Serapis by Georg Ebers
Early next morning the singers set out for the house of Porphyrius. The party was not complete, however, for Dada had been forced to remain at home. The shoes that the old man had flung to scare away the daemon had caught in the girl's dress which she had just washed, and had dragged it down on to the earth; she had found it in the morning full of holes burnt by the ashes into the damp material. Dada had no other presentable garment, so, in spite of her indignant refusal and many tears, she had to remain indoors with Papias. Agne's anxious offers to stay in her place with the little boy and to lend Dada her dress, both Karnis and his wife had positively refused; and Dada had lent her aid--at first silently though willingly and then with her usual merriment--in twining garlands for the others and in dressing Agne's smooth black plaits with a wreath of ivy and violets.
The men were already washed, anointed and crowned with poplar and laurel when a steward arrived from Porphyrius to bid them follow him to his master's house. But a small sacrifice was necessary, for the messenger desired them to lay aside their wreaths, which would excite ill-feeling among the monks, and certainly be snatched off by the Christian mob. Karnis when he started was greatly disappointed, and as much depressed as he had been triumphant and hopeful a short time before.
The monks, who had gathered outside the Xenodochium, glanced with scowling suspicion at the party, who could not recover the good spirits with which they had begun the day till they were fairly out of the narrow, gloomy alleys, reeking with tar and salt fish, that adjoined the harbor, and where they had to push their way through a dense throng. The steward led the van with Herse, talking freely in reply to her enquiries.
His master, he said, was one of the great merchants of the city, whose wife had died twenty years since in giving birth to Gorgo. His two sons were at present absent on their travels. The old lady who had been so liberal in her treatment of the singers was Damia, the mother of Porphyrius. She had a fine fortune of her own, and notwithstanding her great age was still respected as the soul of business in the household, and as a woman deeply versed in the mysterious sciences. Mary, the pious Christian, who had founded the "House of the Holy Martyr," was the widow of Apelles, the brother of Porphyrius, but she had ceased all intercourse with her husband's family. This was but natural, as she was at the head of the Christian women of Alexandria, while the household of Porphyrius--though the master himself had been baptized--was as thoroughly heathen as any in Alexandria.
Karnis heard nothing of all this, for he came last of the party. Orpheus and Agne followed next to Herse and the steward, and after them came two slaves, carrying the lutes and pipes. Agne walked with downcast eyes, as if she desired to avoid seeing all that surrounded her, though when Orpheus addressed her she shyly glanced up at him and answered briefly and timidly. They presently came out of an obscure alley by the canal connecting Kibotus with Lake Mareotis where the Nile-boats lay at anchor. Karnis drew a deeper breath, for here the air was clear and balmy; a light northerly breeze brought the refreshing fragrance of the sea, and the slender palm-trees that bordered the canal threw long shadows mingling with the massive shade of the sycamores. The road was astir with busy groups, birds sang in the trees, and the old musician drank in the exciting and aromatic atmosphere of the Egyptian Spring with keen enjoyment.
As they reached the middle of the steep bridge across the canal he involuntarily stood still, riveted by the view of the southwest. In his excitement he threw up his arms, his eyes glistened with moisture and with the enthusiasm of youth, and, as was always the case when his emotions were stirred by some glorious work of God or man, an image rose to his mind, all unbidden--the image of his eldest son, now dead, but in life his closest and most sympathetic comrade. He felt as though his hand could grasp the shoulder of that son, too early snatched away, whose gifts had far transcended those of the surviving Orpheus--as though he too could gaze with him on the grand scene that lay before him.
On a platform of rocks and mighty masonry rose a structure of wonderful magnificence and beauty, so brilliantly illuminated by the morning sun that its noble proportions and gorgeous colors showed in dazzling splendor and relief. Over the gilt dome bent the cloudless blue of the African sky, and the polished hemisphere shone, as radiant as the sun whose beams it reflected. Sloping planes for vehicles, and flights of steps for pedestrians led up to the gates. The lower part of this wonderful edifice--the great Temple of Serapis--was built to stand forever, and the pillars of the vestibule supported a roof more fitted to the majesty of the gods than to the insignificance of mortals; priests and worshippers moved here like children among the trunks of some gigantic forest. Round the cornice, in hundreds of niches, and on every projection, all the gods of Olympus and all the heroes and sages of Greece seemed to have met in conclave, and stood gazing down on the world in gleaming brass or tinted marble. Every portion of the building blazed with gold and vivid coloring; the painter's hand had added life to the marble groups in high relief that filled the pediments and the smaller figures in the long row of metopes. All the population of a town might have found refuge in the vast edifice and its effect on the mind was like that of a harmonious symphony of adoration sung by a chorus of giants.
"All hail! Great Serapis! I greet thee in joyful humility, thankful that Thou hast granted to my old eyes to see Thy glorious and eternal temple once again!" murmured Karnis in devout contemplation. Then, appealing to his wife and son, he pointed in silence to the building. Presently, however, as he watched Orpheus gazing in speechless delight at its magnificent proportions he could not forbear.
