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CHAPTER XI
THE TRIAL OF KESH-TA, THE SLAVE

Then came the turn of the living.

Once more the herald called a name—a woman's—three times:

"Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta!" and thrice the cry resounded:

"Is she there? Is she there? Is she there?"

But this time there were no reassuring words about mercy and fearlessness. The living evidently were more harshly dealt with in Kamt than the dead.

Pushed and jostled by a couple of men, her hands tied behind her back, a rope round her neck, a woman suddenly appeared in the circle of light. Her eyes roamed wildly round, half-defiant, half-terrified; her hair hung tangled over her shoulders, and the whole of one side of her face was one ugly gaping wound.

"Who and what art thou?" demanded the judges.

The woman did not reply. She looked to me half a maniac, and wholly irresponsible; but the men behind her prodded her with their spears, till she fell upon her knees. Hugh had frowned, his own special ugly frown. I could see that he would not stand this sort of thing very long, and I held myself ready to restrain him, if I could, from doing anything rash, or to lend him a helping hand if he refused to be restrained.

Suddenly his attention and mine was arrested by a name, and wondering, we listened, spell-bound by its strange and unaccountable magic.

The judges had peremptorily repeated:

"Answer! Who and what art thou?"

"I am Kesh-ta," replied the woman, with surly defiance, "and I am a slave of Princess Neit-akrit."

"Why art thou here?"

"Because I hate her," she half hissed, half shouted, as she turned her ghastly wounded face to the moonlight, as if to bear witness to the evil passion in her heart.

"Take care, woman," warned the judges, "lest thy sacrilegious tongue bring upon thee judgment more terrible than thou hast hitherto deserved."

She laughed a strange, weird, maniacal laugh, and said:

"That cannot be, oh, learned and wisest of the judges of Kamt. Dost think perchance that thy mind can conceive or thy cruelty devise a more horrible punishment than that which I endured yesterday, when my avenging hands tried to reach her evil form and failed, for want of strength and power?"

"Be silent! and hear from the lips of thy accusers the history of the heinous sin which thou didst commit yesterday, and for which the high priest of Ra will anon deliver judgment upon thee."

"Nay! I will not be silent, and I will not hear! I will tell thee and the holy Pharaoh, and him who has come from heaven to live amongst the people of Kamt, I will tell them all of my sin. Let them hate and loathe me, let them punish me if they will; the Pharaoh is mighty and the gods are great, but all the powers of heaven and the might of the throne cannot inflict more suffering on Kesh-ta than she has already endured."

"Be silent!" again thundered the judges; and at a sign from them the two men quickly wound a cloth round the unfortunate woman's mouth and a few yards of rope round her body. Thus forcibly silent, pinioned and helpless, she knelt there before her judges, defiant and, I thought, crazy, while her accuser began slowly to read the indictment.

"Kesh-ta, the low-born slave, who has neither father nor mother, nor brother nor sister, for she is the property of the most pure and great, the Princess Neit-akrit of the house of Memmoun-ra.

"The gods gave her a son, who through the kindness of the noble princess became versed in many arts, and being a skilled craftsman was much esteemed by the great Neit-akrit, of the house of Memmoun-ra.

"Yesterday, whilst Sem-no-tha knelt before the great princess, whilst she deigned to speak to her slave, Kesh-ta, his mother, crept close behind him, and slew her son with her own hand before the eyes of Neit-akrit, the young and pure princess, and then with the blood of the abject slave his murderess smeared the garments of Neit-akrit, causing her to turn sick and faint with loathing.

"Therefore I, the public accuser, do hereby demand, in the name of the people of Kamt, both freeborn and slave, that this woman, for this grievous sin she committed, be for ever cast out from the boundaries of the land; that her body be given as a prey to the carrion that dwell in the wilderness of the valley of death, so that the jackals and the vultures might consume the very soul which, abject and base, had conceived so loathsome a crime."

