Archimedes is visiting Alexandria in Egypt. His best friend is Conon of Samos. After a night of drinking and talking, Conon takes Archimedes to the chariot races. One of the teams is driven by the beautiful Helena daughter of King Ptolemy, King of Alexandria and Egypt. Archimedes has fallen in love with her.
CHAPTER 9—THE RACES (Part 3) (247 BCE in Alexandria)
The fourth and final race starts with Berenice in the first stall. Helena is in stall number eight. She knows she must fight hard to even place in this race. Berenice takes an early lead, and slowly but steadily increases it. Helena tries to gain the inside position but ends up in a cluster of chariots. It is very rough going trying to move inside while trying to avoid collisions. Several times her chariot bumps hubs with other chariots. Each bump jerks the chariot. If she loses her balance, and is thrown to one side or the other, the reins around her waist will pull in the reins on the opposite side, turning the horses in that direction. This will cause a collision. Suddenly, she is trapped between two chariots--hub to hub. Each driver tries to move forward but cannot gain ground. They continue to battle for position for two laps.
One of the drivers tries to hit Helena with his whip, but she ducks. She twists her hips to jerk the horses into the offending driver, causing him to jerk his horse into the path of another chariot. The collision causes one chariot to overturn, and the driver of the other chariot to lose his footing, and to fall off his chariot.
Helena now has a clear shot for the inside track, and gets there before the chariot to her right can make it. She is not sure what place she is in, and the next chariot is at least half a lap ahead of her. As she makes the next turn, she sees a lot of debris on the track. There must have been a major collision. The larger pieces have been removed by the young crews. Helena does not see Berenice’s chariot, and that is a good sign. However, there is still much debris on the track, and Helena slows down to maneuver around it. Striking something on the track might injure a horse or throw a wheel.
Suddenly, Helena hears hoof beats behind her. She turns to see Berenice racing down on her. Berenice has lapped the competition, and is now behind Helena. Helena tries to move to the outside to let Berenice pass on the inside but Berenice is already moving to the outside. Berenice quickly jerks the horses back to the left to avoid a collision with Helena. The two chariots enter the turn neck and neck with Berenice in the inside. Helena did not move over far enough, and Berenice is dangerously close to the spine. Berenice’s inside horse strikes the spine with his left shoulder. Her chariot jerks violently to the right into Helena’s chariot. The inside horse stumbles and falls, breaking the yoke of the chariot. Berenice’s chariot, boxed tightly in between the spine and Helena’s chariot, does not turn over.
The pinched chariot abruptly slows down as three of the horses continue to gallop ahead, pulling Berenice out of her chariot. The yoke of her chariot digs into the track, and flips end over end behind Helena. It is the type of accident that in the past has killed drivers who remained in the chariot. Berenice is dragged by her reins which cause the horses to eventually stop. The crowd is on their feet; some concerned for Berenice, some angry that two chariots from the royal stable have collided, and others hoping that with Berenice out of the race, their team can win.
For several seconds, Berenice does not move. Finally, she gets up. The crowd realizes that she is not injured, and cheers wildly. Helena turns her chariot around, and drives up to Berenice who has stopped to pick up her whip. Helena dismounts, and the two meet face-to-face on the track. Archimedes fears they will be run over.
“I believe Berenice is going to strike Helena with her whip,” says Conon. “Helena not only caused the accident, and made Berenice lose the race, but now has taken herself out of the race. Berenice must be furious.”
The crowd watches as the two women face each other for a few tense seconds. Suddenly, Berenice embraces Helena. As Berenice climbs onto Helena’s chariot, the crowd yells their approval.
Berenice re-enters the race, and leaves Helena standing on the track. By now the other chariots have caught up, and are charging right for Helena. When she turns to face them, they are nearly upon her. It is her greatest fear. Berenice frequently told Helena that she takes too long to make decisions. Races are won or loss on hundreds of split second decisions. Berenice always seemed to make the right move quickly while Helena always waited too long. The results were many near misses and lost opportunities. It could also mean the difference between life and death, or at least serious injury. This is one of those moments that calls for a split second decision, and it has to be the right one.
Her first impulse is to move into a gap between two chariots but the four chariots are hub to hub. Her next thought is to lay flat like the young boys who clear the track, and take a chance on getting trampled. Finally, Helena runs for the outside, leaping head first to get out of the horses’ path. The outside chariot misses her by the width of one hand. Helena picks herself up, and dusts off her tunic and trousers. She has cheated death once again.
Most of the crowd does not notice the near miss as they watch Berenice battling to win. However, Archimedes is terrified. He holds his breath, and finally closes his eyes, not able to bear watching Helena be trampled. When he opens his eyes again, he is relieved to see Helena dusting herself off.
Berenice passes chariot after chariot, and in the final stretch, wins the race by one chariot length. She starts on her victory lap, and stops to pick up Helena. Both women acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. Berenice stops her chariot in front of King Ptolemy’s throne and dismounts. When Helena stays in the chariot, Berenice turns, and holds out her hand for Helena to join her. Hand in hand, they approach King Ptolemy. They kneel on a cushion before him. King Ptolemy holds up a palm branch and laurel wreath, and awards them to Berenice. The crowd pours out of their seats, and mobs Berenice. It is the most amazing race Alexandria has ever seen.
A play by Sophocles follows later that afternoon. Archimedes and Conon take their seats in the section reserved for members of the Museum directly behind the Royal Family. Archimedes is pleased to see that Helena appears to be all right after her ordeal at the races. Berenice appears to be in pain, and moves about rather stiffly. Conon suggests that she might have broken a rib when she was dragged by the horses.
The play by Sophocles is The Women of Trachis. Archimedes has seen the play many times, but these actors are professionals, and quite good. The female parts are actually played by women not men, something Archimedes has never seen. The actress who plays the part of Deianeira, Hercules’ wife, is beautiful, and reminds him of Helena. The way she portraits a woman driven by jealous fears makes Archimedes wonder if Helena has ever been jealous. He spends more time watching Helena than watching the play. As everyone is leaving, Helena’s handmaiden, the young girl that escorted Archimedes on the day of sacrifices, approaches him.
“Excuse me sir, but my Lady wants to know if she can begin to show you Egypt starting tomorrow?”
“Why, yes. Tell her I would be delighted.”
“Very well. I will come for you after breakfast.” The young girl genuflects and leaves.
“It looks like you will have fun tomorrow,” says Conon.
That night, Archimedes dreams of Helena for the first time.
END of Chapter 9
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