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THE ROYAL MARRIAGE
A strange rumour ran through Memphis. It was said that the Queen had yielded; it was said that she would marry the Prince Abi, that she was already at the great White House waiting to be made a bride. Men wrangled about in the streets. They swore that it could not be true, for would this high lady, the anointed Pharaoh of Egypt, take her father's murderer, and her own uncle to husband? Would she not rather die in her prison tower on which night by night they had seen her stand and sing? In their hearts they thought that she should die, for thus they had summed her up, this pure, high-hearted daughter of Amen, whom Fate had caught in an evil net. Yes, being men they held that she ought to die, and leave a story in the world, whereof Egypt could be proud for ever.
But their wives and daughters mocked at them. After all she was but a woman, they argued, and was it likely that she would throw aside the pomp of rule and the prospect of long years in order to steal away into the shadows of a forgotten tomb? Henceforth, it was true, she must take second place, for Abi would be a stern master to her. Still, any place was better than a funeral barge. She had felt the pinch of hunger yonder in that old temple; her fierce spirit had been tamed; she had kissed the rod, and after long years of waiting, Abi would be Pharaoh in Egypt.
The dispute grew hot, for even those men who rebelled against her, in their hearts had set her high, and grieved to think of her, the divine Lady, bowing her neck to the common yoke of circumstance, and selling herself for safety, and a seat on the steps of her own throne. But the women mocked on, and showed them that as they had always said, she was no better than others of her sex.
Presently the matter was settled, for heralds appeared crying throughout the city that the marriage would take place in the great hall of the White House one hour before sundown. Then the women laughed in triumph, and the men were silent.
It was the appointed hour, and that hall was filled to overflowing by all who could gain entrance there. Between the towering obelisks that stood on either side the open cedar doors, folk hung upon its steps like hiving bees; the vast square without and all the streets that led to it were black with them. Here, it is true, they could see nothing, still they fought for the merest foothold, and some of those who fell never rose again. At the head of the hall were set two thrones, the greater and the richer throne for Abi the Prince, the lesser throne for Neter-Tua the Queen. He had arranged it thus since Kaku the cunning pointed out to him that from the first he should show the people that it was he who ruled, and not Pharaoh's daughter.
It was the appointed hour, and at some signal from every temple top rang out the blare of trumpets. Thrice they sounded, and echoed into silence in that hot, still air, thus announcing that in the temple of Hathor, and the presence of the priests of all the gods, the hands of Abi and Neter-Tua had been joined in marriage.
Another rumour began to run among the crowd; like the ring set circling by a stone in water it spread from mouth to mouth, ever widening as it went.
Marvels had happened in the temple of Hathor, that was the rumour. Moreover it gave details: that the High-Priest had handed to the bride the accustomed lotus-bud, the flower of the goddess, and lo! it opened in her hand. Also, it was said, that presently the stem of it turned to a sceptre of gold, and the cup of the bloom to sapphire stones more perfect far than any from the desert mines.
Nor was this all, so went the tale, for when, as he must, the bridegroom Abi offered the white dove to Hathor in her shrine, a hawk swept through the doorway and smote it in his very hand. Yes, there in the gloom of the shrine smote it and left it dead, blood running from its beak and breast, dead upon the knees of the goddess; left it and was gone again!
Now what hawk, asked the people of each other, dare such a deed as this, unless in truth it was sent by the hawk-headed Horus, the son of Amen-Ra.
Soon these matters were forgotten for the moment, since now it was known that the royal pair were entering the great White Hall, there to show themselves to the people, and receive the homage of the nobles, chiefs, and captains. First, advancing by the covered way which led from the temple of Hathor, appeared the priests in their robes, chanting as they walked, followed by the masters of ceremonies, butlers, and heralds. Next, surrounded by his officers and guard, came the Prince Abi himself, accompanied by his vizier, Kaku, he whose magic was said to have brought Pharaoh to his end.
Not all his pomp nor the splendour of his apparel, whereof the whiteness, as many noted, was spotted with ill-omened blood, nor even the royal crown which now, for the first time, was set upon his huge, round head, could hide from those who watched that this bridegroom was ill at ease. Even as he stood there, bowing in answer to the obsequious shouts of the multitude, the sceptre in his fat hand shook, and his red lips blanched and trembled. Still he smiled and bowed on, till at length the shouting died away, and quiet fell upon the place.
