The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Horapollo made his way home to his new quarters from the court of justice with knit and gloomy brows. As he passed Susannah's garden hedge he saw a knot of people gathered together and pointing out furtively to the handsome residence beyond.
They, like a hundred other groups he had passed, hailed him with words of welcome, thanks, and encouragement and, as he bowed to them slightly, his eyes followed the direction of their terrified gaze and he started; above the great garden gates hung the black tablet; a warning that looked like a mark of disgrace, crying out to the passer-by: "Avoid this threshold! Here rages the destroying pestilence!"
The old man had a horror of everything that might remind him of death, and a cold shiver ran through him. To live so near to a focus of the disease was most alarming and dangerous! How had it invaded this, the healthiest part of the town, which the last raging epidemic had spared?
An officer of the town-council, whom he called to him, told him that two slaves, father and son, whose duty it was to take charge of the baths in the widow's house, had been first attacked, but they had been carried quietly away in the night to the new tents for the sick; to-day, however, the widow herself had fallen ill. To prevent the spread of the infection, the plot of ground was now guarded on all sides.
"Be strict, be sharp; not a rat must creep out!" cried the old man as he rode on.
He was later than he had been yesterday; supper must be ready. After a short rest he was preparing to join the family at their meal, washing and dressing with the help of his servant, when a lame slave-girl came into his room and placed a tray covered with steaming dishes on the low table by the divan.
What was the meaning of this? Before he could ask, he was informed that for the future the women wished to eat by themselves; he would be served in his own room.
At this a bright patch of red colored his cheeks; after brief reflection he cried to his servant. "My ass!" and added to the girl: "Where is your mistress?"
"In the viridarium with Gamaliel the goldsmith; but they are going to supper immediately."
"And without their guest? I understand!" muttered the old man, taking up his hat and marching past the maid out of the room. In the hall he met Gamaliel, to whom a slave-girl was handing his stick. Horapollo could guess that the Jew had come only to warn the women against him and, without vouchsafing him a glance, he went into the dining-room. There he found Pulchena and Mary kneeling in tears by the side of Joanna, who was weeping too.
He guessed for whom were these lamentations, and prompted by the wish to prove the falsity of the accusation that charged him with having entered the house as a spy, he spoke to the widow. She shuddered as he entered, and she now pointed to the door with an outstretched finger; when he nevertheless stood still and was about to make his defence, she interrupted him loudly and urgently: "No, no, my lord! This house is henceforth closed against you! You yourself have broken every tie that bound us! Do not any longer disturb our peace! Go back to the place you came from."
At this the old man made one more attempt to speak; but the widow rose, and saying: "Come, my children," she hastily withdrew with the girls into the adjoining room, and closed the door.
Horapollo was left alone on the threshold.
Old as he was, in all his life he had never suffered such an insult; but he did not lay it to the score of those who had shown him the door, but to the already long one of the Syrian girl; as he rode back to his own home on his white ass, he stopped several times to speak to the passers-by.
During the following day or two he heeded not the heat of the weather, nor his own need of rest for his body, and quiet occupation for his mind; morning, noon and night he was riding about the streets stirring up the people, and setting forth in insinuating speeches that they must perish miserably if they rejected the only means of deliverance which he had pointed out to them. He was present at every meeting of the Senate, and his inflammatory eloquence kept the town council on his side, and nullified the efforts of the bishop, while he pressed them to fix the day of the marriage of the Nile with his bride.
He knew the Egyptians and their passion for the intoxicating joys of a splendid ceremonial. This festival: the wedding of the Bride of the Nile to her mighty and unresting spouse, on whom the weal or woe of the land depended, was to be as a flowery oasis in the waste of dearth and desolation. He recalled every detail of the reminiscences of his childhood as to the processions in Honor of Isis, and the festivals dedicated to her and her triad; every record of his own experience and that of former generations; all he had read in books of the great pilgrimages and dramas of heathen Egypt--and he described it all in his speeches, painted it in glowing colors to the Senate and the mob, and counselled the authorities to reproduce it all with unparalleled splendor on the occasion of this marriage.
