Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
THE faint dawn rose over the sea. All things were tinted with lilac. The flame-streaming brazier lighted on the tower of the Pharos was extinguished with the moon. Fugitive yellow glows appeared in the violet waves like faces of sirens under hair of mauve seaweed. It was suddenly light.
The jetty was deserted. The city was dead. It was the somber light before the first dawn, which lightens the slumber of the world and brings the enervating dreams of the morning. Nothing existed but the silence.
Like sleeping birds, the long ships ranged near the quays allowed their parallel oars to hang in the water. The perspective of the streets lay in pure architectural lines uninterrupted by a wagon, a horse or a slave. Alexandria was but a vast solitude, the vision of an antique city abandoned for centuries.
Now a sound of light footsteps pattered upon the soil and two young girls appeared, one dressed in yellow, the other in blue. They both wore the girdles of virgins which passed around the hips and tied very low upon their young bodies. It was the singer of the night past and one of the flute-players.
The musician was younger and prettier than . her friend. Pale as the blue of her robe, her eyes smiled faintly, half drowned
under the eyelids. The two slender flutes hung at her back from the flowered knot at her shoulder. A double garland of iris about her rounded limbs undulated under the light stuff of her garment and was attached at the ankles to two silver anklets. She said:
"Myrtocleia, be not saddened because thou hast lost our tablets. Wilt thou ever forget that the love of Rhodis is thine; or canst thou think, naughty one, that thou wouldst have-ever read alone the line written by my hand? Am I one of those bad companions who graves upon her finger nail the name of her adored friend and goes to another when the nail has grown to the end? Hast thou need of a souvenir of me when thou hast me entire and living? Hardly am I at the age when girls marry, yet I was not half so old, on the day I saw thee for the first time. Thou wilt recall it. It was at the bath. Our mothers held us under our arms and we toddled toward each other. We played a long time upon the marble before dressing again. Since that day we never separated and, five years after, we loved each other."
Myrtocleia replied: "There was another first day, Rhodis, thou knowest. It was that day when thou didst write the three words upon my tablet, mingling our names. That was the first. We will never find it again. But never mind. Every day is new for me and when thou awakenest toward the evening it seems as though I had never seen thee before. I believe thou art not a girl: thou art a little nymph of Arcadia who has left her forest because Phbos has dried her fountain. Thy body is supple as an olive branch, thy skin is soft as water in summer, iris winds about thee and thou bearest the lotus flower as Astarte the open fig. In what wood peopled by immortals did thy mother sleep before thy most happy birth? And what rash ægipan or what god of what divine
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river came to her in the grass? When we shall have quitted this frightful African sun thou wilt lead me to thy spring far behind Psophis and Pheneos in the vast shade-filled forest where one sees upon the soft earth the double trail of satyrs mingled with the light steps of the nymphs. There thou wilt seek a polished rock and thou wilt grave in the stone what thou didst write upon the wax: the three words which are our joy. Listen, listen, Rhodis! By the girdle of Aphrodite on which are broidered all the desires, all desires are strangers to me since thou art more than my dream! By the horn of Amalthæa whence issue all the good things of the world, the world is indifferent to me since thou art the only good I have found in it! When I look upon thee and when I see myself, I know not why thou lovest me in return. Thy hair is blond as a sheaf of wheat; mine is black as that of a goat. Thy skin is white as shepherd's cheese; mine is tanned as the sand of the beaches. Thy tender bosom blossoms as an orange tree in autumn; I am thin and sterile as a pine among the rocks. If my face is embellished, it is because of having loved thee. O Rhodis, thou knowest, where I am like the lips of Pan eating a sprig of myrtle, thou art rosy and pretty as the mouth of a little child. I know not why thou lovest me, but if thou shouldst cease to love me one day and, like thy sister Theano who plays the flute next thee, remain where we are employed, then I would never even think of sleeping and thou, returning, wouldst find me strangled with my girdle."
The long eyes of Rhodis filled with tears and smiles, so cruel and so mad was the idea. She placed her foot upon a stone. "The flowers between my knees annoy me. Undo them, adored Myrto. I have finished dancing for this night."
The singer shrugged. "Oh! it is true. I had forgotten them already, those men and girls. They made you both dance, thou in this robe of Cos and thy sister with thee. If I had not defended thee they would have treated thee as they did thy sister before us . . . Ah! what an abomination! How cruel is man!"
She knelt by Rhodis, and detached the two garlands, then the three single flowers. When she arose the child put her arm around her neck and kissed her.
"Myrto, thou art not jealous of all those debauched people? What does it matter to thee that they should have seen me? Theano suffices them, I have left her to them. They shall not have me, dear Myrto. Be not jealous of them."
"Jealous!" . . . I am jealous of all that approaches thee. That thy robes may not have thee alone, 1 put them on when thou hast worn them. That the flowers in thy hair do not remain in love with thee, I deliver them to the poor courtesans who soil them in orgies. I am afraid of everything thou touchest and I hate everything thou lookest upon. I would wish to be all my life between the walls of a prison where there were but thee and me, and hide thee so well in my arms that not an eye would suspect thee there. I would like to be the fruit thou eatest, the perfume which pleases thee, the slumber which enters beneath thine eyelids. I am jealous of the happiness which I give thee: nevertheless I would give thee as much as I have from thee. Behold my jealousies!"
Rhodis cried sincerely, "Rather would I go, like Nausithoe, to sacrifice to the god whom they adore at Thasos. But not this morning, my dear. I have danced a long time, I am very tired. I would like to go home, to sleep."
She smiled and continued, "Theano must be told that our bed is no longer hers. After tonight, I could never again associate with her. Myrto, truly it is horrible. Is it possible that love is thus? Is that what they call love?"
"It is that."
"They are wrong, Myrto. They do not know."
The wind mingled their hair.