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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXIX THE PLAGUES

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


The court was gone and Masanath was making the most of each day of her freedom. Memphis was in a state of apathy, worn out by revel and emptied of her luminaries, Ta-meri, intoxicated with the importance of her position as lady-in-waiting to the queen, had departed with her husband, the cup-bearer. Io had returned to her home in On, with an ache in her brave little heart that outweighed even Masanath's for heaviness. The last of Seti's lover-like behavior toward her dated back to a time before the court had gone to Thebes -- long, long ago.

Ta-user, also, had gone, but the fan-bearer's daughter did not regret her. The other ladies who remained in Memphis, frightened at the loftiness of Masanath's future, were uneasy in her presence and seemed more inclined to bend the knee before her than to continue the girlish companionship that had once been between them.

So she must entertain herself, if she were entertained at all.

For a time after the departure of Meneptah, Masanath had given herself up to tears and gloom. When she had worn out her grief, the elastic spirit of youth reasserted itself and once again she was as cheerful as she felt it becoming to be under the circumstances.

The fan-bearer had taken a house for his daughter's use, during her year of solitary residence, and her own servants, a lady-in-waiting, the devoted Nari, Pepi, a courier and upper servant, lean, brown and taciturn, and several slaves, both black and white, had been left with her. The older daughter of the fan-bearer lived with her husband in Pelusium. Her home could have been an asylum for the younger, but Masanath was determined to know one year of absolute independence before she entered the long bondage of queenship.

It was now the middle of June, the height of Egyptian summer. In a little space the marshes, which had been, for eight months, favorite haunts of fowlers, would be submerged, for the inundation was not far away.

Masanath would hunt for wild-duck and marsh-hen, while there was yet time.

It was an hour after sunrise. Her raft, built of papyrus, was boat-shaped and graceful as a swan. Pepi was at the long-handled sweep in the stern. Masanath sat in the middle, which was heaped with nets, throw-sticks, and bows and arrows. A pair of decoy birds, tame and unfettered, stood near her, craning their small heads, puzzled at the movement of the boat which was undecipherable since they were motionless. Nari sat in the prow, her hands folded, her face quite expressionless. The service of the day was out of the routine, but as a good servant, she was capable of adapting herself to the change.

The little craft darted away from the painted landing for pleasure boats, and reaching midstream, was turned toward the north. The current caught it and swept it along like a leaf.

As they passed the stone wharf at Masaarah, Nari looked toward the quarries with a show of interest on her face. She even caught her breath to speak. Masanath noted her animation.

|What is it, Nari?|

|Naught but a bit of gossip that came to mine ears, last night, and the sight of Masaarah urged me to tell it again. It is said the Hebrews of these quarries rose against the new driver and drove him out of the camp, crying, 'Return us our Atsu, return us our Atsu.'|

|What folly!| Masanath exclaimed. |If they had been the host which crowds Goshen to her bounds, it might serve. But this handful in rebellion against Egypt! The military of the Memphian nome will crush them as if they had been so many ants.|

|I know,| the serving-woman admitted. |The soldier I had it from, said that the city commandant would move against them by noon this day.|

|The gods help them!| Pepi put in.

|Thy prayer is too late, Pepi,| Masanath answered. |The gods should have cautioned them ere they took the step. And yet,| she continued, musing, |straits may become so sore that aught but endurance is welcome.|

Her servants looked at her and at each other, understanding.

Nari went on:

|But the soldier told me further that the Israelites had spent the night chanting and dancing before their God, and it seems from this spot that the quarries are empty. They do not fear, boasting their God's care.|

Masanath shook her head. |He must look to them at once, ere the soldiery fall upon them. His time for aid is short,| she said.

A silence fell, and the raft passed below Masaarah. Again Nari spoke, proving that she had heard and thought upon the last words of her mistress.

|Are not the gods omnipotent and everywhere?|

|Aye, so hast thou been taught, Nari.|

|Our gods, and the gods of every nation like them?| the serving-woman persisted.

|The gods of Egypt are so, and each nation boasts its gods equally potent.|

|Mayhap the Hebrews' God will help them,| Nari ventured.

