The Bride of the Nile, by Georg Ebers, v12

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The Bride of the Nile, Volume 12.
Georg Ebers
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Title: The Bride of the Nile, Volume 12.
Author: Georg Ebers
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THE BRIDE OF THE NILE
By Georg Ebers
Volume 12.
CHAPTER XXI.
While Rustem, to whom Mary had entrusted the jeweller’s gold, was making
his preparations for their journey with all the care of a practised
guide, and while Mary was comforting her governess and Mandane, to whom
she explained that Rustem’s journey was to save Paula’s life, a fresh
trial was going forward in the Court of Justice.
This time Orion was the accused. He had scarcely begun to study the maps
and lists he required for his undertaking when he was bidden to appear
before his judges.
The members composing the Court were the same as yesterday. Among the
witnesses were Paula and the new bishop, as well as Gamaliel, who had
been sent for soon after Mary had left him.
The prosecutor accused the son of the Mukaukas of having made away, in
defiance of the patriarch’s injunction, with a costly emerald bequeathed
to the Church by his father.
Orion had determined to conduct his own defence; he recapitulated
everything that he had told the prelate in self-justification in his
father’s private room, and then added, that to put a speedy end to this
odious affair he was now prepared to restore the stone, and he placed it
at the disposal of his judges. He handed Paula’s emerald to the Kadi who
presented it to the bishop. John, however, did not seem satisfied; he
referred to the written testimony of the widow Susannah, who had been
present when the deceased Mukaukas had designated all the jewels in the
Persian hanging as included in his gift to the Church. This was in
Orion’s presence so he was still under suspicion of a fraud; and it was
difficult to determine whether the fine gem now lying on the table before
them were indeed the same to which the Church laid claim.
All this was urged with excessive vehemence and bore the stamp of a
hostile purpose.
Obedience and conviction alike prompted the zealous prelate to this
demeanor, for the same carrier-pigeon which had brought from the
patriarch his appointment to the bishopric required him to insist on
Orion’s punishment, for he was a thorn in the flesh of the Jacobite
church, a tainted sheep who might infect the rest of the flock. If the
young man should offer an emerald it was therefore to be closelyexamined, to see whether it were the original stone or a substitute.
On these grounds the bishop had expressed his doubts, and though they
gave rise to an indignant murmur among the judges, the Kadi so far
admitted the prelate’s suspicions as to explain that last evening a
letter had reached him from his uncle at Djidda, Haschim the merchant, in
which mention was made of the emerald. His son happened to have weighed
that stone, without his knowledge, before he started for Egypt, and
Othman had here a note of its exact weight. The Jew Gamaliel had been
desired to attend with his balances, and could at once use them to
satisfy the bishop.
The jeweller immediately proceeded to do so, and old Horapollo, who was
an expert in such matters, went close up to him, and watched him
narrowly.
It was in feverish anxiety, and more eagerly than any other bystander,
that Paula and Orion kept their eyes fixed on the Jew’s hands and lips;
after weighing it once, he did so a second time. Old Horapollo himself
weighed it a third time, with a keen eye though his hands trembled a
little; all three experiments gave the same result: this gem was heavier
by a few grains of doura than that which the merchant’s son had weighed,
and yet the Jew declared that there was no purer, clearer, or finer
emerald in the world than this.
Orion breathed more freely, and the question arose among the judges as to
whether the young Arab might have failed in precision, or an exchange had
in fact been effected. This was difficult to imagine, since in that case
the accused would have given himself the loss, and the Church the
advantage.
The bishop, an honest man, now said that the patriarch’s suspicions had
certainly led him too far in this instance, and after this he spoke no
more.
All through this enquiry the Vekeel had kept silence, but the defiant
gaze, assured of triumph, which he fixed on Paula and Orion alternately,
augured the worst.
When the prosecutor next accused the young man of complicity in the much
discussed escape of the nuns Orion again asserted his innocence, pointing
out that during the fatal contest between the Arabs and the champions of
the sisters, he had been with the Arab governor, as Amru himself could
testify. By an act of unparalleled despotism, he had been deprived of
his estates and his freedom on mere false suspicion, and he put his trust
in the first instance in a just sentence from his judges and, failing
that, he threw himself on the protection and satisfaction of his
sovereign lord the Khaliff.
As he spoke his eyes flashed flames at the Vekeel; but the negro still
preserved his self-control, and this doubled the alarm of those who
wished the youth well.
It was clear from all this that Obada felt sure that he had the noose
well around his victim’s neck, and why he thought so, soon became
evident; for Orion had hardly finished his defence when he rose, and
with a malicious grin, handed to the Kadi the little tablet given him
yesterday by old Horapollo, describing it as a document addressed to
Paula and desiring the Kadi to examine it. The heat had effaced much ofwhat had been written on the wax, but most of the words could still be
deciphered. The venerable Horapollo had already made them out, and was
quite ready to read to the judges all that the accused–who by his own
account, was a spotless dove–had written in his innocence and
truthfulness for his fair one. He signed to the old man and helped
him as he rose with difficulty, but the Kadi begged him to wait, made
himself acquainted with the contents of the letter by the help of the
interpreter, and when the man had, with much pains, fulfilled his task,
he turned, not to Horapollo, but to Obada, and asked whence this document
had come.
“From Paula’s desk,” replied the Vekeel. “My old friend found it there.”
He pointed to Horapollo, who confirmed his statement by a nod of assent.
The Kadi rose, went up to the girl, whose cheeks were pale with
indignation, and asked whether she recognized the tablets as her
property; Paula, after convincing herself, replied with a flaming glance
of scorn and aversion at Horapollo: “Yes, my lord. It is mine. That
base old man has taken it with atrocious meanness from among my things.”
For an instant her voice failed her; then, turning to the judges, she
exclaimed:
“If there is one among you to whom helplessness and innocence are sacred
and malice and cunning odious, I beg him to go to Rufinus’ wife, over
whose threshold this man has crept like a ferret into a dovecote, for no
other end but to tread hospitable kindness in the dust, to rifle her home
and make use of whatever might serve his vile purpose–to go, I say, and
warn the lonely woman against this treacherous spy and thief.”
At this the old man, gasping and inarticulate, raised his withered arm;
the Christian judges whispered together, but at cross-purposes, while the
Jew fidgeted his round little person on the bench, drumming incessantly
with his fingers on his breast, and trying to meet Orion’s or Paula’s eye
and to make her understand that he was the man who would warn Joanna.
But a thump from the Vekeel’s fist, that came down on his shoulder
unawares, reduced him to sitting still; and while he sat rubbing the
place with subdued sounds of pain, not daring to reproach the all-
powerful negro for his violence, the Kadi gave the tablets to Horapollo
and bid him read the letter.
But the terrible accusation cast at him by the hated Patrician maiden,
ascribing his removal to Rufinus house to a motive which, in truth, had
been far from his, had so enraged and agitated him that his old lungs, at
all times feeble, refused their office. This woman had done him a fresh
wrong, for he had gone to live with the widow from the kindest impulse;
only an accident had thrown this document in his way. And yet it would
not fail to be reported to Joanna in the course of the day that he had
gone to her house as a spy, and there would be an end to the pleasant
life of which he had dreamed–nay, even Philippus might perhaps quarrel
with him.
And all, all through this woman.
He could not utter a word but, as he sank back on the seat, a glance so
full of hatred, so dark with malignant fury, fell on Paula that she
shuddered, and told herself that this man was ready to die himself if
only he could drag her down too.
The interpreter now began to read Orion’s letter and to translate it forthe Arabs; and while he blundered through it, declaring that not a letter
could be plainly made out, she recovered her self-control and, before the
interpreter had done his task, a gleam as of sunshine lighted up her pure
features. Some great, lofty, and rapturous thought must have flashed
through her brain, and it was evident that she had seized it and was
feeding on it.
Orion, sitting opposite to her, noticed this; still, he did not
understand what her beseeching gaze had to say to him, what it asked of
him as she pressed her hand on her breast, and looked into his eyes with
such urgent entreaty that it went to his very heart.
The interpreter ceased; but what he had read had had a great effect on
the judges. The Kadi’s benevolent face expressed extreme apprehension,
and the contents of the letter were indeed such as to cause it. It ran
as follows:
“After waiting for you a long time in vain, I must at last make up my
mind to go; and how much I still had to say to you. A written farewell.”
Here a few lines were effaced, and then came the–fatal and quite legible
conclusion:
“How far otherwise I had dreamed of ending this day, which has been for
the most part spent in preparations for the flight of the Sisters; and I
have found a pleasure in doing all that lay in my power for those kind
and innocent, unjustly persecuted nuns. We must hope for the best for
them; and for ourselves we must look to-morrow for an undisturbed
interview and a parting which may leave us memories on which we can live
for a long time. The noble governor Amru is, among the Arabs, such
another as he whom we mourn was among the Egyptians . . .” Here the
letter ended; not quite three lines were wanting to conclude it.
The Kadi held the tablets for a few minutes in his hand; then looking up
again at the assembly, who were waiting in great suspense, he began:
“Even if the accused was not one of those who raised their hands in
mutiny against our armed troops, it is nevertheless indisputable, after
what has just been read, that he not only knew of the escape of the nuns,
but aided them to the utmost.–When did you receive this communication,
noble maiden?”
At this Paula clasped her hands tightly and replied with a slightly bent
head and her eyes fixed on the ground.
“When did I receive it?–Never; for I wrote it myself. The writing is
mine.”
“Yours?” said the Kadi in amazement. “It is from me to Orion,” replied
Paula.
“From you to him? How then comes it in your desk?”
“In a very simple way,” she explained, still looking down. “After
writing the letter to my betrothed I threw it in with the other tablets
as soon as I had no need for it; for he himself came, and there was no
necessity for his reading what could be better said by word of mouth.”
As she spoke a peculiar smile passed over her lips and a loud murmur ran
through the room. Orion looked first at the girl and then at the Kadi ingrowing bewilderment; but the Negro started up, struck his fist on the
table, making it shake, and roared out:
“An atrocious fabrication! Which of you can allow yourself to be taken
in by a woman’s guile?” Horapollo, who had recovered himself by this
time, laughed hoarsely and maliciously; the judges looked at each other
much puzzled; but when the Vekeel went on raging the Kadi interrupted
him, and desired that Orion might speak, for he had twice tried to make
himself heard. Now, with scarlet cheeks and a choking utterance, he
said:
“No, Othman–no, no indeed, my lords. Do not believe her. Not she, but
I–I wrote the letter that. . . .”
But Paula broke in:
“He? Do you not feel that all he wants is to save me, and so he takes my
guilt on himself? It is his generosity, his love for me! Do not, do not
believe him! Do not allow yourselves to be deceived by him.”
“I? No, it is she, it is she,” Orion again asserted; but, before he
could say more, Paula declared with a flashing glance that it was a poor
sort of love which sacrificed itself out of false generosity. And as,
at the same time, she again pressed her hand to her bosom with pathetic
entreaty, he was suddenly silent, and casting his eyes up to heaven, he
sank back on the prisoners’ bench, deeply affected.
Paula joyfully went on:
“He has thought better of it, and given up his crazy attempt to take my
guilt on himself. You see, Othman, you all see, worthy men.–Let me
atone for what I did to help the poor nuns.”
“Have your way!” shrieked the old man; but the Negro cried out:
“A hellish tissue of lies, an unheard-of deception! But in spite of the
shield a woman holds before you, I have my foot on your neck, treacherous
wretch! Is it credible–I ask you, judges–that a finished letter should
be found, after weeks had elapsed, in the hands of the writer and not
those of the person to whom it was addressed?”
The Kadi shrugged his shoulders and replied with calm dignity:
“Consider, Obada, that we are condemning this damsel on the evidence of
a letter which was found in possession, not of the person to whom it was
addressed, but of the writer. This document gave rise to no doubts in
your mind. The judge should mete out equal measure to all, Obada.”
The aptness of these words, spoken in a dogmatic tone, aroused the
approval of the Arabs, and the Jew could not restrain himself from
exclaiming: “Capital!” but no sooner had it escaped him than he shrank
as quick as lightning out of the Vekeel’s reach; and Obada hardly heard
him, for he did not allow himself to be interrupted by the Kadi but went
on to explain in wrathful words what a disgrace it was to them, as men
and judges, to have dust cast in their eyes by a woman, and allow
themselves to be molified by the arts of a pair of love-stricken fools;
and how desirable it must be in the eyes of every Moslem to guard the
security of life and bring the severest punishment on the instigator of a
sanguinary revolt against the champions of the Khaliff’s power.His eloquent and stormy address was not without effect; still, the
Christians, who ascribed every form of evil to the Melchite girl, would
have been satisfied with her death and have been ready to forgive the son
of the Mukaukas this crime–supposing him to have committed it. And it
was after the judges had agreed that it was impossible to decide by whom
the letter on the tablet had been written, and there had been a great
deal of argument on both sides, that the real discussion began.
