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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXXIX BEFORE EGYPT'S THRONE

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER XXXIX BEFORE EGYPT'S THRONE

The distance by highway between Memphis and Tanis was eighty miles, a little more than two days' journey by horseback.

Masanath had required two weeks to accomplish that distance. She refused to travel except in the cool of the morning and of the afternoon; if she felt the fatigue of an hour's journey, she rested a day at the next town; she consulted astrologers, and moved forward only under propitious signs; she insisted on following the Nile until she was opposite Tanis, instead of taking the highway at On and continuing across the Delta.

The most of her following walked, and she proceeded at the pace of her plodding servants.

She spoke of her freedom as though she went to meet doom; she gazed on the sorry fields and pastures of Egypt as though the four walls of a prison were soon to shut out heaven and earth from her eyes.

She was now within ten miles of Tanis, fourteen days after her departure from Memphis.

Four solemn Ethiopians bore her litter upon their shoulders, and another waved a fan of black ostrich plumes over her. The litter was of glittering ebony, hung with purple, tasseled with gold. At her right, was Unas; at her left, Nari. Behind her were dusky attendants and sooty sumpter-mules.

Her robes were white, and very fine, but there was no henna on her nails, nor kohl beneath her lids, nor jewels in her hair. So she would prove that, though she was a coming queen, she was not glad of it. Hers was not the spirit that hides its trouble and enamels the exterior with false flushes and smiles. She enveloped herself in her feelings. She tinctured her voice with them; she made her eyes languid with them; and the touch of her hand, the curve of her lips and the droop of her head were eloquent of them.

By this time, she had despaired. There was yet an opportunity to spend another day covering the remaining ten miles, but she would loiter no longer. She was tired, of a truth.

It was near sunset when a company of royal guards, under Menes, rode up from the north.

The captain flung himself from his horse and hurried to Masanath's litter.

|Holy Isis! Lady Masanath,| he exclaimed; |where in all Egypt hast thou hidden thyself these fourteen days? The whole army of the north hath been searching after thee, and Rameses hath raved like a madman since that day long past on which thou shouldst have arrived in Tanis.|

|I have been on the way,| she answered loftily. |The haste of the prince is unseemly. I would not fatigue myself nor court disaster by incautiousness, these perilous days.|

Menes bowed. |I am reproved, and contrite. I forgot that I spoke with my queen. But I am most grateful that thou didst permit me to find thee, for Rameses sent me forth an hour since, with the hard alternative of fetching thee to him or losing my head. But that he was sure of my success is proved by the litter he sent between two horses for thee. Wilt thou leave this and proceed in the other?|

Masanath answered by extending her hand to him. Three of the soldiers laid their cloaks on the earth for her feet; six others let down the litter and Menes assisted her into the sumptuous conveyance Rameses had sent.

Another soldier, after rapid and low-spoken instructions from the captain, whirled his horse about, saluted and took the road toward Tanis at a gallop.

The six shouldered the litter of the crown princess-to-be, Menes mounted his horse and rode beside her; Unas, her Memphian train, and the riderless horses were left to bring up the rear, and Masanath continued to the capital.

|Perchance, thou hast been famished these fourteen days in the matter of court-gossip,| the captain said. |Wherefore I am come as thy informant with such news as thou shouldst know. For, being ignorant of the infelicities in the household of the king, it may be that thou wouldst ask after the little prince, Seti, and wherefore the queen appears no more at the side of the Pharaoh, nor speaks with thy lord nor sees thy noble father; and furthermore, where Ta-user hath taken herself and other things which would embarrass thee to hear answered openly.|

Masanath roused herself and prepared to listen. Serious words from the lips of the light-hearted captain were not common, and when he spoke in that manner it was time to take heed.

|I had heard of the little prince's misfortune and of the treason of Ta-user and her party, and the placing of a price upon her head; but nothing more hath come to mine ears. Is there more, of a truth?|

|Remember, I pray thee,| the captain replied, riding near to her, |that I bring thee this for thine own sake -- not for the love of tale-bearing. On the counsel of Rameses, this day the Pharaoh sentenced Seti to banishment for a year to the mines of Libya -- |

|To the mines!| Masanath cried in horror.

