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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 10. - 4/9 -
same livid spots that she had noticed on those of the plague stricken man in Medea's house. With a cry of horror she sprang up, snatched at the lamp, held it over the sufferer, heedless of his cries of anguish, looked into his face, and pulled away the weary hands with which he tried to screen his eyes from the light. Then, having convinced herself that she was not mistaken, she fled from room to room out into the hall.
Here she was met by the housekeeper, who took the lamp out of her hand and was about to question her; but Katharina only screamed:
"The plague is in the house! Lock the doors!" and then rushed away, past the leech who was coming in. With one bound she was in the chariot, and as the horses started she wailed out to the nurse:
"The plague--they have the plague. Plotinus has taken the plague!"
The terrified woman tried to soothe her, assuring her that she must be mistaken for such hellish fiends did not dare come near so holy a man. But the girl vouchsafed no reply, merely desiring her to have a bath made ready for her as soon as they should reach home.
She felt utterly shattered; on the spot where the old man's plague- stricken hand had rested she was conscious of a heavy, hateful pressure, and when the chariot at length drove into their own garden something warm and heavy-something she could not shake off, still seemed to weigh on her brain.
The windows were all dark excepting one on the ground-floor, where a light was still visible in the room inhabited by Heliodora. A diabolical thought flashed through her over-excited and restless mind; without looking to the right hand or the left she obeyed the impulse and went forward, just as she was, into her friend's sitting-room and then, lifting a curtain, on into the bedroom. Heliodora was lying on her couch, still suffering from a headache which had prevented her going to visit their neighbors; at first she did not notice the late visitor who stood by her side and bid her good evening.
A single lamp shed a dim light in the spacious room, and the young girl had never thought their guest so lovely as she looked in that twilight. A night wrapper of the thinnest material only half hid her beautiful limbs. Round her flowing, fair hair, floated the subtle, hardly perceptible perfume which always pervaded this favorite of fortune. Two heavy plaits lay like sheeny snakes over her bosom and the white sheet. Her face was turned upwards and was exquisitely calm and sweet; and as she lay motionless and smiled up at Katharina, she looked like an angel wearied in well-doing.
No man could resist the charms of this woman, and Orion had succumbed. By her side was a lute, from which she brought the softest and most soothing tones, and thus added to the witchery of her appearance.
Katharina's whole being was in wild revolt; she did not know how she was able to return Heliodora's greeting, and to ask her how she could possibly play the lute with a headache.
"Just gliding my fingers over the strings calms and refreshes my blood," she replied pleasantly. "But you, child, look as if you were suffering far worse than I.--Did you come home in the chariot that drove up just now?"
"Yes," replied Katharina. "I have been to see our dear old bishop. He is very ill, dying; he will soon be taken from us. Oh, what a fearful day! First Orion's mother, then Paula, and now this to crown all! Oh, Heliodora, Heliodora!"
She fell on her knees by the bed and pressed her face against her pitying friend's bosom. Heliodora saw the tears which had risen with unaffected feeling to the girl's eyes; her tender soul was full of sympathy with the sorrow of such a gladsome young creature, who had already had so much to suffer, and she leaned over the child, kissing her affectionately on the brow, and murmuring words of consolation. Katharina clung to her closely, and pointing to the top of her head where that burning hand had pressed it, she said: "There, kiss there: there is where the pain is worst!--Ah, that is nice, that does me good."
And, as the tender-hearted Heliodora's fresh lips rested on the plague- tainted hair, Katharina closed her eyes and felt as a gladiator might who hitherto has only tried his weapons on the practising ground, and now for the first time uses them in the arena to pierce his opponent's heart. She had a vision of herself as some one else, taller and stronger than she was; aye, as Death itself, the destroyer, breathing herself into her victim's breast.
These feelings entirely possessed her as she knelt on the soft carpet, and she did not notice that another woman was crossing it noiselessly to her comforter's bed-side, with a glance of intelligence at Heliodora. Just as she exclaimed: "Another kiss there-it burns so dreadfully," she felt two hands on her temples and two lips, not Heliodora's, were pressed on her head.
She looked up in astonishment and saw the smiling face of her mother, who had come after her to ask how the bishop was, and who wished to take her share in soothing the pain of her darling.
How well her little surprise had succeeded!
But what came over the child? She started to her feet as if lightning had struck her, as if an asp had stung her, looked horror-stricken into her mother's eyes, and then, as Susannah was on the point of clasping the little head to her bosom once more to kiss the aching, the cursed spot, Katharina pushed her away, flew, distracted, through the sitting-room into the vestibule, and down the narrow steps leading to the bathroom.
