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The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter XI THE HOUSE OF OFFENSE

On his way to the oaken door that was for ever double-barred, in that small hall which led to the apartments of Amaryllis' corps of artists, Philadelphus met Salome, the actress. He would have passed her without a word, but the woman, armed with the nettle of a small triumph over the man who held her in contempt, could not forbear piercing him as he passed.

|Hieing away to excite your disappointment further?| she said. |Has the forlorn lady convinced you, yet, that she is indeed your wife?|

|Had I that two hundred talents, I would confess her!| he declared.

|Cruel obstacle! But that two hundred talents is locked away safely, out of your reach. Why do you not run away with this pretty creature?|

Philadelphus glowered at her.

|I have been known to make way with those who stood in my way,| he declared.

|I sleep with my door locked,| she answered, |and I ever face you. I need never be afraid, therefore.|

For a moment he was silent, while she sensed that overweening hate and menace which charged the air about him.

|It is not all as it should be,| he said finally. |You are not rid of me. I shall stay.|

|You should,| she responded comfortably. |You are a show of domesticity which lends color to our claim of wedded state. But you may go or stay. As usual, you are not essential.|

|I have been known to be superfluous. However it may be, I get much pleasure in the companionship of this lovely creature, the single flaw in the fine fabric of your villainy. Do not fear her convincing me. She might convince others.|

There was no response; after a silence he said as he moved on:

|I shall warn her to feed a morsel of her food to the parrots ere she tastes it, however.|

He was gone. The woman felt of the keys that swung under the folds of her robes. Then she, too, went on.

The oaken door was still fast closed when Philadelphus reached it, but he knew that the girl, who lived within, came out to walk in the sunshine of Amaryllis' court at certain hours while the household was engaged within doors.

He had not long to wait. She came out in a little while, and glanced up and down the hall; but he had heard the turn of the bolt and had stepped into shadow in time. Reassured that no one was near, she emerged and passing down the hall entered the court.

And there presently he joined her.

He sat down on one of the stone seats and smiled at her.

|Do I appear excited?| he asked.

She glanced at him indifferently.

|No,| she said.

|I have this day seen destruction resolved for the city.|

She took his easy declaration with a frown. If it were true he should not show that flippancy; if it were not he should not have jested.

|I saw,| he continued, |Titus and his beloved Nicanor ride around the walls. Though they were the full length of a bow-shot from me, I knew what they talked about. Now, this young Nicanor is a gad that tickles Titus when his soft heart would urge him into tendernesses toward the enemy. But for Nicanor, Titus would have withdrawn his legions long ago and left Jerusalem to die of its own violences.

|On the day that you came into Jerusalem, Titus, as a display of amicable intentions, rode up to the walls without arms or armor, trusting to the Jews' soldierly honor in refusing to attack an unarmed man. But the Jews have never been instructed in the nice points of military courtesy, so they went out against him by thousands. And but for the fact that he is practised in dodging arrows and his horse is used to running away, Emperor Vespasian would have to leave the aegis to the unlovely Domitian.

|Any Roman but Titus would remember this against the Jews until he had put the last one in bondage, but Titus is not a Roman. I think some-times that he is a Christian, since it is their boast to love their enemies. Whatever his feelings after that ignominious adventure of a few days ago, forth he rides this morning; beside him the Gad, Nicanor; behind him, that sweet traitor, Josephus.

|The Darling of Mankind rode so meditatively, so dejectedly, that I knew by his attitude, he said: 'Alack, it galls me to go against this goodly city!'

|By the swagger of the Gad I knew he said: 'Dost gall thee, in truth? Then truly, alack! Withhold thy hand until the city comes out against thee, so thou canst hush thy conscience saying that they began it!'

|Saith the Darling, 'But there be babes and innocent men and women within those walls, who, deserving most of all, shall suffer the greatest!'

|'By Hecate!' quoth the Gad, 'there is not a yearling within that city possessing the power to pucker its lips but would spit upon thee!'

|'It would be sacred innocence!' declares Titus.

|'Or an old man that would not burn thine ears with malediction!'

|'That would be holy dotage!'

|'Or a fine young man but would pale thee on a pike!'

|'Then let some one whom they hate less venomously, beseech them to their own salvation,' implores the Darling.

|Whereupon the Gad beckons insinuatingly to Josephus.

