The Sisters by Georg Ebers
An hour had slipped by with the royal party, since Lysias had quitted the company; the wine-cups had been filled and emptied many times; Eulaeus had rejoined the feasters, and the conversation had taken quite another turn, since the whole of the company were not now equally interested in the same subject; on the contrary, the two kings were discussing with Aristarchus the manuscripts of former poets and of the works of the sages, scattered throughout Greece, and the ways and means of obtaining them or of acquiring exact transcripts of them for the library of the Museum. Hierax was telling Eulaeus of the last Dionysiac festival, and of the representation of the newest comedy in Alexandria, and Eulaeus assumed the appearance--not unsuccessfully--of listening with both ears, interrupting him several times with intelligent questions, bearing directly on what he had said, while in fact his attention was exclusively directed to the queen, who had taken entire possession of the Roman Publius, telling him in a low tone of her life--which was consuming her strength--of her unsatisfied affections, and her enthusiasm for Rome and for manly vigor. As she spoke her cheeks glowed and her eyes sparkled, for the more exclusively she kept the conversation in her own hands the better she thought she was being entertained; and Publius, who was nothing less than talkative, seldom interrupted her, only insinuating a flattering word now and then when it seemed appropriate; for he remembered the advice given him by the anchorite, and was desirous of winning the good graces of Cleopatra.
In spite of his sharp ears Eulaeus could understand but little of their whispered discourse, for King Euergetes' powerful voice sounded loud above the rest of the conversation; but Eulaeus was able swiftly to supply the links between the disjointed sentences, and to grasp the general sense, at any rate, of what she was saying. The queen avoided wine, but she had the power of intoxicating herself, so to speak, with her own words, and now just as her brothers and Aristarchus were at the height of their excited and eager question and answer--she raised her cup, touched it with her lips and handed it to Publius, while at the same time she took hold of his.
The young Roman knew well enough all the significance of this hasty action; it was thus that in his own country a woman when in love was wont to exchange her cup with her lover, or an apple already bitten by her white teeth.
Publius was seized with a cold shudder--like a wanderer who carelessly pursues his way gazing up at the moon and stars, and suddenly perceives an abyss yawning; at his feet. Recollections of his mother and of her warnings against the seductive wiles of the Egyptian women, and particularly of this very woman, flashed through his mind like lightning; she was looking at him--not royally by any means, but with anxious and languishing gaze, and he would gladly have kept his eyes fixed on the ground, and have left the cup untouched; but her eye held his fast as though fettering it with ties and bonds; and to put aside the cup seemed to the most fearless son of an unconquered nation a deed too bold to be attempted. Besides, how could he possibly repay this highest favor with an affront that no woman could ever forgive--least of all a Cleopatra?
Aye, many a life's happiness is tossed away and many a sin committed, because the favor of women is a grace that does honor to every man, and that flatters him even when it is bestowed by the unloved and unworthy. For flattery is a key to the heart, and when the heart stands half open the voice of the tempter is never wanting to whisper: "You will hurt her feelings if you refuse."
These were the deliberations which passed rapidly and confusedly through the young Roman's agitated brain, as he took the queen's cup and set his lips to the same spot that hers had touched. Then, while he emptied the cup in long draughts, he felt suddenly seized by a deep aversion to the over-talkative, overdressed and capricious woman before him, who thus forced upon him favors for which he had not sued; and suddenly there rose before his soul the image, almost tangibly distinct, of the humble water-bearer; he saw Klea standing before him and looking far more queenly as, proud and repellent, she avoided his gaze, than the sovereign by his side could ever have done, though crowned with a diadem.
Cleopatra rejoiced to mark his long slow draught, for she thought the Roman meant to imply by it that he could not cease to esteem himself happy in the favor she had shown him. She did not take her eyes off him, and observed with pleasure that his color changed to red and white; nor did she notice that Eulaeus was watching, with a twinkle in his eyes, all that was going on between her and Publius. At last the Roman set down the cup, and tried with some confusion to reply to her question as to how he had liked the flavor of the wine.
"Very fine--excellent--" at last he stammered out, but he was no longer looking at Cleopatra but at Euergetes, who just then cried out loudly:
"I have thought over that passage for hours, I have given you all my reasons and have let you speak, Aristarchus, but I maintain my opinion, and whoever denies it does Homer an injustice; in this place 'siu' must be read instead of 'iu'."
