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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IX THE COLLAR OF GOLD

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER IX THE COLLAR OF GOLD

The next morning after his meeting with the golden-haired Israelite, Kenkenes came early to the line of rocks that topped the north wall of the gorge and, ensconced between the gray fragments, looked down unseen on her whenever she came to the valley's mouth. All day long the children came staggering up from the Nile, laden with dripping hides, or returned in a free and ragged line down the green slope of the field to the river again.

Vastly more simple and time-saving would have been one of the capacious water carts. But what would have employed these ten youthful Hebrews in the event of such improvement? There was to be no labor-saving in the quarries. Therefore, through the dust, up the weary slanting plane, again and again till the day's work amounted to a journey of miles, the Hebrew children toiled with their captain and co-laborer, Rachel.

At the summit of the wooden slope the beautiful Israelite, who had preceded her charges, passed up the burden of each one to the Hebrews on the scaffold. From his aery Kenkenes watched this particular phase of her tasks with interest. She was not too far from him for the details of her movements to be distinguishable, and the posture of the outstretched arms and lifted face fulfilled his requirements. He abandoned the modeling of her features for that day and copied the attitude. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon a countryman of hers, strong, young and but lightly bearded, stepped down from his place on the scaffold and relieved her. The sculptor noted the act with some degree of disquiet, hoping that the graceful protests of the girl might prevail. When the stalwart Hebrew overrode her remonstrances, and motioned her toward a place at the side of the frame-work where she might rest, the young sculptor frowned impatiently. But his humane heart chid him and he waited with some assumption of grace till she should take up her burden again.

At sunset he retired cautiously, but several dawns found him among the rocks, with reed pen, papyri and molds of clay. When he climbed to his retreat within the walls of stone, on the hillside in the late afternoon, he hid several studies of the girl's head and statuettes of clay under the matting.

At last he began the creation of Athor the Golden. For days he labored feverishly, forgetting to eat, fretting because the sun set and the darkness held sway for so long. Having overstepped the law, he placed no limit to the extent of his artistic transgression.

After choosing nature as his model, he followed it slavishly. On the occasion of his initial departure from the accepted rules, he had never dreamed it possible to disregard ritualistic commandments so absolutely. He even ignored the passive and meditative repose, immemorial on the carven countenances of Egypt.

The face of Athor, as she put forth her arms to receive the sun, must show love, submission, eagerness and great appeal.

As Kenkenes said this thing to himself, he lowered chisel and mallet and paused. Posture and form would avail nothing without these emotions written on the face. He began to wonder if he might carve them, unaided. He had not found them in the Israelite, and he confessed to himself, with a little laugh, a doubt that he should ever see them on her countenance.

Then a vagabond impulse presented itself unbidden in his mind and was frowned down with a blush of apology to himself. And yet he remembered his coquetry with the Lady Ta-meri as some small defense in the form of precedent.

|Nay,| he replied to this evidence, |it is a different woman. Between myself and Ta-meri it is even odds, and the vanquished will have deserved his defeat.|

That evening -- it was several days after the face of the goddess had begun to emerge from the block of stone -- he went to the upper end of the gorge and passed through the camp on his way home, that he might meet his model.

The laborers had not returned from the quarries, though the evening meal bubbled and fumed over the fires in the narrow avenue between the tents. Kenkenes passed by on the outskirts of the encampment and went on.

Deep shadow lay on the stone-pits when Kenkenes reached the mouth of the gorge, and a cool wind from the Nile swept across the grain. The day's work had been prolonged in the lowering of a huge slab from its position in its native bed. The monolith was already on the brink of the wooden incline, and every man was at the windlasses by which the cables controlling its descent were paid out. Kenkenes saw at a glance that none of the water-bearers was present, and he knew the lovely Israelite was with them. He did not pause.

