The Sisters by Georg Ebers
Lysias eyes had not deceived him. The chariot with white horses which he had evaded during his flight with Irene belonged to Eulaeus. The morning being cool--and also because Cleopatra's lady-in-waiting was with him--he had come out in a closed chariot, in which he sat on soft cushions side by side with the Macedonian lady, endeavoring to win her good graces by a conversation, witty enough in its way.
"On the way there," thought he, "I will make her quite favorable to me, and on the way back I will talk to her of my own affairs."
The drive passed quickly and pleasantly for both, and they neither of them paid any heed to the sound of the hoofs of the horses that were bearing away Irene.
Eulaeus dismounted behind the acacia-grove, and expressed a hope that Zoe would not find the time very long while he was engaged with the high-priest; perhaps indeed, he remarked, she might even make some use of the time by making advances to the representative of Hebe.
But Irene had been long since warmly welcomed in the house of Apollodorus, the sculptor, by the time they once more found themselves together in the chariot; Eulaeus feigning, and Zoe in reality feeling, extreme dissatisfaction at all that had taken place in the temple. The high-priest had rejected Philometor's demand that he should send the water-bearer to the palace on King Euergetes' birthday, with a decisiveness which Eulaeus would never have given him credit for, for he had on former occasions shown a disposition to measures of compromise; while Zoe had not even seen the waterbearer.
"I fancy," said the queen's shrewd friend, "that I followed you somewhat too late, and that when I entered the temple about half an hour after you--having been detained first by Imhotep, the old physician, and then by an assistant of Apollodorus, the sculptor, with some new busts of the philosophers--the high-priest had already given orders that the girl should be kept concealed; for when I asked to see her, I was conducted first to her miserable room, which seemed more fit for peasants or goats than for a Hebe, even for a sham one--but I found it perfectly deserted.
"Then I was shown into the temple of Serapis, where a priest was instructing some girls in singing, and then sent hither and thither, till at last, finding no trace whatever of the famous Irene, I came to the dwelling-house of the gate-keeper of the temple.
"An ungainly woman opened the door, and said that Irene had been gone from thence for some long time, but that her elder sister was there, so I desired she might be fetched to speak with me. And what, if you please, was the answer I received? The goddess Klea--I call her so as being sister to a Hebe--had to nurse a sick child, and if I wanted to see her I might go in and find her.
"The tone of the message quite conveyed that the distance from her down to me was as great as in fact it is the other way. However, I thought it worth the trouble to see this supercilious water-bearing girl, and I went into a low room--it makes me sick now to remember how it smelt of poverty--and there she sat with an idiotic child, dying on her lap. Everything that surrounded me was so revolting and dismal that it will haunt my dreams with terror for weeks to come and spoil all my cheerful hours.
"I did not remain long with these wretched creatures, but I must confess that if Irene is as like to Hebe as her elder sister is to Hera, Euergetes has good grounds for being angry if Asclepiodorus keeps the girl from him.
"Many a queen--and not least the one whom you and I know so intimately-would willingly give half of her kingdom to possess such a figure and such a mien as this serving-girl. And then her eyes, as she looked at me when she rose with that little gasping corpse in her arms, and asked me what I wanted with her sister!
"There was an impressive and lurid glow in those solemn eyes, which looked as if they had been taken out of some Medusa's head to be set in her beautiful face. And there was a sinister threat in them too which seemed to say: 'Require nothing of her that I do not approve of, or you will be turned into stone on the spot.' She did not answer twenty words to my questions, and when I once more tasted the fresh air outside, which never seemed to me so pleasant as by contrast with that horrible hole, I had learnt no more than that no one knew--or chose to know--in what corner the fair Irene was hidden, and that I should do well to make no further enquiries.
"And now, what will Philometor do? What will you advise him to do?"
"What cannot be got at by soft words may sometimes be obtained by a sufficiently large present," replied Eulaeus. "You know very well that of all words none is less familiar to these gentry than the little word 'enough'; but who indeed is really ready to say it?
