Uarda by Georg Ebers
The cloudless vault of heaven spread over the plain of Pelusium, the stars were bright, the moon threw her calm light over the thousands of tents which shone as white as little hillocks of snow. All was silent, the soldiers and the Egyptians, who had assembled to welcome the king, were now all gone to rest.
There had been great rejoicing and jollity in the camp; three enormous vats, garlanded with flowers and overflowing with wine, which spilt with every movement of the trucks on which they were drawn by thirty oxen, were sent up and down the little streets of tents, and as the evening closed in tavern-booths were erected in many spots in the camp, at which the Regent's servants supplied the soldiers with red and white wine. The tents of the populace were only divided from the pavilion of the Pharaoh by the hastily-constructed garden in the midst of which it stood, and the hedge which enclosed it.
The tent of the Regent himself was distinguished from all the others by its size and magnificence; to the right of it was the encampment of the different priestly deputations, to the left that of his suite; among the latter were the tents of his friend Katuti, a large one for her own use, and some smaller ones for her servants. Behind Ani's pavilion stood a tent, enclosed in a wall or screen of canvas, within which old Hekt was lodged; Ani had secretly conveyed her hither on board his own boat. Only Katuti and his confidential servants knew who it was that lay concealed in the mysteriously shrouded abode.
While the banquet was proceeding in the great pavilion, the witch was sitting in a heap on the sandy earth of her conical canvas dwelling; she breathed with difficulty, for a weakness of the heart, against which she had long struggled, now oppressed her more frequently and severely; a little lamp of clay burned before her, and on her lap crouched a sick and ruffled hawk; the creature shivered from time to time, closing the filmy lids of his keen eyes, which glowed with a dull fire when Hekt took him up in her withered hand, and tried to blow some air into his hooked beak, still ever ready to peck and tear her.
At her feet little Scherau lay asleep. Presently she pushed the child with her foot. "Wake up," she said, as he raised himself still half asleep. "You have young ears--it seemed to me that I heard a woman scream in Ani's tent. Do you hear any thing?"
"Yes, indeed," exclaimed the little one. "There is a noise like crying, and that--that was a scream! It came from out there, from Nemu's tent."
"Creep through there," said the witch, "and see what is happening!"
The child obeyed: Hekt turned her attention again to the bird, which no longer perched in her lap, but lay on one side, though it still tried to use its talons, when she took him up in her hand.
"It is all over with him," muttered the old woman, "and the one I called Rameses is sleeker than ever. It is all folly and yet--and yet! the Regent's game is over, and he has lost it. The creature is stretching itself--its head drops--it draws itself up--one more clutch at my dress--now it is dead!"
She contemplated the dead hawk in her lap for some minutes, then she took it up, flung it into a corner of the tent, and exclaimed:
"Good-bye, King Ani. The crown is not for you!" Then she went on: "What project has he in hand now, I wonder? Twenty times he has asked me whether the great enterprise will succeed; as if I knew any more than he! And Nemu too has hinted all kinds of things, though he would not speak out. Something is going on, and I--and I? There it comes again."
The old woman pressed her hand to her heart and closed her eyes, her features were distorted with pain; she did not perceive Scherau's return, she did not hear him call her name, or see that, when she did not answer him, he left her again. For an hour or more she remained unconscious, then her senses returned, but she felt as if some ice-cold fluid slowly ran through her veins instead of the warm blood.
"If I had kept a hawk for myself too," she muttered, "it would soon follow the other one in the corner! If only Ani keeps his word, and has me embalmed!
"But how can he when he too is so near his end. They will let me rot and disappear, and there will be no future for me, no meeting with Assa."
The old woman remained silent for a long time; at last she murmured hoarsely with her eyes fixed on the ground:
"Death brings release, if only from the torment of remembrance. But there is a life beyond the grave. I do not, I will not cease to hope. The dead shall all be equally judged, and subject to the inscrutable decrees.--Where shall I find him? Among the blest, or among the damned? And I? It matters not! The deeper the abyss into which they fling me the better. Can Assa, if he is among the blest, remain in bliss, when he sees to what he has brought me? Oh! they must embalm me--I cannot bear to vanish, and rot and evaporate into nothingness!"
While she was still speaking, the dwarf Nemu had come into the tent; Scherau, seeing the old woman senseless, had run to tell him that his mother was lying on the earth with her eyes shut, and was dying. The witch perceived the little man.
"It is well," she said, "that you have come; I shall be dead before sunrise."
"Mother!" cried the dwarf horrified, "you shall live, and live better than you have done till now! Great things are happening, and for us!"
"I know, I know," said Hekt. "Go away, Scherau--now, Nemu, whisper in my ear what is doing?" The dwarf felt as if he could not avoid the influence of her eye, he went up to her, and said softly--"The pavilion, in which the king and his people are sleeping, is constructed of wood; straw and pitch are built into the walls, and laid under the boards. As soon as they are gone to rest we shall set the tinder thing on fire. The guards are drunk and sleeping."
"Well thought of," said Hekt. "Did you plan it?" "I and my mistress," said the dwarf not without pride. "You can devise a plot," said the old woman, "but you are feeble in the working out. Is your plan a secret? Have you clever assistants?"
