In the upper story of a house in the Museum Street of Alexandria, built and fitted up on the old Athenian model, was a small room. It had been chosen by its occupant, not merely on account of its quiet; for though it was tolerably out of hearing of the female slaves who worked, and chattered, and quarrelled under the cloisters of the women’s court on the south side, yet it was exposed to the rattle of carriages and the voices of passengers in the fashionable street below, and to strange bursts of roaring, squealing, trumpeting from the Menagerie, a short way off, on the opposite side of the street. The attraction of the situation lay, perhaps, in the view which it commanded over the wall of the Museum gardens, of flower-beds, shrubberies, fountains, statues, walks, and alcoves, which had echoed for nearly seven hundred years to the wisdom of the Alexandrian sages and poets. School after school, they had all walked, and taught, and sung there, beneath the spreading planes and chestnuts, figs and palm-trees. The place seemed fragrant with all the riches of Greek thought and song, since the days when Ptolemy Philadelphus walked there with Euclid and Theocritus, Callimachus and Lycophron.
On the left of the garden stretched the lofty eastern front of the Museum itself, with its picture galleries, halls of statuary, dining-halls, and lecture-rooms; one huge wing containing that famous library, founded by the father of Philadelphus, which hold in the time of Seneca, even after the destruction of a great part of it in Caesar’s siege, four hundred thousand manuscripts. There it towered up, the wonder of the world, its white roof bright against the rainless blue; and beyond it, among the ridges and pediments of noble buildings, a broad glimpse of the bright blue sea.
The room was fitted up in the purest Greek style, not without an affectation of archaism, in the severe forms and subdued half-tints of the frescoes which ornamented the walls with scenes from the old myths of Athene. Yet the general effect, even under the blazing sun which poured in through the mosquito nets of the courtyard windows, was one of exquisite coolness, and cleanliness, and repose. The room had neither carpet nor fireplace; and the only movables in it were a sofa-bed, a table, and an arm-chair, all of such delicate and graceful forms as may be seen on ancient vases of a far earlier period than that whereof we write. But, most probably, had any of us entered that room that morning, we should not have been able to spare a look either for the furniture, or the general effect, or the Museum gardens, or the sparkling Mediterranean beyond; but we should have agreed that the room was quite rich enough for human eyes, for the sake of one treasure which it possessed, and, beside which, nothing was worth a moment’s glance. For in the light arm-chair, reading a manuscript which lay on the table, sat a woman, of some five-and-twenty years, evidently the tutelary goddess of that little shrine, dressed in perfect keeping with the archaism of the chamber, in simple old snow-white Ionic robe, falling to the feet and reaching to the throat, and of that peculiarly severe and graceful fashion in which the upper part of the dress falls downward again from the neck to the waist in a sort of cape, entirely hiding the outline of the bust, while it leaves the arms and the point of the shoulders bare. Her dress was entirely without ornament, except the two narrow purple stripes down the front, which marked her rank as a Roman citizen, the gold embroidered shoes upon her feet, and the gold net, which looped back, from her forehead to her neck, hair the colour and gloss of which were hardly distinguishable from that of the metal itself, such as Athene herself might heaven vied for tint, and mass, and ripple. Her features, arms, and hands were of the severest and grandest type of old Greek beauty, at once showing everywhere the high development of the bones, and covering them with that firm, round, ripe outline, and waxy morbidezza of skin, which the old Greeks owed to their continual use not only of the bath and muscular exercise, but also of daily unguents. There might have seemed to us too much sadness in that clear gray eye; too much self-conscious restraint in those sharp curved lips; too much affectation in the studied severity of her posture as she read, copied, as it seemed, from some old vase or bas-relief. But the glorious grace and beauty of every line of face and figure would have excused, even hidden those defects, and we should have only recognised the marked resemblance to the ideal portraits of Athene which adorned every panel of the walls.
She has lifted her eyes off her manuscript; she is looking out with kindling countenance over the gardens of the Museum; her ripe curling Greek lips, such as we never see now, even among her own wives and sisters, open. She is talking to herself. Listen!
