Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 12
THE MASK OF SET
Above the palm trees swept the jewelled vault of Egypt's sky, and set amid the clustering leaves gleamed little red electric lamps; fairy lanterns outlined the winding paths and paper Japanese lamps hung dancing in long rows, whilst in the centre of the enchanted garden a fountain spurned diamond spray high in the air, to fall back coolly plashing into the marble home of the golden carp. The rustling of innumerable feet upon the sandy pathway and the ceaseless murmur of voices, with pealing laughter rising above all, could be heard amid the strains of the military band ensconced in a flower-covered arbour.
Into the brightly lighted places and back into the luminous shadows came and went fantastic forms. Sheikhs there were with flowing robes, dragomans who spoke no Arabic, Sultans and priests of Ancient Egypt, going arm-in-arm. Dancing girls of old Thebes, and harem ladies in silken trousers and high-heeled red shoes. Queens of Babylon and Cleopatras, many Geishas and desert Gypsies mingled, specks in a giant kaleidoscope. The thick carpet of confetti rustled to the tread; girls ran screaming before those who pursued them armed with handfuls of the tiny paper disks. Pipers of a Highland regiment marched piping through the throng, their Scottish kilts seeming wildly incongruous amid such a scene. Within the hotel, where the mosque lanterns glowed, one might catch a glimpse of the heads of dancers gliding shadowlike.
"A tremendous crowd," said Sime, "considering it is nearly the end of the season."
Three silken ladies wearing gauzy white yashmaks confronted Cairn and the speaker. A gleaming of jewelled fingers there was and Cairn found himself half-choked with confetti, which filled his eyes, his nose, his ears, and of which quite a liberal amount found access to his mouth. The three ladies of the yashmak ran screaming from their vengeance-seeking victims, Sime pursuing two, and Cairn hard upon the heels of the third. Amid this scene of riotous carnival all else was forgotten, and only the madness, the infectious madness of the night, claimed his mind. In and out of the strangely attired groups darted his agile quarry, all but captured a score of times, but always eluding him.
Sime he had hopelessly lost, as around fountain and flower-bed, arbour and palm trunk he leapt in pursuit of the elusive yashmak.
Then, in a shadowed corner of the garden, he trapped her. Plunging his hand into the bag of confetti, which he carried, he leapt, exulting, to his revenge: when a sudden gust of wind passed sibilantly through the palm tops, and glancing upward, Cairn saw that the blue sky was overcast and the stars gleaming dimly, as through a veil. That moment of hesitancy proved fatal to his project, for with a little excited scream the girl dived under his outstretched arm and fled back towards the fountain. He turned to pursue again, when a second puff of wind, stronger than the first, set waving the palm fronds and showered dry leaves upon the confetti carpet of the garden. The band played loudly, the murmur of conversation rose to something like a roar, but above it whistled the increasing breeze, and there was a sort of grittiness in the air.
Then, proclaimed by a furious lashing of the fronds above, burst the wind in all its fury. It seemed to beat down into the garden in waves of heat. Huge leaves began to fall from the tree tops and the mast-like trunks bent before the fury from the desert. The atmosphere grew hazy with impalpable dust; and the stars were wholly obscured.
Commenced a stampede from the garden. Shrill with fear, rose a woman's scream from the heart of the throng:
"A scorpion! a scorpion!"
Panic threatened, but fortunately the doors were wide, so that, without disaster the whole fantastic company passed into the hotel; and even the military band retired.
Cairn perceived that he alone remained in the garden, and glancing along the path in the direction of the fountain, he saw a blotchy drab creature, fully four inches in length, running zigzag towards him. It was a huge scorpion; but, even as he leapt forward to crush it, it turned and crept in amid the tangle of flowers beside the path, where it was lost from view.
The scorching wind grew momentarily fiercer, and Cairn, entering behind a few straggling revellers, found something ominous and dreadful in its sudden fury. At the threshold, he turned and looked back upon the gaily lighted garden. The paper lamps were thrashing in the wind, many extinguished; others were in flames; a number of electric globes fell from their fastenings amid the palm tops, and burst bomb-like upon the ground. The pleasure garden was now a battlefield, beset with dangers, and he fully appreciated the anxiety of the company to get within doors. Where chrysanthemum and yashmak turban and tarboosh, uraeus and Indian plume had mingled gaily, no soul remained; but yet—he was in error ... someone did remain.
As if embodying the fear that in a few short minutes had emptied the garden, out beneath the waving lanterns, the flying débris, the whirling dust, pacing sombrely from shadow to light, and to shadow again, advancing towards the hotel steps, came the figure of one sandalled, and wearing the short white tunic of Ancient Egypt. His arms were bare, and he carried a long staff; but rising hideously upon his shoulders was a crocodile-mask, which seemed to grin—the mask of Set, Set the Destroyer, God of the underworld.
Cairn, alone of all the crowd, saw the strange figure, for the reason that Cairn alone faced towards the garden. The gruesome mask seemed to fascinate him; he could not take his gaze from that weird advancing god; he felt impelled hypnotically to stare at the gleaming eyes set in the saurian head. The mask was at the foot of the steps, and still Cairn stood rigid. When, as the sandalled foot was set upon the first step, a breeze, dust-laden, and hot as from a furnace door, blew fully into the hotel, blinding him. A chorus arose from the crowd at his back; and many voices cried out for doors to be shut. Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and spun him about.
"By God!"—it was Sime who now had him by the arm—"Khamsîn has come with a vengeance! They tell me that they have never had anything like it!"
The native servants were closing and fastening the doors. The night was now as black as Erebus, and the wind was howling about the building with the voices of a million lost souls. Cairn glanced back across his shoulder. Men were drawing heavy curtains across the doors and windows.
"They have shut him out, Sime!" he said.
Sime stared in his dull fashion.
"You surely saw him?" persisted Cairn irritably; "the man in the mask of Set—he was coming in just behind me."
Sime strode forward, pulled the curtains aside, and peered out into the deserted garden.
"Not a soul, old man," he declared. "You must have seen the Efreet!"