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The other members of the Persian embassy had returned to Sais from their excursion up the Nile to the pyramids. Prexaspes alone, the ambassador from Cambyses, had already set out for Persia, in order to inform the king of the successful issue of his suit.
The palace of Amasis was full of life and stir. The huge building was filled in all parts by the followers of the embassy, nearly three hundred in number, and by the high guests themselves, to whom every possible attention was paid. The courts of the palace swarmed with guards and officials, with young priests and slaves, all in splendid festal raiment.
On this day it was the king's intention to make an especial display of the wealth and splendor of his court, at a festival arranged in honor of his daughter's betrothal.
The lofty reception-hall opening on to the gardens, with its ceiling sown with thousands of golden stars and supported by gaily-painted columns, presented a magic appearance. Lamps of colored papyrus hung against the walls and threw a strange light on the scene, something like that when the sun's rays strike through colored glass. The space between the columns and the walls was filled with choice plants, palms, oleanders, pomegranates, oranges and roses, behind which an invisible band of harp and flute-players was stationed, who received the guests with strains of monotonous, solemn music.
The floor of this hall was paved in black and white, and in the middle stood elegant tables covered with dishes of all kinds, cold roast meats, sweets, well-arranged baskets of fruit and cake, golden jugs of wine, glass drinking-cups and artistic flower-vases.
A multitude of richly-dressed slaves under direction of the high-steward, busied themselves in handing these dishes to the guests, who, either standing around, or reclining on sumptuous seats, entertained themselves in conversation with their friends.
Both sexes and all ages were to be found in this assembly. As the women entered, they received charming little nosegays from the young priests in the personal service of the king, and many a youth of high degree appeared in the hall with flowers, which he not only offered to her he loved best, but held up for her to smell.
The Egyptian men, who were dressed as we have already seen them at the reception of the Persian embassy, behaved towards the women with a politeness that might almost be termed submissive. Among the latter few could pretend to remarkable beauty, though there were many bewitching almond-shaped eyes, whose loveliness was heightened by having their lids dyed with the eye-paint called "mestem." The majority wore their hair arranged in the same manner; the wealth of waving brown locks floated back over the shoulders and was brushed behind the ears, one braid being left on each side to hang over the temples to the breast. A broad diadem confined these locks, which as the maids knew, were quite as often the wig-maker's work as Nature's. Many ladies of the court wore above their foreheads a lotus-flower, whose stem drooped on the hair at the back.
They carried fans of bright feathers in their delicate hands. These were loaded with rings; the finger-nails were stained red, according to Egyptian custom, and gold or silver bands were worn above the elbow, and at the wrists and ankles.
[This custom (of staining finger-nails) is still prevalent in the East; the plant Shenna, Laosonia spinosa, called by Pliny XIII. Cyprus, being used for the purpose. The Egyptian government has prohibited the dye, but it will be difficult to uproot the ancient custom. The pigment for coloring the eyelids, mentioned in the text, is also still employed. The Papyrus Ebers alludes to the Arabian kohl or antimony, which is frequently mentioned under the name of "mestem" on monuments belonging to the time of the Pharaohs.]
Their robes were beautiful and costly, and in many cases so cut as to leave the right breast uncovered. Bartja, the young Persian prince, among the men, and Nitetis, the Pharaoh's daughter, among the women, were equally conspicuous for their superior beauty, grace and charms. The royal maiden wore a transparent rose-colored robe, in her black hair were fresh roses, she walked by the side of her sister, the two robed alike, but Nitetis pale as the lotus-flower in her mother's hair.
Ladice, the queen, by birth a Greek, and daughter of Battus of Cyrene, walked by the side of Amasis and presented the young Persians to her children. A light lace robe was thrown over her garment of purple, embroidered with gold; and on her beautiful Grecian head she wore the Urmus serpent, the ornament peculiar to Egyptian queens.
Her countenance was noble yet charming, and every movement betrayed the grace only to be imparted by a Greek education.
Amasis, in making choice of this queen, after the death of his second wife, (the Egyptian Tentcheta, mother of Psamtik the heir to the throne,) had followed his prepossession in favor of the Greek nation and defied the wrath of the priests.
The two girls at Ladice's side, Tachot and Nitetis, were called twin-sisters, but showed no signs of that resemblance usually to be found in twins.
Tachot was a fair, blue-eyed girl, small, and delicately built; Nitetis, on the other hand, tall and majestic, with black hair and eyes, evinced in every action that she was of royal blood.
"How pale thou look'st, my child!" said Ladice, kissing Nitetis' cheek. "Be of good courage, and meet thy future bravely. Here is the noble Bartja, the brother of thy future husband."
