The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Katharina slept little and rose very early, as was her habit, while Heliodora was glad to sleep away the morning hours. In this scorching season they were, to be sure, the pleasantest of the twenty-four, and the water-wagtail usually found them so; but to-day, though a splendid Indian flower had bloomed for the first time, and the head gardener pointed it out to her with just pride, she could not enjoy it and be glad. It might perish for aught she cared, and the whole world with it!
There was no one stirring yet in the next garden, but the tall leech Philippus might be seen coming along the road to pay a visit to the women.
A few swift steps carried her to the gate, whence she called him. She must entreat him to say nothing of her last night's expedition; but before she had time to prefer her request he had paused to tell her that the widow of the Mukaukas, overcome by alarm and horror, had followed her husband to the next world.
There had been a time when Katharina had been devoted to Neforis, regarding her as a second mother; when the governor's residence had seemed to her the epitome of all that was great, venerable, and illustrious; and when she had been proud and happy to be allowed to run in and out, and to be loved like a child of the family. The tears that started to her eyes were sincere, and it was a relief to her, too, to lay aside the gay and defiantly happy mien which she wore as a mask, while all in her soul was dark, wild, and desperate.
The physician understood her grief; he readily promised not to betray her to any one, and did not blame her, though he again pointed out the danger she had incurred and earnestly insisted that every article of clothing, which she or Heliodora had worn, must be destroyed. The subtle germ of the malady, he said, clung to everything; every fragment of stuff which had been touched by the plague-stricken was especially fitted to carry the infection and disseminate the disease. She listened to him in deep alarm, but she could satisfy him on this point; everything she or her companion had worn had been burnt in the bath-room furnace.
The physician went on; and she, heedless of the growing heat, wandered restlessly about the grounds. Her heart beat with short, quick, painful jerks; an invisible burthen weighed upon her and prevented her breathing freely. A host of torturing thoughts haunted her unbidden; they were not to be exorcised, and added to her misery: Neforis dead; the residence in the hands of the Arabs; Orion bereft of his possessions and held guilty of a capital crime.
And the peaceful house beyond the hedge--what trouble was hanging over its white-haired master and his guileless wife and daughter? A storm was gathering, she could see it approaching--and beyond it, like another murky, death-dealing thunder-cloud, was the pestilence, the fearful pestilence.
And it was she, a fragile, feeble girl--a volatile water-wagtail--who had brought all these terrors down on them, who had opened the sluice-gates through which ruin was now beginning to pour in on all around her. She could see the flood surging, swelling--saw it lapping round her own house, her own feet; drops of sweat bedewed her forehead and hands from terror at the mere thought. And yet, and yet!--If she had really had the power to bind calamity in the clouds, to turn the tide back into its channel, she would not have done so! The uttermost that she longed for, as the fruit of the seed she had sown and which she longed to see ripen, had not yet come to pass--and to see that she would endure anything, even death and parting from this deceitful, burning, unlovely world.
Death awaited Orion; and before it overtook him he should know who had sharpened the sword. Perhaps he might escape with his life; but the Arab would not disgorge what he once had seized, and if that young and splendid Croesus should come out of prison alive, but a beggar, then--then. . . . And as for Paula! As for Heliodora! For once her little hand had wrenched the thunderbolts from Zeus' eagle, and she would find one for them!
The sense of her terrible power, to which more than one victim had already fallen, intoxicated her. She would drive Orion--Orion who had betrayed her--into utter ruin and misery; she would see him a beggar at her feet!--And this it was that gave her courage to do her worst; this, and this alone. What she would do then, she herself knew not; that lay as yet in the womb of the Future. She might take a fancy to do something kind, compassionate, and tender.
By the time she went into the house again her fears and depression had vanished; revived energy possessed her soul, and the little eavesdropper and tale-bearer had become in this short hour a purposeful and terrible woman, ready for any crime.
"Poor little lamb!" thought Philippus, as he went into Rufinus' garden. "That miserable man may have brought pangs enough to her little heart!"
