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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 11. - 3/9 -

He then swung himself on to his horse, while Horapollo rode off to the Curia to desire the president of the council to call a meeting for that evening; then he betook himself to his new quarters.

There he found his room carefully shaded, and as cool as was possible in such heat. The floor had been sprinkled with water, flowers stood wherever there was room for them, and all his properties in scrolls and other matters had found places in chests or on shelves. There was not a speck of dust to be seen, and a sweet pervading perfume greeted his sensitive nostrils.

What a good exchange he had made! He rubbed his withered hands with satisfaction as he seated himself in his accustomed chair, and when Mary came to call him to dinner, it was a pleasure to him to jest with her.

Pulcheria must lead him through the viridarium into the dining-room; he enjoyed his meal, and his cross, wrinkled old face lighted up amazingly as he glanced round at his feminine associates; only Eudoxia was absent, confined to her room by some slight ailment. He had something pleasant to say to each; he frankly compared his former circumstances with his present position, without disguising his heartfelt thankfulness; then, with a merry glance at Pulcheria, he described how delightful it would be when Philippus should come home to make the party complete--a true and perfect star: for every Egyptian star must have five rays. The ancients had never painted one otherwise nor graven it in stone; nay, they had used it as the symbol for the number five.

At this Mary exclaimed: "But then I hope--I hope we shall make a six- rayed star; for by that time poor Paula may be with us again!"

"God grant it!" sighed Dame Joanna. Pulcheria, however, asked the old man what was wrong with him, for his face had suddenly clouded. His cheerfulness had vanished, his tufted eyebrows were raised, and his pinched lips seemed unwilling to part, when at length he reluctantly said:

"Nothing--nothing is wrong... At the same time; once for all--I loathe that name."

"Paula?" cried the child in astonishment. "Oh! but if you knew. . ."

"I know more than enough," interrupted the old man. "I love you all-- all; my old heart expands as I sit in your midst; I am comfortable here, I feel kindly towards you, I am grateful to you; every little attention you show me does me good; for it comes from your hearts: if I could repay you soon and abundantly--I should grow young again with joy. You may believe me, as I can see indeed that you do. And yet," and again his brows went up, "and yet, when I hear that name, and when you try to win me over to that woman, or if you should even go so far as to assail my ears with her praises--then, much as it would grieve me, I would go back again to the place where I came from."

"Why, Horapollo, what are you saying?" cried Joanna, much distressed.

"I say," the old man went on, "I say that in her everything is concentrated which I most hate and contemn in her class. I say that she bears in her bosom a cold and treacherous heart; that she blights my days and my nights; in short, that I would rather be condemned to live under the same roof with clammy reptiles and cold-blooded snakes than. . ."

"Than with her, with Paula?" Mary broke in. The eager little thing sprang to her feet, her eyes flashed lightnings and her voice quivered with rage, as she exclaimed: "And you not only say it but mean it? Is it possible?"

"Not only possible, but positive, sweetheart," replied the old man, putting out his hand to take hers, but she shrank back, exclaiming vehemently:

"I will not be your sweetheart, if you speak so of her! A man as old as you are ought to be just. You do not know her at all, and what you say about her heart. . ."

"Gently, gently, child," the widow put in; and Horapollo answered with peculiar emphasis.

"That heart, my little whirlwind!--it would be well for us all if we could forget it, forget it for good or for evil. She has been tried to-day, and that heart is sentenced to cease beating."

"Sentenced! Merciful Heaven!" shrieked Pulcheria, and as she started up her mother cried out:

"For God's sake do not jest about such things, it is a sin.--Is it true? --Is it possible? Those wretches, those... I see in your face it is true; they have condemned Paula."

"As you say," replied Horapollo calmly. "The girl is to be executed."

"And you only tell us now?" wept Pulcheria, while Mary broke out:

"And yet you have been able to jest and laugh, and you--I hate you! And if you were not such a helpless, old, old man. . ." But here Joanna again silenced the child, and she asked between her sobs:

"Executed?--Will they cut off her head? And is there no mercy for her who was as far away from that luckless fight as we were--for her, a girl, and the daughter of Thomas?"

To which the old man replied:

"Wait a while, only wait! Heaven has perhaps chosen her for great ends. She may be destined to save a whole country and nation from destruction by her death. It is even possible. . ."

