The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Philippus started up from the divan on which he had been reclining at breakfast with his old friend. Before Horapollo was a half-empty plate; he had swallowed his meal less rapidly than his companion, and looked disapprovingly at the leech, who drank off his wine and water as he stood, whereas he generally would sit and enjoy it as he talked to the old man of matters light or grave. To the elder this was always the pleasantest hour of the day; but now Philippus would hardly allow himself more than just time enough to eat, even at their principal evening meal.
Indeed, not he alone, but every physician in the city, had as much as he could do with the utmost exertion. Nearly three weeks had elapsed since the attack on the nuns, and the fearful heat had still gone on in creasing. The river, instead of rising had sunk lower and lower; the carrier-pigeons from Ethiopia, looked for day by day with growing anxiety and excitement, brought no news of a rising stream even in the upper Nile, and the shallow, stagnant and evil-smelling waters by the banks began to be injurious, nay, fatal, to the health of the whole population.
Close to the shore, especially, the water had a reddish tinge, and the usually sweet, pure fluid in the canals was full of strange vegetable growths and other foreign bodies putrid and undrinkable. The common people usually shirked the trouble of filtering it, and it was among them that the greater number died of a mortal and infectious pestilence, till then unknown. The number of victims swelled daily, and the approach of the comet kept pace with the growing misery of the town. Every one connected it with the intense heat of the season, with the delay in the inundation, and the appearance of the sickness; and the leech and his friend often argued about these matters, for Philippus would not admit that the meteor had any influence on human affairs, while Horapollo believed that it had, and supported his view by a long series of examples.
His antagonist would not accept them and asked for arguments; at the same time he, like every one else, felt the influence of a vague dread of some imminent and terrible disaster hanging over the earth and humanity at large.
And, just as every heart in Memphis felt oppressed by such forebodings, and by the weight of a calamity, which indeed no longer threatened them but had actually come upon them, so the roads, the gardens, the palms and sycamores by the way-side were covered by thick layers of dingy, choking dust. The hedges of tamarisk and shrubs looked like decaying walls of colorless, unburnt mud-bricks; even in the high-roads the wayfarer walked in the midst of dense white clouds raised by his feet, and if a chariot, or a horseman galloped down the scorching street, fine, grey sand at once filled the air, compelling the foot-passengers to shut their eyes and lips.
The town was so silent, so empty, so deserted! No one came out of doors unless under pressure of business or piety. Every house was a furnace, and even a bath brought no refreshment, for the water had long since ceased to be cold. A disease had also attacked the ripening dates as they hung; they dropped off in thousands from the heavy clusters under the beautiful bending crown of leaves; and now for two days hundreds of dead fish had been left on the banks. Even the scaly natives of the river were plague-stricken; and the physician explained to his friend that this brought the inhabitants a fresh danger; for who could clear the shores of the dead fish?--And, in such heat, how soon they would become putrid!
The old man did not conceal from himself that it was hard, cruelly hard, for the physician to follow his calling conscientiously at such a time; but he knew his friend; he had seen him during months of pestilence two years since--always brisk, decisive and gay, indeed inspired to greater effort by the greater demands on him. What had so completely altered him, had poisoned and vexed his soul as with a malignant spell? It was not the almost superhuman sacrifices required by his duties;--it came of the unfortunate infatuation of his heart, of which he could not rid himself.
Philippus had kept his promise. He went every day to the house of Rufinus, and every day he saw Paula; but, as a murdered body bleeds afresh in the presence of the assassin, so every day the old pain revived when he was forced to meet her and speak with her. The only cure for this particular sufferer was to remove the cause of his pain: that is to say, to take Paula away out of his path; and this the old man made his care and duty.
