THE SISTERS - V1
THE SISTERS - V1
Translated from the German by Clara Bell
DEDICATION TO HERR EDUARD von HALLBERGER
Allow me my dear friend to dedicate these pages to you. I present them
to you at the close of a period of twenty years during which a warm and
fast friendship has subsisted between us unbroken by any disagreement.
Four of my works have first seen the light under your care and have
wandered all over the world under the protection of your name. This my
fifth book I desire to make especially your own; it was partly written
in your beautiful home at Tutzing under your hospitable roof and I
desire to prove to you by some visible token that I know how to value
your affection and friendship and the many happy hours we have passed
together refreshing and encouraging each other by a full and perfect
interchange of thought and sentiment.
By a marvellous combination of circumstances a number of fragments of the
Royal Archives of Memphis have been preserved from destruction with the
rest containing petitions written on papyrus in the Greek language;
these were composed by a recluse of Macedonian birth living in the
Serapeum in behalf of two sisters twins who served the god as "Pourers
out of the libations."
At a first glance these petitions seem scarcely worthy of serious
consideration; but a closer study of their contents shows us that we
possess in them documents of the greatest value in the history of
manners. They prove that the great Monastic Idea--which under the
influence of Christianity grew to be of such vast moral and historical
significance--first struck root in one of the centres of heathen
religious practices; besides affording us a quite unexpected insight into
the internal life of the temple of Serapis whose ruined walls have in
our own day been recovered from the sand of the desert by the
indefatigable industry of the French Egyptologist Monsieur Mariette.
I have been so fortunate as to visit this spot and to search through
every part of it and the petitions I speak of have been familiar to me
for years. When however quite recently one of my pupils undertook to
study more particularly one of these documents--preserved in the Royal
Library at Dresden--I myself reinvestigated it also and this study
impressed on my fancy a vivid picture of the Serapeum under Ptolemy
Philometor; the outlines became clear and firm and acquired color and
it is this picture which I have endeavored to set before the reader so
far as words admit in the following pages.
I did not indeed select for my hero the recluse nor for my heroines the
twins who are spoken of in the petitions but others who might have lived
at a somewhat earlier date under similar conditions; for it is proved by
the papyrus that it was not once only and by accident that twins were
engaged in serving in the temple of Serapis but that on the contrary
pair after pair of sisters succeeded each other in the office of pouring
I have not invested Klea and Irene with this function but have simply
placed them as wards of the Serapeum and growing up within its precincts.
I selected this alternative partly because the existing sources of
knowledge give us very insufficient information as to the duties that
might have been required of the twins partly for other reasons arising
out of the plan of my narrative.
Klea and Irene are purely imaginary personages but on the other hand I
have endeavored by working from tolerably ample sources to give a
faithful picture of the historical physiognomy of the period in which
they live and move and portraits of the two hostile brothers Ptolemy
Philometor and Euergetes II. the latter of whom bore the nickname of
Physkon: the Stout. The Eunuch Eulaeus and the Roman Publius Cornelius
Scipio Nasica are also historical personages.
I chose the latter from among the many young patricians living at the
time partly on account of the strong aristocratic feeling which he
displayed particularly in his later life and partly because his
nickname of Serapion struck me. This name I account for in my own way
although I am aware that he owed it to his resemblance to a person of
For the further enlightenment of the reader who is not familiar with this
period of Egyptian history I may suggest that Cleopatra the wife of
Ptolemy Philometor--whom I propose to introduce to the reader--must not
be confounded with her famous namesake the beloved of Julius Caesar and
Mark Antony. The name Cleopatra was a very favorite one among the
Lagides and of the queens who bore it she who has become famous through
Shakespeare (and more lately through Makart) was the seventh the sister
and wife of Ptolemy XIV. Her tragical death from the bite of a viper or
asp did not occur until 134 years later than the date of my narrative
which I have placed 164 years B.C.
