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The City Of Delight by Elizabeth Miller

Chapter XIII A NEW PRETENDER

A sudden wave of delight, a sudden rush of blood through his veins, swept before it and away for that time all memory of his struggle and his resolution to renounce her. All that was left was the irresistible storm of impulse upon his reserve and his self-control.

When she recognized him, she started violently, smote her hands together and gazed at him with such overweening joy written on her face, that he would have swept her into his arms, but for her quick recovery and retreat. In shelter behind the exedra she halted, fended from him by the marble seat. He gazed across its back at her with all the love of his determined soul shining in his eyes.

|You! You!| she cried.

|But you!| he cried back at her across the exedra.

The preposterousness of their greetings appealed to them at that moment and they both laughed. He started around the exedra; she moved away.

|Stay!| he begged. |I want only to touch -- your hand.|

Shyly, she let him take both of her hands, and he lifted them in spite of her little show of resistance and kissed them.

|We might have saved ourselves farewells and journeyed together,| he said blithely.

|But I thought you had gone back to Ephesus,| she said.

|What! After you had told me you were going to Jerusalem? No. I have been nursing a knife wound in a sheep hovel in the hills since an hour after I saw you last.|

Her lips parted and her face grew grave, deeply compassionate and grieved. If there remained any weakness in his frame before that moment, the spell of her pity enchanted him to strength again. He found himself searching for words to describe his pain, that he might elicit more of that curative sweet.

|I was very near to death,| he added seriously.

|What -- what happened?| she asked, noting the pallor on his face under the suffusion which his pleasure had made there.

|There was one more in the party than was needed; so my amiable companion reduced the number by stabbing me in the back,| he explained.

There was instant silence. Slowly she drew away from him. Entire pallor covered her face and in her eyes grew a horror.

|Did -- do you say that Philadelphus stabbed -- you -- in the back?| she asked, speaking slowly.

|Phila -- | he stopped on the brink of a puzzled inquiry, and for a space they regarded each other, each turning over his own perplexity for himself.

|Ask me that again,| he commanded her suddenly. |I did not understand.|

She hesitated and closed her lips. Her husband had stabbed this man in the back! Because of her? No! Philadelphus had refused to believe her. Why then should he have committed such a deed?

|So you are not ready to believe it of this -- Philadelphus?| he asked, venturing his question on an immense surmise that was forcing itself upon him.

She looked at him with beseeching eyes. How was she to regard herself in this matter? A partizan of the man she hated, or a sympathizer with this stranger who had already given her too much joy? Was she never to know any good of this man to whom she was wedded? For a moment losing sight of her concern for Judea and her resolution that her father should not have died in vain, she was rejoiced that another woman had taken her place by his side. The quasi liberty made her interest in this stranger at least not entirely sinful.

|Who are you?| he demanded finally.

How, then, could she tell him that she was the wife of the man who had treacherously attempted his life? How, also, since she was denied by every one in that house, expect him to believe her? The bitterness of her recent interview with Amaryllis rose to the surface again.

|I am nothing; I have no name; I am nobody!| she cried.

He was startled.

|What is this? Are you not welcome in this house?| he demanded.

|Yes -- and no! Amaryllis is good -- but -- |

|But what?|

She shook her head.

|Surely, thou canst speak without fear to me,| he said gently.

|There is -- only Amaryllis is kind,| she essayed finally.

He laid his hand on her wrist.

|Is it -- the woman from Ascalon?| he asked, his suspicion lighting instantly upon the wife whom he had expected to meet.

