Thebes Diospolis, the hundred-gated, was in holiday attire. The great suburb to the west of the Nile had emptied her multitudes into the solemn community of the gods. Besides her own inhabitants there were thousands from the entire extent of the Thebaid and visitors even from far-away Syene and Philae. It was an occasion for more than ordinary pomp. The great god Amen was to be taken for an outing in his ark.
Every possible manifestation of festivity had been sought after and displayed. The air was a-flutter with party-colored streamers. Garlands rioted over colossus, peristyle, obelisk and sphinx without conserving pattern or moderation. The dromos, or avenue of sphinxes, was carpeted with palm and nelumbo leaves, and copper censers as large as caldrons had been set at equidistance from one another, and an unceasing reek of aromatics drifted up from them throughout the day.
For once the magnificence of the wondrous city of the gods was set down from its usual preeminence in the eyes of the wondering spectator, and the vastness of the multitude usurped its place. The bari of Kenkenes seeking to round the island of sand lying near the eastern shore opposite the village of Karnak, met a solid pack of boats. The young sculptor took in the situation at once, and, putting about, found a landing farther to the north. There he made a portage across the flat bar of sand to the arm of quiet water that separated the island from the eastern shore. Crossing, he dismissed his eager and excited boatmen and struck across the noon-heated valley toward the temple. The route of the pageant could be seen from afar, cleanly outlined by humanity. It extended from Karnak to Luxor and, turning in a vast loop at the Nile front, countermarched over the dromos and ended at the tremendous white-walled temple of Amen. Between the double ranks of sightseers there was but chariot room. The side Kenkenes approached sloped sharply from the dromos toward the river, and the rearmost spectators had small opportunity to behold the pageant. The multitude here was less densely packed. Kenkenes joined the crowd at this point.
Here was the canaille of Thebes.
They wore nothing but a kilt of cotton -- or as often, only a cincture about the loins, and their lean bodies were blackened by the terrible sun of the desert. They were the apprentices of paraschites, brewers, professional thieves, slaves and traffickers in the unclean necessities of a great city, and only their occasional riots, or such events as this, brought them into general view of the upper classes. They had nothing in common with the gentry, whom they were willing to recognize as creatures of a superior mold. Among themselves there were established castes, and members of each despised the lower and hated the upper. Kenkenes slackened his pace when he recognized the character of these spectators, and after hesitating a moment, he hung the flat wallet containing the message around his neck inside his kamis and pushed on. Every foot of progress he essayed was snarlingly disputed until the rank of the aggressive stranger was guessed by his superior dress, when he was given a moody and ungracious path. But he finally met an immovable obstacle in the shape of a quarrel.
The stage of hostilities was sufficiently advanced to be menacing, and the young sculptor hesitated to ponder on the advisability of pressing on. While he waited, several deputies of the constabulary, methodically silencing the crowd, came upon these belligerents in turn and belabored the foremost into silence. The act decided the young man. The feelings of the rabble were now in a state sufficiently warlike to make them forget their ancient respect for class and turn savagely upon him, should he show any desire to force his way through their lines. Therefore he gave up his attempt to reach the temple and made up his mind to remain where he was. At that moment, several gorgeous litters of the belated wealthy rammed a path to the very front and were set down before the rabble. Kenkenes seized upon their advance to proceed also, and, dropping between the first and second litter, made his way with little difficulty to the front. With the complacency of a man that has rank and authority on his side he turned up the roadway and continued toward the temple. He was halted before he had proceeded ten steps. A litter richly gilded and borne by four men, came pushing through the crowd and was deposited directly in his path.
But for the unusual appearance of the bearers, Kenkenes might have passed around the conveyance and continued. Instead, he caught the contagious curiosity of the crowd and stood to marvel. The men were stalwart, black-bearded and strong of feature, and robed in no Egyptian garb. They were draped voluminously in long habits of brown linen, fringed at the hem, belted by a yellow cord with tasseled ends. The sleeves were wide and showed the wristbands of a white under-garment. The head-dress was a brown kerchief bound about the brow with a cord, also yellow.
While Kenkenes examined them in detail, a long, in-drawn breath of wonder from the circle of spectators caused him to look at the alighting owner of the litter.
He took a backward step and halted, amazed.
