The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 3
THE TOMB OF THE GREEK PRIEST
"I don't wonder that you think me mad, Mark, old chap," began Hugh very calmly after a little while; "the work has been so close, that no doubt it did get on to my nerves a bit. When I actually put the finishing touches on it to-day, my only other thought, besides that of exultant triumph, was that of sharing my delights with you. Then you came, so ready to help me since I had called to you, and I, like a foolish enthusiast, never reflected on the all-important necessity of putting the facts clearly and coherently before you."
He pointed to one of the mummies that stood upright in a glass case at the further end of the museum. The human outline was clear and distinct under the few linen wrappings, painted all over with designs and devices and the portrait of the deceased, after the fashion introduced into Egypt by the Greeks.
"When you and I were schoolboys together all those mummies were our friends, and our imaginations ran riot when my father, in his picturesque way, explained to us the meaning of the various inscriptions which recorded their lives. We knew in those days that this particular mummy had once been a Greek priest and scribe of Assuan, who had expressed a desire to be buried in a peculiarly lonely spot in the desert land, opposite what is now Wady-Halfa. A pious friend or relative had evidently carried out this wish, for it was in that desolate spot that my father found this mummy in its solitary tomb. I remember how, for my part, I loved to think of that pious friend sailing down the silent Nile, with the body of the dead scribe lying at rest in the prow of his dahabijeh, while the great goddess Isis smiled down approvingly at the reverent deed, and the sacred crocodiles watched curiously the silent craft, flitting ghost-like amidst the lotus leaves. More than two thousand years later my father visited this lonely desert tomb. It was before the days that a strict surveillance was kept over tourists and amateur explorers, and he was alone, save for an old and faithful fellah—dead now—who was his constant attendant in his scientific researches. Beside the mummy of the dead scribe stood the four canopic jars, dedicated to the children of Horus and containing the heart and other entrails of the deceased; my father, with less reverence than scientific enthusiasm, had with his penknife loosened the top of one of the jars, when, to his astonishment, he saw that it contained in addition to the embalmed heart a papyrus closely written in Greek."
"In Greek? Not this one, then?"
"No, another, equally priceless, equally valuable, but only as a solution, a complement of the first."
He went up to the desk, and from one of the drawers took out a papyrus, faded and yellow with age, and placed it before me.
"I have made a translation of it, old fellow," he said with a smile, seeing my look of perplexity; "you were a pretty good classic scholar, though, at one time, and you will be able to verify that mine is a correct rendering of the original."
He took a paper out of his pocket-book and began to read, whilst I listened more and more amazed and bewildered, still wondering why Hugh Tankerville had worked himself to such a pitch of excitement for the sake of a dead and vanished past.
"I pray to Osiris and to Isis that I may be burled on the spot where my footsteps led me that day, when I was still young. Oh, mother Isis! what was thy sacred wish when thou didst guide mine eyes to read the mysteries of thy people? I pray to be buried within that same tomb where I found the papyrus, that guided my way to the land of wheat and barley of ancient Kamt, that lies beyond the wilderness of the sand from the east to the west. I stood upon the spot and I, too, shot my arrow into the heart of Osiris as he disappears behind Manou, into the valley of perpetual night, on the first day that Hapi gives forth goodness to the land. I, too, crossed the sands from the east to the west, and I, too, rejoiced when I saw the Rock of Anubis, and found the way no longer barred to me, to that land of plenty, wherein dwell the chosen people of Ra, secure from all enemies—great, solitary and eternal. But, alas! it was not for me to dwell in their midst! Enough! They are! and Ra and his children have surrounded them with a barrier, which no child of man can traverse."
I had to confess that after hearing the contents of this so-called explanatory papyrus I was more perplexed than before.
"You don't understand this, do you, old Mark?" resumed Hugh, "any more than my father did; but the whole thing seemed so enigmatical to him, and yet so real, so strange, that he looked round him eagerly for a solution. One by one he opened each of the other three canopic jars, and it was in the last one that he found the priceless papyrus, of a date some three thousand years previous to the existence of the scribe in whose tomb it rested. Here was obviously the key to the puzzle propounded in the Greek priest's writing, and the explanation of his mysterious statements; but alas! the moment the outer air reached the ancient treasure, it fell before my father's very eyes into more than a thousand minute fragments."