‘Yes. The statues there are broken. The libraries are plundered. The alcoves are silent. The oracles are dumb. And yet — who says that the old faith of heroes and sages is dead? The beautiful can never die. If the gods have deserted their oracles, they have not deserted the souls who aspire to them. If they have ceased to guide nations, they have not ceased to speak to their own elect. If they have cast off the vulgar herd, they have not cast off Hypatia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
‘Ay. To believe in the old creeds, while every one else is dropping away from them. . . . To believe in spite of disappointments. . . . To hope against hope. . . . To show oneself superior to the herd, by seeing boundless depths of living glory in myths which have become dark and dead to them. . . . To struggle to the last against the new and vulgar superstitions of a rotting age, for the faith of my forefathers, for the old gods, the old heroes, the old sages who gauged the mysteries of heaven and earth — and perhaps to conquer — at least to have my reward! To be welcomed into the celestial ranks of the heroic — to rise to the immortal gods, to the ineffable powers, onward, upward ever, through ages and through eternities, till I find my home at last, and vanish in the glory of the Nameless and the Absolute One!. . . .
And her whole face flashed out into wild glory, and then sank again suddenly into a shudder of something like fear and disgust, as she saw, watching her from under the wall of the gardens opposite, a crooked, withered Jewish crone, dressed out in the most gorgeous and fantastic style of barbaric finery.
‘Why does that old hag haunt me? I see her everywhere — till the last month at least — and here she is again! I will ask the prefect to find out who she is, and get rid of her, before she fascinates me with that evil eye. Thank the gods, there she moves away! Foolish! — foolish of me, a philosopher. I, to believe, against the authority of Porphyry himself, too, in evil eyes and magic! But there is my father, pacing up and down in the library.’
As she spoke, the old man entered from the next room. He was a Greek, also, but of a more common, and, perhaps, lower type; dark and fiery, thin and graceful; his delicate figure and cheeks, wasted by meditation, harmonised well with the staid and simple philosophic cloak which he wore as a sign of his profession. He paced impatiently up and down the chamber, while his keen, glittering eyes and restless gestures betokened intense inward thought. . . . ‘I have it. . . . No; again it escapes — it contradicts itself. Miserable man that I am! If there is faith in Pythagoras, the symbol should be an expanding series of the powers of three; and yet that accursed binary factor will introduce itself. Did not you work the sum out once, Hypatia?’
‘Sit down, my dear father, and eat. You have tasted no food yet this day.’
‘What do I care for food! The inexpressible must be expressed, the work must be done if it cost me the squaring of the circle. How can he, whose sphere lies above the stars, stoop every moment to earth?
‘Ay,’ she answered, half bitterly, ‘and would that we could live without food, and imitate perfectly the immortal gods. But while we are in this prison-house of matter, we must wear our chain; even wear it gracefully, if we have the good taste; and make the base necessities of this body of shame symbolic of the divine food of the reason. There is fruit, with lentils and rice, waiting for you in the next room; and bread, unless you despise it too much.’
‘The food of slaves!’ he answered. ‘Well, I will eat, and be ashamed of eating. Stay, did I tell you? Six new pupils in the mathematical school this morning. It grows! It spreads! We shall conquer yet!’
She sighed. ‘How do you know that they have not come to you, as Critias and Alcibiades did to Socrates, to learn a merely political and mundane virtue? Strange! that men should be content to grovel, and be men, when they might rise to the rank of gods! Ah, my father! That is my bitterest grief! to see those who have been pretending in the morning lecture-room to worship every word of mine as an oracle, lounging in the afternoon round Pelagia’s litter; and then at night — for I know that they do it — the dice, and the wine, and worse. That Pallas herself should be conquered every day by Venus Pandemos! That Pelagia should have more power than I! Not that such a creature as that disturbs me: no created thing, I hope, can move my equanimity; but if I could stoop to hate — I should hate her — hate her.’
