The Sisters by Georg Ebers
The temple of Serapis lay in restful silence, enveloped in darkness, which so far hid its four wings from sight as to give it the aspect of a single rock-like mass wrapped in purple mist.
Outside the temple precincts too all had been still; but just now a clatter of hoofs and rumble of wheels was audible through the silence, otherwise so profound that it seemed increased by every sound. Before the vehicle which occasioned this disturbance had reached the temple, it stopped, just outside the sacred acacia-grove, for the neighing of a horse was now audible in that direction.
It was one of the king's horses that neighed; Lysias, the Greek, tied him up to a tree by the road at the edge of the grove, flung his mantle over the loins of the smoking beast; and feeling his way from tree to tree soon found himself by the Well of the Sun where he sat down on the margin.
Presently from the east came a keen, cold breeze, the harbinger of sunrise; the gray gloaming began by degrees to pierce and part the tops of the tall trees, which, in the darkness, had seemed a compact black roof. The crowing of cocks rang out from the court-yard of the temple, and, as the Corinthian rose with a shiver to warm himself by a rapid walk backwards and forwards, he heard a door creak near the outer wall of the temple, of which the outline now grew sharper and clearer every instant in the growing light.
He now gazed with eager observation down the path which, as the day approached, stood out with increasing clearness from the surrounding shades, and his heart began to beat faster as he perceived a figure approaching the well, with rapid steps. It was a human form that advanced towards him--only one--no second figure accompanied it; but it was not a man--no, a woman in a long robe. Still, she for whom he waited was surely smaller than the woman, who now came near to him. Was it the elder and not the younger sister, whom alone he was anxious to speak with, who came to the well this morning?
He could now distinguish her light foot-fall--now she was divided from him by a young acacia-shrub which hid her from his gaze-now she set down two water-jars on the ground--now she briskly lifted the bucket and filled the vessel she held in her left hand--now she looked towards the eastern horizon, where the dim light of dawn grew broader and brighter, and Lysias thought he recognized Irene--and now--Praised be the gods! he was sure; before him stood the younger and not the elder sister; the very maiden whom he sought.
Still half concealed by the acacia-shrub, and in a soft voice so as not to alarm her, he called Irene's name, and the poor child's blood froze with terror, for never before had she been startled by a man here, and at this hour. She stood as if rooted to the spot, and, trembling with fright, she pressed the cold, wet, golden jar, sacred to the god, closely to her bosom.
Lysias repeated her name, a little louder than before, and went on, but in a subdued voice:
"Do not be frightened, Irene; I am Lysias, the Corinthian--your friend, whose pomegranate-blossom you wore yesterday, and who spoke to you after the procession. Let me bid you good morning!"
At these words the girl let her hand fall by her side, still holding the jar, and pressing her right hand to her heart, she exclaimed, drawing a deep breath:
"How dreadfully you frightened me! I thought some wandering soul was calling me that had not yet returned to the nether world, for it is not till the sun rises that spirits are scared away."
"But it cannot scare men of flesh and blood whose purpose is good. I, you may believe me, would willingly stay with you, till Helios departs again, if you would permit me."
"I can neither permit nor forbid you anything," answered Irene. "But, how came you here at this hour?"
"In a chariot," replied Lysias smiling.
"That is nonsense--I want to know what you came to the Well of the Sun for at such an hour."
"I What but for you yourself? You told me yesterday that you were glad to sleep, and so am I; still, to see you once more, I have been only to glad to shorten my night's rest considerably."
"But, how did you know?"
"You yourself told me yesterday at what time you were allowed to leave the temple."
"Did I tell you? Great Serapis! how light it is already. I shall be punished if the water-jar is not standing on the altar by sunrise, and there is Klea's too to be filled."
"I will fill it for you directly--there--that is done; and now I will carry them both for you to the end of the grove, if you will promise me to return soon, for I have many things to ask you."
