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- Pearl-Maiden - 17/74 -
in the same whisper. "No, not now or here, but alone."
"When and where you will," answered Marcus, smiling, as if the prospect of a solitary conversation with Miriam did not displease him, although this evil-doing Caleb was to be its subject. "Name the time and place, lady."
By now the snoring elder was awake, and rising from his chair with a great noise, which in turn roused the others. Nehushta also rose from her seat and in doing so, as though by accident, overset a copper tray on which lay metal tools.
"In the garden one hour after sunset. Nehushta will leave the little lower door unlocked."
"Good," answered Marcus; then added in a loud voice, "Not so, lady. Ye gods! what a noise! I think the curl improved by the slip. It looks less as though it had been waxed after the Egyptian fashion. Sirs, why do you disturb yourselves? I fear that to you this long waiting must be as tedious as to me it seems unnecessary."
The sun was down, and the last red glow had faded from the western sky, which was now lit only by the soft light of a half-moon. All the world lay bathed in peace and beauty; even the stern outlines of the surrounding mountains seemed softened, and the pale waters of the Dead Sea and the ashen face of the desert gleamed like silver new cast from the mould. From the oleanders and lilies which bloomed along the edge of the irrigation channels, and from the white flowers of the glossy, golden-fruited orange trees, floated a perfume delicious to the sense, while the silence was only broken from time to time by the bark of a wandering dog or the howl of a jackal in the wilderness.
"A very pleasant night--to talk about Caleb," reflected Marcus, who had reached the appointed spot ten minutes before the time, as he strolled from the narrow belt of trees that were planted along the high, outer wall, into the more open part of the garden. Had Marcus chanced to notice that this same Caleb, walking softly as a cat, and keeping with great care in the shadow, had followed him through the little door which he forgot to lock, and was now hidden among those very trees, he might have remembered a proverb to the effect that snakes hide in the greenest grass and the prettiest flowers have thorny stems. But he thought of no such thing, who was lost in happy anticipations of a moonlight interview with a lovely and cultured young lady, whose image, to speak truth, had taken so deep a hold upon his fancy, that sometimes he wondered how he would be able to banish it thence again. At present he could think of no better means than that which at this moment he was following with delight. Meetings in moonlit gardens tend proverbially to disenchantment!
Presently Marcus caught the gleam of a white robe followed by a dark one, flitting towards him through the dim and dewy garden, and at the sight his heart stood still, then began to beat again in a disorderly fashion. Had he known it, another heart a few yards behind him also stood still, and then began to beat like that of a man in a violent rage. It seems possible, also, that a third heart experienced unusual sensations.
"I wish she had left the old lady behind," muttered Marcus. "No, I don't, for then there are brutes who, if they knew, might blame her"; and, luckily for himself, he walked forward a few paces to meet the white robe, leaving the little belt of trees almost out of hearing.
Now Miriam stood before him, the moonlight shining on her delicate face and in her tranquil eyes, which always reminded him of the blue depths of heaven.
"Sir," she began----
"Oh, I pray you," he broke in, "cease from ceremony and call me Marcus!"
"Captain Marcus," she repeated, dwelling a little on the unfamiliar name, "I beg that you will forgive me for disturbing you at so unseasonable an hour."
"Certainly I forgive you, Lady Miriam," he replied, also dwelling on her name and copying her accent in a fashion that made the grim-faced Nehushta smile.
She waved her hand in deprecation. "The truth is, that this matter of Caleb's----"
"Oh, may all the infernal gods take Caleb! as I have reason to believe they shortly will," broke in Marcus angrily.
"But that is just what I wish to prevent; we have met here to talk of Caleb."
"Well, if you must--talk and let us be done with him. What about Caleb?"
Miriam clasped her hands. "What do you know of him, Captain Marcus?"