He paused, then added, as if he wished every one of his words to impress itself indelibly on my mind:
"It has taken forty years of ceaseless toil to solve that great and glorious mystery, but now at last it is done, and I, Hugh Tankerville, am ready, with your help, to prove to the world that those great people, who were driven off by the stranger across the desert, did not perish in the wilderness: that they found a land which lies beyond the rolling billows of sand and shingle, where they formed an empire more great and vast, more wonderful and glorious, than aught we have dreamed of in our so-called science."
"This is a theory," I said with a smile.
"It is a fact," he replied earnestly; "at least it was a fact two thousand years ago, when that same Greek priest wandered across the wilderness in search of the vanished hordes of Egypt: when he with simple conviction, perhaps with his dying breath, pronounced, 'Enough! They are!'"
"Then do you mean to tell me? …" I began.
"I tell you, Mark, that beyond those inaccessible sand dunes that surround the Libyan desert, in that so-called arid wilderness, there live at the present moment the descendants of those same people who built the Pyramid of Ghizeh and carved the mysterious majesty of the Sphinx."
"Let them live in peace," I said flippantly, "since no one can get at, or to, them. You have said it yourself, they are—if they are at all—beyond the inaccessible dunes."
"Inaccessible only to the ignorant, but not to those who know. They were not inaccessible to the scribe who wrote this parchment over three thousand years after the great emigration into the wilderness."
"Do you maintain then," I said still incredulously, "that the writer of parchment No. 2 actually set out on a desert journey and verified the truth, as set forth in parchment No. 1?"
"How he came possessed of the original papyrus he does not very clearly say, but, as soon as he had deciphered it, he started forth across the Libyan desert, and crossed those inaccessible dunes, using those landmarks which are clearly explained on the old Egyptian document, and which proved, in every instance, to be absolutely correct in indicating a way across the impassable wilderness."
"Well! but he never got there."
"That we do not know.… His MS. ends abruptly, and …"
"Like Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym, eh, old Girlie? It is a way narrators of adventure have."
"His is not a narration; he set out to verify certain facts. He verified them. We do not know what caused him to turn back in sight of goal."
"Hm! that turning back in sight of goal does not carry conviction to the mind of an obstinate Britisher."
"No!… Nothing would deter us, Mark, old chap, would it?" he said calmly. "We will not turn back."
I jumped up in bewildered amazement, the object of Hugh's excitement, of his patient explanations to my dull intellect, suddenly dawning on me. I gave a long whistle, buried my hands in my pockets, fixed Hugh with my most professional eye, and said:
"You are absolutely and unmistakably cracked, Girlie!"
He came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and looked at me. I have said it before, he was a man of boundless influence over his fellow-creatures, whenever he chose to exert it.
"Come and look at the papyrus," he said.
"D—— the papyrus. The whole thing is too preposterous for words."
He said very simply, "Why?"
"Because.… Because.… Damn it, Hugh," I said very crossly … and … I went to have a look at the papyrus.
It was still very fragmentary, of course, as in places quite large pieces were missing, but certain passages were peculiarly clear; for instance, the part which described the way the wandering hordes of Egypt took when in search of a home.
"You see, they wandered down the Nile," explained Hugh, eagerly, showing me the drawing of the river and of the multitude following its course; "and then it was that from the lonely spot where the Greek scribe lay buried they went forth towards the west."
"That is a mere surmise," I objected.
"The scribe says, 'Let me be buried there where I found the papyrus!' and later, 'I stood upon the spot, and I, too, shot my arrow into the heart of Osiris,' etc. Osiris is the sun, and a figure shooting an arrow is one of the simplest hieroglyphics known, meaning a perfectly straight course."
"Yes! and here," I exclaimed suddenly, "is the figure shooting an arrow at the setting sun."
In spite of myself a very little of Hugh's enthusiasm was beginning to filtrate into my mind. The whole thing was preposterous, of course, but the old fascination which ancient Egypt, with its gorgeousness, its mysteries, its glorious art had ever excited, even in my raw schoolboy mind, began to hold me enthralled.
