A Daughter of Astrea - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

A Daughter of Astrea ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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„BEHOLD! „ cried Sabul Ahmid, with an upward sweep of his bare, brown arm, „behold the Sacred Temple of the people of Astrea! „ I stood up in the boat, my portfolio under my arm. High on the mountain’s side, crowning a thick mass of laurel undergrowth, and flanked by a grove of deep, cool, byana trees, was the building to which my servant was pointing. The material whereof it was fashioned I could not at that distance determine. Only in the broad, tropical sunlight it flashed forth, a glorious and spotless white, as flawless and perfect as the purest marble or alabaster. Little minarets rose from the flat roof; and flowering shrubs, planted along the mountain terrace above, drooped about it, a brilliant scintilla of purple coloring. My fingers began to crave for my pencil. I turned to my guide with beaming face.

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Liczba stron: 148

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER I

“BEHOLD!” cried Sabul Ahmid, with an upward sweep of his bare, brown arm, “behold the Sacred Temple of the people of Astrea!”

I stood up in the boat, my portfolio under my arm. High on the mountain’s side, crowning a thick mass of laurel undergrowth, and flanked by a grove of deep, cool, byana trees, was the building to which my servant was pointing. The material whereof it was fashioned I could not at that distance determine. Only in the broad, tropical sunlight it flashed forth, a glorious and spotless white, as flawless and perfect as the purest marble or alabaster. Little minarets rose from the flat roof; and flowering shrubs, planted along the mountain terrace above, drooped about it, a brilliant scintilla of purple coloring. My fingers began to crave for my pencil. I turned to my guide with beaming face.

“You did well, Ahmid,” I cried, “to bring me here. This will mean rupees for both of us, for you and for me. I must get a sketch of that temple at once.”

Sabul Ahmid flashed a sorrowful glance at me from his dark melancholy eyes. Even the mention of rupees had not brought a smile to that impenetrable face.

“My Lord,” he said, “I hope that I have done well. Truly, I hope that I have done well.”

As we drew near the shore, the natives came running down from the village, and lined the beach, some of them standing knee-deep in the surf, and greeting us with hoarse shouts, waving their hands, and pointing to the spot where we might best effect a landing.

“They take us for traders,” Ahmid explained, “yet we shall be welcome. They are a kindly people.”

He stood up in the stern, and shouted to them in their own language. A fire of words flashed backwards and forwards, and a dozen willing hands caught the boat’s prow and guided it into the smooth water. As we stepped out on to the dry, white sand, Ahmid was at once surrounded, and, obeying his gestures, the sailors produced the baskets full of rubbishy presents, which we had brought with us from the markets of Colombo. While the rifling was going on, he came over to my side.

“I have told them that you wish to stay among them for a day, and that you will give them more presents,” he said. “They seem quite willing, and there is an empty hut which we can have. The village is yonder, behind the trees.”

Ahmid led-the way, and, surrounded by a curious, chattering group, we began to climb the beach. Behind came two of the sailors, carrying hampers full of provisions, and a few more presents which we were keeping in reserve. Five minutes’ rough walking across the shingle, and through a grove of byana trees, and we were at the village. With divers shouts and gesticulations we were conducted to a brown, wattled hut, with mud-caked sides, and a low opening through which it seemed almost impossible for a full-grown man to crawl. Ahmid turned to us.

“This is where the traders who come here from Rangoon for rubies are allowed to stay,” he announced. “We are allowed to have it on condition that we give them more presents. There is good water here, and they will bring us game.”

I stooped down to peer inside, but drew back again quickly. The interior was not savory. I looked round doubtfully at the little semi-circle of similar huts, of which the village was composed, and at the curious group of copper-colored natives who thronged round us, black-eyed and rabid with curiosity. Should I not be wiser to make a few sketches and return with the boat? Then an upward glance at that farfamed temple, its soft, white front, gorgeous now in the full sunlight, and its minarets like alabaster peaks, cleaving the deep-blue sky, reawakened all my former enthusiasm. The thirst of the explorer was upon me. I must know something more of this people, and of their strange religion. I had in my pocket a letter, received with our last budget of mail, from the chief of the illustrated weekly paper, from whom I held a roving commission to send them home foreign notes and sketches.

