The Cup of Fear and Trembling


The Cup of Fear and Trembling


The Cup of Fear and Trembling


With war in Mexico occupying so large a share of public attention, the following story will be of unusual interest. It tells of a trip to a temple of the Sun worshippers and is replete with all the mystery that shrouds the religious observance of the ancient inhabitants of tropical America It may seem perhaps unreal, but remember—there may be more in the knowledge of these Southern disciples of strange occultism than is dreamed of in the every-day philosophy of modem races.


MR. FITZHUGH came out of the blue room with a queer, halfmerry, half spite-of-the-devil-and-Tom-Walker smile on his face, such as they say the Captain, his father, wore before the old gentleman got tangled up with the high gods at the equator.

“Tompkins,” he said, in his playful, mocking way, “you don’t happen to wear the golden, galling yoke of matrimony? You haven’t any encumbrances such as men-servants, maid-servants, wives, •oxen and triplets?”

“I have not, sir—thank God,” I answered, thinking of my cousin, William Prewitt, who married a widow with seven children, including two sets of twins.

Mr. Fitzhugh set his handsome face in a kind of a comical sun-grin, but his voice trembled a little. “How’d you like to go gunning after high-dinky-dory priests who can turn you into a pillar of salt with a wink of an eye? How’d you like to go mate with a top o’ the Andes princess with eyes like Royal Egypt’s and the kiss that kills with the sweet of it? How’d you like to go a-questing for the treasure of the single-orbed, crosslegged god Xaquixapetl and the Cup of Fear and Trembling?”

“Great heavens—not that!” I cried. “Anything but that, Mr. Fitzhugh!” I had heard them tell how Captain Walker went forth from The Cedars as blithe and chipper a gentleman as the one who

stood before me. I had seen him come back from that hell’s-girdle of an equator with his hair as grey as a meathouse rat and his limbs drawn and crooked and his spirit broken. I had heard him babble on his death-bed of eternal fires, of beautiful vestals and sorcerers of priests—God help him! I can’t get it out of my mind to this day. “Heaven save us—not that accursed Cup,” I pleaded. “Besides, what would Miss Lucile say?”

The queer smile died on his face and he took on the soft, gentle mood of his mother, whom the Quezguil priests had slain. “You’re right, old Tompkins,” he murmured. “I’m the one to go and go alone. But it’s Miss Lucile who wants

the Cup. She’s just given me carte blanche instructions to get it—and, bless her, she shall l.avn ¡&lt "

I stepped up then and shook his hand. It wasn’t every day that I, a farm overseer and general handy man, shook the hand of a Walker; but then, this was for the Cup. “My father went with your father,” I told him. “Where you go, I go.” Mr. Fitzhugh smiled cheerily, nearly crushing my fingers in his bear’s grip. And so that part of it was settled.

Captain Walker had brought the Cup of Fear and Trembling to The Cedars the time he came back from the Andes, twisted and seared from the torture of the Quezguil priests. It was a pretty enough toy, of solid Peruvian gold, shaped and carved like an old Roman urn and set with a hundred glistening emeralds of AJacama. I’m no jeweler, but I should say the Cup was worth a good fifty thousand; and the Captain always said it wasn’t the twentieth part of the loot of the high gods of Quezguil.

He had been adventuring around the South Seas trying to mend the Walker fortunes, which have been bad enough for generations. It was at Callao that a Norway skipper told him of the Cup and the high gods. It was somewhere back of Cuzco, in a mountainous, feverish, poison-jungled land, where the natives worshipped the sun, the moon and a lot of bandy-legged, diamond-eyed deities. There was loot for a fleet of Barbary pirates; and many a bucko-adventurer had gone over the Cordilleras, but few had come back.