|'Josephus,' says he, 'let us, being more lovable men than Titus, go up unto these walls and give the Jews a chance to be kind.'

|Josephus turns pale, but Nicanor rides upon Jerusalem. And at that what should a miscreant Jew do but string an arrow and plunge it nicely, like a bodkin in a pincushion, in the fat shoulder of the Gad! Alas! It was the ruin of the Holy City! When Titus, pale with concern, reaches his friend kicking on the ground, does the Gad curse the Jews and inveigh against the hardy walls that contain them? Not he! He struggles about so that he may look into the eyes of Titus and commands him to make war on them instantly under pain of the accusation of partiality to them against his friends! And behold, war is declared. I, with mine own eyes, saw siege laid effectively about our unhappy city!|

She gazed at him with alarmed, angry, accusing eyes.

|And yet you do nothing!| she said to him.

He smiled and let his lazy glance slip over her, but he made no response.

|O Philadelphus,| she said to him, |how you affront opportunity!|

|There are more captivating things than such opportunity. I have known from the beginning that there was nothing here.|

She looked at him with unquiet eyes. Why, then, had he written so confidently to her father, if he had not believed in the hope for Judea?

|From the beginning?| she repeated with inquiry. |You wrote my father from Caesarea -- |

|Your father?| he repeated, smiling with insinuation.

|My father!|

|Who is your father?| he asked.

She turned away from him and walked to the other end of the garden. He had never meant to aspire to the Judean throne! He had simply written so determinedly to Costobarus, that the merchant of Ascalon would have no hesitancy in giving him two hundred talents! In these past days, she had learned enough that was blameworthy in this Philadelphus to make him more than despicable in her eyes. Again, as hourly since the last interview in the depression in the hills beyond the well, the fine bigness of that lovable companion of his, that had vanished for all time from her life, rose in radiant contrast. She turned back to her husband, with the pallor of longing and homesickness in her face.

|Does this other woman see no fault in this, your idleness?| she demanded.

|She! By the Shades, she sees nothing in me but fault! I would get me up like a sane man and go out of this mad place, but she hath locked up her dowry away from me, which was the simple cause that invited me to join her, and bids me go without her. And I might -- but for one other attraction, dearer than the treasure, which also I would take with me.|

|Even if she forces you into deeds, I shall forgive her,| she declared at last.

He smiled a baffling smile and she looked at him in despair. The very charm of his personal appearance awakened resentment in her; his deft and easy complaisance angered her because it could be effective. She hated the superficial excellence in him which made him a pleasant companion. He had refused to discuss her identity further, except to prevent her in her own attempts to identify herself. He did not refer to the incidents of their journey to Jerusalem, but she felt that he was conscious of all these things, and her resentment was so great that she put it out of sight, lest at the time when she should be proved she would have come to hate him to the further thwarting of their work for Israel.

|It is sweet to have you concerned for me. Now you may understand how much I am troubled for your own welfare. Do not regard me with that unbending gaze. I am, first and before all else, your friend.|

|You have changed,| she said slowly. |I did not find in you this solicitude in the hills.|

|Unhappiness,| he sighed, |makes most men law-less. I should be even now as bad, were I not sure of the sympathy you feel for me.|

She looked at him with large disdain.

|Does not this woman treat you well?| she asked with the first glimmer of sarcasm in her eyes.

|Her displeasure in me is that I do not make her a queen; yours, however, that I can not save this doomed nation! Her ambitions are for herself; yours are for me. Which waketh the response in my heart, lady?|

|What have I lived for?| she burst out. |For what was I brought up and schooled? For what have I sacrificed all the light and desirable things of my youth, but for -- |

|Nay! Do not show me, yet, that you are only bent on being queen!| he exclaimed.

|I care for nothing but the rescue of Judea!| she cried passionately. |There is nothing left to me but that!|

|Then your ambitions are still for me. Alas, that the Messiah has come and gone!|

It was his first reference to the great calamity he had told to her a short time before. Its recurrence after she had resolved to regard it as an impossible and blasphemous tale brought a chill to her heart.

|If I can prove to you that there is no hope for Jerusalem, what then?| he asked suddenly.

