Orion had no choice but to say that he would prosecute his search for the lost stone; but his acquiescence was sullen, as that of a man who accedes to an unreasonable demand.
At first the patriarch took this coolly; but presently, when he rose to take leave, his demeanor changed; he said, with stern solemnity:
"I know you now, Son of Mukaukas George, and I end as I began: The humility of the Christian is far from you, you are ignorant of the power and dignity of our Faith, you do not even know the vast love that animates it, and the fervent longing to lead the straying sinner back to the path of salvation.—Your admirable mother has told me, with tears in her eyes, of the abyss over which you are standing. It is your desire to bind yourself for life to a heretic, a Melchite—and there is another thing which fills her pious mother's heart with fears, which tortures it as she thinks of you and your eternal welfare. She promised to confide this to my ear in church, and I shall find leisure to consider of it on my return home; but at any rate, and be it what it may, it cannot more greatly imperil your soul than marriage with a Melchite.
"On what have you set your heart? On the mere joys of earth! You sue for the hand of an unbeliever, the daughter of an unbelieving heretic; you go over to Fostat—nay, hear me out—and place your brain and your strong arm at the service of the infidels—it is but yesterday; but I, I, the shepherd of my flock, will not suffer that he who is the highest in rank, the richest in possessions, the most powerful by the mere dignity of his name, shall pervert thousands of the Jacobite brethren. I have the will and the power too, to close the sluice gates against such a disaster. Obey me, or you shall rue it with tears of blood."
The prelate paused, expecting to see Orion fall on his knees before him; but the young man did nothing of the kind. He stood looking at him, open-eyed and agitated, but undecided, and Benjamin went on with added vehemence:
"I came to you to lift up my voice in protest, and I desire, I require, I command you: sever all ties with the enemies of your nation and of your faith, cast out your love for the Melchite Siren, who will seduce your immortal part to inevitable perdition. . . ."
Till this Orion had listened with bowed head and in silence to the diatribe which the patriarch had hurled at him like a curse; but at this point his whole being rose in revolt, all self-control forsook him, and he interrupted the speaker in loud tones:
"Never, never, never will I do such a thing! Insult me as you will. What I am, I will still be: a faithful son of the Church to which my fathers belonged, and for which my brothers died. In all humility I acknowledge Jesus Christ as my Lord. I believe in him, believe in the God-made-man who died to save us, and who brought love into the world, and I will remain unpersuaded and faithful to my own love. Never will I forsake her who has been to me like a messenger from God, like a good angel to teach me how to lay hold on what is earnest and noble in life-her whom my father, too, held dear. Power, indeed, is yours. Demand of me anything reasonable, and within my attainment, and I will try to force myself to obedience; but I never can and never will be faithless to her, to prove my faith to you; and as to the Arabs. . . ."
"Enough!" exclaimed the prelate. "I am on my way to Upper Egypt. Make your choice by my return. I give you till then to come to a right mind, to think the matter over; and it is quite deliberately that I bid you to forget the Melchite. That you, of all men, should marry a heretic would be an abomination not to be borne. With regard to your alliance with the Arabs, and whether it becomes you—being what you are—to take service with them, we will discuss it at a future day. If, by the time I return, you have thought better of the matter as regards your marriage—and you are free to choose any Jacobite maiden—then I will speak to you in a different tone. I will then offer you my friendship and support; instead of the Church's curse I will pronounce her blessing on you—the pardon and grace of the Almighty, a smooth path to eternity and peace, and the prospect of giving new joy to the aching heart of your sorrowing mother. My last word is that you must and shall give up the woman from whom you can look for nothing but perdition."
"I cannot, and shall not, and I never will!" replied Orion firmly.
"Then I can, and shall, and will make you feel how heavily the curse falls which, in the last resort, I shall not hesitate to pronounce upon you!"
"It is in your power," said Orion. "But if you proceed to extremities with me, you will drive me to seek the blessing for which my soul thirsts more ardently than you, my lord, can imagine, and the salvation I crave, with her whom you hold reprobate, and on the further side of the Nile."
"I dare you!" cried the patriarch, quitting the room with a resolute step and flaming cheeks.
Orion was alone in the spacious room, feeling as though the whole world were sinking into nothingness after the rack of storm and tempest. At first he was merely conscious of having gone through a fearful experience, which threatened to fling him far outside the sphere of everything he was wont to reverence and hold sacred. For love and honor of his guardian angel he had declared war to the patriarch, and that man's power was as great as his stature. Still, the image of Paula rose high and supreme above that of the terrible old man, in Orion's fancy, and his father, as it seemed to him, was like an ally in the battle he was destined to wage in his own strength.
The young man's vivid imagination and excellent memory recapitulated every word the prelate had uttered. The domineering old man, overflowing with bigoted zeal, had played with him as a cat with a mouse. He had tried to search his soul and sift him to the bottom before he attacked the subject with which he ought to have begun, and concerning which he was fully informed when he offered him his hand that first time—as cheerfully, too, as though he had no serious grievance seething in his soul. Orion resolved that he would cling fast to his faith without Benjamin's interposition, and not allow his hold on the two other Christian graces, Hope and Love, to be weakened by his influence.
By some miracle his mother had not yet told the prelate of his father's curse, in spite of the anguish of her aching heart; and what a weapon would not that have been in Benjamin's hand. It was with the deepest pity that he thought of that poor, grief-stricken woman, and the idea flashed through his mind that the patriarch might have gone back to his mother to accuse him and to urge her to further revelations.
Many minutes had passed since the patriarch had left him; Orion had allowed his illustrious guest to depart unescorted, and this could not fail to excite surprise. Such a breach of good manners, of the uncodified laws of society, struck Orion, the son of a noble and ancient house, who had drunk in his regard for them as it were with his mother's milk, as an indignity to himself; and to repair it he started up, hastily smoothing down his tumbled hair, and hurried into the viridarium. His fears were confirmed, for the patriarch's following were standing in the fountain-hall close to the exit; his mother, too, was there and Benjamin was in the act of departure.
The old man accepted his offered escort with dignified affability, as if nothing but what was pleasant had passed between him and Orion. As they crossed the viridarium he asked his young host what was the name of some rare flower, and counselled him to take care that shade-giving trees were planted in abundance on his various estates. In the outer hall, on either side of the door, was a statue: Truth and justice, two fine works by Aristeas of Alexandria, who flourished in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Justice held the scales and sword, Truth was gazing into her mirror. As the patriarch approached them, he said to the priest who walked by his side: "Still here!" Then, standing still, he said, partly to Orion and partly to his companion:
"Your father, I see, neglected my suggestion that these heathen images had no place in any Christian house, and least of all in one attached, as this is, to a public function. We, no doubt, know the meaning of the symbols they bear; but how easily might the ordinary man, waiting here, mistake the figure with the mirror for Vanity and that with the scales Venality: 'Pay us what we ask,' she might be saying, 'or else your life is a forfeit,'—so the sword would imply."
He smiled and walked on, but added airily to Orion:
"When I come again—you know—I shall be pleased if my eye is no longer offended by these mementos of an extinct idolatry."
"Truth and justice!" replied Orion in a constrained voice. "They have dwelt on this spot and ruled in this house for nearly five hundred years."
"It would look better, and be more suitable," retorted the patriarch, "if you could say that of Him to whom alone the place of honor is due in a Christian house; in His presence every virtue flourishes of itself. The Christian should proscribe every image from his dwelling; at the door of his heart only should he raise an image on the one hand of Faith and on the other of Humility."
By this time they had reached the court-yard, where Susannah's chariot was waiting. Orion helped the prelate into it, and when Benjamin offered him his hand to kiss, in the presence of several hundred slaves and servants, all on their knees, the young man lightly touched it with his lips. He stood bowed low in reverence so long as the holy father remained visible, in the attitude of blessing the crowd from the open side of the chariot; then he hurried away to join his mother.
He expected to find her exhausted by the excitement of the patriarch's visit; but, in fact, she was more composed than he had seen her yet since his father's death. Her eyes indeed, commonly so sober in their expression, were bright with a kind of rapture which puzzled Orion. Had she been thinking of his father? Could the patriarch have succeeded in inspiring her pious fervor to such a pitch, that it had carried her, so to speak, out of herself?
She was dressed to go to church, and after expressing her delight at the honor done to herself and her whole household by the prelate's visit, she invited Orion to accompany her. Though he had proposed devoting the next few hours to a different purpose, the dutiful son at once acceded to this wish; he helped her into her chariot, bid the driver go slowly, and seated himself by her side.