Masanath was silent for a moment. |He hath deserted them for long,| she said at last, |but they are hard-pressed. Mayhap their loud supplications will reach Him in His retreat.|

|They boast that He hath returned.|

|Let Him prove Himself,| Masanath insisted stoutly.

When next she spoke there was no hint of the past serious talk in her voice.

|A pest on the ban,| she exclaimed. |Look at the Marsh of the Discontented Soul. It fairly swarms with teal and coot, and see the snipe on the sand.| She stood up and watched the sandy strip they were nearing. They were a goodly distance out from the shore, but Pepi poled nearer midstream. |The pity of it,| she sighed; |but I doubt not the place swarms with crocodile, also.|

She sat down again, and looked at the decoy birds. Their timidity had increased into actual fear. Masanath reached a soothing hand toward one of them and it fled. The motion of the poling-arm of Pepi frightened it again, and with a flirt of its wings it retreated toward Masanath.

|Stop a moment, Pepi,| she said. |Let me quiet this frightened thing. I can not fathom its terror.|

|The unquiet soul, my Lady,| Nari whispered, in awe.

|Strange that the gods gifted the creatures with keener sight than men,| Masanath answered, somewhat disturbed. She moved toward the bird, talking softly, but the persuasion was as useless as if the decoy had been a wild thing. At the nearer approach of the small hand it took wings and flew. The mate followed, unhesitating. The shining distance toward the west swallowed them up.

The trio on the raft looked at one another.

|Nay, now, saw ye the like before?| Masanath exclaimed, the tone of her voice divided between astonishment and irritation at the loss of her pets.

|Let us leave this vicinity,| Pepi said, suiting the action to the word, |it is unholy.| He seized the sweep and drove the raft about, poling with wide strokes. At that moment, a cry, which was more of a hoarse whisper, broke from his lips.

|Body of Osiris! The river! the river!|

Masanath leaned on one hand and looked over the side of the raft. With a bound and a shivering cry, Nari was cowering beside her, the little craft tossing on the waves at the force of the leap. Instantly, Pepi was at her other side, on his knees, praying and shaking. And together the trio huddled, but only one, Masanath, was brave enough to watch what was happening.

From the bottom of the Nile a turbid convection was taking place, as if the river silt had been stirred up, but the fuming current was assuming a dull red tinge. The action had been rapid. Already the stain had predominated, streaks of clear water, only here and there, clarifying the opaque coloring. The boat rode half its depth in red, the paddle dripped red, the splashes of water within on the bottom were red, the sun shone broadly into the mirroring red, a sliding, reeking red! A lavender foam broke its bubbles against the drifting raft and a tepid, invisible vapor, like a moist breath, exhaled from the ensanguined surface.

Schools of fish, struggling and leaping, filled the space immediately above the water, and cumbered the raft with a writhing mass. Numberless crocodiles bounded into the air, braying, snorting, rending one another and churning the river into froth by their hideous battle. Dwellers of the deep water drifted into the upper tide -- monsters of the muck at the Nile bottom, turtles, huge crawfish, water-newts, spotted snakes, curious bleached creatures that had never seen the day, great drifts of insects, with frogs, tadpoles -- everything of aquatic animate life, came up dead or dying terribly. Along either bank water-buffalo and wallowing swine, which had been in the pools near the river, clambered ponderously, snorting at every step.

Vessels were putting about and flying for the shore. From the prow of one tall boat, with distended sails, a figure was seen to spring high and disappear under the red torrent. Rioting crews of river-men fought for first landing at the accessible places on the banks. Memphis shrieked and the pastures became compounds of wild beasts that deafened heaven with their savage bellowing.

Pepi and Nari had no thought of saving themselves. It was Masanath who must save them. They clung to her, dragging her down with their arms when she attempted to rise. Bereft of reason, they made the liquid echoes of the river ring with wild cries of mortal terror.

Masanath had sufficient instinct left to urge her to fly. With a mighty effort she shook off her servants and sprang to the sweep. Instantly they made to follow her, but she threatened them with a hunting-stick. The combined weight of the three in the stern would have swamped the frail boat.

