Serapis by Georg Ebers
The family of musicians were kindly received, but they were not immediately called upon to perform, for as soon as Damia heard that the pretty fair-haired child who had pleased her so much the day before had been obliged to remain at home, she had one of her granddaughter's dresses brought out, and requested Herse to go back to fetch her. Some slaves were to accompany Herse and transfer all her little property on board a Nile-boat belonging to Porphyrius, which was lying at anchor just off the ship-yard. In this large barge there were several cabins which had often accommodated guests, and which would now serve very well as a residence for Karnis and his party. Indeed, it was particularly well suited for a family of musicians, for they could practise there undisturbed, and Gorgo could at any time pay them a visit.
Herse went back to the Xenodochium with a lighter heart; her son also returned to the city to replace a number of necessaries that had been lost on board ship, and Karnis, rejoicing to be out of the monk-haunted asylum had remained in the men's room in the house of his new patron, enjoying the good things which abounded there. He felt as though he was here once more at home after years of exile. Here dwelt the spirit of his fathers; here he found men who enjoyed life after his own fashion, who could share his enthusiasms and his hatreds. He drank noble liquor out of an elegantly carved onyx cup, all that he heard soothed his ears, and all that he said met with entire sympathy. The future prospects of his family, till now so uncertain, were hardly inferior to those which his vivid imagination had painted the night before. And even if Fortune should again desert him, the hours of present enjoyment should be written down to the profit side of life, and remain a permanent gain at any rate in memory.
The venerable Damia, her son Porphyrius, and the fair Gorgo were in fact a trio such as are rarely met with. The master of the house, more cautious than the women, was inclined to think that his mother and daughter had been somewhat overhasty and imprudent in their advances and he had at first received Karnis with considerable reserve; but after a short interview he had convinced himself that the musician was a man of unusual culture and superior stamp. The old lady had, from the first, been predisposed in his favor, for she had read in the stars last night that the day was to bring her a fortunate meeting. Her wish was law, and Karnis could not help smiling when she addressed her son, whose hair had long been grey and who looked fully competent to manage his own household, as "my child," not hesitating to scold and reprove him. Her cathedra was a high arm-chair which she never quitted but to be carried to her observatory on the roof of the house, where she kept her astrological tablets and manuscripts. The only weakness about her was in her feet; but strong, and willing arms were always at her disposal to carry her about--to table, into her sleeping-room, and during the daytime out to sunny spots in the garden. She was never so happy as when Helios warmed her back with his rays, for her old blood needed it after the long night-watches that she still would keep in her observatory. Even during the hottest noon she would sit in the sun, with a large green umbrella to shade her keen eyes, and those who desired to speak with her might find shade as best they could. As she stood, much bent, but propped on her ivory crutches, eagerly following every word of a conversation, she looked as though she were prepared at any moment to spring into the middle of it and interrupt the speaker. She always said exactly what she meant without reserve or ruth; and throughout her long life, as the mistress of great wealth, she had always been allowed to have her own way. She asserted her rights even over her son, though he was the centre of a web whose threads reached to the furthest circumference of the known world. The peasants who tilled the earth by the Upper and Lower Nile, the shepherds who kept their flocks in the Arabian desert, in Syria, or on the Silphium meads of Cyrenaica, the wood-cutters of Lebanon and Pontus, the mountaineers of Hispania and Sardinia, the brokers, merchants, and skippers of every port on the Mediterranean, were bound by these threads to the villa on the shore of Mareotis, and felt the tie when the master there--docile as a boy to his mother's will--tightened or released his hold.
His possessions, even in his youth, had been so vast that their increment could bring no added enjoyment to him or his family, and yet their increase had become his life's task. He strove for a higher sum to figure on the annual balance sheet, as eagerly as an athlete strives for a prize; and his mother not only inspected the account, but watched every important undertaking with keen interest. When her son and his colleagues doubted over some decision it was she who gave the casting vote; but though her advice in most cases proved sound and profitable, she herself ascribed this less to her own acumen and knowledge of the world than to the hints she obtained from the stars and from magical calculations. Her son did not follow her in these speculations, but he rarely disputed the conclusions that she drew from her astrological studies. While she was turning night into day he was glad to entertain a few learned friends, for all the hours of leisure that he could snatch from his pursuit of fortune, he devoted to philosophy, and the most distinguished thinkers of Alexandria were happy to be received at the hospitable table of so rich a patron. He was charmed to be called "Callias,"
and the heathen teachers at the schools of the Museum and Serapeum regarded him as a faithful ally. It was known that he had been baptized, but he never liked to hear the fact mentioned. He won all hearts by his perfect modesty, but even more perhaps by a certain air of suffering and melancholy which protected the wealthy merchant against the envy of detractors.
