Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
"PURIFY thyself, Stranger."
"I shall enter pure," said Demetrios.
Dipping the end of her hair in water, the young guardian of the gate touched first his eyelids, then his lips and fingers, that his glance, the kiss of his mouth and the caress of his hands should be sanctified.
And he advanced into the wood of Aphrodite.
Through the branches which had become black, he perceived at the western horizon a sun of dark crimson which no longer dazzled the eyes. It was the sun of the same day upon which the meeting with Chrysis had thrown his life out of its groove.
The feminine soul is of a simplicity incredible to man. Where there is but a straight line they obstinately seek the complexity of a web; they find space and lose themselves in it. It was thus that the soul of Chrysis, transparent as that of a little child, appeared to Demetrios more mysterious than a problem of metaphysics. After leaving this woman upon the jetty, he returned home as though in a dream, incapable of replying to all the questions which tormented him. What did she wish with the three gifts? It would be impossible for her to carry or sell a stolen famous mirror, the comb of a murdered woman, the goddesss
necklace of pearl. In keeping them at home she would expose herself each day to a fatal discovery. Then why demand them? To destroy them? He knew too well that women do not enjoy things in secret and that happy events do not begin to please them until the day they become known. And then, by what divination, by what prodigious clairvoyance, had she judged him capable of accomplishing for her three actions so extraordinary? Assuredly, if he wished, Chrysis, carried from her house, delivered over to his mercy, could be made his mistress, his wife or his slave, according to his choice. He was even free simply to destroy her. Former revolutions had accustomed the citizens to frequent violent deaths and no one would have given a second thought to a vanished courtesan. Chrysis must know this, yet she had dared . . .
The more he thought of her, the more pleased he was that she had so prettily varied the debate of the proposition. How many women, desirable as she, would have presented themselves awkwardly! This one, what had she demanded? Neither love, nor gold, nor jewels, but three incredible crimes! She interested him keenly. He had offered her all the treasures of Egypt; he felt now that, had she accepted them, she would not have received two oboli and that he would have been weary of her even before having known her. Three crimes were surely an unusual fee; but she was worthy of receiving it since she was the woman to demand it, and he promised himself to continue the adventure.
To give himself no time to withdraw from his firm resolution, he went the same day to Bacchiss, found her house empty, took the silver mirror and went to the gardens.
Must he go directly to Chrysiss second victim? He did not think so. The Priestess Touni, who possessed the famous ivory
comb, was so charming and so delicate that he feared his heart would be touched if he appeared before her without a preliminary precaution. He retraced his steps and walked along the Great Terrace.
The temple women sat in their exposed chambers like flowers at an exhibition. Their attitudes and their costumes had no less diversity than their ages, types and races. The most beautiful, following the tradition of Phryne, left uncovered only the oval of their face, enveloping themselves from head to foot in great garments of fine linen. Others had adopted the fashion of robes under which their beauties were mysteriously distinguished as one sees green mosses like spots of shadow at the bottom of limpid waters.
Those who had youth for a charm dressed and posed to display their young beauty. But the more mature likewise had beauties, and posed in their own manner to exhibit their desirable femininity.
Demetrios passed slowly before them and did not weary of admiring.
He had never been able to see without intense emotion the beauty of a woman. He understood neither disgust before departed youth nor insensibility before very young girls. Any woman, this evening, could have charmed him. Provided she was silent and unassertive, he gave her dispensation as to beauty. The more his thoughts dwelt upon perfect forms the more his first emotional response weakened. The emotion given him by the expression of living beauty was an exclusively cerebral sensuality which quite destroyed aphrodisia. He remembered with anguish the most admirable woman he had ever held in his arms.
"Friend," said a voice, "dost thou not know me?"
He turned, made a negative sign, and continued his way, for he never twice visited the same girl. It was the only principle he followed in his visits to the gardens. Demetrios did not expose himself to the disillusions of any second visit.
They cried out their names as he passed and some added the affirmation of their ardent nature . Demetrios followed the way; he was disposed, according to his habit, to select at hazard in the troop, when a young girl all dressed in blue leaned her head upon her shoulders and said to him, softly, without rising, "Is there no way?"
The unexpectedness of this formula made him smile. He stopped. "Open the door," he said. "I choose thee."
The girl joyously sprang to her feet and struck two blows on a gong. An old female slave came to open.
"Gorgo," she said, "I have someone; quick, Cretan wine, and cakes!"
And she turned to Demetrios. "Thou hast no thirst for strong drink?"
"No," said the young man, laughing, "hast thou any?"
"I must have it; they ask for it oftener than thou thinkest. Come this way; take care of the steps, one of them is broken. Enter my chamber; I will come back."
The room was quite plain, like that of all novice priestesses. A
great bed, some rugs and some seats furnished it insufficiently; but, through a large open bay, could be seen the gardens, the sea, the double roadstead of Alexandria. Demetrios stood looking at the distant city.
