Even the Biamite's keen ear could not catch the reply and the purport of the rapid conversation which followed; but she guessed the point in question when the young men who were present rose hastily, rushed toward the pedestal, loosed the wreaths from their heads, and offered them to the Greek girl whom Chrysilla had just called "beautiful Althea."
Four Hellenic officers in the strong military force under Philippus, the commandant of the "Key of Egypt," as Pelusium was justly called, had accompanied the old Macedonian general to visit his friend Archias's daughter at Tennis; but Althea rejected their garlands with an explanation which seemed to satisfy them.
Ledscha could not hear what she said, but when only Hermon and Myrtilus still stood with their wreaths of flowers opposite the "beautiful Althea," and she glanced hesitatingly from one to the other, as if she found the choice difficult, and then drew from her finger a sparkling ring, the Biamite detected the swift look of understanding which Hermon exchanged with her.
The girl's heart began to throb faster, and, with the keen premonition of a jealous soul, she recognised in Althea her rival and foe.
Now there was no doubt of it; now, as the actress, skilled in every wile, hid the hand holding the ring, as well as the other empty one, behind her back, she would know how to manage so that she could use the garland which Hermon handed her.
Ledscha's foreboding was instantly fulfilled, for when Althea held out her little tightly clinched fist to the artists and asked Myrtilus to choose, the hand to which he pointed and she then opened was empty, and she took from the other the ring, which she displayed with well-feigned regret to the spectators.
Then Hermon knelt before her, and, as he offered Althea his wreath, his dark eyes gazed so ardently into the blue ones of the red-haired Greek-like Queen Arsinoe, she was of Thracian descent—that Ledscha was now positively certain she knew for whose sake her lover had so basely betrayed her.
How she hated this bold woman!
Yet she was forced to keep quiet, and pressed her lips tightly together as Althea seized the white sheet and with marvellous celerity wound it about her until it fell in exquisite folds like a long robe.
Surprise, curiosity, and a pleasant sense of satisfaction in seeing what seemed to her a shameless display withdrawn from her lover's eyes, rendered it easier for Ledscha to maintain her composure; yet she felt the blood throbbing in her temples as Hermon remained kneeling before the Hellene, gazing intently into her expressive face.
Was it not too narrow wholly to please the man who had known how to praise her own beauty so passionately? Did not the outlines of Althea's figure, which the bombyx robe only partially concealed, lack roundness even more than her own?
And yet! As soon as Althea had transformed the sheet into a robe, and held the wreath above him, Hermon's gaze rested on hers as though enraptured, while from her bright blue eyes a flood of ardent admiration poured upon the man for whom she held the victor's wreath.
This was done with the upper portion of her body bending very far forward. The slender figure was poised on one foot; the other, covered to the ankle with the long robe, hovered in the air. Had not the wings which, as Nike, belonged to her been lacking, every one would have been convinced that she was flying—that she had just descended from the heights of Olympus to crown the kneeling victor. Not only her hand, her gaze and her every feature awarded the prize to the man at her feet.
There was no doubt that, if Nike herself came to the earth to make the best man happy with the noblest of crowns, the spectacle would be a similar one.
And Hermon! No garlanded victor could look up to the gracious divinity more joyously, more completely enthralled by grateful rapture.
The applause which now rang out more and more loudly was certainly not undeserved, but it pierced Ledscha's soul like a mockery, like the bitterest scorn.
Hanno, on the contrary, seemed to consider the scene scarcely worth looking at. Something more powerful was required to stir him. He was particularly averse to all exhibitions. The utmost which his relatives could induce the quiet, reserved man to do when they ventured into the great seaports was to attend the animal fights and the games of the athletes. He felt thoroughly happy only when at sea, on board of his good ship. His best pleasure was to gaze up at the stars on calm nights, guide the helm, and meanwhile dream—of late most gladly of making the beautiful girl who had seemed to him worthy of his brave brother Abus, his own wife.
In the secluded monotony of his life as a scar over memory had exalted Ledscha into the most desirable of all women, and the slaughtered Abus into the greatest of heroes.
To win the love of this much-praised maiden seemed to Hanno peerless happiness, and the young corsair felt that he was worthy of it; for on the high seas, when a superior foe was to be opposed by force and stratagem, when a ship was to be boarded and death spread over her deck, he had proved himself a man of unflinching courage.
His suit had progressed more easily than he expected. His father would rejoice, and his heart exulted at the thought of encountering a serious peril for the girl he loved. His whole existence was a venture of life, and, had he had ten to lose, they would not have been too dear a price to him to win Ledscha.
While Althea, as the goddess of Victory, held the wreath aloft, and loud applause hailed her, Hanno was thinking of the treasures which he had garnered since his father had allowed him a share of the booty, and of the future.
When he had accumulated ten talents of gold he would give up piracy, like Abus, and carry on his own ships wood and slaves from Pontus to Egypt, and textiles from Tennis, arms and other manufactured articles from Alexandria to the Pontine cities. In this way Ledscha's father had become a rich man, and he would also, not for his own sake—he needed little—but to make life sweet for his wife, surround her with splendour and luxury, and adorn her beautiful person with costly jewels. Many a stolen ornament was already lying in the safe hiding place that even his brother Labaja did not know.
At last the shouts died away, and as the stopping of the clattering wheel wakes the miller, so the stillness on the shore roused Hanno from his dream.
What was it that Ledscha saw there so fascinating that she did not even hear his low call? His father and Labaja had undoubtedly left his grandmother's house long ago, and were looking for him in vain.
Yes, he was right; the old pirate's shrill whistle reached his ear from the Owl's Nest, and he was accustomed to obedience.
So, lightly touching Ledscha on the shoulder, he whispered that he must return to the island at once. His father would be rejoiced if she went with him.
"To-morrow," she answered in a tone of resolute denial. Then, reminding him once more of the meaning of the signals she had promised to give, she waved her hand to him, sprang swiftly past him to the prow of the boat, caught an overhanging bough of the willow on the shore, and, as she had learned during the games of her childhood, swung herself as lightly as a bird into the thicket at the water's edge, which concealed her from every eye.
Without even vouchsafing Hanno another glance, Ledscha glided forward in the shadow of the bushes to the great sycamore, whose thick, broad top on the side toward the tents was striped with light from the flood of radiance streaming from them. On the opposite side the leafage vanished in the darkness of the night, but Myrtilus had had a bench placed there, that he might rest in the shade, and from this spot the girl could obtain the best view of what she desired to see.
How gay and animated it was under the awning!
A throng of companions had arrived with the Pelusinians, and some also had probably been on the ship which—she knew it from Bias—had come to Tennis directly from Alexandria that afternoon. The galley was said to belong to Philotas, an aristocratic relative of King Ptolemy. If she was not mistaken, he was the stately young Greek who was just picking up the ostrich-feather fan that had slipped from Daphne's lap.
The performance was over.
Young slaves in gay garments, and nimble female servants with glittering gold circlets round their upper arms and on their ankles, were passing from couch to couch, and from one guest to another, offering refreshments. Hermon had risen from his knees, and the wreath of bright flowers again adorned his black curls. He held himself as proudly erect as if the goddess of Victory herself had crowned him, while Althea was reaping applause and thanks. Ledscha gazed past her and the others to watch every movement of the sculptor.
It was scarcely the daughter of Archias who had detained Hermon, for he made only a brief answer—Ledscha could not hear what it was—when she accosted him pleasantly, to devote himself to Althea, and—this could be perceived even at a distance—thank her with ardent devotion.
And now—now he even raised the hem of her peplos to his lips.
A scornful smile hovered around Ledscha's mouth; but Daphne's guests also noticed this mark of homage—an unusual one in their circle—and young Philotas, who had followed Daphne from Alexandria, cast a significant glance at a man with a smooth, thin, birdlike face, whose hair was already turning gray. His name was Proclus, and, as grammateus of the Dionysian games and high priest of Apollo, he was one of the most influential men in Alexandria, especially as he was one of the favoured courtiers of Queen Arsinoe.
He had gone by her command to the Syrian court, had enjoyed on his return, at Pelusium, with his travelling companion Althea, the hospitality of Philippus, and accompanied the venerable officer to Tennis in order to win him over to certain plans. In spite of his advanced age, he still strove to gain the favour of fair women, and the sculptor's excessive ardour had displeased him.
