The valley in which Thebes Diospolis was situated was wide and the overflow of the Nile did not reach the arable uplands near the Arabian hills. Three thousand years before, Menes had established a system of irrigation which had added hundreds of square miles to the agricultural area of Egypt, and every monarch after him had unfailingly preserved the institution. From Syene to Pelusium the country was ramified with canals, and vast sums and great labor were expended yearly upon their keeping.
Since the work was heavy and the demand for it constant, it became a punitive part of each nome's administration. Therefore, the convicts whose misdeeds were too serious to be punished adequately by the bastinado or the fine, and yet not grave enough to merit a sentence to the quarries or the mines, were sent to the canals.
So here in the canals of the eastern Thebaid, was Kenkenes, a prisoner known only by a number. His fellows were unjust public weighers, usurers, rioters, habitual tax-evaders, broken debtors, forgers and housebreakers.
The season of toil had been unusually severe. The native convicts had more to endure than the lash, the bitter fare, the terrible sun by day, and a bed of dust by night, for the afflictions that befell all Egypt were theirs also. The strange prisoner among them suffered these things and had further the drawback of his own physical strength to combat. The plagues overcame the weaker convicts and decimated the number of laborers, so Kenkenes was put, alone, to the work that two men had done before.
However, the accumulation of toil came upon him gradually and his supple frame toughened as the demand upon it increased. Nor was he sensible of pain or great weariness, for his mind was far away from the sun-heated desert of the eastern Thebaid. He spoke seldom, and held himself aloof from his fellow prisoners. He regarded his taskmasters as if they were written authority no more animate than watered scrolls of papyrus. No one doubted from the beginning that he was high-born, and this mark of a great fall might have exposed him to abuse; but his great strength and unusual deportment did not invite mistreatment. In short, he was looked upon as mildly mad.
When Kenkenes had rejected the gods, hope, sundered from faith, groped wildly and desperately. In his rare moments of cheer he could not anticipate freedom without trusting to something, and in his misanthropy his doubt had placed no limit on its scope, questioning the honor of king or slave. In these better moments he wanted to believe in something.
So constantly had his sorrows attended him that he had come to dread the night, when there was neither event nor labor to interrupt their dominance over his mind. He caught eagerly at any less troublous problem that might suggest itself, for he felt that he had been conquered by his plight.
As he lay by night, apart from the rest of the prisoners, he gazed at one glittering star that stood in the north. About it were scintillating clusters, single stars and faint streaks of never-dissipated mists. Night after night that one brilliant point had remained unmoved in its steady gaze from the uppermost, but the clusters rotated about it; the single stars were westward moving; the mists shifted. And a question began to trouble him: What hand had marshaled the stars? Seb, whom Toth had supplanted? Osiris, whom Set destroyed? The young man put them aside. They were feeble. Nothing so weak had created the mighty hosts of heaven. So he began to weigh the question.
What hand had marshaled the stars? An accident? Since man must worship something supernal, what more tremendous than the cataclysm, if such it were, that evolved the stars. Had the same or a series of such events brought forth the earth and man? Was the accident continuously attendant? Did it spread the Nile over Egypt and call it again within its banks every year? Did it clothe the fields and bring them to harvest every revolution of the sun? Did it hang the moon like a sickle in the west or lift it over the Arabian hills like a bubble of silver every eight and twenty days?
If it were omnipotent, infinite and omnipresent, could it be an accident? If it were, why not worship it and call it God?
The reasoning led him again in the direction of the gods, but he saw no reason for a multiplicity of deities. Each member of the Egyptian Pantheon presided over some special field of human interest or human environment. To him, who had lived next to nature till her study had become a worship, there were no flaws in her chronology, no shortcomings or plethora. The earth responded to the skies; the waters were in harmony with the earth, the harvests with all. There was unity in the control over the universe and the hand that was powerful enough to swing the moon was mighty enough to flood the Nile, was tender enough to nourish the harvests, was wise enough to govern men. Where, then, was any need of a superfluity of powers?
But behold, something had thrust a dread hand between the tender ministrations of this other Thing and the benefits to men. By this time it had reached the remotenesses of Egypt that it was the God of the Hebrews. The young man arrived at this alternative in his reasoning: There was a minister of good and another of evil -- two powers presiding over the earth, -- or, -- the sole minister was offended and had deserted its charge, or had loosed upon Egypt the evil at its command. Here Kenkenes paused. He could not arrive at any conclusion on the matter or convince himself that he had not reasoned well.
Night after night, he fell asleep upon his ponderings, but they returned to him with fresh food for thought after every sunset. The reconstruction of something worshipful was more fascinating than had been the demolition of the gods. It took many a night's meditation for the evolution of any fixed idea from the bewildering convection of thought. And at last he had concluded only that there was one thing -- Power -- Purpose, which was greater than man.
