Serapis by Georg Ebers
When the steward went to summons the musicians to his master's house he had again had no bidding for Dada, and she was very indignant at being left behind. "That old cornsack's daughter," she said, "was full of her airs, and would have nothing to say to them excepting to make use of them for her own purposes!" If she had not been afraid of being thought intrusive she would have acted on old Damia's invitation to visit her frequently, and have made her appearance, in defiance of Gorgo, dropping like a shooting-star into the midst of their practising. It never occurred to her to fancy that the young lady had any personal dislike to her, for, though she might be ignored and forgotten, who had ever had any but a kind word for her. At the same time she assumed the right of feeling that "she could not bear" the haughty Gorgo, and as the party set out she exclaimed to Agne, "Well, you need not kill her for me, but at any rate, I send her no greeting; it is a shame that I should be left to mope alone with Herse. Do not be surprised if you find me turned to a stark, brown mummy--for we are in Egypt, you know, the land of mummies. I bequeath my old dress to you, my dear, for I know you would never put on the new one. If you bewail me as you ought I will visit you in a dream, and put a sugarplum in your mouth--a cake of ambrosia such as the gods eat. You are not even leaving me Papias to tease!"
For in fact Agne's little brother, dressed in a clean garment, was to be taken to Gorgo who had expressed a wish to see him.
When they had all left the ship Dada soon betrayed how superficial her indignation had been; for, presently spying through the window of the cabin the young cavalry officer's grey-bearded father, she sprang up the narrow steps--barefoot as she was accustomed to be when at home--and threw herself on a cushion to lean over the gunwale of the upper deck, which was shaded by a canvas awning, to watch the ship-yard and the shore-path. Before she had begun to weary of this occupation the waiting-slave, who had been up to the house to put various matters in order, came back to the vessel, and squatting down at her feet was ready to give her all the information she chose to require. Dada's first questions naturally related to Gorgo. The young mistress, said the slave, had already dismissed many suitors, the sons of the greatest families of Alexandria, and if her suspicions--those of Sachepris, the slave--were well founded, all for the sake of the old shipbuilder's son, whom she had known from childhood and who was now an officer in the Imperial guard. However, as she opined, this attachment could hardly lead to marriage, since Constantine was a zealous Christian and his family were immeasurably beneath that of Porphyrius in rank; and though he had distinguished himself greatly and risen to the grade of Prefect, Damia, who on all occasions had the casting-vote, had quite other views for her granddaughter.
All this excited Dada's sympathies to the highest pitch, but she listened with even greater attention when her gossip began to speak of Marcus, his mother, and his brother. In this the Egyptian slave was the tool of old Damia. She had counted on being questioned about the young Christian, and as soon as Dada mentioned his name she shuffled on her knees close up to the girl, laid her hand gently on her arm and looking up into her eyes with a meaning flash, she whispered in broken Greek--and hastily, for Herse was bustling about the deck: "Such a pretty mistress, such a young mistress as you, and kept here like a slave! If the young mistress only chose she could easily--quite easily--have as good a lover as our Gorgo, and better; so pretty and so young! And I know some one who would dress the pretty mistress in red gold and pale pearls and bright jewels, if sweet Dada only said the word."
"And why should sweet Dada not say the word?" echoed the girl gaily. "Who is it that has so many nice things and all for me? You--I shall never remember your name if I live to be as old as Damia. . . ."
"Sachepris, Sachepris is my name," said the woman, but call me anything else you like. The lover I mean is the son of the rich Christian, Mary. A handsome man, my lord Marcus; and he has horses, such fine horses, and more gold pieces than the pebbles on the shore there. Sachepris knows that he has sent out slaves to look for the pretty mistress. Send him a token--write to my lord Marcus."
"Write?" laughed Dada. "Girls learn other things in my country; but if I could--shall I tell you something? I would not write him a line. Those who want me may seek me!"
"He is seeking, he is trying to find the pretty mistress," declared the woman; "he is full of you, quite full of you, and if I dared. . . ."
"I would go and say to my lord Marcus, quite in a secret. . . ."
"Well, what? Speak out, woman."
"First I would tell him where the pretty mistress is hidden; and then say that he might hope once--this evening perhaps--he is not far off, he is quite near this . . . over there; do you see that little white house? It is a tavern and the host is a freedman attached to the lady Damia, and for money he would shut his shop up for a day, for a night, for many days.--Well, and then I would say--shall I tell you all? My lord Marcus is there, waiting for his pretty mistress, and has brought her dresses that would make the rose-garment look a rag. You would have gold too, as much gold as heart can wish. I can take you there, and he will meet you with open arms."
"What, this evening?" cried Dada, and the blue veins swelled on her white forehead. "You hateful, brown serpent! Did Gorgo teach you such things as this? It is horrible, disgraceful, sickening!"
