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CHAPTER XXVI
THE MARRIAGE

"And thou, oh, stranger, who dost hail from the foot of the throne of Osiris, who art the son of Ra, the emissary of Horus, the beloved of all the gods, tell Isis, the mysterious goddess, why thou art here."

"I am here to crave of Isis the pure, Isis the beloved, Isis the most holy, that she deign to pour the fruits of her blessing upon me, for I would take this woman to be my wife."

It was Hugh's voice which spoke slowly and solemnly, and which was the first sound that penetrated to my brain, still wandering in the realms of cloud-land.

Through the window of my prison an intense flood of light filtered brilliantly, illuminating the granite floor and walls. A strong scent of incense and myrrh had driven away the stupefying fumes of that burning herb which had lulled me to sleep. I tried to collect my scattered senses, but a terrible pain in my head and eyes still kept me half-stupefied. And yet I heard Hugh's voice speaking strange and momentous words, and a dull instinct whispered to me that I must get to him, somehow, for a reason, of which I was not as yet fully conscious. A raging thirst had made my tongue swell and parched my throat: the events of the last few hours danced before my clouded brain like some weird phantasmagoria.

The Pharaoh … dead! murdered! his body lying close to me, when last I had opened my eyes, but now, carried away, while I had been asleep … Maat-kha! … the murderess! … Hugh's promised bride! Ur-tasen, the evil plotter! … who had done … I knew not what … something that would wreck Hugh's life as well as his honour… Neit-akrit! … who might be a friend, and yet was a foe! … and I … a helpless prisoner, stupid, senseless, half-drowsy still, after a drugged and heavy sleep!

"And thou, Maat-kha, who art daughter of Uah-ab-ra, the son of Ach-mes, the son of Ne-ku, tell Isis, the mysterious goddess, why thou art here."

I did not know that voice, some priest probably … no concern of mine … I could perhaps get another half-hour's sleep … I was still so tired.

"I came here to crave of Isis the pure, Isis the beloved, Isis the most holy, that she deign to pour upon me the fruits of her blessing, for I would swear fealty to this man, and be his wife."

That was Queen Maat-kha's voice, and just now I had heard that of Hugh … the pain in my head was intolerable … my limbs felt weak and stiff: there was the whole length of my prison between me and the aperture, through which probably I should be able to see those who had spoken. I began to drag myself along, but I was only half awake, my limbs only just managed to bear me along, and I did not know if I should ever reach that aperture.

"Art awake, oh, Isis, who art daughter of Ra?

"Art awake, oh, Isis, who art sister and bride of Osiris?

"Art awake, oh, Isis, who art mother of Horus?

"Oh, Isis, give life to this man and to this woman, who have sought the sanctity of thy temple!

"The gods above do rejoice! the glorious company is full of joy, giving praise to thee, oh, Isis, who art pure!

"Isis who art beloved!

"Isis who art most holy!"

I had at last, after terrible difficulties, succeeded in reaching the window; with infinite pain I struggled to my feet, but I could not stand: my head was heavy and my knees shook under me. Twice I fell down, but at the third struggle my hands convulsively fastened on the marble ledge, and steadying myself as best I could, I looked out, dazed, before me.

The sanctuary and the temple beyond it were one dazzling mass of lighted lamps and torches. The gossamer curtain had been drawn aside, and I could see the interminable vista of snow-white columns, on which the silver inlay glistened with a thousand sparks. Between the pillars, a sea of dark heads, adorned with gaily-coloured caps and kerchiefs, amongst which, occasionally, I caught sight of the glitter of a golden urseus, or elaborately jewelled belt…. I could distinguish no details: my eyes were blurred, my brain overclouded. I remember that gorgeous picture only as one remembers a dream.

Immediately before me Isis towered, wrapped in her sacred mantle, which hand of man has never dared to touch. On her head a gigantic pair of snow-white horns, between which glittered the silver disc of a huge full moon. Immediately at her feet a group of priests, with shaven crowns and long flowing robes of white, stood in a semi-circle, in the middle of which the high-priest of the goddess stood with arms outstretched, reciting the invocations.

