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Getting Into The Corner

Part of: Other World Life
From: Pharaoh's Broker

The doctor's new official position carried with it the use of a
spacious, rambling dwelling, situated just inside the gate where we had
met Miss Blank. It was thus conveniently located for the doctor's duties
at the observatories on the plateau. Another house would have been
assigned to me, but I preferred to live with the doctor, and I desired
to keep my eye on those enormous stone structures which our telescope
had quickly relegated to scientific uselessness.

We had established ourselves comfortably in this house, surrounded
ourselves with a modest retinue of servants, and were rapidly becoming
acquainted with Kemish life and manners. The doctor learned the language
laboriously from the deposed wise man, who had no means of communicating
with him except in the tongue he was teaching. Thus it happened that the
doctor could teach me in a few hours in the evening what it had taken
him all day to learn. Naturally I picked up the most common phrases used
in receiving and handling the grain, by hearing them frequently; but I
soon learned that I must pronounce them with exactly the same intonation
and emphasis, or they were not understood. Knowing but one language
themselves, they had no facility in recognising mispronounced words, or
in guessing at the meaning of incomplete phrases on which I stumbled.

The most difficult thing I encountered was their method of telling the
time. During the day it was reckoned rationally enough by the passage of
the Sun, which was never obscured by clouds and could always be seen.
Every house had a small hole in the roof, at a fixed distance from the
floor, and the daily track and varying shape of the spot of sunshine
thus admitted gave names to the periods of the day. There seemed to be a
settled superstition that no house was fortunate unless this spot of
sunshine entered by the door in the morning. For this reason the
principal door in nearly every house was built in the west, so that the
rising Sun would cast its spot first on the porch outside and then
gradually creep in through the door, across the floor, and up the
opposite wall late in the afternoon. Of course there were daylight
periods in the early morning and late afternoon when the Sun was too low
to cast a spot, and these were known by terms which are best translated
"before the clock" and "after the clock."

No one dared to make a social call while the Sun was still outside the
door, but friends were best welcome when the Sun was just entering it.
Moreover, whoever slept until the Sun had entered the door was looked
upon as an irredeemable sluggard. The track of the spot from the
door-sill to the wall opposite was measured by linear distance from the
centre or noon-position of the spot. As in different houses the
apertures through which the clock-light was admitted were always the
same distance from the floor, such expressions as "two feet before
noon," or "a foot and a quarter after noon" (which I translate from the
Kemish) always had a definite and exact meaning. The nearer the spot
drew to noon the more exactly circular it became and the more slowly it
moved. Therefore, very fine measurements were needed in the middle of
the day, and an inch near noon represented nearly as much time as a foot
in the morning or evening.

But the daylight methods were simplicity itself compared with the night
methods, which were calculated on an entirely different system, based on
the combined movements of the two moons, neither of which agreed or
coincided with the movement of the Sun in any close degree. I urged upon
the doctor, as one of his earliest duties, the necessity of reforming
their calendar and establishing a uniform method of denoting the time,
to extend throughout the day and night. But on this point he failed to
agree with me.

"What are our seconds, minutes, hours, and weeks after all?" he queried.
"They are only arbitrary and meaningless divisions of time, which we
have found necessary because we have a very meagre heavenly clockwork;
but here they have a very elaborate one. Our day is a rational period
based on the Sun's revolution. Here they have seen fit to give up the
Sun-day to simplify matters and stick to a Moon-day. Their two contrary
moons furnish a rational, if rather intricate, method of telling the
time at night. They are best understood by imagining them to represent
the two hands of a clock. The smaller moon is what may be called a 'week
hand,' completing its revolution in five and a half Sun-days; which they
have for convenience divided into six Moon-days of twenty-two hours
each. The larger moon makes two complete revolutions in a day, just as
the hour hand of a clock does; and it really makes but little difference
that it travels around the dial in an opposite direction to that of the
'week hand,' or that they both gain two hours a day on the Sun. These
are mere details, that one gets used to in the end."

