The Gates of Kamt/Chapter 7



This time it was a litter, which, borne on the shoulders of swarthy, abnormally tall men, detached itself from the distant shadows, and as it approached, suddenly one and all, priests and priestesses, songsters and harpists, prostrated themselves on the ground, touching the granite floor with their foreheads. Only the tall central figure—the high priest evidently—remained standing with arms outstretched, as if in benediction, towards the approaching litter. On it, in the midst of rose-silk cushions and draperies, which helped to enhance the ghastly pallor of his face, there reclined a man—little more than a youth, yet with the foreshadowing of death marked in every line of his countenance: in the deep, sunken eyes, the wax-like tone of the skin, the damp, matted hair which clung to the high forehead, polished like a slab of ivory. He looked strangely pathetic as he lay there, surrounded by so much richness and pomp, his head trembling beneath the weight of a gigantic diadem—the double crown of Egypt, in crimson and white enamel chased with gold, with the royal uræus encircling the pallid brow—the crown, in fact, which is so familiar to every reader of Egyptian mysteries, the crown which told us more plainly than any of the wonders we had seen hitherto that we had penetrated in very truth to the midst of the great people who gave to the astonished world the first glimpses of a wonderful and vanished civilisation.

Hugh, I could see, was, with sheer excitement, almost as pale as the great Pharaoh who lay upon his gorgeous litter; for Pharaoh he was, ruler of a Lower and Upper Egypt, the same as those of his ancestors, of whom we poor Western folk have known, and as all those of whom we know nothing must have been, since they brought their high civilisation, their gorgeous art, their knowledge and beauty to this mysterious oasis in the midst of the ocean of wilderness.

Heavily enough did the noble diadem seem to rest upon the head of the present scion of a thousand kings. Half-fainting he lay among the cushions, while his hands, which were covered with rings and gems, toyed listlessly with a pair of tiny apes, who disturbed the solemn majesty of the temple by their shrill and incessant chatter, while I felt my very brain reeling when I realised that I, Mark Emmett, M.D., of London, a prosy British medical practitioner, was absolutely gazing with my own eyes at a living, a breathing, a real Pharaoh.

A large retinue of trumpeters and gorgeous attendants, too numerous and wonderful for my poor reeling senses to take in all at once, were standing round the Pharaoh's litter, which was placed a little to the left of the solemn high priest; then suddenly, once again, all those present beat the ground with their foreheads, and I saw a second litter approach, borne by eight men of almost negro-like complexion. This litter was draped in funereal black, with here and there a glint of gold and jewels, and on it there half crouched, half lay a most beautiful woman. She could not have been very young, for there was an obvious look of maturity about her voluptuous figure and graceful pose, but the black of the draperies set off to perfection the ivory whiteness of her shoulders and arms. (A fact of which I doubt not but that the lady was fully aware, for surely the daughters of this mystic country have some of the charming weaknesses of their more sophisticated sisters of the North.) Her small head looked regal beneath the lovely diadem, in shape like a crouching ibis, which we all know so well, and from the top of her head to her tiny sandalled feet she seemed one gorgeous glittering mass of gems. Her garment—the little of it there was was—clinging soft and silky, and of the same most becoming funereal hue.

Her litter had been placed beside that of the Pharaoh, of whom I vaguely wondered if he were her husband, for he seemed, in spite of his ailing look, to be a great deal younger than she. Round the two central personages I caught sight of a great many people, some with tall wands, others with garments covered with devices and hieroglyphics, of groups of naked slaves, and of musicians with sistrum and harps.

The high priest and his satellites were standing with their backs towards us, in a dense group facing the Pharaoh and the royal lady. I could not see what they were doing, but heard the high priest recite one after another a number of short invocations, and presently I heard the bleating of a lamb, while the priestesses again intoned one of their monotonous chants. I was thankful then that I could not see what was going on—a sacrifice, no doubt, to the deity behind whose tibia we crouched. Then the high priest raised his voice, and even my unscholarly ears caught, clearly and distinctly, the words, which he uttered slowly and solemnly in the language which the scientific world of Europe has believed to be dead:

"Oh, arise, Ammon-Ra! Thou self-creating God!

"Isis and Nephthys attend upon Thee!

"Ra! Thou, who givest all goodness, Ra! who dost Thyself create!

"Thou hast caused the vault of heaven to rejoice, by the greatness of Thy soul!

"The earth of Kamt doth fear Thee, oh, Sparrow-hawk, that art thrice holy! oh, Eagle, that art blessed!

"Oh, great lion, who defendest Thyself, and dost ope the way to the ship of Sekti!

"King of Heaven! Lord of the Earth! Great image in the two horizons of Heaven!

"Ra! Creator of the world!

"May the son of Osiris, Pharaoh, the Holy, be reverenced through Thy merits!

"Hail to Thee!