She flung off the question with a gesture.

|Answer me. What then?|

|It is unimaginable what shall come to pass when God deserts His own.|

|No need for imaginings. Look at Jerusalem and observe the fact. And if we be abandoned, what fealty do we owe to a God that deserts us? If you believe or not you are lost. Let us go out and live.|

|If God has deserted us,| she said scornfully, |how shall we be happier elsewhere than here?|

|Every god to its own country. The Olympians are a jovial lot. I have seen Joy's very self in heathendom.|

She moved away but he rose and followed her.

|Whoever you are,| he said in another tone, |your heritage of innocence and earnestness is plain as an open scroll upon your face. Nothing in all the world so appeals to the generosity in the heart of a man as the purity of the woman who is pure. I have said that I am your friend. I do not hold it against you that you doubt that word. Nothing remains but the deed to confirm it. This place is lost -- as good as a heap of ashes and splintered rock, this hour! Come away! I'll sacrifice the treasure to protect you!|

|Philadelphus,| she said gravely, |we were sent hither to succeed or to suffer the penalty of our failure. My father died that we might have this opportunity. We must use it, or perish with it!|

He shook his head and walked away a step or two.

|You have not the true meaning of life,| he said. |Indeed how few of us understand! Obstacles are not an incentive toward attaining impossible things. They are barriers set up by the kindly disposed gods to inform man that he is opposing destiny when he aspires to things he should not have. We were not made to fling ourselves against mighty opposition throughout the little daylight we have; to wound ourselves, to deny ourselves, to alienate that winsome sprite Pleasure, to attain something which was not intended for us by the signs of the obstructions placed in our paths. Who are we that we should achieve mightily! What are we when the gods have done with us, but a handful of dust! Who saves himself from age and unloveliness and ultimate imbecility, by all the superhuman efforts he may exert! A pest on the first morose man that made dismal endeavor a virtue!|

She looked at him with amazement, though until that hour she believed that this man could astonish her no more.

|Misfortune comes often enough without our knocking at her door,| he continued. |Mankind is the only creature with conceit enough to seek to emulate the gods. It is wrong to think that to be moral is to be miserable. Nature's scheme for us, faithfully fulfilled, is always pleasurable. We have only to recognize it, and receive its benefits. Nothing on earth is luckier than man, if he but knew it. A murrain on ambition! Let us be glad!|

How could she be glad with such a man! The time, the call of the hour, the need of her nation, the obligation to her dead father -- all these things stood in her way. How had she felt, were this that engaging stranger who had called himself Hesper, urging her to be glad with him! She felt, then and there, the recurrence of guilt which the sight of the reproachful face of Momus had brought to her when she found herself forgetting her loyalty in the presence of that winsome man. The thought stopped the bitter speech that rose to her lips. She looked away and made no answer. He was close beside her.

|Come away and let this woman who wishes the kingdom have it. She had liefer be rid of me than not.|

She gazed at him with a peculiar blankness stealing over her face.

|Oh, for the quintessence of all compounded oaths to charge my vow!| he said.

|For what?| she asked.

|My love, Phryne!|

At the old pagan name with which he had affronted her that morning in the hills, Laodice drew back sharply.

|Dost thou believe in me?| she asked.

|Believe what?|

|That I am thy wife.|

|Tut! Back to the old quarrel! No! But by Heaven, thou art my sweetheart!|

She stopped at the edge of an exclamation and looked at him with widening eyes.

|Come, let us get out of this place. I can get the dowry! Let her stay here and be queen over this place if she will. I had rather possess you than all the kingdoms!|

But Laodice flung him off while a flame of anger crimsoned her face.

|Thou to insult me, thy lawful wife!| she brought out between clenched teeth. |Thou to offer affront to thine own marriage! I to live in shame with mine own husband!|

The insult in his speech overwhelmed her and after a moment's lingering for words to express her rage, she turned and fled back to her room and barred her door upon him.

After sunset the lights leaped up in the hall of Amaryllis the Greek. Presently there came a knock at Laodice's door. The girl, fearing that Philadelphus stood without, sat still and made no answer. A moment later the visitor spoke. It was the little girl who acted as page for the Greek.

|Open, lady; it is I, Myrrha.|

Laodice went to the windows.

|Amaryllis sends thee greeting and would speak with thee, in her hall,| the girl said.

Reluctantly Laodice, who feared the revelation which the light might have to make of her stunned and revolted face, followed the page.

