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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIX IN THE DESERT

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER XIX IN THE DESERT

In the early morning of the next day after the rout at Senci's, Kenkenes wandered restlessly about the inner court of his father's house. He had slept but little the preceding night, and now, dizzy and irritable, the freshness of the morning did not invigorate him and the haunting perplexities were with him still.

There was no need of haste to the Arabian hills and yet he could not wait patiently in Memphis for an appropriate hour to visit Masaarah. He paced hither and thither, flung himself on the benches in the shade, only to rise and resume his uneasy walk. Anubis was omnipresent and particularly ungovernable. If his young master were in motion he vibrated and oscillated like a shuttle. If Kenkenes sat, he paced the tessellated pavement slowly and with a foot-fall lighter than a birds. The sculptor eyed him understandingly, and finally arose.

|Come, Anubis! Tit, tit, tit!| he called, backing toward the work-room. Anubis bounded after him, but as Kenkenes paused just over the threshold, the ape also halted. His master retreated to the rear of the room still calling, but to the ape there was something portentous familiar in this proceeding. It hinted of imprisonment. Turning as though pursued, he disappeared up an acacia tree from which he could not be dislodged. With a vexed exclamation, Kenkenes passed out of the court into the house, slamming the swinging door so sharply that it sprang open again after him. As the old portress put back the outer doors leading into the street, that her young master might go forth, a shadow quick as thought slipped out after him. The old portress clapped her hands with a shrill command but the shadow was gone.

Once more in his work-day dress, his wallet of tools and provisions across his shoulder, the young sculptor passed toward the Nile, moody and unhappy but determined. At the river-side he hired the shallow bari that had given him faithful service for so long, and receiving the oars from Sepet, the boatman, prepared to push away. At that moment, Anubis, tremulous but unrepentant, bounded in beside him.

|Anubis!| Kenkenes exclaimed. |Of a truth I believe thou art possessed of the arts of magic. Now, if thou art lost in the hills and devoured by a wolf, upon thine own head be it. Pull in that paw, before thou becomest a foolish sacrifice to the sacred crocodile. I wonder thy self-respect does not keep thee from coming when thou art unwelcome.| And subsiding into silence, the sculptor turned toward Masaarah.

He made a landing below the stone wharf, for there a two-oared bari was already drawn up, and the tangle of herbage was a safe hiding-place for his own boat. He looked toward the quarry and hesitated. He had no heart yet to face her, who had laid his cruelest sorrow on him. He would continue his work on Athor until he had gathered assurance from that unforbidding face.

His light foot made no sound and he entered the niche silently. Kneeling on the chipped stone at the base of the statue, her face against the drapings, her arms clasping its knees, was Rachel. In one hand was the collar of rings. She had not heard the sculptor's approach.

For an instant his surprise transfixed him. Had she repented? A great wave of compassion and tenderness swept over him and he drew her face away between his palms. With a terrified start, the girl turned a swift glance upward. When she recognized Kenkenes her tearful face colored vividly. Her posture was such that she could not rise, and with infinite gentleness he lifted her to her feet.

|What is it, Rachel? Art thou in trouble?|

Joy and maidenly confusion took away her voice.

|Alas,| he went on sadly. |Am I so fallen from thy favor, shut out and denied thy confidence?|

|Nay, nay,| she protested. |Think not so harshly of me. I am -- I came -- | she faltered and paused. He did not help or spare her. He had come to learn why she had done this thing, why she had said that, and why she had repulsed him without explanation, when there was unmistakable preference for him in her unstudied acts. He held his peace and waited for her to proceed. Meanwhile Rachel suffered cruelly. She had no thought in her mind concerning her conduct toward him. It was the shameful event of the morning, which must be told to explain her presence before Athor, that made her cover her crimson face at last. Kenkenes silenced the protests of his gallantry, and drawing her hands away, lifted her face on the tips of his fingers and waited.