"You speak of the haughtiness and the stern repellent demeanor of our Hebe's sister. I have seen her too, and I think that her image might be set up in the Stoa as a happy impersonation of the severest virtue: and yet children generally resemble their parents, and her father was the veriest peculator and the most cunning rascal that ever came in my way, and was sent off to the gold-mines for very sufficient reasons. And for the sake of the daughter of a convicted criminal you have been driven through the dust and the scorching heat, and have had to submit to her scorn and contemptuous airs, while I am threatened with grave peril on her account, for you know that Cleopatra's latest whim is to do honor to the Roman, Publius Scipio; he, on the other hand, is running after our Hebe, and, having promised her that he will obtain an unqualified pardon for her father, he will do his utmost to throw the odium of his robbery upon me.
"The queen is to give him audience this very day, and you cannot know how many enemies a man makes who, like me, has for many years been one of the leading men of a great state. The king acknowledges, and with gratitude, all that I have done for him and for his mother; but if, at the moment when Publius Scipio accuses me, he is more in favor with her than ever, I am a lost man.
"You are always with the queen; do you tell her who these girls are, and what motives the Roman has for loading me with their father's crimes; and some opportunity must offer for doing you and your belongings some friendly office or another."
"What a shameless crew!" exclaimed Zoe. "Depend upon it I will not be silent, for I always do what is just. I cannot bear seeing others suffering an injustice, and least of all that a man of your merit and distinction should be wounded in his honor, because a haughty foreigner takes a fancy to a pretty little face and a conceited doll of a girl."
Zoe was in the right when she found the air stifling in the gate-keeper's house, for poor Irene, unaccustomed to such an atmosphere, could no more endure it than the pretentious maid of honor. It cost even Klea an effort to remain in the wretched room, which served as the dwelling-place of the whole family; where the cooking was carried on at a smoky hearth, while, at night, it also sheltered a goat and a few fowls; but she had endured even severer trials than this for the sake of what she deemed right, and she was so fond of little Philo--her anxious care in arousing by degrees his slumbering intelligence had brought her so much soothing satisfaction, and the child's innocent gratitude had been so tender a reward--that she wholly forgot the repulsive surroundings as soon as she felt that her presence and care were indispensable to the suffering little one.
Imhotep, the most famous of the priest-physicians of the temple of Asclepius--a man who was as learned in Greek as in Egyptian medical lore, and who had been known by the name of "the modern Herophilus" since King Philometor had summoned him from Alexandria to Memphis--had long since been watchful of the gradual development of the dormant intelligence of the gate-keeper's child, whom he saw every day in his visits to the temple. Now, not long after Zoe had quitted the house, he came in to see the sick child for the third time. Klea was still holding the boy on her lap when he entered. On a wooden stool in front of her stood a brazier of charcoal, and on it a small copper kettle the physician had brought with him; to this a long tube was attached. The tube was in two parts, joined together by a leather joint, also tubular, in such a way that the upper portion could be turned in any direction. Klea from time to time applied it to the breast of the child, and, in obedience to Imhotep's instructions, made the little one inhale the steam that poured out of it.
"Has it had the soothing effect it ought to have?" asked the physician.
"Yes, indeed, I think so," replied Klea, "There is not so much noise in the chest when the poor little fellow draws his breath."
The old man put his ear to the child's mouth, laid his hand on his brow, and said:
"If the fever abates I hope for the best. This inhaling of steam is an excellent remedy for these severe catarrhs, and a venerable one besides; for in the oldest writings of Hermes we find it prescribed as an application in such cases. But now he has had enough of it. Ah! this steam--this steam! Do you know that it is stronger than horses or oxen, or the united strength of a whole army of giants? That diligent enquirer Hero of Alexandria discovered this lately.
"But our little invalid has had enough of it, we must not overheat him. Now, take a linen cloth--that one will do though it is not very fine. Fold it together, wet it nicely with cold water--there is some in that miserable potsherd there--and now I will show you how to lay it on the child's throat.
"You need not assure me that you understand me, Klea, for you have hands--neat hands--and patience without end! Sixty-five years have I lived, and have always had good health, but I could almost wish to be ill for once, in order to be nursed by you. That poor child is well off better than many a king's child when it is sick; for him hireling nurses, no doubt, fetch and do all that is necessary, but one thing they cannot give, for they have it not; I mean the loving and indefatigable patience by which you have worked a miracle on this child's mind, and are now working another on his body. Aye, aye, my girl; it is to you and not me that this woman will owe her child if it is preserved to her. Do you hear me, woman? and tell your husband so too; and if you do not reverence Klea as a goddess, and do not lay your hands beneath her feet, may you be--no--I will wish you no ill, for you have not too much of the good things of life as it is!"
