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CHAPTER XXVIII
THE THREAT

Shuffling footsteps, muffled whispers and hard breathing were the first sounds which greeted my dulled senses when once again I woke from one of those strange and fitful sleeps in which the mysterious poison held me periodically enthralled.

Through the marble tracery brilliant daylight came peeping in, making the sanctuary lamps appear pale and ghost-like. My head felt less heavy, and my eyes were less painful. It seemed to me that the shuffling steps drew nearer, and as they approached the whispers ceased. I was still a prisoner, but my brain was fully alert, and soon I perceived that two forms, swathed in white, had paused a moment beside the gateway.

I made an earnest appeal to all my wits, and, holding my breath, crouching against the wall, I waited. Soon a refreshing current of outer air told me that the gateway had been opened, that if I kept my wits about me, my one chance of deliverance had come.

Like the flash of a sudden instinct, the thought came to me that perhaps some one was coming to see whether the deadly narcotic had thoroughly accomplished its work; or perhaps, after all, Hugh had fallen into the awful trap, and it mattered nothing if I were prisoner or free. With my mind filled with terrible doubts and presentiments, I yet had the strength to remain perfectly still: I guessed what I ought to look like, if indeed I were still under the influence of the drug, and crouching, with my head buried between my knees, I waited.

The shuffling footsteps came quite close to me, a cold bony hand forced my head back, then allowed it to fall again; a muffled voice murmured:

"Some more?"

"Ay! perhaps, for safety," replied another.

This was the crucial moment. Weak as I was, another whiff of the poison would perhaps render me helpless for ever. I heard a click like the opening of a metal box, which then was placed on the floor close beside me. I had been a good diver and swimmer once. I could hold my breath for a good sixty seconds, and already the shuffling footsteps were hastily retreating from the poisoned atmosphere. I crawled upon the floor, flat as a serpent; I had need of my breath now—and the stupefying odour reached my nostrils in one terrible whiff. The white-robed figures were in the doorway: my deadly peril gave me one last flicker of strength: with a sudden movement I stretched out my hands, and caught hold of one of the sandalled feet before me: the priest tripped and measured his length upon the floor, at the very moment that I was trying the same schoolboy trick upon his companion. While, stunned and bruised, they sprawled upon the ground, and, frightened by the sudden shock, tried to struggle to their feet, I had crept past them out by the marble gateway. The fresh air from without put renewed strength into me, while my enemies were probably tasting the noisome odour with which they had sought to render my sleep an eternal one.

My knees shook under me and I felt hideously sick and stiff; but I struggled on from pillar to pillar, skirting the gigantic temple, which had never seemed so vast to me. I wished to reach the farther gateway, find Hugh if he was still there … if not … well! if he had gone, I would still find him, somehow, now that I was free.

The great gateway was open—exhausted I leaned against it: my legs would carry me no farther.

"Girlie!" I gasped.

He must have been standing quite close to the entrance, for he heard me, and the next moment had half dragged, half carried me within the temple and laid me down on the floor, with my head resting against his shoulder.

"Mark! in heaven's name, what is the matter?"

"Nothing is the matter now," I said, as audibly as I could, "now that I have found you and that you are safe."

"What in the world do you mean? You can hardly talk! you are ill! Let me take you to the pavilion…. I can look after you there and you can try to tell me…."

I shook my head vigorously.

"No, Girlie! the moments are precious.… I have been drugged, stupefied and caged up, so that I might not get to you, and tell you. Listen, Girlie…"

And as best I could, in jerky, half-choked sentences, I told him all. He listened without a word, then said quietly:

"Ur-tasen shall pay for this. She came, Mark … you knew it; saw her perhaps … she put her arms round me, and kept me a prisoner.… A little while ago she slipped away … and left me alone with my dream."

"Ur-tasen will not rest content in the midst of failure," I said. "Pray to God he does not play us some terribly cruel trick yet."

"Dost speak words of wisdom to thy friend, oh! wisest of counsellors," said a loud sarcastic voice close behind us, "or dost adjure him to pray to his God to watch protectingly over his head? Whatever else thou sayest, tell him one thing, in that language which comes from beyond the valley of death, and that is, that Ur-tasen will not rest content in the midst of a failure. In the language which he speaks there is no such word as fail."

Hugh had jumped to his feet and confronted the high priest of Ra, who from some remote corner of the temple had crept noiselessly close to us.

