The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Orion went down stairs scowling and clenching his fists. His heart ached to bursting.
What had he done, what had befallen him? That a woman should dare to treat him so!--a woman whom he had deigned to love--the loveliest and noblest of women; but at the same time the haughtiest, most vengeful, and most hateful.
He had once read this maxim: "When a man has committed a base action, if only one other knows of it he carries the death-warrant of his peace in the bosom of his garment." He felt the full weight of this sentence; and the other--the one who knew--was Paula, the woman of all others whom he most wished should look up to him. But yesterday it had been a vision of heaven on earth to dream of holding her in his arms and calling her his; now he had but one wish: that he could humble and punish her. Oh, that his hands should be tied, that he should be dependent on her mercy like a condemned criminal! It was inconceivable--intolerable!
But she should be taught to know him. He had passed through life hitherto as white as a swan; if this luckless hour and this woman made him appear as a vulture, it was not his fault, it was hers. She should soon see which was the stronger of the two. He would punish her in every way in which a woman can be punished, even if the way to it led through crime and misery! He was not afraid that the leech bad won her affections, for he knew, with strange certainty that, in spite of the hostility she displayed, her heart was his and his alone. "The gold coin called love," said he to himself, "has two faces: tender devotion and bitter aversion; just now she is showing me the latter. But, however different the image and superscription may be on the two sides, if you ring it, it always gives out the same tone; and I can hear it even in her most insulting words."
When the family met at table he made Paula's excuses; he himself ate only a few mouthfuls, for the judges had assembled some time since and were waiting for him.
The right of life and death had been placed in the hands of the ancestors of the Mukaukas, powerful princes of provinces; they had certainly wielded it even in the dynasty of Psammitichus, whose power had been put to a terrible end by Cambyses the Persian. And still the Uraeus snake--the asp whose bite caused almost instant death, reared its head as the time-honored emblem of this privilege, by the side of St. George the Dragon-slayer, over the palaces of the Mukaukas at Memphis, and at Lykopolis in Upper Egypt. And in both these places the head of the family retained the right of arbitrary judgment and capital punishment over the retainers of his house and the inhabitants of the district he governed, after Justinian first, and then the Emperor Heraclius, had confirmed them in their old prerogative. The chivalrous St. George was placed between the snakes so as to replace a heathen symbol by a Christian one. Formerly indeed the knight himself had had the head of a sparrow-hawk: that is to say of the god Horus, who had overthrown the evil-spirit, Seth-Typhon, to avenge his father; but about two centuries since the heathen crocodile-destroyer had been transformed into the Christian conqueror of the dragon.
After the Arab conquest the Moslems had left all ancient customs and rights undisturbed, including those of the Mukaukas.
The court which assembled to sit in judgment on all cases concerning the adherents of the house consisted of the higher officials of the governor's establishment. The Mukaukas himself was president, and his grown-up son was his natural deputy. During Orion's absence, Nilus, the head of the exchequer, a shrewd and judicious Egyptian, had generally represented his invalid master; but on the present occasion Orion was appointed to take his place, and to preside over the assembly.
The governor's son hastened to his father's bedroom to beg him to lend him his ring as a token of the authority transferred to him; the Mukaukas had willingly allowed him to take it off his finger, and had enjoined him to exercise relentless severity. Generally he inclined to leniency; but breaking into a house was punishable with death, and in this instance it was but right to show no mercy, out of deference to the Arab merchant. But Orion, mindful of his covenant with Paula, begged his father to give him full discretion. The old Moslem was a just man, who would agree to a mitigated sentence under the circumstances; besides, the culprit was not in strict fact a member of the household, but in the service of a relation.
The Mukaukas applauded his son's moderation and judgment. If only he had been in rather better health he himself would have had the pleasure of being present at the sitting, to see him fulfil for the first time so important a function, worthy of his birth and position.
Orion kissed his father's hand with heart-felt but melancholy emotion, for this praise from the man he so truly loved was a keen pleasure; and yet he felt that it was of ill-omen that his duties as judge, of which he knew the sacred solemnity, should be thus--thus begun.
It was in a softened mood, sunk in thought as to how he could best save Hiram and leave Paula's name altogether out of the matter, that he went to the hall of justice; and there he found the nurse Perpetua in eager discussion with Nilus.
The old woman was quite beside herself. In the clatter of her loom she had heard nothing of what had been going on till a few minutes ago; now she was ready to swear to the luckless Hiram's innocence. The stone he had sold had belonged to his young mistress, and thank God there was no lack of evidence of the fact; the setting of the emerald was lying safe and sound in Paula's trunk. Happily she had had an opportunity of speaking to her; and that she, the daughter of Thomas, should be brought before the tribunal, like a citizen's daughter or slave-girl, was unheard of, shameful!
At this Orion roughly interfered; he desired the old gate-keeper to conduct Perpetua at once to the storeroom next to the tablinum, where the various stuffs prepared for the use of the household were laid by, and to keep her there under safe guard till further notice. The tone in which he gave the order was such that even the nurse did not remonstrate; and Nilus, for his part obeyed in silence when Orion bid him return to his place among the judges.
Nilus went back to the judgment-hall in uneasy consternation. Never before had he seen his young lord in this mood. As he heard the nurse's statement the veins had swelled in his smooth youthful forehead, his nostrils had quivered with convulsive agitation, his voice had lost all its sweetness, and his eyes had a sinister gleam.
