Tales of Secret Egypt/Tales of Abu Tabah/The Death-Ring of Sneferu
THE orchestra had just ceased playing; and, taking advantage of the lull in the music, my companion leaned confidentially forward, shooting suspicious glances all around him, although there was nothing about the well-dressed after-dinner throng filling Shepheard’s that night to have aroused misgiving in the mind of a cinema anarchist.
“I have a very big thing in view,” he said, speaking in a husky whisper. “I shall be one up on you, Kernaby, if I pull it off.”
He glanced sideways, in the manner of a pantomime brigand, at a party of New York tourists, our immediate neighbors, and from them to an elderly peer with whom I was slightly acquainted and who, in addition to his being stone deaf, had never noticed anything in his life, much less attempted so fatiguing an operation as intrigue.
“Indeed,” I commented; and rang the bell with the purpose in view of ordering another cooling beverage.
True, I might be the Egyptian representative of a Birmingham commercial enterprise, but I did not gladly suffer the society of this individual, whose only claim to my acquaintance lay in the fact that he was in the employ of a rival house. My lack of interest palpably disappointed him; but I thought little of the man’s qualities as a connoisseur and less of his company. His name was Theo Bishop and I fancy that his family was associated with the tanning industry. I have since thought more kindly of poor Bishop, but at the time of which I write nothing could have pleased me better than his sudden dissolution.
Perhaps unconsciously I had allowed my boredom to become rudely apparent; for Bishop slightly turned his head aside, and—
“Right-o, Kernaby,” he said; “I know you think I am an ass, so we will say no more about it. Another cocktail?”
And now I became conscience-stricken; for mingled with the disappointment in Bishop’s tone and manner was another note. Vaguely it occurred to me that the man was yearning for sympathy of some kind, that he was bursting to unbosom himself, and that the vanity of a successful rival was by no means wholly responsible. I have since placed that ambiguous note and recognized it for a note of tragedy. But at the time I was deaf to its pleading.
We chatted then for some while longer on indifferent topics, Bishop being, as I have indicated, a man difficult to offend; when, having correspondence to deal with, I retired to my own room. I suppose I had been writing for about an hour, when a servant came to announce a caller. Taking an ordinary visiting-card from the brass salver, I read—
No title preceded the name, no address followed, but I became aware of something very like a nervous thrill as I stared at the name of my visitor. Personality is one of the profoundest mysteries of our being. Of the person whose card I held in my hand I knew little, practically nothing; his actions, if at times irregular, had never been wantonly violent; his manner was gentle as that of a mother to a baby and his singular reputation among the natives I thought I could afford to ignore; for the Egyptian, like the Celt, with all his natural endowments, is yet a child at heart. Therefore I cannot explain why, sitting there in my room in Shepheard’s Hotel, I knew and recognized, at the name of Abû Tabâh, the touch of fear.
“I will see him downstairs,” I said.
Then, as the servant was about to depart, recognizing that I had made a concession to that strange sentiment which the Imám Abû Tabâh had somehow inspired in me—
“No,” I added; “show him up here to my room.”
A few moments later the man returned again, carrying the brass salver, upon which lay a sealed envelope. I took it up in surprise, noting that it was one belonging to the hotel, and, ere opening it—
“Where is my visitor?” I said in Arabic.
“He regrets that he cannot stay,” replied the man; “but he sends you this letter.”
Greatly mystified, I dismissed the servant and tore open the envelope. Inside, upon a sheet of hotel notepaper I found this remarkable message—
There are reasons why I cannot stay to see you personally, but I would have you believe that this warning is dictated by nothing but friendship. Grave peril threatens. It is associated with the hieroglyphic—
If you would avert it, and if you value your life, avoid all contact with anything bearing this figure.
- Abû Tabâh.