Before the sound of the quarry stir had been left behind he heard a sharp report, the frightened shrieks of women and shouts of warning. He looked back in time to see the huge stone turn part way round on the chute and rush, end first, earthward. Expectant silence fell, broken only by the vicious snarl of a flying windlass crank. But in an instant the great slab struck the earth with a thunderous sound that reverberated again and again from the barren hills about. A vast all-enveloping cloud of dust and earth filled the hollow quarry like smoke from an explosion. But there was no further outcry, and through the outskirts of the lifting cloud men were seen making deliberate preparations to repair the parted cable. Assured that no calamity had occurred, Kenkenes went on.

In a few steps he met the children water-bearers flying to the scene of the accident. Not one of them bore a water-skin. The excited young Hebrews did not stop to question the sculptor, but ran on, and were swallowed up in dust.

Half-way to the Nile he came upon her whom he sought. She was standing alone in the midst of ten sheepskins, and the grain was wetted with the spilled water. He pointed to the discarded hides about her.

|The camp will go thirsty if the runaways do not return,| he said. |Thy burden is too heavy for even me to-night.|

|They will return,| she answered.

|Aye, it was naught but a parting cable and a falling rock. I was near and saw no evidence of disaster. Had the children asked me, I should have told them as much.|

|They will return,| she repeated, and Kenkenes fancied that there was a dismissal in this quiet repetition. But he did not mean to see it. He went on, with a smile.

|I am glad they did not stop, for I wanted to see thee, with that frightened longing of a man who hath resolved on confession and meeteth his confessor on a sudden. Now that the moment hath arrived I marvel how I shall make my peace with Athor, whose command I most deliberately broke.|

She raised her beautiful eyes to his face and waited for him to proceed. The pose of the head was exactly what he wanted. Rapidly he compared every detail of her face with his memory of the statue of Athor, noting with satisfaction that his studies had been happily faithful. His scrutiny was so swift and skilful that there seemed to be nothing unusual in his gaze.

|I am culpable but impenitent,| he continued. |I shall not forswear mine offense. Neither is there any need of a plea to justify myself, for my very sin is its own justification. Behold me! I perched myself like a sacred hawk at the mouth of the valley and filched thy likeness. Do with me as thou wilt, but I shall die reiterating approval of my deed.|

His extravagant speech wrought an interesting change on the face before him. There was a pronounced curve of her mouth, a slight tension in the chiseled nostril -- in fact, an indefinable disdain that had not been there before. It would become Athor well. Kenkenes understood the look but he did not flinch. Instead he let his head drop slowly until he looked at her from under his brows. Then he summoned into his eyes all the wounded feeling, pathos, soft reproach and appeal, of which his graceless young heart was capable, and gazed at her.

Khufu might have been as easily melted by the twinkle of a rain drop. Never in his life had he faced such comprehensive contemplation. Calm, monumental and icy disdain deepened on every feature.

Kenkenes stood motionless and suffered her to look at him. Being a man of fine soul, the eloquent gaze spoke well-deserved rebuke. He knew that his color had risen, and his eyes fell in spite of heroic efforts to keep them steady. His sensations were unique; never had he experienced the like. When he recovered himself her blue eyes were fixed absently on the distant quarries.

Every impulse urged him to set himself right in the eyes of this most discerning slave.

|Wilt thou forgive me?| he asked earnestly. |I would I could make thee know I crave thy good will.|

There was no mistaking the honesty in these words.

Her face relaxed instantly.

|But I fear I have not set about it wisely,| he added. |Let me give thee a peace-offering to prove my contrition.|

He slipped from about his neck the collar of golden rings and moved forward to put it about her throat.

She drew back, her face flushing hotly under an expression of positive pain.

