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- Serapis, Volume 5. - 1/10 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
By Georg Ebers
Gorgo, when she had left her grandmother, could not rest. Her lofty calmness of demeanor had given way to a restless mood such as she had always contemned severely in others, since she had ceased to be a vehement child and grown to be a woman. She tried to beguile the alarm that made her pulses beat so quickly, and the heart-sickness that ached like a wound, by music and singing; but this only added to her torment. The means by which she could usually recover her equanimity of mind had lost their efficacy, and Sappho's longing hymn, which she began to sing, had only served to bring the fervid longing of her own heart to light-- to set it, as it were, in the full glare of the sun. She had become aware that every fibre, every nerve of her being yearned for the man she loved; she would have thrown away her life like a hollow nut for one single hour of perfect joy with him and in him. The faith in the old gods, the heathen world which contained the ideal of her young soul, her detestation of Christianity, her beautiful art--everything, in short, that had filled the spiritual side of her life, was cast into the shade by the one absorbing passion that possessed her soul. Every feeling, every instinct, urged her to abandon herself entirely to her lover, and yet she never for one instant doubted which side she would take in the approaching conflict of the great powers that ruled the world. The last few hours had only confirmed her conviction that the end of all things was at hand. The world was on the eve of destruction; she foresaw that she must perish--perish with Constantine, and that, in her eyes, was a grace from the gods.
While Damia was vainly struggling to liberate her soul from the bondage of the flesh, Gorgo had been wandering uneasily about the house; now going to the slaves, encouraging them with brave words, and giving them employment to keep them from utter desperation, and then stealing up to see whether her grandmother might not by this time be in need of her. As it grew dark she observed that several of the women, and even some of the men, had made their escape. These were such as had already shown a leaning towards the new faith, and who now made off to join their fellow- Christians, or to seek refuge in the churches under the protection of the crucified God whose supreme power might, perhaps, even yet, avert the impending catastrophe.
Twice had Porphyrius sent a messenger to assure his mother and daughter that all was well with him, that a powerful party was prepared to defend the Serapeum, and that he should pass the night in the temple. The Romans were evidently hesitating to attack it, and if, next morning, the heathen should succeed in repelling the first onset, reinforcements might yet be brought up in time. Gorgo could not share these hopes; a client of her father's had brought in a rumor that the Biamites, after advancing as far as Naucratis, had been dispersed by a few of the Imperial maniples. Fate was stalking on its way, and no one could give it pause.
The evening brought no coolness, and when it was already quite dark, as her grandmother had not yet called her, Gorgo could no longer control her increasing anxiety, so, after knocking in vain at the door of the observatory, she went in. Her old nurse preceded her with a lamp, and the two women stood dumb with consternation, for the old lady lay senseless on the ground. Her head was thrown back against the seat of the chair off which she had slipped, and her pale face was lifeless and horrible to look at, with its half-closed eyes and dropped jaw. Wine, water, and strong essences were all at hand, and they laid the unconscious woman on a couch intended for the occasional use of the wearied observer. In a few minutes they had succeeded in reviving the old lady; but her eyes rested without recognition on the girl who knelt by her side, and she murmured to herself: "The ravens--where are they gone? Ravens!"
Her glance wandered round the room, to the tablets and rolls which had been tossed off the couch and the table to make room for her, and for the lamps and medicaments. They lay in disorder on the floor, and the sight of this confusion produced a favorable excitement and reaction; she succeeded in expressing herself in husky accents and broken, hardly intelligible sentences, so far as to scold them sharply for their irreverence for the precious documents, and for the disorder they had created. The waiting-woman proceeded to pick them up: but Damia again became unconscious. Gorgo bathed her brow and tried to pour some wine between her teeth, but she clenched them too firmly, till the slave-woman came to her assistance and they succeeded in making Damia swallow a few drops. The old woman opened her eyes, smacking her tongue feebly; but she took the cup into her own hand to hold it to her lips; and though she trembled so that half the contents were spilt, she drank eagerly till it was quite empty. "More," she gasped with the eagerness of intense thirst, "more--I want drink !"
Gorgo gave her a second and a third draught which Damia drank with equal eagerness; then, with a deep breath, she looked up fully conscious, at her granddaughter.