So he let his somewhat mocking glance wander from Althea to Hermon, and called to the latter: "My congratulations, young master; but I need scarcely remind you that Nike suffers no one—not even goodness and grace personified—to take from her hand what it is her sole duty to bestow."
While speaking he adjusted the laurel on his own thin hair; but Thyone, the wife of Philippus, answered eagerly: "If I were a young man like Hermon, instead of an old woman, noble Proclus, I think the wreath which Beauty bestows would render me scarcely less happy than stern Nike's crown of victory."
While making this pleasant reply the matron's wrinkled face wore an expression of such cordial kindness, and her deep voice was so winning in its melody, that Hermon forced himself to heed the glance of urgent warning Daphne cast at him, and leave the sharp retort that hovered on his lips unuttered. Turning half to the grammateus, half to the matron, he merely said, in a cold, self-conscious tone, that Thyone was right. In this gay circle, the wreath of bright flowers proffered by the hands of a beautiful woman was the dearest of all gifts, and he would know how to value it.
"Until other more precious ones cast it into oblivion," observed Althea. "Let me see, Hermon: ivy and roses. The former is lasting, but the roses—" She shook her finger in roguish menace at the sculptor as she spoke.
"The roses," Proclus broke in again, "are of course the most welcome to our young friend from such a hand; yet these flowers of the goddess of Beauty have little in common with his art, which is hostile to beauty. Still, I do not know what wreath will be offered to the new tendency with which he surprised us."
At this Hermon raised his head higher, and answered sharply: "Doubtless there must have been few of them, since you, who are so often among the judges, do not know them. At any rate, those which justice bestows have hitherto been lacking."
"I should deplore that," replied Proclus, stroking his sharp chin with his thumb and forefinger; "but I fear that our beautiful Nike also cared little for this lofty virtue of the judge in the last coronation. However, her immortal model lacks it often enough."
"Because she is a woman," said one of the young officers, laughing; and another added gaily: "That very thing may be acceptable to us soldiers. For my part, I think everything about the goddess of Victory is beautiful and just, that she may remain graciously disposed toward us. Nay, I accuse the noble Althea of withholding from Nike, in her personation, her special ornament—her swift, powerful wings."
"She gave those to Eros, to speed his flight," laughed Proclus, casting a meaning look at Althea and Hermon.
No one failed to notice that this jest alluded to the love which seemed to have been awakened in the sculptor as quickly as in the personator of the goddess of Victory, and, while it excited the merriment of the others, the blood mounted into Hermon's cheeks; but Myrtilus perceived what was passing in the mind of his irritable friend, and, as the grammateus praised Nike because in this coronation she had omitted the laurel, the fair-haired Greek interrupted him with the exclamation:
"Quite right, noble Proclus, the grave laurel does not suit our gay pastime; but roses belong to the artist everywhere, and are always welcome to him. The more, the better!"
"Then we will wait till the laurel is distributed in some other place," replied the grammateus; and Myrtilus quickly added, "I will answer for it that Hermon does not leave it empty-handed."
"No one will greet the work which brings your friend the wreath of victory with warmer joy," Proclus protested. "But, if I am correctly informed, yonder house hides completed treasures whose inspection would give the fitting consecration to this happy meeting. Do you know what an exquisite effect gold and ivory statues produce in a full glow of lamplight? I first learned it a short time ago at the court of King Antiochus. There is no lack of lights here. What do you say, gentlemen? Will you not have the studios lighted till the rooms are as bright as day, and add a noble enjoyment of art to the pleasures of this wonderful night?"
But Hermon and Myrtilus opposed this proposal with equal decision.
Their refusal awakened keen regret, and the old commandant of Pelusium would not willingly yield to it.
Angrily shaking his large head, around which, in spite of his advanced age, thick snowwhite locks floated like a lion's mane, he exclaimed, "Must we then really return to our Pelusium, where Ares restricts the native rights of the Muses, without having admired the noble works which arose in such mysterious secrecy here, where Arachne rules and swings the weaver's shuttle?"
"But my two cruel cousins have closed their doors even upon me, who came here for the sake of their works," Daphne interrupted, "and, as rather Zeus is threatening a storm—just see what black clouds are rising!—we ought not to urge our artists further; a solemn oath forbids them to show their creations now to any one."
This earnest assurance silenced the curious, and, while the conversation took another turn, the gray-haired general's wife drew Myrtilus aside.
Hermon's parents had been intimate friends of her own, as well as of her husband's, and with the interest of sincere affection she desired to know whether the young sculptor could really hope for the success of which Myrtilus had just spoken.
It was years since she had visited Alexandria, but what she heard of Hermon's artistic work from many guests, and now again through Proclus, filled her with anxiety.
He had succeeded, it was said, in attracting attention, and his great talent was beyond question; but in this age, to which beauty was as much one of the necessities of life as bread and wine, and which could not separate it from art, he ventured to deny it recognition. He headed a current in art which was striving to destroy what had been proved and acknowledged, yet, though his creations were undeniably powerful, and even showed many other admirable qualities, instead of pleasing, satisfying, and ennobling, they repelled.
These opinions had troubled the matron, who understood men, and was the more disposed to credit them the more distinctly she perceived traces of discontent and instability in Hermon's manner during the present meeting.
So it afforded her special pleasure to learn from Myrtilus his firm conviction that, in Arachne, Hermon would produce a masterpiece which could scarcely be excelled.
During this conversation Althea had come to Thyone's side, and, as Hermon had already spoken to her of the Arachne, she eagerly expressed her belief that this work seemed as if it were specially created for him.
The Greek matron leaned back comfortably upon her cushions, her wrinkled, owl-like face assumed a cheerful expression, and, with the easy confidence conferred by aristocratic birth, a distinguished social position, and a light heart, she exclaimed: "Lucifer is probably already behind yonder clouds, preparing to announce day, and this exquisite banquet ought to have a close worthy of it. What do you say, you wonder-working darling of the Muses"—she held out her hand to Althea as she spoke—"to showing us and the two competing artists yonder the model of the Arachne they are to represent in gold and ivory?"
Althea fixed her eyes upon the ground, and, after a short period of reflection, answered hesitatingly: "The task which you set before me is certainly no easy one, but I shall rely upon your indulgence."
"She will!" cried the matron to the others.
Then, clapping her hands, she continued gaily, in the tone of the director of an entertainment issuing invitations to a performance: "Your attention is requested! In this city of weavers the noble Thracian, Althea, will depict before you all the weaver of weavers, Arachne, in person."
"Take heed and follow my advice to sharpen your eyes," added Philotas, who, conscious of his inferiority in intellect and talents to the men and women assembled here, took advantage of this opportunity to assert himself in a manner suited to his aristocratic birth. "This artistic yet hapless Arachne, if any one, teaches the lesson how the lofty Olympians punish those who venture to place themselves on the same level; so let artists beware. We stepchildren of the Muse can lull ourselves comfortably in the assurance of not giving the jealous gods the slightest cause for the doom which overtook the pitiable weaver."
Not a word of this declaration of the Macedonian aristocrat escaped the listening Ledscha. Scales seemed to fall from her eyes. Hermon had won her love in order to use her for the model of his statue of Arachne, and, now that he had met Althea, who perhaps suited his purpose even better, he no longer needed the barbarian. He had cast her aside like a tight shoe as soon as he found a more acceptable one in this female juggler.
The girl had already asked herself, with a slight thrill of horror, whether she had not prematurely called down so terrible a punishment upon her lover; now she rejoiced in her swift action. If anything else remained for her to do, it was to make the vengeance with which she intended to requite him still more severe.
There he stood beside the woman she hated. Could he bestow even one poor thought upon the Biamite girl and the wrong he had inflicted?
Oh, no! His heart was filled to overflowing by the Greek—every look revealed it.
What was the shameless creature probably whispering to him now?
Perhaps a meeting was just being granted. The rapture which had been predicted to her for this moonlight night, and of which Hermon had robbed her, was mirrored in his features. He could think of everything except her and her poor, crushed heart.
But Ledscha was mistaken. Althea had asked the sculptor whether he still regretted having been detained by her before midnight, and he had confessed that his remaining at the banquet had been connected with a great sacrifice—nay, with an offence which weighed heavily on his mind. Yet he was grateful to the favour of the gods that had guided his decision, for Althea had it in her power to compensate him richly for what he had lost.
A glance full of promise flashed upon him from her eloquent eyes, and, turning toward the pedestal at the same instant, she asked softly, "Is the compensation I must and will bestow connected with the Arachne?"
