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By Georg Ebers
The busy turmoil of the town had been hushed for some hours; the moon and stars were keeping silent watch over Alexandria, and many of the inhabitants were already in the land of dreams. It was deliciously fresh—a truly gracious night; but, though peace reigned in the streets and alleys, even now there was in this pause for rest a lack of the soothing calm which refreshes and renews the spirit of man. For some few weeks there had been an oppressive and fevered tension in the repose of night. Every house and shop was closed as securely as though it were done, not only to secure slumber against intrusion, but to protect life and property from the spoiler; and instead of tones of jollity and mirth the sleeping city echoed the heavy steps and ringing arms of soldiers. Now and again, when the Roman word of command or the excited cry of some sleepless monk broke the silence, shops and doors were cautiously opened and an anxious face peered out, while belated wanderers shrunk into gateways or under the black shadow of a wall as the watch came past. A mysterious burden weighed on the Heart of the busy city and clicked its pulses, as a nightmare oppresses the dreamer.
On this night of the year of our Lord 391, in a narrow street leading from the commercial harbor known as Kibotus, an old man was slinking along close to the houses. His clothes were plain but decent, and he walked with his head bent forward looking anxiously on all sides; when the patrol came by he shrank into the shadow; though he was no thief he had his reasons for keeping out of the way of the soldiery, for the inhabitants, whether natives or strangers, were forbidden to appear in the streets after the harbor was closed for the night.
He stopped in front of a large house, whose long, windowless wall extended from one side street to the next, and pausing before the great gate, he read an inscription on which the light fell from a lamp above: "The House of the Holy Martyr. His widow here offers shelter to all who need it. He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord."
"At how much per cent I wonder?" mattered the old man and a satirical smile curled his beardless lips. A heavy thud with the knocker rang through the silent street, and after a few short questions from within and equally curt replies from without, a small door was opened in the great gate. The stranger was on the point of crossing the vestibule when a human creature crept up to him on all fours, and clutched his ankle with a strong hand, exclaiming in a hoarse voice: "As soon as the door is shut—an entrance fee; for the poor, you know."
The old man flung a copper piece to the gatekeeper who tried it, and then, holding on to the rope by which he was tied to a post like a watch-dog, he whined out "Not a drop to wet a Christian's lips?"
"It has not rained for some time," retorted the stranger, who proceeded to open a second door which led into a vast court-yard open to the blue vault of heaven. A few torches stuck against the pillars and a small fire on the pavement added thin smoky, flickering light to the clear glory of the stars, and the whole quadrangle was full of a heavy, reeking atmosphere, compounded of smoke and the steam of hot food.
Even in the street the wanderer had heard the dull buzz and roar which now met his ear as a loud medley of noises and voices, rising from hundreds of men who were encamped in the wide space before him—in groups or singly, sleeping and snoring, or quarrelling, eating, talking and singing as they squatted on the ground which was strewn with straw.
The inn was full, and more than half of the humble guests were monks who, during the last two days, had flowed into the city from every Cenoby, Laura and hermitage in the desert, and from most of the monasteries in the surrounding district—the 'Nitriote Nome'. Some of them had laid their heads close together for confidential whispering, others squabbled loudly, and a large group in the northern angle of the court had raised a psalm which mingled strangely with the "three," "four," "seven," of the men who were playing 'mora', and the cry of the cook inviting purchasers to his stall spread with meat, bread, and onions.
At the end of the court furthest from the gateway there was a covered way, on to which a row of doors opened leading to the rooms devoted to families of women and children, each apartment being divided into two by a curtain across the middle. The stranger made his way into one of these rooms, where he was warmly welcomed by a young man, who was occupied in cutting a Kopais reed into a mouth-piece for a double flute, and by a tall matronly woman.
The new-comer's name was Karnis and he was the head of a family of wandering singers who had arrived in Alexandria only the day before from Rome. His surroundings were poor and mean, for their ship had been attacked off the African coast by a band of pirates, and though they had saved their lives they had lost everything they possessed. The young owner of the vessel, to whom he owed his safety, had procured him admission to this Xenodochium,—[a refuge or inn]—kept by his mother the Widow Mary; Karnis had, however, found it far from comfortable, and had gone forth at noon to seek other quarters.
"All in vain!" said he, as he wiped the heat drops from his forehead. "I have hunted Medius half the city through and found him at last at the house of Posidonius the Magian, whose assistant he is. There was singing behind a curtain—wretched rubbish; but there were some old airs too with an accompaniment on the flutes, in the style of Olympus, and really not so bad.
"Then spirits appeared. By Sirius a queer business altogether! Medius is in the midst of it all. I arranged the chorus and sang with them a little. All I got for it was a little dirty silver—there! But as for a lodging—free quarters!—there are none to be found here for anything above an owl; and then there is the edict—that cursed edict!"
During this speech the younger man had exchanged meaning glances with his mother. He now interrupted Karnis, saying in a tone of encouragement:
"Never mind, father; we have something good in view."
"You have?" said the old man with an incredulous shrug, while his wife served him with a small roast chicken, on a stool which did duty for a table.
"Yes father, we!" the lad went on, laying aside his knife. "You know we vowed an offering to Dionysus for our escape, since he himself once fell into the hands of pirates, so we went at once to his temple. Mother knew the way; and as we—she, I mean, and Dada and myself..."
"Heh! what is this?" interrupted Karnis, now for the first time noticing the dish before him. "A fowl—when we are so miserably poor? A whole fowl, and cooked with oil?" He spoke angrily, but his wife, laying her hand on his shoulder, said soothingly:
"We shall soon earn it again. Never a sesterce was won by fretting. Enjoy to-day's gifts and the gods will provide for to-morrow."
