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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


The moon was ampler and its light stronger. The Nile was a vast and faintly silvered expanse, roughened with countless ripples blown opposite the direction of the current. The north wind had risen and swept through the crevice between the hills with more than usual strength, adding its reedy music to the sound of the swiftly flowing waters.

After launching his bari, Kenkenes gazed a moment, and then, with a prayer to Ptah for aid, struck out for the south, rowing with powerful strokes.

At the western shore lighted barges swayed at their moorings or journeyed slowly, but the Nile was wide, and the craft, blinded by their own brilliance, had no thought of what might be hugging the Arabian shore. Yet Kenkenes, with the inordinate apprehension of the fugitive, lurked in the shadows, dashed across open spaces and imagined in every drifting, drowsy fisher's raft a pursuing party. He prayed for the well-remembered end of the white dike, where the Nile curved about the southernmost limits of the capital. The day had not yet broken when he passed the last flambeau burning at the juncture of the dike with the city wall. He rowed on steadily for Memphis, and immediate danger was at last behind him.

The towers of the city had sunk below the northern horizon when, opposite a poor little shrine for cowherds on the shore, a brazen gong sounded musically for the sunrise prayers. The Libyan hilltops were, at that instant, illuminated by the sun, and Kenkenes, in obedience to lifelong training, rested his oars and bent his head. When he pulled on again he did not realize that he had been, with the stubbornness of habit, maintaining the breach between him and Rachel. There was no thought in his mind to give over his faith.

At noon, weary with heat, hunger and heavy labor, he drew up at Hak-heb, on the western side of the Nile, fifty miles above Memphis. The town was the commercial center for the pastoral districts of the posterior Arsinoeite nome -- Nehapehu. Here were brought for shipment the wine, wheat and cattle of the fertile pocket in the Libyan desert. Being at a season of commercial inactivity, when the farmers were awaiting the harvest, the sunburnt wharves were almost deserted.

Few saw Kenkenes arrive. Most of the inhabitants were taking the midday rest, and every moored boat was manned by a sleeping crew. He made a landing and went up through the sand and dust of the hot street to the only inn. Here he ate and slept till night had come again. Refreshed and invigorated, he continued his journey. At noon the next day he stopped to sleep at another town and to buy a lamp, materials for making fire, ropes and a plummet of bronze sufficiently heavy to anchor his boat. He was entering a long stretch of distance wherein there was no inhabited town, and he was making ready to sleep in the bari. Then he began to travel by day, for he was too far from Memphis to fear pursuit, and rest in an open boat under a blazing sun would be impossible.

The third evening he paused opposite a ruined city on the eastern bank of the Nile. Hunters not infrequently went inland at this point for large game, and although the place was in a state of partial demolishment, Kenkenes hoped that there might be an inn. He tied his boat to a stake and entered Khu-aten, the destroyed capital of Amenophis IV, self-styled Khu-n-Aten.

Here under a noble king, who loved beauty and had it not, the barbarous rites of the Egyptian religion were overthrown and sensuous and esthetic ceremonies were established and made obligatory all over the kingdom. In his blind groping after the One God, the king had directed worship to the most fitting symbol of Him -- the sun.

He appeased the luminous divinity by offerings of flowers, regaled it with simmerings from censers, besought it with the tremulous harp and had it pictured with grace and vested with charm. And since the power of the national faith was all-permeating, its reconstruction was far-reaching in effect. Egypt was swept into a tremendous and beautiful heresy by a homely king, whose word was law.

But at his death the reaction was vast and vindictive. The orthodox faith reasserted itself with a violence that carried every monument to the apostasy and the very name of the apostate into dust. Now the remaining houses of Khu-ayen were the homes of the fishers -- its ruins the habitation of criminals and refugees.

The hand of the insulted zealot, of the envious successor, of the invader and conqueror, had done what the reluctant hand of nature might not have accomplished in a millennium. The ruins showed themselves, stretching afar toward and across the eastern sky, in ragged and indefinable lines. The oblique rays of the newly risen moon slanted a light that was weird and ghostly because it fell across a ruin. Kenkenes climbed over a chaos of prostrate columns, fallen architraves and broken colossi, and the sounds of his advance stirred the rat, the huge spider, the snake and the hiding beast from the dark debris. Here and there were solitary walls standing out of heaps of wreckage, which had been palaces, and frequent arid open spaces marked the site of groves. In complex ramifications throughout the city sandy troughs were still distinguishable, where canals had been, and in places of peculiarly complete destruction the strips of uneven pavement showed the location of temples.

There was not a house at which Kenkenes dared to ask hospitality. Those that lived so precariously would have little conscience about stripping him of his possessions.

He retraced his steps to the wharves and drew away, prepared to spend the night in his boat.

