The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 2
THE SHADE OF NEIT-AKRIT
My uncle died soon after my return from college. After that I was supposed to be busy laying the foundations of a good consulting practice in Harley Street, but in reality was enjoying life and the newly-acquired delights of a substantial fortune left to me by a distant relative.
My Aunt Charlotte kept house for me and tyrannised over me to her heart's content. To her I had not yet begun to grow up; I was still the raw schoolboy, prone to mischief and to catching cold, who was in need of sound advice since he no longer had the inestimable boon of the birch-rod vigorously applied by loving hands.
Dear Aunt Charlotte!—she really was a very worthy soul, but she held most uncomfortable views on the subject of duty, which, according to her code, chiefly consisted in making oneself disagreeable to other people "for their own good." She had those twin characteristics peculiar to Englishwomen of a certain stamp and an uncertain age—self-righteousness and a narrow mind.
She ruled my servants, my household, my one or two patients and me with a rod of iron, and it never seriously entered my head to dispute her rule. I was born with a temperament which always preferred to follow rather than to lead. Had I ever married I should have been hopelessly henpecked; as it was, my Aunt Charlotte decided how many servants I should keep, and what entertainments I should give. She said the final word on the subject of my suggested holidays and on the price of my new pyjamas.
Still, with all her faults, she was a good sort, and as she took all household cares from off my shoulders, I was duly grateful to her for that.
I saw less and less of Hugh Tankerville during all this time. At first, whenever I could, I found my way to the silent and cool Chestnuts, but as often as not Hugh seemed absorbed in thoughts or in work; his mind, evidently, while I chatted and we smoked, seemed so far removed from his surroundings that by-and-by I began to wonder whether my visits were as welcome as they used to be, and I took to spacing them out at longer intervals. Once—I remember I had not been to see him for over two months—I was bidding him good-bye after a very short and silent visit; he placed his hand on my shoulder, and said, with some of his old wonted cordiality:
"I am not as inhospitable as I seem, old chap, and soon, very soon now, you will see me quite myself again. It is always delightful to see you, but the work I am doing now is so great, so absorbing, that I must appear hideously unresponsive to your kindness to me."
"I guessed, old Girlie," I said, with a laugh, "that you must be busy over something terribly scientific. But," I added, noting suddenly how hot his hand felt, and how feverishly his eyes seemed to glow, "it strikes me that you are overworking yourself, and that as a fully qualified medical man I have the right to advise you …"
"Advise nothing just now, old chap," he said, very seriously, "I should not follow it. Give me two years more, and my work will be done. Then …"
"Two years, at this sort of work? Girlie, you'll be a dead man before then at this rate."
He shook his head.
"Ah! but it's no use shaking your head, old man! The dinners you do not eat, the bed you don't sleep in, the fresh air you do not breathe, all will have their revenge upon you for your studied neglect. Look here! you say you want to do another two years' work; I say your health will not stand the strain if you do. Will you pander to our old friendship to the extent of listening to me for once, and coming away with me for one month to the sea—preferably Margate—and after that I promise you I shall not say a word about your health for the next half-year at least."
Again he shook his head.
"I could not live if you parted me from my work now."
And he looked so determined, his eyes glowed with such a strange inward fire, while there was such indomitable will expressed in his whole being, that I was not fool enough to pursue my point.
"Look here, Hugh," I said, "I don't want, of course, to interfere in your secrets. You have never thought fit to tell me what this all-absorbing work is that you pursue at risk of physical damage to yourself. But I want you to remember, Girlie, that I have independent means, that my time is my own, and that your father often used to tell me, when I was a great many years younger, of some of his labours, and of his work; once I helped him—do you remember?—over some …"
"My father was too fond of talking about his work," he interrupted. "I don't mean to offend you by saying this, old chap, but you must remember the purport of most of the obituary notices written about one of the most scientific men that ever lived. He toiled all his life, contracted the illness of which he died, wore himself out, body and soul, in pursuit of one great object: when he died, with that great object unattained, the world shrugged its shoulders and called him a fool for his pains. But I am here now. I am still young. What he could not complete I have already almost accomplished. Give me two years, old chap, and the world will stand gaping round in speechless amazement at the tearing asunder of its own veil of ignorance, torn by me from before its eyes, by me, and by my father: 'mad Tankerville' they called him! Then it will bow and fawn at my feet, place laurel wreaths on my father's tomb, and confer all the honours it can upon his memory; and I …"
"You will be sadly in need of laurel wreaths too, Girlie, by then," I said half crossly, half in grudging admiration at his enthusiasm, "for you will have worked yourself into your grave long before that halcyon time."
