The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
A great number of persons had collected during the night on the quay near Nesptah's inn. The crowd was increasing every minute, and in spite of the intense heat, not a Memphite could bear to stop within doors, Men, women and children were flocking to the scene of the festival; they came in thousands from the neighboring towns, hamlets and villages, to witness the unprecedented sacrifice which was to put an end to the misery of the land. Who had ever heard of such a marriage? What a privilege, what a happiness, to be so fortunate as to see it!
The senate had not been idle and had done all in their power to surround it with magnificence and to enable as many as possible to enjoy the pageant, which had been planned with a lavish hand and liberal munificence.
Round the cove by Nesptah's inn a semi-circular wooden stand had been constructed, on which thousands found seats or standing-room. Stalls furnished with hangings were erected in the middle of the tribune for the authorities and their families as well as for the leading Arab officials, and arm-chairs were placed in them for the Vekeel, for the Kadi, for the head of the senate, for old Horapollo and also for the Christian priesthood, though it was well known that they would not be present at the ceremony.
The lower classes, who could not afford to pay for admission to these seats, had established themselves on the banks of the river; wandering dealers had followed them, and wherever the crowd was densest they had displayed their wares--light refreshments or solid food--on two-wheeled trucks, or on little carpets spread on the ground. In the tribune itself the cries of the water-sellers were incessant as they offered filtered Nile water and fruit syrups for sale.
The parched tops of the palms, where turtle doves, lapwings and sparrow-hawks were wont to perch, were crowded with the vagabond boys of the town, who whiled away the time by pulling the withered and diseased dates from the great clumps and flinging them down on the bystanders below, till the guard took aim at them with their arrows and stopped the game.
The centre of attraction to all eyes was a wooden platform or pontoon, built far out into the stream; from thence the bride was to be flung into the watery embrace of the expectant bridegroom. Here the masters of the ceremonies had put forth their best efforts, and it was magnificently decorated with hangings and handkerchiefs, palm-leaves and flags; with heavy garlands of tamarisk and willow, mingled with bright blossoms of the lotos and mallow, lilies and roses; with devices emblematic of the province, and other gilt ornaments. Only the furthest end of it was unadorned and without even a railing, that there might be nothing to intercept the view of the "marriage."
Three hours before noon none were absent but those whose places were secured, and ere long curiosity brought them also to the spot. The town-watch found it required all their efforts to keep the front ranks of the people from being pushed into the river by those behind; indeed, this accident could not be everywhere guarded against; but, thanks to the shallow state of the water, no one was the worse. But the cries of those who were in danger nevertheless drowned the music of the bands performing on raised platforms and the shouts of applause which rose on all sides to hail Horapollo--who was here, there, everywhere on his white ass as brisk as a lad--or to greet some leading official.
And now and again loud cries of anguish were heard, or the closely-packed throng parted with exclamations of horror. A citizen had had a sunstroke, or had been seized by the plague. Then the fugitives dragged others away with them; screaming mothers trying to save their little ones from the crush on one hand and the contagion on the other, oversetting one dealer's truck, smashing the eggs and cakes of another. A whole party were pushed into a deep but half-dried up water-course; the guardians of the peace flourished their staves, yelling and making their victims yell in their efforts to restore order--but all this hardly affected the vast body of spectators, and suddenly peace reigned, the confusion subsided, the shrieks were silenced. Those who were doomed might fall or die, be crushed or plague-stricken. Trumpet calls and singing were heard approaching from the town: the procession, the Bridal procession was coming! Not a man but would have perished rather than be deprived of seeing a single act of this stupendous drama.
Those Arabs--what fools they were! Besides the Vekeel only three of their magnates were present, and those men whom no one knew. Even the Kadi was nowhere to be seen; and he must have forbidden the Moslem women to come, for not a single veiled beauty of the harem was visible. Not one Egyptian woman would have failed to appear if the plague had not kept so many imprisoned in their houses. Such a thing would never be seen again; this day's doings would be a tale to tell to future great-grandchildren!
The music and singing came nearer and nearer; and it did not indeed sound as if it were escorting a hapless creature to a fearful end. Blast after blast rang out from the trumpets, filling the air with festive defiance; cheerful bridal songs came nearer and nearer to the listeners, the shrill chorus of boys and maidens sounding above the deeper and stronger chant of youths and men of all ages; flutes piped a gay invitation to gladness; the dull roar of drums muttered like the distant waves in time to a march, broken by the clang of cymbals and the tinkle of bells hung around tambourines held high by girlish hands which struck, rattled and waved them above their flowing curls; lute players discoursed sweet music on the strings; and as this vast tide of mingled tones came closer, behind it there was still more music and more song.
