The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Orion stood alone gazing sadly after her. Was this his father's curse--that all who loved him must reap pain and grief in return?
He shivered; still, his youthful energy and powers of resistance were strong enough to give him speedy mastery over these torturing reflections. What opportunities lay before him of proving his prowess! Even while Katharina was telling her story, the brave and strenuous youth had set himself the problem of rescuing the cloistered sisters. The greater the danger its solution might involve him in, the more impossible it seemed at first sight, the more gladly, in his present mood, would he undertake it. He stepped out into the road and closed the door behind him with a feeling of combative energy.
It was growing dusk. Philippus must now be with Mary and, with the leech's aid, he was resolved to get the child away from his mother's house. Not till he felt that she was safe with Paula in Rufinus' house, could he be free to attempt the enterprise which floated before his eyes. On the stairs he shouted to a slave:
"My chariot with the Persian trotting horse!" and a few minutes after he entered the little girl's room at the same time with a slave girl who carried in a lamp. Neither Mary nor the physician observed him at first, and he heard her say to Philippus, who sat holding her wrist between his fingers.
"What is the matter with you this evening? Good heavens, how pale and melancholy you look!" The lamplight fell full on his face. "Look here, I have just made such a smart little man out of wax. . ."
She hoped to amuse the friend who was always so kind to her with this comical work of art; but, as she leaned forward to reach it, she caught sight of her uncle and exclaimed: "Philippus comes here to cure me, but he looks as if he wanted a draught himself. Take care, or you will have to drink that bitter brown stuff you sent yesterday; then you will know for once how nasty it can be." Though the child's exclamation was well-meant, neither of the men took any notice of it. They stood face to face in utter silence and with only a formal greeting; for Orion, without Mary's remark, had been struck by the change that had come over the physician since yesterday. Ignoring Orion's presence, he asked the child a few brief questions, begged Eudoxia to persevere in the same course of treatment, and then hastily bid a general farewell to all present; Orion, however, did not respond, but said, with an affectionate glance at the little patient: "One word with you presently."
This made Philippus turn to look at Mary and, as the eyes of the rivals met, they knew that on one subject at any rate they thought and felt alike. The leech already knew how tenderly the young man had taken to Mary, and he followed him into the room which Orion now occupied, and which, as Philippus was aware, had formerly been Paula's.
"In the cause of duty," he said to himself again and again, to keep himself calm and enable him to gather at least the general sense of what the handsome young fellow opposite to him was saying in his rich, pleasant voice, and urging as a request with more warmth than the leech had given him credit for. Philippus, of course, had heard of the grandmother's lamentable revulsion of feeling against her grandchild, and he thought Orion's wish to remove the little girl fully justified. But, on learning that she was to be placed under Paula's care, he seemed startled, and gazed at the floor in such sullen gloom that the other easily guessed what was going on in his mind. In fact, the physician suspected that the child was to serve merely as an excuse for the more frequent meetings of the lovers. Unable to bury this apprehension in his own breast he started to his feet, and was about to put it into words, when Orion took the words out of his mouth, saying modestly but frankly, with downcast eyes:
"I speak only for the child's--for Mary's sake. By my father's soul. . . ."
But Philippus shook his head dismally, went up to his rival, and murmured dully:
"For the sake of that child I am capable of doing or enduring a great deal. She could not be better cared for than with Rufinus and Paula; but if I could suppose," and he raised his voice, while his eyes took a sinister and threatening expression, "if I could suppose that her sacred and suffering innocence were merely an excuse. . . ."
"No, no," said Orion urgently. "Again, on my sacred word, I assure you that I have no aim in view but the child's safety; and, as we have said so much, I will not stick at a word more or less! Rufinus' house is open to you day and night, and I, if all turns out as I expect, shall ere long be far from hence--from Memphis--from Paula. There is mischief brewing--I dare say no more--an act of treachery; and I will try to prevent it at the risk of my life. You, every one, shall no longer have a right to think me capable of things which are as repulsive to my nature as to yours. You and I, if I mistake not, strive for the same prize, and so far are rivals; but why should the child therefor suffer? Forget it in her presence, and that forgetting will, as you well know, enhance your merit in her--her eyes."
