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- Pearl-Maiden - 60/74 -
Now they were at the side door of the house, which Stephanus was unlocking with his key.
"Quick," said Nehushta, "I hear footsteps."
The door opened and they passed in, but at that moment one went by them, pausing to look until the door closed again.
"Who was that?" asked Stephanus nervously.
"He whom they called Demetrius, the merchant of Alexandria, but whom once I knew by another name," answered Nehushta in a slow voice while Stephanus barred the door.
They walked through the archway into an antechamber lit by a single lamp, leaving Stephanus still occupied with his bolts and chains. Here with a sudden motion Nehushta threw off her cloak and tore the veil from her brow. In another instant, uttering a low, crooning cry, she flung her long arms about Miriam and began to kiss her again and again on the face.
"My darling," she moaned, "my darling."
"Tell me what it all means, Nou," said the poor girl faintly.
"It means that God has heard my prayers and suffered my old feet to overtake you in time, and provided the wealth to preserve you from a dreadful fate."
"Whose wealth? Where am I?" asked Miriam.
Nehushta made no answer, only she unstrapped the basket from Miriam's back and unclasped the cloak from about her shoulders. Then, taking her by the hand, she led her into a lighted passage and thence through a door into a great and splendid room spread with rich carpets and adorned with costly furniture and marble images. At the end of this room was a table lighted by two lamps, and on the further side of this table sat a man as though he were asleep, for his face was hidden upon his arms. Miriam saw him and clung to Nehushta trembling.
"Hush!" whispered her guide, and they stood still in the shadow.
The man lifted his head so that the light fell full upon it, and Miriam saw that it was Marcus. Marcus grown older and with a patch of grey hair upon his temple where the sword of Caleb had struck him, very worn and tired-looking also, but still Marcus and no other. He was speaking to himself.
"I can bear it no longer," he said. "Thrice have I been to the gate and still no sign. Doubtless the plan has miscarried and by now she is in the palace of Domitian. I will go forth and learn the worst," and he rose from the table.
"Speak to him," whispered Nehushta, pushing Miriam forward.
She advanced into the circle of the lamplight, but as yet Marcus did not see her, for he had gone to the window-place to find a cloak that lay there. Then he turned and saw her. Before him in her robe of white, the soft light shining on her gentle loveliness, stood Miriam. He stared at her bewildered.
"Do I dream?" he said.
"Nay, Marcus," she answered in her sweet voice, "you do not dream. I am Miriam."
In an instant he was at her side and held her in his arms, nor did she resist him, for after so many fears and sufferings they seemed to her a home.
"Loose me, I pray you," she said at length, "I am faint, I can bear no more."
At her entreaty he suffered her to sink upon the cushions of a couch that was at hand.
"Tell me, tell me everything," he said.
"Ask it of Nehushta," she answered, leaning back. "I am spent."
Nehushta ran to her side and began to chafe her hands. "Let be with your questions," she said. "I bought her, that's enough. Ask that old huckster, Stephanus, the price. But first in the name of charity give her food. Those who have walked through a Triumph to end the day on the slave block need victuals."
"It is here, it is here," Marcus said confusedly, "such as there is." Taking a lamp he led the way to a table that was placed in the shadow, where stood some meat and fruit with flagons of rich coloured wine and pure water and shallow silver cups to drink from.
Putting her arm about Miriam's waist, Nehushta supported her to the table and sat her down upon one of the couches. Then she poured out wine and put it to her lips, and cut meat and made her swallow it till Miriam would touch no more. Now the colour came back to her face, and her eyes grew bright again, and resting there upon the couch, she listened while Nehushta told Marcus all the story of the slave sale.
"Well done," he said, laughing in his old merry fashion, "well done, indeed! Oh! what favouring god put it into the head of that honest old miser, Stephanus, from year to year to hoard up all that sum of gold against an hour of sudden need which none could foresee!"
"My God and hers," answered Nehushta solemnly, "to Whom if He give you space, you should be thankful, which, by the way, is more than Stephanus is, who has seen so much of your savings squandered in an hour."
"Your savings?" said Miriam, looking up. "Did you buy me, Marcus?"
"I suppose so, beloved," he answered.
"Then, then, I am your slave?"
"Not so, Miriam," he replied nervously. "As you know well, it is I who am yours. All I ask of you is that you should become my wife."
"That cannot be, Marcus," she answered in a kind of cry. "You know that it cannot be."
His face turned pale.
"After all that has come and gone between us, Miriam, do you still say so?"
"I still say so."
"You could give your life for me, and yet you will not give your life to me?"
"For the reasons that I gave you yonder by the banks of Jordan; because those who begat me laid on me the charge that I should marry none who is not a Christian. How then can I marry you?"
Marcus thought a moment.
"Does the book of your law forbid it?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, but the dead forbid it, and rather will I join them than break their command."
Again Marcus thought and spoke.
"Well, then, since I must, I will become a Christian."
She looked at him sadly and answered:
"It is not enough. Do you remember what I told you far away in the village of the Essenes, that this is no matter of casting incense on an altar, but rather one of a changed spirit. When you can say those words from your heart as well as with your lips, then, Marcus, I will listen to you, but unless God calls you this you can never do."
"What then do you propose?" he asked.
"I? I have not had time to think. To go away, I suppose."
"To Domitian?" he queried. "Nay, forgive me, but a sore heart makes bitter lips."
"I am glad you asked forgiveness for those words, Marcus," she said quivering. "What need is there to insult a slave?"
The word seemed to suggest a new train of thought to Marcus.
"Yes," he said, "a slave--my slave whom I have bought at a great price. Well, why should I let you go? I am minded to keep you."
"Marcus, you can keep me if you will, but then your sin against your own honour will be greater even than your sin against me."
"Sin!" he said, passionately. "What sin? You say you cannot marry me, not because you do not wish it, if I understand you right, but for other reasons which have weight, at any rate with you. But the dead give no command as to whom you should love."
"No, my love is my own, but if it is not lawful it can be denied."
"Why should it be denied?" he asked softly and coming towards her. "Is there not much between you and me? Did not you, brave and blessed woman that you are, risk your life for my sake in the Old Tower at Jerusalem? Did you not for my sake stand there upon the gate Nicanor to perish miserably? And I, though it be little, have I not done something for you? Have I not so soon as your message reached me, journeyed here to Rome, at the cost, perhaps, of what I value more than life--my honour?"
"Your honour?" she asked. "Why your honour?"
"Because those who have been taken prisoner by the enemy and escaped are held to be cowards among the Romans," he answered bitterly, "and it may be that such a lot awaits me."
"Coward! You a coward, Marcus?"
"Aye. When it is known that I live, that is what my enemies will call
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