|Not as a laborer. Nay, the sentence was not so harsh. But as a scribe to the governor over them.|

|It matters little!| she declared indignantly. |The boy-prince -- the poor, misguided young brother sent to a year of banishment -- a lifelong humiliation! Libya, the death-country! Now, was anything more brutal? Nay, it is like Rameses!|

|Aye,| the captain replied quickly, leaning over her with a cautioning motion of his hand. |Aye, and it is like thee to say it. But hear me yet further. The queen and the Son of Ptah have quarreled, violently, over Seti,| he continued in a low tone. |The little prince merited thy father's disfavor, because Seti espoused the cause of Ta-user in thy place, though he loves thee, and for that -- we can find no other reason -- the noble Har-hat also urged the king into the harsh sentence of the little prince. For this the queen hath publicly turned her back upon the crown prince and the fan-bearer, and the atmosphere of the palace is most unhappy.|

He lowered his voice to a whisper. |Hotep championed Seti, -- for the young sister's sake, it would appear, -- but to me it seemeth that the scribe hath lost his wits.|

|It would seem that he courteth a sentence to the mines likewise, and he needs but to go on as he hath begun to succeed most thoroughly. And it behooveth his friends to prevent him.|

He took Masanath's hand and, leaning from the saddle, whispered:

|Ye are under the same roof -- thou and Hotep. Avoid him as though he were a pestilence.|

He straightened himself and drew his horse away from her so that she could not answer.

The captain's meaning, though obscure to any other that might have heard him, was very clear to Masanath. Har-hat was still holding a threat of Hotep's undoing over his daughter's head, lest, at the last moment, she rebel against her marriage. She trembled, realizing how desperately she was weighted with the safety of the scribe. Her fear for him brought the first feeling of willingness to wed with Rameses that she had ever experienced. Distasteful as marriage was to her, it was a species of sacrifice to be catalogued with the many self-abnegations of which womanhood is capable when the welfare of the beloved is at stake.

She sank back in the shadows of her litter, covered her face with her hands and shuddered because of the imminence of her trial.

So they journeyed on, till at last Masanath fell asleep -- not from indifference, for her fears exhausted her -- but because her mind still retained babyhood's way of comforting itself when too roughly beset.

She was aroused in the middle of the first watch by the passage of her litter between bewildering stretches of lights. She was within the palace. The soldiers that bore her were tramping over a Damascene carpet, and between long lines of groveling attendants, through an atmosphere of overwhelming perfume. The messenger had been swift and the court had had time to prepare to greet the coming crown princess with propriety.

After the first spasm of terror, Masanath set her teeth and prepared to endure. She was borne to the doors of the throne-room and two nobles gorgeously habited set the carved steps beside the litter for her feet.

Without hesitation she descended.

The great hall was ablaze with light and lined with courtiers. The Pharaoh, with the queen by his side again, was in his place under the canopy.

How tiny the little bride seemed to those gathered to greet her! In that vast chamber, with its remote ceiling, its majestic pillars, its distances and sonorous echoes, her littleness was pathetically accentuated.

Outside the shelter of her litter, she felt stripped of all protection. She dared not look at the ranks of courtiers, lest her gaze fall on the fair face of the royal scribe. She reminded Isis of her threat and moved into the open space, which extended down the center of the hall.

Har-hat, glittering with gems, and rustling in snow-white robes, approached with triumph in his face to embrace her. But within three steps he paused as suddenly as though he had been commanded. Masanath had not spoken, but her pretty chin had risen, her mouth curved haughtily, and the gaze she fixed upon him from under her lashes was cold and forbidding.

She extended the tips of her fingers to him. The action clamored its meaning. Not in the face of that assembly dared he disregard it, but his black eyes hardened and flashed threateningly. The warning given, he bent his knee and kissed the proffered hand. He had become the subject of his daughter.

She suffered him to lead her to the royal dais where she knelt. The queen descended, raised her and led her to the throne. Meneptah met them, kissed Masanath's forehead, and blessed her. The queen embraced her and returned to her place beside the Pharaoh.

Masanath turned to the right of the royal dais and faced the prince. Thus far, her greetings had not been hard. Now was the supreme test. Har-hat conducted her within a few paces of the prince and stepped aside. What followed was to prove Masanath's willingness.

Rameses stood in the center of a slightly raised platform, which was carpeted with gold-edged purple. Behind him was his great chair. But for the badge of princehood, the fringed ribbon dependent from a gem-crusted annulet over each temple, his habiliments were the same as the Pharaoh's.

Masanath gave him a single comprehensive glance. She was to wed against her will, but she noted philosophically that she was to wed with no puppet, but a kingly king. With all that, admitting herself a peer to this man, it wrenched her sorely to acknowledge subserviency to him.

