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- Cleopatra, Volume 5. - 3/6 -

becoming to Cleopatra's waxen complexion.

Several stewards and cup-bearers, the master of the hunt, chamberlains, female attendants, eunuchs, and other court officials were awaiting the Queen, and pages who belonged to the Macedonian cadet corps of royal boys stood sleepily, with drooping heads, around the small throne of gold, coral, and amber which, placed opposite to the chimney, awaited the sovereign.

Barine had already seen this magnificent hall, and others still more beautiful in the Sebasteum, and the splendour therefore neither excited nor abashed her; only she would fain have avoided the numerous train of courtiers. Could it be Cleopatra's intention to question her before the eyes of all these men, women, and boys?

She no longer felt afraid, but her heart still throbbed quickly. It had beat in the same way in her girlhood, when she was asked to sing in the presence of strangers.

At last she heard doors open, and an invisible hand parted the heavy curtains at her right. She expected to see the Regent, the Keeper of the Seal, and the whole brilliantly adorned train of attendants who always surrounded the Queen on formal occasions, enter the magnificent hall. Else why had it been selected as the scene of this nocturnal trial?

But what was this?

While she was still recalling the display at the Adonis festival, the curtains began to close again. The courtiers around the throne straightened their bowed figures, the pages forgot their fatigue, and all joined in the Greek salutation of welcome, and the "Life! happiness! health!" with which the Egyptians greeted their sovereign.

The woman of middle height who now appeared before the curtain, and who, as she crossed the wide hall alone and unattended, seemed to Barine even smaller than when surrounded by the gay throng at the Adonis festival, must be the Queen. Ay, it was she!

Iras was already standing by her side, and Charmian was approaching with the "introducer." The women rendered her various little services thus Iras took from her shoulders the purple mantle, with its embroidery of black and gold dragons. What an exquisite masterpiece of the loom it must be!

All the dangers against which she must defend herself flashed swiftly through Barine's mind; yet, for an instant, she felt the foolish feminine desire to see and handle the costly mantle.

But Iras had already laid it on the arm of one of the waiting maids, and Cleopatra now glanced around her, and with a youthful, elastic step approached the throne.

Once more the feeling of timidity which she had had in her girlhood overpowered Barine, but with it came the memory of the garden of Epicurus, and Archibius's assurance that she, too, would have left the Queen with her heart overflowing with warm enthusiasm had not a disturbing influence interposed between them.

Yet, had this disturbing influence really existed? No. It was created solely by Cleopatra's jealous imagination. If she would only permit her to speak freely now, she should hear that Antony cared as little for her as she, Barine, for the boy Caesarion. What prevented her from confessing that her heart was another's? Iras had no one to blame save herself if she spoke the truth pitilessly in her presence.

Cleopatra now turned to the "introducer," waving her hand towards the throne and those who surrounded it.

Ay, she was indeed beautiful. How bright and clear was the light of her large eyes, in spite of the harassing days through which she had passed and the present night of watching!

Cleopatra's heart was still elated by the reception of her bold idea of escape, and she approached Barine with gentler feelings and intentions. She had chosen a pleasanter room for the interview than the one Iras had selected. She desired a special environment to suit each mood, and as soon as she saw the group of courtiers who surrounded the throne she ordered their dismissal.

The "introducer," to carry out the usual ceremonial, had commanded their presence in the audience chamber, but their attendance had given the meeting a form which was now distasteful to the Queen. She wished to question, not to condemn.

At so happy an hour it was a necessity of her nature to be gracious. Perhaps she had been unduly anxious concerning this singer. It even seemed probable; for a man who loved her like Antony could scarcely yearn for the favour of another woman. This view had been freshly confirmed by a brief conversation with the chief Inspector of Sacrifices, an estimable old man, who, after hearing how Antony had hurried in pursuit of her at Actium, raised his eyes and hands as if transported with rapture, exclaiming: "Unhappy Queen! Yet happiest of women! No one was ever so ardently beloved; and when the tale is told of the noble Trojan who endured such sore sufferings for a woman's sake, future generations will laud the woman whose resistless spell constrained the greatest man of his day, the hero of heroes, to cast aside victory, fame, and the hope of the world's sovereignty, as mere worthless rubbish."

Posterity, whose verdict she dreaded--this wise old reader of the future was right--must extol her as the most fervently beloved, the most desirable of women.

