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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


On the first day of February, runners, dusty, breathless and excited, passed the sentries of the Memphian palace of Meneptah with the news that the Pharaoh was but a day's journey from his capital. They were the last of a series of couriers that had kept the city informed of the king's advance. For days before, public drapers were to be seen clinging cross-legged to obelisk and peristyle; moving in spread-eagle fashion, hung in a jacket of sail-cloth attached to cables, across the fronts of buildings, looping garlands, besticking banners and spreading tapestries. Scattering sounds of hammer and saw continued even through the night. The city's metals were polished, her streets were sprinkled and rolled, her stone wharves scoured, her landings painted, her flambeaux new-soaked in pitch. The gardens, the storehouses and the wine-lofts felt unusual draft for the festivities, and the great capital was decked and scented like a bride.

Now, on the eve of the Pharaoh's coming, the preparations were complete. The city was full of excitement and pleasant expectancy. Only once before during the six years of Meneptah's reign had such enthusiasm prevailed. When the Rebu horde descended upon Egypt, Meneptah had sent his generals out to meet the invader, but he, himself, had remained under cover in Memphis because he said the stars were unpropitious. And this was the son of Rameses II, than whom, if the historians and the singer Pentaur say true, there was never a more puissant monarch! But when the marauder was overthrown and routed, and his generals turned toward Memphis with their captives in chains, Meneptah hastened to meet them, decked his chariot with war trophies and entered his capital in triumph. He was hailed with exultant acclaim.

|Hail, mighty Pharaoh! who smites with his glance and annihilates with his spear. He overthrew companies alone, and with his lions he routed armies. His enemies crumbled before him like men of clay, for he breathed hot coals in his wrath and flames in his vengeance.| And the enthusiasm that inspired the eulogy was sincere. Meneptah was none the less loved because Memphis understood him. The Pharaoh was the apple of her eye and she worshiped him stubbornly.

Now he was returning from a bloodless campaign -- one that neither required nor brought forth any generalship -- but it was a victory and had been personally conducted by Meneptah, so Memphis was preparing to fall into paroxysms of delight, little short of hysteria.

An hour after sunrise on the day of the Pharaoh's coming a gorgeous regatta assembled off the wharves of Memphis. It was a flotilla of the rank and wealth of the capital, with that of On, Bubastis, Busiris, and even Mendes and Tanis. The boats were high-riding, graceful and finished at head and stern with sheaves of carved lotus. Hull and superstructure were painted in gorgeous colors with a preponderance of ivory and gold. Masts, rigging and oars were wrapped with lotus, roses and mimosa. Sails and canopies were brilliant with dyes and undulant with fringes. Troops of tiny boys, innocent of raiment, were posted about the sides of the vessels holding festoons. Oarsmen wore chaplets on the head or garlands around the loins, and half-clad slave-girls were scattered about with fans of dyed plumes. Bridges of boats had been hastily run out between the vessels, and over these the embarking voyagers or visitors passed in a stream. On shore was a great multitude and every advantageous point of survey was occupied. And here were catastrophes and riots, panics and love-making, gambling and gossip and all the other things that mark the assembly of a crowd. But these incidents drew the attention of the populace only momentarily from the revel of the nobility on the Nile. For there were laughter and songs, strumming of the lyre, shouts, polite contention and the drone of general conversation among such numbers that the sound was of great volume.

At the head of the pageant were the boats of the nomarch and the courtiers to Meneptah who remained in Memphis. Near the forefront of these was the pleasure-boat of Mentu.

Kenkenes dropped from its deck to the walk rising and falling at its side, and made his way through the crowd in search of a vessel bearing a winged sun and the oval containing the symbols of On. As he passed the prow of a tall pleasure-boat he was caught in a rope of flowers let down from above and looped about him with a dexterous hand. He turned in the pretty fetters and looked up. Above him was a row of a dozen little girl-faces, set like apple-blossoms along the side of the vessel. The youngest was not over twelve years of age, the oldest, fourteen. Each rosy countenance was rippled with laughter, but the sound was lost in the great turmoil about them. In the center of the group, a pair of hands put forth under the chin of an older girl, held the ends of the garland with a determined grip. Her eyes were gray, her hair was chestnut, her face very fair. Kenkenes recognized her with a sudden warmth about his heart. The others were strangers to him. A glance at the plate on the side of the boat showed him that this was the one he sought. Most willingly he obeyed the insistent summons of the garland and permitted himself to be drawn to the barge. There, the same hands showed him the ladder against the side, and a dozen pretty arms were extended to haul him aboard as he climbed.