At that time Egypt had already been for 169 years subject to the rule of
a Greek (Macedonian) dynasty which owed its name as that of the
Ptolemies or Lagides to its founder Ptolemy Soter the son of Lagus.
This energetic man a general under Alexander the Great when his
sovereign--333 B.C.--had conquered the whole Nile Valley was appointed
governor of the new Satrapy; after Alexander's death in 323 B.C. Ptolemy
mounted the throne of the Pharaohs and he and his descendants ruled over
Egypt until after the death of the last and most famous of the
Cleopatras when it was annexed as a province to the Roman Empire.
This is not the place for giving a history of the successive Ptolemies
but I may remark that the assimilating faculty exercised by the Greeks
over other nations was potent in Egypt; particularly as the result of the
powerful influence of Alexandria the capital founded by Alexander which
developed with wonderful rapidity to be one of the most splendid centres
of Hellenic culture and of Hellenic art and science.
Long before the united rule of the hostile brothers Ptolemy Philometor
and Euergetes--whose violent end will be narrated to the reader of this
story--Greek influence was marked in every event and detail of Egyptian
life which had remained almost unaffected by the characteristics of
former conquerors--the Hyksos the Assyrians and the Persians; and under
the Ptolemies the most inhospitable and exclusive nation of early
antiquity threw open her gates to foreigners of every race.
Alexandria was a metropolis even in the modern sense; not merely an
emporium of commerce but a focus where the intellectual and religious
treasures of various countries were concentrated and worked up and
transmitted to all the nations that desired them. I have resisted the
temptation to lay the scene of my story there because in Alexandria the
Egyptian element was too much overlaid by the Greek and the too splendid
and important scenery and decorations might easily have distracted the
reader's attention from the dramatic interest of the persons acting.
At that period of the Hellenic dominion which I have described the kings
of Egypt were free to command in all that concerned the internal affairs
of their kingdom but the rapidly-growing power of the Roman Empire
enabled her to check the extension of their dominion just as she chose.
Philometor himself had heartily promoted the immigration of Israelites
from Palestine and under him the important Jewish community in
Alexandria acquired an influence almost greater than the Greek; and this
not only in the city but in the kingdom and over their royal protector
who allowed them to build a temple to Jehovah on the shores of the Nile
and in his own person assisted at the dogmatic discussions of the
Israelites educated in the Greek schools of the city. Euergetes II. a
highly gifted but vicious and violent man was on the contrary just as
inimical to them; he persecuted them cruelly as soon as his brother's
death left him sole ruler over Egypt. His hand fell heavily even on
the members of the Great Academy--the Museum as it was called--
of Alexandria though he himself had been devoted to the grave labors
of science and he compelled them to seek a new home. The exiled sons
of learning settled in various cities on the shores of the Mediterranean
and thus contributed not a little to the diffusion of the intellectual
results of the labors in the Museum.
Aristarchus the greatest of Philometor's learned contemporaries has
reported for us a conversation in the king's palace at Memphis. The
verses about "the puny child of man" recited by Cleopatra in chapter X.
are not genuinely antique; but Friedrich Ritschl--the Aristarchus of our
own days now dead--thought very highly of them and gave them to me some
years ago with several variations which had been added by an anonymous
hand then still in the land of the living. I have added to the first
verse two of these which as I learned at the eleventh hour were
composed by Herr H. L. von Held who is now dead and of whom further
particulars may be learned from Varnhagen's 'Biographisclaen Denkmalen'.
Vol. VII. I think the reader will thank me for directing his attention
to these charming lines and to the genius displayed in the moral
application of the main idea. Verses such as these might very well have
been written by Callimachus or some other poet of the circle of the early
members of the Museum of Alexandria.
