Cleopatra by Georg Ebers
While Gorgias was examining the subterranean chambers in the Temple of Isis, Charmian returned to Lochias earlier than she herself had expected. She had met her brother, whom she did not find at Kanopus, at Berenike's, and after greeting Dion on his couch of pain, she told Archibius of her anxiety. She confided to him alone that the Queen had committed Barine's fate to Alexas, for the news might easily have led the mother of the endangered woman to some desperate venture; but even Archibius's composure, so difficult to disturb, was not proof against it. He would have sought the Queen's presence at once--if necessary, forced his way to it; but the historian Timagenes, who had just come from Rome, was expecting him, and he had not returned to his birthplace as a private citizen, but commissioned by Octavianus to act as mediator in putting an end to the struggle which had really been decided in his favour at the battle of Actium. The choice of this mediator was a happy one; for he had taught Cleopatra in her childhood, and was the self-same quick-witted man who had so often roused her to argument. His share in a popular insurrection against the Roman rule had led to his being carried as a slave to the Tiber. There he soon purchased his freedom, and attained such distinction that Octavianus entrusted this important mission to the man who was so well known in Alexandria. Archibius was to meet him at the house of Arius, who was still suffering from the wounds inflicted by the chariot-wheels of Antyllus, and Berenike had accompanied Timagenes to her brother.
Charmian did not venture to go there; a visit to Octavianus's former teacher would have been misinterpreted, and it was repugnant to her own delicacy of feeling to hold intercourse at this time with the foe and conqueror of her royal mistress. She therefore let her brother drive with Berenike to the injured man's; but before his departure Archibius had promised, if the worst came, to dare everything to open the eyes of the Queen, who had forbidden her, Charmian, to speak in behalf of Barine and thwart the plans of Alexas.
From the Paneum garden she was carried to the Kanopic Way and the Jewish quarter, where she had many important purchases to make for Cleopatra. It was long after noon when the litter was again borne to Lochias.
On the way she had severely felt her own powerlessness. Without having accomplished anything herself, she was forced to wait for the success of others; and she had scarcely crossed the threshold of the palace ere fresh cares were added to those which already burdened her soul.
She understood how to read the faces of courtiers, and the door-keeper's had taught her that since her departure something momentous had occurred. She disliked to question the slaves and lower officials, so she refrained, though the interior of the palace was crowded with guards, officials of every grade, attendants, and slaves. Many who saw her gazed at her with the timidity inspired by those over whom some disaster is im pending. Others, whose relations were more intimate, pressed forward to enjoy the mournful satisfaction of being the first messengers of evil tidings. But she passed swiftly on, keeping them back with grave words and gestures, until, before the door of the great anteroom thronged with Greek and Egyptian petitioners, she met Zeno, the Keeper of the Seal. Charmian stopped him and inquired what had happened.
"Since when?" asked the old courtier. "Every moment has brought some fresh tidings and all are mournful. What terrible times, Charmian, what disasters!"
"No messenger had arrived when I left the Lochias," replied Charmian. "Now it seems as though the old monster of a palace, accustomed to so many horrors, is holding its breath in dread. Tell me the main thing, at least, before I meet the Queen."
The main thing? Pestilence or famine--which shall we call the worse?"
"Quick, Zeno! I am expected."
"I, too, am in haste, and really there is nothing to relate over which the tongue would care to dwell. Candidus arrived first. Came himself straight from Actium. The fellow is bold enough."
"Is the army defeated also?"
"Defeated, dispersed, deserted to the foe--King Herod with his legions in the van."
Charmian covered her face with her hands and groaned aloud, but Zeno continued:
"You were with her in the flight. When Mark Antony left you, he sailed with the ships which joined him for Paraetonium. A large body of troops on which the Queen and Mardion had fixed their hopes was encamped there. Reinforcements could easily be gained and we should once more have a fine army at our disposal."
