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CHAPTER XXV
HELPLESS

It was obvious that from that side I was an absolute prisoner—temporarily, I hoped—but minutes, even seconds, were valuable.

From the temple I could hear Ur-tasen's voice:

"For the third and last time I ask of thee, woman, wilt thou obey the decrees of the gods, or art thou ready to face the awful doom which thy loathsome crime has brought upon thee? Thy death and thy disgrace, or his? … which? … Dost love the stranger so dearly, then, that thou wouldst see him happy in the arms of Neit-akrit with thy crown upon her head?"

And Maat-kha's voice, low and calm:

"I will obey, Ur-tasen!"

I returned to the aperture from whence I had watched the two evil conspirators. It was no wider than my arm, and from there I could have done nothing but shout, which obviously would have been worse than foolish. I felt not unlike a caged beast, for although I had not as yet the slightest fear of not being able to warn Hugh in time, nevertheless there was no doubt that my position was, to say the least of it, a precarious one, and that I could in no case do anything summarily to expose the murderous plotters.

From where I was I could not see the body of the Pharaoh, and now Queen Maat-kha, with head bent, was walking away towards the farther end of the temple, while the high priest remained standing before the sanctuary of his own pagan goddess, with arms outstretched, murmuring some heathen prayer.

There was long and deathlike silence in the great edifice. Maat-kha had probably gone, taking her conscience with her—if indeed she had any; the high priest had finished muttering his prayers, and I watched—like a caged beast—Hugh's deadly enemy exulting over his anticipated triumph. I would not allow myself to reflect over the deadly peril of my position, My only thought was one of horror for the diabolical cunning of the plot, which apparently stood such a good chance of success. For the woman I had more of pity than of loathing or contempt. The high priest, with wonderful art, had known how to touch and play upon every sensitive and quivering chord of a highly passionate nature, had with sagacious dexterity roused every jealous instinct in her heart, until, blinded by her own passions, she had given herself over, body and soul, to his guidance.

No!—I don't think I reflected much upon my own danger. When thoughts of it rushed across my mind, I succeeded in speedily dismissing them. I could not do with such thoughts, for all must tend towards the future, upon how best I could save both my friend and myself. I cursed my own folly, my dilatoriness, the stupid way in which I had allowed myself to be trapped. How long I should remain merely a prisoner I could not of course conjecture, nor did I know whether my precarious position was the result of design or accident.

At the marriage ceremony Hugh would face the sanctuary, in the centre of the building, more than a hundred feet away from where I was, and probably with the gauze curtain between me and him, but I trusted to my lung power and to his presence of mind … if … I was left alive until then.

In the meanwhile I could do nothing but watch. Several attempts at pushing open the gateway had convinced me of their futility. Ur-tasen had been standing immovably for some time before the goddess, and I could see his shaven crown, which hid so many evil thoughts, shining behind the silvery curtain. Many absolutely British sentiments and desires with regard to the old beast made me gnash my teeth in my impotence, and even mutter several fine words, as with head erect he seemed to exult over his coming triumph. I supposed that as he stood there he was seeing visions of the stranger being comfortably cast out of Kamt, and of turning in the wilderness to human flesh and blood for final, loathsome food and drink.

Suddenly, as I looked, it seemed to me that Ur-tasen was no longer alone, but that there stood beside him the same quaint and rigid form which already before, in the gloom, I had thought that I recognised. It was but faintly outlined beyond the folds of the gauzy tissue, and I did not know if my tired eyes were not beginning to play me a few tricks, when Ur-tasen turned and spoke, in a humble and almost tender voice, so different to that in which he had addressed the unfortunate Maat-kha:

"I did it all for thee, Neit-akrit!"

