Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 19
"There is no one here!"
Sime looked about the place excitedly.
"Fortunately for us!" answered Dr. Cairn.
He breathed rather heavily yet with his exertions, and, moreover, the air of the chamber was disgusting. But otherwise he was perfectly calm, although his face was pale and bathed in perspiration.
"Make as little noise as possible."
Sime, who, now that the place proved to be empty, began to cast off that dread which had possessed him in the passage-way, found something ominous in the words.
Dr. Cairn, stepping carefully over the rubbish of the floor, advanced to the east corner of the chamber, waving his companion to follow. Side by side they stood there.
"Do you notice that the abominable smell of the incense is more overpowering here than anywhere?"
"You are right. What does that mean?"
Dr. Cairn directed the ray of light down behind a little mound of rubbish into a corner of the wall.
"It means," he said, with a subdued expression of excitement, "that we have got to crawl in there!"
Sime stifled an exclamation.
One of the blocks of the bottom tier was missing, a fact which he had not detected before by reason of the presence of the mound of rubbish before the opening.
"Silence again!" whispered Dr. Cairn.
He lay down flat, and, without hesitation, crept into the gap. As his feet disappeared, Sime followed. Here it was possible to crawl upon hands and knees. The passage was formed of square stone blocks. It was but three yards or so in length; then it suddenly turned upward at a tremendous angle of about one in four. Square foot-holds were cut in the lower face. The smell of incense was almost unbearable.
Dr. Cairn bent to Sime's ear.
"Not a word, now," he said. "No light—pistol ready!"
He began to mount. Sime, following, counted the steps. When they had mounted sixty he knew that they must have come close to the top of the original mastabah, and close to the first stage of the pyramid. Despite the shaft beneath, there was little danger of falling, for one could lean back against the wall while seeking for the foothold above.
Dr. Cairn mounted very slowly, fearful of striking his head upon some obstacle. Then on the seventieth step, he found that he could thrust his foot forward and that no obstruction met his knee. They had reached a horizontal passage.
Very softly he whispered back to Sime:
"Take my hand. I have reached the top."
They entered the passage. The heavy, sickly sweet odour almost overpowered them, but, grimly set upon their purpose, they, after one moment of hesitancy, crept on.
A fitful light rose and fell ahead of them. It gleamed upon the polished walls of the corridor in which they now found themselves—that inexplicable light burning in a place which had known no light since the dim ages of the early Pharaohs!
The events of that incredible night had afforded no such emotion as this. This was the crowning wonder, and, in its dreadful mystery, the crowning terror of Méydûm.
When first that lambent light played upon the walls of the passage both stopped, stricken motionless with fear and amazement. Sime, who would have been prepared to swear that the Méydûm Pyramid contained no apartment other than the King's Chamber, now was past mere wonder, past conjecture. But he could still fear. Dr. Cairn, although he had anticipated this, temporarily also fell a victim to the supernatural character of the phenomenon.
They looked into a square chamber of about the same size as the King's Chamber. In fact, although they did not realise it until later, this second apartment, no doubt was situated directly above the first.
The only light was that of a fire burning in a tripod, and by means of this illumination, which rose and fell in a strange manner, it was possible to perceive the details of the place. But, indeed, at the moment they were not concerned with these; they had eyes only for the black-robed figure beside the tripod.
It was that of a man, who stood with his back towards them, and he chanted monotonously in a tongue unfamiliar to Sime. At certain points in his chant he would raise his arms in such a way that, clad in the black robe, he assumed the appearance of a gigantic bat. Each time that he acted thus the fire in the tripod, as if fanned into new life, would leap up, casting a hellish glare about the place. Then, as the chanter dropped his arms again, the flame would drop also.
A cloud of reddish vapour floated low in the apartment. There were a number of curiously-shaped vessels upon the floor, and against the farther wall, only rendered visible when the flames leapt high, was some motionless white object, apparently hung from the roof.
Dr. Cairn drew a hissing breath and grasped Sime's wrist.
"We are too late!" he said strangely.
He spoke at a moment when his companion, peering through the ruddy gloom of the place, had been endeavouring more clearly to perceive that ominous shape which hung, horrible, in the shadow. He spoke, too, at a moment when the man in the black robe, raised his arms—when, as if obedient to his will, the flames leapt up fitfully.
Although Sime could not be sure of what he saw, the recollection came to him of words recently spoken by Dr. Cairn. He remembered the story of Julian the Apostate, Julian the Emperor—the Necromancer. He remembered what had been found in the Temple of the Moon after Julian's death. He remembered that Lady Lashmore—
And thereupon he experienced such a nausea that but for the fact that Dr. Cairn gripped him he must have fallen.
Tutored in a materialistic school, he could not even now admit that such monstrous things could be. With a necromantic operation taking place before his eyes; with the unholy perfume of the secret incense all but suffocating him; with the dreadful Oracle dully gleaming in the shadows of that temple of evil—his reason would not accept the evidences. Any man of the ancient world—of the middle ages—would have known that he looked upon a professed wizard, upon a magician, who, according to one of the most ancient formulæ known to mankind, was seeking to question the dead respecting the living.