Before him was a woman of heroic proportions, taller, with the exception of himself, than any man in the crowd. Upon her, at first glance, was to be discerned the stamp of great age, yet she was as straight as a column and her hair was heavy and midnight-black. Hers was the Semitic cast of countenance, the features sharply chiseled, but without that aggressiveness that emphasizes the outline of a withered face. Every passing year had left its mark on her, but she had grown old not as others do. Here was flesh compromising with age -- accepting its majesty, defying its decay -- a sublunar assumption of immortality. There was no longer any suggestion of femininity; the idea was dread power and unearthly grace. Of such nature might the sexless archangels partake.
|Holy Amen!| one of the awed bystanders exclaimed in a whisper to his neighbor. |Who is this?|
|A princess from Punt,| the neighbor surmised.
|A priestess from Babylon,| another hazarded.
|Nay, ye are all wrong,| quavered an old man who had been looking at the new-comers under the elbows of the crowd. |She is an Israelite.|
|Thou hast a cataract, old man,| was the scornful reply from some one near by. |She is no slave.|
|Aye,| went on the unsteady voice, |I know her. She was the favorite woman of Queen Neferari Thermuthis. She has not been out of the Delta where her people live since the good queen died forty years ago. She must be well-nigh a hundred years old. Aye, I should know her by her stature. It is of a truth the Lady Miriam.|
At the sound of his mistress' name one of the bearers turned and shot a sharp glance at the speaker. Instantly the old man fell back, saying, as a sneer of contempt ran through the rabble at the intelligence his words conveyed: |Anger them not. They have the evil eye.|
Kenkenes had guessed the nationality of the strangers immediately, but had doubted the correctness of his surmise, because of their noble mien. If he suffered any disappointment in hearing proof of their identity, it was immediately nullified by the joy his artist-soul took in the stately Hebrew woman. He forgot the mission that urged him to the temple and, permitting the shifting, restless crowd to surround him, he lingered, thinking. This proud disdain must mark his goddess of stone in the Arabian hills, this majesty and power; but there must be youth and fire in the place of this ancient calm.
A porter that stood beside him, emboldened by barley beer and the growing disapproval among the on-lookers, cried:
|Ha! by the rags of my fathers, she outshines her masters, the brickmaking hag!|
Kenkenes, who towered over the ruffian, became possessed of a sudden and uncontrollable indignation. He pecked the man on the head with the knuckle of his forefinger, saying in colloquial Egyptian:
|Hold thy tongue, brawler, nor presume to flout thy betters!|
The stately Israelite, who had taken no notice of any word against her, now turned her head toward Kenkenes and slowly inspected him. He had no opportunity to guess whether her gaze was approving, for the crowd about him, grown weary of waiting, had become quarrelsome and was loudly resenting his defense of the Hebrews. The porter, supported by several of his brethren, was already menacing the young sculptor when some one shouted that the procession was in sight.
From his position Kenkenes commanded a long view of the street that declined sharply toward the river. As yet there was nothing to be seen of the pageant, but the dense crowds far down the highway swayed backward from the narrow path between them. Presently, scantily-clad runners were distinguished coming in a slow trot between the multitudes. The lane widened before the swing of their maces and there were cries of alarm as the spectators in the middle were pressed between the retreating forward ranks and the immovable rear. Running water-bearers pursued the couriers with gurglets, sprinkling the way. Directly after these, slim bare-limbed youths came in a rapid pace strewing the path with flowers and palm-leaves. By this time the intermittent sound of music had grown insistent and continuous. Solemn bodies of priests approached, series after series of the shaven, white-robed ministers of Amen. The murmur had grown to an uproar. The wild clamor of trumpet, pipe, cymbal and sistrum, with the long drone of the arghool as undertone, drifted by. The upper orders of priests followed in the vibrating wake of the musicians. Then came Loi, high-priest to the patron god of Thebes, walking alone, his ancient figure most pitifully mocked by the richness of his priestly robes.
After him the great god, Amen, in his ark.
The air was rent with acclaim. The crowd was too dense for any one to prostrate himself, but every Egyptian, potentate or slave, assumed as nearly as possible the posture of humility. Kenkenes bent reverently, but he lifted his eyes and looked long at the passing ark. Six priests bore it upon their shoulders. It was a small boat, elaborately carved, and the cabin in the center -- the retreat of the deity -- was picketed with a cordon of sacred images. The entire feretory was overlaid with gold and crusted with gems.
Mentu, his father, had planned one for Ptah, and a noble work it was, -- quite equal to this, Kenkenes thought.
His artistic deliberations were interrupted by an angry tone in the clamor about him. The Israelites had called out a demonstration of contempt before, and he guessed at once that they had further displeased the rabble. It was even as he had thought. The four bearers with folded arms contemplated the threatening crowd with a sidelong gaze of contempt. The stately Israelite stood in a dream, her brilliant eyes fixed in profound preoccupation on the distance. Kenkenes knew by the present attitude of the group that they had made no obeisance to Amen. Hence the mutterings among the faithful. Few had seen the offense at first, but the demonstration spread nevertheless, and assumed ominous proportions.
|Nay, now,| Kenkenes thought impatiently, |such impiety is foolhardy.| But he drifted into the group of Hebrews and stood between the woman of Israel and her insulters. The bearers glanced at him, at one another, and closed up beside him, but he had eyes only for the majestic Israelite. Not till he saw her bend with singular grace did he look again on the pageant, interested to know what had won her homage.
