The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 4



WE started about a week afterwards; personally, I should find it difficult to say exactly how much of Hugh's wild theories I believed. The whole thing fascinated me immensely, and although I never for a moment credited the notion that we should find any living beings, other than wild Bedouins and Tibestis, in that part of the Libyan desert which we meant to traverse, yet I certainly did hope that we might find a few interesting relics of a great and vanished past.

Hugh had made a good photographic reproduction of the two papyri, leaving the originals safely locked up in a ponderous fire-proof safe, which had been screwed to the floor of the museum in the dear old Chestnuts. Old Janet with her daughter and son-in-law were to take care of the house in the master's absence, and … we started.

No one who met us, either at Charing Cross or Paris, or subsequently at Marseilles or Cairo, could have guessed, in our thoroughly matter-of-fact form of procedure, that we were aught but a pair of young, enthusiastic tourists visiting the glorious country for the first time, and with no other object in view save that of our own selfish pleasures. And we were bent on crossing half a continent to find a people who had disappeared from the history of the world since nigh upon five thousand years.

The dragoman from whom we hired the dahabijeh and its crew, which were to take us up the Nile as far as Wady-Halfa, was struck, with speechless wonder at the two mad English who obstinately refused to do more than cursorily glance at the glories of Thebes and Luxor, and seemed impelled by some chasing spirit which forbade them to land or to waste time. I could not, of course, very accurately estimate Hugh's thoughts and feelings, as our little craft slowly and silently flitted up the sacred and historic river. At eventime, when the waters lay dark and peaceful, and the moon shone silvery and radiant on date palms and distant mosques, on sandy shores and majestic ruins, the boatmen, whom we had provided with tambourines and darabukas, would crouch on deck and intone some of their half-melancholy, monotonous tunes. Then I would see Hugh's eyes fixed longingly and searchingly on that distant horizon towards the west, and I myself, quiet, matter-of-fact Britisher as I was, would begin to dream of the great people whom we had set forth to seek. I saw, as the dahabijeh glided noiselessly along, the great procession of the wandering hordes quitting their homes, polluted by the conquering stranger, and seeking a new and glorious resting-place in the west far away.

The great and mysterious immensities of the Libyan desert became peopled in my mind with high priests in flowing robes and leopards' skins, with priestesses in heavy plaited wigs, and priests with shaven crowns, with men and women, angular and gaunt, dark and high cheek-boned, flat-footed and large-eyed, such as we see depicted on ancient tombs and papyri. I seemed to hear the monotonous, sing-song tones of the ancient Egyptian language with which dear old Mr. Tankerville had rendered me familiar; the air became filled with sounds of the sistrum and the drum, and the tall papyrus grass, as we passed, seemed to send forth in the evening air a long-drawn sigh for the glories past and gone.

In the daytime we pored over Champollion's and Mr. Tankerville's Egyptian grammar; and if at times I smiled indulgently at Hugh's patience and ardent study of a language I believed to be dead, yet I tried to emulate him in my eagerness to master its many difficulties. We set each other daily tasks in conversation, and we each kept a diary written in hieroglyphic and cuneiform characters.

Before we reached Wady-Halfa, however, reason, as represented by my humble self, made a final compact with enthusiasm, as personified by Hugh.

"Look here, Girlie," I said to him one evening, as we sat lazily smoking on the deck of the dahabijeh, "I am only too delighted to join you in any mad adventure upon this dark and interesting continent, and the Libyan desert is as good as any other place for me in which to spend six months in your company; at the same time, I am not sufficiently devoted to science to risk perishing of hunger and thirst in the midst of some terrible wilderness. Now, when Rholfs tried to do the journey which you and I propose to start on, he had to give it up because he found a line of inaccessible and shifting dunes right across his path in the desert."

"He started from Beni-Adin, and Assuan, and …"

"I know. We start from a given point—the tomb of the defunct priest—and you are absolutely convinced that in a straight line due west from that tomb we shall find that the said line of inaccessible dunes is not inaccessible."

"I am absolutely convinced that the Greek priest crossed them."

