Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter xxii

Pandemonium

But where was Philammon all that week?

For the first day or two of his imprisonment he had raved like some wild beast entrapped. His new-found purpose and energy, thus suddenly dammed back and checked, boiled up in frantic rage. He tore at the bars of his prison; he rolled himself, shrieking, on the floor. He called in vain on Hypatia, on Pelagia, on Arsenius — on all but God. Pray he could not, and dare not; for to whom was he to pray? To the stars? — to the Abysses and the Eternities?. . . .

Alas! as Augustine said once, bitterly enough, of his own Manichaean teachers, Hypatia had taken away the living God, and given him instead the four Elements. . . . And in utter bewilderment and hopeless terror he implored the pity of every guard and gaoler who passed along the corridor, and conjured them, as brothers, fathers, men, to help him. Moved at once by his agony and by his exceeding beauty, the rough Thracians, who knew enough of their employer’s character to have little difficulty in believing his victim to be innocent, listened to him and questioned him. But when they offered the very help which he implored, and asked him to tell his story, the poor boy’s tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. How could he publish his sisters shame? And yet she was about to publish it herself!. . . . And instead of words, he met their condolences with fresh agonies, till they gave him up as mad; and, tired by his violence, compelled him, with blows and curses, to remain quiet; and so the week wore out, in dull and stupefied despair, which trembled on the very edge of idiocy. Night and day were alike to him. The food which was thrust in through his grate remained untasted; hour after hour, day after day, he sat upon the ground, his head buried in his hands, half-dozing from mere exhaustion of body and mind. Why should he care to stir, to eat, to live? He had but one purpose in heaven and earth: and that one purpose was impossible.

At last his cell-door grated on its hinges.

‘Up, my mad youth!’ cried a rough voice. ‘Up, and thank the favour of the gods, and the bounty of our noble — ahem! — Prefect. To-day he gives freedom to all prisoners. And I suppose a pretty boy like you may go about your business, as well as uglier rascals!’

Philammon looked up in the gaoler’s face with a dim half-comprehension of his meaning.

‘Do you hear?’ cried the man with a curse. ‘You are free. Jump up, or I shut the door again, and your one chance is over.’

‘Did she dance Venus Anadyomene?’

‘She! Who?’

‘My sister! Pelagia!’

‘Heaven only knows what she has not danced in her time! But they say she dances to-day once more. Quick! out, or I shall not be ready in time for the sports. They begin an hour hence. Free admission into the theatre to-day for all — rogues and honest men, Christians and heathens — Curse the boy! he’s as mad as ever.’

So indeed Philammon seemed; for, springing suddenly to his feet, he rushed out past the gaoler, upsetting him into the corridor, and fled wildly from the prison among the crowd of liberated ruffians, ran from the prison home, from home to the baths, from the baths to the theatre, and was soon pushing his way, regardless of etiquette, towards the lower tiers of benches, in order, he hardly knew why, to place himself as near as possible to the very sight which he dreaded and abhorred.

As fate would have it, the passage by which he had entered opened close to the Prefect’s chair of state, where sat Orestes, gorgeous in his robes of office, and by him — to Philammon’s surprise and horror — Hypatia herself.

More beautiful than ever, her forehead sparkling, like Juno’s own, with a lofty tiara of jewels, her white Ionic robe half hidden by a crimson shawl, there sat the vestal, the philosopher. What did she there? But the boy’s eager eyes, accustomed but too well to note every light and shade of feeling which crossed that face, saw in a moment how wan and haggard was its expression. She wore a look of constraint, of half-terrified self-resolve, as of a martyr: and yet not an undoubting martyr; for as Orestes turned his head at the stir of Philammon’s intrusion, and flashing with anger at the sight, motioned him fiercely back, Hypatia turned too, and as her eyes met her pupil’s she blushed crimson, and started, and seemed in act to motion him back also; and then, recollecting herself, whispered something to Orestes which quieted his wrath, and composed herself, or rather sank into her place again, as one who was determined to abide the worst.

A knot of gay young gentlemen, Philammon’s fellow-students, pulled him down among them, with welcome and laughter; and before he could collect his thoughts, the curtain in front of the stage had fallen, and the sport began.

