Love and its signs had been a lifelong study to her; she knew its stubbornness; she was wise in the judgment of human nature to know that love in this stranger was no light thing to be dislodged. And to finish the sum of her perplexities, she felt in her own heart the kindling of a sorrowful longing to be preferred by a spirit strong, forceful and magnetic as was that of the man who had called himself Hesper of Ephesus.
With the egotism of the courtezan she summarized her charms. Even there were spirits in that fleshly land of Judea to whom the delicate refinement of her beauty, the reserve of her bearing and the power of her mentality had appealed more strongly than a mere opulence of physical attraction. She had her ambitions; not the least of these was to be loved by an understanding nature. The greater the congeniality, the greater the attraction, she argued; but behold, was this iron Hesper, the man of all force, to be dashed and shaken by the rich loveliness of Laodice, who was simply a woman?
"Such attachments do not last," she argued hopefully. "Such attachments make unfaithful husbands. They are monotonous and wearisome. She is but a mirror giving back the blaze of the sun, one-surfaced and blinding. It is the many lights of the diamond that make it charming."
She had arrived at no definite resolution when she met Laodice in the hall that led to the quarters of the artists, as the Greek went that way for her day's observation of their work.
"What an unrefreshed face!" the Greek said softly, as the light from the cancelli showed the weariness and distress that had begun to make inroads on the animation of the girl's beauty. "No woman who would preserve her loveliness should let her cares trouble her dreams."
"How am I to do that?" Laodice asked with a flare of scorn.
"Do I perceive in that a desire for advice or an explanation of a situation?"
Amaryllis smiled thoughtfully at the girl, while the light of sudden intent appeared on her face.
"You are unhappy, my dear, through your prejudices," she began. "We call convictions prejudices when they are other than our own beliefs. By that sign, you shall know that I am going to take issue with you. I am, perhaps, the ideal of that which you would not be. But no man will say that my lot is not enviable."
"Are you happy?" Laodice asked in a low voice.
"Are you?" the Greek returned. "No," she went on after a pause. "A woman has the less happy part in life, though the greater one, if she will permit herself to make it great. It was not her purpose on earth to be happy, but to make happy."
"You take issue with Philadelphus in that," Laodice interposed. "It is his preachment to me that all that is expected of all mankind is to be happy."
"He is a man, arguing from the man's view. It is inevitable law that one must be gladder than another. Woman has the greater capacity for suffering, hence her feeling for the suffering of others is the quicker to respond. And some creature of the gods must be compassionate, else creation long since had perished from the earth."
Laodice made no answer. This was new philosophy to her, who had been taught only to aspire at great sacrifice as long as God gave her strength. She could not know that this strange and purposeful creed might some day appeal to her beyond her strength.
"Yet," Amaryllis added presently in a brighter tone, "there is much that is sweet in the life of a woman."
Laodice played with the tassels of her girdle and did not look up. What was all this to lead to?
"I have spoken to Philadelphus about you," the Greek continued. "He has no doubt of this woman who hath established her claim to his name by proofs but without the manner of the wife he expected. Yet he can not turn her out. The siege hath put an end to your efforts in your own behalf and it is time to face your condition and make the best of it. John feels restive; I dare not ask too much of him. My household was already full, before you came."
Laodice was looking at her, now with enlightenment in her face.
"Philadelphus," Amaryllis continued, following up her advantage, "is nothing more than a man and you are very lovely."
"All this," Laodice said, rousing, "is to persuade me to -- "
"There are two standards for women," the Greek interposed before Laodice finished her indignant sentence. "Yours and another's. As between yours, who would have love from him whom you have married, and hers, who hath love from him whom she hath not married, there is only the difference of a formula. Between her condition and yours, she is the freer; between her soul and yours, she is the more willingly faithful. If woman be born to a purpose, she fulfils it; if not she hath not consecrated her life to a mistake. You overrate the importance of marriage. It is your whole purpose to preserve yourself for a ceremony. It is too much pains for too trivial an end. At least, there are many things which are farther reaching and less selfish in intent. And who, by the way, holds the longest claim on history? Your kind or this other? The world does not perpetuate in its chronicles the continence of women; it is too small, too personal, too common to be noted. Cleopatra were lost among the horde of forgotten sovereigns, had she wedded duly and scorned Mark Antony; Aspasia would have been buried in a gynaeconitis had she wedded Pericles, and Sappho -- but the list is too long; I will not bury you in testimony."
