Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter x

The Interview

Philammon was aroused from his slumbers at sunrise the next morning by the attendants who came in to sweep out the lecture-rooms, and wandered, disconsolately enough, up and down the street; longing for, and yet dreading, the three weary hours to be over which must pass before he would be admitted to Hypatia. But he had tasted no food since noon the day before: he had but three hours’ sleep the previous night, and had been working, running, and fighting for two whole days without a moment’s peace of body or mind. Sick with hunger and fatigue, and aching from head to foot with his hard night’s rest on the granite-flags, he felt as unable as man could well do to collect his thoughts or brace his nerves for the coming interview. How to get food he could not guess; but having two hands, he might at least earn a coin by carrying a load; so he went down to the Esplanade in search of work. Of that, alas! there was none. So he sat down upon the parapet of the quay, and watched the shoals of sardines which played in and out over the marble steps below, and wondered at the strange crabs and sea-locusts which crawled up and down the face of the masonry, a few feet below the surface, scrambling for bits of offal, and making occasional fruitless dashes at the nimble little silver arrows which played round them. And at last his whole soul, too tired to think of anything else, became absorbed in a mighty struggle between two great crabs, who held on stoutly, each by a claw, to his respective bunch of seaweed, while with the others they tugged, one at the head and the other at the tail of a dead fish. Which would conquer?. . . . Ay, which? And for five minutes Philammon was alone in the world with the two struggling heroes. . . . Might not they be emblematic? Might not the upper one typify Cyril? — the lower one Hypatia? — and the dead fish between, himself?. . . . But at last the deadlock was suddenly ended — the fish parted in the middle; and the typical Hypatia and Cyril, losing hold of their respective seaweeds by the jerk, tumbled down, each with its half-fish, and vanished head over heels into the blue depths in so undignified a manner, that Philammon burst into a shout of laughter.

‘What’s the joke?’ asked a well-known voice behind him; and a hand patted him familiarly on the back. He looked round, and saw the little porter, his head crowned with a full basket of figs, grapes, and water-melons, on which the poor youth cast a longing eye. ‘Well, my young friend, and why are you not at church? Look at all the saints pouring into the Caesareum there, behind you.’

Philammon answered sulkily enough something inarticulate.

‘Ho, ho! Quarrelled with the successor of the Apostles already? Has my prophecy come true, and the strong meat of pious riot and plunder proved too highly spiced for your young palate? Eh?’

Poor Philammon! Angry with himself for feeling that the porter was right; shrinking from the notion of exposing the failings of his fellow-Christians; shrinking still more from making such a jackanapes his confidant: and yet yearning in his loneliness to open his heart to some one, he dropped out, hint by hint, word by word, the events of the past evening, and finished by a request to be put in the way of earning his breakfast.

‘Earning your breakfast! Shall the favourite of the gods — shall the guest of Hypatia — earn his breakfast, while I have an obol to share with him? Base thought! Youth! I have wronged you. Unphilosophically I allowed, yesterday morning, envy to ruffle the ocean of my intellect. We are now friends and brothers, in hatred to the monastic tribe.’

‘I do not hate them, I tell you,’ said Philammon. ‘But these Nitrian savages —’

‘Are the perfect examples of monkery, and you hate them; and therefore, all greaters containing the less, you hate all less monastic monks — I have not heard logic lectures in vain. Now, up! The sea woos our dusty limbs: Nereids and Tritons, charging no cruel coin, call us to Nature’s baths. At home a mighty sheat-fish smokes upon the festive board; beer crowns the horn, and onions deck the dish; come then, my guest and brother!’

Philammon swallowed certain scruples about becoming the guest of a heathen, seeing that otherwise there seemed no chance of having anything else to swallow; and after a refreshing plunge in the sea, followed the hospitable little fellow to Hypatia’s door, where he dropped his daily load of fruit, and then into a narrow by-street, to the ground-floor of a huge block of lodgings with a common staircase, swarming with children, cats, and chickens; and was ushered by his host into a little room, where the savoury smell of broiling fish revived Philammon’s heart.

‘Judith! Judith! where lingerest thou? Marble of Pentelicus! foam-flake of the wine dark main! lily of the Mareotic lake! You accursed black Andromeda, if you don’t bring the breakfast this moment, I’ll cut you in two!’

