The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 19
I somehow dared not look at Hugh. I felt his presence near me as rigid as a statue, and once my ears caught the sound of a sigh, which ended almost in a sob.
"Is it for the dying Pharaoh thou sighest, oh, my beloved," suddenly said a harsh voice close behind us, "or for her who deals death and sorrow with so free a hand?"
It was Queen Maat-kha, who had glided noiselessly near, and now stood beside Hugh, tall and imperious, with an ugly look of hatred directed towards the sleeping Pharaoh and his companion. Hugh started as from a dream. He passed his hand over his eyes, as if to dispel some haunting vision, and turned to his handsome fiancée, who returned his look with a curious searching expression in her eyes.
"Thou dost not answer," she said. "Was the sigh for her?"
"Indeed, my Queen, it is sad to see so young a girl wooed by a man with one foot in the grave," replied Hugh at last, speaking with a mighty effort.
"Then thou dost not understand the girl before thee, and hast forgotten that the man, though he have one foot in the grave, has the other firmly planted on the throne of Kamt."
Princess Neit-akrit must have heard every one of Maat-kha's words, yet she took no notice of them, and remained quietly watching the sleeping Pharaoh.
"Thou hast also forgotten," added the Queen, "that thou and thy wise counsellor have decided to cure the mighty Pharaoh of his ailments, that, anon, he will once more hold with a firm hand the sceptre of ancient Kamt. Neit-akrit hath thought it worth her while to smile on him again, so that he may extend his other hand, and with it place upon her brow the diadem of a queen. Believe me, there is no sadness in that wooing, save perhaps for a deceived and befooled monarch."
"Thou speakest harsh words of a woman who hath done thee no wrong," said Hugh. "Art not satisfied that already by thy intended marriage thou dost threaten to deprive her of that which thou sayest she covets most? Wouldst add to the injustice by heaping calumny upon her?"
"No wrong?" exclaimed the Queen, impulsively. "Dost think that I am blind and cannot see? Dull-witted and cannot understand? Hath she done me no wrong? Ah! that I do not know as yet. Thy face is set and inscrutable; but the gods will open my eyes. That which they gave me, they will not take away. And if she come like a cunning jackal, prowling round my most precious treasure, then let her beware, for Maat-kha is powerful and will know how to hurl vengeance on the thief."
"What dost thou mean?" asked Hugh, very quietly. "Take care, oh, Queen! lest in thy blindness thou shouldst forget my dignity and thy self-respect."
"I forget everything," she said, coming quite close up to him, "save that I love thee and that thou art cold. I did not seek for thee, I did not even ask the gods to place thee across my path; thou didst come and didst stand before me and, with arm outstretched, didst claim me for thy wife. Now, that which thou didst give thou dost surely take away—thy word, thy fealty to me."
"My Queen," replied Hugh, gently taking her hand, "in that land from whence I come men have but one word, one pledge. Words such as thou dost speak, thoughts such as thou dost harbour, are an insult; look at me, Maat-kha, and tell me if I can lie."
She looked up at him, and I, who watched Neit-akrit, saw that she looked too. I did not know if these two strange, impulsive women could judge a man's character by gazing at his face, but Hugh's was not a difficult nature to understand; above everything he was upright and true, and whatever presentiments may have assailed me when first I guessed my friend's secret thoughts, I knew that whatever might happen, his promised bride need have no fear of his loyalty to her.
I thought that the Pharaoh had moved, and I was glad of an excuse to go and attend upon him and leave Queen Maat-kha a moment alone with Hugh. Neit-akrit still looked very pale, and I could see in her eyes that she had been crying. I did not altogether understand her, but there was something strangely pathetic and appealing in the way in which she looked at me, eagerly waiting for some reassuring words concerning the sick man.
"I will send his slaves to him," I said; "he will need rest."
And I went within. When I returned I found that Queen Maat-kha had gone and that Hugh was standing beside Neit-akrit.
"I crave it of thee as a favour," I heard him say.
"So soon?" she replied. "Art already tired of Neit-akrit's hospitality? Has she forgot aught that would make thy sojourn here a happy one? Tell me, is not my palace beautiful? Are my gardens not fragrant with scent of flowers, the air not sweet with song of birds?"
"Thy dwelling is more beautiful than aught I have ever dreamed of."
"And yet thou wouldst leave it?"
"I crave of thee to forgive my seeming ingratitude, for though fair be thy palace and fragrant thy garden, I would fain leave them to-day."
"Leave them and me?" she said sadly.
"Ay! leave them and thee, Princess," said Hugh, with that same icy calm with which he responded to Neit-akrit's fascinating ways, "lest if I remained even one day longer, I might leave that behind me which is more precious to me than aught else on earth."
"What is that?" she asked. "Thou needst not fear, I will guard it for thee, wherever thou goest."
"Nay, a man is sole guardian of that most precious treasure; women often do not know its worth, and I fear I am proving but a sorry keeper myself, hence the reason why I would go."
"Wilt say farewell to me before thou goest?"
"I will do that now with thy permission. I have promised the inhabitants of Net-amen that I would visit them, and having gone I will not come back, but go straight to Tanis and await there the coming of Queen Maat-kha for our approaching marriage."
"So soon?" she asked very quietly.
"In seventy days, Princess."
"Farewell then, oh, beloved of the gods; thou hast indeed graced the abode of thy kinswoman by dwelling beneath its roof."
"Hast forgiven me, then?"
"I to thee? What have I to forgive?"
"Everything. I came and the double crown of Kamt, which already hovered over thy brow, was ruthlessly snatched from thee. My presence deprived thee of a throne. It were meet that thou shouldst seek revenge upon the intruder, instead of which thou didst bid him welcome."
"Nay," she said sweetly, "I have naught to forgive, and revenge is in the hands of the gods." Then she added, "Farewell, oh, son of Ra!"
He bent his tall figure before her, then turned as if to go.
"Wilt thou not kiss me?" she said. "In Kamt a kiss denotes friendship, and if thou goest without a kiss, I shall fear that thou art my enemy."
"By all the gods of Kamt, I swear to thee that I am no enemy. But wilt pardon me if I do not give thee the kiss of friendship?"
"Why? A kiss is so soon given. It has so little meaning, for it is as swift as the flight of the bird through the air. Thou didst kiss me when thou camest, why wilt not kiss me now?"
"Because thou art beautiful above all things on earth," he said very quietly, "and because in my dazed mind there is still a glimmer of reason, which the perfume of thy hair would quickly dispel."
She blushed suddenly as if for the first time in her life she had been told that she was fair. How strange women are! When I told Neit-akrit that she was more beautiful than anything on earth, she smiled and looked pleased. When the Pharaoh fell half-fainting at her feet she became as white and rigid as a statue carved in stone. And now when Hugh Tankerville told her, with frigid calm, and I thought with a singular want of conviction, that she was beautiful, she suddenly became a thousand times more so, for she blushed and the heightened colour became her well.
"Farewell, then, oh, thou who art of the gods beloved!" she said once more very gently.
The next moment Hugh had gone and Neit-akrit had thrown herself on the couch in a passionate fit of weeping.