Open main menu


 

CHAPTER XVII
DANGER

All through my stay in the beautiful land of Kamt I never found that its balmy, fragrant air acted as a soporific, and it became really wonderful with how little sleep we both contrived to keep up our health. That night, or rather morning, after our quaint little adventure, I hardly managed to close an eye, and I am sure that Hugh, who had as usual a room opening out of mine, was as restless as myself. I found the scent of the lotus oppressive and penetrating, and the memories it brought back to me very disturbing and harassing.

The sun was high in the heavens when I at last contrived to snatch a brief hour's sleep, and when I woke it was to find that Hugh had stolen a march on me, and had already gone out. The morning looked perfect, and after my delicious bath I felt thoroughly rested and at peace with this picturesque world and its fascinating women. It was one of those mornings when a book and a cigar on a verandah facing the sea would have been perfect bliss in the dear old country. But on this beautiful morning in Kamt, the scent of flowers, the songs of birds, the exotic beauty of the land gave mind and body so much to enjoy that not even the cigar and the book were much missed.

I tried to pick my way through the labyrinth of alleys and walks to the terrace that faced the lake, and just as I stepped on to it I saw Hugh and Princess Neit-akrit there together.

She looked more lovely, I thought, by day than even she had been by moonlight. She was lying under a canopy of turquoise blue silk which vied in colour and brilliancy with the sky above it. Beneath it her hair looked like living copper, and her skin white and polished like the alabaster. Her beautiful panther lay at her feet, and Hugh stood on the steps which led up to the throne-like couch on which she reclined. Neither of them saw me, and I stood for a while looking at the dainty picture.

"I have oft wondered," she was saying, "what lies beyond those hills. Ur-tasen says that there is naught but the valley of death, where foot of man ne'er treads, but where carrion beasts prowl at night, and vultures fly screeching overhead. When he talks like that my flesh creeps with horror, and for days I cannot bear to look upon those hills; then, a lovely morning comes like to-day, Osiris emerges in his golden barge more radiant than ever from out that valley of death, and then all day I long to follow him in his course and disappear with him behind the hills in Ma-nu, so that I might see the glories that lie beyond."

I was debating with myself whether I should discreetly retire or interrupt this tête-à-tête, which my reason suggested was dangerous somehow to my friend.

"Thou who comest from the foot of the throne of Osiris," she resumed, turning eagerly towards Hugh, "thou must know whither he wanders every night, whilst Isis his bride reigneth in the heavens. Wilt tell me what lies beyond the hills of Kamt?"

"Ur-tasen has told thee: the valley of death; the desert wilderness, where no man can live, no bird sing, nor flower blossom."

"Ay! But beyond that?"

"Beyond it?"

"Yes! after death surely must come life again; after the darkness, light; after desolation, joy unspeakable. Oh! thou canst not know," she added, stretching out her arms longingly towards the distant horizon, "how I long to break the hideous fetters that bind me, and when Osiris shines so brightly, the flowers smell so sweet, and the birds' chorus of harmony fills the air, how I hate then the splendours of my palace, the marble halls and temples of Kamt, the very sight of the people almost worshipping at my feet, and long to run up those inaccessible hills and see what lies far away beyond this land, beyond the valley of death, beyond the pillars that support the vault of heaven. Wilt thou not tell me," she pleaded, "or, better still, wilt take me there one night when Kamt is wrapped in sleep?"

Hugh looked almost wildly down at her, and then round him with that curious dazed expression which had puzzled me already last night. Then he caught sight of me and seemed relieved, for he said very quietly:

"Nay, Princess, it is not for me to teach thee the secrets of this earth. But here comes my counsellor; he is wise, and if thou wilt he will tell thee all about Osiris and the vault of heaven, and even of the land which lies beyond the gates of Kamt."

She turned to me with a sweet smile, but I thought that there was a shade of disappointment in her eyes.

"It is always a joy to speak to the learned counsellor," she said evasively, "and soon, when he has leisure, when the holy Pharaoh is cured of his ailments, he will no doubt teach me much which I do not know; and in the meanwhile I will go roaming with Sen-tur, and perhaps if I sit on his back he will carry me there, where foot of man doth not tread."

She began playing with the panther, who seemed much disinclined for a game, and made sundry attempts at keeping his comfortable lazy position at her feet. But his mistress suddenly seemed in a teasing mood, for she tore a branch of roses from a great bush which stood in a vase close beside her and began to playfully prick with it the kingly Sen-tur on the nose.

