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- Arachne, Volume 6. - 6/7 -

Oh, if only his Myrtilus still walked among the living! How totally different, in spite of his lost vision, would his life have been!

Daphne was now the only one whom he could put in his place.

Since his return from the oracle, the fear that the rescued Demeter might yet be the work of Myrtilus had again mastered him. However loudly outward circumstances might oppose this, he now felt, with a certainty which surprised him, that this work was not his own. The approval, as well as the doubts, which it aroused in others strengthened his opinion, although even now he could not succeed in bringing it into harmony with the facts. How deep had been the intoxication in which he had so long reeled from one day to the next, since it had succeeded in keeping every doubt of the authorship of this work far from him!

Now he must obtain certainty, and Daphne could help him to it; for, as a priestess of Demeter, she possessed the right to procure him access to the cella and get permission for him to climb the lofty pedestal and feel the statue with his fingers, whose sense of touch had become much keener.

He would frankly inform her of his fear, and her truthful nature would find the doubt that gnawed his heart as unendurable as he himself.

It would have been a grave crime to woo her before he was relieved of this uncertainty, and he would utter the decisive words that very day, and ask her whether her love was great enough to share the joys and sorrows of life with him, the blind man, who perhaps must also divest himself of a false fame.

Time pressed.

He called at Archias's house with a wreath on his head and in festal robes; but Daphne was in the temple, whither old Philippus and Thyone had gone, and his uncle was attending a late session of the Council.

He would have liked to follow Daphne to the sanctuary, but the late hour forbade it, and he therefore only charged Gras to tell his young mistress that he was going to Proclus's banquet, and would return early the next morning to discuss a most important subject with her.

Then he went directly to the neighbouring palace. The Queen might have appeared already, and it would not do to keep her waiting.

He was aware that she lived at variance with her husband, but how could he have suspected that she cherished the more than bold design of hurling the sovereign from his throne and seizing the Egyptian crown herself.

Proclus and Althea were among the conspirators who supported Arsinoe, and the Queen thought it would be an easy matter to win over to her cause and herself the handsome sculptor, whom she remembered at the last Dionysia.

The wealthy blind artist, so highly esteemed among the members of his profession, might become valuable to the conspiracy, for she knew what enthusiastic devotion the Alexandrian artists felt for the King, and everything depended upon forming a party in her own favour among them. This task was to fall to Hermon, and also another, still more important one; for he, his nephew and future son-in-law, if any one, could persuade the wealthy Archias to lend the plot his valuable aid. Hitherto the merchant had been induced, it is true, to advance large sums of money to the Queen, but the loyal devotion which he showed to her royal husband had rendered it impossible to give him even a hint of the conspiracy. Althea, however, declared that the blind man's marriage to Daphne was only a question of time, and Proclus added that the easily excited nephew would show himself more pliant than the uncle if Arsinoe exerted upon him the irresistible charm of her personality.

When Hermon entered the residence of the grammateus in the palace, the guests had already assembled. The Queen was not to appear until after the feast, when the mixing jars were filled. The place by Hermon's side, which Althea had chosen for herself, would then be given up to Arsinoe.

The sovereign was as unaccustomed to the society of a blind artist as Hermon was to that of a queen, and both eagerly anticipated the approaching meeting.

Yet it was difficult for Hermon to turn a bright face toward his companion. The sources of anxiety and grief which had previously burdened his mind would not vanish, even under the roof of the royal palace.

Althea's presence reminded him of Tennis, Ledscha, and Nemesis, who for so long a time seemed to have suspended her persecution, but since he had returned from the abode of the oracle was again asserting the old right to him. During many a sleepless hour of the night he had once more heard the rolling of her terrible wheel.

Even before the journey to the oasis of Amon, everything life could offer him, the idle rake, in his perpetual darkness, had seemed shallow and scarcely worth stretching out his hand for it.

True, an interesting conversation still had power to charm him, but often during its continuance the full consciousness of his misfortune forced itself upon his mind; for the majority of the subjects discussed by the artists came to them through the medium of sight, and referred to new creations of architecture, sculpture, and painting, from whose enjoyment his blindness debarred him.

When returning home from a banquet, if his way lay through the city, he was reminded of the superb buildings, marble terraces and fountains, statues and porticoes, which had formerly satiated his eyes with delight, and must now be illumined with a brilliant radiance by the morning sunbeams, though a hostile fate shut them out from his eyes, starving and thirsting for beautiful forms.

