The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
On the following evening Haschim, the merchant, came to the governor's house with a small part of his caravan. A stranger might have taken the mansion for the home of a wealthy country-gentleman rather than the official residence of a high official; for at this hour, after sunset, large herds of beasts and sheep were being driven into the vast court-yard behind the house, surrounded on three sides by out-buildings; half a hundred horses of choice breed came, tied in couples, from the watering-place; and in a well-sanded paddock enclosed by hurdles, slaves, brown and black, were bringing fodder to a large troop of camels.
The house itself was well-fitted by its unusually palatial size and antique splendor to be the residence of the emperor's viceroy, and the Mukaukas, to whom it all belonged, had in fact held the office for a long time. After the conquest of the country by the Arabs they had left him in possession, and at the present date he managed the affairs of his Egyptian fellow-countrymen, no more in the name of the emperor at Byzantium, but under the authority of the Khaliff at Medina and his great general, Amru. The Moslem conquerors had found him a ready and judicious mediator; while his fellow-Christians and country-men obeyed him as being the noblest and wealthiest of their race and the descendant of ancestors who had enjoyed high distinction even under the Pharaohs.
Only the governor's residence was Greek--or rather Alexandrian-in style; the court-yards and out-buildings on the contrary, looked as though they belonged to some Oriental magnate-to some Erpaha (or prince of a province) as the Mukaukas' forefathers had been called, a rank which commanded respect both at court and among the populace.
The dragoman had not told the merchant too much beforehand of the governor's possessions: he had vast estates, in both Upper and Lower Egypt, tilled by thousands of slaves under numerous overseers. Here in Memphis was the centre of administration of his property, and besides the offices for his private affairs were those he needed as a state official.
Well-kept quays, and the wide road running along the harbor side, divided his large domain from the river, and a street ran along the wall which enclosed it on the north. On this side was the great gate, always wide open by day, by which servants or persons on business-errands made their entrance; the other gate, a handsome portal with Corinthian columns opening from the Nile-quay, was that by which the waterparty had returned the evening before. This was kept closed, and only opened for the family, or for guests and distinguished visitors. There was a guardhouse at the north gate with a small detachment of Egyptian soldiers, who were entrusted with the protection of the Mukaukas' person.
As soon as the refreshing evening breeze came up from the river after the heat of the day there was a stir in the great court-yard. Men, women and girls came trooping out of the retainers' dwellings to breathe the cooler air. Waiting-maids and slaves dipped for water into enormous earthen vessels and carried it away in graceful jars; the free-men of the household rested in groups after the fatigues of the day, chatting, playing and singing. From the slaves' quarters in another court-yard came confused sounds of singing hymns, with the shrill tones of the double pipe and duller noise of the tabor--an invitation to dance; scolding and laughter; the jubilant shouts of a girl led out to dance, and the shrieks of a victim to the overseer's rod.
The servant's gateway, still hung with flowers and wreaths in honor of Orion's recent return, was wide open for the coming and going of the accountants and scribes, or of such citizens as came very willingly to pay an evening call on their friends in the governor's household; for there were always some officials near the Mukaukas' person who knew more than other folks of the latest events in Church and State.
Ere long a considerable number of men had assembled to sit under the deep wooden porch of the head-steward's dwelling, all taking eager part in the conversation, which they would have found very enjoyable even without the beer which their host offered them in honor of the great event of his young lord's return; for what was ever dearer to Egyptians than a brisk exchange of talk, at the same time heaping ridicule or scorn on their unapproachable superiors in rank, and on all they deem enemies to their creed or their country.
Many a trenchant word and many a witty jest must have been uttered this evening, for hearty laughter and loud applause were incessant in the head steward's porch; the captain of the guard at the gate cast envious and impatient glances at the merry band, which he would gladly have joined; but he could not yet leave his post. The messengers' horses were standing saddled while their riders awaited their orders, there were supplicants and traders to be admitted or turned away, and there were still a number of persons lingering in the large vestibule of the governor's palace and craving to speak with him, for it was well known in Memphis that during the hot season the ailing Mukaukas granted audience only in the evening.
The Egyptians had not yet acquired full confidence in the Arab government, and every one tried to avoid being handed over to its representative; for none of its officials could be so wise or so just as their old Mukaukas. How the suffering man found strength and time to keep an eye on everything, it was hard to imagine; but the fact remained that he himself looked into every decision. At the same time no one could be sure of his affairs being settled out of hand unless he could get at the governor himself.
