He had reached that point where endurance must conserve itself.
AT THE WELL
Once out of its confines the Nile divided its flood over and over again and hunted the sea in long meanderings over the flat Delta. A few miles above On the separation began and continued to the marshy coast far to the north. From the summit of the great towers of Bubastis and Sais the glistening sinuosities of its branches might be discerned for many miles.
There was no thirst in the Delta. Nowhere did the capillary, the irrigation canal, fail to reach, even now in the season of desolation and loss. Half-green stubble, hail-mown and locust-eaten, showed where a wheat-field had been. Regular, barren rows were the only evidences of the lentil and garlic gardens in happier days, and the location of pastures might be guessed by the skeletons that whitened the uplands. Through fringes of leafless palm trees, stone-rimmed pools, like splashes of quicksilver or facets of sapphire, reflected the sky.
Half-way between On and Pa-Ramesu was one of these basins, elliptical in shape and walled with rough limestone. Moss grew in the crevices of the masonry and about it had been a sod of velvet grass. Black beetles slipped in and out among the stones; dragon-flies hung over the surface of the water and large ants made erratic journeys about the rough bark of the naked palms. Whoever came dipped his goblet deep, for there the water was cold. If he gazed through to the bottom he detected a convection in the sand below. This was not a reservoir, but a well.
Once only had it failed, but then Hapi, the holy river, had been smitten also.
The spring bubbled up at the division of a road. One branch led along the northern bank of the Rameside canal, eastward to Pa-Ramesu. The other crossed the northwestern limits of Goshen and went toward Tanis, in the northeast. Round about the little oasis were the dark circles where the turf fires of many travelers had been. The merchants from the Orient entering Egypt through the great wall of Rameses II, across the eastern isthmus, passed this way going to Memphis. Here Philistine, Damascene, Ninevite and Babylonian had halted; here Egyptian, Bedouin, Arabian and the dweller of the desert had paused. The earth about the well was always damp, and the top-most row of the curb was worn smooth in hollows. This, therefore, was a point common to native and alien, the home-keeping and the traveler, the faithful and the unbeliever.
The strait of Egypt was sore and the aid of the gods essential. The priests had seized upon the site as a place of prayers, placed a tablet there, commanding them, and a soldier to see that the command was obeyed.
The soldier was in cavalry dress of tunic and tasseled coif, with pike and bull-hide shield and a light broadsword. He was no ordinary bearer of arms. He walked like a man accustomed to command; he turned a cold eye upon too-familiar wayfarers and startled them into silence by the level blackness of his low brows. Wealth, beauty, age nor rank won servility or superciliousness from him. The Egyptian soldier was not obliged to cringe, and this one abode by the privilege.