"Doctor, you argue like the old farmer I used to know, who stuck to the
clock handed down by his grandfather, and maintained that no
new-fangled arrangement kept as good time. It was true that the
striking apparatus had long ago failed to agree with the hands; and the
hands themselves, owing to the accumulated inaccuracies of years, no
longer denoted the real time; nevertheless, whenever it struck seven he
could always be sure that the hands were pointing to a quarter-past
twelve, and it was then just twenty-two minutes to three. This was
something he could depend upon with a certainty which quite compensated
for the annoyance of incessant calculations and mental corrections."

"Pray leave joking aside and consider the wonderful nightly clockwork
here, which makes automatic time-keepers unnecessary. This accommodating
inner moon, within the brief space of five hours, goes through the
phases of a thin crescent, first quarter, and just as it approaches
fulness it submits to a total eclipse, followed by a waning quarter,
then the reverse crescent of an old moon, and finally it sets where the
Sun must soon rise. It is a wonderful heavenly clock, which is never
obscured by clouds, and turns its face toward every one alike."

"Yes, but one must remember that this hurrying moon gains two hours a
day on the Sun, and therefore goes through her performance that much
earlier each night. Besides, she is capable of rising twice in the same
night occasionally."

"Those are mere details that one learns to allow for. Moreover,
consider the convenience of being able to tell the day of the week by
the smaller moon. If it is just risen, we know we are on the eve of the
first day of the week; if it is high or eclipsed, it must be the second
day; and if it is sinking in the west, it is the third day----"

"But for the last half of the week it is not seen at all, and one is
free to guess which day it is," I interrupted. "Then no two days of the
week begin at the same hour. The first day begins with sunrise, the
second two hours before sunrise, the third four hours before, and the
fourth at midnight, and so on--two hours earlier each day till the week
ends, when they throw in a whole night for good measure and begin the
next week at sunrise again!"

"Yes, that arrangement is made necessary because their Moon-day will not
agree with their Sun-day in any other manner. But it is rather
remarkable that the two moons agree with each other so well, the larger
one making twelve revolutions while the smaller makes one, so that at
the end of every week they both rise together, but on opposite sides of
the horizon, which is the signal for that night to be disregarded in the
count. The next week begins on the following morning, the first rising
of the larger moon being disregarded, and her second rising being the
one reckoned from."

We were discussing this during our noon-day meal, and, when we had
finished, I walked with the doctor out to the plateau, where I was
supervising some important work on the Gnomons; for I had not been ten
days in Kem until I attempted to buy, with my gold coins, a large amount
of wheat from the Pharaoh. Through the interference and objection of
Zaphnath, however, I failed utterly in getting any. But the gold had its
effect just the same, and later the Pharaoh showed an evident
willingness to part with anything in his possession in order to get a
liberal number of the smaller coins. But I put a very high value upon
the gold, comparing closely with the worth of diamonds upon Earth, and
refused to part with any, until one day the wisdom of buying the Gnomons
occurred to me. I considered the project carefully, and finally made him
an offer of a hundred half-eagles for them. Many of the small ones had
been built to watch the course of the birth-stars of his various
ancestors, and these were now in a sense monuments to his dynasty. He
reserved these and a small one, built to observe his own star of
nativity, and finally sold me all the large important ones, upon the
doctor's representation that they were no longer needed for astronomical
purposes. He specified only that they must not be torn down, but that I
might use them as I should see fit.

As I have said before, the Gnomons contained numerous large, long
chambers, and it only became necessary to put a permanent bottom in
these to convert them into enormous warehouses. All the storage places
inside the city were rapidly filling with grain, which poured in at
every gate on tens of thousands of mules. The plenteous crop, already
ripening, would have to be housed somewhere, and even if I did not
succeed in buying a large store of grain for myself, I knew how to make
a storehouse eat up a large portion of the value of the grain it housed.
I had seen wheat, stored year after year, finally become the property of
the elevator owner, by virtue of his charges.

