The murket sat at his place in the work-room, but no papyrus scrolls lay before him; his fine implements were not in sight; the ink-pots and pens were put away and the table was clear except for a copper lamp that sputtered and flared at one end. The great artist's arms were extended across the table, his head bowed upon them, his hands clasped. The attitude was not that of weariness but of trouble.
Kenkenes hesitated. For the first time since the hour he left Memphis for Thebes, months before, he felt a sense of culpability. He realized, with great bounds of comprehension, that the results of his own trouble had not been confined to himself. He began to understand how infectious sorrow is.
He crossed the room and laid a trembling hand on the murket's shoulder. Instantly the great artist lifted his head and, seeing Kenkenes, leaped to his feet with a cry that was all joy.
The young man responded to the kiss of welcome with so little composure that Mentu forced him down on the bench and summoned a servant.
The old housekeeper appeared at the door, started with a suppressed cry and flung herself at her young master's feet. He raised her and touched her cheek with his lips.
|Bring me somewhat to eat and drink, Sema,| he said weakly. |I have fasted, since I returned here, well-nigh four days agone.|
The stiff old creature rose with a murmur half of compassion, half of promise, and went forth immediately.
The murket stood very close to his son, regarding him with interrogation on his face.
|Memphis was full of famishing at the coming of dawn this morning,| he said. |For the first time in my life I knew hunger, and it is a fearsome thing, but thou -- a shade from Amenti could not be ghastlier. Where hast thou been -- what are thy fortunes, Kenkenes?|
|Rachel -- thou knowest -- | Kenkenes began, speaking with an effort.
|Aye, I know. Didst find her?|
|Aye, and lost her, even while I fought to save her!|
|Alas, thou unfortunate!| Mentu exclaimed. |Of a surety the gods have punished thee too harshly!|
Kenkenes was not in the frame of mind to receive so soft a speech composedly. A strong tremor ran over him and he averted his face. The murket came to his side and smoothed the damp hair.
The old housekeeper entered with broth and bread and a bottle of wine. Mentu broke the bread and filled the beaker, while Sema stood aloof and gazed with troubled eyes at the unhappy face of the young master. Silent, they watched him eat and drink, grieved because of the visible effort it required and because no life or strength returned to him with the breaking of his fast. When he had finished, the bowl and platter were taken away, but at a sign the old housekeeper left the wine with the murket. After she had gone Mentu glanced at the draggled dress of his son.
|Thou needest, further, the attention of thy slave, Kenkenes,| he suggested.
The young man shook his head. |Not yet,| he said. |My time is short, and it is thy help I need.|
The murket sat down beside his son.
Without further introduction Kenkenes plunged into his story. He had had no time to tell it four days before. Then he had asked for Rachel with his second word, and finding her not, had rushed immediately to the search for her.
Mentu heard without comment till the story was done. Most of it he had known from Hotep, and only the recent events at the tomb excited him.
When Kenkenes made an end the murket brought his clenched hand down on the table with a force that made the lamp wink and the implements rattle in their boxes above him.
|Curse that smooth villain Har-hat!| he cried in a tempest of wrath. |A murrain upon his greedy, crafty lust! The gods blast him in his knavery! Now is my precious amulet in his hands. Would it were white-hot and clung to him like a leech!|
Kenkenes said nothing. The murket's wrath was more comforting to him than tender words could have been.
|Who hath the ear of Meneptah?| the murket continued with increasing vehemence. |Har-hat! And behold the miseries of Egypt! Shall we put any great sin past the knave who sinneth monstrously, or divine his methods who is a master of cunning? The land is entangled in difficulty! Give me but a raveling fiber to pull, and, by the gods, I know that we shall find Har-hat at the other end of it! He is destroying Egypt for his ambition's sake! And that a son of mine -- me! the right hand of the Incomparable Pharaoh -- should furnish meat for his rending!| His voice failed him and he shook his clenched hands high above his head in an abandon of fury.
|Did I not tell thee?| he burst forth again, pointing a finger at his son. |Did I not warn thee from the first?|
Kenkenes raised his head.
|Can you avoid a knave if he hath designs on you?| he asked. |Have I erred in crossing his will? Have I sinned in loving and protecting her whom I love?|
Mentu's hands fell down at his sides. The simple questions had silenced him. His son was blameless now that he had expiated his offenses against the law, and from the moral standpoint his persistence in his claim on Rachel was just -- praiseworthy.
