Revolutionist And Eavesdropper
Part of: Other World Life
From: Pharaoh's Broker
In Kem, where agriculture was almost the only occupation, and where the
ox was helpful both in planting and threshing the grain, it was quite
natural that he should be revered, or at least respected as a partner in
the toil, and that a strong prejudice should prevail against his being
slaughtered for food. In fact, it was not the practice of the Kemish to
eat any large animals, but they confined themselves to fish and small
fowl for meats. Nevertheless, I urged upon Hotep the necessity of
killing some of his cattle to provide food for his miserable and
poorly-fed labourers. But he stubbornly refused to do so, saying his men
would rather eat the flesh of mules than of cattle.
Without being pressed for it, he paid me the second hundred thousand
cargoes of wheat, which he bought from the Pharaoh with gold, as he had
done before. But I divided this entire quantity of grain among Hotep's
labourers, which eked out their half-rations for almost a year. I
stipulated that none of this grain should be used for seed, for I
firmly believed it would be wasted. But Pharaoh again lent the seed for
planting a third crop, insisting that the discouraged Hotep should put
it in the ground, and reminding him that the only way he could get grain
to pay his heavy debts was to raise a crop.
Thenocris had not been long in learning the location of our house near
her favourite gate, and it was her habit to call on us every day at the
time of the noon-day meal. She always carried and caressed her white
rabbit, and they came to us like two dumb animals to be fed. Her tall,
stately figure, traversing the city on her daily journey to our house,
soon became a familiar sight; and when the people began to be oppressed
by hunger, they gradually overcame their early fear of us, and followed
her to our door for food. We had never turned any away, for beggary was
rare enough in Kem, and no sane person ever resorted to it except in the
sorest extremes of need.
Zaphnath doubtless looked with an evil eye upon the crowds that daily
thronged our door to secure food. The Pharaoh rarely left his palace,
and bothered little about affairs outside, and Zaphnath must have been
at the bottom of an edict which was shortly issued. Nothing that I
remember in Kem better illustrated the absolute power of the Pharaoh and
the unrestrained enforcement of his merest whim. The edict referred to
the scarcity of bread and the multitude of foreigners who were flocking
to the city to secure it, and provided (ostensibly for the good of the
Kemish people) that no man in the city of Kem should give bread or any
sort of food to any but the members of his own household. Moreover, no
man should sell grain or bread at a less price than that established by
the Pharaoh for the sale of his own.
The doctor and I realized that this was aimed at no one but us. They
were jealous of our charity, and wished to turn everybody's need to
their own profit. We scoffed at the tyranny of such an edict, but it was
the arbitrary sort of law to which the Kemish were accustomed. Yet if we
gave up our undertaking, and the unfortunate multitude went unfed for a
few days, bread riots were certain to break out, and they might result
in the death or overthrow of the short-sighted Pharaoh, and the seizure
of his grain. Even this would not settle the question, for the victors
might enforce a worse monopoly of it, if that were possible.
"We must continue to feed them all outside the city,--at the Gnomons,
for instance," I suggested.
"Yes, we must feed them there in a large chamber, and eat with them, so
that they may be considered members of our household," added the doctor.
Thus it happened that the paths which Hotep's mules had worn so deeply
were now thronged by a great multitude of the city's poor in their
daily pilgrimage to the Gnomons. In an enormous chamber which we fitted
up for that purpose, we served to each comer one generous meal, and
there were so many who came that this meal was going on almost all day
long. The Pharaoh fed no one but his favourites and his soldiers, and of
these last he discharged a large number, reducing his army to a hungry,
ill-fed thousand men. Those who were discharged came to eat with us, and
many of those retained would gladly have done so, had we not excluded
every one in the Pharaoh's service.
Meantime the Nasr-Nil ran lower in her banks than ever before, and gave
no signs of rising; the nightly snows were brief and evanescent, and the
rains, which had never been copious on Ptah, now ceased entirely. Every
green thing gradually vanished from Kem, and Hotep's third crop rotted
or lay sodden in the ground as the others had done. He knew that I had
been offered the opportunity to plant the Pharaoh's fields, and that I
had not only refused, but had hoarded grain. This may have led him to
conclude that I knew some reason for the famine, and I was not surprised
when he sought me one day at the Gnomons. He begged a strictly private
interview with me, and I conducted him to a small room I had constructed
by running two thin walls of porous stone from one Gnomon to another,
and covering the enclosure with a flat roof.
"Dost thou know that thou hast linked together with thy slender walls
the monuments of two antagonistic dynasties?" he began. "This structure
to the left was built by the fifth ancestor of the present Pharaoh, in
truth the first ruler of his dynasty. The structure to the right,
however, is vastly older, and was built by the tenth Pharaoh of the
dynasty, from which I am directly descended. My ancestors were
vanquished by dint of wars, and their powers usurped by the ancestors of
this same selfish Pharaoh, who hath not so good a right to rule as I."
