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CHAPTER XXI
A DEBT OF HONOUR

Net-Amen is certainly the prettiest of the cities of this ancient land. It has been built on an undulating slope which rises upwards, with tier upon tier of palms and sycamores, mimosas and giant fuchsias. It is essentially an industrial city: the houses are not so imposing as those of Men-ne-fer, which is the royal residence and the abode of the wealthy. In Net-amen the houses are built of a species of burnt clay: there is less sculpture and very little marble: before each doorstep the house-holders squat and ply their trade or craft. The goldsmith, with brazier and minute instruments, fashions necklaces of exquisite workmanship, pendants in imitation of birds and beetles, daintily chased and covered with enamel, the gorgeous colours of which these people alone know how to produce. Then the potters, who turn the soft clay jars, fashioning them into every kind of fanciful shapes, and then passing them on to the limner, who, with fine brush and colours, draws upon the vases those quaint figures which delight the antiquarian, and which—as I have learned since I have caught a glimpse of Egypt as it was or is—are an exact rendering of the people of Kamt. Then there are the women, with their rough spinning-wheels and tall spindles made of rush, or sitting at the looms, weaving those gossamer tissues with which the noble ladies of the land only half hide their voluptuous charms.

The first aspect of Net-amen fascinated me. There was less grandeur but more of real humanity about it. The weavers, the potters, the goldsmiths seemed to me much more tangible than the gorgeous and fantastic personages who in wondrous pageant had, in Men-ne-fer, moved before my eyes.

On the summit of the hills, surrounded by trees and flowers, stood the miracle palace, which one hundred thousand workmen had built in seventeen days for the beloved of the gods.

Hugh did not expect to see me quite so soon, and I was told on landing that the son of Ra was in the palace, resting after the many festivities given in his honour. My advent had caused a stir, and from the houses along the quay people came rushing out to have a look at the wise counsellor, and hundreds of willing feet were ready to guide me to the palace, while others rushed forward to take the news of my arrival to the beloved of the gods.

Tiny brightly-painted chariots, drawn by a couple of sturdy white donkeys, are the best means of locomotion in this hilly city. As soon as I could free myself from the chattering crowd I hailed one of these, and was soon pulled leisurely up the long steep road which led to the palace, the naked driver, hot and panting, pushing from behind.

It was a fearful shock to me to see Hugh. I could not conceive how any man could possibly have changed so terribly in so short a time. His eyes looked hollow and circled with dark purple rings, which told of sleepless nights, his mouth looked drawn and tightly set, without a vestige of that sunny smile which always used to brighten his dark, serious face.

When he saw me, however, a look of the deepest joy, and—I thought—gratitude, for a moment softened the hard set expression in his eyes, and my ears caught the faintly whispered, "God bless you, old chap!"

The hand he gave me was hot and dry, and it needed no medical knowledge to guess that his pulse was quick and throbbing.

He soon dismissed the attendants, and when we were alone he said:

"I never knew how much I had missed you, old Mark, until the moment when I caught sight of you just now."

I did not say anything then, but quietly watched him for a moment, then I put my hand on his shoulder and forced him to look at me.

"What is the matter, old man?" I said.

"Matter? Oh, fever, malaria, I suppose. I can't sleep, and seem as weak as a rat. Is there such a thing as nostalgia, do you think?—stupid, foolish home-sickness?—because if there is, I have got a touch of it, I think."

"There is every kind of mental ailment, I am sorry to say, Girlie, and they can all be described to a fellow who has your welfare at heart more than his own."

"Fever, Mark, I tell you," he said with a frown. "Take out your watch and feel my pulse. It is fever, is it not? Malarial, do you think? or has the fashionable influenza travelled with us across the desert? I want a dose of quinine, I think."

"You want a dose of confidence, Girlie," I replied drily. "Your pulse is quick, your temperature is high; I can soon remedy that, if …"

"If what?" he asked abruptly, for I had paused, hesitating, strangely enough, for the first time in my life not daring to touch upon a point openly with Hugh.

"If you will tell me what you think of when you lie awake at night," I said at last, looking straight and searchingly in his eyes.

"Mostly of what a confounded fool your friend Hugh Tankerville is, old chap," he replied with a laugh.

"Is that all?"

"Yes! I think that is all. It embraces a very vast section of my life—its future. But I don't know why you should put me to such rigorous catechism, Mark. I am ever so glad that you came, and it will do me more good than all the medicines in the world."

"Nothing will do you good, Girlie," I said earnestly, "except one thing."

"What is that?"

"To talk to me—if only at random—of Princess Neit-akrit."

He did not say anything. His face became, if possible, even more pale, more careworn than before. I did not think that he was offended with my seeming importunity, and I continued:

"Girlie, you and I have gone through a great deal together: we nearly starved side by side in the desert, not so very long ago. We can therefore hardly measure our intercourse together by the same standard as other men. Besides being your friend, I am also a medical man, and …"

"And you would be interested to see before you, lying bare, as the dissected body underneath your scalpel, all the follies, the madness, the cowardice of which a fellow-man's brain is capable. It is not a pleasant sight, Mark, believe me; you are my friend—you had best not try to see."

"You misunderstand, Girlie; I have no wish to cause you needless pain by forcing a confidence which, I dare say, you do not care to give, but I have studied the nervous organisation of man long enough to know that where there is an outlet for thoughts in speech, they become less injurious to bodily health."

