Authors: William Golding
Now I had ceased looking at the walls with their rows of what were not nesting boxes I could see that there were rows of sitting places and also large chests lifted on legs. There was not much room between them. Ionides sidled towards the middle one, right in the centre of the great hall.
‘Homer, I think.’
He opened the two flaps of the lid. There was a roll on the wooden surface inside, a roll partly opened.
‘Could you read the first words to me?’
‘I – “The anger sing, O Muse – ”’
‘Yes. Very good. No. Of course it’s not Homer’s copy! He very probably couldn’t write, at least not with the alphabet. But I tell you what though. This actual copy was sent to us here, generations ago, by my ancestor Peisistratus. You won’t have heard of him, you being an Aetolian. But he was chief man of Athens and he decided what version of Homer was the best one, then sent us this copy. Of course you can’t say it’s his handwriting. A clerk probably did it or perhaps as many as ten or twenty clerks, to make what we call an edition. But you see the little note written at the side? That’s what we call a scholiast and I think, indeed I’m very nearly sure, that it was jotted down by Peisistratus’ brother – the one who did all those forgeries of our oracles! He was very naughty, but clever. Here, as you can see, he’s noted a misspelling. Well so much for the
Now this is your particular favourite, one of the twenty-four books of the
There’s a lot of reading for you in that, isn’t there? Then Arctinus – what we call the
Personally I don’t think it’s called that because it’s shorter than Homer’s work but because it’s inferior. You’ll read that too I expect. Euripides. The
You’ve heard of Ion? He wasn’t my ancestor but he filled the same position as I do here. Euripides wrote the play – this roll here, rather tattered, was the prompt copy and he allowed us to keep it. It’s a rather cruel story and I think that perhaps you wouldn’t like it. Sophocles. Aeschylus – oh, any tragedian you care to mention. But we don’t have the originals of them all, you know. King Ptolemy sent round asking for the originals so that he might copy them for his great bookroom in Alexandria. What we got back were not the originals but the copies. That was really, really wicked. You can see how a decent Greek gets corrupted by eastern influences. Of course, Ptolemy – the first one – was only a Macedonian, which isn’t quite – well now what have we here? Ah yes, the Lyrists. Pindar, and I think his master, Simonides, Bacchylides, Erinna – she was a girl like you. Over here though, all on her own, we have – See!’
It was another book box on legs. He laid back the lids and I looked in. There was a book, of course. There was also a plain gold ring and a tuft of rather mousy hair pushed through it. There was an old goose feather, rather crumpled and stained here and there with black.
‘The Tenth Muse, Young Lady. Sappho of Lesbos, the island where the head of Orpheus was washed up on the beach after the Wild Women tore him to pieces. I think Sappho is going to be a particular friend of yours. Now don’t get the idea you’ll meet her in the flesh. She died hundreds of years ago, but what difference does that make? She was a young lady like you, very emotional, very passionate, I think, though she was happiest with girls as I am happiest with – well, I suppose you can guess. Perseus! Could you spare us a moment?’
A young man whom I had not noticed appeared between two of the book chests.
‘Ionides. Gracious Lady.’
‘This is Perseus, my dear, our infinitely precious slave. Aren’t you ever going to accept your freedom, Perseus?’
‘And leave this bookroom, Ion? Never! What can I do for you?’
‘Could you tell this Young Lady – you know about her – tell her about the book and the rest.’
‘Well. The pen is, as the notice says, Sappho’s pen. The ring was hers and of course the hair is said to be hers – not very impressive for the Tenth Muse, is it? But then, she was said to be an insignificant little creature – the little brown nightingale of Lesbos, Alcaeus called her. Which of her poems did you wish to see?’
‘I don’t think we’ve time for that, Perseus. Just tell us the story.’
‘Oh well, she fell in love with a man at last, a fisherman who didn’t know his alpha from his beta. Not that that matters of course. But he abandoned her. She was too plain for him. He liked them curvaceous. So she threw herself off a cliff at Leuctra. He sold the book and the ring she’d given him. Poor girl, she’d tried to magic him with it. As for the hair – no I don’t think so.’