"Go on--only go on," said the girl; "I know very little; but ask away, though you will not find much to be made of any answers that I can give."
"Oh! yes, indeed, I shall--for instance, if I asked you to tell me all about your parents. My friend Publius, whom you know, and I also have heard how cruelly and unjustly they were punished, and we would gladly do much to procure their release."
"I will come--I will be sure to come," cried Irene loudly and eagerly, "and shall I bring Klea with me? She was called up in the middle of the night by the gatekeeper, whose child is very ill. My sister is very fond of it, and Philo will only take his medicine from her. The little one had gone to sleep in her lap, and his mother came and begged me to fetch the water for us both. Now give me the jars, for none but we may enter the temple."
"There they are. Do not disturb your sister on my account in her care of the poor little boy, for I might indeed have one or two things to say to you which she need not hear, and which might give you pleasure. Now, I am going back to the well, so farewell! But do not let me have to wait very long for you." He spoke in a tender tone of entreaty, and the girl answered low and rapidly as she hurried away from him:
"I will come when the sun is up."
The Corinthian looked after her till she had vanished within the temple, and his heart was stirred--stirred as it had not been for many years. He could not help recalling the time when he would teaze his younger sister, then still quite a child, putting her to the test by asking her, with a perfectly grave face, to give him her cake or her apple which he did not really want at all. The little one had almost always put the thing he asked for to his mouth with her tiny hands, and then he had often felt exactly as he felt now.
Irene too was still but a child, and no less guileless than his darling in his own home; and just as his sister had trusted him--offering him the best she had to give--so this simple child trusted him; him, the profligate Lysias, before whom all the modest women of Corinth cast down their eyes, while fathers warned their growing-up sons against him; trusted him with her virgin self--nay, as he thought, her sacred person.
"I will do thee no harm, sweet child!" he murmured to himself, as he presently turned on his heel to return to the well. He went forward quickly at first, but after a few steps he paused before the marvellous and glorious picture that met his gaze. Was Memphis in flames? Had fire fallen to burn up the shroud of mist which had veiled his way to the temple?
The trunks of the acacia-trees stood up like the blackened pillars of a burning city, and behind them the glow of a conflagration blazed high up to the heavens. Beams of violet and gold slipped and sparkled between the boughs, and danced among the thorny twigs, the white racemes of flowers, and the tufts of leaves with their feathery leaflets; the clouds above were fired with tints more pure and tender than those of the roses with which Cleopatra had decked herself for the banquet.
Not like this did the sun rise in his own country! Or, was it perhaps only that in Corinth or in Athens at break of day, as he staggered home drunk from some feast, he had looked more at the earth than at the heavens?
His horses began now to neigh loudly as if to greet the steeds of the coming Sun-god. Lysias hurried to them through the grove, patted their shining necks with soothing words, and stood looking down at the vast city at his feet, over which hung a film of violet mist--at the solemn Pyramids, over which the morning glow flung a gay robe of rose-color--on the huge temple of Ptah, with the great colossi in front of its pylons--on the Nile, mirroring the glory of the sky, and on the limestone hills behind the villages of Babylon and Troy, about which he had, only yesterday, heard a Jew at the king's table relating a legend current among his countrymen to the effect that these hills had been obliged to give up all their verdure to grace the mounts of the sacred city Hierosolyma.
The rocky cliffs of this barren range glowed at this moment like the fire in the heart of the great ruby which had clasped the festal robe of King Euergetes across his bull-neck, as it reflected the shimmer of the tapers: and Lysias saw the day-star rising behind the range with blinding radiance, shooting forth rays like myriads of golden arrows, to rout and destroy his foe, the darkness of night.
