The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
When the door in the tall prison-wall was closed behind the women, Joanna made her way through streets still sultry under the silence of the night, Rustem following with the child.
The giant's good heart was devoted to Mary, and he often passed his huge hand over his eyes while she told him all that the scene they had witnessed meant, and the fearful end that threatened Paula. He broke in now and again, giving utterance to his grief and wrath in strange, natural sounds; for he looked up to his beautiful sick nurse as to a superior being, and Mandane, too, had often remarked that they could never forget all that the noble maiden had done for them.
"If only," Rustem cried at length, clenching his powerful fist, "If only I could--they should see. . . ." and the child looked up with shrewd, imploring eyes, exclaiming eagerly:
"But you could, Rustem, you could!"
"I?" asked Rustem in surprise, and he shook his head doubtfully.
"Yes, you, Rustem; you of all men. We were talking over something in the prison, and if only you were ready and willing to help us in the matter."
"Willing!" laughed the worthy fellow striking his heart; and he went on in his strangely-broken Greek, which was, however, quite intelligible: "I would give hair and skin for the noble lady. You have only to speak out."
The child clung to the big man with both hands and drew him to her saying: "We knew you had a grate ful heart. But you see. . ." and she interrupted herself to ask in an altered voice:
"Do you believe in a God? or stay--do you know what a sacred oath is? Can you swear solemnly? Yes, yes . . ." and drawing herself up as tall as possible she went on very seriously: "Swear by your bride Mandane--as truly as you believe that she loves you. . . ."
"But, sweet soul. . . . "
"Swear that you will never betray to a living soul what I am going to say--not even to Mother Joanna and Pulcheria; no, nor even to your Mandane, unless you find you cannot help it and she gives her sacred word. . . . "
"What is it? You quite frighten me! What am I to swear?"
"Not to reveal what I am now going to tell you."
"Yes, yes, little Mistress; I can promise you that." Mary sighed, a long-drawn "Ah . . . !" and told him that a trustworthy messenger must be found to go forth to meet Amru, so as to be in time to save Paula. Then came the question whether he knew the road over the hills from Babylon to the ancient town of Berenice; and when he replied that he had lately travelled that way, and that it was the shortest road to the sea for Djidda and Medina, she repeated her satisfied "Ah!" took his hand, and went on with coaxing but emphatic entreaty while she played with his big fingers: "And now, best and kindest Rustem, in all Memphis there is but one really trusty messenger; but he, you see, is betrothed, and so he would rather get married and go home with his bride than help us to save the life of poor Paula."
"The cur!" growled the Persian.
At this Mary laughed out: "Yes, the cur!" and went on gaily: "But you are abusing yourself, you stupid Rustem. You, you are the messenger I mean, the only faithful and trustworthy one far or near. You, you must meet the governor. . . ."
"I!" said the man, and he stood still with amazement; but Mary pulled him onward, saying: "But come on, or the others will notice something.--Yes, you, you must. . . ."
"But child, child," interrupted Rustem lamentably,
"I must go back to my master; and you see, common right and justice. . . ."
"You do not choose to leave your sweetheart; not even if the kind creature who watched over you day and night should die for it--die the most cruel and horrible death! You were ready enough to call that other, as you supposed, a cur--that other whom no one nursed till he was well again; but as for yourself. . . ."
"Have patience then! Hear me, little Mistress!" Rustem broke in again, and pulled away his hand. "I am quite willing to wait and Mandane must just submit. But one man is not good for all tasks. To ride, or guide a train of merchandise, to keep the cameldrivers in order, to pitch a camp---all that I can do; but to parley with grand folks, to go straight up to such a man as the great chief Amru with prayers and supplications--all that, you see, sweetheart--even if it were to save my own father, that would be. . . ."
"But who asks you to do all that?" said the child. "You may stand as mute as a fish: it will be your companion's business to do the talking."
"There is to be another one then? But, great Masdak! I hope that will be enough at any rate!"
