Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 18

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Rekka was a mile behind.

"It will take us fully an hour yet," said Dr. Cairn, "to reach the pyramid, although it appears so near."

Indeed, in the violet dusk, the great mastabah Pyramid of Méydûm seemed already to loom above them, although it was quite four miles away. The narrow path along which they trotted their donkeys ran through the fertile lowlands of the Fayûm. They had just passed a village, amid an angry chorus from the pariah dogs, and were now following the track along the top of the embankment. Where the green carpet merged ahead into the grey ocean of sand the desert began, and out in that desert, resembling some weird work of Nature rather than anything wrought by the hand of man, stood the gloomy and lonely building ascribed by the Egyptologists to the Pharaoh Sneferu.

Dr. Cairn and his son rode ahead, and Sime, with Ali Mohammed, brought up the rear of the little company.

"I am completely in the dark, sir," said Robert Cairn, "respecting the object of our present journey. What leads you to suppose that we shall find Antony Ferrara here?"

"I scarcely hope to find him here," was the enigmatical reply, "but I am almost certain that he is here. I might have expected it, and I blame myself for not having provided against—this."

"Against what?"

"It is impossible, Rob, for you to understand this matter. Indeed, if I were to publish what I know—not what I imagine, but what I know—about the Pyramid of Méydûm I should not only call down upon myself the ridicule of every Egyptologist in Europe; I should be accounted mad by the whole world."

His son was silent for a time; then:

"According to the guide books," he said, "it is merely an empty tomb."

"It is empty, certainly," replied Dr. Cairn grimly, "or that apartment known as the King's Chamber is now empty. But even the so-called King's Chamber was not empty once; and there is another chamber in the pyramid which is not empty now!"

"If you know of the existence of such a chamber, sir, why have you kept it secret?"

"Because I cannot prove its existence. I do not know how to enter it, but I know it is there; I know what it was formerly used for, and I suspect that last night it was used for that same unholy purpose again—after a lapse of perhaps four thousand years! Even you would doubt me, I believe, if I were to tell you what I know, if I were to hint at what I suspect. But no doubt in your reading you have met with Julian the Apostate?"

"Certainly, I have read of him. He is said to have practised necromancy."

"When he was at Carra in Mesopotamia, he retired to the Temple of the Moon, with a certain sorcerer and some others, and, his nocturnal operations concluded, he left the temple locked, the door sealed, and placed a guard over the gate. He was killed in the war, and never returned to Carra, but when, in the reign of Jovian, the seal was broken and the temple opened, a body was found hanging by its hair—I will spare you the particulars; it was a case of that most awful form of sorcery—anthropomancy!"

An expression of horror had crept over Robert Cairn's face.

"Do you mean, sir, that this pyramid was used for similar purposes?"

"In the past it has been used for many purposes," was the quiet reply. "The exodus of the bats points to the fact that it was again used for one of those purposes last night; the exodus of the bats—and something else."

Sime, who had been listening to this strange conversation, cried out from the rear:

"We cannot reach it before sunset!"

"No," replied Dr. Cairn, turning in his saddle, "but that does not matter. Inside the pyramid, day and night make no difference."

Having crossed a narrow wooden bridge, they turned now fully in the direction of the great ruin, pursuing a path along the opposite bank of the cutting. They rode in silence for some time, Robert Cairn deep in thought.

"I suppose that Antony Ferrara actually visited this place last night," he said suddenly, "although I cannot follow your reasoning. But what leads you to suppose that he is there now?"

"This," answered his father slowly. "The purpose for which I believe him to have come here would detain him at least two days and two nights. I shall say no more about it, because if I am wrong, or if for any reason I am unable to establish my suspicions as facts, you would certainly regard me as a madman if I had confided those suspicions to you."

Mounted upon donkeys, the journey from Rekka to the Pyramid of Méydûm occupies fully an hour and a half, and the glories of the sunset had merged into the violet dusk of Egypt before the party passed the outskirts of the cultivated land and came upon the desert sands. The mountainous pile of granite, its peculiar orange hue a ghastly yellow in the moonlight, now assumed truly monstrous proportions, seeming like a great square tower rising in three stages from its mound of sand to some three hundred and fifty feet above the level of the desert.

