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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIV THE MARGIN OF THE NILE

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER XIV THE MARGIN OF THE NILE

Meneptah having come and the old regime of life resumed, Memphis subsided into her normal state of dignity. Mentu remained in his house preparing for his investiture with the office of murket. His hours were spent in study, and the coming and going of Kenkenes crossed his consciousness as swiftly as the shadows wavered under his young palms. His son might work for hours near him on mysterious drawings, but so deep was the great artist in the writings of the old murkets that he did not think to ask him what he did. It might not have won his attention even had he seen the young man burn the sheets of papyrus thereafter, and grow restless and dissatisfied. He remarked, however, that Kenkenes was absent during the noon-meal, but when the sundown repast was served and the young man was in his place, Mentu had forgotten that he had not been there at midday.

Kenkenes had visited his niche in the Arabian desert. On his way to the statue he came to the line of rocks where he had hidden himself to get Athor's likeness, and looked down into the quarry opposite him. He was astonished to see at the ledge, just below, a great water-cart with three humped oxen attached. The water-bearers were grouped about it and a Hebrew youth was drawing off the water in skins and jars. The children received their burdens from his hands and passed up the wooden incline to the scaffold. There Kenkenes saw that the incline had been extended to the level of the platform, and the children were able to deliver the hides directly into the hands of the laborers. Then it occurred to Kenkenes that there was not a woman in sight about the quarries. While he wondered, Rachel emerged from the windings of the valley into the open space below.

She carried a band of linen and a small box of horn in her hand. When the young bearers saw her, one of them, who had been rubbing his eye, came to her. She set her box upon an outstanding edge of stone and devoted herself to him. Drawing his head back until it rested against her bosom, with tender hands she dressed the injured optic with balm from the box.

Kenkenes from his aery watched her, noting with a softening countenance the almost maternal love that beautified her face. Now and then she spoke soothingly as the boy flinched, but her words were so softly said that the sculptor did not catch them. The eye dressed, she covered it with the bandage and the pair separated. It was with some regret that Kenkenes saw her turn to leave the spot. But at that moment the taskmaster rode into the open space. She made a sign of salutation and paused at a word from him. Kenkenes fancied that her face had sobered and he looked down on the cowled head and shoulders of the overseer, wrathfully wondering if the Egyptian had played the master so harshly that Rachel dreaded him. Presently the man dismounted; and though his back was turned toward Kenkenes, the young sculptor knew by his stature that he was not the soldier who had first governed the quarries. The young man watched him excitedly but there was no display of tyranny or even authority in the taskmaster's manner. They talked, and by the motion of the man's hand Kenkenes fancied that he described something growing near the Nile. Presently they walked together toward the outlet of the valley. The taskmaster leaped down the ledge and, turning, put up his arms and lifted Rachel down. It was plain that something more than courtesy inspired the act, for the man's hands fell reluctantly. Kenkenes faced sharply about and proceeded up the hill to his statue with a queer discomfort tugging at his heart.

That night in his effort to bring forth the coveted expression in his drawings of Athor, Kenkenes all but satisfied himself.

The next day, without any apparent cause, he went back to the niche in the desert, stayed without purpose, and departed when no tangible reason urged him. When the day declined he climbed down the front of the hill and crossed the narrow field toward his boat, which was buried in the rank vegetation of the water's edge. At the Nile he noted, a little distance up the river, a familiar figure among the reeds. For a moment he hesitated and then rambled through the riotous growth in that direction. As he drew near, Rachel raised herself from a search in a thicket of herbs, her arms full of them and her face a little flushed.

|Idler!| said Kenkenes.

|Nay,| she answered with a smile, |I am at work -- learned work.|

|Gathering witch-weeds for an incantation, sorceress?|

|Not so. I am hunting herbs to make simples for the sick.|

|Of a truth? Then never before now have I craved for an illness that I might select my leech.|

Again she smiled and made a sheaf of the herbs, preparatory to binding it. The bundle was unruly, and several of the plants dropped. She bent to pick them up and others fell. Kenkenes came to her rescue and gathered them all into his large grasp.

|Now, while I hold it,| he suggested.

