The Conquest of the Moon Pool/Chapter 11
"THESE THE SILENT ONES SUMMON!"
THROUGH the grotesque ranks of the frog-men Lakla paced, and halted close beside me. From firm little chin to dainty buskined feet she was swathed in the soft metallic robes; these of a dull, almost coppery hue. The left arm was hidden, the right free and gloved, the gloving disappearing high in the shoulder folds. Wound tight about the arm was one of the vines of the sculptured wall and of Lugur's circled signet-ring. Thick, a vivid green, its five tendrils ran between her fingers, stretching out five flowered heads that gleamed like blossoms cut from gigantic, glowing rubies.
So she stood for a moment, contemplating Yolara, from whose visage the mask had fled, leaving, it is true, a face still seared with rage and hate, but human. Drawn perhaps by my gaze, she dropped her eyes upon me; golden, translucent, with tiny flecks of amber in their aureate irises, the soul that looked through them was as far removed from the flaming out of the priestess's as zenith is above nadir.
I noted the low, broad brow, the proud little nose, the tender mouth, and the soft—sunlight—glow that seemed to transfuse the delicate skin. And suddenly in the eyes dawned a smile—sweet, friendly, a touch of roguishness, profoundly reassuring its all humanness. I felt my heart expand as though freed from fetters, a return of my confidence in the essential reality of things. As though in nightmare the struggling consciousness should glimpse some familiar face and know the terrors with which it strove were but dreams. And involuntarily I smiled back at her.
She raised her head and looked again at Yolara, contempt and a certain curiosity in her gaze; at O'Keefe—and through the softened eyes drifted swiftly a shadow of sorrow, and on its fleeting wings deepest interest, and hovering over that a naïve approval as reassuringly human as had been her smile. She spoke, and her voice deep-timbered, soft gold as was Yolara's all silver, was subtly the synthesis of all the golden glowing beauty of her.
"The Silent Ones have sent me, O Yolara," she said. "And this is their command to you. That ye deliver to me to bring before them three of the four strangers who have found their way here. This man they summon"—she pointed to O'Keefe—"and this"—her hand almost touched me—"and that yellow-haired one who seeks his mate and babe"—and how knew she of Olaf's quest? I wondered. "But for him there who plots with Lugur"—she pointed at Von Hetzdorp, and I saw Yolara start—"they have no need. Into his heart the Silent Ones have looked; and Lugur and you may keep him, Yolara!"
There was honeyed venom in the last words. And let me write here that truly angelic as Lakla might look and on occasion be, great as was her heart and high her spirit, she was very human indeed. Feminine through and through, and therefore not disdainful, when they served her, either of woman's guile or woman's needle tongue.
Yolara was herself again; now only the edge of shrillness on her voice revealed her wrath as she answered the Handmaiden.
"And whence have the Silent Ones gained power to command, choya?"
This last, I knew, was a very vulgar word; I had heard Rador use it in a moment of anger to one of the serving maids, and it meant, approximately, "kitchen girl," "scullion." Beneath the insult and the acid disdain, the blood rushed up under Lakla's ambered ivory skin. Her hand clenched, and I thought I saw writhe the vine that braceleted her arm.
"Yolara"—her voice was calm—"of no use it is to question me. I am but the messenger of the Silent Ones. And one thing only am I bidden to ask you—do you deliver over to me the three strangers?"
Lugur was on his feet; eagerness, sardonic delight, sinister anticipation thrilling from him. And my same glance showed Von Hetzdorp, crouched, biting his finger-nails, glaring at the Golden Girl.
"No!" Yolara fairly spat the word. "No! Now by Thanaroa and by the Shining One, no!" Her eyes blazed, her nostrils were wide, in her fair throat a little pulse beat angrily. "You, Lakla, take you my message to the Silent Ones! Say to them that I keep this man"—she pointed to Larry—"because he is mine. Say to them that I keep the yellow-haired one and him"—she pointed to me—"because it pleases me.
"Tell them that upon their mouths I place my foot, so!" She stamped upon the daïs viciously. "And that in their faces I spit!" And her action was hideously snake-like. "And say last to them, you handmaiden, that if you they dare to send to Yolara again, she will feed you to the Shining One! Now—go!"
