The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 30



One more picture—the last in the gorgeous panorama which had so uninterruptedly passed before our eyes ever since we had as it were taken possession of this beautiful land—the picture of Kamt in mourning, bidding farewell to him who was beloved of the gods.

Hugh had made hard conditions with the high priest of Ra. He had demanded beasts, provisions for the journey across the desert, and Ur-tasen's own person as hostage for his good faith. The high priest, humbly, without question, had agreed to all, and now two days later at even, while we, wrapped in our dark mantles ready for our great homeward journey across the desert, stood behind that heavy black curtain on the very spot at the rear of the sanctuary of Ra from whence we had first caught a glimpse of the glories of Kamt, Ur-tasen prepared himself to obey Hugh's final commands.

The oxen had been chosen, we had inspected the carts and provisions, all of which stood ready in the vast corridors which led to the great copper gate, and now, from where we stood, we watched the high priest as he went up to the mighty gong and, taking the clapper, beat the metal, so that its volume of sound went echoing far beyond the gateway of the temple. Thrice he struck the gong, then there was silence in the sacred edifice: but only for a while, for, very soon, from the city which was preparing for its evening rest, after the toil of day, sounds of fast approaching footsteps, of hurried whispers, penetrated to our ears. The people of Men-ne-fer heard the summons which bade them come to the temple of Ra, and obedient, half-frightened, lest they were being called to hear some tidings of evil, they hurriedly left their homes and flocked to the sanctuary of the god.

Ur-tasen had withdrawn to the foot of the statue of Ra; there he waited until the vast edifice was full of people; the lights glimmered low, only bringing out here and there into brilliant relief some blue or green iridescent enamel upon a pillar. Men, women and children were lying prostrate upon the floor waiting for the high priest to speak. The gossamer veil had been drawn aside so that all might look upon the majesty of the god, and at the foot of the sanctuary steps the blind priestesses intoned their monotonous, lugubrious chant.

Then, when from end to end the gigantic building was filled with prostrate figures, Ur-tasen began to speak:

"Oh, people of Kamt, behold the majesty of the gods!

"They who have filled your hearts with joy have now shed sorrow upon the land!

"Thou art mighty, oh, Ra, and mighty is thy son!

"Thou art great, Osiris, and great is thy beloved!

"Oh, people of Kamt, look upwards to the vault of heaven, and there, amidst the innumerable lamps, which the hand of Phtah doth kindle in the skies, seek for the face of him who was the emissary of the gods!

"People of Kamt, look upwards to the skies! and at night, when Isis doth shine, pure and bounty-giving from above, then remember him who is beloved of the gods!

"Oh, people of Kamt, look within your hearts, for there alone shall in future dwell the image of him who is the son of Ra!"

Awestruck, not understanding, one by one the dark heads were raised aloft, and thousands of anxious eyes peered upwards in the gloom.

"Oh, people of Kamt, do not mourn! He who is beloved of the gods hath dwelt amidst you all! He gave you joy and happiness, he spoke to you of mercy and of love! but the gods up above have need of him, they called to him, and he hath gone!"

There was a long and universal shriek: the sorrow and disappointment it expressed was quite unmistakable. I felt strangely impressed and sad, as if I were assisting at my own funeral. Hugh's face, too, was white and set. It is hard to leave those who love one dearly, hard to go in the very summit of one's popularity.

The high priest had waited for a while, until the demonstration of sorrow had somewhat subsided, then he added:

"Oh, people of Kamt! the beloved of the gods has gone!

"Remember, his spirit still hovers round you!

"Remember the joy he gave you and obey his behests.

"Before he left he spoke his wishes to me, the humble servant of Ra, our god, his sire, and bade me transmit these wishes unto you, his people. He, as your ruler and your king, has appointed as his successor upon the throne, Neit-akrit, the well-beloved of the house of Usem-ra, and he hath ordained that since Maat-kha, now twice a widow, hath decided to vow herself to the service of Ra, that you do obey Neit-akrit as you would himself. She will rule over you, she, the holy Pharaoh, entrusted by him with the fullest powers, and on her head alone shall rest the double crown of Kamt, which I, the high priest of the Most High, All-creating Ra, will place upon her brow."

