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- Arachne, Volume 1. - 1/8 -


[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.]

ARACHNE

By Georg Ebers

Volume 1.

Translated from the German by Mary J. Safford

CHAPTER I.

Deep silence brooded over the water and the green islands which rose like oases from its glittering surface. The palms, silver poplars, and sycamores on the largest one were already casting longer shadows as the slanting rays of the sun touched their dark crowns, while its glowing ball still poured a flood of golden radiance upon the bushes along the shore, and the light, feathery tufts at the tops of the papyrus reeds in the brackish water.

More than one flock of large and small waterfowl flew past beneath the silvery cloudlets flecking the lofty azure vault of heaven; here and there a pelican or a pair of wild ducks plunged, with short calls which ceased abruptly, into the lush green thicket, but their cackling and quacking belonged to the voices of Nature, and, when heard, soon died away in the heights of the tipper air, or in the darkness of the underbrush that received the birds. Very few reached the little city of Tennis, which now, during the period of inundation in the year 274 B.C., was completely encircled by water.

From the small island, separated from it by a channel scarcely three arrow-shots wide, it seemed as though sleep or paralysis had fallen upon the citizens of the busy little industrial town, for few people appeared in the streets, and the scanty number of porters and sailors who were working among the ships and boats in the little fleet performed their tasks noiselessly, exhausted by the heat and labour of the day.

Columns of light smoke rose from many of the buildings, but the sunbeams prevented its ascent into the clear, still air, and forced it to spread over the roofs as if it, too, needed rest.

Silence also reigned in the little island diagonally opposite to the harbour. The Tennites called it the Owl's Nest, and, though for no especial reason, neither they nor the magistrates of King Ptolemy II ever stepped upon its shores. Indeed, a short time before, the latter had even been forbidden to concern themselves about the pursuits of its inhabitants; since, though for centuries it had belonged to a family of seafaring folk who were suspected of piracy, it had received, two generations ago, from Alexander the Great himself, the right of asylum, because its owner, in those days, had commanded a little fleet which proved extremely useful to the conqueror of the world in the siege of Gaza and during the expedition to Egypt. True, under the reign of Ptolemy I, the owners of the Owl's Nest were on the point of being deprived of this favour, because they were repeatedly accused of piracy in distant seas; but it had not been done. Yet for the past two years an investigation had threatened Satabus, the distinguished head of the family, and during this period he, with his ships and his sons, had avoided Tennis and the Egyptian coast.

The house occupied by the islanders stood on the shore facing the little city. It had once been a stately building, but now every part of it seemed to be going to ruin except the central portion, which presented a less dilapidated appearance than the sorely damaged, utterly neglected side wings.

The roof of the whole long structure had originally consisted of palm branches, upon which mud and turf had been piled; but this, too, was now in repair only on the central building. On the right and left wings the rain which often falls in the northeastern part of the Nile Delta, near the sea, had washed off the protecting earth, and the wind had borne it away as dust.

Once the house had been spacious enough to shelter a numerous family and to store a great quantity of goods and provisions, but it was now long since the ruinous chambers had been occupied. Smoke rose only from the opening in the roof of the main building, but its slender column showed from what a very scanty fire it ascended.

The purpose which this was to serve was readily discovered, for in front of the open door of the dwelling, that seemed far too large and on account of the pillars at the entrance, which supported a triangular pediment--also too stately for its sole occupant, sat an old woman, plucking three ducks.

In front of her a girl, paying no heed to her companion, stood leaning against the trunk of the low, wide-branching sycamore tree near the shore. A narrow boat, now concealed from view by the dense growth of rushes, had brought her to the spot.

The beautiful, motherless young creature, needing counsel, had come to old Tabus to appeal to her art of prophecy and, if she wanted them, to render her any little services; for the old dame on the island was closely bound to Ledscha, the daughter of one of the principal ship- owners in Tennis, and had once been even more closely united to the girl.

