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HAD I been informed, a few years ago, that I, Miles Bowater Unthank, Professor of Ancient History, should append my name to a volume of travel and adventure—which, moreover, has every aspect of a work of fiction—I should never have believed it. Neither should I have thought it possible that I should be called upon to stake my reputation for truth and accuracy by appealing to the common credulity of the public, whom I ask to accept as the truth a series of remarkable occurrences which have every appearance of the supernatural.
Steeped as I am in Egyptian lore, familiar with the strange religious rites and occultism of that wonderful civilisation of the past, I am in no sense a believer in the mystic. I would ask the reader to believe what I myself believe: namely, that the scarabaeus itself exerted no direct, or indirect, influence upon any one of us. Indeed, it is ridiculous to suppose that a mere piece of stone, a few ounces of green jasper, could in any way affect the lives or control the destinies of simple human beings. I myself consider everything that follows a singular example of coincidence. Let the reader think as he chooses.
I am, by natural inclination, a man of peace, a student and a scholar. My researches have taken me frequently to the Nile, on three occasions to Mesopotamia, and once upon a journey of some duration throughout the Holy Land and Greece. I have never had the least desire in the world to face danger in any shape or form; indeed—since I desire to be understood from the very first—I admit with honesty I regard myself as a coward.
I have no skill in the use of arms. My physical strength is inconsiderable; and when I explain that I am no more than five feet four in height, and weigh barely eight stone six, this will be readily believed. For all that, I am of opinion that the remarkable story that follows requires something in the nature of an introductory autobiographical note.
In certain circles I am, I suppose, a well-known man. The vast majority of people, however—especially those who are likely to read this narrative—are quite unacquainted with my name. I have no hesitation, therefore, in explaining briefly who I am, since I take no credit for having taken part in the adventures that befell my comrades and myself in our search for the sarcophagus. No credit is due to me. I drifted into the matter quite unaware of whither I was going, and when I found myself encompassed by dangers, beset by hardships, cast for the role of an explorer and adventurer, I speak nothing but the truth when I say that, at the time, I devoutly wished that I was out of it.
None the less, I fail to find words to express the boundless admiration I feel for the two extraordinary and heroic men who accompanied me throughout many of those troublous days. To each of them I owe my life; to each of them I owe a debt which I shall never be able to repay. Captain Crouch is a man for whom I shall always have a most profound respect. His fiery courage, his presence of mind that never deserted him, even in the most perilous situations, his optimism and his honesty—these were the qualities that make me proud to remember him as a friend. As for Mr. Wang, I may be neither man of the world nor student of human nature, but I never saw his like for quickness of decision. His powers of deduction were almost superhuman. In the course of our wanderings, I was accorded many an opportunity of observing the workings of his imagination, the logic of his intellect. He was as brave as Crouch, and in spite of his stoutness, almost as insensible to fatigue. It was, indeed, a singular stroke of fortune that threw them in my way at the very outset of the mystery; and I tremble to think what would have become of me, had I not obtained their assistance and advice. Of a certainty, I should have perished miserably in the heart of the Nubian desert, and long since my bones had been picked dry by the vultures and the kites.
For Providence had never intended that I should follow the course of a man of action. I lacked the courage, I lacked the physical strength, and above all, I lacked all desire to play the part of a hero. I was a weakling of a boy, be-spectacled, narrow of chest and round of back, with a head out of all proportion to the rest of my body. At school I distinguished myself as a scholar, bringing home prizes term after term, but I had neither the wish nor the ability to succeed upon the playing-fields. Early in life I took up the study of Egyptology. It was fortunate for me that my father was a rich man, so that there was never any necessity for me to work for a living. I was only eighteen when I was left an orphan, a ward in Chancery; and when I came of age, I found myself the master of a fortune far more than adequate for my simple needs.
I desired nothing but to study; and, except in so far as money could assist me to learning, I had no need of my income, which rapidly accumulated in the bank. For forty years I worked unremittingly upon the subjects that fascinated me, that seemed to grow in interest in proportion as my knowledge expanded.
I became Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxbridge, a Member of the Institute and a Professor of the College of France. I was also a member of the committee of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and an honorary D.C.L. of Oxbridge. I was only thirty-five years of age, when I was entrusted with my present responsibilities at the British Museum.
I state these facts for the benefit of the reader who is not acquainted with my particular branch of learning, that he may have the better reason to believe that my position is not one to tempt me to set down what is not true, for the sake of beguiling a few leisure hours. On the contrary, the scientist, above all things, should be a lover of the truth. The adventures that befell me are neither exaggerated nor disguised. If any one doubts me, let him journey to the ruined city of Mituni-Harpi, beyond the desert, in the valley of the Sobat.
CONCERNING SEROPHIS, PRINCE OF THEBES; THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE SCARAB; AND THE MYSTERY OF THE DEATH OF JOSEPHUS MACANDREW
I MUST describe the causes that led up to my extraordinary adventures without entering into any unnecessary details in connection with the customs and the history of the Ancient Egyptian people. However, since my reader is in all probability not conversant with the subject, a certain amount of explanation is essential. I will endeavour to express myself as clearly and as briefly as possible, for the edification of the inexpert mind, duly considering the facts of the case in their chronological order.
I had for many years been aware of that series of beautiful tablets, representing the funeral procession of Serophis, to be seen in the temple at Karnac. The illustrations themselves, together with the accompanying hieroglyphics, supply ample evidence to the effect that Serophis was a "Prince of Thebes," a friend of Pharaoh, and a man of considerable wealth. Whether or not he was of royal blood it is impossible to say; neither is that point material. He may have been priest, scribe, or magistrate. Certain it is that his funeral rites were performed with all the pomp and circumstance of those of an emperor. With him was buried a veritable fortune in solid gold. The drinking flagons, the Canopic jars, the boxes and trays containing food, the weapons, sceptres, collars and batons of command, which were carried with the mummy to the tomb—all were of gold, and upon each of them was stamped the name and crest of this illustrious "Prince of Thebes." In the fifth painting of the series, the scarabaeus itself appears. It is carried by the priest who immediately precedes the mourners, and is drawn quite out of proportion to its actual size.
On my second Egyptian tour, when the excavations at Thebes were well in progress, I myself visited the temple at Karnac, and studied the inscriptions relating to the funeral of Serophis. I was of course deeply interested in everything I saw; but I remember, at the time, one thing in particular attracted my attention: namely, that the funeral of Serophis was represented as heading for twin mountain peaks. Upon the crest of one was perched a hawk; upon the crest of the other, a vulture; whilst at the base of the peaks, encircled by a sacred serpent, sat the figure of a god, with a lotus flower upon his head.
Now, Herodotus, the Greek historian—who is certainly not to be fully trusted in any matter relating to Egypt—tells us that the Nile finds its source between two mountains, called Mophi and Crophi. It is true that, in this case, two mountains would not have suggested the source of the Nile to me, had it not been that the figure seated at the foot of the mountains was undoubtedly that of Harpi, the Nile god, and that the two birds perched upon the peaks were representative of the Upper and the Lower Nile.
It must be understood that I did not arrive at the following conclusions at the time. But in the light of after events, when I had had the benefit of the advice and reasoning powers of the celebrated Mr. Wang, the whole matter was made clear to my understanding. The temple of Karnac affords striking evidence that Serophis was not buried at Thebes, but that his final resting-place was somewhere beyond the Nubian desert, towards the sources of the Nile.
The next link in this remarkable chain of evidence is supplied by the Mannae papyrus, the greater part of which is undecipherable. The partial translation which has so far been accomplished was undertaken by myself; and I remember my surprise at the time when, once again, I came upon the name of Serophis, Prince of Thebes, at the time of the Twelfth Dynasty.
Here there was further evidence, had I but eyes to see it, that Serophis was buried in Ethiopia; for it was during this Twelfth Dynasty that the greater part of the savage country to the south, towards the great Central African Lakes, was conquered by the Theban monarchs. Also, the most legible part of the papyrus contained a description of a journey undertaken by Serophis, in accordance with orders received from Pharaoh, to a country south of Meroe, that is to say, beyond the junction of the rivers where the city of Khartoum now stands.
The papyrus also informs us that the sarcophagus, or tomb, of Serophis was at Mituni. Now, I know of no Mituni save that which is called Mattanieh, in the Nome of the Knife, south of Memphis; and it is clear that no Theban potentate could have been buried there. Moreover, the place is mentioned a second time as "Mituni-Harpi"; so, once again, we have the Nile god in connection with the burial-place of Serophis.
Before going further into this matter, and turning our attention to the mystery of the scarabaeus itself, let us consider the evidence that was in my possession, prior to the advent of the scarab to the British Museum. Serophis, a prince of Thebes, was buried with the greater part of the treasure of his household, at a place called Mituni-Harpi, which is unknown to any Egyptologist, and is shown upon no ancient or modern map. There are reasons to suppose, however, that this place is situated in the country formerly known as Ethiopia, which is now called the Soudan.
We now come to the scarab. I am unable to give the date; but, strangely enough, I remember the morning in question in every detail. I was working in my own room in the British Museum, and, for the purpose of comparing certain hieroglyphics, I had gone into a little storeroom, usually kept locked, where a certain number of unexhibited specimens were kept. There, for some reason or other, I was seized with a fit of curiosity, and proceeded to ransack the place, discovering several things of interest. On finding a drawer locked, I searched for the key, which I eventually discovered in an envelope, as if it had been purposely hidden. On unlocking the drawer, I found it to contain a single parcel, about two feet in length and six inches in width. The parcel being heavy, and my curiosity aroused, I immediately opened it, and to my astonishment found in my hands one of the most magnificent green jasper scarabs I ever beheld in my life.
On examining it closely, I found it to be the scarabaeus of Serophis, who now seemed to be appearing and reappearing in my life at regular intervals, after the manner of the Wandering Jew. I did not at first attempt to read the hieroglyphics upon the scarab, as my first feeling was one of astonishment that such a relic should have been found in the British Museum itself, where, to my certain knowledge, it had never been indexed and registered. The tomb of Serophis was undiscovered, its locality was unknown. So far as the modern world of scientific learning was aware, none of the contents of the tomb had ever come to daylight. And here was the scarabaeus itself, appearing as if by magic in the British Museum; and I, who was personally responsible for the safe keeping of all such relics, had known nothing whatever about it, until I found it by chance.
In amazement, I regarded the sheet of newspaper in which it had been wrapped. It is fortunate that I not only noted the date, but kept the paper itself. It was a copy of The Times, dated February 25, 1881.
Before investigating the scarabaeus, I was anxious to ascertain how it had found its way into the Museum, where it appeared to have been for a number of years. I accordingly interrogated an attendant, who was at first able to give me no information likely to be of any value. On questioning him further, however, I ascertained that the only man who had been in the habit of using the drawers in the storeroom was an old custodian, of the name of Hayward, who had long since left the Museum.
That evening, I took the scarab home with me, and locked it up in the left-hand bottom drawer of my pedestal writing-desk. That is an important point. Having found out Hayward's address, I visited him that same night and put to him certain questions which he at first hesitated to answer. Eventually, however, I got the truth out of him.
It appears that, at about four o'clock on a winter's afternoon, in the year 1881, Hayward was on duty in the Ancient Egyptian section of the Museum, when a middle-aged man, who appeared to be wildly excited, rushed up to him and seized him by the lapel of his coat. Before Hayward had time to say a word, something weighing about five or six pounds, wrapped up in a table-napkin, had been thrust into his hands. On being asked by Hayward what it was, the stranger had cried out, "Take it, for Heaven's sake! Take it, and beware of Psaro!" At that, the man had fled, rushing down the steps of the Museum as if he were pursued by evil spirits. Hayward described him as being middle-aged, and apparently in the greatest state of alarm, also mentioning that he was very sunburnt—and be it remembered that it was then the depth of winter. Though he must have passed through several of the crowded London streets, he was wearing no hat and a pair of bedroom slippers; from which it was evident he had left his home at a moment's notice, and in the greatest haste.
Hayward had very personal reasons for desiring to keep what he knew a secret; and in consequence, it was no easy matter to get the whole story out of him. I now, for the first time, set down the truth, much as I had it from him.
Hayward, on unrolling the table-napkin, had discovered a green jade scarab. He had no knowledge of scarabs, and could not say whether the thing was of any value. With the idea of selling it to the Museum authorities, he took it to his home; and from that moment a series of the most astonishing misadventures befell him.
A chimney fell upon the roof of his house, and his child—a little girl of five years of age, who was sleeping in an attic—narrowly escaped with life. His wife was taken dangerously ill, and for several weeks her life was despaired of, though, he assured me, the doctors were never able to discover the nature of her illness. The little money the man had saved was lost in a notorious bank smash. And finally, Hayward himself, whilst crossing Oxford Street on his way to the Museum, was run over by a hansom cab, and carried home with a broken leg.
He had by now come to the conclusion that his possession of the scarab was responsible for his ill-fortune. What reasons he had for thinking it, I cannot say. Those who are by nature superstitious are adepts in finding explanations for such examples of coincidence. At any rate, he had quite made up his mind to get rid of the scarabaeus before the astonishing revelation of the Bloomsbury Mystery.
Hayward had kept the table-napkin in which the scarabaeus had been wrapped, and he had observed that it was very clearly marked with the name of "Josephus MacAndrew." Now, quite apart from the fact that the description of the murdered man as given in the newspapers tallied with that of the excited stranger who had burst upon Hayward in the galleries of the Museum, the name, Josephus MacAndrew, is sufficiently singular and uncommon to leave no possible room for doubt. After the scarab had been in the possession of Hayward for a matter of three weeks, Josephus MacAndrew was murdered in his house in Bloomsbury Square. On reading this, Hayward was determined to rid himself of the scarab with as little delay as possible, and to say nothing about it to any living soul. When he returned to duty, he brought it with him to the Museum, wrapped it up in an old newspaper, and hid it in the drawer in which I myself found it many years afterwards.
With this story fresh in my mind, I immediately returned home, and went at once to the left-hand bottom drawer of my writing-desk, with the object of examining the scarab. Imagine my amazement when, on unlocking the drawer, I discovered that the relic had gone! I searched the whole room, and eventually found it in an old chest containing several objects of Egyptian and antiquarian interest.
I am, I confess, inclined to be absent-minded; and it is, I suppose, possible that I made a mistake. None the less, I feel convinced that I originally put the scarab in the bottom drawer of my writing-desk, and not in the chest. It is also possible that a servant moved it, since the key was in the lock; but, this is hardly likely, since there could have been no object in so doing, and none of my domestics are allowed, on any pretext whatsoever, to touch anything in my study.
Be that as it may, I took out the scarabaeus, and, seating myself at my desk, placed it before me on the table. Very carefully, I unfolded the paper in which it was wrapped; and, as I did so, my eye caught the following headline: "The Mysterious Murder in Bloomsbury."
For the next few moments I had forgotten all about the scarab. I found myself engrossed in the sordid details of one of those sensational mysteries which, from time to time, perplex and thrill the people of London. Josephus MacAndrew had been a well-to-do retired silk merchant, a bachelor. For no apparent reason he had been foully done to death, on a night when he was alone in his house, his sole attendant—an old butler—being away at the funeral of a relative. After the murder, the house had been ransacked from roof to cellar. Drawers and cupboards had been broken open; carpets had been taken up; cushions and mattresses had been ripped to pieces; the stuffing had been torn out of the chairs. It was evident to the detectives who investigated the case that a most thorough and systematic search, which must have occupied several hours, had taken place either before or after the murder. And yet, in the eyes of the police, the most remarkable thing in connection with the whole affair was that nothing whatever had been stolen, although the house contained several valuables.
I ask you to consider how unknowingly I, a man of peace and a scholar, was led, as it were blindfolded, into this maze of mystery and danger. The account of the murder, as related by The Times, concluded with a fragment of evidence that conveyed nothing to the police, but which to me was charged with amazing, almost unbelievable, significance.
In the room where the murdered man lay, milk had been sprinkled upon the floor, although the murderers had had to descend to the kitchen to procure it. Drawn in chalk upon the floor was the figure of a man with a fox's head.
This was enough to assure me that the crime had been perpetrated by persons who retained the customs and rites of the Ancient Egyptians. There could be no question that the picture on the floor had been intended to represent the Egyptian god, Anubis, the jackal deity who was lord of death. To my mind, this in itself was enough to prove the case, without the evidence of the milk upon the floor—one of the Ancient Egyptian funeral rites—a custom practised invariably by that interesting and wonderful people, and to the best of my knowledge known to no later civilisation.
I was now deep in a mystery that appalled me, that I was wholly unable to explain.
The advanced civilisation of Ancient Egypt ceased five hundred years before the dawn of the Christian Era. We have a record of fifty-five monarchs as reigning after the death of the last Theban Pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, but, so far as we know, the Ancient Egyptian civilisation, language, and customs, became extinct after the Persian conquest. And yet, here was I, Miles Bowater Unthank, Professor of Ancient History, face to face with indisputable evidence to the effect that, only a few years before, Josephus MacAndrew had been murdered in London by people who retained the customs and apparently the religion of the ancient inhabitants of the Valley of the Nile.
Allowing the newspaper to fall to the ground, I turned my eyes upon the scarabaeus—the green, polished surface of which reflected the light from my study lamp—with feelings of mingled wonderment and awe. I have handled Ancient Egyptian curiosities all my life; but never before or since have I experienced a like sensation. As I lifted the scarab to examine it more closely in the light of the lamp, I became on a sudden conscious of the fact that I was trembling in every limb, and I found myself repeating—though I know not why—the words, "Beware of Psaro!"
OF THE SCARABAEUS ITSELF, AND OF MY FIRST INTRODUCTION TO JOSIAH MACANDREW, BARRISTER-AT-LAW
WE now come to the consideration of the scarabaeus itself. It was unquestionably the most remarkable and the most interesting relic of its kind that I ever beheld. But, first, for the benefit of the uninformed, let me explain exactly what a scarab is.
Briefly, a scarab is a beetle—to be more scientific, a particular family of beetles, distinguished by the largeness of the head, and a fringed, fur-like plate at the extremity of the mandibles, known to zoologists by the name of Scarabeidae. Of this family, one genus, Scarabaeus sacer, the Sacred Egyptian Beetle, is an insect, represented in many tropical countries, which, as a scavenger, renders considerable service to the community.
It is beyond doubt that the Ancient Egyptians were fully sensible of the benefits accruing from the presence of great numbers of scarabs upon the banks of the Nile. In the earlier stages of civilisation, all manifestations of Nature, all plants and animals serviceable to man, are held to be sacred, and often become personified as gods. Thus, in Ancient Egypt, not only the sun and the Nile herself, but various creatures were gifted with divine and sacred powers, such as the bull, the jackal, the ibis, and the beetle.
The name of the Beetle-god was Khopri, and he was represented either as a disk, enclosing a scarabaeus, or as a beetle-headed man—just as Anubis was the jackal-headed, Thot the ibis-headed, and Horus the hawk-headed god.
Khopri is frequently identified with Ra, the sun-god; but with that we are not concerned—I have no wish to embark upon a lengthy dissertation upon the subject of Egyptian mythology. It is sufficient to observe that Khopri was gifted with certain attributes of his own. A theory which I myself advance is that the beetle, being the natural opponent of decay, shared with the sun the privilege of being lord and master of long life and health, and for that reason his representation was invariably buried with the dead, in the form of a stone or metal image, to act as an amulet, or charm. Certain it is that there are few Egyptian tombs in which such ornamental scarabaei have not been found.
The great artistic skill of the early Egyptians is clearly exemplified in the scarabaei, carved with infinite symmetry and precision, in such difficult materials as granite, jasper, and jade. But, I repeat, I have never beheld a more beautiful piece of work than the scarabaeus of Serophis.
It was, as I have said, about two feet long by six inches wide, with a thickness of about four inches in the middle, convex upon the upper surface, flat upon the bottom, which was covered with hieroglyphics so minute that, in order to read them, I was obliged to use a powerful magnifying-glass.
Upon the upper side was a representation of the god Khopri in his bark, upon the sacred waters of the Nile. From both prow and stern a lotus flower drooped gracefully, as if in adoration, towards the figure of the Beetle that, with wings outstretched, stood upright upon its hind legs, beneath an awning, before which stood the death-god, the jackal-headed Anubis, with folded arms. The throne upon which was the god bore the words, Mituni-Harpi, with which I was already acquainted.
Still, it was the reverse side of the scarabaeus which interested me more than the figure of the god, with which I was well familiar. The hieroglyphics were exceedingly small; but, with the help of the magnifying-glass, I was able to read them without difficulty, since they were in a perfect state of preservation. I will not translate the hieroglyphics literally, for that is neither possible nor necessary. It is enough for me to transcribe the meaning of the message which the scarabaeus was intended to convey to posterity.
It began with minute, but concise, directions as to how the tomb, or sarcophagus, of Serophis might be entered. Upon Ancient Egyptian tablets the sacred beetle was often represented as seated upon the head of the sun-god, Ra. At the entrance to the tomb there was apparently an image of Ra; and according to the legend upon the scarab, it was but necessary to place the scarabaeus itself in a recess or slot, which was there to receive it, upon the head of the sun-god, Ra. And thereupon, one is asked to believe, the tomb would open of its own accord.
This may appear a miracle suggestive of the "Open Sesame" of the Arabian Nights. I will not pretend for a moment that I believed it at the time. As a student of Egyptology, I was, of course, interested; but never for a moment did I regard the thing in a practical light. I learnt afterwards, and the reader will subsequently discover, that the whole affair was perfectly simple. There was certainly no magic in any way connected with an elementary problem in dynamics.*
(* I am informed that, for this particular class of literature, I use an unnecessary number of long words. Frankly, I consider there is no justification for such a statement. On re-reading what I have written, I am of opinion that I have made myself quite intelligible to the average reader, who, if he is unaware of the object of the science of dynamics, can refer to an encyclopaedia, or even a dictionary—for the former word is, I observe with regret, of six syllables.—M. B. U.)
The greater part of the hieroglyphics was concerned with "The Curse of the Beetle." Unless you are acquainted with the personalities of the Ancient Egyptian gods, and appreciate the Egyptian conception of the life hereafter, I fear it would be hopeless for me to attempt to give you a literal translation of the extraordinary malediction. A paraphrase will meet the case.
The Curse of the Beetle.
The watchers of the tomb of Serophis shall abide for ever; a sacred injunction is laid upon them to guard the mummy of the bygone Prince of Thebes, until "man ceases to dwell upon the earth, until the gods descend from the four corners of the heavens." The office is to be carried out by the watchers, their descendants, and their descendants' descendants, throughout the centuries; for it is not meet that the sarcophagus of Serophis should be despoiled.
Upon him who is the first to enter the Tomb, the Curse of the Beetle rests. Anubis lies in wait to conduct him to the Everlasting Shades, where he will survive in torture. The sepulchre must be entered periodically by the priests who have charge of the sarcophagus, for the purpose of offering up prayers for the soul of Serophis. But no one else may enter; and he who steals the scarab, with the intention of gaining access to the tomb, falls under the malediction of the great god, Khopri. Misfortune and disaster will dog his footsteps. So long as the scarabaeus is in his possession, he will find neither rest nor peace nor happiness. He will be tracked and hunted from one end of the world to the other; he will be doomed to pass "beyond the Lands of the Sun, where the red waters of the Nile find their birth, and the winged beasts of the desert are not able to survive." The Curse of the Beetle lies upon him who lays hands upon the scarabaeus of Serophis, who endeavours to penetrate into the sacred precincts of the tomb of Mituni-Harpi.
I confess that, when I had deciphered this inscription, I was not in the least dismayed. I am not a bold man, as I have said, but I have for so long been acquainted with Egyptian myths and legends that I could not regard the admonition in any other light than that of a scientific curiosity. That there was any truth in it, I did not for a moment suppose; and even now, I will not go so far as to admit for a moment that I believe in the mystic powers of the scarab.
I am unable to say what I intended to do with the scarabaeus. It was apparently my own property. It certainly did not belong to the Museum. Its rightful owner—namely, old Hayward—had refused to have anything to do with it. I have little doubt that I would have handed it over to the Museum, as "presented" by myself, had not, on the very day after I found it, an extraordinary coincidence come to pass.
I was at breakfast, when my man-servant informed me that a gentleman wished to see me. Remarking to myself that it was a somewhat unusual hour to call, I rose to my feet and wont into my study, where I encountered a personage of somewhat remarkable appearance.
He was extremely tall and attenuated, with thin, coal-black hair, plastered by means of Home kind of cosmetic across a head that was otherwise bald. He was clean shaven, but his complexion was so dark, and his cheeks and chin so blue, that he had every appearance of not having shaved for a week. His eyes were large, black, and lustrous, and had a singularly piercing effect, as if they looked clean through you. His chin was massive and square, suggestive of exceptional will-power.
I bowed politely, asked him his name, and for what reason I was indebted for the honour of his visit. He answered me in a voice which I can only describe as sepulchral—it appeared to come from his boots; and though he spoke in little above a whisper, the sound of it seemed to go echoing about the room, like a distant peal of thunder.
"I'm a lawyer," said he, "a barrister. My name is Josiah MacAndrew."
I caught my breath.
"Any relation, may I ask, to—Josephus MacAndrew? But, perhaps, I presume?"
"Not at all," said my visitor. "Josephus MacAndrew, who was murdered in Bloomsbury Square, in the year 'eighty-one, was my uncle."
"Indeed," said I. "The object of your visit is, of course, in no way connected with that tragedy?"
"Pardon me," said he; "it is. It has a great deal to do with it."
I was more than a little surprised. To tell the truth, I was beginning to feel exceedingly uncomfortable. However, I did my best to preserve an attitude of politeness, such as is becoming in a host.
"You interest me," said I. "Pray take a seat." I motioned him to a chair.
He sat down, stretched out his long legs across the hearthrug, at the same time emptying his pockets of a great number of notebooks, which he set down carefully upon a small table that happened to be at his elbow. He then cleared his throat and began.
"Professor Unthank," said he, "I have been led to understand that you are the greatest living authority on the subject of Ancient Egypt?"
I acquiesced with a bow. Modesty forbade that I should speak.
"You may not be aware," he continued, "that my uncle, Josephus MacAndrew, was deeply interested in the subject upon which you have established your reputation. He was a man who had travelled much. In the course of his business as a silk merchant, he visited several countries, and afterwards, when he retired, he continued to travel. He had a remarkable fund of knowledge. Now, Professor, I wish to ask you a plain question, and to receive, as from a man of honour and truth, a plain answer." He paused, looking at me with his black, piercing eyes.
"I am at your service," I faltered, for I was by no means at my ease.
"Have you, or have you not," he asked, "any knowledge as regards the whereabouts of the scarabaeus of Serophis?"
When MacAndrew said these words, I honestly believe that any one could have knocked me down with a feather. I know that I was unable to reply for quite a considerable time. I had to assure myself that I was wide awake, that I was not dreaming. Serophis, Prince of Thebes, had been dead a matter of two thousand five hundred years, and yet, it now seemed that he was haunting me. None the less, I was by no means inclined to state a falsehood. I answered truthfully, as soon as I had recovered from my surprise.
"A few days ago," said I, "I should have been obliged to answer your question in the negative. I can now tell you that it so happens that I not only know something about the scarab of Serophis, but it is actually in this room."
At that, he sprang to his feet. He was like a man transfigured. He stood before me at his great height, shaking in every limb, as if from excitement. His voice was like the roar of a savage beast. I was startled, to say the least of it.
"In this room!" he echoed. "Where is it? Let me see it! Show it to me, now!"
I looked at him in amazement, and then got to my feet, and went to my writing-desk, pulling out the bottom drawer, where I had put back the scarab the previous night. It was not there. I went at once to the oak chest, where I again found it. It was no longer wrapped in the old newspaper. I handed it to MacAndrew.
From the casual way in which he examined the image of Khopri, afloat on his bark upon the sacred waters, I saw that he was no student of Egyptology. He turned the scarab over, showing the flat side, upon which were the hieroglyphics.
"Can you read all this?" he demanded.
I was somewhat nettled at his abrupt behaviour. I informed him that I was well able to decipher the inscription.
"What does it say?" he almost shouted.
I asked him to calm himself, and motioned him to his chair, where he again seated himself with reluctance. From the manner in which he kept snapping his fingers and shuffling his feet, I saw that he was highly agitated.
I then proceeded to translate the inscription, word for word, explaining the references to the Egyptian deities. He listened to me with what I can only describe as a kind of feverish attention, and when I had done, he held out a hand, asking permission to look at the scarab again.
"What does this mean?" he asked, indicating the hieroglyphics on the throne, upon which the beetle-god was standing.
"That is Mituni-Harpi," said I; "the place where Serophis is presumed to have been buried."
"Exactly," he replied. "And are you aware of the locality of this place, Mituni-Harpi?"
I shook my head.
"Then, I am," said he.
I looked up in surprise. It was a morning of surprises.
I informed him that he was in possession of a piece of knowledge that was shared by nobody else; that no student or scholar of Ancient Egyptian history had ever been able to discover the whereabouts of the place. He replied in a voice of thunder, striking his pile of notebooks with a fist.
"I have here," he cried, "every detail that is necessary to enable me to make a journey to Mituni-Harpi to-morrow."
"Do you intend to go there?" I asked.
"I do," said he, "on one condition."
"And what is that?"
"That you come with me."
I started again. For a moment, I thought the man was mad.
"But that is out of the question," I protested. "I have my duties here in England, both as a Professor and a Curator."
MacAndrew rose from his chair, and placed a long, thin hand upon my shoulder.
"Professor Unthank," said he, in his sepulchral voice, "I intend to journey to the tomb of Serophis, and, for a variety of reasons, I hope that you will consent to accompany me. Pray be seated; I will explain the matter in detail."
His behaviour was as rough as his manners and his mode of speaking were abrupt. He literally shoved me back into my chair, and then produced from the inside pocket of his coat something which I recognised at once as an Ancient Egyptian papyrus, a scroll decorated with hieroglyphics.
OF THE STRANGE JOURNEY OF JOSEPHUS MACANDREW; AND OF HOW I MADE THE ONE RASH RESOLUTION OF MY LIFE
HE placed the rolled papyrus upon the top of his pile of notebooks, and then clasped his hands upon a knee uplifted. I could not help noticing his hands; they were at once refined and suggestive of unusual physical strength.
"Many years ago," he began, "my uncle purchased this papyrus from an Arab hawker in the streets of Cairo. He had no idea at the time of the value of the information it contained. He could not read the hieroglyphics, and bought the thing merely as a curiosity.
"On the death of my uncle, I inherited his effects. He had a considerable library, for he was a great reader. As for myself, I read little, except works of jurisprudence and the daily newspapers.
"Recently, I discovered amongst my uncle's possessions these notebooks, the contents of which filled me with amazement. My uncle had been, I knew, a great traveller; but I never had any idea that he had undergone such extraordinary experiences. One of the notebooks is written in the form of a diary. It is largely from this that I have gleaned the greater part of the story I am about to tell you.
"The papyrus—which I cannot read myself—is genuine. It consists of an inventory of the household effects of Serophis which were buried with the mummy at Mituni-Harpi. My uncle calculated that, apart from their value as relics of ancient art, the intrinsic worth of these golden implements and utensils amounted to a sum of not less than a quarter of a million pounds. Do you yourself, Professor, consider that possible?"
I replied to the effect that I thought the existence of such a treasure very improbable in an Ancient Egyptian tomb. That it was impossible, however, I would not go so far as to say.
"Am I right in believing," asked Mac Andrew, "that the contents of the sarcophagi and catacombs are to be regarded as the property of the Egyptian Government?"
"Certainly," I answered.
"Even if the sarcophagus in question were to be situated in the neighbourhood of the source of the Sobat?"
"That is another question," said I. "I did not know that any one had yet discovered the source of the Sobat. It is either in Mongalla or the Kafa district of Abyssinia."
"Neither do I know where it is," said he. "But I know how to get there, and there I intend to go."
"For what purpose, may I ask?"
"In order to gain possession of the treasure of Serophis."
"That is easier said than done," said I, "even admitting that you know how to accomplish such a journey. And have you any special reason to desire my company?"
"Before I came here," said MacAndrew, "I had several reasons. Now, I have one more: namely, that you are in possession of the scarab, which I can only describe as the key that unlocks the tomb wherein this fortune is stored."
I nodded. I was growing intensely interested. The pursuit of wealth held no attractions for me; but, from what I had heard, it seemed I was on the track of a discovery of the greatest scientific and archaeological interest.
"And your other reasons?" I asked.
"You are an authority on the subject. You could probably make yourself understood to Ancient Egyptians."
"That is possible," said I. "At the same time, I am never likely to be called upon to attempt to do so. The Ancient Egyptian language has been dead for centuries."
MacAndrew smiled, and leaned back in his chair, shifting his hands to the back of his head. In this position he regarded me for some moments without speaking, with a half-amused expression upon his face.
"You are entirely wrong," said he. "The Ancient Egyptian language is not dead. It is spoken to-day; it is spoken at this present moment, whilst you and I sit talking here in London."
"Where?" I asked, incredulous.
"At Mituni-Harpi," said he.
I was unable to believe. If I heeded him at all, it was merely because the man seemed so sure of what he was saying.
"How do you know all this?" I asked him.
"Listen," said he, "and I will tell you. Somehow or other, my uncle discovered the whereabouts of Mituni-Harpi. He was a man in whom was the spirit of adventure. Little dreaming of what he was about to do, or the hardships he would be called upon to undergo, he undertook to journey there himself. See, here is a map of the route."
MacAndrew produced a large sheet of parchment, which he unfolded upon the table. The parchment was very dirty, and torn in several places, where it had been carefully mended with transparent paper. The map, which was coloured, had been drawn in Indian ink, and the writing, where capital letters had not been used, the same as that in the several notebooks—a neat, somewhat cramped style of writing, though plain to read. I rose from my seat and looked over his shoulder, as he traced, with a forefinger upon the map, the actual route which his uncle had taken to the tomb of Serophis, the former Prince of Thebes.
Josephus MacAndrew, many years before, had passed up the White Nile, and thence entered the valley of the Sobat. He had journeyed into a savage country, beyond the town of Ajak, to a place where there was a cataract, at the foot of which was a Niwak village, inhabited by a tribe of Nilotic negroes—from the account of them he rendered, closely related to the Shilluk—living in large, circular, conical huts, of about forty feet in diameter, the roofs being made of thatched straw, the walls of chopped straw and clay.
Southward and westward of the village lay a desert which—if the map was drawn to scale—must have been more than three hundred miles across. Upon this desert, no oasis was marked, no town, village, stream or hillock. The blank pace upon the map was relieved only by one glowing, pregnant sentence: "Here upon this sandy waste, the sun beats like fire."
The desert terminated towards the south-west in a tableland which, according to a note upon the map, ended abruptly in a perpendicular cliff, several hundred feet in height, extending as far as the eye could reach, both to the north and to the south.
On referring to one of the notebooks, I ascertained that it was possible to ascend to the tableland only at a place where two gigantic images of the Egyptian gods, Thot and Anubis, were carved upon the bare face of the rock. Between these two colossi there ascended flight upon flight of steps to the higher level above. These steps were reported to be much worn by the action of water, though easy to negotiate in daylight. And so remarkable were Josephus MacAndrew's powers of observation and his eye for detail, that he had actually counted the number of these steps, which amounted to no fewer than three hundred and sixty-five—the number of days that it takes the earth to complete its orbit around the sun. In other words, allowing that each step was one foot in height, the bare cliff that rose like a wall at the extremity of the desert, was exactly the same height as St. Paul's Cathedral, measured from the pavement to the top of the cross.
At the head of the steps—if the observations in the notebooks were to be believed—one found one's self upon an extensive plateau of rich and fertile grass-land, extending for about forty miles to a range of mountains to the south. In former times, there had evidently been a path leading from the steps to the mountains; but this had been obliterated in the course of centuries by the action of rain, and was now grown over by the thin, waving grass that flourished upon the tableland. The route of the pathway, however, was easy to trace by means of a series of stone images, each of which was exactly the same, both in size and in design, representative of a Sitting Scribe, similar to the well-known statue which is to be seen in the Museum of Gizeh.
The Path of the Sitting Scribes conducted one to the foot of the mountains where was situated the town that went by the name of Serophis, at a short distance from which—according to Josephus MacAndrew—was a place in the mountains called Mituni-Harpi, where was to be found, in the vaults beneath the temple of the Sun-god, the sepulchre of the bygone Prince of Thebes and all the treasure that had been conveyed into his tomb, as illustrated upon the tablets to be seen in the temple at Karnac.
In the city of Serophis itself, Josephus MacAndrew had found a race of people, corresponding exactly in customs and physical characteristics with the Ancient Egyptians, the former inhabitants of the Valley of the Nile. Moreover, the language they spoke, the temples where they worshipped, their houses, palaces and streets, were in all ways similar to those of the subjects of the Pharaohs. If the statements made in his notebooks were correct, he was very much to be envied. He had had the privilege of seeing with his own eyes the civilisation of the Past, just as if he had been transported bodily, backward throughout the centuries, into a forgotten and a vanquished world.
He had either been mad, and the whole thing a fabrication, or else he had been one of the most fortunate of men. However, he did not seem sensible—so far as I could gather from his notes—of the scientific import and world-wide significance of his discovery. The sole motive of his journey across the desert had been cupidity, a desire to attain wealth, to rob the tomb itself.
This was not so easy as he may have thought. And though he told us little or nothing concerning it, it seems that the sarcophagus was guarded by the most vigilant of priests, who kept watch day and night in the temple erected above the tomb.
And this in itself was one of the many points that served to convince me that there was more than a little truth in the story, fantastic and absurd as it might appear. I could not dispute the accumulated circumstantial evidence that was now in my possession. The scarab had already informed me of the injunction laid upon the watchers of the tomb of Serophis who, for generation upon generation, should "abide for ever, until man ceased to dwell upon the earth, until the gods descended from the four corners of the heavens."
During his sojourn in the city of Serophis, Josephus MacAndrew seems to have awaited his opportunity, and on one occasion to have succeeded in entering the vaults. What happened exactly will never be known. Apparently, he gained possession of the scarabaeus, but failed to penetrate into the tomb itself. He speaks of flying for his life, of a pursuit along the "Path of Sitting Scribes," with those who were thirsting for his blood hot upon his track. And on a sudden, as I was reading this, it was as if a blow had been struck me, when I remembered the tragic circumstances of the man's death.
The newspaper, such a prosaic and familiar object as a copy of the London Times, supplied another link in this amazing chain of evidence. Already, I had been struck with the suggestion that the man had been murdered by Ancient Egyptians, which I had at once discarded as impossible. Could it be that the priests of Serophis had come forth from their buried home beyond the trackless, arid desert, and had followed the doomed man into the very centre of the civilisation of the modern world, where, with ancient rites and ceremonies, they had done him brutally to death?