"Very well; this is my point. If, having started from that tomb and travelled due west, we find that we cannot effect a crossing straight ahead, you must give me your solemn word of honour that you will not entertain any foolish idea of roaming about the desert in search of imaginary ways, which may after all have vanished, nor risk a miserable and inglorious death in the mazes of the arid immensity."

He looked at me and smiled. I was half ashamed of my eagerness and pompous diction, for I had spoken very solemnly.

"I can safely promise you that, old chap, for I am sure we shall find the way."

Hugh had already given me his views on the subject of taking attendants with us on the desert journey.

"What in the world is the good of them?" he asked. "They do not know the way any better than we do, and they would, of course, terribly increase our responsibilities and anxiety. Their only advantage, as far as I can see, is that they look after the camels. Well, old Mark, will you tell me if there is anything in the world that a set of beastly niggers can do, which two resolute and practical Englishmen cannot do equally well, and a great deal better?"

I must confess that I fully endorsed these views. We both were ready to rough it, both had plenty of gumption, and both hated niggers about our persons. The result of our decision was that we elected to spend a month quietly in Wady-Halfa, where we lodged with an old Arab store-dealer and his family, whose ways of talking and walking, of scraping and shuffling, we set ourselves to study and were soon able to closely imitate. We had, of course, decided to start on our desert journey, dressed in the burnous and general rig-out of Arab small traders, this costume being far more cool and comfortable for our purpose than any European suit of ducks, besides being so much less likely to attract attention.

Hugh spoke Arabic like a native, and by the time that our month's probation at Wady-Halfa was over, we both looked as brown, red and other colours of the rainbow as any actual son of the desert soil.

Our host's eldest son, who was a camel-dealer by occupation and a thief by nature, was of great service to us in the choice of the four beasts we would require for our journey. He looked upon us as the most crack-brained Englishmen he had ever come across. He tried hard to cheat us, but as he did not succeed he conceived a violent admiration for us both, and I believe was genuinely sorry to see us go so cheerfully to certain death.

By his aid, and acting under his guidance, we spent that month practically living in constant companionship with the four camels which were to bear us and our equipment on the great journey. We learned their ways, their manners and customs, their wants and requirements, and after the first fortnight could look after a camel better than most Englishmen can look after a horse; and—as we had selected two strong, healthy milchers—we solemnly and conscientiously (oh, shade of Aunt Charlotte!) learned the gentle art of milking, so as to have the delicious and nourishing commodity on our way.

Our equipment was not complicated: we were not going to make astronomical observations, take altitudes, or catalogue the fauna and flora of the wilderness. Our own supply of provisions was as concentrated as modern scientific grocery could make it—meat lozenges and essences of all kinds constituting its main portion: there was our supply of water in gourds, plenty of tobacco and matches, half-a-dozen bottles of brandy, all to last us sixty clear days, by which time, if we had not found the land of wheat and barley of ancient Kamt, we hoped at least to strike the point where the great caravan route to Wadai crosses the interior of the Libyan desert.

Then, if our expedition had proved to be—well! a wild-goose chase, we could perhaps fall in with a caravan, and in a chastened and humbled spirit attach ourselves to it, and in its train travel southwards or northwards as the case might be. This was, of course, very problematical; caravans do not travel along that route very frequently, and it was just as likely as not that, if we ever reached that point, we could comfortably starve by the wayside before we caught sight of a single human soul. Still, as a concession to common sense, this plan served well enough.

We also provided ourselves with sundry soaps and shaving creams, also with a rather more gorgeous change of attire than the one in which we meant to travel, all with a view of presenting a respectable appearance before the highly-civilised people we meant to visit. A good light folding tent and a magnificent compass completed our simple equipment. Moreover, we each carried a rifle and a revolver and a hundred rounds of ammunition, and—well!—we started.

Up to the last moment I fancy that our hosts thought that we would give up our mad undertaking, but when they actually saw us depart, and realised that we seriously meant to cross the desert with four camels and no escort, they shrugged their shoulders with true Oriental placidity. "Our lives," they said, "were our own to throw away."

