Holy Memphis, city of Apis, habitat of Ptah!
Not idly was she called Menefer, the Good Place. Not anywhere in Egypt were the winds more gentle, the heavens more benign, the environs more august.
To the south and west of her, the Libyan hills notched the horizon. To the east the bald summits of the Arabian desert cut off the traveling sand in its march on the capital. To the north was a shimmering level that stretched unbroken to the sea. Set upon this at mid-distance, the pyramids uplifted their stupendous forms. In the afternoon they assumed the blue of the atmosphere and appeared indistinct, but in the morning the polished sides that faced the east reflected the sun's rays in dazzling sheets across the valley.
Out of a crevice between the heights to the south the broad blue Nile rolled, sweeping past one hundred and twenty stadia or sixteen miles of urban magnificence, and lost itself in the shimmering sky-line to the north.
The city was walled on the north, west, and south, and its river-front was protected by a mighty dike, built by Menes, the first king of the first dynasty in the hour of chronological daybreak. Within were orderly squares, cross-cut by avenues and relieved from monotony by scattered mosaics of groves. Out of these shady demesnes rose the great white temples of Ptah and Apis, and the palaces of the various Memphian Pharaohs.
About these, the bazaars and residences, facade above facade, and tier upon tier, as the land sloped up to its center, shone fair and white under a cloudless sun.
Memphis was at the pinnacle of her greatness in the sixth year of the reign of the divine Meneptah. She had fortified herself and resisted the great invasion of the Rebu. Her generals had done battle with him and brought him home, chained to their chariots.
And after the festivities in celebration of her prowess, she laid down pike and falchion, bull-hide shield and helmet, and took up the chisel and brush, the spindle and loom once more.
The heavy drowsiness of a mid-winter noon had depopulated her booths and bazaars and quieted the quaint traffic of her squares. In the shadows of the city her porters drowsed, and from the continuous wall of houses blankly facing one another from either side of the streets, there came no sound. Each household sought the breezes on the balconies that galleried the inner walls of the courts, or upon the pillared and canopied housetops.
Memphis had eaten and drunk and, sheltered behind her screens, waited for the noon to pass.
Mentu, the king's sculptor, however, had not availed himself of the hour of ease. He did not labor because he must, for his house stood in the aristocratic portion of Memphis, and it was storied, galleried, screened and topped with its breezy pavilion. Within the hollow space, formed by the right and left wings of his house, the chamber of guests to the front, and the property wall to the rear, was a court of uncommon beauty. Palm and tamarisk, acacia and rose-shrub, jasmine and purple mimosa made a multi-tinted jungle about a shadowy pool in which a white heron stood knee-deep. There were long stretches of sunlit sod, and walks of inlaid tile, seats of carved stone, and a single small obelisk, set on a circular slab, marked with measures for time -- the Egyptian sun-dial. On every side were evidences of wealth and luxury.
So Mentu labored because he loved to toil. In a land languorous with tropical inertia, an enthusiastic toiler is not common. For this reason, Mentu was worth particular attention. He towered a palm in height over his Egyptian brethren, and his massive frame was entirely in keeping with his majestic stature. He was nearly fifty years of age, but no sign of the early decay of the Oriental was apparent in him. His was the characteristic refinement of feature that marks the Egyptian countenance, further accentuated by self-content and some hauteur. The idea of dignity was carried out in his dress. The kilt was not visible, for the kamis had become a robe, long-sleeved, high-necked and belted with a broad band of linen, encompassing the body twice, before it was fastened with a fibula of massive gold.
That he was an artisan noble was another peculiarity, but it was proof of exceptional merit. He had descended from a long line of royal sculptors, heightening in genius in the last three. His grandsire had elaborated Karnak; his father had decorated the Rameseum, but Mentu had surpassed the glory of his ancestors. In the years of his youth, side by side with the great Rameses, he had planned and brought to perfection the mightiest monument to Egyptian sculpture, the rock-carved temple of Ipsambul. In recognition of this he had been given to wife a daughter of the Pharaoh and raised to a rank never before occupied by a king's sculptor. He was second only to the fan-bearers, the most powerful nobles of the realm, and at par with the market, or royal architect, who was usually chosen from among the princes. And yet he had but come again to his own when he entered the ranks of peerage. In the long line of his ancestors he counted a king, and from that royal sire he had his stature.
