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The Yoke by Elizabeth Miller


At sunrise, Kenkenes drew up his horse and took counsel with himself. By steady riding he could reach Tanis shortly, but once within the capital of the Pharaoh, he was near to Har-hat and within reach of the fan-bearer's potent hand. When he entered the city he must be mentally and physically alert. He had not slept since the last daybreak, and he was weary and heavy-headed.

Ahead of him was a squat hamlet, set on the very border of Goshen. It was the same village that Seti had designated in his appointment with Moses. Here he might have found a hospitable roof and a pallet of matting, but the accompanying gratuity of curiosity and comment would have outweighed the small advantage of a bed indoors over a bed in the meadows.

He dismounted and, leading his horse some distance from the road, into the fringe of water-sprouts which lined the canal, picketed him within shade, out of view from the highway. Usually the meadow growth within reach of the seepage from the canals was most luxuriant, and here the flocks of the Israelites had come for sweet grass. They had kept the underbrush down, and the herbage closely cropped. But for two months Israel had been near Pa-Ramesu with its cattle, and the canal-borders were again riotous with growth. The place Kenkenes came upon was most tempting, odorous and cool. He rolled his mantle for a pillow and flung himself into the grass, where he lay, half-buried in green, and slept.

The April sun, hot as a torrid July noon in northern lands, discovered the sleeper and stared into his upturned face. He flung his arm across his eyes and slept on. Shadows fell and lengthened; the afternoon passed, and still he slept.

Mounted couriers riding at a dead gallop, passed over the road, toward Tanis. Following them, war-chariots thundered by with a castanet accompaniment of jingling harness and jarring armor. Kenkenes stirred during the tumult, but when it had receded he lay still again. Three mounted soldiers leading a score of horses passed. The Arab in the copse whinnied softly. A second trio of soldiers, following with a smaller drove, heard the call from the bushes and drew up. The foremost man spoke to another, tossed the knotted bridles to him and, dismounting, came through the copse to the Arab. There he found the young nobleman, sleeping.

For a moment he hesitated, but no longer. Silently he untied the horse, led him forth, attached him with the others and speedily took the road toward Tanis.

After these had passed the road was deserted and no more came that way. In a little time the sun set. The wind from the north freshened and swayed the close-standing bushes so that their branches chafed one against another. At the sound Kenkenes, ready to wake, stirred and opened his eyes. After a moment he sat up and looked for the Arab. The horse was gone.

Kenkenes arose and searched industriously. The trampled space in the road convinced him that the horse had departed with a number of others. Hoping that he might find some trace of the lost animal among the inhabitants, he went to the hamlet.

Two ragged lines of huts, built of sun-dried brick, formed a single straggling street. A low shed, the first building Kenkenes came upon, showed a flickering red light. A spare figure darted into it, just ahead of the young man.

From the threshold, the whole of the small interior was visible.

The light came from a small annealing oven. At a table, overlaid with a thin slab of stone, a man was modeling a cat in clay. On the opposite side of the room was a younger man, painting an image, preparatory to burning it in the oven. The walls were black with smoke, the floor strewn with broken images and dried crumbs of clay.

In the center of the room was the spare figure, in white robes. Kenkenes had opened his lips to speak when the conversation among the trio stopped him.

|Cowards! Dastards!| the spare man vociferated. |Is there not a patriot in Egypt? The Pharaoh in danger and not a man in the hamlet who will raise a heel to save him!|

|Holy Father,| the short man protested, |the way is long, the horses have been required at our hands by the Pharaoh and were taken from us, and if there be evil omens, the king's sorcerers will discover them.|

|King's sorcerers!| the spare man repeated indignantly. |There is not one of them who can tell a star from a fire-fly or read the events of yesterday! Horses! Must ye go mounted, in litters, in chariots, afraid of the harsh earth and a rough mile? In my youth, the young men went barefoot and traveled the desert for the joy of effort. Oh, for one of mine own best days! Horses!|

|Is the son of Hofa away?| the younger man asked. |He is a runner as well as a soldier.|

The spare man broke out afresh.

|A runner! Aye, of a truth he is a runner. When the tidings came that the Pharaoh was to pursue the Israelites he ran his best -- for the hay-fields -- and is hidden safe under a swath somewhere -- the craven!|

Kenkenes stepped into the shed.

|What is this concerning the Israelites?| he demanded.

