Having thus fixed the chaplet, she curtsied low before me, and with the softest tone of mockery named me, in the Greek tongue, "Harmachis, King of Love." Then Cleopatra laughed and pledged me as "King of Love," and so did all the company, finding the jest a merry one. For in Alexandria they love not those who live straitly and turn aside from women.
But I sat there, a smile upon my lips, and black wrath in my heart. For, knowing who and what I was, it irked me to think myself a jest for the frivolous nobles and light beauties of Cleopatra's Court. But I was chiefly angered against Charmion, because she laughed the loudest, and I did not then know that laughter and bitterness are often the veils with which a sore heart wraps its weakness from the world. "An omen" she said it was—that crown of flowers—and so it proved indeed. For I was fated to barter the Double Diadem of the Upper and the Lower Land for a wreath of passion's roses that fade before they fully bloom, and Pharaoh's ivory bed of state for the pillow of a faithless woman's breast.
"King of Love!" they crowned me in their mockery; ay, and King of Shame! And I, with the perfumed roses on my brow—I, by descent and ordination the Pharaoh of Egypt—thought of the imperishable halls of Abouthis and of that other crowning which on the morrow should be consummate.
But still smiling, I pledged them back, and answered with a jest. For rising, I bowed before Cleopatra and craved leave to go. "Venus," I said, speaking of the planet that we know as Donaou in the morning and Bonou in the evening, "was in the ascendant. Therefore, as new-crowned King of Love, I must now pass to do my homage to its Queen." For these barbarians name Venus Queen of Love.
And so amidst their laughter I withdraw to my watch-tower, and, dashing that shameful chaplet down amidst the instruments of my craft, made pretence to note the rolling of the stars. There I waited, thinking on many things that were to be, until Charmion should come with the last lists of the doomed and the messages of my uncle Sepa, whom she had seen that evening.
At length the door opened softly, and she came jewelled and clad in her white robes, as she had left the feast.
OF THE COMING OF CLEOPATRA TO THE CHAMBER OF HARMACHIS; OF THE THROWING FORTH OF THE KERCHIEF OF CHARMION; OF THE STARS; AND OF THE GIFT BY CLEOPATRA OF HER FRIENDSHIP TO HER SERVANT HARMACHIS
"At length thou art come, Charmion," I said. "It is over-late."
"Yea, my Lord; but by no means could I escape Cleopatra. Her mood is strangely crossed to-night. I know not what it may portend. Strange whims and fancies blow across it like light and contrary airs upon a summer sea, and I cannot read her purpose."
"Well, well; enough of Cleopatra. Hast thou seen our uncle?"
"Yes, royal Harmachis."
"And hast thou the last lists?"
"Yes; here they are," and she drew them from her bosom. "Here is the list of those who, after the Queen, must certainly be put to the sword. Among them thou wilt note is the name of that old Gaul Brennus. I grieve for him, for we are friends; but it must be. It is a heavy list."
"It is so," I answered conning it; "when men write out their count they forget no item, and our count is long. What must be must be. Now for the next."
"Here is the list of those to be spared, as friendly or uncertain; and here that of the towns which will certainly rise as soon as the messenger reaches their gates with tidings of the death of Cleopatra."
"Good. And now"—and I paused—"and now as to the manner of Cleopatra's death. How hast thou settled it? Must it be by my own hand?"
"Yea, my Lord," she answered, and again I caught that note of bitterness in her voice. "Doubtless Pharaoh will rejoice that his should be the hand to rid the land of this false Queen and wanton woman, and at one blow break the chains which gall the neck of Egypt."
"Talk not thus, girl," I said; "thou knowest well that I do not rejoice, being but driven to the act by deep necessity and the pressure of my vows. Can she not, then, be poisoned? Or can no one of the eunuchs be suborned to slay her? My soul turns from this bloody work! Indeed, I marvel, however heavy be her crimes, that thou canst speak so lightly of the death by treachery of one who loves thee!"
"Surely Pharaoh is over-tender, forgetting the greatness of the moment and all that hangs upon this dagger-stroke that shall cut the thread of Cleopatra's life. Listen, Harmachis. Thou must do the deed, and thou alone! Myself I would do it, had my arm the strength; but it has not. It cannot be done by poison, for every drop she drinks and every morsel that shall touch her lips is strictly tasted by three separate tasters, who cannot be suborned. Nor may the eunuchs of the guard be trusted. Two, indeed, are sworn to us; but the third cannot be come at. He must be cut down afterwards; and, indeed, when so many men must fall, what matters a eunuch more or less? Thus it shall be, then. To-morrow night, at three hours before midnight thou dost cast the final augury of the issue of the war. And then thou wilt, as is agreed, descend alone with me, having the signet, to the outer chamber of the Queen's apartment. For the vessel bearing orders to the Legions sails from Alexandria at the following dawn; and alone with Cleopatra, since she wills that the thing be kept secret as the sea, thou wilt read the message of the stars. And as she pores over the papyrus, then must thou stab her in the back, so that she dies; and see thou that thy will and arm fail thee not! The deed being done—and indeed it will be easy—thou wilt take the signet and pass out to where the eunuch is—for the others will be wanting. If by any chance there is trouble with him—but there will be no trouble, for he dare not enter the private rooms, and the sounds of death cannot reach so far—thou must cut him down. Then I will meet thee; and, passing on, we will come to Paulus, and it shall be my care to see that he is neither drunk nor backward, for I know how to hold him to the task. And he and those with him shall throw open the side gate, when Sepa and the five hundred chosen men who are in waiting shall pour in and cast themselves upon the sleeping legionaries, putting them to the sword. Why, the thing is easy so thou rest true to thyself, and let no womanish fears creep into thy heart. What is this dagger's thrust? It is nothing, and yet upon it hang the destinies of Egypt and the world."
"Hush!" I said. "What is that?—I hear a sound."
Charmion ran to the door, and, gazing down the long, dark passage, listened. In a moment she came back, her finger on her lips. "It is the Queen," she whispered hurriedly; "the Queen who mounts the stair alone. I heard her bid Iras to leave her. I may not be found alone with thee at this hour; it has a strange look, and she may suspect. What wants she here? Where can I hide?"
I glanced round. At the further end of the chamber was a heavy curtain that hid a little place built in the thickness of the wall which I used for the storage of rolls and instruments.
"Haste thee—there!" I said, and she glided behind the curtain, which swung back and covered her. Then I thrust the fatal scroll of death into the bosom of my robe and bent over the mystic chart. Presently I heard the sweep of woman's robes and there came a low knock upon the door.
"Enter, whoever thou art," I said.
The latch lifted, and Cleopatra swept in, royally arrayed, her dark hair hanging about her and the sacred snake of royalty glistening on her brow.
"Of a truth, Harmachis," she said with a sigh, as she sank into a seat, "the path to heaven is hard to climb! Ah! I am weary, for those stairs are many. But I was minded, my astronomer, to see thee in thy haunts."
"I am honoured overmuch, O Queen!" I said bowing low before her.
"Art thou now? And yet that dark face of thine has a somewhat angry look—thou art too young and handsome for this dry trade, Harmachis. Why, I vow thou hast cast my wreath of roses down amidst thy rusty tools! Kings would have cherished that wreath along with their choicest diadems, Harmachis! and thou dost throw it away as a thing of no account! Why, what a man art thou! But stay; what is this? A lady's kerchief, by Isis! Nay, now, my Harmachis, how came this here? Are our poor kerchiefs also instruments of thy high art? Oh, fie, fie!—have I caught thee, then? Art thou indeed a fox?"
"Nay, most royal Cleopatra, nay!" I said, turning; for the kerchief which had fallen from Charmion's neck had an awkward look. "I know not, indeed, how the frippery came here. Perhaps, some one of the women who keeps the chamber may have let it fall."
"Ah! so—so!" she said dryly, and still laughing like a rippling brook. "Yes, surely, the slave-women who keep chambers own such toys as this, of the very finest silk, worth twice its weight in gold, and broidered, too, in many colours. Why, myself I should not shame to wear it! Of a truth it seems familiar to my sight." And she threw it round her neck and smoothed the ends with her white hand. "But there; doubtless, it is a thing unholy in thine eyes that the scarf of thy beloved should rest upon my poor breast. Take it, Harmachis; take it, and hide it in thy bosom—nigh thy heart indeed!"
I took the accursed thing, and, muttering what I may not write, stepped on to the giddy platform whence I watched the stars. Then, crushing it into a ball, I threw it to the winds of heaven.
At this the lovely Queen laughed once more.
"Nay, think now," she cried; "what would the lady say could she see her love-gauge thus cast to all the world? Mayhap, Harmachis, thou wouldst deal thus with my wreath also? See, the roses fade; cast it forth," and, stooping, she took up the wreath and gave it to me.
For a moment, so vexed was I, I had a mind to take her at her word and send the wreath to join the kerchief. But I thought better of it.
"Nay," I said more softly, "it is a Queen's gift, and I will keep it," and, as I spoke, I saw the curtain shake. Often since that night I have sorrowed over those simple words.
"Gracious thanks be to the King of Love for this small mercy," she answered, looking at me strangely. "Now, enough of wit; come forth upon this balcony—tell me of the mystery of those stars of thine. For I always loved the stars, that are so pure and bright and cold, and so far away from our fevered troubling. There I would wish to dwell, rocked on the dark bosom of the night, and losing the little sense of self as I gazed for ever on the countenance of yon sweet-eyed space. Nay—who can tell, Harmachis?—perhaps those stars partake of our very substance, and, linked to us by Nature's invisible chain, do, indeed, draw our destiny with them as they roll. What says the Greek fable of him who became a star? Perchance it has truth, for yonder tiny sparks may be the souls of men, but grown more purely bright and placed in happy rest to illume the turmoil of their mother-earth. Or are they lamps hung high in the heavenly vault that night by night some Godhead, whose wings are Darkness, touches with his immortal fire so that they leap out in answering flame? Give me of thy wisdom and open these wonders to me, my servant, for I have little knowledge. Yet my heart is large, and I would fill it, for I have the wit, could I but find the teacher."
Thereon, being glad to find footing on a safer shore, and marvelling somewhat to learn that Cleopatra had a place for lofty thoughts, I spoke and willingly told her such things as are lawful. I told her how the sky is a liquid mass pressing round the earth and resting on the elastic pillars of the air, and how above is the heavenly ocean Nout, in which the planets float like ships as they rush upon their radiant way. I told her many things, and amongst them how, through the certain never-ceasing movement of the orbs of light, the planet Venus, that was called Donaou when she showed as the Morning Star, became the planet Bonou when she came as the sweet Star of Eve. And while I stood and spoke watching the stars, she sat, her hands clasped upon her knee, and watched my face.
