Uarda by Georg Ebers
Uarda accompanied her grandfather and Praxilla to their tent on the farther side of the Nile, but she was to return next morning to the Egyptian camp to take leave of all her friends, and to provide for her father's internment. Nor did she delay attending to the last wishes of old Hekt, and Bent-Anat easily persuaded her father, when he learnt how greatly he had been indebted to her, to have her embalmed like a lady of rank.
Before Uarda left the Egyptian camp, Pentaur came to entreat her to afford her dying preserver Nebsecht the last happiness of seeing her once more; Uarda acceded with a blush, and the poet, who had watched all night by his friend, went forward to prepare him for her visit.
Nebsecht's burns and a severe wound on his head caused him great suffering; his cheeks glowed with fever, and the physicians told Pentaur that he probably could not live more than a few hours.
The poet laid his cool hand on his friend's brow, and spoke to him encouragingly; but Nebsecht smiled at his words with the peculiar expression of a man who knows that his end is near, and said in a low voice and with a visible effort:
"A few breaths more and here, and here, will be peace." He laid his hand on his head and on his heart.
"We all attain to peace," said Pentaur. "But perhaps only to labor more earnestly and unweariedly in the land beyond the grave. If the Gods reward any thing it is the honest struggle, the earnest seeking after truth; if any spirit can be made one with the great Soul of the world it will be yours, and if any eye may see the Godhead through the veil which here shrouds the mystery of His existence yours will have earned the privilege."
"I have pushed and pulled," sighed Nebsecht, "with all my might, and now when I thought I had caught a glimpse of the truth the heavy fist of death comes down upon me and shuts my eyes. What good will it do me to see with the eye of the Divinity or to share in his omniscience? It is not seeing, it is seeking that is delightful--so delightful that I would willingly set my life there against another life here for the sake of it." He was silent, for his strength failed, and Pentaur begged him to keep quiet, and to occupy his mind in recalling all the hours of joy which life had given him.
"They have been few," said the leech. "When my mother kissed me and gave me dates, when I could work and observe in peace, when you opened my eyes to the beautiful world of poetry--that was good!"
And you have soothed the sufferings of many men, added Pentaur, "and never caused pain to any one."
Nebsecht shook his head.
"I drove the old paraschites," he muttered, "to madness and to death."
He was silent for a long time, then he looked up eagerly and said: "But not intentionally--and not in vain! In Syria, at Megiddo I could work undisturbed; now I know what the organ is that thinks. The heart! What is the heart? A ram's heart or a man's heart, they serve the same end; they turn the wheel of animal life, they both beat quicker in terror or in joy, for we feel fear or pleasure just as animals do. But Thought, the divine power that flies to the infinite, and enables us to form and prove our opinions, has its seat here--Here in the brain, behind the brow."
He paused exhausted and overcome with pain. Pentaur thought he was wandering in his fever, and offered him a cooling drink while two physicians walked round his bed singing litanies; then, as Nebsecht raised himself in bed with renewed energy, the poet said to him:
"The fairest memory of your life must surely be that of the sweet child whose face, as you once confessed to me, first opened your soul to the sense of beauty, and whom with your own hands you snatched from death at the cost of your own life. You know Uarda has found her own relatives and is happy, and she is very grateful to her preserver, and would like to see him once more before she goes far away with her grandfather."
The sick man hesitated before he answered softly:
"Let her come--but I will look at her from a distance."
Pentaur went out and soon returned with Uarda, who remained standing with glowing cheeks and tears in her eyes at the door of the tent. The leech looked at her a long time with an imploring and tender expression, then he said:
"Accept my thanks--and be happy."
The girl would have gone up to him to take his hand, but he waved her off with his right hand enveloped in wrappings.
"Come no nearer," he said, "but stay a moment longer. You have tears in your eyes; are they for me or only for my pain?"
"For you, good noble man! my friend and my preserver!" said Uarda. "For you dear, poor Nebsecht!" The leech closed his eyes as she spoke these words with earnest feeling, but he looked up once more as she ceased speaking, and gazed at her with tender admiration; then he said softly:
"It is enough--now I can die."
Uarda left the tent, Pentaur remained with him listening to his hoarse and difficult breathing; suddenly:
Nebsecht raised himself, and said: "Farewell, my friend,--my journey is beginning, who knows whither?"
"Only not into vacancy, not to end in nothingness!" cried Pentaur warmly.
The leech shook his head. "I have been something," he said, "and being something I cannot become nothing. Nature is a good economist, and utilizes the smallest trifle; she will use me too according to her need. She brings everything to its end and purpose in obedience to some rule and measure, and will so deal with me after I am dead; there is no waste. Each thing results in being that which it is its function to become; our wish or will is not asked--my head! when the pain is in my head I cannot think--if only I could prove--could prove----"
The last words were less and less audible, his breath was choked, and in a few seconds Pentaur with deep regret closed his eyes.
Pentaur, as he quitted the tent where the dead man lay, met the high-priest Ameni, who had gone to seek him by his friend's bed-side, and they returned together to gaze on the dead. Ameni, with much emotion, put up a few earnest prayers for the salvation of his soul, and then requested Pentaur to follow him without delay to his tent. On the way he prepared the poet, with the polite delicacy which was peculiar to him, for a meeting which might be more painful than joyful to him, and must in any case bring him many hours of anxiety and agitation.
