The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
As Orion rode across the bridge of boats to Fostat, the gladness that had inspired him died away. Could not--ought not Paula to have spared him a small part of the time she had devoted to the child? He had been left to make the most of a kind grasp of the hand and a grateful look of welcome. Would she not have flown to meet him, if the love of which she had assured him yesterday were as fervent, as ardent as his own? Was the proud spirit of this girl, who, as his mother said, was cold and unapproachable, incapable of passionate, self-forgetting devotion? Was there no way of lighting up in her the sacred fire which burnt in him? He was tormented by many doubts and a bitter feeling of disappointment, and a crowd of suspicions forced themselves upon him, which would never have troubled him if only he had seen her once more, had heard her happy words of love, and felt his lips consecrated by his mistress' first kiss.
He was out of spirits, indeed out of temper, as he entered the Arab general's dwelling. In the anteroom he was met by rejected petitioners, and he said to himself, with a bitter smile, that he had just been sent about his business in the same unsatisfied mood--yes, sent about his business--and by whom?
He was announced, and his spirits rose a little when he was at once admitted and led past many, who were left waiting, into the Arab governor's presence-chamber. He was received with paternal warmth; and, when Amru heard that Orion and the patriarch had come to high words, he jumped up and holding out both his hands exclaimed:
"My right hand on that, my friend; come over to Islam, and with my left I will appoint you your father's successor, in the Khaliff's name, in spite of your youth. Away with hesitation! Clasp hands; at once, quickly! I cannot bear to quit Egypt and know that there is no governor at Memphis!"
The blood tingled in the young man's veins. His father's successor! He, the new Mukaukas! How it flattered his ambition, what a way to all activity it opened out to him! It dazzled his vision, and moved him strongly to grasp the right hand which his generous patron still held out to him. But suddenly his excited fancy showed him the image of the Redeemer with whom he had entered into a silent covenant in the church, sadly averting his gentle face. At this he remembered what he had vowed; at this he forgot all his grievance against Paula; he took the general's hand, indeed, but only to raise it to his lips as he thanked him with all his heart. But then he implored him, with earnest, pleading urgency, not to be wroth with him if he remained firm and clung to the faith of his father and his ancestors. And Amru was not wroth, though it was with none of the hearty interest with which he had at first welcomed him, that he hastily warned Orion to be on his guard against the prelate, since, so long as he remained a Christian, he had no power to protect him against Benjamin.
When Orion went on to tell him that he was intending to travel for a short time, and had, in fact, come to take leave of him, the Arab was much annoyed. He, too, he said, must be going away and was starting within two days for Medina.
"And in casting my eye on you," he went on, "in spite of your youth, to fill your father's place, I took care to find a task for you which would enable you to prove that I had not put too great confidence in you. But, if you persist in your own opinions, I cannot possibly entrust so important a post as the governorship of Memphis to a Christian so young as you are; with the youthful Moslem I might have ventured on it.--However, I will not deprive you of the enterprise which I had intended for you. If you succeed in it, it will be a good thing for yourself, and I can, I believe, turn it to the benefit of the whole province--for what could take me from hence at this time, when my presence is so needful for a hundred incomplete projects, but my anxiety for the good of this country--in which I am but an alien, while you must love it as your native soil, the home of your race?--I am going to Medina because the Khaliff, in this letter, complains that I send too small a revenue into the treasury from so rich a land as Egypt. And yet not a single dinar of your taxes finds its way into my own coffers. I keep a hundred and fifty thousand laborers at work to restore the canals and waterworks which my predecessors, the blood-sucking Byzantines, neglected so disgracefully and left to fall to ruin--I build, and plan, and sow seed for posterity to reap. All this costs money. It swallows up the lion's share of the revenue. And I am making the journey, not merely to purge myself from reproach, but to obtain Omar's permission for the future to exact no extortionate payments, but to consider only the true weal of the province. I am most unwilling to go, for a thousand reasons; and you, young man, if you care for your native land, ought. . . . Do you really love it and wish it well?"
"With all my soul!" cried Orion.
