The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 27
The cloud was being slowly lifted from round my brain: the dream was gradually being dispelled; reality—terrible, appalling—forced itself before my enfeebled mind. My head still felt like lead, my eyes burned like pieces of charcoal in their sockets, my limbs still were paralysed and stiff—but my brain was clear, and I remembered.
Through the window of my prison a very faint glimmer only was creeping in from the sanctuary, throwing a dim band of light upon the floor. In the air there hovered the heavy odour of burnt incense and myrrh, but everything around was silent and at peace.
Had it all been a dream, or had the brilliant marriage ceremony taken place? Had I seen Hugh standing before the altar of the goddess swearing to wed the murderess of her son?
Slowly I raised myself upon my knees, then another mighty effort brought me to my feet, but I could not stand alone, I had to lean against the wall; an intolerable feeling of nausea overcame me, and I feared that I would again lose consciousness. At last I managed to look through the window. In strange contrast to the last picture which I had seen, the snow-white temple of Isis now was dark and deserted. The guests had gone, as had the priests with their grotesque masks, the priestesses with their harps and lutes—the canopy of lilies hung from above, but from beneath it bride and bridegroom had disappeared. The sacred edifice with its interminable vista of white and silver columns stretched out before me in all its imposing and majestic vastness. Suddenly it seemed to me that in the gloom my tired, aching eyes perceived a tall and solitary figure leaning against one of the pillars not very far from me. The curtain had been drawn aside to enable the lonely watcher to see the great goddess in her sanctuary, during his long and lonely vigil. My eyes ached and burned so I could scarcely see, and was forced to close them from sheer pain, but tired as they were they had not failed even in the gloom to recognise in the lonely watcher Hugh Tankerville, my friend.
I could not see his features, for the temple itself was not lighted up; only through the distant gateway beyond, the rays of the moon sinking towards the west threw weird patches of blue light upon the pillars and the floor. I tried to call to him, but the same terrible grip seemed still to hold my throat; what poison was it, I wonder, with which the treacherous high-priest had succeeded in silencing my warning voice? The memory of the past few hours became intolerable torture, the feeling of utter helplessness, coupled with the comparative clearness of my brain, was harder to bear than the physical ailments which still paralysed my throat and limbs. Longingly I looked at Hugh; it seemed to me as if some subtle magnetism in my gaze must ultimately succeed in drawing his. O God! was I then presently destined to see him walk forth from this accursed temple right into the hideous trap which had been set for him? I tried to use what little power I had to make as much noise as I could, vaguely hoping that Hugh would hear: I scratched the marble wall with my nails, I beat it with the palm of my hand, but the temple was very vast, my efforts weak, and Hugh did not hear. Then I tried to stretch out my arm and perhaps wave my handkerchief through the narrow window: I tried to fumble for it, but the effort was too great; my arms were almost inert, and I literally could not stretch them out far enough. Dizzy with the feeble attempt, I leaned back against the wall tired out.
Yet the danger grew every moment more terrible. If I remained too feeble to call out, if I could not succeed in attracting Hugh's attention, if I did not in fact warn him of the damnable plot that had been hatched against him, he would presently go forth from the temple to the sacred grove of Isis, thinking to meet his bride; there he would find himself alone with the dead body of the Pharaoh, placed there by Ur-tasen's commands.
I remembered all the details of that awful, treacherous plan quite clearly: nay, more, I saw the whole thing realised before my mind's eye, as clearly as if I were gazing on a picture. I could see the high priest of Ra creeping in the wake of Hugh, I heard his hypocritical voice loudly denouncing the man I loved best on earth, and accusing him of the foul murder … and after that what would happen? … I dared not think. Would the crowd who had worshipped Hugh turn worship into execration? Would they believe that the son of Ra, he who was beloved of the gods, was nothing but a vile criminal who would strike a feeble enemy in the dark?
Who knows? A crowd is as wayward as a child, as fickle as the most capricious flirt…. And I could not warn Hugh, for I was a prisoner, and the hour of dawn was nigh.
And Neit-akrit, the beautiful Princess? … Vainly I tried to cling to that last ray of hope. Surely a girl, so young, so beautiful, could not allow such vile treachery to be committed against the man whom she loved. Yes, she loved him, I knew that, I felt it: when she spoke of him to Ur-tasen her voice almost broke in a sob. Oh! for the knowledge of that mysterious thing called a woman's heart! Loving him, what would she do? Give him a word of warning ere it was too late, hereby sending him into the arms of Maat-kha, his wife, or let him go to disgrace and death sooner than see him happy with another?
