Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter VIII

Before the Black Shrine

ARCHER KENNEDY was, as Boots had once observed, “a man of more refined education” than the Irish lad. Moreover, he had a quick, furtive mind, that snatched at whatever came its way and hoarded it as a jackdaw hoards its stealings, on a bare chance that it might some day prove practically useful. Stored among many such smatterings was a fair knowledge of Aztec antiquities, picked up partly in his college days, partly at close range in Yucatan and Campeche.

When Biornson had said: “You are housed in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl,” the words had not been quite meaningless to him.

In the tangled mazes of old Aztec theology, many a god possessed not only two or more names, but as many personalities, some of them as divergent from one another as black from white.

So Tezcatlipoca, “shining mirror,” who descended from heaven at the end of a spider’s thread, was a being of most virtuous and commendable qualities. Justice and mercy were his to administer, and if his enshrined eidolons sometimes presided from judgment seats made of piled human bones, this was in accordance with the rather grim ideas of a grim and bloody people.

But like the well-known Dr. Jekyll, Tezcatlipoca had a double nature, and a nature, moreover, of which the second and darker phase might have caused even Mr. Hyde to cover his reprehensible head in shame and jealousy.

As Nacoc-Yaotl, creator of hatreds, the virtuous Tezcatlipoca was accustomed to steal, invisible, through the streets, and in every Aztec city there were seats placed for his convenience — seats in which no mortal man was allowed to seek repose. It seems improbable that any man would care to, considering who might be his companion there.

A temple consecrated to Nacoc-Yaotl as an individual deity, however, was an innovation of which Kennedy had never heard.

On encountering a dark face in a darker niche, he did not promptly comment: “Here is exactly what I would have expected to find — the carved black image of Nacoc-Yaotl, an idol which these pale-hued and foolishly superstitious Indians are no doubt silly enough to worship.”

Instead of making this sensible remark, he not only failed to identify the face, but unconsciously yielded to it a more sincere and whole-hearted worship than had probably come its way in many centuries.

His much-prized reasoning faculty went to sleep, as it were, while whatever Kennedy had for a soul basked in fascinated contemplation of its unacknowledged ideal. Alert — stealthy — desirous — ruthless — all that the secret soul would be, the face was, and raised, moreover to the nth and ultimate power.

But rapture, in this decidedly imperfect world, is proverbially of short duration.

The minor priests and acolytes of Nacoc-Yaotl, entering the rotunda with solemn tread, could not know that their deity was receiving the perfect worship of a real devotee. They themselves were rather shy of offering that perfect worship. In fact, the countenance of Nacoc-Yaotl, or rather of his eidolon, was seldom looked upon by his cautious “sons”.

But, like other men, they had some inescapable duties. The affair before them now was of minor importance — the captive being only a poor little specimen of a Yaqui Indian, strayed north in the hills and half-witted from fright — but none the less must be gone through with.

Topiltzen, head of the gild and chief priest of the mysteries, had not deigned to attend. In consequence some fancier touches of ceremony might be dispensed with, and Marcazuma, officiating as Topiltzen’s understudy, rather hoped to be through with it in time to attend a banquet given that night by the sons of Tlapotlazenan, mother of healing.

Like members of that gild the world over, the men of medicine were a pleasant lot, with a goodly collection of amusing jests and tales at their tongue-tips. Under his breath Marcazuma cursed his superior for shoving all the drudgery onto his shoulders so that he had little time for pleasure.

He cursed again and more earnestly when the staff of the standard-like insignia he bore caught behind the golden claw-foot of a throne, and wrenched the standard fairly out of his hand.

Such an accident in the temple’s very sanctum was an omen of direst import. As the standard clattered to the pavement, a shudder and muttering ran the length of the plumed line behind him, and as if in sympathy the hounds of the marsh, silent hitherto, set up a low, concerted howling.

With a nervous glance for them, Marcazuma recovered his standard. To his increased dismay the white and black feathers at its tip had dipped in the mire of the marsh, and become seriously draggled. They were sacred feathers, not to be touched by bare human fingers, and he had to carry them on as they were, dripping slow black drops that ran down on his hand and arm.

He resumed his dignified pacing toward the shrine, but with thoughts effectually distracted from the banquet. He was a very young man to have reached the position he held, and Topiltzen had of late showed a disposition to find fault on that score, and because of a certain impediment in his assistant’s speech, two defects which Marcazuma certainly could not help.

But when his chief heard of this night’s carelessness, he guessed what might happen. Sidewise, he glanced at the hounds again — and shivered.

The clatter of the standard, however, had brought dismay to another heart than his.

It woke Kennedy as from a dream. He started, looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse through the mist of nodding plumes. Fear came back with a rush, reason roused, and all his brief content was gone in an instant.

Not only were the people almost upon him, but he realized that he had been perceiving without light. The walls of his universe shook again at a thought, and though still drawn by the face he was also unutterably afraid of it.