"Speak out plainly; you make me shudder with your oracular hints," cried the widow; but he only shrugged his shoulders and said coolly:

"What we foresee is not yet known. Heaven alone can decide in such a case. It will be well for us all--for me, for her, for Pulcheria, and even our absent Philip, if the divinity selects her as its instrument. But who can see into darkness? If it is any comfort to you, Joanna, I can inform you that the soft-hearted Kadi and his Arab colleagues, out of sheer hatred of the Vekeel, who is immeasurably their superior in talent and strength of will, will do everything in their power..." "To save her?" exclaimed the widow.

"To-morrow they will hold council and decide whether to send a messenger to Medina to implore pardon for her," Horapollo went on with a horrible smile. "The day after they will discuss who the messenger is to be, and before he can reach Arabia fate will have overtaken the prisoner. The Vekeel Obada moves faster than they do, and the power lies in his hands so long as Amru is absent from Egypt. He, they say, perfectly dotes on the Mukaukas' son, and for his sake--who knows? Paula as his betrothed."

"His betrothed?"

"He called her by that name before the judges, and congratulated himself on his promised bride."

"Paula and Orion!" cried Pulcheria, jubilant in the midst of her tears, and clapping her hands for joy.

"A pair indeed!" said the old man. "You may well rejoice, my girl! Feeble hearts as you all are, respect the experience of the aged, and bless Fate if it should lame the horse of the Kadi's messenger!--However, you will not listen to anything oracular, so it will be better to talk of something else."

"No, no," cried Joanna. "What can we think of but her and her fate? Oh, Horapollo, I do not know you in this mood. What has that poor soul done to you, persecuted as she is by the hardest fate--that noble creature who is so dear to us all? And do you forget that the judges who have sentenced her will now proceed to enquire what Rufinus, and we all of us. . ."

"What you had to do with that mad scheme of rescue?" interrupted Horapollo. "I will make it my business to prevent that. So long as this old brain is able to think, and this mouth to speak, not a hair of your heads shall be hurt."

"We are grateful to you," said Joanna. "But, if you have such power, set to work--you know how dear Paula is to us all, how highly your friend Philip esteems her--use your power to save her."

"I have no power, and refuse to have any," retorted the old man harshly."

"But Horapollo, Horapollo!--Come here, children!--We were to find in you a second father--so you promised. Then prove that those were no empty words, and be entreated by us."

The old man drew a deep breath; he rose to his feet with such vigor as he could command, a bright, sharply-defined patch of color tinged each pale cheek, and he exclaimed in husky tones:

"Not another word! No attempt to move me, not a cry of lamentation! Enough, and a thousand times too much, of that already. You have heard me, and I now say again--me or Paula, Paula or me. Come what may in the future, if you cannot so far control yourselves as never to mention her in my presence, I--no, I do not swear, but when I have said a thing I keep to it--I will go back to my old den and drag out life the richer by a disappointment--or die, as my ruling goddess shall please."

With this he left the room, and little Mary raised her clenched right fist and shook it after him, exclaiming: "Then let him go, hard-hearted, unjust, old scarecrow! Oh, if only I were a man!" And she burst out crying aloud. Heedless of the widow's reproof, she went on quite beside herself: "Oh, there is no one more wicked than he is, Dame Joanna! He wants to see her die, he wishes her to be dead; I know it, he even wishes it! Did you hear him, Pul, he would be glad if the messenger's horse went lame before he could save her? And now she is my Orion's betrothed --I always meant them for each other--and they want to kill him, too, but they shall not, if there is still a God of justice in heaven! Oh if I-- if I. . ." Her voice failed her, choked with sobs. When she had somewhat recovered she implored Pulcheria and her mother to take her to see Paula, and as they shared her wish they prepared to start for the prison before it should grow dark.

The nearer they went to the market-place, which they must cross, the more crowded were the streets. Every one was going the same way; the throng almost carried the women with it; yet, from the market came, as it were, a contrary torrent of shouts and shrieks from a myriad of human throats. Dame Joanna was terrified in the press by the uproarious doings in the market, and she would gladly have turned back with the girls, or have made her way through by-streets, but the tide bore her on, and it would have been easier to swim against a swollen mountain stream than to return home. Thus they soon reached the square, but there they were brought to a standstill in the crush.

The Bride of the Nile, Volume 11. - 3/9

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