And her voice took a tone which made it somewhat uncertain whether, in spite of all the lofty impassibility which she felt bound to possess, she did not hate Pelagia with a most human and mundane hatred.
But at that moment the conversation was cut short by the hasty entrance of a slave girl, who, with fluttering voice, announced —
‘His excellency, madam, the prefect! His chariot has been at the gate for these five minutes, and he is now coming upstairs.’
‘Foolish child!’ answered Hypatia, with some affectation of indifference. ‘And why should that disturb me? Let him enter.’
The door opened, and in came, preceded by the scent of half a dozen different perfumes, a florid, delicate-featured man, gorgeously dressed out in senatorial costume, his fingers and neck covered with jewels.
‘The representative of the Caesars honours himself by offering at the shrine of Athene Polias, and rejoices to see in her priestess as lovely a likeness as ever of the goddess whom she serves. . . . Don’t betray me, but I really cannot help talking sheer paganism whenever I find myself within the influence of your eyes.’
‘Truth is mighty,’ said Hypatia, as she rose to greet him with a smile and a reverence.
‘Ah, so they say — Your excellent father has vanished. He is really too modest — honest, though — about his incapacity for state secrets. After all, you know, it was your Minervaship which I came to consult. How has this turbulent Alexandrian rascaldom been behaving itself in my absence?’
‘The herd has been eating, and drinking, and marrying, as usual, I believe,’ answered Hypatia, in a languid tone.
‘And multiplying, I don’t doubt. Well, there will be less loss to the empire if I have to crucify a dozen or two, as I positively will, the next riot. It is really a great comfort to a statesman that the masses are so well aware that they deserve hanging, and therefore so careful to prevent any danger of public justice depopulating the province. But how go on the schools?’
Hypatia shook her head sadly.
‘Ah, boys will be boys. . . . I plead guilty myself. Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. You must not be hard on us. . . . Whether we obey you or not in private life, we do in public; and if we enthrone you queen of Alexandria, you must allow your courtiers and bodyguards a few court licences. Now don’t sigh or I shall be inconsolable. At all events, your worst rival has betaken herself to the wilderness, and gone to look for the city of the gods above the cataracts.’
‘Whom do you mean?’ asked Hypatia, in a tone most unphilosophically eager.
‘Pelagia, of course. I met that prettiest and naughtiest of humanities half-way between here and Thebes, transformed into a perfect Andromache of chaste affection.’
‘And to whom, pray?’
‘To a certain Gothic giant. What men those barbarians do breed! I was afraid of being crushed under the elephant’s foot at every step I took with him!’
‘What!’ asked Hypatia, ‘did your excellency condescend to converse with such savages?’
‘To tell you the truth, he had some forty stout countrymen of his with him, who might have been troublesome to a perplexed prefect; not to mention that it is always as well to keep on good terms with these Goths. Really, after the sack of Rome, and Athens cleaned out like a beehive by wasps, things begin to look serious. And as for the great brute himself, he has rank enough in his way — boasts of his descent from some cannibal god or other — really hardly deigned to speak to a paltry Roman governor, till his faithful and adoring bride interceded for me. Still, the fellow understood good living, and we celebrated our new treaty of friendship with noble libations — but I must not talk about that to you. However, I got rid of them; quoted all the geographical lies I had ever heard, and a great many more; quickened their appetite for their fool’s errand notably, and started them off again. So now the star of Venus is set, and that of Pallas in the ascendant. Wherefore tell me — what am I to do with Saint Firebrand?’
‘Ah, Fairest Wisdom, don’t mention that horrid word out of the lecture-room. In theory it is all very well; but in poor imperfect earthly practice, a governor must be content with doing very much what comes to hand. In abstract justice, now, I ought to nail up Cyril, deacons, district visitors, and all, in a row, on the sandfill out side. That is simple enough; but, like a great many simple and excellent things, impossible.’
‘You fear the people?’
‘Well, my dear lady, and has not the villainous demagogue got the whole mob on his side? Am I to have the Constantinople riots re-enacted here? I really cannot face it; I have not nerve for it; perhaps I am too lazy. Be it so.’
