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- Pearl-Maiden - 5/74 -
"Stand back!" he cried, lifting his spear.
Nehushta made no answer, only drawing a dagger from her robe, she fell upon the ground, then of a sudden rose again beneath his guard. The knife flashed and went home to the hilt. Down fell the man screaming for help and mercy, and there, in the narrow way, his spirit was stamped out of him. Beyond lay the broad passage of the vomitorium. They gained it, and in an instant were mixed with the thousands who sought to escape the panic. Some perished, some were swept onwards, among them Nehushta and Rachel. Thrice they nearly fell, but the fierce strength of the Libyan saved her mistress, till at length they found themselves on the broad terrace facing the seashore.
"Whither now?" gasped Rachel.
"Where shall I lead you?" answered Nehushta. "Do not stay. Be swift."
"But the others?" said Rachel, glancing back at the fighting, trampling, yelling mob.
"God guard them! We cannot."
"Leave me," moaned her mistress. "Save yourself, Nou; I am spent," and she sank down to her knees.
"But I am still strong," muttered Nehushta, and lifting the swooning woman in her sinewy arms, she fled on towards the port, crying, "Way, way for my lady, the noble Roman, who has swooned!"
And the multitude made way.
THE GRAIN STORE
Having passed the outer terraces of the amphitheatre in safety, Nehushta turned down a side street, and paused in the shadow of the wall to think what she should do. So far they were safe; but even if her strength would stand the strain, it seemed impossible that she should carry her mistress through the crowded city and avoid recapture. For some months they had both of them been prisoners, and as it was the custom of the inhabitants of Cęsarea, when they had nothing else to do, to come to the gates of their jail, and, through the bars, to study those within, or even, by permission of the guards, to walk among them, their appearance was known to many. Doubtless, so soon as the excitement caused by the illness of the king had subsided, soldiers would be sent to hunt down the fugitives who had escaped from the amphitheatre. More especially would they search for her, Nehushta, and her mistress, since it would be known that one of them had stabbed the warden of the gate, a crime for which they must expect to die by torture. Also--where could they go who had no friends, since all Christians had been expelled the city?
No, there was but one chance for them--to conceal themselves.
Nehushta looked round her for a hiding-place, and in this matter, as in others on that day, fortune favoured them. This street in the old days, when Cęsarea was called Strato's Tower, had been built upon an inner wall of the city, now long dismantled. At a distance of a few yards from where Nehushta had stopped stood an ancient gateway, unused save at times by beggars who slept under it, which led nowhere, for the outer arch of it was bricked up. Into this gateway Nehushta bore her mistress unobserved, to find to her relief that it was quite untenanted, though a still smouldering fire and a broken amphora containing clean water showed her that folk had slept there who could find no better lodging. So far so good; but here it would be scarcely safe to hide, as the tenants or others might come back. Nehushta looked around. In the thick wall was a little archway, beneath which commenced a stair. Setting Rachel on the ground, she ran up it, lightly as a cat. At the top of thirty steps, many of them broken, she found an old and massive door. With a sigh of disappointment, the Libyan turned to descend again; then, by an afterthought, pushed at the door. To her surprise it stirred. Again she pushed, and it swung open. Within was a large chamber, lighted by loopholes pierced in the thickness of the wall, for the use of archers. Now, however, it served no military purpose, but was used as a storehouse by a merchant of grain, for there in a corner lay a heap of many measures of barley, and strewn about the floor were sacks of skin and other articles.
Nehushta examined the room. No hiding-place could be better--unless the merchant chanced to come to visit his store. Well, that must be risked. Down she sped, and with much toil and difficulty carried her still swooning mistress up the steps and into the chamber, where she laid her on a heap of sacks.
Again, by an afterthought, she ventured to descend, this time to fetch the broken jar of water. Then she closed the door, setting it fast with a piece of wood, and began to chafe Rachel's hands and to sprinkle her face from the jar. Presently the dark eyes opened and her mistress sat up.
"Is it over, and is this Paradise?" she murmured.
