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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 9. - 1/9 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
THE BRIDE OF THE NILE
By Georg Ebers
Philippus started up from the divan on which he had been reclining at breakfast with his old friend. Before Horapollo was a half-empty plate; he had swallowed his meal less rapidly than his companion, and looked disapprovingly at the leech, who drank off his wine and water as he stood, whereas he generally would sit and enjoy it as he talked to the old man of matters light or grave. To the elder this was always the pleasantest hour of the day; but now Philippus would hardly allow himself more than just time enough to eat, even at their principal evening meal.
Indeed, not he alone, but every physician in the city, had as much as he could do with the utmost exertion. Nearly three weeks had elapsed since the attack on the nuns, and the fearful heat had still gone on in creasing. The river, instead of rising had sunk lower and lower; the carrier-pigeons from Ethiopia, looked for day by day with growing anxiety and excitement, brought no news of a rising stream even in the upper Nile, and the shallow, stagnant and evil-smelling waters by the banks began to be injurious, nay, fatal, to the health of the whole population.
Close to the shore, especially, the water had a reddish tinge, and the usually sweet, pure fluid in the canals was full of strange vegetable growths and other foreign bodies putrid and undrinkable. The common people usually shirked the trouble of filtering it, and it was among them that the greater number died of a mortal and infectious pestilence, till then unknown. The number of victims swelled daily, and the approach of the comet kept pace with the growing misery of the town. Every one connected it with the intense heat of the season, with the delay in the inundation, and the appearance of the sickness; and the leech and his friend often argued about these matters, for Philippus would not admit that the meteor had any influence on human affairs, while Horapollo believed that it had, and supported his view by a long series of examples.
His antagonist would not accept them and asked for arguments; at the same time he, like every one else, felt the influence of a vague dread of some imminent and terrible disaster hanging over the earth and humanity at large.
And, just as every heart in Memphis felt oppressed by such forebodings, and by the weight of a calamity, which indeed no longer threatened them but had actually come upon them, so the roads, the gardens, the palms and sycamores by the way-side were covered by thick layers of dingy, choking dust. The hedges of tamarisk and shrubs looked like decaying walls of colorless, unburnt mud-bricks; even in the high-roads the wayfarer walked in the midst of dense white clouds raised by his feet, and if a chariot, or a horseman galloped down the scorching street, fine, grey sand at once filled the air, compelling the foot-passengers to shut their eyes and lips.
The town was so silent, so empty, so deserted! No one came out of doors unless under pressure of business or piety. Every house was a furnace, and even a bath brought no refreshment, for the water had long since ceased to be cold. A disease had also attacked the ripening dates as they hung; they dropped off in thousands from the heavy clusters under the beautiful bending crown of leaves; and now for two days hundreds of dead fish had been left on the banks. Even the scaly natives of the river were plague-stricken; and the physician explained to his friend that this brought the inhabitants a fresh danger; for who could clear the shores of the dead fish?--And, in such heat, how soon they would become putrid!
The old man did not conceal from himself that it was hard, cruelly hard, for the physician to follow his calling conscientiously at such a time; but he knew his friend; he had seen him during months of pestilence two years since--always brisk, decisive and gay, indeed inspired to greater effort by the greater demands on him. What had so completely altered him, had poisoned and vexed his soul as with a malignant spell? It was not the almost superhuman sacrifices required by his duties;--it came of the unfortunate infatuation of his heart, of which he could not rid himself.
Philippus had kept his promise. He went every day to the house of Rufinus, and every day he saw Paula; but, as a murdered body bleeds afresh in the presence of the assassin, so every day the old pain revived when he was forced to meet her and speak with her. The only cure for this particular sufferer was to remove the cause of his pain: that is to say, to take Paula away out of his path; and this the old man made his care and duty.
Little Mary and the other patients under Rufinus' roof were on the way to recovery; still there was much to cast gloomy shadows over this happy termination. Joanna and Pulcheria were very anxious as to the fate of Rufinus. No news had been received of him or of the sisters, and Philippus was the vessel into which the forsaken wife and Pulcheria-- who looked up to him as to a kind, faithful, and all-powerful protecting spirit-poured all their sorrows, cares, and fears. Their forebodings were aggravated by the fact that three times Arab officials had come to the house to enquire about the master and his continued absence. All that the women told them was written down, and Dame Joanna, whose lips had never yet uttered a lie, had found herself forced to give a false clue by saying that her husband had gone to Alexandria on business, and might perhaps have to proceed to Syria.--What could these enquiries forebode? Did they not indicate that Rufinus' complicity in the rescue of the nuns was known at Fostat?
