The morning of the second day after the lifting of the darkness lay golden over Egypt, blue-shadowed before the houses and trees to the west and shimmering and illusory toward the east. A slow-moving, fragmentary cloud had gathered in the zenith just after dawn and for many minutes over the northern part of Goshen there had been a perpendicular downpour of illuminated rain. Now the sky was as clear and blue as a sapphire and the little wind was burdened with odorous scents from the clean-washed pastures of Israel.
Seti had crossed the border into Goshen at daybreak and was now well into the grazing-lands, yet scintillating with the rain. The hoofs of his fat little horse were patched with wet sand of the roadway and there was no dust on the prince's modest raiment. Behind the youth plodded two heavy-headed, limp-eared sumpter-mules, driven by a big-boned black.
Seti was not far from his destination, an obscure village of image-makers directly south of Tanis and situated on the northern border of Goshen. The same region that furnished clay to Israel for Egypt's bricks afforded material for terra-cotta statuettes.
Ahead of him were fields with clouds of sheep upon the uplands and cattle standing under the shade of dom-palms. Here and there hovels with thatches no higher than a man's head, or low tents, dark with long use, and lifted at one side, stood in a setting of green. About them were orderly and productive gardens. Nowhere was any sign of the desolation that prevailed over Egypt.
Seti looked upon the beautiful prosperity of Goshen at first with the natural delight loveliness inspires, and then with as much savage resentment as his young soul could feel. Belting this garden and stretching for seven hundred miles to the south, was Egypt, desolate, barren and comatose. The God of the Hebrews had avenged them fearfully.
|They had provocation,| he muttered to himself; |but they have overdone their vengeance.|
A figure appeared on the road over the comb of a slight ridge, and Seti regarded the wayfarer with interest.
He was a Hebrew. His draperies were loose, voluminous, heavily fringed, and of such silky texture of linen that they flowed in the light wind. His head was covered with a wide kerchief, which was bound with a cord, and hid the forehead.
He was of good stature and upright, but his drapings were so ample that the structure of his frame was not discernible. His eyes were black, bright and young in their alertness, but the beard that rippled over his breast to his girdle was as white as the foam of the Middle Sea.
The Hebrew walked in the grass by the roadside and came on, his face expectant. At sight of the prince he stepped into the roadway. Seti drew up.
|Thou art Seti-Meneptah?| the ancient wayfarer asked.
|Even so,| the prince answered.
The Hebrew put back his kerchief and stood uncovered.
|Dost thou know me, my son?| he asked.
|Thou art that Aaron, of the able tongue, brother to Mesu. Camest thou forth to meet me?|
The Hebrew readjusted the kerchief.
|Thou hast said.|
|Wast thou, then, so impatient? Where is thy brother?|
|Nay. The village of image-makers is not safe. Moses hath departed for Zoan.|
|And named thee in his stead. But his mission to my father's capital bodes no good. He might have stayed until I could have persuaded him into friendship.|
|Not with all thy gold!| said Aaron gravely.
|Nay, I had not meant that,| Seti rejoined with some resentment. |If Egypt's plight can not win mercy from him by its own piteousness, the treasure I bring is not enough.|
The Hebrew waved his hand as if to dismiss the subject.
|Let us not dispute so old a quarrel,| he said. |We have a new sorrow, thou and I.|
|Of Mesu's sending?|
|Nay, of thine own misplaced trust.|
|What!| the prince exclaimed. |Have I clothed thy kinsman with more grace than he owns?|
|Thou hast put faith in thine enemy. A woman hath deceived thee.|
|What dost thou tell me?| Seti cried, leaping to the ground and angrily confronting Aaron.
|A truth,| the Hebrew answered calmly. |The Princess Ta-user is a fugitive charged with treason.|
Seti turned cold and smote his forehead. |Undone through me!| he groaned.
|Not so, my son. Thou art undone through her. She betrayed thee.|
Seti turned upon him with a fierce movement.
|Peace!| the Hebrew interrupted the furious speech on the prince's lips. |I bear thee no malice.|
|I will give ear to no tales against the princess,| Seti avowed with ire.
|Thy blind trust hath already wrought havoc with thee. Let it not bring heavy punishment upon thy head. Thou hast dealt kindly with me, and I am beholden to thee. Give me leave to discharge my debt.|
The prince looked stubbornly at Aaron for a moment, but the doubt that had begun to assert itself in his mind clamored for proof or refutation.
|Say on,| he said.
|The story is long,| the Hebrew explained mildly, |and the sun is ardent. There are friends in yonder house. Let us ask the shelter of their roof for an hour.|
Gathering his robes about him with peculiar grace, he went through the grass toward a low, capacious tent, pitched by a trickling branch of the great canal. Seti followed moodily.