Orion was now alone; he ground his teeth with rage. Paula had betrayed him in spite of her promise, and how mean was her woman's cunning! She could be silent before the judges--yes. Silent in all confidence now, to the very last; but the nurse, her mouthpiece, had already put Nilus, the keenest and most important member of the court, in possession of the evidence which spoke for her and against him. It was shocking, disgraceful! Base and deliberately malicious treachery. But the end was not yet: he still was free to act and to ward off the spiteful stroke by a counterthrust. How it should be dealt was clear from Perpetua's statement; but his conscience, his instincts and long habits of submission to what was right, good, and fitting held him back. Not only had he never himself done a base or a mean action; he loathed it in another, and the only thing he could do to render Paula's perfidy harmless was, as he could not deny, original and bold, but at the same time detestable and shameful.
Still, he could not and he would not succumb in this struggle. Time pressed. Long reflection was impossible; suddenly he felt carried away by a fierce and mad longing to fight it out--he felt as he had felt on a race-day in the hippodrome, when he had driven his own quadriga ahead of all the rest.
Onwards, then, onwards; and if the chariot were wrecked, if the horses were killed, if his wheels maimed his comrades overthrown in the arena-still, onwards, onwards!
A few hasty steps brought him to the lodge of the gate-keeper, a sturdy old man who had held his post for forty years. He had formerly been a locksmith and it still was part of his duty to undertake the repairs of the simple household utensils. Orion as a youth had been a beautiful and engaging boy and a great favorite with this worthy man; he had delighted in sitting in his little room and handing him the tools for his work. He himself had remarkable mechanical facility and had been the old man's apt pupil; nay, he had made such progress as to be able to carve pretty little boxes, prayer-book cases, and such like, and provide them with locks, as gifts to his parents on their birth days--a festival always kept with peculiar solemnity in Egypt, and marked by giving and receiving presents. He understood the use of tools, and he now hastily selected such as he needed. On the window-ledge stood a bunch of flowers which he had ordered for Paula the day before, and which he had forgotten to fetch this terrible morning. With this in one hand, and the tools in the breast of his robe he hastened upstairs.
"Onwards, I must keep on!" he muttered, as he entered Paula's room, bolted the door inside and, kneeling before her chest, tossed the flowers aside. If he was discovered, he would say that he had gone into his cousin's chamber to give her the bouquet.
"Onwards; I must go on!" was still his thought, as he unscrewed the hinge on which the lid of the trunk moved. His hands trembled, his breath came fast, but he did his task quickly. This was the right way to work, for the lock was a peculiar one, and could not have been opened without spoiling it. He raised the lid, and the first thing his hand came upon in the chest was the necklace with the empty medallion--it was as though some kind Genius were aiding him. The medallion hung but slightly to the elegantly-wrought chain; to detach it and conceal it about his person was the work of a minute.
But now the most resolute. "On, on. . . ." was of no further avail. This was theft: he had robbed her whom, if she only had chosen it, he was ready to load with everything wherewith fate had so superabundantly blessed him. No, this--this. . . .
A singular idea suddenly flashed through his brain; a thought which brought a smile to his lips even at this moment of frightful tension. He acted upon it forth with: he drew out from within his under-garment a gem that hung round his neck by a gold chain. This jewel--a masterpiece by one of the famous Greek engravers of heathen antiquity--had been given him in Constantinople in exchange for a team of four horses to which his greatest friend there had taken a fancy. It was in fact of greater price than half a dozen fine horses. Half beside himself, and as if intoxicated, Orion followed the wild impulse to which he had yielded; indeed, he was glad to have so precious a jewel at hand to hang in the place of the worthless gold frame-work. It was done with a pinch; but screwing up the hinge again was a longer task, for his hands trembled violently--and as the moment drew near in which he meant to let Paula feel his power, the more quickly his heart beat, and the more difficult he found it to control his mind to calm deliberation.
After he had unbolted the door he stood like a thief spying the long corridor of the strangers' wing, and this increased his excitement to a frenzy of rage with the world, and fate, and most of all with her who had compelled him to stoop to such base conduct. But now the charioteer had the reins and goad in his hand. Onwards now, onwards!
He flew down stairs, three steps at a time, as he had been wont when a boy. In the anteroom he met Eudoxia, Mary's Greek governess, who had just brought her refractory pupil into the house, and he tossed her the nosegay he still held in his hands; then, without heeding the languishing glances the middle-aged damsel sent after him with her thanks, he hastened back to the gate-keeper's lodge where he hurriedly disburdened himself of the locksmith's tools.
A few minutes later he entered the judgment-hall. Nilus the treasurer showed him to the governor's raised seat, but an overpowering bashfulness kept him from taking this position of honor. It was with a burning brow, and looks so ominously dark that the assembly gazed at him with timid astonishment, that he opened the proceedings with a few broken sentences. He himself scarcely knew what he was saying, and heard his own voice as vaguely as though it were the distant roar of waves. However, he succeeded in clearly stating all that had happened: he showed the assembly the stone which had been stolen and recovered; he explained how the thief had been taken; he declared Paula's freedman to be guilty of the robbery, and called upon him to bring forward anything he could in his own defence. But the accused could only stammer out that he was not guilty. He was not able to defend himself, but his mistress could no doubt give evidence that would justify him.
Orion pushed the hair from his forehead, proudly raised his aching head, and addressed the judges:
"His mistress is a lady of rank allied to our house. Let us keep her out of this odious affair as is but seemly. Her nurse gave Nilus some information which may perhaps avail to save this unhappy man. We will neglect nothing to that end; but you, who are less familiar with the leading circumstances, must bear this in mind to guard yourselves against being misled: This lady is much attached to the accused; she clings to him and Perpetua as the only friends remaining to her from her native home. Moreover, there is nothing to surprise me or you in the fact that a noble woman, as she is, should assume the onus of another's crime, and place herself in a doubtful light to save a man who has hitherto been honest and faithful. The nurse is here; shall she be called, or have you, Nilus, heard from her everything that her mistress can say in favor of her freedman?"
