myself in the grass like a woman," answered the prince with a bitter smile. "Nay, it may be that death awaits me yonder, but nothing except death shall keep me back from the venture."

"It is well spoken," said the king; "be it as you will."

Now the company of wizards, leaving their medicine-pots upon the ground, formed themselves in a treble line, and marching to where the king stood, they saluted him. Then they sang the praises of their god, and in a song that had been prepared, heaped insult upon the God of the white man and upon the messenger who preached Him. To all of this Owen listened in silence.

"He is a coward!" cried their spokesman; "he has not a word to say. He skulks there in his white robes behind the majesty of the king. Let him go forth and stand by his piece of wood. He dare not go! He thinks the hillside safer. Come out, little White Man, and we will show you how we manage the lightnings. Ah! they shall fly about you like spears in battle. You shall throw yourself upon the ground and shriek in terror, and then they will lick you up and you shall be no more, and there will be an end of you and the symbol of your God."

"Cease your boastings," said the king shortly, "and get you back to your place, knowing that if it should chance that the white man conquers you will be called upon to answer for these words."

"We shall be ready, O King," they cried; and amidst the cheers of the vast audience they marched back to their station, still singing the blasphemous mocking song.

Now to the west all the heavens were black as night, though the eastern sky still showed blue and cloudless. Nature lay oppressed with silence—silence intense and unnatural; and so great was the heat that the air danced visibly above the ironstone as it dances about a glowing stove. Suddenly the quietude was broken by a moaning sound of wind; the grass stirred, the leaves of the trees began to shiver, and an icy breath beat upon Owen's brow.

"Let us be going," he said, and lifting the ivory crucifix above his head, he passed the stream and walked towards the wooden cross. After him came the Prince Nodwengo, wearing his royal dress of leopard skin, and after him, John, arrayed in a linen robe.

As the little procession appeared to their view some of the soldiers began to mock, but almost instantly the laughter died away. Rude as they were, these savages understood that here was no occasion for their mirth, that the three men indeed seemed clothed with a curious dignity. Perhaps it was their slow and quiet gait, perhaps a sense of the errand upon which they were bound; or it may have been the strange unearthly light that fell upon them from over the edge of the storm cloud; at the least, as the multitude became aware, their appearance was impressive. They reached the cross and took up their stations there, Owen in front of it, Nodwengo to the right, and John to the left.

Now a sharp squall of strong wind swept across the space, and with it came a flaw of rain. It passed by, and the storm that had been muttering and growling in the distance began to burst. The great clouds seemed to grow and swell, and from the breast of them swift lightnings leapt, to be met by other lightnings rushing upwards from the earth. The air was filled with a tumult of uncertain wind and a hiss as of distant rain. Then the batteries of thunder were opened, and the world shook with their volume. Down from on high the flashes fell blinding and incessant, and by the light of them the fire-doctors could be seen running to and fro, pointing now here and now there with their wands of human bones, and pouring the medicines from their gourds upon the ground and upon each other. Owen and his two companions could be seen also, standing quietly with clasped hands, while above them towered the tall white cross.

At length the storm was straight over head. Slowly it advanced in its awe-inspiring might as flash after flash, each more fantastic and horrible than the last, smote upon the floor of ironstone. It played about the shapes of the doctors, who in the midst of it looked like devils in an inferno. It crept onwards towards the station of the cross, but—it never reached the cross.

One flash struck indeed within fifty paces of where Owen stood. Then of a sudden a marvel happened, or something which to this day the People of Fire talk of as a marvel, for in an instant the rain began to pour like a wall of water stretching from earth to heaven, and the wind changed. It had been blowing from the west, now it blew from the east with the force of a gale.


Illustration

The second trial by fire.


It blew and rolled the tempest back upon itself, causing it to return to the regions whence it had gathered. At the very foot of the cross its march was stayed; there was the water-line, as straight as if it had been drawn with a rule. The thunder-clouds that were pressed forward met the clouds that were pressed back, and together they seemed to come to earth, filling the air with a gloom so dense that the eye could not pierce it. To the west was a wall of blackness towering to the heavens; to the east, light, blue and unholy, gleamed upon the white cross and the figures of its watchers.

For some seconds—twenty or more—there was a lull, and then it seemed as though all hell had broken loose upon the world. The wall of blackness became a wall of flame, in which strange and ardent shapes appeared ascending and descending; the thunder bellowed till the mountains rocked, and in one last blaze, awful and indescribable, the skies melted into a deluge of fire. In the flare of it Owen thought that he saw the figures of men falling this way and that, then he staggered against the cross for support and his senses failed him.


When they returned again, he perceived the storm being drawn back from the face of the pale earth like a pall from the face of the dead, and he heard a murmur of fear and wonder rising from ten thousand throats.


Well might they fear and wonder, for of the twenty and one wizards eleven were dead, four were paralysed by shock, five were flying in their terror, and one, Hokosa himself, stood staring at the fallen, a very picture of despair. Nor was this all, for the meteor stone with a human shape which for generations the People of Fire had worshipped as a god, lay upon the plain in fused and shattered fragments.

The people saw, and a sound as of a hollow groan of terror went up from them. Then they were silent. For a while Owen and his companions were silent also, since their hearts were too full for speech. Then he said:—

"As the snake fell harmless from the hand of Paul, so has the lightning turned back from me, who strive to follow in his footsteps, working death and dismay among those who would have harmed us. May forgiveness be theirs who were without understanding. Brethren, let us return and make report to the king."

Now, as they had come, so they went back; first Owen with the crucifix, next to him Nodwengo, and last of the three John. They drew near to the king, when suddenly, moved by a common impulse, the thousands of the people upon the banks of the stream with one accord threw themselves upon their knees before Owen, calling him God and offering him worship. Infected by the contagion, Umsuka, his guard and his councillors followed their example, so that of all the multitude Hokosa alone remained upon his feet, standing by his dishonoured and riven deity.

"Rise!" cried Owen aghast. "Would you do sacrilege, and offer worship to a man? Rise, I command you!"

Then the king rose, saying:—

"You are no man, Messenger, you are a spirit."

"He is a spirit," repeated the multitude after him.

"I am not a spirit, I am yet a man," cried Owen again, "but the Spirit Whom I serve has made His power manifest in me His servant, and your idols are smitten with the sword of His power, O ye Sons of Fire! Hokosa still lives, let him be brought hither."

They fetched Hokosa, and he stood before them.

"You have seen, Wizard," said the king. "What have you to say?"

"Nothing," answered Hokosa, "save that victory is to the Cross, and to the white man who preaches it, for his magic is greater than our magic. By his command the tempest was stayed, and the boasts we hurled fell back upon our heads and the head of our god to destroy us."

"Yes," said the king, "victory is to the Cross, and henceforth the Cross shall be worshipped in this land, or at least no other god shall be worshipped. Let us be going. Come with me, Messenger, Lord of the Lightning."


CHAPTER 11
The Wisdom Of The Dead

ON the morrow Owen baptised the king, many of his councillors, and some twenty others whom he considered fit to receive the rite. Also he despatched his first convert John, with other messengers, on a three months' journey to the coast, giving them letters acquainting the bishop and others with his marvellous success, and praying that missionaries might be sent to assist him in his labours.

Now day by day the Church grew till it numbered hundreds of souls, and thousands more hovered on its threshold. From dawn to dark Owen toiled, preaching, exhorting, confessing, gathering in his harvest; and from dark to midnight he pored over his translation of the Scriptures, teaching Nodwengo and a few others how to read and write them. But although his efforts were crowned with so signal and extraordinary a triumph, he was well aware of the dangers that threatened the life of the infant Church. Many accepted it indeed, and still more tolerated it; but there remained multitudes who regarded the new religion with suspicion and veiled hatred. Nor was this strange, seeing that the hearts of men are not changed in an hour or their ancient customs easily overset.

On one point, indeed, Owen had to give way. The Amasuka were a polygamous people; all their law and traditions were interwoven with polygamy, and to abolish that institution suddenly and with violence would have brought their social fabric to the ground. Now, as he knew well, the missionary Church declares in effect that no man can be both a Christian and a polygamist; therefore among the followers of that custom the missionary Church makes but little progress. Not without many qualms and hesitations, Owen, having only the Scriptures to consult, came to a compromise with his converts. If a man already married to more than one wife wished to become a Christian, he permitted him to do so upon the condition that he took no more wives; while a man unmarried at the time of his conversion might take one wife only. This decree, liberal as it was, caused great dissatisfaction among both men and women. But it was as nothing compared to the feeling that was evoked by Owen's preaching against all war not undertaken in self-defence, and against the strict laws which he prevailed upon the king to pass, suppressing the practice of wizardry, and declaring the chief or doctor who caused a man to be "smelt out" and killed upon charges of witchcraft to be guilty of murder.

At first whenever Owen went abroad he was surrounded by thousands of people who followed him in the expectation that he would work miracles, which, after his exploits with the lightning, they were well persuaded that he could do if he chose. But he worked no more miracles; he only preached to them a doctrine adverse to their customs and foreign to their thoughts.

So it came about that in time, when the novelty was gone off and the story of his victory over the Fire-god had grown stale, although the work of conversion went on steadily, many of the people grew weary of the white man and his doctrines. Soon this weariness found expression in various ways, and in none more markedly than by the constant desertions from the ranks of the king's regiments. At first, by Owen's advice, the king tolerated these desertions; but at length, having obtained information that an entire regiment purposed absconding at dawn, he caused it to be surrounded and seized by night. Next morning he addressed that regiment, saying:—

"Soldiers, you think that because I have become a Christian and will not permit unnecessary bloodshed, I am also become a fool. I will teach you otherwise. One man in every twenty of you shall be killed, and henceforth any soldier who attempts to desert will be killed also!"

The order was carried out, for Owen could not find a word to say against it, with the result that desertions almost ceased, though not before the king had lost some eight or nine thousand of his best soldiers. Worst of all, these soldiers had gone to join Hafela in his mountain fastnesses; and the rumour grew that ere long they would appear again, to claim the crown for him or to take it by force of arms.

Now too a fresh complication arose. The old king sickened of his last illness, and soon it became known that he must die. A month later die he did, passing away peacefully in Owen's arms, and with his last breath exhorting his people to cling to the Christian religion; to take Nodwengo for their king and to be faithful to him.

The king died, and that same day was buried by Owen in the gloomy resting-place of the blood-royal of the People of Fire, where a Christian priest now set foot for the first time.

On the morrow Nodwengo was proclaimed king with much ceremony in face of the people and of all the army that remained to him. One captain raised a cry for Hafela his brother. Nodwengo caused him to be seized and brought before him.

"Man," he said, "on this my coronation day I will not stain my hand with blood. Listen. You cry upon Hafela, and to Hafela you shall go, taking him this message. Tell him that I, Nodwengo, have succeeded to the crown of Umsuka, my father, by his will and the will of the people. Tell him it is true that I have become a Christian, and that Christians follow not after war but peace. Tell him, however, that though I am a Christian I have not forgotten how to fight or how to rule. It has reached my ears that it is his purpose to attack me with a great force which he is gathering, and to possess himself of my throne. If he should choose to come, I shall be ready to meet him; but I counsel him against coming, for it will be to find his death. Let him stay where he is in peace, and be my subject; or let him go afar with those that cleave to him, and set up a kingdom of his own, for then I shall not follow him; but let him not dare to lift a spear against me, his sovereign, since if he does so he shall be treated as a rebel and find the doom of a rebel. Begone, and show your face here no more!"

The man crept away crestfallen; but all who heard that speech broke into cheering, which, as its purport was repeated from rank to rank, spread far and wide; for now the army learned that in becoming a Christian, Nodwengo had not become a woman. Of this indeed he soon gave them ample proof. The old king's grip upon things had been lax, that of Nodwengo was like iron. He practised no cruelties, and did injustice to none; but his discipline was severe, and soon the regiments were brought to a greater pitch of proficiency than they had ever reached before, although they were now allowed to marry when they pleased, a boon that hitherto had been denied to them. Moreover, by Owen's help, he designed an entirely new system of fortification of the kraal and surrounding hills, which would, it was thought, make the place impregnable. These and many other acts, equally vigorous and far-seeing, put new heart into the nation. Also the report of them put fear into Hafela, who, it was rumoured, had now given up all idea of attack.

Some there were, however, who looked upon these changes with little love, and Hokosa was one of them. After his defeat in the duel by fire, for a while his spirit was crushed. Hitherto he had more or less been a believer in the protecting influence of his own god or fetish, who would, as he thought, hold his priests scatheless from the lightning. Often and often had he stood in past days upon that plain while the great tempests broke around his head, and returned thence unharmed, attributing to sorcery a safety that was really due to chance. From time to time indeed a priest was killed; but, so his companions held, the misfortune resulted invariably from the man's neglect of some rite, or was a mark of the anger of the heavens.

Now Hokosa had lived to see all these convictions shattered: he had seen the lightning, which he pretended to be able to control, roll back upon him from the foot of the Christian cross, reducing his god to nothingness and his companions to corpses.

At first Hokosa was dismayed, but as time went on hope came back to him. Stripped of his offices and power, and from the greatest in the nation, after the king, become one of small account, still no harm or violence was attempted towards him. He was left wealthy and in peace, and living thus he watched and listened with open eyes and ears, waiting till the tide should turn. It seemed that he would not have long to wait, for reasons that have been told.

"Why do you sit here like a vulture on a rock," asked the girl Noma, whom he had taken to wife, "when you might be yonder with Hafela, preparing him by your wisdom for the coming war?"

"Because I am a king-vulture, and I wait for the sick bull to die," he answered, pointing to the Great Place beneath him. "Say, why should I bring Hafela to prey upon a carcase I have marked down for my own?"

"Now you speak well," said Noma; "the bull suffers from a strange disease, and when he is dead another must lead the herd."

"That is so," answered her husband, "and, therefore, I am patient."

It was shortly after this conversation that the old king died, with results very different from those which Hokosa had anticipated. Although he was a Christian, to his surprise Nodwengo showed that he was also a strong ruler, and that there was little chance of the sceptre slipping from his hand —none indeed while the white teacher was there to guide him.

"What will you do now, Hokosa?" asked Noma his wife upon a certain day. "Will you turn to Hafela after all?"

"No," answered Hokosa; "I will consult my ancient lore. Listen. Whatever else is false, this is true: that magic exists, and I am its master. For a while it seemed to me that the white man was greater at the art than I am; but of late I have watched him and listened to his doctrines, and I believe that this is not so. It is true that in the beginning he read my plans in a dream, or otherwise; it is true that he hurled the lightning back upon my head; but I hold that these things were accidents. Again and again he has told us that he is not a wizard; and if this be so, he can be overcome."

"How, husband?"

"How? By wizardry. This very night, Noma, with your help I will consult the dead, as I have done in bygone time, and learn the future from their lips which cannot lie."

"So be it; though the task is hateful to me, and I hate you who force me to it."

Noma answered thus with passion, but her eyes shone as she spoke: for those who have once tasted the cup of magic are ever drawn to drink of it again, even when they fear the draught.


It was midnight, and Hokosa with his wife stood in the burying-ground of the kings of the Amasuka. Before Owen came upon his mission it was death to visit this spot except upon the occasion of the laying to rest of one of the royal blood, or to offer the annual sacrifice to the spirits of the dead. Even beneath the bright moon that shone upon it the place seemed terrible. Here in the bosom of the hills was an amphitheatre, surrounded by walls of rock varying from five hundred to a thousand feet in height. In this amphitheatre grew great mimosa thorns, and above them towered pillars of granite, set there not by the hand of man but by nature. It would seem that the Amasuka, led by some fine instinct, had chosen these columns as fitting memorials of their kings, at the least a departed monarch lay at the foot of each of them.

The smallest of these unhewn obelisks—it was about fifty feet high—marked the resting-place of Umsuka; and deep into its granite Owen with his own hand had cut the dead king's name and date of death, surmounting his inscription with a symbol of the cross.

Towards this pillar Hokosa made his way through the wet grass, followed by Noma his wife. Presently they were there, standing one upon each side of a little mound of earth more like an ant-heap than a grave; for, after the custom of his people, Umsuka had been buried sitting. At the foot of each of the pillars rose a heap of similar shape, but many times as large. The kings who slept there were accompanied to their resting-places by numbers of their wives and servants, who had been slain in solemn sacrifice that they might attend their Lord whithersoever he should wander.

"What is that you desire and would do?" asked Noma, in a hushed voice. Bold as she was, the place and the occasion awed her.

"I desire wisdom from the dead!" he answered. "Have I not already told you, and can I not win it with your help?"

"What dead, husband?"

"Umsuka the king. Ah! I served him living, and at the last he drove me away from his side. Now he shall serve me, and out of the nowhere I will call him back to mine."

"Will not this symbol defeat you?" and Noma pointed at the cross hewn in the granite.

At her words a sudden gust of rage seemed to shake the wizard. His still eyes flashed, his lips turned livid, and with them he spat upon the cross.

"It has no power," he said. "May it be accursed, and may he who believes therein hang thereon! It has no power; but even if it had, according to the tale of that white liar, such things as I would do have been done beneath its shadow. By it the dead have been raised—ay! dead kings have been dragged from death and forced to tell the secrets of the grave. Come, come, let us to the work."

"What must I do, husband?"

"You shall sit you there, even as a corpse sits, and there for a little while you shall die—yes, your spirit shall leave you—and I will fill your body with the soul of him who sleeps beneath;; and through your lips I will learn his wisdom, to whom all things are known."

"It is terrible! I am afraid!" she said. "Cannot this be done otherwise?"

"It cannot," he answered. "The spirits of the dead have no shape or form; they are invisible, and can speak only in dreams or through the lips of one in whose pulses life still lingers, though soul and body be already parted. Have no fear. Ere his ghost leaves you it shall recall your own, which till the corpse is cold stays ever close at hand. I did not think to find a coward in you, Noma."

"I am not a coward, as you know well," she answered passionately, "for many a deed of magic have we dared together in past days. But this is fearsome, to die that my body may become the home of the ghost of a dead man, who perchance, having entered it, will abide there, leaving my spirit houseless, or perchance will shut up the doors of my heart in such fashion that they never can be opened. Can it not be done by trance as aforetime? Tell me, Hokosa, how often have you thus talked with the dead?"

"Thrice, Noma."

"And what chanced to them through whom you talked?"