"Ah!" she broke in at length, "and so Venus is to be seen both in the morning and the evening sky. Well, of a truth, she is everywhere, though she best loves the night. But thou lovest not that I should use these Latin names to thee. Come, we will talk in the ancient tongue of Khem, which I know well; I am the first, mark thou, of all the Lagidae who know it. And now," she went on, speaking in my own tongue, but with a little foreign accent that did but make her talk more sweet, "enough of stars, for, when all is said, they are but fickle things, and perhaps may even now be storing up an evil hour for thee or me, or for both of us together. Not but what I love to hear thee speak of them, for then thy face loses that gloomy cloud of thought which mars it and grows quick and human. Harmachis, thou art too young for such a solemn trade; methinks that I must find thee a better. Youth comes but once; why waste it in these musings? It is time to think when we can no longer act. Tell me how old art thou, Harmachis?"
"I have six-and-twenty years, O Queen," I answered, "for I was born in the first month of Shomou, in the summer season, and on the third day of the month."
"Why, then, we are of an age even to a day," she cried, "for I too have six-and-twenty years, and I too was born on the third day of the first month of Shomou. Well, this may we say: those who begot us need have no shame. For if I be the fairest woman in Egypt, methinks, Harmachis, that there is in Egypt no man more fair and strong than thou, ay, or more learned. Born of the same day, why, 'tis manifest that we were destined to stand together, I, as the Queen, and thou, perchance, Harmachis, as one of the chief pillars of my throne, and thus to work each other's weal."
"Or maybe each other's woe," I answered, looking up; for her sweet speeches stung my ears and brought more colour to my face than I loved that she should see there.
"Nay, never talk of woe. Be seated here by me, Harmachis, and let us talk, not as Queen and subject, but as friend to friend. Thou wast angered with me at the feast to-night because I mocked thee with yonder wreath—was it not so? Nay, it was but a jest. Didst thou know how heavy is the task of monarchs and how wearisome are their hours, thou wouldst not be wroth because I lit my dulness with a jest. Oh, they weary me, those princes and those nobles, and those stiff-necked pompous Romans. To my face they vow themselves my slaves, and behind my back they mock me and proclaim me the servant of their Triumvirate, or their Empire, or their Republic, as the wheel of Fortune turns, and each rises on its round! There is never a man among them—nothing but fools, parasites, and puppets—never a man since with their coward daggers they slew that Caesar whom all the world in arms was not strong enough to tame. And I must play off one against the other, if maybe, by so doing, I can keep Egypt from their grip. And for reward, what? Why, this is my reward—that all men speak ill of me—and, I know it, my subjects hate me! Yes, I believe that, woman though I am, they would murder me could they find a means!"
She paused, covering her eyes with her hand, and it was well, for her words pierced me so that I shrank upon the seat beside her.
"They think ill of me, I know it; and call me wanton, who have never stepped aside save once, when I loved the greatest man of all the world, and at the touch of love my passion flamed indeed, but burnt a hallowed flame. These ribald Alexandrians swear that I poisoned Ptolemy, my brother—whom the Roman Senate would, most unnaturally, have forced on me, his sister, as a husband! But it is false: he sickened and died of fever. And even so they say that I would slay Arsinoe, my sister—who, indeed, would slay me!—but that, too, is false! Though she will have none of me, I love my sister. Yes, they all think ill of me without a cause; even thou dost think ill of me, Harmachis.
"O Harmachis, before thou judgest, remember what a thing is envy!—that foul sickness of the mind which makes the jaundiced eye of pettiness to see all things distraught—to read Evil written on the open face of Good, and find impurity in the whitest virgin's soul! Think what a thing it is, Harmachis, to be set on high above the gaping crowd of knaves who hate thee for thy fortune and thy wit; who gnash their teeth and shoot the arrows of their lies from the cover of their own obscureness, whence they have no wings to soar; and whose hearts' quest it is to drag down thy nobility to the level of the groundling and the fool!
"Be not, then, swift to think evil of the Great, whose every word and act is searched for error by a million angry eyes, and whose most tiny fault is trumpeted by a thousand throats, till the world shakes with echoes of their sin! Say not: 'It is thus, 'tis certainly thus'—say, rather: 'May it not be otherwise? Have we heard aright? Did she this thing of her own will?' Judge gently, Harmachis, as wert thou I thou wouldst be judged. Remember that a Queen is never free. She is, indeed, but the point and instrument of those forces politic with which the iron books of history are graved. O Harmachis! be thou my friend—my friend and counsellor!—my friend whom I can trust indeed!—for here, in this crowded Court, I am more utterly alone than any soul that breathes about its corridors. But thee I trust; there is faith written in those quiet eyes, and I am minded to lift thee high, Harmachis. I can no longer bear my solitude of mind—I must find one with whom I may commune and speak that which lies within my heart. I have faults, I know it; but I am not all unworthy of thy faith, for there is good grain among the evil seed. Say, Harmachis, wilt thou take pity on my loneliness and befriend me, who have lovers, courtiers, slaves, dependents, more thick than I can count, but never one single friend?" and she leant towards me, touching me lightly, and gazed on me with her wonderful blue eyes.
I was overcome; thinking of the morrow night, shame and sorrow smote me. I, her friend!—I, whose assassin dagger lay against my breast! I bent my head, and a sob or a groan, I know not which, burst from the agony of my heart.
But Cleopatra, thinking only that I was moved beyond myself by the surprise of her graciousness, smiled sweetly, and said:
"It grows late; to-morrow night when thou bringest the auguries we will speak again, O my friend Harmachis, and thou shalt answer me." And she gave me her hand to kiss. Scarce knowing what I did, I kissed it, and in another moment she was gone.
But I stood in the chamber, gazing after her like one asleep.
OF THE WORDS AND JEALOUSY OF CHARMION; OF THE LAUGHTER OF HARMACHIS; OF THE MAKING READY FOR THE DEED OF BLOOD; AND OF THE
I stood still, plunged in thought. Then by hazard as it were I took up the wreath of roses and looked on it. How long I stood so I know not, but when next I lifted up my eyes they fell upon the form of Charmion, whom, indeed, I had altogether forgotten. And though at the moment I thought but little of it, I noted vaguely that she was flushed as though with anger, and beat her foot upon the floor.
"Oh, it is thou, Charmion!" I said. "What ails thee? Art thou cramped with standing so long in thy hiding-place? Why didst not thou slip hence when Cleopatra led me to the balcony?"
"Where is my kerchief?" she asked, shooting an angry glance at me. "I let fall my broidered kerchief."
"Thy kerchief!—why, didst thou not see? Cleopatra twitted me about it, and I flung it from the balcony."
"Yes, I saw," answered the girl, "I saw but too well. Thou didst fling away my kerchief, but the wreath of roses—that thou wouldst not fling away. It was 'a Queen's gift,' forsooth, and therefore the royal Harmachis, the Priest of Isis, the chosen of the Gods, the crowned Pharaoh wed to the weal of Khem, cherished it and saved it. But my kerchief, stung by the laughter of that light Queen, he cast away!"
"What meanest thou?" I asked, astonished at her bitter tone. "I cannot read thy riddles."
"What mean I?" she answered, tossing up her head and showing the white curves of her throat. "Nay, I mean naught, or all; take it as thou wilt. Wouldst know what I mean, Harmachis, my cousin and my Lord?" she went on in a hard, low voice. "Then I will tell thee—thou art in danger of the great offence. This Cleopatra has cast her fatal wiles about thee, and thou goest near to loving her, Harmachis—to loving her whom to-morrow thou must slay! Ay, stand and stare at that wreath in thy hand—the wreath thou couldst not send to join my kerchief—sure Cleopatra wore it but to-night! The perfume of the hair of Caesar's mistress—Caesar's and others'—yet mingles with the odour of its roses! Now, prithee, Harmachis, how far didst thou carry the matter on yonder balcony? for in that hole where I lay hid I could not hear or see. 'Tis a sweet spot for lovers, is it not?—ay, and a sweet hour, too? Venus surely rules the stars to-night?"
All of this she said so quietly and in so soft and modest a way, though her words were not modest, and yet so bitterly, that every syllable cut me to the heart, and angered me till I could find no speech.
"Of a truth thou hast a wise economy," she went on, seeing her advantage: "to-night thou dost kiss the lips that to-morrow thou shalt still for ever! It is frugal dealing with the occasion of the moment; ay, worthy and honourable dealing!"
Then at last I broke forth. "Girl," I cried, "how darest thou speak thus to me? Mindest thou who and what I am that thou loosest thy peevish gibes upon me?"
"I mind what it behoves thee to be," she answered quick. "What thou art, that I mind not now. Surely thou knowest alone—thou and Cleopatra!"
"What meanest thou?" I said. "Am I to blame if the Queen——"
"The Queen! What have we here? Pharaoh owns a Queen!"
"If Cleopatra wills to come hither of a night and talk——"
"Of stars, Harmachis—surely of stars and roses, and naught beside!"
After that I know not what I said; for, troubled as I was, the girl's bitter tongue and quiet way drove me wellnigh to madness. But this I know: I spoke so fiercely that she cowered before me as she had cowered before my uncle Sepa when he rated her because of her Grecian garb. And as she wept then, so she wept now, only more passionately and with great sobs.
At length I ceased, half-shamed but still angry and smarting sorely. For even while she wept she could find a tongue to answer with—and a woman's shafts are sharp.
"Thou shouldst not speak to me thus!" she sobbed; "it is cruel—it is unmanly! But I forget thou art but a priest, not a man—except, mayhap, for Cleopatra!"
"What right hast thou?" I said. "What canst thou mean?"
"What right have I?" she asked, looking up, her dark eyes all aflood with tears that ran down her sweet face like the dew of morning down a lily's heart. "What right have I? O Harmachis! art thou blind? Didst thou not know by what right I speak thus to thee? Then I must tell thee. Well, it is the fashion in Alexandria! By that first and holy right of woman—by the right of the great love I bear thee, and which, it seems, thou hast no eyes to see—by the right of my glory and my shame. Oh, be not wroth with me, Harmachis, nor set me down as light, because the truth at last has burst from me; for I am not so. I am what thou wilt make me. I am the wax within the moulder's hands, and as thou dost fashion me so I shall be. There breathes within me now a breath of glory, blowing across the waters of my soul, that can waft me to ends more noble than ever I have dreamed afore, if thou wilt be my pilot and my guide. But if I lose thee, then I lose all that holds me from my worse self—and let shipwreck come! Thou knowest me not, Harmachis! thou canst not see how big a spirit struggles in this frail form of mine! To thee I am a girl, clever, wayward, shallow. But I am more! Show me thy loftiest thought and I will match it, the deepest puzzle of thy mind and I will make it clear. Of one blood we are, and love can ravel up our little difference and make us grow one indeed. One end we have, one land we love, one vow binds us both. Take me to thy heart, Harmachis, set me by thee on the Double Throne, and I swear that I will lift thee higher than ever man has climbed. Reject me, and beware lest I pull thee down! And now, putting aside the cold delicacy of custom, stung to it by what I saw of the arts of that lovely living falsehood, Cleopatra, which for pastime she practises on thy folly, I have spoken out my heart, and answer thou!" And she clasped her hands and, drawing one pace nearer, gazed, all white and trembling, on my face.
