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- Joshua, Volume 2. - 4/11 -
"Then the old man suddenly saw a glint of gold in the dusty heap."
"And the stiffest neck will stoop for that."
"Quite true. My Hotepu did so, and the broad gold circlet the lad wore flashed in the sunlight and preserved his life a second time."
"The luckiest thing is that we have the lad in our possession."
"Yes, I was rejoiced to have him open his eyes once more. Then his recovery grew more and more rapid; the doctor says he is like a kitten, and all these mishaps will not cost him his life. But he is in a violent fever, and in his delirium says all sorts of senseless things, which even my daughter's nurse, a native of Ascalon, cannot clearly comprehend. Only she thought she caught Kasana's name."
"So it is once more a woman who is the source of the trouble."
"Stop these jests, holy father," replied Hornecht, biting his lips. "A modest widow, and that boy with the down still on his lips."
"At his age," replied the unabashed priest, "fullblown roses have a stronger attraction for young beetles than do buds; and in this instance," he added more gravely, "it is a most fortunate accident. We have Hosea's nephew in the snare, and it will be your part not to let him escape."
"Do you mean that we are to deprive him of his liberty?" cried the warrior.
"Yet you value his uncle?"
"Certainly. But the state has a higher claim."
"This boy. . . ."
"Is a desirable hostage. Hosea's sword was an extremely useful tool to us; but if the hand that guides it is directed by the man whose power ever greater things we know . . . ."
"You mean the Hebrew, Mesu?"
"Then Hosea will deal us wounds as deep as those he erst inflicted on our foes."
"Yet I have heard you say more than once that he was incapable of perjury."
"And so I say still, he has given wonderful proof of it to-day. Merely for the sake of being released from his oath, he thrust his head into the crocodile's jaws. But though the son of Nun is a lion, he will find his master in Mesu. That man is the mortal foe of the Egyptians, the bare thought of him stirs my gall."
"The cries of the wailing women behind this door admonish us loudly enough to hate him."
"Yet the weakling on the throne has forgotten vengeance, and is now sending Hosea on an errand of reconciliation."
"With your sanction, I think?"
"Ay," replied the priest with a mocking smile. "We send him to build a bridge! Oh, this bridge! A grey-beard's withered brain recommends it to be thrown across the stream, and the idea just suits this pitiful son of a great father, who would certainly never have shunned swimming through the wildest whirlpool, especially when revenge was to be sought. Let Hosea essay the bridge! If it leads him back across the stream to us, I will offer him a right warm and cordial welcome; but as soon as this one man stands on our shores, may its supports sink under the leaders of his people; we, the only brave souls in Egypt, must see to that."
"So be it. Yet I fear we shall lose the chief, too, if justice overtakes his people."
"It might almost seem so."
"You have greater wisdom than I"
"Yet here you believe me in error."
"How could I venture to . . . ."
"As a member of the military council you are entitled to your own opinion, and I consider myself bound to show you the end of the path along which you have hitherto followed us with blindfold eyes. So listen, and judge accordingly when your turn comes to speak in the council. The chief-priest Rui is old . . . ."
"And you now fill half his offices."
"Would that he might soon be relieved of the last half of his burden. Not on my own account. I love strife, but for the welfare of our native land. It is a deep-seated feeling of our natures to regard the utterances and mandates of age as wisdom, so there are few among the councillors who do not follow the old man's opinions; yet his policy limps on crutches, like himself. All good projects are swamped under his weak, fainthearted guidance."
"That is the very reason my vote is at your disposal," cried the warrior. "That is why I am ready to use all my might to hurl this sleeper from the throne and get rid of his foolish advisers."
The prophet laid his finger on his lips to warn his companion to be more cautious, drew nearer to him, pointed to his litter, and said in a low, hurried tone:
"I am expected at the Sublime Porte, so listen. If Hosea's mission is successful his people will return--the guilty with the innocent--and the latter will suffer. Among the former we can include the whole of Hosea's tribe, who call themselves the sons of Ephraim, from old Nun down to the youth in your dwelling."
"We may spare them; but Mesu, too, is a Hebrew, and what we do to him..."
"Will not occur in the public street, and it is child's play to sow enmity between two men who desire to rule in the same sphere. I will make sure that Hosea shall shut his eyes to the other's death; but Pharaoh, whether his name is Meneptah or"--he lowered his voice--"Siptah, must then raise him to so great a height--and he merits it--that his giddy eyes will never discern aught we desire to conceal. There is one dish that never palls on any man who has once tasted it."
"And what is that?"
"Power, Hornecht--mighty power! As ruler of a whole province, commander of all the mercenaries in Aarsu's stead, he will take care not to break with us. I know him. If I can succeed in making him believe Mesu has wronged him--and the imperious man will afford some pretext for it--and can bring him to the conviction that the law directs the punishment we mete out to the sorcerer and the worst of his adherents, he will not only assent but approve it."
"And if he fails in his mission?"
"He will return at any rate; for he would not be false to his oath. But if Mesu, from whom we may expect anything, should detain him by force, the boy will be of service to us; for Hosea loves him, his people value his life, and he belongs to one of their noblest tribes. In any case Pharaoh must threaten the lad; we will guard him, and that will unite his uncle to us by fresh ties and lead him to join those who are angry with the king."
"The surest way to attain our object will be by forging still another chain. In short--now I beg you to be quiet, your temper is far too hot for your grey hairs--in short, our Hebrew brother-in-arms, the saviour of my life, the ablest man in the army, who is certain to win the highest place, must be your son-in-law. Kasana's heart is his--my wife has told me so." Hornecht frowned again, and struggled painfully to control his anger. He perceived that he must overcome his objection to giving his daughter to the man whose birth he scorned, much as he liked and esteemed his character. He could not refrain from uttering an oath under his breath, but his answer to the prophet was more calm and sensible than the latter had anticipated. If Kasana was so possessed by demons that this stranger infatuated her, let her have her will. But Hosea had not yet sued for her.
"By the red god Seth, and his seventy companions," he added wrathfully, "neither you, nor any one shall induce me to offer my daughter, who has twenty suitors, to a man who terms himself our friend, yet finds no leisure to greet us in our own house! To keep fast hold of the lad is another thing, I will see to that."
The midnight heavens, decked with countless stars, spanned with their cloudless azure vault the flat plains of the eastern Delta and the city of Succoth, called by the Egyptians, from their sanctuary, the place of the god Tum, or Pithom.
The March night was drawing toward its end, pallid mists floated over the canal, the work of Hebrew bondmen which, as far as the eye could reach, intersected the plain, watering the fields and pastures along its course.
Eastward and southward the sky was shrouded by dense veils of mist that rose from the large lakes and from the narrow estuaries that ran far up into the isthmus. The hot and dusty desert wind, which the day before had swept over the parched grass and the tents and houses of Succoth, had subsided at nightfall; and the cool atmosphere which in March, even in Egypt, precedes the approach of dawn, made itself felt.
Whoever had formerly entered, between midnight and morning, the humble frontier hamlet with its shepherd tents, wretched hovels of Nile mud, and by no means handsome farms and dwellings, would scarcely have recognized it now. Even the one noticeable building in the place--besides the stately temple of the sungod Turn--the large fortified store-house, presented at this hour an unfamiliar aspect. Its long white-washed walls, it is true, glimmered through the gloom as distinctly as ever, but instead of towering--as usual at this time--mute and lifeless above the slumbering town--the most active bustle was going on within and around it. It was intended also as a defense against the predatory hordes of the Shasu,
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