The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
All Katharina's sympathy with Heliodora had died finally in the course of the past, moonless night. She had secretly accompanied her, with her maid and an old deaf and dumb stable-slave, to a soothsayer--for there still were many in Memphis, as well as magicians and alchemists; and this woman had told the young widow that her line of life led to the greatest happiness, and that even the wildest wishes of her heart would find fulfilment. What those wishes were Katharina knew only too well; the probability of their accomplishment had roused her fierce jealousy and made her hate Heliodora.
Heliodora had gone to consult the sorceress in a simple but rich dress. Her peplos was fastened on the shoulder, not by an ordinary gold pin, but by a button which betrayed her taste for fine jewels, as it consisted of a sapphire of remarkable size; this had at once caught the eye of the witch, showing her that she had to deal with a woman of rank and wealth. She had taken Katharina, who had come very plainly dressed, for her companion or poor friend, so she had promised her no more than the removal of certain hindrances, and a happy life at last, with a husband no longer young and a large family of children.
The woman's business was evidently a paying one; the interior of her house was conspicuously superior to the wretched hovels which surrounded it, in the poorest and most squalid part of the town. Outside, indeed, it differed little from its neighbors; in fact; it was intentionally neglected, to mislead the authorities, for witchcraft and the practice of magic arts were under the penalty of death. But the fittings of the roofless centre-chamber in which she was wont to perform her incantations and divinations argued no small outlay. On the walls were hangings with occult figures; the pillars were painted with weird and grewsome pictures; crucibles and cauldrons of various sizes were simmering over braziers on little altars; on the shelves and tables stood cups, phials, and vases, a wheel on which a wryneck hopped up and down, wax images of men and women--some with needles through their hearts, a cage full of bats, and glass jars containing spiders, frogs, leeches, beetles, scorpions, centipedes and other foul creatures; and lengthways down the room was stretched a short rope walk, used in a Thracian form of magic. Perfumes and pungent vapors filled the air, and from behind a curtain which hid the performers came a monotonous music of children's voices, bells, and dull drumming.
Medea, so the wise woman was called, though scarcely past five and forty, harmonized in appearance with this strange habitation, full as it was of objects calculated to rouse repulsion, dread, and amazement. Her face was pale, and her extraordinary height was increased by a mass of coal-black hair, curled high over a comb at the very top of her head.
At the end of the first visit paid her by the two young women, who had taken her by surprise, so that several things were lacking which on the second occasion proved to be very effective in the exercise of her art, she had made Heliodora promise to return in three days' time. The young widow had kept her word, and had made her appearance punctually with Katharina.
To be in Egypt, the land of sorcery and the magic arts, without putting them to the test, was impossible. Even Martina allowed this, though she did not care for such things for herself. She was content with her lot; and if any change for the worse were in prospect she would rather not be tormented beforehand by a wise prophet; nor was it better to be deluded by a foolish one. Happiness as of Heaven itself she no longer craved; it would only have disturbed her peace. But she was the last person to think ill of the young, whose life still lay before them, if they longed to look into futurity.
The fair widow and her companion crossed the sorceress' threshold in some trepidation, and Katharina was the more agitated of the two; for this afternoon she had seen Philippus leave the house of Rufinus, and not long after some Arab officials had called there. Paula had come into the garden shortly before sundown, her eyes red with weeping; and when, soon after, Pulcheria and her mother had joined her there, Paula had thrown herself on Joanna's neck, sobbing so bitterly that the mother and daughter--"whose tears were near her eyes"--had both followed her example. Something serious had occurred; but when she had gone to the house to pick up further information, old Betta, who was particularly snappish with her, had refused her admission quite rudely.
Then, on their way hither, she and Heliodora had had a painful adventure; the chariot, lent by Neforis to convey them as far as the edge of the necropolis, was stopped on the way by a troop of Arab horse, and they were subjected to a catechism by the leader.
So they entered the house of "Medea of the curls," as the common people called the witch, with uneasy and throbbing hearts; they were received, however, with such servile politeness that they soon recovered themselves, and even the timid Heliodora began to breathe freely again. The sorceress knew this time who Katharina was, and paid more respectful attention to the daughter of the wealthy widow.
The young crescent moon had risen, a circumstance which Medea declared enabled her to see more clearly into the future than she could do at the time of the Luna-negers as she called the moonless night. Her inward vision had been held in typhornian darkness at the time of their first visit, by the influence of some hostile power. She had felt this as soon as they had quitted her, but to-day she saw clearer. Her mind's eye was as clear as a silver mirror, she had purified it by three days' fasting and not a mote could escape her sight.--"Help, ye children of Horapollo! Help, Hapi and Ye three holy ones!"
"Oh, my beauties, my beauties!" she went on enthusiastically. "Hundreds of great dames have proved my art, but such splendid fortunes I never before saw crowding round any two heads as round yours. Do you hear how the cauldrons of fortune are seething? The very lids lift! Amazing, amazing."
