Volume 4.
Chapter XIX.
 

As soon as Paaker had disappeared behind the shrubs, Katuti struck a little sheet of metal, a slave appeared, and Katuti asked her whether Nefert had returned from the temple.

"Her litter is just now at the side gate," was the answer.

"I await her here," said the widow. The slave went away, and a few minutes later Nefert entered the hall.

"You want me?" she said; and after kissing her mother she sank upon her couch. "I am tired," she exclaimed, "Nemu, take a fan and keep the flies off me."

The dwarf sat down on a cushion by her couch, and began to wave the semi-circular fan of ostrich-feathers; but Katuti put him aside and said:

"You can leave us for the present; we want to speak to each other in private."

The dwarf shrugged his shoulders and got up, but Nefert looked at her mother with an irresistible appeal.

"Let him stay," she said, as pathetically as if her whole happiness depended upon it. "The flies torment me so, and Nemu always holds his tongue."

She patted the dwarf's big head as if he were a lap-dog, and called the white cat, which with a graceful leap sprang on to her shoulder and stood there with its back arched, to be stroked by her slender fingers.

Nemu looked enquiringly at his mistress, but Katuti turned to her daughter, and said in a warning voice:

"I have very serious things to discuss with you."

"Indeed?" said her daughter, "but I cannot be stung by the flies all the same. Of course, if you wish it--"

"Nemu may stay then," said Katuti, and her voice had the tone of that of a nurse who gives way to a naughty child. "Besides, he knows what I have to talk about."

"There now!" said Nefert, kissing the head of the white cat, and she gave the fan back to the dwarf.

The widow looked at her daughter with sincere compassion, she went up to her and looked for the thousandth time in admiration at her pretty face.

"Poor child," she sighed, "how willingly I would spare you the frightful news which sooner or later you must hear--must bear. Leave off your foolish play with the cat, I have things of the most hideous gravity to tell you."

"Speak on," replied Nefert. "To-day I cannot fear the worst. Mena's star, the haruspex told me, stands under the sign of happiness, and I enquired of the oracle in the temple of Besa, and heard that my husband is prospering. I have prayed in the temple till I am quite content. Only speak!--I know my brother's letter from the camp had no good news in it; the evening before last I saw you had been crying, and yesterday you did not look well; even the pomegranate flowers in your hair did not suit you."

"Your brother," sighed Katuti, "has occasioned me great trouble, and we might through him have suffered deep dishonor--"

"We-dishonor?" exclaimed Nefert, and she nervously clutched at the cat.

"Your brother lost enormous sums at play; to recover them he pledged the mummy of your father--"

"Horrible!" cried Nefert. "We must appeal at once to the king;--I will write to him myself; for Mena's sake he will hear me. Rameses is great and noble, and will not let a house that is faithfully devoted to him fall into disgrace through the reckless folly of a boy. Certainly I will write to him."

She said this in a voice of most childlike confidence, and desired Nemu to wave the fan more gently, as if this concern were settled.

In Katuti's heart surprise and indignation at the unnatural indifference of her daughter were struggling together; but she withheld all blame, and said carelessly:

"We are already released, for my nephew Paaker, as soon as he heard what threatened us, offered me his help; freely and unprompted, from pure goodness of heart and attachment."

"How good of Paaker!" cried Nefert. "He was so fond of me, and you know, mother, I always stood up for him. No doubt it was for my sake that he behaved so generously!"

The young wife laughed, and pulling the cat's face close to her own, held her nose to its cool little nose, stared into its green eyes, and said, imitating childish talk:

"There now, pussy--how kind people are to your little mistress."

Katuti was vexed daughter's childish impulses.

"It seems to me," she said, "that you might leave off playing and trifling when I am talking of such serious matters. I have long since observed that the fate of the house to which your father and mother belong is a matter of perfect indifference to you; and yet you would have to seek shelter and protection under its roof if your husband--"

"Well, mother?" asked Nefert breathing more quickly.

As soon as Katuti perceived her daughter's agitation she regretted that she had not more gently led up to the news she had to break to her; for she loved her daughter, and knew that it would give her keen pain.

So she went on more sympathetically:

"You boasted in joke that people are good to you, and it is true; you win hearts by your mere being--by only being what you are. And Mena too loved you tenderly; but 'absence,' says the proverb, 'is the one real enemy,' and Mena--"

"What has Mena done?" Once more Nefert interrupted her mother, and her nostrils quivered.

"Mena," said Katuti, decidedly, "has violated the truth and esteem which he owes you--he has trodden them under foot, and--"

"Mena?" exclaimed the young wife with flashing eyes; she flung the cat on the floor, and sprang from her couch.

"Yes--Mena," said Katuti firmly. "Your brother writes that he would have neither silver nor gold for his spoil, but took the fair daughter of the prince of the Danaids into his tent. The ignoble wretch!"

"Ignoble wretch!" cried Nefert, and two or three times she repeated her mother's last words. Katuti drew back in horror, for her gentle, docile, childlike daughter stood before her absolutely transfigured beyond all recognition.