Abi was forgotten, they waited the coming of the Queen, and though no herald called her advent, yet every heart of all those thousands felt that she drew near to them. Look! Yonder she stood. They had watched closely enough, yet none saw her come, doubtless because the shadows were thick. But there she stood, quite alone upon the edge of the dais in front of the two thrones, and, oh! she was different from what they had expected. Thus now she wore no gorgeous robes, but only a simple garment of purest white, cut low upon her bosom, where the red rays of the sinking sun, striking up the hall, revealed to every eye that dark mole shaped like the Cross of Life, which was her wondrous birthmark. But two ornaments adorned her, the double snakes of royalty, golden with red eyes, set in front of her tall white head-dress, which none but she might wear, the crowns of Upper and of Lower Egypt, and of all the subject lands, and in her hand a sceptre fashioned of gold, and surmounted by a lotus-bloom of sapphire, that sceptre of which rumour had told the magic tale.
Yes, she was different. They had thought to see a woman weak and pale, her eyes still red with grief, her face still stained with tears, one who had been tamed by misfortune, hunger, and the fear of death, whence she had bought herself by marriage with her conqueror. But it was not so, for never had the Star of Amen shone half so beautiful, never had they seen such majesty in those deep blue eyes that looked them through and through as though they read the secret heart of every one of them. Her tall and lovely form had not wasted, her cheeks were red with the glow of health; power and dignity flowed from her presence, fear seemed beneath her feet.
Now no voice was lifted up; they stared at her, and, smiling a little, she answered them with her calm eyes till their heads sank beneath her gaze. Then at length in the midst of that dead, oppressive silence which none dared to break, she turned, and they heard the sweep of her silken robe upon the alabaster floor.
With an effort two chamberlains stepped forward, their wands of office in their hands, to lead her to her seat, but she waved them back, and said in her clear voice:
"Nay, here I am alone; of all the millions who serve her, not one is left to lead Amen's daughter and Egypt's Queen to her rightful place. Therefore she takes it of her own strength, now and for evermore."
Then very slowly, still in the midst of silence, she mounted the greater throne that had been prepared for Abi, and there seated herself and waited.
Now murmuring rose among the courtiers and Kaku whispered into Abi's ear, while the multitude held its breath. Abi stamped his foot and issued orders which all seemed to fear to execute. At length he stepped forward, addressing the Queen in a hoarse voice.
"Lady," he said, "doubtless you know it not, but that place is mine; your seat is on my left. Be pleased to take it."
"Why so, Prince Abi?" she asked quietly.
"Lady," he answered, "because the husband takes precedence of the wife, and," he added with savage meaning, "the conqueror of the conquered."
"The conqueror of the conquered?" she repeated after him in a musing voice. "Should you not have said--the murderer of the murdered and his seed? Nay, Prince Abi, you are wrong. The sovereign of Egypt by right divine, takes precedence of her vassal, even though it has pleased the gods, whose will she has come to execute, to command her to give to him the name of husband until that will is more fully known. Come now and do homage to your Queen, and after you those slaves of yours who dared to lift the sword against her."
Then a great tumult arose, a tumult of rage and of dismay, for well nigh all in that vast place were partners in this crime, and knew that if Neter-Tua prevailed death yawned wide for them.
They shouted to Abi to take no heed of her. They shouted to him to tear her from the throne, to kill her, and seize the crown. They drew their swords and raged like an angry sea. Those who were loyal among them to Pharaoh's House, and those who feared turmoil, began to work their way backwards, and slipped by twos and threes out of the great open doors, till Tua had no friend left in all that hall. But ever as they went, others of the turbulent and the rebellious who had been concerned in the slaughter of Pharaoh's guard, took their place, pouring in from the mob without.
Wild desert-dwellers of the Bedouin tribes, who for thousands of years had been the bitter enemies of Egypt; descendants of the Hyksos, whose forefathers had ruled the land for a dozen generations, and at last been driven out; those Hyksos whose blood ran in Abi's veins, and who looked to him to lift them up again; evil-doers who had sought shelter in his regiments; hook-nosed Semites from the Lebanon; black, barbarian savages from the shores of Punt--with such as these was that hall filled.
Abi was the hope of every one of them; to him they looked for the spoils of Egypt, and before them on Abi's throne they saw a woman who stood between them and their ends, who in her ancient pride dared to demand that he, her husband, should do homage to her, and who to-morrow, if she conquered, would give them to the sword.
"Tear her to pieces!" they screamed, "the bastard whom childless Pharaoh palmed off upon the land! She is a sorceress who keeps fat on air--an evil spirit. Away with her! Or if you fear, then let us come!"
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