The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Orion had dreaded the drive home with his mother, but after complaining to him of Susannah's conduct in having made a startling display of her vexation in the women's place behind the screen, she had leaned on him and fallen fast asleep. Her head was on her son's shoulder when they reached home, and Orion's anxiety for the mother he truly loved was enhanced when he found it difficult to rouse her. He felt her stagger like a drunken creature, and he led her not into the fountain-room but to her bed-chamber, where she only begged to lie down; and hardly had she done so when she was again overcome by sleep.
Orion now made his way to Gamaliel the jeweller, to purchase from him a very large and costly diamond, plainly set, and the Israelite's brother undertook to deliver it to the fair widow at Constantinople, who was known to him as one of his customers. Orion, in the jeweller's sitting-room, wrote a letter to his former mistress, in which he begged her in the most urgent manner to accept the diamond, and in exchange to return to him the emerald by a swift and trustworthy messenger, whom Simeon the goldsmith would provide with everything needful.
After all this he went home hungry and weary, to the late midday meal which he shared, as for many days past, with no one but Eudoxia, Mary's governess. The little girl was not yet allowed to leave her room, and of this, for one reason, her instructress was glad, for a dinner alone with the handsome youth brought extreme gratification to her mature heart. How considerate was the wealthy and noble heir in desiring the slaves to offer every dish to her first, how kind in listening to her stories of her young days and of the illustrious houses in which she had formerly given lessons! She would have died for him; but, as no opportunity offered for such a sacrifice, at any rate she never omitted to point out to him the most delicate morsels, and to supply his room with fresh flowers.
Besides this, however, she had devoted herself with the most admirable unselfishness to her pupil, since the child had been ill and her grandmother had turned against her, noticing, too, that Orion took a tender and quite fatherly interest in his little niece. This morning the young man had not had time to enquire for Mary, and Eudoxia's report that she seemed even more excited than on the day before disturbed him so greatly, that he rose from table, in spite of Eudoxia's protest, without waiting till the end of the meal, to visit the little invalid.
It was with genuine anxiety that he mounted the stairs. His heart was heavy over many things, and as he went towards the child's room he said to himself with a melancholy smile, that he, who had contemned many a distinguished man and many a courted fair one at Constantinople because they had fallen short of his lofty standard, had here no one but this child who would be sure to understand him. Some minutes elapsed before his knock was answered with the request to 'come in,' and he heard a hasty bustle within. He found Mary lying, as the physician had ordered, on a couch by the window, which was wide open and well-shaded; her couch was surrounded by flowering plants and, on a little table in front of her, were two large nosegays, one fading, the other quite fresh and particularly beautiful.
How sadly the child had changed in these few days. The soft round cheeks had disappeared, and the pretty little face had sunk into nothingness by comparison with the wonderful, large eyes, which had gained in size and brilliancy. Yesterday she had been free from fever and very pale, but to-day her cheeks were crimson, and a twitching of her lips and of her right shoulder, which had come on since the scene at the grandfather's deathbed, was so incessant that Orion sat down by her side in some alarm.
"Has your grandmother been to see you?" was his first question, but the answer was a mournful shake of her head.
The blossoming plants were his own gift and so was the fading nosegay; the other, fresher one had not come from him, so he enquired who was the giver, and was not a little astonished to see his favorite's confusion and agitation at the question. There must be something special connected with the posey, that was very evident, and the young man, who did not wish to excite her sensitive nerves unnecessarily, but could not recall his words, was wishing he had never spoken them, when the discovery of a feather fan cut the knot of his difficulty; he took it up, exclaiming: "Hey--what have we here?"
A deeper flush dyed Mary's cheek, and raising her large eyes imploringly to his face, she laid a finger on her lips. He nodded, as understanding her, and said in a low voice:
"Katharina has been here? Susannah's gardener ties up flowers like that. The fan--when I knocked--she is here still perhaps?"
He had guessed rightly; Mary pointed dumbly to the door of the adjoining room.
"But, in Heaven's name, child," Orion went on, in an undertone, "what does she want here?"