To the ear the procession seemed endless, and the eye soon confirmed the impression.
All were listening, gazing, watching to see the Bride and her escort. Every eye seemed compelled to turn in the same direction; and presently there came: first the trumpeters on spirited horses, and these ranged themselves on each side of the road by the shore leading to the scene of the "marriage." In front of them the choir of women took their stand to the left and, on the right, the men who had marched after them. All alike were arrayed in light sea-green garments, and loaded with lotos-flowers. The women's hair, twined with white blossoms, flowed over their shoulders; the men carried bunches of papyrus and reeds;--they represented river gods that had risen from the stream.
Then came boys and bearded men, in white robes, with panther-skins on their shoulders, as the heathen priests had been wont to wear them. They were headed by two old men with long white beards, one holding a silver cup and the other a golden one, ready to fling them into the waves as a first offering, according to the practise of their forefathers, as Horapollo had described and ordered it. These went on to the pontoon, to its farthest end, and took their place on one side of the platform whence the Bride was to be cast into the river. Behind them came a large troop of flute-players and drummers, followed by fifty maidens holding tambourines, and fifty men all dressed and carrying emblems as followers of Dionysus, or Osiris-Bacchus, who had been worshipped here in the time of the Romans; with these came the drunken Silenus, goathoofed Satyrs and Pan, with his reed-pipes, all riding grey asses strangely bedaubed with yellow.
Then followed giraffes, elephants, ostriches, antelopes, gazelles; even some tamed lions and panthers were led past the wondering crowd; for this had been done in the famous procession in honor of the second Ptolemy, described by Callixenus of Rhodes.
Next came a large car drawn by twelve black horses, and on it a symbolical group of Famine and Pestilence overthrown; they were surrounded by shrieking black children, with pointed wings on their shoulders and horns on their foreheads, bound to stakes to represent the hosts of hell--a performance which they tried to make at once ghastly and droll.
On another car the Goddess of the Inundation was to be seen. She sat amid sheaves, fruits, and garlands of vine; while round her were groups of children with apples and corn, pomegranates and bunches of dates, wine-jars and cups in their hands.
Presently there appeared in a large shell, as though lounging in a bath, the goddess of health; she was drawn by eight snow-white horses, and held in one hand a golden goblet and in the other a caduceus. After her came the river-god Nile, the bridegroom of the marriage, studied from the famous statue carried away from Alexandria by the Romans: a splendid and mighty bearded man, resting against an urn. Sixteen naked children--the sixteen ells that the river must rise for its overflow to bless the land--played round his herculean form, and a bridal wreath of lotos-flowers crowned his flowing locks. This car, which was decorated with crocodiles, sheaves, dates, grapes, and shells, was hailed with shouts of enthusiasm; it was escorted by old men in the costume of the heathen priesthood.
Behind this came more music and singers, with a troop of young men and maidens led by lute-players singing. These too were dressed as the genie, and nymphs of the river and were the groomsmen and bridesmaids in attendance on the betrothed.
The longer the procession lasted and the nearer the looked-for victim approached, the more eagerly attent were the gazing multitude.
When this group of youths and maidens had gone by, there was hardly a sound to be heard in the tribune and among the crowd. No one felt the fierce heat of the sun, no one heeded the thirst that parched every tongue; all eyes were bent in one direction; only the black Vekeel, whose colossal form towered up where he stood, occasionally sent a sinister and anxious glance towards the town. He expected to see smoke rising from the quarter near the prison, and suddenly his lips parted and he displayed his dazzlingly white teeth in a scornful laugh. That which he looked for had come to pass; the little grey cloud which he discerned grew blacker, and then, in the heart of it, rose a crimson glow which did not take its color from the sun. But of all those thousands he was the only one who looked behind him and observed it.
The bride's attendants had by this time taken their station on the pontoon; here came another band of youths with panther skins on their shoulders; and now--at last, at last--a car came swaying along, drawn by eight coal-black oxen dressed with green ostrich-feathers and water-plants.
The car was shaded by a tall canopy, supported by four poles, against which leaned four men in the robes of the heathen priesthood; this awning was lavishly decorated with wreaths of lotos and reeds, and fenced about with papyrus, bulrushes, tall grasses and blossoming river-weeds. Beneath it sat the queen of the festival--the Bride of the Nile.