The more I thought of it, the more I believed it true. Josephus must have learned quite suddenly that he had been tracked to London. Hence his hurried entrance into the Museum, and the excited manner in which he had thrust the scarab into the unwilling hands of Hayward. And the murder itself was explained: the Egyptians had ransacked the house from roof to floor, in their search for the missing scarab. Needless to say, their quest had been futile. But it was easy to explain the perseverance with which they had hunted down the thief and the thoroughness with which they had searched the house in Bloomsbury Square. The scarabaeus was the key to the tomb. If it were lost, the entrance to the sarcophagus was closed for ever.
For the first, and I believe the only time in my life, I felt my blood coursing swiftly through my veins. In an old gilded Empire looking-glass, which stands above the mantelpiece in my study, I caught the reflection of my own face, and was amazed. I was flushed; my eyes were bright. I felt that my hands were trembling.
I had forgotten all about MacAndrew, who was still seated in his chair, regarding me steadfastly with his black, piercing eyes. I had forgotten all about the scarab. I was conscious only of one thing: that somewhere in the heart of Africa, beyond the ken of European man, there existed a city, such as Thebes and Sais and Memphis. I remembered all that my learning and my imagination had conceived of narrow, crowded streets, choked with the booths of merchants, down which passed caravans, returned to Egypt with the spices of Arabia, the gold of Ophir, precious stones from Elam, the wine-skins of Pelusium.
Often, in the solitude of my study, or the stillness of the great Museum, had I heard the clash of cymbals, the beating of drums, the tramp of thousands of feet. I had seen the city gates thrown open, and the army of Pharaoh march forth to war.
First the chariots—the charioteers, armed with bows and great shields, looking down scornfully upon the people, whilst the white dust rises in clouds from beneath the hoofs of their prancing steeds. Then the light troops, stripped to the waist, swinging forward at a pace that is half walk, half run—sinuous and supple men of war, each armed with bow or axe or boomerang.
A blast of the trumpet, and there surges through the gate the Libyan Shairetana, Pharaoh's Bodyguard, recruited from the most warlike race in Africa. Great soldiers these, each man standing taller by a head than the Egyptian of the Nile; thick-lipped, bearded warriors, broad of chest and shoulder, to whom battle is but a pastime and plunder the victor's rightful prize. Their great double-edged swords glitter in the sunshine. Their long, tight-fitting jerkins are striped black and white. They march in step, with closed, even ranks, disciplined and drilled. The terror of their name has been passed by word of mouth from the mountains of Assyria to the confines of the Ethiopian Desert.
Then the great captains pass, each in his chariot, attended by his standard-bearer and his officers: and, at last, Pharaoh himself, clad from head to foot in glittering armour, unconcealed by the long cloak that flies out behind him on the breeze, driving his own milk-white stallion, armed to the teeth with spear and bow and sword. The noble head of the animal is held right hack by means of a bearing-rein, so that he can proudly toss the great grey ostrich plumes that crown him. His back is covered with a saddle-cloth of embroidered, beaten gold; whilst at the side of the chariot a tame lion, with red tongue lolling from its mouth, follows its master like a dog. Whether he be Rameses or Seti, he is Pharaoh, a god become flesh, the scion of Osiris, Emperor of the World.
The rest of the Army passes: a tribe of faithful Bedouins, wild men of the desert who have survived the centuries; Grecian mercenaries; and last, the legions of the Infantry of the Line, sallying forth to conquer the vile Khita or to erect the monoliths of Rameses upon the distant Syrian hills.
I had pictured all this, time and again, from the days of my youth. I had lived the long hours of my secluded and studious life in the midst of this wondrous, bygone people. I had worshipped at the shrine of Horus; I had seen the perfumed incense, scattered by the priests, rise in the great, dim nave of the temple, whilst a chant swelled in adoration to Isis, Queen of the Nile, who was before Astarte and Ishtar, and that fair goddess who was worshipped by the Greeks.
I had dreamed that I had heard the long-haired mourners bewailing the death of kings. I had even journeyed in my fancy upon the ferry-boat that crossed the sacred river to the kingdom of Osiris, the eternal land, where I had set eyes upon the sacred sycamores, in whose shade are weighed the hearts of men that the goddess of Truth may declare them innocent of sin.
For years this had been the all-absorbing subject of my dreams. I had lived with an ancient people; I had shared their hopes and passions, their labours and delights. I had marvelled at their diligence and skill; I had rejoiced in their victories and triumphs; I had witnessed their sufferings in times of famine, pestilence and death.
And now, it seemed, as by a miracle, I could see them with my living eyes, speak to them and hear their music and their songs. The history of the Nile burned within me like a fever. On a sudden, I became conscious that MacAndrew was before me, that he had seized me by a hand.
"I'm coming with you," I cried like a madman. "I'm coming with you, to the ancient sources of the Nile!"
This was the one rash and thoughtless resolution of my life. The time was to come when I was to repent bitterly the blind, senseless impulse that sent me, like a truant schoolboy, upon an errand that was fraught with mystery and danger.
OF CAPTAIN CROUCH AND THE TWO STRANGE HANDS ON BOARD THE "WESTMORELAND"; AND OF THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE BEETLE
MACANDREW and I spent the whole of that day together—indeed, every day for a fortnight. I studied Josephus MacAndrew's notes; and the more I read, the more convinced I was that I was about to make one of the greatest discoveries of modern times. We procured geographical works, relating to the country of the Upper Nile, and the savage negro races who inhabited it. We went thoroughly into the matter of our outfit, the equipment and armoury that we would require.
MacAndrew threw up his legal engagements, and I so arranged matters that I should be free for a year, handing over my duties to my old friend, Professor Thistleton, of whom no doubt you have heard. As far as MacAndrew and myself were concerned, we divided our responsibilities. He was entrusted with all matters relating to the expedition itself: the procuring of provisions, guides, servants, pack animals, etc., whereas I was responsible to him for everything that can in any way be described as scientific. I had charge of the medicine chest, the compass, and the sextant we agreed it would be advisable to take. He also naturally relied upon me in all matters relating to Ancient Egypt, the translation of hieroglyphics, and similar knowledge.
It must be understood that we were undertaking the journey, each with a different object. MacAndrew desired to obtain the treasure. Why he wanted it, I do not know. He was tolerably well off. He had certainly never disguised the fact that, from Ms point of view, the expedition was nothing else but a treasure hunt. As for me, I looked upon the whole thing as a voyage of scientific discovery and research. I fondly believed that I was about to glean information, which in archaeological interest would rival the discoveries of the first excavations, or Rawlinson's solution to the problem of the cuneiform inscriptions.
I shall never forget the day upon which we left the London docks. Our luggage had gone before us, a great quantity of boxes and packing cases; and MacAndrew and I went down by train from Fenchurch Street station.
We found our ship, which was called the "Westmoreland," and went on board at once. She was due to sail within an hour, and would call at no port, except Malta, until Alexandria was reached. I remember I was wearing a fur overcoat, for it was a bitterly cold day. MacAndrew had gone below, and I paced the deck for some minutes endeavouring to keep myself warm.
I had gone to the stern part of the ship, and was looking down into the water—the mud-coloured water of the Thames, upon which every kind of refuse was floating. Gradually I became conscious of the most noxious and offensive smell. I thought at first that it proceeded from the garbage afloat upon the water, and then I perceived that clouds of smoke were drifting slowly past my head.
Turning, I beheld, for the first time, Captain Crouch. He was a small man, with very pronounced and angular features, and a small goat's-beard growing beneath his under-lip. In spite of the cold weather, he wore no overcoat, though both his hands were thrust deep into his trouser pockets. His legs were widely separated, and his sailor's cap thrust well back upon his head.
In his mouth was an enormous, hooked pipe, from which the smoke which had so offended my nostrils was issuing in clouds.
"Afternoon," said he, with a nod.
I repeated the formality.
"Egypt?" he asked.
"Yes," said I. "My friend and I are going to Alexandria."
"You're Professor Unthank?" said he.
I felt flattered that he was acquainted with my name. I remember I remained for some time on deck conversing with Captain Crouch. I thought him, then, a very mild and polite little man. He expressed a hope that I should be comfortable on board the "Westmoreland." He told me of the difficulties he had experienced in getting a crew, saying that, at the last moment, two natives had signed on, whose nationality was a mystery.
"There they are," said he, pointing to two men, who stood upon the forward well-deck, leaning upon the bulwarks, one of whom, I noticed, was disfigured by an ugly scar upon his cheek. He was an old man, with a face creased and wrinkled like the palm of a monkey's paw.
"I've travelled the world, Professor," said Captain Crouch, "and I know most of the races of the world: Koreans, Patagonians, Andaman Islanders, hairy Ainus—races that not many people are acquainted with. But I never saw the like of these sportsmen. If they were not so light of skin, and did not grow their hair so long, I should say they came from Abyssinia."
"They have not the white teeth of an Abyssinian," said I.
"Nor yet the physique," said Crouch.
I confess I was conscious of a feeling of dismay when I made the next remark. I was thinking, indeed, of the fate of Josephus MacAndrew.
"If we can trust the pictures that accompany the hieroglyphics," said I, "those men bear a remarkable resemblance, both in feature and physique, to the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt."
Captain Crouch shrugged his shoulders, evidently dismissing the matter from his mind. A little after, he went to the head of the gangway and greeted the pilot, who had just come aboard.
We dropped down river with the tide, having to wait for some time at Gravesend, where we took on another pilot, who navigated the ship past the Goodwin Sands. Thence, we held a straight course down Channel; and I shall never forget the first three days at sea.
The wind howled without ceasing, the waves tossing the ship hither and thither, as if she were a cork. The gale was blowing south-west, right in our teeth; so that the ship pitched so violently that at times her peak was buried under the waves, the screw racing in the air as if distracted.
MacAndrew and myself were the only passengers on board, the "Westmoreland" being a cargo ship with only four saloon berths. In order to avoid attracting the curiosity of a number of fellow-passengers, MacAndrew had purposely selected the "Westmoreland" on which to book our passages.
I do not think we made more than six knots an hour, until we were half-way across the Bay. Then the wind fell, and the sea became what I believe is known as "choppy." We were followed by a great number of gulls, who circled around the ship, and sometimes even settled upon the masts. Also, nearly every day we were accompanied by a shoal of porpoises; and, as far south as Finisterre, we were seldom out of sight of whales, who frequently came quite near to the ship.
It was when we were steaming down the sunny coast of Portugal, near enough to the land to observe the beauty of the scenery, that MacAndrew came on deck. He had been terribly sea-sick, and his complexion was as green as a cabbage.
He picked up wonderfully, however, as soon as we were in the Mediterranean, where the sea was delightfully calm. He and I and Captain Crouch used to sit on deck of an evening, talking together upon all manner of subjects, the engines throbbing beneath our feet, as the ship steamed towards the Island of Malta.
It must be confessed that MacAndrew and myself never spoke of the object of our journey, in the presence of Captain Crouch. Josephus MacAndrew's notebooks, the papyrus, the map and the scarabaeus itself, were kept in a small brassbound box, which was under the bunk in my cabin. The key of this box I carried upon my watch-chain, which I was in the habit of placing under my pillow before I went to sleep. MacAndrew had a duplicate.
It was the night before we reached Valetta that the first of our calamities befell us. I had gone to bed early, resolved to be up at daybreak the following day. We were due in port at six o'clock; and as we were to be the whole day in Malta, I had resolved to make a journey to the ancient capital of Citta Vecchia.
About midnight, I awoke with a start. I cannot say what disturbed me. I sat up in bed and listened for some moments, but could hear no sound. To assure myself that there was no cause to be alarmed, I placed a hand under my pillow—to discover to my consternation that my watch and bunch of keys were gone.
I immediately got out of bed and, striking a match, lit the oil lamp. In those days, ships of the class of the "Westmoreland" were not fitted with electric light. Going down on my hands and knees, I drew out the brassbound box, in the lock of which I found my bunch of keys. Opening it, I looked inside and discovered at once that the scarabaeus had gone!
OF THE MEETING OF CAPTAIN CROUCH AND MR. WANG
I WENT at once to MacAndrew's cabin, where I found him sound asleep. A light was burning in the room; and I remember, I stood regarding him for some minutes, before I ventured to awaken him, I was struck by the extraordinary aspect of the man, when asleep. His appearance, as a rule, suggested great vitality and energy; but, with his eyes closed, he resembled a corpse. His complexion was a most death-like and ghastly colour, and his long, thin hands, spread out upon the coverlet, looked delicate and utterly strengthless.
And yet, when I woke him up and told him what had happened, he was like a raging beast. He sprang from his bed and cried out in a voice of thunder that must have been audible from one end of the ship to the other. He was the most violent man I have ever known.
I did my best to calm him, to persuade him to reason the thing out in a sensible manner. But he would not listen to me, until he had dressed in his clothes and gone out upon the deck.
It was then about two o'clock in the morning. A head wind was blowing, which was a trifle cold, especially to me who was but thinly clad. There was a multitude of stars in the sky, beautiful to behold.
For two hours, pacing the deck side by side, myself trying to keep step with the amazingly long strides taken by my companion, we discussed what was best to do. Unquestionably, the thief was upon the ship; and I made no secret to MacAndrew of my suspicions regarding the two men who were on board, who resembled Ancient Egyptians.
There was no use in discussing the fact that we were faced with a terribly serious proposition. It appeared that the existence of the scarabaeus was known to others besides ourselves. It was manifest that we were tracked. Remembering the tragedy that had concluded the lifetime of MacAndrew's uncle, I was filled with the gravest misgivings.
We decided that the crew of the ship must be searched; but this could not be done unless we took Captain Crouch into our counsels. I had been eager to do this from the first, because the captain had already inspired my confidence. But MacAndrew was very reluctant to share our secret with any one, and I fully believe only consented to do so because there was no alternative course of action.
At four o'clock the captain came on deck to take the last watch, and at once expressed surprise at seeing MacAndrew and myself. This gave us our opportunity. We explained that there had been a robbery on board. Crouch went on to the bridge to verify the ship's course, and then conducted us into his cabin, where, in spite of the early hour, he lit one of his atrocious pipes.
We told the whole story, much as it is set down here, disguising nothing. And Crouch listened to every word, puffing silently at his pipe, now and again lifting his eyebrows in surprise, or tugging at the little goat's-beard that he wore upon his chin.
"Well," said he, when the whole story was ended, "I've come across many remarkable things in the course of my life; but, if all this is true, it beats the lot. I don't say it's impossible. I have seen so many strange things, and I myself have passed through so many remarkable adventures, that I am quite ready to believe it. At all events, I will do my best to help you. At four bells the whole crew shall muster, and every man jack of them shall be searched."
We were off the north coast of Malta, and the houses of Valetta were becoming visible in the distance, when Crouch paraded the crew on deck. Every one was searched, their boxes and sea kit-bags opened, the forecastle turned upside down. Every man on board—seaman, stoker, quartermaster or cook—was cross-examined by MacAndrew, who, being a barrister, found himself in his own element. But no information was obtained in regard to the missing scarabaeus. As for the two "Egyptians," they confessed to being natives of a country in the region of the Upper Nile. But they could speak English very imperfectly, and no information could be got out of either of them.
So we came into the port of Valetta and cast anchor. I naturally postponed my journey to Citta Vecchia; whereas MacAndrew remained on deck all that morning, pacing to and fro, like a wild beast in a cage. He realised—as also did I—that without the scarabaeus, our journey was likely to end in failure.
All that day the crew were discharging cargo; and at dinner-time came the second of our disasters. It was discovered, by one of the ship's quartermasters, that both the "Egyptians" had disappeared.
No one had seen them leave the ship. We were not far from the wharf, so that it was not impossible that they had dived overboard and swum ashore. It is more likely, however, that they escaped either in one of the lighters that was taking in cargo, or in one of the small Maltese boats that surrounded the ship.
After dinner, Crouch, MacAndrew and I talked the matter out in the captain's cabin. Captain Crouch was intensely interested in the whole affair. It was he who suggested what we should do, who offered us every means of assistance in his power. He never despaired that we would get back the scarabaeus, and more than once he expressed a wish that he himself was coming with us to the Tomb of Serophis.
Early in the afternoon, Crouch came ashore with us, and we accompanied him to the offices of his company's agent. The agent was a fat man, who looked like an Italian. He shook hands cordially with both MacAndrew and myself.
He mentioned to Captain Crouch that there was upon the island a certain Captain Ferguson, of the "Cumberland," a sister ship to the "Westmoreland." Captain Ferguson had been put ashore, some months before, in a highly critical condition, suffering from malarial fever. He had now been discharged from hospital, and was able to return to duty; but the agent had no instructions regarding him.
Crouch said nothing when he heard this, but seemed to be turning the matter over in his mind, for he nodded his head repeatedly. As soon as we were outside the office, however, he took each of us by an arm, and led us into a small café of the cheaper sort, of the kind patronised by sailors.
There he ordered some tea, which was brought to us. Leaning across the table, and speaking in a voice that was little above a whisper, he unburdened himself as follows:
"Professor," said he, "I am heart and soul in this affair. You must understand that, although I have followed the sea as a calling for a great number of years, I have taken part in many similar expeditions, both in Africa and Asia. I don't wish to be pessimistic, but I think you little realise the dangers of your position. You are, or were, in possession of a valuable relic of antiquity. The possession of that relic, Mr. MacAndrew, cost your uncle his life. It appears that, somehow or other, your secret is out. You have been tracked on board my ship. The scarabaeus has been stolen. You have a journey of several thousand miles before you. You will probably be tracked every mile of the way; and before you come to your destination, there may be an attempt to murder you."
I realised all this. Since twelve o'clock on the previous night I had had little time to think, but already I regretted that I had ever consented to have anything to do with so perilous an enterprise. It was unthinkable that I, a professor of Ancient Egyptian History, a curator of the British Museum, one who had lived the life of a student, or recluse, should find himself seated in a low café, in the poorer part of the town of Valetta, discussing the possibility of being murdered! I felt no confidence in myself. I cannot say that I felt that I could rely upon MacAndrew. It was therefore with a certain feeling of relief that I listened to Captain Crouch's proposal.
"I am interested in this business," he continued. "I would like to see it through. With your permission I will accompany you. I have an idea that I may be of assistance."
To my surprise, MacAndrew pooh-poohed the whole idea. He said that Captain Crouch had exaggerated the danger. He saw no reason why we should add a third member to our expedition.
However, this was one of the occasions on which I made up my mind and stuck to it. I insisted upon Captain Crouch coming with us. I offered to pay all his expenses. I even went so far as to say that if Crouch did not accompany us, I myself would return to England.
MacAndrew was obliged to give way. He did so with reluctance, that was plain to see. But, in the end, he shook hands with Captain Crouch, and in that small café, over our teacups, we agreed to stand by each other through thick and thin. It will be seen to what extent MacAndrew fulfilled his promise.
Crouch returned to the agent's, where he cabled to England, arranging for Captain Ferguson to take over the command of the "Westmoreland," when the ship reached Alexandria. We then went to the police station, and interviewed a Maltese superintendent of police, to whom we endeavoured to explain that the scarabaeus was of priceless value.
That night we three dined together in one of the principal hotels, situated in the Strada Reale, which is the main street that runs the length of the city of Valetta. We were not sailing till the following morning. We had fifteen or sixteen hours therefore in which to find our stolen property; but, to tell the truth, not even Captain Crouch had any idea as to how we were to begin our search.
In the dining-room we found Captain Crouch, reading an English newspaper whilst he was waiting for dinner. That paper contained a full account of the discovery of Ah Jim, a European boy who had been kidnapped by Chinese as a child, and who had finally been discovered through the agency of Mr. Wang, the celebrated Chinese detective.
"That's the man for us," said Captain Crouch, "if we could only get hold of him and afford to pay him. His fees, I believe, are tremendous. I have never seen him, but I have heard a great deal concerning him. They tell me he has never failed."
Now, coincidence, as I have said, is not such a singular thing as many people try to make out. That same evening, whilst waiting in the hall of the hotel for MacAndrew, I had occupied myself by looking at the visitors' book; and I remembered quite well that my attention was attracted by three names in very different handwriting, which followed one after the other. I cannot say why I should remember the first two. But I do.
Sir Julius O'Brien—a strong, firm, but angular handwriting.
The Contessa Maria della Falconara—a neat, little, back-handed calligraphy.
Mr. Wang—in the most amazing scrawl I have ever beheld in my life.
Now, this may seem coincidence: that Captain Crouch should have come across Mr. Wang's name in a newspaper, and that I should have seen it in the visitors' book, within a few minutes of one another. It is not coincidence at all. The paper was an old one. Mr. Wang was a celebrity. When he booked a room in the hotel, his name was recognised by the booking-clerk, who promptly turned up the old newspaper to look for an account of the discovery of Ah Jim. This newspaper he gave to the hall-porter, who gave it to the head-waiter, who left it in the dining-room. In the majority of cases, what is called coincidence can thus easily be accounted for. It may be thus with the scarabaeus.
I at once told Captain Crouch that Mr. Wang was staying in that very hotel. MacAndrew was even more anxious to regain possession of the scarab than Crouch and myself; and it was agreed, then and there, that we should ask Mr. Wang to assist us.
Before we had finished dining, the great detective himself entered the room. Not one of the three of us had ever seen him before, but there was no mistaking his identity. He was dressed in a European flannel suit, and his little pigtail hung down over his collar. He was on his way back to China from England, having solved the Mystery of Ah Jim. He did not strike me as being so fat as I had heard, and his face was more wrinkled than I had supposed. Upon his little, squat nose was a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. He walked into the room with his hands folded in front of him, and I noticed that on one of his fingers he was wearing a large diamond ring.
At MacAndrew's suggestion, Captain Crouch approached the great detective, and bowed somewhat awkwardly.
"Mr. Wang, I believe?" said he.
"The same, sir," said Wang. "I have not the pleasure."
"My name is Captain Crouch."
"The Captain Crouch?" said Mr. Wang.
"I never heard of another one," said Crouch.
"There is no doubt of it," exclaimed Mr. Wang. "A cork foot, and a glass eye." Then he held out a hand. "Captain Crouch," said he, "pleased to meet you."
They shook hands. That was the meeting of Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang. Strange men, both of them; but masterful and unique.
HOW MR. WANG GOT TO WORK
IT was MacAndrew's intention to tell Mr. Wang only so much as he considered necessary: namely, that the scarabaeus had been stolen from my cabin, on board the "Westmoreland," presumedly by the two "Egyptians" who had deserted from the ship. But we found that it was impossible to keep the whole truth from the detective. He cross-examined us so acutely, and he wanted to know so many details that we finally came to the conclusion that it would be best to tell him the whole story from start to end.
This we did, omitting nothing, from the murder of Josephus MacAndrew to the arrival of the "Westmoreland" in the harbour of Malta. And when I look back upon those preliminary days, I cannot but feel grateful that we told Mr. Wang the truth. Had it not been for him, I am convinced that not one of us would have come out of the business alive.
I have said already that I believed myself to be in the gravest danger. And I could see from the expression on the round, jovial face of Mr. Wang that he, too, regarded the whole matter in a very serious light. Whilst we were telling him the story, he continued to eat his dinner; but no sooner had he finished than he sprang to his foot, crying out that there was no time to lose. We were to wait for him at the hotel, He had certain inquiries to make.
He went out, wearing a straw hat, underneath which he tucked his pigtail, and was absent about an hour and a half. When he returned, he called us together in a corner of the smoking-room, where we sat round a small table with our heads almost touching.
"You must not expect," said he, "that as yet I have any clue. That would be asking too much. This evening, I have visited both the harbours, and have made sundry inquiries. I find that for seven weeks past an Arab dhow has been making periodical visits to the Marsamusetta Harbour. That in itself is suspicious, because Arab dhows do not, as a rule, come to Malta. Now, this dhow is believed to have come from Rosetta, which, as you are aware, is at the mouth of the Nile. The men on board are not Arabs, which is another suspicious and remarkable fact. From the description of them I have received, I should take them to be of the same race as the two men who deserted from your ship.
"Now, suppose this city of Mituni-Harpi actually exists," he continued. "If everything you have told me is true, the inhabitants are possessed of considerable wealth, and they would not be likely to spare expense upon such an undertaking as the recovery of the scarab. I presume that the dhow is in these waters in connection with the two deserters, and when you come to think of it, that is only natural. The men must have some means of escape from the island without being inconvenienced by such officials as customs officers and police. The only extraordinary aspect of the case, as it appears to me, is the organisation, the scrupulous care with which every contingency seems to have been prepared for. It reminds me of one of the secret societies of China, with which I have had so much to do."
"And is this dhow in the harbour at this very moment?" asked MacAndrew.
Mr. Wang shook his head.
"It is cruising outside the harbour," said he. "There lies our danger. The deserters evidently intend to embark from one of the numerous bays in the island, such as St. Paul's or Melleha Bay, giving the Customs people as wide a berth as possible."
"What do you propose to do?" I asked. I had forgotten my fears for the time being. I was intensely interested. I felt that it would be foolish to be afraid in the presence of such men as Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang.
"I act at once," cried Wang. "It is impossible to watch the entire coast-line of this island. The fugitives are probably still in Valetta. I must find them before they leave the city. I have an idea I will."
"Valetta is not a small place," said MacAndrew.
"It is only a small part of the city where I have to look," said Mr. Wang. "The town consists, as you know, of three or four principal streets, outside which everything is squalid and narrow and dirty. In the principal streets you will find the shops, the banks, and the offices of merchants. In the side streets live the people. Now, those people are Maltese, with a sprinkling of Sicilian. No foreigner, who wished to hide himself, would think of going into a street where every one knows every one else, where they all live on their door-steps. Neither would he go into the country, where the villages are few and far between."
"Then, where would he go?" I asked.
Mr. Wang took in a deep breath, and continued.
"On this side of the Marsamusetta Harbour," said he, "there is a district which is unique in Europe—I should say in the world. It is the lowest quarter of any city in existence. Low in every sense: the people who live there are remarkably poor and of the criminal class; also, they live under the ground, below the level of the sea.
"To all intents and purposes, this place is a subterranean village, or slum. You descend a flight of steps, and find yourself in a street, lit, day and night, by gas-light. The heat in summer is oppressive. The streets, as well as the so-called houses, are carved out of the living rock. The place is a veritable sink of humanity; therein you will find the dregs of Europe, Africa, and Asia. British soldiers and British sailors do not venture to go there. The police never go near it. The inhabitants, who represent all nations in the three continents, only come to the surface of the ground for purposes of crime. There, you may he sure, your deserters are hiding." And then he added in a kind of silken deliberation, "And there I am going to fish them out."
"When?" I asked.
Mr. Wang pulled out his watch and looked at it. "In half an hour," said he.
At that, he got to his feet, and went up into his room. It was getting late, but none of us thought of going to bed. We went out upon the roof of the hotel, where there were chairs and several shrubs in pots. There we sat talking, the lights in the harbour down below us and the bright stars in the heavens above. It was a wonderful night. A full moon was shining, and in the little, close-packed streets that were all around the hotel, we could hear the music of guitars and the singing of rich Sicilian voices.
I am an old man, but I love the world; and the more I see of it, the more wonderful and beautiful I think it all to be. There are times, such as the night of which I write, when I am inclined to regret that I have spent so many years burning the midnight oil in my little stuffy room, packed with dusty books, in the heart of the city of London. There are wide, free spaces in the world, where the hot wind sweeps across the desert, or where the brown grass of the prairie dies away in the blue haze at the foot of the distant hills; and it is in such places, I think, that man was meant to live.
If I remember rightly, I was speaking much to this purpose to MacAndrew and Captain Crouch, that night on the roof of the Malta Hotel, when there suddenly appeared before us one of the most miserable, poverty-stricken objects that it was ever my lot to behold. We could see him quite clearly, standing before us in the moonshine. He looked like a half-caste Arab, though he was dressed like a Sicilian, with a scarf around his waist. His clothes and everything about him were so dirty that we drew away from him as he approached. He had long, black, unkempt hair, that was matted with dirt upon his forehead. His eyebrows were black and bushy. On one foot he wore a boot, from which the sole was gone, so that his toes were visible. On the other foot he wore a sandal, like an Arab. His blue trousers extended about half-way between the knee and the ankle, and were very frayed at the ends. He suffered from a hacking cough that was indeed pitiful to hear.
MacAndrew was a man who could speak roughly to his fellow human beings. He turned upon this poor decrepit and dishevelled object in much the same way as one dog might growl at another.
"Who are you?" he demanded, with an oath. "Be off! Get out of this!"
The voice that replied was the voice of Mr. Wang.
"You will remain in the hotel, until I return," said he. "Go to bed, if you wish; but on no account leave the house. I hope to be back in little more than an hour."
AND EXPERIENCED A TOUCH-AND-GO AFFAIR
I GLEANED afterwards from Mr. Wang a detailed account of what happened to him upon that fateful and dramatic night; and I set down his story much as he told it to me, knowing full well that he was a man who never exaggerated his own exploits in order to make himself appear more resourceful and courageous than he was.
He went to the Marsamusetta Harbour, and fearlessly descended into that subterranean pandemonium. It was then about midnight, the hour when the denizens of this underworld were awake. The place consisted of three or four streets, or tunnels, cut through the rock, dimly lighted by gas lamps. Mr. Wang knew well most of the great cities of China, but he told me afterwards that the dirt of even the worst parts of Canton was as nothing compared to the squalor of the Marsamusetta vaults.
The streets were so filled with refuse that it was like walking across a garbage heap. Even at that late hour children played in the lamplight; they were children with the faces of old men and women—children who had suffered terribly, who had seldom seen the sunlight. There were drinking booths there, where vile liquor was consumed—stuff called "ambeet," which is more deadly than absinthe, and more intoxicating than "Cape smoke."
Mr. Wang stood at the foot of the steps, and took in a deep breath. He desired to become accustomed to the vileness of the atmosphere. Then he went forward, down what may be described as the principal street, keeping his head lowered, at the same time observing closely those who passed him by. In the pocket of his coat was a loaded revolver.
He noticed an old man, an Arab, sitting upon a door-step. He was toothless, and the little hair upon his head was quite white. Now, Mr. Wang, whose accomplishments were many, could speak neither Arabic nor Italian, and he knew but a few words of Maltese. He intended to pass himself off as a Sicilian. He spoke to the old man in Maltese; whereupon the Arab shrugged his shoulders, intimating that he could not understand.
Mr. Wang was relieved. He tried English, and found that he was understood. They talked of Tunis, where Mr. Wang professed to have been. The Arab came from Bizerta. Years ago, in the days of his youth, he had been a robber. He had lifted cattle upon the slopes of the Atlas Mountains. But now ho was old, and very poor, and Allah was good.
Now, Mr. Wang had chosen his man wisely. He knew that old men sleep little, and are by nature curious. There was but one entrance into the vaults, by way of the steps which he himself had descended. If the two "Egyptians" had sought shelter in this underworld, it was probable that the Arab had seen them.
The old man needed little persuasion to accept the glass of "ambeet." He was a good Mohammedan, he said, though he had been a robber and a thief all his life. The Prophet forbade his followers to drink wine; but "ambeet" was a spirit, and the Prophet had said nothing about spirits.
Over a glass of this vile concoction Mr. Wang obtained all the information he desired. The Egyptians were in the aults. They were lodging at the house of a man who was half Greek, half Armenian, and who was said to be the greatest scoundrel in the island. He was the head of a gang who robbed sailors when the fleet was in port. Money he found it easy to exchange; but such valuables as watches, rings, etc., he would take in a fruit-boat to Palermo, where ho would sell them at a good price. The old Arab made no secret of these things; in the Marsamusetta vaults every man was a thief, and doubtless the Arab thought Mr. Wang was one of themselves.
Mr. Wang made an excuse, and left the Arab in the wine shop. He found his way without difficulty to the house where the half-caste lived. It consisted of two or three rooms, connected one with the other, excavated out of the rock. There was neither knocker nor bell upon the door, upon which he rapped with his fist.
It was some time before the door opened and a villainous-looking rascal appeared, who was stripped to the waist, and who had a long moustache that hung down on either side of his chin. He spoke to Mr. Wang in an unknown language. There was something fierce about the man, in his high-pitched voice and his threatening attitude, and his dark, glaring eyes. Mr. Wang spoke in broken English, such as an Italian might use.
"The police are after me!" said he.
The man answered in English. "What has that to do with me?" he asked.
"Protection," pleaded Mr. Wang.
The man looked suspicious at once. "How much money have you?" he asked.
"What has that to do with you?" said Mr. Wang, repeating the man's own words. "I have money. How I got it is my affair, not yours. I will pay you five shillings if you let me sleep in your house to-night."
The man hesitated. He thought of his other two guests, who were then sound asleep. He remembered that they had stipulated that no one else should enter the house whilst they were there. Still, five shillings was a large sum of money, and the two strangers need never know. He opened the door, and admitted Mr. Wang. And then locked the door, and put the key in the pocket of his trousers. Mr. Wang observed all this. He knew that his life depended upon his powers of observation.
In the first room was a table, upon which was a bottle doing duty as a candlestick. The grease had run down the neck of the bottle. There was a truckle-bed in a corner, and one or two chairs, and a coat hanging upon a peg upon the wall. Everything was disgustingly dirty.
The half-caste took the candle in the bottle and conducted Mr. Wang into the second room, which was very small, not more than six yards by five. There was nothing in this room but a mattress, from which the straw was sticking out.
"There you are," said the man. "You may sleep there. But pay your money first."
Mr. Wang thrust a hand into the hip-pocket of his trousers. As he did so, he exposed a big knife that he was carrying in his belt. The man looked at the knife, and then at Mr. Wang, and then gave a grunt, which might have been either dissatisfaction or approval. Mr. Wang paid out his five shillings. The man bit each in turn, then left the room, closing the door behind him. Mr. Wang carried his knife as a moral weapon. He had other means, as we shall see, of defending himself.
Mr. Wang now found himself in darkness, except for the light which came through the cracks in the door. He moved on tip-toe, across the room, and placed an ear to the second door, which communicated with the third room beyond. He heard deep breathing; and having thus satisfied himself that he was not on a false scent, he went to the mattress, threw himself down and pretended to sleep. Presently, he was snoring loudly.
He remained with his eyes closed for a long time. When he opened them, he discovered that the light in the first room had been put out. It was pitch dark; and the atmosphere was so close and fetid that it was almost impossible to breathe. Fortunately, Mr. Wang had lived the greater part of his life in tropical countries.
Noiselessly, he opened the door into the first room, where he satisfied himself that the proprietor of the place was fast asleep. He then returned to his own room, and produced from his pocket a small electric torch. By means of the light from this, he examined the door leading to the third, or inner, room. As he had expected, it was locked.
Mr. Wang had the fingers of a conjurer. He robbed the proprietor in his sleep; he stole the man's keys, and the half-caste never so much as moved.
He returned, and unlocked the inner door. It took him ten minutes to open it. He had to exercise the greatest caution, as otherwise it would have creaked and awakened the sleepers.
Again using his torch, he examined the room. He had no doubt that he had found the right men. They lay upon the ground on different sides of the room, and wore very little clothing. Their features were Coptic. One wore his hair long, cut straight about the ears; they had thin lips and high cheek bones, and Semitic noses with broad nostrils. Upon the face of the old man was a red scar, extending from above the ear to the corner of the mouth.
It was not the custom of Mr. Wang to waste time. His sharp eyes missed nothing. His powers of observation were abnormal. The torch was not on for more than a few seconds; and yet, in that brief space of time, Mr. Wang noted a significant fact: one man—he with the scar—was sleeping with a pillow, the other had none.
Going down upon his knees, Mr. Wang examined the pillow. At the same time he examined the scar upon the face of the elder man, and came to the conclusion that it had been caused by a blunt instrument. The pillow consisted of a very dirty blanket, which had been wrapped around something. Using the torch, and shading the light from the sleeper's eyes, he ascertained to his satisfaction that the blanket was wrapped about some kind of stone or metal. He had discovered the scarabaeus.
He got to his feet, passed through the room which he himself had occupied, to the outer room, where he carefully unlocked the door. He was preparing his line of retreat.
It was then that a disaster befell him. The air outside was comparatively fresh; and on the door being opened this fresh air rushed into the first room, with the result that it awakened the half-caste, who sprang to his feet and at the same time produced a knife from his belt. Mr. Wang knew the value of a powerful light in a dark room. He switched on his torch, and directed its rays full into the face of the man. At the same time, he held his revolver in the ray of light, so that the half-caste could not fail to see it.
"Call for help," said he, in a voice that was wholly without emotion, "and you are a dead man. I shoot without a second's hesitation."
"You have stolen my keys!" cried the man, feeling in his pockets.
"Hands up!" said Mr. Wang. "Do as I tell you, and you have nothing whatever to fear. You shall have your keys back again. Resist, and there will be trouble."
The ordinary cut-throat is a coward. Alarm was stamped on every feature of the man's face. His mouth was wide open, and he did not appear able to shut it.
"You belong to the police?" he gasped.
"No," said Mr. Wang. "I am a thief, like yourself and those foreigners yonder. But I have no time to waste words. Do as I bid you. Keep your hands above your head and walk into the inner room. My revolver is in my hand."
The man had no option but to obey. Followed by Mr. Wang, he backed into the inner room, and thence into the room beyond, where the two Egyptians were sleeping. This was by far the biggest room of the three.
Mr. Wang flashed his torch over the walls and found the very thing he wanted—a niche which at one time might have been used for a crucifix. He made the half-caste stand against the wall on the opposite side of the room. He then placed his electric torch in the niche, so disposing it that the light fell upon the man's face.
"Move from that position," said he, "and I shoot. I warn you, you had best play no tricks with me."
Mr. Wang's reasons for this should be obvious. Marvellous man as he was, he had been gifted by Nature with no more than two hands. He had to take a pillow from underneath the head of a man who was sleeping none too heavily. It was therefore impossible for him to hold both his electric torch and his revolver.
He afterwards spoke of the matter as one of the most delicate operations he ever performed. He had to lift up the head of the sleeping Egyptian, remove the scarabaeus, and at the same time he dared not take his eyes from off the half-caste. It was necessary to be ready to shoot at a second's notice. If the man sprang out of the ray of light, Mr. Wang could not undertake to hit him in the darkness.
All this, as it proved, was a task beyond the powers even of Mr. Wang. He failed. And we cannot be surprised at that. We can only wonder at the audacity and the courage that led him to attempt it.
Before Mr. Wang had laid hold of the scarabaeus, the Egyptian had moved in his sleep; and then, suddenly, the man sprang up and let out a cry of alarm. The shout awakened his comrade, who was sleeping on the other side of the room.
Mr. Wang seized the scarabaeus, and jumped to his feet. The whole place was pitch-dark, with the exception of the powerful ray of light that emanated from the torch-light, that cut across the darkness like the blade of a scimitar. From the position of the torch Mr. Wang was able to guess more or less where the door was. Diving under the shaft of light, he rushed full tilt against the wall. In the one hand he held his revolver, in the other, the scarab.
