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 (6 page)

Not long after, a servant came for Quintus Dellius; time to board his ship, which was not the
Philopator
. He didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry; the Queen’s vessel would undoubtedly lag far behind the rest, even if its accommodations were luxurious.

Though Dellius didn’t know, Cleopatra’s shipwrights had made changes to her vessel, which had survived its seagoing trials surprisingly well. It measured three hundred fifty feet from stem to stern, and forty feet in the beam. Shifting both banks of rowers into outriggers had increased the space belowdeck, but Pharaoh couldn’t be housed near laboring men, so belowdeck was given over to the hundred and fifty people who sailed in
Philopator
, most of them almost demented with terror at the very thought of riding on the sea.

The old stern reception room was turned into Pharaoh’s domain, large enough for a spacious bedroom, another for Charmian and Iras, and a dining room that held twenty-one couches. The arcade of lotus-capital columns remained in place, ending forward of the mast in a raised dais, roofed with faience tiles and supported by a new column at each corner. Forward of that was a reception room now somewhat smaller than of yore in order that Sosigenes and Cha’em might have rooms of their own. And forward of that again, cunningly hidden in the bows, was an open cooking area. On river cruises most of the food preparation was done on shore; fire was always a risk on a wooden ship. But out to sea, no shore to cook on.

Cleopatra had brought along Charmian and Iras, two fair-haired women of impeccably Macedonian ancestry who had been her companions since babyhood. Theirs had been the job of selecting thirty young girls to travel with Pharaoh to Tarsus; they had to be beautiful in the face and voluptuous in the body, but none could be a whore. The pay was ten gold drachmae, a small fortune, but it wasn’t the pay that reconciled them to the unknown, it was the clothes they were given to wear in Tarsus—flimsy gold and silver tissues, brocades glittering with metal threads, transparent linens in all the hues of the rainbow, wools so fine they clung to the limbs as if wet. A dozen exquisitely lovely little boys had been purchased from the slave markets in Pelusium, and fifteen very tall barbarian men with fine physiques. Every male on show was outfitted in kilts embroidered to resemble peacock tails; the peacock, Cleopatra had decided, was to be the
Philopator
theme, and enough gold had been spent on buying peacock feathers to make an Antony weep.

On the first day of May the fleet sailed, and under sail, with
Philopator
scornfully showing the rest his stern cowl. The only wind that would have opposed their northerly heading, the Etesian, did not blow at this time of year. A brisk southeast breeze swelled the fleet’s sails and made life much easier for the oarsmen. No tempest occurred to force them into harbor along the way, and the pilot, aboard
Philopator
in the lead, recognized every headland on the Syrian coast without hesitation. At Cape Heracleia, which faced the tip of Cyprus’s tail, he came to see Cleopatra.

“Your Majesty, we have two choices,” he said, on his knees.

“They are, Palamedes?”

“To continue to hug the Syrian coast as far as the Rhosicum promontory, then cross the top of Sinus Issicus to the mouths of Cilicia Pedia’s great rivers. That will mean sandbars and shoals—slow going.”

“And the alternative?”

“To strike into open water here and sail almost due northwest—possible with this wind—until we fetch up on the coast of Cilicia somewhere near the mouth of river Cydnus.”

“What is the difference in time at sea, Palamedes?”

“That is hard to say, Your Majesty, but perhaps as many as ten days. Cilicia Pedia’s rivers will be flooding, an additional handicap if we hug the coast. But you must understand that the second choice is hazardous. A storm or a change in wind direction could send us anywhere from Libya to Greece.”

“We will take the risk and voyage upon the open sea.”

And the river gods of Egypt, perhaps not expected by Father Neptune to appear on the broad expanses of his kingdom, proved powerful enough to keep the fleet sailing unerringly for the mouth of the Cydnus River. Or perhaps Father Neptune, a properly Roman god, had concluded a contract with his Egyptian brethren. Whatever the reason, on the tenth day of May the fleet congregated seaward of the Cydnus bar. Not a good time to cross, with the swollen stream resisting entry; now the oarsmen would earn their wages! The passage was clearly marked with painted piles; between them barges worked indefatigably to dredge the sand and mud. No ship of the fleet was deep-drafted, especially tubby
Philopator
, built for river voyaging. Even so, Cleopatra ordered her fleet in ahead of her, wanting Dellius to have time to tell Antony she was here.

