Georg Ebers.

Sisters, the — Volume 2 online

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By Georg Ebers

Volume 2.


In the very midst of the white wall with its bastions and ramparts, which
formed the fortifications of Memphis, stood the old palace of the kings,
a stately structure built of bricks, recently plastered, and with courts,
corridors, chambers and halls without number, and veranda-like out-
buildings of gayly-painted wood, and a magnificent pillared banqueting-
hall in the Greek style. It was surrounded by verdurous gardens, and a
whole host of laborers tended the flower-beds and shady alleys, the
shrubs and the trees; kept the tanks clean and fed the fish in them;
guarded the beast-garden, in which quadrupeds of every kind, from the
heavy-treading elephant to the light-footed antelope, were to be seen,
associated with birds innumerable of every country and climate.

A light white vapor rose from the splendidly fitted bath-house, loud
barkings resounded from the dog-kennels, and from the long array of open
stables came the neighing of horses with the clatter and stamp of hoofs,
and the rattle of harness and chains. A semicircular building of new
construction adjoining the old palace was the theatre, and many large
tents for the bodyguard, for ambassadors and scribes, as well as others,
serving as banqueting-halls for the various court-officials, stood both
within the garden and outside its enclosing walls. A large space leading
from the city itself to the royal citadel was given up to the soldiers,
and there, by the side of the shady court-yards, were the houses of the
police-guard and the prisons. Other soldiers were quartered in tents
close to the walls of the palace itself. The clatter of their arms and
the words of command, given in Greek, by their captain, sounded out at
this particular instant, and up into the part of the buildings occupied
by the queen; and her apartments were high up, for in summer time
Cleopatra preferred to live in airy tents, which stood among the broad-
leaved trees of the south and whole groves of flowering shrubs, on the
level roof of the palace, which was also lavishly decorated with marble
statues. There was only one way of access to this retreat, which was
fitted up with regal splendor; day and night it was fanned by currents of
soft air, and no one could penetrate uninvited to disturb the queen's
retirement, for veteran guards watched at the foot of the broad stair
that led to the roof, chosen from the Macedonian "Garde noble," and owing
as implicit obedience to Cleopatra as to the king himself. This select
corps was now, at sunset, relieving guard, and the queen could hear the
words spoken by the officers in command and the clatter of the shields
against the swords as they rattled on the pavement, for she had come out
of her tent into the open air, and stood gazing towards the west, where
the glorious hues of the sinking sun flooded the bare, yellow limestone
range of the Libyan hills, with their innumerable tombs and the separate
groups of pyramids; while the wonderful coloring gradually tinged with
rose-color the light silvery clouds that hovered in the clear sky over
the valley of Memphis, and edged them as with a rile of living gold.

The queen stepped out of her tent, accompanied by a young Greek girl - the
fair Zoe, daughter of her master of the hunt Zenodotus, and Cleopatra's
favorite lady-in-waiting - but though she looked towards the west, she
stood unmoved by the magic of the glorious scene before her; she screened
her eyes with her hand to shade them from the blinding rays, and said:

"Where can Cornelius be staying! When we mounted our chariots before the
temple he had vanished, and as far as I can see the road in the quarters
of Sokari and Serapis I cannot discover his vehicle, nor that of Eulaeus
who was to accompany him. It is not very polite of him to go off in this
way without taking leave; nay, I could call it ungrateful, since I had
proposed to tell him on our way home all about my brother Euergetes, who
has arrived to-day with his friends. They are not yet acquainted, for
Euergetes was living in Cyrene when Publius Cornelius Scipio landed in
Alexandria. Stay! do you see a black shadow out there by the vineyard at
Kakem; That is very likely he; but no - you are right, it is only some
birds, flying in a close mass above the road. Can you see nothing more?
No! - and yet we both have sharp young eyes. I am very curious to know
whether Publius Scipio will like Euergetes. There can hardly be two
beings more unlike, and yet they have some very essential points in

"They are both men," interrupted Zoe, looking at the queen as if she
expected cordial assent to this proposition.

