The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
The physician had installed Paula in her new home, and had introduced her to the family who were henceforth to be her protectors, and to enable her to lead a happier life.
He had but a few minutes to devote to her and her hosts; for scarcely had he taken her into the spacious rooms, gay with flowers, of which she now took possession, when he was enquired for by two messengers, both anxious to speak with him. Paula knew how critical her uncle's state was, and now, contemplating the probability of losing him, she first understood what he had been to her. Thus sorrow was her first companion in her new abode--a sorrow to which the comfort of her pretty, airy rooms added keenness.
One of the messengers was a young Arab from the other side of the river, who handed to Philippus a letter from the merchant Haschim. The old man informed him that, in consequence of a bad fall his eldest son had had, he was forced to start at once for Djiddah on the Red Sea. He begged the physician to take every care of his caravan-leader, to whom he was much attached, to remove him when he thought fit from the governor's house, and to nurse him till he was well, in some quiet retreat. He would bear in mind the commission given him by the daughter of the illustrious Thomas. He sent with this letter a purse well-filled with gold pieces.
The other messenger was to take the leech back again in the light chariot with the fast horses to the suffering Mukaukas. He at once obeyed the summons, and the steeds, which the driver did not spare, soon carried him back to the governor's house.
A glance at his patient told him that this was the beginning of the end; still, faithful to his principle of never abandoning hope till the heart of the sufferer had ceased to beat, he raised the senseless man, heedless of Orion, who was on his knees by his father's pillow, signed to the deaconess in attendance, an experienced nurse, and laid cool, wet cloths on the head and neck of the sufferer, who was stricken with apoplexy. Then he bled him.
Presently the Mukaukas wearily opened his eyes, turned uneasily from side to side, and recognizing his kneeling son and his wife, bathed in tears, he murmured, almost inarticulately, for his paralyzed tongue no longer did his will: "Two pillules, Philip!"
The physician unhesitatingly acceded to the request of the dying man, who again closed his eyes; but only to reopen them, and to say, with the same difficulty, but with perfect consciousness: "The end is at hand! The blessing of the Church--Orion, the Bishop."
The young man hastened out of the room to fetch the prelate, who was waiting in the viridarium with two deacons, an exorcist, and a sacristan bearing the sacred vessels.
The governor listened in devout composure to the service of the last sacrament, looked on at the ceremonies performed by the exorcist as, with waving of hands and pious ejaculations he banned the evil spirits and cast out from the dying man the devil that might have part in him; but he could no longer swallow the bread which, in the Jacobite rite, was administered soaked in the wine. Orion took the holy elements for him, and the dying man, with a smile, murmured to his son:
"God be with thee, my son! The Lord, it seems, denies me His precious Blood--and yet--let me try once more."
This time he succeeded in swallowing the wine and a few crumbs of bread; and the bishop Ptolimus, a gentle old man of a beautiful and dignified presence, spoke comfort to him, and asked him whether he felt that he was dying penitent and in perfect faith in the mercy of his Lord and Saviour, and whether he repented of his sins and forgave his enemies.
The sick man bowed his head with an effort and murmured:
"Even the Melchites who murdered my sons--and even the head of our Church, the Patriarch, who was only too glad to leave it to me to achieve things which he scrupled to do himself. That--that--But you, Ptolimus--a wise and worthy servant of the Lord--tell me to the best of your convictions: May I die in the belief that it was not a sin to conclude a peace with the Arab conquerors of the Greeks?--May I, even at this hour, think of the Melchites as heretics?"
The prelate drew his still upright figure to its full height, and his mild features assumed a determined--nay a stern expression as he exclaimed:
"You know the, decision pronounced by the Synod of Ephesus--the words which should be graven on the heart of every true Jacobite as on marble and brass 'May all who divide the nature of Christ--and this is what the Melchites do--be divided with the sword, be hewn in pieces and be burnt alive!'--No Head of our Church has ever hurled such a curse at the Moslems who adore the One God!"