"Well then, at this time, if by any possibility you can arrange it so, you ought to remain at home, and devote yourself heart and soul to the task I have to propose to you. I hate postponements. Ride straight at the foe, and do not canter up and down till you tire the horses! that is my principle, and not in battle only. Take the moral to heart!--And you will have no time to waste; what I require is no light matter: It is that you should endeavor to sketch a new division of the districts, drawing on your own knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, and using the records and lists in the archives of your ancient government-offices, of which your father has told me; you must have special regard to the financial condition of each district. That the old mode of levying taxes is unsatisfactory we find every day; you will have ample room for improvements in every respect. Overthrow the existing arrangements, if you consider it necessary. Other men have attempted to redistribute the divisions and devise new modes of collecting the revenue. The best scheme will have the preference; and you seem to me to be the man to win the prize, and, with it, a wide and noble field of work in the future. It is not a mere sense of tedium, or a longing for the pleasures of the capital to which you are accustomed, that are tempting you to quit Memphis the melancholy. . . ."
"No, indeed, my Lord," Orion assured him. "The duty I have in view does not even profit me, and if I had not given my word I would throw myself, heart and soul, into so grand a task, no later than to-morrow. That you should expect me to solve so hard a problem is the most precious incense ever offered me. If it is only to be worthy of your confidence, I will return as soon as possible and put forth my utmost powers of intelligence and prudence, of endurance and patriotism. I have always been a diligent student; and it would be a shame indeed, if my experiences as a youth could hinder the man from outdoing the school-boy."
"That is right, well said!" replied Amru, holding out his hand. "Do your best, and you shall have ample opportunity of proving your powers.--Take my warnings to heart as regards the patriarch and the black Vekeel. I unfortunately have no one who could fill his place except the worthy Kadi Othman; but he is no soldier, and he cannot be spared from his post. Keep out of Obada's way, return soon, and may the All-merciful protect you. . . . "
When Orion had recrossed the bridge on his way home, he saw a gaily-dressed Nile-boat, such as now but rarely stopped at Memphis, lying at anchor in the dock, and on the road he met two litters followed by beasts of burden and a train of servants. The whole party had a brilliant and wealthy appearance, and at any other time would have roused his curiosity; but to-day he merely wondered for a moment who these new-comers might be, and then continued to meditate on the task proposed to him by Amru. From the bottom of his heart he cursed the hour in which he had pledged himself to take the part of these strangers; for after such long idleness he longed to be able to prove his powers. Suddenly, and as if by a miracle, he saw the way opened before him which he had himself hoped to tread, and now he was fettered and held back from an enterprise which he felt he could carry out with success and benefit to his country, while it attracted him as with a hundred lode-stones.
Next morning, when his will had been duly signed and witnessed, he called the treasurer for an interview alone with him. He had made up his mind that one person, at least, must be informed of the enterprise he had planned, and that one could be no other than Nilus. So he begged him to accompany him to the impluvium of his private residence; and several office scribes who were present heard the invitation given. They did not, however, allow themselves to be disturbed in their work; the youngest only--a handsome lad of sixteen, an olive-complexioned Egyptian, with keen, eager black eyes, who had listened sharply to every word spoken by the treasurer and his master, quietly rose from his squatting posture as soon as they had quitted the office, and, stole, unobserved into the anteroom. From thence he flew up the ladder-like steps which led to the dovecote of which he had the care, sprang on to the roof of the lower story, and crept flat on his face till he was close to the edge of the large square opening which gave light and air to the impluvium below. With a swift movement of the hand he pushed back the awning which shaded it at midday, and listened intently to the dialogue that went on below.
This listener was Anubis, the water-wagtail's foster-brother; and he seemed to be in no way behind his beloved mistress in the art of listening; for no one could prick up his ears more sharply than Anubis. He knew, too, what was to be his reward for exposing himself on a roof to the shafts of the pitiless African sun, for Katharina, his adored play-fellow and the mistress of his ardent boy's heart, had promised him a sweet kiss, if only he would bring her back some more exact news as to Orion's perilous journey. Anubis had told her, the evening before, all he had heard in the anteroom to the office, but such general information had not satisfied her. She must see clearly before her, must know exactly what was going on, and she was not mistaken when she imagined that the reward she had promised the lad would spur him to the utmost.
Anubis had not indeed expected to gain his end so soon, boldly as he dared to hope; scarcely had he pushed aside the awning, when Orion began to explain to Nilus all his plan and purpose.
