A Legend of Old Egypt (2005)

For other English-language translations of this work, see A Legend of Old Egypt.
A Legend of Old Egypt  (2005) 
by Bolesław Prus, translated by Christopher Kasparek

Original was published in 1888

Behold, how vain are human hopes before the order of the world; behold, how vain they are before the decrees that have been written in fiery signs upon the heavens by the Eternal!...

Hundred-year-old Ramses, mighty ruler of Egypt, was breathing his last. The chest of the potentate before whose voice millions had quaked half a century, had been invested by a stifling incubus, and it drank the blood from his heart, the strength from his arm, and at times even the consciousness from his brain. The great pharaoh lay like a fallen cedar upon the skin of an Indian tiger, having covered his legs with the triumphal cloak of an Ethiopian king. And stern even with himself, he summoned the wisest physician from the Temple of Karnak and said:

"I know that you have powerful medicines that either kill or cure at once. Prepare me one proper to my illness, and let this end once and for all... one way or the other."

The physician hesitated.

"Consider, Ramses," he whispered, "since your descent from the high heavens the Nile has flooded a hundred times; can I give you a medicine that would be uncertain even for the youngest of your warriors?"

Ramses sat up on the bed.

"I must be very ill, priest," he cried, "if you dare give me advice! Be silent and do my bidding. There lives, after all, my thirty-year-old grandson and successor, Horus. And Egypt cannot have a ruler who is unable to mount a chariot and lift a spear."

When the priest, with trembling hand, gave him the terrible potion, Ramses drank it down as a thirsty man drinks a cup of water; then he summoned the most renowned astrologer in Thebes and bade him say frankly what the stars showed.

"Saturn has united with the moon," replied the sage, "which portends the death of a member of your dynasty, Ramses. You did ill to drink the medicine today, for human plans are vain before the decrees that the Eternal writes upon the heavens."

"Naturally, the stars have foretold my death," replied Ramses. "And when might it happen?" he asked the physician.

"Before sunrise, Ramses, either you will be hale as a rhinoceros or your sacred ring will be on Horus' hand."

"Conduct Horus," said Ramses in a voice growing faint, "to the hall of the pharaohs; let him wait there for my last words and for the ring, that there be not a moment's interruption in the exercise of power."

Horus wept (he had a compassionate heart) over his grandfather's approaching death; but as there could be no interruption in the exercise of power, he went to the hall of the pharaohs, surrounded by a large crowd of attendants.

He seated himself on the porch whose marble steps ran down to the river and, full of indefinable sadness, surveyed the countryside.

The Moon, beside which glowed the ominous star Saturn, was just gilding the bronze waters of the Nile, painting the shadows of the gigantic pyramids upon meadows and gardens, and illuminating the entire valley for leagues around. Despite the late hour of the night, lamps burned in huts and buildings, and the populace had come out of their homes and beneath the open heavens. Boats ranged the Nile, thick as on a holiday; in palm forests, along the water's edge, in marketplaces, in streets, and adjacent to Ramses' palace there undulated a countless throng. Notwithstanding this, there was such silence that Horus could hear the rustle of water reeds and the plaintive howls of hyenas seeking prey.

"Why are they gathering like this?" Horus asked a courtier, indicating the immense fields of human heads.

"They wish, lord, to greet you as the new pharaoh and to hear from your lips the benefits that you will bestow upon them."

For the first time the pride of greatness struck the Prince's heart, as the onrushing sea strikes a steep shore.

"And what do those lights mean?" asked Horus.

"The priests have gone to the grave of your mother Sephora to transfer her remains to the pharaohs' catacombs."

Horus' heart was filled anew with grief for his mother, whose remains — due the mercy that she had shown the slaves — the severe Ramses had buried among the slaves.

"I hear horses neighing," said Horus, listening. "Who is riding out at this hour?"

"The chancellor, my lord, has ordered messengers readied to ride to your teacher, Jethro."

Horus gave a sigh at the mention of his beloved friend whom Ramses had banished for instilling, into the soul of his grandson and successor, aversion to war and compassion for the oppressed populace.

"And that little light across the Nile?"

"With that light, O Horus," replied the courtier, "faithful Berenice greets you from her cloister prison. The high priest has sent the pharaoh's barge for her, and when the sacred ring flashes on your hand the heavy cloister door will open and she will return to you, longing and loving."

Having heard these words, Horus asked no more questions; he fell silent and covered his eyes with his hand.

Suddenly he gave a hiss of pain.

"What's the matter, Horus?"

"A bee has stung my leg," replied the Prince, grown pale.

The courtier examined Horus' leg in the greenish moonlight.

"Thank Osiris," he said, "that it wasn't a spider, whose venom can be lethal in this season."

Lo! how vain are human hopes before the irrevocable decrees...

At that moment the commander of the army entered and, bowing, said to Horus:

"Great Ramses, feeling that his body is growing cold, has sent me to you with the order: 'Go to Horus, because I am not long for this world, and do his will as you have done mine. Though he command you to yield Upper Egypt to the Ethiopians and conclude a fraternal alliance with these enemies, do so when you see my ring on his hand, for immortal Osiris speaks through the lips of rulers.'"

"I shall not turn Egypt over to the Ethiopians," said the Prince, "but I will make peace, for I hold dear the blood of my people; write an edict at once and hold mounted messengers at the ready so that, when the first fires light in my honor, they may speed toward the southern sun and carry my favor to the Ethiopians. And write a second edict, that from this hour until the end of time no prisoner of war shall have his tongue torn from his mouth on the field of battle. I have spoken..."

