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- Pearl-Maiden - 70/74 -


must go elsewhere."

The girl reflected to herself that it would be a pity if the order were lost, and with it the commission which she might divide with the maker of the lamp. "It is against the rules, but I will show you where she lives," she said, "and if she is there, which is probable, for I have never seen her or her companion go out at night, you can tell her your wishes."

Caleb thanked the girl and followed her through sundry tortuous lanes to a court surrounded by old houses.

"If you go in there," she said, pointing to a certain doorway, "and climb to the top of the stairs, I forget whether there are three or four flights, you will find the makers of the lamp in the roof-rooms-- oh! sir, I thank you, but I expected nothing. Good-night."

At length Caleb stood at the head of the stairs, which were both steep, narrow, and in the dark hard to climb. Before him, at the end of a rickety landing, a small ill-fitting door stood ajar. There was light within the room beyond, and from it came a sound of voices. Caleb crept up to the door and listened, for as the floor below was untenanted he knew that none could see him. Bending down he looked through the space between the door and its framework and his heart stood still. There, standing full in the lamplight, clothed in a pure white robe, for her rough working dress lay upon a stool beside her, was Miriam herself, her elbow leaning on the curtained window-place. She was talking to Nehushta, who, her back bent almost double over a little charcoal fire, was engaged in cooking their supper.

"Think," she was saying, "only think, Nou, our last night in this hateful city, and then, instead of that stifling workshop and the terror of Domitian, the open sea and the fresh salt wind and nobody to fear but God. /Luna!/ Is it not a beautiful name for a ship? I can see her, all silver----"

"Peace," said Nehushta. "Are you mad, girl, to talk so loud? I though I heard a sound upon the stairs just now."

"It is only the rats," answered Miriam cheerfully, "no one ever comes up here. I tell you that were it not for Marcus I could weep with joy."

Caleb crept back to the head of the stairs and down several steps, which he began to re-ascend noisily, grumbling at their gloom and steepness. Then, before the women even had time to shut the door, he thrust it wide and walked straight into the room.

"Your pardon," he began, then added quietly, "Why, Miriam, when we parted on the gate Nicanor, who could have foretold that we should live to meet again here in a Roman attic? And you, Nehushta. Why, we were separated in the fray outside the Temple walls, though, indeed, I think that I saw you in a strange place some months ago, namely, the slave-ring on the Forum."

"Caleb," asked Miriam in a hollow voice, "what is your business here?"

"Well, Miriam, it began with a desire for a replica of this lamp, which reminds me of a spot familiar to my childhood. Do you remember it? Now that I have found who is the lamp's maker----"

"Cease fooling," broke in Nehushta. "Bird of ill-omen, you have come to drag your prey back to the shame and ruin which she has escaped."

"I was not always called thus," answered Caleb, flushing, "when I rescued you from the house at Tyre for instance, or when I risked my life, Miriam, to throw you food upon the gate Nicanor. Nay, I come to save you from Domitian----"

"And to take her for yourself," answered Nehushta. "Oh! we Christians also have eyes to see and ears to hear, and, black-hearted traitor that you are, we know all your shame. We know of your bargain with the chamberlain of Domitian, by which the body of the slave was to be the price of the life of her buyer. We know how you swore away the honour of your rival, Marcus, with false testimony, and how from week to week you have quartered Rome as a vulture quarters the sky till at length you have smelt out the quarry. Well, she is helpless, but One is strong, and may His vengeance fall upon your life and soul."

Suddenly Nehushta's voice, that had risen to a scream, died away, and she stood before him threatening him with her bony fists, and searching his face with her burning eyes, a vengeance incarnate.

"Peace, woman, peace," said Caleb, shrinking back before her. "Spare your reproaches; if I have sinned much it is because I have loved more----"

"And hate most of all," added Nehushta.

"Oh! Caleb," broke in Miriam, "if as you say you love me, why should you deal thus with me? You know well that I do not love you after this sort, no, and never can, and even if you keep me from Domitian, who does but make a tool of you, what would it advantage you to take a woman who leaves her heart elsewhere? Also I may never marry you for that same reason that I may not marry Marcus, because my faith is and must remain apart from yours. Would you make a base slave of your old playmate, Caleb? Would you bring her to the level of a dancing-girl? Oh! let me go in peace."