"Perpetua told me, and told you, too, my lord, certain credible facts," replied the treasurer. "But I could not repeat them so exactly as she herself, and I am of opinion that the woman should be brought before the court."
"Then call her," said Orion, fixing his eyes on vacancy above the heads of the assembly, with a look of sullen dignity.
After a long and anxious pause the old woman was brought in. Confident in her righteous cause she came forward boldly; she blamed Hiram somewhat sharply for keeping silence so long, and then explained that Paula, to procure money for her search for her father, had made the freedman take a costly emerald out of its setting in her necklace, and that it was the sale of this gem that had involved her fellow-countryman in this unfortunate suspicion.
The nurse's deposition seemed to have biased the greater part of the council in favor of the accused; but Orion did not give them time to discuss their impressions among themselves. Hardly had Perpetua ceased speaking, when Orion took up the emerald, which was lying on the table before him, exclaiming excitedly, nay, angrily:
"And the stone which is recognized by the man who sold it--an expert in gems--as being that which was taken from the hanging, and unique of its kind, is supposed, by some miracle of nature, to have suddenly appeared in duplicate?--Malignant spirits still wander through the world, but would hardly dare to play their tricks in this Christian house. You all know what 'old women's tales' are; and the tale that old woman has told us is one of the most improbable of its class. 'Tell that to Apelles the Jew,' said Horace the Roman; but his fellow-Israelite, Gamaliel'--and he turned to the jeweller who was sitting with the other witnesses will certainly not believe it; still less I, who see through this tissue of falsehood. The daughter of the noble Thomas has condescended to weave it with the help of that woman--a skilled weaver, she--to spread it before us in order to mislead us, and so to save her faithful servant from imprisonment, from the mines, or from death. These are the facts.--Do I err, woman, or do you still adhere to your statement?"
The nurse, who had hoped to find in Orion her mistress' advocate, had listened to his speech with growing horror. Her eyes flashed as she looked at him, first with mockery and then with vehement disgust; but, though they filled with tears at this unlooked-for attack, she preserved her presence of mind, and declared she had spoken the truth, and nothing but the truth, as she always did. The setting of her mistress' emerald would prove her statement.
Orion shrugged his shoulders, desired the woman to fetch her mistress, whose presence was now indispensable, and called to the treasurer:
"Go with her, Nilus! And let a servant bring the trunk here that the owner may open it in the presence of us all and before any one else touches the contents. I should not be the right person to undertake it since no one in this Jacobite household--hardly even one of yourselves--has found favor in the eyes of the Melchite. She has unfortunately a special aversion for me, so I must depute to others every proceeding that could lead to a misunderstanding.--Conduct her hither, Nilus; of course with the respect due to a maiden of high rank."
While the envoy was gone Orion paced the room with swift, restless steps, Once only he paused and addressed the judges:
"But supposing the empty setting should be found, how do you account for the existence of two--two gems, each unique of its kind? It is distracting. Here is a soft-hearted girl daring to mislead a serious council of justice for the sake, for the sake of. . . ." he stamped his foot with rage and continued his silent march.
"He is as yet but a beginner," thought the assembled officials as they watched his agitation. "Otherwise how could he allow such an absurd attempt to clear an accused thief to affect him so deeply, or disturb his temper?"
Paula's arrival presently put an end to Orion's pacing the room. He received her with a respectful bow and signed to her to be seated. Then he bid Nilus recapitulate the results of the proceedings up to the present stage, and what he and his colleagues supposed to be her motive for asserting that the stolen emerald was her property. He would as far as possible leave it to the others to question her, since she knew full well on what terms she was with himself. Even before he had come into the council-room she had offered her explanation of the robbery to Nilus, through her nurse Perpetua; but it would have seemed fairer and more friendly in his eyes--and here he raised his voice--if she had chosen to confide to him, Orion, her plan for helping the freedman. Then he might have been able to warn her. He could only regard this mode of action, independently of him, as a fresh proof of her dislike, and she must hold herself responsible for the consequences. Justice must now take its course with inexorable rigor.
The wrathful light in his eyes showed her what she had to expect from him, and that he was prepared to fight her to the end. She saw that he thought that she had broken the promise she had but just now given him; but she had not commissioned Perpetua to interfere in the matter; on the contrary, she had desired the woman to leave it to her to produce her evidence only in the last extremity. Orion must believe that she had done him a wrong; still, could that make him so far forget himself as to carry out his threats, and sacrifice an innocent man--to divert suspicion from himself, while he branded her as a false witness? Aye, even from that he would not shrink! His flaming glance, his abrupt demeanor, his laboring breath, proclaimed it plainly enough.--Then let the struggle begin! At this moment she would have died rather than have tried to mollify him by a word of excuse. The turmoil in his whole being vibrated through hers. She was ready to throw herself at his feet and implore him to control himself, to guard himself against further wrong-doing--but she maintained her proud dignity, and the eyes that met his were not less indignant and defiant than his own.
They stood face to face like two young eagles preparing to fight, with feathers on end, arching their pinions and stretching their necks. She, confident of victory in the righteousness of her cause, and far more anxious for him than for herself; he, almost blind to his own danger, but, like a gladiator confronting his antagonist in the arena, far more eager to conquer than to protect his own life and limb.
While Nilus explained to her what, in part, she already knew, and repeated their suspicion that she had been tempted to make a false declaration to save the life of her servant, whose devotion, no doubt, to his missing master had led him to commit the robbery; she kept her eye on Orion rather than on the speaker. At last Nilus referred to the trunk, which had been brought from Paula's room under her own eyes, informing her that the assembly were ready to hear and examine into anything she had to say in her own defence.
