Cleopatra by Georg Ebers
The Queen had left her bath. Iras had arranged the still abundant waves of her hair, now dark-brown in hue, and robed her magnificently to receive the dignitaries whom, spite of the late hour of the night, she expected.
How wonderfully she had retained her beauty! It seemed as if Time had not ventured to touch this masterpiece of feminine loveliness; yet the Greek's keen eye detected here and there some token of the vanishing spell of youth. She loved her mistress, yet her inmost soul rejoiced whenever she detected in her the same changes which began to appear in herself, the woman of seven-and-twenty, so many years her sovereign's junior. She would gladly have given Cleopatra everything at her command, yet she felt as if she must praise Nature for an act of justice, when she perceived that even her royal favourite was not wholly relieved from the law which applied to all.
"Cease your flattery," said Cleopatra, smiling mournfully. "They say that the works of the Pharaohs here on the Nile flout Time. The inexorable destroyer is less willing to permit this from the Queen of Egypt. These are grey hairs, and they came from this head, however eagerly you may deny it. Whose save my own are these lines around the corners of the eyes and on the brow? What say you to the tooth which my lips do not hide so kindly as you assert? It was injured the night before the luckless battle. My dear, faithful, skilful Olympus, the prince of leeches, is the only one who can conceal such things. But it would not do to take the old man to the war, and Glaucus is far less adroit. How I missed Olympus during those fatal hours! I seemed a monster even to myself, and he--Antony's eye is only too keen for such matters. What is the love of men? A blackened tooth may prove its destruction. An aspect obnoxious to the gaze will pour water on the fiercest fire. What hours I experienced, Iras! Many a glance from him seemed an insult, and, besides, my heart was filled with torturing anxiety.
"Something had evidently come between us! I felt it. The trouble began soon after he left Alexandria. It gnawed my soul like a worm, and now that I am here again I must see clearly. He will follow me in a few days, I know. Pinarius Scarpus, with his untouched legions, is in Paraetonium, whither he went. At Taenarum he resolved to retire from the world which he, on whom it had bestowed so much that is great, hates because he has given it cause for many a shake of the head. But the old spirit woke again, and if Fortune, usually so faithful, still aids him, a large force will soon join the new African army. The Asiatic princes--But the ruler of the state must be silent. I entered this room to give the woman her just rights, and the woman shall have them. He will soon be here. He cannot live without me. It is not alone the beaker of Nektanebus which draws him after me!"
"When the greatest of the great, Julius Caesar, sued for your love in Alexandria, and Antony on the Cydnus, you did not possess the goblet," observed Iras. "It is two years since Anubis permitted you to borrow the masterpiece from the temple treasures, and within a few days you will be obliged to restore it. That a mysterious spell emanates from the cup is certain, but one still more powerful dwells in the magic of your own nature."
"Would that it might assert itself to-day!" cried the Queen. "At any rate the power of the beaker impelled Antony to do many things. I am not vain enough to believe that it was love, that it was solely the spell of my own personality which drew him to me in that disastrous hour. That battle, that incomprehensible, disgraceful battle! You were ill, and could not see our fleet when it set sail; but even experienced spectators said that handsomer, larger vessels were never beheld. I was right in insisting that the decision of the conflict should be left to them. I was entitled to call them mine. Had we conquered, what a proud delight it would have been to say, 'The weapons which you gave to the man you loved gained him the sovereignty of the world!' Besides, the stars had assured me that good fortune would attend us on the sea. They had given the same message to Anubis here and to Alexas upon Antony's galley. I also trusted the spell of the goblet, which had already compelled Antony to do many things he opposed. So I succeeded in having the decision of the conflict left to the fleet, but the prediction was false, false, false!--how utterly, was to be proved only too soon.
"If I had only been told in time what I learned later! After the defeat people were more loquacious. That one remark of a veteran commander of the foot-soldiers would probably have sufficed to open my eyes. He had asked Mark Antony why he fixed his hopes on miserable wood, exclaiming, 'Let the Phoenician's and Egyptians war on the water, but leave us the land where we are accustomed, with our feet firmly set upon the earth, to fight, conquer, or die!' This alone, I am sure, would have changed my resolve in a happy hour. But it was kept from me.