Soon his majesty's temper was up, and lazily at first, then more and more viciously, he made great dabs at the branch and then at Neit-akrit's hand with his ponderous paw.

"A dangerous game surely, Princess," said Hugh, after a while. "Sen-tur might lose control over his temper and might do thee an injury."

"An injury? Sen-tur?" she said, with a laugh. "Thou speakest in jest, or thou dost not know Sen-tur. At a word from me he becomes as furious as the maddest bull in Kamt, and his roar is like the thunder, and at a whisper from me he will again be as quiet as a lamb. But never would Sen-tur's wrath turn against his mistress."

"Thou holdest him in bondage," I said, with a somewhat clumsy attempt at gallantry, "as thou dost all men, high and low. Sen-tur is favoured indeed."

"Sen-tur loves me, and I love Sen-tur," she said drily; "he is the most precious treasure I possess, for he is wholly mine, and he has no cares, no affections, no thought save for me. He is dearer to me than the kingdom of Kamt."

"It is a merciful decree of Ra, then," said Hugh, with a smile, "that he sent me to take the kingdom of Kamt from thee and not Sen-tur."

"Believe me," she rejoined, looking steadfastly at him, "that all-powerful Ra showed his love for Neit-akrit the day that he decreed that the double crown of Kamt should never sit upon her brow."

Somehow, in spite of this earnest assurance, I did not think that she was sincere, and I did not altogether understand the look which she gave to Hugh as she spoke. She certainly began to tease Sen-tur more viciously than ever, till the great creature fairly roared and foamed at the mouth.

Suddenly we heard the sound of trumpets and of drums, and from beneath the terrace we heard the usual cry which always preceded the arrival of an important messenger.

"Make way for the messenger of the city of Net-amen, and of Hesh-ka, its governor!"

"What does he want?" asked the Princess, with a frown, as half a dozen slaves and a group of attendants began to emerge from everywhere, and stood waiting to receive the emissary of the great city, with the full complement of honours prescribed by the complicated ceremonial of this country.

A young Egyptian, dark and good-looking, had come forward, and after kissing the ground before Princess Neit-akrit, had turned straightway to Hugh.

"To the beloved of the gods, to the son of Ra, do I bring greeting from the city of Net-amen."

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind at this moment that the fair Neit-akrit frowned very darkly: the red of her lips almost disappeared, so tightly were they set, and poor Sen-tur received an ugly blow with the prickly branch right upon his nose.

"Greeting, oh, well-beloved," resumed the messenger. "The council of the city of Net-amen, and Hesh-ka, our noble governor, desire to lay their homage at thy feet. To-morrow, if thou wilt deign to set thy foot within its gates, one hundred thousand inhabitants will line its streets to bid thee welcome. The maids of Net-amen will draw thy barge along the canal; the youths and athletes will fight as to who shall be the first to kiss the sole of thy sandals, and the city awaits thee with gifts of incense, gold and lapis-lazuli, for they will greet in thee the coming ruler of Kamt, the well-beloved whose presence has blessed the land."

He began a long account of wonderful festivals and sacrifices which the important city was organising for the entertainment of the proposed guest. Hugh was barely listening to the messenger's words; he, as well as I, was watching, fascinated, yet horrified, Princess Neit-akrit's more and more dangerous game with her panther. She seemed to take a cruel delight now in pricking the beast with the thorn, for great drops of blood appeared on the snowy whiteness of his fur; and yet Sen-tur, apparently beside himself with rage, made no attempt to retaliate. I felt terribly helpless in case she did pursue her dangerous game too far, for I had no weapon about me, but looking up at Hugh I saw that underneath his cloak he was clutching his knife, ready to use it if emergency required.

The emissary had evidently finished his message, for now he knelt down with his head on the ground and said:

"Wilt deign to allow thy slave, oh, beloved of the gods, to touch with his lips the sole of thy foot?"

At this moment I heard a short, sharp cry from Princess Neit-akrit, and a roar more ominous than before: the next there was a bound and an agonised shriek which froze the blood in my veins. Sen-tur, goaded to madness at last by the merciless teasing, had turned and sprung upon the unfortunate messenger who was nearest to him, and before I or anyone else present had realised the full horror of the situation, the powerful beast was rolling the wretched man underneath him on the floor. I thought he was doomed, although after the first second of surprise Hugh and I had sprung to his rescue. But before we could reach the group where the powerful beast was, with mighty jaws, tearing bits of flesh from the shoulders and thighs of his victim, Neit-akrit was already by Sen-tur's side.

