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Three days before the time fixed for the departure of Nitetis, Rhodopis had invited a large number of guests to her house at Naukratis, amongst whom Croesus and Gyges were included.
The two lovers had agreed to meet in the garden, protected by the darkness and the old slave, while the guests were occupied at the banquet. Melitta, therefore, having convinced herself that the guests were thoroughly absorbed in conversation, opened the garden-gate, admitted the prince, brought Sappho to him, and then retired, promising to warn them of any intruder by clapping her hands.
"I shall only have you near me three days longer," whispered Sappho. "Do you know, sometimes it seems to me as if I had only seen you yesterday for the first time; but generally I feel as if you had belonged to me for a whole eternity, and I had loved you all my life."
"To me too it seems as if you had always been mine, for I cannot imagine how I could ever have existed without you. If only the parting were over and we were together again!"
"Oh, believe me, that will pass more quickly than you fancy. Of course it will seem long to wait--very long; but when it is over, and we are together again, I think it will seem as if we had never been parted. So it has been with me every day. How I have longed for the morning to come and bring you with it! but when it came and you were sitting by my side, I felt as if I had had you all the time and your hand had never left my head."
"And yet a strange feeling of fear comes over me, when I think of our parting hour."
"I do not fear it so very much. I know my heart will bleed when you say farewell, but I am sure you will come back and will not have forgotten me. Melitta wanted to enquire of the Oracle whether you would remain faithful; and to question an old woman who has just come from Phrygia and can conjure by night from drawn cords, with incense, styrax, moon-shaped cakes, and wild-briar leaves; but I would have none of this, for my heart knows better than the Pythia, the cords, or the smoke of sacrifice, that you will be true to me, and love me always."
"And your heart speaks the truth."
"But I have sometimes been afraid; and have blown into a poppy-leaf, and struck it, as the young girls here do. If it broke with a loud crack I was very happy, and cried, 'Ah! he will not forget!' but if the leaf tore without a sound I felt sad. I dare say I did this a hundred times, but generally the leaf gave the wished-for sound, and I had much oftener reason to be joyful than sad."
"May it be ever thus!"
"It must be! but dearest, do not speak so loudly; I see Knakias going down to the Nile for water and he will hear us."
"Well, I will speak low. There, I will stroke back your silky hair and whisper in your ear 'I love you.' Could you understand?"
"My grandmother says that it is easy to understand what we like to hear; but if you had just whispered, 'I hate you,' your eyes would have told me with a thousand glad voices that you loved me. Silent eyes are much more eloquent than all the tongues in the world."
"If I could only speak the beautiful Greek language as you do, I would.."
"Oh, I am so glad you cannot, for if you could tell me all you feel, I think you would not look into my eyes so lovingly. Words are nothing. Listen to the nightingale yonder! She never had the gift of speech and yet I think I can understand her."
"Will you confide her secret to me? I should like to know what Gulgul, as we Persians call the nightingale, has to talk about to her mate in the rose-bush. May you betray her secret?"
"I will whisper it softly. Philomel sings to her mate 'I love thee,' and he answers, (don't you hear him?), 'Itys, ito, itys.'"
"And what does that mean, 'Ito, ito?'"
"I accept it."
"Oh, that must be explained, to be rightly understood. Itys is a circle; and a circle, I was always taught, is the symbol of eternity, having neither beginning nor end; so the nightingale sings, 'I accept it for eternity.'"
"And if I say to you, 'I love thee?'"
"Then I shall answer gladly, like the sweet nightingale, 'I accept it for to-day, to-morrow, for all eternity!'"
"What a wonderful night it is! everything so still and silent; I do not even hear the nightingale now; she is sitting in the acacia-tree among the bunches of sweet blossoms. I can see the tops of the palm-trees in the Nile, and the moon's reflection between them, glistening like a white swan."
"Yes, her rays are over every living thing like silver fetters, and the whole world lies motionless beneath them like a captive woman. Happy as I feel now, yet I could not even laugh, and still less speak in a loud voice."
"Then whisper, or sing!"
