The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
The caravansary into which Haschim and his following now turned off stood on a plot of rising ground surrounded by palm-trees. Before the destruction of the heathen sanctuaries it had been a temple of Imhotep, the Egyptian Esculapius, the beneficient god of healing, who had had his places of special worship even in the city of the dead. It was half relined, half buried in desert sand when an enterprising inn-keeper had bought the elegant structure with the adjacent grove for a very moderate sum. Since then it had passed to various owners, a large wooden building for the accommodation of travellers had been added to the massive edifice, and among the palm-trees, which extended as far as the ill-repaired quay, stables were erected and plots of ground fenced in for beasts of all kinds. The whole place looked like a cattle-fair, and indeed it was a great resort of the butchers and horse-dealers of the town, who came there to purchase. The palm-grove, being one of the few remaining close to the city, also served the Memphites as a pleasure-ground where they could "sniff fresh air" and treat themselves in a pleasant shade. 'Tables and seats had been set out close to the river, and there were boats on hire in mine host's little creek; and those who took their pleasure in coming thither by water were glad to put in and refresh themselves under the palms of Nesptah.
Two rows of houses had formerly divided this rendezvous for the sober and the reckless from the highroad, but they had long since been pulled down and laid level with the ground by successive landlords. Even now some hundreds of laborers might be seen, in spite of the scorching heat, toiling under Arab overseers to demolish a vast ruin of the date of the Ptolemies. and transporting the huge blocks of limestone and marble, and the numberless columns which once had supported the roof of the temple of Zeus, to the eastern shore of the Nile-loading them on to trucks drawn by oxen which hauled them down to the quay to cross the river in flat-bottomed boats.
Amru, the Khaliff's general and representative, was there building his new capital. For this the temples of the old gods were used as quarries, and they supplied not only finely-squared blocks of the most durable stone, but also myriads of Greek columns of every order, which had only to be ferried over and set up again on the other shore; for the Arabs disdained nothing in the way of materials, and made indiscriminate use of blocks and pillars in their own sanctuaries, whether they took them from heathen temples or Christian churches.
The walls of the temple of Imhotep had originally been completely covered with pictures of the gods, and hieroglyphic inscriptions; but the smoke of reeking hearths had long since blackened them, fanatical hands had never been wanting to deface them, and in many places they had been lime-washed and scrawled with Christian symbols or very unchristian mottoes, in Greek and the spoken dialect of the Egyptians. The Arab and his men took their meal in what had been the great hall of the temple--none of them drinking wine excepting the captain of the caravan, who was no Moslem but belonged to the Parsee sect of the Masdakites.
When the old merchant, sitting at a table by himself, had satisfied his hunger, he called this chief and desired him to load the bale containing the hanging on a litter between the two largest baggage camels, and to fasten it securely but so that it could easily be removed.
"It is done," replied the Persian, as he wiped his thick moustache--he was a magnificent man as tall and stalwart as an oak, with light flowing hair like a lion's mane.
"So much the better," said Haschim. "Then come out with me." And he led the way to the palmgrove.
The sun had sunk to rest behind the pyramids, the Necropolis, and the Libyan hills; the eastern sky, and the bare limestone rock of Babylon on the opposite shore were shining with hues of indescribable diversity and beauty. It seemed as though every variety of rose reared by the skilled gardeners of Arsinoe or Naukratis had yielded its hues, from golden buff to crimson and the deepest wine-tinted violet, to shed their magic glow on the plains, the peaks and gorges of the hills, with the swiftness of thought.