While they stood thus, Deborah, exhausted and praying, staggered into the inclosure.

|Rachel!| she panted. |The serving-men -- thou art pursued!| The fat courier, purple of countenance and breathing hard, appeared in the opening. Rachel shrank against Kenkenes and Deborah dropped on her knees between the pair and the servitor.

|Out of the way, hag!| the man puffed. |Let me at yon slave. Out!| He struck at Deborah with a short mace but Kenkenes caught his arm and thrust him aside.

|Go, go back to the camp,| he said to the old woman. |No harm shall befall Rachel.| Raising her, he put her behind him, and advanced toward the courier.

|Hast thou words with me?| he said coolly. |What wilt thou?|

|The girl. Give her up!|

|Nay, but thou art peremptory. What wilt thou with her?|

|For the harem of the Pharaoh's chief adviser,| the man retorted.

The blood in Kenkenes' veins seemed to become molten; flashes of fierce light blinded him and his sinews hardened into iron. He bounded forward and his fingers buried themselves in soft and heated flesh.

The first glimmer of reason through his murderous insanity was the consciousness of a rain of blows upon his head and shoulders, and a blackening face settling back to the earth before him.

He released his grip on the throat of the strangling servitor and flung off his other assailants. For a moment, stunned by the hard usage at the hands of the reinforcing men, he staggered, and seemed about to succumb. The men pursued him to finish their work, but as he eluded them, it seemed that a third person -- a woman all in white with extended arms -- came into their view.

Kenkenes saw the foremost, a tall Nubian in a striped tunic, stop in his tracks, and the second, smaller and lighter but a Nubian also, following immediately behind, bumped against his fellow.

Mouths agape, eyes staring, they stood and marveled. The strange presence, they discovered at once, was neither a human being nor an apparition. It was stone -- a statue.

|Sacrilege!| the first exploded. |A -- a -- by Amen, it is the slave herself!|

In the little pause, Kenkenes recovered himself, but he knew that he gave Rachel to her fate, if the pair overcame him. He caught her hand and with the whispered word, |Run!| fled with her toward the front of the cliff facing the Nile. It was a desperate chance for escape but he seized it.

Immediately they were pursued and at the brink of the hill, overtaken. The stake was too large for the young artist to risk its loss by adhering to the unwritten rules of combat. He released Rachel, whirled about, and as the foremost descended on him, ducked, seized the man about the middle, and pitched him head-first down into the valley. The second, the tall Nubian that wore the striped tunic, halted, dismayed, and Kenkenes, catching Rachel's hand, prepared to descend. But she checked him with a cry. |Look!|

His eyes followed her outstretched arm. At regular intervals along the Nile, the distant figures of men were seen posted. Escape was cut off. He mounted to the top of the cliff and led Rachel out of view from the river. The second man retreated, and raged from afar. The sculptor turned up the shingly slope toward the sun-white ridge of higher hills inland. Here, he would hide with Rachel, till his strength returned and the ache left his head clear to plan a safe escape. The Nubian called on all the gods to annihilate them and started in pursuit. The sculptor did not pause, and, emboldened by the indifference of the man he dogged, the pursuer drew near and made menacing demonstrations. Kenkenes had no desire to be followed. He bade Rachel wait for him and approached the Nubian.

|Now,| he began coolly, |thou art unwelcome, likewise, insolent. Also art thou a fool, but it is an arch-idiot indeed that lacketh caution. This maiden is beloved of all the Israelites. Thou art one man, and alone. It would not be safe for thee to attempt to take her without help even across that little space between Masaarah and the Nile. I should harass thee with others within call. Do thou save thyself and send the chief adviser after her. I would treat with him also.|

The Nubian backed away and Kenkenes followed him relentlessly until the man, overcome with trepidation, took to his heels and fled.

Even then, Kenkenes did not lessen his vigilance. He caught up Anubis, who had bounded beside him during the entire time, and running back to Rachel, turned into the limestone wastes.

Kenkenes had risked his suggestions to the single Nubian, and their effect upon him gave the young sculptor some hope that the pursuing force had been limited to these three. Though the men along the Nile were not within call, they would prevent flight into Memphis, and the camp of the Israelites, if not similarly picketed, would offer security only for the moment. Why had not the Hebrews protected her in the beginning? He would get to a place of perfect safety first and learn all concerning this matter.

