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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 5. - 5/9 -
"I will be kind to you, child; but try to make friends with Pulcheria!"
"Gladly, gladly. But then my mother! I should get on very well by myself if it were not. . . Well, you yourself heard what Orion said to me, that time in the avenue. He surely loved me a little! What sweet, tender names he gave me then. Oh God! no man can speak like that to any one he is not fond of!--And he is rich himself; it cannot have been only my fortune that bewitched him. And does he look like a man who would allow himself to be parted from a girl by his mother, whether he would or no?"
"He was always fond of me I think; but then, afterwards, he remembered what a high position he had to fill and regarded me as too little and too childish. Oh, how many tears I have shed over being so absurdly little! A Water-wagtail--that is what I shall always be. Your old host called me so; and if a man like Orion feels that he must have a stately wife I can hardly blame him. That other one whom he thinks he loves better than he does me is tall and beautiful and majestic--like you; and I have always told myself that his future wife ought to look like you. It is all over between him and me, and I will submit humbly; but at the same time I cannot help thinking that when he came home he thought me pretty and attractive, and had a real fancy and liking for me. Yes, it was so, it certainly was so!--But then he saw that other one, and I cannot compare with her. She is indeed the woman he wants,--and that other, Paula, is yourself. Yes, indeed, you yourself; an inner voice tells me so. And I tell you truly, you may quite believe me: it is a pain no doubt, but I can be glad of it too. I should hate any mere girl to whom he held out his hand--but, if you are that other--and if you are his wife. . ."
"Nonsense," exclaimed Paula decidedly. "Consider what you are saying. When Orion tempted you to perjure yourself, did he behave as my friend or as my foe, my bitterest and most implacable enemy?"
"Before the judges, to be sure. . ." replied the girl looking down thoughtfully. But she soon looked up again, fixed her eyes on Paula's face with a sparkling, determined glance, and frankly and unhesitatingly exclaimed: "And you?--In spite of it all he is so handsome, so clever, so manly. You can hardly help it--you love him!"
Paula withdrew her arm, which had been round Katharina, and answered candidly.
"Until to-day, at the funeral, I hated and abominated him; but there, by his father's tomb, he struck me as a new man, and I found it easy to forgive him in my heart."
"Then you mean to say that you do not love him?" urged Katharina, clasping her friend's round arm with her slender fingers.
Paula started to feel how icy cold her hand was. The moon was up, the stars rose higher and higher, so, simply saying: "Come away," she rose. "It must be within an hour of midnight," she added. "Your mother will be anxious about you."
"Only an hour of midnight!" repeated the girl in alarm. "Good Heavens, I shall have a scolding! She is still playing draughts with the Bishop, no doubt, as she does every evening. Good-bye then for the present. The shortest way is through the hedge again."
"No," said Paula firmly, "you are no longer a child; you are grown up, and must feel it and show it. You are not to creep through the bushes, but to go home by the gate. Rufinus and I will go with you and explain to your mother. . ."
"No, no!" cried Katharina in terror. "She is as angry with you as she is with them. Only yesterday she forbid. . ."
"Forbid you to come to me?" asked Paula. "Does she believe. . ."
"That it was for your sake that Orion.... Yes, she is only too glad to lay all the blame on you. But now that I have talked to you I.... Look, do you see that light? It is in her sitting-room."
And, before Paula could prevent her, she ran to the hedge and slipped through the gap as nimbly as a weasel.
Paula looked after her with mingled feelings, and then went back to the house, and to bed. Katharina's story kept her awake for a long time, and the suspicion--nay almost the conviction--that it was herself, indeed, who had aroused that "great love" in Orion's heart gave her no rest. If it were she? There, under her hand was the instrument of revenge on the miscreant; she could make him taste of all the bitterness he had brewed for her aching spirit. But which of them would the punishment hurt most sorely: him or herself? Had not the little girl's confidences revealed a world of rapture to her and her longing heart? No, no. It would be too humiliating to allow the same hand that had smitten her so ruthlessly to uplift her to heaven; it would be treason against herself.
Slumber overtook her in the midst of these conflicting feelings and thoughts, and towards morning she had a dream which, even by daylight, haunted her and made her shudder.
