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Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/From the Legends of Ancient Egypt

< Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse
For other English-language translations of this work, see A Legend of Old Egypt.

BOLESLAW PRUS: FROM THE LEGENDS OF ANCIENT EGYPT.

 

Behold, how vain are human hopes before the dispensation of the world! Behold how vain they are before the decrees which the Omnipotent has inscribed with fiery signs upon the heavens.

The aged Rameses, the mighty ruler of Egypt, was on the point of death. On the breast of the monarch, before whose voice millions had trembled for half a century, had fallen a stifling phantom which was draining the blood from his heart, the strength from his arms, and, at intervals, even the consciousness from his brain. Like a fallen cedar the great Pharaoh lay upon the skin of an Indian tiger, his feet covered with the triumphal robe of the King of Ethiopia. And stern even to himself, he summoned the wisest physician from the temple at Carnac, and said:

"I know that thou art acquainted with potent mmedicines, which either slay or heal forthwith. Prepare one of them meet for my sickness, and let me end at once . . . thus or otherwise."

The physician hesitated.

"Consider, O Rameses," he whispered, "that from the moment of thy descending out of the high heavens, the Nile has ebbed a hundred times; can I then administer to thee a medicine, uncertain even for the youngest among thy warriors?"

Rameses raised himself to a sitting posture upon his couch.

"It must needs be that my sickness is great," he exclaimed, "since thou, O priest, makest bold to bestow counsels upon me! Be silent and fulfil what I have commanded. For Horus, my thirty-year-old grandson and successor, is yet alive; Egypt can have no other ruler, if he ascend not the chariot and raise not the spear."

When the priest with trembling hand had administered the dire medicine to him, Rameses drank it, as one parched with thirst drinks a cup of water; then be called unto him the most renowned astrologer of Thebes, and commanded him to relate what the stars revealed, without dissembling aught.

"Saturn is in conjunction with the Moon," replied the sage, "and that betokens the death of some member of thy dynasty, O Rameses. Thou hast done ill in drinking the medicine to-day, for empty are human plans before the decrees that the Omnipotent inscribes upon the heavens."

"Of a surety, then, the stars have heralded my death," returned Rameses. "And when will it be accomplished?" he asked, turning to the physician.

"Before the setting of the sun, O Rameses, either shalt thou be hale as a rhinoceros, or thy holy ring will be upon the finger of Horus."

"Lead Horus," said Rameses, with a voice that was already growing weaker, "into the hall of the Pharaohs; let him there await my last words, and the ring, that there may not be even a moment's surcease in the wielding of authority."

Horus began weeping (he had a heart full of compassion) at his grandsire's approaching death; but that there might be no surcease in the wielding of authority, he forthwith entered into the hall of the Pharaohs, surrounded by a great company of servants.

He took his seat upon the gallery, the marble steps of which extended downwards even to the river, and, filled with unfathomable sorrows, he gazed around him.

The moon, near which glimmered Saturn, the star of evil portent, was juSt gilding the bronze-coloured waters of the Nile, painted the shadows of the huge pyramids upon pastures and gardens, and lit up the whole valley for several miles around. In spite of the lateness of the hour, lamps were burning in huts and buildings, and the populace came out from their homes beneath the open sky. Upon the Nile, skiffs were moored in dreams as closely as on a festive day; in palm-forests, on the shores above the water, in market-places, in streets, and beside the palace of Rameses, surged a countless throng. And in spite of that, it was so still, that the rustle of water-reeds and the plaintive howling of hyenas in search of food, were borne to the ear of Horus.

"Wherefore are they gathered together in such numbers?" Horus asked one of the courtiers, as he pointed to the immeasurable rows of human heads.

"They wish to hail thee as the new Pharaoh, lord, and to hear from thy lips of the benefits which thou hast ordained for them."

In this moment the prince's heart was smitten for the first time with the pride of greatness, even as the ocean, coursing forward, smites against a steep shore.

"And what betoken yonder lights?" asked Horus further.

"The priests have entered into the grave of thy mother, Zefora, that they may bear her mortal remains unto the catacombs of the Pharaohs."

In the heart of Horus was aroused once again grief for his mother, whose remains the grim Rameses had buried amid the slaves because of the mercy she displayed towards the slaves.