When he had finished speaking, the boy did not wait to hear Nilus reply. Intoxicated with his success, and the prospect of a guerdon which to him included all the bliss of heaven, he crept back to the dovecote. But he could not go back by the way by which he had come; for if one of the older scribes should meet him in the anteroom, he would be condemned to return to his work. He therefore wriggled along the ridge of the roof towards the fishing-cove, got over it, and laid hold of a gutter pipe, intending to slip down it; unfortunately it was old and rotten-rain was rare in Memphis--and hardly had he trusted his body after his hands when the lead gave way. The rash youth fell with the clattering fragments of the gutter from a height of four men; a heavy thump on the pavement was followed by a loud cry, and in a few minutes all the officials had heard that poor Anubis, nimble as he was, had fallen from the roof while attending to his pets, and had broken his leg.
The two men in the impluvium were not informed of the accident till some time later, for strict orders had been given that they were not to be disturbed.
Nilus had received his young master's communication with growing amazement, indignation, and horror. When Orion ended, the treasurer put forth all the eloquence of a faithful heart, anxious for the safety of the body and soul of the youth he loved, to dissuade him from a deed of daring which could bring him nothing but misapprehension, disaster, and persecution. Nilus was with all his soul a Jacobite; and the idea that his young master was about to risk everything for a party of Melchite nuns, and draw down upon himself the wrath and maledictions of the patriarch, was more than he could bear.
His faithful friend's warnings and entreaties did not leave Orion unmoved; but he clung to his determination, representing to Nilus that he had pledged his word to Rufinus, and could not now draw back, though he had already lost all his pleasure in the enterprise. But it went against him to leave the brave old man to face the danger alone--indeed, it was out of the question.
Genuine anxiety is fertile in expedient; Orion had scarcely done speaking, when Nilus had a proposal to make which seemed well calculated to dispel the youth's last objections. Melampus, the chief shipbuilder, was a Greek and a zealous Melchite, though he no longer dared to confess his creed openly. He and his sons, two bold and sturdy ships carpenters, had often given proof of their daring, and Nilus had no doubt that they would be more than willing to share in an expedition which had for its object the rescue of so many pious fellow-believers. They might take Orion's place, and would be far more helpful to the old man than Orion himself.
Orion so far approved of this suggestion as to promise himself good aid from the brave artisans, who were well known to him; and he was willing to take them with him, though he would not give up his own share in the business.
Nilus, though he adhered firmly to his objections, was at last reduced to silence. However, Orion went with his anxious friend to the ship-yard; the old ship-builder, a kind-hearted giant, was as ready and glad to undertake the rescue of the Sisters as if each one was his own mother. It would be a real treat to the youngsters to have a hand in such a job,--and he was right, for when they were taken into confidence one flourished his hatchet with enthusiasm, and the tether struck his horny fist against his left palm as gleefully as though he were bidden to a dance.
Orion took boat at once with the three men, and was rowed to the house of Rufinus, to whom he introduced them; the old man was entirely satisfied.
Orion remained with him after dismissing them. He had promised last evening to breakfast with him, and the meal was waiting. Paula had gone, about an hour since, to the convent, and Joanna expected her to return at any moment. They began without her, however; the various dishes were carried away, the meal was nearly ended-still she had not returned. Orion, who had at first been able to conceal his disappointment, was now so uneasy that his host could with difficulty extract brief and inadvertent replies to his repeated questions. Rufinus himself was anxious; but just as he rose to go in search of her, Pulcheria, who was at the window, saw her coming, and joyfully exclaiming: "There she is!" ran out.
But now again minute after minute passed, a quarter of an hour grew to half an hour, and still Orion was waiting in vain. Glad expectation had long since turned to impatience, impatience to a feeling of injured dignity, and this to annoyance and bitter vexation, when at last Pulcheria came back instead of Paula, and begged him from Paula to join her in the garden.
She had been detained too long at the convent. The terrible rumor had scared the pious sisters out of their wonted peace and put them all into confusion, like smoke blown into a bee-hive. The first thing was to pack their most valuable possessions; and although Orion had expressly said only a small number of cases and bags could be taken on board, one was for dragging her prayer-desk, another a large picture of some saint, a third a copper fish-kettle, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth the great reliquary with the bones of Ammonius the Martyr, to which the chapel owed its reputation for peculiar sanctity. To reduce this excess of baggage, the abbess had been obliged to exert all her energy and authority, and many a sister retired weeping over some dear but too bulky treasure.