She stretched out her hand towards the vessels as though conjuring them and said solemnly: "Abundance of happiness; brimming over, brimming over! Bursting storehouses! Zefa-oo Metramao. Return, return, to the right levels, the right heights, the right depth, the right measure! Your Elle Mei-Measurer, Leveller, require them, Techuti, require them, double Ibis!"
She made them both sit down on elegant seats in front of the boiling pots, tied the "thread of Anubis" round the ring-finger of each, asked in a low whisper between muttered words of incantation for a hair of each, and after placing the hairs both in one cauldron she cried out with wild vehemence, as though the weal or woe of her two visitors were involved in the smallest omission:
"Press the finger with the thread of Anubis on your heart; fix your eyes on the cauldron and the steam which rises to the spirits above, the spirits of light, the great One on high!"
The two women obeyed the sorceress' directions with beating hearts, while she began spinning round on her toes with dizzy rapidity; her curls flew out, and the magic wand in her extended hand described a large and beautiful curve. Suddenly, and as if stricken by terror, she stopped her whirl, and at the same instant the lamps went out and the only light was from the stars and the twinkling coals under the cauldrons. The low music died away, and a fresh strong perfume welled out from behind the curtain.
Medea fell on her knees, lifted up her hands to Heaven, threw her head so far back that her whole face was turned up to the sky and her eyes gazed straight up at the stars-an attitude only possible to so supple a spine. In this torturing attitude she sang one invocation after another, to the zenith of the blue vault over their heads, in a clear voice of fervent appeal. Her body was thrown forward, her mass of hair no longer stood up but was turned towards the two young women, who every moment expected that the supplicant would be suffocated by the blood mounting to her head, and fall backwards; but she sang and sang, while her white teeth glittered in the starlight that fell straight upon her face. Presently, in the midst of the torrent of demoniacal names and magic formulas that she sang and warbled out, a piteous and terrifying sound came from behind the curtain as of two persons gasping, sighing, and moaning: one voice seemed to be that of a man oppressed by great anguish; the other was the half-suffocated wailing of a suffering child. This soon became louder, and at length a voice said in Egyptian: "Water, a drink of water."
The woman started to her feet, exclaiming: "It is the cry of the poor and oppressed who have been robbed to enrich those who have too much already; the lament of those whom Fate has plundered to heap you with wealth enough for hundreds." As she spoke these words, in Greek and with much unction, she turned to the curtain and added solemnly, but in Egyptian: "Give drink to the thirsty; the happy ones will spare him a drop from their overflow. Give the white drink to the wailing child-spirit, that he may be soothed and quenched.--Play, music, and drown the lamentations of the spirits in sorrow."
Then, turning to Heliodora's kettle she said sternly, as if in obedience to some higher power:
"Seven gold pieces to complete the work,"--and while the young widow drew out her purse the sorceress lighted the lamps, singing as she did so and as she dropped the coin into the boiling fluid: "Pure, bright gold! Sunlight buried in a mine! Holy Seven. Shashef, Shashef! Holy Seven, marry and mingle--melt together!"
When this was done she poured out of the cauldron a steaming fluid as black as ink, into a shallow saucer, called Heliodora to her side, and told her what she could see in the mirror of its surface.
It was all fair, and gave none but delightful replies to the widow's questioning. And all the sorceress said tended to confirm the young woman's confidence in her magic art; she described Orion as exactly as though she saw him indeed in the surface of the ink, and said he was travelling with an older man. And lo! he was returning already; in the bright mirror she could see Heliodora clasped in her lover's arms; and now--it was like a picture: A stranger--not the bishop of Memphis--laid her hand in his and blessed their union before the altar in a vast and magnificent cathedral.
Katharina, who had been chilled with apprehensions and a thrill of awe, as she listened to Medea's song, listened to every word with anxious attention; what Medea said--how she described Orion--that was more wonderful than anything else, beyond all she had believed possible. And the cathedral in which the lovers were to be united was the church of St. Sophia at Constantinople, of which she had heard so much.
A tight grip seemed to clutch her heart; still, eagerly as she listened to Medea's words, her sharp ears heard the doleful gasping and whimpering behind the hanging; and this distressed and dismayed her; her breath came short, and a deep, torturing sense of misfortune possessed her wholly. The wailing child-spirit within, a portion of whose joys Medea said had been allotted to her--nay, she had not robbed him, certainly not--for who could be more wretched than she? It was only that beautiful, languishing young creature who was so lavishly endowed by Fortune with gifts enough and to spare for others without number. Oh! if she could but have snatched them from her one after another, from the splendid ruby she was wearing to-day, to Orion's love!
She was pale and tremulous as she rose at the call of the sorceress, after she also had offered seven gold pieces. She would gladly have purchased annihilating curses to destroy her happier rival.