Hypatia sighed. ‘Ah, that your excellency but saw the great duel which depends on you alone! Do not fancy that the battle is merely between Paganism and Christianity —’
‘Why, if it were, you know, I, as a Christian, under a Christian and sainted emperor, not to mention his august sister —’
‘We understand,’ interrupted she, with an impatient wave of her beautiful hand. ‘Not even between them; not even between philosophy and barbarism. The struggle is simply one between the aristocracy and the mob — between wealth, refinement, art, learning, all that makes a nation great, and the savage herd of child-breeders below, the many ignoble, who were meant to labour for the noble few. Shall the Roman empire command or obey her own slaves? is the question which you and Cyril have to battle out; and the fight must be internecine.’
‘I should not wonder if it became so, really,’ answered the prefect, with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘I expect every time I ride, to have my brains knocked out by some mad monk.’
‘Why not? In an age when, as has been well and often said, emperors and consulars crawl to the tombs of a tent-maker and a fisherman, and kiss the mouldy bones of the vilest slaves? Why not, among a people whose God is the crucified son of a carpenter? Why should learning, authority, antiquity, birth, rank, the system of empire which has been growing up, fed by the accumulated wisdom of ages — why, I say, should any of these things protect your life a moment from the fury of any beggar who believes that the Son of God died for him as much as for you, and that he is your equal if not your superior in the sight of his low-born and illiterate deity!’ [Footnote: These are the arguments and the language which were commonly employed by Porphyry, Julian, and the other opponents of Christianity.]
‘My most eloquent philosopher, this may be — and perhaps is — all very true. I quite agree that there are very great practical inconveniences of this kind in the new — I mean the Catholic faith; but the world is full of inconveniences. The wise man does not quarrel with his creed for being disagreeable, any more than he does with his finger for aching: he cannot help it, and must make the best of a bad matter. Only tell me how to keep the peace.’
‘And let philosophy be destroyed?’
‘That it never will be, as long as Hypatia lives to illuminate the earth; and, as far as I am concerned, I promise you a clear stage and — a great deal of favour; as is proved by my visiting you publicly at this moment, before I have given audience to one of the four hundred bores, great and small, who are waiting in the tribunal to torment me. Do help me and advise me. What am I to do?’
‘I have told you.’
‘Ah, yes, as to general principles. But out of the lecture-room I prefer a practical expedient for instance, Cyril writes to me here — plague on him! he would not let me even have a week’s hunting in peace-that there is a plot on the part of the Jews to murder all the Christians. Here is the precious document — do look at it, in pity. For aught I know or care, the plot may be an exactly opposite one, and the Christians intend to murder all the Jews. But I must take some notice of the letter.’
‘I do not see that, your excellency.’
‘Why, if anything did happen, after all, conceive the missives which would be sent flying off to Constantinople against me!’
‘Let them go. If you are secure in the consciousness of innocence, what matter?’
‘Consciousness of innocence? I shall lose my prefecture!’
‘Your danger would just be as great if you took notice of it. Whatever happened, you would be accused of favouring the Jews.’
‘And really there might be some truth in the accusation. How the finances of the provinces would go on without their kind assistance, I dare not think. If those Christians would but lend me their money, instead of building alms-houses and hospitals with it, they might burn the Jews’ quarter to-morrow, for aught I care. But now. . . . ’
‘But now, you must absolutely take no notice of this letter. The very tone of it forbids you, for your own honour, and the honour of the empire. Are you to treat with a man who talks of the masses at Alexandria as “the flock whom the King of kings has committed to his rule and care”? Does your excellency, or this proud bishop, govern Alexandria?’
‘Really, my dear lady, I have given up inquiring.’
‘But he has not. He comes to you as a person possessing an absolute authority over two-thirds of the population, which he does not scruple to hint to you is derived from a higher source than your own. The consequence is clear. If it be from a higher source than yours, of course it ought to control yours’; and you will confess that it ought to control it — you will acknowledge the root and ground of every extravagant claim which he makes, if you deign to reply.’
