Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xiv

The Rocks of the Sirens

THESE four months had been busy and eventful enough to Hypatia and to Philammon; yet the events and the business were of so gradual and uniform a tenor, that it is as well to pass quickly over them, and show what had happened principally by its effects.

The robust and fiery desert-lad was now metamorphosed into the pale and thoughtful student, oppressed with the weight of careful thought and weary memory. But those remembrances were all recent ones. With his entrance into Hypatia’s lecture-room, and into the fairy realms of Greek thought, a new life had begun for him; and the Laura, and Pambo, and Arsenius, seemed dim phantoms from some antenatal existence, which faded day by day before the inrush of new and startling knowledge.

But though the friends and scenes of his childhood had fallen back so swiftly into the far horizon, he was not lonely. His heart found a lovelier, if not a healthier home, than it had ever known before. For during those four peaceful and busy months of study there had sprung up between Hypatia and the beautiful boy one of those pure and yet passionate friendships — call them rather, with St. Augustine, by the sacred name of love — which, fair and holy as they are when they link youth to youth, or girl to girl, reach their full perfection only between man and woman. The unselfish adoration with which a maiden may bow down before some strong and holy priest, or with which an enthusiastic boy may cling to the wise and tender matron, who, amid the turmoil of the world, and the pride of beauty, and the cares of wifehood, bends down to with counsel and encouragement — earth knows no fairer bonds than these, save wedded love itself. And that second relation, motherly rather than sisterly, had bound Philammon with a golden chain to the wondrous maid of Alexandria.

From the commencement of his attendance in her lecture-room she had suited her discourses to what she fancied were his especial spiritual needs; and many a glance of the eye towards him, on any peculiarly important sentence, set the poor boy’s heart beating at that sign that the words were meant for him. But before a month was past, won by the intense attention with which he watched for every utterance of hers, she had persuaded her father to give a place in the library as one of his pupils, among the youths who were employed there daily in transcribing, as well as in studying, the authors then in fashion.

She saw him at first but seldom — more seldom than she would have wished; but she dreaded the tongue of scandal, heathen as well as Christian, and contented herself with inquiring daily from her father about the progress of the boy. And when at times she entered for a moment the library, where he sat writing, or passed him on her way to the Museum, a look was interchanged, on her part of most gracious approval, and on his of adoring gratitude, which was enough for both. Her spell was working surely; and she was too confident in her own cause and her own powers to wish to hurry that transformation for which she so fondly hoped.

‘He must begin at the beginning,’ thought she to herself. ‘Mathematics and the Parmenides are enough for him as yet. Without a training in the liberal sciences be cannot gain a faith worthy of those gods to whom some day I shall present him; and I should find his Christian ignorance and fanaticism transferred, whole and rude, to the service of those gods whose shrine is unapproachable save to the spiritual man, who has passed through the successive vestibules of science and philosophy.’

But soon, attracted herself, as much as wishing to attract him, she employed him in copying manuscripts for her own use. She sent back his themes and declamations, corrected with her own hand; and Philammon laid them by in his little garret at Eudaimon’s house as precious badges of honour, after exhibiting them to the reverential and envious gaze of the little porter. So he toiled on, early and late, counting himself well paid for a week’s intense exertion by a single smile or word of approbation, and went home to pour out his soul to his host on the one inexhaustible theme which they had in common — Hypatia and her perfections. He would have raved often enough on the same subject to his fellow-pupils, but he shrank not only from their artificial city manners, but also from their morality, for suspecting which he saw but too good cause. He longed to go out into the streets, to proclaim to the whole world the treasure which he had found, and call on all to come and share it with him. For there was no jealousy in that pure love of his. Could he have seen her lavishing on thousands far greater favours than she had conferred on him, he would have rejoiced in the thought that there were so many more blest beings upon earth, and have loved them all and every one as brothers, for having deserved her notice. Her very beauty, when his first flush of wonder was past, he ceased to mention — ceased even to think of it. Of course she must be beautiful. It was her right; the natural complement of her other graces but it was to him only what the mother’s smile is to the infant, the sunlight to the skylark, the mountain-breeze to the hunter — an inspiring element, on which he fed unconsciously. Only when he doubted for a moment some especially startling or fanciful assertion, did he become really aware of the great loveliness of her who made it; and then his heart silenced his judgment with the thought — Could any but true words come out of those perfect lips? — any but royal thoughts take shape within that queenly head?. . . . Poor fool! Yet was it not natural enough?