"Indeed?" asked Karnis in an altered key. "To be sure when a roast fowl flies into one's mouth instead of a pigeon.... But you are right as usual, Herse, as usual, only—here am I battening like a senator while you—I lay a wager you have drunk nothing but milk all day and eaten nothing but bread and radishes. I thought so? Then the chicken must pretend to be a pheasant and you, wife, will eat this leg. The girls are gone to bed? Why here is some wine too! Fill up your cup, boy. A libation to the God! Glory to Dionysus!" The two men poured the libation on the floor and drank; then the father thrust his knife into the breast of the bird and began his meal with a will, while Orpheus, the son, went on with his story:
"Well, the temple of Dionysus was not to be found, for Bishop Theophilus has had it destroyed; so to what divinity could we offer our wreath and cake? Here in Egypt there is none but the great Mother Isis. Her sanctuary is on the shore of Lake Mareotis and mother found it at once. There she fell into conversation with a priestess who, as soon as she learnt that my mother belonged to a family of musicians—though Dame Herse was cautious in announcing this fact—and hoped to find employment in Alexandria, led her away to a young lady who was closely veiled. This lady," Orpheus went on—he not only played the flute but took the higher parts for a man's voice and could also strike the lyre—"desired us to go to her later at her own house, where she would speak with us. She drove off in a fine carriage and we, of course followed her orders; Agne was with us too. A splendid house! I never saw anything handsomer in Rome or Antioch. We were kindly received, and with the lady there were another very old lady and a tall grave man, a priest I should fancy or a philosopher, or something of that kind."
"Not some Christian trap?" asked Karnis suspiciously. "You do not know this place, and since the edict..."
"Never fear, father! There were images of the gods in the halls and corridors, and in the room where we were received by Gorgo, the beautiful daughter of Porphyrius, there was an altar before an image of Isis, quite freshly anointed.—This Porphyrius is a very rich merchant; we learnt that afterwards, and many other things. The philosopher asked us at once whether we were aware that Theodosius had lately promulgated a new edict forbidding young maidens to appear in public as singers or flute-players."
"And did Agne hear that?" said the old man in a low voice as he pointed to the curtain.
"No, she and Dada were in the garden on to which the room opened, and mother explained at once that though Agne was a Christian she was a very good girl, and that so long as she remained in our service she was bound to sing with us whenever she was required. The philosopher exclaimed at once: 'The very thing!' and they whispered together, and called the girls and desired them to show what they could do."
"And how did they perform?" asked the old man, who was growing excited.
"Dada warbled like a lark, and Agne—well you know how it always is. Her voice sounded lovely but it was just as usual. You can guess how much there is in her and how deep her feeling is but she never quite brings it out. What has she to complain of with us? And yet whatever she sings has that mournful, painful ring which even you can do nothing to alter. However, she pleased them better than Dada did, for I noticed that Gorgo and the gentleman glanced at each other and at her, and whispered a word now and then which certainly referred to Ague. When they had sung two songs the young lady came towards us and praised both the girls, and asked whether we would undertake to learn something quite new. I told her that my father was a great musician who could master the most difficult things at the first hearing."
"The most difficult! Hm... that depends," said the old man. "Did she show it you?"
"No; it is something in the style of Linus and she sang it to us."
"The daughter of the rich Porphyrius sang for your entertainment? Yours?" said Karnis laughing. "By Sirius! The world is turning upside down. Now that girls are forbidden to perform to the gentlefolks, art is being cultivated by the upper classes; it cannot be killed outright. For the future the listeners will be paid to keep quiet and the singers pay for the right of torturing their ears—our ears, our luckless ears will be victimized."
Orpheus smiled and shook his head; then, again dropping his knife, he went on eagerly:
"But if you could only hear her! You would give your last copper piece to hear her again."
"Indeed!" muttered his father. "Well, there are very good teachers here. Something by Linus did you say she sang?"
"Something of that kind; a lament for the dead of very great power: 'Return, oh! return my beloved, came back—come home!' that was the burthen of it. And there was a passage which said: 'Oh that each tear had a voice and could join with me in calling thee!' And how she sang it, father! I do not think I ever in my life heard anything like it. Ask mother. Even Dada's eyes were full of tears."
"Yes, it was beautiful," the mother agreed. "I could not help wishing that you were there."
Karnis rose and paced the little room, waving his arms and muttering:
"Ah! so that is how it is! A friend of the Muses. We saved the large lute—that is well. My chlamys has an ugly hole in it—if the girls were not asleep... but the first thing to-morrow Ague.... Tell me, is she handsome, tall?"
Herse had been watching her excitable husband with much satisfaction and now answered his question: "Not a Hera—not a Muse—decidedly not. Hardly above the middle height, slightly made, but not small, black eyes, long lashes, dark straight eyebrows. I could hardly, like Orpheus, call her beautiful..."
"Oh yes, mother.—Beautiful is a great word, and one my father has taught me to use but rarely; but she—if she is not beautiful who is?—when she raised her large dark eyes and threw back her head to bring out her lament; tone after tone seemed to come from the bottom of her heart and rise to the furthest height of heaven. Ah, if Agne could learn to sing like that! 'Throw your whole soul into your singing.'—You have told her that again and again. Now, Gorgo can and does. And she stood there as steady and as highly strung as a bow, every note came out with the ring of an arrow and went straight to the heart, as clear and pure as possible."
"Be silent!" cried the old man covering his ears with his hands. "I shall not close an eye till daylight, and then... Orpheus, take that silver—take it all, I have no more—go early to market and buy flowers—laurel branches, ivy, violets and roses. But no lotuses though the market here is full of them; they are showy, boastful things with no scent, I cannot bear them. We will go crowned to the Temple of the Muses."
"Buy away, buy all you want!" said Herse laughing, as she showed her husband some bright gold pieces. "We got that to-day, and if all is well...." Here she paused, pointed to the curtain, and went on again in a lower tone: "It all depends of course, on Agne's playing us no trick."
"How so? Why? She is a good girl and I will..."
"No, no," said Herse holding him back. "She does not know yet what the business is. The lady wants her..."
"To sing in the Temple of Isis."
Karnis colored. He was suddenly called from a lovely dream back to the squalid reality. "In the Temple of Isis," he said gloomily. "Agne? In the face of all the people? And she knows nothing about it?"
"No? Well then, if that is the case... Agne, the Christian, in the Temple of Isis—here, here, where Bishop Theophilus is destroying all our sanctuaries and the monks outdo their master. Ah, children, children, how pretty and round and bright a soap-bubble is, and how soon it bursts. Do you know at all what it is that you are planning? If the black flies smell it out and it becomes known, by the great Apollo! we should have fared better at the hands of the pirates. And yet, and yet.—Do you know at all how the girl...?"