At that moment, the half-caste, seeing that the alarm had been given, sprang forward and was seen advancing towards the torch with a hand outstretched to gain possession of it.
Without a second's hesitation Mr. Wang fired. And that shot was a masterpiece.
He might have killed the half-caste; for the man was in the light. He might have fired at random in the darkness, chancing to hit one of the Egyptians. He did nothing of the sort. He smashed the torch-light to atoms with his bullet. And immediately the whole place was in utter darkness.
But Mr. Wang was nearest the door.
He slipped through in a second, and threw the scarab upon the ground. A moment later, he had slammed the door and locked them in. To shut the door, it had been necessary for him to use both hands.
Groping in the dark, he found the scarab again, and picked it up. The half-caste was already hammering on the other side of the door.
Mr. Wang shouted at the top of his voice. It was necessary to do so in order to make himself heard.
"You will find your keys," said he, "on the table in the outer room."
Then he found his way into the street, where he produced a large handkerchief, with which he mopped the perspiration from his head.
"A ticklish business," said he. "A touch-and-go affair."
The old Arab was still sitting upon his doorstep. Mr. Wang saluted him as he passed.
"How long to dawn?" he asked.
"I do not know," said the old man. "Down here there is no dawn. The sun never sets and the sun never rises. Allah is great, and Mohammed is his Prophet."
When Mr. Wang came out in the fresh air upon the side of the Marsamusetta Harbour, he filled his lungs with the fresh breeze that came from the open sea. Towards the east there was a streak of silver in the sky. In an hour, it would be sunrise.
Mr. Wang presented himself in my room at our hotel after he had changed. He was his normal self again, dressed in his flannel suit, wearing his straw hat, with his pig-tail hanging over his collar.
MacAndrew burst into the room. He had not been to sleep. He had not even taken his clothes off.
"Have you got the scarab?" he demanded.
Mr. Wang produced the green jasper scarabaeus from under his coat, in much the same manner as a conjurer produces a rabbit.
"It was a touch-and-go business," said he. "A ticklish affair."
HOW THE YELLOW DHOW STARTED IN PURSUIT; AND OF A CONVERSATION THAT TOOK PLACE BETWEEN CAPTAIN CROUCH AND MR. WANG
CROUCH went on board that morning, whilst the rest of us were still asleep. As for MacAndrew, Mr. Wang, and myself, after a late breakfast we strolled down to the ship, to find that she was ready to sail in half an hour.
I myself took the scarab into the captain's cabin, where I saw it locked up in the ship's safe. I then went below, and occupied myself in tidying up my cabin. When I came on deck, the ship was under way, and I was surprised to find Mr. Wang on deck.
"Are you coming with us?" I asked.
Mr. Wang greeted me with one of his expansive smiles. "As far as Alexandria," said he. "I intend to pick up the intermediate P. & O. at Port Said."
I was delighted that we were to have the company of this remarkable man for the remainder of our voyage. We now had four passengers on board; for Captain Ferguson, who was to take over command of the ship at Alexandria, was also travelling in the saloon.
We passed out of the entrance to the Grand Harbour of Valetta, and, swinging to the east, took up a straight course for the mouth of the Nile. As we rounded the island, we passed the inlet which is known as St. Paul's Bay, where the Apostle is believed to have been shipwrecked; and there, sure enough, lying not fifty yards from the beach, was the yellow dhow of which Mr. Wang had spoken.
Captain Crouch from the bridge, with the aid of his marine glasses, was the first to discover our two deserters running upon the shore. As the ship passed the bay, we saw these two men jump into the water and swim out to the dhow, which immediately hoisted sail and made for the open sea.
Clear of the headland, she took up a straight course in our wake, travelling before the wind. She was then about half a mile astern. All that afternoon, the dhow followed us, and not until sunset was she lost in the midst of the purple glow which flooded the sea and sky.
I remember I stood upon the poop of the ship, watching the glory of the evening. And my heart was heavy, indeed. The sun went down into the sea; and a little after, in the gloaming, I was able to perceive the dhow, a mere speck upon the far horizon.
Someone chuckled at my elbow and, turning, I beheld Mr. Wang. The bell was ringing for our evening meal.
"Mr. Wang!" I exclaimed. "I did not hear you."
He paid no heed to my remark. I saw that his eyes, too, were fixed upon the dhow.
"Professor," said he, "they'll follow you to Egypt. They'll follow you up the Nile, and, if needs be, to the ends of the earth. Who they are, I know no more than yourself. But of this I am certain: they set a far smaller price upon their own lives than upon that green beetle, carved in stone."
I was a coward from the day of my birth. A great fear took possession of me; so that I set to shaking in my limbs. I clutched Mr. Wang by an arm.
"Mr. Wang," I pleaded, "you will come with us? You must come with us! I shall feel safe if I have you, as well as Captain Crouch. Promise that you will!"
I saw a broad smile spread itself slowly upon the round, flattened features of the great Chinese detective.
"Professor," said he, in a quiet voice, "I was waiting to be asked."
It was not until the following morning that I informed MacAndrew that I had engaged the services of Mr. Wang. He was furious, using the most abusive language; and finding this of no avail, he attempted to reason with me, saying that he and I alone were quite capable of seeing the matter through, that there was not the slightest necessity to increase the number of our party.
I waved these difficulties aside. I was well able to pay Mr. Wang, however great his fees might be. I was determined that he should come with us, and had no hesitation in expressing the opinion that we were lucky to be able to avail ourselves of the services of such a capable and extraordinary man.
MacAndrew submitted with an ill grace. During the next few days, his demeanour was sullen and morose. He spent most of his time by himself, poring over his uncle's notebooks.
I did not allow myself to worry about MacAndrew's extraordinary behaviour, but I noticed that Captain Crouch always had his solitary eye glued upon my partner—for such I suppose he was. He would look at him steadily, for a long time, as if he were trying to solve a puzzle. Then, on seeing that MacAndrew had observed him, he would break into a whistle, and once into a song, the words of which I happen to remember:
"There are queer fish in the rivers,
There are queerer fish in the sea,
But the queerest fish is put on the dish
And cooked with salsifee."
"That's a strange song," said I, when I heard him sing it.
He gave me a wink—a very long wink, during which his glass eye almost stared me out of countenance.
"It is a strange song," he admitted.
"But why salsify?" I asked.
"For two reasons," said Crouch: "firstly, to rhyme; and secondly, because salsify tastes like what it isn't."
I asked him to explain.
"Shut your eyes," said he, "and you'll think you're eating an oyster. Keep them open, and you'll know better."
He vouchsafed nothing more, but turned his back on me and walked away, still humming the tune.
I thought nothing of all this at the time—the more fool I! But the reader of this story may have gathered already that I have no pretensions to being what is called a man of the world. As for Mr. Wang, I could never make out what he thought. His broad face was always wreathed in smiles. Mr. Wang's smile was like a mask—a pleasant, humorous mask—which the eyes of no man ever penetrated, but through which he himself saw everything.
I did not know till recently that, on the night before we reached Alexandria, a conversation took place between Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang, in the small hours of the morning. It was, indeed, two o'clock that night, when the celebrated Chinaman went to bed. I am now able to recount more or less what passed between them.
Captain Crouch offered Mr. Wang a cigar and a chair. Mr. Wang accepted the former, but refused the latter, preferring the sofa upon which he put his feet up, making himself as comfortable as he could.
"I have been expecting this," said he. "You want to know my views in regard to this expedition, this beetle and buried treasure. You also want to know what I think of the Professor and his companion. Well, Captain, I guess I can tell you straightaway. I think much the same as you do."
"Seems fair," said Crouch. "I like your methods, Mr. Wang. You steam straight into port, without hanging round for half an hour whistling for a pilot. I look upon the Professor as a harmless old bird. He may know all about the Ancients, their customs and habits and gods; but he knows no more of the modern world than my cork foot. And to tell you straight, sir, it's my honest belief that, if he goes alone with MacAndrew into the heart of Africa, he'll never come back alive."
Mr. Wang smiled, as he listened, threw back his head, and puffed clouds of cigar smoke into the air.
"I believe all this," said he; "impossible as it seems, I believe every word of it. The evidence is indisputable."
"You believe in the city of Mituni-Harpi?" asked Crouch.
"Implicitly," said Wang.
"And you believe in MacAndrew?"
"I believe him to be insane—or very nearly so. Dreams of gold have nearly turned his mind. I do not know what his game is; but he is up to no good. I am certain of that."
Crouch banged the chart-table with his fist.
"My word," he exclaimed, "if all this is true, as you think, I ask for nothing better than to set eyes upon this wonderful city."
"As for myself," said Mr. Wang, in his gentle, almost soothing voice, "I ask for nothing better than to see Mr. Josiah MacAndrew in a strait-jacket."
Captain Crouch held out a hand.
"Shake!" said he.
Mr. Wang, in a lackadaisical manner, extended one of his fat, podgy hands, which Crouch gripped as in a vice. Most people winced when they shook hands with Captain Crouch; but Mr. Wang merely grinned from ear to ear.
"Mr. Wang," Crouch went on, "I have often heard tell of you, and I have read of some of the wonderful things that you have done. Somehow, I never thought I'd meet you. But, now, I am going to the Back of Beyond again—I am going into the Unknown, as I used to do in days gone by, with my old friend, Edward Harden. I somehow think that I'm about to have the most wonderful experience of my life. And that's saying a lot, sir—a tidy lot. If I may take the liberty of saying so, I am proud and pleased that you and I are to be shipmates, so to speak."
By now, Mr. Wang was so pleased, and he had smiled so much, that he was actually beginning to slobber. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
"We'll wake 'em up!" he chuckled. "We'll keep 'em on the move!"
What precisely he meant, or to whom he referred, I have never to this day been able to ascertain. I am not well acquainted with the slang expressions which it was the custom of Mr. Wang to use. The fact that he used the plural induces me to think that he intended to include myself, that he suggested to Captain Crouch that they should keep myself "upon the move." If this was so, his prognostications were certainly correct. From that date, for several months, I was constantly "upon the move." And I, a student, a man who had led a secluded, sedentary life! Tempestas sequitur serenum after the calm, the storm.
HOW WE JOURNEYED INTO THE WILDERNESS AND CAME TO OBELISK HILL; AND HOW CAPTAIN CROUCH MADE HIS EXCURSIONS INTO THE DESERT
WE left the ship at Alexandria, and after staying three weeks in Cairo, where we procured Arab and Sudanese attendants, we proceeded up the Nile in one of the flat-bottomed boats that run to Assouan, our destination being Khartoum.
To describe the manifold beauties of the Sacred River, which from time immemorial has watered this land of mystery and romance, were to fill a volume in itself. Those who have never seen the desert from the banks of the Nile have never looked upon a scene without parallel in the world. Palm trees, bending as in adoration at the water's edge; sycamores, spreading their generous shade upon the burning sand; picturesque poverty-stricken villages, whence little naked children come rushing out to see the boat go by; now and again, the crumbled ruins of an ancient and forgotten civilisation; the temples and paved courts of excavated cities, sphinxes, pyramids and pillars. And all around—the desert, extending as far as the eye can reach, with a far oasis towards which, perhaps, a caravan progresses, the camels moving slowly in single file. The red glow of sunset; the blue night, alive with stars; at dawn, the mirage—magic in the sky. And then, the hills close in, as if they would crush us—arid, barren, inhospitable hills; and we find ourselves in the midst of the roaring of the waters. And we continue southward, climbing the cataracts, working our way into the heart of Africa, towards the burning South. It is the most wonderful journey that any man can make.
In Khartoum, Captain Crouch secured two river boats, by means of which we intended to navigate the Sobat. Every detail of our journey had to be thought out in advance. Our way would be easy as far as the town of Ajak, to which place Europeans had journeyed before. But beyond that point, we would find ourselves in the Unknown. MacAndrew's map made mention of a cataract, above which was a Niwak village. Beyond this, an unnamed tributary flowed into the Sobat from the southwest, which, after a distance of about forty miles, turned at right angles and thence flowed from the south-east.
In the bend of the tributary was "Obelisk Hill," of which there was a full description in one of Josephus MacAndrew's notebooks. It was at this place that Captain Crouch, who by general assent had become the leader of the expedition, intended to establish a base, from which we might strike across the desert to the south-east.
It would be tedious to give a detailed account of our journey up the rivers. I know I was weary of the whole business long before we reached the mouth of the Sobat. Captain Crouch was the personification of physical energy. He selected our camping-places; he supplied us with game to eat, so that there was no necessity to break into our store of provisions. He was always the first up in the morning, and the last to lie down to sleep at night.
MacAndrew, too, worked hard, never hesitating to set his shoulder to the tow-rope, when it was necessary to tow the boats upstream against the current of the river. I did what I could to help, whenever there was occasion; but I fear that my strength was inconsiderable, and I was generally in the way.
As for Mr. Wang, he would sleep all day, in spite of the great heat of the sun. One of the characteristics of this extraordinary man was that he appeared to be able to go to sleep at will. There were times when he did nothing but sleep; there were times when he would go for days and nights without closing his eyes, and would never seem fatigued. As he said himself, "Why sleep, when there is work to do? Why keep awake, when there is nothing whatever to do?" This is, perhaps, as sound in theory as it is—to the ordinary person—impossible to put into practice. The fact that Mr. Wang was able to do it undoubtedly accounted for his marvellous vitality and health.
We had not been three days upon the Sobat when I fell into a fever, and was obliged to dose myself with quinine. We were now a distance of nearly two thousand miles from Alexandria. The current of the river was swift. We were in the heart of the tropics. Vegetation was scant. At midday the sun blazed like a furnace immediately overhead. The sand beneath our feet was hot to the touch, and remained so even long after nightfall. From sundown to dawn, we were plagued by myriads of insects: mosquitoes that droned about us ceaselessly, biting MacAndrew, Crouch, and myself so severely that our faces were disfigured. As for Mr. Wang, nothing touched him. Smiling, he would sit in the stem of the boat, fanning himself, watching others work.
As we journeyed onward, we came into a land teeming with animals of every kind. I have never seen so many birds. Wherever there were mud flats upon the river, they gathered in their millions. I am no naturalist, but I recognised the flamingo and the sacred ibis, and that kind of crane that is distinguished by a tuft of feathers on the crown of its head. Then there were herds of jackals, like great, savage dogs, bounding over the plain; and I have seen a warthog, with his great curved tusks, charge into the midst of one of these jackal herds and scatter them left and right. Neither shall I ever forget the night when I first heard the panting roar of a hunting lion. The sound came from somewhere quite near the place where we were encamped upon the river bank, and, I confess, I awoke in fear and trembling. I awakened Mr. Wang, who was sleeping by my side.
He sat up and listened. I can see his round face now, with his eyes turned sideways and his mouth wide open. He nodded to me pleasantly.
"Yes," said he, "it's a lion."
And he lay down again and went to sleep!
Then a shiver went through me. It was as if I became petrified. Fear had numbed the limbs of my body. I saw, creeping stealthily towards me, a black shadow. I could neither cry out nor move.
The shadow passed; and in the moonlight I recognised the figure of Captain Crouch. I could see his little tuft of goat's-beard, and his great, hooked nose. He was on all fours, and in one hand he carried a rifle.
He crept silently into the thickets. And after a few minutes, during which it was as if I found it impossible to breathe, the sound of a rifle smote the silence of the night.
Immediately, a flock of birds got up from some rushes near at hand, and I heard the sound of their wings die away in the distance. Then came a noise like thunder; the earth itself seemed to shake, the air to vibrate. It was the death roar of a dying lion.
In a minute, the whole camp was in an uproar. The Arabs were gesticulating violently, shouting at the top of their voices. The Sudanese were rushing here and there. And Crouch strolled back with his rifle under his arm, smoking his great curved pipe, a smile upon on his face.
For many years Captain Crouch had been a big-game shot; but that night he had killed the lion of his life. He told us the next day that he had but one ambition: to have the head stuffed and set up in the Explorers' Club in Bond Street, that Edward Harden might look at it and grind his teeth in envy.
It was about four or five days after this memorable night that we reached the town of Ajak. The natives, who proved to be quite friendly, told us that we would be ill-advised to venture farther to the south. They said that beyond the desert there was a country inhabited by a strange and powerful race. More than this we could get nothing out of them. From Ajak we journeyed into a savage country, of rolling hills, covered with a dense scrub. The river became more swift as it narrowed; so that every one of us was obliged to toil for long hours at the tow-ropes.
I shall never forget those days. I was footsore and soon became exhausted; my hands were blistered, and my shoulders bruised. But I worked with a will, with the little strength that I possessed; and I like to think that my companions were grateful to me for the little I did to help.
We now saw a new aspect of Mr. Wang. Day and night he worked, and he was always cheerful, encouraging us with the hope that we must soon arrive at the Niwak village, marked on Josephus MacAndrew's map.
It must be understood that we had now left the Sobat, and were journeying up the tributary, which is not marked on any published map. The country was broken and hilly, a wild, barren region, which appeared to be uninhabited. We knew that before we reached the village we must come to the cataract. It was therefore with feelings of intense gratification that, one evening, when we were working upstream by the light of the moon, we heard in the distance the dull roar of falling water.
Presently, the surface of the river became much disturbed, and we could see patches of foam floating past us in the moonlight.
We ran the boats ashore and pitched our camp, resolved to go no farther that evening. The following morning, Crouch and Mr. Wang went forward to explore, and came back with the news that the cataract was not more than a mile ahead.
We towed the two boats within a few hundred yards of the foot of the rapids, and then unloaded them and lifted them out of the water. It was I who went forward this time with Captain Crouch, and came to the Niwak village; but we experienced the greatest difficulty in making the inhabitants understand. They were very ignorant and savage people, almost wholly without clothes. They were very alarmed at our appearance, but, I am sure, they wore no more frightened of me than I was of them.
Captain Crouch, however, walked up to them without fear or embarrassment, and finding that he could not make them understand in Arabic, or any of the native languages with which he was familiar, he proceeded to converse by means of pantomime, in which method of conveying ideas he was an adept.
It was quite evident that the majority of the natives had never before beheld a white man. In the end, we managed to persuade several of the men, by means of offering them some of the glass beads we had brought with us, to accompany us to the foot of the rapids, and to help carry our baggage and empty boats up stream, to a safe point beyond the cataract.
The more I think of the dangers that encompassed us in those days the more I wonder at myself. For all we knew when we walked into that village, we might have been put instantly to death. But Crouch had a wide experience of African races. He assured me that they were very like dogs: if you were frightened of them, they bit you; if you addressed them boldly, they were servile and obedient.
It took several hours to convey all our belongings past the rapids. The next day we rested, and made quite good friends with the people of the village, the whole community, men, women, and children, coming out to have a look at us. My gold-rimmed spectacles caused infinite delight.
And now began the last stage of our river journey. The tributary flowed through a deep ravine; and since the current was even stronger than before, it was harder work than ever to tow the boats. Our destination was Obelisk Hill. I think I was the most anxious of all our party to reach the place; for I felt that if I was called upon to continue to perform the duties of a barge horse, I would sooner or later drop in my tracks. Moreover, the obelisk was evidently a relic of the civilisation of Ancient Egypt. It was described as bearing a marked resemblance to Cleopatra's needle, situated on the top of a conical hill on the right bank of the river.
We came forth from the ravine quite suddenly, early one morning. And there was the obelisk straight in front of us. I confess, my heart leaped for joy. So far, we had found everything precisely as Josephus told us: Ajak, the undiscovered tributary, the cataract and the Niwak village—we had come to each in turn. And yet, it seemed to me, that this obelisk, situated exactly as he had said, on the top of a conical hill, was the first direct proof we had had of the possible existence of the Tomb of Serophis, and the city of Mituni-Harpi.
We camped that night at the foot of the hill, but on the other side of the river. Earlier in the afternoon, I had ascended the hill in company with MacAndrew. I had hoped to be able to read the inscriptions on the obelisk; but I found these had been entirely obliterated by the action of sand-storms, blowing across the desert to the west. The stone from which the obelisk had been cut was exceedingly soft, and it was a wonder to me that the monument had remained standing throughout so many centuries.
Our course now lay due south-west by the compass. The notebooks and the map informed us that we would have to pass through a country of arid, bush-grown hills, before we came out upon the great desert, across which, upon the map, Josephus MacAndrew had written the words: "Here, upon sandy waste, the sun beats like fire."
We were now about to leave the river valley. We believed in our hearts that the city of Mituni-Harpi, a remnant of the civilisation of the Past, and the Tomb of Serophis, in which was buried a fabulous treasure, lay before us. But we were separated from our goal by a trackless, fiery desert. We had no means of knowing whether we could hope to traverse it. If we crossed the hills and set foot upon, that wilderness we took our lives in our hands. What supplies and ammunition we decided to take with us, we would have to carry. We searched in vain in the notebooks for any information concerning water upon the desert. We noticed that no oasis was marked upon the map, and the more I thought of the matter, the harder I found it to be hopeful. Not so my companions. Captain Crouch was resolute. We all looked to him for orders. During the two weeks, when we remained camped at Obelisk Hill, he spoke little; but I could see that he was busy making his plans.
Then our Sudanese and Arab attendants refused to accompany us. They had heard rumours in the Niwak village; and it was plain to see that no power on earth could dissuade them from returning to the Nile. Crouch promised them that they should not be asked to cross the desert; but he had work for them to do before he would allow them to return down-stream in one of the boats.
The next two days, the little Captain was shooting among the hills, which abounded in game. He returned to camp each evening with a number of an exceedingly small species of antelope. These he skinned, drying the skins in the sun. Out of these skins he made a number of water-bottles, similar to those that are used by the natives of India. Watching Crouch at work, I marvelled at the way in which he used his needle.
These rough-and-ready water-bottles were filled from the river. And then Captain Crouch, four Sudanese natives, and MacAndrew set out towards the desert.
They were absent for three days. Mr. Wang and myself remained in camp, I writing up my diary and examining the obelisk, concerning which I was able to record several interesting observations. As for Mr. Wang, he slept upon the river bank, stretched at his full length, his hands folded behind his head. He appeared to consider that we were perfectly safe. I had no such feeling of security.
When Captain Crouch returned, he was well pleased with the success of his expedition. He had reached the margin of the desert, and had left a water-skin at the foot of the hills, which they reached late at night, after starting from the river at dawn. At this place they slept, dividing the water from another water-skin between the six of them. With four skins remaining, they had set out before daybreak the following day, making a forced march across the desert, taking a compass hearing. At midday they had dropped another water-skin, burying it in a heap of sand which served to mark the spot. Late that night, many miles farther on across the desert, they had deposited still another water-skin in a similar manner.
Drinking the water in the fifth skin, they returned the next day, having one skin left to last them during the return journey. Every one of the party was parched with thirst when they regained the river. They went down on their hands and knees at the water's edge and drank like beasts of burden.
Captain Crouch's second and last journey was even more arduous. On this occasion, MacAndrew and himself were absent for four days. Once again, they started at daybreak, and, travelling faster than before, reached the extremity of the hills not long after sundown. Thence, without halting, they pushed on all through the night, and reached the first halting-place upon the desert at eight o'clock the following morning. In other words, they travelled for twenty-six hours through the burning heat of the day without a drop of water. They drank the contents of one skin between them, and then lay down to sleep upon the burning sand, exposed to the full rays of the sun.
Both Crouch and MacAndrew were blistered terribly, and even the natives suffered from the heat. For all that, at sundown, they resumed their journey, but lost their way, and did not find the second desert halting-place until long after daybreak.
They were now so consumed by thirst that they were obliged to drink the contents of two water-skins. Moreover, the natives protested that they were unable to go any farther; whereupon Captain Crouch himself set out that night with a single water-skin, which he left at midnight at a far point in the desert, and then returned, finding his companions at about ten o'clock in the morning. They started back upon their tracks across the sand in the blazing heat of the day, carrying the two remaining water-skins with them. One they consumed at the first desert halting-place, and the other at the foot of the hills.
When, after many hours' toil, they regained our camp at Obelisk Hill, they were like men who had returned from the terrors of the nether regions. They were haggard in countenance, blistered by the sun, and their eyes had the wild, savage appearance of men who had looked upon the face of death.
The next night, the four natives held Captain Crouch to the terms of his contract. They were paid off, and taking one of the boats, from which we had off-loaded our stores, they returned down-stream, heartily glad to be quit of us, as it was plain enough to see.
"HERE, UPON THIS SANDY WASTE, THE SUN BEATS LIKE FIRE"
TO me, the situation in which we found ourselves was alarming. We were in the very heart of Africa; in all probability, there was not another white man within a thousand miles of us. If disaster befell us, no one could come to our help. Neither had we any means of communicating with the civilised world. Often I could not help thinking of all this, as I lay awake under the tropic, starlit sky, too troubled and anxious to sleep. But I am sure that neither Captain Crouch, MacAndrew, nor Mr. Wang ever wasted a moment's thought upon the perils that surrounded us.
We had brought with us several knapsacks (and four of these we filled with ammunition—both for our rifles and revolvers), a medicine chest, a few cooking utensils, a limited supply of food, Captain Crouch's famous case of glass eyes, Mr. Wang's make-up box, and several other articles that Captain Crouch considered necessary, such as a telescope and a compass. MacAndrew carried his uncle's notebooks; Captain Crouch, who might be termed the navigator of the expedition, took possession of the map; whereas I was entrusted with the scarabaeus. I hold the opinion that we were more like pack-animals than human beings when we were fully equipped. One evening, shortly before nightfall, we set out upon our hazardous journey, guided by Captain Crouch.
Daybreak found us still among the hills, and Crouch wisely decided not to attempt to march in the heat of the day. We found a shady place, and there we halted; and I for one was glad enough of a rest.
Crouch went out with a shot-gun, and brought back a brace of birds that resembled sand-grouse, and these were cooked upon a slow fire, and very good they were to eat. We were not permitted to drink, however, though each in turn was allowed to moisten his lips with a handful of water from one of the water-skins we carried. Of these there were three; and I regret to admit that I was the only one of the party who was not given this additional weight to carry.
At nightfall, we resumed our journey, and about two hours before daybreak we came to the place where the hills ended and the great desert began.
I shall never forget the scene that we witnessed upon that wonderful tropic night, as we stood upon the last ridge of the hills. A full moon was sinking in the west, and this flooded the desert with a pale, iridescent light, so that it looked like a mighty sea. And then, the dawn came from out of the east, behind us, and the light spread across the level plain like the incoming of a flowing tide.
As a rule, the daylight brings confidence and hope. But the light of that dawn filled my heart with the sinking feeling of despair. To the south and to the west, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing to be seen—no hill, no tree, no stream—nothing but an illimitable stretch of burning, golden sand.
I looked in vain for the mountains upon the far horizon, the mountains beyond which lay the Road of Sitting Scribes, leading to the wonderful city of Mituni-Harpi. I looked in vain for the hills, upon the steep face of which were said to be carved the two colossi and the great flight of steps.
There was nothing. The desert was like a sea. It faded away into space, a land of death and desolation, a country without hope.
Captain Crouch had been obliged to wait for daylight, in order to find the place where he had hidden the water-skin. When we found it, we camped in a narrow gully, where we were well protected from the heat of the sun; and welcome, indeed, was the water, though it was far from cool.
We began our march across the desert about six o'clock that evening. It was easy to follow the trail made by Crouch on his two previous journeys. Even in the moonlight we could see the footprints on the sand.
It was terribly hard work, for our feet sank to the ankles. We halted repeatedly to rest and to remove our knapsacks from our shoulders, but we were not allowed to drink. Even at midnight, the sand was quite hot to the touch.
We found the first desert halting-place without difficulty. The water-skin had been buried under a conical heap of sand about six feet in height. We took it out and drank half the contents before throwing ourselves down upon the ground and preparing ourselves for sleep.
The great heat of the sun awakened us. There was no shade. The desert was like an oven. Exhausted as I was, I could not sleep in that blazing furnace.
There were insects in the sand. Invisible things that bit. I lay upon my back, with closed eyes, and the rays of the sun struck through my eyelids like red-hot irons.
But Crouch would not let us drink. He told us that we must keep our three water-skins until we were beyond his farthest desert point. He could not say how far that was from the mountains. We must trust to Divine Providence; for, the moment we set foot upon the desert, our lives were no longer in our own hands. It might be that we were destined to die of heat and thirst in the midst of this parched and arid waste; it might be God's will that we should cross the desert in safety, and come to the Colossi and the Road of Sitting Scribes. We must steel our hearts and be brave.
At sunset, we were allowed to drink what remained in the water-skin. That water was hot, but it served its purpose and quenched our raging thirst. Then Crouch told us that he intended to do a forced march that night. We must use every effort to push forward in the greatest haste.
We started at seven, in the cool of evening. We marched in single file: Crouch leading, MacAndrew second, myself third, and Mr. Wang bringing up the rear.
Crouch's pace was terrific. He followed the trail, taking long, swinging steps. Once or twice, he broke into a song. As for myself, I had no heart to sing. I felt that at any moment my legs might give way from under me. I ached in every limb.
But I was determined not to give in; and I think determination is worth as much as physical strength. Soon after eleven, we arrived at the second desert halting-place, where we found the third water-skin; and my heart sank within me when I heard that Crouch had decided to push on.
We were to carry this third skin with us; so that we should have four full water-skins to take with us into the farthermost part of the desert. But, weak and exhausted as I was, I would not permit Captain Crouch to carry the extra weight, as he generously proposed to do. It was due to me to do my share, and I refused to accept his offer.
But I fear my heart was stronger than my body. For after half an hour's marching, in the comparative cool of the early morning, I began to stagger, like a man the worse for drink. I saw the stars swimming above me in the heavens, and the tall figure of MacAndrew, immediately before me in the moonlight, was vague and indistinct.
I was on the point of throwing myself upon the ground, and asking my companions to go on and leave me alone to die, when suddenly the water-skin was taken from my shoulder.
"I guess, Professor," said Mr. Wang, "I'll see you through. Just keep your nose to the trail, and think of the journey's end; and you'll get there right enough."
I was too weak to argue, to resent. I let him carry my load. In doing so, he was saving my life. He knew that; and so did I.
Daybreak found us still upon the trail. The footmarks in the sand, which we were following, were those only of Captain Crouch. Fortunately, during the few days that had elapsed, there had been no wind to disturb the even surface of the desert.
The footmarks led us to the fourth and last water-skin, where Crouch had buried it under the sand. But the sun was by then high, the heat terrific: and I remember, when Crouch gave the word, we flung ourselves upon the water-skin like savage beasts.
The day passed like the one before: insects, thirst, sleeplessness, heat insufferable. Shading our eyes, we scanned the horizon to the south-west, but could see no sign of distant hills. To-morrow's journey would plunge us into Uncertainty; the die would be cast.
If we could trust the map, we should be already nearly half-way across the desert. If the map was not drawn to scale—and there was nothing to show that it was—we might run short of water, and then, Death awaited us—Death and the great vultures which now and then were visible, soaring hundreds of feet in the sky—the only sign of life in all the midst of that indescribable and endless wilderness.
I am sure that Crouch was wise to allow us to sleep during the earlier part of the night. I for one could not have gone on without a few hours' rest—for there was no rest under the scorching rays of the sun. We began our march, if I remember rightly, at about one o'clock in the morning, after drinking the remaining contents of the last desert water-skin.
I allowed Mr. Wang to carry my load. I knew it would be foolish to attempt to do so myself. We had therefore the four skins we had brought with us from the river; but we had no idea as to how many miles of desert we still had to cross. It was all a gamble—a gamble with Death. And I saw by the glint in Captain Crouch's eyes that he loved it. He was a man who, all his life, had played with death and danger.
At daybreak, Crouch called a halt, and, drinking a little water, we secured a few hours' rest before the heat became insufferable.
We were on the march again that evening, and travelled many miles throughout the night, halting at about three o'clock in the morning, in order to obtain a little sleep before the sun arose in its fury. That morning, we emptied the fourth water-skin, which Mr. Wang had so generously carried for me. Looking at him, I perceived that he had suffered considerably. Although he was an Oriental, and accustomed to tropical climates, having spent much of his life in the south of China, he had over-exerted himself, and was in a very exhausted condition. In these few days, he had lost much in weight, and there were deep black rings around his eyes, which were no longer bright and animated.
For the next three days, we continued upon our journey, marching as a rule by night or during the early morning hours. By Crouch's orders, we consumed our water literally a mouthful at a time; and I do not think there was ever a moment when I was not so parched by thirst that my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth.
As we penetrated farther into the desert the heat became more and more intense. As we emptied each water-skin, we cast it away: Mr. Wang's first, and then MacAndrew's, so that, on the sixth day of our journey across the desert, we were left with only the water-skin that was carried by Captain Crouch.
Realising that the time was come for a supreme effort, if our lives were to be saved, we marched as early as three o'clock in the afternoon, under the full rays of the sun. The perspiration poured from our faces, as, one after the other, we staggered upon our way.
At nightfall, Crouch gave each of us half a pannikin of water, which was actually hot. But our inexorable commander would not permit us to halt. We must push on, he told us, or else perish miserably upon the desert.
That night, there came a hot, moist wind from the south, that stirred up the sand, which got into our eyes and nostrils, and choked us if we opened our mouths.
Hour followed hour. It was a tragic pilgrimage. I stumbled forward like one half insensible. I seemed to have lost the sense of feeling in all my limbs. I had certainly lost all power of thinking. I moved mechanically—like something wound up, but which was rapidly running down.
Then came the first signs of dawn upon the eastern skyline; and, at a word from Crouch, we flung down our knapsacks and our arms, and our wearied bodies as well, upon the parched, yielding sand.
Daybreak upon that fateful morning I am never likely to forget. As the light spread, the desert opened before us, all around us—treeless, glowing and vast.
We stood upon a ridge, for the desert was undulating, like a silent sea upon which, there is a heavy swell. The breeze still blew from the south, and so stirred the sand, that it lay over the plain like a mist, above six feet in height.
Above this sand-mist, the atmosphere was yet clear; and it was possible to see for miles. And nothing whatsoever was visible, except in one direction—towards the south-west. And there, standing before us across the horizon like a wall, was a mass of solid rock. The desert's end! The goal of our endeavour! Weak and exhausted as we were, we could not refrain from a cheer; and I know that I silently offered thanks to God, and I saw that Captain Crouch's lips also moved in prayer.
But we were not yet out of our danger, for, even as we gazed in rapture at the mountains before us, the wind continued to rise; and, looking towards the south, we saw approaching something that was like a cloud, driving forward across the face of the desert.
Crouch gave us water to drink; and soon afterwards the sun was blotted out, and we found ourselves in the midst of a furious sandstorm.
If we opened our eyes, we were blinded. If we spoke, the sand was hurled into our throats. We were deafened, and rendered sightless and dumb. We lay together, endeavouring to shield one another, throughout the whole of that awful day, powerless to move—powerless even to rise.
The heat was as great as ever. Though we had our backs to the storm, it was difficult to breathe. In the evening, we quenched our thirst, but it was impossible to eat. We could not attempt to open our knapsacks.
The storm lasted for thirty-six hours, during which time we were obliged to consume the greater part of our limited supply of water. Moreover, when we again shouldered our knapsacks, to continue the march by night, we discovered to our dismay that they were half as heavy again, by reason of the large quantities of sand that had been driven through the webbing.
Daylight showed the wall of rock towards which we had been marching to be appreciably nearer, but still some miles ahead. On the other hand, there was not one of the four of us who had not reached the limit of his powers of endurance. Crouch, who had set a magnificent example throughout, was reduced to a skeleton. Mr. Wang was a mere shadow of his former self. As for MacAndrew, I verily believe that during those terrible, final hours, the man developed that form of insanity which afterwards consumed him. His eyes started from his head, and were more wild-looking than ever. His thin lips were pressed tightly together. He spoke to no one, but trudged forward, staring savagely in front of him at the wall of rock, with features contorted like those of a man who is running a race.
A race it was. A race with Death—the worst of deaths: from thirst. We were all conscious of our peril; we knew that, at any moment, exhaustion might overcome us, and we would die—with the goal in sight.
Crouch divided the rest of the water between us, taking, I noticed—with that heroic generosity that was characteristic of the man—less himself than he gave to each of us. Then we set forward, in the burning heat of day, making our final effort to reach our journey's end.
Slower and slower became our progress, as the day wore on. Wang and myself fell behind. MacAndrew, outstepping even Crouch, was far ahead. He seemed possessed of a kind of supernatural energy. He went stumbling through the sand, which flew at his feet, at a kind of jog-trot, and never once looked back to see if we were following.
It was at about midday that, quite suddenly, I lost consciousness. The heat and the constant exertion proved too much for me; I fell to the ground in a swoon.
When I recovered my senses, Mr. Wang was bending over me, trying to lift me up. He made a noble effort to carry me, but succeeded in doing so for not more than twenty paces, when he, too, fell to the ground.
We lay side by side for some minutes, with our eyes closed, and that remorseless sun beating down upon us from above. We were like men already dead. My throat ached with thirst. It felt as if my tongue was on fire. My eyes were bloodshot from the sand; my hands and face so blistered that the slightest touch was pain. The barrel of the rifle I carried was like a bar of heated iron.
I made no attempt to rise. I knew that any such effort was hound to end in failure. I just lay where I had fallen, and awaited a lingering death. And then I was lifted from the ground, and realised that Captain Crouch had returned, and was carrying me in his arms.
I looked back, and saw that Wang was following. I looked forward, and saw MacAndrew, staggering like a blind man, towards the wall of rock, towards two mighty figures, each of which appeared more than two hundred feet in height, that stood forth like giants, facing one another, on the margin of the desert.
I no longer had the power to utter any exclamation. I saw also that neither Crouch nor Mr. Wang could speak. The eyes of both of them were fixed upon the two gigantic images, towards which we were battling forward, as swimmers with strength exhausted might struggle towards a floating spar.
These figures I knew of old. On the left hand, carved upon the face of the rock, was an image of the Ancient Egyptian god Thot, with the head of the sacred ibis; on the right was the jackal-headed Anubis, the lord of Death. In the clearness of the atmosphere, we could see these quaint figures quite distinctly, though they were still more than a mile away. They stood close to one another, each with a hand extended, as if pointing the way to the flight of steps that was our goal.
Then Crouch, still holding me in his arms, fell to the ground. He was assisted to his feet by Wang, who was following close behind us. I saw that if I did not master myself, and gather together the little strength that remained to me, we would all three perish where we stood; for, certain it was that neither Crouch nor Mr. Wang could carry me another yard. We had forgotten all about MacAndrew, who was now approaching the Colossi. With open mouths and staring eyes, we joined hands, and dragged each other forward across the burning sand.
Presently, we heard a loud shout in front of us. It was almost a screech. Looking up—for our eyes had been fixed upon the ground—we saw MacAndrew throw his arms into the air, and fall down upon his face.
