Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
ON the jetty of Alexandria, a girl stood singing. Beside her, seated on the white parapet, were two flute-players.
The flute-players repeated: "Eros! Eros! . . ." and sighed into their doubled reeds.
"Eros! Eros! . . . " Shrill cries leaped from the flutes.
While the flutes continued the slow refrain of the last stanza, the singer held out her hand to the passers-by who stood in a circle around her and received four oboli which she slid into her footgear.
Little by little, the crowd dispersed, curious to watch the passing of its numberless self. The noise of steps and of voices covered even the sound of the sea. Sailors drew, with bent shoulders, merchandise upon the quay. Girls who sold fruit passed by, their full baskets in their arms. Beggars besought with a trembling hand. Asses laden with full leathern bottles trotted before the sticks of their drivers. But it was the hour of sunset, and an idle throng, more numerous than the active crowd, covered the jetty. Here and there groups formed, between which women wandered. One heard well known silhouettes called by name. The young looked at the philosophers who contemplated the women.
These were of every order and of every condition: from the most celebrated, dressed in light silks and shod with gilded leather, to the most miserable who walked barefoot. The poor ones were not less beautiful than the others but less fortunate only, and the attention of the sages dwelt by preference on those whose grace was not altered by the artifice of girdles and the encumberment of jewels. As it was the eve of the festival of Aphrodite, these women had full license to choose the garment which became them best and some of the youngest had even risked wearing none at all. But they shocked no one, for they would not have thus exposed themselves to the sun if any one of them had been marked by the least defect which could lead to mockery.
And a young woman of joyous aspect elbowed some passers-by to rejoin a friend she had seen among the crowd.
"Tryphera! Art thou invited?"
"Not yet. She gives a dinner?"
"A dinner? A banquet, my dear. She is freeing her handsomest slave, Aphrodisia, on the second day of the festival."
"At last! She has perceived that they come to her no longer except for her slave."
"I think she has seen nothing. It is a fancy of old Cheres, the ship captain of the quay. He wanted to buy the girl for ten minæ; Bacchis refused. Twenty minæ; she still refused."
"She is mad."
"What wouldst thou have her do? It was her ambition to have
a freed slave. Besides, she was right to bargain. Cheres will give thirty-five minæ and for that price the girl will be free."
"Thirty-five minæ? Three thousand, five hundred drachmæ? Three thousand, five hundred drachmæ for a negress?"
"She is the daughter of a white."
"Yes, but her mother is black."
"Bacchis declared she would not give her for less and old Cheres is so much in love that he has consented."
"Is he invited, he at least?"
"No! Aphrodisia will dance at the banquet as the last course after the fruit and it is only the next day they must deliver her to Cheres, but I am afraid she will be fatigued . . ."
"Don't pity her! With him she will have time to recover. I know him, Seso. I have watched him sleep."
They laughed together at Cheres. Then they complimented each other.
"Thou hast a pretty dress," said Seso. "Didst thou have it embroidered at home?"
Tryphera's robe was of a thin glaucous stuff entirely worked with large iris flowers. A carbuncle mounted in gold gathered it in folds on the left shoulder; the robe fell like a scarf as far as the metal girdle; a narrow slit which opened and closed at each step alone revealed the whiteness of the skin.
"Seso!" said another voice. "Seso and Tryphera, come, if you don't know what to do. I am going to the Ceramic Wall to look for my name written there."
"Mousarion! Whence comest thou, little one?"
"From the Pharos. There is no one down there."
"What meanest thou? One needs but to throw in a line, it is so full."
"No turbots for me. So I am going to the wall. Come."
On the way, Seso recounted again the banquet project at the house of Bacchis.
"Ah! At Bacchiss!" cried Mousarion. "Thou rememberest the last dinner, Tryphera: all the things they said about Chrysis?"
"Thou must not repeat it. Seso is her friend."
Mousarion bit her lip, but already Seso was uneasy.
"What? What did they say?"
"Oh! . . . Slanders."
"People can talk," declared Seso. "She is worth more than all three of us. On the day she will be willing to leave her quarter and show herself at Bruchion, I know some of our lovers who will return to us no more."
"Certainly. I would commit follies for that woman. There is no one more beautiful here, believe me."
The three young girls had arrived before the Ceramic Wall. From one end to the other of the immense white rampart inscriptions written in black succeeded each other. When a lover desired to present himself to a young woman it was sufficient for him to write their two names with the gift which he proposed; if the man and the gift were approved, the woman remained standing under the writing until the author returned.
