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- Pearl-Maiden - 19/74 -
behind him a drawn sword and one of his forefingers, their opinion on this point might have been strengthened. But this they did not know, although Miriam knew it through Nehushta.
A week went by, during which time Miriam and Marcus did not meet, as no further sittings were arranged for the completion of the bust. In fact, they were not needful, since she could work from the clay model, which she did, till, labouring at it continually, the marble was done and even polished. One morning as the artist was putting the last touches to her labours, the door of the workshop was darkened and she looked up to see Marcus, who, except for his helmet, was clad in full mail as though about to start upon a journey. As it chanced, Miriam was alone in the place, Nehushta having gone to attend to household affairs. Thus for the first time they met with no other eyes to watch them.
At the sight of him she coloured, letting the cloth fall from her hand which remained about the neck of the marble.
"I ask your pardon, Lady Miriam," said Marcus, bowing gravely, "for breaking in thus upon your privacy; but time presses with me so that I lacked any to give notice to your guardians of my visit."
"Are you leaving us?" she faltered.
"Yes, I am leaving you."
Miriam turned aside and picked up the cloth, then answered, "Well, the work is done, or will be in a few minutes; so if you think it worth the trouble, take it."
"That is my intention. The price I will settle with your uncles."
She nodded. "Yes, yes, but if you will permit me, I should like to pack it myself, so that it comes to no harm upon the journey. Also with your leave I will retain the model, which by right belongs to you. I am not pleased with this marble; I wish to make another."
"The marble is perfect; but keep the model if you will. I am very glad that you should keep it."
She glanced at him, a question in her eyes, then looked away.
"When do you go?" she asked.
"Three hours after noon. My task is finished, my report--which is to the effect that the Essenes are a most worthy and harmless people who deserve to be encouraged, not molested--is written. Also I am called hence in haste by a messenger who reached me from Jerusalem an hour ago. Would you like to know why?"
"If it pleases you to tell me, yes."
"I think that I told you of my uncle Caius, who was pro-consul under the late emperor for the richest province of Spain, and--made use of his opportunities."
"Well, the old man has been smitten with a mortal disease. For aught I know he may be already dead, although the physicians seemed to think he would live for another ten months, or perhaps a year. Being in this case, suddenly he has grown fond of his relations, or rather relation, for I am the only one, and expressed a desire to see me, to whom for many years he has never given a single penny. He has even announced his intention--by letter--of making me his heir 'should he find me worthy,' which, to succeed Caius, whatever my faults, indeed I am not, since of all men, as I have told him in past days, I hold him the worst. Still, he has forwarded a sum of money to enable me to journey to him in haste, and with it a letter from the Cæsar, Nero, to the procurator Albinus, commanding him to give me instant leave to go. Therefore, lady, it seems wise that I should go."
"Yes," answered Miriam. "I know little of such things, but I think that it is wise. Within two hours the bust shall be finished and packed," and she stretched out her hand in farewell.
Marcus took the hand and held it. "I am loth to part with you thus," he said suddenly.
"There is only one fashion of parting," answered Miriam, striving to withdraw her hand.
"Nay, there are many; and I hate them all--from you."
"Sir," she asked with gentle indignation, "is it worth your while to play off these pretty phrases upon me? We have met for an hour; we separate--for a lifetime."
"I do not see the need of that. Oh, the truth may as well out. I wish it least of all things."
"Yet it is so. Come, let my hand go; the marble must be finished and packed."
The face of Marcus became troubled, as though he were reasoning with himself, as though he wished to take her at her word and go, yet could not.
"Is it ended?" asked Miriam presently, considering him with her quiet eyes.
"I think not; I think it is but begun. Miriam, I love you."
"Marcus," she answered steadily, "I do not think I should be asked to listen to such words."
"Why not? They have always been thought honest between man and woman."
"Perhaps, when they are meant honestly, which in this case can scarcely be."
He grew hot and red. "What do you mean? Do you suppose----"
"I suppose nothing, Captain Marcus."
"Do you suppose," he repeated, "that I would offer you less than the place of wife?"
"Assuredly not," she replied, "since to do so would be to insult you. But neither do I suppose that you really meant to offer me that place."
"Yet that was in my mind, Miriam."
Her eyes grew soft, but she answered:
"Then, Marcus, I pray you, put it out of your mind, since between us rolls a great sea."
"Is it named Caleb?" he asked bitterly.
She smiled and shook her head. "You know well that it has no such name."
"Tell me of this sea."
"It is easy. You are a Roman worshipping the Roman gods; I am a Christian worshipping the God of the Christians. Therefore we are forever separate."
"Why? I do not understand. If we were married you might come to think like me, or I might come to think like you. It is a matter of the spirit and the future, not of the body and the present. Every day Christians wed those who are not Christians; sometimes, even, they convert them."
"Yes, I know; but in my case this may not be--even if I wished that it should be."
"Because both by the command of my murdered father and of her own desire my mother laid it on me with her dying breath that I should take to husband no man who was not of our faith."
"And do you hold yourself to be bound by this command?"
"I do, without doubt and to the end."
"However much you might chance to love a man who is not a Christian?"
"However much I might chance to love such a man."
Marcus let fall her hand. "I think I had best go," he said.
Then came a pause while he seemed to be struggling with himself.
"Miriam, I cannot go."
"Marcus, you must go."
"Miriam, do you love me?"
"Marcus, may Christ forgive me, I do."
"Miriam, how much?"
"Marcus, as much as a woman may love a man."
"And yet," he broke out bitterly, "you bid me begone because I am not a Christian."
"Because my faith is more than my love. I must offer my love upon the altar of my faith--or, at the least," she added hurriedly, "I am bound by a rope that cannot be cut or broken. To break it would bring down upon your head and mine the curse of Heaven and of my parents, who are its inhabitants."
"And if I became of your faith?"
Her whole face lit up, then suddenly its light died.
"It is too much to hope. This is not a question of casting incense on an altar; it is a matter of a changed spirit and a new life. Oh! have done. Why do you play with me?"
"A changed spirit and a new life. At the best that would take time."
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