Business hours were now over; the anxiety caused both by the delay in the rising of the Nile and by the advent of the comet had filled the waiting-rooms with more petitioners than usual. Deputations from town and village magistrates had been admitted in parties; supplicants on private business had gone in one by one; and most of them had come forth content, or at any rate well advised. Only one man still lingered,--a countryman whose case had long been awaiting settlement--in the hope that a gift to the great man's doorkeeper, of a few drachmae out of his poverty might at length secure him the fruit of his long patience--when the chamberlain, bidding him return on the morrow, officiously flung open the high doors that led to the Mukaukas' apartments, to admit the Arab merchant, in consideration of Haschim's gold piece which had come to him through his cousin the dragoman. Haschim, however, had observed the countryman, and insisted on his being shown in first. This was done, and a few minutes later the peasant came out satisfied, and gratefully kissed the Arab's hand.
Then the chamberlain led the old merchant, and the men who followed him with a heavy bale, into a magnificent anteroom to wait; and his patience was put to a severe test before his name was called and he could show the governor his merchandise.
The Mukaukas, in fact, after signifying by a speechless nod that he would presently receive the merchant--who came well recommended--had retired to recreate himself, and was now engaged in a game of draughts, heedless of those whom he kept waiting. He reclined on a divan covered with a sleek lioness' skin, while his young antagonist sat opposite on a low stool, The doors of the room, facing the Nile, where he received petitioners were left half open to admit the fresher but still warm evening-air. The green velarium or awning, which during the day had screened off the sun's rays where the middle of the ceiling was open to the sky, was now rolled back, and the moon and stars looked down into the room. It was well adapted to its purpose as a refuge from the heat of the summer day, for the walls were lined with cool, colored earthenware tiles, the floor was a brightly-tinted mosaic of patterns on a ground of gold glass, and in the circular central ornament of this artistic pavement stood the real source of freshness: a basin, two man's length across, of brown porphyry flecked with white, from which a fountain leaped, filling the surrounding air with misty spray. A few stools, couches and small tables, all of cool-looking metal, formed the sole furniture of this lofty apartment which was brilliantly lighted by numerous lamps.
A light air blew in through the open roof and doors, made the lamps flicker, and played with Paula's brown hair as she sat absorbed, as it seemed, in the game. Orion, who stood behind her, had several times endeavored to attract her attention, but in vain. He now eagerly offered his services to fetch her a handkerchief to preserve her from a chill; this, however, she shortly and decidedly declined, though the breeze came up damp from the river and she had more than once drawn her peplos more closely across her bosom.
The young man set his teeth at this fresh repulse. He did not know that his mother had told Paula what he had yesterday agreed to, and could not account for the girl's altered behavior. All day she had treated him with icy coldness, had scarcely answered his questions with a distant "Yes," or "No;" and to him, the spoilt favorite of women, this conduct had become more and more intolerable. Yes, his mother had judged her rightly: she allowed herself to be swayed in a most extraordinary manner by her moods; and now even he was to feel the insolence of her haughtiness, of which he had as yet seen nothing. This repellent coldness bordered on rudeness and he had no mind to submit to it for long. It was with deep vexation that he watched every turn of her hand, every movement of her body, and the varying expression of her face; and the more the image of this proud maiden sank into his heart the more lovely and perfect he thought her, and the greater grew his desire to see her smile once more, to see her again as sweetly womanly as she had been but yesterday. Now she was like nothing so much as a splendid marble statue, though he knew indeed that it had a soul--and what a glorious task it would be to free this fair being from herself, as it were, from the foolish tempers that enslaved her, to show her--by severity if need should be--what best beseems a woman, a maiden.
He became more and more exclusively absorbed in watching the young girl, as his mother--who was sitting with Dame Susannah on a couch at some little distance from the players--observed with growing annoyance, and she tried to divert his attention by questions and small errands, so as to give his evident excitement a fresh direction.
Who could have thought, yesterday morning, that her darling would so soon cause her fresh vexation and anxiety.