But the instant he planted foot on the deck the lovely rout retreated to shelter at the side of a smiling woman seated in the shadow of fans. Only his fair-faced captor stood her ground.

|Hail, Hapi,| she cried, doing obeisance. |Pity the desert.| She flung wide her hands. With the exception of the youths at the oars there was no other man on the boat.

|Ye may call me forth,| Kenkenes replied, |but how shall ye return me to my banks? Hither, sweet On,| he continued, catching the hand of the fair-faced girl, |submit first to submergence.| She took his kisses willingly. |This for Seti, thy lover; this for Hotep, thy brother, and this for me who am both in one. How thou art grown, Io!|

|But she hath not denied thee the babyhood privileges for all that, Kenkenes,| the smiling woman said.

|It is an excellent example of submission she hath set, Lady Senci,| he replied, advancing toward the young girls about her. |Let us see if it prevail.|

But the troop scattered with little cries of dismay.

|Nay,| he observed, as he bent over Senci's hand, |never were two maids alike, and I shall not strive to make them so.|

|Thy father hath most graciously kept his word in sending us a protector,| Senci continued, |My nosegay of beauties drooped last night when they arrived from On with my brother sick, aboard. They feared they must stop with me in Memphis for want of a man.|

|It was the first word I heard from my father this morning and the last when I left him even now: 'Io's father hath failed her through sickness, so do thou look after the Lady Senci -- and the gods give thee grace for once to do a thing well!'|

The lady smiled and patted his arm. |He did not fear; he knew whom he chose. But behold our gallant escort -- the nomarch ahead, beside us the new cup-bearer and behind us all the rank of the north.|

|Aye, and when we cast off thou mayest look for the new murket on thy right.|

The lady blushed. |I have not seen thy father yet, this morning.|

|So? His robes must fit poorly.|

At that moment a gang-plank was run across from the broad flat stern of the nomarch's boat to the prow of Senci's, a carpet was spread on it, and Ta-meri, with little shrieks and tottering steps, came across it. Kenkenes put out his arms to her and lifted her down when she arrived.

|Wonder brought me,| she cried. |I dreamed I saw thee kiss a maiden thrice and I came to see if it were true.|

|O most honest vision! It is true and this is she,| Kenkenes answered, indicating Io.

Ta-meri flung up her hands and gazed at the blushing girl with wide eyes.

|Enough,| she said at last. |It is indeed a marvel. Never have I seen such a thing before, and never shall I see it again.|

|And if that be true, fie and for shame, Kenkenes,| Senci chid laughingly.

|Ta-meri always shuts her eyes,| the sculptor defended himself stoutly. The nomarch's daughter caught his meaning first and covered her face with her hands. The chorus of laughter did not drown her protests.

|Kenkenes, thou art a mortal plague!| she exclaimed behind her defense.

|Truce,| he said. |Thou didst accuse me and I did defend myself. We are even.|

|Nay, but am I also even with Ta-meri?| Io asked shyly.

|Now,| Senci cried, |which of ye will say 'aye' or 'nay' to that!|

Ta-meri retreated protesting to the prow again, but the gang-plank had been withdrawn. An army of slaves were breaking up the bridges of boats. The oars of the nomarch's barge rose and fell and the vessel bore away. Ta-meri cried out again when she saw it depart but she made no effort to stay it.

|Come back, Ta-meri,| Io called. |I shall not press thee for an accounting.|

The lanes of water between the boats cleared, the scented sails filled, the bristling fringes of oars dipped and flashed, a great shout arose from the populace on shore and the shining pageant moved away toward Thebes. The barge of Nechutes swung into position on the left of Senci -- the oars on Mentu's boat rose and halted and the vessel drifted till it was alongside her right. Kenkenes put his arm about Io, who stood beside him and whispered exultantly or irreverently concerning the vigilance of the cup-bearer and the murket.

|And,| he continued oracularly, |there will be a third attending us when we return, if thou hast been coy with the gentle Seti during his long absence.|

|Nay, I have sent him messages faithfully and in no little point have I failed him in constancy. But I can not see why he should love me, who am to the court-ladies as a thrush to peafowls. He writes me such praise of Ta-user.|

|Now, Io! Art thou so little versed in the ways of men that thou dost wonder why we love or how we love or whom we love? The very fact that thou art different from Seti's surroundings is like to make him love thee best.|

|I am not jealous; only he hath so much to tell of Ta-user.|

|Aye, since she is like to become his sister, it is not strange. But what says he of her?|

