THE little porter, after having carried Arsenius’s message to Miriam, had run back in search of Philammon and his foster-father; and not finding them, had spent the evening in such frantic rushings to and fro, as produced great doubts of his sanity among the people of the quarter. At last hunger sent him home to supper; at which meal he tried to find vent for his excited feelings in his favourite employment of beating his wife. Whereon Miriam’s two Syrian slave-girls, attracted by her screams, came to the rescue, threw a pail of water over him, and turned him out of doors. He, nothing discomfited, likened himself smilingly to Socrates conquered by Xantippe; and, philosophically yielding to circumstances, hopped about like a tame magpie for a couple of hours at the entrance of the alley, pouring forth a stream of light raillery on the passers-by, which several times endangered his personal safety; till at last Philammon, hurrying breathlessly home, rushed into his arms.
‘Hush! Hither with me! Your star still prospers. She calls for you.’
‘Miriam herself. Be secret as the grave. You she will see and speak with. The message of Arsenius she rejected in language which it is unnecessary for philosophic lips to repeat. Come; but give her good words-as are fit to an enchantress who can stay the stars in their courses, and command the spirits of the third heaven.’
Philammon hurried home with Eudaimon. Little cared he now for Hypatia’s warning against Miriam. . . . Was he not in search of a sister?
‘So’ you wretch, you are back again!’ cried one of the girls, as they knocked at the outer door of Miriam’s apartments. ‘What do you mean by bringing young men here at this time of night?’
‘Better go down, and beg pardon of that poor wife of yours. She has been weeping and praying for you to her crucifix all the evening, you ungrateful little ape!’
‘Female superstitions — but I forgive her. Peace, barbarian women! I bring this youthful philosopher hither by your mistress’s own appointment.’
‘He must wait, then, in the ante-room. There is a gentleman with my mistress at present.’
So Philammon waited in a dark, dingy ante-room, luxuriously furnished with faded tapestry, and divans which lined the walls; and fretted and fidgeted, while the two girls watched him over their embroidery out of the corners of their eyes, and agreed that he was a very stupid person for showing no inclination to return their languishing glances.
In the meanwhile, Miriam, within, was listening, with a smile of grim delight, to a swarthy and weather-beaten young Jew.
‘I knew, mother in Israel, that all depended on my pace; and night and day I rode from Ostia toward Tarentum: but the messenger of the uncircumcised was better mounted than I; I therefore bribed a certain slave to lame his horse, and passed him by a whole stage on the second day. Nevertheless, by night the Philistine had caught me up again, the evil angels helping him; and my soul was mad within me.’
‘And what then, Jonadab Bar–Zebudah?’
‘I bethought me of Ehud, and of Joab also, when he was pursued by Asahel, and considered much of the lawfulness of the deed, not being a man of blood. Nevertheless, we were together in the darkness, and I smote him.’
Miriam clapped her hands.
‘Then putting on his clothes, and taking his letters and credentials, as was but reasonable, I passed myself off for the messenger of the emperor, and so rode the rest of that journey at the expense of the heathen; and I hereby return you the balance saved.’
‘Never mind the balance. Keep it, thou worthy son of Jacob. What next?’
‘When I came to Tarentum, I sailed in the galley which I had chartered from certain sea-robbers. Valiant men they were, nevertheless, and kept true faith with me. For when we had come halfway, rowing with all our might, behold another galley coming in our wake and about to pass us by, which I knew for an Alexandrian, as did the captain also, who assured me that she had come from hence to Brundusium with letters from Orestes.’
‘It seemed to me both base to be passed, and more base to waste all the expense wherewith you and our elders had charged themselves; so I took counsel with the man of blood, offering him over and above our bargain, two hundred gold pieces of my own, which please to pay to my account with Rabbi Ezekiel, who lives by the watergate in Pelusium. Then the pirates, taking counsel, agreed to run down the enemy; for our galley was a sharp-beaked Liburnian, while theirs was only a messenger trireme.’