An eager "Yes" confirmed this question, and a swift movement of her expressive lips showed him that his boldest anticipations were to be surpassed.
How gladly he would have detained her longer!—but she was already the object of all eyes, and his, too, followed her in expectant suspense as she gave an order to the female attendant and then stood thoughtfully for some time before the platform.
When she at last ascended it, the spectators supposed that she would again use a cloth; but, instead of asking anything more from the assistants, she cast aside even the peplos that covered her shoulders.
Now, almost lean in her slenderness, she stood with downcast eyes; but suddenly she loosed the double chain, adorned with flashing gems, from her neck, the circlets from her upper arms and wrists, and, lastly, even the diadem, a gift bestowed by her relative, Queen Arsinoe, from her narrow brow.
The female slaves received them, and then with swift movements Althea divided her thick long tresses of red hair into narrower strands, which she flung over her back, bosom, and shoulders.
Next, as if delirious, she threw her head so far on one side that it almost touched her left shoulder, and stared wildly upward toward the right, at the same time raising her bare arms so high that they extended far above her head.
It was again her purpose to present the appearance of defending herself against a viewless power, yet she was wholly unlike the Niobe whom she had formerly personated, for not only anguish, horror, and defiance, but deep despair and inexpressible astonishment were portrayed by her features, which obediently expressed the slightest emotion.
Something unprecedented, incomprehensible even to herself, was occurring, and to Ledscha, who watched her with an expectation as passionate as if her own weal and woe depended upon Althea's every movement, it seemed as if an unintelligible marvel was happening before her eyes, and a still greater one was impending; for was the woman up there really a woman like herself and the others whose eyes were now fixed upon the hated actress no less intently than her own?
Did her keen senses deceive her, or was not what was occurring actually a mysterious transformation?
As Althea stood there, her delicate arms seemed to have lengthened and lost even their slight roundness, her figure to have become even more slender and incorporeal, and how strangely her thin fingers spread apart! How stiffly the strands of the parted, wholly uncurled locks stood out in the air!
Did it not seem as if they were to help her move?
The black shadow which Althea's figure and limbs cast upon the surface of the brightly lighted pedestal-no, it was no deception, it not only resembled the spinner among insects, it presented the exact picture of a spider.
The Greek's slender body had contracted, her delicate arms and narrow braids of hair changed into spider legs, and the many-jointed hands were already grasping for their prey like a spider, or preparing to wind the murderous threads around another living creature.
"Arachne, the spider!" fell almost inaudibly from her quivering lips, and, overpowered by torturing fear, she was already turning away from the frightful image, when the storm of applause which burst from the Alexandrian guests soothed her excited imagination.
Instead of the spider, a slender, lank woman, with long, outstretched bare arms, and fingers spread wide apart, fluttering hair, and wandering eyes again stood before Ledscha.
But no peace was yet granted to her throbbing heart, for while Althea, with perspiring brow and quivering lips, descended from the pedestal, and was received with loud demonstrations of astonishment and delight, the glare of a flash of lightning burst through the clouds, and a loud peal of thunder shook the night air and reverberated a long time over the water.
At the same instant a loud cry rang from beneath the canopy.
Thyone, the wife of Alexander the Great's comrade, though absolutely fearless in the presence of human foes, dreaded the thunder by which Zeus announced his anger. Seized with sudden terror, she commanded a slave to obtain a black lamb for a sacrifice, and earnestly entreated her husband and her other companions to go on board the ship with her and seek shelter in its safe, rain-proof cabin, for already heavy drops were beginning to fall upon the tensely drawn awning.
"Nemesis!" exclaimed the grammateus.
"Nemesis!" whispered young Philotas to Daphne in a confidential murmur, throwing his own costly purple cloak around her to shield her from the rain. "Nowhere that we mortals overstep the bounds allotted to us do we await her in vain."
Then bending down to her again, he added, by way of explanation: "The winged daughter of Night would prove herself negligent if she allowed me to enjoy wholly without drawback the overwhelming happiness of being with you once more."
"Nemesis!" remarked Thoas, an aristocratic young hipparch of the guards of the Diadochi, who had studied in Athens and belonged to the Peripatetics there. "The master sees in the figure of this goddess the indignation which the good fortune of the base or the unworthy use of good fortune inspires in us. She keeps the happy mean between envy and malicious satisfaction." The young soldier looked around him, expecting applause, but no one was listening; the tempest was spreading terror among most of the freedmen and slaves.
Philotas and Myrtilus were following Daphne and her companion Chrysilla as they hurried into the tent. The deep, commanding tones of old Philippus vainly shouted the name of Althea, whom, as he had bestowed his hospitality upon her in Pelusium, he regarded as his charge, while at intervals he reprimanded the black slaves who were to carry his wife to the ship, but at another heavy peal of thunder set down the litter to throw themselves on their knees and beseech the angry god for mercy.
Gras, the steward whom Archias had given to his daughter, a Bithynian who had attached himself to one school of philosophy after an other, and thereby ceased to believe in the power of the Olympians, lost his quiet composure in this confusion, and even his usual good nature deserted him. With harsh words, and no less harsh blows, he rushed upon the servants, who, instead of carrying the costly household utensils and embroidered cushions into the tent, drew out their amulets and idols to confide their own imperilled lives to the protection of higher powers.
Meanwhile the gusts of wind which accompanied the outbreak of the storm extinguished the lamps and pitch-pans. The awning was torn from the posts, and amid the wild confusion rang the commandant of Pelusium's shouts for Althea and the screams of two Egyptian slave women, who, with their foreheads pressed to the ground, were praying, while the angry Gras was trying, by kicks and blows, to compel them to rise and go to work.
The officers were holding a whispered consultation whether they should accept the invitation of Proclus and spend the short remnant of the night on his galley over the wine, or first, according to the counsel of their pious commandant, wait in the neighbouring temple of Zeus until the storm was over.
The tempest had completely scattered Daphne's guests. Even Ledscha glanced very rarely toward the tents. She had thrown her self on the ground under the sycamore to beseech the angry deity for mercy, but, deeply as fear moved her agitated soul, she could not pray, but listened anxiously whenever an unexpected noise came from the meeting place of the Greeks.
Then the tones of a familiar voice reached her. It was Hermon's, and the person to whom he was speaking could be no one but the uncanny spider-woman, Althea.
They were coming to have a secret conversation under the shade of the dense foliage of the sycamore. That was easily perceived, and in an instant Ledscha's fear yielded to a different feeling.
Holding her breath, she nestled close to the trunk of the ancient tree to listen, and the first word she heard was the name "Nemesis," which had just reached her from the tent.
She knew its meaning, for Tennis also had a little temple dedicated to the terrible goddess, which was visited by the Egyptians and Biamites as well as the Greeks.
A triumphant smile flitted over her unveiled features, for there was no other divinity on whose aid she could more confidently rely. She could unchain the vengeance which threatened Hermon with a far more terrible danger than the thunder clouds above, under the protection—nay, as it were at the behest of Nemesis.
To-morrow she would be the first to anoint her altar.
Now she rejoiced that her wealthy father imposed no restriction upon her in the management of household affairs, for she need spare no expense in choosing the animal she intended to offer as a sacrifice.
This reflection flashed through her mind with the speed of lightning while she was listening to Althea's conversation with the sculptor.
"The question here can be no clever play upon the name and the nature of the daughter of Erebus and Night," said the Thracian gravely. "I will remind you that there is another Nemesis besides the just being who drives from his stolen ease the unworthy mortal who suns himself in good fortune. The Nemesis whom I will recall to-day, while angry Zeus is hurling his thunderbolts, is the other, who chastises sacrilege—Ate, the swiftest and most terrible of the Erinyes. I will invoke her wrath upon you in this hour if you do not confess the truth to me fully and entirely."
"Ask," Hermon interrupted in a hollow tone. "Only, you strange woman—"
"Only," she hastily broke in, "whatever the answer may be, I must pose to you as the model for your Arachne—and perhaps it may come to that—but first I must know, briefly and quickly, for they will be looking for me immediately. Do you love Daphne?"
"No," he answered positively. "True, she has been dear to me from childhood—"
"And," Althea added, completing the sentence, "you owe her father a debt of gratitude. But that is not new to me; I know also how little reason you gave her for loving you. Yet her heart belongs neither to Philotas, the great lord with the little brain, nor to the famous sculptor Myrtilus, whose body is really too delicate to bear all the laurels with which he is overloaded, but to you, and you alone—I know it."
