Near the eastern boundary of that level region of northern Egypt, known as the Delta, once thridded by seven branches of the sea-hunting Nile, Rameses II, in the fourteenth century B. C., erected the city of Pithom and stored his treasure therein. His riches overtaxed its coffers and he builded Pa-Ramesu, in part, to hold the overflow. But he died before the work was completed by half, and his fourteenth son and successor, Meneptah, took it up and pushed it with the nomad bond-people that dwelt in the Delta.
The city was laid out near the center of Goshen, a long strip of fertile country given over to the Israelites since the days of the Hyksos king, Apepa, near the year 1800 B. C.
Morning in the land of the Hebrew dawned over level fields, green with unripe wheat and meadow grass. Wherever the soil was better for grazing great flocks of sheep moved in compact clouds, with a lank dog and an ancient shepherd following them.
The low, shapeless tents and thatched hovels of the Israelites stood in the center of gardens of lentils, garlic and lettuce, securely hedged against the inroads of hares and roving cattle. Close to these were compounds for the flocks and brush inclosures for geese, and cotes for the pigeons used in sacrifice. Here dwelt the aged in trusteeship over the land, while the young and sturdy builded Pa-Ramesu.
Sunrise on the uncompleted city tipped the raw lines of her half-built walls with broken fire and gilded the gear of gigantic hoisting cranes. Scaffolding, clinging to bald facades, seemed frail and cobwebby at great height, and slabs of stone, drawn and held by cables near the summit of chutes, looked like dice on the giddy slide.
Below in the still shadowy passages and interiors, speckled with fallen mortar, lay chains, rubble of brick and chipped stone; splinters, flinders and odd ends of timber; scraps of metal, broken implements and the what-not that litters the path of construction. Without, in the avenues, vaguely outlined by the slowly rising structures on either side, were low-riding, long, heavy, dwarf-wheeled vehicles and sledges to which men, not beasts, had been harnessed. Here, also, were great cords of new brick and avalanches of glazed tile where disaster had overtaken orderly stacks of this multi-tinted material. In the open spaces were covered heaps of sand, and tons of lime, in sacks; layers of paint and hogsheads of tar; ingots of copper and pigs of bronze. Roadways, beaten in the dust by a multitude of bare feet, led in a hundred directions, all merging in one great track toward the camp of the laboring Israelites.
This was pitched in a vast open in the city's center, wherein Rameses II had planned to build a second Karnak to Imhotep. Under the gracious favor of this, the physician god, the great Pharaoh had regained his sight. But death stayed his grateful hand and Meneptah forgot his father's debt. Here, then, year in and year out, an angular sea of low tents sheltered Israel.
Let it not be supposed that all the sons of Abraham were here. Thousands labored yet in the perfection of Pithom, on the highways of the Lower country, and on the Rameside canal, and the greater number made the brick for all Egypt in the clay-fields of the Delta. Therefore, within the walls of Pa-Ramesu there were somewhat more than three thousand Hebrews, men, women and children.
On a slight eminence, overlooking the camp, were numerous small structures of sun-dried brick, grouped about one of larger dimensions. Above this was raised a military standard, a hawk upon a cross-bar, from which hung party-colored tassels of linen floss. By this sign, the order of government was denoted. The Hebrews were under martial law.
The camp was astir. Thin columns of blue smoke drifted up here and there between the close-set tents, and the sibilant wearing of stone-mills, as they ground the wheat, was heard in many households. The nutty aroma of parching lentils, and the savor of roasting papyrus root and garlic told the stage of the morning meal. The strong-armed women, rich brown in tint from the ardent sun, crowned with coil upon coil of heavy hair, bent over the pungent fires. Sturdy children, innocent of raiment, went hither and thither, bearing well filled skins of water. Apart from these were the men of Israel, bearded and grave, stalwart and scantily clad. They repaired a cable or fitted an ax-handle or mended a hoe. But they were full of serious and absorbed discourse, for the great Hebrew, Moses, from the sheep-ranges of Midian, had been among them, showing them marvels of sorcery, preaching Jehovah and promising freedom. The first high white light of dawn was breaking upon the century-long night of Israel.
