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- The People Of The Mist - 50/80 -


leaned her head back and slept, or made pretence to sleep.

The day passed uneventfully. Olfan visited them as usual, and told them that the excitement grew in the city. Indeed the unprecedented prolongation of the cold weather was driving the people into a state of superstitious fury that must soon express itself in violence of one form or another, and the priests were doing everything in their power to foment the trouble. No immediate danger was to be apprehended, however.

After sundown Leonard and Francisco went out into the courtyard to inspect the weather according to their custom. There was no sign of a change; the wind blew as bitterly as ever from the mountains, the sky was ashen, and the stars seemed far off and cold.

"Will it never break?" said Leonard with a sigh, and re-entered the palace, followed by Francisco.

Then, having solemnly cautioned Otter to keep a strict guard over Soa, they wrapped themselves up in their blankets in order to get some rest, which both of them needed sadly. Juanna had retired already, laying herself to sleep immediately on the other side of the curtain, for she feared to be alone; indeed they could see the tips of her fingers appearing beneath the bottom of the curtain.

Very soon they were asleep, for even terror must yield at last to the necessities of rest, and a dense silence reigned over the palace, broken only by the tramp of the sentries without.

Once Leonard opened his eyes, hearing something move, and instantly stretched out his hand to assure himself of Juanna's safety. She was there, for in her sleep her fingers closed instinctively upon his own. Then he turned round and saw what had disturbed him. In the doorway of the chamber stood the bride of the Snake, Saga, a lighted torch in one hand and a gourd in the other, and very picturesque that handsome young woman looked with her noble figure illumined by the glare of the torchlight.

"What is the matter?" said Leonard.

"It is all right, Baas," answered Otter; "the old woman here is as safe as a stone statue yonder and quite as quiet. Saga brings me some water, that is all. I bade her do so because of the fire that rages inside me and the pain in my head. Fear not, Baas, I do not drink beer when I am on guard."

"Beer or water, I wish you would keep your wife at a distance," answered Leonard; "come, tell her to be off."

Then he looked at his watch, the hands of which he could just distinguish by the distant glare of the torch, and went to sleep again. This took place at ten minutes past eleven. When he awoke again dawn was breaking and Otter was calling to him in a loud, hoarse voice.

"Baas," he said, "come here, Baas."

Leonard jumped up and ran to him, to find the dwarf on his feet and staring vacantly at the wall against which Soa had been sitting. She was gone, but there on the floor lay the ropes with which she had been tied.

Leonard sprang at Otter and seized him by the shoulders.

"Wretched man!" he cried, "you have been sleeping, and now she has escaped and we are lost."

"Yes, Baas, I have been sleeping. Kill me if you wish, for I deserve it. And yet, Baas, never was I more wide-awake in my life until I drank that water. I am not wont to sleep on guard, Baas."

"Otter," said Leonard, "that wife of yours has drugged you."

"It may be so, Baas. At least the woman has gone, and, say, whither has she gone?"

"To Nam, her father," answered Leonard.

CHAPTER XXVII

FATHER AND DAUGHTER

While Leonard and Otter spoke thus in their amazement, had they but known it, a still more interesting conversation was being carried on some three hundred yards away. Its scene was a secret chamber hollowed in the thickness of the temple wall, and the /dramatis personae/ consisted of Nam, the high priest, Soa, Juanna's servant, and Saga, wife of the Snake.

Nam was an early riser, perhaps because his conscience would not allow him to sleep, or because on this occasion he had business of importance to attend to. At any rate, on the morning in question, long before the break of dawn, he was seated in his little room alone, musing; and indeed his thoughts gave him much food for reflection. As has been said, he was a very aged man, and whatever may have been his faults, at least he was earnestly desirous of carrying on the worship of the gods according to the strict letter of the customs which had descended to him from his forefathers, and which he himself had followed all his life. In truth, from long consideration of them, their attributes, and the traditions concerning them, Nam had come to believe in the actual existence of these gods, although the belief was a qualified one and somewhat half-hearted. Or, to put it less strongly, he had never allowed his mind to entertain active doubt of the spiritual beings whose earthly worship was so powerful a factor in his own material rule and prosperity, and in that of his class. In its issues this half-faith of his had been sufficiently real to induce him to accept Otter and Juanna when they arrived mysteriously in the land.