Kenkenes dropped his hands to his sides with a limpness highly suggestive of desperate perplexity. Was not this a slave? And yet here was the fine feeling of a princess. He stood, for once in his life, at a loss what to do. He could not depart without the greatest awkwardness, and yet, if he lingered, he sacrificed his comfort. Presently he exclaimed helplessly:

|Rachel, do thou tell me what to say or do. It seems that I but sink myself the deeper in the quicksand of thy disapproval at every struggle to escape. Do thou lead me out.|

He had met a slave, justed with an equal and flung up his hands in surrender to his better. He did not confess this to himself, but his words were admission enough. Never would his high-born spirit have permitted him to make such a declaration to one slavish in soul.

The straightforward acknowledgment of defeat and the genuine concern in his voice were irresistible. She answered him at once, distantly and calmly.

|Thou, as an Egyptian, hast honored me, a Hebrew, with thy notice. I have deserved neither gift nor fee.|

|Nay, but let us put it differently,| he replied. |I, as a man, have given thee, a maiden, offense, and having repented, would appease thee with a peace-offering. Believe me, I do not jest. By the gentle goddesses, I fear to speak,| he added breathlessly.

The Israelite's blue eyes were veiled quickly, but the Egyptian guessed aright that she had hidden a smile in them.

|Am I forgiven?| he persisted.

|So thou wilt offend no further,| she said without raising her eyes.

|I promise. And now, since the goddess hath refused mine offering, I may not take it back. What shall I do with this?| he asked, holding up the collar of gold.

|Put it about thy statue's neck,| she said softly.

Kenkenes gasped and retreated a step. Instantly she was imploring his pardon.

|It was a forward spirit in me that made me say it. I pray thee, forgive me.|

|Thou hast given no offense, but how dost thou know of this -- tell me that.|

|I came upon it by accident three days ago. Several of the children had gone fowling for the taskmaster's meal, and were so long absent that I was sent to look for them. The path down the valley is old, and I have followed it with the idea of labor ever in my mind. And this was a moment of freedom, so I thought to spend it where I had not been a slave, I went across the hills, and, being unfamiliar with them, lost my way. When I climbed upon one of the great rocks to overlook the labyrinth, lo! at my feet was the statue. I knew myself the moment I looked, and it was not hard to guess whose work it was.|

She paused and looked at him with appeal on her face.

|Thou hast told no one?|

|Nay,| was the quick and earnest answer.

|Thou hast caught me in a falsehood,| he said. The statement was almost brutal in its directness.

But the question that came back swiftly was not less pointed.

|There was no frieze of bondmaidens -- naught of anything thou hast told me?|

|Nay, not anything. I am carving a statue against the canons of the sculptor's ritual for the sake of my love of beauty. Until thou didst come upon it, I alone possessed the secret. Thou knowest the punishment which will overtake me?|

|Aye, I know right well. Yet fear not. The statue is right cunningly concealed and none will ever find it, for the children were unsuccessful and the meals for the overseer will be brought him from the city hereafter. And I will not betray thee -- I give thee my word.|

Her tone was soft and earnest; her assurances were spoken so confidently, her interest was so genuine, that a queer and unaccountable satisfaction possessed the young artist at once.

At this moment the runaway water-bearers came in sight and in obedience to very evident dismissal in the Israelite's eyes, Kenkenes bade her farewell and left her.

But he had not gone two paces before she overtook him.

|Approach thy work from various directions,| she cautioned, |else thou wilt wear a path which may spy on thee one day.|

The moment the words passed her lips, Kenkenes, who still held the collar, put it about her neck, passing his hands under the thick plaits, and snapped the clasp accurately.

The act was done instantly, and with but a single movement. He was gone, laughing on his way, before she had realized what he had done.

There was revel in the young man's veins that evening, but the great house of his father was silent and lonely. If he would find a companion he must leave its heavy walls. His resolution was not long in making nor his instinct slow in directing him. An hour after the evening meal, when he entered the chariot that waited, he had laid aside the simple tunic, and in festal attire was, every inch of his many inches, the son of the king's favorite artist. His charioteer drove in the direction of the nomarch's house.

