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PART III
THE PALACE OF NEIT-AKRIT


CHAPTER XV
NEIT-AKRIT, PRINCESS OF KAMT

"There is no doubt now, Girlie, but you have made an enemy of that man," I said, as soon as I had a chance of speaking to Hugh alone.

"It could not be helped, Mark. It was a choice between an enemy and a master. I see it clearly now, that after the first shock of surprise it was Ur-tasen's idea to use me as a puppet with which to further play upon the superstition of the people, and to consolidate his own power over Queen Maat-kha. I suppose that, with a woman at the head of affairs and a Pharaoh too ill to attend to anything seriously, the old fox has had it pretty much his own way."

"And when she asked him to allow her to marry again, he naturally did not cotton to the idea of a possible new master," I added thoughtfully, "or he never would have refused the cartloads of gold dust or whatever other bribes the fair Queen offered for his consent. Then you appeared upon the scene …"

"And the old humbug was staggered for a moment, I daresay, but he knows well enough that we have come from somewhere on this earth, and not from heaven. I suppose that he suddenly saw possibilities of making me his tool and keeping the power in his own hands, while on the other hand the Queen might have rebelled against his wishes and married again in spite of him. Weighing one consideration with another, as W. S. Gilbert's policeman says, Ur-tasen thought he could make most capital out of me in my semi-divine capacity, and now I have taught him the salutary lesson that I have not come all this way in order to become a priest-ridden tool for the furtherance of pagan superstitions, and of course he is not altogether pleased."

"You certainly have the people at your command, old man, but the priests, I should imagine, are treacherous."

"And that arch-humbug, Ur-tasen, the most treacherous of the lot," replied Hugh, with a laugh. "Of course he hates me now, and having found out that I simply will not dance to his piping, he will, no doubt, take the first possible opportunity of effectively getting rid of me."

"He dare not do that just at present."

"Of course not. But these picturesque and excitable people are only human after all. This enthusiasm is bound to cool down after a bit, and then 'ware of traps and plots."

"I cannot help thinking, Girlie," I added, "that Princess Neit-akrit will prove a source of great danger."

"To what, old croaker?—to our heads or to our hearts?" he said, with a laugh.

"I am inclined to think to both," I replied earnestly. "Do you feel at all impressionable just now?"

"I? Not the least bit in the world. Has not the dear little swimmer's talisman rendered me invulnerable? Besides, this land, fair as it is, is neither my home nor my country. At present it is a great and gorgeous prison, and I should not be such a fool as to court sorrow and misery within it."

"Do you know, old man, that if those are your sentiments your attitude towards your future wife is doubtful in its morality?"

"You don't understand what I mean, Mark. Marriage is a sacred tie, whether contracted in Christian or in pagan land. My word is pledged to Queen Maat-kha, and I will keep my word to her as much as I should if I were pledged to a woman English-born like myself. And if ever I return to dusty old London, even if she did not choose to accompany me, I should still consider the tie which binds me to her indissoluble, so long as she chooses to hold me to it. But, believe me, she has no love for me; to her I merely represent the stranger—human or semi-divine—who has helped to keep the crown upon her head and prevented it from falling upon that of Neit-akrit, whom she hates. The Pharaoh is doomed, and by the curious constitution of this land a woman can only sit upon the throne of Kamt if a husband or a son share that throne with her. That arbitrary old Ur-tasen would not allow her to wed one of her own subjects; he was surprised into accepting me. As soon as a son is born to her, she will release me from my word and see me depart without a pang."

"In the meanwhile, how are you going to induce the Pharaoh to accept me as his medical adviser?"

"I don't think it will be difficult, for I expect to-day he will be too ill to have much will of his own. Do you know that somehow I have had the feeling all along that neither Queen Maat-kha nor Ur-tasen want the unfortunate man to get well. He is no friend of mine, but I hope to goodness you can cure him, if only to annoy my arch-enemy, the high priest."

The difficult problem was unexpectedly and suddenly solved when, just as the sun was setting, our usual gorgeous retinue came to fetch us in order to escort us to the boats which were ready for the journey. Gay-coloured sails, wrought in scarlet and blue designs, were attached to the crafts, which were manned by sixteen boatmen in scarlet leather skull-caps, collars and belts, their naked bodies shining with some perfumed ointment with which they were smeared.

In the centre of each boat a pavilion was erected, with turquoise blue and green awnings, the gigantic double crown of Kamt glittering aloft at prow and poop. Queen Maat-kha, swathed in the clinging folds of her black kalasiris, wore the royal urseus round her dark hair, which was thickly plaited with strings of emeralds and half hidden beneath a veil of dull blue and purple stripes. She looked very beautiful, though strangely excited and pale. As soon as she saw us she whispered for a while eagerly to Hugh, then she came up to me and said:

"Will my lord's counsellor deign to step into the mighty Pharaoh's boat? He himself will be here anon."