For a moment I stood struck dumb, for the magic of her voice and the power of her speech, despite myself, stirred me like the rush of music. Had I loved the woman, doubtless she might have fired me with her flame; but I loved her not, and I could not play at passion. And so thought came, and with thought that laughing mood, which is ever apt to fashion upon nerves strained to the point of breaking. In a flash, as it were, I bethought me of the way in which she had that very night forced the wreath of roses on my head, I thought of the kerchief and how I had flung it forth. I thought of Charmion in the little chamber watching what she held to be the arts of Cleopatra, and of her bitter speeches. Lastly, I thought of what my uncle Sepa would say of her could he see her now, and of the strange and tangled skein in which I was inmeshed. And I laughed aloud—the fool's laughter that was my knell of ruin!
She turned whiter yet—white as the dead—and a look grew upon her face that checked my foolish mirth. "Thou findest, then, Harmachis," she said in a low, choked voice, and dropping the level of her eyes, "thou findest cause of merriment in what I have said?"
"Nay," I answered; "nay, Charmion; forgive me if I laughed. It was rather a laugh of despair; for what am I to say to thee? Thou hast spoken high words of all thou mightest be: is it left for me to tell thee what thou art?"
She shrank, and I paused.
"Speak," she said.
"Thou knowest—none so well!—who I am and what my mission is: thou knowest—none so well!—that I am sworn to Isis, and may, by law Divine, have naught to do with thee."
"Ay," she broke in, in her low voice, and with her eyes still fixed upon the ground—"ay, and I know that thy vows are broken in spirit, if not in form—broken like wreaths of cloud; for, Harmachis—thou lovest Cleopatra!"
"It is a lie!" I cried. "Thou wanton girl, who wouldst seduce me from my duty and put me to an open shame!—who, led by passion or ambition, or the love of evil, hast not shamed to break the barriers of thy sex and speak as thou hast spoken—beware lest thou go too far! And if thou wilt have an answer, here it is, put straightly, as thy question. Charmion, outside the matter of my duty and my vows, thou art naught to me!—nor for all thy tender glances will my heart beat one pulse more fast! Hardly art thou now my friend—for, of a truth, I scarce can trust thee. But, once more: beware! To me thou mayest do thy worst; but if thou dost dare to lift a finger against our cause, that day thou diest! And now, is this play done?"
And as, wild with anger, I spoke thus, she shrank back, and yet further back, till at length she rested against the wall, her eyes covered with her hand. But when I ceased she dropped her hand, glancing up, and her face was as the face of a statue, in which the great eyes glowed like embers, and round them was a ring of purple shadow.
"Not altogether done," she answered gently; "the arena must yet be sanded!" This she said having reference to the covering up of the bloodstains at the gladiatorial shows with fine sand. "Well," she went on, "waste not thine anger on a thing so vile. I have thrown my throw and I have lost. Vae victis!—ah! Vae victis! Wilt thou not lend me the dagger in thy robe, that here and now I may end my shame? No? Then one word more, most royal Harmachis: if thou canst, forget my folly; but, at the least, have no fear from me. I am now, as ever, thy servant and the servant of our cause. Farewell!"
And she went, leaning her hand against the wall. But I, passing to my chamber, flung myself upon my couch, and groaned in bitterness of spirit. Alas! we shape our plans, and by slow degrees build up our house of Hope, never counting on the guests that time shall bring to lodge therein. For who can guard against—the Unforeseen?
At length I slept, and my dreams were evil. When I woke the light of the day which should see the red fulfilment of the plot was streaming through the casement, and the birds sang merrily among the garden palms. I woke, and as I woke the sense of trouble pressed in upon me, for I remembered that before this day was gathered to the past I must dip my hands in blood—yes, in the blood of Cleopatra, who trusted me! Why could I not hate her as I should? There had been a time when I looked on to this act of vengeance with somewhat of a righteous glow of zeal. And now—and now—why, I would frankly give my royal birthright to be free from its necessity! But, alas! I knew that there was no escape. I must drain this cup or be for ever cast away. I felt the eyes of Egypt watching me, and the eyes of Egypt's Gods. I prayed to my Mother Isis to give me strength to do this deed, and prayed as I had never prayed before; and oh, wonder! no answer came. Nay, how was this? What, then, had loosed the link between us that, for the first time, the Goddess deigned no reply to her son and chosen servant? Could it be that I had sinned in heart against her? What had Charmion said—that I loved Cleopatra? Was this sickness love? Nay! a thousand times nay!—it was but the revolt of Nature against an act of treachery and blood. The Goddess did but try my strength, or perchance she also turned her holy countenance from murder?
I rose filled with terror and despair, and went about my task like a man without a soul. I conned the fatal lists and noted all the plans—ay, in my brain I gathered up the very words of that proclamation of my Royalty which, on the morrow, I should issue to the startled world.
"Citizens of Alexandria and dwellers in the land of Egypt," it began, "Cleopatra the Macedonian hath, by the command of the Gods, suffered justice for her crimes——"
All these and other things I did, but I did them as a man without a soul—as a man moved by a force from without and not from within. And so the minutes wore away. In the third hour of the afternoon I went as by appointment fixed to the house where my uncle Sepa lodged, that same house to which I had been brought some three months gone when I entered Alexandria for the first time. And here I found the leaders of the revolt in the city assembled in secret conclave to the number of seven. When I had entered, and the doors were barred, they prostrated themselves, and cried, "Hail, Pharaoh!" but I bade them rise, saying that I was not yet Pharaoh, for the chicken was still in the egg.
"Yea, Prince," said my uncle, "but his beak shows through. Not in vain hath Egypt brooded all these years, if thou fail not with that dagger-stroke of thine to-night; and how canst thou fail? Nothing can now stop our course to victory!"
"It is on the knees of the Gods," I answered.
"Nay," he said, "the Gods have placed the issue in the hands of a mortal—in thy hands, Harmachis!—and there it is safe. See: here are the last lists. Thirty-one thousand men who bear arms are sworn to rise when the tidings come to them. Within five days every citadel in Egypt will be in our hands, and then what have we to fear? From Rome but little, for her hands are full; and, besides, we will make alliance with the Triumvirate, and, if need be, buy them off. For of money there is plenty in the land, and if more be wanted thou, Harmachis, knowest where it is stored against the need of Khem, and outside the Roman's reach of arm. Who is there to harm us? There is none. Perchance, in this turbulent city, there may be struggle, and a counter-plot to bring Arsinoe to Egypt and set her on the throne. Therefore Alexandria must be severely dealt with—ay, even to destruction, if need be. As for Arsinoe, those go forth to-morrow on the news of the Queen's death who shall slay her secretly."
"There remains the lad Caesarion," I said. "Rome might claim through Caesar's son, and the child of Cleopatra inherits Cleopatra's rights. Here is a double danger."
"Fear not," said my uncle; "to-morrow Caesarion joins those who begat him in Amenti. I have made provision. The Ptolemies must be stamped out, so that no shoot shall ever spring from that root blasted by Heaven's vengeance."
"Is there no other means?" I asked sadly. "My heart is sick at the promise of this red rain of blood. I know the child well; he has Cleopatra's fire and beauty and great Caesar's wit. It were shame to murder him."
"Nay, be not so chicken-hearted, Harmachis," said my uncle, sternly. "What ails thee, then? If the lad is thus, the more reason that he should die. Wouldst thou nurse up a young lion to tear thee from the throne?"
"Be it so," I answered, sighing. "At least he is spared much, and will go hence innocent of evil. Now for the plans."
We sat long taking counsel, till at length, in face of the great emergency and our high emprise, I felt something of the spirit of former days flow back into my heart. At the last all was ordered, and so ordered that it could scarce miscarry, for it was fixed that if by any chance I could not come to slay Cleopatra on this night, then the plot should hang in the scale till the morrow, when the deed must be done upon occasion. For the death of Cleopatra was the signal. These matters being finished, once more we stood and, our hands upon the sacred symbol, swore the oath that may not be written. And then my uncle kissed me with tears of hope and joy standing in his keen black eyes. He blessed me, saying that he would gladly give his life, ay, and a hundred lives, if they were his, if he might but live to see Egypt once more a nation, and me, Harmachis, the descendant of its royal and ancient blood, seated on the throne. For he was a patriot indeed, asking nothing for himself, and giving all things to his cause. And I kissed him in turn, and thus we parted. Nor did I ever see him more in the flesh who has earned the rest that as yet is denied to me.
So I went, and, there being yet time, walked swiftly from place to place in the great city, taking note of the positions of the gates and of the places where our forces must be gathered. At length I came to that quay where I had landed, and saw a vessel sailing for the open sea. I looked, and in my heaviness of heart longed that I were aboard of her, to be borne by her white wings to some far shore where I might live obscure and die forgotten. Also I saw another vessel that had dropped down the Nile, from whose deck the passengers were streaming. For a moment I stood watching them, idly wondering if they were from Abouthis, when suddenly I heard a familiar voice beside me.
"La! la!" said the voice. "Why, what a city is this for an old woman to seek her fortune in! And how shall I find those to whom I am known? As well look for the rush in the papyrus-roll.[*] Begone! thou knave! and let my basket of simples lie; or, by the Gods, I'll doctor thee with them!"
[*] Papyrus was manufactured from the pith of rushes. Hence Atoua's saying.—Editor.
I turned, wondering, and found myself face to face with my foster-nurse, Atoua. She knew me instantly, for I saw her start, but in the presence of the people she checked her surprise.
"Good Sir," she whined, lifting her withered countenance towards me, and at the same time making the secret sign. "By thy dress thou shouldst be an astronomer, and I was specially told to avoid astronomers as a pack of lying tricksters who worship their own star only; and, therefore, I speak to thee, acting on the principle of contraries, which is law to us women. For surely in this Alexandria, where all things are upside down, the astronomers may be the honest men, since the rest are clearly knaves." And then, being by now out of earshot of the press, "royal Harmachis, I am come charged with a message to thee from thy father Amenemhat."
"Is he well?" I asked.
"Yes, he is well, though waiting for the moment tries him sorely."
"And his message?"
"It is this. He sends greeting to thee and with it warning that a great danger threatens thee, though he cannot read it. These are his words: 'Be steadfast and prosper.'"
I bowed my head and the words struck a new chill of fear into my soul.
