Serapis by Georg Ebers
The young soldier was heartily welcomed by his friends of the merchant's family; but old Damia was a little uneasy at the attitude which he and Gorgo had taken up after their first greeting. He was agitated and grave, she was eager and excited, with an air of determined enterprise.
Was Eros at the bottom of it all? Were the young people going to carry out the jest of their childhood in sober earnest? The young officer was handsome and attractive enough, and her granddaughter after all was but a woman.
So far as Constantine was concerned the old lady had no personal objection to him; nay, she appreciated his steady, grave manliness and, for his own sake, was very glad to see him once more; but to contemplate the ship-builder's son--the grandson of a freedman--a Christian and devoted to the Emperor, even though he were a prefect or of even higher grade--as a possible suitor for her Gorgo, the beautiful heiress of the greater part of her wealth--the centre of attraction to all the gilded youth of Alexandria--this was too much for her philosophy; and, as she had never in her life restrained the expression of her sentiments, though she gave him a friendly hand and the usual greeting, she very soon showed him, by her irony and impertinence, that she was as hostile to his creed as ever.
She put her word in on every subject, and when, presently, Demetrius--who, after Dada's rebuff, had come on to see his uncle--began speaking of the horses he had been breeding for Marcus, and Constantine enquired whether any Arabs from his stables were to be purchased in the town, Damia broke out:
"You out-do your crucified God in most things I observe! He could ride on an ass, and a stout Egyptian nag is not good enough for you."
However, the young officer was not to be provoked; and though he was very well able to hold his own in a strife of words, he kept himself under control and pretended to see nothing in the old woman's taunts but harmless jesting.
Gorgo triumphed in his temperate demeanor, and thanked him with grateful glances and a silent grasp of the hand when opportunity offered.
Demetrius, who had also known Constantine as a boy, and who, through Porphyrius, had sold him his first charger, met him very warmly and told him with a laugh that he had seen him before that day, that he had evidently learnt something on his travels, that he had tracked the prettiest head of game in all the city; and he slapped him on the shoulder and gave him what he meant to be a very knowing glance. Constantine could not think where Demetrius had seen him or what he meant; while Gorgo supposed that he alluded to her, and thought him perfectly odious.
Porphyrius pelted the prefect with questions which Constantine was very ready to answer, till they were interrupted by some commotion in the garden. On looking out they saw a strange and unpleasing procession, headed by Herse who was scolding, thumping and dragging Dada's Egyptian slave, while her husband followed, imploring her to moderate her fury. Behind them came Orpheus, now and then throwing out a persuasive word to soothe the indignant matron. This party soon came up with the others, and Herse, unasked, poured out an explanation of her wrath.
She had had but a brief interview with Mary, Marcus' mother, for she had positively opposed the Christian lady's suggestion that Karnis and his family would do well to quit Alexandria as soon as possible, accepting an indemnification from Mary herself. To the widow's threats of seeking the intervention of the law, she had retorted that they were not public singers but free citizens who performed for their own enjoyment; to the anxious mother's complaints that Dada was doing all she could to attract Marcus, she had answered promptly and to the point that her niece's good name would certainly out-weigh anything that could be said against a young man to whom so much license was allowed in Alexandria. She would find some means of protecting her own sister's child. Mary had replied that Herse would do well to remember that she--Mary--had means at her command of bringing justice down on those who should attempt to entrap a Christian youth, and tempt him into the path of sin.
This had closed the interview. Herse had found her husband and son waiting for her at the door of Mary's house and had at once returned with them to the ship. There an unpleasant surprise awaited them; they had found no one on board but the Egyptian slave, who told them that Dada had sent her on shore to procure her some sandals; on her return the girl had vanished. The woman at the same time declared that she had seen Agne and her brother leave the garden and make for the high-road.
So far as the Christian girl was concerned Herse declared there would be no difficulty; but Dada, her own niece, had always clung to them faithfully, and though Alexandria was full of sorcerers and Magians they could hardly succeed in making away with a fullgrown, rational, and healthy girl. In her inexperience she had, no doubt, gone at the bidding of some perfidious wretch, and the Egyptian witch, the brown slave had, of course, had a finger in the trick. She would accuse no one, but she knew some people who would be only too glad if Dada and that baby-faced young Christian got into trouble and disgrace together. She delivered herself of this long story with tears of rage and regret, angrily refusing to admit any qualifying parentheses from her husband, to whose natural delicacy her rough and vociferous complaints were offensive in the presence of the high-bred ladies of the house. Old Damia, however, had listened attentively to her indignant torrent of words, and had only shrugged her shoulders with a scornful smile at the implied accusation of herself.
