Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
IN the morning on which the bacchanalia at Bacchiss came to an end, there was an event at Alexandria: rain fell. Immediately, contrary to what usually occurs in countries less African, everyone was out of doors to welcome the downpour.
The phenomenon was neither torrential nor tempest-like. Large warm drops, from the height of a violent cloud, traversed the air. The women felt them moistening their breasts and their hastily knotted hair. Men gazed at the sky with interest. Little children burst into laughter, dragging their bare feet in the surface mud.
Then the cloud vanished amidst the light; the sky stood implacably pure, and a little after noon the mud had again become dust under the sun's rays.
But this momentary shower. had sufficed. The town was cheered by it. The men remained together upon the flagstones of the Agora and the women clustered in groups, mingling their bright voices.
Only the courtesans were there, for, the third day of the Aphrodisian Festivals being reserved for the exclusive devotions of the married women, these latter had just assembled in a procession upon the road to the Astarteion, and upon the square there were only flowered robes and eyes black with fard.
As Myrtocleia passed, a young girl named Philotis, who was talking with several others, pulled her by the knot of her sleeve.
"Ah, little one! thou didst play at Bacchiss yesterday? What happened there? What did they do? Has Bacchis put on a new necklace of discs to hide the valleys of her neck? Does she wear breastplates of wood or of brass? Did she forget to dye the little white hairs on her temples, before putting on her wig? Come, speak, little stupid!"
"Dost thou think that I looked? I came after the dinner, I played my scene, I received my pay and then left at once."
"Oh! I know thou dost not corrupt thyself!"
"To spot my robe and receive blows? No, Philotis. Only rich women can afford to take part in orgies. Little flute-players gain only tears."
"If thou wouldst not spot thy robe, leave it in the ante-chamber. When thou receivest buffets, make them pay thee. That is elementary. Then thou hast nothing to tell us? Not an adventure, not a jest, not a scandal? We are yawning like ibises. If thou knowest nothing, invent something."
"My friend Theano stayed later than I. When I awoke just now, she had not returned. Perhaps the festival still continues."
"It is ended," said another woman. "Theano is down there, by the Ceramic Wall."
The courtesans ran thither, but at some distance they stopped with smiles of pity.
Theano, dizzy in the most ingenuous drunkenness, was pulling obstinately at an almost dismantled rose whose thorns clung to her hair. Her yellow tunic was soiled, as though the whole orgy had passed over her. The bronze brooch which should have held the
convergent folds of her garment upon her left shoulder, hung lower than her girdle, disarranging all her clothing.
As soon as she perceived Myrtocleia, she went off suddenly into the burst of singular laughter, known to everyone in Alexandria, which had given her the nickname of "The Hen." It was the interminable cackling of a laying hen, a cascade of gayety which descended as her breath failed, recommenced on a sharp cry, and repeated its cadence, rhythmically, like the joy of a triumphant fowl.
"An egg! An egg!" jeered Philotis.
But Myrtocleia made a gesture. "Come, Theano. Thou must go to bed. Thou art not well. Come with me."
"Ah! ha! . . . Ah! ha! . . ." laughed the child.
And she beat her breast with her little hand, crying in a changed voice, "Ah! ha! . . . The mirror . . ."
"Come!" repeated Myrto, impatiently.
"The mirror . . . It is stolen, stolen, stolen! Ah! ha! I will never laugh so much again if I live longer than Cronos. Stolen, stolen; the silver mirror!"
The singer tried to draw her away, but Philotis had understood. "Oh!" she cried to the others, raising her arms in the air.
"Come quickly! here is news! Bacchiss mirror is stolen!"
And all exclaimed: "Papaie! Bacchiss mirror!"
In an instant, thirty women crowded around the flute-player. "What are they saying?"
"Bacchiss mirror has been stolen. Theano has just said so."
"Who took it?"
The child shrugged her shoulders. "How should I know?"
"Thou didst pass the night down there. Thou shouldst know. It is not possible. Who has entered her house? Surely they told thee. Try to remember, Theano."
"How should I know? . . . There were more than twenty in the hall . . . They had hired me as a flute-player, but they kept me from playing because they did not like music. They asked me to mimic the dance-figure of Danæ and they threw pieces of gold, and Bacchis took them all from me . . . And what more? They were crazy. They made me drink, head down, in a crater much too full where they had poured seven cups because there were seven wines on the table. My face was all wet. Even my hair was soaking and my roses."