He sat before a table covered with tools of his craft, rolls of papyrus, pens of reeds, pots of ink of various colors, horns of oil, molds and clay images and vessels of paint. Hanging upon pegs in the wooden walls of his work-room were saws and the heavier drills, chisels of bronze and mauls of tamarisk, suspended by thongs of deer-hide.
The sculptor, rapidly and without effort, worked out with his pen on a sheet of papyrus the detail of a frieze. Tiny profile figures, quaint borders of lotus and mystic inscriptions trailed after the swift reed in multitudinous and bewildering succession. As he worked, a young man entered the doorway from the court and, advancing a few steps toward the table, watched the development of the drawings with interest.
Those were the days of early maturity and short life. The Egyptian of the Exodus often married at sixteen, and was full of years and ready to be gathered to Osiris at fifty-five or sixty. The great Rameses lived to the unheard-of age of seventy-seven, having occupied the throne since his eleventh year.
This young Egyptian, nearly eighteen, was grown and powerful with the might of mature manhood. A glance at the pair at once established their relationship as father and son. The features were strikingly similar, the stature the same, though the young frame was supple and light, not massive.
The hair was straight, abundant, brilliant black and cropped midway down the neck and just above the brows. There was no effort at parting. It was dressed from the crown of the head as each hair would naturally lie and was confined by a circlet of gold, the token of the royal blood of his mother's house. The complexion was the hue of a healthy tan, different, however, from the brown of exposure in that it was transparent and the red in the cheek was dusky. The face was the classic type of the race, for be it known there were two physiognomies characteristic of Egypt.
The forehead was broad, the brows long and delicately penciled, the eyes softly black, very long, the lids heavy enough to suggest serenity rather than languor. The nose was of good length, aquiline, the nostril thin and sharply chiseled. The cut of the mouth and the warmth of its color gave seriousness, sensitiveness and youthful tenderness to the face.
Egypt was seldom athletic. Though running and wrestling figured much in the pastime of youths, the nation was languid and soft. However, Seti the Elder demanded the severest physical exercise of his sons, and Rameses II, who succeeded him, made muscle and brawn popular by example, during his reign. Here, then, was an instance of king-mimicking that was admirable.
Originally the young man had been gifted with breadth of shoulder, depth of chest, health and vigor. He would have been strong had he never vaulted a pole or run a mile. To these advantages were added the results of wise and thorough training, so wise, so thorough, that defects in the national physique had been remedied. Thus, the calves were stanch and prominent, whereas ancient Egypt was as flat-legged as the negro; the body was round and tapered with proper athletic rapidity from shoulder to heel, without any sign of the lank attenuation that was characteristic of most of his countrymen.
The suggestion of his presence was power and bigness, not the good-natured size that is hulking and awkward, but bigness that is elegant and fine-fibered and ages into magnificence.
He wore a tunic of white linen, the finely plaited skirt reaching almost to the knees. The belt was of leather, three fingers in breadth and ornamented with metal pieces, small, round and polished. His sandals were of white gazelle-hide, stitched with gold, and, by way of ornament, he had but a single armlet, and a collar, consisting of ten golden rings, depending by eyelets from a flexible band of the same material. The metal was unpolished and its lack-luster red harmonized wonderfully with the bronze throat it clasped.
Diminutive Isis in profile had emerged part-way from the background of papyrus, and the sculptor lifted his pen to sketch in the farther shoulder as the law required. The young man leaned forward and watched. But as the addition was made, giving to the otherwise shapely little goddess an uncomfortable but thoroughly orthodox twist, he frowned slightly. After a moment's silence he came to the bench.
|Hast thou caught some great idea on the wing or hast thou the round of actual labor to perform?| he asked.
His attention thus hailed, the sculptor raised himself and answered:
|Meneptah hath a temple to Set in mind; indeed he hath stirred up the quarries for the stone, I am told, and I am making ready, for I shall be needed.|
The older a civilization, the smoother its speech. Age refines the vowels and makes the consonants suave. They spoke easily, not hastily, but as oil flows, continuously and without ripple. The younger voice was deep, soft enough to have been wooing and as musical as a chant.
|Would that the work were as probable as thou art hopeful,| the young man said with a sigh.
|Out upon thee, idler!| was the warm reply. |Art thou come to vex me with thy doubts and scout thy sovereign's pious intentions?| The young man smiled.
|Hath the sun shone on architecture or sculpture since Meneptah succeeded to the throne?| he asked.
