An October night on the Syrian border of Egypt towards the end of the XXXIII Dynasty, in the year 706 by Roman computation, afterwards reckoned by Christian computation as 48 B.C. A great radiance of silver fire, the dawn of a moonlit night, is rising in the east. The stars and the cloudless sky are our own contemporaries, nineteen and a half centuries younger than we know them; but you would not guess that from their appearance. Below them are two notable drawbacks of civilization: a palace, and soldiers. The palace, an old, low, Syrian building of whitened mud, is not so ugly as Buckingham Palace; and the officers in the courtyard are more highly civilized than modern English officers: for example, they do not dig up the corpses of their dead enemies and mutilate them, as we dug up Cromwell and the Mahdi. They are in two groups: one intent on the gambling of their captain Belzanor, a warrior of fifty, who, with his spear on the ground beside his knee, is stooping to throw dice with a sly-looking young Persian recruit; the other gathered about a guardsman who has just finished telling a naughty story (still current in English barracks) at which they are laughing uproariously. They are about a dozen in number, all highly aristocratic young Egyptian guardsmen, handsomely equipped with weapons and armor, very unEnglish in point of not being ashamed of and uncomfortable in their professional dress; on the contrary, rather ostentatiously and arrogantly warlike, as valuing themselves on their military caste.
Belzanor is a typical veteran, tough and wilful; prompt, capable and crafty where brute force will serve; helpless and boyish when it will not: an effective sergeant, an incompetent general, a deplorable dictator. Would, if influentially connected, be employed in the two last capacities by a modern European State on the strength of his success in the first. Is rather to be pitied just now in view of the fact that Julius Caesar is invading his country. Not knowing this, is intent on his game with the Persian, whom, as a foreigner, he considers quite capable of cheating him.
His subalterns are mostly handsome young fellows whose interest in the game and the story symbolizes with tolerable completeness the main interests in life of which they are conscious. Their spears are leaning against the walls, or lying on the ground ready to their hands. The corner of the courtyard forms a triangle of which one side is the front of the palace, with a doorway, the other a wall with a gateway. The storytellers are on the palace side: the gamblers, on the gateway side. Close to the gateway, against the wall, is a stone block high enough to enable a Nubian sentinel, standing on it, to look over the wall. The yard is lighted by a torch stuck in the wall. As the laughter from the group round the storyteller dies away, the kneeling Persian, winning the throw, snatches up the stake from the ground.
By Apis, Persian, thy gods are good to thee.
Try yet again, O captain. Double or quits!
No more. I am not in the vein.
THE SENTINEL (poising his javelin as he peers over the wall).
Stand. Who goes there?
They all start, listening. A strange voice replies from without.
The bearer of evil tidings.
BELZANOR (calling to the sentry).
(grounding his javelin). Draw near, O bearer of evil tidings.
BELZANOR (pocketing the dice and picking up his spear).
Let us receive this man with honor. He bears evil tidings.
The guardsmen seize their spears and gather about the gate, leaving a way through for the new comer.
PERSIAN (rising from his knee).
Are evil tidings, then, honorable?
O barbarous Persian, hear my instruction. In Egypt the bearer of good tidings is sacrificed to the gods as a thank offering but no god will accept the blood of the messenger of evil. When we have good tidings, we are careful to send them in the mouth of the cheapest slave we can find. Evil tidings are borne by young noblemen who desire to bring themselves into notice. (They join the rest at the gate.)
Pass, O young captain; and bow the head in the House of the Queen.
Go anoint thy javelin with fat of swine, O Blackamoor; for before morning the Romans will make thee eat it to the very butt.
The owner of the voice, a fairhaired dandy, dressed in a different fashion to that affected by the guardsmen, but no less extravagantly, comes through the gateway laughing. He is somewhat battlestained; and his left forearm, bandaged, comes through a torn sleeve. In his right hand he carries a Roman sword in its sheath. He swaggers down the courtyard, the Persian on his right, Belzanor on his left, and the guardsmen crowding down behind him.
Who art thou that laughest in the House of Cleopatra the Queen, and in the teeth of Belzanor, the captain of her guard?
THE NEW COMER
I am Bel Affris, descended from the gods.
ALL (except the Persian).
All the Queen's guards are descended from the gods, O stranger, save myself. I am Persian, and descended from many kings.
BEL AFFRIS (to the guardsmen).
Hail, cousins! (To the Persian, condescendingly) Hail, mortal!
