Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky.

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numerous Christians among them. These were roused by the last
startling expression.

"Lord have mercy on us! what is it he says?" cried one.

"Do you see that old man with the white beard?" said another to his


"That's the Devil, who, in the body of Maximus the enchanter, is
tempting Cæsar!"

But the more distant ranks, who had not heard Julian's words, cried -

"Glory to Augustus Julian! Glory! Glory!" and louder and louder yet
from outskirts of the hill, as far as they were covered by the
legions, arose a cry repeated by thousands of voices -

"Glory!... Glory!..."

Mountains, air, earth, and forest trembled with the voice of the

"Look, look!" murmured the dismayed Christians; "the Labarum is being
lowered!" And in fact the holy banner was being veiled before the
Emperor. A military blacksmith came down from the wood with a brazier
and red-hot pincers.

Julian, whose face, in spite of the ruddy gleams of the purple and the
sun, was dark with strong emotion, wrenched the golden cross, with its
monogram of precious stones, from the staff of the Labarum. Pearls,
emeralds, and rubies were scattered on the ground, and the glittering
cross buried in the earth, stamped under the sandal of the Roman

From a casket Maximus immediately drew forth a little silver statue of
the Sun-god, Mithra-Helios; and the smith in a few instants soldered
it to the staff of the Labarum.

Before the army had recovered from its astonishment and fear,
Constantine's sacred banner rose above the head of the Emperor,
crowned with the image of Apollo. An old soldier, who was a devout
Christian, turned away and veiled his eyes to avoid seeing the sight
of horror.

"Sacrilege! sacrilege!" he muttered, turning pale.

"Woe, woe, upon us!" groaned another; "Satan has entoiled our

Julian knelt before the standard and, stretching out his arms to the
little silver image, exclaimed -

"Glory to the invincible Sun, king of all gods!... Augustus worships
the eternal Helios; god of light, god of reason, god of the gladness
and joy upon Olympus!"

The last rays of sunset lighted the bold beauty of the god of Delphi,
and rayed his head. The legionaries stood in silence, save that in the
wood the dry leaves could be heard falling. The conflagration of the
sunset, the purple of the sacrificial king, the withered woods, all
these breathed a magnificence as of sumptuous obsequies. One of the
men in the front rank muttered a single word so distinctly that it
reached Julian's ear, and thrilled him -




Hard by the stables, in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, there was a
room which served as a sort of common den for grooms, women-riders,
actors, and charioteers. Even in daytime lamps were kept burning in
this stifling resort, where the air smelt strongly of dung-heap and
stable. When the curtain at the door was lifted a dazzling flood of
light invaded this den; and in the sunny distance could be seen empty
tiers of seats, and the magnificent staircase joining the Imperial box
to the apartments of Constantine's palace. Egyptian obelisks also were
seen in the arena and in the centre, on the yellow sand, a gigantic
sacrificial altar of marvellous workmanship, wrought of three entwined
serpents of bronze, bearing on their flat heads a Delphian tripod.

Crackings of whips, shouts of riders, snortings of horses, came from
the arena, and the muffled sound of wheels on the soft sand went by
like a rushing of wings. No races were going on, but merely the
preparatory exercise for the races which were to take place a few days
later. In one corner of the stable a naked athlete, rubbed over with
oil and covered with dust, a girdle of leather round his hips, was
raising and lowering dumb-bells. Throwing back his shaggy head, he
arched his back till the joints cracked, and at every effort his face
grew crimson and the veins of his neck swelled.

Preceded by slaves, a young Byzantine woman of patrician rank
approached the athlete. She was dressed in a morning robe of delicate
hues; and a veil thrown over her head covered her aristocratic and
slightly-faded features.

She was a zealous Christian, widow of a Roman senator; beloved of
monks for her generous donations to monasteries, and abounding
charity. At first she concealed her escapades, but soon perceived that
to combine the love of the church with the love of the circus was
quite the fashion.

Everybody knew that Stratonice detested the coxcombs of
Constantinople, curled and painted, nervous and capricious as she was
herself; it was her temperament and fancy to mingle the most costly
perfumes of Arabia with the enervating heat of circus and stable. Hot
tears of repentance, fervent confessions to tactful confessors, were
of no avail; and this little woman, frail and delicate as some ivory
trinket, cared for nothing but the coarse caresses of a certain famous

Stratonice was watching the exercises of the gymnast with a practised
eye, while he, preserving a stupid expression on his beefy face, paid
her not the slightest attention. She muttered something to her slave,
with simple wonder admiring the powerful back and the terrible
Herculean muscles rolling under the red skin of the shoulders, when,
bending with deep inhalations, like the wind of a forge, he raised the
iron weights above his handsome tawny head.

