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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


It was far into the tenth night that Kenkenes arrived in Thebes. On the sixteenth day Rachel would begin to expect him, and he could not hope to reach Memphis by that time. She should not wait an hour longer than necessary. He would get the signet that night and return by the swiftest boat obtainable in Thebes. The dawn should find him on the way to Memphis.

He entered the streets of the Libyan suburb of the holy city, and passed through it to the scattering houses, set outside the thickly-settled portion, and nearer to the necropolis. At the portals of the most pretentious of these houses he knocked and was admitted.

He was met presently in the chamber of guests by an old man, gray-haired and bent. This was the keeper of the tomb of Rameses the Great.

|I am the son of Mentu,| he said, |thy friend, and the friend of the Incomparable Pharaoh. Perchance thou dost remember me.|

|I remember Mentu,| the old man replied, after a space that might have been spent in rumination, or in collecting his faculties to speak.

|He decorated the tomb of Rameses,| the young man continued.

|Aye, I remember. I watched him often at the work.|

|Thou knowest how the great king loved him.|

The old man bent his head in assent.

|He was given a signet by Rameses, and on the jewel was testimony of royal favor which should outlive the Pharaoh and Mentu himself.|

|Even so. A precious talisman, and a rare one.|

|It was lost.|

|Nay! Lost! Alas, that is losing the favor of Osiris. What a calamity!| The old man shook his head and his gray brows knitted.

|But the place in which it was lost is small, and I would search for it again.|

|That is wise. The gods aid them who surrender not.|

By this time the old man's face had become inquiring.

|There is need for the signet now -- |

|The noble Mentu, in trouble?| the old man queried.

|The son of the noble Mentu is in trouble -- the purity of an innocent one at stake, and the foiling of a villain to accomplish,| Kenkenes answered earnestly.

|A sore need. Is it -- Wouldst thou have me aid thee?|

|Thou hast said. I come to thee to crave thy permission to search again for the signet.|

|Nay, but I give it freely. Yet I do not understand.|

|The signet was lost in the tomb of the Incomparable Pharaoh. May I not visit the crypt?|

The old man thought a moment. |Aye, thou canst search. If thou wilt come for me to-morrow -- |

|Nay, I would go this very night.|

The keeper's face sobered and he shook his head.

|Deny me not, I pray thee,| Kenkenes entreated earnestly. |Thou, who hast lived so many years, hast at some time weighed the value of a single moment. In the waste or use of the scant space between two breaths have lives been lost, souls smirched, the unlimited history of the future turned. And never was a greater stake upon the saving of time than in this strait -- which is the peril of spotless womanhood.|

The old man rubbed his head. |Aye, I know, I know. Thy haste is justifiable, but -- |

|I can go alone. There is no need that thou shouldst waste an hour of thy needed sleep for me. I pledge thee I shall conduct myself without thee as I should beneath thine eye. Most reverently will I enter, most reverently search, most reverently depart, and none need ever know I went alone.|

The ancient keeper weakened at the earnestness of the young man.

|And thou wilt permit no eye to see thee enter or come forth from the valley?|

|Most cautious will I be -- most secret and discreet.|

|Canst thou open the gates?|

|I have not forgotten from the daily practice that was mine for many weeks.|

|Then go, and let no man know of this. Amen give thee success.|

Kenkenes thanked him gratefully and went at once.

The moon was in its third quarter, but it was near midnight and the valley of the Nile between the distant highlands to the east and west was in soft light. On the eastern side of the river there was only a feeble glimmer from a window where some chanting leech stood by a bedside, or where a feast was still on. But under the luster of the waning moon Thebes lost its outlines and became a city of marbles and shadows and undefined limits.

On the western side the vision was interrupted by a lofty, sharp-toothed range, tipped with a few scattered stars of the first magnitude. In the plain at its base were the palaces of Amenophis III, of Rameses II, and their temples, the temples of the Tothmes, and far to the south the majestic colossi of Amenophis III towered up through the silver light, the faces, in their own shadow, turned in eternal contemplation of the sunrise. Grouped about the great edifices were the booths of funeral stuffs and the stalls of caterers to the populace of the Libyan suburb of Thebes. But these were hidden in the dark shadows which the great structures threw. The moon blotted out the profane things of the holy city and discovered only its splendors to the sky.

