Serapis by Georg Ebers
Dread and anxiety had taken possession of the merchant's household after Constantine had left them. Messengers came hurrying in, one after another, to request the presence of Olympius. A heathen secretary of Evagrius the Governor, had revealed what was astir, and the philosopher had at once prepared to return to the Serapeum. Porphyrius himself ordered his closed harmamaxa to be brought out, and undertook to fetch weapons and standards to the temple from a storehouse where they were laid by. This building stood on a plot of ground belonging to him in Rhacotis, behind a timber-yard which was accessible from the streets in front and behind, but sheltered from the public gaze by sheds and wood-stacks.
The old aqueduct, which supplied the courts of sacrifice and the Subterranean crypts of the temple where the mysteries of Serapis were celebrated, passed close by the back-wall of this warehouse. Since the destruction of the watercourse, under the Emperor Julian, the underground conduit had been dry and empty, and a man by slightly stooping could readily pass through it unseen into the Serapeum. This mysterious passage had lately been secretly cleared out, and it was now to be used for the transport of the arms to the temple precincts.
Damia had been present at the brief but vehement interview between her son and Olympius, and had thrown in a word now and again: "It is serious, very serious!" or, "Fight it out--no quarter!"
The parting was evidently a very painful one to Olympius; when the merchant held out both his hands the older man clasped them in his and held them to his breast, saying: "Thanks, my friend; thanks for all you have done. We have lived--and if now we perish it is for the future happiness of our grandchildren. What would life be to you and me if it were marred by scourgings and questionings?--The omens read ill, and if I am not completely deceived we are at the beginning of the end. What lies beyond! . . . we as philosophers must meet it calmly. The supreme Mind that governs us has planned the universe so well, that it is not likely that those things of which we now have no knowledge should not also be ordered for the best. The pinions of my soul beat indeed more freely and lightly as I foresee the moment when it shall be released from the burden of this flesh!"
The High-Priest raised his arms as though indeed he were prepared to soar and uttered a fervent and inspired prayer in which he rehearsed to the gods all that he and his had done in their honor and vowed to offer them fresh sacrifices. His expressions were so lofty, and his flow of language so beautiful and free, that Porphyrius did not dare to interrupt him, though this long delay on the part of the leader of the cause made him intolerably anxious. When the old man--who was as emotional as a boy--ceased speaking, his white beard was wet with tears, and seeing that even Damia's and Gorgo's eyes were moist, he was preparing to address them again; but Porphyrius interposed. He gave him time only to press his lips to Datnia's hand and to bid Gorgo farewell.
"You were born into stirring times," he said to her, "but under a good sign. Two worlds are in collision; which shall survive?--For you, my darling, I have but one wish: May you be happy!"
He left the room and the merchant paced up and down lost in gloomy thoughts. Presently, as he caught his mother's eye fixed uneasily upon him, he murmured, less to her than to himself: "If he can think thus of what the end will be, who can still dare to hope?" Damia drew herself up in her chair.
"I," she exclaimed passionately, "I--I dare, and I do hope and trust in the future. Is everything to perish which our forefathers planned and founded? Is this dismal superstition to overwhelm and bury the world and all that is bright and beautiful, as the lava stream rolled over the cities of Vesuvius? No, a thousand times no! Our retrograde and cowardly generation, which has lost all heart to enjoy life in sheer dread of future annihilation, may perhaps be doomed by the gods, as was that of Deucalion's day. Well--if so, what must be must! But such a world as they dream of never can, never will last. Let them succeed in their monstrous scheme! if the Temple of temples, the House of Serapis, were to be in ashes and the image of the mighty god to be dashed to pieces, what then. . . . I say what then? Then indeed everything will be at an end--we, everybody; but they too, they, too, will perish."
She clenched her fist with hatred and revenge and went on: "I know what I know--there are legible and infallible signs, and it is given to me to interpret them, and I tell you: It is true, unerringly true, as every Alexandrian child has learnt from its nurse: When Serapis falls the earth will collapse like a dry puff-ball under a horse's hoof. A hundred oracles have announced it, it is written in the prophecies of the heavenly bodies, and in the scroll of Fate. Let them be! Let it come! The end is sweet to those who, in the hour of death, can see the enemy thrust the sword into his own breast."
The old woman sank back panting and gasping for breath, but Gorgo hastened to support her in her arms and she soon recovered. Hardly had she opened her eyes again than, seeing her son still in the room, she went on angrily:
"You--here still? Do you think there is any time to spare? They will be waiting, waiting for you! You have the key and they need weapons."
