The Bride of the Nile, by Georg Ebers, v9

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The Bride of the Nile, Volume 9.
Georg Ebers
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Title: The Bride of the Nile, Volume 9.
Author: Georg Ebers
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THE BRIDE OF THE NILE
By Georg Ebers
Volume 9.
CHAPTER IX.
Philippus started up from the divan on which he had been reclining at
breakfast with his old friend. Before Horapollo was a half-empty plate;
he had swallowed his meal less rapidly than his companion, and looked
disapprovingly at the leech, who drank off his wine and water as he
stood, whereas he generally would sit and enjoy it as he talked to the
old man of matters light or grave. To the elder this was always the
pleasantest hour of the day; but now Philippus would hardly allow himself
more than just time enough to eat, even at their principal evening meal.
Indeed, not he alone, but every physician in the city, had as much as he
could do with the utmost exertion. Nearly three weeks had elapsed since
the attack on the nuns, and the fearful heat had still gone on in
creasing. The river, instead of rising had sunk lower and lower; the
carrier-pigeons from Ethiopia, looked for day by day with growing anxiety
and excitement, brought no news of a rising stream even in the upper
Nile, and the shallow, stagnant and evil-smelling waters by the banks
began to be injurious, nay, fatal, to the health of the whole population.
Close to the shore, especially, the water had a reddish tinge, and the
usually sweet, pure fluid in the canals was full of strange vegetable
growths and other foreign bodies putrid and undrinkable. The common
people usually shirked the trouble of filtering it, and it was among them
that the greater number died of a mortal and infectious pestilence, till
then unknown. The number of victims swelled daily, and the approach of
the comet kept pace with the growing misery of the town. Every one
connected it with the intense heat of the season, with the delay in the
inundation, and the appearance of the sickness; and the leech and his
friend often argued about these matters, for Philippus would not admit
that the meteor had any influence on human affairs, while Horapollo
believed that it had, and supported his view by a long series of
examples.
His antagonist would not accept them and asked for arguments; at the same
time he, like every one else, felt the influence of a vague dread of some
imminent and terrible disaster hanging over the earth and humanity at
large.
And, just as every heart in Memphis felt oppressed by such forebodings,
and by the weight of a calamity, which indeed no longer threatened them
but had actually come upon them, so the roads, the gardens, the palms andsycamores by the way-side were covered by thick layers of dingy, choking
dust. The hedges of tamarisk and shrubs looked like decaying walls of
colorless, unburnt mud-bricks; even in the high-roads the wayfarer walked
in the midst of dense white clouds raised by his feet, and if a chariot,
or a horseman galloped down the scorching street, fine, grey sand at once
filled the air, compelling the foot-passengers to shut their eyes and
lips.
The town was so silent, so empty, so deserted! No one came out of doors
unless under pressure of business or piety. Every house was a furnace,
and even a bath brought no refreshment, for the water had long since
ceased to be cold. A disease had also attacked the ripening dates as
they hung; they dropped off in thousands from the heavy clusters under
the beautiful bending crown of leaves; and now for two days hundreds of
dead fish had been left on the banks. Even the scaly natives of the
river were plague-stricken; and the physician explained to his friend
that this brought the inhabitants a fresh danger; for who could clear the
shores of the dead fish?–And, in such heat, how soon they would become
putrid!
The old man did not conceal from himself that it was hard, cruelly hard,
for the physician to follow his calling conscientiously at such a time;
but he knew his friend; he had seen him during months of pestilence two
years since–always brisk, decisive and gay, indeed inspired to greater
effort by the greater demands on him. What had so completely altered
him, had poisoned and vexed his soul as with a malignant spell? It was
not the almost superhuman sacrifices required by his duties;–it came of
the unfortunate infatuation of his heart, of which he could not rid
himself.
Philippus had kept his promise. He went every day to the house of
Rufinus, and every day he saw Paula; but, as a murdered body bleeds
afresh in the presence of the assassin, so every day the old pain revived
when he was forced to meet her and speak with her. The only cure for
this particular sufferer was to remove the cause of his pain: that is to
say, to take Paula away out of his path; and this the old man made his
care and duty.
Little Mary and the other patients under Rufinus’ roof were on the way to
recovery; still there was much to cast gloomy shadows over this happy
termination. Joanna and Pulcheria were very anxious as to the fate of
Rufinus. No news had been received of him or of the sisters, and
Philippus was the vessel into which the forsaken wife and Pulcheria–
who looked up to him as to a kind, faithful, and all-powerful protecting
spirit-poured all their sorrows, cares, and fears. Their forebodings
were aggravated by the fact that three times Arab officials had come to
the house to enquire about the master and his continued absence. All
that the women told them was written down, and Dame Joanna, whose lips
had never yet uttered a lie, had found herself forced to give a false
clue by saying that her husband had gone to Alexandria on business, and
might perhaps have to proceed to Syria.–What could these enquiries
forebode? Did they not indicate that Rufinus’ complicity in the rescue
of the nuns was known at Fostat?
The authorities there were, in fact, better informed than the women
could suspect. But they kept their knowledge a secret, for it would
never do to let the oppressed people know that a handful of Egyptians
had succeeded in defeating a party of Arab soldiers; so the Memphites
heard no more than a dark rumor of what had occurred.Philippus had known nothing of the old man’s purpose till he had gone too
far to be dissuaded; and it was misery to him now to reflect that his
dear old friend, and his whole household, might come to ruin for the sake
of the sisterhood who were nothing to them; for he had received private
information that there had been a skirmish between the Moslems and the
deliverers of the nuns, which had cost the lives of several combatants on
both sides.
And Paula! If only he could have seen her happy–But she was pale; and
that which robbed the young girl–healthy as she was in mind and body–
of her proud, frank, independent bearing was not the heat, which
tormented all creation, but a secret, devouring sorrow; and this sorrow
was the work of one alone–of him on whom she had set her heart, and who
made, ah! what a return, for the royal gift of her love.
