The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 14



Is there such a thing as instinct, prescience? call it what you will. Nay! I know not. In my student days I had often dissected the human brain and studied its component parts, and wondered which of the numerous cells of fibrous tissue contained that inward feeling which at times so plainly warns and foretells.

There was an instinct which told me that Neit-akrit, the beautiful and mysterious princess whom we, the usurpers, had deprived of the double crown of Kamt, was already a part of our very life. Her name haunted this place; it was whispered by the trees and murmured by the waters of the canal; it filled the air with its mystic and oppressive magnetism. Hugh felt it, I know. I think he is more impressionable than I am, and, of course, he is more enthusiastic, more inclined to poetry and visions. Even when wrapped in the most dry researches of science, he would clothe hard facts in picturesque guise.

To-night he talked a great deal of Neit-akrit. From a scientific point of view she interested him immensely, but, as a woman, she possessed no charm for him. No woman had ever done that. Above everything, he was a scientific enthusiast, and even in his own fair country he had never had so much as a schoolboy love. His friendship for me was, I think, his most tender emotion. He admired the picturesque, the poetic, above all, the mystic, and no woman, as yet, had embodied these three qualities in his eyes.

For the moment we discussed Neit-akrit as we would a coming foe. I refused to believe that a woman, young and fascinating, would without murmur or struggle resign her chances of a throne. Accustomed to rule by her beauty, she must love power, and surely would not resign herself patiently to a secondary position in the land.

We were looking forward to a preliminary battle on the morrow. Hugh was determined that the Pharaoh should be placed under my charge, and we both much wondered whether the arbitrary high priest would allow himself to give way to the stranger upon every point.

"My one hold upon these people," argued Hugh, "is through their superstition. They look upon me as a being of another world, and any weakness would hopelessly endanger that position."

"Every conflict with that powerful and arbitrary high priest might prove a fatal one, remember," I warned.

"I know that; but the Pharaoh is dying for want of proper medical treatment. It would be a sheer physical impossibility to me to watch him dying by inches and not raise a finger to help him. Having raised a finger, if it must mean hand and arm as well, then we shall see who is the stronger—Ur-tasen or I."

But whatever the feelings of the high-priest may have been, he knew the art of concealing them to the full. The next morning, at the Cabinet Council, he was deferential, nay, obsequious to Hugh, and hardly spoke, but stood humbly with his tall golden wand in his hand, and only gave advice when directly spoken to.

Then, when it was almost time to go, and I had begun to think that Hugh, on the whole, had thought it wiser to make no mention for the present of the Pharaoh's sickness, the Queen suddenly said:

"My lord goes to-day to visit his future kinswoman, but the Pharaoh is sick, Ur-tasen; I know not if he will accompany us."

"I think he will," said the high priest, with a sarcastic smile. "He will surely wish to be present in order to see the happy greeting of his young cousin to the future ruler of Kamt."

"He is too ill to bear the fatigue," said Hugh, peremptorily.

"Too ill, I fear," rejoined the high priest, drily, "to bear the long days of impatience waiting for thy home-coming, oh, beloved of the gods!"

"Ay! thou sayest truly, Ur-tasen; the holy Pharaoh is too ill to bear much, and my counsellor and I have consulted together, and together have decided that the hands which tend him are not sufficiently skilful to be entrusted with the care of so precious a life."

"A life, however precious, is always in the hands of the gods," retorted Ur-tasen. "None should know that better than thou, who hailest from the foot of their throne."

The duel had fairly begun. Hugh was determined to keep his temper, in spite of the high priest's obvious sarcasm and mock deference.

"The gods," he said, "like to see such lives well looked after on this earth, and it will be my care in the future that wise counsels preside over the sick-bed of the Pharaoh."

I thought that the high priest's parchment-like face had become a shade or two more sallow than before; the Queen, too, looked pale, but it might have been from fright at Hugh's audacity. She had been accustomed throughout her life to accept the dictates of the high priest of Ra as if they emanated from the gods themselves. Ur-tasen had raised his shorn head and, with slightly elevated eyebrows, was looking at Hugh.

"And how will the beloved of the gods ensure this laudable aim?" he asked with the same mock deference.

"By appointing my counsellor to be the Pharaoh's physician and adviser; those who now fawn round him have no understanding of the terrible malady which is threatening to terminate his life, when he is yet scarcely out of boyhood. My counsellor is well versed in the science of drugs and herbs. He will advise the Pharaoh as to what he should eat and what he should avoid."

"The Pharaoh, though scarcely yet out of boyhood, is not one so easily counselled, oh, Beloved of the gods! and those who have now gained his confidence were appointed to the high honour by the will of Ra himself."

