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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe People Of The Mist - Chapter XXIV - OLFAN TELLS OF THE RUBIES
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The People Of The Mist - Chapter XXIV - OLFAN TELLS OF THE RUBIES Post by :rayzbiz.com Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :March 2011 Read :797

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The People Of The Mist - Chapter XXIV - OLFAN TELLS OF THE RUBIES

It was at this juncture that Francisco recovered his senses. "Oh!" he
gasped, opening his eyes and sitting up, "is it done, and am I dead?"

"No, no, you are alive and safe," answered Leonard. "Stay where you
are and don't look over the edge, or you will faint again. Here, take
my hand. Now, you brute," and he made energetic motions to the
surviving priest, indicating that he must lead them back along the
path by which they had come, at the same time tapping his rifle
significantly.

The man understood and started down the darksome tunnel as though he
were glad to go, Leonard holding his robe with one hand, while with
the other he pressed the muzzle of the loaded rifle against the back
of his neck. Francisco followed, leaning on Leonard's shoulder, for he
could not walk alone.

As they had come so they returned. They passed down the steps of stone
which were hollowed in the body of the colossus; they traversed the
long underground tunnel, and at length, to their intense relief, once
more they stood upon the solid ground and in the open air. Now that
the moon was up, and the mist which had darkened the night had melted,
they could see their whereabouts. They had emerged upon a platform of
rock within a bowshot of the great gates of the palace, from whence
the secret subterranean passage used by the priests was gained, its
opening being hidden cunningly among the stone-work of the temple.

"I wonder where the others are," asked Leonard anxiously of Francisco.

As he spoke, Juanna, wrapped in her dark cloak, appeared, apparently
out of the stones of the wall, and with her Otter, the Settlement men
bearing their dead companion, and a considerable company of priests,
among whom, however, Nam was not to be seen.

"Oh, is that you, Leonard?" said Juanna in English, and in a voice
broken with fear. "Thank Heaven that you are safe!"

"Thank Heaven that we are all safe," he answered. "Come, let us get
on. No, we can walk, thank you," and he waved away the priests, who
produced the litters from where they had hidden them under the wall.

The men fell back and they walked on. At the gate of the palace a
welcome sight met their eyes, for here stood Olfan, and with him at
least a hundred captains and soldiers, who lifted their spears in
salute as they advanced.

"Olfan, hear our bidding," said Juanna. "Suffer no priest of the Snake
to enter the palace gates. We give you command over them, even to
death. Set guards at every doorway and come with us."

The ex-king bowed and issued some orders, in obedience to which the
sullen priests fell back murmuring. Then they all passed the gates,
crossed the courtyard, and presently stood in the torch-lit throne-
room, where Juanna had slept on the previous night. Here food had been
prepared for them by Soa, who looked at them curiously, especially at
Leonard and Francisco, as though, indeed, she had never expected to
see them again.

"Hearken, Olfan," said Juanna, "we have saved your life to-night and
you have sworn fealty to us; is it not so?"

"It is so, Queen," the warrior answered. "And I will be faithful to my
oath. This heart, that but for you had now been cold, beats for you
alone. The life you gave back to me is yours, and for you I live and
die."

As he spoke he glanced at her with an expression in which, as it
seemed to Juanna, human feeling was mixed with supernatural awe. Was
it possible, she wondered with a thrill of fear, that this savage king
was mingling his worship of the goddess with admiration of the woman?
And did he begin to suspect that she was no goddess after all? Time
would show, but at least the look in his eyes alarmed her.

"Fear not," he went on; "a thousand men shall guard you night and day.
The power of Nam is broken for a while, and now all this company may
sleep in peace."

"It is well, Olfan. To-morrow morning, after we have eaten, we will
talk with you again, for we have much to say. Till then, watch!"

The great man bowed and went, and at last they were alone.

"Let us eat," said Leonard. "What is this? Spirit, or a very good
imitation of it. Well, I never wanted a glass of brandy more in my
life."

