The next week the Pharaoh would depart. To-night he received noble Memphis for a final revel.
His palace was aglow, from its tremendous portals to the airy hypostyle upon its root and from far-reaching wing to wing, with countless colored lights. From every architrave and cornice depended garlands and draperies, and tinted banners waved unseen in the dark. The great loteform pillars supporting the porch were festooned with lotus flowers, and the approaches were strewn with palm-leaves.
The guests came in chariots with but a single attendant or in litters accompanied by a gorgeous retinue and much authority. Charioteers swore full-mouthed oaths and smote slaves; horses reared and plunged and bearers hurried back through the dark with empty chairs. Meanwhile the pacing sentries made frank criticism and gazed at each alighting new-comer with eyes of connoisseurs.
When the portals opened, a broad shaft of light shot into the night, a multitude of attendants was seen bowing; gusts of reedy music and babble and the smell of wilting flowers and Puntish incense swept into the outer air.
Within, the great feast began and proceeded to completeness. The tables were removed and the stage of the revel was far advanced. The levels of scented vapor from the aromatic torches undulated midway between the ceiling and the floor and belted the frescoes upon the paneled walls. Far up the vaulted hall, the Pharaoh and his queen, in royal isolation, were growing weary.
The lions chained to their lofty dais slept. The guardian nobles that stood about the royal pair leaned heavily upon their arms.
Out in the sanded strip across the tessellated floor, tumblers were glistening with perspiration from their vaguely noticed efforts. Apart from the guests the painted musicians squatted close together and made the air vibrant with the softly monotonous strumming of their instruments.
The company, which was large, had fallen into easy attitudes; an exciting game of drafts, or a story-teller, or a beauty, attracting groups here and there over the hall.
Before one table, whereon the scattered pawns of a game yet lay, Rameses lounged in a deep chair, a semi-recumbent figure in marble and obsidian. Beside him, where she had seated herself at his command, was Masanath.
There was Seti at Ta-user's side, but Io was not at the feast. She mourned for Kenkenes. Ta-meri was there, the bride of a week to Nechutes, who hovered about her without eye or ear for any other of the company. Siptah, Menes, Har-hat, all of the group save Hotep and Kenkenes, were present and near enough to be of the crown prince's party, yet scattered sufficiently to talk among themselves.
The game of drafts, prolonged from one to many, had ended disastrously for the prince in spite of his most gallant efforts to win. Masanath, against whom he had played, finally thrust the pawns away and refused to play further with him.
"Thou dost make sport for the Hathors, O Prince," she said. "Have respect for thyself and indulge their caprice no more."
"Hast thou not heard that we may compel the gods?" he asked. "Perhaps I do but indulge them, of a truth. But let me set mine own will against fate and there shall be no more losing for me."
"It is a precarious game. Perchance there is as strong a will as thine, compelling the Hathors contrarily to thine own desires. What, then, O Rameses?"
"By the gambling god, Toth, I shall try it!" he exclaimed. "The opportunity is before me even now."
He took her hand.
"I catch thy meaning. Beloved of Isis! Thou didst challenge me long ago, and long ago I took it up. Thus far have we fenced behind shields. Down with the bull-hide, now, and bare the heart!"
"Thou dost forget thyself," she retorted, wrenching her hand from him. "The eyes of thy guests are upon thee."
He laughed. "The prince's doings become the fashion. Let me be seen and there shall be no woman's hand unpossessed in this chamber."
"Thou shalt set no fashion by me. Neither shalt thou rend the Hathors between thy wishes and mine. Furthermore, if thou dost forget thy princely dignity, thy power will not prevent me if I would remind thee of thy lapse."
"War!" he exclaimed. "Now, by the battling hosts of Set, never have I met a foe so worthy the overcoming. Listen! Dost thou know that I have sorrows? Dost thou remember that I may have sleepless nights and unhappy days -- discontents, heartaches and oppressions? I am not less human because I am royal, but because I am royal I am more unhappy. Sorry indeed is a prince's lot! Wherefore? Because he is sated with submission; because he hath drunk satiety to its very dregs; because he hath been denied the healing hunger of appetite, ambition, conquest. How hath my miserable heart longed to aspire -- to conquer! I have starved for something beyond my reach. But lo! in thee I have found what I sought. Thou hast defied me, rebuffed me, thwarted me till the surfeited soul in me hath grown fat upon resistance. Now shall the longing to conquer that racketh me be fed! Go on in thy rebellion, Masanath! Gods! but thou art a foe worthy the subduing! I would not have thee give up to me now. I would earn thee by defeats, losses and many scars. And thy kiss of submission, in some far day, will give me more joy than the instant capitulation of many empires."
