The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 5
THE GATES OF KAMT
We were forced to encamp in the very midst of this weird desolation. A thousand conflicting conjectures chased one another in our bewildered minds. What was the explanation of this strange and solitary abode of the dead? who were these whose whitening bones were left to mingle with the sand and shingle of the desert?
"The wandering hordes of Egypt, who found death on this spot after ceaseless roaming in the desert," was my first suggestion; obviously a foolish one, for Hugh quietly pointed to one or two skeletons on which the flesh still hung.
"None of these skeletons have been here more than ten years, I should say," he remarked.
"A battle-field, then, where some wild tribes of the desert have lately fought a bloody battle."
But he shook his head.
"There is not a single skeleton of beast among them."
"Anyhow, it is horrible," I said.
"Horrible? Well! perhaps it is. But I feel convinced that it marks the end of our journey."
"Do you think, then, that we shall add our British bones to this interesting collection?" I asked.
"No, I don't, Mark. But I think that after we have had a night's rest we shall follow this path, which obviously leads southward to that distant range of hills."
"About another twenty miles?"
"Behind it lies the land of wheat and barley of ancient Kamt."
I looked across the horizon, where the crests of those distant hills caught the last rays of the setting sun, and again I could smell the strange and pungent odour of lotus blossoms, which brought back to my memory visions of the great people in gorgeous garments and gems, and of palaces and temples, such as sober, twentieth-century moderns can hardly conceive.
I wanted to start at once, the path seemed so clear.
"Am I to be the cautious one this time, Mark?" said Hugh, with a smile. "We are not going to jeopardise success, just when it lies so near."
"That's so, old man," I replied with my old flippancy. "I had better occupy myself with brushing up those Egyptian prepositions and personal pronouns. I feel I shall have need of them soon, if I don't want to disgrace myself."
I am afraid that that night we spent a considerable amount of time in foolish vanity. We dared not waste our minute provision of water, but we indulged in a shave with the patent cream, brushed our clothes, and generally endeavoured to assume a respectable appearance. The poor camels were very sick, and we were much afraid that one of them at least might not manage another day's march. However, neither of us felt as if we could leave the poor creature behind, and lightening its load as much as possible, we all four started to walk southward in the early morning. I must say it was not cheerful walking on the road: skulls and skeletons lay in great numbers, and black ravens and vultures, disturbed in their grim meal by our footsteps, hovered over our heads, filling the air with their dismal croaking; but, against that, each step brought us nearer to that range of hills behind which, both our convictions told us, there lived the people who used the wilderness as a burying-place for their dead.
Hugh felt convinced that those people would appear before us in all the glory of ancient Egypt: I, less sanguine, dared hope no more than that they would prove to be a friendly desert tribe, who would give us the means of returning to civilisation once more.
The road, at first, had wound round a number of low and rugged boulders, but now, after a last sharp turn southward, it lay even and flat, stretching out for many miles before us; and as I looked straight along it, it seemed to me as if I saw an object moving in the distance.
"Can you see it too, Girlie?" I asked. But there was no need for a reply, for Hugh was staring, with eyes literally blazing with excitement, on that moving object.
"A bird?" I suggested.
"No, a man!"
"Yes, a man! He seems to be gesticulating furiously."
"Now he has started to run."
"It is becoming decidedly exciting, Girlie," I said.
We had paused beside our camels, who, hungry and half dead with thirst, had lain down in the road. We waited, hardly daring to speak.
Already we could see clearly the silhouette of the man, tall and gaunt, with long, thin arms, which he waved frantically in the air, brandishing what I at first took to be a club or axe. Then, through the silence of the air, we suddenly heard his cries, which seemed to me like the dismal howls of the carrion beasts of the desert. His hair, which was long, and looked dark, flew about his head. He was naked save for a tattered loin-cloth around him. A few more minutes of suspense and the next moment the man—or apparition, so gaunt and weird was it—had rushed up towards us, and throwing out his arms had fallen on his knees, uttering hoarse and piercing cries:
"Osiris! Anubis! Mercy! Pardon!"
