The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 12



Hugh needed much of my skill when we got back to the palace that night and were rid of our attendants, safe in our own privacy. The strain must have been terrible for him to bear. His constitution was a veritable bundle of nerves; these had been strained almost to breaking, both in his fight with Ur-tasen and during the awful moment when, for the sake of a principle, he stained his hand with the blood of a fellow-creature.

As soon as we were alone I went up to him and grasped that hand with all the warmth and affection which my admiration for him commanded, and I felt strangely moved when, in response, I saw in his great dark eyes a soft look of tenderness and of gratitude. He knew I had understood him, and I think he was satisfied. Gently, as a sick child, he allowed me to attend to him; fortunately, through the many vicissitudes which ultimately brought us to this wondrous land, I had never discarded my small, compact, portable medicine-chest, and I soon found a remedy for the poor, tired-out aching nerves.

"There now, that's better, isn't it, Girlie?" I said when he was at last lying, quietly and comfortably, on the couch, and there was less unnatural brilliancy in his eyes.

"You are awfully good to me, Mark, old chap," he said. "I am ashamed to have broken down so completely. You will think that I deserve more than ever my old schoolboy nickname."

"Yes! Sawnie Girlie you are," I said with a laugh, "and Sawnie Girlie you have ever proved yourself—particularly lately. But now I forbid you to talk—most emphatically—and command you to go to sleep. I will not have you ill, remember. Where should I be without you?"

"Oh, I shall be all right. Don't worry about me, old chap, and I assure you that I have every intention of going to sleep, particularly if you will do ditto. But, Mark, is it not strange how the mysterious personality of Neit-akrit seems to haunt every corner of this land?"

"That old Ur-tasen seems to me, somehow, to play a double game, and I am positively shocked at so old and venerable a personage getting so enthusiastic over the beauty of a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter. I call him a regular old rip."

"She certainly seems to have the power to arouse what is basest in every woman, be she queen like my bride, or slave like poor Kesh-ta, to make fools of men and cowards of the Pharaoh and his priest."

"I think that after all your queen may have had the best idea: a woman who has so much power is best put out of harm's way. There are no nunneries in this pagan land, but you had best accede to Queen Maat-kha's wish, and command Princess Neit-akrit to become the priestess of some god."

"Then she would set to work to demoralise all the priests," said Hugh, with a laugh, "and finally upset the gravity of the high priest. I must find her a husband, Mark; the cares of maternity will sober her soon enough. I wish you would take her off my hands."

The next day, at a solemn council, at which the Queen, Ur-tasen and ourselves were present, and which was held within the precincts of the temple of Ra, the high priest seemed entirely to have forgotten the events of the night. He greeted Hugh with solemn and dignified respect, and it was impossible to read on his parchment-like face what his thoughts were with regard to the beloved of the gods. I could not make up my mind whether he did or did not believe the story of Ra and of the soul of Khefren, and at times I would see his shrewd eyes fixed upon Hugh and myself with an expression I could not altogether define. Somehow I mistrusted him, in spite of the fact that his manner towards Hugh, throughout the council, was deferential and respectful, even to obsequiousness. Hugh, I could see, was on his guard and spoke little. Affairs of finance were mostly discussed. It evidently was Ur-tasen's business to collect the reports of the governors and officials on matters agricultural, financial or religious, and to lay them before his sovereign. He seemed to be the "Bismarck" of this picturesque land, and to my mind it was unlikely that he meant to share the power which he had wielded for so long with any stranger, be he descended from the heavens above or not, and in the great trial of the unfortunate slave he had been publicly and absolutely discomfited.

At the same time, whatever might be the game he meant to play, he hid his cards well for the present, and neither made suggestion nor offered criticism, without referring both to Hugh.

Queen Maat-kha, attired in her sombre yet gorgeous black, looked more radiant and beautiful than ever. She made no effort to hide the deep and passionate love she felt for her future lord; she had probably heard of the episode of the night, but, if she had, Hugh's daring action had but enhanced her pride in him.

Most of the day was again spent in visiting temples and public buildings, and in receiving various dignitaries of the city. The representatives of various crafts and trades came in turn to offer to the beloved of the gods some exquisite piece of their workmanship, or object of art, fashioned by their hands: goldsmiths' and jewellers' work, smiths' or turners' treasures, which, I felt, would one day adorn the cases of the British Museum, and the barbarous splendours of which were a veritable feast to the eye.

We did not see the sick Pharaoh throughout the whole of that day. Once or twice we caught sight of his rose-coloured litter, with its gorgeous crown of gold, being borne along among the acacia alleys of the park, and we heard his harsh, sarcastic laugh echoing down the alabaster corridors; but he took no notice of either Hugh or myself, and did not appear at either council or reception. The mighty Pharaoh was sick unto death, and men with shaven crowns, in long green robes—the representatives of the medical profession of Kamt—were alone admitted to his presence.