Little Mary and the other patients under Rufinus' roof were on the way to recovery; still there was much to cast gloomy shadows over this happy termination. Joanna and Pulcheria were very anxious as to the fate of Rufinus. No news had been received of him or of the sisters, and Philippus was the vessel into which the forsaken wife and Pulcheria--who looked up to him as to a kind, faithful, and all-powerful protecting spirit-poured all their sorrows, cares, and fears. Their forebodings were aggravated by the fact that three times Arab officials had come to the house to enquire about the master and his continued absence. All that the women told them was written down, and Dame Joanna, whose lips had never yet uttered a lie, had found herself forced to give a false clue by saying that her husband had gone to Alexandria on business, and might perhaps have to proceed to Syria.--What could these enquiries forebode? Did they not indicate that Rufinus' complicity in the rescue of the nuns was known at Fostat?
The authorities there were, in fact, better informed than the women could suspect. But they kept their knowledge a secret, for it would never do to let the oppressed people know that a handful of Egyptians had succeeded in defeating a party of Arab soldiers; so the Memphites heard no more than a dark rumor of what had occurred.
Philippus had known nothing of the old man's purpose till he had gone too far to be dissuaded; and it was misery to him now to reflect that his dear old friend, and his whole household, might come to ruin for the sake of the sisterhood who were nothing to them; for he had received private information that there had been a skirmish between the Moslems and the deliverers of the nuns, which had cost the lives of several combatants on both sides.
And Paula! If only he could have seen her happy--But she was pale; and that which robbed the young girl--healthy as she was in mind and body--of her proud, frank, independent bearing was not the heat, which tormented all creation, but a secret, devouring sorrow; and this sorrow was the work of one alone--of him on whom she had set her heart, and who made, ah! what a return, for the royal gift of her love.
Philippus had frequent business at the governor's residence, and a fortnight since he had plainly perceived what it was that had brought Neforis into this strange state. She was taking the opium that her husband had had, taking it in excessive quantities; and she could easily procure more through some other physician. However, her piteous prayer that Philippus would not abandon her to her fate had prevailed to induce him to continue to see her, in the hope of possibly restricting her use of the drug.
The senator's wife, Martina, also required his visits to the palace. She was not actually ill, but she suffered cruelly from the heat, and she had always been wont to see her worthy old house-physician every day, to hear all the latest gossip, and complain of her little ailments when anything went wrong with her usually sound health. Philippus was indeed too much overburdened to chatter, but his professional advice was good and helped her to endure the fires of this pitiless sky. She liked this incisive, shrewd, plain-spoken man--often indeed sharp and abrupt in his freedom--and he appreciated her bright, natural ways. Now and then Martina even succeeded in winning a smile from "Hermes Trismegistus," who was "generally as solemn as though there was no such thing on earth as a jest," and in spurring him to a rejoinder which showed that this dolorous being had a particularly keen and ready wit.
Heliodora attracted him but little. There was, to be sure, an unmistakable likeness in her "imploring eyes" to those of Pulcheria; but the girl's spoke fervent yearning for the grace and love of God, while the widow's expressed an eager desire for the admiration of the men she preferred. She was a graceful creature beyond all question, but such softness, which never even attempted to assert a purpose or an opinion, did not commend itself to his determined nature; it annoyed him, when he had contradicted her, to hear her repeat his last statement and take his side, as if she were ashamed of her own silliness. Her society, indeed, did not seem to satisfy the clever older woman, who at home, was accustomed to a succession of visitors, and to whom the word "evening" was synonymous with lively conversation and a large gathering. She spoke of the leech's visits as the oasis in the Egyptian desert, and little Katharina even she regarded as a Godsend.
The water-wagtail was her daily visitant, and the girl's gay and often spiteful gossip helped to beguile her during this terrific heat. Katharina's mother made no difficulties; for Heliodora had gone to see her in all her magnificence, and had offered her and her daughter hospitality, some day, at Constantinople. They were very likely going thither; at any rate they would not remain in Memphis, and then it would be a piece of good fortune to be introduced to the society of the capital by such people as their new acquaintances.
