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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


Since the day Kenkenes had wounded her hand with the knife, Rachel had seen him but twice in many weeks.

One mid-morning, the oxen were unyoked from the water-cart and led ambling up to the pit where a monolith, too huge to be moved by men alone, had been taken forth and was to be transferred to the Nile. The bearers carried water directly from the river during this time, and it was given Rachel to govern them in the departure from the routine.

Suddenly she became aware that some one approached through the grain, and when she raised her head, she looked up into the face of Kenkenes. It was Kenkenes, indeed, but Kenkenes in robes of rustling linen and trappings of gold. Never had she seen so stately an Egyptian, nor any so entitled to the name of nobleman. In quick succession she experienced the moving sensations of surprise, pride in him, and depression. The last fell on her with the instant recollection of duty, when his face bent appealingly over hers. Trembling, she turned away from him, and when she looked again, he was returning to Memphis.

Now, her days had ceased to be the dreamy lapses of time in which she lived and walked. The glamour that had made the quarries sufferable had passed; all the realization of her enslavement, with the accompanying shame, came to her, and her hope for Israel was lost in the destruction of her personal happiness.

Still, the longing to look on Kenkenes once again made the dawns more welcome, the days longer and the sunsets more disheartening. Vainly she summoned pride to her aid; vainly she exhorted herself to consistency.

|How long,| she would say, |since thou didst reject the good Atsu because he is an idolater and an Egyptian? How long since thou wast full of wrath against the chosen people who wedded Egyptians and became of them? And now, who is it that is full of sighs and strange conduct? Who is it that hath forgotten the idols and the abominations and the bondage of her people and mourneth after one of the oppressors? And how will it be with thee when the chosen people go forth, or the carving is complete and the Egyptian cometh no more; or how will it be when he taketh one of the long-eyed maidens of his kind to wife?|

In the face of all this, her intuition rose up and bore witness that the Egyptian loved her, and was no less unhappy than she.

So time came and went and weeks passed and he came not again. Late, one sunset, while there yet was daylight, she left the camp merely that she might wander down the valley to the same spot where, at the same hour, she had met Kenkenes on that last occasion of talk between them.

Moving slowly down the shadows, she saw a figure approaching. The stature of the new-comer identified him. The head was up, the step slow, the bearing expectant. In the one scant lapse between two throbs of her heart, Rachel knew her lover, remembered all the power of his attraction, and realized that her joy and love could carry her beyond her fortitude and resolution.

Just ahead of her, not farther than three paces, a long fragment of rock had fallen from above and leaned against the wall. There was an ample space formed by its slant against the cliff and almost before she knew it, she had crept into this crevice. Cowering in the dusk, she clutched at her loud-beating heart and listened intently.

There was no sound of his steps on the rough roadway of the valley and though she watched eagerly from her hiding-place, she did not see him pass. After a long time she emerged. He was gone.

When she looked in the dust she found that his footprints turned not far from her hiding-place and led toward the Nile.

She knew then that he had seen her when she had caught sight of him, and failing to meet her as he had expected, had guessed she had hidden from him.

This was the sunset of the night of the revel at Senci's house. It was this incident that had made Kenkenes late at the festivities, and cynical when he came.

On her way back to the camp Rachel met Atsu, mounted and attended by a scribe, the taskmaster's secretary. The two officials were on their way to Memphis to worship in the great temple and to spend a night among free-born men. Once every month, no oftener, did Atsu return to his own rank in the city. Recognizing Rachel, he drew up his horse; the scribe rode on.

|Hast been in search of the Nile wind, Rachel? The valley holds the day-heat like an oven,| he said.

|Nay, I did not go so far. The darkness came too quickly.|

|Endure it a while. I shall move the people into the large valley where they may have the north breeze and the water-smell after sunset, now that the summer is near. I am glad I met thee. Deborah tells me the water for the camp-cooking is turbid, and I doubt not the children draw it from some point below the wharf where the drawing for the quarry-supply stirs up the ooze. Do thou go with the children in the morning when they are sent for the camp supply, and get it above the wharf.|

|I hear,| she answered.

|The gods attend thee,| he said, riding away.

|Be thy visit pleasant,| she responded, and turned again up the valley.

The taskmaster was forgotten at her second step, and her contrition and humiliation came back with a rush. There was little sleep for her that night, so heavy was her heart.

The next morning Rachel obeyed Atsu and followed the children to the Nile. Crossing the field, absorbed in her trouble, she did not hear the beat of hoofs or the grind of wheels until she was face to face with the attendants of a company of charioteers. The troop of water-carriers had scattered out of the road-way and each little bronzed Israelite was bending with his right hand upon his left knee in token of profound respect. Rachel hastily joined them.

When she looked again the retinue of servants had passed. After them came a gilded chariot with a sumptuous Egyptian within. By the annulets over his temples and the fringed ribbons pendent therefrom, the Israelite knew him to be royal.

