The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
In the course of the afternoon the Vekeel rode across to the prison in Memphis. He expected to find the bishop there, but instead he was met with the news that Plotinus was dead of the pestilence.
This was a malignant stroke of fate; for with the bishop perished the witness who could have betrayed to him the scheme plotted for the rescue of the nuns.--But no! The patriarch, too, no doubt, knew all.
Still, of what use was that at this moment? He had no time to lose, and Benjamin could hardly be expected to return within three weeks.
Obada had met Paula's father in the battle-field by Damascus, and it had often roused his ire to know that this hero's name was held famous even among the Moslems. His envious soul grudged even to the greatest that pure honor which friend and foe alike are ready to pay; he did not believe in it, and regarded the man to whom it was given as a time-serving hypocrite.
And as he hated the father so he did the daughter, though he had never seen her. Orion's fate was sealed in his mind; and before his death he should suffer more acutely through the execution of Paula, whether she denied or owned her guilt. He might perhaps succeed in making her confess, so he desired that she should at once be brought into the judge's council-room; but he failed completely in his attempt, though he promised her, through the interpreter, the greatest leniency if she admitted her guilt and threatened her with an agonizing death if she refused to do so. His prisoner, indeed, was not at all what he had expected, and the calm pride with which she denied every accusation greatly impressed the upstart slave. At first he tried to supplement the interpreter by shouting words of broken Greek, or intimidating her by glaring looks whose efficacy he had often proved on his subordinates but without the least success; and then he had her informed that he possessed a document which placed her guilt beyond doubt. Even this did not shake her; she only begged to see it. He replied that she would know all about it soon enough, and he accompanied the interpreter's repetition of the answer with threatening gestures.
He had met with shrewd and influential women among his own people; he had seen brave ones go forth to battle, and share the perils of a religious war, with even wilder and more blood-thirsty defiance of death than the soldiers themselves; but these had all been wives and mothers, and whenever he had seen them break out of the domestic circle, beyond which no maiden could ever venture, it was because they were under the dominion of some passionate impulse and a burning partisanship for husband or son, family or tribe. The women of his nation lived for the most part in modest retirement, and none but those who were carried away by some violent emotion infringed the custom.
But this girl! There she stood, immovably calm, like a warrior at the head of his tribe. There was something in her mien that quelled him, and at the same time roused to the utmost his desire to make her feel his power and to crush her pride. She was as much taller than the women of his nation as he was taller than any other captain in the Moslem army; prompted by curiosity, he went close up to her to measure her height by his own, and passed his hand through the air from his swarthy throat to touch the crown of her head; and the depth of loathing with which she shrank from him did not escape his notice. The blood mounted to his head; he desired the interpreter to inform her that she was to hope for no mercy, and inwardly devoted her to a cruel death.
Pale, but prepared to meet the worst, Paula returned to the squalid room she occupied with her faithful Betta.
Her arrival at the prison had been terrible. The guards had seemed disposed to place her in a room filled with a number of male and female criminals, whence the rattle of their chains and a frantic uproar of coarse voices met her ear; however, the interpreter and the captain of the town-watch had taken charge of her, prompted by Martina's promise of a handsome reward if they could go to her next morning with a report that Paula had been decently accommodated.
The warder's mother-in-law, too, had taken her under her protection. This woman was the inn-keeper's wife from the riverside inn of Nesptah, and she at once recognized Paula as the handsome damsel who had refreshed herself there after the evening on the river with Orion, and whom she had supposed to be his betrothed. She happened to be visiting her daughter, the keeper's wife, and induced her to do what she could to be agreeable to Paula. So she and Betta were lodged in a separate cell, and her gold coin proved acceptable to the man, who did his utmost to mitigate her lot. Indeed, Pulcheria had even been allowed to visit her and to bring her the last roses that the drought had left in the garden.
Susannah had carried out her purpose of sending her food and fruit; but they remained in the outer room, and the messenger was desired to explain that no more were to be sent, for that she was supplied with all she needed.
