The Bride of the Nile by Georg Ebers
Paula went into her nurse's room, and Perpetua, after a short and vain search for the crazy girl, abandoned her to her fate, not without some small scruples of conscience.
A beautifully-polished copper lamp hung from the ceiling and the little room exactly suited its mistress both were neat and clean, trim and spruce, simple and yet nice. Snowy transparent curtains enclosed the bed as a protection against the mosquitoes, a crucifix of delicate workmanship hung above the head of the couch, and the seats were covered with good cloth of various colors, fag-ends from the looms. Pretty straw mats lay on the floor, and pots of plants, filling the little room with fragrance, stood on the window-sill and in a corner of the room where a clay statuette of the Good Shepherd looked down on a praying-desk.
The door had scarcely closed behind them when Perpetua exclaimed: "But child, how you frightened me! At so late an hour!"
"I felt I must come," said Paula. I could contain myself no longer."
"What, tears?" sighed the woman, and her own bright little eyes twinkled through moisture. "Poor soul, what has happened now?"
She went up to the young girl to stroke her hair, but Paula rushed into her arms, clung passionately round her neck, and burst into loud and bitter weeping. The little matron let her weep for a while; then she released herself, and wiped away her own tears and those of her tall darling, which had fallen on her smooth grey hair. She took Paula's chin in a firm hand and turned her face towards her own, saying tenderly but decidedly: "There, that is enough. You might cry and welcome, for it eases the heart, but that it is so late. Is it the old story: home-sickness, annoyances, and so forth, or is there anything new?"
"Alas, indeed!" replied the girl. She pressed her handkerchief in her hands as she went on with excited vehemence: "I am in the last extremity, I can bear it no longer, I cannot--I cannot! I am no longer a child, and when in the evening you dread the night and in the morning dread the day which must be so wretched, so utterly unendurable. . . ."
"Then you listen to reason, my darling, and say to yourself that of two evils it is wise to choose the lesser. You must hear me say once more what I have so often represented to you before now: If we renounce our city of refuge here and venture out into the wide world again, what shall we find that will be an improvement?"
"Perhaps nothing but a hovel by a well under a couple of palm-trees; that would satisfy me, if I only had you and could be free--free from every one else!"
"What is this; what does this mean?" muttered the elder woman shaking her head. "You were quite content only the day before yesterday. Something must have. . . ."
"Yes, must have happened and has," interrupted the girl almost beside herself. "My uncle's son.--You were there when he arrived--and I thought, even I firmly believed that he was worthy of such a reception.--I--I--pity me, for I . . . You do not know what influence that man exercises over hearts.--And I--I believed his eyes, his words, his songs and--yes, I must confess all--even his kisses on this hand! But it was all false, all--a lie, a cruel sport with a weak, simple heart, or even worse--more insulting still! In short, while he was doing all in his power to entrap me--even the slaves in the barge observed it--he was in the very act--I heard it from Dame Neforis, who is only too glad when she can hurt me--in the very act of suing for the hand of that little doll--you know her--little Katharina. She is his betrothed; and yet the shameless wretch dares to carry on his game with me; he has the face. . . ."
Again Paula sobbed aloud; but the older woman did not know how to help in the matter and could only mutter to herself: "Bad, bad--what, this too!--Merciful Heaven! . . ." But she presently recovered herself and said firmly: "This is indeed a new and terrible misfortune; but we have known worse--much, much worse! So hold up your head, and whatever liking you may have in your heart for the traitor, tear it out and trample on it. Your pride will help you; and if you have only just found out what my lord Orion is, you may thank God that things had gone no further between you!" Then she repeated to Paula all that she knew of Orion's misconduct to the frenzied Mandane, and as Paula gave strong utterance to her indignation, she went on:
"Yes, child, he is a man to break hearts and ruin happiness, and perhaps it was my duty to warn you against him; but as he is not a bad man in other things--he saved the brother of Hathor the designer--you know her--from drowning, at the risk of his own life--and as I hoped you might be on friendly terms with him at least, on his return home, I refrained. . . . And besides, old fool that I am, I fancied your proud heart wore a breastplate of mail, and after all it is only a foolish girl's heart like any other, and now in its twenty-first year has given its love to a man for the first time."
