Cleopatra by Georg Ebers
The Epicurus anchored before the Temple of Poseidon. The crew had been ordered to keep silence, though they knew nothing, except that a letter from Antony, commanding the erection of a wall, had been found on board the pirate. This might be regarded as a good omen, for people do not think of building unless they anticipate a time of peace.
The light rain had ceased, but the wind blew more strongly from the north, and the air had grown cool. A dense throng still covered the quay from the southern end of the Heptastadium to the promontory of Lochias. The strongest pressure was between the peninsula of the Choma and the Sebasteum; for this afforded a view of the sea, and the first tidings must reach the residence of the Regent, which was connected with the palace.
A hundred contradictory rumours had been in circulation that morning; and when, at the third hour in the afternoon, the Epicurus arrived, it was surrounded by a dense multitude eager to hear what news the ship had brought from without.
Other vessels shared the same fate, but none could give reliable tidings.
Two swift galleys from the royal fleet reported meeting a Samian trireme, which had given news of a great victory gained by Antony on the land and Cleopatra on the sea, and, as men are most ready to believe what they desire, throngs of exulting men and women moved to and fro along the shore, strengthening by their confidence many a timorous spirit. Prudent people, who had regarded the long delay of the first ships of the fleet with anxiety, had opened their ears to the tales of evil, and looked forward to the future with uneasiness. But they avoided giving expression to their fears, for the overseer of an establishment for gold embroidery, who had ventured to warn the people against premature rejoicing, had limped home badly beaten, and two other pessimists who had been flung in the sea had just been dragged out dripping wet.
Nor could the multitude be blamed for this confidence; for at the Serapeum, the theatre of Dionysus, the lofty pylons of the Sebasteum, the main door of the museum, in front of the entrance of the palace in the Bruchium, and before the fortress-like palaces in the Lochias, triumphal arches had been erected, adorned with gods of victory and trophies hastily constructed of plaster, inscriptions of congratulations and thanks to the deities, garlands of foliage and flowers. The wreathing of the Egyptian pylons and obelisks, the principal temple, and the favourite statues in the city had been commenced during the night. The last touches were now being given to the work.
Gorgias, like his friend Dion, had not closed his eyes since the night before; for he had had charge of all the decorations of the Bruchium, where one superb building adjoined another.
Sleep had also fled from the couches of the occupants of the Sebasteum, the royal palace where Iras lived during the absence of the Queen, and the practorium, facing its southern front, which contained the official residence of the Regent.
When Archibius was conducted to the Queen's waiting-woman, her appearance fairly startled him. She had been his guest in Kanopus only the day before yesterday, and how great was the alteration within this brief time! Her oval face seemed to have lengthened, the features to have grown sharper; and this woman of seven-and-twenty years, who had hitherto retained all the charms of youth, appeared suddenly to have aged a decade. There was a feverish excitement in her manner, as, holding out her hand to her uncle, in greeting, she exclaimed hastily, "You, too, bring no good tidings?"
"Nor any evil ones," he answered quietly. "But, child, I do not like your appearance--the dark circles under your keen eyes. You have had news which rouses your anxiety?"
"Worse than that," she answered in a low tone.
"Read!" gasped Iras, her lips and nostrils quivering as she handed Archibius a small tablet. With a gesture of haste very unusual in him, he snatched it from her hand and, as his eyes ran over the words traced upon it, every vestige of colour vanished from his cheeks and lips.
They were written by Cleopatra's own hand, and contained the following lines:
"The naval battle was lost--and by my fault. The land forces might still save us, but not under his command. He is with me, uninjured, but apparently exhausted; like a different being, bereft of courage, listless as if utterly crushed. I foresee the beginning of the end. As soon as this reaches you, arrange to have some unpretending litters ready for us every evening at sunset. Make the people believe that we have conquered until trustworthy intelligence arrives concerning the fate of Canidius and the army. When you kiss the children in my name, be very tender with them. Who knows how soon they may be orphaned? They already have an unhappy mother; may they be spared the memory of a cowardly one! Trust no one except those whom I left in authority, and Archibius, not even Caesarion or Antyllus. Provide for having every one whose aid may be valuable to me within reach when I come. I cannot close with the familiar 'Rejoice'--the 'Fresh Courage' placed on many a tombstone seems more appropriate. You who did not envy me in my happiness will help me to bear misfortune. Epicurus, who believes that the gods merely watch the destiny of men inactively from their blissful heights, is right. Were it otherwise, how could the love and loyalty which cleave to the hapless, defeated woman, be repaid with anguish of heart and tears? Yet continue to love her."