There was dead silence after this; I could see Hugh, with clenched hands and lips tightly set, ready at any cost to prevent the terrible and awful deed, the consequences of which we had already witnessed in the lonely desert beyond the gates of Kamt. The Pharaoh had turned positively livid; amidst his white draperies he looked more ghostlike and dead than the corpses which had just now stood before us; Khefaran's face was still impassive.

Then the judges said solemnly:

"Take the gag off the woman's mouth; it is her turn to speak now."

I heaved a sigh of relief. There was a great sense of fairness in this proceeding, which, for the moment, relieved the tension on my overwrought nerves. I saw that Hugh, too, was prepared to wait and listen to what the woman would have to say.

The gag had been removed, and yet Kesh-ta did not speak; it seemed as if she had ceased to be conscious of her surroundings.

"Woman, thou hast heard the accusation pronounced against thee: what hast thou to say?"

She looked at the judges, and at the crowd of men, on whose faces she could see nothing but loathing and horror, then suddenly her wild and wandering gaze rested upon Hugh, and with a loud shriek she wrenched her arms from out her bonds, and stretched them towards him, crying:

"Thou, beloved of the gods, hear me! I ask for no pardon, no mercy! Remember death, however horrible, is life to me; the arid wilderness, wherein the gods do not dwell, where bones of evil-doers lie rotting beneath the sun, will be to me an abode of bliss, for inaccessible mountains will lie between me and her. There, before grim and slowly-creeping death overtakes me, I shall have time to rejoice that I, with my own hands, saved Sem-no-tha, my son, my beloved, from the same terrible doom. He was a slave, abject at her feet, but he was tall and handsome, and she smiled on him. And dost know what happens when Neit-akrit smiles upon a man, be he freeborn or be he slave? He loses his senses, he becomes intoxicated, a coward and a perjurer, and his reason goeth forth—a vagabond—out of his body. Hast heard of Amen-het, the architect, oh, beloved of the gods? hast heard that for a smile from her he perjured himself and committed such dire sacrilege that Osiris himself veiled his countenance for one whole day because of it, until Amen-het was cast out of Kamt, to perish slowly and miserably body and soul. And I saw Sem-no-tha at the feet of Neit-akrit! I saw her smile on him, and knew that he was doomed; knew that to see her smile again he would lie and he would cheat, would sell his soul for her and die an eternal death, and I, his mother, who loved him above all, who had but him in all the world, preferred to see him dead at my feet, than damned before the judgment-seat of the Most High!

"Ay! I am guilty of murder," she continued more excitedly than ever, "I have nothing to say! I slew Sem-no-tha, the slave of Neit-akrit!—Her property!—Not mine!—I am only his mother—and am too old, too weary to smile! Beloved of the gods, they did not tell thee all my sins; they did not tell thee that when I saw Sem-no-tha lying dead at my feet, and Neit-akrit kneeling by his side, while a tear of pity for her handsome slave fell upon his white and rigid form, that with the knife still warm with his blood, I tried to mar for ever the beauty of her face. I had no wish to kill her, only to make upon that ivory white flesh a hideous scar that would make her smile seem like the grimace of death. But Fano-tu stopped my arm ready to strike, and to punish me he, with his own hand, made upon my face this gaping wound, such as I had longed to make on that of Neit-akrit. You may condemn me—nay, you must cast me out of Kamt, for if you do not I tell you that were you to bury me beneath the tallest pyramid the proud Pharaohs have built for themselves, and set the entire population of Kamt to guard it and me, I yet would creep out and find my way to her, and I tell you Kesh-ta would not fail twice."

Exhausted, she sank back, half fainting, on the ground, while deathlike silence reigned around; one by one every member of the jury dropped his lotus flower before him, and the judges, having taken count, pronounced solemnly the word "Guilty!"

Then Ur-tasen rose and delivered judgment.

"Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! thou art accursed! Thy crime is heinous before the gods! Thy very thoughts pollute the land of Kamt.

"Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! thou art accursed. Be thy name for ever erased from the land that bare thee. May the memory of thee be cast out of the land, for thou art trebly accursed.

"Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! Kesh-ta! thou are accursed! The gods decree that thou be cast out for ever beyond the gates of Kamt, into the valley of death, where dwell neither bird nor beast, where neither fruit nor tree doth grow, and where thy soul and body, rotting in the arid sand, shall become a prey for ever to the loathsome carrion of the desert."

Kesh-ta's answer to this terrible fiat was one loud and prolonged laugh. I felt almost paralysed with the horror of the scene. My mind persistently conjured up before me the vision of the lonely desert strewn with whitening bones, the vultures and screeching jackals, and the loathsome cannibal who once had been just such a living, breathing, picturesque man as these now before me. The woman's crime was horrible, but she was human, and above all, she was a woman. Trouble seemed to have unhinged her mind, and the thought to me was loathsome that so irresponsible a being should suffer such appalling punishment.

Already Ur-tasen had handed up to the Pharaoh the document that confirmed the awful sentence, and the sick, almost dying, man prepared, with trembling hand, to give his royal assent to the monstrous deed, when, in a moment, Hugh was on his feet: he had shaken off the torpor, which, with grim horror, had also paralysed his nerves, and drawing his very tall British stature to its full height, he placed a restraining hand on that of the priest.

"Man!" he said in loud tones, which went echoing through the vastness of the building, "where is thy justice? Look at that woman whom thou hast just condemned to tortures so awful which not even thou, learned as thou art, canst possibly conceive."

The judges and the jury had one and all risen from their seats and were staring awestruck at Hugh, who at this moment, tall and white amidst these dark sons of the black land, looked truly like some being of another world. The Pharaoh had, after the first moment of astonishment, quietly shrugged his shoulders, as if he cared little what the issue of this strange dispute might be between the stranger and the all-powerful high priest. Ur-tasen alone had preserved perfect composure and dignified solemnity. Quietly he folded his arms across his chest and said:

"I, who am vowed to the service of Ra, am placed here upon earth that I might enforce obedience to his laws."

"Nay! not to the word, man, to the spirit," rejoined Hugh. "Remember Ra's decree transmitted to Mena, the founder of this great kingdom, through the mouth of Horus himself:—'Be just, oh, man! but, above all, be merciful!'"

"Remember, too, oh, well-beloved of the gods, that same decree which sayeth:—'Let no man shed the blood of man, in quarrel, revenge, or any other cause, for he who sheddeth the blood of man, his blood, too, shall be shed.'"

"But Kesh-ta is irresponsible, half deprived of her reason by sorrow and the terrible mutilation which the hand of an inhuman slave-driver inflicted upon her. To throw a human creature in such a state in the midst of an arid wilderness without food or drink, as a punishment for a crime which her hand committed, but not her mind, is barbarous, monstrous, cruel, unworthy the great people of Kamt."

"Let no man shed the blood of man," repeated the high priest, solemnly, "in quarrel, revenge, or any other cause. Hast mission, oh, beloved of Osiris, to upset the decrees of the gods?"

"Nay! I am here to follow the laws of the gods, as well as all the people of Kamt, but thou, oh, Pharaoh," he added, turning to the sick man, "knowest what physical ailments are, knowest how terrible they are to bear. Think of the moments of the worst pain thou hast ever endured, and think of them magnified a thousandfold, and then thou wilt fall far short of the slow and lingering torture to which thou wouldst subject this half-crazed woman."

"Let no man shed the blood of man," repeated the high priest for the third time, with more solemnity and emphasis, for he noticed, just as I did, that Hugh's powerful appeal, his picturesque—to them, mysterious—presence was strongly influencing the judges and the jury and all the spectators. One by one the pink lotus blossoms were lifted upwards, the judges whispered to one another, the men ceased to buffet and jostle the unfortunate woman.