It was long before the assembly could agree, and all the while Orion sat
now looking as though he had already been condemned to a cruel death, and
now exchanging glances with Paula, while he pressed his hand to his heart
as though to keep it from bursting. He perfectly understood her, and her
magnanimity upheld him. He had indeed persuaded himself to accept her
self-sacrifice, but he was fully determined that if she must die he would
follow her to the grave. “Non dolet,”–[It does not hurt]–Arria cried
to her lover Paetus, as she thrust the knife into her heart that she
might die before him; and the words rang in his ear; but he said to
himself that Paula would very likely be pardoned, and that then he would
be free and have a whole lifetime in which to thank her.
At last–at last. The Kadi announced the verdict: It was impossible to
find Orion worthy of death, and equally so to give up all belief in his
guilt; the court therefore declared itself inadequate to pronounce a
sentence, and left it to be decided by the Khaliff or by his
representative in Egypt, Amru. The court only went so far as to rule
that the prisoner was to be kept in close confinement, so that he might
be within reach of the hand of justice, if the supreme decision should be
“guilty!”
When the Kadi said that the matter was to be referred to the Khaliff or
his representative, the Vekeel cried out:
“I–I am Omar’s vicar!” but a disapproving murmur from the judges, as
with one voice, rejected his pretensions, and at a proposal of the Kadi
it was resolved that the young man should be protected against any
arbitrary attack on the part of the Vekeel by a double guard; for many
grave accusations against Obada were already on their way to Medina. The
negro quitted the court, mad with rage, and concocting fresh indictments
against Paula with the old man.
When Paula returned to her cell old Betta thought that she must have been
pardoned; for how glad, how proud, how full of spirit she entered it!
The worst peril was diverted from her lover, and she and her love had
saved him!
She gave herself up for lost; but whatever fate might have in store for
her, life lay open before him; he would have time to prove his splendid
powers, and that he would do so, as she would have him do it, she felt
certain.
She had not ended telling her nurse of the judges’ decision, when the
warder announced the Kadi. In a minute or two he made his appearance;
she expressed her thanks, and he warmly assured her that he regarded the
disgrace of being perhaps a beguiled judge as a favor of Fortune; then he
turned the conversation on the real object of his visit.
In the letter, he began, which he had received the evening before from
his uncle Haschim, there was a great deal about her. She had quite wonthe old merchant’s heart, and the enquiries for her father which he had
set on foot….
Here she interrupted him saying: “Oh, my lord; is the wish, the prayer of
my life to be granted?”
“Your father, the noble Thomas, before whom even the Moslem bows, has
been. . . .” and then Othman went on to tell her that the hero of
Damascus had in fact retired to Sinai and had been living there as a
hermit. But she must not indulge in premature rejoicing, for the
messengers had found him ill, consumed by disease arising from his
wounded lungs, and almost at death’s door. His days were numbered….
“And I, I am a prisoner,” groaned the girl. “Held fast, helpless,
robbed of all means of flying to his arms!”
He again bid her be calm, and went on to tell her: in his soft, composed
manner, that two days since a Nabathaean had come to him and had asked
him, as the chief administrator of justice in Egypt, whether an old foe
of the Moslems, a general who had fought in the service of the emperor
and the cross against the Khaliff and the crescent, and who was now sick,
weary, and broken, might venture on Egyptian soil without fear of being
seized by the Arab authorities; and when he, Othman, had learnt that this
man was no other than Thomas, the hero of Damascus, he had promised him
his life and freedom, promised them gladly, as he felt assured his
sovereign the Khaliff would desire.
So this very day her father had reached Fostat, and the Kadi had received
him as a guest into his house. Thomas, indeed, stood on the brink of the
grave; but he was inspirited and sustained by the hope of seeing his
daughter. It had been falsely reported to him that she had perished in
the massacre at Abyla and he had already mourned her fate.
It was now his duty to fulfil the wish of a dying man, and he had ordered
the prison servants to prepare the room adjoining Paula’s cell with
furniture which was on the way from his house. The door between the two
would be opened for her.
“And I shall see him again, have him again to live with–to close his
eyes, perhaps to die with him!” cried Paula; and, seizing the good man’s
hand, she kissed it gratefully.
The Moslem’s eyes filled with tears as he bid her not to thank him, but
God the All-merciful; and before the sun went down the head of the doomed
daughter was resting on the breast of the weary hero who was so near his
end, though his unimpaired mind and tender heart rejoiced in their
reunion as fully and deeply as did his beloved and only child. A new and
unutterable joy came to Paula in the gloom of her prison; and that same
day the warder carried a letter from her to Orion, conveying her father’s
greetings; and, as he read the fervent blessing, he felt as though an
invisible hand had released him for ever from the curse his own father
had laid upon him. A wonderful glad sense of peace came over him with
power and pleasure in work, and he gave his brains and pen no rest till
morning was growing grey.
CHAPTER XXII.Horapollo made his way home to his new quarters from the court of justice
with knit and gloomy brows. As he passed Susannah’s garden hedge he saw
a knot of people gathered together and pointing out furtively to the
handsome residence beyond.
They, like a hundred other groups he had passed, hailed him with words of
welcome, thanks, and encouragement and, as he bowed to them slightly, his
eyes followed the direction of their terrified gaze and he started; above
the great garden gates hung the black tablet; a warning that looked like
a mark of disgrace, crying out to the passer-by: “Avoid this threshold!
Here rages the destroying pestilence!”
The old man had a horror of everything that might remind him of death,
and a cold shiver ran through him. To live so near to a focus of the
disease was most alarming and dangerous! How had it invaded this, the
healthiest part of the town, which the last raging epidemic had spared?
An officer of the town-council, whom he called to him, told him that two
slaves, father and son, whose duty it was to take charge of the baths in
the widow’s house, had been first attacked, but they had been carried
quietly away in the night to the new tents for the sick; to-day, however,
the widow herself had fallen ill. To prevent the spread of the
infection, the plot of ground was now guarded on all sides.
“Be strict, be sharp; not a rat must creep out !” cried the old man as
he rode on.
He was later than he had been yesterday; supper must be ready. After a
short rest he was preparing to join the family at their meal, washing and
dressing with the help of his servant, when a lame slave-girl came into
his room and placed a tray covered with steaming dishes on the low table
by the divan.
What was the meaning of this? Before he could ask, he was informed that
for the future the women wished to eat by themselves; he would be served
in his own room.
At this a bright patch of red colored his cheeks; after brief reflection
he cried to his servant. “My ass!” and added to the girl: “Where is
your mistress?”
“In the viridarium with Gamaliel the goldsmith; but they are going to
supper immediately.”
“And without their guest? I understand!” muttered the old man, taking
up his hat and marching past the maid out of the room. In the hall he
met Gamaliel, to whom a slave-girl was handing his stick. Horapollo
could guess that the Jew had come only to warn the women against him and,
without vouchsafing him a glance, he went into the dining-room. There he
found Pulchena and Mary kneeling in tears by the side of Joanna, who was
weeping too.
He guessed for whom were these lamentations, and prompted by the wish to
prove the falsity of the accusation that charged him with having entered
the house as a spy, he spoke to the widow. She shuddered as he entered,
and she now pointed to the door with an outstretched finger; when he
nevertheless stood still and was about to make his defence, she
interrupted him loudly and urgently: “No, no, my lord! This house ishenceforth closed against you! You yourself have broken every tie that
bound us! Do not any longer disturb our peace! Go back to the place you
came from.”
At this the old man made one more attempt to speak; but the widow rose,
and saying: “Come, my children,” she hastily withdrew with the girls into
the adjoining room, and closed the door.
Horapollo was left alone on the threshold.
Old as he was, in all his life he had never suffered such an insult; but
he did not lay it to the score of those who had shown him the door, but
to the already long one of the Syrian girl; as he rode back to his own
home on his white ass, he stopped several times to speak to the passers-
by.
During the following day or two he heeded not the heat of the weather,
nor his own need of rest for his body, and quiet occupation for his mind;
morning, noon and night he was riding about the streets stirring up the
people, and setting forth in insinuating speeches that they must perish
miserably if they rejected the only means of deliverance which he had
pointed out to them. He was present at every meeting of the Senate, and
his inflammatory eloquence kept the town council on his side, and
nullified the efforts of the bishop, while he pressed them to fix
the day of the marriage of the Nile with his bride.
He knew the Egyptians and their passion for the intoxicating joys of a
splendid ceremonial. This festival: the wedding of the Bride of the Nile
to her mighty and unresting spouse, on whom the weal or woe of the land
depended, was to be as a flowery oasis in the waste of dearth and
desolation. He recalled every detail of the reminiscences of his
childhood as to the processions in Honor of Isis, and the festivals
dedicated to her and her triad; every record of his own experience and
that of former generations; all he had read in books of the great
pilgrimages and dramas of heathen Egypt–and he described it all in his
speeches, painted it in glowing colors to the Senate and the mob, and
counselled the authorities to reproduce it all with unparalleled splendor
on the occasion of this marriage.
Every man in whose veins flowed Egyptian blood listened to him
attentively, took pleasure in his projects, and was quite ready to do his
utmost to enhance the glories of this ceremonial, in which every one was
to take part either active or passive. Thousands were ruined, but there
was yet enough and to spare for this marriage feast, and the Senate did
not hesitate to raise a fresh loan.
“Destruction or Deliverance!” was the watch-word Horapollo had given the
Memphites. If everything came to ruin their hoarded talents would be
lost too; if, on the other hand, the sacrifice produced its result, if
the Nile should bless its children with renewed prosperity, what need the
town or country care for a few thousand drachmae more or less?
So the day was fixed!
Not quite two weeks after Paula’s trial, on the day of Saint Serapis the
miraculous, saving, auspicious ceremonial was to take place. And how
glowing was the picture given of the Bride’s beauty by the old man, and
by the judges and officials who had seen her! How brightly old
Horapollo’s eyes would flash with hate as he described it! The eyes oflove could not be more radiant.
All that this patrician hussy had done to aggrieve him–she should
expiate it all, and his triumph meant woe, not only to that one woman,
but to the Christian faith which he hated!
Bishop John, however, had not been idle meanwhile. Immediately after
his interference with the popular vote he had despatched a letter by a
carrier-pigeon to the patriarch in Upper Egypt, and Benjamin’s reply
would no doubt give him powers for still more vigorous measures. In
church, before the Senate, and even in the highways, he and his clergy
did their utmost to combat the atrocious project of the authorities and
the populace, but the zeal which was stirred up by old Horapollo soon
broke into brighter flames than the conservatism, orthodoxy and breadth
of view which the ecclesiastics did their utmost to fan. The wind blew
with equal force from both quarters, but on one side it blew on
smoldering fuel, and on the other on overflowing and flaming stores.
Famine and despair had undermined faith, and weakened discipline; even
the mightiest weapons of the Church–Cursing and blessing–were
powerless. A floating beam was held out to sinking men, and they would
no longer wait for the life-boat that was approaching to rescue them,
with strong hands at the oars and a trusty pilot at the helm.
Horapollo went no more to the widow’s home. A few hours after she had
shown him the door, his slaves came and fetched away the various things
he had carried there with him. His body servant at the same time brought
a large sealed phial and a letter to Dame Joanna, as follows:
“It is wrong to judge a man without hearing his defence. This you have
done; but I owe you no grudge. Philippus, on his return, will perhaps
pick up the ends of the tie and join again what you have this day cut.
I send you a portion of the remedy he left with me at parting to use
against the plague in case of need. Its good effects have been tested
within the last few days. May the sickness which has fallen on your
neighbors, spare you and yours.”
Joanna was much pleased with this letter but, when she had read it aloud,
little Mary exclaimed:
“If any one should fall ill he shall not take a drop of that mixture! I
tell you he only wants to poison us!”
Joanna, however, maintained that the old man was not bad hearted in spite
of his unaccountable hatred of Paula; and Pulcheria declared that it must
be so, if only because Philip esteemed him so highly. If only he were
here, everything would have been different and have turned out well.