Then, gradually, as she passed the boy, poring over his book, in some alcove of the Museum Gardens, she would invite him by a glance to join the knot of loungers and questioners who dangled about her and her father, and fancied themselves to be reproducing the days of the Athenian sages amid the groves of another Academus. Sometimes, even, she had beckoned him to her side as she sat in some retired arbour, attended only by her father; and there some passing observation, earnest and personal, however lofty and measured, made him aware, as it was intended to do, that she had a deeper interest in him, a livelier sympathy for him, than for the many; that he was in her eyes not merely a pupil to be instructed, but a soul whom she desired to educate. And those delicious gleams of sunlight grew more frequent and more protracted; for by each she satisfied herself more and more that she had not mistaken either his powers or his susceptibilities: and in each, whether in public or private, Philammon seemed to bear himself more worthily. For over and above the natural ease and dignity which accompanies physical beauty, and the modesty, self-restraint, and deep earnestness which he had acquired under the discipline of the Laura, his Greek character was developing itself in all its quickness, subtlety, and versatility, until he seemed to Hypatia some young Titan, by the side of the flippant, hasty, and insincere talkers who made up her chosen circle.

But man can no more live upon Platonic love than on the more prolific species of that common ailment; and for the first month Philammon would have gone hungry to his couch full many a night, to lie awake from baser causes than philosophic meditation, had it not been for his magnanimous host, who never lost heart for a moment, either about himself, or any other human being. As for Philammon’s going out with him to earn his bread, he would not hear of it. Did he suppose that he could meet any of those monkish rascals in the street, without being knocked down and carried off by main force? And besides there was a sort of impiety in allowing so hopeful a student to neglect the ‘Divine Ineffable’ in order to supply the base necessities of the teeth. So he should pay no rent for his lodgings — positively none; and as for eatables — why, he must himself work a little harder in order to cater for both. Had not all his neighbours their litters of children to provide for, while he, thanks to the immortals, had been far too wise to burden the earth with animals who would add to the ugliness of their father the Tartarean hue of their mother? And after all, Philammon could pay him back when he became a great sophist, and made money, as of course he would some day or other; and in the meantime, something might turn up — things were always turning up for those whom the gods favoured; and besides, he had fully ascertained that on the day on which he first met Philammon, the planets were favourable, the Mercury being in something or other, he forgot what, with Helios, which portended for Philammon, in his opinion, a similar career with that of the glorious and devout Emperor Julian.

Philammon winced somewhat at the hint; which seemed to have an ugly verisimilitude in it: but still, philosophy he must learn, and bread he must eat; so he submitted.

But one evening, a few days after he had been admitted as Theon’s pupil, he found, much to his astonishment, lying on the table in his garret, an undeniable glittering gold piece. He took it down to the porter the next morning, and begged him to discover the owner of the lost coin, and return it duly. But what was his surprise, when the little man, amid endless capers and gesticulations, informed him with an air of mystery, that it was anything but lost; that his arrears of rent had been paid for him; and that by the bounty of the upper powers, a fresh piece of coin would be forthcoming every month! In vain Philammon demanded to know who was his benefactor. Eudaimon resolutely kept the secret and imprecated a whole Tartarus of unnecessary curses on his wife if she allowed her female garrulity — though the poor creature seemed never to open her lips from morning till night — to betray so great a mystery.

Who was the unknown friend? There was but one person who could have done it. . . . And yet he dared not — the thought was too delightful — think it was she. It must have been her father. The old man had asked him more than once about the state of his purse. True, he had always returned evasive answers; but the kind old man must have divined the truth. Ought he not — must he not — go and thank him? No; perhaps it was more courteous to say nothing. If he — she — for of course she had permitted, perhaps advised, the gift — had intended him to thank them, would they have so carefully concealed their own generosity?. . . . Be it so, then. But how would he not repay them for it! How delightful to be in her debt for anything — for everything! Would that he could have the enjoyment of owing her existence itself!