Io thrust her hand into the mist of gauzes over her bosom and with a soft flush on her cheeks drew forth a small, flattened roll of linen. Kenkenes made a place for her on his chair and drew her down beside him. Together the pair undid the scroll and Kenkenes, following the tiny pink finger, came upon these words:

|Ah, thou shouldst see her, my sweet. Thou knowest she was born of a prince of Egypt and a lovely Tahennu, and the mingling of our dusky blood with that of a fair-haired northern people, hath wrought a marvelous beauty in Ta-user. Her hair is like copper and like copper her eyes. There is no brownness nor any flush in her skin. It is like thick cream, smooth, soft and cool. And when she walks, she minds me of my grandsire's leopardess, which once did stride from shadow to shadow in the palace with that undulatory, unearthly grace. In nature, she is world-compelling. When first she met me, she took my face between her palms and gazed into mine eyes. Ai! she bewitched me, then and there. My individuality died within me -- I felt an unreasoning submission, strangely mingled with aversion. I was compelled -- divorced from mine own forces, which vaguely protested from afar. . . . And yet, thou shouldst see her meet Rameses. He makes me marvel. He knows -- she knows -- aye, all Egypt knows why she hath come to court, and yet they meet -- she salutes him with bewildering grace -- he inclines his proud head with never a tremor and they pass. Or, if they tarry to talk, it is an awesome sight to see the determined encounter of two mighty souls -- tremendous charm against tremendous resistance -- and Io, I know that they have sounded to the deepest the depth of each other's strength. I long to see Ta-user conquer -- and yet, again I would not.|

Thereafter followed matters which Kenkenes did not read. He rolled the letter and gave it back to Io. The little girl sat expectantly watching his face.

|Nay, I would not take Seti's boyish transports seriously,| he said gently. |His very frankness disclaims any heart interest in Ta-user. Besides, she is as old as I -- three whole Nile-floods older than the prince. She thinks on him as Senci looks on me -- he regards her as a lad looks up to gracious womanhood. Nay, fret not, thou dear jealous child.|

Io's lips quivered as she looked away.

|It is over and over -- ever the same in every letter -- Ta-user, Ta-user, till I hate the name,| she said at last.

|Then when thou seest him at midday up the Nile, be thou gracious to some other comely young nobleman and see him wince. Naught is so good for a lover as uncertainty. It is a mistake to load him with the great weight of thy love. Doubt not, thou shalt carry all the burden of jealousy and pain if thou dost. Divide this latter with him, and he shall be content to share more of the first with thee. But thou hast condemned him without trial, Io. Spare thy heart the hurt and wait.|

The young face cleared and with a little sigh she settled back in the chair and said no more.

It was noon when the royal flotilla was sighted. There were nineteen barges approaching in the form of two crescents like a parenthesis, the horns up and down the Nile, and in the center of the inclosed space was Meneptah's float. Here was only the royal family, the king, queen, Ta-user, and the two princes, who took the place of fan-bearers in attendance on their father. The vessel was manned by two reliefs of twelve oarsmen from Theban nobility.

If magnificence came to conduct Meneptah, it met splendor as its charge. The pastoral solitude of the Middle country was routed for the moment by an assemblage of the brilliance and power of all Egypt.

With a shout that made the remote hills reply again and again, the convoy divided, a half retreating to either side of the Nile and the home-coming fleet entered the hollow. The nomarch's boat detached itself from its following and took up a position in the center, beside the royal barge. The advance was delayed only long enough for the escort to turn, take in the sails -- for they went against the wind now -- and form an outer parenthesis. Then with another shout the triumphant return began.

The other fleet absorbed the attention of each voyager. Every barge had a new-comer alongside and near enough to talk across the water. Therefore a great babel and confusion arose in which rational conversation became impossible. Then vessels essayed to approach nearer one another and the formation began to break. The right oars of one boat and the left of another would be withdrawn and the vessels lashed together. Then they were permitted to drift, with some poling to keep them in the proper direction. When this proceeding was impracticable because of the construction of the barges, one boat would take another in tow until the occupants of one had joined those of the other by a gang-plank laid from prow to stern. By sunset the merrymaking had developed into indiscriminate boarding. Only the vessels of the king and the nomarch and the barge of Senci were not involved in the uproarious revel that followed. The fates were amiable and no mishaps occurred in spite of the recklessness of the pastime. Men and women alike took part in the play, and the general temper of the merrymakers was good-natured and innocent.

The dusk fell and the shadows of night were made seductive by the dim lamps that began to burn from mast-top and prow. On the barge of Senci only a single and subdued light was swung from a bronze tripod in the bow, and the fourteen charges of the young sculptor, wearied with the long day's excitement, were disposed in graceful abandon under its glow. Senci sat with Ta-meri's head in her lap, and three or four drowsy little girls were tumbled about her feet. Only Io was wide awake, and even her sweet face wore a pensive air. Kenkenes had retired to the stern, where, under the high up-standing end, stood a long wooden bench. The young sculptor had flung himself on this, and with the whole of the boat and its freight within range of his vision, he listened to the riot about him.

Suddenly the sound of cautiously wielded oars attracted his attention. In the end of the boat was a hawser-hole, painted and shaped like the eye of Osiris. Kenkenes turned about on his couch and watched through this aperture.