"I hear the neighing of horses," said Horus, as he listened intently. "Who is riding forth at this hour?"

"The chamberlain, lord, has given orders to make ready the envoys unto Jetron, thy preceptor."

Horus sighed at the recollection of his beloved preceptor, whom Rameses had driven out of the country for having inculcated into the soul of his grandson and successor a loathing for wars, and compassion for the downtrodden people. "And yonder small light beyond the Nile?"

"By means of yonder small light, O Horus," replied the courtier, "faithful Berenice greets thee from her cloistered captivity. The high priest has already dispatched the vessel of the Pharaohs for her; and when the sacred ring gleams upon thy finger, the massive doors of the cloister will open, and, filled with yearning and Jove, she will return unto thee"?

Hearing these words, Horus asked naught else; he became silent and hid his eyes with his hand.

Suddenly he gave a cry of pain.

"What ailS thee, O Horus?"

"A bee bas stung my foot," replied the prince, growing pale.

By the greenish lustre of the moon, the courtier gazed at his foot.

"Render thanks unto Osiris," he said, "that it is not a spider, whose venom at this hour is wont to be fatal."

O, how vain are human hopes, before the unrelenting decrees. . .

At this moment a captain of the host entered, and bowing down before Horus, he quoth thus:

"The mighty Rameses, waiting until his body shall grow cold, has dispatched me unto thee with the command: Go unto Horus, for my hours in the world are numbered, and fulfil his desire, even as thou hast fulfilled mine. Even though he command thee to surrender Upper Egypt to the Ethiopians and to conclude a brotherly alliance with these foes, accomplish it, when thou beholdest my ring upon his finger; for through the lips of rulers speaketh immortal Osiris."

"i will not yield Egypt unto the Ethiopians" spoke the prince, "But I will conclude peace, for I am grieved by the blood of my people: write forthwith an edict, and hold in readiness the mounted envoys that, as soon as the first fires blaze in my honour, they may speed hence in the direction of the noonday sun, and bear goodwill unto the Ethiopians. And write also a second edict, that from this hour even unto the end of time, no prisoner shall have his tongue torn from his mouth upon the field of battle. Thus have I spoken."

The captain fell upon his face, and thereupon he withdrew to write the decrees; the prince, however, urged the courtier to gaze afresh upon his wound, for it sorely distressed him.

"Thy foot has swelled somewhat, O Horus," spoke the courtier. "What would have happened, if instead of a bee, a spider had stung thee!"

The imperial chamberlain now entered into the hall, and bowing down before the prince, he said:

"The mighty Rameses, perceiving that his vision is growing dim, has dispatched me unto thee with the command: Go unto Horus, and fulfil his desire blindly. Even though he command thee to release the captives from their chains and to bestow the whole earth upon the people, do thou it, when thou observest the sacred ring upon his finger, for through the lips of rulers speaketh immortal Osiris."

"My heart reacheth not so far," spoke Horus. "But write forthwith an edict, whereby the people's lease-rents and taxes shall be lowered by a half, and the slaves shall have three days in the week free from labour and they shall not be scourged upon the back with a rod, unless the judge issue a decree to that effect. Write yet one more edict, recalling from banishment my preceptor Jetron, who is the wisest and noblest of the Egyptians. Thus have I spoken."

The chamberlain fell upon his face, but ere he had time to withdraw for the engrossing of the edicts, the high priest entered.

"O Horus," he said, "at any moment the mighty Rameses will depart unto the realm of shadows, and Osiris will weigh his heart upon the infallible balance. When, however, the holy ring of the Pharaohs gleams upon thy finger, utter thy commands, and I will obey thee, even though thou shouldst have the miraculous shrine of Ammon destroyed, for through the lips of rulers speaketh immortal Osiris.'

"I will not lay waste," responded Horus, but a new shrine will I upraise and the priestly treasury will I enlarge. I crave only, that thou writest an edict concerning the solemn transference of the mortal remains of my mother Zefora unto the catacombs, and a second edict. . . concerning the liberation of Berenice the beloved from her cloistered captivity. Thus have I spoken."

"Wisely dost thou begin," replied the High priest. "For the fulfilling of these behests all in even now made ready, and the edicts will I engross forthwith; when thou touchest them with the ring of the Pharaohs, lo, I will enkindle this lamp, that it may proclaim favour unto the people, and to thy Berenice freedom and love."

