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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


When the imperative necessity of harmonious expression became apparent, the young artist laid aside his chisel and mallet, and the Arabian desert knew his footsteps no more for many days after the rough-hewing of Athor's face. Instead, he mingled with the people of Memphis in quest of the expression. The pursuit became fascinating and all-absorbing. With the most deliberate calculation, he studied the faces of the betrothed and of newly wedded wives, and finding too much of content therein, he sought out the unelect for study. And with these, his search ended.

Thereafter he made innumerable heads in clay, and covered linen scrolls with drawings. But it was the semblance he gained and not the spirit. The light eluded him.

On the day after Mentu's return from On, Kenkenes paid the first visit to Masaarah since the incident of the collar, -- and the last he thought to make until he had won that for which he strove. He went to bury the matting in the sand and to hide other evidences of recent occupancy about the niche. He left the block of stone undisturbed, for the transgression was not yet apparent on the face of Athor. The scrolls, which had been concealed under the carpeting, were too numerous for his wallet to contain, but he carried the surplus openly in his hand.

It was sunset before he had made an end. To return to the Nile by way of the cliff-front would have saved him time, but there was a boyish wish in his heart to look again on the lovely face that had helped him and baffled him. So he descended into the upper end of the ravine and slowly passed the outskirts of the camp, but the bond-girl was nowhere to be seen. The spaces between the low tents were filled with feeding laborers and there was an unusual amount of cheer to be noted among Israel of Masaarah. Kenkenes heard the talk and laughter with some wonderment as he passed. He admitted that he was disappointed when, without a glimpse of Rachel, he emerged into the Nile valley. But he leaped lightly down the ledge, crossed the belt of rubble, talus and desert sand, and entered the now well-marked wagon road between the dark green meadow land on either side. Egypt was in shadow -- her sun behind the Libyan heights, -- but the short twilight had not fallen. Overhead were the cooling depths of sky, as yet starless, but the river was breathing on the winds and the sibilant murmur of its waters began to talk above the sounds of the city. To the north, the south and the east was pastoral and desert quiet; to the west was the gradual subsidence of urban stir. Frogs were beginning to croak in the distance, and in the long grain here and there, a nocturnal insect chirred and stilled abruptly as the young man passed.

Within a rod of the pier some one called:

|My master!|

The voice came from a distance, but he knew whom he should see when he turned. Half-way across the field toward the quarries Rachel was coming, with a scroll in her lifted hand. He began to retrace his steps to meet her, but she noted the action and quickened her rapid walk into running.

|Thou didst drop this outside the camp,| she said as she came near. |I feared it might have somewhat pertaining to the statue on it, and I have brought it, with the permission of the taskmaster.| She stopped, and putting her hand into the folds of her habit on her breast, hesitated as if for words to speak further. Kenkenes interrupted her with his thanks.

|How thou hast fatigued thyself for me, Rachel! Out of all Egypt I doubt if I might find another so constant guardian of my welfare. The grace of the gods attend thee as faithfully. I thank thee, most gratefully.|

The purpose in her face dissolved, the hand that seemed to hold somewhat in the folds of her habit relaxed and fell slowly. While Kenkenes waited for her to speak, he noted that a dress of unbleached linen replaced the coarse cotton surplice she had worn before, and her feet were shod with simple sandals -- an extravagance among slaves. But the garb was yet too mean. The sculptor wondered at that moment how the sumptuous attire of the high-born Memphian women would become her. He shook his head and in his imagination dressed her in snow-white robes with but the collar of rings about her throat, and stood back to marvel at his picture of splendid simplicity.

|Hast thou not something more to tell me?| he asked kindly. |Do thou rest here on the wharf while we talk. Art thou not quite breathless?|

|Nay, I thank thee,| she faltered. |I may not linger.| The hand once again sought the folds over her breast.

|Then let me walk with thee on thy way. It will be dark soon.|

|Nay,| she protested flushing, |and again, I thank thee. It is not needful.| She made a movement as if to leave him, but he stepped to her side.

|Out upon thee, daughter of Israel, thou art ungracious,| he remonstrated laughingly. |I can not think thee so wondrous brave. For it is a long walk to the camp and the night will be pitch-black. Why may I not go with thee?|

|There is naught to be feared.|

|Of a truth? Those hills are as full of wild beasts as Amenti is of spirits. And even if no hurt befell thee, the trepidation of that long journey would be cruel. Nay; Ptah, the gallant god, would spurn my next offering, did I send thee back to camp alone. Wilt thou come?|

