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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 3. - 6/11 -
word, when you have offered your heart and hand to another--you. . . ."
"Who told you so?" asked Orion gloomily.
"Your own mother."
"That is it; so that is it?" cried the young man, clasping his hands convulsively. "Now I begin to see, now I understand. But stay. For if it is indeed that which has roused you to hate me and persecute me, you must love me, Paula--you do love me, and then, noblest and sweetest...." He held out his hand; but she struck it aside, exclaiming in a tremulous voice:
"Be under no delusion. I am not one of the feeble lambs whom you have beguiled by the misuse of your gifts and advantages; and who then are eager to kiss your hands. I am the daughter of Thomas; and another woman's betrothed, who craves my embraces on the way to his wedding, will learn to his rueing that there are women who scorn his disgraceful suit and can avenge the insult intended them. Go--go to your judges! You, a false witness, may accuse Hiram, but I will proclaim you, you the son of this house, as the thief! We shall see which they believe."
"Me!" cried Orion, and his eyes flashed as wrathfully and vindictively as her own. "The son of the Mukaukas! Oh, that you were not a woman! I would force you to your knees and compel you to crave my pardon. How dare you point your finger at a man whose life has hitherto been as spotless as your own white raiment? Yes, I did go to the tablinum--I did tear the emerald from the hanging; but I did it in a fit of recklessness, and in the knowledge that what is my father's is mine. I threw away the gem to gratify a mere fancy, a transient whim. Cursed be the hour when I did it!--Not on account of the deed itself, but of the consequences it may entail through your mad hatred. Jealousy, petty, unworthy jealousy is at the bottom of it! And of whom are you jealous?"
"Of no one; not even of your betrothed, Katharina," replied Paula with forced composure. "What are you to me that, to spare you humiliation, I should risk the life of the most honest soul living? I have said: The judges shall decide between you."
"No, they shall not!" stormed Orion. "At least, not as you intend! Beware, beware, I say, of driving me to extremities! I still see in you the woman I loved; I still offer you what lies within my power: to let everything end for the best for you. . . ."
"For me! Then I, too, am to suffer for your guilt?"
"Did you hear the barking of hounds just now?"
"I heard dogs yelping."
"Very well.--Your freedman has been brought in, the pack got on his scent and have now been let into the house close to the tablinum. The dogs would not stir beyond the threshold and on the white marble step, towards the right-hand side, the print of a man's foot was found in the dust. It is a peculiar one, for instead of five toes there are but three. Your Hiram was fetched in, and he was found to have the same number of toes as the mark on the marble, neither more nor less. A horse trod on his foot, in your father's stable, and two of his toes had to be cut off: we got this out of the stammering wretch with some difficulty. --On the other side of the door-way there was a smaller print, but though the dogs paid no heed to that I examined it, and assured myself--how, I need not tell you--that it was you who had stood there. He, who has no business whatever in the house, must have made his way last night into the tablinum, our treasury. Now, put yourself in the judges' place. How can such facts be outweighed by the mere word of a girl who, as every one knows, is on anything rather than good terms with my mother, and who will leave no stone unturned to save her servant."
"Infamous!" cried Paula. "Hiram did not steal the gem, as you must know who stole it. The emerald he sold was my property; and were those stones really so much alike that even the seller. . ."
"Yes, indeed. He could not tell one from the other. Evil spirits have been at work all through, devilish, malignant demons. It would be enough to turn one's brain, if life were not so full of enigmas! You yourself are the greatest.--Did you give the Syrian your emerald to sell in order to fly from this house with the money?--You are silent? Then I am right. What can my father be to you--you do not love my mother--and the son!--Paula, Paula, you are perhaps doing him an injustice--you hate him, and it is a pleasure to you to injure him."
"I do not wish to hurt you or any one," replied the girl. "And you have guessed wrongly. Your father refused me the means of seeking mine."
"And you wanted to procure money to search for one who is long since dead!--Even my mother admits that you speak the truth; if she is right, and you really take no pleasure in doing me a mischief, listen to me, follow my advice, and grant my prayer! I do not ask any great matter."
"Speak on then."