Behind, a second chariot was driven by a single occupant, who wore the badges of princehood also.

The third was a chariot of ebony drawn by two prancing coal-black horses whose leathers and housings shone and jingled. Rachel's eyes met those of the driver and the life-current froze in her veins. Har-hat, fan-bearer to the Pharaoh, late governor of Bubastis, drew up his horses and calmly surveyed her. The action halted the chariots of a dozen courtiers following him. One by one they came to a stand-still and each man peered around his predecessor until the fan-bearer became conscious of the pawing horses behind him. He drove out of line and alighted. With an apologetic wave of his hand, he motioned the procession to proceed and busied himself with the harness as if he had found a breakage. Those that had passed were by this time some distance ahead and, missing the grind of wheels in their wake, looked back. The fan-bearer beckoned to one of the attendants who had gone before, and the man returned.

Meanwhile the procession moved on and the nobles glanced first at the fan-bearer, and next, at the Israelite. But Athor in the niche on the hillside was not more white and stony than its living model in the valley. There was no retreat. The fan-bearer stood between her and the Nile, his servant between her and the quarries. She felt the sickening numbness that stupefies one who realizes a terrible strait, from which there is neither succor nor escape.

The procession passed and the servant, halting, bowed to his master. He was short and fat, thick of neck and long of arm -- a most unusual Egyptian. Har-hat tossed him the reins and, walking around his horses, approached Rachel. The smallest Hebrew -- too small to be awed and yet old enough to realize that the beloved Rachel was in danger, dropped the hide he bore, and flinging himself before her, clasped her with his arms, and turned a defiant face at Har-hat over his shoulder. The fan-bearer paused.

|It is the very same,| he said laughingly. |The hard life of the quarries hath not robbed thee in the least of thy radiance. But by the gambling god, Toth, thou didst take a risk! Dost dream what thou didst miss through a malevolent caprice of the Hathors? Five months ago I would have taken thee out of bondage into luxury but for an industrious taskmaster and the unfortunate interference of a royal message. But the Seven Sisters repent, and I find thee again.|

Rachel had fixed her eyes upon the white walls of Memphis shining in the morning sun, and did not seem to hear him.

|Nay, now, slight me not! It was the fault of the taskmaster and not mine. I confess the charm of distant Memphis, but it is more glorious within its walls. I am come to take thee thither. Thank me with but a look, I pray thee.|

Seeing she did not move nor answer, he tilted his head to one side and surveyed her with interest.

|Hath much soft persuasion surfeited thee into deafness?| The color surged up into Rachel's face.

|Ha!| he exclaimed, |not so! Perhaps thou art but reluctant, then.| He whirled upon the other children, cowering behind him.

|Is she wedded?| he demanded.

Frightened and trembling, they did not answer till he repeated the question and stamped his foot. Then one of them shook his head.

|It is well. I need not delay till a slave-husband were disposed of in the mines. Hither, Unas!|

The fat servitor came forward.

|I know this taskmaster not, nor can I coax or press him into giving her up without the cursed formality of a document of gift from the Pharaoh. Get thee back to Memphis with this,| he drew off a signet ring and gave it to the servitor, |and to the palace. There have my scribe draw up a prayer to the Pharaoh, craving for me the mastership over the Israelite, Rachel, -- for household service.| The fan-bearer laughed. |Forget not, this latter phrase, else the Pharaoh might fancy I would take her to wife. Haste thee! and bring back Nak and Hebset with thee to row the boat back, and help thee fetch her. She may have a lover who might make trouble for thee alone. Get thee gone.|

He took the reins from his servitor's hands and turned again toward Rachel.

|I go forth to hunt, and there is danger in that pastime. I may not return. It would be most fitting to bid me a tender farewell, but thou art cruel. Nevertheless, I shall care for myself most diligently this day, and return to thee in Memphis by nightfall. Farewell!| He sprang into his chariot and, urging his horses, pursued the far-away procession at a gallop.

Unas was already at the Nile-side, preparing to return to Memphis. To Rachel it seemed as if she had been set free for a moment, that her efforts to escape and her inevitable capture might amuse her tormentor. And after the manner of the miserable captive so beset, she seized upon the momentary release and sought to fly. The three little Hebrews clung to her -- the one that had answered Har-hat weeping bitterly and remorsefully.

|Nay, weep not,| she said in a hurried whisper. |It would have ended just the same. Heard ye not what he said concerning a husband? But let me go! Let Rachel hide ere the serving men return!|

She undid their arms and ran back toward the quarries. For a moment the children hesitated and then they pursued her, crying in an undertone as they ran. Past the stone-pits, up the winding valley she fled until she reached the encampment and her own tent.