‘And you did it?’
‘Else had I not been here. They were delivered into our hands, so that we struck them full in mid-length, and they sank like Pharaoh and his host.’
‘So perish all the enemies of the nation!’ cried Miriam. ‘And now it is impossible, you say, for fresh news to arrive for these ten days?’
‘Impossible, the captain assured me, owing to the rising of the wind, and the signs of southerly storm.’
‘Here, take this letter for the Chief Rabbi, and the blessing of a mother in Israel. Thou Last played the man for thy people; and thou shalt go to the grave full of years and honours, with men-servants and maid-servants, gold and silver, children and children’s children, with thy foot on the necks of heathens, and the blessing of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to eat of the goose which is fattening in the desert, and the Leviathan which lieth in the great sea, to be meat for all true Israelites at the last day.’
And the Jew turned and went out, perhaps, in his simple fanaticism, the happiest man in Egypt at that moment.
He passed out through the ante-chamber, leering at the slave-girls, and scowling at Philammon; and the youth was ushered into the presence of Miriam.
She sat, coiled up like a snake on a divan writing busily in a tablet upon her knees while on the cushions beside her glittered splendid jewels, which she had been fingering over as a child might its toys. She did not look up for a few minutes; and Philammon could not help, in spite of his impatience, looking round the little room and contrasting its dirty splendour, and heavy odour of wine, and food, and perfumes, with the sunny grace and cleanliness of Greek houses. Against the wall stood presses and chests fretted with fantastic Oriental carving; illuminated rolls of parchment lay in heaps in a corner; a lamp of strange form hung from the ceiling, and shed a dim and lurid light upon an object which chilled the youth’s blood for a moment — a bracket against the wall, on which, in a plate of gold, engraven with mystic signs, stood the mummy of an infant’s head; one of those teraphim, from which, as Philammon knew, the sorcerers of the East professed to evoke oracular responses.
At last she looked up, and spoke in a shrill, harsh voice. ‘Well, my fair boy, and what do you want with the poor old proscribed Jewess? Have you coveted yet any of the pretty things which she has had the wit to make her slave-demons save from the Christian robbers?’
Philammon’s tale was soon told. The old woman listened, watching him intently with her burning eye; and then answered slowly —
‘Well, and what if you are a slave?’
‘Am I one, then? Am I?’
‘Of course you are. Arsenius spoke truth. I saw him buy you at Ravenna, just fifteen years ago. I bought your sister at the same time. She is two-and-twenty now. You were four years younger than her, I should say.’
‘Oh heavens! and you know my sister still! Is she Pelagia?’
‘You were a pretty boy,’ went on the hag, apparently not hearing him. ‘If I had thought you were going to grow up as beautiful and as clever as you are, I would have bought you myself. The Goths were just marching, and Arsenius gave only eighteen gold pieces for you — or twenty — I am growing old, and forget everything, I think. But there would have been the expense of your education, and your sister cost me in training — oh what sums? Not that she was not worth the money — no, no, the darling!’
‘And you know where she is? Oh tell me — in the name of mercy tell me!’
‘Why, then? Have you not the heart of a human being in you? Is she not my sister?’
‘Well? You have done very well for fifteen years without your sister — why can you not do as well now? You don’t recollect her — you don’t love her.’
‘Not love her? I would die for her — die for you if you will but help me to see her!’
‘You would, would you? And if I brought you to her, what then! What if she were Pelagia herself, what then? She is happy enough now, and rich enough. Could you make her happier or richer?’
‘Can you ask? I must — I will — reclaim her from the infamy in which I am sure she lives.’
‘Ah ha, sir monk! I expected as much. I know, none knows better, what those fine words mean. The burnt child dreads the fire; but the burnt old woman quenches it, you will find. Now listen. I do not say that you shall not see her — I do not say that Pelagia herself is not the woman whom you seek — but — you are in my power. Don’t frown and pout. I can deliver you as a slave to Arsenius when I choose. One word from me to Orestes, and you are in fetters as a fugitive.’
