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Uarda (Chapter22)

2006-08-22 23:15

  Volume 5. Chapter XXII.

  At the time of this conversation the leech Nebsecht still lingered in front of the hovel of the paraschites, and waited with growing impatience for the old man's return.

  At first he trembled for him; then he entirely forgot the danger into which he had thrown him, and only hoped for the fulfilment of his desires, and for wonderful revelations through his investigations of the human heart.

  For some minutes he gave himself up to scientific considerations; but he became more and more agitated by anxiety for the paraschites, and by the exciting vicinity of Uarda.

  For hours he had been alone with her, for her father and grandmother could no longer stop away from their occupations. The former must go to escort prisoners of war to Hermonthis, and the old woman, since her granddaughter had been old enough to undertake the small duties of the household, had been one of the wailing-women, who, with hair all dishevelled, accompanied the corpse on its way to the grave, weeping, and lamenting, and casting Nile-mud on their forehead and breast. Uarda still lay, when the sun was sinking, in front of the hut.

  She looked weary and pale. Her long hair had come undone, and once more got entangled with the straw of her humble couch. If Nebsecht went near her to feel her pulse or to speak to her she carefully turned her face from him.

  Nevertheless when the sun disappeared behind the rocks he bent over her once more, and said:

  “It is growing cool; shall I carry you indoors?”

  “Let me alone,” she said crossly. “I am hot, keep farther away. I am no longer ill, and could go indoors by myself if I wished; but grandmother will be here directly.”

  Nebsecht rose, and sat down on a hen-coop that was some paces from Uarda, and asked stammering, “Shall I go farther off?”

  “Do as you please,” she answered. “You are not kind,” he said sadly.

  “You sit looking at me,” said Uarda, “I cannot bear it; and I am uneasy——for grandfather was quite different this morning from his usual self, and talked strangely about dying, and about the great price that was asked of him for curing me. Then he begged me never to forget him, and was so excited and so strange. He is so long away; I wish he were here, with me.”

  And with these words Uarda began to cry silently. A nameless anxiety for the paraschites seized Nebsecht, and it struck him to the heart that he had demanded a human life in return for the mere fulfilment of a duty. He knew the law well enough, and knew that the old man would be compelled without respite or delay to empty the cup of poison if he were found guilty of the theft of a human heart.

  It was dark: Uarda ceased weeping and said to the surgeon:

  “Can it be possible that he has gone into the city to borrow the great sum of money that thou——or thy temple——demanded for thy medicine? But there is the princess's golden bracelet, and half of father's prize, and in the chest two years' wages that grandmother had earned by wailing he untouched. Is all that not enough?”

  The girl's last question was full of resentment and reproach, and Nebsecht, whose perfect sincerity was part of his very being, was silent, as he would not venture to say yes. He had asked more in return for his help than gold or silver. Now he remembered Pentaur's warning, and when the jackals began to bark he took up the fire-stick,

  [The hieroglyphic sign Sam seems to me to represent the wooden stick used to produce fire (as among some savage tribes) by rapid friction in a hollow piece of wood.]

  and lighted some fuel that was lying ready. Then he asked himself what Uarda's fate would be without her grandparents, and a strange plan which had floated vaguely before him for some hours, began now to take a distinct outline and intelligible form. He determined if the old man did not return to ask the kolchytes or embalmers to admit him into their guild——and for the sake of his adroitness they were not likely to refuse him——then he would make Uarda his wife, and live apart from the world, for her, for his studies, and for his new calling, in which he hoped to learn a great deal. What did he care for comfort and proprieties, for recognition from his fellow-men, and a superior position!

  He could hope to advance more quickly along the new stony path than on the old beaten track. The impulse to communicate his acquired knowledge to others he did not feel. Knowledge in itself amply satisfied him, and he thought no more of his ties to the House of Seti. For three whole days he had not changed his garments, no razor had touched his chin or his scalp, not a drop of water had wetted his hands or his feet. He felt half bewildered and almost as if he had already become an embalmer, nay even a paraschites, one of the most despised of human beings. This self-degradation had an infinite charm, for it brought him down to the level of Uarda, and she, lying near him, sick and anxious, with her dishevelled hair, exactly suited the future which he painted to himself.

  “Do you hear nothing?” Uarda asked suddenly. He listened. In the valley there was a barking of dogs, and soon the paraschites and his wife appeared, and, at the door of their hut, took leave of old Hekt, who had met them on her return from Thebes.

