The Sisters by Georg Ebers
The low brick building of which the sisters' room formed a part, was called the Pastophorium, and it was occupied also by other persons attached to the service of the temple, and by numbers of pilgrims. These assembled here from all parts of Egypt, and were glad to pass a night under the protection of the sanctuary.
Irene, when she quitted her sister, went past many doors--which had been thrown open after sunrise--hastily returning the greetings of many strange as well as familiar faces, for all glanced after her kindly as though to see her thus early were an omen of happy augury, and she soon reached an outbuilding adjoining the northern end of the Pastophorium; here there was no door, but at the level of about a man's height from the ground there were six unclosed windows opening on the road. From the first of these the pale and much wrinkled face of an old man looked down on the girl as she approached. She shouted up to him in cheerful accents the greeting familiar to the Hellenes "Rejoice!" But he, without moving his lips, gravely and significantly signed to her with his lean hand and with a glance from his small, fixed and expressionless eyes that she should wait, and then handed out to her a wooden trencher on which lay a few dates and half a cake of bread.
"For the altar of the god?" asked the girl. The old man nodded assent, and Irene went on with her small load, with the assurance of a person who knows exactly what is required of her; but after going a few steps and before she had reached the last of the six windows she paused, for she plainly heard voices and steps, and presently, at the end of the Pastophorium towards which she was proceeding and which opened into a small grove of acacias dedicated to Serapis--which was of much greater extent outside the enclosing wall--appeared a little group of men whose appearance attracted her attention; but she was afraid to go on towards the strangers, so, leaning close up to the wall of the houses, she awaited their departure, listening the while to what they were saying.
In front of these early visitors to the temple walked a man with a long staff in his right hand speaking to the two gentlemen who followed, with the air of a professional guide, who is accustomed to talk as if he were reading to his audience out of an invisible book, and whom the hearers are unwilling to interrupt with questions, because they know that his knowledge scarcely extends beyond exactly what he says. Of his two remarkable-looking hearers one was wrapped in a long and splendid robe and wore a rich display of gold chains and rings, while the other wore nothing over his short chiton but a Roman toga thrown over his left shoulder.
His richly attired companion was an old man with a full and beardless face and thin grizzled hair. Irene gazed at him with admiration and astonishment, but when she had feasted her eyes on the stuffs and ornaments he wore, she fixed them with much greater interest and attention on the tall and youthful figure at his side.
"Like Hui, the cook's fat poodle, beside a young lion," thought she to herself, as she noted the bustling step of the one and the independent and elastic gait of the other. She felt irresistibly tempted to mimic the older man, but this audacious impulse was soon quelled for scarcely had the guide explained to the Roman that it was here that those pious recluses had their cells who served the god in voluntary captivity, as being consecrated to Serapis, and that they received their food through those windows--here he pointed upwards with his staff when suddenly a shutter, which the cicerone of this ill-matched pair had touched with his stick, flew open with as much force and haste as if a violent gust of wind had caught it, and flung it back against the wall.--And no less suddenly a man's head-of ferocious aspect and surrounded by a shock of gray hair like a lion's mane--looked out of the window and shouted to him who had knocked, in a deep and somewhat overloud voice.
"If my shutter had been your back, you impudent rascal, your stick would have hit the right thing. Or if I had a cudgel between my teeth instead of a tongue, I would exercise it on you till it was as tired as that of a preacher who has threshed his empty straw to his congregation for three mortal hours. Scarcely is the sun risen when we are plagued by the parasitical and inquisitive mob. Why! they will rouse us at midnight next, and throw stones at our rotten old shutters. The effects of my last greeting lasted you for three weeks--to-day's I hope may act a little longer. You, gentlemen there, listen to me. Just as the raven follows an army to batten on the dead, so that fellow there stalks on in front of strangers in order to empty their pockets--and you, who call yourself an interpreter, and in learning Greek have forgotten the little Egyptian you ever knew, mark this: When you have to guide strangers take them to see the Sphinx, or to consult the Apis in the temple of Ptah, or lead them to the king's beast-garden at Alexandria, or the taverns at Hanopus, but don't bring them here, for we are neither pheasants, nor flute-playing women, nor miraculous beasts, who take a pleasure in being stared at. You, gentlemen, ought to choose a better guide than this chatter-mag that keeps up its perpetual rattle when once you set it going. As to yourselves I will tell you one thing: Inquisitive eyes are intrusive company, and every prudent house holder guards himself against them by keeping his door shut."