The scene represented a background of desert mountains, and on the stage itself, before a group of temporary huts, stood huddling together the black Libyan prisoners, some fifty men, women, and children, bedizened with gaudy feathers and girdles of tasselled leather, brandishing their spears and targets, and glaring out with white eyes on the strange scene before them, in childish awe and wonder.

Along the front of the stage a wattled battlement had been erected, while below, the hyposcenium had been painted to represent rocks, thus completing the rough imitation of a village among the Libyan hills.

Amid breathless silence, a herald advanced, and proclaimed that these were prisoners taken in arms against the Roman senate and people, and therefore worthy of immediate death: but that the Prefect, in his exceeding clemency toward them, and especial anxiety to afford the greatest possible amusement to the obedient and loyal citizens of Alexandria, had determined, instead of giving them at once to the beasts, to allow them to fight for their lives, promising to the survivors a free pardon if they acquitted themselves valiantly.

The poor wretches on the stage, when this proclamation was translated to them, set up a barbaric yell of joy, and brandished their spears and targets more fiercely than ever.

But their joy was short. The trumpets sounded the attack: a body of gladiators, equal in number to the savages, marched out from one of the two great side passages, made their obeisance to the applauding spectators, and planting their scaling-ladders against the front of the stage, mounted to the attack.

The Libyans fought like tigers; yet from the first, Hypatia, and Philammon also, could see that their promised chance of life was a mere mockery. Their light darts and naked limbs were no match for the heavy swords and complete armour of their brutal assailants, who endured carelessly a storm of blows and thrusts on heads and faces protected by visored helmets: yet so fierce was the valour of the Libyans, that even they recoiled twice, and twice the scaling-ladders were hurled down again, while more than one gladiator lay below, rolling in the death-agony.

And then burst forth the sleeping devil in the hearts of that great brutalised multitude. Yell upon yell of savage triumph, and still more savage disappointment, rang from every tier of that vast ring of seats, at each blow and parry, onslaught and repulse; and Philammon saw with horror and surprise that luxury, refinement, philosophic culture itself, were no safeguards against the infection of bloodthirstiness. Gay and delicate ladies, whom he had seen three days before simpering delight at Hypatia’s heavenward aspirations, and some, too, whom he seemed to recollect in Christian churches, sprang from their seats, waved their hands and handkerchiefs, and clapped and shouted to the gladiators. For, alas! there was no doubt as to which side the favour of the spectators inclined. With taunts, jeers, applause, entreaties, the hired ruffians were urged on to their work of blood. The poor wretches heard no voice raised in their favour: nothing but contempt, hatred, eager lust of blood, glared from those thousands of pitiless eyes; and, broken-hearted, despairing, they flagged and drew back one by one. A shout of triumph greeted the gladiators as they climbed over the battlement, and gained a footing on the stage. The wretched blacks broke up, and fled wildly from corner to corner, looking vainly for an outlet. . . .

And then began a butchery. . . . Some fifty men, women, and children were cooped together in that narrow space. . . . And yet Hypatia’s countenance did not falter. Why should it? What were their numbers, beside the thousands who had perished year by year for centuries, by that and far worse deaths, in the amphitheatres of that empire, for that faith which she was vowed to re-establish. It was part of the great system; and she must endure it.

Not that she did not feel; for she, too, was woman; and her heart, raised far above the brutal excitement of the multitude, lay calmly open to the most poignant stings of pity. Again and again she was in the act to entreat mercy for some shrieking woman or struggling child; but before her lips could shape the words, the blow had fallen, or the wretch was whirled away from her sight in the dense undistinguishable mass of slayers and slain. Yes, she had begun, and she must follow to the end. . . . And, after all, what were the lives of those few semi-brutes, returning thus a few years earlier to the clay from which they sprang, compared with the regeneration of a world?. . . . And it would be over in a few minutes more, and that black writhing heap be still for ever, and the curtain fall. . . . And then for Venus Anadyomene, and art, and joy, and peace, and the graceful wisdom and beauty of the old Greek art, calming and civilising all hearts, and softening them into pure devotion for the immortal myths, the immortal deities, who had inspired their forefathers in the glorious days of old. . . . But still the black heap writhed; and she looked away, up, down, and round, everywhere, to avoid the sickening sight; and her eye caught Philammon’s gazing at her with looks of horror and disgust. . . . A thrill of shame rushed through her heart, and blushing scarlet, she sank her head, and whispered to Orestes —

‘Have mercy! — spare the rest!’

