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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER III THE MESSENGER

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER III THE MESSENGER

Mentu returned from the session at the palace, uncommunicative and moody. When, after the evening meal, Kenkenes crossed the court to talk with him, he found the elder sculptor feeding a greedy flame in a brazier with the careful plans for the new temple to Set. Kenkenes retired noiselessly and saw his father no more that night.

The next day Mentu was bending over fresh sheets of papyrus, and when his son entered and stood beside him he raised his head defiantly.

|I have another royal obelisk to decorate,| he said, fixing the young man with a steady eye, |of a surety, -- without doubt, -- inevitably, -- for the thing is all but ready to be set up at On.|

|I am glad of that,| Kenkenes replied gravely. |Let me make clean copies of these which are complete.|

He gathered up the sheets and took his place at the opposite table. Then ensued a long silence, broken only by the loud and restless investigations of the omnipresent and unabashed ape.

At last the elder sculptor spoke.

|The eye of heaven must be unblinkingly upon the divine Meneptah,| he observed, as though he had but thought aloud.

Kenkenes gazed at his father with the inquiry on his face that he did not voice. The sculptor had risen from his bench and was searching a chest of rolled plans near him. He caught his son's look and closed his mouth on an all but spoken expression. Kenkenes continued to gaze at him in some astonishment, and the elder man muttered to himself:

|I like him not, though if Osiris should ask me why, I could not tell. But he hath a too-ready smile, and by that I know he will twirl Meneptah like a string about his finger.|

The eyes of the young man widened. |The new adviser?| he asked.

|Even so,| was the emphatic reply.

Before Kenkenes could ask for further enlightenment a female slave bowed in the doorway.

|The Lady Senci sends thee greeting and would speak with thee. She is at the outer portal in her curricle,| she said, addressing Mentu.

The great man sprang to his feet, glanced hurriedly at his ink-stained fingers, at his robe, and then fled across the court into the door he had entered to change his dress the day before.

Kenkenes smiled, for Mentu had been a widower these ten Nile floods.

The slave still lingered.

|Also is there a messenger for thee, master,| she said, bowing again.

|So? Let him enter.|

The man whom the slave ushered in a few minutes later was old, spare and bent, but he was alert and restless. His eyes were brilliant and over them arched eyebrows that were almost white. He made a jerky obeisance.

|Greeting, son of Mentu. Dost thou remember me?|

The young man looked at his visitor for a moment.

|I remember,| he said at last. |Thou art Ranas, courier to Snofru, priest of On. Greeting and welcome to Memphis. Enter and be seated.|

|Many thanks, but mine errand is urgent. I have been a guest of my son, who abideth just without Memphis, and this morning a messenger came to my son's door. He had been sent by Snofru to Tape, but had fallen ill on the river between On and Memphis. As it happened, the house of my son was the nearest, and thither he came, in fever and beyond traveling another rod. As the message he bore concerned the priesthood, I went to Asar-Mut and I am come from him to thee. He bids thee prepare for a journey before presenting thyself to him, at the temple.|

Kenkenes frowned in some perplexity.

|His command is puzzling. Am I to become a messenger for the gods?|

|The first messenger was a nobleman,| the old courier explained in a conciliatory tone, |and the holy father spoke of thy fidelity and despatch.|

|Mine uncle is gracious. Salute him for me and tell him I obey.|

The old man bowed once more and withdrew.

When Kenkenes crossed the court a little time later he met his father.

|The Lady Senci brings me news that makes me envious,| Mentu began at once, |and shames me because of thee!|

Kenkenes lifted an expressive brow at this unexpected onslaught. |Nay, now, what have I done?|

|Nothing!| Mentu asserted emphatically; |and for that reason am I wroth. The Lady Senci's nephew, Hotep, is the new chief of the royal scribes.|

|I call that good tidings,| Kenkenes replied, a cheerful note in his voice, |and worth greeting with a health to Hotep. But thou must remember, my father, that he is older than I.|

|How much?| the elder sculptor asked.

|Three whole revolutions of Ra.|

The artist regarded his son scornfully for a moment.

|The Lady Senci wishes me to prepare plans for the further elaboration of her tomb,| he went on, at last, |but the work on the obelisk may not be laid aside. If I might trust you to go on with them, the Lady Senci need not wait.|

|But I have, this moment, been summoned by my holy uncle, Asar-Mut, to go on a journey, and I know not when I return,| Kenkenes explained.

