Chapter 28




WOMAN'S LOVE


Pelagia had passed that night alone in sleepless sorrow, which was not diminished by her finding herself the next morning palpably a prisoner in her own house. Her girls told her that they had orders--they would not say from whom--to prevent her leaving her own apartments. And though some of them made the announcement with sighs and tears of condolence, yet more than one, she could see, was well inclined to make her feel that her power was over, and that there were others besides herself who might aspire to the honour of reigning favourite.

What matter to her? Whispers, sneers, and saucy answers fell on her ear unheeded. She had one idol, and she had lost it; one power, and it had failed her. In the heaven above, and in the earth beneath, was neither peace, nor help, nor hope; nothing but black, blank, stupid terror and despair. The little weak infant soul, which had just awakened in her, had been crushed and stunned in its very birth-hour; and instinctively she crept away to the roof of the tower where her apartments were, to sit and weep alone.

There she sat, hour after hour, beneath the shade of the large windsail, which served in all Alexandrian houses the double purpose of a shelter from the sun and a ventilator for the rooms below; and her eye roved carelessly over that endless sea of roofs and towers, and masts, and glittering canals, and gliding boats; but she saw none of them--nothing but one beloved face, lost, lost for ever.

At last a low whistle roused her from her dream. She looked up. Across the narrow lane, from one of the embrasures of the opposite house-parapet bright eyes were peering at her. She moved angrily to escape them.

The whistle was repeated, and a head rose cautiously above the parapet .... It was Miriam's. Casting a careful look around, Pelagia went forward. What could the old woman want with her?

Miriam made interrogative signs, which Pelagia understood as asking her whether she was alone; and the moment that an answer in the negative was returned, Miriam rose, tossed over to her feet a letter weighted with a pebble, and then vanished again.

'I have watched here all day! They refused me admittance below. Beware of Wulf, of every one. Do not stir from your chamber. There is a plot to carry you off to-night, and give you up to your brother the monk; you are betrayed; be brave!'

Pelagia read it with blanching cheek and staring eyes; and took, at least, the last part of Miriam's advice. For walking down the stair, she passed proudly through her own rooms, and commanding back the girls who would have stayed her, with a voice and gesture at which they quailed, went straight down, the letter in her hand, to the apartment where the Amal usually spent his mid-day hours.

As she approached the door, she heard loud voices within .... His!--yes; but Wulf's also. Her heart failed her, and she stopped a moment to listen .... She heard Hypatia's name; and mad with curiosity, crouched down at the lock, and hearkened to every word.

'She will not accept me, Wulf.'

'If she will not, she shall go farther and fare worse. Besides, I tell you, she is hard run. It is her last chance, and she will jump at it. The Christians are mad with her; if a storm blows up, her life is not worth--that!'

'It is a pity that we have not brought her hither already.'

'It is; but we could not. We must not break with Orestes till the palace is in our hands.'

'And will it ever be in our hands, friend?'

'Certain. We were round at every picquet last night, and the very notion of an Amal's heading them made them so eager, that we had to bribe them to be quiet rather than to rise.'

'Odin! I wish I were among them now!'

'Wait till the city rises. If the day pass over without a riot, I know nothing. The treasure is all on board, is it not?'

'Yes, and the galleys ready. I have been working like a horse at them all the morning, as you would let me do nothing else. And Goderic will not be back from the palace, you say, till nightfall!'

'If we are attacked first, we are to throw up a fire signal to him, and he is to come off hither with what Goths he can muster. If the palace is attacked first, he is to give us the signal, and we are to pack up and row round thither. And in the meanwhile he is to make that hound of a Greek prefect as drunk as he can.'

'The Greek will see him under the table. He has drugs, I know, as all these Roman rascals have, to sober him when he likes; and then he sets to work and drinks again. Send off old Smid, and let him beat the armourer if he can.'

'A very good thought!' said Wulf, and came out instantly for the purpose of putting it in practice.

Pelagia had just time to retreat into an adjoining doorway: but she had heard enough; and as Wulf passed, she sprang to him and caught him by the arm.

'Oh, come in hither! Speak to me one moment; for mercy's sake speak to me!' and she drew him, half against his will, into the chamber, and throwing herself at his feet, broke out into a childlike wail.