After leaving Khu-aten, the Nile wound through wild country, the hills approaching its course so closely as to suggest the confines of a gorge. The narrow strip of level land on the eastern side lay under a receding shadow cast by the hills, but the river and the western shore were in the broad brilliance of the moon. The night promised to be one of exceeding brightness and Kenkenes shared the resulting wakefulness of the wild life on land.

The half of his up-journey was done and the conflict of hope and doubt marshaled feasible argument for and against the success of his mission. In some manner the destruction of Khu-aten offered, in its example of Egypt's fury against progress, a parallel to his own straits.

In his boyhood he had heard the Pharaoh Khu-n-Aten anathematized by the shaven priests, and in the depths of his heart he had been startled to find no sympathy for their rage against the artist-king.

Ritual-bound Egypt had resented liberty of worship -- a liberalism that lacked naught in zeal or piety, but added grace to the Osirian faith. In his beauty-worship, Kenkenes was not narrow. He would not confine it to glyptic art, nor indeed to art alone -- all the uses of life might be bettered by it. His appreciation of Khu-n-Aten's ambition had been passive before, but when his own spirit experienced the same fire and the same reproach, his sympathy became hearty partizanship.

His mind wandered back again to the ruin. How fiercely Egypt had resented the schism of a Pharaoh, a demi-god, the Vicar of Osiris! The words of Rachel came back to him like an inspiration:

|Thou hast nation-wide, nation-old, nation-defended prejudice to overcome, and thou art but one, Kenkenes.|

But one, indeed, and only a nobleman. Could he hope to change Egypt when a king might not? Behold, how he was suffering for a single and simple breach of the law. At the thought he paused and asked himself:

|Am I suffering for the sacrilege?|

The admission would entail a terrifying complexity.

If he were suffering punishment for the statue, what punishment had been his for the sacrilegious execution of the Judgment of the Dead in the tomb of Rameses II? What, other than the reclamation of the signet by the Incomparable Pharaoh, even as Mentu had said? If the hypothesis held, he had committed sacrilege, he had offended the gods, and might not the accumulated penalty be -- O unspeakable -- the loss of Rachel?

On the other hand, if the signet were still in the tomb, Rameses had not reclaimed it -- Rameses had not been offended. The ritual condemned his act, but if Rameses in the realm of inexorable justice and supernal wisdom did not, how should he reconcile the threats of the ritual and the evident passiveness of the royal soul? If he found the signet and achieved his ends, aside from its civil power over him, what weight would the canonical thunderings have to his inner heart?

Once again he paused. The deductions of his free reasoning led him upon perilous ground. They made innuendoes concerning the stability of the other articles of hieratical law. He was startled and afraid of his own arguments.

|Nay, by the gods,| he muttered to himself, |it is not safe to reason with religion.|

But every stroke of his oar was active persistence in his heresy.

He believed he should find the signet.

Thereafter he could turn a deaf ear to any renegade ideas such an event might suggest.

It was an unlucky chance that befell the theological institutions of Egypt as far as this devotee was concerned, that Kenkenes had landed at the capital of the hated Pharaoh.

But he shook himself and tried to fix his attention on the night. The stars were few -- the multitude obliterated by the moon, the luminaries abashed thereby. The light fell through a high haze of dust and was therefore wondrously refracted and diffused. The hills made high lifted horizons, undulating toward the east, serrated toward the west. In the sag between there was no human companionship abroad.

Throughout great lengths of shore-line the tuneless stridulation of frogs, the guttural cries of water-birds and the general movement in the sedge indicated a serene content among small life. But sometimes he would find silence on one bank for a goodly stretch where there was neither marsh-chorus nor cadences of insects. The hush would be profound and an affrighted air of suspense was apparent. And there at the river-brink the author of this breathless dismay, some lithe flesh-eater, would stride, shadow-like, through the high reeds to drink. Now and then the woman-like scream of the wildcat, or the harsh staccato laugh of the hyena would startle the marshes into silence. Sometimes retiring shapes would halt and gaze with emberous eyes at the boat moving in midstream.

Kenkenes admitted with a grim smile that the great powers of the world and the wild were against him. But Rachel's face came to him as comfort -- the memory of it when it was tender and yielding -- and with a lover's buoyancy he forgot his sorrows in remembering that she loved him. He dropped the anchor and, lying down in the bottom of his boat, dreamed happily into the dawn.

During the day he landed for supplies at a miserable town of pottery-makers, leaving his boat at the crazy wharves.

When he returned the bari was gone. A negro, the only one near the river who was awake, told him that a dhow, laden with clay, in making a landing had struck the bari, staved in its side, upset it and sent it adrift.

The mischance did not trouble Kenkenes.

After some effort he aroused a crew of oarsmen, procured a boat, and continued at once to Thebes.

Khu-aten -- Tel-el-Amarna.

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