Archibius, pale and silent, let the tablet fall. It was long ere he gasped hoarsely: "I foresaw it; yet now that it is here--" His voice failed, and violent, tearless sobs shook his powerful frame.
Sinking on a couch he buried his face amid the cushions.
Iras gazed at the strong man and shook her head. She, too, loved the Queen; the news had brought tears to her eyes also; but even while she wept, a host of plans coping with this disaster had darted through her restless brain. A few minutes after the arrival of the message of misfortune she had consulted with the members of Cleopatra's council, and adopted measures for sustaining the people's belief in the naval victory.
What was she, the delicate, by no means courageous girl, compared to this man of iron strength who, she was well aware, had braved the greatest perils in the service of the Queen? Yet there he lay with his face hidden in the pillows as if utterly overwhelmed.
Did a woman's soul rebound more quickly after being crushed beneath the burdens of the heaviest suffering, or was hers of a special character, and her slender body the casket of a hero's nature?
She had reason to believe so when she recalled how the Regent and the Keeper of the Seal had received the terrible news. They had rushed frantically up and down the vast hall as if desperate; but Mardion the eunuch had little manhood, and Zeno was a characterless old author who had won the Queen's esteem, and the high office which he occupied solely by the vivid power of imagination, that enabled him constantly to devise new exhibitions, amusements, and entertainments, and present them with magical splendour.
But Archibius, the brave, circumspect counsellor and helper?
His shoulders again quivered as if they had received a blow, and Iras suddenly remembered what she had long known, but never fully realized--that yonder grey-haired man loved Cleopatra, loved her as she herself loved Dion; and she wondered whether she would have been strong enough to maintain her composure if she had learned that a cruel fate threatened to rob him of life, liberty, and honour.
Hour after hour she had vainly awaited the young Alexandrian, yet he had witnessed her anxiety the day before. Had she offended him? Was he detained by the spell of Didymus's granddaughter?
It seemed a great wrong that, amid the unspeakably terrible misfortune which had overtaken her mistress, she could not refrain from thinking continually of Dion. Even as his image filled her heart, Cleopatra's ruled her uncle's mind and soul, and she said to herself that it was not alone among women that love paid no heed to years, or whether the locks were brown or tinged with grey.
But Archibius now raised himself, left the couch, passed his hand across his brow, and in the deep, calm tones natural to his voice, began with a sorrowful smile: "A man stricken by an arrow leaves the fray to have his wound bandaged. The surgeon has now finished his task. I ought to have spared you this pitiable spectacle, child. But I am again ready for the battle. Cleopatra's account of Antony's condition renders a piece of news which we have just received somewhat more intelligible."
"We?" replied Iras. "Who was your companion?"
"Dion," answered Archibius; but when he was about to describe the incidents of the preceding night, she interrupted him with the question whether Barine had consented to leave the city. He assented with a curt "Yes," but Iras assumed the manner of having expected nothing different, and requested him to continue his story.
Archibius now related everything which they had experienced, and their discovery in the pirate ship. Dion was even now on the way to carry Antony's order to his friend Gorgias.
"Any slave might have attended to that matter equally well," Iras remarked in an irritated tone. "I should think he would have more reason to expect trustworthy tidings here. But that's the way with men!"
Here she hesitated but, meeting an inquiring glance from her uncle, she went on eagerly; "Nothing, I believe, binds them more firmly to one another than mutual pleasure. But that must now be over. They will seek other amusements, whether with Heliodora or Thais I care not. If the woman had only gone before! When she caught young Caesarion--"
"Stay, child," her uncle interrupted reprovingly. "I know how much she would rejoice if Antyllus had never brought the boy to her house."