Philippus had frequent business at the governor’s residence, and a
fortnight since he had plainly perceived what it was that had brought
Neforis into this strange state. She was taking the opium that her
husband had had, taking it in excessive quantities; and she could easily
procure more through some other physician. However, her piteous prayer
that Philippus would not abandon her to her fate had prevailed to induce
him to continue to see her, in the hope of possibly restricting her use
of the drug.
The senator’s wife, Martina, also required his visits to the palace. She
was not actually ill, but she suffered cruelly from the heat, and she had
always been wont to see her worthy old house-physician every day, to hear
all the latest gossip, and complain of her little ailments when anything
went wrong with her usually sound health. Philippus was indeed too much
overburdened to chatter, but his professional advice was good and helped
her to endure the fires of this pitiless sky. She liked this incisive,
shrewd, plain-spoken man–often indeed sharp and abrupt in his freedom–
and he appreciated her bright, natural ways. Now and then Martina even
succeeded in winning a smile from “Hermes Trismegistus,” who was
“generally as solemn as though there was no such thing on earth as a
jest,” and in spurring him to a rejoinder which showed that this dolorous
being had a particularly keen and ready wit.
Heliodora attracted him but little. There was, to be sure, an
unmistakable likeness in her “imploring eves” to those of Pulcheria; but
the girl’s spoke fervent yearning for the grace and love of God, while
the widow’s expressed an eager desire for the admiration of the men she
preferred. She was a graceful creature beyond all question, but such
softness, which never even attempted to assert a purpose or an opinion,
did not commend itself to his determined nature; it annoyed him, when
he had contradicted her, to hear her repeat his last statement and take
his side, as if she were ashamed of her own silliness. Her society,
indeed, did not seem to satisfy the clever older woman, who at home, was
accustomed to a succession of visitors, and to whom the word “evening”
was synomynous with lively conversation and a large gathering. She spoke
of the leech’s visits as the oasis in the Egyptian desert, and little
Katharina even she regarded as a Godsend.
The water-wagtail was her daily visitant, and the girl’s gay and often
spiteful gossip helped to beguile her during this terrific heat.
Katharina’s mother made no difficulties; for Heliodora had gone to see
her in all her magnificence, and had offered her and her daughter
hospitality, some day, at Constantinople. They were very likely goingthither; at any rate they would not remain in Memphis, and then it would
be a piece of good fortune to be introduced to the society of the capital
by such people as their new acquaintances.
Martina thus heard a great deal about Paula; and though it was all
adverse and colored to her prejudice she would have liked to see the
daughter of the great and famous Thomas whom she had known; besides,
after all she had heard, she could fear nothing from Paula for her niece:
uncommonly handsome, but haughty, repellent, unamiable, and–like
Heliodora herself–of the orthodox sect.–What could tempt “great
Sesostris” to give her the preference?
Katharina herself proposed to Martina to make them acquainted; but
nothing would have induced Dame Martina to go out of her rooms, protected
to the utmost from the torrid sunshine, so she left it to Heliodora to
pay the visit and give her a report of the hero’s daughter. Heliodora
had devoted herself heart and soul to the little heiress, and humored her
on many points.
This was carried out. Katharina actually had the audacity to bring the
rivals together, even after she had reported to each all she knew of
Orion’s position with regard to the other. It was exquisite sport;
still, in one respect it did not fulfil her intentions, for Paula gave
no sign of suffering the agonies of jealousy which Katharina had hoped
to excite in her. Heliodora, on the other hand, came home depressed and
uneasy; Paula had received her coldly and with polite formality, and the
young widow had remained fully aware that so remarkable a woman might
well cast her own image in Orion’s heart into the shade, or supplant it
altogether.
Like a wounded man who, in spite of the anguish, cannot resist touching
the wound to assure himself of its state, Heliodora went constantly to
see Katharina in order to watch her rival from the garden or to be taken
to call on her, though she was always very coldly received.
At first Katharina had pitied the young woman whose superior in
intelligence she knew herself to be; but a certain incident had
extinguished this feeling; she now simply hated her, and pricked her with
needle-thrusts whenever she had a chance. Paula seemed invulnerable;
but there was not a pang which Katharina would not gladly have given her
to whom she owed the deepest humiliation her young life had ever known.
How was it that Paula failed to regard Heliodora as a rival? She had
reflected that, if Orion had really returned the widow’s passion, he
could not have borne so long a separation. It was on purpose to avoid
Heliodora, and to remain faithful to what he was and must always be to
Paula, that he had gone with the senator, far from Memphis. Heliodora–
her instinct assured her–was the poor, forsaken woman with whom he had
trifled at Byzantium, and for whom he had committed that fatal theft of
the emerald. If Fate would but bring him home to her, and if she then
yielded all he asked–all her own soul urged her to grant, then she would
be the sole mistress and queen of his heart–she must be, she was sure of
it! And though, even as she thought of it, she bowed her head in care,
it was not from fear of losing him; it was only her anxiety about her
father, her good old friend, Rufinus, and his family, whom she had made
so entirely her own.
This was the state of affairs this morning, when to his old friend’s
vexation, Philippus had so hastily and silently drunk off his after-
breakfast draught; just as he set down the cup, the black door-keeperannounced that a hump-backed man wished to see his master at once on
important business.
“Important business!” repeated the leech. “Give me four more legs in
addition to my own two, or a machine to make time longer than it is, and
then I will take new patients-otherwise no! Tell the fellow. . . .”
“No, not sick. . . .” interrupted the negro. “Come long way.
Gardener to Greek man Rufinus.”
Philippus started: he could guess what this messenger had to say, and his
heart sank with dread as he desired that he might be shown in.
A glance at Gibbus told him what he had rightly feared. The poor fellow
was hardly recognizable. He was coated with dust from head to foot, and
this made him look like a grey-haired old man; his sandals hung to his
feet in strips; the sweat, pouring down his cheeks, had made gutters as
it were in the dust on his face, and his tears, as the physician held out
his hand to him, washed out other channels.
In reply to the leech’s anxious, long drawn “Dead?” he nodded silently;
and when Philippus, clasping his hands to his temples, cried out: “Dead!
My poor old Rufinus dead! But how, in Heaven’s name, did it happen?