"This," he began with fervid enthusiasm, "is the stronghold of Serapis the King of the Gods! A work for all time. Its youth has lasted five hundred years, its future will extend to all eternity.--Aye, so it is; and so long as it endures in all its glory the old gods cannot be deposed!"
"No one will ever dare to touch a stone of it," said the steward. "Every child in Alexandria knows that the world will crumble into dust and ashes if a finger is laid on that Temple, and the man who ventures to touch the sacred image. . ."
"The god can protect himself!" interrupted the singer. "But you--you Christian hypocrites who pretend to hate life and love death--if you really long so vehemently for the end of all things, you have only to fall upon this glorious structure.--Do that, do that--only do that!"
The old man shook his fist at the invisible foe and Herse echoed his words:
"Aye, aye, only do that!" Then she added more calmly: "Well, if everything comes to an end at once the enemies of the gods will die with us; and there can be nothing terrible in perishing at the same time with everything that is beautiful or dear to us."
"Nevertheless," said the steward, "the Bishop has put out his hand to touch the sanctuary. But our noble Olympius would not suffer the sacrilegious host to approach, and they had to retire with broken heads. Serapis will not be mocked; he will stand though all else perish. 'Eternity,' the priest tells us, 'is to him but as an instant, and while millions of generations bloom and fade, he is still and forever the same!'"
"Hail, all hail to the great god!" cried Orpheus with hands outstretched towards the temple.
"Yea, hail! for everlasting glory shall be his!" repeated his father. "Great is Serapis, and his house and his image shall last. . ."
"Till the next full moon!" said a passer-by in a tone of sinister mockery, shaking his fist in the face, as it were, of the god. Orpheus turned quickly to punish the prophet of evil; but he had disappeared in the crowd and the tide of men had borne him onwards. "Till the next full moon!" murmured Agne, who had shuddered at her companion's rapturous ejaculations, and she glanced uneasily at Orpheus; but by the time Herse addressed her a minute or two later she had controlled the expression of her features, and the matron's heart was gladdened by her bright smile. Nay, many a young Alexandrian, passing the group on foot or in a carriage, looked at her a second time, for that smile lent a mysterious charm to her pale, calm face. Nor had it faded away when they had crossed the bridge and were nearing the shores of the lake, for an idea once conceived lingered long in Agne's mind; and as she walked on in the bright glory of the morning's sun her mind's eye was fixed on a nocturnal scene--on the full moon, high in the sky--on the overthrow of the great idol and a glittering army among the marble ruins of the Serapeum. Apostles and martyrs soared around, the Saviour sat enthroned in glory and triumph, while angels, cradled on the clouds that were his footstool, were singing beatific hymns which sounded clearly in her ear above the many-voiced tumult of the quays. The vision did not vanish till she was desired to get into the boat.
Herse was a native of Alexandria and Karnis had passed some of the best years of his life there; but to Orpheus and Agne all was new, and even the girl, when once she had escaped from the crowd and noise which oppressed her, took an interest in the scene and asked a question now and then. The younger man had not eyes enough to see all that claimed his attention and admiration.
There were the great sluice-gates at the entrance to the canal that joined the lake to the sea--there, in a separate dock, lay the splendid imperial Nile-boats which served to keep up communication between the garrison of Alexandria and the military stations on the river--there, again, were the gaudy barges intended for the use of the 'comes', the prefect and other high officials--and there merchant-vessels of every size lay at anchor in countless number. Long trains of many-colored sails swept over the rippling lake like flights of birds across a cornfield, and every inch of the shore was covered with stores or buildings. Far away to the south long trellices of vine covered the slopes, broken by the silvery glaucous tones of the olive-groves, and by clumps of towering palms whose crowns mingled to form a lofty canopy. White walls, gaudily-painted temples and private villas gleamed among the green, and the slanting rays of the low sun, shining on the drops that fell from the never-resting wheels and buckets that irrigated the land, turned them into showers of diamonds. These water-works, of the most ingenious construction, many of them invented and contrived by scientific engineers, were the weapons with which man had conquered the desert that originally surrounded this lake, forcing it into green fertility and productiveness of grain and fruit. Nay, the desert had, for many centuries, here ceased to exist. Dionysus the generous, and the kindly garden-gods had blest the toil of men, and yet, now, in many a plot--in all which belonged to Christian owners--their altars lay scattered and overthrown.