The curtain was lifted. The crowd of spectators recoiled, and two
Cappadocian mares, a white and a black, pushed into the stables,
ridden by a young horsewoman, who, with a guttural cry, adroitly leapt
from one beast to another, and thence to the ground.

She was solidly-built, hale and sprightly as her mares, and upon her
bare body shone fine drops of sweat.

Zephirinus, the elegant sub-deacon of the Basilica of the Holy
Apostles, smilingly hastened towards her. A great lover of the circus,
a frequenter of races and racing-stables, this young man would wager
heavy sums for the blue (_veneta_) against the green (_prasina_). With
his red-heeled morocco boots, his painted eyes, and curled hair,
Zephirinus had much more the appearance of a young girl than of a
servant of the church. Behind him stood a slave, burdened with packets
of pretty stuffs and boxes, purchases of every kind from famous shops.

"Krokala, here are the perfumes you asked for the day before

The sub-deacon offered the equestrienne a flask sealed with blue wax.

"I've been hunting in shops all the morning, and have only found it in
one. It is pure nard, and arrived yesterday from Apamea!"

"And what purchases are these?" demanded Krokala.

"Oh, the silks in fashion!... ornaments - sets of jewels!"

"All of them for your - - ?"

"Yes, all for my most noble sister, the devout matron Bezilla; one
_must_ help one's near relatives! She trusts nobody's taste but mine
for choosing stuffs. From early morning I am under her orders. My head
goes round, but I don't complain. No!... No!... Bezilla is so good ...
such a holy woman!"

"Unfortunately old," laughed Krokala. "Here, boy, wipe the sweat off
the black mare with fresh fig leaves."

"Old age also has its virtues," replied the sub-deacon, gently rubbing
together his white hands; they were loaded with rings.

Then he whispered in Krokala's ear: "This evening?"

"I'm not sure ... perhaps. Are you going to bring me something?"

"You needn't be afraid, Krokala, I won't come empty-handed! There's a
piece of stuff ... a quite marvellous pattern."

He kissed two of his fingers, adding: "Something perfectly dazzling!"

"Where did you pick it up?"

"Oh, at Pyrmix's of course, near the baths. For what do you take me?
You might make a long _tarantinidion_ out of it. You can't imagine
what embroidery there is on it! Guess the subject!"

"I don't know!... Flowers - animals?"

"In gold and silk - the whole story of Diogenes, the Cynic."

"Ah, that must be pretty!" cried the girl. "Come, by all means, I
shall expect you."

Zephirinus glanced at the _clepsydra_, a water-clock placed in a niche
in the wall.

"I am late - quite late! I must go on to a money-lender, a jeweller,
then the patriarch, and then to the church. Till then, good-bye."

"Don't forget," Krokala cried to him, with a mischievous gesture.

The sub-deacon disappeared, followed by his slave.

A crowd of grooms, dancing girls, gymnasts, and tamers of wild beasts
invaded the stables. With his face protected by a mask, the gladiator,
Mermillion, was heating a bar of iron red-hot; he was taming a lion
newly received from Africa, and which could be heard roaring through
the stable-wall.

"You'll be the death of me, granddaughter, and you'll go to hell
yourself! Oh, oh, how my back hurts! I'm done for!"

"Is that you, grandfather Gnyphon? What do you want?" asked Krokala in
a vexed voice.

Gnyphon was a little old man with cunning tearful eyes, which shone
under eyebrows active as two white mice. He had the violet nose of a
drunkard, wore Libyan breeches, patched and botched here and there,
and on his head a Phrygian cap.

"You've come again for money," grumbled Krokala, "and you've been
drinking again."

"It's a sin to use such language. You'll have to answer for my soul to
God. Just think what you've brought me to. I am living now in the
Smokatian quarter; I hire a little cellar from an image-carver, and
every day I have to see him making his horrible idols in marble.
There's a nice occupation for a Christian! I scarcely open my eyes in
the morning, when tap, tap, tap, - my landlord's hammering his
marble - bringing white devils into the world; damnable gods that stand
laughing at me. How am I to keep out of the wine-shop? O Lord, have
mercy on us! I'm simply weltering in Pagan horrors, like a pig in a
sty, and it'll be reckoned against us ... and who'll be responsible,
I'd like to know? Why, you! You're rolling in money, and yet you leave
a poor miserable old man - - "

"You lie, Gnyphon! You're not poor; you're a miser; you've got a
money-box under the bed!"