Wulf stood silent, utterly discomfited by this unexpected submission, where he had expected petulant and artful resistance. He almost felt guilty and ashamed, as he looked down into that beautiful imploring face, convulsed with simple sorrow, as of a child for a broken toy. .... At last she spoke.

'Oh, what have I done-what have I done? Why must you take him from me? What have I done but love him, honour him, worship him? I know you love him; and I love you for it.--I do indeed! But you--what is your love to mine? Oh, I would die for him--be torn in pieces for him--now, this moment! ....

Wulf was silent.

'What have I done but love him? What could I wish but to make him happy? I was rich enough, praised, and petted; .... and then he came, .... glorious as he is, like a god among men--among apes rather--and I worshipped him: was I wrong in that? I gave up all for him: was I wrong in that? I gave him myself: what could I do more? He condescended to like me--he the hero! Could I help submitting? I loved him: could I help loving him? Did I wrong him in that? Cruel, cruel Wulf! ....'

Wulf was forced to be stern, or he would have melted at once.

'And what was your love worth to him? What has it done for him? It has made him a sot, an idler, a laughing-stock to these Greek dogs, when he might have been their conqueror, their king. Foolish woman, who cannot see that your love has been his bane, his ruin! He, who ought by now to have been sitting upon the throne of the Ptolemies, the lord of all south of the Mediterranean--as he shall be still!'

Pelagia looked tip at him wide-eyed, as if her mind was taking in slowly some vast new thought, under the weight of which it reeled already. Then she rose slowly.

'And he might be Emperor of Africa.'

'And be shall be; but not--'

'Not with me!' she almost shrieked. 'No! not with wretched, ignorant, polluted me! I see--oh God, I see it all! And this is why you want him to marry her--her--'

She could not utter the dreaded name.

Wulf could not trust himself to speak; but he bowed his head in acquiescence.

'Yes--I will go--up into the desert--with Philammon--and you shall never hear of me again. And I will be a nun, and pray for him, that he may be a great king, and conquer all the world. You will tell him why I went away, will you not? Yes, I will go,--now, at once--'

She turned away hurriedly, as if to act upon her promise, and then she sprang again to Wulf with a sudden shudder.

'I cannot, Wulf!--I cannot leave him! I shall go mad if I do! Do not be angry;--I will promise anything--take any oath you like, if you will only let me stay here. Only as a slave--as anything--if I may but look at him sometimes. No--not even that--but to be tinder the same roof with him, only--Oh, let me be but a slave in the kitchen! I will make over all I have to him--to you--to any one! And you shall tell him that I am gone--dead, if you will.--Only let me stay! And I will wear rags, and grind in the mill .... Even that will be delicious, to know that he is eating the bread which I have made! And if I ever dare speak to him--even to come near hint--let the steward hang me up by the wrists, and whip me, like the slave which I deserve to be! ....And then shall I soon grow old and ugly with grief, and--there will be no more danger then, dear Wulf, will there, from this accursed face of mine? Only promise me that, and-- There he is calling you! Don't let him come in and see me!--I cannot bear it! Go to him, quick, and tell him all.--No, don't tell him yet....'

And she sank down again on the floor, as Wulf went out murmuring to himself--

'Poor child! poor child! well for thee this clay if thou wert dead, and at the bottom of Hela!'

And Pelagia heard what he said.

Gradually, amid sobs and tears, and stormy confusion of impossible hopes and projects, those words took root in her mind, and spread, till they filled her whole heart and brain.

'Well for me if I were dead?'

And she rose slowly.

'Well for me if I were dead? And why not? Then it would indeed be all settled. There would be no more danger from poor little Pelagia then....'

She went slowly, firmly, proudly, into the well-known chamber .... She threw herself upon the bed, and covered the pillow with kisses. Her eye fell on the Amal's sword, which hung across the bed's-head, after the custom of Gothic warriors. She seized it, and took it down, shuddering.