Then I knew that I had not been mistaken. She was there, had probably seen and heard as much of the awful scene as I had, and had not made a movement to save her kinsman or to denounce his murderess. I recollected my old-standing distrust of her, and yet, remembering how young and beautiful she was, I could not admit to myself that she could approve or in any way be accessory to the hideous treachery. She had not replied to the high priest's words, and he continued eagerly:

"I bless the goddess who led me to her temple to-night, who whispered to me that I should watch the sick Pharaoh, as he noiselessly crept up through the sacred building and disturbed his mother in her devotions. I praise the goddess, Neit-akrit, who with one terrible blow doth allow me to sweep from thy path all those who dared to stand between thee and the throne of Kamt."

I don't know if Neit-akrit made any reply; certainly, if she did, it must have been in a whisper, for I did not hear. Then the high priest repeated, with accents that were soft and pleading:

"I did it all for thee, Neit-akrit, that thou mightest wear the double crown of Kamt, and that thine enemy might be driven forth from the land, where, in his arrogance, he dared to lay hands upon thy throne."

"My enemy?"

Her voice came as a murmur, sweet and low: the words spoken half in astonishment, half in a strange and tender appeal.

"Ay!" said Ur-tasen, vehemently. "Thy throne is free now, Neit-akrit: I have cleared the way for thee. Maat-kha struck her dying son with wrathful arm; I did naught to save him, for by that blow thy kinswoman delivered herself and her stranger lover into my hands. At dawn, anon, when Isis has sunk to rest, he who has dared to call himself the son of Ra will go forth to his doom. Think of it, Neit-akrit! He, alone with the dead body of the Pharaoh! the opening of the gates! the call of the priests of Isis! the rushing of the mob! the shouts of joy transformed into cries of execration at the hideousness of the crime! Then think of it, Neit-akrit! think of the judgment day, when thine enemy, he who had thought to place himself upon thy throne, is led forth bound hand and foot with ropes, humble—an abject criminal—within the great hall of Men-ne-fer, there, on the very spot where thy slave Kesh-ta died, slain by his hand, so that she might ecsape the just and awful punishment of her crime, he—the son of Ra—will stand, and as the priests of Isis, one by one, with loud voice, will accuse him of the murder of the holy Pharaoh, one by one the lotus blossoms will drop out of the hands of the judges, and I, Ur-tasen, will pronounce judgment upon him. Then, after that—in the early morning …"

The bald old reprobate was evidently enjoying himself amazingly over the recapitulation of all he had prepared for Hugh, but here, suddenly, Neit-akrit interrupted him, and her voice sounded curiously hard and calm.

"And hast no fear, Ur-tasen, that after that, in the early morning, the very gods will arise and kindle the flames of heaven and hurl down the mountains and the rocks over Kamt, in order to bury her and her shame?"

"I do not understand thee," said the high priest, amazed. "Why speakest thou of shame?"

"Because already I see thy hands stained with his blood, and my very soul turneth in abhorrence from thee."

"Nay, Neit-akrit! his blood shall not stain the soil of Kamt; the vultures of the wilderness alone will see if it be red. Remember, thy kinsman, the holy Pharaoh, died because his mother felt that he was the stranger's enemy. Remember that he set himself upon the throne of Kamt, which by right should be thine. Remember …"

"I remember," she interrupted again, speaking slowly and dreamily, "that he came to us and visited Kamt. He said he came from the foot of the throne of Osiris: well! that is as it may be; surely he is so good to look upon that some of the gods must have lent him their radiance. He came, and the people of Kamt were joyful, and in all the land, since he came, there has been one long and uninterrupted festival. He came, and put a check upon thy cruelty, when thou wouldst have sent a half-crazy woman to die of slow torture in the valley of death. He spoke to thee, and to all the judges of Kamt, of justice and of mercy. He came and we all found him fair, and we rejoiced and loved him, and kissed the ground before his feet. He made us all happy, and we waited all these days, then repaid him with treachery."

"Neit-akrit! …" protested the high priest.

