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Humanity On Ptah

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

The magnificent abundance of the seventh great harvest, which ripened
late in the year of our arrival, attracted a multitude of both men and
animals from all the out-lying countries into Kem to assist in gathering
it, and many of them remained to spend their gains in the luxuries of
the great city. It was an unparalleled period of prosperity and plenty;
and though the rich wasted everything with a careless hand, the poor
were better provided for than they had ever been.

Like an endless caravan Hotep's mules trailed across the city day by
day, and emptied their cargoes into the bottomless pits of the Gnomons.
And Hotep's thousand cattle tramped his threshing-floors during the long
winter, and until the later nightly snows signalled the coming of a
tardy spring; and yet the patient mules streamed through the city, and
wore deeper paths into the sides of the Gnomons, until one by one the
great chambers were filled and sealed.

Late in the spring the toiling cattle left the threshing-floors, and
traversed the fields in long procession, two and two, lashed together by
a bar across the horns instead of a yoke, and dragging heavy stone
ploughs slowly after them to prepare the soil for a new planting. But
while the whole left bank of the Nasr-Nil swarmed with Hotep's patient
teams and their busy drivers, the right bank was deserted, idle, and
lifeless. Every one wondered why the Pharaoh's planting was being
delayed; no one knew why the Pharaoh's men and cattle were idle; and the
old men shook their heads and muttered that the river would overflow its
banks long before the Pharaoh's seed was in. After a while Zaphnath sent
for me, and when I came before him he said,--

"The Pharaoh is sick with the plenty of the land, weary of the sight of
grain-laden mules and ploughing cattle, and so cumbered about with
mountains of wheat that he desireth not to plant his fields. Thou art
not one to see his lands lie idle. If thou hast aught with which to
tempt him, I can persuade him to let unto thee all his land and to hire
unto thee all his men and mules and cattle. For hath he not acquired all
his riches in seven years' harvests? and in another seven thou mayest be
as rich as he."

"Mayhap, O Zaphnath, the coming seven years may not be as plenteous as
the last seven have been; but, in any case, I have no more gold with
which to tempt the Pharaoh, having parted with all of it in a bad
bargain with Hotep, whom thou knowest, for half of his coming crops."

Thereupon he bade me remain, and sent for Hotep, and said to him,--

"Behold, have not the harvests of seven years made Pharaoh the richest
man upon Ptah, so that he covets no more grain, but only things of rare
beauty? And are not thy harvests reduced by half through thy compact
with him from the Blue Star? Now, if thou likest to tempt the Pharaoh
with an hundred of thy golden coins, and one-and-twenty of the
moon-sized discs of gold such as thou wearest there, thou mayest hire
his land for the next seven years, and all his men and animals for a
like time, if thou wilt feed and nourish them; and then shall not both
banks of the great river bring forth riches, and be burdened with the
plenteous harvests of Hotep?"

"Is the Pharaoh indeed weary of rich harvests, or doth he rather itch
for my gold? Yet, had I the seed to plant all his fields, I might
consider the undertaking thou shewest me."

"Let not that delay thee," answered Zaphnath, "for I am sure he will
gladly lend to such a man as Hotep the seed thou needest until thy next
harvest be gathered."

So the matter was thus finally concluded, and I was a witness to the

Then Hotep's Chief of Harvests worked early and late to finish planting
before the Month of Midnight Snows, when the Nasr-Nil usually overflows
its banks and waters the harvest. But, as if to oblige a man so
industrious in preparing the way for it, the great river did not rise at
its customary time, and Hotep was able to finish his seeding on both

The black loam along the shores parched and crumbled, and borrowed the
look of the great desert; the feathers of darkness fell later and later,
until they began to appear with the dawn, and yet the river failed to
rise; the priests went through their perfunctory rites to placate the
god of the Overflow, and made their impotent sacrifices to tempt him to
bless the harvest; but Hotep saw the Snowless Month, which should have
ripened his grain, dawn upon fields that were dried to seas of drifting
dust and void of all vegetation. His army of men, augmented by the
Pharaoh's thousands, and his ten thousand cattle and mules, all ate and
waited and waited and ate, and yet there was no work for them. The
following spring there was no need to plough the fields, and no seed to
plant them.