Without a word Hugh turned towards me with a look it were impossible to describe: the words the poor wretch uttered were unmistakably ancient Egyptian. The creature, which seemed hardly human, had crawled at our feet, and his great dark eyes stared upwards at us with a mixture of awe and maniacal terror, and as he crouched before us, to my horror I noticed that what he held in his hand was a human thighbone, half covered with flesh, which he began to gnaw, while uttering the desolate shrieks of a hyena, mingled with the appealing sounds:
"Osiris! Anubis! Pardon! Mercy!"
I must confess that I felt absolutely paralysed with the horror of the situation and the awful dread, which struck me with the chillness of death. Had we toiled and travelled a thousand miles across the terrible wilderness only to find some half-human creatures who lived on the flesh of their kindred, almost deprived of reason through their brutishness, who had forgotten the glorious civilisation of the past in a present of suffering and scantily-eked-out livelihood? I remembered the golden visions of art and majesty which the name of ancient Egypt always evokes, then I looked down upon the creature who babbled that vanished tongue and wondered if, after five thousand years, its people had come to this.
Some such thoughts must have crossed Hugh's mind too, for it was some time before he brought himself to speak to the thing at his feet.
"Be at peace, my son, thou art pardoned."
No wonder the poor creature, as it looked up, mistook Hugh Tankerville for one of its gods. He looked simply magnificent. His face, worn thin and ascetic through the privations of the past few weeks, appeared strangely impressive and ethereal; his eyes were very large and dark, and his great height and breadth of shoulders were further enhanced by the long, white burnous which draped him from head to foot. Still, I thought that it was a decidedly bold thing to do for a born Londoner to suddenly assume the personality of an Egyptian god, and to distribute mercy and pardon with a free hand on the first comer who happened to ask for it.
The poor wretch, somewhat comforted, had turned again to his loathsome meal.
"Whence comest thou?" asked Hugh.
"I was cast out from Kamt," moaned the unfortunate creature, as, evidently overcome by some terrible recollections, he threw himself down once more at our feet and repeated his piteous cry:
"Osiris! Anubis! Mercy! Pardon!"
Thus it was that from this poor dying maniac we first heard with absolute certainty that the papyrus had not lied. Evidently he, like the other unfortunate wretches whose bones littered the desert sands, had been driven out of the fertile land beyond the hills and left to become a prey to the vultures of the wilderness, and slowly to die in the midst of terrible tortures of hunger, thirst and isolation.
"They don't seem to be very pleasant people to deal with out there," I remarked, "if this is an example of their retributive justice."
Hugh looked down at the man at his feet.
"Why wast thou cast out?" he asked.
The maniac looked up, astonished, perhaps, that a god should have need to ask such questions. I could see in his eyes that he was making a vigorous effort to recollect something in the past, then he said:
"How beautiful is thy temple, oh, all-creating Ra! … so beautiful … and so dark … so jealously guarded … no one knows what lies beyond.… I tried to know … to learn thy secrets. I know now!… the valley of death, whence no man returns, the valley of earth and sky, where hunger gnaws the vitals and thirst burns the throat … where evil birds croak of eternal darkness, and vile beasts prowl at night …"
He was trembling from head to foot, and his eyes, quite wild with terror, watched a black raven close by, which had alighted on a skull and was picking some debris of flesh out of the hollow sockets of the eyes.
"Give me sleep, oh Anubis!" he moaned, "and rest … eternal sleep … and rest … and rest …"
"He is dying," I said, kneeling down beside the maniac and supporting his head. "Give me some brandy, Girlie."
"I think it would be kinder to knock him on the head; this prolonged agony is terrible. What fiends, I wonder, invented this awful mode of dealing with criminals?"
"Well! we shall know soon enough. I wish he could manage to tell us how he came across those hills, and how best we can find our way."
I had poured a few drops of brandy down the dying maniac's throat; it revived him momentarily, for he gave a gasp and murmured:
"Is this thy fire, oh! Osiris?"
"It is life," said Hugh.
"Life is a curse outside the gates of Kamt."
"Then thou must endeavour to go back to Kamt."