Mentu's eyes brightened wrathfully but the young man laid a soothing palm over the hand that gripped the reed.
|I do not mock thee, father. Rather am I full of sympathy for thee. Thou mindest me of a war-horse, stabled, with his battle-love unsatisfied, hearing in every whimper of the wind a trumpet call. Nay, I would to Osiris that the Pharaoh's intents were permanent.|
Somewhat mollified, Mentu put away the detaining hand and went on with his work. Presently the young man spoke again.
|I came to speak further of the signet,| he said.
|Aye, but what signet, Kenkenes?|
|The signet of the Incomparable Pharaoh.|
|What! after three years?|
|The sanctuary of the tomb is never entered and it is more than worth the Journey to Tape to search for the scarab again.|
|But you would search in vain,| the sculptor declared. |Rameses has reclaimed his own.|
Kenkenes shifted his position and protested.
|But we made no great search for it. How may we know of a surety if it be gone?|
|Because of thy sacrilege,| was the prompt and forcible reply. |Osiris with chin in hand and a look of mystification on his brow, pondering over the misdeeds of a soul! Mystification on Osiris! And with that, thou didst affront the sacred walls of the royal tomb and call it the Judgment of the Dead. Not one law of the sculptor's ritual but thou hadst broken, in the sacrilegious fresco. Gods! I marvel that the rock did not crumble under the first bite of thy chisel!|
Mentu fell to his work again. While he talked a small ape entered the room and, discovering the paint-pots, proceeded to decorate his person with a liberal hand. At this moment Kenkenes became aware of him and, by an accurately aimed lump of clay, drove the meddler out with a show of more asperity than the offense would ordinarily excite. Meanwhile the sculptor wetted his pen and, poising it over the plans, regarded his drawings with half-closed eyes. Then, as if he read his words on the papyrus he proceeded:
|Thou wast not ignorant. All thy life hast thou had the decorous laws of the ritual before thee. And there, in the holy precincts of the Incomparable Pharaoh's tomb, with the opportunity of a lifetime at hand, the skill of thy fathers in thy fingers, thou didst execute an impious whim, -- an unheard-of apostasy.| He broke off suddenly, changing his tone. |What if the priesthood had learned of the deed? The Hathors be praised that they did not and that no heavier punishment than the loss of the signet is ours.|
|But it may have caught on thy chisel and broken from its fastening. Thou dost remember that the floor was checkered with deep black shadows.|
|The hand of the insulted Pharaoh reached out of Amenti and stripped it off my neck,| Mentu replied sternly. |And consider what I and all of mine who come after me lost in that foolish act of thine. It was a token of special favor from Rameses, a mark of appreciation of mine art, and, more than all, a signet that I or mine might present to him or his successor and win royal good will thereby.|
|That I know right well,| Kenkenes interrupted with an anxious note in his voice, |and for that reason am I possessed to go after it to Tape.|
The sculptor lifted a stern face to his son and said, with emphasis: |Wilt thou further offend the gods, thou impious? It is not there, and vex me no further concerning it.|
Kenkenes lifted one of his brows with an air of enforced patience, and sauntered across the room to another table similarly equipped for plan-making. But he did not concern himself with the papyrus spread thereon. Instead he dropped on the bench, and crossing his shapely feet before him, gazed straight up at the date-tree rafters and palm-leaf interbraiding of the ceiling.
Though the law of heredity is not trustworthy in the transmission of greatness, Kenkenes was the product of three generations of heroic genius. He might have developed the frequent example of decadence; he might have sustained the excellence of his fathers' gift, but he could not surpass them in the methods of their school of sculpture and its results. There was one way in which he might excel, and he was born with his feet in that path. His genius was too large for the limits of his era. Therefore he was an artistic dissenter, a reformer with noble ideals.
Mimetic art as applied to Egyptian painting and sculpture was a curious misnomer. Probably no other nation of the world at that time was so devoted to it, and certainly no other people of equal advancement of that or any other time so wilfully ignored the simplest rules of proportion, perspective and form. The sculptor's ability to suggest majesty and repose, and at the same time ignore anatomical construction, was wonderful. To preserve the features and individual characteristics of a model and obey the rules of convention was a feat to be achieved only by an Egyptian. There was no lack of genius in him, but he had been denied liberty of execution until he knew no other forms but those his fathers followed generations before.