"Two lived and took no harm; the third died, because the awakening medicine lacked power. Yet fear nothing; that which I have with me is of the best. Noma, you know my plight: I must win wisdom or fall for ever, and you alone can help me; for under this new rule, I can no longer buy a youth or maid for purposes of witchcraft, even if one could be found fitted to the work. Choose then: shall we go back or forward? Here trance will not help us; for those entranced cannot read the future, nor can they hold communion with the dead, being but asleep. Choose, Noma."

"I have chosen," she answered. "Never yet have I turned my back upon a venture, nor will I do so now. Come life, come death, I will submit me to your wish, though there are few women who would dare as much for any man. Nor in truth do I do this for you, Hokosa; I do it because I seek power, and thus only can we win it who are fallen. Also I love all things strange, and desire to commune with the dead and to know that, if for some few minutes only, at least my woman's breast has held the spirit of a king. Yet, I warn you, make no fault in your magic; for should I die beneath it, then I, who desire to live on and to be great, will haunt you and be avenged upon you!"

"Oh! Noma," he said, "if I believed that there was any danger for you, should I ask you to suffer this thing?—I, who love you more even than you love power, more than my life, more than anything that is or ever can be."

"I know it, and it is to that I trust," the woman answered. "Now begin, before my courage leaves me."

"Good," he said. "Seat yourself there upon the mound, resting your head against the stone."

She obeyed; and taking thongs of hide which he had made ready, Hokosa bound her wrists and ankles, as these people bind the wrists and ankles of corpses. Then he knelt before her, staring into her face with his solemn eyes and muttering: "Obey and sleep."

Presently her limbs relaxed, and her head fell forward.

"Do you sleep?" he asked.

"I sleep. Whither shall I go? It is the true sleep—test me."

"Pass to the house of the white man, my rival. Are you with him?"

"I am with him."

"What does he?"

"He lies in slumber on his bed, and in his slumber he mutters the name of a woman, and tells her that he loves her, but that duty is more than love. Oh! call me back I cannot stay; a Presence guards him, and thrusts me thence."

"Return," said Hokosa starting. "Pass through the earth beneath you and tell me what you see."

"I see the body of the king; but were it not for his royal ornaments none would know him now."

"Return," said Hokosa, "and let the eyes of your spirit be open. Look around you and tell me what you see."

"I see the shadows of the dead," she answered; "they stand about you, gazing at you with angry eyes; but when they come near you, something drives them back, and I cannot understand what it is they say."

"Is the ghost of Umsuka among them?"

"It is among them."

"Bid him prophesy the future to me."

"I have bidden him, but he does not answer. If you would hear him speak, it must be through the lips of my body; and first my body must be emptied of my ghost, that his may find a place therein."

"Say, can his spirit be compelled?"

"It can be compelled, or that part of it which still hover near this spot, if you dare to speak the words you know. But first its house must be made ready. Then the words must be spoken, and all must be done before a man can count three hundred; for should the blood begin to clot about my heart, it will be still for ever."

"Hearken," said Hokosa. "When the medicine that I shall give does its work, and the spirit is loosened from your body, let it not go afar, no, whatever tempts or threatens it, and suffer not that the death-cord be severed, lest flesh and ghost be parted for ever."

"I hear, and I obey. Be swift, for I grow weary."

Then Hokosa took from his pouch two medicines: one a paste in a box, the other a fluid in a gourd. Taking of the paste he knelt upon the grave before the entranced woman and swiftly smeared it upon the mucous membrane of the mouth and throat. Also he thrust pellets of it into the ears, the nostrils, and the corners of the eyes.

The effect was almost instantaneous. A change came over the girl's lovely face, the last awful change of death. Her cheeks fell in, her chin dropped, her eyes opened, and her flesh quivered convulsively. The wizard saw it all by the bright moonlight. Then he took up his part in this unholy drama.

All that he did cannot be described, because it is indescribable. The Witch of Endor repeated no formula, but she raised the dead; and so did Hokosa the wizard. But he buried his face in the grey dust of the grave, he blew with his lips into the dust, he clutched at the dust with his hands, and when he raised his face again, lo! it was grey like the dust. Now began the marvel; for, though the woman before him remained a corpse, from the lips of that corpse a voice issued, and its sound was horrible, for the accent and tone of it were masculine, and the instrument through which it spoke—Noma's throat—was feminine. Yet it could be recognised as the voice of Umsuka the dead king.

"Why have you summoned me from my rest, Hokosa?" muttered the voice from the lips of the huddled corpse.

"Because I would learn the future, Spirit of the king," answered the wizard boldly, but saluting as he spoke. "You are dead, and to your sight all the Gates are opened. By the power that I have, I command you to show me what you see therein concerning myself, and to point out to me the path that I should follow to attain my ends and the ends of her in whose breast you dwell."

At once the answer came, always in the same horrible voice:—

"Hearken to your fate for this world, Hokosa the wizard. You shall triumph over your rival, the white man, the messenger; and by your hand he shall perish, passing to his appointed place where you must meet again. By that to which you cling you shall be betrayed, ah! you shall lose that which you love and follow after that which you do not desire. In the grave of error you shall find truth, from the deeps of sin you shall pluck righteousness. When these words fall upon your ears again, then, Wizard, take them for a sign and let your heart be turned. That which you deem accursed shall lift you up on high. High shall you be set above the nation and its king, and from age to age the voice of the people shall praise you. Yet in the end comes judgment; and there shall the sin and the atonement strive together, and in that hour, Wizard, you shall——"


Illustration

"Hearken to your fate, Hokosa."


Thus the voice spoke, strongly at first, but growing ever more feeble as the sparks of life departed from the body of the woman, till at length it ceased altogether.

"What shall chance to me in that hour?" Hokosa asked eagerly, placing his ears against Noma's lips.

No answer came; and the wizard knew that if he would drag his wife back from the door of death he must delay no longer. Dashing the sweat from his eyes with one hand, with the other he seized the gourd of fluid that he had placed ready, and thrusting back her head, he poured of its contents down her throat and waited a while. She did not move. In an extremity of terror he snatched a knife, and with a single cut severed a vein in her arm, then taking some of the fluid that remained in the gourd in his hand, he rubbed it roughly upon her brow and throat and heart. Now Noma's fingers stirred, and now, with horrible contortions and every symptom of agony, life returned to her. The blood flowed from her wounded arm, slowly at first, then more fast, and lifting her head she spoke.

"Take me hence," she cried, "or I shall go mad; for I have seen and heard things too terrible to be spoken!"

"What have you seen and heard?" he asked, while he cut the thongs which bound her wrists and feet.

"I do not know," Noma answered weeping; "the vision of them passes from me; but all the distances of death were open to my sight; yes, I travelled through the distances of death. In them I met him who was the king, and he lay cold within me, speaking to my heart; and as he passed from me he looked upon the child which I shall bear and cursed it, and surely accursed it shall be. Take me hence, O you most evil man, for of your magic I have had enough, and from this day forth I am haunted!"

"Have no fear," answered Hokosa; "you have made the journey whence but few return; and yet, as I promised you, you have returned to wear the greatness you desire and that I sent you forth to win; for henceforth we shall be great. Look, the dawn is breaking—the dawn of life and the dawn of power—and the mists of death and of disgrace roll back before us. Now the path is clear, the dead have shown it to me, and of wizardry I shall need no more."

"Ay!" answered Noma, "but night follows dawn as the dawn follows night; and through the darkness and the daylight, I tell you, Wizard, henceforth I am haunted! Also, be not so sure, for though I know not what the dead have spoken to you, yet it lingers on my mind that their words have many meanings. Nay, speak to me no more, but let us fly from this dread home of ghosts, this habitation of the spirit-folk which we have violated."

So the wizard and his wife crept from that solemn place, and as they went they saw the dawn-beams lighting upon the white cross that was reared in the Plain of Fire.


CHAPTER 12
The Message Of Hokosa

THE weeks passed by, and Hokosa sat in his kraal weaving a great plot. None suspected him any more, for though he did not belong to it, he was heard to speak well of the new faith, and to acknowledge that the god of fire which he had worshipped was a false god. He was humble also towards the king, but he craved to withdraw himself from all matters of the State, saying that now he had but one desire—to tend his herds and garden, and to grow old in peace with the new wife whom he had chosen and whom he loved. Owen, too, he greeted courteously when he met him, sending him gifts of corn and cattle for the service of his church. Moreover, when a messenger came from Hafela, making proposals to him, he drove him away and laid the matter before the council of the king. Yet that messenger, who was hunted from the kraal, took back a secret word for Hafela's ear.

"It is not always winter," was the word, "and it may chance that in the springtime you shall hear from me." And again, "Say to the Prince Hafela, that though my face towards him is like a storm, yet behind the clouds the sun shines ever."

At length there came a day when Noma, his wife, was brought to bed. Hokosa, her husband, tended her alone, and when the child was born he groaned aloud and would not suffer her to look upon its face. Yet, lifting herself, she saw.

"Did I not tell you it was accursed?" she wailed. "Take it away!" and she sank back in a swoon. So he took the child, and buried it deep in the cattle-yard by night.

After this it came about that Noma, who, though her mind owned the sway of his, had never loved him over much, hated her husband Hokosa. Yet he had this power over her that she could not leave him. But he loved her more and more, and she had this power over him that she could always draw him to her. Great as her beauty had ever been, after the birth of the child it grew greater day by day, but it was an evil beauty, the beauty of a witch; and this fate fell upon her, that she feared the dark and would never be alone after the sun had set.

When she was recovered from her illness, Noma sat one night in her hut, and Hokosa sat there also watching her. The evening was warm, but a bright fire burned in the hut, and she crouched upon a stool by the fire, glancing continually over her shoulder.

"Why do you bide by the fire, seeing that it is so hot, Noma?" he asked.

"Because I fear to be away from the light," she answered; adding, "Oh, accursed man! for your own ends you have caused me to be bewitched, ah! and that which was born of me also, and bewitched I am by those shadows that you bade me seek, which now will never leave me. Nor, is this all. You swore to me that if I would do your will I should become great, ay! and you took me from one who would have made me great and whom I should have pushed on to victory. But now it seems that for nothing I made that awful voyage into the deeps of death; and for nothing, yet living, am I become the sport of those that dwell there. How am I greater than I was—I who am but the second wife of a fallen witch-doctor, who sits in the sun, day by day, while age gathers on his head like frost upon a bush? Where are all your high schemes now? Where is the fruit of wisdom that I gathered for you? Answer, Wizard, whom I have learned to hate, but from whom I cannot escape!"

"Truly," said Hokosa in a bitter voice, "for all my sins against them the heavens have laid a heavy fate upon my head, that thus with flesh and spirit I should worship a woman who loathes me. One comfort only is left to me, that you dare not take my life lest another should be added to those shadows who companion you, and what I bid you, that you must still do. Ay, you fear the dark, Noma; yet did I command you to rise and go stand alone through the long night yonder in the burying-place of kings, why, you must obey. Come, I command you—go!"

"Nay, nay!" she wailed in an extremity of terror. Yet she rose and went towards the door sideways, for her hands were outstretched in supplication to him.

"Come back," he said, "and listen: If a hunter has nurtured up a fierce dog, wherewith alone he can gain his livelihood, he tries to tame that dog by love, does he not? And if it will not become gentle, then, the brute being necessary to him, he tames it by fear. I am the hunter and, Noma, you are the hound; and since this curse is on me that I cannot live without you, why I must master you as best I may. Yet, believe me, I would not cause you fear or pain, and it saddens me that you should be haunted by these sick fancies, for they are nothing more. I have seen such cases before to-day, and I have noted that they can be cured by mixing with fresh faces and travelling in new countries. Noma, I think it would be well that, after your late sickness, according to the custom of the women of our people, you should part from me a while, and go upon a journey of purification."


Illustration

"Come back," he said, "and listen."


"Whither shall I go and who will go with me?" she asked sullenly.

"I will find you companions, women discreet and skilled. And as to where you shall go, I will tell you. You shall go upon an embassy to the Prince Hafela."

"Are you not afraid that I should stop there?" she asked again, with a flash of her eyes. "It is true that I never learned all the story, yet I thought that the prince was not so glad to hand me back to you as you would have had me to believe. The price you paid for me must have been good, Hokosa, and mayhap it had to do with the death of a king."

"I am not afraid," he answered, setting his teeth, "because I know that whatever your heart may desire, my will follows you, and while I live that is a cord you cannot break unless I choose to loose it, Noma. I command you to be faithful to me and to return to me, and these commands you must obey. Hearken: you taunted me just now, saying that I sat like a dotard in the sun and advanced you nothing. Well, I will advance you, for both our sakes, but mostly for your own, since you desire it, and it must be done through the Prince Hafela. I cannot leave this kraal, for day and night I am watched, and before I had gone an hour's journey I should be seized; also here I have work to do. But the Place of Purification is secret, and when you reach it you need not bide there, you can travel on into the mountains till you come to the town of the Prince Hafela. He will receive you gladly, and you shall whisper this message in his ear:—

"'These are the words of Hokosa, my husband, which he has set in my mouth to deliver to you, O Prince. Be guided by them and grow great; reject them and die a wanderer, a little man of no account. But first, this is the price that you shall swear by the sacred oath to pay to Hokosa, if his wisdom finds favour in your sight and through it you come to victory: That after you, the king, he, Hokosa, shall be the first man in our land, the general of the armies, the captain of the council, the head of the doctors, and that to him shall be given half the cattle of Nodwengo, who now is king. Also to him shall be given power to stamp out the new faith which overruns the land like a foreign weed, and to deal as he thinks fit with those who cling thereto.'

"Now, Noma, when he has sworn this oath in your ear, calling down ruin upon his own head, should he break one word of it, and not before, you shall continue the message thus: 'These are the other words that Hokosa set in my mouth: "Know, O Prince, that the king, your brother, grows very strong, for he is a great soldier, who learned his art in bygone wars; also the white man that is named Messenger has taught him many things as to the building of forts and walls and the drilling and discipline of men. So strong is he that you can scarcely hope to conquer him in open war—yet snakes may crawl where men cannot walk. Therefore, Prince, let your part be that of a snake. Do you send an embassy to the king, your brother and say to him:—

"'My brother, you have been preferred before me and set up to be king in my place, and because of this my heart is bitter, so bitter that I have gathered my strength to make war upon you. Yet, at the last, I have taken another council, bethinking me that, if we fight, in the end it may chance that neither of us will be left alive to rule, and that the people also will be brought to nothing. To the north there lies a good country and a wide, where but few men live, and thither I would go, setting the mountains and the river between us; for there, far beyond your borders, I also can be a king. Now, to reach this country, I must travel by the pass that is not far from your Great Place, and I pray you that you will not attack my impis or the women and children that I shall send, and a guard before them, to await me in the plain beyond the mountains, seeing that these can only journey slowly. Let us pass by in peace, my brother, for so shall our quarrel be ended; but if you do so much as lift a single spear against me, then I will give you battle, setting my fortune against your fortune and my god against your God!'

"Such are the words that the embassy shall deliver into the ears of the king, Nodwengo, and it shall come about that when he hears them, Nodwengo, whose heart is gentle and who seeks not war, shall answer softly, saying:—

"'Go in peace, my brother, and live in peace in that land which you would win.'

"Then shall you, Hafela, send on the most of your cattle and the women and the children through that pass in the mountains, bidding them to await you in the plain, and after a while you shall follow them with your impis. But these shall not travel in war array, for carriers must bear their fighting shields in bundles and their stabbing spears shall be rolled up in mats. Now, on the sixth day of your journey you shall camp at the mouth of the pass which the cattle and the women have already travelled, and his outposts and spies will bring it to the ears of the king that your force is sleeping there, purposing to climb the pass on the morrow.

"But on that night, so soon as the darkness falls, you must rise up with your captains and your regiments, leaving your fires burning and men about your fires, and shall travel very swiftly across the valley, so that an hour before the dawn you reach the second range of mountains, and pass it by the gorge which is the burying-place of kings. Here you shall light a fire, which those who watch will believe to be but the fire of a herdsman who is acold. But I, Hokosa, also shall be watching, and when I see that fire I will creep, with some whom I can trust, to the little northern gate of the outer wall, and we will spear those that guard it and open the gate, that your army may pass through. Then, before the regiments can stand to their arms or those within it are awakened, you must storm the inner walls and by the light of the burning huts, put the dwellers in the Great Place to the spear, and the rays of the rising sun shall crown you king.

"Follow this counsel of mine, O Prince Hafela, and all will go well with you. Neglect it and be lost. There is but one thing which you need fear—it is the magic of the Messenger, to whom it is given to read the secret thoughts of men. But of him take no account, for he is my charge, and before ever you set a foot within the Great Place he shall have taken his answer back to Him Who sent him."

Hokosa finished speaking.

"Have you heard?" he said to Noma.

"I have heard."

"Then speak the message."

She repeated it word for word, making no fault. "Have no fear," she added, "I shall forget nothing when I stand before the prince."

"You are a woman, but your counsel is good. What think you of the plan, Noma?"

"It is deep and well laid," she answered, "and surely it would succeed were it not for one thing. The white man, Messenger, will be too clever for you, for as you say, he is a reader of the thoughts of men."

"Can the dead read men's thoughts, or if they can, do they cry them on the market-place or into the ears of kings?" asked Hokosa. "Have I not told you that, before I see the signal-fire yonder, the Messenger shall sleep sound? I have a medicine, Noma, a slow medicine that none can trace."

"The Messenger may sleep sound, Hokosa, and yet perchance he may pass on his message to another and, with it, his magic. Who can say? Still, husband, strike on for power and greatness and revenge, letting the blow fall where it will."


CHAPTER 13
The Basket Of Fruit

THREE days later it was announced that according to the custom of the women of the People of Fire, Noma having given birth to a still-born child, was about to start upon a journey to the Mount of Purification. Here she would abide awhile and make sacrifice to the spirits of her ancestors, that they might cease to be angry with her and in future protect her from such misfortunes. This not unusual domestic incident excited little comment, although it was remarked that the four matrons by whom she was to be accompanied, in accordance with the tribal etiquette, were all of them the wives of soldiers who had deserted to Hafela. Indeed, the king himself noticed as much when Hokosa made the customary formal application to him to sanction the expedition.

"So be it," he said, "though myself I have lost faith in such rites. Also, Hokosa, I think it likely that although your wife goes out with company, she will return alone."

"Why, King?" asked Hokosa.

