Uarda by Georg Ebers
Katuti had kept her unfortunate nephew Paaker concealed in one of her servants' tents. He had escaped wounded from the battle at Kadesh, and in terrible pain he had succeeded, by the help of an ass which he had purchased from a peasant, in reaching by paths known to hardly any one but himself, the cave where he had previously left his brother. Here he found his faithful Ethiopian slave, who nursed him till he was strong enough to set out on his journey to Egypt. He reached Pelusium, after many privations, disguised as an Ismaelite camel-driver; he left his servant, who might have betrayed him, behind in the cave.
Before he was permitted to pass the fortifications, which lay across the isthmus which parts the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, and which were intended to protect Egypt from the incursions of the nomad tribes of the Chasu, he was subjected to a strict interrogatory, and among other questions was asked whether he had nowhere met with the traitor Paaker, who was minutely described to him. No one recognized in the shrunken, grey-haired, one-eyed camel-driver, the broad-shouldered, muscular and thick-legged pioneer. To disguise himself the more effectually, he procured some hair-dye--a cosmetic known in all ages--and blackened himself.
Katuti had arrived at Pelusium with Ani some time before, to superintend the construction of the royal pavilion. He ventured to approach her disguised as a negro beggar, with a palm-branch in his hand. She gave him some money and questioned him concerning his native country, for she made it her business to secure the favor even of the meanest; but though she appeared to take an interest in his answers, she did not recognize him; now for the first time he felt secure, and the next day he went up to her again, and told her who he was.
The widow was not unmoved by the frightful alteration in her nephew, and although she knew that even Ani had decreed that any intercourse with the traitor was to be punished by death, she took him at once into her service, for she had never had greater need than now to employ the desperate enemy of the king and of her son-in-law.
The mutilated, despised, and hunted man kept himself far from the other servants, regarding the meaner folk with undiminished scorn. He thought seldom, and only vaguely of Katuti's daughter, for love had quite given place to hatred, and only one thing now seemed to him worth living for--the hope of working with others to cause his enemies' downfall, and of being the instrument of their death; so he offered himself to the widow a willing and welcome tool, and the dull flash in his uninjured eye when she set him the task of setting fire to the king's apartments, showed her that in the Mohar she had found an ally she might depend on to the uttermost.
Paaker had carefully examined the scene of his exploit before the king's arrival. Under the windows of the king's rooms, at least forty feet from the ground, was a narrow parapet resting on the ends of the beams which supported the rafters on which lay the floor of the upper story in which the king slept. These rafters had been smeared with pitch, and straw had been laid between them, and the pioneer would have known how to find the opening where he was to put in the brand even if he had been blind of both eyes.
When Katuti first sounded her whistle he slunk to his post; he was challenged by no watchman, for the few guards who had been placed in the immediate vicinity of the pavilion, had all gone to sleep under the influence of the Regent's wine. Paaker climbed up to about the height of two men from the ground by the help of the ornamental carving on the outside wall of the palace; there a rope ladder was attached, he clambered up this, and soon stood on the parapet, above which were the windows of the king's rooms, and below which the fire was to be laid.
Rameses' room was brightly illuminated. Paaker could see into it without being seen, and could bear every word that was spoken within. The king was sitting in an arm-chair, and looked thoughtfully at the ground; before him stood the Regent, and Mena stood by his couch, holding in his hand the king's sleeping-robe.
Presently Rameses raised his head, and said, as he offered his hand with frank affection to Ani:
"Let me bring this glorious day to a worthy end, cousin. I have found you my true and faithful friend, and I had been in danger of believing those over-anxious counsellors who spoke evil of you. I am never prone to distrust, but a number of things occurred together that clouded my judgment, and I did you injustice. I am sorry, sincerely sorry; nor am I ashamed to apologize to you for having for an instant doubted your good intentions. You are my good friend--and I will prove to you that I am yours. There is my hand-take it; and all Egypt shall know that Rameses trusts no man more implicitly than his Regent Ani. I will ask you to undertake to be my guard of honor to-night--we will share this room. I sleep here; when I lie down on my couch take your place on the divan yonder." Ani had taken Rameses' offered hand, but now he turned pale as he looked down. Paaker could see straight into his face, and it was not without difficulty that he suppressed a scornful laugh.