"So they are," said Cleopatra proudly. "My brother is still so young
that, if he were not a king's son, he would hardly have outgrown the
stage of boyhood, and would be a lad among other Epheboi, - [Youths above
18 were so called] - and yet among the oldest there is hardly a man who is
his superior in strength of will and determined energy. Already, before
I married Philometor, he had clutched Alexandria and Cyrene, which by
right should belong to my husband, who is the eldest of us three, and
that was not very brotherly conduct - and indeed we had other grounds for
being angry with him; but when I saw him again for the first time after
nine months of separation I was obliged to forget them all, and welcome
him as though he had done nothing but good to me and his brother - who is
my husband, as is the custom of the families of Pharaohs and the usage of
our race. He is a young Titan, and no one would be astonished if he one
day succeeded in piling Pelion upon Ossa. I know well enough how wild he
can often be, how unbridled and recalcitrant beyond all bounds; but I can
easily pardon him, for the same bold blood flows in my own veins, and at
the root of all his excesses lies power, genuine and vigorous power. And
this innate pith and power are just the very thing we most admire in men,
for it is the one gift which the gods have dealt out to us with a less
liberal hand than to men. Life indeed generally dams its overflowing
current, but I doubt whether this will be the case with the stormy
torrent of his energy; at any rate men such as he is rush swiftly
onwards, and are strong to the end, which sooner or later is sure to
overtake them; and I infinitely prefer such a wild torrent to a shallow
brook flowing over a plain, which hurts no one, and which in order to
prolong its life loses itself in a misty bog. He, if any one, may be
forgiven for his tumultuous career; for when he pleases my brother's
great qualities charm old and young alike, and are as conspicuous and as
remarkable as his faults - nay, I will frankly say his crimes. And who in
Greece or Egypt surpasses him in grasp and elevation of mind?"

You may well be proud of him," replied Zoe. Not even Publius Scipio
himself can soar to the height reached by Euergetes."

"But, on the other hand, Euergetes is not gifted with the steady, calm
self-reliance of Cornelius. The man who should unite in one person the
good qualities of those two, need yield the palm, as it seems to me, not
even to a god!"

"Among us imperfect mortals he would indeed be the only perfect one,"
replied Zoe. "But the gods could not endure the existence of a perfect
man, for then they would have to undertake the undignified task of
competing with one of their own creatures."

"Here, however, comes one whom no one can accuse!" cried the young
queen, as she hastened to meet a richly dressed woman, older than
herself, who came towards her leading her son, a pale child of two years
old. She bent down to the little one, tenderly but with impetuous
eagerness, and was about to clasp him in her arms, but the fragile child,
which at first had smiled at her, was startled; he turned away from her
and tried to hide his little face in the dress of his nurse - a lady of
rank-to whom he clung with both hands. The queen threw herself on her
knees before him, took hold of his shoulder, and partly by coaxing and
partly by insistence strove to induce him to quit the sheltering gown and
to turn to her; but although the lady, his wet-nurse, seconded her with
kind words of encouragement, the terrified child began to cry, and
resisted his mother's caresses with more and more vehemence the more
passionately she tried to attract and conciliate him. At last the nurse
lifted him up, and was about to hand him to his mother, but the wilful
little boy cried more than before, and throwing his arms convulsively
round his nurse's neck he broke into loud cries.

In the midst of this rather unbecoming struggle of the mother against the
child's obstinacy, the clatter of wheels and of horses' hoofs rang
through the court-yard of the palace, and hardly had the sound reached
the queen's ears than she turned away from the screaming child, hurried
to the parapet of the roof, and called out to Zoe:

"Publius Scipio is here; it is high time that I should dress for the
banquet. Will that naughty child not listen to me at all? Take him
away, Praxinoa, and understand distinctly that I am much dissatisfied
with you. You estrange my own child from me to curry favor with the
future king. That is base, or else it proves that you have no tact, and
are incompetent for the office entrusted to you. The office of wet-nurse
you duly fulfilled, but I shall now look out for another attendant for
the boy. Do not answer me! no tears! I have had enough of that with the
child's screaming." With these words, spoken loudly and passionately,
she turned her back on Praxinoa - the wife of a distinguished Macedonian
noble, who stood as if petrified - and retired into her tent, where
branched lamps had just been placed on little tables of elegant
workmanship. Like all the other furniture in the queen's dressing-tent
these were made of gleaming ivory, standing out in fine relief from the
tent-cloth which was sky-blue woven with silver lilies and ears of corn,
and from the tiger-skins which covered all the cushions, while white
woollen carpets, bordered with a waving scroll in blue, were spread on
the ground.

