The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
When Philippus had parted from Paula he had told her that the Mukaukas might indeed die at any moment, but that it was possible that he might yet struggle with death for weeks to come. This hope had comforted her; for she could not bear to think that the only true friend she had had in Memphis, till she had become more intimate with the physician, should quit the world forever without having heard her justification. Nothing could be more unlikely than that any one in Neforis' household--excepting her little grandchild should ever remember her with kindness; and she scarcely desired it; but she rebelled against the idea of forfeiting the respect she had earned, even in the governor's house. If her friend should succeed in prolonging her uncle's life, by a confidential interview with him she might win back his old affection and his good opinion.
Her new home she felt was but a resting-place, a tabernacle in the desert-journey of her solitary pilgrimage, and she here meant to avail herself of the information she had gathered from her Melchite dependents. Hope had now risen supreme in her heart over grief and disappointment. Orion's presence alone hung like a threatening hail-cloud over the sprouting harvest of her peace of mind. And yet, next to the necessity of waiting at Memphis for the return of her messenger, nothing tied her to the place so strongly as her interest in watching the future course of his life, at any rate from a distance. What she felt for him-and she told herself it was deep aversion-nevertheless constituted a large share of her inner life, little as she would confess it to herself.
Her new hosts had received her as a welcome guest, and they certainly did not seem to be poor. The house was spacious, and though it was old and unpretentious it was comfortable and furnished with artistic taste. The garden had amazed her by the care lavished on it; she had seen a hump-backed gardener and several children at work in it. A strange party-for every one of them, like their chief, was in some way deformed or crippled.
The plot of ground--which extended towards the river to the road-way for foot passengers, vehicles and the files of men towing the Nile-boats--was but narrow, and bounded on either side by extensive premises. Not far from the spot where it lay nearest to the river was the bridge of boats connecting Memphis with the island of Rodah. To the right was the magnificent residence--a palace indeed--belonging to Susannah; to the left was an extensive grove, where tall palms, sycamores with spreading foliage, and dense thickets of blue-green tamarisk trees cast their shade. Above this bower of splendid shrubs and ancient trees rose a long, yellow building crowned with a turret; and this too was not unknown to her, for she had often heard it spoken of in her uncle's house, and had even gone there now and then escorted by Perpetua. It was the convent of St. Cecilia, the refuge of the last nuns of the orthodox creed left in Memphis; for, though all the other sisterhoods of her confession had long since been banished, these had been allowed to remain in their old home, not only because they were famous sick-nurses, a distinction common to all the Melchite orders, but even more because the decaying municipality could not afford to sacrifice the large tax they annually paid to it. This tax was the interest on a considerable capital bequeathed to the convent by a certain wise predecessor of the Mukaukas', with the prudent proviso, ratified under the imperial seal of Theodosius II., that if the convent were at any time broken up, this endowment, with the land and buildings which it likewise owed to the generosity of the same benefactor, should become the property of the Christian emperor at that time reigning.
Mukaukas George, notwithstanding his well-founded aversion for everything Melchite, had taken good care not to press this useful Sisterhood too hardly, or to deprive his impoverished capital of its revenues only to throw them into the hands of the wealthy Moslems. The title-deed on which the Sisters relied was good; and the governor, who was a good lawyer as well as a just man, had not only left them unmolested, but in spite of his fears--during the last few years--for his own safety, had shown himself no respecter of persons by defending their rights firmly and resolutely against the powerful patriarch of the Jacobite Church. The Senate of the ancient capital naturally, approved his course, and had not merely suffered the heretic Sisterhood to remain, but had helped and encouraged it.
The Jacobite clergy of the city shut their eyes, and only opened them to watch the convent at Easter-tide; for on the Saturday before Easter, the nuns, in obedience to an agreement made before the Monophysite Schism, were required to pay a tribute of embroidered vestments to the head of the Christian Churches, with wine of the best vintages of Kochome near the Pyramid of steps, and a considerable quantity of flowers and confectionary. So the ancient coenobium of women was maintained, and though all Egypt was by this time Jacobite or Moslem, and many of the older Sisters had departed this life within the last year, no one had thought of enquiring how it was that the number of the nuns remained still the same, till the Jacobite archbishop Benjamin filled the patriarchal throne of Alexandria in the place of the Melchite Cyrus.