In the course of her conversation with Karnis the old lady enquired particularly as to the antecedent history of Agne, for if there had been a stain on her character, or if she were by birth a slave, Gorgo could not of course be seen with her in public, and in that case Karnis would have to teach the lament of Isis to some freeborn singer. Karnis in reply could only shrug his shoulders, and beg the ladies and Porphyrius to judge for themselves when he should have related the young girl's story.
Three years since, he said, he had been staying at Antioch at the time of a violent outbreak against the levying of certain taxes. There had been much bloodshed, and he and his family had got out of the city as quickly as they could. It was growing dusk when they turned into a wayside inn, where they found Agne and her little brother captives to a soldier. During the night the girl had crept up to the little boy's bed, and to comfort and lull him had begun to sing him a simple song. The singer's voice was so pure and pathetic that it had touched both him and his wife and they had at once purchased the girl and her brother for a small sum. He had simply paid what the soldier asked, not regarding the children in the light of slaves; nor had he had any description of them written out, though it was, no doubt, in his power to treat them as slaves and to sell them again, since the sale had taken place before witnesses who might still be found. He had afterwards learnt from the girl that her parents were Christians and had settled in Antioch only a few years previously; but she had no friends nor relatives there. Her father, being a tax-collector in the service of the Emperor, had moved about a great deal, but she remembered his having spoken of Augusta Treviroruin in Belgica prima, as his native place.--[Now Trier or Treves, on the Moselle.]
Agne had witnessed the attack on her father's house by the angry mob who had killed her parents, their two slaves, and her elder brother. Her father must certainly have been an official of some rank, and probably, as it would seem, a Roman citizen, in which case--as Porphyrius agreed--both the young girl and her little brother could legally claim their freedom. The insurgents who had dragged the two children out into the street had been driven off by the troops, and it was from them that Karnis had rescued them. "And I have never regretted it," added the old musician, "for Agne is a sweet, gentle soul. Of her voice I need say nothing, since you yourselves heard it yesterday."
"And were quite delighted with it!" cried Gorgo. "If flowers could sing it would be like that!"
"Well, well," said Karnis. "She has a lovely voice--but she wants wings. Something--what, I know not, keeps the violet rooted to the soil."
"Christian scruples," said the merchant, and Damia added:
"Let Eros touch her--that will loosen her tongue."
"Eros, always Eros!" repeated Gorgo shrugging her shoulders. "Nay, love means suffering--those who love drag a chain with them. To do the best of which he is capable man needs only to be free, true, and in health."
"That is a great deal, fair mistress," replied Karnis eagerly. "With these three gifts the best work is done. But as to Agne--what can be further from freedom than a girl bound to service? her body, to be sure is healthy, but her spirit suffers; she can get no peace for dread of the Christian's terrors: Sin, Repentance, and Hell. . . ."
"Oh, we know how their life is ruined!" interrupted the old lady. "Was it Agne who introduced you to Mary's Asylum?"
"No, noble lady."
"But how then--that prudent saint generally selects her guests, and those that are not baptized . . ."
"She certainly sheltered heathens on this occasion."
"I am much surprised. Tell me how it happened."
"We were at Rome," began Karnis, "and my patron there persuaded Marcus, Mary's son, to take us on board his ship at Ostia. We dropped anchor at Cyrene, where the young master wanted to pick up his brother and bring him also to Alexandria."
"Then is Demetrius here?" asked Porphyrius.
"Yes, sir. He came on board at Cyrene. Hardly had we got fairly to sea again when we saw two pirate ships. Our trireme was at once turned round, but in our hurry to regain the harbor we stuck fast on a sand bank; the boats were at once put out to save the passengers and Cynegius, the consul. . ."
"Cynegius--on his way here!" exclaimed Porphyrius, much excited.
"He landed yesterday with us in the harbor of Eunostus. The secretaries and officers of his suite filled one boat and Marcus and his brother were getting into the other with their men. We, and others of the free passengers, should have been left behind if Dada . . ."
"That pretty little blonde?" asked Damia.
"The very same. Marcus had taken a great fancy to her prattle and her songs during the voyage--no nightingale can sing more clearly--and when she begged and prayed him he gave way at once, and said: he would take her in his boat. But the brave child declared that she would jump into the sea before she would leave without us."
