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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 10. - 3/9 -
in frantic grief and begged to go with her and Betta to prison, she could not restrain her tears.
The scribe had informed her that she was charged dy Bishop Plotinus with having plotted the escape and flight of the nuns, and Joanna's knees trembled under her when Paula whispered in her ear:
"Beware of Katharina! No one else could have betrayed us; if she has also revealed what Rufinus did for the sisters we must deny it, positively and unflinchingly. Fear nothing: they will get not a word out of me." Then she added aloud: "I need not beg you to remember me lovingly; thanks to you both--the warmest, deepest thanks for all.... You, Pul. . . ." And she clasped the mother and daughter to her bosom, while Mary, clinging to her, hid her little face in her skirts, weeping bitterly. . . . "You, Dame Joanna, took me in, a forlorn creature, and made me happy till Fate fell on us all--you know, ah! you know too well. --The kindness you have shown to me show now to my little Mary. And there is one thing more--here comes the interpreter again!--A moment yet, I beg!--If the messenger should return and bring news of my father or, my God! my God!--my father himself, let me know, or bring him to me!--Or, if I am dead by the time he comes, tell him that to find him, to see him once more, was my heart's dearest wish. And beg my father," she breathed the words into Joanna's ear, "to love Orion as a son. And tell them both that I loved them to the last, deeply, perfectly, beyond words!" Then she added aloud as: she kissed each on her eyes and lips: "I love you and shall always love you--you, Joanna, and you, my Pulcheria, and you, Mary, my sweet, precious darling."
At this the water-wagtail humed forward with outstretched arms, but Dame Joanna put out a significantly warning hand; and they who were one in heart clasped each other in a last embrace as though they were indeed but one and no stranger could have any part in it.
Once more Katharina tried to approach Paula; but Martina, whose eyes filled with tears as she looked on the parting, held her back by the shoulder and whispered:
"Do not disturb them, child. Such hearts spontaneously attract those for whom they yearn. I, old as I am, would gladly be worthy to be called."
The interpreter now sternly insisted on starting. The three women parted; but still the little girl held tightly to Paula, even when she went up to the matron and kissed her with a natural impulse. Martina took her head between her hands, kissed her fondly, and said in a voice she could scarcely control: "God protect and keep you, child! I thank Him for having brought us together. A soul so pure and clear as yours is not to be found in the capital, but we still know how to be friends to our friends--at any rate I and my husband do--and if Heaven but grants me the opportunity you shall prove it. You never need feel alone in the world; never, so long as Justinus and his wife are still in it. Remember that, child; I mean it in solemn earnest."
With this, she again embraced Paula, who as she went out to enter the chariot also bestowed a farewell kiss on Eudoxia and Mandane, for they, too, stood modestly weeping in the background; then she gave her hand to the hump-backed gardener, and to the Masdakite, down whose cheeks tears were rolling. At this moment Katharina stood in her path, seized her arm in mortified excitement, and said insistantly:
"And have you not a word for me?"
Paula freed herself from her clutch and said in a low voice: "I thank you for lending me the chariot. As you know, it is taking me to prison, and I fear it is your perfidy that has brought me to this. If I am wrong, forgive me--if I am right, your punishment will hardly be lighter than my fate. You are still young, Katharina; try to grow better."
And with this she stepped into the chariot with old Betta, and the last she saw was little Mary who threw herself sobbing into Joanna's arms.
Susannah had never particularly cared for Paula, but her fate shocked her and moved her to pity. She must at once enquire whether it was not possible to send her some better food than the ordinary prison-fare. That was but Christian charity, and her daughter seemed to take her friend's misfortune much to heart. When she and Martina returned home she looked so cast down and distracted that no stranger now would ever have dreamed of comparing her with a brisk little bird.
Once more a poisoned arrow had struck her. Till now she had been wicked only in her own eyes; now she was wicked in the eyes of another. Paula knew it was she who had betrayed her. The traitoress had been met by treachery. The woman she hated had a right to regard her as spiteful and malignant, and for this she hated her more than ever.
Till now she had nowhere failed to find an affectionate greeting and welcome; and to-day how coldly she had been repulsed--and not by Paula alone, but also by Martina, who no doubt had noticed something, and whose dry reserve had been quite intolerable to the girl.
It was all the old bishop's fault; he had not kept his promise that her tale-bearing should remain as secret as a confession. Indeed, he must have deliberately revealed it, for no one but herself knew of the facts. Perhaps he had even mentioned her name to the Arabs; in that case she would have to bear witness before the judges, and then in what light would she appear to Orion, to her mother, to Joanna and Martina?