‘Well, there you are, Young Lady.’
‘Forgive me, Ion, I’m very busy.’
‘Go back to your books about books about books! We’ll be content with the makers. Well, Young Lady. I want you to spend as much time as you like here and believe me you’ll have plenty of time. There’s prose down at that end – Histiaeus, Herodotus, and the fellow who circumnavigated Africa, I forget his name – Alexander’s Admiral of the Fleet. Hundreds of books, positively hundreds. But mostly I want you to read the poetry. Particularly the hexameters. I want you to be able to speak in hexameters. But, for now, all you have to do is read, read, read!’ He lowered his voice suddenly. ‘Arieka! Come, you watering pot, what’s the matter? You’re free, free, free! Here in this building is man’s greatest gift to you, greatest invention! Without it we might still be scratching bulls’ heads and pots with ears to them on clay brick! The alphabet, my child, and thank god for the Philistines!’
But I had burst into tears and seemed quite unable to control them. Though whether I was sad or happy or anxious or wholly achieved I find it impossible to say.
It was Ionides who took me before the Second Lady. She was not what I had thought a Pythia could possibly be. She was lying on a couch just the way a man does, leaning on one elbow. The first thing anyone would notice about her was that she was enormously fat, fatter even than my nurse had been. She had dewlaps that slumped down as if they might slide right down to the ground at any moment. Her feet were bare and it was the first time in my life that I had seen painted toenails. They matched those on her fingers. I had heard of this, however. My mother had cited it as the sign of ‘an unspeakable woman’ or a woman whose profession is not to be named. She meant ‘female companion’, ‘hetaera’, though I believe there is an even dirtier profession. I do not – or did not – know what it is called.
‘Come close, child. Good heavens, you are indeed a child. Fourteen? Fifteen?’
‘Fifteen, Gracious Lady.’
‘Sit down, child. No, not on the chair. You don’t really want to be uncomfortable do you? Try the stool. Isn’t that better? I must say, you are not going to stop the traffic in the street, but you have a pretty voice. Do you sing?’
‘I don’t know, Gracious Lady.’
‘Don’t be silly. Of course you know!’
She was kind enough but firm. I thought for a while.
‘Nursery rhymes. Nothing more. Country songs, a few, like everyone else.’
‘A few notes are very helpful. Grunts will do of course. The occasional wail if you think it appropriate.’
‘She is a real nestling isn’t she, Ionides? Where did you find her?’
‘We should visit the First Lady I think.’
‘Go along then. That’ll be all, child.’
‘Gracious Lady –’
‘When do you want me to start?’
‘You are not serving me, child. You are to serve the god. That’s the right form, isn’t it, Ion?’
‘She hasn’t been told much yet. May we go now?’
The Gracious Lady rolled heavily on to her back, stared at the ceiling and seemed to ignore us with point. Ionides bowed and spoke.
‘We take our leave then.’
I followed him out and crossed to the opposite door. He laid one finger on his lips and opened it. A doorman stood at ease inside. He came to attention when he saw us. Ionides nodded and led me on. The great living room of the First Lady was still darkling, the shutters bolted. Ahead of us I could just make out a figure, seated on a chair. It seemed to be looking at us. We waited. When the voice came it was like a thread of sound.
‘I am here. Do I call you Gracious Lady today? Or do I call you Mother?’
‘I am the Pythia.’
‘I bring you the child. The one I spoke of.’
‘Let her come close.’
‘Reverend Mother, we cannot see.’
‘I said let her come close. So. Give me your hand, child.’
‘Here, Reverend Mother.’
‘Let me feel your face. You have much boy in you, neither one thing nor the other. That might please him. Do you dream? I said do you dream?’
‘Do you remember your dreams?’
‘No, Reverend Mother.’
‘It is not for you to call me that. Gracious Lady will do well enough. Later it will change. Do you understand?’
‘No, Gracious Lady.’
‘Ionides, her mouth is too small. It will be torn.’
‘You still believe the power will come again?’
‘Gracious Lady –’
‘What is it, child?’
‘My mouth torn – Why am I here?’
