Uarda : a Romance of Ancient Egypt — Volume 05

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UARDA

Volume 5.

By Georg Ebers

CHAPTER XX.

As Nemu, on his way back from his visit to Ani, approached his mistress’s
house, he was detained by a boy, who desired him to follow him to the
stranger’s quarter. Seeing him hesitate, the messenger showed him the
ring of his mother Hekt, who had come into the town on business, and
wanted to speak with him.

Nemu was tired, for he was not accustomed to walking; his ass was dead,
and Katuti could not afford to give him another. Half of Mena’s beasts
had been sold, and the remainder barely sufficed for the field-labor.

At the corners of the busiest streets, and on the market-places, stood
boys with asses which they hired out for a small sum;

[In the streets of modern Egyptian towns asses stand saddled for
hire. On the monuments only foreigners are represented as riding on
asses, but these beasts are mentioned in almost every list of the
possessions of the nobles, even in very early times, and the number
is often considerable. There is a picture extant of a rich old man
who rides on a seat supported on the backs of two donkeys. Lepsius,
Denkmaler, part ii. 126.]

but Nemu had parted with his last money for a garment and a new wig, so
that he might appear worthily attired before the Regent. In former times
his pocket had never been empty, for Mena had thrown him many a ring of
silver, or even of gold, but his restless and ambitious spirit wasted no
regrets on lost luxuries. He remembered those years of superfluity with
contempt, and as he puffed and panted on his way through the dust, he
felt himself swell with satisfaction.

The Regent had admitted him to a private interview, and the little man
had soon succeeded in riveting his attention; Ani had laughed till the
tears rolled down his cheeks at Nemu’s description of Paaker’s wild
passion, and he had proved himself in earnest over the dwarf’s further
communications, and had met his demands half-way. Nemu felt like a duck
hatched on dry land, and put for the first time into water; like a bird
hatched in a cage, and that for the first time is allowed to spread its
wings and fly. He would have swum or have flown willingly to death if
circumstances had not set a limit to his zeal and energy.

Bathed in sweat and coated with dust, he at last reached the gay tent in
the stranger’s quarter, where the sorceress Hekt was accustomed to alight
when she came over to Thebes.

He was considering far-reaching projects, dreaming of possibilities,
devising subtle plans—rejecting them as too subtle, and supplying their
place with others more feasible and less dangerous; altogether the little
diplomatist had no mind for the motley tribes which here surrounded him.
He had passed the temple in which the people of Kaft adored their goddess
Astarte, and the sanctuary of Seth, where they sacrificed to Baal,
without letting himself be disturbed by the dancing devotees or the noise
of cymbals and music which issued from their enclosures. The tents and
slightly-built wooden houses of the dancing girls did not tempt him.
Besides their inhabitants, who in the evening tricked themselves out in
tinsel finery to lure the youth of Thebes into extravagance and folly,
and spent their days in sleeping till sun-down, only the gambling booths
drove a brisk business; and the guard of police had much trouble to
restrain the soldier, who had staked and lost all his prize money, or the
sailor, who thought himself cheated, from such outbreaks of rage and
despair as must end in bloodshed. Drunken men lay in front of the
taverns, and others were doing their utmost, by repeatedly draining their
beakers, to follow their example.

Nothing was yet to be seen of the various musicians, jugglers, fire-
eaters, serpent-charmers, and conjurers, who in the evening displayed
their skill in this part of the town, which at all times had the aspect
of a never ceasing fair. But these delights, which Nemu had passed a
thousand times, had never had any temptation for him. Women and gambling
were not to his taste; that which could be had simply for the taking,
without trouble or exertion, offered no charms to his fancy, he had no
fear of the ridicule of the dancing-women, and their associates—indeed,
he occasionally sought them, for he enjoyed a war of words, and he was of
opinion that no one in Thebes could beat him at having the last word.
Other people, indeed, shared this opinion, and not long before Paaker’s
steward had said of Nemu:

“Our tongues are cudgels, but the little one’s is a dagger.”

The destination of the dwarf was a very large and gaudy tent, not in any
way distinguished from a dozen others in its neighborhood. The opening
which led into it was wide, but at present closed by a hanging of coarse
stuff.

Nemu squeezed himself in between the edge of the tent and the yielding
door, and found himself in an almost circular tent with many angles, and
with its cone-shaped roof supported on a pole by way of a pillar.

Pieces of shabby carpet lay on the dusty soil that was the floor of the
tent, and on these squatted some gaily-clad girls, whom an old woman was
busily engaged in dressing. She painted the finger and toenails of the
fair ones with orange-colored Hennah, blackened their brows and eye-
lashes with Mestem—[Antimony.]—to give brilliancy to their glance,
painted their cheeks with white and red, and anointed their hair with
scented oil.

It was very hot in the tent, and not one of the girls spoke a word; they
sat perfectly still before the old woman, and did not stir a finger,
excepting now and then to take up one of the porous clay pitchers, which
stood on the ground, for a draught of water, or to put a pill of Kyphi
between their painted lips.

Various musical instruments leaned against the walls of the tent, hand-
drums, pipes and lutes and four tambourines lay on the ground; on the
vellum of one slept a cat, whose graceful kittens played with the bells
in the hoop of another.

An old negro-woman went in and out of the little back-door of the tent,
pursued by flies and gnats, while she cleared away a variety of earthen
dishes with the remains of food—pomegranate-peelings, breadcrumbs, and
garlic-tops—which had been lying on one of the carpets for some hours
since the girls had finished their dinner.

Old Hekt sat apart from the girls on a painted trunk, and she was saying,
as she took a parcel from her wallet:

“Here, take this incense, and burn six seeds of it, and the vermin will
all disappear—” she pointed to the flies that swarmed round the platter
in her hand. “If you like I will drive away the mice too and draw the
snakes out of their holes better than the priests.”

[Recipes for exterminating noxious creatures are found in the
papyrus in my possession.]

“Keep your magic to yourself,” said a girl in a husky voice. “Since you
muttered your words over me, and gave me that drink to make me grow
slight and lissom again, I have been shaken to pieces with a cough at
night, and turn faint when I am dancing.”

“But look how slender you have grown,” answered Hekt, “and your cough
will soon be well.”

“When I am dead,” whispered the girl to the old woman. “I know that most
of us end so.”

The witch shrugged her shoulders, and perceiving the dwarf she rose from
her seat.

The girls too noticed the little man, and set up the indescribable cry,
something like the cackle of hens, which is peculiar to Eastern women
when something tickles their fancy. Nemu was well known to them, for his
mother always stayed in their tent whenever she came to Thebes, and the
gayest of them cried out:

“You are grown, little man, since the last time you were here.”

“So are you,” said the dwarf sharply; “but only as far as big words are
concerned.”

“And you are as wicked as you are small,” retorted the girl.

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