"Yes, that is the best. Give me a lyre. Thank you. Now I will lean my head on your breast, and sing you a little, quiet, peaceful song. It was written by Alkman, the Lydian, who lived in Sparta, in praise of night and her stillness. You must listen though, for this low, sweet slumber-song must only leave the lips like a gentle wind. Do not kiss me any more, please, till I have finished; then I will ask you to thank me with a kiss:
"Now o'er the drowsy earth still night prevails, Calm sleep the mountain tops and shady vales, The rugged cliffs and hollow glens; The wild beasts slumber in their dens; The cattle on the bill. Deep in the sea The countless finny race and monster brood Tranquil repose. Even the busy bee Forgets her daily toil. The silent wood No more with noisy hum of insect rings; And all the feathered tribe, by gentle sleep subdued, Roost in the glade and hang their drooping wings." --Translation by Colonel Mure.
"Now, dearest, where is my kiss?"
"I had forgotten it in listening, just as before I forgot to listen in kissing."
"You are too bad. But tell me, is not my song lovely?"
"Yes, beautiful, like everything else you sing."
"And the Greek poets write?"
"Yes, there you are right too, I admit."
"Are there no poets in Persia?"
"How can you ask such a question? How could a nation, who despised song, pretend to any nobility of feeling?"
"But you have some very bad customs."
"You take so many wives."
"My Sappho . . ."
"Do not misunderstand me. I love you so much, that I have no other wish than to see you happy and be allowed to be always with you. If, by taking me for your only wife, you would outrage the laws of your country, if you would thereby expose yourself to contempt, or even blame, (for who could dare to despise my Bartja!) then take other wives; but let me have you, for myself alone, at least two, or perhaps even three years. Will you promise this, Bartja?"
"And then, when my time has passed, and you must yield to the customs of your country (for it will not be love that leads you to bring home a second wife), then let me be the first among your slaves. Oh! I have pictured that so delightfully to myself. When you go to war I shall set the tiara on your head, gird on the sword, and place the lance in your hand; and when you return a conqueror, I shall be the first to crown you with the wreath of victory. When you ride out to the chase, mine will be the duty of buckling on your spurs, and when you go to the banquet, of adorning and anointing you, winding the garlands of poplar and roses and twining them around your forehead and shoulders. If wounded, I will be your nurse; will never stir from your side if you are ill, and when I see you happy will retire, and feast my eyes from afar on your glory and happiness. Then perchance you will call me to your side, and your kiss will say, 'I am content with my Sappho, I love her still.'"
"O Sappho, wert thou only my wife now!--to-day! The man who possesses such a treasure as I have in thee, will guard it carefully, but never care to seek for others which, by its side, can only show their miserable poverty. He who has once loved thee, can never love another: I know it is the custom in my country to have many wives, but this is only allowed; there is no law to enjoin it. My father had, it is true, a hundred female slaves, but only one real, true wife, our mother Kassandane."
"And I will be your Kassandane."
"No, my Sappho, for what you will be to me, no woman ever yet was to her husband."
"When shall you come to fetch me?"
"As soon as I can, and am permitted to do so."
"Then I ought to be able to wait patiently."
"And shall I ever hear from you?"
"Oh, I shall write long, long letters, and charge every wind with loving messages for you."
"Yes, do so, my darling; and as to the letters, give them to the messenger who will bring Nitetis tidings from Egypt from time to time."
"Where shall I find him?"
"I will see that a man is stationed at Naukratis, to take charge of everything you send to him. All this I will settle with Melitta."
"Yes, we can trust her, she is prudent and faithful; but I have another friend, who is dearer to me than any one else excepting you, and who loves me too better than any one else does, but you--"
"You mean your grandmother Rhodopis."
"Yes, my faithful guardian and teacher."
"Ah, she is a noble woman. Croesus considers her the most excellent among women, and he has studied mankind as the physicians do plants and herbs. He knows that rank poison lies hidden in some, in others healing cordials, and often says that Rhodopis is like a rose which, while fading away herself, and dropping leaf after leaf, continues to shed perfume and quickening balsam for the sick and weak, and awaits in patience the wind which at last shall waft her from us."