His old friend's garden-plot was deserted. Under the sycamore, however, he perceived the figures of a very tall young man and a pretty woman, delicate, fair-haired, and rather pale. The big young fellow was holding a skein of wool on his huge, outstretched hands; the girl was winding it on to a ball. These were Rustem the Masdakite and Mandane, both now recovered from their injuries; the girl, indeed, had been restored to the new life of a calm and understanding mind. Philippus had watched over this wonderful resuscitation with intense interest and care. He ascribed it, in the first instance, to the great loss of blood from the wound in her head; and secondly, to the fresh air and perfect nursing she had had. All that was now needful was to protect her against agitation and violent emotions. In the Masdakite she had found a friend and a submissive adorer; and Philippus could rejoice as he looked at the couple, for his skill had indeed brought him nothing but credit.
His greeting to them was cheery and hearty, and in answer to his enquiry: "How are you getting on?" Rustem replied, "As lively as a fish in water," adding, as he pointed to Mandane, "and I can say the same for my fellow-countrywoman."
"You are agreed then?" said the leech, and she nodded eager assent.
At this Philippus shook his finger at the man, exclaiming: "Do not get too tightly entangled here, my friend. Who knows how soon Haschim may call you away."
Then, turning his back on the convalescents, he murmured to himself: "Here again is something to cheer us in the midst of all this trouble-these two, and little Mary."
Rufinus, before starting on his journey, had sent back all the crippled children he had had in his care to their various parents; thus the anteroom was empty.
The women apparently were at breakfast in the dining-room. No, he was mistaken; it was yet too early, and Pulcheria was still busy laying the table. She did not notice him as he went in, for she was busy arranging grapes, figs, pomegranates and sycamore-figs, a fruit resembling mulberries in flavor which grow in clusters from the trunk of the tree-between leaves, which the drought and heat of the past weeks had turned almost yellow. The tempting heap was fast rising in an elegant many-hued hemisphere; but her thoughts were not in her occupation, for tears were coursing each other down her cheeks.
"Those tears are for her father," thought the leech as he watched her from the threshold. "Poor child!"--How often he had heard his old friend call her so!
And till now he had never thought of her but as a child; but to-day he must look at her with different eyes--her own father had enjoined it. And in fact he gazed at her as though he beheld a miracle.
What had come over little Pulcheria?--How was it that he had never noticed it before?--It was a well-grown maiden that he saw, moving round, snowwhite arms; and he could have sworn that she had only thin, childish arms, for she had thrown them round his neck many a time when she had ridden up and down the garden on his back, calling him her fine horse.
How long ago was that? Ten years! She was now seventeen!
And how slender, and delicate, and white her hands were--those hands for which her mother had often scolded her when, after building castles of sand, she had sat down to table unwashed.
Now she was laying the grapes round the pomegranates, and he remembered how Horapollo, only yesterday, had praised her dainty skill.
The windows were well screened, but a few sunbeams forced their way into the room and fell on her red-gold hair. Even the fair Boeotians, whom he had admired in his student-days at Athens, had no such glorious crown of hair. That she had a sweet and pretty face he had always known; but now, as she raised her eyes and first observed him, meeting his gaze with maidenly embarrassment and sweet surprise, and yet with perfect welcome, he felt himself color and he had to pause a moment to collect himself before he could respond with something more than an ordinary greeting to hers. The dialogue that flashed through his mind in that instant began with sentences full of meaning. But all he said was:
"Yes, here I am," which really did not deserve the hearty reply:
"Thank God for that!" nor the bewitching embarrassment of the explanation that ensued: "on my mother's account."
Again he blushed; he, the man who had long since forgotten his youthful shyness. He asked after Dame Joanna, and how she was bearing her trouble, and then he said gravely: "I was the bearer of bad news yesterday, and to-day again I have come like a bird of ill-omen."
"You?" she said with a smile, and the simple word conveyed so sweet a doubt of his capacity for bringing evil that he could not help saying to himself that his friend, in leaving this child, this girl, to his care, had bequeathed to him the best gift that one mortal can devise to another: a dear, trustful, innocent daughter--or no, a younger sister--as pure, as engaging, and as lovable as only the child of such parents could be.
While he stood telling her of what had happened at the governor's house, he noted how deeply, for Paula's and Mary's sake, she took to heart the widow's death, though Neforis had been nothing to her; and he decided that he would at once make Pulcheria's mother acquainted with her dead husband's wishes.
