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- Arachne, Volume 1. - 4/8 -
Ledscha had expected her lover's return with eager longing, but week after week elapsed, yet nothing was seen or heard of the ships owned by the Owl's Nest family; then a rumour spread that this time the corsairs were defeated in a battle with the Syrian war-galleys.
The first person who received sure tidings was old Tabus. Her grandson Hanno, who escaped with his life, at the bidding of his father Satabus, who revered his mother, had made his way to her amid great perils to convey the sorrowful news. Two of the best ships in the family had been sunk, and on one the brave Abus, Ledscha's betrothed husband, who commanded it, had lost his life; on the other the aged dame's oldest son and three of her grandchildren.
Tabus fell as if struck by lightning when she heard the tidings, and since that time her tongue had lost its power of fluent speech, her ear its sharpness; but Ledscha did not leave her side, and saved her life by tireless, faithful nursing.
Neither Satabus, the old woman's second son, who now commanded the little pirate fleet, nor his sons, Hanno and Labaja, had been seen in the neighbourhood of Tennis since the disaster, but after Tabus had recovered sufficiently to provide for herself, Ledscha returned to Tennis to manage her father's great household and supply the mother's place to her younger sister, Taus.
She had not recovered the careless cheerfulness of earlier years, but, graver than the companions of her own age, she absented herself from the gaieties of the Biamite maidens. Meanwhile her beauty had increased wonderfully, and, attracting attention far and wide, drew many suitors from neighbouring towns to Tennis. Only a few, however, had made offers of marriage to her father; the beautiful girl's cold, repellent manner disheartened them. She herself desired nothing better; yet it secretly incensed her and pierced her soul with pain to see herself at twenty unwedded, while far less attractive companions of her own age had long been wives and mothers.
The arduous task which she had performed a short time before for her widowed sister had increased the seriousness of her disposition to sullen moroseness.
After her return home she often rowed to the Owl's Nest, for Ledscha felt bound to old Tabus, and, so far as lay in her power, under obligation to atone for the injury which the horror of her lover's sudden death had inflicted upon his grandmother.
Now she had at last been subjugated by a new passion--love for the Greek sculptor Hermon, who did his best to win the heart of the Biamite girl, whose austere, extremely singular beauty attracted his artist eyes.
To-day Ledscha had come to the sorceress to learn from her what awaited her and her love. She had landed on the island, sure of favourable predictions, but now her hopes lay as if crushed by hailstones.
If Bias, who was superior to an ordinary slave, was right, she was to be degraded to a toy and useful tool by the man who had already proved his pernicious power over other women of her race, even her own young sister, whom she had hitherto guarded with faithful care. It had by no means escaped her notice that the girl was concealing something from her, though she did not perceive the true cause of the change.
The bright moonbeams, which now wove a silvery web over every surrounding object, seemed like a mockery of her darkened soul.
If the demons of the heights and depths had been subject to her, as to the aged enchantress she would have commanded them to cover the heavens with black clouds. Now they must show her what she had to hope or to fear.
She shook her head slightly, as if she no longer believed in a favourable turn of affairs, pushed the little curls which had escaped from the wealth of her black hair back from her forehead with her slender hand, and walked firmly to the house.
The old dame was crouching beside the hearth in the middle room, turning the metal spit, on which she had put the ducks, over the freshly kindled fire.
The smoke hurt her eyes, which were slightly inflamed, yet they seemed to serve their purpose better than her half-dulled ear, for, after a swift glance at Ledscha, she stammered in her faltering speech: "What has happened? Nothing good, certainly. It is written on your face."
The girl nodded assent, pointed with a significant gesture to her eyes and the open air, and went down to the shore again to convince herself that no other vessel was approaching.
What she had to confide to Tabus was intended for her alone, and experience taught how far spoken words could be heard at night over the water.
When she had returned to the hut, she bent down to the old woman's ear and, holding her curved hand to her lips, cried, "He is not coming!"
Tabus shrugged her shoulders, and the smile of satisfaction which flitted over her brown, wrinkled face showed that the news was welcome.
For her murdered grandson's sake the girl's confession that she had given her heart to a Greek affected her painfully; but Tabus also had something else on her mind for her beautiful darling.
Now she only intimated by a silent nod that she understood Ledscha, and her head remained constantly in motion as the latter continued: "True, I shall see him again to-morrow, but when we part, it will hardly be in love. At any rate--do you hear, grandmother?--to-morrow must decide everything. Therefore--do you understand me?--you must question the cords now, to-night, for to-morrow evening what they advised might be too late."