When they had finished their meal, at the request of Leonard Juanna
translated all that had been said in the temple, and among her
listeners there was none more interested than Soa.

"Say, Soa," said Leonard, when she had finished, "you did not expect
to see us come back alive, did you? Is that why you stayed away?"

"No, Deliverer," she answered. "I thought that you would be killed,
every one of you. And so it must have come about, had it not been for
the Shepherdess. Also, I stayed away because those who have looked
upon the Snake once do not desire to see him again. Many years ago I
was bride to the Snake, Deliverer, and, had I not fled, my fate would
have been the fate of her who died this night."

"Well, I do not wonder that you chose to go," said Leonard.

"Oh, Baas," broke in Otter, "why did you not shoot that old medicine-
man as I told you? It would have been easy when you were about it,
Baas, and now he would have been broken like an eggshell thrown from a
house-top, and not alive and full of the meat of malice. He is mad
with rage and wickedness, and I say that he will kill us all if he
can."

"I rather wish I had," said Leonard, pulling his beard. "I thought of
it, but could not do everything; and on future occasions, Otter, will
you remember that your name is Silence? Luckily, these people do not
understand you: if they did you would ruin us all. What is the matter,
Soa?"

"Nothing, Deliverer," she answered; "only I was thinking that Nam is
my father, and I am glad that you did not shoot him, as this black
dog, who is named a god, suggests."

"Of gods I know nothing, you old cow," answered Otter angrily; "they
are a far-off people, though it seems that I am one of them, at any
rate among these fools, your kinsmen. But of dogs I can tell you
something, and it is that they bite."

"Yes, and cows toss dogs," said Soa, showing her teeth.

"Here is another complication," thought Leonard to himself; "one day
this woman will make friends with her venerable parent and betray us,
and then where shall we be? Well, among so many dangers an extra one
does not matter."

"I must go to bed," said Juanna faintly; "my head is swimming. I
cannot forget those horrors and that giddy place. When first I saw
where I was, I nearly fainted and fell, but after a while I grew more
used to it. Indeed, while I was speaking to the people I quite forgot
my fear, and the height seemed to exhilarate me. What a sight it was!
When all is said and done, it is a grand thing to have lived through
such an experience. I wonder if anyone has ever seen its like."

"You are a marvellous woman, Juanna," said Leonard, with admiration.
"We owe our lives to your wit and courage."

"You see I was right in insisting on coming with you," she answered
somewhat aggressively.

"For our sakes, yes; for your own I am not so sure. To tell you the
truth, I think that we should have done better never to have started
on this mad expedition. However, things look a little more promising
now, though Nam and his company have still to be reckoned with, and we
don't seem much nearer the rubies, which are our main object."

"No," said Juanna, "they are gone, and we shall be lucky if we do not
follow them into the home of that hideous snake. Good night."

"Francisco," said Leonard, as he rolled himself up in his blanket,
"you had a narrow escape to-night. If I had missed my hold!"

"Yes, Outram, it was lucky for me that your arm is strong and your
mind quick. Ah, I am a dreadful coward, and I can see the place now;"
and he shuddered. "Always from a child I have believed that I shall
die by a fall from some height, and to-night I thought that my hour
had come. At first I did not understand, for I was watching the
Senora's face in the moonlight, and to me she looked like an angel.
Then I saw, and my senses left me. It was as though hands were
stretched up from the blackness to drag me down--yes, I saw the hands.
But you saved me, Outram, though that will not help me, for I shall
perish in some such way at last. So be it. It is best that I should
die, who cannot conquer the evil of my heart."

"Nonsense, my friend," said Leonard; "don't talk like that about
dying. We can none of us afford to die just at present--that is,
unless we are obliged to do so. Your nerves are upset, and no wonder!
As for 'the evil of your heart,' I wish that most men had as little--
the world would be better. Come, go to sleep; you will feel very
differently to-morrow."