Every man in whose veins flowed Egyptian blood listened to him attentively, took pleasure in his projects, and was quite ready to do his utmost to enhance the glories of this ceremonial, in which every one was to take part either active or passive. Thousands were ruined, but there was yet enough and to spare for this marriage feast, and the Senate did not hesitate to raise a fresh loan.
"Destruction or Deliverance!" was the watch-word Horapollo had given the Memphites. If everything came to ruin their hoarded talents would be lost too; if, on the other hand, the sacrifice produced its result, if the Nile should bless its children with renewed prosperity, what need the town or country care for a few thousand drachmae more or less?
So the day was fixed!
Not quite two weeks after Paula's trial, on the day of Saint Serapis the miraculous, saving, auspicious ceremonial was to take place. And how glowing was the picture given of the Bride's beauty by the old man, and by the judges and officials who had seen her! How brightly old Horapollo's eyes would flash with hate as he described it! The eyes of love could not be more radiant.
All that this patrician hussy had done to aggrieve him--she should expiate it all, and his triumph meant woe, not only to that one woman, but to the Christian faith which he hated!
Bishop John, however, had not been idle meanwhile. Immediately after his interference with the popular vote he had despatched a letter by a carrier-pigeon to the patriarch in Upper Egypt, and Benjamin's reply would no doubt give him powers for still more vigorous measures. In church, before the Senate, and even in the highways, he and his clergy did their utmost to combat the atrocious project of the authorities and the populace, but the zeal which was stirred up by old Horapollo soon broke into brighter flames than the conservatism, orthodoxy and breadth of view which the ecclesiastics did their utmost to fan. The wind blew with equal force from both quarters, but on one side it blew on smoldering fuel, and on the other on overflowing and flaming stores. Famine and despair had undermined faith, and weakened discipline; even the mightiest weapons of the Church--Cursing and blessing--were powerless. A floating beam was held out to sinking men, and they would no longer wait for the life-boat that was approaching to rescue them, with strong hands at the oars and a trusty pilot at the helm.
Horapollo went no more to the widow's home. A few hours after she had shown him the door, his slaves came and fetched away the various things he had carried there with him. His body servant at the same time brought a large sealed phial and a letter to Dame Joanna, as follows:
"It is wrong to judge a man without hearing his defence. This you have done; but I owe you no grudge. Philippus, on his return, will perhaps pick up the ends of the tie and join again what you have this day cut. I send you a portion of the remedy he left with me at parting to use against the plague in case of need. Its good effects have been tested within the last few days. May the sickness which has fallen on your neighbors, spare you and yours."
Joanna was much pleased with this letter but, when she had read it aloud, little Mary exclaimed:
"If any one should fall ill he shall not take a drop of that mixture! I tell you he only wants to poison us!"
Joanna, however, maintained that the old man was not bad hearted in spite of his unaccountable hatred of Paula; and Pulcheria declared that it must be so, if only because Philip esteemed him so highly. If only he were here, everything would have been different and have turned out well.
Mary remained with the mother and daughter till it grew dark; her chatter always led them back to Paula; and when, in the afternoon, the Nabathaean messenger came to them, and told them from their captive friend that he had brought her father home to her, the women once more began to hope, and Mary could allow herself to give free expression to her fond love before she quitted them, without exciting their suspicions.
At length she said she must go to her lessons with Eudoxia; she had a hard task before her and they must think of her and wish her good success. She threw her arms first round the widow's neck and then round Pulcheria's; and, as the tears would start to her eyes, she asked them if she were not indeed a silly childish thing--but they were to think of her all the same and never to forget her.
She met the governess in her own room; Eudoxia cut off the fine, soft curls, shedding her first tears over them; and those tears flowed faster as she placed round Mary's neck a little reliquary containing a lock from the sheep-skin of St. John the Baptist, which had belonged to her own mother. It was very dear and sacred to her, and she had never before parted from it, but now it was to protect the child and bring her happiness--great happiness.
Had it brought her such happiness?--Not much, in truth; and yet she believed in the saving and beneficent influence of the relic.
