The Ancient Allan - Cover

The Ancient Allan

Public Domain

Chapter IX: The Messengers

We descended at the great gate of the palace and were led through empty halls that were no longer used now when there was no king in Egypt, to the wing of the building in which dwelt the Prince Peroa. Here we were received by a chamberlain, for the Prince of Egypt still kept some state although it was but small, and had about him men who bore the old, high-sounding titles of the “Officers of Pharaoh.”

The chamberlain led me and Bes to an ante-chamber of the banqueting hall and left us, saying that he would summon the Prince who wished to see me before he ate. This, however, was not necessary since while he spoke Peroa, who as I guessed had been waiting for me, entered by another door. He was a majestic-looking man of middle age, for grey showed in his hair and beard, clad in white garments with a purple hem and wearing on his brow a golden circlet, from the front of which rose the uræus in the shape of a hooded snake that might be worn by those of royal blood alone. His face was full of thought and his black and piercing eyes looked heavy as though with sleeplessness. Indeed I could see that he was troubled. His gaze fell upon us and his features changed to a pleasant smile.

“Greeting, Cousin Shabaka,” he said. “I am glad that you have returned safe from the East, and burn to hear your tidings. I pray that they may be good, for never was good news more needed in Egypt.”

“Greeting, Prince,” I answered, bowing my knee. “I and my servant here are returned safe, but as for our tidings, well, judge of them for yourself,” and drawing the letter of the Great King from my robe, I touched my forehead with the roll and handed it to him.

“I see that you have acquired the Eastern customs, Shabaka,” he said as he took it. “But here in my own house which once was the palace of our forefathers, the Pharaohs of Egypt, by your leave I will omit them. Amen be my witness,” he added bitterly, “I cannot bear to lay the letter of a foreign king against my brow in token of my country’s vassalage.”

Then he broke the silk of the seals and read, and as he read his face grew black with rage.

“What!” he cried, casting down the roll and stamping on it. “What! Does this dog of an Eastern king bid me send my niece, by birth the Royal Princess of Egypt, to be his toy until he wearies of her? First I will choke her with my own hands. How comes it, Shabaka, that you care to bring me such a message? Were I Pharaoh now I think your life would pay the price.”

“As it would certainly have paid the price, had I not done so. Prince, I brought the letter because I must. Also a copy of it has gone, I believe, to Idernes the Satrap at Sais. It is better to face the truth, Prince, and I think that I may be of more service to you alive than dead. If you do not wish to send the lady Amada to the King, marry her to someone else, after which he will seek her no more.”

He looked at me shrewdly and said,

“To whom then? I cannot marry her, being her uncle and already married. Do you mean to yourself, Shabaka?”

“I have loved the lady Amada from a child, Prince,” I answered boldly. “Also I have high blood in me and having brought much gold from the East, am rich again and one accustomed to war.”

“So you have brought gold from the East! How? Well, you can tell me afterwards. But you fly high. You, a Count of Egypt, wish to marry the Royal Lady of Egypt, for such she is by birth and rank, which, if ever Egypt were free again, would give you a title to the throne.”

“I ask no throne, Prince. If there were one to fill I should be content to leave that to you and your heirs.”

“So you say, no doubt honestly. But would the children of Amada say the same? Would you even say it if you were her husband, and would she say it? Moreover she is a priestess, sworn not to wed, though perhaps that trouble might be overcome, if she wishes to wed, which I doubt. Mayhap you might discover. Well, you are hungry and worn with long travelling. Come, let us eat, and afterwards you can tell your story. Amada and the others will be glad to hear it, as I shall. Follow me, Count Shabaka.”

So we went to the lesser banqueting-hall, I filled with joy because I should see Amada, and yet, much afraid because of that story which I must tell. Gathered there, waiting for the Prince, we found the Princess his wife, a large and kindly woman, also his two eldest daughters and his young son, a lad of about sixteen. Moreover, there were certain officers, while at the tables of the lower hall sat others of the household, men of smaller rank, and their wives, since Peroa still maintained some kind of a shadow of the Court of old Egypt.

The Princess and the others greeted me, and Bes also who had always been a favourite with them, before he went to take his seat at the lowest table, and I greeted them, looking all the while for Amada whom I did not see. Presently, however, as we took our places on the couches, she entered dressed, not as a priestess, but in the beautiful robes of a great lady of Egypt and wearing on her head the uræus circlet that signified her royal blood. As it chanced the only seat left vacant was that next to myself, which she took before she recognized me, for she was engaged in asking pardon for her lateness of the Prince and Princess, saying that she had been detained by the ceremonies at the temple. Seeing suddenly that I was her neighbour, she made as though she would change her place, then altered her mind and stayed where she was.

“Greeting, Cousin Shabaka,” she said, “though not for the first time to-day. Oh! my heart was glad when looking up, outside the temple, I caught sight of you clad in that strange Eastern armour, and knew that you had returned safe from your long wanderings. Yet afterwards I must do penance for it by saying two added prayers, since at such a time my thoughts should have been with the goddess only.”

“Greeting, Cousin Amada,” I answered, “but she must be a jealous goddess who grudges a thought to a relative--and friend--at such a time.”

“She is jealous, Shabaka, as being the Queen of women she must be who demands to reign alone in the hearts of her votaries. But tell me of your travels in the East and how you came by that rope of wondrous pearls, if indeed there can be pearls so large and beautiful.”

