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- Arachne, Volume 5. - 2/10 -
He was supported solely by what his art brought and his wealthy uncle allowed him. The Demeter which Archias had ordered had been partially paid for in advance, and he had intended to use the gold--a considerable sum--to pay debts in Alexandria. But it was consumed with the rest of his property--tools, clothing, mementoes of his dead parents, and a few books which contained his favourite poems and the writings of his master, Straton.
These precious rolls had aided him to maintain the proud conviction of owing everything which he attained or possessed solely to himself. It had again become perfectly clear to him that the destiny of earth-born mortals was not directed by the gods whom men had invented after their own likeness, in order to find causes for the effects which they perceived, but by deaf and blind chance. Else how could even worse misfortune, according to the opinion of most people, have befallen the pure, guiltless Myrtilus, who so deeply revered the Olympians and understood how to honour them so magnificently by his art, than himself, the despiser of the gods?
But was the death for which he longed a misfortune?
Was the Nemesis who had so swiftly and fully granted the fervent prayer of an ill-used girl also only an image conjured up by the power of human imagination?
It was scarcely possible!
Yet if there was one goddess, did not that admit the probability of the existence of all the others?
He shuddered at the idea; for if the immortals thought, felt, acted, how terribly his already cruel fate would still develop! He had denied and insulted almost all the Olympians, and not even stirred a finger to the praise and honour of a single one.
What marvel if they should choose him for the target of their resentment and revenge?
He had just believed that the heaviest misfortune which can befall a man and an artist had already stricken him. Now he felt that this, too, had been an error; for, like a physical pain, he realized the collapse of the proud delusion of being independent of every power except himself, freely and arbitrarily controlling his own destiny, owing no gratitude except to his own might, and being compelled to yield to nothing save the enigmatical, pitiless power of eternal laws or their co-operation, so incomprehensible to the human intellect, called "chance," which took no heed of merit or unworthiness.
Must he, who had learned to silence and to starve every covetous desire, in order to require no gifts from his own uncle and his wealthy kinsman and friend, and be able to continue to hold his head high, as the most independent of the independent, now, in addition to all his other woe, be forced to believe in powers that exercised an influence over his every act? Must he recognise praying to them and thanking them as the demand of justice, of duty, and wisdom? Was this possible either?
And, believing himself alone, since he could not see Thyone and Daphne, who were close by him, he struck his scorched brow with his clinched fist, because he felt like a free man who suddenly realizes that a rope which he can not break is bound around his hands and feet, and a giant pulls and loosens it at his pleasure.
Yet no! Better die than become for gods and men a puppet that obeys every jerk of visible and invisible hands.
Starting up in violent excitement, he tore the bandage from his face and eyes, declaring, as Thyone seriously reprimanded him, that he would go away, no matter where, and earn his daily bread at the handmill, like the blind Ethiopian slave whom he had seen in the cabinetmaker's house at Tennis.
Then Daphne spoke to him tenderly, but her soothing voice caused him keener pain than his old friend's stern one.
To sit still longer seemed unendurable, and, with the intention of regaining his lost composure by pacing to and fro, he began to walk; but at the first free step he struck against the little table in front of Thyone's couch, and as it upset and the vessels containing water fell with it, clinking and breaking, he stopped and, as if utterly crushed, groped his way back, with both arms outstretched, to the armchair he had quitted.
If he could only have seen Daphne press her handkerchief first to her eyes, from which tears were streaming, and then to her lips, that he might not hear her sobs, if he could have perceived how Thyone's wrinkled old face contracted as if she were swallowing a colocynth apple, while at the same time she patted his strong shoulder briskly, exclaiming with forced cheerfulness: "Go on, my boy! The steed rears when the hornet stings! Try again, if it only soothes you! We will take everything out of your way. You need not mind the water-jars. The potter will make new ones!"
Then Hermon threw back his burning head, rested it against the back of the chair, and did not stir until the bandage was renewed.
How comfortable it felt!
He knew, too, that he owed it to Daphne; the matron's fingers could not be so slender and delicate, and he would have been more than glad to raise them to his lips and thank her; but he denied himself the pleasure.
If she really did love him, the bond between them must now be severed; for, even if her goodness of heart extended far enough to induce her to unite her blooming young existence to his crippled one, how could he have accepted the sacrifice without humiliating himself? Whether such a marriage would have made her happy or miserable he did not ask, but he was all the more keenly aware that if, in this condition, he became her husband, he would be the recipient of alms, and he would far rather, he mentally repeated, share the fate of the negro at the handmill.