Before one of the tents an old woman knelt beside a bed of live coals, turning a browning water-fowl upon a pointed stick. She was a consummate cook, and the bird was fat and securely trussed. Now and again she sprinkled a pinch of crude salt on the embers to suppress the odor of the burning drippings, and lifted the fowl out of the reach of the pale flames that leaped up thereafter. Presently she removed the fowl and forked it off the spit into a capacious earthenware bowl near by. Then, with green withes as tongs, she drew forth a round tile from under the coals and set it over the dish to complete the baking. From another tile-platter at hand she took several round slices of durra bread and proceeded to toast them with much skill, tilting the hot tile and casting each browned slice in on the fowl as it was done. When she had finished, she removed the cover and set the bowl on the large platter, protecting her hands from its heat with a fold of her habit. With no little triumph and some difficulty she got upon her feet and carried the toothsome dish into her shelter, to place it beyond the reach of stealthy hands. No such meal was cooked that morning, elsewhere, in Pa-Ramesu, except at the military headquarters on the knoll.
There was little inside the tent, except the meagerest essential furnishing. A long amphora stood in a tamarisk rack in one corner; a linen napkin hung, pinned to the tent-cloth, over it; a glazed laver and a small box sat beside it. A mat of braided reeds, the handiwork of the old Israelite, covered the naked earth. This served as seat or table for the occupants. Several wisps of straw were scattered about and a heap of it, over which a cotton cloak had been thrown, lay in one corner.
|Rachel,| the old woman said briskly.
Evidently some one slept under the straw, for the heap stirred.
|Rachel!| the old woman reiterated, drawing off the cloak.
Without any preliminary pushing away of the straw, a young girl sat up. A little bewildered, she divested her head and shoulders of a frowsy straw thatch and stood erect, shaking it off from her single short garment.
She was not more than sixteen years old. Above medium height and of nobler proportions than the typical woman of the race, her figure was remarkable for its symmetry and utter grace. The stamp of the countenance was purely Semitic, except that she was distinguished, most wondrously in color, from her kind. Her sleep had left its exquisite heaviness on eyes of the tenderest blue, and the luxuriant hair she pushed back from her face was a fleece of gold. Hers was that rare complexion that does not tan. The sun but brightened her hair and wrought the hue of health in her cheeks. Her forehead was low, broad, and white as marble; her neck and arms white, and the hands, busied with the hair, were strong, soft, dimpled and white. The grace of her womanhood had not been overcome by the slave-labor, which she had known from infancy.
|Good morning, Deborah. Why -- thy bed -- have I slept under it?| she asked.
|Since the middle of the last watch,| the old woman assented.
|But why? Did Merenra come?| the girl inquired anxiously.
|Nay; but I heard some one ere the camp was astir and I covered thee.|
|And thou hast had no sleep since,| the girl said, with regret in her voice. |Thou dost reproach me with thy goodness, Deborah.|
She went to the amphora and poured water into the laver, drew forth from the box a horn comb and a vial of powdered soda from the Natron Lakes, and proceeded with her toilet.
|Came some one, of a truth?| she asked presently.
Deborah pointed to the smoking bowl. Rachel inspected the fowl.
|Marsh-hen!| she cried in surprise.
|Atsu brought it.|
|Even so. From his own bounty and for Rachel,| Deborah explained.
|Thou art beset from a new direction,| the old woman continued dryly, |but thou hast naught to fear from him.|
|Nay; I know,| Rachel murmured, arranging her dress.
The garb of the average bondwoman was of startling simplicity. It consisted of two pieces of stuff little wider than the greatest width of the wearer's body, tied by the corners over each shoulder, belted at the waist with a thong and laced together with fiber at the sides, from the hips to a point just above the knee. It was open above and below this simple seam and interfered not at all with the freedom of the wearer's movements. But Rachel's habit was a voluminous surplice, fitting closely at the neck, supplied with wide sleeves, seamed, hemmed and of ample length. Deborah was literally swathed in covering, with only her withered face and hands exposed. There was a hint of rank in their superior dress and more than a suggestion of blood in the bearing of the pair; but they were laborers with the shepherds and serving-people of Israel.
|He would wed thee, after the manner of thy people, and take thee from among Israel,| Deborah continued.
