The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 10


 

CHAPTER X
THE JUDGMENT-HALL OF MEN-NE-FER

Half an hour later we were being rowed down the canal by moonlight on our way to the judgment-hall of Men-ne-fer, and had full leisure to discuss the funny little incident in the garden.

"It was a damnable idea," said Hugh, with true British emphasis. "She must have taken me for a fool to think that I should not see through her artful game."

"Queen Maat-kha seems certainly to have vowed deadly hatred to her royal niece. I wonder why."

"Feminine jealousy, I suppose. All the more serious as the lady seems to have very few scruples hidden about her fine person. It strikes me that I shall have to extend a protecting hand over my defrauded kinswoman."

"My dear Girlie, it strikes me that that young woman will need no protection, and that, for aught you know, she bids fair to be your most dangerous enemy. She is evidently very beautiful, and a beautiful woman deprived of her rights, justly or unjustly, always has a large following."

"A statement worthy of your best college days, oh, Doctor Sagacissime. Well! we will not despise an enemy worthy of our steel. So far we have had nothing but triumph, and easy conquests might begin to pall. But I'll tell you what we can do, old chap," he added with his merry, infectious laugh, "that which shall disarm our bitterest foe, if indeed she be one. You shall enter the lists for Princess Neit-akrit's hand, marry her, and when presently I leave this fair land to return to the foot of the throne of Ra, I shall solemnly appoint you and your heirs my successors to the double crown of Kamt."

"I'll tell you what you had better not do," I rejoined half crossly, " and that is to fall in love yourself with the fascinating lady. Everyone seems to be doing it about here."

"Oh, I?" he said, suddenly becoming serious, and with a touch of sadness. "I am here with a purpose, altogether besides my own self. I have to prove to the world that neither my father nor I were fools or liars. I must study the life, the government, the art of the men; my heart is crusted over with fragments of papyrus and mummies, it is impervious even to the beauty of these warm-blooded women."

"For shame, Girlie! at your age!"

"I have no age, Mark, only a number of wasted years behind me, and a few on ahead, which I am determined shall be well filled."

It was a beautiful starlit night, and the crescent moon shone wonderfully bright over the ancient city, with its marble edifices, its water-streets, which wound in and out among mimosa and acacia groves like a bright blue ribbon covered with glistening gems. As they rowed the boatmen sang a sweet, monotonous barcarolle, and from east and west, and north and south, at regular intervals, fanfares of trumpets greeted the crescent moon as she rose.

The great judgment-hall of Men-ne-fer stood—a gigantic circular, roofless building—high above a flight of dull grey granite steps. Open to the sky above, it was only lighted by the brilliant yet weird rays of the moon, which threw into bold relief the semi-circular rows of seats on which, when we entered, were seated a number of solemn-looking Egyptians in long flowing robes. They all rose as Hugh's figure appeared in the massive, square archway, and he and I paused a moment to take in the strange picture which lay before our yes.

It would be impossible for me to give any definite facts as to the proportions of this vast coliseum. It looked probably larger than it really was, owing to the dense shadows into which one-half of it was plunged and which looked almost limitless. There were several tiers of stone seats, placed in semi-circle each side of a tall throne, on which, propped up with cushions, the mighty Pharaoh reclined. On his left, a foot lower than the kingly throne, sat Ur-tasen, the high priest of Ra, and at the foot of the throne sat three old men, in one of whom I recognised my fat neighbour at the banqueting table. They also rose when Hugh entered, and I noticed that they wore round their waists heavy belts of lapis-lazuli, on which was engraved the device: "Justice. Mercy."

A seat had been placed on the right of the Pharaoh, with a low one close behind it. These were for the beloved of the gods and his wise counsellor.

No one spoke a word in the vast and crowded building, as we made our way down into the arena first, and then up the gradients to the seats allotted to us. In the shadows behind and all around, my eyes, becoming accustomed to the gloom, distinguished a crowd of moving figures, with here and there a glint of helmet and shield.

The silence was becoming weird and almost oppressive. We were all standing, except the Pharaoh, who looked terribly cadaverous beneath the gorgeous diadem which he wore. At last Ur-tasen, raising has hands up towards the starlit sky, began to recite a long and solemn prayer. It was an invocation to all the gods of Egypt—of whom I noticed there was a goodly number—for righteousness, justice and impartiality. The solemn Egyptians in white robes, who, I concluded, were perhaps the jury, spoke the responses in nasal, sleepy tones.

