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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XL THE FIRST-BORN

The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller

CHAPTER XL THE FIRST-BORN

At the door of her apartments Masanath was met by the faithful Nari, who drew her within and showed her triumphantly that the usurping ladies-in-waiting had departed. The unhappy girl was grateful for the change. The relief for her sorrow was its expression, and she dreaded the restraint put upon her by the presence of discerning and unfamiliar eyes.

All desire for sleep had left her. Nari, weary and heavy-headed, begged her to retire, but she would not. So at last the waiting woman, at her mistress' command, lay down and slept.

The apartment consisted of two chambers running the width of the palace. The outer chamber had a window opening on the streets of Tanis, the inner looked into the palace courtyard.

Masanath wrapped a woolen mantle about her and sat at the window overlooking the park.

Without was the wide hollow, walled by the many-galleried stories of the king's house. Below a fountain of running water, issuing from an ibis-bill of bronze, and falling into a pool, purled and splashed and talked on and on to itself.

Above, the mighty constellations were dropping slowly down the west. The wild north wind from the sea strove against her cheek. The gods were too absorbed in great things, the shifting of the heavens, the flight of the wind and the rocking of the waters, to care for her great burden of trouble. Or, indeed, were they not prejudiced against her as all the world was? They had heard every prayer but hers. They had harkened to Rameses when he asked for her at their hands; they had harkened to her father and yielded him power at her sacrifice; they had even pitied Rachel; they had returned her love from Amenti, and yet had not Rachel reviled them? Nay, there was conspiracy laid against her by the Pantheon, and what had she done to deserve it?

In some one of the many windows that looked into the court another dragged at his chestnut locks and execrated gods and men because of their hardness of heart.

So the night wore on to its noon.

Masanath was becoming drowsy in spite of her determination to keep a sleepless vigil until dawn, when she was aroused by a commotion in the vicinity of the palace. There were indoor cries and shouts for help.

|A brawl,| she thought. But the noise seemed to emerge into the street, and there came the sound of flying footsteps and frantic knocks upon doors without. The sound seemed to swell and spread abroad, widening and heightening. Wild shrieks and husky broken shouts swept up from all quarters of the town, and the whole air was full of a vast murmur of many voices, calling and wailing, excited, tremulous and full of fear.

Masanath passed into the outer room to the window that looked upon the city.

Every house had a light, which flickered and appeared at this window and that, and the streets were full of flying messengers, who cried out as they ran. Now and then a chariot, drawn at full speed, dashed past, and by the fluttering robes of the occupants Masanath guessed them to be physicians. All Tanis was in uproar, and its alarm possessed her at once.

She turned to awaken Nari, when she heard inside the palace excited words and hurrying feet. Some one ran, barefoot, past her door, calling under his breath upon the gods. At that moment an incisive shriek cut the increasing murmur in the palace and died away in a long shuddering wail of grief.

|Awake, awake, Nari!| Masanath cried, shaking the sleeping woman. |Something has befallen the city. It is in the palace and everywhere.|

Meanwhile a chorus of screams smote upon her ears and the wild outcries of men filled the great palace with terrifying clamor.

Masanath, shaking with dread, wrung her hands and wept. Nari, stupid with fear, sat up and listened.

Presently some one came running and beat, with frenzied hands, upon the door.

|Open! Open! In the name of Osiris!| cried a voice which, though it quaked with consternation, Masanath recognized as her father's.

She flew to the door and wrenched it open. Har-hat, half-dressed, stood before it.

|Father, what manner of sending is this?| she cried.

|Death!| he panted. |Come with me!| He caught her arm and ran, dragging her after him down the corridor, half-lighted, but murmurous with sound.

|What is it, father?| she begged as he hurried her on.

|The gods only know. Rameses hath been smitten and is dying, or even now is dead!|

|Rameses!| she breathed in a terrified whisper. |Rameses! And an hour ago I talked with him -- so strong, so resolute, so full of life -- O Holy Isis!|

|It is a pestilence sent by Mesu. The whole city is afflicted. Ptah shield us!|

The hangings that covered the entrance to each suite of chambers had been thrown aside and the interiors were vacant. But the farther end of the hall was filled with terrified courtiers in all attitudes and degrees of extravagant demonstration of grief. Men and women were fallen here and there on the pavement or supporting themselves by pillar and wall, wailing, tearing their hair, wounding their faces, rending their garments.

All the dwellers of the palace were flocked about the apartments of Rameses. From the entrance into these chambers issued sounds of the wildest nature. Masanath heard and attempted to draw away from the fan-bearer.

|Take me not into that awful place!| she pleaded. |How canst thou force me, my father!|

But Har-hat did not seem to hear and pushed his way, still dragging her through the crush of shaking attendants that crowded into the outer chambers.