All Egypt was but a padding that the structural framework of religion supported. Science, art, literature, government, commerce, whatever the member, it was built upon a bone of religion. The processes and uses of sculpture were controlled by the sculptor's ritual and woe unto him who departed therefrom in depicting the gods! The deed was sacrilege.
In the portrait-forms the limits were less severely drawn. There were a dozen permissible attitudes, and, the characteristic features might be represented with all fidelity; but there were boundaries that might not be overstepped. The result was an artistic perversion that well-nigh perpetrated a grotesque slander on the personal appearance of the race.
After the manner of Egyptians it was understood that Kenkenes was to follow his father's calling, and ahead of him were years of labor laid in narrow lines. If he rebelled, he incurred infinite difficulty and opposition, and yet he could not wholly submit. He had been an apt and able pupil during the long process of his instruction, but when the moment of actual practice of his art arrived, he had rebelled. His first work had been his last and, in the estimation of his father, had entailed a grievous loss. Thereafter he had been limited to copying the great sculptor's plans, the work of scribes and underlings.
Thus, he had passed three years that chafed him because of their comparative idleness and their implied rebuke. The pressure finally became too great, and he began to weigh the matter of compromise. If he could secretly satisfy his own sense of the beautiful he might follow the ritual with grace.
His cogitations, as he sat before his table, assumed form and purpose.
Presently Mentu, raising his head, noted that the shadows were falling aslant the court. With an interested but inarticulate remark, he dropped his pen among its fellows in an earthenware tray, his plans into an open chest, and went out across the court, entering an opposite door.
With his father's exit, Kenkenes shifted his position, and the expression of deep thought grew on his face. After a long interval of motionless absorption he sprang to his feet and, catching a wallet of stamped and dyed leather from the wall, spread it open on the table. Chisel, mallet, tape and knife, he put into it, and dropped wallet and all into a box near-by at the sound of the sculptor's footsteps.
The great artist reentered in court robes of creamy linen, stiff with embroidery and gold stitching.
|Har-hat passes through Memphis to-day on his way to Tape, where he is to be installed as bearer of the king's fan on the right hand. He is at the palace, and nobles of the city go thither to wait upon him.|
|The king was not long in choosing a successor to the lamented Amset,| Kenkenes observed. |Har-hat vaults loftily from the nomarchship of Bubastis to an advisership to the Pharaoh.|
|Rather hath his ascent been slower than his deserts. How had the Rebu war ended had it not been for Har-hat? He is a great warrior, hath won honor for Egypt and for Meneptah. The army would follow him into the jaws of Tuat, and Rameses, the heir, need never take up arms, so long as Har-hat commands the legions of Egypt. But how the warrior will serve as minister is yet to be seen.|
|Who succeeds him over Bubastis?|
|Merenra, another of the war-tried generals. He hath been commander over Pa-Ramesu. Atsu takes his place over the Israelites.|
|Atsu?| Kenkenes mused. |I know him not.|
|He is a captain of chariots, and won much distinction during the Rebu invasion. He is a native of Mendes.|
Left alone, Kenkenes crossed the court to the door his father had entered and emerged later in a street dress of mantle and close-fitting coif. He took up the wallet and quitted the room. Passing through the intramural park and the chamber of guests, he entered the street. It was a narrow, featureless passage, scarcely wide enough to give room for a chariot. The brown dust had more prints of naked than of sandaled feet, for most men of the young sculptor's rank went abroad in chariots.
Once out of the passage, he turned across the city toward the east. Memphis had pushed aside her screens and shaken out her tapestries after the noon rest and was deep in commerce once again. From the low balconies overhead the Damascene carpets swung, lending festivity to the energetic traffic below. The pillars of stacked ware flanking the fronts of pottery shops were in a constant state of wreckage and reconstruction; the stalls of fruiterers perfumed the air with crushed and over-ripe produce; litters with dark-eyed occupants and fan-bearing attendants stood before the doorways of lapidaries and booths of stuffs; venders of images, unguents, trinkets and wines strove to outcry one another or the poulterer's squawking stall. Kenkenes met frequent obstructions and was forced to reduce his rapid pace. Curricles and chariots and wicker chairs halted him at many crossings. Carriers took up much of the narrow streets with large burdens; notaries and scribes sat cross-legged on the pavement, surrounded by their patrons and clients, and beggars and fortune-tellers strove for the young man's attention. The crowd thickened and thinned and grew again; pigeons winnowed fearlessly down to the roadway dust, and a distant yapping of dogs came down the slanting street. At times Kenkenes encountered whole troops of sacred cats that wandered about the city, monarchs over the monarch himself. By crowding into doorways he allowed these pampered felines to pass undisturbed.
