"Rise!" I said. "We must not linger here, or we faint."
So she rose, and passing hand in hand through that chamber, we found ourselves face to face with a mighty door of granite, let down from the roof in grooves. Once more I took counsel of the plan, pressed with my foot upon a certain stone, and waited. Then, suddenly and softly, I know not by what means, the mass heaved itself from its bed of living rock. We passed beneath, and found ourselves face to face with a second door of granite. Again I pressed on a certain spot, and this door swung wide of itself, and we went through, to find ourselves face to face with a third door, yet more mighty than the two through which we had won our way. Following the secret plan, I struck this door with my foot upon a certain spot, and it sank slowly as though at a word of magic till its head was level with the floor of rock. We crossed and gained another passage which, descending gently for a length of fourteen paces, led us into a great chamber, paved with black marble, more than nine cubits high, by nine cubits broad, and thirty cubits long. In this marble floor was sunk a great sarcophagus of granite, and on its lid were graved the name and titles of the Queen of Menkau-ra. In this chamber, too, the air was purer, though I know not by what means it came thither.
"Is the treasure here?" gasped Cleopatra.
"Nay," I answered; "follow me," and I led the way to a gallery, which we entered through an opening in the floor of the great chamber. It had been closed by a trap-door of stone, but the door was open. Creeping along this shaft, or passage, for some ten paces, we came at length to a well, seven cubits in depth. Making fast one end of the rope that I had brought about my body and the other to a ring in the rock, I was lowered, holding the lamp in my hand, till I stood in the last resting-place of the Divine Menkau-ra. Then the rope was drawn up, and Cleopatra, being made fast to it, was let down by the eunuch, and I received her in my arms. But I bade the eunuch, sorely against his will, since he feared to be left alone, await our return at the mouth of the shaft. For it was not lawful that he should enter whither we went.
OF THE TOMB OF THE DIVINE MENKAU-RA; OF THE WRITING ON THE BREAST OF MENKAU-RA; OF THE DRAWING FORTH OF THE TREASURE; OF THE DWELLER IN THE TOMB; AND OF THE FLIGHT OF CLEOPATRA AND HARMACHIS FROM THE HOLY PLACE
We stood within a small arched chamber, paved and lined with great blocks of the granite stone of Syene. There before us—hewn from a single mass of basalt shaped like a wooden house and resting on a sphinx with a face of gold—was the sarcophagus of the Divine Menkau-ra.
We stood and gazed in awe, for the weight of the silence and the solemnity of that holy place seemed to crush us. Above us, cubit over cubit in its mighty measure, the pyramid towered up to heaven and was kissed of the night air. But we were deep in the bowels of the rock beneath its base. We were alone with the dead, whose rest we were about to break; and no sound of the murmuring air, and no sight of life came to dull the awful edge of solitude. I gazed on the sarcophagus; its heavy lid had been lifted and rested at its side, and around it the dust of ages had gathered thick.
"See," I whispered, pointing to a writing, daubed with pigment upon the wall in the sacred symbols of ancient times.
"Read it, Harmachis," answered Cleopatra, in the same low voice; "for I cannot."
Then I read: "I, Rameses Mi-amen, in my day and in my hour of need, visited this sepulchre. But, though great my need and bold my heart, I dared not face the curse of Menkau-ra. Judge, O thou who shalt come after me, and, if thy soul is pure and Khem be utterly distressed, take thou that which I have left."
"Where, then, is the treasure?" she whispered. "Is that Sphinx-face of gold?"
"Even there," I answered, pointing to the sarcophagus. "Draw near and see."
And she took my hand and drew near.
The cover was off, but the painted coffin of the Pharaoh lay in the depths of the sarcophagus. We climbed the Sphinx, then I blew the dust from the coffin with my breath and read that which was written on its lid. And this was written:
"Pharaoh Menkau-ra, the Child of Heaven.
"Pharaoh Menkau-ra, Royal Son of the Sun.
"Pharaoh Menkau-ra, who didst lie beneath the heart of Nout.
"Nout, thy Mother, wraps thee in the spell of Her holy name.
"The name of thy Mother, Nout, is the mystery of Heaven.
"Nout, thy Mother, gathers thee to the number of the Gods.
"Nout, thy Mother, breathes on thy foes and utterly destroys them.
"O Pharaoh Menkau-ra, who livest for ever!"
"Where, then, is the treasure?" she asked again. "Here, indeed, is the body of the Divine Menkau-ra; but the flesh even of Pharaohs is not gold, and if the face of this Sphinx be gold how may we move it?"
For answer I bade her stand upon the Sphinx and grasp the upper part of the coffin while I grasped its foot. Then, at my word, we lifted, and the lid of the case, which was not fixed, came away, and we set it upon the floor. And there in the case was the mummy of Pharaoh, as it had been laid three thousand years before. It was a large mummy, and somewhat ungainly. Nor was it adorned with a gilded mask, as is the fashion of our day, for the head was wrapped in clothes yellow with age, which were made fast with pink flaxen bandages, under which were pushed the stems of lotus-blooms. And on the breast, wreathed round with lotus-flowers, lay a large plate of gold closely written over with sacred writing. I lifted up the plate, and, holding it to the light, I read:
"I, Menkau-ra, the Osirian, aforetime Pharaoh of the Land of Khem, who in my day did live justly and ever walked in the path marked for my feet by the decree of the Invisible, who was the beginning and is the end, speak from my tomb to those who after me shall for an hour sit upon my Throne. Behold, I, Menkau-ra, the Osirian, having in the days of my life been warned of a dream that a time will come when Khem shall fear to fall into the hands of strangers, and her monarch shall have great need of treasure wherewith to furnish armies to drive the barbarian back, have out of my wisdom done this thing. For it having pleased the protecting Gods to give me wealth beyond any Pharaoh who has been since the days of Horus—thousands of cattle and geese, thousands of calves and asses, thousands of measures of corn, and hundreds of measures of gold and gems; this wealth I have used sparingly, and that which remains I have bartered for precious stones—even for emeralds, the most beautiful and largest that are in the world. These stones, then, I have stored up against that day of the need of Khem. But because as there have been, so there shall be, those who do wickedly on the earth, and who, in the lust of gain, might seize this wealth that I have stored, and put it to their uses; behold, thou Unborn One, who in the fulness of time shalt stand above me and read this that I have caused to be written, I have stored the treasure thus—even among my bones. Therefore, O thou Unborn One, sleeping in the womb of Nout, I say this to thee! If thou indeed hast need of riches to save Khem from the foes of Khem, fear not and delay not, but tear me, the Osirian, from my tomb, loose my wrappings and rip the treasure from my breast, and all shall be well with thee; for this only I do command, that thou dost replace my bones within my hollow coffin. But if the need be passing and not great, or if there be guile in thy heart, then the curse of Menkau-ra be on thee! On thee be the curse that shall smite him who breaks in upon the dead! On thee be the curse that follows the traitor! On thee be the curse that smites him who outrages the Majesty of the Gods! Unhappy shalt thou live, in blood and misery shalt thou die, and in misery shalt thou be tormented for ever and for ever! For, Wicked One, there in Amenti we shall come face to face!
"And to the end of the keeping of this secret, I, Menkau-ra, have set up a Temple of my Worship, which I have built upon the eastern side of this my House of Death. It shall be made known from time to time to the Hereditary High Priest of this my Temple. And if any High Priest that shall be do reveal this secret to another than the Pharaoh, or Her who wears the Pharaoh's crown and is seated upon the throne of Khem, accursed be he also. Thus have I, Menkau-ra, the Osirian, written. Now to thee, who, sleeping in the womb of Nout, yet shall upon a time stand over me and read, I say, judge thou! and if thou judgest evilly, on thee shall fall this the curse of Menkau-ra from which there is no escape. Greeting and farewell."
"Thou hast heard, O Cleopatra," I said solemnly; "now search thy heart; judge thou, and for thine own sake judge justly."
She bent her head in thought.
"I fear to do this thing," she said presently. "Let us hence."
"It is well," I said, with a lightening of the heart, and bent down to lift the wooden lid. For I, too, feared.
"And yet, what said the writing of the Divine Menkau-ra?—it was emeralds, was it not? And emeralds are now so rare and hard to come by. Ever did I love emeralds, and I can never find them without a flaw."
"It is not a matter of what thou dost love, Cleopatra," I said; "it is a matter of the need of Khem and of the secret meaning of thy heart, which thou alone canst know."
"Ay, surely, Harmachis; surely! And is not the need of Egypt great? There is no gold in the treasury, and how can I defy the Roman if I have no gold? And have I not sworn to thee that I will wed thee and defy the Roman; and do I not swear it again—yes, even in this solemn hour, with my hand upon dead Pharaoh's heart? Why, here is that occasion of which the Divine Menkau-ra dreamed. Thou seest it is so, for else Hat-shepsu or Rameses or some other Pharaoh had drawn forth the gems. But no; they left them to come to this hour because the time was not yet come. Now it must be come, for if I take not the gems the Roman will surely seize on Egypt, and then there will be no Pharaoh to whom the secret may be told. Nay, let us away with fears and to the work. Why dost look so frightened? Having pure hearts, there is naught to fear, Harmachis."
"Even as thou wilt," I said again; "it is for thee to judge, since if thou judgest falsely on thee will surely fall the curse from which there is no escape."
"So, Harmachis, take Pharaoh's head and I will take his——Oh, what an awful place is this!" and suddenly she clung to me. "Methought I saw a shadow yonder in the darkness! Methought that it moved toward us and then straightway vanished! Let us be going! Didst thou see naught?"
"I saw nothing, Cleopatra; but mayhap it was the Spirit of the Divine Menkau-ra, for the spirit ever hovers round its mortal tenement. Let us, then, be going; I shall be right glad to go."
She made as though to start, then turned back again and spoke once more.
"It was naught—naught but the mind that, in such a house of Horror, bodies forth those shadowy forms of fear it dreads to see. Nay, I must look upon these emeralds; indeed, if I die, I must look! Come—to the work!" and stooping, she with her own hands lifted from the tomb one of the four alabaster jars, each sealed with the graven likeness of the heads of the protecting Gods, that held the holy heart and entrails of the Divine Menkau-ra. But nothing was found in these jars, save only what should be there.
Then together we mounted on the Sphinx, and with toil drew forth the body of the Divine Pharaoh, laying it on the ground. Now Cleopatra took my dagger, and with it cut loose the bandages which held the wrappings in their place, and the lotus-flowers that had been set in them by loving hands, three thousand years before, fell down upon the pavement. Then we searched and found the end of the outer bandage, which was fixed in at the hinder part of the neck. This we cut loose, for it was glued fast. This done, we began to unroll the wrappings of the holy corpse. Setting my shoulders against the sarcophagus, I sat upon the rocky floor, the body resting on my knees, and, as I turned it, Cleopatra unwound the cloths; and awesome was the task. Presently something fell out; it was the sceptre of the Pharaoh, fashioned of gold, and at its end was a pomegranate cut from a single emerald.