The sleeping-room of the heir was the focal spot of violent sorrow.

The royal pair, the king's ministers, the immediate companions of Rameses, the high priest from the Rameside temple to Set at Tanis and a corps of leeches were present. The couch was surrounded.

Seti was not present, for only in the last moment had some one realized that the young prince should be brought. Hotep had gone to conduct him to the chamber.

The queen, inert and lifeless, lay on the floor at the foot of the prince's bed. Most of the physicians bent over her. Her women, chiefly the wives of the ministers, were hysterical and helpless.

But it was Meneptah who froze the hearts of his courtiers with horror.

Because of his obstinacy Egypt had gone down into famine, pestilence and destruction. Without more than ordinary concern he had watched the hand of the scourge pursue it into ruin till what time he should relent, and he had not relented.

But now that dread Hand had entered within the boundaries of his loves and had smitten Rameses, his heir, his idol!

The effect upon him was terrible. The death chamber rang like a torture dungeon. Nechutes and Menes, by united efforts, barely prevented him from doing self-murder. The earnest attempts of the priest to quiet him were totally useless. Nothing could have been more shocking.

The violent scene wrought Masanath's already over-strained nerves to the highest pitch of distress. The blood congealed in her veins and her steps lagged, but Har-hat, for some purpose not apparent to any who looked upon his daughter's anguish, drew her to the very side of the couch. The leeches, who had been vainly seeking for some flicker of life, stepped aside and the eyes of the cowering girl fell on the prince.

Rameses had seen the Hand that smote him.

The look on the frozen features completed the undoing of Masanath's self-control and she collapsed beside the bed, utterly prostrated.

Hotep entered with Seti. The boy prince's face was inflamed with much weeping, and he flung himself upon the cold clay of Rameses, forgetting wholly that the older brother had urged the passage of a harsh sentence upon his young head.

The courtiers, who had stoically witnessed Meneptah's frantic grief, turned now and hid their blinded eyes. Hotep went to the Pharaoh and laid his hand on the monarch's shoulder. The action commanded. Exhausted by his frenzy, Meneptah leaned against his scribe. The cup-bearer and the captain released him and Hotep spoke quietly.

|Seest thou, O my King, the sorrow of thy people? Behold thy young son and pity him. Look upon thy queen and comfort her. If thou, their staff, art broken, who shall bear them up in their sorrow? Break not. Be thou as the strong father of thy great son, so that from the bosom of Osiris he may look upon Egypt and sleep well, seeing that in his loss his kingdom lost not her prop and stay, her king, also.|

The scanty manhood of the monarch, thus ably invoked, responded somewhat. He raised himself and permitted Hotep to conduct him to the side of the boy prince. Seti fell down at his father's feet, and Hotep took Meneptah's hand and laid it on the bowed head.

|Thou dost pardon him, O Son of Ptah,| the scribe said in the same quiet voice. The king nodded weakly and wept afresh. After the prince had clasped his father's knees and covered the hand with kisses, he obeyed the scribe's sign and went away to his mother's side. Again Hotep, compelling by his low voice, spoke to the king and the assembly listened.

|The gods have not limited the darts of affliction to thee, O Son of Ptah. Rameses journeyed not alone into Amenti. He took a kingdom with him. Behold, the Hebrew hath loosed his direst plague upon Egypt, and by the lips of an Israelite, in the streets, every first-born in thy realm perished in the home of his father this night!|

The entire assembly cried out, and most of them ran sobbing and praying from the chamber. Instantly the outcry and clamor in the palace broke forth again, for the inhabitants knew that the blow which had smitten Rameses had fallen on one of their own.

Meneptah staggered away from Hotep, his frenzy upon him again.

|Send them hither,| he cried hoarsely, waving his arms toward a white-faced courtier that had stood his ground. |Send them hither -- the Hebrews, Mesu and Aaron! Israel shall depart, before they make me sink the world! For they have sent madness upon me! I condemned my gentle son, I punished those who gave me wise counsel, I have ruined Egypt, I have slain mine heir, and now the blood of the first-born of all my kingdom is upon my head!| His voice rose to a shriek, and Hotep, putting an arm about him, hushed him with gentle authority and signed the courtier to obey.