Mary remained with the mother and daughter till it grew dark; her chatter
always led them back to Paula; and when, in the afternoon, the Nabathaean
messenger came to them, and told them from their captive friend that he
had brought her father home to her, the women once more began to hope,
and Mary could allow herself to give free expression to her fond love
before she quitted them, without exciting their suspicions.
At length she said she must go to her lessons with Eudoxia; she had a
hard task before her and they must think of her and wish her good
success. She threw her arms first round the widow’s neck and then round
Pulcheria’s; and, as the tears would start to her eyes, she asked them if
she were not indeed a silly childish thing–but they were to think of herall the same and never to forget her.
She met the governess in her own room; Eudoxia cut off the fine, soft
curls, shedding her first tears over them; and those tears flowed faster
as she placed round Mary’s neck a little reliquary containing a lock from
the sheep-skin of St. John the Baptist, which had belonged to her own
mother. It was very dear and sacred to her, and she had never before
parted from it, but now it was to protect the child and bring her
happiness–great happiness.
Had it brought her such happiness?–Not much, in truth; and yet she
believed in the saving and beneficent influence of the relic.
At last Mary stood before her with short hair and in a boy’s dress; and
what a sweet and lovely little fellow it was; Eudoxia could not weary of
looking at him. But Mary was too pretty, too frail for a boy; and
Eudoxia advised her to pull her broad travelling hat low over her eyes as
soon as she came in sight of men, or else to darken her color.
Gamaliel, who had in fact come to warn Dame Joanna against Horapollo,
had kept them informed of the progress of this day’s sitting, and Paula’s
conduct to save her lover had increased Mary’s admiration for her. When
she should confront Amru she could answer him on every head, so she felt
equipped at all points as she stole through the garden with Eudoxia, and
down to the quay.
When she had passed the gateway she once more kissed her hand to the
house she loved and its inmates; then, pointing with a sigh to the
neighboring garden, she said:
“Poor Katharina! she is a prisoner now.–Do you know, Eudoxia, I am still
very fond of her, and when I think that she may take the plague, and die
but no!–Tell Mother Joanna and Pulcheria to be kind to her. To-morrow,
after breakfast, give them my letter; and this evening, if they get
anxious, you can only quiet them by saying you know all and that it is of
no use to fret about me. You will set it all right and not allow them to
grieve.”
As they passed a Jacobite chapel that stood open, she begged Eudoxia to
wait for her and fell on her knees before the crucifix. In a few minutes
she came out again, bright and invigorated and, as they passed the last
houses in the town, she exclaimed:
“Is it not wicked, Eudoxia? I am leaving those I love dearly, very
dearly, and yet I feel as glad as a bird escaping from its cage. Good
Heaven! Only to think of the ride by night through the desert and over
the hills, a swift beast under me, and over my head no ceiling but the
blue sky and countless stars! Onward and still onward to a glorious end,
left entirely to myself and entrusted with an important task like a
grownup person! Is it not splendid? And by God’s help–and if I find
the governor and succeed in touching his heart…. Now, confess,
Eudoxia, can there be a happier girl in the whole wide world?”
They found the Masdakite at Nesptah’s inn with some capital dromedaries
and the necessary drivers and attendants. The Greek governess gave her
pupil much good advice, and added her “maternal” blessing with her whole
heart. Rustem lifted the child on to the dromedary, carefully settling
her in the saddle, and the little caravan set out. Mary waved repeated
adieux to her old governess and newly-found friend, and Eudoxia was stillgazing after her long after she had vanished in the darkness.
Then she made her way home, at first weeping silently with bowed head,
but afterwards tearless, upright, and with a confident step. She was in
unusually good spirits, her heart beat higher than it had done for years;
she felt uplifted by the sense of relief from a burthensome duty, and of
freedom to act independently on the dictates of her own intelligence.
She would assert herself, she would show the others that she had acted
rightly; and when at supper-time Mary was missing, and had not returned
even at bed-time, there was much to do to soothe and comfort them, and
much misconstruction to endure; but she took it all patiently, and it was
a consolation to her to bear such annoyance for her little favorite.
Next morning, when she had delivered Mary’s letter to Dame Joanna, her
love and endurance were put to still severer proof; indeed, the meek-
tempered widow allowed herself to be carried away to such an outbreak
as hitherto would undoubtedly have led Eudoxia to request her dismissal,
with sharp recrimination; but she took it all calmly.
It was not till noon-day–when the bishop made his appearance to
carry the child off to the convent, and was highly wrathful at Mary’s
disappearance, threatening the widow, and declaring that he would search
the whole country through for the little girl and find her at last, that
Eudoxia felt that the moment of her triumph had come. She quietly
allowed the bishop to depart, and then only did she send her last and
best shaft at Joanna by informing her that she had in fact encouraged
the child in her exploit on purpose to save her from the cloister. Her
newly-found motherly feeling made her eloquent, and with a result that
she had almost ceased to hope for: the warm-hearted little woman, who
had hurt her with such cruel words, threw her arms round Eudoxia’s tall,
meagre figure, put up her face to kiss her, called her a brave, clever
girl, and begged her forgiveness for all she had said and done the day
before.
So, when the Greek went to bed, she felt as if her life had turned
backwards and she had grown more like the happy young creature she had
once been with her sisters in her parents’ house.
CHAPTER XXIII.
Paula now understood what hung over her. It is Bishop John who had told
her, as gently as he could, and with every assurance that he still clung
to the hope that he could stop the hideous heathen abomination; but even
without this she would certainly have known what was impending, for large
crowds of people gathered every day under the prisonwalls, and loud cries
reached her, demanding to see the “Bride of the Nile.”
Now and again shouts of “Hail!” came up to her; but when the demented
creatures had shrieked themselves hoarse, and in vain, they would abuse
her vilely. The cry for the “Bride” never ceased from morning till
night, and the head warder of the prison was glad that the bishop had
relieved him of the task of explaining to Paula the meaning of the
fateful word, whose significance she had repeatedly asked him.
At first this fresh and terrible peril had startled and shaken her;
but she did her utmost to cling to the hope held out by the bishop soas to appear calm, and as far as possible cheerful, in her sick father’s
presence. And in this she succeeded so long as it was day; but at night
she was a prey to agonizing terrors. Then, in fancy she saw herself
surrounded by a raging mob, dragged to the river and cast into a watery
grave before a thousand eyes. Then, prayer was of no avail, nor any
resolve or effort; not the tender messages that constantly reached her
from Orion, nor the songs he would sing for her in the brief moments of
leisure he allowed himself; not the bishop’s words of comfort, nor the
visits of those she loved. The warder would admit her friends as often
as he was able; and among those who found their way to her cell were the
Senator Justinus and his wife.
By great good fortune Martina had quitted Susannah’s house as soon as the
two slaves had fallen ill and she had heard that the physician pronounced
them to be sickening of the plague. She had returned to her rooms in the
inn kept by Sostratus, but her nephew Narses had remained with Katharina
and her mother. He was indeed intending to follow her with Heliodora;
but, by the time they were ready to set out, Susannah, too, had fallen a
victim to the pestilence and the authorities had forbidden all egress
from her house.
Heliodora might have succeeded in leaving in time, alone; but she would
not abandon her unfortunate brother-in-law; for he never felt easy but in
her presence, would allow no one else to wait on him, and would take
neither food nor drink unless they were offered him by her. Besides
this, the cavalry officer, once so stalwart, had in his weakness become
pathetically like her lost husband, and she knew that Narses had been the
first to love her, and that it was only for his brother’s sake that he
had concealed his passion. Her motherly instincts found an outlet in the
care of the half-crushed, but not hopelessly lost man; and the desire to
drag him back to life kept her busy day and night, and made her regard
everything else as trivial and of secondary importance. Her life had
once more found a purpose; her efforts were for an attainable end, and
she devoted herself to him body and soul.
Her uncle had told her that Orion was bound to Paula by a supreme
passion.–This had been a painful blow, but the Syrian girl had impressed
her; she looked up to her, and it soothed her wounded self-esteem to
reflect that she had lost her lover to no inferior woman. Though her
longing for him still surged up in many a silent hour, she felt it an
injustice, a stint of love to her invalid charge.
So far as Katharina was concerned, next to her mother, Heliodora was the
object of her deepest anxiety. The least word of complaint from either
terrified her; and if Susannah sank on the divan exhausted by the heat,
or Heliodora had a headache after watching through the night by the sick
man, the girl would turn pale, her heart would beat painfully, she would
paint them in fancy stricken by the plague, with burning brows and the
horrible, fatal spots on their foreheads and cheeks; and whenever these
alarms pressed on the young criminal she felt the ominous weight on the
top of her head where the dead bishop’s hand had rested.
The senator’s wife had so completely changed in her demeanor to the
water-wagtail, since Paula’s imprisonment, that to Katharina she was as a
living reproach, so she had no regret at seeing the worthy pair depart.
But scarcely had they left when misfortune took their place as an
unbidden guest.
The slave whose duty it was to heat the baths had reserved a portion ofthe infected garments that had been given to him to burn; his son had
helped him, and Katharina’s nurse, the mother of her foster-brother
Anubis, had come into direct contact with her immediately after her
return from the soothsayer’s and from the bishop’s. All three had caught
the disease. They had all three been removed to the hospital tents–the
slave and the nurse as corpses.
But had the fearful infection been taken away with them? If not, it
would be the turn next of those whom she herself had pushed into the arms
of the fell monster: First Heliodora, and then her mother! And she,
rightfully, ought to have fallen before them; and if the pestilence
should seize her and death should drag her down into the grave it would
be showing her mercy. She was still so young, and yet she hated life.
It had nothing in store for her but humiliation and disappointment,
arrows which, sent from the prison, pierced her to the heart, and a
torturing fear which never gave her any peace, day or night.
When the physician came to transport the sick to the hospital in the
desert, he mentioned incidentally that the judges had condemned Paula to
death, and that the populace and senate, in spite of the new bishop’s
prohibition, had determined to cast her into the river in accordance with
an ancient custom. Orion’s fate was not to be decided till the following
day; but it would hardly be to his advantage in the eyes of his Jacobite
judges, that his betrothed was this Syrian Melchite.
At this Katharina was forced to support herself against her mother’s arm-
chair to save herself from sinking on her knees; with tingling cheeks she
questioned the leech till he lost all patience and turned away much
annoyed at such excessive feminine curiosity.
Yes! “The other” was his betrothed before all the world; but only to
die! The blood rushed through her veins in a hot tide at the thought;
she could have laughed aloud and fallen on the neck of every one she met.
What she felt was hideous; malignant spite possessed her; but it gave her
rapture–delicious rapture–a flower of hell, but with splendid petals
and intoxicating perfume. But its splendor dazzled her and its fragrance
presently sickened her. Sheer horror of herself came over her, and yet
she could have shouted with joy each time that the thought flashed
through her brain: “The other must die!”
Her mother feared that her daughter, too, was about to fall ill, her eyes
glowed so strangely and she was so restless and nervously excitable.
Since Heliodora had taken the overwhelming news of Orion’s betrothal to
Paula with astonishing though sorrowful calmness, to the hot-blooded girl
she was nothing, nobody, utterly unworthy of her notice.
To spite her she had committed a crime as like murder as one snake is
like another, and imperilled her own mother’s life! It was enough to
drive her to despair, to make her scourge herself with rods!
When Susannah kissed her at parting for the night she complained of a
slight sore throat and of her lips, which she fancied must be swollen.
Katharina detained her, questioned her with a trembling voice, put the
lamp close to her, and held her breath while she examined her face, her
neck, and her arms for the dreadful spots. But none were to be seen and
her mother laughed at her terrors, called her a dutiful, anxious child,
and warned her not to be too full of fears, as they were supposed to
invite the disease.All night the girl could not sleep. Her malicious triumph was past;
nothing but painful thoughts and grewsome images haunted her while awake,
and pursued her more persistently when she dozed. By dawn of day her
alarm for her mother was so great that she sprang out of bed and went to
her room; Susannah was sleeping so soundly that she did not even hear
her. Much relieved Katharina crept back to bed; but in the morning the
worst had happened: Susannah could no longer leave her bed; she was
feverish, and on her lips, the very lips which had kissed her child’s
infected hair, there were indeed, between her nose and mouth, the first
terrible, unmistakable spots.
The leech came and confirmed the fact.–The house was closed and barred.
The physician and Susannah, who was still in full possession of her
senses, wished and insisted that Katharina should withdraw to the
gardener’s house, but she refused with defiant obstinacy, saying she
would rather die with her mother than leave her.
