Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter iii

The Goths

For two days the young monk held on, paddling and floating rapidly down the Nile-stream, leaving city after city to right and left with longing eyes, and looking back to one villa after another, till the reaches of the banks hid them from his sight, with many a yearning to know what sort of places those gay buildings and gardens would look like on a nearer view, and what sort of life the thousands led who crowded the busy quays, and walked and drove, in an endless stream, along the great highroads which ran along either bank. He carefully avoided every boat that passed him, from the gilded barge of the wealthy landlord or merchant, to the tiny raft buoyed up with empty jars, which was floating down to be sold at some market in the Delta. Here and there he met and hailed a crew of monks, drawing their nets in a quiet bay, or passing along the great watery highway from monastery to monastery: but all the news he received from them was, that the canal of Alexandria was still several days’ journey below him. It seemed endless, that monotonous vista of the two high clay banks, with their sluices and water-wheels, their knots of palms and date-trees; endless seemed that wearisome succession of bars of sand and banks of mud, every one like the one before it, every one dotted with the same line of logs and stones strewn along the water’s edge, which turned out as he approached them to be basking crocodiles and sleeping pelicans. His eye, wearied with the continual confinement and want of distance, longed for the boundless expanse of the desert, for the jagged outlines of those far-off hills, which he had watched from boyhood rising mysteriously at morn out of the eastern sky, and melting mysteriously into it again at even, beyond which dwelt a whole world of wonders, elephants and dragons, satyrs and anthropophagi — ay, and the phoenix itself. Tired and melancholy, his mind returned inward to prey on itself, and the last words of Arsenius rose again and again to his thoughts. ‘Was his call of the spirit or of the flesh?’ How should he test that problem? He wished to seethe world that might be carnal. True; but, he wished to convert the world. . . . was not that spiritual? Was he not going on a noble errand?. . . . thirsting for toil, for saintship, for martyrdom itself, if it would but come and cut the Gordian knot of all temptations, and save him-for he dimly felt that it would save him — a whole sea of trouble in getting safe and triumphant out of that world into which he had not yet entered. . . . and his heart shrank back from the untried homeless wilderness before him. But no! the die was cast, and he must down and onward, whether in obedience to the spirit or the flesh. Oh, for one hour of the quiet of that dear Laura and the old familiar faces!

At last, a sudden turn of the bank brought him in sight of a gaudily-painted barge, oil board of which armed men, in uncouth and foreign dresses, were chasing with barbaric shouts some large object in the water. In the bows stood a man of gigantic stature, brandishing a harpoon in his right hand, and in his left holding the line of a second, the head of which was fixed in the huge purple sides of a hippopotamus, who foamed and wallowed a few yards down the stream. An old grizzled warrior at the stern, with a rudder in either hand, kept the boat’s head continually towards the monster, in spite of its sudden and frantic wheelings; and when it dashed madly across the stream, some twenty oars flashed through the water in pursuit. All was activity and excitement; and it was no wonder if Philammon’s curiosity had tempted him to drift down almost abreast of the barge ere he descried, peeping from under a decorated awning in the afterpart, some dozen pairs of languishing black eyes, turned alternately to the game and to himself. The serpents! — chattering and smiling, with pretty little shrieks and shaking of glossy curls and gold necklaces, and fluttering of muslin dresses, within a dozen yards of him! Blushing scarlet, he knew not why, he seized his paddle, and tried to back out of the snare. . . . but somehow, his very efforts to escape those sparkling eyes diverted his attention from everything else: the hippopotamus had caught sight of him, and furious with pain, rushed straight at the unoffending canoe; the harpoon line became entangled round his body, and in a moment he and his frail bark were overturned, and the monster, with his huge white tusks gaping wide, close on him as he struggled in the stream.

