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CHAPTER IX
THE MESSENGER OF PRINCESS NEIT-AKRIT

The next day only exists in my mind as a memory of one long and gorgeous pageant: triumphal processions through the city, shouts of enthusiastic people, messengers sent flying in every direction throughout the land, to announce the great news to the inhabitants of its most outlying corners, with a promise to some of the more important cities that they should soon in their turn be gladdened by the sight of the beloved of Ra, the son of Osiris, the messenger of the Most High. It was a wearying day to us both, who, occupying a comparatively humble position in our own country, were unaccustomed to the pomp and glitter of courts, and to the worship and salaaming of innumerable picturesque people. I, for one, found my long flowing robes very difficult to manage, and my belt of lapis-lazuli, on which were engraved sundry characters denoting my dignity, exceedingly uncomfortable. Hugh seemed to take a keen delight in wilfully upsetting my gravity at the most solemn moments by making irreverent remarks about the elderly dignitaries, who looked for all the world like mummies out of the British Museum escaped from their glass cases.

In the precincts of the temple of Osiris, raised aloft upon a golden throne, Hugh Tankerville received the homage of the nobles of the land, the functionaries, the priests, the scribes and servants of the court. The "mob," as the traders and agriculturists were contemptuously called by the more elevated personages, were not admitted to this impressive function. They, however, showed their reverence for the emissary of the gods by making a carpet of themselves on the temple steps, the terraces and embankments, on which the beloved of the gods and his wise counsellor were expected to tread. (A process which I, for one, found exceedingly uncomfortable, especially when I had to tread on the daintier portions of this novel carpet; the dark eyes which then peered up at me in half-awed, half-inquisitive fashion were very disconcerting.)

Truly reverential and adoring! Good old Hugh! It amused him, I know, for I could see his eyes twinkling in merriment, but his gravity was unshakable and his dignity superb. The Pharaoh did not appear at these solemn processions—perhaps he felt that his own importance was being put in the shade—but Queen Maat-kha never left Hugh's side throughout that long day. I could not of course hear the sweet whisperings with which she helped to beguile the gorgeous monotony of the festivals, but when I had an opportunity of watching Hugh closely, I could not detect the faintest sign of enthusiasm on his part in response to her blandishments.

There was an official banquet in the latter part of the afternoon, at which the Pharaoh, sarcastic, ailing and silent, presided. I looked at him as often as I could during the interminable repast, beginning to guess the nature of the disease from which he was suffering, and wondering what physicians there were in this strange land to alleviate his pains and give him relief. He contemptuously ignored the obsequious greetings of his entourage, as each in their turn, having entered the banqueting-hall, knelt down before him and kissed the ground. He seemed to have but one interest in life, and that was in his two apes, which never left his side, and which appeared to cause him endless delight. My still imperfect knowledge of the language prevented me from venturing on an animated conversation with my neighbour, a pompous, abnormally fat old man, who reeked of aromatic pomades, and was fed from a spoon by a young girl, who tasted of every morsel before handing it to him. Hugh sat next to me on the other side, and in one of the few intervals of rest which his interesting bride granted him we contrived to exchange a few words together.

By this time I had got very tired of my robes and my lapis-lazuli belt. I longed for a clean shirt, a stiff collar, anything firm about my body, in place of all the flapping, swathing garments which always got in my way whenever I tried to cross my legs. Now I always had a habit of tilting my chair back and crossing my legs in good, honest, insular manner, and I had not yet realised that, in a sort of Roman toga and petticoats, this attitude was far from elegant; and when in addition to this I vainly groped for my trousers pockets in which to bury my hands, like the true-born Englishman I was, and found that not only I had no pockets but also no … well! I said "Damn!" loudly and emphatically.

No sooner was this useful and impressive portion of the English language out of my mouth than I perceived that in the vast hall a deathlike silence had succeeded the noise of talk and laughter, and three hundred pairs of ears were straining to catch the strange word I had uttered, while the Pharaoh's keen dark eyes were fixed mockingly upon me.

But it certainly would take a great deal more than just one good British "Damn!" spoken in an inopportune moment, to ruffle Hugh Tankerville's supreme dignity and composure.