The mystery deepened. There had been something incongruous about the modern European visiting-card used by this representative of Islam, this living illustration of the Arabian Nights; now, his incomprehensible “warning” plunged me back again into the mediæval Orient to which he properly belonged. Yet I knew Abû Tabâh, for all his romantic aspect, to be eminently practical, and I could not credit him with descending to the methods of melodrama.
As I studied the precise wording of the note, I seemed to see the slim figure of its author before me, black-robed, white-turbaned, and urbane, his delicate ivory hands crossed and resting upon the head of the ebony cane without which I had never seen him. Almost, I succumbed to a sort of subjective hallucination; Abû Tabâh became a veritable presence, and the poetic beauty of his face struck me anew, as, fixing upon me his eyes, which were like the eyes of a gazelle, he spoke the strange words cited above, in the pure and polished English which he held at command, and described in the air, with a long nervous forefinger, the queer device which symbolized the Ancient Egyptian god, Set, the Destroyer.
Of course, it was the aura of a powerful personality, clinging even to the written message; but there was something about the impression made upon me which argued for the writer’s sincerity.
That Abû Tabâh was some kind of agent, recognized—at any rate unofficially—by the authorities, I knew or shrewdly surmised; but the exact nature of his activities, and how he reconciled them with his religious duties, remained profoundly mysterious. The episode had rendered further work impossible, and I descended to the terrace, with no more definite object in view than that of finding a quiet corner where I might meditate in the congenial society of my briar, and at the same time seek inspiration from the ever-changing throng in the Shâria Kâmel Pasha.
I had scarcely set my foot upon the terrace, however, ere a hand was laid upon my arm. Turning quickly I recognized, in the dusk, Hassan es-Sugra, for many years a trusted employee of the British Archæological Society.
His demeanor was at once excited and furtive, and I recognized with something akin to amazement that he, also, had a story to unfold. I mentally catalogued this eventful evening “the night of strange confidences.”
Seated at a little table on the deserted balcony (for the evening was very chilly) and directly facing the shop of Philip, the dealer in Arab woodwork, Hassan es-Sugra told his wonder tale; and as he told it I knew that Fate had cast me, willy-nilly, for a part in some comedy upon which the curtain had already risen here in Cairo, and whereof the second act should be played in perhaps the most ancient setting which the hand of man has builded. As the narrative unrolled itself before me, I perceived wheels within wheels; I was wholly absorbed, yet half incredulous.
“... When the professor abandoned work on the pyramid, Kernaby Pasha,” he said, bending eagerly forward and laying his muscular brown hand upon my sleeve, “it was not because there was no more to learn there.”
“I am aware of this, O Hassan,” I interrupted, “it was in order that they might carry on the work at the Pyramid of Illahûn, which resulted in a find of jewelery almost unique in the annals of Egyptology.”
“Do I not know all this!” exclaimed Hassan impatiently; “and was not mine the hand that uncovered the golden uræus? But the work projected at the Pyramid of Méydûm was never completed, and I can tell you why.”
I stared at him through the gloom; for I had already some idea respecting the truth of this matter.
“It was that the men, over two hundred of them, refused to enter the passage again,” he whispered dramatically, “it was because misfortune and disaster visited more than one who had penetrated to a certain place therein.” He bent further forward. “The Pyramid of Méydûm is the home of a powerful Efreet, Kernaby Pasha! But I who was the last to leave it, know what is concealed there. In a certain place, low down in the corner of the King’s Chamber, is a ring of gold, bearing a cartouche. It is the royal ring of the Pharaoh who built the pyramid.”
He ceased, watching me intently. I did not doubt Hassan’s word, for I had always counted him a man of integrity; but there was much that was obscure and much that was mysterious in his story.
“Why did you not bring it away?” I asked.
“I feared to touch it, Kernaby Pasha; it is an evil talisman. Until to-day I have feared to speak of it.”
Hassan extended his hands, palms upward.
“I am threatened with the loss of my house,” he said simply, “if I do not find a certain sum of money within a period of twelve days.”