So base a proposal was the last thing she would ever have expected from Marcus--of all men in the world, Marcus, whom she had imagined so good and pure! She could not believe it; and as her glance met the cunning glitter of the Egyptian's eyes her own sparkled keenly, and she exclaimed with a vehemence and decision which her attendant had never suspected in her:
"It is deceit and falsehood from beginning to end! Go, woman, I will hear no more of it. Why should Marcus have come to you since yesterday if he does not know where I am? You are silent--you will not say? . . . Oh! I understand it all. He--I know he would never have ventured it. But it is your 'noble lady Damia'--that old woman, who has told you what to say. You are her echo, and as for Marcus. . . . Confess, confess at once, you witch. . . ."
"Sachepris is only a poor slave," said the woman raising her hands in entreaty. "Sachepris can only obey, and if the pretty mistress were to tell my lady Damia . . ."
"It was she then who sent for me to go to the little tavern?"
The woman nodded. "And Marcus?"
"If the pretty mistress had consented . . ."
"Then--but Great Isis! if you tell of me!"
"I will not tell; go on."
"I should have gone to my lord Marcus and invited him, from you . . ."
"It is shameful!" interrupted Dada, and a shudder ran through her slight frame. "How cruel, how horrible it is! You--you will stay here till the others come home and then you will go home to the old woman. I thank the gods, I have two hands and need no maid to wait upon me! But look there--what is the meaning of that? That pretty litter has stopped and there is an old man signing to you."
"It is the widow Mary's house steward," whined the woman, while Dada turned pale, wondering what a messenger from Marcus' mother could want here.
Herse, who had kept a watchful eye on the landing-plank, on Dada's account, had also seen the approach of the widow's messenger and suspected a love-message from Marcus; but she was utterly astounded when the old man politely but imperiously desired her--Herse to get into the litter which would convey her to his mistress's house. Was this a trap? Did he merely want to tempt her from the vessel so as to clear the way for his young master? No--for he handed her a tablet on which there was a written message, and she, an Alexandrian, had been well educated and could read:
"Mary, the widow of Apelles, to the wife of Karnis, the singer." And then followed the same urgent request as she had already received by word of mouth. To reassure herself entirely she called the slave-woman aside, and asked her whether Phabis was indeed a trust worthy servant of the widow's. Evidently there was no treason to be apprehended and she must obey the invitation, though it disturbed her greatly; but she was a cautious woman, with not only her heart but her brains and tongue in the right place, and she at once made up her mind what must be done under the circumstances. While she gave a few decorative touches to her person she handed the tablet to the waiting-woman, whom she had taken into her own room, and desired her to carry it at once to her husband, and tell him whither she had gone, and to beg him to return without delay to take care of Dada. But what if her husband and son could not come away? The girl would be left quite alone, and then. . . The picture rose before her anxious mind of Marcus appearing on the scene and tempting Dada on shore--of her niece stealing away by herself even, if the young Christian failed to discover her present residence--loitering alone along the Canopic way or the Bruclumn, where, at noon, all that was most disreputable in Alexandria was to be seen at this time of year--she saw, shuddered, considered--and suddenly thought of an expedient which seemed to promise an issue from the difficulty. It was nothing new and a favorite trick among the Egyptians; she had seen is turned to account by a lame tailor at whose house her father had lodged, when he had to go out to his customers and leave his young negress wife alone at home. Dada was lying barefoot on the deck: Herse would hide her shoes.
She hastily acted on this idea, locking up not only Dada's sandals, but also Agne's and her own, in the trunk they had saved; a glance at the slave's feet assured her that hers could be of no use.
"Not if fire were to break out," thought she, "would my Dada be seen in the streets with those preposterous things on her pretty little feet."
When this was done Herse breathed more freely, and as she took leave of her niece, feeling perhaps that she owed her some little reparation, she said in an unusually kind tone:
"Good bye, child. Try to amuse yourself while I am gone. There is plenty to look at here, and the others will soon be back again. If the city is fairly quiet this evening we will all go out together, to Canopus, to eat oysters. Good bye till we meet again, my pet!" She kissed the child, who looked up at her in astonishment, for her adopted mother was not usually lavish of such endearments.
Before long Dada was alone, cooling herself with her new fan and eating sweetmeats; but she could not cease thinking of the shameful treachery planned by old Damia, and while she rejoiced to reflect that she had not fallen into the net, and had seen through the plot, her wrath against the wicked old woman and Gorgo--whom she could not help including--burnt within her. Meanwhile she looked about her, expecting to see Marcus, or perhaps the young officer. Finding it impossible to think any evil of the young Christian, and having already trusted him so far, her fancy dwelt on him with particular pleasure; but she was curious, too, about the prefect, the early love of the proud merchant's daughter.
