For an instant after the sculptor had put the collar about her throat, Rachel stood motionless, her face flushing and whitening with conflicting emotions.
But her indecision was only momentary. Rebellion was in the ascendant.
She thrust her fingers under the band and essayed to wrench off the offending necklace, but the stout fastening held and the flexible braid printed its woof on the back of the soft neck. Almost in tears she undid the clasp and flung the collar away.
It struck the earth with a musical ring, and the green of the wheat hid all but a faint ray of the red metal.
The rout of children descended on her, each clamoring a story of the accident. But without a word she marshaled them and turned once again toward the river to refill the hides. At the water's edge she kept her eyes resolutely from the broad dimpling breast of the Nile toward the south. She feared that she might see the light bari that was driving back to Memphis against that slow but mighty current as easily as if wind and water went with it.
But even before she turned again toward Masaarah, her better nature began to chide her. She remembered her impetuous act with a flush of shame.
|His peace-offering -- a proof of his good will, and thou didst mistreat it, as if he had meant it for a purchase or a fee. The indignity thou hast petulantly fancied, Rachel.|
After a time another thought came to her.
|The act was not womanly. Wherein hast thou rebuked him, in casting away the trinket? Thou hast the dignity of Israel to uphold in thy dealings with this young man.|
When she reached the spot where the collar had fallen, she sought for it furtively, and having found it, thrust it into the bosom of her dress.
|I shall not keep it,| she said, quieting the protests of her pride. |I shall make him take it back to-morrow.|
Entering her low shelter in the camp some time later, she found Deborah absent. Impelled by an unreasoning desire to keep secret this event, she hastily hid the collar in the sand of the tent floor and laid the straw matting of her bed smoothly over its burial place. Again she struggled with her pride and demanded of herself why she had become secretive.
|Fie!| she replied. |How couldst thou tell this story to Deborah? Why, it is well-nigh unbecoming.|
The dusk settled down over the valley. Deborah came in like a phantom from the camp-fires with the evening meal, and the pair sat down together to eat, Rachel silent, Deborah thoughtful.
|Another Egyptian comes to govern Masaarah,| the old woman observed. |Agistas departed but now, leaving the camp in charge of the under-drivers.|
|It makes little odds with us -- this change of taskmasters, Deborah -- be he Agistas or any other Egyptian. They are masters and we continue to be slaves,| Rachel answered after a little silence.
|Nay, art thou losing spirit?| Deborah asked with animation. |How shall the elders keep of good heart if the young surrender?|
|I despair not,| the girl protested. |I did but remark this thing; and I have spoken truly, have I not?|
|Even so. But this evening there must be more recognition in thee of thy lot since it overflows in words. I, too, have spoken truly, have I not?|
Rachel smiled. |It may be,| she said.
When they had supped, they went out before the tent to get the cooling air. It was Deborah again that first broke the silence.
|Elias is smitten with blindness from the stone-dust,| she said absently.
|For all time?| Rachel asked anxiously.
|Nay, if he could but rest them and bathe them in the proper simples.|
|Alas -- | Rachel began, but she checked herself hurriedly. |He was my father's servant,| she said instead -- |the last living one. Jehovah spare him. One by one they fall, until I shall be utterly without tie to prove I once had kindred.|
Deborah looked at the girl fixedly for a moment. Then she put up her hand and leaned on the soft young shoulder.
|Am I not left?| she asked.
Rachel passed her arm about the bowed figure, with some compunction for her complaint.
|My mother's friend!| she exclaimed lovingly. |I know she died in peace, remembering that I was left to thy care.|
|I mind me,| she continued after a little silence, |how tender and frail she was. Thou wast as a strong tree beside her. I seem to myself to be mighty compared to my memory of her.|
Deborah took the white hand that lay across her shoulder. |Thou art like to thy father. Thy mother was black-eyed and fragile -- born to the soft life of a princess. Misfortune was her death, though she struggled to live for thee. Praise God that thou art like to thy father, else thou hadst died in thine infancy.|
|Nay, hath my lot been sterner than the portion of all Israel?|
|Of a surety, thou canst guess it, for are there many of thy tribe like thee -- without a kinsman?|
Rachel shook her head, and the old woman continued absently: |Of thy mother's family there were four, but they died of the heavy labor. Thy father, Maai, surnamed the Compassionate, was the eldest of six. They were mighty men, tawny like the lion and as bold -- worthy sons of Judah! But there is none left -- not one.|
|Ten!| Rachel exclaimed, |and not one remaineth!|
|Aye, and they died as though they were plague-smitten -- in pairs and singly, in a little space.|
Deborah felt a strong tremor run through the young figure against which she leaned, and the arm across her shoulder was withdrawn, that the hand might clear the eyes of their tears.