Cleopatra seized the sceptre and gazed on it in silence. Then once more we went on with our dread business. And ever as we unwound, other ornaments of gold, such as are buried with Pharaohs, fell from the wrappings—collars and bracelets, models of sistra, an inlaid axe, and an image of the holy Osiris and of the holy Khem. At length all the bandages were unwound, and beneath we found a covering of coarsest linen; for in those very ancient days the craftsmen were not so skilled in matters pertaining to the embalming of the body as they are now. And on the linen was written in an oval, "Menkau-ra, Royal Son of the Sun." We could in no wise loosen this linen, it held so firm on to the body. Therefore, faint with the great heat, choked with mummy dust and the odour of spices, and trembling with fear of our unholy task, wrought in that most lonesome and holy place, we laid the body down, and ripped away the last covering with the knife. First we cleared Pharaoh's head, and now the face that no man had gazed on for three thousand years was open to our view. It was a great face, with a bold brow, yet crowned with the royal uraeus, beneath which the white locks, stained yellow by the spices, fell in long, straight wisps. Not the cold stamp of death, and not the slow flight of three thousand years, had found power to mar the dignity of those shrunken features. We gazed on them, and then, made bold with fear, stripped the covering from the body. There at last it lay before us, stiff, yellow, and dread to see; and on the left side, above the thigh, was the cut through which the embalmers had done their work, but it was sewn up so deftly that we could scarcely find the mark.
"The gems are within," I whispered, for I felt that the body was very heavy. "Now, if thy heart fail thee not, thou must make an entry to this poor house of clay that once was Pharaoh," and I gave her the dagger—the same dagger which had drunk the life of Paulus.
"It is too late to doubt," she answered, lifting her white beauteous face and fixing her blue eyes all big with terror upon my own. She took the dagger, and with set teeth the Queen of this day plunged it into the dead breast of the Pharaoh of three thousand years ago. And even as she did so there came a groaning sound from the opening to the shaft where we had left the eunuch! We leapt to our feet, but heard no more, and the lamp-light still streamed down through the opening.
"It is nothing," I said. "Let us make an end."
Then with much toil we hacked and rent the hard flesh open, and as we did so I heard the knife point grate upon the gems within.
Cleopatra plunged her hand into the dead breast and drew forth somewhat. She held it to the light, and gave a little cry, for from the darkness of Pharaoh's heart there flashed into light and life the most beauteous emerald that ever man beheld. It was perfect in colour, very large, without a flaw, and fashioned to a scarabaeus form, and on the under side was an oval, inscribed with the divine name of Menkau-ra, Son of the Sun.
Again, again, and yet again, she plunged in her hand and drew emeralds from Pharaoh's breast bedded there in spices. Some were fashioned and some were not; but all were perfect in colour without a flaw, and in value priceless. Again and again she plunged her white hand into that dread breast, till at length all were found, and there were one hundred and forty and eight of such gems as are not known in the world. The last time that she searched she brought forth not emeralds, indeed, but two great pearls, wrapped in linen, such as never have been seen. And of these pearls more hereafter.
So it was done, and all the mighty treasure lay glittering in a heap before us. There it lay, and there, too, lay the regalia of gold, the spiced and sickly-scented wrappings, and the torn body of white-haired Pharaoh Menkau-ra, the Osirian, the ever living in Amenti.
We rose, and a great awe fell upon us, now that the deed was done and our hearts were no more upborne by the rage of search—so great an awe, indeed, that we could not speak. I made a sign to Cleopatra. She grasped the head of Pharaoh and I grasped his feet, and together we lifted him, climbed the Sphinx, and placed him once more within his coffin. I piled the torn mummy cloths over him and on them laid the lid of the coffin.
And now we gathered up the great gems, and such of the ornaments as might be carried with ease, and I hid them as many as I could, in the folds of my robe. Those that were left Cleopatra hid upon her breast. Heavily laden with the priceless treasure, we gave one last look at the solemn place, at the sarcophagus and the Sphinx on which it rested, whose gleaming face of calm seemed to mock us with its everlasting smile of wisdom. Then we turned and went from the tomb.
At the shaft we halted. I called to the eunuch, who stayed above, and methought a faint mocking laugh answered me. Too smitten with terror to call again, and fearing that, should we delay, Cleopatra would certainly swoon, I seized the rope, and being strong and quick mounted by it and gained the passage. There burnt the lamp: but the eunuch I saw not. Thinking, surely, that he was a little way down the passage, and slept—as, in truth, he did—I bade Cleopatra make the rope fast about her middle, and with much labour, drew her up. Then, having rested awhile, we moved with the lamps to seek for the eunuch.
"He was stricken with terror and has fled, leaving the lamp," said Cleopatra. "O ye Gods! who is that seated there?"
I peered into the darkness, thrusting out the lamps, and this was what their light fell on—this at the very dream of which my soul sickens! There, facing us, his back resting against the rock, and his hands splayed on either side upon the floor, sat the eunuch—dead! His eyes and mouth were open, his fat cheeks dropped down, his thin hair yet seemed to bristle, and on his countenance was frozen such a stamp of hideous terror as well might turn the beholder's brain. And lo! fixed to his chin, by its hinder claws, hung that grey and mighty bat, which, flying forth when we entered the pyramid, vanished in the sky, but, returning, had followed us to its depths. There it hung upon the dead man's chin slowly rocking itself to and fro, and we could see the fiery eyes shining in its head.
Aghast, utterly aghast, we stood and stared at the hateful sight; till presently the bat spread his huge wings and, losing his hold, sailed to us. Now he hovered before Cleopatra's face, fanning her with his white wings. Then with a scream, like a woman's shriek of fury, the accursed Thing flittered on, seeking his violated tomb, and vanished down the well into the sepulchre. I fell against the wall. But Cleopatra sank in a heap upon the floor, and, covering her head with her arms, she shrieked till the hollow passages rang with the echoes of her cries, that seemed to grow and double and rush along the depths in volumes of shrill sound.
"Rise!" I cried, "rise and let us hence before the Spirit shall return to haunt us! If thou dost suffer thyself to be overwhelmed in this place thou art lost for ever."
She staggered to her feet, and never may I forget the look upon her ashy face or in her glowing eyes. Seizing lamps with a rush, we passed the dead eunuch's horrid form, I holding her by the hand. We gained the great chamber, where was the sarcophagus of the Queen of Menkau-ra, and traversed its length. We fled along the passage. What if the Thing had closed the three mighty doors? No; they were open, and we sped through them; the last only did I stay to close. I touched the stone, as I knew how, and the great door crashed down, shutting us off from the presence of the dead eunuch and the Horror that had hung upon the eunuch's chin. Now we were in the white chamber with the sculptured panels, and now we faced the last steep ascent. Oh that last ascent! Twice Cleopatra slipped and fell upon the polished floor. The second time—it was when half the distance had been done—she let fall her lamp, and would, indeed, have rolled down the slide had I not saved her. But in doing thus I, too, let fall my lamp that bounded away into shadow beneath us, and we were in utter darkness. And perchance about us, in the darkness, hovered that awful Thing!
"Be brave!" I cried; "O love, be brave, and struggle on, or both are lost! The way, though steep, is not far; and, though it be dark, we can scarce come to harm in this straight shaft. If the gems weight thee, cast them away!"
"Nay," she gasped, "that I will not; this shall not be endured to no end. I die with them!"
Then it was that I saw the greatness of this woman's heart; for in the dark, and notwithstanding the terrors we had passed and the awfulness of our state, she clung to me and clambered on up that dread passage. On we clambered, hand in hand, with bursting hearts, till there, by the mercy or the anger of the Gods, at length we saw the faint light of the moon, creeping through the little opening in the pyramid. One struggle more, now the hole was gained, and like a breath from heaven, the sweet night air played upon our brows. I climbed through, and, standing on a pile of stones, lifted and dragged Cleopatra after me. She fell to the ground and then sank down upon it motionless.
I pressed upon the turning stone with trembling hands. It swung to and caught, leaving no mark of the secret place of entry. Then I leapt down and, having pushed away the pile of stones, looked on Cleopatra. She had swooned, and notwithstanding the dust and grime upon her face, it was so pale that at first I believed she must be dead. But placing my hand upon her heart I felt it stir beneath; and, being spent, I flung myself down beside her upon the sand, to gather up my strength again.
OF THE COMING BACK OF HARMACHIS; OF THE GREETING OF CHARMION; AND OF THE ANSWER OF CLEOPATRA TO QUINTUS DELLIUS, THE AMBASSADOR OF ANTONY THE TRIUMVIR
Presently I lifted myself, and, laying the head of Egypt's Queen upon my knee, strove to call her back to life. How fair she seemed, even in her disarray, her long hair streaming down her breast! how deadly fair she seemed in the faint light—this woman the story of whose beauty and whose sin shall outlive the solid mass of the mighty pyramid that towered over us! The heaviness of her swoon had smoothed away the falseness of her face, and nothing was left but the divine stamp of Woman's richest loveliness, softened by shadows of the night and dignified by the cast of deathlike sleep. I gazed upon her and all my heart went out to her; it seemed that I did but love her more because of the depth of the treasons to which I had sunk to reach her, and because of the terrors we had outfaced together. Weary and spent with fears and the pangs of guilt, my heart sought hers for rest, for now she alone was left to me. She had sworn to wed me also, and with the treasure we had won we would make Egypt strong and free her from her foes, and all should yet be well. Ah! could I have seen the picture that was to come, how, and in what place and circumstance, once again this very woman's head should be laid upon my knee, pale with that cast of death! Ah! could I have seen!
I chafed her hand between my hands. I bent down and kissed her on the lips, and at my kiss she woke. She woke with a little sob of fear—a shiver ran along her delicate limbs, and she stared upon my face with wide eyes.
"Ah! it is thou!" she said. "I mind me—thou hast saved me from that horror-haunted place!" And she threw her arms about my neck, drew me to her and kissed me. "Come, love," she said, "let us be going! I am sore athirst, and—ah! so very weary! The gems, too, chafe my breast! Never was wealth so hardly won! Come, let us be going from the shadow of this ghostly spot! See the faint lights glancing from the wings of Dawn. How beautiful they are, and how sweet to behold! Never, in those Halls of Eternal Night, did I think to look upon the blush of dawn again! Ah! I can still see the face of that dead slave, with the Horror hanging to his beardless chin! Bethink thee!—there he'll sit for ever—there—with the Horror! Come; where may we find water? I would give an emerald for a cup of water!"