Quite beside herself she threw herself on the sick woman, and kissed the
spots on her mouth to divert the poison into her own blood; but the
physician angrily pulled her away, and the sufferer reproved her with
tears in her eyes which spoke her fervent affection.
She was now allowed to nurse her mother. Two nuns came to her
assistance, and said, not only to the rich widow but behind her back,
that they had never seen so devoted and loving a daughter. Even Bishop
John, who did not shrink from entering the houses of the sick to give
them spiritual consolation, praised Katharina’s conduct; and he, who had
hitherto regarded the water-wagtail as no more than a bright, restless
child, treated her with respect, talked to her as to a grown-up person,
and answered her questions–which for the most part referred to Paula–
gravely and fully.
The prelate, who was full of admiration for Thomas’ daughter, told
Katharina how, to save her lover, she had taken a crime upon herself
which deprived her of every claim to mercy. The Syrian girl was only a
Melchite, but to take another’s guilt, out of love, was treading indeed
in the footsteps of Christ, if ever anything was. At this Katharina
shrugged her shoulders, as though to say: “Do you think so much of that?
Could not I gladly have done the same?”
The priest saw this and admonished her kindly to be on her guard against
spiritual pride, though she had indeed earned the right to believe
herself capable of the sternest devotion, and did not cease to set an
example of filial and Christian love.
He departed; and Katharina, to whom every word in praise of her behavior
to her mother, whom her sin had brought to her death-bed, was a torturing
mockery, felt that she had deceived one more worthy soul. She did not,
to be sure, deserve to be charged with spiritual pride; for in this
silent chamber, where death stood on the threshold, she thought over all
the horrible things she had done, and told herself repeatedly that she
was the chief and most vile of sinners.
Many times she felt impelled to confide in another soul, to invite a
pitying eye to behold and share her inward suffering.
To the bishop above all, the most venerable priest she knew, she wouldmost readily have confessed everything and have submitted to any penance,
however severe, at his hands, but shame held her back; and even more did
another more urgent consideration. The prelate, she knew, would demand
of her that she should forsake her old life, root out from her soul the
old feelings and desires, and begin a new existence; but for this the
time had not yet come: her love was still an indispensable condition of
life, and her hatred was even more dear to her. When Paula’s terrible
doom should indeed have overtaken her, and Katharina, her heart full of
those old feelings, had gloated over it; when she should have been able
to prove to Orion that her love was no less great and strong and self-
sacrificing than that of Thomas’ daughter; when she should have compelled
him–as she would and must–to acknowledge that he had cruelly misprized
her and sinned against her; then, and not till then, would she make peace
with herself, with the Church, and with her Saviour. Nay, if need be,
she would take the veil and mourn away the rest of her young life as a
penitent, in a convent or a solitary rock-cell. But now–when Paula,
his betrothed, had done this great thing for him–to perish now, with her
love unseen, unknown, uncared for, perhaps forgotten by him, to retire
into herself and vanish from his ken–that was too much for human nature!
Sooner would she be lost forever; body and soul in everlasting perdition,
a prey to Satan and hell–in which she believed as firmly as in her own
existence.
So she went on nursing her mother, saw the red spots spread over the sick
woman’s whole body–watched the fever that increased from day to day,
from hour to hour; listened with a mixture of horror and gladness–at
which she herself shuddered, though she fed her heart on it–to the
reports of the preparations for the sacrifice of the Bride of the Nile,
and to all the bishop could tell her of Paula, and her dying father, and
Orion. She trembled for little Mary, who had disappeared from the
neighboring garden, till she heard that the child had fled to escape the
cloister; each day she learnt that Heliodora, who had moved to the
gardener’s house with her invalid, had as yet escaped the pestilence;
while in the prayers, which even now she never failed to offer up morning
and evening, she implored the Almighty and her patron saints to rescue
the young widow, to save her from causing the death of her own mother,
and to forgive her for having indirectly caused that of worthy old
Rufinus, who had always been so good to her, and of so many innocent
creatures by her treachery.
Thus the terrible days and nights of anguish passed by; and the captives
whom the girl’s sins had brought to prison were happier than she, in
spite of the doom that threatened them.
The fate of his betrothed tortured Orion more than a hundred aching
wounds. Paula’s terrible end was fast approaching, and his brain burned
at the mere thought. Now, as he was told by the warder, by the bishop,
and by Justinus, the day after to-morrow was fixed for the bridal of his
betrothed. In two days the bride, decked by base and mocking hands for
an atrocious and accursed farce, would be wreathed and wedded, not to
him, the bridegroom whom she loved, but to the Nile–the insensible,
death-dealing element. He rushed up and down his cell like a madman,
and tore his lute-strings when he tried to soothe his soul with music;
but then a calm, well-intentioned voice would come from the adjoining
room, exhorting him not to lose hope, to trust in God, not to forget his
duty and the task before him. And Orion would control himself
resolutely, pull himself together, and throw himself into his work again.
Day and night were alike to him. The senator had provided him with alamp and oil. When he was wearied out, he allowed himself no longer
sleep on his hard couch than human nature imperatively demanded; and as
soon as he had shaken it off he again became absorbed in maps and lists,
plied his pen, thought, sketched, calculated, and reflected. Then, if a
doubt arose in his mind or he could not trust his own memory and
judgment, he knocked at the wall, and his shrewd and experienced friend
was at all times ready to help him to the best of his knowledge and
opinion. The senator went to Arsinoe for him, to gain information as
to the seaboard from the archives preserved there; and so the work went
forward, approaching its end, strengthening and raising his sinking
spirit, bringing him the pleasures of success, and enabling him not
unfrequently to forget for hours that which otherwise might have brought
the bravest to despair.
The warder, the senator or his worthy wife, Dame Joanna or Eudoxia–who
twice had the pleasure of accompanying her–each time they visited him
had some message or note to carry to Paula, telling her how far his work
had progressed; and to her it was a consolation and heartfelt joy to be
able to follow him in his labors. And many a token of his love, esteem,
and admiration gave her courage, when even her brave heart began to
quail.
Ah! It was not alone her terror of a horrible death that tortured her
soul. Her father, whom she considered it her greatest joy in life to
have found again, was fading beyond all hope under her loving hands.
His poor wounded lungs refused its service. It was with great difficulty
that he could swallow a few drops of wine and mouthfuls of food; and in
these last days his clear mind had lain as it were under a shroud–
perhaps it was happier so, as she told herself and as her friends
said to comfort her.
He, too, had heard the cries of: “Hail to the Bride of the Nile!”
“Bring out the Bride!”
“Away with the Bride of the Nile!” Though he had no suspicion of their
meaning, they had haunted his thoughts incessantly during the last few
days; and the terrible, strange words had seemed to charm his fancy,
for to Paula’s distress he would murmur them to himself tenderly or
thoughtfully as the case might be.
Many times the idea occurred to her that she might put an end to her life
before the worst should befall, before she became a spectacle for a whole
nation, to be jeered at and made a delightful and exciting show to rouse
their cruelty or their compassion. But dared she do it? Dared she defy
the Most High, the Lord in whom she put her trust, into whose hand she
commended herself in a thousand dumb but fervent prayers.
No. To the very last she would trust and hope. And wonderful to say!
Each time she had reached the very limits of her powers of endurance,
feeling she could certainly bear no more and must succumb, something came
to her to revive her faith or her courage: a message would be brought her
from Orion, or Dame Joanna or Pulcheria came to see her; the bishop
sought an interview, or her father’s mind rallied and he could speak to
her in beautiful and stimulating words. Often the warder would announce
the senator and his wife, and their vigorous and healthy minds always hit
on the very thing she needed. Martina, particularly, with her subtle
motherly instinct, always understood whatever was agitating her; and
once she showed her a letter from Heliodora, in which she spoke of thecalmness she had won through nursing their dear invalid, and said how
thankful she was to see the reward of her care and toil. Narses was
already quite another man, and she could know no higher task than that of
reconciling the hapless man to life, nay, of making it dear to him again.
She no longer thought of Orion but as she might of a beautiful song she
once had heard in a delightful hour.
Thus time passed, even for the imprisoned maiden, till only two nights
remained before St. Serapis’ day when the fearful marriage was to be
solemnized.
It was evening when the bishop came to visit Paula. He regarded it as
his duty to tell her that the execution of her sentence was fixed for the
day after to-morrow. He should hope and believe till the last, but his
own power over the misguided mob was gone from him. In any case, and if
the worst should befall, he would be at her side to protect her by the
dignity of his office. He had come now, so as to give her time to
prepare her self in every respect. The care of her noble father till his
last hour on earth he would take upon himself as a dear and sacred duty.
Though she had believed herself surely prepared long since for the worst,
this news fell on her like a thunderbolt. What lay before her seemed so
monstrous, so unexampled, that it was impossible that she ever could look
forward to it firmly and calmly.
For a long time she could not help clinging desperately to her faithful
Betta, and it was only by degrees that she so far recovered herself as to
be able to speak to the bishop, and thank him. He, however, could only
lament his inability to earn her fullest gratitude, for the patriarch’s
reply to his complaint of those who promised rescue to the people by the
instrumentality of a heathen abomination–a document on which he had
founded his highest hopes for her–had had a different result from that
which he had expected. The patriarch, to be sure, condemned the
abominable sacrifice, but he did it in a way which lacked the force
necessary to terrify and discourage the misled mob. However, he would
try what effect it might have on the people, and a number of scribes were
at work to make copies of it in the course of the night. These would be
sent to the Senators next morning, posted up in the market-place and
public buildings, and distributed to the people; but he feared all this
would have no effect.
“Then help me to prepare for death,” said Paula gloomily. “You are not
a priest of my confession, but no church has a more worthy minister.
If you can absolve me in the name of your Redeemer, mine will pardon me.
We look at Him, it is true, with different eyes, but He is the Saviour of
us both, nevertheless.” A contradictory reply struggled for utterance in
the strict Jacobite’s mind, but at such a moment he felt he must repress
it; he only answered:
“Speak, daughter, I am listening.”
And she poured forth all her soul, as though he had been a priest of her
own creed, and his eyes grew moist as he heard this confession of a pure
and loving heart, yearning for all that was highest and best. He
promised her the mercy of the Redeemer, and when he had ended with
“Amen,” and blessed her, he looked down at the ground for some minutes
and presently said, “Follow me, Child.”
“Whither?” she asked in surprise; for she thought that her last hour hadalready come, and that he was about to lead her away to the place of
execution, or to her watery, ever-flowing tomb; but he smiled as he
replied: “No, child. To-day I have only the pleasing duty of blessing
your betrothal before God; if only you will promise not to estrange your
husband from the faith of his fathers–for what will not a man sacrifice
to win the love of a woman.–You promise? Then I will take you to your
Orion.”
He rapped on the door of the cell, and when the warder had opened it he
whispered his orders; Paula followed him silently and with blushing
cheeks, and in a few minutes she was clasped to her lover’s breast while,
for the first time–and perhaps the last–their lips met in a kiss.
The prelate gave them a few minutes together; when he had blessed them
both and solemnized their betrothal, he led her back to her cell.
However, she had hardly time to thank him out of the fulness of her
overflowing heart, when a town-watchman came to fetch him to see
Susannah; her last hour was at hand, if not already past. John at once
went with the messenger, and Paula drew a deep breath as she saw him
depart. Then she threw herself on to her nurse’s shoulders, crying:
“Now, come what may! Nothing can divide us; not even death!”
CHAPTER XXIV.
The bishop was too late. He found the widow Susannah a corpse; standing
at the head of the bed was little Katharina, as pale as death,
speechless, tearless, utterly annihilated. He kindly tried to cheer her,
and to speak words of comfort; but she pushed him away, tore herself from
him, and before he could stop her, she had fled out of the room.
Poor child! He had seen many a loving daughter mourning for her mother,
but never such grief as this. Here, thought he, were two human souls all
in all to each other, and hence this overwhelming sorrow.
Katharina had escaped to her own room, had thrown herself on the couch
–cowering so close that no one entering the room would have taken the
undistinguishable heap for a human being, a grown up, passionately
suffering girl.
It was very hot, and yet a cold shiver ran through her slender frame.
Was she now attacked by the pestilence? No; it would be too merciful of
Fate to take such pity on her woes.
The mother was dead, dragged to the grave by her own daughter. The
disease had first shown itself on her lips; and how many times had the
physician expressed his surprise at the plague having broken out in this
healthy quarter of the town, and in a house kept so scrupulously clean.
