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CHAPTER XXIV
THE ALTERNATIVE

When I came to myself after a few minutes, the scene inside the temple had changed. The Pharaoh was lying rigid upon the marble floor and the hanging lamp overhead threw a weird, flickering light upon his livid, hideously distorted face. Beside him, ghastly pale, with eyes staring full of horror upon the dead body of her son, Queen Maat-kha stood silent, with arms folded across her bosom, her lips tightly set. She was listening to the high priest of Ra, who was speaking to her in slow and solemn tones, while he pointed upwards to the sanctuary of the goddess.

"Thy sin, Maat-kha, is beyond forgiveness. Thou knowest it; thy body and thy soul are doomed to eternal death. Thy very memory will be accursed in Kamt as the centuries roll slowly away."

She did not reply. I think she was absolutely dazed. No doubt that even a British jury would have found extenuating circumstances for her crime. She had been provoked beyond what her reason could stand. Momentarily it had fled, escaped her body, leaving her a prey to all the furious passions which her maddened jealousy had roused within her. Now reason had returned, and with it horror, repulsion, and hideous, terrible remorse.

I was still very shaky on my legs, and somehow instinct kept me where I was, waiting to see the sequel to this awful and weird tragedy. There was dead silence after the high priest had spoken, and the echo of his last solemn words still reverberated in the vast and mysterious temple. From afar the last sounds of life and bustle from the bridal city reached this lonely, poetic spot only as a murmur from dreamland.

Maat-kha stood as rigid and inert as her dead son, only from time to time a nervous shiver went right through her, and she gathered her veil close to her as if she felt cold.

"I am waiting for thy answer, Maat-kha," said the high priest.

She looked up at him, half-appealing, half-defiant. There was no sorrow on her face for the dead son whom she had never loved, no fear of the punishment with which the high priest threatened her. She said very quietly:

"What answer dost thou expect of me?"

"I wish to know if, after thy madness, thou dost understand the hideousness of thy crime, and dost fear the vengeance of the goddess whose temple thou didst desecrate?"

"My hands did act, but not my will. He taunted me and my reason fled. I had no wish to kill him, only to silence his poisonous tongue."

"Hold thy peace, woman! Do not slander the dead and heap more sorrow and humiliation upon thy doomed head."

"What wouldst thou have me do, Ur-tasen? Madness seized me. I am accursed. Wilt thou give me the boon of a dagger with which to send my sinful soul to the foot of the throne of Osiris? who perhaps will understand, and understanding, pardon."

"Thy soul is not worthy to appear before the gods. Judgment would decree that thy body be allowed to rot, lest so vile a soul find once more habitation upon earth and live to commit other most horrible crimes."

A shudder went through her; for the first time she seemed to realise that some awful punishment would inevitably follow her sin. She looked wildly round her as if in search of help or sympathy, then again appealingly at the high priest before her.

"There is no help for thee, woman. Look not around. The very walls of the temple of Isis frown shuddering down upon thee. Nay! look not for help, for not even he, whom thou deemest all-powerful, could save thee if he would."

The words of Ur-tasen recalled me to myself. I realised that in a moment the whole aspect of Hugh's future had changed, and it was but just that he should be apprised of the tragedy which had taken place, and of the awful doom which suddenly threatened Queen Maat-kha. There was no object in my staying here any longer to hear Ur-tasen's solemn invectives against the unfortunate woman, and I had almost turned to go, when it seemed to me that in the remote corner of the temple, behind Queen Maat-kha, there was some one standing and like myself watching the weird and terrible scene. I could only see a dim outline thrown darkly against the light curtain, but somehow that outline, the heavy hair, the quaint, straight attitude, forcibly reminded me of Princess Neit-akrit.

Surely I was mistaken. What could Neit-akrit be doing alone at night in the temple of Isis? and why should she have stood motionless and still while so awful a tragedy was being enacted before her? And yet, persistently I looked at the slight and upright figure and continued my rôle of eavesdropping, scenting vaguely danger hovering in the air.

At mention of Hugh's name Maat-kha had closed her eyes. A look of infinite pain spread over her face, and slowly two heavy tears rolled down her cheeks.

But Ur-tasen was merciless.

"How he will loathe thee, Maat-kha," he said very quietly. "Hast thought of that? He never loved thee dearly: thy beauty had not even the power to ensnare his senses, but I think he honoured thee as a woman and as a queen: whereas now he will turn from thee as from a noisome reptile. With his own hand he will sign the decree which will cast thee out of Kamt, and as thy flesh begins to wither on thy bones, out there in the valley of death, thy dying soul can contemplate the picture of happy, prosperous Kamt, wherein the stranger, the well-beloved of the gods, dispenses justice and wisdom beside Neit-akrit of the house of Usem-ra."