Porphyrius, to whom the whole business was simply revolting, questioned Herse closely and when the facts were clearly established, and it also was plainly proved that Agne had escaped from the garden, he desired the slave-woman to tell her story of all that had occurred during the absence of Karnis, promising her half a dozen stripes from the cane on the soles of her feet for every false word she might utter. The threat was enough to raise a howl from the Egyptian; but this Porphyries soon put a stop to, and Sachepris, with perfect veracity, told her tale of all that had happened till Herse's return to the vessel. The beginning of the narrative was of no special interest, but when she was pressed to go faster to the point she went on to say:
"And then--then my lord Constantine came to us on the ship, and the pretty mistress laughed with him and asked him to take off his helmet, because the pretty mistress wanted to see the cut, the great sword-cut above his eyes, and my lord Constantine took it off."
"It is a lie!" exclaimed Gorgo.
"No, no; it is true. Sachepris does not want her feet flayed, mistress," cried the slave. "Ask my lord Constantine himself."
"Yes, I went on board," said Constantine. "Just as I was crossing the ship-yard a young girl dropped her fan into the lake. I fished it out at her request, and carried it back to her."
"Yes, that was it," cried Sachepris. "And the pretty mistress laughed with my lord Constantine--is it not true?--and she took his helmet out of his hand and weighed it in hers . . ."
"And you could stop on your way here to trifle with that child?" cried Gorgo wrathfully. "Pah! what men will do!"
These words portended rage and intense disgust to Constantine. "Gorgo!" he cried with a reproachful accent, but she could not control her indignation and went on more vehemently than ever:
"You stopped--with that little hussy--on your way to me--stopped to trifle and flirt with her! Shame! Yes, I say shame! Men are thought lucky in being light-hearted, but, for my part, may the gods preserve me from such luck! Trifling, whispering, caressing--a tender squeeze of the hand--solemnly, passionately earnest!--And what next? Who dares warrant that it will not all be repeated before the shadows are an ell long on the shore!"
She laughed, a sharp, bitter laugh; but it was a short one. She ceased and turned pale, for her lover's face had undergone a change that terrified her. The scar on his forehead was purple, and his voice was strange, harsh and hoarse as he leaned forward to bring his face on a level with hers, and said:
"Even if you had seen me with your own eyes you ought not to have believed them! And if you dare to say that you do believe it, I can say Shame! as well as you. My life may be at stake but I say: Shame!"
As he spoke he clutched the back of a chair with convulsive fury and stood facing the girl like an avenging god of war, his eyes flashing to meet hers. This was too much for old Damia; she could contain herself no longer, and striking her crutch on the floor she broke out:
"What next shall we hear! You threaten and storm at the daughter of this house as if she were a soldier in your camp! Listen to me, my fine gentleman, and mind what I say: In the house of a free Alexandrian citizen no one has any right to give his orders--be he Caesar, Consul or Comes; he has only to observe the laws of good manners." Then turning to Gorgo she shook her head with pathetic emphasis; "This, my love, is the consequence of too much familiar condescension. Come, an end of this! Greeting and parting often go hand in hand."
The prefect turned on his heel and went towards the steps leading to the garden; but Gorgo flew after him and seized his hand, calling out to the old woman:
"No, no, grandmother; he is in the right, I am certain he is in the right. Stop, Constantine--wait, stay, and forgive my folly! If you love me, mother, say no more--he will explain it all presently."
The soldier heaved a sigh of relief and assented in silence, while the slave went on with her story: "And when my lord Constantine was gone, my lord Demetrius came and he--but what should poor Sachepris say--ask my lord Demetrius himself to tell you."