After an hour's cautious dodging from shelter to shelter, through the masses of rocks, they toiled up the great ridge of hills deep into the desert. Rachel would have gone on and on, but Kenkenes drew her into the shadow of a great rock and stopped to listen. The oppressive silence was unbroken. Far and near only gray wastes of hills heaved in heated solitude about them.

|Sit here in the shadow and rest,| he said, turning to the weary girl beside him. |I shall keep watch.|

He cleared a space for her among the debris at the base of the great fragment and pressed her down in the place he had made. Next he undid his belt and fastened Anubis to a boulder, too heavy for the ape to move. The animal resented the confinement, and Kenkenes, tying him by force, found in the forepaws the collar of golden rings. With a murmur of satisfaction, the young man reclaimed the necklace and thrust it into the bosom of his dress.

When he arose the day grew dark before him, and he was obliged to steady himself against the rock till the vertigo passed. His assailants had hurt him more than he had thought. But he took up his vigil and maintained it faithfully till all sense of danger had vanished.

Rachel, who had been watching his face, touched his hand at last, and bade him rest. The invitation was welcome and with a sigh he sank down beside her.

|Lie down,| she said softly. |Thou hast been most cruelly misused. And all for me!|

Obediently, he slipped from a sitting to a recumbent posture. She put out her arm, and supporting him, seemed about to take his head into her lap. Instead, she slipped the mantle from the strap that bound it across his shoulders, and rolling it swiftly, made a pillow of it for his head.

The wallet that had hung by the same strap over his shoulder, attracted her attention and she guessed that it had been used as a carrier for provision. She laid it open and took out the water-bottle. The pith-stopper had held, during all the violent motion, and the dull surface of the porous and ever-cooling pottery was cold and wet.

She put the bottle to his lips and, after he had drunk, bathed his bruises most tenderly.

Succumbing to the gentle influence of her fingers, he put up his hands to take them, but they moved out of his reach in the most natural manner possible. He could not feel that she had purposely avoided his touch, but he made no further attempt when the soothing fingers returned. Finally he raised himself on his elbow and supported his head in his hand.

|Now am I new again,| he said; |once more ready to help thee. Let us take counsel together and get into safety and comfort.| He paused a moment till his serious words would not follow with unseeming promptness upon his light tone.

|I know thy trouble, Rachel,| he began again soberly. |There is no need that thou shouldst hurt thyself by the telling. But there are details which would be helpful in aiding thee if I had them in mind. Thou knowest better than I. Wilt thou aid me?|

Her golden head drooped till her face was bowed upon her hands. After a little silence she answered him, her voice low with shame.

|This man sought to take me before, at Pa-Ramesu, but Atsu learned of it in time and sent me to Masaarah. This morning I met him again -- | She paused, and Kenkenes aided her.

|Aye, I can guess -- poor affronted child!|

|Atsu meant to escape with me again, but the servants of the nobleman came before we could get away.|

Kenkenes knew by her choice of words that she did not know the name of her persecutor, and he did not tell her what it was. He could not bear the name of Har-hat on her lips. She went on, after a little silence.

|I came -- | she began, coloring deeply, |to leave thy collar with the statue -- I did not expect to find thee there.|

How little it takes to dispirit a lover! How could he know that any thought had led her to do that thing save an impulse actuated by indifference or real dislike? His hope was immediately reduced to the lowest ebb. The mention of the taskmaster's name brought forward the probability of a rival.

|I can take thee back to Atsu,| he said slowly. |These menials will not remain in the hills after sunset, and under cover of night I can slip thee, by strategy, past any sentries they may have set and get thee to Atsu. I, by my sacrilege, and he by his insubordination, are both under ban of the law, but danger with him will be sweeter danger than peril with me, I doubt not.|

She looked at him, and the hurt that began to show on her face gave place to puzzlement.

|Is it not so?| he asked with a bitter smile. |The companionship of ones beloved works wonders out of heavy straits!|

|But -- . Dost thou -- ? Atsu is naught to me,| she cried, her grave face brightening.