It was just the kind of a will-o’-thewisp tale to set the Captain a-fire, and he got up a handful of an expedition and set out. For weeks they fought their way through alli-

gator swamps and monkey-groves and over peaks as high as Babel. Then one day, after the rest had starved, drowned or deserted, the Captain and my father stumbled into the valley of the gods. The loot was there in a great temple guarded by a lot of foxy priests and beautiful vestals. The upshot of it was that the Captain and one of the vestals fell in love, making off with the treasure, Cup and all. They hid in the mountains for months, uniting themselves by some kind of a fire, blood and water rite that the Quezguil people used; and Mr. Fitzhugh was born in an eagle’s eyrie on the roof of the world. Then the priests discovered them. They tortured the vestal, Yngaine, to death, and they racked and seared Captain Walker all but to death, and sent him, my father and the babe across the sierras. In some outlandish jest they let him take the Cup of Fear and Trembling.

The Captain came back to the Cedars and the Cup sat on the mantel in the blue room—green and fiery-gold as the sea at sunrise. The bauble would have raised the mortgage on the place without difficulty; but the Captain never would part with it, until one day it disappeared just as though the earth had gulped it down. The Captain lingered on for three years; but he was a hopeless cripple and the fire of his spirit was gone. He would sit and watch the boy moulding mud pies in the sun, and mutter of an old Quezguil legend about Mr. Fitzhugh being some kind of a heathen dignitary. The priests had branded the design of a new moon upon the boy’s neck, and the Captain would hint about the youngster being the son of a vestal bought with the life of a white man, a fact that seemed to be of unusual signifi-

Mr. Fitzhugh grew up to be a handsome young man, tall and straight like the Captain, but dark and dreamy-eyed like his poor little vestal of a mother. He had that easy, happy-go-lucky donothing way that they have from Colon to Punta Arenas and it didn’t appear as though The Cedars was going to be restored in his generation. Miss Lucile was exactly his opposite. She had fire and dash and was first in everything— leading cotillions, riding after hounds, china painting or making pretty French speeches. They seemed fond enough of each other in a way, but Miss Lucile used to taunt him about his idle, careless ways and try to spur him up to accomplish something. Then came the night when she dined at The Cedars, and something she said must have stirred that strange mixture of blood in his veins.

“We’ll bring my lady the Cup of the Hundred Emeralds, if we have to operate on the high god Xaquixapetl and take it from his appendix,” he said, in his half-jesting, half earnest way. “We’ll bring back the loot to restore The Cedars, and we’ll have presidents and ambassadors extraordinary dancing the stately minuet in its halls once more, Tompkins.” And it looked as if he did mean to try for once.

In a week we set out for Montreal. 1 was standing so close that I couldn’t help but hear Miss Lucile’s last words.

“You won’t get the Cup, Fitzhugh. You won’t come within a hundred miles of it. But, if you make a decent try, if you can show an honest scratch or a

good, red bruise for the effort, why-”

She did not finish, but I think I know what she meant.

We caught the Panama boat, crossed the Isthmus, and three weeks from the day we left Miss Lucile smiling in the sun we put our feet on the rotting wharves of Chancay. Three days later, after getting together our traveling kit, including food, firearms, mathematical instruments, flints, traps, and baubles for trading, we began the steep climb inland on the narrow gauge, jerkwater railway. At the end of another three days we saw the smoke of the queerly-arranged mountain-climbing engine starting for the downhill slide tothe sea, and we commenced the real journew on burros. .

I do not propose to outline the precise route we followed after leaving that little, stucco-built, palm-grown, sky-high town of San Iglesias. There have been enough good men to cross that trail of blood, starvation, venom and miasma already; and if there’s ever honest occasion to go back, the full directions are to be found in Captain Walker’s papers. It’s a good three hundred mile downward jaunt from San Iglesias, beginning where the earth comes precious near to scraping the under edge of high heaven and ending in a green, smiling valley shut in by straight, dizzy cliffs and fair enough for any jewel-eyed, Turk-squatting god that ever saw a sacrifice.

The first day out Mr. Fitzhugh potted a mountain lioness just in time to keep the big cat from scratching his heart out. Then I stepped on a sleeping boa constrictor and wondered why I ever left The Cedars. It wasn’t a week before one of the burros stepped into an abyss that must have let him out somewhere on the coast of China.

“The burro won’t bring back the Cup,” said Mr. Fitzhugh, “but the poor devil’s made a decent try, eh, Tompkins?”

