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- Morning Star - 40/46 -


"/Kepher! Kepher! Kepher!/"

And each time the echo of her cry came back louder and still more loud, till it seemed as though earth and heaven were filled with the sound of the name of Kepher.

CHAPTER XVI

THE BEGGAR AND THE KING

It was the afternoon of the third day. Tua and Asti, seated in the window-place of their splendid prison, looked through the wooden screen down into the court below, where, according to his custom at this hour, Janees the King sat in the shadow to administer justice and hear the petitions of his subjects. The two women were ill at ease, for the time of respite had almost passed.

"Night draws near," said Tua, "and with it will come Janees. Look how he eyes this window, like a hungry lion waiting to be fed. Kepher has made no sign; perchance after all he is but a wandering beggar-man filled with strange fancies, or perchance he is dead, as may well happen at his age. At least, he makes no sign, nor does Amen, to whom I have prayed so hard, send any answer to my prayers. I am forsaken. Oh! Asti, you who are wise, tell me, what shall I do?"

"Trust in the gods," said Asti. "There are still three hours to sundown, and in three hours the gods, to whom time is nothing, can destroy the world and build it up again. Remember when we starved in the pylon tower at Memphis, and what befell us there. Remember the leap to death and the Boat of Ra, and those by whom it was captained. Remember and trust in the gods."

"I trust--in truth I trust, Asti, but yet--oh! let us talk of something else. I wonder what has chanced in Memphis since we left it in so strange a fashion? Do you think that awful Ka of mine queens it there with Abi for a husband? If so, I almost grieve for Abi, for she had something in her eyes which chilled my mortal blood, and yet you say she is a part of me, a spirit who cannot die, cast in my mould, and given to me at birth. I would I had another Ka, and that you could draw it forth again, Asti, to bewitch this Janees, and hold him while we fled. See, that case draws to an end at length. Janees is giving judgment, or rather his councillor is, for he prompts him all the time. Can you not hear his whispers? As for Janees himself, his thoughts are here, I feel his eyes burn me through this wooden screen. He is about to rise. Why! Who comes? Awake, Nurse, and look."

Asti obeyed. There in the gate of the court she saw a tall man, white- bearded, yellow-faced, horny-eyed, ancient, who, clad in a tattered robe, leaned upon his staff of thornwood, and stared about him blindly as though the sun bewildered him. The guards came to thrust him away, but he waved his staff, and they fell back from him as though there were power in that staff. Now his slow, tortoise-like eyes seemed to catch sight of the glittering throne, and of him who sat upon it, and with long strides he walked to the throne and halted in front of it, again leaning on his staff.

"Who is this fellow," asked Janees in an angry voice, "who stands here and makes no obeisance to the King?"

"Are you a king?" asked Kepher. "I am very blind. I thought you were but a common man such as I am, only clad in bright clothes. Tell me, what is it like to be a king, and have all things beneath your feet. Do you still hope and suffer, and fear death like a common man? Is the flesh beneath your gold and purple the same as mine beneath my rags? Do old memories torment you, memories of the dead who come no more? Can you feel griefs, and the ache of disappointment?"

"Do I sit here to answer riddles, Fool?" answered Janees angrily. "Turn the fellow out. I have business."

Now guards sprang forward to do the King's bidding, but again Kepher waved his staff, and again they fell back. Certainly it seemed as though there were power in that staff.

"Business, King," he said. "Not of the State, I think, but with one who lodges yonder," and he nodded towards the shuttered room whence Tua watched him. "Well, that is three hours hence after the sun has set, so you still have time to listen to my prayer, which you will do, as it is of this same lady with whom you have business."

"What do you know of the lady, you old knave, and of my dealings with her?" asked Janees angrily.

"Much of both, O King, for I am her father, and--shall I tell the rest?"

"Her father, you hoary liar!" broke in Janees.

"Aye, her father, and I have come to tell you that as our blood is more ancient than yours, I will not have you for a son-in-law, any more than that daughter of mine will have you for a husband."

Now some of the courtiers who heard these words laughed outright, but Janees did not laugh, his dark face turned white with rage, and he gasped for breath.