A prolonged moan of anguish escaped the unfortunate woman's lips: she turned to the high priest and very calmly she asked:

"Ur-tasen, why dost thou put this torture to my soul? Speak! What dost thou want of me?"

"I but want the salvation of thy soul, Maat-kha, seeing how grievously thou hast sinned. I but wish to adjure thee to think of the vengeance of the gods."

"I will think of that by-and-by," she said, "now …"

"Now thou dost think only of what thou hast lost and what Neit-akrit has gained."

"No, no, no, no! Ur-tasen, no! thou dost not know of what thou speakest. See! I will drag myself on my knees before thee. I will weep both my eyes out for repentance! I will go forth into the valley of death cheerfully and calmly, accepting thy decrees and blessing thy name. I will cause all my wealth, my jewels, my palaces to be left to thee, as thine own property, when I am gone, if thou wilt part my lover and Neit-akrit for ever."

She had sunk down upon her knees, and laying her pale forehead on the marble floor before the high priest, she beat the ground with her head and kissed the tip of his pointed sandals. I thought the high priest's face suddenly assumed a satisfied, triumphant expression. He folded his arms across his chest and looked down upon the suppliant at his feet.

"Wilt come up before the image of the goddess, oh, Maat-kha! and at her very feet swear that thou wilt do my bidding, whatsoever I might command?"

She raised her head, and in the dim, flickering light I could see that she darted an inquiring, amazed look upwards at him.

"Dost believe that I am powerful?" he asked.

"I believe that thou dost hate him who is beloved of the gods."

"Wilt swear to do my bidding?" he repeated.

"Dost wish to harm him?"

"Not unless thou also dost wish it."

"I love him, Ur-tasen," she said in truly heart-rending tones.

"Wouldst see him then in the arms of Neit-akrit?"

"I would sooner see him dead at my feet," she replied, with renewed passion, "slain by my hands, as was my son, the Pharaoh."

"Swear to do my bidding, Maat-kha, and Neit-akrit will never wed the stranger king."

She rose slowly to her feet and turned towards the sanctuary of the goddess.

"Lead the way, Ur-tasen," she said with absolute calm. "I will swear to do thy bidding."

The sanctuary was at the farther end of the building. Already the high priest, followed by Maat-kha, was rapidly disappearing in the vastness of the temple. Helpless, I looked round me. The conviction had gradually forced itself upon my mind that Ur-tasen
 
P 250--The gates of Kamt.jpg

I will cause all my wealth, . . . to be left to thee, . . . if thou wilt part my lover and Neit-akrit forever"

 
" had concocted some evil plan against Hugh, for which he required the co-operation of the Queen. Her terrible unpremeditated act had given him an enormous power over her, and, working upon her mad jealousy, he meant evidently to make her his ally in his nefarious scheme. At any cost I was bound to hear what that man and that woman would say to one another during the next few minutes, and there was the whole length of a vast temple and the thickness of marble gates between me and them. On the floor, beneath the lamp, the livid mask of the dead Pharaoh seemed to grin at my helplessness. It seemed as if, dead, he would be able to wreak that vengeance upon the man he hated which, living, he had never dared accomplish.

Already I could see Maat-kha prostrate before the goddess, with arms stretched upwards, swearing no doubt to add another deadly sin to her crime, and in Ur-tasen's attitude, standing erect and commanding by her side, there was an unmistakable air of exultant triumph.

There was no question that, from where I was, there could not be the slightest chance of my hearing what those two said. Certain of not being watched, determined to know the extent of the projected evil before I warned Hugh of his danger, I thought of rapidly skirting the temple walls, in the hope of finding some other gate or entrance nearer to the sanctuary from whence I could watch and listen. The precincts of the temple were absolutely deserted, as far as I could see, and, in any case, my feet were shoeless, and the shadows between the pillars were long and dense. I had every chance of slipping round unperceived.

I made slow and very cautious progress. The temple was vast and it took me two or three minutes' measured creeping before I reached its more distant side. As I had hoped, another gateway, also of marble tracery, led into this part of the temple, and to my delight I found that this gateway was opened sufficiently to allow me to slip inside, which I did.