All this did not supplant his old passion for Paula; far from it--that tortured him still as deeply and hotly as ever. But at the same time he was conscious of its evil influence; he knew that by cherishing it he was doing himself harm--nay a real injury since it was not returned. He knew that within reach of Paula, and condemned to live with her, he could never recover his peace, but must suffer constant pangs. It was only away from her, and yet under the same roof with Joanna and her daughter, that he could ever hope to be a contented and happy man; but he dared not put this thought into words.
Pulcheria detected that he had something in reserve, and feared lest he should know of some new impending woe; however, on this head he could reassure her, telling her that, on the contrary, he had something in his mind which, so far at least as he was concerned, was a source of pleasure. Her grieved and anxious spirit could indeed hardly believe him; and he begged her not to lose all hope in better days, asking her if she had true and entire trust in him.
She warmly replied that he must surely feel that she did; and now, as the others came into the room, she nodded to her mother, whom she had already seen quite early, and offering him her hand shook his heartily. This had been a restful interval; but the sight of Paula, and the news he had to give her, threw him back into his old depressed and miserable mood.
Little Mary, whose cheeks had recovered their roses and who looked quite well again, threw her arms round Paula's neck as she heard the evil tidings; but Paula herself was calmer than he had expected. She turned very pale at the first shock, but soon she could listen to him with composure, and presently quite recovered her usual demeanor. Philippus, as he watched her, had to control himself sternly, and as soon as possible he took his leave.
It was as though he had been fated once more to see with agonizing clearness what he had lost in her; she walked through life as though borne up by lofty feeling, and a thoughtful radiance lent her noble features a bewitching charm which grieved while it enchanted him.
Orion a prisoner, and all his possessions confiscated! The thought had horrified her for a little while; but then it had come to her that this was just as it should be--that what had at first looked like a dreadful disaster had been sent to enable her love to cast off its husks, to appear in all its loftiness and purity, and to give it, by the help of the All-merciful, its true consecration.
She did not fear for his life, for he had told her and written to her that Amru had been paternal in his kindness; and all that had occurred was, she was sure, the work of the Vekeel, of whose odious and cruel character he had given her a horrible picture that day when Rufinus had gone to warn the abbess.
When Philippus had left his friends, he sighed deeply. How different he had found these women from what he had expected. Yes, his old friend knew men well!
From trifling details he had succeeded in forming a more accurate idea of Pulcheria than the leech himself had gained in years of intimacy. Horapollo had foreseen, too, that the danger which threatened the Mukaukas' son would fan Paula's passions like a fresh breeze; and Joanna, frail, ailing Joanna! she had behaved heroically under the loss of the companion with whom she had lived for so many years in faithful love. He could not help comparing her with the wretched Neforis; what was it that enabled one to bear the equal loss with so much more dignity than the other? Nothing but the presence of the tender-hearted Pulcheria, who shared her sorrow with such beautiful resignation, such ready and complete sympathy. This the governor's widow had wholly lacked; and how happy were they who could call such a heart their own! He walked through the garden with his head bent, and looking neither to the right hand nor the left.
The Masdakite, who was still sitting with Mandane under the sycamore, as indifferent to the torrid heat as she was, looked after him, and said with a sigh as he pointed to him:
"There he goes. This is the first time he ever said a rude word to you or to me: or did you not understand?"
"Oh yes," said she in a low voice, looking down at her needlework.
They talked in Persian, for she had not forgotten the language which her mother had spoken till her dying day.
Life is sometimes as strange as a fairy-tale; and the accident was indeed wonderful which had brought these two beings, of all others, at the same time to the sick room. His distant home was also hers, and he even knew her uncle--her father's brother--and her father's sad history.
When the Greek army had taken possession of the province where they had lived, the men had fled into the woods with their flocks and herds, while the women and children took refuge in the fortress which defended the main road. This had not long held out against the Byzantines, and the women, among them Mandane with her mother, had been handed over to the soldiers as precious booty. Her father had then joined the troops to rescue the women, but he and his comrades had only lost their lives in the attempt. To this day the valiant man's end was a tale told in his native place, and his property and valuable rose gardens now belonged to his younger brother. So the two convalescents had plenty to talk about.
It was curious to note how clearly the memories of her childhood were stamped on Mandane's mind.
