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- Cleopatra, Volume 9. - 6/9 -
Then, while unfolding the first roll, she directed Octavianus's attention to it and the remainder of the contents of the little casket, exclaiming:
"Silent pages, yet how eloquent! Each one a peerless picture, the powerful thinker, the man of action, who permits his restless intellect to repose, and suffers his heart to overflow with the love of youth! Were I vain, Octavianus, I might call each one of these letters a trophy of victory, an Olympic garland. The woman to whom Julius Caesar owned his subjugation might well hold her head higher than the unhappy, vanquished Queen who, save the permission to die--"
"Do not part with the letters," said Octavianus kindly. "Who can doubt that they are a precious treasure--"
"The most precious and at the same time the advocate of the accused," replied Cleopatra eagerly; "on them--as you have already heard--rests my vindication. I will commence with their contents. How terrible it is to make what is sacred to us and intended only to elevate our own hearts serve a purpose, to do what has always been repugnant to us! But I need an advocate and, Octavianus, these letters will restore to the wretched, suffering beggar the dignity and majesty of the Queen. The world knows but two powers to which Julius Caesar bowed--the thrall of the pitiable woman on this couch, and of all-conquering death. An unpleasant fellowship--but I do not shrink from it; for death robbed him of life, and from my hand--I ask only a brief moment. How gladly I would spare myself my own praises, and you the necessity of listening to them! Yes, here it is: 'Through you, you irresistible woman,' he writes, 'I learned for the first time, after youth was over, how beautiful life can be.'"
Cleopatra, as she spoke, handed Caesar the letter. But while she was still searching hastily for another he returned the first, saying:
"I understand only too well your reluctance to allow such confidential effusions to play the part of defender. I can imagine their purport, and they shall influence me as if I had read them all. However eloquent they may be, they are needless witnesses. Is any written testimony required in behalf of charms whose magic is still potent?"
A bewitching smile, which seemed like a confirmation of the haughty young conqueror's flattering words, flitted over Cleopatra's face. Octavianus noticed it. This woman indeed possessed enthralling charms, and he felt the slight flush that suffused his cheeks.
This unhappy captive, this suffering supplicant, could still draw into her net any man who did not possess the cool watchfulness which panoplied his soul. Was it the marvellous melody of her voice, the changeful lustre of her tearful eyes, the aristocratic grace of the noble figure, the exquisite symmetry of the hands and feet, the weakness of the prostrate sufferer, strangely blended with truly royal majesty, or the thought that love for her had found earth's greatest and loftiest men with indissoluble fetters, which lent this fragile woman, who had long since passed the boundaries of youth, so powerful a spell of attraction?
At any rate, however certain of himself he might be, he must guard his feelings. He understood how to bridle passion far better than the uncle who was so greatly his superior.
Yet it was of the utmost importance to keep her alive, and therefore to maintain her belief in his admiration. He wished to show the world and the Great Queen of the East, who had just boasted of conquering, like death, even the most mighty, its own supremacy as man and victor. But he must also be gentle, in order not to endanger the object for which he wanted her. She must accompany him to Rome. She and her children promised to render his triumph the most brilliant and memorable one which any conqueror had ever displayed to the senate and the people. In a light tone which, however, revealed the emotion of his soul, he answered: "My illustrious uncle was known as a friend of fair women. His stern life was crowned with flowers by many hands, and he acknowledged these favours verbally and perhaps--as he did to you in all these letters--with the reed. His genius was greater, at any rate more many-sided and mobile, than mine. He succeeded, too, in pursuing different objects at the same time with equal devotion. I am wholly absorbed in the cares of state, of government, and war. I feel grateful when I can permit our poets to adorn my leisure for a brief space. Overburdened with toil, I have no time to yield myself captive, as my uncle did in these very rooms, to the most charming of women. If I could follow my own will, you would be the first from whom I would seek the gifts of Eros. But it may not be! We Romans learn to curb even the most ardent wishes when duty and morality command. There is no city in the world where half so many gods are worshipped as here; and what strange deities are numbered among them! It needs a special effort of the intellect to understand them. But the simple duties of the domestic hearth!--they are too prosaic for you Alexandrians, who imbibe philosophy with your mothers' milk. What marvel, if I looked for them in vain? True, they would find little satisfaction--our household gods I mean--here, where the rigid demands of Hymen are mute before the ardent pleadings of Eros. Marriage is scarcely reckoned among the sacred things of life. But this opinion seems to displease you."