"Pinarius Scarpus, a cautious soldier, was in command; and I, too, believed--"
"The more you trusted him, the greater would be your error. The shameless rascal--he owes everything to Antony--had received tidings of Actium ere the ships arrived, and had already made overtures to Octavianus when the Imperator came. The veterans who opposed the treachery were hewn down by the wretch's orders, but the brave garrison of the city could not be won over to the monstrous crime. It is due to these men that Mark Antony still lives and did not come to a miserable end at the hands of his own troops. The twice-defeated general--a courier brought the news--will arrive to-night. Strangely enough, he will not come to Lochias, but to the little palace on the Choma."
"Poor, poor Queen!" cried Charmian; "how did she bear all this?"
"In the presence of the defeated Candidus and Antony's messenger like a heroine. But afterwards----Her raving did not last long; but the mute, despairing silence! Ere she had fully recovered her self-command she sent us all away, and I have not seen her since. But all the thoughts and feelings which dwell here"--he pointed to his brow and breast--"have left their abode and linger with her. I totter from place to place like a soulless body. O Charmian! what has befallen us? Where are the days when care and trouble lay buried with the other dead--the days and nights when my brain united with that of the Queen to transform this desolate earth into the beautiful Elysian Fields, every-day life to a festival, festivals to the very air of Olympus? What unprecedented scenes of splendour had I not devised for the celebration of the victory, the triumph--nay, even the entry into Rome! Whole chests are filled with the sketches, programmes, drawings, and verses. All who handle brush and chisel, compose and execute music, would have lent their aid, and--you may believe me-the result would have been something which future generations would have discussed, lauded, and extolled in song. And now--now?"
"Now we will double our efforts to save what is yet to be rescued!"
"Rescued?" repeated the courtier in a hollow tone. "The Queen, too, still clings to this fine word. When I saw her at work yesterday, it seemed as if I beheld her drawing water with the bottomless vessel of the Danaides. True, today, when I left her, her arms had fallen--and in this attitude she now stands before me with her tearful eyes. And besides, I can't get my nephew Dion out of my mind. Cares--nothing but cares concerning him! And my intentions towards him were so kind! My will gives him my entire fortune; but now he actually wants to marry the singer, the daughter of the artist Leonax. You have taken her under your protection, but surely your own niece, Iras, is dearer to you, so you will approve of my destroying the will if Dion insists upon his own way. He shall not have a solidus of my property if he does not give up the woman who is a thorn in the Queen's flesh. And his choice does not suit our ancient race. Iras, on the contrary, was Dion's playfellow, and I have long destined her for his wife. No better match, nor one more acceptable to the Queen, could be found for him. He cared for her until the singer bewitched him. Bring them together, and they shall be like my own children. If the fool resists his uncle, whose sole desire is to benefit him, I will withdraw my aid. Whatever intrigues his foes may weave, I shall fold my arms and not interfere. I stand in the place of his father, my dead brother, and demand obedience. The Queen is my universe, and her favour is of more value than twenty refractory nephews."
"You will retain her Majesty's favour, even if you intercede for your brother's son."
"And Iras? When she finds herself deceived--and she will soon discover it--she will not rest--"
"Until she has brought ruin upon him," interrupted Charmian, in a tone of sorrow rather than reproach as though she already beheld the impending disaster. "But Iras has no greater influence with the Queen than I, and if you and I unite to protect the brave young fellow, who is of your own blood--"
"Then, of course--no doubt, on account of your longer period of service, you have more influence with her Majesty than Iras--however--such matters must be considered--and I have already said--my mind leaves its abode to follow the Queen like her shadow. It heeds only what concerns her. Let everything else go as it will. The fleet the same as destroyed, Candidus defeated, Herod a deserter, treason on treason--the African legions lost! What in the name of the god who tried to roll back the wheel dashing down the mountain-side!--And yet! Let us offer sacrifices, my friend, and hope for better days!"