Francisco smiled sadly and shook his head, then he knelt and began to
say his prayers. The last thing that Leonard saw before his eyes
closed in sleep was the rapt girlish face of the priest, round which
the light of the taper fell like an aureole, as he knelt muttering
prayer after prayer with his pale lips.

It was nine o'clock before Leonard awoke next morning--for they had
not slept till nearly four--to find Francisco already up, dressed,
and, as usual, praying. When Leonard was ready they adjourned to
Juanna's room, where breakfast was prepared for them. Here they found
Otter, looking somewhat disturbed.

"Baas, Baas," he said, "they have come and will not go away!"

"Who?" asked Leonard.

"The woman, Baas: she who was given to me to wife, and many other
women--her servants--with her. There are more than twenty of them
outside, Baas, and all of them very big. Now, what shall I do with
her, Baas? I came here to serve you and to seek the red stones that
you desire, and not a woman tall enough to be my grandmother."

"I really don't know and don't care," answered Leonard. "If you will
be a god you must take the consequences. Only beware, Otter: lock up
your tongue, for this woman will teach you to speak her language, and
she may be a spy."

"Yes, Baas, I will see to that. Is not my name Silence, and shall
women make me talk--me, who have always hated them? But--the Baas
would not like to marry her himself? I am a god, as you say, though it
was you who made me one, Baas, not I, and my heart is large; I will
give her to you, Baas."

"Certainly not," answered Leonard decidedly. "See if the breakfast is
ready. No, I forgot, you are a god, so climb up into the throne and
look the part, if you can."

As he spoke, Juanna came from her room, looking a little pale, and
they sat down to breakfast. Before they had finished their meal, Soa
announced that Olfan was waiting without. Juanna ordered him to be
admitted, and presently he entered.

"Is all well, Olfan?" asked Juanna.

"All is well, Queen," he answered. "Nam and three hundred of his
following held council at dawn in the house of the priests yonder.
There is much stir and talk in the city, but the hearts of the people
are light because their ancient gods have come back to us, bringing
peace with them."

"Good," said Juanna. Then she began to question him artfully on many
things, and by degrees they learnt more of the People of the Mist.

It seemed, as Leonard had already guessed, that they were a very
ancient race, having existed for countless generations on the same
misty upland plains. They were not, however, altogether isolated, for
occasionally they made war with other savage tribes. But they never
intermarried with these tribes, all the captives taken in their wars
being offered in sacrifice at the religious festivals. The real
governing power in the community was the Society of the Priests of the
Snake, who held their office by hereditary tenure, outsiders being
admitted to their body only under very exceptional circumtances. The
council of this society chose the kings, and when they were weary of
one of them, they sacrificed him and chose another, either from among
his issue or elsewhere. This being the custom, as may be imagined, the
relations between church and state were much strained, but hitherto,
as Olfan explained with suppressed rage, the church had been supreme.

Indeed, the king for the time being was only its mouthpiece, or
executive officer. He led the armies, but the superstitions of the
people, and even of the soldiers themselves, prevented him from
wielding any real power; and, unless he chanced to die naturally, his
end was nearly always the same: to be sacrificed when the seasons were
bad or "Jal was angry."

The country was large but sparsely populated, the fighting men
numbered not more than four thousand, of whom about half lived in the
great city, the rest occupying villages here and there on the mountain
slopes. As a rule the people were monogamous, except the priests. It
was the custom of sacrifice which kept down the population to its low
level, made the power of the priests absolute, and their wealth
greater than that of all the other inhabitants of the country put
together, for they chose the victims that had offended against Jal or
against the mother-goddess, and confiscated their possessions to "the
service of the temple." Thus the great herds of half-wild cattle which
the travellers had seen on the plains belonged to the priests, and the
priests took a fourth of the produce of every man's field and garden--
that is, when they did not take it all, and his life with it.