The old man's heart beat high as he gazed at the scene; he drew a deep breath, and laying his slender hand on the Persian's mighty arm he said: "Your prophet, Masdak, taught that it was God's will that no one should think himself more or less chosen than another, and that there should be neither rich nor poor on earth, but that every possession should belong to all in common. Well, look around you here as I do. The man who has not seen this has seen nothing. There is no fairer scene here below and to whom does it belong? To poor simple Salech yonder, whom we allowed to tramp half naked at our camels' heels out of pity.--It is his as much as it is yours or mine or the Khaliff's. God has given us all an equal share in the glory of his works, as your prophet would have it. How much beauty is the common possession of our race! Let us be thankful for it, Rustem, for indeed it is no small matter.--But as to property, such as man may win or lose, that is quite a different matter. We all start on the same race-course, and what you Masdakites ask is that lead should be tied to the feet of the swift so that no one should outstrip another; but that would be. . . . Well, well! Let us feast our eyes now on the marvellous beauty before us. Look: What just now was the purple of this flower is now deep ruby red; what before was a violet gleam now is the richest amethyst. Do you see the golden fringe to those clouds? It is like a setting.--And all this is ours--is yours and mine--so long as we have eyes and heart to enjoy and be uplifted by it!"
The Masdakite laughed, a fresh, sonorous laugh, and said: "Yes, Master, for those who see as you see. The colors are bright no doubt over the sky and the hills, and we do not often see such a red as that at home in my country; but of what use is all that magic show? You see rubies and amethysts--but as for me! The gems in your hanging stand for something more than that shining show. I mean no harm, Master, but I would give all the sunsets that ever glowed on earth for your bales and never repent of the bargain!" He laughed more heartily than before and added: "But you, worthy Father, would think twice before you signed it.--As to what we Masdakites hope for, our time is not yet come."
"And suppose it were, and that the hanging were yours?"
"I should sell it and add the price to my savings, and go home and buy some land, and take a pretty wife, and breed camels and horses."
"And next day would come the poorer men who had laid nothing by, and had made no bargain over hangings and sunsets; and they would ask for a share of your land, and a camel and a foal each, and you would not be able ever to see a sunset again but must wander about the world, and your pretty wife with you to help you share everything with others.--Let us abide by the old order, my Rustem, and may the Most High preserve you your good heart, for you have but a foolish and crotchety head."
The big man bent over his master and gratefully kissed his arm; at this moment the guide rejoined them, but with a long face for he had promised more than he could perform. The Mukaukas George had set out--a quite unheard of event--for an excursion on the river in his barge, with his son and the ladies of the house just as he was hoping to secure an audience for the Arab. Orion's return--the steward had explained--had made the old man quite young again. Haschim must now wait till the morrow, and he, the guide, would counsel him to pass the night in the city at an inn kept by one Moschion, where he would be well cared for.
But the merchant preferred to remain where he was. He did not care about the delay, more particularly as he wished to consult an Egyptian physician with regard to an old standing complaint he suffered from, and there was no more skilful or learned leech in the whole land, the Egyptian guide assured him, than the famous Philip of Memphis. The situation here, outside the town, was very pleasant, and from the river's bank he might observe the comet which had been visible for some nights past--a portent of evil no doubt. The natives of the city had been paralysed with terror; that indeed was evident even here in Nesptah's caravansary, for usually as the evening grew cool, the tables and benches under the palms were crowded with guests; but who would care to think of enjoyment in those days of dread?
So he remounted his ass to fetch the physician, while old Haschim, leaning on the Masdakite's arm, betook himself to a bench by the river. There he sat gazing thoughtfully at the starry sky, and his companion dreamed of home and of buying a meadow, even without the price of the gorgeous hanging, of building a house, and of choosing a pretty little wife to manage it. Should she be fair or dark? He would rather she should be fair.
But his castle in the air was shattered at this point, for an object was approaching across the Nile which attracted his attention, and which he pointed out to his chief. The stream lay before them like a broad belt of black and silver brocade. The waxing moon was mirrored in the almost unruffled surface and where a ripple curled it the tiny crest glittered like white flame. Bats swooped to and fro in the gloom from the city of the dead to the river, and flitted above it like shadows blown about by the wind. A few lateen sails moved like pale, gigantic birds over the dark waters; but now from the north--and from the city--a larger mass came towards the palm-grove with bright, gleaming eyes of light.