"Ye know not the secrets of the tongue which Osiris teacheth his beloved to speak," he said with perfect impudence, "and my counsellor and I speak many words which it is not meet ye people of Kamt shall hear, unless indeed the gods do grant you leave. Only those who lead a just and blameless life, who pardon their enemies and relieve the oppressed, can hope to understand the veiled mysteries of Osiris's tongue."

I tried not to smile. I tried to imitate Hugh's dignity, and in a measure I succeeded; but the idea that the true understanding of a British swear-word could only be the reward of virtue nearly upset my utmost endeavours at gravity.

Respectful silence had greeted the wonderful announcement, and three hundred pairs of eyes gazed with awed superstition at the expounder thereof. Only from the head of the table there came a low and sarcastic chuckle. Hugh affected not to notice it, and did not even glance towards the mighty Pharaoh, but from that moment I had a strong suspicion that, however ignorant on the subject of the outer world the people of Kamt might be, their ruler at any rate had but little belief in our divine origin.

What his attitude in the future towards us might be, it was impossible to guess; but weak and ill as he was, he evidently for the present had no intention of breaking into open enmity against the beloved of the gods, who was also the idol of his people.

However, after this little episode, Hugh and I tacitly decided that it would be best only to speak English when we were alone.

The shades of evening were beginning to draw in when at last we all rose from the table. Queen Maat-kha led us into the gardens, while the guests followed or still loitered round the tables, drinking wine or nibbling honey cakes. The Pharaoh's litter had disappeared beyond the alleys, and I for one felt much relieved by his absence.

"The evening is young yet, oh, my beloved," said the Queen, clinging affectionately to Hugh. "Isis hath not yet risen beyond the hills, and the hour is still far when thou must leave me to preside over the court of judgment at Kamt. Wilt stay with me alone and try to find, in that mysterious language which Osiris hath taught thee, words which would convey to me the thought that thou dost think me fair?"

"Fair above all, my Queen," said Hugh, earnestly.

"Yet thou knowest not how much fairer I will be the day when thou standest by my side at the foot of the throne of Isis, in Tanis, when clouds of incense hover round us, hiding us from the gaping multitude, and the high priest raises his hand over our heads to give us a supreme benediction."

"Thou couldst not be fairer than thou art," he said, with a certain want of conviction, which no doubt the lady perceived, for she said a little sadly:

"How silent thou art, oh, my beloved! Already, perchance, the destinies of Kamt sit heavily upon thy shoulders. The Pharaoh is sick, he has no will save for rest and peace, and his enemies have become powerful in the land."

"The ruler of Kamt should have no enemies, oh, Queen! for his rule should be merciful and just; justice disarmeth an enemy's hand."

"Nay, but there are the jealous, the envious," she said, with the sweetest of smiles, "those who stand so near to the Pharaoh that with a touch of the hand they might easily reach the crown which sits so lightly upon his head."

"My place, oh, Queen, will be beside the Pharaoh, to protect his crown from the hands of the jealous and the envious!"

"Ay! I know! and thy protection is great, oh, beloved of the gods! But is it not meet," she added pensively, "that some one who is near and dear to him should pray to the gods night and day, that their continued blessing may rest upon his head?"

I was beginning to wonder why Queen Maat-kha was suddenly showing such unwonted solicitude for her son; her sweet manners, her fascinations exercised to the full, led me to think that she was playing some hidden game. From the first, the fascinating, exotic queen had deeply interested me. I was always a keen observer and earnest student of human nature, and the one or two incidents in which Maat-kha had been the central figure had already shown me that, in spite of the many thousands of miles that lay between them, in spite of barriers of desert waste and inaccessible heights, this radiant product of an ancient civilisation and her Western twentieth-century sister had the same feminine, capricious, un-understandable heart.

That she was even at this moment playing some little game of her own there could be no doubt; that there was some little feminine cruelty hidden behind her solicitude for her son was clearly shown by her almond-shaped eyes, which had gradually narrowed until they were merely two glittering slits, that again brought back to my mind the two grim guardians of the gates of Kamt.

The same thought had evidently struck Hugh, for he said, with a smile:

"Art already tired of thy future lord, oh, my Queen, that thou turnest thy thoughts to daily and nightly prayers?"

"I?" she said, astonished. "Nay, I was not thinking of myself. There is truly no one more near or dear to the Pharaoh than his mother, but my mission is greater and more important in the land than that I should spend my days and nights in prayer. Nay! there are others."

