Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xii

The Bower of Acrasia

The house which Pelagia and the Amal had hired after their return to Alexandria, was one of the most splendid in the city. They had been now living there three months or more, and in that time Pelagia’s taste had supplied the little which it needed to convert it into a paradise of lazy luxury. She herself was wealthy; and her Gothic guests, overburdened with Roman spoils, the very use of which they could not understand, freely allowed her and her nymphs to throw away for them the treasures which they had won in many a fearful fight. What matter? If they had enough to eat, and more than enough to drink, how could the useless surplus of their riches be better spent than in keeping their ladies in good humour?. . . . And when it was all gone. . . . they would go somewhere or other — who cared whither? — and win more. The whole world was before them waiting to be plundered, and they would fulfil their mission, whensoever it suited them. In the meantime they were in no hurry. Egypt furnished in profusion every sort of food which could gratify palates far more nice than theirs. And as for wine — few of them went to bed sober from one week’s end to another. Could the souls of warriors have more, even in the halls of Valhalla?

So thought the party who occupied the inner court of the house, one blazing afternoon in the same week in which Cyril’s messenger had so rudely broken in on the repose of the Scetis. Their repose, at least, was still untouched. The great city roared without; Orestes plotted, and Cyril counterplotted, and the fate of a continent hung — or seemed to hang — trembling in the balance; but the turmoil of it no more troubled those lazy Titans within, than did the roll and rattle of the carriage-wheels disturb the parakeets and sunbirds which peopled, under an awning of gilded wire, the inner court of Pelagia’s house. Why should they fret themselves with it all? What was every fresh riot, execution, conspiracy, bankruptcy, but a sign — that the fruit was growing ripe for the plucking? Even Heraclian’s rebellion, and Orestes’ suspected conspiracy, were to the younger and coarser Goths a sort of child’s play, at which they could look on and laugh, and bet, from morning till night; while to the more cunning heads, such as Wulf and Smid, they were but signs of the general rottenness — new cracks in those great walls over which they intended, with a simple and boyish consciousness of power, to mount to victory when they chose.

And in the meantime, till the right opening offered, what was there better than to eat, drink, and sleep? And certainly they had chosen a charming retreat in which to fulfil that lofty mission. Columns of purple and green porphyry, among which gleamed the white limbs of delicate statues, surrounded a basin of water, fed by a perpetual jet, which sprinkled with cool spray the leaves of the oranges and mimosas, mingling its murmurs with the warblings of the tropic birds which nestled among the branches.

On one side of the fountain, under the shade of a broad-leaved palmetto, lay the Amal’s mighty limbs, stretched out on cushions, his yellow hair crowned with vine-leaves, his hand grasping a golden cup, which had been won from Indian Rajahs by Parthian Chosroos, from Chosroos by Roman generals, from Roman generals by the heroes of sheepskin and horsehide; while Pelagia, by the side of the sleepy Hercules–Dionysos, lay leaning over the brink of the fountain, lazily dipping her fingers into the water, and basking, like the gnats which hovered over its surface, in the mere pleasure of existence.

On the opposite brink of the basin, tended each by a dark-eyed Hebe, who filled the wine-cups, and helped now and then to empty them, lay the especial friends and companions in arms of the Amal, Goderic the son of Ermenric, and Agilmund the son of Cniva, who both, like the Amal, boasted a descent from gods; and last, but not least, that most important and all but sacred personage, Smid the son of Troll, reverenced for cunning beyond the sons of men; for not only could he make and mend all matters, from a pontoon bridge to a gold bracelet, shoe horses and doctor them, charm all diseases out of man and beast, carve runes, interpret war-omens, foretell weather, raise the winds, and finally, conquer in the battle of mead-horns all except Wulf the son of Ovida; but he had actually, during a sojourn among the half-civilised Maesogoths, picked up a fair share of Latin and Greek, and a rough knowledge of reading and writing.

A few yards off lay old Wulf upon his back, his knees in the air, his hands crossed behind his head, keeping up, even in his sleep, a half-conscious comment of growls on the following intellectual conversation:—

‘Noble wine this, is it not?’

‘Perfect. Who bought it for us?’

‘Old Miriam bought it, at some great tax-farmer’s sale. The fellow was bankrupt, and Miriam said she got it for the half what it was worth.’

‘Serve the penny-turning rascal right. The old vixen-fox took care, I’ll warrant her, to get her profit out of the bargain.’

‘Never mind if she did. We can afford to pay like men, if we earn like men.’

‘We shan’t afford it long, at this rate,’ growled Wulf.

‘Then we’ll go and earn more. I am tired of doing nothing.’