As they drove along he asked her what she had told the patriarch, and her replies might have reassured him but that she filled him with grave anxiety on fresh grounds. Her mind seemed to have suffered under the stress of grief. It was usually so clear, so judicious, so reasonable; and now all she said was incoherent and not more than half intelligible. Still, one thing he distinctly understood: that she had not confided to the patriarch the fact of his father's curse. The prelate must certainly have censured the conduct of the deceased to her also and that had sealed her lips. She complained to her son that Benjamin had never understood her lost husband, and that she had felt compelled to repress her desire to disclose everything to him. Nowhere but in church, in the very presence of the Redeemer, could she bring herself to allow him to read her heart as it were an open book. A voice had warned her that in the house of God alone, could she find salvation for herself and her son; that voice she heard day and night, and much as it pained her to grieve him he must hear it now—: That voice never ceased to enjoin her to tear asunder his connection with the Melchite maiden. Last evening it had seemed to her that it was her eldest son, who had died for the Jacobite faith, that was speaking to her. The voice had sounded like his, and it had warned her that the ancient house of Menas must perish, if a Melchite should taint the pure blood of their race. And Benjamin had confirmed her fears; he had come back to her on purpose to beseech her to oppose Orion's sinful affection for Thomas' daughter with the utmost maternal authority, and, as the patriarch expressed the same desire as the voice, it must be from God and she must obey it.
Her old grudge against Paula had revived, and her very tones betrayed that it grew stronger with every word she spoke which had any reference to the girl.
At this Orion begged her to be calm, reminding her of the promise she had made him by his father's deathbed; and just as his mother was about to reply in a tone of pitiful recrimination, the chariot stopped at the door of the church. He did everything in his power to soothe her; his gentle and tender tones comforted her, and she nodded to him more happily, following him into the sanctuary.
Beyond the narthex—the vestibule of the church, where three penitents were flaying their backs with scourges by the side of a small marble fountain, and in full view of the crowd—they were forced to part, as the women were divided from the men by a screen of finely-carved woodwork.
As Neforis went to her place, she shook her bowed head: she was meditating on the choice offered her by Orion, of yielding to the patriarch's commands or to her son's wishes. How gladly would she have seen her son in bright spirits again. But Benjamin had threatened her with the loss of all the joys of Heaven, if she should agree to Orion's alliance with the heretic—and the joys of Heaven to her meant a meeting, a recognition, for which she would willingly have sacrificed her son and everything else that was dear to her heart.
Orion assisted at the service in the place reserved for the men of his family, close to the hekel, or holy of holies, where the altar stood and the priests performed their functions. A partition, covered with ill-wrought images and a few gilt ornaments, divided it from the main body of the church, and the whole edifice produced an impression that was neither splendid nor particularly edifying. The basilica, which had once been richly decorated, had been plundered by the Melchites in a fight between them and the Jacobites, and the impoverished city had not been in a position to restore the venerable church to anything approaching its original splendor. Orion looked round him; but could see nothing calculated to raise his devotion.
The congregation were required to stand all through the service; and as it often was a very long business, not the women only, behind the screen, but many of the men supported themselves like cripples on crutches. How unpleasing, too, were the tones of the Egyptian chant, accompanied by the frequent clang of a metal cymbal and mingled with the babble of chattering men and women, checked only when the talk became a quarrel, by a priest who loudly and vehemently shouted for silence from the hekel.
Generally the chanted liturgy constituted the whole function, unless the Lord's Supper was administered; but in these anxious times, for above a week past, a priest or a monk preached a daily sermon. This began a short while after the young man had taken his place, and it was with painful feelings that he recognized, in the hollow-eyed and ragged monk who mounted the pulpit, a priest whom he had seen more than once drunk to imbecility, in Nesptah's tavern, And the revolting creature, who thus flaunted his dirty, dishevelled person even in the pulpit, thundered down on the trembling congregation declarations that the delay in the rising of the Nile was the consequence of their sins, and God's punishment for their evil deeds. Instead of comforting the terrified souls, or encouraging their faith and bidding them hope for better times, he set before them in burning words the punishment that awaited their wicked despondency.
God Almighty was plaguing them and the land with great heat; but this was like the cool north wind at Advent-tide, as compared with the fierceness of the furnace of hell which Satan was making hot for them. The scorching sun on earth at any rate gave them daylight, but the flames of hell shed no light, that the terrors might never cease of those whom the devil's myrmidons drove over the narrow bridge leading to his horrible realm, goading them with spears and pitchforks, with heavy cudgelling or gnawing of their flesh. In the anguish of death, and the crush by the way, mothers trod down their infants and fathers their daughters; and when the damned reached the spiked threshold of hell itself, a hideous and poisoned vapor rose up to meet them, choking them, and yet giving them renewed strength to feel fresh torments with increased keenness of every sense. Then the devil's shrieks of anguish, which shake the vault of hell, came thundering on their ears; with hideous yells he snatched at them from the grate on which he lay, crushed and squeezed them in his iron jaws like a bunch of grapes, and swallowed them into his fiery maw; or else they were hung up by their tongues by attendant friends in Satan's fiery furnace, or dragged alternately through ice and flames, and finally beaten to pieces on the anvil of hell, or throttled and wrung with ropes and cloths.—As compared with the torments they would suffer there, every present anxiety was as the kiss of a lover. Mothers would hear the brain seething in their infants' skulls. . . .
At this point of the monk's grewsome discourse, Orion turned away with a shudder. The curse with which the patriarch had threatened him recurred to his mind; he could have fancied that the hot, stuffy, incense-laden air of the church was full of flapping daws and hideous bats. Deadly horror crept over him; but then, suddenly, the rebound came of youthful vigor, longing for freedom and joy in living; a voice within cried out: "Away with coercion and chains! Winged spirit, use your pinions! Down with the god of terrors! He is not that Heavenly Father whose love embraces mankind. Forward, leap up and be free! Trusting in your own strength, guided by your own will, go boldly forth into the open sunshine of life! Be free, be free!—Still, be not like a slave who is no sooner cut adrift and left to himself than he falls a slave again to his own senses. No; but striving unceasingly and of your own free will, in the sweat of your brow, to reach the high goal, to work out to its fulfilment and fruition everything that is best in your soul and mind. Yes—life is a ministry. . . . I, like the disciples of the Stoa, will strive after all that is known as virtue, with no other end in view than to practise it for its own sake, because it is fair and gives unmixed joys. I will rely on myself to seek the truth—and do what I feel to be right and good; this, henceforth, shall be the lofty aim of my existence. To the two chief desires of my heart—: atonement to my father and union with Paula, I here add a third: the attainment of the loftiest goal that I may reach, by valiant striving to get as near to it as my strength will allow. The road thither is by Work; the guiding star I must keep before me that I may not go astray is my Love!"
His cheeks were burning, and with a deep breath he looked about him as though to find an adversary with whom he might measure his strength. The horrible sermon was ended and the words of the chanting crowd fell on his ear. "Lord, reward me not according to mine iniquities!" The load of his own sin fell on his heart again, and his dying father's curse; his proud head drooped on his breast, and he said to himself that his burthen was too heavy for him to venture on the bold flight for which he had but now spread his wings. The ban was not yet lifted; he was not yet redeemed from its crushing weight. But the mere word "redeemed" brought to his mind the image of Him who took on Himself the sins of the world; and the more deeply he contemplated the nature of the Saviour whom he had loved from his childhood, the more surely he felt that it would be doing no violence to the freedom of his own will, but rather be the fulfilment of a long-felt desire, if he were to tell Jesus simply all that oppressed him; that his love for Him, his faith in Him, had a saving power even for his soul. He lifted up his eyes and heart to Him, and to Him, as to a trusted friend, confided all that troubled and hindered him and besought His aid.
In loving Him, he and Paula were one, he knew, though they had not the same idea of His nature.
Orion, as he meditated, thought out the points on which her views deviated from his own: she believed that the divine and the human natures were distinct in the person of Christ. And as he reflected on this creed, till now so horrible in his eyes, he felt that the unique individuality of the Saviour, shedding forth love and truth, came home to him more closely when he pictured Him perfect and spotless, yet feeling as a man; walking among men with all their joy in life in His heart, alive to every pang and sorrow which can torture mortals, rejoicing with them, and taking upon Himself unspeakable humiliation, suffering, and death, with a stricken, bleeding, and yet self-devoting heart, for pure love of the wretched race to which He could stoop from His glory. Yes, this Christ could be his Redeemer too. The Almighty Lord had become his perfect and most loving friend, his glorious, but lenient and tender brother, to whom he could gladly give his whole heart, who understood everything, who was ready to forgive everything—even all that was seething in his aching heart which longed for purification—and all because He once had suffered as a man suffers.
