The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Few things could be more intolerable to the gentle and retiring widow than such a riot of the people. The unchained passion, the tumult, and all the vulgar accessories that surrounded her there grieved her tender nature; all through the old man's speech she had felt nothing but the desire to escape, but as soon as she had acquired the certainty that Paula was the hapless being whom her terrible house-mate was preparing to hand over to the superstition of the mob, she thought no more of getting home, but waited in the crush till at length she and the two children could be conducted by Rustem to the prison, though the way thither was through the most crowded streets.
Had the nameless horrors that hung over Paula already found their way to her ears through the prisonwalls, or might it yet be her privilege to be able to prepare the girl for the worst, and to comfort the victim who must already have been driven to the verge of desperation by the sentence of death?
On the previous day the chief warder had acceded without demur to her wish to see Paula, for the Kadi had enjoined him to show her and Orion all possible courtesy, but the Vekeel's threats made him now refuse to admit Dame Joanna. However, while he was talking with her, his infant son stretched out his arms to Pulcheria, who had played with him the day before in her sweet way, and she now took him up and kissed him, thus bringing a kindly feeling to three hearts at once; and most of all to that of the child's mother who immediately interested herself for them, and persuaded her husband to oblige them once more.
Pretty Emau had always waited on the mirthful Orion, under the palms by her father's inn, more gladly than on most other guests; and her husband who, after the manner of the Egyptians, was docile to his better half though till now he had not been quite free from jealousy, was even more ready to serve his benefactor's son since hearing that he was betrothed to the fair Paula.
There was a great uproar in the large common prison to-day, as usual when the judges had passed sentence of death on any criminal, and the women shuddered as the miserable wretches hallooed and bellowed. Many a shriek came up, of which it was hard to say whether it was the expression of wild defiance or of bitter jesting, and no more suitable accompaniment could be conceived to this terrific riot than the clank of chains.
When the women reached Paula's cell their hearts throbbed painfully, for within the door which the warder unlocked anguish and despair must dwell.
The prisoner was standing at the window, pressing her brow against the iron bars and listening to the lute played by her lover, which sounded, amid the turmoil of the other prisoners, like a bell above the roar of thunder and the storm. By the bed sat Betta on a low stool, asleep with the distaff in her lap; and neither she nor her mistress heeded the entrance of the visitors. A miserable lamp lighted the squalid room.
Mary would have flown to her friend, but Joanna held her back and called Paula tenderly by name in a low voice. But Paula did not hear; her soul was no doubt absorbed in anguish and the terror of death. The widow now raised her voice, and the ill-fated girl turned round; then, with a little cry of joy, she hastened to meet the faithful creatures who could find her even in prison, and clasped first the widow, then Pulcheria, then the child in a tender embrace. Joanna put her hands fondly round her face to kiss it, and to see how far fear and affliction had altered her lovely features, and a faint cry of astonishment escaped her, for she was looking, not at a grief and terror-stricken face, but a glad and calm one, and a pair of large eyes looked brightly and gratefully into hers.
Had she not been told then what was hanging over her? Nay--for she at once asked whether they had heard that she was condemned to die. And she went on to tell them how things had gone with her at her trial, and how her good Philip's friend and foster-father had suddenly and inexplicably become her bitterest foe.
At this the others could not check their tears; it was Paula who had to comfort and soothe them, by telling them that she had found a paternal friend in the Kadi who had promised to intercede for her with the Khaliff.
Dame Joanna could scarcely take it all in. This girl and her heroic demeanor, in the face of such disaster, seemed to her miraculous. Her trust was beautiful; but how easily might it be deceived! how insecure was the ground in which she had cast the anchor of hope.
Even little Mary seemed more troubled than her friend, and threw herself sobbing on her bosom. And Paula returned her fondness, and tried to mollify Pulcheria as to the disgraceful conduct of their old housemate, and smiled kindly at the widow when she asked where she had found such composure in the face of so much misfortune, saying that it was from her example that she had learnt resignation to the worst that could befall her. Even in this dark hour she found more to be thankful for than to lament over; indeed, it had brought her a glorious joy. And this for the first time reminded Joanna and the girls that she was now betrothed, and again she was clasped in their loving arms.
Just then the warder rapped; Paula rose thoughtfully, and exclaimed in a low voice: "I have something to send to Orion that I dare not entrust to a stranger: but now, now I have you, my Mary, and you shall take it to him."
As she spoke she took out the emerald, gave it to the little girl, and charged her to deliver it to her uncle as soon as they should be alone together. In the little note which she had wrapped around it she implored her lover to regard it as his own property, and to use it to satisfy the claims of the Church.
The man was easily induced to take Mary to her uncle; and how happily she ran on before him up to Orion's cell, how great was his joy at seeing her again, how gratefully he pressed the emerald to his lips! But when she exclaimed that her prophecy had been fulfilled, and that Paula, was now his, his brow was knit as he replied, with gloomy regret, that though he had won the woman he loved, it was only to lose her again.