‘But I must say something, or I shall be pelted in the streets. You philosophers, however raised above your own bodies you may be, must really not forget that we poor worldlings have bones to be broken.’
‘Then tell him, and by word of mouth merely, that as the information which he sends you comes from his private knowledge and concerns not him as bishop, but you as magistrate, you can only take it into consideration when he addresses you as a private person, laying a regular information at your tribunal.’
‘Charming! queen of diplomatists as well as philosophers! I go to obey you. Ah! why were you not Pulcheria? No, for then Alexandria had been dark, and Orestes missed the supreme happiness of kissing a hand which Pallas, when she made you, must have borrowed from the workshop of Aphrodite.’
‘Recollect that you are a Christian,’ answered Hypatia, half smiling.
So the prefect departed; and passing through the outer hall, which was already crowded with Hypatia’s aristocratic pupils and visitors, bowed his way out past them and regained his chariot, chuckling over the rebuff which he intended to administer to Cyril, and comforting himself with the only text of Scripture of the inspiration of which he was thoroughly convinced —‘Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.’
At the door was a crowd of chariots, slaves with their masters’ parasols, and the rabble of onlooking boys and market-folk, as usual in Alexandria then, as in all great cities since, who were staring at the prefect, and having their heads rapped by his guards, and wondering what sort of glorious personage Hypatia might be, and what sort of glorious house she must live in, to be fit company for the great governor of Alexandria. Not that there was not many a sulky and lowering face among the mob, for the great majority of them were Christians, and very seditious and turbulent politicians, as Alexandrians, ‘men of Macedonia,’ were bound to be; and there was many a grumble among them, all but audible, at the prefect’s going in state to the heathen woman’s house — heathen sorceress, some pious old woman called her — before he heard any poor soul’s petition in the tribunal, or even said his prayers in church.
Just as he was stepping into his curricle a tall young man, as gorgeously bedizened as himself, lounged down the steps after him, and beckoned lazily to the black boy who carried his parasol.
‘Ah, Raphael Aben–Ezra! my excellent friend, what propitious deity — ahem! martyr — brings you to Alexandria just as I want you? Get up by my side, and let us have a chat on our way to the tribunal.’
The man addressed came slowly forward with an ostentatiously low salutation, which could not hide, and indeed was not intended to hide, the contemptuous and lazy expression of his face; and asked in a drawling tone —
‘And for what kind purpose does the representative of the Caesars bestow such an honour on the humblest of his, etc. etc. — your penetration will supply the rest.’
‘Don’t be frightened; I am not going to borrow money of you,’ answered Orestes, laughingly, as the Jew got into the curricle.
‘I am glad to hear it. Really one usurer in a family is enough. My father made the gold, and if I spend it, I consider that I do all that is required of a philosopher.’
‘A charming team of white Nisaeans, is not this? And only one gray foot among all the four.’
‘Yes. . . . horses are a bore, I begin to find, like everything else. Always falling sick, or running away, or breaking one’s peace of mind in some way or other. Besides, I have been pestered out of my life there in Cyrene, by commissions for dogs and horses and bows from that old Episcopal Nimrod, Synesius.’
‘What, is the worthy man as lively as ever?’
‘Lively? He nearly drove me into a nervous fever in three days. Up at four in the morning, always in the most disgustingly good health and spirits, farming, coursing, shooting, riding over hedge and ditch after rascally black robbers; preaching, intriguing, borrowing money; baptizing and excommunicating; bullying that bully, Andronicus; comforting old women, and giving pretty girls dowries; scribbling one half-hour on philosophy, and the next on farriery; sitting up all night writing hymns and drinking strong liquors; off again on horseback at four the next morning; and talking by the hour all the while about philosophic abstraction from the mundane tempest. Heaven defend me from all two-legged whirlwinds! By the bye, there was a fair daughter of my nation came back to Alexandria in the same ship with me, with a cargo that may suit your highness.’