He had come home just such a man as she and his father could have wished: independent and experienced in the ways of the great world. In the Capital he had, no doubt, enjoyed all that seems pleasant in the eyes of a wealthy youth, but in spite of that he had remained fresh and open-hearted even to the smallest things; and this was what most rejoiced his father. In him there was no trace of the satiety, the blunted faculty for enjoyment, which fell like a blight on so many men of his age and rank. He could still play as merrily with little Mary, still take as much pleasure in a rare flower or a fine horse, as before his departure. At the same time he had gained keen insight into the political situation of the time, into the state of the empire and the court, into administration, and the innovations in church matters; it was a joy to his father to hear him discourse; and he assured his wife that he had learnt a great deal from the boy, that Orion was on the high road to be a great statesman and was already quite capable of taking his father's place.
When Neforis confessed how large a sum in debts Orion had left in Constantinople the old man put his hand in his purse with a sort of pride, delighted to find that his sole remaining heir knew how to spend the immense wealth which to him was now a burden rather than a pleasure--to make good use of it, as he himself had done in his day, and display a magnificence of which the lustre was reflected on him and on his name.
"With him, at any rate," said the old man, "one gets something for the money. His horses cost a great deal but he knows how to win with them; his entertainments swallow up a pretty sum, but they gain him respect wherever he goes. He brought me a letter from the Senator Justinus, and the worthy man tells me what a leading part he plays among the gilded youth of the Capital. All this is not to be had for nothing, and it will be cheap in the end. What need we care about a hundred talents more or less! And there is something magnanimous in the lad that has given him the spirit to feel that."
And it was not a hale old grey-beard who spoke thus, but a broken man, whose only joy it was to lavish on his son the riches which he had long been incapable of enjoying. The high-spirited and gifted youth, scarcely more than a boy in years, whom he had sent to the Capital with no small misgivings, must have led a far less lawless life than might have been expected; of this the ruddy tinge in his sunburnt cheeks was ample guarantee, the vigorous solidity of his muscles, and the thick waves of his hair, which was artificially curled and fell in a fringe, as was then the fashion, over his high brow, giving him a certain resemblance to the portraits of Antinous, the handsomest youth in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Even his mother owned that he looked like health itself, and no member of the Imperial family could be more richly, carefully and fashionably dressed than her darling. But even in the humblest garb he would have been a handsome--a splendid youth, and his mother's pride! When he left home there was still a smack of the provincial about him; but now every kind of awkwardness had vanished, and wherever he might go--even in the Capital, he was certain to be one of the first to attract observation and approval.
And what had he not known in his city experience? The events of half a century had followed each other with intoxicating rapidity in the course of the thirty months he had spent there. The greater the excitement, the greater the pleasure was the watchword of his time; and though he had rioted and revelled on the shores of the Bosphorus if ever man did, still the pleasures of feasting and of love, or of racing with his own victorious horses--all of which he had enjoyed there to the full--were as child's play compared with the nervous tension to which he had been strung by the appalling events he had witnessed on all sides. How petty was the excitement of an Alexandrian horse-race! Whether Timon or Ptolemy or he himself should win--what did it matter? It was a fine thing no doubt to carry off the crown in the circus at Byzantium, but there were other and soul-stirring crises there beyond those which were bound up with horses or chariots. There a throne was the prize, and might cost the blood and life of thousands!--What did a man bring home from the churches in the Nile valley? But if he crossed the threshold of St. Sophia's in Constantinople he often might have his blood curdled, or bring home--what matter?--bleeding wounds, or even be carried home--a corpse.
Three times had he seen the throne change masters. An emperor and an empress had been stripped of the purple and mutilated before his eyes.
Aye, then and there he had had real and intense excitement to thrill him to the marrow and quick. As for the rest! Well, yes, he had had more trivial pleasures too. He had not been received as other Egyptians were: half-educated philosophers--who called themselves Sages and assumed a mystic and pompously solemn demeanor, Astrologers, Rhetoricians, poverty-stricken but witty and venemous satirists, physicians making a display of the learning of their forefathers, fanatical theologians--always ready to avail themselves of other weapons than reason and dogma in their bitter contests over articles of faith, hermits and recluses--as foul in mind as they were dirty in their persons, corn-merchants and usurers with whom it was dangerous to conclude a bargain without witnesses. Orion was none of these. As the handsome, genial, and original-minded son of the rich and noble Governor, Mukaukas George, he was welcomed as a sort of ambassador; whatever the golden youth of the city allowed themselves was permitted to him. His purse was as well lined as theirs, his health and vigor far more enduring; and his horses had beaten theirs in three races, though he drove them himself and did not trust them to paid charioteers. The "rich Egyptian," the "New Antinous," "handsome Orion," as he was called, could never be spared from feast or entertainment. He was a welcome guest at the first houses in the city, and in the palace and the villa of the Senator Justinus, an old friend of his father, he was as much at home as a son of the house.
