AN IDIOT jibbered beneath the gloomy shadows of the forbidding forest. A little monkey swung low from a branch; and the idiot leaped for it, shrieking horribly.
From high among the foliage of a nearby tree two appraising eyes watched the idiot. What passed in the brain behind those eyes only the creature and its Maker knew.
The idiot suddenly started to run blindly along a trail. He stumbled and fell. It was evident that he was very weak. He scrambled to his feet and staggered on. Through the branches above, the creature followed, watching, always watching.
The trail debouched upon a little clearing, perhaps an acre in extent. A single tree grew alone near the far side. Beneath the tree sprawled three maned lions; young lions, they were, but in the prime of their strength.
As the idiot stumbled into the clearing one of the lions arose and stared at the intruder, more in curiosity than in disapproval. The idiot saw the lions; and with loud screams, hideous screams, he bore down upon them waving his arms wildly above his head.
Now lions are nervous, temperamental creatures. It is difficult to prophesy just what they will do under any given circumstances.
The others had come to their feet with the first scream of the idiot, and now all three stood watching his approach. For just a moment they stood their ground before such an emergency as had never confronted any of them before, nor, doubtless, ever would again. Then the one who had first risen turned and bounded off into the jungle, his two companions close upon his heels.
The idiot sat down suddenly and commenced to cry. “They all run away from me,” he muttered. “They know I am a murderer, and they are afraid of me—afraid of me! afraid of me! Afraid of me!” His shrieking voice rose to a final piercing crescendo.
The stalker among the trees dropped to the floor of the clearing and approached the idiot. He came upon him from behind. He was Ydeni, the Kavuru. Stealthily he crept forward. In his hand was a coiled rope.
Ydeni leaped upon the idiot and bore him to the ground. The idiot screamed and struggled, but to no avail. The mighty muscles of the Kavuru held him and deftly bound his wrists together behind his back.
Then Ydeni lifted the man and set him upon his feet. The idiot looked at his captor with wide eyes from which terror quickly faded to be replaced by a vacuous grin.
“I have a friend,” he mumbled. “At last I have a friend, and I shall not be alone. What is your name, friend? I am Prince Sborov. Do you understand? I am a prince.”
Ydeni did not understand, and if he had he would not have cared. He had been scouting for more girls and he had found an idiot. He knew that Kavandavanda would be pleased; for, while there were never too many girls, there were even fewer idiots; and Kavandavanda liked idiots.
Ydeni examined his captive. He discovered that he was weak and emaciated and that he was unarmed.
Satisfied that the man was harmless, the Kavuru released his wrists; then he fastened the rope securely about Sborov’s neck and led him off into the jungle along a secret, hidden path that was a short cut to the village.
His mind broken by terror and privation, the European babbled incessantly as he staggered along behind his captor. Often he stumbled and fell; and always Ydeni had to lift him to his feet, for he was too weak to rise without assistance.
At last the Kavuru found food and halted while Sborov ate; and when they started on again Ydeni assisted him, carrying him much of the way until at last they came to the village of the Kavuru beside the lone mountain in the wilderness.
And in the meantime, Tarzan led Brown and Tibbs along the main trail, a much longer route to the same village; for none of them knew where it was located, and at best could only harbor the hope that this trail led to it.
Sometimes Nkima rode upon Tarzan’s shoulder; or, again, swung through the trees above the three men. He, at least, was carefree and happy; Tarzan was concerned over the fate of his mate, Brown was worried about Annette, and Tibbs was always sad on general principles when he was away from London. Being hungry and footsore and weary and terrified by the jungle and its savage life in no way lessened the pall of gloom that enveloped him.
They were not a happy company, but none could tell from Tarzan’s manner or expression or any word that fell from his lips the bitterness of the sorrow that he held within his breast. He did not know what fate was reserved for the girl captives of the Kavuru, but his knowledge of the more savage tribes of these remote fastnesses offered but faint hope that he might be in time to rescue her. To avenge her was the best that he could anticipate.