The spare man turned and the two artisans gazed at the young sculptor with open mouths.

|The news is not to be cried abroad,| the spare man replied shortly.

|Thou hast become cautious too late,| Kenkenes retorted. |The most of thy talk have I heard. I would know the rest of it.|

|By Bast, thou art imperious! In my great days the nobles groveled to me. Now, am I commanded by them. How thou art fallen, Jambres!

|The Israelites, my Lord,| he continued mockingly, |departed out of the land of Goshen, in the early morning hours of this day, but the Pharaoh hath repented, and will pursue them -- to turn them back, or to destroy them.| The old man's voice lost its sarcasm and became anxious.

|But the signs are ominous, the portents are evil. I know, I know, for I am no less a mystic because I have fallen from state. His seers are liars, they can not guide the king. He must not pursue them, for death shadows him the hour he leaves the gates of Tanis. He must not go! I love him yet, and I can not see him overthrown.|

|Thou art no more eager to stay him than I,| Kenkenes answered quickly. |Thou art in need of a runner. I am one.|

The eye of the sorcerer fell on the young man's dress.

|A runner among the nobility?| he commented suspiciously.

|Is a man less likely to be a patriot because he is of blood, or less fleet of foot because he is noble?|

|Nay; nor less useful because he is sharp of tongue. Come with me!| Jambres seized his arm and, hurrying him out of the shed, went through the ragged street to the shrine at the upper end of the village.

From the tunnel-like entrance between the dwarf pylons a light was diffused as though it came through thin hangings. The pair entered the porch and passed into the sanctuary.

Entering his study, Jambres made his way to the heavy table and, fumbling about the compartments under it, drew forth a wrapped and addressed roll. Taking up a lighted lamp, he scrutinized the messenger sharply.

While he gazed, Kenkenes took the opportunity of inspecting the priest. He had been a familiar figure about the palaces of two monarchs. For thirty years he had read the stars for the great Rameses, six for Meneptah, but he had measured rods with Moses and had fallen. From the pinnacle of power he had declined precipitately to the obscurest office in the priesthood. This bird-cote shrine was his.

|Art thou seasoned? Canst thou endure? Nay, no need to ask that,| he answered himself, surveying the strong figure before him. |But who art thou?|

|I am the son of Mentu, the murket.|

|The son of Mentu? Enough. If a drop of that man's blood runneth in thy veins, thou art as steadfast as death. Surely the gods are with me.|

He opened a second compartment in the end of the table, but before he found what he sought he raised himself, suddenly.

|If thou art that son of the murket,| he asked, |how is it thou art not dead?|

Kenkenes looked at him, wondering if the news of his supposed death had penetrated even to this little hamlet.

|Art thou not thy father's eldest born?| the priest asked further.

|His only child.|

|What sheltered thee in last night's harvest of death?|

|Thou speakest in riddles, holy Father.|

|Knowest thou not that every first-born in Egypt died last night at the Hebrew's sending?| the sorcerer demanded.

|The first-born of Egypt,| Kenkenes repeated slowly. |At the Hebrew's sending?|

|Aye, by the sorcery of Mesu. Save for the eldest of Israel, there is no living first-born in Egypt to-day. From that most imperial Prince Rameses to the firstling of the cowherd, they are dead!|

The young man heard him first with a chill of horror, half-unbelieving, barely comprehending. He was not of Israel and yet he had been spared. Then he remembered the dread presence above him in the night, -- the chill from its noiseless wing. A light, instant and brilliant as a revelation, broke over him. Unconsciously, he raised his eyes and clasped his hands against his breast. He knew that his God had acknowledged him.

When his thoughts returned to earth, he found the glittering eyes of the sorcerer fixed upon him.

|Seeing that thou dost live, tell me what sheltered thee in this harvest of death?| Jambres repeated.

|The Lord God of Israel, who reaped it.|

The answer was direct and fearless. To the astonished priest who heard it, it seemed triumphant.

Each of the many emotions the sorcerer experienced, displayed itself, in turn, on his face, -- amazement, anger, censure, irresolution, distrust. After a silence, he took up the scroll and made as if to return it to its hiding-place in the compartments under the table.

|Stay,| Kenkenes said, laying his hand on the sorcerer's. |Put it not away, for I shall carry it. Shall I, being a believer in Israel's God, be willing for the Pharaoh to pursue Israel?|

|Nay,| Jambres replied bluntly; |but thou wouldst stay him for Israel's sake; I would prevent him for his own.|

|So the same end is accomplished, wherefore quarrel over the motive? But when thou speakest of Israel's sake, which, by the testimony of past events, is now the more imperiled, Egypt or Israel?|

|Egypt! But it shall not be wholly overthrown through mine incautious trust of a messenger.|

The young man still retained his hold on the sorcerer's hand.

|Thou dost impugn my fidelity. Now, consider this. I could have defeated thee and accomplished the Pharaoh's undoing by refusing to carry the message, by keeping silence in yonder shed of image-makers. Is it not so?|

Jambres assented.

|Even so. Instead, I offered and now I insist. Now, if thou deniest me, there is none to carry the warning and thou, thyself, hast undone the Pharaoh.|

The sorcerer put away the hand and showed no sign of softening.

|Nay, then,| Kenkenes said, |there is no need of the writing. I shall warn the king by word of mouth.| He turned away and walked swiftly toward the portals of the shrine. Jambres beheld him recede into the dusk and wavered.

|Stay!| he called.

