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HOME > Classical Novels > The Last Egyptian > CHAPTER I. WHERE THE DESERT MEETS THE NILE.
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CHAPTER I. WHERE THE DESERT MEETS THE NILE.
The sun fell hot upon the bosom of the Nile and clung there, vibrant, hesitating, yet aggressive, as if baffled in its desire to penetrate beneath the river’s lurid surface. For the Nile defies the sun, and relegates him to his own broad domain, wherein his power is undisputed.

On either side the broad stream humanity shrank from Ra’s seething disc. The shaduf workers had abandoned their skin-covered buckets and bamboo poles to seek shelter from the heat beneath a straggling tree or a straw mat elevated on stalks of ripe sugar-cane. The boats of the fishermen lay in little coves, where the sails were spread as awnings to shade their crews. The fellaheen laborers had all retired to their clay huts to sleep through this fiercest period of the afternoon heat.

On the Nile, however, a small steam dahabeah puffed lazily along, stemming with its slow motion the sweep of the mighty river toward the sea. The Arab stoker, naked and sweating, stood as far as possible from the little boiler and watched it with a look{10} of absolute repulsion upon his swarthy face. The engineer, also an Arab, lay stretched upon the deck half asleep, but with both ears alert to catch any sound that might denote the fact that the straining, rickety engine was failing to perform its full duty. Back of the tiny cabin sat the dusky steersman, as naked and inert as his fellows, while under the deck awning reclined the one white man of the party, a young Englishman clothed in khaki knickerbockers and a white silk shirt well open at the throat.

There were no tourists in Egypt at this season. If you find a white man on the Nile in April, he is either attached to some exploration party engaged in excavations or a government employee from Cairo, Assyut or Luxor, bent upon an urgent mission.

The dahabeah was not a government boat, though, so that our Englishman was more likely to be an explorer than an official. It was evident he was no stranger to tropical climes, if we judged by his sun-browned skin and the quiet resignation to existing conditions with which he puffed his black briar and relaxed his muscular frame. He did not sleep, but lay with his head upon a low wicker rest that enabled him to sweep the banks of the Nile with his keen blue eyes.

The three Arabs regarded their master from time to time with stealthy glances, in which wonder was mingled with a certain respect. The foreigner was a fool to travel during the heat of the day; no doubt of that at all. The native knows when to work and when{11} to sleep—a lesson the European never learns. Yet this was no casual adventurer exploiting his folly, but a man who had lived among them for years, who spoke Arabic fluently and could even cipher those hieroglyphics of the dead ages which abound throughout modern Egypt. Hassan, Abdallah and Ali knew this well, for they had accompanied Winston Bey on former expeditions, and heard him translate the ugly signs graven upon the ugly stones into excellent Arabic. It was all very wonderful in its way, but quite useless and impractical, if their opinion were allowed. And the master himself was impractical. He did foolish things at all times, and sacrificed his own comfort and that of his servants in order to accomplish unnecessary objects. Had he not paid well for his whims, Winston Bey might have sought followers in vain; but the Arab will even roast himself upon the Nile on an April afternoon to obtain the much-coveted gold of the European.

At four o’clock a slight breeze arose; but what matter? The journey was nearly done now. They had rounded a curve in the river, and ahead of them, lying close to the east bank, were the low mountains of Gebel Abu Fedah. At the south, where the rocks ended abruptly, lay a small grove of palms. Between the palms and the mountains was the beaten path leading from the Nile to the village of Al-Kusiyeh, a mile or so inland, which was the particular place the master had come so far and so fast to visit.{12}

The breeze, although hardly felt, served to refresh the enervated travelers. Winston sat up and knocked the ashes from his pipe, making a careful scrutiny at the same time of the lifeless landscape ahead.

The mountains of gray limestone looked very uninviting as they lay reeking under the terrible heat of the sun. From their base to the river was no sign of vegetation, but only a hardened clay surface. The desert sands had drifted in in places. Even under the palms it lay in heavy drifts, for the land between the Nile and Al-Kusiyeh was abandoned to nature, and the fellaheen had never cared to redeem it.

