Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xx

She Stoops to Conquer

‘But, fairest Hypatia, conceive yourself struck in the face by a great stone, several hundred howling wretches leaping up at you like wild beasts — two minutes more, and you are torn limb from limb. What would even you do in such a case?’

‘Let them tear me limb from limb, and die as I have lived.’

‘Ah, but — When it came to fact, and death was staring you in the face?’

‘And why should man fear death?’

‘Ahem! No, not death, of course; but the act of dying. That may be, surely, under such circumstances, to say the least, disagreeable. If our ideal, Julian the Great, found a little dissimulation necessary, and was even a better Christian than I have ever pretended to be, till he found himself able to throw off the mask, why should not I? Consider me as a lower being than yourself — one of the herd, if you will; but a penitent member thereof, who comes to make the fullest possible reparation, by doing any desperate deed on which you may choose to put him, and prove myself as able and willing, if once I have the power, as Julian himself.’

Such was the conversation which passed between Hypatia and Orestes half an hour after Philammon had taken possession of his new abode.

Hypatia looked at the Prefect with calm penetration, not unmixed with scorn and fear.

‘And pray what has produced this sudden change in your Excellency’s earnestness? For four months your promises have been lying fallow.’ She did not confess how glad she would have been at heart to see them lying fallow still.

‘Because — This morning I have news; which I tell to you the first as a compliment. We will take care that all Alexandria knows it before sundown. Heraclian has conquered.’

‘Conquered?’ cried Hypatia, springing from her seat.

‘Conquered, and utterly destroyed the emperor’s forces at Ostia. So says a messenger on whom I can depend. And even if the news should prove false, I can prevent the contrary report from spreading, or what is the use of being prefect? You demur? Do you not see that if we can keep the notion alive but a week our cause is won?’

‘How so?’

‘I have treated already with all the officers of the city, and every one of them has acted like a wise man, and given me a promise of help, conditional of course on Heraclian’s success, being as tired as I am of that priest-ridden court at Byzantium. Moreover, the stationaries are mine already. So are the soldiery all the way up the Nile. Ah! you have been fancying me idle for these four months, but — You forget that you yourself were the prize of my toil. Could I be a sluggard with that goal in sight?’

Hypatia shuddered, but was silent; and Orestes went on —

‘I have unladen several of the wheat-ships for enormous largesses of bread: though those rascally monks of Tabenne had nearly forestalled my benevolence, and I was forced to bribe a deacon or two, buy up the stock they had sent down, and retail it again as my own. It is really most officious of them to persist in feeding gratuitously half the poor of the city! What possible business have they with Alexandria?’

‘The wish for popularity, I presume.’

‘Just so; and then what hold can the government have on a set of rogues whose stomachs are filled without our help?’

‘Julian made the same complaint to the high priest of Galatia, in that priceless letter of his.’

‘Ah, you will set that all right, you know, shortly. Then again, I do not fear Cyril’s power just now. He has injured himself deeply, I am happy to say, in the opinion of the wealthy and educated, by expelling the Jews. And as for his mob, exactly at the right moment, the deities — there are no monks here, so I can attribute my blessings to the right source — have sent us such a boon as may put them into as good a humour as we need.’

‘And what is that?’ asked Hypatia.

‘A white elephant.’

‘A white elephant?’

‘Yes,’ he answered, mistaking or ignoring the tone of her answer. ‘A real, live, white elephant; a thing which has not been seen in Alexandria for a hundred years! It was passing through with two tame tigers, as a present to the boy at Byzantium, from some hundred-wived kinglet of the Hyperborean Taprobane, or other no-man’s-land in the far East. I took the liberty of laying an embargo on them, and, after a little argumentation and a few hints of torture, elephant and tigers are at our service.’

‘And of what service are they to be?’

‘My dearest madam — Conceive. . . . How are we to win the mob without a show?. . . . When were there more than two ways of gaining either the whole or part of the Roman Empire — by force of arms or force of trumpery? Can even you invent a third? The former is unpleasantly exciting, and hardly practicable just now. The latter remains, and, thanks to the white elephant, may be triumphantly successful. I have to exhibit something every week. The people are getting tired of that pantomime; and since the Jews were driven out, the fellow has grown stupid and lazy, having lost the more enthusiastic half of his spectators. As for horse-racing, they are sick of it. . . . Now, suppose we announce, for the earliest possible day — a spectacle — such a spectacle as never was seen before in this generation. You and I— I as exhibitor, you as representative — for the time being only — of the Vestals of old — sit side by side. . . . Some worthy friend has his instructions, when the people are beside themselves with rapture, to cry, “Long live Orestes Caesar!”. . . . Another reminds them of Heraclian’s victory — another couples your name with mine. . . . the people applaud. . . . some Mark Antony steps forward, salutes me as Imperator, Augustus — what you will — the cry is taken up — I refuse as meekly as Julius Caesar himself — am compelled, blushing, to accept the honour — I rise, make an oration about the future independence of the southern continent — union of Africa and Egypt — the empire no longer to be divided into Eastern and Western, but Northern and Southern. Shouts of applause, at two drachmas per man, shake the skies. Everybody believes that everybody else approves, and follows the lead. . . . And the thing is won.’

‘And pray,’ asked Hypatia, crushing down her contempt and despair, ‘how is this to bear on the worship of the gods?