But Paula interrupted her: "I love the traitor no more! No, I hate him, hate him beyond words! And the rest of them! I loathe them all!"
"Alas! that it should be so!" sighed the nurse. "Your lot is no doubt a hard one. He--Orion--of course is out of the question; but I often ask myself whether you might not mend matters with the others. If you had not made it too hard for them, child, they must have loved you; they could not have helped it; but ever since you have been in the house you have only felt miserable and wished that they would let you go your own way, and they--well they have done so; and now you find it ill to bear the lot you chose for yourself. It is so indeed, child, you need not contradict me. This once we will put the matter plainly: Who can hope to win love that gives none, but turns away morosely from his fellow-creatures? If each of us could make his neighbors after his own pattern--then indeed! But life requires us to take them just as we find them, and you, sweetheart, have never let this sink into your mind!"
"Well, I am what I am!"
"No doubt, and among the good you are the best--but which of them all can guess that? Every one to some extent plays a part. And you! What wonder if they never see in you anything but that you are unhappy? God knows it is ten thousand times a pity that you should be! But who can take pleasure in always seeing a gloomy face?"
"I have never uttered a single word of complaint of my troubles to any one of them!" cried Paula, drawing herself up proudly.
"That is just the difficulty," replied Perpetua. "They took you in, and thought it gave them a claim on your person and also on your sorrows. Perhaps they longed to comfort you; for, believe me, child, there is a secret pleasure in doing so. Any one who is able to show us sympathy feels that it does him more good than it does us. I know life! Has it never occurred to you that you are perhaps depriving your relations in the great house of a pleasure, perhaps even doing them an injury by locking up your heart from them? Your grief is the best side of you, and of that you do indeed allow them to catch a glimpse; but where the pain is you carefully conceal. Every good man longs to heal a wound when he sees it, but your whole demeanor cries out: 'Stay where you are, and leave me in peace.'--If only you were good to your uncle!"
"But I am, and I have felt prompted a hundred times to confide in him--but then. . ."
"Only look at him, Betta; see how he lies as cold as marble, rigid and apathetic, half dead and half alive. At first the words often rose to my lips. . ."
"Now all the worst is so long past; I feel I have forfeited the right to complain to him of all that weighs me down."
"Hm," said Perpetua who had no answer ready. "But take heart, my child. Orion has at any rate learnt how far he may venture. You can hold your head high enough and look cool enough. Bear all that cannot be mended, and if an inward voice does not deceive me, he whom we seek. . ."
"That was what brought me here. Are none of our messengers returned yet?"
"Yes, the little Nabathaean is come," replied her nurse with some hesitation, "and he indeed--but for God's sake, child, form no vain hopes! Hiram came to me soon after sun-down. . ."
"Betta!" screamed the girl, clinging to her nurse's arm. "What has he heard, what news does he bring?"
"Nothing, nothing! How you rush at conclusions! What he found out is next to nothing. I had only a minute to speak to Hiram. To-morrow morning he is to bring the man to me. The only thing he told me. . ."
"By Christ's Wounds! What was it?"
"He said that the messenger had heard of an elderly recluse, who had formerly been a great warrior."
"My father, my father!" cried Paula. "Hiram is sitting by the fire with the others. Fetch him here at once--at once; I command you, Perpetua, do you hear? Oh best, dearest Betta! Come with me; we will go to him."
"Patience, sweetheart, a little patience!" urged the nurse. "Ah, poor dear soul, it will turn out to be nothing again; and if we again follow up a false clue it will only lead to fresh disappointment."
"Never mind: you are to come with me."
"To all the servants round the fire, and at this time of night? I should think so indeed!--But do you wait here, child. I know how it can be managed.