These thoughts chased one another in my poor aching head, until the physical pain of it all became more than I could bear. I closed my eyes; the sight of that great temple, of Hugh standing there, alone and unsuspecting, was positive torture to me.
When I looked again Hugh was still there, leaning against the pillar, but it suddenly seemed to me as if something was moving close to him. Gradually the moving form took a more definite shape, and in the shadow my burning eyes had recognised a quaint and dainty outline, and an aureole of golden hair. It was she! silent, mysterious, walking towards him with that undulating grace which was peculiarly her own. Absorbed in thought, he evidently had not heard the sound of her tiny bare feet upon the smooth floor. She was wrapped in a white kalasiris, without jewels or ornaments of any kind, and Sen-tur was not by her side.
She came quite close to him, and then he raised his head and saw her. She looked exquisitely beautiful, graceful and tall as the white lilies of Kamt; she placed a warning finger to her mouth, but he took the tiny hand in both his own, and murmured, as if in a dream:
"Hush!" she warned, "the very air is filled with potent dangers, and thine enemies lurk hidden all around."
"But thou art here," he said. "Do not speak! stand still for a moment, for I would look at thee! How beautiful thou art! and how thy presence doth fill the temple of Isis with a radiance which is almost divine!"
Obedient to his wish, she stood quite still, her dainty form against the ghost-like whiteness of the marble pillars, on which the rapidly sinking moon threw its last brilliant rays. Something in his look, however, must have made her move, for she turned away.
"Dost wonder why I am here?" she asked.
"No! I hardly dare believe that thou art real, that thou art not an enchanting dream, with which Isis thought to soothe my aching senses. Wilt speak to me again?"
"I would tell thee why I came," she said.
"Nay! not that," he pleaded. "What care I, so long as thou art here, and I can look at thee?"
"Nay! but thou must know," she said, with a half-merry, half-nervous little laugh. "Hast heard, oh, son of Ra, that in Kamt we who are maidens deem it the luckiest thing on earth to pluck the flowers from out the canopy which sheltered the heads of the bride and bridegroom, if they come of royal blood? The posy thus made brings to the owner lasting happiness. And so, to-night, while Tanis is mad with joy, I crept out of my palace, and came to the temple of Isis, to twine the nosegay, and having twined it, give it thee."
I gazed and wondered; little did I understand what the strange girl intended when she came alone to see Hugh in his solitude. A wild hope was in my heart that she had come to warn, and an earnest prayer that he might listen. He did not speak. I fancy he would not trust himself to say much, but when she so daintily expressed her desire for his happiness, he raised both her small hands to his lips. She withdrew them quickly, and said:
"Nay! we have no time to lose, for the posy must be large. There are many flowers needed to make the bunch of happiness complete. Thou must help me to pick them, for some of them are too high for me to reach. But thou art tall! See …" she said, pointing eagerly up to the great floral canopy, whence masses of blossoms hung in fragrant shower, "that perfect lily up there, would it not make a lovely centre for the bunch? Thou art so tall," she repeated with a pretty gesture of entreaty, "wilt reach it down for me?"
And Hugh obediently stretched his long limbs and with much difficulty succeeded in disentangling the coveted lily.
"Is it not beautiful?" she said admiringly, "so chaste! but oh! so cold. Dost know, oh, beloved of the gods, what the white lily of Kamt means?"
He shook his head.
"All flowers have a meaning, of course, and the lily means duty," she said with a sigh, "that is why it seems so cold, even cruel, in its waxy, spotless whiteness, but it must form the centre of the bunch, for I think thou dost love duty dearly, too dearly methinks, and perhaps wouldst not be happy without it. But," she added more gaily, "we will soften her waxy coldness: dost see that graceful bunch of white acacia? that means homely happiness. It would look well in graceful clusters round the stern centre of duty."
He was listening to her merry talk, I fancied, with a slightly puzzled air sometimes. Still less than I could he guess why she had come; but her presence made him happy for the moment, and it was quite gaily that he said: "But I cannot reach the homely happiness."
"Oh, what a pity!" she said earnestly. "Duty will look so ugly without home to soften it."
She paused perplexed, then added with an odd look at Hugh:
"Canst jump, oh, beloved of the gods?"
He laughed gaily, merrily, as I had heard him laugh of old.
"Can I?" he asserted triumphantly, and with gesture and action hardly befitting the solemn majesty of the temple of Isis, Hugh made a sudden grab for the drooping acacia, and brought down a perfect shower of white petals, as the floral canopy trembled with the shock.
"Homely happiness is hard to get," he said with a laugh, "but it well repays the effort; the scent of the acacia is very sweet."
She was laughingly shaking her golden tresses, to which the white petals persistently clung.