 

 

He found Antony bored and restless, but still sober.

“Well?” Antony demanded, glaring up at Dellius. One big hand gestured at the desk top, awash in scrolls and papers. “Look at this! And all of it’s either bills or bad news! Did you succeed? Is Cleopatra coming?”

“Cleopatra is here, Antonius. I traveled aboard her fleet, even now being assigned moorings downriver. Twenty triremes, all naval—no trade opportunities, I’m afraid.”

His chair scraped; Antony got up and went to the window, his movement making Dellius realize anew how graceful some big men could be. “Where is she? I hope you told the city harbormaster to assign her the choicest moorings.”

“Yes, but it’s going to take some time. Her ship is as long as
three
Greek war galleys of olden times, so it can’t exactly be slipped in between two merchantmen already tied up. The harbormaster has to shift seven of them—he’s not happy, but he’ll do it. I spoke in your name.”

“A ship big enough to house a titan, eh? When am I going to see it?” Antony asked, scowling.

“Tomorrow morning, about an hour after dawn.” Dellius gave a contented sigh. “She came without a murmur, and in huge state. I think she wishes to impress you.”

“Then I’ll make sure she doesn’t. Presumptuous sow!”

 

 

Which was why, as the sun nudged up over the trees east of Tarsus, Antony rode a drab horse to the far bank of Cydnus, a drab cloak wrapped about him, and no one in attendance. To see the enemy first is an advantage; soldiering with Caesar had taught him that. Oh, the air smells sweet! What am I doing in a sacked city when there are marches to be made, battles to be fought? he asked himself, knowing the answer. I am still here to see if the Queen of Egypt was going to answer my summons. And that other presumptuous sow, Glaphyra, is beginning to nag me in a way that eastern women have perfected: sweetly, tearfully, larded with sighs and whimpers. Oh, for Fulvia! When she nags, a man knows he’s being nagged—growl, snarl, roar! Nor does she mind a cuff over the ear—provided a man doesn’t mind five nails raked down his chest in retaliation.

Ah, there was a good spot! He turned sideways and slid off the horse, making for a flat rock raised several feet above the bank. Sitting on it, he would have a perfect view of Cleopatra’s ship sailing up the Cydnus to its moorings. He wasn’t more than fifty paces from the river’s channel; this was so near the edge that he could see a small bright bird nesting in the eaves of a warehouse alongside the quay.

Philopator
came crawling up the river at the speed of a man walking at a fast clip, setting Antony agape long before it drew level with him. For what he could see was a figurehead amid a misty, golden halo; a brown-skinned man wearing a white kilt, a collar and belt of gold and gems, and a huge headdress of red and white. His bare feet skimmed the wavelets breaking on either side of the beak, and in his right hand he brandished a golden spear. Figureheads were known, but not so massive or so much a part of the prow. This man—some king of old?—
was
the ship, and he bore it behind him like a billowing cloak.

Everything seemed gold; the ship was gilded from the waterline up to the very top of the mast, and what wasn’t gold was painted in peacock blues and peacock greens, shimmering with a powdering of gold. The roofs of the buildings on deck were of faience tiles in vivid blues and greens, and a whole arcade of lotus-headed columns marched down the deck. Even the oars were gold! And gems glittered everywhere! This ship alone was worth ten thousand gold talents!

Perfumes wafted, lyres and pipes sounded, a choir sang, all invisibly sourced; beautiful girls in gauzy gowns threw flowers from golden baskets, many beautiful little boys in peacock kilts hung laughing in the snow-white shrouds. The swelling sail, spread to help the oarsmen battle the current, was whiter than white, embroidered to display two entwined beast heads—a hooded serpent and a vulture—and a strange eye dripping a long black tear.

Peacock feathers had been clustered everywhere, but nowhere more lushly than about a tall gold dais in front of the mast. On a throne sat a woman clad in a dress of peacock feathers, her head burdened with the same red and white crown as the figurehead man wore. Her shoulders sparkled with the jewels in a wide gold collar, and a broad girdle of the same kind was cinched about her waist. Crossed on her breast she carried a shepherd’s crook and a flail in gold worked with lapis blue. Her face was made up so heavily that it was quite impossible to see what she looked like; its expression was perfect impassivity.