Luckily Philammon, contrary to the wont of monks, was a bather, and swam like a water-fowl: fear he had never known: death from childhood had been to him, as to the other inmates of the Laura, a contemplation too perpetual to have any paralysing terror in it, even then, when life seemed just about to open on him anew. But the monk was a man, and a young one, and had no intention of dying tamely or unavenged. In an instant he had freed himself from the line; drawn the short knife which was his only weapon; and diving suddenly, avoided the monster’s rush, and attacked him from behind with stabs, which, though not deep, still dyed the waters with gore at every stroke. The barbarians shouted with delight. The hippopotamus turned furiously against his new assailant, crushing, alas! the empty canoe to fragments with a single snap of his enormous jaws; but the turn was fatal to him; the barge was close upon him, and as he presented his broad side to the blow, the sinewy arm of the giant drove a harpoon through his heart, and with one convulsive shudder the huge blue mass turned over on its side and floated dead.

Poor Philammon! He alone was silent, amid the yells of triumph; sorrowfully he swam round and round his little paper wreck. . . . it would not have floated a mouse. Wistfully be eyed the distant banks, half minded to strike out for them and escape,. . . . and thought of the crocodiles,. . . . and paddled round again,. . . . and thought of the basilisk eyes;. . . . he might escape the crocodiles, but who could escape women?. . . . and he struck out valiantly for shore. . . . when he was brought to a sudden stop by finding the stem of the barge close on him, a noose thrown over him by some friendly barbarian, and himself hauled on board, amid the laughter, praise, astonishment, and grumbling of the good-natured crew, who had expected him, as a matter of course, to avail himself at once of their help, and could not conceive the cause of his reluctance.

Philammon gazed with wonder on his strange hosts, their pale complexions, globular heads and faces, high cheek-bones, tall and sturdy figures; their red beards, and yellow hair knotted fantastically above the head; their awkward dresses, half Roman or Egyptian, and half of foreign fur, soiled and stained in many a storm and fight, but tastelessly bedizened with classic jewels, brooches, and Roman coins, strung like necklaces. Only the steersman, who had come forward to wonder at the hippopotamus, and to help in dragging the unwieldy brute on board, seemed to keep genuine and unornamented the costume of his race, the white linen leggings, strapped with thongs of deerskin, the quilted leather cuirass, the bears’-fur cloak, the only ornaments of which were the fangs and claws of the beast itself, and a fringe of grizzled tufts, which looked but too like human hair. The language which they spoke was utterly unintelligible to Philammon, though it need not be so to us.

‘A well-grown lad and a brave one, Wulf the son of Ovida,’ said the giant to the old hero of the bearskin cloak; ‘and understands wearing skins, in this furnace-mouth of a climate, rather better than you do.’

‘I keep to the dress of my forefathers, Amalric the Amal. What did to sack Rome in, may do to find Asgard in.’

The giant, who was decked out with helmet, cuirass, and senatorial boots, in a sort of mongrel mixture of the Roman military and civil dress, his neck wreathed with a dozen gold chains, and every finger sparkling with jewels, turned away with an impatient sneer.

‘Asgard — Asgard! If you are in such a hurry to get to Asgard up this ditch in the sand, you had better ask the fellow how far it is thither.’

Wulf took him quietly at his word, and addressed a question to the young monk, which he could only answer by a shake of the head.

‘Ask him in Greek, man.’

‘Greek is a slave’s tongue. Make a slave talk to him in it, not me.’

‘Here — some of you girls! Pelagia! you understand this fellow’s talk. Ask him how far it is to Asgard.’

‘You must ask me more civilly, my rough hero,’ replied a soft voice from underneath the awning. ‘Beauty must be sued, and not commanded.’

‘Come, then, my olive-tree, my gazelle, my lotus-flower, my — what was the last nonsense you taught me? — and ask this wild man of the sands how far it is from these accursed endless rabbit-burrows to Asgard.’

The awning was raised, and lying luxuriously on a soft mattress, fanned with peacock’s feathers, and glittering with rubies and topazes, appeared such a vision as Philammon had never seen before.

