The Sisters by Georg Ebers
"Pardon me if I disturb you."
With these words the anchorite's final speech was interrupted by Eulaeus, who had come in to the Pastophorium softly and unobserved, and who now bowed respectfully to Publius.
"May I be permitted to enquire on what compact one of the noblest of the sons of Rome is joining hands with this singular personage?"
"You are free to ask," replied Publius shortly and drily, "but every one is not disposed to answer, and on the present occasion I am not. I will bid you farewell, Serapion, but not for long I believe."
"Am I permitted to accompany you?" asked Eulaeus.
"You have followed me without any permission on my part."
"I did so by order of the king, and am only fulfilling his commands in offering you my escort now."
"I shall go on, and I cannot prevent your following me."
"But I beg of you," said Eulaeus, "to consider that it would ill-become me to walk behind you like a servant."
"I respect the wishes of my host, the king, who commanded you to follow me," answered the Roman. "At the door of the temple however you can get into your chariot, and I into mine; an old courtier must be ready to carry out the orders of his superior."
"And does carry them out," answered Eulaeus with deference, but his eyes twinkled--as the forked tongue of a serpent is rapidly put out and still more rapidly withdrawn--with a flash first of threatening hatred, and then another of deep suspicion cast at the roll the Roman held in his hand.
Publius heeded not this glance, but walked quickly towards the acacia-grove; the recluse looked after the ill-matched pair, and as he watched the burly Eulaeus following the young man, he put both his hands on his hips, puffed out his fat cheeks, and burst into loud laughter as soon as the couple had vanished behind the acacias.
When once Serapion's midriff was fairly tickled it was hard to reduce it to calm again, and he was still laughing when Klea appeared in front of his cell some few minutes after the departure of the Roman. He was about to receive his young friend with a cheerful greeting, but, glancing at her face, he cried anxiously;
"You look as if you had met with a ghost; your lips are pale instead of red, and there are dark shades round your eyes. What has happened to you, child? Irene went with you to the procession, that I know. Have you had bad news of your parents? You shake your head. Come, child, perhaps you are thinking of some one more than you ought; how the color rises in your cheeks! Certainly handsome Publius, the Roman, must have looked into your eyes--a splendid youth is he--a fine young man--a capital good fellow--"
"Say no more on that subject," Klea exclaimed, interrupting her friend and protector, and waving her hand in the air as if to cut off the other half of Serapion's speech. "I can hear nothing more about him."
"Has he addressed you unbecomingly?" asked the recluse.
"Yes!" said Klea, turning crimson, and with a vehemence quite foreign to her usual gentle demeanor, "yes, he persecutes me incessantly with challenging looks."
"Only with looks?" said the anchorite. "But we may look even at the glorious sun and at the lovely flowers as much as we please, and they are not offended."
"The sun is too high and the soulless flowers too humble for a man to hurt them," replied Klea. "But the Roman is neither higher nor lower than I, the eye speaks as plain a language as the tongue, and what his eyes demand of me brings the blood to my cheeks and stirs my indignation even now when I only think of it."
"And that is why you avoid his gaze so carefully?"
"Who told you that?"
"Publius himself; and because he is wounded by your hard-heartedness he meant to quit Egypt; but I have persuaded him to remain, for if there is a mortal living from whom I expect any good for you and yours--"
"It is certainly not he," said Klea positively. "You are a man, and perhaps you now think that so long as you were young and free to wander about the world you would not have acted differently from him--it is a man's privilege; but if you could look into my soul or feel with the heart of a woman, you would think differently. Like the sand of the desert which is blown over the meadows and turns all the fresh verdure to a hideous brown-like a storm that transforms the blue mirror of the sea into a crisped chaos of black whirl pools and foaming ferment, this man's imperious audacity has cruelly troubled my peace of heart. Four times his eyes pursued me in the processions; yesterday I still did not recognize my danger, but to-day--I must tell you, for you are like a father to me, and who else in the world can I confide in?--to-day I was able to avoid his gaze, and yet all through long endless hours of the festival I felt his eyes constantly seeking mine. I should have been certain I was under no delusion, even if Publius Scipio--but what business has his name on my lips?--even if the Roman had not boasted to you of his attacks on a defenceless girl. And to think that you, you of all others, should have become his ally! But you would not, no indeed you would not, if you knew how I felt at the procession while I was looking down at the ground, and knew that his very look desecrated me like the rain that washed all the blossoms off the young vine-shoots last year. It was just as if he were drawing a net round my heart--but, oh! what a net! It was as if the flax on a distaff had been set on fire, and the flames spun out into thin threads, and the meshes knotted of the fiery yarn. I felt every thread and knot burning into my soul, and could not cast it off nor even defend myself. Aye! you may look grieved and shake your head, but so it was, and the scars hurt me still with a pain I cannot utter."