"For this reason—that those who travel with her have husbands yonder at the town of the Prince Hafela, and the Mount of Purification is on the road thither. Having gone so far, they may go farther. Well, let them go, for I desire to have none among my people whose hearts turn otherwhere, and it would not be wonderful if they should choose to seek their lords. But perchance, Hokosa, there are some in this town who may use them as messengers to the prince"—and he looked at him keenly.

"I think not, King," said Hokosa. "None but a fool would make use of women to carry secret words or tidings. Their tongues are too long and their memories too bad, or too uncertain."

"Yet I have heard, Hokosa, that you have made use of women in many a strange work. Say now, what were you doing upon a night a while ago with that fair witch-wife if yours yonder in the burying-place of kings, where it is not lawful that you should set your foot? Nay, deny it not. You were seen to enter the valley after midnight and to return thence at the dawn, and it was seen also that as she came homewards your wife walked as one who is drunken, and she, whom it is not easy to frighten, wore a face of fear. Man, I do not trust you, and were I wise I should hunt you hence, or keep you so close that you could scarcely move without my knowledge.

"Why should I trust you?" Nodwengo went on vehemently. "Can a wizard cease from wizardry, or a plotter from his plots? No, not until the waters run upward and the sun shines at night; not until repentance touches you and your heart is changed, which I should hold as much a marvel. You were my father's friend and he made you great; yet you could plan with my brother to poison him, your king. Nay, be silent; I know it, though I have said nothing of it because one that is dear to me has interceded for you. You were the priest of the false god, and with that god are fallen from your place, yet you have not renounced him. You sit still in your kraal and pretend to be asleep, but your slumber is that of the serpent which watches his time to strike. How do I know that you will not poison me as you would have poisoned my father, or stir up rebellion against me, or bring my brother's impis on my head?"

"If the King thinks any of these things of his servant," answered Hokosa in a humble voice, but with dignity, "his path is plain: let him put me to death and sleep in peace. Who am I that I should full the ears of a king with my defence against these charges, or dare to wrangle with him?"

"Long ago I should have put you to death, Hokosa," answered Nodwengo sternly, "had it not been that one has pleaded for you, declaring that in you there is good which will overcome the evil, and that you who now are an axe to cut down my throne, in time to come shall be a roof-tree for its support. Also, the law that I obey does not allow me to take the blood of men save upon full proof, and against you as yet I have no proof. Still, Hokosa, be warned in time and let your heart be turned before the grave claims your body and the Wicked One your soul."

"I thank you, King, for your gentle words and your tender care for my well-being both on earth and after I shall leave it. But I tell you, King, that I had rather die as your father would have killed me in the old days, or your brother would kill me now, did either of them hate or fear me, than live on in safety, owing my life to a new law and a new mercy that do not befit the great ones of the world. King, I am your servant," and giving him the royal salute, Hokosa rose and left his presence.

"At the least there goes a man," said Nodwengo, as he watched him depart.

"Of whom do you speak, King?" asked Owen, who at that moment entered the royal house.

"Of him whom you must have touched in the door-way, Messenger, Hokosa the wizard," answered the king, and he told him of what had passed between them. "I said," he added, "that he was a man, and so he is; yet I hold that I have done wrong to listen to your pleading and to spare him, for I am certain that he will bring bloodshed upon me and trouble on the Faith. Think now, Messenger, how full must be that man's heart of secret rage and hatred, he who was so great and is now so little! Will he not certainly strive to grow great again? Will he not strive to be avenged upon those who humbled him and the religion they have chosen?"

"It may be," answered Owen, "but if so, he will not conquer. I tell you, King, that like water hidden in a rock there is good in this man's heart, and that I shall yet find a rod wherewith to cause it to gush out and refresh the desert."

"It is more likely that he will find a spear wherewith to cause your blood to gush out and refresh the jackals," answered the king grimly; "but be it as you will. And now, what of your business?"

"This, King: John, my servant, has returned from the coast countries, and he brings me a letter saying that before long three white teachers will follow him to take up the work which I have begun. I pray that when they come, for my sake and for the sake of the truth that I have taught you, you will treat them kindly and protect them, remembering that at first they can know little of your language or your customs."

"I will indeed," said the king, with much concern. "But tell me, Messenger, why do you speak of yourself as of one who soon will be but a memory? Do you purpose to leave us?"

"No, King, but I believe that ere long I shall be recalled. I have given my message, my task is well-nigh ended and I must be turning home. Save for your sakes I do not sorrow at this, for to speak truth I grow very weary," and he smiled sadly.


Hokosa went home alarmed and full of bitterness, for he had never guessed that the "servant of the Messenger," as he called Nodwengo the King, knew so much about him and his plans. His fall was hard to him, but to be thus measured up, weighed, and contemptuously forgiven was almost more than he could bear. It was the white prophet who had done this thing; he had told Nodwengo of his, Hokosa's, share in the plot to murder the late King Umsuka, though how he came to know of that matter was beyond guessing. He had watched him, or caused him to be watched, when he went forth to consult spirits in the place of the dead; he had warned Nodwengo against him. Worst of all, he had dared to treat him with contempt; had pleaded for his life and safety, so that he was spared as men spare a snake from which the charmer has drawn the fangs. When they met in the gate of the king's house yonder this white thief, who had stolen his place and power, had even smiled upon him and greeted him kindly, and doubtless while he smiled, by aid of the magic he possessed, had read him through and gone on to tell the story to the king. Well, of this there should be an end; he would kill the Messenger, or himself be killed.

When Hokosa reached his kraal he found Noma sitting beneath a fruit tree that grew in it, idly employed in stringing beads, for the work of the household she left to his other wife, Zinti, an old and homely woman who thought more of the brewing of the beer and the boiling of the porridge than of religions or politics or of the will of kings. Of late Noma had haunted the shadow of this tree, for beneath it lay that child which had been born to her.


Illustration

Noma idly employed in stringing beads.


"Does it please the king to grant leave for my journey?" she asked, looking up.

"Yes, it pleases him."

"I am thankful," she answered, "for I think that if I bide here much longer, with ghosts and memories for company, I shall go mad," and she glanced at a spot near by, where the earth showed signs of recent disturbance.

"He gives leave," Hokosa went on, taking no notice of her speech, "but he suspects us. Listen——" and he told her of the talk that had passed between himself and the king.

"The white man has read you as he reads in his written books," she answered, with a little laugh. "Well, I said that he would be too clever for you, did I not? It does not matter to me, for to-morrow I go upon my journey, and you can settle it as you will."

"Ay!" answered Hokosa, grinding his teeth, "it is true that he has read me; but this I promise you, that all books shall soon be closed to him. Yet how is it to be done without suspicion or discovery? I know many poisons, but all of them must be administered, and let him work never so cunningly, he who gives a poison can be traced."

"Then cause some other to give it and let him bear the blame," suggested Noma languidly.

Hokosa made no answer, but walking to the gate of the kraal, which was open, he leaned against it lost in thought. As he stood thus he saw a woman advancing towards him, who carried on her head a small basket of fruit, and knew her for one of those whose business it was to wait upon the Messenger in his huts, or rather in his house, for by now he had built himself a small house, and near it a chapel. This woman saw Hokosa also and looked at him sideways, as though she would like to stop and speak to him, but feared to do so.

"Good morrow to you, friend," he said. "How goes it with your husband and your house?"

Now Hokosa knew well that this woman's husband had taken a dislike to her and driven her from his home, filling her place with one younger and more attractive. At the question the woman's lips began to tremble, and her eyes swam with tears.

"Ah! great doctor," she said, "why do you ask me of my husband? Have you not heard that he has driven me away and that another takes my place?"

"Do I hear all the gossip of this town?" asked Hokosa, with a smile. "But come in and tell me the story; perchance I may be able to help you, for I have charms to compel the fancy of such faithless ones."

The woman looked round, and seeing that there was no one in sight, she slipped swiftly through the gate of the kraal, which he closed behind her.

"Noma," said Hokosa, "here is one who tells me that her husband has deserted her, and who comes to seek my counsel. Bring her milk to drink."

"There are some wives who would not find that so great an evil," replied Noma mockingly, as she rose to do his bidding.

Hokosa winced at the sarcasm, and turning to his visitor, said:—

"Now tell me your tale; but say first, why are you so frightened?"

"I am frightened, master," she answered, "lest any should have seen me enter here, for I have become a Christian, and the Christians are forbidden to consult the witch-doctors, as we were wont to do. For my case, it is—"

"No need to set it out," broke in Hokosa, waving his hand. "I see it written on your face; your husband has put you away and loves another woman, your own half-sister whom you brought up from a child."

"Ah! master, you have heard aright."

"I have not heard, I look upon you and I see. Fool, am I not a wizard? Tell me——" and taking dust into his hand, he blew the grains this way and that, regarding them curiously. "Yes, it is so. Last night you crept to your husband's hut—do you remember, a dog growled at you as you passed the gate?—and there in front of the hut he sat with his new wife. She saw you coming, but pretending not to see, she threw her arms about his neck, kissing and fondling him before your eyes, till you could bear it no longer, and revealed yourself, upbraiding them. Then your rival taunted you and stirred up the man with bitter words, till at length he took a stick and beat you from the door, and there is a mark of it upon your shoulder."

"It is true, it is too true!" she groaned.

"Yes, it is true. And now, what do you wish from me?"

"Master, I wish a medicine to make my husband hate my rival and to draw his heart back to me."

"That must be a strong medicine," said Hokosa, "which will turn a man from one who is young and beautiful to one who is past her youth and ugly."

"I am as I am," answered the poor woman, with a touch of natural dignity, "but at least I have loved him and worked for him for fifteen long years."

"And that is why he would now be rid of you, for who cumbers his kraal with old cattle?"

"And yet at times they are the best, Master. Wrinkles and smooth skin seem strange upon one pillow," she added, glancing at Noma, who came from the hut carrying a bowl of milk in her hand.

"If you seek counsel," said Hokosa quickly, "why do you not go to the white man, that Messenger in whom you believe, and ask him for a potion to turn your husband's heart?"

"Master, I have been to him, and he is very good to me, for when I was driven out he gave me work to do and food. But he told me that he had no medicine for such cases, and that the Great Man in the sky alone could soften the breast of my husband and cause my sister to cease from her wickedness. Last night I went to see whether He would do it, and you know what befell me there."

"That befell you which befalls all fools who put their trust in words alone. What will you pay me, woman, if I give you the medicine which you seek?"

"Alas, master, I am poor. I have nothing to offer you, for when I would not stay in my husband's kraal to be a servant to his new wife, he took the cow and the five goats that belonged to me, as, I being childless, according to our ancient law he had the right to do."

"You are bold who come to ask a doctor to minister to you, bearing no fee in your hand," said Hokosa. "Yet, because I have pity on you, I will be content with very little. Give me that basket of fruit, for my wife has been sick and loves its taste."

"I cannot do that, Master," answered the woman, "for it is sent by my hand as a present to the Messenger, and he knows this and will eat of it after he has made prayer to-day. Did I not give it to him, it would be discovered that I had left it here with you."

"Then begone without your medicine," said Hokosa, "for I need such fruit."

The woman rose and said, looking at him wistfully:—

"Master, if you will be satisfied with other fruits of this same sort, I know where I can get them for you."

"When will you get them?"

"Now, within an hour. And till I return I will leave these in pledge with you; but these and no other I must give to the Messenger, for he has already seen them and might discover the difference; also I have promised so to do."

"As you will," said Hokosa. "If you are with the fruit within an hour, the medicine will be ready for you, a medicine that shall not fail."


CHAPTER 14
The Eating Of The Fruit

THE woman slipped away secretly. When she had gone Hokosa bade his wife bring the basket of fruit into the hut.

"It is best that the butcher should kill the ox himself," she answered meaningly.

He carried in the basket and set it on the floor.

"Why do you speak thus, Noma?" he asked.

"Because I will have no hand in the matter, Hokosa. I have been the tool of a wizard, and won little joy therefrom. The tool of a murderer I will not be!"

"If I kill, it is for the sake of both of us," he said passionately.

"It may be so, Hokosa, or for the sake of the people, or for the sake of Heaven above—I do not know and do not care; but I say, do your own killing, for I am sure that even less luck will hang to it than hangs to your witchcraft."

"Of all women you are the most perverse!" he said, stamping his foot upon the ground.

"Thus you may say again before everything is done, husband; but if it be so, why do you love me and tie me to you with your wizardry? Cut the knot, and let me go my way while you go yours."

"Woman, I cannot; but still I bid you beware, for, strive as you will, my path must be your path. Moreover, till I free you, you cannot lift voice or hand against me."

Then, while she watched him curiously, Hokosa fetched his medicines and took from them some powder fine as dust and two tiny crowquills. Placing a fruit before him, he inserted one of these quills into its substance, and filling the second with the powder, he shook its contents into it and withdrew the tube. This process he repeated four times on each of the fruits, replacing them one by one in the basket. So deftly did he work upon them, that however closely they were scanned none could guess that they had been tampered with.


Illustration

While she watched him curiously.


"Will it kill at once?" asked Noma.

"No, indeed; but he who eats these fruits will be seized on the third day with dysentery and fever, and these will cling to him till within seven weeks—or if he is very strong, three months—he dies. This is the best of poisons, for it works through nature and can be traced by none."

"Except, perchance, by that Spirit Whom the white man worships, and Who also works through nature, as you learned, Hokosa, when He rolled the lightning back upon your head, shattering your god and beating down your company."

Then of a sudden terror seized the wizard, and springing to his feet, he cursed his wife till she trembled before him.

"Vile woman, and double-faced!" he said, "why do you push me forward with one hand and with the other drag me back? Why do you whisper evil counsel into one ear and into the other prophesy of misfortunes to come? Had it not been for you, I should have let this business lie; I should have taken my fate and been content. But day by day you have taunted me with my fall and grieved over the greatness that you have lost, till at length you have driven me to this. Why cannot you be all good or all wicked, or at the least, through righteousness and sin, faithful to my interest and your own?"

"Because I hate you, Hokosa, and yet can strike you only through my tongue and your mad love for me. I am fast in your power, but thus at least I can make you feel something of my own pain. Hark! I hear that woman at the gate. Will you give her back the basket, or will you not? Whatever you may choose to do, do not say in after days that I urged you to the deed."

"Truly you are great-hearted!" he answered, with cold contempt; "one for whom I did well to enter into treachery and sin! So be it: having gone so far upon it, come what may, I will not turn back from this journey. Let in that fool!"

Presently the woman stood before them, bearing with her another basket of fruit.

"These are what you seek, Master," she said, "though I was forced to win them by theft. Now give me my own and the medicine and let me go."

He gave her the basket, and with it, wrapped in a piece of kidskin, some of the same powder with which he had doctored the fruits.

"What shall I do with this?" she asked.

"You must find means to sprinkle it upon your sister's food, and thereafter your husband shall come to hate even the sight of her."

"But will he come to love me again?"

Hokosa shrugged his shoulders.

"I know not," he answered; "that is for you to see to. Yet this is sure, that if a tree grows up before the house of a man, shutting it off from the sunlight, when that tree is cut down the sun shines upon his house again."

"It is nothing to the sun on what he shines," said the woman.

"If the saying does not please you, then forget it. I promise you this and no more, that very soon the man shall cease to turn to your rival."

"The medicine will not harm her?" asked the woman doubtfully. "She has worked me bitter wrong indeed, yet she is my sister, whom I nursed when she was little, and I do not wish to do her hurt. If only he will welcome me back and treat me kindly, I am willing even that she should dwell on beneath my husband's roof, bearing his children, for will they not be of my own blood?"

"Woman," answered Hokosa impatiently, "you weary me with your talk. Did I say that the charm would hurt her? I said that it would cause your husband to hate the sight of her. Now begone, taking or leaving it, and let me rest. If your mind is troubled, throw aside that medicine, and go soothe it with such sights as you saw last night."

On hearing this the woman sprang up, hid away the poison in her hair, and taking her basket of fruit, passed from the kraal as secretly as she had entered it.

"Why did you give her death-medicine?" asked Noma of Hokosa, as he stood staring after her. "Have you a hate to satisfy against the husband or the girl who is her rival?"

"None," he answered, "for they have never crossed my path. Oh, foolish woman! cannot you read my plan?"

"Not altogether, Husband."

"Listen then: this woman will give to her sister a medicine of which in the end she must die. She may be discovered or she may not, but it is certain that she will be suspected, seeing that the bitterness of the quarrel between them is known. Also she will give to the Messenger certain fruits, after eating of which he will be taken sick and in due time die, of just such a disease as that which carries off the woman's rival. Now, if any think that he is poisoned, which I trust none will, whom will they suppose to have poisoned him, though indeed they can never prove the crime?"

"The plan is clever," said Noma with admiration, "but in it I see a flaw. The woman will say that she had the drug from you, or, at the least, will babble of her visit to you."

"Not so," answered Hokosa, "for on this matter the greatest talker in the world would keep silence. Firstly, she, being a Christian, dare not own that she has visited a witch-doctor. Secondly, the fruit she brought in payment was stolen, therefore she will say nothing of it. Thirdly, to admit that she had medicine from me would be to admit her guilt, and that she will scarcely do even under torture, which by the new law it is not lawful to apply. Moreover, none saw her come here, and I should deny her visit."

"The plan is very clever," said Noma again.

"It is very clever," he repeated complacently; "never have I made a better one. Now throw those fruits to the she goats that are in the kraal, and burn the basket, while I go and talk to some in the Great Place, telling them that I have returned from counting my cattle on the mountain, whither I went after I had bowed the knee in the house of the king."


Two hours later, Hokosa, having made a wide detour and talked to sundry of his acquaintances about the condition of his cattle, might have been seen walking slowly along the north side of the Great Place towards his own kraal. His path lay past the chapel and the little house that Owen had built to dwell in. This house was furnished with a broad verandah, and upon it sat the Messenger himself, eating his evening meal. Hokosa saw him, and a great desire entered his heart to learn whether or no he had partaken of the poisoned fruit. Also it occurred to him that it would be wise if, before the end came, he could contrive to divert all possible suspicion from himself, by giving the impression that he was now upon friendly terms with the great white teacher and not disinclined even to become a convert to his doctrine.

For a moment he hesitated, seeking an excuse. One soon suggested itself to his ready mind. That very morning the king had told him not obscurely that Owen had pleaded for his safety and saved him from being put upon his trial on charges of witchcraft and murder. He would go to him, now at once, playing the part of a grateful penitent, and the White Man's magic must be keen indeed if it availed to pierce the armour of his practised craft.

