Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 11

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The exact manner in which mental stress will effect a man's physical health is often difficult to predict. Robert Cairn was in the pink of condition at the time that he left Oxford to take up his London appointment; but the tremendous nervous strain wrought upon him by this series of events wholly outside the radius of normal things had broken him up physically, where it might have left unscathed a more highly strung, though less physically vigorous man.

Those who have passed through a nerve storm such as this which had laid him low will know that convalescence seems like a welcome awakening from a dreadful dream. It was indeed in a state between awaking and dreaming that Robert Cairn took counsel with his father—the latter more pale than was his wont and somewhat anxious-eyed—and determined upon an Egyptian rest-cure.

"I have made it all right at the office, Rob," said Dr. Cairn. "In three weeks or so you will receive instructions at Cairo to write up a series of local articles. Until then, my boy, complete rest and—don't worry; above all, don't worry. You and I have passed through a saturnalia of horror, and you, less inured to horrors than I, have gone down. I don't wonder."

"Where is Antony Ferrara?"

Dr. Cairn shook his head and his eyes gleamed with a sudden anger. "For God's sake don't mention his name!" he said. "That topic is taboo, Rob. I may tell you, however, that he has left England."

In this unreal frame of mind, then, and as one but partly belonging to the world of things actual, Cairn found himself an invalid, who but yesterday had been a hale man; found himself shipped for Port Said; found himself entrained for Cairo; and with an awakening to the realities of life, an emerging from an ill-dream to lively interest in the novelties of Egypt, found himself following the red-jerseyed Shepheard's porter along the corridor of the train and out on to the platform.

A short drive through those singular streets where East meets West and mingles, in the sudden, violet dusk of Lower Egypt, and he was amid the bustle of the popular hotel.

Sime was there, whom he had last seen at Oxford, Sime the phlegmatic. He apologised for not meeting the train, but explained that his duties had rendered it impossible. Sime was attached temporarily to an archæological expedition as medical man, and his athletic and somewhat bovine appearance contrasted oddly with the unhealthy gauntness of Cairn.

"I only got in from Wasta ten minutes ago, Cairn. You must come out to the camp when I return; the desert air will put you on your feet again in no time."

Sime was unemotional, but there was concern in his voice and in his glance, for the change in Cairn was very startling. Although he knew something, if but very little, of certain happenings in London—gruesome happenings centering around the man called Antony Ferrara—he avoided any reference to them at the moment.

Seated upon the terrace, Robert Cairn studied the busy life in the street below with all the interest of a new arrival in the Capital of the Near East. More than ever, now, his illness and the things which had led up to it seemed to belong to a remote dream existence. Through the railings at his feet a hawker was thrusting fly-whisks, and imploring him in complicated English to purchase one. Vendors of beads, of fictitious "antiques," of sweetmeats, of what-not; fortune-tellers—and all that chattering horde which some obscure process of gravitation seems to hurl against the terrace of Shepheard's, buzzed about him. Carriages and motor cars, camels and donkeys mingled, in the Shâria Kâmel Pasha. Voices American, voices Anglo-Saxon, guttural German tones, and softly murmured Arabic merged into one indescribable chord of sound; but to Robert Cairn it was all unspeakably restful. He was quite contented to sit there sipping his whisky and soda, and smoking his pipe. Sheer idleness was good for him and exactly what he wanted, and idling amid that unique throng is idleness de luxe.

Sime watched him covertly, and saw that his face had acquired lines—lines which told of the fires through which he had passed. Something, it was evident—something horrible—had seared his mind. Considering the many indications of tremendous nervous disaster in Cairn, Sime wondered how near his companion had come to insanity, and concluded that he had stood upon the frontiers of that grim land of phantoms, and had only been plucked back in the eleventh hour.

Cairn glanced around with a smile, from the group of hawkers who solicited his attention upon the pavement below.

"This is a delightful scene," he said. "I could sit here for hours; but considering that it's some time after sunset it remains unusually hot, doesn't it?"

"Rather!" replied Sime. "They are expecting Khamsîn—the hot wind, you know. I was up the river a week ago and we struck it badly in Assouan. It grew as black as night and one couldn't breathe for sand. It's probably working down to Cairo."

"From your description I am not anxious to make the acquaintance of Khamsîn!"

Sime shook his head, knocking out his pipe into the ash-tray.

"This is a funny country," he said reflectively. "The most weird ideas prevail here to this day—ideas which properly belong to the Middle Ages. For instance"—he began to recharge the hot bowl—"it is not really time for Khamsîn, consequently the natives feel called upon to hunt up some explanation of its unexpected appearance. Their ideas on the subject are interesting, if idiotic. One of our Arabs (we are excavating in the Fayûm, you know), solemnly assured me yesterday that the hot wind had been caused by an Efreet, a sort of Arabian Nights' demon, who has arrived in Egypt!"