"She wept at the lady's singing," interrupted Herse eagerly, "and, silent as she generally is, on her way home she said: 'To sing like that! She is a happy girl!'"
Karnis looked up with renewed confidence.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "that is my Agne. Yes, yes, she truly loves her divine art. She can sing, she will sing! We will venture it, if you, I, all of us die for it!
"Herse, Orpheus, what have we to lose? Our gods, too, shall have their martyrs. It is a poor life that has no excitement. Our art—why, all I have ever had has been devoted to it. I make no boast of having sacrificed everything, and if gold and lands were again to be mine I would become a beggar once more for the sake of art: We have always held the divine Muse sacred, but who can keep up a brave heart when he sees her persecuted! She may only be worshipped in darkness in these days, and the Queen of Gods and men shuns the light like a moth, a bat, an owl. If we must die let it be with and for Her! Once more let pure and perfect song rejoice this old heart, and if afterwards... My children, we have no place in this dim, colorless world. While the Arts lived there was Spring on the earth. Now they are condemned to death and it is Winter. The leaves fall from all the trees, and we piping birds need groves to sing in. How often already has Death laid his hand on our shoulder, every breath we draw is a boon of mercy—the extra length given in by the weaver, the hour of grace granted by the hangman to his victim! Our lives are no longer our own, a borrowed purse with damaged copper coins. The hard-hearted creditor has already bent his knuckles, and when he knocks the time is up. Once more let us have one hour of pure and perfect enjoyment, and then we will pay up capital and interest when we must."
"It cannot and will not be yet," said Herse resolutely, but she wiped her eyes with her hand. "If Agne sings even, so long as she does it without coercion and of her own free-will no Bishop can punish us."
"He cannot, he dare not!" cried the old man. "There are still laws and judges."
"And Gorgo's family is influential as well as rich. Porphyrius has power to protect us, and you do not yet know what a fancy he has taken to us. Ask mother."
"It is like a story," Herse put in. "Before we left, the old lady—she must be eighty or more—took me aside and asked me where we were lodging. I told her at the Widow Mary's and when she heard it she struck her crutch on the floor. 'Do you like the place?' she asked. I told her not at all, and said we could not possibly stop here."
"Quite right!" cried Karnis. "The monks in the court-yard will kill us as dead as rats if they hear us learning heathen hymns."
"That is what I told her; but the old lady did not allow me to finish; she drew me close to her and whispered, 'only do as my granddaughter wishes and you shall be safely housed and take this for the present'—and she put her hand into the purse at her girdle, gave the gold into my hand, and added loud enough for the others to hear: 'Fifty gold pieces out of my own pocket if Gorgo tells me that she is satisfied with your performance.'"
"Fifty gold pieces!" cried Karnis clasping his hands. "That brightens up the dull grey of existence. Fifty, then, are certain. If we sing six times that makes a talent—[estimated in 1880 at $1100]—and that will buy back our old vineyard at Leontium. I will repair the old Odeum—they have made a cowhouse of it—and when we sing there the monks may come and listen! You laugh? But you are simpletons—I should like to see who will forbid my singing on my own land and in my own country. A talent of gold!
"It is quite enough to pay on account, and I will not agree to any bargain that will not give me the field-slaves and cattle. Castles in the air, do you say? But just listen to me: We are sure you see of a hundred gold pieces at least..." He had raised his voice in his eagerness and while he spoke the curtains had been softly opened, and the dull glimmer of the lamp which stood in front of Orpheus fell on a head which was charming in spite of its disorder. A quantity of loose fair hair curled in papers stuck up all over the round head and fell over the forehead, the eyes were tired and still half shut, but the little mouth was wide awake and laughing with the frank amusement of light-hearted youth.
Karnis, without noticing the listener, had gone on with his visionary hopes of regaining his estates by his next earnings, but at this point the young girl, holding the curtain in her right hand, stretched out her plump left arm and begged in a humble whine:
"Good father Karnis, give me a little of your wealth; five poor little drachmae!"
The old man started; but he instantly recovered himself and answered good-naturedly enough:
"Go back to bed, you little hussy. You ought to be asleep instead of listening there!"
"Asleep?" said the girl. "While you are shouting like an orator against the wind! Five drachmae, father. I stick to that. A new ribband for me will cost one, and the same for Agne, two. Two I will spend on wine for us all, and that makes the five."
"That makes four—you are a great arithmetician to be sure!"
"Four?" said Dada, as much amazed as though the moon had fallen. "If only I had a counting-frame. No, father, five I tell you—it is five."
"No, child, four; and you shall have four," replied her father. "Plutus is at the door and to-morrow morning you shall both have garlands."
"Yes, of violets, ivy and roses," added Dame Herse. "Is Agne asleep?"
"As sound as the dead. She always sleeps soundly unless she lies wide awake all the night through. But we were both so tired—and I am still. It is a comfort to yawn. Do you see how I am sitting?"
"On the clothes-chest?" said Herse.
"Yes, and the curtain is not a strong back to the seat. Fortunately if I fall asleep I shall drop forwards, not backwards."
"But there is a bed for each of you," said the mother, and giving the girl a gentle push she followed her into the sleeping-alcove. In a few minutes she came out again.
"That is just like Dada!" she exclaimed. "Little Papias had rolled off the chest on which he was sleeping, so the good girl had put him into her bed and was sitting on the chest herself, tired as she was."
"She would do anything for that boy," said Karnis. "But it is past midnight. Come, Orpheus, let us make the bed!"
Three long hen-coops which stood piled against the wall were laid on the ground and covered with mats; on these the tired men stretched their limbs, but they could not sleep.
The little lamp was extinguished, and for an hour all was still in the dark room. Then, suddenly, there was a loud commotion; some elastic object flew against the wall with a loud flap, and Karnis, starting up, called out: "Get out—monster!"
"What is it?" cried Herse who had also been startled, and the old man replied angrily:
"Some daemon, some dog of a daemon is attacking me and giving me no peace. Wait, you villain—there, perhaps that will settle you," and he flung his second sandal. Then, without heeding the rustling fall of some object that he had hit by accident, he gasped out:
"The impudent fiend will not let me be. It knows that we need Agne's voice, and it keeps whispering, first in one ear and then in the other, that I should threaten to sell her little brother if she refuses; but I—I—strike a light, Orpheus!—She is a good girl and rather than do such a thing..."