The ship passed him by closely enough to see how wide it was, and how wonderfully made; the deck was paved in green and blue faience tiles to match the roofs. A peacock ship, a peacock queen. Well, thought Antony, inexplicably angered, she will see who is cock of the walk in Tarsus!

He took the bridge to the city at a gallop, tumbled off the horse at the door to the governor’s palace, and strode in shouting for his servants.

“Toga and lictors,
now
!”

So when the Queen sent her chamberlain, the eunuch Philo, to inform Marcus Antonius that she had arrived, Philo was told that Marcus Antonius was in the agora hearing cases on behalf of the fiscus, and could not see Her Majesty until the morrow.

 

 

Such had actually been Antony’s intention for days; it had been formally posted on the tribunal in the agora, so when he took his place on the tribunal he saw what he had expected—a hundred litigants, at least that many advocates, several hundred spectators, and several dozen vendors of drinks, snacks, nibbles, parasols, and fans. Even in May, Tarsus was hot. For that reason his court was shaded by a crimson awning that read SPQR on fringed flaps every few feet around its margins. Atop the stone tribunal sat Antony himself on his ivory curule chair, with twelve crimson-clad lictors to either side of him and Lucilius at a table stacked with scrolls. The most novel actor in this drama was a hoary centurion who stood in one corner of the tribunal; he wore a shirt of gold scales, golden greaves, a chest loaded with
phalerae, armillae,
and torcs, and a gold helmet whose scarlet horsehair ruff spread sideways like a fan. But the chest loaded with decorations for valorous deeds wasn’t what cowed this audience. That lay in the Gallic longsword the centurion held between his hands, its tip resting on the ground. It reminded the citizens of Tarsus that Marcus Antonius owned
imperium maius,
and could execute anyone for anything. If he took it into his head to issue an execution order, then this centurion would carry it out on the spot. Not that Antony had any intention of executing a fly or a spider; easterners were used to being ruled by people who executed as capriciously as regularly, so why disillusion them?

Some of the cases were interesting, some entertaining as well. Antony waded through them with the efficiency and detachment that all Romans seemed to possess, be they members of the proletariat or the aristocracy. A people who understood law, method, routine, discipline, though Antony was less dowered with these essentially Roman qualities than most. Even so, he attacked his task with vigor, and sometimes venom. A sudden stir in the crowd threw a litigant off balance just as he reached the point whereat he would pass his case over to the highly paid advocate at his side; Mark Antony turned his head, frowning.

The crowd had parted, sighing in awe, to permit the passage of a small procession led by a nut-brown, shaven-headed man in a white dress, a fortune in gold chains around his neck. Behind him walked Philo the chamberlain in linen of blues and greens, face painted delicately, body glittering with jewels. But they were as nothing compared to the conveyance behind them: a spacious litter of gold, its roof of faience tiles, nodding plumes of peacock feathers at its cornerposts. It was carried by eight huge men as black as grapes, with the same purple tint to their skins. They wore peacock kilts, collars and bracelets of gold, and flaring gold
nemes
headdresses.

Queen Cleopatra waited until the bearers gently set her litter down, then, without waiting for assistance in alighting, she slid lithely out of it and approached the steps of the Roman tribunal.

“Marcus Antonius, you summoned me to Tarsus. I am here,” she said in a clear, carrying voice.

“Your name is not on my roster of cases for today, madam! You will have to apply to my secretary, but I assure you that I will see that your name is first on my list in the morning,” said Antony with the courtesy due to a monarch, but no deference.

Inside, she was boiling. How dared this clodhopper of a Roman treat her like anyone else! She had come to the agora to show him up as the boor he was, display her immense clout and authority to the Tarsians, who would appreciate her position and not think too well of Antony for metaphorically spitting on her. He wasn’t in the Roman forum now, these weren’t Roman businessmen (all of them had quit the area as unprofitable). These were people akin to her Alexandrian people, sensitive to the prerogatives and rights of monarchs.
Mind
being pushed aside for the Queen of Egypt? No, they would preen at the distinction! They had all visited the wharf to marvel at
Philopator
, and had come to the agora fully expecting to find their cases postponed. No doubt Antony thought they would esteem his democratic principles in seeing them first, but that was not how an eastern cerebral apparatus worked. They were shocked and disturbed, disapproving. What she was doing in standing so humbly at the foot of his tribunal was demonstrating to the Tarsians how arrogant the Romans were.

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