I think I was born without a vestige of revolutionary spirit, for I have
always felt a respect for the institutions that are, and an allegiance
to the powers that rule. I remember the distinct shock which this
utterance of Hotep's gave me. I said nothing, but he answered the
surprised look on my face.
"Thou knowest well that the entire labouring population of Kem is fed by
me in my fields on one side of the city; while all the poor and
unfortunate are fed by you here on the other side. What man of Kem
thinks of the grand palace of the Pharaoh in the midst of the city, but
to curse it? What subject who knows how the Pharaoh and his favourites
gorge themselves in luxurious plenty, while he nurses his hunger, but
would a thousand times rather pay allegiance to those who save him from
absolute starvation? And Zaphnath, in his nightly wanderings and his
daily errands of espionage, thinkest thou he overhears a public grumbler
who fails to curse him and his Pharaoh, and to extol the men from the
Blue Star, and the unfortunate farmer, who, until now, has been able to
give the people work and sustenance?"
"Doth Zaphnath spend his time in watching and spying, then?" I asked.
"Aye, that he doth! I crossed his path even now, coming through the
city, and he set at following me, but by quick turns I eluded him. He it
is who by his loans and compacts hath snared and tricked me until now I
am utterly ruined, unless I can claim my rightful turn at ruling. Alone
I cannot do it; with thy help I can."
"How, then, could I be of assistance to you?" I exclaimed in some
astonishment, without stopping to think of the justice of his claims.
"From what I have heard of the thunder thou commandest, and the
lightning thou art able to carry, it doth appear that thou couldst
overcome the Pharaoh and his thousand half-starved men, who secretly
itch to change masters. Thou hast the means to do it; I have the right
to do it; and the people would unanimously applaud the doing of it. Let
us strike together, then; let us seize the Pharaoh's grain and apportion
it among our supporters and the needy, and when I am established as
Pharaoh, thou shalt be my ruler in the place of Zaphnath."
"Thou temptest me but little, O Hotep. Once before I was offered a
rulership in Kem which I refused. Besides, am I not bound by an
agreement to loyalty and obedience to this Pharaoh?"
"Aye! Even as I am bound to come to a sure ruin; and as every man in Kem
is bound to sit meekly by and starve. But is a ruler no way bound? May
he claim the life of his subjects for his profit? How long will they
suffer such treatment? And if we are restrained by loyalty, how long
will it be till some one else strikes the blow we stick at----?"
He was interrupted by a vigorous knocking at the door, as of one who
commands rather than entreats an opening. Who could it be? I turned to
see, but Hotep caught me by the arm.
"Before thou openest, tell me if thou wilt join me in this undertaking
for the sake of a suffering people?"
"Nay, Hotep; it is wrong, and I will not do it. I am bound to this
Pharaoh, bad as he is, and to thy dynasty I owe nothing." The rapping
began again and more loudly now, but Hotep still restrained me.
"For half of all my fields wilt thou furnish me the grain to pay the
Pharaoh, and thus avert my ruin?"
"And if I would, how wouldst thou feed the men and mules and cattle
through another year of famine, and another, and another?"
"Thou thinkest the crops will fail yet three more years!" he exclaimed,
half stupefied by the thought.
"Aye, four! I know it for most certain," I answered, and the insistent
knocking was vigorously renewed.
"Then I am too deep in the mire for thee or any one to pull me out. Open
to this importunate knocker."
I threw open the door, and there stood the keen-eyed, angry-visaged
Zaphnath! How long had he been listening outside there? How much had he
stealthily overheard before he began knocking? All the Kemish had need
to speak doubly loud to us from Earth, for our ears were not made for
thin air and its weak sounds. Moreover, Hotep had spoken throughout with
a fervent declamation. But what I said in my ordinary tones was always
easily understood by Hotep's keen ears. Therefore it seemed quite
certain that Zaphnath had heard through the thin wall all that Hotep had
said, and probably none of what I said. So much the worse. He had
doubtless supplied my speeches to suit himself, and made them fit into
Hotep's plotting. At any rate there was hot anger in his face when he
spoke to me,--
"Thou servest the Pharaoh well, by contriving how to cross his wishes at
every point! It were well thy office were withdrawn; I have brothers
about me now who could better fill it."
"Whenever it pleaseth the Pharaoh or his all-potent ruler to abrogate
his compact with me, I am quite ready to begin where we left off when it
was made," I retorted. I did not think till afterwards that this might
serve wrongly to indicate to him the tenor of my answers to Hotep's
scheming. His eyes flashed angrily at this, yet he made no reply, but
spoke to Hotep instead.
"Before the end of the clock this day, the Pharaoh requireth of thee
full settlement of all thou owest him. Attempt nothing but a just and
full repayment, O most precious Hotep, for thy every act is watched and
known to us!"
Next: The Doctor Disappears
Previous: Humanity On Ptah