The water was deep by the east bank, for the curve of the river swept the current close to the shore. The little dahabeah puffed noisily up to the bank and deposited the Englishman upon the hard clay. Then it backed across into shallow water, and Hassan shut down the engine while Abdallah dropped the anchor.

Winston now wore his cork helmet and carried a brown umbrella lined with green. With all his energy, the transition from the deck of the dahabeah to this oven-like atmosphere of the shore bade fair to overcome his resolution to proceed to the village.

But it would never do to recall his men so soon. They would consider it an acknowledgment that he had erred in judgment, and the only way to manage an Arab is to make him believe you know what you are about. The palm trees were not far away. He would rest in their shade until the sun was lower.{13}

A dozen steps and the perspiration started from every pore. But he kept on, doggedly, until he came to the oblong shadow cast by the first palm, and there he squatted in the sand and mopped his face with his handkerchief.

The silence was oppressive. There was no sound of any kind to relieve it. Even the beetles were hidden far under the sand, and there was no habitation near enough for a donkey’s bray or a camel’s harsh growl to be heard. The Nile flows quietly at this point, and the boat had ceased to puff and rattle its machinery.

Winston brushed aside the top layer of sand with his hands, for that upon the surface was so hot that contact with it was unbearable. Then he extended his body to rest, turning slightly this way and that to catch in his face the faint breath of the breeze that passed between the mountains and the Nile. At the best he was doomed to an uncomfortable hour or two, and he cast longing glances at the other bits of shade to note whether any seemed more inviting than the one he had selected.

During this inspection his eye caught a patch of white some distance away. It was directly over the shadow of the furthest tree of the group, and aroused his curiosity. After a minute he arose in a leisurely fashion and walked over to the spot of white, which on nearer approach proved to be a soiled cotton tunic or burnous. It lay half buried in the sand, and at one end were the folds of a dirty turban, with faded{14} red and yellow stripes running across the coarse cloth.

Winston put his foot on the burnous and the thing stirred and emitted a muffled growl. At that he kicked the form viciously; but now it neither stirred nor made a sound. Instead, a narrow slit appeared between the folds of the turban, and an eye, black and glistening, looked steadfastly upon the intruder.

“Do you take me for a beast, you imbecile, that you dare to disturb my slumbers?” asked a calm voice, in Arabic.

The heat had made Winston Bey impatient.

“Yes; you are a dog. Get up!” he commanded, kicking the form again.

The turban was removed, disclosing a face, and the man sat up, crossing his bare legs beneath him as he stared fixedly at his persecutor.

Aside from the coarse burnous, sadly discolored in many places, the fellow was unclothed. His skin showed at the breast and below his knees, and did not convey an impression of immaculate cleanliness. Of slender build, with broad shoulders, long hands and feet and sinewy arms and legs, the form disclosed was curiously like those so often presented in the picture-writing upon the walls of ancient temples. His forehead was high, his chin square, his eyes large and soft, his cheeks full, his mouth wide and sensual, his nose short and rounded. His jaws protruded slightly and his hair was smooth and fine. In color the tint of his{15} skin was not darker than the tanned cuticle of the Englishman, but the brown was softer, and resembled coffee that has been plentifully diluted with cream. A handsome fellow in his way, with an expression rather unconcerned than dignified, which masked a countenance calculated to baffle even a shrewder and more experienced observer than Winston Bey.

Said the Englishman, looking at him closely:

“You are a Copt.”

Inadvertently he had spoken in his mother tongue and the man laughed.

“If you follow the common prejudice and consider every Copt a Christian,” he returned in purest English, “then I am no Copt; but if you mean that I am an Egyptian, and no dog of an Arab, then, indeed, you are correct in your estimate.”

