Death Comes as the End
Renisenb slipped out again. Neither the old woman nor the two little black slave girls had noticed her. For a moment or two Renisenb paused by the open kitchen door. A smell of roasting ducks, a lot of talking and laughing and scolding all going on at once; a mound of vegetables waiting to be prepared.
Renisenb stood quite still, her eyes half closed. From where she stood she could hear everything going on at once. The rich, varied noises of the kitchen, the high, shrill note of old Esa’s voice, the strident tones of Satipy and, very faintly, the deeper, persistent contralto of Kait. A babel of women’s voices—chattering, laughing, complaining, scolding, exclaiming …
And suddenly Renisenb felt stifled, encircled by this persistent and clamorous femininity. Women—noisy, vociferous women! A houseful of women—never quiet, never peaceful—always talking, exclaiming, saying things—not doing them!
And Khay—Khay silent and watchful in his boat, his whole mind bent on the fish he was going to spear …
None of this clack of tongues, this busy, incessant fussiness.
Renisenb went swiftly out of the house again into hot, clear stillness. She saw Sobek coming back from the fields and saw in the distance Yahmose going up towards the Tomb.
She turned away and took the path up to the limestone cliffs where the Tomb was. It was the Tomb of the great Noble Meriptah and her father was the mortuary priest responsible for its upkeep. All the estate and land was part of the endowment of the Tomb.
When her father was away the duties of the ka-priest fell upon her brother Yahmose. When Renisenb, walking slowly up the steep path, arrived, Yahmose was in consultation with Hori, her father’s man of business and affairs, in a little rock chamber next door to the offering chamber of the Tomb.
Hori had a sheet of papyrus spread out on his knees and Yahmose and he were bending over it.
Both Yahmose and Hori smiled at Renisenb when she arrived and she sat down near them in a patch of shade. She had always been very fond of her brother Yahmose. He was gentle and affectionate to her and had a mild and kindly disposition. Hori, too, had always been gravely kind to the small Renisenb and had sometimes mended her toys for her. He had been a grave, silent young man when she went away, with sensitive, clever fingers. Renisenb thought that though he looked older he had changed hardly at all. The grave smile he gave her was just the same as she remembered.
Yahmose and Hori were murmuring together:
‘Seventy-three bushels of barley with Ipi the younger …’
‘The total then is two hundred and thirty of spelt and one hundred and twenty of barley.’
‘Yes, but there is the price of the timber, and the crop was paid for in oil at Perhaa …’
Their talk went on. Renisenb sat drowsily content with the men’s murmuring voices as a background. Presently Yahmose got up and went away, handing back the roll of papyrus to Hori.
Renisenb sat on in a companionable silence.
Presently she touched a roll of papyrus and asked: ‘Is that from my father?’
‘What does he say?’ she asked curiously.
She unrolled it and stared at those marks that were meaningless to her untutored eyes.
Smiling a little, Hori leaned over her shoulder and traced with his finger as he read. The letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.
‘The Servant of the Estate, the Ka servant Imhotep says:
‘May your condition be like that of one who lives a million times. May the God Herishaf, Lord of Heracleopolis and all the Gods that are aid you. May the God Ptah gladden your heart as one who lives long. The son speaks to his mother, the Ka servant to his mother Esa. How are you in your life, safety and health? To the whole household, how are you? To my son Yahmose, how are you in your life, safety and health? Make the most of my land. Strive to the uttermost, dig the ground with your noses in the work. See, if you are industrious I will praise God for you—’
‘Poor Yahmose! He works hard enough, I am sure.’
Her father’s exhortations had brought him vividly before her eyes—his pompous, slightly fussy manner, his continual exhortations and instructions.
Hori went on:
‘Take great care of my son Ipy. I hear he is discontented. Also see that Satipy treats Henet well. Mind this. Do not fail to write about the flax and the oil. Guard the produce of my grain—guard everything of mine, for I shall hold you responsible. If my land floods, woe to you and Sobek.’
‘My father is just the same,’ said Renisenb happily. ‘Always thinking that nothing can be done right if he is not here.’
She let the roll of papyrus slip and added softly:
‘Everything is just the same …’
Hori did not answer.
He took up a sheet of papyrus and began to write. Renisenb watched him lazily for some time. She felt too contented to speak.
By and by she said dreamily:
‘It would be interesting to know how to write on papyrus. Why doesn’t everyone learn?’
‘It is not necessary.’
‘Not necessary, perhaps, but it would be pleasant.’
‘You think so, Renisenb? What difference would it make to you?’
Renisenb slowly considered for a moment or two. Then she said slowly:
‘When you ask me like that, truly I do not know, Hori.’
Hori said, ‘At present a few scribes are all that are needed on a large estate, but the day will come, I fancy, when there will be armies of scribes all over Egypt.’
‘That will be a good thing,’ said Renisenb.
Hori said slowly: ‘I am not so sure.’
‘Why are you not sure?’
‘Because, Renisenb, it is so easy and it costs so little labour to write down ten bushels of barley, or a hundred head of cattle, or ten fields of spelt—and the thing that is written will come to seem like the real thing, and so the writer and the scribe will come to despise the man who ploughs the fields and reaps the barley and raises the cattle—but all the same the fields and the cattle are real—they are not just marks of ink on papyrus. And when all the records and all the papyrus rolls are destroyed and the scribes are scattered, the men who toil and reap will go on, and Egypt will still live.’
Renisenb looked at him attentively. She said slowly: ‘Yes, I see what you mean. Only the things that you can see and touch and eat are real … To write down “I have two hundred and forty bushels of barley” means nothing unless you have the barley. One could write down lies.’
Hori smiled at her serious face. Renisenb said suddenly:
‘You mended my lion for me—long ago, do you remember?’
‘Yes, I remember, Renisenb.’
‘Teti is playing with it now … It is the same lion.’