Robed in white and closely veiled, she was quite motionless. Her long, thick brown hair fell over her shoulders; at her feet lay a wreath, and rare rose-colored lotos-flowers were strewn on the car.
The bishop had been sitting at her side, the first Christian priest, certainly, of all the swarms of monks and ecclesiastics in Memphis, who had ever appeared at such a scene of heathen abomination. He was now standing, looking down at the crowd with a deeply knit brow and menacing gaze. What good had come of the penitential sermons in all the churches, of his and his vicar's warnings and threats? In spite of all remonstrance he had mounted the car with the condemned victim, after administering the last consolations to her soul. It might cost him his life, but he would keep his promise.
In her hand Paula held two roses: one was Orion's last greeting delivered by Martina; the other Pulcheria had brought her early in the morning. Yesterday, in a lucid moment, her dying father had given her his fondest blessing, little knowing what hung over her; to-day he had not come to himself, and had neither noticed nor returned her parting kiss. Quite unconscious, he had been moved from the prison out of doors and to the house of Rufinus. Dame Joanna would not forego the privilege of giving him a resting-place and taking care of him till the end.
Orion's last note was placed in Paula's hands just before she set out; it informed her that his task was now successfully ended. He had been told that it was to-morrow, and not to-day, that the hideous act would be accomplished; and it was a consolation to her to know that he was spared the agony of following her in fancy in her fearful progress.
She had allowed the women who came to clothe her in bridal array to perform their task; among them was Emau, the chief warder's wife, and her overflowing compassion had done Paula good. But even in the prison-yard she had felt it unendurable to exhibit herself decked in her bridal wreaths to the gaping multitude; she had torn them from her and thrown them on the ground.
How long--how interminably long--had the road to the river appeared; but she had never raised her eyes to look at the curious crowd, never ceased lifting up her heart in prayer; and when her proud blood boiled, or despair had almost taken possession of her, she had grasped the bishop's hand and he had never wearied of encouraging her and exhorting her to cling to love and faith, and not even yet abandon all hope.
Thus they at last reached the pontoon at whose further end life would begin for her in another world. The shouts of the crowd were as loud, as triumphant, as expectant as ever; music and singing mingled with the roar of thousands of spectators; she allowed herself to be lifted from the car as though she were stunned, and followed the young men and maidens who formed the bridal train, and in alternate choruses sang the finest nuptial song of Sappho the fair Lesbian.
The bishop now made an attempt to address the people, but he was soon reduced to silence. So he once more joined Paula, and hand in hand they went on to the pier.
All she had in her of strength, pride, and heroic courage she summoned to her aid to enable her to walk these last few paces with her head erect, and without tottering; she had gone half way along the wooden structure, with a mien as lofty and majestic as though she were marching to command the obedience of the mob, when hoofs came thundering after her on the boards.
Old Horapollo, on his white ass, had overtaken her and stopped her on her road. Breathless, bathed in perspiration, scornful and triumphant, he desired her to remove her veil, and ordered the bishop to leave her and give up his place to the man who represented Father Nile--a gigantic farrier who followed him, somewhat embarrassed in his costume, but very ready to perform his part to the end.
The priest and Paula, however, refused to obey. At this the old man tore the veil from her face and signed to the Nile-God; he stepped forward and assumed his rights, after bowing respectfully to the prelate--who was forced to make way--and then led the Bride to the end of the platform. Here the two elders who had headed the procession in honor of Bacchus, cast the gold cups as offerings into the river, and then a lawyer, in the costume of a heathen priest, proceeded to expound, in a well-set speech, the meaning of this betrothal and sacrifice. He took Paula's hand to place in that of the farrier, who made ready to cast her into the river for which he stood proxy.
But an obstacle intervened before he could do so. A large and splendid barge had drawn up close to the platform, and shouts were heard from the tribune and from the mob which had till now looked on in breathless suspense and profound silence:
"Look at the Nile, look at the river!"
"It is the water-wagtail--Philammon's rich heiress!"
"A pretty sight!"
"Another Bride--a second Bride!"
And the gaze of the multitude was now, as one eye, fixed on Katharina.