|Nay,| he said sullenly, |but since thou didst love the girl, how came it that thou didst not wed her long ago and save her this shame and danger?|
He saw the face of his son grow paler.
|The bar of faith lay between us,| Kenkenes answered. |I was an idolater, she a worshiper of the One God. She would not wed with me, therefore.|
The murket looked at his son, stupefied with amazement.
|Thou -- thou -- | he said at last, his words coming slowly by reason of his emotions. |The Israelite rejected thee!|
Kenkenes bent his head in assent.
|Thou! A prince among men -- a nobleman, a genius -- a man whom all women -- Kenkenes! by Horus, I am amazed! And thou didst endure it, and continue to love and serve and suffer for her! Where is thy pride?|
Kenkenes stopped him with a motion of his hand.
|A maid's unwillingness is obstacle enough,| he said. |Shall a man summon further difficulty in the form of his self-esteem to stand in the way of his love? Nay, it could not be, and that thou knowest, my father, since thou, too, hast loved. When a man is in love it is his pride to be long-suffering and humble. But there is naught separating us now save it be the hand of Har-hat.|
|So much for Israelitish zeal! Thou hast been a pawn for her to play during these months. Long ago had she surrendered if thou hadst been -- |
Kenkenes smiled. |She did not surrender. It was I.|
|Thy faith?| the murket asked in a voice low with earnestness.
|Thou hast said!|
A dead silence ensued. Kenkenes may have awaited the outbreak with a quickening of the heart, but it did not come. Instead, the murket sat down on the bench and gazed at his son intently.
After a long interval he spoke.
|Thus far had I hoped that thou wast taken by the Israelite but in thy fancy. The hope was vain. Thou art in love with her.|
Kenkenes endured the steady gaze and waited for Mentu to go on.
|There is no help for thee now,| the murket continued stoically. |If the gods will but tolerate thee till the madness leaves thee after thou art wedded and satisfied, it may be that thou wilt turn again to the faith of thy fathers. But if I would fix thee in thine apostasy I should try to persuade thee now.|
|Aye, and further, I should be moved to urge thee into heresy,| calmly responded Kenkenes.
The murket flung up one hand in a gesture of dissent, and arising, walked toward the door of the workroom. There he leaned his shoulder against the frame and looked out at the night. Presently Kenkenes went to him and laid his hand on his sleeve.
The murket spoke first, proving what thoughts had been his during the little space of silence.
|There is little patriotism in thee, Kenkenes. Thou wouldst wed with one of Egypt's enemies and bow down to the God which has devastated thy country.|
The hand on his sleeve fell.
|What did Egypt to Israel for a hundred years before these miseries came to pass?| Kenkenes asked. |Let me tell thee how Egypt hath used Rachel. She is free-born, of noble blood, even as thou art and as I am. Her house was wealthy, the name powerful. There were ten of her family -- four of her mother's, six of her father's. Rameses, the Incomparable Pharaoh, had use for their treasure and need of their labor in the brick-fields and mines. This day Rachel possesses not even her own soul and body, nor one garment to cover herself, nor a single kinsman to shield her from the power of her masters! Well for Egypt that the God of Israel hath not demanded of Egypt treasure for treasure seized, toil for toil compelled, lash for lash inflicted, blood for blood outpoured! This desolation had been thrice desolate and Egypt's glory gone like the green grass in the breath of the Khamsin! And yet would such justice restore to Rachel the love she lost, the comfort that should have been hers? Nay, not even the sorcery of Mesu might do that. The debt of Egypt to Rachel is most cheaply discharged by the service of one life for the ten which were taken from her!|
|Let be; Israel shall cumber Egypt no longer,| the murket muttered after a little; |and the quarrel between them shall be at an end. The hour approacheth when every Hebrew shall leave Egypt -- shall be driven forth if he leave it not willingly.|
|Thinkest thou so of a truth?| Kenkenes asked earnestly.
|Of a truth. Thou seest the plight of the nation. Can it endure longer? And if thou takest this Israelite to wife -- | He paused abruptly, for he had pressed the problem and a solution opened itself so suddenly that it staggered him. Kenkenes understood the pause. Again he laid his hand on the murket's sleeve.
|On this very matter would I take counsel with thee, my father,| he said gently. |The night grows, and my time is short.|
Mentu turned an unhappy face toward his son and followed him back to the bench they had left. He felt, intuitively, that there was further grave purpose in the young man's mind and there was dread in his paternal heart.