There is nothing more awesome in the world than to find one's self at night, far from all fellow-men, in the shadow of one of those edifices raised by unknown hands, by unknown means, to an unknown end; for, despite all the wisdom of our modern inquirers, these stupendous relics remain unsolved riddles set to posterity by a mysterious people.

Neither Sime nor Ali Mohammed were of highly strung temperament, neither subject to those subtle impressions which more delicate organisations receive, as the nostrils receive an exhalation, from such a place as this. But Dr. Cairn and his son, though each in a different way, came now within the aura of this temple of the dead ages.

The great silence of the desert—a silence like no other in the world; the loneliness, which must be experienced to be appreciated, of that dry and tideless ocean; the traditions which had grown up like fungi about this venerable building; lastly, the knowledge that it was associated in some way with the sorcery, the unholy activity, of Antony Ferrara, combined to chill them with a supernatural dread which called for all their courage to combat.

"What now?" said Sime, descending from his mount.

"We must lead the donkeys up the slope," replied Dr. Cairn, "where those blocks of granite are, and tether them there."

In silence, then, the party commenced the tedious ascent of the mound by the narrow path to the top, until at some hundred and twenty feet above the surrounding plain they found themselves actually under the wall of the mighty building. The donkeys were made fast.

"Sime and I," said Dr. Cairn quietly, "will enter the pyramid."

"But—" interrupted his son.

"Apart from the fatigue of the operation," continued the doctor, "the temperature in the lower part of the pyramid is so tremendous, and the air so bad, that in your present state of health it would be absurd for you to attempt it. Apart from which there is a possibly more important task to be undertaken here, outside."

He turned his eyes upon Sime, who was listening intently, then continued:

"Whilst we are penetrating to the interior by means of the sloping passage on the north side, Ali Mohammed and yourself must mount guard on the south side."

"What for?" said Sime rapidly.

"For the reason," replied Dr. Cairn, "that there is an entrance on to the first stage—"

"But the first stage is nearly seventy feet above us. Even assuming that there were an entrance there—which I doubt—escape by that means would be impossible. No one could climb down the face of the pyramid from above; no one has ever succeeded in climbing up. For the purpose of surveying the pyramid a scaffold had to be erected. Its sides are quite unscaleable."

"That may be," agreed Dr. Cairn; "but, nevertheless, I have my reasons for placing a guard over the south side. If anything appears upon the stage above, Rob—anything—shoot, and shoot straight!"

He repeated the same instructions to Ali Mohammed, to the evident surprise of the latter.

"I don't understand at all," muttered Sime, "but as I presume you have a good reason for what you do, let it be as you propose. Can you give me any idea respecting what we may hope to find inside this place? I only entered once, and I am not anxious to repeat the experiment. The air is unbreathable, the descent to the level passage below is stiff work, and, apart from the inconvenience of navigating the latter passage, which as you probably know is only sixteen inches high, the climb up the vertical shaft into the tomb is not a particularly safe one. I exclude the possibility of snakes," he added ironically.

"You have also omitted the possibility of Antony Ferrara," said Dr. Cairn.

"Pardon my scepticism, doctor, but I cannot imagine any man voluntarily remaining in that awful place."

"Yet I am greatly mistaken if he is not there!"

"Then he is trapped!" said Sime grimly, examining a Browning pistol which he carried. "Unless—"

He stopped, and an expression, almost of fear, crept over his stoical features.

"That sixteen-inch passage," he muttered—"with Antony Ferrara at the further end!"

"Exactly!" said Dr. Cairn. "But I consider it my duty to the world to proceed. I warn you that you are about to face the greatest peril, probably, which you will ever be called upon to encounter. I do not ask you to do this. I am quite prepared to go alone."

"That remark was wholly unnecessary, doctor," said Sime rather truculently. "Suppose the other two proceed to their post."

"But, sir—" began Robert Cairn.

"You know the way," said the doctor, with an air of finality. "There is not a moment to waste, and although I fear that we are too late, it is just possible we may be in time to prevent a dreadful crime."

The tall Egyptian and Robert Cairn went stumbling off amongst the heaps of rubbish and broken masonry, until an angle of the great wall concealed them from view. Then the two who remained continued the climb yet higher, following the narrow, zigzag path leading up to the entrance of the descending passage. Immediately under the square black hole they stood and glanced at one another.