I was not only putting a bottom to the storage chambers, but converting
the inclined slopes of the largest Gnomons into a passable mule-trail,
by roughening and corrugating the surface to give the patient animals a
surer foot-hold, so they might climb to the top to discharge their
cargoes. This was a simple form of elevator, and I laughed to think what
some of my former acquaintances would think of it! One of the smaller
Gnomons had already been completed to receive my share of the grain
which I earned in the Pharaoh's service, and to this I was adding such
meagre purchases as I could make from the small farmers. These, however,
were not numerous, for the land was mostly in the hands of the Pharaoh
and of a few large owners, more or less bound to him. I was therefore
not a little surprised now upon approaching to see a long line of mules
picking their way up the inclined side of the finished Gnomon, and as
they reached the top their drivers emptied the pair of sacks they bore
into my storehouse. Including the drove of unladen animals at the bottom
of the Gnomon, there must have been a hundred in all, and I was awaited
by the chief driver, who rode one sleek mule covered with a soft blanket
of feather texture, and had another similarly saddled by his side. After
a slow salute of each hand upon his cheek, he said to me,--

"My master, the glorious Hotep, sendeth to the keeper of the Pharaoh's
grain a present of two hundred bags of wheat, and wisheth to know if it
be true that thou desirest to buy a large store of grain with gold? For
hath not Hotep the gathered harvests of two full years in his bins, and
upon his fertile lands the largest crop in all Kem (save only that of
the Pharaoh) is nodding and awaiting the warm, ripening breath of the
Snowless Month! Yet Hotep hath no use for iron money, for he is weighted
and fettered with it already; but if thou desirest to bargain with him
for as much yellow gold as thou hast bartered to the Pharaoh, he will be
most pleased to treat with thee, and sendeth me with this ambling mule
to fetch thee. Will it please thee to come with me now to his palace
within the city?"

"What do you think, Doctor? This Hotep must be almost a rival to the
Pharaoh, if he has stored so much grain and owns so many ripening
fields. He must have seen the new gold ornaments upon the Pharaoh's
women, which have rendered him envious. If, indeed, he has such a vast
quantity of grain to sell, I will deck him out with gold, such as will
turn the Pharaoh green with envy! I shall lose no time in seeing him;"
and so saying I mounted the mule, and assured the chief driver I would
express my thanks in person to the great Hotep.

He conducted me to the opposite side of the city, and, as we crossed a
height near its centre, he pointed out to me the long fields of his
master lining the left bank of the river. There were miles of waving
grain just beginning to turn from a luxuriant green to the lighter
yellow tints of harvest. Presently we approached a large palace, which I
had often before seen from afar against the distant wall of the city,
but had never known. Upon entering, I observed every sign of the same
idle luxury which marked the Pharaoh's dwelling, but none of that regal
disdain or imperial haughtiness which separated every one but his
favourite women from the immediate presence of the monarch.

I was graciously received in a large, lighted chamber, where Hotep
reclined lazily upon a billowy heap of downy cushions, surrounded by
many women. He only arose from his elbow to a sitting posture when I
saluted him. Without saying a word to him, I approached, and, loosening
my belt from about my waist, I unbuckled its mouth and poured out upon
a large cushion by his side my three hundred shining golden eagles. The
effect was electrical, for they were twice the size and three times as
many as the coins I had given the Pharaoh. It must have seemed
impossible to him that I could possess larger coins, and more of them,
than he had seen upon the monarch's favourites. He was simply delighted
with the mere view, and his women crowded around or ran out in haste to
bring in their absent sisters to behold a marvel of riches such as Kem
had never seen. But though they wondered and gloated over the sight,
none of them touched a coin until I spoke.

"I pray thee, most gracious Hotep, examine all these coins, and pass
them among thy women to see if they be pleased with them. Observe their
regularity of form and beauty of design, and test the music they give
forth when cast upon thy floor of stone. Mayhap, thou wouldst rather own
all these than to be cumbered with so much grain."

Thereupon Hotep seized a heaping handful, which he poured jingling from
one palm to the other, and all the women delved their pretty fingers
into the shining heap and passed the coins to their admiring sisters,
until not one was left upon the cushion.

"Thy Chief of Harvests hath made known to me, O Hotep, that thou still
hast the full crops of two years. Wilt thou tell me how many bags of
grain grow upon thy fields at a single crop?"

"Are not the number of my mules a thousand and one, and bear they not
two bags each? To gather a single harvest, each faithful animal must
make five trips each day for the period of an hundred days."