"I know what I am about," replied Porphyrius calmly. "All in good time. I shall be on the spot long before the youngsters have assembled. Cyrus will bring me the pass-words and signs; I shall send off the messengers, and then I shall still be in time for action."
"Messengers! To whom?"
"To Barkas. He is at the head of more than a thousand Libyan peasants and slaves. I shall send one, too, to Pachomius to bid him win us over adherents among the Biamite fishermen and the population of the eastern Delta."
"Right, right--I know. Twenty talents--Pachomius is poor--twenty talents shall be his, out of my private coffer, if only they are here in time."
"I would give ten, thirty times as much if they were only here now!" cried the merchant, giving way for the first time to the expression of his real feelings. "When I began life my father taught me the new superstitions. Its chains still hang about me; but in this fateful hour I feel more strongly than ever, and I mean to show, that I am faithful to the old gods. We will not be wanting; but alas! there is no escape for us now if the Imperial party are staunch. If they fall upon us before Barkas can join us, all is lost; if, on the contrary, Barkas comes at once and in time, there is still some hope; all may yet be well. What can a party of monks do? And as yet only our Constantine's heavy cavalry have come to the assistance of the two legions of the garrison."
"Our Constantine!" shrieked Damia. "Whose? I ask you, whose? We have nothing to do with that miserable Christian!"
But Gorgo turned upon her at once:
"Indeed, grandmother," she exclaimed, quivering with rage, "but we have! He is a soldier and must do his duty; but he is fondly attached to us."
"Us, us?" retorted the old woman with a laugh. "Has he sworn love to you, let me ask? Has he? and you-do you believe him, simple fool? I know him, I know him! Why, for a scrap of bread and a drop of wine from the hand of his priest he would see you and all of us plunged into misery! But see, here are the messengers."
Porphyrius gave his instructions to the young men who now entered the hall, hurried them off, clasped Gorgo in a tender embrace and then bent over his mother to kiss her--a thing he had not done for many a day. Old Damia laid aside her stick, and taking her son's face in both her withered hands, muttered a few words which were half a fond appeal and half a magical formula, and then the women were alone. For a long while both were silent. The old woman sat sunk in her arm-chair while Gorgo stood with her back against the pedestal of a bust of Plato, gazing meditatively at the ground. At last it was Damia who spoke, asking to be carried into the women's rooms.
Gorgo, however, stopped her with a gesture, went close to her and said: "No, wait a minute, mother; first you must hear what I have to say."
"What you have to say?" asked her grandmother, shrugging her shoulders.
"Yes. I have never deceived you; but one thing I have hitherto concealed from you because I was never till this morning sure of it myself--now I am. Now I know that I love him."
"The Christian?" said the old woman, pushing aside a shade that screened her eyes.
"Yes, Constantine; I will not hear you abuse him." Damia laughed sharply, and said in a tone of supreme scorn:
"You will not? Then you had better stop your ears, my dear, for as long as my tongue can wag. . . ."
"Hush, grandmother, say no more," said the girl resolutely. "Do not provoke me with more than I can bear. Eros has pierced me later than he does most girls and has done it but once, but how deeply you can never know. If you speak ill of him you only aggravate the wound and you would not be so cruel! Do not--I entreat you; drop the subject or else. . ."
"Or else I must die, mother--and you know you love me."
Her tone was soft but firm; her words referred to the future, but that future was as clear to Gorgo's view as if it were past. Damia gave a hasty, sidelong glance at her grandchild, and a cold chill ran through her; the--girl stood and spoke with an air of inspiration--she was full of the divinity as Damia thought, and the old woman herself felt as though she were in a temple and in the immediate presence of the Immortals.
Gorgo waited for a reply, but in vain; and as her grandmother remained silent she went back to her place by the pedestal. At last Damia raised her wrinkled face, looked straight in the girl's eyes and asked:
"And what is to be the end of it?"
"Aye--what?" said Gorgo gloomily and she shook her head. "I ask myself and can find no answer, for his image is ever present to me and yet walls and mountains stand between us. That face, that image--I might perhaps force myself to shatter it; but nothing shall ever induce me to let it be defiled or disgraced! Nothing!"
The old woman sank into brooding thought once more; mechanically she repeated Gorgo's last word, and at intervals that gradually became longer she murmured, at last scarcely audibly: "Nothing--nothing!"
