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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 3. - 10/11 -
"Because I should speak for Paula!" cried Mary, springing up in great excitement.
"You will just hold your tongue," her grandmother exclaimed.
"And as for Katharina," said the widow, "I do not at all like the notion of her offering herself to be stared at by all those gentlemen."
"Gentlemen!" observed the girl. "Men--household officials and such like. They may wait long enough for me!"
"You must nevertheless do their bidding, haughty rosebud," said Orion laughing. "For you, thank God, are no longer a child, and a court of justice has the right of requiring the presence of every grown person as a witness. No harm will come to you, for you are under my protection. Come with me. We must learn every lesson in life. Resistance is vain. Besides, all you will have to do will be to state what you have seen, and then, if I possibly can, I will bring you back under the tender escort of this arm, to your mother once more. You must entrust your jewel to me to-day, Susannah, and this trustworthy witness shall tell you afterwards how she fared under my care."
Katharina was quite capable of reading the implied meaning of these words, and she was not ill-pleased to be obliged to go off alone with the governor's handsome son, the first man for whom her little heart had beat quicker; she sprang up eagerly; but Mary clung to her arm, and insisted so vehemently and obstinately on being taken with them to bear witness in Paula's behalf, that her governess and Dame Neforis had the greatest difficulty in reducing her to obedience and letting the pair go off without her. Both mothers looked after them with great satisfaction, and the governor's wife whispered to Susannah: "Before the judges to-day, but ere long, please God, before the altar at Church!"
To reach the hall of judgment they could go either through the house or round it. If the more circuitous route were chosen, it lay first through the garden; and this was the course taken by Orion. He had made a very great effort in the presence of the ladies to remain master of the agitation that possessed him; he saw that the battle he had begun, and from which he, at any rate, could not and would not now retire, was raging more and more fiercely, obliging him to drag the young creature who must become his wife--the die was already cast--into the course of crime he had started on.
When he had agreed with his mother that he was not to prefer his suit for Katharina till the following day, he had hoped to prove to her in the interval that this little thing was no wife for him; and now--oh! Irony of Fate--he found himself compelled to the very reverse of what he longed to do: to fight the woman he loved--Yes, still loved--as if she were his mortal foe, and pay his court to the girl who really did not suit him. It was maddening, but inevitable; and once more spurring himself with the word "Onwards!" be flung himself into the accomplishment of the unholy task of subduing the inexperienced child at his elbow into committing even a crime for his sake. His heart was beating wildly; but no pause, no retreat was possible: he must conquer. "Onwards, then, onwards!"
When they had passed out of the light of the lamps into the shade he took his young companion's slender hand-thankful that the darkness concealed his features--and pressed the delicate fingers to his lips.
"Oh!--Orion!" she exclaimed shyly, but she did not resist.
"I only claim my due, sunshine of my soul!" he said insinuatingly. "If your heart beat as loud as mine, our mothers might hear them!"
"But it does!" she joyfully replied, her curly head bent on one side.
"Not as mine does," he said with a sigh, laying her little hand on his heart. He could do so in all confidence, for its spasmodic throbbing threatened to suffocate him.
"Yes indeed," she said. "It is beating. . ."
"So that they can hear it indoors," he added with a forced laugh. "Do you think your dear mother has not long since read our feelings?"
"Of course she has," whispered Katharina. "I have rarely seen her in such good spirits as since your return."
"And you, you little witch?"
"I? Of course I was glad--we all were.--And your parents!"
"Nay, nay, Katharina! What you yourself felt when we met once more, that is what I want to know."
"Oh, let that pass! How can I describe such a thing?"
"Is that quite impossible?" he asked and clasped her arm more closely in his own. He must win her over, and his romantic fancy helped him to paint feelings he had never had, in glowing colors. He poured out sweet words of love, and she was only too ready to believe them. At a sign from him she sat down confidingly on a wooden bench in the old avenue which led to the northern side of the house. Flowers were opening on many of the shrubs and shedding rich, oppressive perfume. The moonlight pierced through the solemn foliage of the sycamores, and shimmering streaks and rings of light played in the branches, on the trunks, and on the dark ground. The heat of the day still lingered in the leafy roofs overhead, sultry and heavy even now; and in this alley he called her for the first time his own, his betrothed, and enthralled her heart in chains and bonds. Each fervent word thrilled with the wild and painful agitation that was torturing his soul, and sounded heartfelt and sincere. The scent of flowers, too, intoxicated her young and inexperienced heart; she willingly offered her lips to his kisses, and with exquisite bliss felt the first glow of youthful love returned.