For the first time he, the Jacobite, dared to confess so much to himself; and not solely for Paula's sake. A violent clanging on a cracked metal plate roused him from his meditations by its harsh clamor; the sacrament of the Last Supper was about to be administered: the invariable conclusion of the Jacobite service. The bishop came forth from behind the screen of the inner sanctuary, poured some wine into a silver cup and crumbled into it two little cakes stamped with the Coptic cross. Of this mixture he first partook, and then gave it in a spoon to each member of the congregation who came up to receive it. Orion approached after two elders of the Church. Finally the priest rinsed out the cup, and drained the very washings, that no drop of the saving liquid should be lost.
How high had Orion's heart throbbed when, as a youth, he had been admitted for the first time to this most sacred of all Christian privileges! He was instructed in its deep and glorious symbolism, and had often felt the purifying, saving, and refreshing effect of the sacrament, strengthening him in all goodness, when he had partaken of it with his parents and brothers. Hand-in-hand, they had gone home feeling as if newly robed in body and soul and more closely bound together than before. And to-day, insensible as he was to the repulsiveness of the forms of worship of his confession he felt as though the bread and wine—the Flesh and Blood of the Saviour—had sealed the bond he had silently entered into with himself; as though the Lord had put forth an invisible hand to remove the guilt and the curse that crushed him so sorely. Deep devotion fell on his soul: his future life, he thought, should bring him nearer to God than ever before, and be spent in loving, and in the more earnest, full, and laborious exercise of the gifts Heaven had bestowed on him.
Orion had dreaded the drive home with his mother, but after complaining to him of Susannah's conduct in having made a startling display of her vexation in the women's place behind the screen, she had leaned on him and fallen fast asleep. Her head was on her son's shoulder when they reached home, and Orion's anxiety for the mother he truly loved was enhanced when he found it difficult to rouse her. He felt her stagger like a drunken creature, and he led her not into the fountain-room but to her bed-chamber, where she only begged to lie down; and hardly had she done so when she was again overcome by sleep.
Orion now made his way to Gamaliel the jeweller, to purchase from him a very large and costly diamond, plainly set, and the Israelite's brother undertook to deliver it to the fair widow at Constantinople, who was known to him as one of his customers. Orion, in the jeweller's sitting-room, wrote a letter to his former mistress, in which he begged her in the most urgent manner to accept the diamond, and in exchange to return to him the emerald by a swift and trustworthy messenger, whom Simeon the goldsmith would provide with everything needful.
After all this he went home hungry and weary, to the late midday meal which he shared, as for many days past, with no one but Eudoxia, Mary's governess. The little girl was not yet allowed to leave her room, and of this, for one reason, her instructress was glad, for a dinner alone with the handsome youth brought extreme gratification to her mature heart. How considerate was the wealthy and noble heir in desiring the slaves to offer every dish to her first, how kind in listening to her stories of her young days and of the illustrious houses in which she had formerly given lessons! She would have died for him; but, as no opportunity offered for such a sacrifice, at any rate she never omitted to point out to him the most delicate morsels, and to supply his room with fresh flowers.
Besides this, however, she had devoted herself with the most admirable unselfishness to her pupil, since the child had been ill and her grandmother had turned against her, noticing, too, that Orion took a tender and quite fatherly interest in his little niece. This morning the young man had not had time to enquire for Mary, and Eudoxia's report that she seemed even more excited than on the day before disturbed him so greatly, that he rose from table, in spite of Eudoxia's protest, without waiting till the end of the meal, to visit the little invalid.
It was with genuine anxiety that he mounted the stairs. His heart was heavy over many things, and as he went towards the child's room he said to himself with a melancholy smile, that he, who had contemned many a distinguished man and many a courted fair one at Constantinople because they had fallen short of his lofty standard, had here no one but this child who would be sure to understand him. Some minutes elapsed before his knock was answered with the request to 'come in,' and he heard a hasty bustle within. He found Mary lying, as the physician had ordered, on a couch by the window, which was wide open and well-shaded; her couch was surrounded by flowering plants and, on a little table in front of her, were two large nosegays, one fading, the other quite fresh and particularly beautiful.
How sadly the child had changed in these few days. The soft round cheeks had disappeared, and the pretty little face had sunk into nothingness by comparison with the wonderful, large eyes, which had gained in size and brilliancy. Yesterday she had been free from fever and very pale, but to-day her cheeks were crimson, and a twitching of her lips and of her right shoulder, which had come on since the scene at the grandfather's deathbed, was so incessant that Orion sat down by her side in some alarm.
"Has your grandmother been to see you?" was his first question, but the answer was a mournful shake of her head.
The blossoming plants were his own gift and so was the fading nosegay; the other, fresher one had not come from him, so he enquired who was the giver, and was not a little astonished to see his favorite's confusion and agitation at the question. There must be something special connected with the posey, that was very evident, and the young man, who did not wish to excite her sensitive nerves unnecessarily, but could not recall his words, was wishing he had never spoken them, when the discovery of a feather fan cut the knot of his difficulty; he took it up, exclaiming: "Hey—what have we here?"
A deeper flush dyed Mary's cheek, and raising her large eyes imploringly to his face, she laid a finger on her lips. He nodded, as understanding her, and said in a low voice:
"Katharina has been here? Susannah's gardener ties up flowers like that. The fan—when I knocked—she is here still perhaps?"
He had guessed rightly; Mary pointed dumbly to the door of the adjoining room.
"But, in Heaven's name, child," Orion went on, in an undertone, "what does she want here?"
"She came by stealth, in the boat," whispered the child. "She sent Anubis from the treasurer's office to ask me if she might not come, she could not do without me any longer, and she never did me any harm and so I said yes—and then, when I knew it was your knock, whisk—off she went into the bedroom."
"And if your grandmother were to come across her?"
"Then—well, then I do not know what would become of me! But oh! Orion, if you only knew how—how. . . ." Two big tears rolled down her cheeks and Orion understood her; he stroked her hair lovingly and said in a whisper, glancing now and again at the door of the next room.
"But I came up on purpose to tell you something more about Paula. She sends you her love, and she invites you to go to her and stay with her, always. But you must keep it quite a secret and tell no one, not even Eudoxia and Katharina; for I do not know myself how we can contrive to get your grandmother's consent. At any rate we must set to work very prudently and cautiously, do you understand? I have only taken you into our confidence that you may look forward to it and have something to be glad of at night, when you are such a silly little thing as to keep your eyes open like the hares, instead of sleeping like a good child. If things go well, you may be with Paula to-morrow perhaps—think of that! I had quite given up all hope of managing it at all; but now, just now—is it not odd—just within these two minutes I suddenly said to myself: 'It will come all right!'—So it must be done somehow."
A flood of tears streamed down Mary's burning cheeks but, freely as they flowed, she did not sob and her bosom did not heave. Nor did she speak, but such pure and fervent gratitude and joy shone from her glistening eyes that Orion felt his own grow moist. He was glad to find some way of concealing his emotion when Mary seized his hand and, pressing a long kiss on it, wetted it with her tears.
"See!" he exclaimed. "All wet! as if I had just taken it out of the fountain."
But he said no more, for the bedroom door was suddenly thrown open and Eudoxia's high, thin voice was heard saying:
"But why make any fuss? Mary will be enchanted! Here, Child, here is your long-lost friend! Such a surprise!" And the water-wagtail, pushed forward by no gentle hand, appeared within the doorway. Eudoxia was as radiant as though she had achieved some heroic deed; but she drew back a little when she found that Orion was still in the room. The divided couple stood face to face. What was done could not be undone; but, though he greeted her with only a calm bow, and she fluttered her fan with abrupt little jerks to conceal her embarrassment, nothing took place which could surprise the bystander; indeed, Katharina's pretty features assumed a defiant expression when he enquired how the little white dog was, and she coldly replied that she had had him chained up in the poultry-yard, for that the patriarch, who was their guest, could not endure dogs.
"He honors a good many men with the same sentiments," replied Orion, but Katharina retorted, readily enough.
"When they deserve it."
The dialogue went on in this key for some few minutes; but the young man was not in the humor either to take the young girl's pert stings or to repay her in the same coin; he rose to go but, before he could take leave, Katharina, observing from the window how low the sun was, cried: "Mercy on me! how late it is—I must be off; I must not be absent at supper time. My boat is lying close to yours in the fishing-cove. I only hope the gate of the treasurer's house is still open."