"At the canal on the borders of the tilled land below the Temple of Horemkhu—it is close by," I answered. "If any see us, we will say that we are pilgrims who have lost our way at night among the tombs. Veil thyself closely, therefore, Cleopatra; and beware lest thou dost show aught of those gems about thee."
So she veiled herself, and I lifted her on to the ass which was tethered near at hand. We walked slowly through the plain till we came to the place where the symbol of the God Horemkhu,[*] fashioned as a mighty Sphinx (whom the Greeks call Harmachis), and crowned with the royal crown of Egypt, looks out in majesty across the land, his eyes ever fixed upon the East. As we walked the first arrow of the rising sun quivered through the grey air, striking upon Horemkhu's lips of holy calm, and the Dawn kissed her greeting to the God of Dawn. Then the light gathered and grew upon the gleaming sides of twenty pyramids, and, like a promise from Life to Death, rested on the portals of ten thousand tombs. It poured in a flood of gold across the desert sand—it pierced the heavy sky of night, and fell in bright beams upon the green of fields and the tufted crest of palms. Then from his horizon bed royal Ra rose up in pomp and it was day.
[*] That is, "Horus on the horizon"; and signifies the power of Light and Good overcoming the power of Darkness and Evil incarnate in his enemy, Typhon.—Editor.
Passing the temple of granite and of alabaster that was built before the days of Khufu, to the glory of the Majesty of Horemkhu, we descended the slope, and came to the banks of the canal. There we drank; and that draught of muddy water was sweeter than all the choicest wine of Alexandria. Also we washed the mummy dust and grime from our hands and brows and made us clean. As she bathed her neck, stooping over the water, one of the great emeralds slipped from Cleopatra's breast and fell into the canal, and it was but by chance that at length I found it in the mire. Then, once more, I lifted Cleopatra onto the beast, and slowly, for I was very weary, we marched back to the banks of Sihor, where our craft was. And having at length come thither, seeing no one save some few peasants going out to labour on the lands, I turned the ass loose in that same field where we had found him, and we boarded the craft while the crew were yet sleeping. Then, waking them, we bade them make all sail, saying that we had left the eunuch to sojourn a while behind us, as in truth we had. So we sailed, having first hidden away the gems and such of the ornaments of gold as we could bring to the boat.
We spent four days and more in coming to Alexandria, for the wind was for the most part against us; and they were happy days! At first, indeed, Cleopatra was somewhat silent and heavy at heart, for what she had seen and felt in the womb of the pyramid weighed her down. But soon her Imperial spirit awoke and shook the burden from her breast, and she became herself again—now gay, now learned; now loving, and now cold; now queenly, and now altogether simple—ever changing as the winds of heaven, and as the heaven, deep, beauteous, and unsearchable!
Night after night for those four perfect nights, the last happy hours I ever was to know, we sat hand in hand upon the deck and heard the waters lap the vessel's side, and watched the soft footfall of the moon as she trod the depths of Nile. There we sat and talked of love, talked of our marriage and all that we would do. Also I drew up plans of war and of defence against the Roman, which now we had the means to carry out; and she approved them, sweetly saying that what seemed good to me was good to her. And so the time passed all too swiftly.
Oh those nights upon the Nile! their memory haunts me yet! Yet in my dreams I see the moonbeams break and quiver, and hear Cleopatra's murmured words of love mingle with the sound of murmuring waters. Dead are those dear nights, dead is the moon that lit them; the waters which rocked us on their breast are lost in the wide salt sea, and where we kissed and clung there lips unborn shall kiss and cling! How beautiful was their promise, doomed, like an unfruitful blossom, to wither, fall, and rot! and their fulfilment, ah, how drear! For all things end in darkness and in ashes, and those who sow in folly shall reap in sorrow. Ah! those nights upon the Nile!
And so at length once more we stood within the hateful walls of that fair palace on the Lochias, and the dream was done.
"Whither hast thou wandered with Cleopatra, Harmachis?" Charmion asked of me when I met her by chance on that day of return. "On some new mission of betrayal? Or was it but a love-journey?"
"I went with Cleopatra upon secret business of the State," I answered sternly.
"So! Those who go secretly, go evilly; and foul birds love to fly at night. Not but what thou art wise, for it would scarce beseem thee, Harmachis, to show thy face openly in Egypt."
I heard, and felt my passion rise within me, for I could ill bear this fair girl's scorn.
"Hast thou never a word without a sting?" I asked. "Know, then, that I went whither thou hadst not dared to go, to gather means to hold Egypt from the grasp of Antony."
"So," she answered, looking up swiftly. "Thou foolish man! Thou hadst done better to save thy labour, for Antony will grasp Egypt in thy despite. What power hast thou to-day in Egypt?"
"That he may do in my despite; but in despite of Cleopatra that he cannot do," I said.
"Nay, but with the aid of Cleopatra he can and will do it," she answered with a bitter smile. "When the Queen sails in state up Cydnus stream she will surely draw this coarse Antony thence to Alexandria, conquering, and yet, like thee, a slave!"
"It is false! I say that it is false! Cleopatra goes not to Tarsus, and Antony comes not to Alexandria; or, if he come, it will be to take the chance of war."
"Now, thinkest thou thus?" she answered with a little laugh. "Well, if it please thee, think as thou wilt. Within three days thou shalt know. It is pretty to see how easily thou art fooled. Farewell! Go, dream on Love, for surely Love is sweet."
And she went, leaving me angered and troubled at heart.
I saw Cleopatra no more that day, but on the day which followed I saw her. She was in a heavy mood, and had no gentle word for me. I spake to her of the defence of Egypt, but she put the matter away.
"Why dost thou weary me?" she said with anger; "canst thou not see that I am lost in troubles? When Dellius has had his answer to-morrow then we will speak of these matters."
"Ay," I said, "when Dellius has had his answer; and knowest thou that but yesterday, Charmion—whom about the palace they name the 'Keeper of the Queen's secrets'—Charmion swore that the answer would be 'Go in peace, I come to Antony!'"
"Charmion knows nothing of my heart," said Cleopatra, stamping her foot in anger, "and if she talk so freely the girl shall be scourged out of my Court, as is her desert. Though, in truth," she added, "she has more wisdom in that small head of hers than all my privy councillors—ay, and more wit to use it. Knowest thou that I have sold a portion of those gems to the rich Jews of Alexandria, and at a great price, ay, at five thousand sestertia for each one?[*] But a few, in truth, for they could not buy more as yet. It was rare to see their eyes when they fell upon them: they grew large as apples with avarice and wonder. And now leave me, Harmachis, for I am weary. The memory of that dreadful night is with me yet."
[*] About forty thousand pounds of our money.—Editor.
I bowed and rose to go, and yet stood wavering.
"Pardon me, Cleopatra; it is of our marriage."
"Our marriage! Why, are we not indeed already wed?" she answered.
"Yes; but not before the world. Thou didst promise."
"Ay, Harmachis, I promised; and to-morrow, when I have rid me of this Dellius, I will keep my promise, and name thee Cleopatra's Lord before the Court. See that thou art in thy place. Art content?"
And she stretched out her hand for me to kiss, looking on me with strange eyes, as though she struggled with herself. Then I went; but that night I strove once more to see Cleopatra, and could not. "The Lady Charmion was with the Queen," so said the eunuchs, and none might enter.
On the morrow the Court met in the great hall one hour before mid-day, and I went thither with a trembling heart to hear Cleopatra's answer to Dellius, and to hear myself also named King-consort to the Queen of Egypt. It was a full and splendid Court; there were councillors, lords, captains, eunuchs, and waiting-women, all save Charmion. The house passed, but Cleopatra and Charmion came not. At length Charmion entered gently by a side entrance, and took her place among the waiting-ladies about the throne. Even as she did so she cast a glance at me, and there was triumph in her eyes, though I knew not over what she triumphed. I little guessed that she had but now brought about my ruin and sealed the fate of Egypt.
Then presently the trumpets blared, and, clad in her robes of state, the uraeus crown upon her head, and on her breast, flashing like a star, that great emerald scarabaeus which she had dragged from dead Pharaoh's heart, Cleopatra swept in splendour to her throne, followed by a glittering guard of Northmen. Her lovely face was dark, dark were her slumbrous eyes, and none might read their message, though all that Court searched them for a sign of what should come. She seated herself slowly as one who may not be moved, and spoke to the chief of the heralds in the Greek tongue:
"Does the Ambassador of the noble Antony wait?"
The herald bowed low and made assent.
"Let him come in and hear our answer."
The doors were flung wide, and, followed by his train of knights, Dellius, clad in his golden armour and his purple mantle, walked with cat-like step up the great hall, and made obeisance before the throne.
"Most royal and beauteous Egypt," he said, in his soft voice, "as thou hast graciously been pleased to bid me, thy servant, I am here to take thy answer to the letter of the noble Antony the Triumvir, whom to-morrow I sail to meet at Tarsus, in Cilicia. And I will say this, royal Egypt, craving pardon the while for the boldness of my speech—bethink thee well before words that cannot be unspoken fall from those sweet lips. Defy Antony, and Antony will wreck thee. But, like thy mother Aphrodite, rise glorious on his sight from the bosom of the Cyprian wave, and for wreck he will give thee all that can be dear to woman's royalty—Empire, and pomp of place, cities and the sway of men, fame and wealth, and the Diadem of rule made sure. For mark: Antony holds this Eastern World in the hollow of his warlike hand; at his will kings are, and at his frown they cease to be."
And he bowed his head and, folding his hands meekly on his breast, awaited answer.
For a while Cleopatra answered not, but sat like the Sphinx Horemkhu, dumb and inscrutable, gazing with lost eyes down the length of that great hall.
Then, like soft music, her answer came; and trembling I listened for Egypt's challenge to the Roman:
"Noble Dellius,—We have bethought us much of the matter of thy message from great Antony to our poor Royalty of Egypt. We have bethought us much, and we have taken counsel from the oracles of the Gods, from the wisest among our friends, and from the teachings of our heart, that ever, like a nesting bird, broods over our people's weal. Sharp are the words that thou has brought across the sea; methinks they had been better fitted to the ears of some petty half-tamed prince than to those of Egypt's Queen. Therefore we have numbered the legions that we can gather, and the triremes and the galleys wherewith we may breast the sea, and the moneys which shall buy us all things wanting to our war. And we find this, that, though Antony be strong, yet has Egypt naught to fear from the strength of Antony."
She paused, and a murmur of applause of her high words ran down the hall. Only Dellius stretched out his hand as though to push them back. Then came the end!
"Noble Dellius,—Half are we minded there to bid our tongue stop, and, strong in our fortresses of stone, and our other fortresses built of the hearts of men, abide the issue. And yet thou shalt not go thus. We are guiltless of those charges against us that have come to the ears of noble Antony, and which now he rudely shouts in ours; nor will we journey into Cilicia to answer them."
