THESE are for thee, oh, my son—thou, whom, in my blind and selfish desire for revenge, I have so cruelly wronged. Perchance, in years to come—if our holy mother Isis will allow thee to make atonement for thy father’s sin by devoting thyself to her service—thy footsteps might lead thee here; then thou wilt find these, my last thoughts, my final prayer, before jackal-headed Anubis guides my soul to the judgment seat of Osiris, the most high, who rules the day.
Read this, my son, and perchance, when thou hast read, a tear will fall from thine eye-lid, and thy lips may frame a pardon instead of a curse.
THE air grows hot and oppressive. A faint scent of myrrh and incense, the mellow distant strain of the sistrum, bring before my weary eyes visions of the happy times when first I knew and loved thy mother. Oh, my son, she was beautiful! All the gods must have rejoiced the day that she was born. Not tall, but lithe, and with cheeks as smooth as the polished granite; but my pen fails me, and I am blinded with unshed tears, when I would try to tell thee of the glories of her eyes. They were large and deep, and vainly did I strive for years to read what lay hidden therein, whilst he came, and read in one hour. Oh, holy mother Isis, grant me the boon to die in peace, and not with a curse upon my lips!
We were very happy, she and I, especially after thou wert born. She loved thee tenderly, and would sit for hours spinning and weaving the daintiest garments for thy wee body, singing the while as gay and merry as a bird.
I was much employed then in the decoration of the new temple to Set which Pharaoh caused to be built within the city. I was a skilled artisan, and my work was much praised and admired; even the high priest once deigned to tell me that it was good, and I believe that Sethos himself, the mighty Pharaoh, asked who had fashioned those beautiful figures on the wall.
WHAT powers of darkness, what gods of evil, prompted me to take thy mother to the festival given in honor of Har-urdu?
She had watched the preparations for the glorious reception into the city of the victorious general, and evinced a childish longing to be present among those who welcomed the royal prince home.
The high priest, much pleased with the work I had done for the new temple, deigned to listen to my request, that I and my wife might be among the assistants at the solemn sacrifice Har-urdu would offer to great Set, in thanksgiving for the victory of his arms. We were both assigned places in the tribune, not three lengths away from Pharaoh’s throne, and in full view of the victor’s procession as it marched up to the sacrificial altar.
Thy mother looked very beautiful that day, her kalasiris—of a rich hue, like the turquoise—swathing and moulding her graceful figure in perfect sculptural lines. There were thousands of other women there, rich ladies of high degree, covered from head to foot in brilliant and costly jewellery, and yet all eyes turned to thy mother when she walked in with me, looking with childlike wonderment at the brilliant scene before her; we were poor people, and she wore no ornament, save a necklace of shining pebbles which I had once collected and mounted for her, and a pink lotus-flower fastened in her bosom.
I remember every moment of that day, my son! the day on which I buried my happiness.
But above all, I remember him, the great general, the royal prince, Har-urdu, the winner of a hundred victories, the invincible leader of the glorious armies of Pharaoh—and the destroyer of my happiness.
Oh! holy mother Isis! Oh! great and glorious Osiris! Ye had given him so much glory, so much power, such wealth and such victories, and yet ye gave him in addition what I would have sacrificed my eyesight to retain.
LET me try and tell thee clearly exactly how it all happened, my son! Remember, this is not a justification, it is merely a prayer! A prayer for sympathy, and perhaps for pardon.
Har-urdu had offered up the sacrifice to Set, the god that Pharaoh now worshipped, and revered even above thee, oh! mighty Osiris! I thought how handsome he looked as he stood in front of the altar, opposite the high priest, pouring from the sacred vessel the sacrificial blood upon the stone, while the priests beat upon the sistrum, and the holy priestesses chanted the glories of the deity, playing upon the harp and lyre.
I looked at thy mother, and thought how fair she was; her eyes were aglow with suppressed excitement; one tiny hand was pressed against her bosom, as if to still that mysterious beating, which is our very life. Har-urdu was now descending the altar steps, and turning towards the throne of Pharaoh, who was waiting to present him with a golden shield that was inscribed with all his victories.
To reach the kingly throne he had to pass quite close to us, close to thy mother, who watched his face, his every movement, as she would watch a god’s. He came, he was near us, had almost passed, when my wife, thy mother, oh! my son! tore the lotus-flower she was wearing at her bosom, and imprinting a kiss upon its delicate petals, threw it with a smile at the conqueror’s feet! He paused a moment to see whose hand had thrown the dainty blossom, then he turned towards her and their eyes met! . . . . . .
It occurred all in one instant, the next he had stooped and picked up the flower; tenderly he smoothed its crumpled petals, and also placed a kiss upon the blossom, looking triumphantly the while at her, whose glorious eyes hung upon each of his movements.