Eos, Helios, Phoebus Apollo--these had long been to him no more than names, with which he associated certain phenomena, certain processes and ideas; for he when he was not luxuriating in the bath, amusing himself in the gymnasium, at cock or quail-fights, in the theatre or at Dionysiac processions--was wont to exercise his wits in the schools of the philosophers, so as to be able to shine in bandying words at entertainments; but to-day, and face to face with this sunrise, he believed as in the days of his childhood--he saw in his mind's eye the god riding in his golden chariot, and curbing his foaming steeds, his shining train floating lightly round him, bearing torches or scattering flowers--he threw up his arms with an impulse of devotion, praying aloud:
"To-day I am happy and light of heart. To thy presence do I owe this, O! Phoebus Apollo, for thou art light itself. Oh! let thy favors continue--"
But he here broke off in his invocation, and dropped his arms, for he heard approaching footsteps. Smiling at his childish weakness--for such he deemed it that he should have prayed--and yet content from his pious impulse, he turned his back on the sun, now quite risen, and stood face to face with Irene who called out to him:
"I was beginning to think that you had got out of patience and had gone away, when I found you no longer by the well. That distressed me--but you were only watching Helios rise. I see it every day, and yet it always grieves me to see it as red as it was to-day, for our Egyptian nurse used to tell me that when the east was very red in the morning it was because the Sun-god had slain his enemies, and it was their blood that colored the heavens, and the clouds and the hills."
"But you are a Greek," said Lysias, "and you must know that it is Eos that causes these tints when she touches the horizon with her rosy fingers before Helios appears. Now to-day you are, to me, the rosy dawn presaging a fine day."
"Such a ruddy glow as this," said Irene, "forebodes great heat, storms, and perhaps heavy rain, so the gatekeeper says; and he is always with the astrologers who observe the stars and the signs in the heavens from the towers near the temple-gates. He is poor little Philo's father. I wanted to bring Klea with me, for she knows more about our parents than I do; but he begged me not to call her away, for the child's throat is almost closed up, and if it cries much the physician says it will choke, and yet it is never quiet but when it is lying in Klea's arms. She is so good--and she never thinks of herself; she has been ever since midnight till now rocking that heavy child on her lap."
"We will talk with her presently," said the Corinthian. "But to-day it was for your sake that I came; you have such merry eyes, and your little mouth looks as if it were made for laughing, and not to sing lamentations. How can you bear being always in that shut up dungeon with all those solemn men in their black and white robes?"
There are some very good and kind ones among them. I am most fond of old Krates, he looks gloomy enough at every one else; but with me only he jokes and talks, and he often shows me such pretty and elegantly wrought things."
"Ah! I told you just now you are like the rosy dawn before whom all darkness must vanish."
"If only you could know how thoughtless I can be, and how often I give trouble to Klea, who never scolds me for it, you would be far from comparing me with a goddess. Little old Krates, too, often compares me to all sorts of pretty things, but that always sounds so comical that I cannot help laughing. I had much rather listen to you when you flatter me."
"Because I am young and youth suits with youth. Your sister is older, and so much graver than you are. Have you never had a companion of your own age whom you could play with, and to whom you could tell everything?"
"Oh! yes when I was still very young; but since my parents fell into trouble, and we have lived here in the temple, I have always been alone with Klea. What do you want to know about my father?"
"That I will ask you by-and-by. Now only tell me, have you never played at hide and seek with other girls? May you never look on at the merry doings in the streets at the Dionysiac festivals? Have you ever ridden in a chariot?"
"I dare say I have, long ago--but I have forgotten it. How should I have any chance of such things here in the temple? Klea says it is no good even to think of them. She tells me a great deal about our parents--how my mother took care of us, and what my father used to say. Has anything happened that may turn out favorably for him? Is it possible that the king should have learned the truth? Make haste and ask your questions at once, for I have already been too long out here."
The impatient steeds neighed again as she spoke, and Lysias, to whom this chat with Irene was perfectly enchanting, but who nevertheless had not for a moment lost sight of his object, hastily pointed to the spot where his horses were standing, and said:
"Did you hear the neighing of those mettlesome horses? They brought me hither, and I can guide them well; nay, at the last Isthmian games I won the crown with my own quadriga. You said you had never ridden standing in a chariot. How would you like to try for once how it feels? I will drive you with pleasure up and down behind the grove for a little while."
