The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Paula now understood what hung over her. It is Bishop John who had told her, as gently as he could, and with every assurance that he still clung to the hope that he could stop the hideous heathen abomination; but even without this she would certainly have known what was impending, for large crowds of people gathered every day under the prisonwalls, and loud cries reached her, demanding to see the "Bride of the Nile."
Now and again shouts of "Hail!" came up to her; but when the demented creatures had shrieked themselves hoarse, and in vain, they would abuse her vilely. The cry for the "Bride" never ceased from morning till night, and the head warder of the prison was glad that the bishop had relieved him of the task of explaining to Paula the meaning of the fateful word, whose significance she had repeatedly asked him.
At first this fresh and terrible peril had startled and shaken her; but she did her utmost to cling to the hope held out by the bishop so as to appear calm, and as far as possible cheerful, in her sick father's presence. And in this she succeeded so long as it was day; but at night she was a prey to agonizing terrors. Then, in fancy she saw herself surrounded by a raging mob, dragged to the river and cast into a watery grave before a thousand eyes. Then, prayer was of no avail, nor any resolve or effort; not the tender messages that constantly reached her from Orion, nor the songs he would sing for her in the brief moments of leisure he allowed himself; not the bishop's words of comfort, nor the visits of those she loved. The warder would admit her friends as often as he was able; and among those who found their way to her cell were the Senator Justinus and his wife.
By great good fortune Martina had quitted Susannah's house as soon as the two slaves had fallen ill and she had heard that the physician pronounced them to be sickening of the plague. She had returned to her rooms in the inn kept by Sostratus, but her nephew Narses had remained with Katharina and her mother. He was indeed intending to follow her with Heliodora; but, by the time they were ready to set out, Susannah, too, had fallen a victim to the pestilence and the authorities had forbidden all egress from her house.
Heliodora might have succeeded in leaving in time, alone; but she would not abandon her unfortunate brother-in-law; for he never felt easy but in her presence, would allow no one else to wait on him, and would take neither food nor drink unless they were offered him by her. Besides this, the cavalry officer, once so stalwart, had in his weakness become pathetically like her lost husband, and she knew that Narses had been the first to love her, and that it was only for his brother's sake that he had concealed his passion. Her motherly instincts found an outlet in the care of the half-crushed, but not hopelessly lost man; and the desire to drag him back to life kept her busy day and night, and made her regard everything else as trivial and of secondary importance. Her life had once more found a purpose; her efforts were for an attainable end, and she devoted herself to him body and soul.
Her uncle had told her that Orion was bound to Paula by a supreme passion.--This had been a painful blow, but the Syrian girl had impressed her; she looked up to her, and it soothed her wounded self-esteem to reflect that she had lost her lover to no inferior woman. Though her longing for him still surged up in many a silent hour, she felt it an injustice, a stint of love to her invalid charge.
So far as Katharina was concerned, next to her mother, Heliodora was the object of her deepest anxiety. The least word of complaint from either terrified her; and if Susannah sank on the divan exhausted by the heat, or Heliodora had a headache after watching through the night by the sick man, the girl would turn pale, her heart would beat painfully, she would paint them in fancy stricken by the plague, with burning brows and the horrible, fatal spots on their foreheads and cheeks; and whenever these alarms pressed on the young criminal she felt the ominous weight on the top of her head where the dead bishop's hand had rested.
The senator's wife had so completely changed in her demeanor to the water-wagtail, since Paula's imprisonment, that to Katharina she was as a living reproach, so she had no regret at seeing the worthy pair depart. But scarcely had they left when misfortune took their place as an unbidden guest.
The slave whose duty it was to heat the baths had reserved a portion of the infected garments that had been given to him to burn; his son had helped him, and Katharina's nurse, the mother of her foster-brother Anubis, had come into direct contact with her immediately after her return from the soothsayer's and from the bishop's. All three had caught the disease. They had all three been removed to the hospital tents--the slave and the nurse as corpses.
But had the fearful infection been taken away with them? If not, it would be the turn next of those whom she herself had pushed into the arms of the fell monster: First Heliodora, and then her mother! And she, rightfully, ought to have fallen before them; and if the pestilence should seize her and death should drag her down into the grave it would be showing her mercy. She was still so young, and yet she hated life. It had nothing in store for her but humiliation and disappointment, arrows which, sent from the prison, pierced her to the heart, and a torturing fear which never gave her any peace, day or night.
