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CHAPTER XXIII
THE CRIME

As I expected, the holy Pharaoh proved more exacting, more arbitrary than ever. He was really so weak and ill that I had not the heart to leave him. His mind seemed to wander at times, and he would babble of Neit-akrit, of the throne of Kamt, of his mother, and of the stranger who was usurping the crown. He seemed to have vowed special hatred against his mother, more so even than against Hugh; and his screams of rage, whenever he mentioned her name, were terrible to hear, and all day, with half-articulate words, he would make weird plans as to how best he could destroy her happiness.

Once he took my hand feverishly in both his own and asked with eagerness:

"Dost think she knows that the stranger hath no love for her?"

I tried to soothe him, but he persisted:

"If she only knew how he loves Neit-akrit!"

"Thou dost him wrong, oh, mighty Pharaoh!" I retorted. "The beloved of the gods will plight his troth to Queen Maat-kha. And he never breaks his word."

The invalid laughed his nasty, sarcastic laugh, and muttered several times to himself:

"If she only knew how he loves Neit-akrit … she would suffer … ay! and I think I would make him suffer, too."

Late in the evening, at last, he dropped into a troubled sleep; and I, feeling momentary peace and freedom, went out upon the terrace. The Pharaoh's palace faced the temple of Isis, behind which lay the mysterious garden with the lonely snow-white pavilion, and the sacred nook, beside the cataract, with beyond it the palace of the royal bride.

The night was exquisitely still, the moon was not yet up, and the shadows were not as yet very dark. It was a perfect evening, and my thoughts flew out across the poetic garden to the lonely spot where, in the midst of this picturesque and pagan land, an Englishman was preparing to sacrifice his happiness for the sake of his honour. An infinite sadness crept over me: I longed for dear old England and for peace, and above all I longed for sight of Hugh before the awful, the irrevocable had actually happened. Somehow I could not believe that the preposterous thing was really about to be accomplished; that, within the next few hours, a man so good, so true as Hugh Tankerville could be called upon to wreck his whole life without a protest. We were obviously doomed to remain in this exotic land for the whole term of our natural lives. I was willing enough to remain: I had no ties, save those which bound me to my friend, and if Hugh could but marry the woman he loved, I know he would have craved for nothing more. But we were among people as high-minded and more civilised than ourselves: a woman here was as sacred, as much worthy of respect, as in our own distant homes, and conscience has an unhappy knack of following one wherever one may go. All this I knew and felt ; and now, at the eleventh hour, I, too, in my inmost heart began to argue with my conscience, to bandy words with my friend's honour, and to try and find a loophole through which I could drag Hugh Tankerville away from the very foot of the hymeneal altar.

The longing to speak to Hugh, if only for a moment, became imperative. I was not sure whether I should find the way open through the temple gardens to his pavilion, but at any rate I resolved to try. Wrapping a dark cloak round me, I found my way out of the Pharaoh's palace, and soon reached the outer precincts of the temple close.

The sacred edifice, in its severely imposing architecture, with massive columns, such as the Egyptians love, towered high above me, square and broad, upon a gigantic flight of marble steps. Hugh and I had visited it the day before, and I loved its simple magnificence, its gorgeous proportions, its great snow-white columns, the exquisite tracery, picked out in silver inlay, which gleamed in the gathering shadows of evening, looking singularly ethereal and ghostlike.

The evening sacrifice was just over, for I heard behind the temple the sound of sistrum and harp, dying away in the distance; and the song of Isis's sacred courtesans, as they took possession of their enchanted gardens, sounded more and more remote. From the gardens an overpowering scent of flowers was wafted towards me, and I could see on my right the pavilion where Hugh probably at this moment was pacing up and down the marble hall like some caged lion, nestling behind a clump of orange trees: and far beyond, the canals, like shimmering ribbons, wound in graceful curves towards Tanis and Net-amen, Men-ne-fer and Het-se-fent.

I had already turned towards the pavilion and was following a long path, which led away from the temple, when my ear caught the sound of stealthy footsteps upon the sandy walk, some distance behind me. Astonished, I turned to see who my companion was in this evening stroll, and to my amazement recognised my patient, the mighty Pharaoh, who, like myself, wrapped in a dark cloak, was softly walking at right angles from the path which I myself was following, straight towards the temple, and the next moment had disappeared from my view behind a piece of sculpture.

An instinct, which I could not have accounted for at the time, prompted me not to run after him, nor to shout, but to follow him quietly and see what he would do.

Keeping well within the shadows, I retraced my steps, and once more found myself at the foot of the temple, just in time to see the Pharaoh disappearing up above me, somewhere among the pillars.

I could not imagine that he had chosen this evening hour in order to perform some tardy act of devotion, and a little anxious about his safety now, I followed up the massive stairs.