She bowed and dropped behind him. Her resolution to maintain the forms of different rank between them was not characteristic of other slaves he had known. There was no presumption or humble gratitude in her manner when he would offer her the courtesies of an equal, but he had met the disdain of a peer once when he thought he talked with a slave. There was something mocking in her perfunctory deference, but her pride was genuine. Her conduct seemed to say: |I would liefer be a Hebrew and a slave than a princess of the God-forgotten realm of Egypt.|

The young sculptor was unruffled, however. He was turning over in his mind, with interest, the evidence that tended to show that the Israelite had something more to tell him, that her courage had failed her, and that her hand had sought something concealed in her dress. He recalled the former meetings with her and arrived at a surmise so sudden and so conclusive that with difficulty he kept himself from making outward demonstration of his conviction. |The collar, by Apis! I offended her with the trinket. And she came to make me take it back, but her courage fled. Pie upon my clumsy gallantries! I must make amends. I would not have her hate me.|

He broke the silence with an old, old remark -- one that Adam might have made to Eve.

|Look at the stars, Rachel. There is a dark casement in the heavens -- a blink of the eye and the lamp is alight.|

|So I watch them every night. But they are swifter here in Memphis. At Mendes, where Israel toiled once, they are more deliberate,| she answered readily.

|Aye, but you should see them at Philae. They ignite and bound into brilliance like sparks of meeting metal and flint. Ah, but the tropics are precipitate!|

|I know them not,| she ventured.

|Their acquaintance is better avoided. They have no mean -- they leap from extreme to extreme. They are violent, immoderate. It is instant night and instant day; it is the maddest passion of summer always. Nature reigns at the top of her voice and chokes her realm with the fervor of her maternity. Nay, give me the north. I would feel the earth's pulse now and then without burning my fingers.|

|There is room for choice in this land of thine,| she mused after a little.

|Land of mine?| he repeated inquiringly, turning his head to look at her. |Is it not also thine?|

|Nay, it is not the Hebrews' and it never was,| the clear answer came from the dusk behind him.

|So!| he exclaimed. |After four hundred years in Egypt they have not adopted her!|

|We have but sojourned here a night. The journey's end is farther on.|

|Israel hath made a long night of the sojourn,| he rejoined laughingly.

|Nay,| she answered. |Thou hast not said aright. It is Egypt that hath made a long night of our sojourn.|

There was a silence in which Kenkenes felt accused and uncomfortable. It would require little to make harsh the temper of the talk. It lay with him, one of the race of offenders, to make amends.

|It is for me to admit Egypt's sin and ask a truce,| he said gently. |So be thou generous to me, since it is I who am abashed in her stead.|

Again there was silence, broken at last by the Israelite in a voice grown wondrously contrite.

|I do not reproach thee. Nor, indeed, is all Egypt at fault. The sin lies with the Pharaohs.|

|Ah! the gods forbid!| he protested. |Lay it on the shoulders of babes, if thou wilt, but I am party to treason if I but give ear to a rebuke of the monarch.|

|I am not ignorant of the law. I shall spare thee, but I have purchased my right to condemn the king.|

|Thou indomitable! And I accused thee of fear. I retract. But tell me -- what is the journey's end? Is it the ultimate goal of all flesh?|

|Not so,| she answered proudly. |It is Israel's inheritance promised for four hundred years. The time is ripe for possession. We go forward to enter into a land of our own.|

|Thou givest me news. Come, be the Hebrews' historian and enlighten me. Where lies the land?|

Rachel hesitated. To her it was a serious problem to decide whether the lightness of the sculptor's tone were mockery or good fellowship. Kenkenes noted her silence and spoke again.

