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- Cleopatra, Volume 2. - 3/7 -
the wounds which he had received still ached, yet his sorrowful experiences did not prevent his being an attentive observer. The expression of his clear eyes showed that he mentally shared whatever aroused his sympathy. Whoever understood how to listen thus, and, moreover--the prominence of the brow above the nose showed it--was also a trained thinker, could not fail to be a good counsellor, and as such he was regarded by many, and first of all by the Queen.
The wise deliberation, which was one of his characteristic traits, showed itself on this occasion; for though he had come to persuade Barine try a country residence, he refrained from doing until she had exhausted the story of her own affairs and inquired the important cause of his visit.
In the principal matter his request was granted ere he made it. So he could begin with the query whether the mother and daughter did not think that the transition to the new mode of life could be effected more easily if they were absent from the city a short time. It would awaken comment they should close their house against guests on the morrow, and as the true reason could not be given, many would be offended. If, on the contrary, they could resolve to quit the capital for a few weeks, many, it is true, would lament their decision, but what was alloted to all alike could be resented by no one.
Berenike eagerly assented, but Barine grew thoughtful. Then Archibius begged her to speak frankly, and after she had asked where they could he proposed his country estate.
His keen grey eyes had perceived that something, bound her so firmly to the city that in the case of a true woman like Barine it must be an affair of the heart. He had evidently judged correctly, for, at his prediction that there would be no lack of visits from her dearest friends, she raised her head, her blue eyes sparkled brightly, and when Archibius paused she to her mother, exclaiming gaily "We will go!"
Again the vivid imagination daughter conjured the future before her in distinct outlines. She alone knew whom she meant when she spoke of the visitor she expected at Irenia, Archibius's estate. The name meant "The place of peace," and it pleased her.
Archibius listened smilingly; but when she began to assign him also a part in driving the little Sardinian horses and pursuing the birds, he interrupted her with the statement that whether he could speedily allow himself a pleasure which he should so keenly enjoy--that of breathing the country air with such charming guests--would depend upon the fate of another. Thank the gods, he had been able to come here with a lighter heart, because, just before his departure, he had heard of a splendid victory gained by the Queen. The ladies would perhaps permit him to remain a little longer, as he was expecting confirmation of the news.
It was evident that he awaited it in great suspense, and that his heart was by no means free from anxiety.
Berenike shared it, and her pleasant face, which had hitherto reflected her delight at her daughter's sensible resolution, was now clouded with care as Archibius began: "The object of my presence here? You are making it very easy for me to attain it. If I deemed it honest, I could now conceal the fact that I had sought you to induce you to leave the city. I see no peril from the boyish insolence of the son of Antony. The point in question, child, is merely to put yourself out of the reach of Caesarion."
"If you could place me in the moon, it would please me best, as far as he is concerned," replied Barine eagerly. "That is just what induced me to change our mode of life, since my door cannot be closed against the boy who, though still under a tutor, uses his rank as a key to open it. And just think of being compelled to address that dreamer, with eyes pleading for help, by the title of 'king'!"
"Yet what mighty impulse might not be slumbering in the breast of a son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra?" said Archibius. "And passion--I know, my child, that it is no fault of yours--has now awakened within him. Whatever the result may be, it must fill his mother's heart with anxiety. That is why it is needful to hasten your departure, and to keep your destination a secret. He will attempt no violence; but--he is the child of his parents--and some unexpected act may be anticipated from him."
"You startle me!" cried Barine. "You transform the cooing dove which entered my house into a dangerous griffin."
"As such you may regard him," said the other, warningly. "You will be a welcome guest, Barine, but I invited you, whom I have loved from your earliest childhood, the daughter of my dearest friend, not merely to do you a service at Irenia, but to save from grief or even annoyance the person to whom--who is not aware of it--I owe everything."
The words conveyed to both ladies the knowledge that, though they were dear to Archibius, he would sacrifice them, and with them, perhaps, all the rest of the world, for the peace and happiness of the Queen.
Barine had expected nothing else. She knew that Cleopatra had made the philosopher's son a wealthy man and the owner of extensive estates; but she also felt that the source of his loyal devotion to the Queen, over whom he watched like a tender father, was due to other causes. Cleopatra prized him also. Had he been ambitious, he could have stood at the helm of the ship of state, as Epitrop long ago, but--the whole city knew it-- he had more than once refused to accept a permanent office, because he believed that he could serve his mistress better as an unassuming, unnoticed counsellor. Berenike had told Barine that the relations between Cleopatra and Archibius dated back to their childhood, but she had learned no particulars. Various rumours were afloat which, in the course of time, had been richly adorned and interwoven with anecdotes, and Barine naturally lent the most ready credence to those which asserted that the princess, in her earliest youth, had cherished a childish love for the philosopher's son. Now her friend's conduct led her to believe it.