She had laid her wounded head on the pillow of sickness with a darkened brain, and the new pain had lifted the veil from her mind as a storm clears the oppressive atmosphere of a sultry summer's day. She loved to linger now among the scenes of her childhood--the time when she had a mother.--Or she would talk of the present; all between was like a night-sky black, and only lighted up by an awful comet and shining stars. That comet was Orion. All she had enjoyed with him and suffered through him she consigned to the period of her craziness; she had taught herself to regard it all as part of the madness to which she had been a victim. Her nature was not capable of cherishing hatred and she could feel no animosity towards the Mukaukas' son. She thought of him as of one who, without evil intent, had done her great wrong; one whom she might not even remember without running into peril.
"Then you mean to say," the Masdakite began once more, "that you would really miss me if Haschim sent for me?"
"Yes indeed, Rustem; I should be very sorry."
"Oh!" said the other, passing his hand over his big head, on which the dense mane of hair which had been shaved off was beginning to grow again. "Well then, Mandane, in that case--I wanted to say it yesterday, but I could not get it out.--Tell me: why would you be sorry if I were to leave you?"
"Because--well, no one can have all their reasons ready; because you have always been kind to me; and because you came from my country, and talk Persian with me as my mother used."
"Is that all?" said the man slowly, and he rubbed his forehead.
"No, no. Because--if once you go away, you will not be here."
"Aye that is it; that is just the thing. And if you would be sorry for that, then you must have liked being here--with me."
"And why not? It has been very nice," said the girl blushing and trying not to meet his eyes.
"That it has--and that it is!" cried Rustem, striking his palm with the other huge fist. "And that is why I must have it out; that is why, if we have any sense, we two need never part."
"But your master is sure to want you," said she with growing confusion, "and we cannot always remain a burthen on the kind folks here. I shall not work at the loom again; but as I am now free, and have the scroll that proves it, I must soon look about for some employment. And a strong, healthy fellow like you cannot always be nursing yourself."
"Nursing myself!" and he laughed gaily. "I will earn money, and enough for three!"
"By your camels always, up and down the country?"
"I have done with that," said he with a grin. "We will go back to our own country; there I will buy a good piece of pasture land, for my eldest brother has our little estate, and you may ask Haschim whether I understand camel-breeding."
"But Rustem, consider."
"Consider! Think this, and think that! Where there's a will there's a way. That is the upshot of it all. And if you mean to say that before you buy you must have money, and that the best may come to grief, all I can tell you is. . . . Can you read? No? nor I; but here in my pocket I have my accounts in the master's own hand. Eleven thousand, three hundred and sixty drachmae were due to me for wages the last time we reckoned: all the profit the master had set down to my credit since I led his caravan. He has kept almost all of it for me; for food was allowed, and there was almost always a bit of stuff for a garment to be found among the bales, and I never was a sot. Eleven thousand, three hundred and sixty drachmae! Hey, little one, that is the figure. And now what do you say? Can we buy something with that? Yes or no?"
He looked at her triumphantly, and she eagerly replied: "Yes, yes indeed; and in our country I think something worth having."
"And we--you and I--we will begin a quite new life. I was seventeen when I first set out with my master, and I was twenty-six last midsummer. How many years wandering does that make?"
They both thought this over for some time; then Mandane said doubtfully
"If I am not mistaken it is eight."
"I believe it is nine," he exclaimed. "Let us see. Here, give me your little paw! There, I begin with seventeen, that is where I started. First your little-finger--what a mite of a thing, and then the rest." He took her right hand and counted off her fingers till he ended with the last finger of the left. The result puzzled him; he shook his head, saying: "There are ten fingers on both hands, sure enough, and yet it cannot be ten years; it is nine at most I know."
He began the counting, which he liked uncommonly, all over again; but with the same result. Mandane said it was but nine, she had counted it up herself; and he agreed, and declared that her little fingers must be bewitched. And this game would have gone on still longer but that she remembered that the seventeen must not be included at all, and that he ought to begin with eighteen. Rustem could not immediately take this in, and even when he admitted it he did not release her hand, but went on with gay resolution:
"And you see, my girl, I mean to keep this little hand--you may pull it away if you choose--but it is mine, and the pretty little maid, and all that belongs to it. And I will take you and both your hands, bewitched fingers and all, home with me. There they may weave and stitch as much as you like; but as man and wife no one shall part us, and we will lead a life such a life! The joys of Paradise shall be no better than a rap on the skull with an olive-wood log in comparison!"