Speak, man, speak!”–Gibbus pointed to the old philosopher and said:
“Come out then, with me, Master. No third person. . . .”
Philippus, however, gave him to understand that Horapollo was his second
self; and the hunch-back went on to tell him what he had seen, and how
his beloved master had met his end. Horapollo sat listening in
astonishment, shaking his head disapprovingly, while the physician
muttered curses. But the bearer of evil tidings was not interrupted,
and it was not till he had ended that Philippus, with bowed head and
tearful eyes, said:
“Poor, faithful old man; to think that he should die thus–he who leaves
behind him all that is best in life, while I–I. . . .” And he
groaned aloud. The old man glanced at him with reproachful displeasure.
While the leech broke the seals of the tablets, which the abbess had
carefully closed, and began to read the contents, Horapollo asked the
gardener: “And the nuns? Did they all escape?”
“Yes, Master! on the morning after we reached Doomiat, a trireme took
them all out to sea.”
And the old man grumbled to himself: “The working bees killed and the
Drones saved!”
Gibbus, however, contradicted him, praising the laborious and useful life
of the sisters, in whose care he himself had once been.
Meanwhile Philippus had read his friend’s last letter. Greatly disturbed
by it he turned hither and thither, paced the room with long steps, and
finally paused in front of the gardener, exclaiming: “And what next? Who
is to tell them the news?”
“You,” replied Gibbus, raising his hands in entreaty.
“I-oh, of course, I!” growled the physician. “Whatever is difficult,painful, intolerable, falls on my shoulders as a matter of course! But I
cannot–ought not–I will not do it. Had I any part or lot in devising
this mad expedition? You observe, Father?–What he, the simpleton,
brewed, I–I again am to drink. Fate has settled that!”
“It is hard, it is hard, child!” replied the old man. “Still, it is
your duty. Only consider–if that man, as he stands before us now, were
to appear before the women….”
But Philippus broke in: “No, no, that would not do! And you, Gibbus–
this very day there has been an Arab again to see Joanna; and if they
were to suspect that you had been with your master–for you look
strangely.–No, man; your devotion merits a better reward. They shall
not catch you. I release you from your service to the widow, and we–
what do you say, Father?–we will keep him here.”
“Right, very right,” said Horapollo. “The Nile must some day rise again.
Stay with us; I have long had a fancy to eat vegetables of my own
growing.”
But Gibbus firmly declined the offer, saying he wished to return to his
old mistress. When the physician again pointed out to him how great a
danger he was running into, and the old man desired to know his reasons,
the hunch-back exclaimed:
“I promised my master to stay with the women; and now, while in all the
household I am the only free man, shall I leave them unprotected to
secure my own miserable life? Sooner would I see a scimitar at my
throat. When my head is off the rascals are welcome to all that is
left.”
The words came hollow and broken from his parched tongue, and as he spoke
the faithful fellow’s face changed. Even under the dust he turned pale,
and Philippus had to support him, for his feet refused their office. His
long tramp through the torrid heat had exhausted his strength; but a
draught of wine soon brought him to himself again and Horapollo ordered
the slave to lead him to the kitchen and desire the cook to take the best
care of him.
As soon as the friends were alone, the elder observed:
“That worthy, foolhardy, old child who is now dead, seems to have left
you some strange request. I could see that as you were reading.”
“There–take it!” replied Philippus; and again he walked up and down
the room, while Horapollo took the letter. Both faces of the tablets
were covered with irregular, up-and-down lines of writing to the
following effect:
“Rufinus, in view of death, to his beloved Philippus:
“One shivering fit after another comes over me; I shall certainly
die to-day. I must make haste. Writing is difficult. If only I
can say what is most pressing.–First: Joanna and the poor child.
Be everything you can be to them. Protect them as their guardian,
Kyrios, and friend. They have enough to live on and something still
to spare for others. My brother Leonax manages the property, and he
is honest. Joanna knows all about it.–Tell her and the poor child
that I send them ten thousand blessings–and to Joanna endlessthanks for all her goodness.–And to you, my friend: heed the old
man’s words. Rid your heart of Paula. She is not for you: you
know, young Orion. But as to yourself: Those who were born in high
places rarely suit us, who have dragged ourselves up from below to a
better position. Be her friend; that she deserves–but let that be
all. Do not live alone, a wife brings all that is best into a man’s
life; it is she who weaves sweet dreams into his dull sleep. You
know nothing of all this as yet; and your worthy old friend–to whom
my greetings–has held aloof from it all his life….
“For your private eye: it is a dying man who speaks thus. You must
know that my poor child, our Pul, regards you as the most perfect of
men and esteems you above all others. You know her and Joanna.
Bear witness to your friend that no evil word ever passed the lips
of either of them. Far be it from me to advise you, who bear the
image of another woman in your heart,–to say: marry the child, she
is the wife for you. But this much to you both–Father and son–I
do advise you to live with the mother and daughter as true and
friendly house-mates. You will none of you repent doing so. This
is a dying man’s word. I can write no more. You are the women’s
guardian, Philip, a faithful one I know. A common aim makes men
grow alike. You and I, for many a year.–Take good care of them for
me; I entreat you–good care.”
The last words were separated and written all astray; the old man could
hardly make them out. He now sat looking, as Phillipus had done before,
sorely puzzled and undecided over this strange document.
“Well?” asked the leech at last.
“Aye-well?” repeated the other with a shrug. Then both again were
silent; till Horapollo rose, and taking his staff, also paced the room
while he murmured, half to himself and half to his younger friend “They
are two quiet, reasonable women. There are not many of that sort, I
fancy. How the little one helped me up from the low seat in the garden!”
It was a reminiscence that made him chuckle to himself; he stopped
Philippus, who was pacing at his side, by lightly patting his arm,
exclaiming with unwonted vivacity: “A man should be ready to try
everything–the care of women even, before he steps into the grave.
And is it a fact that neither of them is a scold or a chatter-box?”
“It is indeed.”
