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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 3. - 11/11 -
"You must indeed, you kind little angel!" cried Orion tenderly. "And do you think it pretty in a betrothed bride to refuse her lover's first request so grudgingly, suspiciously, and ungraciously? Nay, nay. If there is the tiniest spark of love for me in your heart, if you do not want to see me reduced to implore Paula for mercy. . . ."
"But what is it all about? How can it matter so much to any one whether a gem or a mere plate of gold....?"
"All that I will explain later," he hastily replied.
"Tell me now...."
"Impossible. We have already put the patience of the judges to too severe a test. We have not a moment to lose."
"Very well then; but I shall die of confusion and shame if I have to make a declaration. . . ."
"Which is perfectly truthful, and by which you can prove to me that you love me," he urged.
"But it is dreadful!" she exclaimed anxiously. "At least fasten my veil closely over my face.--All those bearded men. . . ."
"Like the ostrich," said Orion, laughing as he complied. "If you really cannot agree with your.... What is it you called me just now? Say it again."
"My dearest!" she said shyly but tenderly.
She helped Orion to fold her veil twice over her face, and did not thrust him aside when he whispered in her ear: "Let us see if a kiss cannot be sweet even through all that wrapping!--Now, come. It will be all over in a few minutes."
He led the way into the anteroom to the great hall, begged her to wait a moment, and then went in and hastily informed the assembly that Dame Susannah had entrusted her daughter to him only on condition that he should escort her back again as soon as she had given her testimony. Then Paula was brought in and he desired her to be seated.
It was with a sinking and anxious heart that Katharina had entered the anteroom. She had screened herself from a scolding before now by trivial subterfuges, but never had told a serious lie; and every instinct rebelled against the demand that she should now state a direct falsehood. But could Orion, the noblest of mankind, the idol of the whole town, so pressingly entreat her to do anything that was wrong? Did not love--as he had said--make it her duty to do everything that might screen him from loss or injury? It did not seem to her to be quite as it should be, but perhaps she did not altogether understand the matter; she was so young and inexperienced. She hated the idea, too, that, if she opposed her lover, he would have to come to terms with Paula. She had no lack of self-possession, and she told herself that she might hold her own with any girl in Memphis; still, she felt the superiority of the handsome, tall, proud Syrian, nor could she forget how, the day before yesterday, when Paula had been walking up and down the garden with Orion the chief officer of Memphis had exclaimed: "What a wonderfully handsome couple!" She herself had often thought that no more beautiful, elegant and lovable creature than Thomas' daughter walked the earth; she had longed and watched for a glance or a kind word from her. But since hearing those words a bitter feeling had possessed her soul against Paula, and there had been much to foster it. Paula always treated her like a child instead of a grown-up girl, as she was. Why, that very morning, had she sought out her betrothed--for she might call him so now--and tried to keep her away from him? And how was it that Orion, even while declaring his love for her, had spoken more than warmly--enthusiastically of Paula? She must be on her guard, and though others should speak of the great good fortune that had fallen to her lot, Paula, at any rate, would not rejoice in it, for Katharina felt and knew that she was not indifferent to Orion. She had not another enemy in the world, but Paula was one; her love had everything to fear from her--and suddenly she asked herself whether the gold medallion she had seen might not indeed have been a gem? Had she examined the necklace closely, even for a moment? And why should she fancy she had sharper sight than Orion with his large, splendid eyes?
He was right, as he always was. Most engraved gems were oval in form, and the pendant which she had seen and was to give evidence about, was undoubtedly oval. Then it was not like Orion to require a falsehood of her. In any case it was her duty to her betrothed to preserve from evil, and prevent him from concluding any alliance with that false Siren. She knew what she had to say; and she was about to loosen a portion of her veil from her face that she might look Paula steadfastly in the eyes, when Orion came back to fetch her into the hall where the Court was sitting. To his delight--nay almost to his astonishment--she stated with perfect confidence that a gem had been hanging to Paula's necklace at noon that day; and when the onyx was shown her and she was asked if she remembered the stone, she calmly replied:
"It may or it may not be the same; I only remember the oval gold back to it: besides I was only allowed to have the necklace in my hands for a very short time."
