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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 8. - 3/12 -
When Orion went on to tell him that he was intending to travel for a short time, and had, in fact, come to take leave of him, the Arab was much annoyed. He, too, he said, must be going away and was starting within two days for Medina.
"And in casting my eye on you," he went on, "in spite of your youth, to fill your father's place, I took care to find a task for you which would enable you to prove that I had not put too great confidence in you. But, if you persist in your own opinions, I cannot possibly entrust so important a post as the governorship of Memphis to a Christian so young as you are; with the youthful Moslem I might have ventured on it.-- However, I will not deprive you of the enterprise which I had intended for you. If you succeed in it, it will be a good thing for yourself, and I can, I believe, turn it to the benefit of the whole province--for what could take me from hence at this time, when my presence is so needful for a hundred incomplete projects, but my anxiety for the good of this country--in which I am but an alien, while you must love it as your native soil, the home of your race?--I am going to Medina because the Khaliff, in this letter, complains that I send too small a revenue into the treasury from so rich a land as Egypt. And yet not a single dinar of your taxes finds its way into my own coffers. I keep a hundred and fifty thousand laborers at work to restore the canals and waterworks which my predecessors, the blood-sucking Byzantines, neglected so disgracefully and left to fall to ruin--I build, and plan, and sow seed for posterity to reap. All this costs money. It swallows up the lion's share of the revenue. And I am making the journey, not merely to purge myself from reproach, but to obtain Omar's permission for the future to exact no extortionate payments, but to consider only the true weal of the province. I am most unwilling to go, for a thousand reasons; and you, young man, if you care for your native land, ought .... Do you really love it and wish it well?"
"With all my soul!" cried Orion.
"Well then, at this time, if by any possibility you can arrange it so, you ought to remain at home, and devote yourself heart and soul to the task I have to propose to you. I hate postponements. Ride straight at the foe, and do not canter up and down till you tire the horses! that is my principle, and not in battle only. Take the moral to heart!--And you will have no time to waste; what I require is no light matter: It is that you should endeavor to sketch a new division of the districts, drawing on your own knowledge of the country and its inhabitants, and using the records and lists in the archives of your ancient government-offices, of which your father has told me; you must have special regard to the financial condition of each district. That the old mode of levying taxes is unsatisfactory we find every day; you will have ample room for improvements in every respect. Overthrow the existing arrangements, if you consider it necessary. Other men have attempted to redistribute the divisions and devise new modes of collecting the revenue. The best scheme will have the preference; and you seem to me to be the man to win the prize, and, with it, a wide and noble field of work in the future. It is not a mere sense of tedium, or a longing for the pleasures of the capital to which you are accustomed, that are tempting you to quit Memphis the melancholy. . . ."
"No, indeed, my Lord," Orion assured him. "The duty I have in view does not even profit me, and if I had not given my word I would throw myself, heart and soul, into so grand a task, no later than to-morrow. That you should expect me to solve so hard a problem is the most precious incense ever offered me. If it is only to be worthy of your confidence, I will return as soon as possible and put forth my utmost powers of intelligence and prudence, of endurance and patriotism. I have always been a diligent student; and it would be a shame indeed, if my experiences as a youth could hinder the man from outdoing the school-boy."
"That is right, well said!" replied Amru, holding out his hand. "Do your best, and you shall have ample opportunity of proving your powers.--Take my warnings to heart as regards the patriarch and the black Vekeel. I unfortunately have no one who could fill his place except the worthy Kadi Othman; but he is no soldier, and he cannot be spared from his post. Keep out of Obada's way, return soon, and may the All-merciful protect you. . ."
When Orion had recrossed the bridge on his way home, he saw a gaily- dressed Nile-boat, such as now but rarely stopped at Memphis, lying at anchor in the dock, and on the road he met two litters followed by beasts of burden and a train of servants. The whole party had a brilliant and wealthy appearance, and at any other time would have roused his curiosity; but to-day he merely wondered for a moment who these new- comers might be, and then continued to meditate on the task proposed to him by Amru. From the bottom of his heart he cursed the hour in which he had pledged himself to take the part of these strangers; for after such long idleness he longed to be able to prove his powers. Suddenly, and as if by a miracle, he saw the way opened before him which he had himself hoped to tread, and now he was fettered and held back from an enterprise which he felt he could carry out with success and benefit to his country, while it attracted him as with a hundred lode-stones.
