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- Uarda, Volume 4. - 2/10 -
"I?" said Paaker, surprised.
"He forced Katuti to give her daughter as wife to the charioteer. That I know from herself. She can prove it to thee."
Paaker shook his head in denial, but the dwarf continued eagerly, "Yes, yes! Katuti would have had thee for her son-in-law, and it was the king, not she, who broke off the betrothal. Thou must at the same time have been inscribed in the black books of the high gate, for Rameses used many hard names for thee. One of us is like a mouse behind the curtain, which knows a good deal."
Paaker suddenly brought his horses to a stand-still, threw the reins to the slave, sprang from the chariot, called the dwarf to his side, and said:
"We will walk from here to the river, and you shall tell me all you know; but if an untrue word passes your lips I will have you eaten by my dogs."
"I know thou canst keep thy word," gasped the little man. "But go a little slower if thou wilt, for I am quite out of breath. Let Katuti herself tell thee how it all came about. Rameses compelled her to give her daughter to the charioteer. I do not know what he said of thee, but it was not complimentary. My poor mistress! she let herself be caught by the dandy, the ladies' man-and now she may weep and wail. When I pass the great gates of thy house with Katuti, she often sighs and complains bitterly. And with good reason, for it soon will be all over with our noble estate, and we must seek an asylum far away among the Amu in the low lands; for the nobles will soon avoid us as outcasts. Thou mayst be glad that thou hast not linked thy fate to ours; but I have a faithful heart, and will share my mistress's trouble."
"You speak riddles," said Paaker, "what have they to fear?"
The dwarf now related how Nefert's brother had gambled away the mummy of his father, how enormous was the sum he had lost, and that degradation must overtake Katuti, and her daughter with her.
"Who can save them," he whimpered. "Her shameless husband squanders his inheritance and his prize-money. Katuti is poor, and the little words "Give me! scare away friends as the cry of a hawk scares the chickens. My poor mistress!"
"It is a large sum," muttered Paaker to himself. "It is enormous!" sighed the dwarf, "and where is it to be found in these hard times? It would have been different with us, if--ah if--. And it would be a form of madness which I do not believe in, that Nefert should still care for her braggart husband. She thinks as much of thee as of him."
Paaker looked at the dwarf half incredulous and half threatening.
"Ay--of thee," repeated Nemu. "Since our excursion to the Necropolis the day before yesterday it was--she speaks only of thee, praising thy ability, and thy strong manly spirit. It is as if some charm obliged her to think of thee."
The pioneer began to walk so fast that his small companion once more had to ask him to moderate his steps.
They gained the shore in silence, where Paaker's boat was waiting, which also conveyed his chariot. He lay down in the little cabin, called the dwarf to him, and said:
"I am Katuti's nearest relative; we are now reconciled; why does she not turn to me in her difficulty?"
"Because she is proud, and thy blood flows in her veins. Sooner would she die with her child--she said so--than ask thee, against whom she sinned, for an "alms."
"She did think of me then?"
"At once; nor did she doubt thy generosity. She esteems thee highly--I repeat it; and if an arrow from a Cheta's bow or a visitation of the Gods attained Mena, she would joyfully place her child in thine arms, and Nefert believe me has not forgotten her playfellow. The day before yesterday, when she came home from the Necropolis, and before the letter had come from the camp, she was full of thee--
["To be full (meh) of any one" is used in the Egyptian language for "to be in love with any one."]
nay called to thee in her dreams; I know it from Kandake, her black maid." The pioneer looked down and said:
"How extraordinary! and the same night I had a vision in which your mistress appeared to me; the insolent priest in the temple of Hathor should have interpreted it to me."
"And he refused? the fool! but other folks understand dreams, and I am not the worst of them--Ask thy servant. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred my interpretations come true. How was the vision?"