I had completely lost sight of the sick man, and having reached the last of the marble steps I peered round eagerly between the pillars. The façade of the temple was silent, dark and deserted. Immediately in front of me was the ponderous gateway, built of marble tracery, which opened into the sacred edifice. It was closed, but I went up to it, and through the tracery saw the interior of the building. The main body of the temple was dimly lighted by a single hanging lamp, which threw an uncertain, flickering light on floor and pillars; at the farther end hung the usual heavy, semi-transparent curtain which hid the inner sanctuary of the goddess. This being brilliantly illuminated, the curtain formed a kind of shimmering wall, against which I saw suddenly silhouetted the figure of the Pharaoh not far from me, and that of a woman, Queen Maat-kha, by his side.

I could not see into the dark corners of the temple, but, as far as I could ascertain, the rest of the building Was deserted and the royal bride-elect was unattended. The Pharaoh had evidently just finished speaking, for he was leaning exhausted against one of the pillars: he looked so very cadaverous and ill that I was seriously anxious for him, and at the risk of interrupting a private conclave between mother and son, I tried to get to him, but the marble gateway was closed. After the manner peculiar to Egyptian architects, it had been made to work with a secret spring, by which a child could set it in motion if he knew its working, but which the strongest man in the world, if he were ignorant, could not even shake; and I, of course, had no idea where and how that secret spring worked.

Suddenly I heard Queen Maat-kha's voice:

"Was it to tell me all this, oh, my son," she said, "that thou didst come, like a snake in the night, to pour thy poison into my ear, even while I worshipped at Isis's shrine?"

He laughed his usual sarcastic laugh.

"My poison?" he retorted. "Nay! sweet mother, that potion which thou must drink to the full is none of my mixing. Already thou didst taste a few of its bitter drops; I but add the last thought of deadly aconite to make it more unpalatable still."

"And art satisfied?" she asked quietly.

"Not quite," he replied with sudden vehemence, coming a step or two closer to her, "not quite, for that evil hand which, with arrogant pride, will snatch the kingdom of Kamt from my dying grasp hath already taken from me the priceless treasure which was the only joy of my life."

"I do not understand."

"He came," hissed the sick man close to her ear, "and with one look, one word, won that which I would have given my double crown, my life, my honour to possess."

"Dost mean the love of thy people?"

"No! the love of Neit-akrit."

Queen Maat-kha shrugged her shoulders and laughed a low, derisive laugh.

"'Twere better thou didst go back to thy sick-bed, oh, mighty Pharaoh! and didst take some of the soothing potions thy medicine men do order thee. Thy mind doth indeed begin to wander. Love! and Neit-akrit! … was there ever a more impossible union? Why, 'twere easier to credit the jackals of the wilderness with pity for the corpses they devour than Neit-akrit with human love!"

"Were it easier too," sneered the Pharaoh, "to credit the son of Ra with love for Neit-akrit?"

But Maat-kha turned upon her son as if she had been stung.

"Beware, oh, most holy Pharaoh!" she whispered between her clenched teeth, "beware of the might of the gods, and rouse not the dormant passions in a woman's heart."

He laughed.

"Nay! it was to rouse these dormant passions that I came to-night, oh, mother mine! Didst think, perchance, that I meant to leave thee in peace and happiness, taking away from me all that the gods did give? I had a crown. Thy lover came, and with one blow struck it from off my head. Am I the Pharaoh? Ask my people whom it is they love, and whom they obey. Who sits upon the throne of Kamt? Not I, surely, for his hands deal favours and sign the decrees of justice.

"I am sick and of no account; my open enmity could but heighten thy lover's fame. But my hatred has been nurtured in the dark, and, like a foul snake, hath thriven well, the while thou didst rejoice and didst think of wedding the stranger, so as to oust thy son from the throne. But, I tell thee, thou didst rejoice too soon. I am not dead yet, and the beloved of the gods is hated by many mortals: by those whose arrogance his arrogance did curb, whose pride his pride did humble, and amongst these thou must reckon the woman whom thou wilt defraud as thou didst defraud thy son."

"Thou talkest at random," she said with another shrug of the shoulders. "Just now thou didst say that she loved him, and now thou speakest of hate."

"And is not hate the twin of love, mother mine? And didst thou not feel hatred for him whom thou lovest so well when thou didst see him standing beside Neit-akrit? his eyes devouring her young and ardent beauty, her eyes turned to him, moist and tender, ready to respond to the first word of passion? Didst see how he trembled when she asked him for a kiss?"

"Hold thy babbling tongue," she commanded. "I will not listen to the ravings of a lunatic."