The girl drooped her head over the lacing of her habit and made no answer. The old woman looked at her sharply for a moment.
|Well, eat; Rachel, eat,| she urged at last. |The marsh-hen will stand thee in good stead and thou hast a weary day before thee.|
Rachel looked at the old woman and made mental comparison between the ancient figure and her strong, young self. With great deliberation she divided the fowl into a large and small part.
|This,| she said, extending the larger to Deborah, |is thine. Take it,| waving aside the protests of the old woman, |or the first taste of it will choke me.|
Deborah submitted duly and consumed the tender morsel while she watched Rachel break her fast.
|What said Atsu?| Rachel asked, after the marsh-hen was less apparent.
|Little, which is his way. But his every word was worth a harangue in weight. Merenra and his purple-wearing visitor, the spoiler, the pompous wolf, departed for Pithom last night, hastily summoned thither by a royal message. But the commander returns to-morrow at sunset. This morning, every tenth Hebrew in Pa-Ramesu is to be chosen and sent to the quarries. Atsu will send thee and me, whether we fall among the tens of a truth or not. So we get out of the city ere Merenra returns. He called the ruse a cruel one and not wholly safe, but he would sooner see thee dead than despoiled by this guest of Merenra's -- or any other. I doubt not his heart breaketh for thy sake, Rachel, and he would rend himself to spare thee.|
|The Lord God bless him,| the girl murmured earnestly.
|Where dost thou say we go?| she asked after a little silence.
|To the quarries of Masaarah, opposite Memphis.|
The color in the young Israelite's face receded a little.
|To the quarries,| she repeated in a half-whisper.
|Nay, not for myself, at all, but we may not have another Atsu over us there. I fear for thee, Deborah.|
The old woman waved her hands.
|Trouble not concerning me. I shall not die by heavy labor.|
But the girl shook her head and gazed out of the low entrance of the tent. Her face was full of trouble. Once again the old woman looked at her with suspicion in her eyes. Presently the girl asked, coloring painfully:
|Was Atsu commanded to hold me for this guest of Merenra's -- ah!| she broke off, |did Atsu name him?|
|Not by the titles by which the man would as lief be known,| Deborah answered grimly, |but I remember he called him 'the governor.'|
There was a brief pause.
|Not so,| she resumed, answering Rachel's first question. |Atsu but overheard him say to Merenra to see to it that thou wast taken from toil and made ready to journey with him to Bubastis.|
|He can not take me by right save by a document of gift from the Pharaoh,| Rachel protested indignantly.
|Of a truth,| the old woman admitted; |but Merenra is chief commander over Pa-Ramesu and how shall thine appeal to the Pharaoh pass beyond Merenra if he see fit to humor this ravening lord with a breach of the law? The message summoning him in haste to Pithom before the order could be fulfilled was all that saved thee. And if Merenra return ere thou art safely gone, thou art of a surety undone.|
Rachel moved away a little and stood thinking. The old woman went on with a note of despondency in her voice.
|Alas, Rachel! thou art in eternal peril because of thy lovely face. Beauty is a curse to a bondwoman. What I beheld in truth yesterday I have seen in dreams -- the discourteous hand put forth to seize thee and the power back of it to enforce its demand. And yet, I would not wish thee old and uncomely, for that, too, is a curse to the bondwoman,| she added with a reflective shrug of the shoulders.
|If I but knew his name -- | Rachel pondered aloud.
|What matter?| the old woman answered almost roughly. |Suffice it to know that he is a knave and a noble and hath evil in his heart against thee.|
|Now, if I might dye my hair or stain my face -- | Rachel began after a pause.
|Thou foolish child! It would not wear, nor hide thy charm at all!|
|But I dread the quarries for thee, Deborah. If only we might be hidden here, somewhere.|
|Come, dost thou want to marry Atsu?| the old woman demanded harshly.
The girl turned toward her, her face flushed with resentment.
|Nay! And that thou knowest. For this very mingling with Egypt is Israel cursed. The idolatrous have reached out their hands in marriage and wedded the Hebrews away from the God of Abraham. When did an Egyptian desert his gods for the faith of the Hebrew he took in marriage? Not at any time. Therefore have we fed the shrines of the idols and increased the numbers of the idolaters and behold, the hosts of Jehovah have dwindled to naught. Therefore is He wroth with us, and justly. For are there not pitiful shrines to Ra, Ptah and Amen within the boundaries of Goshen? Nay, I wed not with an idolater,| she concluded firmly.