Winston uttered an involuntary exclamation of surprise. For a native to speak English is not so unusual; but none that he knew expressed himself with the same ease and confidence indicated in this man’s reply. He brushed away some of the superheated sand and sat down facing his new acquaintance.

“Perhaps,” said he—a touch of sarcasm in his voice—“I am speaking with a descendant of the Great Rameses himself.”

“Better than that,” rejoined the other, coolly. “My forefather was Ahtka-Rā, of true royal blood, who ruled the second Rameses as cleverly as that foolish monarch imagined he ruled the Egyptians.”{16}

Winston seemed amused.

“I regret,” said he, with mock politeness, “that I have never before heard of your great forefather.”

“But why should you?” asked the Egyptian. “You are, I suppose, one of those uneasy investigators that prowl through Egypt in a stupid endeavor to decipher the inscriptions on the old temples and tombs. You can read a little—yes; but that little puzzles and confuses you. Your most learned scholars—your Mariettes and Petries and Masperos—discover one clue and guess at twenty, and so build up a wonderful history of the ancient kings that is absurd to those who know the true records.”

“Who knows them?” asked Winston, quickly.

The man dropped his eyes.

“No one, perhaps,” he mumbled. “At the best, but one or two. But you would know more if you first studied the language of the ancient Egyptians, so that when you deciphered the signs and picture writings you could tell with some degree of certainty what they meant.”

Winston sniffed. “Answer my question!” said he, sternly. “Who knows the true records, and where are they?”

“Ah, I am very ignorant,” said the other, shaking his head with an humble expression. “Who am I, the poor Kāra, to dispute with the scholars of Europe?”

The Englishman fanned himself with his helmet and sat silent for a time.{17}

“But this ancestor of yours—the man who ruled the Great Rameses—who was he?” he asked, presently.

“Men called him Ahtka-Rā, as I said. He was descended from the famous Queen Hatshepset, and his blood was pure. Indeed, my ancestor should have ruled Egypt as its king, had not the first Rameses overthrown the line of Mēnēs and established a dynasty of his own. But Ahtka-Rā, unable to rule in his own name, nevertheless ruled through the weak Rameses, under whom he bore the titles of High Priest of āmen, Lord of the Harvests and Chief Treasurer. All of the kingdom he controlled and managed, sending Rameses to wars to keep him occupied, and then, when the king returned, setting him to build temples and palaces, and to erect monuments to himself, that he might have no excuse to interfere with the real business of the government. You, therefore, who read the inscriptions of the vain king wonder at his power and call him great; and, in your ignorance, you know not even the name of Ahtka-Rā, the most wonderful ruler that Egypt has ever known.”

“It is true that we do not know him,” returned Winston, scrutinizing the man before him with a puzzled expression. “You seem better informed than the Egyptologists!”

Kāra dipped his hands into the sand beside him and let the grains slip between his fingers, watching them thoughtfully.{18}

“Rameses the Second,” said he, “reigned sixty-five years, and—”

“Sixty-seven years,” corrected Winston. “It is written.”

“In the inscriptions, which are false,” explained the Egyptian. “My ancestor concealed the death of Rameses for two years, because Meremptah, who would succeed him, was a deadly enemy. But Meremptah discovered the secret at last, and at once killed Ahtka-Rā, who was very old and unable to oppose him longer. And after that the treasure cities of Pithom and Raamses, which my ancestor had built, were seized by the new king, but no treasures were found in them. Even in death my great ancestor was able to deceive and humble his enemies.”

“Listen, Kāra,” said Winston, his voice trembling with suppressed eagerness; “to know that which you have told to me means that you have discovered some sort of record hitherto unknown to scientists. To us who are striving to unravel the mystery of ancient Egyptian history this information will be invaluable. Let me share your knowledge, and tell me what you require in exchange for your secret. You are poor; I will make you rich. You are unknown; I will make the name of Kāra famous. You are young; you shall enjoy life. Speak, my brother, and believe that I will deal justly by you—on the word of an Englishman.”

The Egyptian did not even look up, but continued{19} playing with the sand. Yet over his grave features a smile slowly spread.