She had lost all sense of time and of her immediate surroundings, and long-forgotten sorrows crowded on her memory: The dreadful day when a young freedman--a gifted astronomer and philosopher who had been appointed her tutor, and whom she had loved with all the passion of a vehement nature--had been kicked out of her father's house by slaves, for daring to aspire to her hand. She had given him up--she had been forced to do so; and after she was the wife of another and he had risen to fame, she had never given him any token that she had not forgotten him. Two thirds of a century lay between that happy and terrible time, and the present. He had been dead many a long year, and still she remembered him, and was thinking of him even now. A singular effort of fancy showed her herself, as she had then been, and Gorgo--whom she saw not with her bodily eyes, though the girl was standing in front of her--two young creatures side by side. The two were but one in her vision; the same anguish that embittered one life now threatened the other. But after all she, Damia, had dragged this grief after her through the weary decades, like the iron ball at the end of a chain which keeps the galley-slave to his place at the oar, and from which he can no more escape than from a ponderous and ever-present shadow; and Gorgo's sorrow could not at any rate be for long, since the end of all things was at hand--it was coming slowly but with inevitable certainty, nearer and nearer every hour.
When had a troop of enthusiastic students and hastily-collected peasant-soldiers ever been able to snake an effectual stand against the hosts of Rome? Damia, who only a few minutes since had spoken with such determined encouragement to her son, had terrible visions of the Imperial legions putting Olympius to rout, with the Libyans under Barkas and the Biamite rabble under Pachomius; storming the Serapeum and reducing it to ruin: Firebrands flying through its sacred halls, the roof giving way, the vaults falling in; the sublime image of the god--the magnificent work of Bryaxis--battered by a hail of stones, and sinking to mingle with the reeking dust. Then a cry rose up from all nature, as though every star in heaven, every wave of ocean, every leaf of the forest, every blade in the meadow, every rock on the shore and every grain of sand in the measureless desert had found a voice; and this universal wail of "Woe, woe!" was drowned by rolling thunder such as the ear of man had never heard, and no mortal creature could hear and live. The heavens opened, and out of the black gulf of death-bearing clouds poured streams of fire; consuming flames rose to meet it from the riven womb of earth, rushing up to lick the sky. What had been air turned to fire and ashes, the silver and gold stars fell crashing from the firmament, and the heavens themselves bowed and collapsed, burying the ruined earth. Ashes, ashes, fine grey dusty ashes pervaded space, till presently a hurricane rose and swept away the chaos of gloom, and vast nothingness yawned before her: a bottomless abyss--an insatiable throat, swallowing down with greedy thirst all that was left; till where the world had been, with gods and men and all their works, there was only nothingness; hideous, inscrutable and unfathomable. And in it, above it, around it--for what are the dimensions of nothingness?--there reigned the incomprehensible Unity of the Primal One, in calm and pitiless self-concentration, beyond--the Real, nay even beyond the Conceivable--for conception implies plurality--the Supreme One of the Neo-Platonists to whose school she belonged.
The old woman's blood ran cold and hot as she pictured the scene; but she believed in it, and chose to believe in it; "Nothing, nothing . . ." which she had begun by muttering, insensibly changed to "Nothingness, nothingness!" and at last she spoke it aloud.
Gorgo stood spellbound as she gazed at her grandmother. What had come over her? What was the meaning of this glaring eye, this gasping breath, this awful expression in her face, this convulsive action of her hands? Was she mad? And what did she mean by "Nothingness, nothingness. . ." repeated in a sort of hollow cry?
Terrified beyond bearing she laid her hand on Dalnia's shoulder, saying: "Mother, mother! wake up! What do you mean by saying 'nothingness, nothingness' in that dreadful way?"
Dainia collected her scattered wits, shivered with cold and then said, dully at first, but with a growing cheerfulness that made Gorgo's blood run cold: "Did I say 'nothingness'? Did I speak of the great void, my child? You are quick of hearing. Nothingness--well, you have learnt to think; are you capable of defining the meaning of the word--a monster that has neither head nor tail, neither front nor back--can you, I say, define the idea of nothingness?"
"What do you mean, mother?" said Gorgo with growing alarm.
"No, she does not know, she does not understand," muttered the old woman with a dreary smile. "And yet Melampus told me, only yesterday, that you understood his lesson on conic sections better than many men. Aye, aye, child; I, too, learnt mathematics once, and I still go through various calculations every night in my observatory; but to this day I find it difficult to conceive of a mathematical point. It is nothing and yet it is something. But the great final nothingness!--And that even is nonsense, for it can be neither great nor small, and come neither sooner nor later. Is it not so, my sweet? Think of nothing--who cannot do that; but it is very hard to imagine nothingness. We can neither of us achieve that. Not even the One has a place in it. But what is the use of racking our brains? Only wait till to-morrow or the day after; something will happen then which will reduce our own precious persons and this beautiful world to that nothingness which to-day is inconceivable. It is coming; I can hear from afar the brazen tramp of the airy and incorporeal monster. A queer sort of giant--smaller than the mathematical point of which we were speaking, and yet vast beyond all measurement. Aye, aye; our intelligence, polyp-like, has long arms and can apprehend vast size and wide extent; but it can no more conceive of nothingness than it can of infinite space or time.