"Now--because the poor deluded lad's infatuation alarms her."
"No, from his first visit. Immature boys do not suit the distinguished men whom she receives."
"If the door is always kept open, thieves will enter the house."
"She received only old acquaintances, and the friends whom they presented. Her house was closed to all others. So there was no trouble with thieves. But who in Alexandria could venture to refuse admittance to a son of the Queen?"
"There is a wide difference between quiet admittance and fanning a passion to madness. Wherever a fire is burning, there has certainly been a spark to kindle it. You men do not detect such women's work. A glance, a pressure of the hand, even the light touch of a garment, and the flame blazes, where such inflammable material lies ready."
"We lament the violence of the conflagration. You are not well disposed towards Barine."
"I care no more for her than this couch here cares for the statue of Mercury in the street!" exclaimed Iras, with repellent arrogance. "There could be no two things in the world more utterly alien than we. Between the woman whose door stands open, and me, there is nothing in common save our sex."
"And," replied Archibius reprovingly, "many a beautiful gift which the gods bestowed upon her as well as upon you. As for the open door, it was closed yesterday. The thieves of whom you spoke spoiled her pleasure in granting hospitality. Antyllus forced himself with noisy impetuosity into her house. This made her dread still more unprecedented conduct in the future. In a few hours she will be on the way to Irenia. I am glad for Caesarion's sake, and still more for his mother's, whom we have wronged by forgetting so long for another."
"To think that we should be forced to do so!" cried Iras excitedly--" now, at this hour, when every drop of blood, every thought of this poor brain should belong to the Queen! Yet it could not be avoided. Cleopatra is returning to us with a heart bleeding from a hundred wounds, and it is terrible to think that a new arrow must strike her as soon as she steps upon her native soil. You know how she loves the boy, who is the living image of the great man with whom she shared the highest joys of love. When she learns that he, the son of Caesar, has given his young heart to the cast-off wife of a street orator, a woman whose home attracted men as ripe dates lure birds, it will be--I know--like rubbing salt into her fresh wounds. Alas! and the one sorrow will not be all. Antony, her husband, also found the way to Barine. He sought her more than once. You cannot know it as I do; but Charmian will tell you how sensitive she has become since the flower of her youthful charms--you don't perceive it--is losing one leaf after another. Jealousy will torture her, and--I know her well--perhaps no one will ever render the siren a greater service than I did when I compelled her to leave the city."
The eyes of Archibius's clever niece had glittered with such hostile feeling as she spoke that he thought with just anxiety of his dead friend's daughter. What did not yet threaten Barine as serious danger Iras had the power to transform into grave peril.
Dion had begged him to maintain strict secrecy; but even had he been permitted to speak, he would not have done so now. From his knowledge of Iras's character she might be expected, if she learned that some one had come between her and the friend of her youth, to shrink from no means of spoiling her game. He remembered the noble Macedonian maiden whom the Queen had begun to favour, and who was hunted to death by Iras's hostile intrigues. Few were more clever, and--if she once loved--more loyal and devoted, more yielding, pliant, and in happy hours more bewitching, yet even in childhood she had preferred a winding path to a straight one. It seemed as if her shrewdness scorned to attain the end desired by the simple method lying close at hand. How willingly his mother and his younger sister Charmian had cared for the slaves and nursed them when they were ill; nay, Charmian had gained in her Nubian maid Aniukis a friend who would have gone to death for her sake! Cleopatra, too, when a child, had found sincere delight in taking a bouquet to his parents' sick old housekeeper and sitting by her bedside to shorten the time for her with merry talk. She had gone to her unasked, while Iras had often been punished because she had made the lives of numerous slaves in her parents' household still harder by unreasonable harshness. This trait in her character had roused her uncle's anxiety and, in after-years, her treatment of her inferiors had been such that he could not number her among the excellent of her sex. Therefore he was the more joyfully surprised by the loyal, unselfish love with which she devoted herself to the service of the Queen. Cleopatra had gratified Charmian's wish to have her niece for an assistant; and Iras, who had never been a loving daughter to her own faithful mother, had served her royal mistress with the utmost tenderness.