“And what ‘if’ or ‘but’ remains behind?” asked the old man. “Let
us be reckless for once, brother! If the whole business were not so
diabolically serious, it would be quite laughable. The young one for me
and the old one for you in our leisure hours, my son; better washed
linen; clothes without holes in them; no dust on our books; a pleasant
‘Rejoice’ every morning, or at meal-times;–only look at the fruit on
that dish! No better than the oats they strew before horses. At the old
man’s everything was as nice as it used to be in my own home at Philae:
Supper a little work of art, a feast for the eye as well as the appetite!
Pulcheria seems to understand all that as well as my poor dead sister
did. And then, when I want to rise, such a kind, pretty little hand to
help one up! I have long hated this dwelling. Lime and dust fall from
the ceiling in my bedroom, and here there are wide gaps in the flooring-
I stumbled over one yesterday–and our niggardly landlords, the
officials, say that if we want anything repaired we may do it ourselves,
that they have no money left for such things. Now, under that worthy oldman’s roof everything was in the best order.” The philosopher chuckled
aloud and rubbed his hands as he went on: “Supposing we kick over the
traces for once, Philip. Supposing we were to carry out our friend’s
dying wish? Merciful Isis! It would certainly be a good action, and I
have not many to boast of. But cautiously–what do you say? We can
always throw it up at a month’s notice.”
Then he grew grave again, shook his head, and said meditatively: “No, no;
such plans only disturb one’s peace of mind. A pleasant vision! But
scarcely feasible.”
“Not for the present, at any rate,” replied the leech.
“So long as Paula’s fate remains undecided, I beg you to let the matter
rest.”
The old man muttered a curse on her; then he said with a vicious, sharp
flash in his eyes: “That patrician viper! Every where in everything–she
spoils it all! But wait a while! I fancy she will soon be removed from
our path, and then… No, even now, at the present time, I will not
allow that we should be deprived of what would embellish life, of doing a
thing which may turn the scale in my favor in the day of judgment. The
wishes of a dying man are sacred: So our fathers held it; and they were
right. The old man’s will must be done! Yes, yes, yes. It is settled.
As soon as that hindrance is removed, we will keep house with the two
women. I have said; and I mean it.”
At this point the gardener came in again, and the old man called out to
him:
“Listen, man. We shall live together after all; you shall hear more of
this later. Stay with my people till sundown, but you must keep your own
counsel, for they are all listeners and blabs. The physician here will
now take the melancholy tidings to the unfortunate widow, and then you
can talk it all over with her at night. Nothing startling must take
place at the house there; and with regard to your master, even his death
must remain a secret from every one but us and his family.”
The gardener knew full well how much depended on his silence; Philippus
tacitly agreed to the old man’s arrangement, but for the present he
avoided discussing the matter with the women. When, at length he set off
on his painful errand to the widow, Horapollo dismissed him saying:
“Courage, courage, my Son.–And as you pass by, just glance at our little
garden;–we grieved to see the fine old palm-tree perish; but now a young
and vigorous shoot is growing from the root.”
“It has been drooping since yesterday and will die away,” replied
Philippus shrugging his shoulders.
But the old man exclaimed: “Water it, Gibbus! the palm-tree must be
watered at once.”
“Aye, you have water at hand for that!” retorted the leech, but he added
bitterly as he reached the stairs, “If it were so in all cases!”
“Patience and good purpose will always win,” murmured the old man; and
when he was alone he growled on angrily: “Only be rid of that dry old
palm-tree–his past life in all its relations to that patrician hussyAway with it, into the fire!–But how am I to get her? How can I manage
it?”
He threw himself back in his arm-chair, rubbing his forehead with the
tips of his fingers. He had come to no result when the negro requested
an audience for some visitors. These were the heads of the senate of
Memphis, who had come as a deputation to ask counsel of the old sage.
He, if any one, would find some means of averting or, at any rate,
mitigating the fearful calamity impending over the town and country, and
against which prayer, sacrifice, processions, and pilgrimages had proved
abortive. They were quite resolved to leave no means untried, not even
if heathen magic should be the last resource.
CHAPTER X.
All Katharina’s sympathy with Heliodora had died finally in the course of
the past, moonless night. She had secretly accompanied her, with her
maid and an old deaf and dumb stable-slave, to a soothsayer–for there
still were many in Memphis, as well as magicians and alchemists; and this
woman had told the young widow that her line of life led to the greatest
happiness, and that even the wildest wishes of her heart would find
fulfilment. What those wishes were Katharina knew only too well; the
probability of their accomplishment had roused her fierce jealousy and
made her hate Heliodora.
Heliodora had gone to consult the sorceress in a simple but rich dress.
Her peplos was fastened on the shoulder, not by an ordinary gold pin, but
by a button which betrayed her taste for fine jewels, as it consisted of
a sapphire of remarkable size; this had at once caught the eye of the
witch, showing her that she had to deal with a woman of rank and wealth.
She had taken Katharina, who had come very plainly dressed, for her
companion or poor friend, so she had promised her no more than the
removal of certain hindrances, and a happy life at last, with a husband
no longer young and a large family of children.
The woman’s business was evidently a paying one; the interior of her
house was conspicuously superior to the wretched hovels which surrounded
it, in the poorest and most squalid part of the town. Outside, indeed,
it differed little from its neighbors; in fact; it was intentionally
neglected, to mislead the authorities, for witchcraft and the practice of
magic arts were under the penalty of death. But the fittings of the
roofless centre-chamber in which she was wont to perform her incantations
and divinations argued no small outlay. On the walls were hangings with
occult figures; the pillars were painted with weird and grewsome
pictures; crucibles and cauldrons of various sizes were simmering over
braziers on little altars; on the shelves and tables stood cups, phials,
and vases, a wheel on which a wryneck hopped up and down, wax images of
men and women–some with needles through their hearts, a cage full of
bats, and glass jars containing spiders, frogs, leeches, beetles,
scorpions, centipedes and other foul creatures; and lengthways down the
room was stretched a short rope walk, used in a Thracian form of magic.