‘Why. . . . why,. . . . if you thought that people’s minds were sufficiently prepared, you might rise in your turn, and make an oration — you can conceive one. Set forth how these spectacles, formerly the glory of the empire, had withered under Galilaean superstition. . . . How the only path toward the full enjoyment of eye and ear was a frank return to those deities, from whose worship they originally sprang, and connected with which they could alone be enjoyed in their perfection. . . . But I need not teach you how to do that which you have so often taught me: so now to consider our spectacle, which, next to the largess, is the most important part of our plans. I ought to have exhibited to them the monk who so nearly killed me yesterday. That would indeed have been a triumph of the laws over Christianity. He and the wild beasts might have given the people ten minutes’ amusement. But wrath conquered prudence; and the fellow has been crucified these two hours. Suppose, then, we had a little exhibition of gladiators. They are forbidden by law, certainly.’

‘Thank Heaven, they are!’

‘But do you not see that is the very reason why we, to assert our own independence, should employ them?’

‘No! they are gone. Let them never reappear to disgrace the earth.’

‘My dear lady, you must not in your present character say that in public; lest Cyril should be impertinent enough to remind you that Christian emperors and bishops put them down.’

Hypatia bit her lip, and was silent.

‘Well, I do not wish to urge anything unpleasant to you. . . . If we could but contrive a few martyrdoms — but I really fear we must wait a year or two longer, in the present state of public opinion, before we can attempt that.’

‘Wait? wait for ever! Did not Julian — and he must be our model — forbid the persecution of the Galilaeans, considering them sufficiently punished by their own atheism and self-tormenting superstition?’

‘Another small error of that great man. — He should have recollected that for three hundred years nothing, not even the gladiators themselves, had been found to put the mob in such good humour as to see a few Christians, especially young and handsome women, burned alive, or thrown to the lions.’

Hypatia bit her lip once more. ‘I can hear no more of this, sir. You forget that you are speaking to a woman.’

‘Most supreme wisdom,’ answered Orestes, in his blandest tone, ‘you cannot suppose that I wish to pain your ears. But allow me to observe, as a general theorem, that if one wishes to effect any purpose, it is necessary to use the means; and on the whole, those which have been tested by four hundred years’ experience will be the safest. I speak as a plain practical statesman — but surely your philosophy will not dissent?’

Hypatia looked down in painful thought. What could she answer? Was it not too true? and had not Orestes fact and experience on his side?

‘Well, if you must — but I cannot have gladiators. Why not a — one of those battles with wild beasts? They are disgusting enough but still they are less inhuman than the others; and you might surely take precautions to prevent the men being hurt.’

‘Ah! that would indeed be a scentless rose! If there is neither danger nor bloodshed, the charm is gone. But really wild beasts are too expensive just now; and if I kill down my present menagerie, I can afford no more. Why not have something which costs no money, like prisoners?’

‘What! do you rank human beings below brutes?’

‘Heaven forbid! But they are practically less expensive. Remember, that without money we are powerless; we must husband our resources for the cause of the gods.’

Hypatia was silent.

‘Now, there are fifty or sixty Libyan prisoners just brought in from the desert. Why not let them fight an equal number of soldiers? They are rebels to the empire, taken in war.’

‘Ah, then,’ said Hypatia, catching at any thread of self-justification, ‘their lives are forfeit in any case.’

‘Of course. So the Christians could not complain of us for that. Did not the most Christian Emperor Constantine set some three hundred German prisoners to butcher each other in the amphitheatre of Treves?’

‘But they refused, and died like heroes, each falling on his own sword.’

‘Ah — those Germans are always unmanageable. My guards, now, are just as stiff-necked. To tell you the truth, I have asked them already to exhibit their prowess on these Libyans, and what do you suppose they answered?’

‘They refused, I hope.’

‘They told me in the most insolent tone that they were men, and not stage-players; and hired to fight, and not to butcher. I expected a Socratic dialogue after such a display of dialectic, and bowed myself out.’

‘They were right.’

‘Not a doubt of it, from a philosophic point of view; from a practical one they were great pedants, and I an ill-used master. However, I can find unfortunate and misunderstood heroes enough in the prisons, who, for the chance of their liberty, will acquit themselves valiantly enough; and I know of a few old gladiators still lingering about the wine-shops, who will be proud enough to give them a week’s training. So that may pass. Now for some lighter species of representation to follow — something more or less dramatic.’

‘You forget that you speak to one who trusts to be, as soon as she has the power, the high-priestess of Athene, and who in the meanwhile is bound to obey her tutor Julian’s commands to the priests of his day, and imitate the Galilaeans as much in their abhorrence for the theatre as she hopes hereafter to do in their care for the widow and the stranger.’

‘Far be it from me to impugn that great man’s wisdom. But allow me to remark, that to judge by the present state of the empire, one has a right to say that he failed.’

‘The Sun–God whom he loved took him to himself, too early, by a hero’s death.’

‘And the moment he was removed, the wave of Christian barbarism rolled back again into its old channel.’

‘Ah! had he but lived twenty years longer!’

‘The Sun–God, perhaps, was not so solicitous as we are for the success of his high-priest’s project.’

Hypatia reddened — was Orestes, after all laughing in his sleeve at her and her hopes?

‘Do not blaspheme!’ she said solemnly.

‘Heaven forbid! I only offer one possible explanation of a plain fact. The other is, that as Julian was not going quite the right way to work to restore the worship of the Olympians, the Sun–God found it expedient to withdraw him from his post, and now sends in his place Hypatia the philosopher, who will be wise enough to avoid Julian’s error, and not copy the Galilaeans too closely, by imitating a severity of morals at which they are the only true and natural adepts.’

