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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 2. - 5/11 -
Hiram had already made up their minds to follow it up; but the warrior monk was very possibly a stranger, and they had thought it would be cruel to expose her to so keen a disappointment.
Here Paula interrupted her, crying in joyful excitement:
"And why should not something besides disappointment be my portion for once? How could you have the heart to deprive me of the hope on which my poor heart still feeds?--But I will not be robbed of it. Your Paulus of Sinai is my lost father. I feel it, I know it! If I had not sold my pearls, the Nabathaean. . . . But as it is. When can you start, my good Hiram?"
"Not before a fort--a fortnight at--at--at--soonest," said the man. "I am in the governor's service now, and the day after to-morrow is the great horse-fair at Niku. The young master wants some stallions bought and there are our foals to. . . ."
"I will implore my uncle to-morrow, to spare you," cried Paula. "I will go on my knees to him."
"He will not let him go," said the nurse. "Sebek the steward told him all about it from me before the hour of audience and tried to have Hiram released."
"And he said.... ?"
"The lady Neforis said it was all a mere will-o'-the-wisp, and my lord agreed with her. Then your uncle forbade Sebek to betray the matter to you, and sent word to me that he would possibly send Hiram to Sinai when the horse-fair was over. So take patience, sweetheart. What are two weeks, or at most three--and then. . . ."
"But I shall die before then!" cried Paula. "The Nabathaean, you say, is here and willing to go."
"Then we will secure him," said Paula resolutely. Perpetua, however, who must have discussed the matter fully with her fellow-countryman, shook her head mournfully and said: "He asks too much for us!"
She then explained that the man, being such a good linguist, had already been offered an engagement to conduct a caravan to Ctesiphon. This would be a year's pay to him, and he was not inclined to break off his negotiations with the merchant Hanno and search the deserts of Arabia Petraea for less than two thousand drachmae.
"Two thousand drachmae!" echoed Paula, looking down in distress and confusion; but she presently looked up and exclaimed with angry determination: "How dare they keep from me that which is my own? If my uncle refuses what I have to ask, and will ask, then the inevitable must happen, though for his sake it will grieve me; I must put my affairs in the hands of the judges."
"The judges?" Perpetua smiled. "But you cannot lay a complaint without your kyrios, and your uncle is yours. Besides: before they have settled the matter the messenger may have been to Ctesiphon and back, far as it is."
Again her nurse entreated her to have patience till the horse-fair should be over. Paula fixed her eyes on the ground. She seemed quite crushed; but Perpetua started violently and Hiram drew back a step when she suddenly broke out in a loud, joyful cry of "Father in Heaven, I have what we need!"
"How, child, what?" asked the nurse, pressing her hand to her heart. But Paula vouchsafed no information; she turned quickly to the Syrian:
"Is the outer court-yard clear yet? Are the people gone?" she asked.
The reply was in the affirmative. The freed servants had retired when Hiram left them. The officials would not break up for some time yet, but there was less difficulty in passing them.
"Very good," said the girl. "Then you, Hiram, lead the way and wait for me by the little side door. I will give you something in my room which will pay the Nabathaean's charges ten times over. Do not look so horrified, Betta. I will give him the large emerald out of my mother's necklace." The woman clasped her hands, and cried out in dismay and warning.
"Child, child! That splendid gem! an heirloom in the family--that stone which came to you from the saintly Emperor Theodosius--to sell that of all things! Nay-to throw it away; not to rescue your father either, but merely--yes child, for that is the truth, merely because you lack patience to wait two little weeks!"
"That is hard, that is unjust, Betta," Paula broke in reprovingly. "It will be a question of a month, and we all know how much depends on the messenger. Do you forget how highly Hiram spoke of this very man's intelligence? And besides--must I, the younger, remind you?--What is the life of man? An instant may decide his life or death; and my father is an old man, scarred from many wounds even before the siege. It may make just the difference between our meeting, or never meeting again."
"Yes, yes," said the old woman in subdued tones, "perhaps you are right, and if I. . ." But Paula stopped her mouth with a kiss, and then desired Hiram to carry the gem, the first thing in the morning, to Gamaliel the Jew, a wealthy and honest man, and not to sell it for less than twelve thousand drachmae. If the goldsmith could not pay so much for it at once, he might be satisfied to bring away the two thousand drachmae for the messenger, and fetch the remainder at another season.
The Syrian led the way, and when, after a long leave-taking, she quitted her nurse's pleasant little room, Hiram had done her bidding and was waiting for her at the little side door.