"When is the time?" she asked.
"This very night. Where goest thou?"
"To the house of the honourable Sepa, Priest of Annu. Canst thou guide me thither?"
"Nay, I may not stay; nor is it wise that I should be seen with thee. Hold!" and I called a porter who was idling on the quay, and, giving him a piece of money, bade him guide the old wife to the house.
"Farewell," she whispered; "farewell till to-morrow. Be steadfast and prosper."
Then I turned and went my way through the crowded streets, where the people made place for me, the astronomer of Cleopatra, for my fame had spread abroad.
And even as I went my footsteps seemed to beat Be steadfast, Be steadfast, Be steadfast, till at last it was as though the very ground cried out its warning to me.
OF THE VEILED WORDS OF CHARMION; OF THE PASSING OF HARMACHIS INTO THE PRESENCE OF CLEOPATRA; AND OF THE OVERTHROW OF HARMACHIS
It was night, and I sat alone in my chamber, waiting the moment when, as it was agreed, Charmion should summon me to pass down to Cleopatra. I sat alone, and there before me lay the dagger that was to pierce her. It was long and keen, and the handle was formed of a sphinx of solid gold. I sat alone, questioning the future, but no answer came. At length I looked up, and Charmion stood before me—Charmion, no longer gay and bright, but pale of face and hollow-eyed.
"Royal Harmachis," she said, "Cleopatra summons thee, presently to declare to her the voices of the stars."
So the hour had fallen!
"It is well, Charmion," I answered. "Are all things in order?"
"Yea, my Lord; all things are in order: well primed with wine, Paulus guards the gates, the eunuchs are withdrawn save one, the legionaries sleep, and already Sepa and his force lie hid without. Nothing has been neglected, and no lamb skipping at the shamble doors can be more innocent of its doom than is Queen Cleopatra."
"It is well," I said again; "let us be going," and rising, I placed the dagger in the bosom of my robe. Taking a cup of wine that stood near, I drank deep of it, for I had scarce tasted food all that day.
"One word," Charmion said hurriedly, "for it is not yet time: last night—ah, last night—" and her bosom heaved, "I dreamed a dream that haunts me strangely, and perchance thou also didst dream a dream. It was all a dream and 'tis forgotten: is it not so, my Lord?"
"Yes, yes," I said; "why troublest thou me thus at such an hour?"
"Nay, I know not; but to-night, Harmachis, Fate is in labour of a great event, and in her painful throes mayhap she'll crush me in her grip—me or thee, or the twain of us, Harmachis. And if that be so—well, I would hear from thee, before it is done, that 'twas naught but a dream, and that dream forgot——"
"Yes, it is all a dream," I said idly; "thou and I, and the solid earth, and this heavy night of terror, ay, and this keen knife—what are these but dreams, and with what face shall the waking come?"
"So now, thou fallest in my humour, royal Harmachis. As thou sayest, we dream; and while we dream yet can the vision change. For the phantasies of dreams are wonderful, seeing that they have no stability, but vary like the vaporous edge of sunset clouds, building now this thing, and now that; being now dark and heavy, and now alight with splendour. Therefore, before we wake to-morrow tell me one word. Is that vision of last night, wherein I seemed to be quite shamed, and thou didst seem to laugh upon my shame, a fixed phantasy, or can it, perchance, yet change its countenance? For remember, when that waking comes, the vagaries of our sleep will be more unalterable and more enduring than are the pyramids. Then they will be gathered into that changeless region of the past where all things, great and small—ay, even dreams, Harmachis, are, each in its own semblance, frozen to stone and built into the Tomb of Time immortal."
"Nay, Charmion," I replied, "I grieve if I did pain thee; but over that vision comes no change. I said what was in my heart and there's an end. Thou art my cousin and my friend, I can never be more to thee."
"It is well—'tis very well," she said; "let it be forgotten. And now on from dream—to dream," and she smiled with such a smile as I had never seen her wear before; it was sadder and more fateful than any stamp that grief can set upon the brow.
For, though being blinded by my own folly and the trouble at my heart I knew it not, with that smile, the happiness of youth died for Charmion the Egyptian; the hope of love fled; and the holy links of duty burst asunder. With that smile she consecrated herself to Evil, she renounced her Country and her Gods, and trampled on her oath. Ay, that smile marks the moment when the stream of history changed its course. For had I never seen it on her face Octavianus had not bestridden the world, and Egypt had once more been free and great.
And yet it was but a woman's smile!
"Why lookest thou thus strangely, girl?" I asked.
"In dreams we smile," she answered. "And now it is time; follow thou me. Be firm and prosper, royal Harmachis!" and bending forward she took my hand and kissed it. Then, with one strange last look, she turned and led the way down the stair and through the empty halls.
In the chamber that is called the Alabaster Hall, the roof of which is upborne by columns of black marble, we stayed. For beyond was the private chamber of Cleopatra, the same in which I had seen her sleeping.
"Abide thou here," she said, "while I tell Cleopatra of thy coming," and she glided from my side.
I stood for long, mayhap in all the half of an hour, counting my own heart-beats, and, as in a dream, striving to gather up my strength to that which lay before me.
At length Charmion came back, her head held low and walking heavily.
"Cleopatra waits thee," she said: "pass on, there is no guard."
"Where do I meet thee when what must be done is done?" I asked hoarsely.
"Thou meetest me here, and then to Paulus. Be firm and prosper. Harmachis, fare thee well!"
And so I went; but at the curtain I turned suddenly, and there in the midst of that lonely lamplit hall I saw a strange sight. Far away, in such a fashion that the light struck full upon her, stood Charmion, her head thrown back, her white arms outstretched as though to clasp, and on her girlish face a stamp of anguished passion so terrible to see that, indeed, I cannot tell it! For she believed that I, whom she loved, was passing to my death, and this was her last farewell to me.
But I knew naught of this matter; so with another passing pang of wonder I drew aside the curtains, gained the doorway, and stood in Cleopatra's chamber. And there, upon a silken couch at the far end of the perfumed chamber, clad in wonderful white attire, rested Cleopatra. In her hand was a jewelled fan of ostrich plumes, with which she gently fanned herself, and by her side was her harp of ivory, and a little table whereon were figs and goblets and a flask of ruby-coloured wine. I drew near slowly through the soft dim light to where the Wonder of the World lay in all her glowing beauty. And, indeed, I have never seen her look so fair as she did upon that fatal night. Couched in her amber cushions, she seemed to shine as a star on the twilight's glow. Perfume came from her hair and robes, music fell from her lips, and in her heavenly eyes all lights changed and gathered as in the ominous opal's disc.
And this was the woman whom, presently, I must slay!
Slowly I drew near, bowing as I came; but she took no heed. She lay there, and the jewelled fan floated to and fro like the bright wing of some hovering bird.
At length I stood before her, and she glanced up, the ostrich-plumes pressed against her breast as though to hide its beauty.
"What! friend; art thou come?" she said. "It is well; for I grew lonely here. Nay; 'tis a weary world! We know so many faces, and there are so few whom we love to see again. Well, stand not there so mute, but be seated." And she pointed with her fan to a carven chair that was placed near her feet.
Once more I bowed and took the seat.
"I have obeyed the Queen's desire," I said, "and with much care and skill worked out the lessons of the stars; and here is the record of my labour. If the Queen permits, I will expound it to her." And I rose, in order that I might pass round the couch and, as she read, stab her in the back.
"Nay, Harmachis," she said quietly, and with a slow and lovely smile. "Bide thou where thou art, and give me the writing. By Serapis! thy face is too comely for me to wish to lose the sight of it!"
Checked in this design, I could do nothing but hand her the papyrus, thinking to myself that while she read I would arise suddenly and plunge the dagger to her heart. She took it, and as she did so touched my hand. Then she made pretence to read. But she read no word, for I saw that her eyes were fixed upon me over the edge of the scroll.
"Why placest thou thy hand within thy robe?" she asked presently; for, indeed, I clutched the dagger's hilt. "Is thy heart stirred?"
"Yea, O Queen," I said; "it beats high."
She gave no answer, but once more made pretence to read, and the while she watched me.
I took counsel with myself. How should I do the hateful deed? If I flung myself upon her now she would see me and scream and struggle. Nay, I must wait a chance.
"The auguries are favourable, then, Harmachis?" she said at length, though this she must have guessed.
"Yes, O Queen," I answered.
"It is well," and she cast the writing on the marble. "The ships shall sail. For, good or bad, I am weary of weighing chances."
"This is a heavy matter, O Queen," I said. "I had wished to show upon what circumstance I base my forecast."
"Nay, not so, Harmachis; I have wearied of the ways of stars. Thou hast prophesied; that is enough for me; for, doubtless, being honest, thou hast written honestly. Therefore, save thou thy reasons and we'll be merry. What shall we do? I could dance to thee—there are none who can dance so well!—but it would scarce be queenly. Nay, I have it. I will sing." And, leaning forward, she raised herself, and, bending the harp towards her, struck some wandering chords. Then her low voice broke out in perfect and most sweet song.
And thus she sang:
"Night on the sea, and night upon the sky, And music in our hearts, we floated there, Lulled by the low sea voices, thou and I, And the wind's kisses in my cloudy hair: And thou didst gaze on me and call me fair— Enfolded by the starry robe of night— And then thy singing thrilled upon the air, Voice of the heart's desire and Love's delight.
'Adrift, with starlit skies above, With starlit seas below, We move with all the suns that move, With all the seas that flow; For bond or free, Earth, Sky, and Sea, Wheel with one circling will, And thy heart drifteth on to me, And only time stands still.
Between two shores of Death we drift, Behind are things forgot: Before the tide is driving swift To lands beholden not. Above, the sky is far and cold; Below, the moaning sea Sweeps o'er the loves that were of old, But, oh, Love! kiss thou me.
Ah, lonely are the ocean ways, And dangerous the deep, And frail the fairy barque that strays Above the seas asleep! Ah, toil no more at sail nor oar, We drift, or bond or free; On yon far shore the breakers roar, But, oh, Love! kiss thou me.'
"And ever as thou sangest I drew near, Then sudden silence heard our hearts that beat, For now there was an end of doubt and fear, Now passion filled my soul and led my feet; Then silent didst thou rise thy love to meet, Who, sinking on thy breast, knew naught but thee, And in the happy night I kissed thee, Sweet; Ah, Sweet! between the starlight and the sea."
The last echoes of her rich notes floated down the chamber, and slowly died away; but in my heart they rolled on and on. I have heard among the women-singers at Abouthis voices more perfect than the voice of Cleopatra, but never have I heard one so thrilling or so sweet with passion's honey-notes. And indeed it was not the voice alone, it was the perfumed chamber in which was set all that could move the sense; it was the passion of the thought and words, and the surpassing grace and loveliness of that most royal woman who sang them. For, as she sang, I seemed to think that we twain were indeed floating alone with the night, upon the starlit summer sea. And when she ceased to touch the harp, and, rising, suddenly stretched out her arms towards me, and with the last low notes of song yet quivering upon her lips, let fall the wonder of her eyes upon my eyes, she almost drew me to her. But I remembered, and would not.