|Thou knowest, my father,| Kenkenes began, |that I may not give over my love for Rachel. I am free to love her and she to love me. There is no obstacle between us. Such love, therefore, in the sight of heaven, becometh a duty and carrieth duty with it. In the spirit I am as though I had been bound to her by the marrying priests. Her griefs are mine to comfort, her wrongs mine to avenge.
|She is gone and there are these three surmises as to her whereabouts. She may have escaped and returned to Goshen; she may have wandered to death in the Nile; she may have been taken by Har-hat.|
He paused, and Mentu gazed fixedly at the lamp.
|I am going to Tanis,| Kenkenes began, with forced restraint.
|Wherefore?| Mentu demanded.
|To discover if Har-hat hath taken her!|
|If he hath the Lord God make iron of my hands till I strangle him!|
|Madman!| Mentu exclaimed. |Thou wilt be flayed!|
|Be assured that I shall earn the flaying! The punishment shall be no more savage than the deed that invites it! But enough of that. If I go to Tanis and find her the spoil of the fan-bearer, thine augury will hold, I return not to Memphis. . . . If she was lost in the Nile -- !|
|Nay! Nay! put away the thought if it wrench thee so. No man removed from his place during that night. We were caught and transfixed at what we did. For three days I sat in the court, where I was overtaken by the darkness, and in that time I stirred not except to slip down on the bench and sleep. The palsy seized all Memphis likewise -- not one of my neighbors moved. But the resident Hebrews of the city seemed to have been warned, or else the favor of their strange God was with them. For it is said they came and went as they willed, carrying lamps.|
Kenkenes looked at his father with growing hope.
|If that be true,| he said eagerly, |if the palsy fell upon Egypt and not upon Israel, Rachel may have fled safely -- she may have escaped them!| Mentu assented with a nod.
|She may have returned to her people,| Kenkenes went on. |And if she be in Goshen I must reach her, find her, before her people depart. Having found her -- | but Kenkenes stopped and made no effort to resume. Mentu set his teeth, his hands clenched and his whole figure seemed to denote intense physical restraint. Suddenly he whirled upon his son.
|Thou wilt go with her, out of Egypt?| he demanded.
|I shall go with her, out of Egypt.|
Mentu gained his feet. |And dost thou remember that while I live my commands are yet law over thee?| he continued in a tone of increasing intensity. |Mine it is to say whether thou shall do this thing or do it not!|
He turned away and strode back to his post against the door-frame, his face toward the night. Kenkenes had slowly risen to his feet. Not for an instant did his father's authority appear to him as an obstacle. He knew that the murket's outburst was a final stand before capitulation. Kenkenes was troubled only for what might follow after his father had surrendered.
He followed the murket to the door and laid his arm across the broad shoulders.
|Father,| he said persuasively. Mentu did not move.
|Look at me, father,| Kenkenes insisted. Still no movement. The young man put his arm closer about the shoulders, and lifting his hand, would have turned the face toward him. But the palm touched a wet cheek.
The murket had consented.
* * * * * *
An hour later, when it was far into the second watch, Kenkenes changed his dress and made himself presentable. Then, without further counsel with the murket, he went silently and unseen to the portal of Senci's house. After a long time, for her household had been asleep, he was admitted, and the Lady Senci, perplexed and surprised, joined him in the chamber of guests.
With few and simple words he told his story, pictured his father's loneliness and, while she wept silently, begged her to become his father's wife -- on the morrow.
There was no long persuasion; the need of the occasion was sufficient eloquence for the murket's noble love.
An hour after the next day's sunrise Mentu and Senci repaired together to the temple, and when they returned Senci went not again into her own house.
In preparing for his departure, Kenkenes asked at the hands of his father, not his patrimony, for that would have been an embarrassment of wealth, but such portion of it as might be carried in small bulk. In mid-afternoon Senci brought him a belt of gazelle-hide and in this had been sewed a fortune in gems. The murket had given his son his full portion and more.
At the close of day, with his face set and colorless, Kenkenes stepped into the narrow passage before his father's house. The great portal closed slowly and noiselessly behind him. He did not pause, but sprang into his chariot and was driven rapidly away.
At a landing near the northern limits of Memphis he took a punt, bade farewell to his sad-faced charioteer and pushed off.
The broken bluffs about Memphis, the temples, the obelisks, the Sphinx, the pyramids melted into night behind him. He kept his head down that he might not look his last on his native city.
He had reached that point where endurance must conserve itself.