As Hiram had supposed, the better class of the household were still sitting with their friends, and they had been joined by the guide and by the Arab merchant's head man: Rustem the Masdakite, as well as his secretary and interpreter.
With the exception only of Gamaliel the Jewish goldsmith, and the Arab's followers, the whole of the party were Christians; and it had gone against the grain to admit the Moslems into their circle--the Jew had for years been a welcome member of the society. However, they had done so, and not without marked civility; for their lord had desired that the strangers should be made welcome, and they might expect to hear much that was new from wanderers from such a distance. In this, to be sure, they were disappointed, for the dragoman was taciturn and the Masdakite could speak no Egyptian, and Greek very ill. So, after various futile attempts to make the new-comers talk, they paid no further heed to them, and Orion's secretary became the chief speaker. He had already told them yesterday much that was fresh and interesting about the Imperial court; to-day he entered into fuller details of the brilliant life his young lord had led at Constantinople, whither he had accompanied him. He described the three races he had won in the Circus with his own horses; gave a lively picture of his forcing his way with only five followers through a raging mob of rioters, from the palace to the church of St. Sophia; and then enlarged on Orion's successes among the beauties of the Capital.
"The queen of them all," he went on in boastful accents, "was Heliodora --no flute-player nor anything of that kind; no indeed, but a rich, elegant, and virtuous patrician lady, the widow of Flavianus, nephew to Justinus the senator, and a relation of the Emperor. All Constantinople was at her feet, the great Gratian himself sought to win her, but of course, in vain. There is no palace to compare with hers in all Egypt, not even in Alexandria. The governor's residence here--for I think nothing of mere size--is a peasant's hut--a wretched barn by comparison! I will tell you another time what that casket of treasures is like. Its door was besieged day and night by slaves and freedmen bringing her offerings of flowers and fruit, rare gifts, and tender verses written on perfumed, rose-colored silk; but her favors were not to be purchased till she met Orion. Would you believe it: from the first time she saw him in Justinus' villa she fell desperately in love with him; it was all over with her; she was his as completely as the ring on my finger is mine!"
And in his vanity he showed his hearers a gold ring, with a gem of some value, which he owed to the liberality of his young master. "From that day forth," he eagerly went on, "the names of Orion and Heliodora were in every mouth, and how often have I seen men quite beside themselves over the beauty of this divine pair. In the Circus, in the theatre, or sailing about the Bosphorus--they were to be seen everywhere together; and through the hideous, bloody struggle for the throne they lived in a Paradise of their own. He often took her out in his chariot; or she took him in hers."
"Such a woman has horses too?" asked the head groom contemptuously.
"A woman!" cried the secretary. "A lady of rank!--She has none but bright chestnuts; large horses of Armenian breed, and small, swift beasts from the island of Sardinia, which fly on with the chariot, four abreast, like hunted foxes. Her horses are always decked with flowers and ribbons fluttering from the gold harness, and the grooms know how to drive them too!--Well, every one thought that our young lord and the handsome widow would marry; and it was a terrible blow to the hapless Heliodora when nothing came of it--she looks like a saint and is as soft as a kitten. I was by when they parted, and she shed such bitter tears it was pitiable to see. Still, she could not be angry with her idol, poor, gentle, tender kitten. She even gave him her lap-dog for a keepsake--that little silky thing you have seen here. And take my word for it, that was a true love-token, for her heart was as much set on that little beast as if it had been her favorite child. And he felt the parting too, felt it deeply; however, I am his confidential secretary, and it would never do for me to tell tales out of school. He clasped the little dog to his heart as he bid her farewell, and he promised her to send some keepsake in return which should show her how precious her love had been--and it will be no trifle, that any one may swear who knows my master. You, Gamaliel, I daresay he has been to you about it by this time."
The man thus addressed--the same to whom Hiram was to offer Paula's emerald--was a rich Alexandrian of a happy turn of mind; as soon as the incursion of the Saracens had made Alexandria an unsafe residence, so that the majority of his fellow Israelites had fled from the great port, he had found his way to Memphis, where he could count on the protection of his patron, the Mukaukas George.
He shook his grizzled curls at this question, but he presently whispered in the secretary's ear. "We have the very thing he wants. You bring me the cow and you shall have a calf--and a calf with twelve legs too. Is it a bargain?"
"Twelve per cent on the profits? Done!" replied the secretary in the
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