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- Arachne, Volume 1. - 3/8 -
short time, Tennis is too full of the praises of the heroic Greek who, at the risk of his own life, rescued a child from Paseth's burning house, for the tale not to reach my ears from ten or a dozen different quarters. Gula is the mother of the little girl whose life was saved by Hermon's bold deed, and perhaps the young mother only knocked at her benefactor's door to thank him; but you, base defamer--"
"I," Bias continued, maintaining his composure with difficulty, "I saw Gula secretly glide into our rooms again and again to permit her child's preserver to imitate in clay what he considered beautiful. To seek your love, as you know, the slave forbade himself, although a man no more loses tender desires with his freedom than the tree which is encircled by a fence ceases to put forth buds and blossoms. Eros chooses the slave's heart also as the target for his arrows; but his aim at yours was better than at mine. Now I know how deeply he wounds, and so, as soon as yonder ship in the harbour bears our visitor away again, I shall see you, Schalit's daughter, Ledscha, standing before Hermon's modelling table and behold him scan your beauty to determine what seems worth copying."
The Biamite, panting for breath, had listened to the end. Then, raising her little clinched hand menacingly, she muttered through her set teeth: "Let him try even to touch my veil with his fingers! If I had not been obliged to go away, this would not have happened to my Taus and luckless Gula."
"Scarcely," replied Bias calmly. "If the chicken runs into the water, the hen can not save it. For the rest--I grew up as a boy in freedom with the husband of your sister, who summoned you to her aid. His father's brick-kiln was next to our papyrus plantation. Then we fared like so many others--the great devour the small, the just cause is the lost one, and the gods are like men. My father, who drew the sword against oppression and violence, was robbed of liberty, and your brother- in-law, in payment for his honest courage, met an early death. Is the story which is told of you here true? I heard that soon after the poor fellow's burial the slaves in the brick-kiln refused to obey his widow. There were a dozen rebellious brick-moulders, and you--one can forgive you much for it--you, the weak girl----"
"I am not weak," interrupted Ledscha proudly. "I could have taught three times twelve of the scoundrels who was master. Now they obey my sister, and yet I wish I had stayed in Tennis. Our Taus," she continued in a more gentle tone, "is still so young, and our mother died when she was a little child; but I, fool, who should have warned her, left her alone, and if she yielded to Hermon's temptations the fault is mine, wholly mine."
During this outburst the light of the fire, which old Tabus had fed with fresh straw and dry rushes, fell upon the face of the agitated girl. It revealed her thoughts plainly enough, and, pleased with the success of his warning, Bias exclaimed: "And Ledscha, you, too, will not grant him that from which you would so gladly have withheld your sister. So I will go and tell my master that you refuse to give him another appointment."
He had confidently expected an assent, and therefore started indignantly at her exclamation: "I intend to do just the contrary." Yet she eagerly added, as if in explanation: "He must give me an account of himself, no matter where, and, since it can not be to-day, to-morrow at latest."
The slave, disappointed and anxious, now tried to make her understand how foolish and hard to accomplish her wish was, but she obstinately insisted upon having her own way.
Bias angrily turned his back upon her and, in the early light of the moon, walked toward the shore, but she hastened after him, seized his arm and, with imperious firmness, commanded: "You will stay! I must first know whether Hermon really means to leave Tennis so soon."
"That was his intention early this morning," replied the other, releasing himself from her grasp. "What are we to do here longer, now that his work is as good as finished?"
"But when is he going?" she urged with increased eagerness.
"Day after to-morrow," was the reply, "in five, or perhaps even in six days, just as it suits him. Usually we do not even know to-day what is to be done to-morrow. So long as the Alexandrian remains, he will scarcely leave her, or Myrtilus either. Probably she will take both hunting with her, for, though a kind, fair-minded woman, she loves the chase, and as both have finished their work, they probably will not be reluctant to go with Daphne."
He stepped into the boat as he spoke, but Ledscha again detained him, asking impatiently: "And 'the work,' as you call it? It was covered with a cloth when I visited the studio, but Hermon himself termed it the statue of a goddess. Yet what it represents--Does it look like my sister Taus--enough like her, I mean, to be recognised?"
A half-compassionate, half-mocking smile flitted over the Biamite's copper-coloured visage, and in a tone of patronizing instruction assumed by the better informed, he began: "You are thinking of the face? Why no, child! What that requires can be found in the countenance of no Biamite, hardly even in yours, the fairest of all."