"My merit?" retorted the other scornfully. "Merit is not in the balance; nothing but the gifts of blind Fortune--a nose, a chin, an eye, anything in short--a crime as much as a deed of heroism--that happens to make a deep impression on the wax of a girl's soft heart. But curse me," and he shouted the words at Orion as if he were beside himself, "if I know how we came to talk of such things! Has my folly gone running through the streets, bare-bosomed, to display itself to the world at large? How do you know what my feelings are? She, perhaps, has laughed with you at her ridiculous lover?--Well, no matter. You know already, or will know by to-morrow, which of us has won the cock-fight. You have only to look at me! What woman ever broke her heart for such a Thersites-face. Good-luck to the winner, and the other one--well, since it must be so, farewell till to-morrow."
He hastily made his way towards the door; Orion, however, detained him, imploring him to set aside his ill-feeling--at any rate for the present; assured him that Paula had not betrayed what his feelings were; that, on the contrary, he himself, seeing him with her so late on the previous night, had been consumed by jealousy, and entreated him to vent his wrath on him in abusive words, if that could ease his heart, only, by all that was good, not to withdraw his succor from that poor, innocent child.
The physician's humane heart was not proof against his prayer; and when at length he prepared to depart, in the joyful and yet painful conviction that his happier rival had become more worthy of the prize, he had agreed that he would impress on Neforis, whose mind he suspected to be slightly affected, that the air of the governor's residence did not suit Mary, and that she should place her in the care of a physician outside the town.
As soon as Philippus had quitted the house, Orion went to see Rufinus, who, on his briefly assuring him that he had come on grave and important business, begged him to accompany him to his private room. The young man, however, detained him till he had made all clear with the women as to the reception of little Mary.
"By degrees all the inhabitants of the residence will be transplanted into our garden!" exclaimed Rufinus. "Well, I have no objection; and you, old woman, what do you say to it?"
"I have none certainly," replied his wife. "Besides, neither you nor I have to decide in this case: the child is to be Paula's guest."
"I only wish she were here already," said Paula, "for who can say whether your mother, Orion--the air here is perilously Melchite."
"Leave Philippus and me to settle that.--You should have seen how pleased Mary was."
Then, drawing Paula aside, he hastily added:
"Have I not hoped too much? Is your heart mine? Come what may, can I count on you--on your lov-?"
"Yes, Yes!" The words rushed up from the very bottom of her heart, and Orion, with a sigh of relief, followed the old man, glad and comforted.
The study was lighted up, and there, without mentioning Katharina, he told Rufinus of the patriarch's scheme for dispersing the nuns of St. Cecilia. What could he care for these Melchite sisters? But, since that consoling hour in the church, he felt as though it were his duty to stand forth for all that was right, and to do battle against everything that was base. Besides, he knew how warmly and steadfastly his father had taken the part of this very convent against the patriarch. Finally, he had heard how strongly his beloved was attached to this retreat and its superior, so he prepared himself gleefully to come forth a new man of deeds, and show his prowess.
The old man listened with growing surprise and horror, and when Orion had finished his story he rose, helplessly wringing his hands. Orion spoke to him encouragingly, and told him that he had come, not merely to give the terrible news, but to hold council with him as to how the innocent victims might be rescued. At this the grey-headed philanthropist and wanderer pricked up his ears; and as an old war horse, though harnessed to the plough, when he hears the trumpet sound lifts his head and arches his neck as proudly and nobly as of yore under his glittering trappings, so Rufinus drew himself up, his old eyes sparkled, and he exclaimed with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of youth:
"Very good, very good; I am with you; not merely as an adviser; no, no. Head, and hand, and foot, from crown to heel! And as for you, young man--as for you! I always saw the stuff that was in you in spite--in spite.--But, as surely as man is the standard of all things, those who reach the stronghold of virtue by a winding road are often better citizens than those who are born in it.--It is growing late, but evensong will not yet have begun and I shall still be able to see the abbess. Have you any plan to propose?"
"Yes; the day after to-morrow at this hour. . . ."
"And why not to-morrow?" interrupted the ardent old man.
"Because I have preparations to make which cannot be done in twelve hours of daylight."
"The day after to-morrow at dusk, a large barge--not one of ours--will be lying by the bank at the foot of the convent garden. I will escort the sisters as far as Doomiat on the Lake. I will send on a mounted messenger to-night, and I will charter a ship for the fugitives by the help of my cousin Columella, the greatest ship-owner of that town. That will take them over seas wherever the abbess may command."