Perfumes and pungent vapors filled the air, and from behind a curtain
which hid the performers came a monotonous music of children’s voices,
bells, and dull drumming.Medea, so the wise woman was called, though scarcely past five and forty,
harmonized in appearance with this strange habitation, full as it was of
objects calculated to rouse repulsion, dread, and amazement. Her face
was pale, and her extraordinary height was increased by a mass of coal-
black hair, curled high over a comb at the very top of her head.
At the end of the first visit paid her by the two young women, who had
taken her by surprise, so that several things were lacking which on the
second occasion proved to be very effective in the exercise of her art,
she had made Heliodora promise to return in three days’ time. The young
widow had kept her word, and had made her appearance punctually with
Katharina.
To be in Egypt, the land of sorcery and the magic arts, without putting
them to the test, was impossible. Even Martina allowed this, though she
did not care for such things for herself. She was content with her lot;
and if any change for the worse were in prospect she would rather not be
tormented beforehand by a wise prophet; nor was it better to be deluded
by a foolish one. Happiness as of Heaven itself she no longer craved; it
would only have disturbed her peace. But she was the last person to
think ill of the young, whose life still lay before them, if they longed
to look into futurity.
The fair widow and her companion crossed the sorceress’ threshold in some
trepidation, and Katharina was the more agitated of the two; for this
afternoon she had seen Philippus leave the house of Rufinus, and not long
after some Arab officials had called there. Paula had come into the
garden shortly before sundown, her eyes red with weeping; and when, soon
after, Pulcheria and her mother had joined her there, Paula had thrown
herself on Joanna’s neck, sobbing so bitterly that the mother and
daughter–“whose tears were near her eyes”–had both followed her
example. Something serious had occurred; but when she had gone to the
house to pick up further information, old Betta, who was particularly
snappish with her, had refused her admission quite rudely.
Then, on their way hither, she and Heliodora had had a painful adventure;
the chariot, lent by Neforis to convey them as far as the edge of the
necropolis, was stopped on the way by a troop of Arab horse, and they
were subjected to a catechism by the leader.
So they entered the house of “Medea of the curls,” as the common people
called the witch, with uneasy and throbbing hearts; they were received,
however, with such servile politeness that they soon recovered
themselves, and even the timid Heliodora began to breathe freely again.
The sorceress knew this time who Katharina was, and paid more respectful
attention to the daughter of the wealthy widow.
The young crescent moon had risen, a circumstance which Medea declared
enabled her to see more clearly into the future than she could do at the
time of the Luna-negers as she called the moonless night. Her inward
vision had been held in typhornian darkness at the time of their first
visit, by the influence of some hostile power. She had felt this as soon
as they had quitted her, but to-day she saw clearer. Her mind’s eye was
as clear as a silver mirror, she had purified it by three days’ fasting
and not a mote could escape her sight.–“Help, ye children of Horapollo!
Help, Hapi and Ye three holy ones!”
“Oh, my beauties, my beauties!” she went on enthusiastically. “Hundreds
of great dames have proved my art, but such splendid fortunes I neverbefore saw crowding round any two heads as round yours. Do you hear how
the cauldrons of fortune are seething? The very lids lift! Amazing,
amazing.”
She stretched out her hand towards the vessels as though conjuring them
and said solemnly: “Abundance of happiness; brimming over, brimming over!
Bursting storehouses! Zefa-oo Metramao. Return, return, to the right
levels, the right heights, the right depth, the right measure! Your Elle
Mei-Measurer, Leveller, require them, Techuti, require them, double
Ibis!”
She made them both sit down on elegant seats in front of the boiling
pots, tied the “thread of Anubis” round the ring-finger of each, asked in
a low whisper between muttered words of incantation for a hair of each,
and after placing the hairs both in one cauldron she cried out with wild
vehemence, as though the weal or woe of her two visitors were involved in
the smallest omission:
“Press the finger with the thread of Anubis on your heart; fix your eyes
on the cauldron and the steam which rises to the spirits above, the
spirits of light, the great One on high!”
The two women obeyed the sorceress’ directions with beating hearts, while
she began spinning round on her toes with dizzy rapidity; her curls flew
out, and the magic wand in her extended hand described a large and
beautiful curve. Suddenly, and as if stricken by terror, she stopped her
whirl, and at the same instant the lamps went out and the only light was
from the stars and the twinkling coals under the cauldrons. The low
music died away, and a fresh strong perfume welled out from behind the
curtain.
Medea fell on her knees, lifted up her hands to Heaven, threw her head so
far back that her whole face was turned up to the sky and her eyes gazed
straight up at the stars-an attitude only possible to so supple a spine.
In this torturing attitude she sang one invocation after another, to the
zenith of the blue vault over their heads, in a clear voice of fervent
appeal. Her body was thrown forward, her mass of hair no longer stood up
but was turned towards the two young women, who every moment expected
that the supplicant would be suffocated by the blood mounting to her
head, and fall backwards; but she sang and sang, while her white teeth
glittered in the starlight that fell straight upon her face. Presently,
in the midst of the torrent of demoniacal names and magic formulas that
she sang and warbled out, a piteous and terrifying sound came from behind
the curtain as of two persons gasping, sighing, and moaning: one voice
seemed to be that of a man oppressed by great anguish; the other was the
half-suffocated wailing of a suffering child. This soon became louder,
and at length a voice said in Egyptian: “Water, a drink of water.”
The woman started to her feet, exclaiming: “It is the cry of the poor and
oppressed who have been robbed to enrich those who have too much already;
the lament of those whom Fate has plundered to heap you with wealth
enough for hundreds.” As she spoke these words, in Greek and with much
unction, she turned to the curtain and added solemnly, but in Egyptian:
“Give drink to the thirsty; the happy ones will spare him a drop from
their overflow. Give the white drink to the wailing child-spirit, that
he may be soothed and quenched.–Play, music, and drown the lamentations
of the spirits in sorrow.”
Then, turning to Heliodora’s kettle she said sternly, as if in obedienceto some higher power:
“Seven gold pieces to complete the work,”–and while the young widow drew
out her purse the sorceress lighted the lamps, singing as she did so and
as she dropped the coin into the boiling fluid: “Pure, bright gold!