"She came by stealth, in the boat," whispered the child. "She sent Anubis from the treasurer's office to ask me if she might not come, she could not do without me any longer, and she never did me any harm and so I said yes--and then, when I knew it was your knock, whisk--off she went into the bedroom."
"And if your grandmother were to come across her?"
"Then--well, then I do not know what would become of me! But oh! Orion, if you only knew how--how. . . ." Two big tears rolled down her cheeks and Orion understood her; he stroked her hair lovingly and said in a whisper, glancing now and again at the door of the next room.
"But I came up on purpose to tell you something more about Paula. She sends you her love, and she invites you to go to her and stay with her, always. But you must keep it quite a secret and tell no one, not even Eudoxia and Katharina; for I do not know myself how we can contrive to get your grandmother's consent. At any rate we must set to work very prudently and cautiously, do you understand? I have only taken you into our confidence that you may look forward to it and have something to be glad of at night, when you are such a silly little thing as to keep your eyes open like the hares, instead of sleeping like a good child. If things go well, you may be with Paula to-morrow perhaps--think of that! I had quite given up all hope of managing it at all; but now, just now--is it not odd--just within these two minutes I suddenly said to myself: 'It will come all right!'--So it must be done somehow."
A flood of tears streamed down Mary's burning cheeks but, freely as they flowed, she did not sob and her bosom did not heave. Nor did she speak, but such pure and fervent gratitude and joy shone from her glistening eyes that Orion felt his own grow moist. He was glad to find some way of concealing his emotion when Mary seized his hand and, pressing a long kiss on it, wetted it with her tears.
"See!" he exclaimed. "All wet! as if I had just taken it out of the fountain."
But he said no more, for the bedroom door was suddenly thrown open and Eudoxia's high, thin voice was heard saying:
"But why make any fuss? Mary will be enchanted! Here, Child, here is your long-lost friend! Such a surprise!" And the water-wagtail, pushed forward by no gentle hand, appeared within the doorway. Eudoxia was as radiant as though she had achieved some heroic deed; but she drew back a little when she found that Orion was still in the room. The divided couple stood face to face. What was done could not be undone; but, though he greeted her with only a calm bow, and she fluttered her fan with abrupt little jerks to conceal her embarrassment, nothing took place which could surprise the bystander; indeed, Katharina's pretty features assumed a defiant expression when he enquired how the little white dog was, and she coldly replied that she had had him chained up in the poultry-yard, for that the patriarch, who was their guest, could not endure dogs.
"He honors a good many men with the same sentiments," replied Orion, but Katharina retorted, readily enough.
"When they deserve it."
The dialogue went on in this key for some few minutes; but the young man was not in the humor either to take the young girl's pert stings or to repay her in the same coin; he rose to go but, before he could take leave, Katharina, observing from the window how low the sun was, cried: "Mercy on me! how late it is--I must be off; I must not be absent at supper time. My boat is lying close to yours in the fishing-cove. I only hope the gate of the treasurer's house is still open."
Orion, too, looked at the sun and then remarked: "To-day is Sanutius."
"I know," said Katharina. "That is why Anubis was free at noon."
"And for the same reason," added Orion, "there is not a soul at work now in the office."
This was awkward. Not for worlds would she have been seen in the house; and knowing, as she did from her games with Mary, every nook and corner of it, she began to consider her position. Her delicate features assumed a sinister expression quite new to Orion, which both displeased him and roused his anxiety--not for himself but for Mary, who could certainly get no good from such a companion as this. These visits must not be repeated very often; he would not allude to the subject in the child's presence, but Katharina should at once have a hint. She could not get out of the place without his assistance; so he intruded on her meditations to inform her that he had the key of the office about him. Then he went to see if the hall were empty, and led her at once to the treasurer's office through the various passages which connected it with the main buildings. The office at this hour was as lonely as the grave, and when Orion found himself standing with her, close to the door which opened on the road to the harbor, and had already raised the key to unlock it, he paused and for the first time broke the silence they had both preserved during their unpleasant walk, saying:
"What brought you to see Mary, Katharina? Tell me honestly." Her heart, which had been beating high since she had found herself alone with him in the silent and deserted house, began to throb wildly; a great terror, she knew not of what, came over her.
