Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xviii

The Prefect Tested

WHEN we lost sight of Philammon, his destiny had hurled him once more among his old friends the Goths, in search of two important elements of human comfort, freedom and a sister. The former be found at once, in a large hall where sundry Goths were lounging and toping, into the nearest corner of which he shrank, and stood, his late terror and rage forgotten altogether in the one new and absorbing thought — His sister might be in that house!. . . . and yielding to so sweet a dream, he began fancying to himself which of all those gay maidens she might be who had become in one moment more dear, more great to him, than all things else in heaven or earth. That fair-haired, rounded Italian? That fierce, luscious, aquiline-faced Jewess? That delicate, swart, sidelong-eyed Copt? No. She was Athenian, like himself. That tall, lazy Greek girl, then, from beneath whose sleepy lids flashed, once an hour, sudden lightnings, revealing depths of thought and feeling uncultivated, perhaps even unsuspected, by their possessor. Her? Or that, her seeming sister? Or the next?. . . . Or — Was it Pelagia herself, most beautiful and most sinful of them all? Fearful thought! He blushed scarlet at the bare imagination: yet why, in his secret heart, was that the most pleasant hypothesis of them all? And suddenly flashed across him that observation of one of the girls on board the boat, on his likeness to Pelagia. Strange, that he had never recollected it before! It must be so! and yet on what a slender thread, woven of scattered hints and surmises, did that ‘must’ depend! He would be sane! he would wait; he would have patience. Patience, with a sister yet unfound, perhaps perishing? Impossible!

Suddenly the train of his thoughts was changed perforce:—

‘Come! come and see! There’s a fight in the streets,’ called one of the damsels down the stairs, at the highest pitch of her voice.

‘I shan’t go,’ yawned a huge fellow, who was lying on his back on a sofa.

‘Oh come up, my hero,’ said one of the girls. ‘Such a charming riot, and the Prefect himself in the middle of it! We have not had such a one in the street this month.’

‘The princes won’t let me knock any of these donkey-riders on the head, and seeing other people do it only makes me envious. Give me the wine-jug — curse the girl! she has run upstairs!’

The shouting and trampling came nearer; and in another minute Wulf came rapidly downstairs, through the hall into the harem-court, and into the presence of the Amal.

‘Prince — here is a chance for us. These rascally Greeks are murdering their Prefect under our very windows.’

‘The lying cur! Serve him right for cheating us. He has plenty of guards. Why can’t the fool take care of himself?’

‘They have all run away, and I saw some of them hiding among the mob. As I live, the man will be killed in five minutes more.’

‘Why not?’

‘Why should he, when we can save him and win his favour for ever? The men’s fingers are itching far a fight; it’s a bad plan not to give hounds blood now and then, or they lose the knack of hunting.’

‘Well, it wouldn’t take five minutes.’

‘And heroes should show that they can forgive when an enemy is in distress.’

‘Very true! Like an Amal too!’ And the Amal sprang up and shouted to his men to follow him.

‘Good-bye, my pretty one. Why, Wulf,’ cried he, as he burst out into the court, ‘here’s our monk again! By Odin, you’re welcome, my handsome boy! come along and fight too, young fellow; what were those arms given you for?’

‘He is my man,’ said Wulf, laying his hand on Philammon’s shoulder, ‘and blood he shall taste.’ And out the three hurried, Philammon, in his present reckless mood, ready for anything.

‘Bring your whips. Never mind swords. Those rascals are not worth it,’ shouted the Amal, as he hurried down the passage brandishing his heavy thong, some ten feet in length, threw the gate open, and the next moment recoiled from a dense crush of people who surged in — and surged out again as rapidly as the Goth, with the combined force of his weight and arm, hewed his way straight through them, felling a wretch at every blow, and followed up by his terrible companions.

They were but just in time. The four white blood-horses were plunging and rolling over each other, and Orestes reeling in his chariot, with a stream of blood running down his face, and the hands of twenty wild monks clutching at him. ‘Monks again!’ thought Philammon and as he saw among them more than one hateful face, which he recollected in Cyril’s courtyard on that fatal night, a flush of fierce revenge ran through him.

