At this point the preacher was interrupted, for a loud uproar broke out in the Narthex—[The vestibule of the early Christian basilica which was open to penitents.]—shouts and cries of men fighting, mingled with the dull roar of a bull.
The congregation started to their feet in extreme consternation, and the door was flung open and a host of heathen youths rushed into the nave, followed by an overwhelming force of Christians from whom they had sought refuge in the sanctuary. Here they turned at bay to make a last desperate resistance. Garlands, stripped of their leaves and flowers, still crowned their heads and hung over their shoulders. They had been attacked close to the church, by a party of monks when in the act of driving a gaily-decorated steer to the temple of Apollo, in defiance of the Imperial edict; and the beast, terrified by the tumult, had rushed into the narthex for shelter.
The fight in the church was a short one; the idolaters were soon vanquished; but Eusebius threw himself between them and the monks, and tried to save the victims from the revengeful fury of the conquerors. The women had all made for the door, but they did not venture out into the vestibule, for the young bull was still raging there, trampling or tossing everything that came in his way. At last, however, a soldier of the city-watch dealt him a sword-thrust in the neck, and he fell rolling in his own blood. At once the congregation forced their way out, shrieking with alarm and excitement, Dada among the number, dragging the child with her. Papias pulled with all his might to keep her back, declaring with vehement insistence that he had seen Agne in the church and wanted to go back to her. Dada, however, neither heard nor heeded; frightened out of her wits she went on with the crowd, taking him with her.
She never paused till she reached the house of Medius, quite out of breath; but then, as the little boy still asserted that he had seen his sister in the sanctuary, she turned back with him, as soon as the throng had dispersed. In the church there was no one to hinder them; but they got no further than the dividing screen, for on the floor beyond lay the mutilated and bleeding bodies of many a youth who had fallen in the contest.
How she made her way back to the house of Medius once more she never knew. For the first time she had been brought face to face with life in hideous earnest, and when the singer went to look for her in her room, at dusk, he was startled to find her bright face clouded and her eyes dim with tears. How bitterly she had been weeping Medius indeed could not know; he ascribed her altered appearance to fear of the approaching cataclysm and was happy to be able to tell her, in all good faith, that the danger was as good as over. Posidonius, the Magian, had been to see him, and had completely reassured him. This man, whose accomplice he had been again and again in producing false apparitions of spirits and demons, had once gained an extraordinary influence over him by casting some mysterious spell upon him and reducing his will to abject subjection to his own; and this magician, who had recovered his own self-possession, had assured him, with an inimitable air of infallibility, that the fall of the Temple of Serapis would involve no greater catastrophe than that of any old worn-out statue. Since this announcement Medius had laughed at his own alarms; he had recovered his "strong-mindedness," and when Posidonius had given him three tickets for the Hippodrome he had jumped at the offer.
The races were to be run next day, in spite of the general panic that had fallen on the citizens; and Dada, when he invited her to join him and his daughter in-the enjoyment of so great a treat, dried her eyes and accepted gleefully.
Alarming as was the outlook in Alexandria, the races, were to be held as usual. This had been decided only a few hours since at the Bishop's palace, and criers had been sent abroad throughout the streets and squares of the city to bid the inhabitants to this popular entertainment. In the writing-office of the Ephemeris, which would be given to the public the first thing in the morning, five hundred slaves or more were occupied in writing from dictation a list of the owners of the horses, of the 'agitatores' who would drive them, and of the prizes offered to the winners, whether Christians or heathen.
[Ephemeris—The news-sheet, which was brought out, not only in Rome, but in all the cities of the Empire, and which kept the citizens informed of all important events.]
The heat in the Episcopal council-hall had been oppressive, and not less so the heat of temper among the priests assembled there; for they had fully determined, for once, not to obey their prelate with blind submission, and they knew full well that Theophilus, on occasion, if his will were opposed, could not merely thunder but wield the bolt.
Besides the ecclesiastical members of the council, Cynegius, the Imperial legate—Evagrius, the Prefect—and Romanus, the commander-in-chief and Comes of Egypt,—had all been present. The officials of the Empire—Roman statesmen who knew Alexandria and her citizens well, and who had often smarted under the spiritual haughtiness of her Bishop—were on the prelate's side. Cynegius was doubtful; but the priests, who had not altogether escaped the alarms that had stricken the whole population, were so bold as to declare against a too hasty decision, and to say that the celebration of the games at a time of such desperate peril was not only presumptuous but sinful, and a tempting of God.
In answer to a scornful enquiry from Theophilus as to where the danger lay if—as the Comes promised—Serapis were to be overthrown on the morrow, one of the assembly answered in the name of his colleagues. This man, now very old, had formerly been a wonderfully successful exorcist, and, notwithstanding that he was a faithful Christian, he was the leader of a gnostic sect and a diligent student of magic. He proceeded to argue, with all the zeal and vehemence of conviction, that Serapis was the most terrible of all the heathen daemons, and that all the oracles of antiquity, all the prophecies of the seers, and all the conclusions of the Magians and astrologers would be proved false if his fall—which the present assembly could only regard as a great boon from Heaven—did not entail some tremendous convulsion of nature.
At this Theophilus gave the reins to his wrath; he snatched a little crucifix from the wall above his episcopal throne, and broke it in fragments, exclaiming in deep tones that quavered with wrath:
"And which do you regard as the greater: The only-begotten Son of God, or that helpless image?" And he flung the pieces of the broken crucifix down on the table round which they were sitting. Then, as though horror-stricken at his own daring act, he fell on his knees, raised his eyes and hands in prayer, and gathering up the broken image, kissed it devoutly.
This rapid scene had a tremendous effect. Amazement and suspense were painted on every face, not a hand, not a lip moved as Theophilus rose again and cast a glance of proud and stern defiance round the assembly, which each man took to himself. For some moments he remained silent, as though awaiting a reply; but his repellent mien and majestic bearing made it sufficiently clear that he was ready to annihilate any opponent. In fact none of the priests contradicted him; and, though Evagrius looked at him with a doubting shake of his shrewd head, Cynegius on the other hand nodded assent. The Bishop, however, seemed to care for neither dissent nor approval, and it was in brief and cutting terms, with no flourish of rhetoric, that he laid it down that wood and stone had nothing to do with the divine Majesty, even though they were made in the image of all that was Holy and worshipful or were most lavishly beautified by the hand of man with the foul splendors of perishable wealth. The greater the power ascribed by superstition to the base material—whatever form it bore—the more odious must it be to the Christian. Any man who should believe that a daemon could turn even a breath of the Most High to its own will and purpose, would do well to beware of idolatry, for Satan had already laid his clutches somewhere on his robe.
At this sweeping accusation many a cheek colored wrathfully, and not a word was spoken when the Bishop proceeded to require of his hearers that, if the Serapeum should fall into the hands of the Imperial troops, it should be at once and ruthlessly destroyed, and that his hearers should not cease from the work of ruin till this scandal of the city should be swept from the face of the earth.
"If then the world crumbles to atoms!" he cried, "well and good—the heathen are right and we are wrong, and in that case it were better to perish; but as surely as I sit on this throne by the grace of God, Serapis is the vain imagining of fools and blind, and there is no god but the God whose minister I am!"
"Whose Kingdom is everlasting, Amen!" chanted an old priest; and Cynegius rose to explain that he should do nothing to hinder the total overthrow of the temple and image.
Then the Comes spoke in defence of the Bishop's resolution to allow the races to be held, as usual, on the morrow. He sketched a striking picture of the shallow, unstable nature of the Alexandrians, a people wholly given over to enjoyment. The troops at his command were few in number in comparison with the heathen population of the city, and it was a very important matter to keep a large proportion of the worshippers of Serapis occupied elsewhere at the moment of the decisive onset. Gladiator-fights were prohibited, and the people were tired of wild beasts; but races, in which heathen and Christian alike might enter their horses for competition, must certainly prove most attractive just at this time of bitter rivalry and oppugnancy between the two religions, and would draw thousands of the most able-bodied idolaters to the Hippodrome. All this he had already considered and discussed with the Bishop and Cynegius; nay, that zealous destroyer of heathen worship had come to Alexandria with the express purpose of overthrowing the Serapeum; but, as a prudent statesman, he had first made sure that the time and circumstances were propitious for the work of annihilation. All that he had here seen and heard had only strengthened his purpose; so, after suggesting a few possible difficulties, and enjoining moderation and mercy as the guiding principles of his sovereign, he commanded, in the Emperor's name, that the sanctuary of Serapis should be seized by force of arms and utterly destroyed, and that the races should be held on the morrow.