‘There are a great many fair daughters of your nation who might suit me, without any cargo at all.’
‘Ah, they have had good practice, the little fools, ever since the days of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. But I mean old Miriam — you know. She has been lending Synesius money to fight the black fellows with; and really it was high time. They had burnt every homestead for miles through the province. But the daring old girl must do a little business for herself; so she went off, in the teeth of the barbarians, right away to the Atlas, bought all their lady prisoners, and some of their own sons and daughters, too, of them, for beads and old iron; and has come back with as pretty a cargo of Lybian beauties as a prefect of good taste could wish to have the first choice of. You may thank me for that privilege.’
‘After, of course, you had suited yourself, my cunning Raphael?’
‘Not I. Women are bores, as Solomon found out long ago. Did I never tell you? I began, as he did, with the most select harem in Alexandria. But they quarrelled so, that one day I went out, and sold them all but one, who was a Jewess — so there were objections on the part of the Rabbis. Then I tried one, as Solomon did; but my “garden shut up,” and my “sealed fountain” wanted me to be always in love with her, so I went to the lawyers, allowed her a comfortable maintenance, and now I am as free as a monk, and shall be happy to give your excellency the benefit of any good taste or experience which I may possess.’
‘Thanks, worthy Jew. We are not yet as exalted as yourself, and will send for the old Erictho this very afternoon. Now listen a moment to base, earthly, and political business. Cyril has written to me, to say that you Jews have plotted to murder all the Christians.’
‘Well — why not? I most heartily wish it were true, and think, on the whole, that it very probably is so.’
‘By the immortal — saints, man! you are not serious?’
‘The four archangels forbid! It is no concern of mine. All I say is, that my people are great fools, like the rest of the world; and have, for aught I know or care, some such intention. They won’t succeed, of course; and that is all you have to care for. But if you think it worth the trouble — which I do not — I shall have to go to the synagogue on business in a week or so, and then I would ask some of the Rabbis.’
‘Laziest of men! — and I must answer Cyril this very day.’
‘An additional reason for asking no questions of our people. Now you can honestly say that you know nothing about the matter.’
‘Well, after all, ignorance is a stronghold for poor statesmen. So you need not hurry yourself.’
‘I assure your excellency I will not.’
‘Ten days hence, or so, you know.’
‘Exactly, after it is all over.’
‘And can’t be helped. What a comfort it is, now and then, that Can’t be helped!’
‘It is the root and marrow of all philosophy. Your practical man, poor wretch, will try to help this and that, and torment his soul with ways and means, and preventives and forestallings; your philosopher quietly says — It can’t be helped. If it ought to be, it will be — if it is, it ought to be. We did not make the world, and we are not responsible for it. — There is the sum and substance of all true wisdom, and the epitome of all that has been said and written thereon from Philo the Jew to Hypatia the Gentile. By the way, here’s Cyril coming down the steps of the Caesareum. A very handsome fellow, after all, though lie is looking as sulky as a bear.’
‘With his cubs at his heels. What a scoundrelly visage that tall fellow-deacon, or reader, or whatever he is by his dress — has!’
‘There they are — whispering together. Heaven give them pleasant thoughts and pleasanter faces!’
‘Amen!’ quoth Orestes, with a sneer: and he would have said Amen in good earnest, had he been able to take the liberty — which we shall — and listen to Cyril’s answer to Peter, the tall reader.
‘From Hypatia’s, you say? Why, he only returned to the city this morning.’
‘I saw his four-in-hand standing at her door, as I came down the Museum Street hither, half an hour ago.’
‘And twenty carriages besides, I don’t doubt?’
‘The street was blocked up with them. There! Look round the corner now. — Chariots, litters, slaves, and fops. — When shall we see such a concourse as that where it ought to be?’
Cyril made no answer; and Peter went on —‘Where it ought to be, my father — in front of your door at the Serapeium?’
‘The world, the flesh, and the devil know their own, Peter: and as long as they have their own to go to, we cannot expect them to come to us.’