Beneath the many hanging lamps, wherein burned lights of different colours, the other priests of the gods of Kamt were massed in imposing groups: the priests of Ra with yellow robes and leopard skins round their bodies: those of Phtah, with monstrous scarabæus of iridescent blue and green enamel on the top of their heads: those of Thot, with masks of apes entirely covering their faces, and those of Hor, with masks of sparrow-hawks, while the jackal's head hid the features of the priests of Anubis. Immediately to the right of the officiating high priests stood Ur-tasen, the high priest of Ra.

"Isis is strong!

"Isis is great!

"Isis is living and mighty!"

The various attributes of the goddess reached my dull ears only as the sound of muffled drums.

At the foot of the sanctuary steps, against a background of men and women in gorgeous raiments, and beneath a canopy of white lilies, stood Hugh Tankerville and his promised wife. His face was even paler than when I had seen it last: his eyes gleamed darkly and with an unnatural fire. He held his arms tightly crossed over his chest, and in his whole attitude there was the expression of an indomitable will triumphing over an overwhelming passion.

I saw him, as I had seen the sanctuary, the goddess, the crowds of people, only as one sees a vivid dream. It seemed to me as if he were not really there, but that slowly, very slowly, I was waking from that sleep which had held me enthralled for months, and that when I was fully awake I should look round me, and see myself sitting in the dear old Museum, at The Chestnuts, with Mr. Tankerville sitting beside me, telling me of beautiful, mysterious, legendary Neit-akrit.

I tried to speak to Hugh, for he was not far from me, but my tongue seemed rooted to my palate, and, as in a dream, not a sound escaped my throat. Clouds of incense rose all around, and when the high priest had ceased to laud the magnificence of his goddess, the priestesses, clad all in white, with their huge, disfiguring wigs over their heads, began a sweet and monotonous chant, accompanying themselves upon their crescent-shaped harps, and beating upon the sistrum and the drum.

Beside Hugh, underneath that same canopy of lilies, and with her hand holding his, was Queen Maat-kha. She had discarded her gorgeous funereal draperies, and was standing clad all in white, her regal crown over her low, square brow, her great black tresses descending each side of her pale face, almost to her knees, and intertwined with ropes of pearls. And I, in my dream, thought that I could see, clinging to her finger tips, the last drops of her murdered son's blood.

Again I tried to scream, but my throat seemed paralysed. Gradually memory, as a vague, still indistinct shadow, began to creep back into my mind. Hugh was before me clad in sumptuous robes, his dark head uncovered, his tall figure erect, ready to plight his troth, to pledge that word, which he worshipped as a divinity, to the vile murderess by his side. Twice a murderess, since having slain her son she would ruthlessly sacrifice her lover to save herself from the tortures of jealousy. Yes, I did remember! It was imperative that I should warn Hugh of some terrible danger which the woman beside him and the high priest of Ra had placed across his path.

"Oh, thou who art beloved of the gods, and thou who art Queen of Kamt, behold! Isis the goddess is awakened!

"Ra, all-creating, all-powerful and mighty, doth descend to earth!

"Phtah, the mysterious, and Osiris, the bounty-giver, do hover invisibly over your heads!

"But Hapi, who proceedeth from Ra, who, in his divine person, is the living representative of Isis, of Osiris, and of Phtah, Hapi himself will pass before your eyes!

"With the finger of your right hand ye may touch the sacred star upon his brow!

"With both your eyes ye may gaze upon him!

"But, ye all, children of Kamt! veil ye your countenance! the god will pass amongst you, and the sight of him gives blindness to those who are not wholly pure!"

A terrific cloud of incense rose from every corner of the edifice. Hugh and the Queen mounted two of the steps which led up to the sanctuary, and behind them the silver tissue of the veil fell together with a prolonged and softly sighing sound. Immediately underneath the window where I was a bowl full of incense must have been burning, for a cloud rose like a curtain between me and the sanctuary. Through it I could see Hugh, not twenty yards away from me, and I tried to scream … and my throat was absolutely paralysed.