You have been in battle, Bel Affris; and you are a soldier among soldiers. You will not let the Queen's women have the first of your tidings.
I have no tidings, except that we shall have our throats cut presently, women, soldiers, and all.
PERSIAN (to Belzanor).
I told you so.
THE SENTINEL (who has been listening).
BEL AFFRIS (calling to him).
Peace, peace, poor Ethiop: destiny is with the gods who painted thee black. (To Belzanor) What has this mortal (indicating the Persian) told you?
He says that the Roman Julius Caesar, who has landed on our shores with a handful of followers, will make himself master of Egypt. He is afraid of the Roman soldiers. (The guardsmen laugh with boisterous scorn.) Peasants, brought up to scare crows and follow the plough. Sons of smiths and millers and tanners! And we nobles, consecrated to arms, descended from the gods!
Belzanor: the gods are not always good to their poor relations.
BELZANOR (hotly, to the Persian).
Man to man, are we worse than the slaves of Caesar?
BEL AFFRIS (stepping between them).
Listen, cousin. Man to man, we Egyptians are as gods above the Romans.
THE GUARDSMEN (exultingly).
But this Caesar does not pit man against man: he throws a legion at you where you are weakest as he throws a stone from a catapult; and that legion is as a man with one head, a thousand arms, and no religion. I have fought against them; and I know.
Were you frightened, cousin?
The guardsmen roar with laughter, their eyes sparkling at the wit of their captain.
No, cousin; but I was beaten. They were frightened (perhaps); but they scattered us like chaff.
The guardsmen, much damped, utter a growl of contemptuous disgust.
Could you not die?
No: that was too easy to be worthy of a descendant of the gods. Besides, there was no time: all was over in a moment. The attack came just where we least expected it.
That shows that the Romans are cowards.
They care nothing about cowardice, these Romans: they fight to win. The pride and honor of war are nothing to them.
Tell us the tale of the battle. What befell?
THE GUARDSMEN (gathering eagerly round Bel Afris).
Ay: the tale of the battle.
Know then, that I am a novice in the guard of the temple of Ra in Memphis, serving neither Cleopatra nor her brother Ptolemy, but only the high gods. We went a journey to inquire of Ptolemy why he had driven Cleopatra into Syria, and how we of Egypt should deal with the Roman Pompey, newly come to our shores after his defeat by Caesar at Pharsalia. What, think ye, did we learn? Even that Caesar is coming also in hot pursuit of his foe, and that Ptolemy has slain Pompey, whose severed head he holds in readiness to present to the conqueror. (Sensation among the guardsmen.) Nay, more: we found that Caesar is already come; for we had not made half a day's journey on our way back when we came upon a city rabble flying from his legions, whose landing they had gone out to withstand.
And ye, the temple guard! Did you not withstand these legions?
What man could, that we did. But there came the sound of a trumpet whose voice was as the cursing of a black mountain. Then saw we a moving wall of shields coming towards us. You know how the heart burns when you charge a fortified wall; but how if the fortified wall were to charge YOU?
THE PERSIAN (exulting in having told them so).
Did I not say it?
When the wall came nigh, it changed into a line of men--common fellows enough, with helmets, leather tunics, and breastplates. Every man of them flung his javelin: the one that came my way drove through my shield as through a papyrus--lo there! (he points to the bandage on his left arm) and would have gone through my neck had I not stooped. They were charging at the double then, and were upon us with short swords almost as soon as their javelins. When a man is close to you with such a sword, you can do nothing with our weapons: they are all too long.
What did you do?
Doubled my fist and smote my Roman on the sharpness of his jaw. He was but mortal after all: he lay down in a stupor; and I took his sword and laid it on. (Drawing the sword) Lo! a Roman sword with Roman blood on it!
THE GUARDSMEN (approvingly).
Good! (They take the sword and hand it round, examining it curiously.)
And your men?
Fled. Scattered like sheep.
The cowardly slaves! Leaving the descendants of the gods to be butchered!
BEL AFFRIS (with acid coolness).
The descendants of the gods did not stay to be butchered, cousin. The battle was not to the strong; but the race was to the swift. The Romans, who have no chariots, sent a cloud of horsemen in pursuit, and slew multitudes. Then our high priest's captain rallied a dozen descendants of the gods and exhorted us to die fighting. I said to myself: surely it is safer to stand than to lose my breath and be stabbed in the back; so I joined our captain and stood. Then the Romans treated us with respect; for no man attacks a lion when the field is full of sheep, except for the pride and honor of war, of which these Romans know nothing. So we escaped with our lives; and I am come to warn you that you must open your gates to Caesar; for his advance guard is scarce an hour behind me; and not an Egyptian warrior is left standing between you and his legions.