Susannah's handsome barge had been passing up and down near the platform for the last hour, and the guards on duty had several times desired that it was to be kept at a distance from the scene of the "marriage;" but in vain; and they in their little boats were not strong enough to take active measures against the larger vessel manned by fifty rowers. It had now steered quite close to the pontoon, and the splendid gilding and carving, the tall deck-house supported on silver pillars, and the crimson embroidered sails would have been a gorgeous feast for the eye, but that the black flag floating from the mast gave it a melancholy and gloomy aspect.
Within the cabin Katharina had made her waiting-women dress her in white and deck her with white flowers-myrtle, roses and lotos; but she vouchsafed no reply to their anxious enquiries.
The maid who fastened the flowers on her bosom could feel her mistress's heart beating under her hand, and the lotos-blossoms which drooped from her shoulder rose and fell as though they were already rocking on the waves of the Nile. Her lips, too, never ceased moving, and her cheeks were as pale as death.
"What is she going to do?" her attendants asked each other.
Her mother dead only yesterday, and now she chose to be present at this ceremonial, desiring the steersman to run close to the platform and keep near to it, where all the world could see her. But she evidently wished to display herself to the people in all her finery and be admired, for she presently went up on the roof of the deck-house. And she looked lovely, as lovely as a guileless angel, as she mounted the steps with childlike diffidence-timidly, but with wide open eyes, as though something grand was awaiting her there--something she had long yearned for with her whole heart.
Anubis had to help her up the last steps, for her knees gave way; but once at the top she sent him down again to remain below with the others, as she wished to be alone. The lad was accustomed to obey; and Katharina now stepped on a seat close to the side of the boat, turned to Paula, whom she was now rapidly approaching, and held out to her and the bishop two tall lily-stems covered with splendid blossoms. At the very moment when the farrier was measuring by eye the distance between the platform and the barge, and had judged it impossible to cast the Bride into the stream till the vessel had moved on, Katharina cried out:
"Reverend Father John--and all of you! Take me, me and not the daughter of Thomas! It is I, not she--I am the true Bride of the Nile. Of my own free will--hear me, John!--of my own free will I am ready to give my life for my hapless land and the misery of the people, and the patriarch said that such a sacrifice as mine would be acceptable to Heaven. Farewell! Pray for me!--Lord have mercy upon me! Mother, dear Mother, I am coming to you!"
Then she called to the steersman: "Put out from the platform!" and as soon as a few strokes of the oars had carried the barge into the deeper channel she stepped nimbly on to the edge of the bulwark, dropped the lilies into the river, and then with a smile, her head gracefully bent on one side and her skirt modestly held round her, she slipped into the water.
The waves closed over her; but she was a good swimmer and could not help coming once to the surface. Her expression was that of a bather enjoying the cool fresh water that laved and gurgled round her. Perhaps the wild storm of applause, the mingled cries of horror, compassion and thanksgiving that went up from the assembled thousands once more reached her ear--but she dived head foremost to rise no more.
The "River-God," a good-hearted man, who in his daily life could never have let a fellow-creature drown under his very eyes, forgot his part, released Paula, and sprang after Katharina, as did Anubis and a few boatmen; but they could not reach her, and the boy, who found swimming difficult with his crippled leg followed the girl to whom his young heart was wholly devoted to a watery death.
Her speech had reached no ears but those to whom it was addressed; but before she was lost in the waters Bishop John turned to the people, took Paula's hand--and she felt free once more when her terrible bridegroom had deserted her--and holding up the Crucifix which hung at his girdle he shouted loudly:
"Behold the desires of our holy Father Benjamin, by whom God himself speaks to you, have met with fulfilment. A pure and noble Jacobite maiden, of her own free and beautiful impulse, has sacrificed herself after the example of the Saviour, for the sufferings of her nation, before your eyes. This one," and he drew Paula to him, "this one is free; the Nile has had his victim!"
But almost before he had done speaking--before the people could proclaim their vote--Horapollo had rushed at him and interrupted him. He had dismounted from his ass during the earlier part of the proceedings, and, not to let his prey escape, he now came between Paula and the bishop, grasped her dress and cried to the chorus of youths:
"Come on--at once! One of you take the part of the Nile-God--into the river with the Bride!" The bishop however forced himself between the speaker and the girl to protect her. But Horapollo flew into a fury and rushed at the prelate to snatch away the image of the Saviour, while John exclaimed in a voice of ominous thunder: "Anathema!"
