One of Cleopatra's Nights

One of Cleopatra's Nights by Théophile Gautier Read Free Book Online

Book: One of Cleopatra's Nights by Théophile Gautier Read Free Book Online
Authors: Théophile Gautier
and shoulders; her wealth of hair, lifted by the water,
extended behind her like a royal mantle; even in the bath she was a
queen. She swam to and fro, dived, and brought up handfuls of gold-dust
with which she laughingly pelted some of her women. Again, she clung
suspended to the balustrade of the basin, concealing or exposing her
treasures of loveliness—now permitting only her lustrous and polished
back to be seen, now showing her whole figure, like Venus Anadyomene,
and incessantly varying the aspects of her beauty.
    Suddenly she uttered a cry as shrill as that of Diana surprised by
Actæon. She had seen gleaming through the neighboring foliage a burning
eye, yellow and phosphoric as the eye of a crocodile or lion.
    It was Meïamoun, who, crouching behind a tuft of leaves, and trembling
like a fawn in a field of wheat, was intoxicating himself with the
dangerous pleasure of beholding the queen in her bath. Though brave even
to temerity, the cry of Cleopatra passed through his heart, coldly
piercing as the blade of a sword. A death-like sweat covered his whole
body; his arteries hissed through his temples with a sharp sound; the
iron hand of anxious fear had seized him by the throat and was
strangling him.
    The eunuchs rushed forward, lance in hand. Cleopatra pointed out to them
the group of trees, where they found Meïamoun crouching in concealment.
Defence was out of the question. He attempted none, and suffered himself
to be captured. They prepared to kill him with that cruel and stupid
impassibility characteristic of eunuchs; but Cleopatra, who, in the
interim, had covered herself with her
calasiris
, made signs to them to
stop, and bring the prisoner before her.
    Meïamoun could only fall upon his knees and stretch forth suppliant
hands to her, as to the altars of the gods.
    "Are you some assassin bribed by Rome, or for what purpose have you
entered these sacred precincts from which all men are excluded?"
demanded Cleopatra with an imperious gesture of interrogation.
    "May my soul be found light in the balance of Amenti, and may Tmeï,
daughter of the Sun and goddess of Truth, punish me if I have ever
entertained a thought of evil against you, O queen!" answered Meïamoun,
still upon his knees.
    Sincerity and loyalty were written upon his countenance in characters so
transparent that Cleopatra immediately banished her suspicions, and
looked upon the young Egyptian with a look less stern and wrathful. She
saw that he was beautiful.
    "Then what motive could have prompted you to enter a place where you
could only expect to meet death?"
    "I love you!" murmured Meïamoun in a low, but distinct voice; for his
courage had returned, as in every desperate situation when the odds
against him could be no worse.
    "Ah!" cried Cleopatra, bending toward him, and seizing his arm with a
sudden brusque movement, "so, then, it was you who shot that arrow with
the papyrus scroll! By Oms, the Dog of Hell, you are a very foolhardy
wretch!... I now recognize you. I long observed you wandering like a
complaining Shade about the places where I dwell.... You were at the
Procession of Isis, at the Panegyris of Hermonthis. You followed the
royal cangia. Ah! you must have a queen?... You have no mean ambitions.
You expect, without doubt, to be well paid in return.... Assuredly I am
going to love you.... Why not?"
    "Queen," returned Meïamoun with a look of deep melancholy, "do not rail.
I am mad, it is true. I have deserved death; that is also true. Be
humane; bid them kill me."
    "No; I have taken the whim to be clement to-day. I will give you your
life."
    "What would you that I should do with life? I love you!"
    "Well, then, you shall be satisfied; you shall die," answered Cleopatra.
"You have indulged yourself in wild and extravagant dreams; in fancy
your desires have crossed an impassable threshold. You imagined yourself
to be Cæsar or Mark Antony. You loved the queen. In some moment of
delirium you have been able to believe that, under some

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