While Ur-tasen prayed, a number of slaves, who were naked save for a white veil wound tightly round their heads, were going about carrying large trays, from which each member of the jury one by one took something, which I discovered to be a branch of lotus blossom. This each man touched with his forehead as he spoke the responses, and then held solemnly in his right hand.

We were, of course, deeply interested in the proceedings: the mode of administering justice in every country is the surest keynote to the character of its people. Here a decided savour of mysticism accompanied it; the peculiar hour of the night, the weird light of the moon, the white draperies, the hooded slaves even, all spoke of a people whose every thought tended towards the picturesque.

But now Ur-tasen had finished speaking. The last response had been uttered, and silence once again reigned within the mysterious hall. A herald came forth with long silver trumpet, and stood in the centre of the arena, with the light of the moon shining full upon him. He raised his trumpet skywards and blew a deafening blast. Then three times he called a name in a loud voice,—"Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu!" and every time he called he was answered by a flourish of trumpets from three different ends of the buildings, accompanied by the loud cry:

"Is he there? Is he there? Is he there?"

The herald then added:

"Let him come forthwith, with all his sins, before the judgment-seat of the holy Pharaoh, and in the immediate presence of him whom Osiris has sent down from heaven, the son of Ra, the beloved of the gods. Let him come without fear, but let him come covered with remorse."

Evidently Har-sen-tu was the first criminal to be tried in our presence in the great hall of Men-ne-fer. There was a stir among the crowd, and from out the shadows a curious group detached itself and came forward slowly and silently. There were men and women, also two or three children, all dressed in black, and some had their heads entirely swathed in thick dark veils. In the midst of them, carried by four men, was the criminal, he who, covered with sins, was to stand forth before the Pharaoh for judgment, mercy or pardon. That criminal was the dead body of a man, swathed in white linen wrappings, through which the sharp features were clearly discernible. The men who had carried it propped the corpse up in the middle of the building, facing the Pharaoh, until it stood erect, weird and ghostlike, stiff and white, sharply outlined by the brilliant moon against the dense black of the shadows behind, while round, in picturesque groups, a dozen or so men and women knelt and stood, the women weeping, the children crouching awed and still, the men solemn and silent.

And the Pharaoh, with his high priest, the three learned judges, the numerous jury, sat in solemn judgment upon the dead.

From amidst the group a man came forward, and in quiet, absolutely passionless tones, began recounting the sins of the deceased.

"He owned three houses," he said, "and twenty-five oxen; he had at one time seventy sheep, and his cows gave him milk in plenty. His fields were rich in barley and wheat, and he found gold dust amidst the shingle by the stream close to his house. And yet," continued the accuser, "I, his mother's sister's child, asked him to lend me a few pieces of money, also the loan of his cow since my child was sick and needed the milk, and he refused me, though I asked him thrice; and all the while he loaded Suem-ka, his concubine, with jewels and with gold, although Isis had pronounced no marriage blessing upon their union."

It took this speaker some little time to recount all the misdeeds of the dead man, his hardness of heart, his negligences, and the frauds he had perpetrated: and, above all, his unlawful passion for Suem-ka, who had been his slave and had become his mistress.

When he had finished a woman came forward, and she, in her turn, related how she had vainly begged of the rich man to repent him of his sins and cast the vile slave from him, but he had driven her away, though he was her own brother, roughly from his door. There were several accusers who spoke of the dead man's sins, and each, when they had finished their tale, added solemnly:

"Therefore do I crave of thee, oh, most holy Pharaoh! of thee, who dost deliver judgment in the name of Ra, all-creating, of Horus, all-interceding, and of Osiris, bounty-giving, that thou dost decree that Har-sen-tu's body is unfit for preservation, lest it should remain as an abode for his villainous soul and allow it to rise again in after years to perpetrate further frauds and cruelties."

While the accusers spoke there were no protestations on the part of the mourners, who crowded round their dead. Once or twice a sob, quickly checked, escaped one of the women's throats. Judges and jury listened in solemn silence, and when no more was forthcoming to speak of the sins of Har-sen-tu, the defenders of the silent criminal had their say.