At the northwest limits of the suburb, the hills approached the Nile, leaving only a narrow strip a few hundred yards wide between their fronts and the water. Here the steep ramparts were divided by a tortuous cleft, which wound back with many cross-fissures deep into the desert. The ravine was simply a chasm, with perpendicular sides of naked rock.

At its upper end, it was blocked by a wall of unscalable heights. Nowhere in its length was it wider than a hundred yards, and across the mouth a gateway wide enough for three chariots abreast had been built of red granite.

This was the valley of the Tombs of the Kings.

In chambers hewn in solid rock, the monarchs of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties were entombed. All along the walls of the gorge, nature had secured the sacred resting-place of the sovereigns against trespass from the end and sides of the chasm, and Egypt had dutifully strengthened the one weak point in the fortification -- the entrance -- by the gateway of granite. But there was no vigilance of guards. Whosoever knew how to open the gates might enter the valley. The secret of the bolts was known only among the members of the royal family and the court. To Kenkenes, whose craft as a sculptor had taught him the intricate devices used in closing tombs, the opening of these gates was simple. Even the mighty portals of Khufu and Menka-ra would yield responsive to his intelligent touch.

He let himself into the valley and, closing the valves behind him, went up the tortuous gorge, darkened by the shadows of its walls. He continued past the mouth of the valley's southern arm wherein were entombed the kings of the eighteenth dynasty. Here, in this open space, he could see the circling bats, which before he could only hear above his head. Somewhere among the rocks up the moonlit hollow an owl hooted. But the tombs he sought were in the upper end of the main ravine.

Here lay Rameses I, the founder of that illustrious dynasty -- the nineteenth. Near-by was his son, Seti I, and next to him the splendid tyrant, Rameses the Great, the Incomparable Pharaoh.

By the time Kenkenes had reached the spot, all lightness in his heart had gone out like the extinguishing of a candle, and the weight of suspense, the fear of failure, fell on him as suddenly. He approached the elaborate facade of the solemn portals, climbed the pairs of steps, and paused at each of the many landings with a prayer for the success of his mission, not for the repose of the royal soul, after the custom of other visitors. With trembling hands he pushed the doors, rough with inscriptions, and the great stone valves swung ponderously inward, the bronze pins making no sound as they turned in the sockets. Kenkenes entered and closed the portals behind him.

Instantly all sound of the outside world was cut off -- the sound of the wind, the chafing of the sands on the hills above, the movement and cries of night-birds, beasts and insects. Absolute stillness and original night surrounded him.

With all speed he lighted his lamp, but the flaring name illuminated only a little space in the brooding, hovering blackness about him.

The atmosphere was stagnant and heavily burdened with old aromatic scent, and the silence seemed to have accumulated in the years. Even the soft whetting of his sandal, as he walked, made echoes that shouted at him. The little blaze fizzed and sputtered noisily and each throb of his heart sounded like a knock on the portal.

He did not pause. The darkness might cloud and tinge and swallow up his light as turbid water absorbs the clear; the silence might resent the violation. This was the habitation of a royal soul in perpetual vigil over its corpse and vested with all the powers and austere propensities of a thing supernatural. But not once did the impulse come to him to fly. Rachel's face attended him like a lamp.

He moved forward, his path only discovered to him step by step as the light advanced, the sumptuous frescoes done by the hand of his father emerging, one detail at a time. The solemn figures fixed accusing eyes upon him from every frieze; the passive countenance of the monarch himself confronted him from every wall. One wondrous chamber after another he traversed, for the tomb penetrated the very core of the mountain.

The innermost crypt contained the altars. This was the sanctuary, the holy of holies, never entered except by a hierarch.