Before we could reach him, he sprang to his feet again, and casting down his knapsack and his rifle, he set off running like one bereft of sense.
He fell again near the foot of the precipice, and this time was unable to rise, but continued to go forward on hands and knees. We came to the place where he had left his knapsack, and here we, too, flung ourselves upon the ground. We were gathered together like frightened children, watching MacAndrew crawling up the great zigzag staircase that was cut in the face of the cliff.
At the top, he disappeared. We waited, in all probability, over an hour. And then, for the first time for forty-eight hours during which not one of us had spoken—we heard the sound of a human voice. MacAndrew hailed us from above.
"Water!" he cried. "I have found water! We are saved."
Crouch, revived by hope, rose to his feet, and forged his way to the foot of the cliff, whence he ascended the flight of steps.
Wang and I followed him, but we were too weak to attempt to mount that mighty staircase. We seated ourselves upon the ground; and in a little time Crouch came to us with a pannikin of cool, sweet wafer, that was like the nectar of the gods. It was more than that: it was life and hope and strength and courage. We had crossed the sandy waste, "where the sun heats like fire." Mystery and danger might lie before us; but never again—the torture we had endured.
HOW WE CAME TO THE ROAD OF SITTING SCRIBES
THE phenomenon of finding water at the top of a cliff, when there is none at a lower level is, in this case, I believe, easily explained by the fact that the sand of the desert lay upon a hard impermeable stratum through which no water could penetrate. The face of the cliff itself was composed of the same impervious rock, whilst the subsoil of the plateau beyond was gravel. At all events, not two hundred yards from the head of the steps was a spring of pure, cold water, at the side of which we went down on our hands and knees and drank like beasts of burden.
We had seen no water since we had left the river, on the other side of the desert. In those days, we had always pitched our camp as far away from the river bank as possible, by reason of the large number of mosquitoes that swarmed in the vicinity of the river. One species of these insects which we had observed was a kind that extends in a "belt" across the whole of Africa to the south. The bite of these insects has no ill effect upon human beings, but is fatal to all hoofed animals, such as cattle and horses. We had learned of the existence of this deadly fly, in the valley of the unknown tributary of the Sobat, from Josephus MacAndrew's notes; and that was the reason why we had made no attempt to cross the desert on camels. Camels could not have survived so far south.
When we had quenched the thirst that consumed us, without troubling to unpack our knapsacks we flung ourselves down upon the ground, and immediately fell asleep, in the shade of the trees surrounding the pool.
We slept the night through, without a sentry; and in the light of what we afterwards discovered, there is no doubt that this was an exceedingly risky thing to do. However, at the moment we were too spent and exhausted to take the most simple precautions against surprise.
When I woke at daybreak I found that Captain Crouch had already made a fire, upon which he was boiling a kettle. And a few minutes afterwards the four of us were seated on the ground, eating a hearty breakfast.
We then, for the first time, took stock of our surroundings. It was as if we had come from the nether regions into the enchanted garden of Armida, described by the Buddhist writers. We had passed days in the sweltering heat, without shade, without water, without rest. In that glaring wilderness there was nothing to be seen but sand that glittered in the sun so fiercely that the glare was blinding. We found ourselves now in a country of green trees and long waving grass; the air was cooler and invigorating. The water of the stream bubbling at our feet made music that was like magic in our ears.
I will endeavour to describe the scene. It will live for ever in my memory.
We were camped at the top of the cliff; and below us, to the north, the desert extended as far as the eye could reach—that illimitable and relentless plain of burning, golden sand. To the south the country was spread before us like a map. A stretch of rolling grass-land extended for about forty miles; and so clear was the atmosphere that the mountains beyond looked quite near at hand. Here and there, there were hillocks, tree-covered and scattered with boulders. From the spring at our feet a tiny brook wandered down the slope, to join with other streams; so that eventually a river was formed which we could see for miles winding across the plain, bearing, as it seemed, towards the left—that is to say, to the south, in order to circumvent the mountains.
About a quarter of a mile from the place where we were, two stone images, each about twenty feet in height, had been erected, facing one another. And no sooner had I observed these images than I sprang to my feet and hastened toward them, in order to examine them more closely. In design, each resembled the famous Sitting Scribe that was discovered at Saqqara. Both statues were so worn and mutilated by the continuous action of wind and water throughout the centuries that their features were barely distinguishable.
Each Sitting Scribe was seated cross-legged on a flat pedestal, a roll of papyrus across the knees. They were represented without clothes, and wore their hair in the straight-cut fashion of the Ancient Egyptians. But the great wonder of the thing was not to be found in these two images, but in the fact that, as far as the eye could reach, just such another pair had been placed, facing one another, at intervals of about half a mile. Prom the hill-top, one could see these mute, insensible statues becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, until they faded out of sight, somewhere to the south of the hills.
There could be no doubt that, as Josephus MacAndrew had said, they marked a former road that ran, in an almost straight line, from the great flight of steps to the city of Mituni-Harpi.
It would be impossible for me to describe my feelings of enthusiasm at this point. In a few hours, after one night's rest, I had forgotten all about the perils and hardships I had undergone. I thought nothing of the dangers that were yet to come. This Road of Sitting Scribes was in itself a wonderful discovery, rivalling those that had been made by Mariette. I looked at the mountains in the distance in amazement, knowing that there was now no doubt that beyond lay the place that was called Mituni-Harpi, and the Tomb of Serophis, the former Prince of Thebes.
During the day, we rested upon the hill-top, in the delightful shade of the trees; and I spoke to my companions of my hopes. I have no doubt that my enthusiasm carried me away. I had neglected to consider that there could still be any difficulties in front of us. I spoke as if my three companions and myself might go down the Road of Sitting Scribes, as the Ancient Egyptians had been wont to pass in days gone by, with the clash of cymbals, the blowing of trumpets, and the joyful beating of drums. For a moment, I was carried away by my own words; for I wished for nothing but to set eyes upon the city of Mituni-Harpi. I was brought to realise that I was but building castles in the air, by the grim, but tolerant, smile that I observed upon the lips of Captain Crouch. Crouch was a practical man. I suppose I never was.
"Professor," said he, "you speak as if the rest of our journey would be very easy. There, I am afraid, we differ. I believe the worst is yet to come."
"The worst!" I exclaimed in alarm, remembering the terrors of the desert.
"I mean danger," said Crouch. "You, Professor, appear to have observed a great deal. But it does not interest me to listen to your account of the wonders of the two Colossi, carved in the cliff, or to hear you speak of the Sitting Scribes. Have you failed to notice that the country before us is cultivated?"
"Cultivated?" I repeated.
"I can't say that I have," said I.
Crouch handed me his telescope. "Look through that," said he. "For once, Professor, leave ancient monuments alone. Study the details of the country."
I did as he told me, directing the telescope slowly and carefully over the country that lay between us and the mountains. I saw at once that Crouch was right. Here and there, especially upon the banks of the river, were little patches which resembled rice or wheat fields; whereas in several places large herds of cattle were grazing.
I gave the telescope back to the captain. "Yes," said I; "the plain is inhabited."
"You have seen houses?" asked Crouch.
I shook my head.
"You are not so observant," said he. He got to his feet and pointed out a hillock about a mile away. Directing the telescope as he bade me, I perceived for the first time a small village, consisting of about half a dozen houses, before which I could see people moving to and fro.
Without a word, I again gave the telescope back to Crouch, who had evidently already discussed the situation with both MacAndrew and Mr. Wang.
I seated myself upon a knapsack. "What are we to do?" I asked, addressing myself to Captain Crouch.
He took out his pipe, filled it with his vile tobacco, and for some moments, without speaking, puffed clouds of smoke into the air.
"It seems to me," said he, at last, "the next few hours will decide our fate. We can't remain here long without being discovered. I suppose, no one suggests that we are to return?"
He paused, as if waiting for an answer. To me, death itself were better a thousand times than to go back to that scorching wilderness of sand.
"Very well," Crouch went on, since no one answered; "the time has come, Professor, when we must rely, to a very large extent, upon you. So far, everything Josephus has told us has proved to be correct. We may therefore take it that these people, whose city lies beyond the mountains, and who evidently inhabit the plain that lies before us, speak the language of the Ancient Egyptians. Now, you understand that language; you can write it, and read it; you know a great deal concerning their habits and customs. I've had a considerable amount of experience with modern savages; but I know nothing whatsoever about ancient civilisations. For all that, I've got an idea that if we tackle these people the wrong way, each of us will be a dead man, in less time than it takes to snuff a candle. I take it, Professor, the Ancient Egyptians were not noted for being kind?"
"On the contrary," said I, "they were exceptionally cruel."
I believe Crouch was going on; but just then Mr. Wang behaved in a very extraordinary manner. He held a finger to his lips, signing to us to be quiet, and then carried the same hand to his ear.
CONCERNING THE CHARIOTEER WHOM WE BEHELD UPON THE PLAIN; AND HOW OUR PLAY WAS CAST
WE listened, and after a while were able to hear distinctly the clatter of a horse's hoofs. Mr. Wang immediately threw himself upon the ground, and then began to crawl on hands and knees in the direction of a great boulder, where he beckoned us to his side.
We joined him as quickly as we could, creeping through the long grass in the same manner as Mr. Wang.
Peering cautiously over the boulder, we observed a large striped hyena, travelling across the plain at its peculiar wolf-like canter. The animal was evidently exhausted; for, as it passed quite close to us, we observed that its tongue was lolling from its mouth.
However, we did not continue to regard the animal for long; for, presently, there appeared out of a little declivity upon the plain a sight that held us rooted in amazement.
This was a man in a light two-wheeled chariot. He stood, leaning slightly forward, holding the reins in both hands, and at the same time grasping an enormous bow. He wore no clothes, but a nicely embroidered loincloth, whilst around his neck was a necklace of sparkling jewels. His long hair flew out behind him, as the horse tore onward at a gallop.
He was a well-made, muscular man, probably about thirty years of age. His chariot flew past us at a distance of not more than fifty yards. As for the horse, I have seldom seen so magnificent an animal. It was a pure Arab, with a tail long enough to reach the ground. Upon the crown of its head was a huge plume, of the same colour as the horse itself—that is to say, coal black.
Even as we looked, the man threw his reins over his left forearm, so that they rested in the crook of the elbow. With the same movement he snatched an arrow from a large quiver, which was attached to the chariot in much the same place as in a modern vehicle the bucket of the whip is to be found. As quick as lightning, he placed the arrow in the bow, which he drew back to its full extent.
As the arrow flew upon its way, he let out a shout that was so fierce and exultant that, I confess, I was afraid. Surely, there was never a finer shot from a bow since this weapon of antiquity was first invented. The arrow caught the hyena behind the left shoulder, and must have transfixed its heart. For the animal rolled head over heels, and then lay stone-dead upon the ground.
The man reined in his chariot with such sudden strength that he threw back the horse upon its haunches. To spring to the ground, to pull out the arrow and to throw the dead body of the beast into the vehicle was the work of an instant. And then, he was off, across the plain. Wheeling to the right, he followed the Road of Sitting Scribes, and went forward in a cloud of dust towards the hills in the distance.
We watched him in silence. Minutes elapsed before any one spoke. And by then, the charioteer was a mere speck upon the plain. The sun was setting, and there was a red glow upon the skyline. It was Crouch who broke the silence.
"You see, Professor," said he, "you can hardly say that we are out of danger."
I produced the large red handkerchief I always carried, and wiped the perspiration from my brow.
"You are right," said I, "you are right. And yet, I cannot believe that I am not dreaming. I seem to have seen that man before. In my imagination, I have seen him, or just such another, upon the famous road that, in days gone by, ran from Thebes to Coptos, upon the right bank of the Nile; and he was a young nobleman of the court of Pharaoh, of Rameses or of Seti. And yet, I am awake, and my name is Miles Bowater Unthank, and I was born in the nineteenth century! It is unbelievable!" I threw out my hands with a helpless gesture. "How are we to dispute," I cried, "the evidence of our eyes?"
MacAndrew sprang to his feet and pointed towards the hills. Once again I perceived in the man that which resembled a touch of madness.
"Yonder," he cried, "lies the gold of Serophis!"
His eyes flashed. His fingers were trembling. He looked gaunt and haggard, but there was a certain vivacity about him, a quickness of movement, that reminded one of the vitality of a cat. Crouch was still puffing at his pipe. As for Mr. Wang, he sat cross-legged, with a broad smile upon his features and his eyes closed. I could see that he was thinking.
"If we go down into the plain," said Crouch, "we take our lives in our hands. The question is: how are we to go about this business? How are we to begin?"
It was Mr. Wang who spoke. "We must go," said he, "disguised."
"Disguised!" I exclaimed. "Disguised as what?"
"I guess, Professor," said Mr. Wang, "that that is a question which you yourself are best qualified to answer."
For a moment, I could think of nothing. Mr. Wang was regarding me intently.
"Surely," said he, "you can think of something? Have these people no gods whom we can impersonate?"
Even then, I did not at once grasp the whole idea. I sat thinking of the deities of Ancient Egypt, and no pagan country in the world ever boasted of a greater number of gods. The great Osiris presided over a Pantheon mightier than that of Jupiter, or Zeus. Not only were there hundreds of traditional gods in Ancient Egypt, but every city had gods of its own, where the national theology was adapted to suit local patriotism. Phtah was the nome-god at Memphis; Amon, at Thebes; whereas Isis presided at Buto. I began to explain the perplexities of Ancient Egyptian mythology, when Mr. Wang cut me short.
"Surely, Professor," said he, "there must have been gods common throughout the whole land who bore certain characteristics which no one could mistake. What about the Colossi carved on the face of the cliff? Whom do those figures represent? Remember, I know nothing about it."
"They are Thot and Anubis," said I, "the Lord of Magic and the Arts, and the Prince of Death."
"Supposing," said Mr. Wang, "that two of us go down into the plain disguised as Thot and Anubis? How would the inhabitants receive us?"
The suggestion took away my breath. The audacity of it amazed me.
"It might succeed!" I cried. "The Ancient Egyptians had their own interpretation of the life hereafter. They believed that every man had his 'double,' a kind of alter ego, that continued to live after him. There is little in connection with their religious rites and ceremonies that I do not understand. Such a plan might succeed. But if we were to attempt it, and to fail, if we were found to be impostors, I tremble to think what would become of us."
"Once," said Captain Crouch, as if speaking to himself, "I reigned over a savage people by means of disguising myself as the fiendish spirit whom they imagined they worshipped. I made them my slaves; and then, I proved that I was an impostor, and that their so-called religion was the worst kind of fetish-worship. And I handed them over—man, woman and child—to a missionary, who had wandered into those benighted parts, who told me many years afterwards that he had never made more genuine converts."
Mr. Wang got slowly to his feet. I do not think he had heard Captain Crouch's remark. He had been busy with thoughts of his own.
"I have disguised myself, time and again," said he. "I have played hundreds of parts, and always with success. This may be a dangerous business. I have no objection to that. It rests with you, Professor. If you think we have a chance of success, say so. We will carry out your orders."
By now the idea had, as it were, grown upon me. I was conscious of its possibilities. I was sure that by no other means could we gain access to the city, if, indeed, the real Mituni-Harpi lay beyond the mountains.
"Is it possible," I asked, "to make a mask which one of us could wear, resembling the head of a jackal?"
"Nothing easier," said Crouch. "Not ten minutes ago, we saw a hyena. I have had a great deal of experience in skinning animals and curing skins. I have not the slightest doubt that I could make a mask out of a hyena's head, as good as that worn by any cat in a Dick Whittington pantomime. I once saw a play by William Shakespeare, and very pleasant it was. A Midsummer Night's Dream was the name of it; and I remember Bottom, the weaver, who wore the head of an ass and very comical he was."
I saw it all now. I was heart and soul in the business.
"Can you make another mask," said I, "to resemble the head of the sacred Ibis?"
"That will be more difficult," said Crouch; "but it can be done."
"And a hawk's head?"
"It can be done," said Crouch.
"Good!" I cried. "We have the scarabaeus. The gods themselves will bring the sacred scarab back to the Tomb of Serophis. We will contrive to journey by the river; for it was upon the waters of the sacred Nile that such religious rites were once performed. And you, MacAndrew, shall be Horus, son of Osiris, the god of the sky. Crouch shall go as Anubis, the jackal-headed lord of death; Mr. Wang as Thot, the master of words and books and song, the possessor of the magic writings that nothing in heaven, on earth, or in Hades, can withstand. As for myself, I will accompany you as the High Priest, who is the spokesman of the gods, who themselves will not deign to converse with the lowly sons of men."
MacAndrew flung out his arms, threw back his head, and roared with almost savage laughter. "It's great!" he cried. "We will not think of failure!"
HOW THE GODS OF THE NILE ENTERED THE LAND OF THE SEROPHIANS
THAT same morning we discussed our plans in every detail. I explained to my companions the character and personalities of the ancient gods whom we intended to impersonate. I could see no reason why our ruse should not succeed, but it would certainly take some days to make our preparations, and we therefore decided to move our bivouac, which was in a very conspicuous place, and to camp at the foot of the cliff.
Crouch and MacAndrew descended the steps with the idea of selecting a camping ground, and presently returned with the news that they had discovered a cave, not far from the Colossi, in which we would be able to hide.
Here we remained for a week, during which time we were busily engaged. Captain Crouch shot a hyena and made its head into a mask. He tried it on several times before he was satisfied, making sundry alterations. It laced up at the back, but was so cleverly made that the laces were completely hidden by the animal's hair, which was trimmed with a pair of scissors, in such a manner that the mask ceased quite naturally in the nape of the neck, a little below the place where human hair usually ends.
The hawk and the ibis masks were tasks far more difficult, which occupied Captain Crouch for several days. Since, obviously, the head of no hawk could fit a human being, Crouch shot a Greater Bustard, and sewed the feathers in a very natural way upon a piece of merino cut from a vest. He used as a model the head of a real hawk, and was at the greatest pains to match the feathers.
There was no difficulty in obtaining a specimen of the ibis, of which birds there were a great number upon the plain, especially in the vicinity of the river. In this country the scarlet ibis—one of the most beautiful of birds—was far more common than the well-known sacred ibis, which at the time of the rising of the Nile abounds in Upper Egypt. From the top of the cliff we could see them through our telescope, walking with slow, deliberate steps upon the river bank, or flying high in the air.
Though the colour of the sacred ibis is mostly pure, silvery white, the head and neck are black, and devoid of feathers. We had no means of imitating this peculiar, wrinkled skin. Hence, Crouch was obliged to kill about six of them, the heads of which he skinned, sewing the pieces together. He then made the long, curved beak of the animal out of a piece of hard, black wood. The mask was attached to the beak by means of a number of small nails, which he extracted from the sole of his boot, a strip of skin being stretched over the nail heads in order to hide them from view.
The extraordinary life-like appearance of these three masks can scarcely be exaggerated. They were tried on again and again. Those who have read before of the exploits of Captain Crouch will remember that he always carried about with him a case of glass eyes, by means of which he was wont to perform "magic," to the astonishment of the savage races with whom he was brought into contact. He was therefore able to fit a pair of glass eyes to each mask, in which small holes were made, in order to enable the wearer to see where he was going.
In the meantime, Mr. Wang had been busy. It will be remembered, he had carried with him across the desert his make-up box, which he used for detective purposes; and it was he who dyed our skins a rich walnut colour, similar to the complexion of the charioteer whom we had seen upon the plain. Our costumes presented no difficulty, since, obviously, the less we wore, the more historically correct we would appear. Captain Crouch converted our shirts into kilts, similar to those worn by the Ancient Egyptians, which reached from the waist almost to the knee. As for myself, my head was shaven to the skull, my moustache and beard were cut off, and I was deprived of my gold-rimmed spectacles.
It was a strange procession that left the hill-top one evening, about an hour after sunset. The spectacle of Horus, Anubis and Thot, accompanied by an aged priest, all carrying modern knapsacks and rifles, would, I am sure, have appealed to the sense of humour of several of my former associates in the British Museum. Anubis had a telescope under his arm, and was actually smoking a pipe—the last pipe, as he told us, that he expected to smoke for many a day—a prognostication that proved by no means correct. Thot carried the medicine chest, and Horus, a pair of field-glasses slung across his shoulder.
I had inspected my deities before setting forth; and I must confess I was delighted with the result attained by Crouch and Mr. Wang. MacAndrew made a very impressive Horus. His great height was probably in keeping with Egyptian mythology; for I have noticed that Horus is generally represented as the tallest of the gods. Crouch, as Anubis, displayed much of the restless activity of the jackal; whereas Mr. Wang, who was the stoutest member of the party was well cast as Thot, the god of Hermopolis. Although it was I who led the party down into the plain, by way of the Road of Sitting Scribes, it was Captain Crouch, who will sometimes be referred to as Anubis, who gave us our orders.
We intended to reach a point not far from the village which we had marked down from the hill-top. Our plans had been carefully made. This night's work would prove whether or not our scheme was likely to succeed.
We followed the road for about four hours, by which time it was nearly midnight, and a full moon high in the heavens. It was wonderfully light, and we could see the stone Scribes very distinctly as we passed each pair upon our march. It was, indeed, the statues themselves that served to guide us to the place where we wanted to go.
Though the night was cool, the journey was long, and I was glad when Anubis called a halt. We set down our knapsacks upon the ground. It was ludicrous to see Thot opening a tin of sardines, whilst Horus broke up the hard ship's biscuits we had carried with us across the desert. The three gods then took off their masks and enjoyed a hurried meal.
"Now, then," said Crouch, "we have no time to lose. We may leave our baggage here. There is little chance of it being stolen, at this time of the night. Bring nothing but your revolvers, and keep them hidden from view."
We rose to our feet, and followed Anubis, who left the road and crossed a field of young growing wheat. In about five minutes we came to the river, and we had not walked more than two or three hundred yards along the left bank before we found ourselves confronted by a house. Perhaps it would be more correct to call it a "hovel," for the doorway was so low that we had to stoop to enter. Inside, Thot turned on his electric torch. In the light we could see two men sleeping upon straw thrown upon the ground. They were evidently farmers, or cowherds, for they were without ornaments of any kind.
A charcoal fire in the middle of the room was still glowing, and by the side of it was a torch, made of rushes saturated with some kind of oil, or fat. Anubis stooped down, picked up the torch, and thrust it into the charcoal. It immediately blazed forth, flooding the interior of the hut with light.
I took the torch from Crouch's hand and held it high above my head.
The two sleepers had awakened. Suspecting robbery, they jumped to their feet, one man snatching up a boomerang which was ready to his hand, the other arming himself with a large stone. It is impossible to describe the look of amazement that fell upon their features, when they beheld my three companions.
The stone and the boomerang fell to the ground. The jaw of one man dropped and he stood staring at us, as if, on a sudden, he had turned to stone. As for the other, he let out a shout of terror, and then flung himself upon the ground with his clasped hands above his head.
"Horus!" he cried, "Son of Osiris, who maketh the evening and the dawn, have mercy on thy servant!"
It had been arranged that I should speak to these people, in order to test my knowledge of their language.
"Peace!" said I. "Fear not. The gods of the Nile have not visited thy country that evil may befall thee."
The man upon the ground dared not rise. The other, who still remained standing, turned his eyes upon me, and I saw that he understood.
"Thou art a priest?" he asked.
"The great gods, Horus, Anubis, and Thot," said I, "have journeyed from the land where they lived in bygone centuries. Anubis stands before thee, who attended at the funeral rites of Osiris; Horus, father of the morning and the evening, who maketh the sun to shine; Thot, in whom is all living wisdom—they bring to thee knowledge beyond even that known to thy forefathers. Osiris hath sent them, that they may be duly welcomed in the Temple of Ra, beneath which is the sarcophagus of Serophis, whose spirit endureth for ever."
By the time I had finished this oration—which, it must be confessed, was something of an effort—the man who had prostrated himself upon the ground seemed to some extent to have recovered.
At all events, he suddenly sprang to his feet and rushed out of the hut, crying out in a loud voice that the gods had descended upon the earth and the end of the world was come.
The other cowherd—if such he was—on finding himself alone in the presence of such mighty deities, looked in a scared manner about him, and then, following the example of his companion, dived past the doorway and disappeared into the night.
He had given me no opportunity of learning whether he had understood what I had said; for I had noticed that the two men had spoken with a very different pronunciation from that used by myself.
No sooner had the man left the room than Crouch turned to me.
"Did you understand him?" he asked.
I explained that I had understood quite well, but that in several respects the language differed from that spoken by the Ancient Egyptians, and the pronunciation was not at all as I had expected.
"It has had the desired effect," said Crouch. "We are on a straight course. There's nothing for it but 'full steam ahead.' You say that the religious festivals of the Ancient Egyptians usually took place upon the river. It seems to me all we have to do is to find a boat; and as we are on the outskirts of a village, there should be no difficulty about that."
We went out into the darkness, Anubis leading the way, and approached the village by way of the river bank. We had not gone far before we found a boat, similar to those used by the Nile fishermen in ancient times. It was tied to a tree, at a place where long rushes were growing out of the water.
MacAndrew and Wang returned to the place where we had left our baggage and equipment, whilst Captain Crouch and I prepared the boat for the reception of such mighty deities as the three Ancient Egyptian gods.
Our baggage was stored in the prow of the boat, and covered over with rushes, so as to form a kind of platform. Crouch tied a paddle to the stern to serve as a rudder, instructing me in the use of it. In the centre of the boat we erected an awning, and under this, upon a pedestal of rushes, we placed a small stone image of Osiris, which we had found in the cowherd's hut.
It was well past midnight when we dropped down-stream. The river was very narrow, but fortunately the moon was bright, and I had no difficulty in steering. As Crouch explained, there was no hurry; we just drifted upon the current, awaiting with no little anxiety whatever adventures might befall us on the morrow.
During the journey, I had little opportunity of conversing with my three companions, who were seated in the fore-part of the boat, between the image of Osiris and the raised platform in the bows. My mind was occupied with thoughts of the future. I could not help being amazed at our audacity. At the same time, I also found time to admire the scenery, which was very beautiful in the moonlight. The windings of the river brought us frequently to the Road of Sitting Scribes, and the great stone figures looked grotesque and strangely impressive, silhouetted against the starry, tropical sky.
We passed villages, fishermen's huts, and sometimes temples, at the water-side. And as we progressed, the river broadened, and the banks became higher.
It was a land of mystery—a rich and fertile land. I noticed that each village we passed was larger than its predecessor. The houses were better built. But there was no one about; no signs of life were evident. These people were sleeping, little suspecting that three strangers from a far-off land had penetrated into the heart of their country, with the intention grossly to deceive them, disguised as the bygone gods who were worshipped by their forefathers and themselves.
I suppose that the river did not flow at a greater velocity than two to three miles an hour. We could not, then, have traversed more than a dozen miles, before daylight discovered us upon our journey. The light flooded the east—a very beautiful sunrise that spread slowly across the plain, as if reluctant to meet the first rays of the sun that had already struck the crest-line of the hills.
As soon as it was broad daylight, we proceeded to carry out our plan which, it must be remembered, had already been arranged in every detail. Horus, Thot and Anubis stationed themselves upon the platform in the peak of the boat, standing back to back, Horus in front, facing the way we were going. And a very commanding figure was MacAndrew, as the hawk-headed god of Ancient Egypt. In the new light of dawn, when a mist lay upon the river, the trio looked singularly weird and mysterious, and it would not have been hard to believe that they were, indeed, supernatural beings descended upon this earth from another world.
The first man we encountered was a fisherman, spreading his nets upon the river bank that they might dry in the sun. No sooner did he behold us than he left his work and stared at us in amazement. Then, quite suddenly, he flung himself face downward upon the ground, and did not move again, until we were out of sight.
A little farther on, we came upon a small boy, sitting under a tree. He was without clothes, and wore his hair in a large curl falling over his right ear. When he saw us, he cried out in great alarm, and set off running towards a house in the distance, evidently with the intention of informing his mother that he had seen Horus, Anubis, and Thot.
We then passed the house of some prince or potentate, upon the balcony of which was a young girl bedecked in jewellery. She wore a close-fitting cap, richly embroidered, beneath which a solitary curl appeared. There were bands of jewels upon her wrists, ankles, and the upper parts of her arms, and several necklaces around her neck. When she set eyes upon us she flung out her arms and uttered an incantation or prayer, which unfortunately I was unable to hear.
We could not doubt that the news of our coming would spread through the countryside like wildfire. More than once, we saw people running from village to village, bearing, no doubt, the news that the gods had descended upon earth. We were approaching a large village, which for some time had been visible in the distance; but, long before we arrived there, a large crowd had gathered on both banks of the river, where the people awaited our arrival with mingled expectancy and trepidation.
I admit my heart beat fast, when I saw that there were, at least, three hundred people on the river bank, and that most of them were armed. A word of warning came from the jackal's mask that shielded the face of Captain Crouch.
"Stand fast!" said he. "Play your parts. Keep her in mid-stream, Professor, and announce our arrival."
I had prepared an oration which I had by now learnt by heart, and as we drew nearer to the people I shouted this at the top of my voice. I declared—and may I be forgiven!—that the great gods of the Nile, who had controlled the destinies of their forefathers in days gone by, had returned to the land of their beloved children, after an absence of many centuries. Their mission was a peaceful one. The gods wished for the welfare of mankind. And much else to the same effect.
The people were so anxious to behold us that they jostled one another upon the river bank. I looked, and saw that the crowd was composed of all manner of persons, representative of almost every trade and class, and that they were all dressed precisely after the manner of the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt. There were citizens with long skirts, carrying staffs in their hands; there were tradesmen who had left their work; cooks carrying the large fans with which they were wont to quicken their kitchen fires; there were scholars wearing long mantles, and a great number of women and children. On one bank of the river they stood before a high wall, beyond which was a palace, consisting of several dome-shaped buildings and a larger one with a flat roof, in which there were many windows.
I had many misgivings as to how my speech would be received, when I caught sight of a man dressed in the costume of a prince, or magistrate, who was standing upon the roof of the house. It was he who cried out, loud enough for me to hear his voice distinctly.
"Horus, who slumbers within the souls of princes and princesses has come to earth!" he cried. "Oh, Serophians, pay homage to the ancient gods of thy fathers that dwelt in the land of Egypt!"
And immediately, the whole population prostrated themselves upon the ground. As for myself, I followed their example, though still retaining my grasp upon the rudder. As one man, Horus, Thot, and Anubis lifted a hand, palm outwards, high above their heads, then slowly lowered it to the knee. For, in this manner, in Ancient Egypt, were salutations passed.
HOW WE CAME TO THE CITY OF MITUNI-HARPI
NO sooner were we quit of the village than we observed the people get to their feet and hasten to their houses. Without doubt, before the sun set this day, the news of our arrival would have spread from one end of the country to the other. Indeed, the gates of the palace, where the magistrate lived, were presently thrown open, and a chariot dashed out and moved across the plain in a southerly direction. The charioteer drove at a furious rate, leaving behind him a long trail of dust. In a few hours, he would reach the capital beyond the mountains, with the amazing news that Horus, Thot, and Anubis were journeying down the river, having returned to the earth where they had lived in ancient times, before wisdom and knowledge came to man.
As the day advanced, the heat of the sun became intense. Fearing that I would get sunstroke, I seated myself in the shade of the awning; but my companions, standing upon the platform in the prow of the boat, had no protection except their masks from the sun. Moreover, by this time, they were both hungry and thirsty, since they could neither eat nor drink.
After a while, we came to a great temple upon the river bank; and here we decided to disembark. There was a narrow backwater that ran into the nave of the temple, and along this I was able to steer the boat.
We found ourselves in a huge hall, the roof of which was supported by a series of stone pillars. These pillars were decorated with paintings and numerous hieroglyphics. At the head of the temple was an image of the goddess, Isis, wearing upon her head two horns embracing the sun. She was seated in a very upright position, with her hands upon her knees. It was evident that to her sacred memory the temple had been dedicated.
There was no one within but a solitary priest, who showed his faith in the gods he worshipped by flying precipitately at our approach. Upon the stone floor were several praying-mats and many low tables of stone or bronze. Around the nave were about twenty smaller rooms, in which we discovered perfumes, flowers, and vessels containing food and wine—offered in sacrifice to Isis.
It was in one of these ante-chambers that my three companions were able to enjoy a hearty meal, whilst I kept watch by the boat. We had hoped that we would be able to leave the temple without being molested; but this was not to be. I heard voices approaching from the south, and, going to the entrance of the temple, observed a small crowd advancing upon the river bank.
The procession was headed by a number of priests, shaven like myself; and after them there followed a man who was obviously a personage of considerable importance. He wore a flowing head-dress, a kind of cloak that was fastened across his forehead and fell down his back to the ground. His short skirts were richly embroidered. Across his right shoulder was the skin of a leopard, so disposed that the stuffed head of the animal was to the front and the four legs hung down from his waist. Though he was an old man, he walked erect, taking long strides. On beholding him, I marvelled at two things: his great breadth of shoulders and the nobility of his countenance.
I recognised him at once as a High Priest, or Prophet; and, turning upon my heel, I hastened into the temple, where I warned my friends to put on their masks and prepare themselves to meet one of the powerful men of the country.
We entered the nave of the temple in the nick of time, and found the priests regarding our sacred barque—which was nothing better than a fisherman's boat—with undisguised curiosity and, perhaps, contempt. On the sudden appearance of my companions, however, their doubts must have vanished, for they at once prostrated themselves upon the ground.
Summoning my courage, I bade them rise, and found myself confronted by the High Priest.
I told him who we were, and then asked for certain information, explaining that even the three gods themselves were strangers in the country. I was relieved to find that he understood me, and I found no great difficulty in comprehending his answer; for—let me say it in all modesty—my knowledge of everything appertaining to the Ancient Egyptians is unique.
The man gave his name as Ahmosou, and he told me that—as I had guessed—he was the High Priest of the land, and presided over the Temple of Ra, in the city of Serophis.
He spoke of the great Queen, Serisis, who had the beauty of Isis, and in whose soul lived Horus, who—though he could scarce believe the evidence of his eyes—now stood before him in the flesh.
I asked Ahmosou what he did at a place so remote from the city; and he told me that he had been sent the day before by the Great Queen to the very temple in which we stood, in order to make an offering to Isis. Now that he beheld before him Horus, the god of the heavens, Thot, the master of all magic, and Anubis, son of Nephthys—now that a miracle had come to pass, he knew that it had been the gods themselves who had given their message to the Queen. He looked in awe at Horus, and asked me if the gods could speak for themselves.
I made answer that the gods would not deign to speak with ordinary mortals, but had ordained that I should be their mouthpiece.
"What is thy name?" he asked.
For a moment, I was at a loss for an answer. I had had so much to think of in regard to my companions, that I had neglected to remember that it would be necessary for me to have a name. Fortunately, at that moment, I remembered the name of a famous priest of Amen.
"Thothmes," said I.
He bowed, as if in satisfaction.
"Whither do the gods journey?" he asked.
"To the Queen," I answered, and trembled as I said the word; for I knew that now we were bound to brazen the whole thing out.
Ahmosou indicated our boat. "Do the gods journey in such a humble barque?" he asked.
I knew well how to answer such a question.
"Did Osiris first traverse the sacred waters of the Nile in a golden barge?"
"O Thothmes," said he, "thou speakest words of wisdom."
I explained that it was the will of the gods to travel southward upon the current of the river, guided by no other hand than mine. He spoke of the glories of the city of Mituni-Harpi; and I told him that, if he wished it, if he would send one of the ceremonial barges up-stream, the gods would no doubt consent to enter the city with greater pomp and circumstance. I then asked that we might be left alone in the Temple of Isis, until the cool of the evening, when we would continue our journey. He replied that he would give orders to that effect.
Throughout the whole of our conversation I noticed that neither Ahmosou himself nor the priests with him dared to cast more than furtive glances at the three gods, whom they plainly held in the greatest awe. When our conversation was finished, the High Priest prostrated himself and the others followed his example. Repeating the words after the High Priest, they offered up a series of prayers, which were so long that I thought they would never end. Then they departed, leaving us at the foot of the shrine of Isis; and we were glad enough to get back to the privacy of one of the inner chambers.
When the afternoon was advanced, and the heat of the sun more bearable, we continued on our way, journeying down-stream, upon the winding course of the river.
It was a kind of triumphal procession. News of our progress upon the river had spread to east and west; and since midday, hundreds of people had gathered together, in order to see us pass. I was at first amazed at the size of the population—for the country did not seem to be over-populated. But my companions who, from their higher altitude, were able to see over the banks of the river, informed me that the peasants would gather to see us pass, and when we had done so, would hurry southward, cutting off a bend of the river, so that they could witness our progress again and again. On each occasion, as we passed, they never failed to prostrate themselves in adoration.
The whole of this evening, as we drifted down-stream, passing through a beautiful land, we were seldom out of sight of the Road of Sitting Scribes. I think, in the whole country—even when I had seen all the marvels that it contained—there was nothing that impressed me more than this giants' pathway, guarded throughout its length by those mute, insensible images, each of which seemed to be symbolical in itself of the eternity of the Past.
Soon after nightfall, we beheld before us a great light upon the river, which was now much broader, having been joined by several smaller streams. This great flare of light proved, to emanate from hundreds of torches carried by people in boats, who were singing so loudly that their voices were audible for miles. So far as I could make out, it was a chant in honour of the three gods who had descended to the land of the Serophians.
When we came into the light, I was hailed by my former friend, Ahmosou, who informed me that a large ceremonial barge was at the service of the deities. He said that, that afternoon, he had driven in a chariot to Mituni-Harpi, where he found that the Queen had already heard of our approach. Her Majesty sent word to the great gods that she was ready to do their bidding. If she had given offence, she begged for mercy. If she had done aught that was pleasant in the sight of Horus, or Thot, or Anubis, she prayed that it would be remembered. She had striven throughout her reign to rule wisely, for the good of her people, whom she had ordered not to be neglectful of the sacred rites of Ancient Egypt, nor to forget the gods who had made the Pharaohs great.
I explained to Ahmosou that the gods had nothing against Serisis nor yet against any man or woman in all the country. But at the same time, whilst I was speaking I recognised that I was face to face with a dilemma. How was I to navigate the huge barge I now saw before me; and secondly, how were we to transport our baggage from the boat to the barge without arousing suspicion. No doubt the Serophians would not be very much the wiser, if they beheld rifles and cartridge boxes, and tinned provisions and so forth, but they would not be able to reconcile such objects with what they knew of Horus, Thot and Anubis.
I could not think how I was to get out of this difficulty, and I wished greatly for the advice of Captain Crouch or Mr. Wang, to whom, of course, in the presence of Ahmosou, I dared not speak in English. I therefore asked the High Priest if he would be so good as to withdraw, in order to let me hold converse with the gods.