She knew at whose bidding the avenging angel had entered there, and whose
criminal guile had trifled with him. The words “murdered your mother”
haunted her, and she remembered the law of the ancients which refused to
prescribe a punishment for the killing of parents, because they
considered such a monstrous deed impossible.
A scornful smile curled her lip. Laws! Principles! Was there one that
she had not defied? She had contemned God, meddled with magic, bornefalse witness, committed murder–and as to the one law with promise,
which, if Philippus was right, was exactly the same in the code of her
forefathers as on the tables of Moses, how had she kept that? Her own
mother was no more, and by her act!
All through this frightful retrospect she had never ceased to shiver and,
as this was becoming unendurable, she took to walking up and down and
seeking excuses for her sinful doings: It was not her mother, but
Heliodora whom she had wished to kill; why had malicious Fate….?
Here she was interrupted, for the young widow, who had heard the sad
news, sought her out to comfort her and offer her services. She spoke
to the girl with real affection; but her sweet, low tones reminded
Katharina of that evening after the old bishop’s death; and when
Heliodora put out her arm to draw her to her, she shrank from her,
begging her in a dry, hoarse voice, not to touch her for her clothes were
infected. She wanted no comfort; all she asked was to be left alone–
quite alone–nothing more. The words were hard and unkind, and as the
door closed on the young woman Katharina’s eyes glared after her.
Why had this doom passed over Heliodora’s head and demanded the sacrifice
of one whose loss she could never cease to mourn?
This brought her mother vividly to her mind. She flew back to her death-
bed and fell on her knees–but even there she could not bear to stay
long, so she wandered into the garden and visited every spot where she
and her mother had been together. But there were such strange crackings
in the shrubs, and the trees and bushes cast such uncanny shadows that
she hailed daybreak as a deliverance.
She was on her way back to the house when her foster-brother Anubis came
limping to meet her. Poor fellow! She had made a cripple of him, too,
and his mother had died through her fault.
The lad spoke to her, giving expression to his sympathy, and she accepted
it; but she said such strange things, and answered him so utterly at
random, that he began to fear that grief had turned her brain. She went
on to ask him point-blank how much money she now had, and as he happened
to know approximately, he could tell her; she clasped her hands, for how
could any one human being who was not a king possess such enormous
wealth! Finally she enquired whether he knew how a will should be drawn
up, and that, too, he answered affirmatively.
She made him describe it all, and then he added that the signature must
be made valid by those of two witnesses; but she, he added, was too young
to be thinking of making her will.
“Why?” said she. “Is Paula much older than I am?”
“And the day after to-morrow,” the boy went on, “she is to be cast into
the Nile. All the people call her the Bride of the Nile.”
At this that hideous, malignant smile again curled her lips, but she
hastily suppressed it and walked straight on into the house. At the door
he timidly asked her whether he might once more look on his mistress; but
she was obliged to forbid it for fear of infection. However, he proudly
replied: “What you do not fear, has no terrors for me,” and he followed
her to the side of the bed where the corpse now lay washed and in fine
array; and when he saw Katharina kiss the dead woman’s hand he, too, assoon as she looked away, pressed his lips on the place hers had touched.
Then he sat down by the bed and remained there till she sent him away.
Before noon the bishop arrived to perform the last rites. He found the
body surrounded by beautiful flowers. Katharina had been out in the
garden again and had cut all the rarest and finest; and though she had
allowed the gardener to carry the basket for her, she would not have him
help her in gathering them. The feeling that she was doing something for
her mother had been a comfort to her; still, by day everything about her
seemed even more intolerable than by night. Everything looked so large,
so coarse, so insistent, so menacing, and reminded her at every step of
some injustice or some deed of which she was ashamed. Every eye, she
fancied, must see through her; and now and then it seemed as though the
pillars of the great banqueting-hall, where her mother still lay, were
tottering, and the ceiling about to fall in and crush her.
She answered the bishop’s questions absently and often quite at random,
and the old man supposed that she was stunned by her great sorrow; so to
give her thoughts a new direction he began telling her about Paula, and
believing that Katharina was fond of her, he confided to her that he had
taken Paula, the day before, to Orion’s cell, and consecrated their
betrothal.
At this her face was convulsed in a manner that alarmed the bishop; a
fearful tumult raged in her soul, her bosom rose and fell spasmodically,
and all she could utter was the question: “But they will sacrifice her
all the same?”
The bishop thought he understood. She was horror stricken by the idea of
the sudden, cruel end that hung over the young bride, and he replied
sadly; “I shall not be able to restrain the wretches; still, no means
shall remain untried. The patriarch’s rescript, condemning this mad
crime, shall be made public to-day, and I will read and expound it at the
Curia, and try to give it keener emphasis.–Would you like to read it?”
As she eagerly assented, the prelate signed to the acolyte who had waited
on him with the holy vessels, and he produced from a packet a written
sheet which he handed to Katharina. As soon as she was alone she read
the patriarch’s epistle; at first superficially, then more carefully, and
at last in deep attention and growing interest, stirred by it to strange
thoughts, till at length her eyes flashed and her breath came fast, as
though this paper referred to herself, and could seal her fate for life.
When the bearers came in to fetch away the body she was still sitting
there, gazing as if spell-bound at the papyrus; but she sprang up, shook
herself, and then bid farewell to the cold rigid form of the mother on
whose warm heart she had so often rested, and to whom she had been the
dearest thing on earth–and even then the solace of tears was denied her.
She no longer suffered the deep remorse that had tormented her; for she
felt now that her intercourse with her last mother had not been put an
end to by death; that after a short parting they would meet again–soon
perhaps, perhaps even to-morrow–meet for a fulness of speech, an
outpouring of the heart, a revelation of all the past more open and
unreserved than could ever be between mortal beings, even between mother
and daughter. And when she who was sleeping there, blind, deaf, and
senseless, should awake again, up there, with eyes clearer than those of
men below, and the ears and senses of a spiritual being to see and hear
and judge all she had known and done, all she had felt and made othersfeel–then, she told herself, her mother might perhaps blame her and
punish her more than she had ever done on earth, but she would also clasp
her more closely to her heart and comfort her more earnestly.
She whispered gently in her ear as if she were still alive: “Wait awhile,
only wait: I shall come soon and tell you everything!”
And then she kissed her so passionately and recklessly that the nuns were
shocked and dragged her away, ordering the bearers to close the coffin.
They obeyed, and when the wooden lid fell over the sleeping form,
shutting it in with a slam, and hiding it from the girl’s sight, the
barrier gave way which had hitherto restrained her tears and she began to
weep bitterly; now, too, the feeling that she had indeed lost her mother
took complete possession of her–the sense of being an orphan and alone,
quite alone in the wide world.
She saw and heard no more of what took place round the beloved dead; for
when she took her hands from her face streaming with tears, the house of
the rich widow no longer sheltered its mistress; her remains had been
borne away to the nearest mortuary. The law forbade its being any longer
kept within doors, but did not allow of its being buried till night fell.
The child might not follow her own mother to the cemetery.
With a drooping head Katharina withdrew to her room and there stood
looking out into the garden. It all was hers now; she was mistress of it
all and of much besides, as free and unfettered to command as hitherto
she had been over the birds, her little dog, or the jewels that lay on
her toilet-table. She could make hundreds happy with a word, a wave of
the hand–but not herself. She had never felt so grown-up, independent,
womanly, nay powerful, and at the same time so unutterably wretched and
helpless as she felt in this hour.
What did she care for all these vanities? They could not suffice to
check one sigh of disappointed yearning.
She had parted from her mother with a promise; the fervent longing that
filled her soul was never still; and now the patriarch’s letter had given
her a hint as to how she might fulfil the one and silence the other. She
hastily took the document up again, and read it through once more.
Its instructions were precise to stop the proceedings of the misguided
Memphites with stern promptitude. It explained that the death of the
Christ Jesus, who shed His blood to redeem the world, had satisfied the
need for a human victim. Throughout the wide realms which the Cross
overshadowed with blessing human sacrifice must therefore be accounted a
useless and accursed abomination. It went on to point out how the
heathen had devised their gods in the image of weak, sinful, earthly
beings, and chosen victims in accordance with this idea. “But our God,”
it said, “is as high above men as the Spirit is above the flesh, and the
sacrifice He demands is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. Will He not
turn away in wrath and sorrow from the blinded Christians of Memphis who,
in their straits, feel and are about to act like the cruel and foolish
heathen? They take for their victim a heretic and a stranger, deeming
that that will diminish the abomination in the eyes of the Lord; but it
moves Him to loathing all the same, for no human blood may stain the pure
and sacred altars of our mild faith, which gives life and not death.
“Ask your blind and misguided flock, my brother: Can the Father of Love
feel joy at the sight of one of His children, even an erring one,suffocated in the waters to the honor of the Most High, while struggling,
and cursing her executioners?
“If, indeed, there were a pure maiden, possessed with the blessed
intoxication of the love of God, who was ready to follow the example of
Him who redeemed man by His death, to fling herself into the waters while
she cried to Heaven with her dying breath: ‘Take me and my innocence as
an offering, O Lord! Release my people from their extremity!’–that
would be a victim indeed; and perchance, the Lord might say: ‘I will
accept it; but the will alone is enough. No child of mine may cast away
the life that I have lent her as the most sacred and precious of gifts.'”
The letter ended with pious exhortations to the community.
Then a maiden who should voluntarily sacrifice herself in the river to
save the people in their need would be a victim pleasing in the sight of
the Lord–so said the Man of God, through whose mouth the Most High
spoke. And this opinion, this hint, was to Katharina like a distaff from
which she spun a lengthening thread to warp to the loom and weave from it
a tangible tissue.
She would be the maiden whom the patriarch had imagined–the real, true
Bride of the Nile, inspired to cast off her young life to save her people
in their need. In this there was expiation such as Heaven might accept;
this would release her from the burthen of life that weighed upon her,
and would reunite her to her mother; in this way she could show her lover
and the bishop and all the world the immensity of her self-sacrifice,
which was in nothing behind that of “the other”–the much-vaunted
daughter of Thomas! She would do the great deed before Paula’s eyes, in
sight of all the people. But Orion must know whose image she bore in her
heart and for whose sake she made that leap from blooming life into a
watery grave.
Oh! it was wonderful, splendid! Would she not thus compel him inevitably
to remember her whenever he should think of Paula? Yes, she would force
him to allow her image to dwell in his soul, inseparable from that
“other;” and would not such an unparalleled act add such height to her
figure, that it would be equal to that of her Syrian rival in the
estimation of all men–even in his?
She now began to long for the supreme moment. Her vain little heart
laughed in anticipation of the delight of being seen, praised and admired
by all. Tomorrow she, her little self, would tower above all the world;
and the more she felt the oppressive heat of the scorching day, the more
delicious it seemed to look forward to finding rest from the torments of
life in the cool element.
She saw no difficulties in the way of her achievement; she was mistress
now, and her slaves and servants must obey her orders. At the same time
she remembered, too, to protect her large possessions from falling into
the hands of relations for whom she did not care; with a firm hand she
drew up a will in which she bequeathed part of her fortune to her uncle
Chrysippus, small portions to her foster-brother Anubis, and to Rufinus’
widow, to whom she owed reparation for great wrong; then the larger half,
and she owned many millions, she bequeathed to her dear friend Orion,
whom she freely forgave, and who, she hoped, would see that even in the
little “water-wagtail” there had been room for some greatness. She
begged him also to take her house, since she had not been altogether
guiltless of the destruction of the home of his fathers.The condition she attached to this bequest showed the same keen, alert
spirit that had guided her through life.
She knew that the patriarch’s indignation might be fatal to the young
man, so to serve as a mediator, and at the same time to ensure for
herself the prayers of the Church, which she desired, she enjoined Orion
to bestow the greater part of his inheritance on the patriarch for the
Church and for benevolent purposes. But not at once, not for ten years,
and in instalments of which Orion himself was to determine the
proportion. In the event of his dying within the next three years all
his claims were to be transferred to her uncle Chrysippus. She added a
request to the Church, to which she belonged with her whole heart, that
every year on her saint’s day and her mother’s they should be prayed for
in every church in the land. A chapel was to be erected on the scene of
her self-immolation, and if the patriarch thought her worthy of the
honor, it was to bear the name of the Chapel of Susannah and Katharina.
She gave all her slaves their freedom and devised legacies to all the
officials of her household.
As she sat for long hours of serious meditation, drawing up this last
will, she smiled frequently with satisfaction. Then she copied it out
fair, and finally called the physician and all the free servants in the
house to witness her signature.