Now, as the sun was about to set, the latter gave herself up to a wild tumult of sweet memories, anxious fears, and yearning expectation.

Not until a cool breath from the neighbouring sea fanned her brow did she throw down the cord and implement with which she had been adding a few meshes to a net, and rising, gaze sometimes across the water at a large white house in the northern part of the city, sometimes at the little harbour or the vessels on the horizon steering toward Tennis, among which her keen eyes discovered a magnificent ship with bright-hued sails.

Drawing a long breath, she enjoyed the coolness which precedes the departure of the daystar.

But the effect of this harbinger of night upon her surroundings was even more powerful than upon herself, for the sun in the western horizon scarcely began to sink slowly behind the papyrus thicket on the shore of the straight Tanite arm of the Nile, dug by human hands, than one new and strange phenomenon followed another.

First a fan, composed of countless glowing rays which spread in dazzling radiance over the west, rose from the vanishing orb and for several minutes adorned the lofty dome of the deep-blue sky like the tail of a gigantic peacock. Then the glitter of the shining plumes paled. The light-giving body from which they emanated disappeared and, in its stead, a crimson mantle, with gold-bordered, crocus-yellow edges, spread itself over the space it had left until the gleaming tints merged into the deeper hues of the violet.

But the girl paid no heed to this splendid spectacle. Perhaps she noticed how the fading light diffused a delicate rose-hued veil over the light-blue sails, embroidered with silver vines, of the approaching state galley, making its gilded prow glitter more brightly, and saw one fishing boat after another move toward the harbour, but she gave the whole scene only a few careless glances.

Ledscha cared little for the poor fishermen of Tennis, and the glittering state galley could scarcely bring or bear away anything of importance to her.

The epistrategus of the whole province was daily expected. But of what consequence to the young girl were the changes which it was rumoured he intended to introduce into the government of the country, concerning which her father had expressed such bitter dissatisfaction before he set out on his last trip to Pontus?

A very different matter occupied her thoughts, and as, pressing her hand upon her heart, she gazed at the little city, gleaming with crimson hues in the reflection of the setting sun, a strange, restless stir pervaded the former stillness of Nature. Pelicans and flamingoes, geese and ducks, storks and herons, ibises and cranes, bitterns and lapwings, flew in dark flocks of manifold forms from all directions. Countless multitudes of waterfowl darkened the air as they alighted upon the uninhabited islands, and with ear-splitting croaking and cackling, whistling and chirping, clapping and twittering, dropped into the sedges and bushes which concealed their nests, while in the city the doors of the houses opened, and men, women, and children, after toiling at the loom and in the workshop, came out to enjoy the coolness of the evening in the open air.

One fishing boat after another was already throwing a rope to the shore, as the ship with the gay sails approached the little roadstead.

How large and magnificent it was!

None of the king's officials had ever used such a galley, not even the epistrategus of the Delta, who last year had given the banking and the oil trade to new lessees. Besides, the two transports that had followed the magnificent vessel appeared to belong to it.

Ledscha had watched the ships indifferently enough, but suddenly her gaze--and with it the austere beauty of her face--assumed a different expression.

Her large black eyes dilated, and with passionate intentness she looked from the gaily ornamented galley to the shore, which several men in Greek costume were approaching.

The first two had come from the large white house whose door, since sunset, had been the principal object of her attention.

It was Hermon, the taller one, for whom she was waiting with old Tabus. He had promised to take her from the Owl's Nest, after nightfall, for a lonely row upon the water.

Now he was not coming alone, but with his fellow-artist, the sculptor Myrtilus, the nomarch and the notary--she recognised both distinctly-- Gorgias, the rich owner of the second largest weaving establishment in Tennis, and several slaves.

What did it mean?

A sudden flush crimsoned her face, now slightly tanned, to the brow, and her lips were compressed, giving her mouth an expression of repellent, almost cruel harshness.


Arachne, Volume 1. - 1/8

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