No sooner had he done so than I explained the situation. MacAndrew, Crouch, and Wang remained standing on the platform, whilst I spoke to them from the body of the boat. Mr. Wang solved the problem at once.
"It is clear," said he, "that we ourselves cannot do the work. The people would not think much of Thot, if they saw him working like a coolie. You are quite right not to let them examine our baggage. The less they know, the better. At the same time," he continued, "you will observe that the barge is about five times the size of the boat, and the whole of the centre is occupied by an awning, the ends of which can be closed like a tent."
"Where," broke in Crouch, "once we are on board, we can take our masks off and eat like human beings. Perhaps, I shall even get a chance of a smoke. But go ahead, Mr. Wang, I apologise for interrupting."
"You may also have observed," continued Mr. Wang, "that these people have towed the barge down-stream by means of two long tow-ropes, one on either side of the river. Now, if a number of people came on board the barge, and they placed the tow-ropes under the keel of the boat, they could very easily lift the boat bodily into the barge."
"Capital!" cried MacAndrew. "And our work will be done for us in less than no time! We can unpack the boat inside the awning."
When we had finished our conversation, I called Ahmosou to me, and explained to him the wishes of the gods, who immediately stepped on board the barge and stationed themselves in the bows. The men who came on board were obviously afraid of the deities, but, acting under instructions from Ahmosou and myself, they very soon accomplished the work. I then told the High Priest that the gods desired a few men on board to navigate the barge, but that they would not be wanted for this until the following morning, as the gods desired to rest for the remainder of the night.
So, presently, we were left alone, and busied ourselves unloading the boat. We made of our belongings a number of packages, each covered over with the rushes which we found in the barge, and tightly secured with ropes. I was amazed at the success of our enterprise. I have come to the conclusion that in this world there is nothing to equal audacity. Success comes to him who dares most. It is true, we had been but two days upon our journey, and had not yet arrived at the capital which was called Mituni-Harpi; but, so far, everything had worked with the simplicity of clockwork. Ahmosou was our friend. I had but to say what I desired, and it was done. When our work was finished, we were so tired that all four of us lay down beneath the awning and fell asleep.
The gods of Ancient Egypt, like those of Greece and Rome, were invested with very human capabilities. They had the same frailties and weaknesses as ordinary mortals; and it was only natural therefore that Horus, and even Osiris himself, should require sleep and food and raiment, as much as the poorest peasant. We arose refreshed, and ate some of the provisions we had found in the barge. And then, the three gods issued from the tent and stationed themselves upon the raised prow, in the full light of the sun.
If the first part of our journey had been a triumphal procession, I cannot find words to describe the final stage that led us in safety into the heart of Mituni-Harpi.
We followed the course of the river, keeping the Road of Sitting Scribes to our left, whilst the mountains drew nearer and nearer upon the right.
To the south, the river swept round the extremity of the hills, and we found ourselves in another plain, richer by far and more picturesque than that through which we had journeyed.
There were hills and woods and towns, great roads, reservoirs, and temples. It was like a land that one might see in one's dreams. Multitudes followed us; the river banks were crowded. The barge of the High Priest, Ahmosou, went before us; and we were followed by other barges in which there were minstrels and singers, harpists and players upon the flute.
The stern of the barge curved upward, and was fashioned in the shape of a lotus flower. The bows were in the shape of the head of a great ram, the horns slanting backward, maintaining a platform, upon which stood Horus, Thot and Anubis. As the people upon the river bank prostrated themselves, the gods saluted them by raising their right hands and lowering them to the knee. Of the three, I think MacAndrew played his part best; there was something very stately and condescending in the way in which he greeted the Serophians. He seemed to take the whole thing far more seriously than either Captain Crouch or Mr. Wang, the former of whom was always complaining that his jackal's mask fitted too closely, and that he was scarcely able to breathe.
It was on this day, when we first came upon the larger provincial towns, that we learnt that the Serophians employed as slaves a savage African race. They were strongly made negroes of the type that is to be found upon the Congo. I mention this because that morning my companions complained of the heat, and Ahmosou sent a gigantic slave on board the barge with a fan, in order that the three deities might not suffer from the sun.
And then, after three days' journey, we came to the city of Mituni-Harpi; and when I first set eyes upon that wonder I could not believe that I was not looking upon Thebes itself. The first houses we saw were built of earth or unbaked bricks, thatched with the leaves of palm trees. But, as we entered the city, we came upon squares and open places, where grew acacias and sycamores. And though the streets became no wider, the houses were higher, and more strongly built, until, at last, we found ourselves in the midst of a city of temples, palaces, and gardens. Each house was walled around, and in the walls there were massive doors of cedar wood, studded with bronze nails, with great bronze handles and locks. I marvelled at the amount of fruit trees then in blossom; the gardens were a mass of brilliant flowers.
I believe that the sight of these wonders so affected me, or else it might have been the result of the heat of the sun—that I became dizzy. If I may use the expression, I was drunk, almost delirious, with amazement and delight. I remember that, on a sudden, our barge was brought to rest at the foot of a flight of stone steps leading up to a great building. On either side of the steps, ranks of warriors were stationed, brilliant in dazzling armour, holding in their hands spears, swords and rectangular shields. I can see now, as I write, their breastplates of bronze, glittering in the sun.
The moment the barge stopped, there came a blast of trumpets from a body of men before the gates of the palace. Ahmosou ascended the steps, and at a word from him the gates were flung open wide, and we beheld a beautiful garden in which were trees and vines.
Down the centre of this garden was a path. I beheld a party approaching, which slowly descended the steps. Of that party—so amazed was I, and to speak the truth, so anxious—I observed only two people. One was a man of great stature, in armour of shining gold, who wore an insolent look upon his face, and who carried his chin in the air like one who is accustomed to command. The other was a woman; and it was she who led the procession, the others following in her train.
She wore a tight-fitting dress that fitted her body very closely, and this was studded with jewels. Around her neck was a necklace, and around her wrists and ankles there were bands, all of which were studded with shining gems. Her hair was disposed in curls, and there was a band across her forehead, from which depended the jewelled head of a snake, in the centre of which was an enormous diamond.
But it was her beauty, more than the richness of her attire, that attracted me. Here was another, and far more beautiful, Cleopatra. One glance was enough to assure me that this was Serisis, Queen of the Serophians, the descendant of the Pharaohs.
OF NOUHRI, THE CAPTAIN OF THE HOST
AT the foot of the steps Serisis, Queen of Mituni-Harpi, prostrated herself in adoration of those whom she believed to be the gods of her forefathers. She then rose to her feet, and I saw that she trembled with fear.
In a voice that was singularly soft and low, she ordered those in attendance upon her to withdraw to a little distance; and with the exception of the man in golden armour—who was so tall that the Queen herself did not reach to his armpits—all immediately obeyed her command. Then the Queen, clasping her hands together, addressed herself to me.
"Do the gods wish to reside in Mituni-Harpi?" she asked.
The moment she opened her lips, I observed a notable fact: she spoke in a language quite easy for me to understand, with a pronunciation such as I had always imagined the Ancient Egyptians used. It is, indeed, possible that she herself was descended in a direct line from the ancient Theban monarchs. I remembered the Deserters mentioned by Herodotus; and I wondered if this was a race descended from those Ancient Egyptians who had penetrated into the heart of Libya.
I answered her question, telling her that, so far as I knew, the gods desired a refuge in the great Temple of Ra.
"Then, I am in truth blessed!" she cried. "And yet," she added, "I am afraid."
"Great Queen," said I, "fear not. The gods come in peace."
She bowed her head, and, I think, was about to depart, when the tall man at her side stepped forward and regarded me in an insolent and somewhat threatening manner.
"And who art thou?" he demanded.
I thought it best not to show that I feared this man. "A priest," I answered, "as thou canst see for thyself."
He frowned. "Thy name?" he asked.
"Thothmes," said I.
"A great name, indeed! And whence come you?"
"I have been summoned from beyond the Wilderness," said I, "to attend to the wishes of the gods."
"What lies beyond the Wilderness?" he asked.
"In the Wilderness reigns Sit, the lord of the sand, and Nephthys weeps, because her heart is empty. And beyond the Wilderness, there are men greater than thee, O Captain of the Host, mighty man of valour though thou be; and there is a God greater by far than Horus, Isis and Osiris, Who lives in all things, Who knoweth all things, Who slumbereth not nor sleeps."
"And this god hath sent thee here?" he asked.
"He hath aided us," said I, in all sincerity.
At that, he turned upon the Queen.
"This man speaks blasphemy," said he; "for we know that there is none greater than Osiris, the father of the gods."
"Peace, O Nouhri," said the Queen, stretching forth a hand as if to restrain him. "Thou art ever violent, and speak without thought. This man, who hath travelled in the company of gods, is wiser far than thou, who art a soldier, and naught else."
At those words, the man flung himself about, as if in a temper, touching the handle of the great sword that hung at his waist.
"If evil befall thee, O Queen, blame not the Captain of the Host. Whether these be true gods or not, I neither know nor care, since Nouhri troubles not any gods with prayers. But, my warning to thee, O Queen, is to send them back whence they came; for never in the memory of man have the gods walked upon the earth."
I now knew in my heart that this man was likely to be a constant source of danger to us, so long as we remained in the city. He alone was without the superstitious beliefs that were held by the majority of the people, from the Queen herself and Ahmosou, the High Priest, down to the lowest peasant.
Captain Crouch, disguised as Anubis, had listened to the conversation that had passed between us, without being able to understand a word of it. He must, however, have gleaned the gist of our talk from Nouhri's gestures and the expression upon his face. At any rate, he now played a bold card, and met with greater success than ever he expected.
Anubis, be it known, was the deity most closely connected with the Tomb. It was he who was supposed to take charge of every mummy at the entrance to the grave. He stood at the Gate of the West, at the entrance of the land of sleep and heavy shadows. He was the child of the arid desert that was watered only by the tears of the goddess, Nephthys. Of all the gods of Ancient Egypt, he was the most sinister, the most to be feared.
Whilst we had been talking, the barge had been drifting nearer to the landing-stage at the foot of the steps, until, at last, it grated against the masonry. Crouch stepped ashore, and advanced towards Nouhri, the Captain of the Host.
The Queen shrank back before him, seeking protection by the side of Ahmosou, the High Priest. Not only the priests and female attendants who stood upon the steps, but even the soldiers themselves, drew back, as the god advanced.
Nouhri stood his ground, though I could see that, in spite of his professed scepticism, he was not a little dismayed. Very slowly, Crouch extended his right arm, and placed the palm of his hand quite gently upon the breastplate of the warrior, immediately above his heart. Then, with solemn dignity, he returned to the barge.
There could be no doubt as to the significance of this warning. I saw with satisfaction that Nouhri was regarded with horror. No doubt, there were many there who considered him already a doomed man. And though, a few minutes before, his words had been brave and defiant, he was for the moment too taken aback to retain possession of his presence of mind. He glanced at the Queen, and then turned upon his heel and hastily ascended the steps, passing through the gates of the palace into the garden beyond.
When he was gone, the Queen turned to me.
"May the gods pay no heed to such words of blasphemy!" she cried. "Nouhri is a great soldier, but a rash man. He feareth neither god nor mortal being. I know that Horus is the avenger of his father, and that Anubis is without mercy to them that have sinned. Let them turn a deaf ear to such impiety, for the heart of Serisis is at the feet of the great gods who ruled over Ancient Egypt."
I strove to comfort her with such words as I could, and then returned to the barge, accompanied by Ahmosou, the High Priest, in order to make our final journey to the great Temple of Ra.
As we drew away from the foot of the steps, the beautiful Queen once more prostrated herself; and all her handmaidens, the court attendants, and the soldiers of the guard followed her example.
We passed through the city as the sun was sinking in the west, and the red light was reflected upon the walls of the palaces and houses. This place contained all the wonders of Memphis, Thebes, and Sais. It was the civilisation of the past: Ancient Egypt with all her industry and vitality and ceremonious customs, lying buried and forgotten throughout centuries of time, cut off from modern civilisation and the evolution of the races, by a trackless, burning desert.
It was like a marvellous dream. As we drifted down the river in the midst of these wonders, I could not help thinking that, at any moment, I might awaken, and find that I had fallen asleep in my chair in the British Museum. How far away was I now from steam and electricity, a world of newspapers and printed books, and the thousand and one inventions of modern times! And I remembered the story of Josephus MacAndrew, and marvelled at the man who had once rushed into the Museum, who had looked upon the same scene as I myself now beheld. He had never spoken of it; he had never written of it—except in the form of notes hastily jotted down, such as were contained in his notebooks. He had been foully done to death; and, had it not been for us, his secret would have died with him. Somehow, I believed that we ourselves would never come forth from this place alive. It did not seem possible that we could live to relate the unbelievable.
These were the thoughts that passed rapidly through my mind, as the barge came to rest, on the western side of the city, before the wondrous Temple of Ra.
HOW WE WENT DOWN INTO THE TOMB; AND HOW PSARO RETURNED FROM HIS MISSION
WITHOUT doubt, the great Temple of Ra, in which we resided for the first part of the time we were in Mituni-Harpi, was the most magnificent edifice in the city, not excepting the palaces of the Queen and of Nouhri, the commander of the Army.
The temple, which was situated on a hill to the west of the city, was adorned with colossal statues. It had been built of stones from a neighbouring granite quarry, the majority of which were of enormous size; and I marvelled at the labour which had been necessary to convey them to the hill-top. Thousands of workmen must have been employed for years, before the work was completed. At the entrance of the temple were two huge Andro-sphinxes; whereas the pillars that supported the building, ranged on either side of the central hall, were, at least, ten yards in circumference, and must have exceeded two hundred feet in height. The architectural beauty of the entire building exceeded anything of which I had ever heard, even those wonderful temples at Memphis, constructed by Amasis.
Adjoining the central hall were several smaller rooms; and one of these, wherein were found all manner of wines, perfumes, and provisions, was allotted to my companions. The priests of the temple, of whom there were a great number, readily offered their services, and were only too willing to wait hand and foot upon such mighty deities as Horus, Thot and Anubis, whom they held in the greatest awe.
For the first few days, everything went better than we had dared to expect. Ahmosou himself was constantly inquiring after our welfare, and we received almost daily messages from the Queen. None the less, to all intents and purposes we were imprisoned. My companions were not able to leave the sacred precincts of the temple, and only in the privacy of their own room could they take off their masks, in order to eat or drink. It was clear that this state of things could not continue indefinitely; and MacAndrew was especially anxious to descend into the vaults, to gain access to the sarcophagus of Serophis, Prince of Thebes, to whose memory the temple had been erected.
I accordingly arranged with Ahmosou that this request should be granted; and on a certain afternoon, the High Priest himself conducted us to the hypogeum.
Descending some steps at the back of the shrine of the sun-god, we found ourselves in a large, dome-shaped chamber. Passing thence into a smaller room, illumined by rush-light, we found ourselves before a gateway, guarded by two priests, armed with swords. Ahmosou explained to me that two priests were always on guard, being relieved periodically at all hours of the day and night; and I remembered the words of the inscription on the scarab: "The watchers of the tomb of Serophis shall abide for ever."
On the right-hand side of the gateway was an image of the sun-god, Ra, who seems to have been the Nome-god, or local deity of Mituni-Harpi. It is not necessary here to explain the various forms in which the sun-god existed in Ancient Egypt. I have never in the course of my investigations come across such another image as that which I beheld in the temple at Mituni-Harpi. It would be called, no doubt, Ra-Khopri. The meaning of Ra, the sun, is the creator, the giver of light, in an abstract sense. Khopri, on the other hand, represents the earthly sun—"He who is." The image was representative of a large-winged beetle, holding in its forelegs, lifted above its head, an enormous disc, representing the sun. At the foot of the image was the figure of a man kneeling, with his left hand held out before the god with palm uppermost, as if beseeching alms.
On the opposite—that is to say, the left—side of the gateway was a table of hieroglyphics and ideograms, by the side of which stood the figure of a pharaoh, or emperor—he, no doubt, who had invented this extraordinary piece of mechanism, the secret of which we were afterwards to discover.
I examined the table with the greatest interest, never before having seen anything like it. I observed that each hieroglyphic or ideogram had been carved, or painted, upon a small stone wheel, which revolved without difficulty—a circumstance which, at that time, I was quite at a loss to explain.
Turning to the High Priest, I asked him if he would he so good as to inform me of the meaning of this extraordinary inscription, which I found impossible to translate, though I am well acquainted with hieroglyphics.
Ahmosou shook his head.
"That is a secret, Brother," said he, "not even known to the Priests of the Tomb. Even I do not know it."
I regarded the narrow door, situated between the image of the sun-god and the table. I saw that this door was exceedingly strong, and was bolted by means of several bronze bars which, fixed into the solid stone on either side, passed through staples in the door itself.
"Then, there is no means of entering!" I exclaimed.
"None," said Ahmosou; "unless the gods themselves know the Secret of the Tomb."
"I have heard it said," said I, "that the scarabaeus is the key which unfastens the lock."
"The scarabaeus, alas," said Ahmosou, "has been stolen! A few years ago, a man came here who was a stranger from a distant land. He gained access into the temple, and by means of some drug succeeded in entering the sarcophagus, from which he stole the scarab."
"Then," said I, "the tomb is sealed for ever?"
Ahmosou smiled. "Until the scarabaeus," said he, "returns to the Tomb of Serophis. The thief escaped, though Nouhri, the Captain of the Host, pursued him even into the midst of the wilderness."
"What lies within?" I asked, pointing to the bolted door.
"The mummy of Serophis," said Ahmosou, "and all the wealth of ancient Thebes."
"To whom belongs this treasure?"
"To Serophis," said Ahmosou. "It belongeth to the dead. Though—I say it in secrecy—Nouhri covets it. He is a man who fears neither the gods nor the spirits of his fathers. When the white thief stole the scarabaeus, Nouhri swore an oath, upon his sword and buckler; for he swears not by Osiris or Amen. He swore that he would bring back the scarab to Mituni-Harpi; and many years ago, he sent into the wilderness one who has the reputation of being a wizard, whose knowledge exceedeth that of ordinary men. This man's name is Psaro. Many moons have gone, and Psaro has not returned."
When I heard the name, it was as if a blow had been struck me. I remembered what old Hayward had told me, concerning Josephus MacAndrew's entry into the British Museum. The scarab had been left in Hayward's possession, with the words, "Beware of Psaro!" I remembered my own fears when I sat alone in the solitude of my study and heard again, as it were, a voice of mystery, whispering in my ear that same sinister warning.
Could it be, I thought, that Psaro was actually the man who had murdered Josephus in his house in Bloomsbury? Was it this man, who had the reputation of being a wizard, who had sprinkled milk upon the floor and drawn the head of the jackal-headed god? Then, as my fears surged within me, I remembered the two men who had tracked MacAndrew and myself as far as Malta. I turned again to Ahmosou the High Priest. My heart was beating rapidly.
"What like of man is this Psaro?" I asked.
"It is many years since I set eyes upon him," said the Priest; "but the face of Psaro one is not likely to forget. He is an old man now, but he is older than he looks. There is no hair upon his head."
"Has he a scar upon his face?" I asked; for I could not contain my curiosity.
Ahmosou looked at me perplexed. I was conscious of a feeling of profound relief when he shook his head.
"He has no scar," said he.
So I thought I was on a false scent. I comforted myself with the assurance that my fears had run away with my imagination. I little knew how near the climax was. For, when we had returned to the upper chamber, I received a message from Nouhri himself, instructing me to go at once to his palace, which was upon the left bank of the river, immediately opposite the palace of the Queen.
He had sent his own state barge in which to conduct me down the river; and ten minutes later, I found myself in the presence of the Captain of the Host. We were in a small chamber, hung with draperies, at the end of which was a curtain. Nouhri, having put aside his golden armour, was robed in a toga of the finest linen. I found him stretched at full length upon a couch, with a flask of Serophian wine upon a small table at his elbow. When I entered he neither saluted me nor troubled to rise. With a careless gesture of the hand, he motioned me to a chair; and, since I remained standing, he shrugged his shoulders.
"As you wish," said he. "Though it is not meet that the priest of gods should stand before a leader of men."
There was an ironic sneer upon his face that I could scarcely fail to observe.
"Humility goeth well with priesthood," said I.
"That may be so," he answered. "It ill befits a soldier."
Then he turned upon me with a frown.
"Do you know my power?" he asked.
"I know that thou art Captain of the Host, the leader of the Queen's Army, the most mighty man of valour in all this land."
"Think you," he asked, "would the Queen herself oppose me?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "When the gods came to the palace steps," said I, "in my poor thinking the mighty Nouhri found no favour in the eyes of the Queen."
He laughed. "The Queen fears me," said he. "For the moment she had a greater fear of the ancient gods of Egypt. She shall learn the extent of her own foolishness. Anubis has touched me, and I live."
"And yet, may die," said I; for I was determined to brazen it out.
He smiled and drank a cup of wine. "Listen," said he. "I desire to question thee."
I bowed, as if I acquiesced. At the same time I felt intuitively that we were approaching dangerous ground.
"O Thothmes," said he, "I am a plain man and desire a plain answer. As becomes a soldier, I come straight to the matter at issue."
"For myself," said I, "I believe in honest speaking."
"That is, indeed, well," he answered. "Tell me. Dost thou know aught of the scarabaeus of Serophis?"
Fortunately, my skin was dyed with the admirable mixture concocted by Mr. Wang. Otherwise, I have little doubt that he would have seen me blanch.
"I understand," said I, "that many years ago, it was stolen from the tomb. I understand also that the scarab is the key by which alone the tomb may be opened."
"You know too much," said Nouhri, "without answering my question. Who gave you this information?"
"Ahmosou," I answered.
"An High Priest," said he, "may be an old fool. Ahmosou knoweth by heart the legends of the gods, but he knoweth nothing of the heart of a man. Now, I, Nouhri, am cast in a different mould. I have heard it said that Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and Anubis the son of Nephthys, the weeping woman; and if these be the tame gods that follow thee like sheep, I have no need to repent me that I ever wasted time in prayer. I would judge a god," he cried, springing to his feet, "as I would judge a man. And now, O Thothmes, it is thyself whom I will judge."
At that, he strode across the room to the curtain, which he hastily pulled aside; and there stepped forth one whom I had seen before. It was as if my heart had sprung into my mouth. I found it almost impossible to breathe.
"Psaro!" he cried. "Look well at this so-called priest, and judge him for what he is!"
I had scarce the courage to look the man who confronted me in the face. I had recognised him at a glance. The lean, shrivelled form, the bald head, the wrinkled face, the cruel, gleaming eyes. This was the man whom Captain Crouch and myself had first observed on board the "Westmoreland." It was he who had stolen the scarabaeus, who in turn had been robbed by Mr. Wang in the underworld of Malta. In all probability the murderer of Josephus MacAndrew himself stood before me.
HOW I SOUGHT AUDIENCE OF THE QUEEN
THE old man stared me out of countenance. His eyes seemed to pierce me through and through. I looked over his shoulder, and saw behind him the younger man who had been with him on board the ship.
Nouhri laid a hand upon my shoulder; and I realised then something of the strength of the man, for, though he held me only with his fingers, these tightened upon my collarbone, which might have been held in the grip of a vice.
"Speak, O Psaro!" he demanded. "Dost thou know this man? Hast thou seen him before in the strange lands in which thou hast journeyed beyond the Wilderness?"
I felt like a criminal in the dock, he who anxiously awaits the verdict.
Psaro shook his head. "I know him not," said he.
In my heart, at that moment, I showered blessings upon the genius of Mr. Wang. It was he who had dyed my skin, who had shaved off my beard and hair, who had disguised me beyond recognition.
Nouhri made no attempt to conceal his feelings of dissatisfaction. He talked excitedly, pacing up and down the room, taking long strides, beating the fist of one hand upon the palm of the other. As I regarded him, I could not help thinking that in many ways the man resembled a tiger: in his restless activity, his suppleness of body, and his great physical strength.
"Think well," said he, addressing himself to Psaro, who stood motionless with his arms folded, before the curtain. "If I am to believe thee, thou hast seen many strange sights, such as not one out of a thousand in this city would believe. Thou hast seen white men and many inventions, too wondrous to believe, and hast learned to speak a language which is in every way different from thine own. The scarab was taken from thee in a certain island. What manner of man was the thief?"
"I know not," said Psaro, "since it was dark. There were two men who brought the scarab from the great city of the outside world. One of these was an old man with a gray beard, and he would never have ventured into the place where the scarab was lost."
"And what of the other?" asked Nouhri.
"This man is not he," replied the other. "He was a tall man, very thin. He had the eye of an evil spirit."
It had taken me all this time to recover my presence of mind. I saw now that I would betray both myself and my companions if I did not show a bold front to Nouhri, who had plainly suspected us from the first. With an effort I drew myself up, and spoke as bravely as I could.
"O Nouhri," said I, "we were welcomed into this land by a great Queen, who—in spite of what thou sayest—is greater than thou. Since we have been here we have harmed no one. It was said to the Queen herself on the day of our arrival that we came in peace. I demand to know by what authority I am questioned and this man is set over me as a judge?"
He turned upon me like a savage beast.
"By my authority," he roared.
"Then," said I, "I petition the Queen herself that I he allowed to pass in the city unmolested."
"The Queen!" he scoffed. "Frighten her with thy tales of gods and evil spirits, of omens and amulets and charms! Such tales are fit for women, but bring them not to a soldier."
"I go to the Queen," I repeated, and thereupon turned on my heel.
As I reached the door, it was flung open from the other side, and I found myself confronted by, at least, twenty men, armed to the teeth. The way was barred.
I turned to the Captain. "Give orders that I may pass," I demanded.
He smiled at me, and in that smile I recognised something of the cunning of the fox.
"You see," said he, "I had laid a trap. This time, you have escaped me. The next time, perhaps, the trap will close, and thou shalt be caught, O Thothmes, and with thee the jackal, the ibis and the hawk."
He ordered the soldiers to stand aside, and I passed down the steps and along an avenue of young sycamores, with my heart beating violently against my ribs. I was conscious of what a narrow escape I had had. To me, the ordeal through which I had passed had been terrible; for, as I have said so often, I am a man without courage or presence of mind.
I stepped into the barge, and ordered the slave rowers to take me across the river to the palace of the Queen. I knew it would be unwise to let the matter rest where it was. Nouhri had proclaimed himself my enemy.
My reception at the regal palace was very different. At the outer entrance the door-keeper saluted me by lifting a hand and lowering it to his knee. He then asked me my business; and I replied that I craved audience of the Queen.
I was conducted along the wide central path of the garden, up a flight of steps and into a vast hall, beyond which was another flight of steps of the most beautiful marble; and thence I entered the Throne Room in the centre of which a fountain was playing upon a pool of water, in which there were both lotus flowers and fish. Lying upon a mat, spread at the water-side, was the Queen herself, attended by her numerous handmaidens. She was amusing herself by stabbing at the fish with a long wisp of straw; for she was but a girl in years.
I saluted her, by falling upon a knee as I lowered the palm of my hand to the ground. She bade me rise, and then asked me if I brought her a message from the gods.
I told her that the gods sent the great Queen their blessing. And as I uttered the words, I was conscious of what a hypocrite I was. She was trustful, innocent and good; and in her presence I felt guilty, for I knew that we were deceiving her most grossly. I was filled with a kind of pity for one so beautiful and so fortunate, surrounded by every luxury that ancient civilisation could invent, who was yet superstitious even to the verge of imbecility. Serisis had much learning. Ahmosou had told me that she was in the habit of conversing for hours with the learned men of her kingdom, the theologians and the scribes. Given a most elementary Christian education, this great Queen of a forgotten kingdom, reigning supreme in a lost city, cut off completely from the remainder of the world, had been a very perfect and desirable woman, well qualified in every way to fill her high position.
I felt therefore the greater scoundrel that I should trade upon her ignorance, her credulity. With Nouhri, it was different. As I stood face to face with the Captain of the Host, I realised that my life and the lives of my companions hung by a veritable thread. One false step, one thoughtless word, and we were lost. He had but to give the order, and we should die. He was a man without clemency or honour.
To combat such a man, almost any artifice was pardonable. So powerful was he in the land that we could hope to prevail against him only by means of guile. I make no secret of the matter, I feared him from the first, as a bird might fear a cat or a great snake hidden in the grass.
But, whenever I encountered the Queen, I felt that it was I and my companions who were culpable; I was impelled by a vague desire to throw myself at her feet, and to tell her the truth. That such an action would have been sheer folly, I am well aware. Even if Serisis herself had desired to save us, nothing could have restrained the anger of the people at learning that they had been hoaxed. But, quite apart from my position in the city as the representative and spokesman of such supreme divinities as Horus, Anubis and Thot, I hold the belief that Queen Serisis liked me from the first.
I was old enough to be her grandfather; and as, even as a young man, I had had no physical attractions to boast of, there was no bar in the way of the friendship which I like to remember existed between us. On this occasion, she took me by the hand—which she would not have done with a younger man—and led me down the marble staircase into the palace garden, which in the cool of the evening was fragrant with the scent of hundreds of flowers. As we walked the central pathway, by the side of which there were statues of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, she looked me straight in the face. She was taller, I may say, than I was.
"Tell me, O Thothmes, thou art troubled?"
"I am, indeed, O Queen," said I.
"Thou hast not given offence to the living gods?" she asked; and there was a note of grave anxiety in her voice.
I shook my head.
"I have meant offence to no one," I made answer, "and yet, Nouhri is mine enemy; and I have come here, O Great Queen, to crave thy protection from a man so headstrong and so violent."
She clasped her hands together, and at the same time I noticed that she bit her lip.
"Nouhri is too powerful," she answered. And then, her colour heightened beneath the dusky skin of her cheek. She stamped her foot upon the ground. As I listened to her words, spoken in anger, I thought that more than ever she resembled a child.
"Am I not Queen?" she cried. "Do I not reign over this people, from the distant valleys beyond the mountains to the confines of the desert? Am I not sprung in a direct line from the Theban monarchs? In this country, my word is law; there is none who does not obey me, but Nouhri, the Captain of the Host."
"Thou also fearest him?" I asked.
"He defies me," said she. "I fear him not. I go to Ahmosou for help and for advice; but he also stands in fear and trembling of this man."
Then she turned towards me with a pleading gesture, holding her hands before her. The last rays of the setting sun caught the jewels of the necklace that hung around her neck, and made them to sparkle with all the colours of the rainbow. When she moved, her wrist- and arm-bands jingled, the sound being accompanied by distant strains of music that issued from somewhere in the interior of the palace.
As I call to mind that scene, it is difficult to think that I was never dreaming. That wonderful garden, the scent of the flowers, the level paths, the sycamores and acacias and fig trees; the great walls clothed in vines, and overhung by palms; and, in the dusk, the tall statues, grotesque and ancient, the great sphinxes, the figures of men with lions' heads, or birds with human heads, representing the souls of men. And in the midst of it all—a jewel in a precious setting—this youthful Queen, the very tenderness of whose years it seemed impossible to reconcile with the ageless civilisation that surrounded her.
This was a world within a world. How different I thought it all from the collection of relics that have been handed down to posterity, labelled and ticketed and catalogued, arranged in stiff and vulgar galleries, for all the world to see! From the heart of this girl, a descendant of the Pharaohs, human blood was coursing. She had her own life to live, her own battle to fight; and it seemed to me, as I conversed with her, that I, too, was destined to take part in that battle, to fight for her rights and for her kingdom.
My conscience may have pricked me. I knew that I had deceived her shamefully. I made a vow then—probably the only vow I ever made—that, if trouble should ever assail her, or dangers encompass her, though I am little enough of a man, I would render her all the assistance in my power. Of little use would this vow of mine have been, when the time came for me to prove my worth, had I not had such redoubtable and resourceful allies as Mr. Wang and Captain Crouch.
"O Thothmes," she pleaded, "thou art wise; thou art the confidant of the gods. Surely thou canst help me. At thy request, the gods themselves will intervene."
I asked her in what manner she needed my assistance.
"Nouhri," said she, "covets my kingdom and my crown. I know it. Already he is all-powerful. The greater part of the Army would follow him, if he dared to lead them against me."
"He would not do that!" I exclaimed.
"Some day," she said, "he means to. I am sure of it. I can trust no one but Ahmosou, and he is but little help to me. Should it come to fighting, I can be sure of no one, except my own Royal Bodyguard, the soldiers who are stationed in the palace."
"They would be loyal?" said I.
"To a man!" she answered with obvious pride. I saw her face light up; and it was beautiful to see.
"They are magnificent men," said I; for I had noticed these great armed warriors, as I followed the doorkeeper through the entrance hall of the palace. They were dressed differently from the other soldiers whom I had seen in the city, wearing mushroom-shaped helmets, surmounted by a red plume, made of the feathers of the scarlet ibis.
"They are great warriors," she repeated. "Picked men from all my kingdom. Each man stands a head above the soldiers of the line. There is not one among them who is not ready to lay down his life for me."
I considered for a moment everything she had told me.
"Then, what stays Nouhri's hand?" I asked.
"I will tell you," said the Queen. "He covets power. He will not rest, until he sits upon my throne. Moreover, he covets wealth. Breathe not a word to any one of what I tell you. I have been warned in secret that Nouhri, who fears not the gods, intends to despoil the Tomb of Serophis."
"He would possess himself of the treasure?" I asked.
"He would, if he could," said the Queen. "But he is unable to open the gate of the Tomb. Were he able to gain admittance into the hypogeum, he would not scruple to rob the dead. He would defy the sun-god Ra."
"I understand," said I, "Ahmosou has told me that there is a secret, without which it is impossible to enter the sarcophagus."
"Thou must know the secret," said the Queen, "and be in possession of the scarabaeus."
"O Queen," I answered, "is this secret known to thee?"
She shook her head. "To no one," she made answer. Then she shrugged her shoulders.
"In any case," she continued, "the Tomb cannot be opened without the help of the scarab. And that is lost; it has been stolen. A man of the name of Psaro has gone in quest of it, but he will never return."
"O Queen," said I, "he has returned."
She flinched as I said the words.
"Psaro!" she exclaimed. "Returned!"
"He returned to-day," said I, "from the land of mystery that lies beyond the wilderness."
"Then," said she, in the manner of one resigned to fate, "my throne trembles; even my life is in danger. For that man is the evil genius of Nouhri. Nouhri has strength and courage; but Psaro has the wisdom of the serpent."
As she was speaking, I heard the clank of armour behind me, and turning beheld Nouhri himself, swinging down the path of the garden, with head erect and long, soldierly strides. He was clad from head to foot in his golden armour. Though I feared the man, I could not but admire him.
"He is here," she whispered. "You must go. But, come and see me again—to-morrow. There is much that I would say to thee."
I saluted, and took my departure. As I passed the Captain of the Host, I caught a glance from his sharp, black eyes that I am never likely to forget.
OF THE GATHERING OF THE CLOUDS
THAT night, Captain Crouch, MacAndrew, Mr. Wang and myself talked together until the small hours of the morning. There were many things to discuss. Look at it as we might, our situation was grave. That Nouhri suspected us was serious enough; but, now that Psaro had returned to Mituni-Harpi, the peril in which we stood could hardly be exaggerated.
It is quite conceivable that among the Serophians Psaro had the reputation of being a wizard. He alone, in that country, knew of the outside world, of modern civilisation; he had even visited London, the heart of the modern world. I mentioned to MacAndrew my suspicions that this was the same man who had murdered his uncle; and Psaro's guilt was placed beyond all doubt, when MacAndrew told us of certain particulars in connection with the crime, which had never appeared in the newspapers.
It seems that the superintendent-detective in charge of the case had reported that a poker, lying upon the floor, was regarded as evidence that a scuffle had taken place. I verily believe that the scar upon Psaro's cheek had been given him by Josephus MacAndrew, whilst fighting for his life; and this is all the more probable since, on the testimony of Ahmosou, Psaro had no such scar when he left the city, in pursuit of the fugitive.
This, however, had little or nothing to do with the circumstances in which we found ourselves. The fact remained that Psaro would not be so easily gulled as the remainder of his countrymen. For myself, I was ready enough to leave the city. I had seen as much as I desired; and I knew that the longer we delayed the greater our peril would be. I did not at this period imagine that we would come out of the business alive. Even if we escaped from the city, we knew of no way of leaving the country; for it would be sheer suicide to attempt to re-cross the desert. I was extremely pessimistic in discussing the matter with my companions. Mr. Wang, however, seated cross-legged on the floor, with the mask of Thot upon his knee, waved my fears aside.
"There is no need to despair, Professor," said he. "I grant, a retreat across the desert would he madness. But the news that you have just given us—that this man Psaro has returned to the city—fills me with hope for the future."
"Hope!" cried I. "Why, the man will discover us, and Nouhri will pounce upon us as a cat springs upon a mouse!"
Mr. Wang smiled. "Do you imagine," he asked, "that Psaro crossed the desert?"
"I do not know," said I.
"I think not," said Mr. Wang.
"What makes you believe that?"
"He would not have the strength. He is an older man than you, Professor; and I noticed his physique as he lay asleep that night in Malta, when I took the scarab from under his head."
"That is mere presumption," said I.
Mr. Wang nodded. "As you say," said he. "But I have something else. In the heart of the African forests, there is a certain disease, known as manioc-poisoning, the effect of which is permanently to stain a man's lips with dark streaks of blue. Now, Psaro has such stains upon his lips."
"You observed that," I exclaimed in amazement, "that night in Malta!"
"By the light of my torch," said Mr. Wang. "I did not pay any particular heed to it at the time; but I happen to remember the fact now. My brain is like a store-room, in which all manner of things are locked up, of which I myself know nothing. Now listen, I reason thus: there are no great forests to the south or to the north of this country; and there are none in the valleys of the Nile and Sobat. Psaro cannot have come to Mituni-Harpi from the south; he has not had time to make so circuitous a journey. Therefore, taking into consideration the probable fact that the man is physically incapable of traversing the desert to the north, we may safely presume that there is another route than that across the desert, by which it is possible to enter this country from the south-east."
"It is possible," said I.
"It is common sense," said Mr. Wang. "And the route by which Psaro entered," he added, "can be that by which we leave."
"The sooner the better," said I; "for, every minute we remain in this temple, our danger increases."
"Then," said Captain Crouch, "you propose that we endeavour to escape, as soon as an opportunity offers itself?"
"That is my only wish," said I. "But one consideration induces me to remain: the life of the Queen is in danger."
At that, MacAndrew, who had been listening intently, spoke for the first time.
"We have not come here," said he, "to save the life of a Queen. Before I take my departure from this city, I intend to enter the Tomb."
"That is scarcely possible," said Mr. Wang. "Even if the secret were known to us, we would have to overcome the priests who stand on guard."
"To resort to violence would be utter foolishness," said Crouch. "We live in this place on sufferance. The only practical policy we can adopt is to remain friends with everyone. If we make enemies, we are lost."
MacAndrew was gazing into the red-hot embers of the charcoal fire around which we were seated.