Irene shrank back and flattened herself against the pilaster which concealed her, for the shutter closed again with a slam, the recluse pulling it to with a rope attached to its outer edge, and he was hidden from the gaze of the strangers; but only for an instant, for the rusty hinges on which the shutter was hanging were not strong enough to bear such violent treatment, and slowly giving way it was about to fall. The blustering hermit stretched out an arm to support it and save it; but it was heavy, and his efforts would not have succeeded had not the young man in Roman dress given his assistance and lifted up the shutter with his hand and shoulder, without any effort, as if it were made of willow laths instead of strong planks.
"A little higher still," shouted the recluse to his assistant. "Let us set the thing on its edge! so, push away, a little more. There, I have propped up the wretched thing and there it may lie. If the bats pay me a visit to-night I will think of you and give them your best wishes."
"You may save yourself that trouble," replied the young man with cool dignity. "I will send you a carpenter who shall refix the shutter, and we offer you our apologies for having been the occasion of the mischief that has happened."
The old man did not interrupt the speaker, but, when he had stared at him from head to foot, he said: "You are strong and you speak fairly, and I might like you well enough if you were in other company. I don't want your carpenter; only send me down a hammer, a wedge, and a few strong nails. Now, you can do nothing more for me, so pack off"
"We are going at once," said the more handsomely dressed visitor in a thin and effeminate voice. "What can a man do when the boys pelt him with dirt from a safe hiding-place, but take himself off"
"Be off, be off," said the person thus described, with a laugh. "As far off as Samothrace if you like, fat Eulaeus; you can scarcely have forgotten the way there since you advised the king to escape thither with all his treasure. But if you cannot trust yourself to find it alone, I recommend you your interpreter and guide there to show you the road."
The Eunuch Eulaeus, the favorite councillor of King Ptolemy--called Philometor (the lover of his mother)--turned pale at these words, cast a sinister glance at the old man and beckoned to the young Roman; he however was not inclined to follow, for the scolding old oddity had taken his fancy--perhaps because he was conscious that the old man, who generally showed no reserve in his dislikes, had a liking for him. Besides, he found nothing to object to in his opinion of his companions, so he turned to Eulaeus and said courteously:
"Accept my best thanks for your company so far, and do not let me detain you any longer from your more important occupations on my account."
Eulaeus bowed and replied, "I know what my duty is. The king entrusted me with your safe conduct; permit me therefore to wait for you under the acacias yonder."
When Eulaeus and the guide had reached the green grove, Irene hoped to find an opportunity to prefer her petition, but the Roman had stopped in front of the old man's cell, and had begun a conversation with him which she could not venture to interrupt. She set down the platter with the bread and dates that had been entrusted to her on a projecting stone by her side with a little sigh, crossed her arms and feet as she leaned against the wall, and pricked up her ears to hear their talk.
"I am not a Greek," said the youth, "and you are quite mistaken in thinking that I came to Egypt and to see you out of mere curiosity."
"But those who come only to pray in the temple," interrupted the other, "do not--as it seems to me--choose an Eulaeus for a companion, or any such couple as those now waiting for you under the acacias, and invoking anything rather than blessings on your head; at any rate, for my own part, even if I were a thief I would not go stealing in their company. What then brought you to Serapis?"
"It is my turn now to accuse you of curiosity!"
"By all means," cried the old man, "I am an honest dealer and quite willing to take back the coin I am ready to pay away. Have you come to have a dream interpreted, or to sleep in the temple yonder and have a face revealed to you?"
"Do I look so sleepy," said the Roman, "as to want to go to bed again now, only an hour after sunrise?"
"It may be," said the recluse, "that you have not yet fairly come to the end of yesterday, and that at the fag-end of some revelry it occurred to you that you might visit us and sleep away your headache at Serapis."
"A good deal of what goes on outside these walls seems to come to your ears," retorted the Roman, "and if I were to meet you in the street I should take you for a ship's captain or a master-builder who had to manage a number of unruly workmen. According to what I heard of you and those like you in Athens and elsewhere, I expected to find you something quite different."
"What did you expect?" said Serapion laughing. "I ask you notwithstanding the risk of being again considered curious."
"And I am very willing to answer," retorted the other, "but if I were to tell you the whole truth I should run into imminent danger of being sent off as ignominiously as my unfortunate guide there."
"Speak on," said the old man, "I keep different garments for different men, and the worst are not for those who treat me to that rare dish--a little truth. But before you serve me up so bitter a meal tell me, what is your name?"