The old woman discreetly held her peace till the girl should recover.
|Thou must bear in mind, Rachel,| she began, after a long silence, |that Egypt had an especial grudge against thy house, -- hence, its especial vengeance. Seti, the Pharaoh, began the oppression of the children of Israel, but the bondage was not all-embracing, in the beginning. There were Hebrews to whom Egypt was indebted and chief among these was thy father's grandsire, Aram. Seti paid the debt to him by sparing his small lands and his little treasure and himself when he put Israel to toil. Thy father's father, thy grandsire, Elihu, younger brother to Amminadab, who was father-in-law to Aaron, came to his share of his father's goods when Aram was gathered to his fathers. This was in the latter days of Seti. Thy grandsire sent his little treasure into Arabia and bought lands with it. After many trials he caused to grow thereon a rose-shrub which had no period of rest -- blooming freshly with every moon. And there he had the Puntish scentmaker on the hip, for the Arabic rose rested often. The attar he distilled from his untiring flower, had another odor, wild and sweet and of a daintier strength. When he was ready to trade he sent in a vial of crystal to Neferari Thermuthis and to Moses, then a young man and a prince of the realm, a few drops of this wondrous perfume. Doubt not, the Hebrew prince knew that the gift came from a son of Israel. The queen and Moses used the attar. Therefore all purple-wearing Egypt must have it or die, since the fashion had been set within the boundaries of the throne. Then did Elihu name a price for his sweet odor that might have been small had each drop been a jewel. But Egypt opened her coffers and bought as though her idols had broken their silence and commanded her.|
The old woman paused and reflected with grim satisfaction on the remote days of an Israelitish triumph.
|Meanwhile,| she continued finally, |thy grandsire lived humbly in Goshen. None dreamed that this keeper of a little flock, lord over a little tent and tiller of a few acres, was the great Syrian merchant who was despoiling Mizraim.
|Next he became a money-lender, through his steward, to the Egyptians, and wrested from them what they had saved in putting Israel to toil without hire. So his riches increased a hundredfold and the half of noble Egypt was beholden to him. Then he turned to aid his oppressed brethren.
|He bribed the taskmasters or kept watch over them and discovered wherein they were false to the Pharaoh, and held their own sin over their heads till they submitted through fear of him. He filled Israel's fields with cattle, the hills with Hebrew flocks, the valleys with corn. Alas! Had it not been -- but, nay, Jehovah was not yet ready. He had chosen Moses to lead Israel.|
The old woman paused and sighed. After a silence she continued:
|Thy father fell heir to the most of his wealth, but not to his immunity. With a heart as great as his sire's he continued the good work. He wedded thy mother, the daughter of another free Israelite, and in his love for her, never was man more happy. In the midst of his hope and his peace an enemy betrayed him to Rameses, the Incomparable Pharaoh. And Rameses remembered not his father's covenant. So Maai's lands, his flocks, his home, were taken; thou, but new-born, and thy mother with her people were sent to the brick-fields -- himself and his brothers to the mines; and in a few years thou wast all that was left of thy father's house.|
The effect of this recital on the young Israelite was deep. Anguish, wrath, and the pain that intensifies these two, helplessness, inflamed her soul. The story was not entirely new to her; she had heard it, a part at a time, in her childhood; but now, her understanding fully developed, the whole history of her family's wrongs appealed to her in all its actual savagery. Egypt, as a unit, like a single individual, had done her people to death. Between her and Egypt, then, should be bitter enmity, rancor that might never be subdued, and eternal warfare. Her enemy had conquered her, had put her in bondage, and made sport of her as a pastime. The accumulation of injury and insult seemed more than she could bear, and the vague hope of Israel in Moses seemed in the face of Egypt's strength a folly most fatuous.
|O Egypt! Egypt!| she exclaimed with concentrated passion. |What a debt of vengeance Israel owes to thee!|
The old woman laid her shriveled hands on the arm of her ward.
|Aye, and it shall be paid,| she said fiercely. |Thou canst not get thy people back, nor alleviate for them now the pangs that killed them; but to the mortally wronged there is one restitution -- revenge!|
At this moment some one over near the western limits of the camp cried out a welcome; a commotion arose, noisy with cheers and rapid with running. Presently it died down and the pair before the tent saw a horseman ride through the gloom toward the empty frame house of the overseer.