"Is the Pharaoh well enough to travel?" I asked, astonished.

"He has expressed the wish to see his royal kinswoman; and, as my lord desired, I have ordered that thou, oh, wise counsellor, shouldst be beside the mighty Pharaoh, to be a help to him in his sickness."

Hugh had triumphed; evidently the Queen, like Ur-tasen, had thought it best to obey the beloved of the gods, who had the whole of the population of Kamt grovelling at his feet. The Pharaoh himself, I think, felt too ill to care whether my insignificant self or his shaven, yellow-robed attendants sat opposite to him under the awning. He looked more cadaverous than ever amidst his rose silk cushions as he was brought in his litter to the water's edge and lifted into the boat.

He gave me an astonished look as I arranged his pillows more comfortably for him, and without a word took the heavy diadem from off his aching forehead and placed it by his side. He seemed like an automaton this morning and took no notice of anybody or anything round him. Complete apathy and drowsiness had succeeded his outburst of fury of the night before; even when he saw Hugh coming down the steps, looking positively regal in his mantle of shimmering green and gold, he turned his eyes listlessly away. On the alabaster steps the tiny musicians were playing upon harps and drums, while on the opposite shore the people had assembled in dense masses to watch the departure. Young athletes, among whom were many of the fair sex, had dived into the water, and were swimming about round the royal boats, peeping with bright, inquisitive eyes beneath the canopy, to catch sight of the beloved of the gods. I remembered our pretty visitor of last night and wondered what Hugh had done with the iridescent beetle which was supposed to keep him from harm. Then, as the sun disappeared behind the hills in the west, slowly at first the boatmen dipped their scarlet oars into the water to the accompaniment of a low, monotonous barcarolle, and gracefully the crescent-shaped boats glided down the stream, while a prolonged cry of farewell came from thousands of enthusiastic throats. Soon the wind swelled the sails, the boatmen plied their oars more vigorously, and the city of Men-ne-fer, with its rose-tinted palaces catching the last lingering rays of the setting sun, passed away before our eyes like a gigantic and gorgeous panorama.

It was long before the sound of sistrum and harp died away in the distance, long before the shouts of farewell ceased to echo from afar. One by one the sturdy swimmers dropped behind and returned to the city. I had given the Pharaoh a soothing draught, which, to my astonishment, he had taken obediently, and he was lying back against the pillows, with the gentle breeze fanning the matted hair on his forehead.

The city was soon far behind us; great fields stretched out on either side of the canal, covered with waving crops of barley and wheat, with groves of palms and fruit trees, and bowers of lilies, fuchsias and clematis. From time to time in the distance I caught sight of teams of white oxen walking leisurely homewards after the day's work was done; beside them the brown chest and back of a sturdy labourer of Kamt seemed to glisten in the evening light. Then at times, half-hidden among groves of palms and giant aloes, there peeped out the white or rose-tinted walls of some country mansion, or towering above the water there would rise, majestic and gorgeous, a temple dedicated to some protecting deity. As the royal procession sailed along the stream, from between the pillars would emerge a band of priests in flowing robes of white or yellow, and behind them a group of priestesses would intone a hymn as we passed.

I felt strangely anxious and excited, my mind dwelling persistently on the mysterious and poetic personality of the young princess, who seemed to create such unreasoning love in all male hearts of Kamt, and who had chosen this hour of night—mystic, poetic as she was herself—in which to receive him for the first time—him whose advent had deprived her of her throne.

The canal had considerably widened, and presently we drifted into a large inland lake. Night had entirely closed in, and I could not see the shore on either side, only the lights high aloft on the prow of the boats threw fantastic glints in the water. All was peaceful and silent, save for the rhythmic clap of the oars as they rose and fell in the water and the flapping of the sails in the breeze. Then gradually from the horizon in the west a blue radiance illumined the sky, and slow and majestic the silver moon rose above the fairy-like landscape; and as she rose the boatmen began to intone the hymn of greeting to rising Isis. Softly at first, and hardly discernible above the sighing of the reeds and papyrus grass in the wind, the chant rose louder and louder, as the silver disc appeared above the line of hills.

The Pharaoh had roused himself from his sleep, and impatiently he pushed aside the curtain which hid the distance from his view. I, too, looked out towards the west and saw that we were rapidly nearing an island, which rose like a veritable bower of flowers and palms from the middle of the lake, and the outline of which gradually detached itself from out the gloom. Then suddenly, in response to the chant of the boatmen, there came faintly echoing from that fairy island a flourish of silver trumpets.

The Pharaoh's face looked terribly set and hard; his dark eyes, framed by purple rings, appeared literally to glow as they gazed incessantly afar.

"It is there!" he whispered.