"Why will you constantly interrupt me?" the little girl put in. "Listen first and raise objections after wards. The second messenger--now open your ears wide--it is I, I myself;--but if you stand still again, you will really betray me. The long and short of it is, that as surely as I mean to save Paula, I mean to go forth to meet Amru, and if you refuse to go with me I will set out alone and try whether Gibbus the hunchback. . . ."
Rustem had needed some time to collect his senses after this stupendous surprise, but now he exclaimed: "You--you--to Berenice, and over the mountains. . . ."
"Yes, over the mountains," she repeated, "and if need be, through the clouds."
"But such a thing was never heard of, never heard of on this earth!" the Persian remonstrated. "A girl, a little lady like you--a messenger, and all alone with a clumsy fellow like me. No, no, no!"
"And again no, and a hundred times over no!" cried the child merrily. "The little lady will stop at home and you will take a boy with you--a boy called Marius, not Mary."
"A boy! But I thought.--It is enough to puzzle one. . . ."
"A boy who is a girl and a boy in one," laughed Mary. "But if you must have it in plain words: I shall dress up as a boy to go with you; to-morrow when we set out you will see, you will take me for my own brother."
"Your own brother! With a little face like yours! Then the most impossible things will become possible," cried Rustem laughing, and he looked down good humoredly at the little girl. But suddenly the preposterousness of her scheme rose again before his mind, and he exclaimed half-frantically: "But then my master!--It will not do--It will never do!"
"It is for his sake that you will do us this service," said Mary confidently. "He is Paula's friend and protector; and when he hears what you have done for her he will praise you, while if you leave us in the lurch I am quite sure. . . . "
"That he will say: 'I thought Rustem was a shrewder man and had a better heart.'"
"You really think he will say that?"
"As surely as our house stands before us!--Well, we have no time for any more discussion, so it is settled: we start together. Let me find you in the garden early to-morrow morning. You must tell your Mandane that you are called away by important business."
"And Dame Joanna?" asked the Persian, and his voice was grave and anxious as he went on: "The thing I like least, child, is that you should not ask her, and take her into your confidence."
"But she will hear all about it, only not immediately," replied Mary. "And the day after to-morrow, when she knows what I have gone off for and that you are with me, she will praise us and bless us; yes, she will, as surely as I hope that the Almighty will succor us in our journey!"
At these words, which evidently came from the very depths of her heart, the Masdakite's resistance altogether gave way--just in time, for their walk was at an end, and they both felt as though the long distance had been covered by quite a few steps. They had passed close to several groups of noisy and quarrelsome citizens, and many a funeral train had borne the plague-stricken dead to the grave by torchlight under their very eyes, but they had heeded none of these things.
It was not till they reached the garden-gate that they observed what was going on around them. There they found the gardener and all the household, anxiously watching for the return of their belated mistress. Eudoxia too was waiting for them with some alarm. In the house they were met by Horapollo, but Joanna and Pulcheria returned his greeting with a cold bow, while Mary purposely turned her back on him. The old man shrugged his shoulders with regretful annoyance, and in the solitude of his own room he muttered to himself:
"Oh, that woman! She will be the ruin even of the peaceful days I hoped to enjoy during the short remainder of my life!"
The widow and her daughter for some time sat talking of Mary. She had bid them good-night as devotedly and tenderly as though they were parting for life. Poor child! She had forebodings of the terrible fate to which the bishop, and perhaps her own mother had predestined her.
But Mary did not look as if she were going to meet misfortune; Eudoxia, who slept by her side, was rejoiced on the contrary at seeing her so gay; only she was surprised to see the child, who usually fell asleep as soon as her little head was on the pillow, lying awake so long this evening. The elderly Greek, who suffered from a variety of little ailments and always went to sleep late, could not help watching the little girl's movements.
