The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 29



That same afternoon we left for Men-ne-fer. Tanis perforce had to put aside her bridal finery and plunge herself into mourning. All day the scribes of the temple ran up and down the streets, shouting at the top of their voices that the holy Pharaoh was dead; that he had succumbed to his many ailments in the arms of the priests of Isis, who had helped to soothe his dying moments. His mother, broken down with grief, could not be persuaded to leave his lifeless body, and would remain in Tanis until such time as, the elaborate process of embalming being completed, the dead Pharaoh would be ready to be conveyed to Men-ne-fer, for the solemn obsequies.

Hugh had tacitly allowed this version of the Pharaoh's death to be spread among the people. He had no wish to publicly accuse her who already was his wife in name, and hand her over to the cruel justice of her country. No doubt she suffered enough. Hugh would not see her, and she had been told that he knew of her crime.

When, having taken farewell of lovely Tanis, our boat began to glide slowly along the canal, it seemed to both of us that on the height where stood the royal palace we saw a figure swathed in black, sharply defined against the white background, stretching out its arms entreatingly towards our fast disappearing boat.

Tanis in sorrow had not dared to speed our departure with shouts of farewell, nor did the snow-white city, coquettish in her perpetual bridal attire, know that the son of Ra was leaving her never to return.

Hugh had not hesitated a moment. He longed to get away, and I confess that I viewed the prospect of leaving this strange exotic land for ever without the slightest pang.

"We will make our own terms with Ur-tasen," said Hugh; "and I promise you our return journey will not be attended with any privations."

"You are glad to go?" I asked.

"Very glad," he replied earnestly. "She will be happy … and we shall both forget."

As long as we could, we watched the white city gradually growing more hazy and dim, until at last a turn in the canal, a thick clump of papyrus grass hid it entirely from our view; even then it seemed to me that the echo from sistrum and harp, the strange songs of the priestesses of Isis, hovered for some time in the air.

The journey from Tanis to Men-ne-fer direct was a long one. We spent two nights beneath the canopy of our boat, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic clap of the oars and the monotonous lullabies sung by the boatmen. The third night we passed before the palace of Neit-akrit.

There was no moon, and it was very dark all around; the marble palace hardly appeared as an outline against the heavy sky, only the gigantic sphinxes seemed to frown down upon us in the gloom. A warm breeze was in the air, and as the boat glided swiftly past the great fuchsia trees gave forth a long and melancholy sigh. We neither of us spoke; but by the dim light of the lamp at the poop I could see that, for a long time, Hugh watched that ghostlike palace, those fuchsia trees, whose snow-white walls, within which he had buried his earthly paradise.

We neared Men-ne-fer towards the early morning, and, after a rest in the palace, we went to meet Ur-tasen in the temple of Ra.

He looked to me very much aged, and anxiety had traced many more lines on his face. He met Hugh very eagerly, but knelt humbly on the floor, waiting for him to speak.

"Where is Princess Neit-akrit?" asked Hugh.

"To-night her boat will have reached her palace, where she has decided to remain until the obsequies of the dead Pharaoh, when she will come to Men-ne-fer," replied the high priest, humbly, and almost in a whisper.

"And those priests who dared lay hands upon her person?"

"They await her pardon in the vault beneath the temple of Isis. But I do not doubt that Neit-akrit will grant it."

Hugh breathed a sigh of relief. There was no doubt that Ur-tasen had not even thought of defiance; moreover, we gathered from this that, though he feared and hated the beloved of the gods, he did not distrust him.

"What dost thou know of the land which lies beyond the gates of Kamt?" asked Hugh, abruptly, after a slight pause, during which he had scanned with a scornful frown the figure of the high priest kneeling at his feet.

"Nay, I know nothing, oh, beloved of the gods. I care not to know, whatever in my dreams I may at times have guessed. Never hath foot of man crossed the valley of death and lived."

"Yet I came. Dost know from whence?"

"Thou saidst it: from the foot of the throne of the gods."