"But thou wilt listen, for I will tell thee that, at nights, when Isis hid her face, and darkness threw a merciful pall over the garden of Neit-akrit's palace, she would creep out, and her arms filled with masses of lotus blossoms, she would go to thy lover's couch. I have seen her on the terrace, at nights, standing like the carved image of voluptuous grace, with moist lips and shimmering eyes, and he …"

"Thou liest!" said Maat-kha in a hoarse whisper, raising an imperious hand, as if ready to strike the son who with evil tongue hissed the cruel words into her ear, delighting with fiendish glee in goading her into jealous frenzy.

I could not understand what the man's object could be in the strange game he was playing. Was it revenge for his own wrongs, or merely the natural outburst of an evil mischief-making mind? I knew he hated his mother, but thought the game a dangerous one, for in this country passions run high, and a woman's love or hate is deadly and uncontrolled.

I could not tear myself away from my point of vantage; an unaccountable feeling or presentiment, which since then I have been so well able to explain, kept me rooted to the spot, with my face glued against the massive marble carving.

Maat-kha's face had become positively livid with rage; she was strong and muscular, and she tried with both her hands to smother the evil words in her son's mouth. But this half-human creature repeated, with a truly demoniacal chuckle:

"I tell thee I saw them both.… Dost think perchance he cares for thee, beyond thy throne and thy riches? Look at Neit-akrit and then at thyself. Is she not made for love? young, ardent and exquisitely beautiful. She hath consumed my soul with wild passion, mad, unreasoning love, and he … hast seen him to-day? He is dying of the same complaint which has sapped my manhood, made a weak coward of the Pharaoh, the descendant of Ammoun-ra.… Hast seen his burning eyes, his hollow cheeks? He is dying, I tell thee! he will die in thy arms one day … soon … die of love for Neit-akrit."

"Thou liest! thou liest! thou liest!" she shouted. "I forbid thee to speak, thou liest!"

"He loves her, I tell thee, and thou wilt wed him to-morrow; but he will hate thee, for his heart belongs to Neit-akrit. Ay! mother mine, thou hast stolen my throne from me, but at least, in exchange for that throne, I think I have succeeded in stealing from thee the last shred of thy happiness."

But the semi-demented creature who ruled over the kingdom of Kamt had pursued his cruel game just a little too far. I was absolutely helpless to intervene, even had I thought of venturing to do so, for the heavy marble gates were between me and that mother and son, who were hissing words of hate in one another's ears.

"Thou liest!" repeated the Queen, but yet she listened, as if longing to drink to the last dregs of the poisonous cup which her son was holding to her mouth.

"Thou art old, mother mine," added the creature, with truly satanic fiendishness. "Of thee he will have but thy throne. I tell thee that as soon as he has wedded thee he will forget thy very existence: and Neit-akrit, the divine Neit-akrit, whom I, the Pharaoh, adore, will forget her rank, her maidenhood, and vow herself to Isis, that she may on moonlit nights put her white arms round his neck, and show him how well the women of Kamt have learnt how to kiss."

With a hoarse cry Maat-kha, whose whole body seemed to tremble with mad, uncontrolled rage, literally sprang upon her son. With both hands she gripped him round the neck, and she held him there, tightly clutched, before her, until perforce his evil words died, choked within his throat. His head fell back, livid and ghastly, his arms beat the air once or twice, while his whole being shook in a violent convulsion.

Aghast, horror-struck, I shouted with all the force of which my lungs were capable: I threw my body against the marble gate, only to fall back bruised, sore and helpless. The mad woman heeded me not; the wild mania of blind jealousy must have closed her ears. My voice went echoing among the massive pillars of the building, but nothing answered it save, far away, the song of the priestesses of Isis amidst the flowers and the balmy midnight air.

The Pharaoh's head had fallen back inert, and over him bent the woman—his mother—still furiously hissing at the livid face beneath her: "Thou liest! thou liest!" Then the body became rigid and still, there was a final convulsion, the head rolled from side to side. Maat-kha ceased her shouting; she still held the dying man by the neck, but her eyes, now large and terrified, were fastened upon him. Gradually a look of indescribable horror spread over her face, a look which almost froze the blood in my veins, so appalling was it. The momentary mania had disappeared and in its stead came the terrible realisation of what she had done. Again I shouted to her to let me in, but she seemed not to hear, for she did not even turn towards me, though I screamed myself absolutely hoarse. For one moment I thought of turning towards the garden and shouting for help in that direction, then the idea of Hugh hearing my voice, of seeing what I had seen without warning or preparation, struck me with unspeakable horror, and stupidly, unreasoningly, I threw myself again with all my might against the stone gate, hoping to attract some attention.

I must have done it very clumsily, for I caught my head a nasty blow which stunned me for a moment, and, half-unconscious, I fell down on my knees against the gate.