The room was long and spacious and made with three walls. The fourth side was open from wall to wall and ceiling to floor and looked out on the palace gardens. The sun shone fully in, picking out glittering points of mica in the polished granite floor. It was a chamber of great taste and luxury, with rugs and foreign skins strewn about the divans and lounging-platforms. The walls were paneled with mosaic pictures in brilliant though subdued colors and were banded with alabaster, through which the light showed translucently. The ceiling and the furniture were ebony with ivory inlays. The urns and vessels were Grecian and simple.
Carus lay on a divan in the opening, full in the sun and fresh from his bath. His long, auburn curls were still damp and scented. On the low table at his side were many cups of different wines, from which he sipped tiny tastes. Cluttered among them were rings and necklaces and bangles. His slender white body stretched in its beauty with a sensuous luxury very much like that of the cat which lay against his hip. He idly scratched the dark brown head as he gazed out to the miniature temple Herod had built for him. It was a strangely Egyptian temple and depicted, in a border near its roof, hundreds of sinuous cats. It was a temple to Pasht.
“If thou wert dead, Sextabius, then might I enjoy the Egyptian ritual that so intrigues me.”
Sextabius opened one bright blue eye and closed it slowly and stretched his paws in ecstasy before him, unsheathing his claws from their velvet cases in a luxurious flux of tension and release.
“But thou payest me no heed, Sextabius.” Carus affectionately smacked the smooth, soft flanks, and the skin crinkled in pleasure, causing nervous waves to part the pale dun fur.
“Thou art flagellist. See how thine ears flatten to thy skull in pleasure, and hear how contented is thy purr. Thou hast a strange beauty, Sextabius. It is no wonder I love thee. Thou art so sleek and slim, so dun and dark. Thou art near as strange with thy unembarrassed blue stare in thy dark face as I. And thou art vain. Look how thou art preening.”
For the cat was on its feet, arching its back and yawning. Then it stalked the length of the youth to his armpit and sniffed disdainfully before it casually curled itself in the soft hollow there.
“But thou dost not love me, Sextabius, else thou wouldst concern thyself greater with my desire. The temple is thine, and if thou dost not take care—”
Carus hesitated, and his long green eyes narrowed before they opened to his thought.
“Mayhap ‘twould be the seemly thing—”
Carus reached to the cluttered table, annoying Sextabius, who, discomfited, sat and gazed his disapproval. And Carus found that for which he searched. It was a slender silver pin with a great pearl at the end of its three inches. Carus was seated upright now, and excitement had caused a glow on his cheeks and drawn his bright young lips into a smile—a smile most innocent and pleasant, in contrast with the ancient inscrutability of his eyes. They were flecked with gold and black now and seemed to hold laughter deep behind them.
He picked a bit of candied tangerine from a box and held it out to Sextabius. His voice was pretty and caressing and filled with the teasing laughter of love as he spoke. “Thou art as fond of my favorite sweet as I, Sextabius. But thou must beg for it—beg prettily.”
Sextabius blinked leisurely before he would condescend to move. Then, slowly and graciously, he approached Carus’ lap, and placing one careful foot after another on his thigh, stretched his flat head toward the sweet. As he grasped it with his pointed teeth, showing the graceful line of his throat, Carus, with a swift and silent movement, thrust the pin through where the fur was softest, and before the cat could twitch, had flung it away.
Sextabius was mad with pain and fright, and leapt high and blind in his frantic efforts to rid himself of this thing that pierced his throat and choked his breath. He rolled over again and again, clawing at the two ends of the pin with all four feet. But his efforts only tore more surely the wound in his throat and painted more deeply with blood his tawny underfur. Carus lay back in a fatigue of excitement, and nibbled sweets as he watched with glowing eyes and soft curved lips. When the cat was quite dead and had ceased even to quiver, and was lying in a contorted pose with the pearl like an inlaid stud on his pale and blood-colored fur, Carus struck a gong. It was answered by a youthful slave, to whom he said, “Send my barber to me. And notify the priests. My cat has died.”
His eyes were filled with tears, and his lips were tremulous, and he seemed childly. As the pitying slave was departing, Carus added, “But send me first the painter of friezes. Send me Bar Shem-El, that he may see the formal design Sextabius makes as he lies there.”