‘I will escape!’ cried he fiercely.
‘Escape me?’— She laughed, pointing to the teraph —‘Me, who, if you fled beyond Kaf, or dived to the depths of the ocean, could make these dead lips confess where you were, and command demons to bear you back to me upon their wings! Escape me! Better to obey me, and see your sister.’
Philammon shuddered, and submitted. The spell of the woman’s eye, the terror of her words, which he half believed, and the agony of longing, conquered him, and he gasped out —
‘I will obey you — only — only —’
‘Only you are not quite a man yet, but half a monk still, eh? I must know that before I help you, my pretty boy. Are you a monk still, or a man?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Ah, ha, ha!’ laughed she shrilly. ‘And these Christian dogs don’t know what a man means? Are you a monk, then? leaving the man alone, as above your understanding.’
‘I? — I am a student of philosophy.’
‘But no man?’
‘I am a man, I suppose.’
‘I don’t; if you had been, you would have been making love like a man to that heathen woman many a month ago.’
‘I— to her?’
‘Yes, I-to her!‘Said Miriam, coarsely imitating his tone of shocked humility. ‘I, the poor penniless boy-scholar, to her, the great, rich, wise, worshipped she-philosopher, who holds the sacred keys of the inner shrine of the east wind — and just because I am a man, and the handsomest man in Alexandria, and she a woman, and the vainest woman in Alexandria; and therefore I am stronger than she, and can twist her round my finger, and bring her to her knees at my feet when I like, as soon I open my eyes, and discover that I am a man. Eh, boy! Did she ever teach you that among her mathematics and metaphysics, and gods and goddesses?’
Philammon stood blushing scarlet. The sweet poison had entered, and every vein glowed with it for the first time in his life. Miriam saw her advantage.
‘There, there — don’t be frightened at your new lesson. After all, I liked you from the first moment I saw you, and asked the teraph about you, and I got an answer — such an answer! You shall know it some day. At all events, it set the poor old soft-hearted Jewess on throwing away her money. Did you ever guess from whom your monthly gold piece came?’
Philammon started, and Miriam burst into loud, shrill laughter.
‘From Hypatia, I’ll warrant! From the fair Greek woman, of course — vain child that you are — never thinking of the poor old Jewess.’
‘And did you? did you?’ gasped Philammon.
‘Have I to thank you, then, for that strange generosity?’
‘Not to thank me, but to obey me; for mind, I can prove your debt to me, every obol, and claim it if I choose. But don’t fear; I won’t be hard on you, just because you are in my power. I hate every one who is not so. As soon as I have a hold on them, I begin to love them. Old folks, like children, are fond of their own playthings.’
‘And I am yours, then?’ said Philammon fiercely.
‘You are indeed, my beautiful boy,’ answered she, looking up with so insinuating a smile that he could not be angry. ‘After all, I know how to toss my balls gently — and for these forty years I have only lived to make young folks happy; so you need not be afraid of the poor soft-hearted old woman. Now — you saved Orestes’s life yesterday.’
‘How did you find out that?’
‘I? I know everything. I know what the swallows say when they pass each other on the wing, and what the fishes think of in the summer sea. You, too, will be able to guess some day, without the teraph’s help. But in the mean time you must enter Orestes’s service. Why?-What are you hesitating about? Do you not know that you are high in his favour? He will make you secretary — raise you to be chamberlain some day, if you know how to make good use of your fortune.’
Philammon stood in astonished silence; and at last —
‘Servant to that man? What care I for him or his honours? Why do you tantalise me thus? I have no wish on earth but to see my sister!’