"Oh, ye who are called upon to decide if a criminal be guilty or not," adjured Ur-tasen, stretching his long gaunt arms towards the multitude, "pause, before you allow cowardly sentiment to mar your justice and your righteousness. Who is there among you here who hath not seen our beautiful Princess Neit-akrit? Who hath not gazed with love and reverence upon the young and exquisite face which Isis herself hath given her? And who is there among you who, remembering her beauty, doth not shudder with infinite loathing at the thought of that face disfigured by the sacrilegious hand of a low-born slave, of those eyes rendered sightless, of the young lips stilled by death? Oh, well-beloved of Osiris," he added, turning again towards Hugh, "from the foot of the throne of the gods perchance thou didst not perceive how exquisitely fair is this greatest of the daughters of Kamt whom thy presence hath deprived of a throne. Is not thy godlike sire, whose emissary thou art, satisfied? And in addition to wrenching the double crown of Kamt from her queenly brow, wouldst take her life, her smile, her sweetness, too? "

Ur-tasen, with wonderful cunning, had played a trump-card, and no doubt poor old Hugh was in a tight corner. His position towards the defrauded princess was at best a very ticklish one, and on the principle that the son of Ra could do no wrong, it was imperative that not the faintest suspicion should fasten on him that he bore any ill-will towards his future kinswoman. I wondered what Hugh would do. I knew my friend out and out, and there was that in his face which told me plainly that the unfortunate Kesh-ta would not be "cast out" from the gates of Kamt.

There must have been some subtle magic in the name of Neit-akrit, for Ur-tasen's appeal had quickly and completely done its work. One by one the lotus blossoms had again been dropped, and the judges simultaneously repeated:

"Death! Death! Death!"

The wretched woman alone among those present seemed not to take the slightest interest in the proceedings. She crouched in a heap in the centre of the hall, and the moonlight showed us at fitful intervals her great, wild eyes, her quivering mouth, and the hideous wound made by the cruel hand of Fano-tu.

"Death be it then," said Hugh, determinedly. "She has killed, and dreams yet to kill. Sinful and dangerous, let her be removed from Kamt, but by a quick and sudden act of justice, not by the slow tortures of inhuman revenge."

"Let no man shed the blood of man," once again repeated the high priest with obvious triumph, "in quarrel, revenge, or any other cause."

These last words he emphasised with cutting directness, then he added:

"Thou sayest, oh, well-beloved of the gods, that thou dost honour the laws of thy sire; remember that he who sheddeth the blood of man, his blood, too, shall be shed."

And placing the document once again before the Pharaoh, he said commandingly, though with outward humility:

"Wilt deign to place thy seal, oh, holy Pharaoh, on this decree which shall expel from out the gates of Kamt the murdering vermin that even now crawls at thy feet?"

But with characteristic impulsiveness, and before I could restrain him, Hugh had snatched the paper from out the high priest's hand, and tearing it across he threw it on the ground and placed his foot upon it.

"Not while I stand on the black soil of Kamt," he said quietly.

Breathless all had watched the stirring scene before them. Superstition, reverence, terror, all were depicted on the faces of the spectators. No one had dared to raise a voice or a finger, even when Hugh committed this daring act. The Pharaoh had turned, if possible, even more livid than before, and I could see a slight froth appearing at the corners of his mouth; he made no movement, however, and after a while took up his apes and began teasing them, laughing loudly and drily to himself. I fancied that he a little bit enjoyed Ur-tasen's subtle position. The high priest still stood impassive, with folded arms, and repeated for the fourth time:

"The laws of Ra given unto Mena commandeth that he who sheds the blood of man, his blood, too, shall be shed. By no hand of man can the criminal's blood be shed. The vultures of the wilderness, the hyenas and the jackals that dwell in the valley of death must shed the blood of the murderess, that the decrees of Ra and Osiris and Horus be implicity fulfilled."