Here the murmur arose anew, while my heart beat high in triumph; and in the pause that followed, Dellius spoke once more.
"Then, royal Egypt, my word to Antony is word of War?"
"Nay," she answered; "it shall be one of Peace. Listen; we said that we would not come to make answer to these charges, nor will we. But"—and she smiled for the first time—"we will gladly come, and that swiftly, in royal friendship to make known our fellowship of peace upon the banks of Cydnus."
I heard, and was bewildered. Could I hear aright? Was it thus that Cleopatra kept her oaths? Moved beyond the hold of reason, I lifted up my voice and cried:
"O Queen, remember!"
She turned upon me like a lioness, with a flashing of the eyes and a swift shake of her lovely head.
"Peace, Slave!" she said; "who bade thee break in upon our counsels? Mind thou thy stars, and leave matters of the world to the rulers of the world!"
I sank back shamed, and, as I did so, once more I saw the smile of triumph on the face of Charmion, followed by what was, perhaps, the shadow of pity for my fall.
"Now that yon brawling charlatan," said Dellius, pointing at me with his jewelled finger, "has been rebuked, grant me leave, O Egypt, to thank thee from my heart for these gentle words——"
"We ask no thanks from thee, noble Dellius; nor lies it in thy mouth to chide our servant," broke in Cleopatra, frowning heavily; "we will take thanks from the lips of Antony alone. Get thee to thy master, and say to him that before he can make ready a fitting welcome our keels shall follow in the track of thine. And now, farewell! Thou shalt find some small token of our bounty upon thy vessel."
Dellius bowed thrice and withdrew, while the Court stood waiting the Queen's word. And I, too, waited, wondering if she would yet make good her promise, and name me royal Spouse there in the face of Egypt. But she said nothing. Only, still frowning heavily, she rose, and, followed by her guards, left the throne, and passed into the Alabaster Hall. Then the Court broke up, and as the lords and councillors went by they looked on me with mockery. For though none knew all my secret, nor how it stood between me and Cleopatra, yet they were jealous of the favour shown me by the Queen, and rejoiced greatly at my fall. But I took no heed of their mocking as I stood dazed with misery and felt the world of Hope slip from beneath my feet.
OF THE REPROACH OF HARMACHIS; OF THE STRUGGLE OF HARMACHIS WITH THE GUARDS; OF THE BLOW OF BRENNUS; AND OF THE SECRET SPEECH OF CLEOPATRA
And at length, all being gone, I, too, turned to go, when a eunuch struck me on the shoulder and roughly bade me wait on the presence of the Queen. An hour past this fellow would have crawled to me on his knees; but he had heard, and now he treated me—so brutish is the nature of such slaves—as the world treats the fallen, with scorn. For to come low after being great is to learn all shame. Unhappy, therefore, are the Great, for they may fall!
I turned upon the slave with so fierce a word that, cur-like, he sprang behind me; then I passed on to the Alabaster Hall, and was admitted by the guards. In the centre of the hall, near the fountain, sat Cleopatra, and with her were Charmion and the Greek girl Iras, and Merira and other of her waiting-ladies. "Go," she said to these, "I would speak with my astrologer." So they went, and left us face to face.
"Stand thou there," she said, lifting her eyes for the first time. "Come not nigh me, Harmachis: I trust thee not. Perchance thou hast found another dagger. Now, what hast thou to say? By what right didst thou dare to break in upon my talk with the Roman?"
I felt the blood rush through me like a storm; bitterness and burning anger took hold of my heart. "What hast thou to say, Cleopatra?" I answered boldly. "Where is thy vow, sworn on the dead heart of Menkau-ra, the ever-living? Where now thy challenge to this Roman Antony? Where thy oath that thou wouldest call me 'husband' in the face of Egypt?" and I choked and ceased.
"Well doth it become Harmachis, who never was forsworn, to speak to me of oaths!" she said in bitter mockery. "And yet, O thou most pure Priest of Isis; and yet, O thou most faithful friend, who never didst betray thy friends; and yet, O thou most steadfast, honourable, and upright man, who never bartered thy birthright, thy country, and thy cause for the price of a woman's passing love—by what token knowest thou that my word is void?"
"I will not answer thy taunts, Cleopatra," I said, holding back my heart as best I might, "for I have earned them all, though not from thee. By this token, then, I know it. Thou goest to visit Antony; thou goest, as said that Roman knave, 'tricked in thy best attire,' to feast with him whom thou shouldst give to vultures for their feast. Perhaps, for aught I know, thou art about to squander those treasures that thou hast filched from the body of Menkau-ra, those treasures stored against the need of Egypt, upon wanton revels which shall complete the shame of Egypt. By these things, then, I know that thou art forsworn, and I, who, loving thee, believed thee, tricked; and by this, also, that thou who didst but yesternight swear to wed me, dost to-day cover me with taunts, and even before that Roman put me to an open shame!"
"To wed thee? and I did swear to wed thee? Well, and what is marriage? Is it the union of the heart, that bond beautiful as gossamer and than gossamer more light, which binds soul to soul, as they float through the dreamy night of passion, a bond to be, perchance, melted in the dews of dawn? Or is it the iron link of enforced, unchanging union whereby if sinks the one the other must be dragged beneath the sea of circumstance, there, like a punished slave, to perish of unavoidable corruption?[*] Marriage! I to marry! I to forget freedom and court the worst slavery of our sex, which, by the selfish will of man, the stronger, still binds us to a bed grown hateful, and enforces a service that love mayhap no longer hallows! Of what use, then, to be a Queen, if thereby I may not escape the evil of the meanly born? Mark thou, Harmachis: Woman being grown hath two ills to fear—Death and Marriage; and of these twain is Marriage the more vile; for in Death we may find rest, but in Marriage, should it fail us, we must find hell. Nay, being above the breath of common slander that enviously would blast those who of true virtue will not consent to stretch affection's links, I love, Harmachis; but I marry not!"
[*] Referring to the Roman custom of chaining a living felon to the body of one already dead.—Editor.
"And yesternight, Cleopatra, thou didst swear that thou wouldst wed me, and call me to thy side before the face of Egypt!"
"And yesternight, Harmachis, the red ring round the moon marked the coming of the storm, and yet the day is fair! But who knows that the tempest may not break to-morrow? Who knows that I have not chosen the easier path to save Egypt from the Roman? Who knows, Harmachis, that thou shalt not still call me wife?"
Then I no longer could bear her falsehood, for I saw that she but played with me. And so I spoke that which was in my heart:
"Cleopatra!" I cried, "thou didst swear to protect Egypt, and thou art about to betray Egypt to the Roman! Thou didst swear to use the treasures that I revealed to thee for the service of Egypt, and thou art about to use them to be her means of shame—to fashion them as fetters for her wrists! Thou didst swear to wed me, who loved thee, and for thee gave all, and thou dost mock me and reject me! Therefore I say—with the voice of the dread Gods I say it!—that on thee shall fall the curse of Menkau-ra, whom thou hast robbed indeed! Let me go hence and work out my fate! Let me go, O thou fair Shame! thou living Lie! whom I have loved to my doom, and who hast brought upon me the last curse of doom! Let me hide myself and see thy face no more!"
She rose in her wrath, and she was terrible to see.
"Let thee go to stir up evil against me! Nay, Harmachis, thou shalt not go to build new plots against my throne! I say to thee that thou, too, shalt come to visit Antony in Cilicia, and there, perchance, I will let thee go!" And ere I could answer, she had struck upon the silver gong that hung near her.
Before its rich echo had died away, Charmion and the waiting-women entered from one door, and from the other, a file of soldiers—four of them of the Queen's bodyguard, mighty men, with winged helmets and long fair hair.
"Seize that traitor!" cried Cleopatra, pointing to me. The captain of the guard—it was Brennus—saluted and came towards me with drawn sword.
But I, being mad and desperate, and caring little if they slew me, flew straight at his throat, and dealt him such a heavy blow that the great man fell headlong, and his armour clashed upon the marble floor. As he fell I seized his sword and targe, and, meeting the next, who rushed on me with a shout, caught his blow upon the shield, and in answer smote with all my strength. The sword fell where the neck is set into the shoulder, and, shearing through the joints of his harness, slew him, so that his knees were loosened and he sank down dead. And the third, as he came, I caught upon the point of my sword before he could strike, and it pierced him and he died. Then the last rushed on me with a cry of "Taranis!" and I, too, rushed on him, for my blood was aflame. Now the women shrieked—only Cleopatra said nothing, but stood and watched the unequal fray. We met, and I struck with all my strength, and it was a mighty blow, for the sword shore through the iron shell and shattered there, leaving me weaponless. With a shout of triumph the guard swung up his sword and smote down upon my head, but I caught the blow with my shield. Again he smote, and again I parried; but when he raised his sword a third time I saw this might not endure, so with a cry I hurled my buckler at his face. Glancing from his shield it struck him on the breast and staggered him. Then, before he could gain his balance, I rushed in beneath his guard and gripped him round the middle.
For a full minute the tall man and I struggled furiously, and then, so great was my strength in those days, I lifted him like a toy and dashed him down upon the marble floor in such fashion that his bones were shattered so that he spoke no more. But I could not save myself and fell upon him, and as I fell the Captain Brennus, whom I had smitten to earth with my fist, having once more found his sense, came up behind me and smote me upon the head and shoulders with the sword of one of those whom I had slain. But I being on the ground, the blow did not fall with all its weight, also my thick hair and broidered cap broke its force; and thus it came to pass that, though sorely wounded, the life was yet whole in me. But I could struggle no more.
Then the cowardly eunuchs, who had gathered at the sound of blows and stood huddled together like a herd of cattle, seeing that I was spent, threw themselves upon me, and would have butchered me with their knives. But Brennus, now that I was down, would strike no more, but stood waiting. And the eunuchs had surely slain me, for Cleopatra watched like one who watches in a dream and made no sign. Already my head was dragged back, and their knife-points were at my throat, when Charmion, rushing forward, threw herself upon me and, calling them "Dogs!" desperately thrust her body before them in such fashion that they could not smite. Now Brennus with an oath seized first one and then another and cast them from me.
"Spare his life, Queen!" he cried in his barbarous Latin. "By Jupiter, he is a brave man! Myself felled like an ox in the shambles, and three of my boys finished by a man without armour and taken unawares! I grudge them not to such a man! A boon, Queen! spare his life, and give him to me!"
"Ay, spare him! spare him!" cried Charmion, white and trembling.
Cleopatra drew near and looked upon the dead and him who lay dying as I had dashed him to the ground, and on me, her lover of two days gone, whose wounded head rested now on Charmion's white robes.
I met the Queen's glance. "Spare not!" I gasped; "vae victis!" Then a flush gathered on her brow—methinks it was a flush of shame!