"The gods grant that she may be with us for a long time yet! Dearest, will you grant me one great favor?"
"It is granted before I hear it."
"When you take me home, do not leave Rhodopis here. She must come with us. She is so kind and loves me so fervently, that what makes me happy will make her so too, and whatever is dear to me, will seem to her worthy of being loved."
"She shall be the first among our guests."
"Now I am quite happy and satisfied, for I am necessary to my grandmother; she could not live without her child. I laugh her cares and sorrows away, and when she is singing to me, or teaching me how to guide the style, or strike the lute, a clearer light beams from her brow, the furrows ploughed by grief disappear, her gentle eyes laugh, and she seems to forget the evil past in the happy present."
"Before we part, I will ask her whether she will follow us home."
"Oh, how glad that makes me! and do you know, the first days of our absence from each other do not seem so very dreadful to me. Now you are to be my husband, I may surely tell you everything that pains or pleases me, even when I dare not tell any one else, and so you must know, that, when you leave, we expect two little visitors; they are the children of the kind Phanes, whom your friend Gyges saved so nobly. I mean to be like a mother to the little creatures, and when they have been good I shall sing them a story of a prince, a brave hero, who took a simple maiden to be his wife; and when I describe the prince I shall have you in my mind, and though my little listeners will not guess it, I shall be describing you from head to foot. My prince shall be tall like you, shall have your golden curls and blue eyes, and your rich, royal dress shall adorn his noble figure. Your generous heart, your love of truth, and your beautiful reverence for the gods, your courage and heroism, in short, every thing that I love and honor in you, I shall give to the hero of my tale. How the children will listen! and when they cry, 'Oh, how we love the prince, how good and beautiful he must be! if we could only see him? then I shall press them close to my heart and kiss them as I kiss you now, and so they will have gained their wish, for as you are enthroned in my heart, you must be living within me and therefore near to them, and when they embrace me they will embrace you too."
"And I shall go to my little sister Atossa and tell her all I have seen on my journey, and when I speak of the Greeks, their grace, their glorious works of art, and their beautiful women, I shall describe the golden Aphrodite in your lovely likeness. I shall tell her of your virtue, your beauty and modesty, of your singing, which is so sweet that even the nightingale is silent in order to listen to it, of your love and tenderness. But all this I shall tell her belongs to the divine Cypris, and when she cries, 'O Aphrodite, could I but see thee!' I too shall kiss my sister."
"Hark, what was that? Melitta surely clapped her hands. Farewell, we must not stay! but we shall soon see each other again."
"One more kiss!"
Melitta had fallen asleep at her post, overcome by age and weariness. Her dreams were suddenly disturbed by a loud noise, and she clapped her hands directly to warn the lovers and call Sappho, as she perceived by the stars that the dawn was not far off.
As the two approached the house, they discovered that the noise which had awakened the old slave, proceeded from the guests, who were preparing for departure.
Urging her to make the greatest haste, Melitta pushed the frightened girl into the house, took her at once to her sleeping-room, and was beginning to undress her when Rhodopis entered.
"You are still up, Sappho?" she asked.
"What is this, my child?"
Melitta trembled and had a falsehood ready on her lips, but Sappho, throwing herself into her grandmother's arms, embraced her tenderly and told the whole story of her love.
Rhodopis turned pale, ordered Melitta to leave the chamber, and, placing herself in front of her grandchild, laid both hands on her shoulders and said earnestly, "Look into my eyes, Sappho. Canst thou look at me as happily and as innocently, as thou couldst before this Persian came to us?"
The girl raised her eyes at once with a joyful smile; then Rhodopis clasped her to her bosom, kissed her and continued: "Since thou wert a little child my constant effort has been to train thee to a noble maidenhood and guard thee from the approach of love. I had intended, in accordance with the customs of our country, to choose a fitting husband for thee shortly myself, to whose care I should have committed thee; but the gods willed differently.
[The Spartans married for love, but the Athenians were accustomed to negotiate their marriages with the parents of the bride alone.]
