One morning in the same week, Hypatia’s favourite maid entered her chamber with a somewhat terrified face.
‘The old Jewess, madam — the hag who has been watching so often lately under the wall opposite. She frightened us all out of our senses last evening by peeping in. We all said she had the evil eye, if any one ever had —’
‘Well, what of her?’
‘She is below, madam, and will speak with you. Not that I care for her; I have my amulet on. I hope you have?’
‘Silly girl! Those who have been initiated as I have in the mysteries of the gods, can defy spirits and command them. Do you suppose that the favourite of Pallas Athene will condescend to charms and magic? Send her up.’
The girl retreated, with a look half of awe, half of doubt, at the lofty pretensions of her mistress, and returned with old Miriam, keeping, however, prudently behind her, in order to test as little as possible the power of her own amulet by avoiding the basilisk eye which had terrified her.
Miriam came in, and advancing to the proud beauty, who remained seated, made an obeisance down to the very floor, without, however, taking her eyes for an instant off Hypatia’s face.
Her countenance was haggard and bony, with broad sharp-cut lips, stamped with a strangely mingled expression of strength and sensuality. Put the feature about her which instantly fixed Hypatia’s attention, and from which she could not in spite of herself withdraw it, was the dry, glittering, coal-black eye which glared out from underneath the gray fringe of her swarthy brows, between black locks covered with gold coins. Hypatia could look at nothing but those eyes; and she reddened, and grew all but unphilosophically angry, as she saw that the old woman intended her to look at them, and feel the strange power which she evidently wished them to exercise.
After a moment’s silence, Miriam drew a letter from her bosom, and with a second low obeisance presented it.
‘From whom is this?’
‘Perhaps the letter itself will tell the beautiful lady, the fortunate lady, the discerning lady,’ answered she, in a fawning, wheedling tone. ‘How should a poor old Jewess know great folks’ secrets?’
‘Great folks? —’
Hypatia looked at the seal which fixed a silk cord round the letter. It was Orestes’; and so was the handwriting. . . . Strange that he should have chosen such a messenger! What message could it be which required such secrecy?
She clapped her hands for the maid. ‘Let this woman wait in the ante-room.’ Miriam glided out backwards, bowing as she went. As Hypatia looked up over the letter to see whether she was alone, she caught a last glance of that eye still fixed upon her, and an expression in Miriam’s face which made her, she knew not why, shudder and turn chill.
‘Foolish that I am! What can that witch be to me? But now for the letter.’
‘To the most noble and most beautiful, the mistress of philosophy, beloved of Athene, her pupil and slave sends greeting.’. . . .
‘My slave! and no name mentioned!’
‘There are those who consider that the favourite hen of Honorius, which bears the name of the Imperial City, would thrive better under a new feeder; and the Count of Africa has been despatched by himself and by the immortal gods to superintend for the present the poultry-yard of the Caesars — at least during the absence of Adolf and Placidia. There are those also who consider that in his absence the Numidian lion might be prevailed on to become the yoke-fellow of the Egyptian crocodile; and a farm which, ploughed by such a pair, should extend from the upper cataract to the Pillars of Hercules, might have charms even for a philosopher. But while the ploughman is without a nymph, Arcadia is imperfect. What were Dionusos without his Ariadne, Ares without Aphrodite, Zeus without Hera? Even Artemis has her Endymion; Athens alone remains unwedded; but only because Hephaestus was too rough a wooer. Such is not he who now offers to the representative of Athene the opportunity of sharing that which may be with the help of her wisdom, which without her is impossible. [Greek expression omitted] Shall Eros, invincible for ages, be balked at last of the noblest game against which he ever drew his bow?’. . . .
If Hypatia’s colour had faded a moment before under the withering glance of the old Jewess, it rose again swiftly enough, as she read line after line of this strange epistle; till at last, crushing it together in her hand, she rose and hurried into the adjoining library, where Theon sat over his books.
‘Father, do you know anything of this? Look what Orestes has dared to send me by the hands of some base Jewish witch!’— And she spread the letter before him, and stood impatient, her whole figure dilated with pride and anger, as the old man read it slowly and carefully, and then looked up, apparently not ill pleased with the contents.
‘What, father?’ asked she, half reproachfully. ‘Do not you, too, feel the insult which has been put upon your daughter?’
