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- Pearl-Maiden - 6/74 -
Nehushta lifted her head from the floor.
"Thanks be to God! They are gone," she said.
"But, Nou, will they not come back? Oh! I fear lest they should come back."
"I think not. That sharp-nosed rat has made the other angry, and I believe that he will find him some harder task than the seeking of a key from Amram. Still, there is danger that this Amram may appear himself to visit his store, for in these days of festival he is sure to be selling grain to the bakers."
Scarcely were the words out of her mouth when a key rattled, the door was pushed sharply, and the piece of wood slipped and fell. Then the hinges creaked, and Amram--none other--entered, and, closing the door behind him, locked it, leaving the key in the lock.
Amram was a shrewd-faced, middle-aged Phnician and, like most Phnicians of that day, a successful trader, this corn-store representing only one branch of his business. For the rest he was clad in a quiet-coloured robe and cap, and to all appearance unarmed.
Having locked the door, he walked to a little table, beneath which stood a box containing his tablets whereon were entered the amounts of corn bought and delivered, to come face to face with Nehushta. Instantly she slid between him and the door.
"Who in the name of Moloch are you?" he asked, stepping back astonished, to perceive as he did so, Rachel seated on the heap of sacks; "and you," he added. "Are you spirits, thieves, ladies in search of a lodging, or--perchance those two Christians whom the soldiers are looking for in yonder house?"
"We are the two Christians," said Rachel desperately. "We fled from the amphitheatre, and have taken refuge here, where they nearly found us."
"This," said Amram solemnly, "comes of not locking one's office. Do not misunderstand me; it was no fault of mine. A certain apprentice is to blame, to whom I shall have a word to say. In fact, I think that I will say it at once," and he stepped towards the door.
"Indeed you will not," interrupted Nehushta.
"And pray, my Libyan friend, how will you prevent me?"
"My putting a knife into your gizzard, as I did through that of the renegade Rufus an hour or two ago! Ah! I see you have heard the story."
Amram considered, then replied:
"And what if I also have a knife?"
"In that case," said Nehushta, "draw it, and we will see which is the better, man or woman. Merchant, your weapon is your pen. You have not a chance with me, an Arab of Libya, and you know it."
"Yes," answered Amram, "I think I do; you desert folk are so reckless and athletic. Also, to be frank, as you may have guessed, I am unarmed. Now, what do you propose?"
"I propose that you get us safely out of Cęsarea, or, if you prefer it, that we shall all die here in this grain-store, for, by whatever god you worship, Phnician, before a hand is laid upon my mistress or me, this knife goes through your heart. I owe no love to your people, who bought me, a king's daughter, as a slave, and I shall be quite happy to close my account with one of them. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, perfectly. Why show such temper? The affair is one of business; let us discuss it in a business spirit. You wish to escape from Cęsarea; I wish you to escape from my grain-store. Let me go out and arrange the matter."
"On a plank; not otherwise unless we accompany you," answered Nehushta. "Man, why do you waste words with us. Listen. This lady is the only child of Benoni, the great merchant of Tyre. Doubtless you know him?"
"To my cost," replied Amram, with a bow. "Three times has he overreached me in various bargains."
"Very well; then you know also that he is rich and will pay him liberally who rescues his daughter from great peril."
"He might do so, but I am not sure."
"I am sure," answered Nehushta, "and for this service my mistress here will give you a bill for any reasonable sum drawn upon her father."
"Yes, but the question is--will he honour it? Benoni is a prejudiced man, a very prejudiced man, a Jew of the Jew, who--does not like Christians."
"I think that he will honour it, I believe that he will honour it; but that risk is yours. See here, merchant, a doubtful draft is better than a slit throat."
"Quite so. The argument is excellent. But you desire to escape. If you keep me here, how can I arrange the matter?"
"That is for you to consider. You do not leave this place except in our company, and then at the first sign of danger I drive this knife home between your shoulders. Meanwhile my mistress is ready to sign any moderate draft upon her father."
"It is not necessary. Under the circumstances I think that I will trust to the generosity of my fellow trader Benoni. Meanwhile I assure you that nothing will give me greater happiness than to fall in with your views. Believe me, I have no prejudice against Christians, since those of them whom I have met were always honest and paid their debts in full. I do not wish to see you or your mistress eaten by lions or tortured. I shall be very glad to think that you are following the maxims of your peculiar faith to an extreme old age, anywhere, outside the limits of my grain-store. The question is, how can I help you do this? At present I see no way."
"The question is--how will you manage to keep your life in you over the next twelve hours?" answered Nehushta grimly. "Therefore I advise you to find a way"; and to emphasise her words she turned, and, having made sure that the door was locked, slipped its key into the bosom of her dress.
Amram stared at her in undisguised admiration. "I would that I were unmarried," he said, "which is not the case," and he sighed; "for then, upon my word, I should be inclined to make a certain proposal to you----"
"Nehushta--that is my name----"
"Nehushta--exactly. Well, it is out of the question."
"Therefore I have a suggestion to make. To-night a ship of mine sails for Tyre. Will you honour me by accepting a passage on her?"
"Certainly," answered Nehushta, "provided that you accompany us."
"It was not my intention to go to Tyre this voyage."
"Then your intention can be changed. Look you, we are desperate, and our lives are at stake. Your life is also at stake, and I swear to you, by the Holy One we worship, that before any harm comes to my mistress you shall die. Then what will your wealth and your schemes avail you in the grave? It is a little thing we ask of you--to help two innocent people to escape from this accursed city. Will you grant it? Or shall I put this dagger through your throat? Answer, and at once, or I strike and bury you in your own corn."
Even in that light Amram turned visibly paler. "I accept your terms," he said. "At nightfall I will conduct you to the ship, which sails two hours after sunset with the evening wind. I will accompany you to Tyre and deliver the lady over to her father, trusting to his liberality for my reward. Meanwhile, this place is hot. That ladder leads to the roof, which is parapeted, so that those sitting or even standing there, cannot be seen. Shall we ascend?"
"If you go first; and remember, should you attempt to call out, my knife is always ready."
"Of that I am quite aware--you have said so several times. I have passed my words, and I do not go back upon my bargains. The stars are with you, and, come what may, I obey them."
Accordingly they ascended to the roof, Amram going first, Nehushta following him, and Rachel bringing up the rear. On it, projecting inward from the parapet, was a sloping shelter once made use of by the look-out sentry in bad or hot weather. The change from the stifling store below with its stench of ill-cured hides, to this lofty, shaded spot, where the air moved freely, was so pleasant to Rachel, outworn as she was with all she had gone through, that presently she fell asleep, not to wake again till evening. Nehushta, however, who did not go to sleep, and Amram, employed themselves in watching the events that passed in the city below. From this height they could see the great square surrounding the palace, and the strange scenes being enacted therein. It was crowded by thousands of people, for the most part seated on the ground, clad in garments of sack-cloth and throwing dust upon the heads of themselves, their wives and children. From all this multitude a voice of supplication rose to heaven, which, even at that distance, reached the ears of Nehushta and her companion in a murmur of sound, constant and confused.
"They pray that the king may live," said Amram.
"And I pray that he may die," answered Nehushta.
The merchant shrugged his shoulders. "I care nothing either way, provided that the peace is not disturbed to the injury of trade. On the whole, however, he is a good king who causes money to be spent, which is what kings are for--in Judęa--where they are but feathers puffed up by the breath of Cęsar, to fall if he cease to blow. But look!"
As he spoke, a figure appeared upon the steps of the palace who made some communication to the crowd, whereon a great wail went up to the very skies.
"You have your wish," said Amram; "Herod is dead or dying, and now, I
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