Mentu gazed at him without comprehending.

|A messenger on his way to Tape from Snofru was overtaken with misfortune here, and Asar-Mut, getting word of it, sent for me,| the young man continued. |I can only guess that he wishes me to carry on the message.|

|Humph!| the elder sculptor remarked. |Asar-Mut has kingly tastes. The couriers of priests are not usually of the nobility. But get thee gone.|

The pair separated and the young man passed into the house. The ape under the bunch of leaves in a palm-top looked after him fixedly for a moment, and then sliding down the tree, disappeared among the flowers.

When, half an hour later, Kenkenes entered a cross avenue leading to a great square in which the temple stood, he found the roadway filled with people, crowding about a group of disheveled women. These were shrieking, wildly tearing their hair, beating themselves and throwing dust upon their heads. Kenkenes immediately surmised that there was something more than the usual death-wail in this.

He touched a man near him on the shoulder.

|Who may these distracted women be?| he asked.

|The mothers of Khafra and Sigur, and their women.|

|Nay! Are these men dead? I knew them once.

|They are by this time. They were to be hanged in the dungeon of the house of the governor of police at this hour,| the man answered with morbid relish in his tone. Kenkenes looked at him in horror.

|What had they done?| he asked. The man plunged eagerly into the narrative.

|They were tomb robbers and robbed independently of the brotherhood of thieves. They refused to pay the customary tribute from their spoil to the chief of robbers, and whatsoever booty they got they kept, every jot of it. Innumerable mummies were found rifled of their gold and gems, and although the chief of robbers and the governor of police sought and burrowed into every den in the Middle country, they could not find the missing treasure. Then they knew that the looting was not done by any of the licensed robbers. So all the professional thieves and all the police set themselves to seek out the lawless plunderers.|

|Humph!| interpolated Kenkenes expressively.

|Aye. And it was not long with all these upon the scent until Khafra and Sigur were discovered coming forth from a tomb laden with spoil, and in the struggle which ensued they did murder. But the constabulary have not found the rest of the booty, though they made great search for it and may have put the thieves to torture. Who knows? They do dark things in the dungeon under the house of the governor of police.|

|And so they hanged them speedily,| said Kenkenes, desirous of ending the grisly tale.

|And so they hanged them. I could not get in to see, and these screaming mothers attracted me, so I am here. But my neighbor's son is a friend of the jailer, and I shall know yet how they died.|

But Kenkenes was stalking off toward the temple, his shoulders lifted high with disgust.

|O, ye inscrutable Hathors,| he exclaimed finally; |how ye have disposed the fortunes of four friends! Two of us hanged, a third in royal favor, a fourth an -- an -- an offender against the gods.|

Presently the avenue opened into the temple square. With reverential hand Memphis put back her dwellings and her bazaars, that profane life might not press upon the sacred precincts of her mighty gods. Here was a vast acreage, overhung with the atmosphere of sanctity. The grove of mysteries was there, dark with profound shadow, and silent save for a lonesome bird song or the suspirations of the wind. The great pool in its stone basin reflected a lofty canopy of sunlit foliage, and the shaggy peristyle of palm-tree trunks.

The shadow of the great structure darkened its approaches before it was clearly visible through the grove. The devotee entered a long avenue of sphinxes -- fifty pairs lining a broad highway paved with polished granite flagging.

At its termination the two truncated pyramids that formed the entrance to the temple towered upward, two hundred feet of massive masonry. Egypt had dismantled a dozen mountains to build two.

When he reached the gateway that opened like a tunnel between the ponderous pylons, he was delayed some minutes waiting till the porter should admit him through the wicket of bronze. At last, a lank youth, the son of the regular keeper, appeared, and, with an inarticulate apology, bade him enter.