Woe, alas! (He throws down his javelin and flies into the palace.)
Nail him to the door, quick! (The guardsmen rush for him with their spears; but he is too quick for them.) Now this news will run through the palace like fire through stubble.
What shall we do to save the women from the Romans?
Why not kill them?
Because we should have to pay blood money for some of them. Better let the Romans kill them: it is cheaper.
BELZANOR (awestruck at his brain power).
O subtle one! O serpent!
But your Queen?
True: we must carry off Cleopatra.
Will ye not await her command?
Command! A girl of sixteen! Not we. At Memphis ye deem her a Queen: here we know better. I will take her on the crupper of my horse. When we soldiers have carried her out of Caesar's reach, then the priests and the nurses and the rest of them can pretend she is a queen again, and put their commands into her mouth.
Listen to me, Belzanor.
Speak, O subtle beyond thy years.
Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy is at war with her. Let us sell her to him.
O subtle one! O serpent!
We dare not. We are descended from the gods; but Cleopatra is descended from the river Nile; and the lands of our fathers will grow no grain if the Nile rises not to water them. Without our father's gifts we should live the lives of dogs.
It is true: the Queen's guard cannot live on its pay. But hear me further, O ye kinsmen of Osiris.
Speak, O subtle one. Hear the serpent begotten!
Have I heretofore spoken truly to you of Caesar, when you thought I mocked you?
BELZANOR (reluctantly admitting it).
So Bel Affris says.
Hear more of him, then. This Caesar is a great lover of women: he makes them his friends and counselors.
Faugh! This rule of women will be the ruin of Egypt.
Let it rather be the ruin of Rome! Caesar grows old now: he is past fifty and full of labors and battles. He is too old for the young women; and the old women are too wise to worship him.
Take heed, Persian. Caesar is by this time almost within earshot.
Cleopatra is not yet a woman: neither is she wise. But she already troubles men's wisdom.
Ay: that is because she is descended from the river Nile and a black kitten of the sacred White Cat. What then?
Why, sell her secretly to Ptolemy, and then offer ourselves to Caesar as volunteers to fight for the overthrow of her brother and the rescue of our Queen, the Great Granddaughter of the Nile.
He will listen to us if we come with her picture in our mouths. He will conquer and kill her brother, and reign in Egypt with Cleopatra for his Queen. And we shall be her guard.
O subtlest of all the serpents! O admiration! O wisdom!
He will also have arrived before you have done talking, O word spinner.
That is true. (An affrighted uproar in the palace interrupts him.) Quick: the flight has begun: guard the door. (They rush to the door and form a cordon before it with their spears. A mob of women-servants and nurses surges out. Those in front recoil from the spears, screaming to those behind to keep back. Belzanor's voice dominates the disturbance as he shouts) Back there. In again, unprofitable cattle.
Back, unprofitable cattle.
Send us out Ftatateeta, the Queen's chief nurse.
THE WOMEN (calling into the palace).
Ftatateeta, Ftatateeta. Come, come. Speak to Belzanor.
Oh, keep back. You are thrusting me on the spearheads.
A huge grim woman, her face covered with a network of tiny wrinkles, and her eyes old, large, and wise; sinewy handed, very tall, very strong; with the mouth of a bloodhound and the jaws of a bulldog, appears on the threshold. She is dressed like a person of consequence in the palace, and confronts the guardsmen insolently.
Make way for the Queen's chief nurse.
(with solemn arrogance). Ftatateeta: I am Belzanor, the captain of the Queen's guard, descended from the gods.
(retorting his arrogance with interest). Belzanor: I am Ftatateeta, the Queen's chief nurse; and your divine ancestors were proud to be painted on the wall in the pyramids of the kings whom my fathers served.
The women laugh triumphantly.
BELZANOR (with grim humor)
Ftatateeta: daughter of a long-tongued, swivel-eyed chameleon, the Romans are at hand. (A cry of terror from the women: they would fly but for the spears.) Not even the descendants of the gods can resist them; for they have each man seven arms, each carrying seven spears. The blood in their veins is boiling quicksilver; and their wives become mothers in three hours, and are slain and eaten the next day.
A shudder of horror from the women. Ftatateeta, despising them and scorning the soldiers, pushes her way through the crowd and confronts the spear points undismayed.