Laodice raised her head.
"You reason well," she said. "It never occurred to me how wickedness could justify itself by reason. But I observe now how serviceable a thing it is. It seems that you can reason away any truth, any fact, any ideal. Perhaps you can banish God by reason, or defend crime by reason; reason, I shall not be surprised to learn, can make all things possible or impossible. But -- does reason hush that strange speaking voice in you, which we Jews call conscience? Tell me; have you reasoned till it ceases to rebuke you?"
"Ah, how hard you are to accommodate," Amaryllis smiled. "I mean to show you how you can abide here. I can ask no more of John. Philadelphus alone is master of your fate. I have not sought to change you before I sought to change Philadelphus. He will not change so long as you are beautiful. This is life, my dear. You may as well prepare for it now."
Laodice gazed with wide, terrorized eyes at the Greek. She saw force gathering against her. Amaryllis shaped her device to its end.
"And if you do not accept this shelter," she concluded, "what else is there for you?"
Hesper, many times her refuge, rose before the hard-pressed girl.
"There is another in Jerusalem who will help me," she declared.
"And that one?" Amaryllis asked coolly.
"Is he who calls himself Hesper, the Ephesian," Laodice answered.
"Why should you trust him?" the Greek asked pointedly.
"He -- when Philadelphus -- you remember that Philadelphus told you what happened -- "
"That he tossed a coin with a wayfarer in the hills for you?" the Greek asked.
Laodice dropped her head painfully.
"This Hesper let me go then, and afterward -- "
"He has repented of that by this time. It is not safe to try him a second time. Besides, if you must risk yourself to the protection of men, why turn from him whom you call your husband for this stranger?"
The question was deft and telling. Laodice started with the suddenness of the accusation embodied in it. And while she stood, wrestling with the intolerable alternative, the Greek smiled at her and went her way.
Laodice stood where Amaryllis had left her, at times motionless with helplessness, at others struck with panic. On no occasion did homelessness in the war-ridden city of Jerusalem appear half so terrible as shelter under the roof of that hateful house.
The little golden-haired girl from the chamber of artists beyond skipped by her.
"Hast seen Demetrius?" she called back as she passed. "Demetrius, the athlete, stupid!"
Laodice turned away from her.
"Nay, then," the girl declared; "if I have insulted you let me heal over the wound with the best jest, yet! John hath written a sonnet on Philadelphus' wife and our Lady Amaryllis is truing his meter for him. Ha! Gods! What a place this is for a child to be brought up! I would not give a denarius for my morals when I am grown. There's Demetrius! Now for a laugh!"
She was gone.
Where was that ancient rigor of atmosphere in which she had been reared? thought Laodice. Had it existed only in the shut house of Costobarus? Was all the world wicked except that which was confined within the four walls of her father's house? Could she survive long in this unanimously bad environment? But she remembered Joseph of Pella, the shepherd; even then his wholesomeness was not without its canker. He was a Christian!
Philadelphus was at her side.
She flinched from him and would have fled, but he stopped her with a sign.
"My lady objects to your presence in this house," he said. "You have not made it worth my while to insist on your shelter here."
"Your lady," she said hotly, "is two-fold evilly engaged, then. She has time to ruin you, while she furnishes John with all the inspiration he would have for sonnets."
"So she refrains from furnishing John with my two hundred talents, I shall not quarrel with her. You have your own difficulties to adjust, and mine, only in so far as they concern you."
His voice had lost none of its smoothness, but it had become hard and purposeful.
"I have come to that point, Philadelphus, where my difficulties and not yours concern me," she replied. "I had nothing to give you but my good will. You have outraged even that. Hereafter, no tie binds us."