"Know? Why, just this: a spy I have in my troop has found out a country fellow who was hunting for mushrooms or something--I forget what--in a gully a mile away, and saw this interesting youth hide himself there and shoot that Jewish plunderer with a bow and arrow. More--he has found another man who saw the said Caleb an hour or two before help himself to an arrow out of one of the Jew's quivers, which arrow appears to be identical with, or at any rate, similar to, that which was found in the fellow's gullet. Therefore, it seems that Caleb is guilty, and that it will be my duty to-morrow to place him under arrest, and in due course to convey him to Jerusalem, where the priests will attend to his little business. Now, Lady Miriam, is your curiosity satisfied about Caleb?"
"Oh," she said, "it cannot be, it must not be! The man had struck him and he did but return a blow for a blow."
"An arrow for a blow, you mean; the point of a spear for the push of its handle. But, Lady Miriam, you seem to be very deep in the confidence of Caleb. How do you come to know all this?"
"I don't know, I only guess. I daresay, nay, I am sure, that Caleb is quite innocent."
"Why do you take such an interest in Caleb?" asked Marcus suspiciously.
"Because he was my friend and playmate from childhood."
"Umph," he answered, "a strange couple--a dove and a raven. Well, I am glad that you did not catch his temper, or you would be more dangerous even than you are. Now, what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to spare Caleb. You, you, you--need not believe those witnesses."
"To think of it!" said Marcus, in mock horror. "To think that one whom I thought so good can prove so immoral. Do you then wish to tempt me from my duty?"
"Yes, I suppose so. At least the peasants round here are great liars."
"Lady," said Marcus, with stern conviction, "Caleb has improved upon his opportunities as a playmate; he has been making love to you. I thought so from the first."
"Oh," she answered, "how can you know that? Besides, he promised that he would never do it again."
"How can I know that? Why, because Caleb would have been a bigger fool than I take him for if he had not. And if it rested with me, certainly he never would do it again. Now be honest with me, if a woman can on such a matter, and tell me true: are you in love with this Caleb?"
"I--I? In love with Caleb? Of course not. If you do not believe me, ask Nehushta."
"Thank you, I will be content with your own reply. You deny that you are in love with him, and I incline to believe you; but, on the other hand, I remember that you would naturally say this, since you might think that any other answer would prejudice the cause of Caleb with me."
"With you! What can it matter to you, sir, whether or no I am in love with Caleb, who, to tell you the truth, frightens me?"
"And that, I suppose, is why you plead so hard for him?"
"No," she answered with a sudden sternness, "I plead hard for him as in like case I would plead hard for you--because he has been my friend, and if he did this deed he was provoked to it."
"Well spoken," said Marcus, gazing at her steadily. Indeed, she was worth looking at as she stood there before him, her hands clasped, her breast heaving, her sweet, pale face flushed with emotion and her lovely eyes aswim with tears. Of a sudden as he gazed Marcus lost control of himself. Passion for this maiden and bitter jealousy of Caleb arose like twin giants in his heart and possessed him.
"You say you are not in love with Caleb," he said. "Well, kiss me and I will believe you."
"How could such a thing prove my words?" she asked indignantly.
"I do not know and I do not care. Kiss me once and I will believe further that the peasants of these parts are all liars. I feel myself beginning to believe it."
"And if I will not?"
"Then I am afraid I must refer the matter to a competent tribunal at Jerusalem."
"Nehushta, Nehushta, you have heard. What shall I do?"
"What shall you do?" said Nehushta drily. "Well, if you like to give the noble Marcus a kiss, I shall not blame you overmuch or tell on you. But if you do not wish it, then I think you would be a fool to put yourself to shame to save Caleb."
"Yet, I will do it--and to save Caleb only," said Miriam with a sob, and she bent towards him.
To her surprise Marcus drew back, placing his hand before his face.
"Forgive me," he said. "I was a brute who wished to buy kisses in such a fashion. I forgot myself; your beauty is to blame, and your sweetness and everything that is yours. I pray," he added humbly,
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