Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
SHE had a special beauty. Her hair seemed two masses of gold but it was too abundant and weighted her forehead with two deep shadow-laden waves which swallowed up the ears and wound seven-fold upon the nape of the neck. The nose was delicate with slender nostrils which sometimes palpitated above the rounded, mobile corners of the full and tinted mouth. The pliant line of the body undulated with each step, animated by the balancing of the beautiful hips under the rounded, swaying waist.
When she was no more than ten steps from the young man she turned her gaze toward him. Demetrios trembled. They were extraordinary eyes, blue, but deep and brilliant at the same time, moist, weary, in tears and in fire, almost closed under the weight of the lashes and the lids. They looked, these eyes, as the sirens sing. He who passed into their light was inevitably taken. She knew it well and used them skilfully; but she counted more on indifference affected toward the man whom so much unfeigned love had not been able to touch sincerely.
The navigators who have sailed over the purple seas beyond the Ganges tell that they have seen, under the waters, rocks which are of lodestone. When vessels pass near them, the nails and the ironwork
tear themselves away toward the submarine cliff and unite with it forever. And that which was a rapid ship, a dwelling, a living being, becomes no more than a flotilla of planks dispersed by the wind, driven by the tides. Thus Demetrios himself was lost before two great magnetic eyes and all his strength fled from him.
She lowered her eyelids and passed near him.
He could have cried out with impatience. His fists clenched; he was afraid that he could not recover a calm attitude, for he must speak to her. However, he accosted her with the customary words.
"I salute thee," he said.
"I salute thee also," replied the passing one.
Demetrios continued, "Whither goest thou, so little hurried?"
And she made a movement to resume her promenade.
Then Demetrios thought that perhaps he was deceived in judging her a courtesan. For some time past the wives of the magistrates and of the functionaries had dressed and tinted themselves like the daughters of pleasure. This one might be a person very honorably known and it was without irony that he finished his questions thus: "To thy husband?"
Resting her hands on the parapet behind her, she began to laugh.
Demetrios bit his lip and hazarded, almost timidly, "Seek him not. Thou hast begun too late. There is no longer any one here."
"Who told thee I was seeking? I am walking alone and seek nothing."
"Whence camest thou, then? For thou hast not put on all these jewels for thyselfand here is a silken veil . . ."
"Wouldst thou have me go out naked or dressed in wool like a-slave? I dress myself only for my pleasure; I love to know that I am beautiful and, while walking, I look at my fingers to see all my rings."
"Thou shouldst have a mirror in thine hand and look at nothing but thine eyes. They were not born at Alexandria, those eyes. Thou art a Jewess, I hear it in thy voice which is softer than ours."
"No, I am not a Jewess. I am a Galilæan."
"How dost thou call thyselfMiriam or Noemi?"
"My Syrian name . . . thou shalt not know it. It is a royal name which no one bears here. My friends call me Chrysis, which is a compliment thou mightest have paid me."
He put his hand on her arm.
"Oh! no, no," she said mockingly, "it is much too late for those pleasantries. Let me return quickly. It is almost three hours since I arose; I am dying of fatigue."
Leaning over she took her foot in her hand.
"See how my little thongs hurt me. They were pulled much too tight. If I do not loosen them in an instant I will have a mark on my foot and that will be pretty indeed when someone embraces me! Let me go quickly. Ah! what a nuisance! If I had known, I would not have stopped. My yellow veil is all crumpled at the waistlook!"
Demetrios passed his hand over his forehead; then with the disengaged
tone of a man who condescends to make his choice, he murmured, "Show me the way."
"I will certainly not!" cried Chrysis with an astonished air.
"Thou dost not even ask if it is my pleasure. 'Show me the way!'.
How he says that! Dost thou take me for a girl of the porneion? Dost thou know if I am free? Hast thou followed me in the streets? Hast thou noticed the doors where I am welcome? Hast thou counted the men who believe themselves loved of Chrysis? 'Show me the way!' I will not show it to thee, so please thee! Remain here or go, but elsewhere than with me!"
"Thou dost not know who I am. . . ."
"Thou? Come, come! Thou art Demetrios of Sais; thou hast made the statue of my goddess; thou art the lover of my queen and the master of my city. But for me thou art but a handsome slave because thou hast seen me and because thou lovest me."
