The Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XXVIII. The High Priest, Hortotef
The breakfast-room of Dr. Cairn's house in Half-Moon Street presented a cheery appearance, and this despite the gloom of the morning; for thunderous clouds hung low in the sky, and there were distant mutterings ominous of a brewing storm.
Robert Cairn stood looking out of the window. He was thinking of an afternoon at Oxford, when, to such an accompaniment as this, he had witnessed the first scene in the drama of evil wherein the man called Antony Ferrara sustained the leading role.
That the denouement was at any moment to be anticipated, his reason told him; and some instinct that was not of his reason forewarned him, too, that he and his father, Dr. Cairn, were now upon the eve of that final, decisive struggle which should determine the triumph of good over evil--or of evil over good. Already the doctor's house was invested by the uncanny forces marshalled by Antony Ferrara against them. The distinguished patients, who daily flocked to the consulting-room of the celebrated specialist, who witnessed his perfect self-possession and took comfort from his confidence, knowing it for the confidence of strength, little suspected that a greater ill than any flesh is heir to, assailed the doctor to whom they came for healing.
A menace, dreadful and unnatural, hung over that home as now the thunder clouds hung over it. This well-ordered household, so modern, so typical of twentieth century culture and refinement, presented none of the appearances of a beleaguered garrison; yet the house of Dr. Cairn in Half-Moon Street, was nothing less than an invested fortress.
A peal of distant thunder boomed from the direction of Hyde Park. Robert Cairn looked up at the lowering sky as if seeking a portent. To his eyes it seemed that a livid face, malignant with the malignancy of a devil, looked down out of the clouds.
Myra Duquesne came into the breakfast-room.
He turned to greet her, and, in his capacity of accepted lover, was about to kiss the tempting lips, when he hesitated--and contented himself with kissing her hand. A sudden sense of the proprieties had assailed him; he reflected that the presence of the girl beneath the same roof as himself--although dictated by imperative need--might be open to misconstruction by the prudish. Dr. Cairn had decided that for the present Myra Duquesne must dwell beneath his own roof, as, in feudal days, the Baron at first hint of an approaching enemy formerly was, accustomed to call within the walls of the castle, those whom it was his duty to protect. Unknown to the world, a tremendous battle raged in London, the outer works were in the possession of the enemy--and he was now before their very gates.
Myra, though still pale from her recent illness, already was recovering some of the freshness of her beauty, and in her simple morning dress, as she busied herself about the breakfast table, she was a sweet picture enough, and good to look upon. Robert Cairn stood beside her, looking into her eyes, and she smiled up at him with a happy contentment, which filled him with a new longing. But:
"Did you dream again, last night?" he asked, in a voice which he strove to make matter-of-fact.
Myra nodded--and her face momentarily clouded over.
"The same dream?"
"Yes," she said in a troubled way; "at least--in some respects--"
Dr. Cairn came in, glancing at his watch.
"Good morning!" he cried, cheerily. "I have actually overslept myself."
They took their seats at the table.
"Myra has been dreaming again, sir," said Robert Cairn slowly.
The doctor, serviette in hand, glanced up with an inquiry in his grey eyes.
"We must not overlook any possible weapon," he replied. "Give us particulars of your dream, Myra."
As Marston entered silently with the morning fare, and, having placed the dishes upon the table, as silently withdrew, Myra began:
"I seemed to stand again in the barn-like building which I have described to you before. Through the rafters of the roof I could see the cracks in the tiling, and the moonlight shone through, forming light and irregular patches upon the floor. A sort of door, like that of a stable, with a heavy bar across, was dimly perceptible at the further end of the place. The only furniture was a large deal table and a wooden chair of a very common kind. Upon the table, stood a lamp--"
"What kind of lamp?" jerked Dr. Cairn.
"A silver lamp"--she hesitated, looking from Robert to his father--"one that I have seen in--Antony's rooms. Its shaded light shone upon a closed iron box. I immediately recognised this box. You know that I described to you a dream which--terrified me on the previous night?"
Dr. Cairn nodded, frowning darkly.
"Repeat your account of the former dream," he said. "I regard it as important."
"In my former dream," the girl resumed--and her voice had an odd, far-away quality--"the scene was the same, except that the light of the lamp was shining down upon the leaves of an open book--a very, very old book, written in strange characters. These characters appeared to dance before my eyes--almost as though they lived."
