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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 6. - 4/10 -
he pressed it a moment to his lips, and then sprang on to his horse and rode off at a round trot, his slave following him.
"Katharina, child, Katharina!" was shouted from Susannah's house in a woman's high-pitched voice. The water-wagtail started up, hastily smoothing her hair and casting an evil glance at her rival, "the other," the supplanter who had basely betrayed her under the sycamores; she clenched her little fist as she saw Paula watching Orion's retreating form with beaming eyes. Paula went back into the house, happy and walking on air, while the other poor, deeply-wounded child burst into violent weeping at the first hasty words from her mother, who was not at all satisfied with the disorder of her dress; and she ended by declaring with defiant audacity that she would not present the flowers to the patriarch, and would remain in her own room, for she was dying of headache.--And so she did.
In the course of the afternoon Orion paid his visit to the Arab governor. He crossed the bridge of boats on his finest horse.
Only two years since, the land where the new town of Fostat was now growing up under the old citadel of Babylon had been fields and gardens; but at Amru's word it had started into being as by a miracle; house after house already lined the streets, the docks were full of ships and barges, the market was alive with dealers, and on a spot where, during the siege of the fortress, a sutler's booth had stood, a long colonnade marked out the site of a new mosque.
There was little to be seen here now of native Egyptian life; it looked as though some magician had transported a part of Medina itself to the shores of the Nile. Men and beasts, dwellings and shops, though they had adopted much of what they had found in this ancient land of culture, still bore the stamp of their origin; and wherever Orion's eye fell on one of his fellow-countrymen, he was a laborer or a scribe in the service of the conquerors who had so quickly made themselves at home.
Before his departure for Constantinople one of his father's palm-groves had occupied the spot where Amru's residence now stood opposite the half- finished mosque. Where, now, thousands of Moslems, some on foot, some on richly caparisoned steeds, were passing to and fro, turbaned and robed after the manner of their tribe, with such adornment as they had stolen or adopted from intercourse with splendor-loving nations, and where long trains of camels dragged quarried stones to the building, in former times only an occasional ox-cart with creaking wheels was to be seen, an Egyptian riding an ass or a bare-backed nag, and now and then a few insolent Greek soldiers. On all sides he heard the sharper and more emphatic accent of the sons of the desert instead of the language of his forefathers and their Greek conquerors. Without the aid of the servant who rode at his side he could not have made himself understood on the soil of his native land.
He soon reached Amru's house and was there informed by an Egyptian secretary that his master was gone out hunting and would receive him, not in the town, but at the citadel. There, on a pleasant site on the limestone hills which rose behind the fortress of Babylon and the newly- founded city, stood some fine buildings, originally planned as a residence for the Prefect; and thither Amru had transported his wives, children, and favorite horses, preferring it, with very good reason, to the palace in the town, where he transacted business, and where the new mosque intercepted the view of the Nile, while this eminence commanded a wide prospect.
The sun was near setting when Orion reached the spot, but the general had not yet come in from the chase, and the gate-keeper requested that he would wait.
Orion was accustomed to be treated in his own country as the heir of the greatest man in it; the color mounted to his brow and his Egyptian heart revolted at having to bend his pride and swallow his wrath before an Arab. He was one of the subject race, and the thought that one word from his lips would suffice to secure his reception in the ranks of the rulers forced itself suddenly on his mind; but he repressed it with all his might, and silently allowed himself to be conducted to a terrace screened by a vine-covered trellis from the heat of the sun.
He sat down on one of the marble seats by the parapet of this hanging garden and looked westward. He knew the scene well, it was the playground of his childhood and youth; hundreds of times the picture had spread before him, and yet it affected him to-day as it had never done before. Was there on earth--he asked himself--a more fertile and luxuriant land? Had not even the Greek poets sung of the Nile as the most venerable of rivers? Had not great Caesar himself been so fascinated by the idea of discovering its source that to that end-- so he had declared--he would have thought the dominion of the world well lost? On the produce of those wide fields the weal and woe of the mightiest cities of the earth had been dependent for centuries; nay, imperial Rome and sovereign Constantinople had quaked with fears of famine, when a bad harvest here had disappointed the hopes of the husbandman.