In the district near the lower edge of the city he met the heavy carts of rustics, laden with cages of geese and crates of produce, moving slowly in from the wide highways of the Memphian nome. The broad backs of the oxen were gray with dust and their drivers were masked in grime.
The smell of the river became insistent. In the open stalls the fishmongers had their naked brood keeping the flies away from the stock with leafy branches. The limits of Memphis ended precipitately at a sudden slope. In the long descent to the Nile there were few permanent structures. Half-way down were great lengths of high platform built upon acacia piling. This was the flood-tide wharf, but it was used now only by loiterers, who lay upon it to bask dog-like in the sun. The long intervening stretch between the builded city and the river was covered with boats and river-men. Fishers mending nets were grouped together, but they talked with one another as if each were a furlong away from his fellow. Freight bearers, emptying the newly-arrived vessels of cargo, staggered up toward the city. Now and again sledges laden with ponderous burdens were drawn through the sand by yokes of oxen, oftener by scores of men, on whom the drivers did not hesitate to lay the lash.
River traffic was carried on far below the flood-tide wharf. Here the long landings of solid masonry, covered with deep water four months of the year, were lined with vessels. Between yard-arms hanging aslant and over decks, glimpses of the Nile might be caught. It rippled passively between its banks, for it was yet seven months before the first showing of the June rise. Here were the frail papyrus bari, constructed like a raft and no more concave than a long bow; the huge cedar-masted cangias, flat-bottomed and slow-moving; the ancient dhow with its shapeless tent-cabin aft; the ponderous cattle barges and freight vessels built of rough-hewn logs; the light passenger skiffs; and lastly, the sumptuous pleasure-boats. These were elaborate and beautiful, painted and paneled, ornamented with garlands and sheaves of carved lotus, and spread with sails, checkered and embroidered in many colors. From these emerged processions of parties returning from pleasure trips up the Nile. They came with much pomp and following, asserting themselves and proceeding through paths made ready for them by the obsequious laboring classes.
Presently there approached a corps of servants, bearing bundles of throw-sticks, nets, two or three fox-headed cats, bows and arrows, strings of fish and hampers of fowl. Behind, on the shoulders of four stalwart bearers, came a litter, fluttering with gay-colored hangings. Beside it walked an Egyptian of high class. Suddenly the bearers halted, and a little hand, imperious and literally aflame with jewels, beckoned Kenkenes from the shady interior of the litter.
He obeyed promptly. At another command the litter was lowered till the poles were supported in the hands of the bearers. The curtains were withdrawn, revealing the occupant -- a woman.
This, to the glory of Egypt! Woman was defended, revered, exalted above her sisters of any contemporary nation. No haremic seclusion for her; no semi-contemptuous toleration of her; no austere limits laid upon her uses. She bared her face to the thronging streets; she reveled beside her brother; she worshiped with him; she admitted no subserviency to her lord beyond the pretty deference that it pleased her to pay; she governed his household and his children; she learned, she wrote, she wore the crown. She might have a successor but no supplanter; an Egyptian of the dynasties before the Persian dominance could have but one wife at a time; none but kings could be profligate, openly. So, while Babylonia led her maidens to a market, while Ethiopia ruled hers with a rod, while Arabia numbered hers among her she-camels, Egypt gloried in national chivalry and spiritual love.
This was the sentiment of the nation, by the lips of Khu-n-Aten, the artist king:
|Sweet love fills my heart for the queen; may she ever keep the hand of the Pharaoh.|
Whatever Egypt's mode of worshiping Khem and Isis, nothing could set at naught this clean, impulsive, sincere avowal.
Here, then, openly and in perfect propriety was a woman abroad with her suitor.
She might have been eighteen years old, but there was nothing girlish in her gorgeous beauty. She was a red rose, full-blown.
