The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
The inhabitants of the governor's residence passed a fearful night. Martina asked herself what sin she had committed that she, of all people, should be picked out to witness such a disaster.
And where were her schemes of marriage now? Any movement in such heat was indeed scarcely endurable; but she would have moved from one part of the house to another a dozen times, and allowed herself to be tossed hither and thither like a ball, if it could have enabled her to save her dear "great Sesostris" from such hideous peril. And at the bottom of all this was, no doubt, this wild, senseless business of the nuns.
And these Arabs! They simply helped themselves to whatever they fancied, and were, of course, in a position to strip the son of the great Mukaukas of all he possessed and reduce him to beggary. A pretty business this!
Heliodora, to be sure, had enough for both, and she and her husband would not forget them in their will; but there was more than this in the balance now: it was a matter of life and death.
A cold shudder ran through her at the thought; and her fears were only too well founded: the black Arab who had come to parley with her, and had finally allowed her to remain under this roof till next day, had told her as much through the interpreter. A fearful, horrible, nameless catastrophe! And that she should be in the midst of it and have to see it all!
Then her husband, her poor Justinus! How hard this would fall on him! She could not cease weeping; and before she fell asleep she prayed fervently indeed, to the saints and the dear Mother of God, that they would bring all to a happy issue. She closed her eyes on the thought: "What a misfortune!" and she woke to it again early in the morning.
She, however, had known nothing of the worst horrors of that fatal night.
A troop of Arab soldiers had crossed the Nile at nightfall, some on foot or on horseback and some in boats, led by Obada the Vekeel, and had invested the governor's residence. When they had fully assured themselves that Orion was indeed absent they took Nilus prisoner. It was then Obada's business to inform the Mukaukas' widow of what had happened, and to tell her that she must quit the house next day. This must be done, because he had views of his own as to what was to become of the venerable house of the oldest family in the country.
Neforis was still up, and when the interpreter was announced as Obada's forerunner, she was in the fountain-room. He found her a good deal excited; for, although she was incapable of any consecutive train of thought and, when her mind was required to exert itself, her ideas only came like lightning-flashes through her brain, she had observed that something unusual was going on. Sebek and her maid had evaded her enquiries, and would say no more than that Amru's representative had come to speak with the young master. It seemed to be something important, perhaps some false accusation.
The interpreter now explained that Orion himself was accused of having planned and aided an enterprise which had cost the lives of twelve Arab soldiers; and, as she knew, any injury inflicted even on a single Moslem by an Egyptian was punished by death and the confiscation of his goods. Besides this, her son was accused of a robbery.
At the close of this communication, to which Neforis listened with a vacant stare, horrified and at last almost crushed, the interpreter begged that she would grant the Vekeel an audience.
"Not just yet--give me a few minutes," said the widow, bringing out the words with difficulty: first she must have recourse to her secret specific. When she had done so, she expressed her readiness to see Obada. Her son's swarthy foe was anxious to appear a mild and magnanimous man in her eyes, so it was with flattering servility and many smirking grins that he communicated to her the necessity for her quitting the house in which she had passed the longest and happiest half of her life, and no later than next day.
To his announcement that her private fortune would remain untouched, and that she would be at liberty to reside in Memphis or to go to her own house in Alexandria, she indifferently replied that "she should see."
She then enquired whether the Arabs had yet succeeded in capturing her son.
"Not actually," replied the Vekeel. "But we know where he is hiding, and by to-morrow or the next day we shall lay hands on the unhappy young man."
But, as he spoke, the widow detected a malicious gleam in his eyes to which, so far, he had tried to give a sympathetic expression, and she went on with a slight shake of the bead: "Then it is a case of life and death?"
"Compose yourself, noble lady," was the reply. "Of death alone."
Neforis looked up to heaven and for some minutes did not speak; then she asked:
"And who has accused him of robbery?" "The head of his own Church. . . ."
"Benjamin?" she murmured with a peculiar smile. Only yesterday she had made her will in favor of the patriarch and the Church. "If Benjamin could see that," said she to herself, "he would change his views of you and your people, and have prayers constantly said for us."
As she spoke no more the Vekeel sat looking at her inquisitively and somewhat at a loss, till at length she rose, and with no little dignity dismissed him, remarking that now their business was at an end and she had nothing further to say to him.
This closed the interview; and as the Vekeel quitted the fountain-room he muttered to himself: "What a woman! Either she is possessed and her brain is crazed, or she is of a rarely heroic pattern."