Hope dead -- the hour of her trial at hand -- nothing was left to uphold her but the memory of the good she might do for Hotep. Her face fell and she approached the prince with slow steps. Within three paces of the platform she paused and sank to her knees.

It was done. She had acknowledged the betrothal and knelt to her lord. Somewhere in that assembly Hotep had seen it, and she wondered numbly if he understood why she had submitted; wondered if she had saved him; wondered if she could endure for the long life they must spend under the same roof; wondered if the gods would take pity on her and kill her very soon.

By this time, Rameses had raised her. He lifted the badge of princehood from his forehead, shortened the fillet from which it hung, so that it would fit her small head and set it on her brow.

The great palace shook with the acclaim of the courtiers. Organ-throated trumpets were blown; the clang of crossed arms, and sound of beaten shields arose from all parts of the king's house; all the ancients' manifestations of joy were made, -- and the pair that had brought it forth looked upon each other.

Masanath was trembling, and filled with a great desire to cry out. All this was manifest on her small, white face. The light had died in the prince's eyes, the exultation was gone from his countenance. He knew what thoughts were uppermost in the mind of Masanath, and the tyrant had spoken truly to her long ago, when he said his heart might be hurt. His brow contracted with an expression of actual pain and he turned with a fierce movement as if to command the rejoicings to be still. But a thought deterred him and taking Masanath's hand he led her down the hall through the bending ranks of purple-wearing Egyptians to the great portals of the hall. There, he gave her into the hands of a troop of court-ladies, lithe as leopards and gorgeous as butterflies, who led her with many sinuous obeisances to her apartments. She had not far to go. The suite given over to the new crown princess was within the wing of the palace in which the royal family lived. Masanath noted with a little trepidation that her door was very near to the portals over which was the winged sun, carven and portentous. Here were the chambers of her lord, the heir.

Within her own apartments, she was attended multitudinously. Ladies-in-waiting bent at her elbow; soft-fingered daughters of nobility habited her in purple-edged robes; flitting apparitions, in a distant chamber, glimpsed through a vista, laid a table of viands for her, to which she was led with many soft flatteries; her every wish was anticipated; all her trepidation conspicuously overlooked; her rank religiously observed in all speech and behavior. And of all her retinue, she was the least complacent.

After her sumptuous meal, she was informed that a member of her private train had come to Tanis from Memphis, ten days agone, in a state of great concern and had awaited all that time in the palace till she should arrive. Now that she had come, the servitor insisted on seeing the princess and would not be denied. Troubled and wondering, Masanath ordered that he be brought. In a few minutes, Pepi stood before her. The taciturn servant was visibly frightened.

|Pepi!| she cried. |What brings thee here?|

|I have lost the Israelite,| he faltered.

|Thou hast lost Rachel!|

|Hear me, my Lady, I pray thee. Thou knowest we were to stop at the Marsh of the Discontented Soul to leave a writing on the tomb for the son of Mentu. So we did. The Israelite bade me stand away from the shore lest we be seen. I put out into midstream and while mine eyes were attracted for a space toward the other shore, a boat drew up at the Marsh. I started to return, but before I could reach the place, the Israelite -- the man -- they were in -- each other's arms.|

Masanath clasped her hands happily, but the servant went on, in haste. |It was the son of Mentu, I know, my Lady. He was wondrous tall, and the Israelite was glad to see him -- |

|O, of a surety it was Kenkenes,| Masanath interrupted eagerly.

|Nay, but hear me, my Lady,| the serving-man protested, his distress evident in his voice. |I moved away and turned my back, for I knew they had no need of me. Once, twice, I looked and still they talked together. But, alas! the third time I looked, it was because I heard sounds of combat, and I saw that the son of Mentu and several men were fighting. One, whom by his fat figure I took to be Unas, was pursuing the Israelite. I would have returned to help her, but the dreadful night overtook me before I could reach her -- and as thou knowest, -- none moved thereafter.

|When the darkness lifted, I was off the wharves at On, where my boat had drifted. I halted only long enough to feed, for I was famished, and with all haste I returned to the Marsh. None was there. I went to the house in Memphis, but it was dark and closed. Next I visited the home of Mentu and asked if Rachel were there, but the old housekeeper had never heard of such a maiden. But when I asked if the young master had returned, she asked me where I had been that I had not heard he was dead. And having said, she shut the door in my face. I think he was within, and she would not answer me 'aye' or 'nay,' but I know that she told the truth concerning the Israelite.|