During the last thirty years much indeed was changed, and nothing to the satisfaction of old Karnis; Herse, too, shook her head, and when the rowers had pulled them about half-way across, she pointed to a broad vacant spot on the bank where a new building was just rising above the soil, and said sadly to her husband:
"Would you know that place again? Where is our dear old temple gone? The temple of Dionysus." Karnis started up so hastily that he almost upset the boat, and their conductor was obliged to insist on his keeping quiet; he obeyed but badly, however, for his arms were never still as he broke out:
"And do you suppose that because we are in Egypt I can keep my living body as still as one of your dead mummies? Let others keep still if they can! I say it is shameful, disgraceful; a dove's gall might rise at it! That splendid building, the pride of the city and the delight of men's eyes, destroyed--swept away like dust from the road! Do you see? Do you see, I say? Broken columns, marble capitals, here, there and everywhere at the bottom of the lake--here a head and there a torso! Great and noble masters formed those statues by the aid of the gods, and they--they, small and ignoble as they are, have destroyed them by the aid of evil daemons. They have annihilated and drowned works that were worthy to live forever! And why? Shall I tell you? Because they shun the Beautiful as an owl shuns light. Aye, they do! There is nothing they hate or dread so much as beauty; wherever they find it, they deface and destroy it, even if it is the work of the Divinity. I accuse them before the Immortals--for where is the grove even, not the work of man but the special work of Heaven itself? Where is our grove, with its cool grottos, its primaeval trees, its shady nooks, and all the peace and enjoyment of which it was as full as a ripe grape is full of sweet juice?"
"It was cut down and rooted up," replied the steward. "The emperor gave the sanctuary over to Bishop Theophilus and he set to work at once to destroy it. The temple was pulled down, the sacred vessels went into the melting-pot, and the images were mutilated and insulted before they were thrown into the lime-kiln. The place they are building now is to be a Christian church. Oh! to think of the airy, beautiful colonnades that once stood there, and then of the dingy barn that is to take their place!"
"Why do the gods endure it? Has Zeus lost his thunderbolts?" cried Orpheus clenching his hands, and paying no heed to Agne who sat pale and sternly silent during this conversation.
"Nay, he only sleeps, to wake with awful power," said the old man. "See those blocks of marble and ruins under the waves. Swift work is destruction! And men lost their wits and looked on at the crime, flinging the delight of the gods into the water and the kiln. They were wise, very wise; fishes and flames are dumb and cannot cry to heaven. One barbarian, in one hour can destroy what it has taken the sublimest souls years, centuries, to create. They glory in destruction and ruin and they can no more build up again such a temple as stood there than they can restore trees that have taken six hundred years to grow. There--out there, Herse, in the hollow where those black fellows are stirring mortar--they have given them shirts too, because they are ashamed of the beauty of men's bodies--that is where the grotto was where we found your poor father."
"The grotto?" repeated his wife, looking at the spot through her tears, and thinking of the day when, as a girl, she had hurried to the feast of Dionysus and sought her father in the temple. He had been famous as a gem-cutter. In obedience to the time-honored tradition in Alexandria, after intoxicating himself with new wine in honor of the god, he had rushed out into the street to join the procession. The next morning he had not returned; the afternoon passed and evening came and still he did not appear, so his daughter had gone in search of him. Karnis was at that time a young student and, as her father's lodger, had rented the best room in the house. He had met her going on her errand and had been very ready to help her in the search; before long they had found the old man in the ivy-grown grotto in the grove of Dionysus--motionless and cold, as if struck by lightning. The bystanders believed that the god had snatched him away in his intoxicated legion.
In this hour of sorrow Karnis had proved himself her friend, and a few months after Herse had become his wife and gone with him to Tauromenium in Sicily.
All this rose before her mind, and even Karnis sat gazing dumbly at the waves; for every spot where some decisive change has occurred in our lives has power to revive the past when we see it again after a long absence. Thus they all sat in silence till Orpheus, touching his father, pointed out the temple of Isis where he had met the fair Gorgo on the previous day. The old man turned to look at the sanctuary which, as yet, remained intact.
"A barbarous structure!" he said bitterly. "The art of the Egyptians has long been numbered with the dead and the tiger hungers only for the living!"
"Nay, it is not such a bad piece of work," replied the steward, "but it is out of their reach; for the ground on which it stands belongs to my old mistress, and the law protects private property.--You must at your leisure inspect the ship-yard here; it is perhaps the most extensive in the world. The timber that is piled there--cedar of Lebanon, oak from Pontus and heavy iron-wood from Ethiopia--is worth hundreds of talents."
"And does all that belong to your master?"
"No; the owner is the grandson of a freedman, formerly in his family. Now they are very rich and highly respected, and Master Clemens sits in the Senate. There he is--that man in a white robe."
"A Christian, I should imagine," observed the singer.
"Very true;" replied the steward. "But what is good remains good, and he is a worthy and excellent man notwithstanding. He keeps a tight hand over the ship-yard here and over the others too by the harbor of Eunostus. Only Clemens can never let other people have their own opinions; in that he is just like the rest of them. Every slave he buys must become a Christian and his sons are the same; even Constantine, though he is an officer in the imperial army and as smart and clever a soldier as lives.--As far as we are concerned we leave every man to his own beliefs. Porphyrius makes no secret of his views and all the vessels we use in the corn-trade are built by Christians.--But here we are."
The boat stopped at a broad flight of marble steps which led from the lake into the garden of Porphyrius' house. Karnis as he walked through the grounds felt himself at greater ease, for here the old gods were at home; their statues gleamed among the dark clumps of evergreens, and were mirrored in the clear tanks, while delicious perfumes were wafted from the garlanded shrines and freshly anointed altars, to greet the newcomers.