Neforis was supported to her own room; when she was in bed she desired her maid to bring a small box out of her chest and place it on the little table containing medicines by the bead of the couch.
As soon as she was alone she took out two letters which George had written to her before their marriage, and a poem which Orion had once addressed to her; she tried to read them, but the words danced before her eyes, and she was forced to lay them aside. She took up a little packet containing hair cut from the heads of her sons after death, and a lock of her husband's. She gazed on these dear memorials with rapt tenderness, and now the poppy juice began to take effect: the images of those departed ones rose clear in her mind, and she was as near to them as though they were standing in living actuality by her side.
Still holding the curls in her hand, she looked up into vacancy, trying to apprehend clearly what had occurred within the last few hours and what lay before her: She must leave this room, this ample couch, this house--all, in short, that was bound up with the dearest memories of those she had loved. She was to be forced to this--but did it beseem her to submit to this Negro, this stranger in the house where she was mistress? She shook her head with a scornful smile; then opening a glass phial, which was still half-full of opium pillules, she placed a few on her tongue and again gazed sky-wards.--Another face now looked down on her; she saw the husband from whom not even death could divide her, and at his feet their two murdered sons. Presently Orion seemed to rise out of the clouds, as a diver comes up from the water, and make for the shore of the island on which George and the other two seemed to be standing. His father opened his arms to receive him and clasped him to his heart, while she herself--or was it only her wraith--went to the others, who hurried forward to greet her tenderly; and then her husband, too, met her, and she found rest on his bosom.
For hours, and long before the incursion of the Arabs, she had been feeling half stunned and her mind clouded; but now a delicious, slumberous lethargy came over her, to which her whole being urged her to yield. But every time her eyes closed, the thought of the morrow shot through her brain, and finally, with a great effort, she sat up, took some water--which was always close at hand--shook into it the remaining pillules in the bottle, and drank it off to the very last drop.
Her hand was steady; the happy smile on her lips, and the eager expression of her eyes, might have led a spectator to believe that she was thirsty and had mixed herself a refreshing draught. She had no look of a desperate creature laying violent hands on her own life; she felt no hesitancy, no fear of death, no burthen of the guilt she was incurring--nothing but ecstatic weariness and hope; blissful hope of a life without end, united to those she loved.
Hardly had she swallowed the deadly draught when she shivered with a sudden chill. Raising herself a little she called her maid, who was sitting up in the adjoining room; and as the woman looked alarmed at her mistress's fixed stare, she stammered out: "A priest--quick--I am dying."
The woman flew off to the viridarium to call Sebek, who was standing in front of the tablinum with the Vekeel; she told him what had happened, and the Negro gave him leave to obey his dying mistress, escorting him as far as the gate. Just outside, the steward met a deacon who had been giving the blessing of the Church to a poor creature dying of the pestilence, and in a few minutes they were standing by the widow's bed.
The locks of her sons' hair lay by her side; her hands were folded over a crucifix; but her eyes, which had been fixed on the features of the Saviour, had wandered from it and again gazed up to Heaven.
The priest spoke her name, but she mistook him for her son and murmured in loving accents:
"Orion, poor, poor child! And you, Mary, my darling, my sweet little pet! Your father--yes, dear boy, only come with me.--Your father is kind again and forgives you. All those I loved are together now, and no one--Who can part us? Husband--George, listen. . ."
The priest performed his office, but she paid no heed, still staring upwards; her smiling lips continued to move, but no articulate sound came from them. At last they were still, her eyelids fell, her hands dropped the crucifix, a slight shiver ran through her limbs, which then relaxed, and she opened her mouth as though to draw a deeper breath. But it closed no more, and when the faithful steward pressed her lips together her face was rigid and her heart had ceased to beat.
The honest man sobbed aloud; when he carried the melancholy news to the Vekeel, Obada growled out a curse, and said to a subaltern officer who was super-intending the loading of his camels with the treasures from the tablinum:
"I meant to have treated that cursed old woman with conspicuous generosity, and now she has played me this trick; and in Medina they will lay her death at my door, unless. . ."
But here he broke off; and as he once more watched the loading of the camels, he only thought to himself: "In playing for such high stake's, a few gold pieces more or less do not count. A few more heads must fall yet--the handsome Egyptian first and foremost.--If the conspirators at Medina only play their part! The fall of Omar means that of Amru, and that will set everything right."