The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
That evening Rufinus was sitting in the garden with his wife and daughter and their friend Philippus. Paula, too, was there, and from time to time she stroked Pulcheria's silky golden hair, for the girl had seated herself at her feet, leaning her head against Paula's knee.
The moon was full, and it was so light out of doors that they could see each other plainly, so Rufinus' proposition that they should remain to watch an eclipse which was to take place an hour before midnight found all the more ready acceptance because the air was pleasant. The men had been discussing the expected phenomenon, lamenting that the Church should still lend itself to the superstitions of the populace by regarding it as of evil omen, and organizing a penitential procession for the occasion to implore God to avert all ill. Rufinus declared that it was blasphemy against the Almighty to interpret events happening in the course of eternal law and calculable beforehand, as a threatening sign from Him; as though man's deserts had any connection with the courses of the sun and moon. The Bishop and all the priests of the province were to head the procession, and thus a simple natural phenomenon was forced in the minds of the people into a significance it did not possess.
"And if the little comet which my old foster father discovered last week continues to increase," added the physician, "so that its tail spreads over a portion of the sky, the panic will reach its highest pitch; I can see already that they will behave like mad creatures."
"But a comet really does portend war, drought, plague, and famine," said Pulcheria, with full conviction; and Paula added:
"So I have always believed."
"But very wrongly," replied the leech. "There are a thousand reasons to the contrary; and it is a crime to confirm the mob in such a superstition. It fills them with grief and alarms; and, would you believe it--such anguish of mind, especially when the Nile is so low and there is more sickness than usual, gives rise to numberless forms of disease? We shall have our hands full, Rufinus."
"I am yours to command," replied the old man. "But at the same time, if the tailed wanderer must do some mischief, I would rather it should break folks' arms and legs than turn their brains."
"What a wish!" exclaimed Paula. "But you often say things--and I see things about you too--which seem to me extraordinary. Yesterday you promised. . . ."
"To explain to you why I gather about me so many of God's creatures who have to struggle under the burden of life as cripples, or with injured limbs."
"Just so," replied Paula. "Nothing can be more truly merciful than to render life bearable to such hapless beings. . . ."
"But still, you think," interrupted the eager old man, "that this noble motive alone would hardly account for the old oddity's riding his hobby so hard.--Well, you are right. From my earliest youth the structure of the bones in man and beast has captivated me exceedingly; and just as collectors of horns, when once they have a complete series of every variety of stag, roe, and gazelle, set to work with fresh zeal to find deformed or monstrous growths, so I have found pleasure in studying every kind of malformation and injury in the bones of men and beasts."
"And to remedy them," added Philippus. "It has been his passion from childhood.
"And the passion has grown upon me since I broke my own hip bone and know what it means," the old man went on. "With the help of my fellow-student there, from a mere dilettante I became a practised surgeon; and, what is more, I am one of those who serve Esculapius at my own expense. However, there are accessory reasons for which I have chosen such strange companions: deformed slaves are cheap and besides that, certain investigations afford me inestimable and peculiar satisfaction. But this cannot interest a young girl."
"Indeed it does!" cried Paula. "So far as I have understood Philippus when he explains some details of natural history. . . ."
"Stay," laughed Rufinus, "our friend will take good care not to explain this. He regards it as folly, and all he will admit is that no surgeon or student could wish for better, more willing, or more amusing house-mates than my cripples."
"They are grateful to you," cried Paula.
"Grateful?" asked the old man. "That is true sometimes, no doubt; still, gratitude is a tribute on which no wise man ever reckons. Now I have told you enough; for the sake of Philippus we will let the rest pass."
"No, no," said Paula putting up entreating hands, and Rufinus answered gaily:
"Who can refuse you anything? I will cut it short, but you must pay good heed.--Well then Man is the standard of all things. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, I often hear you say so. Things you mean are only what they seem to us."