THE handmaiden's face was white, "Not unforeseen by the three was this, Yolara " she replied, "And did you speak as you have spoken, then I was bidden to say this to you." Her voice deepened, "Three tal have ye to take counsel, Yolara. And at the end of that time three things must ye have determined, either to do or not to do. First, send the strangers to the Silent Ones; second, give up, ye and Lugur and all of ye, that dream ye have of conquest of the world without; and, third, forswear the Shining One!
"And if ye do not one and all these things, then are ye done, your cup of life broken, your wine of life spilled. Yea, Yolara, for ye and the Shining One, Lugur and the Nine and all those here and their kind shall pass! This say the Silent Ones, 'Surely shall all of ye pass and be as though never had ye been'!"
Now a gasp of rage and fear arose from all those around me, but the priestess threw back her head and laughed loud and long. Into the silver sweet chiming of her laughter clashed that of Lugur, and after a little the nobles took it up, till the whole chamber echoed with their mirth. O'Keefe, lips tightening, moved toward the handmaiden, and almost imperceptibly, but peremptorily, she waved him back.
"Those are great words. Great words indeed, choya," shrilled Yolara at last; and again Lakla winced beneath the word! "Lo, for laya upon laya, the Shining One has been freed from the three; and for laya upon laya they have sat helpless, rotting. Now I ask you again—whence comes their power to lay their will upon me, and whence comes their strength to wrestle with the Shining One and the beloved of the Shining One?"
And again she laughed, and again Lugur and all the fair-haired joined in her laughter.
Into the eyes of Lakla I saw creep a doubt, a wavering; as though deep within her the foundations of her own belief were none too firm.
She hesitated, turning upon O'Keefe eyes in which rested more than suggestion of appeal! And Yolara saw, too, for she flashed with triumph, stretched a finger toward the handmaiden.
"Look!" she cried. "Look! Why, even she does not believe!" Her voice grew silk of silver—merciless, cruel. "Now am I minded to send another answer to the Silent Ones. Yea! But not by you, Lakla; by these." She pointed to the frog-men, and, swift as light, her hand darted into her bosom, bringing forth the little shining cone of death.
But before she could level it, dart the Keth upon her, the Golden Girl had released that hidden left arm and thrown over her face a fold of the metallic swathings. Swifter than Yolara, she raised the arm that held the vine, and now I knew this was no inert blossoming thing. It was alive! It writhed down her arm, and with its five rubescent flower heads thrust itself out toward the priestess—vibrating, quivering, held in leash only by the light touch of the handmaiden at its very end.
From the swelling throat pouch of the monster behind her came a succession of the reverberant boomings I had heard when the little tendrils of moon flame began to shrink back to the crystal globes. The frog-men wheeled, raised their lances, leveled them at the throng. Around the reaching ruby flowers a red mist swiftly grew.
The silver cone dropped from Yolara's rigid fingers; her eyes grew stark with horror; all her unearthly loveliness fled from her. She stood pale-lipped, face shrunken, shorn of beauty by that one gesture of Lakla's as Samson was of his strength by the first clip of Delilah's shears. The handmaiden dropped the protecting veil, and now it was she who laughed.
"It would seem, then, Yolara, that there is a thing of the Silent Ones ye fear!" she said. "Well, the kiss of the Yekta I promise you in return for the embrace of your Shining One."
She looked at Larry, long, searchingly, and suddenly again with all that effect of sunlight bursting into dark places, her smile shone upon him. She nodded, half gaily; looked down upon me again, the little merry light dancing in her eyes; waved her hand to me.
She spoke to the giant frog-man. He wheeled behind her as she turned, facing the priestess, club upraised, fangs glistening, His troop moved not a jot, spears held high. And Lakla began to pass, slowly—almost, I thought, tauntingly—and as she reached the portal Larry leaped from the dais.
"Alanna!" he cried. "You'll not be leavin' me just when I've found you!"
In his excitement he spoke in his own tongue, the velvet brogue appealing. Lakla turned, and well it was that she did, for her Gargantuan follower boomed a war-note and swept the great mace over his horned head, whirling it downward as the Irishman rushed forward toward him.
There was a sharp cry from the hand-maiden, and he halted the club not a foot from O'Keefe's black hair.
The Irishman looked him up and down, stretched out his hand, and patted the scaled arm approvingly, as one would a dog.
"Good boy," he said; "good boy! But I wouldn't harm a hair of her sweet head for all the jewels in all the crowns the kings of Ireland ever wore. Let me by!"