Seizing the sweep she poled with superhuman strength toward the nearest shore -- the Marsh of the Discontented Soul. If she remembered the spirit, she forgot her fear of it. Any terror was acceptable other than isolation on this mile-wide torrent of blood.

The raft grounded, and as a viscous wash of red lapped across it, she leaped forth, landing with both feet in the horror. She floundered out and crying to her servants to follow her, fled like a mad thing up the sandy stretch toward the distant wall of rock.

The boat, lightened of her weight, received a backward thrust as she leaped, and drifted out of the reeds. The heavy current caught it and swept it across the smitten river to the Memphian shore. It bore two insensible figures.

Masanath ran, thinking only to leave the ghastly flood behind. Her wet over-dress flapped about her ankles. It, too, was stained, and she tore if off as she ran. Ahead of her was a sagging limestone wall, with no gap, but Masanath, hardly sane, would have dashed herself against it, if hands had not detained her.

|Blood! Blood!| she shrieked. |Holy Ptah save us!|

|Peace!| some one made answer. |God is with us.|

The voice was calm and reassuring, the hands firm. Here, then, was one who was strong and unafraid, and therefore, a safe refuge. No longer called upon to care for herself, Masanath fell into the arms of the brave unknown and ceased to remember.

Consciousness returned to her slowly and incompletely. Horror had dazed her, and her surroundings, but faintly discovered in an all-enveloping gloom, were not conducive to mental repose and clearness.

She became aware, first, that she was somewhere hidden from the sunshine and beyond reach of the strange odor from the Nile.

Next she realized that she was sheltered in a cave; that slender lines of white daylight sifted through the interstices of a door; that a lamp was burning somewhere behind a screen; that a hairy thing sat in a corner and looked at her with half-human eyes, and that, as she shrank at the sight, the warm support under her head moved and a fair face, framed with golden hair, bent over her.

Then her eyes, becoming clearer as her recollection returned, wandered away toward the walls of her shelter. They had been hewn by hands. There was an opening in one side, leading into another and a darker crypt. Was not this a tomb? She was in the Tomb of the Discontented Soul! Terrified, she struggled to gain her feet and fly, but the awful memory of the plague without returned to her overwhelmingly. Gentle hands restrained her, and the same voice that had sought to soothe her before, continued its soft comforting now.

|Thou art safe and sheltered,| she heard. |No evil shall befall thee.|

Was this the spirit of the tomb? If so, it was most lovely and kindly. But a solemn voice issued out of the dark cell beyond. This was the spirit, of a surety. She cowered against her fair-haired protector and shuddered. But the maiden answered the voice in a strange tongue. Masanath would have known it to be Hebrew, had she been composed. But now it was mystic, cabalistic.

Presently the maiden addressed her.

|Deborah asks after thee, Lady. How shall I tell her thou findest thyself?|

|Oh, I can not tell,| Masanath answered. |What has happened? Is it true or did I go mad?|

The Israelite smoothed her hair. |It is a plague,| she said.

|Then the hand of Amenti is on us,| the Egyptian shuddered. |Whither shall we flee?|

|Ye can not flee from the One God,| the voice from the crypt said grimly.

|Nay, but what have I done to vex the gods?| Masanath insisted. |O let me go hence. Where are my servants?|

|It is better for thee to bide here,| the voice went on relentlessly. |For outside the sheltering neighborhood of the chosen people, the hand of the outraged God shall overtake Egypt and scorch her throat with thirst and make her veins congeal for want of water.|

Masanath gained her feet, crying out wildly:

|My servants! Where are they? Let me forth.|

The Israelite put an assuring arm about her. |Thou wilt not dare to face the Nile again,| she warned. |Stay with us.|

|To starve! To perish of thirst! To die of pestilence! The gods have left us. We are undone!|

|Aye, the gods have left you,| the voice continued harshly. |Ye are given over to the vengeance of the God of Abraham. Howl, Egypt! Rend thyself and cover thy head with ashes. Thy destruction is but begun. For a hundred years thou hast oppressed Israel. Now is the hour of the children of God!|

Masanath wrung her hands, but the voice went on.