The assembled council bowed low; and when Theophilus had closed the meeting with a prayer he withdrew to his ungarnished study, with his head bent and an air of profound humility, as though he had met with a defeat instead of gaining a victory.
The fate of the great god of the heathen was sealed, but in the wide precincts of the Serapeum no one thought of surrender or of prompt defeat. The basement of the building, on which stood the grandest temple ever erected by the Hellenes, presented a smooth and slightly scarped rampart of impregnable strength to the foe. A sloping way extended up over a handsomely-decorated incline, and from the middle of the grand curve described by this road, two flights of steps led up to the three great doors in the facade of the building.
The heathen had taken care to barricade this approach in all haste, piling the road and steps with statuary-images of the gods of the finest workmanship, figures and busts of kings, queens, and heroes, Hermes, columns, stelae, sacrificial stones, chairs and benches-torn from their places by a thousand eager hands. The squared flags of the pavement and the granite blocks of the steps had been built up into walls and these were still being added to after the besiegers had surrounded the temple; for the defenders tore down stones, pilasters, gutters and pieces of the cornice, and flung them on to the outworks, or, when they could, on to the foe who for the present were not eager to commence hostilities.
The captains of the Imperial force had miscalculated the strength of the heathen garrison. They supposed a few hundreds might have entrenched themselves, but on the roof alone above a thousand men were to be seen, and every hour seemed to increase the number of men and women crowding into the Serapeum. The Romans could only suppose that this constantly growing multitude had been concealed in the secret halls and chambers of the temple ever since Cynegius had first arrived, and had no idea that they were still being constantly reinforced.
Karnis, Herse, and Orpheus, among others, had made their way thither from the timber-yard, down the dry conduit, and an almost incessant stream of the adherents of the old gods had preceded and followed them.
While Eusebius had been exhorting his congregation in the church of St. Mark to Christian love towards the idolaters, these had collected in the temple precincts to the number of about four thousand, all eager for the struggle. A vast multitude! But the extent of the Serapeum was so enormous that the mass of people was by no means densely packed on the roof, in the halls, and in the underground passages and rooms. There was no crowding anywhere, least of all in the central halls of the temple itself; indeed, in the great vestibule crowned with a dome which formed the entrance, in the vast hall next to it, and in the magnificent hypostyle with a semicircular niche on the furthest side in which stood the far-famed image of the god, there were only scattered groups of men, who looked like dwarfs as the eye compared them with the endless rows of huge columns.
The full blaze of day penetrated nowhere but into the circular vestibule, which was lighted by openings in the drum of the cupola that rested on four gigantic columns. In the inner hall there was only dim twilight; while the hypostyle was quite dark, but for a singularly contrived shaft of light which produced a most mysterious effect.
The shadows of the great columns in the fore hall, and of the double colonnade on each side of the hypostyle, lay like bands of crape on the many-colored pavement; borders, circles, and ellipses of mosaic diversified the smooth and lucent surface, in which were mirrored the astrological figures which sparkled in brighter hues on the ceiling, the trophies of symbols and mythological groups that graced the walls in tinted high relief, and the statues and Hermes between the columns. A wreath of lovely forms and colors dazzled the eye with their multiplicity and profusion, and the heavy atmosphere of incense which filled the halls was almost suffocating, while the magical and mystical signs and figures were so many and so new that the enquiring mind, craving for an explanation and an interpretation of all these incomprehensible mysteries, hardly dared investigate them in detail.
A heavy curtain, that looked as though giants must have woven it on a loom of superhuman proportions, hung, like a thick cloud shrouding a mountain-peak, from the very top of the hypostyle, in grand folds over the niche containing the statue, and down to the floor; and while it hid the sacred image from the gaze of the worshipper it attracted his attention by the infinite variety of symbolical patterns and beautiful designs which were woven in it and embroidered on it.
The gold and silver vessels and precious jewels that lay concealed by this hanging were of more value than many a mighty king's treasure; and everything was on so vast a scale that man shuddered to feel his own littleness, and the mind sought some new standard of measurement by which to realize such unwonted proportions. The finite here seemed to pass into the infinite; and as the spectator gazed up, with his head thrown back, at the capitals of the lofty columns and the remote height of the ceiling, his sight failed him before he had succeeded in distinguishing or even perceiving a small portion only of the bewildering confusion of figures and emblems that were crowded on to the surface. Greek feeling for beauty had here worked hand in hand with Oriental taste for gorgeous magnificence, and every detail could bear examination; for there was not a motive of the architecture, not a work of sculpture, painting, or mosaic, not a product of the foundry or the loom, which did not bear the stamp of thorough workmanship and elaborate finish. The ruddy, flecked porphyry, the red, white, green, or yellow marbles which had been used for the decorations were all the finest and purest ever wrought upon by Greek craftsmen. Each of the hundreds of sculptured works which here had found a home was the masterpiece of some great artist; as the curious visitor lingered in loving contemplation of the mosaics on the polished floor, or examined the ornamental mouldings that framed the reliefs, dividing the walls into panels, he was filled with wonder and delight at the beauty, the elegance and the inventiveness that had given charm, dignity, and significance to every detail.
Adjoining these great halls devoted especially to the worship of the god, were hundreds of courts, passages, colonnades and rooms, and others not less numerous lay underground. There were long rows of rooms containing above a hundred thousand rolls of books, the famous library of the Serapeum, with separate apartments for readers and copyists; there were store-rooms, refectories and assembly-rooms for the high-priests of the temple, for teachers and disciples; while acrid odors came up from the laboratories, and the fragrance of cooking from the kitchen and bake-houses. In the very thickness of the walls of the basement were cells for penitents and recluses, long since abandoned, and rooms for the menials and slaves, of whom hundreds were employed in the precincts; under ground spread the mystical array of halls, grottoes, galleries and catacombs dedicated to the practice of the Mysteries and the initiation of neophytes; on the roof stood various observatories—among them one erected for the study of the heavens by Eratosthenes, where Claudius Ptolemaeus had watched and worked. Up here astronomers, star-gazers, horoscopists and Magians spent their nights, while, far below them, in the temple-courts that were surrounded by store-houses and stables, the blood of sacrificed beasts was shed and the entrails of the victims were examined.
The house of Serapis was a whole world in little, and centuries had enriched it with wealth, beauty, and the noblest treasures of art and learning. Magic and witchcraft hedged it in with a maze of mystical and symbolical secrets, and philosophy had woven a tissue of speculation round the person of the god. The sanctuary was indeed the centre of Hellenic culture in the city of Alexander; what marvel then, that the heathen should believe that with the overthrow of Serapis and his temple, the earth, nay the universe itself must sink into the abyss?
Anxious spirits and throbbing hearts were those that now sought shelter in the Serapeum, fully prepared to perish with their god, and yet eager with enthusiasm to avert his fall if possible.
A strange medley indeed of men and women had collected within these sacred precincts! Grave sages, philosophers, grammarians, mathematicians, naturalists, and physicians clung to Olympius and obeyed him in silence. Rhetoricians with shaven faces, Magians and sorcerers, whose long beards flowed over robes embroidered with strange figures; students, dressed after the fashion of their forefathers in the palmy days of Athens; men of every age, who dubbed themselves artists though they were no more than imitators of the works of a greater epoch, unhappy in that no one at this period of indifference to beauty called upon them to prove what they could do, or to put forth their highest powers. Actors, again, from the neglected theatres, starving histrions, to whom the stage was prohibited by the Emperor and Bishop, singers and flute-players; hungry priests and temple-servitors expelled from the closed sanctuaries; lawyers, scribes, ships' captains, artisans, though but very few merchants, for Christianity had ceased to be the creed of the poor, and the wealthy attached themselves to the faith professed by those in authority.
One of the students had contrived to bring a girl with him, and several others, seeing this, went back into the streets by the secret way and brought in damsels of no very fair repute, till the crowd of men was diversified by a considerable sprinkling of wreathed and painted girls, some of them the outcast maids of various temples, and others priestesses of higher character, who had remained faithful to the old gods or who practised magic arts.
Among these women one, a tall and dignified matron in mourning robes, was a conspicuous figure. This was Berenice, the mother of the young heathen who had been ridden down and wounded in the skirmish near the Prefect's house, and whose eyes Eusebius had afterwards closed. She had come to the Serapeum expressly to avenge her son's death and then to perish with the fall of the gods for whom he had sacrificed his young life. But the mad turmoil that surrounded her was more than she could bear; she stood, hour after hour, closely veiled and absorbed in her own thoughts, neither raising her eyes nor uttering a word, at the foot of a bronze statue of justice dispensing rewards and punishments.