“It is not five minutes,” he murmured softly, “since I was twice kicked and called a dog. Now I am the Englishman’s brother, and he will make me rich and famous.”

Winston frowned, as if he would like to kick the fellow again. But he resisted the temptation.

“What would you?” he asked, indifferently. “The burnous might mean an Arab. It is good for the Arab to be kicked at times.”

Possibly Kāra neither saw the jest nor understood the apology. His unreadable countenance was still turned toward the sand, and he answered nothing.

The Englishman moved uneasily. Then he extracted a cigarette case from his pocket, opened it, and extended it toward the Egyptian.

Kāra looked at the cigarettes and his face bore the first expression of interest it had yet shown. Very deliberately he bowed, touched his forehead and then his heart with his right hand, and afterward leaned forward and calmly selected a cigarette.

Winston produced a match and lighted it, the Egyptian’s eyes seriously following his every motion. He applied the light to his own cigarette first; then to that of Kāra. Another touch of the forehead and breast and the native was luxuriously inhaling the smoke of the tobacco. His eyes were brighter and he wore a look of great content.{20}

The Englishman silently watched until the other had taken his third whiff; then, the ceremonial being completed, he spoke, choosing his words carefully.

“Seek as we may, my brother, for the records of the dead civilization of your native land, we know full well that the most important documents will be discovered in the future, as in the past, by the modern Egyptians themselves. Your traditions, handed down through many generations, give to you a secret knowledge of where the important papyri and tablets are deposited. If there are hidden tombs in Gebel Abu Fedah, or near the city of Al-Kusiyeh, perhaps you know where to find them; and if so, we will open them together and profit equally by what we secure.”

The Egyptian shook his head and flicked the ash from his cigarette with an annoyed gesture.

“You are wrong in estimating the source of my knowledge,” said he, in a tone that was slightly acrimonious. “Look at my rags,” spreading his arms outward; “would I refuse your bribe if I knew how to earn it? I have not smoked a cigarette before in months—not since Tadros the dragoman came to Al Fedah in the winter. I am barefoot, because I fear to wear out my sandals until I know how to replace them. Often I am hungry, and I live like a jackal, shrinking from all intercourse with my fellows or with the world. That is Kāra, the son of kings, the royal one!”

Winston was astonished. It is seldom a native complains of his lot or resents his condition, however{21} lowly it may be. Yet here was one absolutely rebellious.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because my high birth isolates me,” was the reply, with an accent of pride. “It is no comfortable thing to be Kāra, the lineal descendant of the great Ahtka-Rā, in the days when Egypt’s power is gone, and her children are scorned by the Arab Muslims and buffeted by the English Christians.”

“Do you live in the village?” asked Winston.

“No; my burrow is in a huddle of huts behind the mountain, in a place that is called Fedah.”

“With whom do you live?”

“My grandmother, Hatatcha.”

“Ah!”

“You have heard of her?”

“No; I was thinking only of an Egyptian Princess Hatatcha who set fashionable London crazy in my father’s time.”

Kāra leaned forward eagerly, and then cast a half fearful glance around, at the mountains, the desert, and the Nile.

“Tell me about her!” he said, sinking his voice to a whisper.

“About the Princess?” asked Winston, surprised. “Really, I know little of her history. She came in a flash of wonderful oriental magnificence, I have heard, and soon had the nobility of England suing for her favors. Lord Roane especially divorced his wife{22} that he might marry the beautiful Egyptian; and then she refused to wed with him. There were scandals in plenty before Hatatcha disappeared from London, which she did as mysteriously as she had come, and without a day’s warning. I remember that certain infatuated admirers spent fortunes in search of her, overrunning all Egypt, but without avail. No one has ever heard of her since.”

Kāra drew a deep breath, sighing softly.

“It was like my grandmother,” he murmured. “She was always a daughter of Set.”

Winston stared at him.

“Do you mean to say—” he began.

