Salammbo, by Gustave Flaubert

Chapter V

Tanith

After leaving the gardens Matho and Spendius found themselves checked by the rampart of Megara. But they discovered a breach in the great wall and passed through.

The ground sloped downwards, forming a kind of very broad valley. It was an exposed place.

“Listen,” said Spendius, “and first of all fear nothing! I shall fulfil my promise —”

He stopped abruptly, and seemed to reflect as though searching for words — “Do you remember that time at sunrise when I showed Carthage to you on Salammbo’s terrace? We were strong that day, but you would listen to nothing!” Then in a grave voice: “Master, in the sanctuary of Tanith there is a mysterious veil, which fell from heaven and which covers the goddess.”

“I know,” said Matho.

Spendius resumed: “It is itself divine, for it forms part of her. The gods reside where their images are. It is because Carthage possesses it that Carthage is powerful.” Then leaning over to his ear: “I have brought you with me to carry it off!”

Matho recoiled in horror. “Begone! look for some one else! I will not help you in this execrable crime!”

“But Tanith is your enemy,” retorted Spendius; “she is persecuting you and you are dying through her wrath. You will be revenged upon her. She will obey you, and you will become almost immortal and invincible.”

Matho bent his head. Spendius continued:

“We should succumb; the army would be annihilated of itself. We have neither flight, nor succour, nor pardon to hope for! What chastisement from the gods can you be afraid of since you will have their power in your own hands? Would you rather die on the evening of a defeat, in misery beneath the shelter of a bush, or amid the outrages of the populace and the flames of funeral piles? Master, one day you will enter Carthage among the colleges of the pontiffs, who will kiss your sandals; and if the veil of Tanith weighs upon you still, you will reinstate it in its temple. Follow me! come and take it.”

Matho was consumed by a terrible longing. He would have liked to possess the veil while refraining from the sacrilege. He said to himself that perhaps it would not be necessary to take it in order to monopolise its virtue. He did not go to the bottom of his thought but stopped at the boundary, where it terrified him.

“Come on!” he said; and they went off with rapid strides, side by side, and without speaking.

The ground rose again, and the dwellings were near. They turned again into the narrow streets amid the darkness. The strips of esparto-grass with which the doors were closed, beat against the walls. Some camels were ruminating in a square before heaps of cut grass. Then they passed beneath a gallery covered with foliage. A pack of dogs were barking. But suddenly the space grew wider and they recognised the western face of the Acropolis. At the foot of Byrsa there stretched a long black mass: it was the temple of Tanith, a whole made up of monuments and galleries, courts and fore-courts, and bounded by a low wall of dry stones. Spendius and Matho leaped over it.

This first barrier enclosed a wood of plane-trees as a precaution against plague and infection in the air. Tents were scattered here and there, in which, during the daytime, depilatory pastes, perfumes, garments, moon-shaped cakes, and images of the goddess with representations of the temple hollowed out in blocks of alabaster, were on sale.

They had nothing to fear, for on nights when the planet did not appear, all rites were suspended; nevertheless Matho slackened his speed, and stopped before the three ebony steps leading to the second enclosure.

“Forward!” said Spendius.

Pomegranate, almond trees, cypresses and myrtles alternated in regular succession; the path, which was paved with blue pebbles, creaked beneath their footsteps, and full-blown roses formed a hanging bower over the whole length of the avenue. They arrived before an oval hole protected by a grating. Then Matho, who was frightened by the silence, said to Spendius:

“It is here that they mix the fresh water and the bitter.”

“I have seen all that,” returned the former slave, “in Syria, in the town of Maphug”; and they ascended into the third enclosure by a staircase of six silver steps.

A huge cedar occupied the centre. Its lowest branches were hidden beneath scraps of material and necklaces hung upon them by the faithful. They walked a few steps further on, and the front of the temple was displayed before them.

Two long porticoes, with their architraves resting on dumpy pillars, flanked a quadrangular tower, the platform of which was adorned with the crescent of a moon. On the angles of the porticoes and at the four corners of the tower stood vases filled with kindled aromatics. The capitals were laden with pomegranates and coloquintidas. Twining knots, lozenges, and rows of pearls alternated on the walls, and a hedge of silver filigree formed a wide semicircle in front of the brass staircase which led down from the vestibule.

