That evening was a hideous one in the palace of Orestes. His agonies of disappointment, rage, and terror were at once so shameful and so fearful, that none of his slaves dare approach him; and it was not till late that his confidential secretary, the Chaldean eunuch, driven by terror of the exasperated Catholics, ventured into the tiger’s den, and represented to him the immediate necessity for action.
What could he do? He was committed — Cyril only knew how deeply. What might not the wily archbishop have discovered? What might not he pretend to have discovered? What accusations might he not send off on the spot to the Byzantine Court?
‘Let the gates be guarded, and no one allowed to leave the city,’ suggested the Chaldee.
‘Keep in monks? as well keep in rats! No; we must send off a counter-report, instantly.’
‘What shall I say, your Excellency?’ quoth the ready scribe, pulling out pen and inkhorn from his sash.
‘What do I care? Any lie which comes to hand. What in the devil’s name are you here for at all, but to invent a lie when I want one?’
‘True, most noble,’ and the worthy sat meekly down to his paper. . . . but did not proceed rapidly.
‘I don’t see anything that would suit the emergency, unless I stated, with your august leave, that Cyril, and not you, celebrated the gladiatorial exhibition; which might hardly appear credible?’
Orestes burst out laughing, in spite of himself. The sleek Chaldee smiled and purred in return. The victory was won; and Orestes, somewhat more master of himself, began to turn his vulpine cunning to the one absorbing question of the saving of his worthless neck.
‘No, that would be too good. Write, that we had discovered a plot on Cyril’s part to incorporate the whole of the African churches (mind and specify Carthage and Hippo) under his own jurisdiction, and to throw off allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople, in case of Heraclian’s success.’
The secretary purred delighted approval, and scribbled away now with right good heart.
‘Heraclian’s success, your Excellency.’
‘We of course desired, by every means in our power, to gratify the people of Alexandria, and, as was our duty, to excite by every lawful method their loyalty toward the throne of the Caesars (never mind who sat on it) at so critical a moment.’
‘So critical a moment. . . . ’
‘But as faithful Catholics, and abhorring even in the extremest need, the sin of Uzzah, we dreaded to touch with the unsanctified hands of laymen the consecrated ark of the Church, even though for its preservation. . . . ’
‘Its preservation, your Excellency. . . . ’
‘We, therefore, as civil magistrates, felt bound to confine ourselves to those means which were already allowed by law and custom to our jurisdiction; and accordingly made use of those largesses, spectacles, and public execution of rebels, which have unhappily appeared to his holiness the patriarch (too ready, perhaps, to find a cause of complaint against faithful adherents of the Byzantine See) to partake of the nature of those gladiatorial exhibitions, which are equally abhorrent to the spirit of the Catholic Church, and to the charity of the sainted emperors by whose pious edicts they have been long since abolished.’
‘Your Excellency is indeed great. . . . but — pardon your slave’s remark — my simplicity is of opinion that it may be asked why you did not inform the Augusta Pulcheria of Cyril’s conspiracy?’
‘Say that we sent a messenger off three months ago, but that. . . . Make something happen to him, stupid, and save me the trouble.’
‘Shall I kill him by Arabs in the neighbourhood of Palmyra, your Excellency?’
‘Let me see. . . . No. They may make inquiries there. Drown him at sea. Nobody can ask questions of the sharks.’
‘Foundered between Tyre and Crete, from which sad calamity only one man escaped on a raft, and being picked tip, after three weeks’ exposure to the fury of the elements, by a returning wheat-ship — By the bye, most noble, what am I to say about those wheat-ships not having even sailed?’
‘Head of Augustus! I forgot them utterly. Say that — say that the plague was making such ravages in the harbour quarter that we feared carrying the infection to the seat of the empire; and let them sail to-morrow.’
The secretary’s face lengthened.
‘My fidelity is compelled to remark, even at the risk of your just indignation, that half of them have been unloaded again for your munificent largesses of the last two days.’
Orestes swore a great oath.
‘Oh, that the mob had but one throat, that I might give them an emetic! Well, we must buy more corn, that’s all.’