‘Nay, fairest vestal! The mob has tasted blood, and they must have their fill of it, or they will turn onus for aught I know. Nothing so dangerous as to check a brute, whether he be horse, dog, or man, when once his spirit is up. Ha! there is a fugitive! How well the little rascal runs!’

As he spoke, a boy, the only survivor, leaped from the stage, and rushed across the orchestra toward them, followed by a rough cur-dog.

‘You shall have this youth, if he reaches us.’

Hypatia watched breathless. The boy had just arrived at the altar in the centre of the orchestra, when he saw a gladiator close upon him. The ruffian’s arm was raised to strike, when, to the astonishment of the whole theatre, boy and dog turned valiantly to bay, and leaping on the gladiator, dragged him between them to the ground. The triumph was momentary. The uplifted hands, the shout of ‘Spare him!’ came too late. The man, as he lay, buried his sword in the slender body of the child, and then rising, walked coolly back to the side passages, while the poor cur stood over the little corpse, licking its hands and face, and making the whole building ring with his doleful cries. The attendants entered, and striking their hooks into corpse after corpse, dragged them out of sight, marking their path by long red furrows in the sand; while the dog followed, until his inauspicious howlings died away down distant passages.

Philammon felt sick and giddy, and half rose to escape. But Pelagia!. . . . No — he must sit it out, and see the worst, if worse than this was possible. He looked round. The people were coolly sipping wine and eating cakes, while they chatted admirably about the beauty of the great curtain, which had fallen and hidden the stage, and represented, on a ground of deep-blue sea, Europa carried by the bull across the Bosphorus, while Nereids and Tritons played around.

A single flute within the curtain began to send forth luscious strains, deadened and distant, as if through far-off glens and woodlands; and from the side passages issued three Graces, led by Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, bearing a herald’s staff in her hand. She advanced to the altar in the centre of the orchestra, and informed the spectators that, during the absence of Ares in aid of a certain great military expedition, which was shortly to decide the diadem of Rome, and the liberty, prosperity, and supremacy of Egypt and Alexandria, Aphrodite had returned to her lawful allegiance, and submitted for the time being to the commands of her husband, Hephaestus; that he, as the deity of artificers, felt a peculiar interest in the welfare of the city of Alexandria, the workshop of the world, and had, as a sign of his especial favour, prevailed upon his fair spouse to exhibit, for this once, her beauties to the assembled populace, and, in the unspoken poetry of motion, to represent to them the emotions with which, as she arose new-born from the sea, she first surveyed that fair expanse of heaven and earth of which she now reigned undisputed queen.

A shout of rapturous applause greeted this announcement, and forthwith limped from the opposite slip the lame deity himself, hammer and pincers on shoulder, followed by a train of gigantic Cyclops, who bore on their shoulders various pieces of gilded metal work.

Hephaestus, who was intended to supply the comic element in the vast pantomimic pageant, shambled forward with studied uncouthness, amid roars of laughter; surveyed the altar with ludicrous contempt; raised his mighty hammer, shivered it to pieces with a single blow, and beckoned to his attendants to carry off the fragments, and replace it with something more fitting for his august spouse.

With wonderful quickness the metal open-work was put in its place, and fitted together, forming a frame of coral branches intermingled with dolphins, Nereids, and Tritons. Four gigantic Cyclops then approached, staggering under the weight of a circular slab of green marble, polished to a perfect mirror, which they placed on the framework. The Graces wreathed its circumference with garlands of sea-weed, shells, and corallines, and the mimic sea was complete.

Peitho and the Graces retired a few steps, and grouped themselves with the Cyclops, whose grimed and brawny limbs, and hideous one-eyed masks, threw out in striking contrast the delicate hue and grace of the beautiful maiden figures; while Hephaestus turned toward the curtain, and seemed to await impatiently the forthcoming of the goddess.

Every lip was breathless with expectation as the flutes swelled louder and nearer; horns and cymbals took up the harmony; and, to a triumphant burst of music, the curtain rose, and a simultaneous shout of delight burst from ten thousand voices.