Hermon tried to contradict her, but Althea, without allowing him to speak, went on hurriedly: "No matter! I wished to know whether you loved her. True, according to appearances, your heart does not glow for her, and hitherto you have disdained to transform by her aid, at a single stroke, the poverty which ill suits you into wealth. But it was not merely to speak of the daughter of Archias that I accompanied you into this tempest, from which I would fain escape as quickly as possible. So speak quickly. I am to serve you in your art, and yet, if I understood you correctly, you have already found here another excellent model."
"A native of the country," answered Hermon in an embarrassed tone.
"And for my sake you allowed her to wait for you in vain?"
"It is as you say."
"And you had promised to seek her?"
"Certainly; but before the appointed hour came I met you. You rose before me like a new sun, shedding a new light that was full of promise. Everything else sank into darkness, and, if you will fulfil the hope which you awakened in this heart—"
Just at that moment another flash of lightning blazed, and, while the thunder still shook the air, Althea continued his interrupted protestation: "Then you will give yourself to me, body and soul—but Zeus, who hears oaths, is reminding us of his presence—and what will await you if the Biamite whom you betrayed invokes the wrath of Nemesis against you?"
"The Nemesis of the barbarians!" he retorted contemptuously. "She only placed herself at the service of my art reluctantly; but you, Althea, if you will loan yourself to me as a model, I shall succeed in doing my very best; for you have just permitted me to behold a miracle, Arachne herself, whom you became, you enchantress. It was real, actual life, and that—that is the highest goal."
"The highest?" she asked hesitatingly. "You will have to represent the female form, and beauty, Hermon, beauty?"
"Will be there, allied with truth," flamed Hermon, "if you, you peerless, more than beautiful creature, keep your word to me. But you will! Let me be sure of it. Is a little love also blended with the wish to serve the artist?"
"A little love?" she repeated scornfully.
"This matter concerns love complete and full—or none. We will see each other again to-morrow. Then show me what the model Althea is worth to you."
With these words she vanished in the darkness, while the call of her name again rang from the tents.
"Althea!" he cried in a tone of mournful reproach as he perceived her disappearance, hurrying after her; but the dense gloom soon forced him to give up the pursuit.
Ledscha, too, left her place beneath the sycamore.
She had seen and heard enough.
Duty now commanded her to execute vengeance, and the bold Hanno was ready to risk his life for her.
The following day the sun shone radiantly, with scorching brilliancy, upon Tennis and the archipelago, which at this season of the year surrounded the little city of weavers.
Young Philotas, without going to rest, had set out at dawn in pursuit of game, accompanied by a numerous hunting party, to which several of the Pelusinian officers belonged. He, too, had brought home a great quantity of booty, with which he had expected to awaken Daphne's admiration, and to lay as a token of homage at her feet. He had intended to lead before her garlanded slaves bearing, tied by ropes, bunches of slaughtered wild fowl, but his reception was very different from what he had anticipated.
Instead of praising his exploit, he had been indignantly requested to remove the poor, easily killed victims from her presence; and, wounded and disappointed, he had retired to his magnificent Nile boat, where, spent by his sleepless night, he slumbered so soundly on his soft cushions that he did not appear at the breakfast which the gray-haired commander of Pelusium had invited him to attend on his galley.
While the others were still feasting there, Daphne was enjoying an hour alone with her companion Chrysilla.
She had remained absent from Philippus's banquet, and her pale cheeks showed the ill effects produced by the excitement of the previous night.
A little before noon Hermon came to see her. He, too, had not gone to the Pelusinian's breakfast.
After Althea had left him the evening before he went directly back to the white house, and, instead of going to rest, devoted himself to Myrtilus; for the difficulty of breathing, which during his industrious life in quiet seclusion had not troubled him for several months, attacked him with twofold violence after the gaiety of the previous night. Hermon had not left him an instant until day brought the sufferer relief, and he no longer needed the supporting hand of his kind nurse.
While Hermon, in his own sleeping room, ordered Bias to anoint his hair and beard and put on festal garments, the slave told him certain things that destroyed the last remnant of composure in his easily agitated soul.
With the firm resolution to keep the appointment on Pelican Island, Hermon had gone at sunset, in response to the Alexandrian's invitation, to attend her banquet, and by no means unwillingly, for his parents' old friends were dear to him, and he knew by experience the beneficial influence Daphne's sunny, warmhearted nature exerted upon him.
Yet this time he did not find what he expected.
In the first place, he had been obliged to witness how earnestly Philotas was pressing his suit, and perceived that her companion Chrysilla was most eagerly assisting him. As she saw in the young aristocrat a suitable husband for the daughter of Archias, and it was her duty to assign the guests their seats at the banquet, she had given the cushion beside Daphne to Philotas, and also willingly fulfilled Althea's desire to have Hermon for her neighbour.
When Chrysilla presented the black-bearded artist to the Thracian, she would have sworn that Althea found an old acquaintance in the sculptor; but Hermon treated the far-famed relative of Queen Arsinoe as coldly and distantly as if he now saw her for the first time, and with little pleasure.
In truth, he was glad to avoid women of Althea's stamp. For some time he had preferred to associate with the common people, among whom he found his best subjects, and kept far aloof from the court circles to which Althea belonged, and which, thanks to his birth and his ability as an artist, would easily have been accessible to him also.
The over-refined women who gave themselves airs of avoiding everything which imposes a restraint upon Nature, and therefore, in their transparent robes, treated with contempt all that modest Macedonian dames deemed worthy of a genuine woman's consideration, were repulsive to him—perhaps because they formed so rude a contrast to his noble dead mother and to Daphne.
Although he had been very frequently in feminine society, Althea's manner at first caused him a certain degree of embarrassment; for, in spite of the fact that he believed he met her here for the first time, there was something familiar about her, especially in the tone of her voice, and he fancied that her first words were associated with some former ones.
Yet no! If he had ever met her, he would surely have remembered her red-gold hair and the other peculiarities of a personality which was remarkable in every respect.
It soon proved that they were total strangers, and he wished matters to remain so.
He was glad that she attracted him so little, for at least she would scarcely make the early departure to the Biamite, which he considered his duty, a difficult task.
True, he admired from the first the rare milk-white line of her delicate skin, which was wholly free from rouge—his artist eye perceived that and the wonderfully beautiful shape of her hands and feet. The pose of the head on the neck, too, as she turned toward him seemed remarkably fine. This slender, pliant woman would have been an admirable model!
Again and again she reminded him of a gay Lesbian with whom he had caroused for a night during the last Dionysia in Alexandria, yet, on closer inspection, the two were as different as possible.
The former had been as free and reckless in her conduct as Althea was reserved. The hair and eyebrows of the Lesbian, instead of reddish gold, were the deepest black, and her complexion—he remembered it perfectly—was much darker. The resemblance probably consisted merely in the shape of the somewhat too narrow face, with its absolutely straight nose, and a chin which was rather too small, as well as in the sound of the high voice.
Not a serious word had reached his ears from the wanton lips of the Lesbian, while Althea at once desired information concerning his art, and showed that she was thoroughly familiar with the works and the aspirations of the Alexandrian sculptors. Although aware that Hermon had begun his career as an artist, and was the leader of a new tendency, she pretended to belong to the old school, and thereby irritated him to contradiction and the explanation of his efforts, which were rooted in the demands of the present day and the life of the flourishing capital.
The Thracian listened to the description of the new art struggling to present truth, as if these things were welcome surprises, grand revelations, for which she had waited with eager longing. True, she opposed every statement hostile to the old beliefs; but her extremely expressive features soon betrayed to him that he was stirring her to reflect, shaking her opinions, and winning her to his side.
Already, for the sake of the good cause, he devoted himself with the utmost zeal to the task of convincing Althea; she, however, did not make it an easy one, but presented clever arguments against his assertions.
Whenever he or she, by way of example, mentioned any well-known work of art, she imitated, as if involuntarily, its pose and action with surprising fidelity, frequently also in admirable caricature, whose effect was extremely comical. What a woman!
She was familiar with whatever Grecian art had created, and the animated conversation became a bewitching spectacle. When the grammateus Proclus, who as Althea's travelling companion had a certain claim upon her attention, mingled for a while in the discussion and attracted Althea's notice, Hermon felt injured, and answered his sensible remarks with such rudeness that the elder man, whose social position was so much higher, angrily turned his back upon him.
