It was Kenkenes' first love and so was most rapturous, but it did not cast a glamour over the stern perplexities that it entailed. He knew the suspense that is immemorial among lovers, and further to trouble him he had the harsh obstacle of different society. Rachel was a quarry-slave, a member of the lowest rank in the Egyptian scale of classes. She was an Israelite, an infidel and a reviler of the gods.
He was a descendant of kings, a devout Osirian and welcomed in Egypt's high places.
Never could extremes have been greater. But Kenkenes would not have given any of these obstacles a moment's consideration had not the weight of their neglect fallen on the shoulders of Rachel. If he had been a sovereign he could have taken her freely, and purple-wearing Egypt would have kissed her sandal; but he occupied a place that could provide with honor only him who was born to it.
To lift Rachel to that position would be to expose her to the affronts of an undemocratic society. On the other hand he might sacrifice name and station and go down to her; but he was not to be judged harshly because he hesitated at this step.
Rachel had given him no sign of preference beyond a pretty fellowship. In the beginning this realization had hurt him, but as he tossed night after night, troubled beyond expression, he remembered this thing with some melancholy comfort. It was a sorry solution of his problem to feel that he was unloved, and even while he recognized its efficacy, he prayed that it might not be so.
His heavy heart did not retard the progress of his statue or make its beauty indifferent. The more he suffered the greater the passion in the face. He labored daily and tirelessly.
But day by day he looked, unseen, on his love in the valley, and the oftener he looked the more irresolute he grew. The conflict between his heart and his reason was gradually shifting in favor of his love.
His longing, as it continued to crave, grew from hunger to starving, and though his reason pointed to disastrous results, his heart justified itself in the blind cry, |Rachel, Rachel!|
He had endured a month before his fortitude succumbed entirely. Once near sunset, as Rachel was proceeding toward the camp from some helpful mission to the quarries, she caught the fragments of a song, so distantly and absently sung that she could not locate it. There were singers among the Israelites, but they sang with wild exultation and more care for the sense than the melody. They had cultivated the chant and forgotten the lyric, because they had more heart for prophecy than passion. Rachel had revered her people's song, but there was something in this half-heard music that touched her youth and her love of life. She stopped to hear it well.
It had all the power and profundity of the male voice, but it was as subdued, as flawless and sympathetic as a distant, deep-toned bell. There was not even a breath of effort in it, nor an insincere expression, and it pursued a theme of little range and much simplicity. The singer sang as spontaneously as a bird sings. She did not catch the words, but something in the fervor of the music told her it was a song of love -- and a song of love unsatisfied. There was a pathos in it that touched the fountain of her tears and awoke to willingness that impulse in her womanhood that longs to comfort.
As she stood in an attitude of rapt attention. Kenkenes rounded a curve in the valley just ahead of her. The song died suddenly on his lips and the color deepened in his cheeks.
|Fie!| he exclaimed. |Here thou art, O Athor, catching me in the imperfection of my practice. Now will the keen edge of their perfect beauty be dulled upon thine ear when I come to lift my tuneful devotions to thee.|
|And it was thou singing?| she asked.
|It was I -- and Pentaur; mine the voice; Pentaur's the song.|
|Together ye have wrought an eloquent harmony, but such a voice as thine would gild the pale effort of the poorest words,| she said earnestly. |What dost thou with thy voice?|
|Once I won me a pretty compliment with it,| he said softly, bending his head to look at her. She flushed and her eyes fell.
|Nay, it is but my pastime and at the command of my friends,| he continued. |See. This is what has made me sing.|
He unslung his wallet and took out of it a statuette of creamy chalk.
|Thus far has the Athor of the hills progressed.| He put it into her hands for examination. The face was complete, the minute features as perfect as life, the plaits of long hair and all the figure exquisitely copied and shaped. The pedestal was yet in rough block. Rachel inspected it, wondering. Finally she looked up at him with praise in her eyes.
|Dost thou forgive me?| he asked.
|It is for me to ask thy forgiveness,| she answered. |So we be equally indebted and therefore not in debt.|
|Not so. I know the joy of creating uncramped, and the joy of copying such a model far outweighs any small delight thy little vanity may have experienced. Thy vanity? Hast thou any vanity?|
|Nay, I trust not,| she replied laughingly. |Vanity is self-esteem run to seed.|
|Sage! Let me make haste to carve the pedestal that I may know how low to do obeisance to wisdom. Hold it so, I pray thee.|
He took the statue and set it on a flat cornice jutting from the stone wall. Rachel obediently steadied it. He selected from his tools a knife with a rounded point of wonderful keenness and smoothed away the chalk in bulk. They stood close together, the sculptor bending from his commanding height to work. From time to time he shifted his position, touching her hand often and saying little.
The pedestal given shape, he began its elaboration. Pattern after pattern of graceful foliation emerged till the design assumed the intricate complexity of the Egyptic style.
Rachel watched with absorbed interest, her head unconsciously settling to one side in critical contemplation. Kenkenes, pressing the blade firmly upon the chalk, felt her cheek touch his shoulder for a fraction of a second; his fingers lost their steadiness and direction, but not their strength; the blade slipped, and the fierce edge struck the white hand that held the statuette.
With a cry he dropped the knife, flung one arm about her and drew her very close to him. The image toppled down and was broken on the rock below, but he saw only the fine scarlet thread on the soft flesh.
Again and again he pressed the wounded hand to his lips, his eyes dimmed with tears of compunction.
|O, Rachel, Rachel!| he exclaimed in a sudden burst of passionate contrition. |Must even the most loving hand in Egypt be lifted against thee?|
The great content on the glorified face against his breast was all the expression of pardon that he asked.
|My love! My Rachel!| he whispered. |Ah, ye generous gods! indulge me still further. Let this, your richest gift, be mine.|
Stunned and only realizing that she must undo his clasp, she freed herself and retreated a little space from him.
And then she remembered.
Slowly and relentlessly it came home to her that this was one of the abominable idolaters, and she had forsworn such for ever. These very arms that had held her so shelteringly had been lifted in supplication to the idols, and the lips, whose kiss she had awaited, would swear to love her, by an image. The pitiless truth, once admitted, smote her cruelly. She covered her face with her hands.
Kenkenes, amazed and deeply moved, went to her immediately.
|What have I said?| he begged. |What have I done?|
What had he done, indeed? But to have spoken, though to explain, would have meant capitulation. She wavered a moment, and then turning away, fled up the valley toward the camp -- not from him, but from herself.