"The conflict began. Our troops had lost patience. The left wing of the fleet advanced. At first I watched the battle eagerly, with a throbbing heart. How proudly the huge galleys moved forward! Everything was going admirably. Antony had made an address, assuring the warriors that, even without soldiers, our ships would destroy the foe by their mere height and size. What orator can so carry his hearers with him! I, too, was still fearless. Who cherishes anxiety when confidently expecting victory? When he went on board his own ship, after bidding me farewell far less cordially than usual, I became more troubled. I thought it was evident that his love was waning. What had I become since we left Alexandria, and Olympus no longer attended me! Matters could not continue in this way. I would leave the direction of the war to him, and vanish from his eyes. After he had looked into the beaker of Nektanebus, he yielded to my will, but often with indignation. The unconcealed, ineffaceable lines, and the years, the cruel years!"
"What thoughts are these?" cried Iras. "Let me take oath, my sovereign mistress, that as you stand before me--"
"Thanks to this toilet-table and the new compounds of Olympus in these boxes! At that time, I tell you, I was fairly startled at the sight of my own face. Trouble does not enhance beauty, and what condemnation the Romans had heaped on the woman who meddled with war, the craft of man! I had answers for them, but I would not endure it longer. I had previously determined to hold aloof from the battle on land; but even at the commencement of the conflict, spite of its favourable promise, I longed to leave Antony and return to the children. They do not heed the colour of their mother's hair, nor her wrinkles; and he, when he had looked for and called me in vain, would feel for the first time what he possessed in me, would miss me, and with the longing the old love would awaken with fresh ardour. As soon as the fleet had gained the victory I would have the prow of my galley turned southward and, without a farewell, exclaiming only, 'We will meet in Alexandria!' set sail for Egypt.
"I summoned Alexas, who had remained with me, and ordered him to give me a signal as soon as the battle was decided in our favour. I remained on deck. Then I saw the ships of the foe describing a wide circle. The nauarch told me that Agrippa was trying to surround us. This roused a feeling of discomfort. I began to repent having meddled with men's work.
"Antony looked across at me from his galley. I waved my hand to point out the peril, but instead of eagerly and lovingly answering the greeting, as of yore, he turned his back, and in a short time after the wildest uproar arose around me. One ship became entangled with another, planks and poles shattered with a loud crash. Shouts, the cries and moans of the combatants and the wounded, mingled with the thunder of the stones hurled by the catapults, and the sharp notes of the signals which sounded like calls for help. Two soldiers, stricken by arrows, fell beside me. It was horrible! Yet my courage remained steadfast, even when a squadron--it was commanded by Aruntius--pressed upon the fleet. I saw another line of galleys steering directly towards us, and a Roman vessel assailed by one of mine--I had named her the Selene--turn on her side and sink. This pleased me and seemed like the first presage of victory. I again ordered Alexas to have the ship's prow turned as soon as the result of the battle was decided. Ere I had ceased speaking, Jason, the steward--you know him--appeared with refreshments. I took the beaker, but, ere I could raise it to my lips, he fell to the deck with a cloven skull, mingling his blood with the spilled juice of the grape. My blood seemed fairly to freeze in my veins, and Alexas, trembling and deadly pale, asked, 'Do you command us to quit the battle?'
"Every fibre of my being urged me to give the order, but I controlled myself, and asked the nauarch, who was standing on the bridge before me, 'Are we gaining the advantage?' The reply was a positive 'Yes.' I thought the fitting time had come, and called to him to steer the galley southward. But the man did not seem to understand. Meanwhile the noise of the conflict had grown louder and louder. So, in spite of Charmian, who besought me not to interfere in the battle, I sent Alexas to the commander on the bridge, and while he talked with the grey-bearded seaman, who wrathfully answered I know not what, I glanced at the nearest ship--I no longer knew whether it was friend or foe--and as I saw the rows of restless oars moving in countless numbers to and fro, it seemed as if every ship had become a huge spider, and the long wooden handles of the oars were its legs and feet. Each of these monsters appeared to be seeking to snare me in a horrible net, and when the nauarch came to beseech me to wait, I imperiously commanded him to obey my orders.
"The luckless man bowed, and performed his Queen's behest. The giant was turned, and forced a passage through the maze.
"I breathed more freely.