"Look, Seso," said Tryphera, laughing. "What nasty joker has written that?"
And they read, in big letters:
"To mock women so should not be permitted. As for me, were I the one named I would already have made an inquiry." But farther on Seso paused before a more serious inscription.
SESO OF KNIDOS
TIMON SON OF LYSIAS
She paled slightly.
"I remain," she said.
And she backed against the wall under the envious looks of the passing women.
Some steps farther, Mousarion found a demand which was acceptable if not so generous. Tryphera returned alone to the jetty.
As the hour was advanced the crowd was less compact. However, the three musicians continued to sing and to play the flute.
Becoming aware of an unknown whose stoutness and garments were a little ridiculous, Tryphera tapped him on the shoulder.
"Well! little father! I wager thou art an Alexandrian, eh!"
"True, my daughter," replied the good man, "and thou hast guessed it. Thou seest me quite surprised at the town and the people."
"Thou art from Bubastis?"
"No. From Cabira. I came here to sell grain and I will return tomorrow richer by fifty-two minæ. Thanks be rendered to the gods, the year has been good."
Tryphera suddenly became full of interest in this merchant.
"My child," he continued timidly, "thou canst give me a great pleasure. I would not like to return tomorrow to Cabira without being able to tell my wife and my three daughters that I have seen-some celebrated men. Thou must know some celebrated men?"
"Some few," she said, laughing.
"Good. Name them to me as they pass by. I am sure that I have met in the street, within the last two days, the most illustrious philosophers and the most influential functionaries. It is my despair not to know them."
"Thou shalt be satisfied. Here is Naucrates."
"Who is this Naucrates?"
"He is a philosopher."
"And what does he preach?"
"That one must be silent."
"By Zeus, there is a doctrine which does not demand a great genius and this philosopher does not please me at all."
"Here is Phrasilas."
"Who is this Phrasilas?"
"He is a dunce."
"Then why dost thou not let him pass?"
"Because others consider him eminent."
"And what does he say?"
"He says everything with a smile, which permits him to let his mistakes be understood as voluntary and his banalities as exquisites. He has all the advantage. The world has allowed itself to be deceived."
"This is too much for me and I do not quite understand thee. Besides, the face of this Phrasilas is marked with hypocrisy."
"Here is Philodemos."
"No. A Latin poet who writes in Greek."
"Little one, he is an enemy. I wish I had not seen him."
Here the whole crowd made a movement; a murmur of voices pronounced the same name:
"Demetrios . . Demetrios . . ."
Tryphera mounted upon a stone and in her turn she said to the merchant, "Demetrios . . . there is Demetrios, thou who wanted to see some celebrated men."
"Demetrios? The lover of the queen? Is it possible?"
"Yes, thou hast had luck. He never goes out. Since I have been at Alexandria, this is the first time I have seen him on the jetty."
"Where is he?"
"There he is, leaning over to see the shipping."
"There are two leaning over.
"He is the one in blue."
"I do not see him well. He turns his back to us."
"Dost thou know he is the sculptor to whom the queen gave herself as model for the Aphrodite of the temple."
"They say he is the royal lover. They say he is the master of Egypt."
"And he is handsome as Apollo."
"Ah! there he is turning around. I am glad I came. I will say that I have seen him. I have heard many things about him. It appears that no woman has ever resisted him. He has had many adventures, has he not? How does it happen that the queen has not been informed of them?"
"The queen knows of them as well as we do. She loves him too
much to speak to him about them. She is afraid lest he return to Rhodes, to his master, Pherecrates. He is as powerful as she and it is she who desired him."
"He does not appear happy. Why does he look so sad? It seems to me I would be happy if I were he. I would like very much to be he, were it but for one evening. . . ."
The sun had set. The woman looked at this man who was the dream of them all. He, without appearing to be conscious of the stir which he inspired, remained leaning on the parapet, listening to the flute-players.
The little musicians made one more round: then they gently threw their light flutes over their backs; the singer passed her arms around their necks and all three returned toward the town.
As darkness had come, the other women re-entered, in little groups, the immensity of Alexandria and the troop of men followed them; but as they went all looked back toward Demetrios. The last one who passed softly threw him her yellow flower and laughed. Silence fell upon the quays.