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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


A water-carrier in Syene was carrying a yoke across his shoulders and the great earthen jars swung ponderously as he walked. His bare feet disturbed the red dust of the path down to the granite-basined river, and tiny clouds puffed out on each side of the way at every footfall.

On a housetop in Memphis, a gentlewoman, in a single gauze slip and many jewels, lounged on a rug and gazed at nothing across the city. A flat-shanked Ethiopian fanned her listlessly and dreamed also.

A little boy, innocent of raiment, stood before a new tomb, opposite Tanis and awaited his father who labored within.

The water-carrier collapsed in his tracks; the lady shrieked; the Ethiopian dropped the fan; the little boy fell on his face -- all at the same instant.

From the sea to the first cataract, from the deepest recess in the Arabian hills to the remotest peak in the Libyan desert, Egypt was blinded and muffled and smothered in a dead, black night -- even darkness that could be felt.

Kenkenes stood still. Harsh hands were no longer on him and for an instant no sound was to be heard. Profound gloom enveloped him. His every sense was frustrated.

Some one of his assailants had found his heart with a knife and this was death, he thought.

Then strange, far-off murmurings filled his ears. From the river and beside him went up wild, hoarse cries of men in mortal terror. Memphis began to drone like a vast and troubled hive. The distant pastures became blatant and the poultry near the huts of rustics cackled in wild dismay. In the hills about beasts whimpered and the air was full of the screaming of bewildered birds.

With the awakening of sound, Kenkenes knew that another plague had befallen Egypt.

The dread that might have transfixed him was overcome by the instant recollection of Rachel's peril. No restraining hands were upon him, but he stood yet a space attempting to catch some rift in the thick night. There was not one ray of light.

While he waited it was more distinctly borne in upon him that during that space Rachel might suffer. He would go to her.

The night made a wall ahead of him which was imminent and indiscernible. It was like a great weight upon his shoulders and a pitfall at his feet.

He crouched and fumbled before him. His apprehension was physical; his mind urged him; his body rebelled. He would have run but he could barely force one foot ahead of the other. Illusory obstacles confronted him. He waved his arms and put forward a foot. The ground was lower than he thought, and he stepped weightily. He brought up the other foot laboriously, hesitatingly. This was not advance, but time-losing.

Meanwhile, what might not be happening to Rachel in this chaos of gloom and clamor? Why need he hide his escape? None of these near-by assailants had any care now save for his own safety.

He called her name loudly and listened.

There was no answer in her voice.

He forced himself to move, but had the next step led into an abyss his feet could not have been more reluctant. He flailed the air with his arms and accomplished another pace. He realized that he could not reach, in an hour, at this rate, the spot in which he had last seen her. Again he called, using his full lung power, but the only reply was an echo, or the hoarse supplications of men, near him and on the river. The river! Had Rachel gone that way too far and beyond retreat? The thought chilled him with terror and horror.

He execrated himself for his trepidation and strove wildly to proceed; but strive as he might he could not advance. How long since the darkness had fallen, and he had moved but two paces from the spot in which it had overtaken him! The outcry near him subsided into low murmurs of terror, and none lifted a voice in answer to his distracted call.

If Rachel had been near she would have replied to him. The alternatives he had to choose as her possible fate were death in the Nile or capture by Unas. The one he fought away from him wildly, the other made him frantic. And the realization of his own helplessness, with the picture of her distress at that moment, crushed him.

A tangle of wind-mown reeds tripped him and pitched him to his knees among the high marsh growth.

He did not rise.

The babe in pain cries to his mother; the man in his maturity may outgrow the susceptibility to tears, but he never outwears the want of a stronger spirit upon which to call in his hour of distress.

For Kenkenes it had been a far cry, from his careless days and his empyrean populous with deities, to this utter and unhappy night and one unseen Power. In that time he had run the gamut of sensations from a laugh to a wail. Now was his need the sorest of all his life. The most helpful of all hands must aid him. His fathers' gods were in the dust. What of that unapproachable, unfeeling Omnipotence he had created in their stead?

