And after he had read he was glad that he had secluded himself, for his demonstrations of relief at the news the message imparted were most extravagant and unrestrained. For the moment he permitted no reminder of Kenkenes' present plight to subdue his joy in the realization that his friend was not dead.
Having exulted, he read the letter again, and then he summoned all his shrewdness to his aid.
He would wait till the confusion of the court's settling itself had subsided before he presented the petition to Meneptah. Furthermore, he would relieve his underlings and write the king's communications with his own hand till he knew that the reply to Kenkenes had been sent. Har-hat should be watched vigilantly.
But order and routine were not restored in the palace of Meneptah. The unrest that precedes a national crisis had developed into irritability and pugnacity.
Tanis was within hearing of the plaints of Israel, and the atmosphere quivered with omen and portent. Moses appeared in this place and that, each time nearer the temporary capital, and wherever he came he left rejoicing or shuddering behind him.
Meanwhile the fan-bearer laughed his way into the throne. Meneptah's weakness for him grew into stubborn worship. The old and trusted ministers of the monarch took offense and sealed their lips; the new held their peace for trepidation. The queen, heretofore meek and self-effacing, laid aside her spindle one day and, meeting her lord at the door of the council chamber; protested in the name of his dynasty and his realm.
But the king was beyond help, and the queen, angry and hurt, bade him keep Har-hat out of her sight, and returned to her women. Thereafter even Meneptah saw her rarely.
The rise of the fan-bearer was achieved in an incredibly short time. It proved conclusively that until this period an influence against Har-hat had been at work upon Meneptah, and seeing that Rameses had subsided, having cause to propitiate the father of the woman he would wed, the courtiers began to blame the prince and talk of him to one another.
He seemed lost in a dream. In the council chamber he lounged in his chair with his eyes upon nothing and apparently hearing nothing. But the slow shifting of the spark in his sleepy eyes indicated to those who observed closely that he heard but kept his own counsel. If Meneptah spoke to him he but seconded Har-hat's suggestions. But once again the observant ones noted that the fan-bearer did not advise at wide variance with any of the prince's known ideas. Thus far the most caviling could not see that Har-hat's favoritism had led to any misrule, but the field of possibilities opened by his complete dominance over the Pharaoh was crowded with disaster, individual and national.
The betrothal of Rameses to Har-hat's daughter gave further material for contention. It seemed to indicate that the fan-bearer had builded for himself for two reigns.
Hotep's situation was most poignantly unhappy. He was fixed under the same roof with the man that had taken his love by piracy; he must greet him affably and reverently every day; he must live in daily contemplation of the time when he must meet Masanath also as his sovereign -- the wife of the prince, whom he must serve till death. Hardest of all, he must wear a serene countenance and cover his sorrow most surely, for his own sake and for Masanath's.
Ta-user still remained at court. Seti, in a fume of boyish indignation at Rameses, attended her like a shadow. Among the courtiers there were others who were not alive to the true nature of the princess and who joined Seti in his resentment against the heir.
Amon-meses and Siptah, snarling and malevolent, had left the court abruptly on the morning of its departure for Tanis. The Hak-heb received them once again, and an ominous calm settled over that little pocket of fertility in the desert -- Nehapehu.
Thus the court was torn with factions; old internal dissensions made themselves evident again, but the vast murmur in Goshen was heard above the strife.
All this had come to pass in the short space of a month. When half of that time had elapsed, Hotep, fearing to delay the petition of Kenkenes longer, lest conditions should become worse rather than better, met the Pharaoh in the hall one day and gave him the writing. Earnestly the scribe impressed Meneptah with the importance of the petition and begged him to acquaint himself in an hour of solitude with its contents and the identity of the supplicant.
Meneptah promised and continued to his apartments. There Har-hat came in a few moments, and Meneptah, after his custom, gave over to him the state communications of the day, and after some little hesitation, tossed the petition of Kenkenes among them.