There was a cone of stone at the entrance between a stela of gold and one of emerald, and Matho kissed his right hand as he passed beside it.

The first room was very lofty; its vaulted roof was pierced by numberless apertures, and if the head were raised the stars might be seen. All round the wall rush baskets were heaped up with the first fruits of adolescence in the shape of beards and curls of hair; and in the centre of the circular apartment the body of a woman issued from a sheath which was covered with breasts. Fat, bearded, and with eyelids downcast, she looked as though she were smiling, while her hands were crossed upon the lower part of her big body, which was polished by the kisses of the crowd.

Then they found themselves again in the open air in a transverse corridor, wherein there was an altar of small dimensions leaning against an ivory door. There was no further passage; the priests alone could open it; for the temple was not a place of meeting for the multitude, but the private abode of a divinity.

“The enterprise is impossible,” said Matho. “You had not thought of this! Let us go back!” Spendius was examining the walls.

He wanted the veil, not because he had confidence in its virtue (Spendius believed only in the Oracle), but because he was persuaded that the Carthaginians would be greatly dismayed on seeing themselves deprived of it. They walked all round behind in order to find some outlet.

Aedicules of different shapes were visible beneath clusters of turpentine trees. Here and there rose a stone phallus, and large stags roamed peacefully about, spurning the fallen fir-cones with their cloven hoofs.

But they retraced their steps between two long galleries which ran parallel to each other. There were small open cells along their sides, and tabourines and cymbals hung against their cedar columns from top to bottom. Women were sleeping stretched on mats outside the cells. Their bodies were greasy with unguents, and exhaled an odour of spices and extinguished perfuming-pans; while they were so covered with tattooings, necklaces, rings, vermilion, and antimony that, but for the motion of their breasts, they might have been taken for idols as they lay thus on the ground. There were lotus-trees encircling a fountain in which fish like Salammbo’s were swimming; and then in the background, against the wall of the temple, spread a vine, the branches of which were of glass and the grape-bunches of emerald, the rays from the precious stones making a play of light through the painted columns upon the sleeping faces.

Matho felt suffocated in the warm atmosphere pressed down upon him by the cedar partitions. All these symbols of fecundation, these perfumes, radiations, and breathings overwhelmed him. Through all the mystic dazzling he kept thinking of Salammbo. She became confused with the goddess herself, and his loved unfolded itself all the more, like the great lotus-plants blooming upon the depths of the waters.

Spendius was calculating how much money he would have made in former days by the sale of these women; and with a rapid glance he estimated the weight of the golden necklaces as he passed by.

The temple was impenetrable on this side as on the other, and they returned behind the first chamber. While Spendius was searching and ferreting, Matho was prostrate before the door supplicating Tanith. He besought her not to permit the sacrilege, and strove to soften her with caressing words, such as are used to an angry person.

Spendius noticed a narrow aperture above the door.

“Rise!” he said to Matho, and he made him stand erect with his back against the wall. Placing one foot in his hands, and then the other upon his head, he reached up to the air-hole, made his way into it and disappeared. Then Matho felt a knotted cord — that one which Spendius had rolled around his body before entering the cisterns — fall upon his shoulders, and bearing upon it with both hands he soon found himself by the side of the other in a large hall filled with shadow.

Such an attempt was something extraordinary. The inadequacy of the means for preventing it was a sufficient proof that it was considered impossible. The sanctuaries were protected by terror more than by their walls. Matho expected to die at every step.

However a light was flickering far back in the darkness, and they went up to it. It was a lamp burning in a shell on the pedestal of a statue which wore the cap of the Kabiri. Its long blue robe was strewn with diamond discs, and its heels were fastened to the ground by chains which sank beneath the pavement. Matho suppressed a cry. “Ah! there she is! there she is!” he stammered out. Spendius took up the lamp in order to light himself.

“What an impious man you are!” murmured Matho, following him nevertheless.

The apartment which they entered had nothing in it but a black painting representing another woman. Her legs reached to the top of the wall, and her body filled the entire ceiling; a huge egg hung by a thread from her navel, and she fell head downwards upon the other wall, reaching as far as the level of the pavement, which was touched by her pointed fingers.