“Yes,” whispered Kāra, casting another frightened look around; “it was my grandmother, Hatatcha, who did that. You must not tell, my brother, for she is still in league with the devils and would destroy us both if she came to hate us. Her daughter, who was my mother, was the child of that same Lord Roane you have mentioned; but she never knew her father nor England. I myself have never been a day’s journey from the Nile, for Hatatcha makes me her slave.”

“She must be very old, if she still lives,” said Winston, musingly.

“She was seventeen when she went to London,” replied Kāra, “and she returned here in three years, with my mother in her arms. Her daughter was thirty-five when I was born, and that is twenty-three years ago. Fifty-eight is not an advanced age, yet{23} Hatatcha was a withered hag when first I remember her, and she is the same to-day. By the head of Osiris, my brother, she is likely to live until I am stiff in my tomb.”

“It was she who taught you to speak English?”

“Yes. I knew it when I was a baby, for in our private converse she has always used the English tongue. Also I speak the ancient Egyptian language, which you call the Coptic, and I read correctly the hieroglyphics and picture-writings of my ancestors. The Arabic, of course, I know. Hatatcha has been a careful teacher.”

“What of your mother?” asked Winston.

“Why, she ran away when I was a child, to enter the harem of an Arab in Cairo, so that she passed out of our lives, and I have lived with my grandmother always.”

“I am impressed by the fact,” said the Englishman, with a sneer, “that your royal blood is not so pure after all.”

“And why not?” returned Kāra, composedly. “Is it not from the mother we descend? Who my grandfather may have been matters little, provided Hatatcha, the royal one, is my granddame. Perhaps my mother never considered who my father might be; it was unimportant. From her I drew the blood of the great Ahtka-Rā, who lives again in me. Robbed of your hollow ceremonial of marriage, you people of Europe can boast no true descent save through your mothers—no purer blood than I, ignoring my fathers, am sure{24} now courses in my veins; for the father, giving so little to his progeny, can scarcely contaminate it, whatever he may chance to be.”

The other, paying little heed to this discourse, the platitudes of which were all too familiar to his ears, reflected deeply on the strange discovery he had made through this unconventional Egyptian.

“Then,” said he, pursuing his train of thought, “your knowledge of your ancestry and the life and works of Ahtka-Rā was obtained through your grandmother?”

“Yes.”

“And she has not disclosed to you how it is that she knows all this?”

“No. She says it is true, and I believe it. Hatatcha is a wonderful woman.”

“I agree with you. Where did she get the money that enabled her to amaze all England with her magnificence and splendor?”

“I do not know.”

“Is she wealthy now?”

Kāra laughed.

“Did I not say we were half starved, and live like foxes in a hole? For raiment we have each one ragged garment. But the outside of man matters little, save to those who have nothing within. Treasures may be kept in a rotten chest.”

“But personally you would prefer a handsome casket?”{25}

“Of course. It is Hatatcha who teaches me philosophy to make me forget my rags.”

The Englishman reflected.

“Do you labor in the fields?” he asked.

“She will not let me,” said Kāra. “If my wrongs were righted, she holds, I would even now be king of Egypt. The certainty that they will never be righted does not alter the morale of the case.”

“Does Hatatcha earn money herself?”

“She sits in her hut morning and night, muttering curses upon her enemies.”

“Then how do you live at all?”

Kāra seemed surprised by the question, and considered carefully his reply.

“At times,” said he, “when our needs are greatest, my grandmother will produce an ancient coin of the reign of Hystaspes, which the sheik at Al-Kusiyeh readily changes into piasters, because they will give him a good premium on it at the museum in Cairo. Once, years ago, the sheik threatened Hatatcha unless she confessed where she had found these coins; but my grandmother called Set to her aid, and cast a spell upon the sheik, so that his camels died of rot and his children became blind. After that he let Hatatcha alone, but he was still glad to get her coins.”

“Where does she keep them?”

