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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 8. - 6/12 -
He hastily turned away, but she called after him in sad lament: "Orion do not forget--Orion, you know that I love you."
But he did not hear; he burried on with his head bowed over his breast, down to the road, without reentering Rufinus' house.
When Orion reached home, wounded to the quick, he flung himself on a divan. Paula had said that her heart was his indeed, but what a cool and grudging love was this that would give nothing till it had insured its future. And how could Paula have allowed a third person to come between them, and rule her feelings and actions? She must have revealed to that third person all that had previously passed between them--and it was for this Melchite nun, his personal foe, that he was about to--it was enough to drive him mad!--But he could not withdraw; he had pledged himself to the brave old man to carry out this crazy enterprise. And in the place of the lofty, noble mistress of his whole being, his fancy pictured Paula as a tearful, vacillating, and cold-hearted woman.
There lay the maps and plans which he had desired Nilus to send in from his room for his study of the task set him by Amru; as his eye fell upon them, he struck his fist against the wall, started up, and ran like a madman up and down the room which had been sacred to her peaceful life.
There stood her lute; he had freshly strung and tuned it. To calm himself he drew it to him, took up the plectrum, and began to play. But it was a poor instrument; she had been content with this wretched thing! He flung it on the couch and took up his own, the gift of Heliodora. How sweetly, how delightfully she had been wont to play it! Even now its strings gave forth a glorious tone; by degrees he began to rejoice in his own playing, and music soothed his excitement, as it had often done before. It was grand and touching, though he several times struck the strings so violently that their loud clanging and sighing and throbbing answered each other like the wild wailing of a soul in torment.
Under this vehement usage the bridge of the lute suddenly snapped off with a dull report; and at the same instant his secretary, who had been with him at Constantinople, threw open the door in glad excitement, and began, even before he had crossed the threshold:
"Only think, my lord! Here is a messenger come from the inn kept by Sostratus with this tablet for you.--It is open, so I read it. Only think! it is hardly credible! The Senator Justinus is here with his wife, the noble Martina--here in Memphis, and they beg you to visit them at once to speak of matters of importance. They came last night, the messenger tells me, and now--what joy! Think of all the hospitality you enjoyed in their house. Can we leave them in an inn? So long as hospitality endures, it would be a crime!"
"Impossible, quite impossible!" cried Orion, who had cast aside the lute, and was now reading the letter himself. "It is true indeed! his own handwriting. And that immovable pair are in Egypt--in Memphis! By Zeus!"--for this was still the favorite oath of the golden youth of Alexandria and Constantinople, even in these Christian times.--"By Zeus, I ought to receive them here like princes!--Wait!--of course you must tell the messenger that I am coming at once--have the four new Pannonians harnessed to the silver-plated chariot. I must go to my mother; but there is time enough for that. Desire Sebek to have the guest-chambers prepared for distinguished guests--those sick people are out of them, thank God! Take my present room for them too; I will go back to the old one. Of course they have a numerous suite. Set twenty or thirty slaves to work. Everything must be ready in two hours at furthest. The two sitting-rooms are particularly handsome, but where anything is lacking, place everything in the house at Sebek's command.--Justinus in Egypt!-- But make haste, man! Nay, stay! One thing more. Carry these maps and scrolls--no; they are too heavy for you. Desire a slave to fetch them, and take them to Rufinus; he must keep them till I come. Tell him I meant to use them on the way--he knows."
The secretary rushed off; Orion performed a rapid toilet and had his mourning dress rearranged in fresh folds; then he went to his mother. She had often heard of the cordial reception that her son, and her husband, too, in former days, had met with in the senator's house, and she took it quite as a matter of course that the strangers' rooms, and among them that which had been Paula's, should be prepared for the travellers; all she asked was that it should be explained that she was suffering, so that she might not have to trouble herself to entertain them.
She advised Orion to put off his journey and to devote himself to his friends; but he explained that even their arrival must not delay him. He had entire confidence in Sebek and the upper housekeeper, and the emperor himself would remit the duties of hostess to a sick woman. Once, at any rate, she would surely allow the illustrious guests to pay their respects to her,--but even this Neforis refused It would be quite enough if her visitors received messages and greetings daily in her name, with offerings of choice fruit and flowers, and on the last day some costly gift. Orion thought this proposal quite worthy of them both, and presently drove off behind his Pannonians to the hostelry.
By the harbor he met the captain of the boat he had hired; to him he held up two fingers, and the boatman signified by repeated nodding that he had understood the meaning of this signal: "Be ready at two hours before midnight."
