Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter ix

The Snapping of the Bow

Cyril heard Philammon’s story and Hypatia’s message with a quiet smile, and then dismissed the youth to an afternoon of labour in the city, commanding him to mention no word of what had happened, and to come to him that evening and receive his order when he should have had time to think over the matter. So forth Philammon went with his companions, through lanes and alleys hideous with filth and poverty, compulsory idleness and native sin. Fearfully real and practical it all was; but he saw it all dimly as in a dream. Before his eyes one face was shining; in his ears one silvery voice was ringing. . . . ‘He is a monk, and knows no better.’. . . . True! And how should he know better? How could he tell how much more there was to know, in that great new universe, in such a cranny whereof his life had till now been past? He had heard but one side already. What if there were two sides? Had he not a right-that is, was it not proper, fair, prudent, that he should hear both, and then judge?

Cyril had hardly, perhaps, done wisely for the youth in sending him out about the practical drudgery of benevolence, before deciding for him what was his duty with regard to Hypatia’s invitation. He had not calculated on the new thoughts which were tormenting the young monk; perhaps they would have been unintelligible to him bad he known of them. Cyril had been bred up under the most stern dogmatic training, in those vast monastic establishments, which had arisen amid the neighbouring saltpetre quarries of Nitria, where thousands toiled in voluntary poverty and starvation at vast bakeries, dyeries, brick-fields, tailors’ shops, carpenters’ yards, and expended the profits of their labour, not on themselves, for they had need of nothing, but on churches, hospitals, and alms. Educated in that world of practical industrial production as well as of religious exercise, which by its proximity to the great city accustomed monks to that world which they despised; entangled from boyhood in the intrigues of his fierce and ambitious uncle Theophilus, Cyril had succeeded him in the patriarchate of Alexandria without having felt a doubt, and stood free to throw his fiery energy and clear practical intellect into the cause of the Church without scruple, even, where necessary, without pity. How could such a man sympathise with the poor boy of twenty, suddenly dragged forth from the quiet cavern-shadow of the Laura into the full blaze and roar of the world’s noonday? He, too, was cloister-bred. But the busy and fanatic atmosphere of Nitria, where every nerve of soul and body was kept on a life-long artificial strain, without rest, without simplicity, without human affection, was utterly antipodal to the government of the remote and needy, though no less industrious commonwealths of Coenobites, who dotted the lonely mountain-glens, far up into the heart of the Nubian desert. In such a one Philammon had received, from a venerable man, a mother’s sympathy as well as a father’s care; and now he yearned for the encouragement of a gentle voice, for the greeting of a kindly eye, and was lonely and sick at heart. . . . And still Hypatia’s voice haunted his ears, like a strain of music, and would not die away. That lofty enthusiasm, so sweet and modest in its grandeur — that tone of pity — in one so lovely it could not be called contempt — for the many; that delicious phantom of being an elect spirit, unlike the crowd. . . . ‘And am I altogether like the crowd?’ said Philammon to himself, as he staggered along under the weight of a groaning fever-patient. ‘Can there be found no fitter work for me than this, which any porter from the quay might do as well? Am I not somewhat wasted on such toil as this? Have I not an intellect, a taste, a reason? I could appreciate what she said. — Why should not my faculties be educated? Why am I only to be shut out from knowledge? There is a Christian Gnosis as well as a heathen one. What was permissible to Clement’— he had nearly said to Origen, but checked himself on the edge of heresy —‘is surely lawful for me! Is not my very craving for knowledge a sign that I am capable of it? Surely my sphere is the study rather than the street!’

