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- Serapis, Volume 1. - 4/8 -
"Hail, all hail to the great god!" cried Orpheus with hands outstretched towards the temple.
"Yea, hail! for everlasting glory shall be his!" repeated his father. "Great is Serapis, and his house and his image shall last. . ."
"Till the next full moon!" said a passer-by in a tone of sinister mockery, shaking his fist in the face, as it were, of the god. Orpheus turned quickly to punish the prophet of evil; but he had disappeared in the crowd and the tide of men had borne him onwards. "Till the next full moon!" murmured Agne, who had shuddered at her companion's rapturous ejaculations, and she glanced uneasily at Orpheus; but by the time Herse addressed her a minute or two later she had controlled the expression of her features, and the matron's heart was gladdened by her bright smile. Nay, many a young Alexandrian, passing the group on foot or in a carriage, looked at her a second time, for that smile lent a mysterious charm to her pale, calm face. Nor had it faded away when they had crossed the bridge and were nearing the shores of the lake, for an idea once conceived lingered long in Agne's mind; and as she walked on in the bright glory of the morning's sun her mind's eye was fixed on a nocturnal scene--on the full moon, high in the sky--on the overthrow of the great idol and a glittering army among the marble ruins of the Serapeum. Apostles and martyrs soared around, the Saviour sat enthroned in glory and triumph, while angels, cradled on the clouds that were his footstool, were singing beatific hymns which sounded clearly in her ear above the many-voiced tumult of the quays. The vision did not vanish till she was desired to get into the boat.
Herse was a native of Alexandria and Karnis had passed some of the best years of his life there; but to Orpheus and Agne all was new, and even the girl, when once she had escaped from the crowd and noise which oppressed her, took an interest in the scene and asked a question now and then. The younger man had not eyes enough to see all that claimed his attention and admiration.
There were the great sluice-gates at the entrance to the canal that joined the lake to the sea--there, in a separate dock, lay the splendid imperial Nile-boats which served to keep up communication between the garrison of Alexandria and the military stations on the river--there, again, were the gaudy barges intended for the use of the 'comes', the prefect and other high officials--and there merchant-vessels of every size lay at anchor in countless number. Long trains of many-colored sails swept over the rippling lake like flights of birds across a cornfield, and every inch of the shore was covered with stores or buildings. Far away to the south long trellices of vine covered the slopes, broken by the silvery glaucous tones of the olive-groves, and by clumps of towering palms whose crowns mingled to form a lofty canopy. White walls, gaudily-painted temples and private villas gleamed among the green, and the slanting rays of the low sun, shining on the drops that fell from the never-resting wheels and buckets that irrigated the land, turned them into showers of diamonds. These water-works, of the most ingenious construction, many of them invented and contrived by scientific engineers, were the weapons with which man had conquered the desert that originally surrounded this lake, forcing it into green fertility and productiveness of grain and fruit. Nay, the desert had, for many centuries, here ceased to exist. Dionysus the generous, and the kindly garden-gods had blest the toil of men, and yet, now, in many a plot--in all which belonged to Christian owners--their altars lay scattered and overthrown.
During the last thirty years much indeed was changed, and nothing to the satisfaction of old Karnis; Herse, too, shook her head, and when the rowers had pulled them about half-way across, she pointed to a broad vacant spot on the bank where a new building was just rising above the soil, and said sadly to her husband:
"Would you know that place again? Where is our dear old temple gone? The temple of Dionysus." Karnis started up so hastily that he almost upset the boat, and their conductor was obliged to insist on his keeping quiet; he obeyed but badly, however, for his arms were never still as he broke out:
"And do you suppose that because we are in Egypt I can keep my living body as still as one of your dead mummies? Let others keep still if they can! I say it is shameful, disgraceful; a dove's gall might rise at it! That splendid building, the pride of the city and the delight of men's eyes, destroyed--swept away like dust from the road! Do you see? Do you see, I say? Broken columns, marble capitals, here, there and everywhere at the bottom of the lake--here a head and there a torso! Great and noble masters formed those statues by the aid of the gods, and they-- they, small and ignoble as they are, have destroyed them by the aid of evil daemons. They have annihilated and drowned works that were worthy to live forever! And why? Shall I tell you? Because they shun the Beautiful as an owl shuns light. Aye, they do! There is nothing they hate or dread so much as beauty; wherever they find it, they deface and destroy it, even if it is the work of the Divinity. I accuse them before the Immortals--for where is the grove even, not the work of man but the special work of Heaven itself? Where is our grove, with its cool grottos, its primaeval trees, its shady nooks, and all the peace and enjoyment of which it was as full as a ripe grape is full of sweet juice?"
