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- Pearl-Maiden - 15/74 -
While they were still conversing thus, of a sudden the bushes on their path were pushed aside, and from between them emerged Caleb, of whom she had seen but little of late. He halted and looked at them.
"Friend Caleb," said Miriam, "this is the Roman captain Marcus, who comes to visit the curators of the Order. Will you lead him and his soldiers to the council hall and advise my uncle Ithiel and the others of his coming, since it is time for us to go home?"
Caleb glared at her, or rather at the stranger, with sullen fury; then he answered:
"Romans always make their own road; they do not need a Jew to guide them," and once more he vanished into the scrub on the further side of the path.
"Your friend is not civil," said Marcus, as he watched him go. "Indeed, he has an inhospitable air. Now, if an Essene could do such a thing, I should think that here is a man who might have drawn an arrow upon a Jewish tax-gatherer," and he looked inquiringly at Miriam.
"That lad!" put in Nehushta. "Why, he never shot anything larger than a bird of prey."
"Caleb," added Miriam in excuse, "does not like strangers."
"So I see," answered Marcus; "and to be frank, lady, I do not like Caleb. He has an eye like a knife-point."
"Come, Nehushta," said Miriam, "this is our road, and there runs that of the captain and his company. Sir, farewell, and thank you for your escort."
"Lady, for this while farewell, and thank you for your guidance."
Thus for that day they parted.
The dwelling which many years before had been built by the Essenes for the use of their ward and her nurse, stood next to the large guest- house. Indeed, it occupied a portion of the ground which originally belonged to it, although now the plot was divided into two gardens by an irrigation ditch and a live pomegranate fence, covered at this season of the year with its golden globes of fruit. That evening, as Miriam and Nehushta walked in the garden, they heard the familiar voice of Ithiel calling to them from the other side of this fence, and presently above it saw his kindly face and venerable white head.
"What is it, my uncle?" asked Miriam running to him.
"Only this, child; the noble Roman captain, Marcus, is to stay in the guest-house during his visit to us, so do not be frightened if you hear or see men moving about in this garden--If, indeed, Romans care to walk in gardens. I am to bide here also, to play host to him and see that he lacks nothing. Also I do not think that he will give you any trouble, since, for a Roman, he seems both courteous and kindly."
"I am not afraid, my uncle," said Miriam; "indeed," she added, blushing a little in spite of herself, "Nehushta and I have already become acquainted with this captain"; and she told him of their meeting beyond the village.
"Nehushta, Nehushta," said Ithiel reprovingly, "have I not said to you that you should not walk so far afield without some of the brethren as an escort? You might, perchance, have met thieves, or drunken men."
"My lady wished to gather some flowers she sought," answered Nehushta, "as she has done without harm for many a year; and being armed, I did not fear thieves, if such men are to be found where all are poor."
"Well, well, as it chances, no harm has happened; but do not go out unattended again, lest the soldiers should not be so courteous as their captain. They will not trouble you by the way, since, with the exception of a single guard, they camp yonder by the streamlet. Farewell for this night, my child; we will meet to-morrow."
Then Miriam went to rest and dreamed of the Roman captain, and that he, she, and Nehushta made a journey together and met with many great adventures, wherein Caleb played some strange part. In that dream the captain Marcus protected them from all these dangers, till at length they came to a calm sea, on which floated a single white ship wherein they must embark, having the sign of the Cross woven in its sails. Then she awoke and found that it was morning.
Of all the arts she had been taught, Miriam was fondest of that of modelling in clay, for which she had a natural gift. Indeed, so great had her skill become, that these models which she made, after they had been baked with fire, were, at her wish, sold by the Essenes to any who took a fancy to them. As to the money which they fetched, it was paid into a fund to be distributed among the poor.