"That is soon done," replied Demetrius, who had failed to understand a great deal of all that had been going forward. My brother Marcus is over head and ears in love with the little puss--she is a pretty creature--and to save that simple soul from mischief I thought I would take the business on my own shoulders which are broader and stronger than his. I went boldly to work and offered the girl--more shame for me, I must say--the treasures of Midas; however, offering is one thing and accepting is another, and the child snapped me up and sent me to the right about--by Castor and Pollux! packed me off with my tail between my legs! My only comfort was that Constantine had just quitted the pretty little hussy. By the side of the god of war, thought I, a country Pan makes but a poor figure; but this Ares was dismissed by Venus, and so, if only to keep up my self-respect, I was forced to conclude that the girl, with all her pertness, was of a better sort than we had supposed. My presents, which would have tempted any other girl in Alexandria to follow a cripple to Hades, she took as an insult; she positively cried with indignation, and I really respect pretty little Dada!"
"She is my very own sister's child," Herse threw in, honestly angered by the cheap estimation in which every one seemed to hold her adopted child. "My own sister's," she insisted, with an emphasis which seemed to imply that she had a whole family of half-sisters. "Though we now earn our bread as singers, we have seen better days; and in these hard times Croesus to-day may be Irus to-morrow. As for us, Karnis did not dissipate his money in riotous living. It was foolish perhaps but it was splendid--I believe we should do the same again; he spent all his inheritance in trying to reinstate Art. However, what is the use of looking after money when it is gone! If you can win it, or keep it you will be held of some account, but if you are poor the dogs will snap at you!--The girl, Dada--we have taken as much care of her as if she were our own, and divided our last mouthful with her before now. Karnis used to tease her about training her voice--and now, when she could really do something to satisfy even good judges--now, when she might have helped us to earn a living-now. . ."
The good woman broke down and burst into tears, while Karnis tried to soothe and comfort her.
"We shall get on without them somehow," he said. "'Nil desperandum' says Horace the Roman. And after all they are not lizards that can hide in the cracks of the walls; I know every corner of Alexandria and I will go and hunt them up at once."
"And I will help you, my friend," said Demetrius, "We will go to the Hippodrome--the gentry you will meet with there are capital blood-hounds after such game as the daughter of your 'own sister,' my good woman. As to the black-haired Christian girl--I have seen her many a time on board ship. . ."
"Oh! she will take refuge with some fellow-Christians," remarked Porphyrius. "Olympius told me all about her. I know plenty of the same sort in the Church. They fling away life and happiness as if they were apple-peelings to snatch at something which they believe to constitute salvation. It is folly, madness! pure unmitigated madness! To have sung in the temple of the she-devil Isis with Gorgo and the other worshippers would have cost her her seat in Paradise. That, as I believe, is the cause of her flight."
"That and nothing else!" cried Karnis. "How vexed the noble Olympius will be. Indeed, Apollo be my witness! I have not been so disturbed about anything for many a day. Do you happen to recollect," he went on, turning to Demetrius, "our conversation on board ship about a dirge for Pytho? Well, we had transposed the lament of Isis into the Lydian mode, and when this young lady's wonderful voice gave it out, in harmony with Agne's and with Orpheus' flute, it was quite exquisite! My old heart floated on wings as I listened! And only the day after to-morrow the whole crowd of worshippers in the temple of Isis were to enjoy that treat!--It would have roused them to unheard-of enthusiasm. Yesterday the girl was in it, heart and soul; nay, only this morning she and the noble Gorgo sang it through from beginning to end. One more rehearsal to-morrow, and then the two voices would have given such a performance as perhaps was never before heard within the temple walls."
Constantine had listened to this rhapsody with growing agitation; he was standing close to Gorgo, and while the rest of the party held anxious consultation as to what could be done to follow up and capture the fugitives, he asked Gorgo in a low voice, but with gloomy looks:
"You intended to sing in the temple of Isis? Before the crowd, and with a girl of this stamp?"
"Yes," she said firmly.
"And you knew yesterday that I had come home?" She nodded.
"And yet, this morning even, while you were actually expecting me, you could practise the hymn with such a creature?"
"Agne is not such another as the girl who played tricks with your helmet," replied Gorgo, and the black arches of her eyebrows knit into something very like a scowl. "I told you just now that I was not yours today, nor to-morrow. We still serve different gods."
"Indeed we do!" he exclaimed, so vehemently that the others looked round, and old Damia again began to fidget in her chair.
Then with a strong effort he recovered himself and, after standing for some minutes gazing in silence at the ground, he said in a low tone:
"I have borne enough for to-day. Gorgo, pause, reflect. God preserve me from despair!"
He bowed, hastily explained that his duties called him away, and left the spot.