"Hast thou, then, no word of thanks for my poor singing, Harmachis?" she said at length.
"Yea, O Queen," I answered, speaking very low, for my voice was choked; "but thy songs are not good for the sons of men to hear—of a truth they overwhelm me!"
"Nay, Harmachis; there is no fear for thee," she said laughing softly, "seeing that I know how far thy thoughts are set from woman's beauty and the common weakness of thy sex. With cold iron we may safely toy."
I thought within myself that coldest iron can be brought to whitest heat if the fire be fierce enough. But I said nothing, and, though my hand trembled, I once more grasped the dagger's hilt, and, wild with fear at my own weakness, set myself to find a means to slay her while yet my sense remained.
"Come hither, Harmachis," she went on, in her softest voice. "Come, sit by me, and we will talk together; for I have much to tell thee," and she made place for me at her side upon the silken seat.
And I, thinking that I might so more swiftly strike, rose and seated myself some little way from her on the couch, while, flinging back her head, she gazed on me with her slumbrous eyes.
Now was my occasion, for her throat and breast were bare, and, with a mighty effort, once again I lifted my hand to clutch the dagger-hilt. But, more quick than thought, she caught my fingers with her own and gently held them.
"Why lookest thou so wildly, Harmachis?" she said. "Art sick?"
"Ay, sick indeed!" I gasped.
"Then lean thou on the cushions and rest thee," she answered, still holding my hand, from which the strength had fled. "The fit will surely pass. Too long hast thou laboured with thy stars. How soft is the night air that flows from yonder casement heavy with the breath of lilies! Hark to the whisper of the sea lapping against the rocks, that, though it is faint, yet, being so strong, doth almost drown the quick cool fall of yonder fountain. List to Philomel; how sweet from a full heart of love she sings her message to her dear! Indeed it is a lovely night, and most beautiful is Nature's music, sung with a hundred voices from wind and trees and birds and ocean's wrinkled lips, and yet sung all to tune. Listen, Harmachis: I have guessed something concerning thee. Thou, too, art of a royal race; no humble blood pours in those veins of thine. Surely such a shoot could spring but from the stock of Princes? What! gazest thou at the leafmark on my breast? It was pricked there in honour of great Osiris, whom with thee I worship. See!"
"Let me hence," I groaned, striving to rise; but all my strength had gone.
"Nay, not yet awhile. Thou wouldst not leave me yet? thou canst not leave me yet. Harmachis, hast thou never loved?"
"Nay, nay, O Queen! What have I to do with love? Let me hence!—I am faint—I am fordone!"
"Never to have loved—'tis strange! Never to have known some woman-heart beat all in tune to thine—never to have seen the eyes of thy adored aswim with passion's tears, as she sighed her vows upon thy breast!—Never to have loved!—never to have lost thyself in the mystery of another's soul; nor to have learned how Nature can overcome our naked loneliness, and with the golden web of love of twain weave one identity! Why, it is never to have lived, Harmachis!"
And ever as she murmured she drew nearer to me, till at last, with a long, sweet sigh, she flung one arm about my neck, and gazed upon me with blue, unfathomable eyes, and smiled her dark, slow smile, that, like an opening flower, revealed beauty within beauty hidden. Nearer she bent her queenly form, and still more near—now her perfumed breath played upon my hair, and now her lips met mine.
And woe is me! In that kiss, more deadly and more strong than the embrace of Death, were forgotten Isis, my heavenly Hope, Oaths, Honour, Country, Friends, all things—all things save that Cleopatra clasped me in her arms, and called me Love and Lord.
"Now pledge me," she sighed; "pledge me one cup of wine in token of thy love."
I took the draught, and I drank deep; then too late I knew that it was drugged.
I fell upon the couch, and, though my senses still were with me, I could neither speak nor rise.
But Cleopatra, bending over me, drew the dagger from my robe.
"I've won!" she cried, shaking back her long hair. "I've won, and for the stake of Egypt, why, 'twas a game worth playing! With this dagger, then, thou wouldst have slain me, O my royal Rival, whose myrmidons even now are gathered at my palace gate? Art still awake? Now what hinders me that I should not plunge it to thy heart?"
I heard and feebly pointed to my breast, for I was fain to die. She drew herself to the full of her imperial height, and the great knife glittered in her hand. Down it came till its edge pricked my flesh.
"Nay," she cried again, and cast it from her, "too well I like thee. It were pity to slay such a man! I give thee thy life. Live on, lost Pharaoh! Live on, poor fallen Prince, blasted by a woman's wit! Live on, Harmachis—to adorn my triumph!"
Then sight left me; and in my ears I only heard the song of the nightingale, the murmur of the sea, and the music of Cleopatra's laugh of victory. And as I sank away, the sound of that low laugh still followed me into the land of sleep, and still it follows me through life to death.
OF THE AWAKING OF HARMACHIS; OF THE SIGHT OF DEATH; OF THE COMING OF CLEOPATRA; AND OF HER COMFORTABLE WORDS
Once more I woke; it was to find myself in my own chamber. I started up. Surely, I, too, had dreamed a dream? It could be nothing but a dream? It could not be that I woke to know myself a traitor! That the opportunity had gone for ever! That I had betrayed the cause, and that last night those brave men, headed by my uncle, had waited in vain at the outer gate! That Egypt from Abu to Athu was even now waiting—waiting in vain! Nay, whatever else might be, this could not be! Oh, it was an awful dream which I had dreamed! a second such would slay a man. It were better to die than face such another vision sent from hell. But, though the thing was naught but a hateful phantasy of a mind o'er-strained, where was I now? Where was I now? I should be in the Alabaster Hall, waiting till Charmion came forth.
Where was I? and O ye Gods! what was that dreadful thing, whose shape was the shape of a man?—that thing draped in bloodstained white and huddled in a hideous heap at the foot of the couch on which I seemed to lie?
I sprang at it with a shriek, as a lion springs, and struck with all my strength. The blow fell heavily, and beneath its weight the thing rolled over upon its side. Half mad with terror, I rent away the white covering; and there, his knees bound beneath his hanging jaw, was the naked body of a man—and that man the Roman Captain Paulus! There he lay, through his heart a dagger—my dagger, handled with the sphinx of gold!—and pinned by its blade to his broad breast a scroll, and on the scroll, writing in the Roman character. I drew near and read, and this was the writing:
"Greeting, Harmachis! I was that Roman Paulus whom thou didst suborn. Learn now how blessed are traitors!"
Sick and faint I staggered back from the sight of that white corpse stained with its own blood. Sick and faint I staggered back, till the wall stayed me, while without the birds sang a merry greeting to the day. So it was no dream, and I was lost! lost!
I thought of my aged father, Amenemhat. Yes, the vision of him flashed into my mind, as he would be, when they came to tell him his son's shame and the ruin of all his hopes. I thought of that patriot priest, my uncle Sepa, waiting the long night through for the signal which never came. Ah, and another thought followed swift! How would it go with them? I was not the only traitor. I, too, had been betrayed. By whom? By yonder Paulus, perchance. If it were Paulus, he knew but little of those who conspired with me. But the secret lists had been in my robe. O Osiris! they were gone! and the fate of Paulus would be the fate of all the patriots in Egypt. And at this thought my mind gave way. I sank and swooned even where I stood.
My sense came back to me, and the lengthening shadows told me that it was afternoon. I staggered to my feet; the corpse of Paulus was still there, keeping its awful watch above me. I ran desperately to the door. It was barred, and without I heard the tramp of sentinels. As I stood they challenged and grounded their spears. Then the bolts were shot back, the door opened, and radiant, clad in royal attire, came the conquering Cleopatra. She came alone, and the door was shut behind her. I stood like one distraught; but she swept on till she was face to face with me.
"Greeting, Harmachis," she said, smiling sweetly. "So, my messenger has found thee!" and she pointed to the corpse of Paulus. "Pah! he has an ugly look. Ho! guards!"
The door was opened, and two armed Gauls stepped across the threshold.
"Take away this carrion," said Cleopatra, "and fling it to the kites. Stay, draw that dagger from his traitor breast." The men bowed low, and the knife, rusted red with blood, was dragged from the heart of Paulus and laid upon the table. Then they seized him by the head and body and staggered thence, and I heard their heavy footfalls as they bore him down the stairs.
"Methinks, Harmachis, thou art in an evil case," she said, when the sound of the footfalls had died away. "How strangely the wheel of Fortune turns! But for that traitor," and she nodded towards the door through which the corpse of Paulus had been carried, "I should now be as ill a thing to look on as he is, and the red rust on yonder knife would have been gathered from my heart."
So it was Paulus who had betrayed me.
"Ay," she went on, "and when thou camest to me last night, I knew that thou camest to slay. When, time upon time, thou didst place thy hand within thy robe, I knew that it grasped a dagger hilt, and that thou wast gathering thy courage to the deed which thou didst little love to do. Oh! it was a strange wild hour, well worth the living, and I wondered greatly, from moment to moment, which of us twain would conquer, as we matched guile with guile and force to force!
"Yea, Harmachis, the guards tramp before thy door, but be not deceived. Did I not know that I hold thee to me by bonds more strong than prison chains—did I not know that I am hedged from ill at thy hands by a fence of honour harder for thee to pass than all the spears of all my legions, thou hadst been dead ere now, Harmachis. See, here is thy knife," and she handed me the dagger; "now slay me if thou canst," and she drew near, tore open the bosom of her robe, and stood waiting with calm eyes.
"Thou canst not slay me," she went on; "for there are things, as I know well, that no man—no man such as thou art—may do and live: and this is the chief of them—to slay the woman who is all his own. Nay, stay thy hand! Turn not that dagger against thy breast, for if thou mayst not slay me, by how much more mayst thou not slay thyself, O thou forsworn Priest of Isis! Art thou, then, so eager to face that outraged Majesty in Amenti? With what eyes, thinkest thou, will the Heavenly Mother look upon Her son, who, shamed in all things and false to his most sacred vow, comes to greet Her, his life-blood on his hands? Where, then, will be the space for thy atonement?—if, indeed, thou mayest atone!"
Then I could bear no more, for my heart was broken. Alas! it was too true—I dared not die! I was come to such a pass that I did not even dare to die! I flung myself upon the couch and wept—wept tears of blood and anguish.
But Cleopatra came to me, and, seating herself beside me, she strove to comfort me, throwing her arms about my neck.
