There was no thirst in the Delta. Nowhere did the capillary, the irrigation canal, fail to reach, even now in the season of desolation and loss. Half-green stubble, hail-mown and locust-eaten, showed where a wheat-field had been. Regular, barren rows were the only evidences of the lentil and garlic gardens in happier days, and the location of pastures might be guessed by the skeletons that whitened the uplands. Through fringes of leafless palm trees, stone-rimmed pools, like splashes of quicksilver or facets of sapphire, reflected the sky.
Half-way between On and Pa-Ramesu was one of these basins, elliptical in shape and walled with rough limestone. Moss grew in the crevices of the masonry and about it had been a sod of velvet grass. Black beetles slipped in and out among the stones; dragon-flies hung over the surface of the water and large ants made erratic journeys about the rough bark of the naked palms. Whoever came dipped his goblet deep, for there the water was cold. If he gazed through to the bottom he detected a convection in the sand below. This was not a reservoir, but a well.
Once only had it failed, but then Hapi, the holy river, had been smitten also.
The spring bubbled up at the division of a road. One branch led along the northern bank of the Rameside canal, eastward to Pa-Ramesu. The other crossed the northwestern limits of Goshen and went toward Tanis, in the northeast. Round about the little oasis were the dark circles where the turf fires of many travelers had been. The merchants from the Orient entering Egypt through the great wall of Rameses II, across the eastern isthmus, passed this way going to Memphis. Here Philistine, Damascene, Ninevite and Babylonian had halted; here Egyptian, Bedouin, Arabian and the dweller of the desert had paused. The earth about the well was always damp, and the top-most row of the curb was worn smooth in hollows. This, therefore, was a point common to native and alien, the home-keeping and the traveler, the faithful and the unbeliever.
The strait of Egypt was sore and the aid of the gods essential. The priests had seized upon the site as a place of prayers, placed a tablet there, commanding them, and a soldier to see that the command was obeyed.
The soldier was in cavalry dress of tunic and tasseled coif, with pike and bull-hide shield and a light broadsword. He was no ordinary bearer of arms. He walked like a man accustomed to command; he turned a cold eye upon too-familiar wayfarers and startled them into silence by the level blackness of his low brows. Wealth, beauty, age nor rank won servility or superciliousness from him. The Egyptian soldier was not obliged to cringe, and this one abode by the privilege.
He was a man of one attitude, one mood and few words. The Memnon might as well have been expected to smile. The earliest riser found him there; the latest night wanderer came upon him. When the day broke, after the falling of the dreadful night, the brave or the thirsty who ventured forth saw him at his post, silent, unastonished, unafraid.
Once only the soldier had been seen to flinch. Merenra, now nomarch of Bubastis, but whilom commander over Israel at Pa-Ramesu, paused one noon with his train at the well. The governor glanced at the soldier, glanced again, shrugged his shoulders and rode away. The man-at-arms winced, and often thereafter stood in abstracted contemplation of the distance.
Just after sunrise on the second day following the passing of the darkness, four Egyptians, lank, big-footed and brown, came from the northeast. By their dress they had been prosperous rustics of the un-Israelite Delta. But the healthful leanness, characteristic of the race, had become emaciation; there was the studious unkemptness of mourning upon them, and they, who had ridden once, before the plagues of murrain and hail, traveled afoot.
They were evidently journeying to On, where the benevolence of Ra would feed them.
They said nothing, looking a little awed at the soldier and puzzled at the stela. The warrior read the command and the unlettered men fell on their knees, each to a different god. The Egyptian was not ashamed of his piety nor did he closet himself to pray.
"Incline the will of the Pharaoh to accord with the needs of the hour, O thou Melter of Hearts!"
"Rescue the kingdom, O thou Controller of Nations, for it descendeth into death and none succoreth it!"
"Deal thou as thou deemest best with the destroyer of Egypt, O thou Magistrate over Kings!"
Thus, in these fragments of prayers was it made manifest that the worm was turning, apologetically, it is true, but surely. For once the prescribed defense of the Pharaoh was ignored. "It is not the fault of the Child of the Sun, but his advisers, who are evil men and full of guile." And in the odd perversity of fate for once its observance would have been just.