She drew nearer and pursued with a coaxing voice, "Yesthou lovest me. Oh! do not speakI know what thou wilt tell me; thou lovest no one, thou art loved. Thou art the Well-Beloved, the Cherished, the Idol. Thou hast refused Glykera who had refused Antiochos. Demonassa who had sworn to die virgin would have entrapped thee if thy two Lybian slaves had not thrust her from the door. Callistion the well-named, despairing of approaching thee, bought the house which is opposite thine and in the morning shows herself in the opening of the window. Thou thinkest I do not know all that? But everything is told, among women. The night of thine arrival at Alexandria they spoke to me of thee; and since then not a single day has passed on which thy name has not been pronounced before me. I know even the things thou hast forgotten. Poor little Phyllis hanged herself day
before yesterday at the bar of thy door, did she not? Wellit is a fashion which spreads. Lydia has done like Phyllis; I saw leer this evening as I passed; she was quite blue but tears on her cheeks were not yet dry. Thou dost not know who Lydia is? . . . A child of fifteen years whom her mother had sold last month to a ship captain of Samos who passed the night at Alexandria before going up the river to Thebes. She carne to me. I gave her advice; she knew absolutely nothing, not even how to play at dice. I often took her in my bed, because she had no place to sleep. And she loved thee! If thou couldst have heard her call thy name! . . . She wished to write to thee. Dost thou understand? I told her it was not worth the trouble . . ."
Demetrios watched her without hearing.
"Yes, it is all the same to thee, is it not?" continued Chrysis. "Thou didst not love her. It is I whom thou lovest. Thou hast not even heard what I have just told thee. I am sure thou couldst not repeat a word of it. Thou art well occupied wondering how my eyelids are made, how good my mouth must be, how soft my hair. Ah! how many others know that! All, all have desired my beauty: men, young men, old men, children, women, young girls. Last year I danced before twenty thousand persons and I know thou wert not one of them. Dost thou believe that I hide myself? Ah! why that! All women have seen me at the bath.
All men have seen me. Thou alone thou shalt never again see me. I refuse theeI refuse thee! Of what I am, of what I feel, of my beauty, of my love, thou shalt know nothing, everever! Thou art an abominable man, a coxcomb, cruel, insensitive and cowardly! I do not know why one of us has not had hate
enough to kill you both, one with the other, thou the first and thy queen next."
Demetrios calmly seized her by the arms without a word of reply.
She had a moment of anguish; but suddenly straightened her back and said in a low voice, "Ah! I do not fear that, Demetrios! Let me rise, thou art hurting my arms."
They were silent for a few moments; then Demetrios continued, "This must stop, Chrysis. Thou knowest well I will not injure thee. But let me follow thee. So proud as thou art, it is a glory which will cost thee dearto refuse Demetrios."
Chrysis remained silent.
He continued more gently, "What dost thou fear?"
"Thou art accustomed to the love of others. Dost thou know what one should give to a woman who does not love?" He grew impatient.
"I will give thee the gold of the world. I have it here in Egypt."
"I have it in my hair. I am tired of gold. I do not want gold. I wish for but three things. Wilt thou give them to nee?"
Demetrios felt that she was going to demand the impossible. He looked at her anxiously. But she began to smile and said in a slow voice, "I wish for a silver mirror to reflect my eyes in my eyes.
"Thou shalt have it. What more wishest thou? Say quickly."
"I wish a comb of carved ivory to plunge into my hair like a net into the sunlit water."
"Thou wilt give me my comb?"
"I wish a pearl necklace to spread over my breast when I shall dance for thee the nuptial dances of my country."
He raised his eyebrows.
"That is all?"
"Thou wilt give me my necklace?"
"The one which shall please thee."
Her voice became very tender. "The one which shall please me? Ah! that is exactly what I wished to ask thee. Wilt thou let me choose my presents?"
"Thou swearest it?"
"I swear it."
"What oath dost thou make?"
"By the Aphrodite which thou hast sculptured."
"I swear by the Aphrodite. But why this precaution?"
"Well . . . I was not quite sure. Now I am."
She raised her head. "I have chosen my gifts."
Demetrios became restless once more and asked, "So soon?"
"Yes . . . Dost thou think that I would accept any silver mirror bought from a merchant of Smyrna or from some unknown courtesan? I wish that of my friend Bacchis who cheated me last week and who derided me evilly at a little party which she had with Tryphera, Mousarion and some other young fools who brought the whole thing to me. It is a mirror of which she is very fond because it once belonged to Rhodopisshe who was a slave with Æsop and was brought back by the brother of Sappho. Thou knowest that she is a very celebrated courtesan. Her mirror is magnificent. They say that Sappho has gazed in it and because
of that Bacchis keeps it jealously. She has nothing more precious in the world; but I know where thou wilt find it. She told me one night when she was drunk. It is under the third stone of the altar. It is there she puts it every evening when she goes out at sunset. Go tomorrow to her house at that hour and fear nothing; her slaves go out with her."
"It is madness!" cries Demetrios. "Dost thou wish me to steal?"
"Dost thou not love me? I thought that thou didst love me. And then, hast thou not sworn? I thought that thou hadst sworn. If I am mistaken, let us speak no more of it."
He understood that she would ruin him but let himself be drawn away without a struggle, almost voluntarily. "I will do what thou sayest," he replied.