"The daemon has been close to me too," said the son as he blew on the spark he had struck.
"And to me too," added Herse nervously. "It is only natural. There are no images of the gods in this Christian hovel. Away, hateful serpent! We are honest folks and will not agree to any vile baseness. Here is my amulet, Karnis; if the daemon comes again you must turn it round—you know how."
Early next morning the singers set out for the house of Porphyrius. The party was not complete, however, for Dada had been forced to remain at home. The shoes that the old man had flung to scare away the daemon had caught in the girl's dress which she had just washed, and had dragged it down on to the earth; she had found it in the morning full of holes burnt by the ashes into the damp material. Dada had no other presentable garment, so, in spite of her indignant refusal and many tears, she had to remain indoors with Papias. Agne's anxious offers to stay in her place with the little boy and to lend Dada her dress, both Karnis and his wife had positively refused; and Dada had lent her aid—at first silently though willingly and then with her usual merriment—in twining garlands for the others and in dressing Agne's smooth black plaits with a wreath of ivy and violets.
The men were already washed, anointed and crowned with poplar and laurel when a steward arrived from Porphyrius to bid them follow him to his master's house. But a small sacrifice was necessary, for the messenger desired them to lay aside their wreaths, which would excite ill-feeling among the monks, and certainly be snatched off by the Christian mob. Karnis when he started was greatly disappointed, and as much depressed as he had been triumphant and hopeful a short time before.
The monks, who had gathered outside the Xenodochium, glanced with scowling suspicion at the party, who could not recover the good spirits with which they had begun the day till they were fairly out of the narrow, gloomy alleys, reeking with tar and salt fish, that adjoined the harbor, and where they had to push their way through a dense throng. The steward led the van with Herse, talking freely in reply to her enquiries.
His master, he said, was one of the great merchants of the city, whose wife had died twenty years since in giving birth to Gorgo. His two sons were at present absent on their travels. The old lady who had been so liberal in her treatment of the singers was Damia, the mother of Porphyrius. She had a fine fortune of her own, and notwithstanding her great age was still respected as the soul of business in the household, and as a woman deeply versed in the mysterious sciences. Mary, the pious Christian, who had founded the "House of the Holy Martyr," was the widow of Apelles, the brother of Porphyrius, but she had ceased all intercourse with her husband's family. This was but natural, as she was at the head of the Christian women of Alexandria, while the household of Porphyrius—though the master himself had been baptized—was as thoroughly heathen as any in Alexandria.
Karnis heard nothing of all this, for he came last of the party. Orpheus and Agne followed next to Herse and the steward, and after them came two slaves, carrying the lutes and pipes. Agne walked with downcast eyes, as if she desired to avoid seeing all that surrounded her, though when Orpheus addressed her she shyly glanced up at him and answered briefly and timidly. They presently came out of an obscure alley by the canal connecting Kibotus with Lake Mareotis where the Nile-boats lay at anchor. Karnis drew a deeper breath, for here the air was clear and balmy; a light northerly breeze brought the refreshing fragrance of the sea, and the slender palm-trees that bordered the canal threw long shadows mingling with the massive shade of the sycamores. The road was astir with busy groups, birds sang in the trees, and the old musician drank in the exciting and aromatic atmosphere of the Egyptian Spring with keen enjoyment.
As they reached the middle of the steep bridge across the canal he involuntarily stood still, riveted by the view of the southwest. In his excitement he threw up his arms, his eyes glistened with moisture and with the enthusiasm of youth, and, as was always the case when his emotions were stirred by some glorious work of God or man, an image rose to his mind, all unbidden—the image of his eldest son, now dead, but in life his closest and most sympathetic comrade. He felt as though his hand could grasp the shoulder of that son, too early snatched away, whose gifts had far transcended those of the surviving Orpheus—as though he too could gaze with him on the grand scene that lay before him.
On a platform of rocks and mighty masonry rose a structure of wonderful magnificence and beauty, so brilliantly illuminated by the morning sun that its noble proportions and gorgeous colors showed in dazzling splendor and relief. Over the gilt dome bent the cloudless blue of the African sky, and the polished hemisphere shone, as radiant as the sun whose beams it reflected. Sloping planes for vehicles, and flights of steps for pedestrians led up to the gates. The lower part of this wonderful edifice—the great Temple of Serapis—was built to stand forever, and the pillars of the vestibule supported a roof more fitted to the majesty of the gods than to the insignificance of mortals; priests and worshippers moved here like children among the trunks of some gigantic forest. Round the cornice, in hundreds of niches, and on every projection, all the gods of Olympus and all the heroes and sages of Greece seemed to have met in conclave, and stood gazing down on the world in gleaming brass or tinted marble. Every portion of the building blazed with gold and vivid coloring; the painter's hand had added life to the marble groups in high relief that filled the pediments and the smaller figures in the long row of metopes. All the population of a town might have found refuge in the vast edifice and its effect on the mind was like that of a harmonious symphony of adoration sung by a chorus of giants.
"All hail! Great Serapis! I greet thee in joyful humility, thankful that Thou hast granted to my old eyes to see Thy glorious and eternal temple once again!" murmured Karnis in devout contemplation. Then, appealing to his wife and son, he pointed in silence to the building. Presently, however, as he watched Orpheus gazing in speechless delight at its magnificent proportions he could not forbear.
"This," he began with fervid enthusiasm, "is the stronghold of Serapis the King of the Gods! A work for all time. Its youth has lasted five hundred years, its future will extend to all eternity.—Aye, so it is; and so long as it endures in all its glory the old gods cannot be deposed!"
"No one will ever dare to touch a stone of it," said the steward. "Every child in Alexandria knows that the world will crumble into dust and ashes if a finger is laid on that Temple, and the man who ventures to touch the sacred image..."
"The god can protect himself!" interrupted the singer. "But you—you Christian hypocrites who pretend to hate life and love death—if you really long so vehemently for the end of all things, you have only to fall upon this glorious structure.—Do that, do that—only do that!"