A woman of some two-and-twenty summers, formed in the most voluptuous mould of Grecian beauty, whose complexion showed every violet vein through its veil of luscious brown. Her little bare feet, as they dimpled the cushions, were more perfect than Aphrodite’s, softer than a swan’s bosom. Every swell of her bust and arms showed through the thin gauze robe, while her lower limbs were wrapped in a shawl of orange silk, embroidered with wreaths of shells and roses. Her dark hair lay carefully spread out upon the pillow, in a thousand ringlets entwined with gold and jewels; her languishing eyes blazed like diamonds from a cavern, under eyelids darkened and deepened with black antimony; her lips pouted of themselves, by habit or by nature, into a perpetual kiss; slowly she raised one little lazy hand; slowly the ripe lips opened; and in most pure and melodious Attic, she lisped her huge lover’s question to the monk, and repeated it before the boy could shake off the spell, and answer. . . .

‘Asgard? What is Asgard?’

The beauty looked at the giant for further instructions.

‘The City of the immortal Gods,’ interposed the old warrior, hastily and sternly, to the lady.

‘The city of God is in heaven,’ said Philammon to the interpreter, turning his head away from those gleaming, luscious, searching glances.

His answer was received with a general laugh by all except the leader, who shrugged his shoulders.

‘It may as well be up in the skies as up the Nile. We shall be just as likely, I believe, to reach it by flying, as by rowing up this big ditch. Ask him where the river comes from, Pelagia.’

Pelagia obeyed. . . . and thereon followed a confusion worse confounded, composed of all the impossible wonders of that mythic fairyland with which Philammon had gorged himself from boyhood in his walks with the old monks, and of the equally trustworthy traditions which the Goths had picked up at Alexandria. There was nothing which that river did not do. It rose in the Caucasus. Where was the Caucasus? He did not know. In Paradise — in Indian Aethiopia — in Aethiopian India. Where were they? He did not know. Nobody knew. It ran for a hundred and fifty days’ journey through deserts where nothing but flying serpents and satyrs lived, and the very lions’ manes were burnt off by the heat. . . .

‘Good sporting there, at all events, among these dragons,’ quoth Smid the son of Troll, armourer to the party.

‘As good as Thor’s when he caught Snake Midgard with the bullock’s head,’ said Wulf.

It turned to the east for a hundred days’ journey more, all round Arabia and India, among forests full of elephants and dog-headed women.

‘Better and better, Smid!’ growled Wulf, approvingly.

‘Fresh beef cheap there, Prince Wulf, eh?’ quoth Smid; ‘I must look over the arrow-heads.’

— To the mountains of the Hyperboreans, where there was eternal night, and the air was full of feathers. . . . That is, one-third of it came from thence, and another third came from the Southern ocean, over the Moon mountains, where no one had ever been, and the remaining third from the country where the phoenix lived, and nobody knew where that was. And then there were the cataracts, and the inundations-and-and-and above the cataracts, nothing but sand-hills and ruins, as full of devils as they could hold. . . . and as for Asgard, no one had ever heard of it. . . . till every face grew longer and longer, as Pelagia went on interpreting and misinterpreting; and at last the giant smote his hand upon his knee, and swore a great oath that Asgard might rot till the twilight of the gods before he went a step farther up the Nile.

‘Curse the monk!’ growled Wulf. ‘How should such a poor beast know anything about the matter?’

‘Why should not he know as well as that ape of a Roman governor?’ asked Smid.

‘Oh, the monks know everything,’ said Pelagia. ‘They go hundreds and thousands of miles up the river, and cross the deserts among fiends and monsters, where any one else would be eaten up, or go mad at once.’

‘Ah, the dear holy men! It’s all by the sign of the blessed cross!’ exclaimed all the girls together, devoutly crossing themselves, while two or three of the most enthusiastic were half-minded to go forward and kneel to Philammon for his blessing; but hesitated, their Gothic lovers being heathenishly stupid and prudish on such points.

‘Why should he not know as well as the prefect? Well said, Smid! I believe that prefect’s quill-driver was humbugging us when he said Asgard was only ten days’ sail up.’

