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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 8. - 5/12 -
men; so she would not abate a jot of the tenor of her advice, or cease to impress on Paula, firmly though lovingly, the necessity of following it. At last Paula took leave of her, bound by a promise not to pledge herself irrevocably to Orion till his return from Doomiat, and till the abbess had informed her by letter what opinion she had formed of him in the course of their flight.
The high-spirited girl had not shed so many tears, as in the course of this interview, since the fatal affair at Abyla where she had lost her father and brother; it was with a tear-stained face and aching head that she had made her way back, under the scorching mid-day sun, to Rufinus' house, where she sought her old nurse. Betta had earnestly entreated her to lie down, and when Paula refused to hear of it she persuaded her at any rate to bathe her head with water as cold as was procurable in this terrific heat, and to have her hair carefully rearranged by her skilful hand; for this had been her mother's favorite remedy against headache. When, at length, Paula and her lover stood face to face, in a shady spot in the garden, they both looked embarrassed and estranged. He was pale, and gazed at her with some annoyance; and her red eyes and knit brows, for her brain was throbbing with piercing pain, did not tend to improve his mood. It was her part to explain and excuse herself; and as he did not at once address her after they had exchanged greetings, she said in a low tone of urgent entreaty:
"Forgive me for coming so late. How long you must have been waiting! But parting from my best friend, my second mother, agitated me so painfully--it was so unspeakably sad.--I did not know how to hold up my head, it ached so when I came home, and now--oh, I had hoped that we might meet to-day so differently!"
"But even yesterday you had no time to spare for me," he retorted sullenly, "and this morning--you were present when Rufinus invited me-- this morning!--I am not exacting, and to you, good God! How could I be? --But have we not to part, to bid each other farewell--perhaps for ever? Why should you have given up so much time and strength to your friend, that so scanty a remnant is left for the lover? That is an unfair division."
"How could I deny it?" she said with melancholy entreaty. "You are indeed very right; but I could not leave the child last evening, as soon as she came, and while she was weeping out all her sorrows; and if you only knew how surprised and grieved I was--how my heart ached when, instead of finding you, your note......"
"I was obliged to go to Amru," interrupted Orion. "This undertaking compels me to leave much behind, and I am no longer the freest of the free, as I used to be. During this dreadful breakfast I have been sitting on thorns. But let all that pass. I came hither with a heart high with hope--and now?--You see, Paula, this enterprise tears me in two in more ways than you can imagine, puts me into a more critical position, and weighs more on my mind than you can think or know--I will explain it all to you at another time--and to bear it all, to keep up the spirit and happy energy that I need, I must be secure of the one thing for which I could take far greater toil and danger as mere child's play; I must know......"
"You must know," she interposed, "whether my heart is fully and wholly open to your love. . . ."
"And whether," he added, with growing ardor, "in spite of the bitter suffering that weighs on my wretched soul, I may hope to be happier than the saints in bliss. O Paula, adored and only woman, may I. . . ."
"You may," she said clearly and fervently. "I love you, Orion, and shall never, never cease to love you with my whole soul."
He flew to her side, clasped both her hands as if beside himself, snatched them to his lips regardless of the nearness of the house, whence ten pairs of eyes might have seen him, and covered them with burning kisses, till she drew them from him with the entreaty: "No, no; forbear, I entreat you. No--not now."
"Yes, now, at this very moment--or, if not, when?" he asked vehemently. "But here, in this garden--you are right, this is no place for two human beings so happy as we are. Come with me; come into the house and lead the way to a spot where we may be unseen and unheard, alone with each other and our happiness."
"No, no, no!" she hastily put in, pressing her hand to her aching brow. "Come with me to the bench under the sycamore; it is shady there, and you can tell me everything, and hear once more how entirely love has taken possession of me."
He looked in her face, surprised and disappointed; but she turned towards the sycamore and sat down beneath it. He slowly followed her. She signed to him to take a seat by her side, but he stood up in front of her, saying sadly and despondently.
"Always the same--always calm and cold. Is this fair, Paula? Is this the overwhelming love of which you spoke? Is this your response to the yearning cry of a passionately ardent heart? Is this all that love can grant to love--that a betrothed owes to her lover on the very eve of parting?"
At this she looked up at him, deeply distressed, and said in pathetically urgent entreaty: "O Orion, Orion! Have I not told you, can you not see and feel how much I love you? You must know and feel it; and if you do, be content, I entreat. You, whom alone I love, be satisfied to know that this heart is yours, that your Paula--your own Paula, for that indeed I am--will think of nothing, care for nothing, pray and entreat Heaven for nothing but you, yes you, my own, my all."
