One morning early in March Seti stood beside the parapet on the palace of the king in Tanis. His eyes were fixed on the shimmering line of the northern level, but he did not see it. Some one came with silent footfall and laid a hand on his arm.
He turned and looked into Ta-user's eyes. His face softened and he took the hand between his own.
|Alas! this day thou returnest into the Hak-heb,| he said.
She nodded. |Would I could take thee with me, but not yet, not yet. Wait till thou art a little older.|
He sighed and looked away again. |What weighty things absorb my prince?| she asked. |What especial labors is he planning?|
His face clouded. |Dost thou mock me, Ta-user?| he returned.
|Hadst thou no thought at all?| she persisted.
|I merely pondered on mine own uselessness,| he answered.
|Nay, even thou must see it. I live on my father's bounty; I accept my people's homage; I adore the gods. I bear no arms; I neither prepare to reign nor expect to serve. I am a thing set above the healthy labor of the world and below the cares of the exalted. I am nothing.|
|Fie! I say.|
Seti looked at her reproachfully.
|Thou hast wealth,| she began and paused.
|Wherein doth that make me useful?|
|Much can be done with gold. Is there none in need?|
|None who asks has been denied. Yet what right have I to deal alms to them from whom my riches come? If I yielded up everything, to my very cloak, should I have done more than return to them what they have given me? I should still be a penniless prince, more useless than ever.| He sat down on the broad lintel capping the parapet, but retained her hand.
|Ta-user,| he continued, as she opened her lips to speak, |what wouldst thou have me do?|
|I would have thee be useful.|
|I shall throw away my lordly trappings,| he said, |and become a lifter of the shadoof this day.|
|Seti,| she said sternly, putting his hand away, |with thy people imperiled by the sorcery of a wizard, with thy realm desolated by the plagues of his sending, canst thou, on whom I have built so much, thus lightly consider thy uses and ignore the things set at thy very hand to do?|
The prince looked at her with not a little discomfiture showing on his young face. But the interrogation was emphatic, and she awaited an answer.
|I have no weight with my father,| he said soberly. |Thou knowest that Egypt will never have peace until the Hebrews depart. But I can not persuade my father to release them and I can not persuade the Israelite to content himself to stay. Thou dost demand much of me if thou dost demand of me the impossible.|
As much of contempt as it was wise to show glimmered in her eyes.
|And thou art at thy wits' end?| she asked.
|A little way to go. Help me, Ta-user. Bear with me.|
She moved closer to him and absently smoothed down the fine locks, disordered by the wind. Presently she lifted his face and said with sudden impulsiveness:
|Dost, of a truth, believe everything that is told thee?|
|Am I over-credulous?| he asked.
|Thou art. Thou believest this Hebrew to be honest in his show of interest in his people?|
|I can not doubt him, Ta-user. One has but to see him to be convinced.|
|One has but to see him to know that he might be coaxed into passiveness with that for which an Israelite would sell his mummy -- gold!|
|Nay! Nay!| Seti exclaimed. |Thou dost wrong him! He is the soul of misdirected zeal. His is an earnestness not to be frightened with death nor abated with bribes.|
She laughed a cool little laugh.
|Deliver to him but the price he names, and the Israelitish unrest will settle like a swarm of smoked bees.|
|Ta-user, it is thou that art deceived,| Seti remonstrated. |Even the Pharaoh does not hesitate to assert that Mesu is terribly upright. Not even he would dream of offering the wizard Hebrew a peace-tribute.|
Once again she laughed. |Mind me, I speak reverently of the divine Meneptah, the Shedder of Light, but I do not marvel that he is no more willing to deliver over to Mesu one color of gold than another.|
Seti looked at her with a puzzled expression. Gazing down into his eyes, she said with sudden solemnity:
|My Prince, may I give my life into thy hands?|
Impulsively he pressed her hand to his lips.
|The gods overtake me with their vengeance if I guard it not,| he exclaimed.
She drew him from his place on the parapet and led him to a seat in a corner near the double towers. There she sat, and he dropped down at her feet. He crossed his arms over her lap and lifted his face to her. For a moment she was silent, contemplating the young countenance. What were the thoughts that came to her then? Did she applaud or rebuke herself? Did she pity or despise him?
Is there more of evil than of good wrought by the mind working silently?