"It was cut down and rooted up," replied the steward. "The emperor gave the sanctuary over to Bishop Theophilus and he set to work at once to destroy it. The temple was pulled down, the sacred vessels went into the melting-pot, and the images were mutilated and insulted before they were thrown into the lime-kiln. The place they are building now is to be a Christian church. Oh! to think of the airy, beautiful colonnades that once stood there, and then of the dingy barn that is to take their place!"
"Why do the gods endure it? Has Zeus lost his thunderbolts?" cried Orpheus clenching his hands, and paying no heed to Agne who sat pale and sternly silent during this conversation.
"Nay, he only sleeps, to wake with awful power," said the old man. "See those blocks of marble and ruins under the waves. Swift work is destruction! And men lost their wits and looked on at the crime, flinging the delight of the gods into the water and the kiln. They were wise, very wise; fishes and flames are dumb and cannot cry to heaven. One barbarian, in one hour can destroy what it has taken the sublimest souls years, centuries, to create. They glory in destruction and ruin and they can no more build up again such a temple as stood there than they can restore trees that have taken six hundred years to grow. There --out there, Herse, in the hollow where those black fellows are stirring mortar--they have given them shirts too, because they are ashamed of the beauty of men's bodies--that is where the grotto was where we found your poor father."
"The grotto?" repeated his wife, looking at the spot through her tears, and thinking of the day when, as a girl, she had hurried to the feast of Dionysus and sought her father in the temple. He had been famous as a gem-cutter. In obedience to the time-honored tradition in Alexandria, after intoxicating himself with new wine in honor of the god, he had rushed out into the street to join the procession. The next morning he had not returned; the afternoon passed and evening came and still he did not appear, so his daughter had gone in search of him. Karnis was at that time a young student and, as her father's lodger, had rented the best room in the house. He had met her going on her errand and had been very ready to help her in the search; before long they had found the old man in the ivy-grown grotto in the grove of Dionysus--motionless and cold, as if struck by lightning. The bystanders believed that the god had snatched him away in his intoxicated legion.
In this hour of sorrow Karnis had proved himself her friend, and a few months after Herse had become his wife and gone with him to Tauromenium in Sicily.
All this rose before her mind, and even Karnis sat gazing dumbly at the waves; for every spot where some decisive change has occurred in our lives has power to revive the past when we see it again after a long absence. Thus they all sat in silence till Orpheus, touching his father, pointed out the temple of Isis where he had met the fair Gorgo on the previous day. The old man turned to look at the sanctuary which, as yet, remained intact.
"A barbarous structure!" he said bitterly. "The art of the Egyptians has long been numbered with the dead and the tiger hungers only for the living!"
"Nay, it is not such a bad piece of work," replied the steward, "but it is out of their reach; for the ground on which it stands belongs to my old mistress, and the law protects private property.--You must at your leisure inspect the ship-yard here; it is perhaps the most extensive in the world. The timber that is piled there--cedar of Lebanon, oak from Pontus and heavy iron-wood from Ethiopia--is worth hundreds of talents."
"And does all that belong to your master?"
"No; the owner is the grandson of a freedman, formerly in his family. Now they are very rich and highly respected, and Master Clemens sits in the Senate. There he is--that man in a white robe."
"A Christian, I should imagine," observed the singer.
"Very true;" replied the steward. "But what is good remains good, and he is a worthy and excellent man notwithstanding. He keeps a tight hand over the ship-yard here and over the others too by the harbor of Eunostus. Only Clemens can never let other people have their own opinions; in that he is just like the rest of them. Every slave he buys must become a Christian and his sons are the same; even Constantine, though he is an officer in the imperial army and as smart and clever a soldier as lives.--As far as we are concerned we leave every man to his own beliefs. Porphyrius makes no secret of his views and all the vessels we use in the corn-trade are built by Christians.--But here we are."
The boat stopped at a broad flight of marble steps which led from the lake into the garden of Porphyrius' house. Karnis as he walked through the grounds felt himself at greater ease, for here the old gods were at home; their statues gleamed among the dark clumps of evergreens, and were mirrored in the clear tanks, while delicious perfumes were wafted from the garlanded shrines and freshly anointed altars, to greet the newcomers.
The family of musicians were kindly received, but they were not immediately called upon to perform, for as soon as Damia heard that the pretty fair-haired child who had pleased her so much the day before had been obliged to remain at home, she had one of her granddaughter's dresses brought out, and requested Herse to go back to fetch her. Some slaves were to accompany Herse and transfer all her little property on board a Nile-boat belonging to Porphyrius, which was lying at anchor just off the ship-yard. In this large barge there were several cabins which
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