Read Antony and Cleopatra Online

Authors: Colleen McCullough

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Historical Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Antonius; Marcus, #Egypt - History - 332-30 B.C, #Biographical, #Cleopatra, #Biographical Fiction, #Romans, #Egypt, #Rome - History - Civil War; 49-45 B.C, #Rome, #Romans - Egypt

Antony and Cleopatra (5 page)

At the Serapeum Dellius whinnied with delight. “Write, Lasthenes! ‘A statue of Serapis approximately thirty feet tall, by Bryaxis and painted by Nicias…. An ivory group of the nine Muses by Phidias…. Forty-two gold statues, man-sized….’” He paused to scrape a gold Aphrodite, grimaced. “‘Some, if not all, skinned rather than—ah—solid…. A charioteer and horses in bronze by Myron….’ Cease writing! No, simply add, ‘et cetera, et cetera….’ There are too many more mediocre works to catalogue.”

In the agora Dellius paused before an enormous sculpture of four rearing horses drawing a racing chariot whose driver was a woman—and what a woman! “Write, Lasthenes! ‘
Quadriga
in bronze purported to be of a female charioteer named Bilistiche…. ’ Cease! There’s nothing else here but modern stuff, excellent of its kind but having no appeal for collectors. Oh, Lasthenes, on!”

And so it went as he cruised through the city, his scribe leaving rolls of wax behind like a moth its droppings. Splendid, splendid! Egypt is rich beyond telling, if what I see in Alexandria is anything to go by. But how do I persuade Marcus Antonius that we’ll get more from selling them as works of art than from melting them down? Think of the tomb of Alexander the Great! he mused—a single block of rock crystal almost as clear as water—how fine it would look inside the temple of Diana in Rome! What a funny little fellow Alexander was! Hands and feet no bigger than a child’s, and what looked like yellow wool atop his head. A wax figure, surely, not the real thing—but you would think that, as he’s a god, they would have made the effigy at least as big as Antonius! There must be enough paving in the Sema to cover the floor of a magnate’s
domus
in Rome—a hundred talents’ worth, maybe more. The ivory by Phidias—a thousand talents, easily.

The Royal Enclosure was such a maze of palaces that he gave up trying to distinguish one from another, and the gardens seemed to go on forever. Exquisite little coves pocked the shore beyond the harbor, and in the far distance the white marble causeway of the Heptastadion linked Pharos Isle to the mainland. And oh, the lighthouse! The tallest building in the world, taller by far than the Colossus at Rhodes had been. I thought Rome was lovely, burbled Dellius to himself, then I saw Pergamum and deemed it lovelier, but now that I have seen Alexandria, I am stunned, just stunned. Antonius was here about twenty years ago, but I’ve never heard him speak of the place. Too busy sowing wild oats to remember it, I suppose.

 

 

The summons to see Queen Cleopatra came the next day, which was just as well; he had concluded his assessment of the city’s value, and Lasthenes had written it out on good paper, two copies.

The first thing he was conscious of was the perfumed air, thick with heady incenses of a kind he had never smelled before; then his visual apparatus took over from his olfactory, and he gaped at walls of gold, a floor of gold, statues of gold, chairs and tables of gold. A second glance informed him that the gold was a tissue-thin overlay, but the room blazed like the sun. Two walls were covered in paintings of peculiar two-dimensional people and plants, rich in colors of every description. Except Tyrian purple. Of that, not a trace.

“All hail the two Pharaohs, Lords of the Two Ladies Upper and Lower Egypt, Lords of the Sedge and Bee, Children of Amun-Ra, Isis and Ptah!” roared the Lord High Chamberlain, drumming his golden staff on the floor, a dull sound that had Dellius revising his opinion about thin tissue. The floor sounded
solid
.

They sat on two elaborate thrones, the woman on top of the golden dais and the boy one step beneath her. Each was clad in strange raiment made of finely pleated white linen, and each wore a huge headdress of red enamel around a tubular cone of white enamel. About their necks were wide collars of magnificent jewels set in gold, on their arms bracelets, broad girdles of gems around their waists, on their feet golden sandals. Their faces were thick with paint, hers white, the boy’s a rusty red, and their eyes were so hedged in by black lines and colored shapes that they slid, sinister as fanged fish, as surely no human eyes were intended to.

“Quintus Dellius,” said the Queen (Dellius had no idea what the epithet “Pharaoh” meant), “we bid you welcome to Egypt.”