Within the overarching portals he was met by a novice, a priest of the lowest orders, to whom he stated his mission. With a sign to the young man to follow, the priest passed through the porch into the inner court of the temple. This was simply an immense roofless chamber. Its sides were the outer walls of the temple proper, reinforced by stupendous pilasters and elaborated with much bas-relief and many intaglios. The ends were formed by the inner pylons of the porch and outer pylons of the main temple. The latter were guarded by colossal divinities. Down the center of the court was a second aisle of sphinxes. They had entered this when the priest, with a startled exclamation, sprang behind one of the recumbent monsters in time to avoid the frolicsome salutation of an ape.

|Anubis! Mut, the Mother of Darkness, lends you her cloak! Out!| Kenkenes cried, striking at his pet. The wary animal eluded the blow and for a moment revolved about another sphinx, pursued by his master, and then fled like a phantom out of the court by the path he came. By this time the priest had emerged from his refuge and was attempting to prevent the young man's interference with the will of the ape.

|Nay, nay; I am sorry!| the priest exclaimed as Anubis disappeared. |It is an omen. Toth visiteth Ptah; Wisdom seeketh Power! Came he by divine summons or did he seek the great god? It is a problem for the sorcerers and is of ominous import!|

|The pestiferous creature followed me unseen from the house,| Kenkenes explained, rather flushed of countenance. |To me it is an omen that the idler who keeps the gate is not vigilant.|

The priest shook his head and led the way without further words into the temple. Here the young sculptor was conducted through a wilderness of jacketed columns, over pavements that rang even under sandaled feet, to the center of a vast hall. The priest left him and disappeared through the all-enveloping twilight into the more sacred part of the temple.

In a moment, Asar-Mut, high priest to Ptah, appeared, approaching through the dusk. He wore the priestly habiliments of spotless linen, and, like a loose mantle, a magnificent leopard-skin, which hung by a claw over the right shoulder and, passing under the left arm, was fastened at the breast by a medallion of gold and topaz. He was a typical Egyptian, but thinner of lip and severer of countenance than the laity. The wooden dolls tumbled about by the children of the realm were not more hairless than he. His high, narrow head was ghastly in its utter nakedness.

Kenkenes bent reverently before him and was greeted kindly by the pontiff.

|Hast thou guessed why I sent for thee?| he asked at once.

|I have guessed,| Kenkenes replied, |but it may be wildly.|

|Let us see. I would have thee carry a message for the brotherhood.|

Kenkenes inclined his head.

|Good. Be thy journey as quick as thy perception. I ask thy pardon for laying the work of a temple courier upon thy shoulders, but the message is of such import that I would carry it myself were I as young and unburdened with duty as thou.|

|I am thy servant, holy Father, and well pleased with the opportunity that permits me to serve the gods.|

|I know, and therefore have I chosen thee. My trusted courier is dead; the others are light-minded, and Tape is in the height of festivity. They might delay -- they might be lured into forgetting duty, and,| the pontiff lowered his voice and drew nearer to Kenkenes, |and there are those that may be watching for this letter. A nobleman would not be thought a messenger. Thou dost incur less danger than the clout-wearing runner for the temple.|

A light broke over Kenkenes.

|I understand,| he said.

|Go, then, by private boat at sunset, and Ptah be with thee. Make all speed.| He put a doubly wrapped scroll into Kenkenes' hands. |This is to be delivered to our holy Superior, Loi, priest of Amen. Farewell, and fail not.|

Kenkenes bowed and withdrew.

It was long before sunset, and he had an unfulfilled promise in mind. He crossed the square thoughtfully and paused by the pool in its center. The surface, dark and smooth as oil, reflected his figure and face faithfully and to his evident satisfaction. He passed around the pool and walked briskly in the direction of another narrow passage lined by rich residences.

He knocked at a portal framed by a pair of huge pilasters, which towered upward, and, as pillars, formed two of the colonnade on the roof. A portress admitted him with a smile and led him through the sumptuously appointed chamber of guests into the intramural park. There she indicated a nook in an arbor of vines and left him.

