Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
QUEEN BERENICE had a young sister named Cleopatra. Many other princesses of Egypt were called by this name, but this one was later the great Cleopatra who slew her empire and killed herself upon its corpse.
She was then twelve years old and no one could say what her beauty would be. Her long, thin build was disconcerting in a family where all the women were plump. She ripened like a badly grafted crossed fruit of foreign, obscure origin. Some of her features were violent as those of the Macedonians; others seemed to come to her from the depths of gentle, brown Nubia, for her mother had been a woman of inferior race and her origin was still doubtful. One was astonished to see lips almost thick under the curved, thin nose. Her young bosom alone marked her as a daughter of the Nile.
The little princess dwelt in a spacious chamber open upon the expanse of the sea and connected with that of the queen by a pillared vestibule.
There she passed the hours of the night upon a bed of blue-tinted silk where the skin of her finely toned young limbs took a still more somber hue.
Now in the night during whichfar from her thoughtsthe
events just described took place, Cleopatra arose long before the dawn., She had slept but little and ill, uneasy from the extreme heat of the air.
Without waking her guardian women, she placed her feet gently upon the ground, slipped on her golden anklets, girdled her little brown body with a strand of enormous pearls, dressed, and issued from the room.
In the monumental vestibule, the guards, also, slept, except one who stood sentinel at the queen's door. This one fell upon his knees and whispered, full of terror, as though he had never found himself caught in such a conflict of duties and perils, "Princess Cleopatra, thy pardon . . . I cannot let thee pass."
The girl drew herself up, frowned violently, struck the soldier's temple with her fist, and exclaimed softly but ferociously, "Thou, if thou touchest me, I will cry out and I will have thee quartered."
Then she silently entered the queen's chamber.
Berenice slept, her head upon her arm, her hand hanging down. A lamp, suspended above the great crimson bed, mingled its feeble light with that of the moon which reflected the whiteness of the walls. The yielding outline of the young woman, vague and luminous, was bathed in a slight shadow between the two lights. Slender and straight, Cleopatra seated herself upon the edge of the bed. She took her sister's face between her little hands and awakened her with gesture and voice, saying, "Where is thy lover?"
With a start, Berenice opened her beautiful eyes. "Cleopatra . . . What art thou doing here? . . . What dost thou wish?"
The little girl repeated insistently, "Where is thy lover?"
"He is not . . ."
"Certainly not, thou knowest."
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"It is true. He is never here . . . Oh, Cleopatra, how cruel thou art to awaken me and tell me so!"
"And why is he never here?"
Berenice sighed mournfully. "I see him when he wishes . . . in the daytime . . . an instant."
"Didst thou not see him yesterday?"
"Yes . . . I met him on the road . . . I was in my litter. He entered it."
"Not as far as the Palace?"
"No . . . not quite; but almost at the door I still saw him. . ."
"And thou saidst to him . . ."
"Oh, I was furious . . . I said the most evil things . . . Yes, my dear."
"Really?" said the young girl ironically.
"Too evil, doubtless, for he did not reply . . . At the moment when I was quite red with anger, he told me a long fable and as I did not quite understand it I did not know how to answer in my turn . . . He slipped out of the litter although I thought I could keep him."
"Why didst thou not have him ordered back?"
"For fear of displeasing him."
Cleopatra, swelling with indignation, caught her sister by the shoulders and spoke, looking into her eyes: "What! Thou art queen; thou art the goddess of a people; thou possessest a half of the world; all that is not Rome's is thine; thou reignest over the Nile and over all the sea; thou reignest even over the heaven since thou speakest to the gods from nearer than any otherand thou canst not reign over the man thou lovest?"
"Reign . . ." said Berenice, drooping her head, "that is easy to say, but, seest thou, one does not reign over a lover as over a slave."
"And why not?"
"Because . . . but thou canst not understand . . . To love is to prefer the happiness of another to that which one formerly wished for one's self . . . If Demetrios is pleased, I will be also, even in tears and far from him . . . I can no longer desire a joy which may not at the same time be his, and I am happy with all that I give him."
"Thou dost not know how to love," said the child.
Berenice smiled sadly at her, then stretched sleepily and breathed deeply.
"Ah! presumptuous little maiden!" she sighed. "When thou wilt have swooned for the first time in a loving embrace, then thou wilt understand why one is never the queen of the man in whose arms one has been."
"One is when one wishes."
"But one can no longer wish."
"I can! Why canst not thou, who art older than I?"
Berenice smiled again. "And where, little girl, wilt thou exercise thy power? Among thy dolls?"
"With him," said Cleopatra.
Then without waiting for the astonishment of her sister to find words for expression, she continued with increasing exultation: "Yes, I have a lover! Yes! I have a lover! Why should I not have a lover like everyone, like thee, like my mother and my aunts, like the lowest of the Egyptians! Why should I not have a lover, since thou givest me no husband? I am a little girl no longer! . . .
[paragraph continues] I know! I know! Be silent; I know better than thyself . . . I am ashamed to have thee for a sovereign, thou who art someone's slave!"
Little Cleopatra, erect, made herself as tall as possible and put her hands to her head like an Asiatic queen placing a tiara.
Her elder sister, who had listened to her, seated upon the bed, her feet drawn up, sank upon her knees to approach her and put her hands upon her delicate shoulders. "Thou hast a lover?"
She spoke timidly now, almost with respect. The little girl responded dryly, "If thou dost not believe me, look."
Berenice sighed. "And when dost thou see him?"
"Three times a day."
"Dost thou wish me to say?"
Cleopatra questioned in her turn: "How is it that thou dost not know?"
"I know nothing, not even what happens in the Palace. Demetrios is the only subject with whom I allow myself to be interested. I have not watched thee; it is my fault, my child."
"Watch me if thou wilt. The day when I can no longer have my will, I will kill myself. Then it will be all the same to me."
Shaking her head, Berenice replied, "Thou art free . . . Besides, it is too late for thee to be confined . . . But . . . tell me, dear . . . Thou hast a lover . . . and thou holdest him?"
"I have my way of holding him."
"Who taught thee?"
"Oh! I alone. One knows that instinctively or one never knows it. At six years, I already knew how I would later hold my lover."
"And wilt thou not tell me?"
Berenice rose slowly, put on a tunic and a mantle, aired her hair, damp from warm sleeping, and the two left the room together.
First the young girl traversed the vestibule and went straight to the bed she had lately left. There, from under the mattress of fresh, dry byssos, she took a new, engraved key. Then, turning: "Follow meit is far," she said.
She ascended a staircase in the middle of the vestibule, followed a long colonnade, opened doors, walked over rings, flagstones, pale marble and twenty mosaics of twenty empty and silent halls. She descended a stone stair, crossed dark thresholds, passed echoing doors. Now and again two enormous guards stood upon mats, lance in hand. After a long time, she crossed a court illuminated by the full moon and the shadow of a palm tree caressed her hip. Berenice still followed, enveloped in her blue mantle.
At length they arrived at a thick door banded with iron like a warrior's torso. Cleopatra slipped the key into the lock, turned twice, pushed the door; a man, gigantic in the shadow, rose to his full height at the back of this prison.
Berenice looked, was shocked, and drooping her head, said very gently, "It is thou, my child, who knowest not how to love . . . at least, not yet . . . I was right in telling thee so."
"Love for love, I like mine better," said the little girl. "This love, at least, gives only joy."
Then erect upon the threshold of the chamber and without taking a step forward, she said to the man standing in the shadow: "Comekiss my feet, son of a dog."
And when he had done so, she kissed his lips.