‘So Julian’s error was that of being too virtuous? If it be so, let me copy him, and fail like him. The fault will then not be mine, but fate’s.’

‘Not in being too virtuous himself, most stainless likeness of Athene, but in trying to make others so. He forgot one half of Juvenal’s great dictum about “Panem and Circenses,” as the absolute and overruling necessities of rulers. He tried to give the people the bread without the games. . . . And what thanks he received for his enormous munificence, let himself and the good folks of Antioch tell — you just quoted his Misopogon —’

‘Ay-the lament of a man too pure for his age.’

‘Exactly so. He should rather have been content to keep his purity to himself, and have gone to Antioch not merely as a philosophic high-priest, with a beard of questionable cleanliness, to offer sacrifices to a god in whom — forgive me — nobody in Antioch had believed for many a year. If he had made his entrance with ten thousand gladiators, and our white elephant, built a theatre of ivory and glass in Daphne, and proclaimed games in honour of the Sun, or of any other member of the Pantheon —’

‘He would have acted unworthily of a philosopher.’

‘But instead of that one priest draggling up, poor devil, through the wet grass to the deserted altar with his solitary goose under his arm, he would have had every goose in Antioch — forgive my stealing a pun from Aristophanes — running open-mouthed to worship any god known or unknown — and to see the sights.’

‘Well,’ said Hypatia, yielding perforce to Orestes’s cutting arguments. ‘Let us then restore the ancient glories of the Greek drama. Let us give them a trilogy of Aeschylus or Sophocles.’

‘Too calm, my dear madam. The Eumenides might do certainly, or Philoctetes, if we could but put Philoctetes to real pain, and make the spectators sure that he was yelling in good earnest.’

‘Disgusting!’

‘But necessary, like many disgusting things.’

‘Why not try the Prometheus?’

‘A magnificent field for stage effect, certainly. What with those ocean nymphs in their winged chariot, and Ocean on his griffin. . . . But I should hardly think it safe to reintroduce Zeus and Hermes to the people under the somewhat ugly light in which Aeschylus exhibits them.’

‘I forgot that,’ said Hypatia. ‘The Orestean trilogy will be best, after all.’

‘Best? perfect — divine! Ah, that it were to be my fate to go down to posterity as the happy man who once more revived Aeschylus’s masterpieces on a Grecian stage! But — Is there not, begging the pardon of the great tragedian, too much reserve in the Agamemnon for our modern taste? If we could have the bath scene represented on the stage, and an Agamemnon who could be really killed — though I would not insist on that, because a good actor might make it a reason for refusing the part — but still the murder ought to take place in public.’

‘Shocking! an outrage on all the laws of the drama. Does not even the Roman Horace lay down as a rule the —Nec pueros coram populo Medea trucidet?’

‘Fairest and wisest, I am as willing a pupil of the dear old Epicurean as any man living — even to the furnishing of my chamber; of which fact the Empress of Africa may some day assure herself. But we are not now discussing the art of poetry, but the art of reigning; and, after all, while Horace was sitting in his easy-chair, giving his countrymen good advice, a private man, who knew somewhat better than he what the mass admired, was exhibiting forty thousand gladiators at his mother’s funeral.’

‘But the canon has its foundation in the eternal laws of beauty. It has been accepted and observed.’

‘Not by the people for whom it was written. The learned Hypatia has surely not forgotten, that within sixty years after the Ars Poetica was written, Annaeus Seneca, or whosoever wrote that very bad tragedy called the Medea, found it so necessary that she should, in despite of Horace, kill her children before the people, that he actually made her do it!’

Hypatia was still silent — foiled at every point, while Orestes ran on with provoking glibness.

‘And consider, too, even if we dare alter Aeschylus a little, we could find no one to act him.’

‘Ah, true! fallen, fallen days!’

‘And really, after all, omitting the questionable compliment to me, as candidate for a certain dignity, of having my namesake kill his mother, and then be hunted over the stage by furies —’

‘But Apollo vindicates and purifies him at last. What a noble occasion that last scene would give for winning them hack to their old reverence for the god!’

‘True, but at present the majority of spectators will believe more strongly in the horrors of matricide and furies than in Apollo’s power to dispense therewith. So that I fear must be one of your labours of the future.’

‘And it shall be,’ said Hypatia. But she did not speak cheerfully.

‘Do you not think, moreover,’ went on the tempter, ‘that those old tragedies might give somewhat too gloomy a notion of those deities whom we wish to reintroduce — I beg pardon, to rehonour? The history of the house of Atreus is hardly more cheerful, in spite of its beauty, than one of Cyril’s sermons on the day of judgment, and the Tartarus prepared for hapless rich people?’

‘Well,’ said Hypatia, more and more listlessly; ‘it might be more prudent to show them first the fairer and more graceful side of the old Myths. Certainly the great age of Athenian tragedy had its playful reverse in the old comedy.’

‘And in certain Dionysiac sports and processions which shall be nameless, in order to awaken a proper devotion for the gods in those who might not be able to appreciate Aeschylus and Sophocles.’

‘You would not reintroduce them?’

‘Pallas forbid! but give as fair a substitute for them as we can.’

‘And are we to degrade ourselves because the masses are degraded?’

‘Not in the least. For my own part, this whole business, like the catering for the weekly pantomimes, is as great a bore to me as it could have been to Julian himself. But, my dearest madam —“Panem and Circenses”— they must be put into good humour; and there is but one way — by “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life,” as a certain Galilaean correctly defines the time-honoured Roman method.’