"No one knows of it," replied the dwarf, "but Katuti, Paaker, and I; we three shall lay the brands to the spots we have fixed upon. I am going to the rooms of Bent-Anat; Katuti, who can go in and out as she pleases, will set fire to the stairs, which lead to the upper story, and which fall by touching a spring; and Paaker to the king's apartments."
"Good-good, it may succeed," gasped the old woman. "But what was the scream in your tent?" The dwarf seemed doubtful about answering; but Hekt went on:
"Speak without fear--the dead are sure to be silent." The dwarf, trembling with agitation, shook off his hesitation, and said:
"I have found Uarda, the grandchild of Pinem, who had disappeared, and I decoyed her here, for she and no other shall be my wife, if Ani is king, and if Katuti makes me rich and free. She is in the service of the Princess Bent-Anat, and sleeps in her anteroom, and she must not be burnt with her mistress. She insisted on going back to the palace, so, as she would fly to the fire like a gnat, and I would not have her risk being burnt, I tied her up fast."
"Did she not struggle?" said Hekt.
"Like a mad thing," said the dwarf. "But the Regent's dumb slave, who was ordered by his master to obey me in everything to-day, helped me. We tied up her mouth that she might not be heard screaming!"
"Will you leave her alone when you go to do your errand?"
"Her father is with her!"
"Kaschta, the red-beard?" asked the old woman in surprise. "And did he not break you in pieces like an earthenware pot?"
"He will not stir," said Nemu laughing. "For when I found him, I made him so drunk with Ani's old wine that he lies there like a mummy. It was from him that I learned where Uarda was, and I went to her, and got her to come with me by telling her that her father was very ill, and begged her to go to see him once more. She flew after me like a gazelle, and when she saw the soldier lying there senseless she threw herself upon him, and called for water to cool his head, for he was raving in his dreams of rats and mice that had fallen upon him. As it grew late she wanted to return to her mistress, and we were obliged to prevent her. How handsome she has grown, mother; you cannot imagine how pretty she is."
"Aye, aye!" said Hekt. "You will have to keep an eye upon her when she is your wife."
"I will treat her like the wife of a noble," said Nemu. "And pay a real lady to guard her. But by this time Katuti has brought home her daughter, Mena's wife; the stars are sinking and--there--that was the first signal. When Katuti whistles the third time we are to go to work. Lend me your fire-box, mother."
"Take it," said Hekt. "I shall never need it again. It is all over with me! How your hand shakes! Hold the wood firmly, or you will drop it before you have brought the fire."
The dwarf bid the old woman farewell, and she let him kiss her without moving. When he was gone, she listened eagerly for any sound that might pierce the silence of the night, her eyes shone with a keen light, and a thousand thoughts flew through her restless brain. When she heard the second signal on Katuti's silver whistle, she sat upright and muttered:
"That gallows-bird Paaker, his vain aunt and that villain Ani, are no match for Rameses, even when he is asleep. Ani's hawk is dead; he has nothing to hope for from Fortune, and I nothing to hope for from him. But if Rameses--if the real king would promise me--then my poor old body--Yes, that is the thing, that is what I will do."
She painfully raised herself on her feet with the help of her stick, she found a knife and a small flask which she slipped into her dress, and then, bent and trembling, with a last effort of her remaining strength she dragged herself as far as Nemu's tent. Here she found Uarda bound hand and foot, and Kaschta lying on the ground in a heavy drunken slumber.
The girl shrank together in alarm when she saw the old woman, and Scherau, who crouched at her side, raised his hands imploringly to the witch.
"Take this knife, boy," she said to the little one. "Cut the ropes the poor thing is tied with. The papyrus cords are strong, saw them with the blade."
While the boy eagerly followed her instructions with all his little might, she rubbed the soldier's temples with an essence which she had in the bottle, and poured a few drops of it between his lips. Kaschta came to himself, stretched his limbs, and stared in astonishment at the place in which he found himself. She gave him some water, and desired him to drink it, saying, as Uarda shook herself free from the bonds:
"The Gods have predestined you to great things, you white maiden. Listen to what I, old Hekt, am telling you. The king's life is threatened, his and his children's; I purpose to save them, and I ask no reward but this-that he should have my body embalmed and interred at Thebes. Swear to me that you will require this of him when you have saved him."
"In God's name what is happening?" cried Uarda. "Swear that you will provide for my burial," said the old woman.
"I swear it!" cried the girl. "But for God's sake--"
"Katuti, Paaker, and Nemu are gone to set fire to the palace when Rameses is sleeping, in three places. Do you hear, Kaschta! Now hasten, fly after the incendiaries, rouse the servants, and try to rescue the king."
"Oh fly, father," cried the girl, and they both rushed away in the darkness.
"She is honest and will keep her word," muttered Hekt, and she tried to drag herself back to her own tent; but her strength failed her half-way. Little Scherau tried to support her, but he was too weak; she sank down on the sand, and looked out into the distance. There she saw the dark mass of the palace, from which rose a light that grew broader and broader, then clouds of black smoke, then up flew the soaring flame, and a swarm of glowing sparks.
"Run into the camp, child," she cried, "cry fire, and wake the sleepers."
Scherau ran off shouting as loud as he could.
The old woman pressed her hand to her side, she muttered: "There it is again."
"In the other world--Assa--Assa," and her trembling lips were silent for ever.