Though no one had suspected the “water-wagtail” of such forethought, it
was no matter of surprise that the young heiress, shut up in the plague-
stricken house, should dispose of her estates, and before night-fall the
physician brought Alexander, the chief of the Senate, to the garden gate
by her desire, and there they spoke to each other without opening it. He
was an old friend of her father’s, and since the death of the Mukaukas,
had been her guardian; he now agreed to stand as her Kyrios, and as such
he ratified her will and the signature, though she would not allow him to
read the document.
Finally she went to the slaves quarters, from whence a few more sufferers
had been removed to the Necropolis, and desired her boatman to get the
holiday barge in readiness early in the morning, as she purposed seeing
the ceremonial from the river. She gave particular orders to the
gardener as to how it was to be decorated, and what flowers he was to cut
for her personal adornment.
She went to bed far less excited than she had been the night before, and
before she had ended her evening prayer, slumber overtook her weary
brain.
When she awoke at sunrise, the large and splendid boat, which her father
had had built at great cost in Alexandria, was manned and ready to put
out. No one interfered to prevent her embarking with Anubis and a few
female servants, for all the guards who had surrounded the house till
yesterday had been withdrawn to do duty at the great ceremonial of the
marriage and sacrifice, since a popular tumult was not unlikely to arise.
CHAPTER XXV.A great number of persons had collected during the night on the quay near
Nesptah’s inn. The crowd was increasing every minute, and in spite of
the intense heat, not a Memphite could bear to stop within doors, Men,
women and children were flocking to the scene of the festival; they came
in thousands from the neighboring towns, hamlets and villages, to witness
the unprecedented sacrifice which was to put an end to the misery of the
land. Who had ever heard of such a marriage? What a privilege, what a
happiness, to be so fortunate as to see it!
The senate had not been idle and had done all in their power to surround
it with magnificence and to enable as many as possible to enjoy the
pageant, which had been planned with a lavish hand and liberal
munificence.
Round the cove by Nesptah’s inn a semi-circular wooden stand had been
constructed, on which thousands found seats or standing-room. Stalls
furnished with hangings were erected in the middle of the tribune for the
authorities and their families as well as for the leading Arab officials,
and arm-chairs were placed in them for the Vekeel, for the Kadi, for
the head of the senate, for old Horapollo and also for the Christian
priesthood, though it was well known that they would not be present
at the ceremony.
The lower classes, who could not afford to pay for admission to these
seats, had established themselves on the banks of the river; wandering
dealers had followed them, and wherever the crowd was densest they had
displayed their wares–light refreshments or solid food–on two-wheeled
trucks, or on little carpets spread on the ground. In the tribune itself
the cries of the water-sellers were incessant as they offered filtered
Nile water and fruit syrups for sale.
The parched tops of the palms, where turtle doves, lapwings and sparrow-
hawks were wont to perch, were crowded with the vagabond boys of the
town, who whiled away the time by pulling the withered and diseased dates
from the great clumps and flinging them down on the bystanders below,
till the guard took aim at them with their arrows and stopped the game.
The centre of attraction to all eyes was a wooden platform or pontoon,
built far out into the stream; from thence the bride was to be flung into
the watery embrace of the expectant bridegroom. Here the masters of the
ceremonies had put forth their best efforts, and it was magnificently
decorated with hangings and handkerchiefs, palm-leaves and flags; with
heavy garlands of tamarisk and willow, mingled with bright blossoms of
the lotos and mallow, lilies and roses; with devices emblematic of the
province, and other gilt ornaments. Only the furthest end of it was
unadorned and without even a railing, that there might be nothing to
intercept the view of the “marriage.”
Three hours before noon none were absent but those whose places were
secured, and ere long curiosity brought them also to the spot. The town-
watch found it required all their efforts to keep the front ranks of the
people from being pushed into the river by those behind; indeed, this
accident could not be everywhere guarded against; but, thanks to the
shallow state of the water, no one was the worse. But the cries of those
who were in danger nevertheless drowned the music of the bands performing
on raised platforms and the shouts of applause which rose on all sides to
hail Horapollo–who was here, there, everywhere on his white ass as brisk
as a lad–or to greet some leading official.And now and again loud cries of anguish were heard, or the closely-packed
throng parted with exclamations of horror. A citizen had had a
sunstroke, or had been seized by the plague. Then the fugitives dragged
others away with them; screaming mothers trying to save their little ones
from the crush on one hand and the contagion on the other, oversetting
one dealer’s truck, smashing the eggs and cakes of another. A whole
party were pushed into a deep but half-dried up water-course; the
guardians of the peace flourished their staves, yelling and making their
victims yell in their efforts to restore order–but all this hardly
affected the vast body of spectators, and suddenly peace reigned, the
confusion subsided, the shrieks were silenced. Those who were doomed
might fall or die, be crushed or plague-stricken. Trumpet calls and
singing were heard approaching from the town: the procession, the Bridal
procession was coming! Not a man but would have perished rather than be
deprived of seeing a single act of this stupendous drama.
Those Arabs–what fools they were! Besides the Vekeel only three of
their magnates were present, and those men whom no one knew. Even the
Kadi was nowhere to be seen; and he must have forbidden the Moslem women
to come, for not a single veiled beauty of the harem was visible. Not
one Egyptian woman would have failed to appear if the plague had not kept
so many imprisoned in their houses. Such a thing would never be seen
again; this day’s doings would be a tale to tell to future great-
grandchildren!
The music and singing came nearer and nearer; and it did not indeed sound
as if it were escorting a hapless creature to a fearful end. Blast after
blast rang out from the trumpets, filling the air with festive defiance;
cheerful bridal songs came nearer and nearer to the listeners, the shrill
chorus of boys and maidens sounding above the deeper and stronger chant
of youths and men of all ages; flutes piped a gay invitation to gladness;
the dull roar of drums muttered like the distant waves in time to a
march, broken by the clang of cymbals and the tinkle of bells hung around
tambourines held high by girlish hands which struck, rattled and waved
them above their flowing curls; lute players discoursed sweet music on
the strings; and as this vast tide of mingled tones came closer, behind
it there was still more music and more song.
To the ear the procession seemed endless, and the eye soon confirmed the
impression.
All were listening, gazing, watching to see the Bride and her escort.
Every eye seemed compelled to turn in the same direction; and presently
there came: first the trumpeters on spirited horses, and these ranged
themselves on each side of the road by the shore leading to the scene of
the “marriage.” In front of them the choir of women took their stand to
the left and, on the right, the men who had marched after them. All
alike were arrayed in light sea-green garments, and loaded with lotos-
flowers. The women’s hair, twined with white blossoms, flowed over their
shoulders; the men carried bunches of papyrus and reeds;–they
represented river gods that had risen from the stream.
Then came boys and bearded men, in white robes, with panther-skins on
their shoulders, as the heathen priests had been wont to wear them. They
were headed by two old men with long white beards, one holding a silver
cup and the other a golden one, ready to fling them into the waves as a
first offering, according to the practise of their forefathers, as
Horapollo had described and ordered it. These went on to the pontoon, to
its farthest end, and took their place on one side of the platform whencethe Bride was to be cast into the river. Behind them came a large troop
of flute-players and drummers, followed by fifty maidens holding
tambourines, and fifty men all dressed and carrying emblems as followers
of Dionysus, or Osiris-Bacchus, who had been worshipped here in the time
of the Romans; with these came the drunken Silenus, goathoofed Satyrs and
Pan, with his reed-pipes, all riding grey asses strangely bedaubed with
yellow.
Then followed giraffes, elephants, ostriches, antelopes, gazelles; even
some tamed lions and panthers were led past the wondering crowd; for this
had been done in the famous procession in honor of the second Ptolemy,
described by Callixenus of Rhodes.
Next came a large car drawn by twelve black horses, and on it a
symbolical group of Famine and Pestilence overthrown; they were
surrounded by shrieking black children, with pointed wings on their
shoulders and horns on their foreheads, bound to stakes to represent the
hosts of hell–a performance which they tried to make at once ghastly and
droll.
On another car the Goddess of the Inundation was to be seen. She sat
amid sheaves, fruits, and garlands of vine; while round her were groups
of children with apples and corn, pomegranates and bunches of dates,
wine-jars and cups in their hands.
Presently there appeared in a large shell, as though lounging in a bath,
the goddess of health; she was drawn by eight snow-white horses, and held
in one hand a golden goblet and in the other a caduceus. After her came
the river-god Nile, the bridegroom of the marriage, studied from the
famous statue carried away from Alexandria by the Romans: a splendid and
mighty bearded man, resting against an urn. Sixteen naked children–the
sixteen ells that the river must rise for its overflow to bless the land
–played round his herculean form, and a bridal wreath of lotos-flowers
crowned his flowing locks. This car, which was decorated with
crocodiles, sheaves, dates, grapes, and shells, was hailed with shouts of
enthusiasm; it was escorted by old men in the costume of the heathen
priesthood.
Behind this came more music and singers, with a troop of young men and
maidens led by lute-players singing. These too were dressed as the
genie, and nymphs of the river and were the groomsmen and bridesmaids in
attendance on the betrothed.
The longer the procession lasted and the nearer the looked-for victim
approached, the more eagerly attent were the gazing multitude.
When this group of youths and maidens had gone by, there was hardly a
sound to be heard in the tribune and among the crowd. No one felt the
fierce heat of the sun, no one heeded the thirst that parched every
tongue; all eyes were bent in one direction; only the black Vekeel, whose
colossal form towered up where he stood, occasionally sent a sinister and
anxious glance towards the town. He expected to see smoke rising from
the quarter near the prison, and suddenly his lips parted and he
displayed his dazzlingly white teeth in a scornful laugh. That which he
looked for had come to pass; the little grey cloud which he discerned
grew blacker, and then, in the heart of it, rose a crimson glow which did
not take its color from the sun. But of all those thousands he was the
only one who looked behind him and observed it.The bride’s attendants had by this time taken their station on the
pontoon; here came another band of youths with panther skins on their
shoulders; and now–at last, at last–a car came swaying along, drawn by
eight coal-black oxen dressed with green ostrich-feathers and water-
plants.
The car was shaded by a tall canopy, supported by four poles, against
which leaned four men in the robes of the heathen priesthood; this awning
was lavishly decorated with wreaths of lotos and reeds, and fenced about
with papyrus, bulrushes, tall grasses and blossoming river-weeds.
Beneath it sat the queen of the festival–the Bride of the Nile.
Robed in white and closely veiled, she was quite motionless. Her long,
thick brown hair fell over her shoulders; at her feet lay a wreath, and
rare rose-colored lotos-flowers were strewn on the car.
The bishop had been sitting at her side, the first Christian priest,
certainly, of all the swarms of monks and ecclesiastics in Memphis, who
had ever appeared at such a scene of heathen abomination. He was now
standing, looking down at the crowd with a deeply knit brow and menacing
gaze. What good had come of the penitential sermons in all the churches,
of his and his vicar’s warnings and threats? In spite of all
remonstrance he had mounted the car with the condemned victim,
after administering the last consolations to her soul. It might
cost him his life, but he would keep his promise.
In her hand Paula held two roses: one was Orion’s last greeting delivered
by Martina; the other Pulcheria had brought her early in the morning.
Yesterday, in a lucid moment, her dying father had given her his fondest
blessing, little knowing what hung over her; to-day he had not come to
himself, and had neither noticed nor returned her parting kiss. Quite
unconscious, he had been moved from the prison out of doors and to the
house of Rufinus. Dame Joanna would not forego the privilege of giving
him a resting-place and taking care of him till the end.
Orion’s last note was placed in Paula’s hands just before she set out;
it informed her that his task was now successfully ended. He had been
told that it was to-morrow, and not to-day, that the hideous act would be
accomplished; and it was a consolation to her to know that he was spared
the agony of following her in fancy in her fearful progress.
She had allowed the women who came to clothe her in bridal array to
perform their task; among them was Emau, the chief warder’s wife, and her
overflowing compassion had done Paula good. But even in the prison-yard
she had felt it unendurable to exhibit herself decked in her bridal
wreaths to the gaping multitude; she had torn them from her and thrown
them on the ground.
How long–how interminably long–had the road to the river appeared; but
she had never raised her eyes to look at the curious crowd, never ceased
lifting up her heart in prayer; and when her proud blood boiled, or
despair had almost taken possession of her, she had grasped the bishop’s
hand and he had never wearied of encouraging her and exhorting her to
cling to love and faith, and not even yet abandon all hope.