Having fulfilled the command and relieved their souls, the four arose and went their way, soft of foot and stately of carriage, after the manner of all their countrymen.
Next, descending with a volley of yells, a rout of the nomad tribes, mounted on horses, came from the southwest.
They were chiefly Bedouins, their women perched behind them with the tiniest members of their broods. But every child that could bestride a horse was mounted independently. Whatever worldly possessions the nomads owned were bound in numerous flat rolls on other horses which they led.
"Hail!" they shouted to the warrior, for the desert races are prankish and unabashed. A younger among them, without wife or goods, drew his gaunt horse back upon its scarred haunches and saluted the soldier.
"Greeting, bearer of many arms!" he said, and then addressed a near-by companion as if he were rods away. "Behold leaden-toed Egypt, cumbered with defense! Bull-hide for shield instead of the safe remoteness of distance, blade and pike for vulgar intimacy in combat instead of the nice aloofness of the launched spear -- "
"Go to, thou prater!" interrupted a companion. "If thou lovest Bedouin warfare so well, wherefore dost thou join thyself to the Israelite who fights not at all?"
"Spoil!" retorted the first, "and new fields, O waster of the air! Hast thou not heard of Canaan?"
"Nay," shouted a third, "he hath an eye only to some heifer-eyed brickmaker among them!"
The soldier moved forward to the group and grounded his pike. His attitude interested them, and in the expectant silence he repeated the writing on the tablet.
"So saith the writing," the first speaker began, but the warrior interrupted him.
"It behooves thee to obey. Thou art yet within the reach of the awkward arms of Egypt."
"One against a troop of Bedouins," the trifler laughed.
"And there are a thousand within sound of my beaten shield," was the harsh answer.
"Come," said an elder complacently, "it does no harm to ask the alleviation of any man's hurt, and it may keep us whole for the journey into Canaan." He dismounted, and in a twinkling the company, even to the babes, had followed his example. Each dropped to his haunches, his hands spread upon his knees, and there was no sound for a few minutes.
Then they rose simultaneously and, flinging themselves upon their horses, departed as they came, like the whirlwind, over the road to Pa-Ramesu and the heart of Goshen.
These were part of the mixed multitude that went with Israel.
The dust of their going had hardly settled before a drove of hosannahing Israelites approached from the direction of the Nile. The soldier saw them without seeming to see and, moving toward the tablet, a four-foot stela of sandstone, planted himself against its inscribed face, and, resting his pike, contemplated the west.
The ragged rout approached, singing and shouting, noisy and of doubtful temper. A cloud of dust came with them and the odor of stall and of quarry sweat.
Want plays havoc with the Oriental's appearance. It acutely accentuates his already aggressive features and reduces his color to ghastliness. The approaching Hebrews were studies of sharp angularity in monochrome, and the soul which showed in the eyes was no longer a spiritual but a ravenous thing.
Being something distinctly Egyptian, the soldier brought their actual temper to the surface. They had suffered long, but their time had come.
The foremost flung themselves into his view and halted, hushed and amazed. When those behind them tried to press forward with jeers, they turned with a frown and a significant jerk of the head in the direction of the man-at-arms. These, also, subsided and passed along the sign of silence. A leader in the front rank walked away and took a drink, using his hands as a cup. The whole silent herd followed and did likewise, solemnly and thoughtfully.
Presently the bolder began to whisper and conjecture among themselves, hushing the sibilant surmises of the humbler with a cautioning frown. An old man, who could not lower his voice, quavered a resolve to "ask and discover," and started toward the soldier to put his resolution into effect. A wiry old woman seized him and drew him back.
"Wilt thou humiliate him with thy notice, meddler?" she demanded in a fierce whisper. "See him not, and it will be a mercy to him in his hour of abasement, -- him who hath been balsam to the wound of Israel!"
She turned about and took the road toward Pa-Ramesu, the unprotesting old man trotting after her. The crowd followed, silent at first, then softly talkative, and finally, in the distance, singing and noisy once again.
