Monday, February 17, 2014

The Story of the Emperor and Antony

The venerable old chap on the right is Major R. Raven-Hart, an astonishing character who, after a military career which spanned two world wars and garnered him an OBE and various foreign decorations, retired to his passion which was canoeing. To say he was well-travelled would be something of an understatement. He wrote thirteen languages and spoke five. He canoed his way down nearly every major European river (Canoe Errant, 1935), down the Nile (Canoe Errant on the Nile, 1936), down the Mississippi (Canoe Errant on the Mississippi, 1938), the Irrawaddy (Canoe to Mandalay, 1939) to name just a few. The books he wrote about his adventures may not be in the best, flowing prose but they are readable and interesting and, as one bookseller put it 'you would be hard pressed to find a page on which the word boy doesn't appear'. Everywhere the Major went he found a suitable young man to accompany him. The innocence and naivete with which he talks about his companions and his complete fascination with them is utterly charming and compelling at the same time. He is so blithely unaware of what is so wonderfully obvious to any sensible reader that it gives all of his books an underlying note of humour but one which was unintended but which any reader would appreciate with affection not with mockery. There are people working on a more detailed account of his life and it is to be hoped that they may be able to shed some more light on his defiantly homo-social lifestyle but for now we must content ourselves with one of the Major's stories.

My jaw dropped as I read this. In the Canoe Errant on the Nile, as he travels, the Major attempts to wheedle local folk tales out of the boys he is travelling with and three times he interrupts the narrative of his journey with an "Interlude" to retell one of these stories. The teller of this tale was "a handsome Nubian of about seventeen" who had been taken from his village at about the age of twelve by an Englishman with whom he lived for about four years, "No, not only as his servant! We were also very good friends" The Major was clearly as much taken with the teller as the tale, "[in] the more descriptive moments, when he raised his chin, emphasising the clean lines of his almost Greek neck and jaw, and half shut his translucent black-brown eyes, and almost sang the words as if he were reading them from an invisible score". The tale itself is just wonderful and in its most anachronistic moments feels almost a little Steampunk. And the tale he told was:


It is related that in those days there was an Emperor of Rome who came to Egypt for the winter. He came all the way up the Nile in his own steamer, with his own cooks and servants and slaves. Antony was one of his slaves, but the Emperor loved him very much: he was very beautiful, he had curly yellow hair like the shavings of a plane, but soft like wool, and his eyes were blue like the turquoise in my ring, and his skin was white and very smooth, like polished ivory. He had narrow ankles like a woman, so that he could wear the anklets of a dancing-girl, and his wrists were small also. But his chest  was arched like the chest of a stallion, and he was strong as a young bull. Also he had a good spirit and loved the Emperor very much, and not only for the favours he had given him.
One night the Emperor heard that a fortune-teller who used the sand lived near where the ship was anchored for the night (this was a long way from here, below Asyut), and so after supper he was rowed to the shore, and went on foot, with Antony only, to find the sorcerer. He lived in a ruined temple, full of bats. When he saw the Emperor in his robes and crown he was very afraid at first, but then he drew the sand for him. And then he was more afraid still, and said: "If I had good fortune to tell you, you would have given me the gold fountain-pen with the jewelled clip that I see in your girdle; but now I have no good things to tell you, and you will have me thrown to the jackals." But the Emperor told him not to be afraid, and that he should have the gold fountain-pen anyhow, even if the fortune was not good.
So at last he said: "The sand tells me that you must lose here to the Nile something that you are most fond of, or the Nile will take your dead body before you get back to Cairo."
The Emperor was very pleased that the fortune was not as bad as he thought it was going to be, and the sorcerer the fountain-pen and a purse of gold as well, and went back with Antony to the bank where the others were waiting, and was rowed back to his streamer.
Now, on of the things that the Emperor most loved was a golden pencil, set with diamonds and pearls and rubies; and there was an emerald in it, and when he looked through this emerald he saw many small photographs of Rome - his palace, and Saint Peter's, and the Railway Station and many more. It was a wonderful emerald because these photographs were so small that you could not see them unless you looked through the emerald, but then they were quite clear and large, and reminded the Emperor of his home.
So he took it up on deck, and threw it over the railing and said: "Nile, here is a sacrifice to you of something that I most love!" And then he went down to his cabin again and went to bed.
Next morning Antony was sitting beside the Emperor and they were amusing themselves by fishing over the rail before the steamer started. They often did this, but they hardly ever caught anything. But this morning the Emperor caught a big fish, so big that he told the cook to prepare it for breakfast. The cook took it away, but he came back almost at once, very frightened, and showed the Emperor the golden pencil that he had found inside the fish. So the Emperor knew that this was not the sacrifice that the Nile wanted.
Now another thing that the Emperor loved much much, perhaps more even than the pencil, was a camera that the King of Germany had given him. It was made in Germany, and was all gold and silver, and it took very good pictures. The Emperor had used it on all this journey, on the steamer from Rome to Port Said, and then on the train to Cairo, and then on his own steamer on the Nile, and all the photographs he had taken were good ones, so that he did not like at all to throw it away. In fact, he could think of nothing he loved more than this camera, and he couldn't throw it into the water himself, he gave it to Antony to throw in, and he almost cried when he heard it splash. But Anthony reminded him when he came down to the cabin again that he could always ask the King of Germany for another one when they got back to Rome; or he could even telegraph to him and ask for another one to be sent out to Cairo, and the Emperor decided to do this, promising the King three young slave girls and a bag of gold dust and some emeralds in exchange.
This was now the next night, after the night when they had visited the sorcerer; but in the morning when they lifted the anchor the camera was hooked by its strap to the anchor chain, so the Emperor knew that this was not the sacrifice the Nile wanted, which was a pity, as the water had spoilt it anyway.
And all that day the Emperor tried to think what he had on the steamer that he loved more than the pencil or the camera, and could not think of anything: it was not his robe, because this was only a cheap one for travelling, his good one was in Rome; and it was not his crown, because he hated wearing it. And he went to bed very unhappy.
In the night Antony slid out of bed without waking the Emperor, and kissed him, and wrote a note to say that perhaps he was the sacrifice the Nile wanted, and if not it would not matter since in that case the river would not drown him. And he left the note on the blanket, just under the Emperor's chin.
Then he went up on the deck, and went right to the end of the boat where the paddle-wheel was, and out on top of this, and took off all his clothes, and stood there naked and very white in the moon against the black cliffs and the black water; and he arched himself into a bow and dived so silently into the river that no one heard the splash.
In the morning the Emperor found the letter when he woke, and they brought him the clothes from above the paddle-wheel, trembling. And he mourned for many days, and fasted, and gave money to the poor; and he built a city in honour of his dead friend, and gave it his name. Also he had the best sculptors make statues of Antony as he had been when he was alive, many of them, but none of them satisfied the Emperor because none of them were like him or beautiful enough.
He never had another friend, and his heart turned to stone. When he died when they were making him into a mummy they found his heart all hard except where "Antony" was written on it; and the Pope, who was there because it was the mummy of an Emperor that was being made, wondered very much when he saw this, and had all the story told to him. And when he heard the story, he made Antony into a Saint and built churches to him, because he had laid down his life for his friend.


Palmstone Studio said...

I absolutely love the way that this story weaves together past and present and tidbits of information (St. Antony). It is a true folk tale!
Thank you for sharing.

Chris Donovan said...

very sweet telling of one explanation of the death by drowning in the Nile of Antinous, lover of the emperor Hadrian.
Other theories are that it was a tragic accident or that it was a political assasination by factions who resented his influence (or Hadrians neglect of his wife!)

lots of the cult statues made after his deification as the last god of the classical world survive and attest to his remarkable beauty.

Chris Donovan said...

I assume this is the same Major Raven-Hart described in canoeing magazines as 'one of the most prolific cruisers in the early twentieth century'

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