Seti was ripe to be plucked by treachery. His was the faith that is insulted by a suggestion of wariness.
|While I dwelt obscurely in the Hak-heb,| she began, |I was much among the partizans of Amon-meses. They are friends of the Pharaoh now, so what I tell is dead sedition. But I heard it when it lived, and thou knowest the penalty invited by him who listens to criticism of the king. Attend me, then, for the story is short.
|The history of Mesu is an old tale to thee. Thy noble grandsire's first queen, Neferari Thermuthis, adopted the Hebrew, and when she died he shared in the allotment of her treasure. But Mesu was an exile in Midian at the time, and his share was left with Shaemus, then the heir, to be given over to the foster-son when he should return. But Shaemus died, and all thy father's older brothers, so the gracious Meneptah came to wear the crown. To him fell the guardianship of the Hebrew's treasure till what time he should return out of Midian. Mesu hath returned. Hath thy father delivered to him his inheritance?|
Seti's face flamed, but, before he could speak, she went on. |Not so; not one copper weight. It lies untouched in the treasury. Thine august sire does not use it, because he hath wealth more than he can spend. But it is the Hebrew's, and if it were delivered into his hands it would redeem Egypt. I know it. There, it is done. My life is in thy hands.|
The prince looked at her with wide eyes, his cheeks flushed, his lips silent.
|Wouldst thou have proof?| she continued recklessly. |Seek out Hotep, who hath been keeper of the records at Pithom and ask him.|
|Did he tell thee?| Seti demanded.
|Nay; I learned it from another source, not in the palace.| The prince lapsed into silence, his eyes averted. Ta-user regarded him intently. Suddenly he raised his head.
|Dost thou know the amount of his share?| he asked.
|It is but a moderate part of the queen's fortune, since each of the king's children by his many women was included.|
Seti winced, for there was something dimly offensive in the calm way she stated the bald fact.
|It is not much, as princely dowers go,| she added casually.
|He shall have it,| Seti said almost impatiently. |Out of mine own wealth he shall have it -- not as a bribe -- he would not have it so -- but because it is his.|
She caught his hands to her breast and cried out in delight.
|And I shall be thy lieutenant, and none shall know of it, save thee and me.|
He smiled up at her.
|Nay, there is danger in this,| he said gently, |and I would not imperil thee. Already thou hast overstepped safety for Egypt's sake and mine. More than this I will not let thee do.|
An expression of panic swept over her face. He interpreted it as hurt.
|Thou hast been my guide for so long, Ta-user. Let me choose this once for thee.|
She pouted, and putting him away from her, arose and left him. He followed her and took her hands.
|A confederate thou must have,| she complained; |and whom dost thou trust more than Ta-user?|
|It is not a matter of trust,| he explained, |but of thine immunity should the Hathors frown upon my plan.|
|It matters not,| she protested. |Whom wilt thou trust and imperil instead of Ta-user?|
|Thou dost hurry me in my plan-making,| he remonstrated mildly. |Mayhap I shall choose Hotep.|
She flung up her head, her face the picture of dismay.
|Nay, nay! not Hotep! Of all thy world, not Hotep!| she exclaimed.
He lifted his brows in amazement.
|Surely thou dost not question his fidelity -- his power?|
|Nay! but dost thou not guess what he will do? Thou child! Abet thee! Nay! he would set his foot upon thy plan and foil thee at once with his politic hand.|
|Hotep will obey as I command; that thou knowest,| he said with dignity.
|Thou wilt not reach the point of command with him,| she vehemently insisted. |He would catch thine intent ere thou hadst stated it and would make thee aghast at thyself in a twinkling by his smooth reasoning and vivid auguries. Nay, if thou art to have thy way in this, I wash my hands of it. We are as good as undone.|
She turned away from him, but he followed her contritely.
|I submit,| he said helplessly. |Advise me, but I -- nay, ask me not to endanger thee, Ta-user.|
She shook her head and moved on. He advanced a step or two after her, stopped, and wheeling about, resumed his place at the parapet.
After a little pause she was beside him again.
|Shall we forego this thing?| she asked.
|Nay,| he answered quietly. |I can achieve it without help.| She drew a breath as if to speak but held her peace. They stood in silence side by side for a while.