And the dying man whispered, after a pause, while his head rolled from side to side upon his shoulders:
"The gates are closed for ever that cast out the evil-doer.… No one can enter Kamt, but thou, oh! Osiris, on thy crested eagle, or thou, Anubis, astride on thy winged jackal."
He had begun to wander again in the realms of merciful oblivion; his eyes gradually closed, while his lips continued to murmur:
"Take thou my soul, oh! Anubis.… Pardon.… Mercy…. The gates are guarded … I cannot return.… Oh, great and glorious land of Kamt … where eternal streams flow between marble dwellings and gardens of lotus and lilies … where at night Isis smiles down on the beautiful daughters of Kamt … dark-eyed and slim as the white gazelles of the fields … I shall not behold thy loveliness again … my soul flies from my body … already … I feel thy hand … oh! Anubis! guiding me to that mysterious land … where dwelleth Ra … and where thou sittest in judgment, oh, Osiris, the Most High.…"
Obviously it would have been inhuman to try and drag the flitting soul back to earth and suffering. I even thought that it was cruelty to try and prolong his life with brandy and restoratives. I shuddered as I looked round at the terrible wilderness, and as the conviction was forced upon me that these skeletons and debris of human creatures were the records of thousands of such lonely tragedies as we were now witnessing, since the great hordes of Egypt had found a home in the mysterious oasis of the desert.
For of this fact now there could be no doubt. The dying maniac had, with his last breath, blown away the few remaining clouds of doubt that sat upon my mind.
"I think he is dead," I said after a long pause, whilst I looked around for some hollow where I could put the body in safety from the carrion.
"May God have more mercy on his soul than human justice has had on his body," said Hugh, looking down compassionately on the gaunt form of the dead criminal.
We improvised a grave for him. At least he, who had drawn before us the first picture of the land we had come out to seek, should not become a prey to the vultures. It certainly had not been a cheerful picture: people who would invent so terrible a form of punishment, and carry it out wholesale, were not likely to be very kindly disposed towards strangers.
"I cannot understand our late friend's talk about the gates being closed for ever. Surely an entire country cannot be closed up with gates!" I said, after we had thrown a few handfuls of earth and shingle over the body of the unfortunate wretch.
"I imagine that those hills are very precipitous, probably very difficult of access, save perhaps through some passes or valleys across which the gates may have been built."
"Anyhow, we had better go straight on and trust to the same good luck which has brought us so far."
"Do you wonder that an elderly Greek priest should at such a juncture have retraced his steps homewards?"
"No, I don't.… But our late friend drew such a picture of marble halls and dark-eyed girls, that I, for one, am determined to demand admittance into that jealously-guarded land, in my new capacity as one of its gods."
Unfortunately, as already we had feared, one of our camels now absolutely refused to make a move. It meant, therefore, that we should have to make the rest of the journey on foot, with as small a supply of food and water as possible, as our sole surviving beast of burden was too weak to be very heavily loaded, and would also probably break down in a few hours. Distances are terribly delusive in the desert, and the hills, which at one time had appeared but a few miles from us, seemed no nearer after a whole day's march. Darkness overtook us, seemingly without our having made much progress southward. We were tired out, and pitched our tent on the wayside. In the early morning our first look was for the hills beyond; they did not appear more than five miles away, and as the sun rose higher in the east its rays suddenly caught one spot on those distant rocks: a large square patch, some hundred feet from the valley beneath, which glistened like a sheet of gold.
"The gates of Kamt, I am sure," said Hugh.
We started with renewed vigour, and late in the afternoon we reached the foot of the hills. But gradually, as we drew nearer, we realised the truth of the mysterious sayings of the doomed criminal cast out into the desert: "None can enter Kamt, but thou, Osiris, on thy crested eagle, or thou, Anubis, astride on thy winged jackal!"
The range of hills which surrounded the mystic land, an oasis in the midst of the awful wilderness, rose abrupt and precipitous to a height of two and even three hundred feet; they rose side by side in one uninterrupted chain of heights. Like the other rocks of the desert which we had traversed, the incessant action of the sand had polished the stone till every boulder had worn away, leaving a smooth and slippery surface which defied the foot of man.