Setting suns beyond the harborspeerless glories of maritime citiescalm of the heavens, purple of the watersupon what soul clamorous with joy or sorrow do you not cast silence? What steps do not halt, what enjoyments do not suspend, what voices do not fail before you? . . . Demetrios gazed; a surge of torrential flame seemed to issue from the sun half plunged into the sea, and to flow directly to the curved shore of the wood of Aphrodite. From one horizon to the other, the sumptuous scale of crimson swept over the Mediterranean in zones of tints without transitions from golden red to cold violet. Between this quivering splendor and the greened mirror of Lake Mareotis, the white mass of the town was quite clothed with red-violet reflections. The different orientation of its twenty thousand flat houses accented it marvelously with twenty thousand spots of colora perpetual metamorphosis according to the decreasing phrases of the western radiance. It was quick and incendiary; then, suddenly, the sun was swallowed up and the first inflow of the night laved the whole earth with a tremor, a veiled breeze, uniform and transparent.
"Here are figs, here are cakes, a comb of honey, winea woman. The figs must be enjoyed while it is still day!"
The girl had returned, laughing. She made the young man sit down, seated herself at his knees, and, raising her hands behind her head, secured a falling rose in her chestnut hair.
Demetrios uttered an involuntary exclamation of surprise. "But thou art not a woman!" he cried.
"I am not a woman! By the two goddesses, what am I then? A Thracian, a porter or an old philosopher?"
"How old art thou?"
"I was born in the gardens. My mother is a Milesian. She is Pythias, whom they call 'The Goat.' She is beautiful."
"Wert thou at the Didascalion?"
"I am still there, in the sixth class. I shall finish next year; it will not be too soon."
"Art thou weary of it?"
"Ah! if thou knewest how exacting the mistresses are! They make us do the same lesson twenty-five times over! And then, one is tired; I do not like that. Come, take a fig; not that one, it is not ripe. I will teach thee a new way to eat them: look."
"I know it. It is longer but it is no better. I think thou art a good pupil."
"Oh! what I know I have learned all alone. The mistresses wish to make us think they know more than we. They are handier at it, possibly, but they have invented nothing."
"Thou hast many visitors?"
"All too old; it is inevitable. Young men are so stupid! They love only women forty years old. At times I have seen some pass who are as handsome as Eros, and if thou couldst see what they choosehippopotami! It is enough to make one turn pale. I hope I will not live to the age of those women. I would be too ashamed to be seen. Thou seest I am so glad, so glad to be still quite young. Let me give thee a kiss. I love thee."
Here their conversation took a turn less balanced, if not more silent, and Demetrios soon perceived that his misgivings were unnecessary as to the little person already so mature in wisdom. She
seemed to take into account that she was very youthful to be a young man's hostess, and put every energy into entertaining him with a prodigious virtuosity which he could neither foresee nor permit, nor direct, and which never allowed him repose. In the end he embraced her. The half hour had been one long play. She rose and dipped her finger in the cup of honey and dabbed her lips with it; then, with a thousand efforts not to giggle, she leaned over Demetrios, kissing him. Her long ringlets danced at each side of their cheeks. The young man smiled and leaned on his elbow. "What is thy name?" he asked.
"Melitta. Didst thou not see my name on the door?"
"I did not look."
"Thou canst see it in my room. They have all written upon my walls. I shall soon be obliged to have them repainted."
Demetrios raised his head; the four panels of the room were covered with inscriptions.
"Why, how curious," he said. "May I read them?"
"Oh! if thou wishest. I have no secrets."
He read. The name of Melitta was repeated several times with the names of men and with inexpert drawings. Tender and comic phrases were grotesquely intermingled. Visitors detailed the charms of the little novice, or even made fun of her comrades. All of which was hardly interesting except as a written proof of a general abjection. But towards the end of the panel on the right, Demetrios received a shock.
"Who is this? Who is this? Tell me!"
"Who? What?" said the child. "What is the matter with thee?"
"Here. That name. Who wrote that?"
And his finger stopped under this double line:
ΜΕΛΙΤΤΑ .Λ. ΧΡΥΣΙΔΑ
ΧΡΥΣΙΣ .Λ. ΜΕΛΙΤΤΑΝ
"Ah!" she replied, "I did. I wrote that."
"But who is this Chrysis."
"She is my best friend."
"I suppose so. That is not what I asked thee. Which Chrysis? There are many."
"Mine is the most beautiful. Chrysis of Galilee."
"Thou knowest her? Thou knowest her! Tell me, then! Whence comes she? Where does she live? Tell me everything!"
He sat down on the bed and took the young girl on his knees.
"Then thou lovest her?" she asked.
"It matters little to thee. Tell me what thou knowest. I am anxious to hear everything."
"Oh! I know nothing at all; only that she has come twice to me; and thou canst imagine I have not asked information about her family. I was too happy to have her and I lost no time in such conversation."
"How is she made?"
"She is made like a pretty girl; what dost thou wish me to say? Must I name for thee every hair of her head, adding that it is beautiful? And then, she is a woman, a true woman. . . . When I think of her, I am immediately lonely."
