Loi was not present at the sunset prayers in Karnak. An hour before he had summoned the trustiest priest in the brotherhood of ministers to Amen and bade him conduct the ceremonies of the evening. Then he sent to the temple stores, put into service another boat and was ferried over to the Libyan suburb of Thebes. He had himself borne in a litter to the greater palace of Rameses II, and asked an audience with Meneptah.
The king was at prayers in the temple of his father, close to the palace, and the dusk of twilight was settling on the valley of the Nile, before Loi was summoned to the council chamber.
The hall he entered was vast and full of deep shadows. The two windows set in one wall, many feet above the floor, showed two spaces of darkening sky. A single torch of aromatics flared and hissed beside the throne dais. Tremendous wainscoting covered the base of the walls, more than a foot above a man's height. It was massively carved with colossal sheaves of lotus-blooms and sword-like palm-leaves. Columns of great girth, bouquets of conventional stamens, ending in foliated capitals, supported by the lofty ceiling. The few men gathered in council were surrounded, over-shadowed, and dwarfed by monumental strength and solemnity.
Behind a solid panel of carved cedar, which hedged the royal dais, stood Meneptah. Above his head were the intricate drapings of a canopy of gold tissue. On a level with his eyes, at his side, was the single torch. His vision, like his father's, was defective. He was forty years old, but appeared to be younger. His person was plump, and in stature he was shorter than the average Egyptian. His coloring was high and of uniform tint. The arch of the brow, and the conspicuous distance between it and the eye below, the disdainful tension of the nostril and the drooping corners of the mouth, gave his face the injured expression of a spoiled child. The lips were of similar fullness and the chin retreated. There was refinement in his face, but no force nor modicum of perception.
Below, with the light of the torch wavering up and down his robust figure, was Har-hat, Meneptah's greatest general and now the new fan-bearer. In repose his face was expressive of great good-humor. Merriment lighted his eyes and the cut of his mouth was for laughter. But the smile seemed to be set and, furthermore, indicated that the fan-bearer found much mirth in the discomfiture of others. Aside from this undefined atmosphere of heartlessness, it can not be said that there was any craft or wickedness patent on his face, for his features were good and indicative of unusual intelligence. To the unobservant, he seemed to be a lovable, useful, able man. However, we have seen what Mentu thought of him, and Mentu's estimation might have represented that of all profound thinkers. But to the latter class, most assuredly, Meneptah did not belong.
Har-hat, taking the place of the king during the Rebu war, had displayed such generalship that the Pharaoh had rewarded him at the first opportunity with the highest office, except the regency, at his command.
To the king's right, beside the dais, with a hand resting on the back of a cathedra, or great chair, was the crown prince, Rameses. The old courtiers of the dead grandsire, visiting the court of Meneptah, flung up their hands and gasped when they beheld the heir to the double crown of Egypt. They looked upon the old Pharaoh, renewed in youth and strength. There were the same narrow temples with the sloping brow, the same hawked nose, the same full lips, the same heavy eye with the smoldering ember in its dusky depths. The only radical dissimilarity was the hue of the prince's complexion. It was a strange, un-Egyptian pallor, an opaque whiteness with dark shadows that belied the testimony of vigor in his sinewy frame.
The old courtiers that were still attached to the court of Meneptah watched with fascination the development of the heir's character. He was twenty-two years old now and had proved that no alien nature had been housed in the old Pharaoh's shape. If any pointed out the prince's indolence as proving him unlike his grandsire the old courtiers shook their heads and said: |He does not reign as yet and he but saves his forces till the crown is his.| So Egypt, stagnated at the pinnacle of power by the accession of Meneptah, began to look forward secretly to the reign of Rameses the Younger, with a hope that was half terror.
To-night he stood in semi-dusk robed in festal attire, for somewhere a rout awaited him. And of the groups of power and rank about him, none seemed to fit that majestic council chamber so well as he. It was not the robe of costly stuffs he wore, nor the trappings of jewels, which if he moved never so slightly emitted a shower of frosty sparks -- but a peculiar emanation of magnetism that at once repelled and attracted, and made him master over the monarch himself. He had never met repulse or defeat; he had never entered the presence of his peer; he had never loved, he had never prayed. He was a solitary power, who admitted death as his only equal, and defied even him.
The other counselors were minor members of the cabinet, who had been summoned, but expected only to hear and keep silence while the great powers -- the king, the prince, the priest and the fan-bearer -- conferred.
Loi entered, bowing and walking with palsied step. At one time the three central figures of the hall had been his pupils. He had taught them from the simplest hieratic catechism to the initiation into the mysteries. As novices they had kissed his hand and borne him reverence. Now as the initiated, exalted through the acquisition of power, it lay with them to reverse conditions if they pleased. But as the old prelate prepared to do obeisance before Meneptah, he was stayed with a gesture, and after a word of greeting was dismissed to his place. Rameses saluted him with a motion of his hand and Har-hat bowed reverently. The pontiff backed away to the great council table set opposite the throne and was met there by a courtier with a chair.
At a sign from the king, who had already sunk into his throne, the old man sat.
|Thou bringest us tidings, holy Father?|
|Even so, O Son of Ptah.|
The priest moved a little uncomfortably and glanced at the ministers grouped in the shadows.
|Save for the worthy Har-hat and our prince, O my King, thou hast no need of great council,| he said.
Meneptah raised his hand and the supernumerary ministers left the chamber. When they were gone, Loi unwrapped the roll Kenkenes had brought and began to read:
|To Loi, the most high Servant of Amen, Lord of Tape, the Servant of Ra, at On, sends greeting:
|The gods lend me composure to speak calmly with thee, O Brother. And let the dismay which is mine explain the lack of ceremony in this writing.
|It is not likely that thou hast forgotten the good Queen Neferari Thermuthis' foster-son -- the Hebrew Mesu, whom she found adrift in a basket on Nilus. But lest the years have driven the memory of his misdeeds from thy mind, I tell again the story. Thou knowest he was initiated a priest of Isis, and scarce had the last of the mysteries been disclosed to him, ere it was seen that the brotherhood had taken an apostate unto itself.
|By the grace of the gods, he interfered in a brawl at Pithom and killed an Egyptian. Before he could be taken he fled into Midian, and the secrets of our order were safe, for a time.
|One by one our fellows have entered Osiris. The young who knew not have filled their places. Thou and I, only, are left -- and the Hebrew!
|He hath returned!
|The gods make strong our hands against him! He went away as a menace, but he returneth as a pestilence. The demons of Amend are with him, and his hour is most propitious. He hath sunk himself in the Israelitish pool here in the north, and he will breathe therefrom such vapors as may destroy Egypt -- faith -- state -- all!
|The bond-people are already in ferment. There was mutiny at Pa-Ramesu recently, when three hundred were chosen to work the quarries. Moreover, the taskmasters are corrupt. The commander, one Atsu by name, appointed when the chief Merenra became nomarch over Bubastis, hath disarmed the under-drivers, removed the women from toil and restored many privileges which are ruinous to law and order. The whole Delta is in commotion. The nomad tribes near the Goshen country are agitated; communities of Egyptian shepherds have been won over to the Hebrew's cause, and now the Israelitish renegade needs but to betray the secrets to bring such calamity upon Egypt as never befell a nation.
|But, Brother, he is within reach of an avenging hand! Commission us, I pray thee, to protect the mysteries after any manner that to us seemeth good.
|Despatch is urgent. He may fly again. Give us thine answer as we have sent this to thee -- by a nobleman -- a swift and trusty one, and the blessings of the Radiant Three be upon thy head.
|Thy servant, the Servant of Ra,
When the priest finished, the king was sitting upright, his face flushed with feeling.
|Sedition!| he exclaimed; |organized rebellion in the very heart of my realm!|
He paused for a space and thrust back the heavy fringes of his cowl with a gesture of peevish impatience.
|What evil humor possesses Egypt?| he burst forth irritably. |Hardly have I overthrown an invader before my people break out. I quiet them in one place and they revolt in another. Must I turn a spear upon mine own?|
|Well,| he cried, stamping his foot, when the three before him kept silence, |have ye no word to say?|
His eyes rested on Har-hat, with an imperious expectation in them. The fan-bearer bent low before he answered.
|With thy gracious permission, O Son of Ptah,| he said, |I would suggest that it were wise to cool an insurrection in the simmering. The disaffection seems to be of great extent. But the Rameside army assembled on the ground might check an open insurrection. Furthermore, thou hast seen the salutary effect of thy visit to Tape when she forgot her duty to her sovereign. Thy presence in the Delta would undoubtedly expedite the suppression of the rebellion likewise.|
|O, aye,| Meneptah declared. |I must go to Tanis. It seems that I must hasten hither and thither over Egypt pursuing sedition like a scent-hunting jackal. Mayhap if I were divided like Osiris and a bit of me scattered in each nome, I might preserve peace. But it goes sore against me to drag the army with me. Hast thou any simpler plan to offer, holy Father?|
The old priest shifted a little before he answered.
|The mysteries of the faith are in possession of Mesu,| he began at last. |The writing saith he hath exerted great influence over the bond-people -- in truth he hath entered a peaceful land and stirred it up -- and time is but needed to bring the unrest to open warfare. Thou, O Meneptah, and thou, O Rameses, and thou, O Har-hat, each being of the brotherhood -- ye know that we hold the faith by scant tenure in the respect of the people. Ye know the perversity of humanity. Obedience and piety are not in them. Though they never knew a faith save the faith of their fathers, we must pursue them with a gad, tickle them with processions and awe them with manifestations. So if it were to come over the spirit of this Hebrew to betray the mysteries, to scout the faith and overturn the gods, he would have rabble Egypt following at his heels.
|As the writing saith, he hath the destruction of the state in mind, and his own aggrandizement. He but beginneth on the faith because he seeth in that a rift wherein to put the lever that shall pry the whole state asunder. So with two and a half millions of Hebrews and a horde of renegade Egyptians to combat, I fear the Rameside army might spill more good blood than is worth wasting on a mongrel multitude. The rabble without a leader is harmless. Cut off the head of the monster, and there is neither might nor danger in the trunk. Put away Mesu, and the insurrection will subside utterly.|
The priest paused and Meneptah stroked the polished coping of the panel before him with a nervous hand. There was complete silence for a moment, broken at last by the king.
|Mesu, though a Hebrew, an infidel and a malefactor, is a prince of the realm, my foster-brother -- Neferari's favorite son. I can not rid myself of him on provocation as yet misty and indirect.|
|Nay,| he added after another pause, |he shall not die by hand of mine.| The prelate raised his head and met the eyes of the king. After he read what lay therein, the dissatisfaction that had begun to show on his ancient face faded.