"What dost thou mean? Why art thou here?" demanded Hugh. "Art bold indeed, Ur-tasen, that thou darest stand before me and my wrath."

"Bold indeed, oh! son of Ra!" replied the high priest, making a mock obeisance. "Ur-tasen now hath no cause for fear … he is an old man, and thy hands are mighty and strong, and yet the old man, with one foot in the grave, hath struck a blow at thee which will crush thy life, and wither thy manhood, and throw thee, a weak and puling coward, at the foot of him whose power thou hast defied."

"What dost thou mean? Speak! Thou hast not many moments of peace before thee, for I will make thee answer for thy treachery against my friend."

"Ay, I am willing to bear the full brunt of thy wrath, oh! stranger who hailest from the foot of the throne of Osiris…. Thy counsellor hath no doubt told thee that I and Maat-kha did plot against thee. He says so, and thou dost believe.… I care not to deny; we failed, she and I … and whatever crime she hath committed she must atone for, according to the laws of the land. But thinkest thou perchance that Ur-tasen did rest content? didst think that a weak and passionate woman could throw herself across his plans? Fools were ye both! oh! thou who dost style thyself the son of Ra, and she … who once was called Princess of Kamt."

"Name her not, thou infamous priest," said Hugh, raising his hand, as if ready to strike the miscreant; "I forbid thee to speak her name!"

But Ur-tasen shrugged his shoulders, with a low sarcastic chuckle.

"Nay! I will not name her, since it rouses thine anger; but anon it will not only be I, but all Tanis who will shriek out her name in loathing and execration."

I had struggled to my feet and was clinging with all my might to Hugh, for I could see that he could scarcely restrain himself from strangling the old man, then and there. But I felt that at any cost we ought to know what nefarious scheme he had concocted, and my heart filled with awful forebodings, I whispered to Hugh:

"Girlie! … for her sake … find out first what he means. Then I will help you to murder him, if you like."

"Dost thy counsellor whisper prudent advice in thine ear, oh! beloved of the gods? Nay, then! do thou follow it. Thou wilt need to be calm … if thou canst. Thou hast played a losing game, oh! son of Ra, and now wilt find that it was not good to defy the might of the priests of Kamt. I could not destroy thee and thy fame, the evil power of Set protects thee; I know not, perhaps thy body is invulnerable … thou art strong, and the people love thee. A hundred priests are at my command, yet not one of them would dare to lay hands on thee. But thou hast a soul, oh! mighty son of Ra! a soul which I, thine enemy, have known how to torture, with a torture so exquisite that anon it will unman thee. Thy soul," he added, with a loud triumphant laugh, which sounded weird and demoniacal, as it went echoing through the vastness of the temple, "thou didst give it to one who was beautiful and great, and praised above all. Dost know where she is now, oh! beloved of the gods? A prisoner in the hands of the priests of Isis, who seized her, even within the precincts of the temple of the goddess, while thy kisses were still warm upon her lips."

"Thou liest," hissed Hugh with smothered rage. And he raised his hand and struck the evil-mouthed priest an ugly blow upon the face, so that a few drops of blood began to trickle down his gaunt cheeks.

"Thou liest!"

"Nay! Thou knowest well that I do not lie," replied Ur-tasen, who literally had not turned a hair under the terrible insult. "The priests of Isis had noticed the women of Princess Neit-akrit standing about outside the temple at dawn. They warned me and I ordered them to watch. Osiris had not made a long journey in the heavens when from out the gates of the sacred edifice they saw a woman glide. The priests of Isis waited … she parted from her lover at the gate.… They saw it all … the laws of Kamt are severe upon the sin of unchastity, and a sin committed within the temple is doubly heinous … that woman was Neit-akrit, Princess of Kamt. Before her women could reach her she was a prisoner, and now awaits her doom for the crime she hath committed."

But like a madman Hugh was upon him, and his powerful hands had clutched the old priest by the throat.

"Man, thou art bold indeed," he whispered in his ear, "to stand with such a tale before me and my wrath! Dost know that if that tale is true, that if thou or thy priests do harm but to one hair of Princess Neit-akrit's head, I will kill thee, even where thou dost stand?"