Rameses did not observe the Regent's dismay, for he had signed to Mena to come closer to him.
"Before I sleep," said the king, "I will bring matters to an end with you too. You have put your wife's constancy to a severe test, and she has trusted you with a childlike simplicity that is often wiser than the arguments of sages, because she loved you honestly, and is herself incapable of guile. I promised you that I would grant you a wish if your faith in her was justified. Now tell me what is your will?"
Mena fell on his knees, and covered the king's robe with kisses.
"Pardon!" he exclaimed. "Nothing but pardon. My crime was a heavy one, I know; but I was driven to it by scorn and fury--it was as if I saw the dishonoring hand of Paaker stretched out to seize my innocent wife, who, as I now know, loathes him as a toad--"
"What was that?" exclaimed the king. "I thought I heard a groan outside."
He went up to the window and looked out, but he did not see the pioneer, who watched every motion of the king, and who, as soon as he perceived that his involuntary sigh of anguish had been heard, stretched himself close under the balustrade. Mena had not risen from his knees when the king once more turned to him.
"Pardon me," he said again. "Let me be near thee again as before, and drive thy chariot. I live only through thee, I am of no worth but through thee, and by thy favor, my king, my lord, my father!"
Rameses signed to his favorite to rise. "Your request was granted," said he, "before you made it. I am still in your debt on your fair wife's account. Thank Nefert--not me, and let us give thanks to the Immortals this day with especial fervor. What has it not brought forth for us! It has restored to me you two friends, whom I regarded as lost to me, and has given me in Pentaur another son."
A low whistle sounded through the night air; it was Katuti's last signal.
Paaker blew up the tinder, laid it in the bole under the parapet, and then, unmindful of his own danger, raised himself to listen for any further words.
"I entreat thee," said the Regent, approaching Rameses, "to excuse me. I fully appreciate thy favors, but the labors of the last few days have been too much for me; I can hardly stand on my feet, and the guard of honor--"
"Mena will watch," said the king. "Sleep in all security, cousin. I will have it known to all men that I have put away from me all distrust of you. Give the my night-robe, Mena. Nay-one thing more I must tell you. Youth smiles on the young, Ani. Bent-Anat has chosen a worthy husband, my preserver, the poet Pentaur. He was said to be a man of humble origin, the son of a gardener of the House of Seti; and now what do I learn through Ameni? He is the true son of the dead Mohar, and the foul traitor Paaker is the gardener's son. A witch in the Necropolis changed the children. That is the best news of all that has reached me on this propitious day, for the Mohar's widow, the noble Setchem, has been brought here, and I should have been obliged to choose between two sentences on her as the mother of the villain who has escaped us. Either I must have sent her to the quarries, or have had her beheaded before all the people--In the name of the Gods, what is that?"
They heard a loud cry in a man's voice, and at the same instant a noise as if some heavy mass had fallen to the ground from a great height. Rameses and Mena hastened to the window, but started back, for they were met by a cloud of smoke.
"Call the watch!" cried the king.
"Go, you," exclaimed Mena to Ani. "I will not leave the king again in danger."
Ani fled away like an escaped prisoner, but he could not get far, for, before he could descend the stairs to the lower story, they fell in before his very eyes; Katuti, after she had set fire to the interior of the palace, had made them fall by one blow of a hammer. Ani saw her robe as she herself fled, clenched his fist with rage as he shouted her name, and then, not knowing what he did, rushed headlong through the corridor into which the different royal apartments opened.
The fearful crash of the falling stairs brought the King and Mena also out of the sleeping-room.
"There lie the stairs! that is serious!" said the king cooly; then he went back into his room, and looked out of a window to estimate the danger. Bright flames were already bursting from the northern end of the palace, and gave the grey dawn the brightness of day; the southern wing or the pavilion was not yet on fire. Mena observed the parapet from which Paaker had fallen to the ground, tested its strength, and found it firm enough to bear several persons. He looked round, particularly at the wing not yet gained by the flames, and exclaimed in a loud voice:
"The fire is intentional! it is done on purpose. See there! a man is squatting down and pushing a brand into the woodwork."
