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- The Bride of the Nile, Volume 9. - 6/9 -
"I meant to have treated that cursed old woman with conspicuous generosity, and now she has played me this trick; and in Medina they will lay her death at my door, unless. . ."
But here he broke off; and as he once more watched the loading of the camels, he only thought to himself: "In playing for such high stake's, a few gold pieces more or less do not count. A few more heads must fall yet--the handsome Egyptian first and foremost.--If the conspirators at Medina only play their part! The fall of Omar means that of Amru, and that will set everything right."
Katharina slept little and rose very early, as was her habit, while Heliodora was glad to sleep away the morning hours. In this scorching season they were, to be sure, the pleasantest of the twenty-four, and the water-wagtail usually found them so; but to-day, though a splendid Indian flower had bloomed for the first time, and the head gardener pointed it out to her with just pride, she could not enjoy it and be glad. It might perish for aught she cared, and the whole world with it!
There was no one stirring yet in the next garden, but the tall leech Philippus might be seen coming along the road to pay a visit to the women.
A few swift steps carried her to the gate, whence she called him. She must entreat him to say nothing of her last night's expedition; but before she had time to prefer her request he had paused to tell her that the widow of the Mukaukas, overcome by alarm and horror, had followed her husband to the next world.
There had been a time when Katharina had been devoted to Neforis, regarding her as a second mother; when the governor's residence had seemed to her the epitome of all that was great, venerable, and illustrious; and when she had been proud and happy to be allowed to run in and out, and to be loved like a child of the family. The tears that started to her eyes were sincere, and it was a relief to her, too, to lay aside the gay and defiantly happy mien which she wore as a mask, while all in her soul was dark, wild, and desperate.
The physician understood her grief; he readily promised not to betray her to any one, and did not blame her, though he again pointed out the danger she had incurred and earnestly insisted that every article of clothing, which she or Heliodora had worn, must be destroyed. The subtle germ of the malady, he said, clung to everything; every fragment of stuff which had been touched by the plague-stricken was especially fitted to carry the infection and disseminate the disease. She listened to him in deep alarm, but she could satisfy him on this point; everything she or her companion had worn had been burnt in the bath-room furnace.
The physician went on; and she, heedless of the growing heat, wandered restlessly about the grounds. Her heart beat with short, quick, painful jerks; an invisible burthen weighed upon her and prevented her breathing freely. A host of torturing thoughts haunted her unbidden; they were not to be exorcised, and added to her misery: Neforis dead; the residence in the hands of the Arabs; Orion bereft of his possessions and held guilty of a capital crime.
And the peaceful house beyond the hedge--what trouble was hanging over its white-haired master and his guileless wife and daughter? A storm was gathering, she could see it approaching--and beyond it, like another murky, death-dealing thunder-cloud, was the pestilence, the fearful pestilence.
And it was she, a fragile, feeble girl--a volatile water-wagtail--who had brought all these terrors down on them, who had opened the sluice-gates through which ruin was now beginning to pour in on all around her. She could see the flood surging, swelling--saw it lapping round her own house, her own feet; drops of sweat bedewed her forehead and hands from terror at the mere thought. And yet, and yet!--If she had really had the power to bind calamity in the clouds, to turn the tide back into its channel, she would not have done so! The uttermost that she longed for, as the fruit of the seed she had sown and which she longed to see ripen, had not yet come to pass--and to see that she would endure anything, even death and parting from this deceitful, burning, unlovely world.
Death awaited Orion; and before it overtook him he should know who had sharpened the sword. Perhaps he might escape with his life; but the Arab would not disgorge what he once had seized, and if that young and splendid Croesus should come out of prison alive, but a beggar, then-- then... And as for Paula! As for Heliodora! For once her little hand had wrenched the thunderbolts from Zeus' eagle, and she would find one for them!
The sense of her terrible power, to which more than one victim had already fallen, intoxicated her. She would drive Orion--Orion who had betrayed her--into utter ruin and misery; she would see him a beggar at her feet!--And this it was that gave her courage to do her worst; this, and this alone. What she would do then, she herself knew not; that lay as yet in the womb of the Future. She might take a fancy to do something kind, compassionate, and tender.
By the time she went into the house again her fears and depression had vanished; revived energy possessed her soul, and the little eavesdropper and tale-bearer had become in this short hour a purposeful and terrible woman, ready for any crime.