‘Mercy!’ shrieked the miserable Prefect —‘I am a Christian! I swear that I am a Christian! the Bishop Atticus baptized me at Constantinople!’

‘Down with the butcher! down with the heathen tyrant, who refuses the adjuration on the Gospels rather than be reconciled to the patriarch! Tear him out of the chariot!’ yelled the monks.

The craven hound!’ said the Amal, stopping short, ‘I won’t help him!’ But in an instant Wulf rushed forward, and struck right and left; the monks recoiled, and Philammon, burning to prevent so shameful a scandal to the faith to which he still clung convulsively, sprang into the chariot and caught Orestes in his arms.

‘You are safe, my lord; don’t struggle,’ whispered he, while the monks flew on him. A stone or two struck him, but they only quickened his determination, and in another moment the whistling of the whips round his head, and the yell and backward rush of the monks, told him that he was safe. He carried his burden safely within the doorway of Pelagia’s house, into the crowd of peeping and shrieking damsels, where twenty pairs of the prettiest hands in Alexandria seized on Orestes, and drew him into the court.

‘Like a second Hylas, carried off by the nymphs!’ simpered he, as he vanished into the harem, to reappear in five minutes, his head bound rip with silk handkerchiefs, and with as much of his usual impudence as he could muster.

‘Your Excellency — heroes all — I am your devoted slave. I owe you life itself; and more, the valour of your succour is only surpassed by the deliciousness of your cure. I would gladly undergo a second wound to enjoy a second time the services of such hands, and to see such feet busying themselves on my behalf.’

‘You wouldn’t have said that five minutes ago, quoth the Amal, looking at him very much as a bear might at a monkey.

‘Never mind the hands and feet, old fellow, they are none of yours!’ bluntly observed a voice from behind’ probably Smid’s, and a laugh ensued.

‘My saviours, my brothers!’ said Orestes, politely ignoring the laughter. ‘How can I repay you? Is there anything in which my office here enables me — I will not say to reward, for that would be a term beneath your dignity as free barbarians — but to gratify you?’

‘Give us three days’ pillage of the quarter!’ shouted some one.

‘Ah, true valour is apt to underrate obstacles; you forget your small numbers.’

‘I say,’ quoth the Amal —‘I say, take care, Prefect. — If you mean to tell me that we forty couldn’t cut all the throats in Alexandria in three days, and yours into the bargain, and keep your soldiers at bay all the time —’

‘Half of them would join us!’ cried some one. ‘They are half our own flesh and blood after all!’

‘Pardon me, my friends, I do not doubt it a moment. I know enough of the world never to have found a sheep-dog yet who would not, on occasion, help to make away with a little of the mutton which he guarded. Eh, my venerable sir?’ turning to Wulf with a knowing bow.

Wulf chuckled grimly, and said something to the Amal in German about being civil to guests.

‘You will pardon me, my heroic friends,’ said Orestes, ‘but, with your kind permission, I will observe that I am somewhat faint and disturbed by late occurrences. To trespass on your hospitality further would be an impertinence. If, therefore, I might send a slave to find some of my apparitors-’

‘No, by all the gods!’ roared the Amal, ‘you’re my guest now — my lady’s at least. And no one ever went out of my house sober yet if I could help it. Set the cooks to work, my men! The Prefect shall feast with us like an emperor, and we’ll send him home to-night as drunk as he can wish. Come along, your Excellency; we’re rough fellows, we Goths; but by the Valkyrs, no one can say that we neglect our guests!’

‘It is a sweet compulsion,’ said Orestes, as he went in.

‘Stop, by the bye! Didn’t one of you men catch a monk.?’

‘Here he is, prince, with his elbows safe behind him.’ And a tall, haggard, half-naked monk was dragged forward.

‘Capital! bring him in. His Excellency shall judge him while dinner’s cooking’ and Smid shall have the hanging of him. He hurt nobody in the scuffle; he was thinking of his dinner.’

‘Some rascal bit a piece out of my leg, and I tumbled down,’ grumbled Smid.

‘Well, pay out this fellow for it, then. Bring a chair, slaves! Here, your Highness, sit there and judge.’

‘Two chairs!’ said some one; ‘the Amal shan’t stand before the emperor himself.’