He pulled himself together as if he were half-ashamed of his outburst, and said, with a mirthless laugh:
"You are talking just like your Aunt Charlotte, old Mark."
I suppose my flippancy had jarred on him in his present highly nervous state. Before I finally went, I said to him:
"Promise me one thing, Girlie."
"What is it?"
"How cautious you are! Will you promise? It is for your good and for mine."
"In that case I will promise."
"Promise me that, if you want any kind of help in your work, you will send for me."
I did not see him for the whole of those two years. I wrote: he did not reply. I called: he would not leave his study to see me. It was useless being offended with him. I waited.
Then one day I had a telegram:—
"Come at once if you can."
I jumped into a hansom, and half an hour later was seated in the dear old museum once more, beside the great log fire, which burned cheerfully in the grate. I had said nothing when first I saw Hugh. I was too much shocked at his altered, emaciated appearance: he looked like his own ghost, wandering about among the mummies. I could see that he was terribly excited: he was pacing about the room, muttering strange and incoherent words. For a moment I had feared that his reason had begun to give way under the terrible strain of absorbing brain work.
"It was good of you to come, Mark."
"I was only too happy that you sent for me, old Girlie," I said sadly.
"I have done the work."
"Thank God for that!"
"And now I must have your help."
"Thank God again, Girlie! What is it?"
Silently he took my hand and led me across the room, behind the ponderous desk which I remembered so well in his father's lifetime.
"Here is the work, it took forty years—my father's whole life and my own youth—to complete."
He pointed to a large flat case, placed slanting on the desk, so as to receive the full light from the window. The top of the case was a sheet of clear plate-glass, beneath which I saw, what I at first took to be a piece of brown rag, frayed and irregular at the edges and full of holes. Again the terrible thought flashed across my mind that Hugh Tankerville had suffered from nerve tension and that his reason had given way under the strain.
"You don't see what this is?" he asked in reproachful amazement.
I looked again while he turned the strong light of the reading-lamp on the case, and then I realised that I had before me a piece of parchment rendered brown with age, made up of an infinity of fragments, some too minute even to see with the naked eye, and covered with those strange Egyptian hieroglyphics with which dear old Mr. Tankerville had originally rendered me familiar. Inquiringly I looked up at Hugh.
"When my father first found this parchment," he said, while strong excitement seemed to choke the words as they rose in his throat, "it was little else than a handful of dust, with a few larger pieces among it, interesting enough to encourage his desire to know its contents and to whet his enthusiasm. At first, for he was then but a young man, though already considered a distinguished Egyptologist, he amused himself by placing the larger fragments together, just as a child would be amused by piecing a Chinese puzzle; but gradually the secrets that these fragments revealed were so wonderful, and yet so incomplete, that restlessly, by day and by night, with the help of the strongest magnifying glasses money could procure, he continued the task of evolving from that handful of dust a page of history which for thousands of years has remained an impenetrable mystery."
He paused a moment as his hand, which was trembling with inward fever, wandered lovingly over the glass that covered the precious parchment.
"Illness and death overtook him in the midst of a task but half accomplished, but before he died he initiated me into the secrets of his work; it was not necessary that he should request me to continue it. One glance at the parchment, then still in a very fragmentary condition, was sufficient to kindle in me the same mad enthusiasm for the secrets it revealed which had animated, then exhausted, him. I was young, my sight was at its prime, my patience unbounded. He had all his life helped me to a knowledge of hieroglyphics as great as his own. The sneer of the scientific Press at what it called 'mad Tankerville's hobby,' his visions, acted but as a spur to my enthusiasm. It is six years since my father died, and to-day I fitted the last fragment of the parchment into its proper place."