Archibius valued this loyalty highly, but he knew what awaited any one who became the object of her hatred, and the fear that it would involve Barine in urgent peril was added to his still greater anxiety for Cleopatra.
When about to depart, burdened by the sorrowful conviction that he was powerless against his niece's malevolent purpose, he was detained by the representation that every fresh piece of intelligence would first reach the Sebasteum and her. Some question might easily arise which his calm, prudent mind could decide far better than hers, whose troubled condition resembled a shallow pool disturbed by stones flung into the waves.
The apartments of his sister Charmian, which were connected with his by a corridor, were empty, and Iras begged him to remain there a short time. The anxiety and dread that oppressed her heart would kill her. To know that he was near would be the greatest comfort.
When Archibius hesitated because he deemed it his duty to urge Caesarion, over whom he possessed some influence, to give up his foolish wishes for his mother's sake, Iras assured him that he would not find the youth. He had gone hunting with Antyllus and some other friends. She had approved the plan, because it removed him from the city and Barine's dangerous house.
"As the Queen does not wish him to know the terrible news yet," she concluded, "his presence would only have caused us embarrassment. So stay, and when it grows dark go with us to the Lochias. I think it will please the sorrowing woman, when she lands, to see your familiar face, which will remind her of happier days. Do me the favour to stay." She held out both hands beseechingly as she spoke, and Archibius consented.
A repast was served, and he shared it with his niece; but Iras did not touch the carefully chosen viands, and Archibius barely tasted them. Then, without waiting for dessert, he rose to go to his sister's apartments. But Iras urged him to rest on the divan in the adjoining room, and he yielded. Yet, spite of the softness of the pillows and his great need of sleep, he could not find it; anxiety kept him awake, and through the curtain which divided the room in which Iras remained from the one he occupied he sometimes heard her light footsteps pacing restlessly to and fro, sometimes the coming and going of messengers in quest of news.
All his former life passed before his mind. Cleopatra had been his sun, and now black clouds were rising which would dim its light, perchance forever. He, the disciple of Epicurus, who had not followed the doctrines of other masters until later in life, held the same view of the gods as his first master. To him also they had seemed immortal beings sufficient unto themselves, dwelling free from anxiety in blissful peace, to whom mortals must look upward on account of their supreme grandeur, but who neither troubled themselves about the guidance of the world, which was fixed by eternal laws, nor the fate of individuals. Had he been convinced of the contrary, he would have sacrificed everything he possessed in order, by lavish offerings, to propitiate the immortals in behalf of her to whom he had devoted his life and every faculty of his being.
Like Iras, he, too, could find no rest upon his couch, and when she heard his step she called to him and asked why he did not recover the sleep which he had lost. No one knew the demands the next night might make upon him.
"You will find me awake," he answered quietly.
Then he went to the window which, above the pylons that rose before the main front of the Sebasteum, afforded a view of the Bruchium and the sea. The harbour was now swarming with vessels of every size, garlanded with flowers and adorned with gay flags and streamers. The report of the successful issue of the first naval battle was believed, and many desired to greet the victorious fleet and hail their sovereign as she entered the harbour.