Late that night we sat at table in the vast supper-hall. At the head of it, on a raised daïs covered with heavy folds of rich black tissue, Queen Maat-kha sat, with Hugh by her side. I was at her right, and behind each of us a tall swarthy slave waved a gigantic ostrich feather fan of many colours, stirring the air gently over our heads. Through the massive alabaster columns there stretched out before us the bower of palms and acacias, among which the newly-risen moon threw dark and mysterious shadows. On the marble floor there stalked about majestic pink flamingoes, while around the columns fair musicians squatted, drawing forth from their quaint crescent-shaped harps sweet and monotonous tones. Only one lamp, low and dim, in which burned sweet-scented oil, illumined with fitful light the hall in which we sat, together with the vessels of gold and exquisite fruit which littered the table, while around us dainty maidens flitted, filling and refilling our goblets with aromatic wines from great stone jars, which they carried on their graceful heads: their smooth dark skins glittered at times like bits of old carved ivory. I confess that in the midst of this gorgeousness and plenty I was just thinking how delightful a good cigar would be, when, quite involuntarily—for I was gradually training myself to become a very efficient gooseberry—I caught a few words which Queen Maat-kha was whispering half audibly to Hugh.

"Art thou not happy then with me?"

Hugh whispered something in reply, which I did not catch, but which evidently was not altogether satisfactory, for she shook her head and said:

"Then why dost thou wish to go? I would fain pray the gods to bid time stand still and Osiris to cease his daily wanderings on the vault of heaven. I but long that day should follow day in this same sweet, unvarying monotony."

"It is necessary that I should see my people, sweet," said Hugh, "and necessary I should pay my humble respects to the Princess Neit-akrit, whom my presence has deprived of a throne."

"Yes, I know. Ur-tasen has devised it. He nourishes in his heart a fond regret that he will not place the crown of Kamt on the head of Neit-akrit."

"I think thou dost him wrong; he is devoted to thee and to thy house."

"Because I load him with gifts," she said drily, "and because he fears the gods, whose beloved thou art; but Neit-akrit is young; some call her fair … and …"

"Is she then so very fair, this mysterious Neit-akrit whom I have never seen, but who will be my kinswoman when thou art my wife? Tell me about her."

I thought that this was a false move on Hugh's part. It is never safe to express interest in one lady in the presence of another, and I was not surprised to see Queen Maat-kha's eyes flash with anger, and—I thought—jealous suspicion.

"What can I tell thee," she said indifferently, "save that some have called her fair?"

"Is she young?"

"She is little more than a child; her body is straight and angular; she has large eyes, but they are not dark, and her hair is of a peculiar colour. What can I tell thee of her?"

"Tell him that Neit-akrit is beautiful beyond what man born of woman can conceive," suddenly said a harsh and sarcastic voice immediately behind us; "that her eyes are blue and mysterious as is the light of Isis, when she rises silent and solitary in the night, that her hair is like the rays with which Osiris bathes the heavens when he himself has sunk to rest. Tell him that her body is tall and lithe as the graceful papyrus grass which sways gently in the wind, and that her feet are white and transparent like the polished tusks of the young elephant. Tell him that her voice is sweeter than the song of birds or chorus of goddesses around Ra's throne, and that her cheeks would shame the lotus blossom in their tints. Then, when thou hast described all this and more to him, who is beloved of the gods, tell him that, though his soul be descended direct from the foot of the throne of Ra, and his heart was fashioned by the hand of Osiris himself, he cannot kindle one spark of life in the heart and soul of beautiful Neit-akrit, but that he will see his own, bruised and chilled unto death, trampled beneath the ivory white feet of the most exquisite daughter of this fair land of Kamt, while the very apes in the trees of her palace will laugh to scorn his lost manhood and the gnawing pain in his heart."

We had all turned towards the further end of the room, where stood the Pharaoh, supported on either side by two of his shorn physicians, his pale face emaciated by suffering, looking weirdly grotesque beneath the gigantic double crown of gold, studded with jewels, of Upper and Lower Kamt. Each side of him two torch-bearers stood, holding aloft a burning torch, the flickering light of which made his face appear strangely demoniacal in its expression of hatred and contempt, while with one long clawlike finger he pointed derisively at Hugh. It was the first time I had heard him speak, and his voice sounded strangely harsh and high-pitched. Suddenly he broke into loud and unnatural laughter.

"He! he! he! thou beloved of the gods! what exquisite torments await thee! for thou wilt love her, I tell thee, and she will laugh and mock thee! Didst thou not know that Isis gave her a stone when she was born, instead of a heart? Ay! my lady mother! thou dost right to dread that thy beloved leave thy side to behold the fairness of Neit-akrit. I shall not live a year and a day, saith thy High Chancellor; well! perhaps not! but I shall live long enough to see the beloved of the gods, the future king of Kamt, a weak and puling mortal rendered akin to the fools, and kicked at by the white feet of a woman. Thou desirest my crown, thou soul of Khefren?" now shrieked the unfortunate man, while he began to tremble from head to foot and tried to walk towards Hugh. "Thou wishest to wed a queen? and sit upon the throne of Kamt? I tell thee that before that time comes thou wilt lie with thy pale head in the dust of the valley of death, and pray that thy sacrilegious foot had never dared to step upon the pedestal of Ra, since thy presence deprived her of a throne! Here! take thou my crown! My head has ached long enough with the weight of it! Take it, I say! and may every jewel it contains burn into thy flesh and make thy martyrdom doubly hideous to bear, since it will make of thee, who art beloved of the gods, the abhorred and loathed usurper of the throne of Neit-akrit!"