A careening camel, almost white in the early morning sunshine, broke the sky-line far up the road leading from Tanis in the north. Very much nearer, to the west, two single litters, with a staff-bearing attendant, were approaching.
The camel rider was a Hebrew by the beast that bore him. Egypt had no liking for the bearer of the Orient's burdens and small acquaintance with him. Likewise the litters were Hebraic, for the attendant was bearded. The soldier kept his place before the stela and contemplated the distance.
The time was not long, though in that land of distances the camel had far to come from the horizon to the well, until by the soft jarring of the earth the motionless sentinel knew that the swifter traveler had arrived. Haste is not common in tropical countries, and the camel had been put to his limit of speed. A commoner spirit than the soldiers could not have resisted the impulses of curiosity concerning this hot haste. But he did not turn his eyes.
The traveler alighted before his mount ceased to move, and undoing his leathern belt with a jerk, he struck the camel a smart blow on the shoulder. There was the protesting buzz of a large fly and an angry, disabled blundering on the sand, silenced by the stamp of a sandal.
"Thou wouldst have it, pest!" the traveler exclaimed. "Thy kind is not to be persuaded from its blood-sucking by milder means. Ye mind me of the Pharaoh!"
He turned toward the well, and his glance fell on the man-at-arms for the first time. He started a little to find himself not alone, and a second time he started with sudden recognition. The well was between him and the soldier. He leaned upon his hands on the top of the curb and gazed at his opposite. Once he seemed about to speak, but the studious disregard of the soldier deterred him. Slowly his eyes fell until they were directed thoughtfully through his own reflection into the green depths of the well.
Although there were ten years in favor of the Egyptian, there was a certain similarity between the two men. Both were soldiers, both black and stern. But one was a Hebrew, no less than forty-five years of age. He wore a helmet of polished metal, equipped with a visor, which, when raised, finished the front with a flat plate. The top of the head-piece was ornamented with a spike. His armor was complete -- shirt of mail, shenti extending half-way to the knees, greaves of brass and mailed shoes.
He was as tall as the Egyptian and as lean, but his structure was heavy, stalwart and powerful. His forehead was broad and bold, his eyes deep-set, steel-blue and keen. He had the fighting nose, over-long and hooked like an eagle's beak. The inexorable character of his features was borne out by the mouth, thin-lipped and firm in its closing. Even his beard, scant and touched with gray, was intractable. Here was an Israelite who was a warrior, a rare thing -- but splendid when found.
After a pause he turned, and the camel knelt at his command. The litters had halted a little distance away under two palms that leaned their leafless crowns together. The attendant was hastening toward the well.
"Joshua!" he cried joyously.
"Even I," the Hebrew soldier said, walking around the kneeling beast. "Peace to thee, Caleb."
The two men embraced; the warrior imperturbably, the attendant tearfully.
"What dost thou away from Goshen?" Joshua asked, disengaging himself. "The faithful of Israel have been summoned thither from the remotenesses of Mizraim."
But Caleb did not hear, having caught sight of the Egyptian. The recognition startled him as it had all the others, but he did not hold his peace.
"Atsu!" he exclaimed. Joshua checked him.
"Vex him not with attention," he said in a lowered tone. "His fall hath been great, but it hath not killed his pride. He would speak if it hurt him to be unremembered."
"Hath he a grudge against us?" Caleb asked in astonishment.
"Nay, look thou at the writing on the tablet. He would hide its command from us. Is he not a friend to Israel still?"
He indicated the characters on either side of the soldier. The words were disconnected, but the sense was easily guessed. The command for prayers to the Pantheon of Egypt was not hidden, beyond conjecture, from the discerning. Caleb saw the meaning of the inscription, but looked to Joshua for further enlightenment.
"He would spare us," the abler Israelite said. "Let us return the kindness and see him not."
All this had the Egyptian heard, but his eyes, fixed so absently on the horizon, seemed to indicate that he was not conscious of his surroundings.
Joshua repeated his question.
"I was sent forth with Miriam," Caleb made answer. "She hath been abroad, gathering up the scattered chosen."
His eyes brightened and he clasped his hands with the gesture of a happy woman.
"Deliverance is at hand! Doubt it not, O Son of Nun! We go forth!" he exclaimed.
