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- An Egyptian Princess, Volume 2. - 1/9 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
AN EGYPTIAN PRINCESS, Part 1.
By Georg Ebers
The guests were all gone. Their departing mirth and joy had been smitten down by the drunkard's abusive words, like fresh young corn beneath a hail storm. Rhodopis was left standing alone in the empty, brightly decorated (supper-room). Knakias extinguished the colored lamps on the walls, and a dull, mysterious half-light took the place of their brilliant rays, falling scantily and gloomily on the piled-up plates and dishes, the remnants of the meal, and the seats and cushions, pushed out of their places by the retiring guests. A cold breeze came through the open door, for the dawn was at hand, and just before sunrise, the air is generally unpleasantly cool in Egypt. A cold chill struck the limbs of the aged woman through her light garments. She stood gazing tearlessly and fixedly into the desolate room, whose walls but a few minutes before had been echoing with joy and gladness, and it seemed to her that the deserted guest-chamber must be like her own heart. She felt as if a worm were gnawing there, and the warm blood congealing into ice.
Lost in these thoughts, she remained standing till at last her old female slave appeared to light her to her sleeping apartment.
Silently Rhodopis allowed herself to be undressed, and then, as silently, lifted the curtain which separated a second sleeping apartment from her own. In the middle of this second room stood a bedstead of maplewood, and there, on white sheets spread over a mattress of fine sheep's wool, and protected from the cold by bright blue coverlets's, lay a graceful, lovely girl asleep; this was Rhodopis' granddaughter, Sappho. The rounded form and delicate figure seemed to denote one already in opening maidenhood, but the peaceful, blissful smile could only belong to a harmless, happy child.
One hand lay under her head, hidden among the thick dark brown hair, the other clasped unconsciously a little amulet of green stone, which hung round her neck. Over her closed eyes the long lashes trembled almost imperceptibly, and a delicate pink flush came and went on the cheek of the slumberer. The finely-cut nostrils rose and fell with her regular breathing, and she lay there, a picture of innocence, of peace, smiling in dreams, and of the slumber that the gods bestow on early youth, when care has not yet come.
Softly and carefully, crossing the thick carpets on tiptoe, the grey- haired woman approached, looked with unutterable tenderness into the smiling, childish face, and, kneeling down silently by the side of the bed, buried her face in its soft coverings, so that the girl's hand just came in contact with her hair. Then she wept, and without intermission; as though she hoped with this flood of tears to wash away not only her recent humiliation, but with it all other sorrow from her mind.
At length she rose, breathed a light kiss on the sleeping girl's forehead, raised her hands in prayer towards heaven, and returned to her own room, gently and carefully as she had come.
At her own bedside she found the old slave-woman, still waiting for her.
"What do you want so late, Melitta?" said Rhodopis, kindly, under her breath. "Go to bed; at your age it is not good to remain up late, and you know that I do not require you any longer. Good night! and do not come to-morrow until I send for you. I shall not be able to sleep much to-night, and shall be thankful if the morning brings me a short repose."
The woman hesitated; it seemed that she had some thing on her mind which she feared to utter.
"There is something you want to ask me?" said Rhodopis.
Still the old slave hesitated.
"Speak!" said Rhodopis, "speak at once, and quickly."
"I saw you weeping," said the slave-woman, "you seem ill or sad; let me watch this night by your bedside. Will you not tell me what ails you? You have often found that to tell a sorrow lightens the heart and lessens the pain. Then tell me your grief to-day too; it will do you good, it will bring back peace to your mind."
"No," answered the other, "I cannot utter it." And then she continued, smiling bitterly: "I have once more experienced that no one, not even a god, has power to cancel the past of any human being, and that, in this world, misfortune and disgrace are one and the same. Good night, leave me; Melitta!"
At noon on the following day, the same boat, which, the evening before, had carried the Athenian and the Spartan, stopped once more before Rhodopis' garden.
The sun was shining so brightly, so warmly and genially in the dark blue Egyptian sky, the air was so pure and light, the beetles were humming so merrily, the boatmen singing so lustily and happily, the shores of the Nile bloomed in such gay, variegated beauty, and were so thickly peopled, the palm-trees, sycamores, bananas and acacias were so luxuriant in foliage and blossom, and over the whole landscape the rarest and most glorious gifts seemed to have been poured out with such divine munificence, that a passer-by must have pronounced it the very home of joy and gladness, a place from which sadness and sorrow had been forever banished.
