The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Orion was alone in the spacious room, feeling as though the whole world were sinking into nothingness after the rack of storm and tempest. At first he was merely conscious of having gone through a fearful experience, which threatened to fling him far outside the sphere of everything he was wont to reverence and hold sacred. For love and honor of his guardian angel he had declared war to the patriarch, and that man's power was as great as his stature. Still, the image of Paula rose high and supreme above that of the terrible old man, in Orion's fancy, and his father, as it seemed to him, was like an ally in the battle he was destined to wage in his own strength.
The young man's vivid imagination and excellent memory recapitulated every word the prelate had uttered. The domineering old man, overflowing with bigoted zeal, had played with him as a cat with a mouse. He had tried to search his soul and sift him to the bottom before he attacked the subject with which he ought to have begun, and concerning which he was fully informed when he offered him his hand that first time--as cheerfully, too, as though he had no serious grievance seething in his soul. Orion resolved that he would cling fast to his faith without Benjamin's interposition, and not allow his hold on the two other Christian graces, Hope and Love, to be weakened by his influence.
By some miracle his mother had not yet told the prelate of his father's curse, in spite of the anguish of her aching heart; and what a weapon would not that have been in Benjamin's hand. It was with the deepest pity that he thought of that poor, grief-stricken woman, and the idea flashed through his mind that the patriarch might have gone back to his mother to accuse him and to urge her to further revelations.
Many minutes had passed since the patriarch had left him; Orion had allowed his illustrious guest to depart unescorted, and this could not fail to excite surprise. Such a breach of good manners, of the uncodified laws of society, struck Orion, the son of a noble and ancient house, who had drunk in his regard for them as it were with his mother's milk, as an indignity to himself; and to repair it he started up, hastily smoothing down his tumbled hair, and hurried into the viridarium. His fears were confirmed, for the patriarch's following were standing in the fountain-hall close to the exit; his mother, too, was there and Benjamin was in the act of departure.
The old man accepted his offered escort with dignified affability, as if nothing but what was pleasant had passed between him and Orion. As they crossed the viridarium he asked his young host what was the name of some rare flower, and counselled him to take care that shade-giving trees were planted in abundance on his various estates. In the outer hall, on either side of the door, was a statue: Truth and justice, two fine works by Aristeas of Alexandria, who flourished in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Justice held the scales and sword, Truth was gazing into her mirror. As the patriarch approached them, he said to the priest who walked by his side: "Still here!" Then, standing still, he said, partly to Orion and partly to his companion:
"Your father, I see, neglected my suggestion that these heathen images had no place in any Christian house, and least of all in one attached, as this is, to a public function. We, no doubt, know the meaning of the symbols they bear; but how easily might the ordinary man, waiting here, mistake the figure with the mirror for Vanity and that with the scales Venality: 'Pay us what we ask,' she might be saying, 'or else your life is a forfeit,'--so the sword would imply."
He smiled and walked on, but added airily to Orion:
"When I come again--you know--I shall be pleased if my eye is no longer offended by these mementos of an extinct idolatry."
"Truth and justice!" replied Orion in a constrained voice. "They have dwelt on this spot and ruled in this house for nearly five hundred years."
"It would look better, and be more suitable," retorted the patriarch, "if you could say that of Him to whom alone the place of honor is due in a Christian house; in His presence every virtue flourishes of itself. The Christian should proscribe every image from his dwelling; at the door of his heart only should he raise an image on the one hand of Faith and on the other of Humility."
By this time they had reached the court-yard, where Susannah's chariot was waiting. Orion helped the prelate into it, and when Benjamin offered him his hand to kiss, in the presence of several hundred slaves and servants, all on their knees, the young man lightly touched it with his lips. He stood bowed low in reverence so long as the holy father remained visible, in the attitude of blessing the crowd from the open side of the chariot; then he hurried away to join his mother.
He expected to find her exhausted by the excitement of the patriarch's visit; but, in fact, she was more composed than he had seen her yet since his father's death. Her eyes indeed, commonly so sober in their expression, were bright with a kind of rapture which puzzled Orion. Had she been thinking of his father? Could the patriarch have succeeded in inspiring her pious fervor to such a pitch, that it had carried her, so to speak, out of herself?
She was dressed to go to church, and after expressing her delight at the honor done to herself and her whole household by the prelate's visit, she invited Orion to accompany her. Though he had proposed devoting the next few hours to a different purpose, the dutiful son at once acceded to this wish; he helped her into her chariot, bid the driver go slowly, and seated himself by her side.
