The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Susannah had never particularly cared for Paula, but her fate shocked her and moved her to pity. She must at once enquire whether it was not possible to send her some better food than the ordinary prison-fare. That was but Christian charity, and her daughter seemed to take her friend's misfortune much to heart. When she and Martina returned home she looked so cast down and distracted that no stranger now would ever have dreamed of comparing her with a brisk little bird.
Once more a poisoned arrow had struck her. Till now she had been wicked only in her own eyes; now she was wicked in the eyes of another. Paula knew it was she who had betrayed her. The traitoress had been met by treachery. The woman she hated had a right to regard her as spiteful and malignant, and for this she hated her more than ever.
Till now she had nowhere failed to find an affectionate greeting and welcome; and to-day how coldly she had been repulsed--and not by Paula alone, but also by Martina, who no doubt had noticed something, and whose dry reserve had been quite intolerable to the girl.
It was all the old bishop's fault; he had not kept his promise that her tale-bearing should remain as secret as a confession. Indeed, he must have deliberately revealed it, for no one but herself knew of the facts. Perhaps he had even mentioned her name to the Arabs; in that case she would have to bear witness before the judges, and then in what light would she appear to Orion, to her mother, to Joanna and Martina?
She had not failed to understand that old Rufinus must have perished in the expedition, and she was truly grieved. His wife and daughter had always been kind neighbors to her; and she would not have willingly brought sorrow on them. If she were called up to give evidence it might go hard with them, and she wished no harm to any one but those who had cheated her out of Orion's love. This idea of standing before a court of justice was the worst of all; this must be warded off at any cost.
Where could Bishop Plotinus be? He had returned to Memphis the day before, and yet he had not been to see her mother, to whom he usually paid a daily visit. This absence seemed to her ominous. Everything depended on her reminding the old man of his promise as soon as possible; for if at the trial next morning--which of course, he must attend--he should happen to mention her name, the guards, the interpreter, and the scribe would invade her home too and then-horror! She had given evidence once already, and could never again go through all that had ensued.
But how was she to get at the bishop in the course of the night or early to-morrow at latest?
The chariot had not yet returned, and if--it still wanted two hours of midnight; yes--it must be done.
She began talking to her mother of the prelate's absence; Susannah, too, was uneasy about it, particularly since she had heard that the old man had come home ill and that his servant had been out and about in search of a physician. Katharina promptly proposed to go and see him: the horses were still in harness, her nurse could accompany her. She really must go and learn how her venerable friend was going on.
Susannah thought this very sweet; still, she said it was very late for such a visit; however, her spoilt child had said that she "must" and the answer was a foregone conclusion. Dame Susannah gave way; the nurse was sent for, and as soon as the chariot came round Katharina flung her arms round her mother's neck, promising her not to stay long, and in a few minutes the chariot stopped at the door of the bishop's palace. She bid the nurse wait for her and went alone into the vast, rambling house.
The spacious hall, lighted feebly by a single lamp, was silent and deserted, even the door-keeper had left his post; however, she was familiar with every step and turning, and went on through the impluvium into the library where, at this hour, the bishop was wont to be found. But it was dark, and her gentle call met with no reply. In the next room, to which she timidly felt her way, a slave lay snoring; beside him were a wine jar and a hand-lamp. The sight somewhat reassured her. Beyond was the bishop's bedroom, which she had never been into. A dim light gleamed through the open door and she heard a low moaning and gasping. She called the house-keeper by name once, twice; no answer. The sleeping slave did not stir; but a familiar voice addressed her from the bedroom, groaning rather than saying:
"Who is there? Is he come? Have you found him at last?"
The whole household had fled in fear of the pestilence; even the acolyte, who had indeed a wife and children. The housekeeper had been forced to leave the master to seek the physician, who had already been there once, and the last remaining slave, a faithful, goodhearted, heedless sot, had been left in charge; but he had brought a jar of wine up from the unguarded cellar, had soon emptied it, and then, overcome by drink and the heat of the night, he had fallen asleep.
Katharina at once spoke her name and the old man answered her, saying kindly, but with difficulty: "Ah, it is you, you, my child!"
She took up the lamp and went close to the sick man. He put out his lean arm to welcome her; but, as her approach brought the light near to him he covered his eyes, crying out distressfully: "No, no; that hurts. Take away the lamp."