The sight of this weather-beaten pilot, and the prospect of making some return to his noble friends for all their kindness, cheered Orion greatly; and though he regretted being obliged to leave these guests of all others, the perils that lay before him reasserted their charm. He could surely win over the abbess in the course of the voyage, and Paula might be brought to reason, perhaps, this very evening. Justinus and his wife were Melchites, and he knew that both these friends--for whom he had a particular regard--would be enchanted with his scheme if he took them into his confidence.
The inn kept by Sostratus, a large, square building surrounding a spacious court-yard, was the best and most frequented in the town. The eastern side faced the road and the river, and contained the best rooms, in which, on the previous night, the senator had established himself with his wife and servants. The clatter of the quadriga drew Justinus to the window; as soon as he recognized Orion he waved a table-napkin to him, shouting a hearty "Welcome!" and then retired into the room again.
"Here he is!" he cried to his wife, who was lying on a couch in the lightest permissible attire, and sipping fruit-syrup from time to time to moisten her dry lips, while a boy fanned her for coolness.
"That is well indeed!" she exclaimed, and desired her maid to be quick, very quick, and fetch her a wrap, but to be sure it was a thin one. Then, turning to a very lovely young woman who had started to her feet at Justinus' first exclamation, she asked:
"Would you rather that he should find you here, my darling, or shall we see him first, and tell him that we have brought you with us?"
"That will be best," answered the other in a sweet voice, and she sighed softly before she added: "What will he not think of me? We may grow older, but folly--folly. . ."
"Grows with years?" laughed the matron. "Or do you think it decreases? --But here he is."
The younger woman hurried away by a side door, behind which she disappeared. Martina looked after her, and pointing that way to direct her husband's glance, she observed: "She has left herself a chink. Good God! Fancy being in love in such heat as this; what a hideous thought!"
At this moment the door was opened, and the heartiest greetings ensued. It was evident that the meeting was as great a pleasure to the elderly pair as to the young man. Justinus embraced him warmly, while the matron cried out: "And a kiss for me too!" And when the youth immediately and heartily gave it, she exclaimed with a groan:
"O man, and child of man, great Sesostris! How did your famous ancestor ever achieve heroic deeds under such a sun as this? For my part I am fast disappearing, melting away like butter; but what will a man not do for love's sake?--Syra, Syra; for God's sake bring me something, however small, that looks like a garment! How rational is the fashion of the people of Africa whom we met with on our journey. If they have three fingers' breadth of cloth about them, they consider themselves elegantly dressed.--But come, sit down--there, at my feet. A seat, Argos, and some wine, and water in a damp clay pitcher, and cool like the last. Husband, the boy seems to me handsomer than ever. But dear God! he is in mourning, and how becoming it is! Poor boy, poor boy! Yes, we heard in Alexandria."
She wiped first her eyes and then her damp brow, and her husband added his expressions of sympathy at the death of the Mukaukas.
They were a genial and comfortable couple, Justinus and his wife Martina. Two beings who felt perfectly secure in their vast inherited wealth, and who, both being of noble birth, never need make any display of dignity, because they were sure of it in the eyes of high and low alike. They had asserted their right to remain natural and human under the formalities of the most elaborately ceremonious society; those who did not like the easy tone adopted by them in their house might stay away. He, devoid of ambition, a senator in virtue of his possessions and his name, never caring to make any use of his adventitious dignity but that of procuring good appointments for his favorite clients, or good places for his family on any festive occasion, was a hospitable soul; the good friend of all his friends, whose motto was "live and let live." Martina, with a heart as good as gold, had never made any pretensions to beauty, but had nevertheless been much courted. This worthy couple had for many years thought that nothing could be more delightful than a residence in the capital, or at their beautiful villa on the Bosphorus, scorning to follow the example of other rich and fashionable folks, and go to take baths or make journeys. It was enough for them to be able to make others happy under their roof; and there was never any lack of visitors, just because those who were weary of bending their backs at the Byzantine Court, found this unceremonious circle particularly restful.
Martina was especially fond of having young people about her, and Heliodora, the widow of her nephew, had found comfort with her in her trouble; it was in her house that Orion and Heliodora had met. The young widow was a great favorite with the old couple, but higher in their esteem even than she, had been the younger brother of her deceased husband. He was to have been their heir; but they had mourned his death now two years; for news had reached them that Narses, who had served in the Imperial army as tribune of cavalry, had fallen in battle against the infidels. No one, however, had ever brought a more exact report of his death; and at last their indefatigable enquiries had resulted in their learning that he had been taken prisoner by the Saracens and carried into slavery in Arabia. This report received confirmation through the efforts of Orion and his deceased father. Within a few hours of the young Egyptian's departure, they received a letter from the youth they had given up for lost, written in trembling characters, in which he implored
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