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Three days had passed since the pioneer's departure, and although it was still early, busy occupation was astir in Bent-Anat's work-rooms.
The ladies had passed the stormy night, which had succeeded the exciting evening of the festival, without sleep.
Nefert felt tired and sleepy the next morning, and begged the princess to introduce her to her new duties for the first time next day; but the princess spoke to her encouragingly, told her that no man should put off doing right till the morrow, and urged her to follow her into her workshop.
"We must both come to different minds," said she. "I often shudder involuntarily, and feel as if I bore a brand--as if I had a stain here on my shoulder where it was touched by Paaker's rough hand."
The first day of labor gave Nefert a good many difficulties to overcome; on the second day the work she had begun already had a charm for her, and by the third she rejoiced in the little results of her care.
Bent-Anat had put her in the right place, for she had the direction of a large number of young girls and women, the daughters, wives, and widows of those Thebans who were at the war, or who had fallen in the field, who sorted and arranged the healing herbs. Her helpers sat in little circles on the ground; in the midst of each lay a great heap of fresh and dry plants, and in front of each work-woman a number of parcels of the selected roots, leaves, and flowers.
An old physician presided over the whole, and had shown Nefert the first day the particular plants which he needed.
The wife of Mena, who was fond of flowers, had soon learnt them all, and she taught willingly, for she loved children.
She soon had favorites among the children, and knew some as being industrious and careful, others as idle and heedless:
"Ay! ay!" she exclaimed, bending over a little half-naked maiden with great almond-shaped eyes. "You are mixing them all together. Your father, as you tell me, is at the war. Suppose, now, an arrow were to strike him, and this plant, which would hurt him, were laid on the burning wound instead of this other, which would do him good--that would be very sad."
The child nodded her head, and looked her work through again. Nefert turned to a little idler, and said: "You are chattering again, and doing nothing, and yet your father is in the field. If he were ill now, and has no medicine, and if at night when he is asleep he dreams of you, and sees you sitting idle, he may say to himself: 'Now I might get well, but my little girl at home does not love me, for she would rather sit with her hands in her lap than sort herbs for her sick father.'"
Then Nefert turned to a large group of the girls, who were sorting plants, and said: "Do you, children, know the origin of all these wholesome, healing herbs? The good Horus went out to fight against Seth, the murderer of his father, and the horrible enemy wounded Horus in the eye in the struggle; but the son of Osiris conquered, for good always conquers evil. But when Isis saw the bad wound, she pressed her son's head to her bosom, and her heart was as sad as that of any poor human mother that holds her suffering child in her arms. And she thought: 'How easy it is to give wounds, and how hard it is to heal them!' and so she wept; one tear after another fell on the earth, and wherever they wetted the ground there sprang up a kindly healing plant."
"Isis is good!" cried a little girl opposite to her. Mother says Isis loves children when they are good."
"Your mother is right," replied Nefert. "Isis herself has her dear little son Horus; and every human being that dies, and that was good, becomes a child again, and the Goddess makes it her own, and takes it to her breast, and nurses it with her sister Nephthys till he grows up and can fight for his father."
Nefert observed that while she spoke one of the women was crying. She went up to her, and learned that her husband and her son were both dead, the former in Syria, and the latter after his return to Egypt. "Poor soul!" said Nefert. "Now you will be very careful, that the wounds of others may be healed. I will tell you something more about Isis. She loved her husband Osiris dearly, as you did your dead husband, and I my husband Mena, but he fell a victim to the cunning of Seth, and she could not tell where to find the body that had been carried away, while you can visit your husband in his grave. Then Isis went through the land lamenting, and ah! what was to become of Egypt, which received all its fruitfulness from Osiris. The sacred Nile was dried up, and not a blade of verdure was green on its banks. The Goddess grieved over this beyond words, and one of her tears fell in the bed of the river, and immediately it began to rise. You know, of course, that each inundation arises from a tear of Isis. Thus a widow's sorrow may bring blessing to millions of human beings."
The woman had listened to her attentively, and when Nefert ceased speaking she said:
"But I have still three little brats of my son's to feed, for his wife, who was a washerwoman, was eaten by a crocodile while she was at work. Poor folks must work for themselves, and not for others. If the princess did not pay us, I could not think of the wounds of the soldiers, who do not belong to me. I am no longer strong, and four mouths to fill--"
Nefert was shocked--as she often was in the course of her new duties--and begged Bent-Gnat to raise the wages of the woman.
"Willingly," said the princess. "How could I beat down such an assistant. Come now with me into the kitchen. I am having some fruit packed for my father and brothers; there must be a box for Mena too." Nefert followed her royal friend, found them packing in one case the golden dates of the oasis of Amon, and in another the dark dates of Nubia, the king's favorite sort. "Let me pack them!" cried Nefert; she made the servants empty the box again, and re-arranged the various-colored dates in graceful patterns, with other fruits preserved in sugar.