The queen threw herself on a seat in front of her dressing-table, and sat
staring at herself in a mirror, as if she now saw her face and her
abundant, reddish-fair hair for the first time; then she said, half
turning to Zoe and half to her favorite Athenian waiting-maid, who stood
behind her with her other women:

"It was folly to dye my dark hair light; but now it may remain so, for
Publius Scipio, who has no suspicion of our arts, thought this color
pretty and uncommon, and never will know its origin. That Egyptian
headdress with the vulture's head which the king likes best to see me in,
the young Greek Lysias and the Roman too, call barbaric, and so every one
must call it who is not interested in the Egyptians. But to-night we are
only ourselves, so I will wear the chaplet of golden corn with sapphire
grapes. Do you think, Zoe, that with that I could wear the dress of
transparent bombyx silk that came yesterday from Cos? But no, I will not
wear that, for it is too slight a tissue, it hides nothing and I am now
too thin for it to become me. All the lines in my throat show, and my
elbows are quite sharp - altogether I am much thinner. That comes of
incessant worry, annoyance, and anxiety. How angry I was yesterday at
the council, because my husband will always give way and agree and try to
be pleasant; whenever a refusal is necessary I have to interfere,
unwilling as I am to do it, and odious as it is to me always to have to
stir up discontent, disappointment, and disaffection, to take things on
myself and to be regarded as hard and heartless in order that my husband
may preserve undiminished the doubtful glory of being the gentlest and
kindest of men and princes. My son's having a will of his own leads to
agitating scenes, but even that is better than that Philopator should
rush into everybody's arms. The first thing in bringing up a boy should
be to teach him to say 'no.' I often say 'yes' myself when I should not,
but I am a woman, and yielding becomes us better than refusal - and what
is there of greater importance to a woman than to do what becomes her
best, and to seem beautiful?

"I will decide on this pale dress, and put over it the net-work of gold
thread with sapphire knots; that will go well with the head-dress. Take
care with your comb, Thais, you are hurting me! Now - I must not chatter
any more. Zoe, give me the roll yonder; I must collect my thoughts a
little before I go down to talk among men at the banquet. When we have
just come from visiting the realm of death and of Serapis, and have been
reminded of the immortality of the soul and of our lot in the next world,
we are glad to read through what the most estimable of human thinkers has
said concerning such things. Begin here, Zoe."

Cleopatra's companion, thus addressed, signed to the unoccupied waiting-
women to withdraw, seated herself on a low cushion opposite the queen,
and began to read with an intelligent and practised intonation; the
reading went on for some time uninterrupted by any sound but the clink of
metal ornaments, the rustle of rich stuffs, the trickle of oils or
perfumes as they were dropped into the crystal bowls, the short and
whispered questions of the women who were attiring the queen, or
Cleopatra's no less low and rapid answers.

All the waiting-women not immediately occupied about the queen's person -
perhaps twenty in all, young and old-ranged themselves along the sides of
the great tent, either standing or sitting on the ground or on cushions,
and awaiting the moment when it should be their turn to perform some
service, as motionless as though spellbound by the mystical words of a
magician. They only made signs to each other with their eyes and
fingers, for they knew that the queen did not choose to be disturbed
when she was being read to, and that she never hesitated to cast aside
anything or anybody that crossed her wishes or inclinations, like a tight
shoe or a broken lutestring.

Her features were irregular and sharp, her cheekbones too strongly
developed, and the lips, behind which her teeth gleamed pearly white-
though too widely set - were too full; still, so long as she exerted her
great powers of concentration, and listened with flashing eyes, like
those of a prophetess, and parted lips to the words of Plato, her face
had worn an indescribable glow of feeling, which seemed to have come upon
her from a higher and better world, and she had looked far more beautiful
than now when she was fully dressed, and when her women crowded round
leer - Zoe having laid aside the Plato - with loud and unmeasured flattery.