The sufferer drew a deep breath, but he presently added with a sigh:
"But Benjamin the Patriarch, and John of Niku have tormented my soul with fears! Still, you too, Ptolimus, bear the crosier, and to you I will confess that your brethren in office, the shepherds of the Jacobite fold, have ruined my peace for hundreds of days and nights, and I have been near to cursing them. But before the night fell the Lord sent light into my soul, and I forgave them, and now, through you, I crave their pardon and their blessing. The Church has but reluctantly opened the doors to me in these last years; but what servant can be allowed to complain of the Master from whom he expects grace? So listen to me. I close my eyes as a faithful and devoted adherent of the Church, and in token thereof I will endow her to the best of my power and adorn her with rich and costly gifts; I will--but I can say no more.--Speak for me, Orion. You know--the gems--the hanging. . . ."
His son explained to the bishop what a splendid gift, in priceless jewels, the dying man intended to offer to the Church. He desired to be buried in the church of St. John at Alexandria by his father's side, and to be prayed for in front of the mortuary chapel of his ancestors in the Necropolis; he had set aside a sum of money, in his will, to pay for the prayers to be offered for his soul. The priests were well pleased to hear this, and they absolved him unconditionally and completely; then, after blessing him fervently, they quitted the room.
Philippus heaved a sigh of relief when the ecclesiastics had departed, and constantly renewed the wet compress, while the dying governor lay for a long time in silence with his eyes shut. Presently he rubbed them as though he felt revived, raised his head a little with the physician's help, and looking up, said:
"Draw the ring off my finger, Orion, and wear it worthily.--Where is little Mary, where is Paula? I should wish to bid them farewell too."
The young man and his mother exchanged uneasy glances, but Neforis collected herself at once and replied:
"We have sent for Mary; but Paula--you know she never was happy with us--and since the events of yesterday. . . ."
"Well?" asked the invalid.
"She hastily quitted the house; but we parted friends, I can assure you of that; she is still in Memphis, and she spoke of you most affectionately and wished to see you, and charged me with many loving messages for you; so, if you really care to see her. . . ."
The sick man tried to nod his head, but in vain. He did not, however, insist on her being sent for, but his face wore an expression of deep melancholy and the words came faintly from his lips.
"Thomas' daughter! The noblest and loveliest of all."
"The noblest and loveliest," echoed Orion, in a voice that was tremulous with strong, deep and sincere emotion; then he begged the leech and the deaconess to leave him alone with his parents. As soon as they had left the room the young man spoke softly but urgently into his father's ear:
"You are quite right, Father," he said. "She is better and more noble, more beautiful and more highminded than any girl living. I love her, and will stake everything to win her heart. Oh, God! Oh, God! Merciful Heaven!--Are you glad, do you give your consent, Father? You dearest and best of men; I see it in your face."
"Yes, yes, yes," murmured the governor; his yellow, bloodshot eyes looked up to Heaven, and with a terrible effort he stammered out: "Blessing--my blessing, on you and Paula.--Tell her from me. . . . If she had confided in her old uncle, as she used to do, the freedman would never have robbed us.--She is a brave soul; how she fought for the poor fellow. I will hear more about it if my strength holds out.--Why is she not here?"
"She wished so much to bid you farewell," replied Neforis, "but you were asleep."
"Was she in such a hurry to be gone?" asked her husband with a bitter smile. "Fear about the emerald may have had something to do with it? But how could I be angry with her? Hiram acted without her knowledge, I suppose? Yes, I knew it!--Ah; that dear, sweet face! If I could but see it once more. The joy--of my eyes, and my companion at draughts! A faithful heart too; how she clung to her father! she was ready to sacrifice everything for him.--And you, you, my old. . . . But no--no reproaches at such a time. You, Mother--you, my Neforis, thanks, a thousand thanks for all your love and kindness. What a mystical and magic bond is that of a Christian marriage like ours? Mark that, Orion. And you, Mother: I am anxious about this. You--do not hurt the girl's feelings again. Say--say you bless this union; it will make me happier at the last.--Paula and Orion; both of them-both.--I never dared before--but what better could we wish?"
The matron clasped her hands and sobbed out:
"Anything, everything you wish! But Father, Orion, our faith!--And then, merciful Saviour, that poor little Katharina!"
"Katharina!" repeated the sick man, and his feeble lips parted in a compassionate smile. "Our boy and the water--water--you know what I would say."