"Do you know what a man's honor is to him? Need I tell you that I am a lost and despised man if I am found guilty of this act of the maddest folly by the judges of my own house? It may cost my father his life if he hears that the word 'guilty' is pronounced on me; and I--I--what would become of me I cannot foresee!--I--oh God, oh God, preserve me from frenzy!--But I must be calm; time presses.... How different it is for your servant; he seems ready even now to take the guilt on himself, for, whatever he is asked, he still keeps silence. Do you do the same; and if the judges insist on knowing what you had to do with the Syrian last night--for the dogs traced the scent to your staircase--hazard a conjecture that the faithful fellow stole the emerald in order to gratify your desire to search for your father, his beloved master. If you can make up your mind to so great a sacrifice--oh, that I should have to ask it of you!--I swear to you by all I hold sacred, by yourself and by my father's head, I will set Hiram free within three days, unbeaten and unhurt, and magnificently indemnified; and I will myself help him on the way whither he may desire to go, or you to send him, in search of your father.--Be silent; remain neutral in the background; that is all I ask, and I will keep my word--that, at any rate, you do not doubt?" She had listened to him with bated breath; she pitied him deeply as he stood there, a suppliant in bitter anguish of soul, a criminal who still could not understand that he was one, and who relied on the confidence that, only yesterday, he still had had the right to exact from all the world. He appeared before her like a fine proud tree struck by lightning, whose riven trunk, trembling to its fall, must be crushed to the earth by the first storm, unless the gardener props it up. She longed to be able to forget all he had brought upon her and to grasp his hand in friendly consolation; but her deeply aggrieved pride helped her to preserve the cold and repellent manner she had so far succeeded in assuming.
With much hesitation and reserve she consented to be silent as long as he kept his promise. It was for his father's sake, rather than his own, that she would so far become his accomplice: at the same time everything else was at an end between them, and she should bless the hour which might see her severed from him and his for ever.
The end of her speech was in a strangely hard and repellent tone; she felt she must adopt it to disguise how deeply she was touched by his unhappiness and by the extinction of the sunshine in him which had once warmed her own heart too with bliss. To him it seemed that an icy rigor breathed in her words--bitter contempt and hostile revulsion. He had some difficulty in keeping himself from breaking out again in violent wrath. He was almost sorry that he had trusted her with his secret and begged her for mercy, instead of leaving things to run their course, and if it had come to the worst, dragging her to perdition with him. Sooner would he forfeit honor and peace than humble himself again before this pitiless and cold-hearted foe. At this moment he really hated her, and only wished it were possible to fight her, to break her pride, to see her vanquished and crying for quarter at his feet. It was with a great effort--with tingling cheeks and constrained utterance that he said:
"Severance from you is indeed best for us all.--Be ready: the judges will send for you soon."
"Very well," she replied. "I will be silent; you have only to provide for the Syrian's safety. You have given me your word."
"And so long as you keep yours I will keep mine. Or else. . ." the words would come from his quivering lips--"or else war to the knife!"
"War to the knife!" she echoed with flashing eyes. "But one thing more. I have proof that the emerald which Hiram sold belonged to me. By all the saints--proof!"
"So much the better for you," he said. "Woe to us both, if you force me to forget that you are a woman!"
And he left the room with a rapid step.
Orion went down stairs scowling and clenching his fists. His heart ached to bursting.
What had he done, what had befallen him? That a woman should dare to treat him so!--a woman whom he had deigned to love--the loveliest and noblest of women; but at the same time the haughtiest, most vengeful, and most hateful.
He had once read this maxim: "When a man has committed a base action, if only one other knows of it he carries the death-warrant of his peace in the bosom of his garment." He felt the full weight of this sentence; and the other--the one who knew--was Paula, the woman of all others whom he most wished should look up to him. But yesterday it had been a vision of heaven on earth to dream of holding her in his arms and calling her his; now he had but one wish: that he could humble and punish her. Oh, that his hands should be tied, that he should be dependent on her mercy like a condemned criminal! It was inconceivable--intolerable!
But she should be taught to know him. He had passed through life hitherto as white as a swan; if this luckless hour and this woman made him appear as a vulture, it was not his fault, it was hers. She should soon see which was the stronger of the two. He would punish her in every way in which a woman can be punished, even if the way to it led through crime and misery! He was not afraid that the leech bad won her affections, for he knew, with strange certainty that, in spite of the hostility she displayed, her heart was his and his alone. "The gold coin called love," said he to himself, "has two faces: tender devotion and bitter aversion; just now she is showing me the latter. But, however different the image and superscription may be on the two sides, if you ring it, it always gives out the same tone; and I can hear it even in her most insulting words."
When the family met at table he made Paula's excuses; he himself ate only a few mouthfuls, for the judges had assembled some time since and were waiting for him.
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