The scene behind represented a magnificent temple, half hidden in an artificial wood of tropic trees and shrubs, which filled the stage. Fauns and Dryads peeped laughing from among their stems, and gorgeous birds, tethered by unseen threads, fluttered and sang among their branches. In the centre an overarching avenue of palms led from the temple doors to the front of the stage, from which the mimic battlements had disappeared, and had been replaced, in those few moments, by a broad slope of smooth greensward, leading down into the orchestra, and fringed with myrtles, roses, apple-trees, poppies, and crimson hyacinths, stained with the life-blood of Adonis.

The folding doors of the temple opened slowly, the crash of instruments resounded from within; and, preceded by the musicians, came forth the triumph of Aphrodite, and passed down the slope, and down the outer ring of the orchestra.

A splendid car, drawn by white oxen, bore the rarest and gaudiest of foreign flowers and fruits, which young girls, dressed as Hours and Seasons, strewed in front of the procession and among the spectators.

A long line of beautiful youths and maidens, crowned with garlands, and robed in scarfs of purple gauze, followed by two and two. Each pair carried or led a pair of wild animals, captives of the conquering might of Beauty.

Foremost were borne, on the wrists of the actors, the birds especially sacred to the goddess — doves and sparrows, wrynecks and swallows; and a pair of gigantic Indian tortoises, each ridden by a lovely nymph, showed that Orestes had not forgotten one wish, at least, of his intended bride.

Then followed strange birds from India, parakeets, peacocks, pheasants silver and golden; bustards and ostriches: the latter, bestridden each by a tiny cupid, were led on in golden leashes, followed by antelopes and oryxes, elks from beyond the Danube, four-horned rams from the Isles of the Hyperborean Ocean, and the strange hybrid of the Libyan hills, believed by all spectators to be half-bull half-horse. And then a murmur of delighted awe ran through the theatre, as bears and leopards, lions and tigers, fettered in heavy chains of gold, and made gentle for the occasion by narcotics, paced sedately down the slope, obedient to their beautiful guides; while behind them, the unwieldy bulk of two double-horned rhinoceroses, from the far south, was overtopped by the long slender necks and large soft eyes of a pair of giraffes, such as had not been seen in Alexandria for more than fifty years.

A cry arose of ‘Orestes! Orestes! Health to the illustrious Prefect! Thanks for his bounty!’ And a hired voice or two among the crowd cried, ‘Hail to Orestes! Hail, Emperor of Africa!’. . . . But there was no response.

‘The rose is still in the bud,’ simpered Orestes to Hypatia. He rose, beckoned and bowed the crowd into silence; and then, after a short pantomimic exhibition of rapturous gratitude and humility, pointed triumphantly to the palm avenue, among the shadows of which appeared the wonder of the day — the huge tusks and trunk of the white elephant himself.

There it was at last! Not a doubt of it! A real elephant, and yet as white as snow. Sight never seen before in Alexandria — never to be seen again! ‘Oh, thrice blest men of Macedonia!’ shouted some worthy on high, ‘the gods are bountiful to you this day!’ And all mouths and eyes confirmed the opinion, as they opened wider and yet wider to drink in the inexhaustible joy and glory.

On he paced solemnly, while the whole theatre resounded to his heavy tread, and the Fauns and Dryads fled in terror. A choir of nymphs swung round him hand in hand, and sang, as they danced along, the conquering might of Beauty, the tamer of beasts and men and deities. Skirmishing parties of little winged cupids spread themselves over the orchestra, from left to right, and pelted the spectators with perfumed comfits, shot among them from their tiny bows arrows of fragrant sandal-wood, or swung smoking censers, which loaded the air with intoxicating odours.

The procession came on down the slope, and the elephant approached the spectators; his tusks were wreathed with roses and myrtles; his ears were pierced with splendid earrings, a jewelled frontlet hung between his eyes; Eros himself, a lovely winged boy, sat on his neck, and guided him with the point of a golden arrow. But what precious thing was it which that shell-formed car upon his back contained? The goddess! Pelagia Aphrodite herself?