Then his eyes began to sparkle more brightly and he said in a low voice, but still eagerly, as though death were yet far from him:
"My name is George, the son of the Mukaukas; I am the great Mukaukas and our family--all fine men of a proud race; all: My father, my uncle, our lost sons, and Orion here--all palms and oaks! And shall a dwarf, a mere blade of rice be grafted on to the grand old stalwart stock? What would come of that?--Oh, ho! a miserable little brood! But Paula! The cedar of Lebanon--Paula; she would give new life to the grand old race."
"But our faith, our faith," moaned Neforis. "And you, Orion, do you even know what her feeling is towards you?"
"Yes and no. Let that rest for the present," said the youth, who was deeply moved. "Oh Father! if I only knew that your blessing. . ."
"The Faith, the Faith," interrupted the Mukaukas in a broken voice.
"I will be true to my own!" cried Orion, raising his father's hand to his lips. "But think, picture to yourself, how Paula and I would reign in this house, and how another generation would grow up in it worthy of the great Mukaukas and his ancestors!"
"I see it, I see it," murmured the sick man sinking back on his pillows, unconscious.
Philippus was immediately called in, and, with him, little Mary came weeping into the room. The physician's efforts to revive the sufferer were presently successful; again the sick man opened his eyes, and spoke more distinctly and loudly than before:
"There is a perfume of musk. It is the fragrance that heralds the Angel of Death."
After this he lay still and silent for a long time. His eyes were closed, but his brows were knit and showed that he was thinking with a painful effort. At length, with a sigh, he said, almost inaudibly: "So it was and so it is: The Greek oppressed my people with arbitrary cruelty as if we were dogs; the Moslem, too, is a stranger, but he is just. That which happened it was out of my power to prevent; and it is well, it is very well that it turned out so.--Very well," he repeated several times, and then he shivered and said with a groan:
"My feet are so cold! But never mind, never mind, I like to be cool."
The leech and the deaconess at once set to work to heat blocks of wood to warm his feet; the sick man looked up gratefully and went on: "At church, in the House of God, I have often found it deliciously cool and to-day it is the Church that eases my death-bed by her pardon. Do you, my Son, be faithful to her. No member of our house should ever be an apostate. As to the new faith--it is overspreading land after land with incredible power; ambition and covetousness are driving thousands into its fold. But we--we are faithful to Christ Jesus, we are no traitors. If I, I the Mukaukas, had consented to go over to the Khaliff I might have been a prince in purple, and have governed my own country in his name. How many have deserted to the Moslems! And the temptation will come to you, too, and their faith offers much that is attractive to the crowd. They imagine a Paradise full of unspeakably alluring joys--but we, my son--we shall meet again in our own, shall we not?"
"Yes, yes, Father!" cried the young man. "I will remain a Christian, staunch and true. . ."
"That is right," interrupted the sick man. He was determined to forget that his son wished to marry a Melchite and went on quickly: "Paula. . . . But no more of that. Remain faithful to your own creed--otherwise. . . . However, child, seek your own road; you are--but you will walk in the right way, and it is because I know that, know it surely, that I can die so calmly.
"I have provided abundantly for your temporal welfare. I have been a good husband, a faithful father, have I not, O Saviour?--Have I not, Neforis? And that which is my best and surest comfort is that for many long years I have administered justice in this land, and never, never once--and Thou my Refuge and Comforter art my witness!--never once consciously or willingly have I been an unrighteous judge. Before me the poor were equal with the rich, the powerful with the helpless widow. Who would have dared. . . ." Here he broke off; his eyes, wandering feebly round the room, fell on Mary who had sunk on her knees, opposite to Orion on the other side of the bed. The dying man, who had thus summed up the outcome of a long and busy life, ceased his reflections, and when the child saw that he was vainly trying to turn his powerless head towards her, she threw her arms round him with passionate grief; unscared by his fixed gaze or the altered hue of his beloved face, she kissed his lips and cheeks, exclaiming:
"Grandfather, dear grandfather, do not leave us; stay with us, pray, pray stay with us!"
Something faintly resembling a smile parted his parched lips, and all the tenderness with which his soul was overflowing for this sweet young bud of humanity would have found expression in his voice but that he could only mutter huskily:
"Mary, my darling! For your sake I should be glad to live a long while yet, a very long while; but the other world--I am standing already on its threshold. Good-bye--I must indeed say good-bye."