The portress conducted him into the faintly lighted chamber of guests and went forth silently. Kenkenes interpreted her behavior at once.

|There is another guest,| he thought with a smile, |and I can name him as promptly as any chanting sorcerer might.| When the serving woman returned she bade him follow her and led the way to the house-top.

There, under the subdued light of a single lamp, was the Lady Ta-meri; at her feet, Nechutes.

|I should wear the symbol-broidered robe of a soothsayer,| the sculptor told himself.

|You made a longer sojourn of your visit to Tape than you had intended,| the lady said, after the greetings.

|Nay, I have been in Memphis twenty days at least.|

|So?| queried Nechutes. |Where dost thou keep thyself?|

|In the garb of labor among the ink-pots and papyri of the sculptor class,| the lady answered. |I warrant there are pigment marks on his fingers even now.|

Kenkenes extended his long right hand to her for inspection. She received it across her pink palm and scrutinized it laughingly.

|Nay, I take it back. Here is naught but henna and a suspicion of attar. He has been idle these days.|

|Hast thou forgotten the efficacy of the lemon in the removal of stains?| the sculptor asked with a smile.

The lady frowned.

|Give us thy news from Tape, then,| she demanded, putting his hand away.

|The court is coming to Memphis sooner. That is all. O, aye, I had well-nigh forgot. There is also talk of a marriage between Rameses and Ta-user.|

|Fie!| the lady scoffed. |Nechutes hath more to tell than that, and he hath stayed in Memphis.|

|Thou wilt come to realize some day, Ta-meri, that I am fitted to the yoke of labor, when I fail thee in all the nicer walks thou wouldst have me tread. Come, out with thy gossip, Nechutes.|

|I had a letter from Hotep to-day -- a budget of news, included with official matters with which the king would acquaint me. Ta-user, with Amon-meses and Siptah, hath joined the court at Tape -- |

|And Siptah, she brought with her -- | the sculptor interrupted softly.

Nechutes cast an expressive look at Kenkenes and went on.

|And the courting hath begun.|

Silence fell, and the lady looked at the two young men with wonder in her eyes.

|Nay, but that is interesting,| Kenkenes admitted, recovering himself. |Tell me more.|

|The offices of cup-bearer and murket are to be bestowed in Memphis,| Nechutes continued.

|And the one falls to Nechutes,| the lady declared triumphantly.

|Of a truth thou hast a downy lot before thee, Nechutes,| the young sculptor said heartily. |And never one so deserving of it. I give thee joy.|

|And the other goes to the noble Mentu,| Nechutes added in a meek voice.

|Sphinx!| Ta-meri cried, tapping him on the head. |You did not tell me that.|

The surprised delight of Kenkenes was not so bewildering as to blind him to the reason why Nechutes had withheld this news from Ta-meri. The blunt Egyptian was not anxious to speed his rival's cause.

|Does my father know of this?| he asked.

|I doubt not. The same messenger that brought me news of mine own appointment departed for On when he learned that Mentu was there.|

|Nay, but that will be wine in his veins,| Kenkenes mused happily. |It will make him young again. His late inactivity hath chafed him sorely.|

|You have come honestly by your labor-loving,| Nechutes commented. |Hotep adds further that Mentu is the only one of the king's new ministers that is no longer a young man.|

|It is Rameses who counsels him, I doubt not,| the sculptor replied. |He hath great faith in the powers of youth. And behold what a cabinet he hath built up for his father. First,| Kenkenes continued, enumerating on his fingers, |there is Nechutes -- |

The new cup-bearer waved his hand, and Kenkenes went on.

|There is my father, the murket. He needs no further praise than the utterance of his name. There is Hotep, on whose lips Toth abideth. There is Seneferu, the faithful, whom the Rebu dreads. Next is Kephren, the mohar, who would outshine his father, the right hand of the great Rameses, had he but nations to conquer. After him, Har-hat -- |

|Hold! He is not appointed of the prince. He was Meneptah's choice -- and his alone,| Nechutes interrupted. |It is rumored that Rameses is not over-fond of him.|

|He will be put to it to hold his high place in the face of the prince's disfavor,| Kenkenes cogitated.