Olympius had entrusted the command of the little garrison of armed men to Memnon, a veteran legate of great experience, who had lost his left arm in the war against the Goths. The high-priest himself was occupied alternately in trying to persuade the hastily-collected force to obey their leader, and in settling quarrels, smoothing difficulties, suppressing insubordination, and considering plans with reference to supplies for his adherents, and the offering of a great sacrifice at which all the worshippers of Serapis were to assist. Karnis kept near his friend, helping him so far as was possible; Orpheus, with others of the younger men, had been ordered to the roof, where they were employed—under the scorching sun, reflected from the copper-plated covering and the radiating surface of the dome—in loosening blocks of stone from the balustrade to be hurled down to-morrow on the besieging force.
Herse devoted herself to the sick and wounded, for a few who had ventured forth too boldly to aid in barricading the entrance, had been hurt by arrows and lances flung by the idle soldiery; and a still greater number were suffering from sun-stroke in consequence of toiling on the top of the building.
Inside the vast, thick-walled halls it was much cooler than in the streets even, and the hours glided fast to the besieged heathen. Many of them were fully occupied, or placed on guard; others were discussing the situation, and disputing or guessing at what the outcome might, or must be. Numbers, panic-stricken or absorbed in pious awe, sat huddled on the ground, praying, muttering magical formulas, or wailing aloud. The Magians and astrologers had retired with knots of followers into the adjoining studies, where they were comparing registers, making calculations, reading signs, devising new formulas and defending them against their opponents.
An incessant bustle went on, to and fro between these rooms and the great library, and the tables were covered with rolls and tablets containing ancient prophecies, horoscopes and potent exorcisms. Messengers, one after another, were sent out from thence to command silence in the great halls, where the assembled youths and girls were kissing, singing, shouting and dancing to the shrill pipe of flutes and twang of lutes, clapping their hands, rattling tambourines—in short, enjoying to the utmost the few hours that might yet be theirs before they must make the fatal leap into nothingness, or at least into the dim shades of death.
The sun was sinking when suddenly the great brazen gong was loudly struck, and the hard, blatant clatter rent the air of the temple-hall. The mighty waves of sound reverberated from the walls of the sanctuary like the surge of a clangorous sea, and sent their metallic vibration ringing through every room and cell, from the topmost observatory-turret to the deepest vault beneath, calling all who were within the precincts to assemble. The holy places filled at once; the throng poured in through the vestibule, and in a few minutes even the hypostyle, the sanctum of the veiled statue, was full to overflowing. Without any distinction of rank or sex, and regardless of all the usual formalities or the degrees of initiation which each had passed through, the worshippers of Serapis crowded towards the sacred niche, till a chain, held up by neokores—[Temple-servants]—at a respectful distance from the mystical spot, checked their advance. Densely packed and in almost breathless silence, they filled the nave and the colonnades, watching for what might befall.
Presently a dull low chant of men's voices was heard. This went on for a few minutes, and then a loud pean in honor of the god rang through the temple with an accompaniment of flutes, cymbals, lutes and trumpets.
Karnis had found a place with his wife and son; all three, holding hands, joined enthusiastically in the stirring hymn; and, with them, Porphyrius, who by accident was close to them, swelling the song of the multitude. All now stood with hands uplifted and eyes fixed in anxious expectancy on the curtain. The figures and emblems on the hanging were invisible in the gloom—but now-now there was a stir, as of life, in the ponderous folds,—they moved—they began to ripple like streams, brooks, water-falls, recovering motion after long stagnation—the curtain slowly sank, and at length it fell so suddenly that the eye could scarcely note the instant. From every lip, as but one voice, rose a cry of admiration, amazement, and delight, for Serapis stood revealed to his people.
The noble manhood of the god sat with dignity on a golden throne that was covered with a blaze of jewels; his gracious and solemn face looked down on the crowd of worshippers. The hair that curled upon his thoughtful brow, and the kalathos that crowned it were of pure gold At his feet crouched Cerberus, raising his three fierce heads with glistening ruby eyes. The body of the god—a model of strength in repose—and the drapery were of gold and ivory. In its perfect harmony as a whole, and the exquisite beauty of every detail, this statue bore the stamp of supreme power and divine majesty. When such a divinity as this should rise from his throne the earth indeed might quake and the heavens tremble! Before such a Lord the strongest might gladly bow, for no mortal ever shone in such radiant beauty. This Sovereign must triumph over every foe, even over death—the monster that lay writhing in impotent rage at his feet!
Gasping and thrilled with pious awe, enraptured but dumb with reverent fear, the assembled thousands gazed on the god dimly revealed to them in the twilight, when suddenly, for a moment of solemn glory, a ray of the setting sun—a shaft of intense brightness—pierced the star-spangled apse of the niche and fell on the lips of the god as though to kiss its Lord and Father.
A shout like a thunder-clap-like the roar of breakers on a reef, burst from the spectators; a shout of triumph so mighty that the statues quivered, the brazen altars rang, the hangings swayed, the sacred vessels clattered and the lamps trembled and swung; the echo rolled round the aisles like a whirlpool at the flood, and was dashed from pillar to column in a hundred wavelets of sound. The glorious sun still recognized its lord; Serapis still reigned in undiminished might; he had not yet lost the power to defend himself, his world and his children!
The sun was gone, night fell on the temple and suddenly there was a swaying movement of the apse above the statue; the stars were shaken by invisible hands, and colored flames twinkled with dazzling brightness from a myriad five-rayed perforations. Once more the god was revealed to his worshippers under a flood of magical glory, and now fully visible in his unique beauty. Again the great halls rang with the acclamations of the delirious throng; Olympius stepped forth, arrayed in a flowing robe with the insignia and decorations of the high-priesthood; standing in front of the image he poured on the pedestal a libation to the gods out of a golden cup, and waved a censer of the costliest incense. Then, in burning words, he exhorted all the followers of Serapis to fight and conquer for their god, or—if need must—to perish for and with him. He added a fervent prayer in a loud ringing voice—a cry for help that came from the bottom of his heart, and went to the souls of his hearers.
Then a solemn hymn was chanted as the curtain was raised; and while the assembled multitude watched it rise in reverent silence, the temple-servants lighted the lamps that illuminated the sanctuary from every cornice and pillar.
Karnis had left hold of his companions' hands, for he wanted to wipe away the tears of devotional excitement that flowed down his withered cheeks; Orpheus had thrown his arms round his mother, and Porphyrius, who had joined a group of philosophers and sages, sent a glance of sympathy to the old musician.
By an hour after sunset the sacrifice of a bull in the great court of the Serapeum was consummated, and the Moscosphragist announced that the god had graciously accepted it—the examination of the entrails showed more favorable indications than it had the day before. The flesh of the slaughtered beast went forthwith to the kitchen; and, if the savor of roast beef that presently rose up was as grateful to Serapis as to his worshippers, they might surely reckon on a happy issue from the struggle.
The besieged, indeed, were, ere long, in excellent spirits; for Olympius had taken care to store the cellars of the sanctuary with plenty of good wine, and the happy auguries drawn from the appearance of the god and the state of the victim had filled them with fresh confidence. As there was not sleeping accommodation for nearly all the men, they had to turn night into day; and as, to most of them, life consisted wholly in the enjoyment of the moment, and all was delightful that was new or strange, they soon eat and drank themselves into a valiant frame of mind.
Couches, such as they were wont to be on at meals, there were not, so each man snatched up the first thing he could lay his hands on to serve as a seat. When cups were lacking the jugs and vessels from the sanctuary were sent for, and passed from one to another. Many a youth lounged with his head in some fair one's lap; many a girl leaned back to back with some old man; and as flowers were not to be had, messengers were sent to the town to buy them, with vine-wreaths and other greenery.
They were easily procured, and with them came the news that the races were to be held next morning.
This information was regarded by many as being of the first importance; Nicarchus, the son of the rich Hippocleides, and Zenodotus a weaver of tapestry—whose quadriga had once proved victorious—hastily made their way into the town to give the requisite orders in their stables, and they were closely followed by Hippias, the handsome agitator, who was the favorite driver in the arena for the horses belonging to wealthy owners. In the train of these three every lover of horses vanished from the scene, with a number of Hippias' friends, and of flower-sellers, door-keepers, and ticket-holders-in short, of all who expected to derive special pleasure or profit from the games. Each man reflected that one could not be missed, and as the god was favorably disposed he might surely contrive to defend his own temple till after the races were over; they would then return to conquer or die with the rest.
Then some others began to think of wives and children in bed at home, and they, too, departed; still, by far the larger proportion remained behind—above three thousand in all, men and women. These at once possessed themselves of the half-emptied wine-jars left by the deserters; gay music was got up, and then, wreathed with garlands on their heads and shoulders, and 'filled with the god' they drank, shouted and danced far into the night. The merry feast soon became a wild orgy; loud cries of Evoe, and tumultuous singing reached the ears of the Magians, who had once more settled down to calculations and discussions over their rolls and tablets.