Gnyphon made a despairing gesture: "Hush - hush!"

To change the subject he said: "Do you know where I'm going?"

"To the tavern, of course!"

"Worse than that. To the Temple of Dionysus! That temple, since the
days of holy Constantine, has been buried under rubbish; but
to-morrow, by the august order of the Emperor Julian, it will be all
shining again. And I've hired myself out to do the sweeping, although
I shall lose my soul and be packed off to hell for it. But I've
allowed myself to be tempted because I'm poor and hungry. My
granddaughter doesn't do anything to support me.... That's what I've
come to!"

"You let me be, Gnyphon. Here you are! Now go! And don't come again
when you're drunk!"

Krokala flung some pieces of silver to her grandfather, and then,
leaping on an Illyrian stallion, stood erect on his croup, touched him
with the whip, and set off at a gallop round the Hippodrome. Gnyphon
clacked his tongue, and said with pride -

"To think it was I who brought her up!"

The firm, bare body of the horsewoman shone in the morning sun, and
her floating red hair matched the colour of the stallion.

"Eh, Zotick," cried Gnyphon to an old slave who was raking horse-dung
into a basket, "come with me to clean the temple of Dionysus! You're a
master in these things! I'll pay you three obols for it."

"Of course I will," answered Zotick. "Just a moment to trim the lamp
for the goddess, and I'm at your service."

The goddess was Atalanta, patron of grooms, dunghills, and stables.
Coarsely carven in wood, and looking little more than a smoky log,
Atalanta figured in a damp corner. But Zotick, who had been bred
among horses, used to worship her, often praying with tears in his
eyes, arraying her coarse blockish feet with sweet violets, in the
belief that she healed all his ills, and would preserve him in life
and in death.

Gnyphon went out into the open space, the Forum of Constantine, which
was circular, and adorned with colonnades and triumphal arches. In the
midst a gigantic porphyry column rose from a massive pedestal, and
bore on its summit, at a height of a hundred and twenty cubits, a
bronze statue of Apollo by Phidias, which had been carried off from a
Phrygian city. The head of the Sun-god had been broken, and, with
barbaric taste, the head of the Christian Emperor, the apostolic
Constantine, had been fitted in its stead to the neck of the image.

His brow was surrounded by gilt rays. In his right hand Apollo
Constantine held the sceptre, and in his left the globe. At the foot
of the colossus was lodged a little Christian chapel, a kind of
palladium, in which worship was still offered in the time of
Constantine. The Christians defended the practice by the argument that
in the bronze body of Apollo, within the Sun-god's very breast, a
talisman was hidden - a piece of the Most Holy Cross brought from
Jerusalem. The Emperor Julian closed this chapel.

Gnyphon and Zotick proceeded along a narrow and lengthy street, which
led straight to the Chalcedonian stairs, not far from the fortress.
Many public edifices were being built, and others were rebuilding, for
so hastily had they been erected to please Constantius that they
already were crumbling away. Inquisitive gazers were wandering in this
street, stopping at merchants' shops; porters were passing by, slaves
following their masters. Overhead, hammers resounded; cranes were
creaking, and saws grinding the white stone. Labourers were heaving at
the end of ropes huge timbers, and blocks of marble glittered against
the blue. A smell of damp plaster came from the new houses, and a fine
white dust fell on the heads of passers-by. On this side and that,
between the dazzling white walls steeped in sunlight, the smiling blue
waves of the Propontic, trimmed with galley-sails like the wings of
sea-gulls, shone at the end of narrow alleys.

Gnyphon heard, as he went by, a conversation between two workmen who
were weighing mortar into a sack -

"Why did you become a Christian?" asked one of them.

"Just think, the Christians have six times as many feast days as
Hellenists! Nobody harms you.... I advise you to follow my example.
One is much freer among Christians."

Where four roads met, the pressure of a crowd pinned Gnyphon and
Zotick against the wall. In the middle of the street there was a block
in the traffic; the chariots could neither advance nor draw back;
shouts, oaths, blows of the whip, were exchanged. Forty oxen were
dragging, on an enormous stone-wheeled cart, a jasper column. The
earth shook under its weight.

"Whither are you dragging that?" asked Gnyphon.

"From the Basilica to the Temple of Hera. The Christians had carried
it off for their church. Now it is going back to its proper position."