I could hear a titter go round among the spectators; the ladies of high degree whispered to each other as they smiled. The mighty Pharaoh waited half-impatiently, half-sneeringly, while this short scene was being enacted. Thy mother heeded them not, and looked neither right nor left, but followed, with her great dark eyes, the figure of the conqueror, as he once more turned his steps towards the Pharaoh’s throne, where, presently, he knelt to receive the golden shield, the further reward of his victories; and I, with jealous fury raging in my bosom, longed to jump up and wrench from him that one trophy, which meant more to me than a thousand victories would have done, the trophy he had hidden close to his breast, the delicate pink lotus blossom flung at him, my son! by thy mother’s dainty hand, together with thy mother’s love.
HOW I went home that day, what happened after that, I cannot tell thee, for my memory is veiled by a cloud; nor can I tell thee what thoughts and tumults raged in my breast, all the while that for the next few days I was at my work. Thy mother had lost all her gaiety. I never now heard the sweet, bird-like tones of her voice; her laughter seemed buried within her, and worse torture than I can describe was the coldness of her kiss.
And yet I trusted her implicitly; I knew that my honor and hers were safe in her tiny hands; but the love she had borne me for five years, the love that was the star, the happiness of my existence, that had gone from me for ever. She had given it to the brilliant stranger, the high and mighty prince, who had conquered the Bedouins, the Phoenicians and the Lybians, and not content with all this glory, had added one more leaf, and that a humble one, to his victorious crown.
Then, at night, I could not rest, and I would wander out, far out of the city towards the sacred Nile, whose cradle thou rockest, oh, holy mother, Isis! and there, left face to face with thy holy image that illumines the night, I prayed to thee during those lonely vigils. Oh! I how I prayed that thou might’st give me back that most priceless treasure thy godlike hand can give, a wife’s love. But, Isis, thou would’st not listen!
No wonder that, in all this trouble, my body, like unto my soul, began to ache. I did not sleep, I could not eat, my hand began to lose its skill, and I grew weary beyond measure.
LET me see, where was I? My head begins to feel dizzy and faint, and I pause awhile ere I begin this, the last chapter of my life’s history, ere I tell thee of the consummation of my misery and of my deadly sin.
I had wandered out one night, wakeful, and with aching spirit, I had knelt by the sacred Nile, I had prayed and I had wept, and my weary footsteps led me, I know not how, to Isis’ temple, whose granite steps are washed by the waves of the holy river.
Thy crescent-shaped image, oh, Isis! threw sparks of silver on the waters, and cast long, deep shadows under the columns of thy temple. Not a sound stirred the stillness of the night, save the occasional cry of the ibis talking to its young. A peace that comes from thee, oh, holy mother! reigned supreme over all; and gradually as I gazed at the majesty of thy dwelling, at the beauties of Ra’s creation, the same god-like peace seemed to descend within my soul. Once more I knelt before thee, and, turning my weary eyelids towards the light of thy countenance, I felt a ray of hope illuminating the darkness of my misery.
Suddenly, oh, my son! as I knelt, my ears caught the sound of softly-whispered words, anon of stealthy footsteps coming from the direction of the sacred temple; my very life seemed to stand still as I listened and as I tried to gaze into impenetrable darkness beyond the colonnade. Vainly my eyes peered into the gloom; the shadows were too deep; I could not see! . . .
It was thy mother’s voice I heard, my son, but oh! how different! how inexpressibly sweet!
“Sweet! let me go home now,” she said, “my soul is troubled! It was wrong to come out as a thief in the night to speak to thee, and yet this hour has been the happiest of my life; long will its remembrance dwell with me; for, sweetheart, I will not come again.”
“Tell me then that I must die,” replied, “for I cannot live without seeing thee.”
“And yet,” she said sadly, “I will not come again. I love thee, alas! That I cannot help; the gods themselves allowed that love to spring within me. But clearer to me even than thou art, my great and glorious conqueror, are truth and fidelity, my honor and that of my child!”
“Yet thou wilt come?” he pleaded.
“The gods would punish us,” she replied, “if we did so great a wrong—Hark! what was that?”
“Only the cry of the ibis, sweetheart, talking to its mate.”
There was a pause, while I held my breath, transfixed. My limbs seemed paralysed; I felt rooted to the spot.
Once more she spoke, and, with that gentle voice of hers, spoke my condemnation and her own.
“Hast thou not enough love for me to wait a little while?” she asked. “While he lives I will not leave him. Nay! I will strive, not even by a thought, to betray his trust in me. But he is ill; lately he has ailed much. If Osiris call him back, and I am free, then, if thou still lovest me, and wilt claim me as thy wife——”
I heard no more, for presently their footsteps drew nearer, and I crawled round behind some bushes, for I wished to see. They came from out the shadows, and thy image shone on them, oh, Isis! and hid not behind a cloud at a sight so monstrous. They walked side by side, her hand was in his, and she gazed at his tall, majestic figure, her very soul within her glorious eyes. When they parted, she would not allow him to kiss her; her honor, she had said, was dearer to her than he; but, like his slave, she knelt at his feet, and kissed the hem of his garment.