Sunlight buried in a mine! Holy Seven. Shashef, Shashef! Holy Seven,
marry and mingle–melt together!”
When this was done she poured out of the cauldron a steaming fluid as
black as ink, into a shallow saucer, called Heliodora to her side, and
told her what she could see in the mirror of its surface.
It was all fair, and gave none but delightful replies to the widow’s
questioning. And all the sorceress said tended to confirm the young
woman’s confidence in her magic art; she described Orion as exactly as
though she saw him indeed in the surface of the ink, and said he was
travelling with an older man. And lo! he was returning already; in the
bright mirror she could see Heliodora clasped in her lover’s arms; and
now–it was like a picture: A stranger–not the bishop of Memphis–laid
her hand in his and blessed their union before the altar in a vast and
magnificent cathedral.
Katharina, who had been chilled with apprehensions and a thrill of awe,
as she listened to Medea’s song, listened to every word with anxious
attention; what Medea said–how she described Orion–that was more
wonderful than anything else, beyond all she had believed possible. And
the cathedral in which the lovers were to be united was the church of St.
Sophia at Constantinople, of which she had heard so much.
A tight grip seemed to clutch her heart; still, eagerly as she listened
to Medea’s words, her sharp ears heard the doleful gasping and whimpering
behind the hanging; and this distressed and dismayed her; her breath came
short, and a deep, torturing sense of misfortune possessed her wholly.
The wailing child-spirit within, a portion of whose joys Medea said had
been allotted to her–nay, she had not robbed him, certainly not–for who
could be more wretched than she? It was only that beautiful, languishing
young creature who was so lavishly endowed by Fortune with gifts enough
and to spare for others without number. Oh! if she could but have
snatched them from her one after another, from the splendid ruby she was
wearing to-day, to Orion’s love!
She was pale and tremulous as she rose at the call of the sorceress,
after she also had offered seven gold pieces. She would gladly have
purchased annihilating curses to destroy her happier rival.
The black liquid in the saucer began to stir, and a sharply smelling
vapor rose from it; the witch blew this aside, and as soon as the murky
fluid was a little cool, and the surface was smooth and mirror-like, she
asked Katharina what she most desired to know. But the answer was
checked on her lips; a fearful thundering and roaring suddenly made the
house shake; Medea dropped the saucer with a piercing shriek, the
contents splashed up, and warm, sticky drops fell on the girl’s arms and
dress. She was quite overcome with the startling horror, and Heliodora,
who could herself scarcely stand, had to support her, for she tottered
and would have fallen.
The sorceress had vanished; a half-grown lad, a young man, and a very
tall Egyptian girl in scanty attire were rushing about the room. They
flew hither and thither, throwing all the vessels they could lay hands oninto an opening in the floor from which they had lifted a trap-door;
pouring water on the braziers and extinguishing the lights, while they
drove the two strangers into a corner of the hall, rating and abusing
them. Then the lads clambered like cats up to the opening in the roof,
and sprang off and away.
A shrill whistle rang through the house, and in moment Medea burst into
the room again, clutched the two trembling women by the shoulders, and
exclaimed: “For Christ’s sake, be merciful! My life is at stake Sorcery
is punishable by death. I have done my best for you. You came here–
that is what you must say–out of charity to nurse the sick.” She pushed
them both behind the hanging whence they still heard feeble groans, into
a low, stuffy room, and the over-grown girl slipped in behind them.
Here, on miserable couches, lay an old man shivering, and showing dark
spots on his bare breast and face: and a child of five, whose crimson
cheeks were burning with fever.
Heliodora felt as if she must suffocate in the plague stricken, heavy
atmosphere, and Katharina clung to her helplessly; but the soothsayer
pulled her away, saying: “Each to one bed: you to the child, and you–
the old man.”
Involuntarily they obeyed the woman who was panting with fright. The
water-wagtail, who never in her life thought of a sick person, turned
very sick and looked away from the sufferer; but the your widow, who had
spent many and many a night by the death-bed of a man she had loved, and
who, tender-hearted, had often tended her sick slaves with her own hand,
looked compassionately into the pretty, pain-stricken face of the child,
and wiped the dews from his clammy brow.
Katharina shuddered; but her attention was presently attracted to
something fresh; from the other side of the house came a clatter of
weapons, the door was pushed open, and the physician Philippus walked
into the room. He desired the night-watch, who were with him, to wait
outside. He had come by the command of the police authorities, to whose
ears information had been brought that there were persons sick of the
plague in the house of Medea, and that she, nevertheless, continued to
receive visitors. It had long been decided that she must be taken in the
act of sorcery, and warning had that day been given that she expected
illustrious company in the evening. The watch were to find her red-
handed, so to speak; the leech was to prove whether her house was indeed
plague-stricken; and in either case the senate wished to have the
sorceress safe in prison and at their mercy, though even Philippus had
not been taken into their confidence.
The visitors he had come upon were the last he had expected to find here.
He looked at them with a disapproving shake of the head, interrupted the
woman’s voluble asseverations that these noble ladies had come, out of
Christian charity, to comfort and help the sick, with a rough
exclamation: “A pack of lies!” and at once led the coerced sick nurses
out of the house. He then represented to them the fearful risk to which
their folly had exposed them, and insisted very positively on their
returning home and, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, taking a
bath and putting on fresh garments.
With trembling knees they found their way back to the chariot; but even
before it could start Heliodora had broken down in tears, while
Katharina, throwing herself back on the cushions, thought, as she glancedat her weeping companion: “This is the beginning of the wonderful
happiness she was promised! It is to be hoped it may continue!”
It seemed indeed as though Katharina’s guardian spirit had overheard this
amiable wish; for, as the chariot drove past the guard-house into the
court-yard of the governor’s house, it was stopped by armed men with
brown, warlike faces, and they had to wait some minutes till an Arab
officer appeared to enquire who they were, and what they wanted. This
they explained in fear and trembling, and they then learnt that the Arab
government had that very evening taken possession of the residence.
Orion was accused of serious crimes, and his guests were to depart on the
following day.