The mother of the youth that had been killed still sat huddled at the foot of the statue of justice, enduring the anguish of listening to these drunken revels with dull resignation. Every shout of laughter, every burst of mad mirth from the revellers above cut her to the heart—and yet, how they would have gladdened her if only one other voice could have mingled with those hundreds! When Olympius, still in his fullest dress, and carrying his head loftily as became him, made his way through the temple at the head of his subordinates, he noticed Berenice—whom he had known as a proud and happy mother—and begged her to join the friends whom he had bidden to his own table; but she dreaded any social contact with men whom she knew, and preferred to remain where she was at the feet of the goddess.
Wherever the high-priest went he was hailed with enthusiasm: "Rejoice," he would say to encourage the feasters, cheering them with wise and fervid exhortations, reminding them of Pharaoh Mycerinus who, having been told by an oracle that he had only six years to live, determined to prove the prophecy false, and by carousing through every night made the six years allotted to him a good dozen.
"Imitate him!" cried Olympius as he raised a cup to his lips, "crowd the joys of a year into the few hours that still are left us, and pour a libation to the god as I do, out of every cup ere you drink."
His appeal was answered by a rapturous shout; the flutes and cymbals piped and clanged, metal cups rang sharply as the drinkers pledged each other, and the girls thumped their tambourines, till the calf-skin droned and the bells in the frames tinkled shrilly.
Olympius thanked them, and bowed on all sides, as he walked from group to group of his adherents. Seldom, indeed, had his heart beat so high! His end perhaps was very near, but it should at least be worthy of his life.
He knew how the sunbeam had been reflected so as to kiss the statue's lips. For centuries had this startling little scene and the sudden illumination of the niche round the head of the god been worked in precisely the same way at high festivals—[They are mentioned by Rufinus.]—these were mere stimulants to the dull souls of the vulgar who needed to be stirred up by the miraculous power of the god, which the elect recognized throughout the universe, in the wondrous co-operation of forces and results in nature, and in the lives of men. He, for his part, firmly believed in Serapis and his might, and in the prophecies and calculations which declared that his fall must involve the dissolution of the organic world and its relapse into chaos.
Many winds were battling in the air, each one driving the ship of life towards the whirlpool. To-day or to-morrow—what matter which? The threatened cataclysm had no terrors for Olympius. One thing only was a pang to his vanity: No succeeding generations would preserve the memory of his heroic struggle and death for the cause of the gods. But all was not yet lost, and his sunny nature read in the glow of the dying clay the promise and dawn of a brilliant morrow. If the expected succor should arrive—if the good cause should triumph here in Alexandria—if the rising were to be general throughout Greek heathendom, then indeed had he been rightly named Olympius by his parents—then he would not change places with any god of Olympus—then the glory of his name, more lasting than bronze or marble, would shine forth like the sun, so long as one Greek heart honored the ancient gods and loved its native land.
This night—perhaps its last—should see a grand, a sumptuous feast; he invited his friends and adherents—the leaders of spiritual life in Alexandria—to a 'symposium', after the manner of the philosophers and dilettanti of ancient Athens, to be held in the great concert-hall of the Serapeum.
How different was its aspect from that of the Bishop's council-chamber! The Christians sat within bare walls, on wooden benches, round a plain table; the large room in which Olympius received his supporters was magnificently decorated, and furnished with treasures of art in fine inlaid work, beaten brass and purple stuffs-a hall for kings to meet in. Thick cushions, covered with lion and panther-skins, tempted fatigue or indolence; and when the hero of the hour joined his guests, after his progress through the precincts, every couch was occupied. To his right lay Helladius, the famous grammarian and high-priest of Zeus; Porphyrius, the benefactor of the Serapeum, was on his left; even Karnis had been allotted a place in his old friend's social circle, and greatly appreciated the noble juice of the grape, that was passed round, as well as the eager and intelligent friction of minds, from which he had long been cut off.
Olympius himself was unanimously chosen Symposiarch, and he invited the company to discuss, in the first instance, the time-honored question: Which was the highest good?
One and all, he said, they were standing on a threshold, as it were; and as travellers, quitting an old and beloved home to seek a new and unknown one in a distant land, pause to consider what particular joy that they have known under the shelter of the old Penates has been the dearest, so it would beseem them to reflect, at this supreme moment, what had been the highest good of their life in this world. They were on the eve, perhaps, of a splendid victory; but, perchance, on the other hand, their foot was already on the plank that led from the shore of life to Charon's bark.
The subject was a familiar one and a warm discussion was immediately started. The talk was more flowery and brilliant, no doubt, than in old Athens, but it led to no deeper views and threw no clearer light on the well-worn question. The wranglers could only quote what had been said long since as to the highest Good, and when presently Helladius called upon them to bring their minds to bear on the nature of humanity, a vehement disputation arose as to whether man were the best or the worst of created beings. This led to various utterances as to the mystical connection of the spiritual and material worlds, and nothing could be more amazing than the power of imagination which had enabled these mystical thinkers to people with spirits and daemons every circle of the ladder-like structure which connected the incomprehensible and self-sufficing One with the divine manifestation known as Man. It became quite intelligible that many Alexandrians should fear to fling a stone lest it might hit one of the good daemons of which the air was full—a spirit of light perhaps, or a protecting spirit. The more obscure their theories, the more were they overloaded with image and metaphor; all simplicity of statement was lost, and yet the disputants prided themselves on the brilliancy of their language and the wealth of their ideas. They believed that they had brought the transcendental within the grasp of intelligent sense, and that their empty speculations had carried them far beyond the narrow limits of the Ancients.
Karnis was in raptures; Porphyrius only wished for Gorgo by his side, for, like all fathers, he would rather that his child should have enjoyed this supreme intellectual treat than himself.
In Porphyrius' house, meanwhile, all was gloom and anxiety. In spite of the terrific heat Damia would not be persuaded to come down from the turret-room where she had collected all the instruments, manuals and formulas used by astrologers and Magians. A certain priest of Saturn, who had a great reputation as a master of such arts, and who, for many years, had been her assistant whenever she sought to apply her science to any important event, was in attendance—to give her the astrological tables, to draw circles, ellipses or triangles at her bidding, to interpret the mystical sense of numbers or letters, which now and then escaped her aged memory; he made her calculations or tested those she made herself, and read out the incantations which she thought efficacious under the circumstances. Occasionally, too, he suggested some new method or fresh formula by which she might verify her results.
She had fasted, according to rule, the whole forenoon, and was frequently so far overcome by the heat as to drop asleep in the midst of her studies; then, when she woke with a start, if her assistant had meanwhile worked out his calculation to a result contrary to her anticipations, she took him up sharply and made him begin again from the beginning. Gorge, went up from time to time; but, though she offered the old woman refreshment prepared by her own hand, she could not persuade her even to moisten her lips with a little fruitsyrup, for to break the prescribed fast might endanger the accuracy of her prognostications and the result of all her labor. However, when she seemed to doze, her granddaughter sprinkled strong waters about the room to freshen the air, poured a few drops on the old lady's dress, wiped the dews from her brow, and fanned her to cool her. Damia submitted to all this; and though she had only closed her weary eyes, she pretended to be asleep in order to have the pleasure of being cared for by her darling.
Towards noon she dismissed the Magian and allowed herself a short interval of rest and sleep; but as soon as she woke she collected her wits, and set to work again with fresh zeal and diligence. When, at last, she had mastered all the signs and omens, she knew for certain that nothing could avert the awful doom foretold by the oracles of old.
The fall of Serapis and the end of the world were at hand.
The Magian covered his head as he saw, plainly demonstrated, how she had reached this conclusion, and he groaned in sincere terror; she, however, dismissed him with perfect equanimity, handing him her purse, which she had filled in the morning, and saying:
"To last till the end."