I sat resting my chin on my hand and staring into the face of Hassan es-Sugra. Could it be that from superstitious motives such a treasure had indeed been abandoned? Could it be that Fate had delivered into my hands a relic so priceless as the signet-ring of Sneferu, one of the earliest Memphite Pharaohs? Since I had recently incurred the displeasure of my principals, Messrs. Moses, Murphy & Co., of Birmingham, the mere anticipation of such a “find” was sufficient to raise my professional enthusiasm to white heat, and in those few moments of silence I had decided upon instant action.
“Meet me at Rikka Station, to-morrow morning at nine o’clock,” I said, “and arrange for donkeys to carry us to the pyramid.”
On my arrival at Rikka, and therefore at the very outset of my inquiry, I met with what one slightly prone to superstition might have regarded as an unfortunate omen. A native funeral was passing out of the town amid the wailing of women and the chanting by the Yemeneeyeh, of the Profession of the Faith, with its queer monotonous cadences, a performance which despite its familiarity in the Near East never failed to affect me unpleasantly. By the token of the tarbûsh upon the bier, I knew that this was a man who was being hurried to his lonely resting-place on the fringe of the desert.
As the procession wound its way out across the sands, I saw to the removal of my baggage and joined Hassan es-Sugra, who awaited me by the wooden barrier. I perceived immediately that something was wrong with the man; he was palpably laboring under the influence of some strong excitement, and his dark eyes regarded me almost fearfully. He was muttering to himself like one suffering from an over-indulgence in Hashish, and I detected the words “Allahu akbar!” (God is most great) several times repeated.
“What ails you, Hassan, my friend?” I said; and noting how his gaze persistently returned to the melancholy procession wending its way towards the little Moslem cemetery:—“Was the dead man some relation of yours?”
“No, no, Kernaby Pasha,” he muttered gutturally, and moistened his lips with his tongue; “I was but slightly acquainted with him.”
“Yet you are much disturbed.”
“Not at all, Kernaby Pasha,” he assured me; “not in the slightest.”
By which familiar formula I knew that Hassan es-Sugra would conceal from me the cause of his distress, and therefore, since I had no appetite for further mysteries, I determined to learn it from another source.
“See to the loading of the donkey,” I directed him—for three sleek little animals were standing beside him, patiently awaiting the toil of the day.
Hassan setting about the task with a cheerful alacrity obviously artificial, I approached the native station master, with whom I was acquainted, and put to him a number of questions respecting his important functions—in which I was not even mildly interested. But to the Oriental mind a direct inquiry is an affront, almost an insult; and to have inquired bluntly the name of the deceased and the manner of his death would have been the best way to have learned nothing whatever about the matter. Therefore having discussed in detail the slothful incompetence of Arab ticket collectors and the lazy condition and innate viciousness of Egyptian porters as a class, I mentioned incidentally that I had observed a funeral leaving Rikka.
The station master (who was bursting to talk about this very matter, but who would have declined on principle to do so had I definitely questioned him) now unfolded to me the strange particulars respecting the death of one, Ahmed Abdulla, who had been a retired dragoman though some time employed as an excavator.
“He rode out one night upon his white donkey,” said my informant, “and no man knows whither he went. But it is believed, Kernaby Pasha, that it was to the Haram el-Kaddâb” (the False Pyramid)—extending his hand to where, beyond the belt of fertility, the tomb of Sneferu up-reared its three platforms from the fringe of the desert. “To enter the pyramid even in day time is to court misfortune; to enter at night is to fall into the hands of the powerful Efreet who dwells there. His donkey returned without him, and therefore search was made for Ahmed Abdulla. He was found the next day”—again the long arm shot out towards the desert—“dead upon the sands, near the foot of the pyramid.”
I looked into the face of the speaker; beyond doubt he was in deadly earnest.
“Why should Ahmed Abdulla have wanted to visit such a place at night?” I asked.
My acquaintance lowered his voice, muttered “Sahâm Allah fee ’adoo ed—dîn!” (May God transfix the enemies of the religion) and touched his forehead, his mouth, and his breast with the iron ring which he wore.