‘Put them into good humour? I wish to lustrate them afresh for the service of the gods. If we must have comic representations, we can only have them conjoined to tragedy, which, as Aristotle defines it, will purify their affections by pity and terror.’

Orestes smiled.

‘I certainly can have no objection to so good a purpose. But do you not think that the battle between the gladiators and the Libyans will have done that sufficiently beforehand? I can conceive nothing more fit for that end, unless it be Nero’s method of sending his guards among the spectators themselves, and throwing them down to the wild beasts in the arena. How thoroughly purified by pity and terror must every worthy shopkeeper have been, when he sat uncertain whether he might not follow his fat wife into the claws of the nearest lion!’

‘You are pleased to be witty, sir,’ said Hypatia, hardly able to conceal her disgust.

‘My dearest bride elect, I only meant the most harmless of reductiones ad absurdum of an abstract canon of Aristotle, with which I, who am a Platonist after my mistress’s model, do not happen to agree. But do, I beseech you, be ruled, not by me, but by your own wisdom. You cannot bring the people to appreciate your designs at the first sight. You are too wise, too pure, too lofty, too far-sighted for them. And therefore you must get power to compel them. Julian, after all, found it necessary to compel — if he had lived seven years more he would have found it necessary to persecute.’

‘The gods forbid that — that such a necessity should ever arise here.’

‘The only way to avoid it, believe me, is to allure and to indulge. After all, it is for their good.’

‘True,’ sighed Hypatia. ‘Have your way, sir.’

‘Believe me, you shall have yours in turn. I ask you to be ruled by me now, only that you may be in a position to rule me and Africa hereafter.’

‘And such an Africa! Well, if they are born low and earthly, they must, I suppose, he treated as such; and the fault of such a necessity is Nature’s, and not ours. — Yet it is most degrading! — But still, if the only method by which the philosophic few can assume their rights, as the divinely-appointed rulers of the world, is by indulging those lower beings whom they govern for their good — why, be it so. It is no worse necessity than many another which the servant of the gods must endure in days like these.’

‘Ah,’ said Orestes, refusing to hear the sigh, or to see the bitterness of the lip which accompanied the speech —‘now Hypatia is herself again; and my counsellor, and giver of deep and celestial reasons for all things at which poor I can only snatch and guess by vulpine cunning. So now for our lighter entertainment. What shall it be?’

‘What you will, provided it be not, as most such are, unfit for the eyes of modest women. I have no skill in catering for folly.’

‘A pantomime, then? We may make that as grand and as significant as we will, and expend too on it all our treasures in the way of gewgaws and wild beasts.’

‘As you like.’

‘Just consider, too, what a scope for mythologic learning a pantomime affords. Why not have a triumph of some deity? Could I commit myself more boldly to the service of the gods! Now — who shall it be?’

‘Pallas — unless, as I suppose, she is too modest and too sober for your Alexandrians?’

‘Yes — it does not seem to me that she would be appreciated — at all events for the present. Why not try Aphrodite? Christians as well as Pagans will thoroughly understand her; and I know no one who would not degrade the virgin goddess by representing her, except a certain lady, who has already, I hope, consented to sit in that very character, by the side of her too much honoured slave; and one Pallas is enough at a time in any theatre.’

Hypatia shuddered. He took it all for granted, then — and claimed her conditional promise to the uttermost. Was there no escape? She longed to spring up and rush away, into the streets, into the desert — anything to break the hideous net which she had wound around herself. And yet — was it not the cause of the gods — the one object of her life? And after all, if he the hateful was to be her emperor, she at least was to be an empress; and do what she would — and half in irony, and half in the attempt to hurl herself perforce into that which she knew that she must go through, and forget misery in activity, she answered as cheerfully as she could.

‘Then, my goddess, thou must wait the pleasure of these base ones! At least the young Apollo will have charms even for them.’

‘Ah, but who will represent him? This puny generation does not produce such figures as Pylades and Bathyllus — except among those Goths. Besides, Apollo must have golden hair; and our Greek race has intermixed itself so shamefully with these Egyptians, that our stage-troop is as dark as Andromeda, and we should have to apply again to those accursed Goths, who have nearly’ (with a bow) ‘all the beauty, and nearly all the money and the power, and will, I suspect, have the rest of it before I am safe out of this wicked world, because they have not nearly, but quite, all the courage. Now — Shall we ask a Goth to dance Apollo? for we can get no one else.’

Hypatia smiled in spite of herself at the notion. ‘That would be too shameful! I must forego the god of light himself, if I am to see him in the person of a clumsy barbarian.’

‘Then why not try my despised and rejected Aphrodite? Suppose we had her triumph, finishing with a dance of Venus Anadyomene. Surely that is a graceful myth enough.’

‘As a myth; but on the stage in reality?’

‘Not worse than what this Christian city has been looking at for many a year. We shall not run any danger of corrupting morality, be sure.’

Hypatia blushed.

‘Then you must not ask for my help.’