"I was dreaming that this monstrous Nought had come to his kingdom and was opening a yawning mouth and toothless jaws to swallow its all down into the throat that it has not got--you, and me, and your young officer, with this splendid, recreant city and the sky and the earth. Wait, only wait! The glorious image of Serapis still stands radiant, but the cross casts an ominous shadow that has already darkened the light over half the earth! Our gods are an abomination to Caesar, and Cynegius only carries out his wishes. . ."
Here Damia was interrupted by the steward, who rushed breathless into the room, exclaiming:
"Lost! All is lost! An edict of Theodosius commands that every temple of the gods shall be closed, and the heavy cavalry have dispersed our force."
"Ah ha!" croaked the old woman in shrill accents. "You see, you see! There it is: the beginning of the end! Yes--your cavalry are a powerful force. They are digging a grave--wide and deep, with room in it for many: for you, for me, and for themselves, too, and for their Prefect.--Call Argus, man, and carry me into the Gynaeconitis--[The women's apartment]--and there tell us what has happened." In the women's room the steward told all he knew, and a sad tale it was; one thing, however, gave him some comfort: Olympius was at the Serapeunt and had begun to fortify the temple, and garrison it with a strong force of adherents.
Damia had definitively given up all hope, and hardly heeded this part of his story, while on Gorgo's mind it had a startling effect. She loved Constantine with all the fervor of a first, and only, and long-suppressed passion; she had repented long since of her little fit of suspicion, and it would have cost her no perceptible effort to humble her pride, to fly to him and pray for forgiveness. But she could not--dared not--now, when everything was at stake, renounce her fidelity to the gods for whose sake she had let him leave her in anger, and to whom she must cling, cost what it might; that would be a base desertion. If Olympius were to triumph in the struggle she might go to her lover and say: "Do you remain a Christian, and leave me the creed of my childhood, or else open my heart to yours." But, as matters now stood, her first duty was to quell her passion and retrain faithful to the end, even though the cause were lost. She was Greek to the backbone; she knew it and felt it, and yet her eye had sparkled with pride as she heard the steward's tale, and she seemed to see Constantine at the head of his horsemen, rushing upon the heathen and driving them to the four winds like a flock of sheep. Her heart beat high for the foe rather than for her hapless friends--these were but bruised reeds--those were the incarnation of victorious strength.
These divided feelings worried and vexed her; but her grandmother had suggested a way of reconciling them. Where he commanded victory followed, and if the Christians should succeed in destroying the image of Serapis the joints of the world would crack and the earth would crumble away. She herself was familiar with the traditions and the oracles which with one consent foretold this doom; she had learnt them as an infant from her nurse, from the slave-women at the loom, from learned men and astute philosophers--and to her the horrible prophecy meant a solution of every contradiction and the bitter-sweet hope of perishing with the man she loved.
As it grew dark another person appeared: the Moschosphragist--[The examiner of sacrificed animals]--from the temple of Serapis, who, every day, examined the entrails of a slaughtered beast for Damia; to-day the augury had been so bad that he was almost afraid of revealing it. But the old woman, sure of it beforehand, took his soothsaying quite calmly, and only desired to be carried up to her observatory that she might watch the risings of the stars.
Gorgo remained alone below. From the adjoining workrooms came the monotonous rattle of the loom at which, as usual, a number of slaves were working.
Suddenly the clatter ceased. Damia had sent a slave-girl down to say that they might leave off work and rest till next day if they chose. She had ordered that wine should be distributed to them in the great hall, as freely as at the great festival of Dionysus.
All was silent in the Gynaeconitis. The garlands of flowers, which Gorgo herself had helped some damsels of her acquaintance to twine for the temple of Isis, lay in a heap-the steward had told her that the venerable sanctuary was to be closed and surrounded by soldiers. This then put an end to the festival; and she could have been heartily glad, for it relieved her of the necessity of defying Constantine; still, it was with tender melancholy that she thought of the gentle goddess in whose sanctuary she had so often found comfort and support. She could remember, as a tiny child, gathering the first flowers in her little garden, and sticking them in the ground near the tank from which water was fetched for libations in the temple; with the pocketmoney given her by her elders, she had bought perfumes to pour on the altars of the divinity; and often when her heart was heavy she had found relief in prayer before the marble statue of the goddess. How splendid had the festivals of Isis been, how gladly and rapturously had she sung in their honor! Almost everything that had lent poetry and dignity to her childhood had been bound up with Isis and her sanctuary--and now it was closed and the image of the divine mother was perhaps lying in fragments in the dirt!