The superior had therefore been unable to devote herself to Paula till this portable property had been under review. Then the damsel had been admitted to her parlor, a room furnished with rich and elegant simplicity, and there she had been allowed to pour out her whole heart to warm and sympathetic ears.
Any one who could have seen these two together might have thought that this was a daughter in grief seeking counsel on her mother's breast. In her youth the grey-haired abbess must have been very like Thomas' daughter; but the lofty and yet graceful mien of the younger woman had changed in the matron to majestic and condescending dignity, and it was impossible to guess from her defiantly set mouth that it had once been the chief charm of her face.
As she listened to the girl's outpourings the expression of her calm eyes changed frequently; when her soul was fired by fanatical zeal they could gleam brightly; but now she was listening to a variety of experiences, for Paula regarded this interview as a solemn confession, and concealed nothing from the friend who was both mother and priest-neither of what had happened to her in external circumstances, nor of what had moved her heart and mind ever since she had first entered the house of the Mtikaukas. Not a corner of her soul did she leave unsearched; she neither concealed nor palliated anything; and when she described her lover's strenuous efforts to apprehend the whole seriousness of life, her love and enthusiasm fairly carried her away, making his image shine all the more brightly by comparison with the brief, but dark shadow, that had fallen upon it. When Paula had at last ended her confession, the superior had remained silent for some time; then drawing the girl to her, she had affectionately asked her:
"And now? Now, tell me truly, does not the passion that has such wonderful power over you prompt and urge your inmost soul to yield--to fly to the embrace of the man you love--to give all up for him and say: 'Here I am--I am yours! Call a priest to bless our union!--Is it not so--am I not right?'"
Paula, deeply blushing, bowed assent; but the old woman drew her head on to her motherly bosom, and went on thoughtfully:
"I saw him drive past in his quadriga, and was reminded of many a noble statue of the heathen Greeks. Beauty, rank, wealth, aye--and talents and intellect--all that could ruin the heart of a Paula are his, and she--I see it plainly--will give it to him gladly."
And again the maiden bowed her head. The abbess sighed, and went on as though she had with difficulty succeeded in submitting to the inevitable "Then all warning would be in vain.--Still, he is not of our confession, he. . . ."
"But how highly he esteems it!" cried Paula. "That he proves by risking his freedom and life for you and your household."
"Say rather for you whom he loves," replied the other. "But putting that out of the question, it pains me deeply to think of Thomas' daughter as the wife of a Jacobite. You will not, I know, give him up; and the Father of Love often leads true love to good ends by wonderful ways, even though they are ways of error, passing through pitfalls and abysses."
Paula fell on her neck to kiss her gratefully: but the abbess could only allow the girl a few minutes to enjoy her happiness. She desired her to sit down by her side, and holding Paula's hand in both her own, she spoke to her in a tone of calm deliberation. She and her sisterhood, she began by saying, were deeply indebted to Orion. She had no dearer wish than that Paula should find the greatest earthly happiness in her marriage; still, it was her part to tender advice, and she dared not blind herself to the dangers which threatened this happiness. She herself had a long life behind her of varied experience, in which she had seen hundreds of young men who had been given up as lost sinners by father and mother--lost to the Church and to all goodness--and among these many a one, like Saul, had had his journey to Damascus. A turning point had come to them, and the outcast sons had become excellent and pious men.