"She had come to the house for several reasons, but one had outweighed all the rest: Mary must be told that her young uncle and Paula were betrothed; for she knew by experience that the child could keep nothing of importance from her grandmother, and that Neforis had no love for Paula was an open secret. As yet she certainly could know nothing of her son's formal suit, but if once she were informed of it she would do everything in her power--of this Katharina had not a doubt--to keep Orion and Paula apart. So the girl had told Mary that it was already reported that they were a betrothed and happy pair, and that she herself had watched them making love in her neighbor's garden. To her great annoyance, however, Mary took this all very coolly and without any special excitement.
"So, when Orion enquired of his companion what had brought her to the governor's house, she could only reply that she longed so desperately to see little Mary.
"Of course," said Orion. "But I must beg of you not to yield again to your affectionate impulse. Your mother makes a public display of her grudge against mine, and her ill-feeling will only be increased if she is told that we are encouraging you to disregard her wishes. Perhaps you may, ere long, have opportunities of seeing Mary more frequently; but, if that should be the case, I must especially request you not to talk of things that may agitate her. You have seen for yourself how excitable she is and how fragile she looks. Her little heart, her too precocious brain and feelings must have rest, must not be stirred and goaded by fresh incitements such as you are in a position to apply. The patriarch is my enemy, the enemy of our house, and you--I do not say it to offend you--you overheard what he was saying last night, and probably gathered much important information, some of which may concern me and my family."
Katharina stood looking at her companion, as pale as death. He knew that she had played the listener, and when, and where! The shock it gave her, and the almost unendurable pang of feeling herself lowered in his eyes, quite dazed her. She felt bewildered, offended, menaced; however, she retained enough presence of mind to reply in a moment to her antagonist:
"Do not be alarmed! I will come no more. I should not have come at all, if I could have foreseen. . ."
"That you would meet me?"
"Perhaps.--But do not flatter yourself too much on that account!--As to my listening. . . . Well, yes; I was standing at the window. Inside the room I could only half hear, and who does not want to hear what great men have to say to each other? And, excepting your father, I have met none such in Memphis since Memnon left the city. We women have inherited some curiosity from our mother Eve; but we rarely indulge it so far as to hunt for a necklace in our neighbor's trunk! I have no luck as a criminal, my dear Orion. Twice have I deserved the name. Thanks to the generous and liberal use you made of my inexperience I sinned--sinned so deeply that it has ruined my whole life; and now, again, in a more venial way; but I was caught out, you see, in both cases."
"Your taunts are merited," said Orion sadly. "And yet, Child, we may both thank Providence, which did not leave us to wander long on the wrong road. Once already I have besought your forgiveness, and I do so now again. That does not satisfy you I see--and I can hardly blame you. Perhaps you will be better pleased, when I assure you once more that no sin was ever more bitterly or cruelly punished than mine has been."
"Indeed!" said Katharina with a drawl; then, with a flutter of her fan, she went on airily: "And yet you look anything rather than crushed; and have even succeeded in winning 'the other'--Paula, if I am not mistaken."
"That will do!" said Orion decisively, and he raised the key to the lock. Katharina, however, placed herself in his way, raised a threatening finger, and exclaimed:
"So I should think!--Now I am certain. However, you are right with your insolent 'That will do!' I do not care a rush for your love affairs; still, there is one thing I should like to know, which concerns myself alone; how could you see over our garden hedge? Anubis is scarcely a head shorter than you are. . . ."
"And you made him try?" interrupted Orion, who could not forbear smiling, perceiving that his honestly meant gravity was thrown away on Katharina. "Notwithstanding such a praiseworthy experiment, I may beg you to note for future cases that what is true of him is not true of every one, and that, besides foot-passengers, a tall man sometimes mounts a tall horse?"
"It was you, then, who rode by last night?"
"And who could not resist glancing up at your window."
At these words she drew back in surprise, and her eyes lighted up, but only for an instant; then, clenching the feathers of her fan in both hands, she sharply asked:
"Is that in mockery?"
"Certainly not," said Orion coolly; "for though you have reason enough to be angry with me. . . ."
