The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 18
LOVE OR HATE?
Eh! you dull old Mark Emmett, what a difficult task you have set yourself! Do you really imagine that you can convey to the minds of strangers an adequate idea of a woman, young, exotic, voluptuous and divinely pretty, and with it all changeable, impenetrable as the waters of the lake?
I suppose if I had been born a woman I should have been able to understand the various moods of Princess Neit-akrit. As a mere straightforward male creature, I must confess that I was completely at sea.
Of course, originally, she must have hated the idea of any man—be he beloved of all the gods or—not coming between her and the crown of Kamt, which already she must have looked upon as her own.
She was so absolutely queen of this land by her beauty, her fascination, her wonderful personality, that it must have been terribly galling to her suddenly to see a stranger placed, in virtue of his mystic descent, immeasurably above her in the hearts of the entire population of Kamt.
So much I understood and appreciated. Neit-akrit was a woman; she would have been more than human if she had not resented the intrusion of the beloved of the gods. I suppose that she hated Hugh at first, hated his power over the people, hated the very messenger who knelt at his feet and brought homage to him from distant cities—homage which in future and in his presence was denied to her.
So, womanlike, seeing that a master was placed above her, she tried to make him her slave. Being superstitious, she had stolen the talisman which was destined to guard him against her fascination. Then she brought to her aid all the gifts which bountiful Nature had lavished upon her. Her exquisite voice became more melodious and more gentle as she whispered words of clinging, womanly humility into his ear; her blue eyes melted into tears when they met his. Alternately she tried to charm and to irritate him, to attract him by her tenderness and to repulse him by her cruelty.
Poor Hugh! I wondered how long he would be adamant. Inwardly I prayed that he might remain so always. If the beautiful Neit-akrit succeeded in her dangerous game of capturing his heart … well! … what could result but misery for him, since his word was pledged to Maat-kha?
Fortunately, so far, I had detected no sign of change in his frigid attitude towards her. She certainly seemed to have the power of irritating him and making him say—against his will, I am sure—some very unkind words to her.
But there! how could I guess what went on in the minds of these two young people whom Nature in a freakish mood seemed to have fashioned for one another? Both ardent, passionate, poetic, mystic, both as beautiful specimens of Heaven's handiwork as it was ever granted to my eyes to see.
Princess Neit-akrit talked to me a great deal during the next few days, and I was fascinated with her strange questionings, the unaccountable and mystic longings she felt, in the midst of her ignorance.
"Tell me of that land beyond," she would beg, and I did not know what to say. Was it for my clumsy hands to roughly tear asunder the veil which fifty centuries of priest-craft had woven, thick and dark, before the eyes of all the children of Kamt?
There was no moonlight one evening. The sky was heavily overcast, and after the evening banquet, when we followed her on to the terrace, Neit-akrit leaned against the marble balustrade and spoke as if to herself.
"How strange that Isis should veil her countenance when she might behold the beloved of the gods!"
"It is a sight she has oft witnessed, Princess," said Hugh, with a laugh, "and therefore, probably, it has no overpowering charm!"
"Yes, of course! I know when thou didst dwell at the foot of the throne of the gods thou must have often seen the majesty of Isis herself, whose image up on the vault of heaven is all we poor mortals are allowed to see. Tell me about her."
"Nay, Princess, there is naught to tell thee which thou dost not know thyself. Her beauty is all before thee in those lovely nights of Kamt when she shines upon sleeping Nature and throws diamond sparks upon the lake."
She shook her head.
"Ah, then I am wiser than thou art, for I know something more about the goddess than merely her cold image up there."
"Wilt tell me, Princess?"
Queen Maat-kha had remained within; she said that the night looked dark and cold, but personally I thought that she would have been wiser to look after her own property, which was being strangely and wilfully toyed with, and in grave danger of being stolen.
"I learnt it all in a dream," began Neit-akrit, looking dreamily out towards the hills. "It was just such a night as this, and I could not rest, for the wind was whistling through the fuchsia trees, making each bell-shaped blossom tinkle like innumerable short, sharp sighs. It was a dream, remember! I rose from my couch and went out beneath the solitary alleys of the park; not even Sen-tur walked by my side. I felt unspeakably lonely and desolate, and the darkness weighed upon me like a pall. Suddenly I felt that some one … something took my hand, while a voice whispered, 'Come!' I followed, and the unseen hand guided me over the canals and cities of Kamt, above those hills yonder which mark the boundaries of the living world, and right across the valley of death, where, in the darkness, I heard the cry of the carrion and the moaning of the dying souls."
She stood—a quaint, rigid, infinitely graceful image—dimly outlined in the gloom, slightly bent forward as if her eyes were trying to meet through the darkness those of Hugh fixed upon her. I could see his tall figure, very straight, with arms crossed over his chest, and I longed to take him away, far from this strange and voluptuous girl whose every motion was poetry and every word an intoxicating charm.