The physicians lifted the queen and bore her away. Seti stopped at Masanath's side and looked at her with compassion in his eyes. Har-hat came to him.

|Seeing that thou hast won the pardon of thy father, am I not also included in the restoration of good feeling? Have I won thine enmity, my Prince?|

|I hold naught against thee, O Har-hat, but thou hast not been a profitable counselor to my father in these days of his great need.| The young prince spoke frankly and returned the comprehending gaze of the fan-bearer. Har-hat's eyes fell on his daughter, and again on the prince. Slow discomfiture overspread his features. Rameses was dead and with him died the fan-bearer's hold upon his position. Seti was arisen in the heir's place, with all the heir's enmity to him. But from Seti he could not purchase security with Masanath.

Hotep supported Meneptah out of the death chamber, for the court paraschites were already hiding in the shadows of the great halls without. The bed-chamber slowly emptied. Har-hat lifted Masanath and followed the last out-going courtier.

Another tumult had arisen in the great corridor, an uproar of another nature that advanced from the entrance hall of the palace. There were cries of supplication, persuasion, urging, that were frantic in their earnestness. The whole palace seemed to be on its knees.

Hotep, with the king, had paused, and several courtiers went before him and looked down the cross corridor. Instantly they fell on their knees, crying out:

|Ye have the leave of the powers of Egypt! Go! Make haste! Take your flocks, all that is yours! Aye, strip us even, if ye will! But let not the sun rise upon you in Egypt! For we be all dead men!|

A murmur ran through the ministers. |The Hebrews!|

They came slowly, side by side, the two brothers. Egyptians in all attitudes of entreaty cumbered their path -- Egyptians, born to the purple, rich, proud, powerful, on their faces to enslaved Israel!

Meneptah wrenched himself from Hotep's sustaining arms and, staggering forward, all but on his knees, met them.

|Rise up and get you forth from among my people,| he besought them, |both ye and the children of Israel, and go and serve the Lord as ye have said. Also take your flocks and your herds as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also!|

Great was the fall for a Pharaoh to pray a blessing from the hands of a slave; great was his humility to kneel to them. But there was no triumph, no exultation on the faces of the Hebrews. Aaron, with his bearded chin on his breast, looked down on the head of the shuddering, pleading monarch; but Moses, after sad contemplation of the humbled king, raised his splendid head and gazed with kindling eyes at Har-hat.

Then with the words, |It is well,| spoken without animation, he turned and, with his brother, disappeared into the dusk of the long corridor. The expression, the act, the mode of departure seemed to indicate that the Israelites doubted the stability of the king's intent. In a moment, therefore, the courtiers were pursuing the departing brothers, urging and praying with all their former wild insistence.

Har-hat put Masanath on her feet and started to leave her, but she flung her arms about his neck.

|Forgive me, my father,| she sobbed. |For my rebellion the gods may absolve me, but I have been unfilial and for that there is no justification. If aught should befall thee in these awful days, how I should reproach myself! Sawest thou not the Hebrew's gaze upon thee? Say thou dost forgive me!|

|Nay, nay,| he said hastily; |thou hast not done me to death by thine undutifulness. And the Hebrew fears me. Get back to thy chamber and rest.| He kissed her and undid her clinging arms. Going to the king, he put aside Hotep, who was striving to raise the monarch, and lifted Meneptah in his arms.

|Masanath is better now, good Hotep, and I would take my place beside my king.|

Without summoning further aid, he half carried the limp monarch up the hall and into the royal bed-chamber.

Weak, shaking, sated with horror and numb with fear, Masanath attempted to return to her apartments, but at the second step she reeled. Hotep saw her. The fan-bearer was not in sight. In an instant the scribe was beside the fainting girl, supporting her, nor did he release her until she was safe in the ministering arms of Nari.

As he was leaving her he commended her most solemnly to the gods.

|Death hath wrenched a scepter from the gods and ruled the world this night,| he said. |We may not delude ourselves that we have escaped, my Lady. As sure as there is a first-born in thy father's house and in mine, that one is dead. And think of those others whom we love, the eldest born of other houses! Do thou pray for us, thou perfect spirit. I can not, for there is little reverence for my gods in me this night.|

He turned away and disappeared down the corridor.

Within her chamber Masanath knelt and dutifully strove to pray, but her petition resolved itself into a repeated cry for help. In that hour she did not think of the relief to her and to many that the death of Rameses had brought about, for in her heart she counted it sin to be glad of benefit wrought by the death of any man.

Through the fingers across her face she knew that dawn was breaking, but quiet had not settled on the city. Surging murmurs of unanimous sorrow rose and fell as if blown by the chill wind to and fro over Egypt. The nation crouched with her face in the dust. There was no perfunctory sorrow in her abasement. She was bowed down with her own woe, not Meneptah's. Never before had a prince's going-out been attended by such wild grief. There was no comfort in Egypt, and the air was tremulous with mourning from the first cataract to the sea.

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