"My uncle made a great discovery," said he in a low voice, as if speaking to himself. "He discovered this land, this civilisation, and all the marvels by which we are surrounded. He left behind him only his notebooks, which are filled with nothing but the truth. We have found everything, just as he said. There is, therefore, every reason to suppose that his account of the Treasure of Serophis is correct in every detail. He describes it as being worth a fabulous sum; a collection of golden implements, jewels, and precious stones. It might he folly to attempt to enter the Tomb; but, to fly from this country, and to leave this buried fortune behind us, would, in my opinion, be utter madness."
There was a pause, during which we studied the man's face. We could see that he was dreaming of the treasure. It was plain to us all that he had undertaken this perilous enterprise in order to become the possessor of untold wealth. That was probably the reason why he had so resented the inclusion of Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang in our party. He was so avaricious that he desired it all for himself.
Captain Crouch always looked at the practical side of things. He knocked out the pipe he had been smoking on his cork foot, which had been rendered less conspicuous by the enormous ankle-bands which he had made for his sandals.
"Supposing we enter the Tomb," said he, "supposing we gain possession of the treasure, how are we to transport it across hundreds of miles of savage Africa? If there is a way of escape to the east—as I fully believe—you may depend upon it, it lies through an unknown forest, and ends either in Abyssinia or else Uganda. In my life," he went on, "I have taken part in many expeditions into the forest; I have seen pygmies and cannibals and many singular things. And you may take it from me that, if we are to undertake such a journey, we can take with us nothing but the bare necessaries of life."
"To some men," said MacAndrew, "wealth is a necessity."
"You cannot eat gold," said Crouch; "neither will all the jewels in the world help you to beat off an attack by savages."
MacAndrew was silent for a long time. When he spoke, his voice sounded deeper than ever.
"I am a fatalist," said he. "I am content to bide my time. We are all slaves of circumstance. No man—especially one in such a situation as this—knows what the morrow will bring forth."
No words could have been more true. Our fate hung in the balance. It seemed to me useless to make plans when Psaro was in the city, and at any moment the sword of Damocles might descend upon us.
Indeed, it was late in the evening of the day after our conversation that Ahmosou came to me and told me that the Queen urgently desired to see me. Accompanied by the High Priest, I repaired immediately to the Palace.
As we were rowed up the river in one of the royal barges, I endeavoured to draw the High Priest into conversation. He would not speak to me, however; but, on several occasions, he buried his face in his hands and burst into tears. He was terribly distressed about something. I was filled with misgivings as far as our own safety was concerned, and I was also sorry for the old man, from whom I never received anything but kindness and consideration.
At the Palace we found Serisis, unattended by any members of her court. I saluted her; and before I had time to ask her why she had sent for me, she grasped me by a hand.
"I sorely need your help," she exclaimed. "Everything I told you yesterday has come true. Psaro has returned, and he and Nouhri conspire against me. Last night, after you left me, Nouhri threatened that he would stir up a revolution in the land, if I did not grant his request."
"What request, O Queen?" I asked.
"It is unthinkable!" she cried. Then she turned to Ahmosou. "Have not I and my fathers always honoured the gods?" she asked. "Is there no one strong enough in my kingdom to defy this man?"
"What is it that Nouhri asks?" said I, repeating my question.
"He demands," said the Queen, turning again to me, "that I sanction sacrilege, that I permit him to rob the Tomb of Serophis, and to overcome the guardian priests by force."
"It must not be," broke in the High Priest. "In very truth, if such a thing takes place, a great calamity will befall the whole kingdom."
With an effort, the Queen controlled herself, and spoke to me more calmly.
"I have sent for thee," she said, "in order that the great gods, Horus, Thot and Anubis who ruled in Ancient Egypt may be petitioned to intercede."
"They shall," I cried.
I know not what possessed me. I think even then I saw, as in a flash, that our own safety depended upon the supremacy of the Queen, and that, if Nouhri became the greatest power in the land, we were not likely to live for twenty-four hours.
My words must have relieved the Queen's feelings more than it is possible to understand; for a smile lit up her beautiful features, and she clasped her hands together.
"For those words, O Thothmes, I thank thee," said she. "I know full well that this is Nouhri's first step towards the throne."
"If he means to become all-powerful in the land," I asked, "why should he be at such pains first to possess himself of the treasure?"
"With money," she answered, "traitors can be bought."
"I see," said I.
"Whatever happens," said the Queen, "the treasure must be guarded safely. Nouhri and Psaro may slay the priests; but, thanks be to Osiris, the treasure is secure."
"The tomb cannot be broken open by force?" I asked.
The Queen smiled again and shook her head. "That is not possible," said she. "The treasure has been kept safe for thousands of years. For all that, I have grave doubts so far as Psaro is concerned. The man is a wizard. He is master of magic and hidden arts. It may be that he will be able to find a way of entering the Tomb."
I, too, had the same fears; for I knew that Psaro's magic and his hidden arts consisted of the knowledge he had gained of modern civilisation. I thought over the matter, and not until I had considered every aspect of the question did I reply to Queen Serisis.
"I will consult Thot, O Queen," said I; "for the wisdom of Thot is great."
And this was true enough; since, never in my life, have I met a cleverer man than Mr. Wang.
HOW THE STORM BURST, AND HOW WE ENTERED THE TOMB
I DO not think that I express myself too figuratively when I say that, at this period of our extraordinary adventure, it was as if we stood upon the summit of an active volcano. At any moment, the worst might happen; the earth beneath our feet might open and swallow us up. What plan of campaign would have been adopted had we been allowed to act on our own initiative, I am unable to say. I was given no time to confer with my companions. It was late that night when I got back to the Temple of Ra, and shortly afterwards the storm burst.
The four of us were seated in our little room, which was connected with the great central hall of the temple. I had barely had time to relate the conversation that had taken place between the Queen and myself, when a loud shout came from the nave, and I hastened to the door.
I hesitate to describe the terrible scene that I witnessed. This was the first time in my life that I beheld the shedding of human blood. I had read of such things, but had never realised before how near to the brute beasts even civilised man can be.
The hall of the temple was brightly illumined, it being a day of festival to the sun-god Ra. Several priests were gathered together before the shrine, when there entered a party of about twenty men, all armed to the teeth.
The door-keeper was struck down; and it was his cry that brought me into the hall.
I saw Nouhri, with his golden armour shining in the light. At his side was Psaro, who carried a large bow, similar to those used by the charioteers. Close upon the heels of these two men followed a band of Nouhri's soldiers. With a loud shout they charged down the hall of the temple, and flung themselves upon the unarmed priests.
A few of these escaped, dodging behind the great pillars that supported the roof of the temple, thence reaching the doorway, whence they fled into the night. But the remainder were struck down without mercy, no heed being paid to their piteous cries. I saw Nouhri, the perpetrator of this horrible outrage, wave his sword in the air.
"To the Tomb!" he cried. "To the Tomb!"
At that, followed by his companions, he passed round the shrine; and I heard the clanking of their armour as they descended into the vaults.
Without waiting an instant, I turned upon my heel and rushed back to my companions, whom I found already upon their feet. Fortunately they were wearing their masks.
"Nouhri has murdered the priests!" I cried. "He is now endeavouring to enter the Tomb. If he gains possession of the treasure, we are lost."
"Revolvers!" cried Crouch. "And follow me."
As he uttered the words, he left the room, with Wang and MacAndrew close upon his heels. I followed last, marvelling at the sight of those three Egyptian gods, armed with modem fire-arms.
We descended into the chamber, at the entrance of the Tomb, where we arrived too late to save the lives of the guardian priests, who had already been foully done to death.
What happened next cannot be described in a word, though it was but an affair of seconds. So far as I can remember, I took no part in the conflict. I was too horrified and amazed. I carried a loaded revolver in my hand; but, I confess, I forgot to use it. I looked on, an impotent and trembling witness of a scene that is surely without parallel in its horrid and grotesque absurdity.
I saw, in the dim light, the flashing of the swords. I beheld the struggling forms of men rushing past me, swirling hither and thither. I saw those weird, beast-headed and bird-headed Egyptian gods, flinging themselves on their adversaries with savage fury. Horus towered head and shoulders over any there, except Nouhri, who was insensate with wrath. My ears were deafened by the shouts of the combatants; the crashing sound of armour as man after man fell to the ground; the loud reports of the revolvers, in that confined, sepulchral room.
And then, it was all over. Psaro and Nouhri and the bulk of their followers had retreated, had fled up the steps, into the central hall of the temple; and we four found ourselves alone, with the bodies of the murdered priests and five of Nouhri's soldiers who had fallen.
Crouch dashed up the steps; and we heard a few more shots fired at the entrance of the temple—parting shots, no doubt, at the fugitives, as they rowed away upon the river, having failed in their dastardly enterprise.
In a minute, he had returned to us, and I noticed that there was blood upon his shoulder.
"You are wounded?" I asked in some alarm.
"A scratch," said he. "That golden villain escaped by the skin of his teeth. We were so close pressed together that it was not possible to aim."
"You may rest assured," said MacAndrew, "that it will not be safe for us to remain here any longer. In all probability, before morning, Nouhri will return, and we shall be overpowered by numbers."
"You must remember," said I, "that these people are superstitious. They will hesitate to use violence against those whom they believe to be the gods they worship."
"We cannot rely upon that," said Mr. Wang. "Nouhri never believed it; and now that Psaro is with him, we are likely to be exposed."
"Seems fair," said Crouch. "Psaro, who can find his way from this place to Oxford Street, is not likely to accept an Anubis who knows how to use a Webley revolver. In other words, the game's up; and we have probably got about half an hour in which to decide what to do."
"We must go to the Royal Palace," said I. "Nowhere else can we count upon being safe."
Whilst we were talking, MacAndrew had turned his attention to the table of hieroglyphics by the side of the entrance to the tomb. He now called to me, and spoke in the manner of one excited.
"Professor," said he, "have you got the scarabaeus?"
I told him that the scarab was in the room above, that naturally I had not brought it with me when I descended into the vaults.
"Then, fetch it," said MacAndrew. "I have an idea. I recognise many of these hieroglyphics as similar to those upon the scarab. I am certain that these revolving wheels are in some way connected with the secret."
I hastened up the steps, and presently returned with the scarab. But we could not discover any connection between the scarabaeus and the table, until Mr. Wang—or rather, let us say Thot, the Master of Magic—solved the problem.
"I have it!" he exclaimed. "This thing is nothing but an enormous Brahmin lock. Come, Professor, you understand all this. Hold the scarab in your hand, look at the first hieroglyphic whilst I turn the first wheel, and tell me when to stop."
The first ideogram upon the scarab was Khopri, the sign of the beetle. As the wheel revolved, various hieroglyphics and ideograms came into view. Suddenly, Khopri appeared; and, obedient to Mr. Wang's instructions, I ordered him to stop.
He then turned to the next wheel and caused it to revolve until, sure enough, the second hieroglyphic appeared. And so on, with the third, fourth and fifth wheels, until we had completed a line right across the table, which corresponded exactly with the first line upon the scarab.
When this was done, we found that the first bronze bar across the door could be made to slide quite easily into a long slot in the rock opposite, that is to say, behind the image of the Sun-god.
And so on with the bronze bolts to the very bottom of the door; so that, when the hieroglyphics upon the table exactly corresponded with the words of the Curse of the Beetle, carved upon the flat side of the scarab, there remained nothing to do but to lift the latch; and the great door swung back upon its hinges.
Beyond, everything was darkness. I hesitated to enter; but MacAndrew snatched up one of the rush-lights which were burning in the outer chamber and dashed into the hypogeum. And on that instant, there came back to my mind the words of the mystic Curse of the Beetle: "Upon who is the first to enter the Tomb, the Curse of the Beetle rests. Anubis lies in wait to conduct him to the Everlasting Shades."
The Tomb of Serophis consisted of a number of rooms, the walls of which were covered with paintings executed in fresco, representing various scenes in the life of the great Prince of Thebes. The room in which the mummy itself reposed was without ornamentation of any kind. The coffin lay upon a stone slab, surrounded by the Canopic jars, the caskets and the store of provisions which had accompanied the procession from Egypt. These latter had now withered away into nothing. In one of the rooms was a great statue of Serophis himself, seated upon a chair, his double, or soul, at his side. It was in this room that the treasure was stored. We found several chests, each one of which contained precious stones to the value of hundreds of thousands of pounds. There were, I believe, fourteen chests in all. As for the floor, it was littered as a stable is with straw, with golden bars, all of the same size and same design, bearing the seal of Sesostris, one of the most famous of the Theban monarchs of the Twelfth Dynasty.
The very sight of this wealth had a singular effect upon MacAndrew. He threw back his head, and burst into loud laughter, which he seemed quite unable to control. His condition verged upon hysteria; he was like a man who is delirious. And then, quite suddenly, he fell upon the ground, face downward, in the midst of the gold.
Fortunately, the rush-light did not go out; and when we picked him up, we ascertained that he was in a faint, from which he presently recovered. Even then, nothing would please him but that he must look into the chests containing the jewels, none of which were locked. The sight of these glittering gems had a demoralising effect on him. I stood opposite him and saw the expression upon his face, and found therein something that caused me to shudder. I do not think MacAndrew would have been able to tear himself away, had it not been that Crouch now warned us of our danger.
"Time flies quickly," said he. "We must have been down here for a quarter of an hour. At any moment, Nouhri may return to the temple."
"That is right," said Wang. "We must go."
"And leave all this?" cried MacAndrew, plunging his hands into the midst of the sparkling gems.
"Fool!" cried Crouch, who was fast losing patience. "How do you suppose that we can take it with us?"
I was so anxious to be gone that I seized MacAndrew by an arm.
"Come!" I cried. "Not all the wealth in the world were of any use to us, if we die."
We dragged him out by force, Wang leading him up the steps into the nave of the temple, for he walked like a drunken man. As for Captain Crouch and myself, we remained behind, shot back the bolts, and turned the stone wheels on the table in all directions. The riddle, now that we had solved it, was very simple: on each wheel there was a small cog that fitted into a bar, and consequently unlocked it when the right hieroglyphic was visible. No wonder the bronze bolts were secure, since in all there must have been nearly a hundred wheels, and each wheel was in itself a lock.
At the foot of the hill on which stood the Temple, several boats were moored. These were used by the priests of Ra when visiting the city. In Mituni-Harpi, the river was the main artery of traffic, just as in Venice to-day the Grand Canal is the principal thoroughfare. Indeed, in many ways Mituni-Harpi resembled Venice, many of the houses being built upon the banks of the river, having steps leading from the entrance to a landing-stage.
We were some time carrying our provisions and ammunition from the Temple to one of the boats, which was loaded until it was low in the water. This was nervous work; for any moment Nouhri and Psaro might fall upon us from out of the darkness.
However, our task was eventually finished, and with Captain Crouch steering we towed upstream towards the city. Fortunately, it was very dark; for, though it must have been midnight, several people were abroad upon the river and the banks, and we managed to reach the palace without attracting undue attention.
I beat upon the gate and was admitted by the door-keeper, who recognised me at once. It seems he was expecting me, since the Queen had given instructions that I was to be admitted at any hour. As we were speaking, a great blast of trumpets sounded from across the river; and we both turned our eyes in the direction of the palace of Nouhri, the courtyard of which was ablaze with light, for hundreds of torches were burning.
The door-keeper was vastly excited. He seized me by an arm.
"Do you know what that means?" he asked. "Do you hear the roaring of the lion?"
"Nouhri gathers his men-at-arms," said I.
"It means revolt, revolution," the man went on. "Osiris have mercy upon those who have sinned! For, before the sun sets upon another day, there will be war in Mituni-Harpi."
It was then that we heard the clash of cymbals and a great shout across the river. The Captain of the Host was evidently marching at the head of his men upon the Temple of Ra. We could see nothing but the flare of the torches, reflected upon the walls of intervening houses, as the army marched towards the south.
"Woe is me!" exclaimed the man. "Woe to Serisis, Great Queen of Mituni-Harpi! How can the Queen prevail against Nouhri and his host?"
If I am no fighter, I am at least a brave man with words.
"Have no fear," said I; "for Thot and Anubis, and even Horus himself, have come hither to fight for Queen Serisis and her throne."
"Then, indeed," said the man, "is the age of wonders come, and the end of the world at hand, since the gods themselves have descended upon earth to fight side by side with men, as they did in the ancient days when the land of Egypt was born."
I cried out to my companions to ascend the steps without fear. And Horus, Thot and Anubis entered the Palace of Queen Serisis. From the portal of the royal residence itself, after we had crossed the garden, I saw the three of them standing side by side in the centre of the great hall of the palace, the pillars and walls of which were painted. I knew that now the die was cast. If the Queen perished, we perished with her. And I looked up at the stars, brilliant in their millions in the sky, and I prayed to the true God, to bring us forth in safety from this magnificent adventure.
I was not conscious of it at the time, but I prayed aloud, using my native language. And when I had ceased my prayer, I turned and beheld Ahmosou standing near me.
"What language dost thou speak?" said he.
At that moment, I was a bold man. Deceit—of which of late I had had a surfeit—was not within me.
"I speak in my own tongue," said I, "and to my own God, who will not forsake us."
He looked at me in amazement, and then spoke as if with an effort.
"The Queen awaits thee. She has not slept this night."
HOW BAKNI STRUCK THE FIRST BLOW
AMOSOU conducted my three immortal companions to a small chapel within the Palace, in which there was a very beautiful image of the goddess, Isis. There we left them, whilst the High Priest and myself repaired at once to the private apartments of the Queen, whom we found was so agitated that she could scarcely refrain from tears.
"O Thothmes," she exclaimed, the moment she saw me, "the storm has burst. Nouhri has gathered his men-at-arms. He intends to march against the Palace."
A man stood at her side whom I had not seen before. He wore a great black beard that spread itself upon his glittering breastplate. From his commanding presence, and his mushroom helmet surmounted by a scarlet plume, I guessed that he was Bakni, the Captain of the Royal Bodyguard, of whom Ahmosou had spoken to me.
The Queen was in the utmost distress. She clasped her hands together as in prayer.
"My father," said she, "was the descendant in the direct line of the Theban Monarchs. And now, the days of my house are numbered."
At that, Bakni struck the handle of his sword with his fist.
"No traitor enters here, O Queen," he cried, "except over the dead bodies of myself and my men. To a man, we are sworn to die for the Throne."
"Brave Bakni," said the Queen, "I know it. But, think awhile; though the Bodyguard are the greatest warriors in the kingdom, what is one man against a score? Nouhri has the whole army at his back."
I could not stand by and witness the distress of this young and beautiful Queen. I felt that I was justified in saying anything to comfort her. Besides, I had infinite trust in my companions, especially in Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang. I saluted the Queen before I spoke.
"Fear not, Serisis, Queen of the Serophians," said I. "Not only will the Royal Bodyguard stand by thee; but the great gods of thy fathers, whom in days gone by were worshipped in the ancient cities of the Nile, will fight for thy rights and kingdom. Even now they are in the Palace, ready to take up arms on thy behalf."
"They are here!" she exclaimed.
"In the Palace," said I.
"Thot and mighty Horus—"
"And Anubis," I said, "the Lord of Death."
I felt a coward to trade upon her superstition; yet, in a way, it made me glad to see that I had dispelled her fears so quickly. She turned to Ahmosou with a smile upon her lips.
"Then," she cried, "I have naught to fear!"
A moment since, she had been buried in the depths of despair; now, she was as happy as a child. In my heart, I wished I could share her confidence. High as my opinion was of the prowess of both Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang, I remembered the sight of the flaring torches I had seen across the river, and the tramp of the army marching to the south. In all probability, Psaro knew where we were, and would do his utmost to persuade the people that my companions were bogus gods. Even if he failed in that, Nouhri was a great warrior; he was both fierce and ambitious, and now that he had stirred up the revolt, was not likely to go back. He had staked everything upon the enterprise. Failure would mean death; success, the Throne.
It was decided that night to hold a council of war, since we knew that at any moment the blow might fall.
Asking permission to hold communion with the gods, I returned to the chapel of Isis, where I had left my three companions. I experienced some little difficulty in finding them in a kind of vault under the chapel, where I was pleased to see they had made themselves thoroughly at home. They had their masks off, and were enjoying a meal of fruit and rare Egyptian wine, which had been deposited in the temple as offerings to the goddess.
Having satisfied myself that they were all right and not likely to be disturbed, I hastened back to the Queen's apartments, where I found Serisis, with Ahmosou and Bakni, the Captain of the Bodyguard. The High Priest was relating to the Queen how he had seen Nouhri's army marching from his palace across the river toward the south.
"It is as I thought," said the Queen, who, in spite of her tender years, had a good head in the council chamber. "Nouhri intends to plunder the Temple of Ra. All his life he has coveted the Treasure of Serophis."
"But, that is sacrilege," said Bakni. He had a big, deep voice, and was, I suppose, so used to giving orders to his soldiers that he could not speak without shouting.
"Sacrilege," said the Queen, "is naught to such a man. He has even scoffed at the gods. Think you, O Thothmes, that he will gain possession of the treasure?"
I do not know why she addressed herself to me. She could not have guessed that a few hours since, my companions and myself had discovered the secret of the Tomb.
"He will not enter," said I. "Not all the men-at-arms in Mituni-Harpi will be able to break their way by force into the Tomb, though the priests are no more."
"No more!" she echoed; for, as yet, I had told her nothing of what had happened.
"Murdered!" I exclaimed. "Murdered in the coldest blood, this very night, and by Nouhri himself and Psaro."
"What treachery!" she cried. "This is a sin that the gods will not forgive."
Ahmosou turned to me. "Did Nouhri attempt to seize the treasure?" he asked.
"He was given no time," said I. "The gods intervened. Nouhri and his followers were put to flight."
"The gods!" He repeated the words as if unable to understand.
"Horus, Thot and Anubis."
"And Nouhri dared to fight?"
I bowed my head.
"That means," said the Queen, "that he will not hesitate to attack the Palace, even if the gods themselves defend it. In the meantime, he desires to gain possession of the Treasure of Serophis, knowing full well that by means of gold and precious stones he will be able to buy over the whole population of the city." As she uttered these words I saw she was again upon the verge of tears. "Traitor!" she cried. "I am encompassed on every hand by treachery."
And thereupon, Bakni, the Captain of the Bodyguard, drew his sword from its sheath, and went down upon a knee before the Queen.
"Not on every hand, O Queen," said he. "The Bodyguard is loyal."
The Queen extended a hand, and raised him to his feet, thanking him for his loyalty, which, she said, she had never doubted. He was a great powerful man, a soldier every inch. I often think of him as I saw him that night in his glittering armour, with his great, black beard, and the muscles upon his bare arms standing out like whipcord.
Before we parted that night, we decided upon a plan of action. The suggestion came from Bakni, and it met with the approval of both Mr. Wang and Captain Crouch, to whom I explained the course of action the Captain of the Bodyguard proposed to take.
Bakni was not content to remain idle in the Palace, waiting for Nouhri to attack. He was a soldier who did not believe in what is known as a passive defence. Though Nouhri's men outnumbered the Royal Bodyguard by, at least, six to one, Bakni decided to attack. The Captain of the Host had taken up his headquarters at the Temple of Ra, with the obvious intention of possessing himself of the treasure. An hour before daybreak, Bakni mustered his men in the courtyard of the Palace.
I had repaired to the chapel of Isis, where I told my three companions to put on their masks, and arm themselves with their revolvers, bringing with them as much ammunition as they could carry. A small party was to remain behind to guard the Palace. The Queen herself descended to the garden, where she addressed a few words to her soldiers.
I can recall to memory every detail of that morning. The moon was low in the heavens, and the sky was alive with stars. There was sufficient light to enable one to see dimly these ancient warriors in their armour, standing mute and motionless—as it seemed, insensible. A more magnificent set of men I have never beheld.
I know, as I followed the Queen, during her inspection of the level ranks, there was not a man whose shoulders were not higher than my head, and, in most cases, I could have walked under the extended arm.
When the Queen spoke, there was a tremor in her voice; and when she finished her address, the men of the Bodyguard lifted their spears in the air, and gave a great, deep shout, which seemed to shake the Palace to its very foundations.
Then, in the twilight, the first cold light of dawn, we saw three men approaching, slowly descending the Palace steps. To me, they were men; to those others they were gods, the ancient deities of their land.
Two torches flared at the foot of the steps; and into the torchlight came those three grotesque and potent figures, who, centuries ago, had played such an important part in the life of Ancient Egypt: Horns, the god of the sky, the son of Osiris; Horus, the fleet of foot; Thot, the master of magic and mystery and books; Anubis, the Lord of the Grave.
When the warriors beheld those whom they believed to be the ancient gods of their fathers, they raised a cry of mingled astonishment and admiration. For a moment, discipline was relaxed. And then, the voice of Bakni rang out above the others.
"Courage, comrades!" he cried. "I am about to lead you to the Temple of Ra, where Nouhri, the Captain of the Host, has proclaimed himself a traitor. See for yourselves: the gods of the Nile have visited Mituni-Harpi, to fight shoulder to shoulder with mortal men, as in the days when the World was young! Have no fear. Victory is already ours. For who can withstand Thot and Anubis and mighty Horus? Who can resist the gods?"
The men raised a shout; and soon afterwards, Bakni gave the order to march, and the Royal Bodyguard filed out of the Palace.
At the landing-stage, at the foot of the Palace steps, several boats were moored. In these we embarked, strict orders having been given that absolute silence was to be maintained.
Rowed by powerful slaves, the boats travelled down-stream with the current; and it could not have been more than twenty minutes before we found ourselves at the foot of the hill upon which was the Temple of Ra.
I had journeyed in the same boat as MacAndrew, Crouch and Wang. Crouch told me in a whisper that he was confident of victory. He spoke as if the whole affair were a picnic, instead of a matter of life and death. Mr. Wang was silent. As for MacAndrew, he made one significant remark, which—in the light of after events—proved that the man's thoughts ran continually upon the treasure.
In the semi-darkness I saw the hawk-headed mask of Horus draw near to me, and a deep voice sounded in my ear.
"Tell me," said he, "how much do you think the Treasure of Serophis to be worth?"
"It is unimaginable," said I. "Those chests contain diamonds, as well as sapphires and emeralds. The Bank of England could not buy it."
At that he gripped me by an arm. "Professor," said he, and I noticed that his voice was breathless, "I will not leave this country without my share of the plunder."
"There will be no plunder," said I. "We are not freebooters; we are honest men."
"Honest men!" he scoffed. "What is all this wealth to these people? Besides, it has lain buried for centuries. We have but to take one of those chests back with us to Europe, and we are the richest men in the world."
At that moment, our conversation was cut short; for the boat rounded a bend in the river. And there before us was the Temple, around which the bivouac fires of Nouhri's warriors were still burning dimly.
We landed in silence upon the same side of the river as the Temple. The first signs of dawn were then visible in the east. The moon had set; the stars were dwindling; a dull red light suffused the sky, so that we could see, silhouetted against the horizon, the monoliths and towers, and the flat roofs of the houses of the city of Mituni-Harpi.
Bakni formed up his men in order of battle. His warriors were arrayed in three ranks. I took my place in the centre of the front rank with my three European companions; and I confess my heart was in my mouth, as I awaited the order to charge.
My thoughts were very different from those of MacAndrew. Had I at that moment been possessed of a thousandth part of the Treasure of Serophis, I would have given it gladly to any one who could have transported me back to Europe, to my old dusty study, in London, in the neighbourhood of the British Museum. I had drifted into this business like a wisp of straw, carried forward on the current of a river. I was in another element than my own. I stood between Crouch and Mr. Wang. I looked along the ranks of great, swarthy, bearded men, whose armour reflected the red glow that was in the sky. It was Bakni's intention to charge the Temple from a flank; and I saw that his men were eager for the fray. The fierceness in their eyes; the tightened grip with which they held their swords and spears; the craned necks—somehow they reminded me of huge, savage dogs, straining at an invisible leash. I was an old woman amongst men, a coward in the midst of heroes. I knew it; but with all the little courage I possessed, I was resolved to see this matter through, even if it ended in death.
Then a voice struck the silence that was like a pistol-shot. It was the voice of Bakni, calling upon his warriors to charge.
As one man, we went forward like a wave, bursting into the outer courtyard of the Temple.
OF THE FIGHT IN THE TEMPLE OF RA
NOUHRI'S men were wholly taken by surprise. They had barely time to rush to their arms, much less to adopt any sort of military formation, before Bakni's warriors were upon them.
As for myself, I was carried forward in the press of battle, more by the weight of those behind me, than by any desire upon my own part to join in the conflict. Early in the engagement, I received a wound, a spear-thrust in the thigh; and, to be quite honest, I was glad enough of the excuse to retire from out of the midst of the carnage.
At a safe distance, I found a great Sphinx; and, sitting down between the forefeet of the image, I bathed my wound in a pool of water.
The noise that proceeded from the Temple was indescribable; the clash of arms, the shouting of many voices, the groans of the wounded, the cheers of the men of the Royal Bodyguard, as they swept their opponents into the inner sanctuary, many falling in the struggle.
It was then that the sun rose. In these latitudes, there is no dawn, no intervening period of twilight between night and day. The sun appeared from beyond the mountains to the east, and shone down upon the great plain in which lay the city of Mituni-Harpi.
I got to my feet, with the intention of returning to my comrades, who appeared to have carried everything before them. I found, however, that my leg was so stiff, and my wounds so painful, that it was extremely difficult for me to walk. Looking about me, I observed a flight of stone steps, leading to the top of the Sphinx. Anxious to ascertain how the battle was going, I climbed with difficulty to the top of these, and there seated myself in a position whence I could look down into the courtyard of the Temple.
The enemy, who had not yet recovered from the effect of the surprise, were being beaten back, inch by inch. I could see Nouhri himself, in his golden armour, fighting desperately at the head of his men, whom it was easy to distinguish by their scarlet plumes. My three companions were in the very midst of the fray, each using his revolver with deadly effect.
With the exception of Psaro, there was probably no one in the whole country who was acquainted with the use of fire-arms. The majority of the Serophian warriors no doubt regarded these weapons, used so skilfully by Captain Crouch and MacAndrew, as a kind of magic, known only to the gods. The fact also that they were fighting against the deities whom, centuries before, their forefathers had worshipped in the land of Egypt, had a demoralising effect upon Nouhri's soldiers.
The tall figure of MacAndrew, disguised as the mighty Horus, was to be found wherever the fighting was most fierce. In the conduct of the ibis-headed Thot, I recognised the cool-headedness of Mr. Wang. He fired seldom, but each time picked his man; and every bullet found its mark. Captain Crouch, too, might have been in very truth the incarnation of the jackal-headed Anubis. He was here, there, and everywhere, rushing into the swaying mass of frenzied fighting men, firing his revolver to right and left.
There is small doubt as to which side the victory would have gone, had not reinforcements hastened to the aid of Nouhri. I had failed to observe a large camp, lower down the river, about a mile distant from the Temple. In this camp—so it afterwards appeared—there were several hundred men, who had been placed under the command of Psaro.
Now, Psaro was full of guile. It must be remembered that, unlike the rest of his countrymen, he was a man who had seen the world. Whatever his soldiers believed, Psaro must have been perfectly convinced in his heart that these gods who had visited Mituni-Harpi, were false and spurious gods. It appears he had already suspected that Horus, Thot, and Anubis, were respectively MacAndrew, Captain Crouch, and myself—for he knew nothing of Mr. Wang.
As soon as it was known in the camp that the Temple had been attacked, Psaro gathered his men-at-arms. I learned afterwards that he made them a brief speech, in which he assured them that they had naught to fear, that the three gods were frauds, and though the weapons they used were deadly, there was nothing whatsoever about them that could be described as supernatural.
Psaro now led his men forward to the Temple, to the assistance of Nouhri, the Captain of the Host. But he was cunning and had some knowledge of tactics. He divided his men into two parties. The smaller party he sent forward to the assistance of Nouhri, whose soldiers were about to retire from the precincts of the Temple. The larger party he himself conducted by a circuitous route to a position whence they could assail the Royal Bodyguard from the rear.
Seeing the danger that was imminent, I descended the steps, and hastened to warn my friends. It is a sure proof of the superiority of mind over matter that, in the excitement of the moment, I entirely forgot my wound. A few minutes before, I had not been able to walk; but now, it being of vital importance that I should do so, I actually ran.
Fighting was then taking place in the nave of the Temple. Nouhri and his followers were fighting with their backs to the entrance to the Tomb. It was clear that, if Psaro reached the entrance, the only line of retreat which offered itself to the Royal Bodyguard, would be cut off, and Bakni and his men would be caught like so many rats in a trap.
I found Crouch in the very midst of the turmoil. I shouted in his ear, warning him of our danger.
"Tell Bakni!" said he, and turned to Mr. Wang, who was but a short distance away, on the other side of him.
With great difficulty, I forced my way through the seething, struggling crowd of savage men, and warned our commander of the peril we were in.
He immediately gave the order to retreat; and we reached the entrance in the nick of time. Psaro and his followers were already in the courtyard. Had I delayed in taking action, we had all been lost, and Queen Serisis would have fallen.
I will not attempt to describe the fighting that took place in the courtyard, after Psaro's reinforcements had arrived. It would be quite useless for me to attempt to do so. From a safe distance I had been able to survey the combat as a mere spectator; but when I found myself in the midst of it, I was not able to see anything. I believe I fired my revolver, shouting at the full power of my lungs; I believe I ran like a madman from one place to another. At one moment, I felt like a savage beast; I was willing—I was even eager—to kill. And a second after, I was like a little child; I felt as if I would like to bury my face in my hands and burst into tears. One thing only I saw, and that was the greatest piece of villainy of which I have to tell.
Somehow, MacAndrew had become detached from the Royal Bodyguard. Anyhow, he was the last to leave the Temple. I think he could not find it within him to tear himself away from a place where he knew such a vast treasure lay hidden. From the moment he entered my rooms in London to that last tragic scene in the Royal Palace of Mituni-Harpi, the mind of the man was obsessed by a single thought; his actions were guided by a single motive: to possess himself of the gold and jewels of the Treasure of Serophis.
Psaro, entering the courtyard at the head of his men, found himself face to face with MacAndrew, him whom the majority took to be Horus, the hawk-headed deity of the ancient Nile.
It was already manifest that we must retire. Though the casualties we had inflicted upon the enemy must have been severe, and our own comparatively trifling, we were now far out-numbered, and could hope for nothing better than to cover our retirement. MacAndrew must have recognised that the day had turned against us. I saw Psaro speak to him, though of course they were too far distant for me to hear what was said. Psaro, at any rate, understood the English language; and there is little question that not only did he make his meaning clear, but he spoke his mind openly, and made a proposal as treacherous as it was crafty. Perhaps, on board the "Westmoreland," he had observed MacAndrew closely, and had summed up the man's character better than I had done.
Although I heard not a word of what was said, it is not difficult to guess what passed between these two. Psaro must have told MacAndrew that he knew him for a fraud. A bogus god, with a mask made of feathers and a wooden beak, passing as Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, could not deceive a man who was acquainted with modern London, who had eluded the detectives of Scotland Yard. I am able to state as a fact that Psaro offered MacAndrew, not only his life, but a share in the Treasure, if he would consent to desert his comrades and throw in his lot with Nouhri.
The fact that MacAndrew believed that his side was beaten, and the game was lost, made his acceptance of such an offer greater treachery than ever. I would like to think better of the man; but I cannot do so. Subsequent events served only to prove his guilt.
Bakni gave the order to retire; and the Bodyguard fell back in good order. Nouhri with a party of men attempted to turn our right flank; but they were driven back by a steady fire from the revolvers of Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang. The other flank was secure upon the bank of the river. Our boats had been taken away; and even if they had remained, it would have been impossible for us to re-embark. There was no alternative but to retreat to the city, on the right bank of the river.
A rearguard action is one of the most difficult of operations in war. In the confusion which was inevitable, neither Captain Crouch nor Mr. Wang noticed that "Horus" had remained behind, until we were at a safe distance from the Temple, and Nouhri and his men had given up the pursuit. It was then that Crouch approached me.
"MacAndrew!" he exclaimed. "What has become of him? Is he wounded?"
"He is a traitor," said I.
"Traitor!" cried Crouch.
"He exchanged words with Psaro, who—as we know—can speak English. He thinks of nothing but the Treasure."
I heard Crouch whistle softly.
"This is even more serious than you think," said he. "MacAndrew knows the secret of the Tomb."
"Much good may it do him!" said I. "The secret is valueless, unless he is in possession of the scarab."
"He is," said Captain Crouch.
I caught my breath. It was as if a blow had been struck me. I could not at first grasp the extent of the calamity which had befallen us.
"MacAndrew has the scarab!" I cried. I had to repeat the sentence several times before I could accept its meaning as the truth. I hoped Captain Crouch was mistaken. But his next words proved that such hopes were quite misplaced.
"When he knew," said he, "that we were going to the Temple of Ra, he said that, if we were successful in driving Nouhri from his position, we would have ample time in which to possess ourselves of the treasure, and bring it back to the Palace, where it would be safe. This was sound enough, and he brought the scarab with him."
I could listen to no more. I burst forth in a torrent of indignation.
"The scoundrel!" I cried. "The traitor! The man is mad. He thinks of nothing but gold. I should have known it long ago! He will enter the vault; and he and Nouhri and Psaro will divide all this wealth between them. They will be able to buy over the country-people to the cause of Nouhri. The whole land will rise against the Queen."
"And moreover," said Crouch, taking me up, "we can no longer trade upon the superstition of these fools. And even if they still believe, there are those who will not hesitate to take up arms against Thot and Anubis, since Horus is on their side."
I could speak no more upon the man's villainy. I was hot with indignation, and something rose in my throat that seemed to choke me. Even then, I wondered what would have happened to me, had I ventured into this strange country without such indefatigable companions as Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang. I wondered what would have been my fate, had I found myself alone with MacAndrew. Still, I think, I thought even less of my own safety than of that of the young and beautiful Queen, who had treated me from the first with such marked and gentle consideration.
And so, we marched upon the dusty road, in the full heat of the noonday sun; until, at last, we came to the city, where we filed through the gates of the Royal Palace. And when Bakni dismissed his warriors, and the great, bearded soldiers went to their quarters to snatch a few hours' well-earned rest, I saw that the faces of many were saddened, because of the comrades they had left behind, killed or wounded, in the hands of the enemy. And I saw also, at a glance, that these men were not defeated: they had been but foiled; they would fight—as Bakni had said—to the last man, selling their lives dearly for the Queen.
I was met upon the steps by Ahmosou, the High Priest.
"Has all gone well?" he asked.
"We have been betrayed!" said I.
"Betrayed! By whom?"
I was too sick at heart to attempt to disguise the truth.
"By Horus," said I.
I looked into the old man's face, expecting to find that he was utterly dismayed, instead of which he was smiling.