"Nay! do not speak! I must have my say. I will not hear it again, that thou dost these evil things for me. I did not see Maat-kha's hand raised against her son: when I came into the temple, alone and unattended save by Sen-tur, the Pharaoh was lying livid upon the ground, and his mother had begun to feel the first pangs of remorse. This I swear by Isis herself, and thou knowest, Ur-tasen, that I never lie. But I saw thee, standing exultant in the gloom, and somehow I knew that thy thoughts were evil. I did not denounce the vile murderess, even while she bent red-handed over the body of her son, but I waited and listened: I heard thy treachery, thy cowardly plan, and that is why, Ur-tasen, I speak of shame to thee!"

She spoke very quietly, in that same monotonous, sing-song way which is the inalienable characteristic of this most ancient language. Ur-tasen, I think, was completely taken aback by her unexpected defence of Hugh, and probably the first inkling that she might prove his enemy instead of that of the stranger penetrated into his scheming mind. I, from where I watched, felt a sudden wave of hope sweep over me, and of remorse for the wrong I had done the beautiful girl by suspecting her in my thoughts. I experienced an overwhelming desire to shout a triumphant shout at our enemy, for I felt that in Neit-akrit now I should have a powerful ally.

There had been a long pause after the Princess had finished speaking. I imagine that old brute was meditating as to what his next tactics should be. At last he said very calmly:

"Thou speakest with wondrous ardour, Neit-akrit. Hath the handsome presence of the stranger made thee forget that he has usurped thy crown? The gods commanded me to act as I did act, to hold my peace whilst Maat-kha and the holy Pharaoh fought out their last and deathly quarrel, and to speak their decrees to the murderess when tardy remorse had at last penetrated her soul."

"Nay, Ur-tasen!" she said, "blaspheme not, and take not the name of the gods of Kamt in so unholy a cause!"

"Who art thou, girl," thundered the high priest in his most commanding accents, "who darest to upbraid the high priest of the Creator?"

"I, Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt," she replied proudly, "I, who dare to stand here and defy thee. Defy thee to do thy worst…. Ay! thou comest here in the temple of Isis, and in the guise of thy high and solemn priesthood thou lendest thy hand, thy mind, both of which thou hast vowed to the service of the gods, to a deed so base and dark that, methinks, Osiris will not rise to-morrow beyond the hills of Kamt, lest the very atmosphere, through which penetrate his golden rays, be polluted by thy treachery. Nay! prate not to me again thy thrice-told tale that thou didst so monstrous a thing for me! I tell thee, man, that Neit-akrit's foot would never ascend the steps of a throne rendered slippery with blood, but that her first act of justice in this land, since Maat-kha its Queen has forfeited life and crown by her unholy deed, will be to denounce thee and thy accomplice before the people, and for ever crush that power which thou darest to measure against the beloved of the gods."

Thank God, and all his saints, the beautiful girl was proving true! It mattered not now whether I was free or a prisoner. Hugh, in any case, was out of danger, and my deliverance would follow in natural sequence; already I was sending up a prayer of heartfelt gratitude to Him who rules all our destinies, and indulging in less Christian-like sentiments with regard to the discomfited foe, when his loud and derisive laughter suddenly dispelled these first glimpses of hope.

"Ha! ha! ha! Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt! How strange and laughable are thy thoughts! Didst really think thou couldst pit thy woman's wit against that of him who has for thirty years guided the destinies of Kamt? Wouldst denounce him, dost thou say? To whom, fair Princess? and for what? Hast strength to wield the mighty clapper which calls the people of Tanis to the temple, or might to shriek that those same people, mad, blind and deaf with joy, should hear, and, hearing, come rushing to the sanctuary of Isis to find what? The dead body of a murdered Pharaoh? Where is it? … The holy Pharaoh is sick, and in the inner precincts of the temple, to which his footsteps led him, ailing and wandering … the priests of Isis are busy lavishing their skill and care upon him. There are twenty of these within my call now, who are ready to swear to the people of Kamt that, though sick, the Pharaoh lives…. And the people of Kamt, who left their rejoicings in answer to the wild shrieks of a woman, will return to their homes, their dancing and their music, with a puzzled and perhaps sad shake of the head, saying, 'Princess Neit-akrit, of the house of Usem-ra, the beautiful, is no longer pure; madness has caused her tongue to lie, at the very foot of the throne of Isis, desecrating the temple of the goddess.' And some, no doubt, with a shrug will add: 'Madness which cometh of love for the stranger, unhappy love for him who will have none of her, since he will wed Maat-kha, anon.'"