‘People need not do nothing, unless they choose,’ said Goderic. ‘Wulf and I had coursing fit for a king, the other morning on the sand-hills. I had had no appetite for a week before, and I have been as sharp-set as a Danube pike ever since.’

‘Coursing? What, with those long-legged brush-tailed brutes, like a fox upon stilts, which the prefect cozened you into buying.’

‘All I can say is, that we put up a herd of those — what do you call them here — deer with goats’ horns?’

‘Antelopes?’

‘That’s it — and the curs ran into them as a falcon does into a skein of ducks. Wulf and I galloped and galloped over those accursed sand-heaps till the horses stuck fast; and when they got their wind again, we found each pair of dogs with a deer down between them — and what can man want more, if he cannot get fighting? You eat them, so you need not sneer.’

‘Well, dogs are the only things worth having, then, that this Alexandria does produce.’

‘Except fair ladies!’ put in one of the girls.

‘Of course. I’ll except the women. But the men-’

‘The what? I have not seen a man since I came here, except a dock-worker or two — priests and fine gentlemen they are all — and you don’t call them men, surely?’

‘What on earth do they do, beside riding donkeys?’

‘Philosophise, they say.’

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m sure I don’t know; some sort of slave’s quill-driving, I suppose.’

‘Pelagia! do you know what philosophising is?’

‘No — and I don’t care.’

‘I do,’ quoth Agilmund, with a look of superior wisdom; ‘I saw a philosopher the other day.’

‘And what sort of a thing was it?’

‘I’ll tell you. I was walking down the great street there, going to the harbour; and I saw a crowd of boys — men they call them here — going into a large doorway. So I asked one of them what was doing, and the fellow, instead of answering me, pointed at my legs, and set all the other monkeys laughing. So I boxed his ears, and he tumbled down.’

‘They all do so here, if you box their ears,’ said the Amal meditatively, as if he had bit upon a great inductive law.

‘Ah,’ said Pelagia, looking up with her most winning smile, ‘they are not such giants as you, who make a poor little woman feel like a gazelle in a lion’s paw!’

‘Well — it struck me that, as I spoke in Gothic, the boy might not have understood me, being a Greek. So I walked in at the door, to save questions, and see for myself. And there a fellow held out his hand — I suppose for money, So I gave him two or three gold pieces, and a box on the ear, at which he tumbled down, of course, but seemed very well satisfied. So I walked in.’

‘And what did you see?’

‘A great hall, large enough for a thousand heroes, full of these Egyptian rascals scribbling with pencils on tablets. And at the farther end of it the most beautiful woman I ever saw — with right fair hair and blue eyes, talking, talking — I could not understand it; but the donkey-riders seemed to think it very fine; for they went on looking first at her, and then at their tablets, gaping like frogs in drought. And, certainly, she looked as fair as the sun, and talked like an Alruna-wife. Not that I knew what it was about, but one can see somehow, you know. — So I fell asleep; and when I woke, and came out, I met some one who understood me, and he told me that it was the famous maiden, the great philosopher. And that’s what I know about philosophy.’

‘She was very much wasted then, on such soft-handed starvelings. Why don’t she marry some hero?’

‘Because there are none here to marry,’ said Pelagia; ‘except some who are fast netted, I fancy, already.’

‘But what do they talk about, and tell people to do, these philosophers, Pelagia?’

‘Oh, they don’t tell any one to do anything — at least, if they do, nobody ever does it, as far as I can see; but they talk about suns and stars, and right and wrong, and ghosts and spirits, and that sort of thing; and about not enjoying oneself too much. Not that I ever saw that they were any happier than any one else.’

‘She must have been an Alruna-maiden,’ said Wulf, half to himself.

‘She is a very conceited creature, and I hate her,’ said Pelagia.

‘I believe you,’ said Wulf.

‘What is an Alruna-maiden?’ asked one of the girls.

‘Something as like you as a salmon is like a horse-leech. Heroes, will you hear a saga?’

‘If it is a cool one,’ said Agilmund; ‘about ice, and pine-trees, and snowstorms, I shall be roasted brown in three days more.’

‘Oh,’ said the Amal, ‘that we were on the Alps again for only two hours, sliding down those snow-slopes on our shields, with the sleet whistling about our ears! That was sport!’

‘To those who could keep their seat,’ said Goderic. ‘Who went head over heels into a glacier-crack, and was dug out of fifty feet of snow, and had to be put inside a fresh-killed horse before he could be brought to life?’

‘Not you, surely,’ said Pelagia. ‘Oh, you wonderful creature! what things you have done and suffered!’

‘Well,’ said the Amal, with a look of stolid self-satisfaction, ‘I suppose I have seen a good deal in my time, eh?’

