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Writings

The Revenge of Ur-Tasen

By Baroness Orczy
Illustrated by J. Ambrose Walton

English interest in ancient Egypt ran high during the second half of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th, encouraged in part by the accomplishments of the pioneering English archeologist Flinders Petrie. In 1900, Baroness Orczy took advantage of this interest—and of the ever-widening pool of knowledge concerning ancient Egypt—by setting one of her early short stories in the era of the Pharaohs, and presenting it as if it was a series of fragmentary inscriptions unearthed by Petrie or one of his contemporaries. This story, a grim but poetically-written tale called “The Revenge of Ur-Tasen” was originally published in the June, 1900 issue of Pearson’s Magazine —and is republished here with its original text and illustrations.

Dan Neyer
November, 2018
Introduction © 2018 by Dan Neyer

Original title art for The Revenge of Ur-Tasen
FRAGMENT I.

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.

FRAGMENT II.
Oh, my son, she was beautiful
Oh, my son, she was beautiful!

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.

FRAGMENT III.

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.

He turned towards her and their eyes met!
He turned towards her and their eyes met!
FRAGMENT IV.

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.

FRAGMENT V.

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.

FRAGMENT VI.

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.

FRAGMENT VII.

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!

FRAGMENT VIII.

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.

Holding the slim figure of the young girl high above my head.
Holding the slim figure of the young girl high above my head.

SHE did not struggle; like a frightened bird, she had fainted from sheer terror. Those nearest to me had, however, succeeded in mastering their first terror, the priests were about to rush upon me to seize me, and thus to prevent any further sacrilege; but before they had time to reach me, the deed was consummated—I had thrown the dainty body down upon the altar, and, with one of the knives placed there for holy sacrifice, had slain this innocent victim to my implacable vengeance.

There was a moment of awful, solemn silence, as the blood of the murdered priestess flowed freely upon the sacred altar. Then the high-pontiff and the priests, uttering a long groan of horror, fell prostrate upon the granite floor, their shaven heads beating the ground, whilst the priestesses, throwing down their harps and lutes, began to tear their garments and to utter mournful chants of prayer and atonement. I had made no attempt to escape, and calmly awaited those among the crowd who presently rushed upon me, dragging me away from the altar, and forced me to kneel with my head in the dust, whilst my hands were securely tied behind my back.

At a command from the High Priest, all those assembled rose to their feet, and while the mournful chant still continued, intermingled with muffled beating of drums, they marched through the temple, and up the stairs that led to the roof; I was dragged in the rear of the procession, and there we all stood under the vault of heaven, where Osiris rose majestic beyond the waters of the Nile. Isis now had gone to rest; would she ever rise again, to look upon the land where such dire sacrilege had been done?

I was placed alone in the centre of the space, the priests and priestesses grouped in a semi-circle around me, my face turned towards Abydos, still wrapt in sleep. Then the High Priest, with power far beyond his years, took up the mighty clapper, and with vigorous arm thrice smote the ponderous gong that stands on the roof of the temple of Isis, and that is never struck, except to warn the people of Abydos of terrible disasters to them and to their homes.

FRAGMENT IX.

DOST thou still wonder, my son, why I committed this deadly sin? why I, who ever worshipped the gods, had thus eternally incurred their wrath, and given up my soul to the powers of darkness for ever? Read on further, my son, and thou wilt understand.

Awakened from their early morning slumbers the people of Abydos came in crowds, men, women and children, poor artizans, and nobles of high degree. They assembled in masses at the foot of the temple steps, and there paused in wonder and awe, seeing the group of priests, and one solitary figure, mine, standing between them, with my garments torn, my head bare, and my arms tied behind my back.

An awful stillness reigned among the crowd; I gazed down calmly at their upturned faces; I was not afraid. I knew, nay, I hoped that the punishment would be a terrible one, one that would remain as a record in the annals of Abydos, only to be whispered of at nights, round the dying embers of the hearths, and breathed with a shudder at the thought of the sacrilege.

She fell upon her knees and sobbed bitterly.
She fell upon her knees and sobbed bitterly.