“There is a great treasure concealed there, Kernaby Pasha,” he replied; “a treasure hidden from the world in the days of Suleyman the Great, sealed with his seal, and guarded by the servants of Gánn Ibn-Gánn.”
“So you think the guardian ginn killed Ahmed Abdulla?”
The station master muttered invocations, and—
“There are things which may not be spoken of,” he said; “but those who saw him dead say that he was terrible to look upon. A great Welee, a man of wisdom famed throughout Egypt, has been summoned to avert the evil; for if the anger of the ginn is aroused they may visit the most painful and unfortunate penalties upon all Rikka....”
Half an hour later I set out, having confidentially informed the station master that I sought to obtain a fine turquoise necklet which I knew to be in the possession of the Sheikh of Méydûm. Little did I suspect how it was written that I should indeed visit the house of the venerable Sheikh. Out through the fields of young green corn, the palm groves and the sycamore orchards I rode, Hassan plodding silently behind me and leading the donkey who bore the baggage. Curious eyes watched our passage, from field, doorway, and shadûf; but nothing of note marked our journey save the tremendous heat of the sun at noon, beneath which I knew myself a fool to travel.
I camped on the western side of the pyramid, but well clear of the marshes, which are the home of countless wild-fowl. I had no idea how long it would take me to extract the coveted ring from its hiding-place (which Hassan had closely described to me); and, remembering the speculative glances of the villagers, I had no intention of exposing myself against the face of the pyramid until dusk should have come to cloak my operations.
Hassan es-Sugra, whose new taciturnity was remarkable and whose behavior was distinguished by an odd disquiet, set out with his gun to procure our dinner, and I mounted the sandy slope on the southwest of the pyramid, where from my cover behind a mound of rubbish, I studied through my field-glasses the belt of vegetation marking the course of the Nile. I could detect no sign of surveillance, but in view of the fact that the smuggling of relics out of Egypt is a punishable offence my caution was dictated by wisdom.
We dined excellently, Hassan the Silent and I, upon quail, tinned tomatoes, fresh dates, bread, and Vichy-water (to which in my own case was added a stiff three fingers of whisky).
When the newly risen moon cast an ebon shadow of the Pyramid of Sneferu upon the carpet of the sands, I made my way around the angle of the ancient building towards the mound on the northern side whereby one approaches the entrance. Three paces from the shadow’s edge, I paused, transfixed, because of that which confronted me.
Outlined against the moon-bright sky upon a ridge of the desert behind and to the north of the great structure, stood the motionless figure of a man!
For a moment I thought that my mind had conjured up this phantasmal watcher, that he was a thing of moon-magic and not of flesh and blood. But as I stood regarding him, he moved, seemed to raise his head, then turned and disappeared beyond the crest.
How long I remained staring at the spot where he had been I know not; but I was aroused from my useless contemplation by the jingling of camel bells. The sound came from behind me, stealing sweetly through the stillness from a great distance. I turned in a flash, whipped out my glasses and searched the remote fringe of the Fáyûm. Stately across the jeweled curtain of the night moved a caravan, blackly marked against that wondrous background. Three walking figures I counted, three laden donkeys, and two camels. Upon the first of the camels a man was mounted, upon the second was a shibreeyeh, a sort of covered litter, which I knew must conceal a woman. The caravan passed out of sight into the palm grove which conceals the village of Méydûm.
I returned my glasses to their case, and stood for some moments deep in reflection; then I descended the slope, to the tiny encampment where I had left Hassan es-Sugra. He was nowhere to be seen; and having waited some ten minutes I grew impatient, and raising my voice:
“Hassan!” I cried; “Hassan es-Sugra!”
No answer greeted me, although in the desert stillness the call must have been audible for miles. A second and a third time I called his name ... and the only reply was the shrill note of a pyramid bat that swooped low above my head; the vast solitude of the sands swallowed up my voice and the walls of the Tomb of Sneferu mocked me with their echo, crying eerily:
“Hassan! Hassan es-Sugra.... Hassan!...”