She shuddered slightly; then:
"The same iron box, but open, stood upon the table, and a number of other, smaller, boxes, around it. Each of these boxes was of a different material. Some were wooden; one, I think, was of ivory; one was of silver--and one, of some dull metal, which might have been gold. In the chair, by the table, Antony was sitting. His eyes were fixed upon me, with such a strange expression that I awoke, trembling frightfully--"
Dr. Cairn nodded again.
"And last night?" he prompted.
"Last night," continued Myra, with a note of trouble in her sweet voice--"at four points around this table, stood four smaller lamps and upon the floor were rows of characters apparently traced in luminous paint. They flickered up and then grew dim, then flickered up again, in a sort of phosphorescent way. They extended from lamp to lamp, so as entirely to surround the table and the chair.
"In the chair Antony Ferrara was sitting. He held a wand in his right hand--a wand with several copper rings about it; his left hand rested upon the iron box. In my dream, although I could see this all very clearly, I seemed to see it from a distance; yet, at the same time, I stood apparently close by the tables--I cannot explain. But I could hear nothing; only by the movements of his lips, could I tell that he was speaking--or chanting."
She looked across at Dr. Cairn as if fearful to proceed, but presently continued:
"Suddenly, I saw a frightful shape appear on the far side of the circle; that is to say, the table was between me and this shape. It was just like a grey cloud having the vague outlines of a man, but with two eyes of red fire glaring out from it--horribly--oh! horribly! It extended its shadowy arms as if saluting Antony. He turned and seemed to question it. Then with a look of ferocious anger--oh! it was frightful! he dismissed the shape, and began to walk up and down beside the table, but never beyond the lighted circle, shaking his fists in the air, and, to judge by the movements of his lips, uttering most awful imprecations. He looked gaunt and ill. I dreamt no more, but awoke conscious of a sensation as though some dead weight, which had been pressing upon me had been suddenly removed."
Dr. Cairn glanced across at his son significantly, but the subject was not renewed throughout breakfast.
"Come into the library, Rob," said Dr. Cairn, "I have half-an-hour to spare, and there are some matters to be discussed."
He led the way into the library with its orderly rows of obscure works, its store of forgotten wisdom, and pointed to the red leathern armchair. As Robert Cairn seated himself and looked across at his father, who sat at the big writing-table, that scene reminded him of many dangers met and overcome in the past; for the library at Half-Moon Street was associated in his mind with some of the blackest pages in the history of Antony Ferrara.
"Do you understand the position, Rob?" asked the doctor, abruptly.
"I think so, sir. This I take it is his last card; this outrageous, ungodly Thing which he has loosed upon us."
Dr. Cairn nodded grimly.
"The exact frontier," he said, "dividing what we may term hypnotism from what we know as sorcery, has yet to be determined; and to which territory the doctrine of Elemental Spirits belongs, it would be purposeless at the moment to discuss. We may note, however, remembering with whom we are dealing, that the one-hundred-and-eighth chapter of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, is entitled 'The Chapter of Knowing the Spirits of the West.' Forgetting, pro tem., that we dwell in the twentieth century, and looking at the situation from the point of view, say, of Eliphas Levi, Cornelius Agrippa, or the Abbe de Villars--the man whom we know as Antony Ferrara, is directing against this house, and those within it, a type of elemental spirit, known as a Salamander!"
Robert Cairn smiled slightly.
"Ah!" said the doctor, with an answering smile in which there was little mirth, "we are accustomed to laugh at this mediaeval terminology; but by what other can we speak of the activities of Ferrara?"
"Sometimes I think that we are the victims of a common madness," said his son, raising his hand to his head in a manner almost pathetic.
"We are the victims of a common enemy," replied his father sternly. "He employs weapons which, often enough, in this enlightened age of ours, have condemned poor souls, as sane as you or I, to the madhouse! Why, in God's name," he cried with a sudden excitement, "does science persistently ignore all those laws which cannot be examined in the laboratory! Will the day never come when some true man of science shall endeavour to explain the movements of a table upon which a ring of hands has been placed? Will no exact scientist condescend to examine the properties of a planchette? Will no one do for the phenomena termed thought-forms, what Newton did for that of the falling apple? Ah! Rob, in some respects, this is a darker age than those which bear the stigma of darkness."
Silence fell for a few moments between them; then:
"One thing is certain," said Robert Cairn, deliberately, "we are in danger!"
"In the greatest danger!"