And while his thoughts dwelt upon her, recalling each least detail of their companionship, Jane was being led into a large, central room in the temple of Kavandavanda, king, witch-doctor, and god of the Kavuru.
It was a large, low room, its ceiling supported by columns consisting of the trunks of trees, the surfaces of which, stripped of bark and darkened by antiquity, bore a high polish. Toothless skulls hung in clusters from the capitals of the columns, white against the darkened surfaces of the ceiling and the columns, grinning, leering upon the scene below, watching the silly antics of mortal men through the wisdom of eternity out of sightless eyes.
The gloom of the remoter purlieus of the large chamber was only partially relieved by the sunlight shining through a single opening in the ceiling and flooding a figure seated upon a great throne on a dais carpeted with the skins of leopards.
As her eyes rested for the first time upon the enthroned man, Jane was plainly aware of a mental gasp of astonishment. The picture was striking, barbaric; the man was beautiful.
If this were Kavandavanda, how utterly different was he from any of the various pictures of him her imagination had conceived; and it was Kavandavanda, she knew; it would be none other. Every indolent, contemptuous line of his pose bespoke the autocrat. Here indeed was a king—nay, something more, even, than a king. Jane could not rid herself of the thought that she was looking upon a god.
He sat alone upon the dais except for two leopards, one chained on either side of his great throne chair. Below him, surrounding the dais, were Kavuru warriors; and close at hand the soft, fat slaves such as Jane had seen elsewhere in the temple. Upon the floor, on each side of the dais, a dozen girls reclined upon leopard skins. They were mostly black girls, but there were a number with the lighter skins and the features of the Bedouins.
One of the Bedouin girls and a couple of the blacks were reasonably comely of face and figure, but on the whole they did not appear to have been selected with an eye to pulchritude.
Ogdli led his two charges to within a few yards of the dais; then, as he knelt himself, gruffly ordered them to kneel. Annette did as she was bid; but Jane remained erect, her eyes fearlessly appraising the man upon the throne.
He was a young man, almost naked but for an elaborate loin-cloth and ornaments. Many rows of human teeth suspended about his neck, covered his chest and fell as low as his loin-cloth. Armlets, bracelets, and anklets of metal, of wood, and of ivory, completed his barbaric costume. But it was not these things that riveted the girl’s attention, but rather the divine face and form of the youth.
At first Jane felt that she had never looked upon a more beautiful countenance. An oval face was surmounted by a wealth of golden hair; below a high, full forehead shone luminous dark eyes that glowed with the fires of keen intelligence. A perfect nose and a short upper lip completed the picture of divine beauty that was marred and warped and ruined by a weak, cruel mouth.
Until she noticed that mouth, hope had leaped high in Jane’s breast that here she and Annette might find a benevolent protector rather than the cruel savage they had expected Kavandavanda to be.
The man’s eyes were fixed upon her in a steady stare. He, too, was appraising; but what his reaction, his expression did not reveal.
“Kneel!” he commanded suddenly, in imperious tones.
“Why should I kneel?” demanded Jane. “Why should I kneel to you?”
“I am Kavandavanda.”
“That is no reason why an English woman should kneel to you.”
Two of the fat, black slaves started toward her, looking questioningly at Kavandavanda.
“You refuse to kneel?” asked the youth.
The slaves were still advancing toward her, but they kept one eye on Kavandavanda. He waved them back. A strange expression twisted his lips. Whether it was from amusement or anger, Jane could not guess.
“It pleases me to discuss the matter,” said the youth; then he commanded Ogdli and Annette to rise. “You brought in both of these prizes, Ogdli?” he asked.
“No,” replied Ogdli. “Ydeni brought this one.” He gestured toward Annette. “I brought the other.”
“You did well. We have never had one like her—she contains the seeds of beauty as well as youth.” Then he turned his eyes upon Jane once more. “Who are you?” he demanded, “and what were you doing in the country of the Kavuru?”