Orion's agitation rose to its highest pitch. He felt that the blood had fled from his cheeks, and his thoughts were in utter confusion. The council, the accused, his enemy Paula--everything in the room lay before him shrouded in a whirl of green mist. All he saw seemed to be tinted with light emerald green. The hair, the faces, the dresses of those present gleamed and floated in a greenish light; and not till Paula went up to the chest with a firm, haughty step, drew out a small key, gave it to the treasurer, and answered his speech with three words: "Open the box!"--uttering them with cold condescension as though even this were too much--not till then did he see clearly once more: her bright brown hair, the fire of her blue eyes, the rose and white of her complexion, the light dress which draped her fine figure in noble folds, and her triumphant smile. How beautiful, how desirable was this woman! A few minutes and she would be worsted in this contest; but the triumph had cost him not only herself, but all that was good and pure in his soul, and worthy of his forefathers. An inward voice cried it out to him, but he drowned it in the shout of "Onwards," like a chariot-driver. Yes--on; still on towards the goal; away over ruins and stones, through blood and dust, till she bowed her proud neck, crushed and beaten, and sued for mercy.
The lid of the trunk flew open. Paula stooped, lifted the necklace, held it out to the judges, pulling it straight by the two ends. . . . Ah! what a terrible, heartrending cry of despair! Orion even, never, never wished to hear the like again. Then she flung the jewel on the table, exclaiming: "Shameful, shameful! atrocious!" she tottered backwards and clung to her faithful Betta; for her knees were giving way, and she felt herself in danger of sinking to the ground.
Orion sprang forward to support her, but she thrust him aside, with a glance so full of anguish, rage and intense contempt that he stood motionless, and clasped his hand over his heart.--And this deed, which was to work such misery for two human beings, he had smiled in doing! This practical joke which concealed a death-warrant--to what fearful issues might it not lead?
Paula had sunk speechless on to a seat, and he stood staring in silence, till a burst of laughter broke from the assembly and old Psamtik, the captain of the guard, who had long been a member of the council of justice, exclaimed:
"By my soul, a splendid stone! There is the heathen god Eros with his winged sweetheart Psyche smiling in his face. Did you never read that pretty story by Apuleius--'The Golden Ass' it is called? The passage is in that. Holy Luke! how finely it is carved. The lady has taken out the wrong necklace. Look, Gamaliel, where could your green pigeon's egg have found a place in that thing?" and he pointed to the gem.
"Nowhere," said the Jew. "The noble lady. . ." But Orion roughly bid the witness to be silent, and Nilus, taking up the engraved gem, examined it closely. Then he--he the grave, just man, on whose support Paula had confidently reckoned--went up to her and with a regretful shrug asked her whether the other necklace with the setting of which she had spoken was in the trunk.
The blood ran cold in her veins. This thing that had happened was as startling as a miracle. But no! No higher Power had anything to do with this blow. Orion believed that she had failed in her promise of screening him by her silence, and this, this was his revenge. By what means--how he had gone to work, was a mystery. What a trick!--and it had succeeded! But should she take it like a patient child? No. A thousand times no! Suddenly all her old powers of resistance came back; hatred steeled her wavering will; and, as in fancy, he had seen himself in the circus, driving in a race, so she pictured herself seated at the chess-board. She felt herself playing with all her might to win; but not, as with his father, for flowers, trifling presents or mere glory; nay, for a very different stake Life or Death!
She would do everything, anything to conquer him; and yet, no--come what might--not everything. Sooner would she succumb than betray him as the thief or reveal what she had discovered in the viridarium. She had promised to keep the secret; and she would repay the father's kindness by screening the son from this disgrace. How beautiful, how noble had Orion's image been in her heart. She would not stain it with this disgrace in her own eyes and in those of the world. But every other reservation must be cast far, far away, to snatch the victory from him and to save Hiram. Every fair weapon she might use; only this treachery she could not, might not have recourse to. He must be made to feel that she was more magnanimous than he; that she, under all conceivable circumstances, kept her word. That was settled; her bosom once more rose and fell, and her eye brightened again; still it was some little time before she could find the right words with which to begin the contest.
Orion could see the seething turmoil in her soul; he felt that she was arming herself for resistance, and he longed to spur her on to deal the first blow. Not a word had she uttered of surprise or anger, not a syllable of reproach had passed her lips. What was she thinking of, what was she plotting? The more startling and dangerous the better; the more bravely she bore herself, the more completely in the background might he leave the painful sense of fighting against a woman. Even heroes had boasted of a victory over Amazons.
At last, at last!--She rose and went towards Hiram. He had been tied to the stake to which criminals were bound, and as an imploring glance from his honest eyes met hers, the spell that fettered her tongue was unloosed; she suddenly understood that she had not merely to protect herself, but to fulfil a solemn duty. With a few rapid steps she went up to the table at which her judges sat in a semi-circle, and leaning on it with her left hand, raised her right high in the air, exclaiming:
"You are the victims of a cruel fraud; and I of an unparalleled and wicked trick, intended to bring me to ruin!--Look at that man at the stake. Does he look like a robber? A more honest and faithful servant never earned his freedom, and the gratitude Hiram owed to his master, my father, he has discharged to the daughter for whose sake he quitted his home, his wife and child. He followed me, an orphan, here into a strange land.--But that matters not to you.--Still, if you will hear the truth, the strict and whole. . . ."