"Yes, that's it, old Mark," he said with quite an ugly, sneering laugh. "Confession, as the Catholics say, is good for the soul. You think I would ease my brain by telling you that I, Hugh Tankerville, lie awake at night like a cowardly fool, making loathsome compacts with my conscience and bargains with my honour; that, when at last a heavy dreamless sleep falls over me, I awake from it wondering whether I am not covered with some hideous leprosy, a fitting bodily ailment to clothe the cowardly vileness of my soul."

"Girlie," I said, for he had paused and was resting his burning forehead against the cool granite pillar, and was gazing out across the lovely flower garden with a wild, feverish, almost mad, gaze. I went up to him and placed my hand once more upon his shoulder.

"I ought never to have let you go away by yourself out of a mistaken sense of duty to a patient who, after all, is nothing to me. You have been brooding over your trouble and have worked yourself into a morbid state of self-analysis. I can assure you that I know you better than you know yourself, and know that you are absolutely incapable of any act of cowardliness or disloyalty."

"I think I was … at one time," he said dreamily. "I seem to have changed all of a sudden. Why, Mark! even temptation in this case is vile and base. We Englishmen, who pride ourselves on our national honour—our inalienable characteristic, we proudly assert. Never was there a greater fallacy than man's belief in his own integrity. Here am I, the first Englishman who trod this foreign soil, and already my national honour is scattered to the four winds, since I have started a series of hideous compacts with it—at nights."

"Do you love her so much as all that?" I asked with a certain ill-defined feeling of jealousy and wrath. His hard, set expression relaxed, a look of infinite tenderness crept into his eyes, and it was with a softened voice, more like the voice I knew of old, that he said:

"Like a madman, Mark; like a base coward, if you will."

I shook my head.

"You would not look as you do, Girlie, if you did that. Compacts with one's honour are easy of making and do not bring fever and insomnia along with them. Tell me what you mean to do."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Do?" he said with a forced laugh. "That is exactly what I have been wondering these last few days. I ran away from her like a coward, but I was a fool to think I could so easily escape—not in this land, at least, where everything speaks of her. Why, the very scent of the lotus flower which penetrates into my room at night …"

He stopped abruptly and bit his lip, as if determined to say no more—not even to me. I saw that he was making great efforts to contain himself, for his lips and hands were shaking as if with ague.

"You are killing yourself, Girlie," I said.

He laughed.

"And yet I don't want to die, old Mark. Not at any rate until I have made some arrangement for getting you safely out of this land."

"Not until you have gone back yourself, Girlie, and have shown to the world your discovery of this land, the truth of 'mad Tankerville's hobby,'" I said, trying to bring his mind back to its old enthusiasm.

"Yes!" he said with a weary sigh. "I came here for that purpose, didn't I? For that I toiled for years, studied, gave up home and country, everything even dragged you away in my train. And now …"

"Well? and now that you have succeeded beyond your keenest hopes?"

"Now, Mark? Laugh at me if you like; I deserve it for the terrible fool that I am. Now I feel that I would gladly give up all that and more, toil again, slave again, find every glory the world can bestow, and lose it all again, in exchange for the certainty that one woman, out of all the millions who people this earth, loves me as I love her."

I shook my head.

"I know, I know, old fellow," he said. "I almost think that if I had the certainty that she merely made a fool of me, I should—perhaps—get over my folly."

I don't know if his talk to me had done him good. I felt like a cruel brute to have forced his confidence, and yet I think that it was for the best. I could not fancy Hugh Tankerville falling a prey to morbid pangs of conscience; I knew that he would never fail in deed. It was not in his power to keep temptation away. A word is easily broken, and I believe that Neit-akrit would have been willing, out of pride or ambition—perhaps out of love for Hugh: in either case she would not pause, I think, for the sake of any soft thoughts for Queen Maat-kha. Oh! that we could have got away—out of this country altogether—where, as he said—everything spoke of her. Was she not, as it were, the embodiment of everything that was fascinating, mysterious, poetic in this land? Somehow I believe that Hugh was as much in love with his own conception of what a daughter of Egypt would be. Though intensely enthusiastic, his nature was a sensuous one. The exotic beauty of Kamt, the scent of the flowers, the artistic charm of the life, all had prepared his mind for the strong impression to which an exquisitely beautiful woman gave the finishing touch. How strange a thing is man! Why was it not Queen Maat-kha—beautiful, picturesque, womanly—who had succeeded in arousing in Hugh that love, which might then have proved a happiness to him? whereas, now, tied as he was by every tie of loyalty and honour, it was slowly killing him by inches. There was no doubt that he looked terribly ill, and that a kind of low fever, brought by brooding and insomnia, was already beginning to undermine his robust constitution.

I did not like to say anything more just now. We had been silent for some time, and Hugh gradually had conquered his emotion and seemed more like himself. He asked after the health of the Pharaoh and my first impression of the city of Net-amen. But it was my turn to be moody. I felt more anxious than I cared to admit. I knew that we were surrounded with enemies, and truly did not know whether among these we should count the beautiful woman over whom Hugh Tankerville was busy breaking his heart. But this was mere unreasoning instinct. It would have been worse than useless to give him a warning in that direction; though he might be blind as to her coquetry, he would probably not admit even the remotest possibility that she might be false. And I … well, though I admired them, I quietly mistrusted the beautiful blue eyes and fascinating ways of Princess Neit-akrit.