Masanath, who had stood, the picture of dismay and apprehension during the last part of the recital, seized his arm.

|Hast thou had an eye to the master?| she demanded in a fierce whisper.

|Aye,| he answered quickly. |I have followed him like a shadow, and this I know. Nak and Hebset were here when I came, but they went that same night, each in a different direction, to search further for her. They returned to-night, but I know not whether they brought one with them.|

Masanath clasped her hands and thought for a moment, a mental struggle evidenced on her little face by the rapid fluctuations of color.

|Get thee down to the kitchens, Pepi,| she said presently, |and if Nari hath come, send her up to me. Give thyself comfort and remain in the palace. It may be that I shall need thee.|

She surveyed herself with a swift glance in a plate of polished silver which was her mirror, and then, darting out of her door, ran down the corridor as though she would outstrip repentance before it overtook her.

The flight was not long, but she had lost her composure before she started. Outside her doors, she trembled as if unprotected. Soldiers of the royal guard paced along the hall before her chambers. The lamps that burned there were of gold; the drapings were of purple wrought with the royal symbols; the asp supported the censers; the head of Athor surmounted the columns. She was a dweller of the royal house. Far, far away from her were the unimperial quarters in which, once, she would have lived. There was her father -- there was Hotep --

She came upon him whom she sought. He was on the point of entering his apartments. He paused with his hands on the curtains and waited for her.

|A word with thee, my Lord,| she panted, chiefly from trepidation.

|I have come to expect no more than a word from thee,| he said.

The answer would have sent her away in dudgeon, under any other circumstances, but her pride could not stand in the way of this very pressing duty.

|A boon,| she said, choking back her resentment.

|A boon! Thou wouldst ask a boon of me! Nay, I will not promise, for it may be thou comest to ask thy freedom, and that I will not grant for spleen.|

Still she curbed herself. |Nay, O Prince; I am come to ask naught of thee which -- a wife -- may not justly ask of -- her -- lord.|

He left the curtain and came close to her. |Had the words come smoothly over thy lips, they would have meant any wife -- any husband. But thy very faltering names thee and me. What is the boon that thou mayest justly ask of me?|

|My father -- .|

|Hold! There, too, I make a restriction. Already have I suffered thy father sufficiently.|

Tears leaped into her insulted eyes, and in the bright light, shining from a lamp above her head, her emotion was very apparent.

|Thou hast begun well in thy siege of my heart, Rameses,| she said. |I am like to love thee, if thou dost woo me with affronts!|

|I am as like to win thee with rough words as I am with soft speeches. I had thought thee above pretense, Masanath.|

|I pretend not,| she cried, stamping her foot. |And if thou wouldst know how I esteem thee, I can tell thee most truthfully.|

He laughed and caught her hands. |Nay, save thy judgment. Thou hast a long life with me before thee, and the minds of women can change in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, I love thee none the less because thou art so untamed. Thou art the world I would subdue. So thou dost not give allegiance to another conqueror, I shall not grieve over thy rebellion. Is there another?| he asked.

|I would liefer wed with well-nigh any other man in Egypt than with thee, Rameses,| she replied deliberately.

The declaration swept him off his feet.

|Gods! but thou dost hate me,| he cried. Panic possessed her for a moment, remembering Hotep, but it was too late. She returned the prince's gaze without wavering, though her hands shook pitifully. After what seemed to her an interminable time, he spoke again.

|Perchance I am unwise in taking thee,| he said. |Perchance I but give thee opportunity to spit me on a dagger in my sleep.|

The tears brimmed over her lashes this time.

|Thou dost slander me!| she exclaimed passionately.

|Then I do not understand thee, Masanath,| he asserted.

|Of a surety,| she declared, withdrawing a hand that she might dry the evidences of her indignation from her cheeks. |Take the example home to thyself! Thou hast been loved in thy time, and if ever there was awakened any feeling in thy heart in response it was repugnance. What if one of these women had it in her power to take thee against thy will? By this time thou hadst been dead of thy frantic hate of her, if self-murder had not been done!|

|Even so,| he answered with a short laugh; |but I will not set thee free, Masanath, if thou didst convict me a monster in mine own eyes. If thou art good thou wilt love me or do thy duty by me. If thou art base, I have wedded mine own deserts.|

He took the hand she had withdrawn and prepared to go on, but she interposed.