His friends and relations evidently, those who had benefited by his wealth or had not suffered through his hardness. Those too, perhaps, who had something to gain through the rich man's death. The most interesting witness for this strange defence was undoubtedly Suem-ka, the slave. She was a fine, rather coarse-looking girl, with large dark eyes and full figure. She was entirely wrapped in the folds of a thick black veil, but her arms and hands, as she raised them imploringly towards the Pharaoh, and swore before Isis that she had never been aught but a lowly handmaiden to her dead master, were, I noticed, covered with rings and gems.

The rich man had many friends. They formed a veritable phalanx round his corpse, defying the outraged relatives, confronting his enemies, and entreating for him the right of embalming, of holy sepulture, so that his body might be kept pure and undefiled from decay, ready to once more receive the soul, when it had concluded its wanderings in the shadowland where dwelleth Anubis and Hor, and Ra, the Most High.

I felt strangely impressed by this curious pleading for one so silent and so still, who seemed to stand there in awesome majesty, hearing accusation and defence with the same contemptuous solemnity, the same dignity of eternal sleep.

When accusers and defenders had had their say, there was a long moment of silence: then the three judges rose and recapitulated the sins and virtues of the dead man. Personally, I must confess that, had I been on the jury, I should have found it very difficult to give any opinion on the case. Suem-ka, the slave, with her arms and hands covered with jewels, was, to my mind, the strongest witness against the master whom she tried to shield. But then it did not transpire that the deceased had had a wife, or had any children. The numerous jury, however, seemed to have made up their minds very quickly. When the last of the judges had finished speaking, they all rose from their seats and some held the lotus flower, which they had in their hand, high over their heads, while the others—and I noticed that these were decidedly in the minority—dropped the blossom to the ground.

The judges took count and pronounced a solemn "Ay," and Suem-ka, overcome with emotion, fell sobbing at the feet of the dead man.

After this Ur-tasen rose and delivered judgment upon the dead.

"Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! rejoice! The holy Pharaoh has heard thy sins! But the gods have whispered mercy into the air. Isis smileth down in joy upon thee.

"Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! go forth from the judgment-seat of the holy Pharaoh, to face fearlessly the more majestic, more mysterious throne of Osiris!

"Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! Har-sen-tu! may Anubis, the jackal-headed god, guide thee! may Horus intercede for thee and Osiris receive thee in the glorious vault of heaven, where dwelleth Ra, and where is neither sin nor disease, sorrow nor tears! Har-sen-tu, thou art pure!"

A scribe handed him a document which he placed before the Pharaoh, who with his usual contemptuous listlessness placed his seal upon it. Then I saw the high priest hesitate one moment, while the scribe waited and the Pharaoh shrugged his shoulders, laughing in his derisive way. Hugh smiled. I think we both guessed the cause of the high priest's hesitation. Ur-tasen was frowning, and looking now at Hugh, and now at the document in his hand; but Suem-ka, the slave, happy in her triumph, ended the suspense by shouting:

"Thy hand upon the seal, oh, beloved of the gods!"

With a slight frown Ur-tasen ordered the scribe to hand the document across to Hugh, who placed his name beside that of the Pharaoh in bold hieroglyphic characters:

Illus p 119--The gates of Kamt.png

Then the parchment was handed over by one of the judges to the relatives of the deceased, who, as silently as they had come, retired, bearing their dead away with them. The laws of Kamt had granted them leave to perform the last and solemn rites of embalming the body of their kinsman, and making the body a fitting habitation for the soul until such time as it should return once more upon earth from the land of shadows.

And the herald again called thrice upon a name, and again the dead was arraigned before the living, his virtues extolled by his friends, his sins magnified by his enemies; but in this case he was deemed unworthy of embalming; the soul should find no more that dwelling-place which had been the abode of cruelty and of fraud, of lying and of cheating, and it should be left to wander homeless in the dark shadows of death till it had sunk, a lifeless atom, merged in the immeasurable depths of Nu, the liquid chaos which is annihilation. The wailing of the relatives of this condemned corpse was truly pitiable: the law had decreed upon the evil-doer the sentence of eternal death.

Two more cases were dealt with in the same way. Mr. Tankerville had often in his picturesque way related to us this judgment of the dead practised in ancient Egypt, and I remember once having seen a picture representing the circular hall, the judges and the accused; but, as in everything else in this wonderful land, how infinitely more mystic, more poetic was the reality than the imagining. The hour of the night, the crescent moon above, the silent and solemn corpse, the most dignified in still majesty amidst all those who dared to judge him, all this made a picture which has remained one of the most vivid, the most cherished, in my mind.