When Nilus, the treasurer, desired her to look more closely at the figures of Eros and Psyche to refresh her memory, she evaded it by saying: "I do not like such heathen images: we Jacobite maidens wear different adornments."
At this Paula rose and stepped towards her with a look of stern reproof; little Katharina was glad now that it had occurred to her to cover her face with a double veil. But the utter confusion she felt under the Syrian girl's gaze did not last long. Paula exclaimed reproach fully: "You speak of your faith. Like mine, it requires you to respect the truth. Consider how much depends on your declaration; I implore you, child. . ."
But the girl interrupted her rival exclaiming with much irritation and vehement excitement:
"I am no longer a child, not even as compared with you; and I think before I speak, as I was taught to do."
She threw back her little head with a confident air, and said very decidedly:
"That onyx hung to the middle of the chain."
"How dare you, you audacious hussy!" It was Perpetua, quite unable to contain herself, who flung the words in her face. Katharina started as though an asp had stung her and turned round on the woman who had dared to insult her so grossly and so boldly. She was on the verge of tears as she looked helplessly about her for a defender; but she had not long to wait, for Orion instantly gave orders that Perpetua should be imprisoned for bearing false witness. Paula, however, as she had not perjured herself, but had merely invented an impossible tale with a good motive, was dismissed, and her chest was to be replaced in her room.
At this Paula once more stepped forth; she unhooked the onyx from the chain and flung it towards Gamaliel, who caught it, while she exclaimed:
"I make you a present of it, Jew! Perhaps the villain who hung it to my chain may buy it back again. The chain was given to my great-grandmother by the saintly Theodosius, and rather than defile it by contact with that gift from a villain, I will throw it into the Nile!--You--you, poor, deluded judges--I cannot be wroth with you, but I pity you!--My Hiram..." and she looked at the freedman, "is an honest soul whom I shall remember with gratitude to my dying day; but as to that unrighteous son of a most righteous father, that man. . ." and she raised her voice, while she pointed straight at Orion's face; but the young man interrupted her with a loud:
She tried to control herself and replied:
"I will submit. Your conscience will tell you a hundred times over what I need not say. One last word. . ." She went close up to him and said in his ear:
"I have been able to refrain from using my deadliest weapon against you for the sake of keeping my word. Now you, if you are not the basest wretch living, keep yours, and save Hiram."
His only reply was an assenting nod; Paula paused on the threshold and, turning to Katharina, she added: "You, child--for you are but a child-- with what nameless suffering will not the son of the Mukaukas repay you for the service you have rendered him!" Then she left the room. Her knees trembled under her as she mounted the stairs, but when she had again taken her place by the side of the hapless, crazy girl a merciful God granted her the relief of tears. Her friend saw her and left her to weep undisturbed, till she herself called him and confided to him all she had gone through in the course of this miserable day.
Orion and Katharina had lost their good spirits; they went back to the colonnade in a dejected mood. On the way she pressed him to explain to her why he had insisted on her making this declaration, but he put her off till the morrow. They found Susannah alone, for his mother had been sent for by her husband, who was suffering more than usual, and she had taken Mary with her.
After bidding the widow good-night and escorting her to her chariot, he returned to the hall where the Court was still sitting. There he recapitulated the case as it now stood, and all the evidence against the freed man. The verdict was then pronounced: Hiram was condemned to death with but one dissentient voice that of Nilus the treasurer.
Orion ordered that the execution of the sentence should be postponed; he did not go back into the house, however, but had his most spirited horse saddled and rode off alone into the desert. He had won, but he felt as though in this race he had rushed into a morass and must be choked in it.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Love has two faces: tender devotion and bitter aversion Self-interest and egoism which drive him into the cave The man who avoids his kind and lives in solitude You have a habit of only looking backwards
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