Thus they at last reached the pontoon at whose further end life would
begin for her in another world. The shouts of the crowd were as loud,
as triumphant, as expectant as ever; music and singing mingled with the
roar of thousands of spectators; she allowed herself to be lifted fromthe car as though she were stunned, and followed the young men and
maidens who formed the bridal train, and in alternate choruses sang the
finest nuptial song of Sappho the fair Lesbian.
The bishop now made an attempt to address the people, but he was soon
reduced to silence. So he once more joined Paula, and hand in hand they
went on to the pier.
All she had in her of strength, pride, and heroic courage she summoned to
her aid to enable her to walk these last few paces with her head erect,
and without tottering; she had gone half way along the wooden structure,
with a mien as lofty and majestic as though she were marching to command
the obedience of the mob, when hoofs came thundering after her on the
boards.
Old Horapollo, on his white ass, had overtaken her and stopped her on her
road. Breathless, bathed in perspiration, scornful and triumphant, he
desired her to remove her veil, and ordered the bishop to leave her and
give up his place to the man who represented Father Nile–a gigantic
farrier who followed him, somewhat embarrassed in his costume, but very
ready to perform his part to the end.
The priest and Paula, however, refused to obey. At this the old man tore
the veil from her face and signed to the Nile-God; he stepped forward and
assumed his rights, after bowing respectfully to the prelate–who was
forced to make way–and then led the Bride to the end of the platform.
Here the two elders who had headed the procession in honor of Bacchus,
cast the gold cups as offerings into the river, and then a lawyer, in the
costume of a heathen priest, proceeded to expound, in a well-set speech,
the meaning of this betrothal and sacrifice. He took Paula’s hand to
place in that of the farrier, who made ready to cast her into the river
for which he stood proxy.
But an obstacle intervened before he could do so. A large and splendid
barge had drawn up close to the platform, and shouts were heard from the
tribune and from the mob which had till now looked on in breathless
suspense and profound silence:
“Susannah’s barge!”
“Look at the Nile, look at the river!”
“It is the water-wagtail–Philammon’s rich heiress!”
“A pretty sight!”
“Another Bride–a second Bride!”
And the gaze of the multitude was now, as one eye, fixed on Katharina.
Susannah’s handsome barge had been passing up and down near the platform
for the last hour, and the guards on duty had several times desired that
it was to be kept at a distance from the scene of the “marriage;” but in
vain; and they in their little boats were not strong enough to take
active measures against the larger vessel manned by fifty rowers. It had
now steered quite close to the pontoon, and the splendid gilding and
carving, the tall deck-house supported on silver pillars, and the crimson
embroidered sails would have been a gorgeous feast for the eye, but that
the black flag floating from the mast gave it a melancholy and gloomyaspect.
Within the cabin Katharina had made her waiting-women dress her in white
and deck her with white flowers-myrtle, roses and lotos; but she
vouchsafed no reply to their anxious enquiries.
The maid who fastened the flowers on her bosom could feel her mistress’s
heart beating under her hand, and the lotos-blossoms which drooped from
her shoulder rose and fell as though they were already rocking on the
waves of the Nile. Her lips, too, never ceased moving, and her cheeks
were as pale as death.
“What is she going to do?” her attendants asked each other.
Her mother dead only yesterday, and now she chose to be present at this
ceremonial, desiring the steersman to run close to the platform and keep
near to it, where all the world could see her. But she evidently wished
to display herself to the people in all her finery and be admired, for
she presently went up on the roof of the deck-house. And she looked
lovely, as lovely as a guileless angel, as she mounted the steps with
childlike diffidence-timidly, but with wide open eyes, as though
something grand was awaiting her there–something she had long yearned
for with her whole heart.
Anubis had to help her up the last steps, for her knees gave way; but
once at the top she sent him down again to remain below with the others,
as she wished to be alone. The lad was accustomed to obey; and Katharina
now stepped on a seat close to the side of the boat, turned to Paula,
whom she was now rapidly approaching, and held out to her and the bishop
two tall lily-stems covered with splendid blossoms. At the very moment
when the farrier was measuring by eye the distance between the platform
and the barge, and had judged it impossible to cast the Bride into the
stream till the vessel had moved on, Katharina cried out:
“Reverend Father John–and all of you! Take me, me and not the daughter
of Thomas! It is I, not she–I am the true Bride of the Nile. Of my own
free will–hear me, John!–of my own free will I am ready to give my life
for my hapless land and the misery of the people, and the patriarch said
that such a sacrifice as mine would be acceptable to Heaven. Farewell!
Pray for me!–Lord have mercy upon me! Mother, dear Mother, I am coming
to you!”
Then she called to the steersman: “Put out from the platform!” and as
soon as a few strokes of the oars had carried the barge into the deeper
channel she stepped nimbly on to the edge of the bulwark, dropped the
lilies into the river, and then with a smile, her head gracefully bent on
one side and her skirt modestly held round her, she slipped into the
water.
The waves closed over her; but she was a good swimmer and could not help
coming once to the surface. Her expression was that of a bather enjoying
the cool fresh water that laved and gurgled round her. Perhaps the
wild storm of applause, the mingled cries of horror, compassion and
thanksgiving that went up from the assembled thousands once more reached
her ear–but she dived head foremost to rise no more.
The “River-God,” a good-hearted man, who in his daily life could never
have let a fellow-creature drown under his very eyes, forgot his part,
released Paula, and sprang after Katharina, as did Anubis and a fewboatmen; but they could not reach her, and the boy, who found swimming
difficult with his crippled leg followed the girl to whom his young heart
was wholly devoted to a watery death.
Her speech had reached no ears but those to whom it was addressed; but
before she was lost in the waters Bishop John turned to the people, took
Paula’s hand–and she felt free once more when her terrible bridegroom
had deserted her–and holding up the Crucifix which hung at his girdle he
shouted loudly:
“Behold the desires of our holy Father Benjamin, by whom God himself
speaks to you, have met with fulfilment. A pure and noble Jacobite
maiden, of her own free and beautiful impulse, has sacrificed herself
after the example of the Saviour, for the sufferings of her nation,
before your eyes. This one,” and he drew Paula to him, “this one is
free; the Nile has had his victim!”
But almost before he had done speaking–before the people could proclaim
their vote–Horapollo had rushed at him and interrupted him. He had
dismounted from his ass during the earlier part of the proceedings, and,
not to let his prey escape, he now came between Paula and the bishop,
grasped her dress and cried to the chorus of youths:
“Come on–at once! One of you take the part of the Nile-God–into the
river with the Bride!” The bishop however forced himself between the
speaker and the girl to protect her. But Horapollo flew into a fury and
rushed at the prelate to snatch away the image of the Saviour, while John
exclaimed in a voice of ominous thunder: “Anathema!”
This word of fear roused the Christian blood in the Egyptians; the
sacrilegious attempt stirred the zeal which they had proved in many a
struggle, and which had only been kept under by an effort during these
times of trouble: the leader of the choir dragged the old man away and
took part with the bishop. Others followed his example, while several,
on the contrary, sided with old Horapollo who clung tightly to Paula,
preferring to die himself rather than allow her to escape his hatred and
vengeance.
At this moment the clang of bells was heard from the town with a terrific
and unaccountable uproar, and a young man was seen forcing his way
through the throng, a naked sword in his hand, and in spite of his torn
garments, his wild hair, and his blackened face, he was at once
recognized as Orion. Every one made way for him, for he rushed on like a
madman; as he reached the pontoon and took in at a glance what was going
forward there, he sprang past the mummers with mighty leaps to the
platform, pushing aside sundry groups of fighting champions; and before
the principal actors were aware of his presence, he had snatched Paula
from the old man’s clutch, and called her by her name. She sank on his
breast half-fainting with terror, surprise and unspeakable rapture, and
he clasped her to him with his left arm, while the flashing sword in his
right hand and his flaming looks warned all bystanders that it would be
as wise to attack a lioness defending her young as to defy this desperate
man, who was prepared to face death with the woman he loved.
His push had sent Horapollo tottering to some distance; and when the old
man had pulled himself together, to throw himself once more on his
victim, he found himself the centre of a fight. A wild troop had
followed Orion and beset the struggling mob, whom they presently drove
over the edge of the pontoon into the river, and with them Horapollo.Most of these saved themselves by swimming, but the old man sank, and
nothing more was seen of him but his clenched fist, which rose in menace
for some minutes above the waters.
Meanwhile the Vekeel had become aware of what was going forward on the
platform; he leaped in fury from his seat to restore order, intending to
seize Orion whom he fancied he had seen, or, if necessary to cut him down
with his own hand.
But a vast multitude stopped his progress, for a fearful horde of
released prisoners with Orion at their head had come rushing down to the
scene of the festival yelling: “Fire! the prison is burning, the town is
in flames!”
Every one who could run fled at once to Memphis to save his house, his
possessions and those dear to him. Like a flock of doves scared by the
scream of a hawk, like autumn leaves driven before the wind, the
multitude dispersed. They hurried back to the town in wild tumult and
inextricable confusion, jumping into the festal cars, cutting loose the
horses from that of the goddess of health, to mount them and ride home,
overthrowing everything that stood in their way and dragging back the
Vekeel who was striving, sword in hand, to get to the pontoon.
The smoke and flames of the city were rising every moment, and acted like
magic in spurring the flying crowd to reach their homes in time. But,
before Obada had succeeded in his efforts, the pushing throng were once
more brought to a standstill; horses were heard approaching. Dense
masses of dust hid them and their riders; but it was certainly an armed
troop that was coming clattering onwards, for flashing gleams were seen
here and there through the dull clouds that shrouded them, the reflection
of the sun’s bright rays from polished and glittering helmets, breast-
plates, and sabres.
Now they were visible even where the Vekeel was. Foremost rode the Kadi,
and just as he came up with Obada he sprang from the saddle on to the
wooden structure, and with a loud cry of: “Free-saved!” in which all
the joy of his heart found utterance, he stretched out both his hands to
Paula, who was advancing towards the shore clinging closely to Orion.
Othman did not observe the Vekeel, who was but a few paces distant. The
words “Free!” “Saved!” from the supreme judge, gave the negro to
understand that a pardon must have arrived for his youthful foe, and this
of course implied the condemnation of his own proceedings. All his hopes
were wrecked, for this meant that Omar still ruled and that the attempt
on the Khaliff’s life had failed. Dismissal, punishment or death must be
his doom, when Amru should return. Still, he would not succumb till the
instrument of his ruin had preceded him to the grave. Taking the Kadi by
surprise he thrust him aside, and prepared to deal a fearful blow that
should fell Orion before he himself should fall. But the captain of the
body-guard, who had followed Othman, had watched his movements: Swift as
lightning he rose in his saddle and swung his cimeter, which cut deep
into the Vekeel’s neck. With a hideous curse Obada let his arm drop, and
fell struggling for his last breath at the feet of the newly united
couple.
The populace afterwards declared that his blood was not red like that of
other men, but black like his skin and his soul. They had good cause to
curse his memory, for his villainy had reduced more than half Memphis to
ashes that day, and brought the city to beggary.He had hired two venial wretches to set fire to the prison while the
festival was proceeding, with a view to suffocating Orion in his cell;
but the gang were detected and all the prisoners were released in time.
Thus the young man had been able to reach the scene of the ceremonial at
the head of his fellow-captives. The fire, however, had gained the upper
hand in the deserted town. It had spread from house to house along the
sun-scorched streets, and next day nothing remained of the city of the
Pyramids but the road along the shore, and a few wretched alleys. The
ancient Capital of the Pharaohs was reduced to a village, and the
houseless residents moved across to the eastern bank, to people as
Moslems the newly-founded town of Fostat, or sought a home on Christian
territory.
Among the houses that had escaped was that of Rufinus, and thither the
Kadi escorted Orion and Paula. It was to serve as their prison till the
return of Amru, and there they spent delightful days in the society of
their friends, and there Thomas was so happy as to clasp his children to
his heart once more, and bless them before he died.
A few minutes before the Kadi had reached the scene of the festival two
carrier pigeons had arrived, each bearing the Arab governor’s commands
that the sacrifice of Paula was at any rate to be stopped, and her life
spared till his return. He also reserved the right of deciding Orion’s
fate.
Mary and Rustem had met Amru at Berenice, on the Egyptian coast of the
Red Sea. This decaying sea-port was connected with Medina by a pigeon-
post, and in reply to his viceroy’s enquiry with reference to the victim
about to be offered by the despairing Egyptians to the Nile, Omar had
sent a reply which had been immediately forwarded to the Kadi.