"Well done!" cried the old lady, and Porphyrius added:
"That speaks well for her and for you."
"So after all Marcus found room for us in the boat--for all of us, and we got safely to land. A few days after we all came on in a troop-ship: Cynegius, the two brothers and the rest, all safe and sound; and, as we had lost everything we possessed, Marcus gave us a certificate which procured our admission into his mother's Xenodochium. And then the gods brought me and mine under the notice of your noble daughter."
"Then Cynegius is here, positively here?" asked Porphyrius once more. Karnis assured him that he was, and the merchant, turning to his mother, went on:
"And Olympius has not yet come home. It is always the same thing; he is as rash as a boy. If they should take him! The roads are swarming with monks. There is something astir. Bring out the chariot, Syrus, at once; and tell Atlas to be ready to accompany me. Cynegius here!--Ha, ha! I thank the gods!"
The last exclamation was addressed to a man who at this instant came into the room, muffled up to the eyes. He threw off the hood of his cloak and the wrapper that went round his throat, concealing his long white beard, and as he did so he exclaimed with a gasp for breath:
"Here I am once more!--Cynegius is here and matters look serious my friend."
"You have been to the Museum?"
"Without any obstruction. I found them all assembled. Brave lads. They are all for us and the gods. There are plenty of weapons. The Jews--[At that time about two-fifths of the whole population.]--are not stirring, Onias thinks he may vouch for that; and we must surely be a match for the monks and the imperial cohorts."
"If the gods only stand by us to-day and tomorrow," replied Porphyrius doubtfully.
"For ever, if only the country people do their duty!" cried the other. "But who is this stranger?"
"The chief of the singers who were here yesterday," replied Gorgo.
"Karnis, the son of Hiero of Tauromenium," said the musician, bowing to the stranger, whose stately figure and handsome, thoughtful head struck him with admiration.
"Karnis of Tauromenium!" exclaimed the newcomer with glad surprise. "By Hercules! a strange meeting. Your hand, your hand, old man. How many years is it since we last emptied a wine-jar together at the house of old Hippias? Seven lustres have turned our hair grey, but we still can stand upright. Well, Karnis son of Hiero--and who am I?"
"Olympius--the great Olympius!" cried Karnis, eagerly grasping the offered hand. "May all the gods bless this happy day!"
"All the gods?" repeated the philosopher. "Is that what you say? Then you have not crawled under the yoke of the cross?"
"The world can rejoice only under the auspices of the gods!" cried Karnis excitedly.
"And it shall rejoice still, we will save it from gloom!" added the other with a flash of vehemence.
"The times are fateful. We must fight; and no longer over trifles; we cannot now break each other's heads over a quibble, or believe that the whole world hangs on the question whether the instant of death is the last minute of this life or the first of the next. No--what now remains to be decided is whether the old gods shall be victorious, whether we shall continue to live free and happy under the rule of the Immortals, or whether we shall bow under the dismal doctrine of the carpenter's crucified son; we must fight for the highest hopes and aims of humanity."
"I know," interrupted Karnis, "you have already done battle valiantly for great Serapis. They wanted to lay hands on his sanctuary but you and your disciples put them to rout. The rest got off scot-free . . ."
"But they have taught me the value of my head," said Olympius laughing. "Evagrius prices it at three talents. Why, you might buy a house with the money and a modest man could live upon the interest. This worthy man keeps me concealed here. We must talk over a few things, Porphyrius; and you, Gorgo, do not forget the solemn festival of Isis. Now that Cynegius is here it must be made as splendid as possible, and he must tell the Emperor, who has sent him, what temper we Alexandrians are in. But where is the dark maiden I saw yesterday?"
"In the garden," replied Gorgo.
"She is to sing at the foot of the bier!" cried Olympius. "That must not be altered."
"If I can persuade her--she is a Christian," said Karnis doubtfully.
"She must," said the philosopher positively. "It will be a bad lookout indeed for the logic and rhetoric of Alexandria if an old professor and disputant cannot succeed in turning a young girl's resolutions upside down. Leave that to me. I shall find time for a chat with you by and bye, friend Karnis. How in the world does it happen that you, who so often have helped us with your father's coin, have come down to be the chief of a band of travelling musicians? You will have much to tell me, my good friend; but even such important matters must give way to those that are more pressing. One word with you, Porphyrius."