With the most gracious self-possession she smoothed out the fiber, put it twice, thrice about the sheaf and knotted it, her fingers, cool and moist after their contact with the marsh sedge, touching the sculptor's more than once.

|There! I thank thee.|

|Are there any sick in the camp?|

|Only those who have been blinded by the stone-dust. But I prepare for sickness during health.|

|A wise provision. Would we might prepare for sorrow during contentment.|

|We may lay up comfort for us against the coming of misfortune.|

|How?|

|In choosing friends,| she answered.

His mind went back to the scene of that morning. Did she speak of the taskmaster?

|Thou hast found it so?| he asked.

|Thou hast said.| She added no more, though the sculptor was eager for an example.

|How goes it with the statue?| she asked, seeing that he did not move out of her path.

|Slowly,| he answered. |But it shall hasten to completeness when I once begin.|

|What wilt thou do with it when it is done? Destroy it?|

He shook his head with a smile.

|Leave it there to betray thee to the vengeance of the priesthood one day?|

|I have no fear of discovery.|

|Nay, but fear or unfear never yet warded off misfortune,| she said gravely. |It is better to entertain causeless concern than unwise confidence.|

He eagerly accepted this establishment of equality between them, and overshot his mark.

|Advise me, Rachel. What should I do?|

She gazed at him for a moment distrustfully, wondering if he mocked her and asking herself if she had not deserved it in assuming comradeship with him.

|Nay, it is not my place, my master,| she said. |I did forget.|

He put his hand on hers with considerable determination in his manner.

|Let us make an end to this eternal emphasis of different rank. I would forget it, Rachel. Wilt thou not permit me? I am thy friend and nothing harsher -- above all things, not thy master.|

Never before had he spoken so to her. She ventured to look at him at last. His face was grave and a little passionate and his eyes demanded an answer.

|Aye, I shall gladly be thy friend,| she answered; |but never hast thou been so much of a master as in the denial that thou art.| The first gleam of girlish mischief danced in her blue eyes. The young sculptor noted it with gladness. He took the free hand and pressed it, and when she turned toward the roadway through the wheat he turned with her and hand in hand they went. As they neared it he spoke again.

|Again would I ask, when wilt thou advise me concerning the statue? Here is my boat. Let us turn it into a high seat of council and I will sit at thy feet and learn.|

|Nay, if I sit I shall linger too long, and there is a taskmaster -- albeit a gentle one -- waiting with other things for me to do.|

Kenkenes kicked the turf and frowned.

|It sounds barbarous -- this talk of master upon thy lips, Rachel. Thou art out of thy place,| he answered.

|I am no more worthy of freedom than my people,| she replied with dignity.

|Thy people! They should be lawgivers and advisers among Egypt's high places, rather than brick-makers and quarry-slaves, if thou art a typical Israelite.|

|Aye!| she exclaimed, |and thou hast given tongue to the same estimate of Israel, which hath wrought consternation among the powers of Mizraim. And for that reason are we enslaved. Think of it, thou who art unafraid to think. Think of a people in bondage because of its numbers, its sturdiness and its wisdom. Thou who art in rebellion against ancient law dost feel somewhat of Israel's hurt. Behold, am I not also oppressed because I may think to the upsetting of idolatry and the overthrow of mine oppressors? Thou and I are fellows in bondage; but mark me! I am nearer freedom than thou. The Pharaohs began too late. Ye may not dam the Nile at flood-tide.|