|Perchance I ask after a hieratic secret. If so, forgive the blunder.|

|Nay,| she replied at once. |It is no secret. All Egypt will know of it ere long. God hath prepared us a land wherein we may dwell under no master but Jehovah. We go hence shortly to enter it. The captain of Israel will lead us thither and Jehovah will show him the way. Abraham was informed that it was a wondrous land wherein the olive and the grape will crown the hills; the corn will fill the valleys; the cattle and sheep, the pasture lands. There will be many rivers instead of one and the desert will lie afar off from its confines. The sun will shine and the rain will fall and the winds will blow as man needeth them, and there will be no slavery and no heavy life therein. The land shall be Israel's and its enemies shall crouch without its borders, confounded at the splendor of the children of God. And there will our princes arise and a throne be set up and a mighty nation established. Cities will shine white and strong-walled on the heights, and caravans of commerce will follow down the broad roadways to the sea. There will the ships of Israel come bowing over the waters with the riches of the world, and our wharves will be crowded with purple and gold and frankincense. Babylon shall do homage on the right hand and Egypt upon the left, and the straight smoke from Jehovah's altar will rise from the center unfailing by day or by night.|

They had reached the ledge and Kenkenes sat down on it, leaning on one hand across Rachel's way. She paused near him. Even in the dark he could see the light in her eyes, and the joy of anticipation was in her voice. As yet he did not know whether she talked of the Israelitish conception of supernal life, or of a belief in a temporal redemption.

|And there shall be no death nor any of the world-sorrows therein?| he asked.

|Since we shall dwell in the world we may not escape the world's uncertainties,| she replied, looking at his lifted face. |But most men live better lives when they live happily, and I doubt not there will be less unhappiness, provident or fortuitous, in Israel, the nation, than in Israel, enslaved.|

So the slave talked of freedom as slaves talk of it -- hopefully and eloquently. A pity asserted itself in the young sculptor's heart and grew to such power that it tinctured his speech.

|Is thy heart then so firmly set on this thing?| he asked gently.

|It is the hope that bears Israel's burdens and the balm that heals the welt of the lash.|

And in the young man's heart he said it was a vain hope, a happy delusion that might serve to make the harsh bondage endurable till time dispelled it. The simple words of the girl were eloquent portrayal of Israel's plight, and Kenkenes subsided into a sorry state of helpless sympathy. She was not long in interpreting his silence.

|Vain hope, is it?| she said. |And how shall it come to pass in the face of the Pharaoh's denial and the might of Egypt's arms? Thou art young and so am I, but both of us remember Rameses. There has been none like him. He overthrew the world, did he not? And it was a hard task and a precarious and a long one, when he but measured arms with mortals. Is it not a problem worthy the study to ponder how he might have fared in battle with a god?|

Kenkenes lifted his head suddenly and regarded her.

|Aye,| she continued, |I have given thee food for thought. Futile indeed were Israel's hopes if it set itself unaided against the Pharaoh. But the God of Israel hath appointed His hour and hath already descended into fellowship with His chosen people. He hath promised to lead us forth, and the Divine respects a promise. So a God against a Pharaoh. Doth it not appear to thee, Egyptian, that there approaches a marvelous time?|

|Give me but faith in the hypothesis and I shall say, of a surety,| he replied.

|Thou hast said. Shall we not go on, my master?|

|I am Kenkenes, the son of Mentu,| he told her.

She bent her head in acknowledgment of the introduction and moved forward as if to climb up by the projecting edges of the strata. But he put a powerful arm about her and lifted her into the valley. With a light bound he was beside her. Ahead of them was profound darkness, hedged by black and close-drawn walls and canopied by distant and unillumining stars. She resumed her place behind him though he was moved to protest, but her deliberate manner seemed to demand its way. So they continued slowly.

|Thou givest me interest in the God of Israel,| he said, to reopen the subject. |The Egyptian dwells in his gods, but thou sayest that the God of Israel dwells in Israel.|

|Even so. But thou speakest of Israel's God, even after the fashion of my people. They are jealous, saying that the true God hath but one love and that is Israel. If they would think it, let them, but He is the all-God, of all the earth, the One God -- thy God as well as mine.|

|Mine!| Kenkenes exclaimed.

|Thou hast said.|

|Now, by all things worshipful, this is news. I had ever thought that our gods are those to whom we bow. Either thou sayest wrong or I have been remiss in my devotions.|