‘By all means, my dear friends. The Amal and I will act as the two Caesars, with divided empire. I presume we shall have little difference of opinion as to the hanging of this worthy.’

‘Hanging’s too quick for him.’

‘Just what I was about to remark — there are certain judicial formalities, considered generally to be conducive to the stability, if not necessary to the existence, of the Roman empire —’

‘I say, don’t talk so much,’ shouted a Goth, ‘If you want to have the hanging of him yourself, do. We thought we would save you trouble.’

‘Ah, my excellent friend, would you rob me of the delicate pleasure of revenge? I intend to spend at least four hours to-morrow in killing this pious martyr. He will have a good time to think, between the beginning and the end of the rack.’

‘Do you hear that, master monk?’ said Smid, chucking him under the chin, while the rest of the party seemed to think the whole business an excellent joke, and divided their ridicule openly enough between the Prefect and his victim.

‘The man of blood has said it. I am a martyr,’ answered the monk in a dogged voice.

‘You will take a good deal of time in becoming one.’

‘Death may be long, but glory is everlasting.’

‘True. I forgot that, and will save you the said glory, if I can help it, for a year or two. Who was it struck me with the stone?’

No answer.

‘Tell me, and the moment he is in my lictors’ hands I pardon you freely.’

The monk laughed. ‘Pardon? Pardon me eternal bliss, and the things unspeakable, which God has prepared for those who love Him? Tyrant and butcher! I struck thee, thou second Dioclesian — I hurled the stone — I, Ammonius. Would to heaven that it had smitten thee through, thou Sisera, like the nail of Jael the Kenite!’

‘Thanks, my friend. Heroes, you have a cellar for monks as well as for wine? I will trouble you with this hero’s psalm-singing tonight, and send my apparitors for him in the morning.’

‘If he begins howling when we are in bed, your men won’t find much of him left in the morning,’ said the Amal. ‘But here come the slaves, announcing dinner.’

‘Stay,’ said Orestes; ‘there is one more with whom I have an account to settle — that young philosopher there.’

‘Oh, he is coming in, too. He never was drunk in his life, I’ll warrant, poor fellow, and it’s high time for him to begin.’ And the Amal laid a good-natured bear’s paw on Philammon’s shoulder, who hung back in perplexity, and cast a piteous look towards Wulf.

Wulf answered it by a shake of the head which gave Philammon courage to stammer out a courteous refusal. The Amal swore an oath at him which made the cloister ring again, and with a quiet shove of his heavy hand, sent him staggering half across the court: but Wulf interposed.

‘The boy is mine, prince. He is no drunkard, and I will not let him become one. Would to heaven,’ added he, under his breath, ‘that I could say the same to some others. Send us out our supper here, when you are done. Half a sheep or so will do between us, and enough of the strongest to wash it down with. Smid knows my quantity.’

‘Why in heaven’s name are you not coming in?’

‘That mob will be trying to burst the gates again before two hours are out; and as some one must stand sentry, it may as well be a man who will not have his ears stopped up by wine and women’s kisses. The boy will stay with me.’

So the party went in, leaving Wulf and Philammon alone in the outer hall.

There the two sat for some half hour, casting stealthy glances at each other, and wondering perhaps, each of them vainly enough, what was going on in the opposite brain. Philammon, though his heart was full of his sister, could not help noticing the air of deep sadness which hung about the scarred and weather-beaten features of the old warrior. The grimness which he had remarked on their first meeting seemed to be now changed into a settled melancholy. The furrows round his mouth and eyes had become deeper and sharper. Some perpetual indignation seemed smouldering in the knitted brow and protruding upper lip. He sat there silent and motionless for some half hour, his chin resting on his hands, and they again upon the butt of his axe, apparently in deep thought, and listening with a silent sneer to the clinking of glasses and dishes within.

Philammon felt too much respect, both for his age and his stately sadness, to break the silence. At last some louder burst of merriment than usual aroused him.

‘What do you call that?’ said he, speaking in Greek.

‘Folly and vanity.’

‘And what does she there — the Alruna — the prophet-woman, call it?’

‘Whom do you mean?’

‘Why, the Greek woman whom we went to hear talk this morning.’

‘Folly and vanity.’