"No, no--I will pray; oh! I will pray so fervently that you may get well again!" cried the child. But he replied:
"Nay, nay. The Saviour is already taking me by the hand. Farewell, and again farewell. Did you bring Paula? I do not see her. Did you bring Paula with you, sweetheart? She--did she leave us in anger? If she only knew; ah! your Paula has treated us ill." The child's heart was still full of the horrible crime which had so revolted her truthful nature, and which had deprived her of rest all through an evening, a long night and a morning; she laid her little head close to that of the old man--her dearest and best friend. For years he had filled her father's place, and now he was dying, leaving her forever! But she could not let him depart with a false idea of the woman whom she worshipped with all the fervor of her child's heart; in a subdued voice, but with eager feeling, she said, close to his ear:
"But Grandfather, there is one thing you must know before the Saviour takes you away to be happy in Heaven. Paula told the truth, and never, never told a lie, not even for Hiram's sake. An empty gold frame hung to her necklace and no gem at all. Whatever Orion may say, I saw it myself and cannot be mistaken, as truly as I hope to see you and my poor father in heaven! And Katharina, too, thought better of it, and confessed to me just now that she had committed a great sin and had borne false witness before the judges to please her dear Orion. I do not know what Hiram had done to offend him; but on the strength of Katharina's evidence the judges condemned him to death. But Paula--you must understand that Paula had nothing, positively nothing whatever to do with the stealing of the emerald."
Orion, kneeling there, was condemned to hear every word the little girl so vehemently whispered, and each one pierced his heart like a dagger-thrust. Again and again he felt inclined to clutch at her across the bed and fling her on the ground before his father's eyes; but grief and astonishment seemed to have paralyzed his whole being; he had not even the power to interrupt her with a single word.
She had spoken, and all was told.
He clung to the couch like a shattered wretch; and when his father turned his eyes on him and gasped out: "Then the Court--our Court of justice pronounced an unrighteous sentence?" he bowed his head in contrition.
The dying man murmured even less articulately and incoherently than before: "The gem--the hanging--you, you perhaps--was it you? that emerald--I cannot. . ."
Orion helped his father in his vain efforts to utter the dreadful words. Sooner would he have died with the old man than have deceived him in such a moment; he replied humbly and in a low voice:
"Yes, Father--I took it. But as surely as I love you and my mother this, the first reckless act of my life, which has brought such horrors in its train. . . Shall be the last," he would have said; but the words "I took it," had scarcely passed his lips when his father was shaken by a violent trembling, the expression of his eyes changed fearfully, and before the son had spoken his vow to the end the unhappy father was, by a tremendous effort, sitting upright. Loud sobs of penitence broke from the young man's heaving breast, as the Mukaukas wrathfully exclaimed, in thick accents, as quickly as the heavy, paralyzed tongue would allow:
"You, you! A disgrace to our ancient and blameless Court! You?--Away with you! A thief, an unjust judge, a false witness,--and the only descendant of Menas! If only these hands were able--you--you--Go, villain!" And with this wild outcry, George, the gentle and just Mukaukas, sank back on his pillows; his bloodshot eyes were staring, fixed on vacancy; his gasping lips repeated again and again, but less and less audibly the one word "Villain;" his swollen fingers clutched at the light coverlet that lay over him; a strange, shrill wheezing came through his open mouth, and the heavy corpse of the great dignitary fell, like a falling palm-tree, into Orion's arms.
Orion started up, his eyes inflamed, his hair all dishevelled, and shook the dead man as though to compel him back to life again, to hear his oath and accept his vow, to see his tears of repentance, to pardon him and take back the name of infamy which had been his parting word to his loved and spoilt child.
In the midst of this wild outbreak the physician came back, glanced at the dead man's distorted features, laid a hand on his heart, and said with solemn regret as he led little Mary away from the couch:
"A good and just man is gone from the land of the living."
Orion cried aloud and pushed away Mary, who had stolen close to him; for, young as she was, she felt that it was she who had brought the worst woe on her uncle, and that it was her part to show him some affection.
She ran then to her grandmother; but she, too, put her aside and fell on her knees by the side of her wretched son to weep with him; to console him who was inconsolable, and in whom, a few minutes since, she had hoped to find her own best consolation; but her fond words of motherly comfort found no echo in his broken spirit.