And Mark Antony? Even had the magic power of Nektanebus's goblet forced him to follow her and to leave the battle, there still remained his will, a copy of which--received from Rome--Zeno, the Keeper of the Seal, had showed to her at the close of the council. "Wherever he might die," so ran the words, "he desired to be buried by the side of Cleopatra." Octavianus had wrested it from the Vestal Virgins, to whose care it had been entrusted, in order to fill the hearts of Roman citizens and matrons with indignation against his foe. The plot had succeeded, but the document had reminded Cleopatra that her heart had given this man the first of its flowers, that love for him had been the sunshine of her life. So, with head erect, she had crossed the threshold where she was to meet the woman who had ventured to sow tares in her garden. She intended to devote only a short time to the interview, which she anticipated with the satisfaction of the strong who are confident of victory.

As she approached the throne, her train left the hall; the only persons who remained were Charmian, Iras, Zeno, the Keeper of the Seal, and the "introducer."

Cleopatra cast a rapid glance at the throne, to which an obsequious gesture of the courtier's hand invited her; but she remained standing, gazing keenly at Barine.

Was it the coloured rays from the ruby eyes of the dragon in the fireplace which shed the roseate glow on Cleopatra's cheeks? It certainly enhanced the beauty of a face now only too frequently pallid and colourless, when rouge did not lend its aid; but Barine understood Archibius's ardent admiration for this rare woman, when Cleopatra, with a faint smile, requested her to approach.

Nothing more winning could be imagined than the frank kindness, wholly untinged by condescending pride, of this powerful sovereign.

The less Barine had expected such a reception the more deeply it moved her; nay, her eyes grew dim with grateful emotion, which lent them so beautiful a lustre, she looked so lovely in her glad surprise, that Cleopatra thought the months which had elapsed since her first meeting with the singer had enhanced her charms. And how young she was! The Queen swiftly computed the years which Barine must have lived as the wife of Philostratus, and afterwards as the attractive mistress of a hospitable house, and found it difficult to reconcile the appearance of this blooming young creature with the result of the calculation.

She was surprised, too, to note the aristocratic bearing whose possession no one could deny the artist's daughter. This was apparent even in her dress, yet Iras had roused her in the middle of the night, and certainly had given her no time for personal adornment.

She had expected lack of refinement and boldness, in the woman who was said to have attracted so many men, but even the most bitter prejudice could have detected no trace of it. On the contrary, the embarrassment which she could not yet wholly subdue lent her an air of girlish timidity. All in all, Barine was a charming creature, who bewitched men by her vivacity, her grace, and her exquisite voice, not by coquetry and pertness. That she possessed unusual mental endowments Cleopatra did not believe. Barine had only one advantage over her--youth.

Time had not yet robbed the former of a single charm, while from the Queen he had wrested many; their number was known only to herself and her confidantes, but at this hour she did not miss them.

Barine, with a low, modest bow, advanced towards the Queen, who commenced the conversation by graciously apologizing for the late hour at which she had summoned her. "But," she added, "you belong to the ranks of the nightingales, who during the night most readily and exquisitely reveal to us what stirs their hearts--"

Barine gazed silently at the floor a moment, and when she raised her eyes her voice was faint and timid. "I sing, it is true, your Majesty, but I have nothing else in common with the birds. The wings which, when a child, bore me wherever I desired, have lost their strength. They do not wholly refuse their service, but they now require favourable hours to move."

"I should not have expected that in the time of your youth, your most beautiful possession," replied the Queen. "Yet it is well. I too--how long ago it seems!--was a child, and my imagination outstripped even the flight of the eagle. It could dare the risk unpunished. Now----Whoever has reached mature life is wise to let these wings remain idle. The mortal who ventures to use them may easily approach too near the sun, and, like Icarus, the wax will melt from his pinions. Let me tell you this: To the child the gift of imagination is nourishing bread. In later years we need it only as salt, as spice, as stimulating wine. Doubtless it points out many paths, and shows us their end; but, of a hundred rambles to which it summons him, scarcely one pleases the mature man. No troublesome parasite is more persistently and sharply rebuffed. Who can blame the ill-treated friend if it is less ready to serve us as the years go on? The wise man will keep his ears ever open, but rarely lend it his active hand. To banish it from life is to deprive the plant of blossoms, the rose of its fragrance, the sky of its stars."

"I have often said the same things to myself, though in a less clear and beautiful form, when life has been darkened," replied Barine, with a faint blush; for she felt that these words were doubtless intended to warn her against cherishing too aspiring wishes. "But, your Majesty, here also the gods place you, the great Queen, far above us. We should often find existence bare indeed but for the fancy which endows us with

Cleopatra, Volume 5. - 3/6

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