I found myself, however, not in the temple itself, but in a kind of chamber or passage, I did not know which, for it was very dark. Some five feet from the ground a narrow opening, scarce the width of an arm, in the granite wall, showed beyond it the brilliantly-lighted sanctuary. At first, in looking through this aperture, I could scarcely see, for the dazzling brightness of the innumerable hanging lamps, and the thick fumes of burning herbs, shut everything out from my view. But gradually, as my anxious gaze travelled round, I saw Ur-tasen and Maat-kha not ten feet away from me to my left; but the gossamer curtain hung between the sanctuary and them, and I could only vaguely distinguish their forms. Beyond them I could see nothing but gloom; the dim shadow, which I had fancied to be Princess Neit-akrit, had apparently disappeared, if indeed it had ever been there, and the high priest and the Queen evidently thought themselves alone.

"He often used to evade his attendants at night-time," Maat-kha was saying, apparently in answer to a query from the priest, "and wander about aimlessly in the gardens or the palace. I had come into the temple to pray, bidding my women go and leave me in peace for an hour, when suddenly I saw the Pharaoh before me."

"I know the rest, for I saw and heard all," replied the high priest, quietly.

"And thou didst not move a finger to save him from death, and thy Queen from a crime ten thousand times worse than any torment?" she exclaimed with a smothered shriek.

"The will of the gods is inscrutable," he replied calmly. "I am but a servant of all-creating Ra. 'Tis he ordered me to be silent when the holy Pharaoh fell smitten by his mother's hand. His will must guide thee, too. Thou hast sworn to do my bidding."

"I will obey," she said very meekly.

"Listen then to the commands of Ra, of Osiris, and of Horus, of Set, and of Anubis and all the gods in Kamt, whose wrath, if thou disobey, will fall heavily upon thy criminal head. I command thee to go anon, when thy women come to attend upon thee, back to thy palace peacefully and silently. The priests of Ra will guard the body of the Pharaoh until such time as the soulless corpse will have helped to fulfil the deed of vengeance which the gods of Kamt have decreed."

"I do not understand."

"Listen, Maat-kha," said Ur-tasen, more eagerly, as he bent his shaven crown close to her ear; "at the midnight hour, when Isis is high in the heavens, the stranger, who with sacrilegious arrogance doth style himself beloved of the gods, will plight his troth to thee. Ignorant of thy terrible crime, he will swear that he will love and be true to thee, and reverence thee as men of Kamt do reverence the wife whom Isis places in their arms. Do thou be silent and at peace—none but I have seen the evil midnight deed—do thou be silent and at peace, and place thy hand in that of the stranger."

There was a pause, while I pictured to myself the unfortunate Maat-kha listening to the priest's commands, not daring to cling to the thin thread of hope which he was so enigmatically holding out to her.

"After the solemn marriage ceremony," resumed Ur-tasen, "by the custom of our beloved land, the royal bridegroom remains in the temple of Isis, waiting and alone. All those who have come bidden to the feast retire to their homes, to ponder of what they have seen, or to join the populace in their revelry in honour of the joyous night. But the royal bridegroom waits in solitude and prayer; waits until his bride is ready to receive him, at the first streak of dawn, when Isis herself sinks fainting into the arms of Osiris her beloved, and suffuses the vault of heaven with the roseate hue of her bridal blush. Then the royal bridegroom goes forth to meet his bride, and his footsteps lead him through the garden of Isis to that secluded nook, beside the sacred cataract, where stands the hallowed shrine of the goddess, and where foot of man ne'er treads, save he be of royal blood, and hath not yet received the first kiss of his bride. Dost remember the spot, oh, Maat-kha?" he added. "There didst thou go twenty years ago, one summer night, beneath the light of sinking Isis; there didst thou hear the sound of the path crunch beneath the foot of Hor-tep-ra; there didst thou give the first bridal kiss to him whose son thou hast murdered, within the very temple of the goddess."

"I remember," she murmured dreamily, "and oh! how oft have I not thought of that solemn meeting within the sacred precincts, with him whom I love beyond all things earthly—with him who to me, to all Kamt, is sacred, nay! divine."

"It will not be thou, oh, Maat-kha! who wilt meet the bridegroom beneath the shrine of Isis."

"Who then, oh, mighty priest of Ra?" she asked with sudden terror.

"The dead body of thy murdered son."

"I do not understand."

"Nay! thy mind must be strangely overclouded. The Pharaoh did oft in his life evade his attendants and wander about aimlessly in his palaces and his gardens. To-night, more sick than ever, he found his way to the precincts of the temple of Isis, but faintness overtook him—faintness so great that the priests of the goddess laid him on a couch within the sacred building and tended him with loving care. But he is too sick to attend the wedding festivities, and the priests of Isis will have charge of him while Tanis goes raving mad with joy. Tanis will forget the sick Pharaoh in her tumultuous happiness, and those few who will remember him will know that the holy monarch is well cared for by the most learned in the land."