Katharina, who was known to the interpreter, was allowed to go with
Heliodora to the senator’s wife; she might also use the chariot to return
home in, and if she pleased, take the Byzantines with her, for the palace
would be in the hands of the soldiery for the next few days.
The two young women held council. Katharina pressed her friend to come
at once to her mother’s house, for she felt certain that they were
plague-stricken, and how could they procure a bath in a house full of
soldiers? Heliodora could not and must not remain with Martina in this
condition, and the senator’s wife could follow her next day. Her mother,
she added, would be delighted to welcome so dear a guest.
The widow was passive, and when Martina had gladly consented to accept
the invitation of her “delivering angel,” the chariot carried them to
Susannah’s house. The widow had long been in bed, firmly convinced that
her daughter was asleep and dreaming in her own pretty room.
Katharina would not have her disturbed, and the bath-room was so far from
Susannah’s apartment that she slept on quietly while Katharina and her
guest purified themselves.
CHAPTER XI.
The inhabitants of the governor’s residence passed a fearful night.
Martina asked herself what sin she had committed that she, of all people,
should be picked out to witness such a disaster.
And where were her schemes of marriage now? Any movement in such heat
was indeed scarcely endurable; but she would have moved from one part of
the house to another a dozen times, and allowed herself to be tossed
hither and thither like a ball, if it could have enabled her to save her
dear “great Sesostris” from such hideous peril. And at the bottom of all
this was, no doubt, this wild, senseless business of the nuns.
And these Arabs! They simply helped themselves to whatever they fancied,
and were, of course, in a position to strip the son of the great Mukaukas
of all he possessed and reduce him to beggary. A pretty business this!
Heliodora, to be sure, had enough for both, and she and her husband
would not forget them in their will; but there was more than this in
the balance now: it was a matter of life and death.
A cold shudder ran through her at the thought; and her fears were onlytoo well founded: the black Arab who had come to parley with her, and had
finally allowed her to remain under this roof till next day, had told her
as much through the interpreter. A fearful, horrible, nameless
catastrophe! And that she should be in the midst of it and have
to see it all!
Then her husband, her poor Justinus! How hard this would fall on him!
She could not cease weeping; and before she fell asleep she prayed
fervently indeed, to the saints and the dear Mother of God, that they
would bring all to a happy issue. She closed her eyes on the thought:
“What a misfortune!” and she woke to it again early in the morning.
She, however, had known nothing of the worst horrors of that fatal night.
A troop of Arab soldiers had crossed the Nile at nightfall, some on foot
or on horseback and some in boats, led by Obada the Vekeel, and had
invested the governor’s residence. When they had fully assured
themselves that Orion was indeed absent they took Nilus prisoner.
It was then Obada’s business to inform the Mukaukas’ widow of what had
happened, and to tell her that she must quit the house next day. This
must be done, because he had views of his own as to what was to become of
the venerable house of the oldest family in the country.
Neforis was still up, and when the interpreter was announced as Obada’s
forerunner, she was in the fountain-room. He found her a good deal
excited; for, although she was incapable of any consecutive train of
thought and, when her mind was required to exert itself, her ideas only
came like lightning-flashes through her brain, she had observed that
something unusual was going on. Sebek and her maid had evaded her
enquiries, and would say no more than that Amru’s representative had come
to speak with the young master. It seemed to be something important,
perhaps some false accusation.
The interpreter now explained that Orion himself was accused of having
planned and aided an enterprise which had cost the lives of twelve Arab
soldiers; and, as she knew, any injury inflicted even on a single Moslem
by an Egyptian was punished by death and the confiscation of his goods.
Besides this, her son was accused of a robbery.
At the close of this communication, to which Neforis listened with a
vacant stare, horrified and at last almost crushed, the interpreter
begged that she would grant the Vekeel an audience.
“Not just yet–give me a few minutes,” said the widow, bringing out the
words with difficulty: first she must have recourse to her secret
specific. When she had done so, she expressed her readiness to see
Obada. Her son’s swarthy foe was anxious to appear a mild and
magnanimous man in her eyes, so it was with flattering servility and many
smirking grins that he communicated to her the necessity for her quitting
the house in which she had passed the longest and happiest half of her
life, and no later than next day.
To his announcement that her private fortune would remain untouched, and
that she would be at liberty to reside in Memphis or to go to her own
house in Alexandria, she indifferently replied that “she should see.”
She then enquired whether the Arabs had yet succeeded in capturing her
son.”Not actually,” replied the Vekeel. “But we know where he is hiding,
and by to-morrow or the next day we shall lay hands on the unhappy young
man.”
But, as he spoke, the widow detected a malicious gleam in his eyes to
which, so far, he had tried to give a sympathetic expression, and she
went on with a slight shake of the bead: “Then it is a case of life and
death?”
“Compose yourself, noble lady,” was the reply. “Of death alone.”
Neforis looked up to heaven and for some minutes did not speak; then she
asked:
“And who has accused him of robbery?” “The head of his own Church…..”
“Benjamin?” she murmured with a peculiar smile. Only yesterday she had
made her will in favor of the patriarch and the Church. “If Benjamin
could see that,” said she to herself, “he would change his views of you
and your people, and have prayers constantly said for us.”
As she spoke no more the Vekeel sat looking at her inquisitively and
somewhat at a loss, till at length she rose, and with no little dignity
dismissed him, remarking that now their business was at an end and she
had nothing further to say to him.
This closed the interview; and as the Vekeel quitted the fountain-room he
muttered to himself: “What a woman! Either she is possessed and her
brain is crazed, or she is of a rarely heroic pattern.”
Neforis was supported to her own room; when she was in bed she desired
her maid to bring a small box out of her chest and place it on the little
table containing medicines by the bead of the couch.
As soon as she was alone she took out two letters which George had
written to her before their marriage, and a poem which Orion had once
addressed to her; she tried to read them, but the words danced before her
eyes, and she was forced to lay them aside. She took up a little packet
containing hair cut from the heads of her sons after death, and a lock of
her husband’s. She gazed on these dear memorials with rapt tenderness,
and now the poppy juice began to take effect: the images of those
departed ones rose clear in her mind, and she was as near to them as
though they were standing in living actuality by her side.