She flung up her head and gazed at him with startled eyes. He believed that he had touched upon the fact.

|So!| he exclaimed.

|She has deceived Philadelphus -- | she whispered defensively, but he broke in sharply.

|Whom hath she deceived?|

She closed her lips and looked at him perplexed. Certainly this was the companion of Philadelphus, who had told her freely half of her husband's ambitions, long before he had come to Jerusalem. She could not have betrayed her husband in thus mentioning his name.

|Your companion of the journey hither -- whom you even now accused -- Philadelphus Maccabaeus.|

There was a dead pause in which his fingers still held her wrist and his deep eyes were fixed on her face. He was recalling by immense mental bounds all the evidence that would tend to confirm the suspicion in his brain. He had told her his own story but had invested it in Julian of Ephesus. His wallet, with all its proofs, was gone; the Ephesian had examined him carefully to know if any one in Jerusalem would recognize him; and lastly, without cause, Julian had stabbed him in the back. Could it be possible that Julian of Ephesus, believing that he had made way with the Maccabee, had come to Jerusalem, masquerading under his name?

While he stood thus gazing, hardly seeing the face that looked up at him with such troubled wonder, he saw her turn her eyes quickly, shrink; and then wrenching her hands from his, she fled.

He looked up. Two women were standing before him.

|I seek Amaryllis, the Seleucid,| he said, recovering himself.

|I am she,| the Greek said, stepping forward.

|Thou entertainest Laodice, daughter of Costobarus of Ascalon?| he added.

The Greek bowed.

|I would see her,| he said bluntly.

Amaryllis signed to the woman at her side.

|This is she,| she said simply.

The Maccabee looked quickly at the woman. After his close communication with the beautiful girl for whom his heart warmed as it had never done before, he was instantly aware of an immense contrast between her and the woman who had been introduced to him at that moment. They were both Jewesses; both were beautiful, each in her own way; both appeared intelligent and winsome. But he loved the girl, and this woman stood in the way of that love. Therefore her charms were nullified; her latent faults intensified; all in all she repelled him because she was an obstacle.

The injustice in his feelings toward her did not occur to him. He was angry because she had come; he hated her for her stateliness; he found himself looking for defects in her and belittling her undeniable graces. Confused and for the moment without plan, he looked at her frowning, and with cold astonishment the woman gazed back at him.

|Thou art Laodice, daughter of Costobarus?| he asked, to gain time.

She inclined her head.

|When -- when dost thou expect Philadelphus?| he asked next.

|Why do you ask?| she parried.

|I -- I have a message for him,| he essayed finally. |Is he here?|

|Tell me, who art thou?| the woman asked pointedly.

A vision of the girl, flushed and trembling with pleasure at sight of him, flashed with poignant effect upon him at that moment. The warmth and softness of her hands under the pressure of his happy lips was still with him. It would be infidelity to his own feelings to renounce her then. It was becoming a physical impossibility for him to accept this other woman.

He hesitated and reddened. An old subterfuge occurred to him at a desperate minute.

|I -- I am Hesper -- of Ephesus,| he essayed.

|What is thy business with Philadelphus?| the woman persisted.

Again the Maccabee floundered. It had been easy to invent a story to keep the woman he loved from discovering that he was a married man, but the point in question was different. Now, filled with dismay and indignation, apprehension and reluctance, his fertile mind failed him at the moment of its greatest need.

And the eyes of the Greek, filling with suspicion and intense interest, rested upon him.

|I asked,| the actress repeated calmly, |thy business with Philadelphus.|

At that instant a tremendous shock shook the house to its foundations; the hanging lamps lurched; the exedra jarred and in an instant several of the servants appeared at various openings into passages. Before any of the group could stir, a second thunderous shock sent a tremor over the room, and a fragment of marble detached from a support overhead and dropped to the pavement.

|It is an attack!| Amaryllis cried.

|On this house?| Salome demanded.

There was a clatter of arms and several men in Jewish armor rushed through the chamber from the passage that led in from the Temple.

|I shall see,| said the Maccabee, and followed the men at once.

Without he saw the night sky overhead crossed by dark stones flying over the wall to the east. Warfare had begun.

But the attack was simply preliminary and desultory. It ceased while he waited. Presently it began farther toward the north. The catapult had been moved. The Maccabee hesitated in the colonnade.

The beautiful girl in the house of Amaryllis was in no further danger. The interruption had saved him at a critical moment.

He walked down the steps and out into the night.

|Liberty!| he whispered with a sigh of relief. |Now what to do?|

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