Zeno retired as he spoke, but Charmian moved forward with a drooping head to find Barine and her faithful Anukis, and weep her fill ere she went to perform the duty of consoling and sustaining her beloved mistress. Yet she herself so sorely needed comfort. Wherever she turned her eyes she beheld disaster, peril, treachery, and base intrigues. She felt as if she had lived long enough, and that her day was over. Hitherto her gentle nature, her intellect, which yearned to expand, gather new riches, and exchange what it had gained with others, had possessed much to offer to the Queen. She had not only been Cleopatra's confidante, but necessary to her to discuss questions far in advance of the demands of the times, which occupied her restless mind. Now the Queen's attention was wholly absorbed by events--hard, cruel facts--which she must resist or turn to her own advantage. Her life had become a conflict, and Charmian felt that she was by no means combative. The hard, supple, keenly polished intellect of Iras now asserted its value, and the elderly woman told herself that she was in danger of being held in less regard than her younger companion. To resign her office would have given her peace of mind, but she repelled the thought. For the very reason that these days were so full of misery and perhaps drawing nearer to the end, she must remain, first for the sake of the Queen, but also to watch over Barine.
Now she longed to go to Cleopatra. Her mere presence, she knew, would do her sore heart good. The silvery laugh of a child reached her ears through the open gate of the garden which she was rapidly approaching. Little six-year-old Alexander ran towards her with open arms, hugged her closely, pressed his curly head against her, and gazed into her face with his large clear eyes.
Charmian's heart swelled; and as she raised the child in her arms and kissed him, she thought of the sad fate impending, and the composure maintained with so much difficulty gave way; tears streamed from her eyes and, sobbing violently, she pressed the boy closer to her breast.
The prince, accustomed to bright faces and tender caresses, broke away from her in terror to run back to his brother and sisters. But he had a kind little heart, and, knowing that no one weeps and sobs unless in pain, Alexander pitied Charmian, whom he loved, and hurried to her again.
What he meant to show her had pleased his mother, too, and dried the tears in her eyes. So he took Charmian by the hand and drew her along, saying that he wanted her to see the prettiest thing. She willingly allowed herself to be led over the paths, strewn with red sand, of the little garden which Antony had had laid out for his children in the magnificent style which pleased his love of splendour, and filled with rare and beautiful things.
There was a pond with tiny gold and silver fish, where the rare lotus flowers with pink blossoms arose from amid their smooth green leaves, and another where dwarf ducks of every colour, which seemed as if they had been created for children, swam to and fro. A bit of the sea which washed its shore had been enclosed by a gilded latticework, and on its surface floated a number of snow-white swans and black ones with scarlet bills. Native and Indian flowers of every hue adorned the beds, and the narrow paths were shaded by arbours made of gold wire, over which ran climbing vines filled with bright blossoms.
A grotto of stalactites behind the dense foliage of an Indian tree offered a resting-place, and beside it was a little house where the children could stay. The interior lacked none of the requisites of living, not even the cooking utensils in the kitchen, and the family portraits in the tablinum, delicately painted by an artist on small ivory slabs. Everything was made to suit the size of children, but of the most costly material and careful workmanship.
Behind the house was a little stable where four tiny horses with spotted skins, the rarest and prettiest creatures imaginable--a gift from the King of Media--were stamping the ground.
In another place was an enclosure containing gazelles, ostriches, young giraffes, and other grass-eating animals. Bright-plumaged birds and monkeys filled the tops of the trees, gay balls rose and fell on the jets of the fountains, and child genii and images of the gods in bronze and marble peered from the foliage. This whole enchanted world was comprised within a narrow space, and, with its radiance of colour and wealth of form, its perfume, songs, and warbling, exerted a bewildering influence upon the excited imaginations of grown people as well as children.
Little Alexander, without even casting a glance at all this, drew Charmian forward. He did not pause until he reached the shore of the lotus pond; then, putting his fingers on his lips, he said: "There, now, I'll show you. Look here!"
Rising cautiously upon tip-toe as he spoke, he pointed to the hollow in the trunk of a tree. A pair of finches had built their nest in it, and five young ones with big yellow beaks stretched their ugly little heads hungrily upward.
"That's so pretty!" cried the prince. "And you must see the old ones come to feed them." The beautiful boy's sweet face fairly beamed with delight, and Charmian kissed him tenderly. Yet, even as she did so, she thought of the young swallows hacked to death in his mother's galley, and a chill ran through her veins.
