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- The People Of The Mist - 40/80 -
"Hush!" said Leonard, "I hear footsteps! On to your throne, Otter! Quick, Juanna! stand by his side; we will kneel!"
They had barely time to obey when the curtains were drawn, and a priest entered, holding a vessel of wood covered with a cloth. Slowly he crept towards the throne, with his head bent almost to his knees; then, straightening himself suddenly, he lifted up the wooden vessel and cried aloud:
"We bring you food, O Snake. Eat and be satisfied."
Otter took the dish, and, lifting the cloth, gazed upon its contents hungrily, but with an ever-growing dissatisfaction.
"Son of a dog!" he cried in his own tongue, "is this food to set before a man?" And he held the platter downwards, exposing its contents.
They were simple, consisting of various sorts of vegetables and watercress--poor in quality, for the season was winter, and all of them uncooked. In the centre of this fodder--whether placed there in obedience to some religious tradition or by way of ornament, or perhaps to assist the digestive process of the god, as a tenpenny nail is said to assist that of an ostrich--was a fine ruby stone; not so big, indeed, as that which Soa had given to Leonard, but still of considerable size and value. Leonard saw it with delight, but not so the dwarf, the selfish promptings of whose stomach caused him to forget that his master had journeyed far to seek such gems as this. In the fury of his disappointed appetite he stood upon the footstool of the throne, and, seizing the ruby, he hurled it at the priest, hitting him fair between the eyes.
"Am I an eel?" he roared, "that I should live on water-grass, and red gravel?"
Then the priest, terrified at the behaviour of this strange divinity, picked up the offending gem--to the presence of which he attributed his anger--and fled, never looking behind him.
Juanna and Francisco were seized with uncontrollable laughter, while even Soa deigned to smile. But Leonard did not smile.
"Oh, you last descendant of generations of asses!" he said bitterly. "You ass with four ears and a tenfold bray! What have you done? You have hurled the precious stone at the head of him who brought it, and now he will bring no more. Had it not been for you, doubtless with every meal such stones would have been offered to you, and though you grew thin we should all of us have become rich, and that without trouble, tricks, or violence."
"Forgive me, Baas," lamented Otter, "but my rage took away my reason, and I forgot. See now what it is to be a god. It is to be fed upon stuff such as would gripe an ox. Oh, Baas, I would that these wild men had made you a god and left me your servant!" And again he gazed with disgust upon the watercress and rows of leathery vegetables resembling turnips.
"You had better eat them, Otter," said Juanna, who was still choking with laughter. "If you don't you may get nothing more for days. Evidently you are supposed to have a small appetite."
Then, driven to it by his ravening hunger, the wretched Otter fell upon the turnips and munched them sullenly, Leonard rating him all the while for his unequalled stupidity.
Scarcely had he finished his meal when there was a stir without, and once again priests entered, headed on this occasion by that same aged man who had acted as a spokesman when Juanna declared herself on the previous day, and who, as they had discovered, was named Nam. In fact he had many other and much longer names, but as this was the shortest ad most convenient of them, they adopted it.
It chanced that Leonard was standing by Soa, and when this priest entered, whom she now saw face to face for the first time, he noticed that she started, trembled, and then drew back into the shadow of the throne.
"Some friend of the old lady's youth," thought Leonard to himself. "I hope he won't recognise her, that is all."
Nam bent himself in adoration before the gods, then began an address, the substance of which Juanna translated from time to time. Bitterly did he grieve, he said, that such an insult had been offered to the Snake as the presenting to him among his food of the red stone, known as the Blood of Aca. That man who had done this folly was doomed to die, if, indeed, he were not already dead. Well could they understand that, the Mother and Snake having become reconciled, the proffering to Jal of that which reminded him of the sin of long ago was a wickedness that might bring a curse upon the land. Let the Snake be appeased. Command had been given that all such stones should be hidden in a secret place by him who had wrought the crime, and, as he had said, if the man returned alive from that place he should be slain. But he would not return alive, for to go thither was death, as it should be death henceforth even to mention that stone, of which but one should now be seen in the land, that which the Mother wore in memory of the past.