Bent-Anat looked on, and when she had finished she took her hand. "Whatever your fingers have touched," she exclaimed, "takes some pretty aspect. Give me that scrap of papyrus; I shall put it in the case, and write upon it:
"'These were packed for king Rameses by his daughter's clever helpmate, the wife of Mena.'"
After the mid-day rest the princess was called away, and Nefert remained for some hours alone with the work-women.
When the sun went down, and the busy crowd were about to leave, Nefert detained them, and said: "The Sun-bark is sinking behind the western hills; come, let us pray together for the king and for those we love in the field. Each of you think of her own: you children of your fathers, you women of your sons, and we wives of our distant husbands, and let us entreat Amon that they may return to us as certainly as the sun, which now leaves us, will rise again to-morrow morning."
Nefert knelt down, and with her the women and the children.
When they rose, a little girl went up to Nefert, and said, pulling her dress: "Thou madest us kneel here yesterday, and already my mother is better, because I prayed for her."
"No doubt," said Nefert, stroking the child's black hair.
She found Bent-Anat on the terrace meditatively gazing across to the Necropolis, which was fading into darkness before her eyes. She started when she heard the light footsteps of her friend.
"I am disturbing thee," said Nefert, about to retire.
"No, stay," said Bent-Anat. "I thank the Gods that I have you, for my heart is sad--pitifully sad."
"I know where your thoughts were," said Nefert softly. "Well?" asked the princess.
"I think of him--always of him," replied the princess, "and nothing else occupies my heart. I am no longer myself. What I think I ought not to think, what I feel I ought not to feel, and yet, I cannot command it, and I think my heart would bleed to death if I tried to cut out those thoughts and feelings. I have behaved strangely, nay unbecomingly, and now that which is hard to endure is hanging over me, something strange-which will perhaps drive you from me back to your mother."
"I will share everything with you," cried Nefert. "What is going to happen? Are you then no longer the daughter of Rameses?"
"I showed myself to the people as a woman of the people," answered Bent-Anat, "and I must take the consequences. Bek en Chunsu, the high-priest of Amon, has been with me, and I have had a long conversation with him. The worthy man is good to me, I know, and my father ordered me to follow his advice before any one's. He showed me that I have erred deeply. In a state of uncleanness I went into one of the temples of the Necropolis, and after I had once been into the paraschites' house and incurred Ameni's displeasure, I did it a second time. They know over there all that took place at the festival. Now I must undergo purification, either with great solemnity at the hands of Ameni himself, before all the priests and nobles in the House of Seti, or by performing a pilgrimage to the Emerald-Hathor, under whose influence the precious stones are hewn from the rocks, metals dug out, and purified by fire. The Goddess shall purge me from my uncleanness as metal is purged from the dross. At a day's journey and more from the mines, an abundant stream flows from the holy mountain-Sinai," as it is called by the Mentut--and near it stands the sanctuary of the Goddess, in which priests grant purification. The journey is a long one, through the desert, and over the sea; But Bek en Chunsu advises me to venture it. Ameni, he says, is not amiably disposed towards me, because I infringed the ordinance which he values above all others. I must submit to double severity, he says, because the people look first to those of the highest rank; and if I went unpunished for contempt of the sacred institutions there might be imitators among the crowd. He speaks in the name of the Gods, and they measure hearts with an equal measure. The ell-measure is the symbol of the Goddess of Truth. I feel that it is all not unjust; and yet I find it hard to submit to the priest's decree, for I am the daughter of Rameses!"
"Aye, indeed!" exclaimed Nefert, "and he is himself a God!"
"But he taught me to respect the laws!" interrupted the princess. "I discussed another thing with Bek en Chunsu. You know I rejected the suit of the Regent. He must secretly be much vexed with me. That indeed would not alarm me, but he is the guardian and protector appointed over me by my father, and yet can I turn to him in confidence for counsel, and help? No! I am still a woman, and Rameses' daughter! Sooner will I travel through a thousand deserts than humiliate my father through his child. By to-morrow I shall have decided; but, indeed, I have already decided to make the journey, hard as it is to leave much that is here. Do not fear, dear! but you are too tender for such a journey, and to such a distance; I might--"
"No, no," cried Nefert. "I am going, too, if you were going to the four pillars of heaven, at the limits of the earth. You have given me a new life, and the little sprout that is green within me would wither again if I had to return to my mother. Only she or I can be in our house, and I will re-enter it only with Mena."
"It is settled--I must go," said the princess. "Oh! if only my father were not so far off, and that I could consult him!"
"Yes! the war, and always the war!" sighed Nefert. "Why do not men rest content with what they have, and prefer the quiet peace, which makes life lovely, to idle fame?"
"Would they be men? should we love them?" cried Bent-Anat eagerly. "Is not the mind of the Gods, too, bent on war? Did you ever see a more sublime sight than Pentaur, on that evening when he brandished the stake he had pulled up, and exposed his life to protect an innocent girl who was in danger?"
"I dared not once look down into the court," said Nefert. "I was in such an agony of mind. But his loud cry still rings in my ears."
"So rings the war cry of heroes before whom the enemy quails!" exclaimed Bent-Anat.