Irene heard this proposal with sparkling eyes and cried, as she clapped her hands:
"May I ride in a chariot with spirited horses, like the queen? Oh! impossible! Where are your horses standing?"
In this instant she had forgotten Klea, the duty which called her back to the temple, even her parents, and she followed the Corinthian with winged steps, sprang into the two-wheeled chariot, and clung fast to the breastwork, as Lysias took his place by her side, seized the reins, and with a strong and practised hand curbed the mettle of his spirited steeds.
She stood perfectly guileless and undoubting by his side, and wholly at his mercy as the chariot rattled off; but, unknown to herself, beneficent powers were shielding her with buckler and armor--her childlike innocence, and that memory of her parents which her tempter himself had revived in her mind, and which soon came back in vivid strength.
Breathing deep with excitement, and filled with such rapture as a bird may feel when it first soars from its narrow nest high up into the ether she cried out again and again:
"Oh, this is delightful! this is splendid!" and then:
"How we rush through the air as if we were swallows! Faster, Lysias, faster! No, no--that is too fast; wait a little that I may not fall! Oh, I am not frightened; it is too delightful to cut through the air just as a Nile boat cuts through the stream in a storm, and to feel it on my face and neck."
Lysias was very close to her; when, at her desire, he urged his horses to their utmost pace, and saw her sway, he involuntarily put out his hand to hold her by the girdle; but Irene avoided his grasp, pressing close against the side of the chariot next her, and every time he touched her she drew her arm close up to her body, shrinking together like the fragile leaf of a sensitive plant when it is touched by some foreign object.
She now begged the Corinthian to allow her to hold the reins for a little while, and he immediately acceded to her request, giving them into her hand, though, stepping behind her, he carefully kept the ends of them in his own. He could now see her shining hair, the graceful oval of her head, and her white throat eagerly bent forward; an indescribable longing came over him to press a kiss on her head; but he forbore, for he remembered his friend's words that he would fulfil the part of a guardian to these girls. He too would be a protector to her, aye and more than that, he would care for her as a father might. Still, as often as the chariot jolted over a stone, and he touched her to support her, the suppressed wish revived, and once when her hair was blown quite close to his lips he did indeed kiss it--but only as a friend or a brother might. Still, she must have felt the breath from his lips, for she turned round hastily, and gave him back the reins; then, pressing her hand to her brow, she said in a quite altered voice--not unmixed with a faint tone of regret:
"This is not right--please now to turn the horses round."
Lysias, instead of obeying her, pulled at the reins to urge the horses to a swifter pace, and before he could find a suitable answer, she had glanced up at the sun, and pointing to the east she exclaimed:
"How late it is already! what shall I say if I have been looked for, and they ask me where I have been so long? Why don't you turn round--nor ask me anything about my parents?"
The last words broke from her with vehemence, and as Lysias did not immediately reply nor make any attempt to check the pace of the horses, she herself seized the reins exclaiming:
"Will you turn round or no?"
"No!" said the Greek with decision. "But--"
"And this is what you intended!" shrieked the girl, beside herself. "You meant to carry me off by stratagem--but wait, only wait--"
And before Lysias could prevent her she had turned round, and was preparing to spring from the chariot as it rushed onwards; but her companion was quicker than she; he clutched first at her robe and then her girdle, put his arm round her waist, and in spite of her resistance pulled her back into the chariot.
Trembling, stamping her little feet and with tears in her eyes, she strove to free her girdle from his grasp; he, now bringing his horses to a stand-still, said kindly but earnestly:
"What I have done is the best that could happen to you, and I will even turn the horses back again if you command it, but not till you have heard me; for when I got you into the chariot by stratagem it was because I was afraid that you would refuse to accompany me, and yet I knew that every delay would expose you to the most hideous peril. I did not indeed take a base advantage of your father's name, for my friend Publius Scipio, who is very influential, intends to do everything in his power to procure his freedom and to reunite you to him. But, Irene, that could never have happened if I had left you where you have hitherto lived."