‘Why?’ asked Wulf.

‘I never give any reasons. What’s the use of being an Amal, and a son of Odin, if one has always to be giving reasons like a rascally Roman lawyer? I say the governor looked like a liar; and I say this monk looks like an honest fellow; and I choose to believe him, and there is an end of it.’

‘Don’t look so cross at me, Prince Wulf; I’m sure it’s not my fault; I could only say what the monk told me,’ whispered poor Pelagia.

‘Who looks cross at you, my queen?’ roared the Amal. ‘Let me have him out here, and by Thor’s hammer, I’ll —’

‘Who spoke to you, you stupid darling?’ answered Pelagia, who lived in hourly fear of thunderstorms. ‘Who is going to be cross with any one, except I with you, for mishearing and misunderstanding, and meddling, as you are always doing? I shall do as I threatened, and run away with Prince Wulf, if you are not good. Don’t you see that the whole crew are expecting you to make them an oration?’

Whereupon the Amal rose.

‘See you here, Wulf the son of Ovida, and warriors all! If we want wealth, we shan’t find it among the sand-hills. If we want women, we shall find nothing prettier than these among dragons and devils. Don’t look angry, Wulf. You have no mind to marry one of those dog-headed girls the monk talked of, have you? Well, then, we have money and women; and if we want sport, it’s better sport killing men than killing beasts; so we had better go where we shall find most of that game, which we certainly shall not up this road. As for fame and all that, though I’ve had enough, there’s plenty to be got anywhere along the shores of that Mediterranean. Let’s burn and plunder Alexandria: forty of us Goths might kill down all these donkey-riders in two days, and hang up that lying prefect who sent us hereon this fool’s errand. Don’t answer, Wulf. I knew he was humbugging us all along, but you were so open-mouthed to all he said, that I was bound to let my elders choose for me. Let’s go back; send over for any of the tribes; send to Spain for those Vandals — they have had enough of Adolf by now, curse him! — I’ll warrant them; get together an army, and take Constantinople. I’ll be Augustus, and Pelagia, Augusta; you and Smid here, the two Caesars; and we’ll make the monk the chief of the eunuchs, eh? — anything you like for a quiet life; but up this accursed kennel of hot water I go no farther. Ask your girls, my heroes, and I’ll ask mine. Women are all prophetesses, every one of them.’

‘When they are not harlots,’ growled Wulf to himself.

‘I will go to the world’s end with you, my king!’ sighed Pelagia; ‘but Alexandria is certainly pleasanter than this.’

Old Wulf sprang up fiercely enough.

‘Hear me, Amalric the Amal, son of Odin, and heroes all! When my fathers swore to be Odin’s men, and gave up the kingdom to the holy Annals, the sons of the Aesir, what was the bond between your fathers and mine? Was it not that we should move and move, southward and southward ever, till we came back to Asgard, the city where Odin dwells for ever, and gave into his hands the kingdom of all the earth? And did we not keep our oath? Have we not held to the Amals? Did we not leave Adolf, because we would not follow a Balth, while there was an Amal to lead us? Have we not been true men to you, son of the Aesir?’

‘No man ever saw Wulf, the son of Ovida, fail friend or foe.’

‘Then why does his friend fail him? Why does his friend fail himself? If the bison-bull lie down and wallow, what will the herd do for a leader? If the king-wolf lose the scent, how will the pack hold it? If the Yngling forgets the song of Asgard, who will sing it to the heroes?’

‘Sing it yourself, if you choose. Pelagia sings quite well enough for me.’

In an instant the cunning beauty caught at the hint, and poured forth a soft, low, sleepy song:—

‘Loose the sail, rest the oar, float away down, Fleeting and gliding by tower and town; Life is so short at best! snatch, while thou canst, thy rest, Sleeping by me!’

‘Can you answer that, Wulf?’ shouted a dozen voices.