And then his fellow-labourers — he could not deny it to himself — began to grow less venerable in his eyes. Let him try as he might to forget the old priest’s grumblings and detractions, the fact was before him. The men were coarse, fierce, noisy. . . . so different from her! Their talk seemed mere gossip — scandalous too, and hard-judging, most of it; about that man’s private ambition, and that woman’s proud looks; and who had stayed for the Eucharist the Sun-day before, and who had gone out after the sermon; and how the majority who did not stay could possibly dare to go, and how the minority who did not go could possibly dare to stay. . . . Endless suspicions, sneers, complaints. . . . what did they care for the eternal glories and the beatific vision? Their one test for all men and things, from the patriarch to the prefect, seemed to be — did he or it advance the cause of the Church? — which Philammon soon discovered to mean their own cause, their influence, their self-glorification. And the poor boy, as his faculty for fault-finding quickened under the influence of theirs, seemed to see under the humble stock-phrases in which they talked of their labours of love, and the future reward of their present humiliations, a deep and hardly-bidden pride, a faith in their own infallibility, a contemptuous impatience of every man, however venerable, who differed from their party on any, the slightest, matter. They spoke with sneers of Augustine’s Latinising tendencies, and with open execrations of Chrysostom, as the vilest and most impious of schismatics; and, for aught Philammon knew, they were right enough. But when they talked of wars and desolation past and impending, without a word of pity for the slain and ruined, as a just judgment of Heaven upon heretics and heathens; when they argued over the awful struggle for power which, as he gathered from their words, was even then pending between the Emperor and the Count of Africa, as if it contained but one question of interest to them — would Cyril, and they as his bodyguard, gain or lose power in Alexandria? and lastly, when at some mention of Orestes, and of Hypatia as his counsellor, they broke out into open imprecations of God’s curse, and comforted themselves with the prospect of everlasting torment for both; he shuddered and asked himself involuntarily — were these the ministers of a Gospel? — were these the fruits of Christ’s Spirit?. . . . And a whisper thrilled through the inmost depth of his soul —‘Is there a Gospel? Is there a Spirit of Christ? Would not their fruits be different from these?’

Faint, and low, and distant, was that whisper, like the mutter of an earthquake miles below the soil. And yet, like the earthquake-roll, it had in that one moment jarred every belief, and hope, and memory of his being each a hair’s-breadth from its place. . . . Only one hair’s-breadth. But that was enough; his whole inward and outward world changed shape, and cracked at every joint. What if it were to fall in pieces? His brain reeled with the thought. He doubted his own identity. The very light of heaven had altered its hue. Was the firm ground on which he stood after all no solid reality, but a fragile shell which covered — what?

The nightmare vanished, and he breathed once more. What a strange dream! The sun and the exertion must have made him giddy. He would forget all about it.

Weary with labour, and still wearier with thought, he returned that evening, longing and yet dreading to be permitted to speak with Hypatia. He half hoped at moments that Cyril might think him too weak for it; and the next, all his pride and daring, not to say his faith and hope, spurred him on. Might he but face the terrible enchantress, and rebuke her to her face! And yet so lovely, so noble as she looked! Could he speak to her, except in tones of gentle warning, pity, counsel, entreaty? Might he not convert her — save her? Glorious thought! to win such a soul to the true cause! To be able to show, as the firstfruits of his mission, the very champion of heathendom! It was worth while to have lived only to do that; and having done it, to die.

The archbishop’s lodgings, when he entered them, were in a state of ferment even greater than usual. Groups of monks, priests, parabolani, and citizens rich and poor, were banging about the courtyard, talking earnestly and angrily. A large party of monks fresh from Nitria, with ragged hair and beards, and the peculiar expression of countenance which fanatics of all creeds acquire, fierce and yet abject, self-conscious and yet ungoverned, silly and yet sly, with features coarsened and degraded by continual fasting and self-torture, prudishly shrouded from head to heel in their long ragged gowns, were gesticulating wildly and loudly, and calling on their more peaceable companions, in no measured terms, to revenge some insult offered to the Church.

‘What is the matter?’ asked Philammon of a quiet portly citizen, who stood looking up, with a most perplexed visage, at the windows of the patriarch’s apartments.

‘Don’t ask me; I have nothing to do with it. Why does not his holiness come out and speak to them? Blessed virgin, mother of God! that we were well through it all! —’

‘Coward!’ bawled a monk in his ear. ‘These shopkeepers care for nothing but seeing their stalls safe. Rather than lose a day’s custom, they would give the very churches to be plundered by the heathen!’

‘We do not want them!’ cried another. ‘We managed Dioscuros and his brother, and we can manage Orestes. What matter what answer he sends? The devil shall have his own!’

‘They ought to have been back two hours ago: they are murdered by this time.’

‘He would not dare to touch the archdeacon!’

