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Caesar and Cleopatra

ACT I
An October night on the Syrian border of Egypt towards the end of the XXXIII
Dynasty, in the year 706 by Roman computation, afterwards reckoned by
Christian computation as 48 B.C. A great radiance of silver fire, the dawn of a
moonlit night, is rising in the east. The stars and the cloudless sky are our own
contemporaries, nineteen and a half centuries younger than we know them; but
you would not guess that from their appearance. Below them are two notable
drawbacks of civilization: a palace, and soldiers. The palace, an old, low, Syrian
building of whitened mud, is not so ugly as Buckingham Palace; and the officers
in the courtyard are more highly civilized than modern English officers: for
example, they do not dig up the corpses of their dead enemies and mutilate
them, as we dug up Cromwell and the Mahdi. They are in two groups: one intent
on the gambling of their captain Belzanor, a warrior of fifty, who, with his spear
on the ground beside his knee, is stooping to throw dice with a sly-looking young
Persian recruit; the other gathered about a guardsman who has just finished
telling a naughty story (still current in English barracks) at which they are
laughing uproariously. They are about a dozen in number, all highly aristocratic
young Egyptian guardsmen, handsomely equipped with weapons and armor,
very unEnglish in point of not being ashamed of and uncomfortable in their
professional dress; on the contrary, rather ostentatiously and arrogantly warlike,
as valuing themselves on their military caste.
Belzanor is a typical veteran, tough and wilful; prompt, capable and crafty where
brute force will serve; helpless and boyish when it will not: an effective sergeant,
an incompetent general, a deplorable dictator. Would, if influentially connected,
be employed in the two last capacities by a modern European State on the
strength of his success in the first. Is rather to be pitied just now in view of the
fact that Julius Caesar is invading his country. Not knowing this, is intent on his
game with the Persian, whom, as a foreigner, he considers quite capable of
cheating him.
His subalterns are mostly handsome young fellows whose interest in the game
and the story symbolizes with tolerable completeness the main interests in life of
which they are conscious. Their spears are leaning against the walls, or lying on
the ground ready to their hands. The corner of the courtyard forms a triangle of
which one side is the front of the palace, with a doorway, the other a wall with a
gateway. The storytellers are on the palace side: the gamblers, on the gateway
side. Close to the gateway, against the wall, is a stone block high enough to
enable a Nubian sentinel, standing on it, to look over the wall. The yard is lighted
by a torch stuck in the wall. As the laughter from the group round the storyteller
dies away, the kneeling Persian, winning the throw, snatches up the stake from
the ground.
BELZANOR. By Apis, Persian, thy gods are good to thee.
 
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