The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 6



I have no wish to dwell over that vigil in sight of goal. The sufferings of two men, tortured morally and physically, by anxiety and vanishing hope, by hunger and by thirst, by heat and by cold, are neither pleasant nor interesting reading. Personally, all through those dreadful days I never once lost the belief that we should succeed in the end. As a medical student, my faith in an all-guiding Providence, in the God of our childhood, had necessarily become sadly mauled about by my own dissecting knife, but I had spent now nearly sixty days in the desert between earth and sky, away from civilisation, twentieth century, and modern thought, and in the wilderness had forgotten how to scoff, and begun once more to learn how to believe and how to pray; and now in the face of coming success I refused to believe that the same hand which had guided us unerringly so far, would snatch the glorious prize from us, at the moment when our enfeebled arms were stretched out ready to grasp it.

Throughout the long days of suffering, when gnawing hunger and raging thirst made paltry creatures of us both, Hugh's wonderful buoyancy of spirits never forsook him entirely, and many a weary hour did he help to lighten with his picturesque descriptions of the people, whom all the world believed to be dead, but which we knew to be living behind those impenetrable walls.

As I said before, I have no wish to dwell on those ten days during which we incessantly watched that brilliant copper gate glistening with a myriad golden tints in the rising and the setting sun, but my thoughts love to linger on that memorable dawn when, suddenly, as the first rays of the sun peeped out across the immensity of the desert, our ears caught a sound, soft, and low, and distant, which made our hearts stop beating and made our weakened pulses thrill with a newly-awakened hope.

It was a chant, melancholy and monotonous, which reached us like the noise of a swarm of myriads of bees, while at intervals there came the roll of muffled drums far away.

"Can you hear it, Mark?" whispered Hugh.

I nodded.

"It sounds like a funeral dirge."

"Mark! they are bringing a criminal to execution."

I almost caught myself saying "God grant it!" but felt that such a speech would be doubtful in its morality.

The chant came no nearer, but suddenly it seemed as if a vigorous arm struck a ponderous metal gong. Then there was silence, while we waited and looked…

Looked! and saw that the massive copper door was slowly dropping from out its granite frame, throwing out innumerable sparks of glistening light as it moved; it was gradually being lowered by unseen hands, like a drawbridge in one of our ancient Norman castles, until it remained suspended over our heads like a gigantic and glowing canopy.

The chant died away, the sound of muffled drums had ceased, but from where we stood we became aware of shuffling footsteps on the bridge above, and of something weighty being dragged along; there was also the sound of heavy metal, and presently, over the edge, the body of a man was slowly lowered into space.

He was supported round the waist by a broad metal belt; there was a bandage over his eyes, and his arms and legs hung downward, rigid and inert, as if he were dead or in a drugged sleep.

Gradually the body was lowered to the ground until the feet touched it, quite close to where we stood watching, breathless and appalled, this silent and inexorable act of vengeful justice. Then one of the ropes was jerked from above: the criminal, still wrapped in unconsciousness, rolled in the sand at our feet.

There was no time to think of aught save of swift and sudden action.

"Ready, Mark?" whispered Hugh.

And I knew what he meant. With one bound we had jumped ver the body of the condemned man, had passed our arms through the metal belt, and as it was dragged upwards again, it bore two enterprising and victorious Britishers right into the precincts of the jealously-guarded land.

We had managed to get a foothold on the bridge, and to loosen our grasp of the belt, just before it was vigorously jerked over its edge, and was dragged away into the darkness before us by the same invisible hands which had presided over the execution. Before us there yawned what looked like a dark and gigantic tunnel. There was no time for hesitation, nor any desire on our part to delay. Quickly we walked across the bridge; already it was beginning to be raised upwards. Soon the light from outside became more and more narrow, then disappeared altogether. There was no sound, no clash as the ponderous gate shut to; everything remained as silent as the vast grave behind it, but we were for good or for evil—for ever, probably—prisoners in ancient Kamt!

We could see nothing at first, but we seemed to be in a tunnel or cave, so dark was it, and it was only after a few moments that, our eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom, we saw that we were standing on a platform of granite, while before us a flight of steps led downwards. At irregular intervals a thin fillet of light filtrated down from above. The atmosphere was hot and heavy, a faint and penetrating scent, as of some burning aromatic herbs, rendering it peculiarly oppressive. In the far distance we could hear the sound of retreating, shuffling footsteps, those of the executioners, no doubt, who had done the grim work of execution, and as they died away we became aware of a strange, hissing sound, which seemed to come from somewhere below where we stood.