Althea had imposed a certain degree of restraint upon herself while talking to the grammateus, but during the further conversation with Hermon she confessed that she was decidedly of his opinion, and added to the old reasons for the deposition of beauty and ideality in favour of truth and reality new ones which surprised the sculptor. When she at last offered him her hand for a firm alliance, his brain was fevered, and it seemed a great honour when she asked eagerly what would occupy him in the immediate future.
Passionate sympathy echoed in every word, was expressed in every feature, and she listened as if a great happiness was in store for herself when he disclosed the hopes which he based upon the statue of Arachne.
True, as time passed he had spoken more than once of the necessity of retiring, and before midnight really tried to depart; but he had fallen under Althea's thrall, and, in reply to her inquiry what must shorten these exquisite hours, had informed her, in significant words, what drew him away, and that his delay threatened him with the loss of a model such as the favour of fate rarely bestowed upon an artist.
Now the Thracian for the first time permitted her eyes to make frank confessions. She also bent forward with a natural movement to examine the artistic work on a silver vase, and as while doing so her peplos fell over his hand, she pressed it tenderly.
He gazed ardently up at her; but she whispered softly: "Stay! You will gain through me something better than awaits you there, and not only for to-day and to-morrow. We shall meet again in Alexandria, and to serve your art there shall be a beloved duty."
His power of resistance was broken; yet he beckoned to his slave Bias, who was busied with the mixing jars, and ordered him to seek Ledscha and tell her not to wait longer; urgent duties detained him.
While he was giving this direction, Althea had become engaged in the gay conversation of the others, and, as Thyone called Hermon, and he was also obliged to speak to Daphne, he could not again obtain an opportunity for private talk with the wonderful woman who held out far grander prospects for his art than the refractory, rude Biamite maiden.
Soon Althea's performance seemed to prove how fortunate a choice he had made. Her Arachne appeared like a revelation to him. If she kept her promise, and he succeeded in modelling her in the pose assumed while imagining the process of transformation, and presented her idea to the spectators, the great success which hitherto—because he had not yielded to demands which were opposed to his convictions—he had vainly expected, could no longer escape him. The Alexandrian fellow-artists who belonged to his party would gratefully welcome this special work; for what grew out of it would have nothing in common with the fascination of superhuman beauty, by which the older artists ensnared the hearts and minds of the multitude. He would create a genuine woman, who would not lack defects, yet who, though she inspired neither gratification nor rapture, would touch, perhaps even thrill, the heart by absolute truth.
While Althea was standing on the pedestal, she had not only represented the transformation into the spider, but experienced it, and the features of the spectators revealed that they believed they were witnessing the sinister event. His aim was now to awaken the same feeling in the beholders of his Arachne. Nothing, nothing at all must be changed in the figure of the model, in which many might miss the roundness and plumpness so pleasing to the eye. Althea's very defects would perfect the figure of the restless, wretched weaver whom Athene transformed into the spider.
While devoting himself to nursing his friend, he had thought far less of the new love-happiness which, in spite of her swift flight, was probably awaiting him through Althea than of the work which was to fill his existence in the immediate future.
His healthy body, steeled in the palaestra, felt no fatigue after the sleepless night passed amid so many powerful excitements when he retired to his chamber and committed himself to the hands of his slave.
It had not been possible to hear his report before, but when he at last received it Hermon was to learn something extremely unpleasant, and not only because no word of apology or even explanation of his absence had reached Ledscha.
Bias was little to blame for this neglect, for, in the first place, he had found no boat to reach the Pelican Island, because half Tennis was on the road to Tanis, where, on the night of the full moon, the brilliant festivals of the full eye of Horns and the great Astarte were celebrated by the mixed population of this place. When a boat which belonged to Daphne's galley was finally given to him, the Biamite girl was no longer at the place appointed for the meeting.
Hoping to find her on the Owl's Nest with old Tabus, he then landed there, but had been so uncivilly rebuffed on the shore by a rough fellow that he might be glad to have escaped with sound limbs. Lastly, he stole to Ledscha's home, and, knowing that her father was absent, had ventured as far as the open courtyard in the centre of the stately dwelling. The dogs knew him, and as a light was shining from one of the rooms that opened upon the courtyard, he peeped in and saw Taus, Ledscha's younger sister. She was kneeling before the statue of a god at the back of the room, weeping, while the old housekeeper had fallen asleep with the distaff in her lap.
He called cautiously to the pretty child. She was awaiting the return of her sister, who, she supposed, was still detained on the Owl's Nest by old Tabus's predictions; she had sorrowful tidings for her.
The husband of her friend Gula had returned on his ship and learned that his wife had gone to the Greek's studio. He had raged like a madman, and turned the unfortunate woman pitilessly out of doors after sunset. Her own parents had only been induced to receive her with great difficulty. Paseth, the jealous husband, had spared her life and refrained from going at once to kill the artist solely because Hermon had saved his little daughter at his own peril from the burning house.
"Now," said Ledscha's pretty little sister, "it would also be known that she had gone with Gula to his master, who was certainly a handsome man, but for whom, now that young Smethis was wooing her, she cared no more than she did for her runaway cat. All Tennis would point at her, and she dared not even think what her father would do when he came home."
These communications had increased Hermon's anxiety.
He was a brave man, and did not fear the vengeance of the enraged husband, against whom he was conscious of no guilt except having persuaded his wife to commit an imprudence. What troubled him was only the consciousness that he had given her and innocent little Taus every reason to curse their meeting.
The ardent warmth with which Gula blessed him as the preserver of her child had given him infinite pleasure. Now it seemed as if he had been guilty of an act of baseness by inducing her to render a service which was by no means free from danger, as though he wished to be paid for a good deed.
Besides, the slave had represented the possible consequences of his imprudence in the most gloomy light, and, with the assurance of knowing the disposition of his fellow-countrymen, urged his master to leave Tennis at once; the other Biamite men, who would bear anything rather than the interference of a Greek in their married lives, might force Gula's husband to take vengeance on him.
He said nothing about anxiety concerning his own safety, but he had good reason to fear being regarded as a go-between and called to account for it.
But his warnings and entreaties seemed to find deaf ears in Hermon. True, he intended to leave Tennis as soon as possible, for what advantage could he now find here? First, however, he must attend to the packing of the statues, and then try to appease Ledscha, and make Gula's husband understand that he was casting off his pretty wife unjustly.
He would not think of making a hasty departure, he told the slave, especially as he was to meet Althea, Queen Arsinoe's art-appreciating relative, in whom he had gained a friend, later in Alexandria.
Then Bias informed him of a discovery to which one of the Thracian's slave women had helped him, and what he carelessly told his master drove the blood from his cheeks, and, though his voice was almost stifled by surprise and shame, made him assail him with questions.
What great thing had he revealed? There had been reckless gaiety at every festival of Dionysus since he had been in the artist's service, and the slaves had indulged in the festal mirth no less freely than the masters. To intoxicate themselves with wine, the gift of the god to whom they were paying homage, was not only permitted, but commanded, and the juice of the grape proved its all-equalizing power.
There had been no lack of pretty companions even for him, the bondman, and the most beautiful of all had made eyes at his master, the tall, slender man with the splendid black beard.
The reckless Lesbian who had favoured Hermon at the last Dionysia had played pranks with him madly enough, but then had suddenly vanished. By his master's orders Bias had tried to find her again, but, in spite of honest search, in vain.
Just now he had met, as Althea's maid, the little Syrian Margula, who had been in her company, and raced along in the procession of bacchanals in his, Bias's, arms. True, she could not be persuaded to make a frank confession, but he, Bias, would let his right hand wither if Hermon's companion at the Dionysia was any other than Althea. His master would own that he was right if he imagined her with black hair instead of red. Plenty of people in Alexandria practised the art of dyeing, and it was well known that Queen Arsinoe herself willingly mingled in the throng at the Dionysia with a handsome Ephebi, who did not suspect the identity of his companion.
This was the information which had so deeply agitated Hermon, and then led him, after pacing to and fro a short time, to go first to Myrtilus and then to Daphne.
He had found his friend sleeping, and though every fibre of his being urged him to speak to him, he forced himself to leave the sufferer undisturbed.
Yet so torturing a sense of dissatisfaction with himself, so keen a resentment against his own adverse destiny had awaked within him, that he could no longer endure to remain in the presence of his work, with which he was more and more dissatisfied.