‘Or for your presence at the spectacle? For that be sure is a necessary point. You are too great a person, my dearest madam, in the eyes of these good folks to be allowed to absent yourself on such an occasion. If my little stratagem succeeds, it will be half owing to the fact of the people knowing that in crowning me, they crown Hypatia. . . . Come now — do you not see that as you must needs be present at their harmless scrap of mythology, taken from the authentic and undoubted histories of those very gods whose worship we intend to restore, you will consult your own comfort most in agreeing to it cheerfully, and in lending me your wisdom towards arranging it? Just conceive now, a triumph of Aphrodite, entering preceded by wild beasts led in chains by Cupids, the white elephant and all — what a field for the plastic art! You might have a thousand groupings, dispersions, regroupings, in as perfect bas-relief style as those of any Sophoclean drama. Allow me only to take this paper and pen —’

And he began sketching rapidly group after group.

‘Not so ugly, surely?’

‘They are very beautiful, I cannot deny,’ said poor Hypatia.

‘Ah, sweetest Empress! you forget sometimes that I, too, world-worm as I am, am a Greek, with as intense a love of the beautiful as even you yourself have. Do not fancy that every violation of correct taste does not torture me as keenly as it does you. Some day, I hope, you will have learned to pity and to excuse the wretched compromise between that which ought to be and that which can be, in which we hapless statesmen must struggle on, half-stunted, and wholly misunderstood — Ah, well! Look, now, at these fauns and dryads among the shrubs upon the stage, pausing in startled wonder at the first blast of music which proclaims the exit of the goddess from her temple.’

‘The temple? Why, where are you going to exhibit?’

‘In the Theatre, of course. Where else pantomimes?’

‘But will the spectators have time to move all the way from the Amphitheatre after that — those —’

‘The Amphitheatre? We shall exhibit the Libyans, too, in the Theatre.’

‘Combats in the Theatre sacred to Dionusos?’

‘My dear lady’— penitently —‘I know it is an offence against all the laws of the drama.’

‘Oh, worse than that! Consider what an impiety toward the god, to desecrate his altar with bloodshed?’

‘Fairest devotee, recollect that, after all, I may fairly borrow Dionusos’s altar in this my extreme need; for I saved its very existence for him, by preventing the magistrates from filling up the whole orchestra with benches for the patricians, after the barbarous Roman fashion. And besides, what possible sort of representation, or misrepresentation, has not been exhibited in every theatre of the empire for the last four hundred years? Have we not had tumblers, conjurers, allegories, martyrdoms, marriages, elephants on the tight-rope, learned horses, and learned asses too, if we may trust Apuleius of Madaura; with a good many other spectacles of which we must not speak in the presence of a vestal? It is an age of execrable taste, and we must act accordingly.’

‘Ah!’ answered Hypatia; ‘the first step in the downward career of the drama began when the successors of Alexander dared to profane theatres which had re-echoed the choruses of Sophocles and Euripides by degrading the altar of Dionusos into a stage for pantomimes!’

‘Which your pure mind must, doubtless, consider not so very much better than a little fighting. But, after all, the Ptolemies could not do otherwise. You can only have Sophoclean dramas in a Sophoclean age; and theirs was no more of one than ours is, and so the drama died a natural death; and when that happens to man or thing, you may weep over it if you will, but you must, after all, bury it, and get something else in its place — except, of course, the worship of the gods.’

‘I am glad that you except that, at least,’ said Hypatia, somewhat bitterly. ‘But why not use the Amphitheatre for both spectacles?’

‘What can I do? I am over head and ears in debt already; and the Amphitheatre is half in ruins, thanks to that fanatic edict of the late emperor’s against gladiators. There is no time or money for repairing it; and besides, how pitiful a poor hundred of combatants will look in an arena built to hold two thousand! Consider, my dearest lady, in what fallen times we live!’

‘I do, indeed!’ said Hypatia. ‘But I will not see the altar polluted by blood. It is the desecration which it has undergone already which has provoked the god to withdraw the poetic inspiration.’

‘I do not doubt the fact. Some curse from Heaven, certainly, has fallen on our poets, to judge by their exceeding badness. Indeed, I am inclined to attribute the insane vagaries of the water-drinking monks and nuns, like those of the Argive women, to the same celestial anger. But I will see that the sanctity of the altar is preserved, by confining the combat to the stage. And as for the pantomime which will follow, if you would only fall in with my fancy of the triumph of Aphrodite, Dionusos would hardly refuse his altar for the glorification of his own lady-love.’

‘Ah — that myth is a late, and in my opinion a degraded one.’

‘Be it so; but recollect, that another myth makes her, and not without reason, the mother of all living beings. Be sure that Dionusos will have no objection, or any other god either, to allow her to make her children feel her conquering might; for they all know well enough, that if we can once get her well worshipped here, all Olympus will follow in her train.’

‘That was spoken of the celestial Aphrodite, whose symbol is the tortoise, the emblem of domestic modesty and chastity: not of that baser Pandemic one.’

‘Then we will take care to make the people aware of whom they are admiring by exhibiting in the triumph whole legions of tortoises: and you yourself shall write the chant, while I will see that the chorus is worthy of what it has to sing. No mere squeaking double flute and a pair of boys: but a whole army of cyclops and graces, with such trebles and such bass-voices! It shall make Cyril’s ears tingle in his palace!’

‘The chant! A noble office for me, truly! That is the very part of the absurd spectacle to which you used to say the people never dreamed of attending. All which is worth settling you seemed to have settled for yourself before you deigned to consult me.’

‘I said so? Surely you must mistake. But if any hired poetaster’s chant do pass unheeded, what has that to do with Hypatia’s eloquence and science, glowing with the treble inspiration of Athene, Phoebus, and Dionusos? And as for having arranged beforehand — my adorable mistress, what more delicate compliment could I have paid you?’

