The Sisters by Georg Ebers
A loud laugh re-echoing from the marble walls of the state-room interrupted the queen's speech; at first she started, but then smiled with pleasure as she recognized her brother Euergetes, who, pushing aside the chamberlains, approached the company with an elderly Greek, who walked by his side.
"By all the dwellers on Olympus! By the whole rabble of gods and beasts that live in the temples by the Nile!" cried the new-comer, again laughing so heartily that not only his fat cheeks but his whole immensely stout young frame swayed and shook. "By your pretty little feet, Cleopatra, which could so easily be hidden, and yet are always to be seen--by all your gentle virtues, Philometor, I believe you are trying to outdo the great Philadelphus or our Syrian uncle Antiochus, and to get up a most unique procession; and in my honor! Just so! I myself will take a part in the wonderful affair, and my sturdy person shall represent Eros with his quiver and bow. Some Ethiopian dame must play the part of my mother Aphrodite; she will look the part to perfection, rising from the white sea-foam with her black skin. And what do you think of a Pallas with short woolly hair; of the Charities with broad, flat Ethiopian feet; and an Egyptian, with his shaven head mirroring the sun, as Phoebus Apollo?"
With these words the young giant of twenty years threw himself on the vacant couch between his brother and sister, and, after bowing, not without dignity, to the Roman, whom his brother named to him, he called one of the young Macedonians of noble birth who served at the feast as cup-bearers, had his cup filled once and again and yet a third time, drinking it off quickly and without setting it down; then he said in a loud tone, while he pushed his hands through his tossed, light brown hair, till it stood straight up in the air from his broad temples and high brow:
"I must make up for what you have had before I came.--Another cup-full Diocleides."
"Wild boy!" said Cleopatra, holding up her finger at him half in jest and half in grave warning. "How strange you look!"
"Like Silenus without the goat's hoofs," answered Euergetes. "Hand me a mirror here, Diocleides; follow the eyes of her majesty the queen, and you will be sure to find one. There is the thing! And in fact the picture it shows me does not displease me. I see there a head on which besides the two crowns of Egypt a third might well find room, and in which there is so much brains that they might suffice to fill the skulls of four kings to the brim. I see two vulture's eyes which are always keen of sight even when their owner is drunk, and that are in danger of no peril save from the flesh of these jolly cheeks, which, if they continue to increase so fast, must presently exclude the light, as the growth of the wood encloses a piece of money stuck into a rift in a tree-or as a shutter, when it is pushed to, closes up a window. With these hands and arms the fellow I see in the mirror there could, at need, choke a hippopotamus; the chain that is to deck this neck must be twice as long as that worn by a well-fed Egyptian priest. In this mirror I see a man, who is moulded out of a sturdy clay, baked out of more unctuous and solid stuff than other folks; and if the fine creature there on the bright surface wears a transparent robe, what have you to say against it, Cleopatra? The Ptolemaic princes must protect the import trade of Alexandria, that fact was patent even to the great son of Lagus; and what would become of our commerce with Cos if I did not purchase the finest bombyx stuffs, since those who sell it make no profits out of you, the queen--and you cover yourself, like a vestal virgin, in garments of tapestry. Give me a wreath for my head--aye and another to that, and new wine in the cup! To the glory of Rome and to your health, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and to our last critical conjecture, my Aristarchus--to subtle thinking and deep drinking!"
"To deep thinking and subtle drinking!" retorted the person thus addressed, while he raised the cup, looked into the wine with his twinkling eyes and lifted it slowly to his nose--a long, well-formed and slightly aquiline nose--and to his thin lips.
"Oh! Aristarchus," exclaimed Euergetes, and he frowned. "You please me better when you clear up the meaning of your poets and historians than when you criticise the drinking-maxims of a king. Subtle drinking is mere sipping, and sipping I leave to the bitterns and other birds that live content among the reeds. Do you understand me? Among reeds, I say--whether cut for writing, or no."
"By subtle drinking," replied the great critic with perfect indifference, as he pushed the thin, gray hair from his high brow with his slender hand. "By subtle drinking I mean the drinking of choice wine, and did you ever taste anything more delicate than this juice of the vines of Anthylla that your illustrious brother has set before us? Your paradoxical axiom commends you at once as a powerful thinker and as the benevolent giver of the best of drinks."