"Antony Ferrara, realising that we are bent upon his destruction, is making a final, stupendous effort to compass ours. I know that you have placed certain seals upon the windows of this house, and that after dusk these windows are never opened. I know that imprints, strangely like the imprints of fiery hands, may be seen at this moment upon the casements of Myra's room, your room, my room, and elsewhere. I know that Myra's dreams are not ordinary, meaningless dreams. I have had other evidence. I don't want to analyse these things; I confess that my mind is not capable of the task. I do not even want to know the meaning of it all; at the present moment, I only want to know one thing: Who is Antony Ferrara?"
Dr. Cairn stood up, and turning, faced his son.
"The time has come," he said, "when that question, which you have asked me so many times before, shall be answered. I will tell you all I know, and leave you to form your own opinion. For ere we go any further, I assure you that I do not know for certain who he is!"
"You have said so before, sir. Will you explain what you mean?"
"When his adoptive father, Sir Michael Ferrara," resumed the doctor, beginning to pace up and down the library--"when Sir Michael and I were in Egypt, in the winter of 1893, we conducted certain inquiries in the Fayum. We camped for over three months beside the Meydum Pyramid. The object of our inquiries was to discover the tomb of a certain queen. I will not trouble you with the details, which could be of no interest to anyone but an Egyptologist, I will merely say that apart from the name and titles by which she is known to the ordinary student, this queen is also known to certain inquirers as the Witch-Queen. She was not an Egyptian, but an Asiatic. In short, she was the last high priestess of a cult which became extinct at her death. Her secret mark--I am not referring to a cartouche or anything of that kind--was a spider; it was the mark of the religion or cult which she practised. The high priest of the principal Temple of Ra, during the reign of the Pharaoh who was this queen's husband, was one Hortotef. This was his official position, but secretly he was also the high-priest of the sinister creed to which I have referred. The temple of this religion--a religion allied to Black Magic--was the Pyramid of Meydum.
"So much we knew--or Ferrara knew, and imparted to me--but for any corroborative evidence of this cult's existence we searched in vain. We explored the interior of the pyramid foot by foot, inch by inch--and found nothing. We knew that there was some other apartment in the pyramid, but in spite of our soundings, measurements and laborious excavations, we did not come upon the entrance to it. The tomb of the queen we failed to discover, also, and therefore concluded that her mummy was buried in the secret chamber of the pyramid. We had abandoned our quest in despair, when, excavating in one of the neighbouring mounds, we made a discovery."
He opened a box of cigars, selected one, and pushed the box towards his son. Robert shook his head, almost impatiently, but Dr. Cairn lighted the cigar ere resuming:
"Directed, as I now believe, by a malignant will, we blundered upon the tomb of the high priest--"
"You found his mummy?"
"We found his mummy--yes. But owing to the carelessness--and the fear--of the native labourers it was exposed to the sun and crumpled--was lost. I would a similar fate had attended the other one which we found!"
"What, another mummy?"
"We discovered"--Dr. Cairn spoke very deliberately--"a certain papyrus. The translation of this is contained"--he rested the point of his finger upon the writing-table--"in the unpublished book of Sir Michael Ferrara, which lies here. That book, Rob, will never be published now! Furthermore, we discovered the mummy of a child--"
"A boy. Not daring to trust the natives, we removed it secretly at night to our own tent. Before we commenced the task of unwrapping it, Sir Michael--the most brilliant scholar of his age--had proceeded so far in deciphering the papyrus, that he determined to complete his reading before we proceeded further. It contained directions for performing a certain process. This process had reference to the mummy of the child."
"Do I understand--?"
"Already, you are discrediting the story! Ah! I can see it! but let me finish. Unaided, we performed this process upon the embalmed body of the child. Then, in accordance with the directions of that dead magician--that accursed, malignant being, who thus had sought to secure for himself a new tenure of evil life--we laid the mummy, treated in a certain fashion, in the King's Chamber of the Meydum Pyramid. It remained there for thirty days; from moon to moon--"
"You guarded the entrance?"
"You may assume what you like, Rob; but I could swear before any jury, that no one entered the pyramid throughout that time. Yet since we were only human, we may have been deceived in this. I have only to add, that when at the rising of the new moon in the ancient Sothic month of Panoi, we again entered the chamber, a living baby, some six months old, perfectly healthy, solemnly blinked up at the lights which we held in our trembling hands!"
Dr. Cairn reseated himself at the table, and turned the chair so that he faced his son. With the smouldering cigar between his teeth, he sat, a slight smile upon his lips.