"But Klea," interrupted Serapion, "you are quite beside yourself--like one possessed. Go to the temple and pray, or, if that is of no avail, go to Asclepios or Anubis and have the demon cast out."
"I need none of your gods!" answered the girl in great agitation. "Oh! I wish you had left me to my fate, and that we had shared the lot of our parents, for what threatens us here is more frightful than having to sift gold-dust in the scorching sun, or to crush quartz in mortars. I did not come to you to speak about the Roman, but to tell you what the high-priest had just disclosed to me since the procession ended."
"Well?" asked Serapion eager and almost frightened, stretching out his neck to put his head near to the girl's, and opening his eyes so wide that the loose skin below them almost disappeared.
"First he told me," replied Klea, "how meagrely the revenues of the temple are supplied--"
"That is quite true," interrupted the anchorite, "for Antiochus carried off the best part of its treasure; and the crown, which always used to have money to spare for the sanctuaries of Egypt, now loads our estates with heavy tribute; but you, as it seems to me, were kept scantily enough, worse than meanly, for, as I know--since it passed through my hands--a sum was paid to the temple for your maintenance which would have sufficed to keep ten hungry sailors, not speak of two little pecking birds like you, and besides that you do hard service without any pay. Indeed it would be a more profitable speculation to steal a beggar's rags than to rob you! Well, what did the high-priest want?"
"He says that we have been fed and protected by the priesthood for five years, that now some danger threatens the temple on our account, and that we must either quit the sanctuary or else make up our minds to take the place of the twin-sisters Arsinoe and Doris who have hitherto been employed in singing the hymns of lamentation, as Isis and Nephthys, by the bier of the deceased god on the occasion of the festivals of the dead, and in pouring out the libations with wailing and outcries when the bodies were brought into the temple to be blessed. These maidens, Asclepiodorus says, are now too old and ugly for these duties, but the temple is bound to maintain them all their lives. The funds of the temple are insufficient to support two more serving maidens besides them and us, and so Arsinoe and Doris are only to pour out the libations for the future, and we are to sing the laments, and do the wailing."
"But you are not twins!" cried Serapion. "And none but twins--so say the ordinances--may mourn for Osiris as Isis and Neplithys."
"They will make twins of us!" said Klea with a scornful turn of her lip. "Irene's hair is to be dyed black like mine, and the soles of her sandals are to be made thicker to make her as tall as I am."
"They would hardly succeed in making you smaller than you are, and it is easier to make light hair dark than dark hair light," said Serapion with hardly suppressed rage. "And what answer did you give to these exceedingly original proposals?"
"The only one I could very well give. I said no--but I declared myself ready, not from fear, but because we owe much to the temple, to perform any other service with Irene, only not this one."
"He said nothing unkind to me, and preserved his calm and polite demeanor when I contradicted him, though he fixed his eyes on me several times in astonishment as if he had discovered in me something quite new and strange. At last he went on to remind me how much trouble the temple singing-master had taken with us, how well my low voice went with Irene's high one, how much applause we might gain by a fine performance of the hymns of lamentation, and how he would be willing, if we undertook the duties of the twin-sisters, to give us a better dwelling and more abundant food. I believe he has been trying to make us amenable by supplying us badly with food, just as falcons are trained by hunger. Perhaps I am doing him an injustice, but I feel only too much disposed to-day to think the worst of him and of the other fathers. Be that as it may; at any rate he made me no further answer when I persisted in my refusal, but dismissed me with an injunction to present myself before him again in three days' time, and then to inform him definitively whether I would conform to his wishes, or if I proposed to leave the temple. I bowed and went towards the door, and was already on the threshold when he called me back once more, and said: 'Remember your parents and their fate!' He spoke solemnly, almost threateningly, but he said no more and hastily turned his back on me. What could he mean to convey by this warning? Every day and every hour I think of my father and mother, and keep Irene in mind of them."