"I stood by the Nile," said Paaker, casting down his eyes and drawing lines with his whip through the wool of the cabin rug. "The water was still, and I saw Nefert standing on the farther bank, and beckoning to me. I called to her, and she stepped on the water, which bore her up as if it were this carpet. She went over the water dry-foot as if it were the stony wilderness. A wonderful sight! She came nearer to me, and nearer, and already I had tried to take her hand, when she ducked under like a swan. I went into the water to seize her, and when she came up again I clasped her in my arms; but then the strangest thing happened-- she flowed away, she dissolved like the snow on the Syrian hills, when you take it in your hand, and yet it was not the same, for her hair turned to water-lilies, and her eyes to blue fishes that swam away merrily, and her lips to twigs of coral that sank at once, and from her body grew a crocodile, with a head like Mena, that laughed and gnashed its teeth at me. Then I was seized with blind fury; I threw myself upon him with a drawn sword, he fastened his teeth in my flesh, I pierced his throat with my weapon; the Nile was dark with our streaming blood, and so we fought and fought--it lasted an eternity--till I awoke."
Paaker drew a deep breath as he ceased speaking; as if his wild dream tormented him again.
The dwarf had listened with eager attention, but several minutes passed before he spoke.
"A strange dream," he said, "but the interpretation as to the future is not hard to find. Nefert is striving to reach thee, she longs to be thine, but if thou dost fancy that she is already in thy grasp she will elude thee; thy hopes will melt like ice, slip away like sand, if thou dost not know how to put the crocodile out of the way."
At this moment the boat struck the landing-place. The pioneer started up, and cried, "We have reached the end!"
"We have reached the end," echoed the little man with meaning. "There is only a narrow bridge to step over."
When they both stood on the shore, the dwarf said,
"I have to thank thee for thy hospitality, and when I can serve thee command me."
"Come here," cried the pioneer, and drew Nemu away with him under the shade of a sycamore veiled in the half light of the departing sun.
"What do you mean by a bridge which we must step over? I do not understand the flowers of speech, and desire plain language."
The dwarf reflected for a moment; and then asked, "Shall I say nakedly and openly what I mean, and will you not be angry?"
"Mena is the crocodile. Put him out of the world, and you will have passed the bridge; then Nefert will be thine--if thou wilt listen to me."
"What shall I do?"
"Put the charioteer out of the world."
Paaker's gesture seemed to convey that that was a thing that had long been decided on, and he turned his face, for a good omen, so that the rising moon should be on his right hand.
The dwarf went on.
"Secure Nefert, so that she may not vanish like her image in the dream, before you reach the goal; that is to say, ransom the honor of your future mother and wife, for how could you take an outcast into your house?"
Paaker looked thoughtfully at the ground.
"May I inform my mistress that thou wilt save her?" asked Nemu. "I may?--Then all will be well, for he who will devote a fortune to love will not hesitate to devote a reed lance with a brass point to it to his love and his hatred together."
The sun had set, and darkness covered the City of the Dead, but the moon shone above the valley of the kings' tombs, and the projecting masses of the rocky walls of the chasm threw sharply-defined shadows. A weird silence lay upon the desert, where yet far more life was stirring than in the noonday hour, for now bats darted like black silken threads through the night air, owls hovered aloft on wide-spread wings, small troops of jackals slipped by, one following the other up the mountain slopes. From time to time their hideous yell, or the whining laugh of the hyena, broke the stillness of the night.
Nor was human life yet at rest in the valley of tombs. A faint light glimmered in the cave of the sorceress Hekt, and in front of the paraschites' but a fire was burning, which the grandmother of the sick Uarda now and then fed with pieces of dry manure. Two men were seated in front of the hut, and gazed in silence on the thin flame, whose impure light was almost quenched by the clearer glow of the moon; whilst the third, Uarda's father, disembowelled a large ram, whose head he had already cut off.
"How the jackals howl!" said the old paraschites, drawing as he spoke the torn brown cotton cloth, which he had put on as a protection against the night air and the dew, closer round his bare shoulders.
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