"You mean, O Thothmes," said he, "by the man whom you would ask us to believe was the son of Osiris and Isis, ancient Queen of the Nile."
It was now my turn to look astonished.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"You forget," said he, "last night, I heard you pray to the strange God whom you worship. That aroused my suspicions, and I went to the chapel of Isis, and listened at the door, when Thot was speaking to his companions."
"Then, you know," said I, "that we are—frauds." I hesitated upon the word.
"I know," said he, "that you are loyal to the Queen. And that is all I wish to know."
I placed a hand upon his shoulder, for my heart went out to the old man.
"Thou art my friend," said I.
"We are all friends who serve the Queen. Let us go to her now. We will tell her the truth. There is naught to fear. Whether your friends be gods or men, they have fought for the kingdom. Our duty is very simple; to stamp out the revolution which is abroad in the land, or else to die like men."
"O Ahmosou," said I, "we are both old men, you and I, and death should not he hard for us. Come, let us go to the Queen, and those whom you know as Thot and Anubis shall come with us. As you say, they are but men, but they are wise and of great experience in war."
HOW MR. WANG THRUST HIS HEAD INTO THE LION'S MOUTH
AMOSOU was a wise man. He had been guide, philosopher, and friend to the Queen, since she was a little child. She had learned from him the manner in which her people should be governed. He had instructed her in the religious rites and ceremonies of Ancient Egypt. Never once in her reign had she disregarded the counsel of her minister.
Queen Serisis had believed implicitly that my three companions, Horus, Thot and Anubis, were the actual gods of the Nile, descended for the second time upon earth—those gods who had been all-powerful in a bygone civilisation, the relics of which are now buried beneath the sand of the desert. This belief is not so foolish and superstitious as it seems. The ancient gods of Egypt had been invested with very human qualities; whereas, on the other hand, the Pharaohs themselves were believed to be divine. In Egypt, as in Ancient Rome, or Greece, men became heroes, and heroes became gods; so there was no very marked dividing-line between ordinary mortals and supernatural beings.
Our ruse had proved as successful with Queen Serisis herself as with the large crowds of common people who had crowded the river banks, when we made our entrance into the city. To the Queen, it did not seem by any means impossible that Horus, Thot and Anubis should become incarnated, and visit the land of the Serophians, where their shrines had been worshipped for centuries, since the days of the Theban monarchs. Indeed, the prophecy of the Beetle seemed to have been fulfilled: "When the Watchers of the Tomb are slain, the gods shall descend from the four corners of the heavens."
I did not know how she would receive the news that we were frauds. No one likes to be made a fool of; and I fully expected to meet with her displeasure. As I have said before, I had always hated the deceit which we had been obliged to practise; and in my heart, I was now thoroughly glad that it was necessary to speak the truth.
Ahmosou explained the whole thing very tactfully. He said that we were strangers from a far land, who, being desirous of entering the country, had thought of this device. On our behalf, he asked the Queen to pardon us, saying that we had already proved ourselves true friends in the hour of need.
To her credit, she did not even blame me. I was called upon to suffer but the mildest of reproaches.
"And thou, O Thothmes," she asked me, "art thou also someone else?"
"O Queen," said I, "I am but what I seem: an old man, more of a scholar than a hero. But this much I will vouch for: I am here to do no harm to anyone, least of all to a Queen, who is at once gentle and beautiful and great."
"Perhaps," said she, "thou art even more of a courtier than a scholar. But, tell me, how is it that you speak our language?"
I replied that in the land where I had come from, there were many who made a study of the civilisations of the Past. Thus it was that I could speak to the inhabitants of this city of Mituni-Harpi. Thus it was that I understood the customs and manners and religion of Ancient Egypt, and could read the hieroglyphics.
I went on to explain to Queen Serisis that the man who had passed himself off as Horus had betrayed us all, and had gone over to the side of the enemy. And when I added that we had discovered the secret by means of which the Tomb of Serophis could be opened, and that Nouhri was to all intents and purposes master of the Treasure, the Queen and Ahmosou made no attempt to disguise their feelings of alarm.
"Then, all is lost!" cried the High Priest, beating himself upon the chest. "I have numbers of spies in the city, by means of whom I am able to know exactly what happens outside the Palace walls. At present, the people are resolved to take no part in the conflict. Were it not that they have infinite faith in the generalship of Nouhri, they would openly declare themselves for the Queen. But they fear the Captain of the Host, and know that he has numbers on his side. If Nouhri gains possession of the treasure, he will not find it difficult to buy them over to his side. The greater part of the army is already against us. If the people and the slaves join hands with the insurgents, the Royal Bodyguard cannot hope to prevail."
I looked at the Queen and saw that her lips were trembling. For all that, she spoke brave words. There was no tremor in her voice.
"Summon Bakni," she ordered. "I have two wise men on one side of me, and a brave man on the other. Why should I fear? The Throne is mine by right. The blood of the Pharaohs is in my veins."
I asked her permission to bring my two companions to the council, telling the Queen that the men who had passed themselves off as Thot and Anubis, would be able to assist in the Council Chamber no less effectively than upon the field of battle. Serisis was curious to see them; and, repairing to the chapel of Isis, I found Captain Crouch seated cross-legged on the ground, his jackal-headed mask between his knees, and between his lips his pipe, from which were issuing clouds of his evil-smelling tobacco.
"You have the audacity to smoke!" I cried. "You are like Nero, who is said to have fiddled, whilst Rome was burning."
"This is the only incense," said he, "that I offer up before the shrine of Anubis."
"All this nonsense is done with," I exclaimed. "You are gods no longer. The Queen knows the truth."
I told them both to get to their feet and follow me; and a minute later, they found themselves in the presence of the Queen.
Throughout the conversation that ensued, I acted as interpreter. The Queen had many questions to ask, concerning the land from which we had come, and the use of fire-arms; but she evinced the greatest curiosity of all in examining Captain Crouch's glass eye and cork foot, which—I honestly believe—she considered far more marvellous than the fact that the gods themselves had reappeared upon the earth.
Though little or nothing was settled that afternoon, the discussion was of the greatest value, since, for the first time, we appeared in our true colours, and both the Queen and Bakni recognised that we were their friends. It was difficult to decide upon any definite course of action. There seemed little that we could do, but wait in the Palace for the final blow to descend.
That night, I talked the matter over with Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang. Crouch had several suggestions to make. In all my life, I never knew a man who was more alive—if I may so describe it. His brain was as active as his body; and, in spite of his cork foot, he was seldom still. On the other hand, that night, Mr. Wang was unusually silent. I saw that he was thinking things out for himself; and, knowing his powers of invention and resource, I thought it best not to interfere with him. Early the following morning, as day was breaking upon the city, Mr. Wang woke Crouch and myself after we had been asleep for several hours.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I have a scheme," said he, "a plan. It is a dangerous business—more dangerous than I like. But I can see no other way out of it. I shall have to go."
"Go?" said I. "Go where?"
"I will tell you later," said he. "Good-night. Or rather—good-morning."
And at that, he turned over upon his side, and went to sleep again. In a few minutes he was snoring. Truly, a remarkable man!
As for myself, I was not able to go to sleep; so, after a time, I got to my feet and, walking in the Palace gardens, beheld the magic effect of sunrise upon the summits of the mountains. As I walked the level paths, in the midst of the quaint statues of gods, goddesses and sphinxes, inhaling the perfume of a thousand flowers, I thought upon the strange adventure that had befallen me. It was as if I had been transported to another planet. To reconcile the civilisation of this country with what I knew of the modern world I was tempted to think that my experience was all a dream; that, during my sleep, I had been carried bodily throughout the centuries, into a dim, forgotten Past, of the glories of which we know but little. I cannot say, however, that my mind was not filled with grave misgivings. At that moment, surrounded by the beauties of one of the most wonderful gardens I have ever beheld, when life seemed more than ever well worth living, I did not think that I and my companions were destined once again to set eyes upon the land of our birth.
When I was in the midst of these thoughts, I beheld Ahmosou, the High Priest, walking slowly towards me. His head was bent low, and his eyes fixed upon the ground. He approached quite near to me, before he saw me. Then he saluted me, and asked whether I had slept.
I told him I had slept but little during the middle part of the night, adding that I was well accustomed to little sleep.
"I have not slept at all," said he. "I told you, I have spies abroad in the city. These enter the Palace under cover of darkness. For the last three hours I have been receiving their reports."
"Is there good news or bad?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. "There is no good news," said he. "The Palace is surrounded. It is only with difficulty that my spies can enter unseen. Nouhri and Psaro have already a great following in the city."
"Among the citizens?" I asked.
He nodded. "The worst has happened," said he. "In the poorer part of the town, the news that Nouhri has gained possession of the Treasure is common property. Nouhri has promised a share of the gold to every man who joins forces with him. In three days' time, this gold is to be distributed. You are convinced that Nouhri can enter the Tomb?"
"There is no doubt of it," said I. "The man whom you knew as Horus knows the secret."
"In this land," said the High Priest, "there is neither honesty nor faith in the gods. The Treasure of Serophis will be plundered. In Mituni-Harpi, money can buy power. And Nouhri knows it."
He walked away from me. In the light of the newly risen sun, I saw the sadness that was upon his face; and I grieved for the old man, for he was a good man, and one who was loyal to his Sovereign.
I returned to Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang, both of whom I found awake. On seeing me, Mr. Wang waved a podgy hand. He was smiling from ear to ear.
"Ah, Professor!" said he. "The very man I want! You know everything; perhaps, you can tell me where our baggage is?"
"It is in the next room," said I.
"All of it?"
"All of it. What is it you want?"
"My make-up box," said he.
I myself went into the next room and brought him the box.
"What is this?" said I. "What is it you intend to do?"
"I have a scheme," said he, "a plan. But, before I tell you anything, there are one or two questions I would like to ask. I understand it to be of the utmost importance that Nouhri and Psaro do not enter the Tomb of Serophis?"
"That is so," I answered. "Unfortunately, they may have done so already; in any case, I do not see how you or I can prevent them."
"If the Tomb is already open," said Mr. Wang, "it cannot be helped. But, even in that case, do not despair. Remember, while there is life, there is hope. Leave the matter to me."
For the next half-hour, I witnessed something that was extremely interesting. I was privileged to behold the celebrated Mr. Wang effect one of his astonishing disguises. Of the contents of that extraordinary box, which we had carried across the desert, I can speak but little. It contained many bottles and jars, of singular dyes, paints and cosmetics.
He asked me to procure from the Captain of the Guard clothes such as would he worn by a Serophian beggar, one of the poorest in the land. There was not much that was remarkable about these clothes, for there was little enough of them, when Bakni brought them to me. The wonderful part of the disguise was the manner in which Mr. Wang made his skin appear to be wrinkled, and entirely altered the contour of his face.
He half concealed his eyelids, so that nothing but the whites of his eyes were visible; and the result of this was horrible to behold. He appeared—as he desired to do—totally blind, though he assured me he was well able to see. He got to his feet and, taking a long staff in his hand, groped his way around the room, just as a blind man would have done.
"That is good," said Crouch. "As fine a piece of acting I have never seen, and I have seen some good actors in my day."
"But, where are you going?" said I; for, as yet, I had not grasped the full significance of what Mr. Wang was about to do.
"I am going," said he, quite calmly, "I am going to the Temple of Ra."
"The Temple of Ra!" I exclaimed.
"To the Tomb of Serophis," said he.
"You are thrusting your head into the lion's mouth!" I cried.
Mr. Wang laughed. "I will not keep it there," said he.
To me, it seemed as if he were courting certain death. I felt as if I could not let him go, for he was already upon the threshold of the door. I ran after him, and caught him by an arm.
"This is madness!" I protested.
"When I am dead," said Mr. Wang, "you are free to call me mad. A sane man is he who considers well before he acts. I have done so. Therefore, in this case, I am sane."
"But if you leave the Palace," I cried, "you cannot speak to these people! You do not know a word of their language!"
"I do not need to," said he, "I am dumb."
It seemed he had an answer to every question that I asked. I took him to Bakni; and together we three passed through the gardens to a little postern gate on the western side of the Palace. This Bakni opened cautiously, and Mr. Wang passed through, with stumbling, uncertain steps, leaning upon his long staff, and feeling his way with a hand outstretched before him.
Then the gate was closed, and Bakni locked it. And I went back to the Palace with a heavy heart. For I thought I had looked my last upon the round, smiling countenance of Mr. Wang.
HOW MR. WANG SAVED THE SITUATION
OF the perilous enterprise upon which Mr. Wang was engaged during the next three days, I can speak only from hearsay. It was he himself who told me the story—for you must know that he came through with his life; else I myself should not now be writing an account of our adventures.
When he was without the Palace walls, he seated himself upon the ground, at the corner of a narrow street. Few people passed him by; but, whenever he heard footsteps approaching, he held out a hand, as if he begged for alms. Here he waited for the greater part of the morning; and he did so with a purpose: to take in his surroundings, and to make quite sure that no one had seen him leave the Palace gate.
In the afternoon, he proceeded upon his way, descending the hill upon which the Palace was situated, to the left bank of the river. Passing through the crowded streets of the city, he reached the Temple of Ra, shortly after nightfall.
The night was alive with the bivouac fires of Nouhri's soldiers. Psaro had moved his men nearer to the Temple, with the idea, no doubt, of guarding against another surprise attack by the Royal Bodyguard.
Mr. Wang was kindly received by the soldiers, who gave him both food and drink; they regarded him as a poor old man, who was both blind and dumb. Taken as a whole, there are probably no kinder-hearted men in all the world than soldiers, of whatever nationality they may be. And it is pleasant to think that the Serophians, who were the modern representatives of an ancient civilisation, were no exception to the rule.
Mr. Wang lay down in the midst of them, and went to sleep. To me it seems wonderful that he could do so. I suppose, he was a man without nerves. At any rate, he was one in whose life danger was an almost daily occurrence.
The following morning, he was up early, going to and fro among the soldiers. When they spoke to him, he took no notice. When they touched him, he gesticulated with his hands, and pointed to his mouth and his eyes. He was not able to understand a word they said; he was not able to speak to them, and he was not supposed to be able to see. Yet, he actually made friends.
During the day, he continued to act his part. Never for a moment did he give the slightest inkling to any one that he was now even a greater humbug than he had been when he posed as the great god, Thot. Late that evening, he succeeded in entering the Temple, in which Psaro and Nouhri had gathered their officers.
At first, his appearance caused some curiosity; but, when it was seen that he was both blind and unable to speak, he was ignored, and left to his own devices.
Now, the devices of Mr. Wang were manifold. His ingenuity was amazing, and there was no end to his powers of observation. He sat in a shady corner of the Temple, with his mouth shut, and his eyes apparently also shut, and he saw everything that was going on around him.
The whole of the next day, he remained in the nave of the Temple, moving to and fro at will. Several people tried to speak to him, but he took no notice. He was there—as he told me afterwards—for the sole purpose of making everyone familiar with his presence.
In twenty-four hours, he was as much at home as a stray dog. He was allowed to come and go as he pleased. And it pleased him to enter one of the inner chambers, in which he found Psaro and Nouhri and MacAndrew.
All three had seen him in the nave of the Temple. Psaro resented his appearance, and ordered him out, the moment he entered. But Mr. Wang showed not the slightest sign of having heard a word. He just seated himself, cross-legged, upon the ground.
Psaro attempted to turn him out of the room, by seizing him with both hands by the scruff of the neck. He found, however, that Mr. Wang was not so easy to move as he imagined. Nouhri interposed, saying, no doubt, that the old man might as well remain where he was, since he could certainly do no harm. And thus it was that Mr. Wang slept, upon the third night, in the very Council Chamber of the Queen's enemies.
He observed that MacAndrew was still wearing the hawk-headed mask of Horus, passing himself off as the god. Mr. Wang was particularly interested in Psaro, the man whom he had foiled in Malta, the man who, years before—there is every reason to believe—had murdered Josephus MacAndrew in his house in Bloomsbury Square.
And here was the nephew, entered into a conspiracy with the murderer of his uncle! As Mr. Wang studied the countenance of MacAndrew, who in the privacy of the inner chamber was in the habit of taking off his mask, he had not the slightest doubt that the man was utterly mad. It may have been that he was never sane; it is possible that greed of gold had turned his reason. Mr. Wang, in his vast experience of criminals of all nations, had known of such cases before.
Now, as we are aware, MacAndrew could not talk with the Serophians in the Ancient Egyptian language. He was therefore obliged to converse in English with Psaro; and if he attempted to speak to Nouhri, he must confine himself to signs and facial expression.
Mr. Wang knew more English than ever did Psaro; and he could read MacAndrew's signs a great deal better than Nouhri. Consequently, whilst he was in the inner chamber, he wasted none of his time.
Indeed, though, left alone like some dumb animal, nothing was lost upon him. He listened to every word that was said, without moving a muscle in his face. He made discoveries that were invaluable to us all.
He had ascertained already that a great number of citizens had joined the camp. To these people, on the morrow, Nouhri was to distribute gold, promising that there would be more, when the Palace had been captured, and the Captain of the Host installed upon the throne. Mr. Wang was so fortunate as to hear the conversation between the three conspirators, in which the fate of the Treasure was discussed.
MacAndrew would not open the vault, until he had extracted a promise from Nouhri that he himself was to have a third part of the jewels. He was as crafty as he was villainous; for he required repeated assurances that neither Psaro nor Nouhri would break his trust. He then demanded a safe exit through the land of the Serophians, with slaves to carry the treasure-chests, and some of Nouhri's picked men to act as an escort. This request was also granted; and Mr. Wang ascertained that there was, as we had imagined, a great forest on the other side of the mountains, beyond which was a river that led into what Psaro described as the "wonderful outer world."
It was evident that, so far, the Tomb had not been opened, the vault had not been entered, either by Psaro or Nouhri. Both were more than curious to set eyes upon the gold and the jewels of which MacAndrew had spoken. Having been promised all that he desired, MacAndrew agreed to take them into the hypogeum that very night. He would not trust them, however, with the secret. Saying that he would go down into the vaults himself, and call to them when the Tomb was open, he got to his feet, and crossed the room to a place where there was a bundle of rushes, formerly used by the priests of the Temple for making their beds.
Keeping his back to his two companions, so that they could not observe what he was doing, MacAndrew first put on his mask of Horus, and then thrust a hand into the midst of the rushes. Psaro and Nouhri paid little or no attention to him; but Mr. Wang observed him closely. From his position he was well able to see, and he saw MacAndrew draw out, from the place where it had been hidden, the scarabaeus, which—as we know—was to all intents and purposes the key of the Tomb of Serophis.
MacAndrew left the room, the entrance of which was quite near to the head of the steps that descended to the vaults. He may have been absent a quarter of an hour, during which time he was, of course, so manipulating the wheels that the bars might be drawn back and the door of the Tomb opened. By reason of the fact that he could not understand the hieroglyphics, he was far longer over the business than I should have been. But, in the end, Mr. Wang heard his voice, deep at all times, coming—as it seemed—from the very bowels of the earth, calling upon Psaro and Nouhri to descend the steps and enter the hypogeum.
During his absence, Mr. Wang had closely observed both of these men. Had they intended to betray MacAndrew, they would have spoken to that effect behind his back. But no word was passed between them. They waited listening, eager to behold the treasure, which had lain buried for so many centuries, since the time of the ancient Theban monarchs, when all this wealth had been brought south, out of the great fertile and highly civilised country which at that time existed in the valley of the Nile.
So, as soon as MacAndrew called, they took their departure, walking hastily, like men who anticipated much. And Mr. Wang remained behind, seated cross-legged on the ground. His face was expressionless; not a muscle moved; he did not even smile. He might, for all the world, have been in very fact both deaf and dumb.
The three men remained in the Tomb for nearly an hour. A rush-light burned in the inner chamber, where Mr. Wang was alone; and this light flickered in the draught that came from the doorway, so that strange fitful shadows were cast upon the floor. They reminded Mr. Wang of cloud-shadows upon the rice-fields of China, in the valley of the Yangtse. He watched them curiously, but never moved an inch. A rat came out from a chink in the wall, looked at Mr. Wang, and then preened his whiskers. The rat knew nothing of this world. He thought that Mr. Wang was harmless. At the sound of footsteps, the animal immediately disappeared.
Nouhri entered in his golden armour. His eyes were bright, his cheeks flushed. As he unbuckled his sword from his belt, Mr. Wang noticed that his sun-burned hands were trembling.
Psaro rushed up to the Captain of the Host, seized him by the shoulders, and shook him like a madman. For some moments, they talked together excitedly in their own language. And then MacAndrew came in, unseen by either, went to the bundle of rushes, and thrust the scarab into the midst of it.
Then he turned to his companions, and his behaviour was that of a lunatic. He waved his arms in the air; he danced about the room. With his long legs and his long arms, and the weird hawk-headed mask of Horus on his head, he was indeed a mad thing to behold.
"Gold! Gold!" he cried. "Wealth undreamed of! I have thrust my hands into the midst of diamonds and emeralds and sapphires. They slipped like sand between my fingers. I have stood knee-deep in bars of gold." At that he seized Psaro by both hands, and looked him straight in the face. "You will keep your trust with me?" he asked. "Be faithful to me, and I will be faithful to you."
"Have no fear," said Psaro. "The people shall have the gold. That is necessary for Nouhri's purpose. The jewels are yours and mine and his."
"And you will see to it that I leave this country in safety?" asked MacAndrew.
"Nouhri has promised," said the other.
"Then, as the god, Horus, I shall aid you," said MacAndrew.
Psaro laughed. "These people are fools," said he, "we can do with them as we wish."
Mr. Wang, who had fallen asleep, was now snoring loudly. A particularly loud snore attracted the attention of Psaro.
"This old beggar is still here," said he. "Shall I turn him out?"
For a moment, MacAndrew seemed to be considering the question. He evidently came to the conclusion that it would be safer to have the intruder out of the room. "It is best," said he, "to run no risks."
Psaro crossed the room, and again seized Mr. Wang by the scruff of the neck. Mr. Wang awoke with a start, and struck out blindly—which is natural enough, since a blind man could strike no other way. His blow, however, was uncommonly well-directed; for he sent Psaro flying, and the man fell upon his back in the middle of the room.
Mr. Wang staggered a few steps forward. And then, Nouhri, whose anger was aroused, endeavoured to rush the old man from the room.
Either the Captain of the Host had no firm grip upon his victim, or the old, blind beggar was very shaky upon his feet; for Mr. Wang slipped, tried in vain to steady himself, and then fell headlong to the ground. Fortunately, he did not hurt himself—since he fell into the middle of the heap of rushes.
The three of them set upon him like savage dogs and, lifting him bodily from off his feet, carried him out of the room and hurled him roughly upon the stone floor of the Temple. He made a weird moaning sound, the piteous noise of one who cannot even cry. Both his hands were folded upon his chest, and underneath them was the scarab—the key to the Tomb of Serophis.
OF THE ASSAULT UPON THE PALACE
MR. WANG picked himself up. Looking about him, he saw that Nouhri, Psaro and MacAndrew had returned to the inner chamber. There was no one else in the nave of the Temple, but a party of officers, seated near the entrance, who were amusing themselves by gambling. He saw that he was unobserved. He knew that he had not a second to spare; he realised that at any moment MacAndrew might discover that the scarab was gone.
With an agility that was amazing in one who was apparently an exceedingly old man, he dived down the steps that led to the Tomb. It took him but a moment to satisfy himself that the door was locked; but, to make quite sure of it, he turned several of the wheels at random, in opposite directions.
A few seconds later, he was back in the Temple, and became once again a blind man, and groped his way past the officers and into the open air.
The rebel army was sleeping. Everywhere upon the ground lay the still forms of men. Mr. Wang passed through the camp, walking with unsteady gait, leaning heavily upon his staff. He was challenged by a sentry, and made no answer. The man recognised him as the old, blind beggar, who had been for three days in the Temple; and he was allowed to pass.
No sooner was he clear of the outpost line than he set off running, as fast as he could. And he had not gone a hundred yards, before he heard the alarm given in the camp. MacAndrew had discovered that the scarab had been stolen.
Fortunately for Mr. Wang, no one suspected that the old, blind man was capable of covering the ground at a comfortable jog-trot, which would bring him to the walls of the city long before the break of day. They searched for him in the nave of the Temple; and by the time the sentry had reported that the fugitive had passed the outpost line, Mr. Wang was well upon his way.
He reached the city about three o'clock in the morning. We, in the Palace, had been warned to look out for him; and at a given signal he was admitted at the postern gate.
When he presented himself before Captain Crouch and myself, our amazement and delight could hardly be expressed in words, when we learned that he had gained possession of the scarab. I had never believed that he would return; I had thought that he was going to certain death. He had succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The Treasure was still safe within the Tomb, which could not be forced open by anything short of dynamite. And now, the scarab—the key of the Tomb—was in our own possession! Nouhri could not fulfil his promise to the people; he could not buy over the citizens with gold, to take up arms against the Queen.
That morning, we held a council of war at which the Queen herself presided. Bakni and Ahmosou, Captain Crouch, Mr. Wang and myself were present. Every aspect of the situation was discussed. We decided to take steps to defend the Palace; for there could be little doubt that Nouhri would attack without delay. Also, MacAndrew had staked everything upon gaining possession of the Treasure, and he was not likely to remain idle a moment, now that the scarab was ours.
We waited five days. Then, the attack came. We learned afterwards that this delay was due to the fact that neither Psaro nor MacAndrew could bring himself to believe that the old, blind beggar, who had deceived them, had been actually a spy. It is even probable that MacAndrew never knew that he had been foiled by Mr. Wang.
During those five days, Bakni and his men never rested for a moment. The Palace had not been built to resist an assault. We were obliged to make loop-holes in the outer walls; and in case these were carried, the royal residence itself was strengthened as much as possible. Doors were barricaded; windows were bricked up; a deep ditch was dug across the garden, and at the bottom of this we placed obstacles—sharp, pointed stakes and brushwood, cut from the trees.
During these days of ominous silence, nothing happened in the city. The people, for the most part, were a faint-hearted lot; they had not the courage to side with one party or the other. They remained neutral, awaiting events, prepared, no doubt, to declare themselves loyal to the victor. Their sympathy might have been with the Queen, but they feared Nouhri, knowing that he had the greater part of the army at his back, and they did not believe that the Royal Bodyguard could resist so powerful an attack.
When dawn broke upon the morning of the sixth day, we beheld from the Palace walls the great army, commanded by Nouhri and Psaro, drawn up in battle array upon the other side of the river. Bakni gave the order that every man was to hasten to his post.
The attack was awaited in utter silence. Those were moments of feverish excitement and expectancy, for every heart beat violently. There were no words to express our grave anxiety; for we knew that the throne of Mituni-Harpi had been cast into the scales, and that even the life of the Queen herself was in danger.
All that day, the army crossed the river in boats, at a safe distance from the Palace. It was suggested by Crouch that we should make a counter-attack; but the suggestion was overruled by Bakni and Mr. Wang, since we would have to sally forth upon open ground, and it was thought wiser to allow the enemy to hurl himself upon our entrenchments.
I saw MacAndrew, disguised as Horus, moving to and fro among the soldiers. I believe it was his fiery impatience that caused the attack to take place before two-thirds of Nouhri's army were across the river. At any rate, it was MacAndrew himself who, at the head of a large body of men, hurled himself upon the Palace gates.
That which followed was little short of a massacre. I am thankful to say I myself did not behold it. They had brought with them scaling-ladders; but these were hurled to the ground so soon as they touched the walls, and those who had been bold enough to ascend, thus lost their lives. The men of the Royal Bodyguard stood firm as rocks, resisting every attack, which broke against them like the waves of an incoming tide upon a breakwater. Each man was armed with a quiverful of arrows, and with these and their great bows, the havoc they wrought in the ranks of the enemy was indescribable. Whenever a casualty occurred, the blank place was filled from the supporting fine, the men of which reserve which, by Bakni's orders, was retained within the Palace. I heard that, that morning, Captain Crouch fought like a hero, holding the main gate, and not falling back until the majority of those with him had been struck down, and the gate itself reduced by the battering-rams to what was little better than a rubbish heap.
Simultaneously, Horus, who was still regarded as a divinity in the ranks of the enemy, broke through the walls on the western side of the Palace. Seeing that both Bakni's party to the north, and that (with which was Mr. Wang) that defended the postern gate towards the east, were in danger of being out-flanked, Bakni ordered a general retirement to the Royal Palace itself.
This retreat was conducted in good order. The wounded were brought into the Palace, where they were attended by the Queen herself, assisted by her handmaidens and the ladies of the court. Late in the afternoon, there was a kind of breathing space, during which the enemy re-formed, and it was then that I had an interview with Captain Crouch.
"This is indeed serious!" said I. "Were it not for these battering-rams, they could never have forced an entrance. The outer walls are stronger than those of the Palace. I do not see how we can continue to resist."
"I should not despair," said Crouch. "They still have the ditch to cross, and they will find that as much as they can do."
It was soon clear that Nouhri and his companions were resolved to lose no time. One of the battering-rams was brought through the main entrance, and the attack began again, though it was late in the afternoon. Our numbers were now considerably reduced, and our reserves—including myself—were brought up into the fighting-line. It was my good fortune to assist Captain Crouch in guarding the front of the Palace.
I had never dreamed that human beings could be so dauntless and so fierce. Time and again, the enemy approached; and time and again, they were driven back. I saw MacAndrew, towering head and shoulders above those who were with him, encouraging his followers with a sword in one hand and revolver in the other. I saw Nouhri in his golden armour, hurrying from one part of the struggle to another, giving orders right and left—orders that were implicitly obeyed.
Crouch fought in the jackal-headed mask of Anubis. He had a box of ammunition by his side; and as often as they brought the battering-rams to the ditch, he shot down several of those in charge of the machine so that, presently, Nouhri could not find volunteers to come forward.
When night fell, the fight was at its fiercest; and, realising that he would have a better chance under cover of darkness, Nouhri ordered up fresh troops and the struggle continued with unabating fury.
We fought until our numbers were so reduced that there were scarcely men enough to hold the building. We fought until our arms ached, and we reeled to and fro like drunken men from sheer exhaustion. It was at ten o'clock that night when MacAndrew himself succeeded in bringing forward one of the battering-rams to within reach of the Palace walls.
Both Bakni and Captain Crouch hastened to the place, hoping to stave off the calamity. But they were too late; for, at the first blow, the wall fell in, and the upper storey collapsed like a house of cards.
Within an hour, the breach had widened; and though Bakni and his men fought like heroes, it was evident that they could do no more than put off the inevitable conclusion.
The fighting ceased at midnight. Fatigue, hunger, thirst, and a kind of sickening sensation, due to the continuance of the slaughter, made it necessary that we should rest. I believe no order was given for either side to withdraw. The men themselves fell back of their own accord; and a moment later, sentries were posted, both by Nouhri and by Bakni, to guard the breach.
Ahmosou came to me, and told me that the Queen desired to see my companions and myself. Repairing to the Council Chamber with Wang and Captain Crouch, I found Bakni already there. During the conference that took place I acted as interpreter to Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang.
"There would be a chance," said Crouch, "if there were a means of exit from the Palace. I would undertake to lead a party to attack the enemy from the rear. I believe, if they were so taken by surprise, we might capture their battering-rams."
"There is no such means of exit," said Mr. Wang.
When I had translated this, Bakni struck me such a blow upon the shoulder that I actually winced with pain.
"There is!" he cried. "Fool I am that I never thought of it before! There is an underground passage, running through the vaults into the very heart of the city." He then turned to Crouch, and again I translated. "If you will come with me," said he, "I will ask for volunteers, and from those volunteers I will select such men as I know. These I will lead into the city. Thence, we will fling ourselves upon Nouhri's rear, and endeavour to break through into the Palace and capture the battering-rams. Once they are in our possession, I think we might drive these scoundrels back to the river bank."
At that moment, a man came from the main Hall of the Palace, telling us there was a herald without, who had been sent by Nouhri to seek audience of the Queen. A little after, the herald entered, and dropped upon his knees before the Queen to whom he had proved himself a traitor.
Serisis asked him his business. The man got to his feet.
"O Queen," he said, "the Captain of the Host sends thee greeting, and bids me inform thee that he himself is King. As for thee, O Queen, one chance of life remains. Surrender this night and suffer banishment. Resist longer, and you die."
The Queen, who was seated, rose. Her eyes flashed and there came a colour to her cheeks.
"Go back whence you came," she declared, "and tell your master that neither Serisis, Queen of Mituni-Harpi, nor those with her, fear death at the hands of traitors."
The man saluted and departed. I looked at Bakni, and saw that he had laid hold upon the handle of his sword, and that his lips were trembling with rage.
HOW QUEEN SERISIS PRAYED
DURING those eventful days, one lost all sense of time. So much happened, and our lives were in such constant danger, that there was no time to consider one's personal wants. We ate when we were hungry and had a few minutes to spare. We slept from sheer exhaustion, when we were too tired to remain awake.
I believe it was still night, when Bakni gathered together his warriors, with the exception of those who had been posted as sentries in various parts of the Palace. He told his men that he proposed to embark on an enterprise that was perilous. Though he did not explain the details of the suggested counter-attack, he made it perfectly clear to his audience that there was a possibility that not one of those who accompanied him would return alive. For all that, when he called for volunteers, there was not one of his men who did not offer to follow his Captain.
"It is as I thought," said Bakni, turning to Ahmosou and myself, who stood near at hand. "In nothing is the Queen more fortunate than in the possession of such heroes to guard the Throne."
He wanted no more than fifty men for his purpose. He therefore walked slowly down the ranks, now and again touching a man, who at once stepped forward, turning about, so that he faced his comrades.
This party was marched into the hall of the Palace, where the men found themselves before the Queen, who was attended by Captain Crouch and Mr. Wang, each wearing his mask.
It must be understood that the men of the Royal Bodyguard still believed that my companions were incarnations of the Ancient Egyptian gods. I had suggested to the High Priest that they should be told the truth; but both Ahmosou and the Queen assured me that such a policy would be fatal to our interests. The deception must continue.
Both in the rebel and the loyal ranks, the men believed that the gods of their ancestors had descended upon earth, to become partisans in a mortal, earthly struggle. In the minds of these superstitious people, there was nothing so wonderful in this. One has but to carry back one's memory to the siege of Troy, when the pagan gods of Olympus openly sided with Trojan or with Greek; and similar legends exist in the early history of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, in the fierce conflict that continued within the Palace walls, the men believed that they were fighting not so much for Queen Serisis or the rebel captain, Nouhri, as for Horus, or the gods, Anubis and Thot.
Therefore, when the picked men saw that Anubis himself was about to accompany them upon their forlorn hope, they were at once encouraged. For, who was more likely to preserve their lives than the Master of Death himself?
I accompanied the party into the vaults beneath the Palace; and a very wonderful place it was, reminding me of the famous Labyrinth, which I myself had visited. We were conducted by one of the palace slaves, who carried a lighted torch, and who led us from one chamber into another, until we grew dazed in bewilderment. I noticed the extraordinary thickness of the walls, which in some cases was as much as six feet, the Palace having been built on singularly firm foundations.
We came, at last, into a great shallow chamber, that must have been quite five thousand square feet in area, the ceiling of which was so low that a tall man had no need to stand on tiptoe in order to touch it with his fingertips. I am no architect; but it seemed remarkable to me that this roof was unsupported by pillars.
The attendant with the torch paused before a carved image upon the wall—a representation of one of the Sitting Scribes, similar in every detail to the images that flanked the great road that led from Mituni-Harpi to the desert.
Bakni himself came forward. I think he must have touched a spring of some sort; for, immediately, the stone image revolved upon a central, vertical axis. And there before us was a gap in the wall, beyond which we could see a few stone steps, leading down into the darkness of what was evidently a subterranean passage.
Here Bakni bade me adieu, raising a hand in salutation, and lowering it to a knee. Without a word, he descended the steps, and was almost at once lost to view.
He was followed by his men in single file. As they passed me in the torchlight, I looked into their rugged, weather-beaten faces. And I could see no sign of hesitation or of fear. They knew not where they were going, except that they had been led to understand that the chance of life was small. They asked no questions. They were content to follow the commander in whom they trusted. I marvelled at these men, and honoured them. It makes me sad to think that so many of their comrades laid down their lives for the Queen.
When the last man was gone, I found myself alone in the great chamber with Captain Crouch and the slave attendant. Crouch turned to me quickly, and grasped me by a hand, which he pressed. I have often thought of that action, and I cannot help thinking that he must have borne towards me some slight feeling of affection. If that were so, this was certainly the sole occasion on which he showed it.
He leaned towards me, so that his jackal-headed mask—which was the hideous mask of a hyena—almost touched my face.
"Good-bye, Professor," he whispered. "If we both fail to come out of this business alive, it won't matter very much. We have none of us wives or kiddies—I sometimes wish I had. There was a time," he added, "when I lived in Pimlico, when I used to carry about with me a bag of sweets, to give to children in the Green Park."
I smiled; for, to me, those days seemed very long ago.
"I used to do the same thing myself," I confessed.
Crouch laughed aloud. The attendant looked at him sharply. He had not thought to hear Anubis laugh.
"We are all tarred with the same brush," said Captain Crouch. "Old bachelors are all the same."
And at that, without another word, he dived into the darkness of the passage. And I heard him hobbling on his cork foot, making haste to overtake his comrades.
I listened, until his footsteps had died away in the distance. Then I turned to the attendant.
"You are to remain here?" I asked him, in his own language.
The man nodded. "That is so," said he. "The door is to remain open. A party of men are coming here to guard it."
"Then, how am I to return?" I asked in some alarm. For I had a morbid dread of being lost in the labyrinth through which we had passed.
"You can take my torch," said the man. "I do not fear being left alone in the dark. I am not a child, and I must keep watch by the open door. Take the torch, and keep your eyes upon the ground. You will see our footmarks in the dust."
I saw that the man despised me; but I cared nothing for that. I had no liking for the silence, the gloomy vastness of this great subterranean maze. I preferred to return without delay to the Palace, even though I must take my place in the thickest of the fighting.
I took the torch from his hand, and soon found that his instructions were easy to follow. The dust of centuries lay upon the floor, and in this our foot-marks were almost as plain as though it had been snow. I crossed the great hall, and entered one after the other the chambers that lay beyond. On the way, I was frightened out of my wits, by coming on a sudden upon a party of men, whom I found to be the guard, proceeding to the opened doorway of the passage. Their leader took me for an enemy, for he seized me roughly by the throat, and for a moment I trembled for my life. Fortunately, I was able to explain who I was, and was allowed to pass with many humble apologies, for it was known that I had found favour in the eyes of the Queen.
When I came forth into the Palace, I was surprised to find that it was daylight. I had lost—as I have said—all sense of time. It surprised me also to find that absolute silence reigned within the Palace walls. I had thought that by now the fighting would have begun again.