  “You have been gone a long time,” cried Uarda, when her grandmother once more stood before her. “I have been so frightened.”

  “The doctor was with you,” said the old woman going into the house to prepare their simple meal, while the paraschites knelt down by his granddaughter, and caressed her tenderly, but yet with respect, as if he were her faithful servant rather than her blood-relation.

  Then he rose, and gave to Nebsecht, who was trembling with excitement, the bag of coarse linen which he was in the habit of carrying tied to him by a narrow belt.

  “The heart is in that,” he whispered to the leech; “take it out, and give me back the bag, for my knife is in it, and I want it.”

  Nebsecht took the heart out of the covering with trembling hands and laid it carefully down. Then he felt in the breast of his dress, and going up to the paraschites he whispered:

  “Here, take the writing, hang it round your neck, and when you die I will have the book of scripture wrapped up in your mummy cloths like a great man. But that is not enough. The property that I inherited is in the hands of my brother, who is a good man of business, and I have not touched the interest for ten years. I will send it to you, and you and your wife shall enjoy an old age free from care.”

  “The paraschites had taken the little bag with the strip of papyrus, and heard the leech to the end. Then he turned from him saying: ”Keep thy money; we are quits. That is if the child gets well,“ he added humbly.

  “She is already half cured,” stammered Nebsecht. “But why will you——why won't you accept——”

  “Because till to day I have never begged nor borrowed,” said the paraschites, “and I will not begin in my old age. Life for life. But what I have done this day not Rameses with all his treasure could repay.”

  Nebsecht looked down, and knew not how to answer the old man.

  His wife now came out; she set a bowl of lentils that she had hastily warmed before the two men, with radishes and onions,

  [Radishes, onions, and garlic were the hors-d'oeuvre of an Egyptian dinner. 1600 talents worth were consumed, according to Herodotus. during the building of the pyramid of Cheops——L360,000 (in 1881.)]

  then she helped Uarda, who did not need to be carried, into the house, and invited Nebsecht to share their meal. He accepted her invitation, for he had eaten nothing since the previous evening.

  When the old woman had once more disappeared indoors, he asked the paraschites:

  “Whose heart is it that you have brought me, and how did it come into your hands?”

  “Tell me first,” said the other, “why thou hast laid such a heavy sin upon my soul?”

  “Because I want to investigate the structure of the human heart,” said Nebsecht, “so that, when I meet with diseased hearts, I may be able to cure them.”

  The paraschites looked for a long time at the ground in silence; then he said:

  “Art thou speaking the truth?”

  “Yes,” replied the leech with convincing emphasis. “I am glad,” said the old man, “for thou givest help to the poor.”

  “As willingly as to the rich!” exclaimed Nebsecht. “But tell me now where you got the heart.”

  “I went into the house of the embalmer,” said the old man, after he had selected a few large flints, to which, with crafty blows, he gave the shape of knives, “and there I found three bodies in which I had to make the eight prescribed incisions with my flint-knife. When the dead lie there undressed on the wooden bench they all look alike, and the begger lies as still as the favorite son of a king. But I knew very well who lay before me. The strong old body in the middle of the table was the corpse of the Superior of the temple of Hatasu, and beyond, close by each other, were laid a stone-mason of the Necropolis, and a poor girl from the strangers' quarter, who had died of consumption——two miserable wasted figures. I had known the Prophet well, for I had met him a hundred times in his gilt litter, and we always called him Rui, the rich. I did my duty by all three, I was driven away with the usual stoning, and then I arranged the inward parts of the bodies with my mates. Those of the Prophet are to be preserved later in an alabaster canopus,

  [This vase was called canopus at a later date. There were four of them for each mummy.]

  those of the mason and the girl were put back in their bodies.

  “Then I went up to the three bodies, and I asked myself, to which I should do such a wrong as to rob him of his heart. I turned to the two poor ones, and I hastily went up to the sinning girl. Then I heard the voice of the demon that cried out in my heart 'The girl was poor and despised like you while she walked on Seb,

  [Seb is the earth; Plutarch calls Seb Chronos. He is often spoken of as the “father of the gods” on the monuments. He is the god of time, and as the Egyptians regarded matter as eternal, it is not by accident that the sign which represented the earth was also used for eternity.]

  perhaps she may find compensation and peace in the other world if you do not mutilate her; and when I turned to the mason's lean corpse, and looked at his hands, which were hard

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