She had done obeisance before the crown prince of Egypt. He stood in a sumptuous chariot drawn by white horses and driven by a handsome charioteer. The princely person was barely visible for the pair of feather fans borne by attendants that walked beside him. Through continuous cheering he passed on. Seti, the younger, followed, driving alone. His eyes wandered in pleased wonder over the multitude which howled itself hoarse for him.
Close behind him was a chariot of ebony drawn by two plunging, coal-black horses. A robust Egyptian, who shifted from one foot to the other and talked to his horses continually, drove therein alone. As he approached, the Hebrew woman raised herself so suddenly that one of the nervous animals side-stepped affrighted. The swaggering Egyptian, with a muttered curse, struck at her with his whip. The four bearers sprang forward, but she quieted them with a few words in Hebrew. Reentering her litter she was borne away, while the Thebans were still lost in the delights of the procession.
In the few strange words of the woman of Israel, Kenkenes had caught the name of Har-hat. This then was the bearer of the king's fan -- this insulter of age and womanhood. And the words of Mentu seemed very fitting, -- |I like him not.|
The Thebans were in raptures. The splendors of the pageant had far surpassed their expectations. Priests, soldiers and officials came in companies, rank upon rank, of exalted and ornate dignity. Chariots and horses shone with gilding, polished metal and gay housings, while the marching legions clanked with pike and blade and shield. Now that the chief luminaries of the procession had passed, the rich and lofty departed with a great show of indifference to the rest of the parade. But the humbler folk, all unlearned in the art of assumption, had not reached that nice point of culture, and lingered to see the last foot-soldier pass.
Kenkenes, urged by his mission, was departing with the rich and lofty, when his attention was attracted by the chief leading the section of royal scribes now passing. His was a compact, plump figure, amply robed in sheeny linen, and he balanced himself skilfully in his light shell of a chariot, which bumped over the uneven pavement. He was not a brilliant mark in the long parade, but something other than his mere appearance made him conspicuous. Behind him, walking at a respectful distance, was his corps of subordinates -- all mature, many of them aged, but the years of their chief were fewer than those of the youngest among them. From the center of the crowd his face appeared boyish, and the multitude hailed him with delight. But the crown prince himself was not more unmoved by their acclaim. His silent dignity, misunderstood, brought forth howls of genuine pleasure, and groups of young noblemen, out of the great college of Seti I, saluted him by name, adding thereto exalted titles in good-natured derision.
|Hotep!| ejaculated Kenkenes aloud, catching the name from the lips of the students. |By Apis, he is the royal scribe!|
Not until then had he realized the extent of his friend's exaltation.
He turned again toward the temple, walking between the crowds and the marching soldiers, indifferent to the shouts of the spectators -- lost in contemplation. But the procession moved more swiftly than he and the last rank passed him with half his journey yet to complete. Instantly the vast throng poured out into the way behind the rearmost soldier and swallowed up the sculptor in a shifting multitude. For an hour he was hurried and halted and pushed, progressing little and moving much. Before he could extricate himself, the runners preceding the pageant returning the great god to his shrine, beat the multitude back from the dromos and once again Kenkenes was imprisoned by the hosts. And once again after the procession had passed, he did fruitless battle with a tossing human sea. But when the street had become freer, he stood before the closed portal of the great temple. The solemn porter scrutinized the young sculptor sharply, but the display of the linen-wrapped roll was an efficient passport. In a little space he was conducted across the ringing pavements, under the vaulted shadows, into the presence of Loi, high priest to Amen.
The ancient prelate had just returned from installing the god in his shrine and was yet invested in his sacerdotal robes. At one time this splendid raiment had swathed an imposing figure, but now the frame was bowed, its whilom comfortable padding fallen away, its parchment-like skin folded and wrinkled and brown. He was trembling with the long fatigue of the spectacle.
He spelled the hieratic writings upon the outer covering of the roll which the young man presented to him, and asked with some eagerness in his voice:
|Hast thou traveled with all speed?|
|Scarce eight days have I been on the way. Only have I been delayed a few hours by the crowds of the festival.|
|It is well,| replied the pontiff. |Wait here while I see what says my brother at On.|
He motioned Kenkenes to a seat of inlaid ebony and retired into a curtained recess.