He actually considered diving head foremost among the reeds and hiding there, in preference to the niche. But a wolf-like head thrust out from between two clumps of bushes promised such instant disaster that he took the second of two bad choices, shut his eyes tight and lunged forward into the recess.

One step — two steps — three — and his outstretched hands came in contact with other hands. They neither yielded nor grasped at him. They were cold, smooth, polished as the marble walls outside. They were clasped around two rounded, polished knees.

A statue. The thing in the niche was only a statue! He opened his eyes and discovered that he could see with them — with his eyes, not his soul. Just see! The niche was not half so dark as he had thought. What a fool he had been to let that idea of perception without light get a grip on him! This was a statue — an idol, of course — and though black, the highly polished surface had caught gleams from the marsh.

True, the face of it was not one tenth as clear to him now as it had been, but doubtless that could be laid to the change in their relative positions.

Outside the feet were still coming on, slow, ominous, inevitable as the tread of Fate, but Kennedy found himself smiling. He felt the relief of one who has snatched victory from defeat. Having been deceived into thinking he saw a demon by its own dark light why might not the other apparently irreconcilable ideas he had of this place its people turn out to be equally deceptive?

Finding a narrow space behind the statue, he slid hastily into it and crouched there.

“Good old idol!” he muttered, and patted Nacoc-Yaotl’s adamantine, polished shoulder.

Into his range of vision very slowly there stalked a tall figure, plumed headdress nodding to each step. Its feather mantle was long and gorgeous. It bore a staff crowned with a human skull, above which a bedraggled spray of feathers dripped miry water into the skull’s hollow sockets. _

The face of the standard-bearer was more hideous than the skull, for it was extravagantly beast-like and striped with bars of white, black, and gold. But again the hidden man smiled. He had seen devil masks like that before. They were common enough at every Indian ceremony. This leading figure he placed easily in his universe — a priest of the sacrifice. An Indian priest. He must remember that and never let fancy play tricks on his keen intelligence.

Now the priest halted and set up his standard in a socket prepared for that purpose in the floor by the central font. Kennedy, peering over the idol’s shoulder, observed that not once did the man so much as glance into the niche, but kept his back consistently toward it.

Two torch-bearers, dressed like the first-comer, but a bit less splendidly, were next to appear. They, too, presented only their backs to the shrine, and having lighted the ten candles before it they passed on out of sight. Marcazuma knew, what Kennedy could not, that they went to take their places on two of the thrones. All the thrones must be filled before the ceremony might proceed, but Marcazuma was no longer impatient.

Another pair of his followers advanced, escorting the captive. That unfortunate, whose naked brown hide was marked with scarcely healed wounds very similar to those borne by Kennedy’s trail-mate, was then lifted, laid in the basin of the central font, and secured there with ropes of agave fiber.

Marcazuma watched through the eye-holes of his wooden mask. When the Yaqui writhed, moaning through his gag, the young priest shivered with sympathy. The sympathy was for himself, not the Yaqui. His prophetic eye saw the form of Marcazuma lying in that identical basin. Topiltzen was not a tolerant chief, and when he learned of that very bad omen ——

The captive’s escort had left him and gone on. Several pairs of figures stalked solemnly past the niche without stopping. Then one lone acolyte, a boy by his stature, clothed in white and wearing a white mask, came and took his stand opposite to the officiating priest. With that the procession ceased to march, for all the others who formed it had enthroned themselves, and the circle being complete, Marcazuma might take up his duties.

Of all the ceremonies that Kennedy had ever witnessed, and he had seen quite a number, that was the strangest. In the first place there was none of the singing, chanting or dancing inseparably connected with barbaric ritual elsewhere.

In the second, the thrones being out of Kennedy’s range, the only audience visible to him was formed of the marshhounds. All told there were probably a dozen of the great white dogs, and they came out of their radiant jungle to the curb’s very edge. Eyes fixed on the central font, they crouched with quivering flanks, in an eagerness which to Kennedy seemed well understandable.

“Here,” he thought, “we learn how the hounds of Tlapallan are fed,” and he was very glad to crouch safely behind the old black idol.

Well-trained brutes, those dogs, though. Man-eaters, he was sure now, they had allowed a possible dinner in his own person to pass them safely. Having their masters’ command, doubtless, to stay within the marsh’s boundaries, there they had remained, hungry or not.

The body of the little Yaqui would hardly go round among that ravenous-looking dozen. He wondered if it would be tossed to them living, or slain first. He recalled that in the Aztecs’ time of glory, when human sacrifices were made by thousands, the victim’s living heart was invariably cut out with an obsidian knife and offered to the god.

So far, however, save in the matter of costume, nothing of the present ceremony conformed to those old customs. The fonts themselves did not remotely resemble the curved sacrificial stone over which a victim was bent conveniently backward, exposing his chest to the knife.

Having stood motionless for at least five minutes, the priest and his young acolyte stirred at last. The smaller figure sidled backward toward the presiding eidolon. Because of the candles, the niche was by no means so dark as it had been and Kennedy promptly ducked out of sight. For several minutes he dared not peer out again. He heard a low mumbling voice, that blurred the musical accents of the native language rather as if the speaker had no teeth. It mumbled on and on, till at last Kennedy peered cautiously round Nacoc-Yaotl’s protruding marble ribs.