Orion, too, looked at the sun and then remarked: "To-day is Sanutius."
"I know," said Katharina. "That is why Anubis was free at noon."
"And for the same reason," added Orion, "there is not a soul at work now in the office."
This was awkward. Not for worlds would she have been seen in the house; and knowing, as she did from her games with Mary, every nook and corner of it, she began to consider her position. Her delicate features assumed a sinister expression quite new to Orion, which both displeased him and roused his anxiety—not for himself but for Mary, who could certainly get no good from such a companion as this. These visits must not be repeated very often; he would not allude to the subject in the child's presence, but Katharina should at once have a hint. She could not get out of the place without his assistance; so he intruded on her meditations to inform her that he had the key of the office about him. Then he went to see if the hall were empty, and led her at once to the treasurer's office through the various passages which connected it with the main buildings. The office at this hour was as lonely as the grave, and when Orion found himself standing with her, close to the door which opened on the road to the harbor, and had already raised the key to unlock it, he paused and for the first time broke the silence they had both preserved during their unpleasant walk, saying:
"What brought you to see Mary, Katharina? Tell me honestly." Her heart, which had been beating high since she had found herself alone with him in the silent and deserted house, began to throb wildly; a great terror, she knew not of what, came over her.
"She had come to the house for several reasons, but one had outweighed all the rest: Mary must be told that her young uncle and Paula were betrothed; for she knew by experience that the child could keep nothing of importance from her grandmother, and that Neforis had no love for Paula was an open secret. As yet she certainly could know nothing of her son's formal suit, but if once she were informed of it she would do everything in her power—of this Katharina had not a doubt—to keep Orion and Paula apart. So the girl had told Mary that it was already reported that they were a betrothed and happy pair, and that she herself had watched them making love in her neighbor's garden. To her great annoyance, however, Mary took this all very coolly and without any special excitement.
"So, when Orion enquired of his companion what had brought her to the governor's house, she could only reply that she longed so desperately to see little Mary.
"Of course," said Orion. "But I must beg of you not to yield again to your affectionate impulse. Your mother makes a public display of her grudge against mine, and her ill-feeling will only be increased if she is told that we are encouraging you to disregard her wishes. Perhaps you may, ere long, have opportunities of seeing Mary more frequently; but, if that should be the case, I must especially request you not to talk of things that may agitate her. You have seen for yourself how excitable she is and how fragile she looks. Her little heart, her too precocious brain and feelings must have rest, must not be stirred and goaded by fresh incitements such as you are in a position to apply. The patriarch is my enemy, the enemy of our house, and you—I do not say it to offend you—you overheard what he was saying last night, and probably gathered much important information, some of which may concern me and my family."
Katharina stood looking at her companion, as pale as death. He knew that she had played the listener, and when, and where! The shock it gave her, and the almost unendurable pang of feeling herself lowered in his eyes, quite dazed her. She felt bewildered, offended, menaced; however, she retained enough presence of mind to reply in a moment to her antagonist:
"Do not be alarmed! I will come no more. I should not have come at all, if I could have foreseen. . ."
"That you would meet me?"
"Perhaps.—But do not flatter yourself too much on that account!—As to my listening. . . . Well, yes; I was standing at the window. Inside the room I could only half hear, and who does not want to hear what great men have to say to each other? And, excepting your father, I have met none such in Memphis since Memnon left the city. We women have inherited some curiosity from our mother Eve; but we rarely indulge it so far as to hunt for a necklace in our neighbor's trunk! I have no luck as a criminal, my dear Orion. Twice have I deserved the name. Thanks to the generous and liberal use you made of my inexperience I sinned—sinned so deeply that it has ruined my whole life; and now, again, in a more venial way; but I was caught out, you see, in both cases."
"Your taunts are merited," said Orion sadly. "And yet, Child, we may both thank Providence, which did not leave us to wander long on the wrong road. Once already I have besought your forgiveness, and I do so now again. That does not satisfy you I see—and I can hardly blame you. Perhaps you will be better pleased, when I assure you once more that no sin was ever more bitterly or cruelly punished than mine has been."
"Indeed!" said Katharina with a drawl; then, with a flutter of her fan, she went on airily: "And yet you look anything rather than crushed; and have even succeeded in winning 'the other'—Paula, if I am not mistaken."
"That will do!" said Orion decisively, and he raised the key to the lock. Katharina, however, placed herself in his way, raised a threatening finger, and exclaimed:
"So I should think!—Now I am certain. However, you are right with your insolent 'That will do!' I do not care a rush for your love affairs; still, there is one thing I should like to know, which concerns myself alone; how could you see over our garden hedge? Anubis is scarcely a head shorter than you are. . . ."
"And you made him try?" interrupted Orion, who could not forbear smiling, perceiving that his honestly meant gravity was thrown away on Katharina. "Notwithstanding such a praiseworthy experiment, I may beg you to note for future cases that what is true of him is not true of every one, and that, besides foot-passengers, a tall man sometimes mounts a tall horse?"
"It was you, then, who rode by last night?"
"And who could not resist glancing up at your window."
At these words she drew back in surprise, and her eyes lighted up, but only for an instant; then, clenching the feathers of her fan in both hands, she sharply asked:
"Is that in mockery?"
"Certainly not," said Orion coolly; "for though you have reason enough to be angry with me. . . ."
"I, at any rate, have, so far given you none," she petulantly broke in. "No, I have not. It is I, and I alone, who have been insulted and ill-used; you must confess that you owe me some amends, and that I have a right to ask them."
"Do so," replied he. "I am yours to command." She looked him straight in the face.
"First of all," she began, "have you told any one else that I was. . ."
"That you were listening? No—not a living soul."
"And will you promise never to betray me?"
"Willingly. Now, what is the 'secondly' to this 'first of all?'"
But there was no immediate answer; the water-wagtail evidently found it difficult. However, she presently said, with downcast eyes:
"I want. . . . You will think me a greater fool than I am . . . nevertheless, yes, I will ask you, though it will involve me in fresh humiliation.—I want to know the truth; and if there is anything you hold sacred, before I ask, you must swear by what is holiest to answer me, not as if I were a silly girl, but as if I were the Supreme judge at the last day.—Do you hear?"
"This is very solemn," said Orion. "And you must allow me to observe that there are some questions which do not concern us alone, and if yours is such. . . ."
"No, no," replied Katharina, "what I mean concerns you and me alone."
"Then I see no reason for refusing," he said. "Still, I may ask you a favor in return. It seems to me no less important than it did to you, to know what a great man like the patriarch finds to talk about, and since I place myself at your commands. . . ."
"I thought," said the girl with a smile, "that your first object would be to discharge some small portion of your debt to me; however, I expect no excessive magnanimity, and the little I heard is soon told. It cannot matter much to you either—so I will agree to your wishes, and you, in return, must promise. . . ."
"To speak the whole truth."
"As truly as you hope for forgiveness of your sins?"
"As truly as that."
"That is well."
"And what is it that you want to know?"
At this she shook her head, exclaiming uneasily:
"Nay, nay, not yet. It cannot be done so lightly. First let me speak; and then open the door, and if I want to fly let me go without saying or asking me another word.—Give me that chair; I must sit down." And in fact she seemed to need it; for some minutes she had looked very pale and exhausted, and her hands trembled as she drew her handkerchief across her face.
When she was seated she began her story; and while her words flowed on quickly but without expression, as though she spoke mechanically, Orion listened with eager interest, for what she had to tell struck him as highly significant and important.
He had been watched by the patriarch's orders. By midnight Benjamin had already been informed of Orion's visit to Fostat, and to the Arab general. Nothing, however, had been said about it beyond a fear lest he had gone thither with a view to abjuring the faith of his fathers and going over to the Infidels. Far more important were the facts Orion gathered as to the prelate's negotiations with the Khaliff's representative. Amru had urged a reduction of the number of convents and of the monks and nuns who lived on the bequests and gifts of the pious, busied in all kinds of handiwork according to the rule of Pachomius, and enabled, by the fact of their living at free quarters, to produce almost all the necessaries of life, from the mats on the floors to the shoes worn by the citizens, at a much lower price than the independent artisans, whether in town or country. The great majority of these poor creatures were already ruined by such competition, and Amru, seeing the Arab leather-workers, weavers, ropemakers, and the rest, threatened with the same fate, had determined to set himself firmly to restrict all this monastic work. The patriarch had resisted stoutly and held out long, but at last he had been forced to sacrifice almost half the convents for monks and nuns.