"Now?" repeated Tabus in surprise, letting her gaze rest inquiringly upon the girl. Then she took the spit from the fire, exclaiming angrily: "Directly, do you mean? As if that could be! As if the stars obeyed us mortals like maids or men servants! The moon must be at the full to learn the truth from the cords. Wait, child! What is life but waiting? Only have patience, girl! True, few know how to practise this art at your age, and it is alien to many all their lives. But the stars! From them, the least and the greatest, man can learn to go his way patiently, year by year. Always the same course and the same pace. No deviation even one hair's breadth, no swifter or slower movement for the unresting wanderers. No sudden wrath, no ardent desire, no weariness or aversion urges or delays them. How I love and honour them! They willingly submit to the great law until the end of all things. What they appoint for this hour is for it alone, not for the next one. Everything in the vast universe is connected with them. Whoever should delay their course a moment would make the earth reel. Night would become day, the rivers would return to their sources. People would walk on their heads instead of their feet, joy would be transformed to sorrow and power to servitude. Therefore, child, the full moon has a different effect from the waxing or waning one during the other twenty-nine nights of the month. To ask of one what belongs to another is to expect an answer from the foreigner who does not understand your language. How young you are, child, and how foolish! To question the cords for you in the moonlight now is to expect to gather grapes from thorns. Take my word for that!"
Here she interrupted the words uttered with so much difficulty, and with her blackish-blue cotton dress wiped her perspiring face, strangely flushed by the exertion and the firelight.
Ledscha had listened with increasing disappointment.
The wise old dame was doubtless right, yet before she ventured to the sculptor's workshop the next day she must know at every cost how matters stood, what she had to fear or to hope from him; so after a brief silence she ventured to ask the question, "But are there only the stars and the cords which predict what fate holds in store for one who is so nearly allied to you?"
"No, child, no," was the reply. "But nothing can be clone about looking into the future now. It requires rigid fasting from early dawn, and I ate the dates you brought me. I inhaled the odor of the roasting ducks, too, and then--it must be done at midnight; and at midnight your people will be anxious if you are not at home by that time, or perhaps send a slave to seek you here at my house, and that--that must not be done--I must prevent it."
"So you are expecting some one," Ledscha eagerly replied. "And I know who it is. Your son Satabus, or one of your grandsons. Else why are the ducks cooked? And for what is the wine jar which I just took from its hiding place?"
A vehement gesture of denial from Tabus contradicted the girl's conjecture; but directly after she scanned her with a keen, searching glance, and said: "No, no. We have nothing to fear from you, surely. Poor Abus! Through him you will always belong to us. In spite of the Greek, ours you are and ours you will remain. The stars confirm it, and you have always been faithful to the old woman. You are shrewd and steadfast. You would have been the right mate for him who was also wise and firm. Poor, dear, brave boy! But why pity him? Because the salt waves now flow over him? Fools that we are! There is nothing better than death, for it is peace. And almost all of them have found it. Of nine sons and twenty grandsons, only three are left. The others are all calm after so much conflict and danger. How long ago it is since seven perished at once! The last three their turn will come too. How I envy them that best of blessings, only may they not also go before me!"
Here she lowered her voice, and in a scarcely audible whisper murmured: "You shall know it. My son Satabus, with his brave boys Hanno and Labaja, are coming later in the evening. About midnight--if ye protect them, ye powers above--they will be with me. And you, child, I know your soul to its inmost depths. Before you would betray the last of Abus's kindred--"
"My hand and tongue should wither!" Ledscha passionately interrupted, and then, with zealous feminine solicitude, she asked whether the three ducks would suffice to satisfy the hunger of these strong men.
The old woman smiled and pointed to a pile of fresh leaves heaped one above another, beneath which lay several fine shad. They were not to be cooked until the expected visitors arrived, and she had plenty of bread besides.
In the presence of these proofs of maternal solicitude the morose, wrinkled countenance of the old sorceress wore a kind, almost tender expression, and the light of joyous anticipation beamed upon her young guest from her redrimmed eyes.
"I am to see them once more!" cried Tabus in an agitated tone. "The last--and all three, all! If they-- But no; they will not set to work so near Pelusium. No, no! They will not, lest they should spoil the meeting with the old woman. Oh, they are kind; no one knows how kind my
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