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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


Masanath, suffocating with wrath and rebellion and overpowered with an exaggerated appreciation of her shame, tumbled down in the shadows of the narrow passage and wrapped her mantle around her head.

When she had wept till the creamy linen over her small face was wet and her throat hurt under the strain of angry sobs, and until she was sure that Rameses was gone, she picked herself up and went cautiously to the end of the passage to reconnoiter.

The prince stood under the single lamp in the great corridor, between her and the refuge of her chamber. Another was close to him, her hands upon his shoulders.

Masanath retired into the dusk and waited. When she looked again the hands were clasped about the prince's neck. Back into the shadows she shrank, pressing her tiny palms together in a wild prayer for Ta-user's triumph. After an interval she looked again in time to see Rameses undo the arms about his knees and fling the princess from him. Cold with dismay and shaking with her sudden descent from hope to despair, Masanath watched him disappear into the dark.

|O most ill-timed, iron continence!| she wailed under her breath. But the change which had come over Ta-user interested her immediately. Fascinated, she forgot to hide again, but the light of the single lamp did not penetrate to her position.

The princess kept the posture of abandoned humiliation, into which Rameses had flung her, until the heir's footsteps died away up the corridor. Then she raised herself and faced the direction the prince had taken. Her lithe body bent a little, her rigid arms were thrust back of her, and the hands were clenched hard. Her head was forced forward, the long neck curved sinuously like a vulture's. She began to speak in a whisper that hissed as though she breathed through her words. Masanath felt her flesh crawl and her soft hair take on life. Not all the words of the sorceress were intelligible. At first only her ejaculations were distinct.

|Puny knave!| Masanath heard. |Well for thee I do not love thee, else thou shouldst sleep this night in the reeking cave of a paraschite, with the whine of feeding flies about thee for dreams. Well for me that I do not love thee, for thine instant death would rob me of the long revenge that I would liefer have! Share thy crown with me! When Ta-user hath done with thee thou shalt have no crown to share! Turned from Siptah for thee! How thou wilt marvel when thou learnest that I never turned from Siptah nor wooed thee with a single glance but for Siptah's sake. Go on! Sleep well! Have no regrets, for thy doom was spoken long before this night's haughty work. Rather do I thank thee for thy scorn. It robs me of qualms and adds instead a dark delight in that which I shall do!|

She turned toward Masanath, walking swiftly. The fan-bearer's daughter, stricken with panic, fled, nor paused until she had passed far beyond the chamber of Ta-user.

Cowering in a friendly niche, she waited until the princess had disappeared, and then only after a long time was she sufficiently reassured to reach her own apartments.

It was the next day's noon before Masanath saw her father. Then he came with light step as she sat in her room. Approaching from behind her, he took her face between his hands, and tilting it back, kissed her.

|I give thee joy, Masanath. Thou hast melted the iron prince.|

She rose and faced him. |Did Rameses tell thee I loved him?| she demanded, a faint hope stirring in her heart.

|Nay, far from it. He told me, and laughed as he said it, that if thy soft heart had any passion for him it was hate.|

|Said he that? Nay, now, my father, thou seest I can not marry him.| There was relief in her voice, and she drew near to the fan-bearer and invited his arms. He sat down instead, and drawing up a stool with his foot, bade her sit at his feet.

|Listen! It is a whim of the Hathors to conceal one's own feelings from him at times, that he may accomplish his own undoing, being blind. Much is at stake on thy love for the prince. Awake, Masanath! Thou dost love him; thou wilt wed him -- and it shall go well with -- all others whom thou lovest.|

|Wouldst use me for a price, my father -- wouldst barter thy daughter for something?| she asked in a tone low with apprehension.

|Ah, what inelegant words,| he chid. |Thou dost miscall my purpose. Look, my daughter. Have I not served thee with hand and heart all thy life, asking nothing, sacrificing much? I, for one, have a debt against thee, and thou canst pay it in thy marriage to Rameses. Dost thou not love me enough to make me secure with the prince, and so, secure in mine advisership to the king?|

Masanath arose slowly, as if her movements kept pace with the progress of her realizations. Thus far she had been a loving and a believing child. The genial knavishness of her father had never appeared as such to her. In her sight he was cheery, great and lovable. Most of all she had flattered herself that he loved her better than life, and that his nights were sleepless in planning for her happiness. Now, a terrifying lapse in his care, or a more terrifying display of his real character, appalled her.

He had placed his demand in the most irresistible form, by calling upon her dutifulness. Being obedient, she felt constrained to submit, but being spirited, with her heart already bestowed, she resisted.