Then fly and save yourselves, O cowardly sons of the cheap
clay gods that are sold to fish porters; and leave us to shift for ourselves.
Not until you have first done our bidding, O terror of manhood. Bring out Cleopatra the Queen to us and then go whither you will.
FTATATEETA (with a derisive laugh).
Now I know why the gods have taken her out of our hands. (The guardsmen start and look at one another). Know, thou foolish soldier, that the Queen has been missing since an hour past sun down.
Hag: you have hidden her to sell to Caesar or her brother. (He grasps her by the left wrist, and drags her, helped by a few of the guard, to the middle of the courtyard, where, as they fling her on her knees, he draws a murderous looking knife.) Where is she? Where is she? or-- (He threatens to cut her throat.)
Touch me, dog; and the Nile will not rise on your fields for seven times seven years of famine.
BELZANOR (frightened, but desperate).
I will sacrifice: I will pay. Or stay. (To the Persian) You, O subtle one: your father's lands lie far from the Nile. Slay her.
PERSIAN (threatening her with his knife).
Persia has but one god; yet he loves the blood of old women. Where is Cleopatra?
Persian: as Osiris lives, I do not know. I chide her for bringing evil days upon us by talking to the sacred cats of the priests, and carrying them in her arms. I told her she would be left alone here when the Romans came as a punishment for her disobedience. And now she is gone--run away--hidden. I speak the truth. I call Osiris to witness.
THE WOMEN (protesting officiously).
She speaks the truth, Belzanor.
You have frightened the child: she is hiding. Search-- quick--into the palace--search every corner.
The guards, led by Belzanor, shoulder their way into the palace through the flying crowd of women, who escape through the courtyard gate.
Sacrilege! Men in the Queen's chambers! Sa-- (Her voice dies away as the Persian puts his knife to her throat.)
BEL AFFRIS (laying a hand on Ftatateeta's left shoulder).
Forbear her yet a moment, Persian. (To Ftatateeta, very significantly) Mother: your gods are asleep or away hunting; and the sword is at your throat. Bring us to where the Queen is hid, and you shall live.
Who shall stay the sword in the hand of a fool, if the high gods put it there? Listen to me, ye young men without understanding. Cleopatra fears me; but she fears the Romans more. There is but one power greater in her eyes than the wrath of the Queen's nurse and the cruelty of Caesar; and that is the power of the Sphinx that sits in the desert watching the way to the sea. What she would have it know, she tells into the ears of the sacred cats; and on her birthday she sacrifices to it and decks it with poppies. Go ye therefore into the desert and seek Cleopatra in the shadow of the Sphinx; and on your heads see to it that no harm comes to her.
BEL AFFRIS (to the Persian).
May we believe this, O subtle one?
Which way come the Romans?
Over the desert, from the sea, by this very Sphinx.
PERSIAN (to Ftatateeta).
O mother of guile! O aspic's tongue! You have made up this tale so that we two may go into the desert and perish on the spears of the Romans. (Lifting his knife) Taste death.
Not from thee, baby. (She snatches his ankle from under him and flies stooping along the palace wall vanishing in the darkness within its precinct. Bel Affris roars with laughter as the Persian tumbles. The guardsmen rush out of the palace with Belzanor and a mob of fugitives, mostly carrying bundles.)
Have you found Cleopatra?
She is gone. We have searched every corner.
THE NUBIAN SENTINEL (appearing at the door of the palace).
Woe! Alas! Fly, fly!
What is the matter now?
THE NUBIAN SENTINEL
The sacred white cat has been stolen. Woe! Woe! (General panic. They all fly with cries of consternation. The torch is thrown down and extinguished in the rush. Darkness. The noise of the fugitives dies away. Dead silence. Suspense. Then the blackness and stillness breaks softly into silver mist and strange airs as the windswept harp of Memnon plays at the dawning of the moon. It rises full over the desert; and a vast horizon comes into relief, broken by a huge shape which soon reveals itself in the spreading radiance as a Sphinx pedestalled on the sands. The light still clears, until the upraised eyes of the image are distinguished looking straight forward and upward in infinite fearless vigil, and a mass of color between its great paws defines itself as a heap of red poppies on which a girl lies motionless, her silken vest heaving gently and regularly with the breathing of a dreamless sleeper, and her braided hair glittering in a shaft of moonlight like a bird's wing.