‘You will be far more likely to see her if you belong to the court of a great officer — perhaps more than an officer — than if you remain a penniless monk. Not that I believe you. Your only wish on earth, eh? Do you not care, then, ever to see the fair Hypatia again?’
‘I? Why should I not see her? Am I not her pupil?’
‘She will not have pupils much longer, my child. If you wish to hear her wisdom — and much good may it do you — you must go for it henceforth somewhat nearer to Orestes’s palace than the lecture-room is. Ah! you start. Have I found you an argument now? No — ask no questions. I explain nothing to monks. But take these letters; to-morrow morning at the third hour go to Orestes’s palace, and ask for his secretary, Ethan the Chaldee. Say boldly that you bring important news of state; and then follow your star: it is a fairer one than you fancy. Go! obey me, or you see no sister.’
Philammon felt himself trapped; but, after all, what might not this strange woman do for him? It seemed, if not his only path, still his nearest path to Pelagia; and in the meanwhile he was in the hag’s power, and he must submit to his fate; so he took the letters and went out.
‘And so you think that you are going to have her?’ chuckled Miriam to herself, when Philammon went out. ‘To make a penitent of her, eh? — a nun, or a she-hermit; to set her to appease your God by crawling on all fours among the mummies for twenty years, with a chain round her neck and a clog at her ankle, fancying herself all the while the bride of the Nazarene? And you think that old Miriam is going to give her up to you for that? No, no, sir monk! Better she were dead!. . . . Follow your dainty bait! — follow it, as the donkey does the grass which his driver offers him, always an inch from his nose. . . . You in my power! — and Orestes in my power!. . . . I must negotiate that new loan to-morrow, I suppose. . . . I shall never be paid. The dog will ruin me, after all! How much is it, now? Let me see.’. . . . And she began fumbling in her escritoire, over bonds and notes of hand. ‘I shall never be paid: but power! — to have power! To see those heathen slaves and Christian hounds plotting and vapouring, and fancying themselves the masters of the world, and never dreaming that we are pulling the strings, and that they are our puppets! — we, the children of the promises — we, The Nation — we, the seed of Abraham! Poor fools! I could almost pity them, as I think of their faces when Messiah comes, and they find out who were the true lords of the world, after all!. . . . He must be the Emperor of the South, though, that Orestes; he must, though I have to lend him Raphael’s jewels to make him so. For he must marry the Greek woman. He shall. She hates him, of course. . . . So much the deeper revenge for me. And she loves that monk. I saw it in her eyes there in the garden. So much the better for me, too. He will dangle willingly enough at Orestes’s heels for the sake of being near her — poor fool! We will make him secretary, or chamberlain. He has wit enough for it, they say, or for anything. So Orestes and he shall be the two jaws of my pincers, to squeeze what I want out of that Greek Jezebel.. And then, then for the black agate!’
Was the end of her speech a bathos? Perhaps not; for as she spoke the last word, she drew from her bosom, where it hung round her neck by a chain, a broken talisman, exactly similar to the one which she coveted so fiercely, and looked at it long and lovingly — kissed it — wept over it — spoke to it — fondled it in her arms as a mother would a child — murmured over it snatches of lullabies; and her grim, withered features grew softer, purer, grander; and rose ennobled, for a moment, to their long-lost might-have-been, to that personal ideal which every soul brings with it into the world, which shines, dim and potential, in the face of every sleeping babe, before it has been scarred, and distorted, and encrusted in the long tragedy of life. Sorceress she was, pander and slave-dealer, steeped to the lips in falsehood, ferocity, and avarice; yet that paltry stone brought home to her some thought, true, spiritual, impalpable, unmarketable, before which all her treasures and all her ambition were as worthless in her own eyes as they were in the eyes of the angels of God.