The old man shook his fist at the invisible foe and Herse echoed his words:
"Aye, aye, only do that!" Then she added more calmly: "Well, if everything comes to an end at once the enemies of the gods will die with us; and there can be nothing terrible in perishing at the same time with everything that is beautiful or dear to us."
"Nevertheless," said the steward, "the Bishop has put out his hand to touch the sanctuary. But our noble Olympius would not suffer the sacrilegious host to approach, and they had to retire with broken heads. Serapis will not be mocked; he will stand though all else perish. 'Eternity,' the priest tells us, 'is to him but as an instant, and while millions of generations bloom and fade, he is still and forever the same!'"
"Hail, all hail to the great god!" cried Orpheus with hands outstretched towards the temple.
"Yea, hail! for everlasting glory shall be his!" repeated his father. "Great is Serapis, and his house and his image shall last..."
"Till the next full moon!" said a passer-by in a tone of sinister mockery, shaking his fist in the face, as it were, of the god. Orpheus turned quickly to punish the prophet of evil; but he had disappeared in the crowd and the tide of men had borne him onwards. "Till the next full moon!" murmured Agne, who had shuddered at her companion's rapturous ejaculations, and she glanced uneasily at Orpheus; but by the time Herse addressed her a minute or two later she had controlled the expression of her features, and the matron's heart was gladdened by her bright smile. Nay, many a young Alexandrian, passing the group on foot or in a carriage, looked at her a second time, for that smile lent a mysterious charm to her pale, calm face. Nor had it faded away when they had crossed the bridge and were nearing the shores of the lake, for an idea once conceived lingered long in Agne's mind; and as she walked on in the bright glory of the morning's sun her mind's eye was fixed on a nocturnal scene—on the full moon, high in the sky—on the overthrow of the great idol and a glittering army among the marble ruins of the Serapeum. Apostles and martyrs soared around, the Saviour sat enthroned in glory and triumph, while angels, cradled on the clouds that were his footstool, were singing beatific hymns which sounded clearly in her ear above the many-voiced tumult of the quays. The vision did not vanish till she was desired to get into the boat.
Herse was a native of Alexandria and Karnis had passed some of the best years of his life there; but to Orpheus and Agne all was new, and even the girl, when once she had escaped from the crowd and noise which oppressed her, took an interest in the scene and asked a question now and then. The younger man had not eyes enough to see all that claimed his attention and admiration.
There were the great sluice-gates at the entrance to the canal that joined the lake to the sea—there, in a separate dock, lay the splendid imperial Nile-boats which served to keep up communication between the garrison of Alexandria and the military stations on the river—there, again, were the gaudy barges intended for the use of the 'comes', the prefect and other high officials—and there merchant-vessels of every size lay at anchor in countless number. Long trains of many-colored sails swept over the rippling lake like flights of birds across a cornfield, and every inch of the shore was covered with stores or buildings. Far away to the south long trellices of vine covered the slopes, broken by the silvery glaucous tones of the olive-groves, and by clumps of towering palms whose crowns mingled to form a lofty canopy. White walls, gaudily-painted temples and private villas gleamed among the green, and the slanting rays of the low sun, shining on the drops that fell from the never-resting wheels and buckets that irrigated the land, turned them into showers of diamonds. These water-works, of the most ingenious construction, many of them invented and contrived by scientific engineers, were the weapons with which man had conquered the desert that originally surrounded this lake, forcing it into green fertility and productiveness of grain and fruit. Nay, the desert had, for many centuries, here ceased to exist. Dionysus the generous, and the kindly garden-gods had blest the toil of men, and yet, now, in many a plot—in all which belonged to Christian owners—their altars lay scattered and overthrown.
During the last thirty years much indeed was changed, and nothing to the satisfaction of old Karnis; Herse, too, shook her head, and when the rowers had pulled them about half-way across, she pointed to a broad vacant spot on the bank where a new building was just rising above the soil, and said sadly to her husband:
"Would you know that place again? Where is our dear old temple gone? The temple of Dionysus." Karnis started up so hastily that he almost upset the boat, and their conductor was obliged to insist on his keeping quiet; he obeyed but badly, however, for his arms were never still as he broke out:
"And do you suppose that because we are in Egypt I can keep my living body as still as one of your dead mummies? Let others keep still if they can! I say it is shameful, disgraceful; a dove's gall might rise at it! That splendid building, the pride of the city and the delight of men's eyes, destroyed—swept away like dust from the road! Do you see? Do you see, I say? Broken columns, marble capitals, here, there and everywhere at the bottom of the lake—here a head and there a torso! Great and noble masters formed those statues by the aid of the gods, and they—they, small and ignoble as they are, have destroyed them by the aid of evil daemons. They have annihilated and drowned works that were worthy to live forever! And why? Shall I tell you? Because they shun the Beautiful as an owl shuns light. Aye, they do! There is nothing they hate or dread so much as beauty; wherever they find it, they deface and destroy it, even if it is the work of the Divinity. I accuse them before the Immortals—for where is the grove even, not the work of man but the special work of Heaven itself? Where is our grove, with its cool grottos, its primaeval trees, its shady nooks, and all the peace and enjoyment of which it was as full as a ripe grape is full of sweet juice?"
"It was cut down and rooted up," replied the steward. "The emperor gave the sanctuary over to Bishop Theophilus and he set to work at once to destroy it. The temple was pulled down, the sacred vessels went into the melting-pot, and the images were mutilated and insulted before they were thrown into the lime-kiln. The place they are building now is to be a Christian church. Oh! to think of the airy, beautiful colonnades that once stood there, and then of the dingy barn that is to take their place!"
"Why do the gods endure it? Has Zeus lost his thunderbolts?" cried Orpheus clenching his hands, and paying no heed to Agne who sat pale and sternly silent during this conversation.
"Nay, he only sleeps, to wake with awful power," said the old man. "See those blocks of marble and ruins under the waves. Swift work is destruction! And men lost their wits and looked on at the crime, flinging the delight of the gods into the water and the kiln. They were wise, very wise; fishes and flames are dumb and cannot cry to heaven. One barbarian, in one hour can destroy what it has taken the sublimest souls years, centuries, to create. They glory in destruction and ruin and they can no more build up again such a temple as stood there than they can restore trees that have taken six hundred years to grow. There—out there, Herse, in the hollow where those black fellows are stirring mortar—they have given them shirts too, because they are ashamed of the beauty of men's bodies—that is where the grotto was where we found your poor father."
