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- The Sisters, v4 - 10/12 -

When Publius was excited he could be altogether carried away by a sudden sweep of passion, but his imagination was neither particularly lively nor glowing. While his horses were being harnessed, and then while he was driving to the Serapeum, the tall form of the water-bearer was constantly before him; again and again he pictured himself holding her hand instead of the reins, and while he repeated to himself all he meant to say at parting, and in fancy heard her thank him with a trembling voice for his valuable help, and say that she would never forget him, he felt his eyes moisten--unused as they had been to tears for many years. He could not help recalling the day when he had taken leave of his family to go to the wars for the first time. Then it had not been his own eyes but his mother's that had sparkled through tears, and it struck him that Klea, if she could be compared to any other woman, was most like to that noble matron to whom he owed his life, and that she might stand by the side of the daughter of the great Scipio Africanus like a youthful Minerva by the side of Juno, the stately mother of the gods.

His disappointment was great when he found the door of the temple closed, and was forced to return to Memphis without having seen either Klea or the recluse.

He could try again to-morrow to accomplish what had been impossible to- day, but his wish to see the girl he loved, rose to a torturing longing, and as he sat once more in his tent to finish his second despatch to Rome the thought of Klea came again to disturb his serious work. Twenty times he started up to collect his thoughts, and as often flung away his reed as the figure of the water-bearer interposed between him and the writing under his hand; at last, out of patience with himself, he struck the table in front of him with some force, set his fists in his sides hard enough to hurt himself, and held them there for a minute, ordering himself firmly and angrily to do his duty before he thought of anything else.

His iron will won the victory; by the time it was growing dusk the despatch was written. He was in the very act of stamping the wax of the seal with the signet of his family--engraved on the sardonyx of his ring- -when one of his servants announced a black slave who desired to speak with him. Publius ordered that he should be admitted, and the negro handed him the tile on which Eulaeus had treacherously written Klea's invitation to meet her at midnight near the Apis-tombs. His enemy's crafty-looking emissary seemed to the young man as a messenger from the gods; in a transport of haste and, without the faintest shadow of a suspicion he wrote, "I will be there," on the luckless piece of clay.

Publius was anxious to give the letter to the Senate, which he had just finished, with his own hand, and privately, to the messenger who had yesterday brought him the despatch from Rome; and as he would rather have set aside an invitation to carry off a royal treasure that same night than have neglected to meet Klea, he could not in any case be a guest at the king's banquet, though Cleopatra would expect to see him there in accordance with his promise. At this juncture he was annoyed to miss his friend Lysias, for he wished to avoid offending the queen; and the Corinthian, who at this moment was doubtless occupied in some perfectly useless manner, was as clever in inventing plausible excuses as he himself was dull in such matters. He hastily wrote a few lines to the friend who shared his tent, requesting him to inform the king that he had been prevented by urgent business from appearing among his guests that evening; then he threw on his cloak, put on his travelling-hat which shaded his face, and proceeded on foot and without any servant to the harbor, with his letter in one hand and a staff in the other.

The soldiers and civic guards which filled the courts of the palace, taking him for a messenger, did not challenge him as he walked swiftly and firmly on, and so, without being detained or recognized, he reached the inn by the harbor, where he was forced to wait an hour before the messenger came home from the gay strangers' quarter where he had gone to amuse himself. He had a great deal to talk of with this man, who was to set out next morning for Alexandria and Rome; but Publius hardly gave himself the necessary time, for he meant to start for the meeting place in the Necropolis indicated by Klea, and well-known to himself, a full hour before midnight, although he knew that be could reach his destination in a very much shorter time.

The sun seems to move too slowly to those who long and wait, and a planet would be more likely to fail in punctuality than a lover when called by love.

In order to avoid observation he did not take a chariot but a strong mule which the host of the inn lent him with pleasure; for the Roman was so full of happy excitement in the hope of meeting Klea that he had slipped a gold piece into the small, lightly-closed fingers of the innkeeper's pretty child, which lay asleep on a bench by the side of the table, besides paying double as much for the country wine he had drunk as if it had been fine Falernian and without asking for his reckoning. The host looked at him in astonishment when, finally, he sprang with a grand leap on to the back of the tall beast, without laying his hand on it; and it seemed even to Publius himself as though he had never since boyhood felt so fresh, so extravagantly happy as at this moment.

The road to the tombs from the harbor was a different one to that which led thither from the king's palace, and which Klea had taken, nor did it lead past the tavern in which she had seen the murderers. By day it was much used by pilgrims, and the Roman could not miss it even by night, for the mule he was riding knew it well. That he had learned, for in answer to his question as to what the innkeeper kept the beast for he had said that it was wanted every day to carry pilgrims arriving from Upper Egypt to the temple of Serapis and the tombs of the sacred bulls; he could therefore very decidedly refuse the host's offer to send a driver with the beast. All who saw him set out supposed that he was returning to the city and the palace.