* * * * *
The inside of the temple was painted a solemn blue and was lighted by the flickering flames from two brass bowls of fire. These were placed on either side of the blue marble altar that stood at the end directly opposite the entrance. It was a massive slab and highly polished, resting on the heads of four elongated replicas of cats. Towering over and behind the altar was a statue of Pasht, her woman’s head as feline above the voluptuously carved breast as the feline half was feminine. There was a broad flight of seven shallow steps that reached the base on which the Goddess crouched. Between her paws was a space in which reposed an alabaster box. The statue of the goddess was itself greatly jeweled, having emeralds for eyes and draped with necklaces of great price. An attendant in flowing white robes entered and silently glided to the great sacrificial altar.
There were many cats about, their eyes phosphorescent in the gloom and opal in the light. The attendant threw a handful of powder into each of the brass bowls of flame, and they gave off a heavy and heady cloud of violet smoke that rose to the roof and hung as a veil below the lapis-inlaid beams. A muffled gong sounded. The ceremonies had begun.
In through the door and from the blue night outside proceeded a group of virgin youths in full skirts of transparent yellow. Their faces were painted into identical white-blue masks, and in the center of each forehead a jeweled signet glowed. They entered in pairs, and from their ankles and wrists came the sounds of the tiny silver bells that ornamented them. Each group of bells had a different tone, so that the shaking of an ankle would produce a sound that, combined with the shaking of a wrist, could make a harmony.
In pairs they came until they were twelve; they jingled with pleasant discord as they walked to group themselves in the festive crescent before the great altar. Then they were still. The priests arrived in their long robes of office. The robes were of dark blue and solemn. The three priests stood behind the altar, on the first step to the shrine itself. Facing the Goddess, they invoked in chant and monotone. Each pause was colored by the sounds of wrists and ankles chosen to create chords of fragile beauty.
The first invocation ended; there was a moment of silence, then the High Priest of the Temple entered. Carus’ face was white and beautiful above his somber robe. His slender waist seemed yet more slender under its wide, dull-silver sash. Around his neck hung a fabulous necklace of sapphires and his transparent hands seemed fragile in their pale beauty as he fingered it, reciting prayers in occult numbers as he held each stone. His face was strange and flat and feline in its beauty, and the shaved expanse where his eyebrows had been lent his eyes the discomfiting, self-contained stare of a cat. His movements were solemn and silent.
He came to a halt before the altar. Behind him followed two youths with shaven brows and foreheads. One bore a brass cup and a knife, while the other carried a scroll of Egyptian characters and a cushion on which reposed a small covered form. They took their places, one on either side of the altar, facing each other. When all was silent, Carus lifted his childly voice and intoned. And the virgin lads accompanied him in a dance of formal groupings and attitudes to furnish the necessary hymn-tune with their bells.
Then, with beautiful gestures, Carus took from one of the youths a dove and from the other a knife, and he offered the dove for sacrifice to the tune of the dancers’ bells and the intoning of the Egyptian characters. One youth caught the blood in a chalice; then Carus flung the dove into a corner. A lean black cat, crouching low to the cobalt floor, stole toward it and spat warning to a slick yellow one that disputed. But none paid them heed, for Carus had neared the Goddess and was slowly ascending the steps.
When he had reached the top step, he laid bare his tender chest and drew thereon an occult figure with a finger dipped in the blood from the chalice and likewise drew between the stone breasts before him a similar sign, intoning all the while. And the dancers danced their hymn of tuneful, chanting bells, becoming wilder and wilder in movement and sound, becoming faster and faster, stranger, but never losing the tune so amazingly created with their moving wrists and legs and arms. Then with great ceremony Carus placed the spiced and linen-wrapped form of Sextabius in the alabaster box between the Goddess’ feet. The chant grew to a wail as the dancers and priest became sexual in their ceremonies; heavy breathing and pleasure gasps mingled sensually with the now-discordant song of bells.
* * * * *
It was dusk of the next evening, and Carus lay spent from the last night’s excesses, flushed and beautiful with memory. He lay on the divan in the opening of his chambers. Then he saw the Magi for a moment as they entered through the gate. But mostly he saw Caspar.
The next morning, when they were ushered into their audience with Herod, Carus sat with him, his brow painted with indigo eyebrows. Herod lay xanthocroid and ancient, making Carus seem even more incredibly white and young. Carus heard little of what was said between Herod and the Kings, for he was absorbing the exotic beauty of Caspar and was excited before his unconscious beauty and his blackness. Caspar’s voice seemed soft and warm and black also as it fell on Carus’ unaccustomed ears, binding them as his eyes were bound by Caspar’s slender body. Of all this, Caspar was unaware. But Carus decided he would possess this rarity and could think of no way in which to do so.