So he took the coin, bought unto himself a cloak of the most philosophic fashion, and went his way, such as it was, rejoicing.

But his faith in Christianity? What had become of that?

What usually happens in such cases. It was not dead; but nevertheless it had fallen fast asleep for the time being. He did not disbelieve it; he would have been shocked to hear such a thing asserted of him: but he happened to be busy believing something else — geometry, conic sections, cosmogonies, psychologies, and what not. And so it befell that he had not just then time to believe in Christianity. He recollected at times its existence; but even then he neither affirmed nor denied it. When he had solved the great questions — those which Hypatia set forth as the roots of all knowledge — how the world was made, and what was the origin of evil, and what his own personality was, and — that being settled — whether he had one, with a few other preliminary matters, then it would be time to return, with his enlarged light, to the study of Christianity; and if, of course, Christianity should be found to be at variance with that enlarged light, as Hypatia seemed to think. . . . Why, then — What then?. . . . He would not think about such disagreeable possibilities. Sufficient for the day was the evil thereof.

Possibilities? It was impossible. . . . Philosophy could not mislead. Had not Hypatia defined it, as man’s search after the unseen? And if he found the unseen by it, did it not come to just the same thing as if the unseen had revealed itself to him? And he must find it — for logic and mathematics could not err. If every step was correct, the conclusion must be correct also; so he must end, after all, in the right path — that is, of course, supposing Christianity to be the right path — and return to fight the Church’s battles, with the sword which he had wrested from Goliath the Philistine. . . . But he had not won the sword yet.; and in the meanwhile, learning was weary work; and sufficient for the day was the good, as well as the evil, thereof.

So, enabled by his gold coin each month to devote himself entirely to study, he became very much what Peter would have coarsely termed a heathen. At first, indeed, he slipped into the Christian churches, from a habit of conscience. But habits soon grow sleepy; the fear of discovery and recapture made his attendance more and more of a labour. And keeping himself apart as much as possible from the congregation, as a lonely and secret worshipper, he soon found himself as separate from them in heart as in daily life. He felt that they, and even more than they, those flowery and bombastic pulpit rhetoricians, who were paid for their sermons by the clapping and cheering of the congregation, were not thinking of, longing after, the same things as himself. Besides, he never spoke to a Christian; for the negress at his lodgings seemed to avoid him — whether from modesty or terror, he could not tell; and cut off thus from the outward ‘communion of saints,’ he found himself fast parting away from the inward one. So he went no more to church, and looked the other way, he hardly knew why, whenever he passed the Caesareum; and Cyril, and all his mighty organisation, became to him another world, with which he had even less to do than with those planets over his head, whose mysterious movements, and symbolisms, and influences Hypatia’s lectures on astronomy were just opening before his bewildered imagination.

Hypatia watched all this with growing self-satisfaction, and fed herself with the dream that through Philammon she might see her wildest hopes realised. After the manner of women, she crowned him, in her own imagination, with all powers and excellences which she would have wished him to possess, as well as with those which he actually manifested, till Philammon would have been as much astonished as self-glorified could he have seen the idealised caricature of himself which the sweet enthusiast had painted for her private enjoyment. They were blissful months those to poor Hypatia. Orestes, for some reason or other, had neglected to urge his suit, and the Iphigenia-sacrifice had retired mercifully into the background. Perhaps she should be able now to accomplish all without it. And yet — it was so long to wait! Years might pass before Philammon’s education was matured, and with them golden opportunities which might never recur again.

‘Ah!’ she sighed at times, ‘that Julian had lived a generation later! That I could have brought all my hard-earned treasures to the feet of the Poet of the Sun, and cried, “Take me! — Hero, warrior, statesman, sage, priest of the God of Light! Take thy slave! Command her — send her — to martyrdom, if thou wilt!” A pretty price would that have been wherewith to buy the honour of being the meanest of thy apostles, the fellow-labourer of Iamblichus, Maximus, Libanius, and the choir of sages who upheld the throne of the last true Caesar!’


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