The inner door opened, and in bustled, trembling, her hands full of dishes, a tall lithe negress, dressed in true negro fashion, in a snow-white cotton shift, a scarlet cotton petticoat, and a bright yellow turban of the same, making a light in that dark place which would have served as a landmark a mile off. She put the dishes down, and the porter majestically waved Philammon to a stool; while she retreated, and stood humbly waiting on her lord and master, who did not deign to introduce to his guest the black beauty which composed his whole seraglio. . . . But, indeed, such an act of courtesy would have been needless; for the first morsel of fish was hardly safe in poor Philammon’s mouth, when the regress rushed upon him, caught him by the head, and covered him with rapturous kisses.

Up jumped the little man with a yell, brandishing a knife in one hand and a leek in the other; while Philammon, scarcely less scandalised, jumped up too, and shook himself free of the lady, who, finding it impossible to vent her feelings further on his head, instantly changed her tactics, and, wallowing on the floor, began frantically kissing his feet.

‘What is this? before my face! Up, shameless baggage, or thou diest the death!’ and the porter pulled her up upon her knees.

‘It is the monk! the young man I told you of, who saved me from the Jews the other night! What good angel sent him here that I might thank him?’ cried the poor creature, while the tears ran down her black shining face.

‘I am that good angel,’ said the porter, with a look of intense self-satisfaction. ‘Rise, daughter of Erebus; thou art pardoned, being but a female. What says the poet? —

‘“Woman is passion’s slave, while rightful lord O’er her and passion, rules the nobler male.”

Youth! to my arms! Truly say the philosophers, that the universe is magical in itself, and by mysterious sympathies links like to like. The prophetic instinct of thy future benefits towards me drew me to thee as by an invisible warp, hawser, or chain-cable, from the moment I beheld thee. Thou went a kindred spirit, my brother, though thou knewest it not. Therefore I do not praise thee — no, nor thank thee in the least, though thou hast preserved for me the one palm which shadows my weary steps — the single lotus-flower (in this case black, not white) which blooms for me above the mud-stained ocean wastes of the Hylic Borboros. That which thou hast done, thou hast done by instinct — by divine compulsion — thou couldst no more help it than thou canst help eating that fish, and art no more to be praised for it.’

‘Thank you,’ said Philammon.

‘Comprehend me. Our theory in the schools for such cases is this — has been so at least for the last six months; similar particles, from one original source, exist in you and me. Similar causes produce similar effects; our attractions, antipathies, impulses, are therefore, in similar circumstances, absolutely the same; and therefore you did the other night exactly what I should have done in your case.’

Philammon thought the latter part of the theory open to question, but he had by no means stopped eating when he rose, and his mouth was much too full of fish to argue.

‘And therefore,’ continued the little man,‘we are to consider ourselves henceforth as one soul in two bodies. You may have the best of the corporeal part of the division. . . . yet it is the soul which makes the person. You may trust me, I shall not disdain my brotherhood. If any one insults you henceforth, you have but to call me; and if I be within hearing, why, by this right arm ——’

And he attempted a pat on Philammon’s head, which, as there was a head and shoulder’s difference between them, might on the whole have been considered, from a theatric point of view, as a failure. Whereon the little man seized the calabash of beer, and filling therewith a cow’s horn, his thumb on the small end, raised it high in the air.

‘To the Tenth Muse, and to your interview with her!’

And removing his thumb, he sent a steady jet into his open mouth, and having drained the horn without drawing breath, licked his lips, handed it to Philammon, and flew ravenously upon the fish and onions.

Philammon, to whom the whole was supremely absurd, had no invocation to make, but one which he felt too sacred for his present temper of mind: so he attempted to imitate the little man’s feat, and, of course, poured the beer into his eyes, and up his nose, and in his bosom, and finally choked himself black in the face, while his host observed smilingly —

‘Aha, rustic! unacquainted with the ancient and classical customs preserved in this centre of civilisation by the descendants of Alexander’s heroes? Judith! clear the table. Now to the sanctuary of the Muses!’

Philammon rose, and finished his meal by a monkish grace. A gentle and reverent ‘Amen’ rose from the other end of the room. It was the negress. She saw him look up at her, dropped her eyes modestly, and bustled away with the remnants, while Philammon and his host started for Hypatia’s lecture-room.