The authorities there were, in fact, better informed than the women could suspect. But they kept their knowledge a secret, for it would never do to let the oppressed people know that a handful of Egyptians had succeeded in defeating a party of Arab soldiers; so the Memphites heard no more than a dark rumor of what had occurred.
Philippus had known nothing of the old man's purpose till he had gone too far to be dissuaded; and it was misery to him now to reflect that his dear old friend, and his whole household, might come to ruin for the sake of the sisterhood who were nothing to them; for he had received private information that there had been a skirmish between the Moslems and the deliverers of the nuns, which had cost the lives of several combatants on both sides.
And Paula! If only he could have seen her happy--But she was pale; and that which robbed the young girl--healthy as she was in mind and body-- of her proud, frank, independent bearing was not the heat, which tormented all creation, but a secret, devouring sorrow; and this sorrow was the work of one alone--of him on whom she had set her heart, and who made, ah! what a return, for the royal gift of her love.
Philippus had frequent business at the governor's residence, and a fortnight since he had plainly perceived what it was that had brought Neforis into this strange state. She was taking the opium that her husband had had, taking it in excessive quantities; and she could easily procure more through some other physician. However, her piteous prayer that Philippus would not abandon her to her fate had prevailed to induce him to continue to see her, in the hope of possibly restricting her use of the drug.
The senator's wife, Martina, also required his visits to the palace. She was not actually ill, but she suffered cruelly from the heat, and she had always been wont to see her worthy old house-physician every day, to hear all the latest gossip, and complain of her little ailments when anything went wrong with her usually sound health. Philippus was indeed too much overburdened to chatter, but his professional advice was good and helped her to endure the fires of this pitiless sky. She liked this incisive, shrewd, plain-spoken man--often indeed sharp and abrupt in his freedom-- and he appreciated her bright, natural ways. Now and then Martina even succeeded in winning a smile from "Hermes Trismegistus," who was "generally as solemn as though there was no such thing on earth as a jest," and in spurring him to a rejoinder which showed that this dolorous being had a particularly keen and ready wit.
Heliodora attracted him but little. There was, to be sure, an unmistakable likeness in her "imploring eves" to those of Pulcheria; but the girl's spoke fervent yearning for the grace and love of God, while the widow's expressed an eager desire for the admiration of the men she preferred. She was a graceful creature beyond all question, but such softness, which never even attempted to assert a purpose or an opinion, did not commend itself to his determined nature; it annoyed him, when he had contradicted her, to hear her repeat his last statement and take his side, as if she were ashamed of her own silliness. Her society, indeed, did not seem to satisfy the clever older woman, who at home, was accustomed to a succession of visitors, and to whom the word "evening" was synomynous with lively conversation and a large gathering. She spoke of the leech's visits as the oasis in the Egyptian desert, and little Katharina even she regarded as a Godsend.
The water-wagtail was her daily visitant, and the girl's gay and often spiteful gossip helped to beguile her during this terrific heat. Katharina's mother made no difficulties; for Heliodora had gone to see her in all her magnificence, and had offered her and her daughter hospitality, some day, at Constantinople. They were very likely going thither; at any rate they would not remain in Memphis, and then it would be a piece of good fortune to be introduced to the society of the capital by such people as their new acquaintances.
Martina thus heard a great deal about Paula; and though it was all adverse and colored to her prejudice she would have liked to see the daughter of the great and famous Thomas whom she had known; besides, after all she had heard, she could fear nothing from Paula for her niece: uncommonly handsome, but haughty, repellent, unamiable, and--like Heliodora herself--of the orthodox sect.--What could tempt "great Sesostris" to give her the preference?
Katharina herself proposed to Martina to make them acquainted; but nothing would have induced Dame Martina to go out of her rooms, protected to the utmost from the torrid sunshine, so she left it to Heliodora to pay the visit and give her a report of the hero's daughter. Heliodora had devoted herself heart and soul to the little heiress, and humored her on many points.
This was carried out. Katharina actually had the audacity to bring the rivals together, even after she had reported to each all she knew of Orion's position with regard to the other. It was exquisite sport;
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