‘Why can’t she cure that Roman hairdresser there of it, then?’

Philammon was silent —‘Why not, indeed!’

‘Do you think she could cure any one of it?’

‘Of what?’

‘Of getting drunk, and wasting their strength and their fame, and their hard-won treasures upon eating and drinking, and fine clothes, and bad women.’

‘She is most pure herself, and she preaches purity to all who hear her.’

‘Curse preaching. I have preached for these four months.’

‘Perhaps she may have some more winning arguments — perhaps —’

‘I know. Such a beautiful bit of flesh and blood as she is might get a hearing, when a grizzled old head-splitter like me was called a dotard. Eh? Well. It’s natural.’

A long silence.

‘She is a grand woman. I never saw such a one, and I have seen many. There was a prophetess once, lived in an island in the Weser-stream — and when a man saw her, even before she spoke a word, one longed to crawl to her feet on all fours, and say, “There, tread on me; I am not fit for you to wipe your feet upon.” And many a warrior did it. . . . Perhaps I may have done it myself, before now. . . . And this one is strangely like her. She would make a prince’s wife, now.’

Philammon started. What new feeling was it, which made him indignant at the notion?

‘Beauty? What’s body without soul? What’s beauty without wisdom? What’s beauty without chastity? Best! fool! wallowing in the mire which every hog has fouled!’

‘Like a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman who is without discretion.’

‘Who said that?’

‘Solomon, the king of Israel.’

‘I never heard of him. But he was a right Sagaman, whoever said it. And she is a pure maiden, that other one?’

‘Spotless as the’— blessed Virgin, Philammon was going to say — but checked himself. There were sad recollections about the words.

Wulf sat silent for a few minutes, while Philammon’s thoughts reverted at once to the new purpose for which alone life seemed worth having. . . . To find his sister! That one thought had in a few hours changed and matured the boy into the man. Hitherto he had been only the leaf before the wind, the puppet of every new impression; but now circumstance, which had been leading him along in such soft fetters for many a month, was become his deadly foe; and all his energy and cunning, all his little knowledge of man and of society, rose up sturdily and shrewdly to fight in this new cause. Wulf was now no longer a phenomenon to be wondered at, but an instrument to be used. The broken hints which he had just given of discontent with Pelagia’s presence inspired the boy with sudden hope, and cautiously he began to hint at the existence of persons who would be glad to remove her. Wulf caught at the notion, and replied to it with searching questions, till Philammon, finding plain speaking the better part of cunning, told him openly the whole events of the morning, and the mystery which Arsenius had half revealed, and then shuddered with mingled joy and horror, as Wulf, after ruminating over the matter for a weary five minutes, made answer —

‘And what if Pelagia herself were your sister?’

Philammon was bursting forth in some passionate answer, when the old man stopped him and went on slowly, looking him through and through —

‘Because, when a penniless young monk claims kin with a woman who is drinking out of the wine-cups of the Caesars, and filling a place for a share of which kings’ daughters have been thankful — and will be again before long — why then, though an old man may be too good-natured to call it all a lie at first sight, he can’t help supposing that the young monk has an eye to his own personal profit, eh?’

‘My profit?’ cried poor Philammon, starting up. ‘Good God! what object on earth can I have, but to rescue her from this infamy to purity and holiness?’

He had touched the wrong chord.

‘Infamy? you accursed Egyptian slave!’ cried the prince, starting up in his turn, red with passion, and clutching at the whip which hung over his head. ‘Infamy? As if she, and you too, ought not to consider yourselves blest in her being allowed to wash the feet of an Amal!’

‘Oh’ forgive me!’ said Philammon, terrified at the fruits of his own clumsiness. ‘But you forget — you forget, she is not married to him!’

‘Married to him? A freedwoman? No; thank Freya! he has not fallen as low as that, at least: and never shall, if I kill the witch with my own hands. A freedwoman!’

Poor Philammon! And he had been told but that morning that he was a slave. He hid his face in his hands, and burst into an agony of tears.

‘Come, come,’ said the testy warrior, softened at once. ‘Woman’s tears don’t matter, but somehow I never could bear to make a man cry. When you are cool, and have learnt common courtesy, we’ll talk more about this. So! Hush; enough is enough. Here comes the supper, and I am as hungry as Loke.’