‘My dear child,’ with a puzzled look, ‘do you not see that he offers you —’
‘I know what he offers me, father. The Empire of Africa. . . . I am to descend from the mountain heights of science, from the contemplation of the unchangeable and ineffable glories, into the foul fields and farmyards of earthly practical life, and become a drudge among political chicanery, and the petty ambitions, and sins, and falsehoods of the earthly herd. . . . And the price which he offers me — me, the stainless — me, the virgin — me, the un-tamed — is-his hand! Pallas Athene! dost thou not blush with thy child?’
‘But, my child — my child — an empire —’
‘Would the empire of the world restore my lost self-respect-my just pride? Would it save my cheek from blushes every time I recollected that I bore the hateful and degrading name of wife? — The property, the puppet of a man — submitting to his pleasure — bearing his children — wearing myself out with all the nauseous cares of wifehood — no longer able to glory in myself, pure and self-sustained, but forced by day and night to recollect that my very beauty is no longer the sacrament of Athene’s love for me, but the plaything of a man; — and such a man as that! Luxurious, frivolous, heartless — courting my society, as he has done for years, only to pick up and turn to his own base earthly uses the scraps which fall from the festal table of the gods! I have encouraged him too much — vain fool that I have been! No, I wrong myself! It was only — I thought — I thought that by his being seen at our doors, the cause of the immortal gods would gain honour and strength in the eyes of the multitude. . . . I have tried to feed the altars of heaven with earthly fuel. . . . And this is my just reward! I will write to him this moment — return by the fitting messenger which he has sent, insult for insult!’
‘In the name of Heaven, my daughter! — for your father’s sake! — for my sake! Hypatia! — my pride, my joy, my only hope! — have pity on my gray hairs!’
And the poor old man flung himself at her feet, and clasped her knees imploringly.
Tenderly she lifted him up, and wound her long arms round him, and laid his head on her white shoulder, and her tears fell fast upon his gray hair; but her lip was firm and determined.
‘Think of my pride — my glory in your glory; think of me. . . . Not for myself! You know I never cared for myself!’ sobbed out the old man. ‘But to die seeing you empress!’
‘Unless I died first in childbed, father, as many a woman dies who is weak enough to become a slave, and submit to tortures only fit for slaves.’
‘But — but — said the old man, racking his bewildered brains for some argument far enough removed from nature and common sense to have an effect on the beautiful fanatic —‘but the cause of the gods! What you might do for it!. . . . Remember Julian!’
Hypatia’s arms dropped suddenly. Yes; it was true! The thought flashed across her mind with mingled delight and terror. . . . Visions of her childhood rose swift and thick — temples — sacrifices — priesthoods — colleges — museums! What might she not do? What might she not make Africa? Give her ten years of power, and the hated name of Christian might be forgotten, and Athene Polias, colossal in ivory and gold, watching in calm triumph over the harbours of a heathen Alexandria. . . . But the price!
And she hid her face in her hands, and bursting into bitter tears, walked slowly away into her own chamber, her whole body convulsed with the internal struggle.
The old man looked after her, anxiously and perplexed, and then followed, hesitating. She was sitting at the table, her face buried in her hands. He did not dare to disturb her. In addition to all the affection, the wisdom, the glorious beauty, on which his whole heart fed day by day, he believed her to be the possessor of those supernatural powers and favours to which she so boldly laid claim. And he stood watching her in the doorway, praying in his heart to all gods and demons, principalities and powers, from Athene down to his daughter’s guardian spirit, to move a determination which he was too weak to gainsay, and yet too rational to approve.
At last the struggle was over, and she looked up, clear, calm, and glorious again.
‘It shall be. For the sake of the immortal gods — for the sake of art, and science, and learning, and philosophy. . . . It shall be. If the gods demand a victim, here am I. If a second time in the history of the ages the Grecian fleet cannot sail forth, conquering and civilising, without the sacrifice of a virgin, I give my throat to the knife. Father, call me no more Hypatia: call me Iphigenia!’
‘And me Agamemnon?’ asked the old man, attempting a faint jest through his tears of joy. ‘I daresay you think me a very cruel father; but —’
‘Spare me, father — I have spared you.’
And she began to write her answer.
‘I have accepted his offer — conditionally, that is. And on whether he have courage or not to fulfil that condition depends — Do not ask me what it is. While Cyril is leader of the Christian mob, it may be safer for you, my father, that you should be able to deny all knowledge of my answer. Be content. I have said this — that if he will do as I would have him do, I will do as you would have me do.’
‘Have you not been too rash? Have you not demanded of him something which, for the sake of public opinion, he dare not grant openly, and yet which he may allow you to do for yourself when once —’
‘I have. If I am to be a victim, the sacrificing priest shall at least be a man, and not a coward and a time-server. If he believes this Christian faith, let him defend it against me; for either it or I shall perish. If he does not — as he does not — let him give up living in a lie, and taking on his lips blasphemies against the immortals, from which his heart and reason revolt!’