"Thou canst attend to this matter as well, good Har-hat. Why should I take up the private concerns of my subjects when I am already burdened with heavy cares? But do thou look to this petition faithfully. It may be important, and I know not from whom it is. I promised Hotep it should be given honest attention."
For seven days thereafter every letter sent by the king was written by Hotep. At the end of that time he met Meneptah again, and bending low before him, asked pardon for his insistence, and begged to know what disposition the Son of Ptah had made of the petition of his friend. He was irritably informed that the matter had been given over to the fan-bearer for attention, since the Pharaoh had been too oppressed with heavier matters to read the letter.
The state of the scribe's mind, after receiving the information, was indescribable.
He controlled himself before Meneptah, but he suffered no curb upon his feelings when he had returned to his own apartments. After a long time he succeeded in choking his anger, disgust and grief, realizing that each moment must be turned to account rather than wasted in railing.
He viewed the situation with enforced calm. Har-hat was in full possession of the facts. He had the signet and was absolute master of Meneptah. The Hathors had surrendered Kenkenes wholly into the hands of his enemy. Furthermore, the fate of the Israelite seemed to be sealed. At the thought Hotep gnashed his teeth.
In his sympathy for his friend's strait, the scribe gave over his objections to Rachel. Kenkenes had suffered for her, and, if he would, he should have her.
Between the king and persuasion was Har-hat, vitally interested in the defeat of any movement toward the aid of Kenkenes. The one hope for the sculptor was the winning over of the Pharaoh, and only one could do it. And that was Rameses, who was betrothed to the love of Hotep, and against her will.
Nothing could have appeared more distasteful to the scribe than the necessity of prayer to the man for whom he cherished a hate that threatened to make a cinder of his vitals. But the more he rebelled the more his conscience urged him.
He flung himself on his couch and writhed; he reviled the Hathors, abused Kenkenes for the folly of sacrilege which had brought on him such misfortune; he execrated Meneptah, anathematized Har-hat and called down the fiercest maledictions on the head of Rameses. Having relieved himself, he arose and, summoning his servant, had his disordered hair dressed, fresh robes brought for him, and a glass of wine for refreshment. On the way to the palace-top he met Ta-user, walking slowly away from the staircase. Rameses, solitary and luxurious, was stretched upon a cushioned divan in the shadow of a canopy over the hypostyle.
"The gods keep thee, Son of the Sun," Hotep said.
"So it is thou, Hotep. Nay, but I am glad to see thee. Methought Ta-user meant to visit me just now. Is there a taboret near?"
"Aye, but I shall not sit, my Prince."
"Go to! It makes me weary to see thee stand. Sit, I tell thee!"
Hotep drew up the taboret and sat.
"I come to thee with news and a petition," he began. "It is more fitting that I should kneel."
"Perchance. But exertion offends mine eyes in such delicious hours as these, and I will forego the homage for the sake of mine own sinews. Out with thy tidings."
"Thou dost remember thy friend and mine, that gentle genius, Kenkenes."
"I am not like to forget him so long as a bird sings or the Nile ripples make music. Osiris pillow him most softly."
"He is not dead, my Prince."
"Nay!" Rameses cried, sitting up. "The knave should be bastinadoed for the tears he wrung from us!"
"Thou wouldst deny my petition. I am come to implore thee to intercede for him."
Rameses bade him proceed.
"Thou art acquainted with the nature of Kenkenes, O Prince. He is a visionary -- an idealist, and so firmly rooted are his beliefs that they are to his life as natural as the color of his eyes. He is a beauty-worshiper. Athor possesses him utterly, and her loveliness blinds him to all other things, particularly to his own welfare and safety.
"In the beginning he fell in love, and a soul like his in love is most unreasoning, immoderate and terribly faithful. The maiden is beautiful -- I saw her -- most divinely beautiful. She is wise, for I saw that also. She is good, for I felt it, unreasoning, and when a man hath a woman intuition, a god hath spoken the truth to his heart. But she is a slave -- an Israelite."