"Speak!" Orion put in; but she went on, addressing herself exclusively to Nilus, and his peers, and ignoring him completely:
"Your president, the son of the Mukaukas, knows that, instead of the accused, I might, if I chose, be the accuser. But I scorn it--for love of his father, and because I am more high-minded than he. He will understand!--With regard to this particular emerald Hiram, my freedman, took it out of its setting last evening, under my eyes, with his knife; other persons besides us, thank God! have seen the setting, empty, on the chain to which it belonged. This afternoon it was still in the place to which some criminal hand afterwards found access, and attached that gem instead. That I have just now seen for the first time--I swear it by Christ's wounds. It is an exquisite work. Only a very rich man--the richest man here, can give away such a treasure, for whatever purpose he may have in view--to destroy an enemy let us say.--Gamaliel," and she turned to the Jew--"At what sum would you value that onyx?"
The Israelite asked to see the gem once more; he turned it about, and then said with a grin: "Well, fair lady, if my black hen laid me little things like that I would feed it on cakes from Arsinoe and oysters from Canopus. The stone is worth a landed estate, and though I am not a rich man, I would pay down two talents for it at any moment, even if I had to borrow the money."
This statement could not fail to make a great impression on the judges. Orion, however, exclaimed: "Wonders on wonders mark this eventful day! The prodigal generosity which had become an empty name has revived again among us! Some lavish demon has turned a worthless plate of gold into a costly gem.--And may I ask who it was that saw the empty setting hanging to your chain?" Paula was in danger of forgetting even that last reserve she had imposed on herself; she answered with trembling accents:
"Apparently your confederates or you yourself did. You, and you alone, have any cause. . . ."
But he would not allow her to proceed. He abruptly interrupted her, exclaiming: "This is really too much! Oh, that you were a man! How far your generosity reaches I have already seen. Even hatred, the bitterest hostility. . . ."
"They would have every right to ruin you completely!" she cried, roused to the utmost. "And if I were to charge you with the most horrible crime. . . ."
"You yourself would be committing a crime, against me and against this house," he said menacingly. "Beware! Can self-delusion go so far that you dare to appeal to me to testify to the fable you have trumped up. . . ."
"No. Oh, no! That would be counting on some honesty in you yet," she loudly broke in. "I have other witnesses: Mary, the granddaughter of the Mukaukas," and she tried to catch his eye.
"The child whose little heart you have won, and who follows you about like a pet dog!" he cried.
"And besides Mary, Katharina, the widow Susannah's daughter," she added, sure of her triumph, and the color mounted to her cheeks. "She is no longer a child, but a maiden grown, as you know. I therefore demand of you--" and she again turned to the assembly--"that you will fulfil your functions worthily and promote justice in my behalf by calling in both these witnesses and hearing their evidence."
On this Orion interposed with forced composure: "As to whether a soft-hearted child ought to be exposed to the temptation to save the friend she absolutely worships by giving evidence before the judges, be it what it may, only her grandparents can decide. Her tender years would at any rate detract from the validity of her evidence, and I am averse to involving a child of this house in this dubious affair. With regard to Katharina, it is, on the contrary, the duty of this court to request her presence, and I offer myself to go and fetch her."
He resolutely resisted Paula's attempts to interrupt him again: she should have a patient hearing presently in the presence of her witness. The gem no doubt had come to her from her father. But at this her righteous indignation was again too much for her; she cried out quite beside herself:
"No, and again no. Some reprobate scoundrel, an accomplice of yours--yes, I repeat it--made his way into my room while I was in the sick-room, and either forced the lock of my trunk or opened it with a false key."
"That can easily be proved," said Orion. In a confident tone he desired that the box should be placed on the table, and requested one of the council, who understood such matters, to give his opinion. Paula knew the man well. He was one of the most respected members of the household, the chief mechanician whose duty it was to test and repair the water-clocks, balances, measures and other instruments. He at once proceeded to examine the lock and found it in perfect order, though the key, which was of peculiar form, could certainly not have found a substitute in any false key; and Paula was forced to admit that she had left the trunk locked at noon and had worn the key round her neck ever since. Orion listened to his opinion with a shrug, and before going to seek Katharina gave orders that Paula and the nurse should be conducted to separate rooms. To arrive at any clear decision in this matter, it was necessary that any communication between these two should be rendered impossible. As soon as the door was shut on them he hastened into the garden, where he hoped to find Katharina.
The council looked after him with divided feelings. They were here confronted by riddles that were hard to solve. No one of them felt that he had a right to doubt the good intentions of their lord's son, whom they looked up to as a talented and high-minded youth. His dispute with Paula had struck them painfully, and each one asked himself how it was that such a favorite with women should have failed to rouse any sentiment but that of hatred in one of the handsomest of her sex. The marked hostility she displayed to Orion injured her cause in the eyes of her judges, who knew only too well how unpleasant her relations were with Neforis. It was more than audacious in her to accuse the Mukaukas' son of having broken open her trunk; only hatred could have prompted her to utter such a charge. Still, there was something in her demeanor which encouraged confidence in her assertions, and if Katharina could really testify to having seen the empty medallion on the chain there would be no alternative but to begin the enquiry again from a fresh point of view, and to inculpate another robber. But who could have lavished such a treasure as this gem in exchange for mere rubbish? It was inconceivable; Ammonius the mechanician was right when he said that a woman full of hatred was capable of anything, even the incredible and impossible.
Meanwhile it was growing dusk and the scorching day had turned to the tempered heat of a glorious evening. The Mukaukas was still in his room while his wife with Susannah and her daughter, Mary and her governess, were enjoying the air and chatting in the open hall looking out on the garden and the Nile. The ladies had covered their heads with gauze veils as a protection against the mosquitoes, which were attracted in swarms from the river by the lights, and also against the mists that rose from the shallowing Nile; they were in the act of drinking some cooling fruit-syrup which had just been brought in, when Orion made his appearance.
"What has happened?" cried his mother in some anxiety, for she concluded from his dishevelled hair and heated cheeks that the meeting had gone anything rather than smoothly.
"Incredible things," he replied. "Paula fought like a lioness for her father's freedman. . ."