The expression of his features revealed the current of his thoughts to Daphne, and, much as she wished to speak to him, she forced herself to remain silent, that the tones of her voice might not betray how deeply she was suffering with him; but he himself now longed for a kind word from her lips, and he had just asked if she was still there when Thyone announced a visit from the grammateus Proclus.
He had recently felt that this man was unfriendly to him, and again his anger burst forth. To be exposed in the midst of his misery to the scorn of a despiser of his art was too much for his exhausted patience.
But here he was interrupted by Proclus himself, who had entered the darkened cabin where the blind man remained very soon after Thyone.
Hermon's last words had betrayed to the experienced courtier how well he remembered his unkind remarks, so he deferred the expression of his approval, and began by delivering the farewell message of the epistrategus, who had been summoned away so quickly.
He stated that his investigations had discovered nothing of importance, except, perhaps, the confirmation of the sorrowful apprehension that the admirable Myrtilus had been killed by the marauders. A carved stone had been found under the ashes, and Chello, the Tennis goldsmith, said he had had in his own workshop the gem set in the hapless artist's shoulder clasp, and supplied it with a new pin.
While speaking, he took Hermon's hand and gave him the stone, but the artist instantly used his finger tips to feel it.
Perhaps it really did belong to the clasp Myrtilus wore, for, although still unpractised in groping, he recognised that a human head was carved in relief upon the stone, and Mrytilus's had been adorned with the likeness of the Epicurean.
The damaged little work of art, in the opinion of Proclus and Daphne, appeared to represent this philosopher, and at the thought that his friend had fallen a victim to the flames Hermon bowed his head and exerted all his strength of will in order not to betray by violent sobs how deeply this idea pierced his heart.
Thyone, shrugging her shoulders mournfully, pointed to the suffering artist. Proclus nodded significantly, and, moving nearer to Hermon, informed him that he had sought out his Demeter and found the statue uninjured. He was well aware that it would be presumptuous to offer consolation in so heavy an affliction, and after the loss of his dearest friend, yet perhaps Hermon would be glad to hear his assurance that he, whose judgment was certainly not unpractised, numbered his work among the most perfect which the sculptor's art had created in recent years.
"I myself best know the value of this Demeter," the sculptor broke in harshly. "Your praise is the bit of honey which is put into the mouth of the hurt child."
"No, my friend," Proclus protested with grave decision. "I should express no less warmly the ardent admiration with which this noble figure of the goddess fills me if you were well and still possessed your sight. You were right just now when you alluded to my aversion, or, let us say, lack of appreciation of the individuality of your art; but this noble work changes everything, and nothing affords me more pleasure than that I am to be the first to assure you how magnificently you have succeeded in this statue."
"The first!" Hermon again interrupted harshly. "But the second and third will be lacking in Alexandria. What a pleasure it is to pour the gifts of sympathy upon one to whom we wish ill! But, however successful my Demeter may be, you would have awarded the prize twice over to the one by Myrtilus."
"Wrong, my young friend!" the statesman protested with honest zeal. "All honour to the great dead, whose end was so lamentable; but in this contest--let me swear it by the goddess herself!--you would have remained victor; for, at the utmost, nothing can rank with the incomparable save a work of equal merit, and--I know life and art--two artists rarely or never succeed in producing anything so perfect as this masterpiece at the same time and in the same place."
"Enough!" gasped Hermon, hoarse with excitement; but Proclus, with increasing animation, continued: "Brief as is our acquaintance, you have probably perceived that I do not belong to the class of flatterers, and in Alexandria it has hardly remained unknown to you that the younger artists number me, to whom the office of judge so often falls, among the sterner critics. Only because I desire their best good do I frankly point out their errors. The multitude provides the praise. It will soon flow upon you also in torrents, I can see its approach, and as this blindness, if the august Aesculapius and healing Isis aid, will pass away like a dreary winter night, it would seem to me criminal to deceive you about your own ability and success. I already behold you creating other works to the delight of gods and men; but this Demeter extorts boundless, enthusiastic appreciation; both as a whole, and in detail, it is faultless and worthy of the most ardent praise. Oh, how long it is,
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