Euergetes spoke so vehemently that his voice outshouted all the other guests; Publius however snatched at his words, to escape the necessity for feigning sentiments he could not feel; so he said, addressing himself half to the speaker and half to Cleopatra:
"Of what use can it be to decide whether it is one or the other--'iu' or 'siu'. I find many things justifiable in other men that are foreign to my own nature, but I never could understand how an energetic and vigorous man, a prudent sovereign and stalwart drinker--like you, Euergetes--can sit for hours over flimsy papyrus-rolls, and rack his brains to decide whether this or that in Homer should be read in one way or another."
"You exercise yourself in other things," replied Euergetes. "I consider that part of me which lies within this golden fillet as the best that I have, and I exercise my wits on the minutest and subtlest questions just as I would try the strength of my arms against the sturdiest athletes. I flung five into the sand the last time I did so, and they quake now when they see me enter the gymnasium of Timagetes. There would be no strength in the world if there were no obstacles, and no man would know that he was strong if he could meet with no resistance to overcome. I for my part seek such exercises as suit my idiosyncrasy, and if they are not to your taste I cannot help it. If you were to set these excellently dressed crayfish before a fine horse he would disdain them, and could not understand how foolish men could find anything palatable that tasted so salt. Salt, in fact, is not suited to all creatures! Men born far from the sea do not relish oysters, while I, being a gourmand, even prefer to open them myself so that they may be perfectly fresh, and mix their liquor with my wine."
"I do not like any very salt dish, and am glad to leave the opening of all marine produce to my servants," answered Publius. "Thereby I save both time and unnecessary trouble."
"Oh! I know!" cried Euergetes. "You keep Greek slaves, who must even read and write for you. Pray is there a market where I may purchase men, who, after a night of carousing, will bear our headache for us? By the shores of the Tiber you love many things better than learning."
"And thereby," added Aristarchus, "deprive yourselves of the noblest and subtlest of pleasures, for the purest enjoyment is ever that which we earn at the cost of some pains and effort."
"But all that you earn by this kind of labor," returned Publius, "is petty and unimportant. It puts me in mind of a man who removes a block of stone in the sweat of his brow only to lay it on a sparrow's feather in order that it may not be carried away by the wind."
"And what is great--and what is small?" asked Aristarchus. "Very opposite opinions on that subject may be equally true, since it depends solely on us and our feelings how things appear to us--whether cold or warm; lovely or repulsive--and when Protagoras says that 'man is the measure of all things,' that is the most acceptable of all the maxims of the Sophists; moreover the smallest matter--as you will fully appreciate--acquires an importance all the greater in proportion as the thing is perfect, of which it forms a part. If you slit the ear of a cart-horse, what does it signify? but suppose the same thing were to happen to a thoroughbred horse, a charger that you ride on to battle!
"A wrinkle or a tooth more or less in the face of a peasant woman matters little, or not at all, but it is quite different in a celebrated beauty. If you scrawl all over the face with which the coarse finger of the potter has decorated a water-jar, the injury to the wretched pot is but small, but if you scratch, only with a needle's point, that gem with the portraits of Ptolemy and Arsinoe, which clasps Cleopatra's robe round her fair throat, the richest queen will grieve as though she had suffered some serious loss.
"Now, what is there more perfect or more worthy to be treasured than the noblest works of great thinkers and great poets.
"To preserve them from injury, to purge them from the errors which, in the course of time, may have spotted their immaculate purity, this is our task; and if we do indeed raise blocks of stone it is not to weight a sparrow's feather that it may not be blown away, but to seal the door which guards a precious possession, and to preserve a gem from injury.
"The chatter of girls at a fountain is worth nothing but to be wafted away on the winds, and to be remembered by none; but can a son ever deem that one single word is unimportant which his dying father has bequeathed to him as a clue to his path in life? If you yourself were such a son, and your ear had not perfectly caught the parting counsels of the dying-how many talents of silver would you not pay to be able to supply the missing words? And what are immortal works of the great poets and thinkers but such sacred words of warning addressed, not to a single individual, but to all that are not barbarians, however many they maybe. They will elevate, instruct, and delight our descendants a thousand years hence as they do us at this day, and they, if they are not degenerate and ungrateful will be thankful to those who have devoted the best powers of their life to completing and restoring all that our mighty forefathers have said, as it must have originally stood before it was mutilated, and spoiled by carelessness and folly.
"He who, like King Euergetes, puts one syllable in Homer right, in place of a wrong one, in my opinion has done a service to succeeding generations--aye and a great service."