The Pharaoh settled back into his seat and his brow cleared as if the problem had been settled. But suddenly he sat up.
|What have I profited by this council? Shall I take the army or leave it distributed over Egypt?| He stopped abruptly and turned to the crown prince. |Help us, my Rameses,| he said in a softer tone. |We had well-nigh forgotten thee.|
Rameses raised himself from the back of his cathedra, against which he lounged, and moved a step forward.
|A word, my father,| he said calmly. |Thy perplexity hath not been untangled for thee, nor even a thread pulled which shall start it raveling. The priesthood can kill Mesu,| he said to Loi, |and it will do them no hurt. And thou, my father, canst countenance it and seem no worse than any other monarch that loved his throne. Thus ye will decapitate the monster. But there be creatures in the desert which, losing one head, grow another. Mesu is not of such exalted or supernatural villainy that they can not fill his place. Wilt thou execute Israel one by one as it raises up a leader against thee? Nay; and wilt thou play the barbarian and put two and a half million at once to the sword?|
The trio looked uncomfortable, none more so than the Pharaoh. The prince went on mercilessly.
|Are the Hebrews warriors? Wouldst thou go against a host of trowel-wielding slaves with an army that levels lances only against free-born men? And yet, wilt thou wait till all Israel shall crowd into thy presence and defy thee before thou actest? And again, wilt thou descend on them with arms now when they may with Justice cry 'What have we done to thee?' Thou art beset, my father.|
The Pharaoh opened his lips as if to answer, but the level eye of the prince silenced him.
|Thou hast not fathomed the Hebrew's capabilities, my father,| Rameses continued. |In him is a wealth, a power, a magnificence that thy fathers and mine built up for thee, and the time is ripe for the garnering of thy profit. What monarch of the sister nations hath two and a half millions of hereditary slaves -- not tributary folk nor prisoners of war -- but slaves that are his as his cattle and his flocks are his? What monarch before thee had them? None anywhere, at any time. Thou art rich in bond-people beyond any monarch since the gods reigned.|
The chagrin died on the Pharaoh's face and he wore an expectant look. The prince continued in even tones.
|By use, they have fitted themselves to the limits laid upon them by the great Rameses. The feeble have died and the frames of the sturdy have become like brass. They have bred like beetles in the Nile mud for numbers. Ignorant of their value, thou hast been indifferent to their existence. Forgetting them was pampering them. They have lived on the bounty of Egypt for four hundred years and, save for the wise inflictions of a year or two by the older Pharaohs, they have flourished unmolested. How they repay thee, thou seest by this writing. Now, by the gods, turn the face of a master upon them. Remove the soft driver, Atsu, and put one in his stead who is worthy the office. Tickle them to alacrity and obedience with the lash -- yoke them -- load them -- fill thy canals, thy quarries, thy mines with them -- | He broke off and moved forward a step squarely facing the Pharaoh.
|Thou hast thine artist -- that demi-god Mentu, in whom there is supernatural genius for architecture as well as sculpture. Make him thy murket as well, and with him dost thou know what thou canst do with these slaves? Thou canst rear Karnak in every herdsman's village; thou canst carve the twin of Ipsambul in every rock-front that faces the Nile; thou canst erect a pyramid tomb for thee that shall make an infant of Khufu; thou canst build a highway from Syene to Tanis and line it with sisters of the Sphinx; thou canst write the name of Meneptah above every other name on the world's monuments and it shall endure as long as stone and bronze shall last and tradition go on from lip to lip!|
The prince paused abruptly. Meneptah was on his feet, almost in tears at the contemplation of his pictured greatness.
|Mark ye!| the prince began again. His arm shot out and fell and the flash of its jewels made it look like a bolt of lightning. |I would not fall heir to Israel -- and if these things are done in thy lifetime I must build my monuments with prisoners of war!|
The old hierarch, who had been nervously rubbing the arm of his chair during the last of the prince's speech, broke the dead silence with an awed whisper.
|Ah, then spake the Incomparable Pharaoh!|
Meneptah put out his hand, smiling.
|No more. The way is shown, I follow, O my Rameses!|
Osiris -- the great god of Egypt, was overcome by Set, his body divided and scattered over the valley of the Nile. Isis, wife of Osiris, gathered up the remains and buried them at This or Abydos.
Murket -- the royal architect, an exalted office usually held by princes of the realm.