What was that? Between midnight and dawn Mary sprang from her bed, threw on her clothes, and stole into the next room with the night-lamp in her hand. Presently a brighter light shone through the door-way. She must have lighted a lamp,-and presently, hearing the door of the sitting-room opened, Eudoxia rose and noiselessly watched her. Mary immediately returned, carrying a boy's clothes--a suit, in point of fact, which Pulcheria and Eudoxia had lately been making as a Sunday garb--for the lame gardener's boy. The child smilingly tried on the little blue tunic; then, after tossing the clothes into a chest, she sat down at the table to write. But she seemed to have set herself some hard task; for now she looked down at the papyrus and rubbed her forehead, and now she gazed thoughtfully into vacancy. She had written a few sentences when she started up, called Eudoxia by name, and went towards the sleeping-room.
Eudoxia went forward to meet her; Mary threw herself into her arms, and before her governess could ask any questions she told her that she had been chosen to accomplish a great and important action. She had been intending to wake her, to make her her confidant and to ask her advice.
How sweet and genuine it all sounded, and how charmingly confused she seemed in spite of the ardent zeal that inspired her!
Eudoxia's heart went forth to her; the words of reproof died on her lips, and for the first time she felt as though the orphaned child were her own; as though their joy and grief were one; as though she, who all her life long had thought only of herself and her own advantage, and who had regarded her care of Mary as a mere return in kind for a salary and home, were ready and willing to sacrifice herself and her last coin for this child. So, when the little girl now threw her arms round Eudoxia's neck, imploring her not to betray her, but, on the contrary, to help her in the good work which aimed at nothing less than the rescue of Paula and Orion-the imperilled victims of Fate, her dry eyes sparkled through tears; she kissed Mary's burning cheeks once more and called her her own dear, dear little daughter. This gave the child courage; with tragical dignity, which brought a smile to the governess' lips, she took Eudoxia's bible from the desk, and said, fixing her beseeching gaze on the Greek's face:
"Swear!--nay, you must be quite grave, for nothing can be more solemn--swear not to tell a soul, not even Mother Joanna, what I want to confess to you."
Eudoxia promised, but she would take no oath. "Yea, yea, and nay, nay," was the oath of the Christian by the law of the Lord; but Mary clung to her, stroked her thin cheeks, and at last declared she could not say a word unless Eudoxia yielded. In such an hour the Greek could not resist this tender coaxing; she allowed Mary to take possession of her hand and lay it on the Bible; and when once this was done Eudoxia gave way, and with much head shaking repeated the oath that her pupil dictated, though much against her will.
After this the governess threw herself on the divan, as if exhausted and shocked at her own weakness; and the little girl took advantage of her victory, seating herself at her feet, and telling her all she knew about Paula and the perils that threatened her and Orion; and she was artful enough to give special prominence to Orion's danger, having long since observed how high he stood in Eudoxia's good graces. So far Eudoxia had not ceased stroking her hair, while she assented to everything that was said; but when she heard that Mary proposed to undertake the embassy to Amru herself, she started to her feet in horror, and declared most positively that she would never, never consent to such rashness, to such fatal folly.
Mary now brought to bear her utmost resources of persuasion and flattery. There was no other fit messenger to be found, and the lives of Orion and Paula were at stake. Was a ride across the mountains such a tremendous matter after all? How well she knew how to manage a beast, and how little she suffered from the heat! Had she not ridden more than once from Memphis to their estates by the seaboard? And faithful Rustem would be always with her, and the road over the mountains was the safest in all the country, with frequent stations for the accommodation of travellers. Then, if they found Amru, she could give a more complete report than any other living soul.
But Eudoxia was not to be shaken; though she admitted that Mary's project was not so entirely crazy as it had at first appeared.
At this the little girl began again; after reminding Eudoxia once more of her oath, she went on to tell her of the doom she herself hoped to escape by setting out on her errand. She told Eudoxia of her meeting with the bishop, and that even Joanna was uneasy as to her future fate. Ah! that life within walls under lock and key seemed to her so frightful--and she pictured her terrors, her love of freedom and of a busy, useful, active life among men and her friends, and her hope that the great general, Amru, would defend her against every one if once she could place herself under his protection--painting it all so vividly, so passionately, and so pathetically, that the governess was softened.
She clasped her hands over her eyes, which were streaming with tears, and exclaimed: "It is horrible, unheard-of--still, perhaps it is the best thing to do. Well, go to meet the governor,--ride off, ride off!"