It had been prophesied that they should arrive thus--that was a fact; and their outward appearance exactly fitted every detail of the prophecy--that was another fact; and these two facts together seemed to point to a conclusion so irresistible that, shrewd and experienced as he was, Nam, was unable to set it down to mere coincidence. Therefore in the first rush of his religious enthusiasm he had accorded a hearty welcome to the incarnations of the divinities whom for some eighty years he had worshipped as powers spiritual.

But though pious zeal had much to do with this action, as Olfan informed Juanna, it was not devoid of worldly motives. He desired the glory of being the discoverer of the gods, he desired also the consolidation of the rule which his cruelties had shaken, that must result from their advent.

All this was well enough, but he had never even dreamed that the first step of these new-born divinities would be to discard the ancient ceremonial without which his office would become a sinecure and his power a myth, and even to declare an active hostility against himself.

Were they or were they not gods? This was the question that exercised his mind. If there was truth in prophesies they should be gods. On the other hand he could discover nothing particularly divine about their persons, characters, or attributes--that is to say, nothing sufficiently divine to deceive Nam himself, whatever impression they produced upon the vulgar. Thus Juanna might be no more than a very beautiful woman white in colour, and Otter only what he knew him to be through his spies, a somewhat dissolute dwarf.

That they had no great power was also evident, seeing that he, Nam, without incurring the heavenly vengeance, had been able to abstract, and afterwards to sacrifice comfortably, the greater number of their servants. Another thing which pleaded against their celestial origin was that so far, instead of peace and prosperity blessing the land as it should have done immediately on their arrival, the present season was proving itself the worst on record, and the country was face to face with a prospect of famine in the ensuing winter.

And yet, if they were not gods, who were they? Would any human beings in their senses venture among such people as the Children of the Mist, merely to play off a huge practical joke of which the finale was likely to be so serious to themselves? The idea was preposterous, since they had nothing to gain by so doing, for Nam, it may be observed, was ignorant of the value of rubies, which to him were only emblems employed in their symbolical ceremonies. Think as he would, he could come to no definite conclusion. One thing was clear, however, that it was now very much to his interest to demonstrate their non- celestial origin, though to do so would be to stultify himself and to prove that his judgment was not infallible. Otherwise, did the "gods" succeed in establishing their power, he and his authority seemed likely to come to a sudden end in the jaws of that monster, which his order had fostered for so many generations.

Thus reflected Nam in perplexity of soul, wishing to himself the while that he had retired from his office before he was called upon to face questions so difficult and so dangerous.

"I must be patient," he muttered to himself at last; "time will show the truth, or, if the weather does not change, the people will settle the matter for me."

As it chanced he had not long to wait, for just then there was a knock upon his door.

"Enter," he said, arranging his goat-skin robe about his broad shoulders.

A priest came in bearing a torch, for there was no window to the chamber, and after him two women.

"Who is this?" said Nam, pointing to the second of the women.

"This is she who is servant to Aca, Father," answered the priest.

"How comes she here?" said Nam again. "I gave no orders that she should be taken."

"She comes of her own free will, Father, having somewhat to say to you."

"Fool, how can she speak to me when she does not know our tongue? But of her presently; take her aside and watch her. Now, Saga, your report. First, what of the weather?"

"It is grey and pitiless, father. The mist is dense and no sun can be seen."

"I thought it, because of the cold," and he drew his robe closer round him. "A few more days of this----" and he stopped, then went on. "Tell me of Jal, your lord."


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