And she clapped her hands again for the maid-servant, gave her the letter silently, shut the doors of her chamber, and tried to resume her Commentary on Plotinus. Alas! what were all the wire-drawn dreams of metaphysics to her in that real and human struggle of the heart? What availed it to define the process by which individual souls emanated from the universal one, while her own soul had, singly and on its own responsibility, to decide so terrible an act of will? or to write fine words with pen and ink about the immutability of the supreme Reason, while her own reason was left there to struggle for its life amid a roaring shoreless waste of doubts and darkness? Oh, how grand, and clear, and logical it had all looked half an hour ago! And how irrefragably she had been deducing from it all, syllogism after syllogism, the non-existence of evil! — how it was but a lower form of good, one of the countless products of the one great all-pervading mind which could not err or change, only so strange and recondite in its form as to excite antipathy in all minds but that of the philosopher, who learnt to see the stem which connected the apparently bitter fruit with the perfect root from whence it sprang. Could she see the stem there? — the connection between the pure and supreme Reason, and the hideous caresses of the debauched and cowardly Orestes? was not that evil pure, unadulterate with any vein of good, past, present, or future? . . .
True; — she might keep her spirit pure amid it all; she might sacrifice the base body, and ennoble the soul by the self-sacrifice. . . . And yet, would not that increase the horror, the agony, the evil of it-to her, at least, most real evil, not to be explained away-and yet the gods required it? Were they just, merciful in that? Was it like them, to torture her, their last unshaken votary? Did they require it? Was it not required of them by some higher power, of whom they were only the emanations, the tools, the puppets? — and required of that higher power by some still higher one — some nameless, absolute destiny of which Orestes and she, and all heaven and earth, were but the victims, dragged along in an inevitable vortex, helpless, hopeless, toward that for which each was meant? — And she was meant for this! The thought was unbearable; it turned her giddy. No! she would not! She would rebel! Like Prometheus, she would dare destiny, and brave its worst! And she sprang up to recall the letter. . . . Miriam was gone; and she threw herself on the floor, and wept bitterly.
And her peace of mind would certainly not have been improved, could she have seen old Miriam hurry home with her letter to a dingy house in the Jews’ quarter, where it was un-sealed, read, and sealed up again with such marvellous skill, that no eye could have detected the change; and finally, still less would she have been comforted could she have heard the conversation which was going on in a summer-room of Orestes’ palace, between that illustrious statesman and Raphael Aben–Ezra, who were lying on two divans opposite each other, whiling away, by a throw or two of dice, the anxious moments which delayed her answer.
‘Trays again! The devil is in you, Raphael!’
‘I always thought he was,’ answered Raphael, sweeping up the gold pieces. . . .
‘When will that old witch be back?’
‘When she has read through your letter and Hypatia’s answer.’
‘Of course. You don’t fancy she is going to be fool enough to carry a message without knowing what it is? Don’t be angry; she won’t tell. She would give one of those two grave-lights there, which she calls her eyes, to see the thing prosper.’
‘Your excellency will know when the letter comes. Here she is; I hear steps in the cloister. Now, one bet before they enter. I give you two to one she asks you to turn pagan.’
‘What in? Negro-boys?’
‘Anything you like.’
‘Taken. Come in, slaves?’
And Hypocorisma entered, pouting.
‘That Jewish fury is outside with a letter, and has the impudence to say she won’t let me bring it in!’
‘Bring her in then. Quick!’
‘I wonder what I am here for, if people have secrets that I am not to know,’ grumbled the spoilt youth.
‘Do you want a blue ribbon round those white sides of yours, you monkey?’ answered Orestes. ‘Because, if you do, the hippopotamus hide hangs ready outside.’
‘Let us make him kneel down here for a couple of hours, and use him as a dice-board,’ said Raphael, ‘as you used to do to the girls in Armenia.’
‘Ah, you recollect that? — and how the barbarian papas used to grumble, till I had to crucify one or two, eh? That was something like life! I love those out-of-the-way stations, where nobody asks questions: but here one might as well live among the monks in Nitria. Here comes Canidia! Ah, the answer? Hand it here, my queen of go-betweens!’
Orestes read it — and his countenance fell.
‘I have won?’
‘Out of the room, slaves! and no listening!’
‘I have won then?’