‘Your wife is a Christian?’ asked he when they were outside the door.

‘Ahem —! The barbaric mind is prone to superstition. Yet she is, being but a woman and a negress, a good soul, and thrifty, though requiring, like all lower animals, occasional chastisement. I married her on philosophic grounds. A wife was necessary to me for several reasons: but mindful that the philosopher should subjugate the material appetite, and rise above the swinish desires of the flesh, even when his nature requires him to satisfy them, I purposed to make pleasure as unpleasant as possible. I had the choice of several cripples — their parents, of ancient Macedonian family like myself, were by no means adverse; but I required a housekeeper, with whose duties the want of an arm or a leg might have interfered.’

‘Why did you not marry a scold?’ asked Philammon.

‘Pertinently observed: and indeed the example of Socrates rose luminous more than once before my imagination. But philosophic calm, my dear youth, and the peaceful contemplation of the ineffable? I could not relinquish those luxuries. So having, by the bounty of Hypatia and her pupils, saved a small suns, I went out bought me a negress, and hired six rooms in the block we have just left, where I let lodgings to young students of the Divine Philosophy.’

‘Have you any lodgers now?’

‘Ahem! Certain rooms are occupied by a lady of rank. The philosopher will, above all things, abstain from babbling. To bridle the tongue, is to — But there is a closet at your service; and for the hall of reception, which you have just left — are you not a kindred and fraternal spark? We can combine our meals, as our souls are already united.’

Philammon thanked him heartily for the offer, though he shrank from accepting it; and in ten minutes more found himself at the door of the very house which he had been watching the night before. It was she, then, whom he had seen!. . . . He was handed over by a black porter to a smart slave-girl, who guided him up, through cloisters and corridors, to the large library, where five or six young men were sitting, busily engaged, under Theon’s superintendence, in copying manuscripts and drawing geometric diagrams.

Philammon gazed curiously at these symbols of a science unknown to him, and wondered whether the day would ever come when he too would understand their mysteries; but his eyes fell again as he saw the youths staring at his ragged sheepskin and matted locks with undisguised contempt. He could hardly collect himself enough to obey the summons of the venerable old man, as he beckoned him silently out of the room, and led him, with the titters of the young students ringing in his ears, through the door by which he had entered, and along a gallery, till he stopped and knocked humbly at a door. . . . She must be within! knocked together under him. His heart sank and sank into abysses! Poor wretch!. . . . He was half minded once to escape and dash into the street. . . . but was it not his one hope, his one object?. . . . But why did not that old man speak? If he would have but said something!. . . . If he would only have looked cross, contemptuous!. . . . But with the same impressive gravity, as of a man upon a business in which he had no voice, and wished it to be understood that lie had none, the old man silently opened the door, and Philammon followed. . . . There she was! looking more glorious than ever; more than when glowing with the enthusiasm of her own eloquence; more than when transfigured last night in golden tresses and glittering moonbeams. There she sat, without moving a finger, as the two entered. She greeted her father with a smile, which made up for all her seeming want of courtesy to him, and then fixed her large gray eyes full on Philammon.

‘Here is the youth, my daughter. It was your wish, you know; and I always believe that you know best —’

Another smile put an end to this speech, and the old man retreated humbly toward another door, with a somewhat anxious visage, and then lingering and looking back, his hand upon the latch —

‘If you require any one, you know, you have only to call — we shall be all in the library.’

Another smile; and the old man disappeared, leaving the two alone.

Philammon stood trembling, choking, his eyes fixed on the floor. Where were all the fine things he had conned over for the occasion? He dared not look up at that face, lest it should drive them out of his head. And yet the more lie kept his eyes turned from the face, the more lie was conscious of it, conscious that it was watching him; and the more all the fine words were, by that very knowledge, driven out of his head. . . . When would she speak? Perhaps she wished him to speak first. It was her duty to begin, for she had sent for him. . . . But still she kept silence, and sat scanning him intently from head to foot, herself as motionless as a statue; her hands folded together before her, over the manuscript which lay upon her knee. If there was a blush on her cheek at her own daring, his eyes swam too much to notice it.