Nitetis raised her dark, thoughtful eyes and fixed them long and enquiringly on the beautiful youth. He bowed low before the blushing maiden, kissed her garment, and said:
"I salute thee, as my future queen and sister! I can believe that thy heart is sore at parting from thy home, thy parents, brethren and sisters; but be of good courage; thy husband is a great hero, and a powerful king; our mother is the noblest of women, and among the Persians the beauty and virtue of woman is as much revered as the life-giving light of the sun. Of thee, thou sister of the lily Nitetis, whom, by her side I might venture to call the rose, I beg forgiveness, for robbing thee of thy dearest friend."
As he said these words he looked eagerly into Tachot's beautiful blue eyes; she bent low, pressing her hand upon her heart, and gazed on him long after Amasis had drawn him away to a seat immediately opposite the dancing-girls, who were just about to display their skill for the entertainment of the guests. A thin petticoat was the only clothing of these girls, who threw and wound their flexible limbs to a measure played on harp and tambourine. After the dance appeared Egyptian singers and buffoons for the further amusement of the company.
At length some of the courtiers forsook the hall, their grave demeanor being somewhat overcome by intoxication.
[Unfortunately women, as well as men, are to be seen depicted on the monuments in an intoxicated condition. One man is being carried home, like a log of wood, on the heads of his servants. Wilkinson II. 168. Another is standing on his head II. 169. and several ladies are in the act of returning the excessive quantity which they have drunk. Wilkinson II. 167. At the great Techu-festival at Dendera intoxication seems to have been as much commanded as at the festivals of Dionysus under the Ptolemies, one of whom (Ptolemy Dionysus) threatened those who remained sober with the punishment of death. But intoxication was in general looked upon by the Egyptians as a forbidden and despicable vice. In the Papyrus Anastasi IV., for instance, we read these words on a drunkard: "Thou art as a sanctuary without a divinity, as a house without bread," and further: "How carefully should men avoid beer (hek)." A number of passages in the Papyrus denounce drunkards.]
The women were carried home in gay litters by slaves with torches; and only the highest military commanders, the Persian ambassadors and a few officials, especial friends of Amasis, remained behind. These were retained by the master of the ceremonies, and conducted to a richly-ornamented saloon, where a gigantic wine-bowl standing on a table adorned in the Greek fashion, invited to a drinking-bout.
Amasis was seated on a high arm-chair at the head of the table; at his left the youthful Bartja, at his right the aged Croesus. Besides these and the other Persians, Theodorus and Ibykus, the friends of Polykrates, already known to us, and Aristomachus, now commander of the Greek body-guard, were among the king's guests.
Amasis, whom we have just heard in such grave discourse with Croesus, now indulged in jest and satire. He seemed once more the wild officer, the bold reveller of the olden days.
His sparkling, clever jokes, at times playful, at times scornful, flew round among the revellers. The guests responded in loud, perhaps often artificial laughter, to their king's jokes, goblet after goblet was emptied, and the rejoicings had reached their highest point, when suddenly the master of the ceremonies appeared, bearing a small gilded mummy; and displaying it to the gaze of the assembly, exclaimed. "Drink, jest, and be merry, for all too soon ye shall become like unto this!"
[Wilkinson gives drawings of these mummies (II. 410.) hundreds of which were placed in the tombs, and have been preserved to us. Lucian was present at a banquet, when they were handed round. The Greeks seem to have adopted this custom, but with their usual talent for beautifying all they touched, substituted a winged figure of death for the mummy. Maxims similar to the following one are by no means rare. "Cast off all care; be mindful only of pleasure until the day cometh when then must depart on the journey, whose goal is the realm of silence!" Copied from the tomb of Neferhotep to Abd- el-Qurnah.]
"Is it your custom thus to introduce death at all your banquets?" said Bartja, becoming serious, "or is this only a jest devised for to-day by your master of the ceremonies?"
"Since the earliest ages," answered Amasis, "it has been our custom to display these mummies at banquets, in order to increase the mirth of the revellers, by reminding them that one must enjoy the time while it is here. Thou, young butterfly, hast still many a long and joyful year before thee; but we, Croesus, we old men, must hold by this firmly. Fill the goblets, cup-bearer, let not one moment of our lives be wasted! Thou canst drink well, thou golden-haired Persian! Truly the great gods have endowed thee not only with beautiful eyes, and blooming beauty, but with a good throat! Let me embrace thee, thou glorious youth, thou rogue! What thinkest thou Croesus? my daughter Tachot can speak of nothing else than of this beardless youth, who seems to have quite turned her little head with his sweet looks and words. Thou needest not to blush, young madcap! A man such as thou art, may well look at king's daughters; but wert thou thy father Cyrus himself, I could not allow my Tachot to leave me for Persia!"