Hotep bowed his head.
"By the gods of my fathers, I ought not to marvel! Nay, now, is that not like the boy? An Israelite! And half the noble maids of Memphis mad for him!"
"He is not for thee and me to judge, O Rameses," Hotep interrupted. "The gods blew another breath in him than animates our souls. For thee and me such conduct would be the fancies of madmen; for Kenkenes it is but living up to the alien spirit with which the gods endowed him. It might be torture for him to wed according to our lights."
"Perchance thou art right. Go on."
"It seems that Har-hat looked upon the girl, and taken by her beauty, asked her at the Pharaoh's hands for his harem."
"Ah, the -- ! Why does he not marry honorably?"
"It is not for me to divine," Hotep went on calmly. "The fan-bearer sent his men to take her, but she fled from them to Kenkenes, and he protected her -- hid her away -- where, none but Kenkenes and the maiden know. Har-hat is most desirous of owning her, but Kenkenes keeps his counsel. Therefore, Har-hat overtook him in Tape, where he went to get a signet belonging to his father, and imprisoned him till what time he should divulge the hiding-place of the Israelite."
"Never was there a true villain till Har-hat was born! What poor feeble shadows have trodden the world for knaves before the fan-bearer came. Go on. Hath he put him to torture yet?"
"Aye, from the beginning, though not by the bastinado. He rends him with suspense and all the doubts and fears for his love that can haunt him in his cell. But I have more to tell. There was a signet, an all-potent signet, which belonged to the noble Mentu -- "
"Aye, I remember," Rameses broke in. "My grandsire gave it to the murket in recognition of his great work, Ipsambul. It commands royal favor in the name of Osiris. That should help the dreamer out of his difficulty."
"Aye, it should, my Prince, but it did not. Kenkenes sent it to the Pharaoh, with a petition for his own freedom, but the cares of state were so pressing that the Son of Ptah gave the letter, unopened, to Har-hat for attention."
Rameses laughed harshly.
"Kenkenes would better content himself. The Hathors are against him," he cried. "Was there ever such consummate misfortune? What more?"
"Is it not enough, O Rameses?" Hotep answered sternly. "He hath suffered sufficiently. Now is it time for them, who profess to love him, to bestir themselves in his behalf. Thou knowest how near the fan-bearer is to the Pharaoh. Persuasion can not reach the king that worketh against Har-hat. Thou alone art as potent with the Son of Ptah. Wilt thou not prove thy love for Kenkenes and aid him?"
Rameses did not answer immediately. Thoughtfully he leaned his elbow on his knee and stroked his forehead with his hand. His black brows knitted finally.
"My hands are tied, Hotep," he began bluntly. "I permit the sway of this knave over my father because I am constrained. Till he begins to achieve confusion or bring about bad government I must let him alone. There is no love between us. We have no quarrel, but I despise him for that very spirit in him which makes him do such things as thou hast even told me. If his offense had been against Egypt or the king or myself, I could balk him. But this is a matter of personal interest to him, which would be open and flagrant interference -- "
Hotep broke in earnestly.
"Surely so small a matter of courtesy -- if such it may be called -- should not stand between thee and this most pressing need."
"Aye, thou hast said -- if it were only a small matter of courtesy. But the breach of that same small courtesy entails great disaster for me. Thou knowest, O my Hotep, that I am betrothed to the daughter of Har-hat."
With great effort Hotep kept a placid face.
"The Lady Masanath would abet him who would aid Kenkenes," he said.
"Even so. But hear me, I pray thee, Hotep. This most rapacious miscreant would hold his favor with the king. He knew I loved Masanath, and he held her out of my reach till I should consent to countenance his advisership to my father. I consented -- and should I lapse, I lose Masanath."
Hotep was on his feet by this time, his face turned away. Rameses could not guess what a tempest raged in his heart.