Kenkenes stopped.

|Wilt thou swear fidelity by the holy Name?|

|Aye, and by that holier Name of Jehovah, also.|

He returned and faced the priest. |Thou art mystic, Father Jambres,| he said persuasively; |what does thy heart tell thee of me?|

|The supplication of the need indorses thee, as it indorses any desperate chance. If thou art false, thou art the instrument of Set, whom the Hathors have given to overthrow Egypt. If thou art true, the Pharaoh shall return safe to his capital in Memphis. The gratitude of Egypt will be sufficient reward.|

|And I take the message?|

Jambres nodded. |Art thou armed?| he asked, bending again to look into the compartment he had opened.

|Except for my dagger, nay.|

The sorcerer brought forth a falchion of that wondrous metal that could carve syenite granite and bite into porphyry; also, a pair of horse-hide sandals and a flat water-bottle.

|Put on these.|

Kenkenes undid his cloak and untying his broidered sandals, wrapped them in his mantle and bound the roll, crosswise, on his back. Over this he slung the water-bottle, which the priest had filled in the meantime, fixed the falchion at his side and put on the horse-hide sandals.

|When hast thou broken thy fast?| the priest asked next.

|At sunset yesterday.|

The priest turned with a sign to the young man to follow him and, passing through the shrine, led the way out of the sanctuary into the house of the sorcerer. Here, shortly, Kenkenes was served by a slave, with a haunch of gazelle-meat, lettuce, white bread and wine.

While he ate, the priest informed him of the situation he might expect to find at the end of his journey.

|The Israelites departed in the early hours of this morning taking the Wady Toomilat, east, toward the gates of the Rameside wall. It was the going forth of a multitude, -- the exodus of a nation! And they will travel at the pace of their slowest lambs. Thus Meneptah can gather his legions and make ready to pursue ere they have reached the wall.| The priest had begun calmly, but the thought of pursuit excited him.

|He must not follow!| he continued. |They are unarmed, but the Pharaoh deals with a wizard and a strange God -- no common foe. And if these were all who have evil intents against him, but there is another -- another!|

He came to the young man's side, saying in an excited whisper:

|There is another, I say, within the king's affections -- a scorpion cherished in his bosom!|

The old man's vehemence and his words fired Kenkenes. He arose and faced Jambres with kindling eyes. The sorcerer went on with increasing excitement.

|Better that his slaves depart increased, enriched threefold by Egypt, better that never again one stone be laid upon another, nor monument bear the king's name, than that Meneptah should leave the precincts of shelter! For his enemy would lead him outside the pale of protection, and there put him to death, and wear his crown after him!|

During this impetuous augury, the young man naturally searched after the identity of the offender. Not Ta-user, nor Siptah, nor Amon-meses, for the sorry tale of Seti and the outlawing of the trio had reached him at Pa-Ramesu. Furthermore, they had never had a place in the affections of the king. There was a new conspirator! At this point the blood heated and went charging through the young man's veins.

|If the king's enemy be mine enemy,| he declared passionately, |thou hast this hour commissioned and armed that enemy's dearest foe! Name him.|

The priest shook his head. His excitement had not carried him beyond the limits of caution.

|Save for my mystic knowledge, I have no proof against him, and if I balk him not and offend him, he hath a heavy and a vengeful hand.|

|And thou hast not named him in the writing?|

Again the priest shook his head.

|Then,| said the young man firmly, |then will I name him to the Pharaoh!|

Jambres looked at Kenkenes with profound admiration, not unmixed with apprehension.

|Let not thy youthful zeal undo thee,| he cautioned. |Perchance thou dost mistake the man.|

|The gods did not bestow all the art upon the mystics when they endowed thee with divining powers. They gifted every man with a little of it, and it speaketh no less truthfully because it is small. Come, thy board has been generous and I am satisfied. I have another and a fiercer hunger I would appease. Give me the message and let me be gone.|

Silent, the priest led the way again into the sanctuary. Taking the scroll from its hiding-place once more he said, as he gave it into the messenger's hands: |Go first to Tanis, and if thou findest not the king in his capital, seek until thou dost find him. And have a care to thyself.|

Kenkenes hesitated a moment, and said at last:

|It may be that I shall not return, but I would have my father know that I died not with the first-born. Wilt thou tell him, when thou canst?|

|The word shall go to him by sunset to-morrow if I carry it myself.|

Kenkenes expressed his thanks and the priest went on.

|Be not rash, I charge thee. Farewell, and thy father's gods attend thee.|

Without the dwarf pylons, Kenkenes bent for the old man's blessing and turned away. Walking rapidly to the northern limits of the town, he took the dusty highway again, and struck into an easy run.