She looked like a beautiful demon of revenge; her eyes sparkled, her breath came quickly, her limbs quivered, and with extraordinary strength and rapidity she seized the dwarf by the hand, led him to the door of one of the rooms which opened out of the hall, threw it open, pushed the little man over the threshold, and closed it sharply upon him; then with white lips she came up to her mother.

"An ignoble wretch did you call him?" she cried out with a hoarse husky voice, "an ignoble wretch! Take back your words, mother, take back your words, or--"

Katuti turned paler and paler, and said soothingly:

"The words may sound hard, but he has broken faith with you, and openly dishonored you."

"And shall I believe it?" said Nefert with a scornful laugh. "Shall I believe it, because a scoundrel has written it, who has pawned his father's body and the honor of big family; because it is told you by that noble and brave gentleman! why a box on the ears from Mena would be the death of him. Look at me, mother, here are my eyes, and if that table there were Mena's tent, and you were Mena, and you took the fairest woman living by the hand and led her into it, and these eyes saw it--aye, over and over again--I would laugh at it--as I laugh at it now; and I should say, 'Who knows what he may have to give her, or to say to her,' and not for one instant would I doubt his truth; for your son is false and Mena is true. Osiris broke faith with Isis--but Mena may be favored by a hundred women--he will take none to his tent but me!"

"Keep your belief," said Katuti bitterly, "but leave me mine."

"Yours?" said Nefert, and her flushed cheeks turned pale again. "What do you believe? You listen to the worst and basest things that can be said of a man who has overloaded you with benefits! A wretch, bah! an ignoble wretch? Is that what you call a man who lets you dispose of his estate as you please!"

"Nefert," cried Katuti angrily, "I will--"

"Do what you will," interrupted her indignant daughter, "but do not vilify the generous man who has never hindered you from throwing away his property on your son's debts and your own ambition. Since the day before yesterday I have learned that we are not rich; and I have reflected, and I have asked myself what has become of our corn and our cattle, of our sheep and the rents from the farmers. The wretch's estate was not so contemptible; but I tell you plainly I should be unworthy to be the wife of the noble Mena if I allowed any one to vilify his name under his own roof. Hold to your belief, by all means, but one of us must quit this house--you or I."

At these words Nefert broke into passionate sobs, threw herself on her knees by her couch, hid her face in the cushions, and wept convulsively and without intermission.

Katuti stood behind her, startled, trembling, and not knowing what to say. Was this her gentle, dreamy daughter? Had ever a daughter dared to speak thus to her mother? But was she right or was Nefert? This question was the pressing one; she knelt down by the side of the young wife, put her arm round her, drew her head against her bosom, and whispered pitifully:

"You cruel, hard-hearted child; forgive your poor, miserable mother, and do not make the measure of her wretchedness overflow."

Then Nefert rose, kissed her mother's hand, and went silently into her own room.

Katuti remained alone; she felt as if a dead hand held her heart in its icy grasp, and she muttered to herself:

"Ani is right--nothing turns to good excepting that from which we expect the worst."

She held her hand to her head, as if she had heard something too strange to be believed. Her heart went after her daughter, but instead of sympathizing with her she collected all her courage, and deliberately recalled all the reproaches that Nefert had heaped upon her. She did not spare herself a single word, and finally she murmured to herself: "She can spoil every thing. For Mena's sake she will sacrifice me and the whole world; Mena and Rameses are one, and if she discovers what we are plotting she will betray us without a moment's hesitation. Hitherto all has gone on without her seeing it, but to-day something has been unsealed in her--an eye, a tongue, an ear, which have hitherto been closed. She is like a deaf and dumb person, who by a sudden fright is restored to speech and hearing. My favorite child will become the spy of my actions, and my judge."

She gave no utterance to the last words, but she seemed to hear them with her inmost ear; the voice that could speak to her thus, startled and frightened her, and solitude was in itself a torture; she called the dwarf, and desired him to have her litter prepared, as she intended going to the temple, and visiting the wounded who had been sent home from Syria.

"And the handkerchief for the Regent?" asked the little man.

"It was a pretext," said Katuti. "He wishes to speak to you about the matter which you know of with regard to Paaker. What is it?"

"Do not ask," replied Nemu, "I ought not to betray it. By Besa, who protects us dwarfs, it is better that thou shouldst never know it."

"For to-day I have learned enough that is new to me," retorted Katuti. "Now go to Ani, and if you are able to throw Paaker entirely into his power--good--I will give--but what have I to give away? I will be grateful to you; and when we have gained our end I will set you free and make you rich."

Nemu kissed her robe, and said in a low voice: "What is the end?"

"You know what Ani is striving for," answered the widow. "And I have but one wish!"

"And that is?"

"To see Paaker in Mena's place."

"Then our wishes are the same," said the dwarf and he left the Hall.

Katuti looked after him and muttered:

"It must be so. For if every thing remains as it was and Mena comes home and demands a reckoning--it is not to be thought of! It must not be!"