"But be thou assured," the prince continued grimly, "that only so long as Masanath is not yet mine, shall I endure him. After that he shall fall as never knave fell or so deserved to fall before. Aye, -- but stay, Hotep. I have not done. I have some small grain of hope for this unfortunate friend of ours. The marriage hath been delayed. I shall press my suit, and wed Masanath sooner, if she will, and Kenkenes need not decay in prison -- "
Hotep did not stay longer. He bowed and departed without a word.
"Out upon the man, I offered all I could," Rameses muttered, but immediately he arose and hurried to the well of the stairway.
"Hotep!" he called. The scribe, half-way down, turned and looked up.
"Return to me in an hour. Give me time to ponder and I may more profitably help thee," the prince commanded. Hotep bowed and went on.
The hour was barely long enough for the smarting soul of the scribe to soothe itself. Deep, indeed, his love for Kenkenes that he returned at all. Masanath's name, spoken so familiarly, so boastingly, by the prince was fresh outrage to his already affronted heart. It mattered not that Rameses did not know. His talk of marriage with Masanath was exultation, nevertheless. Once again, Hotep flung himself on his couch and wrestled with his spirit.
At the end of the hour, he went once again to Rameses. He was calm and composed, but he made no apology for his abrupt departure, when last he was there. Perhaps, however, he gained in the respect of Rameses by that lapse. The blunt prince was more patient with the sincere than with the diplomatic.
"Thou hast said," the prince began immediately, "that Har-hat hath imprisoned Kenkenes till what time he shall divulge the hiding-place of the Israelite?"
"The fan-bearer charges him with slave-stealing?"
"And sacrilege," the scribe added. The prince opened his eyes. "Aye, Kenkenes carried his beauty-love into blasphemy. He executed a statue of Athor in defiance of the sculptor's ritual. For this also, Har-hat holds a heavy hand over him."
"A murrain on the lawless dreamer!" Rameses muttered. "Is there anything more?"
Hotep shook his head.
"He deserves his ill-luck. Mark me, now. He will not go mad with a year's imprisonment, and he will profit by it. Furthermore, he can not be persuaded into betraying the Israelite, if he knows how long and how much he will have to endure. Once sentenced, Har-hat can add nothing more thereto. Has he confessed?"
"To me, he did. I know not what he said to the Pharaoh. But the Goddess Ma broodeth on the lips of Kenkenes."
Rameses nodded, and clapped his hands. The attendant that appeared he ordered to bring the scribe's writing-case and implements. When the servant returned, Hotep, at a sign from Rameses, prepared to write.
"Write thus to the jailer at Tape:
"'By order of the crown prince, Rameses, the prisoner, Kenkenes, held for slave-stealing and sacrilege, is sentenced to imprisonment for one year -- '"
Hotep lifted his pen, and looked his rebellion.
"Write!" the prince exclaimed. "I do him a kindness, with a lesson added. Were it in my power to free him I would not -- till he had learned that the law is inexorable and the power of its ministers supreme. Go on -- 'at such labor as the prisoner may elect. No further punishment may be added thereto.' Affix my seal and send this without fail. Thou canst write whatever thou wilt to Kenkenes. For the Israelite, I shall not concern myself. The nearer friends to Kenkenes may look to her. Mine shall be the care only to see that they are not harassed by the fan-bearer. In this, I fulfil the law. Let Har-hat help himself."
He dropped back on his divan and Hotep slowly collected his writing materials and made ready to depart. Having finished, he lingered a little.
"A word further, O Rameses. Kenkenes is proud. He would liefer die than suffer the humiliation of public shame. Memphis believes him dead. None but thyself, Har-hat, the noble Mentu and I know of his plight. Har-hat hath no call to tell it. Mentu will not; I shall not. Wilt thou keep his secret also, my Prince?"
"Far be it from me to humiliate him publicly. Let him have a care, hereafter, that he does not humiliate himself."
"I thank thee, O Rameses."
Saluting the prince, Hotep departed.
That night he wrote to Kenkenes and to Mentu, and the two messengers departed ere midnight.