"A fine boat,--the governor's no doubt," said the merchant, as it slowly came towards the grove from the middle of the stream. At the same time the clatter of hoofs became audible from the road behind the inn. Haschim turned round and was aware of torchbearers running ahead of a chariot.
"The sick man has come so far by water," said the Arab, "and now, he is to be driven home.--Strange! this is the second time to-day that I have met his much-talked-of son!"
The governor's pleasure-barge was nearing the palm-grove. It was a large and handsome boat, built of cedar-wood and richly gilt, with an image of John, the patron-saint of the family, for a figure-head. The nimbus round the head was a crown of lamps, and large lanterns shone both at the bows and stern of the vessel. The Mukaukas George was reclining under an awning, his wife Neforis by his side. Opposite to them sat their son and a tall young girl, at whose feet a child of ten sat on the ground, leaning her pretty head against her knees. An older Greek woman, the child's governess, had a place by the side of a very tall man, on an ottoman beyond the verge of the awning. This man was Philip the leech. The cheerful sound of the lute accompanied the barge, and the performer was the returned wanderer Orion, who touched the strings with skill and deep feeling.
It was altogether a pleasing scene--a fair picture of a wealthy and united family. But who was the damsel sitting by Orion's side? He was devoting his whole attention to her; as he struck the strings with deeper emphasis his eyes sought hers, and it seemed as though he were playing for her alone. Nor did she appear unworthy of such homage, for when the barge ran into the little haven and Haschim could distinguish her features he was startled by her noble and purely Greek beauty.
A few handsomely-dressed slaves, who must have come with the vehicle by the road, now went on board the boat to carry their invalid lord to his chariot; and it then became apparent that the seat in which he reclined was provided with arms by which it could be lifted and moved. A burly negro took this at the back, but just as another was stooping to lift it in front Orion pushed him away and took his place, raised the couch with his father on it, and carried him across the landing-stage between the deck and the shore, past Haschim to the chariot. The young man did the work of bearer with cheerful ease, and looked affectionately at his father while he shouted to the ladies--for only his mother and the physician accompanied the invalid after carefully wrapping him in shawls--to get out of the barge and wait for him. Then he went forward, lighted by the torches which were carried before them.
"Poor man!" thought the merchant as he looked after the Mukaukas. "But to a man who has such a son to carry him the saddest and hardest lot floats by like a cloud before the wind."
He was now ready to forgive Orion even the rejected flowers; and when the young girl stepped on shore, the child clinging fondly to her arm, he confessed to himself that Dame Susannah's little daughter would find it hard indeed to hold her own by the side of this tall and royal vision of beauty. What a form was this maiden's, and what princely bearing; and how sweet and engaging the voice in which she named some of the constellations to her little companion, and pointed out the comet which was just rising!
Haschim was sitting in shadow; he could see without being seen, and note all that took place on the bench, which was lighted by one of the barge's lanterns. The unexpected entertainment gave him pleasure, for everything that affected the governor's son roused his sympathy and interest. The idea of forming an opinion of this remarkable young man smiled on his fancy, and the sight of the beautiful girl who sat on the bench yonder warmed his old heart. The child must certainly be Mary, the governor's granddaughter.
Then the chariot started off, clattering away down the road, and in a few minutes Orion came back to the rest of the party.