"Descend on the Pharaoh! Give him thy merits in Heaven, Thy powers upon earth!

"Oh, Ra, Who hast made the heavens rejoice, and made the earth tremble with holy fear!"

I did not understand every word, but caught the general tone of the invocation, which went on in similar short sentences for some considerable time, while a smell of burnt flesh began to fill the air, quickly smothered by a pungent odour of aromatic herbs.

"Behold! Ra has accepted thy sacrifice, oh! Maatkha, and thine, oh! holy Pharaoh! He has opened wide the portals of his wisdom to his High Priest, who stands ready to answer thee, and to advise if thou wilt question him."

Then a woman's voice, deep and musical—that of the Queen—replied:

"Dismiss thy priests and priestesses, then, for I would be alone with thee!"

And as solemnly as they had entered, at a sign from the high priest all rose to their feet and slowly filed out of the temple, till there remained in the vast building no one, besides ourselves, save the high priest, and the Pharaoh and the Queen upon their litters, borne high on the shoulders of their black slaves. (These, I concluded, were deaf or mute, or both, for they stood as rigid as statues, with a vacant, semi-idiotic look on their dark faces.)

When the Queen was fully satisfied that her entire entourage had gone, she raised herself a little on her litter and began eagerly:

"My son is sick unto death, Ur-tasen. Yesterday again a veil like that of death lay over him for nigh upon an hour. His physicians are ignorant fools. I wish to know if he will live."

"Thy son will live for a year and a day," replied the high priest, solemnly.

I don't know where he had gathered this somewhat enigmatical piece of information. Certainly, if it related to the sick youth before him, it did not need any spiritual powers to gain knowledge of so obvious a fact. The Pharaoh, however, if it was his chance of life which was being so openly discussed, seemed not to trouble himself about it at all. He yawned once or twice very audibly, and amused himself by teasing his hideous little apes, taking no heed whatever of the solemn high priest, nor of the royal lady, his mother.

"Thou art ever ready with evasive answers, Urtasen," said the Queen, with an impatient frown. "It is meet that the Pharaoh, when he attains his twenty-first year, shall take unto himself a princess of royal blood for wife. But if Ra has decreed that the sickness of which he suffers shall ultimately cause his death, then it is not meet that he continue ruling over the great people of Kamt, for his hand will soon be too weak to safely guide their destinies."

"Ra has placed thee beside the throne of the holy Pharaoh to guide his hand when it begins to tremble," said the high priest.

"But when the hand is stiff and cold, Ur-tasen, I have no other son to share the throne of Kamt with me."

"Then thy hour will have come, oh, Queen! A woman cannot rule over Kamt, if there be no husband or son to sit upon the throne beside her. Thy hour will have come, together with that peace which Isis doth give to those she loves, and thou wilt be happy, far from the turmoil of thy court and the glitter of thy crown."

But this charming prospect did not seem to appeal to the royal lady, for she leaned forward on her litter, while her small hands nervously clutched at the black silk cushions.

"There would be no peace for me, Ur-tasen; for if the Pharaoh die childless, which I fear is Ra's decree, then my crown and his shall pass on to the heads of those whom I abhor."

"If the Pharaoh die childless," repeated the high priest, calmly, "the crown must inevitably fall from thy head on to that of Neit-akrit of the house of Usem-Ra."

How strange that name sounded in the mouth of the high priest! Neit-akrit! My Queen, as I used to call her! Neit-akrit, of whom Mr. Tankerville originally spoke! She had a namesake then in this land which was her own; or had her shade come wandering back after the lapse of centuries, to fascinate our senses and our minds with the mystic charm of her personality? Evidently, however, Queen Maat-kha was not under the magic spell of that name as I was, for a look of violent rage and hatred suddenly marred all the beauty of her face.

"Thou liest, Ur-tasen!" she said.

"Woman! Queen though thou be," retorted the high priest, "hold thy sacrilegious tongue, lest thou see the heavenly thunder crush thee and thy throne before the feet of Ra!"

Humbly Maat-kha bowed her proud head at this severe reprimand, and it was with softened, almost appealing tones that she said:

"I hate Neit-akrit of the house of Usem-Ra."

"The gods care naught for human loves or hates," pronounced the high priest, coldly.

"Neit-akrit is young …"

"And the gods have made her fair to look upon," said the high priest, with more enthusiasm, I thought, than his venerable appearance warranted.

"She is vain and frivolous," added the Queen, with unconcern, which was obviously affected, for I could see that she was watching the effect of her words upon the priest's face, "and she seldom gives offerings to the gods and their priests."

"Age will bring wisdom," he replied quietly.