A black-haired Israelitish woman, sitting on the earth before the lifted side of the tent, arose, and reverently kissed the hem of Aaron's robes. Her dark-eyed brood appeared at various angles of the tent, and at a sign and a word from the woman they did obeisance and hailed the ancient visitor in soft Hebrew.
After a short colloquy between Aaron and the woman of Israel, the children were dismissed to play in the fields and the woman carried the bowl and basket of lentils out of ear-shot of her house.
|Let us enter,| Aaron said, with an inclination of his head toward Seti. He stooped and preceded the young man into the home of the Hebrew.
The prince saw the black dispose himself on the grass outside, with his eyes upon the sumpter-mule.
Aaron sat upon one of the rugs, and Seti, following his example, took another.
|Say on,| the prince urged.
The Hebrew began at once.
|What I tell thee, O my son, will soon be talked abroad over the land. But if thou hast a doubt in thy heart, and art like to question my truth-speaking, there are witnesses I may summon, such as no wise man will deny. And these be Jambres, and the twelve priests of the cities of the north, and the innkeeper at Pithom, also the governor over the treasure-city, his soldiers, and others, who know the secret by now.
|I will give thee the tale now, and the proof thereafter, if thou believest me not.
|Last night, I lay under the tent of a son of Israel, at Pithom. When I arose, two hours before dawn, horsemen began to gallop through the city toward the south. The inhabitants were aroused; there was much running to and fro, and the inn was full of lights.
|We approached, and when the tumult had died and the Egyptians were so full of the tidings that they were glad to relieve themselves even to an Israelite, I asked and learned this story. Many times afterward, on my way hither, I heard it from the lips of men whom I passed, so I am not deceived.
|Seven days agone, under an evil star, a veiled woman came to the temple of Bast, in the village of image-makers, and made offerings to the idol. She remained in the shrine, praying, for a time without reason, as though she pretended to worship, until a certain space should elapse. At the end of the hour in which she came, another woman, closely covered, her mouth hidden, entered and knelt near her. In a little they arose and went forth together, and Jambres, who is priest at the little temple, grown suspicious by reason of their behavior, looked after them. The wind swayed the garments of the second stranger, and showed the foot and ankle of a man. Filled with wonderment, Jambres laid aside his priest's robes and garbing himself like a wayfarer, followed. They left the village, going east where the road leadeth along the canal, which is hidden by the sprouts of young trees. Farther up the way were servitors who waited for the man and woman, but the two stepped out of ear-shot, and sat by the road to talk.
|Jambres, hidden in the fringe of bushes behind, heard them.
|They laid a snare. And thou, O Prince, wast to be trapped therein.|
Seti's eyes were veiled and his face showed a heightening of color.
|Thou wast to come to the temple in the village of image-makers with treasure to give into the hands of Moses. Thy message to my brother was to be delivered by the Princess Ta-user. She delivered it not. The word she should have brought came to Moses by a son of Belial, a godless Hebrew, sent by Jambres, for the brotherhood of priests would have had Moses come to the temple, for their own ends. But the servants of the Lord God of Israel are keen-eyed and they know a jackal from a hare. However, these matters I did not hear from the people. Such secret things are not discussed upon the streets. All that I heard in Pithom may be talked openly over Egypt.
|The man and the woman laid their plans, and they were these: Last night, the man and his servants were to lie at Pithom, and to-day they were to meet thee at the temple of Bast, overpower thee, take thy treasure and, with the woman, fly to some secure place. With the treasure they were to hire them soldiers -- mercenaries, and take arms against the king, thy father.|
The speaker paused again. Seti's breast labored and his gaze was fixed upon the Hebrew.
|The ire of Jambres was kindled against the plotters, and he called an assembly of the priests within short distances from the village of image-makers and laid his discoveries before them. They pledged themselves to proceed to Pithom last night, which was the night they came together in council, and take the traitors. But one among their number, a young priest who knew the woman, played them false, entered the city before his fellows and warned the plotters. They had fled, with the priests in pursuit.