“Decent enough to satisfy anybody,” I answered, wondering what Miss Lucile would think if she could have seen Mr. Fitzhugh with his week’s growth of black, silky beard and his dirty, red sweater, leading a solemn-eyed jennet over the top of the world.

A few nights later some green-eyed, hell-snarling giant-cat clawed the life out of the other burro and we had to leave most of the ammunition and provisions. Then we snaked down cliffs where you couldn’t see the bottom ; crawled on smelly, skin-irritating, rainbow-blossomed vines over foaming torrents ; skirted the alpine lakes of the great puna, keeping well below the snow line; pulled each other out of sucking quicksands, and built huge bonfires tc awe the velvet-footed, fire-eyed things that come at you by night in the cordilleras. At first there had been a great many of the mongrel-blooded mestizos, living their lazy lives out on the old terraces left by the Yucas on the sides of the sierras. Then as we descended into the vast, trackless montana, with its numberless quinine-yielding cinchonas, cocoa-palms, tropical fruits, incense, and india-rubber trees, we encountered frequent bands of wild Indians; and it was astonishing how Mr. Fitzhugh picked up their throaty chop-talk just as he had picked up the smoother syllables of the mixed breeds. But as we emerged, shaking and sweating with swamp-fever, into the desert beyond, even these primi-

tive people vanished, and we plodded for a week over a scope of hot, dead sand where the sun shone on no living thing except a species of herb with heartshaped leaves, large, violet flowers with heavy odor, whose thick stems ramified through the crescent-shaped sand-hills.

Finally the provisions and ammunition gave out, and it looked like a case of lie down and wait for the condors. I made matters worse by stocking up with fever, and I suppose that in my delirium I must have implored Mr. Fitzhugh to go back. I have a misty recollection of him holding my head in his lap and smiling like Satan himself, it seemed to me, as he said:

“We’re getting close to the Cup, Tompkins, old man. Cheer up. We’ll show Miss Lucile many a good, red bruise yet.”

We had cleared the desert and I was flat of my back with the rocks and bushes whirling about like dancing dervishes, when Mr. Fitzhugh came back from a little exploring jaunt, whooping and yelling and thumping my aching bones.

“Eureka!” he screamed. “We’re there, old man. I can see the temple of the Most High and Ugly Xaquixapetl through the pass. Rout the germs from your blood and let’s go for the Cup.”

I staggered up and followed him to the narrow pass. Right under our feet, where the mountain sloped gently down into a perfect garden of the gods, lay the Sacred City. It was a cluster of some fifty pagoda-dike, brick and stone houses, shut in on three sides by perpendicular walls of rock, five hundred blessed feet high. On a knoll in the centre was a square, rock-built temple, half covered with tropical vines and supported by huge columns. Totem-poles rose here and there about the village. A procession of some kind was in progress and the smell of burning meat came up.

“Memories of Delmonico ! I’m starved,” trebled Mr. Fitzhugh. “Let’s go down and eat the high god’s sacrifice.”

“Maybe they won’t take to us,” I chattered, the fever making my teeth rattle

like minstrels’ bones. “Maybe we’d better lie low and slip in to-night.”

He shook his head. “When we take the Cup of Fear and Trembling back to Miss Lucile, it must be with the high gods working for us, not against us.”

We scrambled out of the pass and walked down the slope. By the time we reached the outer ring of beautifullycarved pagoda-houses, we could hear the procession chanting—rising and falling, sweet and clear, like the music in the cathedrals at Christmas time. They were headed for 'the temple—olive-skinned, beardless, eagle-nosed people running from five feet to five feet four and wearing robes of gorgeous colors. They must have seen or heard us, but they made no sign, and we fell in behind. There was a tremendous flight of stone steps, exquisitely carved with animals, suns, moons, gods and things, running up to the colossal pillars of the temple; and the procession halted at the top of these and faced about. A little, crafty, old man, with a skin like a faded deed, held out his palm to us and sang out in their choppy lingo, which is mostly “quez,” “cac” and petl.” Mr. Fitzhugh stepped up and mumbled back at him; they jabbered away and made signs, and then Mr. Fitzhugh turned to me.