With a silent foot he crossed the flowery court and entered the bower. The beautiful dweller sat in a deep chair, her little feet on a carved footstool, a silver-stringed lyre tumbled beside it. She was alone and appeared desolate. When the tall figure of the sculptor cast a shadow upon her she looked up with a little cry of delight.

|Oh,| she exclaimed, |a god led thee hither to save me from the solitude. It is a moody monster not catalogued in the list of terrors.| She thrust the lyre aside with her sandal and pushed the footstool, only a little, away from her.

|Sit there,| she commanded. Kenkenes obeyed willingly. He drew off his coif and tossed it aside.

|Thou seest I am come in the garb of labor,| he confessed.

|I see,| she answered severely. |Am I no longer worthy the robe of festivity?|

|Ah, Ta-meri, thou dost wrong me,| he said. |Chide me, but impugn me not. Nay, I am on my way to Tape. I was summoned hurriedly and am already dismissed upon mine errand, but I could not use myself so ill as to postpone my visit for eighteen days.|

She jeered at him prettily.

|To hear thee one would think thou hadst been coming as often as Nechutes.|

|How often does Nechutes come?|

|Every day.|

|Of late?| he asked, with a laugh in his eyes.

|Nay,| she answered sulkily. |Not since the day -- that day!|

Kenkenes was silent for a moment. Then he put his elbow on the arm of her chair and leaned his head against his hand. The attitude brought him close to her.

|All these days,| he said at length, |he has been unhappy among the happy and the unhappiest among the sad. He has summoned the shuddering Pantheon, to hear him vow eternal unfealty to thee, Ta-meri -- and lo! while they listened he begged their most potent charm to hold thee to him still. Poor Nechutes!|

|Thou dost treat it lightly,| she reproached him, her eyes veiled, |but it is of serious import to -- to Nechutes.|

|Nay, I shall hold my tongue. I efface myself and intercede for him, and thou dost call it exulting. And when I am fallen from thy favor there will be none to plead my cause, none to hide her misty eyes with contrite lashes.|

|Mine eyes are not misty,| she retorted.

|Thou hast said,| he admitted, in apology. |It was not a happy term. I meant bejeweled with repentant dew.|

She shook her little finger at him.

|If thou dost persist in thy calumny of me, thou mayest come to test thy dismal augury,| she warned.

He dropped his eyes and his mouth drooped dolorously.

|I come for comfort, and I get Nechutes and all the unpropitious possibilities that his name suggests.|

|Comfort? Thou, in trouble? Thou, the light-hearted?| she laughed.

|Nay; I am discontented, but I might as well hope to heave the skies away with my shoulders as to rebel against mine oppression. So I came to be petted into submission.|

|Nay, dost thou hear him?| the lady cried. |And he came, because he was sure he would get it!|

|And he will go away because the Lady Ta-meri means he shall not have it,| he exclaimed. He reached toward his coif and immediately a panic-stricken little hand stayed him.

|Nay,| she said softly. |I was but retaliating. Hast thou not plagued me, and may I not tease thee a little in revenge? Say on.|

|My -- but now I bethink me, I ought not to tell thee. It savors of that which so offends thy nice sense of gentility -- labor,| he said, sinking back in his easy attitude again.

|Fie, Kenkenes,| she said. |Hath some one put thy slavish love of toil under ban? Does that oppress thee?| He reproved her with a pat on the nearest hand.

|The king toils; the priests toil; the powers of the world labor. None but the beautiful idle may be idle, and that for their beauty's sake. Nay, it is not that I may not work, but I may not work as I wish and I am heart-sick therefore.|

His last words ended in a tone of genuine dejection. His eyes were fixed on the grass of the nook and his brows had knitted slightly. The expression was a rare one for his face and in its way becoming -- for the moment at least. The hand he had patted drew nearer, and at last, after a little hesitancy, was laid on his black hair. He lifted his face and took cheer, from the light in her eyes, to proceed.

|Since I may speak,| he began, |I shall. Ta-meri, thou knowest that as a sculptor I work within limits. The stature of mine art must crouch under the bounds of the ritual. It is not boasting if I say that I see, with brave eyes, that Egypt insults herself when she creates horrors in stone and says, 'This is my idea of art.' And these things are not human; neither are they beasts -- they are grotesques that verge so near upon a semblance of living things as to be piteous. They thwart the purpose of sculpture. Why do we carve at all, if not to show how we appear to the world or the world appears to us? Now for my rebellion. I would carve as we are made; as we dispose ourselves; aye, I would display a man's soul in his face and write his history on his brow. I would people Egypt with a host of beauty, grace and naturalness -- |

|Just as if they were alive?| Ta-meri inquired with interest.