She floundered wildly for testimony that would justify her rebellion in his sight. The memory of Ta-user's threats came to her as unexpected and unbidden as all inspirations come.

|Shall I hold thee in thy position at the expense of Egypt's peace, if not at the expense of the dynasty?| she cried.

|By the heaven-bearing shoulders of Buto!| he responded laughingly, |thou dost put a high estimate on the results of thine acts. Add thereto, 'if not at the expense of the Pantheon,' and thou shalt have all heaven and earth at thy mercy.|

|Nay, my father, hear me! Thou knowest Ta-user -- |

|O, aye, I know Ta-user -- all Egypt knows her -- more particularly, Rameses.|

|Thou dost not fathom the evil in her -- |

|Her fangs are drawn, daughter.|

|Hear me, father. Last night, after Rameses -- after he -- after he left me, he met Ta-user. And the talk between them was of such nature that she knelt to him and he flung her off. They were between me and mine apartments, and I could not but know of it. When he left her she made such threats that it were treason for me to give them voice again. What she asked of him I surmise. It could not have been other than a prayer to him, to fulfil what was expected of him concerning her. Thou knowest the breach between the Pharaoh and his brother, Amon-meses, is but feebly bridged till Rameses shall heal the wound in marriage with Ta-user. His failure, added to the vehement contempt he displayed for her last night, shall make that breach ten times as deep and ever receding, so there can be no healing of it.|

Har-hat flung his head back and laughed heartily.

|Thou timid child! frightened with the ravings of a discarded wanton. She and her following of churls can do nothing against the Son of Ptah. The moles in the necropolis are richer than they. None of loyal Egypt will espouse their cause, and without money how shall they get them mercenaries? Nay, why vex thee with matters of state? All that is required of thee is thy heart for Rameses, no more.|

|Judge not for Rameses, I pray thee,| she insisted, coming near him. |Knowing that I love him not, perchance he might be gentler with Ta-user did he see his peril.|

Again Har-hat laughed.

|I am not blind, O little reluctant,| he said. |I know the secret spring of thy concern for Egypt -- for Ta-user -- for Rameses. I have not told thee all the stake upon thy love for the prince. Does it not seem that since a maiden will not love one winsome man there must be another already installed in her heart?|

She drew back, changing color.

|How little of the court-lady thou art, Masanath,| he broke oft, looking at her face. |Thy sensations are too near the surface. Thou must teach thy face to dissemble. It was this very eloquence of countenance that betrayed thy foolish preferences. Mind thee, I know it to be but a maiden fancy which, discouraged, dies. But have a care lest it bring disaster upon him whom thou hast put in jeopardy of the fierce power of the prince.|

Masanath's eyes widened with terror. The fan-bearer continued: |I have but to mention the name of Hotep -- |

She clutched at her heart.

|Ah?| he observed with mild interrogation in the word. |How foolish thy caprice! Hotep does not thank thee. His marble spirit hath set its loves upon ink-pots and papyri and such pulseless things. How I should reproach myself if I must undo him -- |

|Nay, bring no disaster on the head of the noble Hotep,| she begged. |He -- I -- there is naught between us.|

|It is even as I had thought. I shall tell Rameses and send him to thee,| he said, moving away.

With a bound she was between him and the door.

|If he ask tell him there is naught between me and the royal scribe, but send him not hither,| she commanded with vehemence.

|If thou art rebellious, Masanath, I must chasten thee.|

|Threaten me not!| she cried, thoroughly aroused, |or by the Mother of Heaven, I shall demand audience with Meneptah and tell him what thou wouldst do.|

|Bluster!| he answered with an irritating laugh.

|Hast won the sanction of the Pharaoh for this betrothal?| she demanded.

|Meneptah's will is clay in my hands,| he replied contemptuously.

|Vex me further and I shall tell him that!|

He caught her arm, and though the fierce grasp pinched her, she knew by that she had gained a point.

|And further,| she continued, gathering courage at each word, |I shall ask him why thou shouldst be so anxious to keep the breach between him and his brother and defeat his aims at peace.|

His face blazed and he shook her, but she went on in wild triumph. |I have a confederate in Rameses. He loves thee not. And I have but to hint and ruin thee beyond the restoring power of the marriages of a thousand daughters!|

Har-hat's forte had been polished insult, but when the evil in him would have expressed itself in its own brutal manner he was helpless.

|Hotep -- Hotep -- | he snarled.

The name was potent. Again she recoiled.

|I shall yield him up to Rameses,| he went on.

|And in that very hour thou dost, in that same hour will I charge thee with treason before the throne of Meneptah!| she returned recklessly.

The pair gazed at each other, breathless with temper.

|Wilt thou wed Rameses?| he demanded.

|So thou wilt avoid the name of Hotep in the presence of Rameses and wilt shield him as if his safety were to bring thee gain,| she replied, thrusting skilfully, |I will wed the prince in one year. Furthermore, in that time I shall be free to go where and when I please, to dwell where I please and to be vexed with the sight of thee or that royal monster no more than is my desire. Say, wilt thou accept?|

He had twitted her about her frank face. He could not tell now but that she was fearless and had measured her strength. He did not know that within she trembled and felt that her threats were empty. But, being guilty in his soul, and facing righteousness, Har-hat succumbed.

|Have it thy way, then, vixen,| he exclaimed; |but remember, I hold a heavy hand above thy head and Hotep's!|

He strode out of her presence, and when she was sure he was gone, she fell on her face and wept miserably.

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