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- Pearl-Maiden - 18/74 -
"that you will not think the worse of me, since we men are frail at times. And now, because you ask me, though I have no right, I grant your prayer. Mayhap those witnesses lied; at least, the man's sin, if sin there be, can be excused. He has naught to fear from me."
"No," broke in Nehushta, "but I think you have much to fear from him; and I am sorry for that, my lord Marcus, for you have a noble heart."
"It may be so; the future is on the knees of the gods, and that which is fated will befall. My Lady Miriam, I, your humble servant and friend, wish you farewell."
"Farewell," she answered. "Yes, Nehushta is right, you have a noble heart"; and she looked at him in such a fashion that it flashed across his mind that were he to proffer that request of his again, it might not be refused. But Marcus would not do it. He had tasted of the joy of self-conquest, who hitherto, after the manner of his age and race, had denied himself little, and, as it seemed to him, a strange new power was stirring in his heart--something purer, higher, nobler, than he had known before. He would cherish it a while.
Of all that were spoken there in the garden, Caleb, the watcher, could catch no word. The speakers did not raise their voices and they stood at a distance, so that although he craned his head forward as far as he dared in the shadow of the trees, sharp and trained as they were, naught save a confused murmur reached his ears. But if these failed him, his eyes fed full, so that he lost no move or gesture. It was a passionate love scene, this was clear, for Nehushta stood at a little distance with her back turned, while the pair poured out their sweet speeches to each other. Then at length, as he had expected, came the climax. Yes, oh! shameless woman--they were embracing. A mist fell upon Caleb's eyes, in which lights flashed like red-hot swords lifting and smiting, the blood drummed in his ears as though his raging, jealous heart would burst. He would kill that Roman now on the spot. Miriam should never kiss him more--alive.
Already Caleb had drawn the short-sword from its hiding-place in his ample robe; already he had stepped out from the shadow of the trees, when of a sudden his reason righted itself like a ship that has been laid over by a furious squall, and caution came back to him. If he did this that faithless guardian, Nehushta, who without doubt had been bought with Roman gold, would come to the assistance of her patron and thrust her dagger through his back, as she well could do. Or should he escape that dagger, one or other of them would raise the Essenes on him, and he would be given over to justice. He wished to slay, not to be slain. It would be sweet to kill the Roman, but if he himself were laid dead across his body, leaving Miriam alive to pass to some other man, what would he be advantaged? Presently they must cease from their endearments; presently his enemy would return as he had come, and then he might find his chance. He would wait, he would wait.
Look, they had parted; Miriam was gliding back to the house, and Marcus came towards him, walking like a man in his sleep. Only Nehushta stood where she was, her eyes fixed upon the ground as though she were reasoning with herself. Still like a man in a dream, Marcus passed him within touch of his outstretched hand. Caleb followed. Marcus opened the door, went out of it, and pulled it to behind him. Caleb caught it in his hand, slipped through and closed it. A few paces down the wall--eight or ten perhaps--was another door, by which Marcus entered the garden of the guest-house. As he turned to shut this, Caleb pushed in after him, and they were face to face.
"Who are you?" asked the Roman, springing back.
Caleb, who by now was cool enough, closed the door and shot the bolt. Then he answered, "Caleb, the son of Hilliel, who wishes a word with you."
"Ah!" said Marcus, "the very man, and, as usual, unless the light deceives me, in an evil humour. Well, Caleb the son of Hilliel, what is your business with me?"
"One of life and death, Marcus the son of Emilius," he answered, in such a tone that the Roman drew his sword and stood watching him.
"Be plain and brief, young man," he said.
"I will be both plain and brief. I love that lady from whom you have just parted, and you also love, or pretend to love, her. Nay, deny it not; I have seen all, even to your kisses. Well, she cannot belong to both of us, and I intend that in some future day she shall belong to me if arm and eye do not fail me now. Therefore one of us must die to-night."
Marcus stepped back, overcome not with fear, but with astonishment.
"Insolent," he said, "you lie! There were no kisses, and our talk was of your neck, that I gave to her because she asked it, which is forfeit for the murder of the Jew."
"Indeed," sneered Caleb. "Now, who would have thought that the noble Captain Marcus would shelter thus behind a woman's robe? For the rest, my life is my own and no other's to give or to receive. Guard yourself, Roman, since I would kill you in fair fight. Had I another mind you would be dead by now, never knowing the hand that struck you. Have no fear; I am your equal, for my forefathers were nobles when yours were savages."