"We may as well leave our outer garments here," said Sime. "I note that you wear rubber-soled shoes, but I shall remove my boots, as otherwise I should be unable to obtain any foothold."

Dr. Cairn nodded, and without more ado proceeded to strip off his coat, an example which was followed by Sime. It was as he stooped and placed his hat upon the little bundle of clothes at his feet that Dr. Cairn detected something which caused him to stoop yet lower and to peer at that dark object on the ground with a strange intentness.

"What is it?" jerked Sime, glancing back at him.

Dr. Cairn, from a hip pocket, took out an electric lamp, and directed the white ray upon something lying on the splintered fragments of granite.

It was a bat, a fairly large one, and a clot of blood marked the place where its head had been. For the bat was decapitated!

As though anticipating what he should find there, Dr. Cairn flashed the ray of the lamp all about the ground in the vicinity of the entrance to the pyramid. Scores of dead bats, headless, lay there.

"For God's sake, what does this mean?" whispered Sime, glancing apprehensively into the black entrance beside him.

"It means," answered Cairn, in a low voice, "that my suspicion, almost incredible though it seems, was well founded. Steel yourself against the task that is before you, Sime; we stand upon the borderland of strange horrors."

Sime hesitated to touch any of the dead bats, surveying them with an ill-concealed repugnance.

"What kind of creature," he whispered, "has done this?"

"One of a kind that the world has not known for many ages! The most evil kind of creature conceivable—a man-devil!"

"But what does he want with bats' heads?"

"The Cynonycteris, or pyramid bat, has a leaf-like appendage beside the nose. A gland in this secretes a rare oil. This oil is one of the ingredients of the incense which is never named in the magical writings."

Sime shuddered.

"Here!" said Dr. Cairn, proffering a flask. "This is only the overture! No nerves."

The other nodded shortly, and poured out a peg of brandy.

"Now," said Dr. Cairn, "shall I go ahead?"

"As you like," replied Sime quietly, and again quite master of himself. "Look out for snakes. I will carry the light and you can keep yours handy in case you may need it."

Dr. Cairn drew himself up into the entrance. The passage was less than four feet high, and generations of sand-storms had polished its sloping granite floor so as to render it impossible to descend except by resting one's hands on the roof above and lowering one's self foot by foot.

A passage of this description, descending at a sharp angle for over two hundred feet, is not particularly easy to negotiate, and progress was slow. Dr. Cairn at every five yards or so would stop, and, with the pocket-lamp which he carried, would examine the sandy floor and the crevices between the huge blocks composing the passage, in quest of those faint tracks which warn the traveller that a serpent has recently passed that way. Then, replacing his lamp, he would proceed. Sime followed in like manner, employing only one hand to support himself, and, with the other, constantly directing the ray of his pocket torch past his companion, and down into the blackness beneath.

Out in the desert the atmosphere had been sufficiently hot, but now with every step it grew hotter and hotter. That indescribable smell, as of a decay begun in remote ages, that rises with the impalpable dust in these mysterious labyrinths of Ancient Egypt which never know the light of day, rose stiflingly; until, at some forty or fifty feet below the level of the sand outside, respiration became difficult, and the two paused, bathed in perspiration and gasping for air.

"Another thirty or forty feet," panted Sime, "and we shall be in the level passage. There is a sort of low, artificial cavern there, you may remember, where, although we cannot stand upright, we can sit and rest for a few moments."

Speech was exhausting, and no further words were exchanged until the bottom of the slope was reached, and the combined lights of the two pocket-lamps showed them that they had reached a tiny chamber irregularly hewn in the living rock. This also was less than four feet high, but its jagged floor being level, they were enabled to pause here for a while.

"Do you notice something unfamiliar in the smell of the place?"

Dr. Cairn was the speaker. Sime nodded, wiping the perspiration from his face the while.

"It was bad enough when I came here before," he said hoarsely. "It is terrible work for a heavy man. But to-night it seems to be reeking. I have smelt nothing like it in my life."

"Correct," replied Dr. Cairn grimly. "I trust that, once clear of this place, you will never smell it again."

"What is it?"

"It is the incense," was the reply. "Come! The worst of our task is before us yet."