Confident in her sense of innocence, she had looked forward calmly to her fate building her hopes on the much lauded justice of the Arab judges. But it was not they, it would seem, who were to decide it, but that black monster Orion's foe; crushed by the sense of impotence against the arbitrary despotism of the ruthless villain, whose victim she must be, she sat sunk in gloomy apathy, and hardly heard the old nurse's words of encouragement.
She did not fear death; but to die without having seen her father once more, without saying and proving to Orion that she was his alone, wholly his and for ever--that was too hard to bear.
While she was wringing her hands, in a state verging on despair, the man who had ruined the happiness, the peace, and the fortunes of so many of his fellow-creatures was cantering through the streets of Memphis, mounted on the finest horse in Orion's stable, and firmly determined to make his defiant prisoner feel his power. When he reached the great market-place in the quarter known as Ta-anch he was forced to bring his steed to a quieter pace, for in front of the Curia--the senatehouse--an immense gathering of people had collected. The Vekeel forced his way through them with cruel indifference. He knew what they wanted and paid no heed to them. The hapless crowd had for some time past met here daily, demanding from the authorities some succor in their fearful need. Processions and pilgrimages had had no result yesterday, so to-day they besieged the Curia. But could the senate make the Nile rise, or stay the pestilence, or prevent the dates dropping from the palm-trees? Could they help, when Heaven denied its aid?
These were the questions which the authorities had already put at least ten times to the shrieking multitude from the balcony of the town hall, and each time the crowd had yelled in reply: "Yes--yes. You must!--it is your duty; you take the taxes, and you are put there to take care of us!"
Even yesterday the distracted creatures had been wholly unmanageable and had thrown stones at the building: to-day, after the fearful conflagration and the death of their bishop, they had assembled in vast numbers, more furious and more desperate than ever. The senators sat trembling on their antique seats of gilt ivory, the relics of departed splendor imitated from those of the Roman senators, looking at each other and shrugging their shoulders while they listened to a letter which had just reached them from the hadi. This document required them, in conformity with Obada's determination, to make known to the populace, by public proclamation and declaration, that any citizen whose house had been destroyed by the fire of the past night would be granted ground and building materials without payment, at Fostat across the Nile, where he might found a new home provided he would settle there and embrace Islam.
This degrading offer must be announced: no discussion or recalcitrancy could help that.
And what could they, for their part, do for the complaining crowd?
The plague was snatching them away; the vegetables, which constituted half their food at this season, were dried up; the river, their palatable and refreshing drink, was poisoned; the dates, their chief luxury, ripened only to be rejected with loathing. Then there was the comet in the sky, no hope of a harvest--even of a single ear, for months to come. The bishop dead, all confidence lost in the intercessions of the Church, God's mercy extinct as it would seem, withdrawn from the land under infidel rule!
And they on whose help the populace counted,--poor, weak men, councillors of no counsel, liable from hour to hour to be called to follow those who had succumbed to the plague, and who had but just quitted their vacant seats in obedience to the fateful word.
Yesterday each one had felt convinced that their necessity and misery had reached its height, and yet in the course of the night it had redoubled for many. Their self-dependence was exhausted; but there still was one sage in the city who might perhaps find some new way, suggest some new means of saving the people from despair.
Stones were again flying down through the open roof, and the members of the council started up from their ivory seats and sought shelter behind the marble piers and columns. A wild turmoil came up from the market-place to the terror-stricken Fathers of the city, and the mob was hammering with fists and clubs on the heavy doors of the Curia. Happily they were plated with bronze and fastened with strong iron bolts, but they might fly open at any moment and then the furious mob would storm into the hall.
But what was that?
For a moment the roar and yelling ceased, and then began again, but in a much milder form. Instead of frenzied curses and imprecations shouts now rose of "Hail, hail!" mixed with appeals: "Help us, save us, give us council. Long live the sage!" "Help us with your magic, Father!" "You know the secrets and the wisdom of the ancients!" "Save us, Save us! Show those money-bags, those cheats in the Curia the way to help us!"
At this the president of the town-council ventured forth from his refuge behind the statue of Trajan--the only image that the priesthood had spared--and to climb a ladder which was used for lighting the hanging lamps, so as to peep out of the high window.