"I do not understand."

"Is it not meet," she said, speaking rapidly and eagerly, "that one who, besides being kith and kin to the holy Pharaoh, is also young and pure—a maiden—beloved of Isis—should devote that young and still blameless life to the service of the Most High? Her prayers, like the fragrance of the spotted lily, would rise heavenwards, pure and undefiled by thoughts or memories of the past. Thou, who has dwelt among the gods, thou knowest that Ra loveth the songs and worship of a maid. His priestesses are indeed privileged, for they can sing to him at all times, praise and worship him, and he always grants their prayers."

"Privileged dost thou say? Hast forgotten, oh, Queen! that some cruel and godless decree of this land doth deprive the priestesses of Ra of his most precious gift?

"What is eyesight beside the purity of the soul? The maids of Kamt vie with each other for the privilege of being among the chosen priestesses of Ra, who, alone among all women, kneel within the inner sanctuary of the god. And now when the Pharaoh is sick, when he hath most need of prayers, there is not one maid of the house of Memmoun-ra who mingles her song with their song, who kneels with them, entreating at the foot of the throne of the Most High."

"Young girls of the royal house, no doubt, have no desire for such a sacrifice."

"Girls are thoughtless and selfish," she said sweetly; "it is for the older and the wise to counsel them."

"Dost propose then to counsel one of thy young kinswomen to give up her life, and what is dearer than life, for the sake of praying for thy sick son?" asked Hugh, who, I think, as well as I, was beginning to perceive the subtle game his bride was playing.

"I cannot counsel, I am but a woman, and the Pharaoh's kinswoman is wilful and proud," she said with a sweet smile.

"The Pharaoh's kinswoman? Art speaking of one young maiden then?"

"What other being is there in this fair land more worthy of the honour to be priestess of Ra than my sister's child, the Princess Neit-akrit? I cannot counsel her, for, alas! she hath hatred for me, but thou, oh, son of Ra! canst give her the message which emanates from the god himself. Thou canst command, and she will not disobey. Then, when shut off from all temptations, all turmoil and strife of this world, she will soon forget that she was once young and fair, and killed the souls of men by her wiles and her beauty; then she will bless thee for that command, and cherish thy name in her heart as she would a god's."

So that was the hidden game Queen Maat-kha was playing. She was madly, barbarously jealous of her young kinswoman, and in that passionate, exotic nature love and hate were absolute, simple and paramount.

She had fallen a ready prey to Hugh's mystic personality; his handsome presence, his supposed supernatural origin had invested him with a halo of romance. But she knew that Princess Neit-akrit was young and beautiful, she scented a probable rival, and being a woman, a simple, ardent, semi-barbaric creature of flesh and blood, her instinct was to render that rival helpless, before it was too late.

That her suggestion was cruel and abominable goes without saying; that it would have no effect upon Hugh I felt, of course, quite sure; he turned to her and said, with quiet sarcasm:

"Dost hate thy young kinswoman so deeply, then, that thou dost ask me to formulate so monstrous a command?"

But like a cat who has shown her claws before she is ready to spring, and hides them again under the velvety paw, Queen Maat-kha said, with the sweetest of smiles and a look of childish astonishment:

"Thou makest a mock of thy servant, oh, my beloved! Thy words are but a jest, I know. I hate no one, least of all my sister's child."

"Dost fear her then?"

"Not as long as thou art near me," she said, throwing, with sudden impulse, a pair of very beautiful arms round Hugh's neck. "Wilt tell me that thou dost love me?"

"I claimed thee as my bride before the throne of Ra," he answered quietly.

"Wilt prove thy love for me?"

"It needs no other proof."

"Wilt bind thyself to grant me a request?"

"Command, oh, queen; I will obey if the gods allow."

"Stay by my side in the palace," she pleaded; "go not forth by night or by day beyond the walls of Men-ne-fer. Men-ne-fer is beautiful and great; it shall be a feast to thine eyes, until the day when our barges will bear us to Tanis, there to be made man and wife."

"Wilt hold me a prisoner of love?" he said, smiling. "I know not if I can thus bind myself to thy feet, beautiful as thou art. My counsellor will tell thee that it is meet I shall visit my people and see the cities wherein dwell my future subjects. Dost begrudge them that, which already messengers have gone forth to announce?"