The road sloped up toward the north, but the rise was gradual and the ascent was not wearying. The miles slipped behind swiftly, for he covered them as naturally as the unloitering bird traverses the air.

In two hours he had reached the pinnacle of the upland. To the north the road led continuously down to the sea. He paused and looked back over the long gentle declivity toward the south and west.

A sharp pain pierced him. In that moment, he realized that he was expatriated. After he had warned Meneptah, Egypt dropped out of his aims. Thereafter he had the rescue of Rachel, or her avenging to accomplish, and the results following upon the necessity of either of these alternatives would not permit him to return into the land of his fathers. There was no turning back now, nor any desire in him to do so. His conscience had been witness to the renunciation of his nation and his faith, and it did not chide him.

Still he stretched out his arms to the limitless, featureless, velvety dusk that was Egypt by day, and wept.

He entered Tanis in the middle of the third watch, and there he learned that the Pharaoh had departed, but whither, the solemn, haggard citizens he met could not tell. He repaired to the inn, a house of mourning, also, and awaited the dawn. Then he looked on the funereal capital of Meneptah. The city no longer cried out; it sighed or sobbed, exhausted with its grief; it went the heavy round of labor demanded by the necessities of life, bowed, disheveled and blinded with woe. Kenkenes, humbled, sorrowful, and helpless, averted his eyes and hurried to the palace.

There he found that the queen and Seti, with all the queen's retinue, had departed on a pilgrimage to the temple of the sacred ram at Mendes for the welfare of the soul of Rameses. Masanath was in Pelusium mourning for her sister who died with the first-born. The others, -- Har-hat, Hotep, Nechutes, Menes, Seneferu, Kephren the mohar, -- all except the palace attendants had accompanied the king. The great house of the Pharaoh was empty, solitary and haunted.

The destination of the king was a state secret that had not been imparted to the chamberlains. Kenkenes returned into the unhappy streets again.

He went to the square in which the loiterers were congregated, even though there was one dead in the household, and seeking out the most intelligent, questioned him concerning the departure of the Pharaoh.

He learned that the king and the ministers had left Tanis, and driven south, the afternoon after the night of death. At nightfall, sixteen chariots from the nome followed him. And though the young man inquired of many sources in the capital, he discovered nothing further.

Avowedly, it was Meneptah's intent to overtake the Hebrews, turn them back, or destroy them. He could not accomplish that thing with a score of ministers and sixteen picked chariots. It was evident that he meant to collect an army near the track of the Hebrews, and that he had departed for the rendezvous.

If the Israelites traveled but two miles an hour, they could cover the distance between Pa-Ramesu and the Rameside wall by the sunset of this, the second day after the death of the first-born. It would have been the first act of the Pharaoh to close the gates of the wall against them. The army of the north could gather from the remotest nomes by the close of this day also. Therefore, the hour to proceed against the Israelites was not far away. Kenkenes knew that he might not delay, even for a short sleep, in Tanis.

He fixed upon Pithom as the chosen spot for the rendezvous, since it was situated on the Wady Toomilat.

He refreshed himself with a beaker of sour wine in which a recuperative simple had been stirred, and took the road to the south.

Immediately outside of the city walls he came upon the track of the departing king, and followed it faithfully as long as there was light to show it to him. A dozen miles out of Tanis he ceased to run, and thereafter his progress became slower as his fatigue increased. Toward the end of the first watch, at the northern borders of the district known as Succoth, at the extreme east of Goshen, he came upon a mighty track.

Even in the dark he could see that a diaphanous gauze of dust overhung it and the air was heavy with the most volatile particles. The sandy earth had been ground and worked to the depth of over a foot. How difficult had it been for the rearmost ranks to cover this ploughed soil! The track was a mile in width, and by the nature of the marks upon it, Kenkenes knew that husbandmen, not warriors, had passed over this spot. It was the path of Israel, leading east to the Rameside wall.

Kenkenes tightened his sandal straps and continued toward the south. Ahead of him, the horizon began to glow and then an edge, -- a half, -- all of a perfect moon lifted a vast orange disk above the world. At its first appearance it was sharply cut by a tower of the city of Pithom.

|Now, the God of Israel be thanked,| he said to himself, |for another mile I can not cover.|

The gates were tightly closed and a sentry from the wall challenged him.

|I bring a message to the Pharaoh,| he answered.

|The Son of Ptah is not within the walls.|

|Hath he departed,| Kenkenes wearily asked, |or came he not hither?|

|He came not to Pithom.|

|Come thou down, then, and let me in, friend, for I am spent.|

In a little time, he entered the inn of the treasure city, was given a bed, upon which he flung himself without so much as loosening the kerchief on his head, and slept.

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