"Upon the ship /Luna/," said Caleb sullenly.

Miriam gasped! So he knew their plans.

"Yes," she replied desperately, "upon the ship /Luna/, to find such a fate as Heaven may give me; at least to be at peace and free. For your soul's sake, Caleb, let me go. Once years ago you swore that you would not force yourself upon me against my will. Will you break that oath to-day?"

"I swore also, Miriam, that it should go ill with any man who came between you and me. Shall I break that oath to-day? Give yourself to me of your own will and save Marcus. Refuse and I will bring him to his death. Choose now between me and your lover's life."

"Are you a coward that you should lay such a choice upon me, Caleb?"

"Call me what you will. Choose."

Miriam clasped her hands and for a moment stood looking upwards. Then a light of purpose grew upon her face and she answered:

"Caleb, I have chosen. Do your worst. The fate of Marcus is not in my hands, or your hands, but in the hands of God; nor, unless He wills it, can one hair of his head be harmed by you or by Domitian. For is it not written in the book of your own Law that 'the King's heart is in the hand of the Lord, he turneth it whithersoever he will.' But my honour is my own, and to stain it would be a sin for which I alone must answer to Heaven and to Marcus, dead or living--Marcus, who would curse and spit upon me did I attempt to buy his safety at such a price."

"Is that your last word, Miriam?"

"It is. If it pleases you by false witness and by murder to destroy the man who once spared you, then if such a thing be suffered, have your will and reap its fruits. I make no bargain with you, for myself or for him--do your worst to both of us."

"So be it," said Caleb with a bitter laugh, "but I think that the ship /Luna/ will lack her fairest passenger."

Miriam sank down upon a seat and covered her face with her hands, a piteous sight in her misery and the terror which, notwithstanding her bold words, she could not conceal. Caleb walked to the door and paused there, while the white-haired Nehushta stood by the brazier of charcoal and watched them both with her fierce eyes. Presently Caleb glanced round at Miriam crouched by the window and a strange new look came into his face.

"I cannot do it," he said slowly, each word falling heavily from his lips like single rain-drops from a cloud, or the slow blood from a mortal wound.

Miriam let her hands slip from her face and stared at him.

"Miriam," he said, "you are right; I have sinned against you and this man Marcus. Now I will expiate my sin. Your secret is safe with me, and since you hate me I will never see you more. Miriam, we look upon each other for the last time. Further, if I can, I will work for the deliverance of Marcus and help him to join you in Tyre, whither the /Luna/ is bound--is she not? Farewell?"

Once again he turned to go, but it would seem that his eyes were blinded, or his brain was dulled by the agony that worked within. At least Caleb caught his foot in the ancient uneven boards, stumbled, and fell heavily upon his face. Instantly, with a low hiss of hate and a spring like that of a cat, Nehushta was upon him. Thrusting her knees upon his back she seized the nape of his neck with her left hand and with her right drew a dagger from her bosom.

"Forbear!" said Miriam. "Touch him with that knife and we part forever. Nay, I mean it. I myself will hand you to the officer, even if he hales me to Domitian."

Then Nehushta rose to her feet.

"Fool!" she said, "fool, to trust to that man of double moods, whose mercy to-night will be vengeance to-morrow. Oh! you are undone! Alas! you are undone!"

Regaining his feet Caleb looked at her contemptuously.

"Had you stabbed she might have been undone indeed," he said. "Now, as of old, there is little wisdom in that gray head of yours, Nehushta; nor can your hate suffer you to understand the intermingled good and evil of my heart." Then he advanced to Miriam, lifted her hand and kissed it. With a sudden movement she proffered him her brow.

"Nay," he said, "tempt me not, it is not for me. Farewell."

Another instant and he was gone.

It would seem that Caleb kept his word, for three days later the vessel /Luna/ sailed unmolested from the port of Ostia in the charge of the Greek captain Hector, having on board Miriam, Nehushta, Julia, and Gallus.

Within a week of this sailing Titus at length returned to Rome. Here


Pearl-Maiden - 70/74

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