Away from the studio!
There was a gay party on board the galley of his parents' old friends. Wine should bring him forgetfulness, too, bless him again with the sense of joyous existence which he knew so well, and which he now seemed on the point of losing.
When he had once talked and drunk himself into the right mood, life would wear a less gloomy face.
No! It should once more be a gay and reckless one.
He would meet her, with whom he had once caroused and revelled madly enough in the intoxication of the last Dionysia, and, instead of allowing himself to be fooled any longer and continuing to bow respectfully before her, would assert all the rights she had formerly so liberally granted.
He would enjoy to-day, forget to-morrow, and be gay with the gay.
Eager for new pleasure, he drew a long breath as he went out into the open air, pressed his hands upon his broad chest, and with his eyes fixed upon the commandant of Pelusium's galley, bedecked with flags, walked swiftly toward the landing place.
Suddenly from the deck, shaded by an awning, the loud laugh of a woman's shrill voice reached his ear, blended with the deeper tones of the grammateus, whose attacks on the previous night Hermon had not forgotten.
He stopped as if the laugh had pierced him to the heart. Proclus appeared to be on the most familiar terms with Althea, and to meet him with the Thracian now seemed impossible. He longed for mirth and pleasure, but was unwilling to share it with these two. As he dared not disturb Myrtilus, there was only one place where he could find what he needed, and this was—he had said so to himself when he turned his back on his sleeping friend—in Daphne's society.
Only yesterday he would have sought her without a second thought, but to-day Althea's declaration that he was the only man whom the daughter of Archias loved stood between him and his friend.
He knew that from childhood she had watched his every step with sisterly affection. A hundred times she had proved her loyalty; yet, dear as she was to him, willingly as he would have risked his life to save her from a danger, it had never entered his mind to give the tie that united them the name of love.
An older relative of both in Alexandria had once advised him, when he was complaining of his poverty, to seek her hand, but his pride of manhood rebelled against having the wealth which fate denied flung into his lap by a woman. When she looked at him with her honest eyes, he could never have brought himself to feign anything, least of all a passion of which, tenderly attached to her though he had been for years, hitherto he had known nothing.
"Do you love her?" Hermon asked himself as he walked toward Daphne's tent, and the anticipated "No" had pressed itself upon him far less quickly than he expected.
One thing was undeniably certain: whoever won her for a wife—even though she were the poorest of the poor—must be numbered among the most enviable of men. And should he not recognise in his aversion to every one of her suitors, and now to the aristocratic young Philotas, a feeling which resembled jealousy?
No! He did not and would not love Daphne. If she were really his, and whatever concerned him had become hers, with whom could he have sought in hours like these soothing, kind, and sensible counsel, comfort that calmed the heart, and the refreshing dew which his fading courage and faltering creative power required?
The bare thought of touching clay and wax with his fingers, or taking hammer, chisel, and file in his hands, was now repulsive; and when, just outside of the tent, a Biamite woman who was bringing fish to the cook reminded him of Ledscha, and that he had lost in her the right model for his Arachne, he scarcely regretted it.
By Georg Ebers
Outside the door of the tent Hermon was trying to banish Althea's image from his mind. How foolishly he had overestimated last night the value of this miserable actress, who as a woman had lost all charm for him—even as a model for his Arachne!
He would rather have appeared before his pure friend with unsightly stains on his robe than while mastered by yearning for the Thracian.
The first glance at Daphne's beloved face, the first words of her greeting, taught him that he should find with her everything for which he longed.
In simple, truthful words she reproached him for having neglected her to the verge of incivility the evening before, but there was no trace of bitterness or resentment in the accusation, and she gave Hermon little time for apology, but quickly gladdened him with words of forgiveness.
In the opinion of her companion Chrysilla, Daphne ought to have kept the capricious artist waiting much longer for pardon. True, the cautious woman took no part in the conversation afterward, but she kept her charge in sight while she was skilfully knotting the fringe into a cloth which she had woven herself. On account of her favourite Philotas, it was well for Daphne to be aware that she was watched.
Chrysilla was acquainted with life, and knew that Eros never mingles more arbitrarily in the intercourse of a young couple than when, after a long separation, there is anything whatever to forgive.
Besides, many words which the two exchanged escaped her hearing, for they talked in low tones, and it was hot in the tent. Often the fatigue she felt after the sleepless night bowed her head, still comely with its unwrinkled face, though she was no longer young; then she quickly raised it again.
Neither Daphne nor Hermon noticed her. The former at once perceived that something was weighing on the sculptor's mind, but he did not need any long inquiry. He had come to confide his troubles to her, and she kindly lightened the task for him by asking why he had not gone to breakfast with the Pelusinians.
"Because I am not fit for gay company today," was the reply.
"Again dissatisfied with Fate?"
"True, it has given me small cause for contentment of late."
"Put in place of Fate the far-seeing care of the gods, and you will accept what befalls you less unkindly."
"Let us stick to us mortals, I entreat you."
"Very well, then. Your Demeter does not fully satisfy you."
A discontented shrug of the shoulders was the reply.
"Then work with twofold zeal upon the Arachne."
"Although one model I hoped to obtain forsook me, and my soul is estranged from the other."
"Althea?" she asked eagerly, and he nodded assent.
Daphne clapped her hands joyfully, exclaiming so loudly that Chrysilla's head sprang up with a jerk. "It could not help being so! O Hermon! how anxious I have been! Now, I thought, when this horrible woman represented the transformation into the spider with such repulsive accuracy, Hermon will believe that this is the true, and therefore the right, ideal; nay, I was deceived myself while gazing. But, eternal gods! as soon as I imagined this Arachne in marble or chryselephantine work, what a painful feeling overpowered me!"
"Of course!" he replied in an irritated tone. "The thirst for beauty, to which you all succumb, would not have much satisfaction to expect from this work."
"No, no, no!" Daphne interrupted in a louder tone than usual, and with the earnest desire to convince him. "Precisely because I transported myself into your tendency, your aspirations, I recognised the danger. O Hermon! what produced so sinister an effect by the wavering light of the lamps and torches, while the thunderstorm was rising—the strands of hair, the outspread fingers, the bewildered, staring blue eyes—do you not feel yourself how artificial, how unnatural it all was? This transformation was only a clever trick of acting, nothing more. Before a quiet spectator, in the pure, truthful light of Apollo, the foe of all deception, what would this Arachne probably become? Even now—I have already said so—when I imagine her executed in marble or in gold and ivory! Beauty? Who would expect to find in the active, constantly toiling weaver, the mortal daughter of an industrious dyer in purple, the calm, refreshing charm of divine women? I at least am neither foolish nor unjust enough to do so. The degree of beauty Althea possesses would entirely satisfy me for the Arachne. But when I imagine a plastic work faithful to the model of yesterday evening—though I have seen a great deal with my own eyes, and am always ready to defer to riper judgment—I would think, while looking at it: This statue came to the artist from the stage, but never from Nature. Such would be my view, and I am not one of the initiated. But the adepts! The King, with his thorough connoisseurship and fine taste, my father, and the other famous judges, how much more keenly they would perceive and define it!"
Here she hesitated, for the blood had left Hermon's cheeks, and she saw with surprise the deep impression which the candid expression of her opinion had produced upon the artist, usually so independent and disposed to contradiction. Her judgment had undoubtedly disturbed, nay, perhaps convinced him; but at the same time his features revealed such deep depression that, far from rejoicing in so rare a success, she patted his arm like an affectionate sister, saying: "You have not yet found time to realize calmly what yesterday dazzled us all—and you," she added in a lower tone, "the most strongly."
"But now," he murmured sadly, half to himself, half to, her, "my vision is doubly clear. Close before the success of which I dreamed failure and bitter disappointment."
"If this 'doubly' refers to your completed work, and also to the Arachne," cried Daphne in the affectionate desire to soothe him, "a pleasant surprise will perhaps soon await you, for Myrtilus judges your Demeter much more favourably than you yourself do, and he also betrayed to me whom it resembles."