"Happily turned," exclaimed Cleopatra, clapping her hands, "you here see, Publius, a proof of the promptness of an Alexandrian tongue."
"Yes!" said Euergetes, "if men could go forth to battle with words instead of spears the masters of the Museum in Alexander's city, with Aristarchus at their head, they might rout the united armies of Rome and Carthage in a couple of hours."
"But we are not now in the battle-field but at a peaceful meal," said the king, with suave amiability. "You did in fact overhear our secret Euergetes, and mocked at my faithful Egyptians, in whose place I would gladly set fair Greeks if only Alexandria still belonged to me instead of to you.--However, a splendid procession shall not be wanting at your birthday festival."
"And do you really still take pleasure in these eternal goose-step performances?" asked Euergetes, stretching himself out on his couch, and folding his hands to support the back of his head. "Sooner could I accustom myself to the delicate drinking of Aristarchus than sit for hours watching these empty pageants. On two conditions only can I declare myself ready and willing to remain quiet, and patiently to dawdle through almost half a day, like an ape in a cage: First, if it will give our Roman friend Publius Cornelius Scipio any pleasure to witness such a performance--though, since our uncle Antiochus pillaged our wealth, and since we brothers shared Egypt between us, our processions are not to be even remotely compared to the triumphs of Roman victors--or, secondly, if I am allowed to take an active part in the affair."
"On my account, Sire," replied Publius, "no procession need be arranged, particularly not such a one as I should here be obliged to look on at."
"Well! I still enjoy such things," said Cleopatra's husband. "Well-arranged groups, and the populace pleased and excited are a sight I am never tired of."
"As for me," cried Cleopatra, "I often turn hot and cold, and the tears even spring to my eyes, when the shouting is loudest. A great mass of men all uniting in a common emotion always has a great effect. A drop, a grain of sand, a block of stone are insignificant objects, but millions of them together, forming the sea, the desert or the pyramids, constitute a sublime whole. One man alone, shouting for joy, is like a madman escaped from an asylum, but when thousands of men rejoice together it must have a powerful effect on the coldest heart. How is it that you, Publius Scipio, in whom a strong will seems to me to have found a peculiarly happy development, can remain unmoved by a scene in which the great collective will of a people finds its utterance?"
"Is there then any expression of will, think you," said the Roman, "in this popular rejoicing? It is just in such circumstances that each man becomes the involuntary mimic and duplicate of his neighbor; while I love to make my own way, and to be independent of everything but the laws and duties laid upon me by the state to which I belong."
"And I," said Euergetes, "from my childhood have always looked on at processions from the very best places, and so it is that fortune punishes me now with indifference to them and to everything of the kind; while the poor miserable devil who can never catch sight of anything more than the nose or the tip of a hair or the broad back of those who take part in them, always longs for fresh pageants. As you hear, I need have no consideration for Publius Scipio in this, willing as I should be to do so. Now what would you say, Cleopatra, if I myself took a part in my procession--I say mine, since it is to be in my honor; that really would be for once something new and amusing."
"More new and amusing than creditable, I think," replied Cleopatra dryly.
"And yet even that ought to please you," laughed Euergetes. "Since, besides being your brother, I am your rival, and we would sooner see our rivals lower themselves than rise."
"Do not try to justify yourself by such words," interrupted the king evasively, and with a tone of regret in his soft voice. "We love you truly; we are ready to yield you your dominion side by side with ours, and I beg you to avoid such speeches even in jest, so that bygones may be bygones."
"And," added Cleopatra, "not to detract from your dignity as a king and your fame as a sage by any such fool's pranks."
"Madam teacher, do you know then what I had in my mind? I would appear as Alcibiades, followed by a train of flute-playing women, with Aristarchus to play the part of Socrates. I have often been told that he and I resemble each other--in many points, say the more sincere; in every point, say the more polite of my friends."
