Serapis by Georg Ebers
Not long after Porphyrius and the philosopher had retired to a private room Herse returned with Dada. Gorgo's blue spangled dress, which Damia had sent her, suited the girl to perfection; but she was quite out of breath, and her hair was in disorder. Herse, too, looked agitated, her face was red and she dragged little Papias, whose hand she held, rather roughly at her heels.
Dada was evidently abashed; less by reason of the splendor that surrounded her than because her foster-mother had strictly enjoined her to be very quiet and mannerly in the presence of their patrons. She felt shy and strange as she made her low courtesy to the old lady; but Damia seemed to be pleased with the timid grace of her demeanor, for she offered her her hand--an honor she usually conferred only on her intimates, bid her stoop, and gave her a kiss, saying kindly: "You are a good brave girl. Fidelity to your friends is pleasing in the sight of the gods, and finds its reward even among men."
Dada, obeying a happy impulse, threw herself on her knees before the old woman, kissed her hands, and then, sitting on her heels, nestled at her feet.
Gorgo, however, noticing Herse's agitation, asked what had happened to them. Some monks, Herse explained, had followed them on the road hither, had snatched Dada's lyre from the slave who was carrying it and pulled the wreath out of her hair. Damia was furious as she heard it, and trembled with rage as she railed at the wild hordes who disgraced and desecrated Alexandria, the sacred home of the Muses; then she began to speak once more of the young captain, Mary's son, to whom the troupe of singers owed their lives.
"Marcus," said she, "is said to be a paragon of chastity. He races in the hippodrome with all the gallants of the town and yet--if it is true it is a miracle--he shuns women as though he were a priest already. His mother is very anxious that he should become one; but he, by the grace of Aphrodite, is the son of my handsome Appelles, who, if he had gazed into those blue eyes all the way from Rome to Alexandria, would have surrendered at mercy; but then he would also have conquered them--as surely as I hope to live till autumn. You need not blush so, child. After all, Marcus is a man like other men. Keep your eyes open, Dame Herse!"
"Never fear!" cried Herse. "And I have need to keep them open I am sorry to say. The young captain, who on board ship was so bashful and retiring, as soon as he was on land altered his time. While we were away this morning he crept into his own mother's inn like a ferret, opened the door of our room with the keys of which he has the command--it is shameful!--and proposed to the girl to fly, to leave us--she is the daughter of a dear sister of mine--and go with him; who but he knows where!"
Damia struck the floor with her crutch and, interrupting the indignant matron with a spiteful laugh, exclaimed:
"Ha, ha! The saintly Mary's most saintly son! Such wonders do not happen every day! Here, Dada--here; take this ring, it has been worn by a woman who once was young and who has had many lovers. Close--come close, my sweet child."
Dada looked up at the old lady with puzzled eyes; Damia bent her head close to the girl's, and whispered, softly but vehemently in her ear:
"Only turn that milksop's head, make him so madly and desperately in love with you that he does not know which way to turn for delicious torment. You can do it I know, and if you do--well, I make no promises; but on the day when all Alexandria is talking of that woman's son as wandering out, night after night, to watch under the window of the fair Dada, the heathen singer--when he drives you out in the face of day and in his own chariot, down the Canopic Way and past his mother's door--then child, ask, claim whatever you will, and old Damia will not refuse it."
Then raising her head she added to the others:
"In the afternoon, my friends, you can take possession of your new quarters. Go with them, Dada. By-and-bye we will find you a pretty room in the tower. Come and see me very often, sweet one, and tell me all your prettiest tales. When I am not too busy I shall always be glad to see you, for you and I have a secret you know."
The girl stood up, looking uneasily at the old woman; Damia nodded knowingly, as much as to say that they quite understood each other and again offered her hand to Dada; but Dada could not kiss it; she turned and followed the others more gravely than usual.
Gorgo guessed what the old lady would be at with Dada; as soon as the party of singers had taken leave she went up to her grandmother and said reproachfully:
"That little fair thing will find no difficulty in making a fool of Marcus; for my part I hardly know him, but why should he pay for his mother's sins against you? How can he help. . ."
"He cannot help it," interrupted Damia with decisive abruptness. "He can do nothing to save his mother, any more than you can help being a child of twenty and bound to hold your tongue till your opinion is asked."
The family of musicians had all met on board the barge which was lying at anchor in the lake, off the ship-yard. Orpheus had just been an eye-witness of the disturbance which prevailed throughout the city, and the wild howls and cries that were audible in the distance confirmed his report; but the waters of the lake were an unruffled mirror of blue, the slaves in the ship-yard were at work as usual, and the cooing turtle-doves flew from palm to palm.