"Simply to annoy us and put us in a difficulty," replied Neforis.
"No, no, Mother," replied Orion with some warmth. "But she has a will of iron; a woman who never pauses at anything when she wants to carry her point; and at the same time she goes to work with a keen wit that is worthy of the greatest lawyer that I ever heard defend a cause in the high court of the capital. Besides this her air of superiority, and her divine beauty turn the heads of our poor household officers. It is fine and noble, of course, to be so zealous in the cause of a servant; but it can do no good, for the evidence against her stammering favorite is overwhelming, and when her last plea is demolished the matter is ended. She says that she showed a necklace to the child, and to you, charming Katharina."
"Showed it?" cried the young girl. "She took it away from us--did not she, Mary?"
"Well, we had taken it without her leave," replied the child.
"And she wants our children to appear in a court of justice to bear witness for her highness?" asked Neforis indignantly.
"Certainly," replied Orion. "But Mary's evidence is of no value in law."
"And even if it were," replied his mother, "the child should not be mixed up with this disgraceful business under any circumstances."
"Because I should speak for Paula!" cried Mary, springing up in great excitement.
"You will just hold your tongue," her grandmother exclaimed.
"And as for Katharina," said the widow, "I do not at all like the notion of her offering herself to be stared at by all those gentlemen."
"Gentlemen!" observed the girl. "Men--household officials and such like. They may wait long enough for me!"
"You must nevertheless do their bidding, haughty rosebud," said Orion laughing. "For you, thank God, are no longer a child, and a court of justice has the right of requiring the presence of every grown person as a witness. No harm will come to you, for you are under my protection. Come with me. We must learn every lesson in life. Resistance is vain. Besides, all you will have to do will be to state what you have seen, and then, if I possibly can, I will bring you back under the tender escort of this arm, to your mother once more. You must entrust your jewel to me to-day, Susannah, and this trustworthy witness shall tell you afterwards how she fared under my care."
Katharina was quite capable of reading the implied meaning of these words, and she was not ill-pleased to be obliged to go off alone with the governor's handsome son, the first man for whom her little heart had beat quicker; she sprang up eagerly; but Mary clung to her arm, and insisted so vehemently and obstinately on being taken with them to bear witness in Paula's behalf, that her governess and Dame Neforis had the greatest difficulty in reducing her to obedience and letting the pair go off without her. Both mothers looked after them with great satisfaction, and the governor's wife whispered to Susannah: "Before the judges to-day, but ere long, please God, before the altar at Church!"
To reach the hall of judgment they could go either through the house or round it. If the more circuitous route were chosen, it lay first through the garden; and this was the course taken by Orion. He had made a very great effort in the presence of the ladies to remain master of the agitation that possessed him; he saw that the battle he had begun, and from which he, at any rate, could not and would not now retire, was raging more and more fiercely, obliging him to drag the young creature who must become his wife--the die was already cast--into the course of crime he had started on.
When he had agreed with his mother that he was not to prefer his suit for Katharina till the following day, he had hoped to prove to her in the interval that this little thing was no wife for him; and now--oh! Irony of Fate--he found himself compelled to the very reverse of what he longed to do: to fight the woman he loved--Yes, still loved--as if she were his mortal foe, and pay his court to the girl who really did not suit him. It was maddening, but inevitable; and once more spurring himself with the word "Onwards!" he flung himself into the accomplishment of the unholy task of subduing the inexperienced child at his elbow into committing even a crime for his sake. His heart was beating wildly; but no pause, no retreat was possible: he must conquer. "Onwards, then, onwards!"
When they had passed out of the light of the lamps into the shade he took his young companion's slender hand-thankful that the darkness concealed his features--and pressed the delicate fingers to his lips.
"Oh!--Orion!" she exclaimed shyly, but she did not resist.
"I only claim my due, sunshine of my soul!" he said insinuatingly. "If your heart beat as loud as mine, our mothers might hear them!"
"But it does!" she joyfully replied, her curly head bent on one side.
"Not as mine does," he said with a sigh, laying her little hand on his heart. He could do so in all confidence, for its spasmodic throbbing threatened to suffocate him.
"Yes indeed," she said. "It is beating. . ."
"So that they can hear it indoors," he added with a forced laugh. "Do you think your dear mother has not long since read our feelings?"
"Of course she has," whispered Katharina. "I have rarely seen her in such good spirits as since your return."
"And you, you little witch?"
"I? Of course I was glad--we all were.--And your parents!"
"Nay, nay, Katharina! What you yourself felt when we met once more, that is what I want to know."
"Oh, let that pass! How can I describe such a thing?"
"Is that quite impossible?" he asked and clasped her arm more closely in his own. He must win her over, and his romantic fancy helped him to paint feelings he had never had, in glowing colors. He poured out sweet words of love, and she was only too ready to believe them. At a sign from him she sat down confidingly on a wooden bench in the old avenue which led to the northern side of the house. Flowers were opening on many of the shrubs and shedding rich, oppressive perfume. The moonlight pierced through the solemn foliage of the sycamores, and shimmering streaks and rings of light played in the branches, on the trunks, and on the dark ground. The heat of the day still lingered in the leafy roofs overhead, sultry and heavy even now; and in this alley he called her for the first time his own, his betrothed, and enthralled her heart in chains and bonds. Each fervent word thrilled with the wild and painful agitation that was torturing his soul, and sounded heartfelt and sincere. The scent of flowers, too, intoxicated her young and inexperienced heart; she willingly offered her lips to his kisses, and with exquisite bliss felt the first glow of youthful love returned.