Just at that moment voices were heard calling Alexander from a neglected spot behind the dainty little house built for the children, and the boy exclaimed peevishly:
"There, now, I showed you the little nest, so I forgot. Agatha fell asleep and Smerdis went away, so we were alone. Then they sent me to Horus, the gate-keeper, to get some of his spelt bread. He never says no to anything, and it does taste so good. We're peasants, and have been using the axe and the hoe, so we want something to eat. Have you seen our house? We built it ourselves. Selene, Helios, Jotape, my future wife, and I--yes, I! They let me help, and we finished it alone, all alone! Everything is here. We shall build the shed for the cow to-morrow. The others mustn't see it, but I may show it to you."
While speaking, he drew her forward again, and Charmian obediently followed. The twins and little Jotape, who had been chosen for the future bride of the six-year-old Prince Alexandera pretty, delicate, fair-haired child of his own age, the daughter of the Median king, who had been betrothed to the boy after the Parthian war, and now remained as a hostage at Cleopatra's court--welcomed her with joyous shouts. With the exception of the little Median princess, Charmian had witnessed their birth, and they all loved her dearly.
The little royal labourers showed their work with proud delight, and it really was well done.
They had toiled at it for weeks, paying no heed to the garden and all its costly rarities. They pointed with special pride to the two planks which Helios, aided by Alexander, had fished out of the sea after the last storm, when they were left alone, and to the lock on the door which they had secretly managed to wrench from an old gate. Selene herself had woven the curtain in front of the door. Now they were going to build a hearth too.
Charmian praised their skill, while they--all talking merrily together--told her how they had conquered the greatest difficulties. Their bright eyes sparkled with pleasure while describing the work of their own hands, and they were so absorbed in eager delight that they did not notice the approach of a man until startled by his words: "Enough of this idle sport now, your Highnesses. Too much time has already been wasted on it."
Then, turning to the Queen, who had accompanied him, he continued in a tone of apology: "This amusement might seem somewhat hazardous, yet there is much to be said in its favour. Besides, it appeared to afford the royal children so much pleasure that I permitted it for a short time. But if your Majesty commands:
"Let them have their pleasure," the Queen interrupted kindly; and as soon as the children saw their mother they rushed forward, crowded around her with fearless love, thanked her, and eagerly assured her that nothing in the whole garden was half so dear to them as their little house. They meant to build a stable too.
"That might be too much," said the tutor Euphronion, a grey-haired man with a shrewd, kindly face. "We must remember how many things are yet to be learned, that we may reach the goal fixed for your Majesty's birthday and pass the examination."
But all the children now joined in the entreaty to be allowed to build the stable too, and it was granted.
When the tutor at last began to lead them away, the royal mother stopped them, asking "Suppose, instead of this garden, I should give you a bit of bare land, such as the peasants till, where, after your lessons, you might dig and build as much as you please?"
Loud shouts of joy from the children answered the question; but the little Median girl, Jotape, said hesitatingly:
"Could I take my doll too--only the oldest, Atossa? She has lost one arm, yet I love her the best."
"Deprive us of anything you choose!" cried Helios, drawing little Alexander towards him, to show that they, the men, were of the same mind, "only give us some ground and let us build."
"We will consider whether it can be done," replied Cleopatra. "Perhaps, Euphronion, you would be the right person--But we will discuss the matter at a more quiet hour."
The tutor withdrew and the children, who followed, looked back, waving their hands and calling to their mother for a long time.
When they had disappeared behind the shrubbery in the garden Charmian exclaimed, "However dark the sky may be, so long as you possess these little ones you can never lack sunshine."
"If," replied Cleopatra, gazing pensively at the ground, "with a thought of them another did not blend which makes the gloom become deeper still. You know the tidings this terrible day has brought?"
"All," replied Charmian, sighing heavily.
"Then you know the abyss on whose verge we are walking; and to see them--them also dragged into the yawning gulf by their unhappy mother--Oh, Charmian, Charmian!"
