“Ah, God! I cannot meet him—I have not strength. You do not know——”
“I know how well he loved you.”
“Not better than I him! But I cannot—I dare not. Unless I could meet him as we never shall meet upon earth, we must be apart forever. For Heaven’s sake promise me never to speak my name!”
“I promise until you release me.”
“And you can believe me innocent still, in face of all?”
She stretched her hands to him once more. “I believe. For I know what you once were.”
Great, burning tears fell from his eyes upon her hands as he bent over them.
“God bless you! You were an angel of pity to me in your childhood; in your womanhood you give me the only mercy I have known since the last day you looked upon my face! We shall be far sundered forever. May I come to you once more?”
She paused in hesitation and in thought a while, while for the first time in all her years a tremulous tenderness passed over her face; she felt an unutterable pity for this man and for his doom. Then she drew her hands gently away from him.
“Yes, I will see you again.”
So much concession to such a prayer Venetia Corona had never before given. He could not command his voice to answer, but he bowed low before her as before an empress—another moment, and she was alone.
She stood looking out at the wide, level country beyond, with the glare of the white, strong light and the red burnous of the Franco-Arabs glowing against the blue, but cloudless sky; she thought that she must be dreaming some fantastic story born of these desert solitudes.
Yet her eyes were dim with tears, and her heart ached with another’s woe. Doubt of him never came to her; but there was a vague, terrible pathos in the mystery of his fate that oppressed her with a weight of future evil, unknown, and unmeasured.
“Is he a madman?” she mused. “If not, he is a martyr; one of the greatest that ever suffered unknown to other men.”
In the coolness of the late evening, in the court of the caravanserai, her brother and his friends lounged with her and the two ladies of their touring and sketching party, while they drank their sherbet, and talked of the Gerome colors of the place, and watched the flame of the afterglow burn out, and threw millet to the doves and pigeons straying at their feet.
“My dear Venetia!” cried the Seraph, carelessly tossing handfuls of grain to the eager birds, “I inquired for your Sculptor-Chasseur—that fellow Victor—but I failed to see him, for he had been sent on an expedition shortly after I reached the camp. They tell me he is a fine soldier; but by what the Marquis said, I fear he is but a handsome blackguard, and Africa, after all, may be his fittest place.”
She gave a bend of her head to show she heard him, stroking the soft throat of a little dove that had settled on the bench beside her.