‘But what if their own were taken out of the way?’
‘They might come to us for want of better amusement. . . . devil and all. Well — if I could get a fair hold of the two first, I would take the third into the bargain, and see what could be done with him. But never, while these lecture-rooms last — these Egyptian chambers of imagery — these theatres of Satan, where the devil transforms himself into an angel of light, and apes Christian virtue, and bedizens his ministers like ministers of righteousness, as long as that lecture-room stands and the great and the powerful flock to it, to learn excuses for their own tyrannies and atheisms, so long will the kingdom of God be trampled under foot in Alexandria; so long will the princes of this world, with their gladiators, and parasites, and money-lenders, be masters here, and not the bishops and priests of the living God.’
It was now Peter’s turn to be silent; and as the two, with their little knot of district-visitors behind them, walk moodily along the great esplanade which overlooked the harbour, and then vanish suddenly up some dingy alley into the crowded misery of the sailors’ quarter, we will leave them to go about their errand of mercy, and, like fashionable people, keep to the grand parade, and listen again to our two fashionable friends in the carved and gilded curricle with four white blood-horses.
‘A fine sparkling breeze outside the Pharos, Raphael — fair for the wheat-ships too.’
‘Are they gone yet?
‘Yes — why? I sent the first fleet off three days ago; and the rest are clearing outwards to-day.’
‘Oh! — ah — so! — Then you have not heard from Heraclian?’
‘Heraclian? What the-blessed saints has the Count of Africa to do with my wheat-ships?’
‘Oh, nothing. It’s no business of mine. Only he is going to rebel. . . . But here we are at your door.’
‘To what?’ asked Orestes, in a horrified tone.
‘To rebel, and attack Rome.’
‘Good gods — God, I mean. A fresh bore! Come in, and tell a poor miserable slave of a governor — speak low, for Heaven’s sake! — I hope these rascally grooms haven’t overheard you.’
‘Easy to throw them into the canal, if they have,’ quoth Raphael, as he walked coolly through hall and corridor after the perturbed governor.
Poor Orestes never stopped till he reached a little chamber of the inner court, beckoned the Jew in after him, locked the door, threw himself into an arm-chair, put his hands on his knees, and sat, bending forward, staring into Raphael’s face with a ludicrous terror and perplexity.
‘Tell me all about it. Tell me this instant.’
‘I have told you all I know,’ quoth Raphael, quietly seating himself on a sofa, and playing with a jewelled dagger. ‘I thought, of course, that you were in the secret, or I should have said nothing. It’s no business of mine, you know.’
Orestes, like most weak and luxurious men, Romans especially, had a wild-beast vein in him — and it burst forth.
‘Hell and the furies! You insolent provincial slave — you will carry these liberties of yours too far! Do you know who I am, you accursed Jew? Tell me the whole truth, or, by the head of the emperor, I’ll twist it out of you with red-hot pincers!’
Raphael’s countenance assumed a dogged expression, which showed that the old Jewish blood still heat true, under all its affected shell of Neo–Platonist nonchalance; and there was a quiet unpleasant earnest in his smile, as he answered —
‘Then, my dear governor, you will be the first man on earth who ever yet forced a Jew to say or do what he did not choose.’
‘We’ll see!’ yelled Orestes. ‘Here, slaves!’ And he clapped his hands loudly.
‘Calm yourself, your excellency,’ quoth Raphael, rising. ‘The door is locked; the mosquito net is across the window; and this dagger is poisoned. If anything happens to me, you will offend all the Jew money-lenders, and die in about three days in a great deal of pain, having missed our assignation with old Miriam, lost your pleasantest companion, and left your own finances and those of the prefecture in a considerable state of embarrassment. How much better to sit down, hear all I have to say philosophically, like a true pupil of Hypatia, and not expect a man to tell you what he really does not know.’
Orestes, after looking vainly round the room for a place to escape, had quietly subsided into his chair again; and by the time that the slaves knocked at the door he had so far recovered his philosophy as to ask, not for the torturers, but for a page and wine.