Eros mocks all human efforts to resist or confine him; warm Aeolian blood runs in thy veins and demands love; the passionate heart of thy Lesbian forefathers beats in thy breast.
[Charaxus, the grandfather of our heroine, and brother of the poetess Sappho, was, as a Lesbian, an Aeolian Greek.]
What has happened cannot now be undone. Treasure these happy hours of a first, pure love; hold them fast in the chambers of memory, for to every human being there must come, sooner or later, a present so sad and desolate, that the beautiful past is all he has to live upon. Remember this handsome prince in silence, bid him farewell when he departs to his native country, but beware of hoping to see him again. The Persians are fickle and inconstant, lovers of everything new and foreign. The prince has been fascinated by thy sweetness and grace. He loves thee ardently now, but remember, he is young and handsome, courted by every one, and a Persian. Give him up that he may not abandon thee!"
"But how can I, grandmother? I have sworn to be faithful to him for ever."
"Oh, children! Ye play with eternity as if it were but a passing moment! I could blame thee for thus plighting thy troth, but I rejoice that thou regardest the oath as binding. I detest the blasphemous proverb: 'Zeus pays no heed to lovers' oaths.' Why should an oath touching the best and holiest feelings of humanity be regarded by the Deity, as inferior in importance to asseverations respecting the trifling questions of mine and thine? Keep thy promise then,--hold fast thy love, but prepare to renounce thy lover."
"Never, grandmother! could I ever have loved Bartja, if I had not trusted him? Just because he is a Persian and holds truth to be the highest virtue, I may venture to hope that he will remember his oath, and, notwithstanding those evil customs of the Asiatics, will take and keep me as his only wife."
"But if he should forget, thy youth will be passed in mourning, and with an embittered heart . . ."
"O, dear kind grandmother, pray do not speak of such dreadful things. If you knew him as well as I do, you would rejoice with me, and would tell me I was right to believe that the Nile may dry up and the Pyramids crumble into ruins, before my Bartja can ever deceive me!"
The girl spoke these words with such a joyful, perfect confidence, and her eyes, though filled with tears, were so brilliant with happiness and warmth of feeling, that Rhodopis' face grew cheerful too.
Sappho threw her arms again round her grandmother, told her every word that Bartja had said to her, and ended the long account by exclaiming: "Oh, grandmother, I am so happy, so very happy, and if you will come with us to Persia, I shall have nothing more to wish from the Immortals."
"That will not last long," said Rhodopis. "The gods cast envious glances at the happiness of mortals; they measure our portion of evil with lavish hands, and give us but a scanty allowance of good. But now go to bed, my child, and let us pray together that all may end happily. I met thee this morning as a child, I part from thee to-night a woman; and, when thou art a wife, may thy kiss be as joyful as the one thou givest me now. To-morrow I will talk the matter over with Croesus. He must decide whether I dare allow thee to await the return of the Persian prince, or whether I must entreat thee to forget him and become the domestic wife of a Greek husband. Sleep well, my darling, thy grandmother will wake and watch for thee."
Sappho's happy fancies soon cradled her to sleep; but Rhodopis remained awake watching the day dawn, and the sun rise, her mind occupied with thoughts which brought smiles and frowns across her countenance in rapid succession.
The next morning she sent to Croesus, begging him to grant her an hour's interview, acquainted him with every particular she had heard from Sappho, and concluded her tale with these words: "I know not what demands may be made on the consort of a Persian king, but I can truly say that I believe Sappho to be worthy of the first monarch of the world. Her father was free and of noble birth, and I have heard that, by Persian law, the descent of a child is determined by the rank of the father only. In Egypt, too, the descendants of a female slave enjoy the same rights as those of a princess, if they owe their existence to the same father."
