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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 12. - 6/12 -
on the very thing she needed. Martina, particularly, with her subtle motherly instinct, always understood whatever was agitating her; and once she showed her a letter from Heliodora, in which she spoke of the calmness she had won through nursing their dear invalid, and said how thankful she was to see the reward of her care and toil. Narses was already quite another man, and she could know no higher task than that of reconciling the hapless man to life, nay, of making it dear to him again. She no longer thought of Orion but as she might of a beautiful song she once had heard in a delightful hour.
Thus time passed, even for the imprisoned maiden, till only two nights remained before St. Serapis' day when the fearful marriage was to be solemnized.
It was evening when the bishop came to visit Paula. He regarded it as his duty to tell her that the execution of her sentence was fixed for the day after to-morrow. He should hope and believe till the last, but his own power over the misguided mob was gone from him. In any case, and if the worst should befall, he would be at her side to protect her by the dignity of his office. He had come now, so as to give her time to prepare her self in every respect. The care of her noble father till his last hour on earth he would take upon himself as a dear and sacred duty.
Though she had believed herself surely prepared long since for the worst, this news fell on her like a thunderbolt. What lay before her seemed so monstrous, so unexampled, that it was impossible that she ever could look forward to it firmly and calmly.
For a long time she could not help clinging desperately to her faithful Betta, and it was only by degrees that she so far recovered herself as to be able to speak to the bishop, and thank him. He, however, could only lament his inability to earn her fullest gratitude, for the patriarch's reply to his complaint of those who promised rescue to the people by the instrumentality of a heathen abomination--a document on which he had founded his highest hopes for her--had had a different result from that which he had expected. The patriarch, to be sure, condemned the abominable sacrifice, but he did it in a way which lacked the force necessary to terrify and discourage the misled mob. However, he would try what effect it might have on the people, and a number of scribes were at work to make copies of it in the course of the night. These would be sent to the Senators next morning, posted up in the market-place and public buildings, and distributed to the people; but he feared all this would have no effect.
"Then help me to prepare for death," said Paula gloomily. "You are not a priest of my confession, but no church has a more worthy minister. If you can absolve me in the name of your Redeemer, mine will pardon me. We look at Him, it is true, with different eyes, but He is the Saviour of us both, nevertheless." A contradictory reply struggled for utterance in the strict Jacobite's mind, but at such a moment he felt he must repress it; he only answered:
"Speak, daughter, I am listening."
And she poured forth all her soul, as though he had been a priest of her own creed, and his eyes grew moist as he heard this confession of a pure and loving heart, yearning for all that was highest and best. He promised her the mercy of the Redeemer, and when he had ended with "Amen," and blessed her, he looked down at the ground for some minutes and presently said, "Follow me, Child."
"Whither?" she asked in surprise; for she thought that her last hour had already come, and that he was about to lead her away to the place of execution, or to her watery, ever-flowing tomb; but he smiled as he replied: "No, child. To-day I have only the pleasing duty of blessing your betrothal before God; if only you will promise not to estrange your husband from the faith of his fathers--for what will not a man sacrifice to win the love of a woman.--You promise? Then I will take you to your Orion."
He rapped on the door of the cell, and when the warder had opened it he whispered his orders; Paula followed him silently and with blushing cheeks, and in a few minutes she was clasped to her lover's breast while, for the first time--and perhaps the last--their lips met in a kiss.
The prelate gave them a few minutes together; when he had blessed them both and solemnized their betrothal, he led her back to her cell. However, she had hardly time to thank him out of the fulness of her overflowing heart, when a town-watchman came to fetch him to see Susannah; her last hour was at hand, if not already past. John at once went with the messenger, and Paula drew a deep breath as she saw him depart. Then she threw herself on to her nurse's shoulders, crying:
"Now, come what may! Nothing can divide us; not even death!"
The bishop was too late. He found the widow Susannah a corpse; standing at the head of the bed was little Katharina, as pale as death, speechless, tearless, utterly annihilated. He kindly tried to cheer her, and to speak words of comfort; but she pushed him away, tore herself from him, and before he could stop her, she had fled out of the room.
Poor child! He had seen many a loving daughter mourning for her mother, but never such grief as this. Here, thought he, were two human souls all in all to each other, and hence this overwhelming sorrow.
Katharina had escaped to her own room, had thrown herself on the couch --cowering so close that no one entering the room would have taken the undistinguishable heap for a human being, a grown up, passionately suffering girl.