"Remember, Mark, too, that due west, line for line with Wady-Halfa, a couple of thousand miles away, lies the high peak of Uj-en-ari, and that almost at its very base Rholf found traces of an ancient way which he took to have once led to, and therefore from, Egypt."
"And the arrow which the hieroglyphic person is shooting is depicted in the next sign as being stuck in a high and precipitous mountain, which might easily be Uj-en-ari," I added excitedly.
There was no doubt that my common sense was lulling itself to rest.
Hugh took hold of my coatsleeve and made me turn to where a large map of Egypt and the Libyan desert hung against the wall.
"There lies the land," he said, running his fingers round the vast blank space on the map, "and that is where I mean to go."
And common sense gave another dying gasp.
"Rholfs and Caillaud both found that inaccessible and shifting dunes, running from north to south, barred any way across the Libyan desert," I objected.
"If we go due west from that one spot I feel convinced that we shall find a way through those inaccessible sand dunes," replied Hugh, emphatically.
He was so sure, so convinced, there was so much power in his whole personality, that the conviction very soon dawned upon me that, if I did not choose to accompany him in his wild search after his Egyptians, he would risk the dangerous desert journey alone.
With an impatient sigh I turned to the papyrus.
"See how clear are the directions," resumed Hugh. "Having started from the spot, we evidently have many days' march before us, due west, across the desert, for we see the multitudes wandering, and one or two dead on the way, but soon we come to this figure, a man rejoicing—can you see it? it is very clear—look at the arms! and now the words: 'Then when to be seen is the Rock of Anubis not is barred against him the way, and opened are before him the gates of ground of wheat and barley of the land of Kamt.'"
"How do you explain that, Girlie?" I asked.
"The Greek priest saw that rock. I imagine its shape is something like a jackal's head—Anubis, old Mark, was the jackal-headed god of ancient Egypt—or there may actually be a figure of the god carved into the living rock. We shall see when we get there."
It was a fairy tale, of course. My reason stood up confronting me, and telling me that the idea was preposterous beyond what words could say; it told me that, even granting that those Egyptians had found and established themselves, in some distant and fertile oasis, in the heart of the most arid wilderness on the globe, future generations would have heard about or from them, and recorded their existence or extinction. It told me that no people could have lived on any one spot on earth for five thousand years and have been content not to extend their dominions, with their growing population; that they could not have gone there without wanting to come back; that Rholf's, Caillaud, Cat, any of the great desert explorers, would have found some traces of the route to this unknown land, if route there was. It told me that, and a hundred other arguments besides, and yet, as Hugh Tankerville talked, explained and argued, I listened more and more eagerly; his influence, which he himself knew to be boundless, and which he was endeavouring to exert to its full, was beginning to pervade me; my objections became more and more feeble.
"You cannot bring forward one single positive argument against my elaborate scaffolding of facts, Mark! You are not going to tell me that two people, one living more than three thousand years before the other, have joined hands across thirty centuries to concoct the same lie. What object would a Greek priest have in corroborating the falsehoods of an Egyptian, whose existence even he would ignore?"
"I cannot make that Greek priest of yours out," I argued. "What made him turn back?"
"He may not have been sufficiently provisioned for any further journey; having ascertained that the landmarks did exist, he may have gone back with a view to making a fresh and more elaborate start. He may …"
"He may have been a confounded liar, as most inhabitants—notably the priests—of those countries generally are," I laughed.
Hugh frowned, and said at last, with a trifle less enthusiasm:
"Of course, old chap, I have no desire to persuade you against your will. When I wired to you I was merely fulfilling my promise, and …"
"I can always go alone."
What was the use of further argument? I had known all along that I should ultimately give in. After all, I had independent means, was my own master—in spite of Aunt Charlotte; I had nothing to do, and was barely thirty years of age. Is it great wonder that the love of adventure, inherent in every Englishman, had by now completely annihilated my reason? After all, I'd just as soon go and hunt for ancient Egyptians in impossible desert regions with Hugh Tankerville as wait for problematical patients in Harley Street.
I stretched out my hand to Sawnie Girlie and said:
"No, you don't, Girlie. When do we start?"