|As the Nile flows, so hath the blood of Israel been wasted by the hand of Egypt. Now shall the God of Abraham drain her veins, even so, drop for drop. For the despoiling of Israel shall her pastures and stables be filled with stricken beasts -- for the heavy hand of the Pharaohs shall the heavens thunder and scourges fall. And the wrath of God shall cool not till Egypt is a waste, shorn of her corn and her vineyards and her riches, and foul with dead men.|

Nothing could have been more vindictive than this disembodied voice. Masanath thrust her fingers through her hair, and drawing her elbows forward, sheltered her face with them.

|When have I offended against the Hebrew?| she cried, sick with terror. |Why should your awful God destroy the innocent and the friend of Israel among the people of Egypt?|

Rachel, who had stood beside her, with an increasing cloud on her face, now spoke in Hebrew. There was mild protest in her tones.

|The plague will pass,| the voice from the inner crypt continued. |Seven days will it endure, no more.|

|Deborah is mystic,| Rachel added softly, |and is gifted with prophetic eyes. Much hath she suffered at Egypt's hands, and her tongue grows harsh when she speaks of the oppression.|

|Nay, but let me go,| Masanath begged. |Where are my servants? Came they not after me when I fled?|

|None followed thee, Lady, and thy raft went adrift.|

|Let me out of this hideous place, then, for I must seek them. They may be dead.|

Her tone was imperious, and Rachel, silently obedient, led her to the entrance and pushed aside the door. Instantly the terrible turmoil over Egypt smote upon her ears; next she saw the Nile, moving slowly, black where its clear surfaces had been green, scarlet and froth-ridden where the sun had shone upon transparent ripples and white foam; after that, the strange odor came to her, recalling the smell of the altars, but now magnified till it was overpoweringly strong. She sickened and turned away.

Setting the door in place, Rachel led her back into a corner of the outer chamber and laid her down on the matting there.

|The Lord God will care for thy servants. Fret thyself no further, but be content here until the horror shall pass. I shall attend thee, so thou shalt not miss their ministrations.| The Israelite spoke with gentle authority, smoothing the dark hair of her guest. Command in the form of persuasion is doubly effective, since it induces while it compels. Masanath was most amenable to this manner of entreaty, since it disarmed her pride while it governed her impulses. Thus, though her inclination urged against it, she ate when the Israelite brought her a bit of cold fowl and a beaker of wine at midday and again at sunset. And at night, she slept because the Israelite told her she was safe and bade her close her eyes.

But once she awoke. The lamp burned behind a wooden amphora rack and the interior of the stone chamber was not dark. The voice in the inner chamber was still and the human-eyed beast in the corner was now only a small hairy roll. In the silence she would have been dismayed, but close beside her sat the Israelite. One hand toyed absently with the golden rings of a collar about her throat. The face was averted, the hair unplaited and falling in a shower of bright ripples over the bosom and down the back. The beauty of the picture impressed itself on Masanath, in spite of her drowsiness. But as well as the beauty, the dejection in the droop of the head, the unhappiness on the face, were apparent even in the dusk. Here was sorrow -- the kind of sorrow that even the benign night might not subdue. Masanath was well acquainted with such vigils as the golden Israelite seemed to be keeping.

Her love-lorn heart was stirred. She spoke to Rachel softly.

|Come hither and lie down by me,| she said. |I am afraid and thou art unhappy. Give me some of thy courage and I will sorrow with thee.|

The Israelite smiled sadly and obeyed.

It was dawn when the fan-bearer's daughter awoke again.

The door had been set aside, and on the rock threshold a squat copper lamp was sending up periodic eruptions of dense white vapor. Rachel was feeding the ember of the cotton wick with bits of chopped root. The breeze from the river blew the fumes back into the cave, filling the dark recesses with a fresh and pungent odor.

Masanath, wondering and remembering, raised her head to look through the opening. Day was broad over Egypt, and the turmoil had subsided. The silence was heavy. But the Nile was still a wallowing torrent of red.