She saw Orion coming towards her, as pale as death, robed in mourning, pacing slowly on a coal-black horse; she had not the strength to fly, and without speaking to her or looking at her, he lifted her high in the air like a child, and placed her in front of him on the horse. She put forth all her strength to get free and dismount, but he clasped her with both arms like iron clamps and quelled her efforts. Life itself would not have seemed too great a price for escape from this constraint; but, the more wildly she fought, the more closely she was held by the silent and pitiless horseman. At their feet flowed the swirling river, but Orion did not seem to notice it, and without moving his lips, he coolly guided the steed towards the water. Beside herself now with horror and dread, she implored him to turn away; but he did not heed her, and went on unmoved into the midst of the stream. Her terror increased to an agonizing pitch as the horse bore her deeper and deeper into the water; of her own free will she threw her arms round the rider's neck; his paleness vanished, his cheeks gained a ruddy hue, his lips sought hers in a kiss; and, in the midst of the very anguish of death, she felt a thrill of rapture that she had never known before. She could have gone on thus for ever, even to destruction; and, in fact, they were still sinking--she felt the water rising breast high, but she cared not. Not a word had either of them spoken. Suddenly she felt urged to break the silence, and as if she could not help it she asked: "Am I the other?" At this the waves surged down on them from all sides; a whirlpool dragged away the horse, spinning him round, and with him Orion and herself, a shrill blast swept past them, and then the current and the waves, the roaring of the whirlpool, the howling of the storm--all at once and together, as with one voice, louder than all else and filling her ears, shouted: "Thou!"-- Only Orion remained speechless. An eddy caught the horse and sucked him under, a wave carried her away from him, she was sinking, sinking, and stretched out her arms with longing.--A cold dew stood on her brow as she slept, and the nurse, waking her from her uneasy dream, shook her head as she said:
"Why, child? What ails you? You have been calling Orion again and again, at first in terror and then so tenderly.--Yes, believe me, tenderly."
In the neat rooms which Rufinus' wife had made ready for her sick guests perfect peace reigned, and it was noon. A soft twilight fell through the thick green curtains which mitigated the sunshine, and the nurses had lately cleared away after the morning meal. Paula was moistening the bandage on the Masdakite's head, and Pulcheria was busy in the adjoining room with Mandane, who obeyed the physician's instructions with intelligent submission and showed no signs of insanity.
Paula was still spellbound by her past dream. She was possessed by such unrest that, quite against her wont, she could not long remain quiet, and when Pulcheria came to her to tell her this or that, she listened with so little attention and sympathy that the humble-minded girl, fearing to disturb her, withdrew to her patient's bed-side and waited quietly till her new divinity called her.
In fact, it was not without reason that Paula gave herself up to a certain anxiety; for, if she was not mistaken, Orion must necessarily present himself to hand over to her the remainder of her fortune; and though even yesterday, on her way from the cemetery, she had said to herself that she must and would refuse to meet him, the excitement produced by Katharina's story and her subsequent dream had confirmed her in her determination.
Perpetua awaited Orion's visit on the ground-floor, charged to announce him to Rufinus and not to her mistress. The old man had willingly undertaken to receive the money as her representative; for Philippus had not concealed from her that he had acquainted him with the circumstances under which Paula had quitted the governor's house, describing Orion as a man whom she had good reason for desiring to avoid.
By about two hours after noon Paula's restlessness had increased so much that now and then she wandered out of the sick-room, which looked over the garden, to watch the Nile-quay from the window of the anteroom; for he might arrive by either way. She never thought of the security of her property; but the question arose in her mind as to whether it were not actually a breach of duty to avoid the agitation it would cost her to meet her cousin face to face. On this point no one could advise her, not even Perpetua; her own mother could hardly have understood all her feelings on such an occasion. She scarcely knew herself indeed; for hitherto she had never failed, even in the most difficult cases, to know at once and without long reflection, what to do and to leave undone, what under special circumstances was right or wrong. But now she felt herself a yielding reed, a leaf tossed hither and thither; and every time she set her teeth and clenched her hands, determined to think calmly and to reason out the "for" and "against," her mind wandered away again, while the memory of her dream, of Orion as he stood by his father's grave--of Katharina's tale of "the other," and the fearful punishment which he had to suffer, nay indeed, certainly had suffered--came and went in her mind like the flocks of birds over the Nile, whose dipping and soaring had often passed like a fluttering veil between her eye and some object on the further shore.
It was three hours past noon, and she had returned to the sick-room, when she thought that she heard hoofs in the garden and hurried to the window once more. Her heart had not beat more wildly when the dog had flown at her and Hiram that fateful night, than it did now as she hearkened to the approach of a horseman, still hidden from her gaze by the shrubs. It must be Orion--but why did he not dismount? No, it could not be he; his tall figure would have overtopped the shrubbery which was of low growth.
She did not know her host's friends; it was one of them very likely. Now the horse had turned the corner; now it was coming up the path from the front gate; now Rufinus had gone forth to meet the visitor--and it was not Orion, but his secretary, a much smaller man, who slipped off a mule that she at once recognized, threw the reins to a lad, handed something to the old man, and then dropped on to a bench to yawn and stretch his
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