They drew a hanging aside, in order to go on further; but the wind blew and the light went out.

Then they wandered about, lost in the complications of the architecture. Suddenly they felt something strangely soft beneath their feet. Sparks crackled and leaped; they were walking in fire. Spendius touched the ground and perceived that it was carefully carpeted with lynx skins; then it seemed to them that a big cord, wet, cold, and viscous, was gliding between their legs. Through some fissures cut in the wall there fell thin white rays, and they advanced by this uncertain light. At last they distinguished a large black serpent. It darted quickly away and disappeared.

“Let us fly!” exclaimed Matho. “It is she! I feel her; she is coming.”

“No, no,” replied Spendius, “the temple is empty.”

Then a dazzling light made them lower their eyes. Next they perceived all around them an infinite number of beasts, lean, panting, with bristling claws, and mingled together one above another in a mysterious and terrifying confusion. There were serpents with feet, and bulls with wings, fishes with human heads were devouring fruit, flowers were blooming in the jaws of crocodiles, and elephants with uplifted trunks were sailing proudly through the azure like eagles. Their incomplete or multiplied limbs were distended with terrible exertion. As they thrust out their tongues they looked as though they would fain give forth their souls; and every shape was to be found among them as if the germ-receptacle had been suddenly hatched and had burst, emptying itself upon the walls of the hall.

Round the latter were twelve globes of blue crystal, supported by monsters resembling tigers. Their eyeballs were starting out of their heads like those of snails, with their dumpy loins bent they were turning round towards the background where the supreme Rabbet, the Omnifecund, the last invented, shone splendid in a chariot of ivory.

She was covered with scales, feathers, flowers, and birds as high as the waist. For earrings she had silver cymbals, which flapped against her cheeks. Her large fixed eyes gazed upon you, and a luminous stone, set in an obscene symbol on her brow, lighted the whole hall by its reflection in red copper mirrors above the door.

Matho stood a step forward; but a flag stone yielded beneath his heels and immediately the spheres began to revolve and the monsters to roar; music rose melodious and pealing, like the harmony of the planets; the tumultuous soul of Tanith was poured streaming forth. She was about to arise, as lofty as the hall and with open arms. Suddenly the monsters closed their jaws and the crystal globes revolved no more.

Then a mournful modulation lingered for a time through the air and at last died away.

“And the veil?” said Spendius.

Nowhere could it be seen. Where was it to be found? How could it be discovered? What if the priests had hidden it? Matho experienced anguish of heart and felt as though he had been deceived in his belief.

“This way!” whispered Spendius. An inspiration guided him. He drew Matho behind Tanith’s chariot, where a cleft a cubit wide ran down the wall from top to bottom.

Then they penetrated into a small and completely circular room, so lofty that it was like the interior of a pillar. In the centre there was a big black stone, of semispherical shape like a tabourine; flames were burning upon it; an ebony cone, bearing a head and two arms, rose behind.

But beyond it seemed as though there were a cloud wherein were twinkling stars; faces appeared in the depths of its folds — Eschmoun with the Kabiri, some of the monsters that had already been seen, the sacred beasts of the Babylonians, and others with which they were not acquainted. It passed beneath the idol’s face like a mantle, and spread fully out was drawn up on the wall to which it was fastened by the corners, appearing at once bluish as the night, yellow as the dawn, purple as the sun, multitudinous, diaphanous, sparkling light. It was the mantle of the goddess, the holy zaimph which might not be seen.

Both turned pale.

“Take it!” said Matho at last.

Spendius did not hesitate, and leaning upon the idol he unfastened the veil, which sank to the ground. Matho laid his hand upon it; then he put his head through the opening, then he wrapped it about his body, and he spread out his arms the better to view it.

“Let us go!” said Spendius.

Matho stood panting with his eyes fixed upon the pavement. Suddenly he exclaimed:

“But what if I went to her? I fear her beauty no longer! What could she do to me? I am now more than a man. I could pass through flames or walk upon the sea! I am transported! Salammbo! Salammbo! I am your master!”

His voice was like thunder. He seemed to Spendius to have grown taller and transformed.