“I can’t make out all the old fox says, but they’ve known we were coming since we struck the desert. It’s the festival of Xaquixapetl and we’re very welcome.”

The old high priest turned, the chant swelled up and died away, and the procession went into the temple.

It was like a great, gloomy, empty hotel-lobby, with immense pillars carved with birds, beasts and deities, rising to the roof, and the floor made up of squares of many-colored tiling. At the far end of the chamber was a stone pedestal covered with hieroglyphics, and mon

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this squatted the high god, one-eyed jewel-studded, ugly as black sin. Before the lap of the grinning god sat the Cup of Fear and Trembling—a shimmer of green and gold fire seeming to rise from it as a thin ray of sunlight fell across it. On an altar before the idol a fire was blazing, tended by five young women. The three minor priests bowed before the altar, and the high priest, Hurtado Xan, swung a censer of some strange, sweet, overpowering incense. The chant wailed forth, and one of the vestals stepped out, reaching out her bare, round arm for the Cup. As she turned, the light of the altar-fire illuminated her fresh, olive-tinted face, her dark, dreamy eyes shaded by long eyelashes, and her straight black hair bound by a golden circlet and falling to her [ knees I heard Mr. Fitzhugh groan. I looked around and saw him standing, eyes set, fists clenched, breathing fast, like a man in stress of pain.

“Iris and Cleopatra!” he was muttering. “What a woman ! No wonder the governor went loco. No wonder he risked the rack.”

He bounded into the ring of light and ' the vestal saw him. She just gave a I little, happy cry, stretched out her soft, bare arms and dropped that precious 1 Cup on the tiled floor, where the goat’s blood ran red and smeary. She prattled away in their cux-quix-a-pac chop-talk, and Mr. Fitzhugh, seeming to understand, jabbered and gestured back. Old Hurtado Xan threw up his hands and screamed. The three minor priests pointed at the overturned Cup and raved like fury. The chant broke off short. But the maid came straight on toward Mr. Fitzhugh; and the young master, with his beard long and grown to a silky point like the pictures of the Savior, advanced to meet her. They came together just by the altar-fire, and they put their arms about each other and kissed in the presence of the high god.

Then I thought that all the deities had broken loose at once. The priests and the little, short-thighed, beardless men crowded around, and in half a minute Mr. Fitzhugh, the girl and myself lay bound upon the bright-colored tiling. In another minute they were bundling us down the great flight of steps. Looking back I saw they had set the Cup in its place before the ugly god. The sunlight fell across it and it snaked and writhed and twisted tauntingly.

They put Mr. Fitzhugh and me into one of the little stone pagodas and set a watch outside. There was goat-meat and cocoanuts inside and I ate more than was good for me; but Mr. Fitzhugh did not touch it. He just sat there like a man turned to stone, until the sun went down and the Quezguil people resumed their chanting. Then he roused.

“Tompkins, man, did you ever see the like in woman? Were there ever such world-old, slumber-fire eyes, such mer’

1 maid wealth of gloss-black hair, such rounded, supple, Venus-turned arms?”

“Miss Lucile—” I reminded him; and he jumped like a man branded with hot

“Great God, Tompkins! I’d forgotten Miss Lucile—and the Cup. Did you see the accursed thing squirming in the gaze of the hungry god and seeming to mock and laugh at us? Why, man, they’re apt to torture us—to flay and rend and break on the wheel. And her, too—her, too, Tompkins. For she’s a vestal of Xaquixapetl, and for her to love is to die. Are you afraid, man?”

I lied to him, saying that I was not greatly distressed. He sat there for three hours more, with the glow on his face that had come when the vestal Cerzane turned in the temple; and when I asked for information about this wheelbreaking business he swore by the stars that he and the vestal should die on the same wheel. And I did not take any great comfort from his answer.

About eleven o’clock the guard stuck his head inside and beckoned. Mr. Fitzhugh went out. I heard whispering, something that reminded me of the cooing of doves, and certainly a kiss. Presently the young master came back, his face radiant. He said that Cerzane, being the first vestal of Xaquixapetl, had a stronger hold on the common people than even the dreaded priests. She had shaken off her own bonds, had won over our guard and was ready to flee with us to the end of the world.