But it had seemed to him still harder to bear that his blinded eyes refused to show him the most beautiful of all beautiful things, the human form, when he lingered among the Ephebi or the spectators of a festal procession, or visited the gymnasium, the theatre, the Aphrodisium, or the Paneum gardens, where the beautiful women met at sunset.

The Queen was to appear immediately, and when she took her place near him his blindness would again deprive him of the sight of her delicately cut features, prevent his returning the glances from her sparkling eves, and admiring the noble outlines of her thinly veiled figure.

Would his troubled spirit at least permit him to enjoy and enter without restraint into the play of her quick wit?

Perhaps her arrival would relieve him from the discomfort which oppressed him here.

A stranger, out of his own sphere, he felt chilled among these closely united men and women, to whom no tie bound him save the presence of the same host.

He was not acquainted with a single individual except the mythograph Crates, who for several months had been one of the members of the Museum, and who had attached himself to Hermon at Straton's lectures.

The artist was surprised to find this man in such a circle, but he learned from Althea that the young member of the Museum was a relative of Proclus, and a suitor of the beautiful Nico, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, who was among the guests.

Crates had really been invited in order to win him over to the Queen's cause; but charming fair-haired Nico had been commissioned by the conspirators to persuade him to sing Arsinoe's praises among his professional associates.

The rest of the men present stood in close connection with Arsinoe, and were fellow-conspirators against her husband's throne and life. The ladies whom Proclus had invited were all confidants of Arsinoe, the wives and daughters of his other guests. All were members of the highest class of society, and their manners showed the entire freedom from restraint that existed in the Queen's immediate circle. Althea profited by the advantage of being Hermon's only acquaintance here. So, when he took his place on the cushion at her side, she greeted him familiarly and cordially, as she had treated him for a long time, wherever they met, and in a low voice told him, sometimes in a kindly tone, sometimes with biting sarcasm, the names and characters of the other guests.

The most aristocratic was Amyntas, who stood highest of all in the Queen's favour because he had good reason to hate the other Arsinoe, the sister of the King. His son had been this royal dame's first husband, and she had deserted him to marry Lysimachus, the aged King of Thrace.

The Rhodian Chrysippus, her leech and trusted counsellor, also possessed great influence over the Queen.

"The noble lady," whispered Althea, "needs the faithful devotion of every well-disposed subject, for perhaps you have already learned how cruelly the King embitters the life of the mother of his three children. Many a caprice can be forgiven the suffering Ptolemy, who recently expressed a wish that he could change places with the common workmen whom he saw eating their meal with a good appetite, and who is now tortured by the gout; yet he watches the hapless woman with the jealousy of a tiger, though he himself is openly faithless to her. What is the Queen to him, since the widow of Lysimachus returned from Thrace--no, from Cassandrea, Ephesus, and sacred Samothrace, or whatever other places there are which would no longer tolerate the murderess?"

"The King's sister--the object of his love?" cried Hermon incredulously. "She must be forty years old now."

"Very true," Althea assented. "But we are in Egypt, where marriages between brothers and sisters are pleasing to gods and men; and besides, we make our own moral laws here. Her age! We women are only as old as we look, and the leeches and tiring women of this beauty of forty practise arts which give her the appearance of twenty-five, yet perhaps the King values her intellect more than her person, and the wisdom of a hundred serpents is certainly united in this woman's head. She will make our poor Queen suffer unless real friends guard her from the worst. The three most trustworthy ones are here: Amyntas, the leech Chrysippus, and the admirable Proclus. Let us hope that you will make this three-leaved clover the luck-promising four-leaved one. Your uncle, too, has often with praiseworthy generosity helped Arsinoe in many an embarrassment. Only make the acquaintance of this beautiful royal lady, and the last drop of your blood will not seem too precious to shed for her! Besides-- Proclus told me so in confidence--you have little favour to expect from the King. How long he kept you waiting for the first word concerning a work which justly transported the whole city with delight! When he did finally summon you, he said things which must have wounded you."

"That is going too far," replied Hermon.

"Then he kept back his real opinion," Althea protested. "Had I not made it a rule to maintain absolute silence concerning everything I hear in conversation from those with whom I am closely associated--"

Arachne, Volume 6. - 6/7

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