And when the sweet, warm-hearted, joyous creature clang round her neck she was glad of her own weakness: this fair, fresh, and blooming bud of humanity should not pine in confinement and seclusion; she should find and give happiness, to her own joy and that of all good souls, and unfold to a full and perfect flower. And Eudoxia knew the widow well; she knew that Joanna would by-and-bye understand why she helped the child to escape the greatest peril that can hang over a human soul: that of living in perpetual conflict with itself in the effort to become something totally different from what, by natural gifts and inclinations, it is intended to be.
With a sigh of anguish Eudoxia reflected what she herself, forced by cruel fate and lacking freedom and pleasurable ease, had become, from an ardent and generous young creature; and she, the narrow-hearted teacher, could make allowances for the strange, adventurous yearning of a child, where a larger souled woman might have derided, and blamed and repressed it.
When it was daylight Eudoxia fulfilled the offices she commonly left to the maid: she arranged Mary's hair, talking to her and listening the while, as though in this night the child had developed into a woman. Then she went into the garden with her, and hardly let her out of her sight.
At breakfast Joanna and Pulcheria wondered at her singular behavior, but it did not displease them, and Marv was radiant with contentment.
The widow made no objection to allowing the child to go into the city to execute her uncle's mysterious commission. Rustem was with her; and whatever it was that made the child so happy must certainly be right and unobjectionable. Orion's maps and lists were sent to the prison early in the day, and before the child set out with her stalwart escort Gibbus had returned with the prisoner's letter to the Arab governor.
On their way it was agreed that Mary should join Rustem at dusk at the riverside inn of Nesptah. In these clays of famine and death beasts of burthen of every description were easily procurable, as well as attendants and guides; and the Masdakite, who was experienced in such matters, thought it best to purchase none but swift dromedaries and to carry only a light tent for the "little mistress!"
At the door of Gamaliel's shop Mary bid him wait; the jovial goldsmith welcomed her with genuine pleasure. . . .
What had befallen the house of the Mukaukas! Fire had destroyed the dwelling-place of justice, like the Egyptian cities to whom the prophet had announced a similar fate a thousand years since.
Gamaliel knew in what peril Orion stood, and the fate that hung over the noble maiden who had once given him the costliest of gems, and afterwards entrusted to him a portion of her fortune.
To see any member of his patron's family alive and well rejoiced his heart. He asked Mary one sympathizing question after another, and his wife wanted to give her some of her good apricot tarts; but the little girl begged Gamaliel to grant her at once a private interview, so the jeweller led her into his little work-shop, bidding her trust him entirely, for whatever a grandchild of Mukaukas George might ask of him it was granted beforehand.
Blushing with confusion she took Orion's ring out of its wrapper, offered it to the Jew, and desired him to give her whatever was right.
She looked enquiringly into his face with her bright eyes, in full confidence that the kind-hearted man would at once pay her down gold coins and to spare; but he did not even take the ring out of her hand. He merely glanced at it, and said gravely:
"Nay, my little maid, we do not do business with children."
"But I want the money, Gamaliel," she urged. "I must have it."
"Must?" he repeated with a smile. "Well, must is a nail that drives through wood, no doubt; but if it hits iron it is apt to bend. Not that I am so hard as that; but money, money, money! And whose money do you mean, little maid? If you want money of mine to spend in bread, or in cakes, which is more likely, I will shut my eyes and put my hand boldly into my wallet; but, if I am not mistaken, you are well provided for by Rufinus the Greek, in whose house there is no lack of anything; and I have a nice round sum in my own keeping which your grandfather placed in my hands at interest two years since, with a remark that it was a legacy to you from your godmother, and the papers stand in your name; so your necessity looks very like what other folks would call ease."
"Necessity! I am in no necessity," Mary broke in. "But I want the money all the same; and if I have some of my own, and you perhaps have it there in your box, give me as much of it as I want."