This art Miriam carried on in a reed-thatched shed in the garden, where, by an earthen pipe, water was delivered into a stone basin, which she used to damp her clay and cloths. Sometimes also, with the help of masons and the master who had taught her, now a very old man, she copied these models in marble, which the Essenes brought to her from the ruins of a palace near Jericho. At the time that the Romans came she was finishing a work more ambitious than any which she had undertaken as yet; namely, a life-sized bust cut from the fragment of an ancient column to the likeness of her great-uncle, Ithiel. On the afternoon following the day that she met Marcus, clad in her white working-robe, she was occupied in polishing this bust, with the assistance of Nehushta, who handed her the cloths and grinding-powder. Suddenly shadows fell upon her, and turning, she beheld Ithiel and the Roman.
"Daughter," said Ithiel, smiling at her confusion, "I have brought the captain Marcus to see your work."
"Oh, my uncle!" she replied indignantly, "am I in a state to receive any captain?" and she held out her wet hands and pointed to her garments begrimed with clay and powder. "Look at me."
"I look," said Ithiel innocently, "and see naught amiss."
"And I look, lady," added Marcus in his merry voice, "and see much to admire. Would that more of your sex could be found thus delightfully employed."
"Alas, sir," she replied, adroitly misunderstanding him, for Miriam did not lack readiness, "in this poor work there is little to admire. I am ashamed that you should look on the rude fashionings of a half- trained girl, you who must have seen all those splendid statues of which I have been told."
"By the throne of Cæsar, lady," he exclaimed in a voice that carried a conviction of his earnestness, staring hard at the bust of Ithiel before him, "as it chances, although I am not an artist, I do know something of sculpture, since I have a friend who is held to be the best of our day, and often for my sins have sat as model to him. Well, I tell you this--never did the great Glaucus produce a bust like that."
"I daresay not," said Miriam smiling. "I daresay the great Glaucus would go mad if he saw it."
"He would--with envy. He would say that it was the work of one of the glorious Greeks, and of no modern."
"Sir," said Ithiel reprovingly, "do not make a jest of the maid, who does the best she can; it pains her and--is not fitting."
"Friend Ithiel," replied Marcus, turning quite crimson, "you must indeed think that I lack manners who would come to the home of any artist to mock his work. I say what I mean, neither more nor less. If this bust were shown in Rome, together with yourself who sat for it, the lady Miriam would find herself famous within a week. Yes," and he ran his eye quickly over various statuettes, some of them baked and some in the raw clay, models, for the most part, of camels or other animals or birds, "yes, and it is the same with all the rest: these are the works of genius, no less."
At this praise, to them so exaggerated, Miriam, pleased as she could not help feeling, broke into clear laugher, which both Ithiel and Nehushta echoed. Now, so wroth was he, the face of Marcus grew quite pale and stern.
"It seems," he said severely, "that it is not I who mock. Tell me, lady, what do you with these things?" and he pointed to the statuettes.
"I, sir? I sell them; or at least my uncles do."
"The money is given to the poor," interposed Ithiel.
"Would it be rude to ask at what price?"
"Sometimes," replied Ithiel with pride, "travellers have given me as much as a silver shekel.[*] Once indeed, for a group of camels with their Arabian drivers, I received four shekels; but that took my niece three months to do."
[*] About 2s. 6d. of English money.
"A shekel! Four shekels!" said Marcus in a voice of despair; "I will buy them all--no, I will not, it would be robbery. And this bust?"
"That, sir, is not for sale; it is a gift to my uncle, or rather to my uncles, to be set up in their court-room."
An idea struck Marcus. "I am here for a few weeks," he said. "Tell me, lady, if your uncle Ithiel will permit it, at what price will you execute a bust of myself of the same size and quality?"
"It would be dear," said Miriam, smiling at the notion, "for the marble costs something, and the tools, which wear out. Oh, it would be very dear!" This she repeated, wondering what she could ask in her charitable avarice. "It would be----" yes, she would venture it-- "fifty shekels!"
"I am poor enough," replied Marcus quietly, "but I will give you two hundred."
"Two hundred!" gasped Miriam. "It is absurd. I could never accept two hundred shekels for a piece of stonework. Then indeed you might say that you had fallen among thieves on the banks of Jordan. No. If my uncles will permit it and there is time, I will do my poor best for fifty--only, sir, I advise you against it, since to win that bad likeness you must sit for many weary hours."
"So be it," said Marcus. "As soon as I get to any civilised place I
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