He saw an old man in shining white linen robes, riding on a fine white ass through the crowd which reverently made way for him. The lictors of the town marched before him with their fasces, on to which they had tied palm branches in token of a friendly embassy. Looking further he could see that behind the old man came a slave, besides the one who drove his ass, carrying a quantity of manuscript scrolls. This raised his hopes, for the scrolls looked very old and yellow, and no doubt contained a store of wisdom; nay, probably magic formulas and effectual charms.
With a loud exclamation of "Here he comes!" the senator descended the ladder; in a few minutes the door was opened with a rattling of iron bolts, and it was with a sigh of relief that they saw the old man come in and none attempt to follow him.
When Horapollo entered the council-chamber he found the senators sitting on their ivory chairs with as much dignified calm as though the meeting had been uninterrupted; but at a sign from the president they all rose to receive the old man, and he returned their greeting with reserve, as homage due to him. He also accepted the raised seat, which the president quitted in his honor while he himself took one of the ordinary chairs at his side.
The negotiation began at once, and was not disturbed by the crowd, though still from the market-place there came a ceaseless roar, like the breaking of distant waves and the buzzing of thousands of swarming bees.
The sage began modestly, saying that he, in his simplicity, could not but despair of finding any help where so many wise men had failed; he was experienced only in the lore and mysteries of the Fathers, and he had come thither merely to tell the council what they had considered advisable in such cases, and to suggest that their example should be followed.
He spoke low but fluently, and a murmur of approval followed; then, when the president went on to speak of the low state of the Nile as the root of all the evil, the old man interrupted him, begging them to begin by considering the particular difficulties which they might attack by their own efforts.
The pestilence was in possession of the city; he had just come through the quarter that had been destroyed by the fire, and had seen above fifty sick deprived of all care and reduced to destitution. Here something could be done; here was a way of showing the angry populace that their advisers and leaders were not sitting with their hands in their laps.
A councillor then proposed that the convent of St. Cecilia, or the now deserted and dilapidated odeum should be given up to them; but Horapollo objected explaining very clearly that such a crowd of sick in the midst of the city would be highly dangerous to the healthy citizens. This opinion was shared by his friend Philippus, who had indeed commended the plan he had to propose as the only right one. Whither had their forefathers transported, not merely their beneficent institutions, but their vast temples and tomb-buildings which covered so much space? Always to the desert outside the town. Arrianus had even written these verses on the gigantic sphinx near the Pyramids.
"The gods erewhile created these far-shining forms, wisely sparing the fields and fertile corn-bearing plain."
The moderns had forgotten thus to spare the arable land, and they had also neglected to make good use of the desert. The dead and plague-stricken must not be allowed to endanger the living; they must therefore be lodged away from the town, in the Necropolis in the desert.
"But we cannot let them be under the broiling sun," cried the president.
"Still less," added another, "can we build a house for them in a day."
To this Horapollo replied:
"And who would be so foolish as to ask you to do either? But there are linen and posts to be had in Memphis. Have some large tents pitched in the Necropolis, and all who fall sick of the pestilence removed there at the expense of the city and tended under their shade. Appoint three or four of your number to carry this into execution and there will be a shelter for the roofless sick in a few hours. How many boatmen and shipwrights are standing idle on the quays! Call them together and in an hour they will be at work."
This suggestion was approved. A linen-merchant present exclaimed: "I can supply what is needed," and another who dealt in the same wares, and exported this famous Egyptian manufacture to remote places, also put in a word, desiring that his house might have the order as he could sell cheaper. This squabble might have absorbed the attention of the meeting till it rose, and perhaps have been renewed the next day, if Horapollo's proposal that they should divide the commission equally had not been hastily adopted.
The populace hailed the announcement that tents would be erected for the sick in the desert, with applause from a thousand voices. The deputies chosen to superintend the task set to work at once, and by night the most destitute were safe under the first large hospital tent.
The old man settled some other important questions in the same way, always appealing to the lore of the ancients.
At length he spoke of the chief subject, and he did so with great caution and tact.