"I, at any rate, have, so far given you none," she petulantly broke in. "No, I have not. It is I, and I alone, who have been insulted and ill-used; you must confess that you owe me some amends, and that I have a right to ask them."
"Do so," replied he. "I am yours to command." She looked him straight in the face.
"First of all," she began, "have you told any one else that I was. . ."
"That you were listening? No--not a living soul."
"And will you promise never to betray me?"
"Willingly. Now, what is the 'secondly' to this 'first of all?'"
But there was no immediate answer; the water-wagtail evidently found it difficult. However, she presently said, with downcast eyes:
"I want. . . . You will think me a greater fool than I am . . . nevertheless, yes, I will ask you, though it will involve me in fresh humiliation.--I want to know the truth; and if there is anything you hold sacred, before I ask, you must swear by what is holiest to answer me, not as if I were a silly girl, but as if I were the Supreme judge at the last day.--Do you hear?"
"This is very solemn," said Orion. "And you must allow me to observe that there are some questions which do not concern us alone, and if yours is such. . . ."
"No, no," replied Katharina, "what I mean concerns you and me alone."
"Then I see no reason for refusing," he said. "Still, I may ask you a favor in return. It seems to me no less important than it did to you, to know what a great man like the patriarch finds to talk about, and since I place myself at your commands. . . ."
"I thought," said the girl with a smile, "that your first object would be to discharge some small portion of your debt to me; however, I expect no excessive magnanimity, and the little I heard is soon told. It cannot matter much to you either--so I will agree to your wishes, and you, in return, must promise. . . ."
"To speak the whole truth."
"As truly as you hope for forgiveness of your sins?"
"As truly as that."
"That is well."
"And what is it that you want to know?"
At this she shook her head, exclaiming uneasily:
"Nay, nay, not yet. It cannot be done so lightly. First let me speak; and then open the door, and if I want to fly let me go without saying or asking me another word.--Give me that chair; I must sit down." And in fact she seemed to need it; for some minutes she had looked very pale and exhausted, and her hands trembled as she drew her handkerchief across her face.
When she was seated she began her story; and while her words flowed on quickly but without expression, as though she spoke mechanically, Orion listened with eager interest, for what she had to tell struck him as highly significant and important.
He had been watched by the patriarch's orders. By midnight Benjamin had already been informed of Orion's visit to Fostat, and to the Arab general. Nothing, however, had been said about it beyond a fear lest he had gone thither with a view to abjuring the faith of his fathers and going over to the Infidels. Far more important were the facts Orion gathered as to the prelate's negotiations with the Khaliff's representative. Amru had urged a reduction of the number of convents and of the monks and nuns who lived on the bequests and gifts of the pious, busied in all kinds of handiwork according to the rule of Pachomius, and enabled, by the fact of their living at free quarters, to produce almost all the necessaries of life, from the mats on the floors to the shoes worn by the citizens, at a much lower price than the independent artisans, whether in town or country. The great majority of these poor creatures were already ruined by such competition, and Amru, seeing the Arab leather-workers, weavers, ropemakers, and the rest, threatened with the same fate, had determined to set himself firmly to restrict all this monastic work. The patriarch had resisted stoutly and held out long, but at last he had been forced to sacrifice almost half the convents for monks and nuns.
But nothing had been conceded without an equivalent; for Benjamin was well aware of the immense difficulties which he, as chief of the Church, could put in the way of the new government of the country. So it was left to him to designate which convents should be suppressed, and he had, of course, begun by laying hands on the few remaining Melchite retreats, among them the Convent of St. Cecilia, next to the house of Rufinus. This establishment was now to be closed within three days and to become the property of the Jacobite Church; but it was to be done quite quietly, for there was no small fear that now, when the delayed rising of the river was causing a fever of anxiety in all minds, the impoverished populace of the town might rise in defence of the wealthy sisterhood to whom they were beholden for much benevolence and kind care.
Opposition from the town-senate was also to be looked for, since the deceased Mukaukas had pronounced this measure unjust and detrimental to the common welfare. The evicted orthodox nuns were to be taken into various Jacobite convents as lay sisters similar cases had already been known; but the abbess, whose superior intellect, high rank, and far-reaching influence might, if she were left free to act, easily rouse the prelates of the East to oppose Benjamin, was to be conveyed to a remote convent in Ethiopia, whence no flight or return was possible.