"Thou hast provided thyself with lifelong warfare, and triumph to thine enemy at the end," she answered serenely.
Her reply seemed to awaken a train of thought in the prince. He did not respond immediately. He leaned his elbows on his knees, and clasping his hands before him, thought a while. In the silence the talk of the others was audible.
"The festivities of Memphis have lost two, since they lost one," Menes mused.
"Give us thy meaning," Nechutes asked.
"Hast seen Hotep in Memphian revels since Kenkenes died?" the captain asked, by way of answer.
Nechutes shook his head. "The gods have dealt heavily with Mentu," he said after a little silence. "Not even the body of his son returned to him for burial!"
Har-hat, who had been perched on the arm of Ta-meri's chair, broke in.
"Mayhap the young man is not dead," he surmised.
"All the Memphian nome hath been searched, my Lord," Menes protested.
"Aye, but these flighty geniuses are not to be measured by doings of other men. Perhaps he hath gone to teach the singing girls at Abydos or Tape."
"Ah, my Lord!" protested Ta-meri, horrified.
"Nay, now," Har-hat responded, bending over her. "I but give his friends hope. To prove my sincerity I will wager my biggest diamond against thy three brightest smiles that thou wilt hear of Kenkenes again, alive and dreamy as ever, led into this strange absence by some moonshine caprice."
"I would give more than my biggest diamond to believe thee," Nechutes muttered, turning away.
"Wilt thou wager?" the fan-bearer demanded with animation.
"Nay!" was the cup-bearer's blunt reply. Har-hat shrugged his shoulders and lapsed into silence. Rameses leaned toward Masanath again. The expression on his face during the talk and the tone he chose now showed that he had not heard, nor was even conscious of the silence that had fallen. His words were low-spoken, but each of his companions heard.
"In warfare it is common for a foe to hedge his adversary about so that fight he must. Thou art a woman and cunning, and lest thou join thyself to another and elude me ere the battle is on, I would better treat thee to a strategy. I shall wed thee first and woo thee afterward."
Ta-user leaned across the table, and sweeping the pawns away with her arms, said, with a smile:
"Quarreling over a game of drafts! Which is in distress -- in need of allies?"
"Come thou and be my mercenary, Ta-user," Masanath said with impulsive gratitude. "Rameses hath lost and demands restitution beyond reason."
Har-hat had risen the instant the words had passed the prince's lips and left the group. He did not wish to let his face be seen. A dash of dark color grew in the heir's pallid cheeks, partly because he knew he had been heard, partly because he was angry at the princess' interruption.
"Strange," mused Menes once again, "that the phrases of war mark the babble of even the maidens these days. And half the revels end in quarrels. Though I be young in war experience, I would say the omens point to conflict in which Egypt shall be embroiled."
"Aye, Menes; and perchance thou wilt be measuring swords with a Hebrew ere the summer is old," Siptah said, speaking for the first time.
"Matching thy good saber-metal with a trowel or a hay-fork, Menes," Rameses sneered.
"Hold, thou doughty pride of the battling gods!" Menes cried laughingly to Rameses. "For once, I scout thy prophecies. The Hebrews are stirred up beyond any settling, save thou dost put them all to the sword, and that is a task that I would go to Tuat to escape. Thou wilt not work the Israelite to death. I can tell thee that!"
"Hast caught the infectious terror of the infant-scaring, bugbear Hebrew?" Rameses asked.
Menes leaned against the nearest knee and smiled lazily.
"If the gray-beard sorcerer did meet me in open field, protected only with bull-hide and armed with a spear, I would fight him till he said 'enough'; but who wants to go against an incantation that would mow down an army at the muttering? Not I; yea, Rameses, I am a craven in battle with a sorcerer."
"If he means to blast us, wherefore hath he not spoken the cabalistic word ere this?" the prince demanded.
"He had no personal provocation until late," the captain replied.
"Hath the taskmaster set him to making brick?" the prince laughed.
"Nay; but the priesthood plotted against his head, and he is angry."
