The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 22
THE BRIDAL CITY
Happy, beautiful Tanis! the city of love and romance and poetry. Even now, after all these years, as I write, the perfume of a bunch of gardenias and tuberoses placed on my writing-table brings back to my memory visions of the snow-white city, where the air is oppressive with the scent of exotic flowers, and Isis, clad in immaculate garments, silent and white, gives her blessing on those of her children who would worship at her shine—the shrine of love, for Tanis is the bridal city.
All is white in Tanis: the houses of spotless stone or marble, the bowers of sweet-scented flowers, the barges on the canals, even the beasts of burden—cows and donkeys—all are white, and coquettishly throw that whiteness against a background of grey-green foliage or the dull, heavy leafage of palms. And in the midst of the city the temple of Isis, high aloft upon a hill, built of alabaster and silver, all white, with massive columns and gigantic steps, surrounded by groves of monster orange trees and tuberoses, amidst which the small apes—sacred to the moon—run chattering to and fro.
I loved Tanis. Men-ne-fer was gorgeous and rich, Net-amen was picturesque and bright, but Tanis was poetry, romance, and above all, living voluptuousness.
The penetrating scent of flowers rendered the temple gardens almost unbearable at nights, so overpowering was the odour of gardenia and orange blossom: that garden filled with the quaint and dainty forms of the priestesses vowed to the goddess and to love! I seem to see it before me now, in one vast tangle of palms and flowers, with shady nooks beneath showers of overhanging blossoms. Sensuous, voluptuous Tanis! where every refinement which art and civilisation could devise is brought to bear in order to throw a halo of romance and picturesqueness over the passion which makes gods or beasts of mankind. And Isis, silent, cold and immaculate, smiles from the sanctuary of her temple upon the loves which last a lifetime, the passions which live a day.
Men and women swear before her altar to cherish one another and be true, until the day when Anubis, the jackal-headed god, at last leads one or the other soul before the throne of Osiris: and all the while, outside, in the garden, under the same protection of the goddess, lithe young arms encircle the passer-by and give freely of those kisses which are forgotten on the morrow.
Sensuous Tanis! who dost place a crown of glory on the heads of thy courtesans, and makest a virtue of unchastity. Lovely, poetic Tanis! within whose sacred walls the holiest vows of truth and honour are spoken, in spite of all I love thee still. I shut my eyes and see thy snow-white walls, thy women clad in clinging folds of spotless white, hear the melancholy sound of sistrum and of harp, and above all smell the intoxicating odour of thy flower gardens and feel the delicious languor which thy heavy air doth give.
Strange people! Strange customs! Strange and sensuous Tanis! Within its walls is the temple of Isis, wherein bridegroom vows to bride honour, fealty and truth, as solemn, as binding, as the vows we swear in England unto those that we love; and within the selfsame walls, surrounding the same hymeneal temple, are the gardens of Isis. Here he who would pronounce matrimonial vows must dwell for a day and a night before his wedding, alone and unattended, in a tiny pavilion, overgrown with climbing tuberoses, which stands in the middle of the garden. Here, at the evening, when the image of the goddess shines cold and pure upon the groves of cacti and orange blossoms, sweet music lures the would-be bridegroom without, and as he walks through the sweet-scented alleys, dreaming of future homely and legitimate bliss, the dainty forms of Isis's priestesses whisper of things he would fain not hear: white arms beckon to him, and red mouths, framed for kisses, sing with sweet voices quaint, licentious songs. It is the mission—honoured, respected, almost held sacred—of these priestesses, recruited among the fairest in the land, to dissuade the bridegroom from contracting indissoluble ties.
There is a subtle morality in this strange custom. None but the strong, the true, should wed in ancient Kamt: the marriage tie is a divine one, the oath an all-embracing one, and sweet voices whisper to the weak to pause and reflect, bidding him beware of bonds which later he cannot break.
When first we heard of this curious custom, expounded to us by a couple of solemn Egyptians dressed in snow-white robes, with a wreath of white roses over their funny shaven heads, for the first time, since many days, I saw Hugh's eyes twinkling with merriment, but he preserved perfect outward gravity and assured the people of Tanis that he would follow the ancient custom of the land and take possession of the lonely pavilion in the garden of Isis.
Then, when we were alone, we both burst into a fit of laughter, and Hugh's laugh sounded as infectious, as sunny as of yore. Of course he had to stand a good deal of chaff from me.
"For the credit of old England," I adjured him with mock solemnity as, late one evening, I accompanied him to the abode of temptation, "do not disgrace us both, Girlie."
"Well! I think I may safely promise not to do that, old chap," he said with a laugh.
Together we explored the pavilion and garden, which before moonrise were silent and deserted. The pavilion itself was built of alabaster and divided into two rooms—one room in which to eat, and one in which to sleep, when one could. Every drapery in it was white, the curtains, the couches, the seats; it was lighted from above, as well as from the sides, so that the rays of the moon could at all times penetrate within. Here the lonely and expectant bridegroom heard but little of the din and noise of the city, busy in preparations for the coming marriage festivities, and of course Hugh would see nothing of the deputations from every corner of the vast empire which poured into Tanis, streams of people, men and women and children, who came to catch a glimpse of the most blessed in the land, the son of Ra, the well-beloved of the gods.