A barge, judiciously darkened, emerged into the circle of faint radiance about Senci's boat. There were probably a dozen Theban nobles of various ages grouped in attitudes of hushed expectancy in the bow. One robust peer, with a boat-hook in his hand, leaned over the prow. Another, barely older than fourteen, had mounted the side of the boat, and steadying himself by the shoulder of a young lord, gazed ahead at the group in the bow of Senci's boat.

|By the horns of Isis,| he whispered in disgust, |the most of them are babes!|

The robust noble turned his head and jeered good-naturedly under his breath.

|Mark the infant sneering at the buds. But be of cheer. One is there, ripe enough to sate your green appetite.|

|Nay! do you distribute them now? Let me make my choice, then.|

But a general chorus of whispered protests arose.

|Hold, not so fast. The fan-bearer first. 'Twas he who hit upon the plan.|

The nose of the pursuing boat crept alongside the stern of the one pursued, and the oars rested in obedience to a whispered order. The diagonal current which moved out from the Arabian shore, and the backward wash of water from the oars of the forward boat, heaved the head of the nobles' barge toward its object. The robust courtier leaned forward and made fast to his captive with the hook. A sigh of approval and excitement ran through the group.

|Gods! how they will scatter!| the young lord tittered nervously.

|Nay, now, there must be no such thing,| the robust noble said, addressing them all. |Mind you, we but come as guests. It shall be left to the ladies to say how we shall abide with them. Show me a light.|

The instant brilliance that followed proved that a hood had been lifted from a lamp. One of the men held a cloak between it and the group on Senci's boat. Kenkenes raised himself. The lamp discovered to his angry eyes the face of Har-hat.

|Now, hold this hook for me while I get aboard,| the fan-bearer chuckled.

With a single step the young sculptor crossed to the side of the barge and wrenched the hook from the hands of the man that held it. For a moment he poised it above him, struggling with a mighty desire to bring it down on the head of the startled fan-bearer. The youthful lord dropped from his point of vantage and half of the group retreated precipitately. Har-hat drew back slowly and raised himself, as Kenkenes lowered the weapon. For a space the two regarded each other savagely. The contemplation endured only the smallest part of a moment, but it was eloquent of the bitterest mutual antagonism. There was no relaxing in the rigid lines of the young sculptor's figure, but the fan-bearer recovered himself immediately.

|Forestalled!| he laughed. |Retreat! We would not steal another man's bliss though it be fourteen times his share!|

The oars fell and the boat darted back into the night, the affable sound of Har-hat's raillery receding into silence with it.

Kenkenes flung the boat-hook into the Nile and returned to his bench, puzzled at the inordinate passion of hate in his heart for the fan-bearer.

At the end of the first watch the flotilla drifted into Memphis. Bonfires so vast as to suggest conflagrations made the long water-front as brilliant as day. Far up the slope toward the city the red light discovered a great multitude, densely packed and cheering tumultuously. Amid the uproar one by one the barges approached and discharged their occupants along the wharves. Soldiery in companies drove a roadway through the mass from time to time, by which the arrivals might enter Memphis, though few of these departed at once. When the Lady Senci's barge drew up, Mentu forced his way through the increasing crowd to meet and assist its occupants to alight. Kenkenes, still on deck, was handing his charges down the stairway one by one, when he saw Io, who stood at the very end of the line, lean over the side, her face aglow with joy. Kenkenes guessed the cause of her delight and, deserting his post, went to her side. Below stood Seti, on tiptoe, his hands upstretched against the tall hull.

|O, I can not reach thee,| he was crying. Kenkenes caught up the trembling, blushing, repentant girl and lowered her plump into the prince's eager arms.

When Kenkenes saw her an hour later, he lifted her out of her curricle before the portals of Senci's house.

|What did I tell thee?| he said softly.

But the little girl clung to his arms and leaned against him with a sob.

|O Kenkenes,| she whispered, |he came but to drag me away to look upon her!|

|Didst go?| he asked.

|Nay,| she answered fiercely.

After a silence Kenkenes spoke again:

|He does not love her, Io. Believe me. I doubt not the sorceress hath bewitched him, but he would not rush after a whilom sweetheart to have her look upon a new one. Rather would he strive to cover up his faithlessness. But he hath been untrue to thee in this -- that he shares a thought with the witch when his whole mind should be full of thee. Bide thy time till he emerges from the spell, then make him writhe. Meantime, save thy tears. Never was a man worth one of them.|

He kissed her again and set her inside Senci's house.

But one remained now of the procession he had escorted from the river. This was the Lady Ta-meri's litter, and his own chariot stood ahead of it. She had lifted the curtains and was piling the opposite seat with cushions in a manner unmistakably inviting. He hesitated a moment. Should he dismiss his charioteer and journey to the nomarch's mansion in the companionable luxury of the litter? But even while he debated with himself, he passed her with a soft word and stepped into his chariot.

The inundation, more properly Nilus -- the river-god.

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