So Hokosa went up and squatted himself down native fashion among a little group of converts who were waiting to see their teacher upon one business or another. He was not more than ten paces from the verandah, and sitting thus he saw a sight that interested him strangely. Having eaten a little of a dish of roasted meat, Owen put out his hand and took a fruit from a basket that the wizard knew well. At this moment he looked up and recognised Hokosa.

"Do you desire speech with me, Hokosa?" he asked in his gentle voice. "If so, be pleased to come hither."

"Nay, Messenger," answered Hokosa, "I desire speech with you indeed, but it is ill to stand between a hungry man and his food."

"I care little for my food," answered Owen; "at the least it can wait," and he put down the fruit.

Then suddenly a feeling to which the wizard had been for many years a stranger took possession of him—a feeling of compunction. That man was about to partake of what would cause his death—of what he, Hokosa, had prepared in order that it should cause his death. He was good, he was kindly, none could allege a wrong deed against him; and, foolishness though it might be, so was the doctrine that he taught. Why should he kill him? It was true that never till that moment had he hesitated, by fair means or foul, to remove an enemy or rival from his path. He had been brought up in this teaching; it was part of the education of wizards to be merciless, for they reigned by terror and evil craft. Their magic lay chiefly in clairvoyance and powers of observation developed to a pitch that was almost superhuman, and the best of their weapons was poison in infinite variety, whereof the guild alone understood the properties and preparation. Therefore there was nothing strange, nothing unusual in this deed of devilish and cunning murder that the sight of its doing should stir him thus, and yet it did stir him. He was minded to stop the plot, to let things take their course.

Some sense of the futility of all such strivings came home to him, and as in a glass, for Hokosa was a man of imagination, he foresaw their end. A little success, a little failure, it scarcely mattered which, and then—that end. Within twenty years, or ten, or mayhap even one, what would this present victory or defeat mean to him? Nothing so far as he was concerned; that is, nothing so far as his life of to-day was concerned. Yet, if he had another life, it might mean everything. There was another life; he knew it, who had dragged back from its borders the spirits of the dead, though what might be the state and occupations of those dead he did not know. Yet he believed—why he could not tell—that they were affected vitally by their acts and behaviour here; and his intelligence warned him that good must always flow from good, and evil from evil. To kill this man was evil, and of it only evil could come.

What did he care whether Hafela ruled the nation or Nodwengo, and whether it worshipped the God of the Christians or the god of Fire—who, by the way, had proved himself so singularly inefficient in the hour of trial. Now that he thought of it, he much preferred Nodwengo to Hafela, for the one was a just man and the other a tyrant; and he himself was more comfortable as a wealthy private person than he had been as a head medicine-man and a chief of wizards. He would let things stand; he would prevent the Messenger from eating of that fruit. A word could do it; he had but to suggest that it was unripe or not wholesome at this season of the year, and it would be cast aside.

All these reflections, or their substance, passed through Hokosa's mind in a few instants of time, and already he was rising to go to the verandah and translate their moral into acts, when another thought occurred to him—How should he face Noma with this tale? He could give up his own ambitions, but could he bear her mockery, as day by day she taunted him with his faint-heartedness and reproached him with his failure to regain greatness and to make her great? He forgot that he might conceal the truth from her; or rather, he did not contemplate such concealment, of which their relations were too peculiar and too intimate to permit. She hated him, and he worshipped her with a half-inhuman passion—a passion so unnatural, indeed, that it suggested the horrid and insatiable longings of the damned —and yet their souls were naked to each other. It was their fate that they could hide nothing each from each—they were cursed with the awful necessity of candour.

It would be impossible that he should keep from Noma anything that he did or did not do; it would be still more impossible that she should conceal from him even such imaginings and things as it is common for women to hold secret. Her very bitterness, which it had been policy for her to cloak or soften, would gush from her lips at the sight of him; nor, in the depth of his rage and torment, could he, on the other hand, control the ill-timed utterance of his continual and overmastering passion. It came to this, then: he must go forward, and against his better judgment, because he was afraid to go back, for the whip of a woman's tongue drove him on remorselessly. It was better that the Messenger should die, and the land run red with blood, than that he should be forced to endure this scourge.

So with a sigh Hokosa sank back to the ground and watched while Owen ate three of the poisoned fruits. After a pause, he took a fourth and bit into it, but not seeming to find it to his taste, he threw it to a child that was waiting by the verandah for any scraps which might be left over from his meal. The child caught it, and devoured it eagerly.


Illustration

Owen eats the fruit.


Then, smiling at the little boy's delight, the Messenger called to Hokosa to come up and speak with him.


CHAPTER 15
Noma Comes To Hafela

HOKOSA advanced to the verandah and bowed to the white man with grave dignity.

"Be seated," said Owen. "Will you not eat? though I have nothing to offer you but these," and he pushed the basket of fruits towards him, adding, "The best of them, I fear, are already gone."

"I thank you, no, Messenger; such fruits are not always wholesome at this season of the year. I have known them to breed dysentery."

"Indeed," said Owen. "If so, I trust that I may escape. I have suffered from that sickness, and I think that another bout of it would kill me. In future I will avoid them. But what do you seek with me, Hokosa? Enter and tell me," and he led the way into a little sitting-room.

"Messenger," said the wizard, with deep humility, "I am a proud man; I have been a great man, and it is no light thing to me to humble myself before the face of my conqueror. Yet I am come to this. To-day when I was in audience with the king, craving a small boon of his graciousness, he spoke to me sharp and bitter words. He told me that he had been minded to put me on trial for my life because of various misdoings which are alleged against me in the past, but that you had pleaded for me and that for this cause he spared me. I come to thank you for your gentleness, Messenger, for I think that had I been in your place I should have whispered otherwise in the ear of the king."

"Say no more of it, friend," said Owen kindly, "We are all of us sinners, and it is my place to push back your ancient sins, not to drag them into the light of day and clamour for their punishment. It is true I know that you plotted with the Prince Hafela to poison Umsuka the King, for it was revealed to me. It chanced, however, that I was able to recover Umsuka from his sickness, and Hafela is fled, so why should I bring up the deed against you? It is true that you still practise witchcraft, and that you hate and strive against the holy Faith which I preach; but you were brought up to wizardry and have been the priest of another creed, and these things plead for you.

"Also, Hokosa, I can see the good and evil struggling in your soul, and I pray and I believe that in the end the good will master the evil; that you who have been pre-eminent in sin will come to be pre-eminent in righteousness. Oh! be not stubborn, but listen with your ear, and let your heart be softened. The gate stands open, and I am the guide appointed to show you the way without reward or fee. Follow them ere it be too late, that in time to come when my voice is stilled you also may be able to direct the feet of wanderers into the paths of peace. It is the hour of prayer; come with me, I beg of you, and listen to some few words of the message of my lips, and let your spirit be nurtured with them, and the Sun of Truth arise upon its darkness."

Hokosa heard, and before this simple eloquence his wisdom sank confounded. More, his intelligence was stirred, and a desire came upon him to investigate and examine the canons of a creed that could produce such men as this. He made no answer, but waiting while Owen robed himself, he followed him to the chapel. It was full of new-made Christians who crowded even the doorways, but they gave place to him, wondering. Then the service began—a short and simple service. First Owen offered up some prayer for the welfare of the infant Church, for the conversion of the unbelieving, for the safety of the king and the happiness of the people. Then John, the Messenger's first disciple, read aloud from a manuscript a portion of the Scripture which his master had translated. It was St. Paul's exposition of the resurrection from the dead, and the grandeur of its thoughts and language were by no means lost upon Hokosa, who, savage and heathen though he might be, was also a man of intellect.

The reading over, Owen addressed the congregation, taking for his text, "Thy sin shall find thee out." Being now a master of the language, he preached very well and earnestly, and indeed the subject was not difficult to deal with in the presence of an audience many of whose pasts had been stepped in iniquities of no common kind. As he talked of judgment to come for the unrepentant, some of his hearers groaned and even wept; and when, changing his note, he dwelt upon the blessed future state of those who earned forgiveness, their faces were lighted up with joy.

But perhaps among all those gathered before him there were none more deeply interested than Hokosa and one other, that woman to whom he had sold the poison, and who, as it chanced, sat next to him. Hokosa, watching her face as he was skilled to do, saw the thrusts of the preacher go home, and grew sure that already in her jealous haste she had found opportunity to sprinkle the medicine upon her rival's food. She believed it to be but a charm indeed, yet knowing that in using such charms she had done wickedly, she trembled beneath the words of denunciation, and rising at length, crept from the chapel.

"Truly, her sin will find her out," thought Hokosa to himself, and then in a strange half-impersonal fashion he turned his thoughts to the consideration of his own case. Would his sin find him out? he wondered. Before he could answer that question, it was necessary first to determine whether or no he had committed a sin. The man before him—that gentle and yet impassioned man—bore in his vitals the seed of death which he, Hokosa, had planted there. Was it wrong to have done this? It depended by which standard the deed was judged. According to his own code, the code on which he had been educated and which hitherto he had followed with exactness, it was not wrong. That code taught the necessity of self-aggrandisement, or at least and at all costs the necessity of self-preservation. This white preacher stood in his path; he had humiliated him, Hokosa, and in the end, either of himself or through his influences, it was probable that he would destroy him. Therefore he must strike before in his own person he received a mortal blow, and having no other means at his command, he struck through treachery and poison.

That was his law which for many generations had been followed and respected by his class with the tacit assent of the nation. According to this law, then, he had done no wrong. But now the victim by the altar, who did not know that already he was bound upon the altar, preached a new and a very different doctrine under which, were it to be believed, he, Hokosa, was one of the worst of sinners. The matter, then, resolved itself to this: which of these two rules of life was the right rule? Which of them should a man follow to satisfy his conscience and to secure his abiding welfare? Apart from the motives that swayed him, as a mere matter of ethics, this problem interested Hokosa not a little, and he went homewards determined to solve it if he might. That could be done in one way only—by a close examination of both systems. The first he knew well; he had practised it for nearly forty years. Of the second he had but an inkling. Also, if he would learn more of it he must make haste, seeing that its exponent in some short while would cease to be in a position to set it out.

"I trust that you will come again," said Owen to Hokosa as they left the chapel.

"Yes, indeed, Messenger," answered the wizard; "I will come every day, and if you permit it, I will attend your private teachings also, for I accept nothing without examination, and I greatly desire to study this new doctrine of yours, root and flower and fruit."


On the morrow Noma started upon her journey. As the matrons who accompanied her gave out with a somewhat suspicious persistency, its ostensible object was to visit the Mount of Purification, and there by fastings and solitude to purge herself of the sin of having given birth to a stillborn child. For amongst savage peoples such an accident is apt to be looked upon as little short of a crime, or, at the least, as indicating that the woman concerned is the object of the indignation of spirits who need to be appeased. To this Mount, Noma went, and there performed the customary rites.

"Little wonder," she thought to herself, "that the spirits were angry with her, seeing that yonder in the burying-ground of kings she had dared to break in upon their rest."

From the Place of Purification she travelled on ten days' journey with her companions till they reached the mountain fastness where Hafela had established himself. The town and its surroundings were of extraordinary strength, and so well guarded that it was only after considerable difficulty and delay that the women were admitted. Hearing of her arrival and that she had words for him, Hafela sent for Noma at once, receiving her by night and alone in his principal hut. She came and stood before him, and he looked at her beauty with admiring eyes, for he could not forget the woman whom the cunning of Hokosa had forced him to put away.

"Whence come you, pretty one?" he asked, "and wherefore come you? Are you weary of your husband, that you fly back to me? If so, you are welcome indeed; for know, Noma, that I still love you."

"Ay, Prince, I am weary of my husband sure enough; but I do not fly to you, for he holds me fast to him with bonds that you cannot understand, and fast to him while he lives I must remain."

"What hinders, Noma, that having got you here I should keep you here? The cunning and magic of Hokosa may be great, but they will need to be still greater to win you from my arms."

"This hinders, Prince, that you are playing for a higher stake than that of a woman's love, and if you deal thus by me and my husband, then of a surety you will lose the game."

"What stake, Noma?"

"The stake of the crown of the People of Fire."

"And why should I lose if I take you as a wife?"

"Because Hokosa, seeing that I do not return and learning from his spies why I do not return, will warn the king, and by many means bring all your plans to nothing. Listen now to the words of Hokosa that he has set between my lips to deliver to you"—and she repeated to him all the message without fault or fail.

"Say it again," he said, and she obeyed.

Then he answered:—

"Truly the skill of Hokosa is great, and well he knows how to set a snare; but I think that if by his counsel I should springe the bird, he will be too clever a man to keep upon the threshold of my throne. He who sets one snare may set twain, and he who sits by the threshold may desire to enter the house of kings wherein there is no space for two to dwell."

"Is this the answer that I am to take back to Hokosa?" asked Noma. "It will scarcely bind him to your cause, Prince, and I wonder that you dare to speak it to me who am his wife."

"I dare to speak it to you, Noma, because, although you be his wife, all wives do not love their lords; and I think that, perchance in days to come, you would choose rather to hold the hand of a young king than that of a witch-doctor sinking into eld. Thus shall you answer Hokosa: You shall say to him that I have heard his words and that I find them very good, and will walk along the path which he has made. Here before you I swear by the oath that may not be broken—the sacred oath, calling down ruin upon my head should I break one word of it—that if by his aid I succeed in this great venture, I will pay him the price he asks. After myself, the king, he shall be the greatest man among the people; he shall be general of the armies; he shall be captain of the council and head of the doctors, and to him shall be given half the cattle of Nodwengo. Also, into his hand I will deliver all those who cling to this faith of the Christians, and, if it pleases him, he shall offer them as a sacrifice to his god. This I swear, and you, Noma, are witness to the oath. Yet it may chance that after he, Hokosa, has gathered up all this pomp and greatness, he himself shall be gathered up by Death, that harvest-man whom soon or late will garner every ear;" and he looked at her meaningly.

"It may be so, Prince," she answered.

"It may be so," he repeated, "and when——"

"When it is so, then, Prince, we will talk together, but not till then. Nay, touch me not, for were he to command me, Hokosa has this power over me that I must show him all that you have done, keeping nothing back. Let me go now to the place that is made ready for me, and afterwards you shall tell me again and more fully the words that I must say to Hokosa my husband."


On the morrow Hafela held a secret council of his great men, and the next day an embassy departed to Nodwengo the king, taking to him that message which Hokosa, through Noma his wife, had put into the lips of the prince. Twenty days later the embassy returned saying that it pleased the king to grant the prayer of his brother Hafela, and bringing with it the tidings that the white man, Messenger, had fallen sick, and it was thought that he would die.

So in due course the women and children of the people of Hafela started upon their journey towards the new land where it was given out that they should live, and with them went Noma, purposing to leave them as they drew near the gates of the Great Place of the king. A while after, Hafela and his impis followed with carriers bearing their fighting shields in bundles, and having their stabbing spears rolled up in mats.


CHAPTER 16
The Repentance Of Hokosa

HOKOSA kept his promise. On the morrow of his first attendance there he was again to be seen in the chapel, and after the service was over he waited on Owen at his house and listened to his private teaching. Day by day he appeared thus, till at length he became master of the whole doctrine of Christianity, and discovered that that which at first had struck him as childish and even monstrous, now presented itself to him in a new and very different light. The conversion of Hokosa came upon him through the gate of reason, not as is usual among savages—and some who are not savage—by that of the emotions. Given the position of a universe torn and groaning beneath the dual rule of Good and Evil, two powers of well-nigh equal potency, he found no great difficulty in accepting this tale of the self-sacrifice of the God of Good that He might wring the race He loved out of the conquering grasp of the god of Ill. There was a simple majesty about this scheme of redemption which appealed to one side of his nature. Indeed, Hokosa felt that under certain conditions and in a more limited fashion he would have been capable of attempting as much himself.

Once his reason was satisfied, the rest followed in a natural sequence. Within three weeks from the hour of his first attendance at the chapel Hokosa was at heart a Christian.

He was a Christian, although as yet he did not confess it; but he was also the most miserable man among the nation of the Sons of Fire. The iniquities of his past life had become abominable to him; but he had committed them in ignorance, and he understood that they were not beyond forgiveness. Yet high above them all towered one colossal crime which, as he believed, could never be pardoned to him in this world or the next. He was the treacherous murderer of the Messenger of God; he was in the very act of silencing the Voice that had proclaimed truth in the dark places of his soul and the dull ears of his countrymen.

The deed was done; no power on earth could save his victim. Within a week from the day of eating that fatal fruit Owen began to sicken, then the dysentery had seized him which slowly but surely was wasting out his life. Yet he, the murderer, was helpless, for with this form of the disease no medicine could cope. With agony in his heart, an agony that was shared by thousands of the people, Hokosa watched the decrease of the white man's strength, and reckoned the days that would elapse before the end. Having such sin as thus upon his soul, though Owen entreated him earnestly, he would not permit himself to be baptised. Twice he went near to consenting, but on each occasion an ominous and terrible incident drove him from the door of mercy.

Once, when the words "I will" were almost on his lips, a woman broke in upon their conference bearing a dying boy in her arms.

"Save him," she implored, "save him, Messenger, for he is my only son!"

Owen looked at him and shook his head.

"How came he like this?" he asked.

"I know not, Messenger, but he has been sick ever since he ate of a certain fruit which you gave to him;" and she recalled to his mind the incident of the throwing of a fruit to the child, which she had witnessed.

"I remember," said Owen. "It is strange, but I also have been sick from the day that I ate of those fruits; yes, and you, Hokosa, warned me against them."

Then he blessed the boy and prayed over him till he died; but when afterwards he looked round for Hokosa, it was to find that he had gone.

Some eight days later, having to a certain extent recovered from this shock, Hokosa went one morning to Owen's house and talked to him.

"Messenger," he said, "is it necessary to baptism that I should confess all my sins to you? If so, I can never be baptised, for there is wickedness upon my hands which I am unable to tell into the ear of living man."

Owen thought and answered:—

"It is necessary that you should repent all of your sins, and that you should confess them to heaven; it is not necessary that you should confess them to me, who am but a man like yourself."

"Then I will be baptised," said Hokosa with a sigh of relief.