‘I cannot say that it seems to me to be one.’

‘How? After saving you every trouble which I could, and racking my overburdened wits for stage effects and properties, have I not brought hither the darling children of my own brain, and laid them down ruthlessly, for life or death, before the judgment-seat of your lofty and unsparing criticism?’

Hypatia felt herself tricked: but there was no escape now.

‘And who, pray, is to disgrace herself and me, as Venus Anadyomene?’

‘Ah! that is the most exquisite article in all my bill of fare! What if the kind gods have enabled me to exact a promise from — whom, think you?’

‘What care I? How can I tell?‘asked Hypatia, who suspected and dreaded that she could tell.

‘Pelagia herself!’

Hypatia rose angrily.

‘This, sir, at least, is too much! It was not enough for you, it seems, to claim, or rather to take for granted, so imperiously, so mercilessly, a conditional promise — weakly, weakly made, in the vain hope that you would help forward aspirations of mine which you have let lie fallow for months — in which I do not believe that you sympathise now! — It was not enough for you to declare yourself publicly yesterday a Christian, and to come hither this morning to flatter me into the belief that you will dare, ten days hence, to restore the worship of the gods whom you have abjured! — It was not enough to plan without me all those movements in which you told me I was to be your fellow-counsellor — the very condition which you yourself offered! — It was not enough for you to command me to sit in that theatre, as your bait, your puppet, your victim, blushing and shuddering at sights unfit for the eyes of gods and men:— but, over and above all this, I must assist in the renewed triumph of a woman who has laughed down my teaching, seduced away my scholars, braved me in my very lecture-room — who for four years has done more than even Cyril himself to destroy all the virtue and truth which I have toiled to sow — and toiled in vain! Oh, beloved gods! where will end the tortures through which your martyr must witness for you to a fallen race?’

And, in spite of all her pride, and of Orestes’s presence, her eyes filled with scalding tears.

Orestes’s eyes had sunk before the vehemence of her just passion; but as she added the last sentence in a softer and sadder tone, he raised them again, with a look of sorrow and entreaty as his heart whispered —

‘Fool! — fanatic! But she is too beautiful! Win her I must and will!’

‘Ah! dearest, noblest Hypatia! What have I done? Unthinking fool that I was! In the wish to save you trouble — In the hope that I could show you, by the aptness of my own plans, that my practical statesmanship was not altogether an unworthy helpmate for your loftier wisdom — wretch that I am, I have offended you; and I have ruined the cause of those very gods for whom, I swear, I am as ready to sacrifice myself as ever you can be!’

The last sentence had the effect which it was meant to have.

‘Ruined the cause of the gods?‘asked she, in a startled tone.

‘Is it not ruined without your help? And what am I to understand from your words but that — hapless man that I am! — you leave me and them henceforth to our own unassisted strength?’

‘The unassisted strength of the gods is omnipotence.’

‘Be it so. But — why is Cyril, and not Hypatia, master of the masses of Alexandria this day? Why but because he and his have fought, and suffered, and died too, many a hundred of them, for their god, omnipotent as they believe him to be? Why are the old gods forgotten; my fairest logician? — for forgotten they are.’

Hypatia trembled from head to foot, and Orestes went on more blandly than ever.

‘I will not ask an answer to that question of mine. All I entreat is forgiveness for — what for I know not: but I have sinned, and that is enough for me. What if I have been too confident — too hasty? Are you not the price for which I strain? And will not the preciousness of the victor’s wreath excuse some impatience in the struggle for it? Hypatia has forgotten who and what the gods have made her — she has not even consulted her own mirror, when she blames one of her innumerable adorers for a forwardness which ought to be rather imputed to him as a virtue.’

And Orestes stole meekly such a glance of adoration, that Hypatia blushed, and turned her face away. . . . After all, she was woman. And she was a fanatic. . . . And she was to be an empress. . . . And Orestes’s voice was as melodious, and his manner as graceful as ever charmed the heart of woman.

‘But Pelagia?’ she said, at last, recovering herself.

‘Would that I had never seen the creature! But, after all, I really fancied that in doing what I have done I should gratify you.’

‘Me?’

‘Surely if revenge be sweet, as they say, it could hardly find a more delicate satisfaction than in degradation of one who —’

‘Revenge, sir? Do you dream that I am capable of so base a passion?’

‘I? Pallas forbid!’ said Orestes, finding himself on the wrong path again. ‘But recollect that the allowing this spectacle to take place might rid you for ever of an unpleasant — I will not say rival.’

‘How, then?’

‘Will not her reappearance on the stage, after all her proud professions of contempt for it, do something towards reducing her in the eyes of this scandalous little town to her true and native level? She will hardly dare thenceforth to go about parading herself as the consort of a god-descended hero, or thrusting herself unbidden into Hypatia’s presence, as if she were the daughter of a consul.’

‘But I cannot — I cannot allow it even to her. After all, Orestes, she is a woman. And can I, philosopher as I am, help to degrade her even one step lower than she lies already?’

Hypatia had all but said ‘a woman even as I am’: but Neo–Platonic philosophy taught her better; and she checked the hasty assertion of anything like a common sex or common humanity between two beings so antipodal.

‘Ah’ rejoined Orestes, ‘that unlucky word degrade! Unthinking that I was, to use it, forgetting that she herself will be no more degraded in her own eyes, or any one’s else, by hearing again the plaudits of those “dear Macedonians,” on whose breath she has lived for years, than a peacock when he displays his train. Unbounded vanity and self-conceit are not unpleasant passions, after all, for their victim. After all, she is what she is, and her being so is no fault of yours. Oh, it must be! indeed it must!’