The two women lapsed immediately into their absorbed communion again.
|Lay it not to Egypt alone, but to all the offenders against Jehovah. Midian and Amalek, passing through to do homage to the Pharaoh, sneer at Israel; Babylon in her chariot of gold flicks her whip at the sons of Abraham as she bears her gifts of sisterhood to Memphis. We suffer not only the insults of a single nation, but despiteful use by all idolaters. Let but the world gather before Jehovah's altar and there shall be no more affronts to Israel.|
|Must we bide that time?| Rachel asked. |Or shall we bring it about?|
|Nay,| Deborah replied scornfully. |Even my mystic eyes are not potent enough to see so far into the future. We throw off the bondage sooner than thou dreamest, daughter of Judah, but if the nations bow at the altar of Jehovah, it will take a stronger hand than Israel's to bring them there.|
After a silence Rachel murmured, as though to herself: |We shall go, and soon, and leave no debt behind. Will the vengeance befall all Egypt, the good as well as the bad?|
|Hast thou forgotten God's promise to Abraham concerning the wicked cities of the plain? If there were ten righteous therein He had not destroyed them utterly.|
|Nay, but if there be but one therein?|
|One? Now, for what one dost thou concern thyself? Atsu?|
Rachel, startled out of her dream, hesitated, her face coloring hotly, though unseen, beneath the kindly dusk of night.
|Yea,| she said in a low tone, wondering gravely if she spake the truth. Somebody beside her laughed the short unready laugh of one slow at mirth.
|Of a truth?| he asked. Rachel turned about and faced Atsu. He took her hands and drew her near him.
|Nay, Deborah,| he said sadly; |pursue her not into the secret chambers of her young heart. I doubt not there is 'one' therein, but why shall we demand what manner of 'one' it is when she may not even confess it to herself?|
Confused and a little guilty by reason of the necklace, and wondering why she admitted any guilt, Rachel drew away from him.
|Nay,| he went on, retaining his clasp. |Let there be perfect understanding between us twain, thou Radiant One. I shall not plague thee with my love, nor even let it be apparent after this. Men have lived in constant fellowship, but no nearer to the women whom they love, and am I less able than my kind? So I be not hateful to thee, Rachel, I am content.|
|Hateful to me!| she cried reproachfully.
|Nay? No more then. I have spoken the last with thee concerning my love. And thus I seal the pact.|
He drew her, unresisting, to him, and kissed her forehead.
|For my gentleness to the Hebrews of Pa-Ramesu,| he continued in a calmer tone as he released her, |they have stripped me of my rank and sent me to govern Masaarah. So they thought to punish me, never dreaming that they joined me to Rachel, and hid me away in a nook with a handful to whom I may be merciful and none will spy upon me! They thwarted their end.|
|Happy Masaarah!| Rachel said earnestly.
Atsu laughed again and disappeared in the dark.
Rachel drew her hand furtively across the place on her brow that the taskmaster's lips had touched. The keen eyes of the old Israelite saw the motion and understood it.
|It is not Atsu,| she said astutely.
|Nay,| the girl protested, |and yet it is Atsu, in mine own meaning, or any one in Egypt who is fair to Israel. The grace of that one would be sufficient in God's sight to save all Egypt from doom. That was my meaning.|
The light in the frame quarters of the taskmaster was extinguished and at that moment a shadowy figure emerged from the dark and approached the pair.
|A courier from Mesu speaketh without the camp, even now,| the visiting Israelite said in a half-whisper. |Atsu hath put out his light, to sleep, but even if he sleep not, the people may go without fear and listen to the speaker. Come ye and give him audience.|
|We come,| Deborah replied.
As the old woman and her ward walked down through the night in the direction taken by the entire population of the quarries, Deborah said quietly:
|Thy cloud of depression hath rifted somewhat since sunset, daughter.|
Rachel pressed her hand repentantly.
At the side of an open space, now closely filled with sitting listeners, stood a Hebrew, not older than thirty-five. A knot of flaming pitch, stuck in a crevice of rock near him, lighted his face and figure. His frame had the characteristic stalwart structure of the Israelitish bondman. The black hair waved back from a placid white forehead; the eyes were serene and level, the mouth rather wide but firm, the jaw square. The beard would have been light for a much younger man, and it was soft, red-brown and curling. It added a mildness and tenderness to the face. Whoever looked upon him was impressed with the unflinching piety of the countenance.
This was Caleb the Faithful, son of Jephunneh, the Kenezite.
He was talking when Rachel and her ancient guardian entered the hollow, and he continued in a passive tone throughout the several arrivals thereafter. He spoke as one that believes unfalteringly and has evidence for the faith. He did not recount Israel's wrongs -- he would have worked against his purpose had he wrought his hearers into an angry mood. Besides, the story would have been superfluous. None knew Israel's wrongs better than Israel.
He talked of redemption and Canaan.