"It was hard," she said, "but see! how pretty it looks; now, I wonder, what would look well beside it."
"These orange blossoms are pretty."
"Yes! … they are pretty…. Wouldst like a cluster? … In Kamt we call them wedded bliss…. Dost want it in the posy?" she asked with a quaint anxious tone in her voice.
"No!" he said abruptly.
The moon must have sunk down very low behind the distant hills of Kamt, and the temple of Isis was dark, only the fitful glow of one of the sanctuary lamps lit up the dainty scene before me. Hugh, I could see, still had himself in absolute control. How long that would last I could not say. I considered that he owed no allegiance to the woman who had planned his murder; the sacrilegious marriage had not been completed, and I, feeble, half-paralysed as I was, had yet the strength to pray that beautiful Neit-akrit would make my friend forget the fateful hour of dawn.
There had been long silence between them while she, a trifle nervously, was fumbling with the flowers, and he was looking tenderly, longingly, at her.
"Ah, I know!" she said at last, "I must give thee white roses; they will look lovely beside the homely happiness. See! a beautiful cluster hangs just above thy head. Thou canst reach it quite easily and needst but to stretch out thy hand."
"A lovely cluster indeed, and the scent is delightfully sweet. Wilt tell me what white roses mean in Kamt?"
He was handing the drooping cluster of roses to her, and she stretched out her small hand for it; the other was already loaded with flowers.
"In Kamt white roses mean love," she whispered, as she took the flowers from him.
I could see that his fingers fastened upon hers, that his whole body trembled as if with a mighty effort. It was a cruel position for any man deeply in love with a very beautiful woman, to be alone with her in this vast and silent temple, with myriads of flowers round him, making the air fragrant and heavy. She did not try to disengage her hand, but stood a little while, with her great eyes meeting his, boldly and fearlessly.
It was only when, with sudden impulse, he tried to draw her closer to him, that she gently withdrew her hands and said lightly:
"Now we must have white rosemary. Wilt thou not gather it for me?" she added, as Hugh, inert and dazed, was looking at her with that weary longing, that infinite tenderness, which always made my heart ache for his pain. "Dost know that white rosemary spells remembrance?"
"Rosemary for remembrance!" he repeated, as quietly he turned and with loving care picked the humble blossom from out the crowd of its more gorgeous sisters. He looked at it, and as the light flickered, I could see two great tears glistening in his eyes. "Rosemary for remembrance!"—the very words spoke of England and of home, and brought to his weary heart probably, more strongly than anything else could do, the thought of what he had lost.
"Rosemary for remembrance!"—we, in England, thousands of miles away, speak of the little plant as meaning remembrance; before me, in one moment, with those words, the gorgeousness of mystic Kamt had disappeared, and I saw its loveliest daughter filling the old Chestnuts with the radiance of her beauty, the melody of her voice. She became the incarnation of womanhood, of her who alone knows how to combine the tender friend, the wife, the mistress. There was dead silence in the temple. Neit-akrit had taken the bunch of rosemary and was fastening it to her posy, while Hugh watched her silently.
Then, suddenly, from the farther end of the sacred edifice, there where the great gateway faced directly towards the east, it seemed to me that a dull yet rosy light began to creep gently through.
"Neit-akrit," said Hugh, after a long while, "if thou didst wish to give me that posy as an emblem of happiness, it was wrong to add remembrance to it."
"Because since I have smelt that sprig of rosemary my memory has come back to me. Remembrance, like duty, is at times cold and cruel, and her figure now stands beside that gate and points towards the east."
"Nay, not yet!" she pleaded; "'tis but the lights of the city of Tanis gone crazy with joy."
"Remembrance whispers, Neit-akrit, that I have plighted my troth, and that if I stay beside thee and chase remembrance away, I break the pledge which I gave to another."
"Nay! the heralds of dawn have not yet sounded the trumpets. Osiris is still well hidden behind the hills, and my nosegay is not ready. I have no tuberose, which means passion, and no white pansy, which means forgetfulness."
"It is not in thy power, Neit-akrit, to put white pansy into thy bunch, and I …"
"I would not put them there if I could."
"Then, thou hast no wish to forget?"
"Rosemary, which is for remembrance, will be my most cherished flower. Give me that one, Neit-akrit, out of the bunch … touch it once with thy lips and then let the poor fool go his way."
Ill, paralysed, numbed as I was, all my hopes tended towards the beautiful girl who alone could keep Hugh away from the terrible danger. I longed to give her courage to tell Hugh all, yet feared every moment that she would, and that he would not believe, that his loyalty to his bride should not allow him to listen to terrible accusations framed against her by another woman. The moments were precious; already through the distant gate the light of dawn grew stronger and more clear.