Deborah's wrinkled face lighted and she put a tender arm about the girl.
|Of a truth, then, it is for me that thou wouldst avoid the quarries,| she said. |I did but try thee, Rachel.|
Rachel looked at her reproachfully, but the old woman smiled and drew her out into the open.
Without, Israel of Pa-Ramesu made ready to surrender a tenth of her number to the newest task laid on it by the Pharaoh. Quarrying was unusual labor for an Israelite and the name carried terror with it. Long had it meant heavy punishment for the malefactor and now was the Hebrew to take up its bitter life. The hard form of oppression following so closely upon the promise of liberty by Moses had diversified effects upon the camp. There was rebellion among the optimists, and the less hopeful spirits were crushed. There was the scoffer, who exasperates; the enthusiast, the over-buoyant, who could point out favorable omens even in this bitter affliction; and it could not be divined which of these troubled the people more. But whatever the individual temper, the entire camp was overhung with distress.
Israel had gathered in families before her tents -- the mothers hovering their broods, the fathers tramping uneasily about them. In the heart of each, perhaps, was an indefinable conviction that he should fall among the tens. Since Israel had died in droves by hard labor in the brick-fields and along the roadways and canals, in what numbers and with what dire speed would not Israel perish in the dreaded stone-pits!
Just outside the doorway of their shelter, Deborah and Rachel overlooked the troubled camp.
|Moses comes in time,| Rachel said, speaking in a low tone, |for Israel is in sore straits. The hand of the oppressor assaileth with fury his bones and his sinews now. How shall it be with him if he is bequeathed from Pharaoh to Pharaoh of an intent like unto the last three? He shall have perished from the face of the earth, for the Hebrew bends not; he breaks.|
Deborah did not answer at once. Her sunken eyes were set and she seemed not to hear. But presently she spoke:
|Thou hast said. But the Hebrew droppeth out of the inheritance of the Pharaohs in thy generation, Rachel. The end of the bondage is at hand. Thou shalt see it. Of a truth Israel shall perish. If its afflictions increase for long. But they shall not continue. Have we entered Canaan as God sware unto Abraham we should? Have we possessed the gates of our enemies? Shall He stamp us out, with His promise yet unfulfilled? Behold, we have gone astray from Him, but not utterly, as all the other peoples of the earth. For centuries, amid the great clamor of prayers to the hollow gods, there arose only from this compound of slaves, here, a call to Him. Out of the reek of idolatrous savors, drifted up now and again the straight column from the altar of a Hebrew, sacrificing to the One God. Where, indeed, are any faithful, save in Israel? Shall He condemn us who only have held steadfast? Nay! He hath but permitted the oppression that we may have our fill of the glories of Egypt and be glad to turn our backs upon her. He will cure us of idols by showing forth their helplessness when they are cried unto; and when Israel is in its most grievous strait and therefore most prone to attach itself to whosoever helpeth it. He will prove Himself at last by His power. Aye, thou hast said. Israel can suffer little more without perishing. Therefore is redemption at hand.|
Rachel had turned her eyes away from the humiliation of Israel to its exaltation -- from fact to prophecy. She was looking with awed face at Deborah. The prophetess went on:
|Israel hath been a green tree, carried hither in seed and grown in the wheat-fields of Mizraim. The herds and the flocks of the Pharaoh gathered under its branches and were sheltered from the sun by day and from the wolves by night. The early Pharaohs loved it, the later Pharaohs used it and the last Pharaohs feared it. For it grew exceedingly and overshadowed the wheat-fields and they said: 'It will come between us and Ra who is our god and he will bless it instead of the wheat. Let us cut it down and build us temples of its timber.' But the Lord had planted the tree in seed and in its youth it grew under the tendance of the Lord's hand. And in later years, though it lent its shadow as a grove for the idols and temples of gods, the most of it faced Heaven, and for that the Lord loves it still. The Pharaohs have lopped its branches, unmolested, but lo! now that the ax strikes at its girth, the Lord will uproot it and plant it elsewhere than in Mizraim. But the soil will not relinquish it readily, for it hath struck deep. There shall be a gaping wound in Mizraim where it stood and all the land shall be rent with the violence of the parting.|
The prophetess paused, or rather her voice died away as if she actually beheld the scene she foretold, and no more words were needed to make it plain. Rachel's hands were clasped before her breast. |Sayest thou these things in prophecy?| she asked finally in an eager half-whisper. Deborah's eyes seemed to awaken. She looked at Rachel a moment and answered with a nod. The girl's vision wandered slowly again toward the camp, and the sorrowful unrest of Israel subdued the inspired elation that had begun to possess her. Her face clouded once more. Deborah touched her.