Orestes tossed the letter across to him, and Raphael read —
‘The immortal gods accept no divided worship; and he who would command the counsels of their prophetess must remember that they will vouchsafe to her no illumination till their lost honours be restored. If he who aspires to be the lord of Africa dare trample on the hateful cross, and restore the Caesareum to those for whose worship it was built — if he dare proclaim aloud with his lips, and in his deeds, that contempt for novel and barbarous superstitions, which his taste and reason have already taught him, then he would prove himself one with whom it were a glory to labour, to dare, to die in a great cause. But till then —’
And so the letter ended.
‘What am I to do?’
‘Take her at her word.’
‘Good heavens! I shall be excommunicated! And — and — what is to become of my soul?’
‘What will become of it in any case, my most excellent lord?’ answered Raphael blandly.
‘You mean — I know what you cursed Jews think will happen to every one but yourselves. But what would the world say? I an apostate! And in the face of Cyril and the populace! I daren’t, I tell you!’
‘No one asked your excellency to apostatise.’
‘Why, what? What did you say just now?’
‘I asked you to promise. It will not be the first time that promises before marriage have not exactly coincided with performance afterwards.’
‘I daren’t — that is, I won’t promise. I believe, now, this is some trap of your Jewish intrigue, just to make me commit myself against those Christians, whom you hate.’
‘I assure you, I despise all mankind far too profoundly to hate them. How disinterested my advice was when I proposed this match to you, you never will know; indeed, it would be boastful in me to tell you. But really you must make a little sacrifice to win this foolish girl. With all the depth and daring of her intellect to help you, you might be a match for Romans, Byzantines, and Goths at once. And as for beauty — why, there is one dimple inside that wrist, just at the setting on of the sweet little hand, worth all the other flesh and blood in Alexandria.’
‘By Jove! you admire her so much, I suspect you must be in love with her yourself. Why don’t you marry her? I’ll make you my prime minister, and then we shall have the use of her wits without the trouble of her fancies. By the twelve Gods! If you marry her and help me, I’ll make you what you like!’
Raphael rose and bowed to the earth.
‘Your serene high-mightiness overwhelms me. But I assure you, that never having as yet cared for any one’s interest but my own, I could not be expected, at my time of life, to devote myself to that of another, even though it were to yours.’
‘Exactly so; and moreover, whosoever I may marry, will be practically, as well as theoretically, my private and peculiar property. . . . You comprehend.’
‘Exactly so; and waiving the third argument, that she probably might not choose to marry me, I beg to remark that it would not be proper to allow the world to say, that I, the subject, had a wiser and fairer wife than you, the ruler; especially a wife who bad already refused that ruler’s complimentary offer.’
‘By Jove! and she has refused me in good earnest! I’ll make her repent it! I was a fool to ask her at all! What’s the use of having guards, if one can’t compel what one wants? If fair means can’t do it, foul shall! I’ll send for her this moment!’
‘Most illustrious majesty — it will not succeed. You do not know that woman’s determination. Scourges and red-hot pincers will not shake her, alive; and dead, she will be of no use whatsoever to you, while she will be of great use to Cyril.’
‘He will be most happy to make the whole story a handle against you, give out that she died a virgin-martyr, in defence of the most holy catholic and apostolic faith, get miracles worked at her tomb, and pull your palace about your ears on the strength thereof.’
‘Cyril will hear of it anyhow: that’s another dilemma into which you have brought me, you intriguing rascal! Why, this girl will be boasting all over Alexandria that I have offered her marriage, and that she has done herself the honour to refuse me!’
‘She will be much too wise to do anything of the kind; she has sense enough to know that if she did so, you would inform a Christian populace what conditions she offered you, and, with all her contempt for the burden of the flesh, she has no mind to be lightened of that pretty load by being torn in pieces by Christian monks; a very probable ending for her in any case, as she herself, in her melancholy moods, confesses!’
‘What will you have me do then?’
‘Simply nothing. Let the prophetic spirit go out of her, as it will, in a day or two, and then — I know nothing of human nature, if she does not bate a little of her own price. Depend on it, for all her ineffabilities, and impassibilities, and all the rest of the seventh-heaven moonshine at which we play here in Alexandria, a throne is far too pretty a bait for even Hypatia the pythoness to refuse. Leave well alone is a good rule, but leave ill alone is a better. So now another bet before we part, and this time three to one. Do nothing either way, and she sends to you of her own accord before a month is out. In Caucasian mules? Done? Be it so.’
‘Well, you are the most charming counsellor for a poor perplexed devil of a prefect! If I had but a private fortune like you, I could just take the money, and let the work do itself.’