He laughed gruffly, but Cairn was staring at him with a curious expression. Sime continued:

"When I got to Cairo this evening I found news of the Efreet had preceded me. Honestly, Cairn, it is all over the town—the native town, I mean. All the shopkeepers in the Mûski are talking about it. If a puff of Khamsîn should come, I believe they would permanently shut up shop and hide in their cellars—if they have any! I am rather hazy on modern Egyptian architecture."

Cairn nodded his head absently.

"You laugh," he said, "but the active force of a superstition—what we call a superstition—is sometimes a terrible thing."

Sime stared.

"Eh!" The medical man had suddenly come uppermost; he recollected that this class of discussion was probably taboo.

"You may doubt the existence of Efreets," continued Cairn, "but neither you nor I can doubt the creative power of thought. If a trained hypnotist, by sheer concentration, can persuade his subject that the latter sits upon the brink of a river fishing when actually he sits upon a platform in a lecture-room, what result should you expect from a concentration of thousands of native minds upon the idea that an Efreet is visiting Egypt?"

Sime stared in a dull way peculiar to him.

"Rather a poser," he said. "I have a glimmer of a notion what you mean."

"Don't you think—"

"If you mean don't I think the result would be the creation of an Efreet, no, I don't!"

"I hardly mean that, either," replied Cairn, "but this wave of superstition cannot be entirely unproductive; all that thought energy directed to one point—"

Sime stood up.

"We shall get out of our depth," he replied conclusively. He considered the ground of discussion an unhealthy one; this was the territory adjoining that of insanity.

A fortune-teller from India proffered his services incessantly.

"Imshi! imshi!" growled Sime.

"Hold on," said Cairn smiling; "this chap is not an Egyptian; let us ask him if he has heard the rumour respecting the Efreet!"

Sime reseated himself rather unwillingly. The fortune-teller spread his little carpet and knelt down in order to read the palm of his hypothetical client, but Cairn waved him aside.

"I don't want my fortune told!" he said; "but I will give you your fee,"—with a smile at Sime—"for a few minutes' conversation."

"Yes, sir, yes, sir!" The Indian was all attention.

"Why"—Cairn pointed forensically at the fortune-teller—"why is Khamsîn come so early this year?"

The Indian spread his hands, palms upward.

"How should I know?" he replied in his soft, melodious voice. "I am not of Egypt; I can only say what is told to me by the Egyptians."

"And what is told to you?"

Sime rested his hands upon his knees, bending forward curiously. He was palpably anxious that Cairn should have confirmation of the Efreet story from the Indian.

"They tell me, sir,"—the man's voice sank musically low—"that a thing very evil"—he tapped a long brown finger upon his breast—"not as I am"—he tapped Sime upon the knee—"not as he, your friend"—he thrust the long finger at Cairn—"not as you, sir; not a man at all, though something like a man! not having any father and mother—"

"You mean," suggested Sime, "a spirit?"

The fortune-teller shook his head.

"They tell me, sir, not a spirit—a man, but not as other men; a very, very bad man; one that the great king, long, long ago, the king you call Wise——"

"Solomon?" suggested Cairn.

"Yes, yes, Suleyman!—one that he, when he banish all the tribe of the demons from earth—one that he not found."

"One he overlooked?" jerked Sime.

"Yes, yes, overlook! A very evil man, my gentlemen. They tell me he has come to Egypt. He come not from the sea, but across the great desert—"

"The Libyan Desert?" suggested Sime.

The man shook, his head, seeking for words.

"The Arabian Desert?"

"No, no! Away beyond, far up in Africa"—he waved his long arms dramatically—"far, far up beyond the Sûdan."

"The Sahara Desert?" proposed Sime.

"Yes, yes! it is Sahara Desert!—come across the Sahara Desert, and is come to Khartûm."

"How did he get there?" asked Cairn.

The Indian shrugged his shoulders.

"I cannot say, but next he come to Wady Halfa, then he is in Assouan, and from Assouan he come down to Luxor! Yesterday an Egyptian friend told me Khamsîn is in the Fayûm. Therefore he is there—the man of evil—for he bring the hot wind with him."

The Indian was growing impressive, and two American tourists stopped to listen to his words.

"To-night—to-morrow,"—he spoke now almost in a whisper, glancing about him as if apprehensive of being overheard—"he may be here, in Cairo, bringing with him the scorching breath of the desert—the scorpion wind!"

He stood up, casting off the mystery with which he had invested his story, and smiling insinuatingly. His work was done; his fee was due. Sime rewarded him with five piastres, and he departed, bowing.

"You know, Sime—" Cairn began to speak, staring absently the while after the fortune-teller, as he descended the carpeted steps and rejoined the throng on the sidewalk below—"you know, if a man—anyone, could take advantage of such a wave of thought as this which is now sweeping through Egypt—if he could cause it to concentrate upon him, as it were, don't you think that it would enable him to transcend the normal, to do phenomenal things?"

"By what process should you propose to make yourself such a focus?"

"I was speaking impersonally, Sime. It might be possible—"

"It might be possible to dress for dinner," snapped Sime, "if we shut up talking nonsense! There's a carnival here to-night; great fun. Suppose we concentrate our brain-waves on another Scotch and soda?"