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- Arachne, Volume 3. - 3/8 -
upon the platform.
There the Greek girl manipulated in some way the red tresses piled high upon her head, and confined above the brow by a costly gold diadem, flung the white linen fabric which the young slave handed to her over her head, wound her arm around the shoulders of the ravenlocked boy, and drew him toward her with passionate tenderness. At the same time she raised the end of the linen drapery with her left hand, spreading it over him like a protecting canopy.
The mobile features which had just smiled so radiantly expressed mortal terror, and the pirate, to whom even the name "Niobe" was unfamiliar, looked around him for the terrible danger threatening the innocent child, from which the woman on the pedestal was protecting it with loving devotion.
The mortal terror of a mother robbed by a higher power of her child could scarcely be more vividly depicted, and yet haughty defiance hovered around her slightly pouting lips; the uplifted hands seemed not only anxiously to defend, but also to defy an invisible foe with powerless anger.
The pirate's eyes rested on this spectacle as if spellbound, and the man who in Pontus had dragged hundreds of young creatures--boys and girls-- on his ship to sell them into slavery, never thinking of the tears which he thereby caused in huts and mansions, clinched his rough hand to attack the base wretch who was robbing the poor mother of her lovely darling.
But just as Hanno was rising to look around him for the invisible evildoer, the loud shouts of many voices startled him. He glanced toward the pedestal; but now, instead of the hapless mother, he found there the bold woman whom he had previously seen, as radiant as if some great piece of good fortune had befallen her, bowing and waving her hand to the other Greeks, who were thanking her with loud applause.
The sorely threatened boy, bowing merrily, sprang to the ground; but Hanno put his hand on Ledscha's arm, and in great perplexity whispered, "What did that mean?"
"Hush!" said the girl softly, stretching her slender neck toward the illuminated square, for the performer had remained standing upon the pedestal, and Chrysilla, Daphne's companion, sat erect on her couch, exclaiming, "If it is agreeable to you, beautiful Althea, show us Nike crowning the victor."
Even the Biamite's keen ear could not catch the reply and the purport of the rapid conversation which followed; but she guessed the point in question when the young men who were present rose hastily, rushed toward the pedestal, loosed the wreaths from their heads, and offered them to the Greek girl whom Chrysilla had just called "beautiful Althea."
Four Hellenic officers in the strong military force under Philippus, the commandant of the "Key of Egypt," as Pelusium was justly called, had accompanied the old Macedonian general to visit his friend Archias's daughter at Tennis; but Althea rejected their garlands with an explanation which seemed to satisfy them.
Ledscha could not hear what she said, but when only Hermon and Myrtilus still stood with their wreaths of flowers opposite the "beautiful Althea," and she glanced hesitatingly from one to the other, as if she found the choice difficult, and then drew from her finger a sparkling ring, the Biamite detected the swift look of understanding which Hermon exchanged with her.
The girl's heart began to throb faster, and, with the keen premonition of a jealous soul, she recognised in Althea her rival and foe.
Now there was no doubt of it; now, as the actress, skilled in every wile, hid the hand holding the ring, as well as the other empty one, behind her back, she would know how to manage so that she could use the garland which Hermon handed her.
Ledscha's foreboding was instantly fulfilled, for when Althea held out her little tightly clinched fist to the artists and asked Myrtilus to choose, the hand to which he pointed and she then opened was empty, and she took from the other the ring, which she displayed with well-feigned regret to the spectators.
Then Hermon knelt before her, and, as he offered Althea his wreath, his dark eyes gazed so ardently into the blue ones of the red-haired Greek- like Queen Arsinoe, she was of Thracian descent--that Ledscha was now positively certain she knew for whose sake her lover had so basely betrayed her.
How she hated this bold woman!
Yet she was forced to keep quiet, and pressed her lips tightly together as Althea seized the white sheet and with marvellous celerity wound it about her until it fell in exquisite folds like a long robe.
Surprise, curiosity, and a pleasant sense of satisfaction in seeing what seemed to her a shameless display withdrawn from her lover's eyes, rendered it easier for Ledscha to maintain her composure; yet she felt the blood throbbing in her temples as Hermon remained kneeling before the Hellene, gazing intently into her expressive face.