When the wise men left through the Flamingo Gate that night, Carus joined them, carrying with him a wealth of jewels. Caspar listened to him and was not aware of the guile Carus practiced, and he took the child with them.
And so they came, the four of them, to Bethlehem and made their shelter beyond the town. Then, when Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar were ready, Carus spoke and said, “Caspar, wilt thou allow me to offer my homage to thy Messiah also?”
And Caspar said, “No.”
But Carus continued, and flinging open the top of his cedar box to disclose to their view the magnificence therein, spoke, saying, “Hast thou a greater gift than these?”
Whereupon Melchior laid bare his gift, and Carus spoke, saying, “It is but gold.”
But Caspar answered, saying, “It is Gold for the King.”
And Carus asked again if he might accompany them, and Caspar answered still, “No.”
Then Carus drew from around his neck the necklace of great value and, placing the many cords of sapphires with the wealth within the chest, asked, “And is this still no gift for a king?”
Whereupon Balthasar laid bare his gift, and Carus said, “It is but frankincense.”
Whereupon did Caspar speak and say, “It is Incense for Divinity.”
And Carus pleaded still to go, for he feared that Caspar might in some wise escape him, but Caspar answered yet again, “No.”
Carus drew from his sash a flask of rare perfume, saying, “And is this not a fit offering to divinity?”
Whereupon Caspar laid bare his gift and Carus said, “It is but myrrh.”
Once more Caspar answered, saying, “It is the gift of Humanity.”
Then did Carus know that he could not impress Caspar, for Caspar was even then unaware of Carus’ guile. And Carus’ childly lip trembled, and tears fell. Caspar watched him with gentle, immobile eyes, and Melchior watched with tender expression, and Balthasar looked with a strange smile playing on the corners of his beautiful thin lips. Then Melchior spoke, saying, “But these are a fitting gift.”
And he smiled as Caspar consoled the youth with a caress. Then they went and laid their gifts before the Infant, and Carus waited beyond the town without fear, because he knew that Caspar would soon return. In the morning they started their return journey—Melchior and Balthasar going their separate ways, Caspar going with Carus to the south. And Caspar told Carus of God.
When they were lying in the cool of a shadow, and the desert was blazing about them, Carus spoke, “And this God of whom thou speaketh, Caspar? What is he?”
Caspar was lying full length on his back and Carus sat beside him. Caspar answered, “God is love.”
And Carus, observing Caspar’s slenderness, whispered, “Ah, true. Love is God.”
Caspar turned his head to view the boy before saying, “Thou hast not heard me.”
And Carus, desiring to see the full lips move more and reveal the great blunt teeth, argued, “But thou thyself hath said, ‘Love is God’.”
And Caspar answered, “No, Carus. That God is love.”
“And yet, Caspar, I can only understand that it is as I have said. If one is the other, is not the other the one?”
And Caspar answered, saying, “Thou art allowing thy words to use thee, Carus.”
And Carus had desire to note the contrast his hand would offer on Caspar’s ebony one, but, sitting and childly, continued, saying, “But only that thou mayest know, Caspar, that thou awakest God in me.”
“I awaken God in thee?” Caspar raised himself to his elbow and gazed at the lad, for there was that in Carus’ voice that he did not understand. He questioned, “Thou meanest, I awaken love?”
Carus concealed his excitement at the unconscious awakening in Caspar’s voice, shown in its tone rather than in the question. And Carus replied as simply as before, “Is it not as thou art teaching me, Caspar?”
And Caspar answered, “Thou must not make little of my sayings, Carus, when I speak with seriousness to thee.”
Carus was pleased with the look in Caspar’s eye and the unknowing entreaty in his voice. For Carus had seen like signs before and did not know that Caspar was in truth a simple man. So he was bold beneath his childly innocence as he asked, “Is it light speech to say I love thee?”
And Caspar, in his earnest zeal, placed a hand over Carus’ hand where it lay on the sand, and his speech was impetuous, “But see thou, Carus, the love of which thou speakest is an active thing, and that of which I teach thee is a name.”
And Carus’ pulse was faster beneath his still sincerity as he answered, “Then, if to me thou art love, is it correct that I think of thee as God?”