‘Yes, my Hercules, you have gone through your twelve labours, and saved your poor little Hesione after them all, when she was chained to the rock, for the ugly sea-monsters to eat; and she will cherish you, and keep you out of scrapes now, for her own sake;’ and Pelagia threw her arms round the great bull-neck, and drew it down to her.

‘Will you hear my saga?’ said Wulf impatiently.

‘Of course we will,’ said the Amal; ‘anything to pass the time.’

‘But let it be about snow,’ said Agilmund.

‘Not about Alruna-wives?’

‘About them, too,’ said Goderic; ‘my mother was one, so I must needs stand up for them.’

‘She was, boy. Do you be her son. Now hear, Wolves of the Goths!’

And the old man took up his little lute, or as he would probably have called it, ‘fidel,’ and began chanting to his own accompaniment.

Over the camp fires Drank I with heroes, Under the Donau bank Warm in the snow-trench, Sagamen heard I there, Men of the Longbeards, Cunning and ancient, Honey-sweet-voiced. Scaring the wolf-cub, Scaring the horn-owl out, Shaking the snow-wreaths Down from the pine-boughs, Up to the star-roof Rang out their song. Singing how Winil men Over the icefloes Sledging from Scanland on Came unto Scoring; Singing of Gambara Freya’s beloved. Mother of Ayo Mother of Ibor. Singing of Wendel men, Ambri and Assi; How to the Winilfolk Went they with war-words — ‘Few are ye, strangers, And many are we; Pay us now toll and fee, Clothyarn, and rings, and beeves; Else at the raven’s meal Bide the sharp bill’s doom.’

Clutching the dwarfs’ work then, Clutching the bullock’s shell, Girding gray iron on, Forth fared the Winils all, Fared the Alruna’s sons, Ayo and Ibor. Mad of heart stalked they Loud wept the women all, Loud the Alruna-wife; Sore was their need.

Out of the morning land, Over the snowdrifts, Beautiful Freya came, Tripping to Scoring. White were the moorlands, And frozen before her; But green were the moorlands, And blooming behind her, Out of her golden locks Shaking the spring flowers, Out of her garments Shaking the south wind, Around in the birches Awaking the throstles, And making chaste housewives all Long for their heroes home, Loving and love-giving, Came she to Scoring. Came unto Gambara, Wisest of Valas — ‘Vala, why weepest thou Far in the wide-blue, High up in the Elfin-home, Heard I thy weeping.’

‘Stop not thy weeping, Till one can fight seven, Sons have I, heroes tall, First in the sword-play; This day at the Wendels’ hands Eagles must tear them; While their mothers, thrall-weary, Must grind for the Wendels’

Wept the Alruna-wife; Kissed her fair Freya — ‘Far off in the morning land High in Valhalla, A window stands open, Its sill is the snow-peaks, Its posts are the water-spouts Storm rack its lintel, Gold cloud-flakes above it Are piled for the roofing. Far up to the Elfin-home, High in the wide-blue. Smiles out each morning thence Odin Allfather; From under the cloud-eaves, Smiles out on the heroes, Smiles out on chaste housewives all, Smiles on the brood-mares, Smiles on the smith’s work: And theirs is the sword-luck, With them is the glory — So Odin hath sworn it —

Who first in the morning

Shall meet him and greet him.’

Still the Alruna wept — ‘Who then shall greet him? Women alone are here: Far on the moorlands Behind the war-lindens, In vain for the bill’s doom Watch Winil heroes all, One against seven.’

Sweetly the Queen laughed — ‘Hear thou my counsel now; Take to thee cunning, Beloved of Freya. Take thou thy women-folk, Maidens and wives: Over your ankles Lace on the white war-hose; Over your bosoms Link up the hard mailnets; Over your lips Plait long tresses with cunning; — So war-beasts full bearded King Odin shall deem you, When off the gray sea-beach At sunrise ye greet him.’

Night’s son was driving His golden-haired horses up. Over the Eastern firths High flashed their manes. Smiled from the cloud-eaves out Allfather Odin, Waiting the battle-sport: Freya stood by him. ‘Who are these heroes tall — Lusty-limbed Longbeards? Over the swans’ bath Why cry they to me? Bones should be crashing fast, Wolves should be full-fed, Where’er such, mad-hearted, Swing hands in the sword-play.’

Sweetly laughed Freya — ‘A name thou hast given them — Shames neither thee nor them, Well can they wear it. Give them the victory, First have they greeted thee; Give them the victory, Yokefellow mine! Maidens and wives are these — Wives of the Winils; Few are their heroes And far on the war-road, So over the swans’ bath They cry unto thee.’