The sun was now long past the meridian and the old woman, quite worn out, threw herself back in her chair and desired Gorgo to let no one disturb her; nay, not to return herself till she was sent for. As soon as Damia was alone she gazed at herself in a mirror for some little time, murmuring the seven vocables incessantly while she did so; and then she fixed her eyes intently on the sky. These strange proceedings were directed to a particular end, she was endeavoring to close her senses to the external world, to become blind, deaf, and impervious to everything material—the polluting burthen which divided her divine and spiritual part from the celestia fount whence it was derived; to set her soul free from its earthly shroud—free to gaze on the god that was its father. She had already more than once nearly attained to this state by long fasting and resolute abstraction and once, in a moment she could never forget, had enjoyed the dizzy ecstasy of feeling herself float, as it were through infinite space, like a cloud, bathed in glorious radiance. The fatigue that had been gradually over powering her now seconded her efforts; she soon felt slight tremor; a cold sweat broke out all over her; she lost all consciousness of her limbs, and all sense of sighs and hearing; a fresher and cooler air seemed to revive not her lungs only, but every part of her body, while undulating rays of red and violet light danced before her eyes. Was not their strange radiance an emanation from the eternal glory that she sought? Was not some mysterious power uplifting her, bearing her towards the highest goal? Was her soul already free from the bondage of the flesh? Had she indeed become one with God and had her earnest seeking for the Divinity ended in glorification? No; her arms which she had thrown up as if to fly, fell by her side it was all in vain. A pain—a trifling pain in her foot, had brought her down again to the base world of sense which she so ardently strove to soar away from.
Several times she took up the mirror, looked in it fixedly as before, and then gazed upwards; but each time that she lost consciousness of the material world and that her liberated soul began to move its unfettered pinions, some little noise, the twitch of a muscle, a fly settling on her hand, a drop of perspiration falling from her brow on to her cheek, roused her senses to reassert themselves.
Why—why was it so difficult to shake off this burthen of mortal clay? She thought of herself as of a sculptor who chisels away all superfluous material froth his block of marble, to reveal the image of the god within; but it was easier to remove the enclosing stone than to release the soul from the body to which it was so closely knit. Still, she did not give up the struggle to attain the object which others had achieved before her; but she got no nearer to it—indeed, less and less near, for, between her and that hoped-for climax, rose up a series of memories and strange faces which she could not get rid of. The chisel slipped aside, went wrong or lost its edge before the image could be extracted from the block.
One illusion after another floated before her eyes first it was Gorgo, the idol of her old heart, lying pale and fair on a sea of surf that rocked her on its watery waste—up high on the crest of a wave and then deep down in the abyss that yawned behind it. She, too—so young, a hardly-opened blossom—must perish in the universal ruin, and be crushed by the same omnipotent hand that could overthrow the greatest of the gods; and a glow of passionate hatred snatched her away from the aim of her hopes. Then the dream changed she saw a scattered flock of ravens flying in wide circles, at an unattainable height, against the clouds; suddenly they vanished and she saw, in a grey mist, the monument to Porphyrius' wife, Gorgo's long-departed mother. She had often visited the mausoleum with tender emotion, but she did not want to see it now—not now, and she shook it off; but in its place rose up the image of her daughter-in-law herself, the dweller in that tomb, and no effort of will or energy availed to banish that face. She saw the dead woman as she had seen her on the last fateful occasion in her short life. A solemn and festal procession was passing out through the door of their house, headed by flute-players and singing-girls; then came a white bull; a garland of the scarlet flowers of the pomegranate—[This tree was regarded as the symbol of fertility, on account of its many-seeded fruit.]—hung round its massive neck, and its horns were gilt. By its side walked slaves, carrying white baskets full of bread and cakes and heaps of flowers, and these were followed by others, bearing light-blue cages containing geese and doves. The bull, the calves, the flowers and the birds were all to be deposited in the temple of Eileithyia, as a sacrifice to the protecting goddess of women in child-birth. Close behind the bull came Gorgo's mother, dressed with wreaths, walking slowly and timidly, with shy, downcast eyes-thinking perhaps of the anguish to come, and putting up a silent prayer.
Damia followed with the female friends of the house, the clients and their wives and some personal attendants, all carrying pomegranates in the right hand, and holding in the left a long wreath of flowers which thus connected the whole procession.
In this order they reached the ship-yard; but at that spot they were met by a band of crazy monks from the desert monasteries, who, seeing the beast for sacrifice, abused them loudly, cursing the heathen. The slaves indignantly drove them off, but then the starveling anchorites fell upon the innocent beast which was the chief abomination in their eyes. The bull tossed his huge head, snuffing and snorting to right and left, stuck out his tail and rushed away from the boy whose guidance he had till now meekly followed, flung a monk high in the air with his huge horns, and then turned in his fury on the women who were behind.
They fled like a flock of doves on which a hawk comes swooping down; some were driven quite into the lake and others up against the paling of the shipyard, while Damia herself—who was going through it all again in the midst of her efforts to rise to the divinity—and the young wife whom she had vainly tried to shelter and support, were both knocked down. To that hour of terror Gorgo owed her birth, while to her mother it was death.
On the following day Alexandria beheld a funeral ceremony as solemn, as magnificent, and as crowded as though a conquering hero were being entombed; it was that of the monk whom the bull had gored; the Bishop had proclaimed that by this attack on the abomination of desolation—the blood-sacrifice of idolatry—he had won an eternal crown in Paradise.
But now the black ravens crossed Damia's vision once more, till presently a handsome young Greek gaily drove them off with his thyrsus. His powerful and supple limbs shone with oil, applied in the gymnasium of Timagetes, the scene of his frequent triumphs in all the sports and exercises of the youthful Greeks. His features and waving hair were those of her son Apelles; but suddenly his aspect changed: he was an emaciated penitent, his knees bent under the weight of a heavy cross; his widow, Mary, had declared him a martyr to the cause of the crucified Jew and defamed his memory in the eyes of his own son and of all men. Damia clenched her trembling hands. Again those ravens came swirling round, flapping their wings wildly over the prostrate penitent.
Then her husband appeared to her, calmly indifferent to the birds of ill-omen. He looked just as she remembered him many—so many years ago, when he had come in smiling and said: "The best stroke of business I ever did! For a sprinkling of water I have secured the corn trade with Thessalonica and Constantinople; that is a hundred gold solidi for each drop."
Yes, he had made a good bargain. The profits of that day's work were multiplied by tens, and water, nothing in the world but Nile water—Baptismal water the priest had called it—had filled her son's money-bags, too, and had turned their plot of land into broad estates; but it had been tacitly understood that this sprinkling of water established a claim for a return, and this both father and son had solemnly promised. Its magic turned everything they touched to gold, but it brought a blight on the peace of the household. One branch, which had grown up in the traditions of the old Macedonian stock, had separated from the other; and her husband's great lie lay between them and the family still living in the Canopic way, like a wide ocean embittered with the salt of hatred. That he had infused poison into his son's life and compelled him, proud as he was, to forfeit the dignity of a free and high-minded man. Though devoted in his heart to the old gods he had humbled himself, year after year, to bow the knee with the hated votaries of the Christian faith, and in their church, to their crucified Lord, and had publicly confessed Christ. The water—the terrible thaumaturgic stream—clung to him more inseparably than the brand-mark on a slave's arm. It could neither be dried up nor wiped away; for if the false Christian, who was really a zealous heathen, had boldly confessed the Olympian gods and abjured the odious new faith, the gifts of the all-powerful water and all the possessions of their old family would be confiscated to the State and Church, and the children of Porphyrius, the grandchildren of the wealthy Damia, would be beggars. And this—all this—for the sake of a crucified Jew.
The gods be praised the end of all this wretchedness was at hand! A thrill of ecstasy ran through her as she reflected that with herself and her children, every soul, everything that bore the name of Christian would be crushed, shattered and annihilated. She could have laughed aloud but that her throat was so dry, her tongue so parched; but her scornful triumph was expressed in every feature, as her fancy showed her Marcus riding along the Canopic street with that little heathen hussy Dada, the singing girl, while her much-hated daughter-in-law looked after them, beating her forehead in grief and rage.
Quite beside herself with delight the old woman rocked backwards and forwards in her chair; not for long, however, for the black birds seemed to fill the whole room, describing swift, interminable spirals round her head. She could not hear them, but she could see them, and the whirling vortex fascinated her; she could not help turning her head to follow their flight; she grew giddy and she was forced to try to recover her balance.
The old woman sat huddled in her chair, her hands convulsively clutching the arms, like a horseman whose steed has run away with him round and round the arena; till at length, worn out by excitement and exhaustion, she became unconscious, and sank in a heap on the ground, rigid and apparently lifeless.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Christianity had ceased to be the creed of the poor He spoke with pompous exaggeration Whether man were the best or the worst of created beings
By Georg Ebers
Gorgo, when she had left her grandmother, could not rest. Her lofty calmness of demeanor had given way to a restless mood such as she had always contemned severely in others, since she had ceased to be a vehement child and grown to be a woman. She tried to beguile the alarm that made her pulses beat so quickly, and the heart-sickness that ached like a wound, by music and singing; but this only added to her torment. The means by which she could usually recover her equanimity of mind had lost their efficacy, and Sappho's longing hymn, which she began to sing, had only served to bring the fervid longing of her own heart to light—to set it, as it were, in the full glare of the sun. She had become aware that every fibre, every nerve of her being yearned for the man she loved; she would have thrown away her life like a hollow nut for one single hour of perfect joy with him and in him. The faith in the old gods, the heathen world which contained the ideal of her young soul, her detestation of Christianity, her beautiful art—everything, in short, that had filled the spiritual side of her life, was cast into the shade by the one absorbing passion that possessed her soul. Every feeling, every instinct, urged her to abandon herself entirely to her lover, and yet she never for one instant doubted which side she would take in the approaching conflict of the great powers that ruled the world. The last few hours had only confirmed her conviction that the end of all things was at hand. The world was on the eve of destruction; she foresaw that she must perish—perish with Constantine, and that, in her eyes, was a grace from the gods.