When Kenkenes reached the final threshold he paused. Thus far, his presence had been merely a midnight intrusion. If he entered the sanctuary his coming would be violation. He thought of the distress of Rachel and dared.

The first alabaster altar glistened suddenly out of the night like a bank of snow. Kenkenes' sandal grated on the sandy dust that lay thick on the floor. Not even the keeper had entered this crypt to remove the accumulated dust of six years.

Under this floor of solid granite was the pit containing the sarcophagi of the dead monarch, of his favorite son and destined heir, Shaemus, and his well-beloved queen, Neferari Thermuthis. The opening into the pit had been sealed when Rameses had descended to emerge no more. The chamber over it was brilliant with frescoing and covered with inscriptions. There were three magnificent altars of alabaster and over each was an oval containing the name of one of the three sleepers in the pit below.

In this chapel the signet had been lost.

Kenkenes set his light on the floor and began his search. The first time he searched the floor, he laid the lack of success to his excited work. The second time, the perspiration began to trickle down his temples. Thereafter he sought, lengthwise and crosswise, calling on the gods for aid, but there was no glint of the jewel.

At last, sick with despair, he sat down to collect himself. Suddenly across the heavy silence there smote a sound. In a place closer to the beating heart of the world, the movement might have escaped him. Now, though it was but the rustle of sweeping robes, it seemed to sough like the wind among the clashing blades of palm-leaves.

For a moment Kenkenes sat, transfixed, and in that moment the sound came nearer. He remembered the injunction of the old keeper. Human or supernatural, the new-comer must not find him there. He leaped behind the altar of Shaemus, extinguishing the light as he did so. He flung the corner of his kamis over the reeking wick that the odor might not escape, but his fear in that direction was materially lessened when he saw that the stranger bore a fuming torch.

On one end of the short pole of the torch was a knot of flaming pitch, on the other was a bronze ring fitted with sprawling claws. The stranger set the light on the floor and the device kept the torch upright. He crossed the room and stood at the altar of Neferari Thermuthis.

By the deeply fringed and voluminous draperies, and by the venerable beard, rippling and streaked with gray, the young sculptor took the stranger to be an Israelite. As Kenkenes looked upon him, he was minded of his father, the magnificent Mentu. There was the bearing of the courtier, with the same wondrous stature, the same massive frame. But the delicate features of the Egyptian, the long, slim fingers, the narrow foot, were absent. In this man's countenance there was majesty instead of grace; in his figure, might, instead of elegance. The expression had need of only a little emphasis in either direction to become benign or terrible. Kenkenes caught a single glance of the eyes under the gray shelter of the heavy brows. Once, the young man had seen hanging from Meneptah's neck the rarest jewel in the royal treasure. The wise men had called it an opal. It shot lights as beautiful and awful as the intensest flame. And something in the eyes of this mighty man brought back to Kenkenes the memory of the fires of that wondrous gem.

The stranger stood in profound meditation, his splendid head gradually sinking until it rested on his breast. The arms hung by the sides. The attitude suggested a sorrow healed by the long years until it was no more a pain, but a memory so subduing that it depressed. At last the great man sank to his knees, with a movement quite in keeping with his grandeur and his mood, and bowed his head on his arms.

Pressed down with awe, Kenkenes followed his example, and although he seemed to kneel on some rough chisel mark in the floor, he did not shift his position. The discomfort seemed appropriate as penitence on that holy occasion.

After a long time the stranger arose, took up the torch and quitted the chamber. He went away more slowly than he had come, with reluctant step and averted face.

When night and profound silence were restored in the crypt, Kenkenes regained his feet and, examining the irritated knee, found the offending object clinging to the impression it had made in the flesh. The shape of the trifle sent a wild hope through his brain. Groping through the dark, he found his lamp and lighted it with trembling hands.

He held the lapis-lazuli signet!

He did not move. He only grasped the scarab tightly and panted. The sudden change from intense suspense to intense relief had deprived him of the power of expression. Only his physical make-up manifested its rebellion against the shock.