She sobbed aloud, threw her arms around the neck of her friend and playfellow, and laid her head upon her bosom like a child seeking consolation. Cleopatra wept for several minutes, and when she again raised her tear-stained face she said softly:
"That did me good! O, Charmian! no one needs love as I do. On your warm heart my own has already grown calmer."
"Use it, nestle there whenever you need it, to the end," cried Charmian, deeply moved.
"To the end," repeated Cleopatra, wiping her eyes. "It began to-day, I think. I have just spent an hour alone. I meant to commit a crime, and you know how impatiently passion sweeps me along. But what misfortunes have assailed me! The army destroyed; the desertion of Herod and Pinarius; Antony's generous, trusting heart torn by base treachery, his soul darkened; the reconstruction of the canal, the last hope--Gorgias brought the news--the same as destroyed. Just then little Alexander came to show me his bird's nest. Everything else in the garden seemed to him worthless by comparison. This awakened new thoughts, and now here is the little house which the children have built with their own hands. All these things forced me by some mysterious power to look back along the course of my life to the distant days in your father's house--I--These children! Upon what different foundations our lives have been built! I made them begin at the point I had gained when youth lay behind me. My childhood commenced among the disorders of the government, clouded by my father's exile and my mother's death, on the brink of ruin. That of the twins--they are ten years old--will soon be over--and now, after enjoying pleasures not one of which was bestowed on me, they must endure the same sorrow. But did not we have better ones? What they daily possessed we only dreamed of in our simple garden. How often I let you share the radiant visions which my soul revealed to me! You willingly accompanied me into the splendid fairy world of my dreams. All that my imagination conjured up during the years of quiet and repose accompanied me into my after-life. Again and again I have beheld them, rich and powerful, upon the throne. The means of rendering the vision a varity were at hand; and when I met the man whose own life resembled the realization of a dream, I recalled those childish fancies and made them facts. The marvels with which I adorned my lover's existence were childish dreams to which I gave tangible form. This garden is an image of the life to which I intended to rise; in reality, fell. We collected within the limits of this bit of earth everything which can delight the senses; not a single one is omitted in this narrow space, whose crowded maze of pleasures fairly impede freedom of movement. Yet in your home, and guided by your wise father, I had learned to be content with so little, and commenced the struggle to attain peace. That painless peace--our chief good--whence came it? Through me it was lost to you both But the children--I made them begin their lives in an arena of every disturbing influence; and now I see how their own healthy natures yearn to escape from the dazzling wealth of colour, the stupefying fragrance, the bewildering songs and twittering. They long to return to the untilled earth, where the life of struggling mortals began.
"The boy casts away the baubles, to test his own creative powers. The girl follows his example, and clings fast only to the doll in which she sees the living child, in order to do justice to the maternal instinct, the token of her sex. But what they so eagerly desire is right, and shall be granted. When I was ten years old, like the twins, my life and efforts were already directed towards one fixed goal. They are still blindly following the objects set before them. Let them return to the place whence their mother started, where she received everything good which is still hers. They shall go to the garden of Epicurus, no matter whether it is the old one in Kanopus or elsewhere. All that their mother beheld in vivid dreams, which she often strove with wanton extravagance to realize, has surrounded them from their birth and early satiated them. When they enter life, they will scorn what merely stirs and dazzles the senses, and cling to the aspiration for painless peace of mind, if a wise guide directs them and protects them from the dangers which the teachings of Epicurus contain for youth. I have found this guide, and you, too, will trust him--I mean your brother Archibius."
"Archibius?" asked Charmian in surprise. "Yes, he who grew up in the garden of Epicurus, and in life and philosophy found the support which has preserved his peace of mind during all the conflicts of existence--he who loves the mother, and to whom the children are also dear--he to whom the boys and girls cling with affectionate confidence. I wish to place the children under his protection and, if he will consent to grant this desire of the most hapless of women, I shall look forward calmly to the end. It is approaching! I feel, I know it! Gorgias is already at work upon the plan for my tomb."