When the physician came to transport the sick to the hospital in the desert, he mentioned incidentally that the judges had condemned Paula to death, and that the populace and senate, in spite of the new bishop's prohibition, had determined to cast her into the river in accordance with an ancient custom. Orion's fate was not to be decided till the following day; but it would hardly be to his advantage in the eyes of his Jacobite judges, that his betrothed was this Syrian Melchite.
At this Katharina was forced to support herself against her mother's arm-chair to save herself from sinking on her knees; with tingling cheeks she questioned the leech till he lost all patience and turned away much annoyed at such excessive feminine curiosity.
Yes! "The other" was his betrothed before all the world; but only to die! The blood rushed through her veins in a hot tide at the thought; she could have laughed aloud and fallen on the neck of every one she met. What she felt was hideous; malignant spite possessed her; but it gave her rapture--delicious rapture--a flower of hell, but with splendid petals and intoxicating perfume. But its splendor dazzled her and its fragrance presently sickened her. Sheer horror of herself came over her, and yet she could have shouted with joy each time that the thought flashed through her brain: "The other must die!"
Her mother feared that her daughter, too, was about to fall ill, her eyes glowed so strangely and she was so restless and nervously excitable.
Since Heliodora had taken the overwhelming news of Orion's betrothal to Paula with astonishing though sorrowful calmness, to the hot-blooded girl she was nothing, nobody, utterly unworthy of her notice.
To spite her she had committed a crime as like murder as one snake is like another, and imperilled her own mother's life! It was enough to drive her to despair, to make her scourge herself with rods!
When Susannah kissed her at parting for the night she complained of a slight sore throat and of her lips, which she fancied must be swollen. Katharina detained her, questioned her with a trembling voice, put the lamp close to her, and held her breath while she examined her face, her neck, and her arms for the dreadful spots. But none were to be seen and her mother laughed at her terrors, called her a dutiful, anxious child, and warned her not to be too full of fears, as they were supposed to invite the disease.
All night the girl could not sleep. Her malicious triumph was past; nothing but painful thoughts and grewsome images haunted her while awake, and pursued her more persistently when she dozed. By dawn of day her alarm for her mother was so great that she sprang out of bed and went to her room; Susannah was sleeping so soundly that she did not even hear her. Much relieved Katharina crept back to bed; but in the morning the worst had happened: Susannah could no longer leave her bed; she was feverish, and on her lips, the very lips which had kissed her child's infected hair, there were indeed, between her nose and mouth, the first terrible, unmistakable spots.
The leech came and confirmed the fact.--The house was closed and barred.
The physician and Susannah, who was still in full possession of her senses, wished and insisted that Katharina should withdraw to the gardener's house, but she refused with defiant obstinacy, saying she would rather die with her mother than leave her.
Quite beside herself she threw herself on the sick woman, and kissed the spots on her mouth to divert the poison into her own blood; but the physician angrily pulled her away, and the sufferer reproved her with tears in her eyes which spoke her fervent affection.
She was now allowed to nurse her mother. Two nuns came to her assistance, and said, not only to the rich widow but behind her back, that they had never seen so devoted and loving a daughter. Even Bishop John, who did not shrink from entering the houses of the sick to give them spiritual consolation, praised Katharina's conduct; and he, who had hitherto regarded the water-wagtail as no more than a bright, restless child, treated her with respect, talked to her as to a grown-up person, and answered her questions--which for the most part referred to Paula--gravely and fully.
The prelate, who was full of admiration for Thomas' daughter, told Katharina how, to save her lover, she had taken a crime upon herself which deprived her of every claim to mercy. The Syrian girl was only a Melchite, but to take another's guilt, out of love, was treading indeed in the footsteps of Christ, if ever anything was. At this Katharina shrugged her shoulders, as though to say: "Do you think so much of that? Could not I gladly have done the same?"
The priest saw this and admonished her kindly to be on her guard against spiritual pride, though she had indeed earned the right to believe herself capable of the sternest devotion, and did not cease to set an example of filial and Christian love.
He departed; and Katharina, to whom every word in praise of her behavior to her mother, whom her sin had brought to her death-bed, was a torturing mockery, felt that she had deceived one more worthy soul. She did not, to be sure, deserve to be charged with spiritual pride; for in this silent chamber, where death stood on the threshold, she thought over all the horrible things she had done, and told herself repeatedly that she was the chief and most vile of sinners.
Many times she felt impelled to confide in another soul, to invite a pitying eye to behold and share her inward suffering.