This was not a great achievement. He had simply permitted the universal, indefinable claim to piety, inherent in every reasoning thing, to assert itself.
Great and sincere and beyond expression was his amazement and his joy when a taskmaster called him from the canal-bed one day and informed him that he was free.
The order was shown him at his request, and the name of the Princess Ta-user as his champion filled him with puzzlement. State news filtered slowly down even to the level he had occupied for the past eight months. He had heard that it was Masanath whom the Hathors had destined to wear the crown of queen to Rameses; the convicts had known of the supremacy of Har-hat. He could not understand how it came that Ta-user, lately discarded, could prevail upon the crown prince to persuade Meneptah, or could herself persuade the king to the overthrow of the fan-bearer's wishes in the matter. Furthermore, why should the princess have taken up his cause? But he did not tarry while he pondered.
His raiment and his money, conscientiously preserved for him by the authorities, had been sent to him, and a little way outside the camp he stepped from the lowest to his rightful rank, swifter than he had descended from it. Covering his sun-burnt shoulders with his robes, assuming the circlet once again, he went toward the distant city of Thebes, once more in spirit and dress the son of the royal murket.
At the heavy-walled prison across the Nile he asked after the signet. It had not been returned with the writing. Neither was there any word to him concerning his prayer to Pharaoh for the liberty of Rachel. It began to dawn on him that he had been released only after he had been sufficiently punished; that he had failed in the most vital aims of his mission; that the signet, having been found, seemed now to be lost irretrievably. For a space his relief at his freedom was overshadowed by chagrin, but after a little he recovered himself. |At least I am free to care for her, now,| he reflected.
Just as he emerged from the imposing doorway of the house of the governor of police, he was jostled by a half-grown boy. To Kenkenes, it seemed that the youth had been on the point of entering, but instead he apologized inaudibly and walked away.
A great rush of impatience, suspense, eagerness and heart-hunger fell on the young artist the instant he knew his footsteps were turned toward Memphis and Rachel. The six days that must intervene between the present time and the moment he entered the old capital seemed insufferable. Never did a lover so fume against the inexorable deliberation of time and the obstinate length of distance. The preliminaries to departure seemed to accumulate and lengthen -- and lessen in importance. Haste consumed him. Under a momentary impulse, with all seriousness he began to consider his own fleetness of foot as more expedient than travel by boat. But he put the thought aside, and summoning as much patience as was possible, set about with all speed preparing to depart.
Thebes had not awakened from the coma of horror into which it had lapsed during the great plagues. It was Kenkenes' first visit to the city since he had left it for the desert, eight months before. Now, the change in the great capital of the south impressed itself upon him, in spite of his haste and his all-absorbing thought of Memphis. The activities of life seemed to be suspended. The call to prayers could be heard hourly from the great gongs of the temple at Karnak, when in happier days the sound had been lost in the city's noises within the very shadow of the pylons. He could hear strains of music in religious processions, when the wind was fair, but he missed the acclaim of the populace. Besides these sounds, silence had settled over Thebes. Booths were closed in many instances; the streets, which ordinarily were quiet, were now deserted; there were no carpets swinging from balconies and housetops, and the citizens he saw were sober of countenance and of garb. So few, indeed, he met, that he noted each passer-by as an event. Once, some distance away from him, he saw again the youth whom he had met in the doorway of the prison.
At a caterer's he purchased supplies for a day's journey and looked about him for a carrier. Catching the boy's eye, he beckoned him, but the youth turned on his heel and disappeared. The son of the merchant offering himself, Kenkenes continued rapidly toward the river where he engaged a vessel to take him to Memphis.
He roused the boatmen into immediate activity by promises of reward for every mile gained over the average day's journey. Their passenger and cargo shipped, the men fell to their oars and the craft shot out of the still waters by the landings into midstream and turned toward the north.
As they cleared, the private passage boat belonging to a nobleman swept up near to them and crossing their track took the same direction several hundred yards nearer the Libyan shore. Kenkenes noted that it was a bari of elegant pattern, deep draft and more numerously manned than his. He noted further that one of the boat's crew was the youth he had met thrice in a short space at Thebes.
|Small wonder that he was not willing to serve me,| he commented to himself.
If he observed the companion boat during the next five days it was to remark that since his own vessel kept sturdily alongside one of superior rowing force his men were of a surety earning the promised reward. When they entered the long straight stretches of the Middle country the elegant stranger dropped behind and attended Kenkenes and his crew more distantly thereafter.
Except for these few occasions, Kenkenes had no thought of his surroundings. He stood in the prow and looked down the shimmering width of river, in the direction his heart had taken long before him. And when the white cliffs that proved him close to Memphis came shouldering up from the northern horizon, he had forgotten the stranger in the eager, trembling anticipations that possessed him.
Seb -- The Egyptian Chronos.