"I should not call the place by that name, lady," answered Nehushta, drily, "though perhaps, in contrast with the hell that we have left, some might think it so. Drink!" and she held the water to her lips.
Rachel obeyed her eagerly. "Oh! it is good," she said. "But how came we here out of that rushing crowd?"
Before she answered, muttering "After the mistress, the maid," Nehushta swallowed a deep draught of water in her turn, which, indeed, she needed sorely. Then she told her all.
"Oh! Nou," said Rachel, "how strong and brave you are! But for you I should be dead."
"But for God, you mean, mistress, for I hold that He sent that knife- point home."
"Did you kill the man?" asked Rachel.
"I think that he died by a dagger-thrust as Anna foretold," she answered evasively; "and that reminds me that I had better clean the knife, since blood on the blade is evidence against its owner." Then drawing the dagger from its hiding-place she rubbed it with dust, which she took from a loop-hole, and polished it bright with a piece of hide.
Scarcely was this task accomplished to Nehushta's satisfaction when her quick ears caught a sound.
"For your life, be silent," she whispered, and laid her face sideways to a crack in the cement floor and listened. Well might she listen, for below were three soldiers searching for her and her mistress.
"The old fellow swore that he saw a Libyan woman carrying a lady down this street," said one of them, the petty officer in charge, to his companion, "and there was but a single brown-skin in the lot; so if they aren't here I don't know where they can be."
"Well," grumbled one of the soldiers, "this place is as empty as a drum, so we may as well be going. There'll be fun presently which I don't want to miss."
"It was the black woman who knifed our friend Rufus, wasn't it--in the theatre there?" asked the third soldier.
"They say so; but as he was trodden as flat as a roof-board, and they had to take him up in pieces, it is difficult to know the truth of that matter. Anyhow his mates are anxious to get the lady, and I should be sorry to die as she will, when they do, or her mistress either. They have leave to finish them in their own fashion."
"Hadn't we best be going?" said the first soldier, who evidently was anxious to keep some appointment.
"Hullo!" exclaimed the second, a sharp-eyed fellow, "there's a stair; we had better just look up it."
"Not much use," answered the officer. "That old thief Amram, the corn- merchant, has a store there, and he isn't one of the sort to leave it unlocked. Still, just go and see."
Then came the sound of footsteps on the stair, and presently a man could be heard fumbling at the further side of the door. Rachel shut her eyes and prayed; Nehushta, drawing the knife from her bosom, crept towards the doorway like a tigress, and placed her left hand on the stick that held it shut. Well it was that she did so, since presently the soldier gave a savage push that might easily have caused the wood to slip on the cemented floor. Now, satisfied that it was really locked, he turned and went down the steps.
With a gasp of relief Nehushta once more set her ear to the crack.
"It's fast enough," reported the man, "but perhaps it might be as well to get the key from Amram and have a look."
"Friend," said the officer, "I think that you must be in love with this black lady; or is it her mistress whom you admire? I shall recommend you for the post of Christian-catcher to the cohort. Now we'll try that house at the corner, and if they are not there, I am off to the palace to see how his godship is getting on with that stomach-ache and whether it has moved him to order payment of our arrears. If he hasn't, I tell you flatly that I mean to help myself to something, and so do the rest of the lads, who are mad at the stopping of the games."
"It would be much better to get that key from Amram and have a look upstairs," put in number two soldier reflectively.
"Then go to Amram, or to Pluto, and ask for the key of Hades for aught I care!" replied his superior with irritation. "He lives about a league off at the other end of the town."
"I do not wish for the walk," said the conscientious soldier; "but as we are searching for these escaped Christians, by your leave, I do think it would have been much better to have got that key from Amram and peeped into the chamber upstairs."
Thereon the temper of the officer, already ruffled by the events of the morning and the long watch of the preceding night, gave way, and he departed, consigning the Christians, escaped or recaptured, Amram and the key, his subordinate, and even the royal Agrippa who did not pay his debts, to every infernal god of every religion with which he was acquainted.
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