"Dost after all love this man at heart, Charmion," she said with a little laugh, "that thou didst thrust thy tender body between him and the knives of these sexless hounds?" and she cast a look of scorn upon the eunuchs.
"Nay!" the girl answered fiercely; "but I cannot stand by to see a brave man murdered by such as these."
"Ay!" said Cleopatra, "he is a brave man, and he fought gallantly; I have never seen so fierce a fight even in the games at Rome! Well, I spare his life, though he is weak of me—womanish weak. Take him to his own chamber and guard him there till he is healed or—dead."
Then my brain reeled, a great sickness seized upon me, and I sank into the nothingness of a swoon.
Dreams, dreams, dreams! without end and ever-changing, as for years and years I seemed to toss upon a sea of agony. And through them a vision of a dark-eyed woman's tender face and the touch of a white hand soothing me to rest. Visions, too, of a royal countenance bending at times over my rocking bed—a countenance that I could not grasp, but whose beauty flowed through my fevered veins and was a part of me—visions of childhood and of the Temple towers of Abouthis, and of the white-haired Amenemhat, my father—ay, and an ever-present vision of that dread hall in Amenti, and of the small altar and the Spirits clad in flame! There I seemed to wander everlastingly, calling on the Holy Mother, whose memory I could not grasp; calling ever and in vain! For no cloud descended upon the altar, only from time to time the great Voice pealed aloud: "Strike out the name of Harmachis, child of Earth, from the living Book of Her who Was and Is and Shall Be! Lost! lost! lost!"
And then another voice would answer:
"Not yet! not yet! Repentance is at hand; strike not out the name of Harmachis, child of Earth, from the living Book of Her who Was and Is and Shall Be! By suffering may sin be wiped away!"
I woke to find myself in my own chamber in the tower of the palace. I was so weak that I scarce could lift my hand, and life seemed but to flutter in my breast as flutters a dying dove. I could not turn my head; I could not stir; yet in my heart there was a sense of rest and of dark trouble done. The light from the lamp hurt my eyes: I shut them, and, as I shut them, heard the sweep of a woman's robes upon the stair, and a swift, light step that I knew well. It was that of Cleopatra!
She entered and drew near. I felt her come! Every pulse of my poor frame beat an answer to her footfall, and all my mighty love and hate rose from the darkness of my death-like sleep, and rent me in their struggle! She leaned over me; her ambrosial breath played upon my face: I could hear the beating of her heart! Lower she leaned, till at last her lips touched me softly on the brow.
"Poor man!" I heard her murmur. "Poor, weak, dying Man! Fate hath been hard to thee! Thou wert too good to be the sport of such a one as I—the pawn that I must move in my play of policy! Ah, Harmachis! thou shouldst have ruled the game! Those plotting priests could give thee learning; but they could not give thee knowledge of mankind, nor fence thee against the march of Nature's law. And thou didst love me with all thy heart—ah! well I know it! Manlike, thou didst love the eyes that, as a pirate's lights, beckoned thee to shipwrecked ruin, and didst hang doting on the lips which lied thy heart away and called thee 'slave'! Well; the game was fair, for thou wouldst have slain me; and yet I grieve. So thou dost die? and this is my farewell to thee! Never may we meet again on earth; and, perchance, it is well, for who knows, when my hour of tenderness is past, how I might deal with thee, didst thou live? Thou dost die, they say—those learned long-faced fools, who, if they let thee die, shall pay the price. And where, then, shall we meet again when my last throw is thrown? We shall be equal there, in the kingdom that Osiris rules. A little time, a few years—perhaps to-morrow—and we shall meet; then, knowing all I am, how wilt thou greet me? Nay, here, as there, still must thou worship me! for injuries cannot touch the immortality of such a love as thine. Contempt alone, like acid, can eat away the love of noble hearts, and reveal the truth in its pitiful nakedness. Thou must still cling to thee, Harmachis; for, whatever my sins, yet I am great and set above thy scorn. Would that I could have loved thee as thou lovest me! Almost I did so when thou slewest those guards; and yet—not quite.
"What a fenced city is my heart, that none can take it, and, even when I throw the gates wide, no man may win its citadel! Oh, to put away this loneliness and lose me in another's soul! Oh, for a year, a month, an hour to quite forget policy, peoples, and my pomp of place, and be but a loving woman! Harmachis, fare thee well! Go join great Julius whom thy art called up from death before me, and take Egypt's greetings to him. Ah well! I fooled thee, and I fooled Caesar—perchance before all is done Fate will find me, and myself I shall be fooled. Harmachis, fare thee well!"
She turned to go, and as she turned I heard the sweep of another dress and the light fall of another woman's foot.
"Ah! it is thou, Charmion. Well, for all thy watching the man dies."
"Ay," she answered, in a voice thick with grief. "Ay, O Queen, so the physicians say. Forty hours has he lain in stupor so deep that at times his breath could barely lift this tiny feather's weight, and hardly could my ear, placed against his breast, take notice of the rising of his heart. I have watched him now for ten long days, watched him day and night, till my eyes stare wide with want of sleep, and for faintness I can scarce keep myself from falling. And this is the end of all my labour! The coward blow of that accursed Brennus has done its work, and Harmachis dies!"
"Love counts not its labour, Charmion, nor can it weight its tenderness on the scale of purchase. That which it has it gives, and craves for more to give and give, till the soul's infinity be drained. Dear to thy heart are these heavy nights of watching; sweet to thy weary eyes is that sad sight of strength brought so low that it hangs upon thy weakness like a babe to its mother's breast! For, Charmion, thou dost love this man who loves thee not, and now that he is helpless thou canst pour thy passion forth over the unanswering darkness of his soul, and cheat thyself with dreams of what yet might be."
"I love him not, as thou hast proof, O Queen! How can I love one who would have slain thee, who art as my heart's sister? It is for pity that I nurse him."
She laughed a little as she answered, "Pity is love's own twin, Charmion. Wondrous wayward are the paths of woman's love, and thou hast shown thine strangely, that I know. But the more high the love, the deeper the gulf whereinto it can fall—ay, and thence soar again to heaven, once more to fall! Poor woman! thou art thy passion's plaything: now tender as the morning sky, and now, when jealousy grips thy heart, more cruel than the sea. Well, thus are we made. Soon, after all this troubling, nothing will be left thee but tears, remorse, and—memory."
And she went forth.
OF THE TENDER CARE OF CHARMION; OF THE HEALING OF HARMACHIS; OF THE SAILING OF THE FLEET OF CLEOPATRA FOR CILICIA; AND OF THE SPEECH OF BRENNUS TO HARMACHIS
Cleopatra went, and for a while I lay silent, gathering up my strength to speak. But Charmion came and stood over me, and I felt a great tear fall from her dark eyes upon my face, as the first heavy drop of rain falls from a thunder cloud.
"Thou goest," she whispered; "thou goest fast whither I may not follow! O Harmachis, how gladly would I give my life for thine!"
Then at length I opened my eyes, and spoke as best I could:
"Restrain thy grief, dear friend," I said, "I live yet; and, in truth, I feel as though new life gathered in my breast!"
She gave a little cry of joy, and I never saw aught more beautiful than the change that came upon her weeping face! It was as when the first lights of the day run up the pallor of that sad sky which veils the night from dawn. All rosy grew her lovely countenance; her dim eyes shone out like stars; and a smile of wonderment, more sweet than the sudden smile of the sea as its ripples wake to brightness beneath the kiss of the risen moon, broke through her rain of tears.
"Thou livest!" she cried, throwing herself on her knees beside my couch. "Thou livest—and I thought thee gone! Thou art come back to me! Oh! what say I? How foolish is a woman's heart! 'Tis this long watching! Nay; sleep and rest thee, Harmachis!—why dost thou talk? Not one more word, I command thee straitly! Where is the draught left by that long-bearded fool? Nay thou shalt have no draught! There, sleep, Harmachis; sleep!" and she crouched down at my side and laid her cool hand upon my brow, murmuring, "Sleep! sleep!"
And when I woke there she was still, but the lights of dawn were peeping through the casement. There she knelt, one hand upon my forehead, and her head, in all its disarray of curls, resting upon her outstretched arm.
"Charmion," I whispered, "have I slept?"
Instantly she was wide awake, and, gazing on me with tender eyes, "Yea, thou hast slept, Harmachis."
"How long, then, have I slept?"
"And thou hast held thy place there, at my side, for nine long hours?"
"Yes, it is nothing; I also have slept—I feared to waken thee if I stirred."
"Go, rest," I said; "it shames me to think of this thing. Go rest thee, Charmion!"
"Vex not thyself," she answered; "see, I will bid a slave watch thee, and to wake me if thou needest aught; I sleep there, in the outer chamber. Peace—I go!" and she strove to rise, but, so cramped was she, fell straightway on the floor.
I can scarcely tell the sense of shame that filled me when I saw her fall. Alas! I could not stir to help her.
"It is naught," she said; "move not, I did but catch my foot. There!" and she rose, again to fall—"a pest upon my awkwardness! Why—I must be sleeping. 'Tis well now. I'll send the slave;" and she staggered thence like one overcome with wine.
And after that, I slept once more, for I was very weak. When I woke it was afternoon, and I craved for food, which Charmion brought me.
I ate. "Then I die not," I said.
"Nay," she answered, with a toss of her head, "thou wilt live. In truth, I did waste my pity on thee."
"And thy pity saved my life," I said wearily, for now I remembered.
"It is nothing," she answered carelessly. "After all, thou art my cousin; also, I love nursing—it is a woman's trade. Like enough I had done as much for any slave. Now, too, that the danger is past, I leave thee."
"Thou hadst done better to let me die, Charmion," I said after a while, "for life to me can now be only one long shame. Tell me, then, when sails Cleopatra for Cilicia?"
"She sails in twenty days, and with such pomp and glory as Egypt has never seen. Of a truth, I cannot guess where she has found the means to gather in this store of splendour, as a husbandman gathers his golden harvest."
But I, knowing whence the wealth came, groaned in bitterness of spirit, and made no answer.
"Goest thou also, Charmion?" I asked presently.
"Ay, I and all the Court. Thou, too—thou goest."
"I go? Nay, why is this?"
"Because thou art Cleopatra's slave, and must march in gilded chains behind her chariot; because she fears to leave thee here in Khem; because it is her will, and there is an end."
"Charmion, can I not escape?"
"Escape, thou poor sick man? Nay, how canst thou escape? Even now thou art most strictly guarded. And if thou didst escape, whither wouldst thou fly? There's not an honest man in Egypt but would spit on thee in scorn!"
Once more I groaned in spirit, and, being so very weak, I felt the tears roll adown my cheek.
