“‘Are you married, girl?’ she asked.
“‘No,’ I answered.
“‘Are you affianced?’
“Now I hesitated a little, then answered ‘No’ again.
“’You seem to be somewhat doubtful on the point. Farewell for this while. When you walk abroad in our garden, which is open to you, be pleased to array yourself in the dress of our country, and not in that of a courtesan of Egypt.’”
“What did you answer to that saying?” I asked.
“That which was not wise, I fear, Olaf, for my temper stirred me. I answered: ’Madam, I thank you for your permission to walk in your garden. If ever I should do so again as your guest, be sure that I will not wear garments which, before Byzantium was a village, were sacred to the gods of my country and those of my ancestors the Queens of Egypt.’”
“And then?” I asked.
“The Empress answered: ’Well spoken! Such would have been my own words had I been in your place. Moreover, they are true, and the robe becomes you well. Yet presume not too far, girl, seeing that Byzantium is no longer a village, and Egypt has some fanatic Moslem for a Pharaoh, who thinks little of your ancient blood.’
“So I bowed and went, and as I walked away heard the Empress rating the lady Martina about I know not what, save that your name came into the matter, and my own. Why does this Empress talk so much about you, Olaf, seeing that she has many officers who are higher in her service, and why was she so moved about this matter of the necklace of golden shells?”
“Heliodore,” I answered, “I must tell now what I have hidden from you. The Augusta has been pleased—why, I cannot say, but chiefly, I suppose, because of late years it has been my fancy to keep myself apart from women, which is rare in this land—to show me certain favour. I gather, even, that, whether she means it or means it not, she has thought of me as a husband.”
“Oh!” interrupted Heliodore, starting away from me, “now I understand everything. And, pray, have you thought as a wife of her, who has been a widow these ten years and has a son of twenty?”
“God above us alone knows what I have or have not thought, but it is certain that at present I think of her only as one who has been most kind to me, but who is more to be feared than my worst foe, if I have any.”
“Hush!” she said, raising her finger. “I fancied I heard someone stir behind us.”
“Fear nothing,” I answered. “We are alone here, for I set guards of my own company around the place, with command to admit no one, and my order runs against all save the Empress in person.”