At this moment, as it chanced, their interview was again interrupted, for runners came from the king requesting the immediate presence of the Messenger, if he were well enough to attend, upon a matter connected with the trial of a woman for murder. Thinking that he might be of service, Owen, leaning on the shoulder of Hokosa, for already he was too weak to walk far, crept to the litter which was waiting for him, and was borne to the place of judgment that was before the house of the king. Hokosa followed, more from curiosity than for any other reason, for he had heard of no murder being committed, and his old desire to be acquainted with everything that passed was still strong on him. The people made way for him, and he seated himself in the first line of spectators immediately opposite to the king and three other captains who were judges in the case. So soon as Owen had joined the judges, the prisoner was brought before them, and to his secret horror Hokosa recognised in her that woman to whom he had given the poison in exchange for the basket of fruit.

Now it seemed to Hokosa that his doom was on him, for she would certainly confess that she had the drug from him. He thought of flight only to reject the thought, for to fly would be to acknowledge himself an accessory. No, he would brazen it out, for after all his word was as good as hers. With the prisoner came an accuser, her husband, who seemed sick, and he it was who opened the case against her.

"This woman," he said, "was my wife. I divorced her for barrenness, as I have a right to do according to our ancient law, and I took another woman to wife, her half-sister. This woman was jealous; she plagued me continually, and insulted her sister, so that I was forced to drive her away. After that she came to my house, and though they said nothing of it at the time, she was seen by two servants of mine to sprinkle something in the bowl wherein our food was cooking. Subsequently my wife, this woman's half-sister, was taken ill with dysentery. I also was taken ill with dysentery, but I still live to tell this story before you, O King, and your judges, though I know not for how long I live. My wife died yesterday, and I buried her this morning. I accuse the woman of having murdered her, either by witchcraft or by means of a medicine which she sprinkled on the food, or by both. I have spoken."

"Have you anything to say?" asked the king of the prisoner. "Are you guilty of the crime whereof this man who was your husband charges you, or does he lie?"

Then the woman answered in a low and broken voice:—

"I am guilty, King. Listen to my story:" and she told it all as she told it to Hokosa. "I am guilty," she added, "and may the Great Man in the sky, of Whom the Messenger has taught us, forgive me. My sister's blood is upon my hands, and for aught I know the blood of my husband yonder will also be on my hands. I seek no mercy; indeed, it is better that I should die; but I would say this in self-defence, that I did not think to kill my sister. I believed that I was giving to her a potion which would cause her husband to hate her and no more."

Here she looked round and her eyes met those of Hokosa.

"Who told you that this was so?" asked one of the judges.

"A witch-doctor," she answered, "from whom I bought the medicine in the old days, long ago, when Umsuka was king."

Hokosa gasped. Why should this woman have spared him?

No further question was asked of her, and the judges consulted together. At length the king spoke.

"Woman," he said, "you are condemned to die. You will be taken to the Doom Tree, and there be hanged. Out of those who are assembled to try you, two, the Messenger and myself, have given their vote in favour of mercy, but the majority think otherwise. They say that a law has been passed against murder by means of witchcraft and secret medicine, and that should we let you go free, the people will make a mock of that law. So be it. Go in peace. To-morrow you must die, and may forgiveness await you elsewhere."

"I ask nothing else," said the woman. "It is best that I should die."

Then they led her away. As she passed Hokosa she turned and looked him full in the eyes, till he dropped his head abashed. Next morning she was executed, and he learned that her last words were: "Let it come to the ears of him who sold me the poison, telling me that it was but a harmless drug, that as I hope to be forgiven, so I forgive him, believing that my silence may win for him time for repentance, before he follows on the road I tread."

Now, when Hokosa heard these words he shut himself up in his house for three days, giving out that he was sick. Nor would he go near to Owen, being altogether without hope, and not believing that baptism or any other rite could avail to purge such crimes as his. Truly his sin had found him out, and the burden of it was intolerable. So intolerable did it become, that at length he determined to be done with it. He could live no more. He would die, and by his own hand, before he was called upon to witness the death of the man whom he had murdered. To this end he made his preparations. For Noma he left no message; for though his heart still hungered after her, he knew well that she hated him and would rejoice at his death.

When all was ready he sat down to think a while, and as he thought, a man entered his hut saying that the Messenger desired to see him. At first he was minded not to go, then it occurred to him that it would be well if he could die with a clean heart. Why should he not tell all to the white man, and before he could be delivered up to justice take that poison which he had prepared? It was impossible that he should be forgiven, yet he desired that his victim should learn how deep was his sorrow and repentance, before he proved it by preceding him to death. So he rose and went.

He found Owen in his house, lying in a rude chair and propped up by pillows of bark. Now he was wasted almost to a shadow, and in the pale pinched face his dark eyes, always large and spiritual, shone with unnatural lustre, while his delicate hands were so thin that when he held them up in blessing the light showed through them.

"Welcome, friend," he said. "Tell me, why have you deserted me of late? Have you been ill?"

"No, Messenger," answered Hokosa, "that is, not in my body. I have been sick at heart, and therefore I have not come."

"What, Hokosa, do your doubts still torment you? I thought that my prayers had been heard, and that power had been given me to set them at rest for ever. Man, let me hear the trouble, and swiftly, for cannot you who are a doctor see that I shall not be here for long to talk with you? My days are numbered, Hokosa, and my work is almost done."

"I know it," answered Hokosa. "And, Messenger, my days are also numbered."

"How is this?" asked Owen, "seeing that you are well and strong. Does an enemy put you in danger of your life?"

"Yes, Messenger, and I myself am that enemy; for to-day I, who am no longer fit to live, must die by my own hand. Nay, listen and you will say that I do well, for before I go I would tell you all. Messenger, you are doomed, are you not? Well, it was I who doomed you. That fruit which you ate a while ago was poisoned, and by my hand, for I am a master of such arts. From the beginning I hated you, as well I might, for had you not worsted me and torn power from my grasp, and placed the people and the king under the rule of another God? Therefore, when all else failed, I determined to murder you, and I did the deed by means of that woman who not long ago was hung for the killing of her sister, though in truth she was innocent." And he told him what had passed between himself and the woman, and told him also of the plot which he had hatched to kill Nodwengo and the Christians, and to set Hafela on the throne

"She was innocent," he went on, "but I am guilty. How guilty you and I know alone. Do you remember that day when you ate the fruit, how after it I accompanied you to the church yonder and listened to your preaching? 'Your sin shall find you out,' you said, and of a surety mine has found me out. For, Messenger, it came about that in listening to you then and afterwards, I grew to love you and to believe the words you taught, and therefore am I of all men the most miserable, and therefore must I, who have been great and the councillor of kings, perish miserably by the death of a dog.

"Now curse me, and let me go."


Illustration

"Now curse me, and let me go."



CHAPTER 17
The Loosing Of Noma

WHEN Owen heard that it was Hokosa who had poisoned him, he groaned and hid his face in his hands, and thus he remained till the evil tale was finished. Now he lifted his head and spoke, but not to Hokosa.

"O God," he said, "I thank Thee that at the cost of my poor life Thou hast been pleased to lead this sinner towards the Gate of Righteousness, and to save alive those whom Thou hast sent me to gather to Thy Fold."

Then he looked at Hokosa and said:—

"Unhappy man, is not your cup full enough of crime, and have you not sufficiently tempted the mercy of Heaven, that you would add to all your evil deeds that of self-murder?"

"It is better to die to-day by my own hand," answered Hokosa, "than to-morrow among the mockery of the people to fall a victim to your vengeance, Messenger."

"Vengeance! Did I speak to you of vengeance? Who am I that I should take vengeance upon one who has repented? Hokosa, freely do I forgive you all, even as in some few days I hope to be forgiven. Freely and fully from my heart do I forgive you, nor shall my lips tell one word of the sin that you have worked against me."

Now, when Hokosa heard those words, for a moment he stared stupefied; then he fell upon his knees before Owen, and bowing his head till it touched the teacher's feet, he burst into bitter weeping.

"Rise and hearken," said Owen gently. "Weep not because I have shown kindness to you, for that is my duty and no more, but for your sins in your own heart weep now and ever. Yet for your comfort I tell you that if you do this, of a surety they shall be forgiven to you. Hokosa, you have indeed lost that which you loved, and henceforth you must follow after that which you did not desire. In the very grave of error you have found truth, and from the depths of sin you shall pluck righteousness. Ay, that Cross which you deemed accursed shall lift you up on high, for by it you shall be saved."

Hokosa heard and shivered.

"Who set those words between your lips, Messenger?" he whispered.

"Who set them, Hokosa? Nay, I know not—or rather, I know well. He set them Who teaches us to speak all things that are good."

"It must be so, indeed," replied Hokosa. "Yet I have heard them before; I have heard them from the lips of the dead, and with them went this command: that when they fell upon my ears again I should 'take them for a sign, and let my heart be turned.'"

"Tell me that tale," said Owen.

So he told him, and this time it was the white man who trembled.

"Horrible has been your witchcraft, O Son of Darkness!" said Owen, when he had finished; "yet it would seem that it was permitted to you to find truth in the pit of sorcery. Obey, obey, and let your heart be turned. The dead told you that you should be set high above the nation and its king, and that saying I cannot read, though it may be fulfilled in some fashion of which to-day you do not think. At the least, the other saying is true, that in the end comes judgment, and that there shall the sin and the atonement strive together; therefore for judgment prepare yourself. And now depart, for I must talk with the king as to this matter of the onslaught of Hafela."

"Then, that will be the signal for my death, for what king can forgive one who has plotted such treachery against him?" said Hokosa.

"Fear not," answered Owen, "I will soften his heart. Go you into the church and pray, for there you shall be less tempted; but before you go, swear to me that you will work no evil on yourself."

"I swear it, Messenger, since now I desire to live, if only for awhile, seeing that death shuts every door."

Then he went to the church and waited there. An hour later he was summoned, and found the king seated with Owen.

"Man," said Nodwengo, "I am told by the Messenger here that you have knowledge of a plot which my brother the Prince Hafela has made to fall treacherously upon me and put me and my people to the spear. How you come to be acquainted with the plot, and what part you have played in it, I will not now inquire, for so much have I promised to the Messenger. Yet I warn you it will be well that you should tell me all you know, and that should you lie to me or attempt to deceive me, then you shall surely die."

"King, hear all the truth," answered Hokosa in a voice of desperate calm. "I have knowledge of the plot, for it was I who wove it; but whether or not Hafela will carry it out altogether I cannot say, for as yet no word has reached me from him. King, this was the plan that I made." And he told him everything.

"It is fortunate for you, Hokosa," said Nodwengo grimly when he had finished, "that I gave my word to the Messenger that no harm should come to you, seeing that you have repented and confessed. This is certain, that Hafela has listened to your evil counsels, for I gave my consent to his flight from this land with all his people, and already his women and children have crossed the mountain path in thousands. Well, this I swear, that their feet shall tread it no more, for where they are thither he shall go to join them, should he chance to live to do so. Hokosa, begone, and know that day and night you will be watched. Should you so much as dare to approach one of the gates of the Great Place, that moment you shall die."

"Have no fear, O King," said Hokosa humbly, "for I have emptied all my heart before you. The past is the past, and cannot be recalled. For the future, while it pleases you to spare me, I am the most loyal of your servants."

"Can a man empty a spring with a pitcher?" asked the king contemptuously. "By to-morrow this heart of yours may be full again with the blackest treachery, O master of sin and lies. Many months ago I spared you at the prayer of the Messenger; and now at his prayer I spare you again, yet in doing so I think that I am foolish."

"Nay, I will answer for him," broke in Owen. "Let him stay here with me, and set your guard without my gates."

"How do I know that he will not murder you, friend?" asked the king. "This man is a snake whom few can nurse with safety."

"He will not murder me," said Owen smiling, "because his heart is turned from evil to good; also, there is little need to murder a dying man."

"Nay, speak not so," said the king hastily; "and as for this man, be it as you will. Come, I must take counsel with my captains, for our danger is near and great."

So it came about that Hokosa stayed in the house of Owen.

On the morrow the Great Place was full of the bustle of preparation, and by dawn of the following day an impi of some seventeen thousand spears had started to ambush Hafela and his force in a certain wooded defile through which he must pass on his way to the mountain pass where his women and children were gathered. The army was not large, at least in the eyes of the People of Fire who, before the death of Umsuka and the break up of the nation, counted their warriors by tens of thousands. But after those events the most of the regiments had deserted to Hafela, leaving to Nodwengo not more than two-and-twenty thousand spears upon which he could rely. Of these he kept less than a third to defend the Great Place against possible attacks, and all the rest he sent to fall upon Hafela far away, hoping there to make an end of him once and for all. This counsel the king took against the better judgment of many of his captains, and as the issue proved, it was mistaken.

When Owen told Hokosa of it, that old general shrugged his shoulders.

"The king would have done better to keep his regiments at home," he said, "and fight it out with Hafela here, where he is well prepared. Yonder the country is very wide, and broken, and it may well chance that the impi will miss that of Hafela, and then how can the king defend this place with a handful, should the prince burst upon him at the head of forty thousand men? But who am I that I should give counsel for which none seek?"

"As God wills, so shall it befall," answered Owen wearily; "but oh! the thought of all this bloodshed breaks my heart. I trust that its beatings may be stilled before my eyes behold the evil hour."

On the evening of that day Hokosa was baptised. The ceremony took place, not in the church, for Owen was too weak to go there, but in the largest room of his house and before some few witnesses chosen from the congregation. Even as he was being signed with the sign of the cross, a strange and familiar attraction caused the convert to look up, and behold, before him, watching all with mocking eyes, stood Noma his wife. At length the rite was finished, and the little audience melted away, all save Noma, who stood silent and beautiful as a statue, the light of mockery still gleaming in her eyes. Then she spoke, saying:—

"I greet you, Husband. I have returned from doing your business afar, and if this foolishness is finished, and the white man can spare you, I would talk with you alone."

"I greet you, Wife," answered Hokosa. "Say out your say, for none are present save us three, and from the Messenger here I have no secrets."

"What, Husband, none? Do you ever talk to him of certain fruit that you ripened in a garden yonder?"

"From the Messenger I have no secrets," repeated Hokosa in a heavy voice.

"Then his heart must be full of them indeed, and it is little wonder that he seems sick," replied Noma, gibing. "Tell me, Hokosa, is it true that you have become a Christian, or would you but fool the white man and his following?"

"It is true."

At the words her graceful shape was shaken with a little gust of silent laughter.

"The wizard has turned saint," she said. "Well, then, what of the wizard's wife?"

"You were my wife before I became Christian; if the Messenger permits it, you can still abide with me."

"If the Messenger permits it! So you have come to this, Hokosa, that you must ask the leave of another man as to whether or no you should keep your own wife! There is no other thing that I could not have thought of you, but this I would never have believed had I not heard it from your lips. Say now, do you still love me, Hokosa?"

"You know well that I love you, now and always," he answered, in a voice that sounded like a groan; "as you know that for love of you I have done many sins from which otherwise I should have turned aside."

"Grieve not over them, Hokosa; after all, in such a count as yours they will make but little show. Well, if you love me, I hate you, though through your witchcraft your will yet has the mastery of mine. I demand of you now that you should loose that bond, for I do not desire to become a Christian; and surely, O most good and holy man, having one wife already, it will not please you henceforth to live in sin with a heathen woman."

Now Hokosa turned to Owen:—

"In the old days," he said, "I could have answered her; but now I am fallen; or raised up—at the least I am changed and cannot. O prophet of Heaven, tell me what I shall do."

"Sever the bond that you have upon her and let her go," answered Owen. "This love of yours is unnatural, unholy and born of witchcraft; have done with it, or if you cannot, at the least deny it, for such a woman, a woman who hates you, can work you no good. Moreover, since she is a second wife, you being a Christian, are bound to free her should she so desire."

"She can work me no good, Messenger, that I know; but I know also that while she struggles in the net of my will she can work me no evil. If I loose the net and the fish swims free, it may be otherwise."

"Loose it," answered Owen, "and leave the rest to Providence. Henceforth, Hokosa, do right, and take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow is with God, and what He decrees, that shall befall."

"I hear you," said Hokosa, "and I obey." For a while he rocked himself to and fro, staring at the ground, then he lifted his head and spoke:—

"Woman," he said, "the knot is untied and the spell is broken. Begone, for I release you and I divorce you. Flesh of my flesh have you been, and soul of my soul, for in the web of sorceries are we knit together. Yet be warned and presume not too far, for remember that which I have laid down I can take up, and that should I choose to command, you must still obey. Farewell, you are free."

Noma heard, and with a sigh of ecstasy she sprang into the air as a slave might do from whom the fetters have been struck off.

"Ay," she cried, "I am free! I feel it in my blood, I who have lain in bondage, and the voice of freedom speaks in my heart and the breath of freedom blows in my nostrils. I am free from you, O dark and accursed man; but herein lies my triumph and revenge—you are not free from me. In obedience to that white fool whom you have murdered, you have loosed me; but you I will not loose and could not if I would. Listen now, Hokosa: you love me, do you not?—next to this new creed of yours, I am most of all to you. Well, since you have divorced me, I will tell you, I go straight to another man. Now, look your last on me; for you love me, do you not?" and she slipped the mantle from her shoulders and except for her girdle stood before him naked, and smiled.


Illustration

"Now, look your last on me."


"Well," she went on, resuming her robe, "the last words of those we love are always dear to us; therefore, Hokosa, you who were my husband, I leave mine with you. You are a coward and a traitor, and your doom shall be that of a coward and a traitor. For my sake you betrayed Umsuka, your king and benefactor; for your own sake you betrayed Nodwengo, who spared you; and now, for the sake of your miserable soul, you have betrayed Hafela to Nodwengo. Nay, I know the tale, do not answer me, but the end of it—ah! that is yet to learn. Lie there, snake, and lick the hand that you have bitten, but I, the bird whom you have loosed, I fly afar—taking your heart with me!" and suddenly she turned and was gone.

Presently Hokosa spoke in a thick voice:—

"Messenger," he said, "this cross that you have given me to bear is heavy indeed."

"Yes, Hokosa," answered Owen, "for to it your sins are nailed."