The wisest physician from Carnac entered.

"O Horus," he said, "I marvel not at thy pallor, for Rameses, thy grandsire, is even now breathing his last. He was not able to bear the potency of the medicine, which I was not fain to administer unto him, that monarch of monarchs. With him, therefore, is left only the deputy of the high priest, that, when he dies, the sacred ring may be removed from his finger and bestowed upon thee as a token of unbounded authority. But thou growest ever paler and paler, O Horus," be added.

"Gaze upon my foot," moaned Horus, and he fell upon the golden chair, the supports of which were carved in the shape of hawks' heads.

The physician bent down, gazed at the foot, and drew back horror-stricken.

"O Horus," he whispered, "an exceedingly venomous spider has stung thee."

"Am I doomed to death? At such a moment?" asked Horus, with a scarcely audible voice.

And later he added:

"Can that come to pass swiftly? Let me hear the truth. . ."

"Ere the moon is hidden behind yonder palm-tree. . ."

"Verily? And Rameses will live long yet?"

"I know not. . . It may be that they are already bearing his ring unto thee."

At this moment the ministers entered with the edicts made ready.

"Chamberlain," cried Horus, clutching at his hand, "if I should die forthwith, wouldst thou fulfil my commands?"

"Mayst thou live, O Horus, unto thy grandsire's age!" answered the chamberlain. "But if straightway after him thou wert to stand before the judgment of Osiris, thine every edict should be accomplished, if only thou touch it with the sacred ring of the Pharaohs."

"The ring!" repeated Horus, "But where is it?"

"Once there was among the courtiers," whispered the captain of the host, "who told me that mighty Rameses is even now breathing his last."

"I have sent unto my deputy," added the high priest, "that so soon the heart of Rameses cease to beat, he shall remove the ring."

"I thank you," said Horus. "I am sorely stricken . . . ah, how sorely. But nevertheless I shall not utterly perish. I shall bequeath blessing, peace, happiness unto the people. and. . . my Berenice will regain freedom. . . Will it be long now?" he asked of the physician.

"Death is a thousand military paces from thee," replied the physician, sadly.

"Hear ye naught? Is there none who comes from thence?" spoke Horus.

Silence.

The moon was drawing nigh unto the palm-tree and was already touching its foremost leaves; the finely crunched sand was softly rustling in the water-clocks.

"Is it afar off?" whispered Horus.

"Eight hundred paces," replied the physician. "I know not, O Horus, whether it will be thine to touch all the edicts with the sacred ring, even though they bear them unto thee straightway."

"Give the edicts unto me," said Horus, hearkening whether any came running from the apartments of Rameses. "And thou, O priest," and he turned to the physician, "give word, how much of life is yet vouchsafed me, that I may be able to confirm at least the most precious of my behests."

"Six hundred paces," whispered the physician.

The edict concerning the lowering of rents for the people and of labour for the slaves, fell from the hands of Horus on to the ground.

"Five hundred. . ."

The edict concerning peace with the Ethiopians slipped from the prince's knees.

"Is there none who comes?"

"Four hundred," replied the physician.

Horus sank into pondering, and . . . the decree concerning the mortal remains of Zefora fell.

"Three hundred . . ."

The same fate befel the edict concerning the recall of Jetron from banishment.

"Two hundred. . ."

The lips of Horus grew livid. With clenched hand he flung to the ground the edict by which the tongues of prisoners taken into captivity were not to be torn out, and there remained only . . . the decree for the liberation of Berenice.

"A hundred. . ."

Amid the deathly stillness could be heard the clatter of sandals. Into the hall the high priest's deputy came running. Horus stretched forth his hand.

"A miracle," cried the newcomer. "Mighty Rameses has regained his health . . . he has risen up alertly from bis couch and at sunrise he desires to ride forth for lions. . . Thee, however, O Horus, as a token of favour, he summons to accompany him. . ."

"Dost thou not answer, O Horus?" questioned the envoy of Rameses, marvelling.

"Seest thou not that he has died?" whispered the wisest physician of Carnac.

Behold now, how vain are human hopes before the decrees which the Omnipotent has inscribed with fiery signs upon the heavens.