This word of fear roused the Christian blood in the Egyptians; the sacrilegious attempt stirred the zeal which they had proved in many a struggle, and which had only been kept under by an effort during these times of trouble: the leader of the choir dragged the old man away and took part with the bishop. Others followed his example, while several, on the contrary, sided with old Horapollo who clung tightly to Paula, preferring to die himself rather than allow her to escape his hatred and vengeance.
At this moment the clang of bells was heard from the town with a terrific and unaccountable uproar, and a young man was seen forcing his way through the throng, a naked sword in his hand, and in spite of his torn garments, his wild hair, and his blackened face, he was at once recognized as Orion. Every one made way for him, for he rushed on like a madman; as he reached the pontoon and took in at a glance what was going forward there, he sprang past the mummers with mighty leaps to the platform, pushing aside sundry groups of fighting champions; and before the principal actors were aware of his presence, he had snatched Paula from the old man's clutch, and called her by her name. She sank on his breast half-fainting with terror, surprise and unspeakable rapture, and he clasped her to him with his left arm, while the flashing sword in his right hand and his flaming looks warned all bystanders that it would be as wise to attack a lioness defending her young as to defy this desperate man, who was prepared to face death with the woman he loved.
His push had sent Horapollo tottering to some distance; and when the old man had pulled himself together, to throw himself once more on his victim, he found himself the centre of a fight. A wild troop had followed Orion and beset the struggling mob, whom they presently drove over the edge of the pontoon into the river, and with them Horapollo. Most of these saved themselves by swimming, but the old man sank, and nothing more was seen of him but his clenched fist, which rose in menace for some minutes above the waters.
Meanwhile the Vekeel had become aware of what was going forward on the platform; he leaped in fury from his seat to restore order, intending to seize Orion whom he fancied he had seen, or, if necessary to cut him down with his own hand.
But a vast multitude stopped his progress, for a fearful horde of released prisoners with Orion at their head had come rushing down to the scene of the festival yelling: "Fire! the prison is burning, the town is in flames!"
Every one who could run fled at once to Memphis to save his house, his possessions and those dear to him. Like a flock of doves scared by the scream of a hawk, like autumn leaves driven before the wind, the multitude dispersed. They hurried back to the town in wild tumult and inextricable confusion, jumping into the festal cars, cutting loose the horses from that of the goddess of health, to mount them and ride home, overthrowing everything that stood in their way and dragging back the Vekeel who was striving, sword in hand, to get to the pontoon.
The smoke and flames of the city were rising every moment, and acted like magic in spurring the flying crowd to reach their homes in time. But, before Obada had succeeded in his efforts, the pushing throng were once more brought to a standstill; horses were heard approaching. Dense masses of dust hid them and their riders; but it was certainly an armed troop that was coming clattering onwards, for flashing gleams were seen here and there through the dull clouds that shrouded them, the reflection of the sun's bright rays from polished and glittering helmets, breast-plates, and sabres.
Now they were visible even where the Vekeel was. Foremost rode the Kadi, and just as he came up with Obada he sprang from the saddle on to the wooden structure, and with a loud cry of: "Free-saved!" in which all the joy of his heart found utterance, he stretched out both his hands to Paula, who was advancing towards the shore clinging closely to Orion.
Othman did not observe the Vekeel, who was but a few paces distant. The words "Free!" "Saved!" from the supreme judge, gave the negro to understand that a pardon must have arrived for his youthful foe, and this of course implied the condemnation of his own proceedings. All his hopes were wrecked, for this meant that Omar still ruled and that the attempt on the Khaliff's life had failed. Dismissal, punishment or death must be his doom, when Amru should return. Still, he would not succumb till the instrument of his ruin had preceded him to the grave. Taking the Kadi by surprise he thrust him aside, and prepared to deal a fearful blow that should fell Orion before he himself should fall. But the captain of the body-guard, who had followed Othman, had watched his movements: Swift as lightning he rose in his saddle and swung his cimeter, which cut deep into the Vekeel's neck. With a hideous curse Obada let his arm drop, and fell struggling for his last breath at the feet of the newly united couple.
The populace afterwards declared that his blood was not red like that of other men, but black like his skin and his soul. They had good cause to curse his memory, for his villainy had reduced more than half Memphis to ashes that day, and brought the city to beggary.
He had hired two venial wretches to set fire to the prison while the festival was proceeding, with a view to suffocating Orion in his cell; but the gang were detected and all the prisoners were released in time. Thus the young man had been able to reach the scene of the ceremonial at the head of his fellow-captives. The fire, however, had gained the upper hand in the deserted town. It had spread from house to house along the sun-scorched streets, and next day nothing remained of the city of the Pyramids but the road along the shore, and a few wretched alleys. The ancient Capital of the Pharaohs was reduced to a village, and the houseless residents moved across to the eastern bank, to people as Moslems the newly-founded town of Fostat, or sought a home on Christian territory.