"To us, you say, because we--you and I and the rest of us here--are sound in body and mind. And we must regard all things--being God's handiwork--as by nature sound and normal. Thus we are justified in requiring that man, who gives the standard for them shall, first and foremost, himself be sound and normal. Can a carpenter measure straight planks properly with a crooked or sloping rod?"
"Then you will understand how I came to ask myself: 'Do sickly, crippled, and deformed men measure things by a different standard to that of sound men? And might it not be a useful task to investigate how their estimates differ from ours?'"
"And have your researches among your cripples led to any results?"
"To many important ones," the old man declared; but Philippus interrupted him with a loud: "Oho!" adding that his friend was in too great a hurry to deduce laws from individual cases. Many of his observations were, no doubt, of considerable interest. . . . Here Rufinus broke in with some vehemence, and the discussion would have become a dispute if Paula had not intervened by requesting her zealous host to give her the results, at any rate, of his studies.
"I find," said Rufinus very confidently, as he stroked down his long beard, "that they are not merely shrewd because their faculties are early sharpened to make up by mental qualifications for what they lack in physical advantages; they are also witty, like Aeesop the fabulist and Besa the Egyptian god, who, as I have been told by our old friend Horus, from whom we derive all our Egyptian lore, presided among those heathen over festivity, jesting, and wit, and also over the toilet of women. This shows the subtle observation of the ancients; for the hunchback whose body is bent, applies a crooked standard to things in general. His keen insight often enables him to measure life as the majority of men do, that is by a straight rule; but in some happy moments when he yields to natural impulse he makes the straight crooked and the crooked straight; and this gives rise to wit, which only consists in looking at things obliquely and--setting them askew as it were. You have only to talk to my hump-backed gardener Gibbus, or listen to what he says. When he is sitting with the rest of our people in an evening, they all laugh as soon as he opens his mouth.--And why? Because his conformation makes him utter nothing but paradoxes.--You know what they are?"
"And you, Pul?"
"You are too straight-nay, and so is your simple soul, to know what the thing is! Well, listen then: It would be a paradox, for instance, if I were to say to the Bishop as he marches past in procession: 'You are godless out of sheer piety;' or if I were to say to Paula, by way of excuse for all the flattery which I and your mother offered her just now: 'Our incense was nauseous for very sweetness.'--These paradoxes, when examined, are truths in a crooked form, and so they best suit the deformed. Do you understand?"
"Certainly," said Paula.
"And you, Pul?"
"I am not quite sure. I should be better pleased to be simply told: 'We ought not to have made such flattering speeches; they may vex a young girl.'"
"Very good, my straightforward child," laughed her father. "But look, there is the man! Here, good Gibbus--come here!--Now, just consider: supposing you had flattered some one so grossly that you had offended him instead of pleasing him: How would you explain the state of affairs in telling me of it?"
The gardener, a short, square man, with a huge hump but a clever face and good features, reflected a minute and then replied: "I wanted to make an ass smell at some roses and I put thistles under his nose."
"Capital!" cried Paula; and as Gibbus turned away, laughing to himself, the physician said:
"One might almost envy the man his hump. But yet, fair Paula, I think we have some straight-limbed folks who can make use of such crooked phrases, too, when occasion serves."
But Rufinus spoke before Paula could reply, referring her to his Essay on the deformed in soul and body; and then he went on vehemently:
"I call you all to witness, does not Baste, the lame woman, restrict her views to the lower aspect of things, to the surface of the earth indeed? She has one leg much shorter than the other, and it is only with much pains that we have contrived that it should carry her. To limp along at all she is forced always to look down at the ground, and what is the consequence? She can never tell you what is hanging to a tree, and about three weeks since I asked her under a clear sky and a waning moon whether the moon had been shining the evening before and she could not tell me, though she had been sitting out of doors with the others till quite late, evening after evening. I have noticed, too, that she scarcely recognizes men who are rather tall, though she may have seen them three or four times. Her standard has fallen short-like her leg. Now, am I right or wrong?"