"What you say," replied Publius, "sounds convincing, but it is still not perfectly clear to me; no doubt because I learned at an early age to prefer deeds to words. I find it more easy to reconcile my mind to your painful and minute labors when I reflect that to you is entrusted the restoration of the literal tenor of laws, whose full meaning might be lost by a verbal error; or that wrong information might be laid before me as to one single transaction in the life of a friend or of a blood-relation, and it might lie with me to clear him of mistakes and misinterpretation."
"And what are the works of the great singers of the deeds of the heroes-of the writers of past history, but the lives of our fathers related either with veracious exactness or with poetic adornments?" cried Aristarchus. "It is to these that my king and companion in study devotes himself with particular zeal."
"When he is neither drinking, nor raving, nor governing, nor wasting his time in sacrificing and processions," interpolated Euergetes. "If I had not been a king perhaps I might have been an Aristarchus; as it is I am but half a king--since half of my kingdom belongs to you, Philometor--and but half a student; for when am I to find perfect quiet for thinking and writing? Everything, everything in me is by halves, for I, if the scale were to turn in my favor"--and here he struck his chest and his forehead, "I should be twice the man I am. I am my whole real self nowhere but at high festivals, when the wine sparkles in the cup, and bright eyes flash from beneath the brows of the flute-players of Alexandria or Cyrene--sometimes too perhaps in council when the risk is great, or when there is something vast and portentous to be done from which my brother and you others, all of you, would shrink--nay perhaps even the Roman. Aye! so it is--and you will learn to know it."
Euergetes had roared rather than spoken the last words; his cheeks were flushed, his eyes rolled, while he took from his head both the garland of flowers and the golden fillet, and once more pushed his fingers through his hair.
His sister covered her ears with her hands, and said: "You positively hurt me! As no one is contradicting you, and you, as a man of culture, are not accustomed to add force to your assertions, like the Scythians, by speaking in a loud tone, you would do well to save your metallic voice for the further speech with which it is to be hoped you will presently favor us. We have had to bow more than once already to the strength of which you boast--but now, at a merry feast, we will not think of that, but rather continue the conversation which entertained us, and which had begun so well. This eager defence of the interests which most delight the best of the Hellenes in Alexandria may perhaps result in infusing into the mind of our friend Publius Scipio--and through him into that of many young Romans--a proper esteem for a line of intellectual effort which he could not have condemned had he not failed to understand it perfectly.
"Very often some striking poetical turn given to a subject makes it, all at once, clear to our comprehension, even when long and learned disquisitions have failed; and I am acquainted with such an one, written by an anonymous author, and which may please you--and you too, Aristarchus. It epitomizes very happily the subject of our discussion. The lines run as follows:
"Behold, the puny Child of Man Sits by Time's boundless sea, And gathers in his feeble hand Drops of Eternity. "He overhears some broken words Of whispered mystery He writes them in a tiny book And calls it 'History!'
"We owe these verses to an accomplished friend; another has amplified the idea by adding the two that follow:
"If indeed the puny Child of Man Had not gathered drops from that wide sea, Those small deeds that fill his little span Had been lost in dumb Eternity. "Feeble is his hand, and yet it dare Seize some drops of that perennial stream; As they fall they catch a transient gleam-- Lo! Eternity is mirrored there!
"What are we all but puny children? And those of us who gather up the drops surely deserve our esteem no less than those who spend their lives on the shore of that great ocean in mere play and strife--"
"And love," threw in Eulaeus in a low voice, as he glanced towards Publius.
"Your poet's verses are pretty and appropriate," Aristarchus now said, "and I am very happy to find myself compared to the children who catch the falling drops. There was a time--which came to an end, alas! with the great Aristotle--when there were men among the Greeks, who fed the ocean of which you speak with new tributaries; for the gods had bestowed on them the power of opening new sources, like the magician Moses, of whom Onias, the Jew, was lately telling us, and whose history I have read in the sacred books of the Hebrews. He, it is true--Moses I mean--only struck water from the rock for the use of the body, while to our philosophers and poets we owe inexhaustible springs to refresh the mind and soul. The time is now past which gave birth to such divine and creative spirits; as your majesties' forefathers recognized full well when they founded the Museum of Alexandria and the Library, of which I am one of the guardians, and which I may boast of having completed with your gracious assistance. When Ptolemy Soter first created the Museum in Alexandria the works of the greatest period could receive no additions in the form of modern writings of the highest class; but he set us--children of man, gathering the drops--the task of collecting and of sifting them, of eliminating errors in them--and I think we have proved ourselves equal to this task.