"Shall I call the guide?" said the Roman with an ironical laugh. "He can describe me completely, and give you the whole history of my family. But, joking apart, my name is Publius."
"The name of at least one out of every three of your countrymen."
"I am of the Cornelia gens and of the family of the Scipios," continued the youth in a low voice, as though he would rather avoid boasting of his illustrious name.
"Indeed, a noble gentleman, a very grand gentleman!" said the recluse, bowing deeply out of his window. "But I knew that beforehand, for at your age and with such slender ankles to his long legs only a nobleman could walk as you walk. Then Publius Cornelius--"
"Nay, call me Scipio, or rather by my first name only, Publius," the youth begged him. "You are called Serapion, and I will tell you what you wish to know. When I was told that in this temple there were people who had themselves locked into their little chambers never to quit them, taking thought about their dreams and leading a meditative life, I thought they must be simpletons or fools or both at once."
"Just so, just so," interrupted Serapion. "But there is a fourth alternative you did not think of. Suppose now among these men there should be some shut up against their will, and what if I were one of those prisoners? I have asked you a great many questions and you have not hesitated to answer, and you may know how I got into this miserable cage and why I stay in it. I am the son of a good family, for my father was overseer of the granaries of this temple and was of Macedonian origin, but my mother was an Egyptian. I was born in an evil hour, on the twenty-seventh day of the month of Paophi, a day which it is said in the sacred books that it is an evil day and that the child that is born in it must be kept shut up or else it will die of a snake-bite. In consequence of this luckless prediction many of those born on the same day as myself were, like me, shut up at an early age in this cage. My father would very willingly have left me at liberty, but my uncle, a caster of horoscopes in the temple of Ptah, who was all in all in my mother's estimation, and his friends with him, found many other evil signs about my body, read misfortune for me in the stars, declared that the Hathors had destined me to nothing but evil, and set upon her so persistently that at last I was destined to the cloister--we lived here at Memphis. I owe this misery to my dear mother and it was out of pure affection that she brought it upon me. You look enquiringly at me--aye, boy! life will teach you too the lesson that the worst hate that can be turned against you often entails less harm upon you than blind tenderness which knows no reason. I learned to read and write, and all that is usually taught to the priests' sons, but never to accommodate myself to my lot, and I never shall.--Well, when my beard grew I succeeded in escaping and I lived for a time in the world. I have been even to Rome, to Carthage, and in Syria; but at last I longed to drink Nile-water once more and I returned to Egypt. Why? Because, fool that I was, I fancied that bread and water with captivity tasted better in my own country than cakes and wine with freedom in the land of the stranger.
"In my father's house I found only my mother still living, for my father had died of grief. Before my flight she had been a tall, fine woman, when I came home I found her faded and dying. Anxiety for me, a miserable wretch, had consumed her, said the physician--that was the hardest thing to bear. When at last the poor, good little woman, who could so fondly persuade me--a wild scamp--implored me on her death-bed to return to my retreat, I yielded, and swore to her that I would stay in my prison patiently to the end, for I am as water is in northern countries, a child may turn me with its little hand or else I am as hard and as cold as crystal. My old mother died soon after I had taken this oath. I kept my word as you see--and you have seen too how I endure my fate."
"Patiently enough," replied Publius, "I should writhe in my chains far more rebelliously than you, and I fancy it must do you good to rage and storm sometimes as you did just now."
"As much good as sweet wine from Chios!" exclaimed the anchorite, smacking his lips as if he tasted the noble juice of the grape, and stretching his matted head as far as possible out of the window. Thus it happened that he saw Irene, and called out to her in a cheery voice:
"What are you doing there, child? You are standing as if you were waiting to say good-morning to good fortune."
The girl hastily took up the trencher, smoothed down her hair with her other hand, and as she approached the men, coloring slightly, Publius feasted his eyes on her in surprise and admiration.
But Serapion's words had been heard by another person, who now emerged from the acacia-grove and joined the young Roman, exclaiming before he came up with them:
"Waiting for good fortune! does the old man say? And you can hear it said, Publius, and not reply that she herself must bring good fortune wherever she appears."
The speaker was a young Greek, dressed with extreme care, and he now stuck the pomegranate-blossom he carried in his hand behind his ear, so as to shake hands with his friend Publius; then he turned his fair, saucy, almost girlish face with its finely-cut features up to the recluse, wishing to attract his attention to himself by his next speech.