Gnyphon glanced at the dirty wall against which he was leaning, on
which Pagan urchins had drawn the usual impious caricatures of the

Gnyphon turned and spat with indignation.

On one side of the crowded market-place they observed the portrait of
Julian, arrayed in all the symbols of Imperial power. The winged god
Hermes was coming down from the clouds towards him. The portrait was
fresh and the colours not yet dry.

Now according to the Roman law every passer-by had to salute any
picture of Augustus.

The Agoranome, or inspector of the market, stopped a little old woman
carrying a large basket of cabbages.

"I never salute the gods," wept the old woman. "My father and mother
were Christians."

"You haven't got to salute the god, but the Emperor!"

"But the Emperor is alongside of the god! So how should I salute him?"

"No matter! You were told to salute and not to argue!"

Gnyphon dragged Zotick farther on as quickly as possible.

"Devilish trick," he grumbled, "either salute the accursed Hermes, or
be accused of insulting the sovereign! No way out!... Oh! oh! oh! the
day of Antichrist! In one way or another we're always sinning! When I
see you, Zotick, envy gnaws my very soul. You live with your dunghill
goddess, and have no cares."

They reached the Temple of Dionysus, hard by a Christian monastery,
the windows and doors of which were fast barred as against the
approach of an enemy. The Hellenists accused the monks of having
pillaged the temple.

When Gnyphon and Zotick went into the temple, carpenters and timberers
were already at work. The planks which had been used to close the
quadrilateral to the sky were dragged down, and the sun poured into
the gloomy building.

"Just look at the cobwebs, look, look!" Between the capitals of the
columns hung masses of grey webs, which were being hastily cleaned
away by means of rag-mops on immense poles. A bat, disturbed in his
lair, flew away from a dark crevice, rushing hither and thither to
hide himself from the light, striking himself against all the corners.
The rustling of his soft wings could be distinctly heard. Zotick began
sorting the rubbish and throwing it into baskets while the old man
mumbled, "Ah, these cursed fellows! what foulness they have heaped

A great bunch of rusty keys was brought up and the treasure-room
opened. The monks had carried off everything of value. Precious stones
encrusted on the sacrificial cups were gone, the gold and purple
adornments on the vestments had been torn off. When the splendid
sacrificial robe was displayed a brown cloud of moths escaped from its
folds. At the bottom of the hollow of a tripod, Gnyphon saw a handful
of ashes, the remains of myrrh burned before the triumph of the
Christians by the last priest during the last sacrifice.

From this heap of sacred rubbish, poor rags, and broken goblets, rose
a perfume of death and mildew, a sad and tender odour, as of incense
to gods profaned.

A gentle melancholy came over Gnyphon's heart. He smiled, remembering
something perhaps of his childhood; sweet cakes of barley and thyme,
field daisies and jessamine which he used to carry with his mother to
the altar of the village goddess; his childish prayers, not to the
distant God, but to the little gods polished by the frequent touch of
hands, carven in beechwood - the holy Penates. He pitied the vanished
gods, and sighed sadly, but suddenly returned to himself and
muttered -

"Suggestions of the Devil!"

The workmen were carrying up a heavy slab of marble, an antique
bas-relief, stolen many years before and discovered in the hovel of a
cobbler whose kitchen oven it had served to repair. Philomena, the old
wife of a neighbouring clothier, a devout Christian, hated the
cobbler's wife, who used to let her ass stray into Philomena's
cabbage-yard. War had been maintained between them for years, but the
Christian woman was in the end triumphant; for acting on her
information the workmen had penetrated into the cobbler's house, and
in order to carry off the bas-relief and slab had been obliged to
demolish the oven.

This was a terrible blow to the cobbler's wife. Brandishing her
shovel, she called down vengeance from all the gods on the impious;
pulled her hair out in handfuls, groaning over her scattered pots and
pans while her children squealed round her like the young birds of a
devastated nest. But the bas-relief was carried off, despite her
struggles, and Philomena set about the work of cleansing it. The
draper's wife zealously scrubbed the marble which had been blackened
by smoke and made greasy with spilt broth. Little by little the severe
lines of the divine sculpture became visible. The young Dionysus,
naked and proud, lay half-reclined, as if fatigued by Bacchic
feasting, letting his hand, which held a cup, fall idly. A leopardess
was licking up the last drops from the goblet, and the god, giver of
joy to all living things, was gazing with a benign smile at the
strength of the beast subdued by the grape. The bas-relief was hauled
into position. The jeweller, clambering up before the image of
Dionysus, inlaid the orbits of the god with two splendid sapphires, to
serve as eyes.