CHAPTER 18
The Passing Of Owen

ONCE she was outside of Owen's house, Noma did not tarry. First she returned to Hokosa's kraal, where she had already learnt from his head wife, Zinti, and others the news of his betrayal of the plot of Hafela, of his conversion to the faith of the Christians, and of the march of the impi to ambush the prince. Here she took a little spear, and rolling up in a skin blanket as much dried meat as she could carry, she slipped unnoticed from the kraal. Her object was to escape from the Great Place, but this she did not try to do by any of the gates, knowing them to be guarded. Some months ago, before she started on her embassy, she had noted a weak spot in the fence, where dogs had torn a hole through which they passed out to hunt at night. To this spot she made her way under cover of the darkness —for though she still greatly feared to be alone at night, her pressing need conquered her fears—and found that the hole was yet there, for a tall weed growing in its mouth had caused it to be overlooked by those whose duty it was to mend the fence. With her assegai she widened it a little, then drew her lithe shape through it, and lying hidden till the guard had passed, climbed the two stone walls beyond. Once she was free of the town, she set her course by the stars and started forward at a steady run.

"If my strength holds I shall yet be in time to warn him," she muttered to herself. "Ah! friend Hokosa, this new madness of yours has blunted your wits that once were sharp enough. You have set me free, and now you shall learn how I can use my freedom. Not for nothing have I been your pupil, Hokosa the fox."

Before the dawn broke Noma was thirty miles from the Great Place, and before the next dawn she was a hundred. At sunset on that second day she stood among mountains. To her right stretched a great defile, a rugged place of rocks and bush, wherein she knew that the regiments of the king were hid in ambush. Perchance she was too late, perchance the impi of Hafela had already passed to its doom in yonder gorge. Swiftly she ran forward on to the trail which led to the gorge, to find that it had been trodden by many feet and recently. Moving to and fro she searched the spoor with her eyes, then rose with a sigh of joy. It was old, and marked the passage of the great company of women and children and their thousands of cattle which, in execution of the plot, had travelled this path some days before. Either the impi had not yet arrived, or it had gone by some other road. Weary as she was, Noma followed the old spoor backwards. A mile or more away it crossed the crest of a hog-backed mountain, from whose summit she searched the plain beyond, and not in vain, for there far beneath her twinkled the watch-fires of the army of Hafela.

Three hours later a woman, footsore and utterly exhausted, staggered into the camp, and waving aside the spears that were lifted to stab her, demanded to be led to the prince. Presently she was there.

"Who is this woman?" asked the great warrior; for, haggard as she was with travel, exhaustion, and the terror of her haunted loneliness, he did not know her in the uncertain firelight.

"Hafela," she said, "I am Noma who was the wife of Hokosa, and for whole nights and days I have journeyed as no woman ever journeyed before, to tell you of the treachery of Hokosa and to save you from your doom."

"What treachery and what doom?" asked the prince.

"Before I answer you that question, Hafela, you must pay me the price of my news."

"Let me hear the price, Noma."

"It is this, Prince: First, the head of Hokosa, who has divorced me, when you have caught him."

"That I promise readily. What more?"

"Secondly, the place of your chief wife to-day; and a week hence, when I shall have made you king, the name and state of Queen of the People of Fire with all that hangs thereto."

"You are ambitious, woman, and know well how to drive a bargain. Well, if you can ask, I can give, for I have ever loved you, and your mind is great as your body is beautiful. If through your help I should become King of the People of Fire, you shall be their Queen, I swear it by the spirits of my fathers and by my own head. And now—your tidings."

"These are they, Hafela. Hokosa has turned Christian and betrayed the plot to Nodwengo; and the great gorge yonder but three hours march away is ambushed. To-morrow you and your people would have been cut off there had I not run so fast and far to warn you, after which the impis of Nodwengo were commanded to follow your women and cattle over the mountain pass and capture them."

"This is news indeed," said the prince. "Say now, how many regiments are hidden in the gorge?"

"Eight."

"Well, I have fourteen; so, being warned, there is little to fear. I will catch these rats in their own hole."

"I have a better plan," said Noma; "it is this: leave six regiments posted upon the brow of yonder hill and let them stay there. Then when the generals of Nodwengo see that they do not enter the gorge, they will believe that the ambush is discovered, and, after waiting one day or perhaps two, will move out to give battle, thinking that before them is all your strength. But command your regiments to run and not to fight, drawing the army of Nodwengo after them. Meanwhile, yes, this very night, you yourself with all the men that are left to you must march upon the Great Place, which, though it be strong, can be stormed, for it is defended by less than five thousand soldiers. There, having taken it, you shall slay Nodwengo, proclaiming yourself king, and afterwards, by the help of the impi that you leave here which will march onward to your succour, you can deal with yonder army."

"A great scheme truly," said Hafela in admiration; "but how do I know whether all this tale is true, or whether you do but set a snare for me?"

"Bid scouts go out and creep into yonder gully," answered Noma, "and you will see whether or no I have spoken falsely. For the rest, I am in your hands, and if I lie you can take my life in payment."

"If I march upon the Great Place, it must be at midnight when none see me go," said Hafela, "and what will you do then, Noma, who are too weary to travel again so soon?"

"I will be borne in a litter till my strength comes back to me," she answered. "And now give me to eat and let me rest while I may."


Five hours later, Hafela with the most of his army, a force of something over twenty thousand men, was journeying swiftly but by a circuitous route towards the Great Place of the king. On the crest of the hill facing the gorge, as Noma had suggested, he left six regiments with instructions to fly before Nodwengo's generals, and when they had led them far enough, to follow him as swiftly as they were able. These orders, or rather the first part of them, they carried out, for as it chanced after two days' flight, the king's soldiers got behind them by a night march, and falling on them at dawn, killed half of them and dispersed the rest. Then it was that Nodwengo's generals learned for the first time that they were following one wing of Hafela's army only, while the main body was striking at the heart of the kingdom, and turned their faces homewards in fear and haste.


On the morning after the flight of Noma, Owen passed into the last stage of his sickness, and it became evident, both to himself and to those who watched him, that at the most he could not live for more than a few days. For his part, he accepted his doom joyfully, spending the time which was left to him in writing letters that were to be forwarded to England whenever an opportunity should arise. Also he set down on paper a statement of the principal events of his strange mission, and other information for the guidance of his white successors, who by now should be drawing near to the land of the Amasuka. In the intervals of these last labours, from time to time he summoned the king and the wisest and trustiest of them whom he had baptised to his bedside, teaching them what they should do when he was gone, and exhorting them to cling to the Faith.

On the afternoon of the fourth day from that of the baptism of Hokosa he fell into a quiet sleep, from which he did not wake till sundown.

"Am I still here?" he asked wondering, of John and Hokosa who watched at his bedside. "From my dreams I thought that it was otherwise. John, send a messenger to the king and ask of him to assemble the people, all who care to come, in the open place before my house. I am about to die, and first I would speak with them."

John went weeping upon his errand, leaving Owen and Hokosa alone.

"Tell me know what shall I do?" said Hokosa in a voice of despair, "seeing that it is I and no other who have brought this death upon you."

"Fret not, my brother," answered Owen, "for this and other things you did in the days of your blindness, and it was permitted that you should do them to an end. Kneel down now, that I may absolve you from your sins before I pass away; for I tell you, Hokosa, I believe that ere many days are over you must walk on the same path which I travel to-night."

"Is it so?" Hokosa answered. "Well, I am glad, for I have no longer any lust of life."

Then he knelt down and received the absolution.

Now John returned and Nodwengo with him, who told him that the people were gathering in hundreds according to his wish.

"Then clothe me in my robes and let us go forth," he said, "for I would speak my last words in the ears of men."

So they put the surplice and hood upon his wasted form and went out, John preceding him holding on high the ivory crucifix, while the king and Hokosa supported him, one on either side.

Without his gate stood a low wooden platform, whence at times Owen had been accustomed to address any congregation larger than the church would contain. On this platform he took his seat. The moon was bright above him, and by it he could see that already his audience numbered some thousands of men, women and children. The news had spread that the wonderful white man, Messenger, wished to take his farewell of the nation, though even now many did not understand that he was dying, but imagined that he was about to leave the country, or, for aught they knew, to vanish from their sight into Heaven. For a moment Owen looked at the sea of dusky faces, then in the midst of an intense stillness, he spoke in a voice low indeed but clear and steady:—

"My children," he said, "hear my last words to you. More than three years ago, in a far, far land and upon such a night as this, a Voice spoke to me from above commanding me to seek you out, to turn you from your idolatry and to lighten your darkness. I listened to the Voice, and hither I journeyed across sea and land, though how this thing might be done I could not guess. But to Him Who sent me all things are possible, and while yet I lingered upon the threshold of your country, in a dream were revealed to me events that were to come. So I appeared before you boldly, and knowing that he had been poisoned and that I could cure him, I drew back your king from the mouth of death, and you said to yourselves: 'Behold a wizard indeed! Let us hear him.' Then I gave battle to your sorcerers yonder upon the plain, and from the foot of the Cross I teach, the lightnings were rolled back upon them and they were not. Look now, their chief stands at my side, among my disciples one of the foremost and most faithful. Afterwards troubles arose: your king died a Christian, and many of the people fell away; but still a remnant remained, and he who became king was converted to the truth. Now I have sown the seed, and the corn is ripe before my eyes, but it is not permitted that I should reap the harvest. My work is ended, my task is done, and I, the Messenger, return to make report to Him Who sent the message.

"Hear me yet a little while, for soon shall my voice be silent. 'I come not to bring peace, but a sword,'—so said the Master Whom I preach, and so say I, the most unworthy of His servants. Salvation cannot be bought at a little price; it must be paid for by the blood and griefs of men, and in blood and griefs must you pay, O my children. Through much tribulation must you also enter the kingdom of God. Even now the heathen is at your gates, and many of you shall perish on his spears, but I tell you that he shall not conquer. Be faithful, cling to the Cross, and do not dare to doubt your Lord, for He will be your Captain and you shall be His people. Cleave to your king, for he is good; and in the day of trial listen to the counsel of this Hokosa who once was the first of evil-doers, for with him goes my spirit, and he is my son in the spirit.

"My children, fare you well! Forget me not, for I have loved you; or if you will, forget me, but remember my teaching and hearken to those who shall tread upon the path I made. The peace of God be with you, the blessing of God be upon you, and the salvation of God await you, as it awaits me to-night! Friends, lead me hence to die."

They turned to him, but before their hands touched him Thomas Owen fell forward upon the breast of Hokosa and lay there a while. Then suddenly, for the last time, he lifted himself and cried aloud:—

"I have fought a good fight! I have finished my course! I have kept the faith! Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness... and not to me only, but to all those who love His appearing."

Then his head fell back, his dark eyes closed, and the Messenger was dead.


Illustration

The passing of Owen.


Hokosa, the man who had murdered him, having lifted him up to show him to the people, amidst a sound of mighty weeping, took the body in his arms and bore it thence to make it ready for burial.


CHAPTER 19
The Fall Of The Great Place

ON the morrow at sundown all that remained of Thomas Owen was laid to rest before the altar of the little church, Nodwengo the king and Hokosa lowering him into the grave, while John, his first disciple, read over him the burial service of the Christians, which it had been one of the dead man's last labours to translate into the language of the Amasuka.

Before the ceremony was finished, a soldier, carrying a spear in his hand, pushed his way through the dense and weeping crowd, and having saluted, whispered something into the ear of the king. Nodwengo started, and, with a last look of farewell at the face of his friend, left the chapel, accompanied by some of his generals who were present, muttering to Hokosa that he was to follow when all was done. Accordingly, some few minutes later, he went and was admitted into the Council Hut, where captains and messengers were to be seen arriving and departing continuously.

"Hokosa," said the king, "you have dealt treacherously with me in the past, but I believe now that your heart is true; at the least I follow the commands of our dead master and trust you. Listen: the outposts have sighted an impi of many regiments advancing towards the Great Place, though whether or no it be my own impi returning victorious from the war with my brother, I cannot say. There is this against it, however, that a messenger has but just arrived reporting that the generals have perceived the host of Hafela encamped upon a ridge over against the gorge where they awaited him. If that be so, they can scarcely have given him battle, for the messenger is swift of foot and has travelled night and day. Yet how can this be the impi of Hafela, who, say the generals, is encamped upon the ridge?"

"He may have left the ridge, King, having been warned of the ambush."

"It cannot be, for when the runner started his fires burned there and his soldiers were gathered round them."

"Then perhaps his captains sit upon the ridge with some portion of his strength to deceive those who await him in the gorge; while, knowing that here men are few, he himself swoops down on you with the main body of his impi."

"At least we shall learn presently," answered the king; "but if it be as I fear and we are outwitted, what is there that we can do against so many?"

Now one of the captains proposed that they should stay where they were and hold the place.

"It is too large," answered the king, "they will burst the fences and break our line."

Another suggested that they should fly and, avoiding the regiments of Hafela in the darkness of the night, should travel swiftly in search of the main army that had been sent to lie in ambush.

"What," said Nodwengo, "leaving the aged and the women and children to perish, for how can we take such a multitude? No, I will have none of this plan."

Then Hokosa spoke. "King," he said, "listen to my counsel: Command now that all the women and the old men, taking with them such cattle and food as are in the town, depart at once into the Valley of Death and collect in the open space that lies beyond the Tree of Doom, near the spring of water that is there. The valley is narrow and the cliffs are steep, and it may chance that by the help of Heaven we shall be able to hold it till the army returns to relieve us, to seek which messengers must be sent at once with these tidings."

"The plan is good," said the king, though none had thought of it; "but so we shall lose the town."

"Towns can be rebuilt," answered Hokosa, "but who may restore the lives of men?"

As the words left his lips, a runner burst into the council, crying: "King, the impi is that of Hafela, and the prince heads it in person. Already his outposts rest upon the Plain of Fire."

Then Nodwengo rose and issued his orders, commanding that all the ineffective population of the town, together with such food and cattle as could be gathered, should retreat at once into the Valley of Death. By this time the four or five thousand soldiers who were left in the Great Place had been paraded on the open ground in front of the king's house, where they stood, still and silent, in the moonlight. Nodwengo and the captains went out to them, and as they saw him come they lifted their spears like one man, giving him the royal salute of "King!" He held up his hand and addressed them.

"Soldiers," he said, "we have been outwitted. My impi is afar, and that of Hafela is at our gates. Yonder in the valley, though we be few, we can defend ourselves till succour reaches us, which already messengers have gone out to seek. But first we must give time for the women and children, the sick and the aged, to withdraw with food and cattle; and this we can do in one way only, by keeping Hafela at bay till they have passed the archway, all of them. Now, soldiers, for the sake of your own lives, of your honour and of those you love, swear to me, in the holy Name which we have been taught to worship, that you will fight out this great fight without fear or faltering."

"We swear it in the holy Name, and by your head, King," roared the regiments.

"Then victory is already ours," answered Nodwengo. "Follow me, Children of Fire!" and shaking his great spear, he led the way towards that portion of the outer fence upon which Hafela was advancing.

By now the town behind them was a scene of almost indescribable tumult and confusion, for the companies detailed to the task were clearing the numberless huts of their occupants, and collecting women, children and oxen in thousands, preparatory to driving them into the defile. Panic had seized many of these poor creatures, who, in imagination, already saw themselves impaled upon the cruel spears of Hafela's troops, and indeed in not a few instances believed those who were urging them forward to be the enemy. Women shrieked and wrung their hands, children wailed piteously, oxen lowed, and the infirm and aged vented their grief in groans and cries to Heaven, or their ancient god, for mercy. In truth, so difficult was the task of marshalling this motley array at night, numbering as it did ten or twelve thousand souls, that a full hour went by before the mob even began to move, slowly and uncertainly, towards the place of refuge, whereof the opening was so narrow that but few of them could pass it at a time.

Meanwhile Hafela was developing the attack. Forming his great army into the shape of a wedge he raised his battle-cry and rushed down on the first line of fortifications, which he stormed without difficulty, for they were defended by a few skirmishers only. Next he attacked the second line, and carried it after heavy fighting, then hurled himself upon the weakest point of the main fence of the vast kraal. Here it was that the fray began in earnest, for here Nodwengo was waiting for him. Thrice the thousands rolled on in the face of a storm of spears, and thrice they fell back from the wide fence of thorns and the wall of stone behind it. By now the battle had raged for about an hour and a half, and it was reported to the king that the first of the women and children had passed the archway into the valley, and that nearly all of them were clear of the eastern gate of the town.

"Then it is time that we follow them," said the king, "for if we wait here until the warriors of Hafela are among us, our retreat will become a rout and soon there will be none left to follow. Let one company," and he named it, "hold the fence for a while to give us time to withdraw, taking the wounded with us."

"We hear you, king," said one of that company, "but our captain is killed."

"Who among you will take over the command of these men and hold the breach?" asked Nodwengo of the group of officers about him.

"I, King," answered old Hokosa, lifting his spear, "for I care not whether I live or die."

"Go to, boaster!" cried another. "Who among us cares whether he lives or dies when the king commands?"

"That we shall know to-morrow," said Hokosa quietly, and the soldiers laughed at the retort.

"So be it," said the king, and while silently and swiftly he led off the regiments, keeping in the shadow of the huts, Hokosa and his hundred men posted themselves behind the weakened fence and wall. Now, for the fourth time the attacking regiment came forward grimly, on this occasion led by the prince himself. As they drew near, Hokosa leapt upon the wall, and standing there in the bright moonlight where all could see him, he called to them to halt. Instinctively they obeyed him.

"Is it Hafela whom I see yonder?" he asked.

"Ah! it is I," answered the prince. "What would you with me, wizard and traitor?"

"This only, Hafela: I would ask you what you seek here?"

"That which you promised me, Hokosa, the crown of my father and certain other things."

"Then get you back, Hafela, for you shall never win them.. Have I prophesied falsely to you at any time? Not so—neither do I prophesy falsely now. Get you back whence you came, and your wolves with you, else shall you bide here for ever."

"Do you dare to call down evil on me, Wizard?" shouted the prince furiously. "Your wife is mine, and now I take your life also," and with all his strength he hurled at him the great spear he held.

It hissed past Hokosa's head, touching his ear, but he never flinched from the steel.

"A poor cast, Prince," he said laughing; "but so it must have been, for I am guarded by that which you cannot see. My wife you have, and she shall be your ruin; my life you may take, but ere it leaves me, Hafela, I shall see you dead and your army scattered. The Messenger is passed away, but his power has fallen upon me and I speak the truth to you, O Prince and warriors, who are—already dead."

Now a shriek of dismay and fury rose from the hundreds who heard this prophesy of ill, for of Hokosa and his magic they were terribly afraid.