"Nay, love, look up," she said; "all is not lost for thee, nor am I angered against thee. We did play a mighty game; but, as I warned thee, I matched my woman's magic against thine, and I have conquered. But I will be open with thee. Both as Queen and woman thou hast my pity—ay, and more; nor do I love to see thee plunged in sorrow. It was well and right that thou shouldst strive to win back that throne my fathers seized, and the ancient liberty of Egypt. Myself as lawful Queen had done the same, nor shrunk from the deed of darkness to which I was sworn. Therein, then, thou hast my sympathy, that ever goes out to what is great and bold. It is well also that thou shouldst grieve over the greatness of thy fall. Therein, then, as woman—as loving woman—thou hast my sympathy. Nor is all lost. Thy plan was foolish—for, as I hold, Egypt could never have stood alone—for though thou hadst won the crown and country—as without a doubt thou must have done—yet there was the Roman to be reckoned with. And for thy hope learn this: I am little known. There is no heart in this wide land that beats with a truer love for ancient Khem than does this heart of mine—nay, not thine own, Harmachis. Yet I have been heavily shackled heretofore—for wars, rebellions, envies, plots, have hemmed me in on every side, so that I might not serve my people as I would. But thou, Harmachis, shalt show me how. Thou shalt be my counsellor and my love. Is it a little thing, Harmachis, to have won the heart of Cleopatra; that heart—fie on thee!—that thou wouldst have stilled? Yes, thou shalt unite me to my people and we will reign together, thus linking in one the new kingdom and the old and the new thought and the old. So do all things work for good—ay, for the very best: and thus, by another and a gentler road, thou shalt climb to Pharaoh's throne.
"See thou this, Harmachis: thy treachery shall be cloaked about as much as may be. Was it, then, thy fault that a Roman knave betrayed thy plans? that, thereon, thou wast drugged, thy secret papers stolen and their key guessed? Will it, then, be a blame to thee, the great plot being broken and those who built it scattered, that thou, still faithful to thy trust, didst serve thee of such means as Nature gave thee, and win the heart of Egypt's Queen, that, through her gentle love, thou mightest yet attain thy ends and spread thy wings of power across the land of Nile? Am I an ill-counsellor, thinkest thou, Harmachis?"
I lifted my head, and a ray of hope crept into the darkness of my heart; for when men fall they grasp at feathers. Then, I spoke for the first time:
"And those with me—those who trusted me—what of them?"
"Ay," she answered, "Amenemhat, thy father, the aged Priest of Abouthis; and Sepa, thy uncle, that fiery patriot, whose great heart is hid beneath so common a shell of form; and——"
I thought she would have said Charmion, but she named her not.
"And many others—oh, I know them all!"
"Ay!" I said, "what of them?"
"Hear now, Harmachis," she answered, rising and placing her hand upon my arm, "for thy sake I will show mercy to them. I will do no more than must be done. I swear by my throne and by all the Gods of Egypt that not one hair of thy aged father's head shall be harmed by me; and, if it be not too late, I will also spare thy uncle Sepa, ay, and the others. I will not do as did my forefather, Epiphanes, who, when the Egyptians rose against him, dragged Athinis, Pausiras, Chesuphus, and Irobasthus, bound to his chariot—not as Achilles dragged Hector, but yet living—round the city walls. I will spare them all, save the Hebrews, if there be any Hebrews; for the Jews I hate."
"There are no Hebrews," I said.
"It is well," she said, "for no Hebrew will I ever spare. Am I then, indeed, so cruel a woman as they say? In thy list, Harmachis, were many doomed to die; and I have but taken the life of one Roman knave, a double traitor, for he betrayed both me and thee. Art thou not overwhelmed, Harmachis, with the weight of mercy which I give thee, because—such are a woman's reasons—thou pleasest me, Harmachis? Nay, by Serapis!" she added with a little laugh, "I'll change my mind; I will not give thee so much for nothing. Thou shalt buy it from me, and the price shall be a heavy one—it shall be a kiss, Harmachis."
"Nay," I said, turning from that fair temptress, "the price is too heavy; I kiss no more."
"Bethink thee," she answered, with a heavy frown. "Bethink thee and choose. I am but a woman, Harmachis, and one who is not wont to sue to men. Do as thou wilt; but this I say to thee—if thou dost put me away, I will gather up the mercy I have meted out. Therefore, most virtuous priest, choose thou between the heavy burden of my love and the swift death of thy aged father and of all those who plotted with him."
I glanced at her and saw that she was angered, for her eyes shone and her bosom heaved. So, I sighed and kissed her, thereby setting the seal upon my shame and bondage. Then, smiling like the triumphant Aphrodite of the Greeks, she went thence, bearing the dagger with her.
I knew not yet how deeply I was betrayed; or why I was still left to draw the breath of life; or why Cleopatra, the tiger-hearted, had grown merciful. I did not know that she feared to slay me, lest, so strong was the plot and so feeble her hold upon the Double Crown, the tumult that might tread hard upon the tidings of my murder should shake her from the throne—even when I was no more. I did not know that because of fear and the weight of policy only she showed scant mercy to those whom I had betrayed, or that because of cunning and not for the holy sake of woman's love—though, in truth, she liked me well enough—she chose rather to bind me to her by the fibres of my heart. And yet I will say this in her behalf: even when the danger-cloud had melted from her sky she kept faith, nor, save Paulus and one other, did any suffer the utmost penalty of death for their part in the great plot against Cleopatra's crown and dynasty. But they suffered many other things.
And so she went, leaving the vision of her glory to strive with the shame and sorrow in my heart. Oh, bitter were the hours that could not now be made light with prayer. For the link between me and the Divine was snapped, and Isis communed with Her Priest no more. Bitter were the hours and dark, but ever through their darkness shone the starry eyes of Cleopatra, and came the echo of her whispered love. For not yet was the cup of sorrow full. Hope still lingered in my heart, and I could almost think that I had failed to some higher end, and that in the depths of ruin I should find another and more flowery path to triumph.
For thus those who sin deceive themselves, striving to lay the burden of their evil deeds upon the back of Fate, striving to believe their wickedness may compass good, and to murder Conscience with the sharp plea of Necessity. But it can avail nothing, for hand in hand down the path of sin rush Remorse and Ruin, and woe to him they follow! Ay, and woe to me who of all sinners am the chief!
OF THE IMPRISONMENT OF HARMACHIS; OF THE SCORN OF CHARMION; OF THE SETTING FREE OF HARMACHIS; AND OF THE COMING OF QUINTUS DELLIUS
For a space of eleven days I was thus kept prisoned in my chamber; nor did I see anyone except the sentries at my doors, the slaves who in silence brought me food and drink, and Cleopatra's self, who came continually. But, though her words of love were many, she would tell me nothing of how things went without. She came in many moods—now gay and laughing, now full of wise thoughts and speech, and now passionate only, and to every mood she gave some new-found charm. She was full of talk as to how I should help her make Egypt great, and lessen the burdens on the people, and fright the Roman eagles back. And, though at first I listened heavily when she spoke thus, by slow advance as she wrapped me closer and yet more close in her magic web, from which there was no escape, my mind fell in time with hers. Then I, too, opened something of my heart, and somewhat also of the plans that I had formed for Egypt. She seemed to listen gladly, weighing them all, and spoke of means and methods, telling me how she would purify the Faith and repair the ancient temples—ay, and build new ones to the Gods. And ever she crept deeper into my heart, till at length, now that every other thing had gone from me, I learned to love her with all the unspent passion of my aching soul. I had naught left to me but Cleopatra's love, and I twined my life about it, and brooded on it as a widow over her only babe. And thus the very author of my shame became my all, my dearest dear, and I loved her with a strong love that grew and grew, till it seemed to swallow up the past and make the present a dream. For she had conquered me, she had robbed me of my honour, and steeped me to the lips in shame, and I, poor fallen, blinded wretch, I kissed the rod that smote me, and was her very slave.
Ay, even now, in those dreams which still come when Sleep unlocks the secret heart, and sets its terrors free to roam through the opened halls of Thought, I seem to see her royal form, as erst I saw it, come with arms outstretched and Love's own light shining in her eyes, with lips apart and flowing locks, and stamped upon her face the look of utter tenderness that she alone could wear. Ay, still, after all the years, I seem to see her come as erst she came, and still I wake to know her an unutterable lie!
And thus one day she came. She had fled in haste, she said, from some great council summoned concerning the wars of Antony in Syria, and she came, as she had left the council, in all her robes of state, the sceptre in her hand, and on her brow the uraeus diadem of gold. There she sat before me, laughing; for, wearying of them, she had told the envoys to whom she gave audience in the council that she was called from their presence by a sudden message come from Rome; and the jest seemed merry to her. Suddenly she rose, took the diadem from her brow, and set it on my hair, and on my shoulders her royal mantle, and in my hand the sceptre, and bowed the knee before me. Then, laughing again, she kissed me on the lips, and said I was indeed her King. But, remembering how I had been crowned in the halls of Abouthis, and remembering also that wreath of roses of which the odour haunts me yet, I rose, pale with wrath, and cast the trinkets from me, asking how she dared to mock me—her caged bird. And I think there was that about me which startled her, for she fell back.
"Nay, Harmachis," she said, "be not wroth! How knowest thou that I mock thee? How knowest thou that thou shalt not be Pharaoh in fact and deed?"
"What meanest thou?" I said. "Wilt thou, then, wed me before Egypt? How else can I be Pharaoh now?"
She cast down her eyes. "Perchance, love, it is in my mind to wed thee," she said gently. "Listen," she went on: "Thou growest pale, here, in this prison, and thou dost eat little. Gainsay me not! I know it from the slaves. I have kept thee here, Harmachis, for thy own sake, that is so dear to me; and for thy own sake, and thy honour's sake, thou must still seem to be my prisoner. Else wouldst thou be shamed and slain—ay, murdered secretly. But I can meet thee here no more! therefore to-morrow I shall free thee in all, save in the name, and thou shalt once more be seen at Court as my astronomer. And I will give this reason—that thou hast cleared thyself; and, moreover, that thy auguries as regards the war have been auguries of truth—as, indeed, they have, though for this I have no cause to thank thee, seeing that thou didst suit thy prophecies to fit thy cause. Now, farewell; for I must return to those heavy-browed ambassadors; and grow not so sudden wroth, Harmachis, for who knows what may come to pass betwixt thee and me?"
And, with a little nod, she went, leaving it on my mind that she had it in her heart to wed me openly. And of a truth, I believe that, at this hour, such was her thought. For, if she loved me not, still she held me dear, and as yet she had not wearied of me.
On the morrow Cleopatra came not, but Charmion came—Charmion, whom I had not seen since that fatal night of ruin. She entered and stood before me, with pale face and downcast eyes, and her first words were words of bitterness.