But how many modern men are there capable of realising such a circumstance? How many who would accept the statement that such operations are still performed, not only in the East, but in Europe? How many who, witnessing this mass of Satan, would accept it for verity, would not deny the evidence of their very senses?
He could not believe such an orgie of wickedness possible. A Pagan emperor might have been capable of these things, but to-day—wondrous is our faith in the virtue of "to-day!"
"Am I mad?" he whispered hoarsely, "or—"
A thinly-veiled shape seemed to float out from that still form in the shadows; it assumed definite outlines; it became a woman, beautiful with a beauty that could only be described as awful.
She wore upon her brow the uraeus of Ancient Egyptian royalty; her sole garment was a robe of finest gauze. Like a cloud, like a vision, she floated into the light cast by the tripod.
A voice—a voice which seemed to come from a vast distance, from somewhere outside the mighty granite walls of that unholy place—spoke. The language was unknown to Sime, but the fierce hand-grip upon his wrist grew fiercer. That dead tongue, that language unspoken since the dawn of Christianity, was known to the man who had been the companion of Sir Michael Ferrara.
In upon Sime swept a swift conviction—that one could not witness such a scene as this and live and move again amongst one's fellow-men! In a sort of frenzy, then, he wrenched himself free from the detaining hand, and launched a retort of modern science against the challenge of ancient sorcery.
Raising his Browning pistol, he fired—shot after shot—at that bat-like shape which stood between himself and the tripod!
A thousand frightful echoes filled the chamber with a demon mockery, boomed along those subterranean passages beneath, and bore the conflict of sound into the hidden places of the pyramid which had known not sound for untold generations.
Vaguely he became aware that Dr. Cairn was seeking to drag him away. Through a cloud of smoke he saw the black-robed figure turn; dream fashion, he saw the pallid, glistening face of Antony Ferrara; the long, evil eyes, alight like the eyes of a serpent, were fixed upon him. He seemed to stand amid a chaos, in a mad world beyond the borders of reason, beyond the dominions of God. But to his stupefied mind one astounding fact found access.
He had fired at least seven shots at the black-robed figure, and it was not humanly possible that all could have gone wide of their mark.
Yet Antony Ferrara lived!
Utter darkness blotted out the evil vision. Then there was a white light ahead; and feeling that he was struggling for sanity, Sime managed to realise that Dr. Cairn, retreating along the passage, was crying to him, in a voice rising almost to a shriek, to run—run for his life—for his salvation!
"You should not have fired!" he seemed to hear.
Unconscious of any contact with the stones—although afterwards he found his knees and shins to be bleeding—he was scrambling down that long, sloping shaft.
He had a vague impression that Dr. Cairn, descending beneath him, sometimes grasped his ankles and placed his feet into the footholes. A continuous roaring sound filled his ears, as if a great ocean were casting its storm waves against the structure around him. The place seemed to rock.
Some sense of reality was returning to him. Now he perceived that Dr. Cairn was urging him to crawl back along the short passage by which they had entered from the King's Chamber.
Heedless of hurt, he threw himself down and pressed on.
A blank, like the sleep of exhaustion which follows delirium, came. Then Sime found himself standing in the King's Chamber, Dr. Cairn, who held an electric lamp in his hand, beside him, and half supporting him.
The realities suddenly reasserting themselves,
"I have dropped my pistol!" muttered Sime.
He threw off the supporting arm, and turned to that corner behind the heap of débris where was the opening through which they had entered the Satanic temple.
No opening was visible!
"He has closed it!" cried Dr. Cairn. "There are six stone doors between here and the place above! If he had succeeded in shutting one of them before we—?"
"My God!" whispered Sime. "Let us get out! I am nearly at the end of my tether!"
Fear lends wings, and it was with something like the lightness of a bird that Sime descended the shaft. At the bottom—
"On to my shoulders!" he cried, looking up.
Dr. Cairn lowered himself to the foot of the shaft. "You go first," he said.
He was gasping, as if nearly suffocated, but retained a wonderful self-control. Once over into the Borderland, and bravery assumes a new guise; the courage which can face physical danger undaunted, melts in the fires of the unknown.
Sime, his breath whistling sibilantly between his clenched teeth, hauled himself through the low passage, with incredible speed. The two worked their way arduously, up the long slope. They saw the blue sky above them....
"Something like a huge bat," said Robert Cairn, "crawled out upon the first stage. We both fired—"
Dr. Cairn raised his hand. He lay exhausted at the foot of the mound.
"He had lighted the incense," he replied, "and was reciting the secret ritual. I cannot explain. But your shots were wasted. We came too late—"
"Until the Pyramid of Méydûm is pulled down, stone by stone, the world will never know her fate! Sime and I have looked in at the gate of hell! Only the hand of God plucked us back! Look!"
He pointed to Sime. He lay, pallid, with closed eyes—and his hair was abundantly streaked with white!