"It has been said that it is no less difficult to keep a fortune than to deserve it; and so perhaps we, who are merely 'keepers' may nevertheless make some credit--all the more because we have been able to arrange the wealth we found under hand, to work it profitably, to apply it well, to elucidate it, and to make it available. When anything new is created by one of our circle we always link it on to the old; and in many departments we have indeed even succeeded in soaring above the ancients, particularly in that of the experimental sciences. The sublime intelligence of our forefathers commanded a broad horizon--our narrower vision sees more clearly the objects that lie close to us. We have discovered the sure path for all intellectual labor, the true scientific method; and an observant study of things as they are, succeeds better with us than it did with our predecessors. Hence it follows that in the provinces of the natural sciences, in mathematics, astronomy, mechanics and geography the sages of our college have produced works of unsurpassed merit. Indeed the industry of my associates--"
"Is very great," cried Euergetes. "But they stir up such a dust that all free-thought is choked, and because they value quantity above all things in the results they obtain, they neglect to sift what is great from what is small; and so Publius Scipio and others like him, who shrug their shoulders over the labors of the learned, find cause enough to laugh in their faces. Out of every four of you I should dearly like to set three to some handicraft, and I shall do it too, one of these days--I shall do it, and turn them and all their miserable paraphernalia out of the Museum, and out of my capital. They may take refuge with you, Philometor, you who marvel at everything you cannot do yourself, who are always delighted to possess what I reject, and to make much of those whom I condemn--and Cleopatra I dare say will play the harp, in honor of their entering Memphis."
"I dare say!" answered the queen, laughing bitterly. "Still, it is to be expected that your wrath may fall even on worthy men. Until then I will practise my music, and study the treatise on harmony that you have begun writing. You are giving us proof to-day of how far you have succeeded in attaining unison in your own soul."
"I like you in this mood!" cried Euergetes. "I love you, sister, when you are like this! It ill becomes the eagle's brood to coo like the dove, and you have sharp talons though you hide them never so well under your soft feathers. It is true that I am writing a treatise on harmony, and I am doing it with delight; still it is one of those phenomena which, though accessible to our perception, are imperishable, for no god even could discover it entire and unmixed in the world of realities. Where is harmony to be found in the struggles and rapacious strife of the life of the Cosmos? And our human existence is but the diminished reflection of that process of birth and decease, of evolution and annihilation, which is going on in all that is perceptible to our senses; now gradually and invisibly, now violently and convulsively, but never harmonyously.
"Harmony is at home only in the ideal world--harmony which is unknown even among the gods harmony, whom I may know, and yet may never comprehend--whom I love, and may never possess--whom I long for, and who flies from me.
"I am as one that thirsteth, and harmony as the remote, unattainable well--I am as one swimming in a wide sea, and she is the land which recedes as I deem myself near to it.
"Who will tell me the name of the country where she rules as queen, undisturbed and untroubled? And which is most in earnest in his pursuit of the fair one: He who lies sleeping in her arms, or he who is consumed by his passion for her?
"I am seeking what you deem that you possess.--Possess--!
"Look round you on the world and on life--look round, as I do, on this hall of which you are so proud! It was built by a Greek; but, because the simple melody of beautiful forms in perfect concord no longer satisfies you, and your taste requires the eastern magnificence in which you were born, because this flatters your vanity and reminds you, each time you gaze upon it, that you are wealthy and powerful--you commanded your architect to set aside simple grandeur, and to build this gaudy monstrosity, which is no more like the banqueting-hall of a Pericles than I or you, Cleopatra, in all our finery, are like the simply clad gods and goddesses of Phidias. I mean not to offend you, Cleopatra, but I must say this; I am writing now on the subject of harmony, and perhaps I shall afterwards treat of justice, truth, virtue; although I know full well that they are pure abstractions which occur neither in nature nor in human life, and which in my dealings I wholly set aside; nevertheless they seem to me worthy of investigation, like any other delusion, if by resolving it we may arrive at conditional truth. It is because one man is afraid of another that these restraints--justice, truth, and what else you will--have received these high-sounding names, have been stamped as characteristics of the gods, and placed under the protection of the immortals; nay, our anxious care has gone so far that it has been taught as a doctrine that it is beautiful and good to cloud our free enjoyment of existence for the sake of these illusions. Think of Antisthenes and his disciples, the dog-like Cynics--think of the fools shut up in the temple of Serapis! Nothing is beautiful but what is free, and he only is not free who is forever striving to check his inclinations--for the most part in vain--in order to live, as feeble cowards deem virtuously, justly and truthfully.