But nothing had been conceded without an equivalent; for Benjamin was well aware of the immense difficulties which he, as chief of the Church, could put in the way of the new government of the country. So it was left to him to designate which convents should be suppressed, and he had, of course, begun by laying hands on the few remaining Melchite retreats, among them the Convent of St. Cecilia, next to the house of Rufinus. This establishment was now to be closed within three days and to become the property of the Jacobite Church; but it was to be done quite quietly, for there was no small fear that now, when the delayed rising of the river was causing a fever of anxiety in all minds, the impoverished populace of the town might rise in defence of the wealthy sisterhood to whom they were beholden for much benevolence and kind care.
Opposition from the town-senate was also to be looked for, since the deceased Mukaukas had pronounced this measure unjust and detrimental to the common welfare. The evicted orthodox nuns were to be taken into various Jacobite convents as lay sisters similar cases had already been known; but the abbess, whose superior intellect, high rank, and far-reaching influence might, if she were left free to act, easily rouse the prelates of the East to oppose Benjamin, was to be conveyed to a remote convent in Ethiopia, whence no flight or return was possible.
Katharina's report took but few minutes, and she gave it with apparent indifference; what could the suppression of an orthodox cloister, and the dispersion of its heretic sisterhood, matter to her, or to Orion, whose brothers had fallen victims to Melchite fanaticism? Orion did not betray his deep interest in all he heard, and when at length Katharina rose and pointed feebly to the door, all she said, as though she were vexed at having wasted so much time, was: "That, on the whole, is all."
"All?" asked Orion unlocking the door.
"Certainly, all," she repeated uneasily. "What I meant to ask—whether I ever know it or not—it does not matter.—It would be better perhaps-yes, that is all.—Let me go."
But he did not obey her.
"Ask," he said kindly. "I will answer you gladly."
"Gladly?" she retorted, with an incredulous shrug. "In point of fact you ought to feel uncomfortable whenever you see me; but things do not always turn out as they ought, in Memphis or in the world; for what do you men care what becomes of a poor girl like me? Do not imagine that I mean to reproach you; God forbid! I do not even owe you a grudge. If anyone can live such a thing down I can. Do not you think so? Everything is admirably arranged for me; I cannot fail to do well. I am very rich, and not ugly, and I shall have a hundred suitors yet. Oh, I am a most enviable creature! I have had one lover already, and the next will be more faithful, at any rate, and not throw me over so ruthlessly as the first.—Do not you think so?"
"I hope so," said Oriole gravely. "Bitter as the cup is that you offer me to drink. . ."
"I can only repeat that I must even drink it, since the fault was mine. Nothing would so truly gladden me as to be able to atone in some degree for my sin against you."
"Oh dear no!" she scornfully threw in. "Our hopes shall not be fixed so high as that! All is at an end between us, and if you ever were anything to me, you are nothing to me now—absolutely nothing. One hour in the past we had in common; it was short indeed, but to me—would you believe it?—a very great matter. It aged the young creature, whom you, but yesterday, still regarded as a mere child—that much I know—with amazing rapidity; aye, and made a worse woman of her than you can fancy."
"That indeed would grieve me to the bottom of my soul," replied Orion. "There is, I know, no excuse for my conduct. Still, as you yourself know, our mothers' wish in the first instance. . ."
"Destined us for each other, you would say. Quite true!—And it was all to please Dame Neforis that you put your arms round me, under the acacias, and called me your own, your all, your darling, your rose-bud? Was that—and this is exactly what I want to ask you, what I insist on knowing—was that all a lie—or did you, at any rate, in that brief moment, under the trees, love me with all your heart—love me as now you love—I cannot name her—that other?—The truth, Orion, the whole truth, on your oath!"
She had raised her voice and her eyes glowed with the excitement of passion; and now, when she ceased speaking, their sparkling, glistening enquiry plainly and unreservedly confessed that her heart still was his, that she counted on his high-mindedness and expected him to say "yes." Her round arm lay closely pressed to her bosom, as though to keep its wild heaving within bounds. Her delicate face had lost its pallor and seemed bathed in a glow, now tender and now crimson. Her little mouth, which but now had uttered such bitter words, was parted in a smile as if ready to bestow a sweet reward for the consoling, saving answer, for which her whole being yearned, and her eager eyes, shining through tears, did not cease to entreat him so pathetically, so passionately! How bewitching an image of helpless, love-sick, beseeching youth and grace.
"As you love that other,—on your oath."—The words still rang in the young man's ear. All that was soft in his soul urged him to make good the evil he had brought upon this fair, hapless young creature; but those very words gave him strength to remain steadfast; and though he felt himself appealed to for comfort and compassion, he could only stretch out imploring hands, as though praying for help, and say:
"Ah Katharina, and you are as lovely, as charming now, as you were then; but—much as you attracted me, the great love that fills a life can come but once. . . . Forget what happened afterwards. . . . Put your question in another form, alter it a little, and ask me again—or let me assure you."
But he had no time to say more; for, before he could atop her, she had slipped past him and flown away like some swift wild thing into the road and down to the fishing cove.
Orion stood alone gazing sadly after her. Was this his father's curse—that all who loved him must reap pain and grief in return?
He shivered; still, his youthful energy and powers of resistance were strong enough to give him speedy mastery over these torturing reflections. What opportunities lay before him of proving his prowess! Even while Katharina was telling her story, the brave and strenuous youth had set himself the problem of rescuing the cloistered sisters. The greater the danger its solution might involve him in, the more impossible it seemed at first sight, the more gladly, in his present mood, would he undertake it. He stepped out into the road and closed the door behind him with a feeling of combative energy.
It was growing dusk. Philippus must now be with Mary and, with the leech's aid, he was resolved to get the child away from his mother's house. Not till he felt that she was safe with Paula in Rufinus' house, could he be free to attempt the enterprise which floated before his eyes. On the stairs he shouted to a slave:
"My chariot with the Persian trotting horse!" and a few minutes after he entered the little girl's room at the same time with a slave girl who carried in a lamp. Neither Mary nor the physician observed him at first, and he heard her say to Philippus, who sat holding her wrist between his fingers.
"What is the matter with you this evening? Good heavens, how pale and melancholy you look!" The lamplight fell full on his face. "Look here, I have just made such a smart little man out of wax. . ."
She hoped to amuse the friend who was always so kind to her with this comical work of art; but, as she leaned forward to reach it, she caught sight of her uncle and exclaimed: "Philippus comes here to cure me, but he looks as if he wanted a draught himself. Take care, or you will have to drink that bitter brown stuff you sent yesterday; then you will know for once how nasty it can be." Though the child's exclamation was well-meant, neither of the men took any notice of it. They stood face to face in utter silence and with only a formal greeting; for Orion, without Mary's remark, had been struck by the change that had come over the physician since yesterday. Ignoring Orion's presence, he asked the child a few brief questions, begged Eudoxia to persevere in the same course of treatment, and then hastily bid a general farewell to all present; Orion, however, did not respond, but said, with an affectionate glance at the little patient: "One word with you presently."
This made Philippus turn to look at Mary and, as the eyes of the rivals met, they knew that on one subject at any rate they thought and felt alike. The leech already knew how tenderly the young man had taken to Mary, and he followed him into the room which Orion now occupied, and which, as Philippus was aware, had formerly been Paula's.
"In the cause of duty," he said to himself again and again, to keep himself calm and enable him to gather at least the general sense of what the handsome young fellow opposite to him was saying in his rich, pleasant voice, and urging as a request with more warmth than the leech had given him credit for. Philippus, of course, had heard of the grandmother's lamentable revulsion of feeling against her grandchild, and he thought Orion's wish to remove the little girl fully justified. But, on learning that she was to be placed under Paula's care, he seemed startled, and gazed at the floor in such sullen gloom that the other easily guessed what was going on in his mind. In fact, the physician suspected that the child was to serve merely as an excuse for the more frequent meetings of the lovers. Unable to bury this apprehension in his own breast he started to his feet, and was about to put it into words, when Orion took the words out of his mouth, saying modestly but frankly, with downcast eyes:
"I speak only for the child's—for Mary's sake. By my father's soul. . . ."
But Philippus shook his head dismally, went up to his rival, and murmured dully:
"For the sake of that child I am capable of doing or enduring a great deal. She could not be better cared for than with Rufinus and Paula; but if I could suppose," and he raised his voice, while his eyes took a sinister and threatening expression, "if I could suppose that her sacred and suffering innocence were merely an excuse. . . ."