He tried to take her hand again, but she drew it away, saying in deep confusion and without looking up: "No, Rustem. I was afraid yesterday that it would come to this; but it can never, never be. I am grateful--oh! so grateful; but no, it cannot be, and that must be the end of it. I can never be your wife. Rustem."
"No?" he asked with a scowl, and the veins swelled in his low forehead. "Then you have been making a fool of me!--as to the gratitude you talk of. . . ."
He stood up in hot excitement; she laid her hand on his arm, drew him down on to the seat again, and ventured to steal an imploring look into his eyes, which never could long flash with anger. Then she said:
How you break out! I shall really and truly be very grieved to part from you; cannot you see that I am fond of you? But indeed, indeed it will never do, I--oh! if only I might go back, home, and with you. Yes, with you, as your wife. What a proud and happy thought! And how gladly would I work for us both--for I am very handy and hard-working, but. . . ."
"But?" he repeated, and he put his big, sun-burnt face close to hers, looking as if he could break her in pieces.
"But it cannot be, for your sake; it must not be, positively, certainly. I will not make you so bad a return for all your kindness. What! have you forgotten what I was, what I am? You, as a freeman, will soon have a nice little estate at home, and may command respect and reverence from all; but how different it would be if you had a wife like me at your heels--if only from the fact that I was once a slave."
"That is the history of it all!" he interrupted, and his brow cleared. "That is what is troubling your dear little soul! But do you not know who and what I am? Have I not told you what a Masdakite is?
We Masdakites believe, nay, we know, that all men are born equal, and that this mad-cap world would be a better place if there were neither masters nor servants; however, as things are, so they must remain. The great Lord of Heaven will suffer it yet for a season; but sooner or later, perhaps very soon, everything will be quite different, and it is our business to make ready for the day of equality. Then Paradise will return on earth; there will be none greater or less than another, but we shall all walk hand-in-hand and stand by each other on an equal footing. Then shall war and misery cease; for all that is fair and good on earth belongs to all men in common; and then all men shall be as willing to give and to help others, as they now are to seize and to oppress.--We have no marriage bond like other people; but when a man loves a woman he says, 'Will you be mine?' and if her heart consents she follows him home; and one may quit the other if love grows cold. Still, no married couple, whether Christian or Parsee, ever clung together more faithfully than my parents or my grandparents; and we will do the same to the end, for our love will bind us firmly together with strong cords that will last longer than our lives.--So now you know the doctrine of our master Masdak; my father and grandfather both followed it, and I was taught it by my mother when I was a little child. All in our village were Masdakites; and there was not a slave in the place; the land belonged to all in common and was tilled by all, and the harvest was equally shared. However, they no longer receive strangers, and I must seek for fellow-believers elsewhere. Still, a Masdakite I shall always remain; and, if I were to take a slave for my wife, I should only be acting on the precepts of the master and helping them on. But as for you, the case does not apply to you, for you are the child of a brave freeman, respected in all the land; our people will regard you as a prisoner of war, not as a slave. They will look up to me as your deliverer. And if I had found you, just as you are, the meanest of slaves and keeping pigs, I would have put my hand in my wallet at once and have bought your freedom and have carried you off home as my wife--and no Masdakite who saw you would ever blame me. Now you know all about it, and there, I hope, is an end of your coyness and mincing."
Mandane, however, still would not yield; she looked at him with eyes that entreated his pity, and pointed to her cropped ears.
Rustem shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. "Of course, that too, into the bargain; You will not let me off any part of it! If it had been your eyes now, you would not have been able to see, and no countryman can do with a blind wife, so I should leave you where you are. But you, little one, have hearing as sharp as a bird's? And what bird--pretty little things--did you ever see with ears, unless it were a bat or a nasty owl?--That is all nonsense. Besides, who can see what you have lost now that Pulcheria has brought your hair down so prettily? And do not you remember the head-dress our women wear? You might have ears as long as a hare's, and what good would it do you?--no one could see them. Just as you are, a lily grown like a cypress, you are ten times sweeter to look at than the prettiest girl there, if she had three or even four ears. A girl with three ears! Only think, Mandane, where could the third ear grow?"