|Even so -- of such naturalness that one could guess only by the hue of the stone that they did not breathe.|

The lady shrugged her shoulders and laughed a little.

|But they do not carve that way,| she protested. |It is not sculpture. Thou wouldst fill the land with frozen creatures -- ai!| with another little shrug. |It would be haunted and spectral. Nay, give me the old forms. They are best.|

Kenkenes fairly gasped with his sudden descent from earnest hope to disappointment. A flood of half-angry shame dyed his face and the wound to his sensibilities showed its effect so plainly that the beauty noted it with a sudden burst of compunction.

|Of a truth,| she added, her voice grown wondrous soft, |I am full of sympathy for thee, Kenkenes. Nay, look up. I can not be happy if thou art not.|

|That suffices. I am cheered,| he began, but the note of sarcasm in his voice was too apparent for him to permit himself to proceed. He caught up the lyre, and drawing up a diphros -- a double seat of fine woods -- rested against it and began to improvise with an assumption of carelessness. Ta-meri sank back in her chair and regarded him from under dreamy lids -- her senses charmed, her light heart won by his comeliness and talent. Kenkenes became conscious of her inspection, at last, and looked up at her. His eyes were still bright with his recent feeling and the hue in his cheeks a little deeper. The admiration in her face became so speaking that he smiled and ran without pausing into one of the love-lyrics of the day. Breaking off in its midst, he dropped the lyre and said with honest apology in his voice:

|I crave thy pardon, Ta-meri. What right had I to weight thee with my cares! It was selfish, and yet -- thou art so inviting a confidante, that it is not wholly my fault if I come to seek of thee, my oldest and sweetest friend, the woman comfort that was bereft me with my rightful comforter.|

|Neither mother nor sister nor lady-love,| she mused. He nodded, but the slight interrogative emphasis caught him, and he looked up at her. He nodded again.

|Nay, nor lady-love, thanks to the luck of Nechutes.|

|Nechutes is no longer lucky,| she said deliberately.

|No matter,| Kenkenes insisted. |I shall be gone eighteen days, and his luck will have changed before I can return.|

|Thine auguries seem to please thee,| she pouted.

He put the back of her jeweled hand against his cheek.

|Nay, I but comfort thee at the sacrifice of mine own peace.|

|A futile sacrifice.|

|What!|

|A futile sacrifice!|

|Ah, Ta-meri, beseech the Goddess Ma to forget thy words!| he cried in mock horror. She tossed her head, and instantly he got upon his feet, catching up his coif as he did so.

|Come, bid me farewell,| he said putting out his hand, |and one of double sweetness, for I doubt me much if Nechutes will permit a welcome when I return.|

|Nechutes will not interfere in mine affairs,| she said, as she rose.

|Nay, I shall know if that be true when I return,| he declared.

She stamped her foot.

|Fie!| he laughed. |Already do I begin to doubt it.|

She turned from him and kept her face away. Kenkenes went to her and, taking both her hands in his, drew her close to him. She did not resist, but her face reproached him -- not for what he was doing, but for what he had done. With his head bent, he looked down into her eyes for a moment. Her red mouth with its sulky pathos was almost irresistible. But he only pressed one hand to his lips.

|I must wait until I return,| he said from the doorway, and was gone.

On the broad bosom of the Nile at sunset, four strong oarsmen were speeding him swiftly up to Thebes. Off the long wharves at the southernmost limits of the city, the rapid boat overtook and passed low-riding, slowly moving stone-barges laden with quarry slaves. The unwieldy craft progressed heavily, nearer and within the darkening shadow of the Arabian hills. Kenkenes watched them as long as they were in sight, an unwonted pity making itself felt in his heart. For even in the dusk he distinguished many women and the immature figures of children; and none knew the quarry life better than he, who was a worker in stone.

In ancient Egypt burglary was reduced to a system and governed by law. The chief of robbers received all the spoil and to him the victimized citizen repaired and, upon payment of a certain per cent. of the value of the object stolen, received his property again. The original burglar and the chief of robbers divided the profits. This traffic was countenanced in Egypt until the country passed into British hands.

The ape was sacred to and an emblem of Toth, the male deity of Wisdom and Law.

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