When Zaphnath learned that Hotep must deliver a hundred thousand
mule-cargoes of wheat to me, or forfeit a hundred gold pieces, he sent
for him, and sold to him for the hundred pieces enough of the Pharaoh's
grain already on the plateau to pay me, and lent him the seed to plant
all the land again. But aside from this, the Pharaoh sold not a bag of
wheat, and during the first year all the small stores of grain
throughout Kem were consumed, and the price rose to three times its
former value. Therefore, Hotep consoled himself with the thought that he
could make more out of one crop after a failure than he could have made
out of two crops without it, and he happily sowed his fields anew.

Before the river was due to rise the second time, the poor began to
suffer from the famine. There was no employment for the thousands who
had been attracted to Kem to gather the previous large harvests. Only
those fortunate enough to be slaves enjoyed an assured living, and this
entire class was now dependent upon Hotep, for Pharaoh supported only
his women and his personal servants. Many people desired to deliver
themselves into slavery, but Pharaoh would not accept any, and Hotep
already had more than he could feed. During the Month of Midnight Snows
the entire population of the city watched the river with apprehension,
noting its slightest fluctuation. But day after day the people saw no
change, and idleness fostered grumbling and discontent among them.
Zaphnath and the Pharaoh were privately criticised because they did not
attend or contribute to the sacrifices made to the god of Overflow;
because they hoarded so much grain, and did nothing to alleviate the
distress of the people. And there were many who attributed the unusual
action of the river to the presence upon Ptah of two strangers from the
Blue Star.

When two fruitless months had passed without any rising of the waters,
Hotep lost courage, and was obliged to proclaim that all his men and
beasts must exist upon half-rations. It was then that public suffering
became general. About this time I consulted with the doctor whether to
press Hotep for the second delivery of a hundred thousand cargoes of

"Certainly; demand it from him," he answered, greatly to my surprise,
"especially so long as it amounts to squeezing the wheat out of the
Pharaoh. It is certain he will furnish the wheat in exchange for Hotep's
gold, and a few coins are really nothing to him or to you either. As
long as the Pharaoh covets them, make him pay well for them."

"But I expected you would advise leniency, as you have never sympathized
with my wheat speculation in the least," I replied.

"I do not share your idle dream of riches, but nevertheless I want to
get as much wheat into our hands as possible, especially if it comes
from the Pharaoh. You do not seem to appreciate the real reason, but
blindly chase after the bauble of fortune. It was the same when I first
saw you in Chicago, and now you are just as impulsive and thoughtless. I
have no doubt but you have already computed a hundred times how rich
you are in Earthly terms and figures."

"The time for a big value has not quite come yet, but I confess I have
estimated that it will run into many millions of dollars."

"Rubbish! What is the use of such childish nonsense? Even if we had our
projectile to return with, you could never take any of your riches back
to Earth with you!"

"And why not?" I demanded in astonishment.

"What is your fortune? It now exists in grain at an inflated famine
value. You couldn't transport the grain back to Earth, and if you could,
it would shrink in value and fail to pay the freight. What can you
exchange it for here? For lands, for women, for slaves, none of which
have any commercial value on Earth."

"But I can sell it for money!" I put in.

"Yes, for iron money worth a few dollars a ton on Earth! Why, not even
your entire fortune will buy enough iron to build a new projectile to
enable us to return. You parted with the only valuable and portable form
of property when you exchanged your gold. Now that is rapidly going into
the Pharaoh's hands, to remain there, and you can never return to Earth
as rich as you left it, though you be worth all the money and property
in the land of Kem!"

"Well, it does look a little as if I had been scheming for riches here,
without knowing just why I want them."

"Yes, you have formed that habit on Earth. Only they carry it further
there--swindle their brothers, deceive their parents, oppress the weak,
extort from the poor; work, toil, plot, cheat, rob, yes, even kill! in
order to lay up a store of something they can never take away with them,
and which renders them unhappy oftener than happy while they remain to
guard it."

"I have heard that sort of talk often before, Doctor, but I never saw
the truth of it quite so plainly as now. I have outwitted and squeezed
Hotep, the man on whom the whole city now depends for existence."

"They think they depend upon him, but you know as well as I do that he
will be powerless; that he must see them starve by thousands, and part
with the last bit of his cherished riches to save his own life. No,
Isidor, your business sagacity has not been in vain, for this entire
people depend not on Hotep, but on you! You alone have the food to
preserve many of them alive through a famine and a pestilence whose
horrors are just beginning. Pharaoh and Zaphnath will squeeze and pinch
them, and see them die, and turn it all to their own profit; but let us
constitute ourselves a relief committee, you and I. Let us set these
Kemish rulers an example of humanity, as we know it on Earth."

Next: Revolutionist And Eavesdropper

Previous: Getting Into The Corner

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