Twice in every year great festivals were held in the temple of Jal, at
the beginning of the spring season and in the autumn after the
ingathering of the crops. At each of these festivals many victims were
offered in sacrifice, some upon the stone and some by being hurled
into the boiling pool beneath the statue, there to be consumed by the
Snake or swept down the secret course of the underground river. The
feast celebrated in the spring was sacred to Jal, and that in the
autumn to the mother-goddess. But there was this difference between
them--that at the spring ceremony female victims only were sacrificed
to Jal to propitiate him and to avert his evil influence, while at the
autumn celebration males alone were offered up to the mother-goddess
in gratitude for her gifts of plenty. Also criminals were occasionally
thrown to the Snake that his hunger might be satisfied. The priests
had other rites, Olfan added, and these they would have an opportunity
of witnessing if the spring festival, which should be celebrated on
the second day from that date, were held according to custom.

"It shall not be celebrated," said Juanna, almost fiercely.

Then Leonard, who had hitherto listened in silence, asked a question
through Juanna. "How is it," he said, "that Nam and his fellows, being
already in absolute power, were so willing to accept the gods Jal and
Aca when they appeared in person, seeing that henceforth they must
obey, not rule?"

"For two reasons, lord," Olfan answered; "first, because the gods are
gods, and their servants know them; and secondly, because Nam has of
late stood in danger of losing his authority. Of all the chief priests
that have been told of, Nam is the most cruel and the most greedy. For
three years he has doubled the tale of sacrifices, and though the
people love these sights of death, they murmur, for none know upon
whom the knife shall fall. Therefore he was glad to greet the gods
come back, since he thought that they would confirm his power, and set
him higher than he sat before. Now he is astonished because they
proclaim peace and will have none of the sacrifice of men, for Nam
does not love such gentle gods."

"Yet he shall obey them," said Otter, speaking for the first time by
the mouth of Juanna, who all this while was acting as interpreter, "or
drink his own medicine, for I myself will sacrifice him to myself."

When Juanna had translated the dwarf's bloodthirsty threat, Olfan
bowed his head meekly and smiled; clearly the prospect of Nam's
removal did not cause him unmixed grief. It was curious to see this
stately warrior chief humbling his pride before the misshapen, knob-
nosed Kaffir.

"Say, Olfan," asked Leonard, "who cut from the rock the great statue
on which we sat last night, and what is that reptile we saw when the
woman was thrown into the pool of troubled waters?"

"Ask the Water-dweller of the water-dweller, the Snake of the snake,
and the Dwarf of his image," answered Olfan, nodding towards Otter.
"How can I, who am but a man, tell of such things, lord? I only know
that the statue was fashioned in the far past, when we, who are now
but a remnant, were a great people; and as for the Snake, he has
always lived there in his holy place. Our grandfather's grandfathers
knew him, and since that day he has not changed."

"Interesting fact in natural history," said Leonard; "I wish I could
get him home alive to the Zoological Gardens."

Then he asked another question. "Tell me, Olfan, what became of the
red stones yesterday, and of him who offended in offering them to the
god yonder?"

"The most of them were cast into the pit of waters, lord, there to be
hidden for ever. There were three hide sacks full."

"Oh, heavens!" groaned Leonard when Juanna had translated this.
"Otter, you have something to answer for!"

"But the choicest," went on Olfan, "were put in a smaller bag, and
tied about the neck of the man who had sinned. There were not many,
but among them were the largest stones, that until yesterday shone in
the eyes of the idol, stones blue and red together. Also, there was
that stone, shaped like a human heart, which hitherto has been worn by
the high priest on the days of sacrifice, and with it the image of the
Dwarf fashioned from a single gem, and that of the Water-dweller cut
from the great blue stone, and other smaller ones chosen because of
their beauty and also because they have been known for long in the
land. For although many of these pebbles are found where the priests
dig for them, but few are large and perfect, and the art of shaping
them is lost."

"And what became of the man?" Leonard asked, speaking as quietly as he
could, for his excitement was great.

"Nay, I do not know," answered Olfan. "I only know that he was let
down with ropes into the home of the Snake, and that he gained that
holy place, for it was told to me that he dragged rope after him,
perhaps as he fled before the Snake.