Among the houses that had escaped was that of Rufinus, and thither the Kadi escorted Orion and Paula. It was to serve as their prison till the return of Amru, and there they spent delightful days in the society of their friends, and there Thomas was so happy as to clasp his children to his heart once more, and bless them before he died.
A few minutes before the Kadi had reached the scene of the festival two carrier pigeons had arrived, each bearing the Arab governor's commands that the sacrifice of Paula was at any rate to be stopped, and her life spared till his return. He also reserved the right of deciding Orion's fate.
Mary and Rustem had met Amru at Berenice, on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. This decaying sea-port was connected with Medina by a pigeon-post, and in reply to his viceroy's enquiry with reference to the victim about to be offered by the despairing Egyptians to the Nile, Omar had sent a reply which had been immediately forwarded to the Kadi.
The burning of their town had brought new and fearful suffering on the stricken Memphites, and notwithstanding Katharina's death the Nile still did not rise. The Kadi therefore once more summoned a meeting of all the inhabitants from both sides of the river, three days after the interrupted marriage-festival. It was held under the palms by Nesptah's inn, and there he proclaimed to the multitude, Moslem and Christian, by means of the Arab herald and Egyptian interpreter, what the Khaliff commanded him to declare, namely: that God, the One, the All-merciful, scorned human sacrifice. In this firm conviction he, Omar, would beseech Allah the Compassionate, and he sent a letter which was to be cast into the river in his name.
And this letter was addressed:
"To the River of Egypt." And its contents were as follows:
"If thou, O River, flowest of thyself, then swell not; but if it be God, the One, the Compassionate, that maketh thee to flow, then we entreat the All-merciful that he will bid thee rise!"
"That which is not of God," wrote Amru in the letter which enclosed Omar's, "what shall it profit men? But all things created are by Him, and so is your noble river. The Most High will hearken to Omar's prayers and ours, and I therefore command that all of you--Moslems, Christians, and Jews, shall gather together in the Mosque on the other side of the Nile which I have built to the glory of the All-merciful, and that you there lift up your souls in one great common prayer, to the end that God may hear you and take pity on your sufferings!"
And the Kadi bid all the people to go across the Nile and they obeyed his bidding. Bishop John called on his clergy and marched at their head, leading the Christians; the priests and elders of the Jews led their people next to the Jacobites; and side by side with these the Moslems gathered in the magnificent pillared sanctuary of Amru, where the three congregations of different creeds lifted up, their hearts and eyes and voices to the pitying Father in Heaven.
And this very Mosque of Amru has more than once been the scene of the same sublime spectacle; even within the lifetime and before the eyes of the narrator of this tale have Moslems, Christians, and Jews united there in one pious prayer, which must have been acceptable indeed in the ears of the Lord.
Not long after the letter from the Khaliff Omar had been cast into the Nile, and the prayer of the united assembly had gone up to Heaven from the Mosque of Armu, a pigeon came in announcing a sudden rise in the waters at the cataracts; and after some still anxious but hopeful days of patience, the Nile swelled higher and yet higher, overflowed its banks, and gave the laborer a right to look forward to a rich harvest; and then, when a heavy storm of rain had laid the choking dust, the plague, too, disappeared.
Just when the river was beginning to rise perceptibly Amru returned; bringing in his train little Mary and Rustem, Philippus the leech and Haschim, who had joined the governor's caravan at Djidda.
In the course of their journey they received news of all that had been happening at Memphis, and when the travellers were approaching their last night-quarters, and the Pyramids were already in sight, the governor said to little Mary:
"What do you say little one? Do we not owe the Memphites the treat of a splendid marriage festival?"
"No, my lord, two," replied the child.
"How is that?" laughed Amru, "You are too young and do not count yet, and I know no other maiden in Memphis whose wedding I should care to provide for."
"But there is a man towards whom you feel most kindly, and who lives as lonely as a recluse. I should like to see him married, and at the same time as Orion and Paula. I mean our good friend Philippus."
"The physician? And is he still unwed?" asked Amru in surprise; for no Moslem of the leech's age and position could remain unmarried without exposing himself to the contempt of his fellow-believers. "He is a widower then!"