Time went on; the sun was high in the heavens, she was tired of staring, wondering and thinking, and, yawning wearily, she began to consider whether she would make herself comfortable for a nap, or go down stairs and fill up the time by dressing herself up in her new garments. However, before she could do either, the slave returned from her errand to the house, and a few moments after she espied the young officer crossing the ship-yard towards the lake; she sat up, set the crescent straight that she wore in her hair, and waved her fan in a graceful greeting.
The cavalry prefect, who knew that, of old, the barge was often used by Porphyrius' guests, though he did not happen to have heard who were its present occupants--bowed, with military politeness and precision, to the pretty girl lounging on the deck. Dada returned the greeting; but this seemed likely to be the end of their acquaintance, for the soldier walked on without turning round. He looked handsomer even than he had seemed the day before; his hair was freshly oiled and curled, his scale-armor gleamed as brightly, and his crimson tunic was as new and rich as if he were going at once to guard the Imperial throne. The merchant's daughter had good taste, but her friend looked no less haughty than herself. Dada longed to make his acquaintance and find out whether he really had no eyes for any one but Gorgo. To discover that it was not so, little as she cared about him personally, would have given her infinite satisfaction, and she decided that she must put him to the test. But there was no time to lose, so, as it would hardly do to call after him, she obeyed a sudden impulse, flung overboard the handsome fan which had been in her possession but one day, and gave a little cry in which alarm and regret were most skilfully and naturally expressed.
This had the wished-for effect. The officer turned round, his eyes met hers, and Dada leaned far over the boat's side pointing to the water and exclaiming:
"It is in the water--it has fallen into the lake!--my fan!"
The officer again bowed slightly; then he walked from the path down to the water's edge, while Dada went on more quietly:
"There, close there! Oh, if only you would! . . .
"I am so fond of the fan, it is so pretty. Do you see, it is quite obliging? it is floating towards you!" Constantine had soon secured the fan, and shook it to dry it as he went across the plank to the vessel. Dada joyfully received it, stroked the feathers smooth, and warmly thanked its preserver, while he assured her that he only wished he could have rendered her some greater service. He was then about to retire with a bow no less distant than before, but he found himself unexpectedly detained by the Egyptian slave who, placing herself in his way, kissed the hem of his tunic and exclaimed:
"What joy for my lord your father and the lady your mother, and for poor Sachepris! My lord Constantine at home again!"
"Yes, at home at last," said the soldier in a deep pleasant voice. "Your old mistress is still hale and hearty? That is well. I am on my way to the others."
"They know that you have come," replied the slave. "Glad, they are all glad. They asked if my lord Constantine forgot old friends."
"Never, not one!"
"How long now since my lord Constantine went away--two, three years, and just the same. Only a cut over the eyes--may the hand wither that gave the blow!"
Dada had already observed a broad scar which marked the soldier's brow as high up as she could see it for the helmet, and she broke in:
"How can you men like to slash and kill each other? Just think, if that cut had been only a finger's breadth lower--you would have lost your eyes, and oh! it is better to be dead than blind. When all the world is bright not to be able to see it; what must that be! The whole earth in darkness so that you see nothing--no one; neither the sky, nor the lake, nor the boat, nor even me."
"That would indeed be a pity," said the prefect with a laugh and a shrug.
"A pity!" exclaimed Dada. "As if it were nothing at all! I should find something else to say than that. It gives me a shudder only to think of being blind. How dreadfully dull life can be with one's eyes open! so what must it be when they are of no use and one cannot even look about one. Do you know that you have done me not one service only, but two at once?"
"I?" said the officer.
"Yes, you. But the second is not yet complete. Sit down awhile, I beg--there is a seat. You know it is a fatal omen if a visitor does not sit down before he leaves.--That is well.--And now, may I ask you: do you take off your helmet when you go into battle? No.--Then how could a swordcut hurt your forehead?"
"In a hand to hand scuffle," said the young man, "everything gets out of place. One man knocked my helmet off and another gave me this cut in my face."
"Where did it happen?"
"On the Savus, where we defeated Maximus."
"And had you this same helmet on?"
"Oh! pray let me look at it! I can still see the dent in the metal; how heavy such a thing must be to wear!"
Constantine took off his helmet with resigned politeness and put it into her hands. She weighed it, thought it fearfully heavy, and then lifted it up to put it on her own fair curls; but this did not seem to please her new acquaintance, and saying rather shortly: "Allow me--" he took it from her, set it on his head and rose.
But Dada pointed eagerly to the seat.
"No, no," she said, "I have not yet had enough of your second kindness. I was on the point of death from sheer tedium; then you came, just in time; and if you want to carry out your work of mercy you must tell me something about the battle where you were wounded, and who took care of you afterwards, and whether the women of Pannonia are really as handsome as they are said to be. . ."