"I knew that the valley of death lay at my feet," she resumed in the same monotonous, sing-song tone, dreamy and low. "I knew that all round me was desolation, sorrow and waste, but I did not see it, for my eyes sought the distance beyond, and what I saw there, far away, was so glorious and fair, that ever since my memory has dwelt upon that vision and my feet longed to wander there again."
"What didst thou see?"
"I saw a bower of tangled flowers drooping beneath the sun, whose rays I thought I had never seen so glorious and so hot, and between the roses and the lilies, the laurel and the mimosa, innumerable birds chirruped and sang. The ghostly hand still led me on, and presently I stood among the flowers and saw that each little bird had a nest, and each by his side a mate; and beneath the tangled trees of fuchsias and acacias men and women wandered two by two. Their heads were close together, their arms were intertwined, even the trees above their heads mingled their branches and bent their trunks towards each other. The air was filled with sounds of whispers murmured low and sweet, of kisses exchanged, of fond sighs and endearing words. Then a great sorrow filled my heart, for I, whom men have called so fair, was all alone in this abode of love; no one stood near me to caress me, no one was whispering in my ear, and as I passed the young couples would pause a moment in their love-making and gaze at me with astonishment, whilst some of them would whisper, 'Behold! 'tis Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt! Is she not fair?' And others would add, 'Yea! so fair, so high and so mighty, but she knoweth not the abode of Isis!' And all would sigh, 'Alas! poor Neit-akrit!' And I was so overwhelmed with sorrow that I fell on the soft dewy grass and cried bitter tears."
I thought that Hugh must have felt very sure of himself to dare venture on such a subject of conversation with a woman who was beautiful and fascinating beyond words. He could not see her, for the night was very dark, only an outline and a warm glow round her head, as of living gold.
"Then," she began once more, "while I cried suddenly I felt as if two arms encircled me, as if something undefinable and immeasurably sweet filled the air, and I was borne through the roses and the lilies to a bower of blossoms, which smelt more sweet than anything on earth. And there in the deep shadows, peeped at only by tiny eyes of birds, there dwelt the majesty of Isis herself, and suddenly in the presence of the goddess I ceased to be Neit-akrit, forgot all pomp and glitter, remembered only that I was young and fair, and when the arms which bore me had laid me down on the sweet-scented carpet, I and the owner of those arms knelt down and worshipped before the shrine of Isis."
She paused, and for a few moments there was deep silence in the darkness; only the splash of the water against the marble steps sounded at regular intervals like a faint murmur from below.
"Dost wonder that ever since I have longed to visit that spot again; that I have begged Sen-tur to guide me there, for I believe he knows that I have prayed sweet Death to lead me through that dark valley, so that I might behold Isis once again and worship at her feet … with some one else … who would be a part … nay! the whole of my life … who would love! and yet not worship … 'tis I who would worship, who would live for a smile, who would die for a kiss. I, who would be coward and weak, and prouder of that weakness than of the double crown of Kamt. But the throne of Isis is hidden from my view. It stands before the poor and lowly. The rich princess may not enter there."
Hugh said nothing, and presently we heard a footfall on the flooring, a frou-frou of silks and jewels, a last lingering sigh on the evening air, and she was gone, leaving behind her an aroma of exotic flowers, of delicious young ripe fruit, of voluptuous womanly charm, which in this strange land spoke to us of country and of home.
During the next few days the changeable and capricious girl spoke not a single word to Hugh. She seemed altogether to ignore his very presence, and all her charms, her fascinations were lavished with a free hand upon the holy Pharaoh. I had become deeply interested in my illustrious patient, and had even begun to sympathise with him in his mental troubles. He hated Hugh, who was the person on earth to whom I was most attached, and yet how could I help acknowledging that he had a just cause for hatred? But now Neit-akrit seemed to have set herself the task of making him forget every one of his troubles, and succeeded fully by lavishing all her powers of fascination and sweetness upon him. Once more I fell into my rôle of gooseberry, and although the Pharaoh insisted on my presence near him at all hours of the day, and even night, there were many moments when I thought it more prudent to keep out of earshot. It was a curious kind of lovemaking, and throughout those few memorable days a strange feeling would now and then creep into my prosy old heart at sight of the beautiful girl radiant with youth and health, side by side with the sickly, emaciated man with one foot in the grave.
He was as silent as ever, but the ugly frown had almost disappeared from between his eyes, and he too avoided being near Hugh or speaking to him.
Half that day and the next Neit-akrit sat beside him on the couch which overlooked the lake, and prattled to him in a merry way of a thousand nothings, which delighted him more than a chorus of nightingales; or she would take a harp and would let her slim young fingers glide gently along the chords, and sing to him sweet and quaint lullabies which soothed him into quiet, dreamless sleep.