Her robes were a double thickness of loose-meshed white linen, with a delicate stripe of scarlet; her head-dress a single swathing of scarlet gauze. She wore not one, but many kinds of jewels, and her anklets and armlets tinkled with fringes of cats and hawks in carnelian. Her hair was brilliant black and unbraided. Her complexion was transparent, and the underlying red showed deeply in the small, full-lipped mouth; like a stain in the cheeks; like a flush on the brow, and even faintly on the dainty chin. Her eyes were large and black, with the amorous lid, and lined with kohl beneath the lower lash. Her profile showed the exquisite aquiline of the pure-blooded Egyptian.
Aside from the visible evidences of charm there was an atmosphere of femininity that permeated her immediate vicinity with a witchery little short of enchantment. She was the Lady Ta-meri, daughter of Amenemhat, nomarch of Memphis.
The Egyptian accompanying the litter was nearly thirty years of age. He was an example of the other type of the race, differing from the classic model of Kenkenes. The forehead retreated, the nose was long, low, slightly depressed at the end; the mouth, thick-lipped; the eye, narrow and almond-shaped; the cheek-bones, high; the complexion, dark brown. Still, the great ripeness of lip, aggressive whiteness of teeth and brilliance of eye made his face pleasant. He wore a shenti of yellow, over it a kamis of white linen, a kerchief bound with a yellow cord about his head, and white sandals.
He was the nephew of the king's cup-bearer, who had died without issue at Thebes during the past month. His elder brother had succeeded his father to a high office in the priesthood, but he, Nechutes, was a candidate for the honors of his dead uncle.
Kenkenes gave the man a smiling nod and bent over the lady's fingers.
|Fie!| was her greeting. |Abroad like the rabble, and carrying a burden.| She filliped the wallet with a pink-stained finger-nail.
|Sit here,| she commanded, patting the cushioned edge of the litter.
The sculptor declined the invitation with a smile.
|I go to try some stone,| he explained.
|Truly, I believe thou lovest labor,| the lady asserted accusingly. |Ah, but punishment overtakes thee at last. Behold, thou mightst have gone with me to the marshes to-day, but I knew thou wouldst be as deep in labor as a slave. And so I took Nechutes.|
Kenkenes shot an amused glance at her companion.
|I would wager my mummy, Nechutes, that this is the first intimation thou hast had that thou wert second choice,| he said.
|Aye, thou hast said,| Nechutes admitted, his eyes showing a sudden light. He had a voice of profound depth and resonance, that rumbled like the purring of the king's lions. |And not a moment since she swore that it was I who made her sun to move, and that Tuat itself were sweet so I were there.|
|O Ma,| the lady cried, threatening him with her fan. |Thou Defender of Truth, smite him!|
Kenkenes laughed with delight.
|Nay, nay, Nechutes!| he cried. |Thou dost betray thyself. Never would Ta-meri have said anything so bald. Now, when she is moved to give me a honeyed fact, she laps it with delicate intimation, layer on layer like a lotus-bud. And only under the warm interpretation of my heart will it unfold and show the gold within.|
Nechutes stifled a derisive groan, but the lady's color swept up over her face and made it like the dawn.
|Nay, now,| she protested, |wherein art thou better than Nechutes, save in the manner of telling thy calumny? But, Kenkenes,| she broke off, |thou art wasted in thy narrow realm. They need thy gallant tongue at court.|
The young sculptor made soft eyes at her.
|If I were a courtier,| he objected, |I must scatter my small eloquence among many beauties that I would liefer save for one.|
She appropriated the compliment at once.
|Thou dost not hunger after even that opportunity,| she pouted. |How long hath it been since the halls of my father's house knew thy steps? A whole moon!|
|I feared that I should find Nechutes there,| Kenkenes explained.
During this pretty joust the brows of the prospective cup-bearer had knitted blackly. The scowl was unpropitious.
|Thou mayest come freely now,| he growled, |The way shall be clear.|
The lady looked at him in mock fear.
|Come, Nechutes,| the sculptor implored laughingly, |be gracious. Being in highest favor, it behooves thee to be generous.|
But the prospective cup-bearer refused to be placated. He rumbled an order to the slaves and they shouldered the litter.
Ta-meri made a pretty mouth at him, and turned again to Kenkenes.
|Nay, Kenkenes,| she said. |It was mine to say that the way shall be clear -- but I promise it.|
She nodded a bright farewell to him, and they moved away. The sculptor, still smiling, continued down to the river.