"Hold thy peace, Ur-tasen. I forbid thee to speak of these things."

"Nay! I will not hold my peace, Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt, thou who didst dare say that thou wouldst defy me! Didst think that it were so easy to circumvent the plans of Ur-tasen, the high priest of Ra? Didst think I should allow thy girlish sentiments to upset what I have thought and dreamed of ever since the stranger has usurped my power? Go and strike the metal gong, Neit-akrit, go and summon the people of Tanis. Derision and contempt await thee, and thou wilt not help the stranger withal."

Then, as she did not reply, but stood like an image of deep thought, with her golden head bent, he added:

"Hadst thou reflected, when thou didst venture to threaten and upbraid me, that thou wast within the precincts of a temple of Kamt, that in every nook, every corner of the gigantic building, the priests of Isis, and those of Ra, those of Horus and those of Osiris, are there lurking ready to answer the high priest's beck and call? Go up the steps, Neit-akrit, which lead to the ponderous gong, take the mighty clapper in both thy hands, and I tell thee that before metal touches metal thou and thy soul will have fled to a land whence thou canst not return to thwart the will of the high priest of Ra, and a memory of something young and beautiful, the remembrance of a lock of golden hair, will be all that will remain in the land of Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt."

I was glad that he had chosen to give this timely warning to the Princess, for I personally had been ready to shout to her, signifying my presence, and trusting to her wit and power to get me out of my difficult position. The mention of a host of shaven priests, hidden I knew not where, threw cold water upon my ardour, and I gnashed my teeth lest my British temper should get the better of me, and lest through the bars of my prison I should be impelled to hurl an ineffectual, if to me convincing, malediction against the unscrupulous and treacherous blackguard who was hemming us in all round.

"It was because I knew this, Ur-tasen, that I did not shout to the people of Kamt the moment I saw the murderous deed and realised the blackness of thy treachery," said Neit-akrit, quietly. "I did not see the Pharaoh die. I came into the temple alone at the very moment when his body, after a final convulsion, rolled rigid upon the floor. Then I caught sight of thee; the flickering light of the lamp illumined thy face, and I knew that thy thoughts were evil. Silently I waited and listened; heard of thy villainy and Maat-kha's weakness, and trusted to the gods to give power to my words, to turn thee from the dark path, before it be too late."

I thought that she looked round her as if realising for the first time the loneliness of her position. Certainly these last few words showed decided signs of coming weakness, and my awakening hopes began to give way to a creeping feeling of disappointment. She was, of course, entirely at the mercy of an unscrupulous and daring man, whose sacred office gave him every power and opportunity of suppressing, temporarily or permanently, every inconvenient enemy. Personally, I thought that his last threat had been a bluff; he would surely not have dared to put Princess Neit-akrit entirely out of the way at the same time as the Pharaoh. She was the idol of the male population of Kamt, and suspicion might perhaps fasten uncomfortably upon the high priest and his deacons. At the same time, undoubtedly, Neit-akrit's life was doubly precious if she really meant to help Hugh. The question which agitated my mind was, Would she care to thwart the high priest, at risk of some terrible retaliation on his part? Of course I did not understand her nature. How could I, a prosy Britisher, read the thoughts and feelings of so curious and ardent a temperament? Some time ago I had mistrusted her; then, a curious jealous feeling, of which I am heartily ashamed, made me turn against her when I saw how completely she had taken possession of Hugh's heart. Both these feelings had in their turn overclouded my brain as to her real character, and I really was no judge as to whether she hated Hugh as a usurper, or if she cared for him. She was impulsive and capricious, sensuous and ardent, that I knew. Perhaps it had been mere impulse which had dictated to her to admonish, threaten and warn Ur-tasen, and to save Hugh if she could; that impulse had perhaps died out again, and visions of the throne rendered vacant for her by the Pharaoh's, Maat-kha's and ultimately Hugh's death, chased nobler thoughts away from her mind. She did not speak for a long time, and Ur-tasen stood and watched her with arms folded across his chest, his whole attitude one of scorn and command.