A sound of footsteps drew near, a door opened, and a man appeared, a priest with lofty cap and staring eyes. Before he could make a gesture Spendius had rushed upon him, and clasping him in his arms had buried both his daggers in his sides. His head rang upon the pavement.

Then they stood for a while, as motionless as the corpse, listening. Nothing could be heard but the murmuring of the wind through the half-opened door.

The latter led into a narrow passage. Spendius advanced along it, Matho followed him, and they found themselves almost immediately in the third enclosure, between the lateral porticoes, in which were the dwellings of the priests.

Behind the cells there must be a shorter way out. They hastened along.

Spendius squatted down at the edge of the fountain and washed his bloodstained hands. The women slept. The emerald vine shone. They resumed their advance.

But something was running behind them under the trees; and Matho, who bore the veil, several times felt that it was being pulled very gently from below. It was a large cynocephalus, one of those which dwelt at liberty within the enclosure of the goddess. It clung to the mantle as though it had been conscious of the theft. They did not dare to strike it, however, fearing that it might redouble its cries; suddenly its anger subsided, and it trotted close beside them swinging its body with its long hanging arms. Then at the barrier it leaped at a bound into a palm tree.

When they had left the last enclosure they directed their steps towards Hamilcar’s palace, Spendius understanding that it would be useless to try to dissuade Matho.

They went by the street of the Tanners, the square of Muthumbal, the green market and the crossways of Cynasyn. At the angle of a wall a man drew back frightened by the sparkling thing which pierced the darkness.

“Hide the zaimph!” said Spendius.

Other people passed them, but without perceiving them.

At last they recognised the houses of Megara.

The pharos, which was built behind them on the summit of the cliff, lit up the heavens with a great red brightness, and the shadow of the palace, with its rising terraces, projected a monstrous pyramid, as it were, upon the gardens. They entered through the hedge of jujube-trees, beating down the branches with blows of the dagger.

The traces of the feast of the Mercenaries were everywhere still manifest. The parks were broken up, the trenches drained, the doors of the ergastulum open. No one was to be seen about the kitchens or cellars. They wondered at the silence, which was occasionally broken by the hoarse breathing of the elephants moving in their shackles, and the crepitation of the pharos, in which a pile of aloes was burning.

Matho, however, kept repeating:

“But where is she? I wish to see her! Lead me!”

“It is a piece of insanity!” Spendius kept saying. “She will call, her slaves will run up, and in spite of your strength you will die!”

They reached thus the galley staircase. Matho raised his head, and thought that he could perceive far above a vague brightness, radiant and soft. Spendius sought to restrain him, but he dashed up the steps.

As he found himself again in places where he had already seen her, the interval of the days that had passed was obliterated from his memory. But now had she been singing among the tables; she had disappeared, and he had since been continually ascending this staircase. The sky above his head was covered with fires; the sea filled the horizon; at each step he was surrounded by a still greater immensity, and he continued to climb upward with that strange facility which we experience in dreams.

The rustling of the veil as it brushed against the stones recalled his new power to him; but in the excess of his hope he could no longer tell what he was to do; this uncertainty alarmed him.

From time to time he would press his face against the quadrangular openings in the closed apartments, and he thought that in several of the latter he could see persons asleep.

The last story, which was narrower, formed a sort of dado on the summit of the terraces. Matho walked round it slowly.

A milky light filled the sheets of talc which closed the little apertures in the wall, and in their symmetrical arrangement they looked in the darkness like rows of delicate pearls. He recognised the red door with the black cross. The throbbing of his heart increased. He would fain have fled. He pushed the door and it opened.

A galley-shaped lamp hung burning in the back part of the room, and three rays, emitted from its silver keel, trembled on the lofty wainscots, which were painted red with black bands. The ceiling was an assemblage of small beams, with amethysts and topazes amid their gilding in the knots of the wood. On both the great sides of the apartment there stretched a very low bed made with white leathern straps; while above, semi-circles like shells, opened in the thickness of the wall, suffered a garment to come out and hang down to the ground.

There was an oval basin with a step of onyx round it; delicate slippers of serpent skin were standing on the edge, together with an alabaster flagon. The trace of a wet footstep might be seen beyond. Exquisite scents were evaporating.