He needn’t have hidden. The acolyte had barely crossed the dividing line between black floor and white ledge, his back was still turned and he stood with arms rigidly outstretched like a human cross. He gave an odd impression of being set there as a guard — as a guard to withhold something from coming out of that niche.

But the black god never stirred — how may stone move of its own volition? — and the man behind it smiled sneeringly. He wasn’t afraid of the old black thing. He patted its ribs. The high polish of them felt almost like live skin that writhed a little under his fingers, but he could never be deceived again. Stone was stone.

Peering under the acolytes out-stretched arm he could see the officiating priest, who stood before the font with its captive and was speaking across it. His mumbled remarks might have been addressed to the attentive canine audience in the marsh, but more likely he was speaking to no one in particular — just going through some silly, empty ritual.

Ending at last, he stooped to a great golden vessel and withdrew from its depths several smaller vessels, also of gold. One of them was flask-shaped, carved all over with writhing, lizard-like forms, and fitted with a crystal stopper. The others were small jars of plain gold.

The officiating priest set them out on a kind of ledge that projected behind the font’s basin. Then he stood motionless, hands stretched above the captive as if in blessing or consecration.

Silence settled in the rotunda, so that Kennedy could hear his own heart beating, and also a faint gasping sound that came from the gagged victim.

Then the priest’s hands dropped with startling suddenness, he wheeled — made one lightning-swift genuflection toward the niche and had his back to it again before Kennedy could even think of dodging from sight.

When was this mummery to be done with?

Immediately, it appeared. With the air of a man who gets down to business at last, the priest drew on a gauntleted glove he had carried in his girdle — a glove that gleamed yellow as flexible, soft gold — opened one of the golden jars, sniffed its contents testingly, dipped his gloved fingers in the stuff, whatever it was, and began swiftly anointing the Yaqui’s naked body. The man writhed in his bonds, but whether from pain or fright Kennedy had no means of knowing — and, to do him justice, did not particularly care.

The priest worked swiftly. He might be too young, as Topiltzen hinted; he might be possessed of faulty vocal organs, and of a not quite pleasant personal appearance; but none could deny him a deftness unequalled by any man of the gild. Would Topiltzen consider that? He set the empty jar aside and took up the flask.

As at a signal, the dogs that watched him pointed their noses straight upward and once more a long, doleful howl ascended to the opal-lined dome and was echoed dully back.

Marcazuma started nervously. Twice now had the white hounds howled — the white, silent hounds, whose loudest utterance had ever been a low snarling, and that only in heat of combat. Unlucky indeed was the night! Flask in hand, he hesitated, wondering if Topiltzen would blame him more for continuing the ceremony, or breaking off in the middle. Then he shrugged. In either case, as he saw it, his doom was sealed. Two such omens, in one night!

He tugged at the flask’s stopper, which stuck; but it always did, so that could hardly be counted as a third sign. He got it out at last and without further pause poured forth the contents in a glittering stream over the writhing form of the living man in the font.

It was a violet-tinted liquid, with a strong odor like bitter almonds, and as it touched the Yaqui’s quivering skin it spread out thinly. It spread as oil does on water, swiftly, almost, one would have said, intelligently, so that in less than a minute the Indian’s brown hide was entirely coated with a thin, purplish film.

This seemed a novel way of preparing a man to be torn in pieces by beasts. Kennedy watched intently.

The ceremony proceeded

Omens or no omens, Marcazuma was an expert at this task and he carried it through unfalteringly, without a slip from start to finish.

But near the rite’s completion a scandalous interruption occurred, for a man — a gasping, pallid, fear-sick wreck of a man — plunged shudderingly out of the niche with its hidden god, brushed the acolyte aside, and began to run staggeringly along the curved edge of the marsh.

He was caught and held by the astonished occupant of the first throne he tried to pass, while for the third time that night the white hounds howled dolefully. But Marcazuma, startled beyond measure, nevertheless sent up a silent prayer of gratitude.

No wonder that there had been signs and omens in the temple!

Even Topiltzen could hardly blame him now. The mystery of mystery had been spied upon, the very shrine desecrated, and — Marcazuma almost swelled visibly with the story that he had for Topiltzen’s ear!

But Archer Kennedy, who had for once done a fellow-being a very good turn, would have scarcely appreciated the fact had he known it.

A sign and an omen there had been indeed for him that night!

He had seen the thing that Biornson, in the first days of his captivity, had prayed God to make not so, or at least to let him forget. Kennedy did not pray, but had his captors slain him forthwith he would have welcomed the stroke.

The walls of his universe had crashed down at last, and when, with blows and curses, he was dragged from the rotunda, he cared not at all whither they were taking him, just so it was away from that which now lay quivering in the font before Nacoc-Yaotl’s somber den.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00