It was very hot, and yet a cold shiver ran through her slender frame. Was she now attacked by the pestilence? No; it would be too merciful of Fate to take such pity on her woes.
The mother was dead, dragged to the grave by her own daughter. The disease had first shown itself on her lips; and how many times had the physician expressed his surprise at the plague having broken out in this healthy quarter of the town, and in a house kept so scrupulously clean. She knew at whose bidding the avenging angel had entered there, and whose criminal guile had trifled with him. The words "murdered your mother" haunted her, and she remembered the law of the ancients which refused to prescribe a punishment for the killing of parents, because they considered such a monstrous deed impossible.
A scornful smile curled her lip. Laws! Principles! Was there one that she had not defied? She had contemned God, meddled with magic, borne false witness, committed murder--and as to the one law with promise, which, if Philippus was right, was exactly the same in the code of her forefathers as on the tables of Moses, how had she kept that? Her own mother was no more, and by her act!
All through this frightful retrospect she had never ceased to shiver and, as this was becoming unendurable, she took to walking up and down and seeking excuses for her sinful doings: It was not her mother, but Heliodora whom she had wished to kill; why had malicious Fate....?
Here she was interrupted, for the young widow, who had heard the sad news, sought her out to comfort her and offer her services. She spoke to the girl with real affection; but her sweet, low tones reminded Katharina of that evening after the old bishop's death; and when Heliodora put out her arm to draw her to her, she shrank from her, begging her in a dry, hoarse voice, not to touch her for her clothes were infected. She wanted no comfort; all she asked was to be left alone-- quite alone--nothing more. The words were hard and unkind, and as the door closed on the young woman Katharina's eyes glared after her.
Why had this doom passed over Heliodora's head and demanded the sacrifice of one whose loss she could never cease to mourn?
This brought her mother vividly to her mind. She flew back to her death- bed and fell on her knees--but even there she could not bear to stay long, so she wandered into the garden and visited every spot where she and her mother had been together. But there were such strange crackings in the shrubs, and the trees and bushes cast such uncanny shadows that she hailed daybreak as a deliverance.
She was on her way back to the house when her foster-brother Anubis came limping to meet her. Poor fellow! She had made a cripple of him, too, and his mother had died through her fault.
The lad spoke to her, giving expression to his sympathy, and she accepted it; but she said such strange things, and answered him so utterly at random, that he began to fear that grief had turned her brain. She went on to ask him point-blank how much money she now had, and as he happened to know approximately, he could tell her; she clasped her hands, for how could any one human being who was not a king possess such enormous wealth! Finally she enquired whether he knew how a will should be drawn up, and that, too, he answered affirmatively.
She made him describe it all, and then he added that the signature must be made valid by those of two witnesses; but she, he added, was too young to be thinking of making her will.
"Why?" said she. "Is Paula much older than I am?"
"And the day after to-morrow," the boy went on, "she is to be cast into the Nile. All the people call her the Bride of the Nile."
At this that hideous, malignant smile again curled her lips, but she hastily suppressed it and walked straight on into the house. At the door he timidly asked her whether he might once more look on his mistress; but she was obliged to forbid it for fear of infection. However, he proudly replied: "What you do not fear, has no terrors for me," and he followed her to the side of the bed where the corpse now lay washed and in fine array; and when he saw Katharina kiss the dead woman's hand he, too, as soon as she looked away, pressed his lips on the place hers had touched. Then he sat down by the bed and remained there till she sent him away.
Before noon the bishop arrived to perform the last rites. He found the body surrounded by beautiful flowers. Katharina had been out in the garden again and had cut all the rarest and finest; and though she had allowed the gardener to carry the basket for her, she would not have him help her in gathering them. The feeling that she was doing something for her mother had been a comfort to her; still, by day everything about her seemed even more intolerable than by night. Everything looked so large, so coarse, so insistent, so menacing, and reminded her at every step of some injustice or some deed of which she was ashamed. Every eye, she fancied, must see through her; and now and then it seemed as though the pillars of the great banqueting-hall, where her mother still lay, were tottering, and the ceiling about to fall in and crush her.
She answered the bishop's questions absently and often quite at random, and the old man supposed that she was stunned by her great sorrow; so to give her thoughts a new direction he began telling her about Paula, and believing that Katharina was fond of her, he confided to her that he had
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