She sank back and drew the wide sleeves of her dress over her face. Rachel put the lamp aside, set the door in place and came to her.

|Thou art better for thy long sleep,| she said. |Now, if thou canst bear, as well, with the meager food this house affords, the plague will not vex thee sorely.| Then, in obedience to the Israelite's offer, Masanath sat up and suffered Rachel to dress her hair and bathe her tiny hands and face with a solution of weak white wine.

|The water which we had stored with us is also corrupted. I fear we shall thirst, if we have but wine to wet our lips,| Rachel explained.

|Thou dost not tell me that ye abide in this place?| the fan-bearer's daughter asked, taking the piece of fowl and hard bread which Rachel offered her.

|Even so,| Rachel responded after a little silence.

|Holy Isis! guests of a spirit! What a ghastly hospice for women! How came ye here?|

For a moment there was silence, so marked that Masanath ceased her dainty feeding and drew back a little.

|Are ye lepers?| she asked in a frightened voice.

|Nay, we are fugitives,| Rachel answered.

|Fugitives! What strait brought you to seek such asylum as this?|

Again a speaking pause.

|Who art thou, Lady?| Rachel asked, at last.

|I am Masanath, daughter of Har-hat, fan-bearer to the Pharaoh.|

|And thou art a friend of the oppressed?| the Israelite continued.

|It is my boast before the gods,| the Egyptian answered with dignity.

|I am Rachel, of Israel, daughter of Maai, and I have fled from shame. In all Egypt, this is the one and only refuge for such as I. If my hiding-place were published, no help could save me from the despoiler. My one protector is she who lies within. She is my foster-mother, old and ill from abuse at the hands of brutal servants. Thou hast my story.|

As Rachel ceased, Deborah called from within.

|There is more,| she said. |Come hither. I am moved to tell thee.|

Masanath obeyed with hesitation and, pausing in the doorway of the inner chamber, heard the story of the Israelites. Great was her perplexity and her sorrow when she heard the name of Kenkenes spoken calmly and without grief. They did not know he was dead! She held her peace till the story was done, How much more would her heart have been tortured could the old woman have given her the name of the offending noble! Instead, all unsuspecting, she heard the story of Har-hat's wrong-doing with now and then an exclamation of indignation, condemning him heartily in her soul.

|The time for the Egyptian's return is long past, but he will come soon,| Deborah concluded.

Masanath slowly turned her head and looked at Rachel. This, then, was the love of that dear, dead artist, for whom Memphis mourned and had ceased to wait. How doubly grievous his loss, for Rachel was undone thereby! How heart-breaking to see her wait for him who would come no more! Masanath choked back her tears and said, when she was composed again:

|Ye need not molder in this cave, I can hide you in Memphis.|

|Nay, we will await him here.|

|But the Nile will be upon your refuge in three weeks. Ye would starve if ye drowned not,| the Egyptian protested earnestly.

|It may be we shall not wait so long,| Rachel put in.

Masanath looked at her while she thought busily. |If I tell it, I break a heart. But if they bide here, they die. None other will come to them by chance or on purpose.|

|I would not risk it,| she answered. Returning to the pallet of matting she finished her breakfast in silence. After a little sigh she glanced at the wine in one of the small amphoras which Rachel had brought to her as a drinking-cup. |Mayhap the plague is past,| she said, hinting, |and I am athirst.|

Rachel took up another jar and went forth. The hairy creature in the corner, tethered to the amphora rack, slipped his collar and followed her.

As soon as the Israelite was gone, Masanath went into the inner chamber. Standing by the old woman, who lay upon a mattress, set on the top of the sarcophagus, she said hurriedly:

|Ye may not remain here. Kenkenes is known to me and he will not return.|

|Thou dost not tell me he was false to us,| Deborah exclaimed. |Nay, I will not believe it,| she declared.

|Nay, he was the soul of honor, but he is dead.|

|Dead!| the old woman cried, catching at her dress.

|Hush! Tell her not!|

|Aye, thou art right. Tell her not! But -- but how did he die?|

|By drowning. His boat was discovered battered and overturned among the wharf-piling at Memphis, some weeks agone.|

The old woman was silent for a moment and then she shook her head.