"O Otter, my friend," murmured Leonard to himself, "if I don't make you pay for this, my name is not Outram!"
But enough of the stones, went on Nam; he had come upon a more important matter. That night an assembly of all the tribe would be held in the great temple an hour before moonrise, that the Mother and the Snake might take up their royalty in the presence of the people. Thither they would come to lead them and their servants at the appointed time. Was this pleasing to the gods?
Juanna bent her head in assent, and the priest turned to go with many obeisances; but before he went he spoke again, asking if all things were as the gods desired.
"Not altogether, my servant," answered Juanna. "It is our will that these, our other servants, should have free access to us at all times and without question. Also, it is our will that their food should be brought to them with our food. Moreover, it is the desire of the Snake that no more grass should be given to him to eat; for now, in these latter days, having put on the flesh of men, he needs that which will support the flesh. One thing more, my servant; the Snake forgives the affront that was offered him, and I command that some of the greatest of the holy stones should be brought to me, that I may look on the blood which I shed so long ago."
"Alas! it may not be, Mother," answered the priest in tones of sorrow. "All the stones, both red and blue, have been placed in bags of hide and cast into that place whence they can be brought no more, together with him who offended. Nor can others be gathered at this season of the year, seeing that deep snow covers the place where they lie buried. In the summer, when the sun has melted the snow, more can be found, if your eyes still desire the sight of them."
Juanna made no reply, and the priest went.
"Here is a pretty business," said Leonard. "That idiot Otter has upset everything. We might have become millionaires for the asking, and now we must wait for months before we so much as get sight of a ruby or a sapphire."
Nobody answered. Indeed, the whole party were plunged into consternation at the fatal effects of this accident. As for Otter himself, when he understood fully what he had done, he almost wept for grief.
"Who could have known, Baas?" he groaned. "It was the sight of the green food that bewitched me, who have always hated the taste of grass. And now my folly has undone all, and it seems that I must be a god for many months, if, indeed, they do not find me out."
"Never mind, Otter," said Leonard, moved to pity by the dwarf's genuine grief. "You have lost the stones and you will have to find them again somehow. By the way, Soa, why did you start so when the old priest came in?"
"Because he is my father, Deliverer," she answered.
Leonard whistled; here was a new complication. What if Nam should recognise her?
THE TEMPLE OF JAL
In considerable agitation of mind Leonard bid good-bye to Juanna, promising to return soon, and went to visit the Settlement men, whom he had not seen since the previous evening.
He found them in good case enough, so far as their material comfort was concerned, for they were well supplied with food and warmly lodged. So much could not be said, however, of their mental state, for they were terrified by the multitude of solemn priests and warriors who watched them as cats watch mice. Crouching round him dejectedly they implored Leonard not to leave them, saying that they expected to be murdered every minute. He pacified them as well as he could and left them with the assurance that he would return presently, having first reminded them that the lives of all depended upon the maintenance of the delusion as to the divinity of Otter and the Shepherdess.
The remainder of that day passed heavily enough. After the first excitement of their strange position had gone by a reaction set in, and everybody was much depressed. As the hours drew on, the mist, which had lifted a little about ten o'clock, closed in very densely, throwing the ill-lighted chamber where they sat into a deep gloom. In such an atmosphere conversation languished; indeed, at times it died altogether, and the only sound to be heard was that of the monotonous voices of the priests without the curtains, as they muttered prayers unceasingly. At length Leonard could bear it no longer, but rose, declaring that he was going out to see whatever might be seen. Juanna tried faintly to dissuade him, and Otter wished to come too, which was impossible. The end of it was that he went alone.
First he revisited the Settlement men and tried to cheer them, and sadly did they need cheering. Then he passed to the great gates of the palace yard and looked through them. The mist had lifted a little, and about a hundred paces away he could perceive the doors of the temple, on either side of which rose Cyclopean walls fifty feet or more in height. It was obvious that here preparations for some ceremony were in progress, and on a large scale, for immense crowds of people were
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