It was under his roof, and the auspices of his kindhearted wife Martina, that he made acquaintance with the fair Heliodora, the widow of a nephew of the Senator; and the whole city had been set talking of the tender intimacy Orion had formed with the beautiful young woman whose rigid virtue had hitherto been a subject of admiration no less than her fair hair and the big jewels with which she loved to set off her simple but costly dress. And many a fair Byzantine had striven for the young Egyptian's good graces before Heliodora had driven them all out of the field. Still, she had not yet succeeded in enslaving Orion deeply and permanently; and when, last evening, he had assured his mother that she was not mistress of his heart he spoke truly.
His conduct in the Capital had not certainly been exemplary, but he had never run wild, and had enjoyed the respect not only of his companions in pleasure, but of grave and venerable men whom he had met in the house of Justinus, and who sang the praises of his intelligence and eagerness to learn. As a boy he had been a diligent scholar, and here he let no opportunity slip. Not least had he cultivated his musical talents in the Imperial city, and had acquired a rare mastery in singing and playing the lute.
He would gladly have remained some time longer at the Capital, but at last the place grew too hot to hold him-mainly on his father's account. The conviction that George had largely contributed to the disaffection of Egypt for the Byzantine Empire and had played into the hands of the irresistible and detested upstart Arabs, had found increasing acceptance in the highest circles, especially since Cyrus--the deposed and now deceased Patriarch of Alexandria--had retired to Constantinople. Orion's capture was in fact already decided on, when the Senator Justinus and some other friends had hinted a warning which he had acted on just in time.
His father's line of conduct had placed him in great peril; but he owed him no grudge for it--indeed, he most deeply approved of it. A thousand times had he witnessed the contempt heaped on the Egyptians by the Greeks, and the loathing and hatred of the Orthodox for the Monophysite creed of his fellow-countrymen.
He had with difficulty controlled his wrath as he had listened again and again to the abuse and scorn poured out on his country and people by gentle and simple, laymen and priests, even in his presence; regarding him no doubt as one of themselves--a Greek in whose eyes everything "Barbarian" was as odious and as contemptible as in their own.
But the blood of his race flowed in the veins of the "new Antinous" who could sing Greek songs so well and with so pure an accent; every insult to his people was stamped deep in his heart, every sneer at his faith revived his memory of the day when the Melchites had slain his two brothers. And these bloody deeds, these innumerable acts of oppression by which the Greek; had provoked and offended the schismatic Egyptian and hunted them to death, were now avenged by his father. It lifted up his heart and made him proud to think of it. He showed his secret soul to the old man who was as much surprised as delighted at what he found there; for he had feared that Orion might not be able wholly to escape the powerful influences of Greek beguilements;--nay, he had often felt anxious lest his own son might disapprove of his having surrendered to the Arab conquerors the province entrusted to his rule, and concluded a peace with them.
The Mukaukas now felt himself as one with Orion, and from time to time looked tenderly up at him from the draught-board. Neforis was doing her best to entertain the mother of her son's future bride, and divert her attention from his strange demeanor. She seemed indeed to be successful, for Dame Susannah agreed to everything she said; but she betrayed the fact that she was keeping a sharp watch by suddenly asking: "Does your husband's lofty niece not think us worthy of a single word?"
"Oh no!" said Neforis bitterly. "I only hope she may soon find some other people to whom she can behave more graciously. You may depend upon it I will put no obstacle in her way."
Then she brought the conversation round to Katharina, and the widow told her that her brother-in-law, Chrysippus, was now in Memphis with his two little daughters. They were to go away on the morrow, so the young girl had been obliged to devote herself to them: "And so the poor child is sitting there at this minute," she lamented, "and must keep those two little chatter-boxes quiet while she is longing to be here instead."
Orion quite understood these last words; he asked after the young girl, and then added gaily:
"She promised me a collar yesterday for my little white keepsake from Constantinople. Fie! Mary, you should not tease the poor little beast."