"Then come, come with me," he insisted, "and grant your betrothed the rights that are his due.
"Nay, not my betrothed--not yet," she besought him, with all the fervor of her tortured soul. "In my veins too the blood flows warm with yearning. Gladly would I fly to your arms and lay my head against yours, but not to-day can I become your betrothed, not yet; I cannot, I dare not!"
"And why not? Tell me, at any rate, why not," he cried indignantly, clenching his fist to his breast. "Why will you not be my bride, if indeed it is true that you love me? Why have you invented this new and intolerable torment?"
"Because prudence tells me," she replied in a low, hurried voice, while her bosom heaved painfully, as though she were afraid to hear her own words; "because I see that the time is not yet come. Ah, Orion! you have not yet learnt to bridle the desires and cravings that burn within you; you have forgotten all too quickly what is past--what a mountain we had to cross before we succeeded in finding each other, before I--for I must say it, my dear one--before I could look you in the face without anger and aversion. A strange and mysterious ordering has brought it about; and you, too, have honestly done your best that everything should be changed, that what was white should now be black, that the chill north wind should turn to a hot southerly one. Thus poison turns to healing, and a curse to a blessing. In this foolish heart of mine passionate hatred has given way to no less fervent love. Still, I cannot yet be your bride, your wife. Call it cowardice, call it selfish caution, what you will. I call it prudence, and applaud it; though it cost my poor eyes a thousand bitter tears before my heart and brain could consent to be guided by the warning voice. Of one thing you may be fully assured: my heart will never be another's, come what may--it is yours with my whole soul!--But I will not be your bride till I can say to you with glad confidence, as well as with passionate love: 'You have conquered--take me, I am yours!' Then you shall feel and confess that Paula's love is not less vehement, less ardent.... O God! Orion, learn to know and understand me. You must--for my sake and your own, you must!--My head, merciful Heaven, my head!"
She bowed her face and clasped her hands to her burning brow; Orion, pale and shivering, laid his hand on her shoulder, and said in a harsh, forced voice that had lost all its music: "The Esoterics impose severe trials on their disciples before they admit them into the mysteries. And we are in Egypt--but the difference is a wide one when the rule is applied to love. How ever, all this is not from yourself. What you call prudence is the voice of that nun!"
"It is the voice of reason," replied Paula softly. "The yearning of my heart had overpowered it, and I owe to my friend. . . ."
"What do you owe her?" cried the young man furiously indignant. "You should curse her, rather, for doing you so ill a turn, as I do at this moment. What does she know of me? Has she ever heard a word from my lips? If that despotic and casuistic recluse could have known what my heart and soul are like, she would have advised you differently. Even as a childs' confidence and love alone could influence me. Whatever my faults might be, I never was false to kindness and trust.--And, so far as you are concerned--you who are prudence and reason in person--blest in your love, I should have cared only for your approbation. If I could have overcome the last of your scruples, I should indeed have been proud and happy!--I would have brought the sun and stars down from the sky for you, and have laughed temptation to scorn!--But as it is--instead of being raised I am lowered, a laughing-stock even in my own eyes. One with you, I could have led the way on wings to the realms of light where Perfection holds sway!--But as it is? What a task lies before me!--To heat your frigid love to flaming point by good deeds, as though they were olive-logs. A pretty task for a man--to put himself to the proof before the woman he loves! It is a hideous and insulting torture which I will not submit to, against which my whole inner man revolts, and which you will and must forego--if indeed it is true that you love me!"
"I love you, oh! I love you," she cried, beside herself, and seizing his hands. "Perhaps you are right. I--my God what shall I do? Only do not ask me yet, to speak the final yes or no. I cannot control myself to the feeblest thought. You see, you see, how I am suffering!"
"Yes, I see it," he replied, looking compassionately at her pale face and drawn brow. "And if it must be so, I say: till this evening then. Try to rest now, and take care of yourself.--But then. . . ."
"Then, during the voyage, the flight, repeat to the abbess all you have just said to me. She is a noble woman, and she, too, will learn to understand and to love you, I am sure. She will retract the word I know. . . ."
"My word, given to her, that I would not be yours. . . ."
"Till I had gone through the Esoteric tests?" exclaimed Orion with an angry shrug. "Now go,--go and lie down. This hour, which should have been the sweetest of our lives, a stranger has embittered and darkened. You are not sure of yourself--nor I of myself. Anything more that we could say now and here would lead to no good issue for either you or me. Go and rest; sleep off your pain, and I--I will try to forget.--If you could but see the turmoil in my soul!--But farewell till our next, more friendly--I hardly dare trust myself to say our happier meeting."
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