Suddenly there comes from afar a vaguely fearful sound (it might be the bellow of a Minotaur softened by great distance) and Memnon's music stops. Silence: then a few faint high-ringing trumpet notes. Then silence again. Then a man comes from the south with stealing steps, ravished by the mystery of the night, all wonder, and halts, lost in contemplation, opposite the left flank of the Sphinx, whose bosom, with its burden, is hidden from him by its massive shoulder.)
Hail, Sphinx: salutation from Julius Caesar! I have wandered in many lands, seeking the lost regions from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the company of creatures such as I myself. I have found flocks and pastures, men and cities, but no other Caesar, no air native to me, no man kindred to me, none who can do my day's deed, and think my night's thought. In the little world yonder, Sphinx, my place is as high as yours in this great desert; only I wander, and you sit still; I conquer, and you endure; I work and wonder, you watch and wait; I look up and am dazzled, look down and am darkened, look round and am puzzled, whilst your eyes never turn from looking out--out of the world--to the lost region--the home from which we have strayed. Sphinx, you and I, strangers to the race of men, are no strangers to one another: have I not been conscious of you and of this place since I was born? Rome is a madman's dream: this is my Reality. These starry lamps of yours I have seen from afar in Gaul, in Britain, in Spain, in Thessaly, signalling great secrets to some eternal sentinel below, whose post I never could find. And here at last is their sentinel--an image of the constant and immortal part of my life, silent, full of thoughts, alone in the silver desert. Sphinx, Sphinx: I have climbed mountains at night to hear in the distance the stealthy footfall of the winds that chase your sands in forbidden play--our invisible children, O Sphinx, laughing in whispers. My way hither was the way of destiny; for I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman, and part God--nothing of man in me at all. Have I read your riddle, Sphinx?
THE GIRL (who has wakened, and peeped cautiously from her nest to see who is speaking). Old gentleman.
CAESAR (starting violently, and clutching his sword).
Old gentleman: don't run away.
"Old gentleman: don't run away!!!" This! To Julius Caesar!
THE GIRL (urgently).
Sphinx: you presume on your centuries. I am younger than you, though your voice is but a girl's voice as yet.
Climb up here, quickly; or the Romans will come and eat you.
CAESAR (running forward past the Sphinx's shoulder, and seeing her). A child at its breast! A divine child!
Come up quickly. You must get up at its side and creep round.
Who are you?
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
Queen of the Gypsies, you mean.
You must not be disrespectful to me, or the Sphinx will let the Romans eat you. Come up. It is quite cosy here.
CAESAR (to himself).
What a dream! What a magnificent dream! Only let me not wake, and I will conquer ten continents to pay for dreaming it out to the end. (He climbs to the Sphinx's flank, and presently reappears to her on the pedestal, stepping round its right shoulder.)
Take care. That's right. Now sit down: you may have its other paw. (She seats herself comfortably on its left paw.) It is very powerful and will protect us; but (shivering, and with plaintive loneliness) it would not take any notice of me or keep me company. I am glad you have come: I was very lonely. Did you happen to see a white cat anywhere?
CAESAR (sitting slowly down on the right paw in extreme wonderment). Have you lost one?
Yes: the sacred white cat: is it not dreadful? I brought him here to sacrifice him to the Sphinx; but when we got a little way from the city a black cat called him, and he jumped out of my arms and ran away to it. Do you think that the black cat can have been my great-great-great-grandmother?
CAESAR (staring at her).
Your great-great-great-grandmother! Well, why not? Nothing would surprise me on this night of nights.
I think it must have been. My great-grandmother's great-grandmother was a black kitten of the sacred white cat; and the river Nile made her his seventh wife. That is why my hair is so wavy. And I always want to be let do as I like, no matter whether it is the will of the gods or not: that is because my blood is made with Nile water.
What are you doing here at this time of night? Do you live here?
Of course not: I am the Queen; and I shall live in the palace at Alexandria when I have killed my brother, who drove me out of it. When I am old enough I shall do just what I like. I shall be able to poison the slaves and see them wriggle, and pretend to Ftatateeta that she is going to be put into the fiery furnace.
Hm! Meanwhile why are you not at home and in bed?
Because the Romans are coming to eat us all. YOU are not at home and in bed either.
CAESAR (with conviction).
Yes I am. I live in a tent; and I am now in that tent, fast asleep and dreaming. Do you suppose that I believe you are real, you impossible little dream witch?
CLEOPATRA (giggling and leaning trustfully towards him).
You are a funny old gentleman. I like you.