As they drove along he asked her what she had told the patriarch, and her replies might have reassured him but that she filled him with grave anxiety on fresh grounds. Her mind seemed to have suffered under the stress of grief. It was usually so clear, so judicious, so reasonable; and now all she said was incoherent and not more than half intelligible. Still, one thing he distinctly understood: that she had not confided to the patriarch the fact of his father's curse. The prelate must certainly have censured the conduct of the deceased to her also and that had sealed her lips. She complained to her son that Benjamin had never understood her lost husband, and that she had felt compelled to repress her desire to disclose everything to him. Nowhere but in church, in the very presence of the Redeemer, could she bring herself to allow him to read her heart as it were an open book. A voice had warned her that in the house of God alone, could she find salvation for herself and her son; that voice she heard day and night, and much as it pained her to grieve him he must hear it now--: That voice never ceased to enjoin her to tear asunder his connection with the Melchite maiden. Last evening it had seemed to her that it was her eldest son, who had died for the Jacobite faith, that was speaking to her. The voice had sounded like his, and it had warned her that the ancient house of Menas must perish, if a Melchite should taint the pure blood of their race. And Benjamin had confirmed her fears; he had come back to her on purpose to beseech her to oppose Orion's sinful affection for Thomas' daughter with the utmost maternal authority, and, as the patriarch expressed the same desire as the voice, it must be from God and she must obey it.
Her old grudge against Paula had revived, and her very tones betrayed that it grew stronger with every word she spoke which had any reference to the girl.
At this Orion begged her to be calm, reminding her of the promise she had made him by his father's deathbed; and just as his mother was about to reply in a tone of pitiful recrimination, the chariot stopped at the door of the church. He did everything in his power to soothe her; his gentle and tender tones comforted her, and she nodded to him more happily, following him into the sanctuary.
Beyond the narthex--the vestibule of the church, where three penitents were flaying their backs with scourges by the side of a small marble fountain, and in full view of the crowd--they were forced to part, as the women were divided from the men by a screen of finely-carved woodwork.
As Neforis went to her place, she shook her bowed head: she was meditating on the choice offered her by Orion, of yielding to the patriarch's commands or to her son's wishes. How gladly would she have seen her son in bright spirits again. But Benjamin had threatened her with the loss of all the joys of Heaven, if she should agree to Orion's alliance with the heretic--and the joys of Heaven to her meant a meeting, a recognition, for which she would willingly have sacrificed her son and everything else that was dear to her heart.
Orion assisted at the service in the place reserved for the men of his family, close to the hekel, or holy of holies, where the altar stood and the priests performed their functions. A partition, covered with ill-wrought images and a few gilt ornaments, divided it from the main body of the church, and the whole edifice produced an impression that was neither splendid nor particularly edifying. The basilica, which had once been richly decorated, had been plundered by the Melchites in a fight between them and the Jacobites, and the impoverished city had not been in a position to restore the venerable church to anything approaching its original splendor. Orion looked round him; but could see nothing calculated to raise his devotion.
The congregation were required to stand all through the service; and as it often was a very long business, not the women only, behind the screen, but many of the men supported themselves like cripples on crutches. How unpleasing, too, were the tones of the Egyptian chant, accompanied by the frequent clang of a metal cymbal and mingled with the babble of chattering men and women, checked only when the talk became a quarrel, by a priest who loudly and vehemently shouted for silence from the hekel.
Generally the chanted liturgy constituted the whole function, unless the Lord's Supper was administered; but in these anxious times, for above a week past, a priest or a monk preached a daily sermon. This began a short while after the young man had taken his place, and it was with painful feelings that he recognized, in the hollow-eyed and ragged monk who mounted the pulpit, a priest whom he had seen more than once drunk to imbecility, in Nesptah's tavern, And the revolting creature, who thus flaunted his dirty, dishevelled person even in the pulpit, thundered down on the trembling congregation declarations that the delay in the rising of the Nile was the consequence of their sins, and God's punishment for their evil deeds. Instead of comforting the terrified souls, or encouraging their faith and bidding them hope for better times, he set before them in burning words the punishment that awaited their wicked despondency.
God Almighty was plaguing them and the land with great heat; but this was like the cool north wind at Advent-tide, as compared with the fierceness of the furnace of hell which Satan was making hot for them. The scorching sun on earth at any rate gave them daylight, but the flames of hell shed no light, that the terrors might never cease of those whom the devil's myrmidons drove over the narrow bridge leading to his horrible realm, goading them with spears and pitchforks, with heavy cudgelling or gnawing of their flesh. In the anguish of death, and the crush by the way, mothers trod down their infants and fathers their daughters; and when the damned reached the spiked threshold of hell itself, a hideous and poisoned vapor rose up to meet them, choking them, and yet giving them renewed strength to feel fresh torments with increased keenness of every sense. Then the devil's shrieks of anguish, which shake the vault of hell, came thundering on their ears; with hideous yells he snatched at them from the grate on which he lay, crushed and squeezed them in his iron jaws like a bunch of grapes, and swallowed them into his fiery maw; or else they were hung up by their tongues by attendant friends in Satan's fiery furnace, or dragged alternately through ice and flames, and finally beaten to pieces on the anvil of hell, or throttled and wrung with ropes and cloths.--As compared with the torments they would suffer there, every present anxiety was as the kiss of a lover. Mothers would hear the brain seething in their infants' skulls. . . .