This mysterious episode affected me unpleasantly, but did not divert me from my purpose: I succeeded in casting out certain demons of superstition who had sought to lay hold upon me; and a prolonged scrutiny of the surrounding desert somewhat allayed my fears of human surveillance. For my visit to the chamber in the heart of the ancient building I had arrayed myself in rubber-soled shoes, an old pair of drill trousers, and a pyjama jacket. A Colt repeater was in my hip pocket, and, in addition to several instruments which I thought might be useful in extracting the ring from its setting, I carried a powerful electric torch.
Seated on the threshold of the entrance, fifty feet above the desert level, I cast a final glance backward towards the Nile valley, then, the lighted torch carried in my jacket pocket, I commenced the descent of the narrow, sloping passage. Periodically, when some cranny between the blocks offered a foothold, I checked my progress, and inspected the steep path below for snake tracks.
Some two hundred and forty feet of labored, descent discovered me in a sort of shallow cavern little more than a yard high and partly hewn out of the living rock which formed the foundation of the pyramid. In this place I found the heat to be almost insufferable, and the smell of remote mortality which assailed my nostrils from the sand-strewn floor threatened to choke me. For five minutes or more I lay there, bathed in perspiration, my nerves at high tension, listening for the slightest sound within or without. I cannot pretend that I was entirely master of myself. The stuff that fear is made of seemed to rise from the ancient dust; and I had little relish for the second part of my journey, which lay through a long horizontal passage rarely exceeding fourteen inches in height. The mere memory of that final crawl of forty feet or so is sufficient to cause me to perspire profusely; therefore let it suffice that I reached the end of the second passage, and breathing with difficulty the deathful, poisonous atmosphere of the place, found myself at the foot of the rugged shaft which gives access to the King’s Chamber. Resting my torch upon a convenient ledge, I climbed up, and knew myself to be in one of the oldest chambers fashioned by human handiwork.
The journey had been most exhausting, but, allowing myself only a few moments’ rest, I crossed to the eastern corner of the place and directed a ray of light upon the crevice which, from Hassan’s description, I believed to conceal the ring. His account having been detailed, I experienced little difficulty in finding the cavity; but in the very moment of success the light of the torch grew dim ... and I recognized with a mingling of chagrin and fear that it was burnt out and that I had no means of recharging it.
Ere the light expired, I had time to realize two things: that the cavity was empty ... and that someone or something was approaching the foot of the shaft along the horizontal passage below!
Strictly though I have schooled my emotions, my heart was beating in a most uncomfortable fashion, as, crouching near the edge of the shaft, I watched the red glow fade from the delicate filament of the lamp. Retreat was impossible; there is but one entrance to the pyramid; and the darkness which now descended upon me was indescribable; it possessed horrific qualities; it seemed palpably to enfold me like the wings of some monstrous bat. The air of the King’s Chamber I found to be almost unbearable, and it was no steady hand with which I gripped my pistol.
The sounds of approach continued. The suspense was becoming intolerable—when, into the Memphian gloom below me, there suddenly intruded a faint but ever-growing light. Between excitement and insufficient air, I regarded suffocation as imminent. Then, out into view beneath me, was thrust a slim ivory hand which held an electric pocket lamp. Fascinatedly I watched it, saw it joined by its fellow, then observed a white-turbaned head and a pair of black-robed shoulders follow. In my surprise I almost dropped the weapon which I held. The new arrival now standing upright and raising his head, I found myself looking into the face of Abû Tabâh!
“To Allah, the Great, the Compassionate, be all praise that I have found you alive,” he said simply.
He exhibited little evidence of the journey which I had found so fatiguing, but an expression strongly like that of real anxiety rested upon his ascetic face.
“If life is dear to you,” he continued, “answer me this, Kernaby Pasha; have you found the ring?”