Agne had been all this time awaiting Herse's return in the colonnade that ran along the garden-front of the house. She was glad to be alone, and it was very comfortable to rest on the soft cushions under the gilt-coffered ceiling of the arcade. At each end stood large shrubs covered with bunches of violet-blue flowers and the spreading branches cast a pleasant shade on the couch where she sat; the beautiful flowers, which were strange to her, were delightfully fragrant, and from time to time she helped herself to the refreshments which Gorgo herself had brought out to her. All she saw, heard, and felt, was soothing to her mind; never had she seen or tasted juicier peaches, richer bunches of grapes, fresher almonds or more tempting cakes; on the shrubs in the garden and on the grass-plots between the paths there was not a dead leaf, not a dry stem, not the tiniest weed. The buds were swelling on the tall trees, shrubs without end were covered with blossoms--white, blue, yellow, and red--while, among the smooth, shining leaves of the orange and lemon trees, gleamed the swelling fruit. On a round tank close at hand some black swans were noiselessly tracing evanescent circles and uttering their strange lament. The song of birds mingled with the plash of fountains, and even the marble statues, for all that they were dumb, seemed to be enjoying the sweet morning air and the stir and voice of nature.
Yes, she could be happy here; as she peeled a peach and slowly swallowed the soft fragrant mouthfuls, she laughed to remember the hard ship's-biscuit, of the two previous days' fare. And it was Gorgo's privilege to revel in these good things day after day, year after year. It was like living in Eden, in the perpetual spring of man's first blissful home on earth. There could be no suffering here; who could cry here, who could be sorrowful, who could die? . . . Here a new train of thought forced itself upon her. She was still so young, and yet she was as familiar with the idea of death as she was with life; for whenever she had happened to tell any minister of her creed that she was an orphan and a slave, and deeply sad and sorrowful, the joys of eternity in Paradise had always been described to her for her consolation, and it was in hopes of Heaven that her visionary nature found such a modicum of comfort as might suffice to keep the young artist-soul from despair. And now it struck her that it must be hard, very hard to die, in the midst of all this splendor. Living here must be a foretaste of the joys of Paradise--and in the next world, among the angels of Heaven, in the presence of the Saviour--would it not be a thousand times more beautiful even than this? She shuddered, for, sojourning here, she was no longer to be counted as one of the poor and humble sufferers to whom Christ had promised the Kingdom of Heaven--here she was one of the rich, who had nothing to hope for after death.
She pushed the peaches away with a feeling of oppression, and closed her eyes that she might no longer see all these perishable splendors and sinful works of the heathen, which pandered only to the senses. She longed to remain miserable and poor on earth, that she might rejoin her parents and dwell with them eternally.
To her it was not a belief but a certainty that her father and mother were dwelling in Heaven, and she had often felt moved to pray that she might die and be reunited to them; but she must not die yet, for her little brother still needed her care. The kind souls whom she served let him lack for nothing, it is true, that could conduce to his bodily welfare; still, she could not appear before her parents without the little one in her hand, and he would be lost eternally if his soul fell into the power of the enemies of her faith. Her heart ached when she reflected that Karnis, who was certainly not one of the reprobate and whom she affectionately revered as a master in the art she loved--that Herse, and the light-hearted Dada, and Orpheus even, must all be doomed to perish eternally; and to save Orpheus she would willingly have forfeited half the joys of Paradise. She saw that he was no less an idolater than his parents; and yet, day by day, she prayed that his soul might be saved, and she never ceased to hope for a miracle--that he too might see a vision, like Paul, and confess the Saviour. She was so happy when she was with him, and never happier than when it was her fortune to sing with him, or to his admirable accompaniment on the lute. When she could succeed in forgetting herself completely, and in giving utterance by her lovely voice to all that was highest and best in her soul, he, whose ear was no less sensitive and appreciative than his father's, would frankly express his approval, and in these moments life was indeed fair and precious.
Music was the bond between her and Orpheus, and when her soul was stirred she could feel and express herself in music. Song was the language of her heart, and she had learnt by experience that it was a language which even the heathen could both use and understand. The Eternal Father himself must find joy in such a voice as Gorgo's. She was a heathen, and yet she had thrown into her song all that Agne herself could feel when she lifted up her heart in passionate prayer. The Christian--so she had often been taught--must have no part with the idolaters; but it was God himself who had cast her on the hands of Karnis, and the Church commanded that servants should obey their masters. Singing seemed to her to be a language in itself, bestowed by God on all living creatures, even on the birds, wherein to speak to Him; so she allowed herself to look forward with pleasure to an opportunity of mingling her own voice with that of the heathen lady.