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- An Egyptian Princess, Volume 1. - 4/11 -
see rising above the waters, is the dwelling of my friend Rhodopis. It was built by her husband Charaxus, and all her friends, not excepting the king himself, vie with one another in adding new beauties to it year by year. A useless effort! Let them adorn that house with all the treasures in the world, the woman who lives within will still remain its best ornament!"
[We are writing of the month of October, when the Nile begins to sink. The inundations can now be accurately accounted for, especially since the important and laborious synoptical work of H. Barth and S. Baker. They are occasioned by the tropical rains, and the melting of the snows on the high mountain-ranges at the Equator. In the beginning of June a gradual rising of the Nile waters can be perceived; between the 15th and 20th June, this changes to a rapid increase; in the beginning of October the waters reach their highest elevation, a point, which, even after having begun their retreat, they once more attempt to attain; then, at first gradually, and afterwards with ever increasing rapidity, they continue to sink. In January, February and March, the Nile is still drying up; and in May is at its lowest point, when the volume of its waters is only one- twentieth of that in October.]
The old man sat up, threw a passing glance at the building, smoothed the thick grey beard which clothed his cheeks and chin, but left the lips free,--[The Spartans were not in the habit of wearing a beard on the upper lip.]--and asked abruptly: "Why so much enthusiasm, Phanes, for this Rhodopis? How long have the Athenians been wont to extol old women?" At this remark the other smiled, and answered in a self- satisfied tone, "My knowledge of the world, and particularly of women, is, I flatter myself, an extended one, and yet I repeat, that in all Egypt I know of no nobler creature than this grey-haired woman. When you have seen her and her lovely grandchild, and heard your favorite melodies sung by her well-practised choir of slave-girls, I think you will thank me for having brought you hither."--"Yet," answered the Spartan gravely, "I should not have accompanied you, if I had not hoped to meet Phryxus, the Delphian, here."
"You will find him here; and besides, I cannot but hope that the songs will cheer you, and dispel your gloomy thoughts." Aristomachus shook his head in denial, and answered: "To you, sanguine Athenians, the melodies of your country may be cheering: but not so to me; as in many a sleepless night of dreams, my longings will be doubled, not stilled by the songs of Alkman."
[Alkman (Attic, Alkmaeon) flourished in Sparta about 650 B. C. His mother was a Lydian slave in Sardes, and he came into the possession of Agesides, who gave him his freedom. His beautiful songs soon procured him the rights of a Lacedaemonian citizen. He was appointed to the head-directorship in the entire department of music in Lacedaemon and succeeded in naturalizing the soft Lydian music. His language was the Doric-Laconian. After a life devoted to song, the pleasures of the table and of love, he is said to have died of a fearful disease. From the frequent chorusses of virgins (Parthenien) said to have been originally introduced by him, his frequent songs in praise of women, and the friendly relations in which he stood to the Spartan women (more especially to the fair Megalostrata), he gained the name of the woman's poet.]
"Do you think then," replied Phanes, "that I have no longing for my beloved Athens, for the scenes of our youthful games, for the busy life of the market? Truly, the bread of exile is not less distasteful to my palate than to yours, but, in the society afforded by this house, it loses some of its bitterness, and when the dear melodies of Hellas, so perfectly sung, fall on my ear, my native land rises before me as in a vision, I see its pine and olive groves, its cold, emerald green rivers, its blue sea, the shimmer of its towns, its snowy mountain-tops and marble temples, and a half-sweet, half-bitter tear steals down my cheek as the music ceases, and I awake to remember that I am in Egypt, in this monotonous, hot, eccentric country, which, the gods be praised, I am soon about to quit. But, Aristomachus, would you then avoid the few Oases in the desert, because you must afterwards return to its sands and drought? Would you fly from one happy hour, because days of sadness await you later? But stop, here we are! Show a cheerful countenance, my friend, for it becomes us not to enter the temple of the Charites with sad hearts."--[The goddesses of grace and beauty, better known by their Roman name of "Graces."]
As Phanes uttered these words, they landed at the garden wall, washed by the Nile. The Athenian bounded lightly from the boat, the Spartan following with a heavier, firmer tread. Aristomachus had a wooden leg, but his step was so firm, even when compared with that of the light- footed Phanes, that it might have been thought to be his own limb.
The garden of Rhodopis was as full of sound, and scent and blossom as a night in fairy-land. It was one labyrinth of acanthus shrubs, yellow mimosa, the snowy gelder-rose, jasmine and lilac, red roses and laburnums, overshadowed by tall palm-trees, acacias and balsam trees. Large bats hovered softly on their delicate wings over the whole, and sounds of mirth and song echoed from the river.
This garden had been laid out by an Egyptian, and the builders of the Pyramids had already been celebrated for ages for their skill in horticulture. They well understood how to mark out neat flower-beds, plant groups of trees and shrubs in regular order, water the whole by aqueducts and fountains, arrange arbors and summerhouses, and even inclose the walks with artistically clipped hedges, and breed goldfish in stone basins.