As the tumult in his heart subsided, his mind began to confront him with happy fancies. Rachel was already free. In that moment of exuberance he thrust aside, as monstrous, the bar of different faith. He believed he could overcome it by the very compelling power of his love and the righteousness of his cause. He spent no time picturing the method of his triumph over it. Beyond that obstacle were tender pictures of home-making, love and life, which so filled him with emotion that, in a sudden ebullition of boyish gratitude, he pressed the all-potent signet to his lips.

Then, his cheeks reddening with a little shame at his impulsiveness, he examined the scarab. The cord by which it had been suspended passed through a small gold ring between the claws of the beetle. This had worn very thin and some slight wrench had broken it.

|Ah!| he exclaimed aloud. |It is even as I had thought. But let me not seem to boast when I tell my father of it. It will be victory enough for me to display the jewel, and abashment enough for him to know he was wrong.|

He ceased to speak, but the echoes talked on after him. He shivered, caught up his light and raced through the sumptuous tomb into the world again.

It was near dawn and the skies were pallid. He was hungry and weary but most impatient to be gone. He would repair to Thebes and break his fast. Thereafter he would procure the swiftest boat on the Nile and take his rest while speeding toward Memphis.

The inn of the necropolis was like an immense dwelling, except that the courts were stable-yards. The doors, opening off the porch, were always open and a light burned by night within the chamber. So long and so murkily had it burnt, that the chamber Kenkenes entered was smoky and redolent of it. Aside from a high, bench-like table, running half the length of the rear wall, there was nothing else in the room. Kenkenes rapped on the table. In a little time an Egyptian emerged from under the counter, on the other side. Understanding at last that the guest wished to be fed, he staggered sleepily through a door and, presently reappearing, signed Kenkenes to enter.

The room into which the young sculptor was conducted was too large to be lighted by the two lamps, hung from hooks, one at each end of the chamber. Down either side, hidden in the shadows, were long benches, and from the huddled heap that occupied the full length of each, it was to be surmised that men were sleeping on them. Above them the slatted blinds had been withdrawn from the small windows and the morning breeze was blowing strongly through the chamber. At the upper end was another table, similar to the one in the outer room, except for a napkin in the middle with a bottle of water set upon it. An Egyptian woman stood beside this table and gave the young man a wooden stool.

As Kenkenes walked toward the seat a stronger blast of wind puffed out the light above his head. The woman climbed up to take the lamp down and set it on the table while she relighted it. The skirt of her dress caught on the top of the stool she had mounted and pulled it over on the wooden floor with a sharp sound.

One of the sleepers stirred at the noise and turned over. Presently he sat up.

Kenkenes righted the stool and sat down on it, the light shining in his face. He saw the guest in the shadow shake off the light covering and walk swiftly through the door into the outer chamber.

Meanwhile the silent woman served her guest with cold baked water-fowl, endives, cucumbers, wheat bread and grapes, and a weak white wine. Kenkenes ate deliberately, and consumed all that was set before him. When he had made an end, he paid his reckoning to the woman and returned into the outer chamber.

At the doors, he was confronted by four members of the city constabulary and a Nubian in a striped tunic.

|Seize him!| the Nubian cried. Instantly the four men flung themselves upon Kenkenes and pinioned his arms.

|Nay, by the gods,| he exclaimed angrily. |What mean you?|

|Parley not with him,| the Nubian said in excitement. |Get him in bonds stronger than the grip of hands. He is muscled like a bull.|

The young sculptor looked at the Nubian. He had seen him before -- had had unpleasant dealings with him. And then he remembered, so suddenly and so fiercely that his captors felt the sinews creep in his arms.

|Set spare thee and thine infamous master to me!| he exclaimed violently.

The Nubian retreated a little, for Kenkenes had strained toward him.

|Get him into the four walls of a cell,| the Nubian urged the guards. |I may not lose him again, as I value my head.|

The guards started out of the doors and Kenkenes went with them, unresisting, but not passively. All the thoughts were his that can come to a man, on whose freedom depend another's life and happiness. Added to these was an all-consuming hate of her enemy and his, new-fed by this latest offense from Har-hat. With difficulty he kept the tumult of his emotions from manifesting themselves to his captors. They feared that his calm was ominous, and held him tightly.