Somehow I did not like parting from him. These twenty-four hours, the last before he took the irrevocable step, were sure to be trying for him; but we had all through our stay in this interesting land most solemnly decided to follow all its laws and customs, and after all, my wish to be with Hugh was mere sentimentality. He himself, I think, preferred to be alone. We never had spoken of her since the day when I forced Hugh's confidence. I don't think he could have borne it, and Sawnie Girlie was the last man in the world ever to break down, even before me. His word was a fetish to him. He had given it to a woman and demanded hers in return, and he meant to carry to the end the burden which his own hands had placed upon his life. There was no doubt that he was eating his heart out with longing and with love for the beautiful girl who could be nothing to him, and I could do nothing to help or save him. Outwardly he was cheerful, even enthusiastic at times, but to my ears and eyes, rendered acute by my affection for him, there was always a false ring in his laugh, a jarring discord in his enthusiasm.
He seemed to have aged all of a sudden, and on the temples, for the first time, to-day, I had noticed a few streaks of grey.
When the shades of evening began to draw in round the poetic retreat where Hugh was to spend the last night of his bachelorhood, I at last reluctantly decided to go.
"When do you suppose we shall meet again, Girlie?"
"Ah! that I don't know. The marriage ceremony is an hour after midnight to-morrow; I go straight to the temple from here, and it appears that it is against all etiquette that I should wander outside this garden of Eden until then. Perhaps you can find your way as far as my loneliness, some time during the day."
But I was doubtful.
"I can try. What happens after the wedding ceremony?"
"Another strange custom, Mark, old chap," replied Hugh, with a smile. "All those present in the temple during the ceremony, including the bride, retire, leaving the unfortunate bridegroom alone: he is supposed to pray and to worship Isis, until he sees the first streak of dawn through the marble gateway. Then he goes out to meet his bride. But these people, ever seeking for the poetic and the picturesque, ever sensuous and ever voluptuous, have a custom by which the royal bridegroom meets his bride in a special bower in the very middle of this garden."
"Under the vault of heaven?"
"At dawn, old Mark, and near a tiny waterfall which is sacred to Isis. You can hear the ripple of the water now."
"It is indeed poetic."
"This pretty spot is surrounded with walls and closed in by a gate which is never opened, save when a royal marriage has taken place. Then at dawn the bridegroom, having completed his vigil, goes into the garden, finds that gate open, and there he waits until …"
"I understand. How sensuous these people are! Even in their marriages, which I believe are as solemn, as earnest, though not as dull as our English weddings, they contrive to introduce a savour of romance and transfigure the bride, if only momentarily, into a courtesan."
"At any rate, during the few hours before dawn, when I am all alone and supposed to be worshipping the pagan goddess, I am sure you can remain behind and bear me company. The day after my marriage we return to Men-ne-fer, and you and I, old Mark, can seriously set to work to govern our interesting subjects."
"Good-bye then, old Girlie!" I said, feeling a nasty, uncomfortable lump in my throat. "If I cannot get to you to-morrow, then I shall not see you again till after you are Queen Maat-kha's husband."
"In any case, Mark, in the temple you will be somewhere near, I know."
"Unless the holy Pharaoh claims me altogether. You know he is an arbitrary patient."
I shook him by the hand, and we parted, he still standing in the doorway of the snow-white pavilion, his dark head clearly silhouetted against the alabaster walls, and I hurrying quickly and regretfully through the tuberose-scented gardens of Isis, the voluptuous goddess.
The Pharaoh had entered Tanis earlier in the day with all the pomp and glitter of his gorgeous retinue. I went to meet him, and was shocked to see him looking much more ill than when I left him. I felt a little remorseful, and now feared that through my desertion of him I might have lost what influence I had gained over his irritable temper. However, to my astonishment, he seemed quite pleased to see me, and as usual, once he had me by his side, refused to allow me to leave him even for an instant.
It was only during a brief interval while he was asleep that I had had the chance of accompanying Hugh to the pavilion of Isis.
Queen Maat-kha had accompanied the Pharaoh in his solemn entry into Tanis. She was closely veiled when she alighted from her boat, and vouchsafed no recognition of me, and quickly disappeared, followed by her women.
I believe that she had a special palace, close to the temple of Isis, where as a royal bride she would reside until her wedding day.
I saw nothing of Princess Neit-akrit, nor did I know if she meant to be present at the marriage ceremony. I sincerely hoped that she would not, and that Hugh would be spared the pain of seeing her until all was irrevocably over. Perhaps when finally wedded to another woman, in the midst of the many tasks which would naturally devolve upon him, he would begin to forget the poetic romance which threatened to destroy his future happiness.