The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
The bishop was too late. He found the widow Susannah a corpse; standing at the head of the bed was little Katharina, as pale as death, speechless, tearless, utterly annihilated. He kindly tried to cheer her, and to speak words of comfort; but she pushed him away, tore herself from him, and before he could stop her, she had fled out of the room.
Poor child! He had seen many a loving daughter mourning for her mother, but never such grief as this. Here, thought he, were two human souls all in all to each other, and hence this overwhelming sorrow.
Katharina had escaped to her own room, had thrown herself on the couch--cowering so close that no one entering the room would have taken the undistinguishable heap for a human being, a grown up, passionately suffering girl.
It was very hot, and yet a cold shiver ran through her slender frame. Was she now attacked by the pestilence? No; it would be too merciful of Fate to take such pity on her woes.
The mother was dead, dragged to the grave by her own daughter. The disease had first shown itself on her lips; and how many times had the physician expressed his surprise at the plague having broken out in this healthy quarter of the town, and in a house kept so scrupulously clean. She knew at whose bidding the avenging angel had entered there, and whose criminal guile had trifled with him. The words "murdered your mother" haunted her, and she remembered the law of the ancients which refused to prescribe a punishment for the killing of parents, because they considered such a monstrous deed impossible.
A scornful smile curled her lip. Laws! Principles! Was there one that she had not defied? She had contemned God, meddled with magic, borne false witness, committed murder--and as to the one law with promise, which, if Philippus was right, was exactly the same in the code of her forefathers as on the tables of Moses, how had she kept that? Her own mother was no more, and by her act!
All through this frightful retrospect she had never ceased to shiver and, as this was becoming unendurable, she took to walking up and down and seeking excuses for her sinful doings: It was not her mother, but Heliodora whom she had wished to kill; why had malicious Fate. . . ?
Here she was interrupted, for the young widow, who had heard the sad news, sought her out to comfort her and offer her services. She spoke to the girl with real affection; but her sweet, low tones reminded Katharina of that evening after the old bishop's death; and when Heliodora put out her arm to draw her to her, she shrank from her, begging her in a dry, hoarse voice, not to touch her for her clothes were infected. She wanted no comfort; all she asked was to be left alone--quite alone--nothing more. The words were hard and unkind, and as the door closed on the young woman Katharina's eyes glared after her.
Why had this doom passed over Heliodora's head and demanded the sacrifice of one whose loss she could never cease to mourn?
This brought her mother vividly to her mind. She flew back to her death-bed and fell on her knees--but even there she could not bear to stay long, so she wandered into the garden and visited every spot where she and her mother had been together. But there were such strange crackings in the shrubs, and the trees and bushes cast such uncanny shadows that she hailed daybreak as a deliverance.
She was on her way back to the house when her foster-brother Anubis came limping to meet her. Poor fellow! She had made a cripple of him, too, and his mother had died through her fault.
The lad spoke to her, giving expression to his sympathy, and she accepted it; but she said such strange things, and answered him so utterly at random, that he began to fear that grief had turned her brain. She went on to ask him point-blank how much money she now had, and as he happened to know approximately, he could tell her; she clasped her hands, for how could any one human being who was not a king possess such enormous wealth! Finally she enquired whether he knew how a will should be drawn up, and that, too, he answered affirmatively.
She made him describe it all, and then he added that the signature must be made valid by those of two witnesses; but she, he added, was too young to be thinking of making her will.
"Why?" said she. "Is Paula much older than I am?"
"And the day after to-morrow," the boy went on, "she is to be cast into the Nile. All the people call her the Bride of the Nile."
At this that hideous, malignant smile again curled her lips, but she hastily suppressed it and walked straight on into the house. At the door he timidly asked her whether he might once more look on his mistress; but she was obliged to forbid it for fear of infection. However, he proudly replied: "What you do not fear, has no terrors for me," and he followed her to the side of the bed where the corpse now lay washed and in fine array; and when he saw Katharina kiss the dead woman's hand he, too, as soon as she looked away, pressed his lips on the place hers had touched. Then he sat down by the bed and remained there till she sent him away.
Before noon the bishop arrived to perform the last rites. He found the body surrounded by beautiful flowers. Katharina had been out in the garden again and had cut all the rarest and finest; and though she had allowed the gardener to carry the basket for her, she would not have him help her in gathering them. The feeling that she was doing something for her mother had been a comfort to her; still, by day everything about her seemed even more intolerable than by night. Everything looked so large, so coarse, so insistent, so menacing, and reminded her at every step of some injustice or some deed of which she was ashamed. Every eye, she fancied, must see through her; and now and then it seemed as though the pillars of the great banqueting-hall, where her mother still lay, were tottering, and the ceiling about to fall in and crush her.