“And the Cup?” I suggested.

His face clouded. “Ay, there’s the cup, Tompkins. You’re a good memory-jogger, but sometimes a deuced unpleasant one, man, I mustn’t forget why I came to Quezguil—nor who sent me.” He sighed and fell to shaking his head.

I followed him out and he whispered and gestured with Cerzane until I feared the coming of the dawn. “Sweet— sweet!” he would mutter, and they would prattle in their x-ey talk. The guard stood like an Indian cigar-sign all the time. Poor devil, they probably parboiled him next day. Finally we set out for the temple.

There was another of the short-thighed, spear-armed little men at the entrance, but Cerzane walked past him as though he were a statue. In ten minutes she returned and we answered her summons. The fire on the altar burned dimly. A lone vestal lay in deep, unnatural slumber on a dais. Cerzane tip-toed to the high god and fumbled with his breast. The bronze front of him slid open. She beckoned us near, and I saw in the altarlight such a gleam of gems and gauds and gold as I may not hope to look upon again, save in some fitful dream. Emeralds of Coscuez and the Manka Valley, rubies red as a pigeon’s blood, diamonds of Bahia, Columbian amethysts, gold and silver trinkets carved grotesquely, shone and sparkled and dazzled in the flickering light from the altar.

“The old god had a golden lining, eh, Tompkins?” whispered Mr. Fitzhugh. “Here—stuff your clothes—a king’s ransom to a pocket.”

We crammed our pockets with the;

splendid treasure. As the altar-light played over his streaked face, the high god seemed to leer and mock at us. The sleeping vestal stirred ; but Cerzane waved her hands and muttered and the girl slept soundly. I reached for the Cup and drew back, crying out with pain. There was blood on my fingers. I picked it up more carefully and saw where a sharply-cut stone had pricked me.

We stole out of the temple, down the great flight of steps and through the heart of the Sacred City. There was no light, no sound. At one of the carved totem-poles we were met by the prison guard with ingeniously woven, fiber baskets filled with goat-meat and fruits and skin-bags containing water. A yellow shepherd-dog joined us here and would not be shaken off. With considerable exertion we climbed the western slope and made our way through the pass. Then, taking the trail along a foaming creek, we climbed slowly and painfully through the darkness. When daylight came we hid in a bush-covered rock-cleft a good five hundred feet above the valley of the gods and with only the eagles and condors to spy upon our sleep.

One night we camped in a fissure above the ledge from whence the poor, solemneyed burro had dropped to the centre of the world. Cerzane was unusually fidgety and sat up very late. In the morning Mr. Fitzhugh, the first to leave the recess, whistled shrilly through his teeth. I hurried out and found him standing on the ledge gaping at a marvelous spectacle. Closing the trail before and behind us were hedges of gorgeous, greenish flowers, the blossoms huge and bell-shaped like some abnormal morning-glory. They seemed to be actually growing, but had evidently been strung on wires or vines during the night. To our left was a sheer drop of a thousand feet; to the right a perpendicular rock wall.

“Presto, change!” said Mr. Fitzhugh. “A little omelet-in-the-hat trick by our friends, the enemy. Why, they’re fine as orchids-”

He stopped short when Cerzane, coming out of the cleft, flung herself upon his neck with a moan. She cried and babbled in his ear; his face went white; and I tried to think about that part of the Litany about sudden death, for I knew the game must be up with Cerzane carrying on like that. While she was still moaning, Hurtado Xan, the old parchment-yellow High Priest, appeared on the other side of the hedge. Behind him were Yayal, Quenpoyas and Punga Oje, three of his subordinates. They were grinning evilly.

“This is where we go over the river, Tompkins,” explained Mr. Fitzhugh, with a bitter smile. “Cerzane’s been fearful of old Hurtado Xan all along. That rare and beautiful hedge you see is the Quezguil lily, an exclusive species cultivated by our sardonic friends in the cloisters of the temple of Xaquixapetl. Its fumes are noxious and deadly; should we attempt to scale the hedge, the fumes would lay us out straight and stiff as the sheep-dog back there. When the

worst comes, chuck that accursed Cup over the cliff.”