“It is her secret. When she was ill, a month ago, and lay like one dead, I searched everywhere for treasure and found it not. Perhaps she has exhausted her store.”{26}

“Had she anything besides the coins?”

“Once a jewel, which she sent by Tadros, the dragoman, to exchange for English books in Cairo.”

“What became of the books?”

“After we had both read them they disappeared. I do not know what became of them.”

They had shifted their seats twice, because the shadow cast by the palms moved as the sun drew nearer to the horizon. Now the patches were long and narrow, and there was a cooler breath in the air.

The Englishman sat long silent, thinking intently. Kāra was placidly smoking his third cigarette.

The rivalry among excavators and Egyptologists generally is intense. All are eager to be recognized as discoverers. Since the lucky find of the plucky American, Davis, the explorers among the ancient ruins of Egypt had been on the qui vive to unearth some farther record of antiquity to startle and interest the scholars of the world. Much of value has been found along the Nile banks, it is true; but it is generally believed that much more remains to be discovered.

Gerald Winston, with a fortune at his command and a passion for Egyptology, was an indefatigable prospector in this fascinating field, and it was because of a rumor that ancient coins and jewels had come from the Sheik of Al-Kusiyeh that he had resolved to visit that village in person and endeavor to learn the secret source of this wealth before someone else forestalled him.{27}

The story that he had just heard from the lips of the voluble Kāra rendered his visit to Al-Kusiyeh unnecessary; but that he was now on the trail of an important discovery was quite clear to him. How best to master the delicate conditions confronting him must be a subject of careful consideration, for any mistake on his part would ruin all his hopes.

“If my brother obtains any further valuable knowledge,” said he, finally, “he will wish to sell it to good advantage. And it is evident to both of us that old Hatatcha has visited some secret tomb, from whence she has taken the treasure that enabled her to astound London for a brief period. When her wealth was exhausted she was forced to return to her squalid surroundings, and by dint of strict economy has lived upon the few coins that remained to her until now. Knowing part of your grandmother’s story, it is easy to guess the remainder. The coins of Darius Hystaspes date about five hundred years before Christ, so that they would not account for Hatatcha’s ample knowledge of a period two thousand years earlier. But mark me, Kāra, the tomb from which your grandmother extracted such treasure must of necessity contain much else—not such things as the old woman could dispose of without suspicion, but records and relics which in my hands would be invaluable, and for which I would gladly pay you thousands of piasters. See what you can do to aid me to bring about this desirable result. If you can manage to win the secret from your grandmother, you need be{28} her slave no longer. You may go to Cairo and see the dancing girls and spend your money freely; or you can buy donkeys and a camel, and set up for a sheik. Meantime I will keep my dahabeah in this vicinity, and every day I will pass this spot at sundown and await for you to signal me. Is it all clear to you, my brother?”

“It is as crystal,” answered the Egyptian gravely.

He took another cigarette, lighted it with graceful composure, and rose to his feet. Winston also stood up.

The sun had dropped behind the far corner of Gebel Abu Fedah, and with the grateful shade the breeze had freshened and slightly cooled the tepid atmosphere.

Wrapping his burnous around his tall figure, Kāra made dignified obeisance.

“Osiris guard thee, my brother,” said he.

“May Horus grant thee peace,” answered Winston, humoring this disciple of the most ancient religion. Then he watched the Egyptian stalk proudly away over the hot sands, his figure erect, his step slow and methodical, his bearing absurdly dignified when contrasted with his dirty tunic and unwashed skin.

“I am in luck,” he thought, turning toward the bank to summon Hassan and Abdallah; “for I have aroused the rascal’s cupidity, and he will soon turn up something or other, I’ll be bound. Ugh! the dirty beast.”{29}

At the foot of the mountains Kāra paused abruptly and stood motionless, staring moodily at the sands before him.

“It was worth the bother to get the cigarettes,” he muttered. Then he added, with sudden fierceness: “Twice he spurned me with his foot, and called me ‘dog’!”

And he spat in the sand and continued on his way.
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