The necropolis was not astir and the streets were wind-haunted. The tread of the six men set dogs to barking, and only now and then was a face shown at the doorways. For this Kenkenes thanked his gods, for he was proud, and the eye of the humblest slave upon him in his humiliating plight would have hurt him more keenly than blows.

The prison was a square building of rough stone, flat-roofed, three stories in height. The red walls were broken at regular intervals by crevices, barred with bronze. There was but one entrance.

Herein were confined all the malefactors of the great city of the gods, and since the population of Thebes might have comprised something over half a million inhabitants, the dwellers of that grim and impregnable prison were not few in number.

Kenkenes was led through the doors, down a low-roofed, narrow, stone-walled corridor to the room of the governor of police.

This was a hall, with a lofty ceiling, highly colored and supported by loteform pillars of brilliant stone. Toth, the ibis-headed, and the Goddess Ma, crowned with plumes, her wings forward drooping, were painted on the walls. A long table, massive, plain and solid like a sarcophagus, stood in the center of the room. A confused litter of curled sheets of papyrus, and long strips of unrolled linen scrolls were distributed carelessly over the polished surface. At one side were eight plates of stone -- the tables of law, codified and blessed by Toth.

The governor of police was absent, but his vice, who was jailer and scribe in one, sat in a chair behind the great table.

When the party entered, he sat up, undid a new scroll, wetted the reed pen in the pigment, and was ready.

|Name?| he began, preparing to write.

|That, thou knowest,| Kenkenes retorted. The Nubian bowed respectfully and approaching, whispered to the scribe. The official ran over some of the scrolls and having found the one he sought, proceeded to make his entries from the information contained therein.

When the man had finished Kenkenes nodded toward the eight volumes of the law.

|If thou art as acquainted with the laws of Egypt as thine office requires, thou knowest that no free-born Egyptian may be kept ignorant of the charge that accomplished his arrest. Wherefore am I taken?|

|For sacrilege and slave-stealing,| the scribe replied calmly.

|At the complaint of Har-hat, bearer of the king's fan,| Kenkenes added.

|Until such time as stronger proof of thy misdeeds may be brought against thee,| the scribe continued.

|Even so. In plainer words, I shall be held till I confess what he would have me tell, or until I decay in this tomb. Let me give thee my word, I shall do neither. Unhand me. I shall not attempt to escape.|

At a sign from the scribe the four men released him and took up a position at the doors. Kenkenes opened his wallet and displayed the signet. The scribe took it and read the inscription. There was no doubting the young man's right to the jewel for here was the name of Mentu, even as the chief adviser had given it in identifying the prisoner. The official frowned and stroked his chin.

|This petitions the Pharaoh,| he said at last. |I can not pass upon it.|

|Send me to my cell, then, and do thou follow,| Kenkenes said. |I have somewhat to tell thee.|

|Take him to his cell,| the official said to the men as he returned the signet to the prisoner. |I shall attend him.|

Kenkenes was led into a corridor, wide enough for three walking side by side. There was no light therein, but the foremost of the four stooped before what seemed a section of solid wall and after a little fumbling, a massive door swung inward.

The chamber into which it led was wide enough for a pallet of straw laid lengthwise, with passage room between it and the opposite wall. The foot of the bed was within two feet of the door. Between the stones, in the opposite end near the ceiling, was a crevice, little wider than two palms. This noted, the interior of the cell has been described.

The jailer entered after him, and let the door fall shut.

|I have but to crave a messenger of thee -- a swift and a sure one -- one who can hold his peace and hath pride in his calling. I can offer all he demands. And this, further. Keep his going a secret, for I am beset and I would not have my rescue by the Pharaoh thwarted.|

|I can send thee a messenger,| the jailer answered.

|Ere midday,| Kenkenes added.

|I hear,| the passive official assented.

The solid section of wall swung shut behind him and the great bolts shot into place.

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