And he commenced devouring like his namesake’ ‘the gray beast of the wood,’ and forcing, in his rough hospitable way, Philammon to devour also much against his will and stomach.

‘There. I feel happier now!’ quoth Wulf, at last. ‘There is nothing to be done in this accursed place but to eat. I get no fighting, no hunting. I hate women as they hate me. I don’t know anything indeed, that I don’t hate, except eating and singing. And now, what with those girls’ vile unmanly harps and flutes, no one cares to listen to a true rattling warsong. There they are at it now, with their caterwauling, squealing all together like a set of starlings on a foggy morning! We’ll have a song too, to drown the noise.’ And he burst out with a wild rich melody, acting, in uncouth gestures and a suppressed tone of voice, the scene which the words described —

An elk looked out of the pine forest He snuffed up east, he snuffed down west, Stealthy and still.

His mane and his horns were heavy with snow; I laid my arrow across my bow, Stealthy and still.

And then quickening his voice, as his whole face blazed up into fierce excitement —

The bow it rattled’ the arrow flew, It smote his blade-bones through and through, Hurrah!

I sprang at his throat like a wolf of the wood, And I warmed my hands in the smoking blood, Hurrah!

And with a shout that echoed and rang from wall to wall, and pealed away above the roofs, he leapt to his feet with a gesture and look of savage frenzy which made Philammon recoil. But the passion was gone in an instant, and Wulf sat down again chuckling to himself —

‘There — that is something like a warrior’s song. That makes the old blood spin along again! But this debauching furnace of a climate! no man can keep his muscle, or his courage, or his money, or anything else in it. May the gods curse the day when first I saw it!’

Philammon said nothing, but sat utterly aghast at an outbreak so unlike Wulf’s usual caustic reserve and stately self-restraint, and shuddering at the thought that it might be an instance of that daemoniac possession to which these barbarians were supposed by Christians and by Neo–Platonists to be peculiarly subject. But the horror was not yet at its height; for in another minute the doors of the women’s court flew open, and, attracted by Wulf’s shout, out poured the whole Bacchanalian crew, with Orestes, crowned with flowers, and led by the Amal and Pelagia, reeling in the midst, wine-cup in hand.

‘There is my philosopher, my preserver, my patron saint!’ hiccupped he. ‘Bring him to my arms, that I may encircle his lovely neck with pearls of India, and barbaric gold!’

‘For God’s sake let me escape!’ whispered he to Wulf, as the rout rushed upon him. Wulf opened the door in an instant, and he dashed through it. As he wen, the old man held out his hand —

‘Come and see me again, boy! — Me only. The old warrior will not hurt you!’

There was a kindly tone in the voice, a kindly light in the eye, which made Philammon promise to obey. He glanced one look back through the gateway as he fled, and just saw a wild whirl of Goths and girls, spinning madly round the court in the world-old Teutonic waltz; while, high above their heads, in the uplifted arms of the mighty Amal, was tossing the beautiful figure of Pelagia, tearing the garland from her floating hair to pelt the dancers with its roses. And that might be his sister! He hid his face and fled, and the gate shut out the revellers from his eyes; and it is high time that it should shut them out from ours also.

Some four hours more had passed. The revellers were sleeping off their wine, and the moon shining bright and cold across the court, when Wulf came out, carrying a heavy jar of wine, followed by Smid, a goblet in each hand.

‘Here, comrade, out into the middle, to catch a breath of night-air. Are all the fools asleep?’

‘Every mother’s son of them. Ah! this is refreshing after that room. What a pity it is that all men are not born with heads like ours!’

‘Very sad indeed,’ said Wulf, filling his goblet.

‘What a quantity of pleasure they lose in this life! There they are, snoring like hogs. Now, you and I are good to finish this jar, at least.’

‘And another after it, if our talk is not over by that time.’

‘Why, are you going to hold a council of war?’

‘That is as you take it. Now, look here, Smid. Whomsoever I cannot trust, I suppose I may trust you, eh?’