While Damia was vainly struggling to liberate her soul from the bondage of the flesh, Gorgo had been wandering uneasily about the house; now going to the slaves, encouraging them with brave words, and giving them employment to keep them from utter desperation, and then stealing up to see whether her grandmother might not by this time be in need of her. As it grew dark she observed that several of the women, and even some of the men, had made their escape. These were such as had already shown a leaning towards the new faith, and who now made off to join their fellow-Christians, or to seek refuge in the churches under the protection of the crucified God whose supreme power might, perhaps, even yet, avert the impending catastrophe.
Twice had Porphyrius sent a messenger to assure his mother and daughter that all was well with him, that a powerful party was prepared to defend the Serapeum, and that he should pass the night in the temple. The Romans were evidently hesitating to attack it, and if, next morning, the heathen should succeed in repelling the first onset, reinforcements might yet be brought up in time. Gorgo could not share these hopes; a client of her father's had brought in a rumor that the Biamites, after advancing as far as Naucratis, had been dispersed by a few of the Imperial maniples. Fate was stalking on its way, and no one could give it pause.
The evening brought no coolness, and when it was already quite dark, as her grandmother had not yet called her, Gorgo could no longer control her increasing anxiety, so, after knocking in vain at the door of the observatory, she went in. Her old nurse preceded her with a lamp, and the two women stood dumb with consternation, for the old lady lay senseless on the ground. Her head was thrown back against the seat of the chair off which she had slipped, and her pale face was lifeless and horrible to look at, with its half-closed eyes and dropped jaw. Wine, water, and strong essences were all at hand, and they laid the unconscious woman on a couch intended for the occasional use of the wearied observer. In a few minutes they had succeeded in reviving the old lady; but her eyes rested without recognition on the girl who knelt by her side, and she murmured to herself: "The ravens—where are they gone? Ravens!"
Her glance wandered round the room, to the tablets and rolls which had been tossed off the couch and the table to make room for her, and for the lamps and medicaments. They lay in disorder on the floor, and the sight of this confusion produced a favorable excitement and reaction; she succeeded in expressing herself in husky accents and broken, hardly intelligible sentences, so far as to scold them sharply for their irreverence for the precious documents, and for the disorder they had created. The waiting-woman proceeded to pick them up: but Damia again became unconscious. Gorgo bathed her brow and tried to pour some wine between her teeth, but she clenched them too firmly, till the slave-woman came to her assistance and they succeeded in making Damia swallow a few drops. The old woman opened her eyes, smacking her tongue feebly; but she took the cup into her own hand to hold it to her lips; and though she trembled so that half the contents were spilt, she drank eagerly till it was quite empty. "More," she gasped with the eagerness of intense thirst, "more—I want drink!"
Gorgo gave her a second and a third draught which Damia drank with equal eagerness; then, with a deep breath, she looked up fully conscious, at her granddaughter.
"Thank you, child," she said. "Now I shall do very well for a little while. The material world and all that belongs to it weighs us down and clings to us like iron fetters. We may long and strive to be free, but it pursues us and holds us fast. Only those who are content with their miserable humanity can enjoy it. They laugh, as you know, at Praxilla, the poetess, because she makes the dying Adonis lament, when face to face with death, that he is forced to leave the apples and pears behind him. But is not that subtly true? Yes, yes; Praxilla is right! We fast, we mortify ourselves—I have felt it all myself—to partake of divinity. We almost perish of hunger and thirst, when we might be so happy if only we would be satisfied with apples and pears! No man has ever yet succeeded in the great effort; those who would be truly happy must be content with small things. That is what makes children so happy. Apples and pears! Well, everything will be at an end for me ere long—even those. But if the great First Cause spares himself in the universal crash, there is still the grand idea of Apples and Pears; and who knows but that it may please Him, when this world is destroyed, to frame another to come after it. Will He then once more embody the ideas of Man—and Apples and Pears? It would be plagiarism from himself. Nay, if He is merciful, He will never again give substance to that hybrid idea called Man; or, if He does, He will let the poor wretch be happy with apples and pears—I mean trivial joys; for all higher joys, be they what they may, are vanity and vexation. . . . Give me another draught. Ah, that is good! And to-morrow is the end. I could find it in my heart to regret the good gifts of Dionysus myself; it is better than apples and pears; next to that comes the joy that Eros bestows on mortals, and there must be an end to all that, too. That, however, is above the level of apples and pears. It is great, very great happiness, and mingled therefor with bitter sorrow. Rapture and anguish—who can lay down the border line that divides them? Smiles and tears alike belong to both. And you are weeping? Aye, aye—poor child! Come here and kiss me." Damia drew the head of the kneeling girl close to her bosom and pressed her lips to Gorge's brow. Presently, however, she relaxed her embrace and, looking about the room, she exclaimed:
"How you have mixed and upset the book-rolls! If only I could show you how clearly everything agrees and coincides. We know now exactly how it will all happen. By the day after to-morrow there will be no more earth, no more sky; and I will tell you this, child: If, when Serapis falls, the universe does not crumble to pieces like a ruinous hovel, then the wisdom of the Magians is a lie, the course of the stars has nothing to do with the destinies of the earth and its inhabitants, the planets are mere lamps, the sun is no more than a luminous furnace, the old gods are marsh-fires, emanations from the dark bog of men's minds—and the great Serapis. . . . But why be angry with him? There is no doubt—no if nor but. . . . Give me the diptychon and I will show you our doom. There—just here—my sight is so dazzled, I cannot make it out.—And if I could, what matter? Who can alter here below what has been decided above? Leave me to sleep now, and I will explain it all to you to-morrow if there is still time. Poor child, when I think how we have tormented you to learn what you know, and how industrious you have been! And now—to what end? I ask you, to what end? The great gulf will swallow up one and all."
"So be it, so be it!" cried Gorgo interrupting her. "Then, at any rate, nothing that I love on earth will be lost to me before I die!"
"And the enemy will perish in the same ruin!" continued Damia, her eyes sparkling with revived fire. "But where shall we go to—where? The soul is divine by nature and cannot be destroyed. It must return—say, am I right or wrong?—It will return to its first fount and cause; for like attracts and absorbs like, and thus our deification, our union with the god will be accomplished."
"I believe it—I am sure of it!" replied Gorgo with conviction.
"You are sure of it?" retorted the old woman. "But I am not. For our clearest knowledge is but guesswork when it is not based on numbers. Nothing is proved or provable but by numbers, but they are surer than the rocks in the sea; that is why I believe in our coming doom, for, on those tablets, we have calculated it to a certainty. But who can calculate evidence of the future fate of the soul? If, indeed, the old order should not pass away—if the depths should remain below and the empyrean still keep its place above—then, to be sure, your studies would not be in vain; for then your soul, which is fixed on spiritual, supernatural and sublime conceptions, would be drawn upwards to the great Intelligence of which it is the offspring, to the very god, and become one with him—absorbed into him, as the rain-drop fallen from a cloud rises again and is reunited to its parent vapor. Then—for there may be a metempsychosis—your songful spirit might revive to inform a nightingale, then . . ."
Damia paused; and gazed upwards as if in ecstasy, and it was not till a few minutes later that she went on, with a changed expression in her face: "Then my son's widow, Mary, would be hatched out of a serpent's egg and would creep a writhing asp. . . . Great gods! the ravens! What can they mean? They come again. Air, air! Wine! I cannot—I am choking—take it away!—To-morrow—to-day. . . . Everything is going; do you see—do you feel? It is all black—no, red; and now black again. Everything is sinking; hold me, save me; the floor is going from under me.—Where is Porphyrius? Where is my son?—My feet are so cold; rub them. It is the water! rising—it is up to my knees. I am sinking—help! save me! help!" The dying woman fought with her arms as if she were drowning; her cries for help grew fainter, her head drooped on her laboring chest, and in a few minutes she had breathed her last in her grandchild's arms, and her restless, suffering soul was free.