“I am Jane Clayton, Lady Greystoke. I was flying from London to Nairobi when our ship was forced down. My companions and I were trying to make our way to the coast when this girl and myself were captured by your warriors. I ask that you release us and give us guides to the nearest friendly village.”
A crooked smile twisted the lips of Kavandavanda. “So you came in one of those devil birds,” he said. “Two others came yesterday. Their dead bodies lie beside their devil bird outside the city gates. My people are afraid of the devil bird; they will not go near it. Tell me, will it harm them?”
The girl thought quickly before she replied. Perhaps she might turn their superstitious fear to her advantage. “They had better keep away from it,” she advised. “More devil birds will come, and if they find that you have harmed me or my companion they will destroy your village and your people. Send us away in safety, and I will tell them not to bother you.”
“They will not know that you are here,” replied the youth. “No one knows what happens in the village of the Kavuru or the temple of Kavandavanda.”
“You will not set us free?”
“No. No stranger who enters the gates of the village ever passes out again—and you, least of all. I have had many girls brought to me, but none like you.”
“You have plenty of girls here. What do you want of me?”
His eyes half closed as he regarded her. “I do not know,” he said in a voice scarce raised above a whisper. “I thought that I knew, but now I am not sure.” Suddenly he turned his eyes upon Ogdli. “Take them to the room of the three snakes,” he commanded, “and guard them there. They cannot escape, but see that they do not try. I don’t want anything to happen to this one. Medek will show you the way,” he nodded toward one of the fat blacks standing near the dais.
“What was all the talk about, madame?” asked Annette, as they were being led through the temple by Medek.
Jane told her, briefly.
“The room of the three snakes!” repeated Annette. “Do you suppose there are snakes in the room?” She shuddered. “I am afraid of snakes.”
“Look above the doors of the rooms we pass,” suggested Jane. “I think you will find the answer to your question there. There is a doorway with a boar’s head above it. We just passed one with two human skulls over the lintel; and there, on the other side of the corridor, ahead, is one with three leopards’ heads. It is evidently their way of designating rooms, just as we number them in our hotels. I imagine it has no other significance.”
Medek led them up a flight of rude stairs and along a corridor on the second floor of the temple and ushered them into a room above the doorway of which were mounted the heads of three snakes. Ogdli entered the room with them. It was a low ceiled room with windows overlooking the courtyard that surrounded the temple.
Annette looked quickly around the apartment. “I don’t see any snakes, madame,” she said, with evident relief.
“Nor much of anything else, Annette. The Kavuru don’t waste much thought on furniture.”
“There are two benches, madame, but no table and not a bed.”
“There’s the bed over in the corner,” said Jane.
“That’s just a pile of filthy skins,” objected the French girl.
“Nevertheless, it’s all the bed we’ll get, Annette.”
“What are you talking about?” demanded Ogdli. “Don’t think that you can escape. You haven’t a chance; so there’s no sense in planning anything of the sort.”
“We weren’t,” Jane assured him. “We can’t escape unless you’ll help us. I was so glad when Kavandavanda said that you were to guard us. You know, you are the only friend we have, Ogdli.”
“Did you see how Kavandavanda looked at you?” the man demanded, suddenly.
“Why no, not particularly,” replied Jane.
“Well, I did; and I’ve never seen him look that way at a captive before. Neither did I ever know him to permit a person to stand before him without first kneeling. I believe that you have bewitched him, too. Did you like him, woman?”
“Not as well as I like you, Ogdli,” whispered the girl.
“He can’t do it!” exclaimed the man. “He’s got to obey the law the same as the rest of us.”
“Do what?” demanded Jane.
“If he tries it, I’ll—” A noise in the corridor silenced him, and just in time. The door was swung open by a slave, and as he stood aside the figure of Kavandavanda was revealed behind him.
As he entered the room Ogdli dropped to his knees. Annette followed his example, but Jane remained erect.