Rameses raised himself and looked fixedly at the soldier. Again Menes laughed.
"Spare me, my Prince! It is no longer a state secret. It is out and over all Egypt. Why it came not to thine ears I know not. Perchance every one is afraid to gossip to thee save mine unabashed self."
"Waster of the air!" Rameses exclaimed. "What meanest thou?"
"It seems that the older priests have a hieratic grudge against the Israelite, and when he returned into Egypt they set themselves, with much bustle, importance and method to silence him. Hither and thither they sent for advice, permission and aid, till all the wheels of the hierarchy were in motion, and the air quivered with portent and intent. Vain ado! Superfluous preparation! The very letter which gave them explicit and formal permission to begin to get ready to commence to put away the Hebrew, fell -- by the mischievous Hathors! -- fell into the hands of the victim himself!"
Rameses fell back into his chair, his lips twitching once or twice, a manifestation of his genuine amusement.
"As it follows, the Israelite is angry. So the witch-pot hath been put on, and in council with a toad and a cat and an owl, he thinketh up some especial sending to curse us with," the captain concluded.
"A proper ending," Rameses declared after a little. "Let men kill each other openly, if they will, but the methods of the ambushed assassin should recoil upon himself."
At this point it was seen that the Pharaoh and his queen were preparing to leave the hall. All the company arose, and after the royal pair had passed out the guests began to depart. Rameses left his party and, joining Har-hat, led the fan-bearer away from the company.
"It seems that thou, with others, heardest my words with Masanath," the prince began at once. "It is well, for it saves me further speech now. I want thy daughter as my queen."
Har-hat seemed to ponder a little before he answered. "Masanath does not love thee," he said at last.
"Nay, but she shall."
"That granted, there are further reasons why ye should not wed," the fan-bearer resumed after another pause. "Masanath would come between Egypt and Egypt's welfare. Thou knowest what thy marriage with the Princess Ta-user is expected to accomplish. At this hour the nation is in need of unity that she may safely do battle with her alien foes. If thou slightest Ta-user thou wilt add to the disaffection of Amon-meses and his party. Furthermore, thine august sire would not be pleased with thee nor with Masanath, nor with me. It is not my place to show thee thy duty, Rameses, but of a surety it is my place to refuse to join thee in thy neglecting of it."
Rameses contemplated the fan-bearer narrowly for a moment. "Come, thou hast a game," he said finally. "Out with it! Name thy stake."
"O, thou art most discourteous, my Prince," the fan-bearer remonstrated, turning away. But Rameses planted himself in his path.
"Stay!" he said grimly. "Dost thou believe me so blind as to think thee sincere? Thou canst use thy smooth pretenses upon the Pharaoh, but I understand thee, Har-hat. Declare thyself and vex me no further with thy subtleties." Har-hat measured the prince's patience before he answered.
"When thou canst use me courteously, Rameses," he said with dignity, "I shall talk with thee again. Meanwhile do not build on wedding with Masanath. I shall mate her with him who hath respect for her father."
For a moment Rameses stood in doubt. Could it be that this soulless man had scruples against giving him Masanath? But Har-hat, allowed a chance to leave the prince if he would, had not moved. Rameses understood the act. The fan-bearer was awaiting a propitious opportunity to name his price gracefully. The momentary warmth of respect died in the prince's heart.
"Out with it," he insisted more calmly. "What is it? Power, wealth or a wife? These three things I have to give thee. Take thy choice."
"I would have thee use me respectfully, reverently," Har-hat retorted warmly. "I would have thee speak favorably of me; I would have thee do me no injustice by deed or word, nor peril my standing with the king! This I demand of thee -- I will not buy it!"
"To be plain," Rameses continued placidly, "thou wouldst insure to thyself the position of fan-bearer. Say on."
"I am fan-bearer to the king," Har-hat continued with a show of increasing heat, "and I would fill mine office. If thou art to be his adviser in my stead, do thou take up the plumes, and I will return to Bubastis."
"Once again I shall interpret. I am to keep silence in the council chamber and resign to thee the molding of my plastic father. It is well, for I am not pleased with ruling before I wear the crown. But mark me! Thou shalt not advise me when I rule over Egypt. So take heed to my father's health and see that his life is prolonged, for with its end shall end thine advisership. What more?"
"So thou observest these things I am satisfied."