"Weep not!" she said hastily, and turning her face aside. "Be a man, and brave these troubles out. Thou hast sown, now must thou reap; but after harvest the waters rise and wash away the rotting roots, and then seed-time comes again. Perchance, yonder in Cilicia, a way may be found, when once more thou art strong, by which thou mayst fly—if in truth thou canst bear thy life apart from Cleopatra's smile; then in some far land must thou dwell till these things are forgotten. And now my task is done, so fare thee well! At times I will come to visit thee and see that thou needest nothing."
So she went, and I was nursed thenceforward, and that skilfully, by the physician and two women-slaves; and as my wound healed so my strength came back to me, slowly at first, then most swiftly. In four days from that time I left my couch, and in three more I could walk an hour in the palace gardens; another week and I could read and think, though I went no more to Court. And at length one afternoon Charmion came and bade me make ready, for the fleet would sail in two days, first for the coast of Syria, and thence to the gulf of Issus and Cilicia.
Thereon, with all formality, and in writing, I craved leave of Cleopatra that I might be left, urging that my health was so feeble that I could not travel. But a message was sent to me in answer that I must come.
And so, on the appointed day, I was carried in a litter down to the boat, and together with that very soldier who had cut me down, the Captain Brennus, and others of his troop (who, indeed, were sent to guard me), we rowed aboard a vessel where she lay at anchor with the rest of the great fleet. For Cleopatra was voyaging as though to war in much pomp, and escorted by a fleet of ships, among which her galley, built like a house and lined throughout with cedar and silken hangings, was the most beautiful and costly that the world has ever seen. But I went not on this vessel, and therefore it chanced that I did not see Cleopatra or Charmion till we landed at the mouth of the river Cydnus.
The signal being made, the fleet set sail; and, the wind being fair, we came to Joppa on the evening of the second day. Thence we sailed slowly with contrary winds up the coast of Syria, making Caesarea, and Ptolemais, and Tyrus, and Berytus, and past Lebanon's white brow crowned with his crest of cedars, on to Heraclea and across the gulf of Issus to the mouth of Cydnus. And ever as we journeyed, the strong breath of the sea brought back my health, till at length, save for a line of white upon my head where the sword had fallen, I was almost as I had been. And one night, as we drew near Cydnus, while Brennus and I sat alone together on the deck, his eye fell upon the white mark his sword had made, and he swore a great oath by his heathen Gods. "An thou hadst died, lad," he said, "methinks I could never again have held up my head! Ah! that was a coward stroke, and I am shamed to think that it was I who struck it, and thou on the ground with thy back to me! Knowest thou that when thou didst lie between life and death, I came every day to ask tidings of thee? and I swore by Taranis that if thou didst die I'd turn my back upon that soft palace life and then away for the bonny North."
"Nay, trouble not, Brennus," I answered; "it was thy duty."
"Mayhap! but there are duties that a brave man should not do—nay, not at the bidding of any Queen who ever ruled in Egypt! Thy blow had dazed me or I had not struck. What is it, lad?—art in trouble with this Queen of ours? Why art thou dragged a prisoner upon this pleasure party? Knowest thou that we are strictly charged that if thou dost escape our lives shall pay the price?"
"Ay, in sore trouble, friend," I answered; "ask me no more."
"Then, being of the age thou art, there's a woman in it—that I swear—and, perchance, though I am rough and foolish, I might make a guess. Look thou, lad, what sayest thou? I am weary of this service of Cleopatra and this hot land of deserts and of luxury, that sap a man's strength and drain his pocket; and so are others whom I know of. What sayest thou: let's take one of these unwieldy vessels and away to the North? I'll lead thee to a better land than Egypt—a land of lake and mountain, and great forests of sweet-scented pine; ay, and find thee a girl fit to mate with—my own niece—a girl strong and tall, with wide blue eyes and long fair hair, and arms that could crack thy ribs were she of a mind to hug thee! Come, what sayest thou? Put away the past, and away for the bonny North, and be a son to me."
For a moment I thought, and then sadly shook my head; for though I was sorely tempted to be gone, I knew that my fate lay in Egypt, and I might not fly my fate.
"It may not be, Brennus," I answered. "Fain would I that it might be, but I am bound by a chain of destiny which I cannot break, and in the land of Egypt I must live and die."
"As thou wilt, lad," said the old warrior. "I should have dearly loved to marry thee among my people, and make a son of thee. At the least, remember that while I am here thou hast Brennus for a friend. And one thing more; beware of that beauteous Queen of thine, for, by Taranis, perhaps an hour may come when she will hold that thou knowest too much, and then——" and he drew his hand across his throat. "And now good night; a cup of wine, then to sleep, for to-morrow the foolery——"
[Here several lengths of the second roll of papyrus are so broken as to be undecipherable. They seem to have been descriptive of Cleopatra's voyage up the Cydnus to the city of Tarsus.]
"And—[the writing continues]—to those who could take joy in such things, the sight must, indeed, have been a gallant one. For the stern of our galley was covered with sheets of beaten gold, the sails were of the scarlet of Tyre, and the oars of silver touched the water to a measure of music. And there, in the centre of the vessel, beneath an awning ablaze with gold embroidery, lay Cleopatra, attired as the Roman Venus (and surely Venus was not more fair!), in thin robes of whitest silk, bound in beneath her breast with a golden girdle delicately graven over with scenes of love. All about her were little rosy boys, chosen for their beauty, and clad in naught save downy wings strapped upon their shoulders, and on their backs Cupid's bow and quiver, who fanned her with fans of plumes. Upon the vessel's decks, handling the cordage, that was of silken web, and softly singing to the sound of harps and the beat of oars, were no rough sailors, but women lovely to behold, some robed as Graces and some as Nereids—that is, scarce robed at all, except in their scented hair. And behind the couch, with drawn sword, stood Brennus, in splendid armour and winged helm of gold; and by him others—I among them—in garments richly worked, and knew that I was indeed a slave! On the high poop also burned censers filled with costliest incense, of which the fragrant steam hung in little clouds about our wake."
Thus, as in a dream of luxury, followed by many ships, we glided on towards the wooded slopes of Taurus, at whose foot lay that ancient city Tarshish. And ever as we came the people gathered on the banks and ran before us, shouting: "Venus is risen from the sea! Venus hath come to visit Bacchus!" We drew near to the city, and all its people—everyone who could walk or be carried—crowded down in thousands to the docks, and with them came the whole army of Antony, so that at length the Triumvir was left alone upon the judgment seat.
Dellius, the false-tongued, came also, fawning and bowing, and in the name of Antony gave the "Queen of Beauty" greeting, bidding her to a feast that Antony had made ready. But she made high answer, and said, "Forsooth, it is Antony who should wait on us; not we on Antony. Bid the noble Antony to our poor table this night—else we dine alone."
Dellius went, bowing to the ground; the feast was made ready; and then at last I set eyes on Antony. He came clad in purple robes, a great man and beautiful to see, set in the stout prime of life, with bright eyes of blue, and curling hair, and features cut sharply as a Grecian gem. For he was great of form and royal of mien, and with an open countenance on which his thoughts were so clearly written that all might read them; only the weakness of the mouth belied the power of the brow. He came attended by his generals, and when he reached the couch where Cleopatra lay he stood astonished, gazing on her with wide-opened eyes. She, too, gazed on him earnestly; I saw the red blood run up beneath her skin, and a great pang of jealousy seized upon my heart. And Charmion, who saw all beneath her downcast eyes, saw this also and smiled. But Cleopatra spoke no word, only she stretched out her white hand for him to kiss; and he, saying no word, took her hand and kissed it.
"Behold, noble Antony!" she said at last in her voice of music, "thou hast called me, and I am come."
"Venus has come," he answered in his deep notes, and still holding his eyes fixed upon her face. "I called a woman—a Goddess hath risen from the deep!"
"To find a God to greet her on the land," she laughed with ready wit. "Well, a truce to compliments, for being on the earth even Venus is ahungered. Noble Antony, thy hand."
The trumpets blared, and through the bowing crowd Cleopatra, followed by her train, passed hand in hand with Antony to the feast.
[Here there is another break in the papyrus.]
OF THE FEAST OF CLEOPATRA; OF THE MELTING OF THE PEARL; OF THE SAYING OF HARMACHIS; AND OF CLEOPATRA'S VOW OF LOVE
On the third night the feast was once more prepared in the hall of the great house that had been set aside to the use of Cleopatra, and on this night its splendour was greater even than on the nights before. For the twelve couches that were set about the table were embossed with gold, and those of Cleopatra and Antony were of gold set with jewels. The dishes also were all of gold set with jewels, the walls were hung with purple cloths sewn with gold, and on the floor, covered with a net of gold, fresh roses were strewn ankle-deep, that as the slaves trod them sent up their perfume. Once again I was bidden to stand, with Charmion and Iras and Merira, behind the couch of Cleopatra, and, like a slave, from time to time call out the hours as they flew. And there being no help, I went wild at heart; but this I swore—it should be for the last time, since I could not bear that shame. For though I would not yet believe what Charmion told me—that Cleopatra was about to become the Love of Antony—yet I could no more endure this ignominy and torture. For from Cleopatra now I had no words save such as a Queen speaks to her slave, and methinks it gave her dark heart pleasure to torment me.
Thus it came to pass that I, the Pharaoh, crowned of Khem, stood among eunuchs and waiting-women behind the couch of Egypt's Queen while the feast went merrily and the wine-cup passed. And ever Antony sat, his eyes fixed upon the face of Cleopatra, who from time to time let her deep glance lose itself in his, and then for a little while their talk died away. For he told her tales of war and of deeds that he had done—ay, and love-jests such as are not meet for the ears of women. But she took offence at nothing; rather, falling into his humour, she would cap his stories with others of a finer wit, but not less shameless.
At length, the rich meal being finished, Antony gazed at the splendour around him.
"Tell me, then, most lovely Egypt," he said; "are the sands of Nile compact of gold, that thou canst, night by night, thus squander the ransom of a King upon a single feast? Whence comes this untold wealth?"
I bethought me of the tomb of the Divine Menkau-ra, whose holy treasure was thus wickedly wasted, and looked up so that Cleopatra's eye caught mine; but, reading my thoughts, she frowned heavily.
"Why, noble Antony," she said, "surely it is nothing! In Egypt we have our secrets, and know whence to conjure riches at our need. Say, what is the value of this golden service, and of the meats and drinks that have been set before us?"
He cast his eyes about, and hazarded a guess.
"Maybe a thousand sestertia."[*]
[*] About eight thousand pounds of English money.—Editor.
"Thou hast understated it by half, noble Antony! But such as it is I will give it thee and those with thee as a free token of my friendship. And more will I show thee now: I myself will eat and drink ten thousand sestertia at a draught."
"That cannot be, fair Egypt!"