“I have not,” I replied; “my lamp failed me; but I think the ring is gone.”
And now, as I spoke the words, the strangeness of his question came home to me, bringing with it an acute suspicion.
“What do you know of this ring, O my friend?” I asked.
Abû Tabâh shrugged his shoulders.
“I know much that is evil,” he replied; “and because you doubt the purity of my motives, all that I have learned you shall learn also; for Allah the Great, the Merciful, this night has protected you from danger and spared you a frightful death. Follow me, Kernaby Pasha, in order that these things may be made manifest to you.”
A pair of fleet camels were kneeling at the foot of the slope below the entrance to the pyramid, and having recovered somewhat from the effect of the fatiguing climb out from the King’s Chamber—
“It might be desirable,” I said, “that I adopt a more suitable raiment for camel riding?”
Abû Tabâh slowly shook his head in that dignified manner which never deserted him. He had again taken up his ebony walking-stick and was now resting his crossed hands upon it and regarding me with his strange, melancholy eyes.
“To delay would be unwise,” he replied. “You have mercifully been spared a painful and unfortunate end (all praise to Him who averted the peril); but the ring, which bears an ancient curse, is gone: for me there is no rest until I have found and destroyed it.”
He spoke with a solemn conviction which bore the seal of verity.
“Your destructive theory may be perfectly sound,” I said; “but as one professionally interested in relics of the past, I feel called upon to protest. Perhaps before we proceed any further you will enlighten me respecting this most obscure matter. Can you inform me, for example, what became of Hassan es-Sugra?”
“He observed my approach from a distance, and fled, being a man of little virtue. Respecting the other matters you shall be fully enlightened, to-night. The white camel is for you.”
There was a gentle finality in his manner to which I succumbed. My feelings towards this mysterious being had undergone a slight change; and whilst I cannot truthfully say that I loved him as a brother, a certain respect for Abû Tabâh was taking possession of my mind. I began to understand his reputation with the natives; beyond doubt his uncanny wisdom was impressive; his lofty dignity awed. And no man is at his best arrayed in canvas shoes, very dirty drill trousers, and a pyjama jacket.
As I had anticipated, the village of Méydûm proved to be our destination, and the gait of the magnificent creatures upon which we were mounted was exhausting. I shall always remember that moonlight ride across the desert to the palm groves of Méydûm. I entered the house of the Sheikh with misgivings; for my attire fell short of the ideal to which every representative of protective Britain looks up, but often fails to realize.
In a mandarah, part of it inlaid with fine mosaic and boasting a pretty fountain, I was presented to the imposing old man who was evidently the host of Abû Tabâh. Ere taking my seat upon the dîwan, I shed my canvas shoes, in accordance with custom, accepted a pipe and a cup of excellent coffee, and awaited with much curiosity the next development. A brief colloquy between Abû Tabâh and the Sheikh, at the further end of the apartment resulted in the disappearance of the Sheikh and the approach of my mysterious friend.
“Because, although you are not a Moslem, you are a man of culture and understanding,” said Abû Tabâh, “I have ordered that my sister shall be brought into your presence.”
“That is exceedingly good of you,” I said, but indeed I knew it to be an honor which spoke volumes at once for Abû Tabâh’s enlightenment and good opinion of myself.
“She is a virgin of great beauty,” he continued; “and the excellence of her mind exceeds the perfection of her person.”
“I congratulate you,” I answered politely, “upon the possession of a sister in every way so desirable.”
Abû Tabâh inclined his head in a characteristic gesture of gentle courtesy.
“Allah has indeed blessed my house,” he admitted; “and because your mind is filled with conjectures respecting the source of certain information which you know me to possess, I desire that the matter shall be made clear to you.”