Then when he slept she still remained by his side, softly humming her low monotonous tunes, ready to greet him with a sunny smile the moment he opened his eyes; if then I tried to speak to her she would place a warning finger to her mouth, and I sat and watched her while she watched the mighty Pharaoh, and once or twice I saw great tears rise to her eyes and trickle slowly down her cheeks. She puzzled me. I could not bring myself to believe that she was suddenly beginning to care for her ailing kinsman, who, but for his rank, must have been very unattractive to a young and beautiful girl: nor did I wish to admit to myself that I feared she was playing a cruel game, in order to arouse jealousy in Hugh.
As for old Girlie, he was strangely reticent about the Princess, and once or twice when I mentioned her name he very abruptly changed the subject. I thought that the excitement, or perhaps the oppressive air of Kamt, was beginning to tell on him. He looked strangely pale and worn, and I knew he did not sleep at nights. His hand felt hot and feverish, as it had done during those terrible years when he took it upon himself to complete his father's work, and when I seemed anxious about him, he only laughed in a dry, sarcastic way, quite unlike his usually bright and sunny laugh.
Late one afternoon I at last contrived to be alone with him. He had received many deputations, made speeches and heard others all the morning; no wonder that he felt tired and glad mentally to quit Egypt and wander in England for a while with me.
"Maat-kha has expressed a wish," he said very suddenly, "that we should be married in a month. The town of Tanis sent a deputation to-day to say that already they are prepared to receive us. I understand that the temple of Isis, in which the royalties of this land are always married, is in Tanis, and I have no wish to postpone my marriage."
"Girlie, I wonder if you realise what a terribly earnest step you are taking. Though the rites may be pagan, marriage is always a sacred tie, and though you live away from your native land, your home must always be beside your wife, whoever she may be."
"I know, old Mark, I know. I have thought more about the matter lately, but you must remember that there are things as sacred as marriage, and one of these is an Englishman's word."
"I don't like to hear you talk like this, Girlie. I am afraid that in this wild adventure you are risking some of your happiness."
"Oh, what tragedy, old Mark!" he said with a forced laugh. "My happiness? Why, it is complete! Have I not accomplished the aim of my life? Can I not now prove to the world that mad Tankerville and his fool of a son were neither visionaries nor liars? Am I not virtually king of the fairest land on earth? Why, old Mark, we came here for the sake of science, not for such paltry objects as my happiness."
"That is all very well, Girlie; but with all your scientific enthusiasm you have got a great and good heart somewhere about you, and that does not seem to me to be quite satisfied."
"It will be satisfied presently, old chap, when all these pageants, processions and welcomes are over and I can set to work to guide the destinies of these picturesque people, and gradually teach them the mysteries of an outer world. And when they have begun to understand, and my influence over them is absolutely established, then I can begin to destroy and pierce through those insurmountable barriers which divide them from Europe and modern civilisation. Then gradually we shall see my picturesque subjects take to wearing top hats and patent leather boots, and Queen Maat-kha look superb in a Paris gown. We shall build railways from Men-ne-fer to Tanis, and steamboats will ply the canals. There is plenty to dream of, old friend, never fear. My life will lack no excitement from now till its close, and there will be no room in it for sentiment or happiness."
We had reached one end of the terrace, and close to us we saw the daïs, where I had left the Pharaoh asleep an hour before, with his young cousin softly cooing to him like a pigeon, and fanning his forehead gently with a large palm leaf. They neither of them heard our footsteps, and we both stopped with the same instinct of curiosity watching the strangely ill-assorted pair. The Pharaoh was awake and speaking, but some inward emotion had made his deepset eyes glow with unnatural brilliancy and taken every drop of blood from out his cheeks and lips. His mouth seemed parched, and his throat half choked as he spoke, while she, a radiant picture of youth and beauty, with fresh colour in her cheeks, a wondering look in her blue eyes, looked like a nymph beside a satyr.
"I do not often dream, Neit-akrit," the Pharaoh was saying, "when thou sittest by my side. I think Anubis chases dreams away and renders my sleep as refreshing as death. But just now I had a dream."
"Wilt tell me, cousin?"
"I dreamt, Neit-akrit, that I stood within the sacred temple of Isis, at Tanis. All round me the incense rose in great and dense clouds, so that I could not distinguish my people, but only dimly saw Ur-tasen, the high priest, with his shaven crown, robed in his most gorgeous garments, standing before me, with arms outstretched, as if pronouncing a blessing."
"He blessed thee, Pharaoh, no doubt, for some great good thou hadst done to thy people, now that health is once again restored to thee."