The tomb of the Greek priest, from which we were, in our turn, to shoot the arrow from the east to the west, was about a couple of miles from Wady-Halfa, and faced straight out across the desert towards the setting sun. Mr. Tankerville had explained to Hugh exactly how to get to it, and late one evening we found our way there, ready to start. It was carved out of the living rock, and, of course, was empty, now that the secrets it had guarded for over two thousand years were safely lodged in The Chestnuts. The paintings on the walls recorded that the priest had been a good and pious man who had offered sacrifices to the gods, and who, I concluded, would be above leading his fellow-men astray.

By the time night came we had pitched our tent four miles from Wady-Halfa. Already we seemed in another world: London, civilisation, hansom cabs and top hats, even the dear old Chestnuts and the museum of mummies and papyri had become akin to dreamland. Hugh looked magnificent in his abajah and white burnous: the Eastern clothes seemed to suit his romantic personality. I am afraid I looked somewhat less impressive than he did, and I felt that in the distant and mysterious land which we were about to visit I should be looked upon merely as Hugh's satellite.

At first I enjoyed the journey immensely. The romance of the adventure, the delightful peace of the vast wilderness, the novelty of the whole thing, and above all, Hugh's companionship, made day follow day in agreeable monotony.

For it was monotony of the most absolute, unvarying order. Day after day the same sky, the same sand and shingle, the same tufts of coarse grass and clumps of seedy palms, the same pools of brackish water, the same glittering pieces of rock, smoothed and polished with the roll of ages, the same, the same, always the same. After a while I got to hate the colour of the sky, the interminable billows of sand, which seemed never to vary in shape or size, but to repeat themselves in weary numbers day after day, week after week. Soon I lost count of time, while we wandered on straight towards the setting sun. Yes, straight! Though sand dunes rose before and round us, steep, rocky tableland, moving shingle, inaccessible heights, yet, straight before us as the arrow flies, from the tomb of the Greek priest to the heart of Osiris, we always found a mountain pass, a way up or round a boulder—a way, in fact, straight on towards the west.

We went forward in the early mornings and late afternoons, and rested during the hot parts of the day and the darker hours of the night. Our worst foe decidedly was ennui, at least it was so as far as I was concerned, though Hugh helped me to pass many weary hours by plunging into his endless store of knowledge about the people we had set out to seek. I could see that, as we wandered on, his belief and enthusiasm never for a moment flagged, and when I expressed my abhorrence of the interminable expanse of shingle and sand he would rouse my spirits by glowing descriptions of what lay beyond.

After the first week we had ceased to perceive the slightest trace of animal life, and this terrible silence, which hangs over the desert like a pall, was more oppressive than words can say. So oppressive was it that one almost longed for the weird cries of the hyenas, which had made the nights hideous in the beginning of our journey.

Then the day came when exactly one-half of our provisions which we had taken with us had been consumed by us and by the beasts, the day after which the question of turning back would become more and more difficult to answer; and still before us sand and shingle, and rising upland, and monotony, and slowly-creeping mortal ennui.

I fought against it honestly as hard as I could. I was ashamed that I, the stronger physically when we started, should be the first to show signs of weakness, but somehow this ennui, caused by the ceaseless, terrible, appalling monotony of the wilderness, and of the slow shambling gait of the camels, developed into a malady which robbed me totally of sleep. Still, I said nothing to Hugh, but I could see that he knew what ailed me, for the efforts he made to distract my thoughts became positively touching.

One night, when we crouched as usual under our tents smoking, I asked:

"Girlie, how long is it since we left Wady-Halfa?"

"Thirty-one days," he replied quietly.

Yes, quietly. He could speak with equanimity of thirty-one times twenty-four hours, of thirty-one times 1440 minutes spent in gazing at the same sand, the same scraps of coarse grass, the same limitless blue sky, the same horizon far away.

"And how many miles do you reckon that we have travelled due west?"

"Nearly six hundred, I should say."

I said nothing more, and he went outside the tent, where I could see him presently gazing out longingly towards the west. I went up to him and put my hand on his shoulder.

"Girlie," I said, "we have wandered thirty-one days in the wilderness. If everything goes at its best, and if we are very economical with our food, we can perhaps wander another thirty and no more."