Was it not too narrow wholly to please the man who had known how to praise her own beauty so passionately? Did not the outlines of Althea's figure, which the bombyx robe only partially concealed, lack roundness even more than her own?
And yet! As soon as Althea had transformed the sheet into a robe, and held the wreath above him, Hermon's gaze rested on hers as though enraptured, while from her bright blue eyes a flood of ardent admiration poured upon the man for whom she held the victor's wreath.
This was done with the upper portion of her body bending very far forward. The slender figure was poised on one foot; the other, covered to the ankle with the long robe, hovered in the air. Had not the wings which, as Nike, belonged to her been lacking, every one would have been convinced that she was flying--that she had just descended from the heights of Olympus to crown the kneeling victor. Not only her hand, her gaze and her every feature awarded the prize to the man at her feet.
There was no doubt that, if Nike herself came to the earth to make the best man happy with the noblest of crowns, the spectacle would be a similar one.
And Hermon! No garlanded victor could look up to the gracious divinity more joyously, more completely enthralled by grateful rapture.
The applause which now rang out more and more loudly was certainly not undeserved, but it pierced Ledscha's soul like a mockery, like the bitterest scorn.
Hanno, on the contrary, seemed to consider the scene scarcely worth looking at. Something more powerful was required to stir him. He was particularly averse to all exhibitions. The utmost which his relatives could induce the quiet, reserved man to do when they ventured into the great seaports was to attend the animal fights and the games of the athletes. He felt thoroughly happy only when at sea, on board of his good ship. His best pleasure was to gaze up at the stars on calm nights, guide the helm, and meanwhile dream--of late most gladly of making the beautiful girl who had seemed to him worthy of his brave brother Abus, his own wife.
In the secluded monotony of his life as a scar over memory had exalted Ledscha into the most desirable of all women, and the slaughtered Abus into the greatest of heroes.
To win the love of this much-praised maiden seemed to Hanno peerless happiness, and the young corsair felt that he was worthy of it; for on the high seas, when a superior foe was to be opposed by force and stratagem, when a ship was to be boarded and death spread over her deck, he had proved himself a man of unflinching courage.
His suit had progressed more easily than he expected. His father would rejoice, and his heart exulted at the thought of encountering a serious peril for the girl he loved. His whole existence was a venture of life, and, had he had ten to lose, they would not have been too dear a price to him to win Ledscha.
While Althea, as the goddess of Victory, held the wreath aloft, and loud applause hailed her, Hanno was thinking of the treasures which he had garnered since his father had allowed him a share of the booty, and of the future.
When he had accumulated ten talents of gold he would give up piracy, like Abus, and carry on his own ships wood and slaves from Pontus to Egypt, and textiles from Tennis, arms and other manufactured articles from Alexandria to the Pontine cities. In this way Ledscha's father had become a rich man, and he would also, not for his own sake--he needed little--but to make life sweet for his wife, surround her with splendour and luxury, and adorn her beautiful person with costly jewels. Many a stolen ornament was already lying in the safe hiding place that even his brother Labaja did not know.
At last the shouts died away, and as the stopping of the clattering wheel wakes the miller, so the stillness on the shore roused Hanno from his dream.
What was it that Ledscha saw there so fascinating that she did not even hear his low call? His father and Labaja had undoubtedly left his grandmother's house long ago, and were looking for him in vain.
Yes, he was right; the old pirate's shrill whistle reached his ear from the Owl's Nest, and he was accustomed to obedience.
So, lightly touching Ledscha on the shoulder, he whispered that he must return to the island at once. His father would be rejoiced if she went with him.
"To-morrow," she answered in a tone of resolute denial. Then, reminding him once more of the meaning of the signals she had promised to give, she waved her hand to him, sprang swiftly past him to the prow of the boat, caught an overhanging bough of the willow on the shore, and, as she had learned during the games of her childhood, swung herself as lightly as a bird into the thicket at the water's edge, which concealed her from every eye.
Without even vouchsafing Hanno another glance, Ledscha glided forward in the shadow of the bushes to the great sycamore, whose thick, broad top on the side toward the tents was striped with light from the flood of radiance streaming from them. On the opposite side the leafage vanished in the darkness of the night, but Myrtilus had had a bench placed there,
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