How I should have answered this singular man I know not; but as he spoke the words, into the mandarah came the Sheikh, followed by a girl robed and veiled entirely in white. With gait slow and graceful she approached the dîwan. She wore a white yelek so closely wrapped about her that it concealed the rest of her attire, and a white tarbar, or head-veil, decorated with gold embroidery, almost entirely concealed her hair, save for one jet-black plait in which little gold ornaments were entwined and which hung down on the left of her forehead. A white yashmak reached nearly to her feet, which were clad in little red leather slippers.
As she approached me I was impressed, not so much with the details of her white attire, nor with the fine lines of a graceful figure which the gossamer robe quite failed to conceal, but with her wonderful gazelle-like eyes, which wore uncannily like those of her brother, save that their bordering of kohl lent them an appearance of being larger and more luminous.
No form of introduction was observed; with modestly lowered eyes the girl saluted me and took her seat upon a heap of cushions before a small coffee table set at one end of the dîwan. The Sheikh, seated himself beside me, and Abû Tabâh, with a reed pen, wrote something rapidly on a narrow strip of paper. The Sheikh clapped his hands, a man entered bearing a brazier containing live charcoal, and, having placed it upon the floor, immediately withdrew. The dîwan was lighted by a lantern swung from the ceiling, and its light, pouring fully down upon the white figure of the girl, and leaving the other persons and objects in comparative shadow, produced a picture which I am unlikely to forget.
Amid a tense silence, Abû Tabâh took from a box upon the table some resinous substance. This he sprinkled upon the fire in the brazier; and the girl extending a small hand and round soft arm across the table, he again dipped his pen in the ink and drew upon the upturned palm a rough square which he divided into nine parts, writing in each an Arabic figure. Finally, in the centre he poured a small drop of ink, upon which, in response to words rapidly spoken, the girl fixed an intent gaze.
Into the brazier Abû Tabâh dropped one by one fragments of the paper upon which he had written what I presumed to be a form of invocation. Immediately, standing between the smoking brazier and the girl, he commenced a subdued muttering. I recognized that I was about to be treated to an exhibition of darb el-mendel, Abû Tabâh being evidently a sahhar, or adept in the art called er-roohânee. Save for this indistinct muttering, no other sound disturbed the silence of the apartment, until suddenly the girl began to speak Arabic and in a sweet but monotonous voice.
“Again I see the ring,” she said, “a hand is holding it before me. The ring bears a green scarab, upon which is written the name of a king of Egypt.... The ring is gone. I can see it no more.”
“Seek it,” directed Abû Tabâh in a low voice, and threw more incense upon the fire. “Are you seeking it?”
“Yes,” replied the girl, who now began to tremble violently, “I am in a low passage which slopes downwards so steeply that I am afraid.”
“Fear nothing,” said Abû Tabâh; “follow the passage.”
With marvelous fidelity the girl described the passage and the shaft leading to the King’s Chamber in the Pyramid of Méydûm. She described the cavity in the wall where once (if Hassan es-Sugra was worthy of credence) the ring had been concealed.
“There is a freshly made hole in the stonework,” she said. “The picture has gone; I am standing in some dark place and the same hand again holds the ring before me.”
“Is it the hand of an Oriental,” asked Abû Tabâh, “or of a European?”
“It is the hand of a European. It has disappeared; I see a funeral procession winding out from Rikka into the desert.”
“Follow the ring,” directed Abû Tabâh, a queer, compelling note in his voice.
Again he sprinkled perfume upon the fire and—
“I see a Pharaoh upon his throne,” continued the monotonous voice, “upon the first finger of his left hand he wears the ring with the green scarab. A prisoner stands before him in chains; a woman pleads with the king, but he is deaf to her. He draws the ring from his finger and hands it to one standing behind the throne—one who has a very evil face. Ah!...”
The girl’s voice died away in a low wail of fear or horror. But—
“What do you see?” demanded Abû Tabâh.
“The death-ring of Pharaoh!” whispered the soft voice tremulously; “it is the death-ring!”
“Return from the past to the present,” ordered Abû Tabâh. “Where is the ring now?”