This at the time I had little chance of doing, however, since the young Princess on the other side of her began to talk to Amada about some forthcoming festival, and the Prince’s son next to me who was fond of hunting, to question me about sport in the East and when, unhappily, I said that I had shot lions there, gave me no peace for the rest of that feast. Also the Princess opposite was anxious to learn what food noble people ate in the East, and how it was cooked and how they sat at table, and what was the furniture of their rooms and did women attend feasts as in Egypt, and so forth. So it came about that what between these things and eating and drinking, which, being well-nigh starved, I was obliged to do, for, save a cup of wine, I had taken nothing in my mother’s house, I found little chance of talking with the lovely Amada, although I knew that all the while she was studying me out of the corners of her large eyes. Or perhaps it was the rose-hued pearls she studied, I was not sure.

Only one thing did she say to me when there was a little pause while the cup went round, and she pledged me according to custom and passed it on. It was,

“You look well, Shabaka, though somewhat tired, but sadder than you used, I think.”

“Perhaps because I have seen things to sadden me, Amada. But you too look well but somewhat lovelier than you used, I think, if that be possible.”

She smiled and blushed as she replied,

“The Eastern ladies have taught you how to say pretty things. But you should not waste them upon me who have done with women’s vanities and have given myself to learning and--religion.”

“Have learning and religion no vanities of their own?” I began, when suddenly the Prince gave a signal to end the feast.

Thereon all the lower part of the hall went away and the little tables at which we ate were removed by servants, leaving us only wine-cups in our hands which a butler filled from time to time, mixing the wine with water. This reminded me of something, and having asked leave, I beckoned to Bes, who still lingered near the door, and took from him that splendid, golden goblet which the Great King had given me, that by my command he had brought wrapped up in linen and hidden beneath his robe. Having undone the wrappings I bowed and offered it to the Prince Peroa.

“What is this wondrous thing?” asked the Prince, when all had finished admiring its workmanship. “Is it a gift that you bring me from the King of the East, Shabaka?”

“It is a gift from myself, O Prince, if you will be pleased to accept it,” I answered, adding, “Yet it is true that it comes from the King of the East, since it was his own drinking-cup that he gave me in exchange for a certain bow, though not the one he sought, after he had pledged me.”

“You seem to have found much favour in the eyes of this king, Shabaka, which is more than most of us Egyptians do,” he exclaimed, then went on hastily, “Still, I thank you for your splendid gift, and however you came by it, shall value it much.”

“Perhaps my cousin Shabaka will tell us his story,” broke in Amada, her eyes still fixed upon the rose-hued pearls, “and of how he came to win all the beauteous things that dazzle our eyes to-night.”

Now I thought of offering her the pearls, but remembering my mother’s words, also that the Princess might not like to see another woman bear off such a prize, did not do so. So I began to tell my story instead, Bes seated on the ground near to me by the Prince’s wish, that he might tell his.

The tale was long for in it was much that went before the day when I saw myself in the chariot hunting lions with the King of kings, which I, the modern man who set down all this vision, now learned for the first time. It told of the details of my journey to the East, of my coming to the royal city and the rest, all of which it is needless to repeat. Then I came to the lion hunt, to my winning of the wager, and all that happened to me; of my being condemned to death, of the weighing of Bes against the gold, and of how I was laid in the boat of torment, a story at which I noticed Amada turn pale and tremble.

Here I ceased, saying that Bes knew better than I what had chanced at the Court while I was pinned in the boat, whereon all present cried out to Bes to take up the tale. This he did, and much better than I could have done, bringing out many little things which made the scene appear before them, as Ethiopians have the art of doing. At last he came to the place in his story where the king asked him if he had ever seen a woman fairer than the dancers, and went on thus:

“O Prince, I told the Great King that I had; that there dwelt in Egypt a lady of royal blood with eyes like stars, with hair like silk and long as an unbridled horse’s tail, with a shape like to that of a goddess, with breath like flowers, with skin like milk, with a voice like honey, with learning like to that of the god Thoth, with wit like a razor’s edge, with teeth like pearls, with majesty of bearing like to that of the king himself, with fingers like rosebuds set in pink seashells, with motion like that of an antelope, with grace like that of a swan floating upon water, and--I don’t remember the rest, O Prince.”

“Perhaps it is as well,” exclaimed Peroa. “But what did the King say then?”

“He asked her name, O Prince.”

“And what name did you give to this wondrous lady who surpasses all the goddesses in loveliness and charm, O dwarf Bes?” inquired Amada much amused.

“What name, O High-born One? Is it needful to ask? Why, what name could I give but your own, for is there any other in the world of whom a man whose heart is filled with truth could speak such things?”

Now hearing this I gasped, but before I could speak Amada leapt up, crying,

“Wretch! You dared to speak my name to this king! Surely you should be scourged till your bones are bare.”

“And why not, Lady? Would you have had me sit still and hear those fat trollops of the East exalted above you? Would you have had me so disloyal to your royal loveliness?”

“You should be scourged,” repeated Amada stamping her foot. “My Uncle, I pray you cause this knave to be scourged.”

“Nay, nay,” said Peroa moodily. “Poor simple man, he knew no better and thought only to sing your praises in a far land. Be not angry with the dwarf, Niece. Had it been Shabaka who gave your name, the thing would be different. What happened next, Bes?”

“Only this, Prince,” said Bes, looking upwards and rolling his eyes, as was his fashion when unloading some great lie from his heart. “The King sent his servants to bring my master from the boat, that he might inquire of him whether he had always found me truthful. For, Prince, those Easterns set much store by truth which here in Egypt is worshipped as a goddess. There they do not worship her because she lives in the heart of every man, and some women.”

Now all stared at Bes who continued to stare at the ceiling, and I rose to say something, I know not what, when suddenly the doors opened and through them appeared heralds, crying,

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