‘Well!’ quoth Smid surlily, putting down his goblet, ‘that is a strange question to ask of a man who has marched, and hungered, and plundered, and conquered, and been well beaten by your side for five-and-twenty years, through all lands between the Wesel and Alexandria!’

‘I am growing old, I suppose, and so I suspect every one. But hearken to me, for between wine and ill-temper out it must come. You saw that Alruna-woman?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well?’

‘Well?’

‘Why, did not you think she would make a wife for any man?’

‘Well?’

‘And why not for our Amal?’

‘That’s his concern as well as hers, and hers as well as ours.’

‘She? Ought she not to think herself only too much honoured by marrying a son of Odin? Is she going to be more dainty than Placidia?’

‘What was good enough for an emperor’s daughter must be good enough for her.’

‘Good enough? And Adolf only a Balt, while Amalric is a full-blooded Amal — Odin’s son by both sides?’

‘I don’t know whether she would understand that.’

‘Then we would make her. Why not carry her off, and marry her to the Amal whether she chose or not? She would be well content enough with him in a week, I will warrant.’

‘But there is Pelagia in the way.’

‘Put her out of the way, then.’

‘Impossible.’

‘It was this morning; a week hence it may not be. I heard a promise made to-night which will do it, if there be the spirit of a Goth left in the poor besotted lad whom we know of.’

‘Oh, he is all right at heart; never fear him. But what was the promise?’

‘I will not tell till it is claimed. I will not be the man to shame my own nation and the blood of the gods. But if that drunken Prefect recollects it — why let him recollect it. And what is more, the monk-boy who was here to-night —’

‘Ah, what a well-grown lad that is wasted!’

‘More than suspects — and if his story is true, I more than suspect too — that Pelagia is his sister.’

‘His sister! But what of that?’

‘He wants, of course, to carry her off and make a nun of her.’

‘You would not let him do such a thing to the poor child?’

‘If folks get in my way, Smid, they must go down. So much the worse for them: but old Wulf was never turned back yet by man or beast, and he will not be now.’

‘After all, it will serve the hussy right. But Amalric?’

‘Out of sight, out of mind.’

‘But they say the Prefect means to marry the girl.’

‘He? That scented ape? She would not be such a wretch.’

‘But he does intend; and she intends too. It is the talk of the whole town. We should have to put him out of the way first.’

‘Why not? Easy enough’ and a good riddance for Alexandria. Yet if we made away with him we should be forced to take the city too; and I doubt whether we have hands enough for that.’

‘The guards might join us. I will go down to the barracks and try them, if you choose’ to-morrow. I am a boon-companion with a good many of them already. But after all, Prince Wulf — of course you are always right; we all know that — but what’s the use of marrying this Hypatia to the Amal?’

‘Use?’ said Wulf, smiting down his goblet on the pavement. ‘Use? you purblind old hamster-rat, who think of nothing but filling your own cheek-pouches! — to give him a wife worthy of a hero, as he is, in spite of all — a wife who will make him sober instead of drunk, wise instead of a fool, daring instead of a sluggard — a wife who can command the rich people for us, and give us a hold here, which if once we get, let us see who will break it! Why, with those two ruling in Alexandria, we might be masters of Africa in three months. We’d send to Spain for the Wendels, to move on Carthage; we’d send up the Adriatic for the Longbeards to land in Pentapolis; we’d sweep the whole coast without losing a man’ now it is drained of troops by that fool Heraclian’s Roman expedition; make the Wendels and Longbeards shake hands here in Alexandria; draw lots for their shares of the coast’ and then —’

‘And then what?’

‘Why, when we had settled Africa, I would call out a crew of picked heroes, and sail away south for Asgard — I’d try that Red Sea this time — and see Odin face to face, or die searching for him.’

‘Oh!’ groaned Smid. ‘And I suppose you would expect me to come too, instead of letting me stop halfway, and settle there among the dragons and elephants. Well, well, wise men are like moorlands — ride as far as you will on the sound ground, you are sure to come upon a soft place at last. However, I will go down to the guards to-morrow, if my head don’t ache.’

‘And I will see the boy about Pelagia. Drink to our plot!’

And the two old iron-heads drank on, till the stars paled out and the eastward shadows of the cloister vanished in the blaze of dawn.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/hypatia/chapter18.html

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