By now the sun had set, and as there is little or no twilight in Southern Africa it became difficult for the two travellers to find their way down the rough hill path. Still they stumbled on, till presently the long dead grass brushing against their knees told them that they had lost the road, although they knew that they were riding in the right direction, for the watch-fires burning on the city walls were a guide to them. Soon, however, they lost sight of these fires, the boughs of a grove of thickly-leaved trees hiding them from view, and in trying to push their way through the wood Metem’s mule stumbled against a root and fell.
“Now there is but one thing to be done,” said the Phoenician, as he dragged the animal from the ground, “and it is to stay here till the moon rises, which should be within an hour. It would have been wiser, Prince, if we had waited to discuss love and the gods till we were safe within the walls of the city, for the end of it is that we have fallen into the hands of king Darkness, and he is the father of many evil things.”
“That is so, Metem,” answered the prince, “and I am to blame. Let us bide here in patience, since we must.”
So, holding their mules by the bridles, they sat down upon the ground and waited in silence, for each of them was lost in his own thoughts.
THE GROVE OF BAALTIS
At length, as the two men sat thus silently, for the place and its gloom oppressed them, a sound broke upon the quiet of the night, that beginning with a low wail such as might come from the lips of a mourner, ended in a chant or song. The voice, which seemed close at hand, was low, rich and passionate. At times it sank almost to a sob, and at times, taking a higher note, it thrilled upon the air in tones that would have been shrill were they not so sweet.
“Who is it that sings?” said Aziel to Metem.
“Be silent, I pray you,” whispered the other in his ear; “we have wandered into one of the sacred groves of Baaltis, which it is death for men to enter save at the appointed festivals, and a priestess of the grove chants her prayer to the goddess.”
“We did not come of our own will, so doubtless we shall be forgiven,” answered Aziel indifferently; “but that song moves me. Tell me the words of it, which I can scarcely follow, for her accent is strange to me.”
“Prince, they seem to be holy words to which I have little right to hearken. The priestess sings an ancient hallowed chant of life and death, and she prays that the goddess may touch her soul with the wing of fire and make her great and give her vision of things that have been and that shall be. More I dare not tell you now; indeed I can barely hear, and the song is hard to understand. Crouch down, for the moon rises, and pray that the mules may not stir. Presently she will go, and we can fly the holy place.”