The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 20
A LETTER FROM HUGH
HUGH went away that same day. He was going to Net-amen, together with the gorgeous retinue which had, as it were, sprung up round him and escorted him everywhere. Queen Maat-kha did not accompany him this time: she was unprepared for the journey, she said. She would proceed to Tanis alone, there to meet him for the wedding ceremony.
Hugh took a very brief farewell of me. I could see that he dared not trust himself to speak, and, even before me, he shrank from breaking down. I could not go with him, for my patient demanded my immediate attention. He was undoubtedly worse since this morning: the strong emotion had done him an infinity of harm. Yet I was torn between my affection for Hugh and my duty to the sick man. It seemed to me that Hugh needed my care as much as the sick Pharaoh. His sufferings were mental, but I felt that they were keen. And did I not love him as much as my prosy nature was capable of loving? and did I not know him, and his ardent, passionate nature, forcibly hardened by years of dry, scientific research, all the more ready to fall a prey to strong impressions, such as the strange and fascinating girl had undoubtedly made upon it?
Hugh had never been in love. During his early youth he had had no opportunity of meeting any woman who would appeal to his keen sense of the mystic and the picturesque. Such women are rare in Western Europe, and none had come across the recluse student's path. Then, suddenly, Fate and his own choosing threw him into this land of mysticism and beauty, where the atmosphere was fragrant and intoxicating with the scent of exotic flowers, where the air was filled with the twitter of birds, busy in making their nests. And, framed by these picturesque surroundings, which in themselves palpitated with youth and with life, there was the poetic, mystic, yet intensely feminine vision of an exquisitely beautiful woman who was irresistibly drawn towards him, and with the artless impulse of her own untrammelled nature showed to his enthusiastic mind visions of ardent and reciprocated love, such as he had never dreamed of. What wonder if for the moment Hugh forgot?—forgot that he had pledged himself to another woman and only remembered when it was too late?
The first few days after his departure were terribly wearisome to me. My patient, fretful and irritable, would not allow me to leave his bedside, and, even at night, I was forced to take what rest I could, rolled in a rug, at the foot of his couch.
I saw little of Princess Neit-akrit, but, once or twice, when I caught sight of Queen Maat-kha in the gardens of the palace, I was shocked to see the change in her face. All its beauty had vanished to my mind: it looked hard and set, nay, worse, positively evil. On the night which followed Hugh's departure, when I strolled out to get a breath of fresh air, having at last soothed my patient to sleep, I saw Maat-kha in close conversation with Ur-tasen. To me this boded no good. I could not understand why the Queen and the high priest should choose the hours of the night for their meeting. I could not get near enough to them to hear what they were saying—which I should most unblushingly have done—but in the shadows where they stood, I could see that Queen Maat-kha had buried her face in her hands, and that Ur-tasen seemed to tower over her as if he were dictating some commands.
My mind, filled with thoughts of my absent friend, dwelt persistently on fears for his safety. The high priest was his enemy, of that I had no doubt, and I thought that he was trying to work upon the Queen's jealousy, for evil purposes of his own. I felt terribly helpless to be of any use to him, and vowed that when at last I could join him again, nothing would separate me from him. After all, the sick Pharaoh of this modern Egypt was but a secondary consideration to me.
Eight days after Hugh's departure a runner came in with a letter for me from him.
"Still, there is the sorrowful aspect of my palace: all the hard work was done by slaves, and these people use their slaves shockingly. This is the ugliest trait in their character. They are cruel, Mark, both to man and beast. The men are cruel! and the women more so. We have seen one or two instances of that already, but there is a thing I have learned which to me is horrible beyond words. You know of course that the Egyptians are monogamous—you have noticed in what high esteem they hold their women folk; as a consequence of this, their laws against adultery are barbarous beyond what words can describe, and in one respect hideously unjust, for it is invariably the woman who is punished—the man is allowed to go scot free.
"I saw a woman in the streets of Net-amen yesterday. She was blind, both her ears had been cut off, all her teeth drawn out, and her hair had been pulled out by the roots. Turned out from her home, she is obliged to live by the charity of the passers-by, and is driven from street to street as an example of sin and its punishment. She had been convicted of appropriating to herself the husband of a friend. Think of it, old Mark! What about European society? And the man, who had allowed himself to be … appropriated, is one of the town councillors and much respected; he is a good-looking man, very pompous and self-satisfied. I gave myself the not very productive satisfaction of kicking him in the face when he grovelled before me, but I don't know if he guessed why he received that kick. Somehow it eased my conscience.
