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- Uarda, Volume 7. - 6/10 -
"But I will shorten my story. I got well, but I got out of my bed thin and voiceless. I had plenty of money, and I spent it in buying of everyone who professed magic in Thebes, potions to recover Assa's love for me, or in paying for spells to be cast on him, or for magic drinks to destroy him. I tried too to recover my voice, but the medicines I took for it made it rougher not sweeter. Then an excommunicated priest, who was famous among the magicians, took me into his house, and there I learned many things; his old companions afterwards turned upon him, he came over here into the Necropolis, and I came with him. When at last he was taken and hanged, I remained in his cave, and myself took to witchcraft. Children point their fingers at me, honest men and women avoid me, I am an abomination to all men, nay to myself. And one only is guilty of all this ruin--the noblest gentleman in Thebes--the pious Assa.
"I had practised magic for several years, and had become learned in many arts, when one day the gardener Sent, from whom I was accustomed to buy plants for my mixtures--he rents a plot of ground from the temple of Seti--Sent brought me a new-born child that had been born with six toes; I was to remove the supernumerary toe by my art. The pious mother of the child was lying ill of fever, or she never would have allowed it; I took the screaming little wretch--for such things are sometimes curable. The next morning, a few hours after sunrise, there was a bustle in front of my cave; a maid, evidently belonging to a noble house, was calling me. Her mistress, she said, had come with her to visit the tomb of her fathers, and there had been taken ill, and had given birth to a child. Her mistress was lying senseless--I must go at once, and help her. I took the little six-toed brat in my cloak, told my slavegirl to follow me with water, and soon found myself--as thou canst guess--at the tomb of Assa's ancestors. The poor woman, who lay there in convulsions, was his daughter-in-law Setchem. The baby, a boy, was as sound as a nut, but she was evidently in great danger. I sent the maid with the litter, which was waiting outside, to the temple here for help; the girl said that her master, the father of the child, was at the war, but that the grandfather, the noble Assa, had promised to meet the lady Setchem at the tomb, and would shortly be coming; then she disappeared with the litter. I washed the child, and kissed it as if it were my own. Then I heard distant steps in the valley, and the recollection of the moment when I, lying at the point of death, had received that gift of money from Assa came over me, and then I do not know myself how it happened--I gave the new-born grandchild of Assa to my slave-girl, and told her to carry it quickly to the cave, and I wrapped the little six-toed baby in my rags and held it in my lap. There I sat--and the minutes seemed hours, till Assa came up; and when he stood before me, grown grey, it is true, but still handsome and upright--I put the gardener's boy, the six-toed brat, into his very arms, and a thousand demons seemed to laugh hoarsely within me. He thanked me, he did not know me, and once more he offered me a handful of gold. I took it, and I listened as the priest, who had come from the temple, prophesied all sorts of fine things for the little one, who was born in so fortunate an hour; and then I went back into my cave, and there I laughed till I cried, though I do not know that the tears sprang from the laughter.
"A few days after I gave Assa's grandchild to the gardener, and told him the sixth toe had come off; I had made a little wound on his foot to take in the bumpkin. So Assa's grandchild, the son of the Mohar, grew up as the gardener's child, and received the name of Pentaur, and he was brought up in the temple here, and is wonderfully like Assa; but the gardener's monstrous brat is the pioneer Paaker. That is the whole secret."
Ani had listened in silence to the terrible old woman.
We are involuntarily committed to any one who can inform us of some absorbing fact, and who knows how to make the information valuable. It did not occur to the Regent to punish the witch for her crimes; he thought rather of his older friends' rapture when they talked of the singer Beki's songs and beauty. He looked at the woman, and a cold shiver ran through all his limbs.
"You may live in peace," he said at last; "and when you die I will see to your being embalmed; but give up your black arts. You must be rich, and, if you are not, say what you need. Indeed, I scarcely dare offer you gold--it excites your hatred, as I understand."
"I could take thine--but now let me go!"
She got up, and went towards the door, but the Regent called to her to stop, and asked:
"Is Assa the father of your son, the little Nemu, the dwarf of the lady Katuti?"
The witch laughed loudly. "Is the little wretch like Assa or like Beki? I picked him up like many other children."
"But he is clever!" said Ani.
"Ay-that he is. He has planned many a shrewd stroke, and is devoted to his mistress. He will help thee to thy purpose, for he himself has one too."
"And that is--?"