Never before had Gorgo seen death. She could not persuade herself that the heart which had been so cold for others, but had throbbed so warmly and tenderly for her, was now stilled for ever; that the spirit which, even in sleep, had never been at rest, had now found eternal peace. The slave-woman had hastily taken her place, had closed the dead woman's eyes and mouth, and done all she could to diminish the horror of the scene, and the terrible aspect of the dead in the sight of the girl who had been her one darling. But Gorgo had remained by her side, and, while she did everything in her power to revive the stiffening body, the overwhelming might of Death had come home to her with appalling clearness. She felt the limbs of one she had loved growing cold and rigid under her hands, and her spirit rose in obstinate rebellion against the idea that annihilation stood between her and the woman who had so amply filled a mother's place. She insisted on having every method of resuscitation tried that had ever been heard of, and made her nurse send for physicians, though the woman solemnly assured her that human help was of no avail: then she sent for the priest of Saturn who—as the dead woman herself had told her—knew mighty spells which had called back many a departed spirit to the body it had quitted.
When, at last, she was alone and gazed on the hard, set features of the dead, though she shuddered with horror, she so far controlled herself as to press her lips in sorrow and gratitude to the thin hand whose caresses she had been wont to accept as a mere matter of course. How cold and heavy it was! She shivered and dropped it, and the large rings on the fingers rattled on the wooden frame of the couch. There was no hope; she understood that her friend and mother was indeed dead and silent forever.
Deep and bitter grief overwhelmed her completely, with the sense of abandoned loneliness, the humiliating feeling of helplessness against a brutal power that marches on, scorning humanity, as a warrior treads down the grass and flowers in his path. She fell on her knees by the corpse, sobbing passionately, and crying like an indignant child when a stronger companion has robbed it of some precious possession. She wept with rage at her own impotence; and her tears flowed faster and faster as she more fully realized how lonely she was, and what a blow this must be to her father. In this hour no pleasant reminiscences of past family happiness came to infuse a drop of sweetness into the bitterness of her grief. Only one reflection brought her any comfort, and that was the thought that the grave which had yawned already for her grandmother would soon, very soon, open for herself and all living souls. On the table, close at hand, lay the evidence of their impending doom, and a longing for that end gradually took complete possession of her, excluding every other feeling. Thinking of this she rose from her knees and ceased to weep.
When, presently, her waiting-woman should return, she was resolved to leave the house at once; she could not bear to stay; her feelings and duty alike indicated the place where she might find the last hour's happiness that she expected or desired of life. Her father must learn from herself, and not from a stranger, of the loss that had befallen them, and she knew that he was in the Serapeum—on the very spot where she might hope next morning to meet Constantine. It would be her lover's duty to open the gate to destruction, and she would be there to pass through it at his side.
She waited a long, long time, but at last there was a noise on the stairs. That was her nurse's step, but she was not alone. Had she brought the leech and the exorciser? The door opened and the old steward came in, carrying a three-branched lamp; then followed the slave-woman, and then—her heart stood still then came Constantine and his mother.
Gorgo, pale and speechless, received her unexpected visitors. The nurse had failed to find the physician, whose aid would, at any rate, have come too late; and as the housekeeper had taken herself off with others of the Christian slaves, the faithful soul had said to herself that "her child" would want some womanly help and comfort in her trouble, and had gone to the house of their neighbor Clemens, to entreat his wife to come with her to see the dead, and visit her forlorn young mistress. Constantine, who had come home a short time previously, had said nothing, but had accompanied the two women.
While Constantine gazed with no unkindly feelings at the still face of Damia—to whom, after all, he owed many a little debt of kindness—and then turned to look at Gorgo who stood downcast, pale, and struggling to breathe calmly, Dame Marianne tried to proffer a few words of consolation. She warmly praised everything in the dead woman which was not in her estimation absolutely reprobate and godless, and brought forward all the comforting arguments which a pious Christian can command for the edification and encouragement of those who mourn a beloved friend; but to Gorgo all this well-meant discourse was as the babble of an unknown tongue; and it was only when, at length, Marianne went up to her and drew her to her motherly bosom, to kiss her, and bid her be welcome under Clelnens' roof till Porphyrius should be at home again, that she understood that the good woman meant kindly, and honestly desired to help and comfort her.
But the allusion to her father reminded her of the first duty in her path; she roused her energies, thanked Marianne warmly, and begged her only to assist her in carrying the corpse into the thalamos, and then to take charge of the keys. She herself, she explained, meant at once to seek her father, since he ought to learn from no one but herself of his mother's death. Nor would she listen for a moment to her friend's pressing entreaties that she would put off this task, and pass the night, at any rate, under her roof.
Constantine had kept in the background; it was not till Gorgo approached the dead and gave the order to carry the body down into the house that he came forward, and with simple feeling offered her his hand. The girl looked frankly in his face, and, as she put her hand in his, she said in a low voice: "I was unjust to you, Constantine. I insulted and hurt you; but I repented sincerely, even before you had left the house. And you owe me no grudge, I know, for you understood how forlorn I must be and came to see me. There is no ill-feeling, is there, nothing to come between us?"
"Nothing, nothing!" he eagerly exclaimed, seizing her other hand with passionate fervor.
She felt as if all the blood in her body had rushed in a full tide to her heart—as if he were some part of her very being, that had been torn out, snatched from her, and that she must have back again, even if it cost them both their life and happiness. The impulse was irresistible; she drew away her hands from his grasp and flung them round his neck, clinging to him as a weary child clings to its mother. She did not know how it had come about—how such a thing was possible, but it was done; and without paying any heed to Marianne, who looked on in dismay while her son's lips were pressed to the brow and lips of the lovely idolatress, she wept upon her lover's shoulders, feeling a thousand roses blossoming in her soul and a thousand thorns piercing and tearing her heart.
It had to be, that she felt; it was at once their union and their parting. Their common destiny was but for a moment, and that moment had come and gone. All that now retrained for them was death—destruction, with all things living; and she looked forward to this, as a man watches for the dawn after a sleepless night. Marianne stood aside; she dimly perceived that something vital was going on, that something inevitable had happened which would admit of no interference. Gorgo, as she freed herself from Constantine's embrace, stood strangely solemn and unapproachable. To the simple matron she was an inscrutable riddle to which she could find no clue; but she was pleased, nevertheless, when Gorgo came up to her and kissed her hand. She could not utter a word, for she felt that whatever she might say, it would not be the right thing; and it was a real relief to her to busy herself over the removal of the body, in which she could be helpful.
Gorgo had covered the dead face; and when old Damia had been carried down to the thalamos and laid in state on the bridal bed, she strewed the couch with flowers.
Meanwhile, the priest of Saturn had been found, and he declared in all confidence that no power on earth could have recalled this departed soul. Damia's sudden end and the girl's great grief went to his faithful heart, and he gladly acceded to Gorgo's request that he would wait for her by the garden-gate and escort her to the Serapeum. When he had left them she gave the keys of her grandmother's chests and cupboards into Marianne's keeping; then she went into the adjoining room, where Constantine had been waiting while she decked the bed of death, and bid him a solemn, but apparently calm, farewell. He put out his arm to clasp her to his heart, but this she would not permit; and when he besought her to go home with them she answered sadly, "No, my dearest . . . I must not; I have other duties to fulfil."
"Yes," he replied emphatically, "and I, too—I have mine. But you have given yourself to me. You are my very own; you belong to me only, and not to yourself; and I desire, I command you to yield to my first request. Go with my mother, or stay here, if you will, with the dead. Wherever your father may be, it is not, cannot be, the right place for you—my betrothed bride. I can guess where he is. Oh! Gorgo, be warned.
"The fate of the old gods is sealed. We are the stronger and to-morrow, yes to-morrow—by your own head, by all I hold dear and sacred!—Serapis will fall!"
"I know it," she said firmly. "And you are charged to lay hands on the god?"
"I am, and I shall do it."
She nodded approbation and then said submissively and sweetly: "It is your duty, and you cannot do otherwise. And come what may we are one, Constantine, forever one. Nothing can part us. Whatever the future may bring, we belong to each other, to stand or fall together. I with you, you with me, till the end of time." She gave him her hand and looked lovingly into his eyes; then she threw herself into his mother's arms and kissed her fondly.
"Come, come with me, my child," said Marianne; but Gorgo freed herself, exclaiming: "Go, go; if you love me leave me; go and let me be alone."
She went back into the thalamos where the dead lay at peace, and before the others could follow her she had opened a door hidden behind some tapestry near the bed, and fled into the garden.
The night was hot and gloomy. Heavy clouds gathered in the north, and wreaths of mist, like a hot vapor-bath, swayed over the crisply-foaming wavelets that curled the lustreless waters of the Mareotis Lake. The moon peeped, pale and shrouded, out of a russet halo, and ghostly twilight reigned in the streets, still heated by the baked walls of the houses.