“I come as Imperator Marcus Antonius’s official ambassador,” said Dellius, getting into the swing of things, “with greetings and salutations to the twin thrones of Egypt.”

“How impressive,” said the Queen, eyes sliding eerily.

“Is that all?” asked the boy, whose eyes sparkled more.

“Er—unfortunately not, Your Majesty. The Triumvir Marcus Antonius requires your presence in Tarsus to answer charges.”

“Charges?” asked the boy.

“It is alleged that Egypt aided Gaius Cassius, thereby breaking its status of Friend and Ally of the Roman People.”

“And that is a charge?” Cleopatra asked.

“A very serious one, Your Majesty.”

“Then we will go to Tarsus to answer it in person. You may leave our presence, Quintus Dellius. When we are ready to set out, you will be notified.”

And that was that! No dinner invitations, no reception to introduce him to the court—there must surely be a court! No eastern monarch could function without several hundred sycophants to tell him (or her) how wonderful he (or she) was. But here was Apollodorus firmly ushering him from the room, apparently to be left to his own devices!

“Pharaoh will sail to Tarsus,” Apollodorus said, “therefore you have two choices, Quintus Dellius. You may send your people home overland and travel with them, or you may send your people home overland and sail aboard one of the royal ships.”

Ah! thought Dellius. Somone warned them I was coming. There is a spy in Tarsus. This audience was a sham designed to put me—and Antonius—in our places.

“I will sail,” he said haughtily.

“A wise decision.” Apollodorus bowed and walked away, leaving Dellius to storm off at a hasty walk to cool his temper, sorely tried. How dared they? The audience had given him no opportunity to gauge the Queen’s feminine charms or even discover for himself if the boy was really Caesar’s son. They were a pair of painted dolls, stranger than the wooden thing his daughter dragged about the house as if it were human.

The sun was hot; perhaps, thought Dellius, it would do me good to paddle in the wavelets of that delicious cove outside my palace. Dellius couldn’t swim—odd for a Roman—but an ankle-deep paddle was harmless. He descended a series of limestone steps, then perched on a boulder to unbuckle his maroon senatorial shoes.

“Fancy a swim? So do I,” said a cheerful voice—a child’s, but deep.

“It’s the funnest way to get rid of all this muck.”

Startled, Dellius turned to see the boy king, stripped down to a loincloth, his face still painted.

“You swim, I’ll paddle,” said Dellius.

Caesarion waded in as far as his waist and then tipped himself forward to swim, moving fearlessly into deep water. He dived, came up with face a curious mixture of black and rusty red; then under again, up again.

“The paint’s soluble in water, even salt,” the boy said, hip-deep now, scrubbing at his face with both hands.

And there stood Caesar. No one could dispute the identity of the father after seeing the child. Is
that
why Antonius wants to present him to the Senate and petition it to confirm him King of Egypt? Let anyone in Rome who knew Caesar see this boy, and he’ll gather clients faster than a ship’s hull does barnacles. Marcus Antonius wants to unsettle Octavian, who can only ape Caesar with thick-soled boots and practiced Caesarean gestures. Caesarion is the real thing, Octavian a parody. Oh, clever Marcus Antonius! Bring Octavian down by showing Rome Caesar. The veteran soldiers will melt like ice in the sun, and they have so much power.

 

 

Cleopatra, cleansed of her regal makeup by the more orthodox method of a bowl of warm water, burst out laughing. “Apollodorus, this is marvelous!” she cried, handing the papers she had read to Sosigenes. “Where did you get these?” she asked while Sosigenes pored his way through them, chuckling.

“His scribe is fonder of money than statues, Daughter of Amun-Ra. The scribe made an extra copy and sold it to me.”

“Did Dellius act on instructions, I wonder? Or is this merely a way of demonstrating to his master that he’s worth his salt?”

“The latter, Your Majesty,” said Sosigenes, wiping his eyes. “It’s so silly! The statue of Serapis, painted by
Nicias
? He was dead long before Bryaxis first poured bronze into a mold. And he missed the Praxiteles Apollo in the gymnasium—‘a sculpture of no great artistic worth’ he called it! Oh, Quintus Dellius, you are a fool!”

“Let us not underestimate the man just because he doesn’t know a Phidias from a Neapolitan plaster copy,” Cleopatra said. “What his list tells me is that Antonius is desperate for money. Money that I, for one, do not intend to give him.”

Cha’em pattered in, accompanied by his wife.

“Tach’a, at last! What does the bowl say about Antonius?”