"I will wake Hiram's Joseph. He sleeps in the stable yonder--and then he will fetch his father. Ah! what impatience! What a stormy, passionate little heart it is! If I do not do your bidding, I shall have you awake all night, and wandering about to-morrow as if in a dream.--There, be quiet, be quiet, I am going."
As she spoke she wrapped her kerchief round her head and hurried out; Paula fell on her knees before the crucifix over the bed, and prayed fervently till her nurse returned, Soon after she heard a man's steps on the stairs and Hiram came in.
He was a powerful man of about fifty, with a pair of honest blue eyes in his plain face. Any one looking at his broad chest would conclude that when he spoke it would be in a deep bass voice; but Hiram had stammered from his infancy; and from constant companionship with horses he had accustomed himself to make a variety of strange, inarticulate noises in a high, shrill voice. Besides, he was always unwilling to speak. When he found himself face to face with the daughter of his master and benefactor, he knelt at her feet, looked up at her with faithful, dog-like eyes full of affection, and kissed first her dress, and then her hand which she held out to him. Paula kindly but decidedly cut short the expressions of delight at seeing her again which he painfully stammered out; and when he at length began to tell his story his words came far too slowly for her impatience.
He told her that the Nabathaean who had brought the rumor that had excited her hopes, was not unwilling to follow up the trace he had found, but he would not wait beyond noon the next day and had tried to bid for high terms.
"He shall have them--as much as he wants!" cried Paula. But Hiram entreated her, more by looks and vague cries than by articulate words, not to hope for too much. Dusare the Nabathaean--Perpetua now took up the tale--had heard of a recluse, living at Raithu on the Red Sea, who had been a great warrior, by birth a Greek, and who for two years had been leading a life of penance in great seclusion among the pious brethren on the sacred Mount of Sinai. The messenger had not been able to learn what his name in the world had been, but among the hermits he was known as Paulus."
"Paulus!" interrupted the girl with panting breath. "A name that must remind him of my mother and of me, yes, of me! And he, the hero of Damascus, who was called Thomas in the world, believing that I was dead, has no doubt dedicated himself to the service of God and of Christ, and has taken the name of Paulus, as Saul, the other man of Damascus did after his con version,--exactly like him! Oh! Betta, Hiram, you will see: it is he, it must be! How can you doubt it?"
The Syrian shook his head doubtfully and gave vent to a long-drawn whistle, and Perpetua clasped her hands exclaiming distressfully: "Did I not say so? She takes the fire lighted by shepherds at night to warm their hands for the rising sun--the rattle of chariots for the thunders of the Almighty!--Why, how many thousands have called themselves Paulus! By all the Saints, child, I beseech you keep quiet, and do not try to weave a holiday-robe out of airy mist! Be prepared for the worst; then you are armed against failure and preserve your right to hope! Tell her, tell her, Hiram, what else the messenger said; it is nothing positive; everything is as uncertain as dust in the breeze."
The freedman then explained that this Nabathaean was a trustworthy man, far better skilled in such errands than himself, for he understood both Syriac and Egyptian, Greek and Aramaic; and nevertheless he had failed to find out anything more about this hermit Paulus at Tor, where the monks of the monastery of the Transfiguration had a colony. Subsequently, however, on the sea voyage to Holzum, he had been informed by some monks that there was a second Sinai. The monastery there--but here Perpetua again was the speaker, for the hapless stammerer's brow was beaded with sweat--the monastery at the foot of the peaked, heaven-kissing mountain, had been closed in consequence of the heresies of its inhabitants; but in the gorges of these great heights there were still many recluses, some in a small Coenobium, some in Lauras and separate caves, and among these perchance Paulus might be found. This clue seemed a good one and she and Hiram had already made up their minds to follow it up; but the warrior monk was very possibly a stranger, and they had thought it would be cruel to expose her to so keen a disappointment.
Here Paula interrupted her, crying in joyful excitement:
"And why should not something besides disappointment be my portion for once? How could you have the heart to deprive me of the hope on which my poor heart still feeds?--But I will not be robbed of it. Your Paulus of Sinai is my lost father. I feel it, I know it! If I had not sold my pearls, the Nabathaean. . . . But as it is. When can you start, my good Hiram?"