|He is a resourceful youth and he may have procured another boat and set this one adrift to deceive his enemies. Yet, the time has been so long, it may be; it may be.|

|None in Memphis doubts it. His father hath given him up and his house and his people are in mourning. But we may not lose this moment in surmises. Wilt thou go with me into Memphis -- if this sending is withdrawn?|

|There is no other choice,| Deborah answered after some pondering. |Kenkenes offered us refuge with his father -- alas! that the young man should die!| After shaking her head and muttering to herself in her own tongue, she went on. |But Rachel hesitated to accept, at first from maiden shyness, though now she hath a secret fear, I doubt not, that the Egyptian may have played her false. The sorry news must be told her ere she would go.|

|Nay, keep it from her yet a while. Tell her not now.|

|How may we?| Deborah asked helplessly.

|Listen. I am a householder in Memphis for a year. The place is secure from much visiting and only my trusted servants are there. They will not tell her -- none else will -- thou and I shall keep discreet tongues, but if the fact creep out, in the way of such things, we need not accuse ourselves of killing her hope. As thou sayest, the young man may not be dead. But let us not risk anything.

|And furthermore,| she caught up the line of her talk before Deborah could answer, |I may as well work good out of an evil I can not escape. I am betrothed to the heir of the crown of Egypt -- |

Deborah flung up her hand, drawing away in her amazement.

|Thou! A coming queen over the proud land of Mizraim -- a guest in the retreat of enslaved Israel!|

Masanath bent her head. |Ye, in your want and distress, are not more poor or wretched than I.|

The old Israelite's brilliant eyes glittered in the dark.

|Hold!| she exclaimed. |Thou art not a slave -- |

|Nay, am I not?| Masanath rejoined swiftly. |A slave, a chattel, doubly enthralled! But enough of this, I would have said that if I wed the prince, I can ask Rachel's freedom at his hands.|

|So thou canst,| Deborah said eagerly -- but before she could continue, Rachel appeared at the outer opening, the amphora held by one arm, the ape by the other. Her face was alight with a smile that seemed dangerously akin to tears.

|Here is water, clean and fresh, but the Nile is bank-full of the plague. It was Anubis that showed me!| She lowered the amphora into the rack and took up the linen band the ape had slipped. |Oh, it is ungrateful to tie thee, Anubis,| she went on, |but thou must not betray us, thou good creature.|

|It was Anubis!| Deborah repeated inquiringly.

|Aye. Not once did the hideous sight disturb him. He was athirst and he made me a well in the sand with his paws. See how Jehovah hath sent us succor by humble hands.| She stroked the hairy grotesque and tethered him reluctantly.

Deborah muttered under her breath. |I liked the creature not, since he made me think of the abominable idolatries of Mizraim, but he hath served the oppressed. He shall be more endurable to me.|

The night fell and the dawn came again and again, but holy Hapi was denied. Hour by hour the fuming lamp was set before the entrance, the door was put a little aside, that the entering air might be purified for those within. When the aromatic was exhausted, Rachel sought for the root once more, among the herbs at the river-bank; for the atmosphere, unsweetened, was beyond endurance.

Never a boat appeared on the water, nor was any human being seen abroad. Egypt retired to her darkest corner and shuddered.

But after the seven days were fulfilled, the horror on the waters was gone. It went as miasma is dispelled by the sun and wind -- as pestilence is killed by the frost -- unseen, unprotesting. The lifting of the plague was as awesome as its coming, but it was not horrible. That was the only difference. Egypt rejoiced, but she trembled nevertheless and went about timidly.

The Israelite and the Egyptian carried the punt, the boat of Khafra and Sigur, and launched it on the clean waters. Then they prepared themselves and Deborah and Anubis for a journey, and ere they departed, Masanath, at Rachel's bidding, wrote with a soft soapstone upon the rock over the portal of the tomb, the whereabouts of its whilom dwellers:

|Her, whom thou seekest, thou wilt find at the mansion of Har-hat in the city.|

At sunset, Rachel, all unsuspecting, was sheltered in the house of her enemy.

Masanath's servants had sought for her, frantically and without system or method. Pepi and Nari had been saved by the gods. They did not know where she had gone, and nothing human or divine could have driven them over the Nile to search for her in the Arabian hills. And for that reason likewise, they did not notify Har-hat of his daughter's loss. The messenger would have had to cross the smitten river. They intended to send for the fan-bearer, but they waited for the plague to lift. When it was gone, Masanath returned to them.

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