“So you won’t kneel, eh?” demanded Kavandavanda. “Well, perhaps that is the reason I like you—one of the reasons. You two may arise. Get out into the corridor, all of you except this one who calls herself Jane. I wish to speak with her alone.”
Ogdli looked Kavandavanda straight in the eyes. “Yes,” he said; “yes, high priest of the priests of Kavuru, I go; but I shall be near.”
Kavandavanda flushed momentarily in what seemed anger, but he said nothing as the others passed out into the corridor. When they had gone and the door had been closed, he turned to Jane. “Sit down,” he said, motioning toward one of the benches; and when she had, he came and sat beside her. For a long time he looked at her before he spoke, his eyes the eyes of a dreamer of dreams. “You are very beautiful,” he said, at last. “I have never seen a creature more beautiful. It seems a pity, then; it seems a pity.”
“What seems a pity?” demanded the girl.
“Never mind,” he snapped, brusquely. “I must have been thinking aloud.” Again, for a space, he was silent, sunk in thought; and then: “What difference will it make. I may as well tell you. It is seldom that I have an opportunity to talk with anyone intelligent enough to understand; and you will understand—you will appreciate the great service you are to render—if I am strong. But when I look at you, when I look deep into those lovely eyes, I feel weak. No, no! I must not fail; I must not fail the world that is waiting for me.”
“I do not understand what you are talking about,” said the girl.
“No, not now; but you will. Look at me closely. How old do you think I am?”
“In your twenties, perhaps.” He leaned closer. “I do not know how old I am. I have lost all track. Perhaps a thousand years; perhaps a few hundred; perhaps much older. Do you believe in God?”
“Yes, most assuredly.”
“Well, don’t. There is no such thing—not yet, at least. That has been the trouble with the world. Men have imagined a god instead of seeking god among themselves. They have been led astray by false prophets and charlatans. They have had no leader. God should be a leader, and a leader should be a tangible entity—something men can see and feel and touch. He must be mortal and yet immortal. He may not die. He must be omniscient. All the forces of nature have been seeking throughout all the ages to produce such a god that the world may be ruled justly and mercifully forever, a god who shall control the forces of nature as well as the minds and acts of men.
“Almost such am I, Kavandavanda, high priest of the priests of Kavuru. Already am I deathless; already am I omniscient; already, to some extent, can I direct the minds and acts of men. It is the forces of nature that yet defy me. When I have conquered these, I shall indeed be God.”
“Yes,” agreed Jane, bent upon humoring this madman; “yes, you shall indeed be God; but remember that mercy is one of the characteristics of godliness. Therefore, be merciful; and set my companion and me free.”
“And have the ignorant barbarians of the outer world swoop down upon us and rob mankind of its sole hope of salvation by destroying me? No!”
“But what purpose can I serve? If you free us, I promise to lead no one here.”
“You can serve the only purpose for which women are fit. Man may only attain godliness alone. Woman weakens and destroys him. Look at me! Look at my priests! You think we are all young men. We are not. A hundred rains have come and gone since the latest neophyte joined our holy order. And how have we attained this deathlessness? Through women. We are all celibates. Our vows of celibacy were sealed in the blood of women; in our own blood will we be punished if we break them. It would be death for a Kavuru priest to succumb to the wiles of a woman.”
Jane shook her head. “I still do not understand,” she said.
“But you will. Long ago I learned the secret of deathless youth. It lies in an elixir brewed of many things—the pollen of certain plants, the roots of others, the spinal fluid of leopards, and, principally, the glands and blood of women—young women. Now do you understand?”
“Yes.” The girl shuddered.
“Do not recoil from the thought; remember that you will thus become a part of the living god. You will live forever. You will be glorified.”
“But I won’t know anything about it; so what good will it do me?”
“I shall know. I shall know that you are a part of me. In that way I shall have you.” He leaned closer to her. “But I should like to keep you as you are.” His breath was hot upon her cheek. “And why not? Am I not almost a god? And may not God do as he chooses? Who is there to say him nay?”
He seized her and drew her to him.