“All that you have sent is good,” it said, “but remember that what we shall value most (if you can come across it) is something absolutely new.” Here, then, was my chance. Here, at any rate, I should be breaking fresh ground. No traveler, to my knowledge, had ever sent home an authentic sketch of the Temple of Astrea. A woman, slim and graceful, came gliding through the undergrowth, like a dark shadow, with a brown jug of water upon her delicately poised head. There were copper bracelets on her long, sinewy arms, and her hair was as black as the plumage of a raven. It was a perfect Leighton study, and it turned the quivering balance in my mind. I unslung my rifle, and lit a cigar.

“I will have my hammock slung under those trees behind the hut,” I said to Ahmid, pointing to a little clump of byanas in the background. “You can stow away the things in the hut, and sleep there yourself, if you like.”

The two sailors quickly fixed up the hammock which I had brought with me from the yacht. Ahmid moved about like a dusky, brown shadow, unpacking the various parcels, and beginning to make the necessary preparations for my evening meal. By-and-by, when we had made it quite clear that, for the present at any rate, there were no more presents to be distributed, we were left almost to ourselves. Many of the natives, however, still lingered about the doors of their huts, talking to themselves, and pointing to me. From what Ahmid could gather of their remarks, he seemed satisfied. They were pleased with their presents and inclined to be friendly. He gathered, further, that the High Priest, who seemed to be their supreme temporal head, as well as the Priest of their strange religion, had been acquainted with my arrival, and had expressed himself favorably concerning it. Altogether, I began to feel that my adventure was likely to be a success, and that I had, after all, reason to be rather grateful than otherwise for that breakdown in the machinery which was really responsible for our lying-to.

“You can tell Sir Maurice that if he is ready to start before I am back, I will come directly he sends a boat,” I said to Dick Hardy, our boatswain, when the men had finished their work. “Perhaps he will come on shore himself to-morrow, the natives seem quite friendly.”

The man touched his cap, and looked around dubiously.

“Maybe, sir,” he remarked. “They’re a queer-looking lot, though, to my mind. Can’t say as I should much fancy them myself.”

“They are quite harmless,” I assured him with a laugh. “Ahmid was born here, you know, and understands them perfectly. You might remind Sir Maurice of that. Good-night!”

“Good-night, sir! I’ll give Sir Maurice your message.”

The men withdrew, and presently, from some rising ground, where I had strolled to get a better view of the temple, I could see the trim little ship’s boat making rapid way back to my brother’s yacht, which was lying-to in smooth water, about half-a-mile out. I took my camp stool with me, and found a cool, sheltered spot among the deep, green shadows; and while Ahmid mixed me a cool drink, I began to sketch a little family group opposite–a crawling brown baby, with eyes as black as ink, and a girl, who held it tightly by the ankle, to prevent it rolling away, while she stared at me and my belongings with a curious, persistent stolidity. And, while I sketched, the sun sank down, a fluttering breeze came stealing from seawards, and a sudden darkness stole down like a soft, thick veil upon the earth. I put my portfolio up, and found Ahmid standing before me. With his usual profound bow, he announced the readiness of my evening meal.

I ate rice and stewed beef, and drank hock and seltzer with a little crowd of onlookers gathered round, and only restrained from thrusting themselves bodily upon me by Ahmid’s constant threats. “There were to be no presents for those who interfered with the privacy of the White Sahib.”

That was Ahmid’s ultimatum, and that it was which restrained the little horde of men and women, who, from a respectful disstance, seemed to follow my slightest movement with boundless interest. I glanced at them almost with regret, as I lit my evening cigar, and brought out my portfolio. Alas! there was so much here that mocked reproduction–at any rate, from my hands.