"In this instance you are right," replied Philippus, "still, I know some lame people. . ."
And again words ran high between the friends; Pulcheria, however, put an end to the discussion this time, by exclaiming enthusiastically:
"Baste is the best and most good-natured soul in the whole house!"
"Because she looks into her own heart," replied Rufinus. "She knows herself; and, because she knows how painful pain is, she treats others tenderly. Do you remember, Philippus, how we disputed after that anatomical lecture we heard together at Caesarea?"
"Perfectly well," said the leech, "and later life has but confirmed the opinion I then held. There is no less true or less just saying than the Latin motto: 'Mens sana in corpore sano,' as it is generally interpreted to mean that a healthy soul is only to be found in a healthy body. As the expression of a wish it may pass, but I have often felt inclined to doubt even that. It has been my lot to meet with a strength of mind, a hopefulness, and a thankfulness for the smallest mercies in the sickliest bodies, and at the same time a delicacy of feeling, a wise reserve, and an undeviating devotion to lofty things such as I have never seen in a healthy frame. The body is but the tenement of the soul, and just as we find righteous men and sinners, wise men and fools, alike in the palace and the hovel--nay, and often see truer worth in a cottage than in the splendid mansions of the great--so we may discover noble souls both in the ugly and the fair, in the healthy and the infirm, and most frequently, perhaps, in the least vigorous. We should be careful how we go about repeating such false axioms, for they can only do harm to those who have a heavy burthen to bear through life as it is. In my opinion a hunchback's thoughts are as straightforward as an athlete's; or do you imagine that if a mother were to place her new-born children in a spiral chamber and let them grow up in it, they could not tend upwards as all men do by nature?"
"Your comparison limps," cried Rufinus, "and needs setting to rights. If we are not to find ourselves in open antagonism. . . ."
"You must keep the peace," Joanna put in addressing her husband; and before Rufinus could retort, Paula had asked him with frank simplicity:
"How old are you, my worthy host?"
"Your arrival at my house blessed the second day of my seventieth year," replied Rufinus with a courteous bow. His wife shook her finger at him, exclaiming:
"I wonder whether you have not a secret hump? Such fine phrases. . ."
"He is catching the style from his cripples," said Paula laughing at him. "But now it is your turn, friend Philippus. Your exposition was worthy of an antique sage, and it struck me--for the sake of Rufinus here I will not say convinced me. I respect you--and yet I should like to know how old. . . ."
"I shall soon be thirty-one," said Philippus, anticipating her question.
"That is an honest answer," observed Dame Joanna. "At your age many a man clings to his twenties."
"Why?" asked Pulcheria.
"Well," said her mother, "only because there are some girls who think a man of thirty too old to be attractive."
"Stupid creatures," answered Pulcheria. "Let them find me a young man who is more lovable than my father; and if Philippus--yes you, Philippus--were ten or twenty years over nine and twenty, would that make you less clever or kind?"
"Not less ugly, at any rate," said the physician. Pulcheria laughed, but with some annoyance, as though she had herself been the object of the remark. "You are not a bit ugly!" she exclaimed. "Any one who says so has no eyes. And you will hear nothing said of you but that you are a tall, fine man!"
As the warm-hearted girl thus spoke, defending her friend against himself, Paula stroked her golden hair and added to the physician:
"Pulcheria's father is so far right that she, at any rate, measures men by a true and straight standard. Note that, Philippus!--But do not take my questioning ill.--I cannot help wondering how a man of one and thirty and one of seventy should have been studying in the high schools at the same time? The moon will not be eclipsed for a long time yet--how bright and clear it is!--So you, Rufinus, who have wandered so far through the wide world, if you would do me a great pleasure, will tell us something of your past life and how you came to settle in Memphis."
"His history?" cried Joanna. "If he were to tell it, in all its details from beginning to end, the night would wane and breakfast would get cold. He has had as many adventures as travelled Odysseus. But tell us something husband; you know there is nothing we should like better."
