The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
During all these hours Orion had been in the solitude of his own rooms. Next to them was little Mary's sleeping-room; he had not seen the child again since leaving his father's death-bed. He knew that she was lying there in a very feverish state, but he could not so far command himself as to enquire for her. When, now and again, he could not help thinking of her, he involuntarily clenched his fists. His soul was shaken to the foundations; desperate, beside himself, incapable of any thought but that he was the most miserable man on earth--that his father's curse had blighted him--that nothing could undo what had happened--that some cruel and inexorable power had turned his truest friend into a foe and had sundered them so completely that there was no possibility of atonement or of moving him to a word of pardon or a kindly glance--he paced the long room from end to end, flinging himself on his knees at intervals before the divan, and burying his burning face in the soft pillows. From time to time he could pray, but each time he broke off; for what Power in Heaven or on earth could unseal those closed eyes and stir that heart to beat again, that tongue to speak--could vouchsafe to him, the outcast, the one thing for which his soul thirsted and without which he thought he must die: Pardon, pardon, his father's pardon! Now and then he struck his forehead and heart like a man demented, with cries of anguish, curses and lamentations.
About midnight--it was but just twelve hours since that fearful scene, and to him it seemed like as many days--he threw himself on the couch, dressed as he was in the dark mourning garments, which he had half torn off in his rage and despair, and broke out into such loud groans that he himself was almost frightened in the silence of the night. Full of self-pity and horror at his own deep grief, he turned his face to the wall to screen his eyes from the clear, full moon, which only showed him things he did not want to see, while it hurt him.
His torture was beginning to be quite unbearable; he fancied his soul was actually wounded, riven, and torn; it had even occurred to him to seize his sharpest sword and throw himself upon it like Ajax in his fury--and like Cato--and so put a sudden end to this intolerable and overwhelming misery.
He started up for--surely it was no illusion, no mistake-the door of his room was softly opened and a white figure came in with noiseless, ghostly steps. He was a brave man, but his blood ran cold; however, in a moment he recognized his nocturnal visitor as little Mary. She came across the moonlight without speaking, but he exclaimed in a sharp tone:
"What is the meaning of this? What do you want?"
The child started and stood still in alarm, stretching out imploring hands and whispering timidly:
"I heard you lamenting. Poor, poor Orion! And it was I who brought it all on you, and so I could not stay in bed any longer--I must--I could not help. . . ." But she could say no more for sobs. Orion exclaimed:
"Very well, very well: go back to your own room and sleep. I will try not to groan so loud."
He ended his speech in a less rough tone, for he observed that the child had come to see him, though she was ill, with bare feet and only in her night-shift, and was trembling with cold, excitement, and grief. Mary, however, stood still, shook her head, and replied, still weeping though less violently:
"No, no. I shall stop here and not go away till you tell me that you--Oh, God, you never can forgive me, but still I must say it, I must."
With a sudden impulse she ran straight up to him, threw her arms round his neck, laid her head against his, and then, as he did not immediately push her away, kissed his cheeks and brow.
At this a strange feeling came over him; he himself did not know what it was, but it was as though something within him yielded and gave way, and the moisture which felt warm in his eyes and on his cheeks was not from the child's tears but his own. This lasted through many minutes of silence; but at last he took the little one's arms from about his neck, saying:
"How hot your hands and your cheeks are, poor thing! You are feverish, and the night air blows in chill--you will catch fresh cold by this mad behavior."
He had controlled his tears with difficulty, and as he spoke, in broken accents, he carefully wrapped her in the black robe he had thrown off and said kindly:
"Now, be calm, and I will try to compose myself. You did not mean any harm, and I owe you no grudge. Now go; you will not feel the draught in the anteroom with that wrap on. Go; be quick."
"No, no," she eagerly replied. "You must let me say what I have to say or I cannot sleep. You see I never thought of hurting you so dreadfully, so horribly--never, never! I was angry with you, to be sure, because--but when I spoke I really and truly did not think of you, but only of poor Paula. You do not know how good she is, and grandfather was so fond of her before you came home; and he was lying there and going to die so soon, and I knew that he believed Paula to be a thief and a liar, and it seemed to me so horrible, so unbearable to see him close his eyes with such a mistake in his mind, such an injustice!--Not for his sake, oh no! but for Paula's; so then I--Oh Orion! the Merciful Saviour is my witness, I could not help it; if I had had to die for it I could not have helped it! I should have died, if I had not spoken!"
"And perhaps it was well that you spoke," interrupted the young man, with a deep sigh. "You see, child, your lost father's miserable brother is a ruined man and it matters little about him; but Paula, who is a thousand times better than I am, has at least had justice done her; and as I love her far more dearly than your little heart can conceive of, I will gladly be friends with you again: nay, I shall be more fond of you than ever. That is nothing great or noble, for I need love--much love to make life tolerable. The best love a man may have I have forfeited, fool that I am! and now dear, good little soul, I could not bear to lose yours! So there is my hand upon it; now, give me another kiss and then go to bed and sleep."
But still Mary would not do his bidding, but only thanked him vehemently and then asked with sparkling eyes:
"Really, truly? Do you love Paula so dearly?" At this point however she suddenly checked herself. "And little Katharina. . ."
"Never mind about that," he replied with a sigh. "And learn a lesson from all this. I, you see, in an hour of recklessness did a wrong thing; to hide it I had to do further wrong, till it grew to a mountain which fell on me and crushed me. Now, I am the most miserable of men and I might perhaps have been the happiest. I have spoilt my own life by my own folly, weakness, and guilt; and I have lost Paula, who is dearer to me than all the other creatures on earth put together. Yes, Mary, if she had been mine, your poor uncle would have been the most enviable fellow in the world, and he might have been a fine fellow, too, a man of great achievements. But as it is!--Well, what is done cannot be undone! Now go to bed child; you cannot understand it all till you are older."
"Oh I understand it already and much better perhaps than you suppose," cried the ten years' old child. "And if you love Paula so much why should not she love you? You are so handsome, you can do so many things, every one likes you, and Paula would have loved you, too, if only. . . . Will you promise not to be angry with me, and may I say it?"
"Speak out, little simpleton."
"She cannot owe you any grudge when she knows how dreadfully you are suffering on her account and that you are good at heart, and only that once ever did--you know what. Before you came home, grandfather said a hundred times over what a joy you had been to him all your life through, and now, now. . . . Well, you are my uncle, and I am only a stupid little girl; still, I know that it will be just the same with you as it was with the prodigal son in the Bible. You and grandfather parted in anger. . . ."
"He cursed me," Orion put in gloomily.
"No, no! For I heard every word he said. He only spoke of your evil deed in those dreadful words and bid you go out of his sight."
"And what is the difference--Cursed or outcast?"
"Oh! a very great difference! He had good reason to be angry with you; but the prodigal son in the Bible became his father's best beloved, and he had the fatted calf slain for him and forgave him all; and so will grandfather in heaven forgive, if you are good again, as you used to be to him and to all of us. Paula will forgive you, too; I know her--you will see. Katharina loved you of course; but she, dear Heaven! She is almost as much a child as I am; and if only you are kind to her and make her some pretty present she will soon be comforted. She really deserves to be punished for bearing false witness, and her punishment cannot, at any rate, be so heavy as yours."
These words from the lips of an innocent child could not but fall like seed corn on the harrowed field of the young man's tortured soul and refresh it as with morning dew. Long after Mary had gone to rest he lay thinking them over.