How often we fancy, in passing a quiet village hidden among its orchards, that this at least must be the abode of peace, and unambitious contentment! But alas! when we enter the cottages, what do we find? there, as everywhere else, distress and need, passion and unsatisfied longing, fear and remorse, pain and misery; and by the side of these, Ah! how few joys! Who would have imagined on coming to Egypt, that this luxuriant, laughing sunny land, whose sky is always unclouded, could possibly produce and nourish men given to bitterness and severity? that within the charming, hospitable house of the fortunate Rhodopis, covered and surrounded, as it was, with sweet flowers, a heart could have been beating in the deepest sadness? And, still more, who among all the guests of that honored, admired Thracian woman, would have believed that this sad heart belonged to her? to the gracious, smiling matron, Rhodopis herself?
She was sitting with Phanes in a shady arbor near the cooling spray of a fountain. One could see that she had been weeping again, but her face was beautiful and kind as ever. The Athenian was holding her hand and trying to comfort her.
Rhodopis listened patiently, and smiled the while; at times her smile was bitter, at others it gave assent to his words. At last however she interrupted her well-intentioned friend, by saying:
"Phanes, I thank you. Sooner or later this last disgrace must be forgotten too. Time is clever in the healing art. If I were weak I should leave Naukratis and live in retirement for my grandchild alone; a whole world, believe me, lies slumbering in that young creature. Many and many a time already I have longed to leave Egypt, and as often have conquered the wish. Not because I cannot live without the homage of your sex; of that I have already had more than enough in my life, but because I feel that I, the slave-girl and the despised woman once, am now useful, necessary, almost indispensable indeed, to many free and noble men. Accustomed as I am, to an extended sphere of work, in its nature resembling a man's, I could not content myself in living for one being alone, however dear. I should dry up like a plant removed from a rich soil into the desert, and should leave my grandchild desolate indeed, three times orphaned, and alone in the world. No! I shall remain in Egypt.
"Now that you are leaving, I shall be really indispensable to our friends here. Amasis is old; when Psamtik comes to the throne we shall have infinitely greater difficulties to contend with than heretofore. I must remain and fight on in the fore-front of our battle for the freedom and welfare of the Hellenic race. Let them call my efforts unwomanly if they will. This is, and shall be, the purpose of my life, a purpose to which I will remain all the more faithful, because it is one of those to which a woman rarely dares devote her life. During this last night of tears I have felt that much, very much of that womanly weakness still lingers in me which forms at once the happiness and misery of our sex. To preserve this feminine weakness in my granddaughter, united with perfect womanly delicacy, has been my first duty; my second to free myself entirely from it. But a war against one's own nature cannot be carried on without occasional defeat, even if ultimately successful. When grief and pain are gaining the upperhand and I am well nigh in despair, my only help lies in remembering my friend Pythagoras, that noblest among men, and his words: 'Observe a due proportion in all things, avoid excessive joy as well as complaining grief, and seek to keep thy soul in tune and harmony like a well-toned harp.'"
[There is no question that Pythagoras visited Egypt during the reign of Amasis, probably towards the middle of the 6th century (according to our reckoning, about 536 B. C.) Herod. II. 81-123. Diod. I. 98. Rich information about Pythagoras is to be found in the works of the very learned scholar Roeth, who is however occasionally much too bold in his conjectures. Pythagoras was the first among Greek thinkers (speculators). He would not take the name of a wise man or "sage," but called himself "Philosophos," or a "friend of wisdom."]
"This Pythagorean inward peace, this deep, untroubled calm, I see daily before me in my Sappho; and struggle to attain it myself, though many a stroke of fate untunes the chords of my poor heart. I am calm now! You would hardly believe what power the mere thought of that first of all thinkers, that calm, deliberate man, whose life acted on mine like sweet, soft music, has over me. You knew him, you can understand what I mean. Now, mention your wish; my heart is as calmly quiet as the Nile waters which are flowing by so quietly, and I am ready to hear it, be it good or evil."
"I am glad to see you thus," said the Athenian. "If you had remembered the noble friend of wisdom, as Pythagoras was wont to call himself a little sooner, your soul would have regained its balance yesterday. The master enjoins us to look back every evening on the events, feelings and actions of the day just past.
"Now had you done this, you would have felt that the unfeigned admiration of all your guests, among whom were men of distinguished merit, outweighed a thousandfold the injurious words of a drunken libertine;
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