Now it was Robert's turn to rise and begin feverishly to pace the floor.
"You mean, sir, that this infant--which lay in the pyramid--was--adopted by Sir Michael?"
"Was adopted, yes. Sir Michael engaged nurses for him, reared him here in England, educating him as an Englishman, sent him to a public school, sent him to--"
"To Oxford! Antony Ferrara! What! Do you seriously tell me that this is the history of Antony Ferrara?"
"On my word of honour, boy, that is all I know of Antony Ferrara. Is it not enough?"
"Merciful God! it is incredible," groaned Robert Cairn.
"From the time that he attained to manhood," said Dr. Cairn evenly, "this adopted son of my poor old friend has passed from crime to crime. By means which are beyond my comprehension, and which alone serve to confirm his supernatural origin, he has acquired--knowledge. According to the Ancient Egyptian beliefs the Khu (or magical powers) of a fully-equipped Adept, at the death of the body, could enter into anything prepared for its reception. According to these ancient beliefs, then, the Khu of the high priest Hortotef entered into the body of this infant who was his son, and whose mother was the Witch-Queen; and to-day in this modern London, a wizard of Ancient Egypt, armed with the lost lore of that magical land, walks amongst us! What that lore is worth, it would be profitless for us to discuss, but that he possesses it--all of it--I know, beyond doubt. The most ancient and most powerful magical book which has ever existed was the Book of Thoth."
He walked across to a distant shelf, selected a volume, opened it at a particular page, and placed it on his son's knees.
"Read there!" he said, pointing.
The words seemed to dance before the younger man's eyes, and this is what he read:
"To read two pages, enables you to enchant the heavens, the earth, the abyss, the mountains, and the sea; you shall know what the birds of the sky and the crawling things are saying ... and when the second page is read, if you are in the world of ghosts, you will grow again in the shape you were on earth...."
"Heavens!" whispered Robert Cairn, "is this the writing of a madman? or can such things possibly be!" He read on:
"This book is in the middle of the river at Koptos, in an iron box--"
"An iron box," he muttered--"an iron box."
"So you recognise the iron box?" jerked Dr. Cairn.
His son read on:
"In the iron box, is a bronze box; in the bronze box, is a sycamore box; in the sycamore box, is an ivory and ebony box; in the ivory and ebony box, is a silver box; in the silver box, is a golden box; and in that is the book. It is twisted all round with snakes, and scorpions, and all the other crawling things...."
"The man who holds the Book of Thoth," said Dr. Cairn, breaking the silence, "holds a power which should only belong to God. The creature who is known to the world as Antony Ferrara, holds that book--do you doubt it?--therefore you know now, as I have known long enough, with what manner of enemy we are fighting. You know that, this time, it is a fight to the death--"
He stopped abruptly, staring out of the window.
A man with a large photographic camera, standing upon the opposite pavement, was busily engaged in focussing the house!
"What is this?" muttered Robert Cairn, also stepping to the window.
"It is a link between sorcery and science!" replied the doctor. "You remember Ferrara's photographic gallery at Oxford?--the Zenana, you used to call it!--You remember having seen in his collection photographs of persons who afterwards came to violent ends?"
"I begin to understand!"
"Thus far, his endeavours to concentrate the whole of the evil forces at his command upon this house have had but poor results: having merely caused Myra to dream strange dreams--clairvoyant dreams, instructive dreams, more useful to us than to the enemy; and having resulted in certain marks upon the outside of the house adjoining the windows--windows which I have sealed in a particular manner. You understand?"
"By means of photographs he--concentrates, in some way, malignant forces upon certain points--"
"He focusses his will--yes! The man who can really control his will, Rob, is supreme, below the Godhead. Ferrara can almost do this now. Before he has become wholly proficient--"
"I understand, sir," snapped his son grimly.
"He is barely of age, boy," Dr. Cairn said, almost in a whisper. "In another year, he would menace the world. Where are you going?"
He grasped his son's arm as Robert started for the door.
"That man yonder--"
"Diplomacy, Rob!--Guile against guile. Let the man do his work, which he does in all innocence; then follow him. Learn where his studio is situated, and, from that point, proceed to learn--"
"The situation of Ferrara's hiding-place?" cried his son, excitedly. "I understand! Of course; you are right, sir."
"I will leave the inquiry in your hands, Rob. Unfortunately other duties call me."