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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 5. - 4/9 -
Even in the twilight she recognized it at once, and when Katharina put her curly head forward, and said in a beseeching tone: "May I get through, and will you listen to me?" she gladly signified her consent.
The water-wagtail, heedless of Paula's hand held out to help her, slipped through the gap so nimbly that it was evident that she had not long ceased surmounting such obstacles in her games with Mary. As swift as the wind she came down on her feet, holding out her arms to rush at Paula; but she suddenly let them fall in visible hesitancy, and drew back a step. Paula, however, saw her embarrassment; she drew the girl to her, kissed her forehead, and gaily exclaimed:
"Trespassing! And why could you not come in by the gate? Here comes my host with his hippopotamus thong.--Stop, stop, good Rufinus, for the breach effected in your flowery wall was intended against me and not against you. There stands the hostile power, and I should be greatly surprised if you did not recognize her as a neighbor?"
"Recognize her?" said the old man, whose wrath was quickly appeased. "Do we know each other, fair damsel--yes or no? It is an open question."
"Of course!" cried Katharina, "I have seen you a hundred times from the gnat-tower."
"You have had less pleasure than I should have had, if I had been so happy as to see you.--We came across each other about a year ago. I was then so happy as to find you in my large peach-tree, which to this day takes the liberty of growing over your garden-plot."
"I was but a child then," laughed Katharina, who very well remembered how the old man, whose handsome white head she had always particularly admired, had spied her out among the boughs of his peach-tree and had advised her, with a good-natured nod, to enjoy herself there.
"A child!" repeated Rufinus. "And now we are quite grown up and do not care to climb so high, but creep humbly through our neighbor's hedge."
"Then you really are strangers?" cried Paula in surprise. "And have you never met Pulcheria, Katharina?"
"Pul?--oh, how glad I should have been to call her!" said Katharina. "I have been on the point of it a hundred times; for her mere appearance makes one fall in love with her,--but my mother. . . ."
"Well, and what has your mother got to say against her neighbors?" asked Rufinus. "I believe we are peaceable folks who do no one any harm."
"No, no, God forbid! But my mother has her own way of viewing things; you and she are strangers still, and as you are so rarely to be seen in church. . . ."
"She naturally takes us for the ungodly. Tell her that she is mistaken, and if you are Paula's friend and you come to see her--but prettily, through the gate, and not through the hedge, for it will be closely twined again by to-morrow morning--if you come here, I say, you will find that we have a great deal to do and a great many creatures to nurse and care for--poor human creatures some of them, and some with fur or feathers, just as it comes; and man serves his Maker if he only makes life easier to the beings that come in his way; for He loves them all. Tell that to your mother, little wagtail, and come again very often."
"Thank you very much. But let me ask you, if I may, where you heard that odious nickname? I hate it."
"From the same person who told you the secret that my Pulcheria is called Pul!" said Rufinus; he laughed and bowed and left the two girls together.
"What a dear old man!" cried Katharina. "Oh, I know quite well how he spends his Days! And his pretty wife and Pul--I know them all. How often I have watched them--I will show you the place one day! I can see over the whole garden, only not what goes on near the convent on the other side of the house, or beyond those trees. You know my mother; if she once dislikes any one... But Pul, you understand, would be such a friend for me!"
"Of course she would," replied Paula. "And a girl of your age must chose older companions than little Mary."
"Oh, you shall not say a word against her!" cried Katharina eagerly. "She is only ten years old, but many a grown-up person is not so upright or so capable as I have found her during these last few miserable days."
"Poor child!" said Paula stroking her hair.
At this a bitter sob broke suddenly and passionately from Katharina; she tried with all her might to suppress it, but could not succeed. Her fit of weeping was so violent that she could not utter a word, till Paula had led her to a bench under a spreading sycamore, had induced her with gentle force to sit down by her side, clasping her in her arms like a suffering child, and speaking to her words of comfort and encouragement.
Birds without number were going to rest in the dense branches overhead, owls and bats had begun their nocturnal raids, the sky put on its spangled glory of gold and silver stars, from the western end of the town came the jackals' bark as they left their lurking-places among the ruined houses and stole out in search of prey, the heavy dew, falling through the mild air silently covered the leaves, the grass, and the flowers; the garden was more powerfully fragrant now than during the day-time, and Paula felt that it was high time to take refuge from the mists that came up from the shallow stream. But still she lingered while the little maiden poured out all that weighed upon her, all she repented of, believing she could never atone for it; and then all she had gone through, thinking it must break her heart, and all she still had to live down and drive out of her mind.