"The grotto?" repeated his wife, looking at the spot through her tears, and thinking of the day when, as a girl, she had hurried to the feast of Dionysus and sought her father in the temple. He had been famous as a gem-cutter. In obedience to the time-honored tradition in Alexandria, after intoxicating himself with new wine in honor of the god, he had rushed out into the street to join the procession. The next morning he had not returned; the afternoon passed and evening came and still he did not appear, so his daughter had gone in search of him. Karnis was at that time a young student and, as her father's lodger, had rented the best room in the house. He had met her going on her errand and had been very ready to help her in the search; before long they had found the old man in the ivy-grown grotto in the grove of Dionysus—motionless and cold, as if struck by lightning. The bystanders believed that the god had snatched him away in his intoxicated legion.
In this hour of sorrow Karnis had proved himself her friend, and a few months after Herse had become his wife and gone with him to Tauromenium in Sicily.
All this rose before her mind, and even Karnis sat gazing dumbly at the waves; for every spot where some decisive change has occurred in our lives has power to revive the past when we see it again after a long absence. Thus they all sat in silence till Orpheus, touching his father, pointed out the temple of Isis where he had met the fair Gorgo on the previous day. The old man turned to look at the sanctuary which, as yet, remained intact.
"A barbarous structure!" he said bitterly. "The art of the Egyptians has long been numbered with the dead and the tiger hungers only for the living!"
"Nay, it is not such a bad piece of work," replied the steward, "but it is out of their reach; for the ground on which it stands belongs to my old mistress, and the law protects private property.—You must at your leisure inspect the ship-yard here; it is perhaps the most extensive in the world. The timber that is piled there—cedar of Lebanon, oak from Pontus and heavy iron-wood from Ethiopia—is worth hundreds of talents."
"And does all that belong to your master?"
"No; the owner is the grandson of a freedman, formerly in his family. Now they are very rich and highly respected, and Master Clemens sits in the Senate. There he is—that man in a white robe."
"A Christian, I should imagine," observed the singer.
"Very true;" replied the steward. "But what is good remains good, and he is a worthy and excellent man notwithstanding. He keeps a tight hand over the ship-yard here and over the others too by the harbor of Eunostus. Only Clemens can never let other people have their own opinions; in that he is just like the rest of them. Every slave he buys must become a Christian and his sons are the same; even Constantine, though he is an officer in the imperial army and as smart and clever a soldier as lives.—As far as we are concerned we leave every man to his own beliefs. Porphyrius makes no secret of his views and all the vessels we use in the corn-trade are built by Christians.—But here we are."
The boat stopped at a broad flight of marble steps which led from the lake into the garden of Porphyrius' house. Karnis as he walked through the grounds felt himself at greater ease, for here the old gods were at home; their statues gleamed among the dark clumps of evergreens, and were mirrored in the clear tanks, while delicious perfumes were wafted from the garlanded shrines and freshly anointed altars, to greet the newcomers.
The family of musicians were kindly received, but they were not immediately called upon to perform, for as soon as Damia heard that the pretty fair-haired child who had pleased her so much the day before had been obliged to remain at home, she had one of her granddaughter's dresses brought out, and requested Herse to go back to fetch her. Some slaves were to accompany Herse and transfer all her little property on board a Nile-boat belonging to Porphyrius, which was lying at anchor just off the ship-yard. In this large barge there were several cabins which had often accommodated guests, and which would now serve very well as a residence for Karnis and his party. Indeed, it was particularly well suited for a family of musicians, for they could practise there undisturbed, and Gorgo could at any time pay them a visit.
Herse went back to the Xenodochium with a lighter heart; her son also returned to the city to replace a number of necessaries that had been lost on board ship, and Karnis, rejoicing to be out of the monk-haunted asylum had remained in the men's room in the house of his new patron, enjoying the good things which abounded there. He felt as though he was here once more at home after years of exile. Here dwelt the spirit of his fathers; here he found men who enjoyed life after his own fashion, who could share his enthusiasms and his hatreds. He drank noble liquor out of an elegantly carved onyx cup, all that he heard soothed his ears, and all that he said met with entire sympathy. The future prospects of his family, till now so uncertain, were hardly inferior to those which his vivid imagination had painted the night before. And even if Fortune should again desert him, the hours of present enjoyment should be written down to the profit side of life, and remain a permanent gain at any rate in memory.
The venerable Damia, her son Porphyrius, and the fair Gorgo were in fact a trio such as are rarely met with. The master of the house, more cautious than the women, was inclined to think that his mother and daughter had been somewhat overhasty and imprudent in their advances and he had at first received Karnis with considerable reserve; but after a short interview he had convinced himself that the musician was a man of unusual culture and superior stamp. The old lady had, from the first, been predisposed in his favor, for she had read in the stars last night that the day was to bring her a fortunate meeting. Her wish was law, and Karnis could not help smiling when she addressed her son, whose hair had long been grey and who looked fully competent to manage his own household, as "my child," not hesitating to scold and reprove him. Her cathedra was a high arm-chair which she never quitted but to be carried to her observatory on the roof of the house, where she kept her astrological tablets and manuscripts. The only weakness about her was in her feet; but strong, and willing arms were always at her disposal to carry her about—to table, into her sleeping-room, and during the daytime out to sunny spots in the garden. She was never so happy as when Helios warmed her back with his rays, for her old blood needed it after the long night-watches that she still would keep in her observatory. Even during the hottest noon she would sit in the sun, with a large green umbrella to shade her keen eyes, and those who desired to speak with her might find shade as best they could. As she stood, much bent, but propped on her ivory crutches, eagerly following every word of a conversation, she looked as though she were prepared at any moment to spring into the middle of it and interrupt the speaker. She always said exactly what she meant without reserve or ruth; and throughout her long life, as the mistress of great wealth, she had always been allowed to have her own way. She asserted her rights even over her son, though he was the centre of a web whose threads reached to the furthest circumference of the known world. The peasants who tilled the earth by the Upper and Lower Nile, the shepherds who kept their flocks in the Arabian desert, in Syria, or on the Silphium meads of Cyrenaica, the wood-cutters of Lebanon and Pontus, the mountaineers of Hispania and Sardinia, the brokers, merchants, and skippers of every port on the Mediterranean, were bound by these threads to the villa on the shore of Mareotis, and felt the tie when the master there—docile as a boy to his mother's will—tightened or released his hold.