As he spoke the gate-keeper's wife came timidly up to the physician and the sick child, pushed her rough and tangled hair off her forehead a little, crossed her lean arms at full length behind her back, and, looking down with out-stretched neck at the boy, stared in dumb amazement at the wet cloths. Then she timidly enquired:
"Are the evil spirits driven out of the child?"
"Certainly," replied the physician. "Klea there has exorcised them, and I have helped her; now you know."
"Then I may go out for a little while? I have to sweep the pavement of the forecourt."
Klea nodded assent, and when the woman had disappeared the physician said:
"How many evil demons we have to deal with, alas! and how few good ones. Men are far more ready and willing to believe in mischievous spirits than in kind or helpful ones; for when things go ill with them--and it is generally their own fault when they do--it comforts them and flatters their vanity if only they can throw the blame on the shoulders of evil spirits; but when they are well to do, when fortune smiles on them of course, they like to ascribe it to themselves, to their own cleverness or their superior insight, and they laugh at those who admonish them of the gratitude they owe to the protecting and aiding demons. I, for my part, think more of the good than of the evil spirits, and you, my child, without doubt are one of the very best.
"You must change the compress every quarter of an hour, and between whiles go out into the open air, and let the fresh breezes fan your bosom--your cheeks look pale. At mid-day go to your own little room, and try to sleep. Nothing ought to be overdone, so you are to obey me."
Klea replied with a friendly and filial nod, and Imhotep stroked down her hair; then he left; she remained alone in the stuffy hot room, which grew hotter every minute, while she changed the wet cloths for the sick child, and watched with delight the diminishing hoarseness and difficulty of his breathing. From time to time she was overcome by a slight drowsiness, and closed her eyes for a few minutes, but only for a short while; and this half-awake and half-asleep condition, chequered by fleeting dreams, and broken only by an easy and pleasing duty, this relaxation of the tension of mind and body, had a certain charm of which, through it all, she remained perfectly conscious. Here she was in her right place; the physicians kind words had done her good, and her anxiety for the little life she loved was now succeeded by a well-founded hope of its preservation.
During the night she had already come to a definite resolution, to explain to the high-priest that she could not undertake the office of the twin-sisters, who wept by the bier of Osiris, and that she would rather endeavor to earn bread by the labor of her hands for herself and Irene--for that Irene should do any real work never entered her mind--at Alexandria, where even the blind and the maimed could find occupation. Even this prospect, which only yesterday had terrified her, began now to smile upon her, for it opened to her the possibility of proving independently the strong energy which she felt in herself.
Now and then the figure of the Roman rose before her mind's eye, and every time that this occurred she colored to her very forehead. But to-day she thought of this disturber of her peace differently from yesterday; for yesterday she had felt herself overwhelmed by him with shame, while to-day it appeared to her as though she had triumphed over him at the procession, since she had steadily avoided his glance, and when he had dared to approach her she had resolutely turned her back upon him. This was well, for how could the proud foreigner expose himself again to such humiliation.
"Away, away--for ever away!" she murmured to herself, and her eyes and brow, which had been lighted up by a transient smile, once more assumed the expression of repellent sternness which, the day before, had so startled and angered the Roman. Soon however the severity of her features relaxed, as she saw in fancy the young man's beseeching look, and remembered the praise given him by the recluse, and as--in the middle of this train of thought--her eyes closed again, slumber once more falling upon her spirit for a few minutes, she saw in her dream Publius himself, who approached her with a firm step, took her in his arms like a child, held her wrists to stop her struggling hands, gathered her up with rough force, and then flung her into a canoe lying at anchor by the bank of the Nile.
She fought with all her might against this attack and seizure, screamed aloud with fury, and woke at the sound of her own voice. Then she got up, dried her eyes that were wet with tears, and, after laying a freshly wetted cloth on the child's throat, she went out of doors in obedience to the physician's advice.
The sun was already at the meridian, and its direct rays were fiercely reflected from the slabs of yellow sandstone that paved the forecourt. On one side only of the wide, unroofed space, one of the colonnades that surrounded it threw a narrow shade, hardly a span wide; and she would not go there, for under it stood several beds on which lay pilgrims who, here in the very dwelling of the divinity, hoped to be visited with dreams which might give them an insight into futurity.