"No, no," said Orion urgently. "Again, on my sacred word, I assure you that I have no aim in view but the child's safety; and, as we have said so much, I will not stick at a word more or less! Rufinus' house is open to you day and night, and I, if all turns out as I expect, shall ere long be far from hence—from Memphis—from Paula. There is mischief brewing—I dare say no more—an act of treachery; and I will try to prevent it at the risk of my life. You, every one, shall no longer have a right to think me capable of things which are as repulsive to my nature as to yours. You and I, if I mistake not, strive for the same prize, and so far are rivals; but why should the child therefor suffer? Forget it in her presence, and that forgetting will, as you well know, enhance your merit in her—her eyes."
"My merit?" retorted the other scornfully. "Merit is not in the balance; nothing but the gifts of blind Fortune—a nose, a chin, an eye, anything in short—a crime as much as a deed of heroism—that happens to make a deep impression on the wax of a girl's soft heart. But curse me," and he shouted the words at Orion as if he were beside himself, "if I know how we came to talk of such things! Has my folly gone running through the streets, bare-bosomed, to display itself to the world at large? How do you know what my feelings are? She, perhaps, has laughed with you at her ridiculous lover?—Well, no matter. You know already, or will know by to-morrow, which of us has won the cock-fight. You have only to look at me! What woman ever broke her heart for such a Thersites-face. Good-luck to the winner, and the other one—well, since it must be so, farewell till to-morrow."
He hastily made his way towards the door; Orion, however, detained him, imploring him to set aside his ill-feeling—at any rate for the present; assured him that Paula had not betrayed what his feelings were; that, on the contrary, he himself, seeing him with her so late on the previous night, had been consumed by jealousy, and entreated him to vent his wrath on him in abusive words, if that could ease his heart, only, by all that was good, not to withdraw his succor from that poor, innocent child.
The physician's humane heart was not proof against his prayer; and when at length he prepared to depart, in the joyful and yet painful conviction that his happier rival had become more worthy of the prize, he had agreed that he would impress on Neforis, whose mind he suspected to be slightly affected, that the air of the governor's residence did not suit Mary, and that she should place her in the care of a physician outside the town.
As soon as Philippus had quitted the house, Orion went to see Rufinus, who, on his briefly assuring him that he had come on grave and important business, begged him to accompany him to his private room. The young man, however, detained him till he had made all clear with the women as to the reception of little Mary.
"By degrees all the inhabitants of the residence will be transplanted into our garden!" exclaimed Rufinus. "Well, I have no objection; and you, old woman, what do you say to it?"
"I have none certainly," replied his wife. "Besides, neither you nor I have to decide in this case: the child is to be Paula's guest."
"I only wish she were here already," said Paula, "for who can say whether your mother, Orion—the air here is perilously Melchite."
"Leave Philippus and me to settle that.—You should have seen how pleased Mary was."
Then, drawing Paula aside, he hastily added:
"Have I not hoped too much? Is your heart mine? Come what may, can I count on you—on your lov-?"
"Yes, Yes!" The words rushed up from the very bottom of her heart, and Orion, with a sigh of relief, followed the old man, glad and comforted.
The study was lighted up, and there, without mentioning Katharina, he told Rufinus of the patriarch's scheme for dispersing the nuns of St. Cecilia. What could he care for these Melchite sisters? But, since that consoling hour in the church, he felt as though it were his duty to stand forth for all that was right, and to do battle against everything that was base. Besides, he knew how warmly and steadfastly his father had taken the part of this very convent against the patriarch. Finally, he had heard how strongly his beloved was attached to this retreat and its superior, so he prepared himself gleefully to come forth a new man of deeds, and show his prowess.
The old man listened with growing surprise and horror, and when Orion had finished his story he rose, helplessly wringing his hands. Orion spoke to him encouragingly, and told him that he had come, not merely to give the terrible news, but to hold council with him as to how the innocent victims might be rescued. At this the grey-headed philanthropist and wanderer pricked up his ears; and as an old war horse, though harnessed to the plough, when he hears the trumpet sound lifts his head and arches his neck as proudly and nobly as of yore under his glittering trappings, so Rufinus drew himself up, his old eyes sparkled, and he exclaimed with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of youth:
"Very good, very good; I am with you; not merely as an adviser; no, no. Head, and hand, and foot, from crown to heel! And as for you, young man—as for you! I always saw the stuff that was in you in spite—in spite.—But, as surely as man is the standard of all things, those who reach the stronghold of virtue by a winding road are often better citizens than those who are born in it.—It is growing late, but evensong will not yet have begun and I shall still be able to see the abbess. Have you any plan to propose?"
"Yes; the day after to-morrow at this hour. . . ."
"And why not to-morrow?" interrupted the ardent old man.
"Because I have preparations to make which cannot be done in twelve hours of daylight."
"The day after to-morrow at dusk, a large barge—not one of ours—will be lying by the bank at the foot of the convent garden. I will escort the sisters as far as Doomiat on the Lake. I will send on a mounted messenger to-night, and I will charter a ship for the fugitives by the help of my cousin Columella, the greatest ship-owner of that town. That will take them over seas wherever the abbess may command."
"Capital, splendid!" cried Rufinus enthusiastically. He took up his hat and stick, and the radiant expression of his face changed to a very grave one. He went up to the young man with solemn dignity, looked at him with fatherly kindliness, and said:
"I know what woes befell your house through those of our confession, the fellow-believers of these whom you propose to protect with so much prudence and courage; and that, young man, is noble, nay, is truly great. I find in you—you who were described to me as a man of the world and not over-precise—for the first time that which I have sought in vain for many years and in many lands, among the pious and virtuous: the spirit of willing self-sacrifice to save an enemy of a different creed from pressing peril.—But you are young, Orion, and I am old. You triumph in the action only, I foresee the consequences. Do you know what lies before you, if it should be discovered that you have covered the escape of the prey whom the patriarch already sees in his net? Have you considered that Benjamin, the most implacable and most powerful hater among the Jacobites, will pursue you as his mortal foe with all the fearful means at his command?"
"I have considered it," replied Orion.
Rufinus laid his left hand on the young man's shoulder, and his right hand on his head, saying, "Then take with you, to begin with, an old man's—a father's blessing."
"Yes, a father's," repeated Orion softly. A happy thrill ran through his body and soul, and he fell on the old man's neck deeply moved.
For a minute they stood clasped in each other's arms; then Rufinus freed himself, and set out to seek the abbess. Orion returned to the women, whose curiosity had been roused to a high pitch by seeing Rufinus disappear through the gate leading to the convent-garden. Dame Joanna could not sit still for excitement, and Pulcheria answered at random when Orion and Paula, who had an infinity of things to say or whisper to each other, now and then tried to draw her into the conversation. Once she sighed deeply, and when her friend asked her: "What ails you, Child?" she answered anxiously:
"Something serious must be going forward, I feel it. If only Philippus were here!"
"But we are all safe and well, thank God!" observed Orion, and she quickly replied:
"Yes indeed, the Lord be praised!" But she thought to herself:
"You think he is of no use but to heal the sick; but it is only when he is here that everything goes right and happens for the best!"
Still, all felt that there was something unusual and ominous in the air, and when the old man presently returned his face confirmed their suspicions. He laid aside his hat and staff in speechless gravity; then he put his arm affectionately round his wife and said:
"You will need all your courage and self-command once more, as you have often done before, good wife; I have taken upon myself a serious duty."
Joanna had turned very pale, and while she clung to her husband and begged him to speak and not to torture her with suspense, her frail figure was trembling, and bitter tears ran down her cheeks. She could guess that her husband was once more going away from her and their child, in the service and for the benefit of others, and she knew full well that she could not prevent it. If she could, she never would have had the heart to interfere: for she always understood him, and felt with him that something to take him out of the narrow circle of home-life was indispensable to his happiness.
He read her thoughts, and they gave him pain; but he was not to be diverted from his purpose. The man who would try to heal every suffering brute was accustomed to see those whom he loved best grieve on his account. Marriage, he would say, ought not to hinder a man in following his soul's vocation; and he was fond of using this high-sounding name to justify himself in his own and his wife's eyes, in doing things to which he was prompted only by restlessness and unsatisfied energy. Without this he would, no doubt, have done his best for the imperilled sisterhood, but it added to his enjoyment of the grand and dangerous rescue.
