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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 6. - 6/10 -
Obada's contumely had roused Orion's wrath; he was longing, burning to reduce this insolent antagonist to silence. However, he contained himself by a supreme effort of will, till Amru turned to him once more and said in a reserved tone, but not unkindly:
"This clear-sighted man has mentioned a suspicion which I myself had already felt. A worldly-minded young Christian of your rank is not so ready to give up earthly joys and happiness for the doubtful bliss of your Paradise and when you do so and are prepared to forego all that a man holds most dear: Honor, temporal possessions, a wide field of action, and revenge on your enemies, to meet the spirit of the departed once more after death, there must be some special reason in the background. Try to compose yourself, and believe my assurances that I like you and that you will find in me a zealous protector and a discreet friend if you will but tell me candidly and fully what are the motives of your conduct. I myself really desire that our interview should be fruitful of advantages on both sides. So put your trust in a man so much your senior and your father's friend, and speak."
"On no consideration in the presence of that man!" said Orion in a tremulous voice. "Though he is supposed not to understand Greek, he follows every word I say with malicious watchfulness; he dared to laugh at me, he. . ."
"He is as discreet as he is brave, and my Vekeel," interrupted Amru reprovingly. "If you join us you will have to obey him; and remember this, young man. I sent for you to impose conditions on you, not to have them dictated to me. I grant you an audience as the ruler of this country, as the Vicar of Omar, your Khaliff and mine."
"Then I entreat you to dismiss me, for in the presence of that man my heart and lips are sealed; I feel that he is my enemy."
"Beware of his becoming so!" cried the governor, while Obada shrugged his shoulders scornfully.
Orion understood this gesture, and although he again succeeded in keeping cool he felt that he could no longer be sure of himself; he bowed low, without paying any heed to the Vekeel, and begged Amru to excuse him for the present.
Amru, who had not failed to observe Obada's demeanor and who keenly sympathized with what was going on in the young man's mind, did not detain him; but his manner changed once more; he again became the pressing host and invited his guest, as it was growing late, to pass the night under his roof. Orion politely declined, and when at length he quitted the room--without deigning even to look at the Negro--Amru accompanied him into the anteroom. There he grasped the young man's hand, and said in a low voice full of sincere and fatherly interest:
"Beware of the Negro; you let him perceive that you saw through him--it was brave but rash. For my part I honestly wish you well."
"I believe it, I know it," replied Orion, on whose perturbed soul the noble Arab's warm, deep accents fell like balm. "And now we are alone I will gladly confide in you. I, my Lord, I--my father--you knew him. In cruel wrath, before he closed his eyes, he withdrew his blessing from his only son."
The memory of the most fearful hour of his life choked his voice for a moment, but he soon went on: "One single act of criminal folly roused his anger; but afterwards, in grief and penitence, I thought over my whole life, and I saw how useless it had been; and now, when I came hither with a heart full of glad expectancy to place all I have to offer of mind and gifts at your disposal, I did so, my Lord, because I long to achieve great and noble, and difficult or, if it might be, impossible deeds--to be active, to be doing. . ."
Here he was interrupted by Amru, who said, laying his sinewy arm across the youth's shoulders:
"And because you long to let the spirit of your dead father, that righteous man, see that a heedless act of youthful recklessness has not made you unworthy of his blessing; because you hope by valiant deeds to compel his wrath to turn to approval, his scorn to esteem. . ."
"Yes, yes, that is the thing, the very thing!" Orion broke in with fiery enthusiasm; but the Arab eagerly signed to him to lower his voice, as though to cheat some listener, and whispered hastily, but with warm kindliness:
"And I, I will help you in this praiseworthy endeavor. Oh, how much you remind me of the son of my heart who, like you, erred, and who was permitted to atone for all, for more than all by dying like a hero for his faith on the field of battle!--Count on me, and let your purpose become deed. In me you have found a friend.--Now, go. You shall hear from me before long. But, once more: Do not provoke the Negro; beware of him; and the next time you meet him subdue your pride and make as though you had never seen him before."
He looked sadly at Orion, as though the sight of him revived some loved image in his mind, kissed his brow, and as soon as the youth had left the anteroom he hastily drew open the curtain that hung across the door into the dining-room.--A few steps behind it stood the Vekeel, who was arranging the straps of his sword-belt.