"I have listened to you in silence," answered Croesus, "and must confess, that, like yourself, I do not know in this moment whether to be glad or sorry for this attachment. Cambyses and Kassandane (the king's and Bartja's mother) wished to see the prince married before we left Persia, for the king has no children, and should he remain childless, the only hope for the family of Cyrus rests on Bartja, as the great founder of the Persian empire left but two sons,--Cambyses, and him who is now the suitor of your granddaughter. The latter is the hope and pride of the entire Persian nation, high and low; the darling of the people; generous, and noble, handsome, virtuous, and worthy of their love. It is indeed expected that the princes shall marry in their own family, the Achaemenidae; but the Persians have an unbounded predilection for everything foreign. Enchanted with the beauty of your granddaughter, and rendered indulgent by their partiality for Bartja, they would easily forgive this breach of an ancient custom. Indeed, if the king gives his approval, no objection on the part of his subjects can be entertained. The history of Iran too offers a sufficient number of examples, in which even slaves became the mothers of kings. The queen mother, whose position, in the eyes of the people, is nearly as high as that of the monarch himself, will do nothing to thwart the happiness of her youngest and favorite son. When she sees that he will not give up Sappho,--that his smiling face, in which she adores the image of her great husband Cyrus, becomes clouded, I verily believe she would be ready to sanction his taking even a Scythian woman to wife, if it could restore him to cheerfulness. Neither will Cambyses himself refuse his consent if his mother press the point at a right moment."
"In that case every difficulty is set aside," cried Rhodopis joyfully.
"It is not the marriage itself, but the time that must follow, which causes me uneasiness," answered Croesus.
"Do you think then that Bartja . . .?"
"From him I fear nothing. He has a pure heart, and has been so long proof against love, that now he has once yielded, he will love long and ardently."
"What then do you fear?"
"You must remember that, though the charming wife of their favorite will be warmly received by all his friends of his own sex, there are thousands of idle women in the harems of the Persian nobles, who will endeavor, by every artifice and intrigue in their power, to injure the newly-risen star; and whose greatest joy it will be to ruin such an inexperienced child and make her unhappy."
"You have a very bad opinion of the Persian women."
"They are but women, and will naturally envy her, who has gained the husband they all desired either for themselves or for their daughters. In their monotonous life, devoid of occupation, envy easily becomes hatred, and the gratification of these evil passions is the only compensation which the poor creatures can obtain for the total absence of love and loss of freedom. I repeat, the more beautiful Sappho is, the more malicious they will feel towards her, and, even if Bartja should love her so fervently as not to take a second wife for two or three years, she will still have such heavy hours to encounter, that I really do not know whether I dare congratulate you on her apparently brilliant future."
"That is quite my own feeling. A simple Greek would be more welcome to me than this son of a mighty monarch."
In this moment Knakias brought Bartja into the room. He went to Rhodopis at once, besought her not to refuse him the hand of her granddaughter, spoke of his ardent love, and assured her that his happiness would be doubled, if she would consent to accompany them to Persia. Then turning to Croesus, he seized his hand and entreated forgiveness for having so long concealed his great happiness from one who had been like a father to him, at the same time begging him to second his suit with Rhodopis.
The old man listened to the youth's passionate language with a smile, and said: "Ah, Bartja, how often have I warned thee against love! It is a scorching fire."
"But its flame is bright and beautiful."
"It causes pain."
"But such pain is sweet."
"It leads the mind astray."
"But it strengthens the heart."
"Oh, this love!" cried Rhodopis. "Inspired by Eros, the boy speaks as if he had been all his life studying under an Attic orator!"
"And yet," answered Croesus, "these lovers are the most unteachable of pupils. Convince them as clearly as you will, that their passion is only another word for poison, fire, folly, death, they still cry, 'Tis sweet,' and will not be hindered in their course."
As he was speaking Sappho came in. A white festal robe, with wide sleeves, and borders of purple embroidery, fell in graceful folds round her delicate figure, and was confined at the waist by a golden girdle. Her hair was adorned with fresh roses, and on her bosom lay her lover's first gift, the flashing diamond star.
She came up modestly and gracefully, and made a low obeisance to the aged Croesus. His eyes rested long on the maidenly and lovely countenance, and the longer he gazed the kindlier became his gaze. For a moment he seemed to grow young again in the visions conjured up by memory, and involuntarily he went up to the young girl, kissed her affectionately on the forehead, and, taking her by the hand, led her to Bartja with the words: "Take her, thy wife she must be, if the entire race of the Achaemenidae were to conspire against us!"