She had not failed to understand that old Rufinus must have perished in the expedition, and she was truly grieved. His wife and daughter had always been kind neighbors to her; and she would not have willingly brought sorrow on them. If she were called up to give evidence it might go hard with them, and she wished no harm to any one but those who had cheated her out of Orion's love. This idea of standing before a court of justice was the worst of all; this must be warded off at any cost.
Where could Bishop Plotinus be? He had returned to Memphis the day before, and yet he had not been to see her mother, to whom he usually paid a daily visit. This absence seemed to her ominous. Everything depended on her reminding the old man of his promise as soon as possible; for if at the trial next morning--which of course, he must attend--he should happen to mention her name, the guards, the interpreter, and the scribe would invade her home too and then-horror! She had given evidence once already, and could never again go through all that had ensued.
But how was she to get at the bishop in the course of the night or early to-morrow at latest?
The chariot had not yet returned, and if--it still wanted two hours of midnight; yes--it must be done.
She began talking to her mother of the prelate's absence; Susannah, too, was uneasy about it, particularly since she had heard that the old man had come home ill and that his servant had been out and about in search of a physician. Katharina promptly proposed to go and see him: the horses were still in harness, her nurse could accompany her. She really must go and learn how her venerable friend was going on.
Susannah thought this very sweet; still, she said it was very late for such a visit; however, her spoilt child had said that she "must" and the answer was a foregone conclusion. Dame Susannah gave way; the nurse was sent for, and as soon as the chariot came round Katharina flung her arms round her mother's neck, promising her not to stay long, and in a few minutes the chariot stopped at the door of the bishop's palace. She bid the nurse wait for her and went alone into the vast, rambling house.
The spacious hall, lighted feebly by a single lamp, was silent and deserted, even the door-keeper had left his post; however, she was familiar with every step and turning, and went on through the impluvium into the library where, at this hour, the bishop was wont to be found. But it was dark, and her gentle call met with no reply. In the next room, to which she timidly felt her way, a slave lay snoring; beside him were a wine jar and a hand-lamp. The sight somewhat reassured her. Beyond was the bishop's bedroom, which she had never been into. A dim light gleamed through the open door and she heard a low moaning and gasping. She called the house-keeper by name once, twice; no answer. The sleeping slave did not stir; but a familiar voice addressed her from the bedroom, groaning rather than saying:
"Who is there? Is he come? Have you found him at last?"
The whole household had fled in fear of the pestilence; even the acolyte, who had indeed a wife and children. The housekeeper had been forced to leave the master to seek the physician, who had already been there once, and the last remaining slave, a faithful, goodhearted, heedless sot, had been left in charge; but he had brought a jar of wine up from the unguarded cellar, had soon emptied it, and then, overcome by drink and the heat of the night, he had fallen asleep.
Katharina at once spoke her name and the old man answered her, saying kindly, but with difficulty: "Ah, it is you, you, my child!"
She took up the lamp and went close to the sick man. He put out his lean arm to welcome her; but, as her approach brought the light near to him he covered his eyes, crying out distressfully: "No, no; that hurts. Take away the lamp."
Katharina set it down on a low chest behind the head of the bed; then she went up to the sufferer, gave him her mother's message, and asked him how he was and why he was left alone. He could only give incoherent answers which he gasped out with great difficulty, bidding her go close to him for he could not hear her distinctly. He was very ill, he told her-- dying. It was good of her to have come for she had always been his pet, his dear, good little girl.
"And it was a happy impulse that brought you," he added, "to receive an old man's blessing. I give it you with my whole heart."
As he spoke he put forth his hand and she, following an instinctive prompting, fell on her knees by the side of the couch.
He laid his burning right hand on her head and murmured some words of blessing; she, however, scarcely heeded them, for his hand felt like lead and its heat oppressed and distressed her dreadfully. It was a sincere grief to her to see this true old friend of her childhood suffering thus --perhaps indeed dying; at the same time she did not forget what had brought her here--still, she dared not disturb him in this act of love. He gave her his blessing--that was kind; but his mutterings did not come to an end, the weight of the hot hand on her head grew heavier and heavier, and at last became intolerable. She felt quite dazed, but with an effort she collected her senses and then perceived that the old man had wandered off from the usual formulas of blessing and was murmuring disconnected and inarticulate words.
At this she raised the terrible, fevered hand, laid it on the bed, and was about to ask him whether he had betrayed her to Benjamin, and if he had mentioned her name, when--Merciful God! there on his cheeks were the
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