Martina thus heard a great deal about Paula; and though it was all adverse and colored to her prejudice she would have liked to see the daughter of the great and famous Thomas whom she had known; besides, after all she had heard, she could fear nothing from Paula for her niece: uncommonly handsome, but haughty, repellent, unamiable, and--like Heliodora herself--of the orthodox sect.--What could tempt "great Sesostris" to give her the preference?
Katharina herself proposed to Martina to make them acquainted; but nothing would have induced Dame Martina to go out of her rooms, protected to the utmost from the torrid sunshine, so she left it to Heliodora to pay the visit and give her a report of the hero's daughter. Heliodora had devoted herself heart and soul to the little heiress, and humored her on many points.
This was carried out. Katharina actually had the audacity to bring the rivals together, even after she had reported to each all she knew of Orion's position with regard to the other. It was exquisite sport; still, in one respect it did not fulfil her intentions, for Paula gave no sign of suffering the agonies of jealousy which Katharina had hoped to excite in her. Heliodora, on the other hand, came home depressed and uneasy; Paula had received her coldly and with polite formality, and the young widow had remained fully aware that so remarkable a woman might well cast her own image in Orion's heart into the shade, or supplant it altogether.
Like a wounded man who, in spite of the anguish, cannot resist touching the wound to assure himself of its state, Heliodora went constantly to see Katharina in order to watch her rival from the garden or to be taken to call on her, though she was always very coldly received.
At first Katharina had pitied the young woman whose superior in intelligence she knew herself to be; but a certain incident had extinguished this feeling; she now simply hated her, and pricked her with needle-thrusts whenever she had a chance. Paula seemed invulnerable; but there was not a pang which Katharina would not gladly have given her to whom she owed the deepest humiliation her young life had ever known. How was it that Paula failed to regard Heliodora as a rival? She had reflected that, if Orion had really returned the widow's passion, he could not have borne so long a separation. It was on purpose to avoid Heliodora, and to remain faithful to what he was and must always be to Paula, that he had gone with the senator, far from Memphis. Heliodora--her instinct assured her--was the poor, forsaken woman with whom he had trifled at Byzantium, and for whom he had committed that fatal theft of the emerald. If Fate would but bring him home to her, and if she then yielded all he asked--all her own soul urged her to grant, then she would be the sole mistress and queen of his heart--she must be, she was sure of it! And though, even as she thought of it, she bowed her head in care, it was not from fear of losing him; it was only her anxiety about her father, her good old friend, Rufinus, and his family, whom she had made so entirely her own.
This was the state of affairs this morning, when to his old friend's vexation, Philippus had so hastily and silently drunk off his after-breakfast draught; just as he set down the cup, the black door-keeper announced that a hump-backed man wished to see his master at once on important business.
"Important business!" repeated the leech. "Give me four more legs in addition to my own two, or a machine to make time longer than it is, and then I will take new patients-otherwise no! Tell the fellow. . . ."
"No, not sick. . . ." interrupted the negro. "Come long way. Gardener to Greek man Rufinus."
Philippus started: he could guess what this messenger had to say, and his heart sank with dread as he desired that he might be shown in.
A glance at Gibbus told him what he had rightly feared. The poor fellow was hardly recognizable. He was coated with dust from head to foot, and this made him look like a grey-haired old man; his sandals hung to his feet in strips; the sweat, pouring down his cheeks, had made gutters as it were in the dust on his face, and his tears, as the physician held out his hand to him, washed out other channels.
In reply to the leech's anxious, long drawn "Dead?" he nodded silently; and when Philippus, clasping his hands to his temples, cried out: "Dead! My poor old Rufinus dead! But how, in Heaven's name, did it happen? Speak, man, speak!"--Gibbus pointed to the old philosopher and said: "Come out then, with me, Master. No third person. . . ."