"No? You cast off our ties as lightly as you assumed them. With a word you announce me wedded to you; with another you speak our divorcement. And I, poor clod, suffer it? The first, yes; but the last, no. You see, I have fallen in love with you."
She turned her clear eyes away from him and waited calmly till she could escape.
"You have spent your greatest argument in persuading me to be a king. Kings, lady, are essentially tyrants, in these bad days. Wherefore, if I am to be one, I shall not fail to be the other. And you -- ah, you! Will you endure the oppressor that you made?"
There was enough that was different in his manner and his words for her to believe that something worthy of attention was to follow. She looked at him, now.
"This roof, since the alienation of John to my wife, is mine empire. Within it, I am despot. From its lady mistress, the Greek, to the meanest slave, I have homage and subjection. Even thou wilt be submissive to me -- for having lost one wife through indulgence, I shall be most tyrannical to the one yet in my power!"
She drew herself up in splendid defiance.
"I have not submitted!" she said. "I will not submit!"
"No? Nothing stands in your way now but yourself. Your supplanter hath removed herself. And I shall make your submission easy."
She turned from him and would have hurried back into the Greek's andronitis, but he put himself in her way.
"Listen!" he said, suddenly lifting his hand.
In the stillness which she finally was able to observe over the tumultuous beating of her enraged heart, a profound moan of great volume as from immense but remote struggle came into the corridor. Through it at times cut a sharp accession of sound, as if violence heightened at intervals, and steadily over it pulsated the throb of tireless siege-engines. It was the groan of the City of Delight in mortal anguish.
"This," he said in a soft voice touching his breast, "or that," motioning toward the dying city. "Choose. And by midnight!"
While she stood, gazing at him transfixed with the horror of her predicament, there was the sweeping of garments, the soft tinkle of pendants as they struck together, and Salome, the actress, was beside the pair. Close at hand was Amaryllis. The Greek showed for the first time discomfiture and an inability to rise to the demand of the occasion. The glance she shot at Laodice was full of cold anger that she had permitted herself to be surprised in company with Philadelphus.
Philadelphus drew back a step, but made no further movement toward withdrawing. Laodice would have retreated, but the actress stood in her way. With a motion full of stately indignation, Salome turned to Amaryllis.
"It so occurs, madam, that I can point out to you the disease which saps my husband's ambition. You observe that he is diverted now, as all men are diverted six weeks after marriage -- by another woman. I am not a jealous woman. I am only concerned for his welfare and the welfare of the city of our fathers. For it is not himself that his luxurious indolence affects; but all the unhappy city which is suffering while he is able to help it. He must be saved. And I shall go with him out of this house into want and peril, but he shall be saved."
Laodice said nothing. She stood drawn up intensely; her brows knitted; her teeth on her lip; her insulted pride and growing resolution effecting a certain magnificence in her pose.
"I can find her another house," Amaryllis said.
"Also my husband can find it," the woman broke in. "Let the streets do their will with the woman of the streets. Bread and shelter are too precious to waste on the iniquitous this hour."
Amaryllis turned to Laodice.
"What wilt thou do?" she asked.
"The streets can offer me no more insult than is offered me in this house," she said slowly.
It was in her mind that there were certainly unprotected gates at which she could get out of the city and return to Ascalon.
At least the peril for her in this house was already too imminent for her to remain longer. She continued to Amaryllis:
"Lady, you have been kind to me -- in your way. You have been so in the face of your doubt that I am what I claim to be. How happy, then, you would have made my lot had I not been supplanted and denied! For all this I thank you. Mine would be a poor gratitude if I stay to make you regret your generosity. Wherefore I will go."
She slipped past the three and entered her room. Before Amaryllis could gather resolution to protest, she was out again, clothed in mantle and vitta and, walking swiftly, disappeared into the vestibule. As they sat in the darkening hall, the three heard the doors close behind her.
"She will return," said Philadelphus coolly, moving away.
Gathering her robes about her, Salome swept out of the corridor and away. Amaryllis stood alone.
Somewhere out in the city was Hesper the Ephesian. Amaryllis knew that Laodice would not return.