Ur-tasen made not a movement, only his eyes started out of their sockets, and his lips parted, for the grip round his throat must have been very tight. At last he began in a choked voice which gradually grew stronger and firmer as Hugh relaxed his hold:

"Kill, oh! son of Ra! … kill! if it is thy will! Dost think I would make the faintest struggle? or call my priests to my aid? There are a hundred well within my call, and yet, see! I do not even raise my voice. Kill me! Ay! how gladly would I die, knowing that my death had at last encompassed thy ruin, after I had succeeded in wrecking thy soul. Ay, I think we are quits, oh, beloved of the gods, who with thy mighty hand didst break the wand of office of the high priest of Ra. In exchange for that wand I have broken thy heart, and I will die happy, knowing that that which thou lovest best in all the world will become more abject, more pitiable than Kesh-ta, the slave, whom thou didst snatch from out the clutches of the inexorable justice of Kamt.… Nay, why dost thou hesitate? In the name of Ra, thy sire, and Osiris, whose beloved thou art, strike, oh, emissary of the gods! strike! and with the blow which sheds the blood of the high priest even within the temple which it will desecrate, perhaps the people of Kamt and the priests of their gods will waken from the spell which thou hast cast over them with thy magic. Strike! for beyond that one act of brutish force, thou art powerless! Neit-akrit is a prisoner in the hands of the priests of Kamt. Hidden from all eyes, none can know where she is. Her sin, in this land, is not judged in open court, nor doth anyone hear judgment pronounced upon her…. But, to-morrow, a being—blind, maimed, bruised, who once was the fairest in ancient Kamt, will beg in the streets of Tanis for the charity of the passer-by, and scornful fingers will point pityingly at her and say, '’Tis Neit-akrit, once Princess of Kamt, who sinned even within the temple of the goddess!' Ay, thou mayest strike, oh, beloved of the gods, for within the grave where my body will quietly await the return of my soul, there will be joy and happiness in the thought that thou, mighty as thou art, beloved of the gods and worshipped in all Kamt, canst do nothing to save her from that doom."

Gradually Hugh's hands had dropped from off the priest's throat. I could see that all his furious rage was outwardly gone; he was as pale as death, only his eyes glowed with a weird fire, and his arms were crossed tightly over his chest.

He waited with seeming patience until the high priest had finished speaking, then he said very calmly:

"And didst thou really think, oh, mighty priest of Ra, that events would shape themselves even as thou hadst cunningly devised? Didst really think to find it so easy to pit thy power against mine, and remain the conqueror? Truly, I pity thee! thee and thy blind folly. Thou comest here before me, calm and triumphant, to tell me that she whom I worship is a prisoner in thy hands; that she, who to me is akin to a divinity, is to be vilified and slandered by impious priests, is to be disgraced, nay, worse, tortured, and then calmly dost say that I can do nothing to save her from her doom. I, the stranger who did break the impassable barriers which since five thousand years have hidden the secrets of Kamt, I can do nothing to save my most cherished treasure? Well, perhaps not! perhaps, fearing that some terrible doom might overtake thee before thou hadst time to accomplish thy criminal resolve, thou hast already dared to lay hands on my divinity! Then indeed, thou art right. Even I cannot undo the past, I cannot save her from her doom! But hast thought of afterwards, oh, mighty priest of Ra?"

"Afterwards?" he asked, with a quiet shrug of the shoulders.

