Lord Knowshire could scarcely contain his emotion. Before him, only a few miles away, gleaming bright in the sunlight, were the red walls of Sah-Harah. In that moment, he forgot the tragic vicissitudes of his journey, forgot the unhappy fate of his companions and the faithlessness of his guides, forgot all but the marvelous sight that lay at last before his eyes. For years he had dreamed of it, repeating the passages from Abu-Abbas engraved in his memory and comparing the Coptic inscriptions of Abydos with the papyrus, two millennia older, discovered in the nameless tomb at Deir-el-Bahari and never fully understood till now. He had followed his destiny here. He allowed himself a moment to savor the long-sought triumph, for he had paid dearly for it. Then, hoisting onto his back the knapsack containing all that was left of the expedition supplies, he set off resolutely toward the gleaming granite walls that sent him from afar a final, irresistible challenge.
The circular shape of the city became ever more apparent as he came nearer. He visually estimated the diameter as not less than two miles. The city presented to the visitor a forbidding exterior wall, sixty or seventy feet high, of polished, perfectly fitted stone blocks, an even surface without hollows or projections. It appeared to be a single colossal building: a cylinder with a slightly rounded lid. As his lordship came close, that lid or cap was hidden by the loom of the wall.
He came right up to the wall and set his palm on the red, sun-heated stone. Then he set off along it, seeking an entrance. He judged that he had gone about a quarter of the circumference when at last he came on an opening, very high, very narrow—so narrow that only an unusually thin person could venture to enter it. There he halted, slipping his pack off, and considered what to do.
The entrance—he could not bring himself to call it a doorway—was appallingly plain. An opening. A dark crack in the lower third of the featureless wall. Nothing frightening, nothing intended to give warning or strike terror into one who sought entry, no trace of bolts, bars, sphinxes, or chimera. And yet, standing outside this entrance, the intrepid Lord Knowshire felt a most disagreeable sensation, a shudder that ran clear through his body, head to foot. But it was too late to turn back now. The moment’s hesitation past, he stepped across the invisible threshold.
Though famous for his thinness, and still leaner now after the long days of trekking in the heat of the desert, even he could go forward only by sidling along, his chin tucked into his shoulder, dragging his pack behind him by the strap. Contrary to his expectations and the usual mythologies, he came to no trapdoors, no hidden devices set to destroy the wiliest and most cautious transgressor. Quite the opposite: The tight squeeze of the entrance soon opened out into a corridor, not very wide, to be sure, but easy enough to walk in. Light came from high up; the air was breathable; the floor lay on a scarcely perceptible rising grade; the walls were featureless; and the passage had a slight, constant curve to the left, a curve evidently following the shape of the outer wall.
After walking some hours, his lordship realized that the corridor was not circular, for if it had been, he would almost certainly have come back round to the entrance or a place he had already passed. The passageway led steadily onward, turning always very slightly to the left. Unmistakably, he was tracing a slow, gigantic spiral, the end of which he could not foresee, since he could not precisely determine the curvature, not knowing the thickness of the walls, and thus could not know if the spiral extended all the way to the center of the colossal edifice or would end before that. All he could do was go on, following the constant slight curve to the left.
Nightfall is very brief in that latitude. All light in the corridor came from the sky, so when his lordship found himself in gloom and shadow, he had just time to look at his watch and set down his pack before it grew pitch dark. For hours he had heard no sound but his own footsteps amplified by echo. Now he listened hard, but in vain; not the slightest sound came to his ears. In the changeless quiet of the night, his breathing and the slow rhythm of his heartbeat were the only signs of life. He closed his eyes. The image of the corridor, rocking a little to the cadence of his steps, rose before him and would not leave him. Then, worn out by fatigue and the effort to keep calm, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The night passed without event. Yet for the first time since he set off on this expedition, he woke with a vivid sense of the relentless passage of time. Once again he went through the limited contents of his pack: binoculars, a map, a broken compass, a journal in which he had made no entries for a long time, a book from which he had never been parted, some cartridges for the revolver at his belt, a canteen half full of stale water, biscuits, chocolate, a few tins of meat, a knife . . . and that was all. The food could be made to last several days. The water, maybe three. Not a reassuring assessment.
He set off again. He had to go on. For a moment he thought he had started out in the wrong direction, but that was impossible; the passage led on, curving slightly to the left; everything was as it should be.
The problem with this easy walking was only now becoming clear. A day passed, two days; well before a week had passed, he was suffering from hunger and above all from thirst. His steps were less steady, his vision dimmed. The slight curve of the corridor began to obsess him. He could not sleep. He walked on even at night. Despite that utter darkness, the image of the changeless passage ahead was so deeply printed on his retina that it never left him, and he followed it all night. He walked on, not stopping, no longer knowing night from day, not counting the days, his mind fixed on the corridor’s end, persisting in envisioning the unforeseeable. He shuddered with rage, fearing that he had got turned round, knowing he would die of thirst long before he reached his goal, terrified at the thought that his legs would give out, that he would fall down and crawl a while and die before he ever came to the end of the horrible corridor . . .
He staggered, fell. His knees hurt very much. Only then did he realize he had been walking in complete darkness. He reached out toward the wall for support. His groping fingers touched bones: a skeleton. He struggled to his feet. Must go on. He knew that if he stayed there to rest, he would never get up again. He went on, more cautiously. After a while there was some light, and he saw other skeletons. In a moment of clear-mindedness, he realized that the radius of the circle within which he moved had greatly decreased; the leftward curve of the corridor was much more marked. It could not be much farther to the center. He breathed with difficulty. His tongue was swollen, his belly cramped with hunger-pangs. He decided to get rid of the backpack he had carried so far, useless to him now. He took off his shoes, then his clothes, one by one. The sense of fatality, of the irreversible, that he had waked to that first morning now filled his whole being.
When he stepped out naked into the round central chamber of the Nummultian city Sah-Harah, Lord Knowshire was at the end of his strength. He leaned against the wall, and before letting himself slip slowly to the floor, managed to take one look clear around the room. What he saw would have awed anyone: twelve massive golden thrones set around the wall, in which sat twelve bejeweled ivory statues of Osiris. The alabaster wall was carved in bas-relief, a great frieze of scenes from the Book of the Dead, broken by panels of hieroglyphs. In the center of the chamber, among bronze tables set with bowls and baskets filled with honey, wheat, wine, and dates, stood a magnificent silver sarcophagus. The lid was propped open on two cedar-wood poles. Next to it, on a chair that looked very simple amid the pomp of all the rest, some purple garments were laid.
Spellbound, his lordship stood up straight and walked forward as if floating on the air. He no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst, or was no longer aware of them. He had entirely forgotten what had brought him to this place. As if sleepwalking, he approached the sarcophagus and, paying no heed to the opulent feast laid out on the tables, looked inside to make sure the coffin was empty. He moved slowly, with calm, hieratic gestures, as if carrying out a sacred rite. He took up the purple robes and put them on. Then, with great care not to bring the lid down, he slipped into the sarcophagus and stretched himself out, smiling a little. His death was a slow, quiet crossing of the boundary between the two worlds, as if no boundary existed.
He was dead. The rotten cedar-wood props shattered, spraying a fine dust all around, and the heavy lid of the sarcophagus came down with a mighty crash. On its upper surface was the carven image of Lord Knowshire’s face, transfigured by an ineffable smile. It had been waiting there four thousand years for this reunion.
Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!
Spread the word!Tweet