She blushed slightly as she spoke, and, as her companion's gloomy face brightened for a short time, went on eagerly: "And now for the Arachne. You will and must succeed in what you so ardently strive to accomplish, a subject so exactly adapted to your magnificent virile genius and so strangely suited to the course which your art has once entered upon. And you can not fail to secure the right model. You had not found it in Althea, no, certainly not! O Hermon! if I could only make you see clearly how ill suited she, in whom everything is false, is to you—your art, your only too powerful strength, your aspiration after truth—"
"You hate her," he broke in here in a repellent tone; but Daphne dropped her quiet composure, and her gray eyes, usually so gentle, flashed fiercely as she exclaimed: "Yes, and again yes! From my inmost soul I do, and I rejoice in it. I have long disliked her, but since yesterday I abhor her like the spider which she can simulate, like snakes and toads, falsehood and vice."
Hermon had never seen his uncle's peaceful daughter in this mood. The emotions that rendered this kindly soul so unlike itself could only be the one powerful couple, love and jealousy; and while gazing intently at her face, which in this moment seemed to him as beautiful as Dallas Athene armed for battle, he listened breathlessly as she continued: "Already the murderous spider had half entangled you in her net. She drew you out into the tempest—our steward Gras saw it—in order, while Zeus was raging, to deliver you to the wrath of the other gods also and the contempt of all good men; for whoever yields himself to her she destroys, sucks the marrow from his bones like the greedy harpies, and all that is noble from his soul."
"Why, Daphne," interrupted Chrysilla, raising herself from her cushions in alarm, "must I remind you of the moderation which distinguishes the Greeks from the barbarians, and especially the Hellenic woman—"
Here Daphne indignantly broke in: "Whoever practises moderation in the conflict against vice has already gone halfway over to evil. She utterly ruined—how long ago is it?—the unfortunate Menander, my poor Ismene's young husband. You know them both, Hermon. Here, of course, you scarcely heard how she lured him from his wife and the lovely little girl who bears my name. She tempted the poor fellow to her ship, only to cast him off at the end of a month for another. Now he is at home again, but he thinks Ismene is the statue from the Temple of Isis, which has gained life and speech; for he has lost his mind, and when I saw him I felt as if I should die of horror and pity. Now she is coming home with Proclus, and, as the way led through Pelusium, she attached herself to our friends and forces herself in here with them. What does she care about her elderly travelling companion? But you—yes, you, Hermon—are the next person whom she means to capture. Just now, when my eyes closed But no! It is not only in my dreams; the hideous gray threads which proceed from this greedy spider are continually floating before me and dim the light." Here she paused, for the maid Stephanion announced the coming of visitors, and at the same time loud voices were heard outside, and the merry party who had been attending the breakfast given by the commandant of Pelusium entered the tent.
Althea was among the guests, but she took little notice of Hermon.
Proclus, her associate in Queen Arsinoe's favour, was again asserting his rights as her travelling companion, and she showed him plainly that the attention which he paid her was acceptable.
Meanwhile her eager, bright blue eyes were roving everywhere, and nothing that was passing around her escaped her notice.
As she greeted Daphne she perceived that her cheeks had flushed during her conversation with Hermon.
How reserved and embarrassed the sculptor's manner was now to his uncle's daughter, whom only yesterday he had treated with as much freedom as though she were his sister! What a bungler in dissimulation! how short-sighted was this big, strong man and remarkable artist! He had carried her, Althea, in his arms like a child for a whole quarter of an hour at the festival of Dionysus, and, in spite of the sculptor's keen eye, he did not recognise her again!
What would not dyes and a change of manner accomplish!
Or had the memory of those mad hours revived and caused his embarrassment? If he should know that her companion, the Milesian Nanno, whom he had feasted with her on oyster pasties at Canopus after she had given the slip to her handsome young companion was Queen Arsinoe! Perhaps she would inform him of it some day if he recognised her.
Yet that could scarcely have happened. He had only been told what she betrayed to him yesterday, and was now neglecting her for Daphne's sake. That was undoubtedly the way the matter stood. How the girl's cheeks were glowing when she entered!
The obstacle that stood between her and Hermon was the daughter of Archias, and she, fool that she was, had attracted Hermon's attention to her.
He would want her for the Arachne, and she needed only to stretch out her hand to draw him to her again if she found no better amusement in Alexandria. Now she would awaken his fears that the best of models would recall her favour. Besides, it would not do to resume the pleasant game with him under the eyes of Philippus and his wife, who was a follower of the manners of old times. The right course now was to keep him until later.
Standing at Proclus's side, she took part gaily in the general conversation; but when Myrtilus and Philemon had joined the others, and Daphne had consented to go with Philippus and Thyone that evening, in order, after offering sacrifice together to Selene, to sail for Pelusium, Althea requested the grammateus to take her, into the open air.
Before leaving the tent, however, she dropped her ostrich-feather fan as she passed Hermon, and, when he picked it up, whispered with a significant glance at Daphne, "I see that what was learned of her heart is turned to account promptly enough."
Then, laughing gaily, she continued loudly enough to be heard by her companion also: "Yesterday our young artist maintained that the Muse shunned abundance; but the works of his wealthy friend Myrtilus contradicted him, and he changed his view with the speed of lightning."
"Would that this swift alteration had concerned the direction of his art," replied Proclus in a tone audible to her alone.
Both left the tent as he spoke, and Hermon uttered a sigh of relief as he looked after them. She attributed the basest motives to him, and Daphne's opinion of her was scarcely too severe.
He no longer needed to fear her power of attraction, though, now that he had seen her again, he better understood the spell which she had exerted over him. Every movement of her lithe figure had an exquisite grace, whose charm was soothing to the artist's eye. Only there was something piercing in her gaze when it did not woo love, and, while making the base charge, her extremely thin lips had showed her sharp teeth in a manner that reminded him of the way the she-wolf among the King's wild beasts in the Paneum gardens raised her lips when any one went near her cage.
Daphne was right. Ledscha would have been infinitely better as a model for the Arachne. Everything in this proud creature was genuine and original, which was certainly not the case with Althea. Besides, stern austerity was as much a part of the Biamite as her hair and her hands, yet what ardent passion he had seen glow in her eyes! The model so long sought in vain he had found in Ledscha, who in so many respects resembled Arachne. Fool that he was to have yielded to a swift and false ebullition of feeling!
Since Myrtilus was again near him Hermon had devoted himself with fresh eagerness to his artistic task, while a voice within cried more and more loudly that the success of his new work depended entirely upon Ledscha. He must try to regain her as a model for the Arachne! But while pondering over the "how," he felt a rare sense of pleasure when Daphne spoke to him or her glance met his.
At first he had devoted himself eagerly to his father's old friends, and especially to Thyone, and had not found it quite easy to remain firm when, in her frank, kindly, cordial manner, she tried to persuade him to accompany her and the others to Pelusium. Yet he had succeeded in refusing the worthy couple's invitation. But when he saw Philotas, whose resemblance to the King, his cousin, had just been mentioned by one of the officers, become more and more eager in his attentions to Daphne, and heard him also invited by Philippus to share the nocturnal voyage, he felt disturbed, and could not conceal from himself that the uneasiness which constantly obtained a greater mastery over him arose from the fear of losing his friend to the young aristocrat.
This was jealousy, and where it flamed so hotly love could scarcely be absent. Yet, had the shaft of Eros really struck him, how was it possible that the longing to win Ledscha back stirred so strongly within him that he finally reached a resolution concerning her?
As soon as the guests left Tennis he would approach the Biamite again. He had already whispered this intention to Myrtilus, when he heard Daphne's companion say to Thyone, "Philotas will accompany us, and on this voyage they will plight their troth if Aphrodite's powerful son accepts my sacrifice."
He involuntarily looked at the pair who were intended for each other, and saw Daphne lower her eyes, blushing, at a whisper from the young Macedonian.
His blood also crimsoned his cheeks, and when, soon after, he asked his friend whether she cared for his companionship, and Daphne assented in the most eager way, he said that he would share the voyage to Pelusium. Daphne's eyes had never yet beamed upon him so gladly and graciously. Althea was right. She must love him, and it seemed as if this conviction awoke a new star of happiness in his troubled soul.
If Philotas imagined that he could pluck the daughter of Archias like a ripe fruit from a tree, he would find himself mistaken.
Hermon did not yet exactly understand himself, only he felt certain that it would be impossible to surrender Daphne to another, and that for her sake he would give up twenty Ledschas, though he cherished infinitely great expectations from the Biamite for his art, which hitherto had been more to him than all else.
Everything that he still had to do in Tennis he could intrust to his conscientious Bias, to Myrtilus, and his slaves.