"Gods! but thou art moderate. Masanath is worth more than that. Do I take her?"
"She does not love thee."
The prince waved his hand and repeated his question.
"I shall speak with her," Har-hat responded, "and give thee her word."
For a moment the prince contemplated the fan-bearer, then he turned without a word and strode out of the chamber. In a corridor near his own apartments he overtook the daughter of Har-hat. Her woman was with her.
The prince stepped before them.
The attendant crouched and fled somewhere out of sight. Masanath drew herself to the fullest of her few inches and waited for Rameses to speak.
"Come, Masanath," he said, "thou canst reach the limit of thy power to be ungracious and but fix me the firmer in my love for thee. I am come to tell thee that I have won thee from thy father."
"Thou hast not won me from myself," she replied.
"Nay, but I shall."
"Thou dost overestimate thyself," she retorted. Catching up the fan and chaplet that her woman had let fall she made as though to run past him. But he put himself in her way, and with shining eyes, caught her in his arms.
"There, there! my sweet. I shall do thee no hurt," he laughed, quieting her struggles with an iron embrace.
"Thou art hurting me beyond any cure now," she panted wrathfully.
"It is thy fault. Have I not said I am sated with submission? If thou wouldst unlock mine arms, kiss me and tell me thou wilt be my queen."
"Let me go," she exclaimed, choking with emotion.
"Better for thee to tell me 'yes'; thou wilt save thy father a lie."
She looked at him speechless.
"I have said. To-morrow he will tell me that thou hast promised to wed me -- whether thou sayest it or not. Spare him the falsehood, Masanath, and me a heartache."
"Wilt thou slander my father to me?" she demanded. "Art thou a knave as well as a tyrant?"
"Nay, I have spoken truly. Sad indeed were thy fate, my Masanath, did the gods mate thee with a knave, having fathered thee with a villain. So I am come to know of a truth what is thy will."
"And I can tell thee most truly. Sooner would I sit upon the peak of a pyramid all my life than upon a throne with thee; sooner would I be crowned with fire than wear the asp of a queen to thee. My father may wed me to thee, but I will never love thee, nor say it, nor pretend it. Thou wilt not win a wife if thou dost take a queen by violence. Release me!"
"Thou dost rivet mine arms about thee."
She stiffened herself and savagely submitted to her imprisonment.
Rameses laughed and, bending her head back, kissed her repeatedly and with much tenderness. She struggled madly, but he held her fast.
"This is but the beginning," he said in a low voice, "and I have won. The end shall be the same. I am a lovable lover, am I not, Masanath? Am I not good to look upon? Dost thou know a more princely prince, and is my father more of a king than I shall be? Where do I fail thee in thy little ideals? Am I harsh? Aye, but I am a king. Am I rough-spoken? Aye, because most of the world deserve it. Thou hast never felt the sting of my tongue, and never shalt thou unless thou breakest my heart. I have much to give thee; not any other monarch hath so much as I to give his queen. And yet I ask only thy love in return."
This was earnest wooing, which contained nothing that she might flout. So she strained away from him and sulked. Again he laughed.
"Khem and Athor and Besa have combed my heart and created a being of the desires they found therein! O, thou art mine, for the gods ordained it so." Again he kissed her, holding her in spite of her efforts to get away.
"There! carry thy hate of me only to the edge of sleep and dream sweetly of me."
He released her and continued down the hall.
As he turned out of the smaller passage into the larger corridor, Ta-user stepped forth from the shadow of a pillar. The huge column dwarfed her into tininess. The hall was but dimly lighted by a single lamp and that flared above her head.
Rameses paused, for she stood in his path.
"Not yet gone to thy rest?" he asked.
"Rest!" she said scornfully. "Gone to a night-long frenzy of relentless consciousness -- weary tossing, wasted prayers. I have not rested since I left the Hak-heb."
Her voice sounded hollow in the great empty hall.
"So? Thou art ready for the care of the physicians by this, then, O my Sister."
"I am not thy sister."
"What! Hast quarreled with the gentle Seti?"
"Rameses, do not mock me. Seti does not even stir my pulses. He could not rob me of my peace."
"What temperate love! Mine makes my temples crack and fills mine hours with sweet distress."
Ta-user looked at him for a moment, then raising her hands, caught the folds of his robe over his breast.
