Uarda by Georg Ebers
As soon as Bent-Anat had quitted Mena's domain, the dwarf Nemu entered the garden with a letter, and briefly related his adventures; but in such a comical fashion that both the ladies laughed, and Katuti, with a lively gaiety, which was usually foreign to her, while she warned him, at the same time praised his acuteness. She looked at the seal of the letter and said:
"This is a lucky day; it has brought us great things, and the promise of greater things in the future." Nefert came close up to her and said imploringly: "Open the letter, and see if there is nothing in it from him."
Katuti unfastened the wax, looked through the letter with a hasty glance, stroked the cheek of her child, and said:
"Perhaps your brother has written for him; I see no line in his handwriting."
Nefert on her side glanced at the letter, but not to read it, only to seek some trace of the well-known handwriting of her husband.
Like all the Egyptian women of good family she could read, and during the first two years of her married life she had often--very often--had the opportunity of puzzling, and yet rejoicing, over the feeble signs which the iron hand of the charioteer had scrawled on the papyrus for her whose slender fingers could guide the reed pen with firmness and decision.
She examined the letter, and at last said, with tears in her eyes:
"Nothing! I will go to my room, mother."
Katuti kissed her and said, "Hear first what your brother writes."
But Nefert shook her head, turned away in silence, and disappeared into the house.
Katuti was not very friendly to her son-in-law, but her heart clung to her handsome, reckless son, the very image of her lost husband, the favorite of women, and the gayest youth among the young nobles who composed the chariot-guard of the king.
How fully he had written to-day--he who weilded the reed-pen so laboriously.
This really was a letter; while, usually, he only asked in the fewest words for fresh funds for the gratification of his extravagant tastes.
This time she might look for thanks, for not long since he must have received a considerable supply, which she had abstracted from the income of the possessions entrusted to her by her son-in-law.
She began to read.
The cheerfulness, with which she had met the dwarf, was insincere, and had resembled the brilliant colors of the rainbow, which gleam over the stagnant waters of a bog. A stone falls into the pool, the colors vanish, dim mists rise up, and it becomes foul and clouded.
The news which her son's letter contained fell, indeed, like a block of stone on Katuti's soul.
Our deepest sorrows always flow from the same source as might have filled us with joy, and those wounds burn the fiercest which are inflicted by a hand we love.
The farther Katuti went in the lamentably incorrect epistle--which she could only decipher with difficulty--which her darling had written to her, the paler grew her face, which she several times covered with her trembling hands, from which the letter dropped.
Nemu squatted on the earth near her, and followed all her movements.
When she sprang forward with a heart-piercing scream, and pressed her forehead to a rough palmtrunk, he crept up to her, kissed her feet, and exclaimed with a depth of feeling that overcame even Katuti, who was accustomed to hear only gay or bitter speeches from the lips of her jester--
"Mistress! lady! what has happened?"
Katuti collected herself, turned to him, and tried to speak; but her pale lips remained closed, and her eyes gazed dimly into vacancy as though a catalepsy had seized her.
"Mistress! Mistress!" cried the dwarf again, with growing agitation. "What is the matter? shall I call thy daughter?"
Katuti made a sign with her hand, and cried feebly: "The wretches! the reprobates!"
Her breath began to come quickly, the blood mounted to her cheeks and her flashing eyes; she trod upon the letter, and wept so loud and passionately, that the dwarf, who had never before seen tears in her eyes, raised himself timidly, and said in mild reproach: "Katuti!"
She laughed bitterly, and said with a trembling voice:
"Why do you call my name so loud! it is disgraced and degraded. How the nobles and the ladies will rejoice! Now envy can point at us with spiteful joy--and a minute ago I was praising this day! They say one should exhibit one's happiness in the streets, and conceal one's misery; on the contrary, on the contrary! Even the Gods should not know of one's hopes and joys, for they too are envious and spiteful!"
Again she leaned her head against the palm-tree. "Thou speakest of shame, and not of death," said Nemu, "and I learned from thee that one should give nothing up for lost excepting the dead."
These words had a powerful effect on the agitated woman. Quickly and vehemently she turned upon the dwarf saying.
"You are clever, and faithful too, so listen! but if you were Amon himself there is nothing to be done--"
"We must try," said Nemu, and his sharp eyes met those of his mistress.
"Speak," he said, "and trust me. Perhaps I can be of no use; but that I can be silent thou knowest."
"Before long the children in the streets will talk of what this tells me," said Katuti, laughing with bitterness, "only Nefert must know nothing of what has happened--nothing, mind; what is that? the Regent coming! quick, fly; tell him I am suddenly taken ill, very ill; I cannot see him, not now! No one is to be admitted--no one, do you hear?"
The dwarf went.
When he came back after he had fulfilled his errand, he found his mistress still in a fever of excitement.
"Listen," she said; "first the smaller matter, then the frightful, the unspeakable. Rameses loads Mena with marks of his favor. It came to a division of the spoils of war for the year; a great heap of treasure lay ready for each of his followers, and the charioteer had to choose before all the others."
"Well?" said the dwarf.
"Well!" echoed Katuti. "Well! how did the worthy householder care for his belongings at home, how did he seek to relieve his indebted estate? It is disgraceful, hideous! He passed by the silver, the gold, the jewels, with a laugh; and took the captive daughter of the Danaid princes, and led her into his tent."
"Shameful!" muttered the dwarf.
"Poor, poor Nefert!" cried Katuti, covering her face with her hands.
"And what more?" asked Nemu hastily.
