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Howard Fast (1914–2003) was one of the most prolific American writers of the twentieth century. He was a bestselling author of more than eighty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. The son of immigrants, Fast grew up in New York City and published his first novel upon finishing high school in 1933. In 1950, his refusal to provide the United States Congress with a list of possible Communist associates earned him a three-month prison sentence. During his incarceration, Fast wrote one of his best-known novels, Spartacus (1951). Throughout his long career, Fast matched his commitment to championing social justice in his writing with a deft, lively storytelling style.
through the palace corridors, she believed his boast.
When he said, "No, no, please, my mother, no. I don’t want to. Please . . . she could not know how vivid in his memory was the recollection of something that had happened only a few weeks before. It was in one of their playtimes, between teachers or priests or military instructors, and they wound through the palace with increasing relaxation and louder and louder bravado. In the mighty pillared corridor that connected the two enormous wings of the great structure, two of the princes challenged each other to climb the side hangings. These linen draperies, painted and decorated with bright colours, hung from rings slid on to poles laid from pillar to pillar, on top of each. The stone columns were forty feet high, and to Moses and the other children they were even higher than their massive reality. Moses was not the only one among them whose bravado gave way to fear as the children scrambled aloft. But they climbed like monkeys, with the agility of monkeys, each one clutching one end of the huge drapery, hand over hand, and each fighting to be the first. And he who was first, a skinny lad of eleven years, a Ramses of the true blood and divinity, had just reached the top, barely visible in the high, deep-shadowed ceilings, when the drapery at his end tore loose from the bronze ring, breaking his hold and casting him down to the floor. Over and over he turned in what seemed to Moses an endless length of time before he struck, screaming with fear; and then he struck on his head in a ghastly, bloody mess that made the children take up his screams as they looked at the horrible little heap that remained of divine immortality.
This is what Moses thought of as he pleaded with his mother, bringing back her petulance and annoyance.
"Well, I don’t know what to say! I don’t know what has come over you. "Please, my mother.
"Foolish boy! she snapped at him. "Hurt me! Cut my heart out! That will satisfy you, won’t it?
"No . . . no, my mother.
His dark eyes filled with tears, and she was somewhat mollified by that. It wasn’t many boys who, in these loose times, cared that much about their mothers. "And if I died and went to lie at the feet of Seti, would you weep for me? Don’t you understand? If the God Ramses commands me, and I say to him, ’Oh, no, my brother, oh, not at all. You wish to see my son, Moses, but he doesn’t wish to see you’? What then? Am I not dead? And whose hand struck me down?
"Not mine, my mother. Please don’t say that. Now he wept in earnest, the tears rolling down his flat cheeks, and he looked so beautiful and tall and compassionate that, in spite of herself, her heart went out to him and she opened her arms and cradled his head against her bosom, tenderly wiping away his tears.
"Come now, she whispered, "no more of that. You will come with me tomorrow, and receive the god’s blessing. No one in the palace is as handsome as you are and I can hardly wait. Tomorrow morning I will send Rea, my own hairdresser, to dress your hair and powder your curls with gold dust. On both arms you will wear the sacred bracelets of Amon, my own from my mother-and now I give them to you, my only child. They will always be yours; they are not to go in my tomb. You will wear only a loincloth, for I want him to see your whole body in its nakedness, to see how fine and perfect you are; but on your feet, your silver sandals. I am having them polished for you. You will also wear my golden neckpiece, for we are now of a size. Then you will be a prince such as this palace has not seen before, and the god will recognize that. Let him be a god, he’s still my brother and he won’t forget that so soon-not while I live. There, my son. Will you be afraid on such a glorious moment? What on earth is there to be afraid of? He drew away from her and stood up and said slowly but desperately and seriously, "He will cast me back into the water.
He saw the doubt, the fear, the anguish that had suddenly seized her face, but his own fear forced him to repeat what he had said. "He will cast me back into the water.
"Who told you that? she whispered hoarsely.
He shook his head.
"Moses, tell me! she almost shrieked. "I command you to.
Again he shook his head. "I pledged my word, my justice.
"And my own justice?
"My justice, he repeated miserably.
"A priest? Some dirty priest of common, jealous blood. I know. They’re everywhere now-listening, plotting, conniving. Well, I still know the difference between a priest and a princess of Egypt! I’ll cut his throat with my own hands!
"Then one of those miserable whores’ brats that my royal bull of a brother sires every night!
"I can’t tell you.
She suddenly reached out and grasped his arm so tightly that he cried aloud with the pain, and she said, with the coldest anger he had ever heard in her voice,
"Well, it’s a lie, my son-a vicious, filthy lie. You will learn some day how much and how easily they lie. So wipe it out of your mind for ever. You will grow up now-your childhood had to end some day. Listen to me. I have never told you who your father was. I am not telling you now. For this I have my own reasons. But I will tell you this. The God Ramses is a man like any other man. I know it. I am his sister. I lay in bed with him. Do you understand what I mean, my son?