"With Plato's greeting 'to deal fairly and honestly' do I approach you!" he cried; and then he went on more quietly: "But indeed you can hardly need such a warning, for you belong to those who know how to conquer true--that is the inner--freedom; for who can be freer than he who needs nothing? And as none can be nobler than the freest of the free, accept the tribute of my respect, and scorn not the greeting of Lysias of Corinth, who, like Alexander, would fain exchange lots with you, the Diogenes of Egypt, if it were vouchsafed to him always to see out the window of your mansion--otherwise not very desirable--the charming form of this damsel--"
"That is enough, young man," said Serapion, interrupting the Greek's flow of words. "This young girl belongs to the temple, and any one who is tempted to speak to her as if she were a flute-player will have to deal with me, her protector. Yes, with me; and your friend here will bear me witness that it may not be altogether to your advantage to have a quarrel with such as I. Now, step back, young gentlemen, and let the girl tell me what she needs."
When Irene stood face to face with the anchorite, and had told him quickly and in a low voice what she had done, and that her sister Klea was even now waiting for her return, Serapion laughed aloud, and then said in a low tone, but gaily, as a father teases his daughter:
"She has eaten enough for two, and here she stands, on her tiptoes, reaching up to my window, as if it were not an over-fed girl that stood in her garments, but some airy sprite. We may laugh, but Klea, poor thing, she must be hungry?"
Irene made no reply, but she stood taller on tiptoe than ever, put her face up to Serapion, nodding her pretty head at him again and again, and as she looked roguishly and yet imploringly into his eyes Serapion went on:
"And so I am to give my breakfast to Klea, that is what you want; but unfortunately that breakfast is a thing of the past and beyond recall; nothing is left of it but the date-stones. But there, on the trencher in your hand, is a nice little meal."
"That is the offering to Serapis sent by old Phibis," answered the girl.
"Hm, hm--oh! of course!" muttered the old man. "So long as it is for a god--surely he might do without it better than a poor famishing girl."
Then he went on, gravely and emphatically, as a teacher who has made an incautious speech before his pupils endeavors to rectify it by another of more solemn import.
"Certainly, things given into our charge should never be touched; besides, the gods first and man afterwards. Now if only I knew what to do. But, by the soul of my father! Serapis himself sends us what we need. Step close up to me, noble Scipio--or Publius, if I may so call you--and look out towards the acacias. Do you see my favorite, your cicerone, and the bread and roast fowls that your slave has brought him in that leathern wallet? And now he is setting a wine-jar on the carpet he has spread at the big feet of Eulaeus--they will be calling you to share the meal in a minute, but I know of a pretty child who is very hungry--for a little white cat stole away her breakfast this morning. Bring me half a loaf and the wing of a fowl, and a few pomegranates if you like, or one of the peaches Eulaeus is so judiciously fingering. Nay--you may bring two of them, I have a use for both."
"Serapion!" exclaimed Irene in mild reproof and looking down at the ground; but the Greek answered with prompt zeal, "More, much more than that I can bring you. I hasten--"
"Stay here," interrupted Publius with decision, holding him back by the shoulder. "Serapion's request was addressed to me, and I prefer to do my friend's pleasure in my own person."
"Go then," cried the Greek after Publius as he hurried away. "You will not allow me even thanks from the sweetest lips in Memphis. Only look, Serapion, what a hurry he is in. And now poor Eulaeus has to get up; a hippopotamus might learn from him how to do so with due awkwardness. Well! I call that making short work of it--a Roman never asks before he takes; he has got all he wants and Eulaeus looks after him like a cow whose calf has been stolen from her; to be sure I myself would rather eat peaches than see them carried away! Oh if only the people in the Forum could see him now! Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, own grandson to the great Africanus, serving like a slave at a feast with a dish in each hand! Well Publius, what has Rome the all conquering brought home this time in token of victory?"
"Sweet peaches and a roast pheasant," said Cornelius laughing, and he handed two dishes into the anchorite's window; "there is enough left still for the old man."
"Thanks, many thanks!" cried Serapion, beckoning to Irene, and he gave her a golden-yellow cake of wheaten bread, half of the roast bird, already divided by Eulaeus, and two peaches, and whispered to her: "Klea may come for the rest herself when these men are gone. Now thank this kind gentleman and go."
For an instant the girl stood transfixed, her face crimson with confusion and her glistening white teeth set in her nether lip, speechless, face to face with the young Roman and avoiding the earnest gaze of his black eyes. Then she collected herself and said:
"You are very kind. I cannot make any pretty speeches, but I thank you most kindly."