"Ay! Afterwards! Didst think, perchance, that, having in my wrath sent thee and thy vile body, broken into a thousand atoms, into the darkest corner of the valley of death, I would suffer the extreme penalty of the laws of Kamt, and give thy wandering soul the happiness of seeing my shrivelled body withering by starvation, and rotting beneath the claws of the vultures in the desert? or didst think that, shuddering from a crime, I would wander about the cities of Kamt, a broken-hearted and miserable coward? Hast forgotten who and what I am, oh, mighty priest of Ra, when thou didst think I would ask aught of thee? Hast forgotten that I hold the hearts of Kamt and of its priests in the palm of my hand, and its allegiance at my feet; that from the inaccessible heights of my throne, built upon the love or superstition of the people, I do not ask, but I command thee never to dare lay one of thy fingers upon the person of Princess Neit-akrit, not to allow one breath of slander to touch the purity of her name; and if thou, in thy presumption, shouldst perchance dream of disobeying my commands, shouldst think that within the hallowed precincts of thy temples thou canst defy me, then, for the first and last time, Ur-tasen, I bid thee beware! for not upon thy puny body alone will fall the weight of my wrath, not my hand alone shall descend upon thy enfeebled shoulders, but my voice, which now maketh Kamt half-mad with joy, will then be raised to kindle into its people thoughts of evil and of blood; the spell of my magic will hover over their heads, whispering of murder, of incest and of sacrilege; a mist of blood will swim before their eyes, and from Tanis to Net-amen, from Men-ne-fer to Khe-me-nu, I, as the new prophet of evil, will carry before me the burning torch of a bloody revolution. And, ye who are mighty, ye who are rich, and, above all, ye who deem yourselves sacred, pale and tremble! for I will speak unto the people who follow me of desecration and of sacrilege! Ay, even I, who but yesterday spoke of mercy and justice! And the people of Kamt will follow me, Ur-tasen," he added, as, drawing himself up to his full height, he seemed already to tower above the terror-stricken man as some inspired prophet of evil. "Man is ever ready to listen to the voice which would beckon him back to his original level of savage beast. They will follow me, and become mad with fury, thirsting for carnage, for murder and for bloodshed; they will hurl the rulers from their thrones, destroy their temples and desecrate their tombs! And thou, Ur-tasen, who art the embodiment of that priesthood which hath kept the people of Kamt in superstitious ignorance, against thee and thy priests will the scorn, the loathing, the outrage tend. Buffeted and scorned, thou wilt stand at the very foot of the throne of thy god, as within a pillory of shame; men, women and children will howl and hoot at thee, will point to thee with scornful fingers still reeking with blood, and thou wilt see in that land which thou hadst hoped to rule, man murder his brother, woman her child, child its parent; thou wilt see rape and theft and sacrilege rife, thou wilt see famine and pestilence. And when every foot of the land of wheat and barley hath been polluted by crime, and every temple been desecrated, when the people of Kamt have sunk to the level of the wild beast, then, at a final word from me, they will, with superhuman effort, wage war against Nature herself, and tear down bit by bit every shred of that barrier which thou and thy priests did build around their land; they will tear down palaces and temples, hurl down marble pillars and alabaster steps, set fire to the four corners of the mighty kingdom, till stone does not remain upon stone, and in one vast and burning ruin bury at last their rulers and their priests, their glorious history and their ignoble shame."

Superstition and terror had gripped the high priest by the throat more firmly than Hugh's fingers had done before. He grew gradually more livid and more pale; his lips, from which, a few drops of blood still slowly trickled, began to twitch and tremble, and once or twice he stretched out his arms towards Hugh as if appealing for mercy.

Hugh was playing a bold game. The woman he loved was in a terrible plight, and his hold upon the people of this land was entirely one of superstition and mysticism. It seemed to me as if from the distance, in the temple, I could hear terrified groans, and I thought that I saw white and ghostlike shadows rush frightened hither and thither.

Hugh had finished speaking, and still the powerful echo of his voice lingered among the pillars: the high priest had buried his face in his hands. He was silent for a while, struggling against his own fears, then we heard his voice, hoarse and trembling, whisper softly:

"Who and what art thou?"

"One who has but one word, one pledge," replied Hugh; "who never speaks but of that which he can accomplish."

"Thou art the soul of Set, the power of evil, descended upon earth to bring sorrow in thy trail."

"I brought joy and happiness when I came; upon thy head rest the burden of desolation and of sorrow."

"I have not sinned," he said, almost in entreaty; "Neit-akrit is still safe … a precious hostage in my hands," he added, noting Hugh's sudden look of infinite relief, "that which thou dost hold most dear, and yet hast overwhelmed with sorrow."

"Name her not, Ur-tasen," interrupted Hugh; "she is as pure and holy as the goddess whose image thou dost worship."

"Nay, I had no evil thoughts of her," replied Ur-tasen, quite humbly; "I was speaking of sorrow; thou canst not command so intangible a thing to keep clear of her path. Thou hast sworn to wed Maat-kha: as long as she lives, thy love for another can but give sorrow and shame. And Maat-kha will live! None saw her do the evil deed save thy counsellor! … will he accuse her before the awful judgment seat of Kamt?

"Thou hast conquered, oh, beloved of the gods," added the high priest, with sudden strange eagerness. "See! I, who had defied thee and thy might, am the humblest of thy slaves; and yet, mighty as thou art, thou canst not, whilst thou art in the land of Kamt, change thy destiny and hers! Thou art wedded to a murderess, and Neit-akrit cannot sit upon the throne of Kamt. For thoughts of thee she will not wed another; sorrowing she will turn to the gods for comfort, and seek refuge against a guilty love in the vows of a priestess of Ra. Nay! … What canst thou do? … thou art mighty! … but it will only be when all the gods of Kamt are dethroned, and all their temples desecrated, that thou canst break the bonds which bind thee to Maat-kha, or place in Neit-akrit's hand the sceptre of a queen."