‘Hear the song of Asgard, warriors of the Goths! Did not Alaric the king love it well? Did I not sing it before him in the palace of the Caesars, till he swore, for all the Christian that he was, to go southward in search of the holy city? And when he went to Valhalla, and the ships were wrecked off Sicily, and Adolf the Balth turned back like a lazy hound, and married the daughter of the Romans, whom Odin hates, and went northward again to Gaul, did not I sing you all the song of Asgard in Messina there, till you swore to follow the Amal through fire and water until we found the hall of Odin, and received the mead-cup from his own hand? Hear it again, warriors of the Goths!’

‘Not that song!’ roared the Amal, stopping his ears with both his hands. ‘Will you drive us blood-mad again, just as we are settling down into our sober senses, and finding out what our lives were given us for?’

‘Hear the song of Asgard! On to Asgard, wolves of the Goths!’ shouted another; and a babel of voices arose.

‘Haven’t we been fighting and marching these seven years?’

‘Haven’t we drunk blood enough to satisfy Odin ten times over? If he wants us lot him come himself and lead us!’

‘Let us get our winds again before we start afresh!’

‘Wulf the Prince is like his name, and never tires; he has a winter-wolf’s legs under him; that is no reason why we should have.’

‘Haven’t you heard what the monk says?-we can never get ever those cataracts.’

‘We’ll stop his old wives’ tales for him, and then settle for ourselves,’ said Smid; and springing from the thwart where he had been sitting, he caught up a bill with one hand, and seized Philammon’s throat with the other. . . . in a moment more, it would have been all over with him. . . .

For the first time in his life Philammon felt a hostile gripe upon him, and a new sensation rushed through every nerve, as he grappled with the warrior, clutched with his left hand the up-lifted wrist, and with his right the girdle, and commenced, without any definite aim, a fierce struggle, which, strange to say, as it went on, grew absolutely pleasant.

The women shrieked to their lovers to part the combatants, but in vain.

‘Not for worlds! A very fair match and a very fair fight! Take your long legs back, Itho, or they will be over you! That’s right, my Smid, don’t use the knife! They will be overboard in a moment! By all the Valkyrs, they are down, and Smid undermost!’

There was no doubt of it; and in another moment Philammon would have wrenched the bill out of his opponent’s hand, when, to the utter astonishment of the onlookers, he suddenly loosed his hold, shook himself free by one powerful wrench, and quietly retreated to his seat, conscience-stricken at the fearful thirst for blood which had suddenly boiled up within him as he felt his enemy under him.

The onlookers were struck dumb with astonishment; they had taken for granted that he would, as a matter of course, have used his right of splitting his vanquished opponent’s skull — an event which they would of course have deeply deplored, but with which, as men of honour, they could not on any account interfere, but merely console themselves for the loss of their comrade by flaying his conqueror alive, ‘carving him into the blood-eagle,’ or any other delicate ceremony which might serve as a vent for their sorrow and a comfort to the soul of the deceased.

Smid rose, with a bill in his hand, and looked round him-perhaps to see what was expected of him. He half lifted his weapon to strike. . . . Philammon, seated, looked him calmly in the face. . . . The old warrior’s eye caught the bank, which was now receding rapidly past them; and when he saw that they were really floating downwards again, without an effort to stem the stream, he put away his bill, and sat himself down deliberately in his place, astonishing the onlookers quite as much as Philammon had done.

‘Five minutes’ good fighting, and no one killed! This is a shame!’ quoth another. ‘Blood we must see, and it had better be yours, master monk, than your betters’,’— and therewith he rushed on poor Philammon.

He spoke the heart of the crew; the sleeping wolf in them had been awakened by the struggle, and blood they would have; and not frantically, like Celts or Egyptians, but with the cool humorous cruelty of the Teuton, they rose altogether, and turning Philammon over on his back, deliberated by what death he should die.