And Caspar answered quickly, “No, Carus.”
To which Carus answered quickly also, “Yet thou hast told me God is love.”
And Carus knew his guile was successful, for Caspar argued now. “When thou callest me God, because I am to thee love, thou art saying, love is God.”
And Carus, secure in belief of his victory, said, “Then I am no good at learning.”
Caspar gazed at him for a moment in silence, then spoke, saying, “But more than excellent at argumentation.”
There was that in his voice that caused Carus to doubt. And he answered quickly, to keep the quiver of fear from his voice. “‘Tis because, when thou art serious with me, I am reassured that thy concern may be love for me.”
Caspar voice was changed and slightly impatient as he answered. “But, Carus, thou knowest I love thee. As a brother. Nothing can alter that.” He lay back again and turned on his side away from Carus, saying, “Not even thy childish coquetting.”
Carus knew that he was unhappy in this first encounter, and he sat long, gazing out across the desert through tears that were not alone of disappointment.
* * * * *
Carus’ fondness for Caspar became even love, and Carus knew he had never loved before. And when they were in Ethiopia, Carus stayed in the palace and was friend to Caspar and listened to his teachings and grew wise. And Carus grew into manhood and became gentle through his love—so gentle and wise in religious meaning that when he was twenty-one, Caspar decided to send him to Cyrene to be friend and teacher to Simon, who was cousin to Caspar, and who would someday rule Cyrene.
The day that Caspar told Carus of his plan was bright and hot. Caspar was lying full in the sun on the palace roof, his beautiful black body bare and a linen cloth of great whiteness thrown across his loins. Carus was seated under the canopy of red stuff and was tinted by its reflection. Caspar spoke.
“Thou art the world to me, Carus. And thou hast grown so in thy goodness—”
Carus twirled a vessel of wine around in the tub of snow-cold water. He was pleased, as always, when Caspar spoke in this intimate way with him, and the proximity of Caspar moved him now as it had nine years before as he answered.
“And thou, Caspar—thou knowest my regard for thee.”
Caspar moved sensuously in the brilliant sun. “Thou hast grown so, Carus, that thy love for me is as I would have it.”
Carus remained silent as Caspar continued. “And thou canst perform for me a great kindness if thou wilt.”
And Carus merely answered, “Thou knowest I would do for thee anything.”
Caspar raised one knee and stretched and his unconscious beauty was poignant to Carus. He continued, saying, “But this is a pleasant thing I would ask thee. I have a cousin, Simon of Cyrene, and I think that thou art the one for his growth. For thou couldst teach him and his twin thy beauty and make great their souls. Thou wouldst always be with them, and their country is beautiful, and thou so lovest beauty that—”
Carus’ breath caught in a sob. “Thou meanest, Caspar, that I must leave thee?”
And his voice was so despairing that Caspar looked to him, “But surely, Carus, if thou lovest me, thou wilt leave me.”
But Carus was already descending the ramp into the palace. When he reached his chambers he allowed his tears to flow unashamed and his agitation to take form. He paced the floor as some animal whose quarters are unaccustomed and too small. He stopped before a mirror. It had been a gift from Caspar. Carus contemplated himself therein.
“Wherefore am I not comely to this man?” he questioned his reflection, and the trembling lips in the beautiful face asked also, “Is not my beauty real? Are not these tears sprung from the very soul of my emotion?” And the reflection answered affirmatively even as it mouthed in silence his queries: “And in truth are not these tears sprung from the very emotion of my soul?”
He tore from himself his fine garment and stood before the beauty of his entirety—beauty such as had no parallel anywhere in the world—and he intoned, “Likewise am I not completely beautiful? Can he not know that my love is even yet greater?”
But the reflection offered no solace and showed him only how great was his despair. He felt he could not live, so intense was his sorrow. Then he decided.
Caspar was sitting in the garden near the Gate of the Fish when Carus came and stood before him. And Carus was dressed for travel. When Caspar would speak, Carus raised a hand to silence him, and spoke himself, saying,
“I leave thee, Caspar, to do thy bidding and thy wish. I pray thee speak nothing. I have learned too well thy teachings and shall work thy will wherever I go. But likewise I would have thee understand. Thou hast said, `God is love.’ Now that I leave thee, know thou this likewise. So also is Love God.”
And Carus left as Caspar watched—watched and watched until Carus disappeared into the setting sun and tears.