‘Oh, you Jews!’ quoth he, trying to laugh off matters. ‘The same incarnate fiends that Titus found you!’
‘The very same, my dear prefect. Now for this matter, which is really important-at least to Gentiles. Heraclian will certainly rebel. Synesius let out as much to me. He has fitted out an armament for Ostia, stopped his own wheat-ships, and is going to write to you to stop yours, and to starve out the Eternal City, Goths, senate, emperor, and all. Whether you will comply with his reasonable little request depends of course on yourself.’
‘And that again very much on his plans.’
‘Of course. You cannot be expected to — we will euphemise-unless it be made worth your while.’
Orestes sat buried in deep thought.
‘Of course not,’ said he at last, half unconsciously. And then, in sudden dread of having committed himself, he looked up fiercely at the Jew.
‘And how do I know that this is not some infernal trap of yours? Tell me how you found out all this, or by Hercules (he had quite forgotten his Christianity by this time)— by Hercules and the Twelve Gods, I’ll —’
‘Don’t use expressions unworthy of a philosopher. My source of information was very simple and very good. He has been negotiating a loan from the Rabbis at Carthage. They were either frightened, or loyal, or both, and hung back. He knew — as all wise governors know when they allow themselves time — that it is no use to bully a Jew; slid applied to me. I never lend money — it is unphilosophical: but I introduced him to old Miriam, who dare do business with the devil himself; and by that move, whether he has the money or not, I cannot tell: but this I can tell, that we have his secret — and so have you now; and if you want more information, the old woman, who enjoys an intrigue as much as she does Falernian, will get it you.’
‘Well, you are a true friend, after all.’
‘Of course I am. Now, is not this method of getting at the truth much easier and pleasanter than setting a couple of dirty negroes to pinch and pull me, and so making it a point of honour with me to tell you nothing but lies? Here comes Ganymede with the wine, just in time to calm your nerves, and fill you with the spirit of divination. . . . To the goddess of good counsels, my lord. What wine this is!’
‘True Syrian — fire and honey; fourteen years old next vintage, my Raphael. Out, Hypocorisma! See that he is not listening. The impudent rascal! I was humbugged into giving two thousand gold pieces for him two years ago, he was so pretty — they said he was only just rising thirteen — and he has been the plague of my life ever since, and is beginning to want the barber already. Now, what is the count dreaming of?’
‘His wages for killing Stilicho.’
‘What, is it not enough to be Count of Africa?’
‘I suppose he sets off against that his services during the last three years.’
‘Well, he saved Africa.’
‘And thereby Egypt also. And you too, as well as the emperor, may be considered as owing him somewhat.’
‘My good friend, my debts are far too numerous for me to think of paying any of them. But what wages does he want?’
Orestes started, and then fell into thought. Raphael sat watching him a while.
‘Now, most noble lord, may I depart? I have said all I have to say; and unless I get home to luncheon at once, I shall hardly have time to find old Miriam for you, and get through our little affair with her before sunset.’
‘Stay. What force has he?’
‘Forty thousand already, they say. And those Donatist ruffians are with him to a man, if he can but scrape together wherewith to change their bludgeons into good steel.’
‘Well, go. . . . So. A hundred thousand might do it,’ said he, meditating, as Raphael bowed himself out. ‘He won’t get them. I don’t know, though; the man has the head of a Julius. Well — that fool Attalus talked of joining Egypt to the Western Empire. . . . Not such a bad thought either. Anything is better than being governed by an idiot child and three canting nuns. I expect to be excommunicated every day for some offence against Pulcheria’s prudery. . . . Heraclian emperor at Rome. . . . and I lord and master on this side the sea. The Donatists pitted again fairly against the orthodox, to cut each other’s throats in peace. . . . no more of Cyril’s spying and tale-bearing to Constantinople. . . . Not such a baddish of fare. . . . But then-it would take so much trouble!’
With which words, Orestes went into his third warm bath for that day.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56