"That," said Katuti, "that is--but I will keep calm--quite calm and quiet. You know my son. He is heedless, but he loves me and his sister more than anything in the world. I, fool as I was, to persuade him to economy, had vividly described our evil plight, and after that disgraceful conduct of Mena he thought of us and of our anxieties. His share of the booty was small, and could not help us. His comrades threw dice for the shares they had obtained--he staked his to win more for us. He lost--all--all--and at last against an enormous sum, still thinking of us, and only of us, he staked the mummy of his dead father.
He lost. If he does not redeem the pledge before the expiration of the third month, he will fall into infamy, the mummy will belong to the winner, and disgrace and ignominy will be my lot and his."
Katuti pressed her hands on her face, the dwarf muttered to himself, "The gambler and hypocrite!" When his mistress had grown calmer, he said:
"It is horrible, yet all is not lost. How much is the debt?"
It sounded like a heavy curse, when Katuti replied, "Thirty Babylonian talents."--[L7000 sterling in 1881.]
The dwarf cried out, as if an asp had stung him. "Who dared to bid against such a mad stake?"
"The Lady Hathor's son, Antef," answered Katuti, "who has already gambled away the inheritance of his fathers, in Thebes."
"He will not remit one grain of wheat of his claim," cried the dwarf. "And Mena?"
"How could my son turn to him after what had happened? The poor child implores me to ask the assistance of the Regent."
"Of the Regent?" said the dwarf, shaking his big head. "Impossible!"
"I know, as matters now stand; but his place, his name."
"Mistress," said the dwarf, and deep purpose rang in the words, "do not spoil the future for the sake of the present. If thy son loses his honor under King Rameses, the future King, Ani, may restore it to him. If the Regent now renders you all an important service, he will regard you as amply paid when our efforts have succeeded, and he sits on the throne. He lets himself be led by thee now because thou hast no need of his help, and dost seem to work only for his sake, and for his elevation. As soon as thou hast appealed to him, and he has assisted thee, all thy confidence and freedom will be gone, and the more difficult he finds it to raise so large a sum of money at once, the angrier he will be to think that thou art making use of him. Thou knowest his circumstances."
"He is in debt," said Katuti. "I know that."
"Thou should'st know it," cried the dwarf, "for thou thyself hast forced him to enormous expenses. He has won the people of Thebes with dazzling festive displays; as guardian of Apis
he gave a large donation to Memphis; he bestowed thousands on the leaders of the troops sent into Ethiopia, which were equipped by him; what his spies cost him at, the camp of the king, thou knowest. He has borrowed sums of money from most of the rich men in the country, and that is well, for so many creditors are so many allies. The Regent is a bad debtor; but the king Ani, they reckon, will be a grateful payer."
Katuti looked at the dwarf in astonishment. "You know men!" she said.
"To my sorrow!" replied Nemu. "Do not apply to the Regent, and before thou dost sacrifice the labor of years, and thy future greatness, and that of those near to thee, sacrifice thy son's honor."
"And my husband's, and my own?" exclaimed Katuti. "How can you know what that is! Honor is a word that the slave may utter, but whose meaning he can never comprehend; you rub the weals that are raised on you by blows; to me every finger pointed at me in scorn makes a wound like an ashwood lance with a poisoned tip of brass. Oh ye holy Gods! who can help us?"
The miserable woman pressed her hands over her eyes, as if to shut out the sight of her own disgrace. The dwarf looked at her compassionately, and said in a changed tone:
"Dost thou remember the diamond which fell out of Nefert's handsomest ring? We hunted for it, and could not find it. Next day, as I was going through the room, I trod on something hard; I stooped down and found the stone. What the noble organ of sight, the eye, overlooked, the callous despised sole of the foot found; and perhaps the small slave, Nemu, who knows nothing of honor, may succeed in finding a mode of escape which is not revealed to the lofty soul of his mistress!"
"What are you thinking of?" asked Katuti.
"Escape," answered the dwarf. "Is it true that thy sister Setchem has visited thee, and that you are reconciled?"
"She offered me her hand, and I took it?"
"Then go to her. Men are never more helpful than after a reconciliation. The enmity they have driven out, seems to leave as it were a freshly-healed wound which must be touched with caution; and Setchem is of thy own blood, and kind-hearted."
"She is not rich," replied Katuti. "Every palm in her garden comes from her husband, and belongs to her children."
"Paaker, too, was with you?"
"Certainly only by the entreaty of his mother--he hates my son-in-law."
"I know it," muttered the dwarf, "but if Nefert would ask him?"
The widow drew herself up indignantly. She felt that she had allowed the dwarf too much freedom, and ordered him to leave her alone.
Nemu kissed her robe and asked timidly:
"Shall I forget that thou hast trusted me, or am I permitted to consider further as to thy son's safety?" Katuti stood for a moment undecided, then she said:
"You were clever enough to find what I carelessly dropped; perhaps some God may show you what I ought to do. Now leave me."
"Wilt thou want me early to-morrow?"
"Then I will go to the Necropolis, and offer a sacrifice."
"Go!" said Katuti, and went towards the house with the fatal letter in her hand.
Nemu stayed behind alone; he looked thoughtfully at the ground, murmuring to himself.
"She must not lose her honor; not at present, or indeed all will be lost. What is this honor? We all come into the world without it, and most of us go to the grave without knowing it, and very good folks notwithstanding. Only a few who are rich and idle weave it in with the homely stuff of their souls, as the Kuschites do their hair with grease and oils, till it forms a cap of which, though it disfigures them, they are so proud that they would rather have their ears cut off than the monstrous thing. I see, I see--but before I open my mouth I will go to my mother. She knows more than twenty prophets."