And was there anywhere a more industrious nation of laborers, had there ever been, before them, a thriftier or a more skilful race? When he looked back on the fate and deeds of nations, on the remotest horizon where the thread of history was scarcely perceptible, that same gigantic Sphinx was there--the first and earliest monument of human joy in creative art--those Pyramids which still proudly stood in undiminished and inaccessible majesty beyond the Nile, beyond the ruined capital of his forefathers, at the foot of the Libyan range. He was the son of the men who had raised these imperishable works, and in his veins perchance there still might flow a drop of the blood of those Pharaohs who had sought eternal rest in these vast tombs, and whose greater progeny, had overrun half the world with their armies, and had exacted tribute and submission. He, who had often felt flattered at being praised for the purity of his Greek--pure not merely for his time: an age of bastard tongues--and for the engaging Hellenism of his person, here and now had an impulse of pride of his Egyptian origin. He drew a deep breath, as he gazed at the sinking sun; it seemed to lend intentional significance to the rich beauty of his home as its magical glory transmuted the fields, the stream, and the palm-groves, the roofs of the city, and even the barren desert-range and the Pyramids to burning gold. It was fast going to rest behind the Libyan chain. The bare, colorless limestone sparkled like translucent crystal; the glowing sphere looked as though it were melting into the very heart of the mountains behind which it was vanishing, while its rays, shooting upwards like millions of gold threads, bound his native valley to heaven--the dwelling of the Divine Power who had blessed it above all other lands.
To free this beautiful spot of earth and its children from their oppressors--to restore to them the might and greatness which had once been theirs--to snatch down the crescent from the tents and buildings which lay below him and plant the cross which from his infancy he had held sacred--to lead enthusiastic troops of Egyptians against the Moslems--to quell their arrogance and drive them back to the East like Sesostris, the hero of history and legend--this was a task worthy of the grandson of Menas, of the son of George the great and just Mukaukas.
Paula would not oppose such an enterprise; his excited imagination pictured her indeed as a second Zenobia by his side, ready for any great achievement, fit to aid him and to rule.
Fully possessed by this dream of the future, he had long ceased to gaze at the glories of the sunset and was sitting with eyes fixed on the ground. Suddenly his soaring visions were interrupted by men's voices coming up from the street just below the terrace. He looked over and perceived at its foot about a score of Egyptian laborers; free men, with no degrading tokens of slavery, making their way along, evidently against their will and yet in sullen obedience, with no thought of resistance or evasion, though only a single Arab held them under control.
The sight fell on his excited mood like rain on a smouldering fire, like hail on sprouting seed. His eye, which a moment ago had sparkled with enthusiasm, looked down with contempt and disappointment on the miserable creatures of whose race he came. A line of bitter scorn curled his lip, for this troop of voluntary slaves were beneath his anger--all the more so as he more vividly pictured to himself what his people had once been and what they were now. He did not think of all this precisely, but as dusk fell, one scene after another from his own experience rose before his mind's eye--occasions on which the Egyptians had behaved ignominiously, and had proved that they were unworthy of freedom and inured to bow in servitude. Just as one Arab was now able to reduce a host of his fellow-countrymen to subjection, so formerly three Greeks had held them in bondage. He had known numberless instances of almost glad submission on the part of freeborn Egyptians--peasants, village magnates, and officials, even on his father's estates and farms. In Alexandria and Memphis the sons of the soil had willingly borne the foreign yoke, allowing themselves to be thrust into the shade and humbled by Greeks, as though they were of a baser species and origin, so long only as their religious tenets and the subtleties of their creed remained untouched. Then he had seen them rise and shed their blood, yet even then only with loud outcries and a promising display of enthusiasm. But their first defeat had been fatal and it had required only a small number of trained soldiers to rout them.
To make any attempt against a bold and powerful invader as the leader of such a race would be madness; there was no choice but to rule his people in the service of the enemy and so exert his best energies to make their lot more endurable. His father's wiser and more experienced judgment had decided that the better course was to serve his people as mediator between them and the Arabs rather than to attempt futile resistance at the head of Byzantine troops.
"Wretched and degenerate brood!" he muttered wrathfully, and he began to consider whether he should not quit the spot and show the arrogant Arab that one Egyptian, at any rate, still had spirit enough to resent his contempt, or whether he should yet wait for the sake of the good cause, and swallow down his indignation. No! he, the son of the Mukaukas, could not--ought not to brook such treatment. Rather would he lose his life as a rebel, or wander an exile through the world and seek far from home a wider field for deeds of prowess, than put his free neck under the feet of the foe.
But his reflections were disturbed by the sound of footsteps, and looking round he saw the gleam of lanterns moving to and fro on the terrace, turned directly on him. These must be Amru's servants come to conduct him to their master, who, as he supposed, would now do him the honor to receive him--tired out with hunting, no doubt, and stretched on his divan while he imperiously informed his guest, as if he were some freed slave, what his wishes were.
But the steps were not those of a messenger. The great general himself had come to welcome him; the lantern-bearers were not to show the way to Amru's couch, but to guide Amru to the "son of his dear departed friend." The haughty Vicar of the Khaliffs was the most cordial host, prompted by hospitality to make his guest's brief stay beneath his roof as pleasant as possible, and giving him the right hand of welcome.
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