"The runner will bring back the message from you. Make it long, Mark, old fellow—I want plenty of words from you. I think I should feel better after I had read your letter. I admire these people; they are delightfully picturesque, but somehow I have no real sympathy with them—have you?—and at times I positively hate them. Especially when I learn some of their laws. I wonder now what devil framed them. No brain of man could conceive such horrors. Nous devons changer tout cela! You and I, eh? old chap.—Yours affectionately,
The letter was hideously unsatisfactory. It told me nothing about himself, and I fancied that he had purposely avoided even telling me about his health. I did not carry out his wishes in the matter of writing him a long letter, but only scribbled a few words:
"My dear Girlie:—Twenty-four hours after you have received this by messenger, you will see me in your new palace at Net-amen.—Yours, etc.,
Then I set to work to drill into the heads of two shaven medical idiots all that they were to do, and all they were to leave undone, with regard to my patient. They vowed by all their gods that the wise counsellor should be implicitly obeyed. I brought out every resource of my limited Egyptian vocabulary to impress upon them that he had better be, and then I sought an audience of my young hostess.
I found her in her favourite place, beneath the turquoise silk canopy, amidst a bower of cushions, overlooking the lake.
"I hope thou dost bring me good news of my kinsman, oh, wise counsellor," she said, turning to me with an anxious look in her eyes; "he hath seemed somewhat more cheerful of late."
"My news concerning the holy Pharaoh is no worse, Princess," I replied. "Thou knowest how serious is his illness, and 'no worse' with him hath become good news. It is not about him that I have sad tidings to-day."
I watched her very closely as I said this, but she seemed not the least moved, and she said indifferently:
"Hast had sad tidings? Of whom?"
"I am a lonely man, Princess; there is but one being in this world who is infinitely dear to me. It is of him that I have sad tidings."
"Dost speak of the son of Ra?"
"Even of him, Princess."
"How can aught that is sad come to him who is of the gods beloved? " she asked in astonishment.
"He is but mortal, and there are so many sorrows, even in this fair land. Suffering has overtaken him, I fear, and I have sought this audience of thee, Neit-akrit, to crave of thy goodness that thou wouldst allow me to depart and go to my friend, lest he have need of me and the comfort I alone can give him."
"Art so devoted, then, to thy friend that, if he call, thou must needs leave everything and go to him?"
"I have known and loved him ever since a tiny lad; we shared childish joys and sorrows together."
"Was that at the foot of the throne of Ra?" she asked with a touch of satire.
"In the land where first Ra whispered to his beloved to go forth and rule over the land of Kamt," I said, "and where the gods bade me follow him."
"And is he worthy of thy devotion, thinkest thou?"
"Nay, Princess, in that same land we do not pause to think if men and women be worthy before we give them our love. The son of Ra is dearer to me than ever brother was to brother, or son to father. Therefore I crave of thee again to allow thy slaves to guide me to where he now is, for I feel that he has need of me."
"My slaves and my house are at thy command, oh, wise counsellor! Order what thou wilt. Fan-tu, who has charge of my slaves, will obey thy every word."
I thanked her, then as she was silent I turned to go, but she stopped me.
"Stay!" she said; "hast reflected that the holy Pharaoh can ill spare thee? He is very sick, and thou leavest him without regret."
"The holy Pharaoh is in no immediate bodily danger; and even if he were, Princess, my duty is to my friend."
"How strange," she said. "I have never heard of love and duty spoken of as between man and man. Is that love a product of that land where dwelleth Osiris, and whence thou and His emissary do come?"
"It is held as sacred there as the love given by man to woman."
"Do men give love to women too, then, in that land?"
"Once only in their lives, Princess. Men have one love as they have one word, and part with their life sometimes because of either."
"I will not detain thee further, oh, wise counsellor!" she said with sudden coldness. "Deign to give thy orders to Fan-tu, and what boat or escort thou dost need shall await thy commands."
The Pharaoh took the news of my departure very quietly; nothing seemed ever to disturb his sullen, sarcastic equanimity. He listened quite patiently to my various recommendations concerning his health, and actually stretched out a hand to me, in token of a promise that he would follow them.
I asked for an audience of Queen Maat-kha, but she sent me a somewhat curt message that she was sick and could see no one.
In the late afternoon a boat and an escort had been prepared for me, and with a sigh of relief I saw the fairy palace of Princess Neit-akrit gradually fade away into the distance.