Katharina set it down on a low chest behind the head of the bed; then she went up to the sufferer, gave him her mother's message, and asked him how he was and why he was left alone. He could only give incoherent answers which he gasped out with great difficulty, bidding her go close to him for he could not hear her distinctly. He was very ill, he told her--dying. It was good of her to have come for she had always been his pet, his dear, good little girl.
"And it was a happy impulse that brought you," he added, "to receive an old man's blessing. I give it you with my whole heart."
As he spoke he put forth his hand and she, following an instinctive prompting, fell on her knees by the side of the couch.
He laid his burning right hand on her head and murmured some words of blessing; she, however, scarcely heeded them, for his hand felt like lead and its heat oppressed and distressed her dreadfully. It was a sincere grief to her to see this true old friend of her childhood suffering thus--perhaps indeed dying; at the same time she did not forget what had brought her here--still, she dared not disturb him in this act of love. He gave her his blessing--that was kind; but his mutterings did not come to an end, the weight of the hot hand on her head grew heavier and heavier, and at last became intolerable. She felt quite dazed, but with an effort she collected her senses and then perceived that the old man had wandered off from the usual formulas of blessing and was murmuring disconnected and inarticulate words.
At this she raised the terrible, fevered hand, laid it on the bed, and was about to ask him whether he had betrayed her to Benjamin, and if he had mentioned her name, when--Merciful God! there on his cheeks were the same livid spots that she had noticed on those of the plague stricken man in Medea's house. With a cry of horror she sprang up, snatched at the lamp, held it over the sufferer, heedless of his cries of anguish, looked into his face, and pulled away the weary hands with which he tried to screen his eyes from the light. Then, having convinced herself that she was not mistaken, she fled from room to room out into the hall.
Here she was met by the housekeeper, who took the lamp out of her hand and was about to question her; but Katharina only screamed:
"The plague is in the house! Lock the doors!" and then rushed away, past the leech who was coming in. With one bound she was in the chariot, and as the horses started she wailed out to the nurse:
"The plague--they have the plague. Plotinus has taken the plague!"
The terrified woman tried to soothe her, assuring her that she must be mistaken for such hellish fiends did not dare come near so holy a man. But the girl vouchsafed no reply, merely desiring her to have a bath made ready for her as soon as they should reach home.
She felt utterly shattered; on the spot where the old man's plague-stricken hand had rested she was conscious of a heavy, hateful pressure, and when the chariot at length drove into their own garden something warm and heavy-something she could not shake off, still seemed to weigh on her brain.
The windows were all dark excepting one on the ground-floor, where a light was still visible in the room inhabited by Heliodora. A diabolical thought flashed through her over-excited and restless mind; without looking to the right hand or the left she obeyed the impulse and went forward, just as she was, into her friend's sitting-room and then, lifting a curtain, on into the bedroom. Heliodora was lying on her couch, still suffering from a headache which had prevented her going to visit their neighbors; at first she did not notice the late visitor who stood by her side and bid her good evening.
A single lamp shed a dim light in the spacious room, and the young girl had never thought their guest so lovely as she looked in that twilight. A night wrapper of the thinnest material only half hid her beautiful limbs. Round her flowing, fair hair, floated the subtle, hardly perceptible perfume which always pervaded this favorite of fortune. Two heavy plaits lay like sheeny snakes over her bosom and the white sheet. Her face was turned upwards and was exquisitely calm and sweet; and as she lay motionless and smiled up at Katharina, she looked like an angel wearied in well-doing.
No man could resist the charms of this woman, and Orion had succumbed. By her side was a lute, from which she brought the softest and most soothing tones, and thus added to the witchery of her appearance.
Katharina's whole being was in wild revolt; she did not know how she was able to return Heliodora's greeting, and to ask her how she could possibly play the lute with a headache.
"Just gliding my fingers over the strings calms and refreshes my blood," she replied pleasantly. "But you, child, look as if you were suffering far worse than I.--Did you come home in the chariot that drove up just now?"
"Yes," replied Katharina. "I have been to see our dear old bishop. He is very ill, dying; he will soon be taken from us. Oh, what a fearful day! First Orion's mother, then Paula, and now this to crown all! Oh, Heliodora, Heliodora!"
She fell on her knees by the bed and pressed her face against her pitying friend's bosom. Heliodora saw the tears which had risen with unaffected feeling to the girl's eyes; her tender soul was full of sympathy with the sorrow of such a gladsome young creature, who had already had so much to suffer, and she leaned over the child, kissing her affectionately on the brow, and murmuring words of consolation. Katharina clung to her closely, and pointing to the top of her head where that burning hand had pressed it, she said: "There, kiss there: there is where the pain is worst!--Ah, that is nice, that does me good."