Klea's head was uncovered, and, fearing the heat of noon, she was about to return into the door-keeper's house, when she saw a young white-robed scribe, employed in the special service of Asclepiodorus, who came across the court beckoning eagerly to her. She went towards him, but before he had reached her he shouted out an enquiry whether her sister Irene was in the gate-keeper's lodge; the high-priest desired to speak with her, and she was nowhere to be found. Klea told him that a grand lady from the queen's court had already enquired for her, and that the last time she had seen her had been before daybreak, when she was going to fill the jars for the altar of the god at the Well of the Sun.
"The water for the first libation," answered the priest, "was placed on the altar at the right time, but Doris and her sister had to fetch it for the second and third. Asclepiodorus is angry--not with you, for he knows from Imhotep that you are taking care of a sick child--but with Irene. Try and think where she can be. Something serious must have occurred that the high-priest wishes to communicate to her."
Klea was startled, for she remembered Irene's tears the evening before, and her cry of longing for happiness and freedom. Could it be that the thoughtless child had yielded to this longing, and escaped without her knowledge, though only for a few hours, to see the city and the gay life there?
She collected herself so as not to betray her anxiety to the messenger, and said with downcast eyes:
"I will go and look for her."
She hurried back into the house, once more looked to the sick child, called his mother and showed her how to prepare the compresses, urging her to follow Imhotep's directions carefully and exactly till she should return; she pressed one loving kiss on little Philo's forehead--feeling as she did so that he was less hot than he had been in the morning--and then she left, going first to her own dwelling.
There everything stood or lay exactly as she had left it during the night, only the golden jars were wanting. This increased Klea's alarm, but the thought that Irene should have taken the precious vessels with her, in order to sell them and to live on the proceeds, never once entered her mind, for her sister, she knew, though heedless and easily persuaded, was incapable of any base action.
Where was she to seek the lost girl? Serapion, the recluse, to whom she first addressed herself, knew nothing of her.
On the altar of Serapis, whither she next went, she found both the vessels, and carried them back to her room.
Perhaps Irene had gone to see old Krates, and while watching his work and chattering to him, had forgotten the flight of time--but no, the priest-smith, whom she sought in his workshop, knew nothing of the vanished maiden. He would willingly have helped Klea to seek for his favorite, but the new lock for the tombs of the Apis had to be finished by mid-day, and his swollen feet were painful.
Klea stood outside the old man's door sunk in thought, and it occurred to her that Irene had often, in her idle hours, climbed up into the dove-cot belonging to the temple, to look out from thence over the distant landscape, to visit the sitting birds, to stuff food into the gaping beaks of the young ones, or to look up at the cloud of soaring doves. The pigeon-house, built up of clay pots and Nile-mud, stood on the top of the storehouse, which lay adjoining the southern boundary wall of the temple.
She hastened across the sunny courts and slightly shaded alleys, and mounted to the flat roof of the storehouse, but she found there neither the old dove-keeper nor his two grandsons who helped him in his work, for all three were in the anteroom to the kitchen, taking their dinner with the temple-servants.
Klea shouted her sister's name; once, twice, ten times--but no one answered. It was just as if the fierce heat of the sun burnt up the sound as it left her lips. She looked into the first pigeon-house, the second, the third, all the way to the last. The numberless little clay tenements of the brisk little birds threw out a glow like a heated oven; but this did not hinder her from hunting through every nook and corner. Her cheeks were burning, drops of perspiration stood on her brow, and she had much difficulty in freeing herself from the dust of the pigeon-houses, still she was not discouraged.
Perhaps Irene had gone into the Anubidium, or sanctuary of Asclepius, to enquire as to the meaning of some strange vision, for there, with the priestly physicians, lived also a priestess who could interpret the dreams of those who sought to be healed even better than a certain recluse who also could exercise that science. The enquirers often had to wait a long time outside the temple of Asclepius, and this consideration encouraged Klea, and made her insensible to the burning southwest wind which was now rising, and to the heat of the sun; still, as she returned to the Pastophorium--slowly, like a warrior returning from a defeat--she suffered severely from the heat, and her heart was wrung with anguish and suspense.