The wretched fate of the hapless nuns, and the thought of losing them as near neighbors, grieved the women deeply, and the men saw many tears flow; at the same time they had the satisfaction of finding them all three firmly and equally determined to venture all, and to bid these whom they loved venture all, to hinder the success of a deed which filled them with horror and disgust.
Joanna spoke not a word of demur when Rufinus said that he intended to accompany the fugitives; and when, with beaming looks, he went on to praise Orion's foresight and keen decisiveness, Paula flew to him proudly and gladly, holding out both her hands. As for the young man, he felt as though wings were growing from his shoulders, and this fateful evening was one of the happiest of his life.
The superior had agreed to his scheme, and in some details had improved upon it. Two lay sisters and one nun should remain behind. The two former were to attend to the sick in the infirmary, to ring the bell and chant the services as usual, that the escape of the rest might not be suspected; and Joanna, Paula, and Pulcheria, were to assist them.
When, at a late hour, Orion was about to leave, Rufinus asked whether, under these circumstances, it would be well to bring Mary to his house; he himself doubted it. Joanna was of his opinion; Paula, on the contrary, said that she believed it would be better to let the child run the risk of a remote danger—hardly to be called danger, than to leave her to pine away body and soul in her old home. Pulcheria supported her, but the two girls were forced to yield to the decision of the elders.
THE BRIDE OF THE NILE
By Georg Ebers
After that interview with Orion, Philippus hurried off through the town, paying so little heed to the people he met and to the processions besieging Heaven with loud psalms to let the Nile at last begin to rise, that he ran up against more than one passer-by, and had many a word of abuse shouted after him. He went into two or three houses, and neither his patients nor their attendants could recognize, in this abrupt and hasty visitor, the physician and friend who was usually so sympathetic to the sufferer: who would speak with a cordiality that brought new life to his heart, who would toss the children in the air, kiss one and nod merrily to another. To-day their elders even felt shy and anxious in his presence. For the first time he found the duty he loved a wearisome burthen; the sick man was a tormenting spirit in league with the world against his peace of mind. What possessed him, that he should feel such love of his fellow-men as to deprive himself of all comfort in life and of his night's rest for their sake? Rufinus was right. In these times each man lived solely to spite his neighbor, and he who could be most brazenly selfish, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, was the most certain to get on in life. Fool that he was to let other folks' woes destroy his peace and hinder him in his scientific advancement!
Tormented by such bitter thoughts as these, he went into a neat little house by the harbor where a worthy pilot lay dying, surrounded by his wife and children; and there, at once, he was himself again, putting forth all his knowledge and heartfelt kindliness, quitting the scene with a bleeding heart and an empty purse; but no sooner was he out of doors than his former mood closed in upon him with double gloom. The case was plain: Even with the fixed determination not to sacrifice himself for others he could not help doing it; the impulse was too strong for him. He could no more help suffering with the sufferer, and giving the best he had to give with no hope of a return, than the drunkard can help drinking. He was made to be plundered; it was his fate!
With a drooping head he returned to his old friend's work-room. Horapollo was sitting, just as he had sat the night before, at his writing-table with his scrolls and his three lamps, a slave below, snoring while he awaited his master's pleasure.
The leech's pretty Greek greeting "Rejoice!" sounded rather like "May you choke!" as he flung aside his upper garment; and to the old man's answer and anxious exclamation: "How badly you look, Philip!" he answered crossly: "Like a man who deserves a kick rather than a welcome; a booby who has submitted to have his nose pulled; a cur who has licked the hand of the lout who has thrashed him!"
He threw himself on the divan and told Horapollo all that had passed between him and Orion. "And the maddest part of it all," he ended, "is that I almost like the man; that he really seems to me to be on the high road to become a capital fellow; and that I no longer feel inclined to pitch him into a lime-kiln at the mere thought of his putting out a hand to Paula. At the same time," and he started to his feet, "even if I help him to bring the poor little girl away from that demented old hag, I cannot and will not continue to be her physician. There are plenty of quacks about in this corpse of a town, and they may find one of them.
"You will continue to treat the child," interrupted the old man quietly.
"To have my heart daily flogged with nettles!" exclaimed the leech, going towards Horapollo with wild gesticulations. "And do you believe that I have any desire to meet that young fellow's sweetheart day after day, often twice a day, that the barb may be twisted round and round in my bleeding wound?"
"I expect a quite different result from your frequent meeting," said the other. "You will get accustomed to see her under the aspect which alone she can hence forth bear to you: that of a handsome girl—there are thousands such in Egypt,—and the betrothed of another."
"Certainly, if my heart were like a hunting-dog that lies down the moment it is bid," said Philippus with a scornful laugh. "The end of it is that I must go away, away from Memphis—away from this miserable world for all I care! I?—Recover my peace of mind within reach of her? Alas, for my blissful, lost peace!"
"And why not? To every man a thing is only as he conceives of it. Only listen to me: I had finished a treatise on the old and new Calendars, and my master desired me to deliver a lecture on it in the Museum—if the school of pedants in Alexandria now deserves the name; but I did not wish to do so because I knew that the presence of such a large and learned audience would embarrass me. But my master advised me to imagine that my hearers were not men, but mere cabbages. This gave me new light; I took his advice, got over my shyness, and my speech flowed like oil."
"A very good story," said Philippus, "but I do not see. . . ."
"The moral of it for you," interrupted the old man, "is that you must regard the supremely adorable lady of your love as one among a dozen others—I will not say as a cabbage—as one with whom your heart has no more concern. Put a little strength of will into it, and you will succeed."
"If a heart were a cipher, and if passion were calendar-making! . . ." retorted Philippus. "You are a very wise man, and your manuscripts and tables have stood like walls between you and passion."
"Who can tell?" said Horapollo. "But at any rate, it never should have had such power over me as to make me embitter the few remaining days under the sun yet granted to my father and friend for the sake of a woman who scorned my devotion. Will you promise me to talk no more nonsense about flying from Memphis, or anything of the kind?"
"Teach me first to measure my strength of will."
"Will you try, at any rate?"
"Yes, for your sake."
"Will you promise to continue your treatment of that poor little girl, whom I love dearly in spite of her forbears?"
"As long as I can endure the daily meeting with her—you know. . ."
"That, then, is a bargain.—Now, come and let us translate a few more chapters."
The friends sat at work together till a late hour, and when the old man was alone again he reflected: "So long as he can be of use to the child he will not go away, and by that time I shall have dug a pit for that damned siren."
Orion had his hands full of work for the next morning. Before it was light he sent off two trustworthy messengers to Doomiat, giving each of them a letter with instructions that a sailing vessel should be held in readiness for the fugitives. One was to start three hours after the other, so that the business in hand should not fail if either of them should come to grief.
He then went out; first to the harbor, where he succeeded in hiring a large, good Nile-boat from Doomiat, whose captain, a trustworthy and experienced man, promised to keep their agreement a secret and to be prepared to start by noon next day. Next, after taking council with himself, he went to the treasurer's office, and there, with the assistance of Nilus, made his will, to be ratified and signed next morning in the presence of a notary and witnesses. His mother, little Mary, and Paula were to inherit the bulk of his property. He also bequeathed a considerable sum as a legacy to the hospitals and orphan asylums, as well as to the Church, to the end that they might pray for his soul; and a legacy to Nilus "as the most just judge of his household." Eudoxia, Mary's Greek governess, was not forgotten; and finally he commanded that all his house-slaves should be liberated, and to the end that they might not suffer from want he bequeathed to them one of his largest estates in Upper Egypt, where they might settle and labor for their common good. He increased the handsome sums already devised by his father to the freedmen of his family.
This business occupied several hours. Nilus, who wrote while Orion dictated, giving the document a legal form, was deeply touched by the young man's fore thought and kindness; for in truth, since his desecration of the judgment-seat, he had given him up for a lost soul.
By Orion's orders this will was to be opened after four weeks, in case he should not have returned from a journey on which he proposed starting on the morrow, and this injunction revealed to the faithful steward, who had grown grey in the service, that the last scion of the house expected to run considerable risk; however, he was too modest to ask any questions, and his master did not take him into his confidence.
When, after all this, the two men went back into the anteroom, Anubis, the young clerk and Katharina's ally, was standing there. Nilus took no notice of him, and while he, with tearful eyes, stooped to kiss the hand Orion held out to him as he bid him come to take leave of him once more next evening, Anubis, who had withdrawn respectfully to a little distance, keeping his ears open, however, officiously opened the heavy iron-plated door.