The women saw her come and old Deborah, who was preparing vegetables for the noonday meal, left the fires and hastened to the shelter. There, Rachel, choking with terror and tears, gave the story of the morning.

Deborah made no interruption and after the disjointed and unhappy recital was complete, she sat for some moments, motionless and silent. Then she arose and made as if to leave the tent, but Rachel caught at her hand in affright.

|Nay, be not so frightened,| the old woman said soothingly. |I go to look for Atsu. He will come in a little while.|

With that, she went forth. After a time -- more than two hours, in truth, but infinitely longer to Rachel, the voice of the taskmaster was heard without, talking with Deborah. He was permitting no curb to the expression of his rage.

|The gods rend his heart to ribbons!| he panted after a tempest of anathema. |Curse the insatiate brute! Is there not enough of Egypt's women who are willingly loose that he must destroy the purest spirit on earth? He shall not have her, if I take his life to save her!|

After a moment's savage rumination, he broke out again.

|He has us on the hip! We shall be put to it to hide her away from him now. Do thou go to her -- nay, I will go.|

Rachel heard him enter the tent and walk across the matting on the floor. She flung her arm over her face and huddled closer to the linen-covered heap of straw against which she had thrown herself. Even the eyes of the taskmaster were intolerable, in her shame. Atsu plunged into the heart of his subject at once.

|There is no escape in the choosing of the tens, now, Rachel. I have said that I would not vex thee again with my love. Once I offered thee marriage as refuge. My love and the shelter of my name are thine to take or leave. I will urge thee no more.|

He paused for a space and, as she made no answer, he went on as though she had rejected him explicitly.

|Then I shall hide thee somewhere in Egypt. The ruse is not secure, but it may serve.|

She sat up and put the hair back from her face.

|Thou good Atsu,| she said in a voice subdued with much weeping, |Wilt thou add more to mine already hopeless indebtedness to thee? Art thou blind to the ill-use thou invitest upon thine own head in thy care for me? Let me imperil thee no more. Is there no other way?|

He shook his head. Slowly her face fell, and she sighed for very heaviness of spirit. Atsu stooped and took her hand.

|Make ready and let us leave this place,| he said kindly, |and thou canst decide in the securer precincts of Memphis what thou wilt do. Lose no time.| He turned away and, signing to Deborah to follow him, left the tent.

Rachel arose and began her preparations to depart. The formidable blockade in the way to safety seemed to clear and her heart leaped at the anticipation of freedom or stopped at the suggestion of failure. She hastened slowly, for her excitement made most of her movements vain. Her hands trembled and held things insecurely; she forgot the place of many of her belongings, in that humble, orderly house. Alternately praying and fearing, she stopped now and then to be sure that the sounds of the camp were not those of the returning servants. The simple apparel gathered together, she collected the remaining mementoes of her family, -- saved with so much pain and guarded with such diligence by old Deborah. These were trinkets of gold and ivory, bits of frail gauzes in which a wondrous perfume lingered, and a scroll of sheep-skin bearing the records of the house. And after all these had been found and gathered together, she furtively put the straw aside and drew forth the collar of golden rings.

With the first glint of light on the red metal, the hope and animation in her heart went out. What of Kenkenes? No thought came to her now, but the most unhappy. The obligations which she would have gladly laid on him had fallen to Atsu. She dared not confess to him her love, and she could not give him gratitude. He had entered her life like a bewildering radiance, but it was Atsu who had saved her and emancipated her and would save her again.

She thrust the collar into her bosom with a sob and went on mechanically with her preparations. But during one of her movements the coins clinked musically. She clutched them, and they rang again, softly. They reproached her, and in that irresistible way, -- gently. They made a sound even as she breathed. As she walked they chafed. They took weight and crushed her breast. And with every sound from them, she felt Kenkenes' arm about her, her hand lost in his, the warmth of his young cheek against hers. Never so long as his gift were in her possession might she hope to put these memories from her, and she could not cherish them hopefully now. Desperate grief stirred her into action. She went quickly to the door of the tent and there met Deborah.

|This is not mine,| she said, holding up the necklace. |It belongs to the young nobleman who brought me back to camp that night.|

|Leave it with the tribe and it shall be given him.|

|Nay, he may not return to camp. I know where he comes and I can leave it there. It is not far -- only a little way.|

Deborah stood in her path.

|Will he be there?| she demanded.

|Nay, that I can pledge thee.| She slipped past her guardian, out of the tent and sped up the valley, determined that Deborah's prohibition, however just, should not stay her.

The old Israelite turned to look after her, and her eyes fell on Atsu, his face black with rage, his arms folded, talking with a fat, wildly gesticulating servitor. At that moment the courier caught sight of Rachel flying up the valley and, flinging a document at Atsu's feet, started to pursue. Atsu halted him with an iron hand, and Deborah paused to see no more. With a prayer she ran up the valley the way Rachel had taken.

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