I was also obliged in this narrative to concentrate in one limited
canvas as it were all the features which were at once the conditions and
the characteristics of a great epoch of civilization and to give them
form and movement by setting the history of some of the men then living
before the reader with its complications and its denouement. All the
personages of my story grew up in my imagination from a study of the
times in which they lived but when once I saw them clearly in outline
they soon stood before my mind in a more distinct form like people in a
dream; I felt the poet's pleasure in creation and as I painted them
their blood grew warm their pulses began to beat and their spirit to
take wings and stir each in its appropriate nature. I gave history her
due but the historic figures retired into the background beside the
human beings as such; the representatives of an epoch became vehicles for
a Human Ideal holding good for all time; and thus it is that I venture
to offer this transcript of a period as really a dramatic romance.
Leipzig November 13 1879.
On the wide desert plain of the Necropolis of Memphis stands the
extensive and stately pile of masonry which constitutes the Greek temple
of Serapis; by its side are the smaller sanctuaries of Asclepios of
Anubis and of Astarte and a row of long low houses built of unburnt
bricks stretches away behind them as a troop of beggar children might
follow in the train of some splendidly attired king.
The more dazzlingly brilliant the smooth yellow sandstone walls of the
temple appear in the light of the morning sun the more squalid and mean
do the dingy houses look as they crouch in the outskirts. When the winds
blow round them and the hot sunbeams fall upon them the dust rises from
them in clouds as from a dry path swept by the gale. Even the rooms
inside are never plastered and as the bricks are of dried Nile-mud mixed
with chopped straw of which the sharp little ends stick out from the
wall in every direction the surface is as disagreeable to touch as it is
unpleasing to look at. When they were first built on the ground between
the temple itself and the wall which encloses the precincts and which
on the eastern side divides the acacia-grove of Serapis in half they
were concealed from the votaries visiting the temple by the back wall of
a colonnade on the eastern side of the great forecourt; but a portion of
this colonnade has now fallen down and through the breach part of these
modest structures are plainly visible with their doors and windows
opening towards the sanctuary--or to speak more accurately certain
rudely constructed openings for looking out of or for entering by. Where
there is a door there is no window and where a gap in the wall serves
for a window a door is dispensed with; none of the chambers however of
this long row of low one-storied buildings communicate with each other.
A narrow and well-trodden path leads through the breach in the wall; the
pebbles are thickly strewn with brown dust and the footway leads past
quantities of blocks of stone and portions of columns destined for the
construction of a new building which seems only to have been intermitted
the night before for mallets and levers lie on and near the various
materials. This path leads directly to the little brick houses and ends
at a small closed wooden door so roughly joined and so ill-hung that
between it and the threshold which is only raised a few inches above the
ground a fine gray cat contrives to squeeze herself through by putting
down her head and rubbing through the dust. As soon as she finds herself
once more erect on her four legs she proceeds to clean and smooth her
ruffled fur putting up her back and glancing with gleaming eyes at the
house she has just left behind which at this moment the sun is rising;
blinded by its bright rays she turns away and goes on with cautious and
silent tread into the court of the temple.
The hovel out of which pussy has crept is small and barely furnished; it
would be perfectly dark too but that the holes in the roof and the rift
in the door admit light into this most squalid room. There is nothing
standing against its rough gray walls but a wooden chest near this a few
earthen bowls stand on the ground with a wooden cup and a gracefully
wrought jug of pure and shining gold which looks strangely out of place
among such humble accessories. Quite in the background lie two mats of
woven bast each covered with a sheepskin. These are the beds of the two
girls who inhabit the room one of whom is now sitting on a low stool
made of palm-branches and she yawns as she begins to arrange her long
and shining brown hair. She is not particularly skilful and even less
patient over this not very easy task and presently when a fresh tangle
checks the horn comb with which she is dressing it she tosses the comb
on to the couch. She has not pulled it through her hair with any haste
nor with much force but she shuts her eyes so tightly and sets her white
teeth so firmly in her red dewy lip that it might be supposed that she
had hurt herself very much.
A shuffling step is now audible outside the door; she opens wide her
tawny-hazel eyes that have a look of gazing on the world in surprise
a smile parts her lips and her whole aspect is as completely changed as
that of a butterfly which escapes from the shade into the sunshine where
the bright beams are reflected in the metallic lustre of its wings.