When would the intolerable suspense end? She was, perhaps, as unwilling to speak as he. But some one must strike the first blow: and, as often happens, the weaker party, impelled by sheer fear, struck it, and broke the silence in a tone half indignant, half apologetic —

‘You sent for me hither!’

‘I did. It seemed to me, as I watched you during my lecture, both before and after you were rude enough to interrupt me, that your offence was one of mere youthful ignorance. It seemed to me that your countenance bespoke a nobler nature than that which the gods are usually pleased to bestow upon monks. That I may now ascertain whether or not my surmises were correct, I ask you for what purpose are you come hither?’

Philammon hailed the question as a godsend. — Now for his message! And yet he faltered as he answered, with a desperate effort — ‘To rebuke you for your sins.’

‘My sins! What sins?’ she asked, as she looked up with a stately, slow surprise in those large gray eyes, before which his own glance sank abashed, he knew not why. What sins? — He knew not. Did she look like a Messalina? But was she not a heathen and a sorceress? — And yet he blushed, and stammered, and hung down his head, as, shrinking at the sound of his own words, he replied —

‘The foul sorceries — and profligacy worse than sorceries, in which, they say —’ He could get no farther: for he looked up again and saw an awful quiet smile upon that face. His words had raised no blush upon the marble cheek.

‘They say! The bigots and slanderers; wild beasts of the desert, and fanatic intriguers, who, in the words of Him they call their master, compass heaven and earth to make one proselyte, and when they have found him, make him two-fold more the child of hell than themselves. Go — I forgive you: you are young, and know not yet the mystery of the world. Science will teach you some day that the outward frame is the sacrament of the soul’s inward beauty. Such a soul I had fancied your face expressed; but I was mistaken. Foul hearts alone harbour such foul suspicions, and fancy others to be what they know they might become themselves. Go! Do I look like —? The very tapering of these fingers, if you could read their symbolism, would give your dream the lie.’ And she flashed full on him, like sun-rays from a mirror, the full radiance of her glorious countenance.

Alas, poor Philammon! where were thy eloquent arguments, thy orthodox theories then? Proudly he struggled with his own man’s heart of flesh, and tried to turn his eyes away; the magnet might as well struggle to escape from the spell of the north. In a moment, he knew not how, utter shame, remorse, longing for forgiveness, swept over him, and crushed him down; and he found himself on his knees before her, in abject and broken syllables entreating pardon.

‘Go — I forgive you. But know before you go, that the celestial milk which fell from Here’s bosom, bleaching the plant which it touched to everlasting whiteness, was not more taintless than the soul of Theon’s daughter.’

He looked up in her face as he knelt before her. Unerring instinct told him that her words were true. He was a monk, accustomed to believe animal sin to be the deadliest and worst of all sins — indeed, ‘the great offence’ itself, beside which all others were comparatively venial: where there was physical purity, must not all other virtues follow in its wake? All other failings were invisible under the dazzling veil of that great loveliness; and in his self-abasement he went on —

‘Oh, do not spurn me! — do not drive me away! I have neither friend, home, nor teacher. I fled last night from the men of my own faith, maddened by bitter insult and injustice — disappointed and disgusted with their ferocity, narrowness, ignorance. I dare not, I cannot, I will not return to the obscurity and the dulness of a Thebaid Laura. I have a thousand doubts to solve, a thousand questions to ask, about that great ancient world of which I know nothing — of whose mysteries, they say, you alone possess the key! I am a Christian; but I thirst for knowledge. . . . I do not promise to believe you-I do not promise to obey you; but let me hear! Teach me what you know, that I may compare it with what I know. . . . If indeed’ (and he shuddered as he spoke the words) ‘I do know anything!’

‘Have you forgotten the epithets which you used to me just now?’

‘No, no! But do you forget them; they were put into my mouth. I— I did not believe them when I said them. It was agony to me; but I did it, as I thought, for your sake — to save you. Oh, say that I may come and hear you again! Only from a distance — in the very farthest corner of your lecture-room. I will be silent; you shall never see me. But your words yesterday awoke in me — no, not doubts; but still I must, I must hear more, or be as miserable and homeless inwardly as I am in my outward circumstances!’ And he looked up imploringly for consent.

‘Rise. This passion and that attitude are fitting neither for you nor me.’