'Yes! .... Let it be with this, if it must be. And it must be. I cannot bear it! Anything but shame! To have fancied all my life-- vain fool that I was!--that every one loved and admired me, and to find that they were despising me, hating me, all along! Those students at the lecture-room door told me I was despised. The old monk told me so--Fool that I was! I forgot it next day!--For he--he loved me still!--All--how could I believe them, till his own lips had said it? .... Intolerable! .... And yet women as bad as I am have been honoured--when they were dead. What was that song which I used to sing about Epicharis, who hung herself in the litter, and Leaina, who bit out her tongue, lest the torture should drive them to betray their lovers? There used to be a statue of Leaina, they say, at Athens,--a lioness without a tongue .... And whenever I sang the song, the theatre used to rise, and shout, and call them noble and blessed .... I never could tell why then; but I know now!--I know now! Perhaps they may call me noble, after all. At least, they may say "She was a--a--but she dare die for the man she loved!" .... Ay, but God despises me too, and elates me. He will send me to eternal fire. Philammon said so--though he was my brother. The old monk said so--though he wept as he said it .... The flames of hell for ever! Oh, not for ever! Great, dreadful God! Not for ever! Indeed, I did not know! No one taught me about right and wrong, and I never knew that I had been baptized--Indeed, I never knew! And it was so pleasant--so pleasant to be happy, and praised, and loved, and to see happy faces round me. How could I help it? The birds there who are singing in the darling, beloved court--they do what they like, and Thou art not angry with them for being happy! And Thou wilt not be more cruel to me than to them, great God--for what did I know more than they? Thou hast made the beautiful sunshine, and the pleasant, pleasant world, and the flowers, and the birds--Thou wilt not send me to burn for ever and ever? Will not a hundred years be punishment enough-or a thousand? Oh God! is not this punishment enough already,--to have to leave him, just as just as I am beginning to long to be good, and to be worthy of him? .... Oh, have mercy--mercy--mercy--and let me go after I have been punished enough! Why may I not turn into a bird, or even a worm, and come back again out of that horrible place, to see the sun shine, and the flowers grow once more? Oh, am I not punishing myself already? Will not this help to atone? .... Yes--I will die!--and perhaps so God may pity me!'

And with trembling hands she drew the sword from its sheath and covered the blade with kisses.

'Yes--on this sword--with which he won his battles. That is right-- his to the last! How keen and cold it looks! Will it be very painful? .... No--I will not try the point, or my heart might fail me. I will fall on it at once: let it hurt me as it may, it will be too late to draw back then. And after all it is his sword--It will not have the heart to torture me much. And yet he struck me himself this morning!'

And at that thought, a long wild cry of misery broke from her lips, and rang through the house. Hurriedly she fastened the sword upright to the foot of the bed, and tore open her tunic .... 'Here --under this widowed bosom, where his head will never lie again! There are footsteps in the passage! Quick, Pelagia! Now--'

And she threw up her arms wildly, in act to fall....

'It is his step! And he will find me, and never know that it is for him I die!'

The Amal tried the door. It was fast. With a single blow he burst it open, and demanded--

'What was that shriek? What is the meaning of this? Pelagia!'

Pelagia, like a child caught playing with a forbidden toy, hid her face in her hands and cowered down.

'What is it?' cried he, lifting her.

But she burst from his arms.

'No, no!--never more! I am not worthy of you! Let me die, wretch that I am! I can only drag you down. You must be a king. You must marry her--the wise woman!'

'Hypatia! She is dead!'

'Dead?' shrieked Pelagia.

'Murdered, an hour ago, by those Christian devils.'

Pelagia put her hands over her eyes, and burst into tears. Were they of pity or of joy? ....She did not ask herself; and we will not ask her.

'Where is my sword? Soul of Odin! Why is it fastened here?'

'I was going to--Do not be angry! .... They told me that I had better die, and--

The Amal stood thunderstruck for a moment.

'Oh, do not strike me again! Send me to the mill. Kill me now with your own hand! Anything but another blow!'

'A blow?--Noble woman!'cried the Amal, clasping her in his arms.

The storm was past; and Pelagia had been nestling to that beloved heart, cooing like a happy dove, for many a minute before the Amal aroused himself and her....

'Now!--quick! We have not a moment to lose. Up to the tower, where you will be safe; and then to show these curs what comes of snarling round the wild wolves' den!'




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