She laughed, and bade a slave bring her white vinegar in a glass. When it was brought she set it before her and laughed again, while Antony, rising from his couch, drew near and set himself at her side, and all the company leant forward to see what she would do. And this she did. She took from her ear one of those great pearls which last of all had been drawn from the body of the Divine Pharaoh; and before any could guess her purpose she let it fall into the vinegar. Then came silence, the silence of wonder, and slowly the priceless pearl melted in the strong acid. When it was melted she lifted the glass and shook it, then drank the vinegar, to the last drop.
"More vinegar, slave!" she cried; "my meal is but half finished!" and she drew forth the second pearl.
"By Bacchus, no! that shalt thou not!" cried Antony, snatching at her hands; "I have seen enough;" and at that moment, moved to it by I know not what, I called aloud:
"The hour falls, O Queen!—the hour of the coming of the curse of Menkau-ra!"
An ashy whiteness grew upon Cleopatra's face, and she turned upon me furiously, while all the company gazed wondering, not knowing what the words might mean.
"Thou ill-omened slave!" she cried. "Speak thus once more and thou shalt be scourged with rods!—ay, scourged like an evildoer—that I promise thee, Harmachis!"
"What means the knave of an astrologer?" asked Antony. "Speak, sirrah! and make clear thy meaning, for those who deal in curses must warrant their wares."
"I am a servant of the Gods, noble Antony. That which the Gods put in my mind that must I say; nor can I read their meaning," I answered humbly.
"Oh, oh! thou servest the Gods, dost thou, thou many-coloured mystery?" This he said having reference to my splendid robes. "Well, I serve the Goddesses, which is a softer cult. And there's this between us: that though what they put in my mind I say, neither can I read their meaning," and he glanced at Cleopatra as one who questions.
"Let the knave be," she said impatiently; "to-morrow we'll be rid of him. Sirrah, begone!"
I bowed and went; and, as I went, I heard Antony say: "Well, he may be a knave—for that all men are—but this for thy astrologer: he hath a royal air and the eye of a King—ay, and wit in it."
Without the door I paused, not knowing what to do, for I was bewildered with misery. And, as I stood, someone touched me on the hand. I glanced up—it was Charmion, who in the confusion of the rising of the guests, had slipped away and followed me.
For in trouble Charmion was ever at my side.
"Follow me," she whispered; "thou art in danger."
I turned and followed her. Why should I not?
"Whither go we?" I asked at length.
"To my chamber," she said. "Fear not; we ladies of Cleopatra's Court have small good fame to lose; if anyone by chance should see us, they'll think that it is a love-tryst, and such are all the fashion."
I followed, and, presently, skirting the crowd, we came unseen to a little side entrance that led to a stair, up which we passed. The stair ended in a passage; we turned down it till we found a door on the left hand. Charmion entered silently, and I followed her into a dark chamber. Being in, she barred the door and, kindling tinder to a flame, lit a hanging lamp. As the light grew strong I gazed around. The chamber was not large, and had but one casement, closely shuttered. For the rest, it was simply furnished, having white walls, some chests for garments, an ancient chair, what I took to be a tiring table, on which were combs, perfumes, and all the frippery that pertains to woman, and a white bed with a broidered coverlid, over which was hung a gnat-gauze.
"Be seated, Harmachis," she said, pointing to the chair. I took the chair, and Charmion, throwing back the gnat-gauze, sat herself upon the bed before me.
"Knowest thou what I heard Cleopatra say as thou didst leave the banqueting-hall?" she asked presently.
"Nay, I know not."
"She gazed after thee, and, as I went over to her to do some service, she murmured to herself: 'By Serapis, I will make an end! I will wait no longer: to-morrow he shall be strangled!'"
"So!" I said, "it may be; though, after all that has been, I can scarce believe that she will murder me."
"Why canst thou not believe it, thou most foolish of men? Dost forget how nigh thou wast to death there in the Alabaster Hall? Who saved thee then from the knives of the eunuchs? Was it Cleopatra? Or was it I and Brennus? Stay, I will tell thee. Thou canst not yet believe it, because, in thy folly, thou dost not think it possible that the woman who has but lately been as a wife to thee can now, in so short a time, doom thee to be basely done to death. Nay, answer not—I know all; and I tell thee this: thou hast not measured the depth of Cleopatra's perfidy, nor canst thou dream the blackness of her wicked heart. She had surely slain thee in Alexandria had she not feared that thy slaughter being noised abroad might bring trouble on her. Therefore has she brought thee here to kill thee secretly. For what more canst thou give her? She has thy heart's love, and is wearied of thy strength and beauty. She has robbed thee of thy royal birthright and brought thee, a King, to stand amidst the waiting-women behind her at her feasts; she has won from thee the great secret of the holy treasure!"
"Ah, thou knowest that?"
"Yes, I know all; and to-night thou seest how the wealth stored against the need of Khem is being squandered to fill up the wanton luxury of Khem's Macedonian Queen! Thou seest how she has kept her oath to wed thee honourably. Harmachis—at length thine eyes are open to the truth!"
"Ay, I see too well; and yet she swore she loved me, and I, poor fool, I believed her!"
"She swore she loved thee!" answered Charmion, lifting her dark eyes: "now I will show thee how she loves thee. Knowest thou what was this house? It was a priest's college; and, as thou wottest, Harmachis, priests have their ways. This little room aforetime was the room of the Head Priest, and the chamber that is beyond and below was the gathering-place of the other priests. The old slave who keeps the house told me all this, and also she revealed what I shall show thee. Now, Harmachis, be silent as the dead, and follow me!"
She blew out the lamp, and by the little light that crept through the shuttered casement led me by the hand to the far corner of the room. Here she pressed upon the wall, and a door opened in its thickness. We entered, and she closed the spring. Now we were in a little chamber, some five cubits in length by four in breadth; for a faint light struggled into the closet, and also the sound of voices, I knew not whence. Loosing my hand, she crept to the end of the place, and looked steadfastly at the wall; then crept back and, whispering "Silence!" led me forward with her. Then I saw that there were eyeholes in the wall, which pierced it, and were hidden on the farther side by carved work in stone. I looked through the hole that was in front of me, and I saw this: six cubits below was the level of the floor of another chamber, lit with fragrant lamps, and most richly furnished. It was the sleeping-place of Cleopatra, and there, within ten cubits of where we stood, sat Cleopatra on a gilded couch, and by her side sat Antony.
"Tell me," Cleopatra murmured—for this place was so built that every word spoken in the room below came to the ears of the listener above—"tell me, noble Antony, wast pleased with my poor festival?"
"Ay," he answered in his deep soldier's voice, "ay, Egypt, I have made feasts, and been bidden to feasts, but never saw I aught like thine; and I tell thee this, though I am rough of tongue and unskilled in pretty sayings such as women love, thou wast the richest sight of all that splendid board. The red wine was not so red as thy beauteous cheek, the roses smelt not so sweet as the odour of thy hair, and no sapphire there with its changing light was so lovely as thy eyes of ocean blue."
"What! Praise from Antony! Sweet words from the lips of him whose writings are so harsh! Why, it is praise indeed!"
"Ay," he went on, "it was a royal feast, though I grieve that thou didst waste that great pearl; and what meant that hour-calling astrologer of thine, with his ill-omened talk of the curse of Menkau-ra?"
A shadow fled across her glowing face. "I know not; he was lately wounded in a brawl, and methinks the blow has crazed him."
"He seemed not crazed, and there was that about his voice which rings in my ears like some oracle of fate. So wildly, too, he looked upon thee, Egypt, with those piercing eyes of his, like one who loved and yet hated through the love."
"He is a strange man, I tell thee, noble Antony, and a learned. Myself, at times, I almost fear him, for he is deeply versed in the ancient arts of Egypt. Knowest thou that the man is of royal blood, and once he plotted to slay me? But I won him over, and slew him not, for he had the key to secrets that I fain would learn; and, indeed, I loved his wisdom, and to listen to his deep talk of all hidden things."
"By Bacchus, I grow jealous of the knave! And now, Egypt?"
"And now I have sucked his knowledge dry, and have no more cause to fear him. Didst thou not see that I have made him stand these three nights a slave amid my slaves, and call aloud the hours as they fled in festival. No captive King marching in thy Roman triumphs can have suffered pangs so keen as that proud Egyptian Prince when he stood shamed behind my couch."
Here Charmion laid her hand on mine and pressed it, as though in tenderness.
"Well, he shall trouble us no more with his words of evil omen," Cleopatra went on slowly; "to-morrow morn he dies—dies swiftly and in secret, leaving no trace of what his fate has been. On this is my mind fixed; of a truth, noble Antony, it is fixed. Even as I speak the fear of this man grows and gathers in my breast. Half am I minded to give the word even now, for I breathe not freely till he be dead," and she made as though to rise.
"Let it be till morning," he said, catching her by the hand; "the soldiers drink, and the deed will be ill done. 'Tis pity too. I love not to think of men slaughtered in their sleep."
"In the morning, perchance, the hawk may have flown," she answered, pondering. "He hath keen ears, this Harmachis, and can summon things to aid him that are not of the earth. Perchance, even now he hears me in the spirit; for, of a truth, I seem to feel his presence breathing round me. I could tell thee—but no, let him be! Noble Antony, be my tiring-woman and loose me this crown of gold, it chafes my brow. Be gentle, hurt me not—so."
He lifted the uraeus crown from her brows, and she shook loose her heavy weight of hair that fell about her like a garment.
"Take back thy crown, royal Egypt," he said, speaking low, "take it from my hand; I will not rob thee of it, but rather set it more firmly on that beauteous brow."
"What means my Lord?" she asked, smiling and looking into his eyes.
"What mean I? Why then, this: thou camest hither at my bidding to make answer of the charges laid against thee as to matters politic. And knowest thou, Egypt, that hadst thou been other than thou art thou hadst not gone back to queen it on the Nile; for of this I am sure, the charges against thee are true in fact. But, being what thou art—and look thou! never did Nature serve a woman better!—I forgive thee all. For the sake of thy grace and beauty I forgive thee that which had not been forgiven to virtue, or to patriotism, or to the dignity of age! See now how good a thing is woman's wit and loveliness, that can make kings forget their duty and cozen even blindfolded Justice to peep ere she lifts her sword! Take back thy crown, O Egypt! It is now my care that, though it be heavy, it shall not chafe thee."
"These are royal words, most notable Antony," she made answer; "gracious and generous words, such as befit the Conqueror of the world! And touching my misdeeds in the past—if misdeeds there have been—I say this, and this alone—then I knew not Antony. For, knowing Antony, who could sin against him? What woman could lift a sword against one who must be to all women as a God—one who, seen and known, draws after him the whole allegiance of the heart, as the sun draws flowers? And what more can I say and not cross the bounds of woman's modesty? Why, only this—set that crown upon my brow, great Antony, and I will take it as a gift from thee, by the giving made doubly dear, and to thy uses I will guard it.