At these words Publius measured with his eye the frame of the royal young libertine, enveloped in transparent robes; and recalling to himself, as he gazed, a glorious statue of that favorite of the Athenians, which he had seen in the Ilissus, an ironical smile passed over his lips. It was not unobserved by Euergetes and it offended him, for there was nothing he liked better than to be compared to the nephew of Pericles; but he suppressed his annoyance, for Publius Cornelius Scipio was the nearest relative of the most influential men of Rome, and, though he himself wielded royal power, Rome exercised over him the sovereign will of a divinity.
Cleopatra noticed what was passing in her brother's mind, and in order to interrupt his further speech and to divert his mind to fresh thoughts, she said cheerfully:
"Let us then give up the procession, and think of some other mode of celebrating your birthday. You, Lysias, must be experienced in such matters, for Publius tells me that you were the leader in all the games of Corinth. What can we devise to entertain Euergetes and ourselves?"
The Corinthian looked for a moment into his cup, moving it slowly about on the marble slab of the little table at his side, between an oyster pasty and a dish of fresh asparagus; and then he said, glancing round to win the suffrages of the company:
"At the great procession which took place under Ptolemy Philadelphus--Agatharchides gave me the description of it, written by the eye-witness Kallixenus, to read only yesterday--all kinds of scenes from the lives of the gods were represented before the people. Suppose we were to remain in this magnificent palace, and to represent ourselves the beautiful groups which the great artists of the past have produced in painting or sculpture; but let us choose those only that are least known."
"Splendid," cried Cleopatra in great excitement, who can be more like Heracles than my mighty brother there--the very son of Alcmene, as Lysippus has conceived and represented him? Let us then represent the life of Heracles from grand models, and in every case assign to Euergetes the part of the hero."
"Oh! I will undertake it," said the young king, feeling the mighty muscles of his breast and arms, "and you may give me great credit for assuming the part, for the demi-god who strangled the snakes was lacking in the most important point, and it was not without due consideration that Lysippus represented him with a small head on his mighty body; but I shall not have to say anything."
"If I play Omphale will you sit at my feet?" asked Cleopatra.
"Who would not be willing to sit at those feet?" answered Euergetes. "Let us at once make further choice among the abundance of subjects offered to us, but, like Lysias, I would warn you against those that are too well-known."
"There are no doubt things commonplace to the eye as well as to the ear," said Cleopatra. "But what is recognized as good is commonly regarded as most beautiful."
"Permit me," said Lysias, "to direct your attention to a piece of sculpture in marble of the noblest workmanship, which is both old and beautiful, and yet which may be known to few among you. It exists on the cistern of my father's house at Corinth, and was executed many centuries since by a great artist of the Peloponnesus. Publius was delighted with the work, and it is in fact beautiful beyond description. It is an exquisite representation of the marriage of Heracles and Hebe--of the hero, raised to divinity, with sempiternal youth. Will Your Majesty allow yourself to be led by Pallas Athene and your mother Alcmene to your nuptials with Hebe?"
"Why not?" said Euergetes. "Only the Hebe must be beautiful. But one thing must be considered; how are we to get the cistern from your father's house at Corinth to this place by to-morrow or next day? Such a group cannot be posed from memory without the original to guide us; and though the story runs that the statue of Serapis flew from Sinope to Alexandria, and though there are magicians still at Memphis--"
"We shall not need them," interrupted Publius, "while I was staying as a guest in the house of my friend's parents--which is altogether more magnificent than the old castle of King Gyges at Sardis--I had some gems engraved after this lovely group, as a wedding-present for my sister. They are extremely successful, and I have them with me in my tent."
"Have you a sister?" asked the queen, leaning over towards the Roman. "You must tell me all about her."
"She is a girl like all other girls," replied Publius, looking down at the ground, for it was most repugnant to his feelings to speak of his sister in the presence of Euergetes.
"And you are unjust like all other brothers," said Cleopatra smiling, "and I must hear more about her, for"--and she whispered the words and looked meaningly at Publius--"all that concerns you must interest me."