The monster's enormous eyes, direct on Larry, were unblinking, but from the huge throat came a puzzled croak. He turned toward the Golden Girl as though expecting some order.
The handmaiden contemplated O'Keefe, hesitant, unquestionably longingly, irresistibly, She was like a child making up her mind whether she dared or dared not take a delectable something offered her.
"I go with you," said O'Keefe, this time in her own speech. A glimmer of a smile passed through her eyes. "Come on, Doc!" He reached out a hand to me.
But now Yolara spoke. Life and beauty had flowed back into her face, and in her purple eyes all her hosts of devils were gathered.
"Do you forget what I promised you before Siya and Siyana? Or what I promised should turn you from me! And do you think that you can leave me—me—as though I were a choya—like her." She pointed to Lakla. "Do you—"
"Now, listen, Yolara," Larry interrupted almost plaintively. "No promise has passed from me to you, and why would you hold me?" He passed unconsciously into English. "Be a good sport, Yolara," he urged. "You have got a very devil of a temper, you know, and so have I; and we'd be really awfully uncomfortable together. And why don't you get rid of that devilish pet of yours, and be good!"
She looked at him, puzzled. Von Hetzdorp leaned over, translated to Lugur. The red dwarf smiled maliciously, drew near the priestess. Whispered to her what was without doubt as near as he could come in the Murian to Larry's own very colloquial phrases.
Yolara stiffened, her lips writhed.
"Hear me, Lakla!" she cried, her voice vibrant with determination unshakable. "Now would I not let you take this man from me were I to dwell ten thousand laya in the agony of the Yekta's kiss. This I swear to you, by Thanaroa, by my heart, and by my strength, that should you try to take him, or should he try to go with you, then shall I slay both him and you with the Keth, and even though the Yekta you carry blast me. And may my strength wither, my heart rot in my breast, and Thanaroa forget me if I do not this thing!"
"Listen, Yolara—" began O'Keefe again. "Be silent, you!" It was almost a shriek. And her hand again sought in her breast for the cone of death.
Lugur touched her arm, whispered again. The glint of guile shone in her eyes; she laughed softly, relaxed.
"The Silent Ones, Lakla, bade you say that they allowed me three tal to decide," she said suavely. "Go now in peace, Lakla, and say that Yolara has heard, and that for the three tal they—allow—her she will take counsel."
The handmaiden hesitated, a vague apprehension, a hint of doubt in her face.
"The Silent Ones have said it," she answered at last. "Stay you here, strangers." The long lashes drooped as her eyes met O'Keefe's and a hint of blush was in her cheeks. "Stay you here, strangers, till then. But, Yolara, see you on that heart and strength you have sworn by that they come to no harm. Else that which you have invoked will come upon you swiftly indeed. And that I promise you," she added.
Their eyes met, clashed, burned into each other. Black flame from Abaddon and golden flame from Paradise.
"Remember!" said Lakla, and passed through the portal. The gigantic frog-man boomed a thunderous note of command, his grotesque guards turned and, slowly, eyes menacing, followed their mistress. And last of all passed out the monster with the mace.
A CLAMOR arose from all the chamber; stilled in an instant by a motion of Yolara's hand. She stood silent, regarding O'Keefe with something other now than the blind wrath of her threat to him. Something half regretful, half beseeching. But the Irishman's control was gone.
"Yolara"—his voice shook with rage, and he threw caution to the wind—"now hear me. I go where I will and when I will. Here shall we stay until the time she named is come. And then we follow her, whether you will or not. And if any should have thought to stop us, tell them of that flame that shattered the vase," he added grimly.
The wistfulness died but of her eyes.
"Is it so?" she answered. "Now it is in my mind that much may happen ere then. Perchance you and those others may dance with the Shining One. Or perchance one of those hidden men that I showed you may visit you. Or it may be that I myself will slay ye, and not so swiftly, Larree."
"And is that so?" he said, slipping back into English. "A promise means as much to you as it does to the head of Von Hetzdorp's country." And now, the breath of danger having blown upon him, back came his old, alert, careless, whimsical self. "Before that sweet little pet of yours"—he spoke now in her own tongue—"that you name the Shining One, dances with us, Yolara, many shall wither under that swift flame I showed you; and as for you, think whether you may not feel it, too, before, you have a chance to slay. And as for those hidden ones of yours, Yolara, know you that I have anui"—he used the Murian for spirit, the Polynesian ani—"who will warn me long, long before they can don those robes that hide them."