"Poor little lamb!" thought Philippus, as he went into Rufinus' garden. "That miserable man may have brought pangs enough to her little heart!"
His old friend's garden-plot was deserted. Under the sycamore, however, he perceived the figures of a very tall young man and a pretty woman, delicate, fair-haired, and rather pale. The big young fellow was holding a skein of wool on his huge, outstretched hands; the girl was winding it on to a ball. These were Rustem the Masdakite and Mandane, both now recovered from their injuries; the girl, indeed, had been restored to the new life of a calm and understanding mind. Philippus had watched over this wonderful resuscitation with intense interest and care. He ascribed it, in the first instance, to the great loss of blood from the wound in her head; and secondly, to the fresh air and perfect nursing she had had. All that was now needful was to protect her against agitation and violent emotions. In the Masdakite she had found a friend and a submissive adorer; and Philippus could rejoice as he looked at the couple, for his skill had indeed brought him nothing but credit.
His greeting to them was cheery and hearty, and in answer to his enquiry: "How are you getting on?" Rustem replied, "As lively as a fish in water," adding, as he pointed to Mandane, "and I can say the same for my fellow-countrywoman."
"You are agreed then?" said the leech, and she nodded eager assent.
At this Philippus shook his finger at the man, exclaiming: "Do not get too tightly entangled here, my friend. Who knows how soon Haschim may call you away."
Then, turning his back on the convalescents, he murmured to himself: "Here again is something to cheer us in the midst of all this trouble- these two, and little Mary."
Rufinus, before starting on his journey, had sent back all the crippled children he had had in his care to their various parents; thus the anteroom was empty.
The women apparently were at breakfast in the dining-room. No, he was mistaken; it was yet too early, and Pulcheria was still busy laying the table. She did not notice him as he went in, for she was busy arranging grapes, figs, pomegranates and sycamore-figs, a fruit resembling mulberries in flavor which grow in clusters from the trunk of the tree- between leaves, which the drought and heat of the past weeks had turned almost yellow. The tempting heap was fast rising in an elegant many-hued hemisphere; but her thoughts were not in her occupation, for tears were coursing each other down her cheeks.
"Those tears are for her father," thought the leech as he watched her from the threshold. "Poor child!"--How often he had heard his old friend call her so!
And till now he had never thought of her but as a child; but to-day he must look at her with different eyes--her own father had enjoined it. And in fact he gazed at her as though he beheld a miracle.
What had come over little Pulcheria?--How was it that he had never noticed it before?--It was a well-grown maiden that he saw, moving round, snowwhite arms; and he could have sworn that she had only thin, childish arms, for she had thrown them round his neck many a time when she had ridden up and down the garden on his back, calling him her fine horse.
How long ago was that? Ten years! She was now seventeen!
And how slender, and delicate, and white her hands were--those hands for which her mother had often scolded her when, after building castles of sand, she had sat down to table unwashed.
Now she was laying the grapes round the pomegranates, and he remembered how Horapollo, only yesterday, had praised her dainty skill.
The windows were well screened, but a few sunbeams forced their way into the room and fell on her red-gold hair. Even the fair Boeotians, whom he had admired in his student-days at Athens, had no such glorious crown of hair. That she had a sweet and pretty face he had always known; but now, as she raised her eyes and first observed him, meeting his gaze with maidenly embarrassment and sweet surprise, and yet with perfect welcome, he felt himself color and he had to pause a moment to collect himself before he could respond with something more than an ordinary greeting to hers. The dialogue that flashed through his mind in that instant began with sentences full of meaning. But all he said was:
"Yes, here I am," which really did not deserve the hearty reply:
"Thank God for that!" nor the bewitching embarrassment of the explanation that ensued: "on my mother's account."
Again he blushed; he, the man who had long since forgotten his youthful shyness. He asked after Dame Joanna, and how she was bearing her trouble, and then he said gravely: "I was the bearer of bad news yesterday, and to-day again I have come like a bird of ill-omen."
"You?" she said with a smile, and the simple word conveyed so sweet a doubt of his capacity for bringing evil that he could not help saying to himself that his friend, in leaving this child, this girl, to his care, had bequeathed to him the best gift that one mortal can devise to another: a dear, trustful, innocent daughter--or no, a younger sister--as pure, as engaging, and as lovable as only the child of such parents could be.
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