Orion was exhausted and hungry; he enquired for his mother, and hearing that she had gone to lie down, he went into the dining-room to get some food. Although breakfast had but just been served, Eudoxia was awaiting him with evident impatience. Her heart was bursting with a great piece of news, and as Orion entered, greeting her, she cried out:
"Have you heard? Do you know?" Then she began, encouraged by his curt negative, to pour out to him how that Neforis, by the desire of the physician who had lately been to see her, had decided on sending her, Eudoxia, away with her granddaughter to enjoy better air under the roof of a friend of the leech's; they were to go this very day, or to-morrow at latest.
Orion was disagreeably startled by this intelligence. He had not expected that Philippus would come so early, and he himself had been the first to promote a scheme which now no longer seemed advisable.
"How very provoking!" he muttered between his teeth, as a slave offered him a roast fowl and asparagus.
"Is it not? And perhaps we shall have to go quite far into the country," said the Greek, with a languishing look, as she drew one of the long stems between her teeth.
The words and the glance made Orion feel as if he grudged the old fool the good food she was eating, and his voice was not particularly ingratiating as he replied that town and country were all the same, the only point was which would be best for the child. When he went on to say that he was quitting home next evening, Eudoxia cried out, let a stick of asparagus drop in her lap, and said despairingly: "Oh, then everything is at an end!"
He, however, interposed reproachfully: "On the contrary, then your duty begins; you must devote yourself wholly and exclusively to the child. You know that her own grandmother is averse to her. Give her your best affection, as you have already begun to do, be a mother to her; and if you really are my well-wisher, show it in that way. For my part you will find me grateful, and not in words alone. Go tomorrow to the treasurer's office; Nilus will give you the only thing by which I can at present prove my gratitude. Do your best to cherish the child; I have taken care to provide for your old age."
He rose, cutting short the Greek's profuse expressions of thanks, and betook himself to his mother. She was still in her room; however, he now sent word that he had come to see her, and she was ready to admit him, having expected that he would come even sooner.
She was reclining, half-sitting, on a divan in her cool and shady bedroom, and she at once told her son of her determination to follow the physician's advice and entrust the little girl to his friend. She spoke in a tone of sleepy indifference; but as soon as Orion opposed her and begged her to keep Mary at home, she grew more lively, and looking him wrathfully in the face exclaimed: "Can you wish that? How can you ask me?" and she went on in repining lamentation:
"Everything is changed nowadays. Old age no longer forgets; it is youth that has a short memory. Your head has long been full of other things, but I—I still remember who it was that made my lost dear one's last hours on earth a hell, even in view of the gates of Heaven!" Her breast heaved with feeble, tearless sobs—a short, convulsive gasping, and Orion did not dare contravene her wishes. He sought to soothe her with loving words and, when she recovered herself, he told her that he proposed to leave her for a short time to look after his estates, as the law required, and this information gladdened her greatly. To be alone—solitary and unobserved now seemed delightful. Those white pills did more for her, raised her spirits better, than any human society. They brought her dreams, sleeping or waking; dreams a thousand times more delightful than her real, desolate existence. To give herself up to memory, to pray, to dream, to picture herself in the other world among her beloved dead—and besides that to eat and drink, which she was always ready to do very freely—this was all she asked henceforth of life on earth.
When, to her further questions, Orion replied that he was going first to the Delta, she expressed her regret, since, if he had gone to Upper Egypt, he might have visited his sister-in-law, Mary's mother, in her convent. She sat up as she spoke, passed her hand across her forehead, and pointed to a little table near the head of the couch, on which, by the side of a cup with fruit syrup, phials, boxes, and other objects, lay a writing-tablet and a letter-scroll. This she took up and handed to Orion, saying:
"A letter from your sister-in-law. It came last evening and I began to read it; but the first words are a complaint of your father, and that—you know, just before going to sleep—I could not read any more; I could not bear it! And to-day; first there was church, and then the physician came with his request about the child; I have not yet found courage to read the rest of it.—What can any letter bring to me but evil! Do you know at all whence anything pleasant could come to me? But now: read me the letter. Not that part again about your father; that I will keep till presently for myself alone."
Orion undid the roll, and with quivering lips glanced over the nun's accusations against his father. The wildest fanaticism breathed in every line of this epistle from the martyr's widow. She had found in the cloister all she sought: she lived now, she said, in God alone and in the Divine Saviour. She thought of her child, even, only as an alien, one of God's young creatures for whom it was a joy to pray. At the same time it was her duty to care for the little one's soul, and if it were not too hard for her grandmother to part from her, she longed to see Mary once more. She had lately been chosen abbess of her convent—and no one could prevent her taking possession of the child; but she feared lest an overwhelming natural affection might drag her back to the carnal world, which she had for ever renounced, so she would have Mary brought up in a neighboring nunnery, and led to Heavenly joys, not to earthly misery—to be the wife of no sinful husband, but a pure bride of Christ.
Orion shuddered as he read and, when he laid the letter down, his mother exclaimed:
"Perhaps she is right, perhaps it is already ordained that the child should be sent to the convent, and not to the leech's friend, and started on the only path that leads to Heaven without danger or hindrance!"
But Orion said to himself that he would make it his duty to guard the happy-hearted child from this fate, and he begged his mother to consider that the first important point was to restore the little girl to health. He now saw that she had been right. His father had always obeyed the prescriptions of Philippus, and for that reason, if for no other, it would be her duty to act by his advice.
Neforis, who for some time had been casting longing eyes at a small box by her side, did not contradict him; and in the course of the afternoon Orion conducted little Mary and her governess to the house of Rufinus, who, notwithstanding the doubts he had expressed the day before, made them heartily welcome.
When Mary was lying in her bed, close by the side of Paula's, the child threw her arms round the young girl's neck as she leaned over her, and laying her head on her bosom, felt herself in soft and warm security. There, as one released from prison and bondage, she wept out her woes, pouring all the grief of her deeply wounded child's heart into that of her friend.
Paula, however, heard Orion's voice, and she longed to go down to her lover, whom she had greeted but briefly on his arrival; still, she could not bear to snatch the child from her bosom, to disturb her in her newly-found happiness and leave her at this very moment! And yet, she must—she must see him! Every impulse urged her towards him and, when Pulcheria came into the room, she placed Mary's hand in hers and said: "There, now make friends and stay together like good children till I come back again and have something nice to tell you. You are fond of Orion, little one, my story shall be all about him."
"He was obliged to go," said Pulcheria, interrupting her. "Here is his message on this tablet. He was almost dying of impatience, and when he could wait no longer he wrote this for you."
Paula took the tablet, with a cry of regret, and carried it to her room to read. He had longed for their meeting as eagerly as herself, but at last he could wait no longer. How differently—so he wrote—had he hoped to end this day which must be devoted to the rescue of her friends.
Why, oh why had she allowed herself to be detained here? Why had she not flown to him, at least for a few moments, to thank him for his kindness and faithfulness, and to hear him confess publicly and aloud what he had but murmured in her ear the day before? She returned to the little girl, anxious and dissatisfied with herself.
Orion had in fact postponed his departure till the last moment; he thought it necessary to give Amru due notice of his journey and of his rupture with the patriarch. Of all the motives which could prompt him to aid the nuns, revenge was that which the Arab could best understand.
As Orion rode across the bridge of boats to Fostat, the gladness that had inspired him died away. Could not—ought not Paula to have spared him a small part of the time she had devoted to the child? He had been left to make the most of a kind grasp of the hand and a grateful look of welcome. Would she not have flown to meet him, if the love of which she had assured him yesterday were as fervent, as ardent as his own? Was the proud spirit of this girl, who, as his mother said, was cold and unapproachable, incapable of passionate, self-forgetting devotion? Was there no way of lighting up in her the sacred fire which burnt in him? He was tormented by many doubts and a bitter feeling of disappointment, and a crowd of suspicions forced themselves upon him, which would never have troubled him if only he had seen her once more, had heard her happy words of love, and felt his lips consecrated by his mistress' first kiss.
He was out of spirits, indeed out of temper, as he entered the Arab general's dwelling. In the anteroom he was met by rejected petitioners, and he said to himself, with a bitter smile, that he had just been sent about his business in the same unsatisfied mood—yes, sent about his business—and by whom?
He was announced, and his spirits rose a little when he was at once admitted and led past many, who were left waiting, into the Arab governor's presence-chamber. He was received with paternal warmth; and, when Amru heard that Orion and the patriarch had come to high words, he jumped up and holding out both his hands exclaimed: