One late afternoon, in the streets of Pa-Ramesu, a curious new-comer bowed before Atsu, the commander of Israel of the treasure city. The visitor was old and tremulous from fatigue, and the stains of hard travel were evident upon him.
|Greeting, Atsu. The peace of the divine Mother attend thee,| he said. |Snofru, the beloved of Ra at On, sends thee greeting by his servant, Ranas.|
|Greeting,| the taskmaster replied, after he had inspected the white-browed servant. |The shelter of my roof and the bread of my board are thine;| adding after a little pause, |and in truth thou seemest to need these things.|
The old man smiled an odd wry smile and followed lamely after the long swinging stride of the commander toward the headquarters on the knoll.
Within the house of Atsu, Ranas delivered into the hands of the soldier the message that Kenkenes had brought to Snofru. While Atsu undid the roll the old servant made voluble apologies for the broken seal. The commander stepped to the doorway for better light and read the writing.
The old servant back in the dusk of the interior saw the stern face harden, the heavy brows knit blackly, the dusky red fade from the cheek. Ranas knew what the soldier read, for he had had the roll with its broken seal, from On to Memphis and from Memphis back to On again. But with all his astuteness he could not have guessed what extremes of wrath and grief the insulted taskmaster suffered. The sheet rolled itself together again and was broken and crushed in the iron fingers that gripped it. Presently he tossed it aside. Hardly had it left his hand before he hastened to pick it up, straightened it out and re-read it feverishly. He forgot the old servant; but had he remembered the man's curious gaze, no resolution could have hidden that joy which slowly wrote itself upon his face. There was balm in the barb for all the wound it made. This is what he read:
|To Atsu, Commander over the Builders of Pa-Ramesu, These: To mine ears hath come report of mutiny and idleness through thy weak government of my bond-people. Also that thou hast enforced my commands but feebly, and so defeated my purposes, which were my sire's, after whose illustrious example I reign.
|For these and kindred inefficiencies art thou removed from the government over Pa-Ramesu.
|I hereby bestow upon thee another office within the limits of thy capacity. Thou wilt take up the flagellum over Masaarah when thou hast surrendered Pa-Ramesu to thy successor.
|By this thou shalt learn that the Pharaohs will be ably served.
|Horemheb of Bubastis, thy successor, accompanieth these.
|Give him honor. MENEPTAH.|
The diction was manifestly the king's. None other of high estate would have inspired so spiteful a letter. But the appointment to Masaarah made Atsu forget the sting in the second reading. To Masaarah! To Masaarah and Rachel! He folded the broken sheet and thrust it into his bosom. Meeting the keen eye of his guest, the color rushed back to the taskmaster's face and he summoned two attendant Hebrews to wait upon the old man while he went forth to gain composure in the air.
After the old man had been fed and given such other comfort as the soldier's house afforded, the taskmaster returned. Then Ranas shifted his position so that he might watch his host's face most intelligently, and turned to the real purpose of his visit.
|Thou canst see, my master, that if thy message bore the wrapping for the epistle to Snofru, the message to the holy father must have borne thy name. Thou hast received no letter as yet which was not intended for thee?|
The question was delivered politely, but the old man thrust his curious face forward and shook his head with a combination of interrogation and dissent, which was highly insincere.
|I have received naught which was not intended for me,| the taskmaster replied warmly.
After a moment's intent contemplation of Atsu's face the courier went on: |Nay, so had I thought. The messenger came to Snofru with all speed and out-stripped the courier bound for Pa-Ramesu. It is even as I had thought. He may arrive shortly, but I must tarry till he comes.|
Atsu assented bluntly, and after that if they talked it was of impersonal things and in a desultory manner. When night came Atsu called his attendants and had the weary old man put to bed in a curtained corner of the house. For himself there was no sleep.
At midnight there came the beat of hoofs on the dust-muffled ways of Pa-Ramesu. A sentry knocked at the door of the commander and announced a visitor. Atsu, who still sat under the unextinguished reed light, greeted the new-comer with an exclamation of concern. The man was covered with dust, his dress was torn and bloody, his right hand swathed in cloths, and his lip, right cheek and eye were swollen and discolored.
|By Horus, friend, thou lookest ill-used,| the taskmaster exclaimed. |What has befallen thee?|
|Naught -- naught of any lasting hurt,| the newcomer replied carelessly. |We were set upon by a troop of murdering Bedouins this side of Bubastis and had a pretty fight.|
|Aye, thou hast the stamp of its beauty upon thy face. A slave, here, with some balsam,| Atsu continued, addressing the sentry, |and a captain of the constabulary next. We will cure these Bedouins and their hurt at once.|
|Nay,| the visitor protested. |It is only a spear-slit in my hand, and a flying stirrup marred my face. I am well. Look to the Bedouins, however; they ran our messenger through -- Set consume them!|
|Doubt not, we shall look to them. They grow strangely insolent of late.|
|Small wonder,| the other responded heartily. |Is not the whole north a seething pot of lawlessness; and by the demons of Amenti, is not the Israelite the fire under the caldron? Nay, but I shall have especial joy in damping him!|
The man laughed and dropped into the chair Atsu had offered him.
|Then thou art Horemheb, the new taskmaster over Pa-Ramesu?|
|So! has my news outridden me?| the man exclaimed in very evident amazement.
Ranas, indifferently clad in a hastily donned kamis, at this moment parted the curtains of his retreat and came forth with an apologetic courtesy.
|And thy messenger, sir? What of him?| he asked eagerly.
|Dead, and left at a wayside house.|
|And the message?| the old man persisted.
Horemheb surveyed him with increasing astonishment.
|Where hast thou these tidings?| he demanded. |They are scarce three hours old. Who reached thee with them before me?|
Atsu interposed and explained the interchange of letters.
|Oh,| said Horemheb. |So the correct message came to thee, nevertheless, good Atsu. But I can not tell thee aught of the other. It is lost.|
|Lost!| Ranas shrieked.
|Gods! old man. It was only pigment and papyrus, not gold or jewels. A kindly disposed Hebrew came to our help with some of his people, and we put the Bedouins to flight. But after the struggle, search as we might with torches which the Hebrew brought, the message was not to be found. A Bedouin made off with it, I doubt not.|
Ranas stood speechless for an instant, and then he rushed up to the new taskmaster.
|His name?| he demanded fiercely. |The Hebrew! What was he like? Where does he dwell?|
|A murrain on the maniac!| Horemheb exploded.
|He called himself Aaron!|
Ranas staggered against the wall for support and beat the air with his arms.
|Aaron, the brother of Mesu! O ye inscrutable Hathors!| he babbled. |A Bedouin made off with it! Oh! Oh! What idiocy!|