Presently she slipped between him and the parapet.
|Hast thou not called me wise in thy time?| she asked. |I believed thee, then.|
|I told thee a truth, but I might have added that thou art over-brave,| he said, catching her drift.
|Listen, then, to me. Thou, in thy young credulity, seest in this only justice to an enemy. I, in the wisdom of riper years and the discernment bred of experience with knaves, see in it the redemption of Egypt. If the heaviest penalty overtook us is it not a result worth achieving at any cost? Seti, believe me; grant me my belief! It is the one hope of thy father's kingdom. Shall it fail because thou wast envious for my safety above Egypt's? I can aid thee to success. That thou hast said. If thou failest, though thou dost attempt it alone, dost thou dream that I could see thee punished without crying out, 'It was I who urged him!' If thou art undone, likewise am I. If thou art to succeed, wilt thou selfishly keep thy success to thyself?|
She slipped her arm about his neck and pressed close to him.
|Nay, Seti, thou dost overestimate the peril. The Hebrew will not betray us, and who else will know of it? I shall make a journey into Goshen, find Mesu and bid him meet thee at a certain place. There thou shalt come at a certain time with the treasure, and the feat is done. But if we fail -- | she flung her head back and bewitched him with a heavy eye -- |will it be hard for me to persuade the king?|
Seti contemplated her with bewilderment in his face. The youth and innocence in his young soul revolted, but there was another element that yielded and was pleased.
|Have it thy way, Ta-user,| he said, with hesitation in his words, while he continued to gaze helplessly into her compelling eyes.
She laughed and kissed him. |I will see thee again soon.| Putting him back from her, she descended the stairway.
In the shadow at the foot she came upon two figures, walking close together, the taller of the two bending over the smaller. The pair started apart at sight of the princess.
|A blessing on thy content, Ta-meri,| the princess said. |And upon thine, Nechutes.|
The cup-bearer bowed and rumbled his appreciation of her courtesy.
|Dost thou leave us, Ta-user?| his wife asked.
|Aye, I return to the Hak-heb. O, I am glad to go. Would I could leave the same quiet here in Tanis that I hope to find in Nehapehu.|
|Aye, I would thou couldst. But is it not true, my Princess, that one may make his own content even in the sorriest surroundings?| Nechutes asked.
|For himself, even so. But the very making of one's selfish content may work havoc with the peace of another. That I have seen.|
|Aye,| Nechutes responded uncomfortably, wondering if the princess meant to confess her disappointment to them.
|It makes me quarrel at the Hathors. The most of us deserve the ills that overtake us. But he -- alas -- none but the good could sing as he sang!|
The cup-bearer dropped his indifference immediately.
|Ha! Whom dost thou mean?| he demanded.
|Oh!| the princess exclaimed. |Perchance I give thee news.|
|If thou meanest Kenkenes, indeed thou dost give us news. What of him? We know that he is dead. Is there anything further?|
|Of a truth, dost thou not know? Nay, then, far be it from me to tell thee -- anything.| She passed round them and started to go on. In a few paces, Nechutes overtook her.
|Give us thy meaning, Ta-user,| he said earnestly. |Kenkenes was near to me -- to Ta-meri. What knowest thou?|
|The court buzzes with it. Strange indeed that ye heard it not. It is said, and of a truth well-nigh proved, that the heart of the singer broke when Ta-meri chose thee, Nechutes, and that -- that the disaster which befell him may have been sought.|
Nechutes seized her arm, and Ta-meri cried out,
|He sent Ta-meri to me,| the cup-bearer said wrathfully. |Thy news is -- |
|Alas! Nechutes,| the princess said sorrowfully, |it was sacrifice. He knew that Ta-meri loved thee and he nobly surrendered, but was the hurt any less because he submitted?|
Nechutes released her and turned away. Ta-meri covered her face with her hands and followed him. He did not pause for her, and she had to hasten her steps to keep up with him. The princess looked after them for a space and went on.
Straight through the corridors toward the royal apartments she went. Her copper eyes had taken on a luminousness that was visible in the dark. There was an elasticity in her step that spoke of exultation.
The Hathors were indulging her beyond reason.
A soldier of the royal guard paced outside the doorway of the king's apartments. Ta-user flung him a smile and, passing him without a word of leave-asking, smiled again and disappeared through the door.