"Ay, I begrudge every moment which takes thee away from me. Presently, to-night, when Isis has risen to illumine the night, thou wilt go to sit beside the Pharaoh, in the judgment-hall of Kamt, to pronounce sentence of life and death on all those who have erred or sinned against our laws. That hour will be martyrdom to me. Think of what I should suffer if thou wert absent for a day and a night."

I could see that Hugh, like myself, was much amused by her strange persistence and her sudden change of tactics. She was evidently bent on gaming this point, having apparently lost the other, for she put forth before him all the charms and artifices which a woman, loved or loving, alone knows how to use. It was getting very dark, and in the east a faint streak of greyish light heralded the rise of the moon, but in the semi-darkness I could see the beautiful Queen's eyes fixed with a truly magnetic look upon Hugh, while she half-offered, half-pleaded for a kiss. I think it would have required a very adamantine or very worn-out old heart to resist such charming pleading, or refuse so flattering a request, and I doubt not but that in spite of her earlier, decidedly unpleasant, tactics Hugh was ready enough to yield and promise all she asked, but unfortunately at this moment the poetic little scene was suddenly interrupted by a fanfare of metal trumpets, and from a distance we heard the cry:

"Make way for the messenger of Princess Neit-akrit!"

Even in the darkness I could see that Queen Maat-kha had become very pale, and a dark frown appeared between her eyes.

"Thou hast not yet promised," she whispered hurriedly. "Promise, my beloved, promise."

"Make way for the messenger of Princess Neit-akrit!"

The sound of the trumpets, the repeated cries, drowned the words in Hugh's mouth.

"Promise thou wilt not go," she entreated for the last time; "promise thou wilt not leave my side!"

But it was too late, for the trumpets now sounded quite close in the garden, and preceded by some of the Queen's servants, a messenger, in shining tunic and silver helmet, with winged sandals on his feet—an emblem of his speed—was rapidly approaching towards us. Impatiently Maat-kha turned to him.

"What dost thou want?" she said imperiously. "Who has given thee leave to intrude on the presence of thy Queen? Thou deservedst a whipping at the hands of my slaves for thy daring impudence."

The messenger, however, seemed well accustomed to this inhospitable greeting, or in any case was very indifferent to it, for he knelt down and kissed the ground, then rising again, he quietly waited until the flood of the lady's wrath had passed over his head. Then he began, solemnly:

"From the Most High the Princess Neit-akrit, of the house of Memmoun-ra, to the beloved of the gods, greeting."

And again he knelt and presented Hugh with a dainty tablet, on which a few words had been engraved upon a sheet of wax. I thought for one moment that the Queen would snatch it out of his hand, but evidently, mindful of her own dignity, she thought better of it and stood a little on one side, pale and frowning, while a slave brought a torch close to Hugh and held it over his head to enable him to read.

"From the humblest of thy worshippers, greeting, oh, well-beloved of Ra, envoy of Osiris. This is to apprise thee that the dwelling of thy servant will be ready to receive thee on the day after to-morrow, and Neit-akrit will be waiting to welcome thee when Isis is high in the heavens. Wilt honour her and her house by setting thy foot upon its threshold?"

"Do not go, my beloved," whispered the Queen, excitedly.

"Tell thy mistress, messenger," said Hugh, calmly, "that on the day after to-morrow, when Isis is high in the heavens, I and my counsellor will lay our homage at her feet, according to her will."

The messenger salaamed again. Queen Maat-kha, among her many powers, had evidently not the one of killing with a look, for probably otherwise the unfortunate messenger would have paid dearly for the privilege of bringing Princess Neit-akrit's greeting. As it was, he was allowed to depart in peace, and a few very uncomfortable moments followed—uncomfortable, at least, as far as two of us were concerned, for good old Hugh seemed highly amused at the episode, and even had the heartless impudence to give me a nudge, which fortunately the Queen did not see.

"Wilt thou not bid me farewell, my Queen?" he said, trying to keep up a sentimental tone. "It is time I went to the judgment-hall, for Isis will appear anon."

But without another word she had turned away before Hugh could stop her, and had disappeared among the trees, while we both heard a heavy, almost heart-broken sob, which I think ought to have filled Hugh's heart with remorse.