"Because it is false," cried Cleopatra, repressing with difficulty a fresh outburst of indignation. "Yet, if I see aright, your reproach is aimed only at the bond which united me to the man who was called your sister's husband. But I will I would gladly remain silent, but you force me to speak, and I will do so, though your own friend, Proculejus, is signing to me to be cautious. I--I, Cleopatra, was the wife of Mark Antony according to the customs of this country, when you wedded him to the widow of Marcellus, who had scarcely closed his eyes. Not she, but I, was the deserted wife--I to whom his heart belonged until the hour of his death, not the unloved consort wedded--" Here her voice fell. She had yielded to the passionate impulse which urged her to express her feelings in the matter, and now continued in a tone of gentle explanation: "I know that you proposed this alliance solely for the peace and welfare of Rome--"
"To guard both, and to spare the blood of tens of thousands," Octavianus added with proud decision. "Your clear brain perceived the true state of affairs. If, spite of the grave importance of these motives, you-- But what voices would not that of the heart silence with you women! The man, the Roman, succeeded in closing his ears to its siren song. Were it otherwise, I would never have chosen for my sister a husband by whom I knew her happiness would be so ill-guarded--I would, as I have already said, be unable to master my own admiration of the loveliest of women. But I ought scarcely to boast of that. I fear that a heart like yours opens less quickly to the modest Octavianus than to a Julius Caesar or the brilliant Mark Antony. Yet I may be permitted to confess that perhaps I might have avoided conducting this unhappy war against my friend to the end under my own guidance, and appearing myself in Egypt, had I not been urged by the longing to see once more the woman who had dazzled my boyish eyes. Now, in my mature manhood, I desired to comprehend those marvellous gifts of mind, that matchless sagacity--"
"Sagacity!" interrupted the Queen, shrugging her shoulders mournfully. "You possess a far greater share of what is commonly called by that name. My fate proves it. The pliant intellect which the gods bestowed on me would ill sustain the test in this hour of anguish. But if you really care to learn what mental power Cleopatra once possessed, relieve me of this terrible burden of uncertainty, and grant me a position in life which will permit my paralyzed soul to move freely once more."
"It depends solely on yourself," Octavian eagerly responded, "to make your future life, not only free from care, but beautiful."
"On me?" asked Cleopatra in astonishment. Our weal and woe are in your hands alone. I am modest and ask nothing save to know what you intend for our future, what you mean by the lot which you term beautiful."
"Nothing less," replied the Caesar quietly, "than what seems to lie nearest to your own heart--a life of that freedom of soul to which you aspire."
The breath of the agitated Queen began come more quickly and, no longer able to contr the impatience which overpowered her, she exclaimed, "With the assurance of your favour on your lips, you refuse to discuss the question which interests, me beyond any other--for which, if any you must have been prepared when you came here--"
"Reproaches?" asked Octavianus with we feigned surprise. "Would it not rather be my place to complain? It is precisely because I am thoroughly sincere in the friendly disposition which you read aright from my words, that some of your measures cannot fail to wound me. Your treasures were to be committed to the flames. It would be unfair to expect tokens of friendship from the vanquished; but can you deny that even the bitterest hatred could scarcely succeed in devising anything more hostile?"
"Let the past rest! Who would not seek in war to diminish the enemy's booty?" pleaded the Queen in a soothing tone. But as Octavianus delayed his answer, she continued more eagerly: "It is said that the ibex in the mountains, when in mortal peril, rushes upon the hunter and hurls him with it down the precipice. The same impulse is natural to human beings, and praiseworthy, I think, in both. Forget the past, as I will try to do, I repeat with uplifted hands. Say that you will permit the sons whom I gave to Antony to ascend the Egyptian throne, not under their mother's guardianship, but that of Rome, and grant me freedom wherever I may live, and I will gladly transfer to you, down to the veriest trifles, all the property and treasures I possess."
She clenched her little hand impatiently under the folds of her robe as she spoke; but Octavianus lowered his eyes, saying carelessly: "In war the victor disposes of the property of the vanquished; but my heart restrains me from applying the universal law to you, who are so far above ordinary mortals. Your wealth is said to be vast, though the foolish war which Antony, with your aid, so greatly prolonged, devoured vast sums. In this country squandered gold seems like the grass which, when mowed, springs up anew."
"You speak," replied Cleopatra, more and more deeply incensed, with proud composure, "of the treasures which my ancestors, the powerful monarchs of a wealthy country, amassed during three hundred years for their noble race and for the adornment of the women of their line. Parsimony did not accord with the generosity and lofty nature of an Antony, yet avarice itself would not deem the portion still remaining insignificant. Every article is registered."
While speaking, she took a manuscript from the hand of Seleukus and passed it to Octavianus who, with a slight bend of the head, received it in silence. But he had scarcely begun to read it when the steward, a little corpulent man with twinkling eyes half buried in his fat cheeks, raised his short forefinger, pointed insolently at the Queen, and asserted that she was trying to conceal some things, and had ordered him not to place them on the list. Every tinge of colour faded from the lips and cheeks of the agitated and passionate woman; tortured by feverish impatience and no longer able to control her emotions, she raised herself and, with her own dainty hand, struck the accuser--whom she had lifted from poverty and obscurity to his present high position--again and again in the face, till Octavianus, with a smile of superiority, begged her, much as the man deserved his punishment, to desist.
The unfortunate woman, thus thrown off her guard, flung herself back on her couch and, panting for breath, with tears streaming from her eyes, sobbed aloud, declaring that in the presence of such unendurable insult,
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