But little did Miriam think that at the same moment a brawny, clownish monk was standing in Cyril’s private chamber, and, indulged with the special honour of a cup of good wine in the patriarch’s very presence, was telling to him and Arsenius the following history —
‘So I, finding that the Jews had chartered this pirate-ship, went to the master thereof, and finding favour in his eyes, hired myself to row therein, being sure, from what I had overheard from the Jews, that she was destined to bring the news to Alexandria as quickly as possible. Therefore, fulfilling the work which his Holiness had entrusted to my incapacity, I embarked, and rowed continually among the rest; and being unskilled in such labour, received many curses and stripes in the cause of the Church — the which I trust are laid to my account hereafter. Moreover, Satan entered into me, desiring to slay me, and almost tore me asunder, so that I vomited much, and loathed all manner of meat. Nevertheless, I rowed on valiantly, being such as I am, vomiting continually, till the heathens were moved with wonder, and forbore to beat me, giving me strong liquors in pity; wherefore I rowed all the more valiantly day and night, trusting that by my unworthiness the cause of the Catholic Church might be in some slight wise assisted.’
‘And so it is,’ quoth Cyril. ‘Why do you not sit down, man?’
‘Pardon me,’ quoth the monk, with a piteous gesture; ‘of sitting, as of all carnal pleasure, cometh satiety at the last.’
‘And now’ said Cyril, ‘what reward am I to give you for your good service?’
‘It is reward enough to know that I have done good service. Nevertheless if the holy patriarch be so inclined without reason, there is an ancient Christian, my mother according to the flesh —’
‘Come to me to-morrow, and she shall be well seen to. And mind — look to it, if I make you not a deacon of the city when I promote Peter.’
The monk kissed his superior’s hand and withdrew. Cyril turned to Arsenius, betrayed for once into geniality by his delight, and smiting his thigh —
‘We have beaten the heathen for once, eh?’ And then, in the usual artificial tone of an ecclesiastic —‘And what would my father recommend in furtherance of the advantage so mercifully thrown into our hand?’
Arsenius was silent.
‘I,’ went on Cyril, ‘should be inclined to announce the news this very night, in my sermon.’
Arsenius shook his head.
‘Why not? why not?’ asked Cyril impatiently.
‘Better to keep it secret till others tell it. Reserved knowledge is always reserved strength; and if the man, as I hope he does not, intends evil to the Church, let him commit himself before you use your knowledge against him. True, you may have a scruple of conscience as to the lawfulness of allowing a sin which you might prevent. To me it seems that the sin lies in the will rather than in the deed, and that sometimes — I only say sometimes — it may be a means of saving the sinner to allow his root of iniquity to bear fruit, and fill him with his own devices.’
‘Dangerous doctrine, my father.’
‘Like all sound doctrine — a savour of life or of death, according as it is received. I have not said it to the multitude, but to a discerning brother. And even politically speaking — let him commit himself, if he be really plotting rebellion, and then speak, and smite his Babel tower.’
‘You think, then, that he does not know of Heraclian’s defeat already?’
‘If he does, he will keep it secret from the people; and our chances of turning them suddenly will be nearly the same.’
‘Good. After all, the existence of the Catholic Church in Alexandria depends on this struggle, and it is well to be wary. Be it so. It is well for me that I have you for an adviser.’
And thus Cyril, usually the most impatient and intractable of plotters, gave in, as wise men should, to a wiser man than himself, and made up his mind to keep the secret, and to command the monk to keep it also.
Philammon, after a sleepless night, and a welcome visit to the public baths, which the Roman tyranny, wiser in its generation than modern liberty, provided so liberally for its victims, set forth to the Prefect’s palace, and gave his message; but Orestes, who had been of late astonishing the Alexandrian public by an unwonted display of alacrity, was already in the adjoining Basilica. Thither the youth was conducted by an apparitor, and led up the centre of the enormous hall, gorgeous with frescoes and coloured marbles, and surrounded by aisles and galleries, in which the inferior magistrates were hearing causes, and doing such justice as the complicated technicalities of Roman law chose to mete out. Through a crowd of anxious loungers the youth passed to the apse of the upper end, in which the Prefect’s throne stood empty, and then turned into aside chamber, where he found himself alone with the secretary, a portly Chaldee eunuch, with a sleek pale face, small pig’s eyes, and an enormous turban. The man of pen and paper took the letter, opened it with solemn deliberation, and then, springing to his feet, darted out of the room in most undignified haste, leaving Philammon to wait and wonder. In half an hour he returned, his little eyes growing big with some great idea.