Her face was full of triumph and her voice of prophecy. She seemed to declare with authority the freedom of her people. Kenkenes did not speak immediately. His thoughts were undergoing a change. The pity he had felt that night a month agone for her sanguine anticipation of freedom seemed useless and wasted. Her confidence was no longer fatuous. He admitted in entirety the truth of her last words. If all Israel -- nay, if but part, if but its leaders were as able and determined as she, did Meneptah guess his peril? Was not Egypt most ominously menaced? He remembered that he had been amused at his father's perturbation over the Israelitish unrest, but he vindicated Mentu then and there. Furthermore, if all Israel were like unto her, what heinous injustice had been perpetrated upon an able people? He found himself hoping that they would assert themselves and enter freedom, whether it be in Canaan or in Egypt.

|If ever Israel come to her own,| he said impulsively, |I pray thee, Rachel, remember me to her powers as her partizan in her darker days. And take this into account when thou comest to judge Egypt. The half of the nation know not thy people, even as I have been ignorant; and Osiris pity the hand that would oppress them if all Egypt is made acquainted with them as I have been in these past days. Art thou indeed typical of thy race?|

|Hast thou not been among us often enough to discover?| she parried smilingly.

He shook his head. |Nay, I have known but one Israelite, and she keeps me perpetually aghast at Egypt.|

Rachel's eyes fell.

|We did speak of the statue,| she began.

|O, aye! I meant to tell thee how I had fortified myself against mischance. I can not break up the statue; sooner would I assail sweet flesh with a sledge; but when it is done I shall bury it in the sands. It will wrench me sorely to do even that. During the carving I feel most secure, for Memphis and Masaarah think I come hither to look after the removal of stones, since I am a sculptor. But if an Egyptian should come upon it by mischance before it is complete, I have left no trace of myself upon it. Most of all I trust to the generosity of the Hathors, who have abetted me so openly thus far.|

Rachel heard him thoughtfully.

|What a pity it is that thou must follow after the pattern of God and sate thy love of beauty by stealth under ban and in fear. Till what time Mizraim sets this law of sculpture aside she may not boast her wisdom flawless. It is past understanding why she exacts obedience to this law most diligently, which fathers these ill-favored images of her gods, when their habitations are most splendidly and most beautifully built. She robeth herself in fine linen, decketh herself with jewels, anointeth her hair and maketh her eyes lovely with kohl, and lo! when she would picture herself she setteth her shoulders awry and slighteth the grace of her joints and the softness of her flesh. O, that thy brave spirit had arisen long ago, ere the perversion had become a heritage, dear to the Egyptian sculptor as his bones! But now, artist though he be, his eye is so befilmed by ancient use that he sees no monstrousness in his work. So thou hast nation-wide, nation-old, nation-defended custom to fight. And alas! thou art but one, Kenkenes, and I fear for thee.|

For once the young sculptor's ready speech failed him. He drew near her, his eyes shining, his lips parted, drinking every word as if it were authoritative privilege for him to indulge his love of beauty without limit and openly. Here was that which he had sought in vain from those nearest to him -- that which he had ceased to believe was to be found in Egypt -- comfort, sympathy, perfect understanding. What if it came from the lips of an hereditary slave of the Pharaoh -- a toiler in the quarries, an infidel, an alien nomad? If an alien, a slave, an unbeliever thought so deeply, felt so acutely and responded so discerningly to such delicate requirements -- the slave, the nomad for him!

|Rachel,| he began almost helplessly, |I am beyond extrication in debt to thee -- thou golden, thou undecipherable mystery!|

She flushed to her very brows and her eyes fell quickly.

|I have appealed to all sources from which I might justly expect sympathy -- to men of reason, of power, of mine own kin, and to women of heart -- and not once have I found in them the broad and kindly understanding which thou hast displayed for me out of the goodness of thy beautiful heart. Behold! thou hast given speech to my own hidden longings, summarized my difficulties, foreshadowed my misfortunes, deplored them -- aye, of a truth, heaved my very sighs for me!| His voice fell and grew reverent. |I would call thee an immortal, but there is a better title for thee -- woman -- a true woman -- and thou dost even uplift the name.|