He fell on his face and prayed.

|O Thou, who art somewhere behind the phantom gods that we have raised! To whom all prayer ascends by many-charted paths; Thou who canst spread this sooty night across the morning skies and turn to milk the bones of men! Thou who didst undo my surest plans, who dost mock my boasted power, who hast stripped me till my feeble self is bared to me even in this dreadful night; Thou who wast a fending hand about her; who art her only succor now -- to whom she prays -- and by that sign, Thou Very God! I bow to Thee.

|My lips are stiff at prayer to such as Thou. But what need of my tongue's abashed interpretation of that which I would say, since even the future's history is open unto Thee?

|I have run my course without craving Thine aid, and lo! here have I ended -- a voice appealing through the night -- no more.

|Now, wilt Thou heed an alien's plea; wilt Thou know a stranger petitioning before Thy high and holy place? How shall I win Thine ear? Charge me with any mission, weight me with a lifetime of penances, strip me of power everlastingly, but grant me leave to supplicate Thy throne.

|Not for myself do I pray, O Hidden God! Not one jot would I overtax Thy bounty toward me beyond the sufferance of my devotion. But for her I pray -- for her, out somewhere in this unlifting gloom, her tender maidenhood uncomforted -- with night, with death, with long dishonor threatening her. Attend her, O Thou august Warden! Let her not cry out to Thee in vain! Be Thou as a wall about her, as a light before her, as a firm path beneath her feet. Do Thou as Thou wilt with me. Lo! I offer up myself as ransom for her -- myself -- all I have! Take her from me, deny mine eyes the sight of her for ever, blot me wholly out of her heart, yield me over to the wrath of mine enemies, and to Thine unknowable vengeance thereafter; but save her, Great God! save her from her enemy!

|Dost Thou hear me, O Holy Mystery? Is there no sign, no manifestation that Thou dost attend?

|Nay, but I know that Thou hearest me! By my faith in Thy being I know it, Lord!|

Peace fell on him and he slept.

In after years Kenkenes remembered only vaguely the long hours of that black and lonely vigil. This climax to a calamitous space eight months in length might have crushed a less sturdy spirit, but he was mystically sustained.

With the exception of a few intervals of short duration most of the time was spent in sleep, so profound and dreamless as to border on coma. The reeds had received him on a bed of crushed herbage and the upstanding ranks about him sheltered him from the blowing sand. The whilom assailants of the young man were not so kindly served by the gods to whom they appealed loudly and frequently. The city in the distance moaned and complained and the hills were full of fear.

In one of his profound lapses of slumber a hairy paw felt of Kenkenes' face. Later a drifting boat nosed about among the reeds at the water's edge. Presently one of the crew cried out, and a second voice said:

|Nay, fear not; it is an ape, by the feel of him. Toth is with us. It is a good omen; let him not go forth.|

Silence fell again, for the boat drifted on.

At last dawn-lights reddened about the horizon; stars faded out of the uppermost as naturally as if they had been there during the three days of unlifting night. All Egypt showed up darkly in the coming day.

Kenkenes, in his couch of reeds, slept on peacefully. The mid-morning sun shone in his face before he awakened.

He leaped to his feet, cramped and stiffened by his long inactivity, and looked about him. Near by was a disturbed spot of wide circumference. Here had the struggle taken place. Here, also, some of the sand was stained with the blood of the Nubian, who had been wounded by Rachel. Fresh footprints led toward the water. He followed them with a wildly beating heart. There were no marks of a little sandal. At the Nile edge the deep line cut by a keel was still visible in the wet sand. His own boat and the other were gone. All other signs had been obliterated, for the wind had been busy during the darkness.

Across the cultivated land, or rather the land which would have been wheat-covered but for the locusts, he saw the huts of rustics, and to each of these he went, asking of the pallid and terror-stricken tenants if Rachel had come to them. Gaining no information, he went next to Masaarah, appeasing his hunger with succulent roots plucked from the loam beside the river. The quarries were deserted, the pocket in the valley, where the Israelites had pitched their tents, was as solitary as it had ever been. There was no place here to shelter the lost girl.

There were the huts to the north of the Marsh and the deserted village of Toora to search. He retraced his steps.

As he came again before the tomb he went to it. Half-way up the steps he stopped.