"What's he doing there?" asked Gnyphon.

"Can't you see? They are eyes."

"Yes, certainly, but where do the stones come from?"

"From the monastery."

"But why have the monks allowed it?"

"How could they prevent it? The divine Augustus Julian himself ordered
it. The god's blue eyes were used as an ornament on the robe of the
Crucified that's all.... They talk about charity and justice, and they
themselves are the worst of brigands! See how beautifully the stones
fit into their old setting!..."

The god fixed his sapphire eyes on Gnyphon. The old man recoiled and
crossed himself, seized with dread.

"Lord have mercy on us! It's horrible!"

Remorse filled his soul, and while sweeping he began, as was his wont,
to talk to himself -

"Gnyphon! Gnyphon! what a poor creature you are!... Just like a mangy
dog one might say.... You're ending your days in a nice way! Why have
you gone and damned yourself? The fiend has over-tempted you!... And
now you go into everlasting fire without a chance of salvation. You've
smirched soul and body, Gnyphon, by serving the abomination of the
heathen!... Better had it been for thee hadst thou never been born!"

"What are you groaning at, old man?" Philomena the draper's wife

"My heart is heavy!... Oh, how heavy!"

"Are you a Christian?"

"Christian? - I am a betrayer of Christ!" answered Gnyphon, using his
broom vigorously.

"Would you like me to take away your sin so that not a trace of
heathen defilement shall stick to you? You see I'm a Christian too,
and yet afraid of nothing. Do you think I'd have undertaken work like
this, if I hadn't known how to purify myself after it?"

Gnyphon stared at her, incredulous.

But the draper's wife, having ascertained that nobody could hear them,
muttered mysteriously -

"Yes!... there is a means! I must tell you about it! A pilgrim made me
a present of a little bit of Egyptian wood, called persis, which grows
at Hermopolis, in the Thebaïd. When Jesus and His mother on their ass
were going through the gates of the town, the persis tree bowed down
before them to the earth; and ever since it has been a miraculous
healer. I've got a little splinter of it, and I'll break off a bit for
you. There's such a power in that wood, that if you put a bit into a
vat of water and leave it there for a night the water becomes holy.
You'll just wash yourself from head to foot in it, and the heathen
abomination will leave you like magic, and you'll feel yourself light
and pure. Isn't it written in the Bible, 'Thou shalt dip in the water
and shalt become as white as snow'?"

"Oh, my benefactress!" groaned Gnyphon, "save me! Give me a chip of
that wonderful wood!"

"Ah! you may well call it precious!... Just to do a good turn to a
neighbour I'll give it you for a drachma."[9]

"What's that you're saying, mother? Why, I never earned a drachma in
my life! Will you take three obols?"[10]

[9] Worth about 8_d._

[10] Six to the drachma.

"Miser!" cried the draper's wife indignantly. "You stick at a
drachma!... Isn't your immortal soul worth so much?"

"But after all do you think I shall be quite pure?" objected Gnyphon.
"Perhaps the sin has so soaked into me that nothing can...."

"I'll solemnly swear to it," insisted the draper's wife. "Try it and
you'll feel the miracle at once!... Your soul will shine like the
sun - as pure as a white dove...."


At Constantinople Julian organised Bacchic processions. Seated in a
chariot drawn by white mules, he held in his right hand a golden
thyrsus, surmounted by cedar-fruit, and in the other a cup garlanded
with ivy. The rays of the sun flooded the crystal wine-cup with
vermilion. On each side of the chariot paced tame leopards, sent from
the island of Serendib. In front, Bacchantes sang to the beat of
timbrels, waving bright torches; and through the clouds of smoke lads,
wearing the horns of Fauns, spilt wine into goblets. As they pushed
laughing along, the red wine often splashed the bare shoulder of some
Bacchante, and dashed the sunshine with rosy spray. An obese old man,
a certain rascally money-lender - who, by the way, was head of the
Imperial Treasury, - mounted on an ass, played the part of Silenus to
perfection. The Bacchantes danced along, waving their hands towards
the Emperor -

O Bacchus, ever girt with gleaming cloud!

Thousands of voices intoned the chant from the _Antigone_ of
Sophocles -

But now be glad of Victory! She meets our gladness with an
answering smile; And Thebes, the many-charioted, hears
far-resounding praise. Now then have done with wars, - forget your

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Online LibraryDmitry Sergeyevich MerezhkovskyThe death of the gods → online text (page 15 of 26)