He did not reply, and I had not the courage or the cowardice to continue with what was going on in my mind. But I knew that he guessed it, for later on in the evening, when we made a fresh start, I saw him examining the various packages on the camels' backs, and, when he thought I was not looking, he hastily passed his hand across his eyes as if he wished to chase away a persistent, unpleasant thought.

Two more days elapsed without any change, save that one of our camels, the one which had given us the best milk, suddenly sickened and died. We left her by the wayside and continued to wander on, but a couple of hours later, when we took our customary midnight rest, Hugh said to me:

"Mark, old fellow, there are three sound camels left. Will you take two and a sufficient amount of provisions and return eastward to-night?"

"And you?"

"I am going on, of course."

"So am I, Girlie."

"I refuse to take you any further, Mark."

"I was not aware that I was being taken, Girlie."

"I was a fool to persuade you to come. I feel morally responsible for your welfare, and …"


"The game is becoming dangerous."

"So much the better, Girlie, it was getting deuced monotonous."

"Will you turn back, Mark?"

"No! I won't. Not without you, at least."

We laid ourselves down to sleep after that, but I don't think that either of us found much rest. I, for one, never closed an eye, and I could hear Hugh tossing about restlessly in his rug on the ground. Towards early dawn I got up and looked out on the ever-monotonous landscape, when, from afar, towards the west, high over head, I saw three or four tiny black specks approaching—birds, of course. I gazed astonished, for it was over three weeks since we had seen any sign of bird or beast. The specks came nearer, and soon I recognised a flight of vultures, attracted, no doubt, by the dead camel we had left on the way, while at the same time, through the oppressive silence around, my ears caught the dismal sound of a pack of hyenas crying in the wilderness. As I turned I saw that Hugh stood behind me; he, too, had seen the carrion beast and heard the melancholy cry. His whole face beamed with a sudden reawakened enthusiasm, and he laid his hand on my shoulder, saying:

"Will you come with me for another five days, Mark? and I promise you that if at the end of that time we have found no further traces that we are on the right track, I will accompany you back to Wady-Halfa. We can be a little more economical with our provisions and make them last out a few days longer than we had intended."

Strangely enough, with the dismal advent of the birds of prey, my enthusiasm seemed to have revived. I think it must have been owing to the sound of other life than ours, through the terrible, unvarying silence. Hugh's promise also comforted me, and for the next three days I delighted him with my reawakened spirits.

One morning, at break of day, as we were loading the camels, Hugh pointed westward.

"The enemy at last, Mark. It is no use attempting to make a start; he will overtake us before we are well on our way. I have been wondering how it was that he has avoided us all this while."

I had read a great deal about sandstorms, and had, when we first started, spoken about the chances of our meeting with one with perfect equanimity. We made what preparations were necessary to meet the enemy: the camels, poor things, were trembling from head to foot. We spread the canvas of our tent right over them and us, and our heads well protected with cloaks and rugs, we could but wait and trust our lives to a higher keeping.

The experience was a terrible one, one that made me forget my ennui and Hugh his visionary dreams. The stunning blows from sand and shingle, the darkness, the fright of the camels, the suffocation, all helped to make me long for that monotony of calm desert sand which I had railed against for so many days.

I think I must have been hit on the back of the head by some sharp loose stone, for I can remember the sensation of a terrible blow and then nothing more. When I recovered consciousness it was with the sensation of brandy trickling down my throat, of an even blue sky above me, and of Hugh's cheerful voice asking me how I felt.

"Just like one gigantic and collapsed sand dune," I murmured.

Indeed it seemed to me as if it ought to be impossible for any one human being to hold as much sand about their person as I did. It was absolutely everywhere: in my mouth, in my eyes, in the brandy which I drank, at the back of my throat, in my shoes, and under the roots of my hair.

"How are the camels?" I asked.

"Badly, I am afraid. One of them refuses to stir."

"Not our milcher, I hope?"

"Unfortunately, yes!"

This was bad business, for the milk had been very delicious and nourishing, and the water, which had been stored in goats' skins, was but a very unpalatable substitute.

The question of going back the way we came was thus finally settled: we had been on the road since thirty-four days, the last pool of stagnant water we had seen was thirty days ago, and that was undrinkable, and we certainly had not water enough to last us another thirty-four days.