To the bishop above all, the most venerable priest she knew, she would most readily have confessed everything and have submitted to any penance, however severe, at his hands, but shame held her back; and even more did another more urgent consideration. The prelate, she knew, would demand of her that she should forsake her old life, root out from her soul the old feelings and desires, and begin a new existence; but for this the time had not yet come: her love was still an indispensable condition of life, and her hatred was even more dear to her. When Paula's terrible doom should indeed have overtaken her, and Katharina, her heart full of those old feelings, had gloated over it; when she should have been able to prove to Orion that her love was no less great and strong and self-sacrificing than that of Thomas' daughter; when she should have compelled him--as she would and must--to acknowledge that he had cruelly misprized her and sinned against her; then, and not till then, would she make peace with herself, with the Church, and with her Saviour. Nay, if need be, she would take the veil and mourn away the rest of her young life as a penitent, in a convent or a solitary rock-cell. But now--when Paula, his betrothed, had done this great thing for him--to perish now, with her love unseen, unknown, uncared for, perhaps forgotten by him, to retire into herself and vanish from his ken--that was too much for human nature! Sooner would she be lost forever; body and soul in everlasting perdition, a prey to Satan and hell--in which she believed as firmly as in her own existence.
So she went on nursing her mother, saw the red spots spread over the sick woman's whole body--watched the fever that increased from day to day, from hour to hour; listened with a mixture of horror and gladness--at which she herself shuddered, though she fed her heart on it--to the reports of the preparations for the sacrifice of the Bride of the Nile, and to all the bishop could tell her of Paula, and her dying father, and Orion. She trembled for little Mary, who had disappeared from the neighboring garden, till she heard that the child had fled to escape the cloister; each day she learnt that Heliodora, who had moved to the gardener's house with her invalid, had as yet escaped the pestilence; while in the prayers, which even now she never failed to offer up morning and evening, she implored the Almighty and her patron saints to rescue the young widow, to save her from causing the death of her own mother, and to forgive her for having indirectly caused that of worthy old Rufinus, who had always been so good to her, and of so many innocent creatures by her treachery.
Thus the terrible days and nights of anguish passed by; and the captives whom the girl's sins had brought to prison were happier than she, in spite of the doom that threatened them.
The fate of his betrothed tortured Orion more than a hundred aching wounds. Paula's terrible end was fast approaching, and his brain burned at the mere thought. Now, as he was told by the warder, by the bishop, and by Justinus, the day after to-morrow was fixed for the bridal of his betrothed. In two days the bride, decked by base and mocking hands for an atrocious and accursed farce, would be wreathed and wedded, not to him, the bridegroom whom she loved, but to the Nile--the insensible, death-dealing element. He rushed up and down his cell like a madman, and tore his lute-strings when he tried to soothe his soul with music; but then a calm, well-intentioned voice would come from the adjoining room, exhorting him not to lose hope, to trust in God, not to forget his duty and the task before him. And Orion would control himself resolutely, pull himself together, and throw himself into his work again.
Day and night were alike to him. The senator had provided him with a lamp and oil. When he was wearied out, he allowed himself no longer sleep on his hard couch than human nature imperatively demanded; and as soon as he had shaken it off he again became absorbed in maps and lists, plied his pen, thought, sketched, calculated, and reflected. Then, if a doubt arose in his mind or he could not trust his own memory and judgment, he knocked at the wall, and his shrewd and experienced friend was at all times ready to help him to the best of his knowledge and opinion. The senator went to Arsinoe for him, to gain information as to the seaboard from the archives preserved there; and so the work went forward, approaching its end, strengthening and raising his sinking spirit, bringing him the pleasures of success, and enabling him not unfrequently to forget for hours that which otherwise might have brought the bravest to despair.
The warder, the senator or his worthy wife, Dame Joanna or Eudoxia--who twice had the pleasure of accompanying her--each time they visited him had some message or note to carry to Paula, telling her how far his work had progressed; and to her it was a consolation and heartfelt joy to be able to follow him in his labors. And many a token of his love, esteem, and admiration gave her courage, when even her brave heart began to quail.
Ah! It was not alone her terror of a horrible death that tortured her soul. Her father, whom she considered it her greatest joy in life to have found again, was fading beyond all hope under her loving hands. His poor wounded lungs refused its service. It was with great difficulty that he could swallow a few drops of wine and mouthfuls of food; and in these last days his clear mind had lain as it were under a shroud--perhaps it was happier so, as she told herself and as her friends said to comfort her.
He, too, had heard the cries of: "Hail to the Bride of the Nile!"
"Bring out the Bride!"
"Away with the Bride of the Nile!" Though he had no suspicion of their meaning, they had haunted his thoughts incessantly during the last few days; and the terrible, strange words had seemed to charm his fancy, for to Paula's distress he would murmur them to himself tenderly or thoughtfully as the case might be.