I repaired at once to the Queen's apartments, where I found both Ahmosou and Mr. Wang.
"They have not attacked?" I asked.
Ahmosou, the High Priest, shook his head. "Not yet," said he. "The blow may fall at any moment. Nouhri musters his warriors in the outer courtyard. So far as we can ascertain, simultaneous attacks are to be launched on all four sides of the Palace. But there is no question that the main attack will be directed through the breach."
Bakni had handed over the command of his men to his lieutenant in whom he had perfect trust. The men of the Bodyguard who remained were divided into four parties to resist each separate attack. But, in order to give the reader a proper understanding of the desperate conflict that ensued, it is first necessary to explain, in as few words as possible, the plan upon which the Palace of Queen Serisis had been built.
The Palace was situated upon the right bank of the river. Between the river bank and the main entrance in the outer wall was the great flight of steps upon which we had first set eyes upon the Queen, on our arrival in the city. Within this entrance was the garden, that lay between the Palace itself and the outer walls upon the north, east and west. Upon the southern side, the royal residence had been built on to the outer wall.
It was this side, therefore, that was the strongest; for the Palace itself was on the very summit of the hill. On the south, the two walls, standing practically one above the other, were so high that no scaling-ladders were long enough to reach to the top.
The rebels had already forced their way through the main outer entrance, and had crossed the garden, which was already in their possession. The breach had been made in the front of the building, a little to the left of the entrance, which led into the Great Hall, on either side of which were several smaller rooms.
At the end of the Hall was a flight of marble steps, at the head of which were the antechamber, the Throne Room, and the Queen's private apartments. There was no other way of getting to the second storey than by means of the marble staircase.
Knowing that the breach might be forced, and our warriors driven back across the Hall, we had taken the precaution of erecting a strong barricade across the head of the stairs. This barricade was constructed of linen sandbags, filled with earth from the garden. The width of the staircase was sufficient to permit about fifteen men to fight abreast. There was no means of out-flanking this position, as I have explained. And moreover, it could not be possible to set fire to the Palace, since the building was constructed almost wholly of stone. It should therefore be clear to the reader that if the Central Hall fell into the hands of the enemy, we could retire to an exceptionally strong position, where we could make a last desperate stand, and where Nouhri's numbers would avail him nothing.
For several hours—I cannot say how long—we awaited the attack. I was certainly very fatigued after the exertions of the previous day. The Queen herself persuaded me to eat a little food. After I had done so, I felt inclined to sleep; and though the heat was now excessive, I found a cool and shady place in one of the upper chambers, and, throwing myself down upon a mattress, instantly fell asleep.
I could not have slept long. I remember that I awoke quite suddenly, and, sitting up, beheld Queen Serisis herself, standing by the window.
I rose to my feet, and saluted her. She turned the moment she heard me move, and motioned me to her side.
"I fear that I have awakened thee," said she. "I ask to be forgiven. The truth is, O Thothmes, I would speak to thee. Thou knowest many languages, and thou art wise. And it may be that my days are numbered."
She was looking out of the window, and I followed the direction of her eyes. Below us lay the great city, the houses clustered together, their flat, white roofs dazzling in the sunshine. We could see people, like ants, moving in the streets. The market-place was crowded. Peasants were selling their merchandise. It appeared to me that the stream of life in the city ran its normal course, though the throne of Mituni-Harpi trembled in the balance, and there was revolution in the land.
"I am thinking, O Thothmes," she continued, "that kings and queens are not of such magnificent importance as some would ask us to believe. My fathers, and my fathers' fathers, have ruled over these people for centuries on end. Some of them have been great monarchs, who dearly loved their subjects. All the glories of Mituni-Harpi, all the wonders of Ancient Egypt, lie here before you. And they are here because of the greatness of the Theban monarchs. And yet, what do these people care? What is it to them, so long as they can buy and sell their goods?"
I saw that the heart of this young Queen was indeed heavy. Yet I could find no words to comfort her.
"O Queen," said I, "in the country where I come from, we worship a great God, in whom those who are in trouble can find solace and contentment."
She turned to me with eager eyes, and made in all simplicity a request that almost took away my breath.
"Tell me," said she, "tell me of your God."
"O Queen," said I, "would that I had time to tell thee all I know. Just now I would ask thee to believe but one thing only: there is one God, all-powerful and all-knowing. It is He Who, all thy life has told thee what is right and what is wrong. The voice of conscience is the voice of that God. Be just and honourable and charitable, and when death comes, this God will find no fault in thee, because thy life was lived in ignorance of the Truth."
"To this God," she asked me, "can'st thou pray?"
I told her that even she could pray—if she did so from her heart.
And here, a marvellous and strange thing took place. This youthful Queen of an ancient world clasped her hands, as I showed her how to do, and went down upon her knees. And, taking the words of her prayer from my lips, she, who had worshipped Osiris and Amen and Ra, prayed to the God of the Christian World, to be delivered from out of the hands of her enemies.
And then, as we prayed there together, in the Palace, with the great city at our feet, and the mountains in the distance, there came a loud cheer from somewhere in the gardens, followed by the great clash of arms. And we knew that the final stage of the conflict had begun.
THE LAST STAND OF THE ROYAL BODYGUARD
AT the very outset, it was evident that, cost what it might, Nouhri intended to force an entrance into the Palace itself. The attack was conducted with foresight and carried out with a desperate courage that was magnificent and terrible to behold. Successive ranks of the enemy hurled themselves into the breach, like waves beating upon a shore, only to be driven back by the Royal Bodyguard, who stood firm to a man.
Simultaneously, attacks were taking place upon the east and west sides of the Palace; but, without great difficulty, these were held in check. The main assault was undoubtedly that delivered to the right of the front entrance, where the breach had been made in the wall.
Nouhri was, of course, well acquainted with the interior of the Palace. He knew that, if he gained the Central Hall, the whole of the ground floor would be his, and the defenders would have no option but to surrender, or else to retreat to the upper storey by means of the marble staircase.
Mr. Wang, wearing his ibis-headed mask, fought in the ranks of the men of the Bodyguard who defended the breach. Line after line of the enemy charged across the garden; and several of these attacks were led by MacAndrew in person, who—to give him his due—displayed the greatest courage.
How the man was not killed a hundred times, it is difficult to say. Mr. Wang's revolver was seldom silent; and not only was the great detective a fine shot, but time and again he singled out MacAndrew.
In the midst of this carnage, Horus lived, as Thot lived. It seemed that each was, indeed, immortal, that they were able to defy death. The Bodyguard suffered severely; but the casualties upon the rebel side were considerable. The defenders were to some extent covered by the rough barricade, which during the night they had erected across the breach. On the other hand, those who attacked were obliged to cross the garden, where they were shot down, one after the other, by the arrows of Bakni's men and the bullets fired by Mr. Wang.
Sometimes, the enemy gained the breach; and then both sides were locked together in a fierce and deadly embrace—a swaying mass of savage, infuriated men, shouting hoarsely to one another, struggling at such close quarters that many even threw away their arms and fought with their bare hands, seizing one another by the throat. The narrow breach was choked. Those who were wounded were trampled under foot. No quarter was asked, and none was given. It is a strange thing that, in all history, civil wars should be the most relentless. Such, however, is the case.
I cannot say that I took any part in this deadly conflict. I have no physical strength. This was a battle of Titans; and had I thrown myself into the midst of it, there is little doubt that I should have been crushed in the press, and the breath of life driven out of my body.
It was my lot, for the greater part of this terrible morning, to remain by the side of the Queen, coming and going continually between the Throne Room and the Hall, bringing her tidings of how the conflict went.
The tide turned, when Mac Andrew himself succeeded in passing the barricade. By means of his revolver he cleared a way for himself. Several of his followers were close upon his heels; and before more men could be brought up from another part of the Palace, a hand-to-hand struggle was taking place in the Hall itself.
I have little doubt that MacAndrew would have been driven forth, had Nouhri and Psaro not been biding their time, at the main gate of the Palace, with a strong force of reserves. Seeing that the breach was all but gained, Nouhri brought these reserves into action in the nick of time. With a loud cheer, they charged across the garden, and succeeded in reaching the barricade with the loss of very few men.
By reason of their numbers and by sheer weight, they burst through, as a flood breaks down a dam.
Mr. Wang and those with him were swept backward, into the centre of the Hall, where once more they endeavoured to hold their ground.
The order to retire was given by Bakni's lieutenant. The soldiers of the Bodyguard who were holding the southern, eastern and western sides of the Palace were hurried back to the marble staircase. Had they been allowed to remain where they were, everyone of them would have been cut off; for—as I have explained—there was no other means of access to the upper storey except by way of the stairs.
For five minutes, the fight raged in the Hall itself. The great chamber echoed the loud shouts of men, the rattle of arms on shield and buckler, the groans of the wounded. Nouhri and Psaro, as well as Horus himself, were now in the very forefront of the fighting.
MacAndrew was clearly visible from the head of the staircase, whence I looked down upon the conflict. His hawk-headed mask was to be seen moving to and fro, well above the helmets of the soldiers. Nouhri, in his golden armour, was equally conspicuous. As he directed the fighting, now and again himself taking an active part in the struggle, I saw that he was laughing. Doubtless, he felt assured that victory was already his.
Acting under orders, the Royal Bodyguard fell back, pace by pace, ascending the marble steps. I noticed that Mr. Wang was one of the last to retire. It was his revolver that to a large extent covered the retreat.
It will be remembered that there was a barricade at the stair-head; and it was behind this that the Royal Bodyguard formed up, to make their last stand to save the life of the Queen. It was, indeed, the eleventh hour. The defenders were terribly reduced in numbers. Not more than a handful remained.
About fifteen of these men took their places, side by side, behind the sandbags, ready to resist the onslaught of the enemy. The remainder were gathered together in the antechamber, at the head of the stairs, each man prepared to take the place of the first casualty that occurred.
I will not endeavour to describe the scene that followed. The uproar was deafening. The slaughter was sickening; for the rebels were so closely packed in the Hall that it was impossible for every arrow discharged from the head of the stairs not to find a mark.
It was Psaro who was the first to attempt to ascend the stairs. He was permitted to approach within five or six steps of the barricade, when Mr. Wang's revolver spoke, and the man let out a screech, pitched forward upon his face; and then his lifeless body went tumbling like a log to the very foot of the stairs.
There was no lack of men brave enough to follow him. They came first, one at a time, then in driblets, and finally, a stream of warriors charged up the staircase.
They were swept down as corn is cut with a sickle. But those below in the Hall, who stood in equal danger, pressed forward over the fallen bodies of their comrades; so that, once again, the fight became a hand-to-hand affair, men striking fiercely at one another across the barricade.
It must not be thought that, on our side, the number of killed and wounded was not great. Nouhri had stationed a body of archers on either side of the stairs; and these men kept up a continuous and merciless fire upon the gallant defenders at the top.
At this period of the struggle, the Queen herself was in constant danger. She and several of the ladies of the court attended to the wounded men in the centre of the ante-chamber, whilst the arrows that passed high above the barricade were ricochetting from off the ceiling, from which the plaster fell like snow.
At the barricade, Mr. Wang was bearing the brunt of the whole affair. He seemed to possess a charmed life. Suddenly, he fell back from the ranks, and his place was taken by a soldier.
As he came towards me, I asked him if he were wounded.
"Wounded!" he cried. "It is worse than that. I have no more ammunition."
I realised at once what a misfortune this was. MacAndrew had not been firing for some time; and there is little doubt that he, too, had exhausted the small stock of cartridges he had taken with him to the Temple. It was by reason of his revolver that Mr. Wang had been able to hold the barricade for so long. Such a weapon, when opposed by spears and bows and arrows, had been terribly effective.
"How much longer can we hold out?" I asked him.
Mr. Wang shrugged his shoulders.
"A few minutes at the most," said he. "By sheer weight of numbers, they may break through at any moment."
Even as he spoke, MacAndrew hurled himself up the stairs at the head of another body of men. Whenever he led, there were always many who were willing to follow. Beyond a doubt, they believed that this man was Horus, son of Osiris, the great god of the Nile. He was now fighting with a huge, double-handed sword, with which he struck right and left, shouting continually like a madman, and in the very midst of the conflict. Mad he certainly was—a monomaniac, with but a single idea: at all costs to gain possession of the scarab, in order that once again he might enter into the Tomb of Serophis and lay hands upon the Treasure.
Before his sudden and furious onslaught the men at the barricade fell back; and a moment later, the sandbags were hurled to the ground. A brisk counter-attack, with the idea of beating them back failed; and the Queen herself had barely time to seek safety in the Throne Room, before the rebels, cheering for their victory, thronged the ante-chamber.
And now, for the first time during the day, there was a pause, a breathing-space for us all. I found myself in the Throne Room with the Queen and the High Priest and Mr. Wang. There remained with us not more than forty men of the Royal Bodyguard. Nouhri must have had hundreds within the Palace walls.
The Queen's face was very pale. She spoke to none of us. Without any haste, and with the graceful dignity that was hers, she ascended the steps of her Throne, and seated herself upright, with head held high.
Upon her forehead she was wearing the bejewelled snake's head that had been worn of old by the Pharaohs and Cleopatra. I looked at her face, and found that it had not lost anything of its former beauty; but her lips were tight pressed together, as in determination. It was borne in upon me that this girl was resolved to meet her fate, seated upon the throne that had been occupied by her ancestors for century upon century; that she preferred death to dishonour, and was prepared to die like a Queen.
Through the arched doorway we could see Nouhri and his followers. The Captain of the Host approached, with the god, Horus, close upon his heels. As he passed the threshold of the Throne Room, the few remaining men of the Bodyguard ranged themselves in front of the Queen, where they stood shoulder to shoulder, prepared to resist to the last.
"Serisis," cried Nouhri. "Surrender the throne of Mituni-Harpi to one who is both bold enough to take it and strong enough to hold it."
And at the very moment that these words left his lips, there came from the Hall below, a sudden crash which was like that which follows an explosion. At the same time there was a yell, a savage cheer, a loud cry of alarm from many men who realised that they were caught like so many rats in a trap.
Then I heard, in rapid succession, the sharp reports of a revolver. And after that, for the fraction of a second, there was silence. During that brief silence a voice rang out—a voice that I recognised at once.
"Into the thick of them! Let them have it from the shoulder!"
It was the voice of Captain Crouch.
HOW NOUHRI MARCHED TO HIS DEATH
CAPTAIN CROUCH was a man who was liable to be carried away by excitement. In this respect, he was quite different from Mr. Wang, who seldom lost his normal complacency. There is no doubt that, when Crouch cried out at the top of his voice in English, he was completely carried away by the excitement of the moment.
Little notice was taken of this at the time, but, in the light of after events, it was evident that the circumstance was not lost upon many who were present. Just then, such a trifling detail was likely to be overlooked.
Crouch and Bakni, with the picked band of warriors which they had taken with them into the city by way of the subterranean passage, charged into the centre of the Hall. Nouhri's men were completely taken by surprise. Psaro had been killed; Nouhri himself was at the head of the marble staircase, on the threshold of the Throne Room. The suddenness of the surprise resulted in immediate panic. The majority of the rebel soldiers thought of nothing but their own safety. They scattered in all directions, seeking refuge in the various antechambers that gave upon the central Hall.
Crouch and Bakni drove straight through to the marble staircase. At that moment, the forty men who remained in the Throne Room, headed by Mr. Wang, threw themselves upon the doorway, and drove back Nouhri and MacAndrew to the broken barricade.
The rebels had no means of knowing how many men had attacked them from the rear. For all they knew, they had been set upon by an army. One thing only was plain to their understanding: they were caught between two fires, and were so jammed and pressed together that there was scarcely room enough in which to swing their arms.
The marble staircase was choked. At the foot was Bakni and his men; at the head was the mere handful of soldiers who had charged from the Throne Room and recaptured the barricade.
This last phase of a titanic struggle lasted no longer than a few minutes. It was too desperate, and the carnage too terrible, for it to endure for long. I had found time to repair to the chapel of Isis, where I knew there was some more revolver ammunition. Giving a handful to Mr. Wang, I kept the rest myself, and hastened to the barricade, where we opened fire upon the struggling mass in front of us.
During those brief moments, I remember well the savage, infuriated conduct of MacAndrew. He fought, striking about him blindly in all directions, inflicting greater damage upon the rebels themselves than upon those who defended the stair-head. He fought until the great sword he wielded broke at the hilt, and he was left defenceless.
By then, the staircase had been cleared of the enemy. Hardly a man who had crossed the Hall had been left alive. Nouhri was already a prisoner in our hands.
Failing to rally his followers, he had hurled himself in desperation upon the barricade. His heavy golden armour had resisted the sword-thrusts of the defenders; and he had managed to break through and gain the Throne Room. There, in the presence of the Queen herself, he was overpowered, flung to the ground and disarmed.
As for MacAndrew, he found himself practically alone upon the staircase, standing at his great height in the midst of the bodies of those who had fallen in the combat. And there, strange and weird he looked, clad in a breastplate of shining armour, carrying in one hand a huge buckler, and wearing his hawk-headed mask of Horus.
Then, realising that all was lost, he made a dash for safety, charging like a madman straight at Captain Crouch, with the intention of breaking through and gaining the main entrance of the Palace.
I witnessed the scene from the head of the stairs. I saw that Crouch hesitated to fire. He told me afterwards that, at the supreme moment, it had gone against his conscience to kill the man in cold blood—for that is what it would have amounted to. At any rate, this act of clemency on his part nearly cost him his life.
For MacAndrew was stronger than he; and moreover, at that moment, the man was possessed of the strength of a madman. Casting his buckler aside, the great god, Horus, lifted Anubis in his arms and carried him bodily across the Hall. It was then that the fighting ceased. The victory was ours. Those who were within the Palace, friend and foe alike, lowered their arms, and became no more than amazed spectators of the struggle that was taking place between two immortal deities: Horus, Guardian of the Heavens, and Anubis, Lord of Death.
Crouch, struggling furiously, managed to place his feet upon the ground; and a moment later, he had tripped MacAndrew up. They fell together to the floor, in the very centre of the Hall.
At one moment, Crouch was on top; at the next, his opponent appeared to have gained the upper hand. There is nothing remarkable in the fact that during the struggle both their masks were torn off; and they appeared, for the first time, in their true colours before the astonished soldiers.
MacAndrew had not shaved for days. His cheek and chin were covered with a short, grizzly beard, which made him look more wild and fierce than ever. As for Crouch, there was his great, hooked nose, his bald head, and his glass eye—just as I had seen him first, on the main-deck of the "Westmoreland."
A shout arose, in which astonishment was mingled with indignation. It must be remembered that these men had believed implicitly in the actuality of Horus, Anubis, and Thot. They saw now that they had been grossly deceived. They realised that we were charlatans, mummers, frauds.
A man cried out something to the effect that they had been fools to pay homage to false gods, that, for the second time in the history of the nation, strangers had found their way into the land of the Serophians.
Mr. Wang was the first to recognise that here was a source of danger. He brushed past me, and hastened down the marble stairs, his revolver in his hand.
He arrived too late, however, to prevent the calamity—if such it may be called. The men of the Bodyguard had no hand in the business. The rebels were infuriated. A spear was thrown. At whom it was directed I cannot say. But it struck MacAndrew between the shoulder-blades, and the man just crumpled up in Crouch's arms, and then sank to the floor.
His own base treachery had met with its deserts. Had he remained upon our side, in all probability, he would have come out of the affair alive. But he betrayed his own friends, his own countrymen, and threw in his lot with those who were sworn to take our lives. He had done this for the sake of gold. And he died as such a traitor should, at the hands of the very men with whom he had striven to destroy us.
In the open space, in the centre of the Hall, upon one side of which stood the Royal Bodyguard, and upon the other, the rebel soldiers, Josiah MacAndrew, Barrister-at-Law, breathed his last. Twice he endeavoured to rise, but each time sank back, breathless and exhausted. And then, his head fell upon his chest and he lay quite still upon the ground. And we knew that he was dead.
There was a wild cheer when Nouhri's warriors saw that he who had posed as the great god, Horus, was mortal like the rest of us. Crouch stood alone; and a cry arose, to the effect that he who had passed himself off as Anubis must also die. On every hand, spears were raised, arrows were placed upon the strings of bows; and without little doubt, Captain Crouch would have been struck down, had not, at this juncture, Mr. Wang intervened.
The detective was still wearing his mask. He had taken up a position about half-way down the stairs, from which he commanded the greater part of the Hall. Five shots from his revolver rang out in quick succession. These shots saved Crouch's life. The little captain was able to regain the stairs, and a moment later stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Wang.
So many things had happened in so short a space of time that everyone was confused. Moreover, the rebels had no longer a leader. Psaro was dead, Nouhri was a captive, and Horus had been proved a fraud. No doubt, the soldiers already regretted that they had followed their redoubtable leader, that they had been guilty of high treason. The majority had already determined to get themselves from the Palace with as little delay as possible. They had no desire to be recognised, and afterwards identified as traitors.
At any rate, it was Bakni who gave them no time to hesitate. If they had not already made up their minds, he saw that they did so without delay. Forming up the men he had brought with him from the city, who had suffered remarkably few casualties, he gave the order to charge. And within ten minutes, the Palace was cleared; not a rebel soldier remained within the outer walls, who was not either killed or wounded.
The number of these was very great. The fighting had been of a very deadly character, for the most part, hand-to-hand. Many of the rebel army had been slaughtered under the outer walls. The garden itself had been the scene of the terrific conflict during which the enemy had brought up their battering-rams to the Palace walls. But it was in the Hall itself, and upon the marble stairs, that the killed and wounded lay so close packed together that in places they were piled one on top of the other.
All that night, I was busy with my medicine-chest. I had never actually studied surgery, but I had a good knowledge of physiology; and I like to think that I was instrumental in saving the lives of many. A great number of the wounded were slight cases that required nothing more than first-aid. I soon ran out of drugs; but I was able to procure antiseptics from the embalmers, who entered the Palace on the morning of the next day.
I was interested to see these people at work, since in the course of my studies I had learned much concerning them. I believe that every embalmer in the country was ordered to the Palace, in order to prepare the mummies of those who had fallen in the fight, whether they had been rebels or had remained loyal to the Queen.
The embalmers brought with them perfumes, amulets, drugs and aromatics. In the meantime, the whole city was in mourning. Ahmosou had issued a proclamation, declaring that the rebels had been defeated, but that Queen Serisis would show mercy to those who had taken up arms against her, provided both the people and the army abstained from further bloodshed.
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth; for hundreds of men had lost their lives. The citizens allowed their hair and beards to grow, and refrained from drinking wine or eating meat, living on black bread and water. The women no longer dressed their hair, or rouged their eyes and faces, or dyed their hands with henna. Twice every day, whilst the embalmers were at work, numbers of people came from the city and, assembling without the Palace walls, wept for the departed.
A great tomb was constructed, to the west of the Palace, upon the right bank of the river; and here the mummies of all the rebels were carried at the head of a great procession. As for the men of the Royal Bodyguard who had given up their lives on behalf of the Queen, they were buried in the Palace garden; and a temple was erected above the tomb, which was dedicated to Osiris, king of the gods.
During these ceremonies, my two European companions and myself remained within the Palace walls, and were careful not to show ourselves to the people. We acted thus in accordance with the instructions of the High Priest and Bakni. It appeared that the people, who now knew how grossly we had deceived them all, were infuriated against us. For centuries, with the exception of Josephus MacAndrew, no one from the outside world—not even the Nilotic negroes from the great tract of arid country which lies between the Sobat and the Nile—had ever penetrated into the kingdom of Mituni-Harpi. For centuries, since the time of the ancient Theban monarchs, the civilisation of the Serophians had been cut off from the outside world. On one side of the country lay the all but impenetrable desert, where—as Josephus MacAndrew had described it—"the sun beat like fire." On the other side, from all accounts, was an extensive forest, almost equally inaccessible, inhospitable and perilous.
We were now known to be intruders from a strange, far-off country. So long as we remained in Mituni-Harpi, our lives would be in constant danger. Fortunately, we had all-powerful friends at Court. The Queen herself was determined to protect us. Both Ahmosou and Bakni recognised that we had been of the greatest assistance in saving the Throne from the hands of a usurper.
A week passed. Life in the Palace assumed its normal course. And there was nothing to remind us of the deadly and terrific conflict that had taken place within those walls, but the great breach in the wall, the broken statues in the garden, the damaged frescoes and the flower-beds trampled under foot.
During these last days in Mituni-Harpi, I was often bidden to attend upon the Queen. I had many talks with her; and was able to tell her something of the great civilisation that existed in the far north. She could not understand it all, and I very much doubt whether she believed the greater part of what I had to say. She could not conceive that the civilisation of Ancient Egypt had ever been improved upon. She had nothing to guide her, except the tales that she had heard concerning the barbarous peoples who lived around her kingdom in the central African forests: cannibals, pygmies, and the lower Negroid races. I spoke to her also of religion, of the God whom the white men worshipped. I explained to her the Christian Faith in its original simplicity; and I think that she believed me.
I remember once we were together in the room at the top of the Palace, where she had prayed on the morning when Nouhri assaulted the Palace. It was sunset; and the whole sky was saffron, umber and purple. It was as if the heavens had drawn closer to the earth, and that marvellous city, with its temples and tombs and flat-roofed houses, was canopied by a gorgeous and multi-coloured dome, far exceeding in beauty any effect that could have been obtained by the hand of man. The mountains in the distance were shrouded in a mist.
"O Thothmes," said the Queen, "the time has come when thou and I must part. I would that thou couldst remain here with me. Thou hast wisdom above that of ordinary men; and during these times of peril through which we have passed, thou hast been, indeed, like unto a father to me."
"O Queen," said I, "were the matter in my own hands, I would readily remain. Know that for years I have been engrossed in studies concerning the civilisation of Ancient Egypt, the theology of the Nile, and the language of that wonderful people. And here, I have found myself in the midst of it! It is as if I were living in a dream—"
"If all you tell me of the land from which you come be true," she answered, with a smile, "that country would be a dream to me. Still, I can never visit it. My duty lies here, with my people. My place is upon the throne, which, by reason of an unbroken chain of monarchs, is the throne of Ancient Thebes. And thou must go, and I must stay. Hence, O Thothmes, we must part."
"I understand," said I, "that my companions are already preparing for the journey?"
"That is so," she answered. "Ahmosou tells me there is no time for delay. The people think nothing of the services you have rendered to their Queen. They think of you only as intruders, men who have entered this country by stealth and fraud. For any one of you to venture into the city would mean instant death."
"Then, how are we to leave?" I asked.
"Bakni will lead you hence at dead of night, by way of the underground passage. He himself will guide you to the forest. He will send with you porters to carry your luggage and provisions. There is a man who knows a path through the forest—the path that was followed by Psaro, when he went in search of the scarab."
"And so," said I, "it is all arranged?"
"It is all arranged," said the Queen, repeating my words; "and for that reason, my father, my heart is heavy. It grieves me that we must part."
"I shall ever rejoice," said I, "that I have been of some service to one who is both great and beautiful."
She smiled and bade me rise, for I had gone down upon a knee. She turned her face to the window, and looked down into the garden. And I saw that, on a sudden, the smile left her face.
"There goes one," said she, "who has been false to his sovereign. See, O Thothmes, a man who goeth to a traitor's grave."
I looked down, following the direction indicated by her outstretched hand; and I beheld Nouhri, in his golden armour, marching with a firm step, under an escort of the Royal Bodyguard.
They passed through the postern gate in the outer wall, and then wheeled to the right into a clump of sycamores, situated at the foot of the hill. There in the growing gloom of dusk they disappeared.
"It is Nouhri?" I asked. "It is the Captain of the Host?"
"It is the Captain of the Host," said she; "and he goes to a traitor's death."
I turned away; for, though of late, I had passed through many terrible adventures, I had still a horror of death, in any shape or form.
HOW WE RETURNED TO THE MODERN WORLD
TWO days after my interview with the Queen, narrated in the last chapter, we bade adieu to our hosts. I confess that I was sorry to leave. I had made friends in the Palace; Ahmosou was a man after my own heart, a wise man and a student, and the young Queen I had ever regarded as a daughter. A close friendship had also been struck up between Captain Crouch and Bakni, the Captain of the Bodyguard. Though they were not able to converse together, they were both brave men and men of action; and on that account, a mutual understanding existed between them.
In regard to the Tomb of Serophis, I gave the scarab into the hands of Ahmosou, to whom I explained the secret. I did not wish to touch the Treasure; but, in return for my kindness, the High Priest presented me with several valuable curiosities—scarabs, amulets and Canopic jars—which I possess to this very day. There is not one of my friends or acquaintances who does not believe that these curiosities are ordinary relics of Ancient Egypt. When I returned home, I gave a series of lectures upon the civilisation of the Serophians and the city of Mituni-Harpi, which lies at the extremity of the great Road of the Sitting Scribes.
I never lectured to an audience who did not think me mad. Indeed, I believe I am generally regarded as a monomaniac. It is thought that my studies have turned my brain.
Well, what does it matter? It will be all the same in the end. But I am thinking, now that aeroplanes have been invented, and men have become masters of the air, that some day, not so far distant, someone else will discover the city of Mituni-Harpi, buried in the heart of the fiery desert. By then, perhaps, I shall be dead—for I am an old man already. But my story will be found to be true. And as for those who read what I have written, they may believe or not, as they like.
I think, as one grows older, one becomes more philosophical, more tolerant; one's indignation is not so easily aroused. I am not offended that any man should think me a liar. He is free to think as he desires. As, also, am I.
I believe that the Serophian monarchy was in actual fact descended from the kingdom of Thebes, and I believe that in that far-away city that young and beautiful Queen still reigns over a people, who are in every way as civilised and cultured as the Ancient Egyptians, from whom they descended.
We left the Palace in the dead of night. Our party consisted of my two companions and myself, accompanied by Bakni and five chosen men of the Royal Bodyguard, as well as twenty negro slaves who carried our stores and the little ammunition that remained.
We had discarded our masks. We no longer posed as deities. It was no longer necessary that we should do so. We were dressed in the clothes of ordinary Serophian citizens of the upper class.
As we marched in single file through the darkness of the narrow, subterranean passage, my heart was heavy within me, and there was a lump in my throat that was like a great iron tear-drop. For I had left the Queen in tears. When the moment of parting came she had broken down, flinging her arms upon my shoulders and crying upon my breast. I could never understand why she had grown so fond of me. I should have thought that Captain Crouch, or even Mr. Wang, would have found greater favour in her eyes, since they were men of valour and of action; whereas I was never anything else but a bookworm and a scholar.
We came forth into the streets of the city about midnight. No one was about; the thoroughfares were deserted; there were no lights in the windows of the houses. Time and again, we came across a sentry, who challenged us; but, upon a word from Bakni, the Captain of the Bodyguard, the man raised his sword or spear in salute, and we were allowed to pass.
Outside the city walls, we approached the river, at a place where we found two boats awaiting us, and in these we were rowed downstream for several miles.
A full moon arose, in addition to which there was a multitude of wonderful stars in the sky, so that one could see for a considerable distance. We passed the hill upon which stood the Temple of Ra; and I thought of the Treasure, and that made me think of MacAndrew. I remembered the wild expression in his eye when he burst into my rooms in London, to tell me of his discovery; and I thought of how foolish are those men who sacrifice all that is best in their lives for greed of gold. MacAndrew had paid the price to the full. His body had been buried in the hypogeum to the north of the Palace, where his mummy lay in the midst of those of the rebels whom he had led to destruction. And strange, indeed, I thought it, that this man who was a well-known barrister of the Inner Temple, should now be a mummy, resting in an ornate sarcophagus, in the very heart of Africa.
An hour or so before daybreak, we were bidden to disembark, and we set forward on foot, heading for a gap in the crest-line of the mountains. As we ascended to higher altitudes, the air became cooler. The heat in the city had been intense, even by night. It was invigorating and pleasant to walk upon the hillside; and by the time we reached the crest-line the dawn was far spread upon the sky.
We halted for a while, and ate some breakfast. And I remember that I climbed to the top of a steep rock, quite near at hand, from which I looked down upon the great plain that was spread before me like a carpet. I could see the city itself, with its towers and roofs and temples; I could see the Temple of Ra, round which flowed the silver river that passed from the city and vanished in the far distance of the plain. I could see, too, the great Road of Sitting Scribes, and far away in the distance I could see the ridge that overhung the desert.
I remembered our perilous journey, and how near we had been to dying of thirst. Bakni had assured me that the way through the forest would be comparatively easy. I was thinking of all the adventures through which we had passed, of the wonderful things that had happened, when Captain Crouch seized me by an arm.
"Come," said he. "We must be on the march again. Bakni has already moved off."
I stood upon that hill-top, and looked my last upon the city of Mituni-Harpi. Then I heaved a sigh, and followed in the footsteps of Captain Crouch.
We descended a steep slope, for many miles, and at last came to a wood, in which we camped, until early the following morning.
Another day's march brought us to a country of scrub and scattered boulders, through which our progress was very slow. Then we came to a great grassy plain that reminded me of the Downs in southern England. On the top of one of these hills, Bakni called both Crouch and myself and Mr. Wang to his side, whilst he pointed towards the south.
"Tell me what you can see in the distance?" he asked.
I could see nothing but a blue haze that was like a rain-cloud, drifting upon the ground. I told him so.
"That," he said, "is the forest—the great forest that encircles the land of the Serophians on three sides. There are many superstitious beliefs concerning the denizens of the forest. It is said to be inhabited by ghosts and evil spirits. If a man loses his way in the midst of it, he must starve. There is nothing whatsoever to eat; there are no animals to be killed, there are no fruits to be plucked. It is said that it takes a man three weeks to journey through the forest."
I could well understand all this. I had read accounts of the great Forest of the Congo, of which I had imagined this to be an offshoot.
After two days' march, we came to the margin of the forest; and here we bade farewell to Bakni and the majority of his followers.
I think the lion-hearted Captain of the Bodyguard was loth to part from us. He had learned our custom of shaking hands, and I know he gave me such a grip that he nearly broke my fingers. In token of the respect he felt for Captain Crouch, he presented him with his sword. And Crouch could think of nothing suitable to offer him in exchange but his case of glass eyes, with which Bakni appeared delighted. As for Mr. Wang, he was the only one of us who had not made any friends in Mituni-Harpi; and the reason of this was, I think, because his was not a very affectionate nature. All his life he was interested mainly in problems and mysteries and riddles, which he seemed to regard quite apart from any human interest that might have been attached to them. He was always a very difficult man to understand; but, then, he was a Chinaman, and the characteristics of the Chinese race were ever impossible to explain.
We were left with five slaves, gigantic negroes, four of whom continued to do duty as porters; whilst the fifth, an old man with a grey, tufted beard, acted as our guide. On the first occasion that Psaro had passed through the forest, this man had accompanied him for the first stage of the journey.
We thought that we would find a track easy to follow, because the trees had been blazed; but, after a time, we were unable to hold to our course, since the undergrowth was in places so thick that it was impossible to pass. And once we left the trail, we could never find it again, though we searched in all directions. And thus the days passed, and our provisions were running short.
I shall never forget those days. We lived either in unutterable darkness, or else in semi-twilight. We never saw the sun. The birds were singing high above us, in the topmost branches of the almighty trees that over-shadowed us. There were places where we had to wade knee-deep in marsh, and here we were set upon by gigantic leeches that almost devoured us alive and which we had to cut from our flesh with knives.
We grew thin and wasted. Our clothes were torn to shreds, so that in the end we were no better clothed than our negro attendants, who wore practically nothing at all. There were no elephant tracks. Throughout the whole of that perilous journey, we never once came upon the spoor of any living thing larger than a rat. And yet, there were insects by the thousand—insects that tormented us and all but drove us mad: gnats, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, poisonous beetles, and ants, and great spiders as big as the hand of a man.
How we came forth alive, I cannot say. When I think of it all now, I do not know whether I look back with greater dread upon our journey across the fiery desert or our wanderings in the forest. I know that we arrived, at last, upon the banks of a little river. And there we cut down a tree out of which we fashioned a canoe, so that we were able to paddle down-stream, even during the full heat of the day, without tax upon our strength.
And then, we found ourselves in the wild land of the Irenga. We came to a native village; and Crouch handled these savage people with the same tact and knowledge of the native that he had shown before, upon the tributary of the Sobat.
The natives guided us across the hilly country to the east; and at last we came to a river, which was called the Kobua, and by means of following the course of this river, we came eventually to Lake Rudolf.
We were now in the known, inhabited, if not in the civilised, world. Of the journey across British East Africa to the port of Mombasa I have little to relate. At a missionary station we were fitted out with clothes and allowed to rest for several days. In Mombasa, and also at Zanzibar, we related our experiences. And neither on the East Coast, nor, for the matter of that, in any part of the world, have I ever been able to find anyone who was ready to believe a single word of what we had to tell. As I have said, it is the same to this day, though these things happened many years ago. My lectures were a farce. I wrote a scientific book on the subject; but I could find no one to publish what was believed to be the work of a lunatic. As I have also said, I do not allow this to trouble me. I have still my memories; and as I grow older, I am inclined to think that the Past is sweeter than the Present, that memory is better than fact.
On winter evenings, when I am tired after my work, I have but to lock my study door and draw my chair to the fire. And there, amidst the red-hot coals, I can see again the wonderful city of Mituni-Harpi, and the face of the beautiful Queen. I can walk in fancy along the Road of Sitting Scribes, and marvel at the wonders of the Ancient World. I can see Nouhri in his golden armour, and the great stone sphinxes before the Temple of Ra. And I can behold, once again, those unbelievable and secret chests, which have been buried for centuries beyond the sight of man, standing upon a floor that glittered with bars of gold, and containing jewels and gems such as the great diamond merchants of the world have never beheld—diamonds and emeralds and sapphires.
And I know that I do not dream. I know that I am not mad. For I—Miles Bowater Unthank, Professor of Ancient History, and curator of the British Museum—saw these things with eyes that are not so dim as those of many who have attained my years. In a lifetime, a man should learn some wisdom. And on the very day on which I write these final words, I am precisely seventy-three.
I say nothing of the scarab. Let the reader think what he may. The fact remains that the Curse of the Beetle was fulfilled. When the Watchers of the Tomb were slain by Nouhri, the gods—Horus, Anubis, and Thot—descended "from the four corners of the heavens." Josiah MacAndrew was the first to enter the Tomb; and in the words of that extraordinary prophecy, "Anubis lay in wait for him, to conduct him to the Everlasting Shades." It will be remembered that it was in the arms of a false Anubis that he died. Also, we, who were concerned in the theft of the scarab, were "tracked and hunted from one end of the world to the other; we were doomed to pass beyond the Lands of the Sun, where the red waters of the Nile find their birth and the winged beasts of the desert are not able to survive."
As I have said, let the reader think as he wishes. It makes no difference to me—an old and dry-as-dust professor.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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