Meneptah, who sat alone, raised his head from the scroll he was laboriously spelling. If he had meant to resent the intrusion, the impulse died within him at the charming obeisance the princess made.
As she rose at his sign, Har-hat entered. Ta-user came near to the king, smiling triumphantly at the fan-bearer.
|The gods sped my feet,| she said, |and I am here first. Hold thy peace, noble Har-hat. Mine is the first audience.|
Having reached the king's side, she dropped on her knees and folded her hands on the arm of his chair.
|A boon, O Shedder of Light! So much thou owest me. Behold, I came to thee on the hope of thy promises. What have I won therefrom? Naught save, perchance, the smiles of Egypt at my disappointment.|
Meneptah's face flushed.
|Say on, O my kinswoman,| he said, moving uncomfortably.
|Kinswoman! And a year agone, I thought to hear, 'O my daughter.'|
The color in the king's face deepened.
|Wilt thou reproach me, Ta-user, for my son's wilfulness?| was his tactless reply.
Ta-user shot an amused glance at the discomfited countenance of Har-hat and went on.
|Nay, O my Sovereign. I do but wish to incline thine ear to me. Say first thou wilt grant me my boon.|
He looked at her doubtfully, but she drew nearer and lifted her face to his.
|I do not ask for thy crown, or thy son, or for an army, or treasure, or anything but that which thou wouldst gladly give me, because of thy just and generous heart.|
The doubt faded out of his face.
|Thou hast my word, Ta-user.|
|And for that I thank thee.| She bent her head and touched her lips to the hand lying nearest her.
|Give me ear, then,| she continued. |Thou hast among thy ministers a noble genius, the murket, Mentu -- |
The king broke in with a dry smile. |Wouldst have him for a mate?|
She shook her head till the emeralds pendent from the fillet on her forehead clinked together. Nothing could have been more childlike than the pleased smile on her face.
|Nay, nay, he would not have me,| she protested. |But he hath a son.|
Har-hat moved forward a pace. She noted the movement and playfully waved him back. |Encroach not. This hour is mine.| Har-hat's face wore a dubious smile.
|He hath a son,| she repeated.
|He had a son, but he is dead,| the king answered.
|Not so! He is in prison where thy counselor, the wicked, unfeeling, jealous, rapacious Har-hat hath entombed him!|
Har-hat sprang forward as the king lifted an amazed and angry face.
|Back!| she cried, motioning at him with her full arm. |It is time the Hathors overtook thee, thou ineffable knave!|
|I protest!| the fan-bearer cried, losing his temper.
|Enough of this play,| Meneptah said sternly. |Go on with thy tale, Ta-user. I would know the truth of this.|
|Thou wilt not learn it from the princess,| Har-hat exclaimed.
|Ah!| Ta-user ejaculated, a world of innocence, surprise and wounded feeling in the word.
|Thy words do not become thee, Har-hat,| Meneptah said. The fan-bearer closed his lips and gazed fixedly at the princess.
She drooped her head and went on in a voice low with hurt.
|The gods judge me if my every word is not true! Har-hat imprisoned him because the gallant young man loved the maiden whom Har-hat would have taken for his harem.|
Meneptah's face blazed. |Go on,| he said sharply.
|The fan-bearer had some little right on his side, for the young man had committed sacrilege in carving a statue, and had stolen the maiden away and hidden her when Har-hat would have taken her. The maiden is an Israelite, and her hiding-place is known to this day only by herself and her unhappy lover. Now comes thy villainy, O thou short of temper,| she continued, looking at the fan-bearer.
|Thy father, O Shedder of Light, the Incomparable Pharaoh who reigns in Osiris, gave Mentu a signet -- |
The king interrupted. |I know of that. Go on.|
|When Kenkenes was overtaken and thrust into prison he sent this signet to thee, O my Sovereign, with a petition for his release and for the maiden's freedom. The writing and the signet came into Har-hat's hands and he ignored them, though the signet commanded him in the name of the holy One.| Her voice lowered with awe and dismay at his unregeneracy. |Kenkenes is still in prison.|
|Now, by the gods, Har-hat!| Meneptah exclaimed angrily. |I would not have dreamed such baseness in thee!|
The fan-bearer was stupefied with wrath and astonishment. Words absolutely refused to come to him. Ta-user accused him with the wide eyes of fearless righteousness. Presently she went on:
|Already hath he languished eight months in prison. His offense against the gods and against the laws of the land hath been expiated. I would have thee set him free now, O Meneptah, that he may return to his love and comfort her.|
Meneptah reached for the reed pen.