"No, let the dog go," added the widow, addressing the governor's little granddaughter, who was trying to make the recalcitrant dog kiss her doll. "But you know, Orion, this tiny creature is really too delicate for such a big man as you are! You should give him to some pretty young lady and then he would fulfil his destiny! And Katharina is embroidering him a collar; I ought not to tell her little secret, but it is to have gold stars on a blue ground."
"Because Orion is a star," cried the little girl. "So she is working nothing but Orions."
"But fortunately there is but one star of my name," observed he. "Pray tell her that Dame Susa."
The child clapped her hands. "He does not choose to have any other star near him!" she exclaimed.
The widow broke in: "Little simpleton! I know people who cannot even bear to have a likeness traced between themselves and any one else.--But this you must permit, Orion--you were quite right just now, Neforis; his mouth and brow might have been taken from his father's face."
The remark was quite accurate; and yet it would have been hard to imagine two men more unlike than the bright youth full of vitality, and the languid old man on the couch, to whom even the small exertion of moving the men was an effort. The Mukaukas might once have been like his son, but in some long past time. Thin grey locks now only covered one half of his bald head, and of his eyes, which, thirty years since, had sparkled perhaps as keenly as Orion's, there was usually nothing, or very little to be seen; for the heavy lids always drooped over them as though they had lost the power to open, and this gave his handsome but deathly-pale face a somewhat owl-like look. It was not morose, however; on the contrary the mingled lines of suffering and of benevolent kindliness resulted in an expression only of melancholy. The mouth and flabby cheeks were as motionless as though they were dead. Grief, anxiety and alarms seemed to have passed over them with a paralysing hand and had left their trace there. He looked like a man weary unto death, and still living only because fate had denied him the grace to die. Indeed, he had often been taken for dead by his family when he had dipped too freely into a certain little blood-stone box to take too many of the white opium-pills, one of which he placed between his colorless lips at long intervals, even during his game of draughts.
He lifted each piece slowly, like a sleeper with his eyes half shut; and yet his opponent could not hold her own against his wary tactics and was defeated by him now for the third time, though her uncle himself called her a good player. It was easy to read in her high, smooth brow and dark-blue eyes with their direct gaze, that she could think clearly and decisively, and also feel deeply. But she seemed wilful too, and contradictory--at any rate to-day; for when Orion pointed out some move to her she rarely took his advice, but with set lips, pushed the piece according to her own, rarely wiser, judgment. It was quite plain that she was refractory under the guidance of this--especially of this counsellor.
The bystanders could not fail to see the girl's repellent manner and Orion's eager attempts to propitiate her; and for this reason Neforis was glad when, just as her husband had finished the third game, and had pushed the men together on the board with the back of his hand, his chamberlain reminded him that the Arab was without, awaiting his pleasure with growing impatience. The Mukaukas answered only by a sign, drew his long caftan of the finest wool closer around him, and pointed to the doors and the open roof. The rest of the party had long felt the chill of the damp night air that blew through the room from the river, but knowing that the father suffered more from heat than from anything, they had all willingly endured the draught. Now, however, Orion called the slaves, and before the strangers were admitted the doors were closed and the roof covered.
Paula rose; the governor lay motionless and kept his eyes apparently closed; he must, however, have seen what was going forward through an imperceptible slit, for he turned first to Paula and then to the other women saying: "Is it not strange?--Most old folks, like children, seek the sun, and love to sit, as the others play, in its heat. While I--something that happened to me years ago--you know;--and it seemed to freeze my blood. Now it never gets warm, and I feel the contrast between the coolness in here and the heat outside most acutely, almost as a pain. The older we grow the more ready we are to abandon to the young the things we ourselves used most to enjoy. The only thing which we old folks do not willingly relinquish is personal comfort, and I thank you for enduring annoyances so patiently for the sake of securing mine.--It is a terrific summer! You, Paula, from the heights of Lebanon, know what ice is. How often have I wished that I could have a bed of snow. To feel myself one with that fresh, still coldness would be all I wish for! The cold air which you dread does me good. But the warmth of youth rebels against everything that is cool."
This was the first long sentence the Mukaukas had uttered since the beginning of the game. Orion listened respectfully to the end, but then he said with a laugh: "But there are some young people who seem to take pleasure in being cool and icy--for what cause God alone knows!"
As he spoke he looked the girl at whom the words were aimed, full in the face; but she turned silently and proudly away, and an angry shade passed over her lovely features.