"And your very kind thanks," replied Publius, "add to the delights of this delightful morning. I should very much like to possess one of the violets out of your hair in remembrance of this day--and of you."
"Take them all," exclaimed Irene, hastily taking the bunch from her hair and holding them out to the Roman; but before he could take them she drew back her hand and said with an air of importance:
"The queen has had them in her hand. My sister Klea got them yesterday in the procession."
Scipio's face grew grave at these words, and he asked with commanding brevity and sharpness:
"Has your sister black hair and is she taller than you are, and did she wear a golden fillet in the procession? Did she give you these flowers? Yes--do you say? Well then, she had the bunch from me, but although she accepted them she seems to have taken very little pleasure in them, for what we value we do not give away--so there they may go, far enough!"
With these words he flung the flowers over the house and then he went on:
"But you, child, you shall be held guiltless of their loss. Give me your pomegranate-flower, Lysias!"
"Certainly not," replied the Greek. "You chose to do pleasure to your friend Serapion in your own person when you kept me from going to fetch the peaches, and now I desire to offer this flower to the fair Irene with my own hand."
"Take this flower," said Publius, turning his back abruptly on the girl, while Lysias laid the blossom on the trencher in the maiden's hand; she felt the rough manners of the young Roman as if she had been touched by a hard hand; she bowed silently and timidly and then quickly ran home.
Publius looked thoughtfully after her till Lysias called out to him:
"What has come over me? Has saucy Eros perchance wandered by mistake into the temple of gloomy Serapis this morning?"
"That would not be wise," interrupted the recluse, "for Cerberus, who lies at the foot of our God, would soon pluck the fluttering wings of the airy youngster," and as he spoke he looked significantly at the Greek.
"Aye! if he let himself be caught by the three-headed monster," laughed Lysias. "But come away now, Publius; Eulaeus has waited long enough."
"You go to him then," answered the Roman, "I will follow soon; but first I have a word to say to Serapion."
Since Irene's disappearance, the old man had turned his attention to the acacia-grove where Eulaeus was still feasting. When the Roman addressed him he said, shaking his great head with dissatisfaction:
"Your eyes of course are no worse than mine. Only look at that man munching and moving his jaws and smacking his lips. By Serapis! you can tell the nature of a man by watching him eat. You know I sit in my cage unwillingly enough, but I am thankful for one thing about it, and that is that it keeps me far from all that such a creature as Eulaeus calls enjoyment--for such enjoyment, I tell you, degrades a man."
"Then you are more of a philosopher than you wish to seem," replied Publius.
"I wish to seem nothing," answered the anchorite.
"For it is all the same to me what others think of me. But if a man who has nothing to do and whose quiet is rarely disturbed, and who thinks his own thoughts about many things is a philosopher, you may call me one if you like. If at any time you should need advice you may come here again, for I like you, and you might be able to do me an important service."
"Only speak," interrupted the Roman, "I should be glad from my heart to be of any use to you."
"Not now," said Serapion softly. "But come again when you have time--without your companions there, of course--at any rate without Eulaeus, who of all the scoundrels I ever came across is the very worst. It may be as well to tell you at once that what I might require of you would concern not myself but the weal or woe of the water-bearers, the two maidens you have seen and who much need protection."
"I came here for my parents' sake and for Klea's, and not on your account," said Publius frankly. "There is something in her mien and in her eyes which perhaps may repel others but which attracts me. How came so admirable a creature in your temple?"
"When you come again," replied the recluse, "I will tell you the history of the sisters and what they owe to Eulaeus. Now go, and understand me when I say the girls are well guarded. This observation is for the benefit of the Greek who is but a heedless fellow; but you, when you know who the girls are, will help me to protect them."
"That I would do as it is, with real pleasure," replied Publius; he took leave of the recluse and called out to Eulaeus.
"What a delightful morning it has been!"
"It would have been pleasanter for me," replied Eulaeus, "if you had not deprived me of your company for such a long time."
"That is to say," answered the Roman, "that I have stayed away longer than I ought."
"You behave after the fashion of your race," said the other bowing low. "They have kept even kings waiting in their ante-chambers."
"But you do not wear a crown," said Publius evasively. "And if any one should know how to wait it is an old courtier, who--"
"When it is at the command of his sovereign," interrupted Eulaeus, the old courtier may submit, even when youngsters choose to treat him with contempt."
"That hits us both," said Publius, turning to Lysias. "Now you may answer him, I have heard and said enough."