Royally laughed he then; Dear was that craft to him, Odin Allfather, Shaking the clouds. ‘Cunning are women all, Bold and importunate! Longbeards their name shall be, Ravens shall thank them: Where the women are heroes, What must the men be like? Theirs is the victory; No need of me!’

[Footnote: This punning legend may be seen in Paul Warnefrid’s Gesta Langobardorum. The metre and language are intended as imitations of those of the earlier Eddaic poems.]

‘There!’ said Wulf, when the song was ended; ‘is that cool enough for you?’

‘Rather too cool; eh, Pelagia?’ said the Amal, laughing.

‘Ay,’ went on the old man, bitterly enough, ‘such were your mothers; and such were your sisters; and such your wives must be, if you intend to last much longer on the face of the earth — women who care for something better than good eating, strong drinking, and soft lying.’

‘All very true, Prince Wulf,’ said Agilmund, ‘but I don’t like the saga after all. It was a great deal too like what Pelagia here says those philosophers talk about — right and wrong, and that sort of thing.’

‘I don’t doubt it.’

‘Now I like a really good saga, about gods and giants, and the fire kingdoms and the snow kingdoms, and the Aesir making men and women out of two sticks, and all that.’

‘Ay,’ said the Amal, ‘something like nothing one ever saw in one’s life, all stark mad and topsy-turvy, like one’s dreams when one has been drunk; something grand which you cannot understand, but which sets you thinking over it all the morning after.’

‘Well,’ said Goderic, ‘my mother was an Alruna-woman, so I will not be the bird to foul its own nest. But I like to hear about wild beasts and ghosts, ogres, and fire-drakes, and nicors — something that one could kill if one had a chance, as one’s fathers had.’

‘Your fathers would never have killed nicors,’ said Wulf, ‘if they had been —’

‘Like us — I know,’ said the Amal. ‘Now tell me, prince, you are old enough to be our father; and did you ever see a nicor?’

‘My brother saw one, in the Northern sea, three fathoms long, with the body of a bison-bull, and the head of a cat, and the beard of a man, and tusks an ell long, lying down on its breast, watching for the fishermen; and he struck it with an arrow, so that it fled to the bottom of the sea, and never came up again.’

‘What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ asked one of the girls.

‘A sea-devil who eats sailors. There used to be plenty of them where our fathers came from, and ogres too, who came out of the fens into the hall at night, when the warriors were sleeping, to suck their blood, and steal along, and steal along, and jump upon you — so!’

Pelagia, during the saga, had remained looking into the fountain, and playing with the water-drops, in assumed indifference. Perhaps it was to hide burning blushes, and something very like two hot tears, which fell unobserved into the ripple. Now she looked up suddenly —

‘And of course you have killed some of these dreadful creatures, Amalric?’

‘I never had such good luck, darling. Our forefathers were in such a hurry with them, that by the time we were born, there was hardly one left.’

‘Ay, they were men,’ growled Wulf.

‘As for me,’ went on the Amal, ‘the biggest thing I ever killed was a snake in the Donau fens. How long was he, prince? You had time to see, for you sat eating your dinner and looking on, while he was trying to crack my bones.’

‘Four fathom,’ answered Wulf.

‘With a wild bull lying by him, which he had just killed. I spoilt his dinner, eh, Wulf?’

‘Yes,’ said the old grumbler, mollified, ‘that was a right good fight.’

‘Why don’t you make a saga about it, then, instead of about right and wrong, and such things?’

‘Because I am turned philosopher. I shall go and hear that Alruna-maiden this afternoon.’

‘Well said. Let us go too, young men: it will pass the time, at all events.’

‘Oh, no! no! no! do not! you shall not!’ almost shrieked Pelagia.

‘Why not, then, pretty one?’

‘She is a witch — she — I will never love you again if you dare to go. Your only reason is that Agilmund’s report of her beauty.’

‘So? You are afraid of my liking her golden locks better than your black ones?’

‘I? Afraid?’ And she leapt up, panting with pretty rage. ‘Come, we will go too — at once — and brave this nun, who fancies herself too wise to speak to a woman, and too pure to love a man! Lookout my jewels! Saddle my white mule! We will go royally. We will not be ashamed of Cupid’s livery, my girls — saffron shawl and all! Come, and let us see whether saucy Aphrodite is not a match after all for Pallas Athene and her owl!’

And she darted out of the cloister.

The three younger men burst into a roar of laughter, while Wulf looked with grim approval.

‘So you want to go and hear the philosopher, prince?’ said Smid.

‘Wheresoever a holy and a wise woman speaks, a warrior need not be ashamed of listening. Did not Alaric bid us spare the nuns in Rome, comrade? And though I am no Christian as he was, I thought it no shame for Odin’s man to take their blessing; nor will I to take this one’s, Smid, son of Troll.’

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