"What had threatened me like the legs of huge spiders became oars once more. Alexas led me under a roof, where no missiles could reach me. My desire was fulfilled. I had escaped Antony's eyes, and we were going towards Alexandria and my children. When I at last looked around I saw that my other ships were following. I had not given this order, and was terribly startled. When I sought Alexas, he had vanished. The centurion whom I sent to order the nauarch to give the signal to the other ships to return to the battle, reported that the captain's dead body has just been borne away, but that the command should be given. How this was done I do not know, but it produced no effect, and no one noticed the anxious waving of my handkerchief.
"We had left Antony's galley--he was standing on the bridge--far behind.
"I had waved my hand as we passed close by, and he hurried down to bend far over the bulwark and shout to me. I can still see his hands raised to his bearded lips. I did not understand what he said, and only pointed southward and in spirit wished him victory and that this separation might tend to the welfare of our love. But he shook his head, pressed his hand despairingly to his brow, and waved his arms as though to give me a sign, but the Antonias swept far ahead of his ship and steered straight towards the south.
"I breathed more freely, in the pleasant consciousness of escaping a two-fold danger. Had I remained long before Antony's eyes, looking as I did then, it might--
"Wretched blunder of a wretched woman, I say now. But at that time I could not suspect what a terrible doom I had brought down in that hour upon ourselves, my children, perhaps the whole world; so I remained under the thrall of these petty fears and thoughts until wounded men were carried past me. The sight distressed me; you know how sensitive I am, and with what difficulty I endure and witness suffering.
"Charmian led me to the cabin. There I first realized what I had done. I had hoped to aid in crushing the hated foe, and now perhaps it was I who had built for him the bridge to victory, to sovereignty, to our destruction. Pursued by such thoughts, as if by the Furies, I paced restlessly to and fro.
"Suddenly I heard a loud noise on deck. A crashing blow seemed to shake the huge ship. We were pursued! A Roman galley had boarded mine! This was my thought as I grasped the dagger Antony had given me.
"But Charmian came back with tidings which seemed scarcely less terrible than the baseless fear. I had angrily commanded her to leave me because she had urged me to revoke the command to turn back. Now, deadly pale, she announced that Mark Antony had left his galley, followed me in a little five-oared boat, and come on board our ship.
"My blood froze in my veins.
"He had come, I imagined, to force me to return to the battle and, drawing a long breath, my defiant pride urged me to show him that I was the Queen and would obey only my own will, while my heart impelled me to sink at his feet and beseech him, without heeding me, to issue any order which promised to secure a victory.
"But he did not come.
"I sent Charmian up again. Antony had been unable to continue the conflict when parted from me. Now he sat in front of the cabin with his head resting on his hands, staring at the planks of the deck like one distraught. He, he--Antony! The bravest horseman, the terror of the foe, let his arms fall like a shepherd-boy whose sheep are stolen by the wolves. Mark Antony, the hero who had braved a thousand dangers, had flung down his sword. Why, why? Because a woman had yielded to idle fears, obeyed the yearning of a mother's heart, and fled? Of all human weaknesses, not one had been more alien than cowardice to the man whose recklessness had led him to many an unprecedented venture. And now? No, a thousand times no! Fire and water would unite sooner than Mark Antony and cowardice! He had been under the coercive power of a demon; a mysterious spell had forced him--"
"The mightiest power, love," interrupted Iras with enthusiastic warmth--"a love as great and overmastering as ever subjugated the soul of man."
"Ay, love," repeated Cleopatra, in a hollow tone. Then her lips curled with a faint tinge of derision, and her voice expressed the very bitterness of doubt, as she continued: "Had it been merely the love which makes two mortals one, transfers the heart of one to the other, it might perchance have borne my timorous soul into the hero's breast! But no. Violent tempests had raged before the battle. It had not been possible always to appear before him in the guise in which we would fain be seen by those whom we love.
"Even now, when your skilful hands have served me--there is the mirror--the image it reflects--seems to me like a carefully preserved wreck--"
"O my royal mistress," cried Iras, raising her hands beseechingly, "must I again declare that neither the grey hairs which are again brown, nor the few lines which Olympus will soon render invisible, nor whatever else perhaps disturbs you in the image you behold reflected, impairs your beauty? Unclouded and secure of victory, the spell of your godlike nature--"
"Cease, cease!" interrupted Cleopatra. "I know what I know. No mortal can escape the great eternal laws of Nature. As surely as birth commences life, everything that exists moves onward to destruction and decay."