"As expressed by thy mouth, Ur-tasen, and though thy counsels may be wise in the administration of religion and the offering of sacrifice, I know not if they are worthy to be followed where a serious malady threatens the descendant of kings."

"Such as they are they have been followed in this glorious land of Kamt, long before thy foot trod its soil, oh, beloved of the gods!" said the high priest, still trying to contain himself, though his voice shook with passion and his hand clutched the heavy wand of office till the sinews of his gaunt arms creaked with the effort.

"Yet, nevertheless, in this matter my counsel shall prevail," said Hugh, with sublime calm, "and I solemnly declare that my counsellor here shall in future have constant access to the bedside of the Pharaoh, and that whatever he orders for the monarch's welfare shall be blindly and implicitly obeyed."

"And how dost thou propose to enforce this declaration, oh, beloved of the gods?" asked the priest, with a contemptuous smile.

"By ruthlessly crushing beneath my heel him who should dare to disobey my orders," replied Hugh, slowly, as he rose from the litter and stood confronting the high priest in all the glory of his youth and his powerful personality.

Ur-tasen had turned positively livid. He had been accustomed throughout his life to dictate his will to Queen Maat-kha and to the country. His commands had probably never been gainsaid, but at this moment he too felt, I think, that the next few minutes would decide as to who—he or the stranger—was to be master in the land.

"Beware," he said solemnly, his voice quaking with rage while he raised aloft the heavy wand of gold, emblem of his sacerdotal power, "lest thou thyself be crushed beneath the power against which thou hast dared to raise thy sacrilegious voice."

But without a word Hugh turned and went up to the curtain which shut out the view of the city from the council chamber, and pushing it aside, he pointed to where, lining the temple steps, thousands of men and women waited—as they did every morning—to catch sight of him who, until a few days ago, had sat at the very foot of the throne of Osiris. Some of the younger men and women were lying on the ground so that his foot might tread upon their bodies. Hugh waited a moment quietly while Ur-tasen, who had followed him, was also looking out upon the populace. Suddenly in the crowd there was a shriek; some one had caught sight of Hugh, and the next moment all had knelt, turning their dark faces with awe and reverence towards him, while the women began to chant a hymn of praise as they would to a god.

Hugh waited quietly while the flood of enthusiasm
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Remember that this broken wand might prove the future emblem of thy power"

spread over the entire crowd, till the clamour became deafening, till the hymns sounded like an ode of triumph, then he calmly dropped the curtain and, smiling, turned to Ur-tasen.

"Didst thou speak of power, oh, mighty priest of Ra?" he asked.

"Wouldst thou defy the might that made thee?" thundered the high priest, advancing threateningly towards Hugh and brandishing the massive wand over his head. "Beware, I tell thee, thou stranger in the land, lest the same hands which set thee above all the people of Kamt should hurl thee from that throne and send thee bruised and bleeding into the dark valley of death, a prey to the carrion of the wilderness from whence thou camest, followed by the maledictions of that same populace which is now ready to proclaim thee akin to the gods!"

The old man was still vigorous, and I had jumped forward, seriously fearing that the next instant the heavy gold wand would descend on Hugh's skull, with a strength which might have silenced this dispute for mastery for ever. Queen Maat-kha, too, had put out both her arms imploringly towards the high priest, who seemed to have lost all self-control; but it was evident that, with all his wisdom, the old gentleman knew nothing about the temperament of a son of prosy old England. Hugh looked down on him from his full altitude of six feet two inches and, with an impatient frown and a shrug of the shoulders, he quietly wrenched the massive wand of office from out Ur-tasen's nervous hands and, apparently without the slighest effort, bent it right across his knee till with a dull metallic sound the golden wand broke clean in half; then he threw the pieces on the marble floor at the astonished priest's feet and, smiling, shook the dust from off his hands.

"Thy age and thy weakness make thee sacred at my hands," he said as he calmly returned to his place beside the Queen, "but thou wouldst do well to remember that this broken wand might prove the future emblem of thyself and of thy power. The hour is late, my Queen," he added, turning to his fiancée, who was still speechless with terror and amazement, "and it is time we prepared ourselves for our journey. Pick up thy golden wand, Ur-tasen, and salute thy Queen!"

He gave a signal and the eight deaf-mute slaves hoisted up the litter ready to bear it away. The high priest had silently picked up the golden wand as he was bid and silently had made humble obeisance before Hugh and the Queen. As I followed them out of the council chamber, I saw the high priest still standing, gazing in amazement at the broken bar of gold and at Hugh's retreating figure with superstitious terror; then, as the first wild shouts of enthusiasm of the populace, at sight of the Beloved of the gods, reached his ears, he fell upon his knees and stretched out his arms with a shriek towards the sanctuary of Ra.