The apartment into which Kenkenes had been conducted was small. It was evidently the study of Loi, for there was a small library of papyri in cases against the wall; a deep fauteuil was before a heavy table covered with loosely rolled writings. The light from a high slit under the architrave sifted down on the floor strewn with carpets of Damascene weave. Two great pillars, closely set, supported the ceiling. They were of red and black granite, and each was surmounted by a foliated encarpus of white marble. The ceiling was a marvelous marquetry of many and wondrously harmonious colors.
In one wall was the entrance leading to another chamber. It was screened by a slowly swaying curtain of broidered linen, which was tied at its upper corners to brass rings sunk in the stone frame of the door. This frame attracted the attention of the young sculptor. It consisted of two caryatides standing out from the square shaft from which they were carved, their erect heads barely touching the ceiling. The figures were of heroic size and wore the repose and dignity of countenance characteristic of Egyptian statues. The sculptor had been so successful in bringing out this expression that Kenkenes stood before them and groaned because he had not followed nature to the exquisite achievement he might have attained.
He was deeply interested in his critical examination of the figures when the old priest darted into the apartment, his withered face working with excitement.
|Go! Go!| he cried. |Eat and prepare to return to Memphis with all speed. Thine answer will await thee here to-night at the end of the first watch, -- and Set be upon thee if thou delayest!|
Kenkenes, startled out of speech, did obeisance and hastened from the temple.
The outside air was thick with dust and intensely hot under the reddening glare of the sun. It was late afternoon. The city was still crowded, the river front lined with a dense jam of people awaiting transportation to the opposite shore. Kenkenes knew that many would still be there on the morrow, since the number of boats was inadequate to carry the multitude of passengers.
He began to think with concern upon the security of his own bari, left in the marsh-growth by the Nile side, north of Karnak. He left the shifting crowd behind and struck across the sandy flat toward the arm of quiet water. Straggling groups preceded and followed him and at the Nile-side he came upon a number contending for the possession of his boat. They were image-makers and curriers, equally matched against one another, and a Nubian servitor in a striped tunic, who remained neutral that he might with safety join the winning party. The appearance of the nobleman checked hostilities and the contestants, recognizing the paternalism of rank after the manner of the lowly, called upon him to arbitrate.
|The boat is mine, children,| was his quiet answer. He pushed it off, stepped into it, and turned it broadside to them.
|See here, the scarab of Ptah,| he said, tapping the bow with a paddle, |and the name of Memphis?| With that he drew away to the sandbar before the astonished men had realized the turn of events. Then they looked at one another in silence or muttered their disgust; but the Nubian went into transports of rage, making such violent demonstrations that the image-makers and curriers turned on him and bade him cease.
At the Libyan shore Kenkenes gave his bari into the hands of a river-man and by a liberal fee purchased its security from confiscation. Then he turned his face toward the center of the western suburb of Thebes Diospolis. He had the larger palace of Rameses II in view and he walked briskly, as one who goes forward to meet pleasure. Only once, when he passed the palace and temple of the Incomparable Pharaoh, which stood at the mouth of the Valley of the Kings, he frowned in discontent. Far up the tortuous windings of this gorge was the tomb of the great Rameses and there had the precious signet been lost. As he looked at the high red ridge through which this crevice led, he remembered his father's emphatic prohibition and bit his lip. Thereafter, throughout a great part of his walk, he railed mentally against the useless loss of a most propitious opportunity.
To the first resplendent member of the retinue at Meneptah's palace, who cast one glance at the fillet the sculptor wore, and bent suavely before him, Kenkenes stated his mission. The retainer bowed again and called a rosy page hiding in the dusk of the corridor.
|Go thou to the apartments of my Lord Hotep and tell him a visitor awaits him in his chamber of guests.|
The lad slipped away and the retainer led Kenkenes into a long chamber near the end of the corridor. The hall had been darkened to keep out the glare of the day, air being admitted only through a slatted blind against which a shrub in the court outside beat its waxen leaves. Before his eyes had become accustomed to the dusk Kenkenes heard footsteps coming down the outer passage, with now and then the light and brisk scrape of the sandal toe on the polished floor. The young sculptor smiled at the excited throb of his heart. The new-comer entered the hall and drew up the shutter. The brilliant flood of light revealed to him the tall figure of the sculptor rising from his chair -- to the sculptor the trim presence of the royal scribe.
The friends had not met in six years.
For a space long enough for recognition to dawn upon the scribe, he stood motionless and then with an exclamation of extravagant delight he seized his friend and embraced him with woman-like emotion.
Undertakers -- embalmers, an unclean class.
Punt -- Arabia.
The oriental master calls his servants |children.|