A hasty hand knocks at the ill-hung door so roughly that it trembles on
its hinges and the instant after a wooden trencher is shoved in through
the wide chink by which the cat made her escape; on it are a thin round
cake of bread and a shallow earthen saucer containing a little olive-oil;
there is no more than might perhaps be contained in half an ordinary egg-
shell but it looks fresh and sweet and shines in clear golden purity.
The girl goes to the door pulls in the platter and as she measures the
allowance with a glance exclaims half in lament and half in reproach:
"So little! and is that for both of us?"
As she speaks her expressive features have changed again and her flashing
eyes are directed towards the door with a glance of as much dismay as
though the sun and stars had been suddenly extinguished; and yet her only
grief is the smallness of the loaf which certainly is hardly large
enough to stay the hunger of one young creature--and two must share it;
what is a mere nothing in one man's life to another may be of great
consequence and of terrible significance.
The reproachful complaint is heard by the messenger outside the door for
the old woman who shoved in the trencher over the threshold answers
quickly but not crossly.
"Nothing more to-day Irene."
"It is disgraceful" cries the girl her eyes filling with tears "every
day the loaf grows smaller and if we were sparrows we should not have
enough to satisfy us. You know what is due to us and I will never cease
to complain and petition. Serapion shall draw up a fresh address for us
and when the king knows how shamefully we are treated--"
"Aye! when he knows" interrupted the old woman. But the cry of the poor
is tossed about by many winds before it reaches the king's ear. I might
find a shorter way than that for you and your sister if fasting comes so
much amiss to you. Girls with faces like hers and yours my little
Irene need never come to want."
"And pray what is my face like?" asked the girl and her pretty features
once more seemed to catch a gleam of sunshine.
"Why so handsome that you may always venture to show it beside your
sister's; and yesterday in the procession the great Roman sitting by
the queen looked as often at her as at Cleopatra herself. If you had
been there too he would not have had a glance for the queen for you are
a pretty thing as I can tell you. And there are many girls would sooner
hear those words then have a whole loaf--besides you have a mirror I
suppose look in that next time you are hungry."
The old woman's shuffling steps retreated again and the girl snatched up
the golden jar opened the door a little way to let in the daylight and
looked at herself in the bright surface; but the curve of the costly vase
showed her features all distorted and she gaily breathed on the hideous
travestie that met her eyes so that it was all blurred out by the
moisture. Then she smilingly put down the jar and opening the chest
took from it a small metal mirror into which she looked again and yet
again arranging her shining hair first in one way and then in another;
and she only laid it down when she remembered a certain bunch of violets
which had attracted her attention when she first woke and which must
have been placed in their saucer of water by her sister some time the day
before. Without pausing to consider she took up the softly scented
blossoms dried their green stems on her dress took up the mirror again
and stuck the flowers in her hair.
How bright her eyes were now and how contentedly she put out her hand
for the loaf. And how fair were the visions that rose before her young
fancy as she broke off one piece after another and hastily eat them after
slightly moistening them with the fresh oil. Once at the festival of
the New Year she had had a glimpse into the king's tent and there she
had seen men and women feasting as they reclined on purple cushions. Now
she dreamed of tables covered with costly vessels was served in fancy by
boys crowned with flowers heard the music of flutes and harps and--for
she was no more than a child and had such a vigorous young appetite--
pictured herself as selecting the daintiest and sweetest morsels out of
dishes of solid gold and eating till she was satisfied aye so perfectly
satisfied that the very last mouthful of bread and the very last drop of
oil had disappeared.
But so soon as her hand found nothing more on the empty trencher the
bright illusion vanished and she looked with dismay into the empty oil-
cup and at the place where just now the bread had been.
