“I grow weary of the sight of you standing there like a statue of the Roman Mars, with your sword half hid beneath your cloak; and, what’s more, I hate this hall; it reeks of Constantine and his drink and lies. Oh! he’s vile, and for my sins God has made me his mother, unless, indeed, he was changed at birth, as I’ve been told, though I could never prove it. Give me your hand and help me to rise. So, I thank you. Now follow me. We’ll sit a while in my private chamber, where alone I can be happy, since the Emperor never comes there. Nay, talk not of duty; you have no guards to set or change to-night. Follow me; I have secret business of which I would talk with you.”
So she went and I followed through doors that opened mysteriously at our approach and shut mysteriously behind us, till I found myself in a little room half-lighted only, that I had never seen before. It was a scented and a beautiful place, in one corner of which a white statue gleamed, that of a Venus kissing Cupid, who folded one wing about her head, and through the open window-place the moonlight shone and floated the murmur of the sea.
The double doors were shut, for aught I knew locked, and with her own hands Irene drew the curtains over them. Near the open window, to which there was no balcony, stood a couch.
“Sit yonder, Olaf,” she said, “for here there is no ceremony; here we are but man and woman.”
I obeyed, while she busied herself with the curtains. Then she came and sat herself down on the couch also, leaning against the end of it in such a fashion that she could watch me in the moonlight.
“Olaf,” she said, after she had looked at me a while, rather strangely, as I thought, for the colour came and went upon her face, which in that light seemed quite young again and wonderfully beautiful, “Olaf, you are a very brave man.”
“There are hundreds in your service braver, Empress; cowards do not take to soldiering.”
“I could tell you a different story, Olaf; but it was not of this kind of courage that I talked. It was of that which made you offer to eat the poisoned fig in place of Constantine. Why did you do so? It is true that, as things have happened, he’ll remember it in your favour, for I’ll say this of him, he never forgets one who has saved him from harm, any more than he forgets one who has harmed him. But if you had eaten you would have died, and then how could he have rewarded you?”
“Empress, when I took my oath of office I swore to protect both the Augustus and the Augusta, even with my life. I was fulfilling my oath, that is all.”
“You are a strange man as well as a brave man to interpret oaths so strictly. If you will do as much as this for one who is nothing to you, and who has never paid you a gold piece, how much, I wonder, would you do for one whom you love.”
“I could offer no more than my life for such a one, Empress, could I?”