"Boy, are you mad," asked Marcus, "to think that I, who have fought in three wars, can fear a beardless youth, however fierce? Why, if I feared you I have but to blow upon this whistle and my guards would hale you hence to a felon's death. For your own sake it is that I pray you to consider. Setting aside my rank and yours, I will fight you if you will, and now. Yet think. If I kill you there is an end, and if by chance you should kill me, you will be hunted down as a double murderer. As it is, I forgive you, because I know how bitter is the jealousy of youth, and because you struck no assassin's blow when you might have done so safely. Therefore, I say, go in peace, knowing that I shall not break my word."
"Cease talking," said Caleb, "and come out into the moonlight."
"I am glad that is your wish," replied Marcus. "Having done all I can to save you, I will add that I think you a dangerous cub, of whom the world, the lady Miriam and I alike will be well rid. Now, what weapon have you? A short sword and no mail? Well, so have I. In this we are well matched. Stay, I have a steel-lined cap, and you have none. There it goes, to make our chances equal. Wind your cloak about your left arm as I do. I have known worse shields. Good foothold, but an uncertain light. Now, go!"
Caleb needed no encouragement. For one second they stood facing each other, very types of the Eastern and Western world; the Roman--sturdy, honest-eyed, watchful and fearless, his head thrown back, his feet apart, his shield arm forward, his sword hand pressed to his side from which the steel projected. Over against him was the Jew, crouched like a tiger about to spring, his eyes half closed as though to concentrate the light, his face working with rage, and every muscle quivering till his whole flesh seemed to move upon his bones, like to that of a snake. Suddenly, uttering a low cry, he sprang, and with that savage onslaught the fight began and ended.
Marcus was ready; moreover, he knew what he would do. As the man came, stepping swiftly to one side, he caught the thrust of Caleb's sword in the folded cloak, and since he did not wish to kill him, struck at his hand. The blow fell upon Caleb's first finger and severed it, cutting the others also, so that it dropped to the ground with the sword that they had held. Marcus put his foot upon the blade, and wheeled round.
"Young man," he said sternly, "you have learnt your lesson and will bear the mark of it till your death day. Now begone."
The wretched Caleb ground his teeth. "It was to the death!" he said, "it was to the death! You have conquered, kill me," and with his bloody hand he tore open his robe to make a path for the sword.
"Leave such talk to play-actors," answered Marcus. "Begone, and be sure of this--that if ever you try to bring treachery on me, or trouble on the lady Miriam, I will kill you sure enough."
Then with a sound that was half curse and half sob, Caleb turned and slunk away. With a shrug of the shoulder Marcus also turned to go, when he felt a shadow fall upon him, and swung round, to find Nehushta at his side.
"And pray where did you come from, my Libyan friend?" he asked.
"Out of that pomegranate fence, my Roman lord, whence I have seen and heard all that passed."
"Indeed. Then I hope that you give me credit for good sword-play and good temper."
"The sword-play was well enough, though nothing to boast of with such a madman for a foe. As for the temper, it was that of a fool."
"Such," soliloquised Marcus, "is the reward of virtue. But I am curious. Why?"
"Because, my lord Marcus, this Caleb will grow into the most dangerous man in JudŠa, and to none more dangerous than to my lady Miriam and yourself. You should have killed him while you had the chance, before his turn comes to kill you."
"Perhaps," answered Marcus with a yawn; "but, friend Nehushta, I have been associating with a Christian and have caught something of her doctrines. That seems a fine sword. You had better keep it. Good- night."
THE JUSTICE OF FLORUS
On the following morning, when the roll of the neophytes of the Essenes was called, Caleb did not appear. Nor did he answer to his name on the next day, or indeed ever again. None knew what had become of him until a while after a letter was received addressed to the Curators of the Court, in which he announced that, finding he had no vocation for an Essenic career, he had taken refuge with friends of his late father, in some place not stated. There, so far as the Essenes were concerned, the matter ended. Indeed, as the peasant who was concealed in the gully when the Jew was murdered had talked of what he had witnessed, even the most simple-minded of the Essenes could suggest a reason for this sudden departure. Nor did they altogether regret it, inasmuch as in many ways Caleb had proved himself but an unsatisfactory disciple, and already they were discussing the expediency of rejecting him from the fellowship of their peaceful order. Had they known that when he vanished he left
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