During this dialogue the royal brothers had addressed themselves to Lysias with questions as to the marriage of Heracles and Hebe, and all the company were attentive to the Greek as he went on: "This fine work does not represent the marriage properly speaking, but the moment when the bridegroom is led to the bride. The hero, with his club on his shoulder, and wearing the lion's skin, is led by Pallas Athene, who, in performing this office of peace, has dropped her spear and carries her helmet in her hand; they are accompanied by his mother Alcmene, and are advancing towards the bride's train. This is headed by no less a personage than Apollo himself, singing the praises of Hymenaeus to a lute. With him walks his sister Artemis and behind them the mother of Hebe, accompanied by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, as the envoy of Zeus. Then follows the principal group, which is one of the most lovely works of Greek art that I am acquainted with. Hebe comes forward to meet her bridegroom, gently led on by Aphrodite, the queen of love. Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, lays her hand on the bride's arm, imperceptibly urging her forward and turning away her face; for what she had to say has been said, and she smiles to herself, for Hebe has not turned a deaf ear to her voice, and he who has once listened to Peitho must do what she desires."
"And Hebe?" asked Cleopatra.
"She casts down her eyes, but lifts up the arm on which the hand of Peitho rests with a warning movement of her fingers, in which she holds an unopened rose, as though she would say; 'Ah! let me be--I tremble at the man'--or ask: 'Would it not be better that I should remain as I am and not yield to your temptations and to Aphrodite's power?' Oh! Hebe is exquisite, and you, O Queen! must represent her!"
"I!" exclaimed Cleopatra. "But you said her eyes were cast down."
"That is from modesty and timidity, and her gait must also be bashful and maidenly. Her long robe falls to her feet in simple folds, while Peitho holds hers up saucily, between her forefinger and thumb, as if stealthily dancing with triumph over her recent victory. Indeed the figure of Peitho would become you admirably."
"I think I will represent Peitho," said the queen interrupting the Corinthian. "Hebe is but a bud, an unopened blossom, while I am a mother, and I flatter myself I am something of a philosopher--"
"And can with justice assure yourself," interrupted Aristarchus, "that with every charm of youth you also possess the characters attributed to Peitho, the goddess, who can work her spells not only on the heart but on the intellect also. The maiden bud is as sweet to look upon as the rose, but he who loves not merely color but perfume too--I mean refreshment, emotion and edification of spirit--must turn to the full-blown flower; as the rose--growers of lake Moeris twine only the buds of their favorite flower into wreaths and bunches, but cannot use them for extracting the oil of imperishable fragrance; for that they need the expanded blossom. Represent Peitho, my Queen! the goddess herself might be proud of such a representative."
"And if she were so indeed," cried Cleopatra, "how happy am I to hear such words from the lips of Aristarchus. It is settled--I play Peitho. My companion Zoe may take the part of Artemis, and her grave sister that of Pallas Athene. For the mother's part we have several matrons to choose from; the eldest daughter of Epitropes appears to me fitted for the part of Aphrodite; she is wonderfully lovely."
"Is she stupid too?" asked Euergetes. "That is also an attribute of the ever-smiling Cypria."
"Enough so, I think, for our purpose," laughed Cleopatra. "But where are we to find such a Hebe as you have described, Lysias? The daughter of Alimes the Arabarch is a charming child."
"But she is brown, as brown as this excellent wine, and too thoroughly Egyptian," said the high-steward, who superintended the young Macedonian cup-bearers; he bowed deeply as he spoke, and modestly drew the queen's attention to his own daughter, a maiden of sixteen. But Cleopatra objected, that she was much taller than herself, and that she would have to stand by the Hebe, and lay her hand on her arm.
Other maidens were rejected on various grounds, and Euergetes had already proposed to send off a carrier-pigeon to Alexandria to command that some fair Greek girl should be sent by an express quadriga to Memphis--where the dark Egyptian gods and men flourish, and are more numerous than the fair race of Greeks--when Lysias exclaimed:
"I saw to-day the very girl we want, a Hebe that might have stepped out from the marble group at my father's, and have been endued with life and warmth and color by some god. Young, modest, rose and white, and just about as tall as Your Majesty. If you will allow me, I will not tell you who she is, till after I have been to our tent to fetch the gems with the copies of the marble."
"You will find them in an ivory casket at the bottom of my clothes-chest," said Publius; "here is the key."
"Make haste," cried the queen, "for we are all curious to hear where in Memphis you discovered your modest, rose and white Hebe."