Matho glided over the pavement, which was encrusted with gold, mother-of-pearl, and glass; and, in spite of the polished smoothness of the ground, it seemed to him that his feet sank as though he were walking on sand.

Behind the silver lamp he had perceived a large square of azure held in the air by four cords from above, and he advanced with loins bent and mouth open.

Flamingoes’ wings, fitted on branches of black coral, lay about among purple cushions, tortoiseshell strigils, cedar boxes, and ivory spatulas. There were antelopes’ horns with rings and bracelets strung upon them; and clay vases were cooling in the wind in the cleft of the wall with a lattice-work of reeds. Several times he struck his foot, for the ground had various levels of unequal height, which formed a succession of apartments, as it were, in the room. In the background there were silver balustrades surrounding a carpet strewn with painted flowers. At last he came to the hanging bed beside an ebony stool serving to get into it.

But the light ceased at the edge; — and the shadow, like a great curtain, revealed only a corner of the red mattress with the extremity of a little naked foot lying upon its ankle. Then Matho took up the lamp very gently.

She was sleeping with her cheek in one hand and with the other arm extended. Her ringlets were spread about her in such abundance that she appeared to be lying on black feathers, and her ample white tunic wound in soft draperies to her feet following the curves of her person. Her eyes were just visible beneath her half-closed eyelids. The curtains, which stretched perpendicularly, enveloped her in a bluish atmosphere, and the motion of her breathing, communicating itself to the cords, seemed to rock her in the air. A long mosquito was buzzing.

Matho stood motionless holding the silver lamp at arm’s length; but on a sudden the mosquito-net caught fire and disappeared, and Salammbo awoke.

The fire had gone out of itself. She did not speak. The lamp caused great luminous moires to flicker on the wainscots.

“What is it?” she said.

He replied:

“’Tis the veil of the goddess!”

“The veil of the goddess!” cried Salammbo, and supporting herself on both clenched hands she leaned shuddering out. He resumed:

“I have been in the depths of the sanctuary to seek it for you! Look!” The Zaimph shone a mass of rays.

“Do you remember it?” said Matho. “You appeared at night in my dreams, but I did not guess the mute command of your eyes!” She put out one foot upon the ebony stool. “Had I understood I should have hastened hither, I should have forsaken the army, I should not have left Carthage. To obey you I would go down through the caverns of Hadrumetum into the kingdom of the shades! — Forgive me! it was as though mountains were weighing upon my days; and yet something drew me on! I tried to come to you! Should I ever have dared this without the Gods! — Let us go! You must follow me! or, if you do not wish to do so, I will remain. What matters it to me! — Drown my soul in your breath! Let my lips be crushed with kissing your hands!”

“Let me see it!” she said. “Nearer! nearer!”

Day was breaking, and the sheets of talc in the walls were filled with a vinous colour. Salammbo leaned fainting against the cushions of the bed.

“I love you!” cried Matho.

“Give it!” she stammered out, and they drew closer together.

She kept advancing, clothed in her white trailing simar, and with her large eyes fastened on the veil. Matho gazed at her, dazzled by the splendours of her head, and, holding out the zaimph towards her, was about to enfold her in an embrace. She was stretching out her arms. Suddenly she stopped, and they stood looking at each other, open-mouthed.

Then without understanding the meaning of his solicitation a horror seized upon her. Her delicate eyebrows rose, her lips opened; she trembled. At last she struck one of the brass pateras which hung at the corners of the red mattress, crying:

“To the rescue! to the rescue! Back, sacrilegious man! infamous and accursed! Help, Taanach, Kroum, Ewa, Micipsa, Schaoul!”

And the scared face of Spendius, appearing in the wall between the clay flagons, cried out these words:

“Fly! they are hastening hither!”

A great tumult came upwards shaking the staircases, and a flood of people, women, serving-men, and slaves, rushed into the room with stakes, tomahawks, cutlasses, and daggers. They were nearly paralysed with indignation on perceiving a man; the female servants uttered funeral wailings, and the eunuchs grew pale beneath their black skins.