Cleopatra delighted in being thus feted, and, in order to enjoy the
adulation of a throng, she would always when dressing have a great number
of women to attend her toilet; mirrors were held up to her on every side,
a fold set right, and the jewelled straps of her sandals adjusted.

One praised the abundance of her hair, another the slenderness of her
form, the slimness of her ankles, and the smallness of her tiny hands
and feet. One maiden remarked to another - but loud enough to be heard -
on the brightness of her eyes which were clearer than the sapphires on
her brow, while the Athenian waiting-woman, Thais, declared that
Cleopatra had grown fatter, for her golden belt was less easy to clasp
than it had been ten days previously.

The queen presently signed to Zoe, who threw a little silver ball into a
bowl of the same metal, elaborately wrought and decorated, and in a few
minutes the tramp of the body-guard was audible outside the door of the

Cleopatra went out, casting a rapid glance over the roof - now brightly
illuminated with cressets and torches - and the white marble statues that
gleamed out in relief against the dark clumps of shrubs; and then,
without even looking at the tent where her children were asleep, she
approached the litter, which had been brought up to the roof for her by
the young Macedonian nobles. Zoe and Thais assisted her to mount into
it, and her ladies, waiting-women, and others who had hurried out of the
other tents, formed a row on each side of the way, and hailed their
mistress with loud cries of admiration and delight as she passed by,
lifted high above them all on the shoulders of her bearers. The diamonds
in the handle of her feather-fan sparkled brightly as Cleopatra waved a
gracious adieu to her women, an adieu which did not fail to remind them
how infinitely beneath her were those she greeted. Every movement of her
hand was full of regal pride, and her eyes, unveiled and untempered, were
radiant with a young woman's pleasure in a perfect toilet, with
satisfaction in her own person, and with the anticipation of the festive
hours before her.

The litter disappeared behind the door of the broad steps that led up to
the roof, and Thais, sighing softly, said to herself, "If only for once I
could ride through the air in just such a pretty shell of colored and
shining mother-of-pearl, like a goddess! carried aloft by young men, and
hailed and admired by all around me! High up there the growing Selene
floats calmly and silently by the tiny stars, and just so did she ride
past in her purple robe with her torch-bearers and flames and lights-past
us humble creatures, and between the tents to the banquet - and to what a
banquet, and what guests! Everything up here greets her with rejoicing,
and I could almost fancy that among those still marble statues even the
stern face of Zeno had parted its lips, and spoken flattering words to
her. And yet poor little Zoe, and the fair-haired Lysippa, and the
black-haired daughter of Demetrius, and even I, poor wretch, should be
handsomer, far handsomer than she, if we could dress ourselves with fine
clothes and jewels for which kings would sell their kingdoms; if we could
play Aphrodite as she does, and ride off in a shell borne aloft on
emerald-green glass to look as if it were floating on the waves; if
dolphins set with pearls and turquoises served us for a footstool, and
white ostrich-plumes floated over our heads, like the silvery clouds that
float over Athens in the sky of a fine spring day. The transparent
tissue that she dared not put on would well become me! If only that were
true which Zoe was reading yesterday, that the souls of men were destined
to visit the earth again and again in new forms! Then perhaps mine might
some day come into the world in that of a king's child. I should not
care to be a prince, so much is expected of him, but a princess indeed!
That would be lovely!"