"Drag this madman forth," he shouted at length, "and cut out his insolent tongue."

Again the guards sprang forward, but before ever they reached him Kepher was speaking in a new voice, a voice so terrible that at the sound of it they stopped, leaving him untouched.

"Beware how you lay a finger on me, you men of Tat," he cried, "for how know you who dwells within these rags? Janees, you who call yourself a King, listen to the commands of a greater king, whose throne is yonder above the sun. Ere night falls upon the earth, set that maiden upon whom you would force yourself and her companion and all her goods without your southern gate, and leave them there unharmed. Such is the command of the King of kings, who dwells on high."

"And what if I mock at the command of this King?" asked Janees.

"Mock not," replied Kepher. "Bethink you of a certain picture that the lady Asti showed you in the water, and mock not."

"It was but an Egyptian trick, Wizard, and one in which I see you had a hand. Begone, I defy you and your sorceries, and your King. To-night that maid shall be my wife."

"Then, Janees, Lord of Tat, listen to the doom that I am sent to decree upon you. To-night you shall have another bride, and her name is Death. Moreover, for their sins, and because their eyes are evil, and they have rejected the worship of the gods, many of your people shall accompany you to darkness, and to-morrow another King, who is not of your House, shall rule in Tat."

Kepher ceased speaking, then turned and walked slowly down the court of judgment and through its gates, nor did any so much as lift a finger to stay him, for now about this old man there seemed to be a majesty which made them strengthless.

"Bring that wizard back and kill him here," shouted Janees presently, as the spell passed off them, and like hounds from a leash they sprang forward to do the bidding of the King.

But without the walls they could not find him. A woman had seen him here, a child had seen him there, some slaves had watched him pass yonder, and ran away because they noted that he had no shadow. At length, after many a false turn, they tracked him to the southern gate, and there the guard said that just such a beggar-man had passed through as they were about to close the gate, vanishing into the sandstorm which blew without. They followed, but so thickly blew that sand that they lost each other in their search, and but just before sundown returned to the palace singly, where in his rage the king commanded them to be beaten with rods upon their feet.

Now the darkness came, and at the appointed hour Janees, hardening his heart, went up into the chamber where dwelt Tua and Asti, leaving his guard of eunuchs at the door. The lamps were lit within that chamber, and the window-places closed, but without the desert wind howled loudly, and the air was blind with sand. On the farther side of the marble basin, as once before, Tua and Asti stood awaiting him.

"Lady," he said, "it is the appointed hour, and I seek your answer."

"King," replied Tua, "hear me, and for your own sake--not for mine. I am more than I seem. I have friends in the earth and air, did not one of them visit you to-day in yonder court? Put away this madness and let me be, for I wish you good, not evil, but if you so much as lay a finger on me, then I think that evil draws near, or at the best I die by my own hand."

"Lady," replied Janees in a cold voice, "have done with threats; I await your answer."

"King," said Tua, "for the last time I plead with you. You think that I lie to save myself, but it is not so. I would save you. Look now," and she threw back her veil and opened the wrappings about her throat. "Look at that which is stamped upon my breast, and think--is it well to offer violence to a woman who bears this holy seal?"

"I have heard of such a one," said Janees hoarsely, for the sight of her beauty maddened him. "They say that she was born in Thebes, and of a strange father, though, if so, how came she here? I am told that she reigns as Pharaoh in Egypt."

"Ask that question of your oracles, O King, but remember that rumour does not always lie, and let the daughter of that strange father go."

"There is another who claims to be your father, Lady, if by now my soldiers have not scourged him to his death--a tattered beggar-man."

"Whom those soldiers could not touch or find," broke in Asti, speaking for the first time.

"Well," went on Janees, without heeding her, "whether your father be a beggar or a god, or even if you are Hathor's self come down from heaven to be the death of men, know that I take you for my own. For the third time, answer, will you be my Queen of your own choice, or must my women drown yonder witch in this water at your feet, and drag you hence?"

Now Tua made no answer. She only let fall her veil, folded her arms upon her breast, and waited. But Asti, mocking him, cried in a loud voice, that he might hear above the howling of the hurricane without:


Morning Star - 40/46

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