"Kill him! Kill the wizard!" they shouted, and a rain of spears rushed towards him on the wall.

They rushed towards him, they passed above, below, around; but, of them all, not one touched him.

"Did I not tell you that I was guarded by That which you cannot see?" Hokosa asked contemptuously. Then slowly he descended from the wall amidst a great silence.

"When men are scarce the tongue must play a part," he explained to his companions, who stared at him wondering. "By now the king and those with him should have reached the eastern gate; whereas, had we fought at once, Hafela would be hard upon his heels, for we are few, and who can hold a buffalo with a rope of grass? Yet I think that I spoke truth when I told him that the garment of the Messenger has fallen upon my shoulders, and that death awaits him and his companions, as it awaits me also and many of us. Now, friends, be ready, for the bull charges and soon we must feel his horns. This at least is left to you, to die gloriously."


Illustration

Hokosa on the wall.


While he was still speaking the first files of the regiment rushed upon the fence, tearing aside the thorns with their hands till a passage was made through them. Then they sprang upon the wall, there to be met by the spears of Hokosa and his men thrusting upward from beneath its shelter. Time after time they sprang, and time after time they fell back dead or wounded, till at last, dashing forward in one dense column, they poured over the stones as the rising tide pours over the rocks on the sea-shore, driving the defenders before them by the sheer weight of numbers.

"This game is played!" cried Hokosa. "Fly now to the eastern gate, for here we can do nothing more."

So they fled, those who survived of them, and after them came the thousands of the foe, sacking and firing the deserted town as they advanced.

Hokosa and his men, or rather the half of them, reached the gate and passed it in safety, barring it after them, and thereby delaying the attackers till they could burst their way through. Now hundreds of huts were afire, and the flames spread swiftly, lighting up the country far and wide. In the glare of them, Hokosa could see that already a full two-thirds of the crowd of fugitives had passed the narrow arch; while Nodwengo and the soldiers were drawn up in companies upon the steep and rocky slope that led to it, protecting their retreat.

He advanced to the king and reported himself.

"So you have lived through it," said Nodwengo.

"I shall die when my hour comes, and not before," Hokosa answered. "We did well yonder, and yet the most of us are alive to tell the tale, for I knew when and how to go. Be ready, king, for the foe press us close, and that mob behind us crawls onward like a snail."

As he spoke the pursuers broke through the fence and gate of the burning town, and once more the fight began. They had the advantage of numbers; but Nodwengo and his troops stood in a wide road upon higher ground protected on either side by walls, and were, moreover, rested, not breathless and weary with travel like the men of Hafela. Slowly, fighting, every inch of the way, Nodwengo was pushed back, and slowly the long ant-like line of women and sick and cattle crept through the opening in the rock, till at length all of them were gone.

"It is time," said Nodwengo, glancing behind him, "for our arms grow weary."

Then he gave orders, and company by company the defending force followed on the path of the fugitives, till at length amidst a roar of rage and disappointment, the last of them vanished through the arch, Hokosa among them, and the place was blocked with stones, above which shone a hedge of spears.


CHAPTER 20
Noma Sets A Snare

THUS ended the first night's battle, since for this time the enemy had fought enough. Nodwengo and his men had also had enough, for out of the five thousand of them some eleven hundred were killed or wounded. Yet they might not rest, for all that night, assisted by the women, they laboured, building stone walls across the narrowest parts of the valley. Also the cattle, women and children were moved along the gorge, which in shape may be compared to a bottle with two necks, one at either end, and encamped in the opening of the second neck, where was the spring of water. This spot was chosen both because here alone water could be obtained, without which they could not hold out more than a single day, and because the koppie whereon grew the strange-looking euphorbia known as the Tree of Doom afforded a natural rampart against attack.

Shortly after dawn, while the soldiers were resting and eating of such food as could be procured—for the most part strips of raw or half-cooked meat cut from hastily killed cattle—the onslaught was renewed with vigour, Hafela directing his efforts to the forcing of the natural archway. But, strive as he would, this he could not do, for it was choked with stones and thorns and guarded by brave men.

"You do but waste your labour, Hafela," said Noma, who stood by him watching the assault.

"What then is to be done?" he asked, "for unless we come at them we cannot kill them. It was clever of them to take refuge in this hole. I thought surely that they would fight it out yonder, beneath the fences of the Great Place."

"Ah!" she answered, "you forgot that they had Hokosa on their side. Did you then think to catch him sleeping? This retreat was Hokosa's counsel. I learned it from the lips of that wounded captain before they killed him. Now, it seems that there are but two paths to follow, and you can choose between them. The one is to send a regiment a day and a half's journey across the cliff top to guard the further mouth of the valley and to wait till these jackals starve in their hole, for certainly they can never come out."

"It has started six hours since," said Hafela, "and though the precipices are steep, having the moon to travel by, it should reach the river mouth of the valley before dawn to-morrow, cutting Nodwengo off from the plains, if indeed he should dare to venture out upon them, which, with so small a force, he will not do. Yet this first plan of yours must fail, Noma, seeing that before they starve within, the generals of Nodwengo will be back upon us from the mountains, catching us between the hammer and the anvil, and I know not how that fight would go."

"Yet, soon or late, it must be fought."

"Nay," he answered, "for my hope is that should the impi return to find Nodwengo dead, they will surrender and acknowledge me as king, who am the first of the blood royal. But what is your second plan?"

By way of answer, she pointed to the cliff above them. On the right-hand side, facing the archway, was a flat ledge overhanging the valley, at a height of about a hundred feet.

"If you can come yonder," she said, "it will be easy to storm this gate, for there lie rocks in plenty, and men cannot fight when stones are dropping on their heads."

"But how can we come to that home of vultures, where never man has set a foot? Look, the cliff above is sheer; no rock-rabbit could stand upon it."

With her eye Noma measured the distance from the brink of the precipice to the broad ledge commanding the valley.

"Sixty paces, not more," she said. "Well, yonder are oxen in plenty, and out of their hides ropes can be made, and out of ropes a ladder, down which men may pass; ten, or even five, would be enough."

"Well thought of Noma," said Hafela. "Hokosa told us last night that to him had passed the wisdom of the Messenger; but if this be so, I think that to you has passed the guile of Hokosa."

"It seems to me that some of it abides with him," answered Noma laughing.

Then the prince gave orders, and, with many workers of hides toiling at it, within two hours the ladder was ready, its staves, set twenty inches apart, being formed of knob-kerries, or the broken shafts of stabbing spears. Now they lowered it from the top of the precipice so that its end rested upon the ledge, and down it came several men, who swung upon its giddy length like spiders on a web. Reaching this great shelf in safety and advancing to the edge of it, these men started a boulder, which, although as it chanced it hurt no one, fell in the midst of a group of the defenders and bounded away through them.

"Now we must be going," said Hokosa, looking up, "for no man can fight against rocks, and our spears cannot reach those birds. Had the army been taught the use of the bow, as I counselled in the past days, we might still have held the archway; but they called it a woman's weapon, and would have none of it."

As he spoke another stone fell, crushing the life out of a man who stood next to him. Then they retreated to the first wall, which had been piled up during the night, where it was not possible to roll rocks upon them from the cliffs above. This wall, and others reared at intervals behind it, they set to work to strengthen as much as they could, making the most of the time that was left to them before the enemy could clear the way and march on to attack.

Presently Hafela's men were through and sweeping down upon them with a roar, thinking to carry the wall at a single rush. But in this they failed; indeed, it as only after an hour's hard fighting and by the expedient of continually attacking the work with fresh companies that at length they stormed the wall.

When Hokosa saw that he could no longer hold the place, but before the foe was upon him, he drew off his soldiers to the second wall, a quarter of a mile or more away, and here the fight began again. And so it went on for hour after hour, as one by one the fortifications were carried by the weight of numbers, for the attackers fought desperately under the eye of their prince, caring nothing for the terrible loss they suffered in men. Twice the force of the defenders was changed by order of Nodwengo, fresh men being sent from the companies held in reserve to take the places of those who had borne the brunt of the battle. This indeed it was necessary to do, seeing that it was impossible to carry water to so many, and in that burning valley men could not fight for long athirst. Only Hokosa stayed on, for they brought him drink in a gourd, and wherever the fray was fiercest there he was always; nor although spears were rained upon him by hundreds, was he touched by one of them.

At length as the night fell the king's men were driven back from their last scherm in the western half of the valley, across the open space back upon the koppie where stood the Tree of Doom. Here they stayed a while till, overmatched and outworn, they were pushed from its rocks across the narrow stretch of broken ground into the shelter of the great stone scherm or wall that ran from side to side of the further neck of the valley, whereon thousands of women and such men as could be spared had been working incessantly during the past night and day.

It was as he retreated among the last upon this wall that Hokosa caught sight of Noma for the first time since they parted in the house of the Messenger. In the forefront of his troops, directing the attack, was Hafela the prince, and at his side stood Noma, carrying in her hand a little shield and a spear. At this moment also she saw him and called aloud to him:—


Illustration

Hafela the prince, and at his side stood Noma.


"You have fought well, Wizard, but to-morrow all your magic shall avail you nothing, for it will be your last day upon this earth."

"Ay, Noma," he answered, "and yours also."

Then of a sudden a company of the king's men rushed from the shelter of the wall upon the attackers driving them back to the koppie and killing several, so that in the confusion and gathering darkness Hokosa lost sight of her, though a man at his side declared that he saw her fall beneath the thrust of an assegai. Thus ended the second day.

Now when the watch had been set the king and his captains took counsel together, for their hearts were heavy.

"Listen," said Nodwengo: "out of five thousand soldiers a thousand have been killed and a thousand lie among us wounded. Hark to the groaning of them! Also we have with us women and children and sick to the number of twelve thousand, and between us and those who would butcher them every one there stands but a single wall. Nor is this the worst of it: the spring cannot supply the wants of so great a multitude in this hot place, and it is feared that presently the water will be done. What way shall we turn? If we surrender to Hafela, perhaps he will spare the lives of the women and children; but whatever he may promise, the most of us he will surely slay. If we fight and are defeated, then once his regiments are among us, all will be slain according to the ancient custom of our people. I have bethought me that we might retreat through the valley, but the river beyond is in flood; also it is certain that before this multitude could reach it, the prince will have sent a force to cut us off while he himself harasses our rear. Now let him who has counsel speak."

"King, I have counsel," said Hokosa. "What were the words that the Messenger spoke to us before he died? Did he not say: 'Even now the heathen is at your gates, and many of you shall perish on his spears; but I tell you that he shall not conquer'? Did he not say: 'Be faithful, cling to the Cross, and do not dare to doubt your Lord, for He will protect you, and your children after you, and He will be your Captain and you shall be His people'? Did he not bid you also to listen to my counsel? Then listen to it, for it is his: Your case seems desperate, but have no fear, and take no thought for the morrow, for all shall yet be well. Let us now pray to Him that the Messenger has revealed to us, and Whom now he implores on our behalf in that place where he is to guide us and to save us, for then surely He will hearken to our prayer."

"So be it," said Nodwengo, and going out he stood upon a pillar of stone in the moonlight and offered up his supplication in the hearing of the multitude.

Meanwhile, those of the camp of Hafela were also taking counsel. They had fought bravely indeed, and carried the schanses; but at great cost, since for every man that Nodwengo had lost, three of theirs had fallen. Moreover, they were in evil case with weariness and the want of water, as each drop they drank must be carried to them from the Great Place in bags made of raw hide, which caused it to stink, for they had but few gourds with them.

"Now it is strange," said Hafela, "that these men should fight so bravely, seeing that they are but a handful. There can be scarce three thousand of them left, and yet I doubt not that before we carry those last walls of theirs as many of us or more will be done. Ay! and after they are done with, we must meet their great impi when it returns, and of what will befall us then I scarcely like to think."

"Ill-fortune will befall you while Hokosa lives," broke in Noma. "Had it not been for him, this trouble would have been done with by now; but he is a wizard, and by his wizardries he defeats us and puts heart into Nodwengo and the warriors. You, yourself, have seen him this day defying us, not once but many times, for upon his flesh steel has no power. Ay! and this is but the beginning of evil, for I am sure that he leads you into some deep trap where you shall perish everlastingly. Did he not himself declare that the power of that dead white worker of miracles has fallen upon him, and who can fight against magic?"

"Who, indeed?" said Hafela humbly; for like all savages he was very superstitious, and, moreover, a sincere believer in Hokosa's supernatural capacities. "This wizard is too strong for us; he is invulnerable, and as I know well he can read the secret thoughts of men and can suck wisdom from the dead, while to his eyes the darkness is no blind."

"Nay, Hafela," answered Noma, "there is one crack in his shield. Hear me: if we can but catch him and hold him fast we shall have no need to fear him more, and I think that I know how to bait the trap."

"How will you bait it?" asked Hafela.

"Thus. Midway between the koppie and the wall behind which lie the men of the king stands a flat rock, and all about that rock are stretched the bodies of dead soldiers. Now, this is my plan: that when next one of those dark storm-clouds passes over the face of the moon six of the strongest of our warriors should creep upon their bellies down this way and that, as though they were also numbered with the slain. This done, you shall despatch a herald to call in the ears of the king that you desire to treat with him of peace. Then he will answer that if this be so you can come beneath the walls of his camp, and your herald shall refuse, saying that you fear treachery. But he must add that if Nodwengo will bid Hokosa to advance alone to the flat rock, you will bid me, Noma, whom none can fear, to do likewise, and that there we can talk in sight of both armies, and returning thence, make report to you and to Nodwengo. Afterwards, so soon as Hokosa has set his foot upon the rock, those men who seem to be dead shall spring upon him and drag him to our camp, where we can deal with him; for once the wizard is taken, the cause of Nodwengo is lost."

"A good pitfall," said the prince; "but will Hokosa walk into the trap?"

"I think so, Hafela, for three reasons. He is altogether without fear; he will desire, if may be, to make peace on behalf of the king; and he has this strange weakness, that he still loves me, and will scarcely suffer an occasion of speaking with me to go past, although he has divorced me."

"So be it," said the prince; "the game can be tried, and if it fails, why we lose nothing, whereas if it succeeds we gain Hokosa, which is much; for with you I think that our arms will never prosper while that accursed wizard sits yonder weaving his spells against us, and bringing our men to death by hundreds and by thousands."

Then he gave his orders, and presently, when a cloud passed over the face of the moon, six chosen men crept forward under the lee of the flat rock and threw themselves down here and there amongst the dead.

Soon the cloud passed, and the herald advanced across the open space blowing a horn, and waving a branch in his hand to show that he came upon a mission of peace.


CHAPTER 21
Hokosa Is Lifted Up

"WHAT would you?" asked Hokosa of the herald as he halted a short spear-cast from the wall.

"My master, the Prince Hafela, desires to treat with your master, Nodwengo. Many men have fallen on either side, and if this war goes on, though victory must be his at last, many more will fall. Therefore, if any plan can be found, he desires to spare their lives."

Now Hokosa spoke with the king, and answered:—

"Then let Hafela come beneath the wall and we will talk with him."

"Not so," answered the herald. "Does a buck walk into an open pit? Were the prince to come here it might chance that your spears would talk with him. Let Nodwengo follow me to the camp yonder, where we promise him safe conduct."

"Not so," answered Hokosa. "'Does a buck walk into an open pit?' Set out your message, and we will consider it."

"Nay, I am but a common man without authority; but I am charged to make you another offer, and if you will not hear it then there is an end. Let Hokosa advance alone to that flat rock you see yonder, and there he shall be met, also alone, by one having power to talk with him, namely, by the Lady Noma, who was once his wife. Thus they can confer together midway between the camps and in full sight of both of them, nor, no man being near, can he find cause to be afraid of an unarmed girl. What say you?"

Hokosa turned and talked with the king.

"I think it well that you should not go," said Nodwengo. "The offer seems fair, and the stone is out of reach of their spears; still, behind it may lurk a scheme to kill or capture you, for Hafela is very cunning."

"It may be so, King," answered Hokosa; "still, my heart tells me it is wisest that I should do this thing, for our case is desperate, and if I do it not, that may be the cause of the death of all of us to-morrow. At the worst, I am but one man, and it matters little what may chance to me; nor shall I come to any harm unless it is the will of Heaven that it should be so; and be sure of this, that out of the harm will arise good, for where I go there the spirit of the Messenger goes with me. Remember that he bade you listen to my counsel while I remain with you, seeing that I do not speak of my own wisdom. Therefore let me go, and if it should chance that I am taken, trouble not about the matter, for thus it will be fated to some great end. Above all, though often enough I have been a traitor in the past, do not dream that I betray you, keeping in mind that so to do would be to betray my own soul, which very soon must render its account on high."

"As you will, Hokosa," answered the king. "And now tell those rebel dogs that on these terms only will I make peace with them—that they withdraw across the mountains by the path which their women and children have taken, leaving this land for ever without lifting another spear against us. If they will do this, notwithstanding all the wickedness and slaughter that they have worked, I will send command to my impi to let them go unharmed. If they will not do this, I put my trust in the God I worship and will fight this fray out to the end, knowing that if I and my people perish, they shall perish also."

Now Nodwengo himself spoke to the herald who was waiting beyond the wall.

"Go back to him you serve," he said, "and say that Hokosa will meet her who was his wife upon the flat stone and talk with her in the sight of both armies, bearing my word with him. At the sound of the blowing of a horn shall each of them advance unarmed and alone from either camp. Say to my brother also that it will indeed be ill for him if he attempts treachery upon Hokosa, for the man who causes his blood to flow will surely die, and after death shall be accursed for ever."

The herald went, and presently a horn was blown.

"Now it comes into my mind that we part for the last time," said Nodwengo in a troubled voice as he took the hand of Hokosa.

"It may be so, King; in my heart I think that it is so; yet I do not altogether grieve thereat, for the burden of my past sins crushes me, and I am weary and seek for rest. Yet we do not part for the last time, because whatever chances, in the end I shall make my report to you yonder"—and he pointed upwards. "Reign on for long years, King—reign well and wisely, clinging to the Faith, for thus at the last shall you reap your reward. Farewell!"

Now again the horn blew, and in the bright moonlight the slight figure of Noma could be seen advancing towards the stone.

Then Hokosa sprang from the wall and advanced also, till at the same moment they climbed upon the stone.

"Greeting, Hokosa," said Noma, and she stretched out her hand to him.