"As much as you want?" laughed the jeweller. "Not so fast, little maid. Before such matters can be settled here in Egypt we must have plenty of time, and papyrus and ink, a grand law court, sixteen witnesses, a Kyrios. . ."
"Well then, buy the ring! You are such a good, kind man Gamaliel. Just to please me. Why, you yourself do not really think that I want to buy cakes!"
"No. But in these hard times, when so many are starving, a soft heart may be moved to other follies."
"No indeed! Do buy the ring; and if you will do me this favor. . ."
"Old Gamaliel will be both a rogue and a simpleton!--Have you forgotten the emerald? I bought that, and a pretty piece of business that was! I can have nothing to say to the ring, my little maid." Mary withdrew her hand, and the grief and disappointment expressed by her large, tearful eyes were so bitter and touching, that the Jew paused, and then went on seriously and heartily:
"I would sooner give my own old head to be an anvil than distress you, sweet child; and Adonai! I do not mean to say--why should I--that you should ever leave old Gamaliel without money. He has plenty, and though he is always ready to take, he is ready to give, too, when it is meet and fitting. I cannot buy the ring, to be sure, but do not be down-hearted and look me well in the face, little maid. It is much to ask, and I have handsomer things in my stores, but if you see anything in it that gives you confidence, speak out and whisper to the man of whom even your grandfather had some good opinion: 'I want so much, and what is more--how did you put it?--what is more, I must have it.'"
Mary did see something in the Jew's merry round face that inspired her with trust, and in her childlike belief in the sanctity of an oath she made a third person--a believer too, in a third form of religion--swear not to betray her secret, only marvelling that the administering of the oath, in which she had now had some practice, should be so easy. Even grown-up people will sometimes buy another's dearest secret for a light asseveration. And when she had thus ensured the Israelite's silence, she confided to him that she was charged by Orion to send out a messenger to meet Amru, that he and Paula might be reprieved in time. The goldsmith listened attentively, and even before she had ended he was busying himself with an iron chest built into the wall, and interrupted her to ask! "How much?"
She named the sum that Nilus had suggested, and hardly had she finished her story when the Jew, who kept the trick by which he opened the chest a secret even from his wife, exclaimed:
"Now, go and look out of the window, you wonder among envoys and money-borrowers, and if you see nothing in the courtyard, then fancy to yourself that a man is standing there who looks like old Gamaliel, and who puts his hand on your head and gives you a good kiss. And you may fancy him, too, as saying to himself: 'God in Heaven! if only my little daughter, my Ruth may be such another as little Mary, grandchild of the just Mukaukas!'"
And as he spoke, the vivacious but stout man, who had dropped on his knees, rose panting, left the lid of his strong box open, hurried up to the child, who had been standing at the window all the while, and bending over her from behind pressed a kiss on her curly head, saying with a laugh: "There, little pickpocket, that is my interest. But look out still, till I call you again." He nimbly trotted back on his short little legs, wiping his eyes; took from the strong box a little bag of gold, which contained rather more than the desired sum, locked the chest again, looking at Mary with a mixture of suspicion and hearty approbation; then at last he called her to him. He emptied the money-bag before her, counted out the sum she needed, put the remainder of the coins into his girdle, and handed the bag to the little girl requesting her to count his "advance", back into it, while he, with a cunning smile, quitted the room.
He presently returned and she had finished her task, but she timidly observed: "One gold piece is wanting." At this he clasped his hands over his breast and raised his eyes to Heaven exclaiming: "My God! what a child. There is the solidus, child; and you may take my word for it as a man of experience: whatever you undertake will prosper. You know what you are about; and when you are grown up and a suitor comes he will go to a good market. And now sign your name here. You are not of age, to be sure, and the receipt is worth no more than any other note scribbled with ink--however, it is according to rule."
Mary took the pen, but she first hastily glanced through what Gamaliel had written; the Jew broke out in fresh enthusiasm:
"A girl--a mere child! And she reads, and considers, and makes all sure before she will sign! God bless thee, Child!--And here come the tarts, and you can taste them before. . . . Just Heaven! a mere child, and such important business!"