How heartily he laughed, and how glad he was to have hit on this jest and have turned off a subject which might so well be painful to her! But his mirth failed of its effect, and only brought a silent smile to her lips. Even this died quickly away, and in its place there came such a sad, pathetic expression, as she hung her pretty head, that he could neither carry on the joke nor reproach her sharply. He said compassionately, with a little shake of the head:
"But you must not look like that, my pigeon: I cannot bear it. What is it that is weighing on your little soul? Courage, courage, sweetheart, and make a clean breast of it!--But no! Do not speak. I can spare you that! I know, poor little darling--it is that old story of the governor's son."
She nodded, and her eyes filled with tears; and he, with a loud sigh, exclaimed: "I thought as much, I was right, poor child!"
He took her hand, and went on bravely:
"Yes, that has given me some bad hours, too, and a great deal to think about; in fact, I came very near to leaving you alone and spoiling my own happiness and yours too. But I came to my senses before it was too late. Not on account of what Dame Joanna said the day before yesterday--though what she says must be true, and she told me that all--you know what--was at an end. No; my own sense told me this time; for I said to myself: Such a motherless, helpless little thing, a slave, too, and as pretty as the angels, her master's son took a fancy to her, how could she defend herself? And how cruelly the poor little soul was punished!--Yes, little one, you may well weep! Why, my own eyes are full of tears. Well, so it had to be and so it was. You and I and the Lord Almighty and the Hosts of Heaven--who can do anything against us?--So you see that even a poor fool like me can understand how it all came about; and I do not accuse you, nor have I anything to forgive. It was just a dreadful misfortune. But it has come to a good end, thank God I and I can forget it entirely and for ever, if only you can say: 'It is all over and done with and buried like the dead!'"
Before he could hinder her, she snatched his hand, to her lips with passionate affection and sobbed out:
"You are so good! Oh! Rustem, there is not another man on earth so good as you are, and my mother will bless you for it. Do what you will with me! And I declare to you, once for all that all that is past and gone, and only to think of it gives me horror. And it was exactly as you say: my mother dead, no one to warn me or protect me,--I was hardly sixteen, a simple, ignorant creature, and he called me, and it all came over me like a dream in my sleep; and when I awoke. . . ."
"There we are," he interrupted and he tried to laugh as he wiped his eyes. "Both laid up with holes in our heads.--And when I am in my own country I always think the prettiest time is just when the hard winter-frost is over, and the snow melted, and all the flowers in the valleys rush into bloom--and so I feel now, my little girl. Everything will be well now, we shall be so wonderfully happy. The day before yesterday, do you know, I still was not quite clear about it all. Your trouble gave me no peace, and it went against the grain-well, you can understand. But then, later, when I was lying in my room and the moon shone down on my bed . . . " and a rapt expression came into his face that strangely beautified his harsh features, "I could not help asking myself: 'Although the moon went down into the sea this morning, does that prevent its shining as brightly as ever to-night, and bringing a cooler breeze?' And if a human soul has gone under in the same way, may it not rise up again, bright and shining, when it has bathed and rested? And such a heart--of course every man would like to have its love all to himself, but it may have enough to give more than once. For, as I remembered, my mother, though she loved me dearly, when another child came and yet another gave them the best she had to give; and I was none the worse when she had my youngest sister at the breast, nor was she when I was petted and kissed. And it must be just the same with you. Thought I to myself: though she once loved another man, she may still have a good share left for me!"
"Yes, indeed, Rustem!" she exclaimed, looking tearfully but gratefully into his eyes. "All that is in me of love and tenderness is for you--for you only."
At this he joyfully exclaimed:
"All, that is indeed good hearing! That will do for me; that is what I call a good morning's work! I sat down under this tree a vagabond and a wanderer, and I get up a future land-holder, with the sweetest little wife in the world to keep house for me."
They sat a long time under the shady foliage; he craved no more than to gaze at her and, when he put the old questions asked by all lovers, to be answered with lips and eyes, or merely a speechless nod. Her hands no longer plied the needle, and the pair would have smiled in pity on any one who should have complained of the intolerable heat of this scorching, parching forenoon. A pair of turtle doves over their heads were less indifferent to the sun's rays than they, for the birds had closed their eyes, and the head of the mother bird was resting languidly against the dark collar round her mate's neck.