Willingly would she have cried, and often heaved a groan that was more like a sob, but the solace of tears to relieve her heart was still denied to her.
Before going to tell Asclepiodorus that her search had been unsuccessful, she felt prompted once more to talk with her friend, the anchorite; but before she had gone far enough even to see his cell, the high-priest's scribe once more stood in her way, and desired her to follow him to the temple. There she had to wait in mortal impatience for more than an hour in an ante room. At last she was conducted into a room where Asclepiodorus was sitting with the whole chapter of the priesthood of the temple of Serapis.
Klea entered timidly, and had to wait again some minutes in the presence of the mighty conclave before the high-priest asked her whether she could give any information as to the whereabouts of the fugitive, and whether she had heard or observed anything that could guide them on her track, since he, Asclepiodorus, knew that if Irene had run away secretly from the temple she must be as anxious about her as he was.
Klea had much difficulty in finding words, and her knees shook as she began to speak, but she refused the seat which was brought for her by order of Asclepiodorus. She recounted in order all the places where she had in vain sought her sister, and when she mentioned the sanctuary of Asclepius, and a recollection came suddenly and vividly before her of the figure of a lady of distinction, who had come there with a number of slaves and waiting-maids to have a dream interpreted, Zoe's visit to herself flashed upon her memory; her demeanor--at first so over-friendly and then so supercilious--and her haughty enquiries for Irene.
She broke off in her narrative, and exclaimed:
"I am sure, holy father, that Irene has not fled of her own free impulse, but some one perhaps may have lured her into quitting the temple and me; she is still but a child with a wavering mind. Could it possibly be that a lady of rank should have decoyed her into going with her? Such a person came to-day to see me at the door-keeper's lodge. She was richly dressed and wore a gold crescent in her light wavy hair, which was plaited with a silk ribband, and she asked me urgently about my sister. Imhotep, the physician, who often visits at the king's palace, saw her too, and told me her name is Zoe, and that she is lady-in-waiting to Queen Cleopatra."
These words occasioned the greatest excitement throughout the conclave of priests, and Asclepiodorus exclaimed:
"Oh! women, women! You indeed were right, Philammon; I could not and would not believe it! Cleopatra has done many things which are forgiven only in a queen, but that she should become the tool of her brother's basest passions, even you, Philammon, could hardly regard as likely, though you are always prepared to expect evil rather than good. But now, what is to be done? How can we protect ourselves against violence and superior force?"
Klea had appeared before the priests with cheeks crimson and glowing from the noontide heat, but at the high-priest's last words the blood left her face, she turned ashy-pale, and a chill shiver ran through her trembling limbs. Her father's child--her bright, innocent Irene--basely stolen for Euergetes, that licentious tyrant of whose wild deeds Serapion had told her only last evening, when he painted the dangers that would threaten her and Irene if they should quit the shelter of the sanctuary.
Alas, it was too true! They had tempted away her darling child, her comfort and delight, lured her with splendor and ease, only to sink her in shame! She was forced to cling to the back of the chair she had disdained, to save herself from falling.
But this weakness overmastered her for a few minutes only; she boldly took two hasty steps up to the table behind which the high-priest was sitting, and, supporting herself with her right hand upon it, she exclaimed, while her voice, usually so full and sonorous, had a hoarse tone:
"A woman has been the instrument of making another woman unworthy of the name of woman! and you--you, the protectors of right and virtue--you who are called to act according to the will and mind of the gods whom you serve--you are too weak to prevent it? If you endure this, if you do not put a stop to this crime you are not worthy--nay, I will not be interrupted--you, I say, are unworthy of the sacred title and of the reverence you claim, and I will appeal--"
"Silence, girl!" cried Asclepiodorus to the terribly excited Klea. "I would have you imprisoned with the blasphemers, if I did not well understand the anguish which has turned your brain. We will interfere on behalf of the abducted girl, and you must wait patiently in silence. You, Callimachus, must at once order Ismael, the messenger, to saddle the horses, and ride to Memphis to deliver a despatch from me to the queen; let us all combine to compose it, and subscribe our names as soon as we are perfectly certain that Irene has been carried off from these precincts. Philammon, do you command that the gong be sounded which calls together all the inhabitants of the temple; and you, my girl, quit this hall, and join the others."