"Ah!" she sighed from the bottom of her heart; then she turned the
platter over as though it might be possible to find some more bread and
oil on the other side of it but finally shaking her head she sat looking
thoughtfully into her lap; only for a few minutes however for the door
opened and the slim form of her sister Klea appeared the sister whose
meagre rations she had dreamily eaten up and Klea had been sitting up
half the night sewing for her and then had gone out before sunrise to
fetch water from the Well of the Sun for the morning sacrifice at the
altar of Serapis.
Klea greeted her sister with a loving glance but without speaking; she
seemed too exhausted for words and she wiped the drops from her forehead
with the linen veil that covered the back of her head as she seated
herself on the lid of the chest. Irene immediately glanced at the empty
trencher considering whether she had best confess her guilt to the
wearied girl and beg for forgiveness or divert the scolding she had
deserved by some jest as she had often succeeded in doing before. This
seemed the easier course and she adopted it at once; she went up to her
sister quickly but not quite unconcernedly and said with mock gravity:
"Look here Klea don't you notice anything in me? I must look like a
crocodile that has eaten a whole hippopotamus or one of the sacred
snakes after it has swallowed a rabbit. Only think when I had eaten my
own bread I found yours between my teeth--quite unexpectedly--but now--"
Klea thus addressed glanced at the empty platter and interrupted her
sister with a low-toned exclamation. "Oh! I was so hungry."
The words expressed no reproof only utter exhaustion and as the young
criminal looked at her sister and saw her sitting there tired and worn
out but submitting to the injury that had been done her without a word of
complaint her heart easily touched was filled with compunction and
regret. She burst into tears and threw herself on the ground before her
clasping her knees and crying in a voice broken with sobs:
"Oh Klea! poor dear Klea what have I done! but indeed I did not mean
any harm. I don't know how it happened. Whatever I feel prompted to do
I do I can't help doing it and it is not till it is done that I begin
to know whether it was right or wrong. You sat up and worried yourself
for me and this is how I repay you--I am a bad girl! But you shall not
go hungry--no you shall not."
"Never mind; never mind" said the elder and she stroked her sister's
brown hair with a loving hand.
But as she did so she came upon the violets fastened among the shining
tresses. Her lips quivered and her weary expression changed as she
touched the flowers and glanced at the empty saucer in which she had
carefully placed them the clay before. Irene at once perceived the
change in her sister's face and thinking only that she was surprised at
her pretty adornment she said gaily: "Do you think the flowers becoming
Klea's hand was already extended to take the violets out of the brown
plaits for her sister was still kneeling before her but at this
question her arm dropped and she said more positively and distinctly
than she had yet spoken and in a voice whose sonorous but musical tones
were almost masculine and certainly remarkable in a girl:
"The bunch of flowers belongs to me; but keep it till it is faded by
mid-day and then return it to me."
"It belongs to you?" repeated the younger girl raising her eyes in
surprise to her sister for to this hour what had been Klea's had been
hers also. "But I always used to take the flowers you brought home; what
is there special in these?"
"They are only violets like any other violets" replied Klea coloring
deeply. "But the queen has worn them."
"The queen!" cried her sister springing to her feet and clasping her
hands in astonishment. "She gave you the flowers? And you never told me
till now? To be sure when you came home from the procession yesterday
you only asked me how my foot was and whether my clothes were whole and
then not another mortal word did you utter. Did Cleopatra herself give
you this bunch?"
"How should she?" retorted Klea. "One of her escort threw them to me;
but drop the subject pray! Give me the water please my mouth is
parched and I can hardly speak for thirst."
The bright color dyed her cheeks again as she spoke but Irene did not
observe it for--delighted to make up for her evil doings by performing
some little service--she ran to fetch the water-jar; while Klea filled
and emptied her wooden bowl she said gracefully lifting a small foot to
show to her sister:
"Look the cut is almost healed and I can wear my sandal again. Now I
shall tie it on and go and ask Serapion for some bread for you and
perhaps he will give us a few dates. Please loosen the straps for me a