"So I thought at first, Neit-akrit, in my dream," he replied, bending his head closer to her, "but soon Ur-tasen came up to me and whispered something which made my pulses thrill with a joy that almost made me faint. Ur-tasen had whispered that I should take thy hand."
She turned her head away from him, and from where I stood I could see that every vestige of colour had left her cheeks, and that her lips were trembling and absolutely bloodless. I thought that we had no right to stand where we did, or to listen any longer to a conversation which was evidently drifting into very intimate channels, and I had just turned to go, when something in Hugh's face made me stop. He, too, was gazing at the picture before us of the young girl and the sick, almost dying man, but in his eyes there was an expression I could not define.
"At first," resumed the Pharaoh, in the same harsh, trembling voice, "I hardly dared to obey Ur-tasen. That I should take thy hand, at the foot of the throne of Isis, before all my people assembled there, seemed to me a joy so great that death would be easier to bear than the agony of so wild a happiness. But Ur-tasen waited, and I turned my head, and thou, Neit-akrit, wert standing by my side. Thy head, with its ruddy tresses, was hidden beneath the diadem which belongs to the rulers of Kamt, and from it down to thy tiny feet thou wast covered with a golden veil, through which I, in my dream, could see gleaming visions of thy blue eyes, which made me swoon with delight. Then Ur-tasen whispered again, and I took thy hand in mine, at the foot of the throne of Isis, before all my people assembled there … for they had come to see the mighty Pharaoh take Neit-akrit … as his wife."
His voice broke almost into a sob, he had glided down from the couch on to his knees, and was lying half-fainting with the emotion which, weak as he was, was overmastering him, while his arms tremblingly sought to clasp the young girl. She was as pale as death. Her blue eyes stared at him, strangely terrified, with a look which, to me, seemed almost like loathing. But he could not see. His eyes were half closed. I am sure he was not conscious of his acts: his hands, trembling and clawlike, wandered round her shoulders and her waist, while he murmured more and more inarticulately:
"Thou art beautiful, Neit-akrit … and at the throne of Isis thy hair gleamed red and hot, and made my eyes ache with its glow: thy veil but partly covered thee … and when I looked upon thee … it seemed to me that I would forfeit my double crown of Kamt to be allowed to look again, and perhaps see thee smile. And thou didst promise to be my wife … and Isis smiled down upon me. And she whispered that in the night … when she peeped through the fuchsia alleys … and looked on the lilies and lotus blossoms … thou and thy loveliness would be wholly mine."
He had fallen, half-fainting, upon the marble floor, and clung, still babbling inarticulate words, round her knees. Neit-akrit had stood up, rigid as a marble image: it were impossible to describe the look of horror and loathing with which she looked down on the unfortunate man at her feet.
"For God's sake take him away from her, Mark!"It was Hugh Tankerville's voice whispering in my ear, but I hardly recognised it, so hoarse and choked was it. Astonished, I looked up at him, and suddenly a strange presentiment of some terrible trouble ahead, which as yet I could not explain, cast a chill over my heart. On my friend's face there was such a look of acute mental and physical suffering, it was so deathly pale, that instinctively I put out my arm to help him, for I feared he would fall in a swoon; but he said quickly, with a forced laugh:
"Only a sudden dizziness, old chap.… The heat, I think. But have pity on her and take that moribund satyr away from her."
"It would be needless interference, old man," I replied, "and one for which she would not thank me."
And I pointed to the picture, which, to my own amazement, had changed as if with the magic touch of a fairy wand. Neit-akrit, sweet and smiling, with tears of pity shining in her softened blue eyes, was bending towards the invalid, while her voice, soft and low, murmured:
"Hush, hush! cousin! remember thou art ill: thy health is precious and thy nerves are overstrained. Canst raise thyself and sit here beside me? See, thou canst pillow thy head upon my shoulder and I can brush away the hair from thy burning forehead with my fingers, which are soft and cool. Or, if thou wilt, I will play for thee upon the harp, and thou shalt watch Sen-tur chase the ibis along the terrace. Hush! do not speak now! Thou shalt tell me thy dream again some other time … but not now.… Now, thou must have rest."
And with wonderful strength and dexterity she half-lifted, half-supported the Pharaoh and placed him once more upon the couch. Then she sat down beside him and pillowed his head upon her shoulder, and soothingly, as if he were some sick and wayward child, she began to sing and coo to him a simple lullaby. I looked on amazed, not knowing what to do or what to think. Though I watched her closely, I never saw her eyes look anything but sweet, pitying and loving, even though his eyes were closed and his breathing became more and more regular, as if her song had at last rocked him to sleep. I began to think that I must have been mistaken: it seemed impossible to believe that the rigid statue, alive only by the look of horror and repulsion on the stony face, could be the same clinging, loving woman, full of tender pity and girlish compassion for the sick man lying happy and contented in her arms.