"No," replied Mary. "He has never yet found a wife to suit him; but I know one created on purpose for him by God himself!"
"You little Khatbe!"--[A professional go-between]--cried the governor. "Well, settle the matter, and it shall be no fault of mine if the second wedding lacks magnificence."
"And we will have a third!" interrupted the child, clapping her hands and laughing. "My worthy escort Rustem. . . .
"The colossus! Why, child, to you all things are possible! Have you found a wife for him too?"
"No, he found Mandane for himself without my help."
"It is the same thing!" cried the governor jovially. "I will provide for her. But that must satisfy you, or else all those unbelievers whom we are settling here will drive us Moslem Arabs out of the land."
The great man had often held such discourse as this with the child since she had entered his tent at Berenice, there to lay before him the case of the couple she loved, and for whom she had taken on herself great risk and hardship; she had pleaded so eloquently, so kindly, and with such fervent and pathetic words, that Amru had at once made up his mind to grant her everything that lay in his power. Mary had done him a service, too, by bringing him the information she could give him, for it enabled him to avert perils which threatened the interests of the Crescent, and also to save the children of two men he honored--the son of the Mukaukas, and the daughter of Thomas--from imminent danger.
He found, on his return home, that the Vekeel's crimes far exceeded his worst fears. Obada's proceedings had begun to undermine that respect for Arab rule and Moslem justice which Amru had done his utmost to secure. It was only by a miracle that Orion had escaped his plots, for he had three times sent assassins to the prison, and it was entirely owing to the watchful care of pretty Emau's husband that the youth had been able to save himself in the fire. Obada had done all this to clear out of his path the hated man whose statements and impeachments might ruin him. The wretch had met a less ignominious death than his judges would have granted him. The wealth found hoarded in his dwelling was sent to Medina; and even Orion was forced to see the vast sums of which the Negro had plundered his treasury, appropriated by the Arabs. The Arab governor thought it only right to inflict this penalty for the share he had taken in the rescue of the nuns; and the young man submitted willingly to a punishment which restored him and his bride to freedom, and enabled Amru to apply a larger proportion of the revenues of his native land for its own benefit.
The Khaliff Omar, however, never received these moneys, which constituted far more than half of Orion's patrimony. The Prophet's truest friend, the wise and powerful ruler, fell by the assassin's hand, and the world now learnt that the Vekeel had been one of the chief conspirators and had been spurred on to the rashest extremes by his confidence of success.
Amru received the son of the Mukaukas as a father might; after examining the result of his labors he found it far superior to his own efforts in the same direction, and he charged Orion to carry out the new division of the country, which he confirmed excepting in a few details.
"Perform your duty and do your utmost in the future to go on as you have begun!" cried Amru; and the young man replied:
"In this bitter and yet happy interval I have become clear on many points."
"And may I ask on what?" asked the governor. "I would gladly hear."
"I have discovered, my lord," replied Orion, "that there is no such thing as happiness or unhappiness in the sense men give to the words. Life appears to each of us as we ourselves paint it. Hard times which come into our lives from outside are often no more than a brief night from which a brighter day presently dawns--or the stab of a surgeon's knife, which makes us sounder than before. What men call grief is, times without number, a path to greater ease; whereas the ordinary happiness of mankind flows, swiftly as running waters, down from that delightful sense of ease. Like a ship, which, when her rudder is lost, is more likely to ride out the storm on the high seas than near the sheltering coast, so a man who has lost himself may easily recover himself and his true happiness in the wildest turmoil of life, but rarely and with difficulty if his existence runs calmly on. All other blessings are comparatively worthless if we are not upheld by the consciousness of fulfilling the task of life in faithful earnest, and of cheerfully dealing with the problems it sets before us. The lost one was found as soon as he placed his whole being and faculties at the service of a higher duty, with God in his heart and before his eyes. I have learnt from my own experience, and from Paula's good friends, to strive untiringly after what is right, and to find my own weal in that of others.
"The sense of lost liberty is hard to bear; but leave me love, and give me room and opportunity to prove my best powers in the service of the community, even in a prison--and though I cannot be perfectly happy, for that is impossible without freedom--I will be far happier than such an idle and useless spendthrift of time and abilities as I used to be among the dissipations of the capital."
"Then enjoy the consciousness of duty well performed, with liberty and love," replied the governor. "And believe me, my friend, your father in Paradise will no more grudge you all that is loveliest and best than I do. You are on the road where every curse is turned to blessing."