Philammon quietly submitted — if submission have anything to do with that state of mind in which sheer astonishment and novelty have broken up all the custom of man’s nature, till the strangest deeds and sufferings are taken as matters of course. His sudden escape from the Laura, the new world of thought and action into which he had been plunged, the new companions with whom he had fallen in, had driven him utterly from his moorings, and now anything and everything might happen to him. He who had promised never to look upon woman found himself, by circumstances over which he had no control, amid a boatful of the most objectionable species of that most objectionable genus — and the utterly worst having happened, everything else which happened must be better than the worst. For the rest, he had gone forth to see the world — and this was one of the ways of it. So he made up his mind to see it, and be filled with the fruit of his own devices.

And he would have been certainly filled with the same in five minutes more, in some shape too ugly to be mentioned: but, as even sinful women have hearts in them, Pelagia shrieked out —

‘Amalric! Amalric! do not let them! I cannot bear it!’

‘The warriors are free men, my darling, and know what is proper. And what can the life of such a brute be to you?’

Before he could stop her, Pelagia had sprung from her cushions, and thrown herself into the midst of the laughing ring of wild beasts.

‘Spare him! spare him for my sake!’ shrieked she.

‘Oh, my pretty lady! you mustn’t interrupt warriors’ sport!’

In an instant she had torn off her shawl, and thrown it over Philammon; and as she stood, with all the outlines of her beautiful limbs revealed through the thin robe of spangled gauze —

‘Let the man who dares, touch him beneath that shawl! — though it be a saffron one!’

The Goths drew back. For Pelagia herself they had as little respect as the rest of the world had. But for a moment she was not the Messalina of Alexandria, but a woman; and true to the old woman-worshipping instinct, they looked one and all at her flashing eyes, full of noble pity and indignation, as well as of mere woman’s terror — and drew back, and whispered together.

Whether the good spirit or the evil one would conquer, seemed for a moment doubtful, when Pelagia felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, and turning, saw Wulf the son of Ovida.

‘Go back, pretty woman! Men, I claim the boy. Smid, give him to me. He is your man. You could have killed him if you had chosen, and did not; and no one else shall.’

‘Give him us, Prince Wulf! We have not seen blood for many a day!’

‘You might have seen rivers of it, if you had had the hearts to go onward. The boy is mine, and a brave boy. He has upset a warrior fairly this day, and spared him; and we will make a warrior of him in return.’

And he lifted up the prostrate monk.

‘You are my man now. Do you like fighting?’

Philammon, not understanding the language in which he was addressed, could only shake his head — though if he had known what its import was, he could hardly in honesty have said, No.

‘He shakes his head! He does not like it! He is craven! Let us have him!’

‘I had killed kings when you were shooting frogs,’ cried Smid. ‘Listen to me, my sons! A coward grips sharply at first, and loosens his hand after a while, because his blood is soon hot and soon cold. A brave man’s grip grows the firmer the longer he holds, because the spirit of Odin comes upon him. I watched the boy’s hands on my threat; and he will make a man; and I will make him one. However, we may as well make him useful at once; so give him an oar.’

‘Well,’ answered his new protector, ‘he can as well row us as he rowed by us; and if we are to go back to a cow’s death and the pool of Hela, the quicker we go the better.’

And as the men settled themselves again to their oars, one was put into Philammon’s hand, which he managed with such strength and skill that his late tormentors, who, in spite of an occasional inclination to robbery and murder, were thoroughly good-natured, honest fellows, clapped him on the back, and praised him as heartily as they had just now heartily intended to torture him to death, and then went forward, as many of them as were not rowing, to examine the strange beast which they had just slaughtered, pawing him over from tusks to tail, putting their heads into his mouth, trying their knives on his hide, comparing him to all beasts, like and unlike, which they had ever seen, and laughing and shoving each other about with the fun and childish wonder of a party of schoolboys; till Smid, who was the wit of the party, settled the comparative anatomy of the subject for them —‘Valhalla! I’ve found out what he’s most like! — One of those big blue plums, which gave us all the stomach-ache when we were encamped in the orchards above Ravenna!’

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