The secretary’s face grew longer still.
‘The Jews, most August —’
‘What of them?’ yelled the hapless Prefect. ‘Have they been forestalling?’
‘My assiduity has discovered this afternoon that they have been buying up and exporting all the provisions which they could obtain.’
‘Scoundrels! Then they must have known of Heraclian’s failure!’
‘Your sagacity has, I fear, divined the truth. They have been betting largely against his success for the last week, both in Canopus and Pelusium.’
‘For the last week! Then Miriam betrayed me knowingly!’ And Orestes broke forth again into a paroxysm of fury.
‘Here — call the tribune of the guard! A hundred gold pieces to the man who brings me the witch alive!’
‘She will never be taken alive.’
‘Dead, then — in any way! Go, you Chaldee hound! what are you hesitating about?’
‘Most noble lord,’ said the secretary, prostrating himself upon the floor, and kissing his master’s feet in an agony of fear. . . .
‘Remember, that if you touch one Jew you touch all! Remember the bonds! remember the — the — your own most august reputation, in short.’
‘Get up, brute, and don’t grovel there, but tell me what you mean, like a human being. If old Miriam is once dead, her bonds die with her, don’t they?’
‘Alas, my lord, you do not know the customs of that accursed folk. They have a damnable practice of treating every member of their nation as a brother, and helping each freely and faithfully without reward; whereby they are enabled to plunder all the rest of the world, and thrive themselves, from the least to the greatest. Don’t fancy that your bonds are in Miriam’s hands. They have been transferred months ago. Your real creditors may be in Carthage, or Rome, or Byzantium, and they will attack you from thence; while all that you would find if you seized the old witch’s property, would be papers, useless to you, belonging to Jews all over the empire, who would rise as one man in defence of their money. I assure you, it is a net without a bound. If you touch one you touch all. . . . And besides, my diligence, expecting some such command, has already taken the liberty of making inquiries as to Miriam’s place of abode; but it appears, I am sorry to say, utterly unknown to any of your Excellency’s servants.’
‘You lie!’ said Orestes. . . . ‘I would much sooner believe that you have been warning the hag to keep out of the way.’
Orestes had spoken, for that once in his life, the exact truth.
The secretary, who had his own private dealings with Miriam, felt every particular atom of his skin shudder at those words; and had he had hair on his head, it would certainly have betrayed him by standing visibly on end. But as he was, luckily for him, close shaven, his turban remained in its proper place, as he meekly replied — ‘Alas! a faithful servant can feel no keener woe than the causeless suspicion of that sun before whose rays he daily prostrates his —’
‘Confound your periphrases! Do you know where she is?’
‘No!’ cried the wretched secretary, driven to the lie direct at last; and confirmed the negation with such a string of oaths, that Orestes stopped his volubility with a kick, borrowed of him, under threat of torture, a thousand gold pieces as largess to the soldiery, and ended by concentrating the stationaries round his own palace, for the double purpose of protecting himself in case of a riot, and of increasing the chances of the said riot, by leaving the distant quarters of the city without police.
‘If Cyril would but make a fool of himself, now that he is in the full-blown pride of victory — the rascal! — about that Ammonius, or about Hypatia, or anything else, and give me a real handle against him! After all, truth works better than lying now and then. Oh, that I could poison him! But one can’t bribe those ecclesiastics; and as for the dagger, one could not hire a man to be torn in pieces by monks. No; I must just sit still, and see what Fortune’s dice may turn up. Well, your pedants like Aristides or Epaminondas — thank Heaven, the race of them has died out long ago! — might call this no very creditable piece of provincial legislation; but after all, it is about as good as any now going, or likely to be going till the world’s end; and one can’t be expected to strike out a new path. I shall stick to the wisdom of my predecessors, and — oh, that Cyril may make a fool of himself to-night!’
And Cyril did make a fool of himself that night, for the first and last time in his life; and suffers for it, as wise men are wont to do when they err, to this very day and hour: but how much Orestes gained by his foe’s false move cannot be decided till the end of this story; perhaps not even then.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56