"Father!" whispered the crown-prince Psamtik, interrupting this conversation. "Father, take care what you say, and remember Phanes." The king turned a frowning glance on his son; but following his advice, took much less part in the conversation, which now became more general.
The seat at the banquet-table, occupied by Aristomachus, placed him nearly opposite to Croesus, on whom, in total silence and without once indulging in a smile at the king's jests, his eyes had been fixed from the beginning of the revel. When the Pharaoh ceased to speak, he accosted Croesus suddenly with the following question: "I would know, Lydian, whether the snow still covered the mountains, when ye left Persia."
Smiling, and a little surprised at this strange speech, Croesus answered: "Most of the Persian mountains were green when we started for Egypt four months ago; but there are heights in the land of Cambyses on which, even in the hottest seasons, the snow never melts, and the glimmer of their white crests we could still perceive, as we descended into the plains."
The Spartan's face brightened visibly, and Croesus, attracted by this serious, earnest man, asked his name. "My name is Aristomachus."
"That name seems known to me."
"You were acquainted with many Hellenes, and my name is common among them."
"Your dialect would bespeak you my opinion a Spartan."
"I was one once."
"And now no more?"
"He who forsakes his native land without permission, is worthy of death."
"Have you forsaken it with your own free-will?"
"For what reason?"
"To escape dishonor."
"What was your crime?"
"I had committed none."
"You were accused unjustly?"
"Who was the author of your ill-fortune?"
Croesus started from his seat. The serious tone and gloomy face of the Spartan proved that this was no jest, and those who sat near the speakers, and had been following this strange dialogue, were alarmed and begged Aristomachus to explain his words.
He hesitated and seemed unwilling to speak; at last, however, at the king's summons, he began thus:
"In obedience to the oracle, you, Croesus, had chosen us Lacedaemonians, as the most powerful among the Hellenes, to be your allies against the might of Persia; and you gave us gold for the statue of Apollo on Mount Thornax. The ephori, on this, resolved to present you with a gigantic bronze wine-bowl, richly wrought. I was chosen as bearer of this gift. Before reaching Sardis our ship was wrecked in a storm. The wine-cup sank with it, and we reached Samos with nothing but our lives. On returning home I was accused by enemies, and those who grudged my good fortune, of having sold both ship and wine-vessel to the Samians. As they could not convict me of the crime, and had yet determined on my ruin, I was sentenced to two days' and nights' exposure on the pillory. My foot was chained to it during the night; but before the morning of disgrace dawned, my brother brought me secretly a sword, that my honor might be saved, though at the expense of my life. But I could not die before revenging myself on the men who had worked my ruin; and therefore, cutting the manacled foot from my leg, I escaped, and hid in the rushes on the banks of the Furotas. My brother brought me food and drink in secret; and after two months I was able to walk on the wooden leg you now see. Apollo undertook my revenge; he never misses his mark, and my two worst opponents died of the plague. Still I durst not return home, and at length took ship from Gythium to fight against the Persians under you, Croesus. On landing at Teos, I heard that you were king no longer, that the mighty Cyrus, the father of yonder beautiful youth, had conquered the powerful province of Lydia in a few weeks, and reduced the richest of kings to beggary."
Every guest gazed at Aristomachus in admiration. Croesus shook his hard hand; and Bartja exclaimed: "Spartan, I would I could take you back with me to Susa, that my friends there might see what I have seen myself, the most courageous, the most honorable of men!"
"Believe me, boy," returned Aristomachus smiling, every Spartan would have done the same. In our country it needs more courage to be a coward than a brave man."
"And you, Bartja," cried Darius, the Persian king's cousin, "could you have borne to stand at the pillory?" Bartja reddened, but it was easy to see that he too preferred death to disgrace.
"Zopyrus, what say you?" asked Darius of the third young Persian.
"I could mutilate my own limbs for love of you two," answered he, grasping unobserved the hands of his two friends.
With an ironical smile Psamtik sat watching this scene--the pleased faces of Amasis, Croesus and Gyges, the meaning glances of the Egyptians, and the contented looks with which Aristomachus gazed on the young heroes.
Ibykus now told of the oracle which had promised Aristomachus a return to his native land, on the approach of the men from the snowy mountains, and at the same time, mentioned the hospitable house of Rhodopis.
On hearing this name Psamtik grew restless; Croesus expressed a wish to form the acquaintance of the Thracian matron, of whom Aesop had related so much that was praiseworthy; and, as the other guests, many of whom had lost consciousness through excessive drinking, were leaving the hall, the dethroned monarch, the poet, the sculptor and the Spartan hero made an agreement to go to Naukratis the next day, and there enjoy the conversation of Rhodopis.
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