On the camel were hung a shield, a javelin and a quiver of arrows. Joshua jostled the arrows in their case before answering.
"Not as the moon changes," he said grimly. "The time for mild departure is past and the word of the Lord God unto Moses must be fulfilled."
"So we but go," Caleb assented, "I care not. And such is the temper of all Israel -- nay," he broke off, conscientiously; "there is an exception, an unusual exception."
"There may be more," Joshua replied. "There is much in Egypt to hold the slavish. But the captain of Israel hath called me, out of peaceful shepherd life, to the severe fortunes of a warrior, and I go, no mile too short, no moment too swift, that shall speed me into Pa-Ramesu."
"And thou takest up arms for Israel?" Caleb cried. "Ah! but Moses hath gloved his right hand in mail, in thee, O Son of Nun! But," he continued, uneasy with his story untold, "this was no slavish content under a master. Rather did it come from one of the best of Israel."
"Strange that the lofty of Israel should regret a departure from the land of the oppressors." Joshua settled himself on the camel and the tall beast rose to its feet with a lurch.
"Even so," Caleb answered, patting the nose of the camel and arranging the tassels of its halter. "It was a quarry-slave, a maiden and of gentle blood among the nobility of Israel. She is in the bamboo litter, Miriam is in the other.
"We are come from farthest Egypt, fifty of us in three barges," he began. "To Syene have we been and all the Nilotic towns. To Nehapehu, and even deep into the Great Oasis were messengers sent, for we would not leave a single son of Abraham behind. And the masters surrendered them to a man! Was it the face of Miriam or the fear of Moses or the might of the Lord that tamed them? Hath Miriam a compelling glance, or Moses a power that came not from Jehovah? Nay, not so. Praised be His holy name!"
The mild Israelite clasped his hands and raised his eyes devoutly. But fearful lest his pause might furnish an opportunity for Joshua's escape, he continued at once:
"We were descending the Nile, below Memphis; the river sang and the hills lifted up their voices. There was rejoicing in the meadows and clapping of hands in the valleys. We possessed the gates of our enemies and Mizraim sat upon the shores and wept after us.
"Below Masaarah, the darkness fell; the sun perished in the morning and the stars were not summoned in the night, for the Lord had withdrawn the lights of heaven. But His hand was upon the waters and His glory stood about us and we feared not.
"And lo! there came a call upon Him from the shores to the east. The barge of Miriam paused and from the land we succored an Israelitish maiden. But when we would have moved on, she flung herself before Miriam and besought her:
"'Depart not yet, for there is another.'
"'Of the chosen?' the prophetess asked.
"'Nay, an Egyptian, but better and above his kind.'
"'Of the faith?' Miriam asked further. And the maiden faltered and said, 'Nay, not yet -- but worthy and kindly.'
"But the prophetess bade the men at the poles to continue, saying: 'Shall we cheat Jehovah in his intent and rescue an oppressor?'
"But the maiden clung about the knees of Miriam and prayed to her, while the prophetess said, 'Nay, nay' and 'Peace,' and sought to soothe her, and when at that moment some one called out of the darkness, she put her hand over the maiden's mouth and would not let her answer. And the barge went swiftly away. Then the maiden fell on her face, like one dead, and she will not be comforted."
Joshua drew himself into securer, position on the camel and shook its harness.
"Love!" he said with a frown. "The evilest tie and the strongest between Israel and Mizraim!"
"Nay," Caleb protested, "thou hast loved."
"A daughter of Israel," the warrior answered bluntly. "Dost thou follow me into Goshen, Caleb?"
"Nay, we go on to Tanis, where we shall join Moses and Aaron who lie there awaiting the Pharaoh's summons."
"The parting shall not be long between thee and me, then. Peace to thee, Caleb. To Miriam, greeting and peace."
The warrior urged his camel and, rounding the stela-guarding soldier who had stood within ear-shot of the narrative, he was gone in a long undulating swing up the road that led to Pa-Ramesu.