"Welcome to Kamt, old fellow," said Hugh in a whisper; "there is no turning back now. Here we are!"

"Go ahead, Girlie," I rejoined; "the adventure has become decidedly interesting."

"Will you follow me, Mark?"

"To the death, Girlie!" I said.

"Silence, then, till further orders!"

And cautiously, in the darkness, we began to descend. The hissing sound had become louder. I obeyed and followed Hugh, but my hand was on his arm, ready to drag him back, for I had a presentiment of what was to come. We had gone down some twenty steps or so, when suddenly before us, just beneath the shaft of light which illumined their sleek and shiny bodies, two cobras rose, hissing and beating the air with their heads. We had instinctively drawn back before the grim and loathsome guardians of the secrets of Kamt, but obviously hesitation was death. Already the reptiles were creeping up the granite steps towards us; in the thin streak of light we could see their forked tongues glistening like tiny darts of silver. Hugh had quickly torn the burnous from off his shoulders; I had done likewise.

"Swiftly does it, Mark," he said.

"I'll tackle the left one, Girlie, you the right," I replied, "and let us hope to God there are no more of them below."

As Hugh had said, it was a case of "Swiftly does it!" Our burnouses were large and heavy, fortunately, and violently we threw them right over the venomous reptiles and smothered their hisses in the ample folds of the draperies: then, without looking behind us, we fled down the steps.

Soon the staircase began to widen, and from below a strange blue light reached upwards. We could distinguish the walls on either side of us, of black, polished granite, like the steps, on which our feet slipped as we flew. We were evidently nearing the bottom, for we could see a wide archway before us, which seemed to frame in a flood of weird, blue light, and presently we found ourselves on a circular landing, supported all round by enormous, massive columns of the same black granite, smooth and funereal-looking, without a trace of carving or ornamentation of any kind.

Each side of the stairway we could dimly distinguish the monstrous feet and legs of some huge figures, the bodies of which were lost above us in the gloom. In the centre stood a massive tripod of bronze, supporting a bowl of the same dark metal from which issued a blue flame, that flickered weird and ghostlike over the polished stone, leaving dark, impenetrable shadows behind the pillars, and making the air oppressive with the penetrating fumes of incense and burning herbs.

At the farther end of this hall a curtain made of some dull black stuff hung in heavy folds, and beyond it we could faintly hear the murmur of a distant chant, accompanied by some stringed instruments and drums.

"There is nothing for it, Mark, but to go straight on," said Hugh; "the burning incense and the pillars suggest to me the rear of some temple through which probably the condemned criminals have to pass on their last journey. We must trust to our good luck that we are not discovered in the very place where we have the least right to be."

We crossed the great black hall, and Hugh pushed aside the curtain!…

It seemed like the sudden bursting of golden dawn after a dark night. Behind and all round us, black granite, dull bronze, dense shadows, the atmosphere of a threshold to the grave; before us, a glittering radiance of gorgeous colours, a vista of marble columns and golden pillars, a vision of splendours in enamels and gems such as we, in our sober, Western civilisation, have never even dreamed of.

Immediately in front of us, occupying the centre of an inner sanctuary, there towered upon a pedestal of burnished copper and gold a mammoth figure carved in rose-coloured spotless marble. As we were behind the figure we could only see high above us, half lost in a hovering cloud of incense, the gigantic head crowned with a tiara which literally blazed with gems. A flight of steps covered with sheets of polished copper led up to the statue of the god, and on each step an immense bronze candelabrum stood, supporting great bowls, from which a flickering blue flame emerged, throwing fantastic and ghostly lights on the dull red of the copper, the purity of the marble, the jewels on the head of the god.

The roof above us was lost in the clouds of incense and burning herbs, but from it somewhere high above our heads there hung on metal chains innumerable lamps of exquisite design and workmanship. A solemn peace reigned in the majestic vastness of the temple, only from somewhere, not very far, a sweet, monotonous chant reached our ears, sung by many young, high-pitched voices, and accompanied by occasional touches on stringed instruments and beating of muffled drums.