These and such like were Thais' dreams, while Zoe stood outside the tent
of the royal children with her cousin, the chief-attendant of prince
Philopator, carrying on an eager conversation in a low tone. The child's
nurse from time to time dried her eyes and sobbed bitterly as she said:
"My own baby, my other children, my husband and our beautiful house in
Alexandria - I left them all to suckle and rear a prince. I have
sacrificed happiness, freedom, and my nights'-sleep for the sake of the
queen and of this child, and how am I repaid for all this? As if I were
a lowborn wench instead of the daughter and wife of noble men; this
woman, half a child still, scarcely yet nineteen, dismisses me from her
service before you and all her ladies every ten days! And why? Because
the ungoverned blood of her race flows in her son's veins, and because he
does not rush into the arms of a mother who for days does not ask for him
at all, and never troubles herself about him but in some idle moment when
she has gratified every other whim. Princes distribute favor or disgrace
with justice only so long as they are children. The little one
understands very well what I am to him, and sees what Cleopatra is.
If I could find it in my heart to ill-use him in secret, this mother - who
is not fit to be a mother - would soon have her way. Hard as it would be
to me so soon to leave the poor feeble little child, who has grown as
dear to my soul as my own - aye and closer, even closer, as I may well
say - this time I will do it, even at the risk of Cleopatra's plunging us
into ruin, my husband and me, as she has done to so many who have dared
to contravene her will."

The wet-nurse wept aloud, but Zoe laid her hand on the distressed woman's
shoulder, and said soothingly: "I know you have more to submit to from
Cleopatra's humors than any of us all, but do not be overhasty. Tomorrow
she will send you a handsome present, as she so often has done after
being unkind; and though she vexes and hurts you again and again, she
will try to make up for it again and again till, when this year is over,
your attendance on the prince will be at an end, and you can go home
again to your own family. We all have to practise patience; we live like
people dwelling in a ruinous house with to-day a stone and to-morrow a
beam threatening to fall upon our heads. If we each take calmly whatever
befalls us our masters try to heal our wounds, but if we resist may the
gods have mercy on us! for Cleopatra is like a strung bow, which sets the
arrow flying as soon as a child, a mouse, a breath of air even touches
it - like an over-full cup which brims over if a leaf, another drop, a
single tear falls into it. We should, any one of us, soon be worn out by
such a life, but she needs excitement, turmoil and amusement at every
hour. She comes home late from a feast, spends barely six hours in
disturbed slumber, and has hardly rested so long as it takes a pebble to
fall to the ground from a crane's claw before we have to dress her again
for another meal. From the council-board she goes to hear some learned
discourse, from her books in the temple to sacrifice and prayer, from the
sanctuary to the workshops of artists, from pictures and statues to the
audience-chamber, from a reception of her subjects and of foreigners to
her writing-room, from answering letters to a procession and worship once
more, from the sacred services back again to her dressing-tent, and
there, while she is being attired she listens to me while I read the most
profound works - and how she listens! not a word escapes her, and her
memory retains whole sentences. Amid all this hurry and scurry her
spirit must need be like a limb that is sore from violent exertion, and
that is painfully tender to every rough touch. We are to her neither
more nor less than the wretched flies which we hit at when they trouble
us, and may the gods be merciful to those on whom this queen's hand may
fall! Euergetes cleaves with the sword all that comes in his way.
Cleopatra stabs with the dagger, and her hand wields the united power of
her own might and of her yielding husband's. Do not provoke her. Submit
to what you cannot avert; just as I never complain when, if I make a
mistake in reading, she snatches the book from my hand, or flings it at
my feet. But I, of course, have only myself to fear for, and you have
your husband and children as well."

Praxinoa bowed her head at these words in sad assent, and said:

"Thank you for those words! I always think only from my heart, and you
mostly from your head. You are right, this time again there is nothing
for me to do but to be patient; but when I have fulfilled the duties
here, which I undertook, and am at home again, I will offer a great
sacrifice to Asclepias and Hygiea, like a person recovered from a severe
illness; and one thing I know: that I would rather be a poor girl,
grinding at a mill, than change with this rich and adored queen who, in
order to enjoy her life to the utmost, carelessly and restlessly hurries
past all that our mortal lot has best to offer. Terrible, hideous to me
seems such an existence with no rest in it! and the heart of a mother
which is so much occupied with other things that she cannot win the love
of her child, which blossoms for every hired nurse, must be as waste as
the desert! Rather would I endure anything - everything - with patience
than be such a queen!"


"What! No one to come to meet me?" asked the queen, as she reached the
foot of the last flight of porphyry steps that led into the ante-chamber
to the banqueting-hall, and, looking round, with an ominous glance, at

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Online LibraryGeorg EbersSisters, the — Volume 2 → online text (page 1 of 5)