"Have I no voice in the matter?" said Rhodopis, smiling through her tears.
On hearing these words, Bartja and Sappho each took one of her hands, and gazed entreatingly into her face. She rose to her full stature, and like a prophetess exclaimed: "Eros, who brought you to each other, Zeus and Apollo defend and protect you. I see you now like two fair roses on one stem, loving and happy in the spring of life. What summer, autumn and winter may have in store for you, lies hidden with the gods. May the shades of thy departed parents, Sappho, smile approvingly when these tidings of their child shall reach them in the nether world."
Three days later a densely packed crowd was once more surging round the Sais landing-place. This time they had assembled to bid a last farewell to their king's daughter, and in this hour the people gave clear tokens that, in spite of all the efforts of the priestly caste, their hearts remained loyal to their monarch and his house. For when Amasis and Ladice embraced Nitetis for the last time with tears--when Tachot, in presence of all the inhabitants of Sais, following her sister down the broad flight of steps that led to the river, threw her arms round her neck once more and burst into sobs--when at last the wind filled the sails of the royal boat and bore the princess, destined to be the great king's bride, from their sight, few eyes among that vast crowd remained dry.
The priests alone looked on at this sad scene with unmoved gravity and coldness; but when the south wind at last bore away the strangers who had robbed them of their princess, many a curse and execration followed from the Egyptians on the shore; Tachot alone stood weeping there and waving her veil to them. For whom were these tears? for the play-fellow of her youth, or for the handsome, beloved prince?
Amasis embraced his wife and daughter in the eyes of all his people; and held up his little grandson, Prince Necho, to their gaze, the sight eliciting cries of joy on all sides. But Psamtik, the child's own father, stood by the while, tearless and motionless. The king appeared not to observe him, until Neithotep approached, and leading him to his father, joined their hands and called down the blessing of the gods upon the royal house.
At this the Egyptians fell on their knees with uplifted hands. Amasis clasped his son to his heart, and when the high-priest had concluded his prayer, the following colloquy between the latter and Amasis took place in low tones:
"Let peace be between us for our own and Egypt's sake!"
"Hast thou received Nebenchari's letter?"
"A Samian pirate-vessel is in pursuit of Phanes' trireme."
"Behold the child of thy predecessor Hophra, the rightful heiress of the Egyptian throne, departing unhindered to a distant land!"
"The works of the Greek temple now building in Memphis shall be discontinued."
"May Isis grant us peace, and may prosperity and happiness increase in our land!"
The Greek colonists in Naukratis had prepared a feast to celebrate the departure of their protector's daughter.
Numerous animals had been slaughtered in sacrifice on the altars of the Greek divinities, and the Nile-boats were greeted with a loud cry of "Ailinos" on their arrival in the harbor.
A bridal wreath, composed of a hoop of gold wound round with scented violets, was presented to Nitetis by a troop of young girls in holiday dresses, the act of presentation being performed by Sappho, as the most beautiful among the maidens of Naukratis.
On accepting the gift Nitetis kissed her forehead in token of gratitude. The triremes were already waiting; she went on board, the rowers took their oars and began the Keleusma.
[The measure of the Keleusma was generally given by a flute-player, the Trieraules. Aeschylus, Persians 403. Laert. Diog. IV. 22. In the Frogs of Aristophanes the inhabitants of the marshes are made to sing the Keleusma, v. 205. The melody, to the measure of which the Greek boatmen usually timed their strokes.]
Ailinos rang across the water from a thousand voices. Bartja stood on the deck, and waved a last loving farewell to his betrothed; while Sappho prayed in silence to Aphrodite Euploia, the protectress of those who go down to the sea in ships. A tear rolled down her cheek, but around her lips played a smile of love and hope, though her old slave Melitta, who accompanied her to carry her parasol, was weeping as if her heart would break. On seeing, however, a few leaves fall from her darling's wreath, she forgot her tears for a moment and whispered softly: "Yes, dear heart, it is easy to see that you are in love; when the leaves fall from a maiden's wreath, 'tis a sure sign that her heart has been touched by Eros.
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