"Yet the gods," Iras persisted, "give to their works different degrees of existence. The waterlily blooms but a single day, yet how full of vigour is the sycamore in the garden of the Paneum, which has flourished a thousand years! Not a petal in the blossoms of your youth has faded, and is it conceivable that there is even the slightest diminution in the love of him who cast away all that man holds dearest because he could not endure to part, even for days or weeks, from the woman whom he worshipped?"
"Would that he had done so!" cried Cleopatra mournfully. "But are you so sure that it was love which made him follow me? I am of a different opinion. True love does not paralyze, but doubles the high qualities of man. I learned this when Caesar was prisoned by a greatly superior force within this very palace, his ships burned, his supply of water cut off. In him also, in Antony, I was permitted to witness this magnificent spectacle twenty--what do I say?-a hundred times, so long as he loved me with all the ardour of his fiery soul. But what happened at Actium? That shameful flight of the cooing dove after his mate, at which generations yet unborn will point in mockery! He who does not see more deeply will attribute to the foolish madness of love this wretched forgetfulness of duty, honour, fame, the present and the future; but I, Iras--and this is the thought which whitens one hair after another, which will speedily destroy the remnant of your mistress's former beauty by the exhaustion of sleepless nights--I know better. It was not love which drew Antony after me, not love that trampled in the dust the radiant image of reckless courage, not love that constrained the demigod to follow the pitiful track of a fugitive woman."
Here her voice fell, and seizing the girl's wrist with a painful pressure, she drew her closer to her side and whispered:
"The goblet of Nektanebus is connected with it. Ay, tremble! The powers that emanate from the glittering wonder are as terrible as they are unnatural. The magic spell exerted by the beaker has transformed the heroic son of Herakles, the more than mortal, into the whimpering coward, the crushed, broken nonentity I found upon the galley's deck. You are silent? Your nimble tongue finds no reply. How could you have forgotten that you aided me to win the wager which forced Antony to gaze into the beaker before I filled it for him? How grateful I was to Anubis when he finally consented to trust to my care this marvel of the temple treasures, when the first trial succeeded, and Antony, at my bidding, placed the magnificent wreath which he wore upon the bald brow of that crabbed old follower of Aristoteles, Diomedes, whom he detested in his inmost soul! It was scarcely a year ago, and you know how rarely at first I used the power of the terrible vessel. The man whom I loved obeyed my slightest glance, without its aid. But later--before the battle--I felt how gladly he would have sent me, who might ruin all, back to Egypt. Besides, I felt--I have already said so--that something had come between us. Yet, often as he was on the point of sacrificing me to the importunate Romans, I need only bid him gaze into the beaker, and exclaim 'You will not send me hence. We belong together. Whither one goes, the other will follow!' and he besought me not to leave him. The very morning before the battle I gave him the drinking cup, urging him, whatever might happen, never, never to leave me. And he obeyed this time also, though the person to whom a magic spell bound him was a fleeing woman. It is terrible. And yet, have I a right to execrate the thrall of the beaker? Scarcely! For without the Magian's glittering vessel--a secret voice in my soul has whispered the warning a thousand times during the sleepless nights--he would have taken another on the galley. And I believe I know this other--I mean the woman whose singing enthralled my heart too at the Adonis festival just before our departure. I noticed the look with which his eyes sought hers. Now I know that it was not merely my old deceitful foe, jealousy, which warned me against her. Alexas, the most faithful of his friends, also confirmed what I merely feared--ah! and he told me other things which the stars had revealed to him. Besides, he knows the siren, for she was the wife of his own brother. To protect his honour, he cast off the coquettish Circe."
"Barine!" fell in resolute tones from the lips of Iras.
"So you know her?" asked Cleopatra, eagerly. The girl raised her clasped hands beseechingly to the Queen, exclaiming:
"I know this woman only too well, and how my heart rages against her! O my mistress, that I, too, should aid in darkening this hour! Yet it must be said. That Antony visited the singer, and even took his son there more than once, is known throughout the city. Yet that is not the worst. A Barine entering into rivalry with you! It would be too ridiculous. But what bounds can be set to the insatiate greed of these women? No rank, no age is sacred. It was dull in the absence of the court and the army. There were no men who seemed worth the trouble of catching, so she cast her net for boys, and the one most closely snared was the King Caesarion."