To the west, over the desert, a dull sulphurous yellow streaked the black clouds, and from time to time the sultry air was rent by a blinding flash sent across the firmament from the north. There was a hot, sluggish wind blowing from the southwest, which drove the sand across the lake into the streets; the fine grit stung: and burnt the face of the wanderer who hurried on with half-closed eyes and tightly-shut lips. A deep oppression seemed to have fallen on nature and on man; the sudden gusts of the heated breeze, the arrow-like shafts of lightning, the weird shapes and colors of the clouds, all combined to give a sinister, baleful and portentous aspect to this night, as though skies and waters, earth and air were brooding over some tremendous catastrophe.
Gorgo had thrown a veil and handkerchief round her head and followed the priest with an aching brow and throbbing heart. When she heard a step behind her she started-for it might be Constantine following her up; when a gust of wind flung the stinging sand in her face, or the storm-flash threw a lurid light on the sky, her heart stood still, for was not this the prelude to the final crash.
She was familiar with the way they were going, but its length seemed to have stretched tenfold. At last, however, they reached their destination. She gave the pass-word at the gate of her father's timber-yard and exchanged the signs agreed upon; in a few minutes she had made her way through the piles of beams and planks that screened the entrance to the aqueduct—a slave who knew her leading the way with a light—and she and her companion entered the underground passage.
It was hot and close; bats, scared by the flare of the torch, fluttered round her with a ghostly rustle, startling and disgusting her; still, she felt less alarm here than outside; and when, as she went forward she thought of the great temple she was coming to, of its wonderful beauty and solemn majesty, she only cared to press onward to that refuge of ineffable splendor where all would be peace. To die there, to perish there with her lover, did not seem hard; nay, she felt proud to think that she might await death in the noblest edifice ever raised to a god by mortal hands. Here Fate might have its way; she had known the highest joy she had ever dreamed of, and where on earth was there a sublimer tomb than this sanctuary of the sovereign of the universe, whose supremacy even the other gods acknowledged with trembling!
She had known the sacred halls of the temple from her childhood, and she pictured them as filled with thousands of lofty souls, united in this supreme hour by one feeling and one purpose. She even fancied she could hear the inspired and heartfelt strains of the enthusiasts who were prepared to give their lives for the god of their fathers, that she breathed the odor of incense and burnt sacrifices, that she saw the chorus of youths and maidens, led by priests and dancing with solemn grace in mazy circles round the flower-decked altars. There among the elders who had gathered round Olympius to meditate devoutly on the coming doom and on the inmost meaning of the mysteries—among the adepts who were anxiously noting, in the observatories of the Serapeum, the fateful courses of the stars, the swirling of the clouds and the flight of birds, she would doubtless find her father; and the fresh wound bled anew as she remembered that she was the bearer of news which must deeply shock and grieve him. Still, no doubt, she would find him wrapped in dignified readiness for the worst, sorrowing serenely for the doomed world, and so her melancholy message would come to a prepared and resigned heart.
She had no fear of the crowd of men she would find in the Serapeum. Her father and Olympius were there to protect her, and Dame Herse, too, would be a support and comfort; but even without those three, on such a night as this—the last perhaps that they might ever see—she would have ventured without hesitation among thousands, for she firmly believed that every votary of the gods was awaiting his own end and the crash of falling skies with devout expectancy, and perhaps with not less terror than herself.
These were her thoughts as she and her guide stopped at a strong door. This was presently opened and they found themselves in an underground chamber, devoted to the mysteries of the worship of Serapis, in which the adepts were required to go through certain severe ordeals before they were esteemed worthy to be received into the highest order of the initiated—the Esoterics. The halls and corridors which she now went through, and which she had never before seen, were meagrely lighted with lamps and torches, and all that met her eye filled her with reverent awe while it excited her imagination. Everything, in fact—every room and every image—was as unlike nature, and as far removed from ordinary types as possible, in arrangement and appearance. After passing through a pyramidal room, with triangular sides that sloped to a point, she came to one in the shape of a polygonal prism. In a long, broad corridor she had to walk on a narrow path, bordered by sphinxes; and there she clung tightly to her guide, for on one side of the foot-way yawned a gulf of great depth. In another place she heard, above her head, the sound of rushing waters, which then fell into the abyss beneath with a loud roar. After this she came upon a large grotto, hewn in the living rock and defended by a row of staring crocodiles' heads, plated with gold; the heavy smell of stale incense and acrid resins choked her, and her way now lay over iron gratings and past strangely contrived furnaces. The walls were decorated with colored reliefs: Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus toiling at his stone, looked down on her in hideous realism as she went. Rock chambers, fast closed with iron doors, as though they enclosed inestimable treasures or inscrutable secrets, lay on either hand, and her dress swept against numerous images and vessels closely shrouded in hangings.
When she ventured to look round, her eye fell on monstrous forms and mystical signs and figures; if she glanced upwards, she saw human and animal forms, and mixed with these the various constellations, sailing in boats—the Egyptian notion of their motions—along the back of a woman stretched out to an enormous length; or, again, figures by some Greek artist: the Pleiades, Castor and Pollux as horsemen with stars on their heads, and Berenice's star-gemmed hair.
The effect on the girl was bewildering, overpowering, as she made her way through this underground world. The things she had glimpses of were very sparely illuminated, nay scarcely discernible, and yet appallingly real; what mysteries, what spells might not be hidden in all she did not see! She felt as if the end of life, which she was looking for, had already begun, as if she had already gone down, alive, into Hades.
The path gradually sloped upwards and at last she ascended, by a spiral staircase, to the ground-floor of the temple. Once or twice she had met a few men, but solemn silence reigned in those subterranean chambers.
The sound of their approaching and receding steps had only served to make her aware of the complete stillness. This was just as it should be—just as she would have it. This peace reminded her of the profound silence of nature before a tempest bursts and rages.
Gorgo took off her veil as she went up the stairs, shook out the folds of her dress, and assumed the dignified and reverent demeanor which became a young girl of rank and position when approaching the altars of the divinity. But as she reached the top a loud medley of noises and voices met her ear-flutes, drums?—The sacred dance, she supposed, must be going on.
She came out into a room on one side of the hypostyle; her companion opened a high door, plated with gilt bronze and silver, and Gorgo followed him, walking gravely with her head held high and her eyes fixed on the ground, into the magnificent hall where the sacred image sat enthroned in veiled majesty. They crossed the colonnade at the side of the hypostyle and went down two steps into the vast nave of the temple.
The wild tumult that she had heard on first opening the door had surprised and puzzled her; but now, as she timidly looked up and around her, she felt a shock of horror and revulsion such as might come over a man who, walking by night and believing that he is treading on flowers, suddenly finds that the slimy slope of a bottomless bog is leading him to perdition. She tottered and clutched at a statue, gazing about her, listening to the uproar, and wondering whether she were awake or dreaming.
She tried not to see and hear what was going on there; it was revolting, loathsome, horrible; but it was too manifest to be overlooked or ignored; its vulgarity and horror forced it on her attention. For some time she stood spell-bound, paralyzed; but then she covered her face with her hands; maidenly shame, bitter disillusion, and pious indignation at the gross desecration of all that she deemed most sacred and inviolable surged up in her stricken soul, and she burst into tears, weeping as she had never wept in all her life before. Sobbing bitterly, she wrapped her face in her veil, as though to protect herself from storm and chill.
No one heeded her; her companion had left her to seek her father. She could only await his return, and she looked round for a hiding place. Then she observed a woman in mourning garb sitting huddled at the foot of the statue of justice; she recognized her as the widow of Asclepiodorus and breathed more freely as she went up to her and said, between her sobs "Let me sit by you; we can mourn together."
"Yes, yes, come," said the other; and without enquiring what Gorgo's trouble might be, moved only by the mysterious charm of finding another in like sorrow with herself, she drew the girl to her and bending over her, at length found relief in tears.
The two weeping women sat in silence, side by side, while in front of them the orgy went on its frantic course. A party of men and women were dancing down the hall, singing and shouting. Flutes yelled, cymbals clanged, drums rattled and droned, without either time or tune. Drunken pastophori had flung open the rooms where the vestments and sacred vessels were kept, and from these treasuries the ribald mob had dragged forth panther-skins such as the priests wore when performing the sacred functions, brass cars for carrying sacrifices, wooden biers on which the images of the gods were borne in solemn processions, and other precious objects. In a large room adjoining, a party of students and girls were concocting some grand scheme for which they needed much time and large supplies of wine; but most of those who had possessed themselves of the plunder had taken it into the hypostyle and were vying with each other in extravagant travesties.