Then he turned to the Pharaoh and added:

"Is it thy will, oh, holy Pharaoh, that the laws prescribed by the gods follow their course, as they have done since five times a thousand years? Is it thy will that the base and low vermin which crawleth at thy feet be allowed to go free and fulfill her murderous promises, and be a living danger to thy illustrious kinswoman, whom it is the duty of all the rulers of Kamt to cherish and protect? Or dost thou decree that in accordance with the will of Ra, who alloweth no man to shed the blood of man, she shall be cast out for ever from the land of Kamt, and her sinful blood feed the carrion birds and beasts of the arid valley of death?"

The Pharaoh gave an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, as if the matter had ceased to concern him at all. This Ur-tasen interpreted as a royal assent, for he commanded:

"Take the woman away and bind her with ropes. Let twenty men stand round to guard her, lest she fulfil her impious threat. Let her neither sleep, nor eat, nor drink. To-morrow, at break of day, when the first rays of Osiris peep behind the hills, she shall be led forth through the mysterious precincts of the temple of Ra and cast out through the gates of Kamt for ever into the wilderness."

"By all the gods of heaven, earth or hell," said Hugh, very quietly, "I declare unto you that she shall not."

And before I could stop him he had literally bounded forward, and slipping past the dumfounded judge and jury had reached the centre of the hall and was stooping over the prostrate woman.

It was a terrible moment, an eternity of awful suspense to me. I did not know what Hugh would do, dared not think of what any rashness on his part might perhaps entail.

"Touch her not, oh, beloved of the gods," shouted Ur-tasen, warningly; "she has been judged and found guilty; her touch is pollution. The gods by my mouth have decreed her fate."

"Her fate is beyond thy ken and thy decree, oh, man," said Hugh, with proud solemnity, as once again his tall stature towered above them all, "and she now stands before a throne where all is mercy and there is no revenge."

The men round had stooped and tried to lift the prostrate woman. She turned her face upwards to Hugh; the ashen shade over it was unmistakable; it was that of the dying, but in her eyes, as she looked at him, there came, as a last flicker of life, a spark of the deepest, the most touching, gratitude.

Then softly at first, but gradually more and more distinctly, the whisper was passed round:

"She is dead!"

And in the moonlight all of us there could see on the woman's dress a fast-spreading, large stain of blood.

"He who sheddeth the blood of man," came in thundering accents from the high priest, "his blood shall be shed. People of Kamt, who stand here before the face of Isis, I command ye to tell me whose hand spilt the blood of that woman."

"Mine," said Hugh, quietly, throwing his knife far from him, which fell, with weird and metallic jingle, upon the granite floor. "The hand of him whom Ra, has sent among you all, the hand of him whom Osiris loveth, who has come to rule over you, bringing you a message from the foot of the throne of your god. Touch him, any of you, if you dare!"

Shuddering, awestruck, all gazed upon him, while I, blindly, impetuously, rushed to his side, to be near him, to ward off the blow which I felt convinced would fall upon his daring head, or share it with him if I were powerless to save. I don't think that I ever admired him so much as I did then—I who had often seen him recoil with horror at thought of killing a beast, who understood the extraordinary, almost superhuman sacrifice it must have cost him, to free with his own hand this wretched woman from her awful doom.

But with all his enthusiasm, scientific visionary as he was, Hugh Tankerville knew human nature well, knew that, awestruck with their own superstition, they no more would have dared to touch him then than they would have desecrated one of their own gods. There was long and deathlike silence while Hugh stood before them all with hand raised upwards in a gesture of command and defiance; then, slowly, one by one, the judges and the jury and all the assembled multitude fell forward upon their faces and kissed the granite floor, while a low murmur went softly echoing through the pillars of the hall:

"Oh, envoy of Osiris! Beloved of the gods!"

Then I looked towards Ur-tasen and saw that the high priest, too, had knelt down like the others. Hugh had conquered for the moment, through the superstition of these strange people and the magic of his personality, but I dared not think of what the consequences of his daring act might be.

Without another word he beckoned to me to follow him, and together we went out of the judgment-hall of Men-ne-fer.