All the events of the last few weeks, he said, pointed to the conclusion that Heaven was wroth with the hapless land of their fathers. As a sign of their anger the Immortals had sent the comet, that terrible star whose ominous splendor was increasing daily. To make the Nile rise was not in the power of men; but the ancients--and here his audience listened with bated breath--the ancients had been more intimately familiar with the mysterious powers that rule the life of Nature than men in the later times, whether priests or laymen. In those days every servant of the Most High had been a naturalist and a student, and when Egypt had been visited by such a calamity as that of this year, a sacrifice had been offered--a precious victim against which all mankind, nay and all his own feelings revolted; still, this sacrifice had never failed of its effect, no, never. Here was the evidence--and he pointed to the manuscripts in his lap.
The councillors had begun to be restless in their seats, and first the president and then the others, one after another, exclaimed and asked:
"But the victim?"
"What did they sacrifice?"
"What about the victim?"
"Allow me to say no more about it till another time," said the old man. "What good could it do to tell you that now? The first thing is to find the thing that is acceptable to the gods."
"What is it?"
"Speak--do not keep us on the rack!" was shouted on all sides; but he remained inexorable, promising only to call the council together when the right time should come and desiring that the president would proclaim from the balcony that Horapollo knew of a sacrifice which would cause the Nile at last to rise. As soon as the right victim could be found, the people should be invited to give their consent. In the time of their forefathers it had never failed of its effect, so men, women, and children might go home in all confidence, and await the future with new and well-founded hopes.
And this announcement, with which the president mingled his praises of the venerable Horapollo, had a powerful effect. The crowd hallooed with glee, as though they had found new life. "Hail, hail!" was shouted again and again, and it was addressed, not merely to the old man who had promised them deliverance, but also to the Fathers of the city, who felt as if a fearful load had fallen from their souls.
The old man's scheme was, to be sure, not pious nor rightly Christian; but had the power of the Church been in any way effectual? And this having failed they must of their own accord have had recourse to means held reprobate by the priesthood. Magic and the black arts were genuinely Egyptian; and when faith had no power, these asserted themselves and superstition claimed its own. Though Medea had been taken by surprise and imprisoned, this had not been done to satisfy the law, but with a view to secretly utilizing her occult science for the benefit of the community. In such dire need no means were too base; and though the old man himself was horrified at those he proposed he was sure of public approbation if only they had the desired result. If only they could avert the calamity the sin could be expiated, and the Almighty was so merciful!
The bishop had a seat and voice in the council, but Fate itself had saved them from the dilemma of having to meet his remonstrances.
When Horapollo went out into the market-place he was received with acclamations, and as much gratitude as though he had already achieved the deliverance of the people and country.
What had he done?--Whether the work he had set going were to fail or to succeed he could not remain in Memphis, for in either case he would never have peace again. But that did not daunt him; it would certainly be very good for the two women to be removed from the perilous neighborhood of the Arab capital, and he was firmly determined to take them away with him. For his dear Philip, too, nothing could be better than a transplantation into other soil.
At the house of Rufinus he now learnt the fate that had fallen on Paula.
She was out the way, at any rate for the present; still, if she should be released to-morrow or the day after, or even a month hence, she would be as great a hindrance as ever. His plots against her must therefore be carried out. His own isolation provoked him, and what a satisfaction it would be if only he should succeed in stirring up the Egyptian Christians to the heathen deed to which he was endeavoring to prompt them.
If Paula should be condemned to death by the Arabs, the execution of the scheme would be greatly promoted; and now the first point was to ensure the favor of the black Vekeel, for everything depended on his consent.
Joanna and Pulcheria thought him more good-humored and amiable than they had ever known him; his proposal that he and Philippus should join their household was hailed with delight even by little Mary, and the women conducted him all over the house, supporting his steps with affectionate care. All he saw there pleased him beyond measure. Such neatness and comfort could only exist where there was a woman's eye to direct and watch over everything. The rooms on the ground floor, which had been the master's, should be his, and the corresponding wing on the other side could be made ready for Philippus. The dining-room, the large ante-chamber, and the viridarium would be common ground, and the upper story was large enough for the women and any guests. He would move in as soon as he had settled some business he had in hand.
It must be something of a pleasant nature, for as the old man spoke of it his sunken lips mumbled with satisfaction, while his sparkling eyes seemed to say to Pulcheria: "And I have something good in store for you, too, dear child."