Many people, equipages, and litters had also gathered on the shore, between the lofty pylons and the huge door of the Sebasteum. They were representatives of the aristocracy of the city; for the majority were attended by richly attired slaves. Many wore costly garlands, and numerous chariots and litters were adorned with gold or silver ornaments, gems, and glittering paste. The stir and movement in front of the palace were ceaseless, and Iras, who was now standing beside her uncle, waved her hand towards it, saying: "The wind of rumour! Yesterday only one or two came; to-day every one who belongs to the 'Inimitable Livers' flocks hither in person to get news. The victory was proclaimed in the market-place, at the theatre, the gymnasium, and the camp. Every one who wears garlands or weapons heard of a battle won. Yesterday, among all the thousands, there was scarcely a single doubter; but to-day-how does it happen? Even among those who as 'Inimitables' have shared all the pleasures, entertainments, and festivities of our noble pair, faith wavers; for if they were firmly convinced of the brilliant victory which was announced loudly enough, they would not come themselves to watch, to spy, to listen. Just look down! There is the litter of Diogenes--yonder that of Ammonius. The chariot beyond belongs to Melampous. The slaves in the red bombyx garments serve Hermias. They all belong to the society of--'Inimitables,' and shared our banquets. That very Apollonius who, for the last half hour, has been trying to question the palace servants, day before yesterday ordered fifty oxen to be slaughtered to Ares, Nike, and the great Isis, as the Queen's goddess, and when I met him in the temple he exclaimed that this was the greatest piece of extravagance he had ever committed; for even without the cattle Cleopatra and Antony would be sure of victory. But now the wind of rumour has swept away his beautiful confidence also. They are not permitted to see me. The doorkeepers say that I am in the country. The necessity of showing every one a face radiant with the joy of victory would kill me. There comes Apollonius. How his fat face beams! He believes in the victory, and after sunset none of yonder throng will appear here; he is already giving orders to his slaves. He will invite all his friends to a banquet, and won't spare his costly wines. Capital! At least no one from that company can disturb us. Dion is his cousin, and will be present also. We shall see what these pleasure-lovers will do when they are forced to confront, the terrible reality."
"I think," replied Archibius, "they will afford the world a remarkable spectacle; friends won in prosperity who remain constant in adversity."
"Do you?" asked Iras, with sparkling eyes. "If that proves true, how I would praise and value men--the majority of whom without their wealth would be poorer than beggars. But look at yonder figure in the white robe beside the left obelisk--is it not Dion? The crowd is bearing him away--I think it was he."
But she had been deceived; the man whom she fancied she had seen, because her heart so ardently yearned for him, was not near the Sebasteum, and his thoughts were still farther away.
At first he had intended to give the architect the letter which was addressed to him. He would be sure to find him at the triumphal arch which was being erected on the shore of the Bruchium. But on reaching the former place he learned that Gorgias had gone to remove the statues of Cleopatra and Antony from the house of Didymus, and erect them in front of the Theatre of Dionysus. The Regent, Mardion, had ordered it. Gorgias was already superintending the erection of the foundation.
The huge hewn stones which he required for this purpose had been taken from the Temple of Nemesis, which he was supervising. Whatever number of government slaves he needed were at his disposal, so Gorgias's foreman reported, proudly adding that before the sun went down, the architect would have shown the Alexandrians the marvel of removing the twin statues from one place to another in a single day, and yet establishing them as firmly as the Colossus which had been in Thebes a thousand years.
Dion found the piece of sculpture in front of Didymus's garden, ready for removal, but the slaves who had placed before the platform the rollers on which it was to be moved had already been kept waiting a long time by the architect.
This was his third visit to the old philosopher's house. First, he had been obliged to inform him and his family that their property was no longer in danger; then he had come to tell them at what hour he would remove the statues, which still attracted many curious spectators; and, finally, he had again appeared, to announce that they were to be taken away at once. His foreman or a slave could probably have done this, but Helena--Didymus's granddaughter, Barine's sister--drew him again and again to the old man's home. He would gladly have come still more frequently, for at every meeting he had discovered fresh charms in the beautiful, quiet, thoughtful maiden, who cared so tenderly for her aged grandparents. He believed that he loved her, and she seemed glad to welcome him. But this did not entitle him to seek her hand, though his large, empty house so greatly needed a mistress. His heart had glowed with love for too many. He wished first to test whether this new fancy would prove more lasting. If he succeeded in remaining faithful even a few days, he would, as it were, reward himself for it, and appear before Didymus as a suitor.
He excused his frequent visits to himself on the pretext of the necessity of becoming acquainted with his future wife, and Helena made the task easier for him. The usual reserve of her manner lessened more and more; nay, the great confidence with which he at first inspired her was increased by his active assistance. When he entered just now, she had even held out her hand to him, and inquired about the progress of his work.
He was overwhelmed with business, but so great was his pleasure in talking with her that he lingered longer than he would have deemed right under any other circumstances, and regarded it as an unpleasant interruption when Barine--for whom his heart had throbbed so warmly only yesterday--entered the tablinum.