"Aye, truly so rings the war cry!" said prince Rameri, who had entered his sister's half-dark room unperceived by the two women.
The princess turned to the boy. "How you frightened me!" she said.
"You!" said Rameri astonished.
"Yes, me. I used to have a stout heart, but since that evening I frequently tremble, and an agony of terror comes over me, I do not know why. I believe some demon commands me."
"You command, wherever you go; and no one commands you," cried Rameri. "The excitement and tumult in the valley, and on the quay, still agitate you. I grind my teeth myself when I remember how they turned me out of the school, and how Paaker set the dog at us. I have gone through a great deal today too."
"Where were you so long?" asked Bent-Anat. "My uncle Ani commanded that you should not leave the palace."
"I shall be eighteen years old next month," said the prince, "and need no tutor."
"But your father--" said Bent-Anat.
"My father"--interrupted the boy, "he little knows the Regent. But I shall write to him what I have today heard said by different people. They were to have sworn allegiance to Ani at that very feast in the valley, and it is quite openly said that Ani is aiming at the throne, and intends to depose the king. You are right, it is madness--but there must be something behind it all."
Nefert turned pale, and Bent-Anat asked for particulars. The prince repeated all he had gathered, and added laughing: "Ani depose my father! It is as if I tried to snatch the star of Isis from the sky to light the lamps--which are much wanted here."
"It is more comfortable in the dark," said Nefert. "No, let us have lights," said Bent-Anat. "It is better to talk when we can see each other face to face. I have no belief in the foolish talk of the people; but you are right--we must bring it to my fathers knowledge."
"I heard the wildest gossip in the City of the Dead," said Rameri.
"You ventured over there? How very wrong!"
"I disguised myself a little, and I have good news for you. Pretty Uarda is much better. She received your present, and they have a house of their own again. Close to the one that was burnt down, there was a tumbled-down hovel, which her father soon put together again; he is a bearded soldier, who is as much like her as a hedgehog is like a white dove. I offered her to work in the palace for you with the other girls, for good wages, but she would not; for she has to wait on her sick grandmother, and she is proud, and will not serve any one."
"It seems you were a long time with the paraschites' people," said Bent-Anat reprovingly. "I should have thought that what has happened to me might have served you as a warning."
"I will not be better than you!" cried the boy. "Besides, the paraschites is dead, and Uarda's father is a respectable soldier, who can defile no one. I kept a long way from the old woman. To-morrow I am going again. I promised her."
"Promised who?" asked his sister.
"Who but Uarda? She loves flowers, and since the rose which you gave her she has not seen one. I have ordered the gardener to cut me a basket full of roses to-morrow morning, and shall take them to her myself."
"That you will not!" cried Bent-Anat. "You are still but half a child--and, for the girl's sake too, you must give it up."
"We only gossip together," said the prince coloring, "and no one shall recognize me. But certainly, if you mean that, I will leave the basket of roses, and go to her alone. No--sister, I will not be forbidden this; she is so charming, so white, so gentle, and her voice is so soft and sweet! And she has little feet, as small as--what shall I say?--as small and graceful as Nefert's hand. We talked most about Pentaur. She knows his father, who is a gardener, and knows a great deal about him. Only think! she says the poet cannot be the son of his parents, but a good spirit that has come down on earth--perhaps a God. At first she was very timid, but when I spoke of Pentaur she grew eager; her reverence for him is almost idolatry--and that vexed me."
"You would rather she should reverence you so," said Nefert smiling.
"Not at all," cried Rameri. "But I helped to save her, and I am so happy when I am sitting with her, that to-morrow, I am resolved, I will put a flower in her hair. It is red certainly, but as thick as yours, Bent-Anat, and it must be delightful to unfasten it and stroke it."
The ladies exchanged a glance of intelligence, and the princess said decidedly:
"You will not go to the City of the Dead to-morrow, my little son!"
"That we will see, my little mother!" He answered laughing; then he turned grave.
"I saw my school-friend Anana too," he said. "Injustice reigns in the House of Seti! Pentaur is in prison, and yesterday evening they sat in judgment upon him. My uncle was present, and would have pounced upon the poet, but Ameni took him under his protection. What was finally decided, the pupils could not learn, but it must have been something bad, for the son of the Treasurer heard Ameni saying, after the sitting, to old Gagabu: 'Punishment he deserves, but I will not let him be overwhelmed;' and he can have meant no one but Pentaur. To-morrow I will go over, and learn more; something frightful, I am afraid--several years of imprisonment is the least that will happen to him."
Bent-Anat had turned very pale.
"And whatever they do to him," she cried, "he will suffer for my sake! Oh, ye omnipotent Gods, help him--help me, be merciful to us both!"
She covered her face with her hands, and left the room. Rameri asked Nefert:
What can have come to my sister? she seems quite strange to me; and you too are not the same as you used to be."
"We both have to find our way in new circumstances."
"What are they?"
"That I cannot explain to you!--but it appears to me that you soon may experience something of the same kind. Rumeri, do not go again to the paraschites."
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