"It will not, Ur-tasen," she began with more vehemence, while she raised herself on her litter and drew closer to the priest. "See! I have brought here rich offerings for Ra; emeralds from my mines beyond Se-veneh, sapphires and rubies from Ta-bu. I have brought ostrich feathers as long as a man's arm, and oil from the sacred tree of Hana, in the garden of my palace. I have brought thee rare pigeons from my aviaries, and an ibis whose plumage is like the opening petals of the lotus blossom. I have brought thee enough gold dust to strew the steps of the altar of the god. Rich gifts and rare, sweet herbs and brilliant gems, that thou mayest pray to Osiris, that he find some other head on which to place the crown of Kamt, than that of hated Neit-akrit."

"But she is thine own sister's child! Thou canst not hate her. Thou wouldst not see the crown of Kamt on the head of a stranger?"

I thought this a very weak speech on the part of the high priest. Evidently the visions of those emeralds and sweet-scented herbs, or perhaps the pigeons from the royal garden, had shaken his enthusiasm for the absent Neit-akrit.

"I humbled myself before her and asked her to wed my son. She laughed at me and vouchsafed no answer."

At this point, for the first time, the sick youth showed some interest in the conversation; he pushed the chattering apes roughly to one side, and over his pale, wan face there came such a look of acute mental suffering that, for the first time since I had trodden upon this strange land, my heart felt the presence of a fellow-being and went out to him accordingly.

Then the Queen made a sign to one of the black giants who stood behind her, and he came forward carrying a gold casket, which he placed on the ground before the high priest. I could not see its contents, bnt noticed how Ur-tasen made pretence of looking above and beyond it, and concluded that they must have been very tempting.

"Ten white oxen await outside, oh, Ur-tasen," whispered the Queen; "each is laden with two caskets, the contents of which are richer far than these."

"But what dost thou ask of me?"

"Give life to my son!"

"The gods alone can do that. I am but mortal. Death is in my hands, but not life."

"Let me wed again; I am still young, still beautiful; while my son lives, I am still a queen."

"I cannot forbid thee to do what thou wilt; but the people of Kamt will rise against thee if thou placest one of thy subjects in the bed of Hortep-ra, the most holy. There are no royal princes old enough to wed with thee."

"They will not rise," she urged, "if thou wilt but tell them that it is the will of Ra that I should wed again."

"Woman, wouldst thou urge me to blaspheme?" he retorted in holy wrath, but she repeated:

"Ten more white oxen await at my palace, and in the caves beneath my chambers there are bars of gold which I would give to thee."

"And Osiris would smite me for the blasphemy," said the priest. "What good are thy treasures to me if my bones lay whitening in the grave?"

"Ur-tasen!" she pleaded.

But the high priest turned suddenly towards the mammoth figure behind which we crouched, and holding aside the gossamer veil of silver tissue which divided the inner sanctuary from the suppliant Queen, he pointed upwards at the gigantic majesty of the god and said:

"I tell thee, woman, that, Queen as thou art, thou canst not change the thread of thy destiny. The crown of Kamt, after hovering on the head of thy ailing son, will descend on that of Princess Neit-akrit. Ra, who sits up there enthroned, guarding the gates of the valley of death, could alone, through some awful and terrible upheaval, change the course of the future of this land by descending himself to sit upon its throne."

The priest had spoken very solemnly, and his voice, sonorous and clear, went echoing through the majestic vault of the temple. The Queen, who evidently, in spite of her petty hatred and arrogance, was a devout worshipper of the god, had looked upwards with awe and reverence, while in her eyes I could see that she had realised the crumbling of her last, most cherished hope.

Suddenly, as she looked, I saw a curious change pass over her face; her eyes gradually dilated, her lips were parted as if to utter a cry, her cheeks from ashy pale turned to vivid red, and, stretching forth her jewel-laden arm, she pointed towards the god with trembling hand. The sickly youth, too, was looking in our direction with face as pale as death, while the high priest appeared to tremble from head to foot, as his hand grasped the gossamer tissue of the veil. Then I saw that Hugh Tankerville, with head bare and erect, had come forward from his hiding-place and was standing facing the temple, on the very pedestal of its god. Each side of him, from the bronze tripods, a blue and a purple light threw a flickering radiance upon his tall, commanding figure and his fine dark head, and I must confess that had I not known that he was my old friend, Hugh Tankerville, I should most willingly have admitted that he might be the personification of a pagan deity.

There was a long and awful pause, during which I almost could hear the anxious beating of five human hearts, then the high priest murmured:

"Who, and what, art thou?"

"Thou spakest of Ra," replied Hugh. "He sent me."

"Whence comest thou?"

"I come from the land where dwelleth Osiris and his bride, the glorious Isis, where Ra sitteth in judgment, and where Horus intercedes for the dead, whom jackal-headed Anubis has guided to the judgment throne of the Most High."

"And what is thy will, oh, stranger, who hailest from the land where dwelleth Osiris?"

Hugh calmly pointed towards the Queen, who was still looking at him, wrapt in superstitious ecstasy.

"To wed that woman and sit upon the throne of Kamt."