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Wow! What a wonderful story! This is the first of Henty's books I have
read, and I have since made the discovery that he was a very prolific author of historical novels from of wide range of historical periods and settings. Project
Gutenberg has a great number of his writings. I shall no doubt read more.
I found this book by doing a search for novels set in Egypt. I had just completed reading Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt and created my Egypt Index Page, and I realized I had never read a novel set in Egypt. I readily found it on Project Gutenberg, and the title sounded intriguing. I was not disappointed. It is one of those "can't put it down till it's finished" types—so well written, and with characters that become your friends. To read it is to become totally immersed in the story. Be sure to download the version with images, illustrated by J.R. Weguelin.
George Alfred Henty was born in England in 1832. He served in the Crimean War, and his father was so impressed with the descriptions in his letters home, that he sent them to a newspaper, which printed them. Henty later became a war correspondent. He left the army in 1859, as a captain, also the year he married.
He became known as a writer of children's novels, (although I saw this one classified also as a tale for young adults, but as an old adult, I still found it extremely enjoyable). Henty died aboard his yacht in Weymouth Harbour, Dorset in 1902.
Though no dates are given, the story takes place in biblical times. (Moses himself actually plays a small but important role at one point!) The Rebu nation are preparing for an attack by the Egyptians, who according to them are great warriors and conquerors, which is probably the only part of the story that differed from the impression I got after I read Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt, which depicted the Egyptians as not particularly great soldiers. In any case, they conquer the Rebus after a fierce battle which kills the Rebu king, The queen commits suicide shortly after, leaving the warrior price Amuba, then only sixteen, alone in the world. (I did some research, and apparently the Rebu were Libyans.) Numerous Rebu men and women were chosen to return to Egypt as slaves, including Amuba and his trusted friend, bodyguard, and chariot driver, Jethro. Though they fear the worst, as they enter Egypt, they are in awe of the wonders and grandeur of this wealthy and immense country, nor are they treated disrespectfully. Amuba and Jethro are inseparable, and when Amuba is chosen by the High Priest of Osiris, he begs that Jethro may come, too. During the long trek back to Egypt, both have endeavored to learn Egyptian. and all their efforts have paid off.
Though taken from their homeland, in reality, Jethro and Amuba are hardly in a situation of discomfort. In fact, the High Priest Ameres is such a fair, kind, and humane man, along with his son Chebron, that in no time at all Amuba has become more of a brother than a servant, and certainly not a slave. Jethro is assigned to Chebron's sister, Mysa, though the three men spend their time together. (Jethro is older, but Amuba and Chebron are about the same age.) Though Ameres knows that Amuba is a prince, he warns that that information should not be given out, lest he would be summoned to serve the king.
Ameres is the epitome of all that is good, honest and strong in humankind, and serves his office with extreme care. But there are certain people who whisper that he has beliefs that do not follow the superstitious and fear-based teachings of the Egyptian religion, with all their false gods. Much of the book is a religious statement against the idol worship of the nation, while the priests themselves know that what they appear to adhere to is not the truth. It is the fear that Ameres will speak the truth that keeps the other priests in a state of discomfort. Though the position of High Priest usually is handed down to the son, Chebron shows little aptitude for that profession, and it is assumed that the older son, Neco, who unlike his father, is conservative, will inherit the position.
While Ameres is extremely close to Chebron and Mysa, he has little to do with his wife, Amense, who is shallow, selfish, and materialistic, and who cares little for the rest of her family. He also cares little for Neco.
When Ameres must leave Thebes on business, he takes Chebron, Amuba, and Jethro along for an outing, where they learn hunting and fishing. As they are in the water, a young lady screams as she is being dragged by a crocodile. The three men attack and kill it, freeing the girl, who passes out. They carry her to a cabin nearby, where lives an elderly crippled man, who is a the great-grandfather of Ruth. They are Israelites, who have been scorned by the rest of their nation because they still follow the belief in the "One True God," rather than worshipping the false gods of the Egyptians. When Ruth revives, she finds no serious injury, and she and the men discuss her religion and their fate. The elderly man is her only relative, and he does not believe he has long to live. Chebron offers her a position in his household as companion to Mysa. His father agrees to it, and after they return home, Ruth shows up because her great-grandfather has passed away. Between Ruth, Amuba, and Jethro, Mysa and Chebron learn strength, courage, and survival, which they will soon need.
One night as Amuba and Chebron are exploring the temple, they overhear another priest along with others plotting a murder. Chebron rashly makes their presence known, and they run for their lives, escaping unidentified. Shortly after, Neco is found dead, yet it is not he who has been targeted.
But the worst that could possibly befall them happens next. The Sacred Cat of Bubastes has died, and there is a search done throughout all Egypt to find a replacement. Mysa's cat, Paucis, is chosen. Just before she is to be taken by the officials, Amuba and Chebron are out in the animal enclosure attempting to find what has been killing their animals. It is a hawk, and as they both shoot arrows, Chebron's glances off a branch and kills the cat.
The killing of a cat in Egypt at the time was a more grave offense than the killing of a person, so highly were they thought to be as gods, especially the newly chosen Cat of Bubastes.. Chebron is in terror, and wants to turn himself in and face the consequence, which is death, but he trusts his father, and tells him what he did. It is at this point that Ameres speaks about his real beliefs and falsity of the Egyptian gods. Jethro buries the cat, and Ameres gives him strict orders on escaping with his son and Amuba, should the need be.
Which does happen, mostly though the malice spread by the jealous priest and enemy of Ameres, Ptylus. A mob breaks into the house and kills Ameres. Jethro, Amuba, and Chebron escape to the house of Chigron the embalmer, and confidant to Ameres. Ameres had supplied him with money for the boys' escape, but they cannot go yet, because Mysa has been taken. Against all odds, with seemingly all of Egypt out to assassinate Chebron, through the wisdom and calmness of Amuba and Chebron, they all escape.
I cannot begin to describe how much I enjoyed reading this book. It is truly a tale that reaches to the depths of one's emotions, along with the terror and excitement of the escape, and the deep questions of how people can hold fast to such superstitious beliefs. In addition, as an historical novel, it paints a vivid portrait of life in ancient Egypt. Very highly recommended reading.
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