The three marriages which Amru had promised to provide for, were celebrated with due splendor.
That of Orion and Paula was a day never to be forgotten by the gay world of Memphis. Bishop John performed the ceremony, and the young couple at once took possession of the beautiful house left them by Katharina, the real Bride of the Nile. If it could have been granted to her to read Paula's and Orion's hearts, and see how they held her in remembrance, she would have found that to them she was no longer the childish water-wagtail, and that they knew how to value the sacrifice of her young life.
Their first beloved guest, who went with them to their new home, was little Mary, and she remained their dearest companion till she married happily. The governess, Eudoxia, to whom also Orion offered an asylum, accompanied Mary to her own delightful home; and there at last Mary closed her old friend's eyes, after the good woman had brought up her little ones, not like a hireling but as a true mother.
The Patriarch Benjamin, too, who was led by many considerations--and not least by Katharina's will to remain on good terms with the son of the Mukaukas, was a visitor to the youthful pair. Neither he nor the Church ever had reason to repent his alliance with Orion; and when Paula presented her husband with a son, the prelate offered to be his sponsor, and named him George after his grandfather.
Orion's son, too, inherited the office of Mukaukas, when he came to man's estate, from his father who was appointed to it, but under a new Arab title, shortly after his marriage.
Ere long, however, Orion, as the highest Christian authority in his native land, had to change his place of residence and leave Memphis, which was doomed to ruin, for Alexandria. From thence his power extended over the whole Nile-valley, and he devoted himself to his charge with so much zeal, fidelity, justice, and prudence, that his name was remembered with veneration and affection by generations long after.
Paula was the pride and joy of his life, and they lived together in devoted union to an advanced age. He regarded it as one of the duties of his life, to care for the woman who had made him what he was from a lost and reprobate creature, and to fill every day of her life with joy. When he built his palace at Alexandria, he graced it with the inscription that had been engraved on Thomas' ring: "God hath set the sweat of man's brow before virtue."
Philippus and his Pulcheria also found a new home in Alexandria. He had no long wooing to do; for when, on his return, the girl of whom he had thought constantly during his long journeying, met him for the first time in her mother's house and held out both her hands with trustful warmth of welcome, he clasped her to him and would not release her till Joanna had given them her maternal blessing. The widow lived in the leech's house with her children and grandchildren, and often visited her husband's grave. At length she was laid to rest by him and his soft-hearted mother, in the cemetery of Alexandria.
Rustem, made a rich man by Orion, became a famous breeder of horses and camels in his own country, while Mandane ruled mildly but prudently over his possessions--which he never shared with others, though he remained a Masdakite till he died. The first daughter his wife bore him was named Mary, and the first boy Haschim; but she would not agree to Rustem's proposal that the second should be called Orion; she preferred to give him the name of Rufinus, and his successors were Rustem and Philippus.
The senator and his wife were only too glad to quit Egypt. Martina, however, had the satisfaction of assisting at the marriage of her dear Heliodora on the shores of the Nile; not, indeed, to her "Great Sesostris," but to her nephew Narses, who by the young widow's devoted care was restored, if not to perfect vigor, at any rate to very endurable good health.
Paula's wedding gift to her was the great emerald, which had meanwhile been brought back again to Memphis. Justinus and Martina always remained on terms of cordial friendship with the young Mukaukas and his wife: Nilus lived long after to perform his duties with industry and judgment; and whenever Haschim came to Alexandria there was a contest between Orion and Philippus, for neither would yield him to the other. But Philip could no longer envy his former rival the wife he had won. He had not, indeed, ceased to admire her; but at the same time he would say: "My comfortable little Pulcheria has not her match; our rooms would be too small for Paula, but they suit my golden-haired girl best."
He remained unselfishly devoted to his work till the end, and, when he saw Orion wearing himself out in energetic toil, he would often say: "He knows now what life demands, and acts accordingly; and that is why he grows no older, and his laugh is as winning and gay as ever. It is an honor to be called friend by a woman who like the Bride of the Nile. saved herself from certain death, and a man who, like the young Mukaukas, has freed himself from the heaviest of all curses."
To this day the Bride of the Nile is not forgotten. Before the river begins to rise on the Night of Dropping the inhabitants of the town of Cairo, which grew up after the ruin of Memphis, on the eastern shore by the side of Fostat, erect a figure of clay, representing a maiden form, which they call Aroosa or the Bride.