Publius rode through the streets of the city at an easy trot, and, as the laughter of soldiers carousing in a tavern fell upon his ear, he could have joined heartily in their merriment. But when the silent desert lay around him, and the stars showed him that he would be much too early at the appointed place, he brought the mule to a slower pace, and the nearer he came to his destination the graver he grew, and the stronger his heart beat. It must be something important and pressing indeed that Klea desired to tell him in such a place and at such an hour. Or was she like a thousand other women--was he now on the way to a lover's meeting with her, who only a few days before had responded to his glance and accepted his violets?

This thought flashed once through his mind with importunate distinctness, but he dismissed it as absurd and unworthy of himself. A king would be more likely to offer to share his throne with a beggar than this girl would be to invite him to enjoy the sweet follies of love-making with her in a secret spot.

Of course she wanted above all things to acquire some certainty as to her sister's fate, perhaps too to speak to him of her parents; still, she would hardly have made up her mind to invite him if she had not learned to trust him, and this confidence filled him with pride, and at the same time with an eager longing to see her, which seemed to storm his heart with more violence with every minute that passed.

While the mule sought and found its way in the deep darkness with slow and sure steps, he gazed up at the firmament, at the play of the clouds which now covered the moon with their black masses, and now parted, floating off in white sheeny billows while the silver crescent of the moon showed between them like a swan against the dark mirror of a lake.

And all the time he thought incessantly of Klea--thinking in a dreamy way that he saw her before him, but different and taller than before, her form growing more and more before his eyes till at last it was so tall that her head touched the sky, the clouds seemed to be her veil, and the moon a brilliant diadem in her abundant dark hair. Powerfully stirred by this vision he let the bridle fall on the mule's neck, and spread open his arms to the beautiful phantom, but as he rode forwards it ever retired, and when presently the west wind blew the sand in his face, and he had to cover his eyes with his hand it vanished entirely, and did not return before he found himself at the Apis-tombs.

He had hoped to find here a soldier or a watchman to whom he could entrust the beast, but when the midnight chant of the priests of the temple of Osiris-Apis had died away not a sound was to be heard far or near; all that lay around him was as still and as motionless as though all that had ever lived there were dead. Or had some demon robbed him of his hearing? He could hear the rush of his own swift pulses in his ears- not the faintest sound besides.

Such silence is there nowhere but in the city of the dead and at night, nowhere but in the desert.

He tied the mule's bridle to a stela of granite covered with inscriptions, and went forward to the appointed place. Midnight must be past--that he saw by the position of the moon, and he was beginning to ask himself whether he should remain standing where he was or go on to meet the water-bearer when he heard first a light footstep, and then saw a tall erect figure wrapped in a long mantle advancing straight towards him along the avenue of sphinxes. Was it a man or a woman--was it she whom he expected? and if it were she, was there ever a woman who had come to meet a lover at an assignation with so measured, nay so solemn, a step? Now he recognized her face--was it the pale moonlight that made it look so bloodless and marble-white? There was something rigid in her features, and yet they had never--not even when she blushingly accepted his violets--looked to him so faultlessly beautiful, so regular and so nobly cut, so dignified, nay impressive.

For fully a minute the two stood face to face, speechless and yet quite near to each other. Then Publius broke the silence, uttering with the warmest feeling and yet with anxiety in his deep, pure voice, only one single word; and the word was her name "Klea."

The music of this single word stirred the girl's heart like a message and blessing from heaven, like the sweetest harmony of the siren's song, like the word of acquittal from a judge's lips when the verdict is life or death, and her lips were already parted to say 'Publius' in a tone no less deep and heartfelt-but, with all the force of her soul, she restrained herself, and said softly and quickly:

"You are here at a late hour, and it is well that you have come."

"You sent for me," replied the Roman.

"It was another that did that, not I," replied Klea in a slow dull tone, as if she were lifting a heavy weight, and could hardly draw her breath. "Now--follow me, for this is not the place to explain everything in."

With these words Klea went towards the locked door of the Apis-tombs, and tried, as she stood in front of it, to insert into the lock the key that Krates had given her; but the lock was still so new, and her fingers shook so much, that she could not immediately succeed. Publius meanwhile was standing close by her side, and as he tried to help her his fingers touched hers.

And when he--certainly not by mistake--laid his strong and yet trembling hand on hers, she let it stay for a moment, for she felt as if a tide of warm mist rose up in her bosom dimming her perceptions, and paralyzing

The Sisters, v4 - 10/12

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