Ah, that spoils the dream. Why don't you dream that I am young?
I wish you were; only I think I should be more afraid of you. I like men, especially young men with round strong arms; but I am afraid of them. You are old and rather thin and stringy; but you have a nice voice; and I like to have somebody to talk to, though I think you are a little mad. It is the moon that makes you talk to yourself in that silly way.
What! you heard that, did you? I was saying my prayers to the great Sphinx.
But this isn't the great Sphinx.
CAESAR (much disappointed, looking up at the statue).
This is only a dear little kitten of the Sphinx. Why, the great Sphinx is so big that it has a temple between its paws. This is my pet Sphinx. Tell me: do you think the Romans have any sorcerers who could take us away from the Sphinx by magic?
Why? Are you afraid of the Romans?
CLEOPATRA (very seriously).
Oh, they would eat us if they caught us. They are barbarians. Their chief is called Julius Caesar. His father was a tiger and his mother a burning mountain; and his nose is like an elephant's trunk. (Caesar involuntarily rubs his nose.) They all have long noses, and ivory tusks, and little tails, and seven arms with a hundred arrows in each; and they live on human flesh.
Would you like me to show you a real Roman?
No. You are frightening me.
No matter: this is only a dream--
It is not a dream: it is not a dream. See, see. (She plucks a pin from her hair and jabs it repeatedly into his arm.)
Ffff--Stop. (Wrathfully) How dare you?
You said you were dreaming. (Whimpering) I only wanted to show you--
Come, come: don't cry. A queen mustn't cry. (He rubs his arm, wondering at the reality of the smart.) Am I awake? (He strikes his hand against the Sphinx to test its solidity. It feels so real that he begins to be alarmed, and says perplexedly) Yes, I--(quite panicstricken) no: impossible: madness, madness! (Desperately) Back to camp--to camp. (He rises to spring down from the pedestal.)
CLEOPATRA (flinging her arms in terror round him).
No: you shan't leave me. No, no, no: don't go. I'm afraid--afraid of the Romans.
CAESAR (as the conviction that he is really awake forces itself on him). Cleopatra: can you see my face well?
Yes. It is so white in the moonlight.
Are you sure it is the moonlight that makes me look whiter than an Egyptian? (Grimly) Do you notice that I have a rather long nose?
CLEOPATRA (recoiling, paralyzed by a terrible suspicion).
It is a Roman nose, Cleopatra.
Ah! (With a piercing scream she springs up; darts round the left shoulder of the Sphinx; scrambles down to the sand; and falls on her knees in frantic supplication, shrieking) Bite him in two, Sphinx: bite him in two. I meant to sacrifice the white cat--I did indeed--I (Caesar, who has slipped down from the pedestal, touches her on the shoulder) Ah! (She buries her head in her arms.)
Cleopatra: shall I teach you a way to prevent Caesar from eating you?
CLEOPATRA (clinging to him piteously).
Oh do, do, do. I will steal Ftatateeta's jewels and give them to you. I will make the river Nile water your lands twice a year.
Peace, peace, my child. Your gods are afraid of the Romans: you see the Sphinx dare not bite me, nor prevent me carrying you off to Julius Caesar.
CLEOPATRA (in pleading murmurings).
You won't, you won't. You said you wouldn't.
Caesar never eats women.
CLEOPATRA (springing up full of hope).
But he eats girls (she relapses) and cats. Now you are a silly little girl; and you are descended from the black kitten. You are both a girl and a cat.
And will he eat me?
Yes; unless you make him believe that you are a woman.
Oh, you must get a sorcerer to make a woman of me. Are you a sorcerer?
Perhaps. But it will take a long time; and this very night you must stand face to face with Caesar in the palace of your fathers.
No, no. I daren't.
Whatever dread may be in your soul--however terrible Caesar may be to you--you must confront him as a brave woman and a great queen; and you must feel no fear. If your hand shakes: if your voice quavers; then--night and death! (She moans.) But if he thinks you worthy to rule, he will set you on the throne by his side and make you the real ruler of Egypt.
No: he will find me out: he will find me out.
CAESAR (rather mournfully).
He is easily deceived by women. Their eyes dazzle him; and he sees them not as they are, but as he wishes them to appear to him.
Then we will cheat him. I will put on Ftatateeta's head-dress; and he will think me quite an old woman.
If you do that he will eat you at one mouthful.
But I will give him a cake with my magic opal and seven hairs of the white cat baked in it; and--
Pah! you are a little fool. He will eat your cake and you too. (He turns contemptuously from her.)