Yes; whiter than the snow-white elephant — more rosy than the pink-tipped shell in which she lay, among crimson cushions and silver gauze, there shone the goddess, thrilling all hearts with those delicious smiles, and glances of the bashful playful eyes, and grateful wavings of her tiny hand, as the whole theatre rose with one accord, and ten thousand eyes were concentrated on the unequalled loveliness beneath them.

Twice the procession passed round the whole circumference of the orchestra, and then returning from the foot of the slope towards the central group around Hephaestus, deployed right and left in front of the stage. The lions and tigers were led away into the side passages; the youths and maidens combined themselves with the gentler animals into groups lessening gradually from the centre to the wings, and stood expectant, while the elephant came forward, and knelt behind the platform destined for the goddess.

The valves of the shell closed. The Graces unloosed the fastenings of the car. The elephant turned his trunk over his back, and, guided by the hands of the girls, grasped the shell, and lifting it high in air, deposited it on the steps at the back of the platform.

Hephaestus limped forward, and, with his most uncouth gestures, signified the delight which he had in bestowing such a sight upon his faithful artisans of Alexandria, and the unspeakable enjoyment which they were to expect from the mystic dance of the goddess; and then retired, leaving the Graces to advance in front of the platform, and with their arms twined round each other, begin Hypatia’s song of invocation.

As the first strophe died away, the valves of the shell reopened, and discovered Aphrodite crouching on one knee within. She raised her head, and gazed around the vast circle of seats. A mild surprise was on her countenance, which quickened into delightful wonder, and bashfulness struggling with the sense of new enjoyment and new powers. She glanced downward at herself; and smiled, astonished at her own loveliness; then upward at the sky; and seemed ready, with an awful joy, to spring up into the boundless void. Her whole figure dilated; she seemed to drink in strength from every object which met her in the great universe around; and slowly, from among the shells and seaweeds, she rose to her full height, the mystic cestus glittering round her waist, in deep festoons of emeralds and pearls, and stepped forward upon the marble sea-floor, wringing the dripping perfume from her locks, as Aphrodite rose of old.

For the first minute the crowd was too breathless with pleasure to think of applause. But the goddess seemed to require due homage; and when she folded her arms across her bosom, and stood motionless for an instant, as if to demand the worship of the universe, every tongue was loosed, and a thunder-clap of ‘Aphrodite!’ rang out across the roofs of Alexandria, and startled Cyril in his chamber at the Serapeium, and weary muleteers on distant sand-hills, and dozing mariners far out at sea.

And then began a miracle of art, such as was only possible among a people of the free and exquisite physical training, and the delicate aesthetic perception of those old Greeks, even in their most fallen days. A dance, in which every motion was a word, and rest as eloquent as motion; in which every attitude was a fresh motive for a sculptor of the purest school, and the highest physical activity was manifested, not as in the coarser comic pantomimes, in fantastic bounds and unnatural distortions, but in perpetual delicate modulations of a stately and self-restraining grace. The artist was for the moment transformed into the goddess. The theatre, and Alexandria, and the gorgeous pageant beyond, had vanished from her imagination, and therefore from the imagination of the spectators, under the constraining inspiration of her art, and they and she alike saw nothing but the lonely sea around Cytherea, and the goddess hovering above its emerald mirror, saying forth on sea, and air, and shore, beauty, and joy, and love. . . .

Philammon’s eyes were bursting from his head with shame and horror: and yet he could not hate her; not even despise her. He would have done so, had there been the faintest trace of human feeling in her countenance to prove that some germ of moral sense lingered within: but even the faint blush and the downcast eye with which she had entered the theatre were gone; and the only expression on her face was that of intense enjoyment of her own activity and skill, and satisfied vanity, as of a petted child. . . . Was she accountable? A reasonable soul, capable of right or wrong at all? He hoped not. . . . He would trust not. . . . And still Pelagia danced on; and for a whole age of agony, he could see nothing in heaven or earth but the bewildering maze of those white feet, as they twinkled over their white image in the marble mirror. . . . At last it was over. Every limb suddenly collapsed, and she stood drooping in soft self-satisfied fatigue, awaiting the burst of applause which rang through Philammon’s ears, proclaiming to heaven and earth, as with a mighty trumpet-blast, his sister’s shame.