He leaped back into the room, which was now filling with smoke, snatched the king's bow and quiver, which he himself had hung up at the bed-head, took careful aim, and with one cry the incendiary fell dead.
A few hours later the dwarf Nemu was found with the charioteer's arrow through his heart. After setting fire to Bent-Anat's rooms, he had determined to lay a brand to the wing of the palace where, with the other princes, Uarda's friend Rameri was sleeping.
Mena had again leaped out of window, and was estimating the height of the leap to the ground; the Pharaoh's room was getting more and more filled with smoke, and flames began to break through the seams of the boards. Outside the palace as well as within every one was waking up to terror and excitement.
"Fire! fire! an incendiary! Help! Save the king!" cried Kaschta, who rushed on, followed by a crowd of guards whom he had roused; Uarda had flown to call Bent-Anat, as she knew the way to her room. The king had got on to the parapet outside the window with Mena, and was calling to the soldiers.
"Half of you get into the house, and first save the princess; the other half keep the fire from catching the south wing. I will try to get there."
But Nemu's brand had been effectual, the flames flared up, and the soldiers strained every nerve to conquer them. Their cries mingled with the crackling and snapping of the dry wood, and the roar of the flames, with the trumpet calls of the awakening troops, and the beating of drums. The young princes appeared at a window; they had tied their clothes together to form a rope, and one by one escaped down it.
Rameses called to them with words of encouragement, but he himself was unable to take any means of escape, for though the parapet on which he stood was tolerably wide, and ran round the whole of the building, at about every six feet it was broken by spaces of about ten paces. The fire was spreading and growing, and glowing sparks flew round him and his companion like chaff from the winnowing fan.
"Bring some straw and make a heap below!" shouted Rameses, above the roar of the conflagration. "There is no escape but by a leap down."
The flames rushed out of the windows of the king's room; it was impossible to return to it, but neither the king nor Mena lost his self-possession. When Mena saw the twelve princes descending to the ground, he shouted through his hands, using them as a speaking trumpet, and called to Rameri, who was about to slip down the rope they had contrived, the last of them all.
"Pull up the rope, and keep it from injury till I come."
Rameri obeyed the order, and before Rameses could interfere, Mena had sprung across the space which divided one piece of the balustrade from another. The king's blood ran cold as Mena, a second time, ventured the frightful leap; one false step, and he must meet with the same fearful death as his enemy Paaker.
While the bystanders watched him in breathless silence--while the crackling of the wood, the roar of the flames, and the dull thump of falling timber mingled with the distant chant of a procession of priests who were now approaching the burning pile, Nefert roused by little Scherau knelt on the bare ground in fervent and passionate prayer to the saving Gods. She watched every movement of her husband, and she bit her lips till they bled not to cry out. She felt that he was acting bravely and nobly, and that he was lost if even for an instant his attention were distracted from his perilous footing. Now he had reached Rameri, and bound one end of the rope made out of cloaks and handkerchiefs, round his body; then he gave the other end to Rameri, who held fast to the window-sill, and prepared once more to spring. Nefert saw him ready to leap, she pressed her hands upon her lips to repress a scream, she shut her eyes, and when she opened them again he had accomplished the first leap, and at the second the Gods preserved him from falling; at the third the king held out his hand to him, and saved him from a fall. Then Rameses helped him to unfasten the rope from round his waist to fasten it to the end of a beam.
Rameri now loosened the other end, and followed Mena's example; he too, practised in athletic exercises in the school of the House of Seti, succeeded in accomplishing the three tremendous leaps, and soon the king stood in safety on the ground. Rameri followed him, and then Mena, whose faithful wife went to meet him, and wiped the sweat from his throbbing temples.
Rameses hurried to the north wing, where Bent-Anat had her apartments; he found her safe indeed, but wringing her hands, for her young favorite Uarda had disappeared in the flames after she had roused her and saved her with her father's assistance. Kaschta ran up and down in front of the burning pavilion, tearing his hair; now calling his child in tones of anguish, now holding his breath to listen for an answer. To rush at random into the immense-burning building would have been madness. The king observed the unhappy man, and set him to lead the soldiers, whom he had commanded to hew down the wall of Bent-Anat's rooms, so as to rescue the girl who might be within. Kaschta seized an axe, and raised it to strike.