Her mother looked after her, shaking her head in bewilderment. Then she turned to Heliodora with a shrug, and said, as the tears filled her eyes:
"Poor, poor little thing! Too many troubles have come upon her at once. Her life till lately was like a long, sunny day, and now the hail is pelting her from all sides at once. She has bad news of the bishop, I fear."
"He is dying, she said," replied the young widow with feeling.
"Our best and truest friend," sobbed Susannah. "It is, it really is too much. I often think that I must myself succumb, and as for her-- hardly more than a child!--And with what resignation she bears the heaviest sorrows!--You, Heliodora, are far from knowing what she has gone through; but you have no doubt seen how her only thought is to seem bright, so as to cheer my heart. Not a sigh, not a complaint has passed her lips. She submits like a saint to everything, without a murmur. But, now that her clear old friend is stricken, she has lost her self- control for the first time. She knows all that Plotinus has been to me." And she broke down into fresh sobbing. When she was a little calmer, she apologised for her weakness and bid her fair guest good night.
Katharina, meanwhile, was taking a bath.
A bathroom was an indispensable adjunct to every wealthy Graeco-Egyptian house, and her father had taken particular pains with its construction. It consisted of two chambers, one for men and one for women; both fitted with equal splendor.
White marble, yellow alabaster, purple porphyry on all sides; while the pavement was of fine Byzantine mosaic on a gold ground. There were no statues, as in the baths of the heathen; the walls were decorated with bible texts in gold letters, and above the divan, which was covered with a giraffe skin, there was a crucifix. On the middle panel of the coffered ceiling was inscribed defiantly, in the Coptic language the first axiom of the Jacobite creed: "We believe in the single, indivisible nature of Christ Jesus." And below this hung silver lamps.
The large bath had been filled immediately for Katharina, as the furnace was heated every evening for the ladies of the house. As she was undressing, her maid showed her a diseased date. The head gardener, had brought it to her, for he had that afternoon, discovered that his palms, too, had been attacked. But the woman soon regretted her loquacity, for when she went on to say that Anchhor, the worthy shoemaker who, only the day before yesterday, had brought home her pretty new sandals, had died of the plague, Katharina scolded her sharply and bid her be silent. But as the maid knelt before her to unfasten her sandals, Katharina herself took up the story again, asking her whether the shoemaker's pretty young wife had also been attacked. The girl said that she was still alive, but that the old mother-in-law and all the children had been shut into the house, and even the shutters barred as soon as the corpse had been brought out. The authorities had ordered that this should be done in every case, so that the pestilence might not pervade the streets or be disseminated among the healthy. Food and drink were handed to the captives through a wicket in the door. Such regulations, she added, seemed particularly well-considered and wise. But she would have done better to keep her opinions to herself, for before she had done speaking Katharina gave her an angry push with her foot. Then she desired her not to be sparing with the 'smegma',--[A material like soap, but used in a soft state.]--and to wash her hair as thoroughly as possible.
This was done; and Katharina herself rubbed her hands and arms with passionate diligence. Then she had water poured over her head again and again, till, when she desired the maid to desist, she had to lean breathless and almost exhausted against the marble.
But in spite of smegma and water she still felt the pressure of the burning hand on top of her head, and her heart seemed oppressed by some invisible load of lead.
Her mother! oh, her mother! She had kissed her there, where the plague had actually touched her, and in fancy she could hear her gasping and begging for a drink of water like the dying wretches to whom her fate had led her. And then--then came the servants of the senate and shut her into the pestilential house with the sick; she saw the pest in mortal form, a cruel and malignant witch; behind her, tall and threatening, stood her inexorable companion Death, reaching out a bony hand and clutching her mother, and then all who were in the house with her, and last of all, herself.
Her arms dropped by her side: powerful and terrible as she had felt herself this morning, she was now crushed by a sense of miserable and impotent weakness. Her defiance had been addressed to a mortal, a frail, tender woman; and God and Fate had put her in the front of the battle instead of Heliodora. She shuddered at the thought.
As she went up from the bath-room, her mother met her in the hall and said:
"What, still here, Child? How you startled me! And is it true? Is Plotinus really ill of a complaint akin to the plague?"
"Worse than that, mother," she replied sadly. "He has the plague; and I remembered that a bath is the right thing when one has been in a plague- stricken house; you, too, have kissed and touched me. Pray have the fire lighted again, late as it is, and take a bath too."
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