By way of answer he placed his own behind his back, saying: "To your business, woman." Yet his eyes searched her face—the face which in his folly he still loved; and thus it came about that he never saw sundry of the dead bodies, which lay in the shadow of the stone, begin to quicken into life, and inch by inch to arise, first to their knees and next to their feet. He never saw or heard them, yet, as the words left his lips, they sprang upon him from every side, holding him so that he could not move.

"Away with him!" cried Noma with a laugh of triumph; and at her command he was half-dragged and half-carried across the open space and thrust violently over a stone wall into the camp of Hafela.

Now Nodwengo and his soldiers saw what had happened, and with a shout of "Treachery!" some hundreds of them leapt into the plain and began to run towards the koppie to rescue their envoy.

Hokosa heard the shout, and wrenching himself round, beheld them.

"Back!" he cried in a clear, shrill voice. "Back! children of Nodwengo, and leave me to my fate, for the foe waits for you by thousands behind the wall!"

A soldier struck him across the mouth, bidding him be silent; but his warning had come to the ears of Nodwengo, causing him and his warriors to halt and begin a retreat. It was well that they did so, for seeing that they would not come on, from under the shelter of the wall and of every rock and stone soldiers jumped up by companies and charged, driving them back to their own schanse. But the king's men had the start of them, and had taken shelter behind it, whence they greeted them with a volley of spears, killing ten and wounding twice as many more.

Now it was Hokosa's turn to laugh, and laugh he did, saying:—

"My taking is well paid for already, Prince. A score of your best warriors is a heavy price to give for the carcase of one weary and aging man. But since I am here among you, captured with so much pain and loss, tell me of your courtesy why I have been brought."


Illustration

The taking of Hokosa.


Then the prince shook his spear at him and cursed him.

"Would you learn, wizard and traitor?" he cried. "We have caught you because we know well that while you stay yonder your magic counsel will prevail against our might; whereas, when once we hold you fast, Nodwengo will wander to his ruin like a blind and moonstruck man, for you were to him both eyes and brain."

"I understand," said Hokosa calmly. "But, Prince, how if I left my wisdom behind me?"

"That may not be," answered Hafela, "since even a wizard cannot throw his thoughts into the heart of another from afar."

"Ah! you think so, Prince. Well, ask Noma yonder if I cannot throw my thoughts into her heart from afar: though of late I have not chosen to do so, having put aside such spells. But let it pass, and tell me, having taken me, what is it you propose to do with me? First, however, I will give you for nothing some of that wisdom which you grudge to Nodwengo the king. Be advised by me, Prince, and take the terms that he offers to you—namely, to turn this very night and begone from the land without harm or hindrance. Will you receive my gift, Hafela?"

"What will happen if I refuse it?" asked the prince slowly.

Now Hokosa looked at the dust at his feet, then he gazed upwards searching the heavens, and answered:—

"Did not I tell you yesterday? I think that this will happen. I think—but who can be quite sure of the future, Hafela?—that you and the most of your army by this hour to-morrow night will be lying fast asleep about this place, with jackals for your bedfellows."

The prince heard and trembled at his words, for he believed that if he willed it, Hokosa could prophesy the truth.

"Accursed dog!" he said. "I am minded to be guided by your saying; but be sure of this, that if I follow it, you shall stay here to sleep with jackals, yes, this very night."

Then Noma broke in.

"Be not mad, Hafela!" she said. "Will you listen to the lies that this renegade tells to work upon your fears? Will you abandon victory when it lies within your grasp, and in place of a great king become a fugitive whom all men mock at, an outcast to be hunted down at leisure by that brother against whom you dared to rebel, but on whom you did not dare to shut your hand when he lay in its hollow? Silence the tongue of this captive rogue for ever and become a man again, with the heart of a man."

"Now," said Hokosa gently; "many would find it hard to believe that I reared this woman from childhood, nursing her with my own hands when she was sick and giving her of the best I had; that afterwards, when you stole her from me, Prince, I sinned deeply to win her back. That I married her and sinned yet more deeply to give her the greatness she desired; and at last, of my own will, I loosed the bonds by which I held her, although I could not thrust her memory from my heart. Yet I have earned it all, for I made her the tool of my witchcraft, and therefore it is just that she should turn and rend me. Well, if you like it, take her counsel, Prince, and let mine go, for I care nothing which you take; only, forgive me if I prophesy once more and for the last time—I am sure that Nodwengo yonder spoke truth when he bade your herald tell me that he who causes my blood to flow shall surely die and for it be called to a strict account. Prince, I am a Christian now, and believe me, whatever you may do, I seek no revenge upon you; having been myself forgiven so much, in my turn I have learned to forgive. Yet it may be ill for that man who causes my blood to flow."

"Let him be strangled," said a captain who stood near by, "and then there will be no blood in the matter."

"Friend," answered Hokosa, "you should have been not a soldier but a pleader of causes. True it is then that the prince will only cause my life to fly, but whether that is a smaller sin I leave you to judge."

"Keep him prisoner," said another, "till we learn how these matters end."

"Nay," answered Hafela, "for then he will surely outwit us and escape. Noma, what shall we do with this man who was your husband? Tell us, for you should know best how to deal with him."

"Let me think," she answered, and she looked first at the ground beneath her, next around her, then upwards toward the skies.

Now they stood at the foot of the koppie, on the flat top of which grew the great Tree of Doom, that for generations had served the People of Fire as a place of execution of their criminals, or of those who fell under the ban of the king or of the witch-doctors. Among and above the finger-like fronds of this strange and dreadful-looking tree towered that white dead limb shaped like a cross, which Owen had pointed out to his disciple John, taking it to be a sign and a promise. This cross stood out clear against the sinking moon. It caught Noma's eye, and a devilish thought entered into her heart.

"You would keep this fellow alive?" she said, "and yet you would not suffer him to escape. See, there above you is a cross such as he worships. Bind him to it as he says the Man whom he worships was bound, and let that dead Man help him if he may."

The prince and those about Noma shrank back a little in horror. They were cruel men rendered more cruel by their superstitious fear of one whom they believed to be uncanny; one to whom they attributed inhuman powers which he was exercising to their destruction, but still this doom seemed dreadful to them. Noma read their minds and went on passionately:—

"You deem me unmerciful, but you do not know what I have suffered at this wizard's hands. For his sake and because of him I am haunted. For his own purposes he opened the gates of Distance, he sent me down among the dwellers in Death, causing me to interpret their words for him. I did so, but the dwellers came back out of Death with me, and from that hour they have not left me, nor will they ever leave me; for night by night they sojourn at my side, tormenting me with terrors. He has told me that through my mouth that spirit whom he drew into my body prophesied that he should be 'lifted up above the people.' Let the prophecy be fulfilled, let him be lifted up, for then perchance the ghosts will depart from me and I shall win peace and sleep. Also, thus alone can you hold him safe and yet shed no blood."

"Be it so," said the prince. "When we plotted together of the death of the king, and as your price, Hokosa, you bargained for the girl whom I had chosen to wife, did I not warn you that this witch of many spells, who holds both our hearts in her little hands, should yet hound you to death and mock you while you perished by an end of shame? What did I tell you, Hokosa?"

Now when he heard his fate, Hokosa bowed his head and trembled a little. Then he lifted it, and exclaimed in a clear voice:—

"It is true, Prince, but I will add to your words. She shall bring both of us to death. For me, I am honoured indeed in that there has been allotted to me that same end which my Master chose. To that cross let my sins be fastened and with them my body."

Now the moon sank, but in the darkness men were found who dared to climb the tree, taking with them strips of raw hide. They reached the top of it, four of them, and seating themselves upon the arms of the cross, they let down a rope, the noose of which was placed about the body of Hokosa. As it tightened upon him, he turned his calm and dreadful eyes on to the eyes of Noma and said to her:—

"Woman, I do not reproach you; but I lay this fate upon you, that you shall watch me die. Thereafter, let God deal with you as He may choose."

Now, when she heard these words Noma shrieked aloud, for of a sudden she felt that the power of the will of Hokosa, from which she had been freed by him, had once more fallen upon her, and that come what might she was doomed to obey his last commands.


Illustration

Hokosa is lifted up.


Little by little the soldiers drew him up and in the darkness they bound him fast there upon the lofty cross. Then they descended and left him, and would have led Noma with them from the tree. But this they could not do, for always she broke from them screaming, and fled back to its shadow.

Then, seeing that she was bewitched, Hafela commanded that they should bind a cloth about her mouth and leave her there till her senses returned to her in the sunlight—for none of them dared to stop with her in the shadow of that tree, since the odours of it were poisonous to man. Also they believed the place to be haunted by evil spirits.


CHAPTER 22
The Victory Of The Cross

THE sun rose suddenly over the edge of the cliffs, and while it was yet deep shadow in the valley, its red light struck upon the white cross of perished wood that towered above the Tree of Doom and on the black shape of Hokosa crucified to it living. The camp of the king saw and understood, and from every throat of the thousands of men, women and children gathered there, went up a roar of rage and horror. The king lifted his hand, and silence fell upon the place; then he mounted on the wall and cried aloud: -

"Do you yet live, Hokosa, or is it your body only that those traitors have fastened to the tree?"

Back came the answer through the clear still air:—

"I live, O King!"

"Endure then a little while," called Nodwengo, "and we will storm the tree and save you."

"Nay," answered Hokosa, "you cannot save me; yet before I die I shall see you saved."

Then his words were lost in tumult, for the third day's fighting began. Desperately the regiments of Hafela rushing across the open space, hurled themselves upon the fortifications, which, during the night, had been strengthened by the building of two inner walls. Nor was this all, for suddenly a cry told those in front that the regiment which Hafela had despatched across the mountains had travelled up the eastern neck of the valley, and were attacking the position in their rear. Well was it for Nodwengo now that he had listened to the counsel of Hokosa, and, wearied as his soldiers were, had commanded that here also a great wall should be built.

For two hours the fight raged, and then on either side the foe fell back, not beaten indeed, though their dead were many, but to rest and take counsel. But now a new trouble arose: from all the camp of Nodwengo there went up a moan of pain to Heaven, for since the evening of yesterday the spring had given out, and they had found no water wherewith to wet their lips. During the night they bore it; but now the sun beating down on the black rocks with fearful force scorched them to the marrow, till they began to wither like fallen leaves, and already wounded men and children died, while the warriors cut the throats of oxen and drank their blood.

Hokosa hanging on his cross heard this moaning and divined its cause.

"Be of good comfort, children of Nodwengo," he cried; "for I will pray that rain be sent upon you." And he lifted his head and prayed.

Now, whether it was by chance or whether his prayer was heard, who can say? At least it happened that immediately thereafter clouds began to gather and to thicken in the blue of Heaven, and within two hours rain fell in torrents, so that every one could drink his fill, and the spring being replenished at its sources, flowed again strongly.

After the rain came cold and moaning winds, and after the wind a great gloom and thunder.

Now, taking advantage of the shadow, the regiments of Hafela renewed their attack, and this time they carried the first of the three walls, for its defenders grew feeble and few in number. There they paused a while, and save for the cries of the wounded and of frightened women, the silence was great.

"Let your hearts be filled up!" cried the voice of Hokosa through the silence; "for the sunlight shines upon the plain of the Great Place yonder, and in it I see the sheen of spears. The impi travels to your aid, O children of Nodwengo."

Now, at this tidings the people of the king shouted for joy; but Hafela called to his regiments to make an end of them, and they hurled themselves upon the second wall, fighting desperately. Again and again they were beaten back, and again and again they came on, till at length they carried this wall also, driving its defenders, or those who remained alive of them, into the third entrenchment, and paused to rest awhile.

"Pray for us, O Prophet who are set on high!" cried a voice from the camp, "for if succour do not reach us speedily, we are sped."

Before the echoes of the voice had died away, a flash of lightning flared through the gloom, and in the light of it Hokosa saw that the king's impi was rushing up the gorge.

"Fight on! Fight on!" he called in answer. "I have prayed to Heaven, and your succour is at hand."

Then, with a howl of rage, Hafela's regiments hurled themselves upon the third and last entrenchment, attacking it at once in front and rear. Twice they nearly carried it, but each time the wild scream of Hokosa on high was heard above the din, conjuring its defenders to fight on and fear not, for Heaven had sent them help. They fought as men have seldom fought before, and with them fought the women and even the children. They were few and the foe was still many, but they listened to the urging of him whom they believed to be inspired in his death-agony upon the cross above them, and still they held their own. Twice portions of the wall were torn down, but they filled the breach with the corpses of the dead, ay! and with the bodies of the living, for the wounded, the old men and the very women piled themselves there in the place of stones. No such fray was told of in the annals of the People of Fire as this, the last stand of Nodwengo against the thousands of Hafela. Now all the shouting had died away, for men had no breath left wherewith to shout, only from the gloomy place of battle came low groans and the deep sobbing sighs of warriors gripped in the death-hug.

"Fight on! Fight on!" shrilled the voice of Hokosa on high. "Lo! the skies are open to my dying sight, and I see the impis of Heaven sweeping to succour you. Behold!"

They dashed the sweat from their eyes and looked forth, and as they looked, the pall of gloom was lifted, and in the golden glow of many-shafted light, they saw, not the legions of Heaven indeed, but the regiments of Nodwengo rushing round the bend of the valley, as dogs rush upon a scent, with heads held low and spears outstretched.

Hafela saw them also.

"Back to the koppie," he cried, "there to die like men, for the wizardries of Hokosa have been too strong for us, and lost is this my last battle and the crown I came to seek!"

They obeyed, and all that were left of them, some ten thousand men, they ran to the koppie and formed themselves upon it, ring above ring, and here the soldiers of Nodwengo closed in upon them.

Again and for the last time the voice of Hokosa rang out above the fray.

"Nodwengo," he cried, "with my passing breath I charge you have mercy and spare these men, so many of them as will surrender. The day of bloodshed has gone by, the fray is finished, the Cross has conquered. Let there be peace in the land."

All men heard him, for his piercing scream, echoed from the precipices, came to the ears of each. All men heard him, and, even in that fierce hour of vengeance, all obeyed. The spear that was poised was not thrown, and the kerry lifted over the fallen did not descend to dash away his life.

"Hearken, Hafela!" called the king, stepping forward from the ranks of the attackers. "He whom you have set on high to bring defeat upon you charges me to give you peace, and in the name of the conquering Cross I give peace. All who surrender shall dwell henceforth in my shadow, nor shall the head or the heel of one of them be harmed, although their sin is great. One life only will I take, the life of that witch who brought your armies down upon me to burn my town and slay my people by thousands, and who but last night betrayed Hokosa to his death of torment. All shall go free, I say, save the witch; and for you, you shall be given cattle and such servants as will cling to you to the number of a hundred, and driven from the land. Now, what say you? Will you yield or be slain? Swift with your answer; for the sun sinks, and ere it is set there must be an end in this way or in that."

The regiments of Hafela heard, and shouted in answer as with one voice:—

"We take your mercy, King! We fought bravely while we could, and now we take your mercy, King!"

"What say you, Hafela?" repeated Nodwengo, addressing the prince, who stood upon a point of rock above him in full sight of both armies.

Hafela turned and looked at Hokosa hanging high in mid-air.

"What say I?" he answered in a slow and quiet voice. "I say that the Cross and its Prophet have been too strong for me, and that I should have done well to follow the one and to listen to the counsel of the other. My brother, you tell me that I may go free, taking servants with me. I thank you and I will go—alone."

And setting the handle of his spear upon the rock, with a sudden movement he fell forward, transfixing his heart with its broad blade, and lay still.

"At least he died like one of the blood-royal of the Sons of Fire!" cried Nodwengo, while the armies stood silent and awestruck, "and with the blood-royal he shall be buried. Lay down your arms, you who followed him and fought for him, fearing nothing, and give over to me the witch that she may be slain."

"She hides under the tree yonder!" cried a voice.

"Go up and take her," said Nodwengo to some of his captains.

Now Noma, crouched on the ground beneath the tree, had seen and heard all that passed. Perceiving the captains making their way towards her through the lines of the soldiers, who opened out a path for them, she rose and for a moment stood bewildered. Then, as though drawn by some strange attraction, she turned, and seizing hold of the creeper that clung about it, she began to climb the Tree of Doom swiftly. Up she went while all men watched, higher and higher yet, till passing out of the finger-like foliage she reached the cross of dead wood whereto Hokosa hung, and placing her feet upon one arm of it, stood there, supporting herself by the broken top of the upright.

Hokosa was not yet dead, though he was very near to death. Lifting his glazing eyes, he knew her and said, speaking thickly: -

"What do you here, Noma, and wherefore have you come?"

"I come because you draw me," she answered, "and because they seek my life below."

"Repent, repent!" he whispered, "there is yet time and Heaven is very merciful."

She heard, and a fury seized her.

"Be silent, dog!" she cried. "Having defied your God so long, shall I grovel to Him at the last? Having hated you so much, shall I seek your forgiveness now? At least of one thing I am glad—it was I who brought you here, and with me and through me you shall die."

Then, placing one foot upon his bent head as if in scorn, she leaned forward, her long hair flying to the wind, and cursed Nodwengo and his people, naming them renegades and apostates, and cursed the soldiers of Hafela, naming them cowards, calling down upon them the malison of their ancestors.

Hokosa heard and muttered:—

"For your soul's sake, woman, repent! repent, ere it be too late!"

"Repent!" she screamed, catching at his words. "Thus do I repent!" and drawing the knife from her girdle, she leant over him and drove it hilt-deep into his breast.

Then with a sudden movement she sprang upwards and outwards into the air, and rushing down through a hundred feet of space, was struck dead upon that very rock where the corpse of Hafela lay.

Now, beneath the agony of the life Hokosa lifted his head for the last time, crying in a great voice:—

"Messenger, I come, be you my guide," and with the words his soul passed.

"All is over and ended," said a voice. "Soldiers, salute the king with the royal salute."

"Nay," answered Nodwengo. "Salute me not, salute the Cross and him who hangs thereon."

So, while the rays of the setting sun shone about it, regiment by regiment that great army rushed past the koppie, and pausing opposite to the cross and its burden, they rendered to it the royal salute of kings.


Then the night fell, and thus through the power of Faith that now, as of old, is the only true and efficient magic, was accomplished the mission to the Sons of Fire of the Saint and Martyr, Thomas Owen, and of his murderer and disciple, the Wizard Hokosa.


THE END


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