|Trouble not thyself concerning these people. They go forth to labor, but their burdens shall be lightened ere long. As for thee and me -- | she paused and looked up toward the eminence on which the military headquarters were built.
|As for thee and me -- | Rachel urged her. Deborah motioned in the direction she gazed. |Come, let us make ready,| she said; |they are beginning.|
The Egyptian masters over Israel of Pa-Ramesu were emerging from the quarters. They were, almost uniformly, tall, slender and immature in figure. Dressed in the foot-soldier's tunic and coif, they looked like long-limbed youths compared with the powerful manhood of the sons of Abraham.
Among them, in white wool and enameled aprons, was a number of scribes, without whom the official machinery of Egypt would have stilled in a single revolution.
The men advanced, sauntering, talking with one another idly, as if awaiting authority to proceed.
That came, presently, in the shape of an Egyptian charioteer. The vehicle was heavy, short-poled, set low on two broad wheels of six spokes, and built of hard wood, painted in wedge-shaped stripes of green and red. The end was open, the front high and curved, the side fitted with a boot of woven reeds for the ax and javelins of the warrior. Axle and pole were shod with spikes of copper and the joints were secured with tongues of bronze. The horses were bay, small, short, glossy and long of mane and tail. The harness was simple, each piece as broad as a man's arm, stamped and richly stained with many colors.
The man was an ideal soldier of Egypt. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but otherwise lean and lithe. In countenance, he was dark, -- browner than most Egyptians, but with that peculiar ruddy swarthiness that is never the negro hue. His duskiness was accentuated by low and intensely black brows, and deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes. Although his features were marked by the delicacy characteristic of the Egyptian face, there was none of the Oriental affability to be found thereon. One might expect deeds of him, but never words or wit.
He wore the Egyptian smock, or kamis -- of dark linen, open in front from belt to hem, disclosing a kilt or shenti of clouded enamel. His head-dress was the kerchief of linen, bound tightly across the forehead and falling with free-flowing skirts to the shoulders. The sleeves left off at the elbow and his lower arms were clasped with bracelets of ivory and gold. His ankles were similarly adorned, and his sandals of gazelle-hide were beaded and stitched. His was a somber and barbaric presence. This was Atsu, captain of chariots and vice-commander over Pa-Ramesu.
His subordinates parted and gave him respectful path. He delivered his orders in an impassive, low-pitched monotone.
|Out with them, and mark ye, no lashes now. Leave the old and the nursing mothers.|
The drivers disappeared into the narrow ways of the encampment, and Atsu, with the scribes at his wheels, drove out where the avenue of sphinxes would have led to the temple of Imhotep. Here was room for three thousand. He alighted and, with the scribes who stood, tablets in hand, awaited the coming of the Israelites.
The camp emptied its dwellers in long wavering lines. Into the open they came, slowly, and with downcast eyes, each with his remnant of a tribe. Though the columns were in order, they were ragged with many and varied statures -- now a grown man, next to him a child, and then a woman. Here were the red-bearded sons of Reuben, shepherds in skins and men of great hardihood; the seafaring children of Zebulon; a handful of submissive Issachar, and some of Benjamin, Levi, and Judah.
|Do we not leave the aged behind?| the scribe asked, indicating Deborah who came with Judah.
|Give her her way,| Atsu replied indifferently, and the scribe subsided.
The lines advanced, filling up the open with moody humanity. A scribe placed himself at the head of each column, and as the hindmost Israelite emerged into the field the movement was halted.