But he thought that he heard blows from within against one of the shutters of the ground-floor, which by Katuti's orders had been securely closed; he followed the sound--he was not mistaken, the knocking could be distinctly heard.
With all his might he struck the edge of the axe between the shutter and the wall, and a stream of smoke poured out of the new outlet, and before him, enveloped in its black clouds, stood a staggering man who held Uarda in his arms. Kaschta sprang forward into the midst of the smoke and sparks, and snatched his daughter from the arms of her preserver, who fell half smothered on his knees. He rushed out into the air with his light and precious burden, and as he pressed his lips to her closed eyelids his eyes were wet, and there rose up before him the image of the woman who bore her, the wife that had stood as the solitary green palm-tree in the desert waste of his life. But only for a few seconds-Bent-Anat herself took Uarda into her care, and he hastened back to the burning house.
He had recognized his daughter's preserver; it was the physician Nebsecht, who had not quitted the princess since their meeting on Sinai, and had found a place among her suite as her personal physician.
The fresh air had rushed into the room through the opening of the shutter, the broad flames streamed out of the window, but still Nebsecht was alive, for his groans could be heard through the smoke. Once more Kaschta rushed towards the window, the bystanders could see that the ceiling of the room was about to fail, and called out to warn him, but he was already astride the sill.
"I signed myself his slave with my blood," he cried, "Twice he has saved my child, and now I will pay my debt," and he disappeared into the burning room.
He soon reappeared with Nebsecht in his arms, whose robe was already scorched by the flames. He could be seen approaching the window with his heavy burden; a hundred soldiers, and with them Pentaur, pressed forward to help him, and took the senseless leech out of the arms of the soldier, who lifted him over the window sill.
Kaschta was on the point of following him, but before he could swing himself over, the beams above gave way and fell, burying the brave son of the paraschites.
Pentaur had his insensible friend carried to his tent, and helped the physicians to bind up his burns. When the cry of fire had been first raised, Pentaur was sitting in earnest conversation with the high-priest; he had learned that he was not the son of a gardener, but a descendant of one of the noblest families in the land. The foundations of life seemed to be subverted under his feet, Ameni's revelation lifted him out of the dust and set him on the marble floor of a palace; and yet Pentaur was neither excessively surprised nor inordinately rejoiced; he was so well used to find his joys and sufferings depend on the man within him, and not on the circumstances without.
As soon as he heard the cry of fire, he hastened to the burning pavilion, and when he saw the king's danger, he set himself at the head of a number of soldiers who had hurried up from the camp, intending to venture an attempt to save Rameses from the inside of the house. Among those who followed him in this hopeless effort was Katuti's reckless son, who had distinguished himself by his valor before Kadesh, and who hailed this opportunity of again proving his courage. Falling walls choked up the way in front of these brave adventurers; but it was not till several had fallen choked or struck down by burning logs, that they made up their minds to retire--one of the first that was killed was Katuti's son, Nefert's brother.
Uarda had been carried into the nearest tent. Her pretty head lay in Bent-Anat's lap, and Nefert tried to restore her to animation by rubbing her temples with strong essences. Presently the girl's lips moved: with returning consciousness all she had seen and suffered during the last hour or two recurred to her mind; she felt herself rushing through the camp with her father, hurrying through the corridor to the princess's rooms, while he broke in the doors closed by Katuti's orders; she saw Bent-Anat as she roused her, and conducted her to safety; she remembered her horror when, just as she reached the door, she discovered that she had left in her chest her jewel, the only relic of her lost mother, and her rapid return which was observed by no one but by the leech Nebsecht.
Again she seemed to live through the anguish she had felt till she once more had the trinket safe in her bosom, the horror that fell upon her when she found her escape impeded by smoke and flames, and the weakness which overcame her; and she felt as if the strange white-robed priest once more raised her in his arms. She remembered the tenderness of his eyes as he looked into hers, and she smiled half gratefully but half displeased at the tender kiss which had been pressed on her lips before she found herself in her father's strong arms.
"How sweet she is!" said Bent-Anat. "I believe poor Nebsecht is right in saying that her mother was the daughter of some great man among the foreign people. Look what pretty little hands and feet, and her skin is as clear as Phoenician glass."