|Nay, but he presses the prince hard for generalship. It must be so, since he could win the king's good will over the protest of Rameses. So I doubt not he can hold his own at court by prudence and strategy.|

Meanwhile Ta-meri, in the depths of her chair, gazed at the pair resentfully. They had grown interested in weighty things and had seemingly forgotten her. So she sighed and bethought her how to punish them.

|What a relief it will be when the Pharaoh returns to Memphis!| she murmured in the pause that now followed. |He will be more welcome to me than the Nile overflow. The city has been a desert to me since he departed.|

Nechutes looked at her with reproach in his eyes.

|Consider the desert, O sweet Oasis,| Kenkenes said softly. |Is not its portion truly grievous if its single palm complain?|

The lady dropped her eyes and her cheeks glowed even through the dusk. After the long interval of Nechutes' blunt love-making the sculptor's subtleties fell most gratefully on her ear.

Nechutes scowled, sighed and finally spoke.

|Tape is afflicted in anticipation of the king's departure,| he observed disjointedly.

|Tape does not love Meneptah as Memphis loves him,| Kenkenes answered. |Hast thou not this moment heard Memphis pine for him? Tape would not have spoken thus. She would have said: 'Would that the king were here that I might ask a boon of him.' Memphis is the cradle of kings; Tape, their tomb. Memphis is full of reverence for the Pharaohs; Tape, of pride; Memphis of loyalty; Tape, of boon-craving. Meneptah returns to the bosom of his mother when he returns to Memphis.|

|But he will not remain here long,| Nechutes went on. |He goes to Tanis to be near the scene of the Israelitish unrest.|

|Alas, Ta-meri, and wilt thou droop again?| Kenkenes asked.

|I fear,| she assented with a little sigh. Then, after a pause, she asked: |Does the murket follow the court?|

Kenkenes shook his head. |Not when the Pharaoh travels. But should he depart permanently from Memphis my father would go. Many of the court returning hither will not proceed to Tanis. The city will not be so desolate then as now.|

|Nay, but I am glad,| she said. |Those who remain will suffice.|

|Of a truth?| Nechutes demanded angrily.

|Have I not said?| she replied.

Nechutes rose slowly and made his way to a chair some distance away from her. Kenkenes immediately guessed why the cup-bearer was hurt, but the lady was innocent. He knew that he had but to speak to restore Nechutes to favor.

Meanwhile the lady, amazed and deeply offended at the desertion of the cup-bearer, had turned her back on him. Kenkenes arose.

Ta-meri sat up in alarm.

|O, do not go. You have but this moment come,| she said.

|Already have I stayed too long,| he replied. |But thy hospitality makes one forget the debt one owes to a prior guest.|

She looked at him from under silken lashes.

|Nechutes has misconducted himself,| she objected, |and I would not be left alone with him.|

|Wouldst thou have me stay and see him restored to favor under my very eyes? Ah, Ta-meri, where is thy womanly compassion?|

She smiled and extended her hand. Kenkenes took it and felt it relax and lie willingly in his palm.

|Nay, do not go,| she pleaded softly.

|Give me leave to come again instead.|

|To-morrow,| she said, half questioning, half commanding. He did not promise, but as he bent over to kiss her hand, he said in a low tone:

|Hast thou forgotten that Nechutes leaves Memphis with the going of the king?|

The lady started and flung a conscience-stricken glance at the scowling cup-bearer. And while her face was turned, Kenkenes departed like a shadow. But the portals of the nomarch's house had hardly closed behind him before he demanded of himself, impatiently, why he had made Nechutes' peace, why he kept the cup-bearer for ever between himself and Ta-meri. And as if to evade this catechism something arose in him and asked him why he should not.

And to this he could give no answer.

Mohar -- The king's pioneer, an office that might be defined as minister of war.

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