‘Which is the true method of successful government. Your slave bids you farewell. Do not forget our bet. You dine with me to-morrow?’
And Raphael bowed himself out.
As he left the prefect’s door, he saw Miriam on the opposite side of the street, evidently watching for him. As soon as she saw him, she held on her own side, without appearing to notice him, till he turned a corner, and then crossing, caught him eagerly by the arm.
‘Does the fool dare!’
‘Who dare what?’
‘You know what I mean. Do you suppose old Miriam carries letters without taking care to know what is inside them? Will he apostatise? Tell me. I am secret as the grave!’
‘The fool has found an old worm-eaten rag of conscience somewhere in the corner of his heart, and dare not.’
‘Curse the coward! And such a plot as I had laid! I would have swept every Christian dog out of Africa within the year. What is the man afraid of?’
‘Why, he will go there in any case, the accursed Gentile!’
‘So I hinted to him, as delicately as I could; but, like the rest of the world, he had a sort of partiality for getting thither by his own road.’
‘Coward! And whom shall I get now? Oh, if that Pelagia had as much cunning in her whole body as Hypatia has in her little finger, I’d seat her and her Goth upon the throne of the Caesars. But —’
‘But she has five senses, and just enough wit to use them, eh?’
‘Don’t laugh at her for that, the darling! I do delight in her, after all. It warms even my old blood to see how thoroughly she knows her business, and how she enjoys it, like a true daughter of Eve.’
‘She has been your most successful pupil, certainly, mother. You may well be proud of her.’
The old hag chuckled to herself a while; and then suddenly turning to Raphael —‘See here! I have a present for you;’ and she pulled out a magnificent ring.
‘Why, mother, you are always giving me presents. It was but a month ago you sent me this poisoned dagger.’
‘Why not, eh? — why not? Why should not Jew give to Jew? Take the old woman’s ring!’
‘What a glorious opal!’
‘Ah, that is an opal, indeed! And the unspeakable name upon it; just like Solomon’s own. Take it, I say! Whosoever wears that never need fear fire, steel, poison, or woman’s eye.’
‘Your own included, eh?’
‘Take it, I say!‘and Miriam caught his hand, and forced the ring on his finger. ‘There! Now you’re safe. And now call me mother again. I like it. I don’t know why, but I like it. And — Raphael Aben–Ezra — don’t laugh at me, and call me witch and hag, as you often do. I don’t care about it from any one else; I’m accustomed to it. But when you do it, I always long to stab you. That’s why I gave you the dagger. I used to wear it; and I was afraid I might be tempted to use it some day, when the thought came across me how handsome you’d look, and how quiet, when you were dead, and your soul up there so happy in Abraham’s bosom, watching all the Gentiles frying and roasting for ever down below. Don’t laugh at me, I say; and don’t thwart me! I may make you the emperor’s prime minister some day. I can if I choose.’
‘Heaven forbid!’ said Raphael, laughing.
‘Don’t laugh. I cast your nativity last night, and I know you have no cause to laugh. A great danger hangs over you, and a deep temptation. And if you weather this storm, you may be chamberlain, prime minister, emperor, if you will. And you shall be — by the four archangels, you shall!’
And the old woman vanished down a by-lane, leaving Raphael utterly bewildered.
‘Moses and the prophets! Does the old lady intend to marry me? What can there be in this very lazy and selfish personage who bears my name, to excite so romantic an affection? Well, Raphael Aben–Ezra, thou hast one more friend in the world beside Bran the mastiff; and therefore one more trouble — seeing that friends always expect a due return of affection and good offices and what not. I wonder whether the old lady has been getting into a scrape kidnapping, and wants my patronage to help her out of it. . . . Three-quarters of a mile of roasting sun between me and home!. . . . I must hire a gig, or a litter, or some-thing, off the next stand. . . . with a driver who has been eating onions. . . . and of course there is not a stand for the next half-mile. Oh, divine aether! as Prometheus has it, and ye swift-winged breezes (I wish there were any here), when will it all be over? Three-and-thirty years have I endured already of this Babel of knaves and fools; and with this abominable good health of mine, which won’t even help me with gout or indigestion, I am likely to have three-and-thirty years more of it. . . . I know nothing, and I care for nothing, and I expect nothing; and I actually can’t take the trouble to prick a hole in myself, and let the very small amount of wits out, to see something really worth seeing, and try its strength at something really worth doing — if, after all, the other side the grave does not turn out to be just as stupid as this one. . . . When will it be all over, and I in Abraham’s bosom — or any one else’s, provided it be not a woman’s?’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10