"Not before a fort--a fortnight at--at--at--soonest," said the man. "I am in the governor's service now, and the day after to-morrow is the great horse-fair at Niku. The young master wants some stallions bought and there are our foals to. . . ."
"I will implore my uncle to-morrow, to spare you," cried Paula. "I will go on my knees to him."
"He will not let him go," said the nurse. "Sebek the steward told him all about it from me before the hour of audience and tried to have Hiram released."
"And he said . . . ?"
"The lady Neforis said it was all a mere will-o'-the-wisp, and my lord agreed with her. Then your uncle forbade Sebek to betray the matter to you, and sent word to me that he would possibly send Hiram to Sinai when the horse-fair was over. So take patience, sweetheart. What are two weeks, or at most three--and then. . . ."
"But I shall die before then!" cried Paula. "The Nabathaean, you say, is here and willing to go."
"Then we will secure him," said Paula resolutely. Perpetua, however, who must have discussed the matter fully with her fellow-countryman, shook her head mournfully and said: "He asks too much for us!"
She then explained that the man, being such a good linguist, had already been offered an engagement to conduct a caravan to Ctesiphon. This would be a year's pay to him, and he was not inclined to break off his negotiations with the merchant Hanno and search the deserts of Arabia Petraea for less than two thousand drachmae.
"Two thousand drachmae!" echoed Paula, looking down in distress and confusion; but she presently looked up and exclaimed with angry determination: "How dare they keep from me that which is my own? If my uncle refuses what I have to ask, and will ask, then the inevitable must happen, though for his sake it will grieve me; I must put my affairs in the hands of the judges."
"The judges?" Perpetua smiled. "But you cannot lay a complaint without your kyrios, and your uncle is yours. Besides: before they have settled the matter the messenger may have been to Ctesiphon and back, far as it is."
Again her nurse entreated her to have patience till the horse-fair should be over. Paula fixed her eyes on the ground. She seemed quite crushed; but Perpetua started violently and Hiram drew back a step when she suddenly broke out in a loud, joyful cry of "Father in Heaven, I have what we need!"
"How, child, what?" asked the nurse, pressing her hand to her heart. But Paula vouchsafed no information; she turned quickly to the Syrian:
"Is the outer court-yard clear yet? Are the people gone?" she asked.
The reply was in the affirmative. The freed servants had retired when Hiram left them. The officials would not break up for some time yet, but there was less difficulty in passing them.
"Very good," said the girl. "Then you, Hiram, lead the way and wait for me by the little side door. I will give you something in my room which will pay the Nabathaean's charges ten times over. Do not look so horrified, Betta. I will give him the large emerald out of my mother's necklace." The woman clasped her hands, and cried out in dismay and warning.
"Child, child! That splendid gem! an heirloom in the family--that stone which came to you from the saintly Emperor Theodosius--to sell that of all things! Nay-to throw it away; not to rescue your father either, but merely--yes child, for that is the truth, merely because you lack patience to wait two little weeks!"
"That is hard, that is unjust, Betta," Paula broke in reprovingly. "It will be a question of a month, and we all know how much depends on the messenger. Do you forget how highly Hiram spoke of this very man's intelligence? And besides--must I, the younger, remind you?--What is the life of man? An instant may decide his life or death; and my father is an old man, scarred from many wounds even before the siege. It may make just the difference between our meeting, or never meeting again."
"Yes, yes," said the old woman in subdued tones, "perhaps you are right, and if I. . ." But Paula stopped her mouth with a kiss, and then desired Hiram to carry the gem, the first thing in the morning, to Gamaliel the Jew, a wealthy and honest man, and not to sell it for less than twelve thousand drachmae. If the goldsmith could not pay so much for it at once, he might be satisfied to bring away the two thousand drachmae for the messenger, and fetch the remainder at another season.
The Syrian led the way, and when, after a long leave-taking, she quitted her nurse's pleasant little room, Hiram had done her bidding and was waiting for her at the little side door.