To Benjamin the heretical Sisters at Memphis--the hawks in a dove-cote, as he called them--were an offence, and he thought that the deed might bear a new interpretation: that as there was no longer a Christian emperor, and as the word "Christian" was used in the document, if the convent were broken up the property should pass into the hands of the only Christian magnate then existing in the country: himself, namely, and his Church. The ill-feeling which the Patriarch fostered against the Mukaukas had been aggravated to hostility by their antagonism on this matter.
A musical dirge now fell on Paula's ear from the convent chapel. Was the worthy Mother Superior dead? No, this lament must be for some other death, for the strange skirling wail of the Egyptian women came up to her corner window from the road, from the bridge, and from the boats on the river. No Jacobite of Memphis would have dared to express her grief so publicly for the death of a Melchite; and as the chorus of voices swelled, the thought struck her with a chill that it must be her uncle and friend who had closed his weary eyes in death.
It was with deep emotion and many tears that she perceived how sincerely the death of this righteous man was bewailed by all his fellow-citizens. Yes, he only, and no other Egyptian, could have called forth this great and expressive regret. The wailing women in the road were daubing the mud of the river on their foreheads and bosoms; men were standing in large groups and beating their heads and breasts with passionate gestures. On the bridge of boats the men would stop others, and from thence, too, piercing shrieks came across to her.
At last Philippus came in and confirmed her fears. The governor's death had shocked him no less than it did her, and he had to tell Paula all he knew of the dead man's last hours.
"Still, one good thing has come out of this misery," he said. "There is nothing so comforting as the discovery that we have been deceived in thinking ill of a man and of his character. This Orion, who has sinned so basely against himself and against you, is not utterly reprobate."
"Not?" interrupted Paula. "Then he has taken you in too!"
"Taken me in?" said the leech. "Hardly, I think. I have, alas! stood by many a death-bed; for I am too often sent for when Death is already beckoning the sick man away. I have met thousands of mourners in these melancholy scenes, which, I can assure you, are the very best school for training any one who desires to search the hearts of his fellow-creatures. By the bed of death, or in the mart, where everything is a question of Mine and Thine, it is easy to see how some--we for instance--are as careful to hide from the world all that is great and noble in us as others are to conceal what is petty and mean--we read men's hearts as an open page. From my observations of the dying and of those who sorrow for them, I, who am not Menander not Lucian, could draw a series of portraits which should be as truthful likenesses as though the men had turned themselves inside out before me."
"That a dying man should show himself as he really is I can well believe," replied Paula. "He need have no further care for the opinions of others; but the mourners? Why, custom requires them to assume an air of grief and to shed tears."
"Very true; regret repeats itself by the side of the dead," replied the physician. "But the chamber of the dying is like a church. Death consecrates it, and the man who stands face to face with death often drops the mask by which he cheats his fellows. There we may see faces which you would shudder to look on, but others, too, which merely to see is enough to make us regard the degenerate species to which we belong with renewed respect."
"And you found such a comforting vision in Orion,--the thief, the false witness, the corrupt judge!" exclaimed Paula, starting up in indignant astonishment.
"There! you see," laughed Philippus. "Just like a woman! A little juggling, and lo! what was only rose color is turned to purple. No. The son of the Mukaukas has not yet undergone such a dazzling change of hue; but he has a feeling and impressible heart--and I hold even that in high esteem. I have no doubt that he loved his father deeply, nay passionately; though I have ample reason to believe him capable of the very worst. So long as I was present at the scene of death the father and son were parting in all friendship and tenderness, and when the good old man's heart had ceased to beat I found Orion in a state which is only possible to have when love has lost what it held dearest."
"All acting!" Paula put in.
"But there was no audience, dear friend. Orion would not have got up such a performance for his mother and little Mary."
"But he is a poet--and a highly-gifted one too. He sings beautiful songs of his own invention to the lyre; his ecstatic and versatile mind works him up into any frame of feeling; but his soul is perverted; it is soaked in wickedness as a sponge drinks up water. He is a vessel full of beautiful gifts, but he has forfeited all that was good and noble in him--all!"