"I must be off to my duties," said the leech, and when he had taken a friendly leave of the others and bidden farewell to Paula with less effusiveness than of late, Rufinus began his story.
"I was born in Alexandria, where, at that time, commerce and industry still flourished. My father was an armorer; above two hundred slaves and free laborers were employed in his work-shops. He required the finest metal, and commonly procured it by way of Massilia from Britain. On one occasion he himself went to that remote island in a friend's ship, and he there met my mother. Her ruddy gold hair, which Pul has inherited, seems to have bewitched him and, as the handsome foreigner pleased her well--for men like my father are hard to match nowadays--she turned Christian for his sake and came home with him. They neither of them ever regretted it; for though she was a quiet woman, and to her dying day spoke Greek like a foreigner, the old man often said she was his best counsellor. At the same time she was so soft-hearted, that she could not bear that any living creature should suffer, and though she looked keenly after everything at the hearth and loom, she could never see a fowl, a goose, or a pig slaughtered. And I have inherited her weakness--shall I say 'alas!' or 'thank God?'
"I had two elder brothers who both had to help my father, and who were to carry on the business. When I was ten years old my calling was decided on. My mother would have liked to make a priest of me and at that time I should have consented joyfully; but my father would not agree, and as we had an uncle who was making a great deal of money as a Rhetor, my father accepted a proposal from him that I should devote myself to that career. So I went from one teacher to another and made good progress in the schools.
"Till my twentieth year I continued to live with my parents, and during my many hours of leisure I was free to do or leave undone whatever I had a fancy for; and this was always something medical, if that is not too big a word. I was but a lad of twelve when this fancy first took me, and that through pure accident. Of course I was fond of wandering about the workshops, and there they kept a magpie, a quaint little bird, which my mother had fed out of compassion. It could say 'Blockhead,' and call my name and a few other words, and it seemed to like the noise, for it always would fly off to where the smiths were hammering and filing their loudest, and whenever it perched close to one of the anvils there were sure to be mirthful faces over the shaping and scraping and polishing. For many years its sociable ways made it a favorite; but one day it got caught in a vice and its left leg was broken. Poor little creature!"
The old man stooped to wipe his eyes unseen, but he went on without pausing:
"It fell on its back and looked at me so pathetically that I snatched the tongs out of the bellows-man's hand--for he was going to put an end to its sufferings in all kindness--and, picking it up gently, I made up my mind I would cure it. Then I carried the bird into my own room, and to keep it quiet that it might not hurt itself, I tied it down to a frame that I contrived, straightened its little leg, warmed the injured bone by sucking it, and strapped it to little wooden splints. And behold it really set: the bird got quite well and fluttered about the workshops again as sound as before, and whenever it saw me it would perch upon my shoulder and peck very gently at my hair with its sharp beak.
"From that moment I could have found it in me to break the legs of every hen in the yard, that I might set them again; but I thought of something better. I went to the barbers and told them that if any one had a bird, a dog, or a cat, with a broken limb, he might bring it to me, and that I was prepared to cure all these injuries gratis; they might tell all their customers. The very next day I had a patient brought me: a black hound, with tan spots over his eyes, whose leg had been smashed by a badly-aimed spear: I can see him now! Others followed; feathered or four-footed sufferers; and this was the beginning of my surgical career. The invalid birds on the trees I still owe to my old allies the barbers. I only occasionally take beasts in hand. The lame children, whom you saw in the garden, come to me from poor parents who cannot afford a surgeon's aid. The merry, curly-headed boy who brought you a rose just now is to go home again in a few days.--But to return to the story of my youth.
"The more serious events which gave my life this particular bias occurred in my twentieth year, when I had already left even the high school behind me; nor was I fully carried away by their influence till after my uncle had procured me several opportunities of proving my proficiency in my calling. I may say without vanity that my speeches won approval; but I was revolted by the pompous, flowery bombast, without which I should have been hissed down, and though my parents rejoiced when I went home from Niku, Arsmoe, or some other little provincial town, with laurel-wreaths and gold pieces, to myself I always seemed an impostor. Still, for my father's sake, I dared not give up my profession, although I hated more and more the task of praising people to the skies whom I neither loved nor respected, and of shedding tears of pathos while all the time I was minded to laugh.