Caleb gazed after him until he was only a tall shape like the stroke of a pen in the distance. Then the mild Israelite looked longingly at the Egyptian, and finally returned to the litters. These in a moment were shouldered by the bearers and moved out up the road toward Tanis. Caleb walked before them, dotting every other footprint with the point of his staff. He sighed gustily and sank his bearded chin on his breast.
The soldier turned his head as soon as the attendant had passed and gazed at the litters.
The Hebrew bearers of the foremost were four in number, dressed in the garb of serving-men to noble Israel. The hangings of blue linen had been thrust aside and within was the semi-recumbent figure of a woman. One knee was drawn up, the hands clasped behind the head, but the majesty of the august countenance belied the youth of the posture. The eyes of the woman met those of the Egyptian and lighted with recognition. She lowered her arms and crossed the left to the shoulder of the right. It was the old attitude of deference from Israel to Atsu. A dusky red dyed the man's cheeks and he touched his knee in response.
The litter of Miriam passed.
The next was a light frame of jungle bamboo, borne by a pair of young men. Its sides were latticed, with the exception of two small window-like openings on either side. These were hung with white linen, but the drapings had been put aside to admit the morning air.
The soldier looked and the shock of recognition drew him a pace away from the stela.
The head of a young girl, partly turned from him, was framed in the small window. The wimple had been thrown back and a single tress of golden hair had escaped across the forehead. The countenance was unhappy, but beautiful for all its misery. The lids were heavy, as if weighted down with sorrow; the cheeks were pallid, the lips colorless and pathetically drooped. A white hand, resting on the slight frame of the small opening, was tightly clenched.
The picture was one of weary despair.
The soldier, blanched and shaken, took a step forward as if to speak, but some realization brought him back to rigid attention against the stela.
The light litter passed on.
The regular tread of the men grew fainter and fainter and silence settled again about the well.
The soldier stood erect, gray-faced and immovable, his eyes fixed, his teeth set, his hand gripping the pike, till the insects, reassured, began to chirr close about him. Then his lids quivered; the pike leaned in his grasp; his jaw relaxed, weakly. He shifted his position and frowned, flung up his head and resumed his vigil. The moments went on and yet he retained his tense posture. The hour passed and with it his physical endurance.
Then his emotion gathered all its forces, all the compelling sensations of disappointment, rebuff, heart-hurt, jealousy, hopelessness, and stormed his soul. He turned about and, stretching his arms across the top of the stela, hid his face and surrendered.
Around him was the unbroken circle of the earth and above the blue desert of sky, solitary, soundless. And the union of earth and heaven, like a mundane and spiritual collusion, lay between him and the little litter.
The beat of a horse's hoofs in the distance roused him after a long time, and hastily turning his back toward the new-comer, he resumed at once his soldierly attitude.
The traveler bore down on him from the west and reined his horse at the intersection of the two roads. He looked up the straight highway toward Pa-Ramesu, then turned in the saddle and gazed toward Tanis. His indecision was not a wayfarer's casual hesitancy in the choice of roads. By the anxiety written on his face, life, fortune or love might be at stake upon the correct selection of route. Once or twice he looked at the soldier, but showed no inclination to ask advice, even had the man-at-arms turned his way.
It was one of fate's opportunities to be gracious. Here was Kenkenes seeking for the maiden whom he and the soldier loved, and it lay in the power of the unelect to direct the fortunate. But Kenkenes did not know the warrior, and Atsu had no desire to turn his unhappy face to the new-comer. The young man grew more and more troubled, his indecision more marked. Suddenly he dropped the reins, and without guiding the horse, urged the animal forward.
Kenkenes was relying on chance for direction.
Confused and unready the horse awaited the intelligent touch on the bridle. It did not come. He flung up his head and smelt the wind. Nervously he stamped and trod in one place, breathing loudly in protest.
The low voice of his rider continued to urge him. Perhaps the wind from Goshen brought the smell of unblighted pastures. Whatever the reason, the horse turned, with uncertainty in his step and took the road eastward to Pa-Ramesu.
Having chosen, he went confidently, and as he was not halted and was young and swift, he increased his pace to a long run.
Meanwhile far to the north the little litter was borne toward Tanis. And Atsu, the warrior, did not move his eyes from the distant point where it had disappeared over the horizon.