I had often estimated an average mule-load at five bushels, upon which
basis each crop would aggregate two and a half million bushels. This
seemed impossible for a single farmer, but his fields wearied the sight
to follow down the left bank of the Nasr-Nil.

"If thou wilt leave all this gold with me, I will deliver by my mules to
thy storehouses upon the plateau all the grain of my past two crops with
which my whole palace here is cumbered."

"I fear thou holdest thy grain too dearly, and that thou knowest not the
value of this gold. What is more plenteous in Kem than wheat? There be
more bags of it than the stars in heaven. But this gold I bring is more
than all the store of it upon Ptah before I came. Pray give it back
again," I said, gathering up the few pieces which had been returned to
the cushion, and glancing about among the women as if searching for the
rest. They returned them slowly, but Hotep still held his handful. After
a brief pause, I continued,--

"Hast thou not a fair crop growing which thou mightest also give me, so
that no other than Hotep shall receive any of these coins?"

"In truth, I have never ridden as far as my waving fields stretch down
the Nasr-Nil; but one cannot sell what hath not fully ripened, for who
knoweth what it may turn out to be?"

"Then I must beg thee to return my coins," I answered slowly; but,
unbuckling the other end of my belt, I poured out upon another cushion
the hundred magnificent double eagles which I was holding in reserve.
Then, taking a particularly bright one of these, I continued,--

"But as thou hast been generous and thoughtful enough to send me a
present, O Hotep, I desire to return one to thee, such as no man in Kem
ever possessed before. Will it please thee to accept this disc of gold
as large as the lesser moon that creeps across the sky? And with it go
my wishes that Hotep's crops may always be great and plentiful."

Slowly and unwillingly the women returned the eagles to the cushion,
while they stared in wonder at the heap of larger coins. Hotep filtered
the handful through his fingers to the cushion, and accepted the double
eagle with gladness. With his eyes fixed on the second heap he seemed to
be thinking deeply and making calculations.

"The people are wont to call thee Iron Man, but I believe thou art
golden!" he ruminated, and then suddenly, "For these heaps of riches,
large and small, what desirest thou of all my possessions? Wilt thou
have all my grain and half my land? Shall I give to thee all my fields
which cannot be seen from the palace here?"

"Why should I wish thy land when I have no cattle to till it, nor mules
to gather the harvest? In lieu of the land, give me only a share of what
it should produce for a few years. Now give heed to the bargain I will
make with thee. If thou wilt deliver to my storehouses, upon the
plateau, all the gathered grain of thy past two crops, and all the grain
thou shalt gather from this growing crop (save only what thou needest
for seed), and half of each of the crops of the three succeeding
years,--provided, however, that you assure me each year as much as thy
thousand mules can carry in an hundred journeys;--then thou mayest keep
all this store of gold, which is, indeed, all that both of us from the
Blue Star possess."

He seemed to be revolving these terms slowly in his mind to be sure of
them, and then called out to his servants,--

"Bring in spiced wine, and bid my Chief of Harvests enter! He shall be
witness that Hotep agrees to this compact, and, should I die before it
is fulfilled, he shall see that it is carried out to the last year. But
wilt thou leave all this gold with me now, or must I wait until the
harvests are delivered?"

"What Hotep promiseth me I believe, as certainly as if it were done
already. I will leave the gold with thee, knowing thou wilt perform the
contract in every item; but if thou failest in any year, thou shalt
return to me one small gold-piece for each trip that thy thousand mules
fall short of an hundred."

He agreed, and arose and recited the terms of the compact to his Chief
of Harvests, charging him to carry it out, and to cause to be engraved a
small stone cylinder as a permanent record of its provisions, as it was
their custom to do in such cases. Then filling three goblets with rich
spiced wine, he exclaimed,--

"For thy sake, O most generous youth, may the Nasr-Nil fondly nurse
every harvest, and may the gentle Snowless Month ripen them in such
abundance as they have never shown before! And may Hotep's mules grow
old and weary bearing the plenty to thy storehouses!"

Next: Humanity On Ptah

Previous: A Plagiarist Of Dreams

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