On a blank face of the rock, sheltered by a jutting ledge above it, was an inscription, a little faint, but he ascribed that to the poor quality of the pencil and roughness of the tablet. This is what he read:

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

Perhaps under other circumstances Kenkenes would have understood correctly the origin and intent of the writing. Already, however, his fears pointed to the palace of Har-hat as the prison of Rachel, and this faint inscription was corroboration. It appealed to him as villainy worthy of the fan-bearer. It was like his exquisite effrontery.

Kenkenes whirled away with an indescribable sound, rather like the snarl of an infuriated beast than an expression of a reasoning creature. Dashing down the sand, he plunged into the Nile and swam with superhuman speed for the Memphian shore.

He defied death as a maniac does. The river was a mile in width and teeming with crocodiles. But the same saving Providence that shields the adventurous child attended him. He clambered up the opposite bank and struck out for Memphis on a hard run.

He had but one purpose and that was to find Har-hat and strangle him with grim joy. The rescue of Rachel did not occur to him, for in his excited mind the simple touch of the fan-bearer's hand was sufficient to kill her with its dishonor.

He did not remember anything that Rachel had told him concerning her life in Memphis, or that Har-hat was in Tanis, and Masanath like to be the only resident in the fan-bearer's palace. His reasoning powers abandoned their supremacy to all the fierce impulses toward revenge and bloodletting of which his nature was capable.

Though it was day when he entered the great capital of the Pharaohs, the streets were almost deserted, and every doorway and window showed interiors brilliant with a multitude of lamps. Memphis was prepared against a second smothering of the lights of heaven.

The few pedestrians Kenkenes met fell back and gave room to the dripping apparition which ran as if death-pursued. One told him on demand where the mansion of Har-hat stood, and after a few slow minutes he was within its porch. He flung himself against the blank portal and beat on it. He did not pause to await a response. He felt within him strength to batter down the doors if they did not open.

Presently an old portress came forth from a side entry and Kenkenes seized her. Fearing that she might cry out and defeat his purpose, he put his hand over her mouth.

|Your master,| he demanded hoarsely. |Where is he? Answer and answer quietly!|

For a moment she was dumb with terror.

|Gone,| she gasped at last when Kenkenes shook her.

|Where? When?| he insisted.

|To Tanis, eight months since!|

|Was an Israelite maiden brought here? Answer and truly, by your immortal soul!|

|Many months ago, aye, but she departed three days ago for Goshen,| the old woman answered falteringly.

|And she came not back?|


|Swear, by Osiris!|

|By Osiris -- |

|And the Lady Masanath?|

|Gone, also, to Tanis with Unas, this morning.|

|Thou liest! In the dark?|

|Nay, I swear by Osiris,| she protested wildly. |The light came in with the hour of dawn.|

Kenkenes released her and hurried away. He did not doubt that the old woman had told the truth. He had overslept the light. Unas could not have taken Rachel and Masanath to Tanis together. The Israelite would have been sent on before.

There was yet Atsu to question, and then -- on to Tanis to rescue Rachel or to avenge her.

He met no one until he reached a bazaar of jewels near the temple square. An armed watchman stood before the tightly closed front of the lapidary's booth, above the portal of which a flaring torch was stuck in a sconce.

|The house of Atsu?| the watchman repeated after Kenkenes. |Atsu is no longer a householder in Memphis.|

|When did he depart?|

|Eight or nine months ago, at the persuasion of the Pharaoh.|

The lightness of the man's manner irritated the already vexed spirit of the young artist.

|Be explicit,| he demanded sharply. |What meanest thou?|

|He was stripped of his insignia and reduced to the rank of ordinary soldier,| the man answered, |for pampering the Israelites. He is with the legions in the north.|

|Hath he kin in the city?|

|Nay, he is solitary.|

Kenkenes walked away unsteadily. The nervous energy that had upborne him during his intense excitement was deserting him. His hunger and weariness were asserting themselves.

He turned down the narrow passage leading to his father's house. And suddenly, in the way of such vagrant thoughts, it occurred to him that the inscription on the tomb had been pointedly denied by the old woman's statements.

|Ah, I might have known,| he said impatiently. |Rachel put the writing there for me when she left the tomb for the shelter Masanath offered her in Memphis.|

The admission cheered him somewhat, but it did not repair his exhausted forces. By the time he reached his father's door he was unsteady, indeed, and beyond further exertion.

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