She answered the bishop's questions absently and often quite at random, and the old man supposed that she was stunned by her great sorrow; so to give her thoughts a new direction he began telling her about Paula, and believing that Katharina was fond of her, he confided to her that he had taken Paula, the day before, to Orion's cell, and consecrated their betrothal.
At this her face was convulsed in a manner that alarmed the bishop; a fearful tumult raged in her soul, her bosom rose and fell spasmodically, and all she could utter was the question: "But they will sacrifice her all the same?"
The bishop thought he understood. She was horror stricken by the idea of the sudden, cruel end that hung over the young bride, and he replied sadly; "I shall not be able to restrain the wretches; still, no means shall remain untried. The patriarch's rescript, condemning this mad crime, shall be made public to-day, and I will read and expound it at the Curia, and try to give it keener emphasis.--Would you like to read it?"
As she eagerly assented, the prelate signed to the acolyte who had waited on him with the holy vessels, and he produced from a packet a written sheet which he handed to Katharina. As soon as she was alone she read the patriarch's epistle; at first superficially, then more carefully, and at last in deep attention and growing interest, stirred by it to strange thoughts, till at length her eyes flashed and her breath came fast, as though this paper referred to herself, and could seal her fate for life.
When the bearers came in to fetch away the body she was still sitting there, gazing as if spell-bound at the papyrus; but she sprang up, shook herself, and then bid farewell to the cold rigid form of the mother on whose warm heart she had so often rested, and to whom she had been the dearest thing on earth--and even then the solace of tears was denied her.
She no longer suffered the deep remorse that had tormented her; for she felt now that her intercourse with her last mother had not been put an end to by death; that after a short parting they would meet again--soon perhaps, perhaps even to-morrow--meet for a fulness of speech, an outpouring of the heart, a revelation of all the past more open and unreserved than could ever be between mortal beings, even between mother and daughter. And when she who was sleeping there, blind, deaf, and senseless, should awake again, up there, with eyes clearer than those of men below, and the ears and senses of a spiritual being to see and hear and judge all she had known and done, all she had felt and made others feel--then, she told herself, her mother might perhaps blame her and punish her more than she had ever done on earth, but she would also clasp her more closely to her heart and comfort her more earnestly.
She whispered gently in her ear as if she were still alive: "Wait awhile, only wait: I shall come soon and tell you everything!"
And then she kissed her so passionately and recklessly that the nuns were shocked and dragged her away, ordering the bearers to close the coffin. They obeyed, and when the wooden lid fell over the sleeping form, shutting it in with a slam, and hiding it from the girl's sight, the barrier gave way which had hitherto restrained her tears and she began to weep bitterly; now, too, the feeling that she had indeed lost her mother took complete possession of her--the sense of being an orphan and alone, quite alone in the wide world.
She saw and heard no more of what took place round the beloved dead; for when she took her hands from her face streaming with tears, the house of the rich widow no longer sheltered its mistress; her remains had been borne away to the nearest mortuary. The law forbade its being any longer kept within doors, but did not allow of its being buried till night fell. The child might not follow her own mother to the cemetery.
With a drooping head Katharina withdrew to her room and there stood looking out into the garden. It all was hers now; she was mistress of it all and of much besides, as free and unfettered to command as hitherto she had been over the birds, her little dog, or the jewels that lay on her toilet-table. She could make hundreds happy with a word, a wave of the hand--but not herself. She had never felt so grown-up, independent, womanly, nay powerful, and at the same time so unutterably wretched and helpless as she felt in this hour.
What did she care for all these vanities? They could not suffice to check one sigh of disappointed yearning.
She had parted from her mother with a promise; the fervent longing that filled her soul was never still; and now the patriarch's letter had given her a hint as to how she might fulfil the one and silence the other. She hastily took the document up again, and read it through once more.
Its instructions were precise to stop the proceedings of the misguided Memphites with stern promptitude. It explained that the death of the Christ Jesus, who shed His blood to redeem the world, had satisfied the need for a human victim. Throughout the wide realms which the Cross overshadowed with blessing human sacrifice must therefore be accounted a useless and accursed abomination. It went on to point out how the heathen had devised their gods in the image of weak, sinful, earthly beings, and chosen victims in accordance with this idea. "But our God," it said, "is as high above men as the Spirit is above the flesh, and the sacrifice He demands is not of the flesh, but of the spirit. Will He not turn away in wrath and sorrow from the blinded Christians of Memphis who, in their straits, feel and are about to act like the cruel and foolish heathen? They take for their victim a heretic and a stranger, deeming that that will diminish the abomination in the eyes of the Lord; but it moves Him to loathing all the same, for no human blood may stain the pure and sacred altars of our mild faith, which gives life and not death.
"Ask your blind and misguided flock, my brother: Can the Father of Love feel joy at the sight of one of His children, even an erring one, suffocated in the waters to the honor of the Most High, while struggling, and cursing her executioners?