"Capital, splendid!" cried Rufinus enthusiastically. He took up his hat and stick, and the radiant expression of his face changed to a very grave one. He went up to the young man with solemn dignity, looked at him with fatherly kindliness, and said:
"I know what woes befell your house through those of our confession, the fellow-believers of these whom you propose to protect with so much prudence and courage; and that, young man, is noble, nay, is truly great. I find in you--you who were described to me as a man of the world and not over-precise--for the first time that which I have sought in vain for many years and in many lands, among the pious and virtuous: the spirit of willing self-sacrifice to save an enemy of a different creed from pressing peril.--But you are young, Orion, and I am old. You triumph in the action only, I foresee the consequences. Do you know what lies before you, if it should be discovered that you have covered the escape of the prey whom the patriarch already sees in his net? Have you considered that Benjamin, the most implacable and most powerful hater among the Jacobites, will pursue you as his mortal foe with all the fearful means at his command?"
"I have considered it," replied Orion.
Rufinus laid his left hand on the young man's shoulder, and his right hand on his head, saying, "Then take with you, to begin with, an old man's--a father's blessing."
"Yes, a father's," repeated Orion softly. A happy thrill ran through his body and soul, and he fell on the old man's neck deeply moved.
For a minute they stood clasped in each other's arms; then Rufinus freed himself, and set out to seek the abbess. Orion returned to the women, whose curiosity had been roused to a high pitch by seeing Rufinus disappear through the gate leading to the convent-garden. Dame Joanna could not sit still for excitement, and Pulcheria answered at random when Orion and Paula, who had an infinity of things to say or whisper to each other, now and then tried to draw her into the conversation. Once she sighed deeply, and when her friend asked her: "What ails you, Child?" she answered anxiously:
"Something serious must be going forward, I feel it. If only Philippus were here!"
"But we are all safe and well, thank God!" observed Orion, and she quickly replied:
"Yes indeed, the Lord be praised!" But she thought to herself:
"You think he is of no use but to heal the sick; but it is only when he is here that everything goes right and happens for the best!"
Still, all felt that there was something unusual and ominous in the air, and when the old man presently returned his face confirmed their suspicions. He laid aside his hat and staff in speechless gravity; then he put his arm affectionately round his wife and said:
"You will need all your courage and self-command once more, as you have often done before, good wife; I have taken upon myself a serious duty."
Joanna had turned very pale, and while she clung to her husband and begged him to speak and not to torture her with suspense, her frail figure was trembling, and bitter tears ran down her cheeks. She could guess that her husband was once more going away from her and their child, in the service and for the benefit of others, and she knew full well that she could not prevent it. If she could, she never would have had the heart to interfere: for she always understood him, and felt with him that something to take him out of the narrow circle of home-life was indispensable to his happiness.
He read her thoughts, and they gave him pain; but he was not to be diverted from his purpose. The man who would try to heal every suffering brute was accustomed to see those whom he loved best grieve on his account. Marriage, he would say, ought not to hinder a man in following his soul's vocation; and he was fond of using this high-sounding name to justify himself in his own and his wife's eyes, in doing things to which he was prompted only by restlessness and unsatisfied energy. Without this he would, no doubt, have done his best for the imperilled sisterhood, but it added to his enjoyment of the grand and dangerous rescue.
The wretched fate of the hapless nuns, and the thought of losing them as near neighbors, grieved the women deeply, and the men saw many tears flow; at the same time they had the satisfaction of finding them all three firmly and equally determined to venture all, and to bid these whom they loved venture all, to hinder the success of a deed which filled them with horror and disgust.
Joanna spoke not a word of demur when Rufinus said that he intended to accompany the fugitives; and when, with beaming looks, he went on to praise Orion's foresight and keen decisiveness, Paula flew to him proudly and gladly, holding out both her hands. As for the young man, he felt as though wings were growing from his shoulders, and this fateful evening was one of the happiest of his life.
The superior had agreed to his scheme, and in some details had improved upon it. Two lay sisters and one nun should remain behind. The two former were to attend to the sick in the infirmary, to ring the bell and chant the services as usual, that the escape of the rest might not be suspected; and Joanna, Paula, and Pulcheria, were to assist them.
When, at a late hour, Orion was about to leave, Rufinus asked whether, under these circumstances, it would be well to bring Mary to his house; he himself doubted it. Joanna was of his opinion; Paula, on the contrary, said that she believed it would be better to let the child run the risk of a remote danger--hardly to be called danger, than to leave her to pine away body and soul in her old home. Pulcheria supported her, but the two girls were forced to yield to the decision of the elders.