Friday, March 13, 2009

Theophile Gautier - A Night with Cleopatra

About eighteen hundred years ago from the moment we write these lines, a cange
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.

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Image taken from here

Book Choice: My Fantoms (New York Review Books Classics)

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