A sparkle came into his eyes. "Lo, Yolara, even before you can command them, shall you hear the voice of my spirit, and it is this." He threw back his head, and from his throat pulsed the woe-laden, sobbing cry, raising steadily into the heart-shaking, shuddering wail that I had heard on the deck of the Suwarna. Louder and ever louder it wailed, died away into the soul-broken sobbing, and faltered out into silence!
Upon those listening, sensitive as they were to sound, the effect of the high-pitched keening was appalling; it was gruesome enough to me. There was startled movement, a panic rush from the tables to the portal. Even Lugur's face was gray; the priestess's eyes stark wide; in Von Hetzdorp's I saw ungrudging admiration.
"And when you hear that, Yolara," thus O'Keefe, "know that my spirit is near, and think well before you send your hidden ones, or come yourself."
No answer made the priestess to him.
She turned to the white-faced nobles.
"What Lakla has said, the council must consider, and at once," said she. "Now, friends of mine, and friends of Lugur, must all feud, all rancor, between us end." She glanced swiftly at Lugur. "The ladala—the common people—are stirring, and the Silent Ones threaten. Yet fear not, for are we not strong under the Shining One? And now—leave us."
She waited until the, last of the fair-haired had withdrawn. Her hand dropped to the table, and she gave, evidently, a signal, for in marched a dozen or more of the green dwarfs.
"Take these two to their place," she commanded, pointing to us. "But wait—" She turned to the whispering globe, touched its control.
Its light broke, swam with the film of rushing colors.
"Rador," she spoke upon it, "the two strangers come to you. Guard them and the third named Olaf as you would your life. And—listen well, Rador—if you do not, and if they should escape you, then before you die shall you beg me for what shall seem to you laya upon laya to throw you to the Shining One!"
THE green dwarfs clustered about us.
Without another look at the priestess O'Keefe marched beside me, between them, from the chamber. But glancing round, I saw pain writhe beneath frozen anger on her face. And in silence she and Lugur and the council and Von Hetzdorp watched us as we passed through the portals. And it was not until we had reached the pillared entrance that Larry spoke.
"I hated to talk like that to a woman, Doc," he said, "and a pretty woman, at that. But first she played me with a marked deck, and then not only pinched all the chips, but drew a gun on me. What the hell! She nearly had me married to her. I don't know what the stuff was she gave me; but, take it from me, if I had the recipe for that brew I could sell it for a thousand dollars a jolt at Forty-Second and Broadway."
By this time we were before our pavilion; and neither of us in a very amiable mood, I'm afraid. Rador was awaiting us, and, to my surprise, cold indeed was his greeting. He took us from our guard, placed a whistle to his lips, and down the paths came a score of his own men.
"Let none pass in here without authority,, and let none pass out unless I accompany them," he ordered brusquely. "Summon one of the swiftest of the coria and have it wait in readiness," he added, as though by afterthought.
But when we had entered and the screens were drawn together his manner changed; all eagerness, he questioned us. Briefly we told him of the happenings at the feast, of Lakla's dramatic interruption, and of what had followed.
"Three tal he said musingly; "three tal the Silent Ones have allowed—and Yolara agreed." He sank back, thoughtful.
A tal in Muria is the equivalent of thirty hours of earth surface time.
"Ja!" It was Olaf. "Ja! I told you the Shining Devil's mistress was all evil. Ja! Now I begin again that tale I started when he came." He glanced toward the preoccupied Rador. "And tell him not what I say should he ask. For I trust none here in Trolldom, save the Jomfrau—the White Virgin!
"After the oldster was adsprede"—Olaf once more used that expressive Norwegian word for the dissolving of Songar—"I knew that it was a time for cunning, craft. I said to myself, 'If they think I have no ears to hear, they will speak; and it may be I will find a way to save my Helma and Dr. Goodwin's friends, too.' Ja, and they did speak. When I left that place with the red devil and the German, they made many signs.
THE red Trolde asked the German how came it he worshipped Thanaroa." I could not resist a swift glance of triumph toward O'Keefe. "And the German," rumbled Olaf, "said that all his people worshipped Thanaroa and now fought against the other nations that denied him. He said that his ruler believed his people the chosen of Thanaroa, and because the other nations had defied him, his people had taken up arms. Ja! And Lugur believed—for Lugur he worships Thanaroa more, much more than the Shining Devil. Ja!