‘You should have told her, Ionides.’
‘I thought it better left to you.’
‘Not the other one?’
‘I spit me of her.’
‘Child, stay where you are. Ionides, open the shutters.’
Presently a long and opening shaft of daylight moved across the room. She was dressed in white and her head was covered in white, all but her face. Her eyes were fixed and only looked where her head turned. It was difficult to believe that they did not see. They had no what we call pin and web, a hardening of the eye’s very material. They shone and you would have said pierced but they did not move. As for the rest of her face, it was the very image of age, and stripped down next to the bone.
‘Child, you have been chosen for a rare post. Sometimes there is only one Pythia, usually two, but now and then, when the future is blind and dark as my eyes, there are three. In due time you will be the third Pythia.’
I don’t know what I said or did. Ionides told me that I was crying out about not going down into
and he had a hard job to hold me from running away anywhere. I came to myself a little and when he felt me stop struggling he let me go. The Pythia spoke behind me and I turned to her.
‘Gracious Lady –’
‘It is no use, child. Whatever you call him, he has us in his hands. It is simpler to go with the tide. He is merciful to his own. When it became too much he took away my sight so that I should not see him. But that was long ago. Perhaps I dreamed it. Certainly my sight has gone. But now you know why you are here. Be strong and perhaps the god will not demand a torn mouth or blind eyes from you. Be strong. Wise men will take care of you. For the rest, guard your virginity. The god himself will direct them and woe betide you if you transgress. I will not be long, for I am older than any woman should have to be. Prepare yourself.’
‘I don’t know how – or for what!’
‘Ionides knows how or says he does. For me, all that is long ago. Too long ago. I expect, though, he will tell you to read books until scraps of other people’s words come up in your speech like a sweet vomit.’
‘I rescued you from what you were taught to call home, Arieka. Now you must do as I say. I am your guardian and shall not be unkind to you, believe me. Remember I have already given you a bookroom!’
‘Ionides knows everything, child. You will never see round him. Even I, after all these years have never met such a man. I think I know what he wants but I cannot be sure. All I will tell you is that a good workman pays attention to his tools. You will be kept clean and bright and slightly oily. And sharp.’
‘I shall keep her simple, charming, innocent –’
‘Now, who is being clever? You must forget that word, Arieka, as I shall have to forget your name. It is a sacrilege to call the Pythia by her given name. We must all forget it, little one. I shall call you that when we are alone.’
‘You will do yourself no good by teasing her, Ionides. When she is inducted she will be the Pythia and don’t forget it. She will belong to the god, not to you.’
‘I am abashed, Reverend Mother.’
‘That is another thing I am unable to believe. Goodbye for today, child. Come and visit me often. I enjoy the scent of simple country flowers.’
‘I will bring you some, Reverend Mother.’
‘A good girl, Ionides. You see?’
‘I do indeed. Come, little one and Pythia that is to be.’
I followed him back to what he had told me was my apartment. Once there he told me that we ought to eat something and might he do so with me? I was overcome by the day’s journey, the bookroom and now the thought of not just sitting stiffly upright on a chair but eating with a man – but he was my guardian and I imitated the Second Lady as best I could. The slave who had opened the door for us had disappeared but came back almost at once, and before I was properly reclined, with bread and olives, slices of cucumber and the mildest goat’s cheese that I had ever tasted. There was wine too. He offered it to me and I did not know what to do. Ionides spoke.
‘I think three to one, Gracious Lady.’
Obedient to my gesture of assent the slave mixed the wine and water, set the cups on either table then withdrew. He had not made a sound. Even when he poured the wine there was no clink of silver against silver, only the faint sound of water pouring into the wine.
‘No. Yes. Who are you?’
He understood what I meant.
‘You know that I am your guardian. I am also the Warden of the college of priests – for we have priests of every god here in Delphi – and I am also myself the High Priest of Apollo. I am concerned that the oracle of Apollo, those instructions, those answers which Apollo gives to questions through the mouth of his Pythia, concerned that the oracle should return to its original state of purity and sanctity. If Apollo will not do it …’