|My son, the man was Siptah, son of Amon-meses; the woman, the Princess Ta-user.|
The prince's face took on an insane beauty. In each cheek was a scarlet stain -- his lips smiled without parting and his eyes glittered. He did not question the Hebrew's story. Something within him corroborated every word. He sprang to his feet and with an unnatural laugh flung his hand above his head.
|Now, by Horus,| he cried, |I must get back to Tanis. I would ask the pardon of Rameses!|
Aaron arose and laid detaining hands upon him.
|I did not tell thee this, that I might be a bearer of evil tidings. I came forth to meet thee, that thou mayest save thyself. Far be it from me to bring misfortune upon Israel's one friend in Egypt's high places. Return to Tanis with all speed and take the treasure with thee. Then only will the intent rest against thee -- |
|Not so,| Seti interrupted harshly. |Wilt thou rob me of the one balm to my humiliation? Wilt thou defeat me also in the one good deed I would do? Take thou the treasure and be glad that it fell not into the hands of the wanton. Let me depart.|
But Aaron was planted in his way.
|Knowest thou not what they will do with thee? Thou wouldst have given aid to the enemy of Egypt. Thou knowest the penalty. Sooner would Israel make it a garment of sackcloth and feed upon alms, than yield thee up to thine enemies for thy gold's sake -- |
But Seti would not hear him. |I care not what they do with me,| he said. |The gods grant they lay upon me the extreme weight of the law. I go back to Tanis as one returneth to his beloved.|
He shook off the Israelite's hands and ran into the open. There, he ordered the black to give the treasure over to the Hebrew, and flinging himself upon his horse, galloped furiously toward Tanis.
Of the remainder of the day Seti had little memory. Once or twice as he proceeded headlong through hamlets, he caught from the lips of natives a denunciation of Siptah, a vicious epithet applied to Ta-user, or, like a fresh thrust in an old wound, a pitying groan for himself. His shame had preceded him on fleet wings. He hoped he might as swiftly run his sentence down.
None knew him in the roadways and the towns did not expect him. The pickets on the outer wall of Tanis halted him, but when they beheld his face, their pikes fell and with hands on knees, they bade him pass. The palace sentries started and gave him room.
He was running, sobbing, through the dark and capacious corridors of the palace and no man had stayed him yet. Were they to make his shame more poignant by pitying him and punishing him not at all? He flung himself through the doors of the council chamber and halted.
The great hall was crowded and full of excitement. Meneptah had summoned the court to the royal presence.
In his loft above the throng stood the king, purple with rage. The queen, in her place at his side, was staying his outstretched hand. Below at his right stood Rameses, the kingliest presence that ever graced a royal sitting. At the left of Meneptah, was Har-hat, complacent and serene.
Out in the center of a generous space stood Moses. The great Hebrew was alone and isolated, but his personality was such that a throng could not have obscured him.
In his massive physique was an insistent suggestion of immovability and superhuman strength; in the shape of his imperial head, there was illimitable capacity; in his face, the image of a nature commanding the entire range of feeling, from the finest to the fiercest. There was nothing of the occult in his atmosphere. His intense human force would have commanded, though Egypt had not known him as the emissary of God.
As it was, when he moved the assembly swayed back as if blown by a wind. A motion of his hand sent a nervous start over the hall. The nearest courtiers seemed prepared to crouch. Meneptah did not win a glance from his court. Every eye, wide and expectant, was fixed upon the Israelite.
The pale and troubled queen strove in vain. Meneptah thrust her aside and shaking his clenched hand at the solitary figure before him, ended the audience in a voice violent with fury.
|Get thee from me! Take heed to thyself; see my face no more. For in that day thou seest my face, thou shalt die!|
After the speech, the silence fell, deepened, grew ominous. None breathed, and the overwrought nerves of the court reached the limit of endurance.
Then Moses answered. His tones were quiet, his voice full of a calm more terrifying than an outburst had been.
|Thou hast spoken well,| he said. |I will see thy face no more.|
Another breathless silence and he turned, the courtiers shrinking from his way, and passed out of the hall.
At the doors, his eyes fell upon Seti. He made no sign of surprise. Indeed his glance seemed to indicate that he expected the prince. He raised his hand and extended it for a moment over the boy's head, and went forth.
The strength went from Seti's limbs, the passion from his brain, and when Rameses with grim purpose in his face beckoned him, he obeyed meekly and prostrated himself before the angry king.
Zoan -- The Hebrew name for Tanis.