The black liquid in the saucer began to stir, and a sharply smelling vapor rose from it; the witch blew this aside, and as soon as the murky fluid was a little cool, and the surface was smooth and mirror-like, she asked Katharina what she most desired to know. But the answer was checked on her lips; a fearful thundering and roaring suddenly made the house shake; Medea dropped the saucer with a piercing shriek, the contents splashed up, and warm, sticky drops fell on the girl's arms and dress. She was quite overcome with the startling horror, and Heliodora, who could herself scarcely stand, had to support her, for she tottered and would have fallen.
The sorceress had vanished; a half-grown lad, a young man, and a very tall Egyptian girl in scanty attire were rushing about the room. They flew hither and thither, throwing all the vessels they could lay hands on into an opening in the floor from which they had lifted a trap-door; pouring water on the braziers and extinguishing the lights, while they drove the two strangers into a corner of the hall, rating and abusing them. Then the lads clambered like cats up to the opening in the roof, and sprang off and away.
A shrill whistle rang through the house, and in moment Medea burst into the room again, clutched the two trembling women by the shoulders, and exclaimed: "For Christ's sake, be merciful! My life is at stake Sorcery is punishable by death. I have done my best for you. You came here--that is what you must say--out of charity to nurse the sick." She pushed them both behind the hanging whence they still heard feeble groans, into a low, stuffy room, and the over-grown girl slipped in behind them.
Here, on miserable couches, lay an old man shivering, and showing dark spots on his bare breast and face: and a child of five, whose crimson cheeks were burning with fever.
Heliodora felt as if she must suffocate in the plague stricken, heavy atmosphere, and Katharina clung to her helplessly; but the soothsayer pulled her away, saying: "Each to one bed: you to the child, and you--the old man."
Involuntarily they obeyed the woman who was panting with fright. The water-wagtail, who never in her life thought of a sick person, turned very sick and looked away from the sufferer; but the your widow, who had spent many and many a night by the death-bed of a man she had loved, and who, tender-hearted, had often tended her sick slaves with her own hand, looked compassionately into the pretty, pain-stricken face of the child, and wiped the dews from his clammy brow.
Katharina shuddered; but her attention was presently attracted to something fresh; from the other side of the house came a clatter of weapons, the door was pushed open, and the physician Philippus walked into the room. He desired the night-watch, who were with him, to wait outside. He had come by the command of the police authorities, to whose ears information had been brought that there were persons sick of the plague in the house of Medea, and that she, nevertheless, continued to receive visitors. It had long been decided that she must be taken in the act of sorcery, and warning had that day been given that she expected illustrious company in the evening. The watch were to find her red-handed, so to speak; the leech was to prove whether her house was indeed plague-stricken; and in either case the senate wished to have the sorceress safe in prison and at their mercy, though even Philippus had not been taken into their confidence.
The visitors he had come upon were the last he had expected to find here. He looked at them with a disapproving shake of the head, interrupted the woman's voluble asseverations that these noble ladies had come, out of Christian charity, to comfort and help the sick, with a rough exclamation: "A pack of lies!" and at once led the coerced sick nurses out of the house. He then represented to them the fearful risk to which their folly had exposed them, and insisted very positively on their returning home and, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, taking a bath and putting on fresh garments.
With trembling knees they found their way back to the chariot; but even before it could start Heliodora had broken down in tears, while Katharina, throwing herself back on the cushions, thought, as she glanced at her weeping companion: "This is the beginning of the wonderful happiness she was promised! It is to be hoped it may continue!"
It seemed indeed as though Katharina's guardian spirit had overheard this amiable wish; for, as the chariot drove past the guard-house into the court-yard of the governor's house, it was stopped by armed men with brown, warlike faces, and they had to wait some minutes till an Arab officer appeared to enquire who they were, and what they wanted. This they explained in fear and trembling, and they then learnt that the Arab government had that very evening taken possession of the residence. Orion was accused of serious crimes, and his guests were to depart on the following day.
Katharina, who was known to the interpreter, was allowed to go with Heliodora to the senator's wife; she might also use the chariot to return home in, and if she pleased, take the Byzantines with her, for the palace would be in the hands of the soldiery for the next few days.
The two young women held council. Katharina pressed her friend to come at once to her mother's house, for she felt certain that they were plague-stricken, and how could they procure a bath in a house full of soldiers? Heliodora could not and must not remain with Martina in this condition, and the senator's wife could follow her next day. Her mother, she added, would be delighted to welcome so dear a guest.
The widow was passive, and when Martina had gladly consented to accept the invitation of her "delivering angel," the chariot carried them to Susannah's house. The widow had long been in bed, firmly convinced that her daughter was asleep and dreaming in her own pretty room.
Katharina would not have her disturbed, and the bath-room was so far from Susannah's apartment that she slept on quietly while Katharina and her guest purified themselves.