The burning of their town had brought new and fearful suffering on the
stricken Memphites, and notwithstanding Katharina’s death the Nile still
did not rise. The Kadi therefore once more summoned a meeting of all
the inhabitants from both sides of the river, three days after the
interrupted marriage-festival. It was held under the palms by Nesptah’s
inn, and there he proclaimed to the multitude, Moslem and Christian, by
means of the Arab herald and Egyptian interpreter, what the Khaliff
commanded him to declare, namely: that God, the One, the All-merciful,
scorned human sacrifice. In this firm conviction he, Omar, would beseech
Allah the Compassionate, and he sent a letter which was to be cast into
the river in his name.
And this letter was addressed:
“To the River of Egypt.” And its contents were as follows:
“If thou, O River, flowest of thyself, then swell not; but if it be God,
the One, the Compassionate, that maketh thee to flow, then we entreat the
All-merciful that he will bid thee rise!”
“That which is not of God,” wrote Amru in the letter which enclosed
Omar’s, “what shall it profit men? But all things created are by Him,
and so is your noble river. The Most High will hearken to Omar’s prayers
and ours, and I therefore command that all of you–Moslems, Christians,
and Jews, shall gather together in the Mosque on the other side of the
Nile which I have built to the glory of the All-merciful, and that you
there lift up your souls in one great common prayer, to the end that Godmay hear you and take pity on your sufferings!”
And the Kadi bid all the people to go across the Nile and they obeyed his
bidding. Bishop John called on his clergy and marched at their head,
leading the Christians; the priests and elders of the Jews led their
people next to the Jacobites; and side by side with these the Moslems
gathered in the magnificent pillared sanctuary of Amru, where the three
congregations of different creeds lifted up, their hearts and eyes and
voices to the pitying Father in Heaven.
And this very Mosque of Amru has more than once been the scene of the
same sublime spectacle; even within the lifetime and before the eyes of
the narrator of this tale have Moslems, Christians, and Jews united there
in one pious prayer, which must have been acceptable indeed in the ears
of the Lord.
Not long after the letter from the Khaliff Omar had been cast into the
Nile, and the prayer of the united assembly had gone up to Heaven from
the Mosque of Armu, a pigeon came in announcing a sudden rise in the
waters at the cataracts; and after some still anxious but hopeful days of
patience, the Nile swelled higher and yet higher, overflowed its banks,
and gave the laborer a right to look forward to a rich harvest; and then,
when a heavy storm of rain had laid the choking dust, the plague, too,
disappeared.
Just when the river was beginning to rise perceptibly Amru returned;
bringing in his train little Mary and Rustem, Philippus the leech and
Haschim, who had joined the governor’s caravan at Djidda.
In the course of their journey they received news of all that had been
happening at Memphis, and when the travellers were approaching their last
night-quarters, and the Pyramids were already in sight, the governor said
to little Mary:
“What do you say little one? Do we not owe the Memphites the treat of a
splendid marriage festival?”
“No, my lord, two,” replied the child.
“How is that?” laughed Amru, “You are too young and do not count yet,
and I know no other maiden in Memphis whose wedding I should care to
provide for.”
“But there is a man towards whom you feel most kindly, and who lives as
lonely as a recluse. I should like to see him married, and at the same
time as Orion and Paula. I mean our good friend Philippus.”
“The physician? And is he still unwed?” asked Amru in surprise; for no
Moslem of the leech’s age and position could remain unmarried without
exposing himself to the contempt of his fellow-believers. “He is a
widower then!”
“No,” replied Mary. “He has never yet found a wife to suit him; but I
know one created on purpose for him by God himself!”
“You little Khatbe!”–[ A professional go-between]–cried the governor.
“Well, settle the matter, and it shall be no fault of mine if the second
wedding lacks magnificence.””And we will have a third!” interrupted the child, clapping her hands
and laughing. “My worthy escort Rustem….
“The colossus! Why, child, to you all things are possible! Have you
found a wife for him too?”
“No, he found Mandane for himself without my help.”
“It is the same thing!” cried the governor jovially. “I will provide
for her. But that must satisfy you, or else all those unbelievers whom
we are settling here will drive us Moslem Arabs out of the land.”
The great man had often held such discourse as this with the child since
she had entered his tent at Berenice, there to lay before him the case of
the couple she loved, and for whom she had taken on herself great risk
and hardship; she had pleaded so eloquently, so kindly, and with such
fervent and pathetic words, that Amru had at once made up his mind to
grant her everything that lay in his power. Mary had done him a service,
too, by bringing him the information she could give him, for it enabled
him to avert perils which threatened the interests of the Crescent, and
also to save the children of two men he honored–the son of the Mukaukas,
and the daughter of Thomas–from imminent danger.
He found, on his return home, that the Vekeel’s crimes far exceeded his
worst fears. Obada’s proceedings had begun to undermine that respect for
Arab rule and Moslem justice which Amru had done his utmost to secure.
It was only by a miracle that Orion had escaped his plots, for he had
three times sent assassins to the prison, and it was entirely owing to
the watchful care of pretty Emau’s husband that the youth had been able
to save himself in the fire. Obada had done all this to clear out of his
path the hated man whose statements and impeachments might ruin him.
The wretch had met a less ignominious death than his judges would have
granted him. The wealth found hoarded in his dwelling was sent to
Medina; and even Orion was forced to see the vast sums of which the Negro
had plundered his treasury, appropriated by the Arabs. The Arab governor
thought it only right to inflict this penalty for the share he had taken
in the rescue of the nuns; and the young man submitted willingly to a
punishment which restored him and his bride to freedom, and enabled Amru
to apply a larger proportion of the revenues of his native land for its
own benefit.
The Khaliff Omar, however, never received these moneys, which constituted
far more than half of Orion’s patrimony. The Prophet’s truest friend,
the wise and powerful ruler, fell by the assassin’s hand, and the world
now learnt that the Vekeel had been one of the chief conspirators and had
been spurred on to the rashest extremes by his confidence of success.
Amru received the son of the Mukaukas as a father might; after examining
the result of his labors he found it far superior to his own efforts in
the same direction, and he charged Orion to carry out the new division of
the country, which he confirmed excepting in a few details.
Perform your duty and do your utmost in the future to go on as you have
begun!” cried Amru; and the young man replied:
“In this bitter and yet happy interval I have become clear on many
points.”
“And may I ask on what?” asked the governor. “I would gladly hear.””I have discovered, my lord,” replied Orion, “that there is no such thing
as happiness or unhappiness in the sense men give to the words. Life
appears to each of us as we ourselves paint it. Hard times which come
into our lives from outside are often no more than a brief night from
which a brighter day presently dawns–or the stab of a surgeon’s knife,
which makes us sounder than before. What men call grief is, times
without number, a path to greater ease; whereas the ordinary happiness of
mankind flows, swiftly as running waters, down from that delightful sense
of ease. Like a ship, which, when her rudder is lost, is more likely to
ride out the storm on the high seas than near the sheltering coast, so a
man who has lost himself may easily recover himself and his true
happiness in the wildest turmoil of life, but rarely and with difficulty
if his existence runs calmly on. All other blessings are comparatively
worthless if we are not upheld by the consciousness of fulfilling the
task of life in faithful earnest, and of cheerfully dealing with the
problems it sets before us. The lost one was found as soon as he placed
his whole being and faculties at the service of a higher duty, with God
in his heart and before his eyes. I have learnt from my own experience,
and from Paula’s good friends, to strive untiringly after what is right,
and to find my own weal in that of others.
“The sense of lost liberty is hard to bear; but leave me love, and give
me room and opportunity to prove my best powers in the service of the
community, even in a prison–and though I cannot be perfectly happy, for
that is impossible without freedom–I will be far happier than such an
idle and useless spendthrift of time and abilities as I used to be among
the dissipations of the capital.”
“Then enjoy the consciousness of duty well performed, with liberty and
love,” replied the governor. “And believe me, my friend, your father in
Paradise will no more grudge you all that is loveliest and best than I
do. You are on the road where every curse is turned to blessing.”
The three marriages which Amru had promised to provide for, were
celebrated with due splendor.
That of Orion and Paula was a day never to be forgotten by the gay world
of Memphis. Bishop John performed the ceremony, and the young couple at
once took possession of the beautiful house left them by Katharina, the
real Bride of the Nile. If it could have been granted to her to read
Paula’s and Orion’s hearts, and see how they held her in remembrance,
she would have found that to them she was no longer the childish water-
wagtail, and that they knew how to value the sacrifice of her young life.
Their first beloved guest, who went with them to their new home, was
little Mary, and she remained their dearest companion till she married
happily. The governess, Eudoxia, to whom also Orion offered an asylum,
accompanied Mary to her own delightful home; and there at last Mary
closed her old friend’s eyes, after the good woman had brought up her
little ones, not like a hireling but as a true mother.
The Patriarch Benjamin, too, who was led by many considerations–and not
least by Katharina’s will to remain on good terms with the son of the
Mukaukas, was a visitor to the youthful pair. Neither he nor the Church
ever had reason to repent his alliance with Orion; and when Paula
presented her husband with a son, the prelate offered to be his sponsor,
and named him George after his grandfather.Orion’s son, too, inherited the office of Mukaukas, when he came to man’s
estate, from his father who was appointed to it, but under a new Arab
title, shortly after his marriage.
Ere long, however, Orion, as the highest Christian authority in his
native land, had to change his place of residence and leave Memphis,
which was doomed to ruin, for Alexandria. From thence his power extended
over the whole Nile-valley, and he devoted himself to his charge with so
much zeal, fidelity, justice, and prudence, that his name was remembered
with veneration and affection by generations long after.
Paula was the pride and joy of his life, and they lived together in
devoted union to an advanced age. He regarded it as one of the duties of
his life, to care for the woman who had made him what he was from a lost
and reprobate creature, and to fill every day of her life with joy. When
he built his palace at Alexandria, he graced it with the inscription that
had been engraved on Thomas’ ring: “God hath set the sweat of man’s brow
before virtue.”
Philippus and his Pulcheria also found a new home in Alexandria. He had
no long wooing to do; for when, on his return, the girl of whom he had
thought constantly during his long journeying, met him for the first time
in her mother’s house and held out both her hands with trustful warmth of
welcome, he clasped her to him and would not release her till Joanna had
given them her maternal blessing. The widow lived in the leech’s house
with her children and grandchildren, and often visited her husband’s
grave. At length she was laid to rest by him and his soft-hearted
mother, in the cemetery of Alexandria.
Rustem, made a rich man by Orion, became a famous breeder of horses and
camels in his own country, while Mandane ruled mildly but prudently over
his possessions–which he never shared with others, though he remained a
Masdakite till he died. The first daughter his wife bore him was named
Mary, and the first boy Haschim; but she would not agree to Rustem’s
proposal that the second should be called Orion; she preferred to give
him the name of Rufinus, and his successors were Rustem and Philippus.
The senator and his wife were only too glad to quit Egypt. Martina,
however, had the satisfaction of assisting at the marriage of her dear
Heliodora on the shores of the Nile; not, indeed, to her “Great
Sesostris,” but to her nephew Narses, who by the young widow’s devoted
care was restored, if not to perfect vigor, at any rate to very endurable
good health.
Paula’s wedding gift to her was the great emerald, which had meanwhile
been brought back again to Memphis. Justinus and Martina always remained
on terms of cordial friendship with the young Mukaukas and his wife:
Nilus lived long after to perform his duties with industry and judgment;
and whenever Haschim came to Alexandria there was a contest between Orion
and Philippus, for neither would yield him to the other. But Philip
could no longer envy his former rival the wife he had won. He had not,
indeed, ceased to admire her; but at the same time he would say: “My
comfortable little Pulcheria has not her match; our rooms would be too
small for Paula, but they suit my golden-haired girl best.”
He remained unselfishly devoted to his work till the end, and, when he
saw Orion wearing himself out in energetic toil, he would often say:
“He knows now what life demands, and acts accordingly; and that is why he
grows no older, and his laugh is as winning and gay as ever. It is anhonor to be called friend by a woman who like the Bride of the Nile.
saved herself from certain death, and a man who, like the young Mukaukas,
has freed himself from the heaviest of all curses.”
To this day the Bride of the Nile is not forgotten. Before the river
begins to rise on the Night of Dropping the inhabitants of the town of
Cairo, which grew up after the ruin of Memphis, on the eastern shore by
the side of Fostat, erect a figure of clay, representing a maiden form,
which they call Aroosa or the Bride.
ETEXT EDITOR’S BOOKMARKS:
Sea-port was connected with Medina by a pigeon-post
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