Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
THE door scarcely closed, Chrysis laid her hand over her racing and burning heart as one presses a painful spot to lessen the throbbing. Then she leaned her shoulder against a column and wrung her fingers in an agony of exasperation, moaning softly.
Would she, then, never know?
In proportion with the passing hours, the augmented improbability of her success blazed out before her. To demand the mirror abruptly would be a daring way to learn the truth. But, in case it had been taken, she would draw all suspicions on herself and would be lost. On the other hand, she could no longer remain there without speaking; impatience had driven her from the hall.
Timon's loutish behavior had exasperated her dumb rage into a trembling frenzy which forced her to press her body against the coolness of the great, smooth column.
She feared a nervous attack.
She called the slave Arete. "Keep my jewels for me; I am going out."
And she descended the seven steps.
Not a breath of air fanned the heavy drops of perspiration on
her forehead. This disappointment increased her discomfort and made her stagger.
She walked on, following the street.
Bacchiss house was situated at the extremity of Bruchion, at the border of Rhacotis, the native town, the enormous slum peopled by sailors and Egyptians. The fishermen, who slept upon their anchored vessels during the overwhelming heat of the day, came there to pass their nights until dawn and to give up, to the girls and the wine-sellers, as payment for a double intoxication, the price of the fish of the day before.
Chrysis plunged into the alleys of this Alexandrian Suburra, full of voices, of movement and of barbarous music. She looked furtively through open doors, into halls eerie and reeking with the smoke of lamps, where shadowy forms, never single, seemed unreal. At the cross-ways, upon low trestles ranged before the houses, many-colored mattresses groaned in the shadow, loaded with human weight. Chrysis walked along uneasily. A lone woman begged. An old man fumbled at her. A gaping peasant sought to kiss her. She fled, in a sort of blushing fear.
This foreign town in the Greek city was, for Chrysis, full of darkness and dangers. She was unfamiliar with its strange labyrinths, the complexity of its streets, the secrets of certain houses. When she ventured into it, now and then, she always followed the same direct way toward a little red door, and there she forgot her lovers.
But this evening, without even having turned her head, she sensed herself followed by a double footfall.
She hastened her steps. The double tread hastened also. She began to run; she was pursued; then, frightened, she turned up
an alley, then another which doubled back, then a long way which led in an unknown direction.
Her throat dry, her temples throbbing, sustained by Bacchiss wine, she fled, turning from right to left, pale, without knowing her way.
At length a wall barred her course: she was in a blind passage. Hastily she tried to turn back, but two sailors with brown hands barred the narrow way.
"Whither goest thou, little golden arrow?" asked one of them, laughing.
"Let me pass.
"Eh? Art thou lost, young girl? Thou dost not know Rhacotis, eh? We are going to show thee the town . . ."
And they both grasped her by the girdle. She cried out, struggled, struck out with her fist, but the second sailor seized both her hands in his left hand and said only: "Be quiet. Thou knowest they love not the Greeks here; no one will come to help thee."
"I am not a Greek!"
"Thou liest, thou hast white skin and a straight nose. Be still, if thou fearest a beating."
Chrysis looked at the speaker. "I will follow thee," she said. "Thou wilt follow us both. Walk with us; thou wilt be amused."
Whither would they lead her? She had no idea; but the second sailor pleased her with his roughness, his brute-like head. She considered him with the imperturbable gaze of a young dog before meat. She swayed her body toward him, to touch him while walking.
With rapid steps, they traversed strange quarters, without life,
without lights. Chrysis could not understand how they found their way in this nocturnal maze from which she could not have escaped alone, so fantastically complicated were its alleys. The closed doors, the empty windows, the motionless shadows terrified her. Above her, between the conjoining houses, she saw a ribbon of pale sky flooded with moonlight.
At length they re-entered life. At a turn of the street, suddenly, eight, ten, eleven lights appeared, illuminated doorways where young Nabatah women squatted between two red lamps which lighted their gold-hooded heads from below.
They heard the swell of a distant murmur, then an increasing tumult of wagons, of tossed bales, steps of donkeys and human voices. It was the market-place of Rhacotis where during Alexandria's sleep all the provisions heaped up for the nourishment of nine hundred thousand mouths in one day were brought together.
They skirted the houses of the square, among the green heaps, vegetables, lotus roots, shining beans, panniers of olives. Chrysis took a handful of mulberries from a violet heap and ate them without stopping. Finally they arrived before a low door and the sailors descended with her for whom had been stolen the true pearls of the Anadyomene.
It was an immense hall. Five hundred men of the people, waiting for dawn, were drinking cups of yellow beer, eating figs, lentils, cakes of sesame and olyra bread. In the midst of them swarmed the rabble of yelping women, a whole field of black hair and many-colored flowers in an atmosphere of fire. They were poor girls without a shelter who belonged to everybody. They came there bare-footed, scantily covered by red or blue rags over the body, to beg for the scraps. Most of them carried upon the
left arm a child enveloped in rags. There were also dancing women, six Egyptians on a platform with an orchestra of three musicians, of whom the first two tapped skin-covered tambourines with wands, while a third shook a great clanking sistrum of bronze.
"Oh; bon-bons of myxare!" cried Chrysis, joyfully.
And she bought the worth of two coppers from a little girl vendor.
But suddenly she grew faint, so insupportable was the odor of this foul retreat, and the sailors bore her away in their arms.
In the outer air she recovered a little. "Where are we going?" she begged. "I can walk no longer. I shall fall in the street."