Paula, as she listened, had drawn closer to the speaker, and her eyes beamed with joy; but the elder woman shook her head, and her gaze grew more devout and rapt, as she went on with deep solemnity:
"But then, my child, in all of these Grace had done its perfect work; the miracle was accomplished which we term regeneration. They were still the same men in the flesh and in the elements of their sensible nature, but their relation to the world and to life was altogether new. All that they had formerly thought desirable they could now hate; what they had deemed important was now worthless, and the worthless precious in their eyes; whereas they once referred everything to their own desires, they now referred all to God and His will. Their impulses were the same as of old, but they kept them within bounds by a never-sleeping consciousness that they led, not to joys, but to everlasting punishment. These regenerate souls learned to contemn the world, and instead of gazing down at the dust their eyes were fixed upwards on Heaven. If either of them tottered, his whole 'new man' prompted him to recover his balance before he fell to the ground.--But Orion! Your lover? His guilt seems to have passed over him; he hopes for reunion with God from a more meritorious life in the world. Not only is his nature unaltered, but his attitude with regard to life and to the joys it offers to the children of this world. Earthly love is spurring him on to strive for what is noble and great and he earnestly seeks to attain it; but he will fall over every stone that the devil casts in his path, and find it hard to pick himself up again, for misfortune has not led him to the new birth or the new life in God. Just such men have I seen, numbers of times, relapsing into the sins they had escaped from. Before we can entirely trust a man who has once--though but once-wandered so far from God's ways, while Grace has not yet worked effectually in him, we shall do well to watch his dealings and course for more than a few short days. If you still feel that you must follow the dictates of your heart, at any rate do not fly into your lover's open arms, do not abandon to him the pure sanctuary of your body and soul, do not be wholly his till he has been fully put to the proof."
"But I believe in him entirely!" cried Paula, with a flood of tears.
"You believe because you love him," replied the abbess.
"And because he deserves it."
"And how long has he deserved it?"
"Was he not a splendid man before his fall?"
"And so was many a murderer. Most criminals become outcasts from society in a single moment."
"But society still accepts Orion."
"Because he is the son of the Mukaukas."
"And because he wins all hearts!"
"Even that of the Almighty?"
"Oh! Mother, Mother! why do you measure him by the standard of your own sanctified soul? How few are the elect who find a share of the grace of which you speak!"
"But those who have sinned like him must strive for it."
"And he does so, Mother, in his way."
"It is the wrong way; wrong for those who have sinned as he has. All he strives for is worldly happiness."
"No, no. He is firm in his faith in God and the Saviour. He is not a liar."
"And yet he thinks he may escape the penalty?"
"And does not the Lord pardon true repentance?--He has repented; and how bitterly, how fearfully he has suffered!"
"Say rather that he has felt the stripes that his own sin brought upon him.--There are more to come; and how will he take them? Temptation lurks in every path, and how will he avoid it? As your mother, indeed it is my duty to warn you: Keep your passion and yourself still under control; continue to watch him, and grant him nothing--not the smallest favor, as you are a maiden, before he. . ."
"Till when; how long am I to be so basely on my guard?" sobbed Paula. "Is that love which trusts not and is not ready to share the lot even of the backslider?"
"Yes, child, yes," interrupted the old woman. "To suffer all things, to endure all things, is the duty of true love, and therefore of yours; but you must not allow the most indissoluble of all bonds to unite you to him till the back-slider has learnt to walk firmly. Follow him step by step, hold him up with faithful care, never despair of him if he seems other than what you had hoped. Make it your duty, pious soul, to render him worthy of grace--but do not be in a hurry to speak the final yes--do not say it yet."
Paula yielded, though unwillingly, to this last word of counsel; but, in fact, Orion's fault had filled the abbess with deep distrust. So great a sinner, under the blight, too, of a father's curse, ought, in her opinion, to have retired from the world and besieged Heaven for grace and a new birth, instead of seeking joys, such as she thought none but the most blameless--and, those of her own confession--could deserve, in union with so exceptional a creature as her beloved Paula. Indeed, having herself found peace for her soul only in the cloister, after a stormy and worldly youth, she would gladly have received the noble daughter of her old friend as the Bride of Christ within those walls, to be, perhaps, her successor as Mother Superior. She longed that her darling should be spared the sufferings she had known through the ruthlessness of faithless men; so she would not abate a jot of the tenor of her advice, or cease to impress on Paula, firmly though lovingly, the necessity of following it. At last Paula took leave of her, bound by a promise not to pledge herself irrevocably to Orion till his return from Doomiat, and till the abbess had informed her by letter what opinion she had formed of him in the course of their flight.