Many times the idea occurred to her that she might put an end to her life before the worst should befall, before she became a spectacle for a whole nation, to be jeered at and made a delightful and exciting show to rouse their cruelty or their compassion. But dared she do it? Dared she defy the Most High, the Lord in whom she put her trust, into whose hand she commended herself in a thousand dumb but fervent prayers.
No. To the very last she would trust and hope. And wonderful to say! Each time she had reached the very limits of her powers of endurance, feeling she could certainly bear no more and must succumb, something came to her to revive her faith or her courage: a message would be brought her from Orion, or Dame Joanna or Pulcheria came to see her; the bishop sought an interview, or her father's mind rallied and he could speak to her in beautiful and stimulating words. Often the warder would announce the senator and his wife, and their vigorous and healthy minds always hit on the very thing she needed. Martina, particularly, with her subtle motherly instinct, always understood whatever was agitating her; and once she showed her a letter from Heliodora, in which she spoke of the calmness she had won through nursing their dear invalid, and said how thankful she was to see the reward of her care and toil. Narses was already quite another man, and she could know no higher task than that of reconciling the hapless man to life, nay, of making it dear to him again. She no longer thought of Orion but as she might of a beautiful song she once had heard in a delightful hour.
Thus time passed, even for the imprisoned maiden, till only two nights remained before St. Serapis' day when the fearful marriage was to be solemnized.
It was evening when the bishop came to visit Paula. He regarded it as his duty to tell her that the execution of her sentence was fixed for the day after to-morrow. He should hope and believe till the last, but his own power over the misguided mob was gone from him. In any case, and if the worst should befall, he would be at her side to protect her by the dignity of his office. He had come now, so as to give her time to prepare her self in every respect. The care of her noble father till his last hour on earth he would take upon himself as a dear and sacred duty.
Though she had believed herself surely prepared long since for the worst, this news fell on her like a thunderbolt. What lay before her seemed so monstrous, so unexampled, that it was impossible that she ever could look forward to it firmly and calmly.
For a long time she could not help clinging desperately to her faithful Betta, and it was only by degrees that she so far recovered herself as to be able to speak to the bishop, and thank him. He, however, could only lament his inability to earn her fullest gratitude, for the patriarch's reply to his complaint of those who promised rescue to the people by the instrumentality of a heathen abomination--a document on which he had founded his highest hopes for her--had had a different result from that which he had expected. The patriarch, to be sure, condemned the abominable sacrifice, but he did it in a way which lacked the force necessary to terrify and discourage the misled mob. However, he would try what effect it might have on the people, and a number of scribes were at work to make copies of it in the course of the night. These would be sent to the Senators next morning, posted up in the market-place and public buildings, and distributed to the people; but he feared all this would have no effect.
"Then help me to prepare for death," said Paula gloomily. "You are not a priest of my confession, but no church has a more worthy minister. If you can absolve me in the name of your Redeemer, mine will pardon me. We look at Him, it is true, with different eyes, but He is the Saviour of us both, nevertheless." A contradictory reply struggled for utterance in the strict Jacobite's mind, but at such a moment he felt he must repress it; he only answered:
"Speak, daughter, I am listening."
And she poured forth all her soul, as though he had been a priest of her own creed, and his eyes grew moist as he heard this confession of a pure and loving heart, yearning for all that was highest and best. He promised her the mercy of the Redeemer, and when he had ended with "Amen," and blessed her, he looked down at the ground for some minutes and presently said, "Follow me, Child."
"Whither?" she asked in surprise; for she thought that her last hour had already come, and that he was about to lead her away to the place of execution, or to her watery, ever-flowing tomb; but he smiled as he replied: "No, child. To-day I have only the pleasing duty of blessing your betrothal before God; if only you will promise not to estrange your husband from the faith of his fathers--for what will not a man sacrifice to win the love of a woman.--You promise? Then I will take you to your Orion."
He rapped on the door of the cell, and when the warder had opened it he whispered his orders; Paula followed him silently and with blushing cheeks, and in a few minutes she was clasped to her lover's breast while, for the first time--and perhaps the last--their lips met in a kiss.
The prelate gave them a few minutes together; when he had blessed them both and solemnized their betrothal, he led her back to her cell. However, she had hardly time to thank him out of the fulness of her overflowing heart, when a town-watchman came to fetch him to see Susannah; her last hour was at hand, if not already past. John at once went with the messenger, and Paula drew a deep breath as she saw him depart. Then she threw herself on to her nurse's shoulders, crying:
"Now, come what may! Nothing can divide us; not even death!"