His possessions, even in his youth, had been so vast that their increment could bring no added enjoyment to him or his family, and yet their increase had become his life's task. He strove for a higher sum to figure on the annual balance sheet, as eagerly as an athlete strives for a prize; and his mother not only inspected the account, but watched every important undertaking with keen interest. When her son and his colleagues doubted over some decision it was she who gave the casting vote; but though her advice in most cases proved sound and profitable, she herself ascribed this less to her own acumen and knowledge of the world than to the hints she obtained from the stars and from magical calculations. Her son did not follow her in these speculations, but he rarely disputed the conclusions that she drew from her astrological studies. While she was turning night into day he was glad to entertain a few learned friends, for all the hours of leisure that he could snatch from his pursuit of fortune, he devoted to philosophy, and the most distinguished thinkers of Alexandria were happy to be received at the hospitable table of so rich a patron. He was charmed to be called "Callias,"
[The noble Athenian family of Callias was famed for its wealth and
and the heathen teachers at the schools of the Museum and Serapeum regarded him as a faithful ally. It was known that he had been baptized, but he never liked to hear the fact mentioned. He won all hearts by his perfect modesty, but even more perhaps by a certain air of suffering and melancholy which protected the wealthy merchant against the envy of detractors.
In the course of her conversation with Karnis the old lady enquired particularly as to the antecedent history of Agne, for if there had been a stain on her character, or if she were by birth a slave, Gorgo could not of course be seen with her in public, and in that case Karnis would have to teach the lament of Isis to some freeborn singer. Karnis in reply could only shrug his shoulders, and beg the ladies and Porphyrius to judge for themselves when he should have related the young girl's story.
Three years since, he said, he had been staying at Antioch at the time of a violent outbreak against the levying of certain taxes. There had been much bloodshed, and he and his family had got out of the city as quickly as they could. It was growing dusk when they turned into a wayside inn, where they found Agne and her little brother captives to a soldier. During the night the girl had crept up to the little boy's bed, and to comfort and lull him had begun to sing him a simple song. The singer's voice was so pure and pathetic that it had touched both him and his wife and they had at once purchased the girl and her brother for a small sum. He had simply paid what the soldier asked, not regarding the children in the light of slaves; nor had he had any description of them written out, though it was, no doubt, in his power to treat them as slaves and to sell them again, since the sale had taken place before witnesses who might still be found. He had afterwards learnt from the girl that her parents were Christians and had settled in Antioch only a few years previously; but she had no friends nor relatives there. Her father, being a tax-collector in the service of the Emperor, had moved about a great deal, but she remembered his having spoken of Augusta Treviroruin in Belgica prima, as his native place.—[Now Trier or Treves, on the Moselle.]
Agne had witnessed the attack on her father's house by the angry mob who had killed her parents, their two slaves, and her elder brother. Her father must certainly have been an official of some rank, and probably, as it would seem, a Roman citizen, in which case—as Porphyrius agreed—both the young girl and her little brother could legally claim their freedom. The insurgents who had dragged the two children out into the street had been driven off by the troops, and it was from them that Karnis had rescued them. "And I have never regretted it," added the old musician, "for Agne is a sweet, gentle soul. Of her voice I need say nothing, since you yourselves heard it yesterday."
"And were quite delighted with it!" cried Gorgo. "If flowers could sing it would be like that!"
"Well, well," said Karnis. "She has a lovely voice—but she wants wings. Something—what, I know not, keeps the violet rooted to the soil."
"Christian scruples," said the merchant, and Damia added:
"Let Eros touch her—that will loosen her tongue."
"Eros, always Eros!" repeated Gorgo shrugging her shoulders. "Nay, love means suffering—those who love drag a chain with them. To do the best of which he is capable man needs only to be free, true, and in health."
"That is a great deal, fair mistress," replied Karnis eagerly. "With these three gifts the best work is done. But as to Agne—what can be further from freedom than a girl bound to service? her body, to be sure is healthy, but her spirit suffers; she can get no peace for dread of the Christian's terrors: Sin, Repentance, and Hell...."
"Oh, we know how their life is ruined!" interrupted the old lady. "Was it Agne who introduced you to Mary's Asylum?"
"No, noble lady."
"But how then—that prudent saint generally selects her guests, and those that are not baptized..."
"She certainly sheltered heathens on this occasion."
"I am much surprised. Tell me how it happened."
"We were at Rome," began Karnis, "and my patron there persuaded Marcus, Mary's son, to take us on board his ship at Ostia. We dropped anchor at Cyrene, where the young master wanted to pick up his brother and bring him also to Alexandria."
"Then is Demetrius here?" asked Porphyrius.
"Yes, sir. He came on board at Cyrene. Hardly had we got fairly to sea again when we saw two pirate ships. Our trireme was at once turned round, but in our hurry to regain the harbor we stuck fast on a sand bank; the boats were at once put out to save the passengers and Cynegius, the consul..."
"Cynegius—on his way here!" exclaimed Porphyrius, much excited.
"He landed yesterday with us in the harbor of Eunostus. The secretaries and officers of his suite filled one boat and Marcus and his brother were getting into the other with their men. We, and others of the free passengers, should have been left behind if Dada..."
"That pretty little blonde?" asked Damia.
"The very same. Marcus had taken a great fancy to her prattle and her songs during the voyage—no nightingale can sing more clearly—and when she begged and prayed him he gave way at once, and said: he would take her in his boat. But the brave child declared that she would jump into the sea before she would leave without us."
"Well done!" cried the old lady, and Porphyrius added:
"That speaks well for her and for you."
"So after all Marcus found room for us in the boat—for all of us, and we got safely to land. A few days after we all came on in a troop-ship: Cynegius, the two brothers and the rest, all safe and sound; and, as we had lost everything we possessed, Marcus gave us a certificate which procured our admission into his mother's Xenodochium. And then the gods brought me and mine under the notice of your noble daughter."