Matho was standing behind the balustrades. With the zaimph which was wrapped about him, he looked like a sidereal god surrounded by the firmament. The slaves were going to fall upon him, but she stopped them:

“Touch it not! It is the mantle of the goddess!”

She had drawn back into a corner; but she took a step towards him, and stretched forth her naked arm:

“A curse upon you, you who have plundered Tanith! Hatred, vengeance, massacre, and grief! May Gurzil, god of battles, rend you! may Mastiman, god of the dead, stifle you! and may the Other — he who may not be named — burn you!”

Matho uttered a cry as though he had received a sword-thrust. She repeated several times: “Begone! begone!”

The crowd of servants spread out, and Matho, with hanging head, passed slowly through the midst of them; but at the door he stopped, for the fringe of the zaimph had caught on one of the golden stars with which the flagstones were paved. He pulled it off abruptly with a movement of his shoulder and went down the staircases.

Spendius, bounding from terrace to terrace, and leaping over the hedges and trenches, had escaped from the gardens. He reached the foot of the pharos. The wall was discontinued at this spot, so inaccessible was the cliff. He advanced to the edge, lay down on his back, and let himself slide, feet foremost, down the whole length of it to the bottom; then by swimming he reached the Cape of the Tombs, made a wide circuit of the salt lagoon, and re-entered the camp of the Barbarians in the evening.

The sun had risen; and, like a retreating lion, Matho went down the paths, casting terrible glances about him.

A vague clamour reached his ears. It had started from the palace, and it was beginning afresh in the distance, towards the Acropolis. Some said that the treasure of the Republic had been seized in the temple of Moloch; others spoke of the assassination of a priest. It was thought, moreover, that the Barbarians had entered the city.

Matho, who did not know how to get out of the enclosures, walked straight before him. He was seen, and an outcry was raised. Every one understood; and there was consternation, then immense wrath.

From the bottom of the Mappalian quarter, from the heights of the Acropolis, from the catacombs, from the borders of the lake, the multitude came in haste. The patricians left their palaces, and the traders left their shops; the women forsook their children; swords, hatchets, and sticks were seized; but the obstacle which had stayed Salammbo stayed them. How could the veil be taken back? The mere sight of it was a crime; it was of the nature of the gods, and contact with it was death.

The despairing priests wrung their hands on the peristyles of the temples. The guards of the Legion galloped about at random; the people climbed upon the houses, the terraces, the shoulders of the colossuses, and the masts of the ships. He went on, nevertheless, and the rage, and the terror also, increased at each of his steps; the streets cleared at his approach, and the torrent of flying men streamed on both sides up to the tops of the walls. Everywhere he could perceive only eyes opened widely as if to devour him, chattering teeth and outstretched fists, and Salammbo’s imprecations resounded many times renewed.

Suddenly a long arrow whizzed past, then another, and stones began to buzz about him; but the missiles, being badly aimed (for there was the dread of hitting the zaimph), passed over his head. Moreover, he made a shield of the veil, holding it to the right, to the left, before him and behind him; and they could devise no expedient. He quickened his steps more and more, advancing through the open streets. They were barred with cords, chariots, and snares; and all his windings brought him back again. At last he entered the square of Khamon where the Balearians had perished, and stopped, growing pale as one about to die. This time he was surely lost, and the multitude clapped their hands.

He ran up to the great gate, which was closed. It was very high, made throughout of heart of oak, with iron nails and sheathed with brass. Matho flung himself against it. The people stamped their feet with joy when they saw the impotence of his fury; then he took his sandal, spit upon it, and beat the immovable panels with it. The whole city howled. The veil was forgotten now, and they were about to crush him. Matho gazed with wide vacant eyes upon the crowd. His temples were throbbing with violence enough to stun him, and he felt a numbness as of intoxication creeping over him. Suddenly he caught sight of the long chain used in working the swinging of the gate. With a bound he grasped it, stiffening his arms, and making a buttress of his feet, and at last the huge leaves partly opened.

Then when he was outside he took the great zaimph from his neck, and raised it as high as possible above his head. The material, upborne by the sea breeze, shone in the sunlight with its colours, its gems, and the figures of its gods. Matho bore it thus across the whole plain as far as the soldiers’ tents, and the people on the walls watched the fortune of Carthage depart.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53