A Night with Cleopatra


About eighteen hundred years ago from the moment we write these lines, a cange1 magnificently gilded and painted came down the Nile with all the rapidity which can be got from fifty long flat oars crawling on the scratched water like the feet of a gigantic scarabæus beetle.

This cange was narrow, elongated in shape, tilted at the two ends in the form of a crescent moon, slim in its proportions, and marvellously fashioned for speed; a ram’s head surmounted by a golden ball armed the point of the prow, and showed that the craft belonged to a personage of royal rank.

In the centre of the boat was erected a cabin with a flat roof, a kind of naos, or tent of honour, coloured and gilded, with a moulding of palm leaves, and four little square windows.

Two rooms, covered in the same way with hieroglyphics, occupied the ends of the crescent; one of them, bigger than the other, had, juxtaposed, a story of less height, like the châteauxgaillards of those quaint galleys of the sixteenth century drawn by Della Bella; the smaller, which served as quarters for the pilot, ended in a triangular poop-rail.

The rudder was made of two immense oars, set on many-coloured posts, and trailing in the water behind the bark like the webbed feet of a swan; heads adorned with the pschent and wearing on the chin the allegorical horn, were sculptured by handfuls along those great oars which the pilot manœuvred standing erect on the roof of the cabin.

He was a sunburnt man, fawn-coloured like new bronze, with blue glistening high-lights, his eyes tilted at the corners, his hair very black and plaited into little strings, his mouth wide spread, his cheek-bones prominent, his ears sitting out from his skull, the Egyptian type in all its purity. A narrow loin-cloth tied on his hips, and five or six twists of glass beads and amulets, composed all his costume.

He seemed to be the only inhabitant of the cange, for the rowers, bent over their oars, and hidden by the gunwale, only made their presence divined by the symmetrical movement of the oar-blades, opening like the spokes of a fan on each flank of the bark, and falling again into the stream after a slight moment of suspension.

No puff of air stirred the atmosphere, and the big triangular sail of the cange, rolled up and tied with a silken cord along the lowered mast, showed that all hope of the wind rising had been abandoned.

The midday sun discharged its leaden arrows; the ash-coloured ooze on the river’s banks gave out flamboyant reflections; a hard light, dazzling and dusty because of its intensity, streamed down in torrents of flame; the azure of the sky was white with heat like metal in the furnace; a blazing reddish haze rose like smoke on the burning horizon. Not a cloud showed on that sky as unvarying and mournful as eternity.

The water of the Nile, dull and lustreless, seemed to be sleeping in its course, and to spread out in sheets of molten pewter. No breath wrinkled its surface, nor swayed on their stalks the flower cups of the lotus, as rigid as if they had been sculptured; only at distant intervals the leap of a bechir or a fahaka inflating the under part of his body, barely mirrored in the water a silver scale, and the oars of the cange seemed to tear with difficulty the fuliginous scum of the stagnant stream. The banks were deserted; a deep and solemn gloom weighed on that land which was never aught else than a mighty tomb, a land whose living inhabitants seemed never to have had any other occupation but that of embalming the dead. A sterile gloom, dry as pumice stone, without melancholy, without reverie, having no pearl-grey cloud to gaze at on the horizon, no secret spring in which to bathe its dusty feet; the gloom of the sphinx wearied with perpetually watching the desert, the sphinx who can never quit the granite pedestal on which it has sharpened its claws for twenty centuries.

The silence was so profound that one would have said that the whole world had become mute, or that the air had lost its power of conducting sound. The sole noise to be heard was the whispering and muffled

  By PanEris using Melati.

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