"One animal eats another when he has succeeded in capturing it, either in open fight or by cunning and treachery; the climbing plant strangles the tree, the desert-sand chokes the meadows, stars fall from heaven, and earthquakes swallow up cities. You believe in the gods--and so do I after my own fashion--and if they have so ordered the course of this life in every class of existence that the strong triumph over the weak, why should not I use my strength, why let it be fettered by those much-belauded soporifics which our prudent ancestors concocted to cool the hot blood of such men as I, and to paralyze our sinewy fists.
"Euergetes--the well-doer--I was named at my birth; but if men choose to call me Kakergetes--the evil-doer--I do not mind it, since what you call good I call narrow and petty, and what you call evil is the free and unbridled exercise of power. I would be anything rather than lazy and idle, for everything in nature is active and busy; and as, with Aristippus, I hold pleasure to be the highest good, I would fain earn the name of having enjoyed more than all other men; in the first place in my mind, but no less in my body which I admire and cherish."
During this speech many signs of disagreement had found expression, and Publius, who for the first time in his life heard such vicious sentiments spoken, followed the words of the headstrong youth with consternation and surprise. He felt himself no match for this overbearing spirit, trained too in all the arts of argument and eloquence; but he could not leave all he had heard uncontroverted, and so, as Euergetes paused in order to empty his refilled cup, he began:
"If we were all to act on your principles, in a few centuries, it seems to me, there would be no one left to subscribe to them; for the earth would be depopulated; and the manuscripts, in which you are so careful to substitute 'siu' for 'iu', would be used by strong-handed mothers, if any were left, to boil the pot for their children--in this country of yours where there is no wood to burn. Just now you were boasting of your resemblance to Alcibiades, but that very gift which distinguished him, and made him dear to the Athenians--I mean his beauty--is hardly possible in connection with your doctrines, which would turn men into ravening beasts. He who would be beautiful must before all things be able to control himself and to be moderate--as I learnt in Rome before I ever saw Athens, and have remembered well. A Titan may perhaps have thought and talked as you do, but an Alcibiades--hardly!"
At these words the blood flew to Euergetes' face; but he suppressed the keen and insulting reply that rose to his lips, and this little victory over his wrathful impulse was made the more easy as Lysias, at this moment, rejoined the feasters; he excused himself for his long absence, and then laid before Cleopatra and her husband the gems belonging to Publius.
They were warmly admired; even Euergetes was not grudging of his praise, and each of the company admitted that he had rarely seen anything more beautiful and graceful than the bashful Hebe with downcast eyes, and the goddess of persuasion with her hand resting on the bride's arm.
"Yes, I will take the part of Peitho," said Cleopatra with decision.
"And I that of Heracles," cried Euergetes.
"But who is the fair one," asked King Philometor of Lysias, whom you have in your eye, as fulfilling this incomparably lovely conception of Hebe? While you were away I recalled to memory the aspect of every woman and girl who frequents our festivals, but only to reject them all, one after the other."
"The fair girl whom I mean," replied Lysias, "has never entered this or any other palace; indeed I am almost afraid of being too bold in suggesting to our illustrious queen so humble a child as fit to stand beside her, though only in sport."
"I shall even have to touch her arm with my hand!" said the queen anxiously, and she drew up her fingers as if she had to touch some unclean thing. If you mean a flower-seller or a flute-player or something of that kind--"
"How could I dare to suggest anything so improper?" Lysias hastily interposed. "The girl of whom I speak may be sixteen years old; she is innocence itself incarnate, and she looks like a bud ready to open perhaps in the morning dew that may succeed this very night, but which as yet is still enfolded in its cup. She is of Greek race, about as tall as you are, Cleopatra; she has wonderful gazelle-like eyes, her little head is covered by a mass of abundant brown hair, when she smiles she has delicious dimples in her cheeks--and she will be sure to smile when such a Peitho speaks to her!"
"You are rousing our curiosity," cried Philometor. "In what garden, pray, does this blossom grow?"
"And how is it," added Cleopatra, "that my husband has not discovered it long since, and transplanted it to our palace."
"Probably," answered Lysias, "because he who possesses Cleopatra, the fairest rose of Egypt, regards the violets by the roadside as too insignificant to be worth glancing at. Besides, the hedge that fences round my bud grows in a gloomy spot; it is difficult of access and suspiciously watched. To be brief: our Hebe is a water-bearer in the temple of Serapis, and her name is Irene."