Before us, above a gigantic flight of marble steps rising straight from out the water, there towered a massive building, its heavy pillars, covered in delicate sculpture, supporting the ponderous flat roof, which seemed to my strangely excited fancy to be made of massive gold. At the foot of the steps two mammoth sphinxes of white granite, mysterious and immense, frowned majestically across the lake.

As we approached, once again the silver trumpets sent a flourish through the evening air, and then I saw that the terraces high above us, the palm groves, and even the massive roof, were densely covered with people, while the whole gigantic flight of steps was lined with rows of slaves, dark and immovable as statues.

The Pharaoh's boat had scraped its side against the marble; his attendants had jumped out ready to help him to alight. But he pushed them almost brutally aside and stepped on shore, leaning heavily on my shoulder. He was trembling from head to foot, and I could see great beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead. I could not help feeling vaguely nervous too. This arrival by moonlight, the poetic fairy palace, the trembling man by my side, all helped to make my nerves tingle with the presentiment of something strange to come.

A song of welcome had greeted the arrival of the Pharaoh, and from above a shower of lilies and iris fell like a sweet-scented carpet at his feet. He looked round to where Queen Maat-kha had just alighted, closely followed by Hugh; then I saw his trembling hand wander to the short metal dagger at his side and clutch it with a nervous grip, while a hissing sound escaped his throat. But the next moment he had looked upwards, and quietly he began to mount the marble steps.

At sight of the beloved of the gods a terrific shout of welcome had rent the air, and, as I looked behind me for a moment, I could see that the whole length of the marble steps was—according to the strange custom of this land—literally carpeted with the bodies of young girls, eager that his foot should tread upon them. They crowded round him, kissing the tips of his sandals or the corner of his mantle, the more venturesome ones touching his foot or hand as he walked with Queen Maat-kha by his side.

Then suddenly from above a strong and flickering light, from a hundred torches borne high aloft, changed the night into day. There was a moment of silence and expectancy, and then she came.

It would be an impossible task for me to attempt to put into words my first impression of Princess Neit-akrit, as she stood there on the edge of the marble terrace with a background of shadows behind her, the flickering light of the torches and the blue rays of the moon alternately playing upon the vivid gold of her hair.

Very tall and slender, almost a child, she embodied in her graceful person the highest conceived ideal of a queen.

She wore the quaint and picturesque garb of the country with unequalled grace. The great and heavy plaits of her hair hung on each side of her face down to her knees. The clinging folds of her straight and transparent kalasiris moulded every line of her figure; it was pure white and was held up over the shoulders by two silvery bands. It seemed to cling closely round her ankles and to slightly impede her movements, for she walked slowly and with halting steps. On her tiny feet she wore a pair of pointed sandals. In absolute contrast to Queen Maat-kha she had not a single jewel. Her arms, neck and bust were bare; on her head there was no diadem save that of her ardent hair, and in her hand she held the fitting sceptre to her kingdom of youth and beauty—a tall snow-white lily. Beside her there walked proudly a beautiful white panther, who fawned round her tiny hand and playfully rubbed himself against her knees.

She came close up to the Pharaoh, who seemed hardly able to stand, and held up her young face to his for the customary cousinly kiss. It was then that I saw how intensely blue were her eyes, and how deep the gold of her hair.

The next moment her voice, sweet and low, murmured, as Hugh reached the top of the steps:

"Welcome, oh, son of Ra! the beloved of Osiris, to the humble abode of thy kinswoman."

And she, too, like her slaves, knelt down to kiss the hem of Hugh Tankerville's garment.

"Then wilt thou not greet me as thy kinsman, princess?" he said as he raised her to her feet and waited for the cousinly kiss.

She stood before him and looked at him for fully ten seconds, while I could see that he was watching her with undisguised astonishment and admiration: then, resting her little hand very firmly on the head of her white panther, she said:

"If it is thy wish, oh, messenger of Ra."

Fortunately I had a very tight hold of the mighty Pharaoh at that moment, for I doubt not that but for this and his own physical weakness, he would have made Hugh atone then and there for that cousinly kiss. His hand had once again clutched the dagger at his belt, and with a hoarse cry, like some wounded beast at bay, had tried to jump forward, but fell back panting in my arms.

Princess Neit-akrit had turned quietly to him.

"My kinsman is very sick. The journey must have been too fatiguing. Art thou his physician, oh, stranger?" she asked of me.

"I am deputed to alleviate the mighty Pharaoh's sufferings," I replied.

"Dost think thou wilt succeed?" she asked, looking at me with great wondering blue eyes.

"I can cure, I hope, the ailments of his body," I replied with a smile.

"Then I will kiss thee, too," she said, with a merry girlish laugh, "for if thou restore my kinsman to health, thou wilt become very dear to me."

And I was given the top of a beautiful, smooth, young forehead to kiss—and I, prosy old Mark Emmett, was satisfied.