"Nay! what is the use?" she said, as she drew a step back from him; "thou dost seem to remember all that thou dost wish—thy duty, thy word; the white rosemary should not come from me."
"Sweet Neit-akrit, thou art a child," he said with almost rough earnestness. "Thou dost not understand—how couldst thou? I am a senseless fool…. Give me thy hands to kiss … place them both upon my mouth … for I dare not take them in mine … lest their touch should indeed make me forget …"
Quietly she pulled from out the canopy of flowers a bunch of white pansies, and stretching out both her hands up to him she murmured:
"White pansies for forgetfulness!"
He had fallen on his knees, and his arms encircled her dainty figure. She turned towards the statue of the goddess as if to beg of the cold, immovable image inspiration and perhaps strength. Ay! she needed all her woman's wits; there were a hundred unseen enemies to fight, and one whom she feared more than any—the other woman to whom he had plighted his troth. I suppose she found it hard to say to him, "Beware, that woman has murdered her son; she even now has planned thy ruin." Supposing his loyalty forbade him to listen! Her accusations to him might sound like the words of a woman mad with jealousy … and she thought that she could not prove them; she did not know I, too, had seen and heard, that I was here, close by, a caged and useless log, a dumb beast, while twenty priests—a hundred, if need be—were ready to swear that she lied.
And I was helpless—a caged, helpless, dumb creature—and the minutes were speeding so fast.
Suddenly from afar the sacred heralds of Osiris rang out upon their golden trumpets the announcement of the sun-god's approach.
In a moment Hugh had sprung to his feet, but Neit-akrit now would not let him go; she clung to his garments, dragged at his cloak.
"Thou must not go," she entreated. "The temple is dark and lonely—I am frightened; for pity's sake do not leave me!"
"Nay, sweet! thou art safe enough here … for the love of heaven take thy dear hands from off my cloak!"
"Thou wilt not leave me?"
"I must go, sweet. Remember I have sworn! wouldst make a coward of me? … Nay! thou hast all but succeeded … be satisfied and let me go!"
She took her hands from off his cloak, but came up close to him and whispered:
"See! I do not hold thee, and yet thou wilt not go … thou art free! and yet thou wilt stay … thou hast smelt the perfume of the white pansy, and thou wilt forget all … save that thou dost love me…."
"Nay! thou dost entreat in vain…. Sweet, I would not have thee go! What is duty? what is the meaning of oath or pledge? Wouldst know why I came to-night? … I came because I knew that danger doth await thee outside this sacred temple.… I came because I knew that thou dost love me … and I trusted that that love would make thee forget the dawn, thy duty, thy pledged word, forget all, in order to remain beside Neit-akrit."
"Forget? Ay! I have forgotten but too long already. Neit-akrit, thou speakest of danger; to me there is but one, and that is that I might forget all—my manhood, my honour, my pledge, my word, might forget thy innocence, and remember only that thou art fair."
"But that is all I would have thee remember," she whispered so softly that her voice hardly sounded above the murmur of the flower, which some stray current of air began gently to fan. "If I am fair it is because Isis hath made me so in order that thou shouldst love me! I am young, and I have waited for thee all these years because, although I knew it not, I wished that my beauty should gladden thine eyes. Nay! at first I longed for thy love out of sheer pride and revenge. Dost remember the iridescent scarabæus, which should have guarded thee from the peril of giving thy love to Neit-akrit? Sweet! 'twas I stole the scarabæus. I would not have thee turn coldly from me; thou hadst taken from me my crown and my throne; I wished to steal thy heart from thee, and then to break it in wanton cruelty, and I threw the charmed scarabæus into the lake…. Then thou didst speak to me … I looked into thine eyes … I knew thy soul was mine … but … I guessed even then, my sweet, that Isis had made me doubly fair, had placed radiance over my body and my soul, for that day I learnt … that I loved thee!"
"Neit-akrit, for pity's sake," he pleaded.
But her arms were round his neck, her sweet face quite close to his, her eyes looked ardently into his own.
"I love thee!" she whispered.
"Wouldst make me mad, Neit-akrit?"
"I love thee!"
And far, very far away, the sacred heralds of Osiris rang out upon their golden trumpets the announcement that the sun-god was emerging behind the hills of Kamt, which hid the valley of death.
"I love thee, oh thou who art beloved of all the gods!"
Hugh had clasped her in his arms, and as I closed my burning eyes and fell back fainting in my prison, I knew that he was safe, that Neit-akrit had succeeded in making him forget.