Alas! Poor little heiress of Susannah's wealth! How different was his demeanor to this beautiful damsel from his treatment of that little thing! His eyes rested on her face in rapture, his speech failed him now and again as he addressed her, and what he said must be sometimes grave and captivating and sometimes witty, for not she alone but the little maid's governess listened to him eagerly, and when the fair one laughed it was in particularly sweet, clear tones. There was something so lofty in her mien that this frank expression of contentment was almost startling; like a breath of perfume from some gorgeous flower which seems created to rejoice the eye only. And she, to whom all that Orion had to say was addressed, listened to him not only with deep attention, but in a way which showed the merchant that she cared even more for the speaker than for what he was so eager in expressing. If this maiden wedded the governor's son, they would indeed be a pair! Taus, the innkeeper's wife, now came out, a buxom and vigorous Egyptian woman of middle age, carrying some of the puffs for which she was famous, and which she had just made with her own hands. She also served them with milk, grapes and other fruit, her eyes sparkling with delight and gratified ambition; for the son of the great Mukaukas, the pride of the city, who in former years had often been her visitor, and not only for the sake of her cakes, in water parties with his gay companions--mostly Greek officers who now were all dead and gone or exiles from the country--now did her the honor to come here so soon after his return. Her facile tongue knew no pause as she told him that she and her husband had gone forth with the rest to welcome him at the triumphal arch near Menes' Gate, and Emau with them, and the little one. Yes, Emau was married now, and had called her first child Orion. And when the young man asked Dame Taus whether Emau was as charming as ever and as like her mother as she used to be, she shook her finger at him and asked in her turn, as she pointed towards the young lady, whether the fickle bird at whose departure so many had sighed, was to be caged at last, and whether yon fair lady. . . .
But Orion cut her short, saying that he was still his own master though he already felt the noose round his neck; and the fair lady blushed even more deeply than at the good woman's first question. He however soon got over his awkwardness and gaily declared that the worthy Taus' little daughter was one of the prettiest girls in Memphis, and had had quite as many admirers as her excellent mother's puff-pastry. Taus was to greet her kindly from him.
The landlady departed, much touched and flattered; Orion took up his lute, and while the ladies refreshed themselves he did the maiden's bidding and sang the song by Alcaeus which she asked for, in a rich though subdued voice to the lute, playing it like a master. The young girl's eyes were fixed on his lips, and again, he seemed to be making music for her alone. When it was time to start homewards, and the ladies returned to the barge, he went up to the inn to pay the reckoning. As he presently returned alone the Arab saw him pick up a handkerchief that the young lady had left on the table, and hastily press it to his lips as he went towards the barge.
The gorgeous red blossoms had fared worse in the morning. The young man's heart was given to that maiden on the water. She could not be his sister; what then was the connection between them?
The merchant soon gained this information, for the guide on his return could give it him. She was Paula, the daughter of Thomas, the famous Greek general who had defended the city of Damascus so long and so bravely against the armies of Islam. She was Mukaukas George's niece, but her fortune was small; she was a poor relation of the family, and after her father's disappearance--for his body had never been found--she had been received into the governor's house out of pity and charity--she, a Melchite! The interpreter had little to say in her favor, by reason of her sect; and though he could find no flaw in her beauty, he insisted on it that she was proud and ungracious, and incapable of winning any man's love; only the child, little Mary--she, to be sure, was very fond of her. It was no secret that even her uncle's wife, worthy Neforis, did not care for her haughty niece and only suffered her to please the invalid. And what business had a Melchite at Memphis, under the roof of a good Jacobite? Every word the dragoman spoke breathed the scorn which a mean and narrow-minded man is always ready to heap on those who share the kindness of his own benefactors.
But this beautiful and lofty-looking daughter of a great man had conquered the merchant's old heart, and his opinion of her was quite unmoved by the Memphite's strictures. It was ere long confirmed indeed, for Philip, the leech whom the guide had been to find, and whose dignified personality inspired the Arab with confidence, was a daily visitor to the governor, and he spoke of Paula as one of the most perfect creatures that Heaven had ever formed in a happy hour. But the Almighty seemed to have forgotten to care for his own masterpiece; for years her life had been indeed a sad one.
The physician could promise the old man some mitigation of his sufferings, and they liked each other so well that they parted the best of friends, and not till a late hour.