"Katuti will rise to greatness with thee, and to riches through Paaker, who sets out to-morrow to make the woman he loves a widow."
"You know a great deal," said Ani meditatively, "and I would ask you one thing more; though indeed your story has supplied the answer--but perhaps you know more now than you did in your youth. Is there in truth any effectual love-philter?"
"I will not deceive thee, for I desire that thou should'st keep thy word to me," replied Hekt. "A love potion rarely has any effect, and never but on women who have never before loved. If it is given to a woman whose heart is filled with the image of another man her passion for him only will grow the stronger."
"Yet another," said Ani. "Is there any way of destroying an enemy at a distance?"
"Certainly," said the witch. "Little people may do mean things, and great people can let others do things that they cannot do themselves. My story has stirred thy gall, and it seems to me that thou dost not love the poet Pentaur. A smile! Well then--I have not lost sight of him, and I know he is grown up as proud and as handsome as Assa. He is wonderfully like him, and I could have loved him--have loved as this foolish heart had better never have loved. It is strange! In many women, who come to me, I see how their hearts cling to the children of men who have abandoned them, and we women are all alike, in most things. But I will not let myself love Assa's grandchild--I must not. I will injure him, and help everyone that persecutes him; for though Assa is dead, the wrongs he did me live in me so long as I live myself. Pentaur's destiny must go on its course. If thou wilt have his life, consult with Nemu, for he hates him too, and he will serve thee more effectually than I can with my vain spells and silly harmless brews. Now let me go home!"
A few hours later Ameni sent to invite the Regent to breakfast.
"Do you know who the witch Hekt is?" asked Ani.
"Certainly--how should I notknow? She is the singer Beki--the former enchantress of Thebes. May I ask what her communications were?"
Ani thought it best not to confide the secret of Pentaur's birth to the high-priest, and answered evasively. Then Ameni begged to be allowed to give him some information about the old woman, and how she had had a hand in the game; and he related to his hearer, with some omissions and variations--as if it were a fact he had long known--the very story which a few hours since he had overheard, and learned for the first time. Ani feigned great astonishment, and agreed with the high-priest that Paaker should not for the present be informed of his true origin.
"He is a strangely constituted man," said Ameni, "and he is not incapable of playing us some unforeseen trick before he has done his part, if he is told who he is."
The storm had exhausted itself, and the sky, though covered still with torn and flying clouds, cleared by degrees, as the morning went on; a sharp coolness succeeded the hot blast, but the sun as it mounted higher and higher soon heated the air. On the roads and in the gardens lay uprooted trees and many slightly-built houses which had been blown down, while the tents in the strangers' quarter, and hundreds of light palm- thatched roofs, had been swept away.
The Regent was returning to Thebes, and with him went Ameni, who desired to ascertain by his own eyes what mischief the whirlwind had done to his garden in the city. On the Nile they met Paaker's boat, and Ani caused it and his own to be stopped, while he requested Paaker to visit him shortly at the palace.
The high-priest's garden was in no respect inferior in beauty and extent to that of the Mohar. The ground had belonged to his family from the remotest generations, and his house was large and magnificent. He seated himself in a shady arbor, to take a repast with his still handsome wife and his young and pretty daughters.
He consoled his wife for the various damage done by the hurricane, promised the girls to build a new and handsomer clove-cot in the place of the one which had been blown down, and laughed and joked with them all; for here the severe head of the House of Seti, the grave Superior of the Necropolis, became a simple man, an affectionate husband, a tender father, a judicious friend, among his children, his flowers, and his birds. His youngest daughter clung to his right arm, and an older one to his left, when he rose from table to go with them to the poultry-yard.
On the way thither a servant announced to him that the Lady Setchem wished to see him.
"Take her to your mistress," he said.
But the slave--who held in his hand a handsome gift in money--explained that the widow wished to speak with him alone.
"Can I never enjoy an hour's peace like other men?" exclaimed Ameni annoyed. "Your mistress can receive her, and she can wait with her till I come. It is true, girls--is it not?--that I belong to you just now, and to the fowls, and ducks, and pigeons?"
His youngest daughter kissed him, the second patted him affectionately, and they all three went gaily forward. An hour later he requested the Lady Setchem to accompany him into the garden.
The poor, anxious, and frightened woman had resolved on this step with much difficulty; tears filled her kind eyes, as she communicated her troubles to the high-priest.
"Thou art a wise counsellor," she said, "and thou knowest well how my
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