The words came in eager haste from her indignant lips. Her cheeks glowed with her vehemence, and she thought she had won over the physician; but he gravely shook his head, and said:
"Your righteous anger carries you too far. How often have you blamed me for severity and suspicions but now I have to beg you to allow me to ask your sympathy for an experience to which you would probably have raised no objection the day before yesterday:
"I have met with evil-doers of every degree. Think, for instance, how many cases of wilful poisoning I have had to investigate."
"Even Homer called Egypt the land of poison," exclaimed Paula. "And it seems almost incredible that Christianity has not altered it in the least. Kosmas, who had seen the whole earth, could nowhere find more malice, deceit, hatred, and ill-will than exist here."
"Then you see in what good schools my experience of the wickedness of men has ripened," said Philippus smiling, "and they have taught me chiefly that there is never a criminal, a sinner, or a scapegrace, however infamous he may be, however cruel or lost to virtue, in whom some good quality or other may not be discovered.--Do you remember Nechebt, the horrible woman who poisoned her two brothers and her own father? She was captured scarcely three weeks ago; and that very monster in human form could almost die of hunger and thirst for the sake of her rascally son, who is a common soldier in the imperial army; at last she took to concocting poisons, not to improve her own wretched condition, but to send the shameless wretch means for a fresh debauch. I have known a thousand similar cases, but I will only mention that of one of the wildest and blood-thirstiest of robbers, who had evaded the vigilance of the watch again and again, but at last fell into their hands--and how? Because he had heard that his old mother was ill and he longed to see the withered old woman once more and give her a kiss, since he was her own child! In the same way Orion, however reprobate we may think him, has at any rate one characteristic which we must approve of: a tender affection for his father and mother. Your sponge is not utterly steeped in wickedness; there are still some pores, some cells which resist it; and if in him, as in so many others, the heart is one of them, then I say hopefully, like Horace the Roman: 'Nil desperandum.' It would be unjust to give him up altogether for lost."
To this assurance Paula found no answer; indeed, it struck her that--if Orion had told her the truth--it was only to please his mother that he had asked Katharina to marry him, while she herself occupied his heart.--The physician, wishing to change the subject, was about to speak again of the death of the Mukaukas, when one of the crippled serving girls came to announce a woman who asked to speak with Paula. A few minutes later she was clasped in the embrace of her faithful old friend and nurse, who rejoiced as heartily, laughing and crying for sheer delight, as if no tidings of misfortune had reached her; while Paula, though so much younger, was cut to the heart, and could not shake off the spell of her grief.
Perpetua understood this and owed her no grudge for the coolness with which she met her joyful excitement.
She told Paula that she had been well treated in her hot cell, and that about half an hour since Orion himself, the young Master now, had opened the door of her prison. He had been very gracious to her, but looked so pale and sad. The overbearing young man was quite altered; his eyes, which were dim with weeping, had moved her, Perpetua, to tears. She trusted that God would forgive him for his sins against herself and Paula; he must have been possessed by some evil demon; he had not been at all like himself; for he had a kind, warm heart, and though he had been so hard and unjust yesterday to poor Hiram he had made it up to him the first thing this morning, and had not only let him out of prison but had sent him and his son home to Damascus with large gifts and two horses. Nilus had told her this. He who hoped to be forgiven by his neighbor must also be ready to forgive. The great Augustine, even, had been no model of virtue in his youth and yet he had become a shining light in the Church; and now the son of the Mukaukas would tread in his father's footsteps. He was a handsome, engaging man, who would be the joy of their hearts yet, they might be very sure. Why, he had been as grave and as solemn as a bishop to-day; perhaps he had already turned over a new leaf. He himself had put her into his mother's chariot and desired the charioteer to drive her hither: what would Paula say to that? Her things were to be given over to her to-morrow morning, and packed under her own eyes, and sent after her. Nilus, the treasurer, had come with her to deliver a message to Paula; but he had gone first to the convent.
Paula desired the old woman to go thither and fetch him; as soon as Perpetua had left the room, she exclaimed:
"There, you see, is some one who is quite of your opinion. What creatures we are! Last evening my good Betta would have thought no pit of hell too deep for our enemy, and now? To be led to a chariot by such a fine gentleman in person is no doubt flattering; and how quickly the old body has forgotten all her grievances, how soothed and satisfied she is by the gracious permission to pack her precious and cherished possessions with her own hands.--You told me once that the Jacobites had made a Saint Orion out of the pagan god Osiris, and my old Betta sees a future Saint Augustine in the governor's son. I can see that she already regards him as her tutelary patron, and when we get back to Syria, she will be begging me to join her in a pilgrimage to his shrine!"