The commander prostrated himself, then withdrew to write the orders; and the Prince asked the courtier to take another look at his wound, which was very painful.

"Your leg has swollen a bit, Horus," said the courtier. "What if, instead of a bee, a spider had stung you!..."

Now the chancellor of the kingdom entered the hall and, bowing to the Prince, said:

"Mighty Ramses, seeing his eyes growing dim, has sent me to you with the order: 'Go to Horus and blindly carry out his will. Though he should order you to release the slaves from their chains and give all the land to the people, you shall do so when you see my sacred ring on his hand, for immortal Osiris speaks through the lips of rulers.'"

"My heart does not reach that far," said Horus. "But write an edict at once, that the people's rents and taxes are lowered by half, and that the slaves shall have three days a week free from labor and shall not have their backs caned without a court judgment. And also write an edict recalling from banishment my teacher, Jethro, who is the wisest and noblest of Egyptians. I have spoken..."

The chancellor prostrated himself, but before he could withdraw to write the edicts, the high priest entered.

"Horus," he said, "any moment now great Ramses will depart to the kingdom of the shades, and his heart will be weighed on the infallible scales by Osiris. And when the sacred ring of the pharaohs flashes on your hand, order and I shall obey you though you were to throw down the wonderful Temple of Amon, for immortal Osiris speaks through the lips of rulers."

"I shall not throw temples down," replied Horus, "but raise up new ones and increase the priests' treasury. I only ask that you write an edict for the solemn transfer of my mother Sephora's remains to the catacombs, and a second edict... for the release of beloved Berenice from her cloister prison. I have spoken..."

"You do wisely," replied the high priest. "All is in readiness to fulfill these orders, and presently I shall write the edicts; when you touch them with the ring of the pharaohs, I shall light this lamp to announce your favor to the people, and freedom and love to Berenice."

There entered the wisest priest in Karnak.

"Horus," he said, "I do not wonder at your pallor, for your grandfather Ramses is breathing his last. He could not stand the power of the medicine that I was loath to give him, this potentate of potentates. Therefore only the high priest's deputy remains with him in order, when he dies, to remove the sacred ring from his hand and give it to you in token of unlimited power. But you grow still more pale, Horus?" he added.

"Look at my leg," moaned Horus, and he fell into a golden chair whose armrests were carved in the likeness of hawks' heads.

The physician knelt, examined the leg, and backed away, terrified.

"Horus," he whispered, "you have been stung by a very poisonous spider."

"Am I to die?... at a moment like this?..." asked Horus in a barely audible voice.

And then he added: "How soon will it happen?... tell the truth..."

"Before the moon hides behind that palm tree..."

"Ah, so!... And has Ramses long to live?..."

"I don't know... Maybe they are bringing you his ring right now."

At that moment the ministers entered with ready edicts.

"Chancellor!" cried Horus, grabbing his arm, "if I were to die right now, would you all carry out my orders?..."

"Live to your grandfather's age, Horus!" replied the chancellor. "But even were you to step before Osiris' court right after him, your every edict will be carried out, so long as you touch it with the sacred ring of the pharaohs."

"With the ring!" repeated Horus, "but where is it?..."

"One of the courtiers was telling me," whispered the commander in chief, "that great Ramses was drawing his last breath."

"I have sent to my deputy," added the high priest, "for him to immediately remove the ring when Ramses' heart stops beating."

"Thank you all!..." said Horus. "It's a pity... oh, what a pity... But, after all, I won't die completely... I'll leave blessings, peace, the people's happiness, and... my Berenice will regain freedom... How long?..." he asked the physician.

"Death is a thousand soldier's paces from you," replied the physician sadly.

"Do you hear anybody coming?" said Horus.

No one spoke.

The moon was nearing the palm tree and had just toucbed its first fronds; the fine sands sifted softly in the clepsydras.

"How far?" whispered Horus.

"Eight hundred paces," replied the physician, "I don't know, Horus, whether you'll have time to touch all the edicts with the sacred ring, even were it brought to you right now..."

"Give me the edicts," said the Prince, listening whether anyone was running over from Ramses' apartments. "And you, priest," he turned to the physician, "tell me how much life I have left, so that I may confirm at least the orders dearest to me."

"Six hundred paces," whispered the physician.

The edict reducing the people's rents and the slaves' labor fell from Horus' hands to the floor.

"Five hundred..."

The edict on peace with the Ethiopians slipped from the Prince's lap.

"Isn't anyone coming?..."

"Four hundred..." answered the physician.

Horus became thoughtful, and... the order transferring Sephora's remains fell.

"Three hundred..."

The same fate met the edict recalling Jethro from banishment.

"Two hundred..."

Horus' lips turned livid. With his contracted hand he threw to the floor the edict on not tearing out the tongues of prisoners taken in war, and left only... the order to free Berenice.

"One hundred..."

Amid the sepulchral silence, a clatter of sandals was heard. Into the hall ran the high priest's deputy. Horus extended his hand.

"A miracle!..." cried the arrival. "Great Ramses has recovered... He rose briskly from his bed and wants to go on a lion hunt at sunrise... And as a sign of favor, Horus, he invites you to accompany him..."

Horus looked with failing eye across the Nile, where shone the light in Berenice's prison, and two tears, bloody tears, rolled down his face.

"You do not answer, Horus?..." asked Ramses' messenger, in surprise.

"Don't you see he's dead?..." whispered the wisest physician in Karnak.

Behold, human hopes are vain before the decrees that the Eternal writes in fiery signs on the heavens.

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