If he returned to the city of weavers, he would earnestly endeavour to palliate the offence which he had inflicted on Ledscha, and, if possible, obtain her forgiveness. Only one thing detained him—anxiety about his friend, who positively refused to share the night voyage.
He had promised his uncle Archias to care for him like a brother, and his own kind heart bade him stay with Myrtilus, and not leave him to the nursing of his very skilful but utterly unreliable body-servant, after the last night had proved to what severe attacks of his disease he was still liable.
Myrtilus, however, earnestly entreated him not to deprive himself on his account of a pleasure which he would gladly have shared. There was plenty of time to pack the statues. As for himself, nothing would do him more good just now than complete rest in his beloved solitude, which, as Hermon knew, was more welcome to him than the gayest society. Nothing was to be feared for him now. The thunderstorm had purified the air, and another one was not to be expected soon in this dry region. He had always been well here in sunny weather. Storms, which were especially harmful to him, never came at this season of the year.
Myrtilus secretly thought that Hermon's departure would be desirable, because the slave Bias had confided to him what dangers threatened his friend from the incensed Biamite husbands.
Finally, Myrtilus turned to the others and begged them not to let Hermon leave Pelusium quickly.
When, at parting, he was alone with him, he embraced him and said more tenderly than usual: "You know how easy it will be for me to depart from life; but it would be easier still if I could leave you behind without anxiety, and that would happen if the hymeneal hymns at your marriage to Daphne preceded the dirges which will soon resound above my coffin. Yesterday I first became sure that she loves you, and, much good as you have in your nature, you owe the best to her."
Hermon clasped him in his arms with passionate affection, and after confessing that he, too, felt drawn with the utmost power toward Daphne, and urging him to anticipate complete recovery instead of an early death, he held out his hand to his friend; but Myrtilus clasped it a long time in his own, saying earnestly: "Only this one frank warning: An Arachne like the model which Althea presented yesterday evening would deal the past of your art a blow in the face. No one at Rhodes—and this is just what I prize in you—hated imitation more, yet what would using the Arachne on the pedestal for a model be except showing the world not how Hermon, but how Althea imagines the hapless transformed mortal? Even if Ledscha withdraws from you, hold fast to her image. It will live on in your soul. Recall it there, free it from whatever is superfluous, supply whatever it lacks, animate it with the idea of the tireless artist, the mocking, defiant mortal woman who ended her life as the weaver of weavers in the insect world, as you have so often vividly described her to me. Then, my dear fellow, you will remain loyal to yourself, and therefore also to the higher truth, toward which every one of us who labours earnestly strives, and, myself included, there is no one who wields hammer and chisel in Greece who could contest the prize with you."
When the sun was approaching the western horizon the travellers started.
Light mists veiled the radiant right eye of the goddess of heaven. The blood of the contending spirits of light and darkness, which usually dyed the west of Egypt crimson at the departure of the great sun god, to-day vanished from sight.
The sultry air was damp and oppressive, and experienced old Philippus, who had commanded a fleet of considerable size under the first Ptolemies, agreed with the captain of the vessel, who pointed to several small dark clouds under the silvery stratus, and expressed the fear that Selene would hardly illumine the ship's course during the coming night.
But before the departure the travellers had offered sacrifices to the foam-born Cyprian Aphrodite and the Dioscuri, the protectors of mariners, and the conversation took the gayest turn.
In the harbour of the neighbouring seaport Tanis they went aboard of the commandant's state galley, one of the largest and finest in the royal fleet, where a banquet awaited them.
Cushions were arranged on the high poop, and the sea was as smooth as the silver dishes in which viands were offered to the guests.
True, not a breath stirred the still, sultry air, but the three long double ranks of rowers in the hold of the ship provided for her swift progress, and if no contrary wind sprang up she would run into the harbour of Pelusium before the last goblet was emptied.
Soon after the departure it seemed as if the captain of the little vessel had erred in his prediction, for the moon burst victoriously through the black clouds, only its shining orb was surrounded by a dull, glimmering halo.
Doubtless many a guest longed for a cool breeze, but when the mixed wine had moistened the parched tongues the talk gained fresh animation.
Every one did his or her part, for the point in question was to induce Philippus and his wife to visit Alexandria again and spend some time there as beloved guests with Daphne in her father's house or in the palace of Philotas, who jestingly, yet with many reasons, contested the honour with the absent Archias.
The old warrior had remained away from the capital for several years; he alone knew why. Now the act which had incensed him and the offence inflicted upon him were forgotten, and, having passed seventy four years, he intended to ask the commander in chief once more for the retirement from the army which the monarch had several times refused, in order, as a free man, to seek again the city which in his present position he had so long avoided.
Thyone, it is true, thought that her husband's youthful vigour rendered this step premature, but the visit to Alexandria harmonized with her own wishes.
Proclus eagerly sided with her. "To him," said the man of manifold knowledge, who as high priest of Apollo was fond of speaking in an instructive tone, "experience showed that men like Philippus, who solely on account of the number of their years withdrew their services from the state, felt unhappy, and, like the unused ploughshare, became prematurely rusty. What they lacked, and what Philippus would also miss, was not merely the occupation, which might easily be supplied by another, but still more the habit of command. One who had had thousands subject to his will was readily overcome by the feeling that he was going down hill, when only a few dozen of his own slaves and his wife obeyed him."
This word aroused the mirth of old Philippus, who praised all the good qualities of Macedonian wives except that of obedience, while Thyone protested that during her more than forty years of married life her husband had become so much accustomed to her complete submission than he no longer noticed it. If Philippus should command her to-morrow to leave their comfortable palace in Pelusium to accompany him to Alexandria, where they possessed no home of their own, he would see how willingly she obeyed him.
While speaking, her bright, clear eyes, which seemed to float in the deep hollows sunk by age, sparkled so merrily in her wrinkled face that Philippus shook his finger gaily at her and showed plainly how much pleasure the jest of the old companion of his wanderings gave him.
Yet he insisted upon his purpose of not entering Alexandria again until he had resigned his office, and to do this at present was impossible, since he was bound just now, as if with chains, to the important frontier fortress. Besides, there had probably been little change in the capital since the death of his beloved old companion in arms and master, the late King.
This assertion evoked a storm of contradiction, and even the younger officers, who usually imposed severe restraint upon themselves in the general's presence, raised their voices to prove that they, too, had looked around the flourishing capital with open eyes.
Yet it was not six decades since Philippus, then a lad of seventeen, had been present at its foundation.
His father, who had commanded as hipparch a division of cavalry in the army of Alexander the Great, had sent for the sturdy youth just at that time to come to Egypt, that he might enter the army. The conqueror of the world had himself assigned him, as a young Macedonian of good family, to the corps of the Hetairoi; and how the vigorous old man's eyes sparkled as, with youthful enthusiasm, he spoke of the divine vanquisher of the world who had at that time condescended to address him, gazed at him keenly yet encouragingly with his all-discerning but kindly blue eyes, and extended his hand to him!
"That," he cried, "made this rough right hand precious to me. Often when, in Asia, in scorching India, and later here also, wounded or exhausted, it was ready to refuse its service, a spirit voice within cried, 'Do not forget that he touched it'; and then, as if I had drunk the noble wine of Byblus, a fiery stream flowed from my heart into the paralyzed hand, and, as though animated with new life, I used it again and kept it worthy of his touch. To have seen a darling of the gods like him, young men, makes us greater. It teaches us how even we human beings are permitted to resemble the immortals. Now he is transported among the gods, and the Olympians received him, if any one, gladly. Whoever shared the deeds of such a hero takes a small portion of his renown with him through life and into the grave, and whom he touched, as befell me, feels himself consecrated, and whatever is petty and base flows away from him like water from the anointed body of the wrestler. Therefore I consider myself fortunate above thousands of others, and if there is anything which still tempts me to go to Alexandria, it is the desire to touch his dead body once more. To do that before I die is my most ardent desire."
"Then gratify it!" cried Thyone with urgent impatience; but Proclus turned to the matron, and, after exchanging a hasty glance with Althea, said: "You probably know, my venerable friend, that Queen Arsinoe, who most deeply honours your illustrious husband, had already arranged to have him summoned to the capital as priest of Alexander. True, in this position he would have had the burden of disposing of all the revenues from the temples throughout Egypt; but, on the other hand, he would always have his master's mortal remains near and be permitted to be their guardian. What influences baffled the Queen's wish certainly have not remained hidden from you here."