"Then Cynegius is here, positively here?" asked Porphyrius once more. Karnis assured him that he was, and the merchant, turning to his mother, went on:
"And Olympius has not yet come home. It is always the same thing; he is as rash as a boy. If they should take him! The roads are swarming with monks. There is something astir. Bring out the chariot, Syrus, at once; and tell Atlas to be ready to accompany me. Cynegius here!—Ha, ha! I thank the gods!"
The last exclamation was addressed to a man who at this instant came into the room, muffled up to the eyes. He threw off the hood of his cloak and the wrapper that went round his throat, concealing his long white beard, and as he did so he exclaimed with a gasp for breath:
"Here I am once more!—Cynegius is here and matters look serious my friend."
"You have been to the Museum?"
"Without any obstruction. I found them all assembled. Brave lads. They are all for us and the gods. There are plenty of weapons. The Jews—[At that time about two-fifths of the whole population.]—are not stirring, Onias thinks he may vouch for that; and we must surely be a match for the monks and the imperial cohorts."
"If the gods only stand by us to-day and tomorrow," replied Porphyrius doubtfully.
"For ever, if only the country people do their duty!" cried the other. "But who is this stranger?"
"The chief of the singers who were here yesterday," replied Gorgo.
"Karnis, the son of Hiero of Tauromenium," said the musician, bowing to the stranger, whose stately figure and handsome, thoughtful head struck him with admiration.
"Karnis of Tauromenium!" exclaimed the newcomer with glad surprise. "By Hercules! a strange meeting. Your hand, your hand, old man. How many years is it since we last emptied a wine-jar together at the house of old Hippias? Seven lustres have turned our hair grey, but we still can stand upright. Well, Karnis son of Hiero—and who am I?"
"Olympius—the great Olympius!" cried Karnis, eagerly grasping the offered hand. "May all the gods bless this happy day!"
"All the gods?" repeated the philosopher. "Is that what you say? Then you have not crawled under the yoke of the cross?"
"The world can rejoice only under the auspices of the gods!" cried Karnis excitedly.
"And it shall rejoice still, we will save it from gloom!" added the other with a flash of vehemence.
"The times are fateful. We must fight; and no longer over trifles; we cannot now break each other's heads over a quibble, or believe that the whole world hangs on the question whether the instant of death is the last minute of this life or the first of the next. No—what now remains to be decided is whether the old gods shall be victorious, whether we shall continue to live free and happy under the rule of the Immortals, or whether we shall bow under the dismal doctrine of the carpenter's crucified son; we must fight for the highest hopes and aims of humanity."
"I know," interrupted Karnis, "you have already done battle valiantly for great Serapis. They wanted to lay hands on his sanctuary but you and your disciples put them to rout. The rest got off scot-free..."
"But they have taught me the value of my head," said Olympius laughing. "Evagrius prices it at three talents. Why, you might buy a house with the money and a modest man could live upon the interest. This worthy man keeps me concealed here. We must talk over a few things, Porphyrius; and you, Gorgo, do not forget the solemn festival of Isis. Now that Cynegius is here it must be made as splendid as possible, and he must tell the Emperor, who has sent him, what temper we Alexandrians are in. But where is the dark maiden I saw yesterday?"
"In the garden," replied Gorgo.
"She is to sing at the foot of the bier!" cried Olympius. "That must not be altered."
"If I can persuade her—she is a Christian," said Karnis doubtfully.
"She must," said the philosopher positively. "It will be a bad lookout indeed for the logic and rhetoric of Alexandria if an old professor and disputant cannot succeed in turning a young girl's resolutions upside down. Leave that to me. I shall find time for a chat with you by and bye, friend Karnis. How in the world does it happen that you, who so often have helped us with your father's coin, have come down to be the chief of a band of travelling musicians? You will have much to tell me, my good friend; but even such important matters must give way to those that are more pressing. One word with you, Porphyrius."
Agne had been all this time awaiting Herse's return in the colonnade that ran along the garden-front of the house. She was glad to be alone, and it was very comfortable to rest on the soft cushions under the gilt-coffered ceiling of the arcade. At each end stood large shrubs covered with bunches of violet-blue flowers and the spreading branches cast a pleasant shade on the couch where she sat; the beautiful flowers, which were strange to her, were delightfully fragrant, and from time to time she helped herself to the refreshments which Gorgo herself had brought out to her. All she saw, heard, and felt, was soothing to her mind; never had she seen or tasted juicier peaches, richer bunches of grapes, fresher almonds or more tempting cakes; on the shrubs in the garden and on the grass-plots between the paths there was not a dead leaf, not a dry stem, not the tiniest weed. The buds were swelling on the tall trees, shrubs without end were covered with blossoms—white, blue, yellow, and red—while, among the smooth, shining leaves of the orange and lemon trees, gleamed the swelling fruit. On a round tank close at hand some black swans were noiselessly tracing evanescent circles and uttering their strange lament. The song of birds mingled with the plash of fountains, and even the marble statues, for all that they were dumb, seemed to be enjoying the sweet morning air and the stir and voice of nature.
Yes, she could be happy here; as she peeled a peach and slowly swallowed the soft fragrant mouthfuls, she laughed to remember the hard ship's-biscuit, of the two previous days' fare. And it was Gorgo's privilege to revel in these good things day after day, year after year. It was like living in Eden, in the perpetual spring of man's first blissful home on earth. There could be no suffering here; who could cry here, who could be sorrowful, who could die?... Here a new train of thought forced itself upon her. She was still so young, and yet she was as familiar with the idea of death as she was with life; for whenever she had happened to tell any minister of her creed that she was an orphan and a slave, and deeply sad and sorrowful, the joys of eternity in Paradise had always been described to her for her consolation, and it was in hopes of Heaven that her visionary nature found such a modicum of comfort as might suffice to keep the young artist-soul from despair. And now it struck her that it must be hard, very hard to die, in the midst of all this splendor. Living here must be a foretaste of the joys of Paradise—and in the next world, among the angels of Heaven, in the presence of the Saviour—would it not be a thousand times more beautiful even than this? She shuddered, for, sojourning here, she was no longer to be counted as one of the poor and humble sufferers to whom Christ had promised the Kingdom of Heaven—here she was one of the rich, who had nothing to hope for after death.