I confess that not even then did I really understand the devilish plan which the high priest of Ra had conceived. That it was in some way to encompass Hugh's ruin was of course evident, but what connection the dead Pharaoh was to have with it, or the mysterious and poetic retreat by the cataract, I could not as yet imagine. The Queen, too, was evidently as much at sea as I was, for she repeated mechanically:

"My mind is dull, Ur-tasen. Still I do not understand."

"During the joyous ceremony," continued the high priest, "the sick Pharaoh again evades his thoughtful guardians, as he often has evaded his attendants, and his roaming footsteps lead him to the waters of the sacred cataract, the secluded spot wherein the royal scions of ancient Kamt whisper first of love and home. The shrine of the goddess is enclosed by high walls shut off by copper gates; these are never opened save on glorious nights—like to-night will be when the widow of Hor-tep-ra will await her stranger lord. But the holy Pharaoh, finding the sacred grove still deserted, doth lay himself there to rest …"

The high priest paused, then added, in a whisper so low that I could hardly hear:

"He who calls himself beloved of the gods hath no love for the sick Pharaoh, who stands between him and absolute power.… The night is lonely … the gardens silent … and the Pharaoh helpless. The stranger has the strength of a lion … the strength which breaks the golden wand of the high priest of Ra with one touch of the hand … and which smothers the last cries of a dying man as easily as the carrion of the wilderness devour their prey …"

"Thou wouldst …"

"I would break the might of him who has ensnared the people of Kamt and broken their allegiance…. The priests of Isis will softly follow in the wake of the stranger, as he turns his footsteps within the hallowed nook…. Horror-struck, they will see the murderer standing beside his victim, then they will loudly call upon the people of Kamt to quit their rejoicings, to forget their songs and laughter and behold the hideous crime committed by him who dared to call himself the son of Ra!"

"Ur-tasen!" shouted the Queen, appalled at the hideousness of so vile a plot.

But I did not wait to hear more—cared not to hear how the man of evil, that cowardly, treacherous priest, succeeded in forcing the unfortunate, criminal woman's will. My only thought was to fly to Hugh, to warn him of the base plots which threatened him, of the villainy of the woman to whom he had all but pledged his troth. Thank God! that monstrous oath had not yet been spoken, and my friend Hugh Tankerville had not, by any pagan ritual, sworn to love a murderess. Thank God!—our God—who led my footsteps to this idolatrous temple to-night, whereby I was allowed to see and hear, and warn Hugh in time.

"If thou refuse," I heard finally Ur-tasen saying in threatening accents; then he paused, and added with a touch of satire, "Thou art still at liberty to refuse, Maat-kha, to break the oath thou didst swear just now. The body of thy murdered son still lies there, and I, the high priest, can yet summon the people of Tanis and show them their criminal Queen, she who then, to-morrow, will be for ever cast out of Kamt, a prey to the jackals and vultures, while in Tanis the wedding festivities will not even have been put off for so trifling a matter, seeing that the beloved of the gods, the son of Ra, will still be there, ready to wed Neit-akrit of the house of Usem-ra. Ay! thou canst still refuse, and think, when the gates of Kamt are shut for ever upon thee, of that same nook beside the sacred cataract, where the stranger will wait for the beautiful princess with the ardent hair and the eyes as blue as the waters of the lake; surely these will soon help him to forget the erstwhile Queen, the criminal, murderous Maat-kha."

I knew that she would give in, of course. Her love for Hugh was a barbaric, sensuous one, which would ten thousand times prefer to see the loved one dead than happy in another's arms. There was no object in my listening any further. The plot was hideously vile and treacherous, and perfectly well-conceived. I shuddered as I thought of what might have happened had not divine Providence led me here.

It did not need much reflection as to what I should do. My first impulse had been to go to the top of the temple steps and there to shout until I had assembled the people of Tanis round me, and then to show them the dead body of the Pharaoh, its murderess and her accomplice. In any case I had not many minutes before me, as undoubtedly in the next few moments Maat-kha would give in and Ur-tasen would order the dead body to be removed.

I went back to the gateway through which I had slipped into this chamber not a quarter of an hour ago … it was shut.

That was strange! I tried to find the opening … impossible to move the gates.… I only succeeded in bruising my hands and smashing my nails. The gate was of solid marble, the tracery a foot thick. It was obviously childish to attempt to force it open. As for any sign of lock or hinge, I certainly could see none. These Egyptians have secret springs to every door that leads to their temples.… Moreover, it was pitch dark all round me. Only between the carving the brilliant moonlight came weirdly creeping through.