I gazed down upon them in search of one face—hers; and presently I saw her looking up at me, her large eyes dilated with terror, not understanding, not daring to trust to what she saw. Once more the High Priest smote the great gong thrice, then in solemn tones he began to tell the people of Abydos of the terrible sacrilege that had polluted the temple of Isis for ever; a long groan of horror and execration greeted his tale, but through it all the only sound I heard was a prolonged shriek of intense agony and hopeless despair. I knew then that the truth had flashed upon her, that she guessed the motive that had led me to do this fearful crime.

Two men now came forward and forced me down on my knees, and pressed my head into the dust; they tore the remnants of my garments from me, and thus naked and humbled beneath the condition of the humblest slave, but, with hellish joy deep down in my breast, I heard the sentence the High Priest now solemnly pronounced upon me.

“Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen!” he called, “thou, whose sacrilegious foot trod the forbidden precincts within the temple of the goddess, the mother of us all, Isis, who rules our night, whose hand rocks the cradle of the Nile.

“Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! thou, whose sacrilegious eyes beheld the glories of these sacred precincts.

“Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! thou, whose sacrilegious hand spilt the blood of a virgin, vowed to the worship of Isis, and with that blood polluted the sacred altar of the goddess.

“Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! Ur-tasen! For this thou art accursed! be thy name a byword in the land that bore thee! Be it only whispered on stormy evenings, when Osiris has gone to rest in a sea of blood! Cursed be thou, thy wife, thy children, and the children of thy children! may they all wander homeless and friendless from Abydos, followed by the execration of all the worshippers of Isis, shunned by all, in the land of the Pharaohs!

“As for thou, Ur-tasen, live a while longer, live to repent thee of thy sin, to atone for thy sacrilegious crime, buried alive in the caves beneath the temple thou hast desecrated!”

An awful and solemn silence followed the announcement of this terrible sentence; I raised my head and looked towards the crowd; and there I saw what filled my heart with joy—saw that my sin had not been committed in vain. The crowd had parted in one spot, and a figure, that of a woman, holding a tiny boy (thee, my son) by the hand, stood all alone; further and further all retreated from her, while scornful fingers pointed in her direction, and one or two childish hands threw a handful of dust upon her. She looked round, like some wounded animal at bay, seeking in vain for pity and help. Not a hand was stretched towards her, not a look of comfort, nor a sigh of compassion. Then, pressing thee tightly to her bosom, she fell upon her knees and sobbed bitterly.

FRAGMENT X.

THAT is the last picture that stands before my eyes, oh, my son! Directly after that two hands were laid heavily upon my shoulders. Once more I looked upon the earth that once I had thought so fair, at the glories of Osiris, as he rose majestic beyond the sacred river, once more at the holy Nile, the waving palms, the wonders of Abydos, with its new temples and monuments, once more for the last time! Then once more I looked down at the sea of upturned faces, watching me now as they would watch one already dead; and far beyond at a single retreating figure, a woman's, carrying a small child in her arms, wandering in search of a home that she could never find, friendless, alone, and accursed.

They led me away and forced me down the stairs that lead to these vaults; then I heard the heavy stone slab fall to over my head, and I was buried for ever!

THE LAST FRAGMENT.

HOW long ago this was, I cannot tell thee; I lay on the cold stone and rejoiced in my thoughts; they showed me visions of a widow, young, fair, and free, but whose very touch is pollution; and also the vision of a mighty prince, a powerful conqueror, who loved her once so dearly that he could not live without seeing her. Together they would have waited till my ailing body lay to rest within its grave; then, without a pang, without a tear, they would have built their happiness upon my tomb, but I have parted them, I have raised a barrier between them that all the powers of hell cannot tear down!

Then only did I think of thee—thou, the innocent one, thou whose curses would follow me, even within the shadows of death. These fragments of papyrus I found, a sharp splinter of stone lay close to my hand, and with their help and a few drops of my blood I have writ down for thee the true history of my crime.

Perchance Isis, who reads within my breast, who, I know, will one day pardon, will also direct that these fragments fall into thy hands.

Read them, oh, my son! They are written with thy father's dying hand. My eyes grow dim . . . the air grows more hot and oppressive . . . Over my head, I once more hear the early morning chant of the priestesses, the sound of the sistrum and harp . . . the lullaby of Isis. . .

The visions have grown faint . . . now they fade away . . . calmly I await thee, oh, jackal-headed Anubis, to guide me before thy throne, oh, mighty Osiris !

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