"But the Kadi is your friend and will gain pardon from the Khaliff!" cried the child.
"But then another enemy suddenly starts up: Horapollo!"
"Oh, our old man!" and the child ground her teeth. "If you did but know, Orion!--And to think that I must live under the same roof with him!"
"You!" asked the young man.
"Yes, I. And Pulcheria, and Mother Joanna," and Mary went on to tell him how the old man had come to live with them and Orion could guess from various indications that she was concealing some important fact; so he pressed her to keep nothing from him, till the child could not at last evade telling him all she had seen and heard.
At this he lost all caution and self-control. Quite beside himself he called aloud the name of his beloved, invoking in passionate tones the return of the Governor Amru, the only man who could help them in this crisis. His sole hope was in him. He had shown himself a real father to him, and had set him a difficult but a noble task.
"Into which you have plunged over head and ears!" cried the child.
"I thought it all out while on my journey," replied Orion. "I tried yesterday to write out a first sketch of it, but I lacked what I most wanted: maps and lists. Nilus had put them all up together; I was to have taken them with me on the voyage with the nuns, and I ordered that they should be carried to the house of Rufinus. . . ."
"That they should come to us?" interrupted the child with sparkling eyes. "Oh, they are all there! I saw the documents myself, when the chest was cleared out for old Horapollo, and to-morrow, quite early to-morrow, you shall have them." Orion kissed her brow with glad haste; then, striking the wall of his cell with his fist, he waited till something had been withdrawn with a grating sound on the other side, and exclaimed:
"Good news, Nilus! The plans and lists are found: I shall have them to-morrow!"
"That is well!" replied the treasurer's thin voice from the adjoining room. "We shall need something to comfort us! A prisoner has just been brought in for having attacked an Arab horseman in a riot in the market square. He tells me some dreadful news."
"Concerning my betrothed?"
"Alas! yes, my lord."
"Then I know it already," replied the young man; and after exchanging a few words with his master with reference to the old man's atrocious proposal, Nilus went on:
"My prison-mate tells me, too, that while he was in custody in the guard-house the Arabs were speaking of a messenger from the governor announcing his arrival at Medina, and also that he intended making only a short stay there. So we may expect his return before long."
"Then he will have started long before the Kadi's messenger can have arrived and laid the petition for pardon before the Khaliff!--We have no hope but in Amru; if only we could send information to him on his way. . . ."
"He would certainly not tarry in Upper Egypt, but hasten his journey, or send on a plenipotentiary," said the voice on the other side of the wall. "If we had but a trusty man to despatch! Our people are scattered to the four winds, and to hunt them up now. . . ."
At this Mary's childish tones broke in with: "I can find a messenger."
"You? What are you thinking of, child?" said Orion. She did not heed his remonstrance, but went on eagerly, quite sure of her own meaning:
"He shall be told everything, everything! Ought he to know what I heard about your share in the flight of the sisters?"
"No, no; on no account!" cried Nilus and his master both at once; and Mary understood that her proposition was accepted. She clapped her hands, and exclaimed full of enterprise and with glowing cheeks:
"The messenger shall start to-morrow; rely on me. I can do it as well as the greatest. And now tell me exactly the road he is to take. To make sure, write the names of the stages on my little tablet.--But wait, I must rub it smooth."
"What is this on the wax?" asked Orion. "A large heart with squares all over it.--And that means?"
"Oh! mere nonsense," said the child somewhat abashed. "It was only to show how my heart was divided among the persons I love. A whole half of it belongs to Paula, this quarter is yours; but there, there, there," and at each word she prodded the wax with the stylus, "that is where I had kept a little corner for old Horapollo. He had better not come in my way again!"
Her nimble fingers smoothed the wax, and over the effaced heart--a child's whim--Orion wrote things on which the lives of two human beings depended. He did so with sincere confidence in his little ally's adroitness and fidelity. Early next morning she was to receive a letter to be conveyed to Amru by the messengers.
"But a rapid journey costs money, and Amru always chooses the road by the mountains and Berenice," observed the treasurer. "If we put together our last gold pieces they will hardly suffice."
"Keep them, you will want them here," said the little girl. "And yet--there are my pearls, to be sure, and my mother's jewels--at the same time. . . ."
"You ought never to part from such things, you heart of gold!" cried Orion.
"Oh yes, yes! What do I want with them? But Dame Joanna has my mother's things in her keeping."
"And you are afraid to ask her for them?" asked the young man. He appealed to Nilus, and when the treasurer had calculated the cost, Orion took off a costly sapphire ring, which he gave to Mary, charging her to hand it to Joanna. Gamaliel, the Jew, would lend her as much as she would require on this gem. Mary joyfully took possession of the ring; but presently, when the warder appeared to fetch her, her satisfaction suddenly turned to no less vehement grief, and she took leave of Orion as if they were parting for ever.