She told Paula how Orion had wooed her, how much she loved him, how her heart had been tortured by jealousy of her, Paula, and how she had allowed herself to be led away into bearing false witness before the judges. And then she went on to say it was Mary who had first opened her eyes to the abyss by which she was standing. In the afternoon after the death of the Mukaukas she had gone with her mother to the governor's house to join in her friends' lamentations. She had at once asked after Mary, but had not been allowed to see her, for she was still in bed and very feverish. She was then on her way to the cool hall when she heard her mother's voice--not in grief, but angry and vehement--so, thinking it would be more becoming to keep out of the way, she wandered off into the pillared vestibule opening towards the Nile. She would not for worlds have met Orion, and was terribly afraid she might do so, but as she went out, for it was still quite light, there she found him--and in what a state! He was sitting all in a heap, dressed in black, with his head buried in his hands. He had not observed her presence; but she pitied him deeply, for though it was very hot he was trembling in every limb, and his strong frame shuddered repeatedly. She had therefore spoken to him, begging him to be comforted, at which he had started to his feet in dismay, and had pushed his unkempt hair back from his face, looking so pale, so desperate, that she had been quite terrified and could not manage to bring out the consoling words she had ready. For some time neither of them had uttered a syllable, but at length he had pulled himself together as if for some great deed, he came slowly towards her and laid his hands on her shoulders with a solemn dignity which no one certainly had ever before seen in him. He stood gazing into her face-- his eyes were red with much weeping--and he sighed from his very heart the two words: "Unhappy Child!"--She could hear them still sounding in her ears.
And he was altered: from head to foot quite different, like a stranger. His voice, even, sounded changed and deeper than usual as he went on:
"Child, child! Perhaps I have given much pain in my life without knowing it; but you have certainly suffered most through me, for I have made you, an innocent, trusting creature, my accomplice in crime. The great sin we both committed has been visited on me alone, but the punishment is a hundred--a thousand times too heavy!"
"And with this," Katharina went on, "he covered his face with his hands, threw himself on the couch again, and groaned and sighed. Then he sprang up once more, crying out so loud and passionately that I felt as if I must die of grief and pity: 'Forgive me if you can! Forgive me, wholly, freely. I want it--you must, you must! I was going to run up to him and throw my arms round him and forgive him everything, his trouble distressed me so much; but he gravely pushed me away--not roughly or sternly, and he said that there was an end of all love-making and betrothal between us--that I was young, and that I should be able to forget him. He would still be a true friend to me and to my mother, and the more we required of him the more gladly would he serve us.
"I was about to answer him, but he hastily interrupted me and said firmly and decisively: 'Lovable as you are, I cannot love you as you deserve; for it is my duty to tell you, I have another and a greater love in my heart--my first and my last; and though once in my life I have proved myself a wretch, still, it was but once; and I would rather endure your anger, and hurt both you and myself now, than continue this unrighteous tie and cheat you and others.'--At this I was greatly startled, and asked: 'Paula?' However, he did not answer, but bent over me and touched my forehead with his lips, just as my father often kissed me, and then went quickly out into the garden.
"Just then my mother came up, as red as a poppy and panting for breath: she took me by the hand without a word, dragged me into the chariot after her, and then cried out quite beside herself--she could not even shed a tear for rage: 'What insolence! what unheard-of behavior--How can I find the heart to tell you, poor sacrificed lamb. . .'"
"And she would have gone on, but that I would not let her finish; I told her at once that I knew all, and happily I was able to keep quite calm. I had some bad hours at home; and when Nilus came to us yesterday, after the opening of the will, and brought me the pretty little gold box with turquoises and pearls that I have always admired, and told me that the good Mukaukas had written with his own hand, in his last will, that it was to be given to me I his bright little 'Katharina,' my mother insisted on my not taking it and sent it back to Neforis, though I begged and prayed to keep it. And of course I shall never go to that house again; indeed my mother talks of quitting Memphis altogether and settling in Constantinople or some other city under Christian rule. 'Then our nice, pretty house must be given up, and our dear, lovely garden be sold to the peasant folk, my mother says. It was just the same a year and a half ago with Memnon's palace. His garden was turned into a corn-field, and the splendid ground-floor rooms, with their mosaics and pictures, are now dirty stables for cows and sheep, and pigs are fed in the rooms that belonged to Hathor and Dorothea. Good Heavens! And they were my clearest friends! And I am never to play with Mary any more; and mother has not a kind word for any living soul, hardly even for me, and my old nurse is as deaf as a mole! Am I not a really miserable, lonely creature? And if you, even you, will have nothing to say to me, who is there in all Memphis whom I can trust in? But you will not be so cruel, will you? And it will not be for long, for my mother really means to go away. You are older than I am, of course, and much graver and wiser...."
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