The recluse at these words sat muttering thoughtfully to himself for a few minutes with a discontented air; then he said gravely:
"Asclepiodorus meant more by his speech than you think. Every sentence with which he dismisses a refractory subordinate is a nut of which the shell must be cracked in order to get at the kernel. When he tells you to remember your parents and their sad fate, such words from his lips, and under the present circumstances, can hardly mean anything else than this: that you should not forget how easily your father's fate might overtake you also, if once you withdrew yourselves from the protection of the temple. It was not for nothing that Asclepiodorus--as you yourself told me quite lately, not more than a week ago I am sure--reminded you how often those condemned to forced labor in the mines had their relations sent after them. Ah! child, the words of Asclepiodorus have a sinister meaning. The calmness and pride, with which you look at me make me fear for you, and yet, as you know, I am not one of the timid and tremulous. Certainly what they propose to you is repulsive enough, but submit to it; it is to be hoped it will not be for long. Do it for my sake and for that of poor Irene, for though you might know how to assert your dignity and take care of yourself outside these walls in the rough and greedy world, little Irene never could. And besides, Klea, my sweetheart, we have now found some one, who makes your concerns his, and who is great and powerful--but oh! what are three clays? To think of seeing you turned out--and then that you may be driven with a dissolute herd in a filthy boat down to the burning south, and dragged to work which kills first the soul and then the body! No, it is not possible! You will never let this happen to me--and to yourself and Irene; no, my darling, no, my pet, my sweetheart, you cannot, you will not do so. Are you not my children, my daughters, my only joy? and you, would you go away, and leave me alone in my cage, all because you are so proud!"
The strong man's voice failed him, and heavy drops fell from his eyes one after another down his beard, and on to Klea's arm, which he had grasped with both hands.
The girl's eyes too were dim with a mist of warm tears when she saw her rough friend weeping, but she remained firm and said, as she tried to free her hand from his:
"You know very well, father Serapion, that there is much to tie me to this temple; my sister, and you, and the door-keeper's child, little Philo. It would be cruel, dreadful to have to leave you; but I would rather endure that and every other grief than allow Irene to take the place of Arsinoe or the black Doris as wailing woman. Think of that bright child, painted and kneeling at the foot of a bier and groaning and wailing in mock sorrow! She would become a living lie in human form, an object of loathing to herself, and to me--who stand in the place of a mother to her--from morning till night a martyrizing reproach! But what do I care about myself--I would disguise myself as the goddess without even making a wry face, and be led to the bier, and wail and groan so that every hearer would be cut to the heart, for my soul is already possessed by sorrow; it is like the eyes of a man, who has gone blind from the constant flow of salt tears. Perhaps singing the hymns of lamentation might relieve my soul, which is as full of sorrow as an overbrimming cup; but I would rather that a cloud should for ever darken the sun, that mists should hide every star from my eyes, and the air I breathe be poisoned by black smoke than disguise her identity, and darken her soul, or let her clear laugh be turned to shrieks of lamentation, and her fresh and childlike spirit be buried in gloomy mourning. Sooner will I go way with her and leave even you, to perish with my parents in misery and anguish than see that happen, or suffer it for a moment."
As she spoke Serapion covered his face with his hands, and Klea, hastily turning away from him, with a deep sigh returned to her room.
Irene was accustomed when she heard her step to hasten to meet her, but to-day no one came to welcome her, and in their room, which was beginning to be dark as twilight fell, she did not immediately catch sight of her sister, for she was sitting all in a heap in a corner of the room, her face hidden, in her hands and weeping quietly.
"What is the matter?" asked Klea, going tenderly up to the weeping child, over whom she bent, endeavoring to raise her.
"Leave me," said Irene sobbing; she turned away from her sister with an impatient gesture, repelling her caress like a perverse child; and then, when Klea tried to soothe her by affectionately stroking her hair, she sprang up passionately exclaiming through her tears:
"I could not help crying--and, from this hour, I must always have to cry. The Corinthian Lysias spoke to me so kindly after the procession, and you--you don't care about me at all and leave me alone all this time in this nasty dusty hole! I declare I will not endure it any longer, and if you try to keep me shut up, I will run away from this temple, for outside it is all bright and pleasant, and here it is dingy and horrid!"