|Nay, listen,| she said earnestly, stepping to his side. |Already have I told thee of the captain of Israel. He was reared among princes in the house of the Pharaoh, and he is learned in all the wisdom of Egypt. He instructeth the elders concerning Jehovah, and from mouth to mouth his wisdom traverseth till it reacheth the ears of the young. This, then, I have from the lips of Moses, who speaketh naught but the truth. In early times all on earth had perished for wickedness by the sending of the One God, save a holy man and his three sons. These men worshiped the God of Abraham, who was the father of Israel. One of the sons founded thy race, saith Moses, and one established mine. The tribes that went into Egypt worshiped the same God. Lo, is it not written in the early tombs? So Moses testifieth, but if thou doubtest, go question thy historians. And some of the tribes called that God Ra, others, Ptah, and yet others, Amen. But in time they quarreled and each tribe refused to admit the identity of the three-named One God, saying, 'Thy god sendeth plague and affliction, and ours sendeth rich harvests and the Nile floods.' Did not the same God do each of these things in His wisdom? Even so. But when they were at last united into one great people, they had forgotten the quarrel, forgotten that in the beginning they had worshiped one God, and they bowed down to three instead. Nay, if there were but one among you who dared, there are loose threads fluttering, which, if drawn, might unravel the whole fabric of idolatry and disclose that which it hides -- the One God -- the God of Abraham.|

Kenkenes had walked in silence, looking down into the luminous eyes, lost in wonder. Rachel suddenly realized at what length she had talked and stopped abruptly, dropping back to her place again as if chidden.

|Come,| said Kenkenes, noting her action, |walk beside me, priestess. I would hear more of this. It is like all forbidden things -- wondrously alluring.|

|I did forget,| she answered stubbornly. |There is nothing more.|

Kenkenes stopped.

|Come,| he insisted. |The teacher rather precedes the pupil. At least, thou shalt walk beside me.|

|I pray thee, let us go on. We are not yet at the camp -- we have walked so slowly,| she answered. At that moment several fragments of rock, loosening, slid down in the dark just behind her. She caught her breath and was beside the young artist in an instant. He laughed in sheer delight.

|Thou hast assembled the spirits by thy blasphemy,| he said. |And remember, I must soon return to this haunted place alone.|

|Thou canst get a brand of fire or a cudgel at the camp,| she said with some remorse in her voice, |and run for the river bank.| With that she resumed her place behind him.

Kenkenes laughed again. It gave him uncommon pleasure to know that his model was concerned for him. He put out his hand and deliberately drew her up to his side. Not content with that he bent his arm and put her hand under it and into his palm, so that she could not leave him again. She submitted reluctantly, but her fingers, lost in his warm clasp, were cold and ill at ease. He felt their chill and released her to slip about her shoulders the light woolen mantle he had worn. Her apprehension lest he take her hand again was so evident that he refrained, though he slackened his step and kept with her.

But she spoke no more until they were beside the outermost circle of coals that had been a cooking fire for the camp. Here they met a man, whom, by his superior dress, Kenkenes took to be the taskmaster. They were almost upon him before he was seen.

|Rachel!| he exclaimed.

|Here am I,| she answered, a little anxiously.

|Thou wast gone long -- | he began.

The sculptor interposed.

|She hath done me a service and it was my pleasure to talk with her,| he said complacently. |Chide her not.|

The glow from the fire lighted the young man's face, and the taskmaster, standing in deep shadow, scanned it sharply but did not answer. Kenkenes turned and strode away down the valley.

Rachel snatched a thick sycamore club which had been left over in the construction of the scaffold and ran after him. But the young sculptor had disappeared in the dark.

|Kenkenes,| she cried at last desperately. He answered immediately.

She slipped off the mantle.

|This, thy mantle,| she said when he approached, |and this,| thrusting the club into his hands. |There is as much danger in the valley for thee as for me.|

And like a shadow she was gone.

As he hurried on again through the dense gloom of the ravine, the young man thought long on the Israelite and her words. She had offered him theories that peremptorily contradicted the accepted idea among Egyptians, that Moses was inspired by a personal motive of revenge. The argument put forth by his father began to show sundry weaknesses. Furthermore Rachel's version gave him a much coveted opportunity to slip from his shoulders the discomforting blame that had rested there since he had heard that a miscarried letter might effect a national disturbance. Much as the practical side of his nature sought to decry the great Hebrew's motive, a sense of relief possessed him.

|I fear me, Kenkenes, thou durst not boast thyself an embroiler of nations,| he said to himself. |The Hebrew prince is a zealot, and zealots have no fear for their lives. Truly those Israelites are an uncommon and a proud people. But, by Besa, is she not beautiful!|

He enlarged on this latter thought at such exhaustive length that he had traversed the valley and field, found his boat, crossed the Nile and was at home before he had made an end.

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