Katharina's report took but few minutes, and she gave it with apparent indifference; what could the suppression of an orthodox cloister, and the dispersion of its heretic sisterhood, matter to her, or to Orion, whose brothers had fallen victims to Melchite fanaticism? Orion did not betray his deep interest in all he heard, and when at length Katharina rose and pointed feebly to the door, all she said, as though she were vexed at having wasted so much time, was: "That, on the whole, is all."
"All?" asked Orion unlocking the door.
"Certainly, all," she repeated uneasily. "What I meant to ask--whether I ever know it or not--it does not matter.--It would be better perhaps-yes, that is all.--Let me go."
But he did not obey her.
"Ask," he said kindly. "I will answer you gladly."
"Gladly?" she retorted, with an incredulous shrug. "In point of fact you ought to feel uncomfortable whenever you see me; but things do not always turn out as they ought, in Memphis or in the world; for what do you men care what becomes of a poor girl like me? Do not imagine that I mean to reproach you; God forbid! I do not even owe you a grudge. If anyone can live such a thing down I can. Do not you think so? Everything is admirably arranged for me; I cannot fail to do well. I am very rich, and not ugly, and I shall have a hundred suitors yet. Oh, I am a most enviable creature! I have had one lover already, and the next will be more faithful, at any rate, and not throw me over so ruthlessly as the first.--Do not you think so?"
"I hope so," said Oriole gravely. "Bitter as the cup is that you offer me to drink. . ."
"I can only repeat that I must even drink it, since the fault was mine. Nothing would so truly gladden me as to be able to atone in some degree for my sin against you."
"Oh dear no!" she scornfully threw in. "Our hopes shall not be fixed so high as that! All is at an end between us, and if you ever were anything to me, you are nothing to me now--absolutely nothing. One hour in the past we had in common; it was short indeed, but to me--would you believe it?--a very great matter. It aged the young creature, whom you, but yesterday, still regarded as a mere child--that much I know--with amazing rapidity; aye, and made a worse woman of her than you can fancy."
"That indeed would grieve me to the bottom of my soul," replied Orion. "There is, I know, no excuse for my conduct. Still, as you yourself know, our mothers' wish in the first instance. . ."
"Destined us for each other, you would say. Quite true!--And it was all to please Dame Neforis that you put your arms round me, under the acacias, and called me your own, your all, your darling, your rose-bud? Was that--and this is exactly what I want to ask you, what I insist on knowing--was that all a lie--or did you, at any rate, in that brief moment, under the trees, love me with all your heart--love me as now you love--I cannot name her--that other?--The truth, Orion, the whole truth, on your oath!"
She had raised her voice and her eyes glowed with the excitement of passion; and now, when she ceased speaking, their sparkling, glistening enquiry plainly and unreservedly confessed that her heart still was his, that she counted on his high-mindedness and expected him to say "yes." Her round arm lay closely pressed to her bosom, as though to keep its wild heaving within bounds. Her delicate face had lost its pallor and seemed bathed in a glow, now tender and now crimson. Her little mouth, which but now had uttered such bitter words, was parted in a smile as if ready to bestow a sweet reward for the consoling, saving answer, for which her whole being yearned, and her eager eyes, shining through tears, did not cease to entreat him so pathetically, so passionately! How bewitching an image of helpless, love-sick, beseeching youth and grace.
"As you love that other,--on your oath."--The words still rang in the young man's ear. All that was soft in his soul urged him to make good the evil he had brought upon this fair, hapless young creature; but those very words gave him strength to remain steadfast; and though he felt himself appealed to for comfort and compassion, he could only stretch out imploring hands, as though praying for help, and say:
"Ah Katharina, and you are as lovely, as charming now, as you were then; but--much as you attracted me, the great love that fills a life can come but once. . . . Forget what happened afterwards. . . . Put your question in another form, alter it a little, and ask me again--or let me assure you."
But he had no time to say more; for, before he could atop her, she had slipped past him and flown away like some swift wild thing into the road and down to the fishing cove.