|Hold!| cried Har-hat.
|Thou dost forget thyself, good Har-hat,| the princess said with dignity. |Thou speakest with thy sovereign.|
|But I will be heard!| he exclaimed violently. |Hear me! I pray thee, Son of Ptah!|
Meneptah removed the wetted pen and waited.
|Thou didst give the maiden to me thyself!| he began precipitately. |Thy document of gift I have yet. He stole her, hid her away, committed sacrilege and abused two of my servants nigh unto death when they sought for her. Hath he any more right to her than I? Art thou assured that he hath an honorable purpose in mind for her? She is comely and well instructed in service, and I would have put her in my daughter's train, even as the Hebrew Miriam was lady-in-waiting to Neferari Thermuthis. If thou dost examine the records of the petitions to thee thou wilt find that I asked her expressly for household service. It is false that I had any other purpose in mind.
|As to the signet,| he continued breathlessly, |there is no word upon it concerning the palliation of a triple crime! Shall we invoke the king in the blameless name of the holy One, and demand forgiveness in the name of Him who forgiveth no sin? Furthermore, thou didst give the writing into my hands, and in obedience to thy command, I acted as I thought best. My purposes have been wilfully distorted!|
Meneptah frowned with perplexity. But while he pondered, Ta-user drew near to him and said to him very softly:
|If his words be true, O my Sovereign, one lovely Israelite is as serviceable as another. The young man loves this maiden. Doubt it not! He is a worthy off-spring of that noble sire, Mentu. If he offended, he hath suffered sufficiently. Let him go, I pray thee.|
|It is my word against her surmises, O Meneptah,| Har-hat insisted.
The king frowned more and stroked his cheek.
|Thine anger should be abated by this time, Har-hat,| he said feebly.
|His rebellion is not yet broken. I have not the slave yet,| the fan-bearer retorted.
|Mayhap he is ready to surrender her now.|
|Not so!| the princess put in. |He hath endured eight months. If it were eight hundred years his silence would be the same. It is proof of my boast that he loves her. No man who would comfort his flesh alone would suffer such lengths of mortification of flesh! Let him go, my King, and give the clean-souled fan-bearer another Israelite for his daughter.|
|Why camest thou not sooner with this to the king?| Har-hat demanded.
|I have but this moment learned of it, and I could not leave the court without one last act for the good of the oppressed,| she replied.
|Have it thy way, Ta-user. Come to me in an hour,| Meneptah began.
|Nay, write it now.|
|Thou art insistent.|
|Thou didst promise,| she whispered, her face so close to his that the light from the facets of her emeralds turned on his cheek.
He took up his pen and wrote.
|Now promise that the signet shall go back to Mentu,| she continued.
|As thou wilt, Ta-user,| the king replied.
She caught up the roll, hesitated for a moment, and then kissed his cheek deliberately and was gone.
A moment later Har-hat overtook her in the hall.
|Hyena!| he exclaimed. |What is thy game?|
She laughed and shook the scroll in his face.
|It is my turn at the pawns now. Thou didst play between me and the crown. Now I shall harass thee for the joy of it. Thinkest thou I cared aught for the dreamer and his loves? Bah! I heard this tale eight months agone while I had naught to do but eavesdrop. Nay, it was but my one chance to vex thee.|
Again she laughed and ran away to the queen's apartments.
|I am come to bid thee farewell,| she said, kneeling before the pale little woman who loved the king. The princess put up her face to be kissed.
|Not my lips!| she cried warningly. |They yet tingle with the kiss of Meneptah, thy husband. I would not have the ecstasy spoiled by another's touch.|
The queen flushed and kissed the cheek.
|Farewell, and peace go with thee,| she said quietly.
The princess retained her composure until she reentered the hall. There she flung her arms above her head and laughed silently.
|Of a truth, I take peace with me, and I leave discord behind!|
Shadoof -- a pole with a bucket attached, like the old well-sweep, used by rustics to dip water from the Nile.