Next morning, when his will had been duly signed and witnessed, he called the treasurer for an interview alone with him. He had made up his mind that one person, at least, must be informed of the enterprise he had planned, and that one could be no other than Nilus. So he begged him to accompany him to the impluvium of his private residence; and several office scribes who were present heard the invitation given. They did not, however, allow themselves to be disturbed in their work; the youngest only--a handsome lad of sixteen, an olive-complexioned Egyptian, with keen, eager black eyes, who had listened sharply to every word spoken by the treasurer and his master, quietly rose from his squatting posture as soon as they had quitted the office, and, stole, unobserved into the anteroom. From thence he flew up the ladder-like steps which led to the dovecote of which he had the care, sprang on to the roof of the lower story, and crept flat on his face till he was close to the edge of the large square opening which gave light and air to the impluvium below. With a swift movement of the hand he pushed back the awning which shaded it at midday, and listened intently to the dialogue that went on below.
This listener was Anubis, the water-wagtail's foster-brother; and he seemed to be in no way behind his beloved mistress in the art of listening; for no one could prick up his ears more sharply than Anubis. He knew, too, what was to be his reward for exposing himself on a roof to the shafts of the pitiless African sun, for Katharina, his adored play- fellow and the mistress of his ardent boy's heart, had promised him a sweet kiss, if only he would bring her back some more exact news as to Orion's perilous journey. Anubis had told her, the evening before, all he had heard in the anteroom to the office, but such general information had not satisfied her. She must see clearly before her, must know exactly what was going on, and she was not mistaken when she imagined that the reward she had promised the lad would spur him to the utmost.
Anubis had not indeed expected to gain his end so soon, boldly as he dared to hope; scarcely had he pushed aside the awning, when Orion began to explain to Nilus all his plan and purpose.
When he had finished speaking, the boy did not wait to hear Nilus reply. Intoxicated with his success, and the prospect of a guerdon which to him included all the bliss of heaven, he crept back to the dovecote. But he could not go back by the way by which he had come; for if one of the older scribes should meet him in the anteroom, he would be condemned to return to his work. He therefore wriggled along the ridge of the roof towards the fishing-cove, got over it, and laid hold of a gutter pipe, intending to slip down it; unfortunately it was old and rotten-rain was rare in Memphis--and hardly had he trusted his body after his hands when the lead gave way. The rash youth fell with the clattering fragments of the gutter from a height of four men; a heavy thump on the pavement was followed by a loud cry, and in a few minutes all the officials had heard that poor Anubis, nimble as he was, had fallen from the roof while attending to his pets, and had broken his leg.
The two men in the impluvium were not informed of the accident till some time later, for strict orders had been given that they were not to be disturbed.
Nilus had received his young master's communication with growing amazement, indignation, and horror. When Orion ended, the treasurer put forth all the eloquence of a faithful heart, anxious for the safety of the body and soul of the youth he loved, to dissuade him from a deed of daring which could bring him nothing but misapprehension, disaster, and persecution. Nilus was with all his soul a Jacobite; and the idea that his young master was about to risk everything for a party of Melchite nuns, and draw down upon himself the wrath and maledictions of the patriarch, was more than he could bear.
His faithful friend's warnings and entreaties did not leave Orion unmoved; but he clung to his determination, representing to Nilus that he had pledged his word to Rufinus, and could not now draw back, though he had already lost all his pleasure in the enterprise. But it went against him to leave the brave old man to face the danger alone--indeed, it was out of the question.
Genuine anxiety is fertile in expedient; Orion had scarcely done speaking, when Nilus had a proposal to make which seemed well calculated to dispel the youth's last objections. Melampus, the chief shipbuilder, was a Greek and a zealous Melchite, though he no longer dared to confess his creed openly. He and his sons, two bold and sturdy ships carpenters, had often given proof of their daring, and Nilus had no doubt that they would be more than willing to share in an expedition which had for its object the rescue of so many pious fellow-believers. They might take Orion's place, and would be far more helpful to the old man than Orion himself.
Orion so far approved of this suggestion as to promise himself good aid from the brave artisans, who were well known to him; and he was willing to take them with him, though he would not give up his own share in the business.
Nilus, though he adhered firmly to his objections, was at last reduced to silence. However, Orion went with his anxious friend to the ship-yard; the old ship-builder, a kind-hearted giant, was as ready and glad to undertake the rescue of the Sisters as if each one was his own mother. It would be a real treat to the youngsters to have a hand in such a job, --and he was right, for when they were taken into confidence one flourished his hatchet with enthusiasm, and the tether struck his horny fist against his left palm as gleefully as though he were bidden to a dance.
Orion took boat at once with the three men, and was rowed to the house of Rufinus, to whom he introduced them; the old man was entirely satisfied.
Orion remained with him after dismissing them. He had promised last evening to breakfast with him, and the meal was waiting. Paula had gone, about an hour since, to the convent, and Joanna expected her to return at any moment. They began without her, however; the various dishes were carried away, the meal was nearly ended-still she had not returned. Orion, who had at first been able to conceal his disappointment, was now so uneasy that his host could with difficulty extract brief and inadvertent replies to his repeated questions. Rufinus himself was anxious; but just as he rose to go in search of her, Pulcheria, who was
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