She could have lingered thus with him for a lifetime; but in a few minutes he sprang up, anxious to put an end to this tender dalliance which was beginning to be too much even for him, and exclaimed:
"This cursed, this infernal trial! But such is the fate of man! Duty calls, and he must return from all the bliss of Paradise to the world again. Give me your arm, my only love, my all!"
And Katharina obeyed. Dazzled and bewildered by the extraordinary happiness that had come to meet her, she allowed him to lead her on, listening with suspended breath as he added: "Out of this beatitude back to the sternest of duties!--And how odious, how immeasurably loathesome is the case in question! How gladly would I have been a friend to Paula, a faithful protector instead of a foe!"
As he spoke he felt the girl's left hand clench tighter on his arm, and this spurred him on in his guilty purpose. Katharina herself had suggested to his mind the course he must pursue to attain his end. He went on to influence her jealousy by praising Paula's charm and loftiness, excusing himself in his own eyes by persuading himself that a lover was justified in inducing his betrothed to save his happiness and his honor.
Still, as he uttered each flattering word, he felt that he was lowering himself and doing a fresh injustice to Paula. He found it only too easy to sing her praises; but as he did so with growing enthusiasm Katharina hit him on the arm exclaiming, half in jest and half seriously vexed:
"Oh, she is a goddess! And pray do you love her or me? You had better not make me jealous! Do you hear?"
"You little simpleton!" he said gaily; and then he added soothingly: "She is like the cold moon, but you are the bright warming sun. Yes, Paula!--we will leave Paula to some Olympian god, some archangel. I rejoice in my gladsome little maiden who will enjoy life with me, and all its pleasures!"
"That we will!" she exclaimed triumphantly; the horizon of her future was radiant with sunshine.
"Good Heavens!" he exclaimed as if in surprise. "The lights are already shining in that miserable hall of justice! Ah, love, love! Under that enchantment we had forgotten the object for which we came out.--Tell me, my darling, do you remember exactly what the necklace was like that you and Mary were playing with this afternoon?"
"It was very finely wrought, but in the middle hung a rubbishy broken medallion of gold."
"You are a pretty judge of works of art! Then you overlooked the fine engraved gem which was set in that modest gold frame?"
"I assure you, little wise-head!"
"No, my dearest." As she spoke she looked up saucily, as though she had achieved some great triumph. "I know very well what gems are. My father left a very fine collection, and my mother says that by his will they are all to belong to my future husband."
"Then I can set you, my jewel, in a frame of the rarest gems."
"No, no," she cried gaily. "Let me have a setting indeed, for I am but a fugitive thing; but only, only in your heart."
"That piece of goldsmith's work is already done.--But seriously my child; with regard to Paula's necklace: it really was a gem, and you must have happened to see only the back of it. That is just as you describe it: a plain setting of gold."
"But Orion. . . ."
"If you love me, sweetheart, contradict me no further. In the future I will always accept your views, but in this case your mistake might involve us in a serious misunderstanding, by compelling me to give in to Paula and make her my ally.--Here we are! But wait one moment longer.-- And once more, as to this gem. You see we may both be wrong--I as much as you; but I firmly believe that I am in the right. If you make a statement contrary to mine I shall appear before the judges as a liar. We are now betrothed--we are but one, wholly one; what damages or dignifies one of us humiliates or elevates the other. If you, who love me--you, who, as it is already whispered, are soon to be the mistress of the governor's house--make a statement opposed to mine they are certain to believe it. You see, your whole nature is pure kindness, but you are still too young and innocent quite to understand all the duties of that omnipotent love which beareth and endureth all things. If you do not yield to me cheerfully in this case you certainly do not love me as you ought. And what is it to ask? I require nothing of you but that you should state before the court that you saw Paula's necklace at noon to-day, and that there was a gem hanging to it--a gem with Love and Psyche engraved on it."
"And I am to say that before all those men?" asked Katharina doubtfully.
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