|Not yet have I asked my boon.|

|I am no longer in debt to thy father.|

|I ask no favor for my father at thy hands. Rather am I come to crave a boon for myself.|

|Speak.|

|My father asked an Israelite maiden at the hands of the Pharaoh a year agone, and she was beloved by my friend and thine. She fled from my father and was hidden by the man she loved -- |

|Aye, I know the story. Hotep brought it to mine ears months ago. The man was Kenkenes, and thy father overtook him and threw him into prison in Tape. What more?|

|The gods keep me in my love for thee, O my father! for thou dost strain it most heavily,| Masanath thought. After an unhappy silence she went on.

|Thou hast given me news. I know little of the tale save that the day the darkness fell Kenkenes met his love on the eastern shore of the Nile opposite Memphis, and there my father's servants came upon them and fought with him for the possession of the Israelite. The Israelite is gone, and my father's servants are still seeking for her, and I would not have her taken.|

|Thou art a queen. What is she, a slave, to thee?|

|A sister, my comforter, my one friend!|

|Thou canst find sisters and comforters and friends among high-born women of Egypt. I had laid Kenkenes' folly concerning this Israelite to the moonshine genius in him. But the slave is a sorceress, for the madness touches whosoever looks upon her. Behold her worshipers -- first, thy father, Kenkenes, Hotep and thyself, and the gods know whom else. She would better be curbed before she bewitches Egypt.|

|It is her goodness and her grace that win, Rameses. If that be sorcery, let it prevail the world over. Give her freedom and save her spotlessness.|

|Har-hat shall not take her, I promise thee. I shall send her back to her place in the brick-fields.|

Masanath recoiled in horror. |To the brick-fields!| she cried. |Rachel to the brick-fields!|

|I have said. Her Israelitish spotlessness will be secure there, and the reduction of her charms will be the saving of Kenkenes.|

|Alas! what have I done?| she cried. |I am as fit for the brick-fields as Rachel. O, if thou but knew her, Rameses!|

|Nay, it is as well that I do not; she might bewitch me. And seeing that she is born of slaves, how shall she be pampered above her parents? Put the folly from thy mind, Masanath, and trouble me not concerning a single slave. Shall I let one go, seeing that I am holding the body at the sacrifice of Egypt?|

Great was Masanath's distress to make her seize him so beseechingly.

|Turn not away, my Lord,| she begged. |See what havoc I have wrought for Rachel when I sought to help her. And behold the honesty of thy boast of love for me. My first boon and thou dost deny it!|

He laughed, and slipping an arm about her, pressed her to him.

|First am I a king -- next a lover,| he said. |Thy prayer seeketh to come between me and my rule over the Israelites. Ask for something which hath naught to do with my scepter.|

|Surely if thou sendest her to the brick-fields Kenkenes will go into slavery with her,| she persisted, enduring his clasp in the hope that he might soften.

|Then it were time for the dreamer to be awakened by his prince.|

|Thou wilt not come between them!| she exclaimed.

|Nay, no need. Seven days of the lash and the sun of the slave-world will heal Kenkenes.|

|Thou shalt see!| Masanath declared, endeavoring to free herself. |And the gods judge thee for thy savage use of maidenhood!|

Again he laughed, and this time he kissed her in spite of her resistance.

|The gods judge me rather for this sweeter use of maidenhood,| he said. |Let them continue to prosper me in it and hasten the day of her willingness. Meanwhile,| he continued, still holding her, as if he enjoyed the mastery over her, |get thee back to thy sleep and put the thought of slaves out of thy mind. To-morrow thou settest thy feet in the path to the throne; to-morrow there will be ceremonies and prayers and blessings out of number; and to-morrow sunset thou art no longer betrothed but a bride! My bride! Go now, and be proud of me if thou canst not love me!|

He released her and, as he entered his apartments, lifted the curtain and stood for an instant looking back at her.

Masanath saw him through her despairing tears -- strong, immovable, terrible -- in his youth and his purposes and his capabilities.

Then the curtain fell behind him.

Crushed and stunned with despair and horror, she made her way to her apartments in a mist of tears.

There was no help for the beloved Rachel or for the young lover. All whom she might ask to approach the king in their favor were helpless or prejudiced. Seti was disgraced; the queen, useless; Hotep, already too imminently imperiled; Rameses, Har-hat, against the lovers; and the king -- the poor, feeble king, hopelessly beyond any appeal that she might direct to him.

A sorry resolve shaped itself in her mind. To-morrow at dawn she also would put forth searchers, and finding Rachel, send her out of Egypt, and Kenkenes after her.

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