I had nothing but pencils with me; and how could black and white in any way represent those long, sinewy limbs, as brown as coffee berries, that subtle coloring of eyes and dusky cheeks, that wonderful grace of the unrestrained, which made these halfsavage men and women resemble in physical respects the children of a God– I sat and watched them half-dozing. The lights of innumerable fire-flies were burning in the long grass, and humming insects flew around my head, the whirring of whose wings, upon the breathless air, reminded me curiously of the May flies darting in and out from the tall hedges of a Devonshire lane. Ahmid, barefooted and graceful, moved about like a figure in a dream– it was surely a little Lotos-land this, to which the mere chance of a fractured engine-shaft and a half-empty portfolio had brought me. Something of the spirit of the Lotos-eaters seemed to be gliding into my veins, to be lulling me into premature sleep. And then, like a thunderbolt from the blue, came a curious change in the deep, quiet peace which had been brooding over the place.

The wailing of a woman’s voice seemed to start the chorus. It was a deep, full cry of alarm, and at its first thrilling note I sat upright in my hammock. I looked out upon a most curious sight. Men and women alike were gazing with upturned sorrowful faces toward the sky. There was a strange, discordant strain of lamentations. The women rent their hair; the men began to run about in confusion. Something unforeseen and calamitous had evidently occurred. I called to Ahmid, and found him standing by my side, tall and grave, with a shadow deeper than ordinary upon his face.

“What is it, Ahmid?” I asked eagerly.

“What has gone wrong with these people?”

He raised his long, sinewy arm, and pointed upwards. I followed his gesture. The clear, violet sky had become obscured by little dappled masses of gray clouds, which had come up swiftly from the sea. The stars were almost invisible. Only a few remained to be seen, dim and misty.

“It is the Holy Week here,” Ahmid said.

“My Lord knows the strange religion of these people. They are star- worshippers. This is the week from which they draw augury for the prosperity of the coming year. Every night must be clear, and the stars must shine; else disaster waits upon them. Three clear nights they have had, and to-night was full of promise. But– my Lord sees!”

The gravity of Ahmid’s tone had no effect on me. I looked out with intense interest upon the growing* excitement. The sound of wailing increased; men fell down and beat their heads upon the ground. Some of the women were playing strange music in a deep, minor key, upon rude instruments. I reached for my portfolio and sketched, silently and swiftly. It was the strangest scene I had ever looked upon.

“What will they do, Ahmid?” I whispered.

He looked upwards toward the Hill of Rubies, whereon stood the Temple of Astrea, the home of the High Priest, and the worshipping place of this strange people.

“The High Priest will come,” he answered. “There will be a maiden taken away to the Temple and sacrificed.”

“What! Killed!” I cried, my pencil suddenly stopping. Ahmid shook his head. His face was impenetrable.

“Who can tell?” he said. “There are many maidens taken there; but none ever return. It is a mystery; and my Lord,” he continued, “my Lord will remember his promise.”

I nodded slowly. Before Sabul Ahmid had consented to be my guide, he had extracted a promise from me, which at the time it had seemed easy to give. He had made me give my word, that I would not make any attempt to penetrate into the Temple of Astrea, or interfere in any way with the religious observances of these people.

“They were a quiet, peace-loving race,” he told me, “mild-mannered and kindly disposed toward strangers. But as regards their curious faith, they were fanatics. Less,” Ahmid explained, “was this to be attributed to anything particularly religious in their nature, than to the extraordinary influence gained over them by one man–their High Priest.” Ahmid, too, seemed still to share some part of that peculiar fear. When I would have asked questions concerning him, he avoided the subject. Only that promise he had gravely, and with the utmost respect, insisted upon.

And I had given it.

By degrees the sounds of lamentations which had filled the air grew, less and less. The men had mostly risen to their feet, and were standing about in moody, but expectant, silence, with their faces turned to the Hill of Rubies, which towered above us. The moaning of the women and the clanging of strange instruments still continued.

For my part, I was getting more and more interested. Ahmid, on the contrary, was evidently nervous and uneasy. Once he left my side, and climbed on to the top of a little knoll, whence through an opening in the trees he could see the “Cormorant” lying at anchor. He stood there for several moments, apparently measuring the distance between the ship and the shore. I called to him softly through the darkness:

“Ahmid, come here!”

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