Amazed, I listened to this wonderful tale of toil and patience, extending over the greater part of half a century, and amazed, I looked down at the result of this labour of Sisyphus, theof brown dust—they could have been little else—which now, after thousands of years, had revealed secrets which Hugh said would set the world gaping. My knowledge of Egyptology and hieroglyphics had become somewhat rusty since the happy days when, sitting in the room in the fitful light of the fire, I used to hear from the dear old man's lips the wonders of Khefren and the mysteries of Queen Neit-akrit; but, as I looked, suddenly the old familiar cartouche, the name of the Queen, caught my eye. There it was
Neit-akrit, Child of the Sun, my queen as I called her then; and as Hugh was silent and the shades of evening began to draw in, I thought I saw, as I did in my schoolboy days, the glorious procession of Pharaohs, priests and gods pass before my eyes again.
Then Hugh began to tell me of the contents of the parchment. His voice sounded distant and muffled, as if the very shades that peopled this dear old museum were themselves telling me their history. It was the same old theme, so familiar and yet so mysterious still, with which Mr. Tankerville used to rejoice our schoolboy hearts; the blank page in Egyptian history when, after the reign of Queen Neit-akrit and the close of the Sixth Dynasty, the grand old people, who built the great Pyramid and carved the mystic Sphinx, disappeared from the scene, gone—no one knows whither—to make way some hundreds of years later for a new people with new ideas, new kings, new art, new gods.
To me it seemed, as Hugh was speaking, that it was the shade of Neit-akrit herself who was telling me in that soft, sing-song Egyptian tongue how her Empire had been run over by the stranger. How she was weak, being a woman, and how she allowed herself to be dominated by him, for he was handsome, brave and masterful. Then I seemed to hear the voice of the high priest of Ra, bewailing the influence of the stranger and his hordes over the great people of Egypt, whose origin was lost in the rolling billows of primæval chaos: and I saw the uprising of the multitude, the bloody battles, I saw the ultimate triumph of the stranger, as he spread his conquest from Net-amen to Men-ne-fer, from Tanis to Assuan; and at last I saw the people, the owners of that land which had once been so great, which they had covered with monuments that stood towering skywards, defying the rolling ages, that same people I saw, as Hugh still spoke, wandering off in one dense horde, driven onwards by the remorseless hand of the usurping stranger,—homeless, on, ever on, across the vast wilderness, to be heard of no more.
"No more until this day," now sounded Hugh's voice, clear and distinct in my ears, "until I, and my father before me, have lifted the veil which hid this strange and mysterious past, and are prepared to show the world once more this great people, whose work, whose art, whose science has set it agape since hundreds of years."
He seemed like a prophet inspired, whilst I, having forcibly aroused myself from my stupor and my visions, was gradually returning to the prosy realities of life. It seemed suddenly absurd that two sane Englishmen—at least I could vouch for the sanity of one of them—should get into a state of excitement over the fact as to whether a certain people five thousand years ago had had a war, been licked and had wandered across the desert or not.
I even caught myself wondering in what light Aunt Charlotte—as being a good typical example of the narrow and sane-minded, unimaginative Englishwoman—in what light she would regard the disappearance of the most ancient, civilised people of this world, and what importance she would attach to their problematical wanderings across the desert.
Personally, though the subject had had a weird and unaccountable fascination for me, I soon felt that I did not care much whether Mr. Tankerville or other historians were correct about the Seventh, Eighth or Tenth Dynasty or not, and I asked, with a last semblance of interest:
"Then this parchment sets forth all these historical facts, no doubt; they are invaluable to the scientific world, but personally I, as one of the vulgar, do not consider that they were worth either your father or you wearing yourselves into your coffins about them."
He looked at me in complete amazement, and passed his hand across his forehead once or twice, as if to collect his thoughts.
"Ah, yes! I see, of course, you do not understand. How could you? You have not spent years in this work, till it has become a part and parcel of your very life."
"Well, I certainly do not understand, old man, why you should work yourself into a brain fever for the sake of a people, however interesting, who have disappeared from this world for the last five thousand years."
"Disappeared?" he almost shrieked. "I see now why you did not understand. But come, old chap, sit here by the fire. Have a pipe, I'll have one too.… I'll tell you all about it, quite calmly. Of course, you thought me mad—a maniac … Matches? Here you are. Shall we have the lamps?"
He rang the bell. Old Janet, more wrinkled and pleasant than ever, brought in the lamp. She threw a log on the fire and left a delicious atmosphere of prosy cheerfulness behind her as she left. We were now both comfortably installed by the fire, smoking. Hugh seemed quite calm, only his eyes stared, large and glowing, into the fire.