At the garden gate Phanes stopped, looked around him carefully and listened; then shaking his head, "I do not understand what this can mean," he said. "I hear no voices, there is not a single light to be seen, the boats are all gone, and yet the flag is still flying at its gay flag-staff, there, by the obelisks on each side of the gate."
[Obelisks bearing the name of the owner were sometimes to be seen near the gates of the Egyptian country-houses. Flags too were not uncommon, but these were almost exclusively to be found at the gates of the temples, where to this day the iron sockets for the flagstaff can still be seen. Neither were flags unknown to the Greeks. It appears from some inscriptions on the staffs of the Pylons, that if the former were not actually erected for lightning-rods, it had been noticed that they attracted the electricity.]
"Rhodopis must surely be from home; can they have forgotten?"--Here a deep voice suddenly interrupted him with the exclamation, "Ha! the commander of the body-guard!"
"A pleasant evening to you, Knakais," exclaimed Phanes, kindly greeting the old man, who now came up. "But how is it that this garden is as still as an Egyptian tomb, and yet the flag of welcome is fluttering at the gate? How long has that white ensign waved for guests in vain?"
"How long indeed?" echoed the old slave of Rhodopis with a smile. "So long as the Fates graciously spare the life of my mistress, the old flag is sure to waft as many guests hither as the house is able to contain. Rhodopis is not at home now, but she must return shortly. The evening being so fine, she determined on taking a pleasure-trip on the Nile with her guests. They started at sunset, two hours ago, and the evening meal is already prepared; they cannot remain away much longer. I pray you, Phanes, to have patience and follow me into the house. Rhodopis would not easily forgive me, if I allowed such valued guests to depart. You stranger," he added, turning to the Spartan, "I entreat most heartily to remain; as friend of your friend you will be doubly welcome to my mistress."
The two Greeks, following the servant, seated themselves in an arbor, and Aristomachus, after gazing on the scene around him now brilliantly lighted by the moon, said, "Explain to me, Phanes, by what good fortune this Rhodopis, formerly only a slave and courtesan can now live as a queen, and receive her guests in this princely manner?"
[The mistresses (Hetaere) of the Greeks must not be compared with modern women of bad reputation. The better members of this class represented the intelligence and culture of their sex in Greece, and more especially in the Ionian provinces. As an instance we need only recall Aspasia and her well-attested relation to Pericles and Socrates. Our heroine Rhodopis was a celebrated woman. The Hetaera, Thargalia of Miletus, became the wife of a Thessalian king. Ptolemy Lagi married Thais; her daughter was called Irene, and her sons Leontiskus and Lagus. Finally, statues were erected to many.]
"I have long expected this question," answered the Athenian. "I shall be delighted to make you acquainted with the past history of this woman before you enter her house. So long as we were on the Nile, I would not intrude my tale upon you; that ancient river has a wonderful power of compelling to silence and quiet contemplation. Even my usually quick tongue was paralyzed like yours, when I took my first night-journey on the Nile."
"I thank you for this," replied the Spartan. "When I first saw the aged priest Epimenides," at Knossus in Crete, he was one hundred and fifty years old, and I remember that his age and sanctity filled me with a strange dread; but how far older, how far more sacred, is this hoary river, the ancient stream 'Aigyptos'!" Who would wish to avoid the power of his spells? Now, however, I beg you to give me the history of Rhodopis."
Phanes began: "When Rhodopis was a little child playing with her companions on the Thracian sea-shore, she was stolen by some Phoenician mariners, carried to Samos, and bought by Iadmon, one of the geomori, or landed aristocracy of the island. The little girl grew day by day more beautiful, graceful and clever, and was soon an object of love and admiration to all who knew her. AEsop, the fable-writer, who was at that time also in bondage to Iadmon, took an especial pleasure in the growing amiability and talent of the child, taught her and cared for her in the same way as the tutors whom we keep to educate our Athenian boys.
The kind teacher found his pupil tractable and quick of comprehension, and the little slave soon practised the arts of music, singing and eloquence, in a more charming and agreeable manner than the sons of her master Iadmon, on whose education the greatest care had been lavished. By the time she had reached her fourteenth year, Rhodopis was so beautiful and accomplished, that the jealous wife of Iadmon would not suffer her to remain any longer in the house, and the Samian was forced, with a heavy heart, to sell her to a certain Xanthus. The government of Samos at that time was still in the hands of the less opulent nobles; had Polykrates then been at the head of affairs, Xanthus need not have despaired of a purchaser. These tyrants fill their treasuries as the magpies their nests! As it was, however, he went off with his precious jewel to Naukratis, and there gained a fortune by means of her wondrous charms. These were three years of the deepest humiliation to Rhodopis, which she still remembers with horror.
Now it happened, just at the time when her fame was spreading through all Greece, and strangers were coming from far to Naukratis for her sake alone, that the people of Lesbos rose up against their nobles, drove them forth, and chose the wise Pittakus as their ruler.
[According to Herodotus the beauty of Rhodopis was so great that every Greek knew her by name.]
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