"The hours slip by, Neit-akrit, on the winged feet of time," he said with pronounced sarcasm. "Hast forgotten that within the next two hours the emissary of Osiris, the son of Ra, he who hath made us all happy and rejoicing, will wed Maat-kha our Queen, the widow of Hor-tep-ra? Hast forgotten that at the marriage ceremony, amidst all that are there, among all those who are fair in the land, there must be one who is fairer than all? Thy women await thee, no doubt, ready to deck thee with the snow-white robes which befit thy beauty and thy innocence. Nay!" he added with sudden softness, "thou art beautiful above all the daughters of Kamt, the perfume of thy hair sends delicious intoxication even through my shrivelled old body. Thou art fair, so fair that I would fain see the double crown of Kamt upon thine ardent hair. To accomplish this I plotted and I planned. Thou art a child and dost not understand. Leave thy destiny, the destinies of Kamt, in the hands of him whose firm will can guide them. Believe me, if in return thou wilt but smile on him and tell him thou art satisfied, he will be content."

She did not reply, and he added pleadingly:

"I did it for thee, Neit-akrit! In order that I with mine own hands might place the crown of Kamt upon thy golden hair, in order that none should rule over thee, that thou shouldst be queen indeed, as thou art queen only by thy beauty and by thy smiles. Tell me, art satisfied?"

And very quietly she answered:

"I am satisfied!"

I could scarcely believe my ears. Disappointment was so overwhelming that I almost shrieked with the agony of it. Already she had thrown up the sponge. Ambition had quickly swept aside the noble impulse which had made her plead for Hugh. And again Ur-tasen was triumphant, and I, helpless, left once more, after a brief ray of hope, in an uncertainty which was now still harder to bear.

"Before thou goest, Neit-akrit," said Ur-tasen, "I would have thee swear to me that neither by look nor word wilt thou betray to any one the plans of the high priest of Ra."

But Neit-akrit was silent; and Ur-tasen added quietly:

"Nay! perhaps thou needest not swear. An oath can so easily be broken, in the spirit if not in the letter. I think I can trust thee best when I say that, shouldst thou before dawn anon think of warning the stranger of what awaits him in the nook beside the sacred cataract, and his footsteps should not in consequence lead him thither, then, of course, no obstacle will stand between the beloved of the gods and Maat-kha, his bride. The priests of Isis, after the first hour of dawn, will take the body of the holy Pharaoh back into his palace, and swear that he died of sickness in his bed. Then the happy union can be consummated, and thou, Neit-akrit, the defrauded Princess of Kamt, canst in thy unselfish joy watch the happiness of Maat-kha, the murderess, in the arms of her beloved, the son of Ra, loved of all the gods: and I can swear to thee that he shall not know that the wife of his bosom is the murderess of her first-born until she hath borne him a son, the heir to all her vices. Farewell, Neit-akrit, future queen of Kamt!"

Oh! he was a cunning brute, was old Ur-tasen: again he had put his finger upon the most vulnerable spot in any female armour. Death to the loved one or his happiness in another woman's arms: the great problem which has torn passionate women's hearts in every country and beneath every clime, since the world began. Oh! that I could have read in Neit-akrit's heart and known what she would do! How far and in what way did she care for Hugh? The alternatives seemed to me equally hopeless. If she had no love for him then, no doubt, ambition would seal her lips: she would remember the throne of Kamt, the glorious double crown, the homage of the people, and in the pomp and glitter forget the awful doom which alone could drive the usurping stranger from her path. But if she loved him, then what …? then the great and subtle puzzle of the eternally feminine, the mysterious workings of a woman's heart, of a woman who, in spite of the high culture, the civilisation, the artistic refinement of this land, was pre-eminently exotic, passionate, semi-barbarous in her love and her hate. Nay! I knew not. How could I guess how she would act? Can man read the uncut pages of that romance of which a woman only shows him the title leaf?