No signs of troubled times were to be seen in the floating home of the wanderers. The steward had provided for everything. There were rooms and beds to spare in the vessel; the large deck-cabin was a comfortable sitting-room, and from the little galley at the prow came a savory smell of cooking and a cheerful clang of pots and pans.
"This is living!" exclaimed Karnis, stretching himself comfortably on a divan. "This abode seems made on purpose for our noble selves! Sit down, mother, make yourself at home. Here we are people of consequence, and if it were only to make things pleasant for the slaves we must behave as though we had never known people who take their meals squatted round an earthen bowl, and clawing out the broken meat. Enjoy the gifts of the present--who knows how long this golden hour may last! Ah, wife, it reminds us of former times! It would be very pleasant to be like this, side by side, and help ourselves from a table all our own to dainty dishes which we had not assisted in cooking. For you, old woman, have done everything with your own hands for so long, that you deserve to have some one to wait on you for once."
A little table was placed by each divan and covered with appetizing food; the steward mixed some fine wine of the country with fresh, clear water, Orpheus offered the libation, and Karnis spiced the meal with jests and tales of his youth, of which he had been reminded by his meeting with his old friend and comrade Olympius.
Dada interrupted him frequently, laughing more loudly and recklessly than usual; she was in a fever of excitement and Herse did not fail to remark it. The good woman was somewhat uneasy. The very fact that her husband always gave himself up heart and soul to the influences of the hour--though she was glad that he should enjoy this good fortune to the utmost--made her look beyond the present into the future. She had seen with her own eyes the tumult that was rife in Alexandria, and felt that they had arrived at an inauspicious moment. If it should come to a struggle between the Christians and the Heathen, Karnis, finding that his old friend Olympius was the head of his party, would infallibly seize the sword, and if, then, the victory remained with the Christians no mercy would be shown to those who had fought for the old gods. Gorgo's wish that Agne should sing in the temple of Isis was another source of anxiety; for if it came to that they might, only too probably, be accused of perverting a Christian to heathen worship, and be condemned to a severe penalty. All this had worn a very different aspect yesterday when she had thought of Alexandria as the gay home of her youth; but now she saw what a change had taken place in these thirty years. The Church had risen on the ruins of the Temple, and monks had forced the sacrificing priests into the background.
Karnis and his troupe were musicians of no ordinary stamp; still the law concerning singing-girls might place him in peril, especially now that--to make matters worse--a young Christian was paying court to his pretty niece. What catastrophes might not be called down on his hapless head if so influential a woman as Marcus' mother Mary should come to know of her son's backsliding! Herse had long perceived how attractive that little simpleton was to all men--old and young--and when one of the lovers, of whom she had no lack, happened to take her fancy she was apt to forget herself and play a too audacious game; but as soon as she found she had gone too far and somewhat committed herself she would draw back and meet him, if she could not avoid him, with repellent and even unmannerly coldness. Again and again had Herse scolded and warned her, but Dada always answered her reproofs by saying that she could not make herself different from what she was, and Herse had never been able to remain stern and severe in the face of the foolish excuses that Dada put forward so convincingly.
To-day the good woman could not quite make up her mind whether it would be wiser to warn Dada against Marcus and desire her to repel any advances he might attempt to make, or to let bygones be bygones. She knew full well how a trifling incident gains importance when undue emphasis is laid on it; she therefore had merely asked the girl what secret she could have with old Damia and had accepted some evasive subterfuge in reply, while, at the same time, she guessed the truth and was quite determined not to remit her watchfulness. For a time, at any rate, she thought she would let matters go their own way, and never mention the young fellow's name; but her husband spoilt this plan, for with the eager jollity of a man very much at his ease after a good dinner he called upon Dada to tell their the whole history of the young Christian's invasion in the morning. Dada at first was reticent, but the old man's communicative humor proved infectious and she presently told her story:
"I was sitting alone with the poor little boy, like--well I do not know what like--you must find a comparison for yourselves. I was comforting myself with the reflection that the key was on the inside and the door locked, for I was getting frightened as the monks began to sing in the yard below, one part going off to the left, as it were, and the other part to the right. Did you ever see two drunken men walking arm in arm, and lurching first to one side and then to the other? You may laugh, but by the nine Muses it was just like that. Then Papias grew tired and cross and kept asking where Agne was, till at last he began to cry. When I asked him what he was crying for, he said he had forgotten, I really am patient--you must all allow that--I did not do anything to him, but, just to give him something to play with, I took out the key, for there was nothing else at hand that he could not break, and gave it to him and told him to play a tune on it. This delighted him, and he really did it quite prettily. Then I looked over my burnt dress and was horrified to see how large the holes were, and it struck me that I might turn it, because when you turn a thing the spots, you know, do not show."