He continued his weird muttering, whilst the girl, who still shuddered violently, peered again into the pool of ink. Suddenly—
“I see a long line of dead men,” she whispered, speaking in a kind of chant; “they are of all the races of the East, and some are swathed in mummy wrappings; the wrappings are sealed with the death-ring of Pharaoh. They are passing me slowly, on their way across the desert from the Pyramid of Méydûm to a narrow ravine where a tent is erected. They go to summon one who is about to join their company....”
I suppose the suffocating perfume of the burning incense was chiefly responsible, but at this point I realized that I was becoming dizzy and that immediate departure into a cooler atmosphere was imperative. Quietly, in order to avoid disturbing the séance, I left the mandarah. So absorbed were the three in their weird performance that my departure was apparently unnoticed. Out in the coolness of the palm grove I soon recovered. I doubt if I possess the temperament which enables one to contemplate with equanimity a number of dead men promenading in their shrouds.
“The truth is now wholly made manifest,” said Abû Tabâh; “the revelation is complete.”
Once more I was mounted upon the white camel and the mysterious imám rode beside me upon its fellow, which was of less remarkable color.
“I hear your words,” I replied.
“The poor Ahmed Abdulla,” he continued, “who was of little wisdom, knew, as Hassan es-Sugra knew, of the hidden ring; for he was one of those who fled from the pyramid refusing to enter it again. Greed spoke to him, however, and he revealed the secret to a certain Englishman, called Bishop, contracting to aid him in recovering the ring.”
At last enlightenment was mine ... and it brought in its train a dreadful premonition.
“Something I knew of the peril,” said Abû Tabâh, “but not, at first, all. The Englishman I warned, but he neglected my warning. Already Ahmed Abdulla was dead, having been despatched by his employer to the pyramid; and the people of Rikka had sent for me. Now, by means known to you, I learned that evil powers threatened your life also, in what form I knew not at that time save that the sign of Set had been revealed to me in conjunction with your death.”
“That the secret of the pyramid was a Pharaoh’s ring I did not learn until later; but now it is made manifest that the thing of power is the death-ring of Sneferu....”
The huge bulk of the Pyramid of Méydûm loomed above us as he spoke the words, for we were nearly come to our destination; and its proximity occasioned within me a physical chill. I do not think an open check for a thousand pounds would have tempted me to enter the place again. The death-ring of Sneferu possessed uncomfortable and supernatural properties. So far as I was aware, no example of such a ring (the lettre de cachet of the period) was included in any known collection. One dating much after Sneferu, and bearing the cartouche of Apepi II (one of the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings) came to light late in the nineteenth century; it was reported to be the ring which, traditionally, Joseph wore as emblematical of the power vested in him by Pharaoh. Sir Gaston Maspero and other authorities considered it to be a forgery and it vanished from the ken of connoisseurs. I never learned by what firm it was manufactured.
A mile to the west of the pyramid we found Theo Bishop’s encampment. I thought it to be deserted—until I entered the little tent....
An oil-lamp stood upon a wooden box; and its rays made yellow the face of the man stretched upon the camp-bed. My premonition was realized; Bishop must have entered the pyramid less than an hour ahead of me; he it was who had stood upon the mound, silhouetted against the sky, when I had first approached the slope. He had met with the fate of Ahmed Abdulla.
He had been dead for at least two hours, and by the token of certain hideous glandular swellings, I knew that he had met his end by the bite of an Egyptian viper.
“Abû Tabâh!” I cried, my voice hoarsely unnatural—“the recess in the King’s Chamber is a viper’s nest!”
“You speak wisdom, Kernaby Pasha; the viper is the servant of the ginn.”
Upon the third finger of his swollen right hand Bishop wore the ring of ghastly history; and the mysterious significance of the Sign of Set became apparent. For added to the usual cartouche of the Pharaoh was the symbol of the god of destruction, thus:
We buried him deeply, piling stones upon the grave, that the jackals of the desert might never disturb the last holder of the death-ring of Sneferu.