But, in the meanwhile, the dangers round my friend seemed to close in tightly. Ur-tasen with subtle cunning had worked upon the loves, the jealousies of the two women who alone could save him, while I was still a caged prisoner, and the hours were swiftly speeding on.

Neit-akrit had disappeared, and Ur-tasen alone remained, quietly standing before the altar of the goddess, with arms outstretched, murmuring one of his pagan prayers, but as I still continued my weary watch, it seemed to me that newly awakened though still hidden life began to pervade the great and mystic temple. Within the main aisle the hanging lamps were lighted one after the other by—to me—unseen hands, and in the distance fresh young voices were rehearsing a bridal chant. Behind me in the outer precincts I could hear the muffled sounds of shuffling footsteps passing swiftly to and fro, and although from where I was I could see nothing save the brilliantly lighted and lonely sanctuary, yet I felt that around me there was bustle and animation: the preparations for the coming festivity.

I was carefully maturing my plans. Determined to keep well within the shadow of my prison, I would wait quietly for the best moment in which to attract Hugh's attention. I was in no sense of the word nervous or agitated; I even began to feel strangely drowsy and had much difficulty in accomplishing my numerous yawns noiselessly. The atmosphere became insufferably hot and heavy; clouds of smoke from the incense and burning herbs were continually wafted in through the window of my prison, and this no doubt was beginning to make me stupid and sleepy.

Not knowing how time was going on, I had squatted into the angle of the wall, with my knees drawn up to my chin, in an irresistible desire for sleep.

Suddenly I heard heavy footsteps outside, slow and halting; trying to shake off my drowsiness, I raised my head and listened. Through the marble tracery of the gateway I could see the vague forms of a group of men, who seemed to be carrying something heavy between them. A great cloud of some peculiarly scented burning herb came in a great wave right through the window and seemed literally to strike me in the face, blinding me and making me gasp for breath. Drowsiness became intolerable, and yet when I sleepily reopened my eyes I saw the gigantic marble gateway slowly moving on its hinges…. This sight roused me from my lethargy for the moment…. My senses fully alive, I watched and waited…. It was pitch dark in the farther end of my cell, but I heard the footsteps within three feet of me, still shuffling and halting…. Through the open gateway the shadows appeared less dense: noiselessly on my hands and knees, keeping my shoulder close to the wall, I crawled towards the opening.

The men had put their heavy burden on the floor: they did not speak, hardly did I hear them breathing. My fear was lest they should detect me before I had reached the gate, but they seemed not to have noticed me, and now, one by one, they turned and filed out. I was close to the opening, leaning against the wall, ready to crawl out in the last man's wake…. From the inside of my prison the same unknown scent of some highly aromatic herb was wafted in great clouds towards my nostrils … the fumes were overpowering, and I was tired and sleepy from my long, anxious wait.… The men had all slipped noiselessly through the opening … the cloak of the last one had caught in a projecting bit of carving … he stooped quietly to disentangle it … I could see his outline very clearly against the lighted corridor beyond…. My lids fell heavily over my eyes … I tried to shake off my torpor, for the last effort for freedom … but I was too sleepy.… I could not move. A great whiff of that enervating, burning herb made me long for rest and sleep! … I was too tired … I would slip out by-and-by…. Now I must have sleep.

The man with the cloak had slipped out … I think the gate swung to, and I crouched once more with my chin between my knees…. I wondered what the herb was…. I must find out … it would do instead of ether in cases of minor operations … it was sweet and pleasant, but overpowering.

From the sanctuary a sudden brilliant ray of light struck for an instant through the aperture … some one must have gone past carrying a lamp or torch. It lit up the centre of my prison, and forced me to open my eyes for a second…. During that second I saw that, on the floor, sharing my captivity with me, was the body of the murdered Pharaoh….

Then I remember nothing more….