And, as the tender-hearted Heliodora's fresh lips rested on the plague-tainted hair, Katharina closed her eyes and felt as a gladiator might who hitherto has only tried his weapons on the practising ground, and now for the first time uses them in the arena to pierce his opponent's heart. She had a vision of herself as some one else, taller and stronger than she was; aye, as Death itself, the destroyer, breathing herself into her victim's breast.
These feelings entirely possessed her as she knelt on the soft carpet, and she did not notice that another woman was crossing it noiselessly to her comforter's bed-side, with a glance of intelligence at Heliodora. Just as she exclaimed: "Another kiss there-it burns so dreadfully," she felt two hands on her temples and two lips, not Heliodora's, were pressed on her head.
She looked up in astonishment and saw the smiling face of her mother, who had come after her to ask how the bishop was, and who wished to take her share in soothing the pain of her darling.
How well her little surprise had succeeded!
But what came over the child? She started to her feet as if lightning had struck her, as if an asp had stung her, looked horror-stricken into her mother's eyes, and then, as Susannah was on the point of clasping the little head to her bosom once more to kiss the aching, the cursed spot, Katharina pushed her away, flew, distracted, through the sitting-room into the vestibule, and down the narrow steps leading to the bathroom.
Her mother looked after her, shaking her head in bewilderment. Then she turned to Heliodora with a shrug, and said, as the tears filled her eyes:
"Poor, poor little thing! Too many troubles have come upon her at once. Her life till lately was like a long, sunny day, and now the hail is pelting her from all sides at once. She has bad news of the bishop, I fear."
"He is dying, she said," replied the young widow with feeling.
"Our best and truest friend," sobbed Susannah. "It is, it really is too much. I often think that I must myself succumb, and as for her--hardly more than a child!--And with what resignation she bears the heaviest sorrows!--You, Heliodora, are far from knowing what she has gone through; but you have no doubt seen how her only thought is to seem bright, so as to cheer my heart. Not a sigh, not a complaint has passed her lips. She submits like a saint to everything, without a murmur. But, now that her clear old friend is stricken, she has lost her self-control for the first time. She knows all that Plotinus has been to me." And she broke down into fresh sobbing. When she was a little calmer, she apologised for her weakness and bid her fair guest good night.
Katharina, meanwhile, was taking a bath.
A bathroom was an indispensable adjunct to every wealthy Graeco-Egyptian house, and her father had taken particular pains with its construction. It consisted of two chambers, one for men and one for women; both fitted with equal splendor.
White marble, yellow alabaster, purple porphyry on all sides; while the pavement was of fine Byzantine mosaic on a gold ground. There were no statues, as in the baths of the heathen; the walls were decorated with bible texts in gold letters, and above the divan, which was covered with a giraffe skin, there was a crucifix. On the middle panel of the coffered ceiling was inscribed defiantly, in the Coptic language the first axiom of the Jacobite creed: "We believe in the single, indivisible nature of Christ Jesus." And below this hung silver lamps.
The large bath had been filled immediately for Katharina, as the furnace was heated every evening for the ladies of the house. As she was undressing, her maid showed her a diseased date. The head gardener, had brought it to her, for he had that afternoon, discovered that his palms, too, had been attacked. But the woman soon regretted her loquacity, for when she went on to say that Anchhor, the worthy shoemaker who, only the day before yesterday, had brought home her pretty new sandals, had died of the plague, Katharina scolded her sharply and bid her be silent. But as the maid knelt before her to unfasten her sandals, Katharina herself took up the story again, asking her whether the shoemaker's pretty young wife had also been attacked. The girl said that she was still alive, but that the old mother-in-law and all the children had been shut into the house, and even the shutters barred as soon as the corpse had been brought out. The authorities had ordered that this should be done in every case, so that the pestilence might not pervade the streets or be disseminated among the healthy. Food and drink were handed to the captives through a wicket in the door. Such regulations, she added, seemed particularly well-considered and wise. But she would have done better to keep her opinions to herself, for before she had done speaking Katharina gave her an angry push with her foot. Then she desired her not to be sparing with the 'smegma',--[A material like soap, but used in a soft state.]--and to wash her hair as thoroughly as possible.
This was done; and Katharina herself rubbed her hands and arms with passionate diligence. Then she had water poured over her head again and again, till, when she desired the maid to desist, she had to lean breathless and almost exhausted against the marble.