And she put her arm around Demetrios neck.
"Thou knowest nothing," he asked further, "nothing about her?"
"I know . . . I know that she comes from Galilee, that she is almost twenty, and that she lives in the Jewish quarter, at the end of the city near the gardens. But that is all."
"And about her life, about her tastes, thou canst tell me nothing? She has friends among women, since she visits thee. But has she no friends among men?"
"Certainly. The first time she came here, a man was with her, and I swear to thee she was not bored. When a woman enjoys herself, I can see it in her eyes. Nevertheless, she came again, quite alone. . . . And she has promised me to come to see me soon again."
"Thou dost not know whether she has another friend in the gardens? No one?"
"Yes, a woman from her country, Chimairis, a poor woman."
"Where does she live? I must see her."
"She has slept in the wood for a year. She sold her house. But I know where her den is. I can lead thee there, if thou wishest it. Put on my sandals for me, wilt thou?"
With a rapid hand Demetrios tied the cords of plaited leather over Melitta's slender ankles. Then he held for her a short robe which she took simply over her arm, and they went out hastily.
They walked for a long timethe park was immense. At long intervals apart, girls under trees called to them, then lay down again, eyes in their hands. Melitta knew some of them, who kissed her without stopping her. While passing before a worn altar, she plucked three large flowers and placed them upon the stone.
The night was not yet dark. There is, in the intense light of summer days, something durable which lingers vaguely in the slow twilight. The pale, moist stars, hardly lighter than the depths
of the sky, twinkled with a soft palpitation, and the shadows of the branches were undefined.
"Ah!" cried Melitta, "Mamma. There is mamma!"
A woman alone, robed in a triple muslin rayed with blue, was advancing with a tranquil step. As soon as she perceived the child, she ran to her, lifted her from the ground, took her in her arms and kissed her vigorously on the cheeks.
"My little girl! My little love, where art thou going?"
"I am leading someone who wishes to see Chimairis. And thou? Art thou taking a walk?"
"Corinna is delivered. I went to her; I dined at her bedside."
"And what has she made? A boy?"
"Twin girls, my dear, pink as wax dolls. Thou mayest go there tonight. She will show them to thee."
"Oh! how nice! Two little priestesses. What are their names?"
"Both Pannychis, because they were born on the eve of the festival of Aphrodite. It is a divine presage. They will be pretty."
She replaced the child upon her feet, and addressed herself to Demetrios:
"How dost thou like my daughter? Have I the right to be proud of her?"
"You should be contented with each other," he said, calmly.
"Kiss mamma," said Melitta.
Silently, he placed a kiss upon her brow. Pythias returned it upon his mouth and they separated.
Demetrios and the girl took a few steps more under the trees, while the courtesan went away, turning her head to watch them. At length they arrived and Melitta said:
"Here she is."
Chimairis was crouching on her left heel, on a little strip of lawn between two trees and a bush. She had a sort of red rag which was her garment and upon which she lay at the time the men passed by. Demetrios contemplated her with growing interest. She had the feverish look of those thin brown women whose wild bodies seem consumed by an ever beating ardor. Her strong lips, her extraordinary stare, her large, livid eyelids, composed a double expression of greed and of exhausted longing. The curves of her body indicated strong desire and her hair, matted in inextricable disorder, wild, furred and shameless, revealed her poverty, for she had sold everything, even her cosmetics, even her combs and pins.
Near her, a large pet goat stood on his hard hoofs, fastened to a tree by a golden chain which had formerly shone four-fold at the throat of his mistress.
"Chimairis," said Melitta, "arise. Here is someone who wishes to speak to thee."
The Jewess looked but did not stir. Demetrios advanced. "Thou knowest Chrysis?" he asked.
"Thou seest her often?"
"Canst thou tell me of her?"
"Whatno? What, thou canst not?"
Melitta was astonished. "Speak to him," she said. "Have confidence. He loves her! he wishes her well."
"I see clearly that he loves her," replied Chimairis. "If he loves her he wishes her ill. If he loves her I will not speak." Demetrios trembled with anger, but was silent.
"Give me thy hand," said the Jewess to him. "I shall see there if I am wrong."
She took the young man's left hand and turned it toward the moonlight. Melitta leaned forward to see, for although she could not read the mysterious lines, their fatality attracted her.
"What dost thou see?" said Demetrios.
"I see . . . Can I tell thee what I see? Wilt thou be pleased with me? Wilt thou even believe me? . . . I see first, all happiness; but it is in the past. I also see all love, but that is lost in blood."
"The blood of a woman. Then the blood of another woman. Last of all, thine own; but a little later."
Demetrios shrugged and, when he turned, perceived Melitta running at top speed among the trees.
"She is afraid," continued Chimairis. "However, it is no concern of hers nor of mine. Let things take their course, since they cannot be stopped. From before thy birth, thy destiny was fixed. Go. I will speak no more."
And she let his hand fall.