For the first time in the history of their acquaintance she laughed, not mirthfully, but low and very happily, and the fleeting glimpse she gave him of her eyes showed them radiant and glad. He caught her hands, the bundle of herbs fell, and drawing her near him, he lifted the pink palms to his lips and pressed them there.

|Nay,| she said, recovering herself and withdrawing her hands, |I am not an Egyptian but a Hebrew, unbiased by the prejudices of thy nation. It is not strange that I can understand thy rebellion, which is but a rift in thine Egyptian make-up through which reason shows. Any alien could comfort thee as well.|

|And thou hast no more sympathy for me than any alien would have?| he asked, somewhat piqued.

|Is there any other sympathizing alien with whom I may compare and learn?| she asked with a smile.

She took up her bundle of herbs again and seemed to be preparing to leave him.

|How dost thou know these things,| he asked hurriedly; |all these things -- sculpture, religion, history?|

|I was not born a slave,| she answered simply.

|Nay, cast out that word. I would never hear thee speak it, Rachel.|

|Then, I was born out of servitude. My great grandsire was exempted by Seti when Israel went into bondage. His children and all his house were given to profit by the covenant. But the name grew wealthy and powerful to the third generation. My father was Maai the Compassionate, who loved his brethren better than himself. Them he helped. Rameses the Great forgot his father's promise when he found he had need of my father's treasure -- | she paused and continued as if the recital hurt her. |There were ten -- four of my mother's house, six of my father's. To the mines and the brick-fields they were sent, and in a little space I was all that was left.|

Horrified and conscience-stricken, Kenkenes made as if to speak, but she went on hurriedly.

|My mother's nurse, Deborah, who went with us into servitude, is learned, having been taught by my mother, and I have been her pupil.|

|And there is not one of thy blood -- not one guardian kinsman left to thee?| Kenkenes asked slowly.

|Not one.|

Up to this moment, during every interview with Rachel, Kenkenes had forsworn some little prejudice, or sacrificed some of his blithe self-esteem. But the tragic narrative swept all these supports from him and left him solitary to face the charge of indirect complicity in murder. He was an Egyptian -- a loyal supporter of the government and its policies; he had profited by Israel's toil, and if he succeeded to his father's office, Israel would serve him directly in his labor for the Pharaoh to be. He had known that Israel was oppressed, that Israel died of hard labor, and he had pitied it, as the humane soul in him had felt for the overworked draft-oxen or the sacrifices that were led bleating to the altars. Perhaps he had even casually decried the policy that sent women into the brick-fields and did men to death in a year in the mines. But his own conscience had not been hurt, nor had he taken the misdeed home to himself.

Now his sensations were vastly different. He felt all the guilt of his nation, and he had nothing to offer as amends but his own humiliation. Of this he had an overwhelming plenitude and his eloquent face showed it. With an effort he raised his head and spoke.

|Rachel, if my humiliation will satisfy thee even a little as vengeance upon Egypt, do thou shame me into the dust if thou wilt.|

|I do not understand thee,| she said with dignity.

|Believe me. I would help thee in some wise, and alas! there is no other way by deed or word that I could prove my sorrow.|

Tears leaped into her eyes.

|Nay! Nay!| she exclaimed. |Thou dost wrong me, Kenkenes. What wickedness were mine to make the one contrite, guiltless heart in Egypt suffer for all the unrepentant and the wrong-doers of the land!|

Once again he took her hand and kissed it, because the act was more eloquent than words at that moment.

|It is near sunset,| she said softly, |give me leave to depart.|

|Farewell, and the divine Mother attend thee.|

She bowed and left him.

That night in the dim work-room Kenkenes brought forth upon papyrus a face of Athor, so full of love and yearning that he knew his own heart had given his fingers direction and inspiration. He sought no further.

To-morrow in the niche in the desert he would carve the want of his own soul in the countenance of the goddess.

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