"It is obviously a case of 'Forward does it!' old man," I said, "and the sooner we reach that fertile and elusive land the better I shall be pleased."

We covered another fifteen miles westward that day, and as night drew on, it seemed to me as if I had never breathed such delicious and invigorating air as reached us through the folds of our tent. The moon had risen and looked down placidly at the unvarying monotony beneath her, and I, in spite of the peace and silence of the night, could not get to sleep, but tossed about restlessly on my rug, with intervals of short, troubled unconsciousness.

Suddenly something roused me and caused me to sit up listening and wide awake; the cry of the vultures, perhaps, or of a hyena rendered bold in the night. Hugh, too, had jumped up, and I followed him outside the tent, with an unaccountable feeling of something strange in the air round me.

The wilderness, arid and desolate, looked almost poetic as it lay bathed in the moonlight. The stars shone down bright and mysterious overhead; to the south we could see the summits of a long range of hills dimly outlined against the deep indigo of the sky, and before us the great and immeasurable vastness, with its secrets and its mysteries, its evenness and peace, which we had learned to know so well, and yet I could not say what it was that seemed so strange, so unaccountable in the air.

"Can you smell it, Mark?" asked Hugh, suddenly.

Smell it! Yes, that was it! I realised it now; my nostrils had been so long accustomed to the smell of sand, and rugs, and camels that they did not recognise the strange and penetrating scent which filled the air. It was sweet, yet pungent, like a gigantic bouquet of lotus blossoms; the very atmosphere, clear and cool, had become oppressive with this curious scent.

"Where does it come from?" I asked.

We strolled out farther and climbed up the low hillock, at the base of which we had pitched our tent.

When we reached the top of the boulder, and our eyes, as usual, searched the horizon longingly towards the west, we both uttered a cry and gazed outwards, not daring to trust to our senses. There, far ahead, outlined clearly against the dark, starlit canopy of the sky, towered, some thousand feet above the surrounding tableland, a white solitary rock, the summit of which, carved by almighty nature in a moment of playful fancy, was a perfect stone image of a jackal's head: the black cloud of the sirocco had hidden it from our view this morning, and even now we stood, wondering whether our excited brain was not playing our wearied eyes a cruel and elusive trick.

"The Rock of Anubis," whispered Hugh.

All around us the same deathlike silence reigned; the shingle and sand glittered in the moonlight like myriads of diamonds, the rugged upland rose in majestic billows, while the midnight air was filled with the strange, pungent odour of a thousand lotus blossoms, and a score of miles ahead, dominating this wilderness with awesome and mysterious majesty, the Rock of Anubis stood before us as the first tangible sign that Hugh's conjectures were no empty dreams. Perforce we had to wait until dawn to start once more upon our way; the night, lovely as it was, seemed interminably long, and the first streak of light found us loading our two remaining camels. We were both keenly excited now that the end of our journey was near. The ground was very rough, rising over precipitous boulders and crags at times, but nevertheless with a decided downward slope towards the valley in which stood the Rock of Anubis. Our camels were tired and weakened with sparse food; at midday we seemed only to have covered half the distance, and the base of the rock was still hidden from our view.

"Do you notice, Girlie, those white specks which lie dotted about on the ground to the south of the rock?" I remarked to Hugh later in the day.

"Yes, I have been wondering what they are."

The sun was just setting when we at last reached the top of the last boulder that divided us from the valley. The Rock of Anubis now stood before us in its entirety, with the jackal's head sharply silhouetted against the ruddy sky not two miles away.

From its base a path led due south towards the distant long range of hills: it was easily traceable by the numerous white specks which glittered on it, clear and distinct, against the yellow sand. As we emerged with our camels over the crest of the hill a great noise suddenly rent the deathlike stillness of the air, and a gigantic black cloud seemed to rise from the ground. It was a flight of vultures which flew with dismal croaking upwards, while, terrified, a pack of hyenas fled screeching into the wilderness.

Then we saw that the white specks on the ground were human bones, and that the Rock of Anubis towered over a gigantic graveyard.