CLEOPATRA (running after him and clinging to him).
Oh, please, PLEASE! I will do whatever you tell me. I will be good! I will be your slave. (Again the terrible bellowing note sounds across the desert, now closer at hand. It is the bucina, the Roman war trumpet.)
What was that?
CLEOPATRA (pulling at his hand).
Let us run away. Come. Oh, come.
You are safe with me until you stand on your throne to receive Caesar. Now lead me thither.
CLEOPATRA (only too glad to get away).
I will, I will. (Again the bucina.) Oh, come, come, come: the gods are angry. Do you feel the earth shaking?
It is the tread of Caesar's legions.
CLEOPATRA (drawing him away).
This way, quickly. And let us look for the white cat as we go. It is he that has turned you into a Roman.
Incorrigible, oh, incorrigible! Away! (He follows her, the bucina sounding louder as they steal across the desert. The moonlight wanes: the horizon again shows black against the sky, broken only by the fantastic silhouette of the Sphinx. The sky itself vanishes in darkness, from which there is no relief until the gleam of a distant torch falls on great Egyptian pillars supporting the roof of a majestic corridor. At the further end of this corridor a Nubian slave appears carrying the torch. Caesar, still led by Cleopatra, follows him. They come down the corridor, Caesar peering keenly about at the strange architecture, and at the pillar shadows between which, as the passing torch makes them hurry noiselessly backwards, figures of men with wings and hawks' heads, and vast black marble cats, seem to flit in and out of ambush. Further along, the wall turns a corner and makes a spacious transept in which Caesar sees, on his right, a throne, and behind the throne a door. On each side of the throne is a slender pillar with a lamp on it.)
What place is this?
This is where I sit on the throne when I am allowed to wear my crown and robes. (The slave holds his torch to show the throne.)
Order the slave to light the lamps.
Do you think I may?
Of course. You are the Queen. (She hesitates.) Go on.
CLEOPATRA (timidly, to the slave).
Light all the lamps.
FTATATEETA (suddenly coming from behind the throne).
Stop. (The slave stops. She turns sternly to Cleopatra, who quails like a naughty child.) Who is this you have with you; and how dare you order the lamps to be lighted without my permission? (Cleopatra is dumb with apprehension.)
Who is she?
Chief nurse to--
CAESAR (cutting her short).
I speak to the Queen. Be silent. (To Cleopatra) Is this how your servants know their places? Send her away; and you (to the slave) do as the Queen has bidden. (The slave lights the lamps. Meanwhile Cleopatra stands hesitating, afraid of Ftatateeta.) You are the Queen: send her away.
Ftatateeta, dear: you must go away--just for a little.
You are not commanding her to go away: you are begging her. You are no Queen. You will be eaten. Farewell. (He turns to go.)
CLEOPATRA (clutching him).
No, no, no. Don't leave me.
A Roman does not stay with queens who are afraid of their slaves.
I am not afraid. Indeed I am not afraid.
We shall see who is afraid here. (Menacingly) Cleopatra--
On your knees, woman: am I also a child that you dare trifle with me? (He points to the floor at Cleopatra's feet. Ftatateeta, half cowed, half savage, hesitates. Caesar calls to the Nubian) Slave. (The Nubian comes to him.) Can you cut off a head? (The Nubian nods and grins ecstatically, showing all his teeth. Caesar takes his sword by the scabbard, ready to offer the hilt to the Nubian, and turns again to Ftatateeta, repeating his gesture.) Have you remembered yourself, mistress?
Ftatateeta, crushed, kneels before Cleopatra, who can hardly believe her eyes.
O Queen, forget not thy servant in the days of thy greatness.
CLEOPATRA (blazing with excitement).
Go. Begone. Go away. (Ftatateeta rises with stooped head, and moves backwards towards the door. Cleopatra watches her submission eagerly, almost clapping her hands, which are trembling. Suddenly she cries) Give me something to beat her with. (She snatches a snake-skin from the throne and dashes after Ftatateeta, whirling it like a scourge in the air. Caesar makes a bound and manages to catch her and hold her while Ftatateeta escapes.)
You scratch, kitten, do you?
CLEOPATRA (breaking from him).