The elephant rose, and moved forward to the side of the slabs. His back was covered with crimson cushions, on which it seemed Aphrodite was to return without her shell. She folded her arms across her bosom, and stood smiling, as the elephant gently wreathed his trunk around her waist, and lifted her slowly from the slab, in act to place her on his back. . . .

The little feet, clinging half fearfully together, had Just risen from the marble-The elephant started, dropped his delicate burden heavily on the slab, looked down, raised his forefoot, and throwing his trunk into the air, gave a shrill scream of terror and disgust. . . .

The foot was red with blood — the young boy’s blood — which was soaking and bubbling up through the fresh sand where the elephant had trodden, in a round, dark, purple spot. . . .

Philammon could bear no more. Another moment and he had hurled down through the dense mass of spectators, clearing rank after rank of seats by the sheer strength of madness, leaped the balustrade into the orchestra below, and rushed across the space to the foot of the platform.

‘Pelagia! Sister! My sister! Have mercy on me! on yourself! I will hide you! save you! and we will flee together out of this infernal place! this world of devils! I am your brother! Come!’

She looked at him one moment with wide, wild eyes — The truth flashed on her —

‘Brother!’

And she sprang from the platform into his arms. . . . A vision of a lofty window in Athens, looking out over far olive-yards and gardens, and the bright roofs and basins of the Piraeus, and the broad blue sea, with the purple peaks of Aegina beyond all. . . . And a dark-eyed boy, with his arm around her neck, pointed laughing to the twinkling masts in the far harbour, and called her sister. . . . The dead soul woke within her; and with a wild cry she recoiled from him in an agony of shame, and covering her face with both her hands, sank down among the blood-stained sand.

A yell, as of all hell broke loose, rang along that vast circle —

‘Down with him!’ ‘Away with him!’ ‘Crucify the slave!’ ‘Give the barbarian to the beasts!’ ‘To the beasts with him, noble Prefect!’ A crowd of attendants rushed upon him, and many of the spectators sprang from their seats, and were on the point of leaping down into the orchestra.

Philammon turned upon them like a lion at bay; and clear and loud his voice rose through the roar of the multitude.

‘Ay! murder me as the Romans murdered Saint Telemachus! Slaves as besotted and accursed as your besotted and accursed tyrants! Lower than the beasts whom you employ as your butchers! Murder and lust go fitly hand in hand, and the throne of my sister’s shame is well built on the blood of innocents! Let my death end the devil’s sacrifice, and fill up the cup of your iniquity!’

‘To the beasts!’ ‘Make the elephant trample him to powder!’

And the huge brute, goaded on by the attendants, rushed on the youth, while Eros leaped from his neck, and fled weeping up the slope.

He caught Philammon in his trunk and raised him high in air. For an instant the great bellowing ocean of heads spun round and round. He tried to breathe one prayer, and shut his eyes — Pelagia’s voice rang sweet and clear, even in the shrillness of intense agony —

‘Spare him! He is my brother! Forgive him, men of Macedonia! For Pelagia’s sake — Your Pelagia! One boon — only this one!’

And she stretched her arms imploringly toward the spectators, and then clasping the huge knees of the elephant, called madly to it in terms of passionate entreaty and endearment.

The men wavered. The brute did not. Quietly he lowered his trunk, and set down Philammon on his feet. The monk was saved. Breathless and dizzy, he found himself hurried away by the attendants, dragged through dark passages, and hurled out into the street, with curses, warnings, and congratulations, which fell on an unheeding ear.

But Pelagia kept her face still hidden in her hands, and rising, walked slowly back, crushed by the weight of some tremendous awe, across the orchestra, and up the slope; and vanished among the palms and oleanders, regardless of the applause and entreaties, and jeers, and threats, and curses, of that great multitude of sinful slaves.

For a moment all Orestes’s spells seemed broken by this unexpected catastrophe. A cloud, whether of disgust or of disappointment, hung upon every brow. More than one Christian rose hastily to depart, touched with real remorse and shame at the horrors of which they had been the willing witnesses. The common people behind, having glutted their curiosity with all that there was to see, began openly to murmur at the cruelty and heathenry of it. Hypatia, utterly unnerved, hid her face in both her hands. Orestes alone rose with the crisis. Now, or never, was the time for action; and stepping forward, with his most graceful obeisance, waved his hand for silence, and began his well-studied oration.