The high-spirited girl had not shed so many tears, as in the course of this interview, since the fatal affair at Abyla where she had lost her father and brother; it was with a tear-stained face and aching head that she had made her way back, under the scorching mid-day sun, to Rufinus' house, where she sought her old nurse. Betta had earnestly entreated her to lie down, and when Paula refused to hear of it she persuaded her at any rate to bathe her head with water as cold as was procurable in this terrific heat, and to have her hair carefully rearranged by her skilful hand; for this had been her mother's favorite remedy against headache. When, at length, Paula and her lover stood face to face, in a shady spot in the garden, they both looked embarrassed and estranged. He was pale, and gazed at her with some annoyance; and her red eyes and knit brows, for her brain was throbbing with piercing pain, did not tend to improve his mood. It was her part to explain and excuse herself; and as he did not at once address her after they had exchanged greetings, she said in a low tone of urgent entreaty:
"Forgive me for coming so late. How long you must have been waiting! But parting from my best friend, my second mother, agitated me so painfully--it was so unspeakably sad.--I did not know how to hold up my head, it ached so when I came home, and now--oh, I had hoped that we might meet to-day so differently!"
"But even yesterday you had no time to spare for me," he retorted sullenly, "and this morning--you were present when Rufinus invited me--this morning!--I am not exacting, and to you, good God! How could I be?--But have we not to part, to bid each other farewell--perhaps for ever? Why should you have given up so much time and strength to your friend, that so scanty a remnant is left for the lover? That is an unfair division."
"How could I deny it?" she said with melancholy entreaty. "You are indeed very right; but I could not leave the child last evening, as soon as she came, and while she was weeping out all her sorrows; and if you only knew how surprised and grieved I was--how my heart ached when, instead of finding you, your note. . . ."
"I was obliged to go to Amru," interrupted Orion. "This undertaking compels me to leave much behind, and I am no longer the freest of the free, as I used to be. During this dreadful breakfast I have been sitting on thorns. But let all that pass. I came hither with a heart high with hope--and now?--You see, Paula, this enterprise tears me in two in more ways than you can imagine, puts me into a more critical position, and weighs more on my mind than you can think or know--I will explain it all to you at another time--and to bear it all, to keep up the spirit and happy energy that I need, I must be secure of the one thing for which I could take far greater toil and danger as mere child's play; I must know. . . ."
"You must know," she interposed, "whether my heart is fully and wholly open to your love. . . ."
"And whether," he added, with growing ardor, "in spite of the bitter suffering that weighs on my wretched soul, I may hope to be happier than the saints in bliss. O Paula, adored and only woman, may I. . . ."
"You may," she said clearly and fervently. "I love you, Orion, and shall never, never cease to love you with my whole soul."
He flew to her side, clasped both her hands as if beside himself, snatched them to his lips regardless of the nearness of the house, whence ten pairs of eyes might have seen him, and covered them with burning kisses, till she drew them from him with the entreaty: "No, no; forbear, I entreat you. No--not now."
"Yes, now, at this very moment--or, if not, when?" he asked vehemently. "But here, in this garden--you are right, this is no place for two human beings so happy as we are. Come with me; come into the house and lead the way to a spot where we may be unseen and unheard, alone with each other and our happiness."
"No, no, no!" she hastily put in, pressing her hand to her aching brow. "Come with me to the bench under the sycamore; it is shady there, and you can tell me everything, and hear once more how entirely love has taken possession of me."
He looked in her face, surprised and disappointed; but she turned towards the sycamore and sat down beneath it. He slowly followed her. She signed to him to take a seat by her side, but he stood up in front of her, saying sadly and despondently.
"Always the same--always calm and cold. Is this fair, Paula? Is this the overwhelming love of which you spoke? Is this your response to the yearning cry of a passionately ardent heart? Is this all that love can grant to love--that a betrothed owes to her lover on the very eve of parting?"
At this she looked up at him, deeply distressed, and said in pathetically urgent entreaty: "O Orion, Orion! Have I not told you, can you not see and feel how much I love you? You must know and feel it; and if you do, be content, I entreat. You, whom alone I love, be satisfied to know that this heart is yours, that your Paula--your own Paula, for that indeed I am--will think of nothing, care for nothing, pray and entreat Heaven for nothing but you, yes you, my own, my all."
"Then come, come with me," he insisted, "and grant your betrothed the rights that are his due.
"Nay, not my betrothed--not yet," she besought him, with all the fervor of her tortured soul. "In my veins too the blood flows warm with yearning. Gladly would I fly to your arms and lay my head against yours, but not to-day can I become your betrothed, not yet; I cannot, I dare not!"
"And why not? Tell me, at any rate, why not," he cried indignantly, clenching his fist to his breast. "Why will you not be my bride, if indeed it is true that you love me? Why have you invented this new and intolerable torment?"