The High Priest jabbered at Cerzane; and Cerzane, white-faced and trembling, translated to Mr. Fitzhugh.

“They’re considerate enough to offer us choice of deaths,” he went on. “There’s the cliff, the hedge, or starvation.”

I told him I thought I would sit inside and wait. Then he took Cerzane, the vestal, by the hand and they walked toward the edge of the precipice, with me calling after him.

“Mr. Fitzhugh, wait—don’t—I can’t bear it. Plead with these old fiends— beg—maybe they’ll give in.”

He turned with his sad, queer smile. “You’d better give me the Cup, Tompkins. We’ll take the luring gaud with us. And good-by.”

Arm in arm they moved again to the edge of the cliff, the priests of the god looking on mockingly. The young master stooped and kissed Cerzane. “Sweet —sweet—we go together,” I heard him murmur; and I closed my eyes. And then a great clamor arose from the priests. I opened my eyes, dreading the sight of the naked ledge. But Mr. Fitzhugh and Cerzane stood upon the brink, staring over at the priests, who had fallen upon their knees. Old Hurtado Xan was pointing at Mr. Fitzhugh’s neck and jabbering at a tremendous rate. Then Cerzane bowed and touched her head on the rock before Mr. Fitzhugh.

“What the hundred gods of Quezguil!” cried Mr. Fitzhugh. “Are they making a deity of me?”

Cerzane arose and talked rapidly, clapping her hands prettily and bowing and bobbing. The priests scrambled up and, with peculiar masks over their faces and rubber gloves on their hands, set to demolishing the hedge of death. Old Hurtado Xan crossed over and placed the hand of the vestal Cerzane in the hand of her lover. And Mr. Fitzhugh turned to me, with his finger on the crescent branded on his neck.

“It’s the legend, Tompkins—the old folk-tale of which my father used to hint. Away back about the time of Pizarro the children of the high gods lost their king. The high priest of that time declared that some day one of the white, bearded conquerors would come from afar, mating with a vestal of Xaquixapetl at the cost of his life; and that their son would return, woo the god’s first vestal and be king of the Quezguils. They branded the new moon on my neck when they I tortured my father nigh unto death.”

He took Cerzane by the hand and led her into the cleft, and they whispered together for a while. After that, he i came out and walked to and fro upon the ledge, ten thousand feet above the I rotting wharves of Chancay. There was a frown on his face and a strange light shone in his eyes. He walked rapidly, nervously, while the four priests squatted outside and watched. There was a good hour of this, and then he came and took my hand.

“It’s destiny, Tompkins,” he said softly. “I felt something of the kind there in the temple when I saw Cerzane minding the fire of Xaquixapetl. I’ve talked with her and I’ve thought it all

out and I’m going to stay, old man. As their petty king, I can do some good in the world—maybe I can bring a people out of darkness. Anyhow I shall have a try.

“But you must go back—with the Cup, Tompkins. You see, I’ve the power over the Cup of Fear and Trembling now. Show Miss Lucile your good, red bruises and give her the bauble. She’d rather see the Cup come back without me than for me to return without the Cup. That was the way she cared—it was that she would not see me fail.”

He gave me an emerald of Somondoco large as a robin’s egg with which to redeem The Cedars; he signed a paper making the old place over to me, for he had no kin; and/ he turned and kissed the vestal Cerzane.

When I arrived at Mr. Sanford’s, Miss Lucile sat upon the wide porch with four very fine gentlemen about her, laughing and carrying on after the manner of those in the blossom-years of life. But I had my duty to do, and, therefore, I stepped upon the porch and gave her the Cup of Fear and Trembling.

“With Mr. Fitzhugh’s compliments, ma’am,” said I, with a bow.

Her face turned white, then flushed red like a person in fever. “Will—will he return?” she asked, with a quiver in her voice.

“No, miss,” I answered, with another bow.

Her head dropped forward the slightest; her bosom heaved, and I saw a single tear trickle down and tumble into the Cup—God knows it was not the first the toy had wrung. And then she began to talk very gayly.