"I had plenty of time to myself, and as I did not lack courage and held stoutly to our Greek confession, I was always to be found where there was any stir or contention between the various sects. They generally passed off with nothing worse than bruises and scratches, but now and then swords were drawn. On one occasion thousands came forth to meet thousands, and the Prefect called out the troops--all Greeks--to restore order by force. A massacre ensued in which thousands were killed. I could not describe it! Such scenes were not rare, and the fury and greed of the mob were often directed against the Jews by the machinations of the creatures of the archbishop and the government. The things I saw there were so horrible, so shocking, that the tongue refuses to tell them; but one poor Jewess, whose husband the wretches--our fellow Christians--killed, and then pillaged the house, I have never forgotten! A soldier dragged her down by her hair, while a ruffian snatched the child from her breast and, holding it by its feet, dashed its skull against the wall before her eyes--as you might slash a wet cloth against a pillar to dry it--I shall never forget that handsome young mother and her child; they come before me in my dreams at night even now.
"All these things I saw; and I shuddered to behold God's creatures, beings endowed with reason, persecuting their fellows, plunging them into misery, tearing them limb from limb--and why? Merciful Saviour, why? For sheer hatred--as sure as man is the standard for all things--merely carried away by a hideous impulse to spite their neighbor for not thinking as they do--nay, simply for not being themselves--to hurt him, insult him, work him woe. And these fanatics, these armies who raised the standard of ruthlessness, of extermination, of bloodthirstiness, were Christians, were baptized in the name of Him who bids us forgive our enemies, who enlarged the borders of love from the home and the city and the state to include all mankind; who raised the adulteress from the dust, who took children into his arms, and would have more joy over a sinner who repents than over ninety and nine just persons!--Blood, blood, was what they craved; and did not the doctrine of Him whose followers they boastfully called themselves grow out of the blood of Him who shed it for all men alike,--just as that lotos flower grows out of the clear water in the marble tank? And it was the highest guardians and keepers of this teaching of mercy, who goaded on the fury of the mob: Patriarchs, bishops, priests and deacons--instead of pointing to the picture of the Shepherd who tenderly carries the lost sheep and brings it home to the fold.
"My own times seemed to me the worst that had ever been; aye, and--as surely as man is the standard of all things--so they are! for love is turned to hatred, mercy to implacable hardheartedness. The thrones not only of the temporal but of the spiritual rulers, are dripping with the blood of their fellow-men. Emperors and bishops set the example; subjects and churchmen follow it. The great, the leading men of the struggle are copied by the small, by the peaceful candidates for spiritual benefices. All that I saw as a man, in the open streets, I had already seen as a boy both in the low and high schools. Every doctrine has its adherents; the man who casts in his lot with Cneius is hated by Caius, who forthwith speaks and writes to no other end than to vex and put down Cneius, and give him pain. Each for his part strives his utmost to find out faults in his neighbor and to put him in the pillory, particularly if his antagonist is held the greater man, or is likely to overtop him. Listen to the girls at the well, to the women at the spindle; no one is sure of applause who cannot tell some evil of the other men or women. Who cares to listen to his neighbor's praises? The man who hears that his brother is happy at once envies him! Hatred, hatred everywhere! Everywhere the will, the desire, the passion for bringing grief and ruin on others rather than to help them, raise them and heal them!
"That is the spirit of my time; and everything within me revolted against it with sacred wrath. I vowed in my heart that I would live and act differently; that my sole aim should be to succor the unfortunate, to help the wretched, to open my arms to those who had fallen into unmerited contumely, to set the crooked straight for my neighbor, to mend what was broken, to pour in balm, to heal and to save!