Philippus, however, gave him to understand that Horapollo was his second self; and the hunch-back went on to tell him what he had seen, and how his beloved master had met his end. Horapollo sat listening in astonishment, shaking his head disapprovingly, while the physician muttered curses. But the bearer of evil tidings was not interrupted, and it was not till he had ended that Philippus, with bowed head and tearful eyes, said:
"Poor, faithful old man; to think that he should die thus--he who leaves behind him all that is best in life, while I--I. . . ." And he groaned aloud. The old man glanced at him with reproachful displeasure.
While the leech broke the seals of the tablets, which the abbess had carefully closed, and began to read the contents, Horapollo asked the gardener: "And the nuns? Did they all escape?"
"Yes, Master! on the morning after we reached Doomiat, a trireme took them all out to sea."
And the old man grumbled to himself: "The working bees killed and the Drones saved!"
Gibbus, however, contradicted him, praising the laborious and useful life of the sisters, in whose care he himself had once been.
Meanwhile Philippus had read his friend's last letter. Greatly disturbed by it he turned hither and thither, paced the room with long steps, and finally paused in front of the gardener, exclaiming: "And what next? Who is to tell them the news?"
"You," replied Gibbus, raising his hands in entreaty.
"I-oh, of course, I!" growled the physician. "Whatever is difficult, painful, intolerable, falls on my shoulders as a matter of course! But I cannot--ought not--I will not do it. Had I any part or lot in devising this mad expedition? You observe, Father?--What he, the simpleton, brewed, I--I again am to drink. Fate has settled that!"
"It is hard, it is hard, child!" replied the old man. "Still, it is your duty. Only consider--if that man, as he stands before us now, were to appear before the women. . . ."
But Philippus broke in: "No, no, that would not do! And you, Gibbus--this very day there has been an Arab again to see Joanna; and if they were to suspect that you had been with your master--for you look strangely.--No, man; your devotion merits a better reward. They shall not catch you. I release you from your service to the widow, and we--what do you say, Father?--we will keep him here."
"Right, very right," said Horapollo. "The Nile must some day rise again. Stay with us; I have long had a fancy to eat vegetables of my own growing."
But Gibbus firmly declined the offer, saying he wished to return to his old mistress. When the physician again pointed out to him how great a danger he was running into, and the old man desired to know his reasons, the hunch-back exclaimed:
"I promised my master to stay with the women; and now, while in all the household I am the only free man, shall I leave them unprotected to secure my own miserable life? Sooner would I see a scimitar at my throat. When my head is off the rascals are welcome to all that is left."
The words came hollow and broken from his parched tongue, and as he spoke the faithful fellow's face changed. Even under the dust he turned pale, and Philippus had to support him, for his feet refused their office. His long tramp through the torrid heat had exhausted his strength; but a draught of wine soon brought him to himself again and Horapollo ordered the slave to lead him to the kitchen and desire the cook to take the best care of him.
As soon as the friends were alone, the elder observed:
"That worthy, foolhardy, old child who is now dead, seems to have left you some strange request. I could see that as you were reading."
"There--take it!" replied Philippus; and again he walked up and down the room, while Horapollo took the letter. Both faces of the tablets were covered with irregular, up-and-down lines of writing to the following effect:
The last words were separated and written all astray; the old man could hardly make them out. He now sat looking, as Phillipus had done before, sorely puzzled and undecided over this strange document.
"Well?" asked the leech at last.
"Aye-well?" repeated the other with a shrug. Then both again were silent; till Horapollo rose, and taking his staff, also paced the room while he murmured, half to himself and half to his younger friend "They are two quiet, reasonable women. There are not many of that sort, I fancy. How the little one helped me up from the low seat in the garden!" It was a reminiscence that made him chuckle to himself; he stopped Philippus, who was pacing at his side, by lightly patting his arm, exclaiming with unwonted vivacity: "A man should be ready to try everything--the care of women even, before he steps into the grave. And is it a fact that neither of them is a scold or a chatter-box?"
