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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 4. - 8/9 -
physician. "But the chamber of the dying is like a church. Death consecrates it, and the man who stands face to face with death often drops the mask by which he cheats his fellows. There we may see faces which you would shudder to look on, but others, too, which merely to see is enough to make us regard the degenerate species to which we belong with renewed respect."
"And you found such a comforting vision in Orion,--the thief, the false witness, the corrupt judge!" exclaimed Paula, starting up in indignant astonishment.
"There! you see," laughed Philippus. "Just like a woman! A little juggling, and lo! what was only rose color is turned to purple. No. The son of the Mukaukas has not yet undergone such a dazzling change of hue; but he has a feeling and impressible heart--and I hold even that in high esteem. I have no doubt that he loved his father deeply, nay passionately; though I have ample reason to believe him capable of the very worst. So long as I was present at the scene of death the father and son were parting in all friendship and tenderness, and when the good old man's heart had ceased to beat I found Orion in a state which is only possible to have when love has lost what it held dearest."
"All acting!" Paula put in.
"But there was no audience, dear friend. Orion would not have got up such a performance for his mother and little Mary."
"But he is a poet--and a highly-gifted one too. He sings beautiful songs of his own invention to the lyre; his ecstatic and versatile mind works him up into any frame of feeling; but his soul is perverted; it is soaked in wickedness as a sponge drinks up water. He is a vessel full of beautiful gifts, but he has forfeited all that was good and noble in him --all!"
The words came in eager haste from her indignant lips. Her cheeks glowed with her vehemence, and she thought she had won over the physician; but he gravely shook his head, and said:
"Your righteous anger carries you too far. How often have you blamed me for severity and suspicions but now I have to beg you to allow me to ask your sympathy for an experience to which you would probably have raised no objection the day before yesterday:
"I have met with evil-doers of every degree. Think, for instance, how many cases of wilful poisoning I have had to investigate."
"Even Homer called Egypt the land of poison," exclaimed Paula. "And it seems almost incredible that Christianity has not altered it in the least. Kosmas, who had seen the whole earth, could nowhere find more malice, deceit, hatred, and ill-will than exist here."
"Then you see in what good schools my experience of the wickedness of men has ripened," said Philippus smiling, "and they have taught me chiefly that there is never a criminal, a sinner, or a scapegrace, however infamous he may be, however cruel or lost to virtue, in whom some good quality or other may not be discovered.--Do you remember Nechebt, the horrible woman who poisoned her two brothers and her own father? She was captured scarcely three weeks ago; and that very monster in human form could almost die of hunger and thirst for the sake of her rascally son, who is a common soldier in the imperial army; at last she took to concocting poisons, not to improve her own wretched condition, but to send the shameless wretch means for a fresh debauch. I have known a thousand similar cases, but I will only mention that of one of the wildest and blood-thirstiest of robbers, who had evaded the vigilance of the watch again and again, but at last fell into their hands--and how? Because he had heard that his old mother was ill and he longed to see the withered old woman once more and give her a kiss, since he was her own child! In the same way Orion, however reprobate we may think him, has at any rate one characteristic which we must approve of: a tender affection for his father and mother. Your sponge is not utterly steeped in wickedness; there are still some pores, some cells which resist it; and if in him, as in so many others, the heart is one of them, then I say hopefully, like Horace the Roman: 'Nil desperandum.' It would be unjust to give him up altogether for lost."
To this assurance Paula found no answer; indeed, it struck her that--if Orion had told her the truth--it was only to please his mother that he had asked Katharina to marry him, while she herself occupied his heart. --The physician, wishing to change the subject, was about to speak again of the death of the Mukaukas, when one of the crippled serving girls came to announce a woman who asked to speak with Paula. A few minutes later she was clasped in the embrace of her faithful old friend and nurse, who rejoiced as heartily, laughing and crying for sheer delight, as if no tidings of misfortune had reached her; while Paula, though so much younger, was cut to the heart, and could not shake off the spell of her grief.
Perpetua understood this and owed her no grudge for the coolness with which she met her joyful excitement.