"You have invented that this very minute," cried Orpheus laughing. "We know you. If you can only turn the laugh against yourself. . ."
"No, really," cried Dada, "the idea flew through my head like a bird through a room; but I remembered at once that a hole burnt through shows on both sides, so I threw the dress aside as past mending and sat down on the low stool to peep through the wicket by the door out at the yard; the singing had stopped and the silence frightened me almost as much. Papias had stopped his piping too, and was sitting in the corner where Orpheus sat to write his letter to Tauromenium."
"I know," said Orpheus, "the inkstand was there, that the steward of the inn had lent us the day before."
"Just so; and when mother came in, there he was, dipping his finger in the ink, and painting his white dress--you can study the pattern at your leisure.--But no not interrupt me.--Well, I was looking into the court-yard; it was quite empty; all the monks were gone. Suddenly a tall young man in a white dress with a beautiful sky-blue border appeared through the great gate. The gate-keeper crawled after him very humbly as far as his rope would allow and even the steward spoke to him with both hands pressed to his breast as if he had a faithful heart on the right side as well as the one on the left. This young man--it was our kind friend Marcus, of course--crossed the court, taking a zigzag at first, as a snipe flies, and then came towards our door. The steward and the gate-keeper had both vanished.--Do you remember the young Goths whom their father took to bathe in the Tiber last winter, when it was so cold? And how they first stood on the brink and dipped their toes in, and then ran away and when they came back again just wetted their heads and chests? But they had to jump in at last when their father shouted some barbaric words to them--I can see them now. Well, Marcus was exactly like those boys; but at last he suddenly walked straight up to our door and knocked."
"He remembered your pretty face no doubt," laughed Karnis.
"May be. However, I did not stir. I kept as still as a mouse, sitting on my stool and watching him through the key-hole, till presently he called out: 'Is no one there?' Then I forgot and answered: 'They are all out!' Of course I had betrayed myself--but it is impossible to think of everything at once. Oh! yes--you may laugh. And he smiled too--he is a very handsome fellow--and desired me most pressingly to open the door as he had something of the greatest importance to say to me. I said he could talk very well through the gap at the top; that Pyramus and Thisbe had even kissed through a chink in a wall. But he would not see the joke; he got graver and more earnest, and insisted, saying that our fate, his and mine, hung on that hour, and that not a soul must overhear what he had to say. The top of the door was too high to whisper through, so there was nothing for it but to ask Papias for the key; however, he did not know where he had put it. I afterwards thought of asking him what he had done with his flute and he fetched it then at once.--In short, the key was nowhere to be found. I told Marcus this and he wrung his hands with vexation; but in a few minutes the inn-steward, who must have been hiding to listen behind a pillar, suddenly appeared as if he had dropped from the skies, took a key out of his girdle, threw the door wide open, and vanished as if the earth had swallowed him.
"There we stood, Marcus and I, face to face. He was quite agitated; I really believe the poor fellow was trembling, and I did not feel very confident; however, I asked him what it was that he wanted. Then he recovered himself a little: 'I wished,'--he began; so I went on: 'Thou wishedst,'--and it might have gone on to the end: 'he wished, we wished'---and so forth, like the children at school at Rome, when we were learning Greek; but, Papias came to the rescue, for he ran up to Marcus and asked him to toss him up high, as he used to do on board ship. Marcus did as he was asked, and then he suddenly broke out into such a torrent of words that I was quite terrified. First he said so many fine things that I quite expected a declaration of love, and was trying to make up my mind whether I would laugh him out of it or throw myself into his arms--for he really is a dear, good, handsome fellow--and if you would like to know the truth I should have been very willing to oblige him--to a certain extent. But he asked me nothing, and from talking of me--listen to this Father Karnis--and saying that the great Father in Heaven had granted me every good gift, he went on to speak of you as a wicked, perverse and reprobate old heathen."
"I will teach him!" exclaimed Karnis shaking his fist.
"Nay, but listen," Dada went on. "He praised you and mother for a great many things; but do you know what he says is wrong? He says you will imperil my psyche--my soul, my immortal soul. As if I had ever heard of any Psyche but the Psyche whom Eros loved!"
"That is quite another thing," said Karnis very seriously. "In many songs, you know, I have tried to make you uplift your soul to a higher flight. You have learnt to sing, and there is no better school for a woman's soul than music and singing. If that conceited simpleton--why, he is young enough to be my grandson--if he talks any such nonsense to you again you may tell him from me . . ."