"It is indeed."
"And what 'if' or 'but' remains behind?" asked the old man. "Let us be reckless for once, brother! If the whole business were not so diabolically serious, it would be quite laughable. The young one for me and the old one for you in our leisure hours, my son; better washed linen; clothes without holes in them; no dust on our books; a pleasant 'Rejoice' every morning, or at meal-times;--only look at the fruit on that dish! No better than the oats they strew before horses. At the old man's everything was as nice as it used to be in my own home at Philae: Supper a little work of art, a feast for the eye as well as the appetite! Pulcheria seems to understand all that as well as my poor dead sister did. And then, when I want to rise, such a kind, pretty little hand to help one up! I have long hated this dwelling. Lime and dust fall from the ceiling in my bedroom, and here there are wide gaps in the flooring-I stumbled over one yesterday--and our niggardly landlords, the officials, say that if we want anything repaired we may do it ourselves, that they have no money left for such things. Now, under that worthy old man's roof everything was in the best order." The philosopher chuckled aloud and rubbed his hands as he went on: "Supposing we kick over the traces for once, Philip. Supposing we were to carry out our friend's dying wish? Merciful Isis! It would certainly be a good action, and I have not many to boast of. But cautiously--what do you say? We can always throw it up at a month's notice."
Then he grew grave again, shook his head, and said meditatively: "No, no; such plans only disturb one's peace of mind. A pleasant vision! But scarcely feasible."
"Not for the present, at any rate," replied the leech.
"So long as Paula's fate remains undecided, I beg you to let the matter rest."
The old man muttered a curse on her; then he said with a vicious, sharp flash in his eyes: "That patrician viper! Every where in everything--she spoils it all! But wait a while! I fancy she will soon be removed from our path, and then. . . . No, even now, at the present time, I will not allow that we should be deprived of what would embellish life, of doing a thing which may turn the scale in my favor in the day of judgment. The wishes of a dying man are sacred: So our fathers held it; and they were right. The old man's will must be done! Yes, yes, yes. It is settled. As soon as that hindrance is removed, we will keep house with the two women. I have said; and I mean it."
At this point the gardener came in again, and the old man called out to him:
"Listen, man. We shall live together after all; you shall hear more of this later. Stay with my people till sundown, but you must keep your own counsel, for they are all listeners and blabs. The physician here will now take the melancholy tidings to the unfortunate widow, and then you can talk it all over with her at night. Nothing startling must take place at the house there; and with regard to your master, even his death must remain a secret from every one but us and his family."
The gardener knew full well how much depended on his silence; Philippus tacitly agreed to the old man's arrangement, but for the present he avoided discussing the matter with the women. When, at length he set off on his painful errand to the widow, Horapollo dismissed him saying:
"Courage, courage, my Son.--And as you pass by, just glance at our little garden;--we grieved to see the fine old palm-tree perish; but now a young and vigorous shoot is growing from the root."
"It has been drooping since yesterday and will die away," replied Philippus shrugging his shoulders.
But the old man exclaimed: "Water it, Gibbus! the palm-tree must be watered at once."
"Aye, you have water at hand for that!" retorted the leech, but he added bitterly as he reached the stairs, "If it were so in all cases!"
"Patience and good purpose will always win," murmured the old man; and when he was alone he growled on angrily: "Only be rid of that dry old palm-tree--his past life in all its relations to that patrician hussy Away with it, into the fire!--But how am I to get her? How can I manage it?"
He threw himself back in his arm-chair, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers. He had come to no result when the negro requested an audience for some visitors. These were the heads of the senate of Memphis, who had come as a deputation to ask counsel of the old sage. He, if any one, would find some means of averting or, at any rate, mitigating the fearful calamity impending over the town and country, and against which prayer, sacrifice, processions, and pilgrimages had proved abortive. They were quite resolved to leave no means untried, not even if heathen magic should be the last resource.