She could have lingered thus with him for a lifetime; but in a few minutes he sprang up, anxious to put an end to this tender dalliance which was beginning to be too much even for him, and exclaimed:
"This cursed, this infernal trial! But such is the fate of man! Duty calls, and he must return from all the bliss of Paradise to the world again. Give me your arm, my only love, my all!"
And Katharina obeyed. Dazzled and bewildered by the extraordinary happiness that had come to meet her, she allowed him to lead her on, listening with suspended breath as he added: "Out of this beatitude back to the sternest of duties!--And how odious, how immeasurably loathesome is the case in question! How gladly would I have been a friend to Paula, a faithful protector instead of a foe!"
As he spoke he felt the girl's left hand clench tighter on his arm, and this spurred him on in his guilty purpose. Katharina herself had suggested to his mind the course he must pursue to attain his end. He went on to influence her jealousy by praising Paula's charm and loftiness, excusing himself in his own eyes by persuading himself that a lover was justified in inducing his betrothed to save his happiness and his honor.
Still, as he uttered each flattering word, he felt that he was lowering himself and doing a fresh injustice to Paula. He found it only too easy to sing her praises; but as he did so with growing enthusiasm Katharina hit him on the arm exclaiming, half in jest and half seriously vexed:
"Oh, she is a goddess! And pray do you love her or me? You had better not make me jealous! Do you hear?"
"You little simpleton!" he said gaily; and then he added soothingly: "She is like the cold moon, but you are the bright warming sun. Yes, Paula!--we will leave Paula to some Olympian god, some archangel. I rejoice in my gladsome little maiden who will enjoy life with me, and all its pleasures!"
"That we will!" she exclaimed triumphantly; the horizon of her future was radiant with sunshine.
"Good Heavens!" he exclaimed as if in surprise. "The lights are already shining in that miserable hall of justice! Ah, love, love! Under that enchantment we had forgotten the object for which we came out.--Tell me, my darling, do you remember exactly what the necklace was like that you and Mary were playing with this afternoon?"
"It was very finely wrought, but in the middle hung a rubbishy broken medallion of gold."
"You are a pretty judge of works of art! Then you overlooked the fine engraved gem which was set in that modest gold frame?"
"I assure you, little wise-head!"
"No, my dearest." As she spoke she looked up saucily, as though she had achieved some great triumph. "I know very well what gems are. My father left a very fine collection, and my mother says that by his will they are all to belong to my future husband."
"Then I can set you, my jewel, in a frame of the rarest gems."
"No, no," she cried gaily. "Let me have a setting indeed, for I am but a fugitive thing; but only, only in your heart."
"That piece of goldsmith's work is already done.--But seriously my child; with regard to Paula's necklace: it really was a gem, and you must have happened to see only the back of it. That is just as you describe it: a plain setting of gold."
"But Orion. . . ."
"If you love me, sweetheart, contradict me no further. In the future I will always accept your views, but in this case your mistake might involve us in a serious misunderstanding, by compelling me to give in to Paula and make her my ally.--Here we are! But wait one moment longer.--And once more, as to this gem. You see we may both be wrong--I as much as you; but I firmly believe that I am in the right. If you make a statement contrary to mine I shall appear before the judges as a liar. We are now betrothed--we are but one, wholly one; what damages or dignifies one of us humiliates or elevates the other. If you, who love me--you, who, as it is already whispered, are soon to be the mistress of the governor's house--make a statement opposed to mine they are certain to believe it. You see, your whole nature is pure kindness, but you are still too young and innocent quite to understand all the duties of that omnipotent love which beareth and endureth all things. If you do not yield to me cheerfully in this case you certainly do not love me as you ought. And what is it to ask? I require nothing of you but that you should state before the court that you saw Paula's necklace at noon to-day, and that there was a gem hanging to it--a gem with Love and Psyche engraved on it."
"And I am to say that before all those men?" asked Katharina doubtfully.
"You must indeed, you kind little angel!" cried Orion tenderly. "And do you think it pretty in a betrothed bride to refuse her lover's first request so grudgingly, suspiciously, and ungraciously? Nay, nay. If there is the tiniest spark of love for me in your heart, if you do not want to see me reduced to implore Paula for mercy. . . ."
"But what is it all about? How can it matter so much to any one whether a gem or a mere plate of gold . . . ?"
"All that I will explain later," he hastily replied.
"Tell me now. . . ."
"Impossible. We have already put the patience of the judges to too severe a test. We have not a moment to lose."
"Very well then; but I shall die of confusion and shame if I have to make a declaration. . . ."
"Which is perfectly truthful, and by which you can prove to me that you love me," he urged.
"But it is dreadful!" she exclaimed anxiously. "At least fasten my veil closely over my face.--All those bearded men. . . ."
"Like the ostrich," said Orion, laughing as he complied. "If you really cannot agree with your. . . . What is it you called me just now? Say it again."
"My dearest!" she said shyly but tenderly.
She helped Orion to fold her veil twice over her face, and did not thrust him aside when he whispered in her ear: "Let us see if a kiss cannot be sweet even through all that wrapping!--Now, come. It will be all over in a few minutes."
He led the way into the anteroom to the great hall, begged her to wait a moment, and then went in and hastily informed the assembly that Dame Susannah had entrusted her daughter to him only on condition that he should escort her back again as soon as she had given her testimony. Then Paula was brought in and he desired her to be seated.