Ur-tasen had done his duty. Hugh could rest satisfied. Neit-akrit would be Queen indeed, and after the proclamation issued at the very foot of their most cherished god, the people of Kamt would truly reverence and honour her.

After this Ur-tasen read a short proclamation embodying the other promises he had made to Hugh: the abolition of the "casting-out" form of punishment, the complete cessation of all description of mutilation. The blind priestesses began to sing again, and from the four corners of the temple clouds of incense rose: the priests of Ra had crowded round the steps of the sanctuary; they were offering up a final sacrifice in honour of him who had gone.

Then suddenly, from amidst a distant group, one solitary figure detached itself. I did not recognise it at first, but Hugh gave a start, and then I knew who it was.

She came slowly forward, while on each side of her the people knelt, in order to kiss the ground on which she walked. I don't think that I had ever seen her look more beautiful; she was draped from below the bust, down to her ankles, in a long kalasiris of dull black, against which her ruddy tresses fell in strands of living gold, each side of her, right down to her knees. She had neither jewel nor ornament of any kind; her tiny feet were bare, as were her arms and shoulders. Beside her Sen-tur walked slowly and majestically, as if conscious of the solemnity of the sacred building. She stared straight before her, at the figure of the god; the blind priestesses were softly chanting a hymn, and she—Neit-akrit—almost as in a dream, began to mount the sanctuary steps.

Instinctively my hand grasped that of Hugh: it was cold as a piece of marble. He did not move, but watched her with a yearning look which brought the tears into my eyes.

I think that Ur-tasen had not expected to see her, and I saw him glance furtively in our direction. The group of priests parted when she came near, to allow her to pass; none dared to stop her, though the sanctuary of Ra is sacred, and no profane foot should ever stand upon its steps. But she seemed almost ethereal, as if she had left her body away somewhere, and it was only the exquisite spirit of love, beauty and womanhood which stepped towards the god.

At last she reached the foot of the great marble throne—she and Sen-tur, for the panther had not left her side—her tall figure looked strangely small and childlike standing alone in the vast sanctuary, at the foot of the mammoth statue. She was very pale, and her large blue eyes looked upwards searchingly in the gloom above. Then she raised her hand, and I saw that in it she held a sprig of white rosemary; she raised it to her lips and placed it at the foot of the god.

"Rosemary for remembrance," she whispered softly, so softly that I felt sure none behind her could hear, and as slowly, as automatically as she had come, she turned and went, the group of priests parting respectfully in order to let her pass.

And the vision of the quaint, straight figure, draped in black so like an Egyptian idol, standing as in a dream at the foot of the marble statue of the god, was the last which Hugh had of the beautiful girl whom he loved so passionately, and the word "remembrance" was the last which would for ever linger in his ear.

After that we allowed the heavy curtain to drop; we neither of us wished to look again. Let that vision be the last which we should carry away in our hearts of the beauties of ancient Kamt. Poor old Hugh, I think he suffered terribly. But he was a man of iron determination; he had decided that it was right, for her sake and his own, that he should go, and at this moment even I do not think that any temptation assailed him to change his resolution. About an hour later Ur-tasen joined us; he preceded us up the great staircase of black granite, which was so peopled with memories of our first arrival. The sleek and poisonous guardians of the gates of Kamt were lying caged under the baskets of rush, to enable those who had charge of the preparations for our journey to pass to and fro.

How strange it was to see that great copper slab lowered from within, and to look out from the gloom of the temple precincts onto the illimitable desert beyond. Far ahead the Rock of Anubis towered against the sky, and all along we could see the long road, made white by innumerable bones of the dead criminals of Kamt.

One by one, on the ponderous grapnel, oxen and carts and provisions were lowered into the desert. Three priests of Ra were already below, and were busy loading the waggons and harnessing the oxen. Then, when all was ready, they were hauled up, and Ur-tasen, without a word, allowed the belt to be slipped round his waist. The three priests stood above, placid and silent, doing their work, obeying Hugh's directions without a comment. They were to remain here, ready to reopen the gates for the returning high priest.

I followed Ur-tasen, and finally Hugh also descended. Everything was in order. I took charge of one team of oxen, Hugh of the other. And we started on our way.

Above us, without a sound, silently, drawn by unseen hands, the gates of Kamt were shut against us for ever.