At last Mary stood before her with short hair and in a boy's dress; and what a sweet and lovely little fellow it was; Eudoxia could not weary of looking at him. But Mary was too pretty, too frail for a boy; and Eudoxia advised her to pull her broad travelling hat low over her eyes as soon as she came in sight of men, or else to darken her color.
Gamaliel, who had in fact come to warn Dame Joanna against Horapollo, had kept them informed of the progress of this day's sitting, and Paula's conduct to save her lover had increased Mary's admiration for her. When she should confront Amru she could answer him on every head, so she felt equipped at all points as she stole through the garden with Eudoxia, and down to the quay.
When she had passed the gateway she once more kissed her hand to the house she loved and its inmates; then, pointing with a sigh to the neighboring garden, she said:
"Poor Katharina! she is a prisoner now.--Do you know, Eudoxia, I am still very fond of her, and when I think that she may take the plague, and die but no!--Tell Mother Joanna and Pulcheria to be kind to her. To-morrow, after breakfast, give them my letter; and this evening, if they get anxious, you can only quiet them by saying you know all and that it is of no use to fret about me. You will set it all right and not allow them to grieve."
As they passed a Jacobite chapel that stood open, she begged Eudoxia to wait for her and fell on her knees before the crucifix. In a few minutes she came out again, bright and invigorated and, as they passed the last houses in the town, she exclaimed:
"Is it not wicked, Eudoxia? I am leaving those I love dearly, very dearly, and yet I feel as glad as a bird escaping from its cage. Good Heaven! Only to think of the ride by night through the desert and over the hills, a swift beast under me, and over my head no ceiling but the blue sky and countless stars! Onward and still onward to a glorious end, left entirely to myself and entrusted with an important task like a grownup person! Is it not splendid? And by God's help--and if I find the governor and succeed in touching his heart. . . . Now, confess, Eudoxia, can there be a happier girl in the whole wide world?"
They found the Masdakite at Nesptah's inn with some capital dromedaries and the necessary drivers and attendants. The Greek governess gave her pupil much good advice, and added her "maternal" blessing with her whole heart. Rustem lifted the child on to the dromedary, carefully settling her in the saddle, and the little caravan set out. Mary waved repeated adieux to her old governess and newly-found friend, and Eudoxia was still gazing after her long after she had vanished in the darkness.
Then she made her way home, at first weeping silently with bowed head, but afterwards tearless, upright, and with a confident step. She was in unusually good spirits, her heart beat higher than it had done for years; she felt uplifted by the sense of relief from a burthensome duty, and of freedom to act independently on the dictates of her own intelligence. She would assert herself, she would show the others that she had acted rightly; and when at supper-time Mary was missing, and had not returned even at bed-time, there was much to do to soothe and comfort them, and much misconstruction to endure; but she took it all patiently, and it was a consolation to her to bear such annoyance for her little favorite.
Next morning, when she had delivered Mary's letter to Dame Joanna, her love and endurance were put to still severer proof; indeed, the meek-tempered widow allowed herself to be carried away to such an outbreak as hitherto would undoubtedly have led Eudoxia to request her dismissal, with sharp recrimination; but she took it all calmly.
It was not till noon-day--when the bishop made his appearance to carry the child off to the convent, and was highly wrathful at Mary's disappearance, threatening the widow, and declaring that he would search the whole country through for the little girl and find her at last, that Eudoxia felt that the moment of her triumph had come. She quietly allowed the bishop to depart, and then only did she send her last and best shaft at Joanna by informing her that she had in fact encouraged the child in her exploit on purpose to save her from the cloister. Her newly-found motherly feeling made her eloquent, and with a result that she had almost ceased to hope for: the warm-hearted little woman, who had hurt her with such cruel words, threw her arms round Eudoxia's tall, meagre figure, put up her face to kiss her, called her a brave, clever girl, and begged her forgiveness for all she had said and done the day before.
So, when the Greek went to bed, she felt as if her life had turned backwards and she had grown more like the happy young creature she had once been with her sisters in her parents' house.