The judges in Thebes, who had been compelled to sentence the lady Setchem, as the mother of a traitor, to banishment to the mines had, without any demand on her part, granted leave to the noble and most respectable matron to go under an escort of guards to meet the king on his return into Egypt, in order to petition for mercy for herself, but not, as it was expressly added--for Paaker; and she had set out, but with the secret resolution to obtain the king's grace not for herself but for her son.
Ameni had already left Thebes for the north when this sentence was pronounced, or he would have reversed it by declaring the true origin of Paaker; for after he had given up his participation in the Regent's conspiracy, he no longer had any motive for keeping old Hekt's secret.
Setchem's journey was lengthened by a storm which wrecked the ship in which she was descending the Nile, and she did not reach Pelusium till after the king. The canal which formed the mouth of the Nile close to this fortress and joined the river to the Mediterranean, was so over-crowded with the boats of the Regent and his followers, of the ambassadors, nobles, citizens, and troops which had met from all parts of the country, that the lady's boat could find anchorage only at a great distance from the city, and accompanied by her faithful steward she had succeeded only a few hours before in speaking to the high-priest.
Setchem was terribly changed; her eyes, which only a few months since had kept an efficient watch over the wealthy Theban household, were now dim and weary, and although her figure had not grown thin it had lost its dignity and energy, and seemed inert and feeble. Her lips, so ready for a wise or sprightly saying, were closely shut, and moved only in silent prayer or when some friend spoke to her of her unhappy son. His deed she well knew was that of a reprobate, and she sought no excuse or defence; her mother's heart forgave it without any. Whenever she thought of him--and she thought of him incessantly all through the day and through her sleepless nights-her eyes overflowed with tears.
Her boat had reached Pelusium just as the flames were breaking out in the palace; the broad flare of light and the cries from the various vessels in the harbor brought her on deck. She heard that the burning house was the pavilion erected by Ani for the king's residence; Rameses she was told was in the utmost danger, and the fire had beyond a doubt been laid by traitors.
As day broke and further news reached her, the names of her son and of her sister came to her ear; she asked no questions--she would not hear the truth--but she knew it all the same; as often as the word "traitor" caught her ear in her cabin, to which she had retreated, she felt as if some keen pain shot through her bewildered brain, and shuddered as if from a cold chill.
All through that day she could neither eat nor drink, but lay with closed eyes on her couch, while her steward--who had soon learnt what a terrible share his former master had taken in the incendiarism, and who now gave up his lady's cause for lost--sought every where for the high-priest Ameni; but as he was among the persons nearest to the king it was impossible to see him that day, and it was not till the next morning that he was able to speak with him. Ameni inspired the anxious and sorrowful old retainer with, fresh courage, returned with him in his own chariot to the harbor, and accompanied him to Setchem's boat to prepare her for the happiness which awaited her after her terrible troubles. But he came too late, the spirit of the poor lady was quite clouded, and she listened to him without any interest while he strove to restore her to courage and to recall her wandering mind. She only interrupted him over and over again with the questions: "Did he do it?" or "Is he alive?"
At last Ameni succeeded in persuading her to accompany him in her litter to his tent, where she would find her son. Pentaur was wonderfully like her lost husband, and the priest, experienced in humanity, thought that the sight of him would rouse the dormant powers of her mind. When she had arrived at his tent, he told her with kind precaution the whole history of the exchange of Paaker for Pentaur, and she followed the story with attention but with indifference, as if she were hearing of the adventures of others who did not concern her. When Ameni enlarged on the genius of the poet and on his perfect resemblance to his dead father she muttered:
"I know--I know. You mean the speaker at the Feast of the Valley," and then although she had been told several times that Paaker had been killed, she asked again if her son was alive.
Ameni decided at last to fetch Pentaur himself,
When he came back with him, fully prepared to meet his heavily-stricken mother, the tent was empty. The high-priest's servants told him that Setchem had persuaded the easily-moved old prophet Gagabu to conduct her to the place where the body of Paaker lay. Ameni was very much vexed, for he feared that Setchem was now lost indeed, and he desired the poet to follow him at once.
The mortal remains of the pioneer had been laid in a tent not far from the scene of the fire; his body was covered with a cloth, but his pale face, which had not been injured in his fall, remained uncovered; by his side knelt the unhappy mother.
She paid no heed to Ameni when he spoke to her, and he laid his hand on her shoulder and said as he pointed to the body:
"This was the son of a gardener. You brought him up faithfully as if he were your own; but your noble husband's true heir, the son you bore him, is Pentaur, to whom the Gods have given not only the form and features but the noble qualities of his father. The dead man may be forgiven--for the sake of your virtues; but your love is due to this nobler soul--the real son of your husband, the poet of Egypt, the preserver of the king's life."
Setchem rose and went up to Pentaur, she smiled at him and stroked his face and breast.
"It is he," she said. "May the Immortals bless him!"
Pentaur would have clasped her in his arms, but she pushed him away as if she feared to commit some breach of faith, and turning hastily to the bier she said softly:
Poor Paaker--poor, poor Paaker!"
"Mother, mother, do you not know your son?" cried Pentaur deeply moved.
She turned to him again: "It is his voice," she said. "It is he."
She went up to Pentaur, clung to him, clasped her arm around his neck as he bent over her, then kissing him fondly:
"The Gods will bless you!" she said once more. She tore herself from him and threw herself down by the body of Paaker, as if she had done him some injustice and robbed him of his rights.
Thus she remained, speechless and motionless, till they carried her back to her boat, there she lay down, and refused to take any nourishment; from time to time she whispered "Poor Paaker!" She no longer repelled Pentaur, for she did not again recognize him, and before he left her she had followed the rough-natured son of her adoption to the other world.