The blood surged back to his cheeks and the life into his eyes. He leaned toward her, ready to ask for more enlightenment concerning her conduct, when she went on dreamily: |But he is wondrous kind and hath made the camp bright with his humanity. Israel loveth Atsu.|

Kenkenes turned again to the perplexity in hand.

|I came this morning to ask thy permission to give thee thy freedom. I doubt not Israel of Masaarah, hidden in a niche in the hills, does not dream that it is the plan of the Pharaoh -- nay, the heir to the crown of Egypt by the mouth of the Pharaoh -- to exterminate the Hebrews.| Rachel recoiled from him.

|What sayest thou?| she exclaimed, her voice sharp with terror.

|Nay, forgive me!| he said penitently. |So intent was I on thy rescue that I forgot to soften my words. Let it be. It is said; I would it were not true.|

Her affright was only momentary, for her faith restored her ere his last words were spoken.

|It will not come to pass,| she declared. |Jehovah will not suffer it. Thou shalt see -- and let the Pharaoh beware!| Her words were vehement and she offered no argument. She saw no need of it, since her belief, merely expressed, had the force of fact with her.

|I am committed to the cause of Israel -- that thou knowest, Rachel,| Kenkenes made answer. After another silence he took up the thread of his talk.

|If thy danger from this man were set aside I should not return thee to the camp, even if there were no doom spoken upon Israel. I would have thee free; I would have thee in luxury, sheltered in my father's house -- I would -- |

|Thou dost paint a picture that mocks me now, O Kenkenes,| she broke in on his growing fervor. |Doubly am I enslaved, and the safety of Masaarah and Memphis is no more for me.|

|Thou hast said,| he answered in a subdued voice. |It was given me last night to win favor with the Pharaoh for thy sake, but the need of that favor fell before it was won. But I despair not. What is thy pleasure, Rachel? Shall I take thee to Atsu, or wilt thou stay with me?|

|This nobleman will know of a surety that Atsu is my friend, but he must guess the other Egyptian who hath helped me. If I go to Atsu I take certain danger to him; if I stay with thee the peril must wander ere it overtakes us. But I would not burden either. Is there no other way?|

He shook his head. |It lies between me and Atsu to care for you, and the peril for you and for us is equal. My name is as good as published, for I am gifted with a length of limb beyond my fellows. I was found before the statue and they, describing me to the priests, will prove to the priests, who know my calling, that the son of Mentu has committed sacrilege. And the priesthood would not wait till dawn to take me.|

|I will stay with thee, Kenkenes,| she said simply.

He became conscious of the collar on his breast and drew it forth.

|With this,| he began, assuming a lightness, |I fear I gave thee offense one day and thou hast held it against me. Now let me heal that wound and sweeten thy regard for me with this same offending trinket. Wilt thou take it as a peace-offering from my hands and wear it always?| She bent toward him and, with worshiping hands, he put aside the loosened braids and clasped the necklace about her throat.

|There are ten rings,| he continued. |Let them be named thus,| telling them off with his fingers, |This first of all -- Hope -- it shall be thy stay; this -- Faith -- it shall comfort thee; this -- Good Works -- it shall publish thee; this -- Sacrifice -- it shall win thee many victories; this -- Chastity -- it shall be thy name; the next -- Wisdom -- it shall guide thee; after it -- Steadfastness -- it shall keep thee in all these things; Truth -- it shall brood upon thy lips; Beauty -- it shall not perish; this, the last, is Love, of which there is naught to be said. It speaketh for itself.|

Their eyes met at his last words and for a moment dwelt. Then Rachel looked away.

|Are the fastenings secure?| she asked.

|Firm as the virtues in a good woman's soul.|

|They will hold. I would not lose one of them.|

A long silence fell. The curious activity of desert-life, interrupted for the time by the presence of the fugitives, resumed its tenor and droned on about them. The rasping grasshopper, the darting lizard, the scorpion creeping among the rocks, a high-flying bird, a small, skulking, wild beast put sound and movement in the desolation of the region. The horizon was marked by undulating hills to the west; to the east, by sharper peaks. The scant growth was blackened or partly covered with sand, and it fringed the distant uplands like a stubbly beard. The little ravines were darkened with hot shadows, but the bald slopes presented areas, shining with infinitesimal particles of quartz and mica, to a savage sun and an almost unendurable sky. From somewhere to the barren north the wind came like a breath of flame, ash-laden and drying. There was nothing of the cool, damp river breeze in this. They were in the hideous heart of the desert to whom death was monotony, resisting foreign life, an insult.