‘Let me not, O men of Macedonia, suppose that you can be disturbed from that equanimity which befits politicians, by so light an accident as the caprice of a dancer. The spectacle which I have had the honour and delight of exhibiting to you —(Roars and applause from the liberated prisoners and the young gentlemen)— and on which it seemed to me you have deigned to look with not altogether unkindly eyes —(Fresh applause, in which the Christian mob, relenting, began to join)— is but a pleasant prelude to that more serious business for which I have drawn you here together. Other testimonials of my good intentions have not been wanting in the release of suffering innocence, and in the largess of food, the growth and natural property of Egypt, destined by your late tyrants to pamper the luxury of a distant court. . . . Why should I boast? — yet even now this head is weary, these limbs fail me, worn out in ceaseless efforts for your welfare, and in the perpetual administration of the strictest justice. For a time has come in which the Macedonian race, whose boast is the gorgeous city of Alexander, must rise again to the political pre-eminence which they held of old, and becoming once more the masters of one-third of the universe, be treated by their rulers as freemen, citizens, heroes, who have a right to choose and to employ their rulers — Rulers, did I say? Let us forget the word, and substitute in its place the more philosophic term of ministers. To be your minister — the servant of you all — To sacrifice myself, my leisure, health, life, if need be, to the one great object of securing the independence of Alexandria — This is my work, my hope, my glory — longed for through weary years: now for the first time possible by the fall of the late puppet Emperor of Rome. Men of Macedonia, remember that Honorius reigns no more! An African sits on the throne of the Caesars! Heraclian, by one decisive victory, has gained, by the favour of — of Heaven, the imperial purple; and a new era opens for the world. Let the conqueror of Rome balance his account with that Byzantine court, so long the incubus of our Trans–Mediterranean wealth and civilisation; and let a free, independent, and united Africa rally round the palaces and docks of Alexandria, and find there its natural centre of polity and of prosperity.’

A roar of hired applause interrupted him and not a few, half for the sake of his compliments and fine words, half from a natural wish to be on the right side — namely, the one which happened to be in the ascendant for the time being — joined. . . . The city authorities were on the point of crying, ‘Imperator Orestes,’ but thought better of it; and waited for some one else to cry first — being respectable. Whereon the Prefect of the Guards, being a man of some presence of mind, and also not in anywise respectable, pricked up the Prefect of the docks with the point of his dagger, and bade him, with a fearful threat, take care how he played traitor. The worthy burgher roared incontinently — whether with pain or patriotism; and the whole array of respectabilities — having found a Curtius who would leap into the gulf, joined in unanimous chorus, and saluted Orestes as Emperor; while Hypatia, amid the shouts of her aristocratic scholars, rose and knelt before him, writhing inwardly with shame and despair, and entreated him to accept that tutelage of Greek commerce, supremacy, and philosophy which was forced on him by the unanimous voice of an adoring people. . . .

‘It is false!’ shouted a voice from the highest tiers, appropriated to the women of the lower classes, which made all turn their heads in bewilderment.

‘False! false! you are tricked! He is tricked! Heraclian was utterly routed at Ostia, and is fled to Carthage, with the emperor’s fleet in chase.’

‘She lies! Drag the beast down!’ cried Orestes, utterly thrown off his balance by the sudden check.

‘She? He! I, a monk, brought the news! Cyril has known it — every Jew in the Delta has known it, for a week past! So perish all the enemies of the Lord, caught in their own snare!’

And bursting desperately through the women who surrounded him, the monk vanished.

An awful silence fell on all who heard. For a minute every man looked in his neighbour’s face as if he longed to cut his throat, and get rid of one witness, at least, of his treason. And then arose a tumult, which Orestes in vain attempted to subdue. Whether the populace believed the monk’s words or not, they were panic-stricken at the mere possibility of their truth. Hoarse with denying, protesting, appealing, the would-be emperor had at last to summon his guards around him and Hypatia, and make his way out of the theatre as best he could; while the multitude melted away like snow before the rain, and poured out into the streets in eddying and roaring streams, to find every church placarded by Cyril with the particulars of Heraclian’s ruin.

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