The high priest paused again, and once more his keen eves searched those of Hugh. We held one another tightly grasped by the hand: I think we both felt that we were nearing the final crisis in our strange and weird adventure.

"Thou art mighty, oh, beloved of the gods," whispered Ur-tasen, so low that we could scarcely hear; "thou art great, and the people of Kamt do worship thee … and I, the most powerful in the land, more powerful than any Pharaoh—for I rule over the dead as well as over the living—I do grovel at thy feet. Call forth the people of Kamt … let them come in hundreds and in thousands, and in tens of thousands! let them come to Men-ne-fer … to see the high priest of Ra kneeling humbly before the emissary of the gods, and with his hands tying the sandals upon the stranger's feet….

"It is a great and glorious festival," he added with growing eagerness, seeing that Hugh and I had, in a flash, realised what was passing in his mind. "The most exquisite products of the land will decorate the temple of the god.… In the middle of the sanctuary, upon a throne of gold, surrounded by the priests of Ra, there will stand he who is beloved of the gods … the festival shall be great and glorious, but sorrow will be in the hearts of all the people of Kamt … for the son of Ra, the emissary of the Most High … will return to the heavenly land … from whence he came."

Hugh did not speak; in his eyes I read the awakening of a great hope—an infinite peace and relief; he had guessed that the high priest, terrified and humbled, was, of his own accord, begging for that which Hugh even would never have had the power to force him to grant.

"But in the hearts of the people of Kamt," added Ur-tasen, finally, "there will for ever dwell the memory of him who first in the judgment hall of Men-ne-fer spoke to them of mercy and of truth; and at even, when Isis is high in the heavens, and ties of home and love bring men and women together, they will talk of him who was beloved of the gods, who left the land beyond the blue vault of heaven to dwell for a while upon Kamt. Then Maat-kha, twice a widow, will weep shuddering over her sin, and Neit-akrit, Queen of Upper and Lower Kamt, will dispense truth and justice to her people, while dwelling on the fond memory as upon a happy dream—the memory to which will be attached neither sorrow nor shame."

He had sunk down upon his knees—a humble, cringing suppliant, and his shaven crown rested upon the floor, at Hugh's feet, which he was kissing like any abject slave.

"Mark, old fellow, this is happy deliverance, is it not?"

"Do you wish to go, Girlie?" I asked.

"How can I stay? This man has said it truly, I am wedded to Maat-kha; my love can only bring sorrow on her whom I worship, shame perhaps … and I …" he added with a sigh, "I could not live now here, without her, while I am a prisoner in this land…. When I am gone … I think … we should both forget.

"Listen, Ur-tasen," he said after a little while, "I still have much to say to thee. See that the Princess, whom thou hast outraged, is respectfully conveyed to her palace. The priests who have dared to lay hands upon her must grovel humbly at her feet until she hath deigned to forgive; if she chooses to mete out a punishment to them, then see that it is carried out, whatever it may be…. When that is done, do thou go back to Men-ne-fer.… I and my counsellor will follow later on…. Within thy temple I will speak to thee again."

"Then … thou dost consent, oh, beloved of the gods?" whispered Ur-tasen, without daring to look up.

"Nay, I know not! Remember … I make no compact.… I cannot say…. But I fain would see what reparation thou canst offer to Princess Neit-akrit, and I must speak with my counsellor."

"Wilt deign to allow the servants of the temple to accompany thee to the palace? The Pharaoh is dead … Maat-kha is Queen, and thou art the holy Pharaoh, since thou art her lord."

"Nay, I would be alone with my counsellor. Go, Ur-tasen! 'Twere best that thou who wast witness to her crime shouldst tell Maat-kha that I know all."

"I am ever ready to obey thy commands, oh, beloved of the gods, and in all Kamt thou dost not own a more humble slave than Ur-tasen, the high priest of the Most High."

Painfully he struggled to his feet: he seemed a broken-down old man now. When, after another deep obeisance, he turned to go, we remarked that he did no longer walk erect, that his humiliation had bent his tall figure, and placed the full weight of his years upon his shoulders.