And as Philammon rose, she rose also, went into the library to her father, and in a few minutes returned with him.

‘Come with me, young man,’ said he, laying his hand kindly enough on Philammon’s shoulder. . . . ‘The rest of this matter you and I can settle;’ and Philammon followed him, not daring to look back at Hypatia, while the whole room swam before his eyes.

‘So, so I hear you have been saying rude things to my daughter. Well, she has forgiven you —’

‘Has she?’ asked the young monk, with an eager start.

‘Ah! you may well look astonished. But I forgive you too. It is lucky for you, however, that I did not hear you, or else, old man as I am, I can’t say what I might not have done. Ah! you little know, you little know what she is. — and the old pedant’s eyes kindled with loving pride. ‘May the gods give you some day such a daughter! — that is, if you learn to deserve it — as virtuous as she is wise, as wise as she is beautiful. Truly they have repaid me for my labours in their service. Look, young man! little as you merit it, here is a pledge of your forgiveness, such as the richest and noblest in Alexandria are glad to purchase with many an ounce of gold — a ticket of free admission to all her lectures henceforth! Now go; you have been favoured beyond your deserts, and should learn that the philosopher can practise what the Christian only preaches, and return good for evil.’ And he put into Philammon’s hand a slip of paper, and bid one of the secretaries show him to the outer door.

The youths looked up at him from their writing as he passed, with faces of surprise and awe, and evidently thinking no more about the absurdity of his sheepskin and his tanned complexion; and he went out with a stunned, confused feeling, as of one who, by a desperate leap, has plunged into a new world. He tried to feel content; but he dare not. All before him was anxiety, uncertainty. He had cut himself adrift; he was on the great stream. Whither would it lead him? Well — was it not the great stream? Had not all mankind, for all the ages, been floating on it? Or was it but a desert-river, dwindling away beneath the fiery sun, destined to lose itself a few miles on, among the arid sands? Were Arsenius and the faith of his childhood right? And was the Old World coming speedily to its death-throe, and the Kingdom of God at hand? Or was Cyril right, and the Church Catholic appointed to spread, and conquer, and destroy, and rebuild, till the kingdoms of this world had become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ! If so, what use in this old knowledge which he craved? And yet, if the day of the destruction of all things were at hand, and the times destined to become worse and not better, till the end-how could that be?. . . .

‘What news?’ asked the little porter, who had been waiting for him at the door all the while. ‘What news, O favourite of the gods!’

‘I will lodge with you, and labour with you. Ask me no more at present. I am — I am —

‘Those who descended into the Cave of Trophonius, and beheld the unspeakable, remained astonished for three days, my young friend — and so will you!’ And they went forth together to earn their bread.

But what is Hypatia doing all this while, upon that cloudy Olympus, where she sits enshrined far above the noise and struggle of man and his work-day world?

She is sitting again, with her manuscripts open before her; but she is thinking of the young monk, not of them.

‘Beautiful as Antinous!. . . . Rather as the young Phoebus himself, fresh glowing from the slaughter of the Python. Why should not he, too, become a slayer of Pythons, and loathsome monsters, bred from the mud of sense and matter? So bold and earnest! I can forgive him those words for the very fact of his having dared, here in my fathers house, to say them to me. . . . And yet so tender, so open to repentance and noble shame! — That is no plebeian by birth; patrician blood surely flows in those veins; it shows out in every attitude, every tone, every motion of the hand and lip. He cannot be one of the herd. Who ever knew one of them crave after knowledge for its own sake?. . . . And I have longed so for one real pupil! I have longed so to find one such man, among the effeminate selfish triflers who pretend to listen to me. I thought I had found one — and the moment that I had lost him, behold, I find another; and that a fresher, purer, simpler nature than ever Raphael’s was at its best. By all the laws of physiognomy — by all the symbolism of gesture and voice and complexion — by the instinct of my own heart, that young monk might be the instrument, the ready, valiant, obedient instrument, for carrying out all my dreams. If I could but train him into a Longinus, I could dare to play the part of a Zenobia, with him as counseller. . . . And for my Odenatus — Orestes? Horrible!’

She covered her face with her hand a minute. ‘No!’ she said, dashing away the tears —‘That — and anything — and everything for the cause of Philosophy and the gods!’

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:48