Now, there was great tramping of feet, and opposite to me a brilliant cortège came slowly towards the bridal pair. Adorned with bunches of gardenias and tuberoses, but with heavy chains round his feet and head, a gigantic ox was being dragged along. He was black, save for a white spot upon his forehead, and a patch upon his back: his horns were silvered, and he was led by ten priests of Isis, who held him by heavy silver chains. The great beast, snorting and puffing and evidently much annoyed at having been dragged from his stable, allowed himself to be taken fairly peacefully along, until he was brought to a standstill in the middle of the sanctuary, immediately at the foot of the throne of Isis. All the priests had prostrated themselves face downwards on the ground. Hugh and Maat-kha alone remained standing. At a sign from the high priest they both placed their hand upon the forehead of the beast, while the priestesses intoned a triumphal march. Then, as stolidly as he had come, the god Hapi retired from the gaze of his worshippers.

"Oh thou, the son of Ra! the emissary of Osiris! the beloved of the gods! art ready to take the oath which will bind thee, thy body and thy soul, the breath within thy body and the blood beneath thy flesh, to the woman who is to be thy wife?"

And I, in this strange and vivid dream, which was so real, and which I could not grasp, heard Hugh's voice clear and distinct:

"I am ready."

And I, his friend, his chum, his schoolfellow, I, Mark Emmett, who would have given at any time my life for his, could not succeed in giving one warning shout to stop this monstrous deed.

The poison—whatever it was—was still in my veins … my limbs felt like lead … I could not keep my head erect. . . . I could see all, hear every word, and smell the incense … but I could not utter a sound.

"Oh! son of Ra, beloved of the gods, at dawn when anon, Isis, the pure, sinks fainting into the arms of Osiris, her beloved and glorious spouse, thou wilt stand beside the sacred cataract, where since five times a thousand years the kings of Kamt have given the first kiss to their bride!

"Oh then! oh, son of Ra, wilt swear to give thy bride that kiss and to take her for wife?"

"I swear!" said Hugh, earnestly.

"Oh, son of Ra, beloved of the gods, having taken unto thee a wife, wilt swear to be true to her with thy soul and with thy body?"

"I swear!"

"Oh, son of Ra, beloved of the gods, dost swear before all men that thou wilt be true to her, whom thou wilt take to thyself as wife?"

"I swear!"

"Wilt swear it on the names of the gods of Kamt, of Ra, of Osiris and of Horus? of Anubis and Set? Wilt swear it upon thy manhood and upon thy honour?"

"I swear it!"

Hugh Tankerville, calm and impassive, had pledged his honour to be true to her who even now was plotting his death and his shame.

I seemed to remember all now as in a flash. The sight of Ur-tasen's face as he watched the high priest of Isis administering this oath to my friend, for the space of a second, illumined a corner of my dulled intellect. I saw it all with the vividness of reality: the murdered Pharaoh lying beside the cataract; Hugh wandering unsuspectingly thither, with the shaven priests of Isis creeping on his trail, like jackals after their prey: then the mob yelling and cursing: Hugh, helpless in the face of the terrible accusations; the hall of justice: the doom from which probably even his own personality could not save him: and all the while I tried to shriek. I opened my parched lips, and but a few dull, guttural sounds escaped my throat, and Hugh could not hear. He was there within a few yards of me, pledging his manhood, his honour, to a pagan murderess, and I could do nothing, for I was in a dream, which gripped my throat and numbed my limbs. Once it seemed to me as if Hugh held up his head suddenly, while a look of surprise came into his eyes: encouraged, I tried again; my head fell back as if weighted with lead, the lids closed over my aching eyes, the vision of the snow-white temple, the brilliant crowd, the gorgeous and motley group of priests became more and more dim. With a feeble effort, I tried to raise my hand, and beat childishly, impotently, against the immovable and cold stone walls of my prison; but even that effort proved too great: my grip on the marble relaxed, my knees absolutely gave way under me, and stupefied, drowsy, sleepy still under the potency of the mysterious drug, I sank again into heavy, dreamless sleep….