Immediately facing the road, across the wilderness, there had once been a wide valley between two hills: now it had been built in—by those same hands which had fashioned the pyramid of Ghizeh—with monstrous blocks of granite, placed tier upon tier till they formed a gigantic inverted pyramid sloping out towards the desert from the ground on which its apex rested, while its two sides were encased in the rock right and left.
Some hundred feet above us, in the wall of this mammoth inverted pyramid, there was a huge, solid slab of burnished copper, which glittered with a hundred ruddy colours in the morning sun. As far as our eyes could reach, where Nature had failed to make the chain of rocks uninterrupted, where any break in the line of hills, or any valley occurred, the great people, who had been cast forth by the stranger into the wilderness, and had found beyond it a paradise, had blocked it with gigantic slabs of granite, which barred every entrance to the new home they were so jealous to guard.
"Unless we fly, old man, we cannot get in by this gate," I remarked.
"No! and I expect that every entrance to this mysterious land is guarded in the same impenetrable way."
"We must try and get over these hills somehow. Surely there is a valley or mountain pass somewhere."
"I am absolutely convinced that there is none."
"Then what do you propose to do?"
"For the present, nothing … wait …"
"We have provisions here which, with the strictest economy, will last us six or eight days," I remarked casually.
"Exactly. And that is why we cannot afford to go wandering at random in search of imaginary entrances to the stronghold. This entrance is here, above us; we know it, it stands before us, and that is the way we must try to get in."
"But it seems very hermetically closed."
"But it will open again," said Hugh, eagerly. "Listen, Mark. I have reckoned it all out. The poor starving wretch had been cast out say ten or twelve days before we met him, which was two days ago. Ten more days say, during which we can still manage to hold out, making twenty-four days altogether or thereabouts from the time that the copper gate was last opened. Now, assuming that this Elysium has an average of not less than one evil-doer a month, I propose that we wait here until the next unfortunate wretch is hurled out onto the ground where we stand."
"Even granting," I objected, "that everything will happen exactly as you imagine—which, by the way, things never do—the gate when it opens will still be a hundred feet above us, and we can neither of us fly."
"Mark, old chap, reflect a moment. Had our late informant any broken bones?"
"Therefore he was not dropped from an altitude of a hundred feet, and the same object which lowers the criminal into the valley of death will be the means of our effecting an entrance into the fortress."
Hugh was quite right, of course. Obviously there was nothing else we could do but wait. I had no other suggestion to make, and set to work to revise our commissariat. We found that, by the strictest economy, we could divide our water and food supply into eight equal parts. Eight days we could sit and wait opposite that slab of burnished copper, waiting for admittance to the strange and mysterious land which, now that we were near it, seemed farther off than ever. It was a curious vigil, for we never moved out of sight of the glowing gate, but watched it ceaselessly, never both sleeping at the same time. But day followed day in endless monotony beneath hot noonday sun and cool silvery moon. At times we thought that our ears caught strange sounds of sweet music, and every now and then the air was filled with the penetrating odour of myrrh and lotus blossom.
Day followed day, while we lived, as it were, only through our eyes ; we were no longer conscious of heat or cold, of the terrible wilderness around us, the thousands of skeletons which told a tale of inexorable justice and vengeance, of a great people, indomitable and masterful, of the weird cries of the hyenas, and the vultures which hovered over our heads, scenting the approach of death. We fought against Nature, who tried to conquer us by hunger and thirst, by weakened nerves and by drowsiness; we allowed our minds free play, and through that grey and frowning barrier, our eyes rendered far-seeing by suffering and enforced asceticism, we saw the marble halls, the gardens of lotus blossoms, the endless rivers and fragrant glades; we saw the procession of priests and priestesses, heard the sound of the sistrum and the harp, smelled the incense, and gazed at the dark-eyed dwellers of this land of paradise, and in these visions and these dreams forgot the awful doom which, with slow and sure footsteps, approached stealthily and threatened to close our eyes for ever in the sight of the opening paradise.