She told Paula that she had been well treated in her hot cell, and that about half an hour since Orion himself, the young Master now, had opened the door of her prison. He had been very gracious to her, but looked so pale and sad. The overbearing young man was quite altered; his eyes, which were dim with weeping, had moved her, Perpetua, to tears. She trusted that God would forgive him for his sins against herself and Paula; he must have been possessed by some evil demon; he had not been at all like himself; for he had a kind, warm heart, and though he had been so hard and unjust yesterday to poor Hiram he had made it up to him the first thing this morning, and had not only let him out of prison but had sent him and his son home to Damascus with large gifts and two horses. Nilus had told her this. He who hoped to be forgiven by his neighbor must also be ready to forgive. The great Augustine, even, had been no model of virtue in his youth and yet he had become a shining light in the Church; and now the son of the Mukaukas would tread in his father's footsteps. He was a handsome, engaging man, who would be the joy of their hearts yet, they might be very sure. Why, he had been as grave and as solemn as a bishop to-day; perhaps he had already turned over a new leaf. He himself had put her into his mother's chariot and desired the charioteer to drive her hither: what would Paula say to that? Her things were to be given over to her to-morrow morning, and packed under her own eyes, and sent after her. Nilus, the treasurer, had come with her to deliver a message to Paula; but he had gone first to the convent.
Paula desired the old woman to go thither and fetch him; as soon as Perpetua had left the room, she exclaimed:
"There, you see, is some one who is quite of your opinion. What creatures we are! Last evening my good Betta would have thought no pit of hell too deep for our enemy, and now? To be led to a chariot by such a fine gentleman in person is no doubt flattering; and how quickly the old body has forgotten all her grievances, how soothed and satisfied she is by the gracious permission to pack her precious and cherished possessions with her own hands.--You told me once that the Jacobites had made a Saint Orion out of the pagan god Osiris, and my old Betta sees a future Saint Augustine in the governor's son. I can see that she already regards him as her tutelary patron, and when we get back to Syria, she will be begging me to join her in a pilgrimage to his shrine!"
"And you will perhaps consent," replied the physician, to whom Paula at this moment, for the first time since his heart had glowed with love for her, did not seem to be quite what a man looks for in the woman he adores. Hitherto he had seen and heard nothing that was not high-minded and worthy of her; but her last words had, been spoken with vehement and indignant irony--and in Philip's opinion irony, blame which was intended to wound and not to improve its object, was unbecoming in a noble woman. The scornful laugh, with which she had triumphantly ended her speech, had opened as it were a wide abyss between his mind and hers. He, as he freely confessed to himself, was of a coarser and humbler grain than Paula, and he was apt to be satirical oftener than was right. She had been wont to dislike this habit in him; he had been glad that she did; it answered to the ideal he had formed of what the woman he loved should be. But now she had turned satirical; and her irony was no jest of the lips. It sprang, full of passion, from her agitated soul; this it was that grieved the leech who knew human nature, and at the same time roused his apprehensions. Paula read his disapproval in his face, and felt that there was a deep significance in his words And you will perhaps consent."
"Men are vexed," thought she, "when, after they have decisively expressed an opinion, we women dare unhesitatingly to assert a different one," so, as she would on no account hurt the feelings of the friend to whom she owed so much, she said kindly:
"I do not care to enquire into the meaning of your strange prognostication. Thank God, by your kindness and care I have severed every tie that could have bound me to my poor uncle's son!--Now we will drop the subject; we have said too much about him already."
"That is quite my opinion," replied Philippus. "And, indeed, I would beg you quite to forget my 'perhaps.' I live wholly in the present and am no prophet; but I foresee, nevertheless, that Orion will make every effort, cost what it may. . . ."
"To approach you again, to win your forgiveness, to touch your heart, to......"
"Let him dare" exclaimed Paula lifting her hand with a threatening gesture.
"And when he, gifted as he is in every way, has found his better self again and can come forward purified and worthy of the approbation of the best. . . ."
"Still I will never, never forget how he has sinned and what he brought upon me!--Do you think that I have already forgotten your conversation with Neforis? You ask nothing of your friends but honest feeling akin to your own,--and what is it that repels me from Orion but feeling? Thousands have altered their behavior, but--answer me frankly--surely not what we mean by their feeling?"
"Yes, that too," said the leech with stern gravity. "Feeling, too, may change. Or do you range yourself on the side of the Arab merchant and his fellow-Moslems, who regard man as the plaything of a blind Fate?-- But our spiritual teachers tell us that the evil to which we are predestined, which is that born into the world with us, may be averted, turned and guided to good by what they call spiritual regeneration. But who that lives in the tumult of the world can ever succeed in 'killing himself' in their sense of the word, in dying while yet he lives, to be born again, a new man? The penitent's garb does not suit the stature of an Orion; however, there is for him another way of returning to the path he has lost. Fortune has hitherto offered her spoilt favorite so much pleasure, that sheer enjoyment has left him no time to think seriously on life itself; now she is showing him its graver side, she is inviting him to reflect; and if he only finds a friend to give him the counsel which my father left in a letter for me, his only child, as a youth--and if he is ready to listen, I regard him as saved."
"And that word of counsel--what is it?" asked Paula with interest.
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