At the landing he engaged one of the numerous small boats awaiting a passenger, and directed the clout-wearing boatman to drop down the stream.
Directly opposite his point of embarkation there were farm lands, fertile and moist, extending inland for a mile. But presently the frontier of the desert laid down a gray and yellow dead-line over which no domestic plant might strike its root and live.
But the arable tracts were velvet green with young grain, the verdant level broken here and there by a rustic's hut, under two or three close-standing palms. Even from the surface of the Nile the checkered appearance of the country, caused by the various kinds of products, was noticeable. Egypt was the most fertile land in the world.
However, as the light bari climbed and dipped on the little waves toward the north the Arabian hills began to approach the river. Their fronts became abrupt and showed the edges of stratum on stratum of white stone. About their bases were quantities of rubble and gray dust slanting against their sides in slides and drifts. Across the narrowing strip of fertility square cavities in rows showed themselves in the white face of the cliffs. The ruins of a number of squat hovels were barely discernible over the wheat.
|Set me down near Masaarah,| Kenkenes said, |and wait for me.| The boatman ducked his head respectfully and made toward the eastern shore. He effected a landing at a bedding of masonry on which a wharf had once been built. The rock was now over-run with riotous marsh growth.
The quarries had not been worked for half a century. The thrifty husbandman had cultivated his narrow field within a few feet of the Nile, and the roadway that had once led from the ruined wharf toward the hills was obliterated by the grain.
Kenkenes alighted and struck through the wheat toward the pitted front of the cliffs. Before him was a narrow gorge that debouched into the great valley over a ledge of stone three feet in height. After much winding the ravine terminated in a wide pocket, a quarter of a mile inland. Exit from this cul-de-sac was possible toward the east by a steep slope leading to the top of one of the interior ridges of the desert. Kenkenes did not pause at the cluster of houses. The roofs had fallen in and the place was quite uninhabitable. But he leaped up into the little valley and followed it to its end. There he climbed the sharp declivity and turned back in the direction he had come, along the flank of the hill that formed the north wall of the gorge. The summit of the height was far above him, and the slope was covered with limestone masses. There had been no frost nor rain to disturb the original rock-piling. Only the agencies of sand and wind had disarranged the distribution on which the builders of the earliest dynasty had looked. And this was weird, mysterious and labyrinthine.
At a spot where a great deal of broken rock encumbered the ground, Kenkenes unslung his wallet and tested the fragments with chisel and mallet. It was the same as the quarry product -- magnesium limestone, white, fine, close-grained and easily worked. But it was broken in fragments too small for his purpose. Above him were fields of greater masses.
|Now, I was born under a fortunate sign,| he said aloud as he scaled the hillside; |but I fear those slabs are too long for a life-sized statue.|
On reaching them he found that those blocks which appeared from a distance to weigh less than a ton, were irregular cubes ten feet high.
He grumbled his disappointment and climbed upon one to take a general survey of his stoneyard. At that moment his eyes fell on a block of proper dimensions under the very shadow of the great cube upon which he stood. It was in the path of the wind from the north and was buried half its height in sand.
Kenkenes leaped from his point of vantage with a cry of delight.
|Nay, now,| he exclaimed; |where in this is divine disfavor?| He inspected his discovery, tried it for solidity of position and purity of texture. Its location was particularly favorable to secrecy.
It stood at the lower end of an aisle between great rocks. All view of it was cut off, save from that position taken by Kenkenes when he discovered it. A wall built between it and the north would bar the sand and form a nook, wholly closed on two sides and partly closed at each end by stones. All this made itself plain to the mind of the young sculptor at once. With a laugh of sheer content, he turned to retrace his steps and began to sing.
Then was the harsh desolation of the hills startled, the immediate echoes given unaccustomed sound to undulate in diminishing volume from one to another. He sang absently, but his preoccupation did not make his tones indifferent. For his voice was soft, full, organ-like, flexible, easy with illimitable lung-power and ineffable grace. When he ceased the silence fell, empty and barren, after that song's unaudienced splendor.
Set -- the war-god.
Amenti -- The realm of Death.
Tuat -- The Egyptian Hades.
Nomarch -- governor of a civil division called a nome. A high office.
Ma -- The goddess of truth.