"Caesarion!" exclaimed Cleopatra, her pale cheeks flushing. "And his tutor Rhodon? My strict commands?"
"Antyllus secretly presented him to her," replied Iras. "But I kept my eyes open. The boy clung to the singer with insensate passion. The only expedient was to remove her from the city. Archibius aided me."
"Then I shall be spared sending her away."
"Nay, that must still be done; for, on the journey to the country Caesarion, with several comrades, attacked her."
"And the reckless deed was successful?"
"No, my royal mistress. I wish it had been. A love-sick fool who accompanied her drew his sword in her defence, raised his hand against the son of Caesar, and wounded him. Calm yourself, I beseech you, I conjure you--the wound is slight. The boy's mad passion makes me far more anxious."
The Queen's pouting scarlet lips closed so firmly that her mouth lost the winning charm which was peculiar to it, and she answered in a firm, resolute tone: "It is the mother's place to protect the son against the temptress. Alexas is right. Her star stands in the path of mine. A woman like this casts a deep shadow on her Queen's course. I will defend myself. It is she who has placed herself between us; she has won Antony. But no! Why should I blind myself? Time and the charms he steals from women are far more powerful than twenty such little temptresses. Then, there are the circumstances which prevented my concealing the defects that wounded the eyes of this most spoiled of all spoiled mortals. All these things aided the singer. I feel it. In her pursuit of men she had at her command all the means which aid us women to conceal what is unlovely and enhance what is beautiful in a lover's eyes, while I was at a disadvantage, lacking your aid and the long-tested skill of Olympus. The divinity on the ship, amid the raging of the storm, was forced more than once to appear before the worshipper ungarlanded, without ornament for the head, or incense."
"But though she used all the combined arts of Aphrodite and Isis, she could not vie with you, my royal mistress!" cried Iras. "How little is required to delude the senses of one scarcely more than a child!"
"Poor boy!" sighed the Queen, gently. "Had he not been wounded, and were it not so hard to resign what we love, I should rejoice that he, too, understands how to plan and act. Perhaps--O Iras, would that it might be so!--now that the gate is burst open, the brain and energy of the great Caesar will enter his living image. As the Egyptians call Horus 'the avenger of his father,' perhaps he may become his mother's defender and avenger. If Caesar's spirit wakes within him, he will wrest from the dissembler Octavianus the heritage of which the nephew robbed the son. You swear that the wound is but a slight one?"
"The physicians have said so."
"Well, then we will hope so. Let him enter the conflict of life. We will afford him ample opportunity to test his powers. No foolish passion shall prevent the convalescent youth from following his father upward along the pathway of fame. But send for the woman who ensnared him, the audacious charmer whose aspirations mount to those I hold dearest. We will see how she appears beside me!"
"These are grievous times," said Iras, who saw in amazement the Queen's eyes sparkle with the confident light of victory. "Grant your foot its right. Let it crush her! Monsters enough, on whom you cannot set your foot, throng your path. Hence to Hades, in these days of conflict, with all who can be quickly removed!"
"Murder?" asked Cleopatra, her noble brow contracting in a frown.
"If it must be, ay," replied Iras, sharply. "If possible, banishment to an island, an oasis. If necessity requires, to the mines with the siren!"
"If necessity requires?" repeated the Queen. "I think that means, if it proves that she has deserved the harshest punishment."
"She has brought it upon herself by every hour of my sovereign's life clouded through her wiles. In the mines the desire to set snares for husbands and sons soon vanishes."
"And people languish in the most terrible torture till death ends their suffering," added Cleopatra, in a tone of grave reproof. "No, girl, this victory is too easy. I will not send even my foe to death without a hearing, especially at this time, which teaches me what it is to await the verdict of one who is more powerful. This woman who, as it were, summons me to battle, shall have her wish. I am curious to see the singer again, and to learn the means by which she has succeeded in chaining to her triumphal car so many captives, from boys up to the most exacting men."
"What do you intend, my royal mistress?" cried Iras in horror.