But in spite of smegma and water she still felt the pressure of the burning hand on top of her head, and her heart seemed oppressed by some invisible load of lead.
Her mother! oh, her mother! She had kissed her there, where the plague had actually touched her, and in fancy she could hear her gasping and begging for a drink of water like the dying wretches to whom her fate had led her. And then--then came the servants of the senate and shut her into the pestilential house with the sick; she saw the pest in mortal form, a cruel and malignant witch; behind her, tall and threatening, stood her inexorable companion Death, reaching out a bony hand and clutching her mother, and then all who were in the house with her, and last of all, herself.
Her arms dropped by her side: powerful and terrible as she had felt herself this morning, she was now crushed by a sense of miserable and impotent weakness. Her defiance had been addressed to a mortal, a frail, tender woman; and God and Fate had put her in the front of the battle instead of Heliodora. She shuddered at the thought.
As she went up from the bath-room, her mother met her in the hall and said:
"What, still here, Child? How you startled me! And is it true? Is Plotinus really ill of a complaint akin to the plague?"
"Worse than that, mother," she replied sadly. "He has the plague; and I remembered that a bath is the right thing when one has been in a plague-stricken house; you, too, have kissed and touched me. Pray have the fire lighted again, late as it is, and take a bath too."
"But, Child," Susannah began with a laugh; but Katharina gave her no peace till she yielded, and promised to bathe in the men's room, which had not been used at all since the appearance of the epidemic. When Dame Susannah found herself alone she smiled to herself in silent thankfulness, and in the bath again she lifted up her heart and hands in prayer for her only child, the loving daughter who cared for her so tenderly.
Katharina went to her own room, after ascertaining that the clothes she had worn this evening had been sacrificed in the bath-furnace.
It was past midnight, but still she bid the maid sit up, and she did not go to bed. She could not have found rest there. She was tempted to go out on the balcony, and she sat down there on a rocking chair. The night was sultry and still. Every house, every tree, every wall seemed to radiate the heat it had absorbed during the day. Along the quay came a long procession of pilgrims; this was followed by a funeral train and soon after came another--both so shrouded in clouds of dust that the torches of the followers looked like coals glimmering under ashes. Several who had died of the pestilence, and whom it had been impossible to bury by day, were being borne to the grave together. One of these funerals, so she vaguely fancied, was Heliodora's; the other her own perhaps--or her mother's--and she shivered at the thought. The long train wandered on under its shroud of dust, and stood still when it reached the Necropolis; then the sledge with the bier came back empty on red hot runners--but she was not one of the mourners--she was imprisoned in the pestiferous house. Then, when she was freed again--she saw it all quite clearly--two heads had been cut off in the courtyard of the Hall of justice: Orion's and Paula's--and she was left alone, quite alone and forlorn. Her mother was lying by her father's side under the sand in the cemetery, and who was there to care for her, to be troubled about her, to protect her? She was alone in the world like a tree without roots, like a leaf blown out to sea, like an unfledged bird that has fallen out of the nest.
Then, for the first time since that evening when she had borne false witness, her memory reverted to all she had been taught at school and in the church of the torments of hell, and she pictured the abode of the damned, and the scorching, seething Lake of fire in which murderers, heretics, false witnesses. . . .
What was that?
Had hell indeed yawned, and were the flames soaring up to the sky through the riven shell of the earth? Had the firmament opened to pour living fire and black fumes on the northern part of the city?
She started up in dismay, her eyes fixed on the terrible sight. The whole sky seemed to be in flames; a fiery furnace, with dense smoke and myriads of shooting sparks, filled the whole space between earth and heaven. A devouring conflagration was apparently about to annihilate the town, the river, the starry vault itself; the metal heralds which usually called the faithful to church lifted up their voices; the quiet road at her feet suddenly swarmed with thousands of people; shrieks, yells and frantic commands came up from below, and in the confusion of tongues she could distinguish the words "Governor's Palace"--"Arabs"--"Mukaukas"--"Orion" --"fire"--"Put it out"--"Save it."
At this moment the old head-gardener called up to her from the lotos-tank: "The palace is in flames! And in this drought--God All-merciful save the town!"
Her knees gave way; she put out her hands with a faint cry to feel for some support, and two arms were thrown about her-the arms which she so lately had pushed away: her mother's: that mother who had bent over her only child and inhaled death in a kiss on her plague-tainted hair.