I will beat somebody. I will beat him. (She attacks the slave.) There, there, there! (The slave flies for his life up the corridor and vanishes. She throws the snake-skin away and jumps on the step of the throne with her arms waving, crying) I am a real Queen at last--a real, real Queen! Cleopatra the Queen! (Caesar shakes his head dubiously, the advantage of the change seeming open to question from the point of view of the general welfare of Egypt. She turns and looks at him exultantly. Then she jumps down from the step, runs to him, and flings her arms round him rapturously, crying) Oh, I love you for making me a Queen.
But queens love only kings.
I will make all the men I love kings. I will make you a king. I will have many young kings, with round, strong arms; and when I am tired of them I will whip them to death; but you shall always be my king: my nice, kind, wise, proud old king.
Oh, my wrinkles, my wrinkles! And my child's heart! You will be the most dangerous of all Caesar's conguests.
Caesar! I forgot Caesar. (Anxiously) You will tell him that I am a Queen, will you not? a real Queen. Listen! (stealthily coaxing him) let us run away and hide until Caesar is gone.
If you fear Caesar, you are no true Queen; and though you were to hide beneath a pyramid, he would go straight to it and lift it with one hand. And then--! (He chops his teeth together.)
Be afraid if you dare. (The note of the bucina resounds again in the distance. She moans with fear. Caesar exalts in it, exclaiming) Aha! Caesar approaches the throne of Cleopatra. Come: take your place. (He takes her hand and leads her to the throne. She is too downcast to speak.) Ho, there, Teetatota. How do you call your slaves?
CLEOPATRA (spiritlessly, as she sinks on the throne and cowers there, shaking). Clap your hands.
He claps his hands. Ftatateeta returns.
Bring the Queen's robes, and her crown, and her women; and prepare her.
CLEOPATRA (eagerly--recovering herself a little).
Yes, the Crown, Ftatateeta: I shall wear the crown.
For whom must the Queen put on her state?
For a citizen of Rome. A king of kings, Totateeta.
CLEOPATRA (stamping at her).
How dare you ask questions? Go and do as you are told. (Ftatateeta goes out with a grim smile. Cleopatra goes on eagerly, to Caesar) Caesar will know that I am a Queen when he sees my crown and robes, will he not?
No. How shall he know that you are not a slave dressed up in the Queen's ornaments?
You must tell him.
He will not ask me. He will know Cleopatra by her pride, her courage, her majesty, and her beauty. (She looks very doubtful.) Are you trembling?
CLEOPATRA (shivering with dread).
No, I--I--(in a very sickly voice) No.
Ftatateeta and three women come in with the regalia.
Of all the Queen's women, these three alone are left. The rest are fled. (They begin to deck Cleopatra, who submits, pale and motionless.)
Good, good. Three are enough. Poor Caesar generally has to dress himself.
The Queen of Egypt is not a Roman barbarian. (To Cleopatra) Be brave, my nursling. Hold up your head before this stranger.
CAESAR (admiring Cleopatra, and placing the crown on her head). Is it sweet or bitter to be a Queen, Cleopatra?
Cast out fear; and you will conquer Caesar. Tota: are the Romans at hand?
They are at hand; and the guard has fled.
THE WOMEN (wailing subduedly).
Woe to us!
The Nubian comes running down the hall.
The Romans are in the courtyard. (He bolts through the door. With a shriek, the women fly after him. Ftatateeta's jaw expresses savage resolution: she does not budge. Cleopatra can hardly restrain herself from following them. Caesar grips her wrist, and looks steadfastly at her. She stands like a martyr.)
The Queen must face Caesar alone. Answer "So be it."
So be it.
CAESAR (releasing her).
A tramp and tumult of armed men is heard. Cleopatra's terror increases. The bucina sounds close at hand, followed by a formidable clangor of trumpets. This is too much for Cleopatra: she utters a cry and darts towards the door. Ftatateeta stops her ruthlessly.
You are my nursling. You have said "So be it"; and if you die for it, you must make the Queen's word good. (She hands Cleopatra to Caesar, who takes her back, almost beside herself with apprehension, to the throne.)
Now, if you quail--! (He seats himself on the throne.)
She stands on the step, all but unconscious, waiting for death. The Roman soldiers troop in tumultuously through the corridor, headed by their ensign with his eagle, and their bucinator, a burly fellow with his instrument coiled round his body, its brazen bell shaped like the head of a howling wolf. When they reach the transept, they stare in amazement at the throne; dress into ordered rank opposite it; draw their swords and lift them in the air with a shout of HAIL CAESAR. Cleopatra turns and stares wildly at Caesar; grasps the situation; and, with a great sob of relief, falls into his arms.