‘He will dare anything. Cyril should never have sent them forth as lambs among wolves. What necessity was there for letting the prefect know that the Jews were gone? He would have found it out for himself fast enough, the next time he wanted to borrow money.’

‘What is all this about, reverend sir?’ asked Philammon of Peter the Reader, who made his appearance at that moment in the quadrangle, walking with great strides, like the soul of Agamemnon across the meads of Asphodel, and apparently beside himself with rage.

‘Ah! you here? You may go to-morrow, young fool! The patriarch can’t talk to you. Why should he? Some people have a great deal too much notice taken of them, in my opinion. Yes; you may go. If your head is not turned already, you may go and get it turned to-morrow. We shall see whether he who exalts himself is not abased, before all is over!’ And he was striding away, when Philammon, at the risk of an explosion, stopped him.

‘His holiness commanded me to see him, sir, before —’

Peter turned on him in a fury. ‘Fool! will you dare to intrude your fantastical dreams on him at such a moment as this?’

‘He commanded me to see him,’ said Philammon, with the true soldierlike discipline of a monk; ‘and see him I will in spite of any man. I believe in my heart you wish to keep me from his counsels and his blessing.’

Peter looked at him for a moment with a right wicked expression, and then, to the youth’s astonishment, struck him full in the face, and yelled for help.

If the blow had been given by Pambo in the Laura a week before, Philammon would have borne it. But from that man, and coming unexpectedly as the finishing stroke to all his disappointment and disgust, it was intolerable; and in an instant Peter’s long legs were sprawling on the pavement, while he bellowed like a bull for all the monks in Nitria.

A dozen lean brown hands were at Philammon’s throat as Peter rose. ‘Seize him! hold him!’ half blubbered he. ‘The traitor! the heretic! He holds communion with heathens!’

‘Down with him!’ ‘Cast him out! Carry him to the archbishop!’ while Philammon shook himself free, and Peter returned to the charge.

‘I call all good Catholics to witness! He has beaten an ecclesiastic in the courts of the Lord’s house, even in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem! And he was in Hypatia’s lecture-room this morning!’

A groan of pious horror rose. Philammon set his back against the wall.

‘His holiness the patriarch sent me.’

‘He confesses, he confesses! He deluded the piety of the patriarch into letting him go, under colour of converting her; and even now he wants to intrude on the sacred presence of Cyril, burning only with the carnal desire that he may meet the sorceress in her house to-morrow!’

‘Scandal!’ ‘Abomination in the holy place!’ and a rush at the poor youth took place.

His blood was thoroughly up. The respectable part of the crowd, as usual in such cases, prudently retreated, and left him to the mercy of the monks, with an eye to their own reputation for orthodoxy, not to mention their personal safety; and he had to help himself as he could. He looked round for a weapon. There was none. The ring of monks were baying at him like hounds round a bear: and though he might have been a match for any one of them singly, yet their sinewy limbs and determined faces warned him that against such odds the struggle would be desperate.

‘Let me leave this court in safety! God knows whether I am a heretic; and to Him I commit my cause! The holy patriarch shall know of your iniquity. I will not trouble you; I give you leave to call me heretic, or heathen, if you will, if I cross this threshold till Cyril himself sends for me back to shame you.’

And he turned, and forced his way to the gate, amid a yell of derision which brought every drop of, blood in his body into his cheeks. Twice, as he went down the vaulted passage, a rush was made on him from behind, but the soberer of his persecutors checked it. Yet he could not leave them, young and hot-headed as he was, without one last word, and on the threshold he turned.

‘You! who call yourselves the disciples of the Lord, and are more like the demoniacs who abode day and night in the tombs, crying and cutting themselves with stones —’

In an instant they rushed upon him; and, luckily for him, rushed also into the arms of a party of ecclesiastics, who were hurrying inwards from the street, with faces of blank terror.

‘He has refused!’ shouted the foremost. He declares war against the Church of God!’

‘Oh, my friends,’ panted the archdeacon, ‘we are escaped like the bird out of the snare of the fowler. The tyrant kept us waiting two hours at his palace-gates, and then sent lictors out upon us, with rods and axes, telling us that they were the only message which he had for robbers and rioters.’