"I intend," said Cleopatra imperiously, "to see the daughter of Leonax, the granddaughter of Didymus, two men whom I hold in high esteem, ere I decide her destiny. I wish to behold, test, and judge my rival, heart and mind, ere I condemn her. I will engage in the conflict to which she challenged the loving wife and mother! But--this is my right--I will compel her to show herself to me as Antony so often saw me during the past few weeks, unaided and unimproved by the arts which we both have at command."
Then, without paying any further heed to her attendant, she went to a window, and, after a swift glance at the sky, added quietly: "The first hour after midnight is drawing to a close. The council will begin immediately. The matter to be under discussion is a venture which might save much from the wreck. The council will last two hours, perchance only one. The singer can wait. Where does she live?"
"In the house which belonged to her father, the artist Leonax, in the garden of the Paneum," replied Iras hoarsely. "But, O my Queen, if ever my opinion had the slightest weight with you--"
"I desire no counsel now, but demand the fulfilment of my orders!" cried Cleopatra resolutely. "As soon as those whom I expect are here--"
The Queen was interrupted by a chamberlain, who announced the arrival of the men whom she had summoned, and Cleopatra bade him tell them that she was on her way to the council chamber. Then she turned again to Iras and in rapid words commanded her to go at once in a closed carriage, accompanied by a reliable person, to Barine's house. She must be brought to the palace without the least delay--Iras would understand--even if it should be necessary to rouse her from her sleep. "I wish to see her as if a storm had forced her suddenly upon the deck of a ship," she said in conclusion.
Then snatching a small tablet from the dressing-table, she scrawled upon the wax with a rapid hand: "Cleopatra, the Queen, desires to see Barine, the daughter of Leonax, without delay. She must obey any command of Iras, Cleopatra's messenger, and her companion."
Then, closing the diptychon, she handed it to her attendant, asking:
"Whom will you take?"
She answered without hesitation, "Alexas."
"Very well," answered Cleopatra. "Do not allow her a moment for preparations, whatever they may be. But do not forget--I command you--that she is a woman."
With these words she turned to follow the chamberlain, but Iras hurried after her to adjust the diadem upon her head and arrange some of the folds of her robe.
Cleopatra submitted, saying kindly, "Something else, I see, is weighing on your heart."
"O my mistress!" cried the girl. "After these tempests of the soul, these harassing months, you are turning night into day and assuming fresh labours and anxieties. If the leech Olympus--"
"It must be," interrupted Cleopatra kindly. "The last two weeks seemed like a single long and gloomy night, during which I sometimes left my couch for a few hours. One who seeks to drag what is dearest from the river does not consider whether the cold bath is agreeable. If we succumb, it does not matter whether we are well or ill; if, on the contrary, we succeed in gathering another army and saving Egypt, let it cost health and life. The minutes I intend to grant to the woman will be thrown into the bargain. Whatever may come, I shall be ready to meet my fate. I am at one of life's great turning points. At such a time we fulfil our obligations and demands, both great and small."
A few minutes later Cleopatra entered the throne-room and saluted the men whom she had roused from their slumber in order to lay before them a bold plan which, in the lowest depths of misfortune, her yearning to offer fresh resistance to the victorious foe had caused her vigorous, restless mind to evoke.
When, many years before, the boy with whom, according to her father's will, she shared the throne, and his guardian Pothinus, had compelled her to fly from Alexandria, she had found in the eastern frontier of the Delta, on the isthmus which united Egypt to Asia, the remains of the canal which the energetic Pharaohs of former times had constructed to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.
Even at that period she had deemed this ruinous work worthy of notice, had questioned the AEnites who dwelt there about the remains, and even visited some of them herself during the leisure hours of waiting.
From this survey it had seemed possible, by a great expenditure of labour, to again render navigable the canal which the Pharaohs had used to reach both seas in the same galleys, and by which, less than five hundred years before, Darius, the founder of the Persian Empire, had brought his fleet to his support.
With the tireless desire for knowledge characteristic of her, Cleopatra had sought information concerning all these matters, and in quiet hours had more than once pondered over plans for again uniting the Grecian and Arabian seas.