"I am sorry to say that I have not time," interrupted the officer. "Sachepris here is far better qualified to amuse you than I; some years since, at any rate, she lead a wonderful store of tales. I wish you a pleasant day!"
And with this farewell greeting, Constantine left the vessel, nor did he once look back at it or its pretty inhabitant as he made his way towards the house of Porphyrius.
Dada as she gazed after him colored with vexation; again she had done a thing that Herse and--which she regretted still more--that Agne would certainly disapprove of. The stranger whom she had tried to draw into a flirtation was a really chivalrous man. Gorgo might be proud of such a lover; and if now, he were to go to her and tell her, probably with some annoyance, how provokingly he had been delayed by that pert little singing-girl, it would be all her own fault. She felt as though there were something in her which forced her to seem much worse than she really was, and wished to be. Agne, Marcus, the young soldier--nay, even Gorgo, were loftier and nobler than she or her people, and she was conscious for the first time that the dangers from which Marcus had longed to protect her were not the offspring of his fancy. She could not have found a name for them, but she understood that she was whirled and tossed through life from one thing to another, like a leaf before the wind, bereft of every stay or holdfast, defenceless even against the foolish vagaries of her own nature. Everyone, thought the girl to herself, distrusted and suspected her, and, solely because she was one of a family of singers, dared to insult and dishonor her. A strange spite against Fate, against her uncle and aunt, against herself even, surged up in her, and with it a vague longing for another and a better life.
Thus meditating she looked down into the water, not noticing what was going on around her, till the slave-woman, addressing her by name, pointed to a carriage drawn up at the side of the road that divided the grove of the Temple of Isis from the ship-yard, and which the Egyptian believed that she recognized as belonging to Marcus. Dada started up and ran off to the cabin to fetch her shoes, but everything in the shape of a sandal had vanished, and Herse had been wise when she had looked at those of the Egyptian, for Dada did the same and would not have hesitated to borrow them if they had been a little less dirty and clumsy.
Herse, no doubt, had played her this trick, and it was easy to guess why! It was only to divert her suspicions that the false woman had been so affectionate at parting. It was cheating, treachery-cruel and shameful! She, who had always submitted like a lamb--but this was too much--this she could not bear--this! . . . The slave-woman now followed her to desire her to come up on deck; a new visitor had appeared on the scene, an old acquaintance and fellow-voyager: Demetrius, Marcus' elder brother.
At any other time she would have made him gladly welcome, as a companion and comfort in her solitude; but he had chosen an evil hour for his visit and his proposals, as the girl's red cheeks and tearful eyes at once told him.
He had come to fetch her, cost him what it might, and to carry her away to his country-home, near Arsinoe on the coast. It was not that he had any mad desire to make her his own, but that he thought it his most urgent duty to preserve his inexperienced brother from the danger into which his foolish passion for the little singing-girl was certain to plunge him. A purse full of gold, and a necklace of turquoise and diamonds, which he had purchased from a jeweller in the Jews' quarter for a sum for which he had often sold a ship-load of corn or a whole cellar full of wine or oil, were to supplement his proposals; and he went straight to the point, asking the girl simply and plainly to leave her friends and accompany him to Arsinoe. When she asked him, in much astonishment, "What to do there?" he told her he wanted a cheerful companion; he had taken a fancy to her saucy little nose, and though he could not flatter himself that he had ever found favor in her eyes he had brought something with him which she would certainly like, and which might help him to win her kindness. He was not niggardly, and if this--and this--and he displayed the sparkling necklace and laid the purse on her pillow--could please her she might regard them as an earnest of more, as much more as she chose, for his pockets were deep.
Dada did not interrupt him, for the growing indignation with which she heard him took away her breath. This fresh humiliation was beyond the bounds of endurance; and when at last she recovered her powers of speech and action, she flung the purse off the divan, and as it fell clattering on the floor, she kicked it away as far as possible, as though it were plague-tainted. Then, standing upright in front of her suitor, she exclaimed:
"Shame upon you all! You thought that because I am a poor girl, a singing-girl, and because you have filthy gold. . . . Your brother Marcus would never have done such a thing, I am very sure! . . . And you, a horrid peasant! . . . If you ever dare set foot on this vessel again, Karnis and Orpheus shall drive you away as if you were a thief or an assassin! Eternal Gods! what is it that I have done, that everyone thinks I must be wicked? Eternal Gods. . . ."
And she burst into loud spasmodic sobs and vanished down the steps that led below.
Demetrius called after her in soothing words and tones, but she would not listen. Then he sent down the slave to beg Dada to grant him a hearing, but the only answer he received was an order to quit the barge at once.
He obeyed, and as he picked up the purse he thought to himself:
"I may buy ship and vineyard back again; but I would send four more after those if I could undo this luckless deed. If I were a better and a worthier man, I might not so easily give others credit for being evil and unworthy."