When Archibius paused, the young beauty assured him that she understood him; and as the alabaster hanging lamp and a three-branched light cast a brilliant glow upon the portrait which her father had painted of the nineteen-year-old Queen, and afterwards copied for his own household, she pointed to it, and, pursuing the current of her own thoughts, asked the question:
"Was she not marvellously beautiful at that time?"
"As your father's work represents her," was the reply. "Leonax painted the portrait of Octavia, on the opposite side, the same year, and perhaps the artist deemed the Roman the fairer woman." He pointed as he spoke to a likeness of Octavianus's sister, whom Barine's father had painted as the young wife of Marcellus, her first husband.
"Oh, no!" said Berenike. "I still remember perfectly how Leonax returned in those days. What woman might not have been jealous of his enthusiasm for the Roman Hera? At that time I had not seen the portrait, and when I asked whether he thought Octavia more beautiful than the Queen, for whom Eros had inflamed his heart, as in the case of most of the beautiful women he painted, he exclaimed--you know his impetuous manner--'Octavia stands foremost in the ranks of those who are called "beautiful" or "less beautiful"; the other, Cleopatra, stands alone, and can be compared with no one.'"
Archibius bent his head in assent, then said firmly, "But, as a child, when I first saw her, she would have been the fairest even in the dance of the young gods of love."
"How old was she then?" asked Barine, eagerly.
"Eight years," he answered. "How far in the past it is, yet I have not forgotten a single hour! "Barine now earnestly entreated him to tell them the story of those days, but Archibius gazed thoughtfully at the floor for some time ere he raised his head and answered: "Perhaps it will be well if you learn more of the woman for whose sake I ask a sacrifice at your hands. Arius is your brother and uncle. He stands near to Octavianus, for he was his intellectual guide, and I know that he reveres the Roman's sister, Octavia, as a goddess. Antony is now struggling with Octavianus for the sovereignty of the world. Octavia succumbed in the conflict against the woman of whom you desire to hear. It is not my place to judge her, but I may instruct and warn. Roman nations burn incense to Octavia, and, when Cleopatra's name is uttered, they veil their faces indignantly. Here in Alexandria many imitate them. Whoever upholds shining purity may hope to win a share of the radiance emanating from it. They call Octavia the lawful wife, and Cleopatra the criminal who robbed her of her husband's heart."
"Not I!" exclaimed Barine eagerly. "How often I have heard my uncle say that Antony and Cleopatra were fired with the most ardent love for each other! Never did the arrows of Eros pierce two hearts more deeply. Then it became necessary to save the state from civil war and bloodshed. Antony consented to form an alliance with his rival, and, as security for the sincerity of the reconciliation, he gave his hand in marriage to Octavia, whose first husband, Marcellus, had just died--his hand, I say, only his hand, for his heart was captive to the Queen of Egypt. And if Antony was faithless to the wife to whom statecraft had bound him, he kept his pledge to the other, who had an earlier, better title. If Cleopatra did not give up the man to whom she had sworn fidelity forever, she was right--a thousand times right! In my eyes--no matter how often my mother rebukes me--Cleopatra, in the eyes of the immortals, is and always will be Antony's real wife; the other, though on her marriage day no custom, no word, no stroke of the stylus, no gesture was omitted, is the intruder in a bond of love which rejoices the gods, however it may anger mortals, and--forgive me, mother--virtuous matrons."
Berenike had listened with blushing cheeks to her vivacious daughter; now with timid earnestness she interrupted: "I know that those are the views of the new times; that Antony in the eyes of the Egyptians, and probably also according to their customs, is the rightful husband of the Queen. I know, too, that you are both against me. Yet Cleopatra is in reality a Greek, and therefore--eternal gods!--I can sincerely pity her; but the marriage has been solemnized, and I cannot blame Octavia. She rears and cherishes, as if they were her own, the children of her faithless husband and Fulvia, his first wife, who have no claim upon her. It is more than human to take the stones from the path of the man who became her foe, as she does. No woman In Alexandria can pray more fervently than I that Cleopatra and her friend may conquer Octavianus. His cold nature, highly as my brother esteems him, is repellent to me. But when I gaze at Octavia's beautiful, chaste, queenly, noble countenance, the mirror of true womanly purity--"
"You can rejoice," Archibius added, completing the sentence, and laying his right hand soothingly on the arm of the excited woman, "only it would be advisable at this time to put the portrait elsewhere, and rest satisfied with confiding your opinion of Octavia to your brother and a friend as reliable as myself. If we conquer, such things may pass; if not--The messenger tarries long--"
Here Barine again entreated him to use the time. She had only once had the happiness of being noticed by the Queen--just after her song at the Adonis festival. Then Cleopatra had advanced to thank her. She said only a few kind words, but in a voice which seemed to penetrate the inmost depths of her heart and bind her with invisible threads.
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