Poor Hypatia! The bait was too delicate, the tempter too wily; and yet she was ashamed to speak aloud the philosophic dogma which flashed a ray of comfort and resignation through her mind, and reminded her that after all there was no harm in allowing lower natures to develop themselves freely in that direction which Nature had appointed for them, and in which only they could fulfil the laws of their being, as necessary varieties in the manifold whole of the universe. So she cut the interview short with —

‘If it must be, then. . . . I will now retire, and write the ode. Only, I refuse to have any communication whatsoever with — I am ashamed of even mentioning her name. I will send the ode to you, and she must adapt her dance to it as best she can. By her taste, or fancy rather, I will not be ruled.’

‘And I,’ said Orestes, with a profusion of thanks, ‘will retire to rack my faculties over the “dispositions.” On this day week we exhibit — and conquer! Farewell, queen of wisdom! Your philosophy never shows to better advantage than when you thus wisely and gracefully subordinate that which is beautiful in itself to that which is beautiful relatively and practically.’

He departed; and Hypatia, half dreading her own thoughts, sat down at once to labour at the ode. Certainly it was a magnificent subject. What etymologies, cosmogonies, allegories, myths, symbolisms, between all heaven and earth, might she not introduce — if she could but banish that figure of Pelagia dancing to it all, which would not be banished, but hovered, like a spectre, in the background of all her imaginations. She became quite angry, first with Pelagia, then with herself, for being weak enough to think of her. Was it not positive defilement of her mind to be haunted by the image of so defiled a being? She would purify her thoughts by prayer and meditation. But to whom of all the gods should she address herself? To her chosen favourite, Athene? She who had promised to be present at that spectacle? Oh, how weak she had been to yield! And yet she had been snared into it. Snared — there was no doubt of it — by the very man whom she had fancied that she could guide and mould to her own purposes. He had guided and moulded her now against her self-respect, her compassion, her innate sense of right. Already she was his tool. True, she had submitted to be so for a great purpose. But suppose she had to submit again hereafter — always henceforth? And what made the thought more poignant was, her knowledge that he was right; that he knew what to do, and how to do it. She could not help admiring him for his address, his quickness, his clear practical insight: and yet she despised, mistrusted, all but hated him. But what if his were the very qualities which were destined to succeed? What if her purer and loftier aims, her resolutions — now, alas! broken — never to act but on the deepest and holiest principles and by the most sacred means, were destined never to exert themselves in practice, except conjointly with miserable stratagems and cajoleries such as these? What if statecrafts and not philosophy and religion, were the appointed rulers of mankind? Hideous thought! And yet — she who had all her life tried to be self-dependent, originative, to face and crush the hostile mob of circumstance and custom, and do battle single-handed with Christianity and a fallen age — how was it that in her first important and critical opportunity of action she had been dumb, irresolute, passive, the victim, at last, of the very corruption which she was to exterminate? She did not know yet that those who have no other means for regenerating a corrupted time than dogmatic pedantries concerning the dead and unreturning past, must end, in practice, by borrowing insincerely, and using clumsily, the very weapons of that novel age which they deprecate, and ‘sewing new cloth into old garments,’ till the rent become patent and incurable. But in the meanwhile, such meditations as these drove from her mind for that day both Athene, and the ode, and philosophy, and all things but — Pelagia the wanton.

In the meanwhile, Alexandrian politics flowed onward in their usual pure and quiet course. The public buildings were placarded with the news of Heraclian’s victory; and groups of loungers expressed, loudly enough, their utter indifference as to who might rule at Rome — or even at Byzantium. Let Heraclian or Honorius be emperor, the capitals must be fed; and while the Alexandrian wheat-trade was uninjured, what matter who received the tribute? Certainly, as some friends of Orestes found means to suggest, it might not be a bad thing for Egypt, if she could keep the tribute in her own treasury, instead of sending it to Rome without any adequate return, save the presence of an expensive army. . . . Alexandria had been once the metropolis of an independent empire. . . . Why not again? Then came enormous largesses of corn, proving, more satisfactorily to the mob than to the shipowners, that Egyptian wheat was better employed at home than abroad. Nay, there were even rumours of a general amnesty for all prisoners; and as, of course, every evil-doer had a kind of friend, who considered him an injured martyr, all parties were well content, on their own accounts at least, with such a move.

And so Orestes’s bubble swelled, and grew, and glittered every day with fresh prismatic radiance; while Hypatia sat at home, with a heavy heart, writing her ode to Venus Urania, and submitting to Orestes’s daily visits.

One cloud, indeed, not without squalls of wind and rain, disfigured that sky which the Prefect had invested with such serenity by the simple expedient, well known to politicians, of painting it bright blue, since it would not assume that colour of its own accord. For, a day or two after Ammonius’s execution, the Prefect’s guards informed him that the corpse of the crucified man, with the cross on which it hung, had vanished. The Nitrian monks had come down in a body, and carried them off before the very eyes of the sentinels. Orestes knew well enough that the fellows must have been bribed to allow the theft; but he dare not say so to men on whose good humour his very life might depend; so, stomaching the affront as best he could, he vowed fresh vengeance against Cyril, and went on his way. But, behold! — within four-and-twenty hours of the theft, a procession of all the rascality, followed by all the piety, of Alexandria — monks from Nitria counted by the thousand — priests, deacons, archdeacons, Cyril himself, in full pontificals, and borne aloft in the midst, upon a splendid bier, the missing corpse, its nail-pierced hands and feet left uncovered for the pitying gaze of the Church.