"And the goddess's figure?" asked Ledscha eagerly.
"For that he first used as a model the fair-haired Heliodora, whom he summoned from Alexandria, and as the wild cat could endure the loneliness only a fortnight, the sisters Nico and Pagis came together. But Tennis was too quiet for them too. The rabble can only be contented among those of their own sort in the capital. But the great preliminary work was already finished before we left Alexandria."
"And Gula--my sister?"
"They were not used for the Demeter," said the slave, smiling. "Just think, that slender scarcely grown creature, Taus, and the matronly patroness of marriage. And Gula? True, her little round face is fresh and not ill-looking--but the model of a goddess requires something more. That can only be obtained in Alexandria. What do not the women there do for the care of the body! They learn it in the Aphrodision, as the boys study reading and writing. But you! What do you here know even about colouring the eyelids and the lips, curling the hair, and treating the nails on the hands and feet? And the clothes! You let them hang just as you put them on, and my master's work is full of folds and little lines in the robe and the peplos--But I have staid too long already. Do you really insist upon meeting Hermon again?
"I will and must see him," she eagerly declared.
"Well, then," he answered harshly. "But if you cast my warning to the winds, pity will also fly away with it."
"I do not need it," the girl retorted in a contemptuous tone.
"Then let Fate take its course," said the slave, shrugging his shoulders regretfully. "My master shall learn what you wish. I shall remain at home until the market is empty. There are plenty of servants at your farm. Your messenger shall bring you Hermon's answer."
"I will come myself and wait for it under the acacia," she cried hastily, and went toward the house, but this time it was Bias who called her back.
Ledscha reluctantly fulfilled his wish, but she soon regretted it, for though what he had to say was doubtless kindly meant, it contained a fresh and severe offence: the slave represented to her the possibilitv that, so long as the daughter of Archias remained his guest, Hermon might rebuff her like a troublesome beggar.
Then, as if sure of her cause, she indignantly cut short his words: "You measure him according to your own standard, and do not know what depends upon it for us. Remind him of the full moon on the coming night and, though ten Alexandrians detained him, he would escape from them to hear what I bring him."
With these words Ledscha again turned her back upon him, but Bias, with a low imprecation, pushed the boat from the shore and rowed toward the city.
When Ledscha heard the strokes of the oars she stopped again and, with glowing cheeks, gazed after the boat and the glimmering silver furrow which it left upon the calm surface of the moonlit water.
Her heart was heavy. The doubts of her lover's sincerity which the slave had awakened tortured her proud soul.
Was Hermon really only trifling mischievously with her affection?
Surely it was impossible.
She would rather endure everything, everything, than this torturing uncertainty.
Yet she was here on the Owl's Nest to seek the aid of old Tabus's magic arts. If any one could give her satisfaction, it was she and the demons who obeyed her will, and the old woman was glad to oblige Ledscha; she was bound to her by closer ties than most people in Tennis knew.
Ledscha had no cause to be ashamed of her frequent visits to the Owl's Nest, for old Tabus had no equal as a leech and a prophetess, and the corsair family, of which she was the female head, stood in high repute among the Biamites. People bore them no ill-will because they practised piracy; many of their race pursued the same calling, and the sailors made common cause with them.
Ledscha's father, too, was on good terms with the pirates, and when Abus, a handsome fellow who commanded his father's second ship and had won a certain degree of renown by many a bold deed, sought the hand of his oldest daughter, he did not refuse him, and only imposed the condition that when he had gained riches enough and made Ledscha his wife, he would cease his piratical pursuits and, in partnership with him, take goods and slaves from Pontus to the Syrian and Egyptian harbours, and grain and textiles from the Nile to the coasts of the Black Sea.
Young Abus had yielded to this demand, since his grandmother on the Owl's Nest thought it wise to delay for a time the girl's marriage to him, the best beloved of her grandsons; she was then scarcely beyond childhood.
Yet Ledscha had felt a strong affection for the young pirate, in whom she saw the embodiment of heroic manhood. She accompanied him in imagination through all his perilous expeditions; but she had been permitted to enjoy his society only after long intervals for a few days.
Once he remained absent longer than usual, and this very voyage was to have been his last on a pirate craft--the peaceful seafaring life was to begin, after his landing, with the marriage.
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