"You will tell him nothing," cried Herse, "for we can have nothing whatever to do with the Christian. You are my own sister's child and I desire and order you--do you hear--to keep out of his way, if he ever tries to come near you again . . ."
"Who is likely to find us here?" said Dada. "Besides, he has no such ideas and motives as you suppose. It is what he calls my soul that he cares for and not myself; and he wanted to take me away, not to his own house, but to some man who would be the physician of my soul, he said. I am generally ready enough to laugh, but what he said was so impressive and solemn, and so wonderfully earnest and startling that I could not jest over it. At last I was more angry at his daring to speak to me in such a way than any of you ever thought I could be, and that drove him half mad. You came in, mother, just as the gentleman had fallen on his knees to implore me to leave you."
"And I gave him my mind on the subject," retorted Herse with grim satisfaction. "I let him know what I thought of him. He may talk about the soul--what he is after is the girl. I know these Christians and I know what the upshot will be. He will take advantage of the edict to gain his ends, and then you will be separated from us and shut up in a reformatory or a refuge or a cloister or whatever they call their dismal prisons, and will learn more about your soul than you will care to know. It will be all over then with singing, and laughter, and amusement. Now you know the truth, and if you are wise you will keep out of his way till we leave Alexandria; and that will be as soon as possible, if you listen to reason, Karnis."
She spoke with such earnest conviction that Dada remained silent with downcast eyes, and Karnis sat up to think the matter over.
However, there was no time now for further reflection; the steward came in and desired that he, with his son and Agne should go at once to Gorgo to practise the lament of Isis.
This command did not include Herse and Dada, who remained on the barge. Herse having plenty to occupy her in the lower rooms, Dada went on deck and watched the others on their way to the house; then she sat looking at the shipwrights at their work and tossed fruit and sweetmeats, the remains of their dessert, for the children to catch who were playing on the shore. Meanwhile she thought over Marcus' startling speech, Damia's injunctions and Herse's warnings.
At first it seemed to her that Herse might be right, but by degrees she fell back into her old conviction that the young Christian could mean no harm by her; and she felt as sure that he would find her out wherever she might hide herself, as that it was her pretty and much-admired little person that he sought to win, and not her soul--for what could such an airy nothing as a soul profit a lover? How rapturously he had described her charms, how candidly he had owned that her image was always before him even in his dreams, that he could not and would not give her up--nay, that he was ready to lay down his life to save her soul. Only a man in love could speak like this and a man so desperately in love can achieve whatever he will. On her way from the Xenodochium to the house of Porphyrius she had passed him in his chariot, and had admired the splendid horses which he turned and guided with perfect skill and grace. He was scarcely three years older than herself; he was eighteen--but in spite of his youth and simplicity he was not unmanly; and there was something in him--something that compelled her to be constantly thinking of him and asking herself what that something was. Old Damia's instructions troubled her; they took much of the charm from her dream of being loved by Marcus, clasped in his arms, and driven through the city in his chariot.
It was impossible--yes, quite impossible, she was sure--that they should have parted forever; as she sat, thinking still of him and glancing from time to time at the toiling carpenters, a boat pulled up at the landing close to the barge out of which jumped an officer of the imperial guard. Such a handsome man! with such a noble, powerful, sunburnt face, a lightly waving black beard, and hair that fell from under his gold helmet! The short-sword at his side showed him to be a tribune or prefect of cavalry, and what gallant deeds must not this brilliant and glittering young warrior have performed to have risen to such high rank while still so young! He stood on the shore, looking all round, his eyes met hers and she felt herself color; he seemed surprised to see her there and greeted her respectfully with a military salute; then he went on towards the unfinished hulk of a large ship whose bare curved ribs one or two foremen were busily measuring with tape and rule.
An elderly man of dignified aspect was standing close by, who, as Dada had already discovered, was the head of the ship-yard, and the warrior hastened towards him. She heard him say: "Father," and in the next instant she saw the old man open his arms and the officer rush to embrace him.
Dada never took her eyes off the couple who walked on, arm in arm and talking eagerly, till they disappeared into a large house on the further side of the dockyard.
"What a handsome man!" Dada repeated to herself, but while she waited to see him return she gazed across the lake by which Marcus might find his way to her. And as she lingered, idly dreaming, she involuntarily compared the two men. There were fine soldiers in plenty in Rome, and the ship-builder's son was in no particular superior to a hundred others; but such a man as Marcus she had never before seen--there could hardly be such another in the world. The young guard was one fine tree among a grove of fine trees; but Marcus had something peculiar to himself, that distinguished him from the crowd, and which made him exceptionally attractive and lovable. His image at length so completely filled her mind that she forgot the handsome officer, and the shipmaster and every one else.