"And, thank God! it has been vouchsafed to me in some degree to keep this vow; and though, later, some whims and a passionate curiosity got mixed up with my zeal, still, never have I lost sight of the great task of which I have spoken, since my father's death and since my uncle also left me his large fortune. Then I had done with the Rhetor's art, and travelled east and west to seek the land where love unites men's hearts and where hatred is only a disease; but as sure as man is the standard of all things, to this day all my endeavors to find it have been in vain. Meanwhile I have kept my own house on such a footing that it has become a stronghold of love; in its atmosphere hatred cannot grow, but is nipped in the germ.
"In spite of this I am no saint. I have committed many a folly, many an injustice; and much of my goods and gold, which I should perhaps have done better to save for my family, has slipped through my fingers, though in the execution, no doubt, of what I deemed the highest duties. Would you believe it, Paula?--Forgive an old man for such fatherly familiarity with the daughter of Thomas;--hardly five years after my marriage with this good wife, not long after we had lost our only son, I left her and our little daughter, Pul there, for more than two years, to follow the Emperor Heraclius of my own free will to the war against the Persians who had done me no harm--not, indeed, as a soldier, but as a surgeon eager for experience. To confess the truth I was quite as eager to see and treat fractures and wounds and injuries in great numbers, as I was to exercise benevolence. I came home with a broken hip-bone, tolerably patched up, and again, a few years later, I could not keep still in one place. The bird of passage must need drag wife and child from the peace of hearth and homestead, and take them to where he could go to the high school. A husband, a father, and already grey-headed, I was a singular exception among the youths who sat listening to the lectures and explanations of their teachers; but as sure as man is the standard of all things, they none of them outdid me in diligence and zeal, though many a one was greatly my superior in gifts and intellect, and among them the foremost was our friend Philippus. Thus it came about, noble Paula, that the old man and the youth in his prime were fellow-students; but to this day the senior gladly bows down to his young brother in learning and feeling. To straighten, to comfort, and to heal: this is the aim of his life too. And even I, an old man, who started long before Philippus on the same career, often long to call myself his disciple."
Here Rufinus paused and rose; Paula, too, got up, grasped his hand warmly, and said:
"If I were a man, I would join you! But Philippus has told me that even a woman may be allowed to work with the same purpose.--And now let me beg of you never to call me anything but Paula--you will not refuse me this favor. I never thought I could be so happy again as I am with you; here my heart is free and whole. Dame Joanna, do you be my mother! I have lost the best of fathers, and till I find him again, you, Rufinus, must fill his place!"
"Gladly, gladly!" cried the old man; he clasped both her hands and went on vivaciously: "And in return I ask you to be an elder sister to Pul. Make that timid little thing such a maiden as you are yourself.--But look, children, look up quickly; it is beginning!--Typhon, in the form of a boar, is swallowing the eye of Horns: so the heathen of old in this country used to believe when the moon suffered an eclipse. See how the shadow is covering the bright disk. When the ancients saw this happening they used to make a noise, shaking the sistrum with its metal rings, drumming and trumpeting, shouting and yelling, to scare off the evil one and drive him away. It may be about four hundred years since that last took place, but to this day--draw your kerchiefs more closely round your heads and come with me to the river--to this day Christians degrade themselves by similar rites. Wherever I have been in Christian lands, I have always witnessed the same scenes: our holy faith has, to be sure, demolished the religions of the heathen; but their superstitions have survived, and have forced their way through rifts and chinks into our ceremonial. They are marching round now, with the bishop at their head, and you can hear the loud wailing of the women, and the cries of the men, drowning the chant of the priests. Only listen! They are as passionate and agonized in their entreaty as though old Typhon were even now about to swallow the moon, and the greatest catastrophe was hanging over the world. Aye, as surely as man is the standard of all things, those terrified beings are diseased in mind; and how are we to forgive those who dare to scare Christians; yes, Christian souls, with the traditions of heathen folly, and to blind their inward vision?"