"There, now I am thy vassal Queen, and through me all old Egypt that I rule does homage to Antony the Triumvir, who shall be Antony the Emperor of Rome and Khem's Imperial Lord!"
And, having set the crown upon her locks, he stood gazing on her, grown passionate in the warm breath of her living beauty, till at length he caught her by both hands and drawing her to him kissed her thrice, saying:
"Cleopatra, I love thee, Sweet—I love thee as I never loved before." She drew back from his embrace, smiling softly; and as she did so the golden circlet of the sacred snakes fell, being but loosely set upon her brow, and rolled away into the darkness beyond the ring of light.
I saw the omen, and even in the bitter anguish of my heart knew its evil import. But these twain took no note.
"Thou lovest me?" she said, most sweetly; "how know I that thou lovest me? Perchance it is Fulvia whom thou lovest—Fulvia, thy wedded wife?"
"Nay, it is not Fulvia, 'tis thou, Cleopatra, and thou alone. Many women have looked favourably upon me from my boyhood up, but to never a one have I known such desire as to thee, O thou Wonder of the World, like unto whom no woman ever was! Canst thou love me, Cleopatra, and to me be true, not for my place or power, not for that which I can give or can withhold, not for the stern music of my legion's tramp, or for the light that flows from my bright Star of Fortune; but for myself, for the sake of Antony, the rough captain, grown old in camps? Ay, for the sake of Antony the reveller, the frail, the unfixed of purpose, but who yet never did desert a friend, or rob a poor man, or take an enemy unawares? Say, canst thou love me, Egypt? Oh! if thou wilt, why, I am more happy than though I sat to-night in the Capitol at Rome crowned absolute Monarch of the World!"
And, ever as he spoke, she gazed on him with wonderful eyes, and in them shone a light of truth and honesty such as was strange to me.
"Thou speakest plainly," she said, "and thy words are sweet to mine ears—they would be sweet, even were things otherwise than they are, for what woman would not love to see the world's master at her feet? But things being as they are, why, Antony, what can be so sweet as thy sweet words? The harbour of his rest to the storm-tossed mariner—surely that is sweet! The dream of Heaven's bliss which cheers the poor ascetic priest on his path of sacrifice—surely that is sweet! The sight of Dawn, the rosy-fingered, coming in his promise to glad the watching Earth—surely that is sweet! But, ah! not one of these, nor all dear delightful things that are, can match the honey-sweetness of thy words to me, O Antony! For thou knowest not—never canst thou know—how drear my life hath been, and empty, since thus it is ordained that in love only can woman lose her solitude! And I have never loved—never might I love—till this happy night! Ay, take me in thy arms, and let us swear a great vow of love—an oath that may not be broken while life is in us! Behold! Antony! now and for ever I do vow most strict fidelity unto thee! Now and for ever I am thine, and thine alone!"
Then Charmion took me by the hand and drew me thence.
"Hast seen enough?" she asked, when we were once more within the chamber and the lamp was lit.
"Yea," I answered; "my eyes are opened."
OF THE PLAN OF CHARMION; OF THE CONFESSION OF CHARMION; AND OF THE ANSWER OF HARMACHIS
For some while I sat with bowed head, and the last bitterness of shame sank into my soul. This, then, was the end. For this I had betrayed my oaths; for this I had told the secret of the pyramid; for this I had lost my Crown, my Honour, and, perchance, my hope of Heaven! Could there be another man in the wide world so steeped in sorrow as I was that night? Surely not one! Where should I turn? What could I do? And even through the tempest of my torn heart the bitter voice of jealousy called aloud. For I loved this woman, to whom I had given all; and she at this moment—she was——Ah! I could not bear to think of it; and in my utter agony, my heart burst in a river of tears such as are terrible to weep!
Then Charmion drew near me, and I saw that she, too, was weeping.
"Weep not, Harmachis!" she sobbed, kneeling at my side. "I cannot endure to see thee weep. Oh! why wouldst thou not be warned? Then hadst thou been great and happy, and not as now. Listen, Harmachis! Thou didst hear what that false and tigerish woman said—to-morrow she hands thee over to the murderers!"
"It is well," I gasped.
"Nay: it is not well. Harmachis, give her not this last triumph over thee. Thou hast lost all save life: but while life remains, hope remains also, and with hope the chance of vengeance."
"Ah!" I said, starting from my seat. "I had not thought of that. Ay—the chance of vengeance! It would be sweet to be avenged!"
"It would be sweet, Harmachis, and yet this—Vengeance is an arrow that in falling oft pierces him who shot it. Myself—I know it," and she sighed. "But a truce to talk and grief. There will be time for us twain to grieve, if not to talk, in all the heavy coming years. Thou must fly—before the coming of the light must thou fly. Here is a plan. To-morrow, ere the dawn, a galley that but yesterday came from Alexandria, bearing fruit and stores, sails thither again, and its captain is known to me, but to thee he is not known. Now, I will find thee the garb of a Syrian merchant, and cloak thee, as I know how, and furnish thee with a letter to the captain of the galley. He shall give thee passage to Alexandria; for to him thou wilt seem but as a merchant going on the business of thy trade. Brennus is officer of the guard to-night, and Brennus is a friend to me and thee. Perhaps he will guess somewhat; or, perhaps, he will not guess; at the least, the Syrian merchant shall safely pass the lines. What sayest thou?"
"It is well," I answered wearily; "little do I reck the issue."
"Rest thou, then, here, Harmachis, while I make these matters ready; and, Harmachis, grieve not overmuch; there are others who should grieve more heavily than thou." And she went, leaving me alone with my agony which rent me like a torture-bed. Had it not been for that fierce desire of vengeance which from time to time flashed across my tormented mind as the lightning over a midnight sea, methinks my reason had left me in that dark hour. At length I heard her footstep at the door, and she entered, breathing heavily, for she bore a sack of clothing in her arms.
"It is well," she said: "here is the garb with spare linen, and writing-tablets, and all things needful. I have seen Brennus also, and told him that a Syrian merchant would pass the guard an hour before the dawn. And though he made pretence of sleep, I think he understood, for he answered, yawning, that if they but had the pass-word, 'Antony,' fifty Syrian merchants might go through about their lawful business. And here is the letter to the captain—thou canst not mistake the galley, for she is moored along to the right—a small galley, painted black, as thou dost enter on the great quay, and, moreover, the sailors make ready for sailing. Now I will wait here without, while thou dost put off the livery of thy service and array thyself."
When she was gone I tore off my gorgeous garments and spat upon them and trod them on the ground. Then I put on the modest robe of a merchant, and bound the tablets round me, on my feet the sandals of untanned hide, and at my waist the knife. When it was done Charmion entered once again and looked on me.
"Too much art thou still the royal Harmachis," she said; "see, it must be changed."
Then she took scissors from her tiring-table, and, bidding me be seated, she cut off my locks, clipping the hair close to the head. Next she found stains of such sort as women use to make dark the eyes, and mixed them cunningly, rubbing the stuff on my face and hands and on the white mark in my hair where the sword of Brennus had bitten to the bone.
"Now thou art changed—somewhat for the worse, Harmachis," she said, with a dreary laugh, "scarce myself should I know thee. Stay, there is one more thing," and, going to a chest of garments, she drew thence a heavy bag of gold.
"Take thou this," she said; "thou wilt have need of money."
"I cannot take thy gold, Charmion."
"Yes, take it. It was Sepa who gave it to me for the furtherance of our cause, and therefore it is fitting that thou shouldst spend it. Moreover, if I want money, doubtless Antony, who is henceforth my master, will give me more; he is much beholden to me, and this he knows well. There, waste not the precious time in haggling o'er the pelf—not yet art thou all a merchant, Harmachis;" and, without more words, she thrust the pieces into the leather bag that hung across my shoulders. Then she made fast the sack containing the spare garments, and, so womanly thoughtful was she, placed in it an alabaster jar of pigment, with which I might stain my countenance afresh, and, taking the broidered robes of my office that I had cast off, hid them in the secret passage. And so at last all was made ready.
"Is it time that I should go," I asked.
"Not yet a while. Be patient, Harmachis, for but one little hour more must thou endure my presence, and then, perchance, farewell for ever."
I made a gesture signifying that this was no time for sharp words.
"Forgive me my quick tongue," she said; "but from a salt spring bitter waters well. Be seated, Harmachis; I have heavier words to speak to thee before thou goest."
"Say on," I answered; "words, however heavy, can move me no more."
She stood before me with folded hands, and the lamp-light shone upon her beauteous face. I noticed idly how great was its pallor and how wide and dark were the rings about the deep black eyes. Twice she lifted her white face and strove to speak, twice her voice failed her; and when at last it came it was in a hoarse whisper.
"I cannot let thee go," she said—"I cannot let thee go unwitting of the truth.
"Harmachis, 'twas I who did betray thee!"
I sprang to my feet, an oath upon my lips; but she caught me by the hand.
"Oh, be seated," she said—"be seated and hear me; then, when thou hast heart, do to me as thou wilt. Listen. From that evil moment when, in the presence of thy uncle Sepa, for the second time I set eyes upon thy face, I loved thee—how much, thou canst little guess. Think upon thine own love for Cleopatra, and double it, and double it again, and perchance thou mayst come near to my love's mighty sum. I loved thee, day by day I loved thee more, till in thee and for thee alone I seemed to live. But thou wast cold—thou wast worse than cold! thou didst deal with me not as a breathing woman, but rather as the instrument to an end—as a tool with which to grave thy fortunes. And then I saw—yes, long before thou knewest it thyself—thy heart's tide was setting strong towards that ruinous shore whereon to-day thy life is broken. And at last that night came, that dreadful night when, hid within the chamber, I saw thee cast my kerchief to the winds, and with sweet words cherish my royal Rival's gift. Then—oh, thou knowest—in my pain I betrayed the secret that thou wouldst not see, and thou didst make a mock of me, Harmachis! Oh! the shame of it—thou in thy foolishness didst make a mock of me! I went thence, and within me were rising all the torments which can tear a woman's heart, for now I was sure that thou didst love Cleopatra! Ay, and so mad was I, even that night I was minded to betray thee: but I thought—not yet, not yet; to-morrow he may soften. Then came the morrow, and all was ready for the bursting of the great plot that should make thee Pharaoh. And I too came—thou dost remember—and again thou didst put me away when I spake to thee in parables, as something of little worth—as a thing too small to claim a moment's weighty thought. And, knowing that this was because—though thou knewest it not—thou didst love Cleopatra, whom now thou must straightway slay, I grew mad, and a wicked Spirit entered into me, possessing me utterly, so that I was myself no longer, nor could control myself. And because thou hadst scorned me, I did this, to my everlasting shame and sorrow!—I passed into Cleopatra's presence and betrayed thee and those with thee, and our holy cause, saying that I had found a writing which thou hadst let fall and read all this therein."