Still holding the curls in her hand, she looked up into vacancy, trying
to apprehend clearly what had occurred within the last few hours and what
lay before her: She must leave this room, this ample couch, this house–
all, in short, that was bound up with the dearest memories of those she
had loved. She was to be forced to this–but did it beseem her to submit
to this Negro, this stranger in the house where she was mistress? She
shook her head with a scornful smile; then opening a glass phial, which
was still half-full of opium pillules, she placed a few on her tongue and
again gazed sky-wards.–Another face now looked down on her; she saw the
husband from whom not even death could divide her, and at his feet their
two murdered sons. Presently Orion seemed to rise out of the clouds, as
a diver comes up from the water, and make for the shore of the island on
which George and the other two seemed to be standing. His father opened
his arms to receive him and clasped him to his heart, while she herself
–or was it only her wraith–went to the others, who hurried forward togreet her tenderly; and then her husband, too, met her, and she found
rest on his bosom.
For hours, and long before the incursion of the Arabs, she had been
feeling half stunned and her mind clouded; but now a delicious,
slumberous lethargy came over her, to which her whole being urged her to
yield. But every time her eyes closed, the thought of the morrow shot
through her brain, and finally, with a great effort, she sat up, took
some water–which was always close at hand–shook into it the remaining
pillules in the bottle, and drank it off to the very last drop.
Her hand was steady; the happy smile on her lips, and the eager
expression of her eyes, might have led a spectator to believe that she
was thirsty and had mixed herself a refreshing draught. She had no look
of a desperate creature laying violent hands on her own life; she felt no
hesitancy, no fear of death, no burthen of the guilt she was incurring–
nothing but ecstatic weariness and hope; blissful hope of a life without
end, united to those she loved.
Hardly had she swallowed the deadly draught when she shivered with a
sudden chill. Raising herself a little she called her maid, who was
sitting up in the adjoining room; and as the woman looked alarmed at her
mistress’s fixed stare, she stammered out: “A priest–quick–I am dying.”
The woman flew off to the viridarium to call Sebek, who was standing in
front of the tablinum with the Vekeel; she told him what had happened,
and the Negro gave him leave to obey his dying mistress, escorting him as
far as the gate. Just outside, the steward met a deacon who had been
giving the blessing of the Church to a poor creature dying of the
pestilence, and in a few minutes they were standing by the widow’s bed.
The locks of her sons’ hair lay by her side; her hands were folded over a
crucifix; but her eyes, which had been fixed on the features of the
Saviour, had wandered from it and again gazed up to Heaven.
The priest spoke her name, but she mistook him for her son and murmured
in loving accents:
“Orion, poor, poor child! And you, Mary, my darling, my sweet little
pet! Your father–yes, dear boy, only come with me.–Your father is kind
again and forgives you. All those I loved are together now, and no one–
Who can part us? Husband–George, listen. . .”
The priest performed his office, but she paid no heed, still staring
upwards; her smiling lips continued to move, but no articulate sound came
from them. At last they were still, her eyelids fell, her hands dropped
the crucifix, a slight shiver ran through her limbs, which then relaxed,
and she opened her mouth as though to draw a deeper breath. But it
closed no more, and when the faithful steward pressed her lips together
her face was rigid and her heart had ceased to beat.
The honest man sobbed aloud; when he carried the melancholy news to the
Vekeel, Obada growled out a curse, and said to a subaltern officer who
was super-intending the loading of his camels with the treasures from the
tablinum:
“I meant to have treated that cursed old woman with conspicuous
generosity, and now she has played me this trick; and in Medina they
will lay her death at my door, unless. . .”But here he broke off; and as he once more watched the loading of the
camels, he only thought to himself: “In playing for such high stake’s, a
few gold pieces more or less do not count. A few more heads must fall
yet–the handsome Egyptian first and foremost.–If the conspirators at
Medina only play their part! The fall of Omar means that of Amru, and
that will set everything right.”
CHAPTER XII.
Katharina slept little and rose very early, as was her habit, while
Heliodora was glad to sleep away the morning hours. In this scorching
season they were, to be sure, the pleasantest of the twenty-four, and the
water-wagtail usually found them so; but to-day, though a splendid Indian
flower had bloomed for the first time, and the head gardener pointed it
out to her with just pride, she could not enjoy it and be glad. It might
perish for aught she cared, and the whole world with it!
There was no one stirring yet in the next garden, but the tall leech
Philippus might be seen coming along the road to pay a visit to the
women.
A few swift steps carried her to the gate, whence she called him. She
must entreat him to say nothing of her last night’s expedition; but
before she had time to prefer her request he had paused to tell her that
the widow of the Mukaukas, overcome by alarm and horror, had followed her
husband to the next world.
There had been a time when Katharina had been devoted to Neforis,
regarding her as a second mother; when the governor’s residence had
seemed to her the epitome of all that was great, venerable, and
illustrious; and when she had been proud and happy to be allowed to run
in and out, and to be loved like a child of the family. The tears that
started to her eyes were sincere, and it was a relief to her, too, to lay
aside the gay and defiantly happy mien which she wore as a mask, while
all in her soul was dark, wild, and desperate.
The physician understood her grief; he readily promised not to betray her
to any one, and did not blame her, though he again pointed out the danger
she had incurred and earnestly insisted that every article of clothing,
which she or Heliodora had worn, must be destroyed. The subtle germ of
the malady, he said, clung to everything; every fragment of stuff which
had been touched by the plague-stricken was especially fitted to carry
the infection and disseminate the disease. She listened to him in deep
alarm, but she could satisfy him on this point; everything she or her
companion had worn had been burnt in the bath-room furnace.
The physician went on; and she, heedless of the growing heat, wandered
restlessly about the grounds. Her heart beat with short, quick, painful
jerks; an invisible burthen weighed upon her and prevented her breathing
freely. A host of torturing thoughts haunted her unbidden; they were not
to be exorcised, and added to her misery: Neforis dead; the residence in
the hands of the Arabs; Orion bereft of his possessions and held guilty
of a capital crime.
And the peaceful house beyond the