The smoothly beautiful face remained impassive; Tach’a was a priestess of Ptah, trained almost from birth not to betray her emotions. “The lotus petals formed a pattern I have never seen, Daughter of Ra. No matter how many times I cast them on the water, the pattern always stayed the same. Yes, Isis approves of Marcus Antonius as the sire of your children, but it will not be easy, and it will not happen in Tarsus. In Egypt, only in Egypt. His seed is spread too thinly, he must be fed on the juices and fruits that strengthen a man’s seed.”

“If the pattern is so unique, Tach’a my mother, how can you be sure that is what the petals are saying?”

“Because I went to the holy archives, Pharaoh. My readings are only the last in three thousand years.”

“Ought I refuse to go to Tarsus?” Cleopatra asked Cha’em.

“No, Pharaoh. My own visions say that Tarsus is necessary. Antonius is not the God out of the West, but he has some of the same blood. Enough for our purposes, which are
not
to raise up a rival for Caesarion! What he needs are a sister to marry and some brothers who will be loyal subordinates.”

Caesarion walked in, trailing water. “Mama, I’ve just talked to Quintus Dellius,” he said, flopping on a couch while a clucking Charmian hurried off to find towels.

“Did you, now? Where was that?” Cleopatra asked, smiling.

The wide eyes, greener than Caesar’s and lacking that piercing quality, creased up in amusement. “When I went for a swim. He was paddling. Can you imagine it?
Paddling!
He told me he couldn’t swim, and that confession told me that he was never a
contubernalis
in any army that mattered. He’s a couch soldier.”

“Did you have an interesting conversation, my son?”

“I led him astray, if that’s what you mean. He suspected that someone warned us he was coming, but by the time I left him, he was sure we’d been taken by surprise. It was the news that we’re sailing to Tarsus made him suspect. So I let it slip that late April is the time of year when we pull all the ships out of their sheds, go over them for leaks, and exercise them and their crews. What a fortunate chance! I said. Ready to go instead of struggling for ages to mend leaky ships.”

And he is not yet six years old, thought Sosigenes. This child has been blessed by all of Egypt’s gods.

“I don’t like that ‘we,’” said the mother, frowning.

The bright, eager face fell. “Mama! You can’t mean it! I am to go with you—I
must
go with you!”

“Someone has to rule in my absence, Caesarion.”

“Not I! I am too young!”

“Old enough, and that’s enough. No Tarsus for you.”

A verdict that ruptured the essential vulnerability of a five-year-old; an inconsolable sorrow welled up in Caesarion, that pain only a child can feel at being deprived of some new and passionately wanted experience. He burst into noisy tears, but when his mother went to comfort him, he shoved her away so fiercely that she staggered, and he ran from the room.

“He’ll get over it,” Cleopatra said comfortably. “My, isn’t he strong?”

Will he get over it? wondered Tach’a, who saw a different Caesarion—driven, split, achingly lonely. He’s Caesar, not Cleopatra, and she doesn’t understand him. It wasn’t the chance to strut like a child king made him hunger to go to Tarsus, it was the chance to see new places, ease his restlessness at this small world he inhabits.

 

 

Two days later the royal fleet was assembled in the Great Harbor, with Philopator’s gigantic vessel tied up at the wharf in the little annex called the Royal Harbor.

“Ye gods!” said Dellius, gaping at it. “Is everything in Egypt larger than in the rest of the world?”

“We like to think so,” said Caesarion, who for reasons known only to himself had developed a habit of following Dellius around.

“It’s a barge! It will wallow and sink!”

“It’s a ship, not a barge,” said Caesarion. “Ships have keels, barges do not,” he went on like a schoolmaster, “and the keel of
Philopator
was carved from one enormous cedar hewn in the Libanus—we owned Syria then.
Philopator
was properly built, with a kelson, and bilges, and a flat-bottomed hull. He has loads of room belowdeck, and see? Both banks of oars are in outriggers. He’s not top-heavy, even from the weight of the outriggers. His mast is a hundred feet tall, and Captain Agathocles has decided to keep the lateen sail on board in case the wind’s really good. See his figurehead? That’s Philopator himself, going before us.”

“You know a lot,” said Dellius, who didn’t understand much about ships, even after this lesson.

“Our fleets sail to India and Taprobane. Mama has promised me that when I’m older, she’ll take me to the Sinus Arabicus to see them set out. How I’d love to go with them!” Suddenly the boy stiffened and prepared for flight. “There’s my nursemaid! It’s absolutely
disgusting
to have a nursemaid!” And off he ran, determined to elude the poor creature, no match for her charge.

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