Gorgo knew all the lofty ideals which lay at the foundation of the worship of this goddess; but it was not to them that she had turned for help, but to the image in whose mystical strength she trusted. And what had already been done to Isis and her temple might soon be done to Serapis and to his house.
She could not bear the thought, for she had been accustomed to regard the Serapeum as the very heart of the universe--the centre and fulcrum on which the balance of the earth depended; to her, Serapis himself was inseparable from his temple and its atmosphere of magical and mystical power. Every prophecy, every Sibylline text, every oracle must be false if the overthrow of that image could remain unpunished--if the destruction of the universe failed to follow, as surely as a, flood ensues from a breach in a dyke. How indeed could it be otherwise, according to the explanation which her teacher had given her of the Neo-Platonic conception of the nature of the god?
It was not Serapis but the great and unapproachable One--supreme above comprehension and sublime beyond conception, for whose majesty every name was too mean, the fount and crown of Good and Beauty, in whole all that exists ever has been and ever shall be. He it was who, like a brimful vessel, overflowed with the quintessence of what we call divine; and from this effluence emanated the divine Mind, the pure intelligence which is to the One what light is to the sun. This Mind with its vitality--a life not of time but of eternity--could stir or remain passive as it listed; it included a Plurality, while the One was Unity, and forever indivisible. The concept of each living creature proceeded from the second: The eternal Mind; and this vivifying and energizing intelligence comprehended the prototypes of every living being, hence, also, of the immortal gods--not themselves but their idea or image. And just as the eternal Mind proceeded from the One, so, in the third place, did the Soul of the universe proceed from the second; that Soul whose twofold nature on one side touched the supreme Mind, and, on the other, the baser world of matter. This was the immortal Aphrodite, cradled in bliss in the pure radiance of the ideal world and yet unable to free herself from the gross clay of matter fouled by sensuality and the vehicle of sin.
The head of Serapis was the eternal Mind; in his broad breast slept the Soul of the Universe, and the prototypes of all created things; the world of matter was the footstool under his feet. All the subordinate forces obeyed him, the mighty first Cause, whose head towered up to the realm of the incomprehensible and inconceivable One. He was the sum total of the universe, the epitome of things created; and at the same time he was the power which gave them life and intelligence and preserved them from perishing by perpetual procreation. It was his might that kept the multiform structure of the material and psychical world in perennial harmony. All that lived--Nature and its Soul as much as Man and his Soul--were inseparably dependent on him. If he--if Serapis were to fall, the order of the universe must be destroyed; and with him: The Synthesis of the Universe--the Universe itself must cease to exist.
But what would survive would not be the nothingness--the void of which her grandmother had spoken; it would be the One--the cold, ineffable, incomprehensible One! This world would perish with Serapis; but perhaps it might please that One to call another world into being out of his overflowing essence, peopled by other and different beings.
Gorgo was startled out of these meditations by a wild tumult which came up from the slaves' hall some distance off and reached her ears in the women's sitting-room. Could her grandmother have opened the wine stores all too freely; were the miserable wretches already drunk?
No, the noise was not that of a troop of slaves who have forgotten themselves, and given the rein to their wild revelry under the influence of Dionysus! She listened and could distinctly hear lamentable howls and wild cries of grief. Something frightful must have happened! Had some evil befallen her father? Greatly alarmed she flew across the courtyard to the slaves' quarters and found the whole establishment, black and white alike, in a state of frenzy. The women were rushing about with their hair unbound over their faces, beating their breasts and wailing, the men squatted in silence with their wine-cups before them untouched, softly sobbing and whining.
What had come upon them--what blow had fallen on the house?
Gorgo called her old nurse and learnt from her that the Moschosphragist had just told them that the troops had been placed all round the Serapeum and that the Emperor had commanded the Prefect of the East to lay violent hands on the temple of the King of gods. Today or to-morrow the crime was to be perpetrated. They had been warned to pray and repent of their sins, for at the moment when the holiest sanctuary on earth should fall the whole world would crumble into nothingness. The entrails of the beast sacrificed by Damia had been black as though scorched, and a terrific groan had been heard from the god himself in the great shrine; the pillars of the great hypostyle had trembled and the three heads of Cerberus, lying at the feet of Serapis; had opened their jaws.
Gorgo listened in silence to the old woman's story; and all she said in reply was: "Let them wail."