In the passage leading to Paula's cell the man suddenly stood still: some one was approaching up the stairs.--If it should be the black Vekeel, and he should find visitors in the prison at so late an hour!
But no. Two lamps were borne in front of the new-comers, and by their light the warder recognized John, the new Bishop of Memphis, who had often been here before now to console prisoners.
He had come to-night prompted by his desire to see the condemned Melchite. Mary's dress and demeanor betrayed at once that she could not belong to any official employed here; and, as soon as he had learnt who she was, he whispered to his companion, an aged deacon who always accompanied him when he visited a female prisoner: "We find her here!" And when he had ascertained with whom the child had come hither at so late an hour, he turned again to his colleague and added in a low voice:
"The wife and daughter of Rufinus! Just so: I have long had my eye on these Greeks. In church once or twice every year!--Melchites in disguise! Allied with this Melchite! And this is the school in which the Mukaukas' granddaughter is growing up! An abominable trick! Benjamin judged rightly, as he always did!" Then, in a subdued voice, he asked:
"Shall we take her away with us at once?" But, as the deacon made objections, he hastily replied: "You are right; for the present it is enough that we know where she is to be found."
The warder meanwhile had opened Paula's cell; before the bishop went in he spoke a few kind words to the child, asking her whether she did not long to see her mother; and when Mary replied: "Very often!" he stroked her hair with his bony hand and said:
"So I thought.--You have a pretty name, child, and you, like your mother, will perhaps ere long dedicate your life to the Blessed among women, whose name you bear." And, holding the little girl by the hand, he entered the cell. While Paula looked in amazement at the prelate who came so late a visitor, Joanna and Pulcheria recognized him as the brave ecclesiastic who had so valiantly opposed the old sage and the misled populace, and they bowed with deep reverence. This the bishop observed, and came to the conclusion that these Greeks perhaps after all belonged to his Church. At any rate, the child might safely be left in their care a few days longer.
After he had exchanged a few cordial words with them the widow prepared to withdraw, and was about to take leave when he went up to her and announced that he would pay her a visit the next day or the day after; that he wished to speak with her of matters involving the happiness of one who was dear to them both, and Dame Joanna, believing that he referred to Paula, whispered:
"She has no idea as yet of the terrible fate the people have in store for her. If possible, spare her the fearful truth before she sleeps this night."
"If possible," repeated the prelate. Then, as Mary kissed his hand before leaving, he drew her to him and said: "Like the Infant Christ, every Christian child is the Mother's. You, Mary, are chosen before thousands! The Lord took your father to himself as a martyr; your mother has dedicated herself to Heaven. Your road is marked out for you, child, reflect on this. To-morrow-no, the day after, I will see you and guide you in the new path."
At these words Joanna turned pale. She now understood what the bishop's purpose was in calling on her. At the bottom of the stairs, she threw her arms round the child and asked her in--a low voice: "Do you pine for the cloister--do you wish to go away from us like your mother, to think of nothing but saving your soul, to live a nun in the holy seclusion which Pulcheria has described to you so often?"
But this the child positively denied; and as Joanna's head drooped anxiously and sadly, Mary looked up brightly and exclaimed: "Never fear, Mother dear! Things will have altered greatly by the day after tomorrow. Let the bishop come! I shall be a match for him!--Oh! you do not know me yet. I have been like a lamb among you through all this misfortune and serious trouble; but there is something more in me than that. You will be quite astonished!"
"Nay, nay. Remain what you are," the widow said.
"Always and ever full of love for you and Pul. But I am a grand and trusted person now! I have something very important to do for Orion to-morrow. Something--Rustem will go with me.--Important, very important, Mother Joanna. But what it is I must not tell--not even you!"
Here she was interrupted, for the heavy prison door opened for their exit.
It was many hours before it was again unlocked to let out the bishop, so long was he detained talking to Paula in her cell.
To his enquiry as to whether she was an orthodox Greek, or as the common people called it, a Melchite, she replied that she was the latter; adding that, if he had come with a view to perverting her from the confession of her forefathers, his visit was thrown away; at the same time she reverenced him as a Christian and a priest; as a learned man, and the friend whom her deceased uncle had esteemed above every other minister of his confession; she was gladly ready to disclose to him all that lay on her soul in the face of death. He looked into the pure, calm face; and though, at her first declaration, he had felt prompted to threaten her with the hideous end which he had but just done his utmost to avert, he now remembered the Greek widow's request and bound himself to keep silence.
He allowed her to talk till midnight, giving him the whole history of all she had known of joy and sorrow in the course of her young life; his keen insight searched her soul, his pious heart rose to meet the strength and courage of hers; and when he quitted her, as he walked home with the deacon, the first words with which he broke a long silence were:
"While you were asleep, God vouchsafed me an edifying hour through that heretic child of earth."