If an eye was lifted, it shifted rapidly under the stress of desperation or suspense. If any spoke, it was the rough and indifferent, whose words fell like blows on the distressed silence. Many were visibly trembling, others had whitened beneath the tropical tan, and the wondering faces of children, who feared without understanding, turned now and again to search for their elders up and down the lines.
The drivers distributed themselves among the Israelites and each with a scribe went methodically along the files choosing every tenth.
|Get thee to my house and bring me my lists,| Atsu said to the soldier who was beginning on Judah. |I will look to thy work.| The man crossed his left hand to his right shoulder and hastened away.
One by one nine Israelites dropped out of line as Atsu numbered them and returned to camp. He touched the tenth.
|Name?| the scribe asked.
|Deborah,| was the reply.
Meanwhile Atsu walked rapidly down the line to Rachel. The Hebrews fell out as he passed, and the relief on the faces of one or two was mingled with astonishment. He paused before the girl, hesitating. Words did not rise readily to his lips at any time; at this moment he was especially at loss.
|Thou canst abide here, in perfect security -- with me,| he said at last. She shook her head. |I thank thee, my good master.|
|For thy sake, not mine own, I would urge thee,| he continued with an unnatural steadiness. |Thou canst accept of me the safety of marriage. Nothing more shall I offer -- or demand.|
The color rushed over the girl's face, but he went on evenly.
|A part go to Silsilis, another to Syene, a third to Masaarah. If thine insulter asks concerning thy whereabouts I shall not trouble myself to remember. But what shall keep him from searching for thee -- and are there any like to defend thee, if he find thee, seeing I am not there? And even if thou art securely hidden, thou hast never dreamed how heavy is the life of the stone-pits, Rachel.|
|Keep Deborah here,| the girl besought him, distressed. |She is old and will perish -- |
|Nay, I will not send thee out alone,| was the reply. |If thou goest, so must she. But -- hast thou no fear?|
Once again she shook her head.
|I trust to the triumph of the good,| she replied earnestly.
The sound of the scribe's approach behind him, moved him on.
|Farewell,| he said as he went, and added no more, for his composure failed him.
|The grace of the Lord God attend thee,| she whispered. |Farewell.|
All the morning the work went on, and when the Egyptian mid-winter noon lay warm on the flat country, three hundred Israelites were ready for the long march to the Nile. They left behind them a camp oppressed with that heart-soreness, which affliction added to old afflictions brings, -- the numb ache of sorrow, not its lively pain. Only Deborah, the childless, and Rachel, the motherless, went with lighter hearts, -- if hearts can be light that go forward to meet the unknown fortunes of bond-people.
As they moved out, one of the older Hebrews in the forward ranks began to sing, in a wild recitative chant, of Canaan and the freedom of Israel. The elders in the line near him took it up and every face in the long column lighted and was lifted in silent concord with the singers. Atsu in his chariot, close by, scanned his lists absorbedly, but one of the drivers hurried forward with a demand for silence. A young Hebrew, who had tramped in agitated silence just ahead, worked up into recklessness by the fervor of the singers, defied him. His voice rang clear above the song.
|Go to, thou bald-faced idolater! Israel will cease to do thy bidding one near day.|
The driver forced his way into the front ranks and began to lay about him with his knout. Instantly he was cast forth by a dozen brawny arms.
|Mutiny!| he bawled.
A group of drivers reinforced him at once.
|By Bast,| the foremost cried, as he came running. |The sedition of the renegade, Mesu, bears early fruit!|
But the spirit of rebellion became contagious and the men of Israel began to throw themselves out of line. At this moment, Atsu seemed to become conscious of the riot and drove his horses between the combatants.
|Into ranks with you!| he commanded, pressing forward upon the Hebrews. The men obeyed sullenly.
|I have said there was to be no use of the knouts,| he said sharply, turning upon the drivers. |Forward with them!|
The first driver muttered.
|What sayest thou?| Atsu demanded.
The man's mouth opened and closed, and his eyes drew up, evilly, but he made no answer.
|Forward with them,| Atsu repeated, without removing his gaze from the driver.
Slowly, and now silently, the hereditary slaves of the Pharaoh moved out of Pa-Ramesu. And of all the departing numbers and of all that remained behind, none was more stricken in heart than Atsu, the stern taskmaster over Israel.