"And then we had come to Lugur's palace. They put me in rooms, and there came to me men who rubbed and oiled me and loosened my muscles. The next day I wrestled with a great dwarf they called Valdor. He was a mighty man, and long we struggled, and at last I broke his back. And Lugur was pleased, so that I sat with him at feast and with the German, too. And again, not knowing that I understood them, they talked.
"The German had gone fast and far. No longer was there talk of his ruler, but of Lugur as head man of the Germans, and Von Hetzdorp under him. They spoke of the green light that shook life from the oldster; and Lugur said that the secret of it had been the Ancient Ones' and that the council had not too much of it. But Von Hetzdorp said that among his race were many wise men who could make more once they had studied it.
"Then he spoke of the robes that protected from the Shining Devil. Lugur told him of the priests who make them and of the earth they dig that coats them. Then said the German that his wise men would make many for themselves, in case the Shining Devil should ever grow too strong, and that Lugur and he and his nation would give the Shining Devil all the rest of the world to eat. So that Lugur and he and all the Germans should always be mighty as he was when the Shining Devil ate up those who cast themselves into it.
"And the next day I wrestled with a great dwarf named Tahola, mightier far than Valdor. Him I threw after a long, long time, and his back also I broke. Again Lugur was pleased, saying that now was I worthy to be slain by him. And again we sat at table, he and the German and I. This time they spoke of something these Trolde have which opens up a Svaelc—abysses into which all in its range drops up into the sky!
"What!" I exclaimed.
"I know about them," said Larry. "Wait!"
"Lugur had drunk much," went on Olaf. "He was boastful. The German pressed him to show this thing. After a while the red one went out and came back with a little golden box. He and the German went Into the garden. I followed them. There was a lille Hoj—a mound of stones in that garden on which grew flowers and trees.
"Lugur pressed upon the box, and a spark no bigger than a sand grain leaped out and fell beside the stones. Lugur pressed again, and a blue light shot from the box and lighted on the spark. The spark that had been no bigger than a grain of sand grew and grew as the blue struck it. And then there was a sighing, a wind rush, and the stones and the flowers and the trees were not. They were forsvinde—vanished!
"Then Lugur, who had been laughing, grew quickly sober; for he thrust the German back, far back. And soon down into the garden came tumbling the stones and the trees, but broken and shattered, and falling as though from a great height. And Lugur said that of this something they had much, for its making was a secret handed down by their own forefathers and not given them by the Ancient Ones.
"They feared to use it, he said, for a spark thrice as large as that he had used would have sent all that garden falling upward and might have opened a way to the outside before—he said just this—'before we are ready to go out into it!'
"The German questioned much, but Lugur sent for more drink and grew merrier and threatened him, and the German was silent through fear. Thereafter I listened when I could, and little more I learned, but that little enough. Ja! Lugur is hot for conquest; so Yolara and so the council. They tire of it here, and the Silent Ones make their minds, not too easy, no, even though they jeer at them! And this they plan—to rule our world with their Shining Devil that Lugur says has grown strong enough to fare forth.
"Already they have tunneled upward at that place they call the Lower Waters, and that I think is under Ponape itself. There was to be their gathering-place to sweep out upon the earth. But now Von Hetzdorp has told Lugur of the passage through which we came, and Lugur and he now plan to open that.
"The ladala they will almost utterly destroy before they go, except the soldiers and the dream makers. They talk of 'sealing' the Silent Ones within their Crimson Sea, but—and this is point of trouble—they fear that if they do it they may pull down all this place they call Muria. Those who speak against it say—'The Silent Ones can have no power on earth, never have they had it. And it may be that we shall not do well under the sun; perhaps we may wish to return—and let the haven be open in case of our need.'
"Lugur would burn all bridges behind him; destroying all. But not so Yolara. And Von Hetzdorp would not, because he would keep what is here for Germany, and in his heart, too, he laughs at the Silent Ones and he schemes to—smadre—smash all these people. Yet has he played upon Lugur by promising him that his own people will cast aside their rulers and will muster to Lugur and that Lugur as a new ruler of Germany and the Shining Devil as Earth God, shall rule all the world for Thanaroa. And under his whisperings Lugur begins to forget even Thanaroa!"
The Norseman was silent for a moment; then, voice deep, trembling—"Trolldom is awake; Helvede crouches at Earth Gate whining to be loosed into a world already devil ridden! And we are but three!"