Cautiously we advanced round the pedestal of the god and looked straight before us. The inner sanctuary was divided from the main body of the temple by a gossamer veil of silver tissue, which looked almost like a tall cloud of incense, rising up to the invisible roof and floating backwards and forwards with a gentle, sighing sound when it was fanned by a sudden current of air. Through it we could only vaguely see row upon row of massive marble pillars of the same rose-hued marble, stretching out before us in seemingly interminable lengths, and here and there great tripods of bronze, with bowls filled with many-coloured lights, which flickered on the granite floor and on the columns, bringing at times into bold relief bits of delicate tracery or quaint designs in bright-coloured enamels. The picture, low in tone, delicately harmonious, in a blending of blue and green and purple, was a perfect feast to the eye.

Hugh had left the protection of the great pedestal and had just stepped forward with a view to exploring further the beautiful building into which Fate had so kindly led us, when the chant we had heard all along suddenly sounded dangerously near, and hastily we both retreated up the copper flight of stairs, and each found shelter immediately behind the huge marble tibias of the presiding god.

In spite of danger and risks of discovery, I could not resist the temptation of craning my neck to try and catch sight at last of the inhabitants of this strange and mystic land, and I could see that Hugh's dark head also emerged out of his safe hiding-place.

Beyond the filmy, gossamer veil something seemed to have detached itself from the gloom and the massive pillars and was slowly coming towards us. I almost held my breath, wondering what my first impression would be of the great people we had come so far to find.

They advanced in single file, and gradually the outline of the most forward became clearer and more distinct. They were young girls draped in clinging folds of something soft and low-toned in colour; they walked very slowly towards the inner sanctuary—straight towards us, as I thought. Some held quaint, crescent-shaped harps, from which their fingers drew low, monotonous chords. Others beat the sistrum or a small drum, and all were chanting with sweet, young voices the same invocation or prayer, which had been the first sound of life that had greeted us from beyond the gates of Kamt. There were a hundred or more of these fair daughters of the mysterious land, and fascinated, I gazed upon them and listened to their song, heedless of the danger we were running should we be discovered. They looked to me as if they had been carved out of an old piece of ivory; their skins looked matt and smooth, and their eyes—abnormally large and dark—stared straight before them as they approached.

The foremost one I thought must be looking absolutely at me, and I, as if enthralled, did not attempt to move; and then I saw that those eyes, so brilliant and so dark, stared unseeing, sightless before them.

The first songstress had passed and turned, still leaving the gossamer veil between us; the second followed, and then another and another. They all filed past us, walking slowly and beating their instruments, and grouped themselves on the steps of the sanctuary, some crouching, others standing, and each as she turned and passed stared straight before her towards the god, with the same lifeless, sightless gaze.

I shuddered and looked towards Hugh. He too had noticed the vacant look of the young girls; he too stared at them, pale and appalled, and I guessed that he too wondered whether Nature had smitten all these young beings in the same remorseless way, or whether the same hands that cast out their fellow-creatures from their homes and doomed them to slow starvation in the wilderness had taken this terrible precaution to further guard the mysteries of the land of Kamt.

But we had no leisure to dwell for any length of time upon a single train of thought. The picture, full of animation and gorgeousness, changed incessantly before our eyes, like a glittering pageant and ever-moving, brilliant kaleidoscope. Now it was a group of men in flowing yellow robes, tall and gaunt, with sharp features, and heads shorn of every hair, till their crowns looked like a number of ivory balls; now a procession of grotesque masks representing heads of beasts—crocodiles, rams, or cows, with the full moon between their horns; now a number of women with gigantic plaited wigs, which gave their bodies a grotesque and distorted appearance; and now stately figures carrying tall, golden wands headed with sundry devices wrought in enamel and gems. And among them all there towered one great, imposing, central figure, who, after he had stood for awhile with arms stretched upwards facing the mammoth god, now turned towards the multitude of priests and priestesses, and in a loud voice pronounced over them an invocation or a blessing. He was an old man, for his face was a mass of wrinkles, but his eyes, dark and narrow, shone with a wonderful air of mastery and domination. His crown was shaved, as was also his face, but on his chin there was a short tuft of curly hair standing straight out—an emblem of power in ancient Egypt. Over his white flowing robes he wore a leopard's skin, the head of which hung over his chest, with eyes formed of a pair of solitary rubies.

Fortunately the gossamer veil still hung between us and the group of priests. The sanctuary itself was more dimly lighted than the main body of the temple; we therefore had not yet been discovered, and if no one pushed aside the protecting curtain we were evidently safe for the moment.

Suddenly a terrific fanfare of silver trumpets and beating of metal gongs, accompanied by prolonged shouting from thousands of throats, prepared us for another tableau in the picturesque series.