"And you will perhaps consent," replied the physician, to whom Paula at this moment, for the first time since his heart had glowed with love for her, did not seem to be quite what a man looks for in the woman he adores. Hitherto he had seen and heard nothing that was not high-minded and worthy of her; but her last words had, been spoken with vehement and indignant irony--and in Philip's opinion irony, blame which was intended to wound and not to improve its object, was unbecoming in a noble woman. The scornful laugh, with which she had triumphantly ended her speech, had opened as it were a wide abyss between his mind and hers. He, as he freely confessed to himself, was of a coarser and humbler grain than Paula, and he was apt to be satirical oftener than was right. She had been wont to dislike this habit in him; he had been glad that she did; it answered to the ideal he had formed of what the woman he loved should be. But now she had turned satirical; and her irony was no jest of the lips. It sprang, full of passion, from her agitated soul; this it was that grieved the leech who knew human nature, and at the same time roused his apprehensions. Paula read his disapproval in his face, and felt that there was a deep significance in his words And you will perhaps consent."
"Men are vexed," thought she, "when, after they have decisively expressed an opinion, we women dare unhesitatingly to assert a different one," so, as she would on no account hurt the feelings of the friend to whom she owed so much, she said kindly:
"I do not care to enquire into the meaning of your strange prognostication. Thank God, by your kindness and care I have severed every tie that could have bound me to my poor uncle's son!--Now we will drop the subject; we have said too much about him already."
"That is quite my opinion," replied Philippus. "And, indeed, I would beg you quite to forget my 'perhaps.' I live wholly in the present and am no prophet; but I foresee, nevertheless, that Orion will make every effort, cost what it may. . . ."
"To approach you again, to win your forgiveness, to touch your heart, to. . . ."
"Let him dare" exclaimed Paula lifting her hand with a threatening gesture.
"And when he, gifted as he is in every way, has found his better self again and can come forward purified and worthy of the approbation of the best. . . ."
"Still I will never, never forget how he has sinned and what he brought upon me!--Do you think that I have already forgotten your conversation with Neforis? You ask nothing of your friends but honest feeling akin to your own,--and what is it that repels me from Orion but feeling? Thousands have altered their behavior, but--answer me frankly--surely not what we mean by their feeling?"
"Yes, that too," said the leech with stern gravity. "Feeling, too, may change. Or do you range yourself on the side of the Arab merchant and his fellow-Moslems, who regard man as the plaything of a blind Fate?--But our spiritual teachers tell us that the evil to which we are predestined, which is that born into the world with us, may be averted, turned and guided to good by what they call spiritual regeneration. But who that lives in the tumult of the world can ever succeed in 'killing himself' in their sense of the word, in dying while yet he lives, to be born again, a new man? The penitent's garb does not suit the stature of an Orion; however, there is for him another way of returning to the path he has lost. Fortune has hitherto offered her spoilt favorite so much pleasure, that sheer enjoyment has left him no time to think seriously on life itself; now she is showing him its graver side, she is inviting him to reflect; and if he only finds a friend to give him the counsel which my father left in a letter for me, his only child, as a youth--and if he is ready to listen, I regard him as saved."
"And that word of counsel--what is it?" asked Paula with interest.
"To put it briefly, it is this: Life is not a banquet spread by fate for our enjoyment, but a duty which we are bound to fulfil to the best of our power. Each one must test his nature and gifts, and the better he uses them for the weal and benefit of the body of which he was born a member, the higher will his inmost gladness be, the more certainly will he attain to a beautiful peace of mind, the less terrors will Death have for him. In the consciousness of having sown seed for eternity he will close his eyes like a faithful steward at the end of each day, and of the last hour vouchsafed to him on earth. If Orion recognizes this, if he submits to accept the duties imposed on him by existence, if he devotes himself to them now for the first time to the best of his powers, a day may come when I shall look up to him with respect--nay, with admiration. The shipwreck of which the Arab spoke has overtaken him. Let us see how he will save himself from the waves, and behave when he is cast on shore."