It was with a sinking and anxious heart that Katharina had entered the anteroom. She had screened herself from a scolding before now by trivial subterfuges, but never had told a serious lie; and every instinct rebelled against the demand that she should now state a direct falsehood. But could Orion, the noblest of mankind, the idol of the whole town, so pressingly entreat her to do anything that was wrong? Did not love--as he had said--make it her duty to do everything that might screen him from loss or injury? It did not seem to her to be quite as it should be, but perhaps she did not altogether understand the matter; she was so young and inexperienced. She hated the idea, too, that, if she opposed her lover, he would have to come to terms with Paula. She had no lack of self-possession, and she told herself that she might hold her own with any girl in Memphis; still, she felt the superiority of the handsome, tall, proud Syrian, nor could she forget how, the day before yesterday, when Paula had been walking up and down the garden with Orion the chief officer of Memphis had exclaimed: "What a wonderfully handsome couple!" She herself had often thought that no more beautiful, elegant and lovable creature than Thomas' daughter walked the earth; she had longed and watched for a glance or a kind word from her. But since hearing those words a bitter feeling had possessed her soul against Paula, and there had been much to foster it. Paula always treated her like a child instead of a grown-up girl, as she was. Why, that very morning, had she sought out her betrothed--for she might call him so now--and tried to keep her away from him? And how was it that Orion, even while declaring his love for her, had spoken more than warmly--enthusiastically of Paula? She must be on her guard, and though others should speak of the great good fortune that had fallen to her lot, Paula, at any rate, would not rejoice in it, for Katharina felt and knew that she was not indifferent to Orion. She had not another enemy in the world, but Paula was one; her love had everything to fear from her--and suddenly she asked herself whether the gold medallion she had seen might not indeed have been a gem? Had she examined the necklace closely, even for a moment? And why should she fancy she had sharper sight than Orion with his large, splendid eyes?
He was right, as he always was. Most engraved gems were oval in form, and the pendant which she had seen and was to give evidence about, was undoubtedly oval. Then it was not like Orion to require a falsehood of her. In any case it was her duty to her betrothed to preserve from evil, and prevent him from concluding any alliance with that false Siren. She knew what she had to say; and she was about to loosen a portion of her veil from her face that she might look Paula steadfastly in the eyes, when Orion came back to fetch her into the hall where the Court was sitting. To his delight--nay almost to his astonishment--she stated with perfect confidence that a gem had been hanging to Paula's necklace at noon that day; and when the onyx was shown her and she was asked if she remembered the stone, she calmly replied:
"It may or it may not be the same; I only remember the oval gold back to it: besides I was only allowed to have the necklace in my hands for a very short time."
When Nilus, the treasurer, desired her to look more closely at the figures of Eros and Psyche to refresh her memory, she evaded it by saying: "I do not like such heathen images: we Jacobite maidens wear different adornments."
At this Paula rose and stepped towards her with a look of stern reproof; little Katharina was glad now that it had occurred to her to cover her face with a double veil. But the utter confusion she felt under the Syrian girl's gaze did not last long. Paula exclaimed reproach fully: "You speak of your faith. Like mine, it requires you to respect the truth. Consider how much depends on your declaration; I implore you, child. . ."
But the girl interrupted her rival exclaiming with much irritation and vehement excitement:
"I am no longer a child, not even as compared with you; and I think before I speak, as I was taught to do."
She threw back her little head with a confident air, and said very decidedly:
"That onyx hung to the middle of the chain."
"How dare you, you audacious hussy!" It was Perpetua, quite unable to contain herself, who flung the words in her face. Katharina started as though an asp had stung her and turned round on the woman who had dared to insult her so grossly and so boldly. She was on the verge of tears as she looked helplessly about her for a defender; but she had not long to wait, for Orion instantly gave orders that Perpetua should be imprisoned for bearing false witness. Paula, however, as she had not perjured herself, but had merely invented an impossible tale with a good motive, was dismissed, and her chest was to be replaced in her room.
At this Paula once more stepped forth; she unhooked the onyx from the chain and flung it towards Gamaliel, who caught it, while she exclaimed:
"I make you a present of it, Jew! Perhaps the villain who hung it to my chain may buy it back again. The chain was given to my great-grandmother by the saintly Theodosius, and rather than defile it by contact with that gift from a villain, I will throw it into the Nile!--You--you, poor, deluded judges--I cannot be wroth with you, but I pity you!--My Hiram . . ." and she looked at the freedman, "is an honest soul whom I shall remember with gratitude to my dying day; but as to that unrighteous son of a most righteous father, that man . . ." and she raised her voice, while she pointed straight at Orion's face; but the young man interrupted her with a loud:
She tried to control herself and replied:
"I will submit. Your conscience will tell you a hundred times over what I need not say. One last word. . ." She went close up to him and said in his ear:
"I have been able to refrain from using my deadliest weapon against you for the sake of keeping my word. Now you, if you are not the basest wretch living, keep yours, and save Hiram."
His only reply was an assenting nod; Paula paused on the threshold and, turning to Katharina, she added: "You, child--for you are but a child--with what nameless suffering will not the son of the Mukaukas repay you for the service you have rendered him!" Then she left the room. Her knees trembled under her as she mounted the stairs, but when she had again taken her place by the side of the hapless, crazy girl a merciful God granted her the relief of tears. Her friend saw her and left her to weep undisturbed, till she herself called him and confided to him all she had gone through in the course of this miserable day.
Orion and Katharina had lost their good spirits; they went back to the colonnade in a dejected mood. On the way she pressed him to explain to her why he had insisted on her making this declaration, but he put her off till the morrow. They found Susannah alone, for his mother had been sent for by her husband, who was suffering more than usual, and she had taken Mary with her.
After bidding the widow good-night and escorting her to her chariot, he returned to the hall where the Court was still sitting. There he recapitulated the case as it now stood, and all the evidence against the freed man. The verdict was then pronounced: Hiram was condemned to death with but one dissentient voice that of Nilus the treasurer.
Orion ordered that the execution of the sentence should be postponed; he did not go back into the house, however, but had his most spirited horse saddled and rode off alone into the desert. He had won, but he felt as though in this race he had rushed into a morass and must be choked in it.