The two in the shortening shadow of the great rock were glad of the water-bottle. The necessity of comfortable shelter for Rachel began to appeal urgently to Kenkenes. He put aside his dreams and thought aloud.

|What cover may I offer thy dear head this night?| he began. |We may not return to the camp, for there of a surety they lie in wait for us. Toora is deserted and so tempting a spot for fugitives that it will be searched immediately. Not a hovel this side of the Nile but will be visited. I would take thee to my father -- |

|Nay,| she said firmly. |I will take affliction to none other. Already have I undone two of the best of Egypt. I will carry the distress no further.|

After a silence he began again.

|How far wilt thou trust in me, Rachel?|

She raised her face and looked at him with serious eyes.

|In all things needful which thou wilt require of me.|

|And thou canst sleep this night in an open boat?|

She nodded.

|To-morrow, then,| he continued, taking her hand, |we shall reach Nehapehu, where I can hide thee with some of the peasantry on my father's lands. And there thou canst abide until I go to Tape and return.

|Thou must know,| he continued, explaining, |the Athor of the hills is not my first sacrilege. Once I committed a worse. My father was the royal sculptor to Rameses and is now Meneptah's murket.| Rachel glanced at him shyly and sought to withdraw her hand, for she recognized the loftiness of the title. But he retained his clasp. |He is a mighty genius. He planned and executed Ipsambul. For that, which is the greatest monument to Rameses, the Incomparable Pharaoh loved him, and while the king lived my father was overwhelmed with his favors. Nor did the royal sculptor's good fortune wane, as is the common fate of favorites, for the great king planned that my father's house should be honored even after his death though the dynasties change. So Rameses gave him a signet of lapis lazuli, and its inscription commanded him who sat at any time thereafter on the throne of Egypt to honor the prayer of its bearer in the unspeakable name of the Holy One.

|After the death of Rameses,| the narrator went on, |we went to Tape, my father and I, to inscribe the hatchments and carve the scene of the Judgment of the Dead in the tomb of the great king. Now, I am my father's only child and have been taught his craft. I have been an apt pupil, and he had no fear in trusting me with the execution of the fresco. I had long been in rebellion, practising in secret my lawless ideas, and I was seized with an uncontrollable aversion to marring those holy walls with the conventional ugliness commanded by the ritual. I assembled my ideas and dared. I worked rapidly and well. The work was done before my father discovered it.| Kenkenes paused and laughed a little.

|Suffice it to say the fresco was erased. And the solemnity of the crypt was hardly restored before my father found that his sacred signet, which he always wore, was gone. Nay, nay, I might not search for it more than the fruitless once, for he declared, and of a truth believed firmly, that the great king had reclaimed his gift. I did not and never have I believed it. Now I need the signet and I shall go after it on the strength of that belief.

|Having found it, I shall appeal to Meneptah for thy liberty and safety and whatever boon thou wouldst have and for myself. What thinkest thou? Shall I go on?|

Rachel smiled and looked up at him gratefully.

|I will go with thee, Kenkenes,| she said.

Her ready confidence and the easiness of his name on her lips filled him with joy. |Ah! ye ungentle Hathors!| he mourned to himself, |why may I not tell her how much I love her?|

But the white hand which he pressed against his breast asked its release with gentle reluctance, and he set it free.

Once again the silence fell and was not frequently broken thereafter.

There was no invitation in her manner, and he could not speak what he would.

The sun dropped behind the Libyan hills and the heights filled with shadow. At length he said:

|It is time.|

Lifting her to her feet, the ape attending them, he went toward the Nile, hand in hand with Rachel, his love all untold.

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