"Ay. And thither will I return, taking with me the hearts of the people of Kamt. Now listen to my commands, and 'twere well for thee that thou seest that they are implicitly obeyed. From among thy priests choose those whom thou wouldst trust, as thou dost trust thyself, who, like thee, know that beyond the valley of death there lies some other land, and do thou tell them that I would visit it. Then bid them secure eight sturdy oxen and two light but roomy carts, to each of which four oxen should be yoked. These beasts and carts must be lowered through the gate of Kamt into the valley of death. The priests whom thou wilt have chosen as being silent and discreet shall load the carts. In one they shall place sixty gourds, each containing two measures of water, and two gourds, each containing three measures of wine; two sacks of dried dates and figs, and five jars of dried fish and goose's flesh; the other cart must be heaped with oil cakes, barley and dried grass, in as great a quantity as the four oxen can bear quite easily. When the carts are ready and loaded and the oxen put to, bid thy priests choose a healthy cow and tether her to one of the carts. At dawn thou shalt accompany me and my counsellor to the gates of Kamt, and thou shalt cause thyself to be lowered into the valley of death, before I myself do follow thee. Thou shalt come with me across the wilderness as far as the Rock of Anubis, against which, if thou hast in any way disobeyed me, or played me false, I will chain thee and bind thee, and leave thee to starve slowly amidst the carrion. But if thou hast punctually obeyed my commands, thou canst then return: thy priests, in the meanwhile, can keep a watch for thee."

The high priest made no comment, but merely asked quietly:

"Are these all thy commands, oh, beloved of the gods?"

"All, as regards my journey hence. Before I leave thou shalt proclaim from the foot of the altar of thy gods that I, their emissary, have returned from whence I came, that my mission among the people of Kamt is fulfilled, for I came by the will of Ra himself to infuse mercy into their laws. No man or woman shall in future be cast out living from Kamt, to die of starvation in the wilderness; no man or woman shall, for any sin or crime, suffer torture or mutilation. This thou shalt proclaim from the inner sanctuary of Ra even while I, ready to go upon my journey, will listen from the outer precincts, which lead to the gates of Kamt, and hear that thou dost do my bidding. Then, when thou hast done that, thou shalt tell the people that I enjoin them, as a parting wish, to honour and reverence Neit-akrit, their Queen, whom Ra himself, by my mouth, hath decreed shall rule over them as long as she lives whether she take a husband or no. She shall be the sole and mighty Pharaoh, and on her head alone shall rest the double crown of Kamt."

Ur-tasen's face brightened up. It was obvious that Hugh need have no fear that this parting injunction of his should not be implicitly obeyed. The high priest of Ra, in spite of all, was still under the magic spell of beautiful Neit-akrit.

There was nothing more to be said, and we left the temple of Ra to have a final look at the land which we had found so fair.

I was glad to leave it; the gilded cage had somehow become an intolerable prison, but … it was a parting, and all partings are sad. The people of Men-ne-fer did not know that their idol was leaving them; though the death of the Pharaoh had thrown outward gloom over the city, they made no attempt to restrain their enthusiasm, their delight in having him in their midst again, who was beloved of the gods.

The picture of that day in Kamt is one of the most vivid in my memory. The sun was dazzlingly bright, and Men-ne-fer—gorgeous Men-ne-fer with its rose-tinted palaces, its temples and gardens and market squares—displayed before our saddened eyes all the splendours of its beauty. The royal palace, on the steps of which the pale pink flamingoes stalked lazily in the heat of the mid-day sun, the broad canal, each side of which the marble palaces rose in a gorgeous line, the market, where gigantic piles of pomegranates threw a brilliant note of vivid orange and red against the blue and the green of water and foliage, and above all the silent and immense judgment hall, with its great marble throne, from whence it seemed to me that I could still hear the harsh, sarcastic laughter of the dead Pharaoh and the screeching of his apes.

Once or twice during that day I saw Hugh's eyes turned with unutterable longing towards the East, beyond the great canal where, in the midst of fuchsia groves, stood that white palace, the terrace with its turquoise blue canopy and its marble floors, on which Sen-tur lazily chased the ibis up and down.

He had made up his mind that he would not see her again…. The parting perhaps would be easier to bear…. There was no doubt that it was all for the best…. She would be happy again when she knew that he had gone away for ever into the land of dreams.