The Greek was standing, as if in evidence that the interview would not be long. She noted the intense change on the face of her young guest and watched her narrowly for any new light which her disclosure would bring.

|I have sent for thee,| the Greek began smoothly, |to tell thee somewhat that I should perhaps withhold, that thou shouldst sleep well, this night. But it is a perplexity perhaps thou wouldst face at once.|

Laodice bowed her head.

|It is this: Titus and his friend, Nicanor, approached too close the walls this day, and Nicanor was wounded by an arrow. In retaliation, perfect siege hath been laid about the walls. None may come into the city.|

|And -- Momus, my servant,| Laodice cried, waking for the first time to the calamity in this blockade, |he can not come back to me?|

|No. If he attempts it, he will be captured and put to death.|

Laodice clasped her hands, while drop by drop the color left her face.

|In God's name,| she whispered, |what will become of me?|

Amaryllis made no answer.

|Can -- can I not go out?| Laodice asked presently, depending entirely on the Greek as adviser.

|You can -- but to what fortune? Perhaps -- | She stopped a moment. |No,| she continued, |you have never been in a camp. No; you can not go out.|

|What, then, am I to do?| Laodice cried with increasing alarm.

Amaryllis shrugged her shoulders.

|I can advise with John,| she said. |Doubtless he will allow you to remain here until you can provide yourself with other shelter.|

Laodice heard this cold sentence with a chill of fear that was new to her. Faint pictures of hunger and violence, terrifying in the extreme, confronted her. Yet not any of them frightened her more than the offered favor of the Gischalan. Her indignation at the woman who had supplanted her swept over her with a reflexive flush of heat.

|God of my fathers, judge her in her lies, and pour the fire of Thy wrath upon her!| she exclaimed vehemently.

Amaryllis gazed curiously at the girl. In her soul, she asked herself if there might not be unsounded depths of fierceness in this nature which she ought not to stir up.

|Thou hast hope,| she said tactfully. |She hath no such beauty as thine!|

|Nothing but my proofs!| Laodice broke in.

|And Philadelphus is a young man.|

|Rejecting her only because I am fairer than she! He is no just man!| Laodice cried hotly.

|Softly, child,| the Greek said, smiling; |thou hast said that he is thy husband.|

Laodice turned away, her brain whirling with anger, fear and shame.

|Well?| said the Greek coolly, after a silence.

|Where shall I go?| Laodice asked.

|Thou hast been too tenderly nurtured to go into the streets. I shall ask John to shelter thee until thou canst care for thyself.|

Laodice looked at her without understanding.

|Thou canst not stay here for long because the wife to Philadelphus is in a way a power in my house and she will not suffer it. But never fear; Jerusalem is not yet so far gone that it would not enjoy a pretty stranger.|

The curious sense of indignation that possessed Laodice was purely instinctive. Her mind could not sense the actual insult in the Greek's words.

|I would advise you to be kind to Philadelphus.|

|But, but -- | Laodice cried, struggling with tears and shame, |he has this day offered insult to his own marriage with me, by asking that I live in shame with him till it could be proved that I am his wife!|

The Greek's smile did not change.

|If we weigh all the unpleasantness of wedded life in too delicate a balance, my friend, I fear there would be little, indeed, that would escape condemnation as humiliating.|

Laodice raised her scarlet face to look in wonder at the Greek. The cold smiling lips dismayed her for a moment.

|And thou seest no shame in this?| she faltered.

|Thou sayest he is thy husband; why resent it?|

|Dost thou not see -- see that -- what am I but a shameless woman, if I live with him, though I be married to him thrice over!|

|After all,| said the Greek, after a silence which said more than words, |it is the consciousness of your own integrity which must influence you; not what others think of you. It is not as if your husband thought better of you than you really are.|

|And you believe that I -- | Laodice began and stopped, bewildered.

Amaryllis, smiling, moved toward the inner corridor of her house. At the threshold of the arch she called back:

|Please yourself, my friend,| and was gone.

Laodice was, by this time, stunned and intensely repelled. The hand on which Amaryllis had laid hers in passing tingled under the touch. Unconsciously she shook off the sensation of contact. The whole clear white interior of the hall became instantly unclean. Her standards of right and wrong were shaken; the wholesale assaults on her ideals left her shocked and unconfident. She felt the panic that all innocent women feel when suddenly aroused to the unfitness of their surroundings.

When she turned to hurry to her room, a flood of scarlet rushed into her cheeks and she shrank back, shaken with surprise and delight.

Before her stood a man, pale and thin, with his eyes upon her.

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