With utmost calm she placed her tiny hand upon his collar, and said, in a quiet, gentle voice:

"Sen-tur! Sen-tur! come!"

And, unresisting, suddenly as gentle as a kitten, with great jaws still covered in blood which he was licking with a smothered growl, the powerful creature allowed her to lead him away; and when she once more took her seat beneath the turquoise blue canopy, he lay down with a final snarl at her feet.

I was hastily examining the arms, shoulders and thighs of the injured man. They were terribly lacerated by the monstrous teeth of the brute, and I whispered to Hugh that I thought in one instance amputation would be necessary.

I had never seen so dark a scowl on Hugh Tankerville's face as I did then; he looked positively evil, and I was quite sorry for the poor little girl who, to my mind, was after all only guilty of thoughtlessness. Two shorn, yellow-robed medicoes had sprung up from somewhere: I directed them how to bandage the wounds, and ordered my patient to be removed to an airy room, where I could presently attend to him.

General gloom seemed to have settled on all those present; Neit-akrit was stroking Sen-tur's head with a defiant look at Hugh.

"Wilt allow me to speak to thee alone?" he said abruptly.

To my astonishment she immediately ordered her slaves and attendants away, and when they had gone she said quite humbly:

"I know what thou wouldst say. Do not chide me; I could not bear it. I … I …" and great tears gathered in her eyes.

Then with sudden impulse, from out the folds of her dress she drew a short dagger and held it towards Hugh.

"Do thou do it," she said, while great sobs choked her throat. "I know that that is what thou wouldst say. Sen-tur has sinned. Sen-tur must die! for perhaps now he might sin again. But I could not kill Sen-tur, for he trusts me, and he would not expect a blow from me."

She was holding the dagger out towards Hugh, while he looked at her, astonished, as I was, by the quick and varying moods of this strange and fascinating girl.

"Do it quickly," she said, "lest I repent; for, believe me, it is not of my own free will that I have asked thee to kill Sen-tur. I would sooner see him kill every one of my slaves," she added naïvely, "than that harm should come to him."

Then, as Hugh would not take the dagger from her, she placed it quietly at his feet, then threw her arms passionately round the panther's neck, while great tears fell from her eyes onto his fur.

"Farewell, Sen-tur, my beauty, my loved one," she whispered. "I know that thou art not afraid to die, for thou, like Neit-akrit, dost long for that glorious land which lies beyond the valley of death. Come back, Sen-tur, to me at nights, and tell me what thou hast seen. Sen-tur is ready, oh, beloved of the gods," she added; "thou needst not. fear, he will not even struggle. Make haste. I wish it."

"Dost really wish me to kill Sen-tur?" asked Hugh at last.

"Yes, really! I wish it."

"Why?"

"Because Sen-tur has sinned grievously, and sinning, will surely sin again. He hath tasted the blood of a slave, he liked the taste and will wish to drink again."

"But will it not grieve thee to see Sen-tur die?"

"More than thou canst conceive," she replied earnestly. "Sen-tur is my only friend, but it would grieve me even more if thou didst leave my presence now with evil thoughts of me in thy heart."

She looked divinely pretty, this exquisite product of a strange and mystic land: quaint as one of those images on ancient tombs, dainty as the lotus blossom and roses in her garden. She was—my reason told me—flirting outrageously, desperately, with Hugh, even to the extent of endangering the life of innocent Sen-tur. Had she but known him as I did—the scientific enthusiast, blind even to such beauty as hers—she would have realised how she was wasting her time. In spite of her pretty speech, her sweet, appealing look, Hugh was singularly unresponsive, and it was in a very matter-of-fact, prosy way that he picked up the small dagger and gave it back to her.

"Thou must punish Sen-tur in the way thou thinkest fit. I am no good hand at killing beasts."

"Thou dost confine thyself to killing women then," she retorted with one of those sudden changes in her mood, which to me were so puzzling.

"Thou art too young to understand the purport of thy words," rejoined Hugh, who had become very pale. "The motive which led me to kill Kesh-ta, thy slave, in the judgment-hall of Men-ne-fer, was one for which I have not to answer to any one, least of all to thee. But the hour is late, Princess; wilt deign to allow me to follow my counsellor? He will wish to visit the holy Pharaoh, and I would fain pay my respects to Queen Maat-kha."

And having bowed to her, Hugh took my arm and quickly led me away from the terrace.

I wish I had been a more subtle reader of feminine character, for then, perhaps, I could have interpreted the look with which Princess Neit-akrit followed Hugh's retreating figure.