Moses nodded miserably.
"But the one thing I insist upon-you must not fear Ramses. In the old days, she went on, with a sort of desperate intensity, "they would have believed that he was born a god. Some still believe that he will die a god and go to sit on Seti’s throne with him. That may be, but who has come back to bear witness? And remember: he has more to fear from me than I have from him, be assured, more than you have. Now go and play-and leave me.
Still he stood there, gripped and held there by his own torment, and when she questioned him, he managed to ask, with a desperation that equalled hers,
"Is the god-the king-is he my father?
Her face was tired and haggard as she said with a calm that completed his terror, "I’ve said all I am going to say. Never again ask me that, my son. I am your mother, but I am also a princess royal of the Great House and no one, not my son, not any man on this holy soil of Egypt, shall dare ask me a question to provoke me. Now go away and play. I am tired of you, foolish boy. Leave me alone.
Then he fled, bursting through the hanging, leaving doors swinging behind him, racing past the rows of looming columns out into the sweet air and the sunshine; and behind him, his mother wept. She wept for the way fate had dealt with her, for herself, for her lost youth and beauty, for her ever barren loins. She wept out of jealousy and hatred for her brother, for the concubines who so eagerly graced her brother’s bed, out of hatred and resentment against every living person in the great palace except the one child who now exacted the total small measure of love that was hers to give.
Almost at the sunlight, with the bright gardens spread before him, the voice caught him, soft, silky, "Moses, Moses-whither so fast and furious? Look behind you, boy. He swung around and saw the priest sitting on a little stool in the pleasant shade of a column, a white robe over his fat jelly-like bulk, a thin, mocking smile on his moon-shaped face. "Oh, come over here, boy, and stop jittering like a mare that smells stud. What could frighten you that wouldn’t frighten me? If I ran twenty like that, I’d drop dead and there’d be something for the embalmers to tackle. Eh, Moses? Do you want me to call you the prince who was afraid?"
The priest found this amusing, for he began to chuckle, sending waves of mirth rolling over the layers of his flesh. His robe fell open, and Moses forgot his fear in the fascination of the great heaving stomach that was revealed.
"And don’t call me ’holiness,’ " he chuckled. "Only the dead are holy, and it takes a thousand tons of rock to keep them that way. You know my name, which is Amon-Teph, and your own foolish name is Moses. I knew your mother, the goddess Enekhas-Amon, before you were born, when she was young and beautiful and I was young enough and slim enough to look twice at a beautiful woman, even a princess. Yes. You see, I remember names and you don’t, because I am a priest of Amon and you are an empty-headed boy-as empty-headed as all boys. Now what frightened you, Prince of Egypt? He stopped chuckling and looked keenly at Moses, a gleam of warmth and liking in his tiny eyes. "Nothing, Moses answered, almost absently.
"Nothing? the priest repeated, watching the boy shrewdly. "A wild nothing? A horned nothing? Boy, listen to me-I am a good friend to you, and if you weren’t just an empty-headed young wastrel, you’d put a value on a friend like old, fat Amon-Teph.
His words had no meaning to Moses, who had enough sophistication to suspect a household priest trying to curry favour with a prince. For the first time, he was aware of a sense of his own cleverness and he asked the priest as casually as he could,
"Then, Amon-Teph, you must have known my mother when she was in birth with me?
Mirth and warmth went out of the fat face and suddenly the priest was cold and indifferent. In the voice of a stranger, he said, "The palace teems with brats. What am I, Moses, a midwife, to remember every cub that was whelped? Go and play, boy! But when Moses had taken a dozen steps, the priest called after him,
"Prince of Egypt, when do you think you will be a man? "I’m a man now, Moses answered angrily, thinking, "More of a man than you, you fat old fool.
"You’re a snivelling, empty-headed boy, the priest said cuttingly. "When you think you’re a man, look for me, and I’ll have something to say to you.
At this time, although he was only forty-three years old, Ramses was in the twenty-sixth year of his kingship, and already the plain folk, the peasants who tilled their little plots of rich alluvial soil up and down the River Nile, were saying that no god like Ramses had ever graced the throne of Egypt before. Unlike his father, Seti, who had exercised his justice-that ancient sense of conscience which was the most precious character-description an Egyptian could refer to-with cold fury and merciless judgment, Ramses was a man simple people could understand and love, perhaps because kingly insensitivity was misread as kindly simplicity. Along with that, he expressed human qualities which were always reassuring in a god. He bragged and lied without shame. He was a large, powerful, good-looking man, who did things hugely and lustily. He ate enormously, with gusto and relish, drank vast quantities without ever losing his head, and engaged his manhood in a manner.