At this point of the monk's grewsome discourse, Orion turned away with a shudder. The curse with which the patriarch had threatened him recurred to his mind; he could have fancied that the hot, stuffy, incense-laden air of the church was full of flapping daws and hideous bats. Deadly horror crept over him; but then, suddenly, the rebound came of youthful vigor, longing for freedom and joy in living; a voice within cried out: "Away with coercion and chains! Winged spirit, use your pinions! Down with the god of terrors! He is not that Heavenly Father whose love embraces mankind. Forward, leap up and be free! Trusting in your own strength, guided by your own will, go boldly forth into the open sunshine of life! Be free, be free!--Still, be not like a slave who is no sooner cut adrift and left to himself than he falls a slave again to his own senses. No; but striving unceasingly and of your own free will, in the sweat of your brow, to reach the high goal, to work out to its fulfilment and fruition everything that is best in your soul and mind. Yes--life is a ministry. . . . I, like the disciples of the Stoa, will strive after all that is known as virtue, with no other end in view than to practise it for its own sake, because it is fair and gives unmixed joys. I will rely on myself to seek the truth--and do what I feel to be right and good; this, henceforth, shall be the lofty aim of my existence. To the two chief desires of my heart--: atonement to my father and union with Paula, I here add a third: the attainment of the loftiest goal that I may reach, by valiant striving to get as near to it as my strength will allow. The road thither is by Work; the guiding star I must keep before me that I may not go astray is my Love!"
His cheeks were burning, and with a deep breath he looked about him as though to find an adversary with whom he might measure his strength. The horrible sermon was ended and the words of the chanting crowd fell on his ear. "Lord, reward me not according to mine iniquities!" The load of his own sin fell on his heart again, and his dying father's curse; his proud head drooped on his breast, and he said to himself that his burthen was too heavy for him to venture on the bold flight for which he had but now spread his wings. The ban was not yet lifted; he was not yet redeemed from its crushing weight. But the mere word "redeemed" brought to his mind the image of Him who took on Himself the sins of the world; and the more deeply he contemplated the nature of the Saviour whom he had loved from his childhood, the more surely he felt that it would be doing no violence to the freedom of his own will, but rather be the fulfilment of a long-felt desire, if he were to tell Jesus simply all that oppressed him; that his love for Him, his faith in Him, had a saving power even for his soul. He lifted up his eyes and heart to Him, and to Him, as to a trusted friend, confided all that troubled and hindered him and besought His aid.
In loving Him, he and Paula were one, he knew, though they had not the same idea of His nature.
Orion, as he meditated, thought out the points on which her views deviated from his own: she believed that the divine and the human natures were distinct in the person of Christ. And as he reflected on this creed, till now so horrible in his eyes, he felt that the unique individuality of the Saviour, shedding forth love and truth, came home to him more closely when he pictured Him perfect and spotless, yet feeling as a man; walking among men with all their joy in life in His heart, alive to every pang and sorrow which can torture mortals, rejoicing with them, and taking upon Himself unspeakable humiliation, suffering, and death, with a stricken, bleeding, and yet self-devoting heart, for pure love of the wretched race to which He could stoop from His glory. Yes, this Christ could be his Redeemer too. The Almighty Lord had become his perfect and most loving friend, his glorious, but lenient and tender brother, to whom he could gladly give his whole heart, who understood everything, who was ready to forgive everything--even all that was seething in his aching heart which longed for purification--and all because He once had suffered as a man suffers.
For the first time he, the Jacobite, dared to confess so much to himself; and not solely for Paula's sake. A violent clanging on a cracked metal plate roused him from his meditations by its harsh clamor; the sacrament of the Last Supper was about to be administered: the invariable conclusion of the Jacobite service. The bishop came forth from behind the screen of the inner sanctuary, poured some wine into a silver cup and crumbled into it two little cakes stamped with the Coptic cross. Of this mixture he first partook, and then gave it in a spoon to each member of the congregation who came up to receive it. Orion approached after two elders of the Church. Finally the priest rinsed out the cup, and drained the very washings, that no drop of the saving liquid should be lost.
How high had Orion's heart throbbed when, as a youth, he had been admitted for the first time to this most sacred of all Christian privileges! He was instructed in its deep and glorious symbolism, and had often felt the purifying, saving, and refreshing effect of the sacrament, strengthening him in all goodness, when he had partaken of it with his parents and brothers. Hand-in-hand, they had gone home feeling as if newly robed in body and soul and more closely bound together than before. And to-day, insensible as he was to the repulsiveness of the forms of worship of his confession he felt as though the bread and wine--the Flesh and Blood of the Saviour--had sealed the bond he had silently entered into with himself; as though the Lord had put forth an invisible hand to remove the guilt and the curse that crushed him so sorely. Deep devotion fell on his soul: his future life, he thought, should bring him nearer to God than ever before, and be spent in loving, and in the more earnest, full, and laborious exercise of the gifts Heaven had bestowed on him.