"Pardon me," she said, in her gentle voice, "in that I dare to come to thee in Cleopatra's place. Thy joy is not delayed for long, for thou shalt see her presently."
I shrank at her words, as well I might, and, seeing her vantage, she seized it.
"I come, Harmachis—royal no more!—I come to say that thou art free! Thou art free to face thine own infamy, and see it thrown back from every eye which trusted thee, as shadows are from water. I come to tell thee that the great plot—the plot of twenty years and more—is at its utter end. None have been slain, indeed, unless it is Sepa, who has vanished. But all the leaders have been seized and put in chains, or driven from the land, and their party is broken and scattered. The storm has melted before it burst. Egypt is lost, and lost for ever, for her last hope is gone! No longer may she struggle—now for all time she must bow her neck to the yoke, and bare her back to the rod of the oppressor!"
I groaned aloud. "Alas, I was betrayed!" I said. "Paulus betrayed us."
"Thou wast betrayed? Nay, thou thyself wast the betrayer! How came it that thou didst not slay Cleopatra when thou wast alone with her? Speak, thou forsworn!"
"She drugged me," I said again.
"O Harmachis!" answered the pitiless girl, "how low art thou fallen from that Prince whom once I knew!—thou who dost not scorn to be a liar! Yea, thou wast drugged—drugged with a love-philtre! Yea, thou didst sell Egypt and thy cause for the price of a wanton's kiss! Thou Sorrow and thou Shame!" she went on, pointing her finger at me and lifting her eyes to my face, "thou Scorn!—thou Outcast!—and thou Contempt! Deny if it thou canst. Ay, shrink from me—knowing what thou art, well mayst thou shrink! Crawl to Cleopatra's feet, and kiss her sandals till such time as it pleases her to trample thee in thy kindred dirt; but from all honest folk shrink!—shrink!"
My soul quivered beneath the lash of her bitter scorn and hate, but I had no words to answer.
"How comes it," I said at last in a heavy voice, "that thou, too, art not betrayed, but art still here to taunt me, thou who once didst swear that thou didst love me? Being a woman, hast thou no pity for the frailty of man?"
"My name was not on the lists," she said, dropping her dark eyes. "Here is an opportunity: betray me also, Harmachis! Ay, it is because I once loved thee—dost thou, indeed, remember it?—that I feel thy fall the more. The shame of one whom we have loved must in some sort become our shame, and must ever cling to us, because we blindly held a thing so base close to our inmost heart. Art thou also, then, a fool? Wouldst thou, fresh from thy royal wanton's arms, come to me for comfort—to me of all the world?"
"How know I," I said, "that it was not thou who, in thy jealous anger, didst betray our plans? Charmion, long ago Sepa warned me against thee, and of a truth now that I recall——"
"It is like a traitor," she broke in, reddening to her brow, "to think that all are of his family, and hold a common mind! Nay, I betrayed thee not; it was that poor knave, Paulus, whose heart failed him at the last, and who is rightly served. Nor will I stay to hear thoughts so base. Harmachis—royal no more!—Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, bids me say that thou art free, and that she waits thee in the Alabaster Hall."
And shooting one swift glance through her long lashes she curtsied and was gone.
So once more I came and went about the Court, though but sparingly, for my heart was full of shame and terror, and on every face I feared to see the scorn of those who knew me for what I was. But I saw nothing, for all those who had knowledge of the plot had fled, and Charmion had spoken no word, for her own sake. Also, Cleopatra had put it about that I was innocent. But my guilt lay heavy on me, and made me thin and wore away the beauty of my countenance. And though I was free in name, yet I was ever watched; nor might I stir beyond the palace grounds.
And at length came the day which brought with it Quintus Dellius, that false Roman knight who ever served the rising star. He bore letters to Cleopatra from Marcus Antonius, the Triumvir, who, fresh from the victory of Philippi, was now in Asia wringing gold from the subject kings with which to satisfy the greed of his legionaries.
Well I mind me of the day. Cleopatra, clad in her robes of state, attended by the officers of her Court, among whom I stood, sat in the great hall on her throne of gold, and bade the heralds admit the Ambassador of Antony, the Triumvir. The great doors were thrown wide, and amidst the blare of trumpets and salutes of the Gallic guards the Roman came in, clad in glittering golden armour and a scarlet cloak of silk, and followed by his suite of officers. He was smooth-faced and fair to look upon, and with a supple form; but his mouth was cold, and false were his shifting eyes. And while the heralds called out his name, titles, and offices, he fixed his gaze on Cleopatra—who sat idly on her throne all radiant with beauty—as a man who is amazed. Then when the heralds had made an end, and he still stood thus, not stirring, Cleopatra spoke in the Latin tongue:
"Greeting to thee, noble Dellius, envoy of the most mighty Antony, whose shadow lies across the world as though Mars himself now towered up above us petty Princes—greeting and welcome to our poor city of Alexandria. Unfold, we pray thee, the purpose of thy coming."
Still the crafty Dellius made no answer, but stood as a man amazed.
"What ails thee, noble Dellius, that thou dost not speak?" asked Cleopatra. "Hast thou, then, wandered so long in Asia that the doors of Roman speech are shut to thee? What tongue hast thou? Name it, and We will speak in it—for all tongues are known to Us."
Then at last he spoke in a soft full voice: "Oh, pardon me, most lovely Egypt, if I have thus been stricken dumb before thee: but too great beauty, like Death himself, doth paralyse the tongue and steal our sense away. The eyes of him who looks upon the fires of the mid-day sun are blind to all beside, and thus this sudden vision of thy glory, royal Egypt, overwhelmed my mind, and left me helpless and unwitting of all things else."
"Of a truth, noble Dellius," answered Cleopatra, "they teach a pretty school of flattery yonder in Cilicia."
"How goes the saying here in Alexandria?" replied the courtly Roman: "'The breath of flattery cannot waft a cloud,'[*] does it not? But to my task. Here, royal Egypt, are letters under the hand and seal of the noble Antony treating of certain matters of the State. Is it thy pleasure that I should read them openly?"
[*] In other words, what is Divine is beyond the reach of human praise.—Editor.
"Break the seals and read," she answered.
Then bowing, he broke the seals and read:
"The Triumviri Reipublicae Constituendae, by the mouth of Marcus Antonius, the Triumvir, to Cleopatra, by grace of the Roman People Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt, send greeting. Whereas it has come to our knowledge that thou, Cleopatra, hast, contrary to thy promise and thy duty, both by thy servant Allienus and by thy servant Serapion, the Governor of Cyprus, aided the rebel murderer Cassius against the arms of the most noble Triumvirate. And, whereas it has come to our knowledge that thou thyself wast but lately making ready a great fleet to this end. We summon thee that thou dost without delay journey to Cilicia, there to meet the noble Antony, and in person make answer concerning these charges which are laid against thee. And we warn thee that if thou dost disobey this our summons it is at thy peril. Farewell."
The eyes of Cleopatra flashed as she hearkened to these high words, and I saw her hands tighten on the golden lions' heads whereon they rested.
"We have had the flattery," she said; "and now, lest we be cloyed with sweets, we have its antidote! Listen thou, Dellius: the charges in that letter, or, rather, in that writ of summons, are false, as all folk can bear us witness. But it is not now, and it is not to thee, that We will make defence of our acts of war and policy. Nor will We leave our kingdom to journey into far Cilicia, and there, like some poor suppliant at law, plead our cause before the Court of the Noble Antony. If Antony would have speech with us, and inquire concerning these high matters, the sea is open, and his welcome shall be royal. Let him come thither! That is our answer to thee and to the Triumvirate, O Dellius!"
But Dellius smiled as one who would put away the weight of wrath, and once more spoke:
"Royal Egypt, thou knowest not the noble Antony. He is stern on paper, and ever he sets down his thoughts as though his stylus were a spear dipped in the blood of men. But face to face with him, thou, of all the world, shalt find him the gentlest warrior that ever won a battle. Be advised, O Egypt! and come. Send me not hence with such angry words, for if thou dost draw Antony to Alexandria, then woe to Alexandria, to the people of the Nile, and to thee, great Egypt! For then he will come armed and breathing war, and it shall go hard with thee, who dost defy the gathered might of Rome. I pray thee, then, obey this summons. Come to Cilicia; come with peaceful gifts and not in arms. Come in thy beauty, and tricked in thy best attire, and thou hast naught to fear from the noble Antony." He paused and looked at her meaningly; while I, taking his drift, felt the angry blood surge into my face.
Cleopatra, too, understood, for I saw her rest her chin upon her hand and the cloud of thought gathered in her eyes. For a time she sat thus, while the crafty Dellius watched her curiously. And Charmion, standing with the other ladies by the throne, she also read his meaning, for her face lit up, as a summer cloud lights in the evening when the broad lightning flares behind it. Then once more it grew pale and quiet.
At length Cleopatra spoke. "This is a heavy matter," she said, "and therefore, noble Dellius, we must have time to let our judgment ripen. Rest thou here, and make thee as merry as our poor circumstances allow. Thou shalt have thy answer within ten days."
The envoy thought awhile, then replied smiling: "It is well, O Egypt; on the tenth day from now I will attend for my answer, and on the eleventh I sail hence to join Antony my Lord."
Once more, at a sign from Cleopatra, the trumpets blared, and he withdrew bowing.
OF THE TROUBLE OF CLEOPATRA; OF HER OATH TO HARMACHIS; AND OF THE TELLING BY HARMACHIS TO CLEOPATRA OF THE SECRET OF THE TREASURE THAT LAY BENEATH THE MASS OF "HER"
That same night Cleopatra summoned me to her private chamber. I went, and found her much troubled in mind; never before had I seen her so deeply moved. She was alone, and, like some trapped lioness, walked to and fro across the marble floor, while thought chased thought across her mind, each, as clouds scudding over the sea, for a moment casting its shadow in her deep eyes.
"So thou art come, Harmachis," she said, resting for a while, as she took my hand. "Counsel me, for never did I need counsel more. Oh, what days have the Gods measured out to me—days restless as the ocean! I have known no peace from childhood up, and it seems none shall I know. Scarce by a very little have I escaped thy dagger's point, Harmachis, when this new trouble, that, like a storm, has gathered beneath the horizon's rim, suddenly bursts over me. Didst mark that tigerish fop? Well should I love to trap him! How soft he spoke! Ay, he purred like a cat, and all the time he stretched his claws. Didst hear the letter, too? it has an ugly sound. I know this Antony. When I was but a child, budding into womanhood, I saw him; but my eyes were ever quick, and I took his measure. Half Hercules and half a fool, with a dash of genius veining his folly through. Easily led by those who enter at the gates of his voluptuous sense; but if crossed, an iron foe. True to his friends, if, indeed, he loves them; and ofttimes false to his own interest. Generous, hardy, and in adversity a man of virtue; in prosperity a sot and a slave to woman. That is Antony. How deal with such a man, whom fate and opportunity, despite himself, have set on the crest of fortune's wave? One day it will overwhelm him; but till that day he sweeps across the world and laughs at those who drown."