"Let us see!" repeated Paula, "and wish that he may find such an adviser! As you were speaking it struck me that it was my part.--But no, no! He has placed himself beyond the pale of the compassion which I might have felt even for an enemy after such a frightful blow. He! He can and shall never be anything to me till the end of time. I have to thank you for having found me this haven of rest. Help me now to keep out everything that can intrude itself here to disturb my peace. If Orion should ever dare, for whatever purpose, to force or steal a way into this house, I trust to you, my friend and deliverer!"
She held out her hand to Philippus, and as he took it the blood seethed in his veins with tender emotion.
"My strength, like my heart, is wholly yours!" he exclaimed ardently. "Command them, and if the devoted love of a faithful, plain-spoken man--"
"Say no more, no, no!" Paula broke in with anxious vehemence. "Let us remain closely bound together by friendship-as brother and sister."
"As brother and sister?" he dully echoed with a melancholy smile. "Aye, friendship too is a beautiful, beautiful thing. But yet--let me speak--I have dreamed of love, the tossing sea of passion; I have felt its surges here--in here; I feel them still. . . . But man, man," and he struck his forehead with his fist, "have you forgotten, like a fool, what your image is in the mirror; have you forgotten that you are an ugly, clumsy fellow, and that the gorgeous flower you long for. . . ."
Paula had shrunk back, startled by her friend's vehemence; but she now went up to him, and taking his hand with frank spirit, she said impressively:
"It is not so, Philippus, my dear, kind, only friend. The gorgeous flower you desire I can no longer give you--or any one. It is mine no longer; for when it had opened, once for all, cruel feet trod it down. Do not abuse your mirrored image; do not call yourself a clumsy fellow. The best and fairest might be proud of your love, just as you are. Am I not proud, shall I not always be proud of your friendship?"
"Friendship, friendship!" he retorted, snatching away his hand. "This burning, longing heart thirsts for other feelings! Oh, woman! I know the wretch who has trodden down the flower of flowers in your heart, and I, madman that I am, can sing his praises, can take his part; and cost what it may, I will still do so as long as you. . . . But perhaps the glorious flower may strike new roots in the soil of hatred and I, the hapless wretch who water it, may see it."
At this, Paula again took both his hands, and exclaimed in deep and painful agitation of mind:
"Say no more, I beg and entreat you. How can I live in peace here, under your protection and in constant intercourse with you, without knowing myself guilty of a breach of propriety such as the most sacred feelings of a young girl bid her avoid, if you persist in overstepping the limits which bound true and faithful friendship? I am a lonely girl and should give myself up to despair, as lost, if I could not take refuge in the belief that I can rely upon myself. Be satisfied with what I have to offer you, my friend, and may God reward you! Let us both remain worthy of the esteem which, thank Heaven! we are fully justified in feeling for each other."
The physician, deeply moved, bent his head; scarcely able to control himself, he pressed her firm white hand to his lips, while, just at this moment, Perpetua and the treasurer came into the room.
This worthy official--a perfectly commonplace man, neither tall nor short, neither old nor young, with a pale, anxious face, furrowed by work and responsibility, but shrewd and finely cut-glanced keenly at the pair, and then proceeded to lay a considerable sum in gold pieces before Paula. His young master had sent it, in obedience to his deceased father's wishes, for her immediate needs; the rest, the larger part of her fortune, with a full account, would be given over to her after the Mukaukas was buried. Nilus could, however, give her an approximate idea of the sum, and it was so considerable that Paula could not believe her ears. She now saw herself secure against external anxiety, nay, in such ease that she was justified in living at some expense.
Philippus was present throughout the interview, and it cut him to the heart. It had made him so happy to think that he was all in all to the poor orphan, and could shelter her against pressing want. He had been prepared to take upon himself the care of providing Paula with the home she had found and everything she could need; and now, as it turned out, his protege was not merely higher in rank than himself, but much richer.
He felt as though Orion's envoy had robbed him of the best joy in life. After introducing Paula to her worthy host and his family, he quitted the house of Rufinus with a very crushed aspect.
When night came Perpetua once more enjoyed the privilege of assisting her young mistress to undress; but Paula could not sleep, and when she joined her new friends next morning she told herself that here, if anywhere, was the place where she might recover her lost peace, but that she must still have a hard struggle and a long pilgrimage before she could achieve this.