"If, indeed, there were a pure maiden, possessed with the blessed intoxication of the love of God, who was ready to follow the example of Him who redeemed man by His death, to fling herself into the waters while she cried to Heaven with her dying breath: 'Take me and my innocence as an offering, O Lord! Release my people from their extremity!'--that would be a victim indeed; and perchance, the Lord might say: 'I will accept it; but the will alone is enough. No child of mine may cast away the life that I have lent her as the most sacred and precious of gifts.'"
The letter ended with pious exhortations to the community.
Then a maiden who should voluntarily sacrifice herself in the river to save the people in their need would be a victim pleasing in the sight of the Lord--so said the Man of God, through whose mouth the Most High spoke. And this opinion, this hint, was to Katharina like a distaff from which she spun a lengthening thread to warp to the loom and weave from it a tangible tissue.
She would be the maiden whom the patriarch had imagined--the real, true Bride of the Nile, inspired to cast off her young life to save her people in their need. In this there was expiation such as Heaven might accept; this would release her from the burthen of life that weighed upon her, and would reunite her to her mother; in this way she could show her lover and the bishop and all the world the immensity of her self-sacrifice, which was in nothing behind that of "the other"--the much-vaunted daughter of Thomas! She would do the great deed before Paula's eyes, in sight of all the people. But Orion must know whose image she bore in her heart and for whose sake she made that leap from blooming life into a watery grave.
Oh! it was wonderful, splendid! Would she not thus compel him inevitably to remember her whenever he should think of Paula? Yes, she would force him to allow her image to dwell in his soul, inseparable from that "other;" and would not such an unparalleled act add such height to her figure, that it would be equal to that of her Syrian rival in the estimation of all men--even in his?
She now began to long for the supreme moment. Her vain little heart laughed in anticipation of the delight of being seen, praised and admired by all. Tomorrow she, her little self, would tower above all the world; and the more she felt the oppressive heat of the scorching day, the more delicious it seemed to look forward to finding rest from the torments of life in the cool element.
She saw no difficulties in the way of her achievement; she was mistress now, and her slaves and servants must obey her orders. At the same time she remembered, too, to protect her large possessions from falling into the hands of relations for whom she did not care; with a firm hand she drew up a will in which she bequeathed part of her fortune to her uncle Chrysippus, small portions to her foster-brother Anubis, and to Rufinus' widow, to whom she owed reparation for great wrong; then the larger half, and she owned many millions, she bequeathed to her dear friend Orion, whom she freely forgave, and who, she hoped, would see that even in the little "water-wagtail" there had been room for some greatness. She begged him also to take her house, since she had not been altogether guiltless of the destruction of the home of his fathers.
The condition she attached to this bequest showed the same keen, alert spirit that had guided her through life.
She knew that the patriarch's indignation might be fatal to the young man, so to serve as a mediator, and at the same time to ensure for herself the prayers of the Church, which she desired, she enjoined Orion to bestow the greater part of his inheritance on the patriarch for the Church and for benevolent purposes. But not at once, not for ten years, and in instalments of which Orion himself was to determine the proportion. In the event of his dying within the next three years all his claims were to be transferred to her uncle Chrysippus. She added a request to the Church, to which she belonged with her whole heart, that every year on her saint's day and her mother's they should be prayed for in every church in the land. A chapel was to be erected on the scene of her self-immolation, and if the patriarch thought her worthy of the honor, it was to bear the name of the Chapel of Susannah and Katharina.
She gave all her slaves their freedom and devised legacies to all the officials of her household.
As she sat for long hours of serious meditation, drawing up this last will, she smiled frequently with satisfaction. Then she copied it out fair, and finally called the physician and all the free servants in the house to witness her signature.
Though no one had suspected the "water-wagtail" of such forethought, it was no matter of surprise that the young heiress, shut up in the plague-stricken house, should dispose of her estates, and before night-fall the physician brought Alexander, the chief of the Senate, to the garden gate by her desire, and there they spoke to each other without opening it. He was an old friend of her father's, and since the death of the Mukaukas, had been her guardian; he now agreed to stand as her Kyrios, and as such he ratified her will and the signature, though she would not allow him to read the document.
Finally she went to the slaves quarters, from whence a few more sufferers had been removed to the Necropolis, and desired her boatman to get the holiday barge in readiness early in the morning, as she purposed seeing the ceremonial from the river. She gave particular orders to the gardener as to how it was to be decorated, and what flowers he was to cut for her personal adornment.
She went to bed far less excited than she had been the night before, and before she had ended her evening prayer, slumber overtook her weary brain.
When she awoke at sunrise, the large and splendid boat, which her father had had built at great cost in Alexandria, was manned and ready to put out. No one interfered to prevent her embarking with Anubis and a few female servants, for all the guards who had surrounded the house till yesterday had been withdrawn to do duty at the great ceremonial of the marriage and sacrifice, since a popular tumult was not unlikely to arise.