"Antony is but a man," I answered, "and a man with many foes; and, being but a man, he can be overthrown."
"Ay, he can be overthrown; but he is one of three, Harmachis. Now that Cassius hath gone where all fools go, Rome has thrown out a hydra head. Crush one, and another hisses in thy face. There's Lepidus, and with him, that young Octavianus, whose cold eyes may yet with a smile of triumph look on the murdered forms of empty, worthless Lepidus, of Antony, and of Cleopatra. If I go not to Cilicia, mark thou! Antony will knit up a peace with these Parthians, and, taking the tales they tell of me for truth—and, indeed, there is truth in them—will fall with all his force on Egypt. And how then?"
"How then? Why, then we'll drum him back to Rome."
"Ah, thou sayest so, and, perchance, Harmachis, had I not won that game we played together some twelve days gone, thou, being Pharaoh, mightest well have done this thing, for round thy throne old Egypt would have gathered. But Egypt loves not me nor my Greek blood; and I have but now scattered that great plot of thine, in which half the land was meshed. Will these men, then, arise to succour me? Were Egypt true to me, I could, indeed, hold my own against all the force that Rome may bring; but Egypt hates me, and had as lief be ruled by the Roman as the Greek. Still I might make defence had I the gold, for with money soldiers can be bought to feed the maw of mercenary battle. But I have none; my treasuries are dry, and though there is wealth in the land, yet debts perplex me. These wars have brought me ruin, and I know not how to find a talent. Perchance, Harmachis, thou who art, by hereditary right, Priest of the Pyramids," and she drew near and looked me in the eyes, "perchance, if long descended rumour does not lie, thou canst tell me where I can touch the gold to save thy land from ruin, and thy Love from the grasp of Antony? Say, is it so?"
I thought a while, and then I answered:
"And if such a tale were true, and if I could show thee treasure stored by the mighty Pharaohs of the most far-off age against the needs of Khem, how can I know that thou wouldst indeed make use of that wealth to those good ends?"
"Is there, then, a treasure?" she asked curiously. "Nay, fret me not, Harmachis; for of a truth the very name of gold at this time of want is like the sight of water in the desert."
"I believe," I said, "that there is such a treasure, though I myself have never seen it. But I know this, that if it still lie in the place where it was set, it is because so heavy a curse will rest upon him who shall lay hands on it wickedly and for selfish ends, that none of those Pharaohs to whom it has been shown have dared to touch it, however sore their need."
"So," she said, "they were cowardly aforetime, or else their need was not great. Wilt thou show me this treasure, then, Harmachis?"
"Perhaps," I answered, "I will show it to thee if it still be there, when thou hast sworn that thou wilt use it to defend Egypt from this Roman Antony and for the welfare of her people."
"I swear it!" she said earnestly. "Oh, I swear by every God in Khem that if thou showest me this great treasure, I will defy Antony and send Dellius back to Cilicia with sharper words than those he brought. Yes, I'll do more, Harmachis: so soon as may be, I will take thee to husband before all the world, and thou thyself shalt carry out thy plans and beat off the Roman eagles."
Thus she spoke, gazing at me with truthful, earnest eyes. I believed her, and for the first time since my fall was for a moment happy, thinking that all was not lost to me, and that with Cleopatra, whom I loved thus madly, I might yet win my place and power back.
"Swear it, Cleopatra!" I said.
"I swear, beloved! and thus I seal my oath!" and she kissed me on the forehead. And I, too, kissed her; and we talked of what we would do when we were wed, and how we should overcome the Roman.
And thus I was again beguiled; though I believe that, had it not been for the jealous anger of Charmion—which, as shall be seen, was ever urging her forward to fresh deeds of shame—Cleopatra would have wedded me and broken with the Roman. And, indeed, in the issue, it had been better for her and Egypt.
We sat far into the night, and I revealed to her somewhat of that ancient secret of the mighty treasure hid beneath the mass of Her. Thither, it was agreed, we should go on the morrow, and the second night from now attempt its search. So, early on the next day, a boat was secretly made ready, and Cleopatra entered it, veiled as an Egyptian lady about to make a pilgrimage to the Temple of Horemkhu. And I also entered, cloaked as a pilgrim, and with us ten of her most trusted servants disguised as sailors. But Charmion went not with us. We sailed with a fair wind from the Canopic mouth of the Nile; and that night, pushing on with the moon, we reached Sais at midnight, and here rested for a while. At dawn we once more loosed our craft, and all that day sailed swiftly, till, at last, at the third hour from the sunset, we came in sight of the lights of that fortress which is called Babylon. Here, on the opposite bank of the river, we moored our ship safely in a bed of reeds.
Then, on foot and secretly, we set out for the pyramids, which were at a distance of two leagues, Cleopatra, I and one trusted eunuch, for we left the other servants with the boat. Only I caught an ass for Cleopatra to ride that was wandering in a tilled field, and threw a cloak upon it. She sat on it and I led the ass by paths I knew, the eunuch following us on foot. And, within little more than an hour, having gained the great causeway, we saw the mighty pyramids towering up through the moonlit air and aweing us to silence. We passed on in utter silence, through the haunted city of the dead, for all around us stood the solemn tombs, till at length we climbed the rocky hill, and stood in the deep shadow of Khufu Khut, the splendid Throne of Khufu.
"Of a truth," whispered Cleopatra, as she gazed up the dazzling marble slope above her, everywhere blazoned over with a million mystic characters—"of a truth, there were Gods ruling in Khem in those days, and not men. This place is sad as Death—ay, and as mighty and far from man. Is it here that we must enter?"
"Nay," I answered, "it is not here. Pass on."
I led the way through a thousand ancient tombs, till we stood in the shadow of Ur the Great, and gazed at his red heaven-piercing mass.
"Is it here that we must enter?" she whispered once again.
"Nay," I answered, "it is not here. Pass on."
We passed on through many more tombs, till we stood in the shadow of Her,[*] and Cleopatra gazed astonished at its polished beauty, which for thousands of years, night by night, had mirrored back the moon, and at the black girdle of Ethiopian stone that circled its base about. For this is the most beautiful of all pyramids.
[*] The "Upper," now known as the Third Pyramid.—Editor.
"Is it that we must enter?" she said.
I answered, "It is here."
We passed round between the Temple of the Worship of his Divine Majesty, Menkau-ra, the Osirian, and in the base of the pyramid till we came to the north side. Here in the centre is graved the name of Pharaoh Menkau-ra, who built the pyramid to be his tomb, and stored his treasure in it against the need of Khem.
"If the treasure still remains," I said to Cleopatra, "as it remained in the days of my great-great-grandfather, who was Priest of this Pyramid before me, it is hid deep in the womb of the mass before thee, Cleopatra; nor can it be come by without toil, danger, and terror of mind. Art thou prepared to enter—for thou thyself must enter and must judge?"
"Canst thou not go in with the eunuch, Harmachis, and bring the treasure forth?" she said, for a little her courage began to fail her.
"Nay, Cleopatra," I answered, "not even for thee and for the weal of Egypt can I do this thing, for of all sins it would be the greatest sin. But it is lawful for me to do this. I, as hereditary holder of the secret, may, upon demand, show to the ruling monarch of Khem the place where the treasure lies, and show also the warning that is written. And if on seeing and reading, the Pharaoh deems that the need of Khem is so sore and strait that it is lawful for him to brave the curse of the Dead and draw forth the treasure, it is well, for on his head must rest the weight of this dread deed. Three monarchs—so say the records that I have read—have thus dared to enter in the time of need. They were the Divine Queen Hatshepsu, that wonder known to the Gods alone; her Divine brother Tahutimes Men-Kheper-ra; and the Divine Rameses Mi-amen. But of these three Majesties, not one when they saw dared to touch; for, though sharp their need, it was not great enough to consecrate the act. So, fearing lest the curse should fall upon them, they went hence sorrowing."
She thought a little, till at last her spirit overcame her fear.
"At the least I will see with mine own eyes," she said.
"It is well," I answered. Then, stones having been piled up by me and the eunuch who was with us on a certain spot at the base of the pyramid, to somewhat more than the height of a man, I climbed on them and searched for the secret mark, no larger than a leaf. I found it with some trouble, for the weather and the rubbing of the wind-stirred sand had worn even the Ethiopian stone. Having found it, I pressed on it with all my strength in a certain fashion. Even after the lapse of many years the stone swung round, showing a little opening, through which a man might scarcely creep. As it swung, a mighty bat, white in colour as though with unreckoned age, and such as I had never seen before for bigness, for his measure was the measure of a hawk, flew forth and for a moment hovered over Cleopatra, then sailed slowly up and up in circles, till at last he was lost in the bright light of the moon.
But Cleopatra uttered a cry of terror, and the eunuch, who was watching, fell down in fear, believing it to be the guardian Spirit of the pyramid. And I, too, feared, though I said nothing. For even now I believe that it was the Spirit of Menkau-ra, the Osirian, who, taking the form of a bat, flew forth from his holy House in warning.
I waited a while, till the foul air should clear from the passage. Then I drew out the lamps, kindled them, and passed them, to the number of three, into the entrance of the passage. This done, I went to the eunuch, and, taking him aside, I swore him by the living spirit of Him who sleeps at Abouthis that he should not reveal those things which he was about to see.
This he swore, trembling sorely, for he was very much afraid. Nor, indeed, did he reveal them.
This done, I clambered through the opening, taking with me a coil of rope, which I wound around my middle, and beckoned to Cleopatra to come. Making fast the skirt of her robe, she came, and I drew her through the opening, so that at length she stood behind me in the passage which is lined with slabs of granite. After her came the eunuch, and he also stood in the passage. Then, having taken counsel of the plan of the passage that I had brought with me, and which, in signs that none but the initiated can read, was copied from those ancient writings that had come down to me through one-and-forty generations of my predecessors, the Priests of this Pyramid of Her, and of the worship of the Temple of the Divine Menkau-ra, the Osirian, I led the way through that darksome place towards the utter silence of the tomb. Guided by the feeble light of our lamps, we passed down the steep incline, gasping in the heat and the thick, stagnated air. Presently we had left the region of the masonry and were slipping down a gallery hewn in the living rock. For twenty paces or more it ran steeply. Then its slope lessened and shortly we found ourselves in a chamber painted white, so low that I, being tall, had scarcely room to stand; but in length four paces, and in breadth three, and cased throughout with sculptured panels. Here Cleopatra sank upon the floor and rested awhile, overcome by the heat and the utter darkness.