“Love has its miseries also, Augusta. That I know, for once I loved.”
“Aye, but then the love was not true, for this is the greatest curse of all—to love and not to be beloved. For the sake of a perfect love, if it could be won—why, I’d sacrifice even my ambition.”
“Then you must keep your ambition, Augusta, since in this world you’ll find nothing perfect.”
“Olaf, I’m not so sure. Thoughts have come to me. Olaf, I told you that I have no friend in all this glittering Court. Will you be my friend?”
“I am your honest servant, Augusta, and I think that such a one is the best of friends.”
“That’s so; and yet no man can be true friend to a woman unless he is—more than friend. Nature has writ it so.”
“I do not understand,” I answered.
“You mean that you will not understand, and perhaps you are wise. Why do you stare at that pavement? There’s a story written on it. The old goddess of my people, Aphrodite, loved a certain Adonis—so runs the fable—but he loved not her, and thought only of his sports. Look, she woos him there, and he rejects her, and in her rage she stabs him.”
“Not so,” I answered. “Of the end of the story I know nothing, but, if she had meant to kill him, the dagger would be in her right hand, not in her left.”
“That’s true, Olaf; and in the end it was Fate which killed him, not the goddess whom he had scorned. And yet, Olaf, it is not wise to scorn goddesses. Oh! of what do I talk? You’ll befriend me, will you not?”
“Aye, Augusta, to the last drop of my blood, as is my duty. Do I not take your pay?”
“Then thus I seal our friendship and here’s an earnest of the pay,” Irene said slowly, and, bending forward, she kissed me on the lips.
At this moment the doors of the chamber were thrown open. Through them, preceded by heralds, that at once drew back again, entered the great minister Stauracius, a fat, oily-faced man with a cunning eye, who announced in a high, thin voice,
“The ambassadors of the Persians wait upon you, Augusta, as you appointed at this hour.”
THE BLIND CAESAR
Irene turned upon the eunuch as a she-lion turns upon some hunter that disturbs it from its prey. Noting the anger in her eyes, he fell back and prostrated himself. Thereupon she spoke to me as though his entry had interrupted her words.
“Those are the orders, Captain Olaf. See that you forget none of them. Even if this proud eunuch, who dares to appear before me unannounced, bids you to do so, I shall hold you to account. To-day I leave the city for a while for the Baths whither I am sent. You must not accompany me because of the duty I have laid upon you here. When I return, be sure I’ll summon you,” and, knowing that Stauracius could not see her from where he lay, for a moment she let her splendid eyes meet my own. In them there was a message I could not mistake.