"Listener!" exclaimed the Arab with intense scorn, "you, a man of gifts, a man of deeds! A hero in battle and in council; lion, serpent, and toad in one! When will you cast out of your soul all that is contemptible and base? Be what you have made yourself, not what you were; do not constantly remind the man who helped you to rise that you were born of a slave!"
"My Lord!" began the Moor, and the whites of his rolling eyes were ominously conspicuous in his black face. But Amru took the words out of his mouth and went on in stern and determined reproof:
"You behaved to that noble youth like an idiot, like a buffoon at a fair, like a madman."
"To Hell with him!" cried Obada, "I hate the gilded upstart."
"Envious wretch! Do not provoke him! Times change, and the day may come when you will have reason to fear him."
"Him?" shrieked the other. "I could crush the puppet like a fly! And he shall live to know it."
"Your turn first and then his!" said Amru. "To us he is the more important of the two--yes, he, the up start, the puppet. Do you hear? Do you understand? If you touch a hair of his head, it will cost you your nose and ears! Never for an hour forget that you live--and ought not to live--only so long as two pairs of lips are sealed. You know whose. That clever head remains on your shoulders only as long as they choose. Cling to it, man; you have only one to lose! It was necessary, my lord Vekeel, to remind you of that once more!"
The Negro groaned like a wounded beast and sullenly panted out: "This is the reward of past services; these are the thanks of Moslem to Moslem!-- And all for the sake of a Christian dog."
"You have had thanks, and more than are your due," replied Amru more calmly. "You know what you pledged yourself to before I raised you to be my Vekeel for the sake of your brains and your sword, and what I had to overlook before I did so--not on your behalf, but for the great cause of Islam. And, if you wish to remain where you are, you will do well to sacrifice your wild ambition. If you cannot, I will send you back to the army, and to-day rather than to-morrow; and if you carry it with too high a hand you will find yourself at Medina in fetters, with your death- warrant stuck in your girdle."
The Negro again groaned sullenly; but his master was not to be checked.
"Why should you hate this youth? Why, a child could see through it! In the son and heir of George you see the future Mukaukas, while you are cherishing the insane wish to become the Mukaukas yourself."
"And why should such a wish be insane?" cried the other in a harsh voice. "Putting you out of the question, who is there here that is shrewder or stronger than I?"
"No Moslem, perhaps. But neither you nor any other true believer will succeed to the dead man's office, but an Egyptian and a Christian. Prudence requires it, and the Khaliff commands it."
"And does he also command that this curled ape shall be left in possession of his millions?"
"So that is what you covet, you greedy curmudgeon--that is it? Do not all the crimes you have committed out of avarice weigh upon you heavily enough? Gold, and yet more gold--that is the end, the foul end, of all your desires. A fat morsel, no doubt: the Mukaukas' estates, his talents of gold, his gems, slaves, and horses; I admit that. But thank God the All-merciful, we are not thieves and robbers!"
"And who was it that dug out the hidden millions from beneath the reservoir of Peter the Egyptian, and who made him bite the dust?"
"I--I. But--as you know--only to send the money to Medina. Peter had hidden it before we killed him. The Mukaukas and his son have declared all their possessions to the uttermost dinar and hide of land; they have faithfully paid the taxes, and consequently their property belongs to them as our swords, our horses, our wives belong to you or me. What will not your grasping spirit lead you to!--Take your hand from your dagger!-- Not a copper coin from them shall fall into your hungry maw, so help me God! Do not again cast an evil eye on the Mukaukas' son! Do not try my patience too far, man, or else--Hold your head tight on your shoulders or you will have to seek it at your feet; and what I say I mean!--Now, good- night! To-morrow morning in the divan you are to explain your scheme for the new distribution of the land; it will not suit me in any way, and I shall have other projects to propose for discussion."
With this the Arab turned his back on the Vekeel; but no sooner had the door closed on him than Obada clenched his fist in fury at his lord and master, who had hitherto said nothing of his having had purloined a portion of the consignment of gold which Amru had charged him to escort to Medina. Then he rushed up and down the room, snorting and foaming till slaves came in to clear the tables.
Orion made his way home under the moonlit and starry night. He held his head high, and not since that evening on the water with Paula had he felt so glad or so hopeful. On the other side of the bridge he did not at once turn his horse's head homewards; the fresh night air was so delightful, his heart beat so high that he shrunk from the oppression of a room. Full of renewed life, freed from a burden as it were, he made
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