‘Youth! your star is in the ascendant; you are the fortunate bearer of fortunate news! His Excellency himself commands your presence.’ And the two went out.
In another chamber, the door of which was guarded by armed men, Orestes was walking up and down in high excitement, looking somewhat the worse for the events of the past night, and making occasional appeals to a gold goblet which stood on the table.
‘Ha! No other than my preserver himself! Boy, I will make your fortune. Miriam says that you wish to enter my service.’
Philammon, not knowing what to say, thought the best answer would be to bow as low as he could.
‘Ah, ha! Graceful, but not quite according to etiquette. You will soon teach him, eh, Secretary? Now to business. Hand me the notes to sign and seal. To the Prefect of the Stationaries —’
‘Here, your Excellency.’
‘To the Prefect of the Corn market — how many wheat-ships have you ordered to be unladen?’
‘Two, your Excellency.’
‘Well, that will be largess enough for the time being. To the Defender of the Plebs — the devil break his neck!’
‘He may be trusted, most noble; he is bitterly jealous of Cyril’s influence. And moreover, he owes my insignificance much money.’
‘Good! Now the notes to the Gaol-masters, about the gladiators.’
‘Here, your Excellency.’
‘To Hypatia. No. I will honour my bride elect with my own illustrious presence. As I live, here is a morning’s work for a man with a racking headache!’
‘Your Excellency has the strength of seven. May you live for ever!’
And really, Orestes’s power of getting through business, when he chose, was surprising enough. A cold head and a colder heart make many things easy.
But Philammon’s whole soul was fixed on those words. ‘His bride elect!’. . . . Was it that Miriam’s hints of the day before had raised some selfish vision, or was it pity and horror at such a fate for her — for his idol? — But he passed five minutes in a dream, from which he was awakened by the sound of another and still dearer name.
‘And now, for Pelagia. We can but try.’
‘Your Excellency might offend the Goth.’
‘Curse the Goth! He shall have his choice of all the beauties in Alexandria, and be count of Pentapolis if he likes. But a spectacle I must have; and no one but Pelagia can dance Venus Anadyomene.’
Philammon’s blood rushed to his heart, and then back again to his brow, as he reeled with horror and shame.
‘The people will be mad with joy to see her on the stage once more. Little they thought, the brutes, how I was plotting for their amusement, even when as drunk as Silenus.’
‘Your nobility only lives for the good of your slaves.’
‘Here, boy! So fair a lady requires a fair messenger. You shall enter on my service at once, and carry this letter to Pelagia. Why? — why do you not come and take it?’
‘To Pelagia?’ gasped the youth. ‘In the theatre? Publicly? Venus Anadyomene?’
‘Yes, fool! Were you, too, drunk last night after all?’
‘She is my sister!’
‘Well, and what of that? Not that I believe you, you villain! So!’ said Orestes, who comprehended the matter in an instant. ‘Apparitors!’
The door opened, and the guard appeared.
‘Here is a good boy who is inclined to make a fool of himself. Keep him out of harm’s way for a few days. But don’t hurt him; for, after all, he saved my life yesterday, when you scoundrels ran away.’
And, without further ado, the hapless youth was collared, and led down a vaulted passage into the guard-room, amid the jeers of the guard, who seemed only to owe him a grudge for his yesterday’s prowess, and showed great alacrity in fitting him with a heavy set of irons; which done, he was thrust head foremost into a cell of the prison, locked in and left to his meditations.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10