"Yes," interrupted Myrto, "thou art a very naughty girl. But the mirror? Who took it?"
"Exactly! When they put me back on my feet, the blood had run to my head and the wine to my ears. Ha! ha! They all began to laugh . . . Bacchis sent for the mirror . . . Ha! ha! It wasn't there. Someone had taken it."
"Who? I am asking thee, who?"
"It wasn't I, that is all I know. They could not search me, I was quite naked. I could not hide a mirror, like a drachma, under my eyelid. It wasn't I, that is all I know. She crucified a slave, perhaps for that . . . When I saw they were not looking at me any more, I picked up the Danæ pieces. See, Myrto, I have five of them. Thou shalt buy robes for us three."
The report of the robbery had spread, little by little, over the whole square. The courtesans did not conceal their envious satisfaction. A noisy curiosity animated the shifting groups.
"It is a woman," said Philotis. "It is a woman who turned the trick."
"Yes, the mirror was well hidden. A robber could have carried off everything in the house and turned everything upside down without finding the stone."
"Bacchis has enemies, her former women-friends above all. They know all her secrets. One of them could have drawn her off somewhere and entered her house at the hour when the sun is hot and the streets almost deserted."
"Oh! perhaps she has had the mirror sold to pay her debts."
"Could it have been one of her visitors? They say she is careless, now, of whom she receives."
"No, it is a woman. I am sure of it."
"By the two goddesses! It is well done."
Suddenly a still more tempestuous crowd pushed toward a point of the Agora, followed by an increasing murmur which attracted all passers.
"What is it? What is it?"
And a shrill voice, dominating the tumult, cried over the anxious heads:
"Someone has slain the wife of the High Priest!"
A violent emotion seized all the crowd. No one believed it. No one could imagine that, in the midst of the Aphrodisian Festivals, such a murder had come to draw the wrath of the gods upon the town. But in all directions the same words passed from mouth to mouth:
"The wife of the High Priest has been slain! The temple festival is suspended!"
The news arrived rapidly. The body had been found, lying upon a bench of rose-marble, in a solitary place at the summit of the gardens. A long golden pin pierced the left breast; the wound had not bled but the assassin had cut off all the young woman's hair and carried away the antique comb of the queen Nitocris.
After the first cries of anguish, a profound stupor spread. The multitude increased each moment. The entire town was there, a sea of bare heads and women's headgear, an immense troop which debouched simultaneously from streets full of blue shadow into the dazzling light of the Agora of Alexandria. No such gathering had been seen since the day when Ptolemy Auletes was overthrown by the partisans of Berenice. And yet, political revolutions appeared less terrible than this crime of sacrilege upon which the welfare of the city might depend. The men thronged around the witnesses. New details were demanded. New conjectures were offered. Women imparted to late arrivals the theft of the celebrated mirror. The best informed affirmed that the two simultaneous crimes had been committed by the same hand. But whose hand? Girls who, the day before, had presented their offerings for the following year, feared lest the goddess withhold her consideration and sobbed, crouching, their heads in their robes.
An ancient superstition would have it that two such events would be followed by a more serious third. The crowd awaited this. After the mirror and the comb, what had the mysterious thief taken? A stifling atmosphere, inflamed by the south wind and full of dusty sand, weighed upon the motionless crowd.
Imperceptibly, as though this human mass were a single being, it was seized by a shudder which increased by degrees to panic, and all eyes became fixed on the same point of the horizon.
This was the distant extremity of the great rectilinear avenue which traversed Alexandria from the Canopic Gate, and led from the Temple to the Agora. There, at the highest point of the gentle slope, where the way opened upon the sky, a second terrified multitude had just appeared and descended, running toward the first.
"The courtesans! The sacred courtesans!"
No one stirred. No one dared go to meet them for fear of learning of a new disaster. They arrived like a living inundation, preceded by the dull round of their course upon the ground. They raised their arms, they elbowed each other. They seemed to flee an army. They could be recognized, now. Their robes could be distinguished, their girdles, their hair. Rays of light struck the golden jewels. They were quite near. They opened their mouths . . . The silence was absolute.
"The necklace of the goddess has been stolen, the true pearls of the Anadyomene!"
A clamor of despair greeted the fatal words. The crowd recoiled at first like a wave, then surged forward, beating against the walls, filling the road, engulfing the terrified women, into the long avenue of the Drome toward the undone Holy Immortal.