The young beauty was by no means content with a brief greeting; but drew Helena entirely away from him. Never had he seen her embrace and kiss her sister so passionately as while hurriedly telling her that she had come to bid farewell to the loved ones in her grandparents' house.
Berenike had arrived with her, but went first to the old couple.
While Barine was telling Helena and Gorgias, also, why all this plan had been formed so hastily, Gorgias was silently comparing the two sisters. He found it natural that he had once believed that he loved Barine; but she would not have been a fitting mistress of his house. Life at her side would have been a chain of jealous emotions and anxieties, and her stimulating remarks and searching questions, which demanded absolute attention, would not have permitted him, after his return home, wearied by arduous toil, to find the rest for which he longed. His eye wandered from her to her sister, as if testing the space between two newly erected pillars; and Barine, who had noticed his strange manner, suddenly laughed merrily, and asked whether they might know what building was occupying his thoughts, while a good friend was telling him that the pleasant hours in her house were over.
Gorgias started, and the apology he stammered showed so plainly how inattentively he had listened, that Barine would have had good reason to feel offended. But one glance at her sister and another at him enabled her speedily to guess the truth. She was pleased; for she esteemed Gorgias, and had secretly feared that she might be forced to grieve him by a refusal, but he seemed as if created for her sister. Her arrival had probably interrupted them so, turning to Helena, she exclaimed: "I must see my mother and our grandparents. Meanwhile entertain our friend here. We know each other well. He is one of the few men who can be trusted. That is my honest opinion, Gorgias, and I say it to you also, Helena."
With these words she nodded to both, and Gorgias was again alone with the maiden whom he loved.
It was difficult to begin the conversation anew, and when, spite of many efforts, it would not flow freely, the shout of the overseer, which reached his ear through the opening of the roof, urging the men to work, was like a deliverance. Promising to return again soon, as eagerly as if he had been requested to do so, he took his leave and opened the door leading into the adjoining room. But on the threshold he started back, and Helena, who had followed him, did the same, for there stood his friend Dion, and Barine's beautiful head lay on his breast, while his hand rested as if in benediction on her fair hair. And--no, Gorgias was not mistaken-the slender frame of the lovely woman, whose exuberant vivacity had so often borne him and others away with it, trembled as if shaken by deep and painful emotion.
When Dion perceived his friend, and Barine raised her head, turning her face towards him, it was indeed wet with tears, but their source could not be sorrow; for her blue eyes were sparkling with a happy light.
Yet Gorgias found something in her features which he was unable to express in words--the reflection of the ardent gratitude that had taken possession of her soul and filled it absolutely. While seeking the architect, Dion had met Barine, who was on her way to her grandparents, and what he had dreaded the day before happened. The first glance from her eyes which met his forced the decisive question from his lips.
In brief, earnest words he confessed his love for her, and his desire to make her his own, as the pride and ornament of his house.
Then, in the intensity of her bliss, her eyes overflowed and, under the spell of a great miracle wrought in her behalf, she found no words to answer; but Dion had approached, clasped her right hand in both of his, and frankly acknowledged how, with the image of his strict mother before his eyes, he had wavered and hesitated until love had overmastered him. Now, full of the warmest confidence, he asked whether she would consent to rule as mistress of his home, the honour and ornament of his ancient name? He knew that her heart was his, but he must hear one thing more from her lips--
Here she had interrupted him with the cry, "This one thing--that your wife, in joy and in sorrow, will live for you and you alone? The whole world can vanish for her, now that you have raised her to your side and she is yours."
After this assurance, which sounded like an oath, Dion felt as if a heavy burden had fallen from his heart, and clasping her in his arms with passionate tenderness, he repeated, "In joy and in sorrow!"
Thus Gorgias and Helena had surprised them, and the architect felt for the first time that there is no distinction between our own happiness and that of those whom we love.
His friend Helena seemed to have the same feeling, when she saw what this day had given her sister; and the philosopher's house, so lately shadowed by anxiety, and many a fear, would soon ring with voices uttering joyous congratulations. The architect no longer felt that he had a place in this circle, which was now pervaded by a great common joy, and after Dion made a brief explanation, Gorgias's voice was soon heard outside loudly issuing orders to the workmen.