"Rameses, how far wilt thou go in this trifling with the Lady Masanath?"
"To the marrying priests." Without looking at her, he loosed her hands, swung them idly and let them go.
"She does not love thee," she said after a little silence.
"Thy news is old. She told me that not a moment since."
Ta-user drew a freer breath. "Thou wilt not wed her, then."
"That I will. I have vowed it. Go, Ta-user, the hour is late. Have thy woman stir a potion for thee, and sleep. I would to mine own dreams. They yield me what the day denies."
"Stay, Rameses," she urged, catching at his robes once more. "I would have thee know something. But am I to tell thee in words what I would have thee know? Surely I have not let slip a single chance to show thee by token. Art thou stubborn or blind, that thou dost not pity me and spare me the avowal?"
Rameses looked down at her upturned face without a softening line on his pallid countenance.
"Ta-user," he said deliberately, "had I been mummied and entombed I should have known thine intent. I marvel that thou couldst think I had not seen. Now, hast thou not guessed my mind by this? Have I not been sufficiently explicit? Must I, too, lay bare my heart in words?"
She did not speak for a moment. Then she said eagerly:
"Let not thy jealousy trouble thee concerning Seti -- he is naught to me -- I love him not -- a boy, no more."
"Seti!" he exclaimed contemptuously. "I have no feeling against Seti save for his unfealty to the little child who loves him, -- whose heart thou hast most deliberately broken."
"Not so," she declared vehemently. "I can not help the boy's attachment to me. She is a child, as thou hast said, and is easily comforted. Not so with maturer hearts like mine."
She put her arms about his neck, and flinging her head back, gazed at him with a heavy eye.
"O, wilt thou put me aside for Masanath? What is her little dark beauty compared to mine? How can she, who is not even a stately subject, be a stately queen? Wilt thou set the crown upon her unregal head, invest her with the royal robes, and yield thy homage to a scowl and a bitter word? And me, in whom there is no drop of unroyal blood, in whom there is all the passion of the southlands and all the fidelity of the north, thou wilt humiliate. The gods made me for thee -- schooled me for thy needs and shifted the nation's history so that thou shouldst have need of me. Look upon me, Rameses. Why wilt thou thrust me aside?"
She was not dealing with Seti, or Siptah, or any other whom she had bewitched. There was no spell in the topaz eyes for Rameses. If her sorcery affected him at all, it won no more than a cursory interest in her next move.
"The night is too short to recount my reasons," he replied calmly, as he put her arms away. "But I might point out the snarling cur, Siptah, for one, and a few other comely lords of Egypt."
"What hast thou done in thy life?" she cried. "I am no more wicked than thou; thou hast found delight in others beside whom I am all innocence."
"It may be. Who knows but there is somewhat of the vulture-nostril in man, tickled with a vague taint? But, even then, the sense is fleeting, more or less as the natures of men vary. A man hath his better moments, and how shall they be entirely pure in the presence of shame? Nay, I would not mate and live for ever with mine own sins."
"Then as thou dost permit her spotlessness to cover her hate, let my love for thee hide my sins. From the first I have loved thee unasked. She is all unwon."
"Thou hast said it. She is unwon. But doth the lion prey upon the carcass? Nay. His kill must be fresh and slain by his own might. Thou didst stultify thyself by thine instant acquiescence. Come, let us make an end to this. The more said the more thou shalt have of which to accuse thyself hereafter."
But she dropped before him, her white robes cumbering his path, her arms clasping his knees.
"What more have I to do of which to accuse myself, O Rameses? Egypt knows why I came to court. Egypt will know why I shall leave it. What have I not offered and what hast thou given me? Where shall I find that refuge from the pitying smile of the nation? Spare my womanhood -- "
"Ah, fie upon thy pretense, Ta-user! Art thou not shrewd enough to know how well I understand thee? Thou dost not love me. No woman who loves pleads beyond the first rebuff. Love is full of dudgeon. Thou dost betray thyself in thy very insistence. Thou beggest for the crown I shall wear, and if I were over-thrown to-morrow thou wouldst kneel likewise to mine enemy. Thou hast no womanhood to lose in Egypt's sight. As thy caprice turned from Siptah to me, let it return thee to Siptah once again. And if thy heart doth in truth wince with jealousy, think on Io."
He undid her arms, flung her from him and disappeared into the dark.