"Now it was promised to the man that when he had laid the bag of
stones in the place of the Snake, for the Snake to guard for ever, his
sins would be purged, and, if it pleased the Water-dweller to spare
him, that he should be drawn up again. Thus Nam swore to him, but he
did not keep his oath, for when the man had entered the cave he bade
those who held the ropes to cast them loose, and I know not what
happened to him, but doubtless he is food for the Snake. None who look
upon that holy place may live to see the sun again."

"I only hope that the brute did not swallow the rubies as well as
their bearer," said Leonard to Juanna; "not that there is much chance
of our getting them, anyway."

Then Olfan went, nor did he return till the afternoon, when he
announced that Nam and his two principal priests waited without to
speak with them. Juanna ordered that they should be admitted, and
presently they came in. Their air was humble, and their heads were
bowed; but Leonard saw fury gleaming in their sombre eyes, and was not
deceived by this mask of humility.

"We come, O ye gods," said Nam, addressing Juanna and Otter, who sat
side by side on the throne-like chairs: "we come to ask your will, for
ye have laid down a new law which we do not understand. On the third
day from now is the feast of Jal, and fifty women are made ready to be
offered to Jal that his wrath may be appeased with their blood, and
that he may number their spirits among his servants, and withhold his
anger from the People of the Mist, giving them a good season. This has
been the custom of the land for many a generation, and whenever that
custom was broken then the sun has not shone, nor the corn grown, nor
have the cattle and the goats multiplied after their kind. But now, O
ye gods, ye have proclaimed a new law, and I, who am yet your servant,
come hither to ask your will. How shall the feast go, and what
sacrifice shall be offered unto you?"

"The feast shall go thus," answered Juanna. "Ye shall offer us a
sacrifice indeed; to each of us shall ye offer an ox and a goat, and
the ox and the goat shall be given to the Snake to feed him, but not
the flesh of men; moreover, the feast shall be held at noon and not in
the night-time."

"An ox and a goat--to each an ox and a goat!" said Nam humbly, but in
a voice of bitterest sarcasm. "As ye will so let it be, O ye gentle-
hearted gods. And the festival shall be held at noon, and not in the
night season as of old. As ye will, O ye kind gods. Your word is my
law, O Aca, and O Jal;" and bowing to the ground the aged man withdrew
himself, followed by his satellites.

"That devilish priest makes my flesh creep," said Juanna, when she had
translated his words.

"Oh! Baas, Baas," echoed Otter, "why did you not shoot him while you
might? Now he will surely live to throw us to the Snake."

As he spoke Soa advanced from behind the thrones where she had taken
refuge when Nam entered.

"It is not well for a dog who gives himself out as a god to threaten
the life of one whom he has tricked," said she meaningly. "Perchance
the hour shall come when the true god will avenge himself on the
false, and by the hand of his faithful servant, whom you would do to
death, you base-born dwarf." And before anyone could answer she left
the chamber, casting a malevolent look at Otter as she went.

"That servant of yours makes /my/ flesh creep, Juanna," said Leonard.
"One thing is clear enough, we must not allow her to overhear any more
of our plans; she knows a great deal too much already."

"I cannot understand what has happened to Soa," said Juanna; "she
seems so changed."

"You made that remark before, Juanna; but for my part I don't think
she is changed. The sight of her amiable parent has developed her
hidden virtues, that is all."

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Still the silence endured, and still the moonlight grew, creepinglower and lower till it shone upon the face of the seething waters,and, except in the immediate shadow of the walls, all the amphitheatrewas full of it.Then the voice of Nam spoke again from far away, and Leonard looked tosee whence he spoke. Now he saw. Nam, attended by three priests, wasperched like an eagle on the left palm of the colossus, and from thisdizzy platform he addressed the multitude. Looking across the breastof the statue, Leonard could just see the outstretched arm and thefierce face of the high priest as he
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