"Thank you, child," she said. "Now I shall do very well for a little while. The material world and all that belongs to it weighs us down and clings to us like iron fetters. We may long and strive to be free, but it pursues us and holds us fast. Only those who are content with their miserable humanity can enjoy it. They laugh, as you know, at Praxilla, the poetess, because she makes the dying Adonis lament, when face to face with death, that he is forced to leave the apples and pears behind him. But is not that subtly true? Yes, yes; Praxilla is right! We fast, we mortify ourselves--I have felt it all myself--to partake of divinity. We almost perish of hunger and thirst, when we might be so happy if only we would be satisfied with apples and pears! No man has ever yet succeeded in the great effort; those who would be truly happy must be content with small things. That is what makes children so happy. Apples and pears! Well, everything will be at an end for me ere long--even those. But if the great First Cause spares himself in the universal crash, there is still the grand idea of Apples and Pears; and who knows but that it may please Him, when this world is destroyed, to frame another to come after it. Will He then once more embody the ideas of Man--and Apples and Pears? It would be plagiarism from himself. Nay, if He is merciful, He will never again give substance to that hybrid idea called Man; or, if He does, He will let the poor wretch be happy with apples and pears--I mean trivial joys; for all higher joys, be they what they may, are vanity and vexation.... Give me another draught. Ah, that is good! And to-morrow is the end. I could find it in my heart to regret the good gifts of Dionysus myself; it is better than apples and pears; next to that comes the joy that Eros bestows on mortals, and there must be an end to all that, too. That, however, is above the level of apples and pears. It is great, very great happiness, and mingled therefor with bitter sorrow. Rapture and anguish--who can lay down the border line that divides them? Smiles and tears alike belong to both. And you are weeping? Aye, aye-- poor child! Come here and kiss me." Damia drew the head of the kneeling girl close to her bosom and pressed her lips to Gorge's brow. Presently, however, she relaxed her embrace and, looking about the room, she exclaimed:
"How you have mixed and upset the book-rolls! If only I could show you how clearly everything agrees and coincides. We know now exactly how it will all happen. By the day after to-morrow there will be no more earth, no more sky; and I will tell you this, child: If, when Serapis falls, the universe does not crumble to pieces like a ruinous hovel, then the wisdom of the Magians is a lie, the course of the stars has nothing to do with the destinies of the earth and its inhabitants, the planets are mere lamps, the sun is no more than a luminous furnace, the old gods are marsh-fires, emanations from the dark bog of men's minds--and the great Serapis... But why be angry with him? There is no doubt--no if nor but ....Give me the diptychon and I will show you our doom. There--just here--my sight is so dazzled, I cannot make it out.--And if I could, what matter? Who can alter here below what has been decided above? Leave me to sleep now, and I will explain it all to you to-morrow if there is still time. Poor child, when I think how we have tormented you to learn what you know, and how industrious you have been! And now--to what end? I ask you, to what end? The great gulf will swallow up one and all."
"So be it, so be it !" cried Gorgo interrupting her. "Then, at any rate, nothing that I love on earth will be lost to me before I die!"
"And the enemy will perish in the same ruin!" continued Damia, her eyes sparkling with revived fire. "But where shall we go to--where? The soul is divine by nature and cannot be destroyed. It must return--say, am I right or wrong?--It will return to its first fount and cause; for like attracts and absorbs like, and thus our deification, our union with the god will be accomplished."
"I believe it--I am sure of it!" replied Gorgo with conviction.
"You are sure of it?" retorted the old woman. "But I am not. For our clearest knowledge is but guesswork when it is not based on numbers. Nothing is proved or provable but by numbers, but they are surer than the rocks in the sea; that is why I believe in our coming doom, for, on those tablets, we have calculated it to a certainty. But who can calculate evidence of the future fate of the soul? If, indeed, the old order should not pass away--if the depths should remain below and the empyrean still keep its place above--then, to be sure, your studies would not be in vain; for then your soul, which is fixed on spiritual, supernatural and sublime conceptions, would be drawn upwards to the great Intelligence of which it is the offspring, to the very god, and become one with him-- absorbed into him, as the rain-drop fallen from a cloud rises again and is reunited to its parent vapor. Then--for there may be a metempsychosis--your songful spirit might revive to inform a nightingale, then . . ."
Damia paused; and gazed upwards as if in ecstasy, and it was not till a few minutes later that she went on, with a changed expression in her face: "Then my son's widow, Mary, would be hatched out of a serpent's egg and would creep a writhing asp... Great gods! the ravens! What can they mean? They come again. Air, air! Wine! I cannot--I am choking--take it away!--To-morrow--to-day... Everything is going; do you see--do you feel? It is all black--no, red; and now black again. Everything is sinking; hold me, save me; the floor is going from under me.--Where is Porphyrius? Where is my son?--My feet are so cold; rub them. It is the water! rising--it is up to my knees. I am sinking--help! save me! help!" The dying woman fought with her arms as if she were drowning; her cries for help grew fainter, her head drooped on her laboring chest, and in a few minutes she had breathed her last in her grandchild's arms, and her restless, suffering soul was free.
Never before had Gorgo seen death. She could not persuade herself that the heart which had been so cold for others, but had throbbed so warmly
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