He had with trembling hands torn the massive golden crown from off his head, and with a final shriek of execration and blasphemy hurled it at Hugh Tankerville's feet, where it fell with a loud crash, while some of the rubies, loosened from their settings by the vigour of the shock, rolled about on the floor like glittering drops of blood.

But the effort had been too much for the enfeebled frame: the physicians, completely paralysed by the frenzy of their patient, seemed unable to support him,for with a wild cry the mighty Pharaoh fell forward, prostrate before the man on whom he had hurled his malediction.

Hugh had jumped up, fortunately in good time to break the fall of the unfortunate man, and his vigorous chest received the main shock of the inanimate body. Then, lightly, as if the great Pharaoh had been a feather, he lifted him from the ground, and giving me a wink, he carried him across the hall in his arms, commanding the astonished physicians and torch-bearers to lead the way. As I followed him, and helped to support the inanimate body, I looked back and, in the dim light of the lamp, caught sight of the face of Queen Maat-kha. It was as pale as death, and in her large eyes, which rested on the inert form of her son, there was a look of bitter hatred, coupled with an eager and terrible hope, which made me almost shudder.

Gently we conveyed the fainting man to his own apartments, and imperiously Hugh ordered physicians and attendants out of the room. They were far too frightened not to obey, and together we set to work to undress the great Pharaoh and to lay him on his couch.

"I think now is your chance, Mark, or never, to examine the poor man and see what he really suffers from," said Hugh, when we had laid the bloodless, emaciated body on the gorgeous couch and rested the pale head on the rose silk cushion, which made the face appear more weird and livid than before.

"If those two bald idiots in yellow robes are a specimen of the medical profession in this highly-enlightened country, I, for one, must pray to be preserved from any ailment in which I cannot attend on myself," I said, as I first of all endeavoured to administer such restoratives to the patient as I usually carried about me. I had examined the yellow, parchment-like skin, covered with pimples and blotches, the eyes circled with deep purple rings, the sunken temples and pinched nostrils, and, though I have no pretensions at vast experience in medical practice, yet I am an M.D. of London, and had done some creditable work at St. Mary's, and I was not very long in coming to the conclusion what malady was undermining the very life of the young monarch.

"I should say he is suffering from advanced diabetes: though, of course, I cannot be sure till I have examined him more thoroughly. If my surmises are correct, then those shaven fools are doing their level best to kill him in the shortest possible period of time." And I pointed to the fine wheaten bread, the fruit and sweet cakes, which lay on a tray ready to the invalid's hand. " At the same time I think we should find it difficult to interfere with his medical entourage."

"Do you think you can save him?" asked Hugh, eagerly.

"Save him? No! Only stay the rapid course of the malady, perhaps. I cannot tell offhand how far it has gone, and, of course, I cannot thrust myself into the case without consulting the physicians who have charge of it."

"Does it not strike you, Mark, old chap," interrupted Hugh, with a smile, "that your exposé of professional etiquette, as prescribed by the R. C. S., is a little out of place in this particular instance? Look here!" he added with his usual impulsive energy, "if your suppositions are correct, do you or do you not consider that this unfortunate man is being wrongly treated?"

"Yes! That I do most emphatically consider."

"Very well, then! From this moment you must look after him, and those bald niggers have got to do as you tell them."

"But …"

"There is no 'but,' Mark. We are not going to see this poor wretch die in agony, under our very eyes, if your skill can alleviate his sufferings. I appoint you my future son's physician-extraordinary; this shall be the first act of my autocratic rule."

"Hush!" I warned, "he is moving."

I hurriedly whispered to Hugh to go, for I was afraid the sight of him would upset the patient.

"Send his own attendants in, old man; they can see to him for the present, till we have decided what is to be done."

Shuffling and humble, the two yellow-robed personages obeyed Hugh's orders to go and see to their illustrious patient. The Pharaoh was slowly recovering consciousness, and I thought it prudent to leave him alone with faces that were familiar and more welcome to him than mine.

I think we were both heartily sorry for the unfortunate youth, so helpless in the midst of all his pomp and glory, and I was only too ready to devote myself to him, if the thing was feasible.

"Will you mention it to the Queen to-night?" I suggested.

"Not to-night," he replied, "but at the Cabinet Council to-morrow when Ur-tasen is present."

When we returned to the dining-hall the Queen had retired with her attendants, and we were left alone for the remainder of the evening to stroll about under the acacia alleys of the park.