"Oh! I know very well thou wilt do it. But thou didst hesitate at first. I can understand that. It is not an ordinary gift; I would not demand it from a philosopher. I demand it from thee. I know well thou wilt give it to me."
She played an instant with the peacock plumes of her round fan, then, suddenly:
"Ah! . . . Neither do I wish a comb of common ivory bought from a vender of the town. Thou didst tell me I might choose, didst thou not? Very well, I wish I wish the comb of carved ivory which is in the hair of the High Priest's wife. It is much more precious still than the mirror of Rhodopis. It comes from a queen of Egypt who lived a long, long time ago and whose name is so difficult I cannot pronounce it. So the ivory is very old and yellow as though it were gilded. They have graved upon it a young girl who passes through a marsh of lotos taller than she, where she walks upon the tips of her toes to avoid getting wet
[paragraph continues] . . . It is truly a beautiful comb . . . I will be content when thou givest it to me . . . I have also a little grudge against the one who possesses it. Last month I offered a blue veil to the Aphrodite; I saw it the next day upon the head of this woman. It was a little hasty and I was angry at her. Her comb will repay me for my veil."
"And how will I get it?" demanded Demetrios.
"Ah; that will be a little more difficult. She is an Egyptian, thou knowest, and she dresses her two hundred plaits but once a year like the other women of her race. But I wish my comb tomorrow and thou wilt kill her to get it. Thou hast sworn an oath."
She made a little grimace at Demetrios, who was looking at the ground. Then she finished thus, very quickly, "I have chosen my necklace also. I wish the seven row necklace of pearls which is about the neck of the Aphrodite."
Demetrios started. "Ah! this time, it is too much! Thou shalt not laugh at me to the end! Nothing, dost thou hearnothing! neither the mirror nor the comb nor the necklace shalt thou have . . ."
But she closed his mouth with her hand and resumed her coaxing tone: "Do not say that. Thou knowest well thou wilt give me this also. I am very certain of it. I shall have the three gifts. Thou wilt come to me tomorrow evening and the day after tomorrow if thou wishest and every evening. At thine hour I will be there, in the costume thou preferrest, tinted as thy taste pleases, my hair dressed to thy fancy, ready for thy caprices. If thou wish-est but tenderness, I will cherish thee as a child. If thou wishest silence I will be silent . . . When thou wouldst have me singAh! thou wilt see, Well-Beloved! I know the songs of all countries.
[paragraph continues] I know those which are soft as the murmur of springs, others which are terrible as approaching thunder. I know some so naïve and so fresh that a young girl could sing them to her mother; and I know those they would not sing at Lampsakos; I know some that Elephantis would have blushed to hear and that I would not dare to sing. Nights when thou wishest me to dance I will dance until morning. I will dance quite clothed, with my tunic dragging, or under a veil, or with a corselet. I shall dance with flowers upon my head and in my floating hair, tinted like a divine image. I know how to balance the hands, round the armsthou shalt see! I dance on the tips of my toes, moving lightly across the rugs. I know all the dances of Aphrodite, those that they dance before Urania and those that they dance in honor of Astarte. I know even those which they dare not dance. I will dance for thee all the loves. Thou shalt see! The queen is richer than I but in all the palace there is not a chamber so enchanting as mine. I will not tell thee what thou wilt find there. There are things so lovely that I could not give thee an idea of them and others which are so rare that I have no words with which to tell of them. And then, dost thou know what surpasses all the rest? Chrysiswhom thou lowest and whom thou dost not yet know. Yes, thou hast seen my face, but thou dost not know how fair I am. Ah! Ah! . . . Ah! Ah! Thou wilt have many surprises. Ah! how thou wilt adore me, how thou wilt tremble in my arms, how thou wilt swoon for love of me. And how good my mouth will be! Ah! my kisses!"
Demetrios threw upon her a despairing look. She continued, tenderly: "Whatthou wilt not give me a poor old silver mirror when thou wilt have all my hair like a golden forest in thy hands?"
Demetrios wished to touch it . . .
She drew back and said, "Tomorrow."
"Thou shalt have it," he murmured.
"And thou wilt not take for me a little ivory comb which pleases me when thou wilt have my two arms like two branches of ivory around thy neck?"
He attempted to caress them . . . She drew them back and repeated, "Tomorrow.
"I will bring it to thee," he said, very low.
"Ah! I knew it well!" cried the courtesan. "And thou wilt give me also the necklace of pearls which is about the neck of the Aphrodite and for which I will give thee more kisses in thy mouth than there are pearls in the sea!"
Demetrios, supplicating, advanced his head . . . Her vivid gaze overwhelmed his as she lent her luxurious lips . . .
When he opened his eyes she was already far away. A little shadow, more dim, darted behind her floating veil.
He walked vaguely toward the town, his head bent under an inexpressible shame.