During this discourse the girl had looked at Lysias in bewilderment, and she interrupted him with the exclamation:
"But I have never done any one an injury! Who can gain any benefit by persecuting a poor creature like me:
"Your father was the most righteous of men," replied Lysias, "and nevertheless he was carried off into torments like a criminal. It is not only the unrighteous and the wicked that are persecuted. Have you ever heard of King Euergetes, who, at his birth, was named the 'well-doer,' and who has earned that of the 'evil doer' by his crimes? He has heard that you are fair, and he is about to demand of the high-priest that he should surrender you to him. If Asclepiodorus agrees--and what can he do against the might of a king--you will be made the companion of flute-playing girls and painted women, who riot with drunken men at his wild carousals and orgies, and if your parents found you thus, better would it be for them--"
"Is it true, all you are telling me?" asked Irene with flaming cheeks.
"Yes," answered Lysias firmly. "Listen Irene--I have a father and a dear mother and a sister, who is like you, and I swear to you by their heads--by those whose names never passed my lips in the presence of any other woman I ever sued to--that I am speaking the simple truth; that I seek nothing but only to save you; that if you desire it, as soon as I have hidden you I will never see you again, terribly hard as that would be to me--for I love you so dearly, so deeply--poor sweet little Irene--as you can never imagine."
Lysias took the girl's hand, but she withdrew it hastily, and raising her eyes, full of tears, to meet his she said clearly and firmly:
"I believe you, for no man could speak like that and betray another. But how do you know all this? Where are you taking me? Will Klea follow me?"
"At first you shall be concealed with the family of a worthy sculptor. We will let Klea know this very day of all that has happened to you, and when we have obtained the release of your parents then--but--Help us, protecting Zeus! Do you see the chariot yonder? I believe those are the white horses of the Eunuch Eulaeus, and if he were to see us here, all would be lost! Hold tight, we must go as fast as in a chariot race. There, now the hill hides us, and down there, by the little temple of Isis, the wife of your future host is already waiting for you; she is no doubt sitting in the closed chariot near the palm-trees.
"Yes, certainly, certainly, Klea shall hear all, so that she may not be uneasy about you! I must say farewell to you directly and then, afterwards, sweet Irene, will you sometimes think of the unhappy Lysias; or did Aurora, who greeted him this morning, so bright and full of happy promise, usher in a day not of joy but of sorrow and regret?" The Greek drew in rein as he spoke, bringing his horses to a sober pace, and looked tenderly in Irene's eyes. She returned his gaze with heart-felt emotion, but her gunny glance was dimmed with tears.
"Say something," entreated the Greek. "Will you not forget me? And may I soon visit you in your new retreat?"
Irene would so gladly have said yes--and yes again, a thousand times yes; and yet she, who was so easily carried away by every little emotion of her heart, in this supreme moment found strength enough to snatch her hand from that of the Greek, who had again taken it, and to answer firmly:
"I will remember you for ever and ever, but you must not come to see me till I am once more united to my Klea."
"But Irene, consider, if now--" cried Lysias much agitated.
"You swore to me by the heads of your nearest kin to obey my wishes," interrupted the girl. "Certainly I trust you, and all the more readily because you are so good to me, but I shall not do so any more if you do not keep your word. Look, here comes a lady to meet us who looks like a friend. She is already waving her hand to me. Yes, I will go with her gladly, and yet I am so anxious--so troubled, I cannot tell you--but I am so thankful too! Think of me sometimes, Lysias, and of our journey here, and of our talk, and of my parents: I entreat you, do for them all you possibly can. I wish I could help crying--but I cannot!"