Clearly, plainly, fully, with more thorough knowledge of many details than even the superintendent of the water works, she explained her design to the assembled professionals. If it proved practicable, the rescued ships of the fleet, with others lying in the roadstead of Alexandria, could be conveyed across the isthmus into the Red Sea, and thus saved to Egypt and withdrawn from the foe. Supported by this force, many things might be attempted, resistance might be considerably prolonged, and the time thus gained used in gathering fresh aid and allies.
If the opportunity to make an attack arrived, a powerful fleet would be at her disposal, for which smaller ships also should now be built at Klysma, on the basis of the experience gained at Actium. The men who had been robbed of their night's rest listened in amazement to the melodious words of this woman who, in the deepest disaster, had devised a plan of escape so daring in its grandeur, and understood how to explain it better than any one of their number could have done. They followed every sentence with the keenest attention, and Cleopatra's language grew more impassioned, gained greater power and depth, the more plainly she perceived the unfeigned, enthusiastic admiration paid her by her listeners.
Even the oldest and most experienced men did not consider the surprising proposal utterly impossible and impracticable. Some, among them Gorgias, who during the restoration of the Serapeum had helped his father on the eastern frontier of the Delta, and thus became familiar with the neighbourhood of Heroonopolis, feared the difficulties which an elevation of the earth in the centre of the isthmus would place in the way of the enterprise. Yet, why should an undertaking which was successful in the days of Sesostris appear unattainable?
The shortness of the time at their disposal was a still greater source of anxiety, and to this was added the information that one hundred and twenty thousand workmen had perished during the restoration of the canal which Pharaoh Necho nearly completed. The water way was not finished at that period, because an oracle had asserted that it would benefit only the foreigners, the Phoenicians.
All these points were duly considered, but could not shake the opinion that, under specially favourable conditions, the Queen's plan would be practicable; though, to execute it, obstacles mountain-high were to be conquered. All the labourers in the fields, who had not been pressed into the army, must be summoned to the work.
Not an hour's delay was permitted. Where there was no water to bear the ships, an attempt must be made to convey them across the land. There was no lack of means. The mechanics who had understood how to move the obelisks and colossi from the cataract to Alexandria, could here again find opportunity to test their brains and former skill.
Never had Cleopatra's kindling spirit roused more eager, nay, more passionate sympathy, in any counsellors gathered around her than during this nocturnal meeting, and when at last she paused, the loud acclamations of excited men greeted her. The Queen's return, and the tidings of the lost battle which she had communicated, were to be kept secret.
Gorgias had been appointed one of the directors of the enterprise, and the intellect, voice, and winning charm of Cleopatra had so enraptured him that he already fancied he saw the commencement of a new love which would be fatal to his regard for Helena.
It was foolish to raise his wishes so high, but he told himself that he had never beheld a woman more to be desired. Yet he cherished a very warm memory of the philosopher's grand-daughter, and lamented that he would scarcely find it possible to bid her farewell.
Zeno, the Keeper of the Seal, Dion's uncle, had questioned him about his nephew in a very mysterious manner as soon as he entered the council chamber, and received the reply that the wound in the shoulder, which Caesarion had dealt with a short Roman sword, though severe, was--so the physicians assured them-not fatal.
This seemed to satisfy Zeno, and ere Gorgias could urge him to extend a protecting hand over his nephew, he excused himself and, with a message to the wounded man, turned his back upon him.
The courtier had not yet learned what view the Queen would take of this unfortunate affair, and besides, he was overloaded with business. The new enterprise required the issue of a large number of documents conferring authority, which all passed through his hands.
Cleopatra addressed a few kind, encouraging words to each one of the experts who had been entrusted with the execution of her plan. Gorgias, too, was permitted to kiss her robe, which stirred his blood afresh. He would fain have flung himself at the feet of this marvellous woman and, with his services, place his life at her disposal. And Cleopatra noticed the enthusiastic ardour of his glance.
He, too, had been mentioned in the list of Barine's admirers. There must be something unusual about this woman! But could she have fired a body of grave men in behalf of a great, almost impossible deed, roused them to such enthusiastic admiration as she, the vanquished, menaced Queen? Certainly not.
She felt in the right mood to confront Barine as judge and rival.
In the midst of the deepest misery she had spent one happy hour. She had again felt, with joyous pride, that her intellect, fresh and unclouded, would be capable of outstripping the best powers, and in truth she needed no magic goblet to win hearts.