‘Back to the patriarch!’ and the whole mob streamed in again, leaving Philammon alone in the street — and in the world.

Whither now?

He strode on in his wrath some hundred yards or more before he asked himself that question. And when he asked it, he found himself in no humour to answer it. He was adrift, and blown out of harbour upon a shoreless sea, in utter darkness; all heaven and earth were nothing to him. He was alone in the blindness of anger.

Gradually one fixed idea, as a light-tower, began to glimmer through the storm. . . . To see Hypatia, and convert her. He had the patriarch’s leave for that. That must be right. That would justify him — bring him back, perhaps, in a triumph more glorious than any Caesar’s, leading captive, in the fetters of the Gospel, the Queen of Heathendom. Yes, there was that left, for which to live.

His passion cooled down gradually as he wandered on in the fading evening light, up one street and down another, till he had utterly lost his way. What matter? He should find that lecture-room to-morrow at least. At last he found himself in a broad avenue, which he seemed to know. Was that the Sun-gate in the distance? He sauntered carelessly down it, and found himself at last on the great Esplanade, whither the little porter had taken him three days before. He was close then to the Museum, and to her house. Destiny had led him, unconsciously, towards the scene of his enterprise. It was a good omen; he would go thither at once. He might sleep upon her doorstep as well as upon any other. Perhaps he might catch a glimpse of her going out or coming in, even at that late hour. It might be well to accustom himself to the sight of her. There would be the less chance of his being abashed to-morrow before those sorceress eyes. And moreover, to tell the truth, his self-dependence, and his self-will too, crushed, or rather laid to sleep, by the discipline of the Laura, had started into wild life, and gave him a mysterious pleasure, which he had not felt since he was a disobedient little boy, of doing what he chose, right or wrong, simply because he chose it. Such moments come to every free-willed creature. Happy are those who have not, like poor Philammon, been kept by a hotbed cultivation from knowing how to face them? But he had yet to learn, or rather his tutors had to learn, that the sure path toward willing obedience and manful self-restraint, lies not through slavery, but through liberty.

He was not certain which was Hypatia’s house; but the door of the Museum he could not forget. So there he sat himself down under the garden wall, soothed by the cool night, and the holy silence, and the rich perfume of the thousand foreign flowers which filled the air with enervating balm. There he sat and watched, and watched, and watched in vain for some glimpse of his one object. Which of the houses was hers? Which was the window of her chamber! Did it look into the street? What business had his fancy with woman’s chambers?. . . . But that one open window, with the lamp burning bright inside — he could not help looking up to it — he could not help fancying — hoping. He even moved a few yards to see better the bright interior of the room. High up as it was, he could still discern shelves of books — pictures on the walls. Was that a voice? Yes! a woman’s voice — reading aloud in metre — was plainly distinguishable in the dead stillness of the night, which did not even awaken a whisper in the trees above his head. He stood, spellbound by curiosity.

Suddenly the voice ceased, and a woman’s figure came forward to the window, and stood motionless, gazing upward at the spangled star-world overhead, and seeming to drink in the glory, and the silence, and the rich perfume. . . . Could it be she? Every pulse in his body throbbed madly. . . . Could it be? What was she doing? He could not distinguish the features; but the full blaze of the eastern moon showed him an upturned brow, between a golden stream of glittering tresses which hid her whole figure, except the white hands clasped upon her bosom. . . . Was she praying? were these her midnight sorceries?. . . .

And still his heart throbbed and throbbed, till he almost fancied she must hear its noisy beat — and still she stood motionless, gazing upon the sky, like some exquisite chryselephantine statue, all ivory and gold. And behind her, round the bright room within, painting, books, a whole world of unknown science and beauty. . . . and she the priestess of it all. . . . inviting him to learn of her and be wise! It was a temptation! He would flee from it! — Fool that he was! — and it might not be she after all!

He made some sudden movement. She looked down, saw him, and shutting the blind, vanished for the night. In vain, now that the temptation had departed, he sat and waited for its reappearance, half cursing himself for having broken the spell. But the chamber was dark and silent henceforth; and Philammon, wearied out, found himself soon wandering back to the Laura in quiet dreams, beneath the balmy, semi-tropic night.

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