IF thou should’st read this, oh, my son! when thou art a man, thou wilt wonder how it came to pass that I did not at that moment spring upon them both, and slay him, the conqueror, the thief, even before her eyes. It was, my son, because Set had possession of my soul, because he had begun to whisper in my ear thoughts of revenge more complete, more deadly, more powerful than death. Had I killed him, she would have mourned, she would have treasured his image within her bosom, and, perchance, have loved him dead even more than she did in life.
I might have slain them both; but then, perchance, who knows? They might have wandered together through the valley of death, and stood hand in hand before Osiris; together he might punish them, together send them to torment, or together, perchance, might pardon them their love, since they had not sinned. Aye! it was Set who whispered all this to me! His counsels filtrated through my soul, and poisoned it to all, save to the thought of my revenge.
From that hour she was lost to me; I should never know by her side another happy moment again, whilst she and he, secure in the future, watched my tottering footsteps slowly, but surely, wandering towards the grave, my grave, the cradle of their happiness. Oh, for the strength of the gods, to build a barrier between them, which the very powers of evil themselves could not tear down!
I watched her retreating figure as she fled in the direction of our home; I watched him for a while, as he slowly paced up and down by the edge of the water, dreaming, no doubt, of her; and as I watched, gradually in my mind was formed the plan that Set has given me power to execute, and which has parted them for ever, as no other barrier could have done, leaving them to lead a life of loneliness far harder to bear than death.
The sacred image of Isis had gradually sunk upon the vault of heaven; in a little while, from the bed of the lotus flower cradled on the bosom of Nu, Osiris would rise again, whilst Isis went to rest.
Already, from the distance, I could faintly hear the priests of the goddess and her priestesses, as, playing upon the sistrum and the harp, they approached the sacred temple for the early morning’s sacrifice.
Would Isis wait till I had done the deed? Even then she veiled her countenance behind a cloud as I turned towards her temple! I mounted the tall granite steps, and pushed open the doors that guard her sacred dwelling-place.
At first I could not see round me, for the temple was wrapt in gloom save for the five-armed lamp that burned before the high altar. But presently my fevered eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, and I began to discern the objects round. The heavy columns began to detach themselves from the gloom, then the sacrificial altar with its upward floating vapors, and beyond that the monstrous figure of the goddess herself as she sat enthroned and majestic, all-powerful and grand in her very loneliness.
The jewels on her head and on her limbs glittered in the flickering light, the sacred ruby on her finger sparkled like a living drop of blood. All around was still as the grave and I could almost hear my panting breath as it escaped my nostrils. I would have prayed to the goddess then, but I dared not do that, and I walked resolutely forward. On the altar steps two priestesses knelt. They had not heard me as I walked, for they had not turned their heads towards me, and presently they took up their harps that had lain idle in their hands, and began, at first softly, then gradually louder, chanting the early morning hymn—Isis’s lullaby. This was echoed from afar by the priests upon their sistrums. They were drawing near—I had no time to lose.
With the stealthy motions of a leopard I approached one of the priestesses, who sang and heard me not. She was young and fair to look at, but not to be compared with her whom I had loved, and who had done me so great a wrong. Then I waited. . . . .
Waited till, with a loud flourish of trumpet and drum, the doors of the sacred temple were thrown open, and the torch-bearers, holding their braziers aloft, threw a flood of brilliant light into the gloom. The shaven priests of Isis, each draped in clinging white garments, their thin arms held upwards, and their hands beating the sistrum, filed past the columns towards the altar. Behind them walked a hundred priestesses, each playing upon a harp, whilst from a side door entered the high priest, his robes covered with turquoise and gems, and in his hands the holy vessels that held the sacrificial blood.
The priestesses intoned the second hymn; through the wide open portals, far beyond on the vault of heaven, could be seen the crescent image of the goddess, as she gradually paled at the approach of her spouse.
At this moment and before the eyes of all assembled, before she could utter a cry or see from whence came her foe, I had seized the young priestess by her waist and by her long, floating tresses, and lifting her high above my head, carried her up the granite steps to the foot of the sacrificial altar.
One long cry of horror sprung from those who witnessed the sacrilegious deed; the procession, the priests, the High Priest himself stood spell-bound, as if rooted to the spot. No doubt, the light of mania must have shone from my eyes, my figure must have looked like that of a spirit of evil, as I stood there for one moment by the altar, looking down upon the holy multitude, my arms, which seemed to have the strength of giants, holding the slim figure of the young girl high above my head.