The continuation of the passage now showed as an opening no more than fifteen to seventeen inches high. It was necessary, therefore, to lie prone upon the rubbish of the floor, and to proceed serpent fashion; one could not even employ one's knees, so low was the roof, but was compelled to progress by clutching at the irregularities in the wall, and by digging the elbows into the splintered stones one crawled upon!

For three yards or so they proceeded thus. Then Dr. Cairn lay suddenly still.

"What is it?" whispered Sime.

A threat of panic was in his voice. He dared not conjecture what would happen if either should be overcome in that evil-smelling burrow, deep in the bowels of the ancient building. At that moment it seemed to him, absurdly enough, that the weight of the giant pile rested upon his back, was crushing him, pressing the life out from his body as he lay there prone, with his eyes fixed upon the rubber soles of Dr. Cairn's shoes, directly in front of him.

But softly came a reply:

"Do not speak again! Proceed as quietly as possible, and pray heaven we are not expected!"

Sime understood. With a malignant enemy before them, this hole in the rock through which they crawled was a certain death-trap. He thought of the headless bats and of how he, in crawling out into the shaft ahead, must lay himself open to a similar fate!

Dr. Cairn moved slowly onward. Despite their anxiety to avoid noise, neither he nor his companion could control their heavy breathing. Both were panting for air. The temperature was now deathly. A candle would scarcely have burnt in the vitiated air; and above that odour of ancient rottenness which all explorers of the monuments of Egypt know, rose that other indescribable odour which seemed to stifle one's very soul.

Dr. Cairn stopped again.

Sime knew, having performed this journey before, that his companion must have reached the end of the passage, that he must be lying peering out into the shaft, for which they were making. He extinguished his lamp.

Again Dr. Cairn moved forward. Stretching out his hand, Sime found only emptiness. He wriggled forward, in turn, rapidly, all the time groping with his fingers. Then:

"Take my hand," came a whisper. "Another two feet, and you can stand upright."

He proceeded, grasped the hand which was extended to him in the impenetrable darkness, and panting, temporarily exhausted, rose upright beside Dr. Cairn, and stretched his cramped limbs.

Side by side they stood, mantled about in such a darkness as cannot be described; in such a silence as dwellers in the busy world cannot conceive; in such an atmosphere of horror that only a man morally and physically brave could have retained his composure.

Dr. Cairn bent to Sime's ear.

"We must have the light for the ascent," he whispered. "Have your pistol ready; I am about to press the button of the lamp."

A shaft of white light shone suddenly up the rocky sides of the pit in which they stood, and lost itself in the gloom of the chamber above.

"On to my shoulders," jerked Sime. "You are lighter than I. Then, as soon as you can reach, place your lamp on the floor above and mount up beside it. I will follow."

Dr. Cairn, taking advantage of the rugged walls, and of the blocks of stone amid which they stood, mounted upon Sime's shoulders.

"Could you carry your revolver in your teeth?" asked the latter. "I think you might hold it by the trigger-guard."

"I proposed to do so," replied Dr. Cairn grimly. "Stand fast!"

Gradually he rose upright upon the other's shoulders; then, placing his foot in a cranny of the rock, and with his left hand grasping a protruding fragment above, he mounted yet higher, all the time holding the lighted lamp in his right hand. Upward he extended his arms, and upward, until he could place the lamp upon the ledge above his head, where its white beam shone across the top of the shaft.

"Mind it does not fall!" panted Sime, craning his head upward to watch these operations.

Dr. Cairn, whose strength and agility were wonderful, twisted around sideways, and succeeded in placing his foot on a ledge of stone on the opposite side of the shaft. Resting his weight upon this, he extended his hand to the lip of the opening, and drew himself up to the top, where he crouched fully in the light of the lamp. Then, wedging his foot into a crevice a little below him, he reached out his hand to Sime. The latter, following much the same course as his companion, seized the extended hand, and soon found himself beside Dr. Cairn.

Impetuously he snatched out his own lamp and shone its beams about the weird apartment in which they found themselves—the so-called King's Chamber of the pyramid. Right and left leapt the searching rays, touching the ends of the wooden beams, which, practically fossilised by long contact with the rock, still survive in that sepulchral place. Above and below and all around he directed the light—upon the litter covering the rock floor, upon the blocks of the higher walls, upon the frowning roof.

They were alone in the King's Chamber!