Under the very palace windows, from which Orestes found it expedient to retire for the time being, out upon the quays, and up the steps of the Caesareum, defiled that new portent; and in another half-hour a servant entered, breathlessly, to inform the shepherd of people that his victim was lying in state in the centre of the nave, a martyr duly canonised — Ammonius now no more, but henceforth Thaumasius the wonderful, on whose heroic virtues and more heroic faithfulness unto the death, Cyril was already descanting from the pulpit, amid thunders of applause at every allusion to Sisera at the brook Kishon, Sennacherib in the house of Nisroch, and the rest of the princes of this world who come to nought.

Here was a storm! To order a cohort to enter the church and bring away the body was easy enough: to make them do it, in the face of certain death, not so easy. Besides, it was too early yet for so desperate a move as would be involved in the violation of a church. . . . So Orestes added this fresh item to the long column of accounts which he intended to settle with the patriarch; cursed for half an hour in the name of all divinities, saints, and martyrs, Christian and Pagan; and wrote off a lamentable history of his wrongs and sufferings to the very Byzantine court against which he was about to rebel, in the comfortable assurance that Cyril had sent, by the same post, a counter-statement, contradicting it in every particular. . . . Never mind. . . . In case he failed in rebelling, it was as well to be able to prove his allegiance up to the latest possible date; and the more completely the two statements contradicted each other, the longer it would take to sift the truth out of them; and thus so much time was gained, and so much the more chance, meantime, of a new leaf being turned over in that Sibylline oracle of politicians — the Chapter of Accidents. And for the time being, he would make a pathetic appeal to respectability and moderation in general, of which Alexandria, wherein some hundred thousand tradesmen and merchants had property to lose, possessed a goodly share.

Respectability responded promptly to the appeal; and loyal addresses and deputations of condolence flowed in from every quarter, expressing the extreme sorrow with which the citizens had beheld the late disturbances of civil order, and the contempt which had been so unfortunately evinced for the constituted authorities: but taking, nevertheless, the liberty to remark, that while the extreme danger to property which might ensue from the further exasperation of certain classes, prevented their taking those active steps on the side of tranquillity to which their feelings inclined them, the known piety and wisdom of their esteemed patriarch made it presumptuous in them to offer any opinion on his present conduct, beyond the expression of their firm belief that he had been unfortunately misinformed as to those sentiments of affection and respect which his excellency the Prefect was well known to entertain towards him. They ventured, therefore, to express a humble hope that, by some mutual compromise, to define which would be an unwarrantable intrusion on their part, a happy reconciliation would be effected, and the stability of law, property, and the Catholic Faith ensured. All which Orestes heard with blandest smiles, while his heart was black with curses; and Cyril answered by a very violent though a very true and practical harangue on the text, ‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

So respectability and moderation met with their usual hapless fate, and, soundly cursed by both parties, in the vain attempt to please both, wisely left the upper powers to settle their own affairs, and went home to their desks and counters, and did a very brisk business all that week on the strength of the approaching festival. One hapless innkeeper only tried to carry out in practice the principles which the deputation from his guild had so eloquently advocated; and being convicted of giving away bread in the morning to the Nitrian monks, and wine in the evening to the Prefect’s guards, had his tavern gutted, and his head broken by a joint plebiscitum of both the parties whom he had conciliated, who afterwards fought a little together, and then, luckily for the general peace, mutually ran away from each other.

Cyril in the meanwhile, though he was doing a foolish thing, was doing it wisely enough. Orestes might curse, and respectability might deplore, those nightly sermons, which shook the mighty arcades of the Caesareum, but they could not answer them. Cyril was right and knew that he was right. Orestes was a scoundrel, hateful to God, and to the enemies of God. The middle classes were lukewarm covetous cowards: the whole system of government was a swindle and an injustice; all men’s hearts were mad with crying, ‘Lord, how long?’ The fierce bishop had only to thunder forth text on text, from every book of scripture, old and new, in order to array on his side not merely the common sense and right feeling, but the bigotry and ferocity of the masses.

In vain did the good Arsenius represent to him not only the scandal but the unrighteousness of his new canonisation. ‘I must have fuel, my good father,’ was his answer, ‘wherewith to keep alight the flame of zeal. If I am to be silent as to Heraclian’s defeat, I must give them some other irritant, which will put them in a proper temper to act on that defeat, when they are told of it. If they hate Orestes, does he not deserve it? Even if he is not altogether as much in the wrong in this particular case as they fancy he is, are there not a thousand other crimes of his which deserve their abhorrence even more? At all events, he must proclaim the empire, as you yourself say, or we shall have no handle against him. He will not dare to proclaim it if he knows that we are aware of the truth. And if we are to keep the truth in reserve, we must have something else to serve meanwhile as a substitute for it.’

And poor Arsenius submitted with a sigh, as he saw Cyril making a fresh step in that alluring path of evil-doing that good might come, which led him in after years into many a fearful sin, and left his name disgraced, perhaps for ever, in the judgment of generations, who know as little of the pandemonium against which he fought, as they do of the intense belief which sustained him in his warfare; and who have therefore neither understanding nor pardon for the occasional outrages and errors of a man no worse, even if no better, than themselves.

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