"Because prudence tells me," she replied in a low, hurried voice, while her bosom heaved painfully, as though she were afraid to hear her own words; "because I see that the time is not yet come. Ah, Orion! you have not yet learnt to bridle the desires and cravings that burn within you; you have forgotten all too quickly what is past--what a mountain we had to cross before we succeeded in finding each other, before I--for I must say it, my dear one--before I could look you in the face without anger and aversion. A strange and mysterious ordering has brought it about; and you, too, have honestly done your best that everything should be changed, that what was white should now be black, that the chill north wind should turn to a hot southerly one. Thus poison turns to healing, and a curse to a blessing. In this foolish heart of mine passionate hatred has given way to no less fervent love. Still, I cannot yet be your bride, your wife. Call it cowardice, call it selfish caution, what you will. I call it prudence, and applaud it; though it cost my poor eyes a thousand bitter tears before my heart and brain could consent to be guided by the warning voice. Of one thing you may be fully assured: my heart will never be another's, come what may--it is yours with my whole soul!--But I will not be your bride till I can say to you with glad confidence, as well as with passionate love: 'You have conquered--take me, I am yours!' Then you shall feel and confess that Paula's love is not less vehement, less ardent. . . . O God! Orion, learn to know and understand me. You must--for my sake and your own, you must!--My head, merciful Heaven, my head!"
She bowed her face and clasped her hands to her burning brow; Orion, pale and shivering, laid his hand on her shoulder, and said in a harsh, forced voice that had lost all its music: "The Esoterics impose severe trials on their disciples before they admit them into the mysteries. And we are in Egypt--but the difference is a wide one when the rule is applied to love. How ever, all this is not from yourself. What you call prudence is the voice of that nun!"
"It is the voice of reason," replied Paula softly. "The yearning of my heart had overpowered it, and I owe to my friend. . . ."
"What do you owe her?" cried the young man furiously indignant. "You should curse her, rather, for doing you so ill a turn, as I do at this moment. What does she know of me? Has she ever heard a word from my lips? If that despotic and casuistic recluse could have known what my heart and soul are like, she would have advised you differently. Even as a childs' confidence and love alone could influence me. Whatever my faults might be, I never was false to kindness and trust.--And, so far as you are concerned--you who are prudence and reason in person--blest in your love, I should have cared only for your approbation. If I could have overcome the last of your scruples, I should indeed have been proud and happy!--I would have brought the sun and stars down from the sky for you, and have laughed temptation to scorn!--But as it is--instead of being raised I am lowered, a laughing-stock even in my own eyes. One with you, I could have led the way on wings to the realms of light where Perfection holds sway!--But as it is? What a task lies before me!--To heat your frigid love to flaming point by good deeds, as though they were olive-logs. A pretty task for a man--to put himself to the proof before the woman he loves! It is a hideous and insulting torture which I will not submit to, against which my whole inner man revolts, and which you will and must forego--if indeed it is true that you love me!"
"I love you, oh! I love you," she cried, beside herself, and seizing his hands. "Perhaps you are right. I--my God what shall I do? Only do not ask me yet, to speak the final yes or no. I cannot control myself to the feeblest thought. You see, you see, how I am suffering!"
"Yes, I see it," he replied, looking compassionately at her pale face and drawn brow. "And if it must be so, I say: till this evening then. Try to rest now, and take care of yourself.--But then. . . ."
"Then, during the voyage, the flight, repeat to the abbess all you have just said to me. She is a noble woman, and she, too, will learn to understand and to love you, I am sure. She will retract the word I know. . . ."
"My word, given to her, that I would not be yours. . . ."
"Till I had gone through the Esoteric tests?" exclaimed Orion with an angry shrug. "Now go,--go and lie down. This hour, which should have been the sweetest of our lives, a stranger has embittered and darkened. You are not sure of yourself--nor I of myself. Anything more that we could say now and here would lead to no good issue for either you or me. Go and rest; sleep off your pain, and I--I will try to forget.--If you could but see the turmoil in my soul!--But farewell till our next, more friendly--I hardly dare trust myself to say our happier meeting."
He hastily turned away, but she called after him in sad lament: "Orion do not forget--Orion, you know that I love you."
But he did not hear; he buried on with his head bowed over his breast, down to the road, without reentering Rufinus' house.