"O my Queen!" cried Charmian sorrowfully. Whatever may happen, your illustrious life cannot be in danger! The generous heart of Mark Antony does not throb in Octavianus's breast, but he is not cruel, and for the very reason that cool calculation curbs ambition he will spare you. He knows that you are the idol of the city, the whole country; and if he really succeeds in adding fresh victories to this first conquest, if the immortals permit your throne and--may they avert it!--your sacred person, too, to fall into his power--"
"Then," cried Cleopatra, her clear eyes flashing, "then he shall learn which of us two is the greater--then I shall know how to maintain the right to despise him, though blind Fate should make the whole power of the world subject to him who robbed my son and Caesar's of his heritage!"
Her eyes had blazed with anger as she uttered the words; then, letting her little clenched hand fall, she went on in an altered tone:
"Months may pass before he is strong enough to risk the attack, and the immortals themselves approved the erection of the monument. The only obstacle in the way, the house of the old philosopher Didymus, was destroyed. A messenger from Gorgias brought the news. It is to be the second monument in Alexandria worthy of notice. The other contains the body of the great Alexander, to whom the city owes its origin and name. He who subjected half the world to his power and the genius of the Greeks, was younger than I when he died. Whence do I, by whose miserable weakness the battle of Actium was lost, derive the right to walk longer beneath the sun? Perhaps Mark Antony will arrive in a few hours."
"And will you meet the disheartened hero in this mood?" interrupted Charmian.
"He does not wish to be received," answered Cleopatra bitterly. "He even refused to let me greet him, and I understand the denial. But what must have overwhelmed this joyous nature, so friendly to all mankind, that he longs for solitude and avoids meeting those who are nearest and dearest? Iras is now at the Choma--whither he wishes to retire--to see that everything is in order. She will also provide a supply of the flowers he loves. It is hard, cruelly hard, not to welcome him as usual. Oh, Charmian, what joy it was when, with open arms and overflowing heart, he swung his mighty figure ashore like a youth, while his handsome, heroic face beamed with ardent love for me! And then--you do not forget it either--when he raised his deep voice to shout the first greeting, why, it seemed as if the very fish in the water must join in, and the palm-trees on the shore wave their feathery tops in joyous sympathy. And here! The dreams of my childhood, which I made reality for him, received us, and our existence, wreathed with love and roses, became a fairy tale. Since the day he rode towards us at Kanopus and offered me the first bouquet, with his sunny glance wooing my love, his image has stood before my soul as the embodiment of the virile strength which conquers everything, and the bright, undimmed joy which renders the whole world happy. And now--now? Do you remember the dull dreamer whom we left ere he set forth for Paraetonium? But no, no, a thousand times no, he must not remain so! Not with bowed head, but erect as in the days of happiness, must he cross the threshold of Hades, hand in hand with her whom he loved. And he does love me still. Else would he have followed me hither, though no magic goblet drew him after me? And I? The heart which, in the breast of the child, gave him its first young love, is still his, and will be forever. Might I not go to the harbour and await him there? Look me in the face, Charmian, and answer me as fearlessly as a mirror: did Olympus really succeed in effacing the wrinkles?"
"They were scarcely visible before," was the reply, "and even the keenest eye could no longer discover them. I have brought the pomade, too, and the prescription Olympus gave me for--"
"Hush, hush!" interrupted Cleopatra softly. "There are many living creatures in this garden, and they say that even the birds are good listeners."
A roguish smile deepened the dimples in her cheeks as she spoke, and delight in her bewitching grace forced from Charmian's lips the exclamation:
"If Mark Antony could only see you now!"
"Flatterer!" replied the Queen with a grateful smile. But Charmian felt that the time had now come to plead once more for Barine, and she began eagerly:
"No, I certainly do not flatter. No one in Alexandria, no matter what name she bears, could venture to vie even remotely with your charms. So cease the persecution of the unfortunate woman whom you confided to my care. It is an insult to Cleopatra--"
But here an indignant "Again!" interrupted her.
Cleopatra's face, which during the conversation had mirrored every emotion of a woman's soul, from the deepest sorrow to the most mischievous mirth, assumed an expression of repellent harshness, and, with the curt remark, "You are forgetting what I had good reason to forbid--I must go to my work," she turned her back upon the companion of her youth.